My Young By Name Blog

Posted in Events, Personal life, Writing

Flight of Fancy

In my Young by Name column for the October issue of the multiple-award-winning Tetbury Advertiser, I’ve been musing about superheroes and superpowers

One of the few Marvel Movies superheroes I can actually recognise (Photo by Judeus Samson via Unsplash)

Losing the plot early on while watching a Marvel movie with my teenage daughter, I fell to wondering which of its superheroes’ superpowers I would most like to have myself.

Thor’s exceptional physical strength, de rigueur for most superheroes, doesn’t appeal. While it might come in handy for removing a stubborn lid from a jam jar, it’s not something I’d have much use for in my everyday life. Besides, my handy gadget from Lakeland serves the same purpose just as well.

Nor is there much call in the Cotswolds for Captain America’s martial arts expertise, especially while social distancing rules apply. Turning green and increasing my bodyweight ten-fold, like the Hulk, is a non-starter. I’d need a whole new wardrobe. Jessica Jones’ immunity to mind control might come in handy in our era of social media manipulation, but I’d far rather have her ability to fly.

Flight Envy

Being able to take off and soar like a bird would be an undeniably environmentally-friendly form of transport, even more so than my electric car. Just think how many calories it would burn. Plus it would be far more fun than going to the gym.

photo of pheasant on road
The least careful road user I know – the pheasant (Photo by Michael Hoyt via Unsplash)

This makes me wonder why pheasants, designed by nature to fly, are so reluctant to take to the air whenever a car approaches them. There’s always a stand-off between bird and vehicle. Just when you’re starting to think your car is more likely to become airborne than they are, they tease you with a Gallic shrug of resignation and take flight with an “Oh, if I must” expression.

The pheasant’s first choice of tactic to escape from any threat is to run. This is not the smartest move in a single-track country lane with high banks and hedgerows on either side, allowing them only to run ahead of an approaching vehicle rather than to divert out of its path. Although I admire their optimism, their physiology dictates that they will never outrun my car. However, they are capable of flying at up to 60mph*. Surely it’s a no-brainer?

Bird Brain

photo of pheasant in undergrowth
Possibly the worst camouflaged bird in Britain? Even so, on the endangered species list, it rates as “of least concern” due to the zillions bred for shooting each year (Photo by Zoltan Tasi via Unsplash)

And there we reach the heart of the matter. If logic is not the pheasant’s long suit, we can blame the size of its brain: a mere 4g**. Although impressive compared to a goldfish’s 0.097g of little grey calls, the pheasant doesn’t fare much better than the hedgehog (3.35g), and we all know how ineffective the hedgehog’s preferred self-defence method is against cars. (In case you’re wondering, your own brain weighs around 1400g.)

All this makes me wonder which superpower pheasants would pick to enhance their chances of survival on the road. Given their track record on decision-making, my money is on invisibility.

* Source: https://www.pheasantsforever.org/Habitat/Pheasant-Facts.aspx

** Source of brain size data: faculty.washington.edu.chudler/facts.html


In Other News

cover of The Natter of KnittersDespite a post-cold voice like gravel, I really enjoyed giving a talk via Zoom to a local WI (Women’s Institute) group earlier this week, talking about how living in a Cotswold village has inspired my novels.

Pictured left is the cover of a story that was actually inspired by another WI, from Chudleigh, down in Devon, about a yarnbombing event that goes wrong. The Natter of Knitters is a quick read (about 20% the length of one of my novels) and is available in ebook and a slim postcard-sized paperback – the perfect stocking-filler, for anyone who is already thinking about Christmas shopping! Part of my new Tales from Wendlebury Barrow series, it features all your favourite characters from the Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries and introduces new ones too.

Cover of Trick or Murder?Like The Natter of Knitters, the second Sophie Sayers novel Trick or Murder? takes place during the autumn. This story sees a conflict in Wendlebury Barrow between Halloween and Guy Fawkes’ Night, fuelled by the strange new vicar, the Reverend Neep.

In the village where I live in real life, Hawkesbury Upton, we usually celebrate both of these occasions in style, but due to Covid restrictions, there’ll sadly be no trick or treating or bonfire parties this year. However, we’re now gearing up for both a Pumpkin Trail along the route of our HU5K fun run, an event I helped found eight years ago, and the annual Scarecrow Trail, for which this year I’ve rashly volunteered to make not one but two scarecrows, one to go outside my house and the other outside the parish church of St Mary’s. So you can guess what I’ll be doing this weekend…

The theme for this year’s Scarecrow Trail is “Heroes and Villains” – and I’ll show you photos of mine once the trails have started. It’s all top secret till then – but it’s a safe bet that neither of mine will be of Marvel Superheroes!

Buying Links

You can buy all my books online or order paperbacks from your local bookshop. Here are the online buying links for the books mentioned above:

Posted in Personal life, Self-publishing

It’s a Wrap!

My column for the October 2020 issue of this month’s Hawkesbury Parish News

When I as a child, one of my favourite features in the annuals we received each Christmas was the puzzle captioned “An everyday object viewed from an unusual angle”. The reader was invited to identify the object from a photo of a tiny detail greatly enlarged or from a long shot of an unfamiliar aspect.

The journey to choir practice last week provided a similar challenge. As I drove down the hill towards Hawkesbury, (the ancient hamlet that is home to our parish church of St Mary), I spotted peeking out from among the treetops a tall white box that I’d never seen before.

view of mysterious object

For a split second my brain processed it as either a newly-landed alien spaceship or a just-built block of flats put up since the recent relaxation of planning regulations. Then I realised it was just the tower of St Mary’s Church undergoing restoration. The last time I’d seen the tower, it had been covered in scaffolding (as per Colin Dixon’s photos on the front of last month’s Parish News). Now, like a skeleton covered in flesh, the scaffolding had been given  a smooth, pristine white coat of protective fabric.

the church in wraps revealed
Revealed!

Then I thought of Christo, the Bulgarian-born artist famous for wrapping buildings, monuments, bridges, and even landscapes in fabric or plastic. In Wrapped Reichstag, for example, he encased the German parliament building in aluminium fabric. Each of his installations was designed to be temporary. One of them, a 14km orange curtain across Ridge Gap, Colorado, blew down in a storm on its second day.

But the fleeting change in appearance of a well-known landmark can change people’s perceptions of it forever.

Christo died in May this year aged 84, and his website www.christojeanneclaude.net poignantly includes a list of “Projects Not Realised”, as well as cataloguing his completed achievements. In a posthumous celebration of the pioneering artist, L’Arc de Triomphe in Paris is due to be wrapped next autumn.

Seeing St Mary’s Hawkesbury in its new white robe, I wondered whether Christo would be pleased with our inadvertent tribute to his work – and as relieved as I am that unlike the ancient and timeless fabric of the church, the white wrapping should be whisked away just in time for Christmas, once the tower repairs are complete.

If you’d like to know more about St Mary’s Hawkesbury, and to see it in its usual unwrapped state, hop over to its website here: www.friendsofstmaryshawkesbury.com. (The eagle-eyed may spot that I’m on its committee and that I also run its website!)


In Other News This Week

cover of Breathe magazineI was pleased to be quoted in this month’s issue of Breathe magazine in Stephanie Lam’s feature on self-publishing. You’ll find the magazine on British newstands everywhere and you can also order single copies and subscriptions online.

I’m currently writing another magazine feature myself, the second in my commissioned series for Mslexia to celebrate successful independent authors. For the December issue, I’m interviewing award-winning children’s writers Kate Frost, Jemma Hatt and Karen Inglis.

Meanwhile I’m busy with speaking engagements. Yesterday I was on BBC Radio Gloucestershire’s Book Club spot (you can listen to it here for the next 28 days, from 2hrs 12mins into the show). Next Wednesday I’ll be guest speaker via Zoom at Uley Women’s Institute, and on Saturday 17th October I’ll be chairing a panel on “Routes to Publishing” at Bristol Literature Festival, held online – you can reserve a free place here if you hurry!

Meanwhile the ebook of Best Murder in Show, the first in my Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries is currently free to download, and as I type this it’s #98 in the free Kindle charts in the UK, introducing thousands of new readers to the series. If you’ve not read it yet, download your free copy here. And if you  have read it and enjoyed it, feel free to send this link to any friends you think might also like it.

cover of the Clutch of Eggs
Coming soon! A fun quick read to brighten the dark autumn nights.

And now, back to work, putting the finishing touches to the second in my Tales from Wendlebury Barrow series. The Clutch of Eggs will be out by the end of the month. It’s a quick read for just 99p/99c, to tide you over while I write my next novel – the seventh Sophie Sayers mystery, Murder Lost and Found.

More news next week. Until then, happy reading!

 

 

 

Posted in Reading, Writing

My Favourite School Story: The School at the Chalet – with Juliette Lawson

The seventh in my series of interviews with author friends who love school stories

cover of a modern edition of The School at the Chalet
I reread a modern edition of this story, nearly a century old now – original copies are now collectors’ items!

When last year I launched my St Bride’s series of school stories for grown-ups, I discovered that many of my author friends had a secret passion for school stories of one kind or another – from children’s classics (such as Anne of Green Gables) through affectionate parodies (Molesworth) to adult novels set in schools (The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie).

I’m delighted that this month’s guest, Juliette Lawson, has chosen one of my favourite vintage children’s school series, Elinor M Brent-Dyer’s Chalet School books, which was launched in 1925 with The School at the Chalet.


 

headshot of Juliette Lawson
Meet Juliette Lawson, Historical Novelist, whose debut novel A Borrowed Past I very much enjoyed

Hello, Juliette, and welcome to my blog! To kick off, could you please tell us a little about The School at the Chalet for the sake of any readers who aren’t familiar with it? 

This is the first book in the series. Madge Bettany sets up a school in Austria after her guardian dies; she believes the climate will help her younger sister Joey’s (Jo’s) fragile health. It attracts locals and boarders, girls of various nationalities. There are conflicts, disasters, and bad behaviour among the girls, but all ends well, with lessons learned and peace made.

I’ve chosen the first book in the series, but I read many of them while at school, all in hardback. I don’t think the library had all 64 of them though!

How old were you when you first read it, and how often and at what age have you reread it?

I was probably around twelve, because I remember our classroom was next to the library in that year, and I was always finding an excuse to go in there. I think I was attracted to the story after going abroad for the first time when I was eleven, to Switzerland and France with Girl Guides. Another favourite book was Heidi by Johanna Spyri, so perhaps I had a thing about mountains! I didn’t re-read any of the Chalet School stories until recently, and I’m 60, so it’s been a very long gap.

How has your perception of the book changed with later readings?

It is still very evocative of the Tyrol and has a charm that has lasted. With hindsight I can see why it appealed to me at the time; there’s a sense of freedom, exploration and constant adventures, none of which I ever had. I was drawn to foreign languages (I did French, Latin and German at school and I have a Classics degree), so the idea of a multi-lingual school was fascinating to me.

The characters are still larger than life, full of energy and enthusiasm, and they navigate their way through various problems and challenges with gusto. My original reading was so long ago that I can’t remember if I was aware of the naïveté or whether the old-fashioned language felt alien to me, being from quite a poor background. Now all the interjections of ‘spiffing!’, ‘splendiferous’, and ‘tophole’ are slightly irritating. As an author, I can also spot lots of telling and head-hopping too, which obviously I wouldn’t have known about at the time.

What did you particularly like about this book/series and about the author? Anything you disliked?

The action never stops – I was always gripped by the story and it kept me reading. I used to get in trouble for reading at the dinner table and not hearing my mother ask me a question (I have to confess it still happens with my husband; he despairs!) There was a core set of characters, but new girls were always coming and going, giving rise to different friendships and inevitable clashes. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have worked my way through so many of the series if I’d disliked anything at the time.

Which character did you identify with?

Joey – not in the sense that she was like me, but rather because I wished I could be as confident as her, full of ideas, likeable and very adaptable to whatever situation she ended up in.

How did it affect you as a child and influence you as an adult?

I didn’t have a very happy childhood, so reading this series was an escape for me. I could let my imagination run loose, picturing myself in the setting. Because the school library held such a lot of titles from the series, I became very used to borrowing books; it probably influenced my lifelong love of reading and appreciation of libraries more than any works of literature (I started university reading joint English Literature and Classics). It definitely opened my eyes to the wider world and showed me that you could make things happen if you worked hard enough – Madge’s confidence that she could set up the school and make it successful was inspiring. One of my greatest pleasures as an adult has been travelling, and I’m pretty sure it gave me that global interest.

How did it affect your writing?

I’m afraid there was too long a gap for me to take lessons from it; I didn’t start writing until I was in my fifties!

What type of school(s) did you go to yourself?

I attended the primary school across the road from my home, then passed the 11-plus and gained a place at the local high school for girls, the equivalent of a grammar school, which was run on a traditional basis; some of the older teachers wore university gowns and we all had to stand up when a teacher entered the class. After three years, it was merged with the grammar school for boys and a secondary modern to form a comprehensive school, which was a revelation. We were kept in our academic streams for O Levels, but it didn’t take long for the boys and girls to start mixing in the playground! The change coincided with me gaining more confidence, but I’m not sure whether there was a causal link.

I was very musical and from the time we went comprehensive I threw myself into more activities and clubs. School became my oasis, and I was always attending orchestra, choirs, or rehearsals for Gilbert and Sullivan productions. We also had an Archaeology Society and used to go to historic sites on a weekend in the school minibus, driven by our Latin teacher. It would never pass health and safety rules today: there were two benches in the back facing each other, and when we went round a corner, we’d often slide off into each other’s laps, which was great for a group of hormone-ridden mixed-sex teenagers!

Were your friends also fans or did you feel that this was your own private world to escape into?

In the earlier years of my secondary school, I found it difficult to make friends, so it was very much my own private world, where I could imagine being happy. I never felt lonely when I had my nose in a book.

Would it still resonate with young readers today?

I very much doubt it – they would probably be in stitches at the language and the old-fashioned tone of it!

Thank you, Juliette, it’s been great fun to share your delight in the Chalet School books. 


About Juliette Lawson

cover of A Borrowed Past by Juliette Lawson
Highly recommended: Juliette Lawson’s debut novel about an aspiring young artist in the north-east of England

Juliette Lawson writes heart-warming historical sagas, bringing the past to life through vivid characters in strong settings inspired by her seaside location in NE England.

Find out more about Juliette Lawson and her work at her website: www.juliettelawson.com

Follow Juliette Lawson on Facebook:   https://www.facebook.com/juliettelawsonauthor

Join her Reader Club for regular newsletters and insights into her writing life: www.subscribepage.com/a7f7t3

 

 

Posted in Personal life, Reading, Travel

The Serendipity of Secondhand Books

In my column for the September 2020 issue of the Tetbury Advertiser, I’m musing about my love of secondhand bookshops and the unexpected treasures to be found in them.

cover of September issueAh, the joy of browsing through secondhand books! – one of the few things I missed about not having a summer holiday this year. Wherever we go, we always end up in vintage bookshops. They’re my main source of holiday souvenirs and more besides.

Last August in Norfolk, the proprietor of The Old Station Bookshop in Wells-next-the-Sea introduced himself to us as Harry Potter’s potter. Some years before, a film company’s properties scout had spotted the bookseller’s side-line in ceramics, nestled between the books. A few days later an order arrived, presumably delivered by owl, for two sets of matching pots in different sizes – one small version for Harry Potter and chums, the other scaled up for Hagrid the giant.

The film scout had clearly adhered to

my golden rule of second-hand bookshop shopping: never look for anything in particular.

On no account take a shopping list because you won’t find what you’re looking for. Instead, browse the shelves with an open mind, and let the books find you.

Timely Reading

The best second-hand books leap out at me with extraordinary timing. A vintage copy of Where No Mains Flow, Rebecca Warren’s witty memoir of restoring an old cottage, kept my sense of humour intact as we did up our own place.

 cover of Where No Mains Flow
I was so pleased to find another copy of this mid-century book, having loaned my original copy and never got it back

 

Just after I’d joined a VE Day 75 committee, the first book I saw at the Bookbarn near Wells was a slim hardback of The White Cliffs, Alice Duer Miller’s novel in verse written in 1940. (Yes, it predates the Vera Lynn song.) I’d never heard of it, but in its heyday it sold a million copies and was even credited with bringing the Americans into the Second World War.

cover of The White Cliffs
This book was the first one I saw displayed cover outwards when entering the Bookbarn – an extraordinary coincidence when i was working on a WWII community project

Just after my sixtieth birthday in January, I decided to reread Graham Greene. On my next visit to a secondhand bookshop, I picked up A Burnt-out Case. Wondering when it was published, I opened the book at the copyright page: 1960, same vintage as me. Suddenly I felt very old.

cover of A Burnt-Out Case
Same vintage as me – but I think I have aged a little better than the chap on the cover

For the Love of Covers

Then there are the books I’ve acquired simply for the sake of their covers. Naturally, it was during Storm Ciara that a vintage hardback of Joseph Conrad’s Typhoon leapt out at me, its cover so atmospheric that you can practically hear the wind roar.

cover of Typhoon
I can feel the winds howling every time I look at this gorgeous cover

Best of all are the curiosities bought as talking points. Who could resist Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Return of Sherlock Holmes printed entirely in Pitman shorthand? Now all I need to be able to read it is an old copy of Teach Yourself Pitman Shorthand. But I’d better not go searching, or I’ll never find one.

sample pages of Sherlock Holmes novel in Pitman Shorthand
I confess I cant read Pitman Shorthand, but this was an irresistible find!

Sneak Preview of Developments in Wendlebury Barrow

cover of the Clutch of Eggs
My next book will be out in October

Such is my love of secondhand books that in my Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries series, I’m planning to make Hector Munro to start a vintage section in Hector’s House, the bookshop at the heart of this series. He already has a large private collection of what he refers to as his “curiosities”, and these occasionally play a part in my stories, such as a festive short story that I wrote last year – you can read it here for free if you can bear to think about Christmas just yet!

His curiosities collection also gets a mention in my new book, The Clutch of Eggs, the next in my Tales from Wendlebury Barrow Quick Reads series, which will be out in October – more news of that to follow shortly. (You can join my Readers’ Club mailing list here if you want me to notify you of the publication date.)

Then in the eighth book in the Sophie Sayers series, one of his “curiosities” will be at the heart of a mystery that takes Sophie and Hector from Wendlebury Barrow to the Scottish Highlands.  But first I must write the seventh – Murder Lost and Found, my November project, for the first draft, anyway!

Posted in Personal life, Travel, Writing

With Love to Ithaca & Other Ionian Islands

In this post I reminisce about my travels to the Ionian islands off the west cost of Greece, which inspired my latest novel, and I send my love to all those affected by the Medicane (Mediterranean hurricane) Storm Ianosthat affected the area a week ago.

(You can read the BBC’s news report about the storm here.)

Back in the early 2000s, I spent a lot of time sailing in the Ionian Sea. This was not as extravagant as it sounds. My husband and I purchased a share in a small refurbished sailing yacht, (sadly in the days before digital photography and smart phones, so apologies for the lack of photos!) Our share entitled us to six weeks aboard each year. It cost us just £3,000, and a few years later we sold it on for exactly the same sum.

The Idyllic Ionian Islands

From my first trip to Kefalonia in the summer of 2000, I adored the beautiful islands, their big-hearted people, and their idyllic climate, with its clear blue skies and sunshine every day. As a sailor who prefers calm waters, I appreciated that there was just enough warm wind for gentle sailing from around 10am until the dependable “five o’clock blow”, which gave you just enough puff to get you into the harbour of your choice for the night.

Several years after selling our boat share, I attended a writers’ retreat run by Jessica Bell at the excellent Hotel Nostos on Ithaca, and was amused when its proprietor Nicki Anagnostatos apologised to her guests for the presence of a few tiny clouds in the azure sky.

Ithaca photo
Wonderful memories and much knowledge gained from the retreat organised by Jessica Bell six years ago

Ithaca was just one of the islands we’d sailed to. Our yacht was based in Nidri on Lefkas, and we also sailed to  Meganisi, Kefalonia, many smaller islands, and occasionally to the mainland.

Not So Safe Harbour

One year, on arrival, we passed a small private marina full of boats that looked as if they’d been in the seafaring equivalent of a motorway pile-up. The marina belonged to a sailing school, and at first we assumed either teachers or pupils or both were shockingly inept. Then we discovered a spring storm had hurtled across the islands not long before our arrival, wrecking everything in its path.

We found it hard to believe that such freak weather could affect what we’d come to regard as a haven, until we experienced it at first hand.

Storm over Asos

A year or two later, after mooring our yacht in the beautiful horseshoe-shaped harbour at Asos on Kefalonia, having sailed calmly across from Lefkas, we were awoken at 2am by howling gales rocking our boat vigorously from side to side. Ropes and chains were rattling all around us, amid frantic shouts in Greek, English and other languages.

Peering up through the hatch to see what was going on, we discovered a storm in full force. The larger boats were moving out to anchor in the middle of the bay, away from anything that could damage their sides, while the smaller boats like ours were advised to turn ninety degrees to park sideways on to the harbour wall, rather than nose or tail on as was the usual practice to allow more boats to access the town. That way we could secure both ends of the boat to dry land, and reduce the chances of crashing into neighbouring vessels.

Still our boat rolled, and first thing in the morning we fled to the town to rent a room till the winds had dropped. In this very sheltered bay, nestling at the bottom of steep cliffs, it was still beach weather, and the storm will have made no difference to holidaymakers staying on land. But it was several days before the water was safe enough for us to leave.

Earthquake Legacy

Storms were not the only weather extremes that have affected the Ionian islands over the years. On Kefalonia, we were conscious of the legacy of the devastating earthquake of 1953 – 7.3 on the RIchter Scale. The quake changed the face of the island destroying numerous buildings, many of which still lie in ruins, and causing some settlements to be abandoned forever.  (Read more about the history of the earthquake here.)

So while it’s true that whenever we went to the Greek islands we expected idyllic weather, the ghosts of past natural catastrophes were always with us and with the residents of the islands.

Inspiration for a Novel

image of a glass of iced coffee with a copy of Murder Your Darlings against a blue cotton sarong
The backdrop is the sarong I bought in Kefalonia on my first trip, patterned with the indigenous turtles. A similar sarong is one of the clues in my Greek island mystery, “Murder Your Darlings”.

The latent threat beneath the idyllic weather inspired the latest novel in my Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries series, Murder Your Darlings. It’s set on a small fictitious island just off the tip of Ithaca. An old windmill damaged by the 1953 earthquake is the scene of the mysterious disappearance of a famous romantic novelist, Marina Milanese. When a summer storm prevents the police from reaching the island, Sophie and her fellow guests must solve the mystery themselves – not easy, when just about everyone on the island, including Sophie herself, is deemed to have a motive to murder Marina Milanese.

Return to Ithaca

This summer a natural phenomenon of a different kind has ruled out travel to the Greek islands for many of us, but I’m hoping that once the storm that is Covid-19 has passed, we’ll be returning to the Ionian islands to continue our love affair with them. If you’ve never been, add them to your bucket list for post-Covid holidays. You’ll be glad you did – and you’ll be helping the islanders rebuild their economy, for the benefit of us all.