Posted in Events, Reading, Writing

Recommended Reading: The Grass Trail by A A Abbott

What will you be reading this weekend? The new thriller The Grass Trail by A A Abbott is currently top of my to-read pile – and it’s hot off the press!

Launched from a Prison Cell

Where better to launch a crime novel that opens in a prison cell?

I confess – I’ve allowed it to leapfrog to the top of the pile, having acquired my copy only this Tuesday, inspired to read it by the author’s excellent launch event in Bristol that evening, to which my sister and I were pleased to be invited.

A A Abbott is a Bristol-based author whom I first met last year when we were both part of a local author event at Foyles’ Cabot Circus, Bristol branch, along with historical novelists Lucienne Boyce and David Penny. She’s an energetic and engaging character, very upbeat and passionate about her writing, at the same time as being a high-flying accountant, and it is her career in finance and commerce that inform the worlds of her books.

photo of blue gate with government logo and lock
Setting the tone from the minute we arrived

I so enjoyed her company and her earlier books – The Bride’s Trail, The Vodka Trail and Up in Smoke – that I invited her to take part in the most recent Hawkesbury Upton Literature Festival. She’s a great speaker and good fun, so I knew that this week’s launch event would be enjoyable. To add to the fun, she’d booked a very apposite but unusual venue: the old prison cells of Bristol’s former police station in Bridewell Street, now a commercial venue called The Island, but retaining the forbidding atmosphere of its previous purpose.

photo of grim courtyard secured with barbed wire
Not an easy place to escape from

First, we were invited to join her in a long room painted entirely in black – a sinister and dramatic setting for Michael MacMahon, another local author friend (author of Back to the Black, funnily enough, a self-help book about personal finance). Michael’s an actor, voice artist and coach, specialising in public speaking (his next book will be a guide to making effective wedding speeches), and he is also a Hawkesbury Upton Lit Fest regular. His memorable rendition of Prospero’s speech is now a regular part of the Festival’s traditional closing ceremony, and it makes my spine tingle every time. (I’m now kicking myself that I didn’t think to ask him on Tuesday whether this was Prospero’s Cell!)

Both Michael MacMahon and A A Abbott were on top form

Here his role was to interview Helen (A A Abbott is her pen name, artfully chosen to put her at the top of any alphabetical list of authors!), and they made a great double-act, talking about this book and her writing in general.

Then we were led away to the…

image of "Cells" stencilled in black on to a grey wall

… where Helen gamely treated us to a reading from the opening of her new book, which is set in a prison cell.

Sentenced to read…

The lively opening scene, in which prisoner Shaun Halloran is introduced to his new cellmate, made me laugh out loud (a bit echoey in a prison cell!) and left me keen to read the rest asap.

Next Book, Please, David Penny!

David Penny’s latest book is his medieval Spanish crime series

By coincidence, next evening there was another event that would have had me grabbing a copy of David Penny‘s latest book, The Incubus, if only I hadn’t already read it! He was featured on the television programme A Place in the Sun, filmed back in February when he and his lovely wife Megan were guests on the show seeking a new holiday home in the Axarquia region of Spain in which his historical novels are set. It’s now available to watch on Channel 4 on demand here.

Suffragette City

A great follow-up to her earlier excellent book about the Bristol Suffragettes

Fortunately, the same can’t be said of Lucienne Boyce‘s books – although I’ve read all her fiction and enjoyed it very much, I have on my Kindle her latest non-fiction book, The Road to Representation, a collection of essays about the Suffragette movement, always a fascinating subject, and this little book will be perfect to dip into in between the fiction.

What will you be reading this weekend? I’d love to know!

Photo of "Best Murder in Show" in the window
Getting my weekend off to a great start was this image of my latest novel in pride of place in the window of a local independent bookshop, the excellent Cotswold Book Room in Wotton-under-Edge. (Thanks to my friend Chris Taylor for the photo.)

 

Posted in Events, Writing

Maybe, Maybe Not – My June Column for the Tetbury Advertiser

cover of the June 2017 Tetbury AdvertiserLittle did I know when I ended last month’s column with a throwaway remark about being more tolerant of May (the PM) because I love May (the month) that the next day the former would call my bluff by announcing a snap general election in June.

Always reluctant to engage in politics and still suffering from over-exposure during the local elections, I was tempted to go into immediate estivation – a word I have the chance to use about as infrequently as general elections come around.

Plus Ça Change…

Shortly afterwards, our household was due to receive a French exchange student for a week. Her stay coincided with the day of the French general election. By chance, my daughter’s return visit will include our own polling day.

Our student went home yesterday, and after a very happy and enriching week for us all, I’m now convinced that we’d all gain a much better understanding and tolerance of other nations and religions if we just ignored the politicians and instead embarked on a massive exchange programme. Walking a mile in other nationalities’ shoes would do us all good. Oh, sorry, I mean a kilometre.

We’d never had an exchange student before, but the school prepared us gently and well with reassuring and down-to-earth tips, along the lines of “Don’t worry if they get homesick, it’s not fatal”. Once we’d got the house clean and tidy ready for her arrival, the week turned out to be far less stressful than I had expected.

Our young guest was a gentle, polite and appreciative girl who tried so hard to speak English that her language skills noticeably improved within the week.

Vive la différence!

We spoke openly about the differences that mattered. For example, we like cats, she prefers horses. We have milk in our tea, she doesn’t. The appropriate treatment of chips, we found it harder to agree on: on our day-trip to Weston-super-Mare for a quintessentially English experience, she insisted on mayonnaise rather than vinegar. But I forgave her when she willingly accepted a stick of seaside rock as a souvenir.

Even our cat Dorothy, normally haughty with visitors, made an effort to bond with our French student, spending most of the week asleep on the guest bed.

Sans Souci

Only once did politics disrupt our week, when she asked to see the results of the French election as they were announced on television. The look of joyous relief that spread across her face when Macron was declared winner said all we needed to know.

(If you want to read those fateful words I wrote In Praise of May (No, Not That One), you’ll find it here.)

Posted in Events, Writing

Literature Begins at Home

Cover of All Part of the Charm
My memoir of village life, which includes collected columns from Hawkesbury Parish News 2010-2015, is available as an ebook and in paperback

Unless you’ve ever edited or written for a magazine, you may be unaware of the pressure of deadlines that mean a publication must be “put to bed” long before it appears on the streets.

Less so than in the era of hot metal, now that digital processes have telescoped production times down, doing away with the need for the editor to take a bold and sometimes inaccurate punt on what seems a certain story, or to reserve a “Stop Press!” column for the addition of late breaking news.

Having to write my column for May’s Hawkesbury Parish News halfway through April, it would be tempting fate to write about the success of the third Hawkesbury Upton Literature Festival, when it is still a week away. Even though it will be a week in the past by the time the magazine is out, I’ll keep quiet on that score till the June issue, with fingers firmly crossed.

But writing these words when we’re about to celebrate all things literary in the village, it seems the perfect time to thank Colin Dixon for stepping into the editor’s role, so ably filled for so long by Fiona Rowe, and the whole team that continues to work, month in, month out, giving readers a value way beyond the magazine’s modest cover price. #

In an era when so many local papers are being supplanted by online news and information services, long may our beloved Hawkesbury Parish News continue to be a valuable glue cementing our community together, whatever changes future technology may bring.

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Posted in Events, Personal life, Writing

In Praise of May (No, Not That One)

I wrote this column for the May issue of the Tetbury Advertiser before Theresa May announced the snap General Election. If only I’d known, I’d probably have ditched this topic and written about something completely different! 

Procession of children in traditional May Day ceremony at English primary school
Me, centre, being a May Maiden, with Days Lane infant school in the background

May has always been my favourite month, promising blossom, sunshine and the real beginning of spring.

I trace my fondness for this month back to a special event in my childhood: the May Day ceremony held each year at the infants’ school I attended in suburban London. When I was seven, I was one of a number of May Maidens, decked out in white dresses with floral wreaths in our hair, to process the length of the school field behind the May Queen, to the tune that I will ever associate with that special day, the Elizabethan Serenade.

Cover of sheet music for Eliabethan Serenade
Our old sheet music for piano, bought at around that time

 Looking Forward

This lyrical piece of music was composed by a former English cinema organist in 1951 to herald the new Elizabethan age, a time of forward-looking optimism – just right for May, then. The same composer was responsible for another easy-listening piece, Sailing By, still used to introduce the Late Night Shipping Forecast on BBC Radio 4 – a comforting combination for insomniacs as well as sailors.

By the time I first encountered the Elizabethan Serenade at school, the Queen’s reign was well into double figures, so for me the piece became forever the emblem of a more literal kind of spring.

May the Force

May’s special status was compounded by the words of one of my favourite hymns in our daily school assemblies at that time of year: “May time, Playtime, God has given us May time, Thank him for his gifts of love, Sing a song of spring.”  I’m not sure who I thought had given us the other eleven months, but God obviously endorsed my preference.

First page of piano music
You hum it, I’ll play it…

Decades later, I very nearly named my daughter May, till I realised that combined with the surname of Young, it would make her sound like an item on a Chinese takeaway menu. I imagined her being nicknamed Eggy in the playground, short for Egg May Young.

More recently, I subconsciously shoehorned an optimistic May into my lighthearted new novel, Best Murder in Show. Elderly travel writer May Sayers, who dies before the book begins, creates a fresh start for the heroine, her great-niece Sophie Sayers, by bequeathing her a Cotswold cottage. In my world, even a posthumous May can usher in new beginnings and the promise of something better to come.

May or May Not

Cover of the May 2017 issue of the Tetbury AdvertiserMy irrational attachment to all things Mayish even make me more tolerant of the current Prime Minister than if, say, her name was Theresa Might.

But deep down of course I know that names don’t matter. If I’d been raised in Australia, May would have all the promise of an English November, i.e. none at all.

After all, the composer of the magical Elizabethan Serenade and Sailing By rejoiced under the prosaic name of Ronald Binge. Deeds, not words, as the suffragettes used to say. Come what may…

 

(And in the June issue, I’ll be taking it all back…)

 

Posted in Events, Reading, Writing

Write What You Know

In my column for the April issue of the Hawkesbury Parish News, I wrote about this old adage for writers.

Cover of Best Murder in Show amongst apple blossomCommon advice to authors is that when writing fiction, it’s best to write what you know. This is to add authenticity and to avoid errors. The only trouble with that advice comes when an author’s friends and relations assume that certain characters are based on themselves.

That’s why smart fiction publishers always print a disclaimer (“any semblance to people living or dead is purely coincidental”), although the author’s friends and relations may easily retort “Well, you would say that, wouldn’t you?”

So I’d like to take this opportunity to assure you all that no-one in Wendlebury Barrow, the fictitious village in which my new novel Best Murder in Show is set, is based on any real person, living or dead, in Hawkesbury Upton (or elsewhere, for that matter).

And although the two villages have plenty of features in common – annual show, shop, pub, school, drama group, writers’ group, WI – only one of them has a resident murderer.

Fortunately, that’s Wendlebury Barrow, not Hawkesbury Upton. Phew.

Best Murder in Show is now available from Amazon as an ebook and a paperback, although its official launch will be at the Hawkesbury Upton Literature Festival on Saturday 22nd April at 10am in the Bethesda Chapel, to which you are all invited.

After that, copies will also be available from the Hawkesbury Stores. That is, if the staff still want to stock it after they’ve read Chapter 4 about the eccentric village shopkeeper…

  • The special Festival price for the paperback is £4.99, rising to the RRP of £7.99 from 1st May – so get in quick to save yourself £3!
  • Also available to order from Amazon.
  • From 1st May, you will also be able to order the book via your local bookshop at the usual RRP from 1st May by quoting ISBN 978-1911223139.