The Americans is back for another season.

I’ve just caught up with the first three episodes of Season 3, and so far so good. This excellent piece of cold-war drama focuses on the Jennings: a married couple living in the suburbs of Washington DC.

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They have two children and run a moderately successful travel agency … and between school runs and dinner parties, they still find the time to kill, seduce and steal secrets on behalf of the KGB.  Both were trained as spy-assassins before being shipped off to the United States, presumably never to return, and ordered to marry and have children in order to give the appearance of a typical, Reagan-era family unit.

I do remember an episode of Elementary that dealt with a similar plot, and I wonder if this is where the idea came from. Not that it matters; this is great viewing. The tension is enough to give you backache, especially now that the couple are faced with the possibility that they will have to train their daughter to become a ‘second-generation’ agent. The acting is brilliant, the scripting superb, and some of the scenes in the first three episodes had squirming in my chair. Things that your typical suburban assassin needs to know: how to fold a corpse into a suitcase and DIY dentistry.

Can’t wait for the next episode.

What kind of writer am I…?

Just got back from a two-week jaunt around Switzerland. We took in Zurich (for an hour), Interlaken, Zermatt and then Zurich again (for two days). After about a week, I came down with a serious case of scenery fatigue, which happens when you’re surrounded constantly by such awesome landscapes. You start to believe that the country’s background has somehow been … painted on.

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See what I mean? Very odd.

And then of course, there was the occasional bout of altitude sickness  . . .

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So I took a short break from hiking, and, being the self-obsessed individual I am, started to think  –  mostly about me and the kind of writer I was trying to be.
I’ve had some really encouraging feedback for the Quisling Orchid, from my editor, the book’s currently being copy-edited, and I now have to face the prospect of coming up with ideas for the front cover.

And this is where things get a little bit tricky.

The novel is a literary piece set during the early years of the Norwegian invasion – and the last months of the 1960s. It’s characters are hard to hate and hard to love: the good are not always good, and the evil are not always beyond redemption. It’s an erotic tale of same-sex love, a spy thriller and a massacre mystery.

That’s quite a lot to reflect on a front cover, but the cover may not be my biggest problem.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve read a lot of eBooks: a bit of erotica, an occasional thriller, one or two action novels. And while I was reading them, one particular thought kept coming back to me:

How am I getting through this so quickly?

Well, one answer was pretty obvious: All the books were very short; perhaps a hundred pages at most (some were a bit longer). The other reason was was the books are very much genre-focussed: the thrillers contained a lot of action; the erotica novels contained a lot of sex. In many cases, the plot – if there was one – took a backseat, acting as a very loose thread binding the scenes together. And at first, I thought that the characters were not particularly well-developed – and in some cases so clichéd I could guess what they looked like, long before they found their way to a mirror to muse on their rugged good looks or goddess-like bone structure.

And I first I thought this was just bad writing

. . . but on the other hand, I was really enjoying the books.

So perhaps the real problem is that these authors understand the eBook market better than I do.

Here’s the thing. If the book is short then the reader doesn’t have to commit too much time to reading it. People are very busy these days, and there are lots of other forms of entertainment competing for our leisure time. Moreover, a shorter book is often ( though not always) quicker to write, which means the novelist can get to his next piece within a couple of months, rather than a couple of years.

The ‘template’ characters saves time and effort. The reader has come across the same characters in other books, so pretty much knows what to expect without having to focus too deeply on their mannerisms, dialogue and actions to gauge what kind of person they’re dealing with.

So are today’s eBooks deliberately designed to be fast, entertaining reads, without worrying too much about being too literary, or thought-provoking?

And in today’s world of fast, easily accessible entertainment, is ‘literary and thought-provoking’ now just a euphemism – in the eBook world – for ‘slow and time-consuming’?

Is this why so many Old Adults read Young Adult fiction?

Book review: Wool by Hugh Howey

Whether he intended to or not, Hugh Howey has become something of a mascot for the self-published author, and given the quality of his work then it’s not hard to see why.

Wool is the first in a dystopian trilogy following a colony of thousands living in an underground silo for hundreds of years. Why? Not sure. I assumed that it was some kind of global catastrophe, but having finished the book, I’m wondering if it’s something a little less straightforward . . .

As you can imagine, such an environment has to be rigidly controlled in terms of resource distribution and population growth, all of which is handled by the wonderfully sinister IT department, whose remit seems to extend much further than keeping the servers running. Their main function, as it turns out, is to deal with any dissent that threatens the order maintained in the silo.
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Howey does a fantastic job of building a detailed, realistic environment which appears as vast as it does claustrophobic, and he does this without sacrificing the humanity of his characters. He moves from person to person, going into a great deal of internal dialogue that builds the characters, but also slows down the plot somewhat; it’s a tricky balance, and I’m not sure he’s got it right — for me at least.
Still, what you do get is very believable characters who you can empathise with; this includes the antagonists who dispatch citizens of the silo in ever-increasing numbers in order to maintain the status quo.

Even with some fairly lengthy exposition, the book cracks on at a blistering pace, and I have to say that it was genuinely difficult to put down. It doesn’t pack a lot of surprises, but it does leave a lot of questions unanswered which, I assume, will be picked up in later novels.

There are many similar books to this (City of Ember to name one), but Wool has more of a thriller feel to it; a real whodunnit and whydidtheydoit wrapped inside a large dark space.

Nine out of ten.