Category Archives: Writing

Can YOU judge a book by its cover?

 

Candice: I spotted the following quiz on the BBC website the other day asking if you can judge which book it is just by the cover?

So I did the quiz and got 6 out of 10. Not too bad I thought, but I did think some of the comments and descriptions were interesting. A lot of the covers seemed to have been revamped into a very stylised look which, to me, didn’t really reflect the content. And the descriptions attached to them were more like you would see in an art review – ‘peacock feathers representing pride’. Um, do they?

I like a simple title and cover that does what it says on the tin. I’ve written before about how, if the title or cover doesn’t reflect the inside then I get annoyed. I suppose it’s because I’ve taken the time to pick up this item and then I’m settling down to read it, I want it to be right, not sit there and go ‘this is awful, I need to find something else’.

As you will know if you follow this blog regularly, Phil and I have been through a few iterations of book covers. Certainly ‘Kate vs the Dirtboffins’ is on cover 3 as we have changed our style and view over the years as we have looked at who is reading it.

This is true of one of the biggest selling book series around, Harry Potter. When it first came out it was labelled a children’s book and so the covers showed that, then they realised that it was being read by adults too and so there were two versions floating around – Adult and child.

They say ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’, but we all do. I just like my covers to be simple and clear so I can get on with enjoying the reading.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Candice, Writing

I’m living in a computer game

 

Phil: I’ve never been properly into computer games. Truth is, I don’t have the reflexes, nor the enthusiasm for killing things for first-person shooters, and can’t be bothered to spend hours getting involved with the more complex ones.

Many years ago, I did quite enjoy a game on my ZX Spectrum called Tir Na Nog. Cast in the role of Cuchulainn, you are required to mooch around the afterlife in an effort to reunite the pieces of the Seal of Calum.

Basically, you wandered around in what was, for the time, a very impressive graphical environment. Your character moved fluidly, the background scrolled and it was all very nice. I never got into the purpose of the adventure, instead, finding my own amusement.

By pacing out the complex road system, and filling these in on a massive sheet of graph paper, I was able to draw up a very accurate map. This satisfied me enormously, and I didn’t even mind when similar maps appeared in computer magazines. I had done it and they just proved I was right.

Those days of pacing a digital road system came back to me every time I go for a stroll. I’ve become very familiar with the roads and pathways near where I live. Thanks to not being allowed to go anywhere interesting for nine months, the challenge has been to create a bit of variety in my routes. While walks are lovely, the scenery is a bit monotonous now.

It’s a bit like my computerised wandering, except without having to spend seven minutes loading your walk from a cassette. Every slightly different side-road becomes an adventure. Gradually, I am building a mind map (I’m not using the graph paper, human strides not being as consistent as computer ones, anyway, I have Google maps) of even the more complex housing estates nearby. There isn’t really any point in this other than taking me away from staring at a computer screen, but then there isn’t really much point in anything nowadays.

Maybe I just need to be grateful that life is a bit Tir Na Nog rather than Space Invaders!

Leave a comment

Filed under Phil, Writing

Here we go again

Image result for autumn leaves

Candice: I’m a little at sixes and sevens this week. After an enjoyable week off work and time hanging out with family – flying kites, building sandcastles – something that felt almost normal, we are back to going into another lockdown.

And it’s not something I am looking forward to. I’ve got my head around the working from home again until Spring next year, it is what it is and, to be honest, I’m not sure how I going to feel when I have to get into a car to commute again. But the thought of not being able to socialise with family and friends have got me down. Each time the rules change you find a new way to cope, ‘Ok so you can’t come in but let’s sit in the garden, Ok not in the garden but we can meet in the park,’ and now we can’t really meet at all.

I’ve gone Christmas buying mad as I don’t want the little person to miss out. I think we have most of Smyth’s Toys hidden in the house. This makes me happier as she’s been writing her list since August so I’d be sad if she didn’t get some of what she asked for (though she’d not getting all of it, it’s a long list). We’d just booked a trip to see Santa too but I’m not sure if that is going to happen.

What I haven’t done it stockpile loo roll, something I believe is happening again. We’ve got enough to last a few weeks so I’ll wait for the madness to die down, though I’ve just had an email from Asda about our delivery this week to say they don’t have any eggs. Come on people, they aren’t closing the food shops.

Last night I started to think about how I get through this next month. With no gym to go to, I’m dusting off the spin bike and looking at the online classes my gym are offering. Planning to go for a walk in my lunch break when its light, not when it’s dark. And then meeting up with one friend when I can. Phil – meet you in the park soon, we can kick some leaves around!

and P.S. I will be diving into some books for some great escapism.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Candice, Writing

The Little Cottage in Lantern Square

Hannah went from high flyer in the city to the business owner and has never looked back. In the cosy Cotswold village of Butterbury she runs Tied up with String, sending handmade gifts and care packages across the miles, as well as delivering them to people she thinks need them the most.

Phil: I’ve just had a revelation. Literally, as I searched for the bit of blurb above, I also found this:

The Little Cottage in Lantern Square is the collected Lantern Square novellas.

NOW it makes sense.

You see, while this is a pleasant, undemanding read, there were a couple of niggles.

The first is my usual financial concern. Houses on the green in a Cotswold village are going to be painfully expensive. They are not where you end up when looking for somewhere cheap to live because your entire income is based on sending luxury care packages out in the post. They are also not where you live when running a business that will need large quantities of products to go in said packages, not to mention the masses of wrapping and packing consumables. What you want is a barn, not the cottage dining room.

Mind you, Hannah, our lead character, did work in accountancy in “the city” for a while and therefore we assume she earned a mahoosive amount of money to fund this. We assume that anyway because we’re going to need to suspend belief. Am I the only person who thinks like this? I keep reading books where the numbers (to me) don’t add up.

“Stop being so nerdy” I hear you cry, “It’s fiction. Let it go.”

Fair enough, it was only a niggle. The bigger issue, but one explained when we realise this is a collection of novellas, is that there are cliff-hangers through the book that are almost immediately resolved at the start of the next chapter.

Often they take the form of us being told that HANNAH HAS A SECRET. Yes, we are told she has several, but not told what each is until later. One early SECRET is divulged to another character, and we aren’t in on the conversation. This is annoying, to me at least.

All of this doesn’t change the fact that I liked Hannah. She is, in chick-lit terms, a real person. She has a believable backstory, once we get to find out about it. She works too hard. She has doubts. She does nice, and believable things. Most of the time, when I read this sort of thing, I want to shout at our lead on occasion, but not this time.

OK, the supporting cast could be from an episode of Midsommer Murders, by which I mean they are a bit cartoony slotting neatly into various stereotypes, but that doesn’t matter. If you want gritty drama, then this isn’t the book for you. If this was TV it would be a warm Sunday evening drama. Perfect soothing reading.

Leave a comment

Filed under Phil, Writing

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Candice, Writing

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Phil, Writing

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Phil, Writing

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Phil, Writing

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.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Candice, Writing

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.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Books, Phil, Writing