Sunday, 30 September 2012

Do 12-year-olds really need beauty treatments?

A glorious Lake District hotel is just about the last place I’d expect to start offering facials, massages and manicures to the over 12s.

I’ve been to Armathwaite Hall lots of times. A magnificent castellated manor house with lawns bordering the shores of Lake Bassenthwaite, it has views as far as the fells and the dramatic peak of Skiddaw beyond. My in-laws held their golden wedding anniversary party there and the hotel did them proud.

But I’d have thought Armathwaite Hall would have had more sense than to launch a teen spa. The hotel is offering everything from 30-minute make-up lessons for 12 to 14 year-olds (at £28 each) to a £150 “just be together” package for a parent and their teenager. The name is as cringeworthy as the idea.

Maybe I’m old-fashioned but there’s just one thing the over 12s should be doing in the Lake District – and that’s enjoying the great outdoors.

A hearty walk up Catbells (above) and along Maiden Moor is one of the best days out in the world – whatever your age. The fresh air is far better for your skin than a facial, while striding up the fells will do more for your well-being (not to mention your thighs) than a massage ever can…

Saturday, 29 September 2012

JK Rowling's The Casual Vacancy - the verdict

In an interview with The Guardian’s Decca Aitkenhead last weekend, JK Rowling said: “I just needed to write this book. I like it a lot, I’m proud of it, and that counts for me.”

Well, I think she’s right to be proud of The Casual Vacancy, and I said as much when I reviewed it for the Daily Express this week. Even though Rowling’s first book for adults features “teenage sex, drug addiction, swearing and scenes that would make Harry Potter blush,” I called it “a highly readable morality tale for our times.”

The book’s been out for two days now and everyone I know is desperate to read it. My husband’s visiting my daughter in Paris this weekend and the first thing she asked him to bring from the UK was a prized copy of The Casual Vacancy. “I’m going to stay in all weekend and read it,” she said happily. “I can’t wait.” Her excitement took me back to the old days, when we used to drive to the old Borders shop in Oxford and queue at midnight for each newly published Harry Potter story.

I’ve been stunned by the vitriol that JK Rowling has attracted in some quarters this week. The New York Times’s Michiko Kakutani judged her book to be “willfully banal” and “depressingly clichéd” and said it read like “an odd mash-up of a dark soap opera like Peyton Place.” And writing in the Daily Mail, Jan Moir acidly declared that it was “more than 500 pages of relentless socialist manifesto masquerading as literature crammed down your throat.”

I completely disagree with both of them. The Casual Vacancy isn’t perfect by any means, but it’s a gripping story. I read it in one go, barely glancing up to make a cup of tea or switch the lights on as dusk fell. Yes, the themes are dark, most of the characters are unlikeable and Rowling’s style is workmanlike rather than literary, but she is a brilliant storyteller. There was no way in a million years that I could have stopped reading this book. In my newspaper review I gave it four out of five stars and I stand by every word.

Thursday, 27 September 2012

A Street Cat Named Bob - the most cheering book I've read in ages

If you’re fed up with the lashing rain or feeling sad about your empty nest (sob), then I’ve just discovered the perfect book to restore your spirits.

You may have heard of James Bowen and his adorable ginger cat Bob already. The pair are a big hit on YouTube, have appeared on Radio 4’s Saturday Live and have been profiled by loads of newspapers. Bob is probably the most famous cat in London.

Now James’s book about how he and Bob found each other is out in paperback and it’s the most uplifting story I’ve read in ages. Subtitled How One Man and His Cat Found Hope on the Streets, it's a special book – even for people like me who haven't even got a cat. I tore through A Street Cat Named Bob in a few hours and it cheered me up no end as I sat in a claustrophobic Oxford waiting room.

The tale began in 2007, when James found an injured stray tom curled up on a doormat in the hallway of his block of flats in Tottenham, north London.

For days James resisted the temptation to take the green-eyed cat home with him. As he says: “…the last thing I needed right now was the extra responsibility of a cat. I was a failed musician and recovering drug addict living a hand-to-mouth existence in sheltered accommodation. Taking responsibility for myself was hard enough.”

But eventually he gave in and gave the cat a home. He named him Bob, after a character in Twin Peaks, lovingly nursed him back to health and even took him busking. The pair were soon inseparable and became a familiar sight around the streets of Covent Garden and Islington. Sometimes Bob pads alongside James on a lead, sometimes he drapes himself across James’s shoulders.

In one interview James said that Bob had saved his life. At the time he thought his remark was a bit “crass” but in the book he admits that the cat really did transform everything. Bob  helped him get his life back on track and as he declares in his acknowledgements: “Everyone deserves a friend like Bob. I have been very fortunate indeed to have found one…”

PS. James is currently working on a children’s edition of his book. Bob: No Ordinary Cat is due out in the spring.

A Street Cat Named Bob by James Bowen (Hodder, £7.99)

Sunday, 23 September 2012

School Ties - a new novella set in a school

Downthorpe Hall is a posh boarding school in the wilds of the Oxfordshire countryside.

Fresh from working in an inner-city comprehensive, Will Hughes has just been appointed as the new head. He knows there will be a host of challenges ahead. Tricky parents, rebellious teenagers and teachers who will fight his attempts to reform the school.

He doesn't expect a battle for his heart.

But when he meets two women - the fiercely ambitious deputy head and a brilliantly smart science teacher - Will realises that the ties at Downthorpe are not just the kind you wear around your neck.

What follows is a tangle of competing ambitions and desires that leave Will bemused - and could force him to choose between the job he has always wanted and the woman of his dreams.

That’s the blurb for my new novella School Ties, a romantic e-book set in a school.

From Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers to Jilly Cooper’s Wicked!, I’ve always thought boarding schools provide brilliant settings for novels. So when Endeavour Press asked me to write one, I jumped at the chance. It’s out this month and I’d love to know what you think…

School Ties by Emma Lee-Potter (Endeavour Press, £1.99)

Thursday, 20 September 2012

Hotel review: Mama Shelter in Paris

If you’re looking for a chic hotel in Paris that doesn’t cost an arm and a leg then Mama Shelter could be the place for you. I’d been wanting to stay there for ages and last weekend I finally got the chance.

Situated near the Père Lachaise cemetery in the 20th district (or as Parsians would say, the vingtième), it’s not the most central location. The metro is a brisk ten-minute walk and then it’s eight stops to Hôtel de Ville. But if you don’t mind that (and we didn’t at all), then give it a try. 
Designed by Philippe Starck and opened in 2009, Mama Shelter boasts ultra-modern rooms with crisp, white linen, Kiehl’s shampoo and soap, iMacs and free Wi-Fi. Best of all, the prices are reasonable by Paris standards. My daughter and I paid 79 euros each for a room with twin beds and an en-suite shower.

From the chic dining room (boasting every make of trendy chair you can possibly imagine) to the rooftop terrace, Mama Shelter is gorgeous to look at. I particularly liked the giant mirrors with details of the day’s events in Paris scrawled across the glass and the low blackboard ceilings covered in chalked drawings and graffiti.

On Saturday morning we had coffee at a traditional café en route to the metro station at Gambetta but on Sunday we decided to treat ourselves to breakfast at Mama Shelter. The cost was 15 euros each, which seemed a little on the steep side – until we tried it out. As we helped ourselves to limitless coffee, fruit, yoghurt and croissants we realised we didn’t need to eat again till supper-time.

It was a balmy 26 degrees in Paris on Sunday so we sat outside on the long, narrow terrace overlooking a disused railway line. With its huge outdoor lanterns, massive sofas and friendly staff, Mama Shelter has an urban charm all of its own.

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Now is Good - trust me, you will cry

A word of warning. If you’re planning to see the movie Now is Good, remember to take tissues. In fact, remember to take a lot of tissues. I always cry in films but I don’t think I’ve wept so much since I watched Love Story as a teenager.

Now is Good is based on Jenny Downham’s bestselling young adult novel, Before I Die, which I read a few years back and, yes, wept buckets over. It’s interesting to discover, though, that Ol Parker, who wrote and directed the film, wasn’t totally convinced by the project when the producers first told him about it.

“When they pitched me a film about a teenage girl, with the title Before I Die, I almost passed before the end of the meeting,” he says.

“But they persuaded me to read the book and I found myself at two o’clock in the morning, blinded by tears, texting them and demanding that I be allowed to write and direct the film. The book is passionate, beautiful and brilliant, and paradoxically, fantastically life-affirming.”

I completely agree. The film is the story of Tessa, a feisty 17-year-old who’s been diagnosed with a terminal illness. But instead of shutting herself away and feeling sorry for herself, she resolves to live her life to the full and do all the things she reckons a teenager should do - like shoplifting, taking drugs and having sex.

There was always the risk that the movie, shot on location in Brighton and London, could have been mawkish and over-sentimental. But in fact it’s every bit as life-affirming and inspiring as the book. It helps, of course, that the script is funny, touching and not in the least bit maudlin, and, of course, that the cast is a stellar one.

Hollywood actress Dakota Fanning, who plays Tessa, is by turns sharp, annoying, passionate and wise. But best of all, she comes across as a teenager you might actually meet in real life. And yes, her English accent is utterly believable.

Similarly, Jeremy Irvine, as Adam, the next-door neighbour Tessa falls in love with, is convincing and real. The young English actor is also jaw-droppingly handsome (you’ll recognise him as Albert Narracott from Steven Spielberg’s War Horse), so it takes a few minutes to concentrate on his acting rather than his exquisite profile.

Paddy Considine and Olivia Williams (in a blonde wig) give cracking performances as Tessa’s parents. No longer living together, they react to their daughter’s leukaemia in very different ways. While Tessa's dad has given up work to look after her and spends hours trawling the internet for a cure, her mum is positively flaky, turning up late for hospital appointments and panicking as her daughter’s condition worsens. Look out for young actress Kaya Scodelario (of Skins fame) too. She is clearly a star in the making as Tessa’s best friend and partner in crime Zoey.

So, yes, go and see Now is Good. But trust me, you'll cry…

Now is Good is in UK cinemas from September 19. Certificate: 12A

Now is Good by Jenny Downham (David Fickling Books, £6.99). Originally published as Before I Die. 

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

The kindness of strangers Part 1

“I can’t believe I’m leaving you in Paris,” I told my daughter as we hugged goodbye on the Boulevard St Germain.

“I’m more worried about leaving you on the metro," she replied, deftly handing me a train ticket and a bright pink Post-it note with scribbled instructions to Charles de Gaulle Aéroport.

We’d just spent two action-packed days together and it was time for me to head home while she embarked on her new student life in France.

Determined to allay her fears, I strode confidently through the metro gate (getting my suitcase wedged in the barrier in the process) and hopped on the train to Châtelet-Les Halles.

But after that, everything came unstuck. As I waited in vain for the RER (the express train that connects the city centre to the suburbs), I started to panic. My flight was due to leave in 90 minutes time and I was still miles away.

Then suddenly a couple walked past and murmured something incomprehensible. “Je suis Anglaise,” I replied – my default response when I haven’t got a clue. The man replied in faultless English and told me the train to the airport wasn’t running.  We apparently needed to get a train to Mitry-Claye, a place I’d never heard of, then catch a bus.

It sounds ridiculous but I instinctively knew I could trust the pair. I hurried on to the packed Mitry-Claye train behind them and we hurtled through the grey suburbs of north-east Paris together, past places I’d be afraid to walk alone. The man told me he was originally from Cameroon and was on his way home to South Africa from a business conference in the US. He and his wife had stopped off in Paris en route to see friends.

When we finally reached Mitry-Claye I lost sight of them in the melée. As hordes of passengers tore down the platform in search of the airport bus, a few RER staff in red T-shirts apologetically handed us a tiny biscuit each. Not exactly what you’re after when you’re about to miss your plane, but still.

I pushed my way on to the packed bendy-bus, wondering where my new friends had got to. As it pulled away I spotted them standing patiently at the barrier. My bus was full and they’d clearly been told to wait for the next one. I waved like a maniac and mouthed “merci.” I don’t think they saw me…

PS. The kindness of strangers Part 2 is here.

Friday, 14 September 2012

Hope Springs - fine acting but a tedious script

No matter what part she’s playing, Meryl Streep is one of the most watchable actresses around. From monstrous magazine editor Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada to Mrs Thatcher in The Iron Lady, she’s always charismatic and convincing.

And it’s the same in Hope Springs, her latest movie. Here she stars as suburban wife and mother Kay, who is devoted to her grumpy husband Arnold but realises that after years of marriage their relationship needs spicing up.

So when she hears about a couples’ counsellor based in the pretty seaside town of Great Hope Springs she persuades Arnold to sign up for a week of marriage therapy with her. The pair book into a cheap motel and turn up for daily sessions with Dr Bernie Feld (played absolutely deadpan by Steve Carell).

Streep and Tommy Lee Jones, who plays Arnold, act their socks off in this movie but I can’t for the life of me work out who on earth the audience will be. Young movie-goers will squirm with embarrassment as the couple discuss their sex life (or lack of it) while older viewers will find Kay and Arnold’s attempts to re-ignite the spark in their relationship too uncomfortable by half.

Directed by David Frankel of The Devil Wears Prada fame, the film has a few laugh-out-loud moments. Streep is genuinely touching as the unhappy Kay and Lee Jones is gloriously taciturn as Arnold, but the script is lumbering and the counselling scenes seem endless. And the soppy last scene definitely should have been cut.

When I attended the UK Cinema Showcase last week, Heat film editor Charles Gant declared that you can sum a movie up in two words. A film, he said, is either ‘”really bad” or “really good.” Ignoring his advice, I’m going to sum up Hope Springs in 14 words. If you like Meryl Streep, go. If you don’t like Meryl Streep, don’t bother.

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Empty nest syndrome

There’s an autumn chill in the air, the garden is covered in leaves and the traffic in Oxford has resumed its usual snail-like crawl.

But this September feels very different for me. Why? Because for the first time in 16 years I haven’t got a child going back to school. I haven’t had to rush round frantically buying new shoes, files and geometry sets or doing the annual (always unsuccessful) hunt for my son’s rugby gum shield.

At the moment my children are both still at home but by the end of the week they won’t be. My daughter’s off to university in Paris while my son’s heading west to Wales (with his beloved road bike, of course).

I’m so excited for them but every now and again I find myself asking plaintively “where on earth did the last 20 years go?” It seems no time at all since my daughter, clad in a yellow flower-sprigged pinafore and matching hairband, clung to me as I took her into nursery school for the first time. And since my son was a toddler with white-blond curls and a penchant for Thomas the Tank Engine.

Now my daughter’s moving to another country for a year and my son’s excitedly looking forward to Freshers’ Week. The house is full of packing boxes, my son’s busy practising his cooking skills and my daughter’s rushing round seeing all her friends before she starts her new Parisian life.

It’s going to be very quiet around here in a week’s time…

Saturday, 8 September 2012

The new Marks & Spencer ad - and dressing for middle-age

Thank goodness Marks & Spencer has seen sense and ditched those annoying ads starring Dannii Minogue, Myleene Klass and Twiggy in favour of a campaign featuring professional models.

The new line-up ranges from 20 to 56 in age and from the curvy to the slender.

Actually, the oldest model is the most stunning of the lot. With her long grey hair, high cheekbones and glowing skin, Yasmina Rossi is like a breath of fresh air. She shows women of, ahem, indeterminate age that it’s perfectly possible to age in style.

The clothes look pretty good too. When I popped into M&S at London’s Westfield this week I spotted loads of covetable outfits – elegant tailored coats, pencil skirts and (I can’t believe I’m saying this) a rather fetching pair of floral Jacquard trousers. There wasn’t a flouncy skirt or asymmetric cardigan in sight.

I hope that all the other high street stores follow suit. It’s about time they realised that when women hit middle age they don’t suddenly yearn to dress in beige twinsets and trousers with elasticated waists.

Mind you, it doesn’t mean that we want to copy Carol Vorderman’s tightly-cinched dresses or Kate Garraway’s alarming new hair extensions either. We don’t!

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

How to be a film critic

Sunday mornings tend to follow the same pattern. A trip to buy croissants and The Sunday Times, then strong coffee and the omnibus edition of The Archers.

But last weekend I broke out of my rut and did something completely different. By 9.15am on Sunday I was sitting in a darkened cinema in London’s Haymarket – full of excitement at the prospect of seeing some of this autumn’s hottest new movies. I’ll be reviewing films like the eagerly anticipated Anna Karenina when they open in the UK but first up was a Q&A session with a host of well-known film critics and publicists.

The workshop, organised as part of the UK Cinema Showcase, was packed with bloggers covering all film genres – from sci-fi and horror to rom coms and thrillers.

We were all keen to hear the critics talk about how they tackle their reviews. Charles Gant, film editor of Heat magazine, stressed the importance of staying true to yourself. “What you can’t do is write against your gut,” he said. “If you do, it’s a road to disaster. The important thing is that you retain the trust of your readers and that you write what you truly believe. Once you try to second guess the readers you are lost as a critic.”

He added that sticking to your word count is crucial. “One of the great skills of being a critic is the art of concision. I see myself as a reviewer rather than a critic. People read my reviews to know whether to see the film or not. And after all, most people who aren’t film critics give their verdict in two words – ‘really bad’ or ‘really good.’”

Meanwhile Press Association film critic Damon Smith, whose reviews are read by eight to ten million people across the country, explained that two-thirds of the content of his reviews is commentary, while a third focuses on the plot. He concentrates on the screenplay, direction and acting and reckons that mediocre films are the hardest to review, while writing about bad movies can be fun – “because the bile pours from you.”

The conversation also covered the thorny question of awarding stars to films. In Damon Smith’s view the general advice to filmgoers is “three stars out of five – go and see it. Two stars – stay away.” David Hughes, film critic of Empire magazine, nodded. “And five stars means it’s unmissable,” he said firmly.

The critics agreed that it’s vital to stick to your guns and not be influenced by anyone else. They don’t talk to other critics after screenings and don’t read other reviews before they’ve filed their own. “Just sit and write in the dark,” instructed Charles Gant. So that's what we did.

Sunday, 2 September 2012

The Lake District - a guide for Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt and co

The British papers are reporting that Hollywood superstars Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt have booked a holiday in the Lake District with their seven children.

Apparently they plan to take Maddox, 11, Pax, eight, Zahara, seven, Shiloh, six, and four-year-old twins Vivienne and Knox to a converted boathouse on the shores of Lake Windermere while Angelina shoots her new movie.

For a family used to jet-setting between glamorous homes in LA, Malibu, New Orleans and the south of France, the rugged, windswept Lakes might seem like an odd choice. But I reckon it’s inspired.

Why? Because there’s so much for children to do. Over the years my two have built rope swings across a stream in the Newlands Valley, cooked supper on camp fires, climbed Causey Pike and mountain biked in Whinlatter Forest. My son managed Catbells when he was five, a feat he was so proud of that he pleaded to climb Maiden Moor the very next day.

It admittedly rains a lot in the Lake District, but there are still loads of places to visit. There’s the Pencil Museum at Keswick, the Windermere Steamboat Museum (where you can see Beatrix Potter’s rowing boat and Captain Flint’s houseboat from the TV adaptation of Swallows and Amazons) and The World of Peter Rabbit, a museum at Ambleside that brings Beatrix Potter’s 23 tales stunningly to life – complete with sights, sounds and even smells.

Best of all, young (and old) fans of Beatrix Potter’s books can visit the real-life places that inspired her. If you gaze out across Derwentwater from the top of Catbells it’s hard not to be reminded of The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin, which is set there. And if you walk round the Newlands Valley there’s always the thought that Mrs Tiggy-Winkle might magically appear with her washing basket. Beatrix Potter was walking there when she met Lucie Carr, the local vicar’s daughter, and she later wrote The Tale of Mrs Tiggy-Winkle for the little girl.

So I hope the young Jolie-Pitts enjoy their Lake District adventure. Even if it rains (and it does rain a lot), they’ll have the time of their lives.
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