Category Archives: Writing

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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Sally Parker’s not my mum, and I’m relieved

Sally Parker is struggling to find the hero inside herself.
All she wants to do is lie down.
Her husband Frank has lost his business, their home and their savings, in one fell swoop. Their bank cards are being declined. The children have gone feral. And now the bailiffs are at the door.
What does an ordinary woman do when the bottom falls out?
Sally Parker is about to surprise everybody.
Most of all herself.

Phil: I like Mel Giedroyc. She’s very funny on the telly.

But if this is typical of her literary output, please, please don’t let her near a keyboard.

Sally Parker (no relation) is one of those ladies who lunch. Her husband, a hedge fund manager, pays all the bills. She lives in a gilded cage with staff she doesn’t like, who do all the work. The three kids and one niece, are all nightmare spoilt brats. Her skills are being born pretty.

We know all this by reading the interminable build-up. If you want to know how the other half lives, then you’ll love it. I was bored.

Then it all starts to fall apart. Slowly. There is a financial crash. Husband Frank develops narcolepsy and keeps falling asleep. They lose the house and move through a series of improbable situations to keep a roof over their heads.

Eventually, we end up in Wales at the bedside of a dying aunt – for no reason I could entirely fathom. There, after a bit of trans-misogyny that might have provided a much stronger plotline, everyone ends up standing in a room.

This might work if there was a single character you cared about. But there isn’t. If the who lot had been killed on page two, I’d not have missed them.

It’s tempting to pull out problems, but that’s just going to turn into a rant. We could mention Sally’s good friend Janice who it is made clear, silently fancies Sally and pretty much saves the day without a hint of thanks. Or the wonky timeline where, as everyone individually rushes to Wales, sees Sally suddenly decide to take a days’ employment mucking out at a stable. Or Mikey, the business-minded child constantly being told to shut up when she tries to offer cash to help dig the family out of a whole. I could go on.

In theory, the idea that Frank started out tarmacing as a boy, and ended up by dint of his hard work, a successful fund manager, ought to be interesting – but it just happened. You would have thought that as Sally was party to this from the start, she would be involved and feel part of it. Nope.

The trans story (Warning: Spoiler) that is largely ignored is that Frank’s dad, who he idolised, changed sex but his parents stayed together. That might have provided a thrust for his actions, but we find out about all this in the last chapter.

While not the worst celebrity novel out there (Hello Celia Imrie), it’s a book that would have benefitted from being written by a nobody and then beaten into shape with the help of an editor. Someone who would have picked up the pace in the first half (“one fell swoop” takes half the book), ditched the unnecessary narcolepsy storyline, and the pointless stuff about the doctor which doesn’t do anything for the plot. The deeper issues might have been turned up – the trans stuff and also the aunt they all rush to visit by the end. All the stuff about Frank’s business partner having repeated breakdowns seemed both odd and tasteless too.

Maybe, part of the problem is that I don’t live in this world. I don’t even come into contact with it. If I and my friends lived the ladies who lunch life, then I’d identify with more than just the surname of the lead characters.

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The Element of Surprise

Wonder Woman (2017 film).jpg

Candice: I had an interesting lunch time walk yesterday. After spending the morning trying to copywrite 20 letters, I felt I needed a break from the laptop and a turn round the block.

Now, I have become very familiar with said block over the last year. When I leave the house it actually becomes ‘which route can we go today without going slightly mad at seeing the same things over and over again?’. I mentally picked my route and set off, a little chilled as the temperature has really dropped over the last few days.

I’m just coming to end of the route and there are some roadworks. They are laying new broadband cable for someone, in fact they have been doing it for over a week and its been a bit of a pain. Thank gawd that at the moment my only commute is the odd trip to school, in the opposite direction.

I watch this black Honda Civic do a three point turn in the road and pull up. I’m thinking they must live in one of the houses and can’t get on the drive due to the work. I then spot one of the occupants get out, hood over his head as he sidles round the side of an unoccupied open back truck, with road digging equipment on the back. Next thing I know he is lifting off one of the pieces of kit.

At this point I jump into action as I realise what is going on. I’ve got my phone in my pocket so I get it out to take photos. I can’t get the attention of the workmen as they are too far away, and its too noisy.

Of course I can’t unlock my photo quickly as I am fumbling around. By this point the driver must have spotted me as the next think I know the Civic is burning off up a side round, passenger hiding in his seat while the Driver has his hand up to obscure his face as he drives past. I’ve managed to get off one photo with the reg of the car.

I don’t know if they grabbed something or not, so run down to the workmen to warn them something might have been nicked. Luckily their kit is chained down on the back of the truck so nothing was taken.

After many thanks from them I walk home, still shell shocked from what happened.

It all happened so quickly, I’m still amazed I managed to register what was going on. If I had been in a car I never would have done, or looking at my phone which is what most people do all day. According to my friends, I am now ‘Wonder Woman’. I’ll take that.

Good books all rely on the element of surprise to keep us engaged and get the adrenaline flowing. A twist, a death, anything to make the reader go ‘Oh’, and then they want to read on to see what happens next. Life can be boring at the moment, so see what you can find – if it’s a crop of bluebells, a text message to an old friend who you haven’t spoken to in a while – to help keep up your ‘element’ of surprise and keep the day fresh. I wouldn’t recommend a robbery every day though!

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Sweet Sweet Revenge Ltd

Phil: Some stories require the reader to suspend their disbelief to enjoy them. Sweet Sweet Revenge Ltd by Jonas Jonasson asks you to put your disbelief in a bag, take it down to the bottom of the garden and bury it.

Full of mad ideas and improbable coincidences, the story doesn’t make sense if you insist on being Mr Literal when reading. You will find the idea of a Swedish Nazi art dealer abandoning his illegitimate son in the desert to be eaten by lions a touch improbable.

You’ll also be stuck when the son doesn’t get eaten by lions, instead, being brought up by a Maasai medicine man. And when the son runs back to Sweden, his adoptive dad decides to track him down. All of this while we have a couple of fake (or not) paintings and an advertising executive helping people take revenge on others.

It is mad. And I thoroughly enjoyed it.

In style, the book has a lot in common with the work of Tom Sharpe. Perhaps less dodgy sex (although the dealer does become known as “goat-sex man” for various reasons not involving sex with goats) and violence, but still that craziness where the rules of the real world don’t really apply. Or at least, not in the way we expect them too.

There is a lot of plot in these pages too. Most books would be happy with about half as much, but in this respect, it’s like a very filling meal which is so tasty that you can’t help eating a little more than you really should.

If you like absurd stories, then try it.

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All the Lonely People by Mike Gayle

All The Lonely People: From the Richard and Judy bestselling author of Half  a World Away comes a warm, life-affirming story – the perfect read for  these times eBook: Gayle, Mike: Amazon.co.uk:

Candice: I’ve read a few Mike Gayle books over the years. I’m not sure how I originally came across him, but he hails from our local area (Birmingham) so I always like to give a Brummie some support.

Phil sent this one over a few weeks again in one of his reading parcels (the only way we have been keeping each other sane during lockdown) and I’d waited to start it as I wasn’t sure about the title, it sounded too sad.

The story follows Hubert Bird, a Jamaican who came to the UK in the 1950s looking for work. Cutting between present and past it tells the story of Hubert landing in the country and finding that the streets weren’t paved with gold, and the locals weren’t friendly to a man with black skin.

He is rescued by Joyce, a fellow worker at the department store he ends up at. She is white, and they forge on through the years facing up to the prejudice. But, it also tells the story of the present, where Hubert is now on his own, Joyce dead and the children grown up and left home. He has lost touch with the friends who emigrated at the same time as him and now spending his days pottering, and having the odd phone call with his daughter who now lives in Australia.

In walks Ashleigh, local newbie looking to make some friends, and an unlikely friendship is created between this bubbly twenty something year old single mum and the eighty year old Hubert. It brings him out of the place he has been hiding and makes him realise he is actually very lonely.

Together they create a ‘Campaign for loneliness’ in the local area which gets picked up by the national press, Hubert the reluctant star.

As with all stories this would be too cut and dried if all was as it seemed, I won’t give the twist away but it’s a good one.

With everything happening at the moment I thought this story added a different view on what has been happening to people during the pandemic, even though it wasn’t specifically about it. We’ve all got lonely, sitting at home on our zoom calls, telling stories to everyone about how great things are. We all need to go and say hi to a neighbour, reconnect with an old friend, chat to the person at the local food shop, as we are missing out on what makes us human: being sociable and interacting with others. This week, of course, some have been partaking in a pint as soon as they can but to me its not about the pub, its about the people. And I have missed the people a lot in the last year.

This is a lovely story that doesn’t challenge but is a light read where you want to know what happens to Hubert and his friends. I came to the end with a smile on my face.

Don’t be lonely, people.

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