Posted in Reading, Writing

Who Is Sophie Sayers Anyway?

A post about the heroine of my debut novel, Best Murder in Show

Cover of Best Murder in Show by Debbie Young
Ta-da! Now available to order as an ebook for Kindle’ paperback to launch on 22nd April

New novel, I hear you cry? Yes, my new novel! Due to launch officially in paperback on Saturday 22nd April at the Hawkesbury Upton Literature Festival, Best Murder in Show is already available to pre-order as a Kindle ebook via Amazon. (Click here to find it on Amazon UK and here for Amazon US.)

It’s the first in a series of seven classic mystery stories set in the Cotswolds in the modern day, in a village not unlike the one where I’ve lived for the last 26 years.

Of course, as it’s fiction, any resemblance to real people, places or situations is entirely coincidental, although I confidently expect at least one of my neighbours will stop me in the street claiming to be X, Y or Z in the story.

As long as they’re not claiming to be the murderer, I think I can handle that.

To whet your appetite between now and the official launch, I’ll be writing a series of posts about different aspects of the book.

How I Named My Heroine

Today I’m going to tell you how I chose the name of the heroine, Sophie Sayers, who at the age of 25 inherits a country cottage from her great aunt. This legacy provides her with the perfect opportunity to ditch her sponging, controlling boyfriend, and instead to reinvent herself as a writer.

Only problem is, she’s not sure what to write or where to start.

In the meantime, although she’s able to live rent-free, she still has to earn her keep, so she secures a job in the village bookshop,where the charming but enigmatic bookseller Hector Munro takes her under his wing. (More about his name in a future post.)

Before long, Sophie is sucked into the busy social life of the village community, seeking to solve a murder mystery that everyone else assumes to be death from natural causes. She’s hoping that the handsome Hector will not turn out to be the murderer, but he’s definitely hiding something suspicious…

So Why Sophie Sayers?

Firstly, I’ve always liked the name Sophie, and at one time was holding it in reserve for a daughter, should I ever have one.

I did indeed eventuallly have a daughter in 2003, but I decided some weeks before she was born that she was actually a Laura. I still loved the name Sophie, not least because there’d been one in my family a few generations back, so post-Laura I decided to save Sophie for my next cat.

Photo of Dorothy on a cushion
A safe landing for Dorothy

But my next cat, who arrived as a stray in a snowstorm on the same day as my aunt’s postcard of the red shoes from The Wizard of Oz, turned out to be a Dorothy.

She settled in straight away and has been here ever since, our Cotswold cottage apparently being her equivalent to Kansas: “there’s no place like home”.

 

Photo of Debbie Young and M C Beaton
With writing hero M C Beaton, author of the Agatha Raisin and Hamish Macbeth series

A few years later, when I started writing the first in a planned series of mystery novels, I wanted to pay tribute to one of my own favourite detective story writers, Dorothy L Sayers, author of the wonderful Lord Peter Wimsey series. (I’d always assumed this was what M C Beaton had done when echoing Agatha Christie in her Agatha Raisin detective stories. and I’m now kicking myself for not asking her on the two occasions when I have been lucky enough to meet her.)

But I couldn’t call my heroine Dorothy, because the cat had nabbed that name.

Cover of Sayers biography, "Such a Strange Lady"So Sayers it had to be – and Sophie, retrieved from the backburner, provided a pleasingly alliterative match. The similarity between Sophie and her namesake end there. The title of Dorothy L Sayers’ biography hints at the author’s uncompromising approach to life, but Sophie is eager to fit in with others – often too eager, as is sometimes her downfall.

 

I’m glad to have found a worthy bearer of one of my favourite names at last, while also offering homage to one of my many influences (as indeed is M C Beaton, as testified by my bookshelf).

Dorothy L Sayers collection on packed bookshelf
Taking inspiration from cherished treasures: the fragile paperbacks that I avidly collected as a teenager, nestling amongst other favourites such as Orwell and M C Beaton

If you’d like to order the ebook of Sophie Sayers’ first adventure, Best Murder in Show, you’ll find it on Amazon UK and on Amazon US, and in fact on all the other Amazon sites around the world.

The paperback will be launched on Saturday 22nd April at the Hawkesbury Upton Literature Festival, and will then be available to order from all good bookshops. 

Image of ebook on Kindle
Best Murder in Show – now available as an ebook (paperback coming soon)

 

Posted in Family, Personal life

A Shout-out for Life Kitchen – Catering for People with Cancer

A serious post about an important new cause

Life Kitchen logo
A new initiative to tempt the appetite of people with cancer

Driving to hospital for a routine rheumatology appointment this morning, I heard a moving interview by on BBC R4’s Today programme with Ryan Riley, a young man who has set up a new initiative in memory of his mother who had died of lung cancer. It is called Life Kitchen and aims to help people whose tastebuds and appetite have been adversely affected by chemotherapy and other treatments for cancer. The interviewer Nick Robinson recently had lung cancer himself, and although he barely mentions it, the project clearly resonated with him.

Why It Resonated with Me Too

It hit a nerve for me as well because seventeen years ago my first husband died of leukemia after a brief but brutal illness (seven weeks from diagnosis to death) in which one of the first and lasting characteristics was the change of his attitude towards food and drink. Losing his desire for both, he rapidly lost weight and with it his physical strength and mental resilience.

I tried to tempt him with various foods in his hospital bed – he was an inpatient for virtually the whole time – with no success. It wasn’t that the hospital food was bad, but it wasn’t great either. Because of the inevitable lag betwteen ordering and eating it, he often didn’t want the dishes he’d chosen by the time they arrived.

There was one memorable evening when I was visiting, as I was every weekday and twice a day at weekends, when he was delivered a pork pie, still in its wrapper and as solid as a brick. He could barely stand to look at it, and was about as likely to eat the plate as the pork pie, indigestible as they are at the best of times. I assumed he’d ordered it because it was something he’d enjoyed eating in happier circumstances, but as an invalid food, it was, er, invalid.

Giving up on hospital food, he would ask me to bring things in that he thought he might fancy, despatching me to a supermarket or takeaway to fetch whatever his whim of the moment was. And whatever it was, he would practically never eat it, his palate reduced to intolerance of just about everything.

I remember him clutching my arm in real distress at one point and saying “What if I can never eat more than five different foods again?” (I forget now what those five tolerable foods were, but he wasn’t eating much of them either.) I didn’t have the heart to tell him that was the least of his problems.

At that point I was myself living largely off food from garage forecourt shops bought on my journey to and from the hospital, apart from whatever was on the lunch menu at my workplace. I’d therefore end up eating his rejects to avoid waste. I’ve never felt as conspicuous as when surreptitiously eating Kentucky Fried Chicken out of a cardboard box in the middle of a hospital ward surrounded by seriously ill people, trying not to let its spicy, fatty fragrance waft around the ward.

Of course none of this was his fault, but it was enormously upsetting for us both. Already exhausted and stressed out, I felt terrible for feeling cross and resentful and anxious about the cost. I wouldn’t have minded if all this effort had made him eat, but the weight just fell away from this man whose body had always been strong and healthy and more than adequately covered with flesh. It was like watching him dissolve.

How to Support Life Kitchen

Whether Life Kitchen would have made a difference to him I will never know, but surely it is an idea worth supporting and exploring. I’ve just made a small donation to its crowdfunding appeal, and if you’d like to support the cause, you’ll find more details here, along with Ryan’s own moving story: https://www.gofundme.com/LifeKitchen You can also follow its progress on Twitter at @LifeKitchen.

Full marks to this young man for dreaming up the initiative. I am sure his mother would be very proud of him. 

Ryan Riley and his late mother
Life Kitchen founder Ryan Riley with his late mother Krista

 

 

Posted in Writing

Just What Dr Watson Ordered? – In Praise of the Original Sherlock Holmes and Comfort Reading

My column for this month’s Tetbury Advertiser

Cover of the March edition
Click the image to read the rest of this month’s Tetbury Advertiser

Worn down by a bleak and hostile environment filled with threats, this month I turned to an old friend for comfort. No, I’m not talking about our current political climate, but about the final episode of the television series Sherlock.

Holmes regenerates in different guises more frequently than Dr Who, with over 200 films listed by IMDB. Although I loved the earlier episodes of the Cumberbatch incarnation, the finale left me cold. It was as if the cast had taken a wrong turning and ended up on the set of a James Bond villain’s lair. I craved the cosy retreat that is the centre of the world for the original Holmes and Watson: 221b Baker Street.

221b or Not 221b?

Photo of front of museum
Outside the Sherlock Holmes Museum

What a stroke of genius it was for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to add the “b” to that address. With a single letter, he suggests the quirky subversiveness of a hero who makes up his own rules and isn’t afraid to stand up against the establishment – a true hero then and now.

These days the Sherlock Holmes Museum in Baker Street claims that door number as its own, but it’s actually just a plaque on the wall. The address is and always was fictitious, a Narnian wardrobe that many have sought but never found.

Comfort Reading

In times of trouble, whether personal, national or international, fictional characters and places can offer as much consolation as real ones, and often more.  Sinking recently into the opening pages of Holmes’ first adventure, A Study in Scarlet, which I’d nominated as the BBC Radio Gloucestershire Book Club’s February Book of the Month, was like stepping into a hot bubble bath after running through a thunderstorm with neither raincoat nor umbrella. Elegant prose, cracking storytelling and engaging characters lured me into a world where there may still have been crime and hatred, but where there’s also the inevitability of resolution and the triumph of good over evil.

A Story for Our Times

badge saying "I am Sherlocked"Subtle moral lessons are woven in along the way. I’d forgotten that one of the themes of A Study in Scarlet is religious tolerance, the crime revolving around questionable acts by Mormons in nineteenth-century Utah. Over a century after publication, it’s a story still relevant to our times.

So if you’re troubled by the state of the world in 2017, Dr Watson would surely prescribe spending time in the company of the original “consulting detective”, Sherlock Holmes, as he first emerged from the pen of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Though you may feel, as I do, that if Benedict Cumberbatch appeared up on your doorstep, you wouldn’t turn him away. Alternative medicine, perhaps?

Photo of Debbie holding a box set of Sherlock Holmes books
That’s my comfort reading sorted (Photo by presenter Dominic Cotter in the studio of his BBC Radio Gloucestershire lunch time show)

What’s your favourite comfort reading? I’d love to know!

logo giving date of next Hawkesbury Upton Lit Fest
Admission free and everyone welcome!

Find more comfort in books and reading when you come along to the FREE Hawkesbury Upton Literature Festival on Saturday 22nd April 2017 in the delightful Cotswold village that I call home. I’m looking forward to unveiling my own mystery series there, Best Murder in Show. Come and join the fun!

Posted in Family, Reading

A Book is A Book: In Praise of the Argos Catalogue – Reflections on Children’s Reading after World Book Day 2017

An opinion piece about World Book Day costumes in support of the boy who dressed as the Argos catalogue

Screenshot of tweeted pic of boy as Argos catalogue

It’s unusual for the morning news to make me smile, so this morning’s report on BBC Today programme about Bristol mum Vicki Bowles who sent her son to school dressed as the Argos catalogue was a welcome change.

“Well, it is his favourite book,” she explained.

There can’t be many parents who have ever had an Argos catalogue in the house with whom this didn’t resonate. No matter how many wonderful storybooks you provide, for children of a certain age, the lure of the Argos catalogue has almost magical powers, especially the winter edition, when the toy section is expanded. Entering its pages has the allure of the Narnian wardrobe, allowing admission to a magical land where money is no object and you might have any or all of the toys you could wish for.

The Magical Lure of the Argos Catalogue

Argos logo
Gosh, it’s just struck me how similar their logo is to Amazon’s

If you’re not familiar with the Argos catalogue, which I think is a UK-only brand, it’s a massive free catalogue of around 1,000 pages of Bible-thin paper but printed in full colour, promoting the vast range of goods available from its many stores around the country.

Argos shops are little more than warehouses with a trade counter in front, front. You choose your desired item from the catalogue either at home or in-store, take the product number to the till or to a machine, pay, and queue at the counter to collect your item. The process is iconic and unique, and to those of a certain age, waiting for your item to appear on the conveyor belt from the mysterious depths of the concealed warehouse, has the same frisson of excitement as watching the prizes move slowly across the screen in front of contestants on that old Saturday prime-time TV favourite, The Generation Game.

Retaining its Appeal in the Digital Age

They’ve updated the model to allow for online browsing, ordering and delivery, and for checking and reserving stock before you visit a store. However you shop with them, it’s a no-frills service that keeps prices down but also offers excellent customer care, and I believe it looks after its staff well too.

A relative who worked for them one Christmas told me they were advised when dealing with difficult customers to err on the side of their own safety, as no product was more important than themselves.

On the other hand, another relative who had worked for them as a student told me it sealed the offer for a much more demanding customer service job later on, because, in the words of his interviewer, “if you can handle Argos customers, you can handle anyone”.

But back to the catalogues…

Free Catalogues for All

Cover of an Argos catalogue
Drawing you in with its magical powers…

Twice a year, huge piles of catalogues are made available in store for shoppers to collect free of charge, encouraging them to pore over at home. I am sure that pester power from children does a lot to shift these vast supplies. My daughter certainly used to clamour for one, and spent many happy hours browsing its pages, around the time that she still believed in Father Christmas.

Nostalgia for the Old Mail-Order Equivalents

Although Argos wasn’t around when I was a child, I remember lying for hours on my stomach on our living room carpet reading and re-reading the toy section in my mum’s mail order catalogue, Kays, which was much the same thing, for a different era, only patience was required as you had to wait for everything to be delivered by the postman.

We also had the Littlewoods one at one point, but I always preferred Kays. I’d read the descriptions over and over again for the items I coveted, till I could practically recite them, like a magical incantation. It didn’t stop me reading other books, it just added a new dimension to my literary canon.

It might be one reason why I naturally took to writing short fiction later in life, enjoying the facility to capture a whole story in very few words.

But It Gets Kids Reading!

While it’s easy for book snobs to be cynical about the catalogue – and I confess I’ve done it myself, laughing when a friend self-deprecatingly told me that she had only two books in her house and one of those was by Argos – my years spent working for national children’s charity Readathon convinced me that actually it’s fine if that’s what your child wants to read. The important thing is that they’re reading something, and learning to associate reading with pleasure and empowerment – even if it’s only how to spell what they want to put on their Christmas list.

Reading anything they enjoy will boost their confidence and enthusiasm for reading.

It helps form an immovable leisure habit that is well known to lead to happier, more successful and more fulfilled lives – not only academically but in relationships and other aspects of one’s daily life. (You’ll find more about this on the Readathon website.)

Reading to the Beat of a Different Drummer

While some children take naturally to reading what parents or teachers might choose for them – my thirteen-year-old daughter’s teacher recommended the classics at Parents’ Evening recently, while her preference is for Harry Potter – others find their own paths, and should be allowed to do so.

Photo of Garfield books
Garfield taught my daughter to read

 

I gave up trying to make my daughter read my prescribed books when she discovered her own preferences. I have Garfield to thank for her eventual reading fluency – she used to sleep with Jim Davis’s cartoon strip collections under her pillow. Wry humour was the key that unlocked her enthusiasm for reading. Mo Willems was another of her passions.

I’m sad that she’s too old for dress-up days at school now but was heartened that she told her friends yesterday that she was actually being Hermione Granger for World Book Day, but under a disguise spell providing her usual school uniform.

Cover of "We are in a book!" by Mo Willems
Humour helped my daughter learn to love books

Why Readathon Gets Children Reading for Life

One reason that Readathon is so effective as an organisation in encouraging children to read for pleasure is that the sponsored reading programme that it runs for schools allows participants to choose their own reading list. It might be books on a particular theme, such as all the Harry Potter books, or books about horses or any other interest the child has, or it might be reading comics or magazines or even food packaging or computer game manuals. Audio books and other vehicles for words are also allowable.

For parents whose children have struggled with literacy, watching them pore over the messages on a packet of cereal over breakfast for the first time can be an incredibly moving moment:  the moment that their child discovers the joy and the power of reading

drawing of people and animals emerging from a book
Unlocking the power of books – illustration for Readathon by Children’s Laureate Chris Riddell

Trying Not to Judge

So next time you’re taken aback by what might at first seem a child’s inappropriate choice of World Book Day costume, don’t judge – just embrace their individual approach. As long as they’re reading, they’ll be just fine.

PS

Though to be honest, I’m still not sold on last year’s most controversial costume – the kid who went to school as Christian Grey from the infamous Fifty Shades, because I’m sure – or at least I hope – that wasn’t his own book of choice. Dorian Grey, I could have forgiven. Ok, so maybe I am a book snob after all!

And finally, a question: What’s YOUR favourite guilty reading pleasure? Mine would have to be the Cath Kidston catalogue! (Sorry, Argos!)

  • If you’d like to find out more about Readathon, and great reasons to get your child’s school involved, visit their website here: www.readathon.org
  • To find out more about World Book Day, click here: http://www.worldbookday.com
  • To read more about why I’m so passionate about books, check out the talk I gave recently when I was honoured to be the judge of the Westonbirt School Inter-House Reading Competition: For the Love of Books
Posted in Personal life

For the Love of Yoga

My column for this month’s Hawkesbury Parish News

Gromit statue
Not your usual dental assistant

Having achieved a miracle cure for fall-induced back pain at a yoga class in January, (something clicked back into place during a floor exercise), I turned to yoga techniques again this month to counter my fear during an emergency tooth extraction.

I lay in the dentist’s chair breathing deeply, body relaxed, palms facing upwards, while the very pleasant dental surgeon went about her task. With the added distraction of pictures of Minions and Gromits on the ceiling, (something our yoga class at the Methodist Hall doesn’t have), I got through the procedure unscathed. What with this and my back pain cured, I was feeling positively smug until I caught up with the international news.

That same day, an Australian man had used yoga to escape death by drowning. Trapped in a pool of mud by his overturned mechanical digger, he adopted the Cobra position to keep just his nose above the waterline until rescue arrived… six hours later.  That put my triumphs into perspective.

But it just goes to show that whatever the source of stress in your daily life, yoga can help make it better. Though I’ll still be giving muddy pools and mechanical diggers a wide berth in future.

You can find out more about the Australian man’s story on the BBC website here

(If you’d like to join the fun of our weekly yoga class, taught by Joan Boulton, come and join us at 10am every Thursday morning during term-time in the Methodist School Room.)