Posted in Events, Personal life

Why Easter is Such a Movable Feast (of Chocolate)

My column from the March 2018 edition of Hawkesbury Parish News

photo of rabbit in a field looking startled
So early an Easter is enough to catch the Easter Bunny on the hop (Photo by Gary Bendig via Unsplash.com)

“But Easter’s so early this year!”

With Easter Sunday falling on 1st April this year, the schools will barely have time to squeeze in the spring term before the bank holidays begin. My daughter’s school breaks up on Maundy Thursday, the day before Good Friday.

But it could be worse: it’s possible for Easter Sunday to fall as early as 22nd March. No cause for immediate alarm though, as that’s not due to happen till 2285.

Next year, we will have the opposite problem: Easter will be three weeks later, on April 21st. (Latest Easter possible is 25th April, as will happen in 2038.)

At least a later Easter means that Valentine’s Day won’t coincide with Ash Wednesday, as it did this year, causing a dilemma for anyone who’d given up chocolate for Lent. (What do you mean, your Valentine never brings you chocolates?)

Why do Easter dates vary so much?

photo of the authors parents
Getting married at the vernal equinox has kept my parents forever young (married 65 years and counting…)

They are set according to the phases of the moon. Easter Day is deemed to be the first Sunday after the first full moon to follow the vernal equinox. (No, I don’t know why, either.)

When’s the vernal equinox? Easy – 21st March, my parents’ wedding anniversary (impressively, their 65th this year, in case you’re wondering). Or so I thought, until I googled “vernal equinox” and discovered it is just as likely to fall on 19th or 20th March, depending on when the sun crosses the celestial equator, a notional line running from south to north above the equator.

In all of this mayhem, you’ll be pleased to know there is still one absolute certainty: that wherever Easter falls on the calendar, there will always be Easter eggs in the shops from Valentine’s Day onwards – and often even earlier. But not to worry: in my opinion, there’s no such thing as too much chocolate.

Happy Easter, folks!

 


Cover of Murder by the Book
Launching on 21st April: the fourth Sophie Sayers Village Mystery

The timing isn’t all bad news, though – it’s just right to get me in the mood for starting to write my fifth novel in the Sophie Sayers Village Mystery series, Springtime for Murder, which kicks off with someone thinking they’ve found the Easter bunny dead in an open grave.

Don’t worry, though, all is not what it seems… he’ll still be delivering chocolate this Easter! 

In the meantime, you can catch up with the first books in the series here.

Posted in Events, Reading

Sharing My Speech from the Launch of Our Community Library

Pic of Gordon checking out some audio CDs
The first satisfied borrower of the day: my husband, with Liz Howard, volunteer librarian

I was delighted to be invited to launch the new Hawkesbury Upton Village Library yesterday, and I wrote a short speech to mark the occasion. A number of people afterwards asked me for a copy of it, so here it is for anyone who would like it.

After I’d spoken, local councillor Sue Hope added her thanks on behalf of the community to the Hawkesbury Village Hall Committee, the Parish Council and the Hawkesbury Writers for their support and funding for the new facilities, for which the books and services will be provided by South Gloucestershire Libraries. A team of eight wonderful village volunteers will staff the library and open it for two hours every fortnight.

My Opening Address

It’s a pleasure and an honour to be invited to open what is going to be a wonderful new resource for our community. It feels like we’re at a little bit of Hawkesbury history in the making.

Like many of you, I was sad that funding cuts led to the closure of the mobile library that had served us so well for so long. It brought great comfort and interest to many villages and hamlets beside ours, and it was always a heartwarming sight to see it trundling down our lanes. It was like a tardis full of books, manned by kind, friendly and knowledgeable staff always willing to help us, no matter how obscure our questions, even when we forget our library cards. I don’t know whether the mobile staff realised how much we loved and appreciated them, but on behalf of our community, I’d like to thank them for the pleasure they have brought us – and to congratulate them for their driving skills to manoeuvre that great bus down the lanes to us, time after time.

So a sad loss, but, like a phoenix from the ashes, this new and different kind of library, with its permanent base in our community, is the start of a whole new chapter (groan) in our bookish lives. In a way it will bring us the best of both worlds: access to the entire stock from South Gloucestershire Libraries, not only from Yate’s stocks but from anywhere in the south west. All we need to do is request them online from the comfort of our own homes, and they’ll be served up to us by our fantastic team of volunteers, all trained to give us the help we need at a local level.

Photo of bookshelves open and stocked
Smart new mobile shelving allows the librarians to create a pop-up library every fortnight in the village hall

You can of course still use the other South Gloucestershire libraries of your choice – in Yate when you’re shopping, or the library nearest your workplace – but just as the mobile library brought resources to those who couldn’t get to those, so will the community library. But choosing books from the Community Library will help you save fuel and time – just as the Hawkesbury Stores makes it possible for us to buy groceries close to home.

For any cynics who are wondering whether public libraries are still relevant to us in the digital age, think again. Studies show that a large proportion of library users are also regular buyers of books. Libraries are for everyone – and not just for those who can’t afford to buy books.

Why do affluent book buyers use libraries too? Library books should not be considered as second-best to buying books. The quality of books in libraries is always high, mostly as new or nearly new condition, and it’s a joy to touch and hold them – these days, with the high production values of modern books, they are an aesthetic treat as well as a literary one. You can get as much of a buzz out of walking home with an armload of library books as from buying them in shops – and you don’t have to worry about running out shelf space at home, either.

Libraries also offer a low-risk strategy to expand your choice of reading matter. Well, I like to think of a library as a tasting menu in a restaurant. Like a tasting menu, a visit to the library offers you the chance to try new things. When you haven’t paid for a book, it doesn’t matter if you don’t much like it or finish it – but at the same time, you might discover new passions and interests in the process.

A library is also like a smorgasbord because it’s an all-you-can-eat menu – only in this restaurant of reading, you don’t end your visit by paying a bill. The only money you will spend here is if you treat yourself to some tea and cake, which you can do with a clear conscience because the takings for refreshments are what will cover the hall hire costs for each session.

But that’s fine too because libraries aren’t only about books on shelves. They are also an important social meeting point, accessible and affordable to all, where everyone may meet on an equal footing. They are hugely democratic and an enormously valuable anchor in our society for all sorts of reasons unrelated to books – the books might even be considered a bonus. What matters is that we connect.

cover of Reading Allowed by Chris Paling
Recommended reading for everyone who loves libraries

I’ve just finished reading a fascinating fly-on-the-wall memoir by a librarian, Chris Paling, called Reading Allowed. He points out that public libraries can also be study centres, play areas, A&E departments, refuges for the homeless and much more – Hawkesbury librarians, you have been warned! I’m sure our library will serve as a brilliant coffee shop too – a safe, warm place to socialise with friends. Fortunately libraries no longer have a silence rule!

I realise not everyone may be instantly persuaded that the library is for them. “I’m not much of a reader,” they might say, or “I don’t have time to read”. I bet they still find time to watch television. In that case, I say they just haven’t met the right book yet.  

The book stock has been carefully curated to match the needs and interests of our community, and it will be constantly refreshed to keep it interesting for us.

photo of cake on table
Celebratory cake – we don’t do much in Hawkesbury that doesn’t include cake

Who watches “Game of Thrones”? Of course, that hugely popular series is based on books by a very wise man, George R R Martin, who famously said about books and reading:

“He who reads lives a thousand lives. He who does not read lives only once.”

Our new community library gives us all the chance to live a thousand lives. So please do take advantage of this wonderful gift to our village, today and every time it opens, once a fortnight, in future. I’m delighted to declare it now officially open.


If you love libraries, you might enjoy these other posts from my blog archives:

In Praise of Public Libraries for National Libraries Day

Sharing My Stories about Public Libraries

Another Story Inspired by Public Libraries

cover of Quick Change
Click the image for buying ilnks

Both of the stories about libraries featured in those last two posts are included in Quick Change, my collection of flash fiction, available in paperback and ebook. Click the image to buy online or quote ISBN 978-0993087967 to order at your local bookshop.

 

Posted in Events, Writing

Please Don’t Be My Valentine

cover of February Tetbury Advertiser

In the February edition of the

Tetbury Advertiser,

my Young By Name column homes in

on the real meaning of Valentine’s Day

 

 

As a lapsed Anglican, I’ve never had saints on my radar, apart from the obvious ones whose special days are pre-printed in our diaries – Andrew, George, Patrick, David, Valentine, etc – and the quartet after whom my old grammar school named its houses: St Anne, St Bride, St Francis and St Mary.

At primary school, our teams were distinguished only by colour: red, blue, green, yellow. On moving up to senior school, I was naturally more interested in the colour of the houses, rather than their saints’ pedigrees. In a kind of synaesthesia of the saints, for me St Bride (my house) will forever be associated with yellow, St Anne green, St Francis red, and St Mary blue.

photo of red pencil with St Bride's logo
Now that’s confused me – my souvenir pencil from St Bride’s Church*, Fleet Street, isn’t yellow

Strangely, we were never taught anything about our school’s four saints, and we never thought to ask. Nor did we query why in an all-girls’ school we had a single male, St Francis, alongside the female trio.

Top Trumps of Saints

I reckon the school management missed a trick to cement house loyalty. They could have turned the distinguishing features of each saint into a compelling game of Top Trumps:

St Francis:100 points for animal husbandry, 0 for maternal instinct.

I wish I could cite further examples, but my knowledge of even the most famous saints is slim. Just how slim I didn’t realise until doing some research for my latest novel, Murder by the Book** (out in April), which culminates in a murder on 14th February.

It turns out my perception of St Valentine was more Hallmark than historically accurate.

Apparently, asking someone to be your Valentine is nowhere near as appealing an invitation as I’d assumed.

The Fate of the Saint

Legend has it that the Romans made it illegal for marriage ceremonies to be performed for soldiers, on the assumption that having wives would sap their strength and their inclination for war. Valentine, a Christian priest, defied the ban, continuing to perform wedding ceremonies until the Romans arrested him. In jail, in what could be the earliest recorded case of Stockholm Syndrome, Valentine healed his jailer’s daughter’s blindness, after which, not surprisingly, they became friends. When led away to his final fate, he left her a note signed “From Your Valentine”.

His execution was cruelly prolonged: he was beaten and stoned before being beheaded.

So be wary of asking the object of your affections to be your Valentine – they might think you’re inviting them to a fate worse than death.


Cover of Marry in Haste
Wry humour about romantic relationships, available in paperback and ebook

MORE FUN READS

*More about my visit to the wonderful St Bride’s, the journalists’ church, in this post from my archive

**Murder by the Book, the fourth Sophie Sayers Village Mystery, will be launched at the Hawkesbury Upton Literature Festival on Saturday 21st April. 

And if I haven’t put you right off romantic fiction, you might enjoy my collection Marry in Haste, currently on special offer at 99p/99c for the ebook, and £4.99 for the paperback.

Posted in Events, Writing

The Role of Humour in Crime Writing

Photo of Debbie smiling in a graveyard
Grave thoughts about humour in crime writing (photo by Angela Fitch Photography)

A post about striking a balance between crime, humour and optimism in fiction

I often describe my Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries as “feel-good fiction”, which may seem odd in a series whose titles all feature the word “murder”. But I discovered long ago that I find it much easier to write fiction if I’m allowed to be funny, and this applies to my crime writing too.

Comic Relief amidst the Crime

As with any story involving tension and perhaps fear, a touch of humour provides balance and light relief – think James BondIndiana Jones and the Cumberbatch version of Sherlock Holmes.

But in my own mystery books, I use a much larger dose of humour because the underlying purpose of my stories is not to frighten or thrill, but to be life-affirming, celebrating the positive features of community life in the village of Wendlebury Barrow.

Crime at the Castle Commendation

logo for Crime at the Castle
Coming soon to Glamis Castle…

So I was particularly pleased to hear this week that Sophie’s getting a special shout-out at the Scottish crime writing event, Crime at the Castle, in the splendid setting of Glamis Castle, the childhood home of the Queen Mother.

Scottish novelist Wendy H Jones will be citing it as part of a workshop about injecting humour into crime fiction, and she’s told me she’s using the opening line of Murder in the Manger, third in the Sophie Sayers series, as an example:

“Does your Baby Jesus need a cuddle, Mrs Virgin?” said a small sheep politely.

head and shoulders shot of Wendy H Jones
Scottish crime writer Wendy H Jones

“I’m going to use your line because I  laugh every time I think of it,” Wendy told me. She’s also kindly shared it on her radio show since she interviewed me live on her programme last year.

But much as I love laughing at my own jokes, my books aren’t all about comic effect. I embed serious themes about the value of community life and the importance of tolerance and understanding, and about love, loss and consolation.

There’s the odd moment when I’ve even moved myself to tears:

  • In Best Murder in Show, Sophie is overwhelmed with unresolved grief when she comes to Wendlebury to take up her inheritance of her late Auntie May’s cottage.
  • In Trick or Murder, she finds solace in an All Souls’ Day service in the village church.
  • In Murder in the Manger, she attends a poignant Remembrance Day service in the village school.

I’m endeavouring to keep a healthy balance in each book, but always with the emphasis on the upbeat. Like Wendy, I’m a committed optimist, and that’s our take on life.

Even if we do have to commit the odd murder along the way…


  • If you’d like to read the rest of the opening chapter of Murder in the Manger on my blog, click here.
  • For more information about Crime at the Castle, and to reserve tickets for the event, click here.
  • You can also meet Wendy H Jones south of the border at her Novel London event on 2nd February.
  • To find out more about Wendy’s crime novels, visit her website: www.wendyhjones.com

 

Posted in Events, Personal life, Writing

Village Show Cluedo

photo of giant vegetables next to model house
For vegetables bigger than your house, visit Hawkesbury Horticultural Show *

My column for the August 2017 edition of Hawkesbury Parish News

A few years ago, an old school friend from abroad came to visit me here in Hawkesbury and was keen to learn about village life. He took a special interest in our famous Hawkesbury Horticultural Show.

At that point, I was a member of the Show Committee, and I was responsible for producing the schedule each year. Although the next Show was some months away, I was able to show him the draft schedule, and his eyes widened at the huge range of entry classes and trophies.

photo of the 2017 schedule
Our copy of this year’s schedule, slightly dog-eared after much use

“Wow, this sounds just like the sort of thing you see in Midsomer Murders,” he enthused. (They watch a lot of British television in the Netherlands.) “Is there a prize for Best Murder in Show?”

Reluctantly I had to disappoint him, but I squirrelled away his suggestion for future use, and earlier this year I published a novel by the same name, the first in a series of classic cosy mysteries set in the fictitious village of Wendlebury Barrow.

It now occurs to me that our Horticultural Show would also make a cracking setting for a localised game of Cluedo: “Entries Secretary, in the Produce Tent, with a Prize Marrow” or “Show Chairman, in the Village Hall, with some Celery”. The possibilities are endless.

Here’s to another inspiring Show Day for us all – and may we all live to tell the tale.

*Actually, that house in the photo above is really a tea cosy – which I turned into a doorstop by stuffing it with a house brick and some of my husband’s old socks, and covering the base with a piece of his old corduroy trousers. Result: second prize in Class 471 – “a functional object made from all recycled material” 

cover of Best Murder in Showcover of Trick or Murder?
If you’d like to find out more about Best Murder in Showand its new sequel, Trick or Murder? click hereBoth are available in paperback and ebook.