Zappa’s Mam’s a Slapper has had some nice reviews, but I particularly liked this one on Amazon.com from Mr JJ Drabble, because he understood what I was doing and why I was doing it that way and you don’t always get that:
I have the opportunity to read few books these days, so I give little truck to efforts which don’t have the appeal to grab and hold me within the first couple of chapters. Zappa’s Mam’s a Slapper got its hooks in quickly and refused to let go. Billy (real name Zappa) tells his story in a manner that leaves the reader feeling as though they are sitting in a cafe while he unveils his life directly to them. In an unusual writing style, Lynch often has Billy expose the reader to a key fact from later in the story. On the first couple of occasions I thought “Whoa, that’s a spoiler! Don’t tell me that at this stage.” But it works. And rather than a string of spoilers it carries the story along in a series of rolling exposures and “ah-ha” explanations. Another interesting style is the use of very brief sentences peppered through the early story, tapering off to a more measured flow later as Billy’s life moves from the chaos of an existence with his shambolic family to a life driven more by his abilities. The early days of complete household anarchy and pointless bashings give way to Billy having his life controlled and “art directed” by others, most of whom have gains of their own to be made from his qualities and talents, albeit gains that also benefit Billy. The ending, although tragic, is rather satisfying and leaves the reader with sense of time well spent on the read. It was a three day book for me, and this is not a measure of brevity, but of its compelling nature. I see a movie here.
Behind Closed Doors is a Beatrice Stubbs novel by JJ Marsh. Beatrice, a Scotland yard detective with problems of her own, is loaned to Interpol in Zurich to help with the pressing problems of others when a Swiss policeman notices resemblances between a series of deaths of fat cat enemies of the people (in some eyes, at least) which have all been classified as suicides. Characterisation is sometimes rudimentary but I’m not recommending this book for its deep psychological insights – what marks this out as a gripping “must read” is the pace and believability of the writing. I regularly read reviews that say, “I was gripped from page 1 and I couldn’t put this book down” and think, “Well, I wasn’t and I could. And did. And I couldn’t pick it up again”. But Behind Closed Doors gripped me from page 1 and I couldn’t put it down. JJ Marsh is a British author who lives in Switzerland and the setting and local habits are completely convincing. The plot grips. The restaging of the apparent suicides, seen from the viewpoint of the person who dies, are writing of the highest quality. You know well before the end who the killers’ final target is going to be, you desperately don’t want it to happen and you are on tenterhooks as the action unfolds. I hate giving five star reviews because they should go only to the very best books – five stars should mean “This is a superlative read and there are very few like it”. Well, this is a superlative read and there are very few like it.
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In 1985 I read Every Day is Mother’s Day, a first novel by the unknown author Hilary Mantel, and I knew I wanted to read more by her. A year later I read Vacant Possession and I was hooked. Three days ago I picked up The Art of the Imperfect by unknown author Kate Evans, and I felt the same sense of discovery as I had known thirty years earlier.
The book begins with a quote from the late Petruska Clarkson to the effect that the only way a therapist can let down a client is by dying. I met Petruska Clarkson (probably at about the same time as I first read Hilary Mantel) at Metanoia, the therapeutic practice she ran with her partner at that time, Sue Fish. Kate Evans clearly knows a lot about the therapeutic process, but whether there is any connection between her fictional “Dr” Thelmis Greene (baptised Thelma Green) and Petrusca Clarkson is her business – and nor does it matter, because (a) the book stands on its own as an entertainment and (b) reading it will do you at least as much good as being in therapy.
The setting is Scarborough. Dr Thelmis Greene’s murder is investigated by DS Theo Akinde who suffers from being: an outsider (he’s not even a Yorkshireman, let alone a Scarborough native; black in a predominantly white skinned and white thinking town; and gay. He isn’t short of suspects, most of whom demonstrate forms of what Yorkshire folk would call madness ranging from post-natal depression through obsession to simple, out-and-out barminess and one of the pleasures of the book is the way in which characters’ mental fragility is not spelled out from the beginning but emerges over time. The way we see character development through watching what people do is far more accomplished than is usual in a first novel. Akinde is fortunate to have the help of a local woman in threading his way through Scarborough family connections but it takes a coincidence of an unsatisfactory kind (the only weak point in the book) before he is able to identify the killer. That, though, is hardly the point; The Art of the Imperfect is an absorbing and sometimes hilarious romp through a seaside resort that still thrives as many today do not but maintains its individual character. Thirty years ago, I recognised Hilary Mantel as a name to watch. Today I give you Kate Evans as another.
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Billy McErlane is the protagonist of Zappa’s Mam’s a Slapper. I got to know Billy quite well while I was writing the book, and not just because he came into the room where I write (the one I laughably refer to as my office) and talked to me until the book was finished. Between Billy and me we decided to make him (a) a celeb and (b) a photographer. An old friend of mine, who really is a photographer (and a really good one) – his name, if you’re interested, is Jeff Drabble and he’s in New Zealand – asked me this morning why I had made Billy a photographer. I tried to explain how the demands of plot development had required that Billy take pics rather than, say, write novels (which had in fact been his first ambition) but I hope I also got across that it isn’t really that simple. Be that as it may, a photographer is what Billy turned out to be and while I am also a keen snapper (though nothing on the Jeff Drabble scale) I felt I needed to get closer to Billy’s life. So I went with him. This passage appears in the book (which is written in the first person in Billy’s voice):
McErlane’s agent, Jessica Robinson, has assembled a line of prints featuring some of the best of his recent portraits and is making them available through retail outlets at prices that mean no home need be without its McErlane. The example shown here, The Future, is one of these and is available, framed and ready to hang, at only £60.
The picture she’d chosen was one I was particularly pleased with. It showed a man on a hillside, back to the camera, looking into the distance. Nothing of his face was visible, and the idea you got was of someone staring towards what might be. He was wearing a hip-length red coat, black jeans, white trainers and a brown hat with an absolutely flat brim. Two dogs were close to his feet.
That description didn’t come out of nowhere; in fact I had taken that pic on a hillside about 3 miles from where I live. Here it is:
A little later, we get this:
I turned from the track and we walked along a broad belt of grass with trees to the side until we came to a fence, at which point I had to get the camera in both hands again because beyond the fence was a group of buildings in an open field that said everything the editor paying for my trip wanted to know about how the past could exist harmoniously in the present.
Once again, Billy is describing a photograph that I took (very early on a frosty morning):
I don’t know to what extent every writer does this but I can’t write without getting inside the head of my characters and sometimes that means living the lives they lead – walking in their shoes. From time to time, I do wonder whether I’m entirely sane. But, then – who is?
It’s a few weeks since I last posted a short story on my blog for readers to download free of charge so I sat down to write another. I don’t know where the idea came from but the words flowed quite easily:
It was Bone a Crone Night at the Coed-y-Go Country House Hotel and Constable Emlyn Davies was in the shrubbery with Mary Flynn when a chair was thrown through the ballroom windows and he heard the sound of raised voices.
Torn between Mary’s charms and his duty as a police officer, Emlyn made to pull his pants up but Mary had not been seen to for weeks and she was not letting go now. When Mary Flynn lies on you, you get up when Mary lets you and not before.
When she was done she eased back onto her haunches, reached for her pearlised hessian evening bag and took out a packet of Silk Cut.
Emlyn, an astonished look on his face, was staring into space. ‘I could do you for rape,’ he murmured.
She held out the pack. ‘Want one?’
Emlyn took a cigarette and waited for Mary to light it for him. ‘Hell of a row going on in there,’ he said. ‘I should go in and find out what’s happening.’
‘I’d let it calm down first. You’re off duty, aren’t you? If he needs help, the landlord has a phone.’
‘That could take some time. From here, he’ll call Oswestry. There’s no-one there. So the call will be switched to Shrewsbury. There won’t be anyone there, either, so it’ll route on to Telford or Wolverhampton. I can’t see any cars getting here for an hour or so.’
‘We can be gone by then. Why don’t I show you what my husband used to like?’
‘I didn’t know you’d been married.’
‘Common law. You want to try his way? Or not?’
“His way” demanded concentration. When it was over, flashing blue lights were visible in the inky blackness above Emlyn’s head. It took him a moment to realise that they really were caused by his fellow officers from West Mercia Police and not by the experience Mary had just led him through.
‘Come on,’ said Mary.
‘You want your colleagues to find you here?’
‘They’d want to know why I hadn’t done anything.’
‘We’d best go, then.’
‘They won’t be letting anyone out of the car park.’
‘Let’s take a look.’
But Emlyn had been right. When they emerged from the bushes on the edge of the car park, it was to see a note pinned under one of his windscreen wipers. ‘Constable Davies. See me.’ It was signed by an inspector Emlyn had never heard of.
‘He’s in there.’ One of the two PCs assigned to prevent cars from leaving pointed at the porticoed main door to the hotel.
‘Can I go?’ asked Mary.
‘Have you got any ID?’
Mary pointed at Emlyn’s retreating back. ‘He’s just taken down my particulars.’
‘Better clear off then. Before you get in the same mess he’s in.’
When I reached that point I was quite pleased with the way things were going but a little voice somewhere in the back of my head was becoming ever more insistent. ‘What do you think you’re doing? Sixty per cent of your readers are women. You had someone object to use of the word “slapper” in the title of Zappa’s Mam’s a Slapper. What the hell do you think they’re going to say when they read the first line of this? Okay, you know and I know that Bone a Crone is merely the local take on Grab a Granny – but your readers don’t know that. You’re asking for trouble; you’ll lose the lot of them with one story. A story you won’t even have been paid for.’
I don’t know who it belonged to but the little voice was right. I put Constable Emlyn and Mary Flynn to one side and started a new story with:
She’d known for weeks he had something to tell her. Married forty years, most of it okay and some of it – more than most people had, she thought – actually happy, you know when there’s something you’re not being told. She had a damn good idea what it was, too. What she hoped was that when he finally found the courage he’d tell her straight. Not, “I’m checking out,” sounding like Barry O’Brien when he told them he’d accepted a new job. There was no new job in prospect here. A big adventure, perhaps. Unless that turned out to be fiction, and all you did was lie there in the ground and rot. Not, “I’m a goner,” like some actor in an old time Western. She’d never forgotten that joke Terry had told her, back in the days when jokes like that weren’t told to nice girls like her. The one about the Lone Ranger being bitten by a rattlesnake right on the end of his word a young man couldn’t use in those days to a well brought up girl and he’d had to gesticulate but she’d got the message and he sends Tonto into town to find a doctor. And the doctor says the only cure for a rattlesnake bite is to suck the poison out through the same hole it went in at, and without that there is no escape from death. And Tonto rides back to camp, and when the Lone Ranger asks what the doctor said Tonto says, ‘He say you gonna die, Kemo Sabe.’
I’m pleased with where this one is heading and I’m going to stick with it. I can’t quite shake the sadness, though, that I may never know what happened after that chair came flying through the window of the Coed-y-Go Country House Hotel. Perhaps someone else will take it up and finish it for me.