Wednesday 31 October 2012

The Mystery of Mercy Close by Marian Keyes

I can hardly believe that seventeen years have passed since Marian Keyes introduced us to the world of the Walsh Family in her debut novel Watermelon.   At last, six years since we last heard from one of the Walsh sisters in Anybody Out There?, it's the turn of youngest sister Helen to update fans on what has been happening in the Walsh family.

Helen was always a little bit quirky, and although she has not played a big part in the other books in this series, she's always been there in the background.   Helen has tried her hand at quite a few jobs over the years and is now a Private Investigator.   She was a fairly successful PI, working on various cases, sometimes jetting off to exotic locations, she had her own flat and a car.   Then along came the economic melt down that hit Ireland harder and faster than anywhere else in Europe.  Helen has found herself back with her parents and struggling to find work.   She's also battling a darker and more dangerous demon; the debilitating depression that almost finished her off once before and is looming over her again.

When Helen is offered a job, tracking down the missing member of a re-formed boy band, she is delighted to be needed, the major downside is that the guy who hires her is her ex-boyfriend Jay Parker.

Helen is not the easiest character to like, she could be considered rude, she is forceful, cynical and often speaks before she thinks, but underneath that exterior is a vulnerable and damaged woman with an acid wit and a fantastic collection of one-liners that would stop anyone in their tracks.  She is funny and she is loyal.

The 'mystery' of the story appears at first to be a bit forced : the disappearance of an ex boy-band member.   Helen's methods of investigation are also a little unusual to say the least, but I feel that the whole mystery and investigation is just the cover-story for something that underneath, is a very serious and quite frightening subject matter.   Marian Keyes deals with Helen's battle with depression with ease, with compassion and with humour.   Her own depressive illness is something that she has talked openly and honestly about, and it is clear that she has taken some of her own experiences and given them to Helen.  A very brave step for any author to take, but her wonderful writing and her talented wit have allowed her to carry it off with ease.

The Mystery of Mercy Close is a book that on the face of it appears to be about a grumpy girl PI and a bunch of burnt-out pop stars, but is in fact, a story of hitting the bottom and pulling yourself back up again - with laughs thrown in and of course a Shovel List!

Saturday 27 October 2012

A Guest Blogger reviews The Child Who by Simon Lelic

I am delighted to introduce my friend Joan, who has kindly agreed to be the first guest reviewer on Random Things.

Joan describes herself as the daughter of a forces family who has lived in Staffordshire for 57 of her 62 years.  She has been married to Terry for 41 years.   Joan retired from teaching seven years ago and enjoys a very busy and active retirement.  Always a book-lover, she fostered a love of stories, not only to her own family with with her pupils.  She lists her loves in life as her family, homelife, friendships, reading, playing tennis, socialising, photography and holidaying.

Joan tells me that she thinks she sounds uninteresting - she isn't!   Joan and I met through an online book discussion group, we were virtual friends at first but have since met up many times to eat lunch, talk about books and laugh together.   She tells me that during her life she's been run over by a car, shot in the shoulder,  team-taught with a convicted paedophile, been stalked and received menacing phone calls TWICE, and coached a young gymnast who went on to compete in the Olympics - phew!   Hardly uninteresting!

Joan agreed to read and review Simon Lelic's latest novel; The Child Who which was published by Picador, an imprint of Pan Macmillan in paperback in July this year.   Here are Joan's thoughts;

What an absolute cracker this one was.  The story revolves in the main around Leo Curtice, the duty solicitor,  when police telephone the Exeter practice of twelve solicitors where Leo works, to ask for representation for twelve-year-old Daniel Blake, charged with the shockingly violent murder of his ten-year-old school mate Felicity Forbes.  

The tension escalates throughout the build up to the trial, with Leo receiving hate mail, his daughter Eleanor being attacked and covered by red ink, and his wife being frightened witless by an intruder emerging from the dark at her lounge window.  Despite the worries of his fellow solicitors and his family, Leo is determined to mount a comprehensive defence to minimise the impact of the sentence to be bestowed upon Daniel, who admits to the charge and feels deep regret for his actions.  

When Leo's daughter disappears, he and his wife are distraught with worry and Leo reluctantly hands over the case to a colleague while he concentrates on helping the police to track down the abductor of his daughter.  In his absence, and to Leo's horror, Daniel is sentenced without offering the defence Leo had envisaged and worked so hard on.    

There are two strands to this story, with Daniel's story the back-story set in the past, being the bulk of the book.  The contemporary strand, running parallel tells of the devastating consequences for Leo's family.  With chilling reminders of the prosecution of John Venables and Robert Thompson in the 1993 murder of toddler James Bulger, and the relaxing of the age of responsibility for criminal actions to ten year olds,  there is plenty of room for reflection and discussion about the rights and wrongs of the treatment metered out on Daniel.  This is a meticulously researched, well-written novel, a page-turner that will stay in my thoughts for a very long time.

My thanks to Joan for such a fabulous review of The Child Who. I look forward to introducing more guest reviewers over the coming months.

Wednesday 24 October 2012

Move Over Darling by Christine Stovell

Move Over Darling is Christine Stovell's second novel and was published by Choc Lit at the beginning of October.

The small Welsh village of Penmorfa is the main setting of the story which revolves around Coralie Casey and Gethin Lewis.    Coralie is a newcomer to the village, she has left behind her busy corporate life to set up a small business selling her own range of natural beauty and cleaning products - inspired by her late Grandmother.   Gethin, on the other hand, is a native of Penmorfa.  He left the village many years before and is now a successful artist based in New York.  Gethin has returned to refurbish and sell his childhood home after the recent death of his father.   Gethin doesn't have happy memories of the village, and many of the residents seem to resent his success, especially as they feel that his most famous painting does his home village no favours.

Christine Stovell gradually introduces other characters into the story, and although they do not take centre stage, their personalities and complex lives are just as entertaining and often as intriguing as the two main players.   The essence of village life is captured very well, from the gossipy old women, to the handsome young surfer and the modern-day worries of marriages, business and how to raise funds for the much needed new Community Centre.

As the story unfolds and the reader gets to know both Coralie and Gethin, my initial impressions of them changed.  Gethin starts out as something of a cold and distant character, often appearing arrogant and uncaring.  Coralie has an air of mystery to her, and at times appears quite vulnerable.  As their relationship with each other develops, so does the relationship between their characters and the reader.

Christine Stovell
Move Over Darling is a traditional romance with a modern twist, and a hint of suspense and mystery running through it that makes for a satisfying and entertaining read.

My thanks to Jane from Choc Lit for sending a copy for review, and the added bonus of a Walnut Whip to go with it!

You can visit the Choc Lit website here, for details of their other books, and follow them on Twitter here.

Christine Stovell's web site is here, she is also on Twitter here.

Tuesday 23 October 2012

Ketchup Clouds by Annabel Pitcher

Fifteen-year-old Zoe has a secret - a dark and terrible secret that she can't confess to anyone she knows. But then one day she hears of a criminal, Stuart Harris, locked up on death row in Texas. Like Zoe, Stuart is no stranger to secrets. Or lies. Or murder.
Full of heartache yet humour, Zoe tells her story in the only way she can - in letters to the man in prison in America. Armed with a pen, Zoe takes a deep breath, eats a jam sandwich, and begins her tale of love and betrayal.

When Annabel Pitcher's debut novel My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece was published in March last year she really raised the bar for authors of young adult novels and set herself a very very high standard to keep. The novel was shortlisted for numerous awards and was praised by other authors, by the press and by book bloggers.  You can read my review here.

I was very excited to receive a pre-publication copy of her second novel Ketchup Clouds which will be published by Indigo (an imprint of Orion) at the end of the year.

Ketchup Clouds is certainly not a copy of My Sister, but it got the same reaction from me and I loved every page, I was hooked in by the end of the first paragraph and was loathe to put it down at all until I'd finished the last sentence.
The lead character; Zoe, has done something wrong, or so she thinks.  She has lived with what has happened to her for the past year, feeling guilty, yet hiding her feelings at the same time.  Zoe's family have their own problems and she doesn't want to burden them any more.    Mum and Dad are constantly bickering, about money, about jobs, about Grandpa,  it seems to Zoe that they argue about everything these days.  Her sister Soph is ten years old and struggles to find her place in the family, and then there is the baby of the family; little Dot.  Dot is deaf, yet funny and happy but Mum does seem to spend so much more time with her than either of the others.

When a Nun visits Zoe's school to talk about capital punishment and tells them about prisoners on Death Row in the USA, Zoe becomes intrigued.  It is there, in the most unlikely place, that Zoe finds someone she can confide in.  Stu Harris, convicted murderer, facing the death sentence.   Zoe creeps out into the garden shed night after night and writes letter after letter to Stu, spilling her secrets and her innermost thoughts honestly and candidly.

Annabel Pitcher creates a wonderfully lifelike and credible teenage voice in Zoe, allowing the reader to find out slowly and surely just what has happened to her over the past year.   The family rows, the teenage angst, the blossoming relationships with boys, the responsibilities of being the older sibling, but at the same time she doesn't give much away.  The sense of intrigue and the feeling of suspense builds up right up until the last few chapters when finally all is revealed to the reader.
Annabel Pitcher

There are only a very few authors of young adult fiction that can really engage me as an adult reader, who can write novels that seem as relevant to an adult as they do to teenagers.  Tabitha Suzuma and the late Siobhan Dowd are two of the best, and Annabel Pitcher is now firmly up there with them in my eyes.

Ketchup Clouds is a compelling, sometimes funny, often heartbreaking and always original story of a young girl's guilt and fear, it's also a story of new beginnings and hope.  The characters become real, the writing is engaging and very very special.

Fans of My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece can breathe a sigh of relief, Annabel Pitcher has produced another sure fire winner.

Sunday 21 October 2012

Alys, Always by Harriet Lane

Harriet Lane's debut novel Alys, Always was published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson (an imprint of Orion) in February 2012.

The beautiful, quirky cover illustration perfectly encapsulates the contents of this short, but extremely tight novel; the silhouette of a woman looking into the brightly lit windows of a house - a woman on the edge, looking at something she wants.   That woman is Frances, the most unreliable narrator of the story.

Frances lives a conventional, unexciting life, she's in her thirties, a book page sub-editor on a newspaper and doesn't appear to have many friends.  Her parents live in the country and stifle her, her sister is busily married with children.  Frances is travelling home from a visit with her parents when she comes across a car accident, there is nothing she can do for the female driver of the car except comfort her until the emergency services arrive and hear her last words.

This is the first and last act of selflessness that Frances does throughout the novel.   Frances discovers that the driver was Alys Kyte, the wife of Booker winning novelist Lawrence Kyte, and when the Kyte family ask to speak with her, the seeds of what 'could be' are planted firmly in her mind.

Frances slowly but surely becomes a part of the Kyte's lives.  Befriending young Polly Kyte appears to be something she feels she ought to do, rather than something she wants to do, but gradually it becomes clear that Frances has a plan for her future and Polly's friendship will pave the way for her.

Harriet Lane
The truth gradually dawns on the reader.  Harriet Lane has drawn a complex character in Frances, initially she appears quite harmless, shy, a little vulnerable and possibly naive but as the story unfolds the questions arose in my mind.    Very slowly, very subtly, Frances is exposed to the reader, but not to the other characters and the story takes on a psychological chill.  Not once does Frances appear to put a foot out of place, but she has a creepiness about her that sent chills down my spine.

Alys, Always is an excellent debut novel that is sparsely yet elegantly written, and leaves questions that may never be answered for the reader to contemplate.

Harriet Lane's website can be found here, you can follow her on Twitter here.

Saturday 20 October 2012

The Secret Rooms : A True Gothic Mystery by Catherine Bailey

Catherine Bailey visited Belvoir Castle with the intention of writing about the part played by the Rutland family and the workers from the estate during the First World War.  

When she started to do her research she stumbled upon a mystery that had been hidden for many years, once she started to delve, she came across a story that has now become the focus of this book - a completely different book to that which she had planned, but one that is incredibly detailed and often reads like a fiction novel.

In the opening chapters, the ninth Duke of Rutland; John Manners is dying.  For the last few years of his life he has shut himself away in the 'secret rooms' amongst the servant's quarters on the ground floor of Belvoir Castle.

These rooms were cramped, with no luxuries at all, so different from the sumptuous suites on the upper floors of the Castle.  After John's death, his son sealed off the rooms and until Catherine Bailey arrived to do her research, no one else had entered them.

The Duke was a strange and solitary man throughout his life, he collected and catalogued items constantly including birds eggs, photographs, and most importantly, the family correspondence going back hundreds of years.  As the author carefully made her way through the thousands of letters kept in the rooms, she found that there were three periods of John's life that were missing, these were from 1894, 1909 and 1915.  Everything else had been carefully catalogued including the estate accounts, so what had happened to John during these times of his life that he was determined to erase?

John was the second son of Henry, the 8th Duke of Rutland and his wife Violet.  Their first born son Haddon tragically died at the age of 9.  Haddon's death occurs at the time of the first batch of missing correspondence in 1894.  John, aged just 7 at the time, was sent away from home immediately after the funeral to live with his Uncle Charles - his mother Violet could not bear to look at him and Haddon was deeply mourned by his parents.  

Violet's apparent cruelty, neglect and lack of compassion to her second son continues throughout his life, not once did his parents visit him when he was sent away to school and it was not until he was due to go to France as an Army officer in the Great War that they began to take notice of him again.   It was not that they feared for John's safety, it was purely because they needed the Rutland name to be continued and the Belvoir Estate to remain in the family.  

Violet's manipulating and pressurising of leading Army figures is astonishing to read, she comes across as a driven and hard-faced woman who will stop at nothing to get what she desires.  John's father Henry was a weak man, more concerned with appearances than with his son's feelings.

It is no wonder that John grew to be a damaged, vulnerable and needy adult.  A man who found it difficult to love and to be loved and preferred to surround himself with inanimate objects and who was determined that no one would find out the family secrets.   And there are so many secrets uncovered in this story; just how did little Haddon die?   Where exactly did John spend most of the war years?

Catherine Bailey
Catherine Bailey is a historian and successful television producer.  She has produced a story that is accessible and well written, that reads like a novel but is in fact the whole truth.   This is a fascinating look at how the wealthy and titled lived their lives, raised their families and how they behaved on the battle fields and beyond during the Great War.   A war that hundreds of thousands of ordinary men never returned from, but a war that Dukes and Lords often looked upon as a bit of a 'jolly' as they tucked into their luxury hampers whilst watching the battles from afar.

The book is beautifully presented, with a detailed family tree, black and white photographs and a plan of Belvoir Castle.

The Secret Rooms: A True Gothic Mystery will be published by Penguin on 1 November 2012.

Sunday 14 October 2012

Dearest Rose by Rowan Coleman

I've been home from the wonderful island of Paxos for just over a week, as always, after a holiday, I've found it really difficult to get back into reading.  I'm not sure why it happens, but it always does.  I've picked up and abandoned a couple of books since we arrived home and was beginning to despair.  I was really pleased to receive a copy of Rowan Coleman's tenth novel Dearest Rose this week and hoped that this would be the book to cure my reading malaise - sure enough it did!  Thank goodness!

Dearest Rose was published on 27 September 2012 by Arrow Books; an imprint from the Random House publishing group.  It's been quite a while since I've read anything by Rowan Coleman so I wasn't quite sure what to expect from this one.  The cover picture is nice but quite ambiguous and could, quite possibly, put some readers off.

"You are a remarkable woman and you deserve all the happiness, contentment and love in the world.  I, for one, know that I have never met anyone quite like you."
These are the words, written on the back of a well-worn postcard that Rose has cherished for many years.  These are the words that were in the back of her mind when she finally, after years of unhappiness, left her husband.   These are the words that Rose has based the rest of her life on, the words that have given her hope.

Dearest Rose is an intelligently written, captivating story of a woman who has never felt loved.  She is a daughter, a wife and a mother yet feels as though she is a nothing.  Every relationship throughout her life has been difficult, starting with her dysfunctional parents; the father who left when she was nine, the mother who committed suicide, the husband who controlled her and the daughter that lives in her own world.   Frasier; the man who wrote the words on the postcard is the only person who ever thought Rose was someone special.

I found the first half of the novel to be quite slow-moving, Rose and her daughter Maddie are introduced to the reader quite slowly, their characters are slowly built up, with snippets of their backgrounds adding bit by bit allowing us to understand why and how they came to be where they are today.   The second half the novel moves at a cracking pace, with the story unfolding and leading up to some quite traumatic and emotional scenes.  It really is a quite draining and emotional read at times, but it's also a very satisfying and fulfilling story.
Rowan Coleman

For me, the star of the novel is Maddie.  Rose's seven-year-old daughter is a strange little girl, and she knows it.  Intelligent and perceptive far beyond her years, she really shines throughout the novel.  Her vulnerability is exposed alongside her abrupt and quite direct manner.

A remarkably well written novel that I enjoyed reading very much and would recommend highly.

Rowan Coleman has a website here.   Her Facebook page is here, and you can follow her on Twitter here.

Saturday 6 October 2012

Foodie Penpals

A while ago one of my friends sent me a message to tell me about Foodie Penpals - she knows how much I enjoy receiving random things through my letterbox and thought that I would love the idea, she was so right!

Foodie Penpals started in America on the Lean Green Bean blog and UK bloggers have been involved for a while now, co-ordinated by Carol Anne - a foodie blogger from Glasgow, her blog is This is Rock Salt.

Every month Carol Anne pairs you up with another penpal and you send that person a foodie parcel, and in return you receive a parcel of goodies from another person on the list.  I was really excited to get my first email at the beginning of September and had great fun choosing some interesting things to post off.

I received my first parcel just before I went away to Paxos, my sender was Callie who lives in Broadstairs in Kent.   It was really exciting to open up the box and see what Callie had chosen for me, it felt a little like Christmas and my Birthday rolled into one.
Callie had themed her foodie delights on Kent and enclosed a lovely letter that told me all about the contents, I was really impressed that she had included some home-made treats too.

So, what did I get??   

2 bags of Kent Crisps - made by Quex Park - these were delicious, crisps are one of my greatest pleasure
A 'gypsy tart' - made at Callie's sister-in-law's factory.  I've never come across one of these before, it was good, but a little on the sweet side, the pastry was fantastic though.

Some Earl Grey and Chai tea-bags - I love a cuppa, these were very welcome.
Breakfast Toppers - I've not tried this yet but now the weather is cooler, I'm going to sprinkle it onto my porridge when I go to work on Monday - fruity and nutty - yum!
A sachet of Brownie flavour Hot Chocolate drink - another great way to warm myself up - maybe I'll add some mini marshmallows when I try this one!

Hand made by Callie:
Cheese Straws and Sesame Seed Sticks - they were a bit crushed by the time they arrived, but they were gorgeous - so light and crumbly.
Apple Drop Cakes - made with Kent Bramley Apples - moist and sweet, very moreish!

A pot of strawberry jam and some plums preserved in booze - both of these smell fab and I intend to try them out this week

And finally, a Bramley Apple - this was made into apple sauce and served with pork chops!

Thanks so much Callie - everything was perfect!!

I sent my foodie parcel to Heather who lives in the Netherlands - if you'd like to see what she thought of her parcels, check out her post about it on her blog Cloggie Central.

My first Foodie Penpal experience was a great success - I'm really looking forward to next month now.

If you'd like to get involved with Foodie Penpals, you can check out the details here