Where wolves? Here wolves!

Last year I discovered Melissa Haag.  I know, I know, where in the heck have I been?  I honestly don’t know.  Why hadn’t I picked up her stuff before?  Because of the covers – again, I Know! Don’t judge, yada, yada…  But you have to admit, if you’re a Haagfan, the cover on Hope(less) doesn’t scream ‘read me, I’m awesome’.  It’s the food equivalent of blancmange and that stuff looks Bland (capital B).

If you like paranormal, romance, werewolves and teen fiction, then Melissa Haag’s Judgement Of The Six series ticks all these boxes. There’s no smut or foul language, the girls are ‘of appropriate age’, but we are talking mates-for-life and some horrific scenes.

Each book is set around a different female character.  These ladies have special ‘gifts’ and they are to be the deciding factor in a centuries-old war.  I love the devotion of the guys, the manner in which the lovers find each other and the basic storyline in general.  With the exception of the covers (which get better after the first book), there is nothing to dislike about these stories.  Ms Haag has also written a companion series which offers the male POV.

Other fabulous author discoveries are: Karen Lynch (Relentless series) – demons, werewolves; Stacey Marie Brown (Collector Series) – demons and fey; Mia Sheridan (Sign of Love series) – contemporary; Montana Ash (Elemental Paladins series – again, the covers are off-putting) – angels; B.L. Brunnemer (Veil Diaries series – if you can put up with poor copy editing) – necromancer/reaper.

In addition to those, you have to get your hands on: Sophie Jordan’s Reign of Shadows series – Rapunzel with a twist which you will not believe until you see it (hint, hint); Eric Lindstrom’s Not If I See You First; Tillie Cole’s A Thousand Boy Kisses; Cecilia Ahern’s Flawed (a new foray into the teen/YA market).

There you go.  Some of my fave reads of the past 12 months, not discounting Cassandra Clare, etc. for you to get your teeth into.  You’re welcome.  Just pop back and let me know if you agree.

You could always go to my bookshelves on GoodReads to see my reviews (especially the ones I did not finish so you know what to avoid).

 

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Tripe, anyone?

Image result for tripe

The best books in the world are heavily edited because, let’s face it, we tend to regurgitate a lot of rubbish.  We can’t all be R K Narayan and submit an almost immaculate work.  Even garnished with a slice of lemon and a sprig of mint, tripe is still tripe.

Indeed, my mind churns mountains of spurious stuff and the trouble with blogging is there is no editor between the brain and the keyboard so you, dear Readers, tend to get a lot of chaff.  Not that that is any excuse for poor blogging, but you have to admit the whole concept is less wholesome chicken soup and more whatever’s-in-the-cupboard.  My cupboard is very disorganised, and, as such, so is my offering to the great WWW.

My best work is created while I am on the move, either in the car or walking (if any of my work could be classified as good), most especially because I know no poor soul will ever get access to it.  The reason for the inaccessibility being that I have no access to paper and pen, or, if I did have access, no way in which I could transfer my thoughts.  Several times, in the car, I have tried to dictate to my children, but that second-hand process is stifling and I would rather rely on my useless memory than go though the torture of trying to convey my thoughts via a third party, which is why this blog is so cobweb-riddled.

Earlier today, I had a long-train of insightful musings and was determined to trap them with ink, but, as usual, my train was derailed under the pressure of work and my thoughts were scattered to the four winds.

My house is a messy (but clean) clutter – like my brain – and there are umpteen slips of paper and napkins and torn-off bits of card with scribbles and quotes lying here, there and everywhere.  My husband (bless him for putting up with it) doesn’t understand why I don’t gather them up and put them all together in one place, like my hand-engraved sandalwood box, or even type them up and throw away the original.  I suppose only another writer could understand the delight of coming across a long-forgotten chitty; they are my version of the surprise twenty pound note discovered in the lining of a bag or, even better, a forgotten bar of chocolate at the back of the fridge.  Tiny snippets of joy.  Going out to buy a bar of chocolate doesn’t convey anywhere near the same delight (Husband, if you’re reading this, please feel free to cache stashes of chocolate about the house).

My bemused husband has also asked why I don’t use the voice recorder on my phone.  Is it just me or do you also find it hard to vocalise your musings?  My most recent oeuvre is all type-written, not a single word was laid to paper first (normally I would write long-hand then transfer to screen) and it was quite a task for the first few pages because I had to keep going back to correct punctuation and read the grammar suggestions, which made me lose my focus.  But, once I learnt to ignore the red and green squiggles I got on much faster and flew through the book, sending chapter after chapter to my most faithful of readers as they appeared at the end of each day.  I’m not saying I’ve been converted, but I was surprised at how easy it feels now.  Perhaps blogging has helped as I don’t write longhand for the blog – sorry, Reader, you get the unadultered, unvarnished, raw spewings, without spelling and grammar checks.

I’ll be doing another book review soon – I read a huge amount  (several books a week) but review very few.  They have to be either pretty horrendous or pretty great or have something that claws rabidly for me to get my keyboard out.

Which brings me to this book: Darren Allen’s Apocalypedia

Encyclopaedias and dictionaries are often boring, of no help when it comes to secretly filling train carriages with subversive balloons and they rarely manage to offend everyone. Lexicographers assume that language is a big machine that you need an instruction manual to use, rather than a river of silvery ribbons that bursts out of your astonished mouth, or a spectacular instant tree that grows between people in collective surrender to something bigger than the both of us, or a slow lightning strike that pins you, howling with delight, to the sky, or some peculiar paradoxical state halfway between hard cold crystal- line structures driving us to a revolutionary, world-changing point, and mad hot erupting flowers of aimless joy. People who read dictionaries rarely snort soup out their nostrils in outrage, or nod with serene recognition at far distant and long estranged ideas suddenly flung together as mysterious friends, or feel gently inspired to fall in love with waiting forever, or seriously consider the only solution to heartbreak there is or possibly could be, or leave work to master horsemanship, or leave school to get educated, or up and seize their wives about the middle, ready to embark on a week-long reality-cracking godgasm, or stroll whistling into the void. The Apocalypedia is, therefore, a scurrilous, lyrical, lunatic and friendly countercultural A-Z that satirises modern society through an original and revolutionary collection of flash-essays and comic vignettes. It presents an apocalyptically optimistic and deeply original way of understanding human nature and of living in a civilisation that is in rapid and terminal decline. Looking at a combination of common value-charged words and new words coined to give voice to the often overlooked beauties and horrors of everyday experience, The Apocalypedia is a comic revelation of the kaleidoscopic twists and turns that ordinary consciousness makes throughout the day. A delightful gift book for the radically-inclined, the romantically baffled, the psychologically broken, the fledgling creative genius, the reckless, the sensitive and the actually dying, the book is an entertaining and uncompromising satire of modern culture.

Get ready readers, for my next subversive blog is sure to be silver-lined.

 

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Me Before You (review)

me before you image

It has taken me a few days to get to this point because I was reeling and crying and just so overwhelmed by the characters in this book.

Lou was cute and managed, with Will’s help, to grow out of her fears. Will, with Lou’s help, saw the world in a different light. That is the ‘changed their lives forever’ part.  For those of you are complaining because Will’s life wasn’t ‘forever’, you have to understand that for him it was because he hadn’t loved until then.
There are so many things I want to say about this book, many of them cliché, but I shall address the most obvious points as I saw them. Please note: the only thing I will say regarding the area of giving/taking/accepting and supporting ‘life choices’ is that, to me, it is obvious. Your body=your right.
When Lou was younger, something horrific happened and it bound her to her village in a way nothing else could.  To compound this, her family’s circumstances also bound her to the village; her boyfriend and his selfish self-absorbed immersion into the world of triathlon training, constrained her even more. Despite these invisible ties, Lou is her own quirky, vibrant, open person and she is about to burst (stumble) upon Will’s world in a shower of wonder.

Unfortunately, Will is bound in his own way, and not just by the accident that keeps him in a wheelchair. His past lifestyle was somewhat selfish and shallow. It was one of high finance, luxury and power, and it blinkered him to the more subtle pleasures of life, aided greatly by the jaded, separate, lifestyles of his parents – a couple who never, ever showed or demonstrated their feelings, constrained within their self-made prisons of propriety. His mother is a successful lawyer, very proper and elegant and refined, but doesn’t know how to relate to people on a personal level, not even her own son, whom she cannot look in the eye. His father checked out of his marriage and has a love interest that consumes him to the point where he looks upon Will’s accident as a stumbling block to the future he envisioned for himself – not that he doesn’t love and empathise with Will’s plight, but it is secondary to his own. His sister is as selfish as Will ever was and, while she loves her brother, it is not with the sort of affection you see in Lou’s family (I feel as though Jojo is holding up a mirror to Will’s past with his sister).
Can you see that Lou and Will’s differences goes far beyond their personalities?  She with all the love and none of the wealth or freedom.  He with all the wealth but none of the love… and no longer any freedom.

Lou’s down-to-earth presence slowly unveils a different world for Will and he begins to see that his previous lifestyle was pretty shallow; the only real things that gave him joy were using his brains, making new discoveries and thrilling adventure sports, even his bike.

In the book, when Lou asks, ‘did you never love anything that much’, and he answers, ‘yes,’ I like to think he is referring to everything except Alicia. He loved being alive: living and laughing and sex and running and sports and pitting his brains against his colleagues. All that, but not necessarily Alicia, who is merely a prop.
Alicia: I think she was used to highlight his ‘lack’. He pushed her away, but in actuality she didn’t fight it and when she gets engaged to his friend, I think Will sees it as confirmation of his utter worthlessness, as well as the fact that he will never have that (marriage, children), never ‘move on’.  At the wedding, he also sees that, with him, Lou will never have that either.

Will and Lou do fall in love, but Will never actually tells her, because he believes it to be one more thing that will hold her back. Hearing Will say, ‘I love you’, especially for Lou who is so emotionally invested, would have made Lou feel a form of obligation and it would make it harder for her to move on ‘after’. That is also, in part, why he did not want to have sex with her. The other part is that he didn’t want her to have just a tiny ‘make do’ piece of him, he wanted to give her everything or nothing at all.  It killed him that he couldn’t ‘love’ her properly.  Again, having sex would have meant Louisa investing too much of herself and he didn’t want that for her. It is another one of his unselfish acts, like the time when they go to the wedding and he wants her to have fun, entailing drinking too much to go home, even though it meant she wouldn’t be able to change his dressings and jeopardise his health. He does things he would have never have done for anyone else. It is these little things that prove he loves her.
The question everyone keeps asking: Why didn’t he delay Dignitas? Simple: Hope. If he’d delayed it to give him and Lou time, then we go back to the scenario I have already explained above and it would have given her leave to hope that he might delay it a little more, then a little more… pushing back the inevitable, during which time she falls deeper and deeper in love with him and is tied to him, not living, not growing, which he wants for her. He doesn’t want to be something else that binds her to the village, like her family and her fear and her ex-boyfriend. He wants her to ‘live’, to spread her wings and live life to the full and see the world.  She says, on the beach, ‘she isn’t enough for him’, but what she can’t seem to grasp is that she is everything and he refuses to let her tie herself to him when she could have so much more. Refuses to let her fall more in love with him, knowing that her heartache will be all the greater when the end comes – he is being selfless in refusing to let more time go by. I like to think he would have loved to have had more time with her, but he wants her happiness above his own.

Dignitas: Will explained his reasons far better than I could here, but for Will, who was so vitally alive, to be imprisoned (he mentions claustrophobia a couple of times with Lou in mind, but I saw it as him projecting), living with near constant pain and indignity, it was unbearable.  This in no way devalues the life he has/could have, it is a personal choice based on what he feels he can live with.

Will had seen and experienced so much in the world, but never understood or felt true love until Lou. Lou understood love – the love of family and friends and simple living and was content in herself, but Will opened her eyes to the wider world.
They were both missing something and, like two parts of a jigsaw puzzle, fulfilled that missing element for each other.

The heartbreaking thing is that, had Will not had the accident and been so completely dependent, he and Lou would never have met, got together and experienced such a deep abiding affection for each other; they would have remained tied into their lifestyles – Lou in her pretty village with a selfish boyfriend, struggling to keep her family above water; Will in the world of luxury, never happy with anyone and always looking for the next thrill to replace what was missing. But, contrarily, his condition meant their time together was destined to be short.

Finally, her mother at the end of the book: I was surprised at her stance because she has accepted so much else with barely a shrug – her daughter’s teen pregnancy; next door’s infidelity; redundancy; her father’s living with them – accepted and didn’t comment on other people’s choices (insisted Lou never mention her sister’s choice), and maybe this was the last straw. But, this was Lou allowing Will to make his own choice, she was merely going there to be with him while he exercised free will (huh!).

This book! Oh, this book!

Pass the tissues, please.

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Knock, Knock

keys

Earlier this year, not long after the long Christmas break, I decided to place my first shopping order of the year.  We had finally eaten our way through all that stodgy food and now it was time to put our waists in order and munch on something healthy (Terry’s chocolate orange may sound like a good idea…).  So, I dutifully sat down and click, click, clicked away, merrily piling fruit and veg into my ‘basket’.  When it came to the payment screen I input my credit card details and then sat a little bemused when it asked me to input my credit card password.  I haven’t had to use that for at least two months.  Hmmm.  Well, okay, no big deal.  I entered the second, third and fifth characters as requested.

UnHunh!

Oh.  Perhaps I input the wrong ones.  I counted them off on my fingers and entered the first, second and ninth characters in.

UnHunh!

Oh!  Hold on.  Is the first letter a capital?  Perhaps that was the mistake.  Well, let me try again, and I entered the fifth, sixth and seventh characters – no capitalisation required.

Clang!  Sirens and whistles might have blown for the shock that ran across my face when I was barred from using my card for 24 hours.  Shit!

I went upstairs and told my husband what had happened.  His response: ‘You knew I was here, upstairs, while you were typing in the password and didn’t think to come and ask me?’

‘Well, why would I, when I knew what it was?’

‘Obviously, you didn’t!’

‘Uh, yes, I did – except, uh, the computer got it wrong…’

Well!  I wasn’t winning that argument this century, or the next.  Not that I was ever going to admit to being wrong (don’t get me started), because I had counted the characters out on my fingers!  See – never going to admit it!

So, my husband huffs and moans and probably calls me a few unsavoury names under his breath but agrees to call the bank who tell him all I need to do is go to an ATM, insert my credit card and unlock the pin.  Simple.

The next day I go to an ATM and… I can’t remember my pin number.  You know, the number you type in everytime you use the card at a shop; the number that you automatically tap in without thinking; the number that you originally thought of and said to yourself, ‘I’ll never forget this.’  Yes, that one.

I tried to remember it.  I even tapped it in, in three different ways.  It locked me out for another twenty-four hours.

Can you believe they ended up having to send me the number in the post?

Then, a few weeks later, I received an email from Adobe informing me that one of their old backups had been stolen and they advised I change any and all account passwords that used the same password I had with them twelve months ago.  What?  I can’t remember what I wore yesterday let alone what my password du jour was a year ago.

So, as I couldn’t remember what that password was and which other accounts used it, I changed all my passwords for all my accounts, even the ones I didn’t need to change.

My brain is now so full of passwords and pin numbers and passcodes and memorable names and, and, and…what was I saying?

The school has cashless catering which uses biometric id (fingerprinting) and it is brilliant.  I never have to remember to give the kids money for their lunches, I can see what they’ve eaten (no more muffins three times a day!), and I can stroll into the canteen without making a detour for my handbag.  This is what I want for my credit card… and then I remember how easy it was for Tom Cruise to copy a fingerprint on Mission Impossible.  Not that good old Tom is interested in my paltry pennies, still…  Perhaps a combination of both would be best.  But my brain had better get into gear.

(photograph: http://www.thehandmadehome.net/)

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FSOG Movie Review

riding crop

 

 

After all the rumours, changes in casting, delays and upheavels, we finally had a date for the finished product. Yes, Fifty Shades of Grey, the movie, was coming to a cinema near me and I could not wait.  I arranged, months in advance, to see it with another FSOG fan (my lovely sister-in-law) and, as s0on as tickets became available, we booked our seats – VIP, no less.

A couple of weeks prior to the showing, I reread the books (as you do). Oh joy. The story is so compelling, Christian’s angst so captivating, that I fell, once more, into the heady romance embroidered with Mr Grey’s ‘need’ to bind Ana.
I didn’t read any pre-reviews or opinions; I didn’t read up on the actors or actresses or sound bites, but I did watch the trailers. They were disappointing because she was not Ana and he was not Christian. Escala, however, was exactly as I expected and I was gratified to see Charlie Tango take pride of place in the main trailer.
My sister-in-law and I had a meal before the show so we could catch up and get all inconsequential conversation out of the way.  The cinema was packed and, although she had pre-booked, the queue to get our tickets was trailing out of the doors. Being surrounded by so many excited women just upped the anticipation.  The waiting began to be itchingly uncomfortable – good job we have posh seats.  The screening was packed – not a spare seat to be had – and we saw at least a dozen men in the audience with their partners (could have been siblings, but very unlikely), no doubt dragged in to show them what is expected in the romance department because Christian is very romantic when he puts his mind to it.   His obsession with Ana is mouth-wateringly delicious and I only hoped they would manage to convey it on celluloid – do they still use celluloid or is it all digitised?
Forget that and let’s get to, ta da, the film!
Casting: As I have already said, I was disappointed with the actors chosen to play Ana and Christian. They look nothing like the characters; they are either too old or too young, too happy (Christian) or not innocent enough (Ana). What was up with that fringe? Then there were the side characters – with the exception of Jennifer Ehle as Ana’s mum, the others were wrong, wrong, wrong.  Elliot was so very wrong, I actually gasped.  Actually, there was a collective gasp and murmur – see, I’m not in the minority.
The story line: I was irritated by Caroline Long’s review in The Sunday Times.  Not only did The Times send someone who was already biased against the trilogy to review the film, but she made some glaringly obvious mistakes. The book neither finished nor started as she said – one wonders whether she was rummaging for her sharpener at those points. There were a few other mistakes and, collectively, these were enough to make me dispel her review, especially when coupled with her negative attitude regarding the whole FSOG idea – please do not read it.

The first moment Christian and Ana see each other is crucial and, sure, they made sure Ana fall into his office but the next oh-so-important bit was not there: her comment about the paintings adorning his office walls make him see her in a different light. When she was lying at his feet his mind clicked and he saw ‘submissive’. That moment of sexual attraction was the seal for how he would view her physically, but it is the comment she makes about the paintings that throws him for a loop as he makes a mental connection with her – they are like-minded souls – and it this is the start of his journey into the unknown.

The contract – it does not go over the ‘eyes down/do not speak/refer to him as Sir’ part which she fails so spectacularly at and which he, for the first time in his arrangements, allows (you need to read the books to know how very un-Mr Grey this is) – it is another way in which she is so very different from his other submissives. Finally, we come to Georgia (it’s so important I had to use bold).  The most crucial thing about Georgia was her mumbling in her sleep that she will never leave him. This gives him the confidence – nay, the comfort – of going that one step further with her.  He’d been slowly easing her into his dark world, in a fun way – he knows that not only is she completely innocent sexually, but she is a lamb completely sheltered from most of the horrors of life – but now, with her assurance that she will not leave, he gives in to his craving and succumbs to her plea to ‘show’ her the worst. Of course, it fails. Spectacularly.

That last scene – Aaagh!  He certainly looks devastated, but he makes no effort to speak with her or encourage her to stay, which was very hard to see. The book handles this a lot better because, had I not read the books, I would be appalled at his reaction, at the way he seems to just give up.

Then, there is the lack of a scene as regards her wardrobe – we need that to show us his largesse and her underwhelming acceptance. It encompasses everything about how he is and his lack of appreciation for how she would feel whilst also giving us an insight into how attracted she is to him and how money is very unimportant.  They are polar opposite sin almost everything except their attraction for each other.

Talking of which, the little things – the pink champagne, silly names, ‘moot’, etc – they are like little smarties that sweeten their extraordinary relationship. By the way, I like the pencil. Nice touch.
The sex scenes – these were done extremely well, to my mind, considering their premise was to explore a BDSM relationship, which is hilarious at best. Of course, there was the expected giggling and ribald comments, huge snorts of laughter when he sniffs her panties, the oohs and aahs when he strips – but it was all done quite tastefully.  As wrong as they are as the characters, the actors performed their parts perfectly. I decry everyone who says the lack of chemistry was noticeable.
My final comment about the translation to film is a big thank you for that one little scene when she comes downstairs, ready for Mia’s homecoming dinner. When he asks, ‘do you have everything you need’ (I may have misquoted here) and it is only the die-hard FSOG fans who know he’s talking about her lack of underwear (which he’d pocketed earlier).

When the film finished on its cliffhanger there was a resounding cry of ‘No!’ which was, in equal parts, gratifying (because we all want HEAs) and annoying – had they not read the books? Sheesh.
Now, having said all that, you may be surprised to learn that I went to see the film again. Guess what? It was much better the second time round because I wasn’t focussed on everything that was wrong. But, had I not read the books, if I didn’t know all the little things that that were missing, I’m not sure I’d have liked it at all.  As a note I would like you to know that this was several days after all the horrible reviews, but the cinema was still packed to the gunnels.
Now, with the hype fully exploding on every piece of media available, my 15 ½ year old daughter wants to see it. She is very aware of the sexual world that lives outside her bubble and scoffs at my insistence that she is too young to be exposed to such debauchery, however it led to some interesting conversations.
Fifty Shades Darker: will I go to see it?  You bet. I was pleased to hear that the next two films are definitely going to be made!  I hope the main characters stay, because, you know: continuity. However, I will not be displeased to see a different Jose, Elliott or Mia (it’s not their acting!) and please, pretty please, can we get a different script writer who understands the importance of the psychology behind his decisions?

Of course, once I’d seen the film (twice!) I went home and reread book two, because I couldn’t leave it with that cliffhanger (I know I know the story, but I needed to confirm it in my own mind).  You can bet that Jamie Dornan starred as Mr Grey!  😉

 

If you don’t know much about Jamie Dornan, have a look at this clip https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aqUuTLh6pHk

Now, as pessimistic as I have been about the characters, it occurred to me the other day that the actors we would visualise as best portraying Christian Grey may not want to play the part.  Let’s face it, you’d become a sex icon; you’d appear in every woman’s fantasies; you could be typecast; you may not like to nude shots; finally, your life, as you know it, would be contrasted to Christian’s every minute of the day!  So, I forgive Alex Pettyfer, if he was asked, for turning it down.  Now, after Colin Firth as Mr Darcy, Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey is my next favourite heartthrob screen character.

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Tri-Parents

Cell Fertilisation

Science is a marvel. There’s no denying it. All those weird and wonderful discoveries and inventions that allow us to live in such and advanced world, almost pain-free, with time and labour-saving gadgets, incomprehensible communications and awe-inspiring visual and auditory stimuli.

But there are times when I have winced at the latest developments and one of them is: three-person IVF.

One’s first thought is ‘What?????’ I’ve heard of the three parent family, and I’m not referring to step-parents; the Mother, Father and surrogate setup; or even, Mother, Father and egg/sperm-donor.

But, now there is another scenario: Mother, Father and Mother… um, yes, i think that’s right. You see, there are instances when the mitochondria within the ovum is faulty.  Mitochondria, the powerhouse of a cell – and pretty much every cell has one – has its own DNA.  One inherits one’s mitochondrial DNA from one’s mother (which has been crucial in establishing lineage between cultures).  Now, the ovum contains the mother’s DNA and mitochondria, which has its own DNA.

The tri-parent situation arises when the DNA from one mother is transferred out of her ovum into the ovum (which has already had the DNA removed) of another woman, which has undamaged mitochondria. Once the ovum is fertilised we have: Father’s DNA, Mother One’s DNA and Mother Two’s mitochondrial DNA.  The new three-parent family.

But, of course, the idea of the tri-parent family isn’t wholly unique – see above: surrogates; donated eggs; donated sperm or even the step-parent scenario in which case we could be talking of more than three-parents.  The fundamental difference here is to do with genetics.

So, why am I agonising over this?  What is the shock factor?  Because, at the end of the day, when it comes to mitochondrial DNA, who the hell cares except for historians and anthropologists who are in the business of tracing lineages.

My beef has to do with the thousands of hours, the cost and the phenomenal use of resources that has gone into, and continues to fuel, this venture.  Meanwhile, thousands of children die the world over from preventable diseases – this is when my heart saddens because it is not Science’s fault that we are focussing on mitochondrial transfer. Nor is it science’s fault that progeny is valued so highly that one child will lie neglected while another is created with the desired genes.

The legal world strives to be impartial, unemotional and unbiased –as exampled by the blind lady with her scales of justice. Perhaps we need an unemotional, impartial, unbiased weighing up of the choices we make in how our scientific resources are utilised.

But then, I am already a mother, I have my wonderful children and, by the grace of God, I have not needed to stumble down that harsh road.  At the end of the day, no human is unemotional and we are all slaves to our emotions.

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My 50th

Aida at the Arena in Verona

Aida at the Arena in Verona

I’m spoilt.  I know I am, but does it stop me from being a little Diva and demanding more?  [Sigh] No, of course it doesn’t.  I’m not stupid!

For the last couple of decades, whenever the question of ‘big birthday’ celebrations have come up my one and only desire has been ‘to attend an opera at the Arena in Verona’.  My lovely, wonderful, adorable husband listened (okay, I may have written it all over his whiteboard and planner and sent him emails and FB links ‘Ooh’ing over pictures of the Arena, but some men need the odd hint written on sledge-hammers).

Last week, my little family and I returned from a fabulous uber long weekend to…you guessed it.  Verona!  Bella Italia: the land of heady wine and pasta; pizza and parmigiano; sinfully glorious landscapes and one of the sexiest languages to grace the human tongue.

The trip was everything I wished for and more.  ‘More?’ You ask, ‘what other wonderous delights did your fabuloso husband pull out of his hat?’  Well, let me tell you the tale from the beginning.

First, let’s start with the accommodation.  It was a B&B within spitting distance (dependent on a strong wind) of the Pizza Bra’ where the Arena sits, on a quaint little side road in a lovely old building.  Now, the word ‘old’ may cause you to wince but let me assure you the owners of Veronantica B&B, 9 Via Tazzoli, have spent a few Euros and modernised the top floor of this delightful building.  When you enter there is a cute courtyard with some stone planters (alas, all the flowers had been removed) and you turn left to climb several flights of broad stone stairs (no lift!).  It really is a wonderful looking building.  You enter straight into a lovely fitted out kitchen area (where breakfast is served). All the rooms are en-suite with TVs and A/C.   Our children had the first room which was twin-bedded  and ‘snug’ but boasted a balcony with lovely trailing flowers.  Our room was much larger with a double bed and sofa which we found pulled-out into a bed, but no balcony.  Breakfast: with such a lovely kitchen I would have expected more than a croissant, fruit, cereal and brioche (unlimited supply of tea/coffee), but it was filling and, the best bit, they didn’t stop serving until 11.  ‘Wow,’ I thought on hearing that…but it makes sense (tell you later).  5 out of 5 stars for the B&B.  I have no idea how much it costs.

Tip 1: DO NOT eat at the restaurants on Liston – the broad stretch going from the Arena towards the old city wall.  The buildings will make your heart melt and it is undeniably everything you want in a busy piazza.  However, if you must spend a pleasant evening people-watching from the pretty little tables, then sit and have a mellow bottle of Soave, a punchy Valpolicella or a hearty Bardolino, but do not eat there.  These guys are busier than rabbits at Easter and, because the majority of their customers are one-offs, their food is plastic and mediocre (they really don’t care if you don’t go back).  There’ll always be another starry-eyed tourist waiting for a table.  BTW we tried four of these restaurants and were disappointed with all of them.  The only thing I will say is that Mamma Mia will let you sit and drink until 2am, at which magical hour they will whip away the tablecloths, substitute your stemmed glasses for plastic cups and switch off the lights.  Still, as long as you order another bottle or two before they do that you can giggle away for another couple of hours in splendid solitude with a few other insomniacs under the mellow street lights, watched over by the local Police.

Our first night in Verona we, thankfully, avoided Liston – because it was seriously busy – and finally found a restaurant down a side road that had a free table (yes, it was that busy!).  I cannot remember the name of the restaurant (somewhere just past Via Teatro Filarmonico), but the food was good; overall it was a lovely welcome to Veronese cuisine and service.

The next morning we decided we would go to see Juliet’s Balcony, which brings me to….

Tip 2: Juliet’s Balcony is so busy that if you suffer from claustrophobia or crowds then either avoid it or go so early in the morning that the rest of Verona is asleep.  Also, if you must add your own love story to the already plastered walls I would suggest that you come armed with a plaster (yes, that’s what I said, a plaster such as one you would wrap round a papercut) you’ve already scribbled your message on and, on your way through the tunnel (it feels like that although in reality it’s just a little arch) slap it on the wall as you squeeze past all the camera-snapping enthusiasts.

Anyway, back to our day.  After the bustle of the balcony we tripped into Piazza Erbe which has a lovely bustling market selling souvenirs, fresh fruit and veg (great if you’re self-catering as supermarkets seem to be non-existant).  They also sell little pots of freshly cut fruit just in case you cannot decide between the blooming peaches, swollen strawberries or juicy melons.  In the middle of the market there is a weird stone fountain/altar/pergola with manacles hanging off some of the columns.  Apparently, in days gone by, the council would sit and pass local judgments – the manacles were obviously used frequently.  There are lots of tourists snapping their girlfriends, wives and children hanging from the manacles.  It made me blink.

The market flows right through the main part of the square – lots of cafes, again residing within more glorious buildings – stopping at a pretty fountain (there was something historically important about the fountain but I can only recall the cute sight of children splashing about to cool off).  From there we wandered to wards the river and over Ponte Pietra with a view to climbing up to Teatro Romano.  Please let me say at this point how deeply disappointed I am that the  very first cafe that you see, the only one directly facing the bridge, sells the most basic fare (they microwave the hamburgers, for goodness’ sakes).  Again, it was a real case of ‘don’t need to do more because there’s nowhere else to go’, and we fell for it because we were hungry.  I wish we’d bought some bread, plump tomatoes and cheese from the market instead.  After our disappointing meal, the children and I wandered to the right and climbed our way up, up , up and up towards the Teatro only to encounter scaffolding and barriers.  Stunning views, but no visible way to get into the old roman theatre, so we continued round and back down again, consoling ourselves with our first gelatos.  We strolled along the river back to the B&B.

While the children went inside (to play on their phones and skype), hubby and I wandered along, over the main road and espied a covered table and two chairs at the end of Via Tito Speri, a dead-end road (many of the other out-lying cafes were closed for the afternoon).  We wandered over and found ourselves directed into their garden which was overflowing with beautiful plants and crowded with tables and parasols – no two tables were the same.  A higgledy-piggledy mash of old and new which was cosy and soporific.  Only one other couple has decided not to snooze away the hot afternoon and were partaking of a meal with some very bizarre dishes – we thoroughly enjoyed trying to work out what they were eating.  We sank into our armchairs and ordered two beers.  The waiter duly arrived with a bucket of ice, two beer bottles and two huge stemmed beer glasses.  He filled each glass with ice and my husband and I looked at each other in confusion – neither of us wanted ice in our beer!  By this time the waiter was popping the caps off the bottles, strategically placing coasters and napkins on the tables and removing plates, etc.  He then began to swirl the ice in the glasses.  Swirl, swirl, swirl.  I felt like a panting dog: the beer was so close and yet so far away!  With a flourish and a flick the ice was dumped back into the bucket and the beer began to flow – finally! He deposited the first glass, one fifth full of beer in front of me and the rest of the bottle just within reach before pouring my husband’s.  ‘Grazie, Signor,’ was as much as we could mutter before we grabbed our glasses.

The waiter was extremely attentive and brought us (gratis) a plate of bread with some sort of vegetable chutney.  It was delicious.  We ordered another two bottles before we left.  No idea what the name of the restaurant was but I recommend it for entertainment value alone.

After those beers and all the fresh air and walking, we managed to sleep quite soundly for an hour or two.  My husband had booked La Lanterna, a vegan restaurant – what a love! – for that evening.  I was so touched.  Before we left my daughter asked repeatedly if I was sure I didn’t want to dress up a little more, perhaps put on some jewellery and make-up?  Bless her, she did try and I would remember her encouragement later.

We had to take a taxi as the restaurant was all the way over on the other side of Verona…or so my husband said…  When we arrived there I let my husband speak to the lady at the desk while I peered around at the decor.  OMG!  There was a table full of Elvis enthusiasts!  Did he know?  Is that why we were here?  I was so excited.  How did I know they were Elvis fans?  Because they all wore Elvis masks.  Wow.  From the corner of my eye (because I couldn’t take my eyes off the Elvis table) I saw the lady point to my left and I noticed an empty table for four.  Slowly I hedged round – all the while ogling the Elvisians and wondering why they were so quiet; yet so desperate to talk to them – and began to sit (facing the other table).  There was a cute little boy at the end of the table who didn’t have a mask on.  I vaguely thought he looked somewhat familiar, but I didn’t have my glasses on and ignored my fanciful thinking.  But before I could position my bottom on the seat, the lady was urging my husband towards the end of the Elvis table.  There?  She wanted us to sit with them?  Holy Shit – he’d arranged for us to sit with the Elvis contingent?  We were here for a special Elvis thingy?  Oh, I was seriously excited now and loved him so, so, so much – my meat-loving husband was putting himself through a vegan meal and Elvis (he’s not a fan) and opera (hates regular musicals with a passion so opera was his version of hell), for me!  (BTW I am a huge Elvis fan).  But the Elvisians were all looking at us; staring; and still not talking…  I couldn’t tell you how it happened but it began to dawn on me, especially once the masks began to be removed, that we weren’t here to dine with the local Elvis fan club.  I first got confused (God, I am sooooo stupid!) as the scene before me just didn’t make sense.  The people behind the masks were family and friends who had flown all the way over to help me celebrate my birthday!  I was stunned speechless – or almost speechless – as each face was revealed.  Way, way better than Elvis!  Not only had they come over to Verona but they were all booked to watch Aida as well.  My heart was so full I thought it would explode.

No wonder my daughter wanted me to ‘dress up’!

By the way, La Lanterna is not miles away from our B&B!  It is near the river in the Castel Vecchio area.  After our meal (interesting and worth the visit) we wandered along the river to Signor Vino (or something like that) for a couple of bottles.  When they said they were closing we found Mamma Mia and, as you’ve guessed, ordered a few more and left way past two in the morning.  That evening, we were on whites – Soave and Prosecco.

Wine: You must try the wines.  You really must.  So many of the best Italian wines are grown in the surrounding area that it would be sacrilegious not to.  If you can fit in a vineyard visit, even better.

Lake Garda: We didn’t go but everyone who did say it’s a must.

The next day we woke up late, but still in time for breakfast.  The Opera doesn’t finish until after midnight, which means many people sleep in the next morning, hence the late breakfast closing.  We were very grateful for it, and the extra paracetamols I’d packed.

We met up with friends (friends!  In Verona!) for coffee – at a cafe on Liston (lousy food) – and went on the bus-train before having lunch at a Pizza Tratorria which was at the end of Via Tre Marchetti.  Delicious food, wine and company, then returned to the B&B to recover for that evening’s performance of Aida.  It was truly magical.

We all met again that evening, before the performance, and dined at Liston (Mamma Mia).  The food was mediocre.

Opera: We had all booked our tickets via websites but one of our friends had chosen a website that wasn’t recognised by the Arena and their tickets were not waiting for them (as had been promised).  So, beware!  Please, if you have seats in the middles of the area or along the bottom few tiers, wear something nice.  There were some lovely evening gowns (I wore a two piece bronze embroidered set).  We winced at the t-shirt jeans combo.  Also, take water (it is extortionate in there) and a blanket (the temperature can seriously drop).  Our B&B lent out seat pads and I would take advantage of your hosts’ generosity if it is offered; alternatively, buy a padded seat from one of the vendors outside (also makes a nice souvenir).  If you are on the stone seating further up it can get cramped so don’t get in too early or you’ll be squished up in the middle of a row.  Also, our question of why the flower hawkers along Liston were selling lighters was answered: they are for the little candles (handed out only to those on the tiered seating).  A lovely little tradition where the opera is started by everyone holding up lit candles.  Magical!  A huge ‘Aah!’ went up when the candles were lit and the lights went out.  But be careful as, once the opera starts, your attention is completely caught up and you are at risk of either burning your fingers or – Heaven forbid! – dropping it onto the person sat in front of you.  People are flammable, especially if they are clothed!

Also, please don’t use the flash on your camera during the performance – the plonker behind me kept doing that it annoyed the hell out of me.

We were lucky that this summer they went back to the original set design (for almost a decade or so, apparently, they have been using a contemporary set design that is more reminiscent of Star Trek…or did he say Star Wars?).

Little touristy bus-train thing: At 5Euros/person it should have offered more.  Seriously.  It isn’t a HOHO (Hop On Hop Off) and the piped information, what there is of it, is almost drowned by the sound of the bus-train rumbling over the roads.  And the ride – my teeth, head, and bum hurt by the end because all those cute little stones that make up the roads is crap for the bus which jostles and jolts constantly.  If you have bad hips or a headache just use the HOHO.

Buses: These roam all over the place and our hostess kindly explained how to use them.  Once you get on, go to the yellow box, press the red button and insert 1Euro 50.  This gives you an hour of travel.  Brilliant!

Trains: The train station is not far.  You could walk, but at 1Euro 50 you’d be mad not to take the bus.  A train to Venice takes about 1.5 hours which is perfect for a day trip – which had been my plan originally – and costs about 20Euros return.  Pisa, Rome and Florence take longer, obviously, but are worth considering if you have a yearning for leaning towers, the Vatican, the Colosseum or David.

Locanda della Secunda Balena: A little out of the way tratorria we had lunch at one day.  Well worth a visit – quaint, unusual decor; wonderful wines; freshly cooked food and great service.  Vicolo Balena, off Via Quattro Spade which is off Via Mazzini (the main thoroughfare from the Arena to Juliet’s Balcony.  In fact, whenever you can, eat at out of the way little family-run trattorias that serve fresh food.  I think that has ot be a general rule in Italy.

The Arena: Something I found very bizarre is that the sets for the various performances are lying about outside the arena – great photo opportunities.  I don’t understand why – they are constantly changing the sets because they mix up the performances.  From a time/labour-sensitive point it would make more sense to have a couple of weeks of Aida, followed by a couple of weeks of Carmen, etc.  Fabulous building, so if you aren’t going to see a performance then take a tour.

I won’t say much more about our trip except it was everything I hoped for and more.  So very much more.  If you ever get the chance to go to Verona then do it.  Don’t think twice about it.

 

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