Tag 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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Flogging books

Phil: You’d think with 15 best-selling novels under your belt, when your next book appears on the shelves, you’d be able to sit back and take a bit of a break. After all, success breeds success, doesn’t it? 3 million readers will be waiting for something new and will run out to snap up a copy.

It seems not, or at least if you follow Adelle Parks Twitter or Instagram accounts it doesn’t.

The arrival of I Invited Her In has seen a rush of promotional activity. There are appearances at shops up and down the country for a start, with an awful lot of book signing. Several radio interviews in a day last week, a blog tour, an interview for Hello and even a short story in a Sunday supplement magazine. In addition, there are poster campaigns at railway stations.

It all goes to show just how much marketing work is required to flog books. Considering this is from a well-known author with an established track record it makes me wonder if this is a chicken and egg situation. Finding a budget to promote a successful author is easy as the bean counters are confident of a return. This is a crowded market and resources need to be targeted carefully.

It makes you realise just how much extra effort it takes to launch new authors. If no-one has heard of you, how do you change that? It’s not like radio stations are queuing up to chat with new writers, selling a chat with someone the audience have heard of is far less likely to lead to anyone switching off. Social media matters and for that, you have to rely on having a marketable writer who can promote themselves. Mind you, since the main requirements are an imagination, it’s probably an area where an author has the advantage!

And if from this you think I’m a bit jealous – too right. Running around the country plugging our books? Team NolanParker would be well up for that. But then having legions of fans telling you how wonderful your latest story is, is all part of the writing dream. We’re not the sort of shrinking violets who just want to hand down our work from an ivory tower!

Still, having a goal makes us want to work harder. Now, I better go and write some more for book 3…

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Brave moves

Phil: According to the BBC, last week 10 years since the great financial crash. Banks were hastily thrown vast amounts of money, a few bankers lost their jobs and everyone prepared for financial Armageddon.

A couple of months earlier, I had thrown in my job with plans to travel and write and generally eat through a big chunk of my savings, treating myself to the gap year I’d missed out on because I didn’t go to university. Not that I’d have been brave enough to take that year of course, but I’d got old enough to think I might be ready for it 25 years later.

All this came back to me as I read  Take a Look at Me Now by Miranda Dickinson.

The story concerns Nell who loses her job as a planning officer and instead of plunging into the local jobs market, decides to take off to visit her cousin in San Francisco for a couple of months with her redundancy money.  She has a dream of running an American style diner in the UK and as luck would have it, ends up meeting a diner owner in the US who shows her the ropes.

Along the way, there is a dalliance with a hunky, grey-eyed artist and generally, a good time is had by all. So good in fact, that you have to get 2/3rds of the way through the book before there is any jeopardy. Redundancy aside, her life goes swimmingly the moment her feet hit US soil with a succession of happy coincidences. As a travel promotion for the city, it’s great, and you can tell the author fell in love with the place.

As with any chick-lit, all ends happily, especially for the publishers who surely have a potential sequel being written since the story couldn’t have ended in a better place for this.

To be honest, it’s light, pleasant reading. Undemanding and perfect for a sun lounger.

My biggest complaint is the cover, which has all the hallmarks of a designer keen to go to the pub. The story is set where? Well, put the Golden Gate bridge on. It’s about a youngish woman? Where’s that CD full of unconvincing clipart? Job done – let’s go.

Having said this, my own story also enjoyed a few happy coincidences. Jumping into the world of temporary jobs, I ended up working with Candice and when the place closed down, we found ourselves with lots of time and no work so started writing a book. Which became a series. And a lasting friendship.

Now if only we could get someone to sign up to turn them into a major feature film, this really would read like a book…

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What does a being a writer actually mean?

Phil: A few weekends ago, Candice and I attended the Writing West Midlands  National Writers Conference – get us going big-time!

There’s lots to blog about, but the event started with a keynote speech from Illustrator Shoo Raynor which tied in very nicely to the first session I was booked to take part in – Sustaining a Creative Career.

I kid myself that writing about trains and editing a modelmaking magazine means my “career” (this makes it sound like I planned it and didn’t just luck out) can be described as creative. I guess that is because you can’t really call it “useful” in the same way doctors, policemen, firemen, farmers, workers making Tunnocks teacakes etc. are.

As writers, or at least aspiring writers, the challenge is to earn enough money by your trade to survive. Years ago, you’d do this by sending your latest manuscript to your publisher and they would send back a big pile of cash. Sadly, as Shoo explained in his speech, since the demise of the net book agreement, this doesn’t really work. You might get some money, but by the time everyone else has taken their cut, you’ll be reduced to the own brand beans aisle of Tesco for tea.

No, the modern author, or creative, has to have a number of strings to their bow.

Those taking the session I attended wrote, taught, mentored, ran sessions for other writers and any number of related jobs to make ends meet. This isn’t seen as such a bad thing – it provides a variety of experiences which can build the writers experience, feeding back into the work. If you reside in an ivory tower, can you write anything other than how it feels to be in splendid isolation? Rapunzel has been written and it pretty much covers all the tower-based hero genre.

Shoo is the sort of proper, published writer that we all aspire to be, but his output goes beyond traditionally published books into self-publishing and using YouTube tutorials to provide another income stream. It’s fascinating stuff, and I strongly suggest that you sit back and enjoy his half-hour long speech.  Ignore the slightly odd camera viewpoint, but remember that he recorded and posted this on-line himself. Another of those tasks that writers have to find time to become skilled in.

Turns out, being a writer isn’t just about writing.

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Why Mummy Drinks by Gill Sims

Why Mummy Drinks: Sunday Times Bestseller ebook by Gill Sims

Candice: I have mixed feelings about this book. I loved the title – it’s what caught my eye when Phil and I were doing some work the other week on polishing our Amazon entry and looking at books that we would like to be listed by.

So, I bought it, and reading the blurb on the back about a Mummy struggling with balancing job and life who has an idea the might help solve her problems, it sounded interesting. With her job being in IT I had an idea what that idea might be, but hey I’m too good at solving plot lines.

I started the book and immediately got annoyed with the main character. She reminded me of the woman in the TV show ‘Motherland’ who supposedly holds down a high-powered job in PR but also makes a tit of herself on a regular basis – saying and doing the wrong thing. I understand some of that chaos, I am currently writing this in a notepad while my daughter is doing her swimming lesson, I had to borrow a pen as the one I packed seems to have disappeared and I’ve got toothpaste on my top (not mine). #multitasking

The style also annoyed me as its written in a diary style and initially its very staccato and frantic and you just want her to take a Valium. However, as the book develops (and the writing style slows down) I found a lot of truth in the story (too much in some cases). The arguments over who’s turn it is to look after the kids, whose job is more important, etc are too close to the bone. And her thinking about trying to find time for yourself.

But by the end, I’m slightly jealous of her as she invents a game which becomes a global sensation, and in the end, brings her together with everyone who she thinks isn’t on her side. The game is about trying to get the kids to school, and the working vs non-working mummies at the school gates and all the other fun stuff. I’ve already had a snapshot of that with nursery and school fun starts soon. But the other mummies actually are jealous of her working. At the finish, she has money, drinking buddies and it even smooths her relationship with her husband as money is always the other worry in a working family.

The book is funny, and though annoying at times I did enjoy it. If you are a working parent, male or female, it might make you think about some of those snappy conversations you have with your other half.

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The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society

Phil: Three things can be guaranteed to put me off a book:

  • It’s set in wartime, or involves a war.
  • The Daily Mail likes it
  • Someone has made it into a feature film and this is on the cover

A fourth one is that the book is described as “An International Bestseller” – I’ve been caught out before by that one. Just because lots of people bought something doesn’t mean I’ll enjoy it. I’m looking at you Girl on the train.

So I approached TGLPPPS not really expecting to get very far. To be honest, if I’d given up a couple of chapters in, that would have been par for the course.

Faced with a long train ride, I stuck the modest-sized book in my bag. One return from Leamington to Brighton later, I’d read the whole thing and thoroughly enjoyed it.

The book centres on author Juliet Ashton, a wartime “gel” who wrote a funny column in the press and a somewhat more serious book about the Bronte sisters. The war is just over and she is suffering from writer’s block but out of the blue, someone from Guernsey writes to her and a correspondence ensues.

The book is written as a series of letters and this propels the story along with a bit of pace. The reader has to suspend disbelief a little at the shortness and speed of delivery of some, but we let it go for the sake of the plotline.

In many ways, this is chick-lit. There is a love story. We can spot the ending a mile off, but this doesn’t matter.

Subtley slid into all the fluffy stuff is a description of life in the only part of the British Isles to be invaded during the war and have to exist under Nazi occupation. The history has been well researched and there are a few gruesome bits along with allusions to worse.  This matters as without it, the story could easily have been some bumbling locals and a smart London girl.

Weirdly, I also want to see the film. I really don’t see how you adapt a book made of letters – but I’m keen to know.

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