30 June, 2013

The Making of Harry Potter

It was my youngest daughter's birthday last week and she opted, as a birthday treat, not to have a party but to have a family visit to The Making of Harry Potter at the Warner Bros. studios near Watford.

So that's what we did. We'd never been before but we knew quite a few people who had and so we knew it was meant to be very good.

It was pouring with rain when we set off, but that wasn't a problem as the attraction is inside and although we had a picnic lunch, we were quite happy to eat it sitting in the car rather than using the outside picnic area on site.

The whole studio experience seemed well-organised and efficient right from the word go. We were greeted in our car by a member of staff who checked our email confirmation and we were then directed exactly where to park by three ushers placed at strategic points in the car park. When we exchanged our email confirmation for tickets, we were served by another member of staff who again was highly efficient and gave us all the information that we needed (where the loos were, when we should join the queue, how we might spend our spare time, etc.) without us having to ask. And all the other staff members who we encountered were knowledgeable, helpful and friendly. All very impressive.

The attraction itself was good too. It was really interesting--even for adults--to see the various sets from the films and to learn how some of the special effects were created. Things that I found of particular interest were the artwork--fantastic pictures drawn by truly talented concept artists; the level of detail in the sets--deliberately faded paintings, smoke-blackened walls and chipped stonework in the great hall; the beautiful costumes; and the very convincing look and feel of the Diagon Alley set.

It was a great family outing and I enjoyed the day much more than I had anticipated I would.

We finished the day off with a meal at Ask Italian in Watford before driving home. We've always enjoyed Ask in the past, but it proved rather disappointing this time. The place was clean, the staff were very friendly, the food was of high quality, but the problem was the portion sizes. I ordered pasta, which was truly tiny, and the pizzas had extremely thin bases--so much so that we were still hungry when we left. It's a shame because this didn't use to be the case with Ask, but this new development probably means that we won't eat there again--or at least it won't be our first choice.

27 June, 2013

"A Matter of Degree" FREE 4-7 July

Following the success of my last free promo, I'm going to do another one!

My novel "A Matter of Degree" will be FREE for four days -- Thursday 4 July until Sunday 7 July -- on Amazon.

This is a fun, light read which blends romance and mystery. It has good reviews and is rated 4.5 stars on Amazon.

You can download your free copy at Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com.


22 June, 2013

Starter for Ten

I've just finished reading "Starter for Ten" by David Nicholls. This is, I think, the third time that I've read this novel over the past few years--and it is exceptionally good, even on the third time of reading.

Somehow, Nicholls' descriptions of people and the way they behave, not to mention the way they feel, are just so apt. Many of us, I am sure, can relate to, or sympathise with, the inept protagonist, Brian, who as a nineteen-year-old university student is just so out of his depth--or at least that's how it feels to him. Other highly recognisable types are Brian's public school, rugger bugger housemates; the (again) public school blonde who is utterly beautiful, and knows it; and the angry Glaswegian with a heart of gold--the girl who we all know Brian should be with, really.

And, of course, the juxtaposition of university life with "The Challenge" is quite brilliant. The build up, the atmosphere, the Q&As as chapter openers. All great.

Before "Starter for Ten" I hadn't even heard of David Nicholls. And, in fact, it was the film of "Starter for Ten" that drew my attention to his work. I saw the trailer and immediately wanted to see the film. It was a nostalgia trip for me, really. I was at university in the 1980s and the music, The Challenge, the whole situation resonated with me. I loved it. Once I realised that the film was based on a book, I read the book. And I loved that too.

Of course, the novel for which Nicholls is really feted is "One Day". And that's a brilliant book too. Very sad, and a fantastic concept. Yet, somehow, I still prefer "Starter for Ten". Probably because it's set in a world that I am completely familiar with and fully understand. Although I spent significant amounts of time in my yoof watching the trashy late-night TV that features so heavily in "One Day" (whatever happened to Terry Christian...?), I was never a part of that world. Not in the showbiz sense, at least.

15 June, 2013

Becoming Mrs Kumar

I've just finished reading another interesting novel. This one was called Becoming Mrs Kumar and was written by Heather Saville Gupta.

I bought the book largely because I knew of the author from my school days in Devon in the 1980s. I also have an interest in India. So Becoming Mrs Kumar sounded like it would be a good read from my point of view.

The book is written in the chick lit genre but from rather an unusual perspective--bored with her predictable life in London, the main protaganist Julia takes up a job in Mumbai. Underlying her decision is the realisation that she probably isn't going to find 'Mr Right' in London and that perhaps she'll fare rather better in India.

Gupta writes about Julia's experiences in the first person, taking us through the sights, sounds and smells of Mumbai; the reality of working as an ex pat in India; and a couple of failed relationships before Julia does, indeed, meet 'Mr Right', falls in love with and marries him, and so remains in India.

Given the first-person narrative and given Gupta's own background (ex pat who lived and worked for several years in Mumbai before meeting and marrying her Indian husband), I'm guessing that a large part of Becoming Mrs Kumar is autobiographical, or at least draws very heavily on the author's own experiences.

What struck me most about this novel was the kind of lifestyle that Julia/(Gupta?) lives in India. This life appears to be one of non-stop partying, late night binge drinking at expensive restaurants and clubs, and full on hedonism. One wonders how on earth Julia is able to hold down her high-powered job in advertising on practically no sleep and with the remnants of the previous night's alcohol sloshing around her body--especially given that she is no longer an ultra-young and resilient twenty-something.

This book certainly conveys one aspect of Indian life very well--the glitzy world in which rich and successful Indians mingle with equally rich and successful ex pats. However, it really doesn't give the reader a feeling for other aspects of Indian life, which, I'm guessing, would be much more familiar to the average Indian citizen.

Still, I enjoyed this book and certainly wanted to keep on reading until the end. And it's hardly fair to criticise an author for writing about what they know, rather than about what they don't!

08 June, 2013

Tyringham Park

I recently read an interesting novel called Tyringham Park, written by Rosemary McLoughlin. As you will know if you read my blog regularly, I have an interest in history and particularly old buildings, spending quite a bit of my spare time visiting stately homes. Tyringham Park caught my attention because it gives an insight into the lives of the people who actually inhabited these magnificent homes.

The book is set largely in Ireland in the early years of the twentieth century. It follows the life of Charlotte Blackshaw, daughter of the incumbent lord, whose infant sister Victoria unaccountably went missing when Charlotte was just eight years old.

Despite the apparent luxury and comfort of Charlotte's life (no money worries, living in a vast and comfortable mansion, surrounded by toys, having the opportunity to ride and hunt), we learn that Charlotte's life is in fact anything but comfortable. Her father is never at home, preferring to remain in India on an army posting, rather than having anything to do with his family. Her mother, having no interest at all in her children, has abandoned them to a nanny who is utterly cruel and sadistic and regularly inflicts serious injury on her charges. Since the house is so large and the nursery confined to one of its enormous wings, no one is aware of the children's suffering. Charlotte's one joy is riding her horse, but even this is thwarted by her jealous and competitive mother.

As Charlotte grows older, her nanny is dismissed and her lot does eventually improve under the guidance of a kind and skilled private tutor. Yet as an adult, Charlotte remains scarred and haunted by her childhood, not least by the disappearance of her baby sister all those years ago.

Tyringham Park is certainly an epic novel. Its story involves a number of characters and skips between rural Ireland, the city of Dublin and new world Australia. What is particularly interesting about the story, though, is that behind such outward wealth and magnificence lie such twisted and cruel personalities. I suppose it's a historical confirmation of the old adage that no matter how much money you have, it won't necessarily buy you happiness.

01 June, 2013

Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum

We had an interesting bank holiday Sunday last week visiting the 'Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum' exhibition at the British Museum. We'd bought out tickets well in advance and were looking forward to it.

The exhibition was busy. The reviews had been very good, so no surprise there. And, indeed, the exhibition was both good and informative, but not absolutely stunning, in my view. The presentation was fine, but not inspired. Rather than telling a story, as the title of the exhibition implies, this felt much more like a standard museum-type exhibition.

However, I did learn some things about Pompeii and Herculaneum that I didn't already know, despite having visited both sites a few years back. For example, I wasn't aware just how much of our knowledge of everyday Roman life is informed by the finds at Pompeii and Herculaneum. Nor was I aware that so many people still remain buried deep under the debris--only a small percentage of the populations have been uncovered.

And the artefacts on display were amazing. Things that particularly caught my eye were a baby's cradle (in tact), a loaf of bread which was perfectly preserved even down to the baker's mark stamped on the side, and a incredibly intricate and beautiful colander.

All of us (kids included) enjoyed the exhibition. Coincidentally, we also enjoyed the lunch that we ate at the British Museum--bought from a gourmet van in the front courtyard and eaten lolling on the grass in the sunshine. We later found out that the catering in the van was supplied by Benugo, who also supply the catering at our local Ashmolean Museum. Small world, it seems--or big company, more accurately!