Tuesday 30 August 2011

A Competition Win - ProCook Pans from www.hot-dinners.com

People have probably gathered that I like food!   Eating it, cooking it and reading about it.  I'm a sucker for restaurant reviews too - even places that I'm never likely to visit.  I'd love to be a food critic!

 I got an email from www.hot-dinners.com a couple of weeks ago - I'd won a competition on their website.  My prize arrived today - a set of ProCook Gourmet Steel Pans.  I'm really thrilled as my saucepans are ancient and really need replacing.  So, now I have some lovely shiny new pans - and Costa and Nero have a new box to play in!  What is it with cats and boxes?  
As soon as I unpacked the pans, put all the stuffing in the empty box, Nero jumped in and stayed there for a while.  As soon as he got out, of course, Costa had to have a go too.  My two daft cats never cease to make me smile! I'm really thrilled as my saucepans are ancient and really need replacing.

Angel Delight Ice Cream

I'm a real 70s girl, and still look back on polyester flares and Bay City Rollers tartan scarves with great fondness.  Oh, and the food - the delights of Vesta Curry and the wonder of Crispy Pancakes - we really thought we were at the very height of culinary excellence.   I still have a fondness for Angel Delight, which was a great, and very rare treat in our house when I was a kid.   I can't resist that butterscotch / synthetic flavour at all, and every now and then I'll make a big bowlful and remember the 'good old days'!
So, when I saw that Angel Delight were giving away free packets of their new ice cream mix - well, I just had to apply through their Facebook page - and hurrah, my free sample popped through the letterbox a couple of days ago.  I'm strangely excited by this and am looking forward to mixing and freezing and tasting!
I'll report back when I've sampled it.

Friday 26 August 2011

Q&A with Ali Knight ~ Book Giveaway

I recently read and reviewed Ali Knight's novel Wink Murder - my review can be found here.  

Wink Murder was released in hardback by Hodder and Stoughton in April 2011 and the paperback is due for release in November this year.

Wink Murder is Ali's first novel and has already been sold in ten other countries.  Ali was previously a journalist, writing for major newspapers including The Guardian.

She is part of the wonderful Sky Arts Streets Galleries campaign, you can find out more about the campaign here

Ali has been kind enough to answer some questions about her writing and reading habits:

What are you reading at the moment?   I tend to read several books at once as I'm easily distracted.  At the moment it's Hanging Hill by Mo Hayder, Shantaram by Gregory Roberts and The Sick Rose by Erin Kelly.  I love thrillers.

Do you read reviews of your novels?  Do you take them seriously?   I always read reviews - good, bad and indifferent.  I think it's the least you can do, particularly if someone has made the effort to post on Amazon or Good Reads.  I'm not offended if someone gives a bad review, you need a tough skin to be a writer, you come up against a lot of nos, particularly at the beginning of a writing career, and you have to take the downs to get the ups.

How long does it take to write a novel?  It takes me about 10 months to write a book, but I'm spending four long mornings a week doing it.  I so admire writers who have to fit in writing at the end of a long day doing another job.

Ali Knight
Do you have any writing rituals?   I have so many!  They act as ways to force me to my desk.  A big cup of coffee, always the same start time: 8.30am, always after a glance through my emails.  Four days a week without fail, all through the year.

What was your favourite childhood book?   Charlotte's Web made a big impression on me.  I read it recently with my seven year old son, and seeing him enjoy it made me realise the joy of how a good book is timeless.  Also the first line "Daddy, where are you going with that axe?" could be straight out of a thriller - perfection.

Name one book that made you laugh?    Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat Love Pray.  I love football and I used to live in Italy.  Her description of Italian football fans and what they talk about is one of the funniest things I've ever read.

Name one book that made you cry?   Sister by Rosamund Lupton.  The first third of that novel is a huge weepathon - brilliant.  The ability to make a reader cry is an absolute sign of writing success.  Testament of Youth by Vera Britten I read as a teenager.  It still sums up the tragedy of war for me better than anything.

Which fictional character would you like to meet?   James Bond.  Though maybe Jack Reacher could shove him aside.

Which book would you give to your best friend as a present?   One Day by David Nicholls.

Are you inspired by any particular author or book?   There are far too many to list properly.  I like women who wrote great books when they weren't supposed to do that kind of thing; Jane Austen, the Brontes, Maya Angelou, Alice Walker.  I include Martina Cole here.  I believe she is their modern day equivalent.

What is your guilty pleasure read?  I never feel guilty about reading.  But Jackie Collins takes some beating if I'm on a sun lounger ............

Who are your favourite authors?  This is very difficult.  I love Ruth Rendell.  I think A Fatal Inversion is a wonderful book.  James Ellroy - the way he combines crime with American history is beautiful.

What book have you re-read?   Pride and Prejudice.  I never tire of this book.  There's just something about it that makes it seem fresh every time you open it.

What book have you given up on?   There are many books I can't get into, let alone finish.  I'm a big believer in hooking someone in from the first paragraph.  Midnight's Children is a particular problem for me, as is White Teeth - sorry Zadie!

I'd like to say a huge thank you to Ali for answering my questions.  Her answers have certainly added a few books to my wishlist, and I have to agree about White Teeth - I so wanted to like that book, but it has remained unfinished for me too!

I've decided to give away my proof copy of Ali's Wink Murder - it's in great condition, I've read it very carefully.  So, if you'd like to be in with a chance of winning my copy, just leave me a comment at the bottom of this article.  I'll choose a winner on 15th September. 

Good Luck!

The Secrets Between Us by Louise Douglas

This is my second book choice from the Transworld Book Group Reading Challenge.

I am a big fan of Louise Douglas and her first two books are some of my favourite reads.

The Secrets Between Us strays a little from the path of her earlier books, in that it is more of a thriller, with some really dark moments that are quite unsettling to read and left me feeling a little spooked more than once.

The lead character Sarah, is a damaged young woman.  She had recently lost a child and ended a long-term relationship.

Whilst spending a couple of weeks in the sunshine of Sicily with her sister May, she meets Alex and his small son Jamie.  

Alex is mysterious, dark and brooding.  Jamie is innocent, sweet, vulnerable - and motherless. Genevieve; Alex's wife and Jamie's mother has gone missing.

Sarah is soon immersed in Alex and Jamie's world.  She leaves Manchester to move in with them.

I'm part of the Transworld Book Group
Sarah finds herself in the midst of a small village, where everyone knows everyone's business and everyone loves Genevieve.  Sarah finds herself torn between wanting to protect and care for Jamie, wanting to be Alex's lover and also wanting to find out just what happened to Gene.   She feels Gene's presence in the house, she knows that the stories just dont add up, but she wants to trust Alex.

This is a skillfully woven, suspenseful story that really does keep you turning the pages very quickly.

I did have a sneaky suspicion towards the end that I knew 'who dunnit', and I was right, but this really didn't spoil the story for me.  

The characters are well crafted, the setting is excellent and the tension is at times quite stifling.

An excellent third novel from an accomplished author.

Tuesday 16 August 2011

Roseanne ~ Sjowall & Wahloo - A Killer Reads Review

I was recently invited to take part in the Killer Reads Review Panel, and was sent a copy of Roseanna for review.  Killer Reads open up their Killer Read Reviews to two guest panellists a month.

If you would like the opportunity to be part of the scheme, sign up to their newsletter here.

Roseanna was written in 1965 by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo, a husband and wife team from Sweden.  Sjowall and Wahloo sat down and planned a ten part series featuring Detective Martin Beck,  they wrote alternative chapters once their children were in bed each night.

This is a fairly straight forward murder mystery and begins with the discovery of a young woman's body, dredged up from Lake Vattern, in a small Swedish town.   After a medical examination it becomes clear that this is a case of murder - the woman was strangled and sexually assaulted.  Detective Martin Beck is drafted in the help the local police force.

Martin Beck is a somewhat gloomy character, he says little, but thinks a lot.  It is difficult for the reader to get into his mindset, he is aloof but not unfriendly.  He has a difficult relationship with his wife and children, preferring to spend what little free time he has either doing puzzles or sitting alone.

This is not a fast-paced thriller, but a story that slowly works it's way through the police investigation.
Fans of modern-day crime stories may be frustrated by the speed of Martin Beck's detecting, it often takes him an hour just to get a telephone connection to America.  This is 1960s Sweden, long before the days of internet, mobile phones and faxes, and although the story can never really be classed as 'thrilling' it is a complex and intelligent look at how police procedures of that era.

On the whole, I enjoyed this story but my main criticism would be around the dialogue which often felt quite formal and unemotional - I'm not sure if this is down to the translation, or the style of the authors.

I also got increasingly irritated by the use of Martin Beck's full name throughout the story.  Most of the other characters, certainly the other police officers were referred to by their surnames only.  I'm not sure why the lead character needed to be referred to by his full name - and why so often?

Martin Beck reminds me a little of a Swedish Inspector Banks - from Peter Robinson's Yorkshire detective series.  He's quiet and studious, smokes too much, over thinks things and struggles with relationships.

I'm not sure that I will rush to read the other nine books in the series, but acknowledge that Martin Beck was most definitely the inspiration for modern-day crime authors such as Henning Mankell and Jonathan Franzen.

Monday 15 August 2011

North Of Ithaka by Eleni Gage

I love Greece!   I love the people, the food, the weather, the way of life, the history.  

I also really enjoy reading books that are set in Greece, whether fiction or fact.

I've read quite a lot of stories about people buying a property in Greece and on the whole they are entertaining reads.  

North Of Ithaka by Eleni Gage however, is much much more than just the story of the renovation of an old house.  
Eleni Gage is the daughter of writer Nicholas Gage.

His most famous book; Eleni is the story of his mother who was murdered during the Greek Civil War.

Eleni was adapted for film in 1985 - John Malkovitch played the role of Nick Gage.

Eleni Gage returned to the small village of Lia in Northern Greece with the intention of rebuilding her murdered Grandmother's house.

This is the house in which she was keep prisoner and the house from which she made her final journey.  

Eleni's father and his sisters have all since settled in America and the house is now  uninhabitable.  Eleni was determined that she would restore it to its former glory - much to the dismay of her aunts who were convinced that something evil would happen to her if she dared to disturb the house with such sad memories.

North Of Ithaka is Eleni's story, and it is wonderfully written.  It's part memoir and part history and makes compelling and fascinating reading.  

Eleni Gage
Eleni was welcomed into the bosom of village life, probably because her family was well-known in the area, but the warmth and kindness of her neighbours is overwhelming - as is the frustration and irritation that Eleni felt as she encountered some of the difficulties in getting anyone in Greece to work quickly or to a timescale.

This story is so much more than the account of how the house was rebuilt.  Such insight into the lives of the villagers, their customs and their beliefs add so much to the whole reading experience.
I read Nicholas Gage's Eleni some years ago, but have never seen the film.  I intend to change that very soon.
Anyone who loves Greece, is interested in recent history and enjoys travel and food will love this book.

Sunday 14 August 2011

Wink Murder by Ali Knight

I do feel really honoured and extremely lucky to be part of the Amazon Vine programme - I've had some really fabulous things to review .... scanner, camera, toys, and of course, lots of great books.  

I picked Wink Murder by Ali Knight from the July newsletter and have just spent a couple of days immersed in it's dark and at times, quite murky story.  

Wink Murder is journalist Ali Knight's debut novel and is published by Hodder & Stroughton.

Wink Murder is a story of murder, betrayal, trust and tension.   
Kate Forman has a great life; two children, a big house and a handsome husband Paul.   
Paul owns a TV production company which he is in the process of selling for big money.   
Kate works part time in TV too - their lives are full of celebrity parties and glamour.   
One night Paul arrives home in the early hours of the morning, he appears drunk, he is sobbing and he is covered in blood.   Kate's world is turned upside down when the body of a young woman is found the next day, she's been murdered - she worked with Paul and evidence points to this being a 'copy-cat' murder.   
Paul has recently produced an award-winning reality TV show, following the case of a murderer who strangled his wife with a magician's white rope - the latest murderer used the same weapon. 
How well does Kate really know her husband?   It is clear as the story progresses that theirs is not quite the happy marriage that they portray.  Both of them have issues around trust and both of them are keeping secrets. 

The tension builds constantly throughout the novel, as each of the major characters are hauled in by the police for questioning.    These characters are very realistic - none of them particularly likeable, but all of them very human.  Kate can be  moody and self-centred at times, yet she is also passionate and loyal. 

This is a fast-paced plot which makes you think about just how much trust we place in people around us. 

On the whole, a good, well-structured psychological thriller with a great plot, even at times it does become a little complicated.   I enjoyed this and will watch out for more by Ali Knight.

Thursday 11 August 2011

The Sandalwood Tree by Elle Newmark

I'm taking part in the Transworld Book Group Reading Challenge where bloggers can pick four titles from a selection of books to review on their blog.

I've just finished reading my first book; The Sandalwood Tree by Elle Newmark.  I was delighted to get the chance to review this as I adored her first book; The Book of Unholy Mischief when I read it a few years ago.

The Sandalwood Tree is a joy to read, it's history, it's romance, and it's a little bit of suspense too.  

The tree of the title sits outside a small bungalow in Colonial India and in 1947 it is occupied by Americans Evie and Martin and their small son Billy.  

Martin is a World War Two veteran, he's currently in India doing research around the Raj.  Martin returned from the battlefields a changed man and Evie struggles to communicate with him, she worries that they are drifting apart and knows that if it were not for Billy, she would seriously consider leaving.

Evie is not the usual American wife abroad, she cleans her own house and only has two servants.    It is whilst she is cleaning one day that she chances upon some old letters that have been hidden behind a brick in her kitchen.    

The letters are correspondence between two women; Adela and Felicity who obviously lived in the bungalow in 1857.  There are parts missing from the letters and Evie is intrigued and decides that she must find out the whole of the story.

The story then flits back to 1857 where the reader is introduced to Adela and Felicity, as the novel continues it becomes a dual narrative, with chapters alternating between Evie and Adela.

‘I’m part of the Transworld Book Group!’
This really is a wonderfully well researched, compelling read.  The two stories are merged so well together, with both stories equally as fascinating.

Personally, I learned so much about the history of India from reading The Sandalwood Tree. Elle Newmark has not held back at all, she details the poverty and the barbarism aswell as the beautiful countryside, the food, the colours, the sounds and the smells.

I was very saddened to read that Elle Newmark died at the end of July this year, after a long illness.
My sympathies go out to her family - a very great and sad loss to the literary world.

Saturday 6 August 2011

The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh

The Victorian language of flowers was used to convey romantic expressions: honeysuckle for devotion, asters for patience, and red roses for love. But for Victoria Jones, it’s been more useful in communicating grief, mistrust, and solitude. After a childhood spent in the foster-care system, she is unable to get close to anybody, and her only connection to the world is through flowers and their meanings.

Now eighteen and emancipated from the system, Victoria has nowhere to go and sleeps in a public park, where she plants a small garden of her own. Soon a local florist discovers her talents, and Victoria realizes she has a gift for helping others through the flowers she chooses for them. But a mysterious vendor at the flower market has her questioning what’s been missing in her life, and when she’s forced to confront a painful secret from her past, she must decide whether it’s worth risking everything for a second chance at happiness

I love fresh flowers.  Even when money is extra tight, I try to ensure that I have some fresh flowers in the house, they cheer me up - they brighten up the room and there is nothing better than the smell of things such as freesia and stocks to make me feel better.  

I was delighted when Chloe from Macmillan sent me a copy of Vanessa Diffenbaugh's novel The Language of Flowers - it will be published here in the UK on 18 August 2011.

What a beautiful book, both the story itself and the actual book.  The cover is a stunning design,  and different parts of the story have front pages with gorgeous calligraphy - it really is beautifully designed and presented. 
The subject of the novel fascinated me, the language of flowers and each flower's individual meaning - something that I knew nothing about, although I believe that our latest member of the Royal Family - Kate Middleton is very interested in the subject.   
I was also drawn by the fact that the lead character of the story is a foster child - I've worked for charities now for many years and for four years I ran a drop in project for young people that were 'leaving care'.  Aged between 17 and 21, these were kids that had been in the system for all of their lives and were making that difficult transition from being 'looked after' to living in the wide world by themselves. I'd also run a project for young parents who had been in the care system, so had many memories of these children and their unique problems.
Victoria is 18 years old and has spent her life being moved from one foster carer to another and between different group homes before finally leaving the system as the book opens.   
During her time in the system she has had no consistency, except for her Social Worker Meredith - a woman who has only displayed frustration and anger towards her.     
The reader is made aware that Victoria did once have the chance to make a new life with a lady called Elizabeth and this back story is interwoven with Victoria's present day situation.  It is clear that Victoria and Elizabeth loved each other, but that they have been estranged for the last 8 years - as the story unfolds, we learn more and more about their relationship, but it is not until the end of the novel that we find out the whole truth. 
This really is a wonderful read.  It is beautifully written and it is clear that Diffenbaugh has spent a lot of time researching the language of flowers.   
Victoria is homeless when she meets Renata, the owner of Bloom, a florist shop.   Victoria has always loved flowers and their meaning, something that Elizabeth taught her during their time together.  Renata recognises her talents and gives her a chance in the shop.  It is not long before Victoria's bouquets become famous in the neighbourhood and at last she has found something that she is good at. 
There is a wariness about Victoria - she finds it difficult to love and to be loved.  She trusts no one and is afraid that she will be hurt and that she will hurt anyone who gets close to her.   One day at the flower market she meets Grant, Elizabeth's nephew.   Grant knows more about Victoria's history than anyone else and although this scares her, it also draws her to him. 
I can't go into more detail or I would spoil the book for those who have not yet read it.
Vanessa Diffenbaugh
The Language of Flowers is a joy to read.     
I loved every page of it.  Victoria is a flawed but vulnerable heroine - a girl who is desperate for affection, but also terrified of rejection. 
It is a story of relationships and love, especially between mothers and daughters, and the added intrigue of the meaning of flowers only adds another dimension to the novel.   
An excellent first novel that I would highly recommend.
Macmillan Publishers have set up a wonderful website for the book, you can find it here, you can watch the trailer for the book and also send a beautiful virtual bouquet of flowers to your friends and loved ones.  Choose the flowers according to their meaning and add your own message.

Again, a huge thank you to Chloe from Macmillan who sent me a copy to review.