#IBW2017 And An Epic Bookshop Crawl

Hellooo! Remember me? Yes, yes, I know, I have been terrible at blogging lately. And yes, yes, I know, I seem to be starting every blog post in the last 18 months with an apology about not blogging more often. But I’ve discovered that this writing full-time gig alongside going to university full-time doesn’t leave you much free time, especially when there’s so much good stuff on Netflix. (Have you watched GLOW? No? Go!)

I’m here to tell you the hilarity/mayhem that went on yesterday but before I get to that, I have some news. Distress Signals has been longlisted for the CWA John Creasey New Blood Dagger! This means a huge amount to me because the Daggers are decided by a panel of crime fiction connoisseurs, and there’s only 12 books on the New Blood longlist out of all the debut crime novels published in the year-long judging period. They include some debuts that just blew me away, like Good Me, Bad Me by Ali Land and Tall Oaks by Chris Whitaker. So, yay! You can view the entire longlist and the other Dagger categories on the CWA website.

Book 2 has gone off to the copyeditor and I’ve seen the UK cover concept. In other words, sh-t’s getting real. I can’t wait to tell you more about it. Hopefully I’ll be able to soon.

Onto yesterday… This week is Independent Bookshop Week (IBW) in the UK and Ireland and to kick it off yesterday, a number of indie bookshop crawls were organised and Hazel Gaynor and I embarked on one. The idea was simple: visit as many indie bookshops as you can, maybe buy a few books, and tweet etc. about your journey on the way using the hashtags #IBW2017 and #bookshopcrawl. Then, reward yourself appropriately. Hazel and I picked ten shops between the picturesque little village of Kilcullen in Co. Kildare and Dubray Books on Grafton Street, the busiest shopping area in Dublin, bought a packet of Percy Pigs and hit the road.

We hit a couple of bumps – we got to our first shop so early they weren’t open yet (oops!), and the amazing Dublin Pride parade closed down streets between us and our city centre bookshops late in the afternoon – but all in all it was the most fantastically fun day and we got to meet some incredibly enthusiastic booksellers whose love for books and expertise on them was obvious.

Here’s the thing: independent bookshops offer something the likes of Amazon and chain book retailers just cannot. I buy a tonne of books off Amazon, but whenever I go there it’s to get a book I already know I want. I rarely end up buying books on Amazon I didn’t know existed before I got to Amazon. I also buy a tonne of books from chain bookstores, like Eason here in Ireland. They do great deals and if it’s a new commercial fiction title you’re after, you will find it there. I do find new books there, but usually books in genres I already read, i.e. books inside my comfort zone.

But consider what happened yesterday. On our stop at The Company of Books in Ranelagh, we asked the owner Gwen for recommendations to share with our followers, as we had been doing throughout the day. She mentioned a book called You Should Have Left by Daniel Kehlmann, which she said was about a writer and had shades of The Shining by Stephen King. It’s a tiny book, a novella really, and it’s been published by Riverrun in a small but perfectly formed slim hardback, translated from the original German. I was sold. And I would never, ever, ever in a million years have happened upon this book any other way. THAT is the joy of an independent bookshop.

At other stops, Hazel and I walked back out onto the street in awe of how incredibly dedicated, knowledgable and enthusiastic the booksellers we’d just met had been. It was, honestly, joyful. We write books because we love them and it was such a lovely day meeting other people who love them so much too.

(I also bought some books on the recommendation of Frank and Amy in Magpie Books but I’m not going to share them here because they’re research for A Very Secret Project. Oooh, intriguing! I know.)

My crawling buddy Hazel Gaynor was multi-tasking because yesterday was also Harry Potter Day (celebrating the 20th anniversary of the publication of The Philosopher’s Stone) AND International Fairy Day – and Hazel’s new book, The Cottingley Secret, is about one of the most famous hoaxes of all time, The Cottingley Fairies. This is her in Magpie Books, Enniskerry, on the bookshop crawl, wearing a HP T-shirt and a pair of fairy wings. Is she the most on-brand author of all time? I think so! (Find out more about Hazel’s new book and her New York Times bestselling backlist here.)

Independent Bookshop Week runs all this week. I highly recommend you stop into your local indie bookshop without any book in mind and ask the bookseller to pick one for you. You never know what you might discover!

Relive our bookshop crawl adventure on Storify here.

What’s the best book you discovered in an indie bookshop? Where’s your favourite one? Did you do any bookshop crawling yesterday or do you plan to this week? Let us know in the comments below… 

The Man Who Made Me Buy a Kindle

It’s happening.

After holding out for as long as I possibly could—after waxing lyrical about the wonder that is a printed book, sharing my rules for handling printed books (that, sometimes, extend as far as not reading them…!) and traveling on a low-cost airline with no fewer than 25 books hidden in my luggage—I’m buying a Kindle this week. If you’re new to this blog, this will be my first e-reading device and the books I read on it will be among the first e-books I’ve bought and/or read from start to finish.

And yes, I’ve been self-publishing and selling e-books since March 2010.

I know.

It’s not because I’ve suddenly taken a turn against the printed book—that will NEVER happen—and I don’t see this as changing anything except me traveling a lot lighter and me not having to buy those awful small, thick paperbacks that after reading turn into a creased-spine mess I can hardly bear to look at. And to be honest, I could easily manage with the traveling and creased-spine thing for another while.

No, I’m buying a Kindle now for a very specific reason, and that’s a man. A man named Michael Connelly.

Michael Connelly is my favorite writer, favorite being the writer who has given me the most reading pleasure to date and continues to do so. If the house was on fire and all other humans were safely out, the one thing I’d grab is my limited edition, leather bound copy of Nine Dragons, which Connelly personally inscribed to me after I won a competition on his website. His detective, Harry Bosch, is like an old friend I only get to catch up with once a year and, just like Julia Keller in The Chicago Tribune, I live in a world where Bosch is a real person. On the wall behind my desk hangs a framed print of The Garden of Earthy Delights by Hieronymus Bosch from the Prado in Madrid; that Bosch is Harry’s namesake (although he prefers Harry to Hieronymus) and the work itself plays a part in one of my favorite Connelly books, A Darkness More Than Night. It also serves as a reminder to me that writers can, sometimes, make their fictional creations seem real.

Catching up with Harry is a big occasion: I buy the book on the day it comes out, clear my schedule and then read it all in one sitting, and I have done that since A Darkness More Than Night in 2001. The way I remember it, I found the hardback of Void Moon in a discount book bin on a lazy Saturday afternoon sometime during my seventeenth year and soon after saw a television ad for Angels Flight, which I then bought in paperback. Then I quickly went back and caught up with the five previous Bosch novels, and have been reading everything Connelly’s written on or soon after its day of publication ever since, including The Black Box which I devoured yesterday.

Well, not exactly everything’s Connelly’s written, and that’s where we come to the Kindle.

More than any other mega-selling traditionally published author that I’ve seen around, Connelly knows how to work the e-book only angle. On the Kindle store, he currently has four titles you can only buy in e-book: Angle of Investigation: Three Harry Bosch Stories ($2.99), a Kindle single called The Safe Man ($1.99), Mulholland Dive: Three Stories ($1.99) and Suicide Run: Three Harry Bosch Stories ($2.99). He also released the opening chapters of his last two novels, The Drop and The Black Box, as free Kindle e-books before publication. And he (or his publisher) regularly drops the price of an early Bosch novel down to $1.99 or $2.99, enticing new readers all the time.

Beginning back in September 2006, a Bosch story called The Overlook was serialized  in sixteen installments in the New York Times magazine. In May 2007 it was published in a slim hardback as a full-length novel. Even though it wasn’t really—”editing” in this case really meant “padding”. But at the time that was the only feasible way to get that serialized story into the hands of all of Connelly’s readers. Now he can release it in its original form as a low-cost e-book.

So I’m buying a Kindle because I want to read everything my favorite author has written. And because if I get time in the New Year, I want to go back and re-read all the Bosch novels for the first time, in order, and all my books are in storage and I can’t stand that horrid little paperback versions that I have of his early titles.

(Ugh!)

Just for kicks though—and loyalty card points—I’m going to buy my Kindle from Waterstones.

Why It Doesn’t Matter Whether or Not Your Book is Good

oldpost

[Today’s post should come with a warning: I’m not sure I’ve got my point across clearly. It’s a very hard thing to explain. But hopefully you’ll get what I mean, and take it in the spirit with which it was intended. Or else you’ll think I’m saying something I’m not, and freak out. Either way, it’s probably best to have coffee first. This one’s a long ‘un.]

In the last month or so I’ve done two self-publishing workshop thingys, one at Faber Academy in London and one for Inkwell Writers in Dublin, both of which required the building of a pink PowerPoint presentation that boiled—or at least, attempted to boil—everything I know about self-publishing down into two handy sessions, one for the caffeine-induced enthusiasm of the morning and one for the post-lunch slump of the afternoon. Doing this, I realized that (i) PowerPoint presentations take far more time to make than you could ever imagine and (ii) some of my views on self-publishing have significantly changed over the last year, including some views I harped on and on about in Self-Printed.

So between now and the sparkly new second edition of Self-Printed, coming sometime this summertime-ish (I refuse to be any more specific than that!), I’ll be blogging about these new ideas, starting today with this controversially headlined post about why I don’t think it matters whether or not the book you plan to self-publish is good.

(Yes, I did just say that. But please, kindly read the rest of this post before you start leaving ranty comments in the box below. Thanks.)

Once upon a time, I told would-be self-publishers that their books had to be good. Absolutely, positively and with no exceptions whatsoever. I didn’t want anyone self-publishing crap, or even just mediocre stuff.

Because first of all, what was the point? There was none. Just because you could didn’t mean that you should. (As Dr. Malcom tells Hammond in the Jurassic Park Visitors’ Center dining room, incidentally.) The point of books is not just that they were written. Besides, self-publishing is a business, with you as the entrepreneur and the book as your first product. Wouldn’t you make sure if instead of a book you were selling, say, lightbulbs, that those lightbulbs worked before you put them on the shelves? Wouldn’t you make sure that they were good? Of course you would, unless you were a chucking-money-down-the-toilet enthusiast with a black belt in shamelessness.

Maybe you weren’t interested in money, and instead you were in the midst of setting up a delightful picnic of rainbows and cupcakes on Unicorn Meadow, to which you’d invited all of your favorite writerly dreams. Dreams are lovely, and anyone who knows me knows that I’m a big believer in having them—but also that I’d never charge anyone €2.99 (or any amount) for the privilege of seeing mine come true, and not much else. That kind of thing is called vanity publishing for a reason.

And most important of all, you self-publishing crap might cost me sales. Do you know how hard it is to get someone to read a self-published book? We may have lost some perspective what with us being self-publishers ourselves, and being surrounded by blog posts, articles, tweets, etc. about self-published books doing well, but the answer is it’s extremely hard and, when it comes to the vast majority of constant readers in the world right now, practically impossible. I don’t have to explain to you why and, if I do, then you must be only half-way through your lunch back in Unicorn Meadow. But let’s say that one of us manages to break through, and get someone who never, ever, ever wanted to read a self-published book to read a self-published book, maybe even accidentally. If it’s a good book produced by a professional self-publisher that’s been through the standards of book production (editing, cover design, etc.), then our new convert might buy another one. Maybe mine. But what if it’s a terrible book that reads like a Google Translate malfunctioning, looks like a HTML sneeze and has a quote from the author’s mother on the cover in Comic Sans? Now this self-publishing toe-dipper has just confirmed what they thought about self-published books all along, and you can guarantee that they won’t be buying any more. Maybe the book they would’ve bought next would’ve been mine. If that HTML sneeze was yours, you’ve cost me a sale. You have indulged in some irresponsible self-publishing, and you’ve messed it up for more people than just yourself.

So for all these reasons, I told you that your book had to be good. Otherwise, there was no point in even researching things like promotion, because once your early readers left nothing but one-star reviews, your title would be dead in the Kindle water. To find out whether or not your book was good, I recommended either trying to get it traditionally published (for feedback; full manuscript requests would generally confirm that there was at least something there) or paying a manuscript assessment service to tell you both the good and bad news. Whatever you did, you had to do something. You had to make sure that your book was good.

We have go ba-ack… and find out what the whispers were about. And why those particular numbers were the important ones. And how you can time travel using water and sunlight. And why Walt was important. And what’s the deal with Christian Shepard. And why women couldn’t give birth on the island. And—

But this argument had holes bigger than the plot of Lost. (Still bitter about that? Two years later? Me?) It was easy to find exceptions to the rule.

Take for example The Bad Writing, Big Selling Club. Dan Brown is probably the name that pops up the most frequently. He isn’t a particularly good writer—and is, in fact, renowned for not being a very good writer at all—but yet he’s sold millions and millions of books. Thus the Bad Book Self-Publisher concludes that although their book isn’t very good, it is definitely better than Dan Brown’s, so it’s gonna sell. Or that it’s at least as good as it, so it has a chance. Or that Dan Brown is proof that it doesn’t matter what sort of crap is between the covers, people buy books no matter what. So, bad books sell.

Last October I relocated to Nice, France, for six weeks. I have thus far managed to resist the lure of a Kindle (ironic, I know) and had a 20kg luggage limit, so I relied on the tiny English language section of the local FNAC for reading material while I was there. Pickings were slim, to say the least. One week I picked up The Swarm by Frank Schatzing, translated into English from the German, partly because it sounded really interesting and partly because it was approximately the size of a brick and seemed as if it’d last me a while.

It was to good writing what the coffee you get served on airplanes is to Nespresso. There was so much badly handled exposition that “badly handedly exposition” would’ve made a good subtitle for the book. Nothing actually happened for at least fifty pages, and the science wasn’t so much interwoven as it was dumped in a steaming heap in the middle of each page. The characters had about as much depth as a puddle on the bathroom floor after someone’s had a shower, and for most of the book the reader had absolutely no clue what was going on. (And before you protest, these problems were all unrelated to the translation.) But I read it. I kept reading it. It was inexplicably riveting. And after a while, I even found myself enjoying it. Why? Because even though it wasn’t Shakespeare—or even Brown, or even correct English, half the time—it had something that kept me reading and ultimately gave me an enjoyable reading experience. So it did it matter that the book wasn’t, strictly speaking, good? No, because the book had something else, something that kept me turning the pages.

(And for the record, I loved The Da Vinci Code. I don’t make a habit of not liking things just because lots of people do, or because it’s “cool” to knock it.)

Coffee, and this was in Nice. Relevant, no?

So that was one plot hole in my Good Books theory—and then there was the reverse of that: the Great Writing, Not Selling Club. Every year we’re shocked to see how little some snooty-literary-award-nominated books have sold by the time the shortlists are revealed. I think it was 2011’s Booker that had some sales in the 800s. Yes, only eight hundred copies sold of a book experts agreed was one of the best books published by an Irish or British writer that year. (Of course they all did alright afterwards, but that’s not the point.) Recently I sat in on a talk by an editor at a major publisher of top quality literary fiction who said that the majority of her authors never earn out their (already small) advances, and that if it wasn’t for literary prize money, they’d have to shut up shop. So, good books don’t necessarily sell.

My point, 1,500 words later, is that whether or not your book is good is not what’s most important. What your book needs to have is appeal. Without appeal, your book won’t sell no matter how “good” it is. And with enough appeal, your book will sell even if you aren’t a great or even very good writer. Appeal is a terribly difficult thing to define, or at least it’s a terribly difficult thing for me to explain to you in words that make any sense. But in its most basic sense, if your book has appeal is has something that makes people want to read it. This may be useful information, an intriguing plot idea, or an author who already has a very large following for their writing elsewhere. It might just be a good product description or a snappy blurb. Or it might be something you can’t quite put your finger on, or quantify at all. But it’s the appeal that bridges the gap between someone finding out about your book, and that same someone buying it.

And before you self-publish, you have to make sure that you have it.

A well-written book does not equal appeal. It’s just not enough. That’s the bad news. The good news is that you don’t have to be the next Jonathan Franzen (thank fudge for that—I’d hate to hate Twitter) or Zadie Smith to win a readership and make a living as a writer.

Take Twilight, for example. Prior to reading it, I had zero interest in vampires. (Even now, my interest only extends as far as Eric Northman.) I never read YA, except for Harry Potter which arguably was in a genre all of its own. I only relented after hearing so much about the series, and by the time I got around to reading it all four books were already out. And I absolutely loved it. While I was reading it, it took over my life. Edward was suddenly occupying far too many of my thoughts for a fictional character. (Just as well he wasn’t technically a teenage boy.)  Then I lent it to my best friend, and it took over her life too. We both read all four books within a week just because we couldn’t stop; it was like the literary equivalent of crack cocaine. But why was it? It wasn’t particularly well-written, and it also, when you think about it, promotes the idea of giving everything up—college, your family, your life—for a guy, and doing it at the age of 18. Our previous shared read had been Kazuo Ishiguro’s A Pale View of the Hills, and we are certainly not the kind of girls up for giving up anything for anyone, least of all boys.

(As if. So, like, anyway…)

But we loved it. I’m guessing it was for the same reason that women the world over fell for the books: because they instantly transported us back to the heady days of being a teenage girl, and being a teenage girl in lurve. Life-altering, appetite-quenching, drowning in hormones love—except without the awkwardness, rejection, spots, etc. Thankfully. And that’s its appeal. It had nothing to do with vampires, and everything to do with the good bits of being a teenage girl. (It didn’t hurt, of course, that the adorable and devoted Edward Cullen was thrown in for good measure.) The way Meyer writes had very little to do with it outside of her ability to invoke memories of adolescence love; afterwards I picked up her only non-Twilight book, The Host, but only made it a third of the way through before I abandoned it. That one didn’t hold any appeal at all for me.

You might argue that if a book is written well, people will want to read it. Well, ask a literary fiction editor where their Rolls Royce and diamond shoes are for more information on that.

As I said this whole appeal thing is hard to make any clear points about (clearly!) but if I’m just confusing you, think of it this way. If you read blogs and/or are on Twitter, you are bombarded every single day with news about books. Books about to be published, books just published, books that have been out for months and books that have been out for years. Traditionally published books, self-published books, cult favorites and mega-sellers. Books, books, books. But do you run out and buy them all? Hardly. But every now and then I bet you Google the name of one of them to find out more, and a few clicks later you’re buying a copy with your credit card.

So what makes the difference? Why don’t you buy all the books? (Aside from the fact that we’re not millionaires.) Why don’t I buy all the books Oprah’s Book Club newsletter tells me about once a week? They must all be good, because Oprah says so, but it’s not just because I can’t afford it. It’s because whatever I glean from the blurb, the cover design and the information I have about the author, some of the books end up appealing to me and some of them don’t.

So what does all this mean? It means you may have a perfectly well-written book that isn’t selling, and that might be because despite your talent, no one wants to read the kind of book you’ve written. It would also explain why books that aren’t as good as yours are selling more, and why books that are brilliantly written aren’t selling at all. Your book doesn’t have widespread appeal, or at least doesn’t have any that’s on show. If it’s not on show, you have to find it. If you don’t know if it has any, find out. Pitch it to some readers and gauge their reactions. (Readers. NOT your mother, or even your friends.)  If it doesn’t, move on.

(This is all linked to something I’ve discovered about self-publishing—that, by default, nobody gives a rodent’s arse about your book—which I’ll be blogging about at a later date.)

Now of course, the aim of the game should be to self-publish a book that is both good and has appeal. That is the ideal. But I’m here to tell you that if you’ve only managed the good book part, your work is not yet done.

(Sorry!)

Does all that make sense? Or do I need to move to a stronger strength of coffee?

My 2010 in Books

After seeing Jamie’s End of 2010 Book Survey post on her blog The Perpetual Page Turner (via @brokeandbookish on Twitter), I decided to compile my own list. But remembering all – or any! – of the books you’ve read in the last year takes some serious head-scratching, you know…

Best Book of 2010:

Room by Emma Donoghue. Great to find a critically acclaimed book that is also immensely readable, and how many books can you say are truly original? Jack, the five-year-old narrator, will stay with you for a long time after you reach the end, and far from being the dark and creepy novel the subject matter implies it will be, I finished this feeling uplifted. (Read my review of Room here.)

Worst book of 2010:

I really can’t think of one! I’m sure there were truckloads of bad books, but luckily I didn’t waste my time reading any of them.

Most Disappointing Book of 2010:

The Passage by Justin Cronin. I was expecting big, BIG things of this post-apocalyptic vampire saga, and all I got were small-to-medium-sized ones. A crying shame, because its opening section was brilliant, and most of its problems could have been fixed by a ruthless edit. But could anything have lived up to such pre-publication hype?

Most Surprising (in a good way!) Book of 2010:

After I posted my review of The Passage, Henry Holt & Co. sent me a copy of The Reapers are the Angels by Alden Bell to read and review. I wasn’t expecting much. I’m not especially into flesh-eating zombies, Southern Gothic or books with descriptions that might make you upchuck your dinner, but Reapers had me gripped. A literary novel that deserves the marketing budget of its much inferior commercial competitor. (I reviewed it here.)

Book You Recommended to People Most in 2010:

I think it’s probably The Help by Kathryn Stockett. I only read it this summer and it completely floored me. (It’s the only book, I can say with certainty, that had me sitting in a deck-chair in my back garden, burnt after eight straight hours in the sun, crying my eyes out. And that was before I even read the Author’s Note, which set me off again.)

Best Series You Discovered in 2010:

Alas, I don’t think I discovered any series in 2010… although I did re-discover Karin Slaughter. Does that count?

Favorite New Authors You Discovered in 2010:

Gillian Flynn is by far my best discovery this year. Her crime novels, Sharp Objects and Dark Places, are very dark and very gripping, and more character driven than any of their neighbors on the Crime section’s shelves. I also finally got around to reading a novel by my three initials/two names friend, Catherine Ryan Hyde (Second Hand Heart) and after the amazing Like Bees to Honey, I’m looking forward to reading more of Caroline Smailes‘ work. In Search of Adam is already on my iPhone Kindle app, waiting for just the right train journey. Another great find: Belinda Bauer and her Crime Dagger winning debut, Blacklands. I can’t wait to read her second novel, Darkside, published in January.

Most Hilarious Read of 2010:

I mustn’t have read very many funny books in 2010, because when it came to this category I couldn’t think of any. So I’m cheating, and saying How I Became a Famous Novelist by Steve Hely, which was released in 2009 but which I read (twice!) in 2010. Laugh-out-loud funny from beginning to end. (See my review here.)

Most Thrilling, Unputdownable Book in 2010:

Blacklands by Belinda Bauer. Thrilling, unputdownable, spine-tingling, terrifying – they all apply. While its pace is measured and slow, its horror pulls you in and refuses to let you go, and even though you fear for the characters and the horrifying end they all seem to be moving towards, you can’t help but rush to get there with them. Definitely an Up All Night one. (See my review here.)

Book You Most Anticipated in 2010:

I was dying to read Committed by Elizabeth Gilbert, but put it down during her first clump of dry pages about the history of marriage and never picked it back up again. I had my usual rush-to-buy-and-read-on-publication-day-and-then-regret-you’ve-a-whole-year-to-wait-for-another-one syndrome with Michael Connelly’s and Harlan Coben’s latest offerings (The Reversal and Caught, respectively), and I could barely wait to read Room. I would have been highly anticipating Freedom if I wasn’t sick to death of hearing about it long before it came out, and waiting for this feeling to fade is why I still haven’t cracked the spine on my copy.

Favorite Cover of a Book You’ve Read in 2010:

I’m all about the covers, so it’s hard to pick just one, but I did love the cover of Like Bees to Honey by Caroline Smailes.

Most Memorable Character in 2010:

Five-year-old Jack, the narrator of Room. No competition for that one!

Most Beautifully Written Book in 2010:

That’s be Room again. There were no flowery or complicated words but yet Donoghue managed to bend the English language in a whole new way – she had to, what with her writing a book for adults as told by a five-year-old. Dazzling.

Book That Had the Greatest Impact on You in 2010:

Hmm. How do you measure impact? Not entirely sure. But I would have to say that due to the deck-chair/suburn/crying incident, it’s got to be The Help.

Book You Can’t Believe You Waited UNTIL 2010 to Finally Read:

In April 2009 I spent ten days in Orlando and while there, picked up a slightly damaged copy of The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls in a bargain bin in Barnes and Noble. For some reason, it took me until April of this year to get around to reading it, which I did all in one go without moving from the sofa. With one of the most intriguing prologues I’ve ever come across (a dressed up Walls is on her way to a society party in New York’s Upper East Side when, through the window of the cab, she spots her homeless mother, rummaging through a Dumpster) this tale of overcoming a poverty-stricken childhood and parents intent on living outside the norm is captivating, inspirational and wonderfully written.

Now… onto to 2011!

What are YOUR answers? If you want to post this survey on your blog, pop over to The Perpetual Page Turner to add a link to your post.

Book Chick City’s 2011 Stephen King Challenge – and Why I’ve Signed Up

Some days my Google Reader is like the wardrobe in The Chronicles of Narnia: it seems innocent enough, but hiding within it is a portal to a strange and wondrous land. There I was, catching up on posts from the fantabulous High Heels and Book Deals, when a click through led me to Julie Cohen’s flowery and fabulous blog (where I discovered this Post-It planning thing I am DYING to try – just need to finish the first draft first) where I then discovered Book Chick City and their 2011 Stephen King Challenge.

From their website:

“Welcome to The 2011 Stephen King Challenge! I love horror, and I’ve loved every Stephen King book I’ve read. Unfortunately that’s not that many. I really want to read more books written by this amazing author, which is why I created this challenge. So, if like me you want to delve further into the dark imagination of Stephen King, then join me in my quest!”

Read more Stephen King has had a spot on my To Do in Some Far Off Day list forever. While literati snobs may smirk at his work, most of the writers I know list his wonderful On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft as one of the top “How To…” books out there. (Ironically, some of the people worshipping On Writing are the same crowd who put his work on a par with the James Pattersons of the publishing world. Go figure.)

What I do find with King is that he can be terribly uneven, hardly surprising given the sheer amount of books he writes. The Stand is one of my favorite books ever, but I was left disappointed (not to mention completely nauseated) with Dreamcatcher, and unimpressed with From a Buick 8, one of the last King books I read. But I know that for every not-so-good book of his, there’s at least five or six great ones. And I’d like to get around to reading them.

Just last week one of the guests on Sky Arts’ The Book Show picked King’s The Long Walk for his choice as the book everyone should read before they’re 21, and I thought to myself, I must read that. Then I saw Book Chick City’s post and said to myself, ‘This is a sign! Sign-up!’ So I am. My aim is to get around to reading some of the titles below in 2011; to pass the challenge, you must read at least six.

  • The Shining (Seen the movie, never read the book)
  • Misery (Seen the movie and the stage play, never read the book)
  • It (Too scared to watch it, but have seen bits)
  • Cell (Boy, there’s a lot of blood on the cover)
  • Dolores Claiborne (Seen the movie, never read the book)
  • Rage (as Richard Bachman)
  • The Long Walk (as Richard Bachman)
  • Duma Key (already own a copy)
  • Under the Dome (already own a copy)
  • Salem’s Lot (on the insistence of my brother)
  • Rose Madder (recommended by Evelyn, below)
  • Running Man (also recommended by Evelyn).

Find out more about The 2011 Stephen King Challenge and sign-up here.

Are you up for it? Let me know if you’re signing up so we can commiserate with each other when we’re unable to sleep without the light on, or close our eyes without seeing Pennywise on the back of them…

A Crafty Catherine Christmas: Gift Ideas

Before we get to the decorating, baking and wrapping, we need to sort out the Prezzies. And while we can all waltz into a store and exchange our cash for a gift card, putting some thoughts into your gifts is so much more fun…

To the Web, at Once!

NotOnTheHighStreet.com is my favorite shopping website for two reasons: it has the most amazing stuff ever, and it ships pretty much everywhere. (There is nothing more annoying than locating the perfect gift and then discovering that they won’t deliver it to your part of the world. Ugh!) They have a huge range of personalized gifts, and all of their stock is so special that the recipient will know you put in some serious thought to their gift this year. Pictured below are some of the items on my Not On The High Street gift-giving wish list this Christmas: Space Rocket light switch (£24.99), “Don’t Stop Believing” framed print (£25/+£45 for frame), Paris cotton print photo album (£40), Bespoke Heart Map (£38/+£40 for frame), “Tweet, Tweet” printed blue canvas – perfect for the Twitter-obsessed! (£55), Dunk mug (£15.50). Visit their treasure-trove of a website here.

Some other great gift sites: The Literary Gift Company, Etsy, TruffleShuffle, Bombay Duck and The Dot Com Gift Shop.

Blurb It, Baby!

I love, love, LOVE Blurb, the online service that produces beautiful photo books. Not to be confused with self-publishing or POD sites like Lulu and Createspace, Blurb produces high-quality hardcover books, from square pocket-sized right up to dust-jacketed coffee table, ideal for gifts or keepsakes. Combined with some patience and your imagination, the possibilities are limitless.

I’ve used Blurb to make:

  • Catherine & Sheelagh’s Central American Adventure 2008 (below). After we got back from our backpacking adventures, I took the blog posts we’d written on the road and the hundreds of photos we’d taken, and preserved them forever in a beautiful Blurb blog book. Better yet, I didn’t tell Sheelagh anything about it so she got a nice surprise!

  • My mother is an avid gardener, and takes photos of her achievements on a daily basis. Thing is, she never does anything with them. So last Christmas I shifted through the 1,000+ digital photos of plants, flowers and garden views on our family PC and used them to make a photo book fit for the coffee table (below). It looked so “real” that when she unwrapped it, it took her a second to realize it wasn’t just a gardening book, but a book about her garden.

  • One of my closest friends and I have never lived anywhere near each other, save for the few months we worked together when we first met. Due to our geographical locations, much of our friendship is conducted in long, gossipy emails which when you read back over them brings back some hilarious memories. Last year I did a bit of mining through Yahoo Mail, found around 50,000 words worth of messages going back around five years, turned them into a text-only Blurb book with a suitably hilarious cover and sent it to my friend for his birthday.

And if your budget doesn’t stretch to Blurb, make your own version of a photo book. Muji and Paperchase do ranges of plain photo albums and scrapbooks with kraft covers; fill them with photos, personalize the cover and brighten up someone’s Christmas with a thoughtful keepsake. Another idea: compile a themed book of quotations, such as travel-related ones for a friend about to hit the road, or writerly wisdom for the scribe in your life. You’ll be practically drowning in brownie points.

I framed this as a present to myself, but you get the idea.

You’ve Been Framed

Not enough things get framed these days, in my opinion. Framing an item can turn it from something you’d otherwise just chuck in a shoebox to a unique reminder of happy times that will get pride of place on your bedroom/office/bathroom (!) wall. In another life I had a little handmade card company, and my ultimate wedding gift was a handmade wedding card with the bride and groom’s names and wedding date on the front, framed in a beautiful co-ordinating frame and mount. On it’s own: a pretty card. In a frame: an ideal keepsake and thoughtful (that’s today’s buzz word, if you hadn’t realized) wedding gift. At this time of year you could do First Christmas Together for a couple, or Baby’s First Christmas. (With a little Santa bootie – oh, the cuteness!)

Tickets and photos also work – last year I got my brother’s U2 ticket framed alongside some of the photos I took at the concert , making a great memento of his first live experience of his favorite band and a unique Christmas present.

Hampering It Up

If your budget is particularly limited, another great idea is what I like to Hilarious Hampers. Take a box and.. well, think outside it! For instance, my sister is forever stealing the usual suspects from my room: wet wipes, deodorant, hair clips and hair bands – all those things that you use the most but somehow completely forget to buy when you’re in Boots, wandering out instead with €50 worth of make-up you don’t need and a vague suspicion that you didn’t come out with what you went in for. So last Christmas I took a wicker basket, arranged a bunch of those items artistically, wrapped it in cellophane and stuck a bow on it. She got the stuff she needed, it won a few laughs and I prevented theft of my toiletries until February. (I also contemplated giving my recycling-obsessed Dad a hamper of empty plastic bottles and jam jars, but I wasn’t sure it’d go down too well…!)

And let’s not forget… BOOKS!

The best present to give and to receive. (Forget this love business – I just want books!) The Book Depository is by far your cheapest option for internet buying with its low prices and free shipping worldwide, and the site is offering Irish customers an additional 10% off until December 15th. (I have had some problems with their careless packing though… stuffing books into too small envelopes, etc. Not great for items intended as gifts.) But online bookstores are difficult to browse – you have a much better chance of finding that perfect book if you make the effort to pop round to local independent bookstore. They choose the stock themselves and usually have very knowledgeable and enthusiastic staff.

Don’t forget you can also send Kindle books as gifts to anyone who has an e-mail address. Simply click the ‘Give as a Gift’ button on your chosen book’s Amazon Kindle listing.

And if you’re stuck for what book to get, you know I wrote one, right?

(Admittedly a little cheeky…!)

So there you have it – my best gift ideas. Do you have any to add?

My Book Backlog

In September of last year, I stopped reading novels.

I was about to start writing my own and I feared accidental plagiarism by osmosis. There were a few slips here and there but generally, I managed to stick to non-fiction or not read at all.

But I made a crucial error. I stopped reading novels but  I kept buying them. Now that the novel is finished – tweaking continues, but it’s basically finished – it’s safe to read novels again. Over the weekend, I went looking for the ones I’d put in the Buy Now, Read Later pile. And boy – there was an actual pile:

I was shocked. How had I let such a backlog build up? (And, even worse, continued to add to it – The Book Thief just arrived from Amazon.) Why did I buy these books when I knew I had others at home I hadn’t yet read, and wouldn’t get around to reading them for ages? Continue reading