Every month, I write a topical column for the Hawkesbury Parish News, the local magazine run by an apparently tireless team of volunteers, for the benefit of everyone within our local community.What could be more topical for an English village in the middle of winter than a heartfelt longing for signs of spring?
Yesterday mid-morning, in a brief interlude between torrential downpours, there was a clear, fresh quality to the daylight in my back garden. If I were an artist, I would have been reaching for my paints, eager to capture the arrival of spring. Yet the calendar told me winter would last two more months.
Unlike my husband, I don’t always trust supposedly scientific evidence. Our bathroom scales are another case in point. Bringing them into the bedroom to weigh himself last week, he was startled to find he’d lost ten kilos. “Put them back in their usual place and try again,” I advised.
Sure enough, when returned to the bare boards of the bathroom floor, the scales showed his usual weight. Those ten kilos were never lost – they were just temporarily mislaid. Like his car keys and his phone, which go missing several times a week, I knew they’d turn up eventually.
Weight is in any case relative and not worth getting worked up about. At my health MOT at the GP surgery last week, the nurse congratulated me: “Well done, you’ve lost five pounds since this time last year.”
Taking the compliment with good grace, I chose not to confess that I’d actually lost a stone – and then regained nine pounds.
But I’ll store up my husband’s experience for future reference. Then when I really want to lose weight and keep it off, I’ll just put the scales on the bedroom carpet.
And In Case You’re Impatient for Summer…
A Free Summer Read!
If these signs of spring aren’t enough to lift your spirits, here’s a chance to download a free ebook of my novel set in high summer, Best Murder in Show. For a limited time only, the ebook edition is available to download free of charge from all good ebook retailers (Kindle, Kobo, Apple, etc).
I’m pleased to announce the publication of my latest book, The Natter of Knitters, a light-hearted story about a village knitting campaign that goes somewhat awry, with entertaining results.
Here’s how some early reviewers have described it so far:
“Top writing!” “Warm and witty”. “Heartwarming.” “Totally enjoyable and unputdownable.” “Can’t wait for more.”
The Natter of Knitters is the first in a new spin-off series from my Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries called Tales from Wendlebury Barrow. It features Sophie Sayers and many of the key players from my village mystery series, plus the usual intrigue, village gossip and humour, but without the murders! Each story will also introduce a new character from the village. This time, it’s Ariel Fey, an enigmatic loner new to the village who hopes to turn self-sufficient.
Each of the Tales will be a quick read, about a quarter as long as one of my novels. Technically speaking, that makes it a novelette or a short novella.
Why the Short Format?
The idea for this new series came to me last summer when I was writing The Pride of Peacocks, the short novella available exclusively to those who join my Readers’ Club mailing list. (Join here if you haven’t already done so and would like to claim your free ebook!) I really enjoyed writing it, and readers have also been enthusiastic.
More Fun Topics to Follow
The shorter format will allow me to cover many more topics in a shorter time-frame than if I saved every idea for a novel of its own. And I have plenty of ideas, inspired by things I see in real life all around me every day, here in the beautiful Cotswolds countryside, where I’ve lived in a close-knit village for nearly thirty years.
Other topics that I’m storing up in my ideas book include:
wild birds and birds’ nests
a crash-landing of a hot-air balloon
a mysterious field full of poppies
a jigsaw puzzle race
One unifying factor will be that the title of each will be a collective noun, whether one that’s long-established, such as The Pride of Peacocks, or a whimsical one invented by me, as in The Natter of Knitters! (I am having fun!)
I will of course be continuing to write full-length novels as well. The sixth Sophie Sayers Village Mystery, Murder Your Darlings, is due out at the end of February, and I’m half-way through writing the second St Bride’s story, Secrets at St Bride’s, with a view to publishing in the early summer.
Ebook and Paperback
The Natter of Knittersis now available in ebook and paperback. Yes, paperback too! Although it’s much shorter than a novel, I know that a lot of my readers prefer paperbacks to ebooks, and I didn’t want to let them down.
So, inspired by the little books you often see by the till in high street bookshops, such as the Penguin 80 series, I decided to issue the Tales of Wendlebury Barrow in a similar format. The size of a picture postcard (6″ x 4″), they are adorably cute, and perfect for slipping into your pocket or handbag to read on the move. They also make great gift ideas, fitting neatly inside a birthday card.
How to Order Your Copy
Paperback: click here to order online. From March, you should also be able to order it via your local bookshop – just quote ISBN 9781911223511 to help them find it on their database. (If you have trouble sourcing a paperback, just send me a message and I’ll despatch one to you myself and take your payment online.)
Ebook:click here to place your order in your preferred ebook format, wherever you are in the world.
Now to Whet Your Appetite with the First Couple of Pages…
1 Flash Bang
A bomb in Wendlebury Barrow?
Clive Wren, the local paper’s photographer, could hardly believe his good fortune. For once he was in the right place at the right time to scoop a news story worthy of the front page. It made a welcome change from his usual tedious assignments, snapping endless staged presentations of giant cheques or forced line-ups of local sports teams, new school classes or old biddies celebrating significant birthdays and anniversaries. This was the closest he’d ever get to his dream of reporting from a war zone, and he was going to make the most of it.
Along with the rest of the crowd assembled around the village green, Clive had jumped at the sound of the explosion. Without missing a beat, he pressed and held down the shutter button to capture a series of photos a split second apart. Thus he recorded the passage of time as charcoal-black smoke emerged from the device hidden in an innocuous clump of grass in front of the old oak tree. Dark tendrils curled up among the branches and reached out to wrap tentacles around onlookers. And on the precise spot where the device had exploded, to everyone’s surprise, there emerged like a genie from a lamp—
But there was no time to gawp. Clive had better call it a wrap and scoot back to the office before any locals shared the photos they’d snapped on their phones, which, via social media, might reach his picture editor before he did. If he was quick, he’d just have time before his next shoot at Slate Green. He could gather the facts later.
AND FINALLY… Enter my Readers’ Club Prize Draw to Win Sophie’s Luxury Scarf
On 14th February, I’ll be holding a prize draw in which one lucky member of my Readers’ Club will win the scarf knitted by Sophie in The Natter of Knitters, in four beautiful floral blues, in a luxury mix of merino, cashmere and silk. If you’re not yet a member of my Readers’ Club, click here to sign up now, and I’ll add your name to the draw.
In my column for the January 2020 issue of the Hawkesbury Parish News, which I wrote in the wake of the General Election, I talked about the fun of discovering pleasant surprises as we go about our daily lives.
There’s a comforting flipside to the old adage that “whoever you vote for, the government always gets in”. That is, whatever government gets in, the nation it represents will still be filled with individual human beings who think for themselves and who are capable of daily acts of kindness.
No politicians can stop us being generous and considerate to those around us.
Kindness costs nothing and cannot be taxed. Small gestures such as a smile and a cheery ‘hello’ in passing (we’re very good at that in this parish), or holding a door open for the person behind you, or helping a stranger carry their shopping to the car, can make a real difference to someone who is sad, lonely, or having a bad day. Such things also lift the spirits of the giver.
Towards the end of 2019, I was impressed by a few imaginative schemes for spreading smiles to passers-by:
A young woman who crocheted dozens of flowers and leaves them in public places with a note inviting finders to be keepers (see full news story here)
A knitting group in Caerleon which created “hats” for local pillar boxes, each decorated with a fun scene such as a skiing penguins and a full Christmas dinner (full news story here)
Members of an Essex Baptist church who hid around their local community a thousand pebbles painted to resemble a swaddled baby Jesus (full news story here)
Who could fail to be cheered by encountering any of these?
Of course, such schemes are not new. In our parish, the Hawkesbury Rocks initiative has been encouraging us to hide painted pebbles for a while, and the annual Scarecrow Trail is a delight. But in the uncertain early days of a new government, these examples of the generosity and wit of the general British public provide a heartening start to the new year.
In 2020, I wish you happiest of years, full of kindness, smiles and pleasant surprises.
There can’t be many people who didn’t love a school story of some kind when they were growing up.
That’s one reason I decided last year to write a new series set in a classic English girls’ boarding school, St Bride’s. My series gives an old premise a new twist: it’s a school story for grown-ups, revolving around the intrigues among the staff, including the headmistress, commonly known as Hairnet, the teaching staff, including newcomer and narrator Gemma Lamb, and the support staff including Max Security, trying to keep everyone safe from harm.
Talking about it among friends, I soon became aware that I was not the only adult to still care passionately about school stories aimed at children.
Among the keepers still on my bookshelf are:
Anthony Buckeridge’s Jennings and Darbyshire series, which I loved for their laugh-out-loud humour
Classic girls’ boarding school tales, such as the Chalet School series by Elinor Brent-Dyer and Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers books
Richmal Crompton’s “Just William”, whose antics were originally intended for an adult audience
Fascinated to know which school stories some of my author friends most enjoyed, I’ve now decided to start a new monthly blog series in which a guest author shares their favourite. I’m pledging also to read the books they recommend – although I’m sure I’ll already be familiar with some of them. You might like to read along with us.
Jean Gill’s Choice: Anne of Green Gables
Kicking off the series is Jean Gill, who has written a huge array of books across a multitude of genres. Jean is an award-winning writer and photographer who lives in the south of France with two scruffy dogs, a beehive named Endeavour, a Nikon D750 and a man.
Jean’s choice is a book I confess I’d never read before: Anne of Green Gables by L M Montgomery. First published in 1908, this Canadian novel is now considered a world-class classic for readers of all ages. Over to Jean to describe what makes it so special for her…
Hi Jean, it’s a pleasure to have you as the first ever guest in this new series, and I was captivated by your choice when I read it. Such a beautiful natural world conjured up there, in a stunning corner of rural Canada, and I enjoyed that as much as I did Anne’s blossoming under the care of her adoptive family. How old were you when you first read it, and how often have you read it since?
My aunt, who lived in Canada sent it to me as a Christmas present when I was eight years old. I read it two or three times when a child and revisited it thanks to the recent television series.
How has your perception of the book changed with later readings?
When I was a child, I accepted Anne’s world as it wasn’t so very different from the one I knew in its sexism, physical punishment, demands that children be seen and not heard, that they work to earn their keep and should think themselves lucky if they were adopted after being orphaned. Later on, I was horrified by the adults’ behaviour and by the social norms but still recognised them in the historical context.
What did you particularly like about this book and about the author – and was there anything you disliked?
I love the misfit heroine, a ‘swotty girl’ if ever there was one, who lives and loves with passion, fired by her own imagination, a rule-breaker whenever the rules are wrong. What makes the book timeless is that Anne wins hearts while staying true to herself. The phrase ‘kindred spirits’ stays with me still and, like Anne, I’ve found kindred spirits to treasure, sometimes across the potential divides of age and culture. The development of Anne’s relationship with her new parents is beautiful, without being mawkish, and Montgomery portrays so well the change brought to their suffocating lives by this child.
And who couldn’t love Gilbert Blythe? – competition in the classroom and temptation outside of it, even though Anne knows love is bad for a girl’s high aims in life. That is another element which makes this book amazing for its time – falling in love is not the be-all and end-all for a girl. There is more to life!
The answer’s is probably obvious already, but which character did you identify with?
Anne, without a doubt!
The books that we love when are young often leave a lasting impact on us as we grow up. How did Anne of Green Gables affect you as a child and influence you as an adult?
The criticism ‘too much imagination’ was shown to be ridiculous. Imagination is Anne’s superpower as it was – and I hope still is – mine.
It was one of many books that allowed me to develop a sense of self that did not fit into all those rules about what I was supposed to do and be. Unlike Anne, I had a lot of self-control, and it was very satisfying to lose my temper vicariously through Anne’s fiery responses to life’s injustices. I too suffered from a permanent sense of unfairness, and the way Anne is blamed in school and at home for other people’s wrong-doing or for well-intentioned disasters hit exactly the spot where I felt wounded.
I remember being spanked when I was seven because early one morning I’d let out into the garden a dog we were looking after and he barked. I still don’t understand why (possibly) waking the neighbours was a hitting offence – and we were very rarely spanked, so my father must have felt strongly that this was an act of serious disobedience.
That was very much an Anne-type action and consequence, within a world that made no sense. I still react strongly to the unfairness of Anne being punished for acts of empathy and for rule-breaking.
How did it affect your writing?
I like breaking rules 😊
Anne goes to a small rural school in which all the ages are together in one schoolroom, and her ambition is to become a teacher. How did your own education compare to hers?
Mostly army schools. My father was a soldier, so the longest we stayed in any one place was two years. Sometimes we moved after only six months. I went to one school for only four months, so each time I had to start again, trying to make friends, following a different curriculum. I was taught the Tudors eight times, and at one time shifted for a few months to a school that taught Maths via Cuisenaire rods – all very confusing and lonely. I was told off by teachers for holding my pen wrongly and being too advanced a reader – and for dumb insolence 😊 So inevitably, like Anne, I became a teacher and I like to think I looked out for the misfits.
My older sister went to boarding school, and we’ve compared notes on our very different schooldays. I think Secrets at St Bride’s would make her smile and reminisce!
Were your friends also fans of Anne, or did you feel that this was your own private world?
I don’t remember talking about the world of books in which I spent most of my time, when I was eight but later, from eleven onwards, I definitely shared book recommendations with friends. A friend who met me at eleven remembers us being the only ones allowed to read the top shelf books (Dickens was up there).
Do you think Anne of Green Gables would still resonate with young readers today?
I think so and I’ve found out that Anne is big in Japan! The television series has highlighted the books again and the French translator for my books. Laure Valentin, has translated Anne of Green Gables into French – another example of kindred spirit serendipity!
I like to think that Anne of Green Gables would enjoy Jean Gill’s latest eco-fantasy novel, Queen of the Warrior Bees, in which a teenaged girl who doesn’t fit in with her peers finds her true purpose in working with nature to save their world – by shape-shifting into a bee!
For ten years now, I’ve been a regular contributor to the Tetbury Advertiser, a multiple-award-winning community magazine run by the Tetbury Lions. As well as providing a valuable community news service, it donates any profits from advertising to local good causes. I’m proud to be a part of it.
The monthly deadline is around the middle of the month prior to the cover date, so I wrote my column for the February issue around the time of a very big birthday…
When the calendar flipped over to 2020, I was very pleased. I’ve always liked round numbers. 18 days later, another round number was due to enter my life: I was about to turn 60.
It was hard to understand where all that time has gone. But when I wondered why I was having trouble sourcing a new refill for a favourite pen, I realised I’d had the pen for 42 years.
For the Love of 60
Despite my natural aversion to growing old, I have always loved the number 60. Write it in Roman numerals (I’m currently learning Latin), and it looks like the suffix of a luxury car model: LX.
At primary school, 60 was my favourite times table answer. My love affair with maths ended as soon as we got beyond arithmetic.
I also liked 60 because it was the age my beloved grandmother turned just after my entry into the world. Throughout my childhood she was therefore my age plus 60. To my childish imagination, this seemed a significant bond, almost like us being twins, despite her being a Victorian.
The Perks of Turning 60
Back to 2020, and as my big day approached, there were reminders everywhere I went. Signs enticed those over 60 to claim extra points at Boots, 25% off at the local optician, and a significant discount with a railcard.
A few days before my birthday, I found myself in a hospital’s charity bookshop. I’d been meaning to read more Graham Greene since enjoying his autobiography last year, so when I spotted his name on the spine of an ancient Penguin (the book brand, not the bird), I pulled it off the shelf without checking the title.
A Special Vintage
It turned out to be A Burnt-out Case, set in a leper colony in the Belgian Congo. (Whoever donated that novel to a hospital bookshop lacked tact.) Wondering when it was published, I consulted the copyright page. You’ve guessed it: 1960, same vintage as me. At secondary school, I wrote a history essay (possibly with that now empty pen) about the Belgian Congo gaining independence, but I couldn’t remember the year it took place. I looked it up on line. Who’d have thought it? 1960.
Finally, when I woke on the big day, I was relieved to realise that not only did I feel no older than the day before, but that my grandmother, if she were still alive, would next month turn 120 – exactly twice my new age. That pleased me immensely – and made me feel much younger. Then her daughter, my 89-year-old aunt, wrote in her birthday card to me that the sixties are the best time of your life. So, all in all, I’m sold on the idea of turning 60 now. So let the good times roll… and with discounts!
One of the many traits I inherited from Grandma was a love of knitting – the theme of my latest book, The Natter of Knitters.
It’s now available as a cute compact paperback the size of a picture postcard – the perfect size to slip in a birthday card for knitting addict friends! -, as well as in all ebook for
It’s a quick read – a short novella, about 20% the length of one of my novels – and features Sophie Sayers and friends from Wendlebury Barrow, as well as introducing new ones, such as the officious Mrs Fortescue, organiser of the village yarnbombing event, and Ariel Fey, self-appointed defender of local sheep.