All posts by Val

Review: Coffin Road by Peter May

WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD
Ever since I read May’s Lewis Trilogy I have looked out for more of his books, hoping to find more gritty, absorbing mystery thrillers. But I always seem to end up a little disappointed; they’re good books all right but just not up to the standard I was expecting. Entry Island invoked the supernatural way too much for my liking; Runaway would have been much better split into a memoir and a novel.
‘Coffin Road’ looks like being yet another disappointment – I’m only about a third of the way through it and already I don’t think I’ll bother to read any further. It’s starts off very promisingly:

The first thing I am aware of is the taste of salt. It fills my mouth. Invasive. Pervasive. It dominates my being, smothering all other senses. Until the cold takes me. Sweeps me up and cradles me in its arms. Holding me so tightly I can’t seem to move. Except for the shivering. A raging, uncontrollable shivering. And somewhere in my mind I know this is a good thing. My body trying to generate heat. If I wasn’t shivering I would be dead.

A man comes to washed up on a wide, empty sandy beach with no idea of where he is, what has happened to him, or who he is. He cannot remember even his name. He meets an old lady who evidently knows him and helps him to his house – conveniently for him, it’s just a short way up the road. Inside the house, he finds almost nothing to help him remember who he is. His wallet is almost empty; there’s some cash, but no driving license (although he has a car) or bank cards. There’s a utility bill on the table, so he knows his name is Neal Maclean and that this house is in a hamlet called Luskentyre, on the west coast of Harris in the Hebrides. Like all of May’s locations, it’s a real place – you can see it for yourself on Google Street view – and its every bit as astonishingly scenic as he describes. May’s descriptive writing is terrific – the Scottish tourist board must throw a party to celebrate every time he brings out a book set in Scotland – and this doesn’t disappoint on that score. If you don’t want to immediately travel to the Western Isles to experience the georgeous landscapes for yourself, then you have no soul.
What does disappoint me is his sloppy plotting. He’s managed to construct a pretty good and intriguing storyline – Maclean can’t throw off a feeling that he’s committed some terrible crime, he sees somebody keeping watch on him, somebody tries to kill him, he finds he’s made considerable efforts to hide his past and that he’s having an affair with a married neighbour; there’s a laptop with an internet connection, but it’s been cleaned of everything that might help him find his identity. All very intriguing.
But May’s irritatingly careless over details. For example, take the aforementioned utility bill. That’s what May actually calls it, a “utility bill”, not an electricity bill or an oil bill or telephone bill. When did you ever hear somebody IRL talk about having a “utility bill”?
Thete are other irritations as well. May tends to dump huge gobbets of information into the text; a visit to a nearby cathedral turns MacLean into a tour guide, telling the reader all about the building’s history and architecture for about a page and a half; the unexpected find of a beehive prompts a long speech that reads like the Wikipedia entry on bees and beekeeping. It all feels like attempts to pad out the wordcount.
And then thete’s the time he finds a folder of newspaper cuttings that finally give him some clues to who he really is. He finally has a name, an address in Edinburgh, and a few biographical details. So he rushes to his laptop and…. googles himself to find more? No, actually. He goes to an online telephone directory and checks that he’s listed at that address. Then he looks up maps and timetables. And that’s all the checking he does before excitedly setting off for Edinburgh.
Earlier in the story, we’re told that he has no trouble operating the laptop and that it all feels so comfortable and natural that he is sure he was an expert IT user in his previous life. Mays also writes him (very well) as constantly feeling angry and despairing that he can’t remember who he really is.
Yet, with a fully functioning laptop with an internet connection in the house, at no time does he ever attempt to look for clues on the internet! Obviously his name is common enough to generate thousands of hits, but he has no shortage of time to look through them. He does use the internet for looking things up – train timetables, local history and so on, but it never occurs to him to search on his name. His married girlfriend, who is almost certainly not what she seems, also never suggests this; and it never occurs to him that still being listed as renting a telephone line at an address he left two years ago is very odd. So it’s possible that something sinister is going on and that its all connected to his memory loss.
I carried on a little further, but it soon became obvious where the plot was heading, and reading the spoilers in the Amazon reviews confirmed my fears that it was turning into an anti-GMO polemic. I already read enough of those on Facebook and I spend far too much time refuting and correcting them (no, Monsanto doesn’t sell ‘terminator seeds’, GMO food won’t give you cancer, Roundup doesn’t kill bees…. etc bloody etc). I don’t want to read the same badly-informed propaganda when I’m relaxing with a thriller. So I’m not bothering to read any further.

Another Review (Notes… part deux)

I’ve recently discovered Markdown and it looks quite handy – a simple markup language that produces formatted text that can be exported to HTML and PDF without further conversion. It’s an attractive idea but I couldn’t see any way I needed to use it, since I’ve already got at least a dozen fully-featured text editors for producing both web pages and PDFs. Just possibly I could use it to write an extremely simple web page, but that was about it.
However, my search for a note-taking application (see last post) turned up WriteMonkey.This is an extremely simple, barebones writing program, and you can use Markdown in it. (You don’t have to, you can write in plain text if you want to, but then why use WM in the first place?) According to the testimonials, many writers use it; the main point of using Markdown for writing lengthy text that needs some formatting – novels, stories etc – is that you can format text as you write instead of breaking off to highlight a word or sentence, search the task bar for the right button, and click on the button. In other words, your writing flow isn’t interrupted.
I’ve had Scrivener for a couple of years, attempting to write a book. In many ways it’s a good program for writing, with lots of useful features. However, for me there are just too many features, with a hard-to-navigate interface. Lots of professional writers swear by it and it’s clearly hugely useful for them, but it’s just too cumbersome for me and I simply can’t get the hang of it – I’m forever stopping to try to find some bit of text or information that I put on the corkboard somewhere. And of course, there’s the formatting faff. So WriteMonkey’s “zenware” approach has me hooked.
My initial experience with it wasn’t positive – it opened with a full-screen blank splash page that had a grey background that appeared on my screen as an eye-aching flicker. The task bar was almost empty, with things like Preferences, Save and so on nowhere to be seen. After a lot of fruitless searching, I’d almost decided to give up on it, when an accidental right-click on the page bought up a long list of options. All part of WM’s minimalist approach, but it would have been helpful to have been told about it somewhere in the documentation! However once I’d found that, I quickly customised things (getting rid of that migraine-inducing splash screen was first) and started playing.
The basic program is free and is perfectly adequate for a writing project. If you want more flexibility, there are a number of plugins – all available for a single one-time donation – that add a spellchecker, search, thesaurus, extra export options and several Scrivener-like features, particularly a ‘board’ where where you can store odd bits of text, graphics or information to be used in your project. The difference with Scrivener is that you can choose which features to install, and they don’t complicate the interface – you can just get on with writing your brilliant prose! If you want, you can go full-screen and have a page completely clear of visual distraction; if your preferred writing style is the ‘straight-from-the-brain-to-the-keyboard’ sort, you can disable the Delete, Backspace, Copy and Paste commands; you can minimise, or even do away with, using the mouse with a huge number of keyboard shortcuts; the story files are saved as .txt format so that they can be opened in any text editor. Finally, it’s very small and can be installed on a USB key.
All that means that WriteMonkey gets the thumbs-up from me.
PS – it’s a Windows-only program. Sorry all you Macheads and Linuxers!

Notes (the taking of…)

Back in 2001, I acquired the beta version of a handy little piece of software called Jot+ Notes and I’ve been using it ever since for, well, notes. All kinds of notes – to-do lists, text copied off web pages, a personal journal, lists, random jottings etc etc. It’s really useful; it has nested subpages so that you can keep notes neatly categorised into trees and taxonomies, extensive text formatting, and password encryption for anything you want to keep private. I depend on it to keep my work-life in order.
On the other hand, it’s getting seriously out of date; it hasn’t been updated for five years and appears to be no longer supported. It runs in my 64-bit Win7 environment and it’s reportedly stable in Win8.1 (it’s windows-only software). But I plan to switch to the new Win10 later this year and I have no idea if Jot will run in that – there’s nothing on the website about it. Also, its proprietary software – you can’t access it with any other program.*

So I’m looking around for a replacement. Here’s four that I’ve looked at.
First up is One Note, from Microsoft. This looked promising. The glossy web page doesn’t actually tell you much, no list of features or anything. But hey, I thought, it’s free, let’s try it. So I downloaded the installer. As soon as I hit ‘install’, up popped an orange square reading ‘Office’ with a rapidly spinning download counter. The bloody thing was apparently downloading some version of bloody Office without even asking! So I quickly killed the process. I never use Office, there are plenty of free/cheap alternatives and I do not want it on my computer. I was not pleased – not only was One Note advertised as a standalone program but it’s the height of IT rudeness to download stuff onto your machine without permission. What’s worse, on googling, I discovered that it apparently requires a Live account to function. if the attempted Office downloading hadn’t already put me off, that certainly would have.
So, next up was Scribbleton. This is a ‘desktop wiki’ (ie, it sits on your machine, can be used offline and has no cloud storage); it’s currently in Beta, so it’s very basic and lacks lots of features. However, it runs on all platforms, has page-linking, can be used from a thumb drive and exports both individual pages and whole wiki files to either HTML or text. It’s perfectly adequate for simple note-taking and list-making, but was a bit too short on things like like nested pages for my liking.
Evernote. I already use the free version of this, but only when I’m on my tablet and want to clip web pages or save text/notes for later use on my desktop PC. Looking at it for desktop note-keeping, I fairly rapidly decided against it. The interface is crowded and confusing, and even the free version is overloaded with features I’ll never use.
I then looked briefly at Silvernote. That looked nice – note-taking, lists, the ability to draw straight onto the page, a simple word-processor type interface, the ability to import doc, pdf and other text files into notes, the ability to save notes in a wide variety of text formats…
However, I’ve yet to try it out because I had already downloaded and installed Zim. This is another desktop wiki, but with pretty much all the features that I want, particularly the unlimited page-nesting. It’s multi-platform and everything is saved as wiki-formatted text; thus you can open and edit the files with any text editor. Usefully, you can import plain-text files into it. And did I mention that its free and open-source? I’ve been playing with it for an afternoon and very pleased with it. So this is what I’ll be using for notes from now on.

*Don’t let me put you off Jot+ Notes, btw. It’s good software and very cheap (buy it from kingstairs.com). If you’re not bothered about updating to the very latest Windows, you’ll find it very useful.

Vetinari: “You know, it has often crossed my mind that those men deserve a proper memorial of some sort.”
Vimes: “Oh yes? In one of the main squares, perhaps?”
Vetinari: “Yes, that would be a good idea.”
Vimes: “Perhaps a tableau in bronze? All seven of them raising the flag, perhaps?”
Vetinari: “Bronze, yes.”
Vimes: “Really? And some sort of inspiring slogan?”
Vetinari: “Yes, indeed. Something like, perhaps, ‘They Did The Job They Had To Do’?”
Vimes: “No. How dare you? How dare you! At this time! In this place! They did the job they didn’t have to do, and they died doing it, and you can’t give them anything. Do you understand? They fought for those who’d been abandoned, they fought for one another, and they were betrayed. Men like them always are. What good would a statue be? It’d just inspire new fools to believe they’re going to be heroes. They wouldn’t want that. Just let them be. For ever.”
– Night Watch, by Terry Pratchett