Category Archives: Books

Tackling the reading pile – library to the rescue!

The book pile

Phil: My slightly unconventional job often leaves me feeling I’m keeping lots of plates spinning at once. Sometimes this is energising, sometimes I need to get my head somewhere else for a little break. Reading a book is great for this, but it has to be the right book.

My reading pile is growing, but nothing grabs me as the perfect candidate. Watling Street, The Seabird’s Cry and Prisoners of Geography have all come my way via my family and I’m assured they are excellent reads. From the enthusiastic descriptions and a quick look at the blub on the back of the cover, I think this is probably right. The only trouble is, they are fact-filled books. Don’t get me wrong, I love learning stuff and if it’s well written, I’m a happy man, but, pummelling my brain with new knowledge isn’t what I needright now.

Candice passed me The 50:50 killer. The cover design tells me it’s not chick-lit, something confirmed by the synopsis on the jacket.  It’s one of those gruesome Police procedurals that she loves. Hopefully, it’s not one of the really gruesome ones. I suspect she thinks I’m a little bit of a wuss as I avoid those. After the last one I decided we should only meet in public places…

Anyway, there’s nothing on the pile that will do the job, so while strolling back from the Post Office yesterday, I dropped into our local library and grabbed something random from the new books shelf. A Brush with Death looks like a light whodunnit without a hint of blood or gore. The main character is a typically English amateur detective who paints for a living. Pets mostly, so we are on safe ground I think.

Reading the first few chapters, I’m safe enough. It won’t be groundbreaking but I get to disappear into another world for a few minutes, which is exactly what I need.

All this relates to our continuing literary efforts. We have firmly pitched the Kate vs series as pleasant reads. There’s a little bit of bite, but both books, and the third instalment due next year, will work well on a sun lounger beside a pool. Candice will be happy to demonstrate if required!

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To the moon! (and back again)

Phil: I was reminded that a review of Andrew Smith’s book Moon Dust was overdue while sitting in a nearly empty cinema (10am showings are great if you want it quiet) waiting First Man* to begin. The thought almost persuaded me not to open my cinema treat packet of Maltesers.

The book charts Smith’s efforts to track down and talk to every man who has walked on the moon and see how the experience affected them.

We’re only talking about 9 people, 3 have already passed on, but the quest takes the author all over the world. I was fascinated by this – how did he fund his travels? I get the feeling that it was a side project to other work, but still…

Walking on another planet is, let’s face it, the most exciting and impressive thing anyone can ever do. There are many years of build-up, some terror as you sit on top of a bomb that will fire you into space and a huge job list from NASA once you arrive. All the time knowing that every single component in your equipment has been chosen because the person building it tendered the lowest price. You rely on a machine so complex that even if the  agency achieves it’s 99.9% success rate, several hundred parts will fail. There’s no intergalactic RAC to come and rescue you either!

Once you’ve splashed down, been hauled out of the sea and returned home, what do you do next?

The astronauts’ answers to this are fascinating. Some stay in the system fighting to get man back out into space and back to the moon or even Mars.

Others drop out and start painting as a way to try to make sense of the experience they have been through. Alan Bean cleverly includes dust from his space suit badge in his paints so everyone buying a picture owns a little bit of the moon. This doesn’t appear to be a cynical marketing ploy, more a way to convey the experience.

Along the way, there are insights into the world of the Apollo programme. Astronauts weren’t that well paid. They didn’t receive media training, even though they would become some of the most famous people on the planet. Wives were expected to be part of the show, but not get in the way. Space bases aren’t situated in bustling towns and Cape Canaveral was basically a swamp when they all first moved there.

This is a portrait of a very different world from the one today. It’s all history and not even recent history. Apollo was a bubble of optimism where the US, while bogged down in the Vietnam war, offered a chunk of the future. Kids who had grown up on science fiction thought they were seeing the first days of something great, little realising that a couple of missions in, the public would be so bored of the whole thing that the TV networks couldn’t be bothered to show landing live.

An enjoyable read, it probably helps if you are a little bit geeky and love space things as the author experiences the wide-eyed wonder of meeting his heroes. Some turn out to have feet of clay, but most are still clad in moondust.

*Review: Armstong is taciturn.

 

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It’s like the Da Vinci code – but funny!

Phil: A few years ago, Jonas Jonasson scored a hit with his book The hundred year old man who fell out of a window and disappeared. Now the lead character, Alan Karlsson is back.

In the first book, much of the action was played in flashback with stories telling how Karlsson had travelled the world, largely by accident, meeting pretty much every famous person over his lifetime. He stumbled into situations, often altering the world without really meaning to.

This might remind you of the film Forest Gump, Forest always being in shot during pivotal moments in history.

It all reminded me more of the Da Vinci code. Turn the page and the plot has summoned up yet another famous face to move things along. Over 100 years, Alan had certainly got around a bit and the idea of slamming all these notable names into one story was fun.

However, the new book takes place over a much shorter time, but with no fewer “characters”.

We get to meet Donald Trump, Lim Jong-un, Vladimir Putin and Angela Merkel. To make matters more convincing, real-life history has been employed with Karlsson involved in uranium smuggling while the big players, especially Putin, control the world like a chess game.

Jonasson uses his characters and the story to satirise the world and it sort of works. At the end, everything becomes a little heavy-handed and a bit miserable, but not unrealistically so.  Cynics might suggest this “never planned” second book has appeared because the publishers put their author in an arm lock until he promised to write it, but I’m inclined to believe the introduction where he says there was a lot to say. A bit anyway. Maybe the appearance of a Mercedes catalogue helped too.

The story is full of cliches, unlikely conincidence, and very minor characters who have a very bad time of it. This might be realistic, but people being collateral damage always makes me feel uncomfortable. I know they aren’t real, but I’m stupid this way.

Despite the reservations, it’s a fun read, especially if you pay any attention to the news and can spot the events being satirised.

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Kindle or weight-lifting? The perils of author ego.

Phil: On my reading pile at the moment are Still Me by Jojo Moyes and Make a Killing on Kindle by a shouty American.

Both are good reads and neither has accompanied me on a train, my favourite place to read. Why not?

Because both are stupidly heavy. 1.7kg in total.

Now, I love a proper book as opposed to an e-reader, but looking at these things makes me wonder if I need to change my mind. In electronic form, these would be lighter than a feather. I’d be able to take them anywhere. Reading could be enjoyed wherever I have a few minutes.

Instead, the Kindle book has been sitting around since Candice gave it to me at Christmas. I’m up to chapter 8. It’s not that it’s bad (a bit shouty perhaps) but A4 sized and weighing as much as a large cat, I’m just not willing to lug the thing around.

Still Me was read in 4 chunks at home – the story is engaging enough to make me want to charge through it, but I’d still have rather read it on the train. I’ve passed the book on to the Nolan having warned her to bring a big bag. It’s a good job she’s a bit of a gym bunny.

Why are these things so massive?

The American I understand. It’s all bigger and better from him.

The novel? Publishers or authors ego. “Look at me”, the book shouts from the shelf in the supermarket, “I’m a really luxurious product.” In this day and age, there’s no need for hardbacks. The words would be the same in paper covers. I’m assuming it’s a combination of prestige and I suspect, profitability driving this.

Publisher – please think of your readers! I can’t be the only one put off reading because of the weight of the book, can I?

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Selling books and meeting readers with Pauline Hazelwood

Phil: Last week, Pauline Hazelewood of Saddletank books told us how she goes about writing train-based children’s stories. This time, she moves on to the exciting (for prospective authors) task of selling books and meeting authors. As I said, Pauline has been a memorable presence at a number of exhibitions I’ve attended and gets out and about to meet her readers in a way many authors need to consider if they want to sell copies.

I’ve met you at several railway events, and you list more on your website. How many do you attend and what sort of events do you attend each year?

I thought I’d try to do one a month. I need to see people and find out what they think of the books, but I am a bit swamped with the other work that I do. I like meeting the enthusiasts that go along to the railway events. You meet genuine, kind, interesting people, often very knowledgeable.  I do a few model railway events, some steam fairs and of course my annual trip to Bala Lake Railway, where it all started with the book on Alice.

The kids are very cute and entertaining. It’s a lot of fun with the props that I take along. My model railway and soft sculpture steam engine entertain and draw people in. I often pretend that the model engine is voice activated. The kids will shout ‘GO!”, and ‘STOP’ to the engine while I work the controls out of sight. Sometimes a deluded adult will believe  it too, which is a hilarious.!

This is a lot of effort. Do the sales at an event justify the travel, or are there more reasons to get out there?

I don’t generally travel that far or that often, but this book business has introduced me to some fantastic people and places. Actually on reflection the research part is definitely growing and becoming more exciting.  the sales events are a different thing.

I’ve done quite a few art shows and the camaraderie is part of the fun. You always feel that the circus is back in town. The steam fairs draw a fantastic relaxed bunch of enthusiasts that aren’t  so commercial and are so knowledgeable about history and mechanical engineering. And there’s often a beer tent and music, crafts and so on. I love it. It’s fascinating.

Feedback and meeting the public is great too. I sometimes wonder if it’s worthwhile carrying on with the books and what have I got myself into, but the positive feedback from total strangers amazes me and encourages me to  do more. People actually enjoy reading them to their children, just as I’d hoped. Some kids know the words by heart from some of the books. I re-read one that I was sending out the other day to sort of remind myself what it was like and I liked it.

You’ve built a strong brand with products beyond the books and this extends to your costume on the stand. Was all this planned or did it evolve? Where did the hat come from?

I love dressing up! I think that when I put on an outfit the show is on. You need to stand out a bit from the people buying. I like that steam punk look. Bowler hats are so cute. You know the ladies of Bolivia wear them because the British Railway workers went there to set up the railway. They must have swapped a few favours to get their hands on them. Nowadays they’re actually made in Bolivia.

I’m glad that you think it’s a strong brand. Perhaps that’s just because it’s only me working on it and I  just do what I like all the time. I have some very lucky breaks. The very smart expensive stand that I now use I found in a skip! I can’t believe my luck with that. The display company near my studio was filling a skip with loads of brand new display stuff. I can’t bear to see things not being recycled so I and another mad lady kept climbing in and we filled the boots our cars with all sorts of new things.

This links up with the products in a way, as I’m keen to get everything that I sell, made in Britain. The books, magnets, bags, etc are all made here and there will soon be an eco friendly, british made, non plastic, wonderful little toy engine on sale too!

How important do you feel it is for authors to go out and meet readers?

I suppose it depends on the individual, but I love it. It’s great to meet all the children. I run occasional art classes for kids, it’s good to show them the roughs of the books, so that they can see how a book is developed. and it’s fun chatting with people. I want girls to see that the railways aren’t just for boys, that mechanical engineering is an option and that painting and drawing engines is fun for anyone to do.

I’m  also learning Welsh because I go to Wales each year. I love learning languages and you can download podcasts of Welsh from the ‘say something in Welsh’ website. I already speak Spanish ( my mother is Gibraltarian), and some French, so I enjoy practising with people who can speak those languages.

When I do art demos for  art societies, it’s a performance. I paint a picture and tell funny stories at the same time . I like making people laugh and I like sharing skills and tips, passing on ideas, so it’s very much the same thing.

Thanks for taking the time to answer our questions. Don’t forget, you can find Pauline’s books here.

 

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That’s not a printing error, it’s a plot twist

Phil: Time for me to read a bit of unashamed chick-lit. If you are heading for a sun lounger, the sort of book to pack with the suncream.

The One we fell in Love with centres on Phoebe, Eliza and Rose, identical triplets and the man at least two of them fell in love with – Angus, the hunky next door neighbour.

It’s difficult to tell you much about this book without giving away spoilers. Suffice to say that everyone gets paired up as you would hope.

So far, so normal for the genre. Yes, there is a bit of “will they won’t they” and some angst, but by halfway through the book, you know how everything will turn out.

It’s the middle of the book that threw me. All the chapters end and then on the next page, the next one begins.

Except that at the end of chapter 24, the words stop halfway down the page as normal. You turn over and they carry on again for half a page before chapter 25 starts. Someone has dropped the big twist in and fiddled with the layout to make it more of a shock. I actually thought the printing was duff at first until I read it properly.

This annoyed me a bit.

The preceding chapters hadn’t hinted at a twist and yet I felt they could have done it easily enough. As it is, this seems like a bit of a gimmick. Shame really, as there was no need, the story doesn’t need tricks.

Another issue is that there are an awful lot of diaries being read. Is this a girl thing I’m not really aware off to deposit your innermost thoughts and feelings to the page? Thinking back, Candice did mention hers some time ago

Anyway, a pleasant read. Marrion Keyes was uplifted, but I wasn’t. I was entertained though and there’s nothing wrong with that.

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Blood on the Shrine

Phil: With Candice on holiday, I get to do a book review with a steam engine on the cover and not suffer “the look” that says, “What are you doing Parker? I told you, NO TRAINS.”

To be fair, the book isn’t about trains, but the author, Chris O’Donoghue is a railway modeller among his other skills (also award-winning garden designer) and I met him at a model railway show.

Blood on the Shrine is the second Inspector Sonny Russell mystery. Set in the 1950s, the only connection with railways is that the Inspector lives in a converted railway carriage. This wasn’t so common years ago – you could buy a coach for a fiver and have it delivered to your plot of land. Many were then added to to make domestic dwellings and some still exist to this day.

Justifying the cover photo, the story involves a robbery from a train, but that’s incidental. Back then, trains were far more central to life than they are today, it could just as easily have been a van. We have the police charging around in cars, so nothing will be too unfamiliar to a modern audience but the world is very much just post-war and the atmosphere and detail works well.  There’s been a lot of research carried out before any writing started. Chris isn’t old enough to have known the world except as a small child so he’s not just working from memory.

If you’d like to see some of the reasearch – check out Chris’s Blog.

Not so much a whodunnit, more a will they get killed/captured. The book opens with a death, but oddly, not the most important one.  There’s a secondary storyline which follows the first book in the series, Blood on the Tide, and makes me want to read that one too.

I managed to read most of the story on a return trip to London with a couple of hours to finish the last few chapters. I was engrossed enough not to stare out of the window on the journey, something unusual for me. That’s quite a recommendation!

Blood on the Shrine at Amazon

 

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