The Defamation of Strickland Banks

Album cover for The Defamation of Strickland Banks

Candice: I’ve not been driving around much these days. Usually, a long drive is my opportunity to sort through the thousands of songs I have on my iPod and pick something I haven’t listened to for a while, or something new. Or listen to that new album I have bought, all the way through.

We don’t consume music, books, TV or film in the same way that we used to. Everything’s short and sharp, a quick fix for instant gratification. I buy as many singles as I used to buy when I was a DJ back at University, or I just listen to new songs in Spotify. Occasionally an artist comes along and I think, I might want to listen to your whole album and I buy it on download. I don’t even do CD’s any more, which I used to always have to keep.

This dipping in and out means that the concept of an whole album seems alien to a lot of people, we only listen to the tracks we want to hear. But that doesn’t always mean you get the best stuff, just the dance track which will sell well in the charts.

What I have been doing on my shorter drives in the car is to put the iPod on shuffle, which means it can throw me a weird and wonderful collection of stuff including things I haven’t heard in years. Up popped the other day a song by Plan B, actually from the album Ill Manors, but it reminded me of his ‘concept’ album – The Defamation of Strickland Banks. The album is a story in itself, telling the tale of a man wrongly accused of raping a woman. The premise is clever as each song leads from the other as he goes from having a big night out, a one night stand, court and then jail. The subject matter is tough but the songs relate the feelings of the character as he goes through each stage of the journey and it certainly doesn’t glamourize prison and what happens ‘inside’.

I mentioned it to Phil the other day and he professed to have not heard of the album, and said it wouldn’t be his cup of tea. But Mr Parker I think you need to give it a try. Even if you don’t like the tunes, the lyrics are worth a listen. My personal favourite is ‘Stay too long’ – its got a thumping beat and a catchy hook, though I can’t play it in the car with my daughter as the language degenerates at the end!

To me songs can be just as interesting as books. They tell their own story and after often created as a cathartic experience for the writer. Phil and I write stories, but to a lot of artists their album is a story. In this case it’s a very clever one and I encourage to go back and visit this album even though it’s 10 years old if you fancy dipping into something new.

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Sandi Toksvig and my London dream

Phil: As someone much more important than me once said, I have a dream.

I dream of living in London, but on my terms.

I’ll have a nice apartment near Marylebone station. My day will be spent pottering around the capital visiting galleries and museums. I’ll meet up with my (technically, our, but I’m doing the pottering) editor for lunch in a nice restaurant. Occasionally, I’ll head over to the BBC where I’ll be in demand for the occasional appearance on Question Time or a Radio 4 show to dazzle everyone with my wit and wisdom.

My clothes will be of the finest quality. My shoes hand-made. The sort of clobber that lasts forever and is best described (by me) as timeless and by someone I know as boring.

All this came to mind as I read Sadi Toksvig’s memoir Between the Stops.

The book hangs around the number 12 bus route, which our author likes to take from home to work. I like this, because I also love a bus ride in London. I enjoy looking at the capital as it passes by, and in my dream, I’ll reguarily get out and visit the more interesting shops I spot. Visit and not feel intimidated at walking in the door.

It’s a very unconventional memoir – we learn about Sandi’s life, but also some history of London. It’s a place with a lot of past to learn about, much of it fascinating and frequently grueome.

Anger plays a big part in our literary journey as it’s pointed out that very few women seem to rate a mention on the road signs or anywhere else. It’s not that women have never made their mark on history, just that the bar for memorials is a lot lower for men.

So we get a mix of life stories, showbiz annecdotes, politics, femanism and history. Quite a mix and I enjoyed it. There’s no showing off as in a tradtional autobiography and it’s not all looking at the past either. The future is just as important or at least making sure the future is a good deal more equal than the past.

Apart from the famanism and lesbianism, Sandi is living my dream. I mean my dream doesn’t include any misogyny and I’m inclined to agree that a few more women being commemorated would be a good thing and many of the men slipping into history would not be a bad thing, no matter how much the Daily Mail readers (Sandi has good reason to hate that paper) might howl. As for the lesbian thing, it’s just another on the list of things I don’t qualify for.

Of course, my dream is just that. The apartment I fancy is £1.6m and the BBC aren’t hammering on my door. A London publisher would be nice, but I bet they don’t pay enough for the hand-made shoes.

I do have the boring clothes though.

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The Giver of Stars

Alice Wright doesn’t love her new American husband.

Nor her domineering father-in-law or the judgmental townsfolk of Baileyville, Kentucky.

Stifled and misunderstood, she yearns for escape and finds it in defiant Margery O’Hare and the sisterhood bringing books to the isolated and vulnerable.

But when her father-in-law and the town turn against them, Alice fears the freedom, friendship and the new love she’s found will be lost . . .

Phil: So much, so chick-lit. Readers will know Jojo Moyes from her bestseller Me Before You. It was an enjoyable read, but could possibly have been described as an excellent idea, competently carried out.

The Giver of Stars is on the face of it, quite a pedestrian idea, but the execution is superb.

Set in 1937, the story centres on new British bride, Alice. She has married into an American family in an effort to escape the stifling life she sees ahead of her. The marriage is not happy for many reasons, but she finds escape joining a band of women operating a horseback library, bringing books to the remote townspeople in Kentucky.

The synopsis on the back of the book suggests something full of lurve, but that’s the least important storyline. What strikes the reader is this is a world very different from today.

Women were expected to know their place. Marriage meant becoming your husband’s possession and not answering him back. You didn’t take a job unless you were poor, and there was poverty on a scale we don’t really understand today.

Power was in the hands of a small number of people and they generally seemed to abuse it. As for being the “wrong” colour, then you could aspire to very little in life. We even see racism and hypocrisy making a dangerous cocktail.

Overall though, this is a book about strong women. Women who don’t sit back and let the world wash over them. That probably sells less well than the love story promoted by the publisher, but it’s an important part of the story. You might even call it “feminism by stealth”. For many people, it will open their eyes to how far womens rights have deservedly advanced, and how easy it would be to lose those gains.

When I started reading, it took me a few chapters to get into this book. By the end, I knew I was looking forward to handing it over to my book buddy. I think Candice is going to feel the same, I’m confident she’ll enjoy it, and it’s always a pleasure to hand over a book you know someone else will love.

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The Internet is lying to you. The rise of clickbait headlines.

James Bond: Superman Henry Cavill on replacing Daniel Craig as 007 “Very, very exciting”

Phil: This headline popped up on my tablet a couple of days ago. From it, you might conclude that Henry Cavill has bagged the job as the next 007. You might be surprised, having read that Tom Hardy was already lined up for the role a couple of days earlier.

What has happened?

Basically, the newspaper who “wrote” the Cavill story has turned an old quote saying he would like the role, and was the second choice to Daniel Craig*, into some words online. What they want is for you to click through and read.

The title is “clickbait”.

Clickbait: content whose main purpose is to attract attention and encourage visitors to click on a link to a particular web page.

OK, so you might not think this matters. It’s only an entertainment story, and since you know it’s going to take you to the Daily Express, not likely to be something of great importance.

Why do they want your visit?

Advertising. Land on their page and you’ll find loads of ads as well as more clickbait headlines to try to keep you on the site. Your visit will also raise their traffic levels, making the page more appealing to advertisers.

In publishing, this is called “reach” and it’s valuable. Very valuable indeed. Greater reach means you can charge more for adverts. It creates greater demand for your ad space. Sometimes it’s as valuable as actual sales.

Which is why media outlets look for people with headline writing skills. Yes, there will be a story of sorts behind the headline, but it’s all about the clicks, Don’t get me wrong, writing lots of clickbait headlines is a serious skill. Short, snappy and containing what the marketing world terms “a call to action”. If you can churn out a few dozen of these a day, stick it on your CV, it’s a saleable skill.

Does this matter? I think it does. At the moment, every news outlet is vying for your eyeballs and the best way to do that is shout the scariest news imaginable. Bad news sells, it always has done, and the worse it is, the better the “sales”.

In the middle of a pandemic, you’d like to think accurate information would be easy to find, but what we are served with are ever more apocalyptic headlines. Whichever numbers look worst, those are the ones we are told are most important and the figures are then twisted to suit the narrative. And those headlines keep coming. Endlessly.

As I write, more people die each day in the UK from suicide than Covid. Does this get reported? Of course not, because then someone might suggest that the endless stream of bad news is killing people.

Clickbait is deadly.

*Humourous book note: In our first novel, Dave is compared favourably to Daniel Craig emerging from the sea in a Bond film. I did not write that bit. I might have suggested we didn’t need quite so much detail in the description.

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The Hidden Army

Image result for working from bedroom

Candice: Six months ago on this date we were told that the UK was to be locked down. A lot has happened in that time.

I’ve been reading a lot of reports in the news about how the economy is struggling, the number of people unemployed, generally how this pandemic isn’t really doing great things for the world of work.

Behind all of this are the people who are working away from spare rooms, kitchen tables, lounges, and probably toilets if they need to. People who are suffering from bad backs, eye strain, migraines from working in unsuitable conditions. Those who have to deal on a daily basis with frustration, loneliness, tears, and anger both from themselves and their colleagues.

I call them ‘The Hidden Army’. I’m one of them, as I have been fortunate enough to have been still in a job through the last six months. We don’t get a clap every Thursday night, or often get mentioned in the news. Everyone is too busy talking about how students are coping without socialising in their first term, or what job they will get when they graduate. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t envy those who don’t have a job and I sympathise with those working in the NHS. But there are a large group of people out there who are working hard to keep the economy going and are largely going unnoticed.

So this is my post for them, 40% of the population according to the Sunday Times, who have been working remotely for all this time, and don’t always enjoy it. Those of us who get fed up with looking at the same four walls every day, who miss interacting with their colleagues over the watercooler rather than by Teams, who find that some days they are frustrated or angry for no reason at all and often take it out on those same colleagues.

So I’m going to clap to my fellow workers and share some of my tips for keeping sane. Exercise is number one – talking a walk, going for a run, going to the gym, anything to clear my mind and get rid of the anger.

Talking to people – some times I don’t want to but the times I have I’ve always felt better. Its all about finding the right person to talk to, and not just talking about work or Covid 19.

Take some time for yourself – even a trip to the shops for 20 mins is a chance to remember what normality is and to escape the house, your partner/child/cat.

Keep firing up that laptop and slogging away. And when you look at that picture of the far-flung beach on your desktop just remember that our time will come. In the meantime take the time to explore the UK, take breaks when you can and look after number one.

 

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Hit the road with Rosie Lewis. And her big, pink, tea van.

Phil: Some light and fluffy reading from me. I love tea. I love campervans. More importantly, the cover design tells me nothing horrible is going to happen, and right now, that’s what I need from a book.

Things don’t start well for Rosie Lewis. A workaholic chef, the book opens with her husband running off with a younger woman. In the tight-knit world of posh London restaurants (the ones with menus, cutlery and a dress code, not the sort I frequent) is the last to know about this, and decides, in a moment of red-wine induced madness, to chuck it all in and hit the road with a mobile tea shop.

She joins the festival circuit, meets people, re-assesses her life, blends a lot of tea and finds a bloke. Some mildly bad things happen, but in the end, it’s all OK. As I say, this is just the sort of book I need right now.

It all sounds like a nice life and I’m sure there are plenty of people who will idly dream of chucking in the 9 to 5 grind to sell dreamcatchers and spiritual rocks. Then realise that it’s cold in the winter, some idea how to fix your van is a good idea and when it rains, you’ll be living in mud.

As I say, I enjoyed the read, but, a few aspects bothered me:

How did Rosie get so drunk she forgot she had bought a pink campervan the night before. OK, an ill-advised eBay purchase I can understand, but she negotiated with the seller over the price and delivery, then drunk enough to wipe her memory?

Campervans aren’t massive, even the big ones, yet as well as the sleeping area, toilet and shower, Rosie seems to have a pretty well-appointed kitchen in her van. And a deck out the back. Come on, I’ve been in a van that is home to a funfair owner and even that didn’t have its own deck.

When did the Internet lose its capital I? The nerd in me wants to point out that they were really referring to the World Wide Web most of the time, but we’ll let that go as I can hear Candice rolling her eyes.

Never mind, that’s really not the point. This is all about dreams and finding yourself by taking a sharp left in your life. I’ll just re-read the bits featuring cake and enjoy my own dreams.

 

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New shoots?

Conkers

Phil: Over a decade and a half ago, I planted a conker. There had been a big storm and many trees had been lost, so I did my bit to rectify matters.

This year, the tree that came up has delivered it’s latest batch of horse chestnuts, and I’ve planted a few of them to see if I can make more trees.

A few years after my green-fingered activities, another seed was planted. This time it was an idea and the fertile minds it germinated in were those of Candice and myself. From this, we grew two excellent books with a third starting to push its shoots up through the earth.

Anyway, autumn has arrived along with the arrival of conkers, our thoughts turn back to tending our next novel. Neither of us has made a secret that we’ve found 2020 especially hard. In lockdown we’ve manged next to no creative writing. Some people might have found their muse, I know all I’ve found is confusion.

We both feel hemmed in. At least my friend has managed to escape for a break followed by a pleasant staycation. I’ve either been really good and stayed put as we have been exhorted to, or rubbish and not taken the opportunities the relaxation of lockdown has allowed. While I don’t worry about “proper” holidays, sometimes I like to just get on a train and go out for the day staring out of the window and reading a book. Months of stern government instructions that public transport means death has dampened my enthusiasm for this to the extent that I don’t know if I’ll ever do it again.

Everything is weird, and listening to the news, I suspect it’s just going to get weirder for a while.

But I don’t want to send Book 3 to the literary compost heap. I care, we both care, about our characters almost like they are real people. Kate and Dave deserve a happy ending and the only way that happens is if we get our acts together and write it for them.

Anyway, as work precludes cake and a chat, we’ll just do the chat thing via video at the end of the week. There will be grumbling about some things and laughing about others. Hopefully a little of the magic banter we enjoy will come back. With a bit of luck, we’ll bully each other into getting on with writing and suitably fertilised, the little shoot will grow into a big, strong book.

Talking of books, I’ve finally ordered a couple of copies of our existing novels in their newly tidied up Amazon paperback format.

They look great – why not make our day and order both Kate vs the Dirtboffins and Kate vs the Navy – you need cheering up, let us do it!

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I miss the beach

Beautiful beaches local to Brean Sands in sunny Somerset.
Brean Sands

Candice: In America, Labor Day is the ‘last day of the summer’. This year it falls on the 7th September. Its the day when they say you shouldn’t wear white anymore (jeans particularly) as the autumn is coming and its time to pack those things away.

Well in England we start thinking about Autumn as soon as the children go back to school. That started yesterday and continues for the next week. The morning rush to get dressed begins and we’ll all start complaining about how busy the roads are and the traffic jams in the morning.

Well this year it is going to be different, as the children are going back but the parents mostly aren’t. I’ve yet to be given a date for when to return to the office, though they have just published a video on our intranet about what it might look like. I won’t be bothering with lipstick as its facemasks all the way.

Though I am looking forward to the routine of school drop off and then starting work, I am not looking forward to the downhill route to Christmas. The little person is already planning her list but I just see short days and cold for six months. And a long time until another holiday or trip to the beach.

I love my holidays (as you know) but the main thing I love is the beach. I like to dip my toes in the sea, build sandcastles, go rock pooling…all the stuff that a trip to the coast brings. The trouble is from here the nearest beach is two hours away. We’ve just come back from a trip to Devon and I was determined to get my seaside hit, even though it was mainly raining. We managed one dry day on the beach and we got to do all of the above, with one very happy six year old. Tip of the trip – take a windbreak. Outside windbreak – minus 10, inside windbreak – 25 degrees!

I came back and started looking at how much buying a holiday home down there costs (more than you think). I definitely need to retire to the coast!

I’m keeping my eye’s peeled on what is going on so I can have another holiday, though I think the fact we have been abroad this year already means we have probably already had our holiday luck. Time to get out the thermals, but perhaps this time for bracing walks along the beach.

Perhaps time to find a quiet corner, laptop and hot chocolate and make it good book writing time instead?

 

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Meet me at Pebble Beach by Bella Osborne.

Meet Me at Pebble Beach

Candice: I was very lucky recently to be able to escape the confines of the UK and travel abroad. It was not without its dramas, up to 48 hours before flying we were going to Spain but then it was all change and we managed to book to go to Rhodes. I don’t think I slept properly for two nights wondering what we were going to go.

Now to some it might seem silly but I had got to the point I really needed a break from the monotony of getting up, logging on to my computer in the other bedroom and then logging off at the end of the day. The odd walk around the block, bike ride and now trip to the gym is not enough for me. And I’d got to the point I REALLY needed a proper break as I was getting arsey with people.

With travel and pool holidays comes book reading. Again with COVID my usual route of picking up some stuff from the local second-hand bookseller had gone out of the window. So I decided to buy some books from Amazon based on some names I knew and their advice. I also bought some paper and some digital as, for once, I wouldn’t be raiding the hotel library either.

I’ve got a selection of things to review from the break, some good, some not so good. I’m starting with ‘Meet me at Pebble Beach’ only because it really annoyed me.

The book itself is fine, it follows Regan; a girl who is all over the place in her life, hates her job, doesn’t have enough money, someone who really grates on me to start. A work colleague tricks her into thinking she has won the lottery and that starts the ball rolling on her eventually sorting out her life. She gives up her job, starts her own business and then finds herself along the way. The story trips along, though you can tell in places that it was written as a four-part series as there are a few extraneous storylines that would fill out a serial but are too much in a book.

The book is set in Brighton and, without giving too much away, it all sorts its self out in the end. But the thing that annoyed me – the title. At no point does she or anyone else say ‘meet me pebble beach’ , they go to the beach over the course of the story but it isn’t central to the book. I kept waiting for something to happen related to the beach, and it didn’t. I might not be a perfectionist but this really bugged me, especially as the cover featured beach huts which also don’t feature in the story. It was like the person who created the cover had not read the book, or the synopsis.

This distracted from the book as I was waiting for the scene at Pebble Beach to happen as I expected it to be central to the book. I didn’t and I felt deflated at the end. A lesson to us all – the book cover is as important as the content.

 

 

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Publishing on Amazon, here are a few things to remember


Phil: I spent quite a lot of last week swearing at my computer. It was not fun.

We use Amazon to publish both of our excellent books, and when we received the proof copies of the latest version of Kate vs the Dirtboffins, they were bigger than Kate vs the Navy.

While Mrs Picky was at it, she pointed out that the text on KvN was a bit small and dense on the page.

There was nothing actually wrong with either book, they just weren’t the same as each other. Told to go away and do something about it, I learned a few lessons on the way:

  • Preparation is everything. Decide how big you want your paperback, and stick to this. You can’t change once the book is published. I suggest comparing the options to a few paperbacks you have lying around.
  • While said paperback is in your hand, measure the margins.
  • Count the number of lines on the page. Most seem to have 32-36. Navy had over 40.
  • Set up your manuscript in Word (OpenOffice broke our text) and make sure the page size and margins are set to the size you will be published in. Yes, you can upload something different and let the Amazon machine do its thang, but it won’t do a great job. It doesn’t exactly replicate your layout even if the margins are right, so you certainly can’t trust it to do all the work.
  • Word is also a pain. Just because you have told it that the default for a paragraph includes an indent on the first line, don’t think it will bother applying this to all paragraphs, not when it can randomly leave some out. Check every page.
  • Be prepared to mess with your cover. If your page count increases, the spine needs to get wider. Our designer, Zoe, was brilliant and kept sorting out revisions for me as we found the system that only works in inches (why?) kept throwing up tiny errors.
  • Allow lots of time. This stuff matters and you are likely to need to walk away from it a few times to calm down or have a drink.
  • Proof the thing using the Amazon viewer. I needed to tweak our text to avoid odd-looking pages. We use asterisks to denote changes of scene, but a lone * at the top or bottom of a page just looks wrong.

All this is horrible, but a necessary evil if you don’t want to shell out £600 for someone to typeset the thing for you. I’ll admit that in the depths of despair, I did contact a company who would do this sort of thing, then baulked at the cost and time this would take. I’d promised to sort everything out by the time madame came back from holiday. I didn’t quite make it as the system uploaded our cover twice in the previewer and I had to wait for technical support to sort it out. Fortunately, she took a couple of days to recover from being back byt which time I could claim victory in my battle againast the forces of publishing.

The really worst bit?

Our precious reviews haven’t moved across to the new version of Dirtboffins. I still need to look at this, but as Amazon considers it a new book (because I changed the size) this isn’t likely to be possible.

Next time, I’m sure this will be a whole lot easier. So, dear reader, learn some lessons from my woes. You thought that the writing was the difficult bit…

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