Plan Your Novel Like a Pro – Beth and Ezra Barany

plan your novel cover

“It’s your dream to be a novelist, to touch readers’ hearts and minds, to excite and wow them, to transport them.”

As lock-down rumbles on, are you revisiting a long-held dream of writing a novel – but, not quite sure where or how to start? Perhaps this book will indeed ‘get you excited to plan your novel’. Broken down into topics and designed as a four-week course, it has the huge benefit of not demanding hours and hours of time you don’t really have. Easy to dip in and out of, a single exercise could take as little as 15 minutes. Personally, I find that far more manageable than needing to carve out a couple of hours each evening – and thus, I’m more likely to give it a go!

The book is organised into four sections, with topics including creating your elevator pitch and synopsis, characters, plot points, and storyboarding.

My favourite section was getting to know your characters. It’s not ‘new’ information, per se, but it’s very well presented and very usable. In fact, I used it to sketch out my first ever D&D character – a new lock-down hobby 😉 – and it worked brilliantly. It really helps that everything is kept light and easy, so you can spend five minutes doing a rough sketch, or half an hour fleshing out more details, whatever suits your needs at the time.

The writing style is very chatty – perhaps a little too much at times, as the co-authors ‘handover’ chapters as if it were a powerpoint presentation, which felt a little odd in print! But still, I liked the laid-back, friendly approach. The ethos seems to be: have fun! Writing should be enjoyable!

Overall, then, I was pretty impressed and would recommend this especially for beginners. It’s quite a short volume, but there are plenty of recommended further readings, and an online workbook to further the exercises.

NetGalley eARC: 128 pages / 20 chapters
First published: 2018
Series: none
Read from 9th April – 30th May 2020

My rating: 8/10

The Geeky Bartender Drinks – Cassandra Reeder

geeky bartender cover

“Since, well, birth, but more publicly since I started The Geeky Chef in 2008, my passion project has been making recipes for fictional or unusual foods from books, TV, movies, and games.”

I think I’ve just found my new favourite cocktail book! Inspired by geek culture, this features ‘potions’ and cocktails from a range of video games, books, and tv shows. For example, the author’s take on Shimmerwine as mentioned (just mentioned, briefly!) in Firefly. Or Giggle Juice from Fantastic Beasts. Romulan Ale, of course! Or just your generic red/blue/green potion from any number of games. Each recipe begins with a note about the inspiration, and the humour evident in these is worth the read by themselves.

I love love LOVE the presentation – the usual glasses, etc, but also flasks and potion bottles. The book opens with a set of tips and tricks to make the presentation really zing, from rimming the glass to actual ‘special effects’ (e.g. edible glitter), and the photography is excellent in capturing the sense of the magical about all of these.

Moonglow potion - purple liquid in potion flask

I hugely appreciate the approach, which is very much as simple as possible, not too many expensive bells and whistles. So, minimal required kit, and not too many outlandish ingredients – just outlandish inspiration! Sections are wonderful titled Magical Elixirs, Sci-Fi Spirits, etc, and a Comedic section that’s a bit less SFF. There’s even a set of non-alcoholic options, which are equally imaginative.

Much as I love cocktails, I’ve never felt quite so inspired. I soooo want to host my next board game night (yes, yes, I am a giant geek!) and impress everyone with some pretty concoctions. I think little inner 6-year-old me who sort of wanted to be a witch and make potions has found an outlet…!

Recommended – it’s huge amounts of fun and looks so good!

NetGalley eARC: 160 pages / 10 sections
First published: 5th May 2020
Series: related to the Geeky Chef cook books
Read in April 2020

My rating: 8/10

Healthy As F*ck – Oonagh Duncan

healthy as f cover

“Have you ever heard of gluten? … I bet you can name three people off the top of your head who would rather eat nuclear waste than gluten.”

Let’s cut to the chase: in a world with no shortage of advice on healthy living and every faddy diet under the sun, this is *the* best book on the topic I think I’ll ever read! It’s no-bull common sense, written clearly and with a great deal of humour – and, as the title may give away, a lot of swearing. As long as you don’t have an issue with the latter, then this book is genuinely the only one you really need to read on the topic.

I absolutely love the dismissal of any and all faddy diets. The industry does not work, people, or we wouldn’t be growing grossly fatter as a population! And yes, the slant is a little more towards weight loss, but I actually picked this up looking for all-round healthy living ideas – and that’s exactly what the book is aiming at.

Why do you want to lose weight, the author asks? To be skinny? Why? To be fitter, healthier? Why? What do you imagine you’ll feel like when you hit that ‘magical’ number on the scales? Oh, happy. Well, why don’t we just start there – why not look at how to be happy first, because odds on it will make the weight loss stuff easier. Nothing good comes from a place of self-loathing. And before you think otherwise, the difference is made clear between long-term ‘happy’ and short-term pleasure e.g. eating more doughnuts.

There’s a great deal of joy in the no-nonsense approach. Part one is titled “Get your head out of your ass.” It is so true that we get to choose the balance of effort we’re willing to make, for the result we want to get. In other words, six-pack toting supermodel is a nice dream, but be realistic: do you *really* want to put in that much effort – because you’d have to rejig your entire lifestyle. And on the flip side, if you’re unwilling to stop buying and scoffing family-sized packs of biscuits, there’s no point in bemoaning the layer of blubber.

Duncan pushes for the approach of setting up healthy habits that become second-nature, thus removing all the aggro and wasted mental space of ‘dieting’. It’s a good follow on from previous reads I’ve enjoyed, such as Tiny Habits. She also tells us to avoid the ‘perfectionism’ trap, and just work on slow and steady improvements.

I cannot recommend this book enough to anyone who’s remotely interesting in improving their lifestyle, including but not just losing weight. It’s such a tonic from all of the ridiculous fads – keto, or gluten free, or whatever is this month’s marketing trick – and I love the simplicity of it. The focus is psychological, and yes, eating more vegetables. But this is the first time I’ve read a book like this and gone ‘yes!’ rather than ‘hmm (I wish that kind of nonsense worked/wasn’t more harm than good in the long term)’.

NetGalley eARC: 272 pages / 10 chapters
First published: 2019
Series: none
Read from 20th March – 5th April 2020

My rating: 9.5/10

Graze – Paul Dowling

graze cover

The concept of ‘grazing’ – eating the same calories, but spread throughout the day as more, smaller meals – seems a little less faddy than some other diet plans. I can see the point the author is making about blood sugar levels and metabolism, although am slightly dubious about the science of whether this is the best thing or not, given our ancestors probably ate one huge meal when the hunt was good, and a lot less at other times.

The bulk of the book is recipes, grouped by suggested time of day for eating. There’s a nice mix, and several looked very appealing as light meals whether you’re following the plan or not. I did have to take a moment to remember that this isn’t your classic diet plan, as there is plenty of butter and other less ‘diety’ foods! Tonally, it hits the sweet spot: not at all condescending, but with a few extra hints for those who aren’t already chefs. It’s a shame there were no photos, though.

While the idea is presented well enough, I’d rather have seen a lot more information about the practicalities of all this. It’s probably all going to work fine while we’re all working from home and have time to prep and cook extra meals (there’s a throwaway line about preparing ahead, but I think this could have been explored more), but I suspect the sheer amount of work would put most people off – this could have been overtly addressed and made for a more compelling book.

Overall: interesting, and some appealing recipes, but just scratches the surface of an idea I think needs more exploration to tempt me.

NetGalley eARC: 165 pages
First published: 2019
Series: none
Read: April 2020

My rating: 5/10

Learn to Sleep Well – Chris Idzikowski

learn to sleep well cover

“Insomnia is one of the most common sleep complaints, chronically affecting between five and ten percent of Americans.”

If there’s one thing that would help my – and most of our! – health more than anything, it’d be improving the quality of my sleep. I struggle to nod off, wake early, and am generally just too ‘busy-minded’ to relax. So, any advice from a book like this would surely be of help.

Alas, this is not that book. It is filled with advice, but to be honest it came across as irritating pseudoscience – picking and choosing random bits of ‘research’ to support what they want to say, no real referencing. It’s fine as conversation, not as ‘information’. And oy, the waffle! For instance – why do we sleep less as we age? There are a dozen ‘maybes’ presented as if by some kind of expert. I hate this kind of thing!

It’s not all bad. For a start, the art work is rather lovely – this is a coffee table book, with sleep as the theme. And later chapters are much more readable, losing the cod-science and simply reporting on folk remedies and cultural approaches: things like feng shui, meditation, hot baths. All good folksy things to try, they might or might not help but shouldn’t hurt, and I have no problem with any of this – just the tone at the beginning.

The section on sleep disorders, however, brings me back to: you are not the kind of authority I think I should be taking advice from on more serious issues. And that’s kind of my problem with the book.

So. Looks good. Has gathered a pile of topics around sleep. Shouldn’t be taken as any kind of authoritative text, despite the early tone.

NetGalley eARC: 160 pages / 6 sections
First published: March 2020
Series: none
Read from 2nd-30th March 2020

My rating: 4/10

Teen Writer’s Guide – Jennifer Jenkins

teen writers guide cover

Your road map to writing.

I know, I know – I haven’t been a teenager for rather a long time. But when it comes to writing advice, there’s a lot to be said about this kind of straightforward, no-nonsense approach. I might have double the years, but I got a lot from this.

Interspersed with lots of samples of her own writing, used to illustrate the topics, Jennifer Jenkins takes us on a trip from the idea stage to publishing, via characterisation, tension, world building, and more.

None of the advice is exactly ‘new’ or startling, but it’s very well presented. I particularly liked the chapter on dialogue – not just the nuts and bolts (e.g. where punctuation goes) but so many useful examples on mixing speech and action. I’ve been reading writing advice for a long time now, but this might be the best ‘show don’t tell’ guide I’ve stumbled across!

Kudos to the author for presenting the writing journey with as much humour and encouragement as well as useful tips. The target audience doesn’t mean it’s dumbed down, just missing a lot of superfluous waffle – I think a lot of adult wannabe writers will get just as much from this as kids!

NetGalley eARC: 143 pages / 10 chapters
First published: 24th March 2020
Series: none
Read from 2nd-22nd March 2020

My rating: 8/10

Simplify – Bob Hillary

simplify cover

“How to stay sane in a world going mad.”

This was such an utterly frustrating book. The premise sounded so appealing – get off the treadmill of modern life, find ways to make life, well, more simple. And there is a small amount of that here. Alas, there is also a huge amount of hippy, trippy talk (despite repeated assertions that “I know that sounds hippyish, but it’s not” – urm, are you sure?) that totally put me off. And I’d suggest that 90% of the book isn’t about making life simpler, but rather about becoming an ‘Earth Warrior’ and doing better by Gaia (insert eye rolling). There’s nothing wrong with that idea, but that is not what I picked this book up for.

Right from the word go I was having my doubts. The author seems to have had the kind of idyllic childhood not usually seen outside of Enid Blyton novels. So when he starts to extol the virtues of growing your own veg and going completely off grid, I think it has to come with a huge pinch of salt: it’s one thing reclaiming something you remember fondly from your youth, but I rather suspect your average townie would struggle a lot, lot more at the attempt. In fact, the idea that this is automatically ‘simple’ and happy-making is simply not true.

This ‘new way’ sounds much more like a very old way, and while there’s merit in that, it’s not what I’d hoped for from this book. This isn’t what I’d call advice on simplifying life so much as abandoning large swathes of it for something entirely different – and that is *not* a simple thing.

The advice given could be beneficial – things like reconnecting with nature, downscaling (decluttering), more mindful use of the internet etc – but also could have been presented far better, imo. Going too extreme was just a turn off. Also, the ’21 practices’ to help simplify life were highly repetitive, so I’d say there’s more like a dozen. None of it is particularly novel.

Overall, I had high hopes for this, and was utterly disappointed.

NetGalley eARC: 113 pages / 5 parts, ~15 chapters
First published: 10th March 2020
Series: none
Read from 13th-20th February 2020

My rating: 4/10

Just Draw Fineliner Art – Liam Carver

just draw fineliner art cover

Incredible illustrations crafted with fineliner pens.

I’d love to be more artistic and am always drawn to art books. However, they can often be more daunting than inspirational, either through fantastic skill or ‘complicated’ and/or expensive materials. Fineliner pens, however, are something I already own. I might still feel a little daunted about the skills on display, but that’s aspirational 😉

That said, the art here does cover the ‘wow, never in a million years’ through to ‘hmm, maybe with a bit of practice’ – which is perfect 🙂 Huge plus: it all starts with a ‘visual index’ – thumbnails of all the images from the book, making it really easy to find specific drawings, as well as just being quite the ‘wow’ page seeing all the talent on display from 34 different artists.

Each picture in the main section gets a double spread, and is accompanied by a brief description, highlighting a particular technique used in that drawing, and a ‘tip’ to encourage you to try it yourself. To be honest, I found the descriptions a little odd sometimes, as if the author had written them after looking at the piece, rather than getting information from the artist. Certainly, the discussion on his own work sounds a lot deeper and more confident – perhaps only to be expected.

The book ends with the almost obligatory section on materials, plus a list of further resources. It’s not surprising to see a link to Jake Parker’s Inktober website: the whole book feels strongly linked to the whole Inktober challenge. So if you are feeling inspired to pick up a fineliner, perhaps you’d also like to join this year’s online challenges 🙂

Overall: visually lovely, with a range of useful tips. One to dip in and out of for inspiration.

NetGalley eARC: 210 pages
First published: 3rd March 2020
Series: none
Read from: 2nd February – 1st March 2020

My rating: 7/10

Tiny Habits – BJ Fogg

tiny habits cover

“Change can be easy (and fun).”

Have your New Year’s Resolutions fallen by the wayside already? Or, are you gritting your teeth and battling on, quietly unsure that the goal is bringing any benefits? I’ve been in both places; I’ve learned what doesn’t really work for me: grand goals, constant need for willpower, all the advice about joining a group, and many many other things. I’m guessing a few of you might well be in the same boat.

Step forward Tiny Habits. I cannot begin to tell you the ‘yes!’ I had when I started reading about this approach: if I could have condensed my own thoughts about life improving habits I could only have hoped to have written this book!

The author, a researcher at Stanford University, has developed the Fogg Behavior Model, where Behavior (or, the habit you want to develop) = motivation + ability + prompt. BMAP. Fogg Behaviour Model graph of ability against motivation

Simply put, the harder you find something to do, the more motivation you’re going to need, and conversely you won’t need to find as much motivation to do a task you find easy. To get a habit to form, you need the behaviour to be above that ‘action line’.

I can’t do the idea justice, but the book walks you through it wonderfully. Motivation isn’t going to work long-term, so finding ways to make the behaviour easier is key – and making the habit ‘tiny’ is an excellent approach. For instance, do just 2 push ups. That will most likely grow, but as long as you do 2 the habit will form – far more likely than if you set the bar as, say, 50, and watch as you make excuses to get out of it.

The book opens with some great insight into why we find it hard to do things, what drives our behaviour in general. It then breaks down the elements of the BMAP – motivation and matching, ability, using different kinds of prompts to remind yourself to carry out the habit.

As well as loads of useful, chatty case studies, there are several exercises such as the ‘Swarm of B(ehaviour)s’ designed to help you set up your own experiment in behaviour design. And that mindset of ‘experimentation’ is pushed strongly: no beating yourself up when something doesn’t work, you just have to modify the experiment design. It’s refreshingly helpful and kind.

Later chapters cover growing or multiplying your habits, changing with others – family, colleagues, groups (whether overtly or in a more ninja-style ;)), and for me an important chapter on reversing some of the approaches to tackle bad habits.

Overall, I loved this book. I tried not to rush through it, and already want to read it again taking notes (tough to do on the bus!) and rather than just trying bits and pieces (working so far!) absolutely give the entire process a go to see how far it can take me in improving my habits! I have very high hopes – it’s my kind of book!

NetGalley eARC: 320 pages / 8 sections
First published: 2019
Series: none
Read from 5th January – 7th February 2020

My rating: 9/10

The Extremely Busy Woman’s Guide to Self-Care – Suzanne Falter

extremely busy womans guide to self care cover

“Do less, achieve more, and live the life you want.”

Happy 2020! Have you made some New Year resolutions? What if, instead of punishing yourself to spend more time in the gym, or giving up the foods you love, you instead approached life with a mindset of first of all taking care of yourself? What if doing so wasn’t selfish, or self-indulgent? What if you could prioritise being nice to yourself and not only still achieve what you needed to, but actually get far, far more out of life?

As I started reading this book, I felt like a great big ‘yes’ was settling in. It makes so much sense. Life shouldn’t be a constant struggle – and yup, I can see that if I’d just breath and go with the flow, things would be easier, and I could be happier. That’s not to say I’d spend my life meditating while the dishes piled up – but I’ve already had the ‘revelation’ that housework isn’t so bad, as it gets me something I want: a lovely clean living space. I’m still working on the idea that exercise is also a form of self care 😉

I’d love to say that the book continued to inspire me, but to be honest it fell into fairly well-worn paths. Like so many self-help authors, the changes that led to the writing of the book came after a crisis: the death of her daughter. It’s harsh to say, but tbh I’m fed up of the twinge of discomfort I get every time self-help is accompanied by the author’s grief or self-therapy.

Still, there’s a lot to get out of the book. Each chapter comes with exercises to journal about, and obviously you’ll get the most from the process by spending the time to do these properly.

My favourite chapter was near the beginning, “The big illusion about getting stuff done”. This spoke to me: pointing out the crazy treadmill we get ourselves on, pushing to do more more more. Whereas, contrary as it seems when you’re in that headspace, stopping and resting, and breathing, you can get far more done and with far less internal push-back. Like I said, doing the dishes = clean house = happier me. Odd, but true!

The book goes on to cover many good, if not unexpected topics, from setting boundaries, eschewing perfectionism, asking for help, etc. The second section gives all of the self-care areas, including sleep, vacations, love, nutrition and exercise, fun. I did have a little red flag when she started on about adrenal fatigue – as far as I’m aware that’s still not a recognised ‘thing’, and I wasn’t too impressed with the level of authority with which the topic was presented. It’s a reminder that self-help books are 99.9% personal opinion, and shouldn’t be taken too seriously.

My the last section, about getting more self-care habits into your life, I was slogging a bit as everything became fairly familiar. And again harsh but to be honest: the constant quotes from her dead daughter’s diary felt a bit creepy rather than motivational. Ymmv.

There’s plenty to like in this book, and it’s well enough written, but with just those few bits I wasn’t comfortable with. Still, I absolutely love the message: look after yourself – why wouldn’t you?!

NetGalley eARC: 240 pages / 37 chapters
First published: 2019
Series: none
Read from 13th November – 28th December 2019

My rating: 7/10