Holiday Reads

I was on holiday at the start of the month and as an avid bookworm, for me no suitcase is sufficiently packed without the presence of several books (hard copies for me as I am still resisting the call of a Kindle). These are my top four reads that kept me fully engaged whilst I relaxed on the beach and by the pool.

1: A TIME TO SPEAK – HELEN LEWIS
Synopsis: A remarkable story of courage and endurance during the Holocaust. Helen Lewis, a young student of dance in Prague at the outbreak of World War II, was herded, like Madeleine Albright, into the Terezin ghetto, then deported to Auschwitz in 1942. Separated from her family, she struggled to live amidst the carnage of Hitler’s Final Solution. How she did so, and what she did in order to survive, is a gripping story, told with wit, candor, and controlled anger.

What I thought: World War II is a period in history that has always fascinated me; at its heart, this War highlighted the complexities of human nature. So many years later, it still baffles me how so many ordinary and sensible people could be blindly swept up in a movement that saw them turn on former friends and neighbours and willingly herd them to ghettos and concentration camps from which it was unlikely they would return. Whilst A Time To Speak does mine the depths of depravity a human can inflict on another, what makes it such a compelling read is how strong and brave people like Helen Lewis were, who refused to give up or give in. It also highlights that the War was not simply a case of good versus bad; for every bitter betrayal there are uplifting instances of kindness, from brave neighbours who put themselves in danger to try and protect Lewis to the few guards in the camps who showed mercy to their prisoners rather than tormenting them, such as the kind officer who went out of his way to discreetly feed the starving prisoners of war in the concentration camp. This is a remarkable story that needs to be read and remembered; not only does it teach a valuable history lesson but also offers an invaluable insight into how to be a better human.

 

2. FINAL GIRLS – RILEY SAGER
Synopsis: The media calls them the Final Girls – Quincy, Sam, Lisa – the infamous group that no one wants to be part of. The sole survivors of three separate killing sprees, they are linked by their shared trauma. But when Lisa dies in mysterious circumstances and Sam shows up unannounced on her doorstep, Quincy must admit that she doesn’t really know anything about the other Final Girls. Can she trust them? Or can there ever only be one Final Girl?

What I thought: Final Girls is a gripping and taut thriller that had me hooked from the get go. I loved the fact that Quincy is an unreliable narrator; whilst she is famous for the tragedy she survived, no one really knows what happened that night in the woods when all Quincy’s friends were butchered but she survived, including Quincy. With a bad case of amnesia, Quincy refuses to embrace the title Final Girl, instead opting to focus on her career and her quest to be normal. However, when Sam turns up on her doorstep after the death of Lisa, Quincy is forced to look at who she is really and confront the secrets lurking beneath the surface. As the layers from her past start to peel away, the reader takes the journey of self-discovery with Quincy. This is a superbly crafted thriller that taunts and teases and had me frantically turning the pages until I found out how it finished.

 

3. HERE AND GONE – HAYLEN BECK
Synopsis: Audra has finally left her abusive husband. She’s taken the family car and her young children, Sean and Louise, are buckled up in the back. This is their chance for a fresh start. Audra keeps to the country roads to avoid attention. She’s looking for a safe place to stay for the night when she spots something in her rear-view mirror. A police car is following her and the lights are flickering. Blue and red. As Audra pulls over she is intensely aware of how isolated they are. Her perfect escape is about to turn into a nightmare beyond her imagining. . .

What I thought: Haylen Beck AKA Stuart Neville is one of my favourite thriller writers. Whilst this is his debut novel under the pseudonym Haylen Beck, I had high hopes for this novel before I even started it. With the change of name comes a totally different direction. Switching the Northern Irish setting synonymous with the writing of Neville, to that of a small town in America, this standalone thriller allows Neville, as Beck, the opportunity to explore his love of American crime fiction – and the result is phenomenal. From the opening, this book chilled me to the core. Beck is more than adept at ratcheting up the tension throughout the book, to the point I was dreading how it might end but I couldn’t stop reading. Audra and her children, Sean in particular, are fabulously constructed characters that are impossible not to care for. As well as solid characters, Beck’s strength lies in making everyday scenarios seem sinister by showing how vulnerable we really are, making us question who can really be trusted and showing the lengths we will go for to protect our loved ones. This is an absorbing, adrenaline-fuelled tale that gripped me from start to finish.

 

4. THE ESCAPE – CL TAYLOR
Synopsis: When a stranger asks Jo Blackmore for a lift she says yes, then swiftly wishes she hadn’t. The stranger knows Jo’s name, she knows her husband Max and she’s got a glove belonging to Jo’s two year old daughter Elise. What begins with a subtle threat swiftly turns into a nightmare as the police, social services and even Jo’s own husband turn against her. No one believes that Elise is in danger. But Jo knows there’s only one way to keep her child safe – RUN.

What I thought: CL Taylor is the queen of the slow but fierce burning thriller, and this is no exception. With a protagonist that suffers from agoraphobia, Jo’s reaction to the initial threat posed against her family is to construct metaphorical wall after wall to keep them safe. CL Taylor’s exceptional pacing means that the book feels more and more claustrophobic. However, as the threat gets closer, Jo’s need to protect her daughter is that fierce that she finds herself doing the impossible in a bid to keep her daughter safe. CL Taylor adds twists and turns in all the right places so that it was impossible to predict how the book would end, a major plus for me. Combining suspense with heart and soul, thrills with an examination of the love a parent has for a child, this is one book that will affect you on a totally different level.

Posted:17/10/2017

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Dead in Dún Laoghaire crime writing festival

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The beautiful town of Dún Laoghaire.

When it comes to a genre of choice when perusing a bookshelf, my eye always goes straight to the crime fiction selection. I love all the different aspects this genre encompasses, from mystery to law, crime procedure to the exploration of an ‘evil’ mind. So, when my friend and fellow book worm, Bronagh, told me about Dead in Dún Laoghaire, the inaugural crime writing festival by Penguin Random House Ireland, in partnership with The Irish Times, I jumped at the chance to attend.

After a bleary-eyed early start, I caught the 7am bus from Belfast to Dublin, which also stopped in Newry, where Bronagh, my partner in crime (pun fully intended), hopped on. Once we arrived at the Busáras Bus Station in Dublin, it was a five minute walk to Connolly Train Station to catch the DART which took us the rest of the way to Dún Laoghaire. By 10am we were sipping coffees and enjoying the picturesque views this suburban seaside town has to offer (I have not been to Dún Laoghaire before but it is such a quaint town and I instantly fell in love with it).

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Paula Hawkins (right) in conversation with Kathy Sheridan.

The festival consisted of four events taking place across one day (Saturday 22 July) at the Pavilion Theatre in Dún Laoghaire. First up was a Q&A with global crime writing phenomenon Paula Hawkins, who not only discussed her massively successfully novel The Girl on the Train but also discussed her follow up, Into the Water. As well as touching on ‘second novel’ pressure, Paula, in conversation with Kathy Sheridan of The Irish Times, also discussed her career which veered from journalism to writing under a pseudonym before finding her true voice in crime fiction.

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John Banville (centre) and Stuart Neville (right).

After a short break, it was time for event two: Stuart Neville aka Haylen Beck with John Banville aka Benjamin Black. I first encountered Stuart Neville’s work when I reviewed his debut novel, The Twelve, for Ulster Tatler in 2009. Whilst  I have been lucky enough to attend several of Stuart’s readings over the years, in particular as he is a regular at my favourite literary spot in Belfast, No Alibis bookstore, I have not had the opportunity to see John Banville in conversation before and so it was very interesting to see these two authors sharing a stage to discuss their latest works Here and Gone (Haylen Beck) and Prague Nights (Benjamin Black). What intrigued me most was to hear how different both authors’ writing processes are. Whilst Stuart Neville spent weeks in Arizona, the setting of the new Haylen Beck book, to allow him to fully translate that experience onto the page, John Banville explains that the Prague he depicts on the page is the one he conjured up from his imagination as opposed to one he had experienced first hand.

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Liz Nugent (second from left) with Paul Perry and Karen Gillette aka Karen Perry (right).

The penultimate event featured prize-winners, bestsellers and book club favourites, Liz Nugent and Karen Perry (who, I didn’t realise, is actually two writers, novelist Karen Gillece and poet Paul Perry). As well as discussing their new works, Lying in Wait and Girl Unknown respectively, they also discussed how they deal with delving into the minds of the psychopaths that feature in their works. After several probing questions from the audience, Liz Nugent also discussed how, for her, persistence was the key when it came to getting published, whilst Karen and Paul explained the process they undertake for to write as part of a team.

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International bestseller Kathy Reichs closing the Dead in Dún Laoghaire festival.

The final event of the festival was international bestseller and real life forensic anthropologist, Kathy Reichs. As well as the creator of the hugely successful Temperance “Tempe” Brennan series of books, she was a producer for the TV series Bones, which was loosely based on her novels as well as her career. This really was a fascinating, and very humorous, Q&A which saw Reichs touch upon how her real life inspired her writing, how she has written books alongside her son as well as what inspired her new book, a standalone thriller, Two Nights, which features a smart, tough, talented heroine whose thirst for justice stems from her own dark past.

Dead in Dún Laoghaire was a truly remarkable festival which provided a unique and inspiring look into the writers behind some of the top offerings in the crime genre. Whilst the festival very much shone a light on the literary merits of crime writing, it also delved into a range of subjects from why established authors write under pseudonyms, how to forge a career as a writer as well as exploring how vastly different the writing process can be for each author. With the opportunity to meet the writers after each event as well as to get books signed, this was a thoroughly enjoyable and fantastically organised event and I for one hopes that the ‘Dead’ once again returns to Dún Laoghaire next year.

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Partners in crime: Bronagh and Kellie.

Posted: 31/07/2017

In Conversation: The Unmumsy Mum Diary 

Blogger and author Sarah Turner in conversation with BBC Radio Ulster’s Kerry McLean at the Belfast Book Festival. 

The Belfast Book Festival is jam packed with a fantastic mix of events and last night my sister and I were excited to get to experience one of them first hand: In Conversation with Sarah Turner, author of The Unmumsy Mum Diary at the Crescent Arts Centre

Sarah, whose blog The Unmumsy Mum has gone from strength to strength, has just published her second book: The Unmumsy Mum Diary. She was joined on stage by BBC Radio Ulster’s Kerry McLean to discuss what inspired her to start the blog, how she moved into the world of writing books and what’s next for The Unmumsy Mum. 

From the start it was very clear that Sarah Turner is naturally warm, funny and engaging; it’s not a surprise so many readers have been entertained by her musings, whether on paper or online, or that so many mothers have found her relatable. 

One theme that ran throughout the evening was, as Sarah coins them, ‘glossy mums’, who seem to have the perfect life, versus ‘truthful mums’, who admit that having a child is wonderful but they also come with many moments that will try you on every level. Of her inspiration to start the blog, Sarah said: “For me it was an outlet to venture the frustration of motherhood. I felt I was massively screwing it up.” Although I don’t have kids myself, when my neice was born I got a glimpse of how competitive fellow mothers can be and how that can have a detrimental effect, especially on new mothers. I think for a long time the ‘glossy mum’ blogs, which Sarah admits she does enjoy, ruled the online world, and so when The Unmumsy Mum came along it was a refreshing and comforting read that showed women that there is no one right way to parent, instead it’s best to follow your own gut, do what works for you and if you make mistakes, learn from them and move on. Women, especially those in the public eye, are constantly being judged whether it’s their looks, their lifestyle or their parenting skills and so it is restorative to find someone who doesn’t use their very public platform to do that to others, instead Sarah Turner says things most mothers can relate to but felt they couldn’t admit to. 

Another subject that Sarah and Kerry touched upon was the inequality in the perception between mothers and fathers. Whilst Sarah remarked that when she has a work engagement, people wouldn’t think twice of asking what she had done with her children, whereas the thought of asking a male in the workplace the same question seems rather absurd. Likewise both Sarah and Kerry touched upon how their other halves at times feel people who see them on their own with their children treat them like glorified babysitters, asking if they are giving mummy a break, rather than treating them as an equal parent who is doing their part to raise their children. 

Although my perception of raising children is from an auntie’s perspective, I found Sarah Turner, both the woman and the author, inspirational. Whilst many people like to edit their lives online, Sarah is brutally honest, which is incredibly brave. She has faced backlash from critics, such as from tabloid stories, as well as in comments from people who read those stories. However that doesn’t deter Sarah from sharing her life with her readers, and I distinctly got the impression that many women at this event were delighted for that. As a trying-to-be blogger myself it was also inspirational to hear Sarah’s story of how her blog went viral leading to a book offer from her publishers, as well as how she has remained steadfast on not doing sponsored posts so she can keep the blog true to her and her style of blogging. 

As the event came to a close, I had a smile on my face. The rapport between Sarah and Kerry was captivating; both are fascinating women who come across as very open and honest and as a result it seriously felt like spending an evening with friends. If you have tiny humans of your own, are thinking about having some down the line or just enjoy a giggle, I can’t recommend Sarah Turner’s The Unmumsy Mum blog or books enough! 

The Belfast Book Festival runs until 17 June. Check out the rest of the programme at: https://www.belfastbookfestival.com

Visit The Unmumsy Mum blog at: http://theunmumsymum.blogspot.co.uk

Posted: 15/06/2017

The Belfast Book Festival Family Fun Day

It’s not every weekend that we get a sunny Saturday and so it was my mission to get out and about today to make the most of it. Thankfully the Belfast Book Festival is in town and today saw it host a family fun day in Lower Crescent Park. 

I tagged along with my sister Gail, bro-in-law Alan and niece Rachel to see what all was on offer. After entering through an arch welcoming us to The Emerald City, it was clear from the start it was going to be pretty magical. In addition to Dorothy and Co bringing a taste of Oz to south Belfast, there was also storytelling sessions with local authors, facepainting, craft stalls and food stands to enjoy. 

After walking the yellow brick road and getting her face painted with glittery flowers, Rachel wad delighted to receive a free lolly, which was almost the size of her head, from a sweetie van. Sugar rush unleashed it was time to enter the storytelling tent to hear about the adventures of Fitzy-Foo before checking out what books and crafts were on sale. With a signed copy of Annie Holmes’ Katherine of Carrick purchased, it was time to enjoy some food whilst listening to music and soaking up some sunshine. 

As someone who loves reading, I love when the Belfast Book Festival comes to town. With over 100 live events and workshops taking place until 17 June, there’s some for everyone. From My Back Pages: An Evening with Bob Dylan, which combines live music and readings to The Unmumsy Mum Diary, a conversation with blogger and award winning author Sarah Turner, as well as festival favourite The Lifeboat poetry readings, plus so much more, the offerings are so rich and diverse the only problem you will have is deciding what to go to. For younger readers, the creative workshops help encourage a love of reading and writing whilst today’s family day was such a fabulous and fun way to introduce children to books as well as to feed the obsession for those who already are little bookworms. With if you’ve a love of words, be sure to check out the Festival whilst you can!

The Belfast Book Festival runs until 17 June. For the full programme visit: https://www.belfastbookfestival.com

Posted:10/06/2017

Review: The Ice Beneath Her

I am a huge fan of Jo Nesbø and so when my BFF Bronagh gave me a copy of The Ice Beneath Her by acclaimed Swedish author Camilla Grebe, I was definitely intrigued. 
The tale, set in Stockholm at winter, finds the local police called to investigate a shocking murder: an unidentified woman is found beheaded in a posh suburban house, owned by controversial chain-store CEO Jesper Orre. What makes the case more disturbing is the similarities it bears to an unsolved case from ten years ago. As homicide detectives Peter Lindgren and Manfred Olsson delve into the case and search for motive, they enlist the help of brilliant criminal profiler Hanne Lagerlind-Schön. However the police aren’t the only ones on Jesper’s trail. Two months before the murder, Emma Bohman, a young clerk who works for Orre’s company, encountered the charming CEO by chance, and soon romance blossomed. However after Orre abandons her and her life goes from bad to worse, she believes her former lover is to blame for the disintegration of her life and so sets about tracking him down. 

The Ice Beneath Her is hailed as a psychological thriller and for me, it did not disappoint. The story is told by three people: Peter Lindgren, Hanne Lagerlind-Schön and Emma Bohman. I found the interweaving of the three strands of the same tale a compelling narrative technique. Whilst there is reason to question the reliability of each narrator, I was fully absorbed in the book to see how the case would be resolved as well as the impact it would have on each of the narrators. 

As this multi-layered tale begins to unravel, Camilla Grebe’s perfectly nuanced writing style had me truly hooked. The book is fast but perfectly paced and has twists that take you by surprise. The Nordic setting and weather is also very much a character of this book. Everytime I opened it, I was transported from a rarely sun soaked Belfast to the dark, bone aching cold of Stockholm. As the setting is smothered in blankets of snow, the anxiety level of the book was ratcheted up to a new level. 

The Ice Beneath Her is a very visual, bold and exciting novel. The tale it tells is not black and white, instead the truth is often as hidden as Stockholm beneath the snow. Grebe is an exceptional storyteller who knows how to keep her reader on the edge of their seats. With a brutal crime and an intriguing cast of characters scrambling to reach the truth, Grebe has crafted a thriller that is very difficult to put down. Fans of crime fiction, Nordic or otherwise, should definitely check it out. 

Posted: 12/05/2017

#AnswerTheCall with No Alibis

Today is the one year anniversary of when I started this blog and so it seems very fitting that on this day I attended the #AnswerTheCall with No Alibis event, which was held at the Black Box, Belfast.  It is fitting because the #AnswerTheCall series sees Bushmills® Irish Whiskey partnering with creators, thinkers, artists, entrepreneurs and adventurers to celebrate their stories and inspire others to fulfil their true calling.
For as long as I can remember I have always wanted to write. As a child I had a notebook bursting with weird and colourful short stories. As I got older, I always wanted a career than incorporated working with words, and so I was over the moon when I got a job at Ulster Taler magazine. Although my daily work involves writing and editing, I found that as I have gotten older, writing in my spare time has seriously dwindled, and so I started the blog a year ago with the aim that it would help me find a discipline to write on a regular basis; a year and 89 posts later, I am very proud to say Little Burch is still growing and that I have stuck to my goal of at least one post a week.

Like my inspiration to start a blog, all ideas, no matter how big or small, need to start somewhere and once upon a time, 400 years ago, the Old Bushmills Distillery™ was also just starting out on its own journey, which was to be one of the first distilleries in the world to make both single malt and blended Irish whiskey. This innovation and fearlessness, which has saw the distillery grow, evolve and stay true to its roots, has inspired the launch of the #AnswerTheCall campaign. Not only does this campaign shine a light on Bushmills’ superior produce, today for example, guests were treated to a delectable serving of BLACK BUSH® and white lemonade as well as a smooth and rich BLACK BUSH® Old Fashioned cocktail, but it also aims to showcase the talents and stories of those who have defied convention to boldly answer their call and create a legacy of their own. True to this mission, today’s event in the #AnswerTheCall series, entitled Whiskey & Words, could not have found a better subject than David Torrans, owner of No Alibis Bookstore.

BLACK BUSH® Old Fashions

No Alibis is Northern Ireland’s only specialist crime bookstore as well as one of the country’s few surviving independent bookstores. On a personal level I stumbled across the shop when I studied an American Noir module at Queen’s University Belfast. A number of the titles on the curriculum were available in the shop and I, to this day, remember going in armed with my list of required reading and encountering David for the first time. He offered me tea and Viennese Whirls whilst he took my list off me and gathered up all the reading materials I required. Instantaneously it was obvious that this was a shop unlike any other and David Torrens was a book seller like no other; not only is he passionate and knowledgeable about literature but he has also created a unique and inviting environment in which all literature aficionados are welcome to talk books, to get a recommendation of authors they might like as well as to consume their latest read in a nook away from the hustle and bustle of day to day living. Since my first visit, I have been back to the shop time and again, not only to buy books and soak up the unique atmosphere, but also to attend several of the events David has hosted over the years; from local writers such as Stuart Neville to international bestsellers like Linwood Barclay and literary legends like James Ellroy, No Alibis has attracted some of the most influential names in modern literature.

Ian Sansom (left) in conversation with No Alibis’ owner and entrepreneur David Torrans at the Whiskey & Words event, part of Bushmills’ #AnswerTheCall campaign

Whilst the events David hosts offer the perfect chance for readers to find out more about the journey of some of their favourite authors, today’s event, which saw David in conversation with professor, journalist and one of my favourite authors and columnists, Ian Sansom, offered the opportunity for the audience to find out more about David’s journey. From 1990 David was a dedicated bookseller but in 1997 he took the risk to venture out on his own and start his own bookstore. Inspired by the iconic The Mysterious Bookshop and Partners in Crime Mystery Booksellers, to name a few, David knew he wanted to start a bookstore that focused primarily on the crime genre, and so No Alibis was born in 1997. Twenty years later No Alibis is still standing and although the intervening years have featured good times as well as tough times, David has successfully continued to grow and evolve the business whilst blazing his own trail and creating the bookstore he always dreamt of.

The Whiskey and Words instalment of #AnswerTheCall series was a truly inspiring event that highlights that, like Bushmills Irish Whiskey and David Torrans, you should not let people stand in your way when it comes to embarking on your own journey to follow your passions, achieve your dreams and answer your own call.

For more information on the #AnswerTheCall series, which will collaborate with other local talents such as; Whitehead based tattoo artist Willy G, one of Belfast’s best known street artists, Visual Waste, and Kevin Pyke, owner of Derry based Pyke ‘n’ Pomme, an acclaimed street food style eatery, visit: http://answerthecall.co.uk

Posted: 23/04/2017

Review: The Missing 


I love a good ‘who done it’ and so when my sister recommended The Missing by C. L. Taylor, I was more than intrigued. The book tells the story of the Wilkinsons. When fifteen year old Billy Wilkinson goes missing in the middle of the night, his mother Claire, understandably, is distraught. She blames herself for her son’s disappearance but then, so it seems, does every member of Billy’s family. When Claire and her husband Mark make a six month appeal to the media, things go horribly wrong and the terrifying truth of Billy’s disappearance begins to surface. Claire is sure that Billy is still alive and that her family had nothing to do with his disappearance – a mother’s instinct is never wrong – or is it?

This is the first book I have read by C. L. Taylor and I have to admit I loved it from start to finish. The story is told from Claire Wilkinson’s perspective. I thought this was a clever storytelling tool as the reader discovers the truth to Billy’s disappearance alongside his mother, and as a result the emotions Claire experiences are easily transferable to the reader, making the journey much more affecting. It would have been easy for Claire to have been a weak character but instead she is a strong female, who after experiencing such a personal tragedy as the loss of her son, goes on a journey of not only discovering what happened to Billy but also a journey of self discovery. 

What is also immediately apparent from C. L. Taylor’s storytelling is that she is incredibly masterful at creating layered and realistic characters. As Claire’s suspicions are raised about the capabilities of each member of the family, including her own capacity to do harm, Taylor subtly reveals the flaws and secrets that this family, who are supposed to know each other better than anyone else, have been keeping hidden from each other. This worked in two ways: it made the characters more relatable and also helped ramp up the suspense. 

From the outset of this book, I was immediately engrossed to find out what happened to Billy Wilkinson. The Missing is an exceptional psychological thriller than plays with your head. By establishing such a strong link with Claire, the reader is left constantly questioning and doubting each and every one of Billy’s family members. The book is also filled with twists and turns that kept me guessing right to the end. The Missing is a fabulously paced and crafted thriller which has totally made me a want to read more works by C. L. Taylor. 

Posted: 17/01/2017