Tag Archives: Books

Lockdown reading

Candice: I could write about the fact its been a year and a day since Boris told us all to stay home. But there has been a lot of coverage on that so I wanted to write about something else.

I would say that I haven’t read any more or less that usual in this year of lock down. The biggest problem I have had is getting hold of books. The range in a supermarket is never quite the same as a good book shop, and then at times even getting to a supermarket to buy a book was hard.

I did try and do book sharing with the neighbours but we either didn’t like the same books or they only read on Kindle so couldn’t share.

Phil and I have done some parcels to each other, as we haven’t been able to share books face to face. But we now keep forgetting who sent what to whom!

The other day I spotted and article on the BBC website about celebrity recommendations for lock down reading. BBC Arts – Culture in Quarantine – Meet the authors: What have Big Book Weekend’s guests been reading? so I thought I’d have a look. It was part of the Big Book Weekend, last weekend and you can hear interviews with each celeb about their favourite book.

The one that interested me the most was the book that Russell Kane recommended. It’s called ‘Wild Thing’ by Mike Fairclough. Its all about rediscovering how to be a child again as an adult, taking some of the stresses and strains that make us forget to have fun.

With over a year of not knowing what we can or can’t do, not being able to book or plan ahead to far as things keep changing, and home schooling for some of us, then perhaps its time to go back and take away some of these stresses. I’ve already decided to take time over the weekend when this is over, rather than stuff it full with expensive activities. Someone just wants to run round the garden sometimes, or play on the swings, and perhaps I do to (though I’m better on the trampoline). Anyone for back garden tennis?

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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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Booky loses to the pandemic

Phil: As I go for my evening allotted segment of allowable exercise, what we used to call a stroll, I pass by my local library. Which is shut.

Not just shut because I’m walking at dusk, but shut, as it has been for most of the year, because of Covid restrictions. Sadly, if you are stuck at home, you’ll need to find another way to access books.

That’s fine if you have an e-reader, the library service has developed clever ways to lend electronic books. They have even created a click and collect service from the larger locations. What’s gone is the pleasure of perusing bookshelves, waiting for a title to leap out at you. The random book you didn’t know existed, but will enjoy once you open the cover, is denied to you.

Second-hand bookshops suffer the same fate. How I miss the higgledy-piggledy nature of the shelves. You never know what’s going to be there – apart from many copies of whatever best-seller has dominated the charts recently – books decades-old rub shoulders with more recent releases. There’s the sense of adventure and the slightly odd smell. Bookshelves crammed into odd spaces to handle the stock. Peering around corners to find a topic and then tripping over it in a pile on the floor.

I know we can still buy new books, and fair play to those local shops offering some sort of service in these difficult times, but I like old books too.

And what do you do with those on the read pile? All the charity shops you’d drop them off to, and replenish your stocks from, are shut as well. There’s going to be a lot of books in landfill I’m afraid.

Let’s hope this is the last #worldbookday when getting your hands on a book is difficult. A time when we all need to be transported from reality into a different place for a few hours, and yet are denied this pleasure.

And let’s hope the Nolan and I can meet up for coffee and plotting. It will save us a fortune in postage swooping books by mail, and the chance of a proper chat is far better than the daily swapping of numbers of steps walked each day.

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A great title WILL sell your book. To me anyway…

Phil: It’s my old editor’s fault. David and I are both VW campervan fans, and the conversions in our vans are by the Folkestone firm of Dormobile.

So, when he posted the cover of Tess of the Dormobiles on Facebook, I knew it was only going to be a matter of time before I read it.

The story concerns Theresa Finbow – a self-published author, and her plan to write the difficult second novel. She borrows a holiday cottage in a quiet area of Norfolk, the plan being to emulate her lead character Tess.

In Norfolk, a trip to the local pub brings her into contact with Billy, a local farmworker who has a mysterious and ominous past. Worse, his brother is the reason that Tess is on holiday without her husband.

Can Tess get her novel finished, survive contact with Billy and resolve the issues in her personal life?

Will Stebbings is a self-published author with at least five books to his credit. Tess of the Dormobiles is printed by Createspace, a print-on-demand house, and sold via eBay, which is where I bought it.

You might expect me to review this with 2 stars and tell you I’d been ripped off. And you’d be wrong.

OK, the text could do with the attentions of a copy editor. There’s too much nerdy detail in places. Both Will and Tess know Norfolk and relate some locations in a very blokeish way with road numbers. I also query what two chapters of the fictional Tess book add to anything.

But, as I read it, one word kept popping up in my head – fresh. The writing is fresh and enjoyable. The plot rolls along well and a few surprises are chucked in along the way, especially the twist at the end. It’s not the best book I’ve read, but a lot better than many efforts by names famous for things other than writing.

I’m pleased the title, which is explained in the story, sold me this book. Reading it was fun. Owning it is a bit of a laugh. Passing it on to La Nolan will be a pleasure.

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A little man with a big story

Phil: The Smallest Man by Frances Quinn takes place in 1625 and follows Nat Davy – a man who became “the Queen’s Dwarf”. Based loosely on a real person, Sir Jeffrey Hudson, it weaves a story around his life from being sold by his father and living as a plaything (initially) of Queen Henrietta Maria, wife of Charles the first.

The book is an interesting and enjoyable historical romp. I suspect that if you are a hard-core history buff, you’ll we clenching your fists in a few places as fictitious versions of real events unfold, or at least versions that have been enhanced by imagination simply because there is no other way to do it.

I found it fascinating to read the tale of the English Civil war from the losing side. Nat is firmly embedded in the Royalist camp and even though he doesn’t rate the king highly, doesn’t disagree with the basic idea of someone with the God-given right to rule the country. This is a world, where you find yourself forced to fight, and die, for a cause that you might not believe in. Nat’s brother is enlisted to the Parliamentary side simply by being in the wrong place (at home) when they took over his village. He doesn’t want to fight and has no interest in politics – all that stuff seems a long way away from his rural village in the era before instant communication.

The Queen grows from a terrified 15-year-old the entire country dislikes (she is a Catholic) to a powerful force behind the throne that the country hates.

Nat is devoted to her, and becomes a trusted confidant. Both are outsiders, her because of her faith, him because he stoped growing at ten years old. She lives in a palace full of intrigue and suspicion where courtiers brief against each other and vie for the ear of the king. It all sounds very similar to politics today!

I’m not really one for historical novels, but this is a real page-turner. I’m sure history buffs will find much to criticise, but it’s not a school exercise book, it’s an enjoyable story which has a historical background. My limited knowledge means I didn’t spot any major issues – but the author has stuck to many established facts for the main events in the story. What she has intended is the stuff that wouldn’t be recorded anyway.

 

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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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New shoots?

Conkers

Phil: Over a decade and a half ago, I planted a conker. There had been a big storm and many trees had been lost, so I did my bit to rectify matters.

This year, the tree that came up has delivered it’s latest batch of horse chestnuts, and I’ve planted a few of them to see if I can make more trees.

A few years after my green-fingered activities, another seed was planted. This time it was an idea and the fertile minds it germinated in were those of Candice and myself. From this, we grew two excellent books with a third starting to push its shoots up through the earth.

Anyway, autumn has arrived along with the arrival of conkers, our thoughts turn back to tending our next novel. Neither of us has made a secret that we’ve found 2020 especially hard. In lockdown we’ve manged next to no creative writing. Some people might have found their muse, I know all I’ve found is confusion.

We both feel hemmed in. At least my friend has managed to escape for a break followed by a pleasant staycation. I’ve either been really good and stayed put as we have been exhorted to, or rubbish and not taken the opportunities the relaxation of lockdown has allowed. While I don’t worry about “proper” holidays, sometimes I like to just get on a train and go out for the day staring out of the window and reading a book. Months of stern government instructions that public transport means death has dampened my enthusiasm for this to the extent that I don’t know if I’ll ever do it again.

Everything is weird, and listening to the news, I suspect it’s just going to get weirder for a while.

But I don’t want to send Book 3 to the literary compost heap. I care, we both care, about our characters almost like they are real people. Kate and Dave deserve a happy ending and the only way that happens is if we get our acts together and write it for them.

Anyway, as work precludes cake and a chat, we’ll just do the chat thing via video at the end of the week. There will be grumbling about some things and laughing about others. Hopefully a little of the magic banter we enjoy will come back. With a bit of luck, we’ll bully each other into getting on with writing and suitably fertilised, the little shoot will grow into a big, strong book.

Talking of books, I’ve finally ordered a couple of copies of our existing novels in their newly tidied up Amazon paperback format.

They look great – why not make our day and order both Kate vs the Dirtboffins and Kate vs the Navy – you need cheering up, let us do it!

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