A post about the heroine of my debut novel,Best Murder in Show
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.
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”.
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.
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).
If you’d like to order the ebook of Sophie Sayers’ first adventure, Best Murder in Show, you’ll find it on Amazon UKand on Amazon US, and in fact on all the other Amazon sites around the world.
An opinion piece about World Book Day costumes in support of the boy who dressed as the 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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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 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
An invitation to help yourself to 12 free ebooks between now and the end of February, including one of mine!
If you like reading ebooks, read on to find out how to take advantage of a special offer that includes a free download of one of my collections of short stories, Marry in Haste.
If you don’t like reading ebooks, or haven’t tried them yet, here’s a chance to convince yourself, without it costing you a penny! In case you didn’t know, these days you don’t have to own an ereader to read an ebook – you can download to your phone, tablet or computer a free reading app such as Kindle or Kobo, and away you go!
A couple of days ago, I was very pleased to be invited to join a group of eleven sparky women authors in a joint promotion of free books called “Free Reads for Smart Women“. Always a sucker for flattery, I was very happy to add my name under this banner, which, in classic Freudian slip mode, I had misread as Free Reads BY Smart Women”.
Of course, both interpretations apply – because what smart woman could resist the offer of twelve ebooks for free, when they look as intriguing and beautiful as this?
There’s a bit of everything here to appeal to smart women of all kinds, from crime thrillers to romance, from historical novels to contemporary humour.
What’s the Catch?
The closest thing you’ll find to a catch is that to get your free books, you have to submit your email address. Obviously, that’s so that InstaFreebie, the service that’s hosting this promotion, can email the ebooks to you.
Also the authors would like to send you information about more of their books – but don’t worry, you can unsubscribe from their mailing lists at any time, no questions asked.
InstaFreebie would also like to send you more free book offers, if you’d like them – but again, just unsubscribe if you prefer.
And There’s More…
Interestingly, when you download each free book, InstaFreebie immediately shows you three other free ebooks it thinks you might like. Our team of twelve was bemused to find bare-chested men on the covers of many of these books. But so far we’ve had no complaints…
Men Also Welcome!
By the way, you don’t have to be a woman to enjoy any of these books. In fact, one of my favourite reviews of Marry in Haste is by a gentleman who described it as “A book for women that all men should read”!
Men are of course very welcome to help themselves to our freebies too. (I’ll be very interested to hear whether Instafreebie offers you same books featuring bare-chested men!)
How to Download Your Free Books
Hoping I’ve whetted your appetite to download one, some or all twelve, here is the link to claim your free ebooks:
It’s a landing page hosted on Helena Halme’s website, and you just click on the book cover of your choice to claim your free download. You can revisit the page and keep clicking for more as often as you like – and if you’d like to share the page or this post with your friends to help them do the same, please do.
***Please note that this promotion is running 24th-28th February only – so get in quick before the end of the month!***
Why Are the Books Free?
By the way, if you’re wondering why the twelve authors involved are not only smart but so generous – all the books being offered are still on sale commercially elsewhere – it’s because it’s every author’s wish to build up a mailing list of people who are interested in their books, so that we can email readers directly whenever we’ve got a new book about to launch or a special offer coming up.
This campaign is coming at the perfect time for me, as I prepare to launch my first Sophie Sayers Village Mystery in April, and I’ll be sending to my mailing list details of a special launch price offer in March. Exciting times!
If you’d like receive news of that offer without getting involved in the InstaFreebie promotion, that’s fine too – you can sign up here. It won’t get you a free book, but you will have the option to receive a free short story, The Alchemy of Chocolate, as a thank-you.
A post inspired by the reading event I attended at Westonbirt School last week
Last Thursday I spent a very pleasant evening at Westonbirt School judging the Inter-House Reading Competition, a pleasant and friendly contest between the pupils of this private boarding and day school for girls, just down the road from where I live. Cosy in the elegant bubble that is the beautiful library of this Grade I listed former stately home, I was glad to escape for a little while from the frightening madness that is our current political scene.
Twenty competitors, representing their houses, had to choose and prepare a text for reading, and there was a pleasing mix of old favourites such as Roald Dahl’s Matilda and JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit nestling among many novels that were entirely new to me.
Just two of them preferred to read a poem, and it was only this afternoon, back in the rainy, real world, that I realised I’d missed a trick. Although I thought to point out to them the value of books and reading as comfort blankets in times of stress, I should have congratulated those two girls for choosing poems that are particularly fortifying and reassuring in our present political climate:
Rudyard Kipling’s If, first published in 1895, always a powerful reminder to stand up for what you believe
Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Ozymandias, first published 1818, on the transient nature of power
They are in any case two of my favourite poems in any case, but I think it’s especially pertinent now to reread and digest them.
I would particularly like Donald Trump to read Ozymandias, but:
(a) he has stated that he never reads books, so the likelihood of him plunging into poetry seems unlikely
(b) the title alone has more syllables than he is comfortable with in a single word (a fact not unrelated to point (a) above)
There can’t be many people unfamiliar with If, but you can read it here on the Poetry Foundation site.
I think Ozymandias is probably less well-known, so I make no apology for reproducing it below, as well as sharing the excellent reading of it that I found on YouTube at the top of this post.
I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
Percy Bysshe Shelley
I only hope that we see the wreck of our modern day Ozymandias without the reduction of the world as we know it to “lone and level sands”.
Starting to sort out my box of Christmas gifts that I’ve been steadfastly filling over the last few weeks, my heart sinks at the odd shapes that I’ve committed myself to wrapping. I still have quite a few presents to buy, including the one at the top of my daughter’s wish-list – a pair of Heelies (wheeled trainers). I’m hoping these will come in a box, or I’m in trouble.
I’m reminded of a Christmas in my teens when my then-boyfriend decided to liven up his gift wrapping by disguising his presents to look like something else, so that the recipients couldn’t guess what they were. I’d asked him for an LP of Wings’ Band on the Run. (Yes, I am that old – and for my more youthful readers, I should probably explain that an LP is a long-playing record album, as opposed to a single. Yes, we’re talking vinyl here – out of fashion long enough for it to be coming back into vogue again now.)
When he brought my gift round, it was a big box the size of an LP but about four inches deep.
Oh, how lovely, I thought, he’s bought me something extra too. I wonder what it is?
Cue huge disappointment when the parcel turned out to contain only the record, plus a lot of empty packaging. I tried not to look crestfallen. After all, we were only teenagers, and records were expensive.
Unfortunately he didn’t know that when you are in a hole, you should stop digging. Guessing that I’d expected something else, he added in his defence “My mum said not to get you anything else in case you split up with me again.”
I bet you can guess how that relationship ended up.
In the meantime, I’ve decided that for the rest of my Christmas shopping this year, I’m going to buy the ultimate easy-to-wrap present for everyone – a book, carefully chosen to suit each recipient’s interests, so that I can put my energy into the fun of book browsing rather than wrestling with wrapping paper.
If you’re after festive books for your friends and relations, let me leave you with a few recommendations. Biased, me? Well, it is my blog, 😉