Wednesday, 27 December 2017

Looking forward - no regrets

Just over a week ago, on the last night of the eight-day Jewish festival Chanukah (for more about that, click here), I listened to an amazing woman speaking at my local synagogue.

Louise lost her sight at the age of 27, 13 years ago, brought on by brittle diabetes, a rare, severe and unpredictable form of the disease. Since then, she has had two kidney transplants. Her first was combined with a pancreas transplant - a very risky procedure, especially as these double transplants were still fairly new at the time. Her second transplant took place earlier this year.

Louise is one of the most inspirational women I have ever listened to. Like many teenagers, she took risks with her health, which affected her existing diabetes and led to her sight loss. Soon after she lost her sight, determined to regain back her independence, Louise visited family in Australia. She took part in a special support programme for people who had lost their sight, and even learnt survival skills in the Outback.

Louise talked about how technology helps her to enjoy her favourite things in life, including cooking and shopping. And how, despite her disabilities and the treatments she endures, she doesn't let anything hold her back. She climbs mountains, swims regularly, co-pilots a plane and lives independently with the help of her constant companion, guide dog Nemo.

Louise's key message that evening was 'make the most of your talents. Whatever you can do, do it. Whatever you enjoy, do it. Don’t let anything hold you back'.

This reminded me of the former headmistress of my sons’ school, who passed away suddenly in 2013, just before she was due to retire. She was a highly respected educator and believed that ‘every child is good at something and it is our job (as teachers) to find out what it is’.

She helped to create a secondary school that has become one of the top-performing non-selective state schools in the country. But most importantly, she designed a school day to incorporate enrichments, which are extra-curricular opportunities during lesson time rather than as optional after-school activities. Students aged 11 to 14 have a choice of over 70 activities, including sports, arts, music, drama, meditation, fashion design, car mechanics, cookery, jewellery making, public speaking, film studies and charity work.

So children who aren’t so academic, or have less interest in academic subjects, are given the opportunity to discover their own talents and interests.

Why am I telling you all this?

I set up Off-the-Shelf Books on 30 December 2014, with the aim of reviewing fiction, interviewing authors and sharing book love. It’s certainly been a rollercoaster three years, full of ups and downs. I’ve learnt so much about books, reading, publishing, social media and also people. So much has happened, prompting me to look back on the past. Wishing there were some things I could change.

But no one can change what's already been. We can only steer towards our future.

I always wanted to write crime fiction, from the moment I read the Secret Seven and Famous Five. I watched a post-mortem at the age of 16, then studied Biomedical Science at university, with plans to do a Forensics PhD. But I became side tracked and ended up in journalism - and fiction became just a dream. Until just over two years ago when, after years of writing the first chapters of various books, I started writing fiction with more commitment.

I did write one book, but decided earlier this year to put it aside and work on something else - and to keep working on it until I feel it's 'right'. I am now over 77K words through the first draft, which means I'm nearly there - and then the long editing process begins. Writing isn't new to me, and nor is editing. I have been a health journalist/editor for over 20 years. But fiction is very different to my day job, putting some (or all) of 'me' on to the page.

Over the years, I have written for various magazines and websites, and edited them too. Currently, one of my main roles is freelance health editor for Bupa. I wrote a book on children's allergies in 2009, and I’ve edited and contributed to several others over the years. In 2017, I signed a contract with a publisher to update a bestselling baby care book. The updated version of the book should be published in 2018. I am now looking out for similar work.

A few weeks ago I was talking to someone about writing and life’s regrets - being proud of your achievements, finding your own talents and not letting anything stop you achieving your dreams. The person I spoke to said that it was time for me to look forward and to stop looking back. Time to grasp all opportunities - and time to create my own.

I recently wrote some bookish new year resolutions and tweeted them, admittedly slightly tongue-in-cheek. But actually... reading them made me realise how much I want to achieve them.

Over the last few weeks, I've created #BookLove2017 banners for some of my favourite reads this year, and I've had some lovely comments on my blog, through social media and via email.

Now I’m wondering whether I could use my love of the creative arts for something more substantial, as a sideline to journalism, while still leaving time for me to write. I used to draw too, but haven't found the time to do it properly since my university days. I'll be looking for all opportunities, even if it's just a way to relax.

Looking forward to 2018, I’m hoping that I’ll finish off this book I’m working on and do something with it, rather than hide it in a bottom drawer. That I’ll find opportunities for drawing or design. That I'll continue with some other bookish plans I've already put into place. And that I’ll be following Louise's advice - ‘make the most of your talents and don’t let anything hold you back'.

It's time to live life with no regrets, and I encourage others to do the same. Taking one step forwards at a time.

Happy Birthday to my blog and Happy New Year to everyone who reads it!

Vicki x

Friday, 22 December 2017

#BookLove2017 Banners from Off-the-Shelf Books

Many people have seen my #BookLove2017 banners on Twitter and Instagram. Huge thanks to anyone who has shared them.

Here are the banners I've made
(in no particular order) 

I'm looking forward to reading some more fantastic books in 2018 and catching up on some of the books I didn't manage to get to this year. 
There are lots of them!!!

Thursday, 21 December 2017

MY PUBLISHING LIFE with Helena Sheffield

Welcome to my latest MY PUBLISHING LIFE feature, an interview with a literary agent, publisher, publicist or editor about their publishing career to date. Some serious questions, and some just for fun!

Today I'm delighted to welcome 


Marketing and Communications Manager
Penguin Random House Audio

What and when was your first job in publishing?
I started working at HarperCollins as a Sales Assistant in October 2013, supporting the team who sell to independent bookshops. It was my first job out of University and I absolutely loved it. Working in Sales was not something I’d expected to start out doing, but it completely changed my perspective of the publishing industry and taught me a huge amount of valuable information about our relationships with booksellers which I still use today. I always make sure that my marketing is as sales-focused as possible, and I still love working with retailers.
After a year in that role I became a Sales Executive, working with bigger retailers, and then I made the jump into Marketing as Avon Books’ Digital Marketing Manager. I’m currently Marketing and Communications Manager for Penguin Random House Audio. 

How long have you been working in your current job/role?

I’ve only been in my current role for around six months and it’s been brilliant. I’ve always listened to audiobooks, ever since I was very young, so being on the other side is fascinating. Audiobook production is a whole different area of expertise to book publishing, and I’ve had to change the way I approach marketing to ensure everything is about listening, rather than reading. 

Which books have you worked on recently/are you working on?
As I work across all audiobooks published by Penguin Random House and the BBC, there’s quite a lot going on. I’ve recently put together campaigns for Philip Pullman’s The Book of Dust and Eddie Izzard’s autobiography, Believe Me (and trust me, you need to listen to that one), and Doctor Who audiobooks. Coming up in 2018 there’s some seriously exciting publishing that I can’t wait to start talking about very soon. There’s also a huge amount of much variety which makes marketing all these books a lot of fun. 

Which qualifications/life skills/experience have helped you get to where you are today?
I studied English Literature at University but I certainly don’t think that’s a ‘requirement’ for working in publishing. Where I really developed was through pushing myself out of my comfort zone and doing things outside of study or work. I was Secretary of my University’s Creative Writing Society which forced me to lead a team, I worked in a library which meant I developed a good background knowledge of popular books and I’ve always striven to keep up hobbies such as dancing, making hats or learning Italian as I think that, certainly in marketing, anything you do to keep learning and trying new things might filter through into a great idea.
Essentially, experience doesn’t have to come from an office job: if you say ‘yes’ to new opportunities you can draw as much experience as you need from those, and you’ll develop that unique approach to working that employers will be looking for!

How do you relax after a busy working day?
I do try! I’ve always done dance and I still do Ballroom and Latin dancing every week – I’m currently preparing for an exam, so whether you call that relaxing I’m not sure…
I also like to try as many classes as possible so that I keep learning – I’ve done Italian, cooking and hat making so far, and have just started yoga. I also happen to have a small obsession with hats, which led to my book, The Art of Wearing Hats, publishing in 2016. I’ve just started working with a hat magazine that will launch in 2018, and I’ll be writing the odd piece for them as well. 

What was the last book you read for pleasure?
I read Sarah Waters’ The Night Watch. I love historical fiction, and a lot of her books are set in London during the 20th century. The level of detail in them is extraordinary; I honestly suspect her of having a time machine because she makes a forgotten London feel like you’ve been there. This book works backwards through WW2 and is visceral, unforgettable, perfect. 

Describe your job in 15 words or less...
I get people listening. 

What have been the highlights of your publishing life so far
While it wasn’t officially my publishing career, writing and releasing The Art of Wearing Hats with HarperCollins has to be the best moment. It’s not something I’d ever expected to do, and it’s something I’m very proud of.
Other than that, when I was still at Avon we were nominated for Imprint of the Year in the 2017 Nibbies – this felt like a huge team effort as we’d all worked so hard to make the imprint the best it had ever been, and to be rewarded in that way was a wonderful outcome. I was on my own when I found out, and never have I wanted to speak to strangers more than that day… 

If you could try out any other job for one day (with no limits on money, travel etc.), what would you choose?
Without question I’d want to try being a milliner. I follow so many of them on Instagram and while I can only imagine how difficult it must be, it looks like the perfect life. Surrounded by hats all day … Being able to make your own … Never having to worry about presents again?  Ideal.
I also know from my few hat-making classes that I would not be very successful. 

If your publishing life was a book, what would the title be?

If You Want to Get Ahead, Wear a Hat
This may sound like a push, but I do think hats have helped me out from time to time… I first applied to the HarperCollins Graduate Scheme and was in a room with 100 other people, hoping desperately to be noticed. As I had nothing to lose, I kept my pale pink cloche hat on, and two years later I ran into someone from HR who remembered me from that day – purely because of the hat.
So my ultimate tip? Hats are your secret weapon. Go forth and conquer.

Thanks so much for taking part, Helena!

Look out for more MY PUBLISHING LIFE features coming soon.

Click here to read more MY PUBLISHING LIFE features.

If any literary agents, publishers, publicists or editors would like to take part, please contact me through my blog or Twitter for the full list of questions.

Wednesday, 20 December 2017

Anything for Her by G.J. Minett

I am delighted to be today's stop on the blog tour for Anything for Her by G.J. Minett. Anything for Her was published by Zaffre on 30 November 2017.

Anything for Her
By GJ Minett
Published by Zaffre (30 November 2017)

Publisher's description
You'd do anything for the one that got away . . . wouldn't you?
When Billy Orr returns home to spend time with his dying sister, he bumps into his ex-girlfriend Aimi, the love of his life. He might not have seen her in eleven years, but Billy's never forgotten her. He'd do anything for her then, and he'd do anything for her now.
When Aimi tells him that she wants to escape her abusive husband, Billy agrees to help her fake her own death. But is she still the Aimi that Billy remembers from all those years ago? 
Once Aimi disappears, Billy has to face the possibility that perhaps she had different reasons for disappearing - reasons that might be more dangerous than she's led him to believe . . .
Sometimes trusting the one you love is the wrong thing to do.

My verdict
Anything for Her is the author's third psychological thriller. I've read the first book, The Hidden Legacy, but not the second. The books are all standalones with new characters, so it doesn't matter if you haven't read either of the previous two.

Billy Orr is a nice guy with a troubled past who has returned home to help his dying sister. He finds himself caught in a web of lies when he meets his ex-girlfriend Aimi and she asks him for a favour. I wanted to shout at him for being so naive as I wasn't convinced Aimi could be trusted. I figured it would end in disaster - and it certainly didn't go as Billy had expected.

The narrative switches easily between past and present and also between the multiple voices. The writing is great, with lots of vivid descriptions of people and places. The plot is a twisty one, cleverly constructed, and the tension builds up gradually as the book progresses.

Anything for Her certainly kept me guessing - I wasn't sure exactly where the plot was heading - or why - until the final pages. A great ending to a book of family secrets, past relationships and manipulative people.

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Monday, 18 December 2017

The Chalk Man by CJ Tudor

The Chalk Man
By CJ Tudor
Published by Penguin (11 January 2018)
I received an Advance Reader Copy from the publisher

Publisher's description
None of us ever agreed on the exact beginning. 
Was it when we started drawing the chalk figures, or when they started to appear on their own? 
Was it the terrible accident? 
Or when they found the first body?

In 1986, Eddie and his friends are just kids on the verge of adolescence. They spend their days biking around their sleepy little English village and looking for any taste of excitement they can get. The chalk men are their secret code; little chalk stick figures they leave for one another as messages only they can understand. But then a mysterious chalk man leads them right to a dismembered body, and nothing is ever the same.

In 2016, Eddie is fully grown, and thinks he's put his past behind him. But then he gets a letter in the mail, containing a single chalk stick figure. When it turns out that his friends got the same message, they think it could be a prank . . . until one of them turns up dead. That's when Eddie realizes that saving himself means finally figuring out what really happened all those years ago.

My verdict
The Chalk Man is a chilling murder mystery and an outstanding debut.

This twisty crime novel was really creepy and tense, in terms of both setting and premise. Mysterious notes lead narrator Eddie to think back to his adolescent years when he and his friends used little chalk men figures as their secret code and then discovered a dismembered body. The narration switches seamlessly between Eddie on the cusp of adolescence and Eddie as an adult in the present day.

The Chalk Man reads like a timeless 'old school' classic with an '80s vibe, yet the hint of horror and supernatural flavour give it a definite contemporary feel. I loved the '80s cultural references - I would be a similar age to Eddie and his friends if they were real (they felt it), so the nostalgia certainly took me back several decades. The writing was both atmospheric and vivid, getting right under my skin, and the dialogue was filled with dark humour.

The Chalk Man was a book that I couldn't put down easily and one that I really enjoyed, right until the surprising and somewhat disturbing ending. Now I don't think I'll ever view a chalk man hastily scribbled on a pavement in quite the same way again.

The Girlboss Workbook by Sophia Amoruso

The Girlboss Workbook
By Sophia Amoruso
Published by Portfolio Penguin (24 October 2017)

Publisher's description
Hot on the heels of the Netflix show based on #GIRLBOSS comes Sophia Amoruso's new workbook of tips, doodles and fill-in-the-blanks that will help women become their best Girlboss yet. A graphic and whimsical guide filled with exercises, illustrations and plenty of scribble room, The Girlboss Workbook is designed for both dreamers and doers. It invites you (hell, implores you) to get in there and mess it up. 
Revisit #GIRLBOSS's career wisdom and use it to draft your ideal cover letter, answer practice interview questions and reflect on, or even draw, your mistakes and accomplishments.
#GIRLBOSS started as Sophia Amoruso's story, but The Girlboss Workbook is your story. Use this book as a diary, a mood board, a stress ball and a tool for organizing and launching your wildest dreams. 

My verdict
I'm not officially in the target age group of The Girlboss Workbook (the under-25s, probably, including older teenagers). But I think this is a fun resource for young women if they're looking for some motivation in changing career - or just starting out. I knew nothing about the Netflix show based on #GIRLBOSS or about the author Sophia Amoruso when the book arrived - though I have now done some research.

This interactive journal contains lots of advice on achieving your hopes and dreams and starting your own business or getting a job. There are questionnaires to fill in, pages to doodle on or colour in and lists to write. There are also practical tips on working in offices (dealing with colleagues), savings accounts, coping with debt, managing your social life and much more.

This very graphic book is a motivational and inspirational quick read - one that someone can dip in and out of for ideas. It's a great present for a teenage girl deciding what she wants out of life.

Odd Girl Out by Laura James

Odd Girl Out
By Laura James
Published by Bluebird (6 April 2017)
I received an Advance Reader Copy from the publisher

Publisher's description
What do you do when you wake up in your mid-forties and realize you've been living a lie your whole life? Do you tell? Or do you keep it to yourself?
Laura James found out that she was autistic as an adult, after she had forged a career for herself, married twice and raised four children. Odd Girl Out tracks the year of Laura's life after she receives a definitive diagnosis from her doctor, as she learns that 'different' doesn't need to mean 'less' and how there is a place for all of us, and it's never too late to find it.
Laura draws on her professional and personal experiences and reflects on her life in the light of her diagnosis, which for her explains some of her differences; why, as a child, she felt happier spinning in circles than standing still and why she has always found it difficult to work in places with a lot of ambient noise. 
Although this is a personal story, the book has a wider focus too, exploring reasons for the lower rate of diagnosed autism in women and a wide range of topics including eating disorders and autism, marriage and motherhood.
This memoir gives a timely account from a woman negotiating the autistic spectrum, from a poignant and personal perspective.

My verdict
Laura James, an experienced journalist, and a wife and mother, has written an informative memoir, as she comes to terms with her recent diagnosis of autism.

As she reflects on her past, she explores what has led her to feel 'different' from others over the years - as a child, teenager and now adult. Things slot into place, yet bring up more questions and a need to discover how to cope in an ever-changing world. She also contemplates other aspects of her life too, such as adoption, marriage, motherhood and living with a chronic pain condition (Ehler-Danlos syndrome - EDS).

I found Odd Girl Out fascinating - a chance to see autism from the 'inside', rather than the outside looking in. An insight into the thought processes, identity crises and the need to feel stable and safe. This isn't a fast-paced or exciting read. But it tells the reader how it is - following a year in Laura James' life - based on one woman's experiences.

Odd Girl Out provides reassurance that being 'different' doesn't mean someone can't live a full life, both professionally and personally. Although this is memoir, it may also be a useful resource for adults going through similar diagnoses, parents of children on the autistic spectrum and anyone who just feels a need to learn more.

Thursday, 14 December 2017

MY PUBLISHING LIFE with Keshini Naidoo

Welcome to my latest MY PUBLISHING LIFE feature, an interview with a literary agent, publisher, publicist or editor about their publishing career to date. Some serious questions, and some just for fun!

Today I'm delighted to welcome 


Associate Publisher

What and when was your first job in publishing?
My first job in publishing was actually on the retail side. Once I had completed my degree, I first worked at Waterstones in Leeds, then moved to London in the early 2000s to work at BCA, the mail order book club, as a buying assistant. I quickly moved to be the buyer for crime and thriller as well as literary fiction (and erotica!) and running The Mystery and Thriller Guild. 

How long have you been working in your current job/role?

I have been working at Bookouture since 2014. 

Which books have you worked on recently/are you working on?
Recently, I have been working on Angela Marsons’ latest instalment in the bestselling D.I. Kim Stone series, Broken Bones, as well as complex, gripping and page-turning psychological thrillers from Barbara Copperthwaite (Her Last Secret), Kathryn Croft (Silent Lies) and Sarah Wray (Her Best Friend). I’m very excited to be publishing Helen Phifer’s authentic, terrifying, police procedural, Dying Breath. It’s been a busy autumn…! 

Which qualifications/life skills/experience have helped you get to where you are today?
It’s somewhat of a cliché for people in publishing, but being a heavy book junkie since childhood has really helped my career. I’m glad that all the time I spent reading instead of climbing trees paid off! I always cite my time as a bookseller as shaping my knowledge of what real people actually choose to pick up – which is often quite at odds with what is given newspaper coverage. 

How do you relax after a busy working day?
I’m a horror movie addict, so I spend my downtime watching scary films and reading horror movie blogs! I love seeing live music and have been lucky enough to see Steely Dan and Robert Glasper (a jazz musician) recently. I also have two children and two kittens, so they definitely keep me busy when I’m not working… 

What was the last book you read for pleasure?
It’s not the last book I read, but I absolutely loved You Will Know Me by Megan Abbott. Her characterisation is just outstanding and always sucks me in wholly. 

Describe your job in 15 words or less...

I help authors get their books out to as wide a readership as possible. 

What have been the highlights of your publishing life so far
I’ve been fortunate enough to work at two publishing juggernauts in their early days – I started at Avon (HarperCollins) before it launched in 2007, which gave me a huge grounding in what it takes to launch a successful commercial book and Bookouture, which has grown into the leader in digital publishing in the last three years. I love the challenges of growing a company and the satisfaction of seeing its successes.
I’d also have to say that seeing Angela Marsons’ D.I. Kim Stone series go on to sell millions of copies has been another huge highlight of my career. And I was delighted to be named on the Bookseller Rising Star list in 2017 (I feel a bit old to still be ‘rising’, but I’ll take that accolade!). 

If you could try out any other job for one day (with no limits on money, travel etc.), what would you choose?
Anyone who has seen me at karaoke will know this, but I’d love to be a rapper for a day! Although I’m not sure my Northern tones would really be suited to it… sadly! 

If your publishing life was a book, what would the title be?
Lucky Girl. I feel really privileged every day to work at a job I love, with dynamic, creative, colleagues and fantastically inventive (and lovely!) authors. I get to discover new voices, and bring them to the reading public. And I get to read books! As part of my job! If you had told 8-year-old me that one day I would be involved in actually creating books, I don’t think I would have believed you…

Thanks so much for taking part, Keshini!

Look out for more MY PUBLISHING LIFE features coming soon.

Click here to read more MY PUBLISHING LIFE features.

If any literary agents, publishers, publicists or editors would like to take part, please contact me through my blog or Twitter for the full list of questions.