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No need to set the Choc Nav

I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this before or if you know this about me already but I do like chocolate. Okay, I LOVE CHOCOLATE! Not all chocolate admittedly. I steer clear of white chocolate, and I am still getting to grips with the dark side, but I have had a relationship with the milk variety for some time now. And somehow my chocolate senses are so heightened that I always seem to find it wherever I go. Take Italy in 2007, for example. We happened to stay at a villa near Perugia, which has an annual chocolate festival (didn’t know that when we booked – honest!), and then during our stay in Umbria, when we wandered across the border into Tuscany to a shopping centre, I managed to find the biggest Lindor truffle (see pic) imaginable and, as we were happily over there for my birthday (one of those big ones with an -0 on the end of them), I walked out of the store with that truffle. Oh yes, I did! and it was good. I shared some of it because I have friends who have exceptional taste and, besides me, also like chocolate. đŸ˜‰

So anyway, I went up to London to meet a very dear friend from Sweden (and her colleague) yesterday. We found each other in the chaos that is Victoria Station on a sunny Saturday and she looked at me expectantly. You see, given that I live here in the UK and she doesn’t, she hoped that I’d know exactly where we should go to eat, drink and catch up. We needed somewhere with good beer, good food and where the music wasn’t so loud or distracting that we could hear ourselves think and talk. Um. On the spur of the moment, I settled upon going to the South Bank, if only because I enjoy the vibe of the place and love being beside the river. (I live up a hill in Wales and the only water I see comes down vertically.)

The taxi dropped us off at the London Eye and we wandered along the embankment for a while before plumping for benugo at the BFI as the place to while away our catch-up time. It was a great choice: friendly serving staff; traditional gastro-pub food so some Brit choices for my Swedish friends to try; Grolsch!; a buzzing atmosphere and plenty of people-watching opportunities (this latter is an essential requirement, obviously). All too soon, we had to leave in search of a taxi to take my friends back to Victoria and on to the airport. And this is when it happened. Behind the South Bank Centre, not only was there a taxi, but there was also something much more interesting to both me and my squirrel sidekick, Squizzey, who had tagged along for the day. We had stumbled upon a Chocolate Festival. Squizz and I were in our element and set about sampling some of the goodies on the various stalls.

Rococo Chocolate's beautifully-wrapped stall
Rococo Chocolate's beautifully-wrapped stall

We didn’t get off to a good start. One of the first things we tried was chocolate pretzels. I don’t recommend those but then I’m not really a savoury kind of girl, so don’t let me put you off if you are. I just think that there are some things that go together well – chilli chocolate works extremely well, for example – and there are others, like the humble pretzel and chocolate, who shouldn’t really ever get it on. Which brings me to our next great find. Squizzey and I are both on Twitter and I’ve been following Marmadale, the brains behind Rococo Chocolates, for some time now.So I was really excited to see that Rococo had a stall at the fair, especially as we’d missed out on coming down to London earlier in the month for a chocolate tasting they organised on a school night. Squizz snapped up some Scorched Almonds and Scorched Hazelnuts, which were both delish, and I decided to try the Earl Grey chocolate bars. I love Earl Grey tea. I love chocolate. But, Earl Grey chocolate is sadly not for me. (Refer to previous statement above about how some things should never merge.) Still, we did come away with the absolutely ace scorched goodies from lovely Marmadale and ventured onwards, sampling some hot chocolate along the way.

Artisan du Chocolat's visual feast
Artisan du Chocolat's visual feast

The next stall had some Amaretto chocolate balls and both Squizz and I wanted these. Again, bit of a disappointment, I think largely due to the low cocoa content chocolate used. They could have been great but sadly fall under the non-merger rule. Happily, nuts and chocolate were done properly and brilliantly by the excellent folk at Artisan du Chocolat and we purchased a sample box of their truffles to take home with us.

There comes a point when even a hardened chocoholic like myself has had enough and, after one final circumnavigation of the festival, it was time for my squirrel friend and I to slowly wend our way back along the Thames and over Westminster Bridge (where we were stopped and asked to take countless tourists’ photos) and back to Victoria for the journey home. Tired, happy, and totally chocolate-d out.

The Dating Detox by Gemma Burgess

I am fast coming around to the idea that I should either get my book recommendations from Twitter or work my way through the Avon Imprint titles for the foreseeable future. So far this year, I’ve read two of their books found through the social networking site (the first of which was Miranda Dickinson’s Fairytale of New York, reviewed here) and both have been great reads. Have I mentioned before how much I love Twitter? I have? Want me to stop raving about it? Not likely to happen anytime soon. Sorry.

So this is my second Twitter Treasure: The Dating Detox is Gemma Burgess’ debut novel and a very fine one it is too. I did wonder when I read the book cover if it was for me or not: I’m no longer in my twenties (except in my head); I’ve only ever watched one episode of Sex and the City, although I have, in my defence, seen the film; I loathed the Bridget Jones’ books with a passion; I was never that bothered if I was dating or not in my twenties as long as I was having fun; and I am, and no doubt always will be, sartorially challenged at the best of times. I’m going to keep the fact that I own more trainers than shoes to myself. Probably best for now.

Anyway, The Dating Detox is the story of Sass, a twenty-something copywriter working for a London agency, who is about to be unceremoniously dumped for the sixth time in a row when the book opens. This sparks a crisis in Sass’ life and, although she deals with it by an initial and understandable period of wallowing, she then comes up with a great alternative remedy called The Dating Detox, a 10-point checklist designed to keep her from falling into the clutches of another man only to have him break her heart somewhere down the line. It’s a great concept and keeping up with Sass’ attempts at sticking to her non-dating mantra is, in turns, immensely enjoyable, frustrating when she looks as if she’s missing out on future happiness, and a real ride. Hold on tight to the covers as it’s a bit of a bumpy one and don’t let go until you’ve seen Sass safely through to the end.

Any initial doubts I had about the book vanished in the space of a very few pages. Sass saw to that. She is an exceptionally likeable, real and endearing character, the kind of woman you’d like to have as a friend. I loved her voice throughout the book, as well as her attitude and sheer Sass-iness. She’s also made me look at clothes in a whole new light and I will certainly consider my choice of outfit more carefully after having read this book. I found myself looking forward to Sass and her (sometimes twice-daily) creating and naming of the outfit routine. Way to make the ordeal of what to wear fun!

While Sass is the main character, and a very dominant one at that – well, it is her story, after all – there is a fabulous supporting cast of friends and co-workers and Gemma brings these to life with equal flair. The friendships and relationships in the book feel real and genuine, as do the characters. I also love that Sass gives her ex-boyfriends great nicknames, which help us build up a picture of the men she’s dated and why she might not have had the long-term relationship she was perhaps hoping for.

The Dating Detox is a fantastic read and I wholeheartedly recommend it. If, as the blurb says, life is a party, then this book is not only full of life but its very own paperback party. Get the drinks in, put on your best party outfit, kick off your dancing shoes and curl up and enjoy. You’ll be reading it into the wee small hours, I guarantee it.

The Dating Detox by Gemma Burgess is published by Avon, an Imprint of HarperCollins. You can buy it through this site by clicking on the above image. To find out more about Gemma, The Dating Detox and her next book, visit GemmaBurgess.com.

Flying high with Paper Aeroplanes

Paper Aeroplanes play 10Feet Tall, Cardiff on March 6, 2010
Paper Aeroplanes play 10Feet Tall, Cardiff on March 6, 2010

Every so often I stumble upon a book or a film or new music through what is often a throwaway remark by a friend or an acquaintance. Either their comment or the premise or name of whatever it is simply piques my interest and I make a note of it or, and this is far more likely, I stop what I’m doing right there and then to look it up. So it was that a chance remark by someone I follow on Twitter led me to check out the music of Paper Aeroplanes on their MySpace page. He’d come back from one of their gigs in Islington, was raving about it and had had the CD on constant play ever since getting back home. An hour later and I was still on MySpace, having played through all the tracks a number of times and I, too, had ordered the CD. That was Friday (February 26th) and it arrived the following Tuesday (March 2nd).

This Friday just gone (March 6th), I’d booked to go out to an informal meet-up for CardiffGirlGeek at 10Feet Tall in Cardiff and, in one of those happy cosmic alignments that make me feel all warm and fuzzy and generally content with my lot in life, who should be playing that night but Paper Aeroplanes? I know this isn’t the case at all but it’s at times like this that I could almost believe that there are certain people you’re supposed (destined) to meet at certain times in your life, or certain events that you are fated to attend.

The Paper Aeroplanes I saw at 10Feet Tall were a two-piece: Sarah Howells and Richard Llewellyn, both from Pembrokeshire. There are other band members, they just weren’t at the gig I went to. I’m guessing because it was a small venue. Their sound is alternative acoustic pop music and it is beautiful, uplifting and anything but throwaway pop. The lyrics are wonderful, poetic at times, and the sound is distinctive. If your spirits aren’t lifted by Sarah’s beautifully pure vocals and you don’t feel the urge to bop just a little, then you have no soul and there is little hope for you. Give them a listen, or several. They are well worth checking out and even better, if you get the chance, go see them live. They are as good live as they are on their CD and there aren’t so many bands you can honestly say that about.

Take off with Paper Aeroplanes on Myspace and Facebook or you can Follow Sarah on Twitter.

My travels with Jeremy Northam

Jeremy Northam is proving to be an interesting travelling companion. In 2008, after first splitting our time between languidly idling among the dreamy spires of Oxford and staying at an imposing stately home in the English countryside, we flitted off together for a brief sojourn on the Venetian lagoon, before later wandering the souks of Morocco.

Fairytale of New York by Miranda Dickinson

I was fortunate enough to win a signed copy of Miranda Dickinson’s wonderful debut novel Fairytale of New York. The author herself ran a competition on Twitter – I’ve alluded to the wonders of social networking in an earlier post – and, just before Christmas, it arrived, together with a lovely card and some yummy chocolate, which I think ought to accompany any book sent to me in future!

It was the first book I read this year and, as it turns out, it was pretty much the perfect book to read during that miserable snowed-in time we had of it in January. It is a wonderfully uplifting read, guaranteed to put a smile on your face and make you feel all warm and fuzzy. In fact, it makes you want to tilt back your head, put out your arms and swing round and round like small children sometimes do, so whoever designed the cover exactly hit on the effect it had on this reader. I have to admit that it’s not how I felt before I started reading. I generally don’t pick up a book that has pink on the cover but I’m so glad that I made an exception in this case and yes, I will venture past the odd pink cover again, given that this book has proved to be such a fantastic read and one I wouldn’t have wanted to miss out on.

Fairytale of New York tells the story of eternal optimist Rosie Duncan, an English woman living in New York, where she runs her own floristry business with the help of serial dater Ed and commitment-phobe Marnie. She’s been running the store for six years, having taken it over from the previous owner, Mr Kowlaski. In a nice touch that adds greatly to the book, the spirit of Mr Kowalski lives on and you feel his presence throughout the book, not least in Rosie herself and her attitude towards running the store and the way in which she looks after the loyal customers she inherited. However, Rosie is hiding a secret that until now only Celia, her super-efficient and slightly scary powerhouse businesswoman friend, knows. It’s the reason behind her sudden flight from Boston and arrival in New York. A chance meeting sets events in motion which force her to revisit her past and come to terms with it, providing her with an opportunity to move on with her life and finally find the happiness she’s been keeping at bay for six long years.

The central character of Rosie is a star, sunny, breezy optimist that she is, and I’m sure other readers will warm to her and cheer her on as she works towards finding her happiness. She’s not the only character with appeal though. The majority of Miranda’s characters are full of life and leap off the page, fully-formed individuals that they are. Throughout the course of the book, they will invoke a range of feelings in you: at times you’ll cheer them on, at others they’ll frustrate you; and they’ll make you laugh, grimace, groan, and smile, just as your friends do in real life. Miranda truly peoples her version of New York and she does it extremely well. Although I’ve never been to New York, she also conjures up a convincing feel and vibe for the city, which is more than simply the backdrop for her novel here. It is a character in its own right. I love when a book caters to all my senses and this one certainly did that with its descriptions of the sights, sounds and smells of Rosie’s part of New York. The book is well-paced and moves along at a great speed, maybe hurtling a little too fast at the end but that’s a minor quibble, as is the fact that Rosie’s big secret, when it’s revealed, shouldn’t come as a major surprise or be too shocking. This is a great debut that fully deserves to be as successful as it’s proven to be since its publication in November 2009. And while I may have won my copy of the book, I have since bought copies for friends and recommended it to others and I’m doing that again now. Buy it, read it, tell people about it. Because that’s the best way to find the good books and this is a great book. You’ll love it.

Fairytale of New York is published by Avon, a division of HarperCollins, and is available from all good bookstores and online retailers such as LoveReading or Amazon. It has recently been shortlisted  for the RNA Romantic Novel of the Year Award 2010. Read more about that here. To find out more about Miranda, Fairytale of New York and her next book, Welcome to my World, which is out later this year, check out her website or her Coffee & Roses blog. Miranda is also an award-winning songwriter and you can listen to her music at her MySpace page.

A new Chapter

After being thwarted by the freakishly heavy snowfalls and equally freakish (for I am never sick) illness of January, I decided that, with the advent of February, the time had come to get out there and try another literary event and network some more. My first attempt in December had gone reasonably well and I’d come home buzzing with ideas and freshly invigorated and inspired and having not only met up with some familiar faces but also made the acquaintance of some new ones. This, I had decided back in the tail-end of 2009, was a good thing that ought to be repeated.

So I set off out to the Chapter Arts Centre in Cardiff and drove down almost every street in Canton apart from the right one before having to worry people in the car park and encourage them to leave, thus freeing up a space for me. Eventually, half an hour late, I made it to the Seren/Poetry Wales event. And there followed another evening of very different voices and poems, some of which were incredibly powerful and raw and hit a nerve and resonated and others which washed over me. It was a treat to hear more of Ivy Alvarez’s wonderful dictionary poems, which she reads so well. It was also good to finally get a chance to hear Peter Finch perform a couple of his poems and, despite years of hearing about how wonderful he was ‘live’, he certainly didn’t disappoint. I also loved the poems performed by Susie Wild and Thommie Gillow (who held the post of Bard of Bath in 2007-2008).

I can’t sleep and don’t think I’ll be able to for some time, so I’m writing, mostly fragments, phrases and ideas, that tomorrow or some other writing day may take shape and form. What this proves is that going out to events is definitely a good thing. I knew that really. It’s always good to make sure though, isn’t it?

Snow day

The undisturbed back garden under snow
The undisturbed back garden under snow

I have discovered a downside to working from home. When it snows, you can’t really justify not working because – well, you’re already at the office. It’s not as if you can’t make it down the hall or stairs to wherever your office happens to be. (I’m assuming that roof leakage is not an issue here and you don’t have indoor snow drifts.)

So, it was with a heavy heart that I looked out of the window this morning and saw this beautiful sight in my back garden. Needless to say, and I blame it on the shrieks of the neighbourhood kiddies disturbing my concentration, I didn’t even work through until lunchtime before caving in to the cries of my inner child and going outside to build a snow squirrel with Squizzey. The finished work of snow art lasted all of 15 minutes before the real children of our corner of the world ploughed through it with their sleds. Not sure whether they meant to do that or they just can’t drive (they are valleys kids after all so the latter is likely) but the snow squirrel is now a deceased squirrel and all I can show you for proof of my snow day – besides a crime scene which is starting to melt – is the shed and the back garden lying under the lovely crunchy white stuff.

Poetry and Mince Pies

I am buzzing from having been among such talented and varied voices for the evening and don’t think that I’ll be able to sleep for quite some time to come. Maybe I should seize the moment, pour myself a glass of amaretto and put pen to paper?

To launch the Women’s edition of Roundyhouse poetry magazine, there was an evening of poetry and mince pies at the Oriel Canfas Gallery in Cardiff. I met some people I knew and hadn’t seen for a long time, like Phil Carradice and his wife, Trudy, and Emily Hinshelwood, but also met some new faces, which is always fun. I particularly enjoyed poems by Alexandra Trowbridge-Matthews, Ivy Alvarez, Nick Fisk and Simone Mansell Broome.

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