Sunday, 28 October 2012

Book Review: Valentina by Evie Blake

Hearing the story of a friend whose husband always slept naked, my grandmother once said, in her inimitable northern style, "It'd be like having strawberries for your tea every night." By that she meant, if something is no longer a special treat it ceases to have appeal.

Shakespeare said something similar to my granny in the opening lines of Twelfth Night:

'If music be the food of love, play on,
Give me excess of it; that surfeiting
The appetite may sicken, and so die.

This tends to be my feeling with regard to erotic fiction. When there is page after page of sex, I start to become bored and any frisson of excitement I might have initially experienced, soon wanes and I wish they would go and do a spot of gardening instead.

But maybe I'm out of step? Erotic fiction is now the flavour of the month, following on from the recent success of Fifty Shades of Grey. I haven't read the series, but I am aware of the views for and against. One of the main criticisms levelled at the trilogy is that it is poorly written, with a clunky first-person style. Thankfully Valentina, written by Evie Blake (pen name for the author Noelle Harrison) is well-written for this genre. The novel is inspired by the 1960s style icon from Guido Crepax's original illustrations and this helps to push it up a notch from the usual fare.

The story concerns two women: Valentina, a photographer living in Milan in 2012 and Bella, a courtesan from Venice in 1924. Valentina finds it difficult to settle down with her boyfriend, Theo, until a side of her, until now unexplored, is revealed when she accepts an assignment involving the darker side of desire. Bella, meanwhile, abused by her husband, adopts a secret life as a prostitute, constantly seeking true love.

What I don't get about this type of women's erotica are the odd rules which seem to govern the language used. Why is it okay to write 'penis' but not 'vagina'? Why is everything couched in such a coy manner? Even the scenes involving domination and submission were more M&S than S&M. It must make it very difficult for a writer of this genre to come up with expressions for a woman's genitals without using common words. Blake does her best with this most of the time, but I did howl with laughter at the sentence "She feels a finger gently outlining her oval, and then pushing into its plushness". However I did cheer when, after countless sexual escapades, eventually on page 344 I read the word 'clitoris'. I wonder how that slipped in?

I'm reviewing this book and yet I would never have picked it up in the first place, so I do appreciate that I am maybe being a little unfair. Readers who seek out erotic fantasy such as this will find what they are looking for and more. There were parts of the novel which intrigued me: the glimpses of Milan and Venice and the denouement regarding Theo's collection of paintings, but all this did was make it obvious to me that I'm not the target audience. But, you see, when I read a book which has sexual scenes in it, I'm just like my grandmother - yes, give me strawberries, but only when they're in season.

Valentina is published by Headline, in paperback original and eBook, priced £7.99


Wednesday, 24 October 2012

"All Fun and Games until Somebody Loses an Eye"

Torso sculpture, Dan Wolgers, outside Fotografiska, Stockholm

Alison Percival wrote a fascinating post last week about book titles and how important they were to the success of a publication. She has changed the working title of her own novel a number of times and even tried out a fun algorithm to discover if her title had all the hallmarks of a best-seller.

In my comment on her post, I mentioned how some book titles alone can be enough to persuade me to buy and gave the example of Christopher Brookmyre's novel "All Fun and Games until Somebody Loses an Eye". We're great fans of the Scottish crime writer ever since his book, "A Big Boy did it and Ran Away" captured Hubby's imagination when he came across it in a bookshop many years ago.

I remembered this online discussion when I saw that Tara Cain's Gallery theme this week is BOOKS. The Brookmyre novel sprang to mind and I had the perfect picture to represent it. This impressive piece of art is situated outside the Photographic Museum (Fotografiska) in Stockholm: we saw it when we were travelling in Sweden this summer. The bronze sculpture, by Swedish artist Dan Wolgers, is called 'Torso'..... missing a body as well as an eye?


Monday, 22 October 2012

Mum's gone to the Park Plaza, Westminster Bridge

"I agree, it's a fabulous room but I think it's going to be noisy."
"Why do you say that?"
"Well, we're on the first floor, right above the bar and they have live music there at weekends."

Trust his Lordship to put the dampers on things.

It was August and we had just arrived at the Park Plaza, Westminster Bridge, following our night on the yacht. You must remember my night on the yacht, heaven knows I bragged about it enough. We decided on a further night in London so we could go to the theatre and see One Man, Two Guvnors. I was reminded of this when reading fellow blogger, Curry Queen's post about her visit to see the show in Broadway, with James Corden in the starring role. It dawned on me that I had never actually written about either our hotel or the play. Must have been that mirrored ceiling above our bed on the boat - affected my memory.

Before I carry on with the hotel review, I do have to say that the play was outstanding. Like Curry Queen, I don't want to give too much away but it was one of the best things we've seen at the theatre. Farce but with a whole lot more to boot. Owain Arthur played the lead in the production we saw and was excellent. If you get the chance to see it - go, go go!

Back to the hotel...

Captain Sensible needn't have worried. The hotel was so well sound-proofed you couldn't hear the music or the traffic outside and I don't think I heard any stomping down the corridor either. A new addition to the Park Plaza group of hotels and right next door to the Park Plaza County Hall where we stayed a few years ago, the location is pretty good: on the river, next to the London Eye. It's an imposing building and when you enter through the revolving doors into the huge lobby there is a striking bank of escalators feeding guests up to the reception desk: it feels like a cross between an airport terminal, a shopping mall and a spaceship.. The vast amount of space throughout the hotel makes it unlike many hotels in the capital and there was a buzz about the place which appealed to me.

We chose to stay in a studio room which was very large by London standards. With a convenient 3/4 length wall separating the bedroom from the living area (where Rory was sleeping) and large LCD TVs in both areas, we certainly weren't on top of each other. Complimentary wi-fi throughout the hotel kept our teen happy and the tea and coffee-making 'station', complete with a microwave, fridge and a separate sink, was a big hit with me. I have to say, whoever decided on the sink was a genius: how many of us have wanted to fill the kettle on holiday only to find someone is ensconced in the bathroom and may be some time?

Park plaza studio room - westminster bridge
Studio room - bedroom

Studio room - lounge area

The hotel has a number of eating establishments ranging from a light and airy coffee bar to a patisserie/lounge area, a sushi bar and Brasserie Joel. We chose to have a pre-theatre dinner in the Brasserie and it was delicious and pretty good value for such a gorgeous restaurant and attentive service. Can I remember what we had? I think Dougie had some kind of marinated tuna followed by steak and Rory and I both had butternut squash soup followed by sea bass? Whatever we ate, it was wonderful and I would recommend the restaurant even if you're not staying in the hotel.

The brasserie is also used as the breakfast room and is way too small for families at busy weekends. When the world and his wife traipsed down at 9am Sunday morning, the hotel had set up a separate breakfast area in the hangar-sized ballroom in the basement of the hotel. Yes it did the job but with trestle tables groaning with tea urns and food warmers, it had all the appeal of a soup kitchen.

The hotel can be expensive, particularly when their website has the annoying habit of not including VAT on the rooms until the final part of the booking process, but if you can get a good deal then it's worth considering. There is a spa and a swimming pool, although we didn't use them on this quick, one-night stay. Worth noting that, for families with young children, there is a babysitting service and children's menu.

 If  you do go, sit down in these quirky chairs and admire the view.


Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Half-term holiday plans: Suffolk

As usual, in our discussions regarding where to go for half term, we travelled the virtual globe before ending up at a location two hours from where we live. We very soon discounted going abroad, mainly because Dougie has to go to work on the Wednesday, right in the middle of the week's break. So it seemed easier to stay in the UK and, with happy memories of our trip to the Cotswolds last October, we began to whittle the choices down. We explored Wales, Dorset, Devon, Scotland, Shropshire and all places in between before choosing a region we had last taken Rory to when he was about two or three: Suffolk.

I found a hotel with inter-connecting rooms (hoorah!) so that we can all have our privacy but still be together. I know I bang on about connecting rooms but for families they are such a boon and too few hotels offer them. I appreciate Rory is 16 now and is perfectly able to sleep in a separate room and, indeed, has done on many occasions, but it's much nicer all being together, sharing the complimentary biscuits, and so much easier to wake him up in the morning without having to wander down corridors in my dressing gown or ringing him on the internal phone when he takes an age to pick the receiver up.

So what should we be doing on our three-night trip? Should we head North-East to the coast and see Southwold (again) or Aldeburgh? How about the royal burial site at Sutton Hoo  to tie in with our recent visit to the stone ship in Sweden? Our hotel is near Ipswich so we are very close to the Essex border and Constable Country. I gather there are walks we can take which encompass Flatford Mill and other spots which inspired the artist's work.Then there's Woodbridge or Colchester?

It would be great to get some suggestions from you. The last time we visited we took Rory to the beach at Clacton where he went on all the kiddy rides and watched the RNLI lifeboats going out on practice runs. I wonder what will float his boat this time around?


Monday, 15 October 2012

The Sound of Silence

I'm sure you've all been waiting for an update on this weekend's charity concert. No? Well, you're getting one anyway. When I last blogged about our gigs, I told you that our esteemed musical director, Craig, had seen fit to frighten us with two extra songs from Sister Act: both four-part harmonies which had given us all the luvvie wobbles.

At rehearsals last Monday, Craig, possibly mindful of the musical mutiny that lay on the horizon, had re-jigged the set list and only one of the Sister Act songs was on it. 'I Will Follow Him', the song with which we were more confident, had been added as an encore. So, if the audience decided to leg it at the end of the concert, we might be spared giving it a go.

We ran through the set on Monday and when it came to the encore song, we were still unclear as to who was singing the solo parts until we got started. As the solos loomed closer, our MD nodded to Bev to give the Whoopi lines a go, which she did brilliantly, and then he pulled me out to the front to have a shot at the screechy Sister Mary Robert part. Having taken the advice of Expat Mum and Clippy Mat, to channel the nuns from our school days, I decided to let rip and surprised myself and the others with a very rocky '' which was mostly in tune and generally not too painful.

I started to have my doubts about the wisdom of doing this, particularly as the effort was doing my vocal chords no good at all. I kept suggesting to Dougie that he'd best not clap at all after the final song so that we wouldn't be asked for 'More!' He did the 'I'm sure you'll be fine' routine which was no help whatsoever.

Saturday night arrived and Dougie dropped me off at the church while he parked the car. He was coming to watch, along with my mum who was down with us for the weekend, and poor Rory who was 'taking one for the team' by coming along to sit in a church pew, with his father and granny, together with an audience of mainly pensioners, to listen to two hours of songs from the shows. That is some sacrifice for a 16 year old boy.

Craig, our MD, gave us a pep talk before we went on stage, regarding microphone technique. As the concert was being recorded it was of paramount importance to ensure the mics were positioned correctly or the sound feed would be lost on the video. Hence, during the performance, time was taken for precision mic-fiddling before each number. I made sure this time, just before I started singing my duet with Craig, who swaps roles from conductor to singer for three numbers in the set, that my mic was level with my mouth, not my chest or forehead as is usually the case, depending on who sings before me.

I thought we were doing quite well with 'Tonight' from West Side Story, until, about a third of the way through, one of the chaps in the bass group sidled up to Craig, placed his finger on the microphone and pushed the button....on! Our wonderful MD, so adamant about using microphones correctly, had obviously turned his own mic off by accident before the song started. We continued with the duet but I was gutted because, as the video will doubtless show for posterity, I sang a large chunk of the song with Harpo bloody Marx.

You'll be pleased to know that the audience did clap at the end of the concert and therefore we were obliged to sing 'I Will Follow Him'. I'm going to refrain from guessing what it was like until I've seen video evidence but I think it was ok, though not perfect. I do know, however, that the mic was, by now, starting to wilt and droop further and further from my mouth so that, to make sure I was level with the damned thing, I had to bend my knees lower and lower as the song went on. I tried to shimmy a bit so that the audience might think that was all part of the act...but I don't think they were convinced.

The night was a success. Mum adored it, saying how well everybody did and how fabulous that so many different singers were able to sing solos. Dougie, aware that saying, 'Ooh it's a bit high' won't cut it as a compliment, told me my voice was like honey during the duet. Rory was lovely and actually said he enjoyed the concert, though forcing him to go for a cup of tea in the church hall afterwards was probably pushing it.  And Craig's 9 year old son, who knows me as an ICT helper in his school, told his dad he didn't know Mrs Burgess was a 'rock chick'. That'll do for me.


Friday, 12 October 2012

Sweden's Stonehenge - Ales Stenar

If you've been watching 'Vikings' on BBC Two, you will have seen the presenter, Neil Oliver: a modern day Braveheart, all Scottish brogue and wild, flowing locks. Did you hear him mention the stone ships of Sweden? The Viking stones he visited in one episode were on the island of Gotland, but the stones we saw in the summer were probably more famous, situated near to Ystad, in the region of Skane.

Ales Stenar (Ale's Stones) form Sweden's largest preserved stone ship, 67 metres long and 19 metres wide, featuring 59 boulders, high up on a cliff above the tiny fishing village of Kaseberga. Much debate continues about how and why they came to be here: a burial ground for King Ale, a Viking meeting place or, more recently, claims that it was constructed as a sun calendar.

The day of our visit was glorious: bright blue skies, hot sun and just a light breeze. I can imagine on a cold winter's day the impact of seeing the stones, with the wind howling on the cliff top, would be far more dramatic and powerful. A warm summer day brought with it other tourists so we weren't alone, unlike the day we experienced our very own lighthouse, but the extra people couldn't detract from the beauty and wonder of this spectacular sight.

As we looked out to sea, we noticed other people were scrambling down the steep cliff onto the rocks below. Blindly we followed them, slithering and sliding down the sand, holding onto a flimsy wire rail, until we reached the bottom. Not sure where the path would lead, we walked along the base of the cliff for some time until we reached Kaseberga and, to welcome us, another 'Burgess Bench' for us to take a rest, look out to sea and agree that this was a very fine day indeed.


Thursday, 4 October 2012

Oh Happy Day....not!

The last time I wrote about our concerts, we had done one gig at a local Women's Institute which had gone down very well and we were about to sing at a local church, together with the Holbeach Town Band who were also doing a set.

This second concert was also successful, though probably not as good as our first one. We sang to our backing tracks for most of our set but did join together with the brass band at the end to sing 'Jerusalem' and 'Land of Hope and Glory'. The band were terrific; we sat listening to them playing and were very impressed, particularly one young man whose solo on the cornet was absolutely beautiful.

So to our next gig which is next Saturday, 13 October at Broad Street Methodist Church, Spalding: a gorgeous venue for singing with excellent acoustics. Our Musical Director, Craig, not one to let us rest on our laurels, has decided to add a couple of new chorus numbers into the set, which has really put the wind up us as there is such a lot to learn in a short space of time and both songs have four-part harmonies.

His chosen songs are from the Sister Act films. The first one, 'I will Follow Him' or 'The Twitter Song' as I call it at home, was an easy one to learn for the alto ladies as we had the melody. Hoorah. The sopranos found it a little harder. Our chaps were okay with it, I think. All agree it's a fabulous song.  But we need two soloists: one to sing a few lines which Sister Mary Clarence (Whoopi Goldberg) sings and another to do the real screechy soprano part which Sister Mary Robert belts out at the end of the number. Muggins here is currently practising the screechy bit, along with a few others, to see who can do this justice. It's an absolute nightmare as it has to be sung loudly, preferably with a chest voice, but is so high there is a real danger of the song being murdered.

Have a look at the video from the film here: the difficult solo bit is from about 2 minutes in:

We were just starting to get used to this one, when the MD throws another Sister Act song into the mix; this time, 'Oh Happy Day' from the movie sequel. This has the potential to be a great song but this time we altos have the harmony which is a bit dull and we found it hard to find our notes. In fact never has a song title been so contrasting to our mood. We were a real miserable bunch on Monday when our MD tried to jolly us up and tell us we were doing fine. We weren't doing fine, we were making a dog's dinner out of it and we were all making faces at each other which, of course, he was well able to see. I did feel like a churlish schoolgirl, wanting to tell him to shove his Happy Day where the sun don't shine....but we battled on.

Now, back at home, with a CD to practise to, I think I may be able to do this. Of course it helps I now know the words. For years I used to think it was 'when Jesus was' when apparently it's 'when Jesus washed'. Makes sense when the next line is 'my sins away'. No idea who is going to sing the solo for this one. As we've only got one rehearsal left before the concert, we need to work quick or Happy Day will be an Unhappy Night. Or we'll just drop it until we can do it justice.

Right, where's me wimple?