Tag Archives: book

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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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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Don’t fall down the research rabbit-hole

Phil: Have you ever found yourself on Wikipedia reading up on something and unable to resist clicking on a related link? At the time you tell yourself it’s relevant to the topic, but then there is another link, and another. And another.

You start reading about tractor production in post-war America and half a day later you’re learning about the proclivities of minor German aristocracy in 1830.

It’s addictive, something to do with dopamine in your brain, and the urge to procrastinate while kidding yourself that any education is good. I mean, who doesn’t need to know about flat-roofed pubs for example?

I’ve just finished the enjoyable Funny You Should Ask book by the QI Elves. It’s full of unrelated facts such as what would happen if you tried to dig through the Earth, or what causes deja-vu. If you enjoy odd snippets of information, it’s a good fun read.

The most useful fact in the book isn’t in the main text, but the introduction.

When writing for the quiz, they start with the answer and then craft a question around it. Working the other way around means endlessly researching as they fall down the rabbit-hole (named after the rabbit-hole Alice falls down in Wonderland) finding linked facts when they should be working.

I’m not sure this will help cure my procrastination, but maybe it will do something for you. In the meantime, I need to go a read up on The Auburn and Lidcome Advance. You never know when knowledge of old Australian newspapers will come in handy!

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Without problems, there are no solutions

When Emma opened her gorgeous little chocolate shop in the harbour village of Warkton-by-the-Sea, she realised a lifelong dream. Love is also blossoming with her hunky beau, Max, who’s slowly healing her fragile heart.

A rival sweet shop and killjoy landlord give Emma a headache, and when a face from the past turns up unannounced, Emma finds herself spiralling down memory lane. With Max’s crazy work schedule driving him to distraction, Emma’s in danger of making some choices she might regret . . .

With close friends, spaniel Alfie, and the whole village behind her, can Emma get the chocolate shop and her love life back on track?

Phil: Spoiler Alert. The book does not end with Emma sitting on the steps of the local war memorial, sucking the dregs from a bottle of Diamond While concealed in a plastic bag and watching the shop burn, consuming the bodies of her landlord and Max who had been having an affair.

Nope, it’s happy ending time, pretty much as you would expect from the cover. All the problems are solved, hunky Max is everything she wants him to be and all the bad choices are forgotten.

And relax.

The Nolan and I have been talking about marketing recently. She explained that if you want to sell a product, the first job is to identify a problem the customer has. Then you tell them how you are going to solve it for them. Simple, ut effective.

That’s what the blurb on the back of the book is doing – setting up a load of problems, with the promise that they will all be solved by the time you close the covers. Let’s be honest, we want that happy ending. Life is rubbish enough and books like this are lovely to wallow in, like a warm bath.

Every story needs a conflict at its core. Without this, it’s just words.

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Something bad is on the way

Phil: I’m reading the excellent All the lonely people by Mike Gayle, but as I look at the book right now, a thought hit me.

I’m 2/3rd of the way through, but I know something bad is going to happen.

The story is partly told in flashback, and so we know where the characters are now, and where they were years ago. And not all the characters are in the Now.

So, somewhere in the remaining pages, there are bad things going to happen.

Perhaps I should stop reading and everything will be all right, but that would deny me the pleasure of finishing off the book. I probably should remember that these aren’t real people, but then I’ve invested in them and care what happens. And (I have the surname for it) I’m nosy.

Does anyone else ever feel like this?

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Writing with Marian Keyes

Phil: We’re missing literary events. The chance to spend time in a room listening to someone talking about the writing process with the added bonus of being able to ask questions.

Luckily, the web has come to our rescue in these locked down times. Candice spotted that Marion Keyes was running a series of talks on Instagram, and we tuned in for an hour to enjoy the chat.

This week, she talked about many topics including timelines – the importance of which she emphasised. While you don’t need to write one at the start of a book, you will need to create it at some point to keep the story going.

Exactly what appears on the timeline matters too. In one book, she included a lot about the Trump election. Her publisher asked for this to be removed as it would “date the book” quickly. Not a fan of the orange one, Marion happily complied. I’m not so sure about this. If a book is set in a particular period in time, surely you mention the news to fix it at this point?

Anyway, it’s all very relaxed, just someone sitting on a sofa chatting and answering some questions thrown in by the audience of 1598 people also tuning in.

If you’d like to catch up, the videos head over to her YouTube channel:

Week 1. Plot and point of view, software and word count.

Week 2. The Fear! Your voice. Characterisation.

Week 3. Timelines, pacing, and sex.

This sort of thing is great. Maybe it will help us find our mojo.

 

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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.

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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