Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Almost Two Years

It's almost two years since I started this blog, finally expressed my desire to write, then proceeded to do absolutely nothing about it.  Well I did buy some lovely notebooks and some great pens....  I still haven't had the guts to actually write anything.

Then today I saw a retweet to this blogpost  'It's ok to be awful' which really spoke to me.  It doesn't matter if at first you're rubbish.  The important thing is that you started.  I think we all have that fear, as expressed by the author of the post, that people might not like what we create, or worse might not like us!  Then I realised that I don't have this problem with my other creative outlets.  I can knock up a crochet flower, and feel happy to share it on Instagram, or sew a little pouch and share it on Twitter, so why do I find it so hard to start writing, and the thought of sharing it with anyone feel like being asked to sacrifice my first born?  I came to think that maybe it was because the steaks are so much higher.  Because writing is so much a part of who I am and so important to me, the fear of failure is so much greater.  But really, what would failure constitute?  Not becoming a published author?  Not writing anything I think is any good?  Negative feedback from anyone I did let read my writing?  Struggling for anything to write about?  None of that would matter as long as I gave it a go.

The biggest failure would be to not even try.  

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Little Beach Street Bakery by Jenny Colgan

Jenny Colgan has become one of my favourite authors over the past couple of years. Her books are very uplifting and help with some much needed escapism.  I especially enjoy her more recent books which not only feature a protagonist who is in her early 30s like me, but also one who has to make some major changes in their life.  These changes lead to a new direction for the heroine which is ultimately very fulfilling for them.  Add in the sprinkling of romance, and you have the perfect feel-good novel. 

I was very fortunate to receive an advance copy of Jenny's latest book, Little Beach Street Bakery from her publishers Little Brown a couple of weeks ago.  I had been very much looking forward to reading it, so I was keen to get started.  I began reading it that evening and immediately I was hooked.  

Polly the main character is a very likeable heroine.  Things haven't been going right for her for a while, and we meet her at a very low ebb. Getting to witness the decisions she makes, and the adventure this leads to is a real pleasure.  You find yourself rooting for her, and with every triumph and tragedy you will feel her joy and sadness along with her.  As the title suggests, baking is a big theme of the book, but a previous interest in it is by no means needed.  You might find yourself wanting to give baking a try for yourself by the end though, and as with her other recent books, Jenny has included some tried and tested recipes that you can have a go at.  If any more persuasion is necessary that you should read this book, there is even the appearance of the cutest of sea birds - the puffin!  The setting is exquisite, and made me long for the sea.  I won't go any further into the story than that, as I don't want to give away any spoilers - you'll just have to read it for yourself!  

Jenny Colgan has a way of writing what makes the reader feel as if they are chatting with an old friend.  I love this style, as it is so easy to lose yourself in her books, and this is one no exception.  In fact, for me this was one of Jenny's finest novels to date.  I only had one sticking point - the use of a 'gluten-allergy' as a character trait.

You might wonder why I have a problem with it, as don't we all get fed up of faddy-eaters who claim to have allergies and intolerances and cause us no end of trouble when we try to cater for them?  Well, just under 3 years ago, my son was diagnosed with Coeliac Disease after having been sick and in pain for a long time.  A few months later my daughter was diagnosed with it too.  They were 9 and 12 at the time.  You can read more about our experiences here

You can be allergic to wheat, but what is usually misunderstood as an allergy to gluten is actually Coeliac Disease.  Coeliac UK, the oldest and largest Coeliac Disease charity in the world describes Coeliac Disease as "a well-defined, serious illness where the body’s immune system attacks itself when gluten is eaten. This causes damage to the lining of the gut and means that the body cannot properly absorb nutrients from food. Coeliac disease is not a food allergy or intolerance, it is an autoimmune disease."  So, not a fad-diet copied from the latest celebrity in-crowd for these people for whom the only treatment is to adhere to a strict gluten-free diet for the rest of their life.  Failure to do this in the short term can cause bloating, diarrhoea, constipation, wind, tiredness and headaches.  Undiagnosed Coeliac Disease or failure to stick to the gluten-free diet can lead to malnutrition, anaemiainfertility, osteoporosis and even in rare cases certain types of cancer  Although you have to be born with one of the genes responsible, you are not born with Coeliac Disease, something has to trigger it, and this can happen at any point during your life - sometimes as a young child, but many are not diagnosed until much later in life.    

The difficulty is, when people decide to adopt a gluten-free diet because it is the 'in thing' or to try and lose weight, they can pick and chose when to stick to it.  Take certain celebrities for example - one day they will be extolling the virtue of their new gluten-free diet, the next they'll be tweeting a photo of themselves eating that doughnut they "just couldn't resist".  Understandably this confuses people who don't understand the facts about Coeliac Disease, but for those who have to live with it, the condition has a huge impact on their lives.  Having to read the label of every food you ever eat, running the risk of getting ill when you eat out, having to give up foods you love - it is incredibly stressful.  The risk of cross-contamination is another issue which many people would not consider - even a crumb of gluten-containing food can trigger a reaction in a person with Coeliac Disease.  This is what makes eating food which you haven't prepared yourself, in your own kitchen, or which you is labelled as 'Gluten-free' (this is protected by labelling law) a frightening experience.  The one good thing with the growth of the Free-From market in the past few years is that choice and availability has improved.  Almost all supermarkets will now have a Free-From section where basics such as gluten-free flour and bread can be found.  In the recent past, some pizza shops have even started doing gluten-free bases, so at long last people who cannot eat gluten can enjoy what so many take for granted!  

So the next time you hear about someone with special dietary requirements, before you brush them off as 'difficult', 'a fussy-eater' or that it's 'just a lifestyle choice', think about what the reality must be like for someone with Coeliac Disease or a serious food allergy and be glad if you're lucky enough not to have to live with that yourself.    

I apologise for this book review ending up being a bit of a soapbox speech, but  in the UK 1 in 100 people have Coeliac Disease but only 10-15% of those are actually diagnosed.  If you think you might, it is important not to cut gluten out of your diet straight away.  See for more information.

In conclusion, I really enjoyed Little Beach Street Bakery, and if you have enjoyed any of Jenny Colgan's previous books or like stories which are ultimately uplifting and where you identify and empathise with the main character,  I have no doubt you will to.  


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.