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Boxing out of my comfort zone…

I’ve been quiet for the last month, much to the chagrin of my resolution to keep blogging once or twice a week. The hiatus wasn’t enforced, rather it was stumbled upon and I guess I needed a break. I only ever talk about bookish and story-related topics on here, but I’ll venture to tackle something altogether different and a little personal. Life is for living, so back in August 2016, I embarked on a 17 week training and dieting program in an effort to raise money for Cancer Research UK by taking part in a boxing match. I’d never boxed before… and I’m not remotely ashamed to say that it utterly consumed me.

It was all in the memory of my dear Auntie Sheila who we sadly lost in early August 2016 after a short battle with cancer. To say this was sudden is a total understatement, and the shockwaves are still barreling through my family as I write. It strikes me as so unfair, so unnecessary, so pointless to take someone’s life like this, and I was angry. I bottled it up. I wanted to pour myself into something meaningful to try to find some kind of silver lining to the horrible madness the family suddenly found itself in.

Auntie Sheila was beset by ill health for over half her life, and never ever did I hear her moan about it. She only spoke about it if asked, and even then it was with a positive spin, or a ‘you know me’ wink. She fought one thing after another with such zeal and backbone, that I wanted to find something that would reflect her own unrelenting spirit and zeal. So I found myself signing up for the toughest thing I could find – boxing.

Now Auntie Sheila would have hated me boxing – just despised it. But I found a company in Ultra White Collar Boxing that is safe, regulated and fights exactly what took Auntie Sheila from us – cancer, with full support to Cancer Research UK. For me, it was a perfect match – plus Auntie Sheila would be the first person up on her chair shouting ‘hit him, Robert!’ when the bell rang.

I started at 191lb give or take. If anything, I think it might be a touch more because I used some dodgy bathroom scales to start with. That is only 9lb off heavyweight, which was a stark reminder that in recent years, I had let myself go a bit. Having kids and lifestyle changes will do that to you. Life runs away with you, and before you know it you are cutting corners. I’m 5’10” and being nearly 14 stone was not where I wanted to be. So I looked at boxing weight brackets, picked something I felt was doable and respectable, and aimed for it. I went for light-heavyweight, at 175lb. So I had three and a bit months to lose 16lbs. I thought that would be tough but I went for it.

Training to begin with was a slog. Lethargy was crippling, but breaking through it was worse. The diet was uninspiring, and too much. Greens, protein, lean meats. Get it down you, and get in the gym again. Ugh, it was knackering, time consuming, and boring.

But after 2-3 weeks, something significant changed. I remembered why I was doing it. I remembered the spirit I wanted to embody, and suddenly word was out amongst my friends and family. The support was huge, and came from all sides. Tickets to fight night started to sell, and the other fighters who’d signed up started chatting on Facebook in a private admin group dedicated to getting the ball rolling. There was a buzz.

And there was a physical change, which was a real shot in the arm. I can’t really define it, but there was something. And there was a bounce in my step that hadn’t been there before. I took my kids to a soft play centre in mid-September, and I had a ball – I could chase them everywhere, be a daft dad, and still felt raring to go. It was empowering and seductive. It was around this time that a veil dropped over my eyes, and my motivation became ironclad and unshakable. Whatever was happening to me, I loved it. And every time like I felt like I hated the whole world for what happened to Auntie Sheila, I channeled it into my training.

By mid-October, a stone had gone, and I was in the best shape I’d been in in years. I was healthy, ready and raring to go – and the boxing training itself hadn’t even started yet. That was to start first week of November – an intensive 8 week training programme to turn beginners into fighters. I wanted to arrive at that in decent nick, and having been a fan of boxing for years, I knew how serious the sport is. I had to give the situation respect and due diligence. So I contacted the gym to get some private sessions in before I got going with the proper fight training, and ended up working with Pele Hall, ex-kickboxing champion, and began conditioning training.

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The first session ended with me in the corner of the gym trying not to throw up. It was unreal. I felt I’d come a long way since August, but this reminded me of just how far I had to go to be ready for fight night. We arranged another session, and went at it. I trained myself six days a week with no diet cheat days, and was building muscle. Pele pushed me hard, but I loved it. I could feel my body and mind responding. I wanted more, and I pushed back.

Progress rumbled onwards until I left to go on holiday with my family, which had been planned long before any boxing training had been arranged. I didn’t want to undo anything I’d already achieved, but I’d been so excited for the trip that I wanted to enjoy it fully and have a few beers with my family. So, I gave myself a beer allowance. No more than 4-5 pints in a given day (sounds ridiculous writing that, but I do admittedly enjoy a beer with my family!) and vowed to stick to the diet while I was away. I had a blast, and the only thing I really missed was joining in on the bacon butties in the morning or traditional pub grub when we went out together. But my goal was always in my mind. I went away at 181lb, and came back at 178 – and I drank pretty much what I wanted and when I wanted. I was made up, and threw myself into proper training again as soon as I got back.

The organised training sessions were underway, and were a hit from the beginning. Pele and Dave Jackson, gym owner of Cheshire Martial Arts Centre, were superb in creating a gym atmosphere that was collaborative, encouraging and competitive. It made for an intoxicating mix, and I found myself waiting for Tuesdays and Thursdays to tick round again so I could get back in. Respect was key, and there was a lot of it flying around between the fighters. Bonds were forged. It was great.

With six weeks to go, I hit 174lb, and decided not to stop there. I wanted to press on and lose as much weight as I could while building myself for fight night. Super-middleweight is 168lb, so I aimed for it. Another six pounds could go, surely?

Sparring was ramping up in intensity, and there was a buzz in the gym as fight night grew nearer. There was always the possibility that the person you were talking to or sparring with might be named your opponent on fight night, and that lent a real edge in the gym. I found myself watching people, in terms of who I fancied fighting and who I thought might be a real handful. All the while the weeks flew.

Suddenly, it was fight week, and our opponents were announced with a traditional face-off in the gym. I was announced to be fighting a cracking bloke called Scott, with whom sparring had always been competitive and who had joked from early on in the process that we would probably end up fighting each other. But sadly, Scott broke his foot three days before the fight. I was gutted for him, because like everyone else, he had put in eight weeks training for the fight. I was told I’d have a fight, and the organisers were brilliant in finding a replacement. Unsurprisingly, boxers who have trained for exactly 8 weeks don’t grow on trees, so a fighter from the gym was called, Lee. Lee had trained for two years and was undefeated in four such fights, not to mention a bit bigger than me – but I didn’t care. I had a fight, I was buzzing, I felt better then I’ve ever felt. Lee was a complete gentleman, and the fight was set.

I was 170lb in the days leading up to the fight, and was a bit gutted that I wasn’t going to make 168 – but the morning of the fight itself, I checked the scales. 167.4lb. Made it, somehow. And it took my total weightloss to almost 24lbs. I was, and am still, delighted with that result. I enjoy life much more being almost two stone lighter.

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The organisation of the event was superb, and at the venue (Halliwell Jones Stadium in Warrington) we were treated excellently with medicals and facilities at our disposal. Here we saw the ring being built – and it was tiny. Postage-stamp tiny. There was nowhere to run in there at all, if that happened to be your game plan. All you could do, was stand and fight. Adrenaline was coursing, the music was blaring, and before I knew it, I was heading to the ring.

I felt invincible, unstoppable, unbeatable… right up until I got hit. Testament to Lee’s skills – he hits like a train. He was unlike anyone I’ve ever faced in sparring, and I was quickly learning also just how different sparring and fighting actually is. Nothing hurt, because of the sheer adrenaline, but the stopping power behind Lee’s shots was incredible. We went toe to toe, and I gave everything I had, exchanging shots at a high pace.

I made it back to the corner at the end of round one, and could barely speak to Pele, who was my cornerman. He looked at me and said something along the lines of ‘surprised you that, didn’t it’ and told me to take my time and breathe. I still couldn’t say anything.

The second round started, and we were back at it again, but Lee was pulling away from me now. I could feel it. My arms were leaden, his shots were taking their toll, and he looked fresh still with real snap in his punches. I managed to get him back against the ropes, and gave him a right hand – to which he responded with a one-two that unleashed a white light at the corner of my vision. The room started going sideways, and the blue of the canvas was coming up. All I could think of was ‘this is not the plan, this is not the plan’ and the next thing I see is the ref waving his arms over my head. It was over, and I had been beaten by KO.

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I was hoisted up, and waved to my family, then embraced Lee who was ever the gent. We were both given trophies, and we were suddenly out in the cold stadium with our bloody noses and jangled senses, walking back around to the changing rooms. We had our medicals, swapped war stories, and wished each other a merry christmas. It was most civilised!

I got showered, and went out to meet my family, while a beautiful black eye was blossoming on my face. We had a great night, spent time with the fighters and their families, and I watched the remaining fights from ringside. What struck me from watching as a spectator was just how much effort everyone was giving. All the fighters have their own families, jobs, their own bills to pay, their own life stories in the background – yet here they were laying it all on the line in a function room just before christmas, getting their noses busted and their eyes blackened so they could raise money for Cancer Research UK. I’ve got huge respect for each and every one of them. You don’t have to do this. There are other things you can do. But these people chose this and just went for it.

I went home, explained to the kids my black eye was from falling over (not a complete lie), and had a wonderful family christmas with this beautiful shiner around my left eye. I contemplated on what I learned.

  1. The body is powerful, but your mind is even stronger. Get it into your head you are going to do it, then just jolly well do it. You can do it. YOU CAN.
  2. Anyone who steps into a boxing ring deserves respect. Watching it is one thing, but stepping into the ring so a bloke can try to take your head off? There’s guts in that. Big guts.
  3. Combat sports and gyms are incredible places to learn about respect, control, sportsmanship and discipline.
  4. Setting yourself goals is brilliant.
  5. Leaving your comfort zone is better.
  6. Boxing is a hugely skilful sport, make no mistake.
  7. The key to achieving things like weight-loss is control. Self-control. Listen to yourself. Make yourself proud. You can do it.
  8. People change their lives doing this. I’ve met them, and they’re doing much bigger things than losing a few pounds like I did. Their stories are theirs to tell but they are nothing short of inspiring and I admire them hugely.
  9. I would do it all again.

I’m so proud of the money we raised for Cancer Research UK – almost £2000. I am so grateful to everyone who helped support me through this, be it through sponsorship or kind words. This is a fantastic way to raise money for a charity that is doing so much to help KO cancer for good. Ultra White Collar Boxing and their staff and trainers looked after us so well, prepared us and advised us wonderfully, and gave us all an experience I’ll never forget. They have raised almost £7 million for Cancer Research UK – think about that. What they are doing, and in turn what these boxers are doing, is actively changing people’s lives. I was delighted to be a part of it…

And I’m doing it again. I’m hooked. March 25th. My motivation is still here, and still iron clad. I want to raise more money in the memory of Auntie Sheila. I want to help beat this awful disease – and I love that this is pushing me to places that I didn’t know I could get to. Bring it on.

You can sponsor me here: https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/Robert-Parker11

Or if you’re feeling brave, you can sign up here: http://www.ultrawhitecollarboxing.co.uk

Realising I’m a Lehane fanboy and chucking out old superlatives…

It has been pointed out to me more than a few times that I can be a bit OTT when it comes to explaining things I liked or enjoyed. A particularly good episode of The Apprentice can quickly become ‘the best thing I’ve ever watched’, and a fresh piece of melon is sometimes ‘the greatest thing I’ve ever tasted’. It means that when I describe something I tend to throw in the big guns so quickly that they lose all meaning – and it’s something I think a lot of people are guilty of, to some extent. I’m all for being positive, but here I’m going to try not to rely on my old tropes. Words like unbelievable and incredible are banned here (for this post at least). Here goes…

Discovering a new author is a joy, and it always has been. Discovering a new author whose work thrills you and seems to connect with you time and time again is a step further than that. When writing too, finding that someone who inspires, informs and delights is also a watershed moment. That’s how I feel at the moment with Dennis Lehane.

Yes, I’m years too late. Quite literally decades too late. I know his books have already been dissected and pawed over by millions of readers already, but that means nothing to me, aside from confirming to me that I’m in the right place, and that I’m not the only one who feels this way.

I’ve read a handful of Lehane’s books now, and have been more and more taken with each novel – and the last one I read, Darkness, Take My Hand, has immediately become one of my favourite books of all time. And no, I’m not resorting to my old outlandish descriptions for things that perhaps don’t deserve it. I genuinely see it as a cornerstone book in my own development as both a reader and a writer.

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It is the second book in the Kenzie & Gennaro series, about two private investigators in Boston and their adventures. On this occasion, the past has come back to bite Patrick Kenzie in the form of a serial killer, who gruesomely terrorises Patrick’s old neighbourhood as part of a grander historical plan.

It was published in 1996, but it reads like the top crime fiction bestseller of 2017. Or 2018. Or 2019… Point is, there’s a freshness, a timelessness, a pointed transient quality that lifts the book out of a place in time and puts it in the here and now of whenever the here and now happens to be. I’ll read it again in a few years and still be taken by it.

Something I’m trying to learn about putting into my own work is layers, and I think I try to hard at it to get it right. Lehane’s work is full of layers, and it all feels so effortless yet so keenly worked. Social commentary, existentialism, politics, life, love, the hereafter… It’s all here, and the work feels so enriched and multi-faceted because of it. The result is challenging and rewarding for the reader. Something I constantly despise is the snobbery in the literary world towards crime books and their merits in being able to tackle bigger things. I assure you, my thoughts were more provoked, teased, prodded and bullied during this novel than with anything of a supposedly more literary nature – the only difference being that Lehane doesn’t seem so keen to point out how clever and high-brow he is being. Lesson for me to take on board here – you don’t need to sound like a patronising windbag in order to tackle themes you might think you shouldn’t.

And on this topic, Lehane doesn’t shoehorn it in. He doesn’t bring up the socio-economic differences between race and class because he’s making a grander point off the page – it is here because it benefits the story and the world our characters exist in. It makes it more nuanced, more varied, more real. Layers.

On the topic of his world, it is a meticulously detailed landscape which is just as much a character as any human voice in the novel. The streets, the neighbourhood, the atmosphere, are all very much a part of the story. I’ve never been there, but I feel like I’ve never left. It’s a testament to Lehane’s powers of both observation and descriptive talent that I feel as embedded in the Dorchester neighbourhood of Boston as the characters. And again, you’re never bludgeoned with it. It’s just… there. And it’s just… happening.

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The characters are typically varied, rounded and masterfully drawn, and again it is that testament of getting the reader to know and understand that characters without bashing you ever the head with it. Histories are shared and explained without you noticing. Personalities are shown but never told. The reader falls into it all and becomes part of the cast of characters, a Houdini-like sleight of hand trick that has happened before you know it has. Kenzie & Gennaro are unlike any characters I’ve come across. They are bold, brave, sensitive and damaged, but in ways that don’t rely on old conventions or lame pointers. Layers again. Another trick author’s try so hard to pull is to make the audience care for the protagonist – Lehane manages this here again like David Copperfield with a pen. It’s done before I know it. A little misdirection here, and hey presto, I’m following Kenzie & Gennaro until the bitter end.

Plot. It’s surprising and terrifying. I’ll give nothing away, but it’s an unravelling onion of the darkest corners human beings have, and what pushes people into them. Every time you think our characters have a handle on things, the rug isn’t so much pulled as detonated with a case of C4. It moves at such a speed that managing to evoke the care for character and environment as already mentioned is a miraculous achievement. I’d finished the book before I even got to grips with how much I was enjoying it, and I didn’t want it to end – but I hoped the end would bring safety to the characters and neighbourhood.

I’m going to call it a day there, but the third Kenzie & Gennaro book is sitting on my shelf behind me. I’ll be into it before the week is out I’m sure. But I’ve learned so much from reading this one, lessons I hope to take forward myself. With your writing, you can go for it, in every sense of the word. There’s no point otherwise. Don’t idle in neutral. Take it to the readers. Ignore convention and snobbery. Find that voice in you that won’t shut up, and make it impossible to ignore. If you do you might just write something that someone will call the best thing ever. Whoops. Couldn’t help it.

 

Arrival, and how sometimes the little things are even more important…

I’m pretty sure that, on Friday, I saw one of my favourite sci-fi films of all time, and in no way was I prepared for it.

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Arrival has leap-frogged so many classic films to get to the head of the queue (or almost – I can’t quite decide if it’s top spot or not).

For a start, regardless of genre, it is streets ahead of your average Hollywood filmmaking, in pretty much every category:

It is beautiful – the sight of the alien crafts just hovering above a shroud of mist, so matter-of-fact, yet so full of gosh-darn-it wonder, gets you every time.

The scale – it somehow manages to be both a global epic and a keen micro-drama, balancing both with a deft nuance. The world was at stake, but I’m caring about the little things. It’s a grand feet pulled off with aplomb.

The acting – universally superb, real and personable, with much more accurate-feeling portrayals of scientists than in other films of the genre.

The detail – nothing has been fudged here. The filmmakers have taken something that seems more of an inevitability in some ways (the discovery of alien life) and adopted a real world approach  to how it just might go down. It lends the film a level of authenticity that again the genre seems to struggle to usually provide. For an in-depth look at just how far the filmmakers went to make sure things were as realistic and well-thought out as possible, do watch this great piece by Science Vs Cinema:

It’s fresh – in sci-fi, aliens usually only ever visit to dole out bad things to us poor humans. I won’t spoil a thing, but everything about the aliens, their motivations and how we perceive them, is almost entirely new to me as a viewer. I loved it.

It’s hugely affecting – I think this represents the biggest departure from the usual reach of films of this type. I found not just the story, but its delivery and revelations, to be hugely affecting in ways that you have to discover for yourself. It will live with me for weeks. Desperate to expand on this, but so much of the joy to this film is about going in unprepared and unknowing – but the film poses questions that I find myself asking myself repeatedly. It isn’t trite, it isn’t cheap – this is real provocative, thoughtful filmmaking that pushes the audience into uncomfortable corners, through sheer force of reason and authenticity.

It was completely excellent. It is elegant, unexpected, affecting and challenging, and is definitely worth your time.

 

Dystopian futures, the youth of today and Donald Trump…

On Thursday I had a truly wonderful day running writing workshops for Year 6 pupils (10 to 11 year olds) at Croft Primary School – my old primary school. I was delighted to have been invited to work with them and found myself learning just as much from them as I hope they learned from me. WhatsApp Image 2016-11-25 at 17.03.14.jpeg

What I immediately noticed was just how savvy and switched on these kids were – far more so than myself at that age. The workshops were designed to show how we can create stories from nothing, examine what inspires us, and show that with a simply structure and some pointers we can build a story from scratch very easily. In the context of discussing our life experiences and how we all subconsciously use that in our stories, I gave the kids carte blanche to brainstorm story ideas. The idea was that we would together as a group pick a genre, a setting, a general central plot, and a set of characteristics for a main character, and they must finish the story in any way they see fit. So far, so good.

There were four groups of between 6 and 8 participants, and every single group – without fail or exception, nor any prompting – brought up Donald Trump, the US presidential race, and Hillary Clinton. More than that, both were unanimously painted in shades of evil. Most wanted Trump to be the villain of our concocted story, and one child even went so far as describing the proposed protagonist of the story as having a nasty side and generally being ‘Trump-like’.

We are talking about a small village primary school in the north west of England, with only 140 students approximately. It amazed me that they were all so clued in on such broader, more adult topics. But there were all sorts of other examples of how these kids seem to be growing up quicker than I did at the same age.

All the stories they came up with all featured dystopian futures, corrupt governments and administrations, discrimination (racism was mentioned frequently), rioting and general societal fracture. One group even wanted to set the story in World War 3. I asked when this was. The answer given? ‘About 2 years’. It was amazing to hear what the world around us has got these kids thinking.

I’m not in any position to make any grand societal statements about what I learned from this tiny cross section of the youth of today, but I certainly found it revealing, very interesting and surprising. Where as a ten year old I was all about dinosaurs and football stickers, are ten year olds today really preoccupied with oppressive regimes, political fracture and grim futures? I have no idea. I’m sure there’s a lesson in here about how access to information is so much easier for modern youths (with phones, internet etc), and we are all moulded to an extent by what is around us.

Either way, I loved the chance to work with such a bright, polite, engaging and downright clever set of individuals. My thanks to the headteacher of Croft Primary School, Mrs Mains, and the Year 6 teacher, Miss Perry, for the wonderful opportunity – and I certainly hope to work with the children again.

PS I’m off to write a middle grade dystopian comedy thriller, set shortly in the future during World War 3, featuring oppression, discrimination, rioting and Donald Trump…

Words I thought I’d never read…

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Above is a cutout from Langtons International Agency’s monthly newsletter, and the official word about the status of The Baby And The Brandy, and its sale to Endeavour Press. To say I’m completely over the moon is an understatement.

I’ve been working with my wonderful agent Linda Langton for over 2 and a half years, during which time she has bestowed such faith and wisdom on me, and always propelled me to be the best I can be. So many times I never thought it possible to read the words above, but thanks to Linda, her never-ending patience, guidance and efforts, I can.

To Linda, and everybody at Langtons International, I extend my most heartfelt thanks. For me, you’ve made the impossible possible. I couldn’t have ever dreamed of better representation.

http://www.langtonsinternational.com

Lehane to Lord Of The Flies

Time flies when you’re having fun – and so do pages. I feel I’m in the richest vein of my life at the moment when it comes to reading, and my shelves are bulging with new acquisitions.

I’ve already spoken about how Dennis Lehane has burrowed his way into my all-time favourites list, but I was unprepared for how great A Drink Before The War was going to be. Kenzie and Gennaro, the detectives driving the story, are wonderful creations – both jaded and cynical yet still so alive to the good they look for. They are not perfect (who is?) and that’s just how I like my heroes – layered in all sorts of greys. The plot was superb, the twists unpredictable and genuinely flooring, and the social commentary was as on-point and surgical as anything I’ve read in the genre before. I’m totally in my element here – and there are five more! Oh happy days…

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While I’m on form, I’m going to try to broaden my horizons with some classics too – namely all those books I feel I should have read by now. So I’ve started with one that a lot of kids in the UK read in school, but I somehow didn’t – Lord Of The Flies. The William Golding book we tackled was The Spire, which was wonderful in itself, so I was eager to see how Golding’s other works matched up. I’m about half way through, and it’s so clear to see why the book is still passed from generation to generation. It’s a timeless tale so well told, and a precursor to so many stories since – and I mean so many. There are echoes of Lord Of The Flies everywhere you look on TV and popular culture. The prose itself is so elegantly precise, with a fantastic whimsical poignancy. It’s a voice so composed, and lends a gravity to the book you seldom get to read. Even though I know what’s coming, I can’t wait to read Golding deliver it.

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Lined up at the same time is Jason Arnopp’s The Last Days Of Jack Sparks, which has been on my to read list for a while, but for seeing it by chance at a library I was passing, I bumped it up. That is one eye-catching front cover, and I believe the words are equally captivating too.

Difficult one, this. I excitedly got hold of a book that the world has been raving about, and I’m ashamed to admit I really didn’t like it. Books and stories are so subjective that it’s impossible to please everyone, and I’m sure the wider reading world is completely justified in praising the work. Technically it was marvellous – it was just that I couldn’t stand the protagonist. I’ve been mulling over as to why since I finished it, and I think I’ve hit on it. 

The main character of this book was just utterly subservient to men, their wants and desires. She was weak-willed, passive and fickle. It was maddening. I kept wanting to leap into the pages to shake some backbone into her, but it wasn’t just the main character who was portrayed in such weak terms – the other women in the story were all floundering, flawed and damaged with the same stereotypical traits. 

I have two little girls and I’m trying to bring them up, empower them, to be strong, spirited, independent women who can go and do anything they want in life – the polar opposite of the women in this book, and in that sense, I couldn’t relate to or respect them at all. It frustrated me so much that it was quite a sad reading experience in the end, and I feel bad for not liking this book because the effort and achievement of the author is really something. But I can’t help feeling this way about it! 

This is no essay on gender equality, or a comment on modern gender roles etc, because I’m not in any qualified position to comment. I’m just a father of girls who believes in equality, believes in strong female characters in creative projects and believes that there has to be something more to life for a woman than trying to satisfy the impossible demands of the man you happen to be saddled with.

After I finished, I grabbed the first of Dennis Lehane’s Kenzie and Gennaro series ‘A Drink Before The War’ and from the first page it was like a long cool glass of lemonade – refreshing in every way. Lehane is now another of my go-to’s if I need to redress the balance.

I feel like the last guest to show up, but now I’m here I’m glad I made it. I practically ate this book in 24 hours (which with two young kids is no mean feat!).

It ticked every box I possess when it comes to what I like about crime fiction. It zipped along at a magnificent pace, with a sparkling succinctness that urged me to keep picking it up for just a few more pages (then a few more pages, and so on…)

It was moody, revelatory, funny, surprising, exciting and bursting with life. Catching up on what I’ve missed is now an utmost priority – the postman will be busy with book shaped parcels in the coming days…

Not the biggest gamer in the world, but a couple of nights ago I finished Mafia III on the PS4. I used to love games as a kid, being a NES devotee, until the N64 and Playstation came along in my teens, but then I unconsciously stepped away. Games just didn’t grab me anymore – the throwaway nature of games as a kid were great at the time, but now, with kids and responsibilities, there were always more stimulating ways to spend my free time. 

That has changed in recent years as the storytelling and characters in games have improved, and I found that I could enjoy games again in the way that you watch a film, only that now you can participate. And my renaissance in this regard reached what I feel was a peak with Mafia III.

As I said, I’m no gamer – but I am a consumer. The money I spend on games is as good as anybody’s and while I recognise that Mafia III is flawed in many ways, I found it superlative in others – particularly story and character, and the sheer effort and bravery that has gone into telling a story like this. The developers know it too, and know what players are to face as soon as they get started – sso much so that they include the following statement right after you select NEW GAME:

Set in the fictionalised New Bordeaux (read New Orleans) in the late 1960′s, it tackles racial tension and oppression head on. It’s brave. It’s not for everyone. It’s ugly. But it’s accurate. And playing as a black protagonist, you feel it. It lends a real weight to the developing plot strands and choices you must make. 

The attention to detail in creating the world is striking. You expect games now to be beautiful, with great colours and textures, but now the devil is in the details, which is another area in which the game succeeds.

The characters are excellent, and are an area where the developers really hit their marks. The voice acting and motion capture performances are excellent. I cared about everyone, I rolled the punches with them, the dialogue crackled and I wanted to finish it because of them. To see what happened, and where I’d end up. To beat the people that were putting me down. It was challenging at times, and asked things of me I hadn’t thought of before. It was pretty eye-opening.

I believe every dog has it’s day. Every movie it’s moment. Every book it’s reader. And in the context of what Mafia III tries to achieve, there is plenty to take from it. It’s brave and bold, not without it’s flaws, but as an exercise in storytelling, in gaming, I have yet to come across anything better.