Tag Archives: click lit

Relaxing reads for taxing times

Phil: Here’s a handy hint. Don’t publish a blog post about how you are starting to feel more comfortable with the current situation. It’s a prelude to your metal state heading downhill fast for several days. Just shut up and read some books. To help, here are the two most recent that I’ve finished in my regular post-lunch tea and reading sessions.

Warning: Contains Spoilers. Or at least spoilers if you’ve never read any chick-lit before and can’t spot the bleedin’ obvious plot lines.

The Hidden Cottage by Erica James

Mia Channing appears to have an enviable life: a beautiful home, a happy marriage, a job she enjoys and three grown-up children to whom she’s devoted. But appearances can be deceptive…

When the family gathers for her son’s thirtieth birthday, he brings with him his latest girlfriend, who, to their surprise, has a nine-year-old daughter. Then, before the birthday cake has even been cut, Mia’s youngest daughter Daisy has seized the opportunity to drop a bombshell. It’s an evening that marks a turning point in all their lives, when old resentments and regrets surface and the carefully ordered world Mia has created begins to unravel.

You’d think from the blurb that this is all about Mia, but the main character is Owen Fletcher who buys a cottage in Little Pelham. The cottage was part of his childhood when he lived for a while in the village. He’s one of those annoying people in novels with bucket loads of cash but no obvious way of earning it, but we let that pass because he’s not a dick. I did have a “what does he DO all day?” moment, but in the current situation, adults not actually doing much to fill the hours doesn’t seem so odd.

Anyway, this is quite involved with Mia’s three children and most importantly, overly controlling husband, all walking on eggshells with each other, finding their way in the world, loving and losing etc. The actual main romance isn’t prominent in the book. It’s there, but takes up very little of the story compared to the rest of the characters, and is all the better for it.

I’d say that this is the thinking readers chick-lit with some well worked parallel storylines, especially Mia’s marriage and Owen’s childhood. There are a few shocks along the way too. Maybe the supporting characters in the village are a bit cartoonish, but the background hangs together well enough not to be obtrusive.

I read this one in small chunks, but it’s one of those books I’d make little bits of time during the day to grab another chapter of.

A Summer Scandal by Kat French

When Violet moves to Swallow Beach, she inherits a small Victorian pier with an empty arcade perched on the end of it, and falls in love immediately. She wants nothing more than to rejuvenate it and make it grand again – but how?

When she meets hunky Calvin, inspiration strikes. What if she turned the arcade into an adult-themed arcade full of artisan shops?

Not everyone in the town is happy with the idea, but Violet loves her arcade and business begins to boom. But as tensions worsen and the heat between her and Calvin begins to grow, life at Swallow Beach becomes tricky. Is it worth staying to ride out the storm? And can Violet find her own happy ending before the swallows fly south for the winter?

Violet inherits a pier and apartment in the childhood town her mother refuses to return to. There are secrets from her grandmother who died in mysterious circumstances. And her neighbour is hunky Calvin Dearheart.

Reader, she shags him.

She also turns the pier into a series of workshops for those making things for the adult entertainment industry. Maybe I’ve lived a sheltered life, but a couple of them were “That’s really a thing?” moments. You don’t want to search for them on-line either on a work computer.

I wasn’t wild about this, the idea that you’d turn the centrepiece of a pier into a series of workspaces where the most public-friendly thing on offer would be a leather whip seemed odd. Artisan workshops would work, but I suspect that the Great British Public aren’t ready for X-rated goods while strolling along the seaside.

To be honest, the characters are all ridiculous, but it’s all played straight and so the book gets away with it. There are more historical parallels, outrageous coincidences and the ending is a bit weird, but overall, it’s everything the cover suggests. Light fun with a happy ending. Just like that that the pier’s customers are expecting.

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Who’s that Girl by Mhairi McFarlane

Phil: The moment you read that title, you heard the Eurithmics in your head didn’t you?

Well, I did. Presented with the book by Candice over cake, I wasn’t sure. It looked very chick-lit, but I know she wouldn’t be shoving anything rubbish my way so I gave it a go.

We first meet Edie at a wedding. During the day, just after the speeches, the groom decides to snog her. The bride spots this and things all fall apart.

Friends and colleagues not only abandon her, but thanks to the joys of social media (this is very much a book set NOW), they gang up and start bullying her. Leaving London for the family home in Nottingham, she has to face a father who has never really recovered from the death of her mother and a sister to hates her. That and getting used to not being in the capital.

The move north is partly engineered by her boss and involves ghost writing a celeb biography for the latest blokey hot totty from something that sounds a lot like Game of Thrones. He’s filming in the city, doesn’t want the autobiog written due to a secret in his past.

Basically, everyone has secrets (Edie wasn’t having an affair with the groom, but was flirting) and needs to take control of their lives. So much so standard. If I tell you any more, then SPOILERS.

What sets this apart is it’s a very modern book. We get loads of social media and also old-skool media problems. A row in a nightclub with the totty results in Edie being identified in the papers as a mystery woman attached to him. This gives her vile and bitchy workmates a chance to sell their stories. There are loads of communication channels, including an internal e-mail system that provides the chance for some blackmail and they all help to build the pressure on our main characters in a way that you don’t see in most books.

Even the ending, while leaving room for a sequel, is convincing and plays like grown-ups making decisions. Not very chick-lit at all, in a good way.

Not living in a metropolitan bubble, I found some of the workmate characters hard to relate to. They are bitchy and quite frankly, childish. Some of the actions are more playground bullying than proper adult behaviour – however, that’s because I live in a different, and probably considerably less well paid, world. That said, I enjoyed the book a lot. It’s a proper page turner with plenty of twists and turns along the way. The main characters all develop and change during the story and lots of loose ends get tied up in a way that satisfies the reader.

Lots of short chapters too which builds the pace and, as I found, keeps you reading. Not quite enough to persuade me to take that girly cover on a train mind you, even though by that point I really wanted too!

 

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I kept thinking, “What would Kate do?”

highland flingPhil: According to the Mail on Sunday, Katie Fforde books are “A cross between Joanna Trollope and Tom Sharpe”. Quite a lot like our style of writing, so having been passed the book by my sister, I thought it would be an enjoyable read.

Instead, I wanted to throw the thing out of the window,

Jenny Porter is a “Virtual Assistant”. She works for several clients, communicating by e-mail and never meeting them. Her biggest client, Mr Grant-Dempsey asks her to got and visit a Scottish mill he has lent money to. She is to write a report on which he will decide if it’s time to pull the plug on the business. The mill is run by the Dalmain family headed by the matriarch mother of the clan.

On the way she stops off at a roadside cafe where she encounters Meggie, a twig on the Dalmain family tree. Meggie is heavily pregnant and within a few pages, Jenny is serving at the cafe and her first customer is Ross Grant. She takes an immediate dislike, throws his coffee over him and generally behaves like a petulant 12 year old.

Some of you will have guessed that Ross Grant and Mr Grant-Dempsey are the same person. My computer has, as it keeps auto suggesting the name. Jenny takes half a book to make the connection.

Part of the “problem” is that she fancies the pants off Mr D, which she shows by continuing to behave like a child at every opportunity. Convinced that he plans to close the mill despite her efforts to find a way for it to make money, every single encounter is marked by him being reasonable and normal and her throwing a huff.

The high, or low point, comes when she and the office manager present their report on the future of the mill. She throws a strop and runs off to the loo for the entire meeting.

It doesn’t get any better after this either. Jenny goes for a Christmas walk in the snow and is rescued by Ross. They shag in a snow hole but by Hogmanay she’s spitting like a wildcat despite her spending the intervening time bedridden with flu and not talking to him. In spite of this, he asks her to marry him.

I nearly binned this half way through. Only the completionist within me made me push on to the end. This is one book that isn’t going to be passed on to Candice. She’d be punching the pages in frustration.

When we wrote “Kate vs The Dirtboffins”, the female lead was never going to be some winsome girl whose only interest in life was finding a man. As I read this, all I could think was that Kate might have fancied Ross, but she’d have been icily efficient in all the business dealings. He wouldn’t have been wearing his coffee and the big meeting to save the mill wouldn’t involve any hiding in the toilet.

And you know what? She’d still have got her man, if she wanted him. Ross Grant is a very rich businessman. Are we really saying that he’d be chasing someone who kept throwing tantrums every time they met? Assuming he is a self-made man he’d be much more impressed with someone who showed she had brains and determination.

OK, I’m not really the target market but surely I can’t have been the only one reading this wishing someone would grab the lead character, give her a good shake and should the something including the words “get a grip”. For the sake of our book, I just hope that there are plenty of people out there who prefer their leads strong.

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Will David Cameron kill Chick-Lit?

"Pwooorr" said David. I gotta ban this!Phil: You might well have read recently that David Cameron has announced that in the next few years, if you wish to view porn on your computer, you will have to opt-in for it.

At first, you might have though, “Thanks goodness for that, someone has finally thought of the children”.

But like most loudly trumpeted government policies, there are likely to be unintended consequences. One of these could be a big hit on the sales of chick-lit books.

Let me don my nerdy IT hat and explain. There are three ways that this can work. The first is that site on a banned “black list” are blocked by your Internet Service Provider. There are several international lists and most ISPs already block sites on them.

Next, the system can use what is called a “flesh filter” to try and work out what the images on the page are. These exist and can prove entertaining for your local IT department as photos of people on beaches and close up pictures of faces tend to have too many skin tones so find themselves blocked. This results in phone calls to hard-working Helpdesk staff to sort it out. Since most homes don’t have any hard-working Helpdesk staff to call and the ISP doesn’t want to provide them, you can bet this isn’t going to play a big part in the filtering. If it does, then I predict the death of Facebook.

No, the main method of stopping you getting to filth will be good, old-fashioned text filtering. You might not realise it but every search you carry out and every site you visit, is recorded somewhere. When I worked in IT, we used to check server logs for certain banned words. Anyone who typed them into a search would be found out. If those words were in the title of a website, the culprits would be investigated. Even with a few hundred staff we didn’t look very hard unless you were under suspicion. If you were stupid enough to print the page out on a network printer that was situated behind the Helpdesk, well it didn’t take Sherlock Holmes to lead to you being in big trouble with your boss.

I bet in our book, Kelvin from IT keeps a very close watch on the stuff Tracey does on-line. Poor lad, it’s mostly going to be shopping with a few work sites thrown in for when her boss Kate walks past, but I bet there are few juicy finds that will make him go goggle eyed when he has to check them out. I know how I reacted when I once had to visit (for official business) that sort of site at work…

Anyway, this is going to happen on a much larger scale. The ISP will be reading everything you download and comparing it against official government rudeness lists. I would love to be in the meeting that decides on these…

“So what”, you say, “I’m not looking at filth, so it won’t affect me.”

Hmmm. Do you read chick-lit? From my limited investigation, there’s some pretty graphic sex in much of it and Candice says I’m too innocent to read 50 Shades of Rumply-Pumpy. I’m only allowed the relatively tame stuff.

And do you own an e-reader? Do you plan to buy one?

Good-oh. So you intend to download your book with all the mucky bits intact through the official filters?

No chance. There’s a lot of words I recognise in there that would set off alarm bells in an IT department.

So, how will it all work? Will chick-lit readers revert to paper so they can get the proper mucky stuff? Will we see a new genre of wholesome chick-lit suitable for the government censors? Will it be Lady Chatterley’s Lover all over again with copies passed around illicitly between consenting adults?

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How long should a book chapter be?

How long sir?

Phil: When working on people’s websites, I come from the usability camp. That doesn’t mean I sleep in a tent or walk funny, it’s those of us who decide how a site should work by looking at the people who use it and see what they are doing. We don’t ask them what they want, we watch to see what they do and then modify the pages to match those expectations.

The theory is that if you give people what they expect, using the website is easier and they achieve whatever it is they came to it wanting to do. It’s a bit like car design really – put the brake pedal anywhere but the middle and you’ll lose a sale. Steve Krug nailed it with his book, “Don’t make me think“. If I have to learn how to use a website then I’m probably not going to bother.

I reckon you can apply some of these lessons to writing a book and chief amongst these is chapter length.

Grabbing some books from my shelves, I did a quick survey:

John Wyndham – The Midwich Cuckoos – 12 pages

Tony Hawks – A Piano in the Pyrenees – 16 pages

Freya North – Pip – 13 pages

Stephen King – The Long Walk – 19 pages

Alan Titchmash – Knave of Spades – 7 pages

My methodology (for those who care about such things) was to pick a random chapter somewhere in the middle of the book and count the pages. Don’t complain, it’s as scientific as most of the stuff you get reported on the telly.

What does it tell us?

Not as much as I expected. My guess was that chick-lit would have shorter chapters than other genres. Freya North and Alan Titchmarsh (same audience I reckon) are on the lower end of the scale and she manages a few 2 pagers in the book. A quick look at our Book and I think we are in line with this.

Since it’s rude to gawp over people’s shoulders while they read, I’m basing the conclusions on Candice and my feelings. Both of us are fans of short chapters to give a story pace. We’ve broken our story pretty much every time you change scene as this seems logical and tried not to stay in any one place too long.

I also think it makes the book easier to read. I pick books up and put them down to snatch a moment of reading. If I can do a chapter, the bookmark moves in a satisfying way and it doesn’t seem odd to stop. If the chapter end is 4 pages away, I’ll stick at it. 10 pages and I’ll probably realise that I’m not going to make it to the end in this session so will look for another convenient place to halt, be it a paragraph or end of page. Picking up won’t be so easy but I don’t have any choice.

Injecting pace with short chapters will probably increase the tiem a reader spends with you each session. Get momentum in the story which carries you along and you think, “Oh I’ll just do another chapter” making the book becomes a page turner. Both readers and writers want that don’t they?

Conclusion: Length matters and for commercial fiction, short wins.

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Where do you read?

ReadingCandice: I’ve just come back from a week in Sorrento (very nice, shame about the rain) and it was interesting to see how people are different when they are on holiday. 

We all like to read but when you are in the hustle and bustle of the normal day-to-day I hardly ever see people reading books (or kindles).  The only time I did use to was when I got the train to work but now I drive I don’t see that.  Perhaps, in a lunch break I might see some one in the coffee shop with a book, though it seems more likely for them to be reading a paper as it’s about eating, reading and then getting back to work, rather than relaxing.

Our hotel had a pool on the top of the building.  Sorrento is a bay surrounded by hills and the hotels are all built into the hillside, so they go up (and up and up).  Our pool was on the 8th floor, next to another hotel whose rooms were at the same height, so we could see right into their balconies.  There am I one day, relaxing on a sun lounger, reading some other holiday tosh and I can see the people on the balcony next door.  In the hand of the reader is a greeny grey book I recognise – Inferno.  On the next balcony down is another lady relaxing on a lounger, also reading some thing.  This makes me think, so I look round the pool area and everyone has their nose in something.  The choice varies from Chick Lit to the other half’s reading topic of Ron Atkinson’s biography. 

In our room in the hotel, there are stack of books to choose from all left by previous guests I assume, and there are also ones dotted around the reception and bar area.  In fact, there are books everywhere.

At the airport, while we had two hours to kill before our flight, I again looked around at the people reading.  We had another copy of Inferno on the go, alongside more Chick-Lit and Kindles (that’s frustrating as I can’t see what they are reading!)

I’d love to know how much these people read when they are at home?  I suspect some, not at all.  I certainly know that is true of my husband who only reads the Sunday Times.  From a book publishing point of view I think its very interesting, as I’d love to know where these people bought their books.  I suspect that the market for purchases in the airport is massive as people forget all about books until they are about to get on their flight.

If this is the case, we need to create a holiday friendly piece of literature (which I think we have) than is well marketed at the airport.

But I also think it’s a shame, as people are missing out on the relaxation that comes from reading.

This time of year especially I love to come home from work and then go and sit in the back garden catching the last rays with my book.  In fact, we hardly watch any TV in the summer as we are often found in the conservatory reading and catching up.  But, I suspect most people only do this on holiday and miss out on the great opportunity to disappear into a book after a stressful day at work.

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What’s good in book covers?

PollyBooks

Phil: When you read a Tweet from an author commenting on a BBC news story that reads:

“The process of designing a book cover is collaborative.. involving the author” – BULLSH1T, HarperCollins. Rarely…

You think, “There’s some history there.”

And you’d be right. Polly Courtney famously ditched her publishers at the launch of her novel “It’s a mans world”. Well, I say famously but neither of us knew about it until we went to the self publishing clinic at Stratford Literary Festival, but then that’s because neither of reads the literary sections of the newspapers properly and as far as we are concerned, the publishing world consists of dumbos who haven’t (yet) recognised our talent with the offer of a five-figure book deal.

Anyway, the session fired us both up to think about how we get our book out there. One aspect that interested me a lot was consideration of the package you present as an author. There’s a lot to think about in appearing to fit within a genre. Books full of SAS rescues don’t look like those involving women and cupcakes. This extends beyond the cover and onto the web site – hence my concern.

As an interesting exercise, I happened to have a couple of Polly’s books handy (read both- reviews will follow on here eventually but if you want a spoiler, they were great) and so I thought it would be interesting to see what was so terrible about them. I waved both under the Nolan’s nose as well as my own and surprisingly we felt differently about them.

The Fame Factor, to me, looks pretty much bang on for the content. There’s an X-Factor look about the design, something that fits the story fairly well. The soft design though would seem to say chick-lit and I’d certainly say it was aimed at women. Candice didn’t like it as it’s too busy.

It’s a man’s world though, I didn’t like.

More than that, I really hate the subtitle “But it takes a woman to run it” which indicates the story is no more than the traditional woman in a man’s world shtick where you just know she’ll win through by the end of the book collecting a square-jawed bloke and a lovely house along the way. The Guardian describes the cover as containing “the chick-lit staple of a pair of slender legs”. Basically, the publishers say it’s a girly book. Oddly, my friend was happier with it but then she hasn’t read either book yet and so is looking at it from market position, which if you are expecting chick-lit, it does it well. Point proved I think.

What conclusion can I draw? Well for a start, I think Polly has a point. Never mind sacking the publisher, I’d have gone down to the marketing department and stuffed their stupid coloured pens up their nostrils. From my reading, this isn’t chick-lit, far from it. I can see why it potentially would appeal to some of that market and why the marketing team would try to push them in that direction, but there’s a lot that is not chick-lit inside. Proper, real issues are confronted. With passion. The male characters aren’t written as 1 dimensional idiots. The plots do not revolve solely around the main character looking for lurve.

If the publishers insist that your work is packaged in a way you don’t think works, it must be very frustrating. You might also wonder if any of them have bothered reading the contents or could you just submit a few hundred pages of Loreum Ipsum.

I bet a few readers got a shock too. They bought a book that promised cupcake and just as they started to nibble around the edges, great big real issue exploded from under the mock-cream and cherry topping. Now, this might be welcome by some who want a dish with more to chew on but if you just want fluff then it’s probably too hearty a meal for you.

What worries me is that we are also not writing pure chick-lit. Our book should be enjoyable for men and women. Yes, there are chick-lit elements as there are in the books above, but then you can see the same touches in James Bond books which certainly don’t get pink fluffy covers. Can stories with a female main character only be chick-lit? How can design say that we’re writing for everyone? Do publishers need to follow the Harry Potter model of offering different covers to allow varied markets, in that case adults and children, to read the same book?

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