evseymour

Word on the Wire

Month: October, 2015

THE PRESIDENT’S SHADOW BY BRAD MELTZER

Brad Melzer’s latest novel opens irresistibly with the First Lady discovering a severed hand in the Rose Garden during an early morning spot of horticulture. Meanwhile, Beecher White, a young archivist who handles classified documents for the White House, struggles with the truth about how his father really died. Beecher is also a member of the Culper Group, a secret society devoted to the protection of the President, whatever it takes, whatever the cost. When told about the First Lady’s grim discovery, he immediately spots a connection to his dad, the trade-off for him: find out about the identity of the body missing a limb and you get to see the file on your father.

The novel provides a genuinely fascinating insight into the mechanics of the Secret service and US government, a sort of West Wing on amphetamines. Ruthlessness is the name of the game and there is a horrible authenticity about the way in which those in positions of great power are depicted.   With vivid characters and ‘fruitcakes’ worthy of the best of James Patterson’s bad guys, the storyline zips along. Dialogue is snappy and there are some fabulously memorable lines but, I’ll be honest, there was an early point when I feared the book wasn’t my bag.   I don’t particularly care for multiple viewpoints and back and forth chronology even though I could appreciate why the device is used here. I’m not a fan of split viewpoints in a scene either. With one character burnt and scarred and another spitting blood and bone due to terminal disease, there were times when I found it all a bit peculiar. And yet…

Short chapters, brilliant pace, and with an original voice for sure, I was hooked.  A sucker for strong, involving stories featuring close familial relationships, I was not disappointed.  The sheer strangeness in the storytelling is what makes this novel unique and kept me entranced. Every time I thought, ‘Whoa, I’m not sure…’ I realised that there was absolutely no way I could abandon ship because I just had to find out what the hell happened next. Weird and whacky, like nothing I’ve ever read before, it’s oddly wonderful.

The President’s Shadow is published by Hodder and Stoughton.

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PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT

I recently celebrated a birthday and was given the most amazing gift from my husband and my children: a Yamaha electronic piano. There is a backstory to this. I have played the piano for most of my life. Not consistently and not brilliantly, but enough to knock out a tune and, when I ‘refreshed’ my playing with serious lessons some years ago from the late and missed Harry Fulcher in Devon, and even more serious practice, I got back to playing to a reasonable standard. I wasn’t performing Liszt or Rachmaninoff, but Debussy and Nino Rota were definitely back on my play list. Then, in a house move to a smaller pad, I had to part with my baby grand. It was a painful experience.

Happily, another house move means a lot more space ergo the most genuinely moving gift I have ever received. And with it comes a kind of artistic responsibility. No point in me stumbling through a melody when so much has been spent on me even if Yamaha gives any pianist a head start. The tone is of exceptional quality and the weight given to the keys means that even a beginner is going to sound competent. (Fortunately, three and a half years of silence didn’t prevent me from an on the spot, passable rendition of one of Beethoven’s easier pieces, thank goodness.) So I’ve set myself a target to play each day, in short bursts, and master, through solid practice, the pieces that really float my boat. It occurs to me that this is not too dissimilar to the process of writing both for those who have yet to be published and those who already are. It takes practice and time to ‘find your own voice’ and style. It requires work to master pace and tension and create credible characters. It also takes a bit of ‘brushing up’ when you haven’t written for a while, either because you’re busy promoting a previous book, life intervenes, or you’ve take a break for research or leisure.   It can almost seem daunting to start over again however good the preparation and the fact that you have the story buttoned down in your mind. But, a little like picking up from where you last left off, it soon comes back, and when it does, it’s sublime.

TUT TUT

I watched ‘Tut’ a few days ago. Based on the life of the young Pharaoh, Tutankhamun, it tells the story of his sudden rise to power following the murder of his father, to his early death from injuries sustained in battle.   Right from the beginning, his life is doomed. To ensure the bloodline, it’s decreed that he marries his half-sister who, in time-honoured fashion, is in love with another.   His chief adviser, (the Egyptian equivalent of Rasputin) has his own agenda with an eye to ruling Egypt himself. Manipulated, thwarted and himself in love with a woman who is not his Queen, poor King Tut doesn’t stand a chance. In three parts, to accommodate a running time of four hours and twenty-two minutes, it held the potential to be a great epic tale. Don’t get me wrong; there are some fabulous performances. King Tut’s lover, Suhad, played by Kylie Bunbury, is compelling and credible. Ben Kingsley, as the dastardly Vizier, acts his socks off even if, with his Egyptian eyeliner, he reminded me of an ancient Terry Alderton in the middle of one of his more surreal comic moments. Picky of me, but didn’t King Tut’s sophisticated and haughty Queen, have a problem with pronouncing ‘little’ or should I say, ‘Lit-tell’? It really jarred with the rest of the sexy and seductive persona. As for King Tut dragging around with a broken leg that eventually killed him, it appeared almost comic instead of tragic.   But these are minor carps so why didn’t I enjoy it?

It felt tired, somehow, as if I’d seen similar before and it had been done a lot better. The sets weren’t that spectacular. The slow plot, interspersed with battle scenes, had a clunky uneven gait. There was a heck of a lot of talking and scheming and banging on about the bloodline and yet there were few surprises when it came to the action. Yes, there were ruthless goings-on. Yes, rebels were chopped up and heads chopped off but it felt so predictable. Even the ‘strong sex’ scenes (according to the blurb) weren’t particularly strong. To be fair, I’m prejudiced because I’d just finished watching the final season of ‘Strike Back’ – in which some viewers are entitled to feel that they get to see more of Sullivan Stapleton than they bargained for.

Far be it for me to disagree with the Independent’s assertion that it was a ‘triumph’, but all I can say is ‘tut tut’.

WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE?

We’re all familiar with critics gifted with second sight. Art historians, when viewing a work by an Old Master, will often read all kinds of things into the artist’s life.   ‘That particular flick of paint denotes the precise moment when he left his wife to take up with Mistress X,’ for example. It happens with writers too. I often wonder, if Shakespeare were to reappear in 2015, what he’d have to say about the stuff written about him. Would he concur, or would he say (in modern parlance) ‘Just hang on a minute.’ I guess the bigger question is what kind of artist/writer/musician you think you are.

Whatever the genres, most writers, subconsciously or not, are saying: ‘This is my take on the world and how I think people operate’ and hope to hell that readers will buy into it. This is writing at its most basic, yet there are so many variations on a theme, not all of them explored here.

Clearly, there are those who are uniquely qualified to write certain types of books. Plenty of former soldiers and spies pen riveting tales of espionage.   Their stories have that special note of authenticity, yet it doesn’t mean that they have lived the experiences outlined in their novels.   Not that it matters if we think they have. If it helps with hooking us into the story, believe what you like.

Some writers use their books to deliver messages. Their stories, driven by strong views, (the political system or environment favourites) are designed to ‘illuminate’, dare I say ‘educate’. Main protagonists tend to be passionate proponents of chosen idea or theme and there is usually a big ‘I told you so’ at the end of the novel. I reckon writers like this require immense skill to avoid polemic. Hats off to the few who pull it off.

I’m sticking my neck out but I reckon the majority of crime authors write for sheer entertainment value. They want to blow your socks off with surprise after surprise (optionally guns blazing) with a narrative that is pace perfect and leaves you giddy. If you want to delve into the murkier goings-on in the human psyche, look no further, yet it doesn’t mean that the average crime writer has robbed a bank, run a drug empire, or murdered his or her mother.

Theoretically, psychological thriller writers are a gift to critics who want to read more into the mind behind the pen.   But does it mean that, if you write a book about stalking, you have been stalked?   If you craft a story about dysfunctional relationships, you are in one?   It’s as daft as stating that no holds barred sex scenes in X-rated novels are the result of serious research involving whips, nipple clamps and swinging naked from chandeliers.

Having said this, writers do return again and again to themes that interest or trouble them. Loss and loneliness are front-runners and, in this regard, I’m no exception. The legacy of loss features heavily in my forthcoming novel, ‘Beautiful Losers’ and I guess that says something about me.

So where does the truth lie? In his defence, I once heard a famous author say: ‘Get over it, I make stuff up.’

Absolutely.

Well…erm… mostly.