My column for the April issue of the Hawkesbury Parish News
Here’s a sentence I don’t expect to hear in Hawkesbury Upton this month: “I haven’t got anything to read”.
There can’t be another village in the country offering as many opportunities to pick up good books without leaving the parish.
As well as the inevitable book stalls at jumble sales and other fundraisers, the Hawkesbury Stores and Head Start Studio sell new and second-hand books.
You can borrow books 24/7 from the Little Free Library boxes on my front wall. (No membership required – just come and help yourselves.)
At the village school, the children have access to the beautiful Bookery (school library), and, this being Hawkesbury, they didn’t need to go far to find an author to visit them for World Book Day – no further than Back Street, home to local children’s author Betty Salthouse.
Young and old alike can now benefit from our own new Community Library, opening fortnightly in the Village Hall. Huge thanks to South Gloucestershire Libraries for providing the stock and the willing band of volunteers who staff it. And it’s not just a place to borrow books – it’s also a social hub to meet friends over coffee and cake.
Finally, the Hawkesbury Upton Literature Festivalwill return on the 21st of this month, at which dozens of visiting authors will introduce you to even more good books. (Click on the link to view the full programme to help you plan your day at the Festival.) Admission is free, so you can save your money to buy their books – and, of course, cake.
I sometimes think this village runs on cake. Books and cake. I’m not complaining – what better combination to nourish mind and body?
But it’s just as well that only the cake contains calories.
As a local author, I was asked to do the honours of declaring the library officially open. If you’d like to read my speech, which pays tribute to the defunct mobile library service that the Community Library is replacing, you’ll find it here.
I was also very pleased to find one of my novels, Best Murder in Show, on its shelves! Look out for the fourth in the Sophie Sayers Village Mystery series, Murder by the Book, to be launched on 21st April at the Hawkesbury Upton Literature Festival. For more information about the Sophie Sayers series, visit this page on my website.
A post that kills three birds with one stone – what a shot! – for Books Are My Bag, the Hawkesbury Scarecrow Trail, and the Little Free Library.
Last weekend I pulled off an especially fine piece of multitasking – I managed to promote three different worthy causes in one fell swoop:
The first ever Hawkesbury Upton Scarecrow Trail
The second Books Are My Bag campaign
The year-round Little Free Library programme
As you can see from the photo, my scarecrow, Virginia, is a stylish bookworm. Her Cheltenham Festival of Literature t-shirt complements her blue stockings, and her whole outfit is set off by last year’s must-have accessory for anyone who loves books, the exclusive Books Are My Bag campaign souvenir bag. Keeping her well supplied with reading matter is my new Little Free Library, set up as a British offshoot of the free community library campaign founded in the USA a few years ago.
Books Are My Bag is a national movement in the UK to remind everybody of the value of the independent high street book shop. What the publishing trade likes to call “bricks-and-mortar stores” offer many benefits unavailable from online retailers, (though they can usually order you a book in just as fast as Amazon and the like, without charging you postage or a membership fee), or recent entrants to the book market, such as grocery superstores. High street bookshops have expert staff able to help you find the perfect book for yourself or for others. Over the next few days, participating stores will be sharing their passion for books and reading with special events all over the country. For more information about Books Are My Bag, and to find an event in a local indie bookshop near you, visit their website: www.booksaremybag.com.
The Hawkesbury Upton Scarecrow Trail offers a fun display of 14 scarecrows dotted about the village. You can pick up a free map from the village shop or post office all this week. The trail will be in place until the end of Sunday 12th October. There’s no particular theme or cause, other than a bit of autumnal fun! See if you can spot them all.
The idea of the Little Free Library was set up by an American chap, Todd Bol, in 2009, with a single box of books, in the shape of an old-fashioned schoolhouse, in memory of his late mother, a schoolteacher who loved reading. The idea quickly caught on – after all, what’s not to love about free books? – and now there are estimated to be over 15,000 around the world. Mine’s the first in Hawkesbury Upton! Todd’s mother would be very proud of him.
My Little Free Library is starting off with a stock of books from our home and donated by others. I’ll be adding lots of new books as space becomes available, including those that I receive free to review from authors and publishers (I do a lot of book reviewing for various magazines and organisations).
Anyone is welcome to help themselves to a free book (or more than one!) If they’d like to treat it as a swap, and put one back, that would be great, but it’s not essential.
My Little Free Library will provide an extra source of books in the village, supplementing the shelves of donated books that are sold for £1 each by the Hawkesbury Shop and the village hair salon, Head Start Studio, in aid of the village school’s PTA. But my Little Free Library offers books at no cost at all, so everyone can afford them, and they’ll be accessible outside the shops’ opening hours. For more information about the Little Free Library scheme, to order your own official sign, or to make a donation to its cause, visit their website: www.littlefreelibrary.org.
Of course, you have to take pot luck with a Little Free Library – you’re unlikely to find a particular book that you’re looking for, but it’s a great no-risk way of being more adventurous with your reading, trying out a genre or author that you wouldn’t normally pick up. Who knows what new interest you might discover?
But if you’re bent on getting a specific book, you don’t have to go far. We’re lucky enough to live within a short drive of three independent bookshops – the Yellow-Lighted Bookshop in Nailsworth and Tetbury, the Cotswold Bookroom in Wotton-under-Edge, and, 20 miles away in Bristol, the fabulous Foyles bookshop in Cabot Circus, where I’ll be launching the new paperback edition of my must-read book for anyone affected by or interested in Type 1 diabetes. Like to get an invitation? Just contact me and I’ll send one right over.
And if that’s not enough – Hawkesbury Upton is also served by a mobile library, sent out once a fortnight from the fab Yate library a few miles away. (I’ve just had a flash fiction story inspired by our mobile library accepted for a new anthology, Change the Ending, to be published shortly – more news of that soon!) We really have no excuse for not getting stuck into good books in these parts.
If you liked this post, you might also enjoy these others on the theme of books and reading:
The internet (God bless it) is awash with pithy sayings about the power of books to change lives, so it’s good now and again to be allowed to say something online about the subject without the constraints of the 140 character Tweet or the space allowed for a status update before Facebook cuts you off with a “see more” link.
My latest article for the monthly online parenting magazine Kideeko talks about the power of books to make life better for poorly children. It draws on my experience of three years working for the children’s reading charity Read for Good – parent of Readathon (which runs Sponsored Reads in schools) and ReadWell (taking books and storytellers to children in hospital).
Whether or not you have children at home, I reckon it’s still worth reading my article, if you have a moment to spare, to remind yourself of the power of storytelling to distract you from life’s ups and downs. To read the article in full, please click this link: Make Life Better with a Book
And if you’d like some ideas of great reads to curl up with, take a trip to my Book Reviews directory.
In the last 48 hours, I’ve stepped way outside my reading comfort zone.
As a frequent book reviewer, I’m often asked to consider books that I’d never choose in a bookshop or library – unlike the Ladybird book pictured here, which I snapped up in a secondhand bookshop the other day for the sake of its bizarre cover, and because I adore vintage Ladybird books.
Sometimes the publications I review for send me copies of books they particularly want me to consider, other times authors or publicists approach me on spec, after finding my name on Amazon’s list of top reviewers.
Admittedly they have to trawl for quite a long way to reach me, as I’m currently ranked around the 1,400 mark. If they’ve got that far, I so admire their staying power that I’m likely to agree to their request for a review, provided they ask me nicely. There’s nothing that hacks off a book reviewer as much as an author’s assumption that sending you a free book entitles them to a review. Except authors who do that and then reel off a long list of sites on which they expect you to post your review, including some that you’ve never even visited.
Why I Review Books
I love book reviewing. For one thing, it prevents me from slipping into a cosy habit of rereading old favourites and their clones. It’s too easy to treat book buying like clothes shopping, being drawn like a magnet to those you already know and love. (And I really don’t need to buy any more knee length boots, denim jackets or cordoruoy leggings.)
I therefore made it my policy long ago to keep an open mind about review requests, turning down only anything featuring violence or unnecessary tragedy.
Two New Reading Experiences in One Day
So it happened today that I found myself reviewing both a YA (young adult) steampunk thriller (sent to me by the debut author) and a collection of Polish poetry in translation (received from Vine Leaves Literary Journal, for which I’m a staff reviewer).
Now, I have a lot of books in my house, including a floor-to-ceiling to-read bookcase in my bedroom. But until this week I didn’t possess a single steampunk thriller or Polish poem. In fact I only recently worked out what steampunk is. (If you don’t know either, check out the Urban Dictionary’s definition here). Although I enjoy poetry, and still treasure some of the poetry books I had from school and university, I’m not sure I’ve ever knowingly read a Polish poem.
But what a joy these books have been to read, filling my imagination with new adventures and images, and changing the way I look at the world, just a little, as every good book should. It was also satisfying to write their reviews. Formulating a book review always helps me mentally digest what I’ve read. By doing so, I extract far more pleasure than if I’d just closed each book on finishing and moved on to the next one in my to-read pile without any further thought.
How To Make An Author Happy
I also gain pleasure from knowing that the book’s authors will appreciate my response. As an author myself, I know the warm glow that comes from spotting a new review of one of your books.
Strangely, in the time it’s taken me to read and review those two books, two more new reviews have come in for one of my own books (Sell Your Books!, now with 42 reviews on Amazon UK, average rating 4.6*)) – not from the authors of the books I reviewed, but from two completely different readers. Is there some kind of book reviewer’s karma at work? To any writer who also reads books (as all writers should), that’s got to be a comforting thought.
Whatever you’re reading just now, if you enjoy the book, take a moment to thank the author by leaving a quick review on Amazon, Goodreads, or any other site that you prefer. I guarantee you’ll make the author’s day.
If you liked this post, you might like these others about books and reading:
(Overture to a travelogue about our camper van tour of Luxembourg)
Much as I love my book-centric life, there comes a time when you have to slip in a bookmark and walk away.
The night before I am due to go to Luxembourg for a fortnight, I’m up till 1 a.m. putting the finishing touches to an article about self-publishing. I’ve promised to email it to someone before I leave, and only when I’ve hit the send button do I allow myself to start packing for our trip.
Fortunately, there’s not much to pack, because we holiday in our camper van. This allows little space for luggage and imposes constraints stricter than a budget airline’s. Each of us – that is, my husband, my daughter and me – may bring just one “wanted on voyage” bag, containing whatever we need to amuse ourselves while we’re away. My husband’s contains his newspaper and his Open University books. My daughter’s is stuffed to bursting point with cuddly toys, her Nintendo DS, MP3 player, and story books. Mine is all notebooks, paperbacks, Kindle, ipod and a tangle of recharging cables to fit the van’s cigarette lighter.
After crossing the English Channel from Dover to Calais, we spend the first night in snowy St Omer in northern France, snuggled deep into our winter-weight sleeping bags. After my previous late night vigil, I should be sleeping like a kitten. Instead, I fall straight into the clutches of a nightmare.
My Bookish Nightmare
In this nightmare, I’m rushing through endless rooms full of bookshelves. I’m searching for something, but I’m not sure what. Then I reach some stairs and start climbing, climbing, to ever-higher shelves. Finally a rickety metal ladder leads to a high platform protected only by a low, flimsy railing. (I should add here that I’m terrified of heights.) Only when I reach the top of the ladder does the danger of the situation strike me, and I start to retreat, unable to bring myself to set foot on such an insubstantial landing. As I step back, the whole of the bookcase on the platform topples towards me, threatening to rain down its contents onto my head.
Fortunately, all of this is happening in slow motion, giving me time to grab the sides of the ladder, but I’ve already lost my footing and my legs are dangling in mid-air. Realising I have, unexpectedly, the upper-body strength of Wonderwoman, I try to push the ladder away to restore the bookshelf to its rightful place. Meanwhile I’m shouting to my husband for help, and suddenly he’s at my side asking me why I’m crying.
I wake up.
“Whatever’s the matter, darling?” he’s saying.
With an effort, I catch my breath.
“I – I – I – I think I need a holiday!” I sob.
Now there’s good timing!
Coming soon – some entertaining observations about our travels through France, Belgium and Luxembourg!