Wednesday, 29 January 2014

In Pursuit by R E Kemp

Frank’s dying wish is to be spared from his carer. Ritchie looks for love online. 
Their stories bookend In Pursuit’s ten tales of growing old, growing up and growing young. A gripping and absorbing narrative of life, sex and love. 
Frank wants to die alone, but Jean has other ideas. Mike prefers the good old days when gay men really had something to fight about. At fifty-five, Jackie’s pretty pleased he can still bed a nineteen-year-old. John places an ad in The Farmer’s Journal looking for a male companion. Cathal’s relationship is threatened when his celebrity lover confesses all to a newspaper. Conor admits to his dying father he is gay, only for his father’s condition to stabilise. Ciarán hits rock bottom, until he sees John’s ad in The Farmer’s Journal. Scott’s on a high when he meets Ben, all he needs to do is tell his girlfriend. Traveller Ritchie realises he can be out and proud online – any other alternative is fatal. 
In Pursuit is a progressive journey built around the universal emotions of love, friendship and the pursuit of happiness and how this can shift over time for us all.

I don't read a great deal of short stories as I generally feel a little let down by them, sometimes they can feel a little rushed and unfinished.  However, when Rebecca Kemp, the author of In Pursuit contacted me to ask if I'd be interested in reading her collection of stories, I was intrigued enough by the description to say yes.    I'm really pleased that I did.   I have enjoyed this collection immensely.  Unlike the majority of short story collections that I've read before, I wasn't let down by any of them.  In Pursuit contains stories that are touching, believable and very well written.

Each story is set in modern-day Ireland and features a gay man, starting with Frankie aged 75 in the first tale and ending with Ritchie aged 19 in the very last.  The reader is taken on a journey across the country, from farms to cities, and with men from different generations.  On the surface these men are all very different, but underneath, each one of them is dealing with their own difficult personal issue - the one thing that joins them - their hidden sexuality.

These stories are gritty and down to earth, they are explicit in places but they are also heartfelt and the author writes with compassion and understanding.  The overwhelming feeling that emanates through each of these stories is that of fear and hidden pleasures and denial.

I was extremely impressed by this collection and am not surprised that In Pursuit was Winner 2013 Kerry's Eye Short Story Competition and has been longlisted for other prizes too.

Rebecca Kemp is an author to watch out for.   I must thank her for contacting me and giving me the opportunity to read and enjoy this fabulous collection.

In Pursuit was published independently in June 2013.  For more information about the author and her work, visit her website www.rebeccakemp.com   You can also find her on Facebook and on Twitter @REKemp1

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

The Movement of Stars by Amy Brill **Guest Review**

It is 1845, and Hannah Gardner Price dreams of a world infinitely larger than the small Quaker community where she has lived all 25 years of her life - for, as an amateur astronomer, she secretly hopes to discover a comet and win the King of Denmark's prize for doing so. 
But she can only indulge her passion for astronomy as long as the men in her life - her father, brother and family friends - are prepared to support it, and so she treads a fine line between pursuing her dreams and submitting to the wishes and expectations of those around her. That line is crossed when Hannah meets Isaac Martin, a young black whaler from the Azores.
Isaac, like Hannah herself, has ambitions beyond his station. Drawn to him despite their differences, Hannah agrees to tutor him in the art of navigation. As their shared passion for the stars develops into something deeper, however, Hannah's standing in the community is called into question, and she has to choose: her dreams or her heart. 
Loosely inspired by the work of Maria Mitchell, the first American woman to become a professional astronomer, The Movement of Stars is, at its heart, a glorious - and unusual - love story. With shades of Chocolat and Remarkable Creatures, it will appeal to fans of Tracy Chevalier and Joanne Harris.

Angi & I
I'm as pleased as punch to introduce you to my friend Angi who is the guest reviewer here today on Random Things.   I've known Angi for around 6 years now, we met online through our love of books and have met in person many times over the past few years.  Angi is an Associate Lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan
University and also writes herself.  Angi is on Twitter @josephsyard


The Movement of Stars was published by Penguin in May 2013 and is Amy Brill's first novel.  Here is Angi's review:

It is 1845, and twenty-five year old Hannah Gardner Price lives with her widowed father in the Quaker community of Nantucket, a small island off the Massachusetts coast. She is clever, a free-thinking academic who seems out of place amongst the other girls at the meeting house, who dream of nothing more than marriage and babies and are committed to the faith. Her adored twin brother, the only person she really relates to, has left the island on a whaling vessel in defiance of their father’s ambitions for him. But despite her loneliness, Hannah is reasonably content. She has a post at the library and in the evenings she keeps accounts for the family farm and recalibrates chronometers for the boats which dock in the harbour. 
          Star-watching is her undoubted passion. Night after night, she charts their movements across the sky, always searching for that elusive ‘wanderer’, the comet that – should she be first to record it – will bear her name and perhaps win her the prestigious King of Denmark’s Prize. 
          When a young black whaler approaches her for navigation lessons, she is forced to reassess her way of life. Like Hannah, Isaac Martin has ideas ‘above his station’. The Quakers were at the forefront of the abolition of slavery, but still the opportunities for black workers are woefully limited. Despite these expectations, Isaac dreams of one day skippering a whaling ship. As they work together, exploring the night sky, Hannah and Isaac challenge one another’s values. Gradually they fall in love. 
          This is a fascinating story. Hannah is an engaging character – awkward and somewhat lacking in social graces, yet self-aware, reflective and always interesting. Amy Brill’s descriptions of the Nantucket community are brilliantly evocative, from the distinctiveness of their language and customs to the minutiae of their dress and homes. The Great Fire is rich with detail: the stench of fear and burning buildings. 
          I loved this novel. Even in the first week of January, I know it will be one of my top reads of 2014. It might even be the best debut novel I read this year. Which brings me to my one concern. The Movement of Stars is loosely based on the story of Maria Mitchell, a Nantucket Quaker who became renowned as the ‘lady astronomer’. Clearly the author has done her research, both into the stargazing and cultural aspects of her novel. Over a decade’s worth of research, in fact. I don’t want to wait another decade for her second novel, but I want it to be as good. Is that possible?
I'd like to say a huge thanks to Angi for that wonderful review. She has certainly made The Movement of Stars sound like a very tempting read. Angi mentioned that there are quite a few spoilers in the reviews left on Amazon for The Movement of Stars - maybe best avoided before people read the book!




Amy Brill is a writer and producer who has worked for PBS and MTV and has been awarded fellowships by the Edward F Albee Foundation, the Millav Colony, and the American Antiquarian Society, among others.  This is her first novel.  She lives in Brooklyn.


For more information about the author and her work, visit her website www.amybrill.com.   Follow her on Facebook and on Twitter @amy_brill


Friday, 24 January 2014

Boxer Handsome by Anna Whitwham

Bold, ballsy and blood-spattered: a fierce debut about boxer boys in the East End of London, from a major new talent 
Boxing runs in Bobby's blood. His Irish dad was a boxer. So was his Jewish grandfather. Yanked up by their collars at Clapton Bow Boys Club, taught how to box and stay out of trouble. 
So Bobby knows he shouldn't be messing in street brawls a week before his big fight with Connor 'the Gypsy Boy', an Irish traveller from around the way. They're fighting over Theresa: a traveller girl with Connor's name all over her. But Bobby's handsome, like his dad; boxer handsome. 
Set against the backdrop of contemporary East-End London, Boxer Handsome is an unsung hymn to tribal boxing history and to an angry and austere Britain, a community up against itself, 'all fighting a corner; all fighting for space. All up for a fight.' 
For Bobby, the ring is everywhere and he can't afford to lose.

Boxer Handsome was published by Chatto & Windus on 16 January 2014 and is Anna Whitwham's debut novel.

The story opens violently with a fight scene that is so descriptive that it will make you wince.  Bobby and Connor are fighting over a girl; Theresa, a traveller girl who totters on her high heels from lad to lad.

Bobby is rough, he's violent, crass and doesn't really play by the rules.  Bobby is also very good looking - he's Boxer Handsome.

Bobby and Connor are due to fight each other in the ring, but they come to blows on the riverbank just a week before fight day.  This is a brutal, no-holds barred fight - bare-knuckles and blood and although this is about who 'owns' Theresa - the history between Bobby and Connor goes way back.   Their families have always been connected, by boxing and by family relationship.  The lads grew up together and Bobby's father Joe was a great boxer in his day, hard to believe when looking at the broken man destroyed by years of alchohol abuse that Joe is today.

When Bobby meets Chloe, just after the riverbank fight, he is fascinated by this girl who is so different from Theresa and the other girls he grew up with.  Taking Chloe out on a first date, only kissing her, not expecting the rough sex that he gets with Theresa, Bobby sees a possibility, a different way of life.  Sadly, and shockingly Bobby can't deal with this relationship at all - the strength of the violence within him leads to another brutal and bloody chapter in his life.

Anna Whitwham based her story on the life of her grandfather who fought at the Crown and Manor Boys Club in the east end of London in the 1920s.    There is an overwhelming sense of brooding, dirt and passion within this story - the violence is stark and brutal and the characters appear very simple, but are in fact multi-layered with a multitude of long-lasting historical issues festering away inside them.  Their answer to most things is to deal with it with their fists.

This is not the east end as portrayed in the soap opera, with laughter and jokes and songs down the pub. This is an area that reeks of danger, with family feuds that have become ingrained in social history, with prejudice and fists and a cast of characters who because of  their flaws and sadness are realistic.

Anna Whitwham writes with authority, passion and depth.  Boxer Handsome is a modern-day story that deals with age-old problems and issues.  It is brutal and violent and explodes with language and fear but it is also has a sensitivity to it that gives the characters a vulnerability and it is this that made me fall just a little in love with Bobby - a guy who I'd probably run a mile from if I met him in real life.


Anna Whitwham was born in 1981 in London, where she still lives. She has studied Drama and English at University of California, Los Angeles and Queens University, Belfast. She is currently completing her Creative Writing PhD with the Poet Laureate Andrew Motion at Royal Holloway, where she also lectures.Boxer Handsome is her first novel.



Follow her on Twitter @Anna_Whitwham

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

The Memory Book by Rowan Coleman

The name of your first-born. The face of your lover. Your age. Your address... 
What would happen if your memory of these began to fade? 
Is it possible to rebuild your life? Raise a family? Fall in love again? 
When Claire starts to write her Memory Book, she already knows that this scrapbook of mementoes will soon be all her daughters and husband have of her. But how can she hold on to the past when her future is slipping through her fingers...?



Published by Ebury Publishing on 30 January 2014, The Memory Book is Rowan Coleman's eleventh novel.

I reviewed her last novel; Dearest Rose back in October 2012.

Claire is an intelligent, attractive forty-something. She's the mother to two gorgeous girls; Caitlin aged 20 and Esther aged three.  Claire is married to the man of her dreams.  Greg came along quite late in her life, she'd already raised Caitlin single handedly, she had a great job as an English teacher  and owned her own home. She and Greg met, fell in love and are now married and the parents to the delicious Esther.  Life is sweet.

And then, life decides to kick Claire in the teeth.  She's diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's Disease - life is never going to be the same again.  Claire and her mother Ruth know Alzheimer's very well.  Claire's beloved father had the disease too, both of them know exactly what to expect.

Greg buys Claire a beautiful notebook - The Memory Book.  Each of them will record their memories of the life that they had together; the good parts, the funny days, the important events.  For Claire, this is her way of putting together everything that she feels define her and her life.

Rowan Coleman is an outstanding writer, The Memory Book is a story that is both heartbreakingly sad, yet wonderfully funny and uplifting at the same time.    Claire and Caitlin narrate the majority of the story, with input from both Ruth and Greg along the way, and this enables the reader to glimpse back in time to experience the events that shaped Claire's life.  We share her heartbreak and her joy, we are there when she finds her true love in Greg and we follow her step by step as her brain begins to let her down.

There is a real touch of emotional genius in this story, Rowan Coleman has portrayed the disjointed workings of Claire's damaged brain so well, both the gut wrenching sadness and grief and also the naughty mischief and almost childlike thought processes that bring the much appreciated light touch to the story.

The Memory Book was never going to be a 'happy ever after' read, the devastation of a cruel illness is central to the story.  However, the tender writing, the joy and laughter - especially Claire's changing relationship with her tiny daughter Esther, and the fabulous characters make the heart soar.

There is a line quite near to the beginning of the book, spoken by Claire who is talking about her mother Ruth.  This line says so much .... it made me cry;

"..... but I don't, because she is my mum, and I want her.  And I know I will want her, even when I don't know that I do."

Rowan Coleman's writing gets better and better.  There is no doubt that The Memory Book is her very best novel to date.  It is a joy, and I will be recommending it to everyone that I meet.

Finally, I have to comment on the absolutely damn gorgeous cover.  It fits the story perfectly.  The complete book is a thing of great beauty, with delicate illustration on the inside cover too.  I know a lot of my blogger friends have their copy as an ebook, and whilst I do appreciate that many people prefer to read on a Kindle, it is when a book as beautiful as this falls into my hands that I remind myself why I only read hard copies.
The Memory Book will proudly take it's place on my shelf of favourites, and I know that every time I pass the bookcase and glance over, I will see that flash of a red cover and be reminded of this exquisite story.

My thanks to Amelia from Ebury Publishing who sent my copy for review.

I'm very excited to have tickets to Lunch with Rowan Coleman in March, part of the York Literary Festival.

Rowan Coleman lives with her husband, and five children in a very full house in Hertfordshire. She juggles writing novels with raising her family which includes a very lively set of toddler twins whose main hobby is going in the opposite directions. When she gets the chance, Rowan enjoys sleeping, sitting and loves watching films; she is also attempting to learn how to bake.

Rowan would like to live every day as if she were starring in a musical, although her daughter no longer allows her to sing in public. Despite being dyslexic, Rowan loves writing, and The Memory Book is her eleventh novel. Others include The Accidental Mother, Lessons in Laughing Out Loud and the award-winning Dearest Rose, a novel which lead Rowan to become an active supporter of domestic abuse charityRefuge, donating 100% of royalties from the ebook publication of her novella,Woman Walks Into a Bar, to the charity. Rowan does not have time for ironing. 


To find out more about Rowan Coleman, visit her website at: www.rowancoleman.co.uk, Facebook or Twitter: @rowancoleman.

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Wake by Anna Hope - BLOG TOUR & GIVEAWAY

WAKE 
The debut novel by
ANNA HOPE
 
Doubleday • January 16th 2014 • £12.99 
November 1920, post-war London:
Five days, three grieving women, one devastating wartime act -
the day the nation’s mood changed forever.
 A powerful debut novel set against the journey home of the
Unknown Soldier from the battlefields of Northern France to the Cenotaph
As the body of the Unknown Soldier makes its way home from the fields of Northern
France, three women are overcoming their loss in their own way: Hettie, who dances for sixpence a waltz at the Hammersmith Palais; wealthy Evelyn, who toils at a lowly job in the pensions office, and Ada, a housewife who snatches glimpses of her dead son in the street.
As each struggles to move on with her life, a wartime mystery begins to unravel.
But where will the threads lead, and will they bring the answers these women crave?
 
In this shattering novel of intertwining lives, Anna Hope shows the beginnings of a new era, and the day the mood of the nation changed, for ever.

I am absolutely thrilled to be part of the Blog Tour for Anna Hope's debut novel Wake which was published by Doubleday (Transworld) on 16 January 2014.

I also have three copies of Wake to give away to readers, more details of how to enter to win can be found at the bottom of this piece.

I have no doubt that Wake is going to be included in my Top Ten books of 2014, I know that it's only January, but this is a book that has had a huge effect on me.  The writing is sublime, but the story is one of horror and shame, and of ordinary people whose lives were left devastated by what was supposed to be 'the war to end all wars.'

Told over just five days and ending on Armistice Day - November 11 1920, Wake is a portrait of the lives of three women; Hettie, Evelyn and Ada.   Each of these women bear the scars of the the great war, and each of them are trying to deal with life in London that has changed forever.  As the reader learns about the women, we are also following the journey home of the Unknown Warrior - an unnamed solider, taken from the trenches of France and being brought home to rest in London.

As we enter 2014, a hundred years on from the beginning of World War I, it is only to be expected that there will be many books published this year to commemorate the event.   Wake is one of those, but does not focus on the war years themselves.  Wake looks at the lives left behind, the women who waved goodbye to their sons, fathers, brothers and lovers, some of them never welcomed them home again.  Some of them welcomed home a changed man, a man who would never speak of his experiences, a man who will never be able to support his family again, a man who was left crushed and broken by what he saw in France.

Hettie spends her days at the Palais, selling dances with strangers for sixpence a dance, and dreaming of bigger and brighter places.   Evelyn punishes herself by working in the pensions office, every day seeing the aftermath of war as bruised and broken men queue up for assistance.  Ada sees her dead son Michael everywhere, but struggles to speak to her husband.  Although at first these three woman appear to be completely separate, it becomes clear that they are linked together by events that took place many miles away on the battlefields and in the trenches.

Wake is powerful and evocative, it is a tender but at the same time, brutal look at the aftermath of war. Anna Hope's writing flows with such ease, her use of prose and descriptions are beautiful and haunting.


Anna Hope was born in Manchester.  She was educated at Oxford University and RADA, and has a Master's in Creative Writing from Birkbeck College, London.

She lives in London.   Wake is her first novel.

Follow her on Twitter @Anna_Hope


I have three copies of Wake to give away, to enter to win a copy, please fill in the Rafflecopter widget below.  The giveaway will be open for seven days and is open to readers in the UK only. Good Luck!


a Rafflecopter giveaway

Monday, 20 January 2014

The Secret Ingredient: Family Cookbook by Sally Bee

Bestselling author, home cook, heart-attack survivor and busy mum of three Sally Bee turns her attention to family cooking.

At the time of writing this book, Sally is hurtling towards an anniversary that she has mixed feelings about. At the age of 36 Sally had three heart attacks in a week. This summer it will be nine years since Sally died. And nine years since she came back to life.
Sally is a living miracle and it is her diet that keeps her fighting and strong. She knows better than anyone how to incorporate healthy eating into your daily life. In her bestselling debut The Secret Ingredient she shared clean and healthy versions of the classic dishes we all love. Now she shows you how to create affordable and simple healthy recipes all the family will adore.
Sally believes the best way to keep your family healthy is to serve everyone the same food – food that tastes good, looks good and does you good. Whether it’s a super quick midweek Bolognese packed full of goodness or tasty Thai prawn skewers, an easy guilt-free chicken pie, delicious oatmeal cookies or a healthy take on your favourite takeaway classics.
Sally knows better than anyone, when you’re feeding the family day in, day out, you want simplicity, speed and lots of great taste and health benefits. In this beautiful new family cookbook, she offers over 100 new recipes that deliver a healthy lifestyle and a happy home life.
Alongside the recipes, there are tips on how to get your children involved, and lots of straightforward advice of how to change your eating habits. Sally’s plans are realistic and easy-to-follow, offering everything you need for a balanced approach to your family’s health.

Published by Harper Collins on 2 January 2014, The Secret Ingredient Family Cookbook is Sally Bee's fourth recipe book.  I'd like to thank Virginia from Harper Non-Fiction who sent my copy for review.

As well as having an enormous TBR (to be read) pile of fiction, I am also a cookery book collector, and have amassed a large collection of fairly eclectic books.  From celebrity chefs to bloggers, from India to Greece and from soups to roasts - I have a book for every occasion.   Over the past year or so, as age creeps up and so does my weight; I've been on the look out more and more for recipes that concentrate not just on taste, but on healthy eating too.

I've been really impressed by The Secret Ingredient Family Cookbook.  Sally Bee's story is a frightening one; she was only 36 years old when she suffered three hearts attacks in one weeks.  I'm ten years older than Sally and that's a worrying thought.  It's time to have a rethink about exactly what I cook on a day to day basis.   I've always been a little worried that low-fat equals low-taste and the thought of brown rice makes me run to the biscuit tin, but I realise that you really are what you eat.   There is no way that I could give up my treats, and I do love to cook, but the high-fat and high-sugar ingredients are going to be relegated as treats in the future, and I believe that I will enjoy them much more.

I made Sally's recipe for Moussaka at the weekend, and it's delicious.  Full of flavour and I actually like her take on the sauce topping much more than the original version.    The book is bright and colourful and very well laid out.  The recipes are in sections and the ingredients are easy to find in most supermarkets.
Each recipe is easy to follow, with step by step instructions and great illustrations.

I will certainly be trying out more of the dishes in this book and intend to check out her earlier publications too.

Sally has her own website, with lots more information about heart health and more recipes, check it out at www.sally-bee.com   You can follow her on Twitter @sallybeelicious

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

The Engagements by Courtney Sullivan ** BLOG TOUR **

I'm really thrilled to be a host for J Courtney Sullivan's blog tour celebrating the paperback release of her novel The Engagements, published by Virago (Little Brown) on 2 January 2014.
The hardback was published back in July last year, and I reviewed it here on Random Things in August.


Moving from a Harvard swim-meet in 1927 to the three-martini lunches of 1940s advertising, from the back streets of 1980s Boston to an exquisite Parisian music shop in 2003, The Engagements is a novel about love, marriage, commitment and betrayal; it is as sharp,  as fiery and as beautiful as the stone we have taken to represent our dreams.
The Engagements convinces and, in the final section, packs a powerful emotional punch that keeps sentimentality at arm's reach. Here is an absorbing read that will move you and make you think.’ The Independent on Sunday
The Engagements is currently being made into a film by Fox 2000 with Reese Witherspoon producing.
Courtney Sullivan (32) published her first book at the age of 25, was assistant editor of Allure magazine before becoming a staff writer at The New York Times and now writes novels full time and writes freelance for the New York Times Book Review, New York magazine, Elle, Glamour, Allure and the New York Observer, among others. Courtney is the New York Times bestselling author of Maine and Commencement.

I'm delighted to welcome Courtney to Random Things today, and thank her for answering my questions;


Do you read reviews of your novels? Do you take them seriously?
I read a lot of reviews that run in newspapers and magazines and on blogs, but not all of them. I avoid
anonymous Amazon reviews, since they rarely contain constructive criticism and sometimes tend toward comments like “I didn’t care for the paper stock.” I’m always suspicious of authors who say they don’t read their own reviews, in the same way I don’t trust people who say they dislike chocolate. How can one possibly resist?
It sometimes takes a thick skin to read what others have to say about your work. I’ve read reviews that really upset me, because I felt the reviewer was unfair or sexist or hadn’t read the book very closely. But I’ve also read intelligent so-so reactions to my own work that led me to a greater understanding of how to do better next time.

How long does it take to write a novel?
I’ve written three so far, and each one was different. My first, Commencement, took about three years, but while I was writing it I didn’t yet have a publisher or a book contract. And I still had a full-time job, working as a researcher and freelance writer at the New York Times.  My second novel, Maine, took two years. TheEngagements—which was the most complex and research-heavy—took just a year and a half, but by the time I started writing it, I no longer had another job.

Do you have any writing rituals?
I need tea. And I need to be alone in a room that’s completely silent. I could never write in a coffee shop, as many of my friends do. I’d be too tempted to eavesdrop on all the strangers around me.  When I’m working on an essay or an article, I’m less particular. But with fiction, I need to be able to immerse myself in the world of the characters with no distractions.

What was your favourite childhood book?
There were so many. I loved The Secret Garden. Anne of Green Gables. Tuck Everlasting. Stuart Little. Mr. Popper’s Penguins. Harriet the Spy. And anything by Beverly Cleary, Judy Blume, Laura Ingalls Wilder and Roald Dahl.

 
Name one book that made you laugh?
This past summer, while traveling on book tour, I read an early copy of a memoir called Love, Nina. I have never laughed so much reading a book. I was in hysterics on multiple flights. I’m sure my fellow passengers thought I was nuts.

Name one book that made you cry?
A collection of journalism by the late Marjorie Williams, called The Woman at the Washington Zoo. Williams was so sharp and funny when she wrote about politics. This book combines her political observations with the story of the cancer that eventually took her life. I remember wanting to speed through because it was so good. But I was crying so much I could barely see the pages!


Which fictional character would you like to meet?
Anne Shirley from Anne of Green Gables.

Which book would you give to your best friend as a present?
Truth and Beauty by Ann Patchett. Or A Gift From The Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh.

Are you inspired by any particular author or book?
As a novelist, I am eager to get the plot and characters down on paper as quickly as I can. I return to the poems of W.H. Auden to remind me to look at my writing at the level of the sentence and the word. His use of language is so exquisite and precise. I’ve loved his collected poems since high school, and I still find myself discovering and relating to new ones every time I open the book.

What is your guilty pleasure read?
I tend to feel guilty about any number of things at any given moment (thank you, Catholic upbringing!) But I never feel guilty about books. My guilty pleasure reading is limited to US Weekly magazine, which I only allow myself to look at on airplanes and at the dentist’s office, lest I develop an actual need to know more about the Kardashians.

Who are your favourite authors?
Kate Atkinson, Nora Ephron, Charles Dickens, Meg Wolitzer, Joan Didion, Dorothy Parker, Ethan Canin, Edith Wharton, Maile Meloy. To name just a few!

What book have you re-read?
My favorite novel is A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley. I’ve read it more times than I can remember.

What book have you given up on?
Lots of them. I have no qualms about putting a book aside if I don’t like it. Sometimes it’s just an issue of timing—there are books I’ve started that I didn’t connect with, but a few years later I might pick them up again and fall in love.

For more information about Courtney, and her books take a look at her website www.jcourtneysullivan.com    Check out the Facebook page, follow her on Twitter @jourtsull



Tuesday, 14 January 2014

What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty

Alice is twenty-nine. She adores sleep, chocolate, and her ramshackle new house. 
She's newly engaged to the wonderful Nick and is pregnant with her first baby.
There's just one problem. All of that was ten years ago . .  
Alice has slipped in a step-aerobics class, hit her head and lost a decade. Now she's a grown-up, bossy mother of three in the middle of a nasty divorce and her beloved sister Elisabeth isn't speaking to her. This is her life but not as she knows it. 
Clearly Alice has made some terrible mistakes. Just how much can happen in a decade? 
Can she ever get back to the woman she used to be?



What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty was originally published in 2010 and the special reissue is being released here in the UK by Penguin on 16 January 2014.

I read Liane Moriarty's last novel; The Husband's Secret last year and really enjoyed it, so I was interested to see how this one would compare.  

Set in Australia, we meet Alice just as she is coming round from a nasty bang on the head after falling during her weekly exercise session at the gym.   Alice really doesn't have a clue what she is doing in a gym of all places, and how on earth did her stomach get so taught and flat.   Who are these women surrounding her who all seem to know her, and oh God - is the baby that she's expecting still OK?  
But Alice isn't pregnant with her first baby at all.  She's not twenty-nine, passionately in love with her husband Nick and in the process of renovating their new home.

It appears that Alice is in fact thirty-nine, the mother of three children and a gym regular.  She's also a control freak, she's on almost every committee in town and is also in the process of getting a divorce.

Alice has lost the last ten years, totally forgotten everything.  She can't believe that she and Nick hate each other, she doesn't understand why her beloved sister seems so cold towards her and hasn't a clue who this person called Gina that everyone talks about is, or what an impact she's had on her life.

Liane Moriarty is a very funny, very clever author.  What Alice Forgot is frightening in that it really could happen - to any of us.  All the way through this story I couldn't help but put myself in Alice's position.  How awful to all of a sudden be an almost-divorced mother of three.  How awful to find that you have become one of those women that years ago you would have laughed at.  How bloody awful to find that you don't like yourself at all, and those that you love don't like you any more either.

The observation of life and how people can change is excellent and so very well done.  The glimpses into Alice's new life which she compares to her old life and her old personality are tantalising and I was so desperate to know why and how Alice and her life had changed so much.

Sometimes the plot is just a tad predictable, and maybe just a little over the top at times but this honestly didn't spoil my enjoyment of the novel in any way.   What Alice Forgot is an entertaining read, a story that makes you think about life, extremely well written - I thoroughly enjoyed it.

My thanks to Katie from Penguin who sent my copy for review.

Liane Moriarty is an Australian author and sister of author Jaclyn Moriarty. In its review of her 2013 novel, The Husband's Secret, she was referred to as "an edgier, more provocative and bolder successor to Maeve Binchy" by Kirkus Reviews.

Liane Moriarty began work in advertising and marketing at a legal publishing company. She then ran her own company for a while before taking work as a freelance advertising copywriter. In 2004, after obtaining a Master's degree at Macquarie University in Sydney her first novel Three Wishes, written as part of the degree, was published. 

She is now the author of several other novels, including The Last Anniversary (2006) and What Alice Forgot (2010), The Hypnotist's Love Story (2011), and The Husband's Secret (2013). She is also the author of the Nicola Berry series for children.

Liane Moriarty lives in Sydney with her husband and two children. 


Find more information about the author and her novels on her website www.lianemoriarty.com.au  and on Facebook

Sunday, 12 January 2014

Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo, & Me by Ellen Forney

Shortly before her thirtieth birthday, Forney was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Suffering from (but enjoying) extreme mania, and terrified that medication would cause her to lose creativity, she began a long struggle over many years to find mental stability while retaining her creativity. 
Searching to make sense of the popular idea of the 'crazy artist', she finds inspiration from the lives and work of other artists and writers who suffered from mood disorders, including Vincent van Gogh, Georgia O'Keeffe, William Styron, and Sylvia Plath. 
She also researches the clinical aspects of bipolar disorder, including the strengths and limitations of various treatments and medications, and what studies tell us about the conundrum of attempting to "cure" an otherwise brilliant mind. 
Darkly funny and intensely personal, Forney's memoir provides a humorous but authentic glimpse into the effects of a mood disorder on an artist's work, as she shares her own story through black-and-white graphic images and prose.

 Marbles is a graphic memoir by American cartoonist Ellen Forney and was published here in the UK by Constable & Robinson on 15 August 2013.

The saying goes; "A picture paints a thousand words", and this book is the perfect example of that saying, but the words alongside the cartoons that Forney has drawn to describe her battle with bi-polar add another dimension to the pictures.  Alone, the cartoons are brilliant, they express her innermost feelings perfectly, but add her words and you are taken to the very extremes of her illness.

Ellen Forney started to write Marbles in 2008, ten years after the events that she tells about actually took place.  She has been able to look back, with honesty, and with a little humour on what was an extremely difficult, challenging time in her life.   Her pain and distress are captured in the cartoon images of herself.  Her usually bright face with the Betty Boop eyes changes as the illness grips her, and at times she depicts herself so vividly that it is almost painful to see how she imagined herself, and her life.

Her battle against the medication regime, worrying that pills would kill her creativity.  Her research into other artists through the years who have suffered, and her comparisons to their lives.  Her discovery of yoga, her conversations with her psychiatrist, with herself, with her family and friends.   All of these are here, in full detail and the pain shines through.

Marbles is a wickedly funny, yet painfully truthful look at how bi-polar affects a person, and those around them.  Ellen Forney has not hidden anything, and faced her challenges head-on.  The book is frank, honest and funny.  The illustrations are hard-hitting and at times, desperately sad.

A book that pulls the reader in from the very first page, it is an illuminating read that looks honestly at bi-polar and how one extraordinary woman coped.



Cartoonist Ellen Forney is the author of NYT bestseller Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo, and Me, and the 2012 “Genius Award” winner in Literature from Seattle's The Stranger. She collaborated with Sherman Alexie on the National Book Award-winning novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, created the Eisner-nominated comic books I Love Led Zeppelin and Monkey Food, and has taught comics at Cornish College of the Arts since 2002. She grew up in Philadelphia and has lived in Seattle, Washington since 1989. Ellen swims and does yoga, and fixes things with rubber bands and paper clips.

For more information about the author and her work, visit her website www.marblesbyellenforney.com.   Find her on Facebook, or follow her on Twitter @ellen_forney

Friday, 10 January 2014

Season To Taste or How to Eat Your Husband by Natalie Young

Always let the meat rest under foil for at least ten minutes before carving...

Meet Lizzie Prain. Ordinary housewife. Fifty-something. Lives in a cottage in the woods, with her dog Rita. Likes cooking, avoids the neighbours. Runs a little business making cakes.
No one has seen Lizzie's husband, Jacob, for a few days. That's because last Monday, on impulse, Lizzie caved in the back of his head with a spade. And if she's going to embark on the new life she feels she deserves after thirty years in Jacob's shadow, she needs to dispose of his body. Her method appeals to all her practical instincts, though it's not for the faint-hearted. Will Lizzie have the strength to follow it through?



Published on 16 January 2014 by Tinder Press, Season To Taste or How to Eat Your Husband is Natalie Young's second novel.  I read and reviewed her first book We All Run Into The Sunlight in April 2011 and I said that I thought Natalie Young was an 'author to watch', and described her novel as 'strange yet compelling'.  I stand by all I said!

There is a real ingenuity to Season To Taste.  The idea behind it, the writing, the subtlety, the horror, the black humour, and yet it is quite sedate, almost staid - very steady.

I am giving nothing away by telling you that the story begins just as Lizzie has murdered her husband Jacob. She battered him around the head with a garden spade on on ordinary Monday morning.  Lizzie has endured a long and miserable marriage, and she certainly does not intend for anyone to make her suffer now that Jacob is finally gone.  So, her idea to make sure that she can get away and start her new life in Scotland is that she will chop up Jacob into sixteen pieces, bag and label each part of him, freeze the parts and eat them over the next few weeks.  She'll cook them in different ways; grill, stew, barbeque, grill.  She'll season him well with; lemon juice, garlic, herbs and spices.   Then she will leave, and then she will be happy.

This story is told in a very matter-of-fact way, don't expect a fast and furious read, and don't expect to read of Lizzie's sorrow or regret, or panic, or dismay.  Lizzie knows what she is doing, and how she will do it, and focusses entirely on her freedom.  Be prepared though for some stomach-churning descriptive prose when reading about the process of dismembering the body and the cooking of each part.  Natalie Young has a wonderfully macabre imagination that transposes to her writing quite beautifully.

Not everything goes quite as Lizzie plans; enter the character of Emmett, a old, wandering, senile man who poses a threat along the way.

Ultimately, underneath the horror of what Lizzie has done, is a story of a very broken relationship.  The reader is given an insight into Lizzie and Jacob's marriage, and it is not a happy place to be.  Lizzie is a woman whose mind is teetering on the edge, driven to do something so awful, and writing her own guide on how to cope along the way.   The insight into marriage, and into a broken mind is chilling.

There are times when the story feels a little disjointed (no pun intended!), but overall, this is a very cleverly written novel with touches of very very black humour, and an overwhelming feeling of sadness and pity.




Natalie Young was born in 1976. She studied English at Bristol University and published her first novel, We All Ran Into the Sunlight, in 2011 while working as the Arts and Books Editor of ProspectMagazine. For several years before that she worked on The Times and contributed regularly to the Books section and to the Saturday Review. She has lived in France, Italy and Australia. She currently lives in London with her two children.

Follow her on Twitter @natalieyyoung







Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Finding Mother by Anne Allen & Interview with the Author

Three women. Three generations. Sacrifices for love…  
Who is she really? Nicole is about to find out as she searches for her real mother; the woman who gave her away at birth. With her marriage in tatters, she sets out from England: travelling to Spain, Jersey and Guernsey before the extraordinary story of her real family is finally revealed.  
Nicole becomes an unwitting catalyst for change in the family. Two women are forced to reveal long-buried secrets. One going back as far as the Second World War. Lives are transformed as choices have to be made and the past laid to rest… 


Successful TV journalist Nicole seems to have it all, from the outside her marriage to Tom appears to be perfect.  They are both doing well in their careers, their house is beautiful, they have the world at their feet.  When Nicole discovers evidence that Tom has cheated on her yet again she makes a decision that will alter her life.

Nicole tells Tom that their marriage is finally over, she can't take any more of his cheating and his lies. She flees to Spain to visit her parents in their retirement villa, and to decide what she is going to do next.

Nicole was adopted as a baby, her adoptive parents gave her a loving home and she wanted for nothing, she was a happy child.  Nicole wonders just who she really is, and whether her real parentage has any bearing on her life today.  With her parents' blessing she decides that it is time to return to the Channel Islands to  find out more about her background.

Jersey and Guernsey are small islands made up of close-knit communities, and it is not long before Nicole has the details of her birth mother.  Events move quickly and before she knows it, she has discovered not just her birth mother, but a whole set of relatives. Her new family, however, is not very straight forward and Nicole's reappearance rakes up old secrets, betrayals, lies and heartache that goes back many years.

Anne Allen's writing is warm and appealing.  Her characters are well rounded, and the plot moves very quickly.  For me, the most enjoyable part of this novel was the Channel Islands.  Life, culture and the beauty of the surroundings are drawn so well.  The reader really begins to feel as though they too are travelling the roads of Guernsey, visiting the bays and drinking in the assorted bars and coffee shops.  Anne Allen brings these places to life.

Finding Mother is a novel that deals with sensitive issues very well.  The heartbreak of giving away a much-loved baby, the despair of losing a cherished lover and the difficulties of living in a very close community are handled very well.

I enjoyed the novel very much.  My one criticism is that the story is a little too well tied up for me, things seem to fall into place for Nicole quite effortlessly, personally I'd have liked a little more angst and drama - but that's just my opinion!

Finding Mother was published in paperback on 21 November 2013.

Anne Allen, the author of Finding Mother has kindly visited Random Things today and has answered a few questions for us.  I'd like to say a huge thanks to Anne for taking the time to talk to me, and welcome to Random Things Through My Letterbox. 

For more information about Anne and her novels, visit her website www.anneallen.co.uk and follow her on Twitter @AnneAllen21


Do you read reviews of your novels? Do you take them seriously?  Is there an author out there who doesn't read their reviews?! Particularly for a new author or book, it's the confirmation – or otherwise! - that your book was found to be worth reading by someone you don't know. It's hard not to take them seriously, particularly if the review is very critical. Oddly enough, poor reviews stick with you much longer than good ones. I've hit myself over the head a few times after reading the odd negative review. However, one reviewer of my first novel, Dangerous Waters, listed a few things she didn't like about it, but still ended up saying that in spite of her comments she enjoyed it and gave it 4 stars! Perhaps I should stop reading them and save myself some angst J

How long does it take to write a novel?    Depends how you measure the process. I took six months to write the first draft of Dangerous Waters, but then several years, on and off, re-writing and editing. I managed to speed up with my second, Finding Mother; completing the various edits and re-writes within a year. I'm now writing the third, Guernsey Retreat, which I plan to publish in 2014; meaning a further increase in writing speed. I'm never ceased to be amazed that some writers can produce several books a year. I wonder when they sleep!

Do you have any writing rituals?   Until a few months ago I would always write in longhand before typing up what I'd written. But then I had problems with arthritis in my thumb and had to lessen the impact on my hand and now type from the beginning. I always found it easier to let my thoughts flow when writing with a pen so still plan the novel and write character bio's by hand. The advantage of using a pen and paper is that you can write anywhere and I love sitting outside on a warm, sunny day with a pen and pad.
I do like to 'clear my desk', so to speak, before settling down to write. If I have any outstanding chores or emails I find it difficult to concentrate until they are out of the way. Mind you, I can quite happily write while a pile of ironing awaits J

What was your favourite childhood book?  A difficult one! I loved reading so much as a child that I devoured several a week from the town library. I do remember enjoying the Mallory Towers series by Enid Blyton, desperately wanting to go off to boarding school for the adventures Blyton convinced me would be mine. Coming from a working-class family, it wasn't an option!

Name one book that made you laugh?   'Driving Over Lemons' by Chris Stewart. It's the true story of an expat family who buy a farm in a remote part of southern Spain. I'd recently moved to Spain myself at the time and could really relate to it. And Chris's story was extremely funny as he described various mishaps that overtook the family.

Name one book that made you cry?   'One Day' by David Nichol. I hated the ending!

Which fictional character would you like to meet?  Mr D'Arcy 

Which book would you give to your best friend as a present?   You mean apart from one of mine?! Probably 'Quincunx' by Charles Palliser. It's a Dickens/Trollope kind of book, brimming with fascinating characters and convoluted plots, displaying more than a passing nod to 'Bleak House'.

Are you inspired by any particular author or book?   Not one author, no.  But I think several writers have inspired me, including Erica James, Katie Fforde, Maeve Binchy and Mary Higgins Clark.

What is your guilty pleasure read?   A light-hearted Georgian romance from Georgette Heyer. Bliss!

Who are your favourite authors?  Apart from those mentioned above, I enjoy books by Robert Goddard, C J Sansom and Robert Harris.

What book have you re-read?  One or two by Georgette Heyer!

What book have you given up on?  There's been a few. I did once start reading 'A Brief History of Time' by Stephen Hawking but…!

Many thanks Anne!