Thursday, 30 August 2012

The Girl You Left Behind by Jojo Moyes - Review

I really enjoyed Jojo Moyes' previous book, Me Before You (particularly as the theme was the subject I wrote my dissertation on), so was very excited when I found out that I would be getting an advance copy to review, courtesy of The Reading Room and Penguin.  As with most people, I sobbed at times while reading Me Before You, and if anything, The Girl You Left Behind made me cry more.  How much a book makes me cry is a very good indication of whether a book is really good, as it means I have empathised with the characters.  If I have empathised particularly well with the characters, I cry at the happy as well as the sad parts.  In fact, I should probably review books with a tear rating!

This book revolves around a painting 'The Girl You Left Behind' and how it connects two women living almost a century apart.  In German-occupied France, 1916, Sophie Lefevre's artist husband has been sent to fight at the Front.  His portrait of her hangs in her family's hotel.  A constant reminder of their love, it gives her hope that they will be reunited.  Sophie will do whatever it takes to ensure his safety.

In London, 2006,  Liv is grieving for her husband who died suddenly 4 years previously.  Her most precious possession is the portrait of a young woman he gave her shortly before his death.  A chance encounter initiates a chain of events which leads to the discovery of the painting's tragic history and leads to Liv putting everything on the line to fight for what she loves most.

Will Sophie and her family survive the war and be reunited with their loved-ones?  Will Liv be able to move on and find happiness once again?  What is the truth of what really happened to the painting in the intervening years? 

This is a fantastic book.  Gripping and with plot twists right to the final pages, you will not be able to put it down.  The attention to detail gives you the feeling that you are actually there, experiencing everything with the characters.  Sophie and Liv are fantastic heroines.  Completely believable, they are determined and strong whilst their flaws keep them entirely human.

If you have enjoyed Jojo’s previous books, you will love The Girl You Left Behind.  If this is your first experience of her writing, you’re in for a treat.  Intelligent and emotional it’s a story that will stay with you.

The Girl You Left Behind is published by Penguin.  It will be available in paperback and Kindle editions on the 27th September 2012.

Friday, 24 August 2012

The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng - Review

I was lucky enough to be a guest reviewer over at Curiosity Killed the Bookworm.  I am posting the review here as well as I really enjoyed this book.

You can read the review here or below.

The Garden of Evening Mists by Malaysian author Tan Twan Eng is beautiful, haunting and deeply moving.  It has very deservedly been long-listed for the Man Booker Prize 2012, as was the author's first novel The Gift of Rain in 2007.

This is the story of Teoh Yun Ling, the second woman judge to be appointed to the Malaysian Supreme Court.  Retiring from the bench after 14 years of service she decides to record her experiences as a young woman while she can still remember them.

The only survivor of a Japanese slave labour camp in which she was interned at the age of 17 during the Second World War, her hatred of the Japanese and grief and guilt for her sister who did not survive are the defining aspects of her life in the following years.

Six years after she leaves the slave labour camp, she travels to Yugiri 'the only Japanese garden in Malaya.'  Here she attempts to put aside her hatred of the Japanese to seek the assistance of the former gardener of the Japanese Emperor, Nakamora Aritomo in designing the Japanese garden her sister had dreamed of building.  He refuses to design it for her, but offers to take Yun Ling on as an apprentice so she can learn the skills required to create the memorial garden herself.  Studying the Japanese Art of  Setting Stones with Aritomo in the Garden of Evening Mists she is in the shadow of another war, as communist terrorists fight for independence from British rule.  However she finds she is learning far more than just the art of Japanese garden design.

As Yun Ling sets down her memories on paper, she discovers there may have been more to Nakamura Aritomo than she had known.  Can she piece everything together before it is too late?  Is she able to at last find the peace she has sought for so long? 

Starting off slowly, the story becomes more and more gripping the further you get into it.  At times disturbing - primarily because you know the events are based in fact, the strength and resilience of the human spirit to overcome the atrocities that can be inflicted on it make it an uplifting and inspiring read.

I loved this book.  It is a fascinating insight into the period of the second World War and the years following it in Malaya (now Malaysia).  This is an area of history of which I knew little before, but of which I have now become particularly interested.  The imagery is very strong - at times you could believe you were in the jungle too.  All characters have so many layers to them that you feel they must actually exist somewhere.  It has made me want to read more of Tan Twan Eng's writing, so his first book The Gift of Rain is on my 'to read' list.

I would definitely recommend this book and have high hopes that it could go on to win this year's Man Booker Prize. 

The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng is published by Myrmidon Books and is available in paperback and Kindle editions now.

The Mystery of Mercy Close by Marian Keyes - Review

Rarely if ever have I anticipated the release of a book as greatly as Marian Keyes’ new novel.  I first discovered her books in 2002 and they have helped me through some difficult times.  Her writing style feels like you’re talking with a close friend, and the combination of heart-breaking sadness and laugh-out-loud humour is always a winner.

Marian has been very honest and open about her experience of depression over the past few years.  Shortly after the release of her last novel The Brightest Star in the Sky in 2009 she found herself in the grips of a Major Depressive Episode which stopped her from being able to write.  In February 2012  Saved by Cake was released.  As well as a wonderful recipe book (we’ve had fun converting many of the recipes to gluten-free versions as my children both have Coeliac Disease), she spoke about her depression and how baking had helped her get through the darkest periods.

Now, over three years from the release of her last novel comes the long awaited The Mystery of Mercy Close.  Not any old story though - this is one of the much loved Walsh sisters stories, my personal favourites of all her books.

This time the star of the story is Helen Walsh, the youngest sister.  As you will know if you have read any of the previous Walsh sister books (Watermelon, Rachel’s Holiday, Angels, Is There Anybody Out There), Helen is acerbic tongued, tough and devil-may care.  But in The Mystery of Mercy Close we see another side to her.

Now 33 with her work as a Private Investigator having dried up, and her bed having been repossessed she is left with no choice but to move back in with her parents.  Enter Jay Parker, a dodgy ex-boyfriend who comes to her with a missing person’s case.  Desperate for money, and intrigued by the case (the missing person is no less than Wayne Diffney from boyband Laddz) Helen agrees to do some initial investigation with no guarantees she’ll take on the case.

As Helen digs deeper, she finds that Wayne, the ‘Wacky One’ of the band has seems to have vanished without a trace.  With 5 days until Laddz big reunion gig, the pressure is on to find him.  The more she looks into his life, the more Helen begins to empathise with Wayne until she feels that maybe it would be best for him not to be found.

While investigating Wayne’s disappearance, Helen is fighting her own battles.  The depression that she had suffered from 2 1/2 years ago seems to be returning worse than ever.

What happened to Wayne?  Can Helen find him in time?  Will she manage to overcome the depression that is threatening to drag her under?

When I received the book (very kindly sent by Penguin for me to review), I was almost afraid to start reading - I had built it up so much that I was worried that it wouldn’t live up to my expectations.  I couldn’t have been more wrong.  On the surface this is a brilliant detective novel which has you gripped to the very last revelation.  However, this is also a very personal experience of depression.  That the seemingly least-vulnerable of the Walsh sisters could be afflicted by this terrible illness just goes to show that it could happen to any of us. 

It was great to read another Walsh sister story, with all the characters we‘ve come to know and love.  Witnessing the vulnerability in Helen, someone who’s only weakness we‘ve previously seen is her possibly being  too tough makes you feel an empathy for her, and you feel so strongly for her throughout the story.  Whether she is successful in finding Wayne and fighting her demons is a journey that is sometimes painful (yes I did cry.  A lot.), often funny (strange looks from the family as I burst out laughing on numerous occasions) but always gripping and brilliantly written.  There is even a reference to one of my other literary heroes, Douglas Adams.

For a very long time, mental health issues have been seen as taboo.  Given how many people suffer from them at some point in their lives, this is just wrong.  The more we are able to talk about such things, the more people who are suffering will feel able to ask for the help they need.  How Marian has used her experiences to write such a beautiful and touching book is incredibly brave.  If you have suffered from depression yourself as I have, then you will find yourself identifying with a lot of Helen’s feelings and experiences.  If you haven’t then I urge you to read this book for an insight into what it can be like. 

The Mystery of Mercy Close by Marian Keyes is published by Michael Joseph for Penguin.  It is released in Hardback and Kindle editions on 13th September 2012.

If you can’t wait that long, Mammy Walsh’s A-Z of the Walsh Family: an e-book short is released on the Kindle on 27th August 2012.  If you want to catch up with Marian’s previous books, her back catalogue has been re-issued this summer with lovely new covers.

For more information about Marian Keyes visit her website
You can follow her on Twitter for regular updates
You can also follow Mammy Walsh ( and Helen ( on Twitter! 

Thursday, 12 July 2012

The Official Opening of The Hive

 Wednesday 11th July 2012 was a very exciting day for the people of Worcester - the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh came to visit, and mark the official opening of the Hive.  The crowds were out in force, despite heavy rain at times. 
The Queen and  Prince Philip arriving at the Hive.

The Queen is greeted by local children who had brought her flowers.
The Royal Standard flying over the Guildhall while the Queen was present.
Sadly my photos weren't as good as I would have liked, but it was wonderful to see them both, even at a distance.  The Queen looked beautiful, and they both looked very happy.  I hope they enjoyed their brief visit to Worcester as much as we enjoyed it.

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

The Hive - Worcester Library and History Centre

Monday 2nd July 2012 saw the opening of this amazing new facility for the people of Worcestershire.  The Hive is Worcester's library and history centre.  It is the first in Europe to combine the public and university libraries.  It also contains the local council customer service centre, quiet study area, a cafe and the archive and archaeology service.

We have been looking forward to the Hive opening for a long time, so I was very excited to finally get to look around today.  I was very kindly granted permission to take photos, so I've uploaded quite a few! 
The first thing you will notice as you arrive at the Hive (conveniently located next to the bus station, a few minutes walk from the train station and right next to a large car park), is the unique gold-clad design.  Love it or hate it, it's certainly eye-catching.  And I happen to love it.  Landscaped gardens and lawns surround the building, with sloping paths leading around to the main entrance.  We did find this a little hard to find at first, but hopefully more sign-posts will be installed to help first-time visitors.  However, by walking the entire circumference of the building, we did get to admire it from every angle.  A co-ordinating gold-glad bridge has been installed between the Hive and the bus station and shops, making it easy to access from the city centre.
The bridge to the Hive
Large glass doors lead into a central area, which is full of light from the huge windows and skylights.  From this area, you can look all the way up to the skylight in one of the two towers.  This gives a wonderful feeling of space and light.  There were several members of staff ready to welcome visitors and help direct them to the part they were interested in visiting, or to answer any questions they might have.  The lady we spoke to was very helpful, and made us feel welcome straight away.

Main entrance
 On the ground floor to the left as you come through the door is the council hub, and to the right is the cafe. 
 Also on the ground floor is the bright and colourful children's section.  I felt sad that my children have outgrown this area, as it is a fantastic area.  Small seats are integrated with the bookshelves, making reading with your child and introducing them to the wonderful world of books a joyful experience.
Mini seats, and low bookcases in the childrens' area
Full height windows look out towards the railway aqueduct and River Severn and let in lots of light.  There is an area for messy play, a room for group activities, such as the weekly Bounce and Rhyme sessions and the fairytale-esque Story Island - an outdoor classroom reached by a bridge from the children's section, and built to look like it belongs in a castle.  I think learning there would be a magical experience.

Story Island

Before the Hive was built, the area was thoroughly excavated.  A case in the central area contains a selection of the artifacts found - including a plastic toothbrush!
Items found during the excavations
Part of the Roman remains found at the sight has been left for visitors to see.  This gives a great link between the ultra-modern new building, and all the years of history that have lead to this point. 
Roman remains
 There are lifts to all floors, but you get panoramic views of the building from the open-plan staircase.
Central staircase leads from ground floor to
The first floor contains the public records and archaeology sections.  This is an area I'll be investigating further on future visits.
The open plan, large windows and sky lights make the building full of light and space
The second floor is the main library floor.  This contains the public and university libraries.  There are comfortable seating areas to read, tables for quiet work and research and a large number of computers for public use.  In total the library contains around 250,000 books.  A book lovers paradise.  The lights on the top of each shelf really help you to read the book spines without being overly bright. 

I did think there could have been a few more stations to check out books, but in fact there are quite a few on the ground floor as well.  I didn't notice these until I was on my way out though.
The library contains approx. 250,000 books

There are 800 study stations in the Hive
The third floor is for research and quiet work, and access to this floor can only by made via one lift.  In fact it's so well hidden, that we forgot it was even there, so missed out on seeing that part.  But that will be my first port of call next time. 
Manga and graphic novels
The lowest floor is dedicated to teenagers.  It is a fantastic space where they won't have to worry about keeping quiet so they don't upset other library users.  Although it is situated below the main floors, the full height windows looking out onto he same view as the children's section means it is certainly not dark and dingy.  We were impressed by the manga and graphic novel section - somethings our children have a particular interest in.  There are tables for studying, comfortable chairs for reading or spending time with friends and even three games consoles with large screen TVs.  And what surprised me most - several vending machines. 

The Hive is a truly remarkable achievement.  It combines a state of the art building with beautifully thought out touches.  For example, the colour palette is taken from Royal Worcester porcelain.  Combining the university and public library will help to integrate the university students with the residents of Worcester.  It is an invaluable resource for everyone. 

It was wonderful to see so many different groups of people using the Hive.  Parents with small children, elderly couples, and everyone in between.  There is really something for everyone here. 

I'm proud that this amazing building belongs to me as a resident of Worcestershire.  If you get the opportunity, it's well worth a few hours of your time.  Me?  I think it'll become my home away from home.

Sunday, 1 July 2012

Book Q&A

I saw this on even artichokes have hearts (Skye's beautiful and inspiring blog), and thought it would be a great idea to have a go myself to ease me into book blogging.

what are you reading right now?
The Girl Who Played with Fire by Stieg Larsson and
The Earth Angel Training Academy by Michelle Gordon 
do you have any idea what you’ll read when you’re done with that?
The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest by Stieg Larsson
The Silmarrilion by J.R.R. Tolkien
Unfinshed Tales of NĂºmenor and Middle-earth by J.R.R. Tolkien

5 books have you always wanted to read but haven’t got round to?
Le Morte d'Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Dracula by Bram Stoker
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
A Game of Thrones (A Song of Ice and Fire) by George R.R. Martin

what magazines do you have in your bathroom/lounge right now?
Mollie Makes and various crochet magazines.  Also John's Juxtapoz and Hi Fructose magazines.

what’s the worst book you've ever read?
I honestly can't think of one.  I can see the positives in most books, and there are very few that I read and don't want to read again at some point.

what book seems really popular but you actually hated?
Again, I can't think of one! 

what’s the one book you always recommend to just about everyone?
There are quite a few.  How To Be a Woman by Caitlin Moran is a must, especially for women.  I lent it to my 13 year old daughter and she thought it was brilliant too.  Anything by Marian Keyes of course, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and anything by Tolkien.

what are your 3 favourite poems?
Cloths of Heaven by Willam Butler Yeats
Tyger Tyger by Willaim Blake
All That is Gold Does Not Glitter by J.R.R. Tolkien

where do you usually get your books?
Amazon (books & Kindle store)
Snowdrops (St Richard's Hospice Charity Bookshop)

where do you usually read your books?
Regular books, in the bath mostly as it's the only time I get uninterrupted.  If it's a book I'm unable to put down, then I read every second I can - even when cooking and ironing!
With the Kindle mostly when I'm waiting for appointments (Dr etc).

when you were little, did you have any particular reading habits?
Reading every second I had.  I would read until my parents went to bed, pretend to be asleep, then when they fell asleep, read more until my eyes stopped working.  I read about 12 books a week in my early teens (borrowed from local library).

what’s the last thing you stayed up half the night reading because it was so good you couldn’t put it down?
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins 

have you ever “faked” reading a book?
Not that I can remember.  Possibly Charles Dickens or George Elliott at school - really didn't get on with them, but was more likely to go home and read the whole book in one night so I didn't have to read it painfully sloly a chapter at a time in class.

have you ever bought a book just because you liked the cover?
Yes, I bought Jinx by Meg Cabot for my daughter as I liked the sparkly cover!  I've probably bought a few others becasue of the way they looked too, but that's the only one I remember.

what was your favourite book when you were a child?
I loved the Jill's Ponies books by Ruby Fegrguson, (and anything about horses), Enid Blyton, the Hobbit and the Chronicles of Narnia. 

Treasured books from my childhood

what book changed your life?
The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis.  This was the first book I totally lost myself in, when I was 7.  Once I'd discovered the escapism of reading, I never looked back.
And possibly even more importantly, this was the book that made me realise that I wanted to be a writer.

what is your favourite passage from a book?
From the Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien:
'All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.

From the ashes a fire shall be woken,
A light from the shadows shall spring;
Renewed shall be blade that was broken,
The crownless again shall be king'

what are your top five favourite authors?
Not sure I can limit it to 5!  But some of my favourites are:
Marian Keyes
J.R.R. Tolkien
Jane Austen
Philip Pullman
Douglas Adams
Susan Cooper
Dan Brown
J.K. Rowling
Sophie Kinsella

A few of my favourites

what is your favourite classic book?
I love all Jane Austen's novels, not sure if I can chose a favourite.  Which ever one I've read most recently probably.

5 other notable mentions?
Inkheart by Cornelia Funke
The Stephanie Plum series by Janet Evanovich 
Eve Was Framed and Just Law by Helena Kennedy
The Twilight Saga by Stephanie Meyer (also loved the Host)
Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency by Douglas Adams

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Shiny new blog

Since reading is my favourite thing, and has been since I was 7, I thought it was about time I dedicated more time to it.  So here is my new blog, where I'll be blogging about the books I've been reading, musing about future reads, and maybe even do a bit of creative writing myself.

In truth, I have been planning a book of my own for years, but fear of failure has stopped me from trying.  But this is the year that changes. and I start to take it seriously.

I've just finished reading the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings and feel a little bereft now.  I want to live in Middle Earth I think.  I love books how books can transport you to another world.  The best and purest form of escapism.  If I had my way I'd spend every waking moment with my head in a book.

Marian  Keyes' new book comes out in September, and it's about my favourite of the Walsh sisters - Helen, so I'm very, very excited. The Mystery of Mercy Close is released on 13th September 2012.  I have loved all of Marian's books, read each several times and now shared them with my daughter, aged 13.  She is definitely one of my favourite authors, and a true inspiration to me.