Hazel McHaffie

Harlan Coben

Time to read …

If you don’t have time to read you don’t have the time (or tools) to write. Simple as that,’ says Stephen King.

So I felt totally vindicated taking a whole day off from writing and to lose myself in a gripping book. What a tonic! Just the inspiration I needed to help me sharpen up my own current scribblings.

It’s vintage Coben. All the trademark ingredients are there: clever dialogue, legal shenanigans, sinister happenings, flawed characters, convoluted plots, switchback thrills, a smattering of homespun psychology, and of course, a thought-provoking moral in the tale. Brilliant.

The book? Caught by Harlan Coben.

This one includes a missing teenager; discredited cops; an entrapment; vigilantes bent on revenge; scandals and sackings; broken marriages; tragic histories; conspiracies; trumped up charges and ruinous accusations. And it keeps you guessing till the very end. The usual vast cast includes a high percentage of damaged people with colourful back-stories and fascinating peccadilloes. Enough brilliance to make us lesser mortals decide to give up the unequal struggle!

And of course, Coben’s mastery of engaging dialogue and deft outlines make it a joy to read. Who else would capture the essence of characters, the feel of a moment, with such joyous economy, originality and humour?

How about this for a lawyer?

Flair Hickory, celebrity counsel for the defense … wore his customary gray suit with thick pink stripes, pink shirt, pink tie. He crossed the room in a way that might be modestly described as ‘theatrical,’ but it was more like something Liberace might have done if Liberace had the courage to be really flamboyant …
He strolled across the courtroom as though it were a catwalk in Milan …
His voice not only dripped sarcasm but seemed to have spent days marinated in it …
He took flamboyant and brought it to a whole new level. But now, on the other side of these questions, she could truly see how flamboyance could be close bedfellows with ruthlessness.

He’s only in the frame for a few pages but his larger than life presence lingers in the imagination, his peacock posturing, razor tongue, mocking innuendos and penetrating cross-questioning. We’re as much in awe of him as the cringing witness.

Or what about this for a teenager’s room?

Her room, like Ryan’s, looked as if someone had strategically placed a stick of dynamite in the drawers, blowing them open; some clothes sprawled dead on the floor, others lay wounded midway, clinging to the armoire like the fallen on a barricade before the French Revolution.

Resonates with us all, doesn’t it?

‘Uniquely portable magic,’ to quote Stephen King again. Enjoyed the more for coinciding with the advent of summer after a long hard winter – 5C to 21C almost overnight! I read half of Caught in the garden and felt doubly invigorated for that.

 

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More thrills from Harlan Coben

Well, as predicted, the extreme weather (commonly dubbed the Beast from the East) meant no one in our area was going anywhere any time soon. So, with all my appointments cancelled for six days, I did indeed have a lot more reading time than anticipated. And I made a rather interesting discovery.

Miracle Cure is one of Coben’s earlier works. He wrote it in his ‘naive’ early twenties and in my version (re-published twenty years later), after re-reading it himself, he makes something of an apology: it’s a bit ‘preachy’ and somewhat ‘dated’.  But those very criticisms made me feel a whole lot better. Why? Because I’ve said the same of my own early writings. So, being already a fan of his work, I was keen to see for myself just how he’d fallen into the same trap.

It’s a book set in a particular time in history, a time when HIV/AIDS was first coming to public attention. I remember it well. Fear of the unknown and sensational headlines fuelled a real sense of foreboding and doom. But I was unexpectedly thrown into this whole scenario at the deep end. I applied for a research post in the Institute of Medical Ethics which was exactly where I wanted to be, and got it. My first investigation there was to explore attitudes, fears and education around this whole topic – across the UK. In order to thoroughly understand what was happening I immersed myself in the culture and context. I spent a lot of time with homosexual men, intravenous drug users, and the folk who tried to help and care for them. I visited centres set apart for people infected with the virus, many of whom were in the terminal phases of the illness. I watched gay marches for justice. I sat in a prostitutes’ clinic on one memorable day. I cried in response to a young man who had lovingly nursed several friends through agonising deaths. I listened to terribly bigoted and judgemental people who believed this was God’s plague sent on the immoral world.

Coben’s story is set in the USA where opinion was much more polarised and vocal. It includes
– a dedicated team of doctors researching a cure for AIDS in the Sydney Pavilion
– the lead scientist, Dr Harvey Riker, whose own brother died of the disease, and who has dedicated his life to this cause
– his colleague, Dr Bruce Grey, who’s convinced he’s being followed and in danger
– a televangelist, Reverend Ernest Sanders, a rampant homophobe, who’s leading a crusade to condemn all those who contract the virus and shut down the centre
– Sara Lowell, a beautiful but crippled tele-presenter and reporter who wants to expose hypocrisy and reveal the truth
– Dr John Lowell, her father, formerly Surgeon General, whose loyalties are seriously conflicted
– Sara’s handsome star basketball player husband, Michael Silverman, whose own symptoms suggest something sinister
– Cassandra Lowell, her promiscuous and jealous sister
– Lieutenant Max Berstein, a policeman whose brilliance is hidden behind a facade of nervous tics, and whose own personal history is kept under wraps
– George Camron, a brutal hired killer whose techniques are not for the fainthearted …
– a whole cabal of powerful men who all seem to have secret and highly suspect agendas …
oh, and so many more besides,. You need all your wits about you to hold this mighty cast of characters firmly in your head and sort out the Saras from the Susans, and the Matleys from the Markeys, and the Willies from the Winstons.

But it’s well worth the effort. As I’ve said before, Coben is a master plotter, and he keeps you guessing till the end. I ended up suspicious of almost everyone! But knowing some of the tricks of the trade I had a head start once I got the hang of the points of view we were given. And it was there I think, that it became apparent that this was an early work. Here and there the POV was smudgy.

But it’s in relation to the subject matter that I most identified with Coben’s ‘naivety’. He describes his style as ‘preachy’. It packs a stack of information into the speeches made by the characters as they lecture and educate and inform. As an author with something of an agenda myself, I worried a lot about getting the balance right between spinning a gripping yarn, informing the reader, and putting across intellectual challenges. My early publishers told me it was the fictional approach to serious issues that constituted the main appeal of my books, their unique selling point. And that was the point. But I am less inclined to pack in as much information nowadays.

Coben also calls his book ‘dated’. And indeed it is – as medical works can so easily become. But it properly captures the public hysteria and professional angst that prevailed at the time. Back then we had no idea what kind of Armageddon lay just over the horizon. But we were terribly fearful, and fear and passion to avert catastrophe can drive people to extraordinary lengths. Coben has merely traced a possible scenario; and done so brilliantly.

It’s now back to my own cliff-hangers with a sense of having just had a wonderfully instructive masterclass!

(NB. The conflation of HIV positivity and full-blown AIDS is medically inaccurate in places but that too was a common error in the early years of this disease.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And yet he recognises  that there’s an energy and risk-taking about it that he hopes he still has.

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Thrillers and master storytellers

The Times once said of Harlan Coben‘s writing that it had ‘lighthearted lessons for life sprinkled throughout‘ but that it wasn’t ‘about preaching, it is about catching you by those short hairs on the back of your neck.

And that’s what makes a thriller. That elusive something that I’m struggling to identify and capture for my own current novel.

Given that over 70 million of Coben’s books are in print worldwide and the last ten consecutive novels all debuted at #1 on the New York Times bestseller list, I think it’s fair to say this is one author who definitely knows how to get a message across!

it’s actually weirdly appropriate that I’ve been reading The Innocent at the moment. It’s about somebody waiting nine years to exact revenge. I’ve been waiting rather a lot myself recently – for appointments, for test results, in hospitals, in GP waiting rooms, for advice – not nine years certainly, but long enough to make an absorbing book a godsend. And long enough to know that a brilliant reputation and a sustained plot-line that keeps you turning the pages, can compensate for a lot.

OK, Coben’s relentlessly staccato sentences, his use of the second person POV, in-house American police jargon, mile-long list of characters, don’t exactly float my boat. And I’m not going for mass shootings and exotic dancers and police corruption. But what does grab me is this author’s ability to create suspense, to plant cliff hangers at the end of most chapters, weave an intensely complex but authentic series of connections, (the inside of his brain must be like an immense circuit board!) and make me really really want to know why someone is sending ex-con paralegal Matt Hunter incriminating video clips … what his beautiful wife is really up to … why a dead nun, Sister Mary Rose, is found to have breast implants … why the FBI are involved … and who is going to come out of this whole mess alive.

Yep, this is thriller writing. I can quite see how and why it works. Question is: can I do it myself? Only time will tell. But I’m going to persevere. And keep studying the experts. Six Cobens down, five to go.

And the way things are going right now I might be doing more reading than planned! Here in Central Scotland we’ve been on red alert (the highest level which includes danger to life) for the last two days. Siberian winds and snow, unbelievably low temperatures, air and land traffic at a standstill. It’s causing major disruption to millions (no exaggeration) but looks stunningly beautiful to those of us who aren’t stuck on motorways for thirteen hours, or skidding to work in a care home, or battling through drifts to reach an ill or vulnerable person. I dare not venture out on a photo-shoot to capture just how deep the snow is, so this snap of one protected corner of the garden must suffice.

Stay safe, folks.

 

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New vision

Eebie jeebie! A year ago I invested (I use the word advisedly) in new spectacles. One pair cost some astronomical  price so I got the second pair for next to nothing – they call it a special offer. Hmm. But hey, my eyes are beyond priceless, so they need cherishing.

Two pairs of spectacles

This week I had my next regular annual check and oh woe, both eyes need stronger lenses. Ahah!  Time to capitalise on the old investment and just replace the lenses, methought. And yes, these lovely smiling gentlemen specialists assured me, they could do that in such a way that I was able to keep one pair on while the other was re-glazed, and then swap them, so I’ll still be able to function as normal throughout the transition. Perfect.

However … yep, you knew there was a ‘but’ coming … even allowing for the miserly skin-flinty, curmudgeonly, option of recycling the old frames, the bill for four small ovals of plastic came to over £300! Phew! And it’s not as if everyone exclaims over one’s sartorial ocular elegance, is it? Who notices your lenses are brand spanking new? Who even recognises you’re wearing designer frames? Only an optician!

But hopefully my own eyes will, and they’ll return to days of intensive reading and peering at computer screens with renewed energy, comfort and ease. A precious blessing.

Recreational readingBy way of celebration, after two weeks of intensive promotion of Inside of Me, I’m giving myself a mini break, allowing some reading-purely-for-pleasure to creep into the days between bursts of promotional activity. Feels like a weekend away! But just as I was starting to relax into Harlan Coben’s No Second Chance, up pops a profound thought to challenge my belief and opinions and put me into more work-like mode. The narrator is Dr Marc Seidman whose infant daughter Tara has been kidnapped and his wife Monica shot dead. Marc is a plastic surgeon who uses his skills, not to pander to the vanity of the rich and famous, but to help children severely deformed or damaged in accidents or war. I know people just like him and I really admire their selfless dedication and sacrifices. Marc also goes regularly to wheel his disabled father around the neighbourhood, and during one such jaunt he reflects on the values he holds:

‘I could be doing cosmetic plastic surgery and making a mint. My parents would be able to afford better care for my dad. They could move someplace nice, get the full-time nurse, find a place that could cater more for their needs. But I don’t do that. I don’t help them by taking the more traveled route because, quite frankly, working such a job would bore me. So I choose to do something more exciting, something I love to do. For that, people think I’m the heroic one, that I am the one making the sacrifice. Here’s the truth. The person who works with the poor? They are usually more selfish. We are not willing to sacrifice our needs. Working a job that provides for our families is not enough for us. Supporting those we love is secondary. We need personal satisfaction, even if our own family is made to do without. Those suits I now watch numbingly board the NJ Transit train? They often hate where they are going and what they are doing, but they do it anyway. They do it to take care of their families, to provide a better life for their spouses, their children, and maybe, just maybe, their aging and ill parents. So, really, which one of us is to be admired?’

What d’you think?

Then much later defence lawyer Lenny Marcus says ‘I can only be as happy as my saddest child.’ Is this a universal truth?  Does it apply to me?

Challenging thoughts. Such is the power of the written word.

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Books books and more books

Book tokenI’ve had a very generous book token burning a hole in my pocket for too long now. Holding me back was a real conscience about acquiring any more books when my shelves are already groaning, and I couldn’t get to the bottom of my my tbr pile if I did nothing else but read for the rest of the year.

But hey, everybody who knows anything says that writers must read … and read … and read. Voraciously. Comprehensively. Widely. Constantly.

Besides which, it would be churlish not to appreciate this wonderful gift, so I’ve succumbed and been spending it over the last few weeks. What fun. I delved into my file marked BOOKS I MUST READ, re-read the reviews, ordered my choices, and hey presto! here they are.

Books acquired - first pile(I didn’t realise this first batch were colour coordinated until I put them together to photograph!)

Books acquired - second pile

And …

Books acquired - third pile

And finally …

Books acquired - fourth pile

I might be gone some time!

Speaking of treasured books brings me to the lady in a village in Cambridgeshire who bought an old phone box for her husband as a birthday present in 2011. He restored it and installed it on the forecourt of their garage (on land they owned) and they filled it with over 800 books, opening it to their friends and neighbours. It became a free and much valued part of community life. Brilliant. Four years later though, the district council suddenly decided the phone box needed planning permission for a change of use, a process that would cost the owners £400. The poor lady emptied the shelves, bagged up the books and bundled them into a skip (I think for storage not disposal). Mercifully the council eventually saw sense and the phone box was reprieved, but not before the said stock were damaged by the wet weather. Nothing daunted she has now rebuilt her supplies and the phone box library is back in operation this month. Three cheers for her indomitable spirit and stunning services to reading.

The thought of 800 books going to waste like this makes me value my own collection even more.

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Fact and fiction

MslexiaDid you know that some 184,000 books are published in the UK every year, the vast majority appearing without fanfare and sinking without trace? And yet writing a book involves a massive investment of time, energy, emotion, heartache and money.

We low-ranking authors can easily feel overlooked and undervalued, but news in the publishing world put things into a healthier perspective for me at a time when I needed a boost of confidence (courtesy of my writerly journals: Mslexia and The Author.

1. ‘Publishers are tending more and more to concentrate on safe choices and celebrity brands, sometimes at the expense of supporting backlist and midlist authors who sell steadily but more slowly,’ says the CEO of the Society of Authors. And many pretty big names have demonstrated that even they feel disenchanted. A whole raft of them have recently switched to new publishing houses in a search for fresh enthusiasm and better sales figures: Kate Mosse, Harlan Coben, Paulo Coelho, Patricia Cornwell, Michelle Paver, Val McDermid to name but a few.

Take-home message: Great success is no passport to contentment.

2. Nor is rejection reserved for the few. It’s well known that even world famous authors have received crushing letters from publishers and agents. Latest offerings to add to the list: Louisa M Alcott was advised to ‘stick to teaching.’ Anne Frank’s Diary got ‘The girl doesn’t have a special perception which would lift the book above the curiosity level.CS Lewis was turned down 800 times before he published anything! Egg on faces comes to mind.

Take-home message: Don’t be cast down by rejection.

The Author journals3. According to ALCS research, the median sum earned by professional authors in 2013 was a beggarly £4,000. £4,000!! (Aspiration point: The top 5% earn in excess of £100,000; the top 1% more than £450,000 a year.) No wonder then that the number of full-time authors relying solely on earnings from writing has gone down from 40% in 2007 to 11.5%. Ouch! But in actual fact, there are many writers who feel they write best when they keep their feet firmly in the real, everyday world of work. Tick!

Take-home message: Real life activities can help keep you grounded.

4. I’m sure all authors adopt several methods for capturing ideas and brainwaves before they slip away – from having a simple pencil and notebook beside the bath tub to fancy electronic apps and fads in every pocket. Remembering is crucial … or is it? Novelist cum musician cum Latin teacher William Sutton argues that slavish notes can result in slavish writing. Sometimes ‘the capricious alchemy of the unreliable memory’ and healthy distance can transmute leaden prose into something much more volatile, airy and appealing. Phew! That’s all right then!

Take-home message: No need to get paranoid about recording every idea.

5. I guess we all worry about the structure of our books. Is it balanced? Does it sag in the middle or fizzle lamely at the end? Will it grip a reader? Well, an established literary consultant, Helen Bryant, maintains that a novel’s structure should sit within a classic three act graph: Act 1 centres on the inciting incident and core problem; Act 2 should include at least three rising tension peaks; Act 3 brings the main plot lines to a climax and resolves them. So, with some trepidation I plotted my latest novel, Inside of Me, on a similar graph, and what d’you know, it complies with this framework! Tick!

Take-home message: Keep reading the literary journals!

6. More than 50% of both primary school children and over-65s read every day! Wahey. Time to tap into that market in a more deliberate way. Let’s start with the U3A

Take-home message: Target the right audiences.

7. In June this year The Reading Agency published a review on The Impact of Reading for Pleasure and Empowerment. Its key findings included the following: reading is closely linked to understanding of our own identity; it can impact on our relationships with others; it increases empathy; helps with relaxation; helps develop knowledge; helps mental health. Yes!

Take-home message: Never undervalue the wide ranging benefits of reading.

Sanguine again

There we go; spirits lifted immeasurably. Onwards and upwards.

 

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