A(nother) Rambling: A New String to My Bow

Taking a break from reviewing a book this week – to talk about my favourite topic outside of books.
I did something new yesterday, something a little bit nerve-wracking, but ultimately fun. It’s also what stopped me from reading, at least stopped me from reading anything new – hence no review.
(I do like the word hence. Makes me feel posh)
At WHSmith, we’ve been working on erasing stigma around mental health. The company has done shitloads (that’s the technical word) to raise awareness within the company, as well as this year doing huge amounts of fundraising for – along with Cancer Research – Mind.
As part of our activities, last year Bryony Gordon came to Swindon for a Q&A session – hosted by publicity goddess George Moore.
It went down so well, we arranged another one for Matt Haig – to coincide with the launch of his new book (How To Stop Time – read it!) and to get a male perspective on the challenges faced by those who suffer from poor mental health.
I know what you’re thinking – How come he’s not talking about himself yet?! Give the people what they want!
Ok, ok!
Well, guess what mug offered to step in and host the thing – with absolutely no prior experience of having done something like that?
You guessed it. This guy.
I spent the last week reminding myself of the events of How To Stop Time, I re-read Reasons to Stay Alive, and I monitored Matt’s tweets closely to see if they would raise any questions I wanted to ask.
Then. I got up on the stage, sat opposite Matt – and introduced us both to what felt like an enormous crowd, but was in reality closer to 30.
How to stop time indeed.
Matt had the hard job – he had to talk for twenty seven out of the thirty minutes – I just had to sit there and listen to him, and make sure I didn’t ask a question he’d just answered.
But boy was it hard – I didn’t know where to look. Did I look at the audience like a loon? Matt was (NOT like a loon, I hasten to add), but then he was talking to them. I would just be grinning inanely at them.
Should I instead just ignore them? But that felt rude, and besides if I didn’t look, how did I know if they were still awake – or even there?
At least I know why Graham Norton drinks now.
In the end, it went ok. Neither myself or Matt said anything stupid, I had some positive feedback from people afterwards (not that I believed them of course), and we all learnt a little bit more about mental health (and turtles) as well as hearing about a great book!
What’s the point of me telling you all this? I have a new skill! I can interview people – so let me tell you now, Graham had better watch out.
He’s ahead in the interviewer-skills race (for now) – but I can match him drink for drink.


A(nother) Review: Sputnik’s Guide to Life on Earth by Frank Cottrell-Boyce

There are some writers who when you pick up their books, you think “I really should have read this guy/gal before”.


Never more so does this happen than in bookselling where people, both in and out of the industry, assume you have read all the important books and writers. The truth is, we’re all so busy that unless we read those in school, we probably haven’t read them.


I can tell you the names of the last fourteen James Patterson titles, and I can tell you exactly what happens in about a million books you won’t have heard of before, nor will ever again, but I can’t tell you anything about Sylvia Plath, or even spot the difference between Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility.


I went to a public school in Swindon in the late nineties, I read The Lord of the Flies and Animal Farm and maybe two or three Shakespeare plays. I didn’t study English at college, and I sort of stopped reading between the age of thirteen and eighteen, so my book knowledge only really began in circa 2003, when I read (following a 3 for 2 in my local WH Smith) The Time Traveler’s Wife, The Shadow of the Wind and Cloud Atlas and fell head over hells in love with reading again.


I can’t wait until I’m ninety when I will be one of the most well-read people, having read all the obscure classics, and no one will ever know I only have a passing acquaintance with Jane Austen. Until then, I’ll continue to bluff my way through while slowly building up my reading backlist.


In the frame this week is Frank Cottrell-Boyce – one of those names you’ll know, but not sure why. He wrote the opening ceremony for the London 2012 Olympics as well as the award winning novel Millions. I’ve not read it, but I enjoyed the film a lot.


After reading John Boyne for the first time last week (I know, I know, I haven’t even read The Boy In the Striped Pyjamas), I was looking forward to reading Sputnik’s Guide to Life on Earth


And I wasn’t disappointed.


Sputnik’s Guide to Life on Earth is first and foremost, a children’s book, but it deals with some quite heavy stuff. Prez is a young carer who’s granddad suffers from dementia. One summer, his granddad gets arrested, and Prez has to live at the Temporary.


Before long, he gets the opportunity to stay with a family who live on a farm, and it’s here where he meets Sputnik. Sputnik appears to everyone else as a dog (although a different dog to each person), but to Prez, he is an alien from outer space, who has come to look after Prez, and help him save the Earth from destruction.


To do so, they must find ten things that make the Earth unique, and they set off on an adventure together, each of them with very different ideas as to what will make the list.


It’s a fun romp (and I do appreciate the opportunity to say – or write – the word romp), through prison breaks, gravity surfing and explosive birthday parties – but there’s also an incredibly touching side to this novel, which will leave even the hardest heart softening a little.


It is perhaps a little unfair to compare it to the film Millions, but that’s what I’m going to do as it’s my only other point of reference for Cottrell-Boyce. There is a similar vein of ridiculousness running though both, but Sputnik feels a little more cartoonish, which does dampen the emotion slightly.


Of course, it IS a kid’s book, so it is likely highly intentional. Perhaps I need to go back and read Millions now?


Or maybe I should get a move on and finally try some Sylvia Plath.


(SPOILER: I did neither)

The Seven Ways We Lie by Riley Redgate

We’re started a YA book club. Actually, we can’t stop starting them at the moment.


In honour of WHSmith joining forces with Zoe Sugg to start the Zoella book club aimed at Young Adults, a few of us in the office decided to start a small YA book club.


I was actually reading a YA novel before we decided this, so the one I’m reviewing today will be the first of several.


The Seven Ways We Lie by Riley Redgate is set in your typical American high school. It centres around seven students all around the age of seventeen, not all of whom really interact with each other.


But when a rumour that one of the teachers is having a relationship with one of the students starts to sweep around the school, they find themselves in a series of events that will bring them all closer together.


The Seven Ways We Lie is a hilarious book, it made me laugh out loudly on more than one occasion. Flitting between seven different characters viewpoints, it’s pretty fast-paced, and also explores several issues.


However, because of the multiple characters it doesn’t take any of the issues into any great depth. It’s strength is also it’s weakness.


There were also characters that I felt were under developed, and for me, these characters were the most interesting. Lukas who is hiding his pansexuality from everyone else becomes friends with a character who is essentially asexual.


The friendship between the two of them is fascinating, but it’s not the main plot of the book, which I get, but it left me really wanting more. There’s a bigger story there that can be told and I would definitely be interested in reading it.


Perhaps it’s just because stories about sexuality are relevant to my interests, and other people would have been more interested in the relationship between the two sisters.


But that’s the beauty of this book, it really does have something for everyone. While it might be shallow at times, it’s a distracting, entertaining read, and I would definitely read more books by Redgate.


I’m looking forward to what else this genre has to offer.


The Seven Ways We Lie scores 3.9 out of 5.

7 New Things I’ve Learned This Week

They – the inimitable collective “them” – say that you learn something new every day.

Is that true, I wonder? I think not, so I’m keeping track. If I haven’t learnt something new – I’m going to seek a new thing out.

Here are seven things I’ve learned in the last week

  1. “Lost his Deposit”

This phrase was bandied about during the election night coverage a bit, and while I had heard it before, I didn’t fully know the story behind it.

Every prospective candidate standing to be a Member of Parliament must pay a £500 deposit. The theory being that a financial stake being put down will reduce the number of fringe or joke candidates standing for election.

If the candidate receives more than 5% of the vote, they receive their deposit back. According to one twitter account, the Liberal Democrats lost a staggering £169,000 in the 2015 General Election.

  1. Dame Vera

70 years after VE Day the Force’s sweetheart Dame Vera Lynn – whose most famous song We’ll Meet Again is often played as a celebratory song to mark the end of the second world war – is still alive and kicking at the grand old age of 98.

That may seem old, but she’s only nine years and one month older than the woman in charge of our country (and no, I don’t mean Nicola Sturgeon).

  1. Maggie Simpson

When England and Wales are coloured blue and Scotland is yellow, Great Britain looks remarkably like Maggie Simpson

  1. Pippa in the Middle(ton)

Nearly all of us felt a bump this week as we shifted down one in the order of succession to the British throne. A new princess was born last Saturday and shortly after was revealed to bear the name Charlotte Elizabeth Diana.

While it may seem that she was named after three members of the future King’s family, she also shares the name Charlotte with her aunt, whose full name is Phillippa Charlotte Middleton.

The princess also shares the name Charlotte Diana with her second cousin once removed on her father’s side – curiously, Earl Spencer refrained from adding the name Elizabeth to his daughter’s title.

  1. Amazon’s spring

As an employee of WH Smith I know an awful lot about it’s history, but even I was surprised to discover that the first online order in the UK was taken and fulfilled by the company twenty years ago – in a room just across the road from my flat.

The book (I’m slightly pleased it was a book at the beginning of this revolution) was Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy – Amazon – the great river of modern online shopping – wouldn’t take it’s first order for another four months post that first delivery from Swindon.

  1. The Groucho Club

The Groucho Club in London turned thirty years old this week. The original premise of the famous private member’s club was to be an antidote to the stuffy gentlemen’s clubs that inhabited Soho at the time.

You don’t have to be a member to visit the club, but your name does have to be put on a list by a member in order for you to gain access. Alternatively, you could hire one of their six rooms available for private functions for an evening. The prices range from £400 up to £1800 for non-members.

  1. Counting the Cost

Those people you assume to be volunteers that you see when you go to vote aren’t actually volunteers at all. The folk that man polling stations and vote counts are actually paid £160 for their time.

Those who man the stations are expected to be at the polling station for the full fifteen hours.

While a “cruel and punishing” night for the Lib Dems, perhaps Nick Clegg can take solace in that his party’s poor performance meant that their lost deposits helped fund over 1,000 of these workers.

The Nicest Rejection Letter I Ever Had

I said way back in the first post on this blog, that I was doing it because I wanted to start writing again.

Specifically, what I mean by that is I want to start concentrate on my writing again. It’s not just about writing, it’s not just about story telling, it’s about trying to get Memories of a Murder published.

Having worked in the book trade for the last seven and a half years, you might ask why I haven’t tried before. The truth is, I have. I’ve just never done it to any great extent.

I have contacted a couple of agents that I’ve met, I’ve spoken to other authors and I’ve spoken to publishers. Ultimately, I’m in the wrong part of the industry to really influence my writing career – at least right now.

Don’t get me wrong – once I’m published, I can put my book in front of store displays in every WHSmith in the country, but before then, I need an agent, and then that agent needs to find a publisher who’ll take the book.

I have only spoken to a small handful of agents – literally, you could count them on one hand – and from all of them I’ve had polite rejections… except one.

Camilla Wray works at the Darley Anderson Agency – the agency which represents the likes of Lesley Pearse and Martina Cole – and a short couple of weeks after sending off some sample pages, Camilla rang me.

We discussed the book, we discussed plans for future stories, and she asked to see the rest of the book – I even rewrote sections of it based on that initial conversation while I was waiting for her verdict.

Camilla emailed me back with the best rejection letter I’ve ever had. Memories of a Murder was not the sort of book that the agency normally focuses on:

“I was thinking we could try and work on focusing the crime and bring it to the forefront at the beginning, but after reading your manuscript I don’t think this would be a beneficial thing to do and would be charging the essence of your story


I don’t think it is right to pigeon hole the manuscript in the genre and for me, Memories of a Murder is as a fantastic tale about families, deceit, greed and love. The murder is the crescendo of the story as opposed to the cause and pushing force, and it was important for me to recognize this.

Camilla’s response both encouraged and discouraged me at the same time. Here, I had someone finally telling me what I thought I had known all along – I’m a good writer – but she was still rejecting it.

However, as important as it is to get an agent, it’s important to get the right agent, and vice versa for the agent, it’s important to get the right book. Although I knew it, I didn’t really get it until quite recently. It doesn’t mean that the book is bad or that the agent is wrong, it’s just not a fit.

Camilla even went so far as to say if I ever wrote a more traditional crime novel and was without representation, then I should get in contact.

For the next couple of years, I started trying to write that more traditional crime novel, and a few false starts and some scribblings I wrote the first ten thousand words of The Killer Inside.

I don’t feel the same way about The Killer Inside as much as I do about Harry Hicks, though, and that’s partly why I stalled in my writing career. I was trying to fit into a box that wasn’t the right shape.

Maybe one day, I’ll finish The Killer Inside or something similar and I can get in contact with Camilla again – but for now, I’m refocusing on Harry and Memories of a Murder.