Author Archives: BookerTalk

Sample Sunday: Off To The Antipodes

Saturday disappeared in a blur of cooking and cleaning in preparation for a family visit – the first since the pandemic hit the UK. So Sample Saturday has morphed into Sample Sunday – lucky me that both days begin with the same letter of the alphabet. I’d have been in a mess otherwise 🙂

This week sample is of three books all by authors from what we northerners call The Antipodes: Australia and New Zealand.

This Mortal Boy by Fiona Kidman

This novel explores the story behind the real-life death of Albert Black, one of the last people to be executed in in New Zealand.

Black, known as the ‘jukebox killer’, was only twenty when he was convicted of murdering another young man in a fight at a milk bar in in 1955. His crime fuelled growing moral panic about teenagers.

Kidman asks whether this case was indeed the result of juvenile delinquency or was it a reaction to outsiders – Black had migrated to New Zealand to get away from an impoverished childhood in Belfast, Ireland. Or was the young man simply unfortunate enough to fall in with the wrong crowd in Aukland.

I first heard of this book from Lisa at ZNZLitLovers who thought it “rivetting” and then found an interview in which Fiona Kidman explained the inspiration for the novel.

The Verdict: Definitely One To Keep

Remembering Babylon  by David Malouf

David Malouf won the inaugural International Dublin Literary Prize in 1996 with this novel. It was also shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the Miles Franklin Award.

Malouf’s tale focuses on a young English cabin boy, Gemmy Fairley, who is abandoned in Australia. He is raised by a group of aborigines but when white settlers reach the area, he attempts to move back in the world of Europeans. To them, Gemmy is a force that both fascinates and repels. The boy is also unsettled by his identity and place in this new world.

The few pages I’ve sampled give a really good sense of the way the novel reflects the clash of cultures and the fear of the unknown. I have a feeling this is going to be a superb book.

The Verdict: Keep

The New Ships by Kate Duigan

It’s back to New Zealand for my final choice. I hadn’t heard of this author but I went into an independent bookshop in Nelson, New Zealand, determined not to return home to the UK without at least one book by a local author in my suitcase.

After a long and delightful discussion with the shop owner (a patient man) I settled on The New Ships.

It’s the most contemporary of the three books sampled this week, being set shortly after the fall of the Twin Towers.

It concerns Peter Collie, a lawyer who feels adrift following his wife’s death. His attempts to understand the direction of his life, lead him to the past and the days when he was a backpacker in Amsterdam. His girlfriend in those days give birth to a daughter who died at just six weeks old. Or so Peter was given to understand. But now he is not so sure she did die. His attempt to find the truth takes him across London, Europe and the Indian sub continent.

I’m getting the impression the book considers not only the response to grief but how the choices we make or do not make, ultimately shape our lives.

No doubt about my decision on this one.

The Verdict: Keep!

Unusually, I’ve decided to keep all three featured books. The TBR is thus staying at its current level but that’s ok – the objective of Sample Saturday isn’t to get rid of books, but to make sure my shelves are full only with books I do want to read. What do you think of the decisions I’ve reached – if you’ve read any of these books I’d love to hear from you.

At Home With Edith Wharton

Back in the mid 1980s when I was driving through Massachusetts on a holiday, I had no idea I was within striking distance of Edith Wharton’s old home near Lennox.

Edith Wharton and her husband escaped there from Rhode Island in 1901 when they bought a 113 acre site overlooking a lake. They set about transforming it into The Mount, an estate heavily influenced by European design traditions, but adapted for the American landscape. Edith designed the grounds herself and specified the external and internal design of the house.

Edith Wharton the gardener and architect? That was a surprise to me but apparently she’d built quite a reputation for herself in the field of design, long before she gained success as an author.

The first book she wrote (actually co-authored) was The Decoration of Houses, a non fictional work that aimed to advise the newly wealthy families of New England how to build and decorate houses with nobility, grace, and timelessness.

At The Mount, she put her philosophy about design and architecture into practice, taking inspiration from European traditions but adapting them to suit the American landscape. She strove for order, scale, and harmony in the house design and its surrounding gardens. She told her lover, Morton Fullerton, that she was amazed by her success with the project.

Decidedly, I’m a better landscape gardener than novelist, and this place, every line of which is my own work, far surpasses The House of Mirth…

The Whartons lived at The Mount for ten years. They welcomed the cream of American literary society to their home, including novelist Henry James, who described the estate as “a delicate French chateau mirrored in a Massachusetts pond.”

During that time she wrote two of her most renowned books: The House of Mirth (1905) and Ethan Frome (1911). Her professional triumph was however marred by personal turmoil when her husband’s depression became a more acute condition. When the marriage disintegrated under the strain of his condition, they sold The Mount and Edith Wharton moved permanently to France.

The Mount was owned by a succession of families until 1942 when it became part of a school for girls. The school ceased operating in 1976 and the property, became the base for the theatre company Shakespeare & Company.

It was subsequently bought by Edith Wharton Restoration, which began a substantial restoration project in 1997. Today, The Mount operates as a museum and a literary hub, hosting readings, book launches and panel discussions.

It sounds a delightful place to wander around. The main house has a striking facade of white stucco and dark green shutters, capped with a roof top balustrade and cupola. It’s surrounded by gardens that Wharton envisaged a series of harmonious outdoor “rooms”.

But of course, my main interest would be the library. It’s the place where she did her writing. The books on the shelves are from Wharton’s own personal collection, representing every period of her life, reflecting her wide variety of interests. And there are some copies of her own works, complete with her pencil corrections.

Sounds magical doesn’t it? Sadly I can’t see a return visit to Massachusetts on the cards for me any time soon.

Curates and Quiches with Agatha Raisin: Deliciously Entertaining

When a little free library opened a few weeks ago in my village I absolutely had to take a gander.  With shops and libraries closed, this was the only way I could indulge in my favourite hobby of book browsing. 

I thought I would come away empty handed but then, tucked away behind the multiple copies of James Patterson and John Grisham novels, I found two slim volumes by M C Beaton. 

I’ve never read any of her Agatha Raisin series and probably wouldn’t have been tempted except it just so happened I was in the mood for something not too demanding. 

Wit And Humour

And that’s exactly what I got. Book 1, Agatha Raisin And The Quiche of Death, and Book 13, Agatha Raisin And The Case Of The Curious Curate are both delightful escapist novels. I thought I would be mildly entertained but I wasn’t expecting to encounter books that were full of such sharp wit or to feature such an enjoyable non-PC character. 

It’s the character of Agatha Raisin, a retired PR queen turned amateur sleuth. that makes the difference in this series. She’s absolutely the star of the show. Without her we’d just have pretty cottages, slightly amusing mysteries (nothing too gory or nasty) and quaint village traditions. 

Agatha is definitely not in the Miss Marple mode. Instead of a neatly dressed, quietly spoken amateur sleuth with an acute understanding of human nature we get a brash and prickly career woman.

As the series opens, Agatha has decided to sell up her public relations company and move to a picturesque cottage in the Cotswolds. Accustomed to the buzz of parties and launches, she finds rural life is harder than she imagines. The locals in the village of Carsley are not hostile but don’t go out of their way to welcome her or include her in their social circle. Without friends and work, she quickly becomes bored. 

No one asked her for tea. No one showed any curiosity about her whatsoever. The vicar did not even call/ In an Agatha Christie book the vicar would have called, not to mention some retired colonel and his wife. All conversation seemed limited to ‘Mawnin’, ‘Afternoon’, or talk about the weather. For the first time in her life, she knew loneliness, and it frightened her. 

To stamp her mark on the village she decides to ingratiate herself with the locals to enter the annual ‘Great Quiche Competition’ . Never having baked anything in her life, she resorts to cheating, buying her ‘entry’ from an expensive London delicatessen. Unfortunately the competition judge dies after tasting her quiche. Agatha’s duplicity is revealed. Shame turns to anger when she is blamed for his death. It spurs her to turn detective and find the murderer herself.

Her methods are unorthodox and she finds herself in more than one scrape before the crime is solved. It’s great fun watching this woman’s inept attempts at detection and all the false trails she follows.

When I caught up with her again in Agatha Raisin And The Case Of The Curious Curate, it was to find that she’d become a fixture in the village. In the intervening years she’d married (twice). Husband number two has just dumped her; the launch she took on as a freelance project turned out to be dull and even her beloved London had lost its sparkle. So it’s back to the Cotswolds and those microwave meals for one.

Bumbling Detective In High Heels

The arrival of a new curate in Carsley is just the tonic she needs. Even though “she swore she would never be interested in a man again” Tristan Delon is a golden-haired, blue-eyed dish. He has all the ladies in Caswell swooning over him. After an intimate dinner for two in his flat, Agatha falls for his charms. she begins to dream of an exciting new adventure with a toy boy. Her dream doesn’t last long – the very next day the curate is found dead.

When the eye of suspicion turns on the Vicar, the husband of her best friend, Agatha sets off once more on the trail of a murderer. What follows is often hilarious as Agatha bumbles around following up on clues, worming information out of people and annoying the local police force.

Just like The Quiche of Death, in The Case Of The Curious Curate, MC Beaton delivers some deliciously funny scenes. Agatha has a penchant for causing mayhem as she lurches from one theory to another. Though she is so often rude and forceful, by the end of each novel, I did find myself warming to her. I loved the image of this champion of justice fretting about her weight before bunging another high calorie meal into the microwave before heading off in high heels and tight skirt, to do battle with the villain behind net curtains.

Would I read another book in the series? I might do if I were ever feeling a bit down in the dumps and in need of a pure entertainment. I have a feeling they would work really well as audiobooks so I’ll have to look out for them via my library’s digital service.

What Marcus Aurelius Can Teach Us About Blogging

Six months after I launched BookerTalk I was ready to throw in the towel.  To be honest with you, I’d made the classic errors of most blogging newbies: 

I didn’t have a clear purpose for the blog. Just a half-formed idea I would blog about my project to read all the Booker Prize winners. 

I didn’t have a plan for when and how often I’d post.

I didn’t understand the mechanics of blogging. Categories and tags were a mystery. The difference between a post and a page escaped me. And what the hell was a ‘slug”? 

The result? 

Frustration.  It took me hours just to post one piece of content. Hours I didn’t have to spare when I was also working full time, frequently away from home on business trips and also trying to maintain an exercise regime. 

I came close to deleting all my content and closing my WordPress account. 

What stopped me? 

First I started getting a few comments. Just one or two per post. Small fry I know but they were enough to make me feel that I wasn’t entirely whistling in the wind. Unfortunately they didn’t resolve my struggles with the technicalities of WordPress.

Marcus Aurelius Has The Answer

Marcus Aurelius came to my rescue. Not in person of course, but in the words of wisdom captured in his book Meditations.

Don’t be ashamed to need help. Like a soldier storming a wall, you have a mission to accomplish. And if you’ve been wounded and you need a comrade to pull you up? So what?

Those last two words nailed it for me. If I asked for help from some established bloggers, what was the worst thing that could happen? Even if they said no, I’d have lost nothing.

None of the bloggers I approached did say no. Not one of them sent me packing or made me feel my questions were naive. Each and every one of them was generous with their time and their expertise.

I came across that quote from Marcus Aurelius again last week and it got me thinking. What if I created a space on this blog for bloggers to ask for help? A space where we can use the Wisdom of crowds concept to help new and experienced bloggers solve problems, explore new ideas and become more productive.

I know you can find thousands of blogging tips already on line. You can just do a Google search or check out one of the experts I listed in an earlier post. You’ll certainly get answers to your questions about blogging in general. But you won’t find it as easy to get answers to specific questions about book blogging.

I loved doing the A2Zofbookblogging series earlier this year; especially the contributions made by so many bloggers who had particular knowledge and expertise to share.

Open Invite To Book Bloggers

I’m going to continue that series. But I’m also going a step further and throwing the door open to any book blogger who has a question or a challenge.

Maybe your question is about attracting more comments on your content. Perhaps you’re wondering if it’s OK to post content on books you didn’t enjoy. Or you’re looking for content ideas beyond reviews and book hauls.

Whatever your question, don’t be afraid to ask. I don’t claim to be an expert in the field of blogging. But I promise you I’ll do my best to help. And I’m sure that if I don’t know the answer, there will be plenty of other bloggers who do.

We may not be storming walls when we blog, but Marcus Aurelius can still teach us that it’s futile to struggle alone when all we have to do is ask for help.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

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Rather To Be Pitied by Jan Newton: Crime In Rural Setting [Book Review]

Book cover of Rather To Be Pitied by Jan Newton

Reading Rather To Be Pitied brought on a wave of nostalgia for a delightful weekend I once spent amid the hills, dams and isolated farmhouses of mid Wales.

This is book two in a crime fiction series by Jan Newton which is set in the area near the market town of Rhyadar. It’s a tranquil region much loved by walkers and cyclists for its trails around six enormous dams that supply water to Birmingham. As impressive as they are, I was there for the birds – it’s one of the few places in Wales you can spot red kites that were on the verge of extinction not so many years ago.

In Rather To Be Pitied, the tranquility of this farming community is disturbed by the discovery of a woman’s body near a walking trail used by Benedictine monks in centuries past. It proves to be a complicated case for the newest member of the local police force, Detective Sergeant Julie Kite..

Though the woman is identified fairly quickly, there’s no sign of her young son. He’s not the only missing person. The dead woman’s former neighbour has left her home and husband. The landlady at the B&B where the murdered woman spent her last night, hasn’t seen her husband in quite a while either. Are the two disappearances connected? And what does all this have to do with some ex soldiers who are working at a local farm?

There are plenty of twists and turns in the plot to navigate before the answers are revealed.

The police procedural aspect is well handled though maybe edged a bit too close to the obvious. What I enjoyed most was the chance to see this part of Wales through the eyes of a newcomer.

Manchester cop adjusts to rural life

Julie Kite was a copper in Manchester but found herself transplanted to an unfamiliar territory when her husband found a new teaching job in mid Wales. Life in her new home proceeds at a much slower pace than the high octane world of Lancashire policing. When you’re used to a battalion of emergency vehicles arriving on scene within minutes of your call, it’s agonising to wait for Welsh ambulances to negotiate slow country roads.

The challenges of rural life are compounded by the suspicion she encounters from one member of the police team. Then there are her own suspicions about her marriage. Is her husband’s former colleague stalking him with unwanted text messages or is there more to this relationship than he is letting on?

And then there are the complexities of the Welsh language. I enjoyed the running joke Jan Newton introduces based on the tongue-twisting nature of Welsh place names which seem impossible to pronounce:

She negotiated winding roads down into Newtown and on towards Welshpool where there were signs of life around the livestock market. Marchnad Da Byw y Trallwng. Where would you start with that? Which bit was Welshpool? She really ought to get around to learning Welsh …

But DS Kite finds there are some compensation as she tells her boss:

I love the way everybody knows everyone else and the fact that it’s completely silent at night. I love the views and the rivers and the way that people calculate journeys in minutes rather than miles.

I suspect that we’ll find that burgeoning appreciation for rural life will deepen as the series progresses. In a sense it has to in order for us to witness a maturing of the central character.

Voice of Authenticity

This was enjoyable read. Jan Newton describes the landscape and the local communities with the authenticity that comes from having driven those roads and met the inhabitants. It makes such a refreshing change to read a police procedural with a rural setting.

I also admired the dynamics of the police team. We get a jealous PC who resents the keen as mustard newcomer Kite and an energetic but kindly DI whose idea of investigation involves copious scones and cups of tea. The set up is complete with a fantastic forensic pathologist character in the form of a super smart and spiky woman who likes a tipple or two. As a Yorkshire lass, she knows how Kite feels to be an outsider.

Jan Newton planted two hints that the series could progress along a slightly different tack in future – one involving a hinted-at medical condition for Kite’s boss and another about her fascination for forensic pathology. It will be interesting to see if any of my predictions prove accurate.

Rather To Be Pitied: EndNotes

The Book: Rather To Be Pitied by Jan Newton was published by Honno Press in 2019. They also published Jan’s debut novel (the first DS Kite mystery) in 2017.

The Author: Jan Newton grew up in Manchester and Derbyshire and spent almost twenty years in the Chilterns before moving to mid Wales in 2005. She has worked as a bilingual secretary in a German chemical company, as an accountant in a BMW garage and a GP practice and as a Teaching Assistant in the Welsh stream of a primary school, but now she has finally been able to return to her first love, writing.

Portrait in colour of Jan Newton, author of Rather To Be Pitied

She graduated from Swansea University with a Masters degree in Creative Writing in 2015 and has won the Allen Raine Short Story Competition, the WI’s Lady Denman Cup competition, the Lancashire and North West Magazine’s prize for humorous short stories and the Oriel Davies Gallery’s prize for nature writing.

Why Did I Read This Book?: I was in the mood for some crime fiction and saw this mentioned on the Honno website. It’s counting towards the “Wales” category in my #20booksofsummer 2020 project.

Discover Other Welsh Authors

Catching a killer: a taut new thriller

Emma Kavanagh’s training as a psychologist is very much in evidence in her most recently published novel: To Catch a Killer. This is a taut thriller which features Detective Sergeant Alice Parr, newly returned to duty after a traumatic incident in which she almost lost her life in when her apartment caught fire. Seven months […]

Top Tips On How To Get Blog Traffic from Pinterest

Getting more readers for your book blog takes a lot of energy, time and focused effort. Content alone won’t win you more followers. You have to connect to the wider community of readers and bloggers via social media.

If you’re already using Twitter and Instagram but not seeing all your efforts there convert to more followers, it could be time to branch out.

Pinterest has more than 320 million monthly active users worldwide. While that’s much smaller than Facebook which has 2.5billion, it’s still a sizeable social media platform. And it’s growing: in 2019, Pinterest gained 70 million monthly active Pinners. 

How can you attract their attention and get them to visit your blog?

I’ll admit to being perplexed by Pinterest. I tried it a few years ago, created some some book related boards and pinned what I thought were attractive looking images. They did get shared but none of that interest resulted in additional traffic on my blog. So I gave up.

Turns out I was doing it all wrong.

One blogger who has made it work is Briana at Pages Unbound. Initially a sceptic, she’s now become a fan of Pinterest and has seen traffic blog site boom.

In this guest post in my A2ZofBookBlogging series, she shares how she got started with Pinterest, how you can begin your own journey and how to make it work for your book blog.

Beginning With Pinterest

I’ve been blogging at Pages Unbound for nine years, and I was as skeptical as anyone that Pinterest could be of any use for me as a book blogger.  I had tried it a few times over the years, and it never resulted in anything.  After seeing The Uncorked Librarian and Eline from Lovely Audiobooks post about how they were getting good blog traffic from Pinterest, I decided in January 2019 to do more research and give it one more chance.

The results:

By the end of 2019, I had 9,344 page views from Pinterest.  As I’m drafting this post in mid-June 2020, I have 8,818 page views from Pinterest – so nearly the same amount of views in just six months!

I admit I don’t do everything “right” that many Pinterest experts would probably recommend, and there are book bloggers who have much more success than I do–very rightly if they spend more time making images, promoting them, thinking of good SEO keyword strategy, etc.  But here are some of the steps I’ve taken that worked for me.

Pinterest Basics 

When you read articles online about how to use Pinterest, you start to notice that they all have generally the same advice:

  • Use Pinterest daily.
  • Pin multiple things a day (recommended numbers vary).
  • Pin a combination of your own images and other people’s images.
  • Use keywords in your pin title and description to help people search for the images.
  • Make sure your images are professional looking, include (legible!) text, and are vertical.
  • Join group boards.

And those are the basic steps that I took. 

  • I started creating a vertical, pinnable image for every discussion post and list (basically anything that is not a review).
  • I started pinning daily.  While many people recommend pinning anywhere between 25-100 images a day, I often only pin about 5-10.  I don’t necessarily pin my own content every day either, though obviously the more unique pins you have linking to your own site, the more traffic you are likely to get.  So try to strike a good balance of promoting lots of your own pins while still re-pinning valuable content from others.
  • I found some book and book blog group boards to join, including The Readers LoungeBook Blogger Blog Share, and All About Books.
  • I started my own book blogger group board.
  • I tried adding more keywords and hashtags to my pin descriptions.

That’s pretty much it.  It sounds relatively simple, but of course the real key is the time commitment required to create images (I use Canva) for every post I want to promote and pin those images to multiple group boards. I also make new images for posts/pins that do particularly well and try to promote the post again a few months after the initial pin. I log on to Pinterest (nearly) every day instead of sporadically like I used to do. 

Pages Unbound Pinterest Board

Pinterest Tips Specific to Book Bloggers

Of course, general “how to use Pinterest” tips don’t always apply specifically to book bloggers, so this is what I’ve learned about promoting bookish content in particular on Pinterest.

The audience on Pinterest is not the same audience you probably have for your book blog. 

Book blogs are often followed mostly by other book bloggers, but on Pinterest your audience is more general – and often includes librarians and educators.   Because of this, I find that book lists do well on Pinterest. 

Imagine people searching for things like “Books set in New York City” or “picture books about anxiety” or “middle grade books about mermaids.”  Some discussion posts also do well.  I get the least amount of views for reviews. So if you have limited time to devote to Pinterest, I wouldn’t start with promoting reviews or things that largely appeal to other bloggers like weekly wrap-ups or book hauls.

Example of a list-based pin

Seasonal content also does well, and you should start pinning it about a month or so before it’s relevant.  So start pinning Christmas book lists in November or books about witches in September.

Pins which feature a lot of book cover also seem popular.  If you have a book list, create a graphic that includes the covers from several of those books, instead of a pin with just one background image.

Pins related to popular books do well.  You’ve probably noticed the same if you’re on Bookstagram, for instance, but pinning things related to popular classics or popular books like Harry Potter or The Lord of the Rings will get you more views than pinning something more obscure.

Make sure you join book-related group boards.  This is not something I did before revamping my Pinterest strategy in early 2019.  I’m not sure I even knew group boards existed.  But one of the keys to Pinterest is – making sure that other people are pinning your images, not just you.  In a group board, each member is supposed to pin someone else’s image each time they add one of their own, which will help your pins gain visibility.

Pros and Cons of Tailwind

If you read any article on Pinterest, it will probably mention joining Tailwind, which is a paid service that lets you schedule pins, join tribes (where other people schedule your pins to their boards), and see analytics related to your pins. 

Out of curiosity, I did a free trial of Tailwind, and I think I’ve paid for two months (not in a row) since then. 

I see the major benefits of Tailwind as:

  1. Scheduling. Using Tailwind means you don’t have to log on to Pinterest daily if you don’t have time to pin manually.
  2. Tribes. I think these help your pins get shared more than just group boards. 
  3. Managing content I also like that Tailwind will tell you if you are trying to add a pin to a board where you have already pinned it. Some people who aren’t on Tailwind maintain elaborate spreadsheets to track where they have pinned images already and on what days, so they can make sure they are spacing their pins out instead of pinning the same image to ten group boards all in a row.

But I don’t think you need to join Tailwind. Though it’s convenient and can be a time saver, I haven’t really seen a difference in my blog traffic from Pinterest clicks between months when I did have a Tailwind subscription and months when I didn’t.

It’s also worth noting that I’ve recently seen comments from people who are far more experienced that Pinterest is prioritizing fresh content over re-pins, which means you would want to spend more time creating fresh pins and less time pinning your pins to multiple boards or even re-pinning other people’s content to your boards–all of which makes Tailwind less useful.

Keys to Success

I know there are probably ways I can improve my Pinterest traffic even further, but I am currently getting a  good return for the amount of time I am putting into the platform. 

While I have found various tips and tricks that work for me, I think the number one thing that made a difference for me was actually having some semblance of a strategy instead of randomly pinning images to random boards, which was my previous approach. 

Making pinnable images, pinning consistently, and pinning to group boards are the initial steps I would recommend to book bloggers, and you can always work on refining your strategy from there.

What do you think of Pinterest? Have you tried it and given up? Or have you never thought to try it to support your blog? Do share your experience, good or bad, by adding a comment below. Don’t forget to check out the other articles in the A2ZofBookBlogging series page.

How To Build Your Book Blog Audience Via Facebook

If you want to grow the readership for your blog, you need to write great content. But content alone is not enough. You also have to engage with potential followers via social media. Which social media channel should you pick?  Twitter and Instagram are popular among book bloggers but that doesn’t mean you should ignore […]

How To Grow Followers For Your Book Blog

Day 6 of the A-Z challenge. F is for Followers “How do I get other bloggers and readers to follow my site?” This is a question I get asked a lot.  It’s a burning issue for new bloggers like Amanda Llwyd, a crime fiction blogger at The Butler Did It (a clever blog title). Amanda […]

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