Wednesday, 24 September 2014

The Vanishing Witch and meeting Karen Maitland

I really enjoy reading Karen Maitland's dark tales, in particular loved The Company of Liars and The Owl Killers. All her books have a unique narration from five different narrators in The Owl Killers to a mandrake in The Gallow's Curse. The Vanishing Witch is no different and is told from a all-seeing ghost and their pet ferret, with the odd chapter of first person narration from two key female characters.

The book starts with Maitland's usual list of players and a grim tale about a snake. We are then introduced to our narrator and Robert of Bassingham, a wealthy wool merchant in Lincoln. He is asked for help in investments by Mistress Caitlin who has been recently widowed and he soon becomes close to her and her enchanting teenage daughter Leonia must to the annoyance of his wife and son. Robert begins to see an eerie cloaked figure following him and there are some suspicious deaths and incidents throughout the town and surrounding villages, but who is to blame?

The Vanishing Witch is a mix of the supernatural, witchcraft, old wives tales and historical detail. Set during the unrestful reign of Richard II, the author explores how the poll tax affected the village folk and landowners and what caused ordinary people to rise up and rebel causing destruction and horrific deaths. Each chapter begins with a charm which can ward off evil. Some are amusing while others are terrifying. The author provides the reader with a timeline of events by splitting chapters up into months and introducing each chapter with either a location or the name of the narrator.

I did guess one of the twists early on, but there is a reveal on the last pages which I did not expect and Maitland's clever storytelling slowly builds up the climax. The action centres on the London riots during one part of the book as a couple of the characters get caught up in the destruction of John of Gaunt's palace. The book concludes with some historical notes and a glossary of terms which was very interesting and proves how well researched her books are.

I was fortunate to buy this book when Karen Maitland was visiting my local Waterstones store in Uxbridge and we had a lovely chat with her about her interests in old tales and the imposing English countryside. She joked about the dark themes she was interested in and how The Gallow's Curse was the first book to be narrated by a root vegetable! Thanks to the lovely staff at Waterstones for arranging this!

Friday, 5 September 2014

I Can't Begin To Tell You

I have read a lot of WWI and WWII books and this book really intrigued me as a woman's point of war in the spy network during WWII. The idea of the story is a great one, but I found the editing and style of writing really poor. The dialogue especially is really weak, with almost every sentence uttered by a character ending with an ellipsis or containing one. While researched well with the way codes worked when sending messages, the book came across as poorly researched with key conversations completely abandoned with sentences such as 'They discussed this further' or 'After more talking'. (These are not direct quotes by the way, just what I remember the writing being like).

I could not connect to any of the characters and the characters based in London Ruby and Mary are introduced so briefly and suddenly I kept thinking I had missed pages out. The beginning chapters begin with 'Day One' up to 'Day Three' but this is then abandoned and I found the concept of time hard to understand. A short line at the beginning of each chapter introducing the location, month and year would have been really useful as the storyline kept jumping around with no warning. However, I did read a proof copy so hopefully the final publication will be easier to read and better edited. The main part of the book is set in Denmark and the names of dogs, horses and even a spy - Thor, Odin, Sif and Loki -felt really lazy.

I really would not recommend this book - if you are looking for a story of women involved in underground resistance during WWI head for Citadel by Kate Mosse instead.

**SPOILERS** I also found the end so odd - with the whole family together when two of them are supposed to be undercover spies. The relationship between Tanne and Felix was not realistic at all and the way Felix trusted Kay and Tanne almost immediately did not ring true.

Thursday, 21 August 2014

The Joy Of Rejection by Jasper Gibson

I have recently read A Bright Moon For Fools, a dark comedy by Jasper Gibson which is perfect for fans of Hunter S. Thompson. It also reminded me of the recent box office hit The Grand Budapest Hotel with our hapless hero, an overweight alcoholic older gentleman called Harry Christmas on the run in Venezuela after committing a crime being chased across the country by a knife wielding maniac. The dark humour is interspersed with the odd flash of disturbing violence and Harry encounters some colourful characters as well as taking on some new guises. There is also some warmth as Harry reminisces about his dead wife and tries to atone for his bad ways. Harry is an articulate and gentlemanly conman with some amusing monologues on what irks him about modern life, or what he calls The Rot. You will end up feeling all sorts of emotions towards him during the course of the novel, but he is certainly a memorable character!

The author Jasper Gibson has very kindly written the feature below for my blog, which highlights the feelings of rejection when your pride and joy is not snapped up with publishers straight away...

The Joy of Rejection

Jasper Gibson

 It was only once I’d finished writing my first novel ‘A Bright Moon For Fools’ that I understood the ancient and mysterious bond between writing and sex: rejection.

Your first rejection, like your first love, is always the most painful. In my case it was doubly so because it wasn’t even from a publisher. It was from my agent.

Recently returned from Caracas, clutching my story about a man called Harry Christmas – part Ignatius P. Reilly, part Jim Royale, part Oliver Reed –crashing around rural Venezuela, unable to get over the death of his wife and getting into serious trouble, I was brimming with pride and excitement.

I’m back!’ I told the agent, ‘It’s taken me three years and now I’m done!’

‘Congratulations!’ he said. ‘Fantastic! Send it to me! Great!’

I never heard from him again.

For five months I left messages and sent emails. Finally I got through to an assistant. Let’s call him Henry. ‘Henry’ I said ‘I’m just calling to see if your boss has read my manuscript yet’ and he said ‘What was your name again?’ and then he said ‘What was the book called again?’ and then he let off a harrumph and sighed. Poor old Henry was having a rather tiresome day.

‘I think I have seen that around somewhere,’ he conceded. ‘Things have been so busy lately – probably the best thing is – why don’t you just send it in again?’

‘Henry,’ I replied ‘have you ever seen a man defecate in his own mouth? Because that’s what you’re going to be able to do once I’ve ripped your spine out! Now find my book and tell him to read it!’ Do you know what Henry said? Nothing. Because that’s not what I said to Henry.

What I said was ‘OK. Um. Right. OK…’ by which time Henry had already hung up the phone, and I was stuffing another manuscript into an jiffy bag so full of self-loathing it didn’t fit into the post box.

Eventually I got another agent and that’s when the real rejections began, the juicy ones, the ones that taste like acceptance for the first two thirds of the email before turning to ashes in your mouth with the word ‘Unfortunately…’.

But, as the saying goes, when one door closes, another one slams in your face.  You remain undeterred. In fact, you get used to rejections. Then you find you quite like them. You’ve absorbed the stories of your favourite writers who were rejected countless times before being published. ‘I knew it.’ you curse as yet another gloomy email arrives. ‘This proves it’s a great novel!’

Now you’ve been driven quite insane. You positively delight in the rejections. You are a veteran. Rejection letters are your war stories. When I finally received an email from Simon & Schuster saying they wanted to publish my book I threw myself back from my desk in horror ‘This is an outrage!’ I thundered. ‘How dare they?’

But that was it. Now revenge will surely be mine. Now I can haunt the aisles of Waterstones and WHSmith, waiting for someone to pick up a copy before I snatch it out of their hands and rubber stamp the word ‘rejected’ on their foreheads. ‘Your fundamental character isn’t likeable enough,’ I’ll say, carefully replacing the book on the shelf. ‘And you won’t appeal to teenagers. Now clear off!’

Thanks to Jasper for taking the time to write this. A Bright Moon For Fools it out now!

Sunday, 3 August 2014

We Are Called To Rise

We Are Called To Rise follows the lives of four residents of Las Vegas in 2008. Avis is a mother and wife, who has had an eventful childhood and has created a more stable adult life for herself, but at the age of 50 plus, everything starts unravelling once again starting with her husband leaving her for a younger woman. Luis is a soldier serving in Iraq coming to terms with the acts of war he has seen and taken part in. Roberta is a voluntary caseworker, giving recommendations of where children should live when their parents split or other heart-breaking situations. Bashkim is a bright eight year old boy of Albanian descent struggling with his American school life and traditional home life. Their seemingly separate and different lives collide in unexpected ways as a result of a series of tragic circumstances, with the author discovering how good people and kind acts counteract the brutality and tragic nature of life.

I loved this book. The author writes of catastrophic acts but never in a sentimental way. This book could easily have been a weepie, but instead she explores how bad things happen to everyone, but we all find the strength and human nature to deal with the impossible and how we should take pleasure in the smallest and simplest happiness in everyday life as well as responsibility for split second decisions which can change or ruin lives forever.

The main four characters are all likeable. Avis is a strong woman who tries to piece together the broken parts of her family including her disabled brother who she shared a troubled childhood with, her son who has returned from Iraq a different man and her daughter-in-law who is having problems in her marriage. She tries her best and gets on things rather than moping when things go wrong. Luis acknowledges his mistakes and tries to make himself a better man and amend his wrongs. He has great difficulty in this, but keeps trying with the support of his doctor and grandmother. Roberta takes the time to speak to everyone in a child’s life to work out the best place for them to live. She is selfless and wants to do as much good as she can but does not come across as worthy or self-righteous. And the most lovable character of the four is brave Bashkim. His story is one that is based on a true story and I felt for him so much, but again he does not wallow in self pity and is an intelligent and sensitive boy loved by his teachers and I was just willing for things to turn out ok for him.
We Are Called To Rise is not a book that I would usually read, but I am so glad I did. Although it is full of disastrous circumstances, it also manages to make you feel positive about life and how the smallest act of kindness or friendliness can make all the difference in daily life.

The King's Curse

The King’s Curse is the final book in Philippa Gregory’s amazing Cousin’s War series. I have really enjoyed all of the novels which gives accounts of the war between the Yorks and Lancasters from the integral women on both sides. It gives a fascinating point of view from each family and you end up rooting for different characters in each one.

The King’s Curse tells the story from the view of Margaret Pole who I have admired in all of the books so far. She had an eventful life born into an infamous and powerful family and was surrounded by tales of murder and deceit. Her mother Isabelle Neville (daughter of the Kingmaker Richard Neville) dies at an early age, her father George, Duke of Clarence was drowned in a barrel of red wine on his brother’s orders and her brother Edward was imprisoned as boy in the Tower of London by Henry VII and executed as young man. This book begins as Margaret is giving birth in the tower just after her brother’s death. Although she is devastated she has to remain part of the court of the current King who ordered the murder of her brother and the queen her beloved cousin Elizabeth  for her survival.

Margaret Pole had a fascinating life, living with the Prince of Wales Arthur and his young Spanish bride Katherine and telling the ultimate lie so that Katherine could still gain the throne once Arthur died by marrying his brother Henry. Margaret supported Katherine during her bleakest times and was given the task of running the household for Princess Mary. During Henry VIII’s reign she was in and out of favour several times and put herself and her beloved sons in real danger by staying a loyal supporter to Katherine and Mary once they were cast aside by Henry.

The King’s Curse is an epic read at over 600 pages long, but it keeps your attention with the combination of loyalty, deceit, scandal, murder and a large cast of historical figures who were all instrumental in changing England and its religion. I particularly enjoyed reading about Margaret’s relationships with Elizabeth, Katherine and Mary as well as her children. I did not realise how close to Henry VIII her sons were and the dangerous game they played in all covertly supporting Katherine. I also enjoyed reading about Bisham Priory and the long-gone Syon Abbey which are both near to where I live. And I always find the Tower of London a fascinating and terrifying place.

The end of the book packs a powerful punch and makes you think about how you would coped in Margaret’s position. I really admire her as a woman who stood up for what she believed in as well as surviving for so long in such dangerous times. This is a well-researched and grippingly written book, The Cousin’s War series has been Philippa Gregory’s best work and I look forward to seeing which period of history she will focus on next.

Friday, 1 August 2014

World War One Literature

I first discovered the power of World War I writing during the second year of my A Level in English Literature. As well as tests and coursework on William Blake, The Handmaid’s Tale and Othello, we had a whole year of reading WWI novels, letters and poetry in preparation for a three hour exam. I was not impressed and moaned in a Kevin the teenager voice ‘but war stories are for boooys!’ I just expected violence and depression about an era I knew little about. We started with reading and studying poetry together as a class beginning with Wilfred Owen’s Dulce Et Decorum Est. We had read this a few years previously and it was the first poem that had made me feel something. And this second time of studying it, really amplified my feelings towards it – shock, anger, revulsion and sadness. It is a powerful poem and one that really captures WWI for me. I really love Wilfred Owen’s poems, they are honest and articulate. He is quoted as saying ‘my subject is war and the pity of war. The poetry is in the pity. All a poet can do is warn’. His poetry shows how he was torn between his revulsion of war against his responsibility to his men. The fact that Owen died a week before the war ended makes his poems all the more poignant.

Wilfred Owen opened up to me a whole world of war-time poets, each with common themes, but varying tones and beliefs. Rupert Brooke died in 1915 before he was even able to fight in the war. His poems are full of patriotic idealism, which is made so apparent in his poem The Soldier – ‘If I should die, think only this of me; that there’s some corner of a foreign field that is forever England’. Issac Rosenberg volunteered to fight despite his views towards the war.
Siegfried Sasson is perhaps the most fascinating WWI poet. His work had a sarcastic, sardonic tone, making fun of the higher ranks. He wrote perhaps the most famous piece of writing during this time – A Soldier’s Declaration – and was promptly declared insane and sent to Craiglockheart Hospital along with shellshocked soliders where he met and became friends with Wilfred Owen. More on this later... It has been announced this week that Cambridge Digital Library will be publishing all of Sassoon’s diaries for the first time to be read online.

The war was the first time that working class men were writing down their feelings through letters, diaries, accounts, poems and even art, sketching their fellow soldiers and surroundings. These were to be either sent home if they survived the censors, to while away the time, or to make sure that they would not forget their comrades. It wasn’t just men who were writing poetry though. Lamplight by May Wedderburn Cannan,about her lover’s death in battle, is one of the most emotive pieces of writing you will ever read.

Apart from the odd extract from a book or letter, we were able to do the rest of the A Level assignment independently, reading as little or as much as we wanted. I started with perhaps the most famous WWI inspired novel of all, Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks. It tells the story of Stephen Wraysford, a young man fighting on the front, his affair with a French woman and years later his granddaughter researching his WWI experiences. I was blown away by the passion, claustrophobia and emotion of the novel and still remember it clearly and have regularly recommended to pretty much everyone!

I soon accumulated a pile of books from my local library and made my way through Strange Meeting, a story of friendship, death and a sense of belonging once the war is over by Susan Hill, All Quiet On The Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque, a German WWI veteran and the Regeneration series by Pat Barker – a brutal trilogy of books about soldiers suffering from shellshock at Craiglockhart Hospital including the friendship between Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, beginning with Sassoon’s famous declaration. The ‘treatments’ the patients endure such as electric shock treatment are horrific and the fact that nobody understood what they had been through in France was heartbreaking.

My love for WWI fiction has remained and I have read many books, plays, poems and

accounts since. Most recently I have enjoyed My Dear, I Wanted To Tell You by Louisa Young, which is ultimately a love story but also looks at how women’s lives changed at home and how they coped with this in different ways, plus the pioneering plastic surgery used on soldiers by with facial disfigurements. The author’s grandmother helped Dr Gilles at Sidcup Hospital, where she came across a photo of a young soldier with a terrible facial injury which inspired the book. I really recommend this book and you can read my full review here.

A couple of other books which look at women’s lives during the war are Wake by Anna Hope and Citadel by Kate Mosse. Wake revolves around the ceremony of the Unknown Soldier returning from France and three women who are each coming round to the aftershocks of WWI on their respective son, brother and lover. Their lives although seemingly separate are intertwined with tragedy. Citadel is a more brutal look at war in France about an underground cell of resistance fighters headed by brave young women. This is a shocking and violent read which builds to its climax from a light-hearted start. You can read my full review here.

I have most recently read The Lie by Helen Dunmore, which tells the story of a young soldier called Daniel who returns to Cornwall in 1920 to find his only family has died. He is unable to cope with normal life and tells a small lie which escalates towards a heart-wrenching conclusion. Helen Dunmore’s writing is stunning. My full review is here.

To commemorate the 100 year anniversary of WWI I am aiming to read Birdsong once again and also Parade’s End by For Maddox Ford which has been in my to read pile for a while! I will also be reading Sassoon’s dairies online and visiting the poppy display at the Tower of London.

Friday, 25 July 2014

Books About Town

A midweek day off and a sunny day in London provided me with the perfect opportunity to discover some of the Books About Town 'book benches'. Organised by the National Literacy Trust, the trails feature some big name authors and books along with local artists to produce beautiful designs which can be enjoyed by everyone over the summer. The benches are cleverly designed like an open book, with so much detail on each one.

Hercule Poirot and the Greenshore Folly

We began with the Bloomsbury trail with our first discoveries being James Bond stories and Hercule Poirot and the Greenshore Folly in a very busy Bloomsbury Square Gardens. Unfortunately both benches were in use so we were only able to get photos of the back of the benches. Next was Pride and Prejudice in Queen Square, where again the bench was in use by businessmen working on laptops. Our next visit was to the University of London - the Sherlock Holmes bench was in a square closed for a private party, the Importance of Being Earnest one was being repainted and 1984 had been removed for repair. A disappointing start with no decent photos, but undeterred we caught the train to St Paul's.

Pride and Prejudice
I love walking around this part of the City was so much history and impressive architecture. We headed to Postman's Park, a hidden gem which features beautiful plaques honouring the heroic bravery of people who have sacrificed themselves to save others. Here we had our first bench success - Brick Lane had no one sitting on it! In the shadows of St Paul's we discovered possibly my favourite bench of the day - Bridget Jones' Diary! There was so much detail with props from the book included - a Christmas jumper, necklace and bunny ears to name a few. It did make me laugh! We also got some great photos of the Mary Poppins, Peter Pan and Where's My Meerkat benches with the Cathedral behind. The formal backgrounds must have an effect on everyone in the area as the benches had full respect with no one sitting on them.

Bridge Jones' Diary

Peter Pan
 We were starting to wilt in the summer heat, so we finished off by crossing the river to The Globe where we found a Shakespeare in London bench and then a brisk walk along the Thames to London Bridge to the Great Expectations and Paddington Bear benches - one had someone asleep on it(!) and the other a man working on his laptop ignoring tourists trying to get photos. We will finish the Riverside trail on another day as we had a theatre show to get to (The Woman in Black), but I'm looking forward to discovering the benches for Warhorse, Julia Donaldson and Discworld!

That's Not My Meerkat
I think this these trails are a great idea, although sometimes it can be frustrating taking the time to walk to a site and not being able to take photos as it is being blocked by people sitting (or sleeping!) on them. I would maybe recommend doing it on a rainy day so that you can almost guarantee seeing all of the artwork on each one. Trails like this one also give you the chance to discover parts of London you may have not have visited before. I came across the famous Borough Market and saw the remains of Winchester Palace while on the Riverside Trail. There are lots of events coming up at some of the benches including flashmobs such as 50 Sherlocks or Poirots all appearing in one spot, book giveaways and talks, so take a look at the Books About Town website. You can also see all of the benches there if you are unable to make it to London and event place a bid in the auctions for each bench.

For more information see

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Santa Montefiore Event

I was thrilled to hear that the lovely staff at my local Waterstones in Uxbridge had booked an evening with bestselling author Santa Montefiore. I immediately booked tickets for myself and my mum who has read a few of her books to attend – just £2 each with a Waterstones card! The event also gave me an incentive to read the beautifully titled House By The Sea which has been on my ‘to read’ shelf for a while! I really enjoyed Santa’s warm writing style which links together a passionate romance in 1960s Italy with a contemporary family struggling to keep their hotel business alive in present day Devon. There is beautiful scenery described in both locations and along with likable characters and a genuine mystery in how these two stories are intertwined, this book is a perfect summer read.

Santa was appearing at Waterstones Uxbridge on the publication day of her new novel The Beekeeper’s Daughter, which tells the story of a young girl growing up in the shadows of a large estate in 1930’s Dorset and a teenager’s relationship with an aspiring rock star in Nantucket during the 1960’s. Again these stories have a mysterious link and scenic settings and I particularly enjoyed reading about the age-old task of beekeeping.

I spent a really lovely evening at Waterstones, chatting to fans of the author about her work and other book recommendations over a glass of wine and Santa was a brilliant speaker, full of energy, enthusiasm, impressions and amusing stories. She was happy to lead an informal chat about The Beekeeper’s  Daughter and the process she has while writing a novel  and welcomed questions and conversation from her audience throughout. I left wanting to read all of her backlist (my mum purchased two more of her books while at the store!) and with an enthusiasm to give writing a try again after listening to all of Santa’s advice and the love for her work.

Once the official event was over, we were all able to spend some private time with Santa to get our books signed and to talk about the books without giving any spoilers away to others who may not have read them. She told me about her inspiration for Baffles in The House By The Sea and Rufus in The Beekeeper’s Daughter who I admitted to having a bit of a crush on! She was interested to hear what I thought of the book as I had received an advance copy and had stayed up late the night before finishing it!  It was just like chatting to a friend as Santa has a natural warmness and interest in people which really comes across in her books. I am really looking forward to her next novels which are going to be a trilogy based around the Irish War of Independence.

Waterstones Uxbridge have some more author events coming up soon, so if you are local, keep an eye on their twitter feed @waterstonesuxbr or pick up a leaflet in store.

Friday, 11 July 2014

Under The Greenwood Tree

I purchased this book at Thomas Hardy's Cottage in Dorset, which was the inspiration and  location for Tranter Dewey's cottage. I love Thomas Hardy's work, in particular his descriptions and understanding the countryside around him. The man at the cottage kiosk where I bought this book from said it was Hardy's most optimistic piece of work and he's not wrong.

The novel begins with the news that the church choir made up of musicians from the village is to be replaced by a spanking new organ. This causes unrest from the colourful villagers. The main part of the novel though is almost like a romantic comedy as young Dick Dewey falls for a flirty teacher called Fancy Day (surely one of the best literary names ever?!) Dick is not the only one after Fancy though and a humorous relationship plays out between them - as well as a couple of Fancy's other suitors!

Under The Greenwood Tree is a light-hearted look at village life and romance which fans of Stella Gibbons will love. Hurrah a Hardy novel that does not make you feel depressed!

The Lie

WWI literature is a huge interest of mine and after reading the eerie and sad The Greatcoat by Helen Dunmore I was really looking forward to reading her latest novel, The Lie.

It tells the story of Daniel, a young man who has returned from fighting in France and is taken in by a reclusive elderly lady called Mary Pascoe. He is traumatised by the events of the war, in particular the death of his childhood best friend Frederick who he blames himself for. When Mary falls ill, he promises her that he will follow her wishes that she dies peacefully at home and is buried on her own land not in the graveyard. When she does pass away, he is so in shock with his life, that he begins the lie to the villagers that she is still alive...

The Lie is a very atmospheric novel set in rural Cornwall which is full of foreboding images. There is a similarity with The Greatcoat in the idea of lost dead souls being unsettled and visiting those still alive, with Frederick being at the foot of Daniel's bed each evening. There are flashbacks to Daniel's childhood spent with Frederick and his sister Felicia, who makes her way back into Daniel's life as a widowed young woman with a baby. Felicia and her child slowly give some purpose to Daniel' life as he comes to terms with what he has been through but his lies are difficult to erase.

Helen Dunmore has a very poetic style of writing, with the odd moment of unsparing brutality which is very effective. While The Lie covers the usual WWI material of guilt and lost youth and innocence, this is unlike any other WWI novel I have read before. It is obvious that the author has a real passion on this subject and I hope that she writes more. This is a heart-wrenching, poignant but beautiful book which has elements of hope and normality before the inevitable conclusion to Daniel's lie.

Literary Dorset

Last week I spent a few days in a beautiful area of Dorset called Osmington. We were very lucky with beautiful weather to enjoy the stunning view, good food and local drinks. While we were there I just had to make a couple of visits to locations with very strong literary history...

The first trip was to the very pretty village of Corfe which is overlooked by the dramatic ruins of Corfe Castle, which was built by William the Conqueror. It was used by monarchs for the next six hundred years until it was sold by Elizabeth I to Sir Christopher Hatton. There is so much history in these walls and it is great fun to explore take in the atmosphere.

Corfe Castle
As well as my interest in history, I was also fascinated to learn that Enid Blyton was a regular visitor to this part of Dorset and Corfe Castle was her inspiration for the famous Kirrin Castle in her Famous Five books. To celebrate this, there is a fun shop in the village called the Ginger Pop Shop which stocks hundreds of editions of Enid Blyton titles and souvenirs as well as vintage gifts. I purchased two books, a 1990 edition of The Mystery of the Disappearing Cat and a 1965 edition of Brer Rabbit's A Rascal.

The Ginger Pop Shop in Corfe
Corfe is really worth a visit. You can even arrive by steam train on the Swanage Railway! There is lots to do as well as the castle from a Model Village which shows how the castle would have looked in the past, a nature walk with stunning views of the castle and many tearooms and pubs serving excellent food. Plus you can grab lashings of ginger beer from the Ginger Pop Shop!

My purchases from The Ginger Pop Shop

Our next visit was to Thomas Hardy's Cottage in the outskirts of Dorchester, which was his birthplace and childhood home. I am a big fan of Hardy's work in particular Tess of the d'Urbervilles which is one of my favourite novels! I would recommend using a satnav or printing off the directions from the National Trust website as it is rather hidden away with little signage on the roads, but it makes it even more interesting, discovering a cottage in the middle of the countryside. From the car park, it is either a 10 minute bridle walk or a 15 minute woodland walk to the house. We opted for the woodland walk which is a little steep, but so quiet and peaceful with just the sounds of birds singing. It really evoked the memory of Tess walking through the countryside to her next job!

The woodland walk to Hardy's Cottage

First glimpse of Hardy's Cottage!

There is a small kiosk selling tickets which also sells a range of Hardy books and DVDs. I bought a copy of Under The Greenwood Tree which was based at this cottage and described as Tranter Dewey's house. It is even stamped with the Thomas Hardy cottage mark once you buy it! The cottage garden is lovely, full of beautiful plants. There is a wheelbarrow in front of the house full of cuttings from the garden which you take away with you. I bought a pink lobelia which I have named Fancy Day after the flirty character in Under The Greenwood Tree!

The first room you enter is the cosy parlour, with a real fire where the Hardy family would have cooked, eaten and entertained. This room is the location for the dance party in Under The Greenwood Tree.

The parlour

Next is the office where the men of the family would go through the house accounts. There are some documents in view here and a bookcase full of editions of Hardy's work. Then it's up some steep stairs to the three bedrooms. First is the room that would have been shared by Hardy's two sisters who were both teachers. In the middle of the first floor is Hardy's parents' room which has a double bed and a cradle. Eerily in the cradle is a snake which recalls the story of Hardy's mother finding him asleep in the cradle as an infant with a snake across his body. In Greek mythology this was a symbol of wisdom. Lastly is the room of Hardy himself, with poem he wrote by hand at the age of 16 displayed on the wall.

Thomas Hardy's childhood bedroom

Back down some steep almost ladder down stairs is the kitchen which overlooks the pretty garden. After a wander around the house, we sat outside in the tranquil surroundings and I began to read my new book before the walk back to the car.

Reading Under The Greenwood Tree
There is a new visitor centre and cafĂ© being built in the car park now, which is due to open in September 2014 which will be a welcome addition after a walk on a hot day, but I hope the site does not change too much as at the moment it is like walking back in time and its lovely to be able to spend a day in Hardy's rural Dorset.   

Thomas Hardy's Cottage

Corfe Castle

Village of Corfe Castle

Ginger Pop Shop

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

'Girl's Night Out' at Ickenham Festival

The authors on stage
Ickenham Library hosted a very exciting event at the Compass Theatre last night (Mon 9 June) as part of Ickenham Festival Week. Their 'Girl's Night Out' featured four fantastic female novelists in conversation and also the chance for audience questions and a meet and greet.

The four novelists were Lisa Jewell, Jenny Colgan, Rowan Coleman and Alex Marwood who appeared in front of a sold out auditorium. The evening began with each author reading an excerpt from one of their own novels and continued onto a discussion from everything from favourite cocktails to what they would include on the curriculum reading list following on from Michael Gove's controversial omission of American novels.

Lisa Jewell began the evening with an exclusive reading from her new novel The Third Wife which is due out in July. She explained how she has been attempting to write a psychological thriller, but keeps failing ending up with riveting family dramas instead. I really enjoy her novels so it was fascinating to hear about how they do not always end up as how she envisaged them.

Next up was Rowan Coleman who read from her latest novel The Memory Book about a woman who develops Alzheimer's Disease and has a 'memory book' created for her by her family. Rowan read a lovely part of the book from the point of view of the woman's daughter remembering a situation when her eccentric mum made her feel better about school at the age of 12.

Jenny Colgan read from The Loveliest Chocolate Shop In Paris when Anna first arrives in the French capital. She also spoke of her own experiences of living in France and the differences in writing this fiction as well as Doctor Who stories (under the name T.J Colgan).

Ending the readings was a very sinister excerpt from Alex Marwood's The Killer Next Door which is out later this month. It was really unsettling, no wonder Stephen King has described it as 'creepy as hell'! Alex also spoke about why she thinks Crime Fiction is the most popular of fiction genres.

This was a really interesting evening and I particularly enjoyed the discussions at the end regarding curriculum, agreeing with Alex Marwood's choice of WWI poetry. There was also a bit of a debate on whether fiction should be relatable for teenagers. Jenny Colgan definitely thought not! Good questions from the audience included why authors write under different names and what they though of the e-book vs paper copy debate. All of the authors apart from Lisa Jewell write under two names to differentiate between the two genres they write so that the reader knows which kind of book to expect. They also explained how a new name can mean a clean slate for a novelist. While they all accepted the rise of the e-book, they explained how these sales do not translate to bestseller lists - so keep buying paper copies is what I say!

The evening concluded with a chance to meet the authors in the foyer and have books signed which was a lovely experience. All four of the ladies were really welcoming and chatty and took the time to speak to each audience member individually and write a personal message (and maybe even a doodle!) The ticket price also included a book from one of the authors, so it was a great value night out too! It was great to have an event like this locally in Hillingdon without having to travel into London and I hope Hillingdon Libraries plan plenty more of these events!

Thursday, 24 April 2014

World Book Night in London

Books ready to hand out!
For the first time in World Book Night's history, my day off fell on the actual day, so I was able to discover some celebrations across London. I was lucky enough to be selected as a World Book Night giver, so I set off with a rucksack full of my chosen title, After The Funeral by Agatha Christie, to hand out to unsuspecting strangers across the capital. I should at this point say a big thank you to Jon for lugging the books around the city for me!

I was aiming to hand out my books at some famous Christie landmarks in the capital. Fist stop was the Agatha Christie statue just off Leicester Square. Unfortunately this did not seem to be a good choice. A street team from LA Fitness had set-up camp right next to the statue, blasting out loud music and harassing all passers-by to sign-up to their gym. It also became clear, that most passers by were tourists with little English, so we soon decided to move on elsewhere.

At the Agatha Christie statue
While in the area, I just had to make a visit to one of my favourite London spots - the huge Waterstones in Piccadilly. I could spend hours browsing in there (and quite often do!) If I could have a supermarket sweep style moment in any store it would be this one. With so many beautiful books, stationery and unique, quirky gifts, I could spend an absolute fortune in there! Plus, there was a brilliantly quirky window display telling the story of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory completely with biscuits!

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory - in biscuits!

After a quick lunch spot and a google, we found out about a Harry Potter alliance holding an event at Paddington Station so headed there on the Bakerloo line. This also fitted in with my Christie themed day as one of my favourite Marple stories is 4.50 from Paddington. We soon came across the London based group called London Loveiosa (@londonloveiosa on Twitter) and we swapped books. I picked a free World Book Night copy of The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas and The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier and John Williams' Stoner in exchange for a charity donation. If you love Harry Potter get in touch with them to find out how to get involved and raise money for charity with their events.

After the hustle and bustle of Paddington, we decided to get some fresh air and walked up to Kensington Gardens, where we handed out most of the books. The happiest people we met and gave books to were a young lady working on one the kiosks, an elderly gentleman walking his dogs and a lovely couple who were visiting London for the day from Bedfordshire. We spent a long while admiring the Peter Pan statue and talking books and stately homes with them. We event gave copies of the murder mystery to two policeman, who seemed very amused and interested in the story! 
Peter Pan statue in Kensington Gardens

We decided to walk from Kensington to the World Book Night hub of the Southbank via Green Park, Buckingham Palace and Westminster, taking in all the iconic London sights. Once at the Southbank, we browsed the book fair (another one of my favourite London places) and Foyles. It was then time for the World Book Night flagship event Letters Live!

Southbank book fair

Letters Live is based on the hugely popular Letters of Note twitter feed and books. It aims to rediscover the lost art of letter writing and how important this method of communication has been over the years by sharing letters from historical figures, celebrities and ordinary everyday people. This event saw authors, musicians and stars of the stage and screen reading a wide variety of letters. My favourites were a bizarre letter from Elvis Presley to Richard Nixon requesting to be a federal agent, a touching letter from Iggy Pop to a depressed fan, an amusing letter from Bette Davis to her daughter pretty much putting her in her place, a sweet letter from a young child to Abraham Lincoln suggesting that he grow some 'whiskers' to be President and a letter from Queen Elizabeth II to President Eisenhowar with a  recipe for some scones. There were also a series of letters between two wartime sweethearts, who fell in love during their correspondence to each other. Guest readers included Matt Berry, Caitlin Moran (who also read a very self-indulgent beyond the grave letter to her daughter), David Nicholls, Kerry Fox and two surprises in Stephen Fry and Russell Brand who was hilarious in reading a letter from Mick Jagger to Andy Warhol.

At the Letters Live event

It was a really fun evening celebrating the written word and what can be accomplished from it. I really do have the urge to write some letters myself now, something which I have not done for years in the age of email and social media.

So, all in all a pretty successful World Book Night! I'm already looking forward to next years!

To find out about becoming a World Book Night Giver next year and helping to vote on the titles given away visit

Monday, 21 April 2014

World Book Night and Agatha Christie

April 23rd. A significant day of the year for me and thousands of others. St George's Day, Shakespeare's birth(and death)day and World Book Night. I love the idea of World Book Night, an annual event run by The Reading Agency when volunteers across the country hand out free copies of their favourite books to those who do not usually spend their time reading. I took part two years ago, when I handed out 20 copies of my favourite all-time book Pride and Prejudice and really enjoyed being able to share a classic novel, which although non-readers may have seen the film or television adaptations, they were now able to discover Jane Austen's wit first-hand and more importantly free of charge.

This year, I selected Agatha Christie's After The Funeral from the short-list of 20 books. I have only been a Christie fan for about a year, but I love her style of writing and the clever and sometimes shocking murder cases she has created and I am hoping to once again encourage those who may have watched the Marple or Poirot cases on television to read Christie's original work.

I had only watched a few of the ITV adaptations myself before I visited Agatha Christie's holiday home Greenway while on holiday in Devon last year. The beautiful house and spending time reading about Christie's life and character encouraged me to buy a couple of her most famous stories. The first one I read was And Then There Was None. It was so atmospheric to be reading the book near the island which she based the mystery on and I was immediately hooked on the story of ten strangers all invited to a mysterious island where they are soon stranded and must face their previous sins. One by one, each character is killed off and the end provides a shocking twist as well as making you realise the vital clues you picked up on but misinterpreted. I had to go straight back to the beginning to read again now that I knew the conclusion and it was still a stunning and terrifying piece of work. 

I have read several Christie stories since and they always amaze me. How did a young lady from Devon think of so many twisted stories, hundreds of eccentric characters, scores of ways of murdering people and thousands of red herrings? All Christie novels begin with a cast of colourful characters being introduced one by one. I always think that I will never learn who's who, but I always do and can see each character in my head so vividly. Christie mysteries conjure up the weird mixed feelings of a cosy setting with scenic English countrysides alongside the shock and horror of murder and the dark side of human nature.

I have become fascinated with Agatha Christie's life over the past 12 months, from the child with an overactive imagination, to the woman who wrote novels like a machine in order to pay for the life that she wanted. With an obvious interest in the medicines and poisons, she even volunteered as a Pharmacy Dispenser at London's University College during the second world war. There was even her own personal mystery as her car was found abandoned and a nationwide search began. Staff at a Harrogate Hotel recognised her after she had checked in with a false name and it is claimed that Christie had been concussed and was suffering from amnesia, not even recognising her own husband. She never spoke of this time of her life with the press or her friends or family.

And so to After The Funeral, the book I am giving away 18 copies of for World Book Night. It is a fantastic story of a dysfunctional family in turmoil. The patriarch of the family has passed away and at the reading of the will, his 'silly' sister Cora is heard to say 'It's all been hushed up very nicely, hasn't it...But he was murdered wasn't he?' The next day Cora is fund dead after being savagely struck with a hatchet and Hercule Poirot is hired by the family solicitor to unravel the mystery. Full of brilliant characters, plenty of clues and a jaw-dropping revelation, After The Funeral is one of Christie's very best works.

The World Book Night edition of the book features an introduction from Sophie Hannah who has been commissioned to write a new Poirot mystery which is out later this year. There is also an excerpt from Overture To Death by Ngaio Marsh, which was a favourite book of Agatha Christie's and a poem by the winner of the Foyle Young Poet Of The Year Award.

I really hope that everyone who receives this book will take the time to read it and discover Christie's art of a good old murder mystery. And maybe it will ignite a love of reading, or the urge to read more Christie novels in one or two. Thank you to everyone involved with World Book night in giving book lovers the chance to share stories with friends, colleagues and even strangers. is a brilliant website all about the author and her work. There is so much to read, it really is worth a visit.

You can read more about my visit to Greenway on my blog post here

You can find out more about World Book Night, events on the day and the other 19 titles being given out here You can even apply to be a Community Giver, by passing on copies of your own books to non-readers

Follow @WorldBookNight on Twitter and keep up to date with #worldbooknight or #WBN14 on the day

I will be sharing my favourite Agatha Christie quotes on my twitter feed @HillingdonBooks throughout the day and I would love to hear from other book givers!

Sunday, 6 April 2014

A Dynamite Book Launch

During the week I was very lucky to be invited to the book launch of the year! Debut author Jason Hewitt used his theatre background to create a unique event to celebrate the publication of The Dynamite Room in the eerie location of The Vaults in Waterloo.

The Vaults are a multi-disciplinary arts space located in the underground of Waterloo station. With dark tunnels to explore (one even has water dripping on your head!) and the rumble of trains overhead, it is a beautiful and atmospheric space. The walk there alone is a unique one, as we strolled through a graffitied tunnel to enter the 1940s world created by Jason. I spent the whole evening feeling as if I was in a film! There was even a programme which added to the feeling of a theatricals event!

The entrance to the venue

Many of the quests had taken the effort to arrive with hair styles and clothes inspired by the era and I was thrilled to meet another debut author, the very lovely Sophia Tobin in the queue! (I had just finished reading her novel The Silversmith's Wife, which added to my surreal evening!)

Once we were in The Vaults, we were free to wander around the dark tunnels and stop to watch scenes of the book re-enacted. The actors were fabulous and the tense and claustrophobic feeling of the book was recreated perfectly. In particular, the scene in the a concrete store in Norway in the 'long wet tunnel' was suitably edgy. We kept going back to this scene to see how it had progressed.

The Long Wet Tunnel
A toy lamb with wearing a gas mask reminds us of Lydia
 The use of the space was used in a really clever way, with one of the scenes taking place below us as we walked along a metal grilled walkway looking down on the action right beneath our feet. I wish I could have stayed longer to look, but it made me feel a bit dizzy as the whole floor was pretty much see through and I had to make a hasty exit.

The main party area was adorned with bunting and furnished with vintage leather sofas and street lights. We were treated to live music from The Stringbeans Quartet and singing trio The Scarlet Starlets who really got us In The Mood (sorry!) There were even SPAM sandwiches! It was just a shame that we could not hear readings from actor Will Thorp as it was just too noisy with the joviality of the guests.

The main party area

This was a fantastic evening and really showcased how immersive theatre can be very effective when in the right location. The morning after it was announced that The Dynamite Room has been longlisted for the Desmond Elliott award and I am sure that this novel will enjoy much success over the next twelve months.

You can read my review of The Dynamite Room here as well as my Q and A with Jason Hewitt here

Find out more information about The Vaults here

A huge thank you to Jason and Simon and Schuster for inviting me to this event!   

The programme

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Meringue Girls

The book
I first discovered the Meringue Girls at the Cake and Bake Show at Earls Court in September 2013. I fell in love with their gorgeous stand and beautifully coloured meringue kisses and immediately bought a box of each of their flavours. Ranging from traditional Chocolate and Vanilla, to the more unusual Gin and Tonic and Strawberry and Black Pepper flavours, the Meringue Girls experience is both pretty and yummy.

Fast forward to Christmas and my Mum bought me their first book which is full of stunning photos and unique recipes and flavour combinations. From the simple but effective meringue kisses and lemon meringue pie to more complicated desserts and centre pieces, there are so many recipes that I can't wait to try. The book is split into seasonal dishes so it ranges from refreshing pomegranate and mint meringue traybake to a cosy grilled peaches and Amaretto meringue dessert.

Display at the Cake and Bake Show
First attempt at meringue kisses!
I thought I would start simple with the meringue kisses and chose cinnamon as my flavour. The mixture was easy to make up and made a lovely smooth meringue. Although I love baking, piping is not my bag (excuse the pun!), so I did find it tricky to get the hang of piping my desired shapes, but I got there in the end. I did also find it extremely messy while I got into the flow of filling the bag and piping, but this gets much easier with experience and the second time I made them, there was hardly any mess at all!

There are some great tips in the book, which if you follow them, all will go well. Just make sure that your oven temperature is low enough and that you have plenty of time, as they do take a while to construct and then bake. You can't rush the process at all!

I have so many baking books and often use them for inspiration for my own bakes, so my last meringue make used several ideas from the Meringue Girls book. I made a cheesy Valentine's Day dessert, piping heart shapes with my rose infused meringue mixture and  painted red food colouring stripes in the piping bag for the colour effect. To complete the dessert I flavoured some whipped cream with icing sugar and garnished with fresh strawberries and mint sugar. Sadly they only lasted for a few moments in my house before they were all devoured. I love making themed bakes and can't wait to try the Easter egg meringues from the book.

My rose infused meringue hearts

The dessert presentation
While the book is brilliant, I have found that there are a couple of instructions missing from the recipes occasionally. They are often quite obvious, but it would be good to have them written there for reassurance and would be helpful for novice bakers. I would also recommend watching the video below if you are making the kisses, as it explains the food colouring process a lot better than the book.

Overall I love this book, it is colourful and brightens up my kitchen and even if I don't have the time to bake, reading through this book for just a few minutes is a relaxing experience.
I also love the fact that there is a section on ideas to use up the remaining egg yolks. I hate throwing food away, so I have started to make my own lemon curd which is delicious. I either use it for flavouring cupcakes, as a filing for a lemon drizzle cake or enjoy it on toast or scones.

Find out more information on the Meringue Girls here and be sure to try some of their delicious meringue kisses which are available from Selfridges.

Cake and Bake Show display