Thursday, 29 November 2012

Bad Angels by Rebecca Chance



I was giving my brain a rest from the trauma of The Quincunx and I think I've strayed into a brain coma.  This is, however, not an entirely bad thing.
 
I've never read anything by Rebecca Chance depsite her having written and published no less than six books, all featuring a CFM shoe (ask your parents if you don't know what CFM is)  and sparkly jewelery on the cover.  I picked up this copy at the blogging event that Simon & Schuster hosted a month or so ago.  And, hey, it was free.  Oh, and it was loads of fun.
 
This is truly a bonk fest book.  Loads of sex.  Did I meantion it had loads of sex?  Loads!  Hot sex.
 
The story is actually quite funny and entertaining.  The endings are all happy and joyful.  And to pur the icing on the cake, it even takes place during the Christmas festive season in London featuring caricatures of all our favourtie Daily Mail characters.
 
Melody is an up and coming actress who has spoint her chances of being a serious actress when Hollywood calls and transofrms her into a plastic surgery parody of herself.  Jon is a former CIA agent turned professional assassin trying to start his life over by erasing all traces of his former self including a whole new face using reconstructive surgery.  Aniela is the nurse in residence trying to care for both of them whilst falling head over heels in lust with Jon.  Grigor is an exiled Russian oligarch, who also owns a London-based football team but in deep trouble when he leaves his first wife for a young bimbo. Hell hath no fury like a Russian oligarch's first wife. Andy is the gay concierge at Limehouse Reach, a swanky apartment complex on the banks of the Thames, where all these lives collide for fun and festive frolics.  Oh, and lots of bonking.
 
This is a "curl up in front of the fire with a big duvt and get lost without having to think for one minute" or perhaps a "sit on a sun lounger and get fried" type of book.  I laughed out loud more times than I would like to admit.  And enjoyed it more than I would like to admit.
 
For sex scenes much better than Fifty Shades, you should really be reading Rebecca Chance!

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Beautiful Disaster by Jamie McGuire


We've all fallen for the bad boy at one time or another.

There are quite a few similarities between the Fifty Shades trilogy and Beautiful Disaster.  Abby Abernathy is a perfect university freshman student who wears cardigans to her classes and has kept her virginity intact.  Before long, Abby is attracted to Travis, the fiercely toned, fabulously great looking and fully covered in tattoos bad boy.  Without a lot of convincing, Abby gives up her virginity to the charming, man slut.

There is a lot of violence, not in the S&M bondage type but of the boxing type.  Travis boxes in amateur, underground matches to make money to pay for his education.  This apparently is quite the turn on for Abby.  Travis is equally attracted to Abby when he sees his blood covering her cardigan.

Of course, Abby isn't as perfect as she first appears.  She has a wretched childhood growing up with an unstable and dysfunctional father and alcoholic mother.  She has run away to university to escape their grip on her both emotional and financially. 

And this is where I start to have massive problem with the story.  Abby seems to be quite sensible unless Travis is involved.  He is very controlling and whilst she appears to fight with him every time he misbehaves, she always forgives him.  She goes back to him time and time again convincing herself that they are so wrong for each other that they might be just perfect for each other.  Now, what kind of logic is that?  I'll tell you what kind of logic that is.  That is the logic that gets battered wives killed by their husbands when they don't leave or prosecute them for their violent tendencies.

If I look beyond this appalling message I still struggle to find good things about the book. 

Abby was inconsistent as a character.  First she didn't drink.  then the reader finds out that she can drink15 shots of tequila in one night without dying of alcohol poisoning.  This turns her boyfriend on.  Her first boyfriend was a preacher's son who now runs a gambling casino in Vegas.  Really?  Uh, I don't think so.  If he was thrown in to make Travis jealous again, we didn't need it.  We knew he was jealous.  Having Parker give Abby a diamond tennis bracelet after 1 week of dating is absurd.  Do you know how much those cost?  Why didn't she just sell that to pay off at least part of Mick's debt?  It appeared not to even occur to her. 

I loved the whole teenage angst of breaking up and getting back together again and again and again. I remember those days!   I loved the character of America.  Shepley could have been developed a bit more.  I didn't understand his fierce loyalty to Travis.

So here I've just rubbished the book but I still gave it three stars?  That's because the plotting is divine.  I couldn't stop reading it.  The writing is way better than Fifty Shades.  Actually, so is the sex.  There's a little bit of the Twilight series thrown in for good measure but without the vampires and werewolves.

The tattoo at the end is absurd.  Mrs. Maddox?  She couldn't come up with something better than that?

If you want more Abby and Travis you can relive the whole thing from Travis' point of view by reading Walking Disaster.  I think I'll skip it.

Monday, 26 November 2012

What's On in Windsor


I live near the very old town of Windsor.  It's a hard place to place what with the oldest living continually inhabited castle sitting up on the with its powerful tower announcing its presence with authority.  No matter where you turn you can't miss it.  It is a constant reminder of the links between Queen and Country.
 
If you are a visitor to the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead, this should be your first port of call.  If you live in and around Windsor and haven't taken the tour of the castle, you really have no excuse.  Get yourself over there.  The original paintings of past Kings, Queens and other aristocracy which featured in our history books grace the walls.  The tapestries, rugs and furnishings are exquisite.  Don't forget to walk around St George's Chapel where King Henry VIII and Jane Seymour are buried right in the centre of the quire.
 
But once you leave the grounds of Windsor Castle many visitors to our historic town can be baffled for ideas about what to do next.  Ours is a sleepy and hidden place.  You will find that all the shops close by 6:00 pm and other than having a meal out at any one of our fantastic restaurants or pubs, you may find it difficult to find any entertainment.  On cold, dark winter nights, our town looks like we are all curled up in bed in our nightdresses.  Unless, of course, you want to get caught up in the drunken mayhem on Thames Street after 11 pm on a Friday or Saturday night.  If you are looking for a bit more or something a bit different, you may find yourself lost.
 
Do not fear, however, www.glowmagazine.me/events is here to help.
 
Whether you are just in Windsor overnight or planning a long weekend to our fair town, Glow Events has collected all the in one place so you can find all the hidden cultural treasures.  Whether you are looking for live music, opera, poetry and/or book readings, art installations, comedy, or dramatic performances, this town has got something for everyone on just about any night of the week.
 
If you are a venue in Windsor, you can enter your own events on the website.  If you need any help, please feel free to contact us also via the website.  If you are interested in advertising on the website, please contact me on ladawnclarepanton@hotmail.com
 
Hope you enjoy your visit to Windsor!

Friday, 23 November 2012

I, Coriander by Sally Gardner


Set in London during the upheaval of the Reformation of the seventeenth century, this novel blends fairy tale with historical fiction, not entirely successfully.  I kept wondering is this a children's book?  Is this fantasy?  The truth is it's a little bit of all of those and, therefore, none of those.

Coriander is a young girl who has inherited some sort of magical powers from her mother, who was some sort of Fairy Land Princess.  These powers include the ability to be transported to magical lands and live for three years locked in a chest without food or water, and maybe bring the dead back to life.

I found the histroical landmarkers and period details well researched and fascinating.  Most of the trouble started when we left London and headed for this other place.  The story felt disjointed in those moments.


But then, the lyrical and beautiful prose would carry me away and I would forget about the depravity of those historical times.  That would soon come to an abrupt halt and I crashed into a wall trying to find my way back into the story as Coriander struggled to find her way through the streets of London.

It does have a fairy tale ending, which I have to say I was pleased about.  I hang my feminist head in shame and fear for the future of my daughter. 

I gave this book 3 stars but I have also given it to a 13 year old daughter of a friend of mine and have asked for her perspective.  As I am probably not the target audience I htought it would be only fair to give her a chance to speak.  She has generously agreed to provide a book review for me when she is done so stay tuned!

Thursday, 22 November 2012

A Day of Thanksgiving

This year, more than any other year past, I have so much to be thankful for.
  1. My health:  Last year I spent Thanksgiving in a psychiatric clinic under the watchful eyes of some incredible and dedicated mental health professionals to ensure that I didn't, first and foremost, harm myself.  Beyond that they helped me navigate a torteous path of recovery from the depths of depression to where I am today:  stronger, calmer, happier, more content, more resilient.  I hate to say that I have fully recovered because I'm not entirely sure what that means but at least I know I am better than I was and madness is being kept at an arm's length.
  2. My husband:  I can't imagine how diffcult the last 16 months has been on my husband who vowed to love, honour and cherish one woman and has ended up loving, honouring, and cherishing quite another.  We have grown together.  He is my rock and my soft place to fall all rolled into one.  We struggle everyday but at least it is our struggle and we do it together.  I love him more today than I ever have.
  3.  My children:  Never in a million years did I imagine how they would change me and how their growth impacts my growth.  They have the sweetest kisses and the sweetest cuddles.  One smile from them can banish whatever internal monsters I am fighting and make every day worth whatever is being thrown at me.  I am so grateful to have such incredible individuals in my life.
  4. My friends:  I am surrounded by an army of amazing friends.  They have picked me up.  They have carried me.  They have walked with me.  They have cried with me.  They have bathed me.  They have fed me.  They have laughed with me.  They have brought me coffee.  They have sat with me.  They have held my hand.  They have never judged me.  They never gave up on me.  They believe in me.  They nuture my spirit.  They inspire me.  And there is so many of them!
  5. My home:  I am warm.  I am protected from the elements of wind, rain, snow and frost.  I am fed.  I have access to and can afford nutritious fresh fruit and vegetables.  I have plenty of protein in my diet.  I have access to clean drinking water at all times. I am clothed and I have shoes on my feet.
  6. My community:   I am protected by a dedicated force of police officers and fire fighters who will risk their lives to ensure the safety of mine.  I have the right to vote.  I have freedom of speech.  I have access to free health care.  I have nieghbours I can count on.  I have access to high quality education.  I have opportunity to do meaningful work.  I have the right to practise (or not) the religion of my choice.  I have the right to love, marry, and have sex with who I want.
There is nothing I need that I do not have.
 
There is much that I wish was different in the world.  I wish there was less hate and more peace.  I was there was less greed and more giving.  I wish there was less grief and more joy.  I wish everyone could grow old.  I wish there was less disease and illness.  I wish there was less slefishness and more self awareness.  I wish there was more singing and music and less noise.  I wish there was more art and less rubbish.  I wish there was less corruption and more purity and compassion.  I wish we took care of each other better and thought less of ourselves.  I wish we were more forgiving and less hostile.  I wish there was less poverty and more equity.  I wish there were more books.  There can never be too many books.
 
I wish I was thankful every day for every day. 

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Stars Explained

I saw an author on Twitter the other day very upset that she had received a three star review.  My initial reaction was that three stars isn't all that bad of a rating.  In fact, in my system, three is a pretty good rating
 
5 Stars ***** - Outstanding!  I want to own a hardback copy of this book.  I will read everything else the author has written and I will re read this book throughout the years.  It will have a pride of place on my book shelves and I will tell everyone I meet about it.  It touched my heart and stays with me long after I have finished it.
 
4 Stars **** - Great!  I really enjoyed this story, the chracters, the place and/or the time.  I will probably keep a copy of the book on my shelves.  I will recommend it to friends if I know it is something they would enjoy.  I will read a few other things an author has written because I might
 
3 Stars *** - Good!  This is an enjoyable read, perhaps funny, perhaps intriguing.  Maybe I didn't like a character, or the story dragged, or the prose was sloppy, or the plot had some holes in it.  But I liked it enough to give it away to someone else.  I might read other titles by this author.
 
2 Stars - **  Didn't Enjoy. -  Probably finished but found it a struggle.   Few things came to together and this book didn't touch me in any way.  Probably won't read other titles by this author. 
 
1 Star * - Hated!  Probably didn't finish.  Probably threw this across the room.  Probably ranted about how this book got published.  Probably threw this book into the recycle bin.
 
I am reading my 60th book of 2012 and having done a wee bit of uber scientific data analysis, I can honestly say it is way more difficult to gt a 1 or 2 out of me than a 5 or 4.  Maybe I just know how to pick my books.  Or maybe there are just more good books than bad books out there.  Or maybe I'm an old softie.  Whatever, my analysis shows a nearly perfect statistically accurate bell curve.
 
Please do not be offended if you get three stars.  And if you get 1 star you might want to consider that just because I didn't like it someone else probably will.
 
NB:  I use Goodreads to keep track of everything I read.  If you're not already my friend on Goodread, please be my friend!

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Real Profiles of Incredible Women

Flipping through a couple glossy magazine this week I was struck by how inadequate I felt upon reading the profiles of a couple of women.  The magazine was asking these women about their beauty, fashion, decorating and entertaining tips for the holidays.

The first thing that struck me was "Crap, is it the holidays already again?"  The second thing that went pinging around the cavernous space inside my head was, "I should have a special beauty regime for the holidays?" 

Clearly, I am not the target audience for this glossy magazine.

Whilst I have no doubt that these women in the profiles are incredible women, I didn't get a sense of who they were, where they came from, what they know.  OK, so "that wasn't the point of the article", I hear you say.  Fair point.  Well presented.

This got me to thinking.  I am surrounded by incredible women.  No, seriously.  Absolutely, literally surrounded by incredible women.  Not just where they are today but where they came from, what they've done, where they are going, what they dream about, what they fear.  There's more to these women than their shoes (although some do have shoe collections to kill for), handbags, and thick, glossy hair.  I am particularly envious of the thick, glossy hair but let's not go there.  They aren't just wives, mothers, daughters, sisters.  They are individuals, incredible in their own right.

We pass these women on the streets and in the supermarket.  We sit next to them on the tube.  We greet them at the school gates.  We used to work with them.  We went to school with them.  They were our very best friend when we were 9.  They might still be our best friend or we might have lost touch with them.  These women can pour a mean glass of wine and take biscuits out of a package at the speed of light.

My point is that incredible women are all around us.  Sometimes we just forget how incredible they are.  We forget that the road that each and everyone of us has travelled to get to where we are has been one amazing adventure after another.  Sometimes we soared.  Sometimes we stumbled.

When I was in the throes of my depression, I found that the circle of incredible women around me was vast.  They took care of my children.  They helped my husband.  They brought decent coffee to replace the lousy excuse for caffeine I was being served in the psychiatric clinic.  They bought me clothes.  They propped me and my family up and held us aloft until we could stand upright again and enjoy their company.

Sometimes I find women can be so competitive, so catty, so critical, so unkind to each other. When this happens I find it is easier to imagine the bad day they must be having, the disappointment they must feel, the loveless marriage they must have, or ultimately the vast unhappiness they feel. Fortunately, most of the women in my life, and certainly the women who matter to me, aren't like this. And if they do have an odd moment where life gets us down, we can dish out a hug with a large gin and tonic on the side while we bring ourselves back to our imperfect lives in this imperfect world.

These women make me laugh until I pee my pants. They make me cry like a baby. They make me feel good about myself. They make me feel incredible. I want you all to meet a few of them.

Over the next year (maybe more) I am going to introduce you to my circle of incredible women.  They are real.  They are flawed.  I couldn't be who I am today without each one of them making a sometimes big, sometimes small loving contribution to my wild and wickedly amazing life.

I am going to call them Real Profiles of Incredible Women.  A new profile will be published every week. They might not be pretty.  They certainly won't be perfect.  But they will be real.  And trust me, they are incredible.  I hope you enjoy them!

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

The First Last Kiss by Ali Harris

Those who read my book reviews regularly know that in between my heavy, mind boggling, brain frying fiction, I have to throw in a couple easy reads.  They are like palate cleansers in between courses when eating a rich, extravagant (read ludicrously expensive) meal.  These books aren't any less enjoyable necessarily but they don't tend to stick with me after I've read them.

I met the author, Ali Harris, at an event hosted by Simon and Schuster, and read her first book, Miracle on Regent Street, first.  Because that's the kinda girl I am.  First things first.  I wasn't looking forward to reading her second novel after the first simply because I had really liked Ali but hadn't really liked her first book and I didn't want to write something not great about her second book.
 
I knew, however, that my integrity as a book reviewer meant I had to take the bad with the good. 
 
The book uses a unique device of heading each chapter in one of three different ways:
  1. Time of day on one particular day
  2. A type of kiss
  3. A moment in the past identified by a marker from a DVD or video tape, eg FF or REW or PLAY
Chapter types 1 and 2 tend to be short, very short, but help set the scene for the type 3 chapters.  This approach captured my imagination straight away.  The characters then captured my heart.

We meet Molly when she is young, lonely, trying to find herself and her place in the world.  Not an entirely likable character, Molly grows and learns to love herself and love others.  Who amongst us hasn't been there?

Ryan is the perfect Essex boy who spots the lovable Molly underneath all her false goth bravado and slowly chips away at that chip on her shoulder and the ice in her heart.
 
Casey is Molly's flawed BFF and I recognised an old friend of mine straight away in her character.  the novel is peppered with exquisitely drawn parents, in-laws and co-workers who all season our own love lives.
 
But this isn't a simple girl hates boy, girl loves boy, happily ever after story.  About halfway through the story takes a left turn and heads you down a path I never saw coming.
 
I'm not afraid to admit it.  I sobbed.  The pages of my book are crinkled where my tears fell.  At times I couldn't read for my blurry eyes.  But I wouldn't put the book down.  My husband was alarmed when upon returning home finding me in the same place he had left me hours before only now surrounded with piles of used tissues and the tears still flowing down my cheeks.
 
OK, I'm a sap for a good story.  And a good cry.
 
I finished this book over a week ago and it is still inside my head.  My husband kissed me the other day and I found myself thinking about hanging on to that moment, that tenderness, that feeling, forever.
 
Read this book and you will never kiss or be kissed again in quite the same way.  It wins 5 stars from me. 
 
NOTE:  Publication date for this book is January 2013 so you can't give it as a Christmas gift.  Feel free to preorder!

Monday, 12 November 2012

MumsNet BlogFest


This weekend I attended the MumsNet BlogFest at Millbank Tower.  Having attended several events in London in the past 10 days, I must confess to being slightly weary of meeting new people and doing the whole chit chat network thingymajiggy.  Plus, I've been to so many "conferences" in my past incarnation as an IT Professional that I just wasn't sure I was up for another event where we all jostle for the a quick cup of bad coffee which we try to drink balancing a dozen other things in our hands whilst trying to shake hands with people you pretend to be excited about but can't remember their names 2 minutes after you've walked away.

But as stated in previous posts, I am at a crossroads/fork/meltdown in my life and am exploring options in every corner of the capital and beyond.

What is MumsNet? And what is BlogFest? I had no idea which is why I attended. I signed up for MumsNet a few months back but to be honest, I have been a very passive user.  I get emails and when I have the time and/or inclination, I read them but I would be lying if I gave the impression that I have invested the appropriate amount of time in exploring and extracting all the value I might be able to find.  I was hoping that BlogFest would show me how to get more from MumsNet and how to get more from my blog.

The trouble is I'm not sure I want to get more from my current blog.  My blog started as a training tool when I worked in the IT industry and quite inextricably found myself in charge of the corporate intranet with no skills beyond being able to spell intranet. It soon morphed into a way to keep friends and family involved and informed about our family adventures.  Now I might, just might, want to earn some money from it.  Or maybe not.
 
The morning started superbly with an Opening Keynote by Miriam Gonzalez Durantez who is an EU policy advisor, solicitor, mother, oh, and before I forget, the wife of the UK Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg. She was stunning, not just to look at with her shiny black hair and beautiful white jacket.  She was stunning to listen to.  The wisest words of the day came from her when she said "Woman's rights are human rights." and "Helping the next generation have choices is our responsibility."  I could have listened to her all day.  She was intelligently inspiring.
 
The next session was all about the blogging and finding your voice.  It featured some Blog Royalty including Zoe Q Williams ( journalist for The Guardian), Zoe Strimpel (author, journalist and blogger), the very funny Rachel Cusk (another Guardian journalist and author), and the pee your pants every time she speaks funny, Jenny Lawson (author and blogger extraordinaire).  I found little information that I didn't already know, having written a blog for the last 6 years, but I did find affirmation in the general consensus that I was doing things right, even if hundreds of thousands of people weren't reading my blog.  My big takeaway from this was keep doing what I am doing.  It is authentic.  It is real.  It is me.  It is my passion.  It keeps me sane.  OK, that last point is debatable.
 
I thought there would be a problem with queues for the loo.  I mean there is always a queue for the ladies room, even at events that are predominately male in attendance.  Just so you all can sleep at night, I want you to know I didn't have to queue once for the loo.  Phew!  Glad I got that out of my system.  Literally!
 
After a quick loo and coffee break (with the best cupcakes ever provided by Beverley Hills Bakery), there were several breakout sessions to choose from and I attended the photography session, mostly because I am shit at remembering to include images with my posts, but also because I don't seem to have any images which seem appropriate.  The session was presented by Carrie Barclay and Darren Baldwin.  I picked up some super duper tips about using a 3x3 grid to frame my photos, changing point of view, and some useful apps to download.  My biggest takeaway from this session was not to fear editing a photo to make it better.  I usually avoid this as it feels unauthentic but I think I might be able to forgive myself if I just crop a bit here and there or wash away a power line and enhance the colours.  I mean, it's not like I'm airbrushing 30 pounds of anyone or giving them a flawless complexion when they are well past 60. 
 
Then we had lunch and a lovely lunch it was.  Just for the record, the mushroom risotto was scrummy and I'd like to say thank you to the anonymous ones who prepared it.  It was delish!
 
The afternoon started with more breakout sessions.  I choose the Advanced SEO  session after a bit of soul searching.  Was I a beginner?  Was I going to get lost in the mumbo jumbo of technology acronym soup if I went to the advanced session?  Did I know as much as I think I know and be bored to tears, not to mention frustrated, in the beginner session?  I opted to stretch myself and became frustrated in the advanced session.  We seemed to go seriously off piste with some very individual specific questions and the presenter was unable to make it even halfway through his slide deck.  Although as he whizzed through his slide deck, I'm not sure I would have felt like I had any better grasp of the subject matter than I did when we began.   I think the big takeaway for me was if I'm writing about things people are looking for, they will find it.  If I'm not then no one will.  Duh!
 
I then stumbled and fell with my one wrong choice of attending the Blog Beautiful session.  If I had read this properly I would have found that this was a session for bloggers writing about fashion and beauty products.  Oops, nothing could be further from my blog.  And here I was thinking it was going to be about blog layout and what makes a blog beautiful.  Silly me.  This session featured Sali Hughes (another Guardian journalist who also has her own web page although oddly the blog link on her website doesn't actually go anywhere.  Her videos look informative.) The panel inlcuded Avril Keys who blog about what to wear at the school gate.  Not my cup of tea as I'm just not that fussed about what people think of me at the school gate hence being caught out in my slippers from time to time.  but if this is a priority for you, then this might be the place to go.  Not sure how it fairs for plus size women though.  Also included was Alyson Walsh who writes a blog of fashion for the over 50 demographic.  A cursory of look at the blog though featured home interiors and quite a few young, skinny models so I'm confused but I will return to give it a better seeing to.  Finally on the panel was Louise Woollam who has an extremely funny blog even though it is about beauty products.  Seriously, I read it for pure entertainment value.  Other than that, I confirmed that I wear clothes that are comfortable and just enough makeup to avoid scaring the shit out of people but not enough to have to remove it with more than a baby wipe.
 
Let's just say I did get TWO samples of Boob Goo (which might not be the correct name but it's what I'm calling it) from Mama Mio.  Now this stuff promises to get rid of all the wrinkles from the chin down to my below my boobs.  It does not promise to lift my knee sagging boobs which I must say is a vast disappointment but I am willing to continue to use the product simply because it smells divine.  My take away from this session is that there are a lot of blog about beauty and fashion and this area is best left to the women who are passionate about this subject.  I am not one of them.  Oh, and whilst many deny there is any conflict between bloggers and print journalists in this area, many feel there is.  I'm going to leave it at that.
 
There was then another coffee break and opportunity to spread delicious cupcakes all over my face again but I chose to retreat to a quiet area to do some thought catching and avoid that whole social awkwardness that causes my face to twitch when I constantly smile.  Can you imagine the self control it took to walk away from the cupcakes.  Let's not go there.
 
We were heading into the home stretch with the Keynote Panel which had all the promise of a duck egg blue box from Tiffany's.  Regrettably, upon opening it there was a gigantic turd right in the centre of the box.  Let me explain.
 
The panel included Zoe Margolis, whose blog about sex was at one time considered the 24th most powerful blog, although I notice she hasn't written a post there since September and only 2 blog posts for all of 2012 so maybe this has run its course or just isn't has titillating since she was outed by the Sunday Times.  She stood out with her amazing long, dark, black curly hair, her amazing rack bubbling out of the top of her top (Zoe, if you read this, you've got great boobs), and her acerbic observations and witty advice.  You can bear witness to her success from her web page which is far more up to date and professional, and far from being "just" a blog, although not nearly as entertaining and thought provoking as she was on the panel (or as her original blog was).  My takeaway from Zoe was that massive success is possible using blogging as a springboard.
 
Also on the panel was Tim Dowling, the testosterone contributor of the day.  There had been a few men lurking about but Tim took to stage with all the aplumb of a consummate professional.  He is yet another Guardian journalist and writes about family life.  I'm not sure how I feel about all these journalists pretending to be bloggers just because they write about family life.  To me a journalist writes for a paper and gets paid by the paper (doesn't matter if it is print or online - that line is increasingly blurred with every passing day).  A blogger is someone who doesn't get paid except by any tiny morsel of revenue generated by their blog.  This morself is probably so small that they have another job or source of support (husband, partner, family inheritence, benefits).  Regardless, a news outlet which is also a corporate machine does not support them.  I fell in love with Tim when he identified his litmus test for a good post as making his wife laugh.  A jolly good chap all round, then.
 
Eliza Gray is the pseudonym for a woman writing about being over 50.  It's a pretty good pseudonym because without knowing the name of her blog, I coudln't find her on google.  When I found her blog, I found she wasn't writing about anything much different to what I (almost 50) have been writing about for the last 50 years, our life with all its ups and downs including dog destruction woes.
 
The last member of the panel doesn't bear mentioning and due to her insults to everything www.mumsnet.com BlogFest and I are about, I refuse to increase her visibility by even printing her name here.  Let's just suffice to say that she was a bitter, twisted, sad, mean wench of a woman.  My takeaway from her was to make sure that I never ever become anything like her.
 
And as if to prove everything that I do want to be like the Closing Keynote speaker took to the stage to a rousing round of applause and hoots.  I think I even heard a few whistles.  Caitlin Moran took to the stage in a burst of cut off jeans with black tights and doc martens paired with a trusty lumberjack shirt and a mane of black hair with her signature blonde stripes.  She has a husky, raspy, sexy face and from the start she made us laugh, at her, at ourselves, at blogging, at life.  I have to confess that when my book group read her book, How To Be a Woman, last year, I refused.  I mean, I've been a woman for the last 48ish years.  I don't need someone 10 years younger than me telling me how to perfect what I've already perfected.  I will be the first to admit that I might, just might, be wrong about this.  I'm going to go read the book and get back to you on this.  But my takeaway from her keynote was, and pay attention because this is the most important bit of the day, BE YOURSELF.  Be free to be who you are.  Express yourself.  She left me energised and ready to take on the world of the blogosphere with renewed energy and focus.  Which really is what the day was all about!
Favourite Bits:  the sound of babies cooing during the sessions and the seriously stuffed swag bag (with some seriously awesome stuff!!!!!).
 
Improvements Needed:  there was no feedback form either paper or online.  I have tons of suggestions for making this even better for next year:  QR codes on the name tags, additional sessions (eg getting started (ie blogging for beginners), monetizing your blog, blog usability), bags at the beginning for things like the newspaper you handed out in the morning.
 
Can hardly wait for next year!

Friday, 9 November 2012

Miracle on Regent Street by Ali Harris

My brain needed some reading candy after the grind of The Quincunx and this lovely little book was just the ticket. 

Evie Taylor is stuck in life working the stockroom of a fading gem of a department store, Hardy's, after her life is devastated when her boyfriend, Jamie, leaves her.  She is drab and invisible.  But when the future of Hardy's is threatened with the takeover by the sleek competition, she assembles a merry band of elves from the store's other downtrodden misfits to transform it into a vintage wonderland.  she does all this whilst being courted by two very deserving men.  Which one is going to win the girl and will the store be transformed in time to escape a hostile takeover?

Like a bag of candy floss, the story was very sweet in places, even corny.  I jarred a bit at the stolen line from Pretty Woman when Joel, the suave, debonair, and impossibly perfect American, orders the entire Claridge's breakfast menu when he doesn't know what she wants for breakfast.  It would have been ok if the movie had been referenced, but it wasn't.

But there isn't a more perfect love story to get you in the mood for Christmas.  I loved all the references to the way London is transformed at Christmas time and I wished for a real store similar to Hardy's so I could go there and do all my Christmas shopping.  I particularly enjoyed the critical remark of Regent Street being decorated like one big Disney advert.

I really liked all the characters who worked in the store, even if they were a bit cliched.  My favourite characters were the Polish cleaners and their accent.  Even the names the author chose for the characters were perfectly ludicrous. I found myself speaking their parts out loud.

There was some timing issues like how Evie was able to get to work at 7 am when she was helping her sister, Delilah, get them ready for school.  I don't know about you, but my children get up for school at that time.  There is no way they would be up before 6 am.  I also found the selfish, self-centeredness and self absorbed side of Evie hard to swallow when she cared so much for everyone at the store.  That was of course all explained at the end but it did feel a little too neat and tidy of a sweep under the rug of such brutal treatment of her sister.

Also, the throwaway remark about her sister being diagnosed with depression but still doing a Christmas dinner was caustic to someone who suffers from depression and knows that heating up a pizza is hard work with in the throes of such a debilitating mental illness.

But do NOT let any of that stop you from reading this novel if what you are looking for is something, sweet, short and light with a happy ending all tied up nicely with a bow.  Especially over the upcoming holidays.  It would make a perfect stocking stuffer for that special woman in your life! 

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

The Quincunx by Charles Palliser

I am hoping to write a very short review of this very long book.  I wrote a post about Social Reading about a month ago. When I enthusiastically volunteered myself for this endeavour, it is fair to say, I wasn't entirely certain what I was getting myself into.  And I most certainly didn't know that the book was 1200 pages long (give or take a few pages).
 
Reading a book this long at a pace set by others didn't really work for me.  Although, if I hadn't committed to reading it as part of Social Reading, I honestly would have never finished it.  I'm not entirely sure that would have been a bad thing.  As it is, I have spent an awful lot of time reading a book I didn't thoroughly enjoy.
 
I have clearly been guilty of what Mr Palliser refers to in his Afterword as under reading.  I was quickly overwhelmed by about who was who given everyone's multiple identities, and who did what, given that there were hundreds of plausible culprits of hundreds of different crimes, not to mention the hundreds of characters.  I tried to keep track in a notebook but after 500 or so pages couldn't be bothered any longer.  I was so far behind in my reading than everyone else I abandoned this and just let it wash over me.
 
Despite the fact that Mr Palliser seems really rather pleased just a bit too much with his own cleverness and his readers dim wittedness, I did rather enjoy the place and time.  The evocation of the smells of the poverty stricken areas of London were so wonderful, I could feel my stomach turning.The novels trolls through every occupation and class of society of Victorian London and provides intricate details of all the sights and sounds.  
 
I was relieved to learn that the author had edited vast portions of his original draft to make the book "more readable".  I can't imagine how I would have lifted this book to read it if he hadn't.
 
The trouble with that level of detail was that plot suffered and to a certain extent so did the characters.  In my mind's eye, I have no clear vision of what anybody looked like although I certainly can picture where they were in exquisite detail.
 
Disappointingly, I felt that, other than a few loyal tweeters and visitor's to Scott's blog, I was largely alone.  When I remarked on parts of the book or had questions, particularly on Twitter, it didn't seem like there was much of a community reading along with me.  Although those who have kept in touch seem as relieved as I am that it is over.
 
The finished book looks beaten and battered having travelled with me up to Scotland and back.  I am pleased to say that I have finished it but will not be recommending it to anyone else.  It just simply didn't move me.  I am hoping it will make its last journey with me to the Firestation bookswap.
 
Now for something a bit lighter.  My brain needs a rest.

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Simon & Schuster Blogging Event

Last week I was invited to a blogger event hosted by the publishing house of Simon & Schuster in London with my jazz hand friend, Melanie Gow, artist, author, even co-ordinator, and creative genius behind Glow Magazine.

Historically, publishers haven't paid much attention to the blogosphere.  It would appear this is set to change as they realise the influence over the power of suggestion.  You see, many readers don't set much stock by what the "official" book critics published in the newspapers have to say about books when book groups and people sitting on a beach go to select a book.  And there's money in these markets.  Lots of money.  Publishers have struggled to find out what criteria led these groups to selecting books.  Guess what?  The answer lies in what we formidable readers have known all along.  We take recommendations from those people like us who live to read in those spare moments when normal life of family, day job and laundry aren't getting the way.  OK, some days laundry will have to wait if we've found ourselves lost in a really good tale.

These people have taken their book reviews to their blogs and write about them.  And people like you, my stalwart readers, sometimes say, hey, that sounds like something I might like to read.  And word of mouth spreads like wild fire and you have a surprise hit on your hands.  No big PR budget was spent.  No big launch party was attended. No muckety mucks mucking it up.  Just pure and simple joy in reading was had by one and all.

Simon and Schuster, in all their wisdom, has realised this.  they have also realised that we bloggers do this only because we like to read.  We don't make any money from it and we tend to have day jobs or children or both, so our budget for books can be rather limited.

For a blogger to be offered stacks and stacks of free books along with a glass of wine and some rather good cheese was reason enough to make my way into London and deal with the traffic, congestion charge, and parking.

And boy was it worth it!!!!

First off, we got to meet 4 great authors who told us all about the reasons we should read their books (after they had signed them, of course) and then we got to stuff beautiful canvas bags full of other books published by Simon & Schuster.
 
Ali Harris was talking about her second novel, The First Last Kiss, and I was able to pick up a copy of her first novel, Miracle on Regent Street.
 
Wendy Wallace was very excited with the publication of her debut novel, The Painted Bridge, a Victorian novel which also features a bit of early photography.
 
Robert Ryan was the veteran in the bunch having published numerous novels before largely set during World War 2.  With the publication of Dead Man's Land, he goes back in time to the first World War but interestingly has included a link to Sherlock Holmes.
 
And Dean Crawford talked about the science featured in his third novel, Apocalypse, which follows on from his two previous novels, Covenant and Immortal.  Funny thing is I didn't manage to pick up a copy of Apocalypse as they got snatched up in the speed of lightning but I did manage to grab the first two.
 
All of this oughta keep me busy reading all winter long!  Just wish I didn't have to do other things like sleep and eat.  Where to start?  Where to start?

Monday, 5 November 2012

Spirited Bodies Part 2

During the first workshop, Lucy at Spirited Bodies announced that the Daily Mail (a UK national paper) would be doing a feature on the event for their Sunday magazine, You.  They were wondering if there were any models who would be willing to be interviewed.  I put my head down. 

Esther caught me at the second workshop and said she had noticed that I was a blogger and as such perhaps I wouldn't mind being interviewed by the Daily Mail.  If I choose so, I could remain anonymous although obviously, they wanted some people to be identified.  My initial reaction was that I didn't mind being interviewed as long as it was anonymous.

As the workshop finished, I had decided that there wasn't really a downside to being identified by name in the article so I had agreed.  Spirited Bodies was very grateful.

The day before the event I sat at my desk doing the things which I do at my desk (which resembles writing but involves quite a bit of internet surfing) and the phone rang from a number I didn't recognise.  I don't normally answer those calls.  But I was feeling frisky.

The caller identified herself as a journalist from the paper and very politely proceeded to ask me questions for the next 30 minutes or so.  Most of the questions were around my motivation for agreeing to pose nude.  I waffled on for a bit hoping those reasons would sound clearer when I said them out loud than when I said them to myself.  I was slightly comforted by the news that the journalist would also be posing nude so she didn't want to derail the story too much and make it all seedy.

When I hung up the phone, I felt my heart start to palpitate.  I started to sweat.  I felt committed.  No longer would I be able to use a lousy sore throat as an excuse to throw this opportunity into the gutter.  Now I had to go.  I was soooooo nervous I thought I would vomit.

The entire evening I struggled to sit still.  Surreptitiously, I tried out poses sitting on the sofa hoping that my husband wouldn't notice that his wife was developing a passion for dramatic seating, standing, kneeling, and sprawling positions for watching television.

I woke up early Saturday morning, showered, and stared at myself naked in the mirror.  normally I avoid this sight at all costs.  But I couldn't avoid it anymore.  I did my hair but not too much.  I did a bit of makeup.  But not too much.  I dressed in something easy to take off, stuffed my dressing gown in my bag and set off for London with a large cup of coffee.

I arrived in plenty of time and watched the models arrive one by one.  It would seem nude modelling isn't something you do with friends although there were a few couples together.  We all recognised a couple familiar faces from the workshops in the crowd so could chat idly waiting for our big moment.

After what seemed like forever, we were told it was time to get changed.  As discreetly as possible we all stripped off and donned our dressing gowns.  It felt odd to be getting undressed in front of strangers but no one seemed to be caring so I tried to keep my eyes down and preserve my dignity until the very last moment.
 
We then all walked into the room, approached the stage, dropped our coverings, stepped on to the platform and struck a pose.  And that was that.  I was modelling nude for a group of over 70 artists.
 
You couldn't really tell who was drawing you.  Vanity took over and I wanted to make sure that I posed in a way that the artist would find interesting and would be compelled to draw me.  Me!  Me!
 
The room was silent but for the scratching of pens, pencils, brushes, charcoal on paper.  Models moved about on the stage and changed position.  Artists' gazes shifted from one model to another; from one group of models to another.  Before I knew what happened the first half of the day was over.
 
We were afforded a short break for lunch.  We nibbled on lentil salad whilst milling about in our dressing gowns as if this was the most normal thing in the world.  Some models left and new models arrived.  Then we did it all over again.
 
You could feel the anticipation of the end of the day approaching as the efforts of the artists become a bit more frenetic as the scurried about trying to finish a few pieces to hang on the walls.
 
As I got dressed I was somewhat stunned by what I had just done and a wee bit apprehensive about the art I was going to view.  What would I think of myself when I recognised my body?  What if I didn't recognise my body?  What if no one found my body interesting enough or attractive enough to draw?
 
The models and artists met up in the great hall.  I felt overwhelming pride when I spotted myself in a the pieces of art.  I had some artists tell me that my body, yes, my body, was beautiful.  I was astonished at how beautiful I felt despite my bumps and rolls and bulges and droops and sags. 
 
I was a piece of art.  I was several pieces of art!  Beautiful wonderful art.
 
I got into my car.  I took a deep breath.  I put my head into my hands and had a good cry.  I felt so emotional at having had strangers tell me how beautiful I was when every other way I turn tells me that I am not beautiful.  let's face it, women my size struggle to even buy clothing.
 
And then I had a good laugh.  I laughed at the adventures still ahead of me.  And hopefully, many of those adventures will include the opportunity to do some more nude modelling.  I've added it to my long list of job titles.  And watch out for the feature in You magazine sometime in December!

Friday, 2 November 2012

Spirited Bodies Part 1

My husband thinks maybe I have a brain tumour.  You know, one of those that causes someone to start doing crazy, out of character things and nobody says anything and then one day that person dies and everyone says afterwards, "Yeah, I thought she was acting strangely."

Trust me, I don't have a brain tumour.  Well, at least I don't think I have a brain tumour.
 
But I am adrift.  Adrift in the sea of life, reflecting on the last 20 years and wondering about the next 20 years.  My eyesight is clouded with fear, excitement, curiosity, anxiety, and fear.  Mostly fear.
 
I'm not like Oprah.  I don't know many things for sure.  I know the sun will rise in the east and set in the west but apart from that I can only be sure that someday I will die.  Given current life expectancies I also am fairly certain that my life is well over halfway finished.
 
That sobering thought causes me to squeal "But I haven't done everything I want to do."
 
It is with the determination of that statement that I have decided to take some risks in life, not something I have ever been entirely comfortable with, and do somethings I never even knew I wanted to do but know I have to do once I hear about them.
 
When I read about an event sponsored by an organisation called Spirited Bodies, I wanted to be a part of it. 
 
I love art.  Art has the power to make me laugh and move me to tears.  I an stare in wonder at a drawing or a painting for hours.  I'm not just looking at the picture but appraising the talent of the artist who saw what they saw and was able to put that down on a canvas for all to see in a way that I never could.  I mean, I still draw stick figures.  My eight year old daughter has more artistic talent in her pinkie finger than I have ever had in my entire body.  Artists amaze me.
 
The opportunity to be a part of art was irresistible. The opportunity to become that art was mesmerising.
 
It was with this ideal that I volunteered to pose nude for the event with London Drawing.  Spirited bodies would provide the nude models and London Drawing would provide the artists.
 
Initially I attended an introductory session with Esther and Lucy, the two wonder women behind Spirited Bodies.  Along with a dozen nude modelling virgins, the process and boundaries were explained to us.  You could have cut the apprehension with a knife.  But these two women made it seem very safe and almost clinical.
 
I decided to attend the next two workshops where hints and tips of posing nude were to be given.  Initially I thought well, how hard can it be to pose nude?  I mean, you take of your clothes and stand there, right?  But the introductory session introduced the concept of holding a pose.  For 30 minutes.....uh oh!
 
That evening I went home and tried to stand still.  My husband kept asking if I wanted to go get an MRI scan done.  I just kept standing in the middle of the lounge in all my glory thinking that my right big toe was killing me and my right arm was never going to stay aloft at that angle for 5 minutes.  I must be doing this wrong.
 
I attended the first workshop at Battersea library.  My stomach was in knots but as I had absolutely no intention of getting my kit off, I told myself this was ridiculous.  I had brought my dressing gown (robe) as instructed but just so I could say I had followed instructions to the letter.
 
Esther and Lucy encouraged us all to get some paper and pick out some drawing tools.  I choose a pencil, eraser and some charcoal, although what exactly I was planning to do with these implements remained unclear (see reference to stick figures above).  We had settled into our chairs in a circle and Esther, who had changed into a sarong wrapped loosely around her body, explained that we would all draw each other whilst we each took turns modelling.  She expanded that it was entirely our choice as to whether we posed fully, partially and not dressed.
 
And with that she dropped the sarong to the floor and stood before us in all her glory.  Lucy instructed that we had 5 minutes to draw Esther.  5 minutes?  To draw Esther?  A day wouldn't be enough for me to draw anything at all.  I stared at my blank sheet of paper, then back up at Esther's elbow, then back down at the paper, then up at Esther's ankle.  I gripped my pencil and started with her heel, then moved to her hip, then tried her head.  Next thing I knew, I was out of time and Esther had her sarong back on. 
 
"How did that feel?" Esther asked.  I stared at the mess on my paper.  And thought, "Not so well." but then I realised I was so wrapped up in my own process of drawing that I had completely forgotten that there was a nude woman standing in front of me.  Pretty soon everyone wanted a go.  One woman who had kept her clothes on for her first go had decided that she wanted to try again but this time nude.  She later said she felt more comfortable the second time around.  You quickly realise that it's not about whether the model has clothes or not but that at the end of the process, there is a work of art, good or bad, but art.
 
The second workshop was much like the first although I had figured out quite a few poses that I could hold for some time without my limbs going numb.  I gained some more confidence and tried out some poses with other models.  Driving home that evening I wondered if I would feel as confident at the main event as I did in the workshops.
 
Posing alone or in groups of 2 or 3 in front of a dozen other models who would be in the same position as you was relatively a walk in the park.  The thought of posing with 30-40 other models on a multi-tiered platform in front of 7-80 artists was like an Olympic marathon.  Would I be able to do it when the time came?  Or was I going to chicken out at the last minute and run for the hills?  I had 2 days to talk myself out of it and I felt a sore throat coming on.
 
Stay Tuned.

Thursday, 1 November 2012

The Magic Box

Abigail has written a poem (with the assistance of her school).  The highlighted bits are her words.....I love her imagination and it makes me giggle everytime I read it.

The Magic Box

I will put in the box
the swish of a silk sari on a summer night,
fire from the nostrils of a Chinese dragon,
the tip of a tongue touching a tooth.

I will put in the box
a doll eating biscuits,
a sip of the bluest water from Lake Lucerne,
a leaping spark from an electric fish.

I will put in the box
a million wishes spoken in Gujarti,
the last joke of an ancient uncle,
and the first day at school.

I will put in the box
a fifth season and a black son,
a lego man in a plane
and a pilot in a lego car.

My box is fastened from diamonds, muscial notes and swan feathers
with Rapunzel plaits on the lid and secrets in the corners.
Its hinges are the toe joints
of pandas.

I shall surf in my box
on the great high-rolling breakers of the wild Atlantic,
Then wash ashore on a yellow beach
the colour of the sun.,

Sunday, 7 October 2012

Social Reading

I am taking part in a fantastically fun social phenomenon called "Social Reading".  Our social reading experience is led by the indomitable Scott Pack, the voice behind the blog, Me and My Big Mouth, the brains behind The Friday Project, the power behind the Bookswap, and the man behind the creative genius of Rhian Winsalde (his wife).
 
Social Reading is like a book group only better.  Individuals from anywhere all read the same book at roughly the same pace and use twitter and other social media, like Scott's blog, to discuss and comment.  This is the first time I have participated.
 
The book was chosen via a very scientific method of online voting.  Anyone could nominate any book, although it appears that the best books are those great big books that are just too scary to take on alone.  This time The Quincunx by Charles Palliser has been chosen.
 
This book weighs in at 1221 pages if you include the author's afterword and the incredibly lengthy list of characters.  I would normally feel daunted by this task but because I am undertaking it with the help of countless strangers I feel somewhat reassured.
 
This weekend's task was to read Book I of 75 pages.  The first chapter, a battle between Law and Equity, took my breath away and sucked me right in.  I struggled to find the motivation to do anything other than read.  I wondered if the children could just feed themselves toast all day but realised this was too big of an ask when they told me the bread was moldy.  I sat up in bed until the wee hours of this morning and must confess to moving on to Book II where once again the first chapter (Chapter 7), a discussion between Wealth, Power and Arrogance, sucked me into the vortex again.  Now the 1221 pages don't look like such a big task at all.
 
It's not too late to join us.  Although there has been a run on books at Amazon, if you can find a copy, join us.  You may follow the discussion on twitter using the hashtag #Quincunx and/or Scott's blog.  If you can't follow along this time, the hashtag #SocialReading will keep you informed of future undertakings.
 
In the meantime, I've got a book to read.

Dyslexia

My daughter was diagnosed with severe dyslexia last week.  She has also been diagnosed with severe dyscalculia.

Now I know lots of famous people have dyslexia (and probably dyscalculia) and lots of not famous people are afflicted as well.  But that doesn't help my daughter.

It might seem late for us to realise that she has dyslexia.  In fact, way back when Abigail was in Reception, age 4, I had my suspicions.  By age 5, I knew.  But the eductional professionals insisted that it was way too early to tell.  So we waited. Last year, we had a preliminary confirmation of the dyslexia but the degree of the impairment was unknown. 

In the middle of last year, Abigail had been seeing an Addiontal Education Needs teacher and was getting loads of support from the school.  We saw a massive improvement in her reading ability and small gains in her maths.  But let me put this in perspective for you.

Where Abigail could not read at all at the beginning of last year, she was able to sound out 3, 4, and some 5 letter words.  But quite often she guessed and she got it wrong.  Reading took a long time. She was frustrated because there is no one on this planet who tries harder than Abigail.

Then it started to impact everything else.

So we called in a professional. 

Dyslexia is a language processing neurological abnormality.  Her brain can't process language, either when you are speaking to her, partiuclarly quickly, or reading, or writing.  Even when she is trying to speak to others, she struggles with getting the words out of her mouth.

Then the panic and anxiety sets in.  She becomes tense and hostile.  Then she becomes frustrated.  Then she becomes distraught.  Finally, she begins to think she is stupid and dumb.  When, in fact, she is neither.  She is incredibly bright and clever and funny and friendly and polite and wonderful in so many ways.

Just not the way school requires her to be.  As I parent, there is nothing worse than watching your child go through this.

Dsycalculia is the same processing abnormality except that it applies to all mathematical concepts.  So for example, she has no idea what adding 4 and 1 together should be.  She has to use a number grid and count everything out.

Sure there are worse things in life.  She doesn't have cancer.  She can walk.  She isn't going to die in the foreseeable future. 

But that doesn't mean that my heart isn't breaking in a million pieces as I try to process this and plan what to do about her future as she may need a specialist school.

The diagnosis does go a long way to explaining some characteristics we've noticed.  Abigail enjoys playing with younger children.  They speak more slowly and more simply.  She can process that.  Abigail has a wild and wooly imagination.  She can get  lost in the world inside her head for hours.  She often gets "carried away", as she says.  I call it distraction.

So, I have dealt with this the only way I know how.  I am researching on the internet.  I am in contact with various support organisations.  I have ordered and have already begun to read stacks of books.  I've bought countless apps for her iPad.  We will have a plan.  I don't know what that plan is yet.  But we will get there.

But first I must figure out a way to explain this all to Abigail.  And, for me, this is proving the most difficult.  She knows she struggles.  But I can't quite get my head around what and how to tell her.

In the meantime, if anyone has any sage advice, I am open and willing to listen to any and all experiences.