Don’t let me down Carol

Img_5414Phil: I like Carol Kirkwood. She’s the nice weatherlady on BBC Breakfast. Always seems cheery, even when giving us bad news. So, when I find she’s written a novel, and it’s in the Parker reading pile, I am worried.

Let’s be honest, I’ve not had the greatest success with celebrity novels. They tend (IMHO) to suffer from insufficient editing. Plotlines that get the chop in anything written by what Jennifer Lopez would term “a civilian” make it to the page because the publisher knows only the name on the cover matters.

My worries aren’t eased by reading a Radio Times interview where Carol admits “I didn’t ever think I would be able to write a novel is the honest truth,” she says. “I was approached about writing a book by a publishing agent. I met with him and he said, ‘Would you like to do it? Do you think you can do it?’ and I said, ‘Well, I don’t know because I’ve never tried.’” – basically, a publisher spotted the chance to make some money by slapping the name of someone popular on the cover. Carol had no burning desire to write, but by dint of being famous was given a publishing deal anyway.

Yes I am jealous.

So, the book – it’s rubbish isn’t it?

No. It’s not. Sorry to disappoint you dear reader.

The plot revolves around actress Shauna Jackson. Early in her life, she enjoyed a magical visit to Greece, complete with some romance with the heir to a multinational shipping empire who for no reason I assumed looked like a young George Michael. Later, she has joined the Hollywood A-List, gets cheated on by her husband who promptly dies, and eventually heads back to Greece.

This is not inciteful. It’s not “proper” literature. What it is, is something to read on the sunlonger. And that job it does very well indeed.

As you bake in the sun, your brain won’t be too challenged, even the big twist is pretty easy to spot as it hoves into view. This doesn’t matter. We like Shauna. We like everyone in fact. Even the cheating husband has a good side – Carol doesn’t really do nasty. There are endless chick-lit style product mentions, most of which were fashion brands and lost on me, but it doesn’t matter.

It’s easy to be snobbish about books like this, but if you don’t like them, don’t read them. The story flows well enough and is enjoyable. If your reading tastes requires your brain to hurt after a few pages, then don’t buy books by famous people. And certainly not the nice lady who does the weather.

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Tea, cake and plotting

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Phil: Here’s a photo we haven’t shown you for a while – the essentials of a NolanParker planning session.

Sat in the sunshine, we discussed Book 3, and how we will manage to finish it. Discussions that were powered by tea and cookies produced by the Nolan’s fair hand. She is so multi-talented!

After a long break, the first job was to read everything and work out where we are. The good news is that the book is a lot further on than I remember it. And, more importantly, it’s pretty good. Loads of funny stuff balanced with some serious plot lines too.

Pondering on how we take things forward, we’ve decided to work on the endings – ‘dings because there are two strands to this novel and we need to wrap them both up. One in particular required much chat at at least 3 cookies each to plan out – but that’s the bit we really enjoy and something I’ve missed while we have been away from writing book stuff.

Now the hard work starts – turning those ideas into words on a page. Watch this space.

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Summer on a Sunny Island – Sue Moorcroft

Summer on a Sunny Island: The uplifting new summer read from the Sunday Times bestseller, guaranteed to make you smile! by [Sue Moorcroft]

Candice: I have to admit I have been rubbish at writing blog posts recently. I have a lot on my mind and it means I get to the end of Wednesday and go – oh bum I’ve forgotten to write my blog post! Phil is very good at not reminding me(telling me off) about it.

But in the middle of all of this I have been reading. Its a great escape from anything that is going on around me.

As part of my trips to the Library I have been exploring other books that I might not have found in the supermarket, and this was one in the ‘quick reads’. Summer on a Sunny Island caught my eye as it was all about holidays – something that I am missing at the moment.

The premise is around Rosa, who splits from her long term boyfriend and decamps to Malta for the summer. She is lucky enough that her mom, a professional chef, grew up there and they can spend the summer crafting her new cookery book while Rosa decides what to do next.

Living upstairs from Rosa and her Mom is Zach, hard working but with a background of getting in trouble, leaving him estranged from his family, particularly his disapproving dad.

With a number of stories crossing over within the book its runs along nicely.

Zach takes a local boy who is getting into trouble under his wing, causing drama.

Dory, Rosa’s mom falls in love, and this causes issues with her ex-husband.

Rosa’s ex-boyfriend causes Rosa all kind of turmoil as his messes her about over their split. This impacts on her trying to decide what she really wants to do with her life.

Zach’s family come back together, and drama ensues with his sisters and his parents.

But the underlying story is that of Zach and Rosa. Its the classic ‘will they wont they’ as they go on not dates, fall out, get confused messages but eventually fall in love. But its nicely done. All the other story lines make for an interesting read and the background of sunny Malta add to the charm.

I enjoyed the thoughts of relaxing a sunlounger or swimming in the sea, even though it will be awhile until I get to do that. So you want a break from home working this is a perfect light read.

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Back in the writing groove

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Phil: It’s been too long. Life has come between us and the writing we love. But that has to change. We need to complete Book 3

Step 1: Remember where we are. We can sort of recall the story, but really, it’s time to re-read everything.

Step 2: Reading on screen is OK, but reading from the page is a lot easier. Eating several ink cartridges and much paper in a domestic printer doesn’t appeal, and we’re working from home so there isn’t an office printer to try to slide many, many page through.

A commercial print shop is another option, but in the past, it’s been an expensive thing to do.

So, to Lulu.com. An hour of messing around rough-formatting the manuscript file, creating a quick cover, and the book is in their print queue. A week later, two copies are in my hands. I’ve allowed larger than normally margins for scribbling, so the result is 2cm thick (I forgot to add page numbers, sorry).

All this for £7 a copy. It feels like a real book. It looks like a real book. Let’s hope it inspires us to finish the project!

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Miss Benson’s Beetles

Phil: Does anyone else look a book up on Amazon and immediately head for the 1 star reviews? I bet I’m not alone in doing this, we all like to see a bit of moaning.

Anyway, for this book, they tell us a lot more about the reviewers than the book itself.

Not yet read books so can’t comment” – well then DON’T!

Packaging ok but book, bought as a gift, was damaged inside and the dust cover was torn. ” – Not really telling us much about the book is it?

This was a good book until it wasn’t. Billed as a friendship saga but ends in heartbreak.” – SPOILER ALERT! Life, even fictional life, isn’t all sunshine and roses.

Anyway, none of that tells us much about Rachel Joyce’s latest story.

It is 1950. In a devastating moment of clarity, Margery Benson abandons her dead-end job and advertises for an assistant to accompany her on an expedition. She is going to travel to the other side of the world to search for a beetle that may or may not exist.
Enid Pretty, in her unlikely pink travel suit, is not the companion Margery had in mind. And yet together they will be drawn into an adventure that will exceed every expectation. They will risk everything, break all the rules, and at the top of a red mountain, discover their best selves.

We are in a very different world to today. Margery is a traditional spinster, with all this suggests. Her life hasn’t been easy. Often overshadowed by a terrible tragedy that takes place right at the start of the novel, she has a lifelong passion for exotic beetles, and suddenly sets out to travel around the world in order to discover a specimen rumoured, but not proven to exist. This is a drab world of rationing and slow recovery from conflict. Somewhere were women got married, had children and did what they were told.

Lone women travelling would be very unusual, so she engages the services of an assistant, who initially turns out to be hopelessly unsuited to the job. Eventually though (this is a story after all) they come to understand and support each other.

In many ways, this is a character study of women in the era. As well as our two heroes, there are ambassadors wives on a remote island who have nothing to do other than find ways to stem their boredom. They live a round of social events and craft sessions, always aware that they were very much second-class citizens – and appendage of their husbands. Along come two apparently independent women and this causes some consternation.

If I’m being honest, while I enjoyed the book, you need to suspend your disbelief and also ignore the extraneous POW character who seems to serve no purpose, even when he comes into his own at the end. I’d have simply edited him out entirely, but it’s not my book.

It’s also worth remembering that the 1950s didn’t offer the same level of information to anyone, especially women. Foreign travel was rare and exotic so ending up in the sort of place beetles are found, was a leap in the dark. Travel was hard, but then the normal world wasn’t short of discomfort either. In many ways, Margery escapes a stifling existence in her own, unconventional way.

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Rediscovering the Library

Candice: Over the last few years I’ve got out of the habit of going to the local library. It’s been too easy to pick up a book from the supermarket or the charity shop, or get one from Phil. However, during lockdown, it has been harder and harder to get hold of physical books so I have had to look at other options.

At one point I tried to set up a share group with the neighbours, but we either didn’t like each others type of book, or they read on a kindle so couldn’t share.

Phil and I have posted books back and forth, but that has still be dependent on what I can get hold of, and I refuse to buy too much from Amazon as I like to support the local stores instead.

But then there was a lightbulb moment in the family the other week. Why not use the Library? It’s particularly relevant as my daughter is reading more and more, and finding the right books for her is also a challenge.

She loved her first trip there, and was very proud of having her new library card. The slight problem is her having picked about seven books up, and only managing to read one in the three weeks she has them, but I am not knocking that excitement!

However, it has also helped me to discover the extensive range at Solihull Library. In fact, I got more lost in the options than she did; quick reads, Richard and Judy reads, murder mystery, chick lit, something completely different. I’m reading something at the moment I would not have picked up in a shop.

The downside is I can’t share them with Phil, but I can at least recommend and he can go and find them in his own library.

There are lots of other things happening at the Library too, there were some children doing craft activities last time we went in so I need to find out how to sign up to them, plus reading groups and summer clubs.

Lockdown has changed a lot of things but also brought other things to the fore that we’d forgotten about – using the local park is one and now using the Library is another. Don’t forget to use yours – its a great, free service and will open you up to lots more things than books.

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We’re 500 miles from comfortable Colganland

Img_4181Phil: When you simply need a book to dip into to relieve the stresses of the real world, then something by Jenny Colgan is a good safe bet. Woman’s Weekly call her “the queen of feel-good” and you don’t mess with them.

Five Hundred Miles from You is classic chick-lit. We have two nurse practitioners who for various reasons need to swop the places they work for three months. Over shared patient notes, they fall in love. You know what’s going to happen from the back cover blurb, and it doesn’t matter. We are here for the journey, not the destination.

What I love about this book is that one of the locations is Kirrinfief in Scotland. Loyal readers will remember the tiny town from Colgan’s previous novels and this adds an interesting twist to the story. Characters who were central to plots in the past suddenly, and quite logically, turn up in the supporting cast here.

If you are in on this, it’s all great fun. For new readers, it makes no difference – but they might be tempted to pick up some older novels and read the back-stories.

Aside from the story telling element, this makes a lot of sense from a writer’s point of view. If you are going to invent an entire town full of characters, why discard them after a single book and start from scratch? If nothing else it saves a lot of work.

Personally, I love the idea that the characters have a life beyond a single story. Nina from The Bookshop on the corner is still dispensing books from her van to as a form of literary medicine. I can imagine that she and the others are still having adventures, and all we need to do to find out more, is open the covers of another Scottish-themed book.

Five Hundred Miles? I enjoyed it. Maybe the culture shock for both characters suddenly finding themselves in either London or Scotland is laid on a bit thick, but them I have travelled north of the border a bit and visited London many times, so perhaps I’m just more familiar with both.

It certainly seems odd to read of an ex-soldier who appears not to have visited the capital before, but then I worked with a lady whose squaddie husband managed to travel by train from Kent to the Midlands, including changing in London, and hadn’t found a single place to eat anywhere along the journey. Or at least that was what she claimed, and at the time, even I worked out that saying “He couldn’t find food in London and yet they let him have guns” wasn’t the most sensible thing…

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A Book Club with a difference

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Candice: As part of the the many initiatives out there to bring us all together while we are apart my work set up a book club. Being of the writing mind I joined immediately, and then gave a plug for the two Nolan Parker books.

Disappointingly neither were on the short list for the first two books we read as a group (I’m still working on that), however we picked ‘The Thursday Murder Club’ by Richard Osman. My sister had already read this and told me it was a good one so I was looking forward to it. And the result, I loved it! It nipped along lightly with twist and turns, and I loved the fact the main characters were all people in an old people’s home, proving that age doesn’t impact on your mind (just your body in a lot of cases).

Book put aside it was time for the first meet of the Book Club. The organiser had sent round some very deep discussion questions and I thought, ‘oh no, this is going to be too highbrow for me’ . But I logged in late to the meeting, due to going to another, and it was all ladies and they were nattering about something completely different!

The call turned into a ‘life, the universe and everything’ discussion. We covered the book, old age, which character we’d want to be, then other books we had read, then work, working from home, and even misogyny and the menopause! It was great because it was like being on a girls night out in the pub, with a book as the starter for the conversation but actually just a really good natter. It almost felt normal, apart from the fact they were on screen on sat around me.

I’m not sure what we are reading next but I’m more looking forward to the chat than the book.

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Bad language

Phil: Listening to a news programme recently where they were discussing something Navy-related, the expert said that the information he had wasn’t “Scuttlebutt”.

Even the landlubbers amongst us would understand that this means his information wasn’t rumour or gossip. According to Wikipedia, it’s the seaborne version of water-cooler gossip.

I’d never heard the phrase before and wish we’d had the chance to use it in Kate vs The Navy.

This got me thinking about other phrases, especially made-up swear words.

I suppose for a sci-fi nerd, the best known is “Smeg” from the TV Series Red Dwarf. It’s never given a meaning in the show, but is a handy non-sweary thing for characters to say. Quite how the advert-free BBC feels about regular mentions of high-end white goods isn’t recorded (I always chuckle when in La Nolan’s kitchen looking at her fridge, but then I’m a bit sad) but whoever came up with the idea is a genius. “Smeg” is perfect, short and slightly aggressive, you really can say it when annoyed.

Sticking with space operas, the other is “Feldergarb” from the original Battlestar Galactica. Swearing in an American kids show was certainly verboten, but you need a phrase for your agitated characters to say and that’s what they came up with. I guess that all the kids picked it up and used the word in the playground (OK, all the nerdy kids) so, like Smeg, it will have entered common usage.

The thing is, does a made-up swear word still count as swearing?

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Time to stop just talking about it

Candice: It’s Mental Health Awareness Week. There is a lot of content about it out there this year as, though it is something that always exists, in the last year mental health issues have hit a lot more people than before. The change that the pandemic has wrought had an impact on us all. And some of us have dealt with it better than others but I think everyone has been touched by loneliness, isolation, just not being able to be around friends or loved ones.

I’m not ashamed to admit it has not been my best year for my own mental health. I am a social bunny and like to be out and about enjoying life. Even the simple things like hanging out having a chat round the coffee machine are something that gives me motivation. Being locked in my house for a year (with the odd break), has not helped me. I missed going to the gym, going out to concerts and just hanging out with my friends.

For the first time in a long time I am going in the office this week. I have no idea what it will be like. I know what the rules around what I have to do in the office are, but actually being in the office and being around people…. well that is a bit of an unknown. I have mixed feelings. I want to socialise but I have got so used to my new lifestyle, logging on in the spare room, walks round the block in the lunch break, no commute, that I am not sure how I feel about this. And I sure I am not the only person thinking this. We’ve all got use to the ‘new normal’ and now reverting to the ‘old normal’ seems just as odd. However, one of the reasons I am going is to help me get back some of that normality.

I’ve got tickets for concerts over the summer, and holidays planned and I need to get back into the idea of being around groups of people, we all do. I’ve been going to the gym and the supermarket but I am sure a lot of people haven’t and have a whole other step to get over around socialising with people.

So what do I really want to say – there is a lot of talk about the impact of the pandemic over the last year but I think just as important is the change to the return to normal. Some people may deal with it better than others. Being aware of the impact on others, not pushing people to do things that they might not want to do, being flexible is just as important.

I watched a TV programme the other week about male suicide. There was one point that stayed with me after the show over all others. “Ask someone if they are ok, then ask them again.” Some times by asking twice they give the true answer, rather than the flip answer that we all give of being fine. I thought that was a really good idea.

So I’m going to ask you, not just during Mental Health Awareness Week but every week, to check on those around you if they are really ok. And if they aren’t then see if you can help or direct them to the places that can – as soon as you can. There is some really good information here. Mental health: Can you tell if someone is struggling? – BBC News

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