The Truth about Book Clubs

Without serious preparation, a book club meeting is nothing. Which explains why, for the previous half hour, I had been fashioning little flags out of sticky labels and toothpicks to poke into various cheeses. Of course, an elaborate cheeseboard was not the only fare that evening. There was plenty of wine as well. This particular club, like so many other suburban book gatherings, could be described as a drinking club with a reading problem.

The venue may be a local pub, a bookshop, someone’s front room, or, especially this year, a room on Zoom. While the surroundings may vary, I have discovered some universal truths about book clubs.

#1 Like books themselves, book clubs come in all shapes, sizes, and genres. Some are highbrow, others less so. Before setting off with a tome tucked under your arm, it’s as well to know which sort you’re heading for. Get it wrong, and it’s like turning up at a funeral dressed for a tarts ‘n vicars party.

#2 There’s always a troublemaker, and the reason for the trouble is ostensibly to do with the book. The end is too rushed or too vague, there are too many foreign words or too little sex, and since when did dove get to be the past tense of dive?

“Since about 1855, that’s when,” a smart-arse will pipe up, citing the OED or an obscure poem by Longfellow.

#3 Someone will try to restore the peace. It’s either an amateur referee, a retired librarian with world-class shushing skills, or the home-owner who fears waking the kids.

#4 That’s why it’s a relief to move on to the choice for next meeting, though a consensus may be elusive. The chosen book is most often a novel, but could it be a biography for a change? The next book has to be well-thought of, or else controversial. Must triggers be avoided? Discuss. And they do.

Recent or topical is good, as long as the book is affordable. If not, some will only study the free sample on Amazon.

The book can’t be too long, because some of us work, you know. Here someone may bring up past choices. “Remember the time we chose English Passengers? I couldn’t be doing with nearly 500 pages.”

“Why not? English Passengers was hilarious.” Which may have been true, in parts. But then this came from the same person who thought of Titanic as a rom-com.

#5 Sometimes the club invites an author as guest speaker. Authors are only too glad to talk about their book and quaff wine, until such time as they are allowed to leave with the gift of a potted plant and the remains of the Roquefort. Just don’t say, “I’ve written a novel. Could you have a look at my manuscript?”

#6 Virtual meetings, being easier to attend and free of location restraints, often increase the number of participants, but Zoom and the like can decrease interaction. That doesn’t necessarily make the club run more harmoniously, though. See #2 above.

#7 It’s easy to dip into a book club and there’s no need to commit to every meeting, especially online. Just Google and you’re bound to find clubs for every possible genre, whether you enjoy sci-fi, feminist literature, translated books, historical fiction, or zombie apocalypse novels. Since the advent of Covid-19, escapism is the order of the day.

Do you go to a book club? I’d love to hear about yours, so please let me know its highs and its lows.

Next week, you can join award-winning author Jane Davis for a lockdown book club meeting via Zoom. On 12 Dec at 6.00pm, she’ll be answering questions about her latest release, At the Stroke of Nine O’Clock, a gripping novel set in the 1950s. The event is free but you need to register. Zoom meeting ID: 848 7601 7328 https://buff.ly/3miipHf

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You may also enjoy What Not to Say to an Author.

What You Can Learn on a Creative Writing Course

Can one be taught how to write a novel? Probably not, but that hasn’t stopped creative writing courses from springing up across the land – as well as in some lovely locations overseas. While you’re unlikely to go home with the first draft of a novel under your belt, a long weekend on a writing course can help hone some useful skills.

I’ve been on a few of these, from Devon to Norfolk. Here are seven things I took away from my experience.

1 I always forget something vital. Like deodorant. And the nearest shops are invariably miles away.

2 The loo is almost as far as the shops. And at night the floorboards creak worse than the rigging of the Black Pearl.

3 The tutors can be awesome, even if you don’t plan to write in that genre. The encouragement I got years ago from the legendary Ruth Rendell has been priceless.

4 The other participants can be awesome too. No matter how polished your prose, at least two of the other writers in the group will be just as good as you. 

5 Reading your work out loud in a group can be scary (see 3 and 4). But it’s an essential rite of passage and can help tune the ear. Afterwards, you may find yourself reading aloud to yourself far more often to help with editing.

6 There are new friends to be made (especially if you trek out to buy deodorant).

7 The local beer is stronger than anywhere else. Or is that just the heady atmosphere?

So, while you can’t become a novelist in three days, you can boost your writing powers and have fun as well.

Next blog post: Progress on My Secret Project.

 

Selfish Thoughts on World Book Night

No, I’m not doing anything for it either. Not giving out any of the 20 lovely books, or encouraging people to love reading. Nor (and thank you for reminding me it’s also St George’s Day and the anniversary of Shakespeare’s death) even reciting random sonnets while dressed up as a dragon. Though it might have been fun.

St George

I’ll be doing something far more self-centred. Writing two more books, and hoping that at least one of them will be done by the deadline without my turning into a dodgy fabric merchant. The worst thing about writing is that you become a recluse, as my family often points out. My husband is hovering as I write, holding up that dragon costume that will remain unworn this year, just as last. I may look up momentarily and point out that St George, if he slayed the dragon at all, slayed him in Lebanon, not England, before returning to my work in progress.

The second worst thing about being a writer is that you run out of time for reading. But all authors love reading. It’s what made them write in the first place.

Kathleen Jones

So I’m pointing you in the direction of a celebration of reading by the authors of Outside the Box: Women Writing Women, with Jane Davis, Joni Rodgers, Orna Ross, Kathleen Jones, Roz Morris, Jessica Bell and myself, along with a guest spot from bookworm extraordinaire Peter Snell. It’s all right here on Jane Davis’s fine blog.

Happy reading.

Carol Cooper

 

Back to School, and Not a Moment Too Soon

The summer holidays begin full of promise, as ever. Karen has loads of ideas. It’s only when she begins to take her four kids on outings that she remembers everywhere is (a) crowded (b) expensive (c) leads to whining from at least three of them. Nothing ever changes.

Karen is a newly single mum from my novel One Night at the Jacaranda. She has one daughter and three sons.

At nearly 11, Charlotte is the eldest so she whines loudest and longest. Damon is 9 and his speciality this summer is sulking.

They go to Wales for a few days to a friend’s cottage, the cheapest family holiday Karen can think of. It’s a long drive in the ancient Toyota, with plenty of time for daydreaming. What might it be like to go off to the Gower for a mini-break with a nice man?  

Wales beach at dusk

Her reverie is broken by the youngest who wants to be sick, so they stop by the side of the road. Edward aims most of it into the plastic bag she holds out for him, but inevitably a few blobs fall onto Charlotte’s new pink T-shirt.

“Eeuw!” shrieks Charlotte, even though there are several spare pink sequinned T-shirts in the boot.  At the moment everything she owns, whether it’s clothing, a pencil case, or her duvet cover, has to be pink and have sequins.

Karen is concerned for the next mile or two in case there’s more vomiting but she needn’t worry. In less than five minutes, Edward pipes up “I want salt and vinegar crisps!”

When they get there, they find acres of soft white sand, perfect for jogging off excess fat, building sandcastles, and losing young children. There’s a moment or two on every holiday when Edward can’t be found. For a four-year old, he can go a long way in just seconds. Ashley, being a year older, is infinitely wiser and spends his time searching the sands for buried treasure. He’s sure there are shipwrecks around here, and he’s determined to find gold coins for his mum.  “Cos we need more money, don’t we?”   

shipwreck

Treasure hasn’t been found in Rhossili Bay since about 1834, but that doesn’t stop people looking. Karen is pleased to see her children so happy, even if Charlotte is channelling Lolita in her pink sparkly swimsuit. Only Damon, sitting hunched in the depths of his hoodie, hasn’t got into the beach thing yet.

They stay in Wales four days in all, during which Edward behaves and doesn’t try to run off again. Karen feels a mite guilty for threatening that big red dragons would get him, but at least he’s stopped having nightmares about them.

They return to London with a carful of sand, a carrier bag loaded with shells, and couple of pieces of driftwood. Now the children are playing nicely in the garden. Correction: the younger boys are playing while Charlotte is on the phone to her new best friend Belinda, and Damon sulks under a tree.

Karen is about to ask Damon what’s wrong when she sees he isn’t sulking. He’s reading! An actual book! With pages and words and everything! This has never happened before, so it’s quite a turn-up for the books. Literally.

book

Now Ashley is crying because Edward has peed into his toy wheelbarrow. When Karen tells Edward off, he says he thought it was a toilet.

“Rubbish” says Karen, even though it does look a bit like a loo.

It’s now the last week of the holidays and it can’t be put off any longer.  Buying school uniform and such is a hassle. They have to contend with umpteen other families looking for shoes that fit, while shop assistants try to fob people off with insoles. Karen steels herself for Charlotte’s inevitable hissy fit when she realises she can’t have pink heels with rhinestones.

But maybe some things do change, thinks Karen, because this year Charlotte falls in love with shoes that come straight from the pages of an orthopaedic footwear catalogue. Apparently they’re just like the ones her best friend Belinda has.

Back in the car with the shopping (and the sand, shells, and driftwood), Ashley says “You know what, Mummy? When it’s school-time I want it to be the holidays, but when it’s holidays I want it to be school-time.”

She smiles and knows exactly what he means. 

sea shell