Man vs Bookshelf: Confessions of a Sociopath

I bought Confessions of a Sociopath on 25th September 2014.

That’s over three years ago at the time of writing so, yes, this was another one that sat on the shelf for a long time.

How do I know the exact date for once?

You may think something monumental must have happened on that day. I got my dream job or Emma Stone professed her undying love for me.

If only.

In actual fact, I know the date because I left the receipt in the book after purchase.

Super boring explanation but there it is.

I remember picking it up in the W.H. Smith at Reading train station. Grabbed by the interesting concept and not much else.

I don’t remember where I was going but assume it was to see my ex down Brighton way.

The receipt tells me I also purchased some Buxton water, a paper (the I) and some Max crisps.

Fascinating, right?

But I never did read the book on the train. Don’t know why.

Maybe there was a lot going on in the news that day or, more likely; I got distracted by my phone.

Whatever the case, the book stayed in my bag, returning to my shelf when I got home.

There it remained, unread until…

Doing this challenge I have to pick up something every few days no matter what. But Confessions was no random pick.

Come November, National Novel Writing Month began, and I threw myself into a new first draft.

Said draft involved a sociopathic character, and I wanted to get them right.

Usually, I don’t bother with things like this in first drafts. I write away and fix any and all problems in post.

Not so this time.

I’m interested in sociopathy anyway, so for my character, I began reading articles. Learning about the many traits of sociopaths and incorporating them into my character.

The articles were a great start, but I wanted something longer. It was this that led me to remember Confessions and pick it up once more. Adding it to my list of the next few books I’m going to read.

So it was interesting going into this book. It was the first one I picked up not for enjoyment alone, or for the challenge. It also served research purposes for my writing.

This led to me reading the text a little more critically, and probably contributed to it being a slow read.

That and the fact I took two days off in the middle of reading it.

Not a good idea.

But I still finished it in the seven days I allow myself, and was left with a new perspective on sociopaths.

Here is what I thought of that.

M.E. Thomas and Me

M.E. and I don’t have a previous relationship for obvious reasons.

She is a successful U.S. Based lawyer, and I am an unsuccessful English based author.

Having already outlined my reasons for picking up this book, there’s not much more to stay here.

This section’s only present for form’s sake if I’m honest.

So, uh, moving swiftly on.

Confessions of a Sociopath

Read from: 22/11/2017 to: 28/11/2017

Confessions turned out to be almost as interesting as it was useful shaping my own sociopath. Character that is.

It offered a unique perspective on sociopaths (from inside the mind of one), and that was a real draw.

I gave it a three out of five on Goodreads.

It was a good read (ha), but it was not mind-blowing. It had its issues (the main one of which I will discuss below), but I think it nailed what it was aiming to do.

The book has two main aspects, the psychological analysis of sociopathy in general and the memoirs of our hero, M.E. Thomas.

I’ll look at each of these in turn, before going into my big negative of the book and my summary.

The Psychology Stuff

M.E. has spent a lot of time looking into the psychology of sociopaths. Covering the last 100 years or more to give a real depth of opinion.

For example, she shows people used to link sociopathy with homosexuality. A biased opinion driven by a predisposition to assume the gay community was evil.

But even as the research grew less biased it always seems to have leant towards a negative view of sociopathy.

This is understandable in many ways.

Sociopaths share many traits society recognises as ‘bad’. The inability to relate to other people or feel guilt, for example. Or their inherent narcissism and self-interest at the cost of all others.

However, what M.E. Seeks to show is that just because these traits are present, doesn’t make sociopaths bad people.

I won’t go into the research in great detail here, but with case studies from her own blog and plenty of official research papers, M.E. Shows that sociopaths can be good, useful, and downright successful, and are not predisposed to becoming psycho killers, as the media might have you believe.

This look into sociopathy really did make me reconsider my own preconceptions of people afflicted with this disorder and what it means for them.

The Memoir Stuff

M.E. frames her research within a memoir of her own life. This ranges from her difficult childhood to her struggles as an adult, coming to terms with her condition and later overcoming it.

As with the research, the stories from M.E.’s life made me reconsider my thoughts on sociopathy.

Yes, she comes across as arrogant, conceited, manipulative, and hurtful. But she is upfront about all these things, and it is not the be all and end all.

What surprised me was her discussions on how much she struggled with her condition before she understood it. The way it ripped her life apart, leaving her to fight to get it back on track.

It showed a level of emotion I had not thought sociopaths capable of. Something added to by her revelation that she does feel love. Especially for children.

So the memoir was fascinating, and the anecdotes often exciting, but there was one big caveat.

Repetitivey Repetitiveness

Throughout the book, M.E. had a real problem with repetition.

A real problem.

See what I did there.

Many passages I felt like I was reading the same story or message again, rephrased.

Don’t get me wrong, the stories and information were interesting the first time.

But I didn’t need to hear it again.

And again.

And again.

This repetition held the book back, I thought.

I ended up flicking through pages, skipping the same out stuff. It made me think the book could have been quite a bit shorter, without impacting the quality.

In fact, it could have enhanced it.

Summary

This book was a three out of five on Goodreads.

I think that’s fair.

It was interesting and original but suffered from retreading old ground too often.

If you have the slightest interest in the subject matter (or if you think you might), I’d recommend giving Confessions ago.

I wasn’t disappointed.

Next time

Next up, a book I couldn’t wait to get out the way.

But was it as bad as I thought?

Find out in a few days with my Silence review

Man vs Bookshelf: I Am Legend

Important milestone here.

I Am Legend was book number 10 in my quest for domination over my bookshelf.

That’s ten down, 200 to go.

Pretty neat, huh?

I’ve been enjoying myself so far.

It’s been tough, at times. When I don’t feel like reading or when I don’t have the time or when I’m knackered and just want to go to sleep.

But it’s great, persevering. It’s forced me to read books I would never have read otherwise.

Books that would have sat on my shelf unloved and uncared for until the end of days.

Like Wheezy in Toy Story… uh, 2? 3? In one of the Toy Story’s, anyway.

This challenge is equal opportunity. Everyone gets love.

Like a Disney film.

So this week’s princess and prince coupling are…

Richard Matherson and Me

I’ve little experience with Richard Matherson.

For example, no idea if he would like me referring to him as a princess.

Let’s assume yes.

I’d never read anything by him before I Am Legend.

I’m not even sure I’d heard of him until the 2007 Will Smith starring film adaptation of I Am Legend landed.

I enjoyed the film, and it was because of it I bought the book from HMV (Future readers might want to Wikipedia that one).

But (recurring theme) I never actually read it.

Until now.

I Am Legend

Read from: 20/11/2017 to: 21/11/2017

I’m fascinated with the origins of stories. Always have been. From conception to development to writing.

Anything that happens before it hits screens/ bookshops.

Whenever I enjoy a book or a film I seek out such information. Hoping to learn from the creative process, or to at least see some interesting facts.

It’s one of the reasons I love Darren Shan. His author notes are so detailed and offer real insight into his creative process.

Upon seeing I Am Legend, I was keen to find out about the book it was based on.

I could have read it, but it was easier (and more interesting) looking online.

So, I knew the film didn’t match the book in many ways, and that lots of what made the book so great was missing.

I also discovered the book had influenced such greats as Stephen King and Night of the Living Dead. Which meant it had indirectly influenced Night of the Living Dummy.

That was pretty exciting to find out.

Going into this book, then, I had preconceptions, without having any idea if I was going to like it or not.

But what is it about? What did I think of it? And why has it taken me so long to get to the meat of the review?

The Plot

I Am Legend is the story of a man alone in the world. Alone, that is, if you don’t count the vampire-like creatures that now cover the globe.

By day he goes on supply runs, builds up his fortress-like home, and slays sleeping vampires.

By night he hides in his home as the vampires – led by his old neighbour Ben – surround his home, screaming for him to come out. Unable to enter themselves because of his fortifications, which include cloves of garlic. For real.

Over time, our hero becomes dissatisfied with his life, which is understandable. He begins teaching himself ‘science’, trying to learn what happened to humanity. Doing this helps him become a more effective killer of the undead and the not quite dead.

Troubled by loneliness, alcoholism, and depression, our hero (Robert) spends as much time living in the past as the present. Until, finally, he meets another human.

Only even this is not the good news it could be, and this unexpected meeting leads towards the climax of the book.

A final confrontation with the creatures of the night.

General Thoughts

I Am Legend was a good book.

I’m not usually a fan of books written a long time ago, but this was good enough.

Fast paced, easy read, not a lot going on that’s offensive.

I suppose that’s the main thing to note. The best way to describe this book is in ways it wasn’t bad, rather than ways it was good.

In the end, I’d describe it as middle of the road, and so gave it a three out of five on Goodreads.

Did it deserve its legendary status? Eh, probably not but then I’ve never been too fussed about unicorns either so what do I know?

Depth

This book is a snip at 161 pages which was good for this challenge, and bad for the story.

Not a lot happens, and Robert is pretty plain.

He spends most his time killing sleeping vampires, moaning, or getting drunk.

And yes, two of those are my favourite things to do, too, but I’m not the protagonist of a book. That I know of.

The plot is light. The only exciting sequence pre-climax is one where he leaves his garage door open and gets home late.

This bit is enjoyable, but it also feels silly.

Robert is a man who has survived alone for months and months. This doesn’t happen by accident. Yet, one day he gets up, goes out, leaves his garage door open, and then falls asleep outside.

When he wakes, rather than going home, he does more vampire hunting.

It turns out his watch has broken but still, it’s crazy reckless and doesn’t speak of someone who would have survived so long.

For the rest of the novel he is sensible, and maybe that’s why it’s a bit dull. He does exactly what a survivor would do in an apocalypse situation, and where’s the fun in that?

His only other lapse in rational thought also prompts the climax of the book which goes to show. No one wants a protagonist who knows what he is doing.

Different types of Vampires

Ugh, this was confusing.

In I Am Legend, Vampirism is brought about by a bacterial virus (more on that later).

This is fine, in itself, but it does cause confusion when there are two types of vampires. Vampires that have died and risen again (proper vampires) and vampires that are the alive.

That’s right; they’re just infected, or something. Cheat vampires, you might call them.

Maybe I missed something, but there doesn’t seem to be a distinction between them. At least not until the very end.

Certainly, they are both hurt by the same things and seem to have the same abilities. For a long time, they even seem to chum along together pretty well. Again, until the very end.

Given the virus that turns people into vampires tends to kill, I’m not sure why living vampires ever happen.

I’m confused. Someone, please explain.

The Explain

Speaking of explaining…

A lot of tales get in trouble for trying to explain away fantasy with science.

Here’s the problem. Fantasy doesn’t exist. We don’t have zombies or vampires in real life because they can’t happen because science says so. (so there)

So, when stories take a monster and try and make it seem plausible with science, it often falls flat.

Worse, the explanation takes away from the strength of the story and weakens the effect of the plot.

Recent example: an episode of the latest series of Doctor Who. A house is eating people, and a girl is made of word. It’s proper weird and quite creepy.

Finally, the Doctor gets to meet the wooden girl and the creepy landlord and…

They sit down to talk about what has happened.

I get that this is what Doctor Who is about in many ways, but the explanation took from the plot, rather than adding.

All we wanted was for Doctor Who to get an axe, chop up the girl, set her on fire, then explode the house.

But I digress.

Reading other reviews of I Am Legend I know this problem annoyed a lot of people.

Robert spends a lot of the novel experimenting on the vampires. Finding out where the virus came from, then explaining it to us via internal monologue or his girl mate.

In the interest of fairness, I actually thought the explanation worked well. Or as well as any explanation could in such instances.

But in a book so short already, I felt Matherson could have devoted these pages to more interesting plot. More movement.

Most of it made sense, at least, but not all.

The only explain away that fell flat for me was the story of why Robert thought he was immune. Spoiler alert: it involves a vampire bat.

This was silly and unnecessary. It’s a virus. As readers, we accept there will be some immune people. That’s how it works.

We didn’t need some half-baked explanation to try and handle it.

That, unfortunately, was a detraction from the story as a whole.

Sum up

I’ll sum up now because otherwise, people will complain the sub-heading is misleading.

I Am Legend is legendary because of what it gave the horror genre. An interesting take on vampires. One of the first man living in a post-apocalyptic monster-filled world stories. An early blend of sci-fi, fantasy and horror.

The influence of the novel is unquestionable, that’s what makes it one of the most important books. Definitely in 1954, if not the last 100 years.

However, reviewing it in 2017 the story feels light, and a little underdeveloped. Where it has been developed is in sciency explanations that only half work and not in characterisations or story progression.

Although Robert does meet a dog at one point, the real story does not start motoring until the last fifteen percent.

So it’s good, and it was an enjoyable read, but a 3/5 is as good as I could have ranked it.

Some might say that is even too generous.

Next Time

From vampires to a group many think of as real monsters…

I’m delving into Non-fiction story Confessions of A Sociopath next.

Look out for that.

Man vs Bookshelf: The Escape

Another day, another review.

As I mentioned in my last review (whenever that came out. I’m about to move it at the time of writing to make room for something else) I’m dealing with quite a backlog of books.

I started ‘The Cuckoo’s Calling’ review having already finished The Escape, and started I Am Legend.

By the time I finished, I had read I Am Legend and began Confessions of a Sociopath. Something I didn’t mention in the final Cuckoo post because it ruined one of the jokes.

Going into this review, I have the same problem, with two other books contending for space in my head. The only good news is Sociopath has been quite slow going. If I’d started another book the confusion would become so bad my head would explode. In a bad way.

Confusion aside, there is another problem with these reviews. That being the disconnect between finishing a book and posting a review.

My worry is, should I ever get any readers who don’t live with me, people will notice that ‘Week 8’ is in ‘Week 10’ and such.

For example, I finished ‘The Escape’ on 19th November (that’s 2017, for future readers) but I’m typing this on the 26th.

That’s already almost a week out, and it only gets worse.

As I said above, I’ve had to move Cuckoo because I’ve finished my book for National Novel Writing Month. This now won’t come out until the 28th, and I’ve got another blog on the 1st Dec so Escape won’t be out until at least the 3rd.

You see my problem. The review is out almost two weeks after I finished reading it, and when people notice…

Cue mass hysteria.

So, to combat this farce, I’ll be writing the reading dates of each book at the beginning of the review.

See, it’s quite a simple solution.

Now, with that explanation out of the way, we’re almost ready to get on with this week’s review.

But first…

Robert Muchamore and Me

Having read 11 Cherub books, you might have thought I would look at The Escape and say ‘I can’t take Muchamore of this’.

No, you wouldn’t.

I just wanted to get that joke in.

Now we can move on.

When I was growing up Darren Shan was, for a long time, my favourite author.

My friend, Mohsin, introduced me to the Saga of Darren Shan (Cirque Du Freak for my American readers) at school.

From the first book, I loved the series, and I loved Darren Shan.

Fast paced. Action packed. Gory. They were great for kids, young adults, and, I assume, for getting boys into reading.

Sometime later, I discovered the CHERUB series by Robert Muchamore. And, sorry Shan, there was a new favourite writer in town.

I don’t know when I first picked up CHERUB book, The Recruit, but I knew I’d love the series from the get go.

It was a pull no punches series. It was more grown up. There was swearing and talk of tits and sex and all that stuff teenagers actually talk about. I loved it.

Given this, and the fact I waited with baited breath for each new Muchamore book to land, you’d have thought I’d have pounced on The Escape.

But I never read it.

I’ve been thinking about why this is, and I guess it’s to do with the time in which it is set, and the characters.

I did a History Degree at uni (college to my American readers) so I can’t stand anything set in the past. Duh. So, that put me off, but it wasn’t the main reason.

One of the big draws of the CHERUB series was its cast of characters. James Adams and co. were all so brilliant and, over 11 books, I became fully invested in them.

So invested that I couldn’t stomach the thought of reading about different characters.

So I didn’t read it. The book remained on my shelf while I read those other CHERUB books on repeat.

Until now.

The Escape

Read from: 19/11/2017 to: 19/11/2017

This is a short(ish) book, and it could be a short(ish) review.

The Escape is set early in World War II. The Nazis are in France, advancing across the country with their famed Blitzkrieg tactic. The Government abandon Paris upon realising they don’t want to be blown up. The whole country is in panic.

Within this historical setting, Robert introduces us to three children. Each struggling along in wartime France.

First, there’s Marc, a French boy (hey come on, give him a chance). Marc has grown up in an orphanage where he is frequently abused by The Director.

When the Germans arrive in town, Marc uses the commotion to escape. He steals a bike, food and money from the Director and flees south to Paris. Here he sets up camp in a house that turns out to belong to British Agent, Charles Henderson.

After Marc overhears valuable Gestapo information, Charles takes him on a mission. Together they seek to stop the Germans getting hold of vital plans that could shift the way in their favour.

These plans just so happen to be in the hands of Paul and Rosie. Two kids fleeing south from Paris, hoping to get a boat to England from Bordeaux to get the plans to safety.

The narrative beautifully bounces between these two stories until the climax, when they are finally brought together as a German spy attempts to get to the plans before Marc and Henderson.

The book is a speed read. We follow both Marc and Paul and Rosie as they run from the German’s, get into scrapes, and help with the war effort.

All my fears about not liking this because it was set in the past and didn’t feature a CHERUB cast were unwarranted.

This book brings in a new and exciting cast. The kids are smart, different, and worth investing in. Charles Henderson is not some boring parental figure. He’s shocking and violent and puts getting the job done above all else.

If and when I have children, this is the book I will give them when they start to hit their teenage years. There is no better series for getting kids into reading, I wouldn’t have thought.

I gave The Escape a four out of five on Goodreads, and well earned it was.

Later in this challenge, I will read the remaining CHERUB books, and I can’t wait. But I’m going to hold off for now.

I want something to look forward to, after all.

Next Time

This has been a shorter review (with no subtitles!) but hey, that means you get to go back to whatever interesting stuff you were supposed to do this afternoon sooner, right?

But, while you’re doing that, you can be thinking about the next review, coming soon.

It’s I Am Legend, hero of the Horror genre and inspiration to writers such as Stephen King and films such as Dawn of the Living Dead.

See you then.

National Novel Writing Month in Review

November is dead.

Long live December.

The weather gets colder. The skies get darker. And tomorrow I will be putting up my Christmas tree even though my mother says it is too early.

I will also be spending at least the next month redrafting the book I wrote in October., so that’s exciting.

But irrelevant.

Today I’m here to talk about National Novel Writing Month. My thoughts on that and on the first draft I’ve just written.

I don’t know what I’m going to say yet, though, so this will all be a little informal.

Maybe even nonsensical.

So let’s do that.

NaNoWriMo

As I said in the introduction to this series, I don’t often go in for Nano month.

I’ve done it once before, but I am usually either not writing at all or halfway through a draft when it begins.

I’ve never seen the need to shift my schedule to match National Novel Writing Month.

If I’m honest (which I’m not) they should shift their month to meet me.

This year, though, the stars seemed to align.

I finished the first draft of Project Perry in October and planned to start Project House this month anyway.

So I thought, why not?

And it’s been good.

NaNoWriMo is a great way to get you focused and writing, even when you don’t fancy it.

This can be a double-edged sword, as I’ve said in previous blogs, but on the whole, it’s positive. Especially if you are not good at forcing yourself to write of a typical month.

I’ve never had a problem with that, myself. But I did like the stats based aspect of Nano. It enhanced the fun and gave me something to blog about, and extra incentive to get words done.

Sure, I had a couple of zero-days, and a couple of forgettable ones where I wrote less than a thousand, but mostly I did okay.

Averaging over 3,000 words a day, I hit the 50,000 word Nano target by day 18 and finished the book by day 26.

So that was pleasing, and from the stats in my local area alone, I can tell a lot of people found it as useful as me.

So it’s great to get you writing. But does this finished draft give me anything to work with?

The Draft

The dreaded first draft.

Most writers will say the first draft is their favourite, but I’m not sure.

I guess the best way to put it is that it’s the furthest from being my least favourite.

But ‘favourite’ as a word has too many positive connotations, and I’m not comfortable with that.

It’s always a mess, that’s the problem.

You do your plan, and that’s exciting. Then you start, hitting the ground running, and that’s brilliant.

Then, about 10,000 words in, we reach thorny territory.

Nothing is working. Your character isn’t right. The plot no longer makes sense.

Panic sets in.

Pens are thrown. Keyboards smashed.

People give up. Writers everywhere choose this moment to bin their mess of a start and run off crying until they have a new idea.

One that will actually work.

One that people will want to read.

Because no one would have read the first draft you were working on, would they?

Well, no, that’s the point, isn’t it?

Not that I was any different.

I chucked away hundreds of unfinished drafts for that reason. Like writers everywhere, I was missing the point.

First drafts are about discovery, change. Not perfection.

Think of it like Science (hey, remember Science?)

Your plan is your hypothesis.

This is what you expect to happen. How you expect the individual elements of character and plot to react together.

The first draft, then, is the experiment. You’re not sitting down to follow your plan but to test it. To get those words on the page and see if your hypothesis is correct.

Spoiler alert, it probably isn’t

We are bad scientists. We can theorise all we want but once that character hits the ground and starts making decisions… well, things are going to change.

The best way to figure out who your characters are is to start writing them. It’s in doing this that you will realise the best version of them.

It’s the same with the story, which may look great on paper but needs to be adaptable.

Use your first draft to test, and to tweak. To do a complete 180 if you need to.

DO NOT allow that plan to limit your creativity.

Change as you go, and never go back to change what came before.

By the time you’re done, that first draft will be a disastrous mess.

But that’s okay.

That’s what second drafts are for.

Take my NaNoWriMo Draft (which is what I’m supposed to be talking about anyway.) I went in with specific ideas. Ideas that began to desert me as I wrote.

I realised my main character needed to change. Realised she needed to change and, as I realised this, I also saw that the plot had to change too.

By the time I finished, the first and last act sounded as though they came from completely different books.

But that doesn’t matter.

I’ve worked it all out now.

When I come to do that second draft, I’ll be editing from a position of strength. I know who my characters are and what needs to happen. I can rewrite and tell the story in the way it needs to be told.

That’s exciting, and that’s the best thing about first drafts.

That’s why things like NaNoWriMo exist. Because in forcing you to get through this first draft it forces you to see the potential.

So if you gave up halfway through National Novel Writing Month because it wasn’t working.

Go back to it!

In the end, you won’t regret it.

Next Steps

Speaking of first drafts going their own way. I didn’t intend this blog to end up more instructional than reflective, but there you go.

National Novel Writing Month is over now. I hope anyone who took part enjoyed it.

For me, I’m going to stop trying to get out a blog every couple of days for at least the next month.

I need to focus on the redraft of Project Perry, so I’ll keep on doing my book reviews, but that may well be it.

But, sometime in the next few months, I would like to come back and talk more about my writing plans and how things are going.

I may even do another writing challenge.

Whatever, I’ll keep you updated.

So, see you then.

Man vs Bookshelf: The Cuckoo’s Calling

The problem with these blogs is that some of the time, they take longer to write than it takes to read the books.

This leads to me falling behind in my writing and creates a backlog of books I have to review.

The net result of which is a jumble of plots and points clogging up my mind-head when I come to write my review.

As I write this blog, I have not only finished The Cuckoo’s Calling, but also The Escape by Robert Muchamore. Plus, I’m part way through Richard Matherson’s I Am Legend.

Very confusing.

So, if I start talking about Strike using child spies to defeat vampires, please forgive me.

(Side note. The joke above works on presumed knowledge. If this knowledge is missing, you will not find it funny. As we all know, explaining jokes only makes them funnier. So, what I’ll do is arm you with the three key pieces of knowledge you need to find the above joke funny.

First, Strike is the lead character in the Cuckoo’s Calling.

Second, Robert Muchamore writes about child spies.

Third, I Am Legend is about vampires – more or less.

Now, please return to the joke above and laugh for the appropriate amount of time. Then we’ll continue.

Thank you.)

Now, following that pointless digression, let’s get into it.

Robert Galbraith and Me

I have a suspicion.

I suspect – and bear with me on this – that Robert Galbraith may well be a pseudonym for J.K. Rowling.

No, I’m not mad.

There are many reasons for such suspicions. But here are the top three:

  • The writing style of Cuckoo’s calling is reminiscent of Harry Potter – I.e. lots of adverbs, not least the very annoying ‘coolly.’
  • The book jacket says that Rowling is Galbraith.
  • It’s common knowledge.

If anyone can confirm my suspicion, that would be good.

Whatever the case, I will not be discussing Rowling now. I have all the Potter books on my shelves, and I don’t want to waste good copy ahead of time.

As for Robert Galbraith, I had heard of Cormoran Strike but always held off reading any.

I don’t read a lot of detective fiction and, when I do, it’s all by Harlen Coben. This because they are funny, fast-paced, and my mother made me pick one up one time.

I only considered reading Cuckoo when, a few months ago, I decided to write a PI novel myself.

Soon after, my parents spotted The Cuckoo’s Calling in a charity shop and bought it for me.

In the end, I didn’t read it. I did write the first draft of my PI novel but shelved it in favour of Poor Choices. I may go back to it at some point, but then there seemed to be no need for reading Cuckoo. Enjoyment, it seems, never entered my mind.

Then the challenge began, and I’ve picked up Cuckoo early. I don’t know why, but does it matter? Point is I read it.

So let’s get into the bloody review.

The Cuckoo’s Calling

As I say, I’m not much into detective novels, but I much prefer your non-police based murder mysteries, like this.

And, almost surprisingly, I did like this book. A lot. Enough, in fact, to give it a 4/5 on Goodreads. As well as marking as ‘want to read’ the next couple of books in the series. Although, as a result of this challenge, I won’t be able to for some years.

So what made it so good? I suppose there are two things to look at here, “the Detective” and “the Mystery”.

Let’s do that.

The Detective

Picture Shows: Cormoran Strike (TOM BURKE) – (C) Bronte Film & TV Ltd – Photographer: Steffan Hill

Cormoran Strike is your textbook detective.

In fact, if you wrote a detective traits checklist he would nail it on every account. He has:

  • Internal damage. See: his upbringing, his mental ex-fiancee, his rock star father.
  • External damage. See: his very literal lack of a leg, his bruises as a result of his break up
  • No money. See: uh, his lack of money. He’s living in his office on a camp bed, for one. Readers must hate detectives with money. I don’t know why.
  • No girlfriend. See: his break up at the beginning of the book. This allows him to be a classic loner and opens up more avenues for sexual tension. Yippee, say sex craved readers everywhere

This laundry list of traits is often seen as a requirement for good detectives, but I have a problem with it.

Writers use these troupes to try and build a character that is, in truth, only a vehicle for the plot. It’s fake, and see through.

That’s what I like about Harlen Coben’s Myron Bolitar. He’s different. He’s healthy. He’s wealthy. He has two loving parents. He even has friends (gasp).

He has a distinctive personality. He doesn’t feel like a blank-faced character who could be anyone, dropped into an interesting plot.

Because that causes problems. Your cookie cutter detectives do not work. It doesn’t matter how good your plot is. We need a character we can invest in.

Strike, by the skill of J.K.’s writing, avoids these problems.

He is more than the sum of his parts. He is troubled and funny, and he can be nasty and compassionate, and he’s smart and, at times, unsure and a bit socially awkward.

We, the audience, empathise with him. We like following him on his investigation. We want him to succeed.

That’s what makes a great detective.

Picture Shows: Robin Ellacott (HOLLIDAY GRAINGER) – (C) Bronte Film & TV Ltd – Photographer: Steffan Hill

It’s also worth mentioning the sidekick, I suppose.

Robin (the female kind, not the friend of Batman kind, or the bird) is a decent character. She’s intelligent, she’s attractive, and she has a childlike awe with the workings of our detective. On account of wanting to be one as a child.

The only problem is she doesn’t get a lot of screen time.

Watson and Holmes seem to be joined at the hip, and this is often the case with detectives and their accomplices.

Strike, though, does most of his work alone. That meant we don’t get to see much of Robin and it was harder to form an attachment to her.

What we got was good enough though, and I’m sure she’ll get more time in later books.

The Mystery

I said before that a mystery, however good, is still boring without a decent detective.

This is also true in reverse.

A good detective cannot cover up a boring mystery.

Luckily, Robert/ J.K. has worked hard on his/her plot.

It’s a long book, and I did fear there might be a lot of unnecessary scenes in there that did not add to the mystery.

This would not be unusual for the author. (I don’t care what she says, there is no way The Order of the Phoenix needed to be 8,300,000 pages).

But, in this case, the plotting felt tight, and the pace was perfect, despite it being carried out over 550 pages.

The mystery and client arrive early and, from then on, pretty much everything is relevant to the case.

Even when Strike goes to his ex’s house or his nephew’s party, it is always brought back to the mystery.

Chekhov said: “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there.”

This is good advice, and something Rowling has always been great at following.

Here, things you think cannot possibly be relevant, become so. J.K. is, as she has always been, great at foreshadowing.

And so the mystery rattles along at high pace. The story, led by its interesting detective, becomes quite the page turner and, until the end, I had no idea who did it.

Many suspects are set up and, until the final confrontation, at least four people still could have done it.

This reveal and final confrontation also work fantastically.

This is something I was not expecting because the plot is so good.

I know that sounds an odd thing to say, but bear with me.

In mysteries where the plot is so fantastic, the journey often becomes everything. And, as a result, the reveal is a letdown, no matter whodunnit.

This has been my experience with a couple of Coben books and also with the Netflix series Scream. All brilliant works, but with endings that failed to live up to what came before.

With Cuckoo, though, the ending does stack up to the rest of the book. The explanation is well done. It works. And I was not disappointed by the way it panned out.

So, we learn. Great detective + great mystery + effective reveal = great book.

Once this challenge is over (assuming we are not living in a dystopian post-apocalyptic world by then) I look forward to reading the next books in the series.

One more thing

I don’t like Rugby.

It’s nowt to feel guilty about. It just means I steer away from writing about it in my books.

I think Robert/ J.K. should have stuck away from Football for the same reason.

At one point Strike sits down on a Saturday, turns on the telly and watches the Arsenal vs Tottenham game at three.

Ehhhh, no?

In England (And this is set in modern-day England) we have a ban on showing Football matched between three and five.

It’s a real pain in the arse.

So, J.K., next time, maybe, do a bit more research?

Or, leave football out of it all together.

That’s cool.

Other than that wicked book, thanks.

Next time

Spoiler alert above on this.

I’ve already said I’ve finished the Escape, and I’ll get into writing about that real soon, I promise.

See you then.

National Novel Writing Month: Victory

DAYS TWENTY-FOUR & TWENTY-FIVE

Written 26/11/2017 for 25/11/2017 and 24/11/2017

Yes. Another zero-day.

It was a Friday.

A real shit day actually. Not only was it my second zero-day but I didn’t even get any reading done in the evening.

So yeah, that was a real ‘cry yourself to sleep’ evening for me.

Yesterday was better. It had to be. I only needed to get one word. I did that and more.

Still didn’t get much reading done, so that’s not great.

But the words come first.

Estimated words to complete book: 92,000

Words for par, Day 25: 76,667

Words written: 3,547

Total words: 77,691

Words over Target: 1,024

Average per day: 3,107

Remaining: 14,309

Anyway, it’s Sunday now.

On Monday, when I did 4,000 words, I had dreams of finishing the book today, but I don’t see that happening now unless the book turns out to be much shorter than expected (entirely possible).

So, we’ll see how we get on, anyway.

I’ll let you know.

DAY TWENTY-SIX

Written 26/11/2017 for 26/11/2017

Okay, I smashed it.

Against all the odds.

Against my own expectations.

Here it is. The final count:

Final First Draft Word Count: 90,025

Days to complete: 26

Words written on final day: 9,048

Total words: 90,025 (assuming 3,306 words went missed along the way)

Average per day: 3,462

Okay so, first, let’s explain that 3,036 thing.

The final project is 90,025 words, but counting up the list of word counts I kept along the way, I’ve somehow, somewhere missed 3,036. Not sure how that’s happened, but let’s just accept it as a thing, shall we?

The important thing is I did it.

After a bad start, I didn’t think I would even get 50,000 words done, let alone the whole book.

But I smashed 50,000 words on day 18, beating the NaNoWriMo target, and went on to write another 40,000 words in the next eight days.

Pretty damn good considering everything else I’ve completed in November which amounts to:

  • Writing and scheduling 10 blogs
  • Finishing 5 books and getting halfway through a sixth, meaning a total of 1,903 pages read.
  • 150 hours of work
  • Two nights out
  • Two days travelling to and from Yorkshire
  • Visiting three sets of grandparents and one set of parents
  • A trip to the cinema
  • Several other social events
  • Having a full-time girlfriend

So yeah, I don’t want to say it, but you can.

I’m pretty damn amazing.

Now, it’s only ten to five on Sunday now, and I’ve got another blog to write, but I intend to post this tonight, then I’ll do a round-up of my thoughts on National Novel Writing Month and the first draft I’ve produced in a few days time (Dec 1st I imagine), so look out for that.

Meanwhile, everyone enjoy a drink celebrating me tonight. Go on, I’ve earned it for you.

National Novel Writing Month Days 20-23

DAY TWENTY

Written 21/11/2017 for 20/11/2017

My 10,000-word day got me into a better position than I had thought.

But you already knew that, didn’t you?

Didn’t you?

Anyway, it turned out I only needed to write 2,700 words to stay on target for finishing at the end of the month, so I aimed for 3,000.

The plan was to start at half seven, but I made that plan with a mouse so it didn’t work out.

(So many people are not going to get that joke)

In the end, I started at ten past eight, but did I let that hold me back from doing my 3,000 words by ten past nine?

What do you think?

Estimated words to complete book: 94,000

Words for par, Day 20: 62,666

Words written: 3,048

Total words: 63,923

Words over Target: 1,257

Average per day: 3,196

Remaining: 30,077

So it’s another good day.

If I can keep up these 3,000/day, uh, days, until Sunday and then on that day of rest knock out another ten thousand words I’ll go into the last few days of this challenge with very little left to do.

So, that’s exciting.

Onwards!

 

DAY TWENTY-ONE

Written 22/11/2017 for 21/11/2017

If there’s one thing I love – other than Eastenders, Eminem and Emma Stone (all e’s, huh, how about that?) – it’s challenges.

These can take a grand scale, such as my four year Man vs Bookshelf challenge, or a much smaller scale, like the one I undertook last night.

I started writing at eight pm on the dot and I thought to myself, I wonder if I can write 4,000 words in an hour.

It was, I admit, a hefty challenge, and I thought it might cost me some quality.

However, I’m not sure it did.

What certainly happened was that I became focused. I didn’t stop to take mid-session stats or to check my phone and I continuously ignored my girlfriend as she shouted through at me from the bedroom (sorry).

It was tough, and I was constantly hovering between making it and just missing it, which added a level of excitement that NaNoWriMo was not, alone, able to provide.

But did I do it?

Estimated words to complete book: 95,000

Words for par, Day 21: 66,500

Words written: 4,098

Total words: 68,021

Words over Target: 1,521

Average per day: 3,239

Remaining: 26,979

How’s that for tight.

Just over 4,000 and I didn’t cheat, either. I stopped exactly an hour after I started, and I was bloody pleased about it.

I might try it again tonight, but we’ll have to see.

I’ll let you know.

 

DAY TWENTY-TWO

Written 23/11/2017 for 22/11/2017

Look, I’m very busy today, so I really don’t have much time to talk.

Let’s keep it brief.

I wrote for just under an hour.

My output was not what it was the day before.

I still hit 3,000 words but did not quite match what I would have liked to do.

Still, I’m on target. See below.

Estimated words to complete book: 94,000

Words for par, Day 22: 68,933

Words written: 3,000

Total words: 71,021

Words over Target: 2,088

Average per day: 3,228

Remaining: 22,979

Another chance to move the chains tonight (that’s an NFL reference).

Hopefully, it can be a big day.

Until then, goodbye.

I got blogging to do.

Other blogging.

 

DAY TWENTY-THREE

Written 24/11/2017 for 23/11/2017

I try my very best, always, to restrict my evening writing time to writing only.

The moment you start throwing other tasks in your time just disappears and you end up getting no words done and half a blog.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t always work in practice.

I try to blog before work and at lunch but recently I’ve been getting into work later than usual so I’ve had no time to do it then, and there’s not enough time at lunch to get everything I need to get done, done.

So last night, I had to do some blogging, and I was able to finish editing my latest Man vs Bookshelf review and schedule it (so look out that, the day after next). Then I set up this blog, putting in all entries except the one I’m writing now.

With all that done, I was left with a markedly short about of time to do any writing, and I had to go over my writing deadline to do what I want to do.

I’ll do a round up on this book when I’m dong and talk about a some of this stuff then, but it’s worth mentioning now that the final act is not coming together as I would have liked.

There will be large changes throughout whenever I do edit this book, but for the most part I feel that I have had a good starting point. Something to build on.

This last act has felt a bit like I’m writing for the sake of writing, and given how far I’ve come in terms of developing the idea of this series, it feels pointless writing what I’m writing at the moment.

It’s my fault, really. With the first draft I did last month I was constantly pivoting and changing direction as I went, adapting the story and the plan I’d written to fit new plans and ideas that inevitably arose as I went along.

It makes for a first draft that’s a nightmare to read and makes little sense, but it’s so much better for follow up drafts.

I haven’t done that here, sticking more religiously to a plan I’ve probably outgrown.

That’ll hurt later, I think, but hey, at least I got my words done for the day.

In the end.

Estimated words to complete book: 93,000

Words for par, Day 23: 71,300

Words written: 3,123

Total words: 74,144

Words over Target: 2,844

Average per day: 3,223

Remaining: 18,856

So yeah, I’m feeling a little lethargic, but there are positives.

I know where I want to change this story and where I want to take it.

That’s all good.

But for now, I just want to get this first draft done.

So let’s focus on that.

National Novel Writing Month: Pivot (day 19)

DAY NINETEEN

Written 20/11/2017 for 19/11/2017

Right, I talked about this in the last post.

I completed National Novel Writing Month’s 50,000-word target.

Now, it’s time to pivot.

However, the book, which is shaping up nicely in many ways (and is a fucking disaster in many others – such is a first draft) is not yet done.

With that in mind, I thought it would be silly to stop now when I still have every intention of finishing this book by the end of the month (gulp).

Now, moving past NaNoWriMo’s end goal means something of a change of strategy in terms of daily targets and the stats I present. Luckily, I have help on that front.

I use Scrivener to do all my writing (and you should too if you have a Mac, which you totally should) and this presents me with a number of handy stats, which I have supplemented with my own information.

Given a target word count and an end date, Scrivener will tell you how many words you need to write on any given day to finish your book on time. A word count, I might add, that automatically updates every day depending on how many words you have remaining.

Knowing how many scenes I have, I use a constantly updated word count, altering it after every scene by working out the average number of words I have written so far per scene and timesing this by the total amount of scenes.

So, check out yesterday’s stats for the following:

  • The current predicted word count of hthe whole book
  • The words count I needed to be at as of yesterday to be on track for finishing at the end of the month
  • The words written yesterday (spoiler alert, it was a good day)
  • The total words written in the projects
  • The number of words I am over the target total at that day
  • The average words I’ve written per day across the project
  • How many words are remaining.

Check it out

Estimated words to complete book: 94,000

Words for par, Day 19: 59,534

Words written: 10,365

Total words: 60,875

Words over Target: 1,341

Average per day: 3,203

Remaining: 34,466

It’s going well.

A big day yesterday. 10,000 words put me just over where I need to be as of yesterday, and it’s going to take at least 3,300 words today to keep myself there.

Being back at work today after a few days on holiday, this will be difficult, but let’s see how I get on

National Novel Writing Month? Completed it. (days 16-18)

DAY SIXTEEN

Written 17/11/2017 for 16/11/2017

After a zero-day, you have to rally.

It’s not enough to look back and say you’ve done loads recently, so it’s okay. Or even to say that you’re well over target, so it doesn’t matter.

It’s a psychological thing. Two bad days in a row and you start to struggle. Or at least, I do.

So I wanted a good day. I needed a good day, and I wasn’t sure I was going to get one. I’m still up North on holiday and I didn’t think I’d get the time.

But then, I did.

Yay.

Words to “win” NaNoWriMo: 50,000

Words for par, Day 16: 26,666

Words written: 5,681

Total words: 42,680

Words over Target: 16,014

Average per day: 2,668

Remaining: 7,370

So it sucks to have a zero-day, but the stats are good. In the last four days, I’ve had the zero, but then three days where I hit over 5,000 words.

I doubt I’ll get anywhere near that today, but I’d like to hit over 1,500.

I’ll see how it goes.

 

DAY SEVENTEEN

Written 18/11/2017 for 17/11/2017

Less than 5,000 words to go!!

Words to “win” NaNoWriMo: 50,000

Words for par, Day 17: 28,333

Words written: 2,523

Total words: 45,153

Words over Target: 16,820

Average per day: 2,656

Remaining: 4,847

Okay, I know I normally write a bit.

I know that’s what gets you through the week.

But it’s 20 past nine am now and I won’t be able to write after midday.

In fact, I’m leaving at midday and I’m not dressed and there’s breakfast to come.

Basically, I don’t have very much writing time today and I want to get as close as possible to finishing the 50,000 words if you don’t very much mind.

Thanks.

 

DAY EIGHTEEN

Written 19/11/2017 for 18/11/2017

Well NaNoWriMo has hardly been a ticking clock thriller for me.

I started badly and had a couple of rubbish days between then and now. Even a rare zero day.

But I’m still done.

NaNoWriMo 50,000 words complete as of 18th November 2017 with 510 words change.

Well done me.

Words to “win” NaNoWriMo: 50,000

Words for par, Day 18: 30,000

Words written: 5,357

Total words: 50,510

Words over Target: 20,510

Average per day: 2,806

Remaining: -510

Now, despite ‘completing’ NaNoWriMo the book isn’t finished, and I would still like to do it in November.

It’s going to be tough, given I still have at least half to go with less than half the month less available to me, but I’m going to try.

It’s Sunday, bang on midday as I write this sentence.

I’ll get some done this afternoon and tomorrow, when I write Day 19, I’ll create a new set of stats to deal with the shifting nature of the challenge.

See you then.

Man vs Bookshelf: Clough: The Autobiography

Today, with book seven, we have something new.

The first non-fiction book of Man vs Bookshelf.

Exciting, no?

As well as being the first non-fiction book, Clough has also pinched an undesirable record.

Lowest pages read per day (so far) at 45. Beating previous loser, Good Omens (69), by some distance, and being well below our front-runner. Big Little Lies, with 155.

This low pages per day record also mean it took the longest to read at seven days. Although this was still within the week I allow myself, thank God.

So does a low pages per day count show an unenjoyable book?

Let’s see…

Brian Clough and Me

04/12/1982 Division One – Notts County v Nottingham Forest
Brian Clough
Credit: Offside / Mark Leech

Having been born in August of 1992 my first football season on this world was Clough’s last in management.

I can’t say I took much notice.

By the time Clough died, some 12 years later, I was still not all too interested in football.

Clough only came to my attention some years later when, at uni, I finally got into football in a big way.

I learned of Clough through my Grandma, a lifelong Nottingham Forest fan, first. Then, later, as a result of the book, The Damned UTD, and film of a similar name, both of which I loved.

As of 2017, I have a much greater understanding of the Forest and Derby legend. I’m a long time player of Football Manager and, as a result, managers have always interested me.

I’ve read plenty about Clough and watched interviews from back when he was still alive and in the game.

Despite this, I’ve read neither of the Clough autobiographies on my bookshelf.

I’m not sure why. I’ve always wanted to read them, but must never have got around to it.

Now, though, seemed like the perfect time to crack one open. Not only because of the challenge but because they belong to my Grandma. I’m visiting her this week and thought I should return at least one.

So, as a fan of Clough and his confrontational style, what did I think of his first autobiography?

Brian Clough: The Autobiography

I wasn’t sure, and still am not sure, how I was going to review a non-fiction book.

I’m used to talking about plot and character, but that won’t work here. I can hardly blame Clough for weak characters and crappy plotting. He is, after all, restricted, seeing as his life is his life. It’s not his fault he didn’t have a final showdown with big bad Don Revie before he retired. Although, that would have been good.

But I suppose I can talk about general enjoyment and writing style. So that’s what I’m going to do. As usual, making most of it up as I go along.

So prepare for that.

Enjoyment

As stated above, this book took me longer to read than any other on the challenge so far, but there are a couple of reasons for that. Neither of which suggest, in their own right, that this book was any worse than others I have read.

In fact, to set my stall early on, I preferred this book to both Good Omens and Devil May Care, despite giving each a 3/5.

On a ten point scale, I would have given this a seven and Good Omens and Devil May Care sixes. These are VERY different scores, as we all know. But you’ll have to take that up with Goodreads and their stupid scale.

So, reason one: I had a day off.

Since starting this challenge I’ve had one day off, a Tuesday, the day after I had started reading this book.

I went to the cinema and was knackered when I got home and didn’t feel like reading.

(Well, I didn’t feel like it, and it was late. I didn’t want my girlfriend to be mad at me like she will be when she reads this sentence.)

Taking this into account, I read Clough on six non-consecutive days. This would bring the average pages per day up by seven. Still the lowest, but closer to Good Omens.

Second, this is a non-fiction book.

This means it is not plotted to be a page-turner. At least, not in the same way. There are no cliffhangers at the end of chapters to drag you along. The story is the story, and so there is not that same tug as with a fiction book to page turn.

Brian’s life was his life, and while it was interesting, he will never be able to compete with the lives of Batman and co. Because of his unfortunate drawback of not being fictional.

This, though, I don’t think we can hold against him.

The above contributed to a lower average page count, but the book was enjoyable. I love reading about football managers, and Clough was one of the most interesting.

Although, having an exciting life will not, alone, make for an interesting book.

Writing Style

Writing style is as important in an autobiography, as it is in fiction. More so, even, on account of it not having cliffhangers etc. to keep you going.

Anyone can ruin an interesting life by writing about it dully.

Brian Clough avoids this.

Part of this may be down to the fact he had John Sadler writing either with him or, more likely, for him.

Although, the choice of Sadler – who worked for the Sun – as writer does make you question the validity of the book. After all, the News is supposed to be factual, and the Sun has never worried about that.

Regardless of who wrote it, the writing style is very Clough. Plain speaking, accented, friendly and littered with exclamation marks. The latter of which being a horrible writing device, but anyway.

The writing works. It improves the flow and gives the book a Clough personality. Even if there are a lot of digressions as he tells his stories.

This, plus an interesting life, makes for an enjoyable read. But it was never going to be as good as the best fiction.

A 3/5 was always the highest it was ever going to go.

Predictions

There are a couple more things I could write about, outside of general enjoyment. One of them, which I won’t go into in too much detail, is honesty.

I could talk about how Clough claims never to take a bung, despite many official sorts being sure he did. He could be lying, he could be telling the truth, I don’t know, and speculation won’t get us anywhere, so let’s leave it.

One thing I will discuss is his predictions. Written in 1994, and read 20 plus years later, it is clear Clough would never have made a good precog. Fortune telling, then, would never have been for him.

Though I suspect most fortune tellers know what they are saying is nonsense. However they portray it.

Much like writers of the Sun.

Back to Clough.

There are three bold predictions Clough makes in this book that I knew right away were not right.

First – and he mentions this twice – Clough claims he does not believe any side will beat his Forest team’s record of going 42 games unbeaten.

In fact, Arsenal smashed this record in the 03-04 seasons, right before Wenger forgot how to put successful teams together. Or, at the very least, before everyone else learned how to do it better.

Second, he claims of his son, Nigel Clough, that “I don’t think he will choose football management, though. I’m certain he won’t.” Stating the reason ex-footballers become managers is because they are not equipped for other work.

Well, if that’s the case, Bri, your son was less equipped for the outside world than you thought. He went into management in 1998, only a few years after this books publication. He has been doing it now, at the time of writing, for 19 years. Albeit, not as successfully as his father.

The final prediction made is a sad one, and does not fall into the same category as the first two. It involves addiction, something only he can overcome, rather than anyone else.

Being in released in 1994, there were already rumours of Brian Clough and alcoholism, and he moves to address them in the epilogue.

He talks about how his family worries about his alcohol intake and admits it is something he will need to look at it. The penultimate paragraph reads:

“Whatever steps are necessary to set my family and friends at ease, I will take them. No-one is going to be able to brand Brian Clough as a drinker who lost control and could not conquer his habit. I will beat it…”

This is a prediction tinged with sadness. Here was one of the most successful football managers of all time. A man never afraid to step up to a challenge. A man who knocked down obstacles throughout his career and who was determined to do so again with alcoholism.

If anything shows the strength and resolve it must take to overcome addiction it is this. Clough would go on to battle addiction for almost a decade after the release of this book. A fight culminating with a liver transplant in January 2003 that saved his life.

What was written at the time as a message of strength to end the book, now adds a dimension of sadness, given the context.

But, whatever happened towards the end of Clough’s life, he will always be remembered as one of the greatest football managers of all time.

Not to mention one of the greatest personalities.

Next Time

Following on from the most depressing end to one of my reviews yet, I will be moving into the world of Private Detectives. And you know what that means…

That’s right, silly names and, ironically enough, alcoholism.

This time I’m reading The Cuckoo’s Calling, the first in the series of Cormoran Strike books (no really, that’s his name).

The book is written by Robert Galbraith, pseudonym of little known British author J.K. Rowling.

She wrote some children books about wizards and a snake man, or something.

See you then!