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.
I was delighted to be invited to launch the new Hawkesbury Upton Village Library yesterday, and I wrote a short speech to mark the occasion. A number of people afterwards asked me for a copy of it, so here it is for anyone who would like it.
After I’d spoken, local councillor Sue Hope added her thanks on behalf of the community to the Hawkesbury Village Hall Committee, the Parish Council and the Hawkesbury Writers for their support and funding for the new facilities, for which the books and services will be provided by South Gloucestershire Libraries. A team of eight wonderful village volunteers will staff the library and open it for two hours every fortnight.
My Opening Address
It’s a pleasure and an honour to be invited to open what is going to be a wonderful new resource for our community. It feels like we’re at a little bit of Hawkesbury history in the making.
Like many of you, I was sad that funding cuts led to the closure of the mobile library that had served us so well for so long. It brought great comfort and interest to many villages and hamlets beside ours, and it was always a heartwarming sight to see it trundling down our lanes. It was like a tardis full of books, manned by kind, friendly and knowledgeable staff always willing to help us, no matter how obscure our questions, even when we forget our library cards. I don’t know whether the mobile staff realised how much we loved and appreciated them, but on behalf of our community, I’d like to thank them for the pleasure they have brought us – and to congratulate them for their driving skills to manoeuvre that great bus down the lanes to us, time after time.
So a sad loss, but, like a phoenix from the ashes, this new and different kind of library, with its permanent base in our community, is the start of a whole new chapter (groan) in our bookish lives. In a way it will bring us the best of both worlds: access to the entire stock from South Gloucestershire Libraries, not only from Yate’s stocks but from anywhere in the south west. All we need to do is request them online from the comfort of our own homes, and they’ll be served up to us by our fantastic team of volunteers, all trained to give us the help we need at a local level.
You can of course still use the other South Gloucestershire libraries of your choice – in Yate when you’re shopping, or the library nearest your workplace – but just as the mobile library brought resources to those who couldn’t get to those, so will the community library. But choosing books from the Community Library will help you save fuel and time – just as the Hawkesbury Stores makes it possible for us to buy groceries close to home.
For any cynics who are wondering whether public libraries are still relevant to us in the digital age, think again. Studies show that a large proportion of library users are also regular buyers of books. Libraries are for everyone – and not just for those who can’t afford to buy books.
Why do affluent book buyers use libraries too? Library books should not be considered as second-best to buying books. The quality of books in libraries is always high, mostly as new or nearly new condition, and it’s a joy to touch and hold them – these days, with the high production values of modern books, they are an aesthetic treat as well as a literary one. You can get as much of a buzz out of walking home with an armload of library books as from buying them in shops – and you don’t have to worry about running out shelf space at home, either.
Libraries also offer a low-risk strategy to expand your choice of reading matter. Well, I like to think of a library as a tasting menu in a restaurant. Like a tasting menu, a visit to the library offers you the chance to try new things. When you haven’t paid for a book, it doesn’t matter if you don’t much like it or finish it – but at the same time, you might discover new passions and interests in the process.
A library is also like a smorgasbord because it’s an all-you-can-eat menu – only in this restaurant of reading, you don’t end your visit by paying a bill. The only money you will spend here is if you treat yourself to some tea and cake, which you can do with a clear conscience because the takings for refreshments are what will cover the hall hire costs for each session.
But that’s fine too because libraries aren’t only about books on shelves. They are also an important social meeting point, accessible and affordable to all, where everyone may meet on an equal footing. They are hugely democratic and an enormously valuable anchor in our society for all sorts of reasons unrelated to books – the books might even be considered a bonus. What matters is that we connect.
I’ve just finished reading a fascinating fly-on-the-wall memoir by a librarian, Chris Paling, called Reading Allowed. He points out that public libraries can also be study centres, play areas, A&E departments, refuges for the homeless and much more – Hawkesbury librarians, you have been warned! I’m sure our library will serve as a brilliant coffee shop too – a safe, warm place to socialise with friends. Fortunately libraries no longer have a silence rule!
I realise not everyone may be instantly persuaded that the library is for them. “I’m not much of a reader,” they might say, or “I don’t have time to read”. I bet they still find time to watch television. In that case, I say they just haven’t met the right book yet.
The book stock has been carefully curated to match the needs and interests of our community, and it will be constantly refreshed to keep it interesting for us.
Who watches “Game of Thrones”? Of course, that hugely popular series is based on books by a very wise man, George R R Martin, who famously said about books and reading:
“He who reads lives a thousand lives. He who does not read lives only once.”
Our new community library gives us all the chance to live a thousand lives. So please do take advantage of this wonderful gift to our village, today and every time it opens, once a fortnight, in future. I’m delighted to declare it now officially open.
If you love libraries, you might enjoy these other posts from my blog archives:
Both of the stories about libraries featured in those last two posts are included in Quick Change, my collection of flash fiction, available in paperback and ebook. Click the image to buy online or quote ISBN 978-0993087967 to order at your local bookshop.
This post about seasonal writing first appeared on 30th August on the Authors Electric blog, for which I’m now a regular monthly contributor. (I write a new post on the 30th of each month).
When I started planning the cosy mystery series I’m currently writing, I thought I had a bright idea: I’d make the seven books span the course of the year.
What’s not to love about writing a book for all seasons, and then some? Whatever the time of year, I’d have a topical book to tout.
Given that my Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries are set in a small (fictional) English village (no surprises there), its residents are naturally very conscious of the seasonal changes, and their social calendar dictated by the time of year.That’s just how it is in the small (non-fictional) English village in which I’ve lived for the last twenty-six years. Here in my real life village, I’m so much more aware of the passage of the seasons than when I lived and worked in and around London.
Working in a city centre, I was more likely to spot the season by what was in shop windows, rather than by the appearance (or disappearance) of lambs and the like.
Bikinis in Marks and Spencers? Ah, then it must be February.
I much prefer the rural indication of the coming of spring: seeing the lambs appear down my lane.
Yes, I often share my street with sheep, or sometimes cows. Today we passed a few chickens pottering about at the roadside outside the local farm shop. Well, where else would a chicken go to do its shopping?
And if there’s a traffic jam down my way, it’s more likely to be caused by a farm vehicle than a stream of commuter cars. On nearby Sodbury Common, herds of cows frequently block the road.
For those who don’t live in the country, reading the Sophie Sayers books will give them the chance to enjoy the seasons vicariously as they work their way through the series.
Until I try to launch my new autumn read, Trick or Murder?, full of mists and mellow murder, on a searingly hot August Bank Holiday weekend, when we can almost convince ourselves that summer still has weeks to run.
It felt indecent to be talking about October already
I find myself not wanting to even think about the autumn, never mind promote my autumn-themed book.
It seems unkind to remind people that autumn is just around the corner, like the supermarkets that start hyping back-to-school wear the minute the schools break up for their summer holidays.
Standing in scorching sunshine talking about Halloween and Guy Fawkes’ Night – key events in Trick or Murder? – seems as tasteless as touting mince pies and Christmas cards in September. Yes, I know Tesco’s will be doing that. I rest my case.
I know that commercial traders, including bookshops, will carry on regardless, marketing things at least a season before we really want to think about them.
But I’ve decided to launch my Christmas special for the series, Murder in the Manger, for the day after Guy Fawkes’ Night, and not a minute sooner.
Time passes us by all too fast without me fast-forwarding the seasons.
In the meantime, I plan to make the most of whatever remains of the summer sunshine.
May we all have many sunny days yet to come.
The first two books in the Sophie Sayers Village Mystery series are now available in ebook and paperback. You don’t need to read them in order, if you prefer to start with the one most appropriate for the current season. The third book, Murder in the Manger, will be out on November 6th.
For Writers’ Wednesday (#ww), a post about writing fiction. This post first appeared on the Authors Electric blog, for which I’m now a regular monthly contributor. (I write a new post on the 30th of each month).
If you go down to the woods today…
When I started writing my new series, the Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries, and set myself the ambitious target of publishing a cycle of seven novels over two years, I had no idea how much I would come to enjoy escaping into its fictitious Cotswold village of Wendlebury Barrow.
Having now drafted the first three in the series – Best Murder in Showwas published in April,Trick or Murder?will launch in August, and Murder in the Manger will be my 2017 Christmas special (no surprises there) – I feel as if the characters are old friends. I feel entirely at home with them.
That shouldn’t really come as a surprise, because in real life, I’ve resided in the small Cotswold village of Hawkesbury Upton for over a quarter of a century.
Both the fictitious and the real village are safe, fun but eccentric places to live. (Well, safe apart from the odd murder – only in Wendlebury Barrow, ouf course.) Frequently heard in response to Hawkesbury Upton events is the phrase “You couldn’t make that up!” There are probably more implausible events happening in the actual village than in the pretend one.
I love living in Hawkesbury Upton, and although I’ve been careful to make all my characters and events fictitious, I write about Wendlebury Barrow in celebration of the kind of village life that surrounds me.
I’ve only once so far caught myself writing “Wendlebury Upton.”
Of Darker Places
Which leads me to wonder whether authors who write much grittier crime books than mine feel the same about the grimmer worlds that they have conjured up. Do they live in places like that? Do they want to visit them? I don’t think so. Yes, I do know about catharsis, but the closest I get to enjoying it in fiction is in the likes of Alice in Wonderland, with its classic “oh thank goodness it was only a dream” moment.
As for me, I’d rather feel safe all the time, whether weaving stories in my fictional world or walking the streets of my home village.
Not for me the more violent books, films or television programmes that my husband enjoys. You probably know the sort of thing I mean: where the soundtrack consists almost entirely of the physical impact of violence (fists on flesh breaking bones, bullets sinking into fleshy targets) and the dialogue would be half the length if all the swear words were omitted.
Or maybe that’s why he watches them – precisely because they make me swiftly leave the room. Perhaps straight afterwads, he channel-hops to “Strictly”.
Incitement to Murder
However, I must admit that writing the Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries is also in part a response to his previous complaint that “nothing happened” in my three volumes of short stories – well, nothing violent, anyway.
My pre-planned series of titles commits me to at least one murder per book. My only problem now is that I’m getting so attached to the characters that I don’t want to kill any of them off.
Which my neighbours in Hawkesbury Upton will probably be very glad to know…
The first Sophie Sayers Village Mystery, Best Murder in Show, is set in the summer months, at the time of the traditional village show, so it makes the perfect summer read. It’s now available to order Amazon in paperback or ebook here, or from your local neighbourhood bookshop by quoting ISBN 978-1911223139.
This week I’m sharing my love of passport-sized books
With the summer holidays upon us, in the northern hemisphere at least, my recommended reading for this weekend is something that you can easily fit in your pocket along with your passport: tiny books.
Why I Like Small Books
At first glance, that might seem as shallow as recommending, say, books with blue covers – but actually, it’s not as daft as all that, and here are some reasons why.
The content of any tiny book will have been very carefully selected, as so little space is available, so whether it’s a single short story, an essay or a small collection of poetry, it jolly well ought to be worth reading.
With the reading material effectively rationed, you tend to linger longer over every word, because your impulse is to spin it out and make it last. This makes it a highly suitable format for reading poetry and for thought-provoking essays.
They allow you to easily sample someone’s work before deciding whether you want to commit the time required to read a longer book.
They’re the ideal gift for someone in hospital, as they’re not tiring to hold and they’ll fit easily into the patient’s limited storage space.
They are relatively cheap – so you can buy them with a clear conscience!
Pick Up a Penguin
I always loved the Penguin 60s (tiny books retailing at 60p to celebrate the publisher’s sixtieth anniversary), then the Penguin 80s (ditto for 80p for their eightieth). The slightly larger Penguin Great Ideas series, retailing at £4.99, includes intriguing titles such as Books vs Cigarettes by George Orwell and Days of Reading by Marcel Proust. The latter provides an easy way to be able to say you’ve read Proust without ploughing through the six volumes of À la recherche du temps perdu.
But I’m especially pleased with my latest discovery: Souvenir Press‘s vintage collection of small hardbacks, about the same size as classic Beatrix Potter books (and who doesn’t love that format?), each one featuring a single, thoughtful poem, with understated monochrome linocut or scraperboard illustrations. The simple charm of these pictures has made me want to have a go at scraperboard art myself.
I picked up Agatha Christie‘s My Flower Garden a few weeks ago for a couple of quid at a rural market in mid-Wales, more out of curiosity than anything, as I didn’t know she wrote poetry and wondered what it would be like. I’ve since acquired another, Remembrance, online at a similar price. The series includes some of my favourite poems, including John Donne‘s No Man is an Island.
I feel an addiction coming on. But the good news is, it won’t take up much room in my already overflowing bookshelves…
What I’ll Be Reading This Weekend
Meanwhile, I’m off to read Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach – another very short read, which I’ll be discussing on Tuesday at noon on the BBC Radio Gloucestershire Book Club on Dominic Cotter’s lunchtime show. It was his turn to choose our Book of the Month this month, and neither fellow guest Caroline Sanderson nor I had ever read it before, and I can’t wait to compare notes with them. If you’d like to tune in to join us, here’s the link to Tuesday’s show: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p056q800 (also available on iplayer for a month afterwards).
Happy reading, whatever you choose!
PS Fancy reading one of my books this weekend?Best Murder in Show, a lighthearted modern mystery story, is the perfect summer read, set at the time of a traditional village show. Now available as an ebook for Kindle or in paperback – order from Amazon here or at your local neighbourhood bookshop quoting ISBN 978-1911223139.