Book Chat Back-chat #3: Best books of 2018*

It’s been a long while since the last instalment of Book Chat Back-Chat, and that’s mainly because my foolish decision to relax the kids’ phone restrictions on holiday this summer led to a severe reduction in reading. Quelle surprise.

However, they’ve managed to get back into their reading groove over the last few months so, without further ado, here’s the latest round of book recommendations from my daughters (aged 12 & 14), my husband and myself, over a Boxing Day breakfast of pancakes.

B (age 12): My favourite book this year was Splash by Charli Howard. It’s about a 10-year-old girl called Molly who lives with her grandparents because her mum left when she was younger. Molly loves swimming, but her best friend says swimming isn’t cool so she keeps her swimming club a secret. Then her mum comes back into her life but she’s not a good mum.

Mrs H: So what happens to Molly? Does she fall out with her best friend?

B: I don’t want to give anything away but basically it’s about how Molly needs to learn to stand up for herself. I loved this book so much – I read it in four days. [Squirts kingsized dollop of golden syrup onto her pancake.]

Mrs H: WHOA – that’s an obscene amount of goo! You should aim for a puddle, not a lake.

B: That is a puddle.

Mrs H: An enormous puddle. Anyway, what are you reading now?

B: The one you gave me – After The Fire by Will Hill. I’ve only read a few chapters but I’m already hooked. I want to know what happens next.

Mrs H: Well I read After The Fire and I couldn’t put it down! I’d say it’s a great book for anyone aged 12 or over, male or female. It’s about a girl who grows up within a religious sect in America. They live in a walled compound where she has always felt safe, but when a devious new leader takes over and forces her mum to leave, she starts to question the world she’s grown up in and all the people around her – and realises she must escape before it’s too late.

R (age 14): My turn! So the book I most enjoyed reading this year was Girl Boss by Sophia Amoruso.

Mrs H: Is that fiction or non-fiction? [Removes golden syrup from table before 12yo can squirt a second dollop on her pancake.]

R: Non-fiction – although it’s also a TV drama series. It’s about how Sophia Amoruso started up a company by selling vintage clothes on ebay. She went from dropping out of school and never being very good at any jobs to being really successful. Her company Nasty Gal is mega-famous now. It really inspired me.

Mrs H: What are your other favourites from this year then?

R: I loved The Hate You Give by Angie Thomas. I think I talked about that last time. And I also loved re-reading The Letter For The King by Tonke Dragt. It’s a medieval fantasy story and one of my all-time favourite books – I re-read it because I wanted to remind myself of the story before I read the sequel, The Secrets of the Wild Wood – which was also really good, though not as good as the first book.

Mr H: So my favourite book this year was The Choice by Edith Egur, who is a Holocaust survivor. She tells the story of her life from her time in Auschwitz to how she became a psychologist and public speaker.

B: So is she very, very old then? [Retrieves golden syrup and puts it back on the table.]

Mr H: Yes, in her 90s.

R: How old was she when she was in Auschwitz?

Mr H: She was a teenager. She wanted to be a professional dancer.

Mrs H: Why is it called The Choice?

Mr H: Well she says that we all have choices and that being a survivor requires acceptance of what was and what is. She also says that one person’s suffering is no less significant or important than anyone else’s. I found it very thought-provoking.

Mrs H: Any other faves from 2018?

Mr H: Yes, Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert was a really helpful book about the spiritual side of the creative journey. She’s really good at explaining things in a matter-of-fact, non-cheesy way. And I also read a biography of Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson which was fascinating.

Mrs H: Um, kids – where do you think you’re going?

B & R: To watch That 70s Show.

Mrs H: Don’t you want to know what my favourite books are?

B & R: No.

Mrs H: Oh. That’s nice. [To husband]: Looks like it’s just you and me then. OK, so the books I enjoyed most over the last year are: The Power by Naomi Alderman – a story that flips the power-balance between men and women on its head – very thought-provoking; Breath by Tim Winton, which is about a thrill-seeking teenager in 1970s Australia, whose passion for surfing keeps him in a constant dance with death. LOVED that book!; The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah which is about two sisters fighting in the resistance in World War Two. The story really makes you feel the fear and pain of everyday life in Nazi-occupied France. But my absolute favourite book of the year has to be A Ladder To The Sky by John Boyne, (lent to me by my good friend Jen who has a hound-like nose for a meaty page-turner).

Mr H: I just don’t see what was so great about A Ladder To The Sky. I nearly gave up on it several times.

Mrs H: What?! Are you mad? It was brilliant. An ambitious and emotionally bankrupt author who steals other people’s stories in order to ruthlessly further his own career? How is that NOT gripping?

Mr H: It was just all a bit meh.

Mrs H: Meh? MEH?

Mr H: Is that your impression of a disgruntled sheep? OK, to be fair, I liked the bit where his wife was narrating – that bit was good.

Mrs H: It was unputdownable.

Mr H: It was VERY putdownable. Don’t look at me like that, Mildred. I’m entitled to my views.

And that, book-lovers, is where we’ll leave this episode of Book Chat Back-Chat. Suffice to say the husband and I are still married, but I am banned from recommending him any more novels for the whole of 2019. (But we’ll see about that…)

* (Some of the books mentioned were published in 2018, but some have been around much longer.)

10 Tips to get kids reading independently at bedtime

When my eldest child reached the age of about nine, I realised that making the change from bedtime stories to independent reading wasn’t going to happen overnight. It was going to be a transition phase, and if I wanted my children to truly discover the joy of getting lost in a novel, I’d have to coach them. It was a slow process with a lot of reluctance along the way, but now at the ages of 11 and 13, I’m chuffed to have two book-loving kids.

Below are some of the things I tried out to help my kids discover what a brilliant experience it is to get teleported into a fictional world…

  1. CHALLENGE! I challenged them to read 12 chapter books in 12 months. If they completed the challenge, they’d win a prize such as a day out somewhere special or a voucher to spend in their favourite shop. Funnily enough, they told their friends about it which led to a bit of friendly competition!
  1. Keep it easy. We started the challenge with a chapter book that was well within my children’s capabilities, ie: 50/50 illustration/text. I didn’t up the difficulty level each time as I didn’t want to put them off. This was about learning to read by themselves – not accelerating their reading age.
  1. Start them off. I’d often read the first couple of chapters to them to get them started. Or I’d read a couple of pages every night and stop just as it was getting interesting. If they weren’t willing to read to themselves, I’d get them to read a few pages to me, then ask, “What do you think’s going to happen next? Why don’t you read the next few pages to yourself to see if you’re right?”
  1. Break it down. Suggest they read one chapter per night – or five pages if the chapters are long. Before they turn out their light, ask them what happened in that chapter. Which characters do they like? How do they think the story will turn out? Did they come across any words they didn’t understand?
  1. Strike a deal. Sometimes my kids would complain that the book was boring, so we compromised: they had to read to at least page 40 or the halfway mark before they could give up. If it still wasn’t grabbing them by then, they could choose another book. Usually, by the time they reached the agreed page, they were immersed.
  1. Know when to quit. If my kids reached the agreed page and still weren’t into it, they were free to ditch that book. I soon realised my children weren’t interested in many of the books I loved as a child. Once I read them a Famous Five novel and they forced me to abandon it at the penultimate chapter and begged me never to read them another one.
  1. Know when to get tough. For kids like mine who watch an hour or so of TV every day, asking them to read one chapter per night at bedtime is not unreasonable. I told mine if they could do it, then they’d get to stay up late on Friday and watch a film. If they couldn’t be bothered to give it a go, then no screen time the next day…
  1. Start a book log. Keeping a log of the books you’ve read and giving each one a star rating is a fun thing to do no matter how old you are. My youngest even wrote a blog for a while, writing a short review of each book she read. The rest of us all kept lists, which would get us talking – which books would we include in our Top 10 favourites? Which books would we take to a desert island? Which is better, the book or the film? Who is the worst villain ever?
  1. Talk to them about what you’re reading. Once, on holiday, I was telling my husband about the book I’d started reading (And The Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini). The kids were playing nearby but also listening to our conversation. “So then what happened to the little boy?” my eldest asked. I ended up recounting the first couple of chapters of the story. “Did he ever see his sister again?” the youngest asked. “I don’t know,” I replied. “I’ll have to read another chapter tonight and tell you tomorrow.” They held me to my word. By the end of the holiday, I had recounted the entire novel (leaving out anything too disturbing) to my kids – at their request.
  1. Never say never. For years it seemed like my children were the only kids in the universe not to be interested in Harry Potter. They point blank refused to even watch the films. Then, one rainy afternoon (aged 10 and 12 respectively), they got bored. I dared to suggest a Harry Potter film again. They were so bored, they agreed. Since then they’ve watched all the films and read all the books. My youngest has just read the Philosopher’s Stone for the second time and is urging me to read it, too. We’ve come a long way…

 

Skin: the final frontier

There’s so much more public awareness about all kinds of things these days – race, sexuality, disability, gender, mental health, bullying, to name just a few. And thank God for that. We’re making progress in the fight against stigma and discrimination. However, I find it profoundly disappointing that the level of ignorance surrounding acne remains the same as ever.

So here are a few things it might help you to know about acne. If you’re a parent who has kids that DON’T suffer from acne, please make them read this. I’m thinking of the kid in their class at school who does have acne and who could do with their understanding.

10 things you should know about acne.

  1. Acne is not caused by poor diet. FACT.
  2. Acne is not caused by poor hygiene. FACT.
  3. Acne is caused by a hormonal imbalance (a higher-than-average level of testosterone) that affects the sebaceous glands, making them over-productive. This isn’t something that can be solved by some amazing cleanser from Boots. We’re talking medication prescribed by a doctor or dermatologist.
  4. People who have acne usually go through a year or so of trying out various prescribed treatments, which vary in their effectiveness. Roaccutane, known as one of the most effective medications, usually requires at least 6 months of treatment and entails the risk of unpleasant side effects, such as super-dry skin and headaches.
  5. People who have acne are totally aware that they have it. You don’t need to tell them.
  6. You also don’t need to give them your advice – unless of course you’re a dermatologist or have had acne yourself. Suggestions like, “you should cut down on sugar” or “you shouldn’t wear so much make-up” come from ignorance – even if meant in kindness. People with acne get comments like this all the time. It’s not helpful. It’s the opposite.
  7. Acne tends to be temporary, even if it lasts several years. Ignorance, on the other hand, can last a lifetime if left untreated.
  8. People who have acne often don’t like to draw attention to themselves. So if they don’t seem to contribute much to conversation, perhaps they could do with some warm and friendly encouragement.
  9. A few zits does not equal acne. Moaning about your one spot in front of someone with acne is pretty insensitive.
  10. A person suffering from acne is doing their goddamn best to live a normal life, while feeling distraught about their appearance. You should be in awe of their courage.

And finally, people who have acne like to be looked in the eye, not in the skin. Be kind. Superiority or bitchiness are far uglier conditions to suffer from.

 

 

A poem about… Budgie Smugglers

Dedicated to all British men who dread putting on the appropriate attire for the French piscine… Allez. Bon courage.

 

One thing about France that British blokes hate:

The piscine rules aren’t up for debate

Baggy shorts are seen as a foreign man’s crime

Blokes, there’s no point complaining – it’s budgie time

 

You trawl the internet, seeking lenience

What are the reasons for this inconvenience?

How can baggy shorts be more of a scandal

than bikini bottoms that draw attention to your handle?

 

Get over it Britishers, work that stiff upper lip

Remember, in France, you’ll look pretty hip

There is one advantage to the hammock de banane –

all the French ladies love a budgie smuggler man

Good copywriting is important – here’s why.

Today I want to talk about copywriting, which is what I do for a living. It’s a different kind of challenge to writing fiction – I have to bear in mind clients’ requirements, but creatively it can be just as rewarding.

I work with my husband, a graphic designer, and over the years I’ve often noticed how people see the importance of good design, but sometimes text plays second fiddle. People often think that so long as there aren’t any typos, their copy is probably fine as it is.

Tut, tut! To this I say: never underestimate the power of words, in particular the tone of voice they’re written in, and the effect they can have on the reader.

The right words are key. The right amount. The right tone. The right message.

Good design with poor copy is like eating artisan bread with Happy Shopper marge.

So here are a few things I’ve learned about copywriting over the years, some of which can equally be applied to writing fiction.

1 • Don’t say what you think people want to hear.

Businesses want to sound professional, so they strive to use professional language. But language that sounds too professional and businessy, can often sound soulless and dull.

Thanks to this tendency, there are certain words and phrases today that have become a tad vacuous: ‘world-class’, ‘cutting-edge’, ‘highly regarded’ and ‘leaders in our field’ to name but a few.

Would you say to your friend/partner/kids, “Let’s go and visit that world-class museum with the cutting-edge displays that really add value to the unbeatable admission price!”?

Of course not.

Just speak normally. It’s allowed.

2 • Go easy on the war paint.

Vacuous words aside, messages drenched in adjectives don’t sound confident. You just sound like you’re trying to compensate for having a below-average product or service.

For example, ‘So-and-so stars in this side-splitting, laugh-out-loud, smash-hit comedy.’

Is this film going to make us wet ourselves with laughter? Probably not. The copy is trying too hard and we suspect it’s probably a mildly amusing film at best.

You might think your message looks a little bare or weak without a good dressing of adjectives, but don’t be fooled by the fear. Too much make-up never makes anyone look better.

Keep your message simple and honest.

3 • Frankie says relax.

Don’t go spewing all your key selling points into one piece of marketing.

If you’re trying to shoehorn a long list of benefits, accolades, praise and statistics into a paragraph, then take Frankie’s advice and for goodness sake, relax.

Less is more. Hold something back for later. Have a little mystique. Keep ‘em dangling.

After all – those three words ended up going viral for Frankie, decades before ‘viral’ was a thing.

4 • Forget your ‘target audience’.

You may well have worked out exactly who your target audience is, down to the most detailed demographics. But the person you’re really talking to, if the truth be known, is the one who gets it.

The more you try to widen your tone of voice to reach every potential customer, the weaker your message will be.

You’re talking to one person. The person who gets it.

This requires trust.

5 • Be true to yourself.

If you’re true to yourself, you’re much more likely to reach those who’ll get it.

Every time you get lost in a book or film, or laugh at a comedy or advert; every time you’re swallowed whole by a piece of music, or stop to stare at a piece of art – the creator, whoever they might be, was being true to themselves.

They didn’t create it with nothing but sales figures in mind. They wrote it/painted it/produced it for themselves. That’s why it touched you. It was fresh, honest and real – not contrived.

Find your true voice and don’t be afraid to use it.

6 • Show, don’t tell.

If you’ve ever gone to a creative writing class, you’ll no doubt have heard the expression ‘Show, don’t tell’. It’s one of the golden rules of storytelling.

But it’s just as relevant to copywriting as it is to writing fiction. To tell is to state the facts. To show is to paint a picture in the reader’s mind – to help them visualise what it is you’re talking about.

To tell: “That’s a very big shark.”

To show: “We’re gonna need a bigger boat.”

Don’t just state the facts. Paint the picture.

7 • Don’t undervalue the power of humour.

We all notice language that makes us laugh or smile. It brightens our day for a moment.

When companies take themselves a little less seriously, they start to sound less corporate and more human. The more human you sound, the more you’re likely to connect.

Inject some humour into your copy and it will start to sound more friendly and warm. If you think this doesn’t apply to you because you’re a firm of lawyers/accountants/other type of professional service, then I would challenge that perception. Too much serious-toned sales bluster on your About Us page can actually come across as intimidating and, in some cases, gives off a condescending air. Remind people you’re a bunch of humans, too.

ShitcoffeeAmazingcoffee

(I asked a group of friends which sign they preferred. ‘Shit coffee’ won hands down.)

8 • Don’t brag.

Saying you’re the market leader or the best in your field is all very well, but who cares? No one likes a big mouth.

By all means get the message across that you’re number one gun, but do it with some subtlety. It’s less off-putting and more believable. All companies have their flaws and weaknesses, so why claim to be perfect? Everyone knows it’s not the entire truth.

Be honest about who you are. And again, don’t just state the facts. Paint the picture.

9 • Don’t stack stats.

Never add up lots of statistics to make one big, fat, meaningless statistic, such as: ‘We have over 175 years’ experience between us.’

TV documentaries are particularly guilty of this insult to the nation’s intelligence. Ie: ‘These 40 dieters lost a whopping 150 stone between them.’ So what? It means nothing to anybody. How one dieter lost a few stone is what’s relevant and interesting.

Keep stats to a minimum and put them in context to make them meaningful.

10 • Ignore what everyone else is doing.

Don’t spend too much time looking at other people’s websites/brochures/adverts. You will definitely find someone whose work looks better than yours. And another person is likely to think your work looks better than theirs. And so on and so on…

So don’t waste time drooling over their awards/portfolio/market position.

Avert your eyes and ears from all the noise out there, find your true voice, write yourself a quick, uncensored pep talk and frame it. That voice in the pep talk – that’s the one.

You’re writing for the person who gets you. And as you’re the first person to get you, you’re basically writing for yourself.

From couch potato to box beetroot

Ah, the writer’s life… Sitting at a desk for hours on end, drinking back-to-back coffees and troughing biscuits; lying on the sofa with a laptop balanced on your belly, cat purring at your side, knowing it’s about time you got up and stretched a bit, but if nature isn’t calling, why bother? Those creative cogs whirring away, always pushed to the limit… unlike the rest of your body, which gets to enjoy, ahem, endless relaxation. Ah yes, this is the life for me…

Or so I thought. Two years ago, I turned 40. I was ok with it – I’d already had my freak-out at the tipping point of 37-and-a-half, when the Big Four-Zero was looming, and the threshold into middle age was beckoning. For a while there, it was a tough one to get my head around. Particularly as there was one thing I knew I couldn’t delay dealing with any longer: my lack of fitness.

I’d been suffering from a bad back since the birth of my first child eight years previously. I’d been to osteopaths, sports therapists, acupuncturists and chiropractors. I’d been to my GP and to physio. An MRI scan showed that I had an “eroded disc” between vertebrae L4 and L5 in the lower back. While all my other discs looked like nice, juicy beefburgers, Old L4/5 looked like a CD. I even had a steroid injection to reduce inflammation, but to no avail. My muscles in that area were constantly sore and inflamed, and I regularly experienced shooting pains in my lower back. None of the gentle exercise I’d been doing (walking, pilates and swimming) was making any difference. And living a largely sedentary lifestyle clearly wasn’t helping.

So when I started to wonder how much worse my back could become over the next 40 years, I soon reached a conclusion: I was going to have to change my couch potato ways, get off my arse and put some serious effort into getting fit. No more half-measures. My husband had already joined CrossFit (“a strength and conditioning programme based on constantly varied, high-intensity functional movements”) and the change in his fitness and muscle tone over just six months was unbelievable. And so I decided to sign up, knowing that this was either a very good idea or an extremely bad one.

As a 40-year-old who had undergone two Caesareans, had a dodgy back and couldn’t do a single press-up, I felt extremely nervous when I first arrived at my local CrossFit box (CrossFit Connect) in Hove. (The word ‘box’ was apt: this was more of a garage than a gym.) I felt like a sloth caught in the headlights. What was I doing in this alien environment? Where was Rocky Balboa hiding? There were weights, kettlebells, pull-up bars…and tractor tyres? There were people with actual muscles. People drenched in sweat. People panting, looking like they were in pain – but even more sick and twisted, they looked like they were enjoying it. Before I could turn and run (ok, walk speedily) away, I was welcomed in by a Super-Friendly Coach.

I was introduced to exercises I’d heard of but had never done: lunges, squats, V-crunches, pull-ups, etc. I was surrounded by people who’d clearly been taking fitness seriously for years, people who actually looked dignified whilst squatting. Finally I was introduced to the WOD. My husband was always going on about WODs (Workout of the Day) and AMRAPs (As Many Rounds As Possible), gratingly annoying words that, up until then, had meant nothing to me. He reminded me of Chandler from Friends going on about the WENUS. And now here I was, using these silly made-up words, too.

After my first WOD, I was as crimson as a beetroot and my legs were shaking so badly I could barely operate the pedals in my car to drive back home. However, I wasn’t going anywhere as another CrossFitter had blocked me in. I returned to the box on my shaky legs, brain jellified, feeling slightly emotional about my utter lack of fitness. “Oh right, what model car is it?” Super-Friendly Coach asked. It was dark and I hadn’t looked. “Don’t know,” I said, too weak to hobble back and take a closer look. My lip may have wobbled. With the kind of patience normal human beings don’t possess, he went to inspect and returned, calling for the owner of a black Peugeot to come and let me out.

Despite being a sloth AND a muppet, I somehow found the courage to return. I had to: allowing my back to deteriorate further wasn’t an option.

The first few months I found it awkward to speak out and say what I could and couldn’t do. It felt lame saying, “Um, can I not do that, please?” (because I’m going to end up in A&E if I do). But some of the WODs were way beyond my capabilities – even the warm-ups killed me – so the coaches scaled some of the exercises to a level I could manage. I had to be clear about my goals: I was not aiming to enter any weightlifting competitions, or get to the top of the scoreboard. I just wanted to build my strength and be rid of my aching back. That was all. (Oh, and get rid of those bingo wings, shed a few pounds, lose the muffin top, and a long list of other vanity-related stuff.)

On so many occasions, the day after a visit to the box, I’d wake up to find I had a frozen shoulder, a swollen ankle or that my back was stiffer than I’d ever experienced. I was feeling older, not younger! I felt mangled. I ached all over. I decided I’d give it till the end of the year – that’d be four months – and if I was still pulling muscles left, right and centre, perhaps it was time to admit defeat.

One day in late December, I was lying in bed reading when I realised my back wasn’t hurting. MY BACK WASN’T HURTING! For the first time in almost nine years, my back felt how a back should feel – painless. There was no doubt in my mind that this was down to the exercise I’d been doing at CrossFit.

Now, 20 months since I first joined, I’m still opting for the easiest-level WODs (which are not necessarily easy, just easier), but I feel stronger, more confident, and my level of fitness has definitely improved.

Rather than reciting my personal bests, instead let me say this: a basic 15kg bar no longer feels as heavy as it used to. I can do WODS involving rounds of press-ups, sit-ups, squats or whatever, and I no longer wobble away on shaky legs. I can do handstands! I can skip double-unders! I no longer arrive at the box dreading what punishing activities might await me – I enjoy going! (Shocker!) And, bonus: I’ve made some lovely new friends of all ages and levels of fitness.

Now for the even cheesier bit: aside from giving up smoking years ago, making fitness a part of my life (finally) is the single most impressive thing I’ve done for my health.

I’ll always have to be mindful of my troublesome disc, and for that reason I go steady with deadlifts and med-ball cleans, and don’t do burpees. (Even a dodgy disc has its plus points.) But overall, my back’s improved a lot, and – although it’ll never be perfect (eroded discs are irreversible) – I’ve got some core muscles now. We’re not talking ripped abs obviously, FAR from it, but I’m building strength where previously there wasn’t any. And, lo and behold a miracle has taken place in Couch Potatodom: fitness is now bizarrely on a par with writing in my life. If too many days go by with none occurring, it just doesn’t feel right.