Dead in Dún Laoghaire crime writing festival

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).

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.

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.

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.

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.

Partners in crime: Bronagh and Kellie.

Posted: 31/07/2017

Theatre Review: Sinners 

This week I enjoyed a trip to the theatre to see Sinners, which was written by the superbly talented Marie Jones and produced and staged by the Lyric Theatre. 

The play tells the story of an isolated farming community that comes under the spell of the charming yet mysterious preacher, Pastor O’Hare. Whilst his unorthodox style of preaching has won over the locals, not everyone is sold. Her husband has declared his devotion to the new ministry, but Tania Simpson is not convinced; with the help of her family and friends she is on a mission to find out what the Pastor’s true motivations are.

The first half of the production was very much about setting the foundations of the story, whilst the second ramped up the drama and the comedy and when it finished I had an ache in my side and a smile firmly on my face. With a sharp script, clever staging and an accomplished cast, it definitely made a lasting impression. When it comes to plays at the Lyric, Michael Condron has become somewhat of a measuring stick for me as to whether to get tickets. I’ve seen him in a few productions now, such as The 39 Steps and Smiley, and he has always been a highlight, so with Condron cast as the charismatic Pastor O’Hare, myself, and my culture buddy Mark, were really looking forward to seeing what he brought to this production. Condron gave a mesmerising performance, making it seem completely plausible that he could cast a spell over and entire community. He also has an amazing ability for physical comedy and at times had me laughing without having to say a word. However, Condron wasn’t the only talent in the cast. Seáinín Brennan as Tania was fantastic at playing a woman who will go to any lengths to protect her family. She was passionate and fierce and utterly compelling to watch. Louise Mathews as Coleen, Tania’s sidekick and best friend, honestly had me snorting with laughter. She is a natural performer who commanded your attention anytime she put a foot on stage. Charlie Bonner as Tania’s husband Stanley, was a revelation. He perfectly captured a vulnerability which made it very realistic as to why he would be willing to dismiss his family’s worries to offer up his worldly possessions in return for redemption. Alan McKee as Stanley’s brother Sydney provided lashings of comedy to the proceedings. As a culchie living in the city, I found something comfortingly familiar about his portrayal of a local farmer. He perfectly captured the hilarious colloquialism of local life and that seriously amused me. I also have to say the younger members of the cast: Adele Gribbon as Millie, Michael Johnston as Jed and Patrick McBrearty as Dino added an unbridled youthfulness to the show as well as each having impeccable comedic timing that added a new dimension to the play. 

Unfortunately Sinners closed its run last night but if it returns to the Lyric or you get the chance to see one of these wonderfully talented actors in another production, I suggest you get yourself a ticket booked. Right, I am away to get ready for a new show coming to the Lyric; The Ladykillers (which runs from 10 June – 8 July and is adapted from the classic comedy by Graham Lineman); I’ll maybe see you there! 

Posted: 4/6/2017

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

Review: Million Dollar Quartet 

My family are my favourite people in the world and when we get a chance to all get together for a night out, I am truly at my happiest. So it was happy days indeed on Saturday night when we got together for a night out in Belfast. Our first port of call was dinner, and so with the idea of trying somewhere different we headed to The Crown Bar Dining Rooms. I am a huge fan of the iconic Crown Bar and so I was definitely intrigued to see what the restaurant, which is located upstairs, had to offer. The interior boasts a classic and warm ambience, whilst the staff are professional yet incredibly friendly (from booking the table right through to settling the bill, I could not fault the service we received). The menu had a fabulous mix of dishes, however, I sampled the chicken, chorizo and cider pie which was served with mash, vegetables and gravy. The portion size and presentation was impressive and whilst there was not as much chorizo as I would personally like, it was still a very tasty meal. 

The combination of the food, the superb selection of drinks, excellent service, welcoming atmosphere and fantastic location created a brilliant experience and I would definitely visit again. 

Next up was a visit to the Grand Opera House, Belfast, where I got to indulge my love for the theatre and for music when we attended the final night of Million Dollar Quartet. I had high hopes for this production and I was not disappointed. 

Million Dollar Quartet tells the story of record executive Sam Phillips, who founded the legendary Sun Records, and the night he made rock ‘n’ roll history when he brought Elvis, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins together to play for the first and only time on December 4, 1956.

As well as impressively singing and playing their instruments live, each member of the ‘Million Dollar Quartet’ superbly executed their roles, from Ashley Carruthers, who gave an animated performance which perfectly captured the frenetic energy of Jerry Lee Lewis to Matthew Wycliffe, as Carl Perkins, who exuded the intensity of a musician struggling to recapture the same level of success and fame he once had. Robbie Durham took on the role of Johnny Cash and whilst he bore an uncanny physical resemblance to his namesake, he also gave a wonderful performance that showed a vulnerability to Cash veering from being a musician who wanted to progress his career to being a man who was loyal and reluctant to turn his back on Phillips, who kick-started his career. Ross William Wild was tasked with portraying Elvis Presley and whilst he effortlessly captured his voice, he also added a physicality to his performance which captured Elvis’ larger than life persona. 

The biggest name on the cast list however was Jason Donovan whose portrayal of Sam Phillips was the lynch pin to the production. From narrating the story to introducing each song on the impressive set list, Donovan was responsible for taking the audience back in time to this iconic moment in history. With a flawless Southern drawl, an assured and committed stage presence as well as a faultless and passionate performance, Donovan fully engaged the audience (well, apart from one rude heckler who interrupted a key scene, although even this did not put Donovan off his stride). For me Jason Donovan was the perfect person to bring the remarkable character of Sam Phillips to life on stage.
With a raucous set of classic hits, from ‘Walk the Line’, ‘Blue Suede Shoes ‘, ‘Hound Dog’ and ‘Great Balls of Fire’, an insanely talented cast and a superbly assembled production, Million Dollar Quartet is a wonderful show that will entertain you, transport you back in time and get you off your seat and on your feet for a dance. If you get a chance to catch this performance, I can’t recommend it highly enough. 

Posted: 1/5/2017


Review: The Buddy Holly Story 

After several food posts, I thought it was time to give my stomach a rest and see what else Belfast has to offer, and so the invite to see The Buddy Holly Story at the Grand Opera House could not have arrived at a better time.
As it was Valentine’s night, my plus one had to be the husband, and I didn’t need to ask him twice. Whilst I love music from a bygone era, a trait very much inherited from my mum,  Keith is an old soul who I am convinced was born into the wrong musical generation. We both are fans of the Buddy Holly classics and were more than a little excited to see some of them belted out on the stage of the Grand Opera House. 

When we arrived, the venue was already packed, and the atmosphere was charged. As the curtain lifted we were immediately immersed in the world of Buddy Holly and The Crickets as the band go rogue on a Country and Western Radio Station by playing their take on the then controversial Rock ‘n’ Roll. This pretty much sets the tone for the show: Buddy Holly forged a career doing things his way; from the songs he played and how he played them, to refusing to get rid of his glasses, in fact opting for thicker frames, because no one else wore them on stage. He really was not like anyone else of his time. 

The Buddy Holly Story not only celebrates the birth of rock ‘n’ roll, but is a tale of romance, perseverance and tragedy, perfectly interlaced with humour and set against a backdrop of classic songs. As the story charts the life of Buddy Holly and The Crickets, from their first recording contract and their meteoric rise to stardom, to Buddy’s whirlwind wedding and the crossroads he faces in his career, the dynamic writing and electric performances kept me gripped from start to finish. 

The highlight of the show for me of course had to be the musical performances. In addition to acting, the actors all sang and played their instruments live throughout the show. From the raucous ‘That’ll Be The Day’ to the charming ‘Everyday’, it was hard not to dance along in your seat. However, for myself and a lot of the audience, it was impossible to stay seated for the elctric performance of ‘Johnny B Goode’. 

Alex Fobbester, who was tasked with the mammoth role of bringing Buddy Holly to life, really shone throughout. He managed to capture a progression to the character of Buddy. From his adrenaline fuelled performances, that were full of passion during the early days of recordings, to the flair and self-assured showmanship of his later performance, Fobbester wonderfully captured the evolution of Buddy the boy into Buddy Holly the star. The supporting cast were also phenomenal. From the exceptional comic timing of Celia Cruwys-Finnigan as ‘Vi Petty’, Thomas Mitchells as ‘Big Bopper’, Tom Sowinski as ‘Jackdaw’ and Matthew Quinn as ‘Hipockets Duncan’ to the fragility of Kerry Low as Buddy Holly’s wife ‘Maria Elena’, the pure energy of Jordan Cunningham as ‘ritchie Valens’, the pure sass of Miguel Angel as a Apollo performer, and the passion of Alex Tosh as ‘Norman Petty’, not to mention the fabulous Joe Butcher and Josh Haberfield as ‘Joe’ and ‘Jerry’ of The Crickets, this production was completely absorbing from all angles. 

This Valentine’s I discovered a new love: The Buddy Holly Story and if you are a fan of man himself, live music or exceptional story telling, I can not recommend it enough. It made me smile, laugh, dance and even shed a tear. 

The Buddy Holly Story runs at the Grand Opera House until 18 February, so catch it can. For more information:

Posted: 14/02/2017

Review: Taster Menu at The Boat House

The Boat House, Bangor.

Anyone who knows me, knows I love food and so I was delighted on Wednesday night to be invited to sample a taster menu in The Boat House, Bangor, to mark the venue’s relaunch as well as to celebrate the success of Northern Ireland Year of Food and Drink 2016.

This unique restaurant, which was formerly used to store lifeboats, hence the name, is located in a stunning building, which dates back to 1849, located beside the picturesque Bangor Marina. The building has had many incarnations, such as home to The Harbour Master, Billy Caufield’s Boats and The RNLI, before becoming The Boat House restaurant. Formerly under the management of the  Castel brothers, the establishment was re-opened in November by experienced hotelier and restaurateur, Ken Sharp. Ken, who also owns The Salty Dog, a hotel and bistro a mere stone’s throw from The Boat House, clearly knows his stuff and so I was excited to see what the evening and the venue had to offer.

When I arrived, I was directed to the restaurant downstairs, which was already bustling with people enjoying a catch up along with a glass of Simonise Kaapse Vonkel Brut Rose. Guests at the event, which was organised by Serious PR, included Lynne Crowther from Eating Ideas, Jeff Meredith from Belfast Times and Wendi Kane from Belfast City Council to name just a few.

As we were invited to take our seats, I was excited to see what tasty treats were on the menu, which was created by head chef Tim Brunton. First up was homemade sour dough bread, which was served with Abernathy hand rolled butter and Broighter Gold Rapeseed oil. This certainly whet my appetite and I was tickled to discover I was seated with the lovely Will and Allison from Abernathy Butter, as well as Michele Shirlow from Food NI.

The next dish sent to tantalise the tastebuds was the fun, unique and super creative parmesan custard, which was served inside an egg shell. Served with a poppyseed breadstick, the flavours of this dish worked wonderfully together.

With my senses well and truly engaged, I couldn’t wait to try the next course, which was a tasting of local brassicas accompanied with a glass of Donaghadee Riesling. If, like me, you aren’t familiar with brassicas, they are a genus of plants in the mustard family, which are highly regarded for their nutritional value. Our brassicas, which included cauliflower and broccoli, were served with Fivemiletown goats cheese cream, basil emulsion and toasted mustard seed snow. This dish was an explosion of colour and I am pleased to say it tasted just as good as it looked.

Dish four was home-smoked Atlantic salmon, which was served with fine herb bavarois, verjus emulsion and black garlic oil, paired with a glass of Manzanilla Delicious En Rama, Saca de Primevera. I am only really beginning to appreciate seafood, and after this dish I am so glad I have finally got on board. The presentation was delightful and the flavours were perfectly balanced and ever so appealing.

I love duck and so I was thrilled to see that the next course was Skeaghanore duck breast with confit leg rolled in potato spaghetti, Iona Farm carrots, fondant potato and Armagnac and golden raisin jus. I was already excited to try this dish but when it was arrived, I could not have been more impressed with the presentation. Employing total culinary theatrics, the plate was covered in a mist filled glass dome, which created the perfect reveal when it was lifted by the waiting staff at the table. The dish was simply delicious and also perfectly complemented by a glass of mouth watering El Bon Homme.

It was time for a palate cleanser, which was in the shape of an amazing Perfect Pour Cask Aged Shortcross granita. This semi-frozen dessert was light, refreshing and the gin gave it a kick without being over powering.

The final course on the taster menu was Neary Nogs’ bean to plate with Madagascan Corolla bean, freshly prepared in Co Down, served with iced raspberries, gold, and a glass of Finca Antigua Muscatel. I have a sweet tooth and this dessert was pure heaven to me. The pops of red and gold on the plate made it look stunning, the taste really delighted me, the piece de resistance for me was a chocolate dome that, when cracked, oozed with a gorgeous chocolate sauce. This was definitely the perfect end to a beautiful meal.

My first experience at The Boat House definitely made an impression. Ken Sharp is clearly passionate about the food and drink industry and with a menu bursting with local produce, he is an incredible ambassador for what our wee country can offer. The full flavour food creations are also creative, unique and will leave you wanting to go back for more. The team at The Boat House also excel at pairing premium wines, which are available from local suppliers, with each dish so that all your senses are in for a treat. Good food and drink, in my opinion, require good service to make the experience complete, and the waiting staff, under the guidance of the fabulously professional Jonathan Quinn, are highly trained and very skilled at ensuring diners fully enjoy their experience in this this intimate and gourmet venue.

Clockwise from top, left: The guests at The Boat House; Sourdough bread with Abernathy Butter and Broighter Gold Rapeseed Oil; Parmesan Custard and poppyseed breadstick; Local Brassicas with Fivemiletown goats cheese cream; Atlantic Salmon; Skeaghanore Duck; Perfect Pour Cask Aged Shortcross Granita; Neary Nogs’ Bean; and Ken Sharp, proprietor of The Boat House, addressing guests.

For more information on The Boat House, visit:


Posted: 5/2/2017


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