Recognising yourself in a book

Phil: Working through the huge piles of books passed on to me from La Nolan earlier this year, I’ve just read Wilde About the Girl by Louise Pentland. Not a book I would have picked up myself, but I really enjoyed it.

The plot concerns a year in the life of Robin Wilde – single mother, makeup artist and generally, pretty much together woman. She’s got a useful collection of friends and relatives. Even the ex-husband isn’t written as a monster or complete incompetent. There is a new bloke on the horizon, but he’s not the main plot strand in that annoying way many chick-lit books seem to manage.

Instead, the focus of Robin’s like is her daughter Lyla. Well, that and work. I don’t think I’ve read anything quite like this – the child is the apple of her mother’s eye, but not the only thing in her life. It’s almost like the author managed to write about real life!

Now, I don’t have kids, but I’ve seen friends lives change as they sprogs arrive on the scene. Pentland doesn’t turn the child into a mobile nightmare, but actually makes you feel that spending time with the youngster is fun. If you aren’t broody before opening the cover, you might be by the end.

One aspect that rang true for me was when a new man came in to Auntie Kath’s life. Kath is the rock Robin relies upon and Lyla loves her. When Colin turns up, even though he makes widowed Kath happy, Layla hates him for replacing her late husband. Eventually, they are reconciled but it reminded me of myself.

When I was very young, we lost my Grandad. Even though we didn’t live close, apparently he and I were very close. A few years later my gran took in a lodger for the company and a little income. He was (as I recall) about the same age as my grandad would have been and apparently, I behaved terribly towards him, presumably thinking he was replacing my grandad (he wasn’t, he was just a lodger unlike Colin in this book). Like Robin, my parents had to find a way to reconcile us, they did it and we were fine after that. I was so young I don’t remember not liking him, but I could see what Lyla was going through.

The book is broken up into several sections, each of many chapters, and they all seem to contain an “incident”. One is terrible, but you wouldn’t know this from the cover or blurb. There, we find the stakes ramped up – unnecessarily in my opinion. This book nips along a decent pace, the characters are all pleasant to know and not too cartoony in most cases (OK, some of the school mums maybe) and there is a bit of pathos too. Colin could just be a cypher, but on a trip to the Lake District, we see into his soul a little, but only a little.

I think this is the middle volume in a Trilogy. To be honest, I don’t feel the need to read the others as this is such a strong standalone story, would they spoil it for me?

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Right book, wrong time?

Phil: Why do we like a particular book?

I’m wondering because I’ve just abandoned Sheila O’Flanagan’s How will I know?

I didn’t even make it to the end of the first chapter. Something about the writing style jarred with me. There’s a lot of description of the main characters day, and to be honest I just got bored.

It must just be me though, as this is (according to the cover) and bestseller.

My thinking is that were I lying on a sun lounger I’d have stuck with it and probably if not enjoyed it, at least passed time pleasantly. As it is, I need to be grabbed by the story fast. There’s too much going on in my head to plough through a book which doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.

This happens all the time of course. If you want a book published, you have to be lucky. The right person has to read your pitch at the right time. If they want vampire books, it’s no good pitching historical romantic fiction. But if they want the new Price and Prejudice, the best book about a blood-sucker in the world won’t get anywhere.

OK, putting your book out everywhere increases the chance of a hit, but there’s still luck involved – which I say to make everyone feel better. How do we know the slush pile that Harry Potter came out of didn’t have another boy wizard further down? And wouldn’t that be annoying?

And imagine the editor reading How will I know? had been in the same frame of mind I am at the moment. They would have been shouting, “Stop describing the contents of your kitchen cupboard!” instead of “Fire up the printing presses, we’ve got a hit on our hands!”

Not every book suits every taste every time. That’s what we keep telling ourselves. That and people who don’t like our books are idiots…

 

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Is it June already?

Phil: How did it become June already?

I’m sure someone has nicked about three months of this year because I’m sure I missed them somewhere along the line…

Looking at the files for Book 3, I see that we’ve not added anything to it since April. That’s pretty poor. Admittedly, we have ideas on a side project that has taken up quite a bit of brain space, but sadly, real life has taken over for both of us and priorities change.

Are we beating ourselves up about it? No.

For a start there is cake. Yummy cake. We still meet up planning to think book and end up chatting instead.

Then we’ve come to the conclusion that writing should be fun. Proper writers describe it as a dreadfully painful exercise, but you know what, that sounds rubbish. Hours of moaning and agony to produce a “worthy” book that people might aspire to read, but never actually bother.

No – the books are to be a dream. We will make progress, but generally when we are enjoying it. This means getting our heads around the idea that we aren’t likely to become best-selling authors, but as the chances of this are very slim unless one of us becomes famous, we might as well accept it and just enjoy the ride. More than can be said of me when I ended up on a child’s spinning teacup roundabout half an hour after eating one of the slices in the photo.

Anyway, I suppose it’s also worth looking back to see how my new years’ resolutions are going.

Do less work – Well, I am getting more efficient at doing work. I’ve figured out that I’m more productive on the computer in the afternoon and evenings, so the non-typing parts of my work are fitted into the morning, something that seems to be working well.

Promise less – Still rubbish at this.

Go out for more walks – This is a bit hit and miss. Some days I hit my “Move Minutes” target on an app on my phone, sometimes not.

Read more books – Big tick. I’ve read a lot of books, but still not fast enough to keep up with the numbers heading my way.

Read fewer magazines, or at least only those that I need to – I’ve stopped taking a few periodicals and buying less of others. I think this is working.

Sleep more – Can’t say this is much different. Maybe a little better, but sometimes much worse.

Basically, 5/10, must try harder all round.

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The Last Hour

Phil: Books make great Christmas presents. Carefully chosen, they tell the recipient that you have thought about them, and yet they are so easy to wrap.

My friend is interested in Roman history and when I spotted The Last Hour by Harry Sidebottom, I thought that a novel set in Rome during the empire would be perfect.

A few months later, it came back to me, enjoyed, but described as “a bit Dan Brown”.

Now I’ve had the chance to read it, I’m not sure about Mr Brown, perhaps a bit Leslie Charteris.

The plot concerns Ballista, a Roman soldier and confidant of the Emperor. He learns that there is a plot to assassinate his friend an hour before sunset the next day. All he has to do is fight his way across Rome and speak to the Emperor.

In the way seems to be most of the official armies and police of the city. It seems the plotters know who he is and have the ability to spread his description almost instantly to their men.

Fortunately, like Charteris’s Saint, Ballista is indestructible. He is beaten, stabbed, slashed, half-drowned and he just keeps on going. OK, his motivation is that with the Emperor out of the way, vengeance will see his wife and family killed, but even so, for 350 pages, he’s either fighting or running. There’s a brief respite among some Christians for a kip, but precious little food. By the fourth chapter, his bloodstream must be 100% adrenalin.

This aside, I enjoyed the descriptions of Rome itself. The author has done his research and we learn a lot about the society – how honour and family matter. The various tensions between different races, the conflict between religions.

The finale at the Colosseum fascinated the engineer in me with descriptions of various trapdoors to lift beasts and prisoners into the arena. Less appealing is the details of how people met their ends in the arena. Sadly, I suspect that entertainment like this would prove just as popular today if it were Saturday evening television.

The story moves at pace, but I found myself getting as tired as Ballista should have been. It’s hard work reading this as you try to follow yet another gruelling punch-up. A fair few people are killed by our hero simply for being in the wrong place at the wrong time and without Roman sensibilities, I found that a bit hard. Realistic maybe, but I’m a bit of a wuss about this sort of thing.

Towards the end, there is a seed of doubt in Ballista’s mind about the Emperor. Power has corrupted and it may be that the man simply isn’t worth saving. Maybe the conspirators are right and he needs to go. That’s the trouble with dictatorships, there’s no easy way to replace the man at the top. Needless to say, the seed falls on fallow ground and there’s never any real option other than to save the man, to protect Ballista’s family.

By the end we see Ballista earning a phyric victory. As a hero of the empire, he’s promptly shipped off to lead the legions, well away from his beloved family. There is obviously a sequel planned, but you’ll need (I suspect) to limber up for more crunching action if you fancy taking it on.

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Read what you don’t know

Hot MessPhil: Authors are told, “Write what you know”, but my latest read is the complete opposite.

I couldn’t be less like Ellie Knight from the book Hot Mess if I tried – and I think that’s a good thing. At least it’s a break from my “normal” life, which I think is pretty much the point of reading.

Ellie is newly single and spends most of the book looking for lurve, or at least shagging her way through Tinder…

You guessed this from the cover, didn’t you? It’s pink. There is a shoe. The writing is a sort of scripty font. This is proper chick-lit. And of course, I didn’t buy it, or dare read it outside the house.

It’s quite fun. For a long while, you are wondering if there is actually a plot, but eventually, things start to tie up and by the end, you feel you’ve been on a journey with the character and had a laugh along the way.

Apparently, London is full of girls for whom this is a documentary, but as I say, that’s not me.

By the end though, there was something annoying me.

The story is told from Ellie’s point of view – but she doesn’t tell us everything. Several times events take place where you would have expected us to know what’s going on, but she “remembers” to tell us a bit of back story all of a sudden. Maybe it’s me, but I felt a little short-changed especially at the end when everything gets tied up.

Don’t get me wrong, this was an enjoyable, and for me, eduactional, read. Perfect for the side of a pool where everyone else is the colour of the cover.

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Be brave at work and take a break

Phil: A couple of weeks ago, Candice wrote about being brave and how her taking a big leap eventually lead to the two of us writing books.

She wasn’t alone in taking a leap like this. Back in 2008, I discovered that I was to gain a new layer of management above me. Quite why this was was a bit of a mystery as the role seemed to be covered by someone higher up the food chain, but I applied for the job and as expected, failed to land it.

In the run-up, I had decided that if I didn’t get it, I wasn’t going to hang around. To be honest, I knew the guy running our department didn’t like me much and I wasn’t doing a very good job at handling this. There is a skill to managing your boss and it’s one I’m pretty hopeless at. My tongue is freer of bite marks than it should be!

Anyway, I decided that I would blow my savings on a “gap year”. We’ve mentioned in the past that I’m rubbish at taking holiday so I felt I was owed some big time and if I wasn’t at work, I felt I could take it. People said I was being brave taking a leap into the unknown, but I had a little confidence, although not as much as I claimed.

Sadly, 8 weeks after I left, the economy fell apart. I decided to bin the holiday idea and try to get back into work.

Now, unlike my friend, I don’t just walk into jobs. I hate the application process as much as I hated revising for exams – presumably why I have rubbish qualifications and once managed to apply for 60 jobs in a year and only get 3 interviews. I did manage to secure a couple of contracts looking after websites and it was at one of these that I met La Nolan. I remember starting and hearing about the mystical “Candice” for a week before she showed up after a holiday. Quite how we ended up chatting I don’t remember, but I’m very glad we did. So, our writing partnership is due to both of us being brave in our careers.

It’s Metal Health Awareness Week at the moment and the news is full of people telling others that they need to talk. With so much of our lives tied up with work, it’s here where the biggest problems can be found. I “escaped” a situation I felt was toxic. It wasn’t easy, and had my personal circumstances been different, might have been impossible. As it was it worked out OK.

Since then, I’ve had to jump again – although this time it was easier. Having a “manager” screaming and swearing at you because she’s been doing something she shouldn’t have been and you’ve risked exposing it makes the jump out of a part-time job a no-brainer. I can’t say there isn’t another leap in my future either.

Those suggesting ways people can help themselves in this situation will bang on about “mindfulness” – basically taking yourself out of your metal situation for a while to allow your brain to relax. This usually involves some chanting or meditation. I prefer to lose myself in my imagination.

Read a book that you enjoy – it doesn’t have to be good, just a page-turner.

Write a book. This doesn’t have to be good either, just somewhere for you to lose yourself devising a story. Both Candice and I have found this useful. Heck, we don’t even have to actually write, just the planning process where we bash ideas around is a joy and definitely a break from “proper” work.

Think of it as mentally freewheeling on a bicycle down a hill compared to puffing along up a hill. The wind is in your hair and you just enjoy the ride for a few precious minutes, recovering your energy for the next stuggle.

 

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One Enchanted Evening

Phil: It’s been mentioned on this blog more than once that celebrity authors wind me up.

I don’t mean authors who are famous for writing, but famous people who suddenly decide to put out a book. The publishers know that all it takes is said famous moniker in embossed letters across the cover and sales will be a dead cert. Even if the “name” doesn’t sell the book on its own, they will be an easy booking for chat shows and into Sunday supplements in the newspapers.

A deal is done, handsome advance paid and off they go.

If you think this is because I am jealous, you’d be dead right. It’s almost arguable that the only way to get a bestseller out nowadays is to be famous for something else and then develop a sideline in writing. Or get someone else to develop it for you.

So, how did I feel when I saw this book from Strictly Come Dancing prancer Anton du Beke hit my reading pile via my Mum and Sainsburys?

I mean come on, he’s the dancer with “personality”. The one normally lumbered with the joke contestant. He did a show about jumping through polystyrene walls.

All of which meant I came to the book willow expectations. To be honest, I was hoping for a “so bad it’s good” moment.

Annoyingly, it’s actually (grits teeth) not bad. Quite readable in fact.

OK, the plot revolves around the Grand Ballroom of the Buckingham hotel in London. The main character is the lead show dancer. You aren’t going to be surprised by this.

But, it’s 1936. The drums of war are starting to play. Oswald Mosely and the Mitford sisters are on the scene. Plenty of people quite like that nice Mr Hitler over in Germany, not least the King and Mrs Simpson. It was the era when Viscount Rothermere was happy to write his infamous piece with the headline “Hurrah for the Blackshirts” in both the Daily Mail and Daily Mirror. There are riots in the East End where the police stand by as fascists try to force out the Jewish population.

The Buckingham is in the middle of this with many of the Nazi-fetishising upper classes meeting there.

It’s also a world of two halves – upstairs and downstairs. Dancer Raymond de Guise straddles both worlds. He comes from one, but has to fit into the other.

This is not the sort of topic you’d expect from the author. Yes, the glitz and dance stuff (he does bang on about this a bit) but the gritty bits? That was a surprise.

It’s a fat book but an involving read. Getting going through the first couple of chapters took effort but once you are, this is a page-turner. In the sense of a good, entertaining read.

The only problem – I’m sure Mr de Guise is supposed to be not unlike Mr du Beke. But the moment I read about his curly, black hair, every time he popped into my mind, all I could see was the man from the Go Compare advert and I’m sure that wasn’t supposed to happen!

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