20 years of books and cakes: a book group’s data story

A fascinating look at all the books the book group I’m part of has read over the 20 years we’ve been in existence…

Lucy Janes

My book group is 20 years old this year. Something that I’m pretty sure none of us imagined would happen back at the very first meeting in autumn 2002.

Since then we’ve had at least 18 members, read at least 167 books and eaten at least 110 cakes.

Sadly, it didn’t occur to us to keep a record of what we were reading until I tried to reconstruct it from memory in March 2012. It’s definitely incomplete and the dates are often guestimates. From then, I kept a note of the books, but it wasn’t several years later that I started to systematically record other details: the person who had made the selection, the date and the cake we ate with the book.

But with all those caveats, here’s what our (slightly flaky) records reveal.

Who are the readers?

Here’s the members and the percentage of choices for each person.

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Spring, fake restaurant reviews and a flash sale

Hello! Spring is in the air here in Scotland, though the temperature is still to get the memos and we had overnight frost two nights last week.

Growbags ready to deliver lots of lovely home-grown veg (hopefully) if we can persuade our cats and those of our neighbours that this is not a giant litter tray.

For various reasons, I’ve not stuck to my newsletter send-out schedule since the start of the year—not least because the world and the ongoing awfulness have made it feel pointless.

If you’re feeling powerless yourself, there are a few little things you can do… If you go onto Google maps, and type in Moscow (for instance) and then restaurants, you can leave reviews there along the lines of ‘Fabulous restaurant, but my appetite’s ruined because Putin has invaded Ukraine and is bombing hospitals and shelling civilians’.

I varied the wording for different restaurants because I assumed that copying and pasting the same thing would trigger some bot somewhere.

Channel 4 in the UK recently bought the rights to an old comedy show, Servant of the People, created by and starring one Volodymyr Zelenskiy. (As the joke goes in the UK, Ukraine elected a comedian, we elected a clown.)

We’ve watched the first two episodes and it’s incredibly funny (and I recommend it), but watching the programme feels surreal when you counter it with the images of the city that have been on the news of bombed bridges, mass piles of rubble and citizens wrapped up in hats and scarves as they try to flee.

My writing schedule has fallen behind too, though I hope to publish Baked With Love, a chick lit novel based on a fictional version of the Great British Bake Off in late spring.

After much umm-ing and ah-ing, I have decided to return to the Highland books and I’m going to give Mhari her own story. You can read the start of it here.

I’m also running a month-long sale of Highland Wedding, the third in the series of the Highland Books, on PayHip and you can buy it for the bargain basement price of 0.99p.

Finally, it’s St Patrick’s Day on Thursday and my birthday. I have always wanted to spend my birthday in Ireland because of how seriously the Irish take their national saint’s day, so this year we are travelling to Belfast to do so…

Can’t wait.

A Farewell to All That…

Well, 2021 didn’t quite work out as planned—did anyone’s 2021?—but when you’re an optimist as I am, you seek out the good things when you look back on a year.

First and foremost, no-one I know and love died of Covid (or anything else). Last year, we joked about 2021 returning to the time when Corona was merely a beer, bubbles only belonged in champagne and self-isolation was not something so many people had to do.

Hey ho.

But I am in the extremely fortunate position of living in a country where the vaccination was made available to the masses quickly and I’m starting 2022 having had both doses and the booster.

Let’s raise a glass to science.

Talking of glasses, I plan to do Veganuary AND Dry January, but in the meantime, let’s go out with a bang…

Secondly, I didn’t lose my job. The pandemic has wrecked many sectors and businesses (compounded by the mess that is Brexit in the UK). My husband and I have been able to work throughout.

Thirdly, the dreaded writer burn-out didn’t hit. Many writers have talked about this—the inability to find enough concentration to put pen to paper and spin out stories while the hideousness of the pandemic plays out in the background.

(Ooh! Bonus points for three uses of alliteration in that sentence, right?)

I published two books, finished one and wrote another two this year. My book sales are slow but steady, rather like the running style I employed in the days when I jogged. I will never win awards, but I plod on, determined to get to the finishing line.

You can buy the book here.

In the summer, I signed a contract with Wattpad in May for the audio-visual rights to one of my stories. In all likelihood, it won’t come to anything, but I enjoyed a few weeks of casting various actors as my characters, which is more challenging to do than you might expect.

On the minus side. I continue to find reading books a challenge. Ever since I can remember, I’ve read books, often getting through two or three a week. That stopped last year when I started reading newspapers and periodicals instead. Books feel like too much of an intensive work out for my dwindling attention span.

(Though if I can recommend one, I loved Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet and raced through it when we holidayed in Dundee in May this year.)

Here in Scotland, we are effectively back in lockdown with large indoor and outdoor gatherings banned, and people encouraged not to mix with more than three households/go out. It’s all a bit same old/same old, but the current situation will end at some point, and I force myself to make the most of it as I’m now at the age where time flies by frighteningly fast and it is wrong to wish it away.

Anyway, thanks for reading. May 2022 bring you health and happiness.

Best wishes, Emma XXX

A writer’s guide to naming characters

Ah, I always have issues with character names too!

“That which we call a rose

By any other name would smell as sweet”

William Shakespeare – Romeo and Juliet.

Shakespeare’s suggestion that names are not important is hopelessly wrong for writers. Who hasn’t sat, staring at a blank sheet of paper, agonising over what to call a character? And if it’s your protagonist, that only makes it harder. Without a character, you have no story.

Occasionally a name for a character just comes to me: Meredith Hardew from a book I plan to release next year, A Meeting With Murder: Miss Gascoigne mysteries book 1, and Cressida Barker-Powell from Criss Cross: Friendship can be Murder: Book1 published 2013 (whose name was a deliberate mutation of Parker-Bowles). These are names that sprang fully-formed into my consciousness as I began to write the story. I couldn’t even think of calling any of those people anything else. In fact this whole opening…

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Happy Halloween!

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Happy Halloween! Here in Scotland, Halloween has a long history. As child, I went out guising where you went from house to house dressed up and carrying a bag filled with treats. Unlike trick or treat, though, guisers had to ‘earn’ their treat usually by singing a song or telling a terrible joke.

If you were lucky, you would return home with a bag bulging full of treats, though often the bulk would be made up of monkey nuts. To this day, I can’t eat them. Those red skins get stuck between your teeth for days…

Halloween lanterns weren’t made from pumpkins either, as you didn’t get them in Scotland in those days. My dad used to make them from hollowed out turnips, and he didn’t mind eating the filling afterwards. Turnips my be an integral part of Scotland’s national dish – haggis, neeps and tatties – but you’ll never persuade me to like them.

My Wattys2020 award-winning book, Beautiful Biters, is out today. Here’s the blurb…

Nineteen-year-old Maya has too much on her plate. Trying to protect her younger sister. Struggling with crushes on unsuitable guys.

Justin is a newly converted vampire, battling to resist the urge to kill and desperately worried about his brother, converted at the same time but AWOL ever since. If the authorities find him first, he’s toast.

When the two of them meet through the vampire Maya earmarks to help her with an exciting project aimed at making money, both are taken aback by the mutual attraction.

And while living in this bleak world poses its own hazards, not least because those in charge are too ready to ride rough shod over vampires and happy to accept backhanders, Maya and Justin still need to cope with the day to day stuff. Going to college, fighting with your mum, obsessing over the food you can’t eat, dealing with unpopularity and online trolls.

Here’s what the readers said:

“I enjoyed this book SO MUCH. I couldn’t stop reading – I just wanted to know what happens next. I think the world you’ve created is brilliant and so clever. It’s a really, really fun take on vampires that I’ve certainly never come across.”

“This is the very first time I’m going to say this to a client: your novel is amazing! Jesus, what a ride! What a pleasure to read!”

“Great job! Lots of fun, creative AF, very well written!”

“I started the book this morning and it was so addicting that I read it all in just a couple of hours. I would 10000/10 recommend this book to anyone and everyone.”

“The style of the book was really different than what I typically read on Wattpad so I didn’t know what to expect but I definitely wasn’t disappointed.”

“Ughhhhhhh I love love love this book!! It’s amazing!! So well written. I devoured it in a day! Keep it up!!”

“I admit this came up in my recommendations and glad I ended up taking myself into reading this story. I’m surprised I finished reading it within three days. :O” “Amazing. Love romance between Maya and Justin and challenges they face. Backstories. The world building. And people that are supporting Maya on MyTV and people (friends and family, unexpected allies) that have her back. Also, amazing response to reader comments and work put into re-editing this story. All in all, wonderful work and I wish you good luck with writing. :)”

“This was an ASTOUNDING story!!! I admit, I initially clicked on this just bc it was a vampire story…. but the world you have created – so raw and believable – powerful, I really felt as though I was there, watching it all unravel!! ❤❤❤”

You can buy the book here:

Scenes from a small island

rose wine and a pint

At the risk of sounding like an alcoholic, let me say it anyway – I can’t wait to get back in a pub.

Here in Scotland, the emergence from lockdown is slow and controlled (rightly), but the sight of the four walls around me drives me mad. Ever since we got married, my husband and I have made a ritual of Sundays. In the spring/summer months, we hop on his bike and drive up north, heading for the lochs, the hills and the mountains that I love for the way they sit there, unchanging, ignoring our stupid human endeavours.

We watch the scenery. We park in small towns and villages, find the local pub—preferably one that offers food—plonk our well-covered bottoms in a booth and earwig on other people’s conversations. At least I do. Is there ever anything as fascinating as hearing part of a conversation and trying to figure out the rest?

Who are you people? How did you meet? What do you do, and why are you here?

There’s a pub on the A82 that we return to time and time again. Truth be told, the food will never win awards, but we go there because the motorbike journey up the side of Loch Lomond is, and I hate this too overused word, breath-taking. God almighty, I want to be back in that pub, eating the goat’s cheese salad I always order, nicking the over-cooked broccoli off my husband’s dish of choice, the steak pie and mustard mash, squeezing into the world’s tiniest pub toilets and drinking the far too sweet/far too rubbish/way overpriced Rose.

Bliss, in these constrained times, takes diverse forms.

And yet how many of these places will survive? I’ve written a series of books set in a fictional Highland village, where the local pub/hotel doubles up as community hub. Two of the series of five I wrote in lockdown, and now wonder if they are out of date. Historical fiction, rather than contemporary romance.

Would my made-up pub/hotel, the Lochside Welcome, come through the other side of lockdowns? Doubtful.

I hate that.

In the meantime, here is a short excerpt from one of my books featuring a scene from the fictional pub… Enjoy:

Hoghland Chances by Emma Baird

The public bar was noisy. It was nowhere near as busy as the George, but its smaller space packed in people who all grinned at each other and chattered loudly. From the snatches of conversations I caught, I gathered most of them were part of a hillwalking group from Glasgow who’d looked at the weather forecast this morning, circled the loch and descended on the village. They’d booked every room and were now desperate to knock back pints, pizzas, cake and whiskies.

Jack stood at the bar, fixed smile in place as two of the walkers their status marked by lightweight cagoules and sturdy boots, exclaimed at his resemblance to Jamie Fraser.

“‘Mon, ‘mon!” they cried. “We want a selfie wi’ you!”

He pushed up the serving hatch, gamely putting an arm around each woman. I watched one of them—a woman who had to be twice Jack’s age—let her hand linger far too close to his bottom as she and her friend cuddled up either side of him. A third one took hundreds of pictures.

“Gaby!” His greeting sounded relieved. “Maureen, Louisa—this is Gaby, my wife.”

Emphasis on wife. Maureen made no move to drop her hand.

“That right, hen? You’re an awfy lucky girl,” she beamed at me. “Mind, when ma daughter was up the duff last year, by the time she got to the nine-month mark, she went right off the bed bit. Me and ma friend here would be happy to help youse out. We could take yer man up they stairs and exhaust him so much, he’ll no’ touch ye for months.”

My jaw dropped, as did Jack’s though his expression was 100 percent pure fear. Behind the bar, there were snorts of laughter. Jolene and Xavier listening in and doing nothing to help us out. As soon as I got home, I was going to design a poster for the bar. One that made it clear in gigantic capital letters that the Lochside Welcome did not tolerate abusive, sexist behaviour towards its staff.

Freedom beckons!

All gerbil and hamster owners, please get in touch… you can have the cut-offs for pet bedding.

Oh hallelujah! Praise the skies, the sun, the moon and everything else. Here in Scotland, we’ve been given a timetable for when things will open again, case numbers permitting. As you can see from my picture, I am long overdue a haircut, but with any luck will be able to get into a salon come April.

This week, I celebrated my birthday in a lockdown way – lunch in the garden with my mum, a walk, and a family Zoom quiz in the evening. One of the rounds was on the Tudors (a specialist subject of mine) and my talented nephew came up with this picture to illustrate it…

The final round was on… jobbies. Yes, a picture round where the quiz participants had to identify the animal from its poop. Believe it or not, the bulk of people taking part in the quiz were aged over 40.  That happened to be my worst round. Perhaps I’ll need to get a T-shirt made up that says ‘Proud to be Sh*te at Sh*te’.

To celebrate the occasion, we ordered a meal from Andi Oliver’s Caribbean restaurant, Wadadli in Stoke Newington. Andi is on the Great British Menu and Radio 4’s The Kitchen Cabinet, so I was intrigued as to what the menu might offer… Chicken wings, goat curry, fried plantains, pickled vegetables, sweet potato roti, macaroni and fries. All delicious.

Given that I aspire to full-time writing, one of the ironic things that has happened to me over the last year is how I have struggled to read books. All my life, I have been an avid novel reader, and could easily get through three, four or more books a week.

A global pandemic hits and I find myself doom-scrolling through the news or Twitter. My attention span seems to have shrunk to a tiny limit, and it doesn’t feel healthy. Books are about escapism, but research has also shown that book reading makes you more empathetic. When I read all the angry, polarised opinions on Twitter, I worry that my own opinions are becoming entrenched. Not a good thing!

If you have any recommendations for anything page-turning, please let me know in the comments below!

And finally, In the interests of lining my own pockets, rather than contributing to Mr Bezos’ billions, I have set up my own wee bookshop… all the money on each book goes to me and I get it straight away. Happy days! If you are so inclined, you can buy directly from me by clicking on the button below.

Celebrations all round

Merry (almost) Christmas! Here in the UK, our celebrations will be far more muted this year as most of us are living under tight restrictions. Most households around where we live put their Christmas lights up a few weeks ago, as did we, breaking the habit of a lifetime. All of us are in need of cheer, aren’t we?

Anyway, talking of Celebrations (ooh, seamless segue!) the featured image at the start of this blog is what I consider the correct order of preference for Celebrations chocolates. The number one choice on the left—the Bounty—is controversial. Three members of my family agree—two don’t, one vociferously.

It seems people in the UK aren’t too happy with the Bounty Celebration either. (Bounty for those of you who don’t know is a chocolate covered coconutty sweet.) This year’s Celebrations advent calendar contained Bounties for three days in a row on 1, 2 and 3 December.

Ruining Christmas

They complained on Twitter, with one person saying: “I’m on day 4 of my celebrations advent calendar and someone tell me why i’ve gotten 3 bounties in a row??????? is this a sick joke or something @UKCelebrations. [sic]”

Other Tweets talked of Celebrations, owned by the Mars company, ruining Christmas after an already awful year.

Yes, of course there are much worse things going on in the world but sometimes I love it when people get worked up about silliness. And if they collectively want to gather up all those unwanted Bounties and send them to me, I’ll be delighted.

Wattys

In another celebratory moment, one of my other books got picked as a Wattys2020 winner, which obviously I’m pleased about. The Wattys are Wattpad’s annual writing prize. Wattpad is the largest online storytelling platform in the world and this year’s competition had more than 40,000 entries from 177 countries.

The prize was awarded for my vampire story Beautiful Biters. Project Over-Optimism, a trait I’m too often guilty of, started whispering in my ear straight away… This is it, Emma B! Netflix is coming for ya! I’ve calmed down considerably since then.

Anyway, this is the cover for the story, along with that nice winner badge on it…

And here is the blurb…

The first vampire attack happened on the way back from the hospital. My sister Rosie was four at the time. Miraculous it had taken that long…

Nineteen-year-old Maya has too much on her plate. Trying to protect her younger sister. Struggling with crushes on unsuitable guys.

Justin is a newly converted vampire, battling to resist the urge to kill and desperately worried about his brother, converted at the same time but AWOL ever since. If the authorities find him first, he’s toast.

When the two of them meet through the vampire Maya earmarks to help her with an exciting project aimed at making money, both are taken aback by the mutual attraction. First rule of vampire-human integration though…? You don’t go that far.

And while living in this bleak world poses its own hazards-not least because those in charge are too ready to ride rough shod over vampires and happy to accept backhanders, Maya and Justin still need to cope with the day to day stuff. Going to college, fighting with your mum, obsessing over the food you can’t eat, dealing with unpopularity and online trolls.

Champagne glasses picture courtesy of Pixabay.

Bubbles, books and #NaNoWriMo

<p value="<amp-fit-text layout="fixed-height" min-font-size="6" max-font-size="72" height="80">This week, we’ve been thinking about bubbles…This week, we’ve been thinking about bubbles…

The fizzy ones you find in champagne came into use today* when I finished this year’s #NaNoWriMo. Cheers to me and all that, having completed the 50,000 words in one month challenge. But before I get too self-congratulatory, there is a lot of revising and editing to be done. As someone once said, the first draft of a book is a ‘word vomit’, a hot mess of ill-conceived ideas, open loops and plot holes a plenty.

If I toss them all up in the air, maybe they’ll fall onto the ground and make sense… Said no editor in the world ever. But hey ho, that’s next year’s job. The book is available to read on Wattpad.

The other bubbles involve family and friends. For those of you out with the UK, we are back in lockdown and have been for a while as wave two (or is it still one, seeing as the respite lasted about two weeks?) sweeps its way over our shores. But the UK government and the devolved administrations put their heads together and came up with… bubbles for Christmas.

You can travel. You can see people not in your household. In their or your house too. Only, don’t mix too many households. Three only, so bubble one, bubble two and bubble three can mix but not with anyone else. So if bubble three had a bubble one and two of their own (say, people unrelated to those in bubble one and two), then they are not supposed to mix them up.

Impossible to enforce and relying once again on common sense and decency. Some of us will be more cautious/law-abiding than others. No judgement, except on those who flagrantly break the rules. Anyway, we’re aiming for a mix of dinner with one household/outdoor walks with another one if the winter weather permits.

Finally, not bubble related unless you put it in a bubble called ‘complete escapism from what is happening all around us’, Highland Christmas is now available for pre-order! I have a small but devoted Highland Books fan club on Wattpad, and they made lots of lovely comments about this book, which was gratifying.

You can pre-order the book here (Amazon UK) and here (Amazon US)

This is the blurb:

Christmas—joy, happiness and family fun, right?

As new parents and the co-owners of a village hotel, Gaby and Jack are looking forward to some time out come the end of December… Sure, being in the hospitality industry means working when everyone else is off, but once they’ve waved goodbye to the hotel’s Christmas guests, it’s all hands on deck for family festivities.

But Gaby’s mum has other plans in mind—ones that set Gaby and brother Dylan on a collision course with her. Nanna Cooper’s not in the best of health and Katya is coping with heartbreak once more. Just who is her baby’s daddy? Dexter demands to know…

Meanwhile, Lachlan seems to be up to no good, meeting strangers late at night and handing over brown envelopes while Mhari, as ever, is poking her nose in everywhere. Caroline, the once super enthusiastic grandmother, seems to have lost her appetite for babysitting Evie.

Featuring misbehaving grandmothers, secretive brothers and a whole lot of laughs, Highland Christmas is a heart-warming tale of rural life in Scotland.

If money is tight, you can read the book for free on Wattpad, where you will find it under my user name @SavvyDunn.

*last night. I’m not a lush. Well, only half the time.

#NaNoWriMo 2020

ARGHHHHHH. I swore I wouldn’t do it, even tweeted saying ‘good luck, everyone but it’s not for me this year’… In the end, the lure of #NaNoWriMo proved too much to resist. Fifty thousand words here I come (hopefully).

Beautiful Biters, the first in the series

For those unfamiliar with the term, NaNoWriMo is short for National Novel Writing Month. The aim is to write 1,667 words a day every day in November, which gives you 50,000 words by the end, providing you stick to it.

I first took up the challenge in November 2018 and LOVED the whole process. There’s a website where you upload your progress and watching those words mount up provided extremely satisfying. I published that book in June 2019 and have since written and published three more in that series. Book five is due out this Christmas.

If nothing else, Coronavirus’s second wave here in the UK has awarded me time-a-plenty this month as we’re more or less back in strict lockdown. No visits to family or friends, no restaurants, pubs, cinemas, festivals, outings, fun whatsoever.

Anyway, for this year’s challenge, I intend to write the second in a planned three-parter about vampires. In the world I’ve created, humans and vampires live alongside each other because there’s a vaccine that makes human blood poisonous to vampires. Unfortunately, the right-wing government privatised healthcare some years ago, so not all humans have been immunised and the vaccination is now incredibly expensive.

A state licensing programme for vampires exists, one that oppresses them, and the government is far too fond of handing out the contracts for all vampire-related programmes to its incompetent mates.

Any of this sounding familiar…?

Anyway, my main characters are Maya (human) and Justin (vampire), both trying to work out how to flourish in this challenging world.

Here’s a short extract:

The vampire advancing on me, teeth bared and arms spread wide, stopped—his eyes rolling back, head tipping behind him as he tumbled to the ground.

“Are you okay?” I shrieked, darting over so I could thrust out a hand to help him up. We had been working on mind control techniques for an hour and this was the first time I’d disabled him. The kitchen floor was cheap laminate but solid underneath. The drop must have hurt.

Justin gripped my hand, grimace turning to grin.

Never date a vampire. They operate on crude levels. Sleep, blood lust and… plain ol’ lust. A sudden yank and I found myself on top of him.

“Now that you’re here,” he murmured in my ear, warm breath tickly. “Shall we forget this stupid lesson and do something else instead…?”

No mistaking the intent. That told me loud and clear. I hovered above him, propped up on my hands, hair falling forward. He blew out air, sending strands flying. I dipped my elbows to kiss him. Justin liked to work out. He approved of press-ups, particularly ones that brought two bodies closer together.

“Well, sir, if you insist,” I said, “though I should try it a few more times? Otherwise, how else am I going to fight off the baddies that want to suck the life out of my as yet unvaccinated sister?”

You can read the first book, Beautiful Biters, for free on Wattpad. The cover you can see above was created by the talented Jennifer Mijatovic (@wee_mij on Instagram check out the gorgeous sketches she does of her daughter). Isn’t it beautiful?