Wednesday, 27 February 2013

The RoNA Awards - winners include Katie Fforde, Jenny Colgan and Rowan Coleman

This was the first year in ages that I didn’t get to the Romantic Novelists’ Association’s RoNA awards bash - and I’m really fed up about missing it.

The RoNA awards celebrate the very best in romantic fiction and the party is always fun and ultra-glamorous. The champagne flows, you get to meet some of the best writers, publishers and agents in the business and RNA members’ shoes (from sky-high heels to leopard-print ballet pumps) are a delight to behold.

This year’s party was held at the RAF Club in London’s Piccadilly, with Judy Finnigan and Richard Madeley (no mean writers themselves) on hand to announce the five category winners.

So three cheers for Katie Fforde, who won the Contemporary Romantic Novel award for the second year running – this time for Recipe for Love.

Rowan Coleman triumphed in the Epic Romantic Novel category with Dearest Rose while Jenny Colgan scooped the Romantic Comedy Novel award for Welcome to Rosie Hopkins’ Sweetshop of Dreams.

The Historical Romantic Novel winner was Charlotte Betts for The Apothecary’s Daughter and the Young Adult Romantic Novel award went to Victoria Lamb for Witchstruck.

The five winning novels now go forward to the RNA Romantic Novel of the Year award and the overall winner will be revealed at the RNA’s summer party on May 16.

RNA chair Annie Ashurst, who’s written scores of novels herself, told the 250 party guests: “… we are here to celebrate the success of our brightest stars. We are proud of their talent, tenacity and dedication to their craft.

“It is a lovely thing to write a novel and to keep on going even as doubts set in – as they do with us all. Our awards give us an opportunity to publicly recognise the enjoyment you bring to your readers.”

Hear, hear, Annie...

PS. As well as the RoNAs, Sophie Kinsella was given an Outstanding Achievement Award. The RoNA Rose Award went to Sarah Mallory.  

Monday, 25 February 2013

Snow in Paris

Victoria Beckham looked frozen as she watched her husband make his debut for Paris St-Germain last night. I’ve just spent two days in Paris and I’ve rarely felt so cold. The temperature never lifted above -2 degrees, there was a biting wind and flurries of snow fell all weekend. My daughter wore three jumpers and I kept my Brora fingerless gloves and scarf on indoors and out. We had to dive into cafes every half an hour to stop our teeth chattering. Yet when I glanced at the papers this morning Victoria had stepped off the Eurostar in an unfastened coat, with her ankles bare and no gloves. She’s clearly tougher than the rest of us.

But never mind the cold, Paris is one of the prettiest cities on earth. We stayed at the super-stylish Mama Shelter, which boasts chic rooms, friendly staff, reasonable prices and a great brunch. Even though it’s slightly off the beaten track (in the 20th arrondissement) buses whizz past every ten minutes to whisk you into the centre for the princely sum of two euros – which meant we were at Bastille in fifteen minutes and in the Rue de Rivoli in thirty. As we chatted on the number 26 bus a Paris-based sports journalist from the UK tapped us on the shoulder and said he never usually heard English voices “on this route.” He made us feel like real locals.

Instead of sticking to our usual haunts we decided to visit an area we hadn’t been to before –the Batignolles, where Manet had his studio and artists like Degas, Renoir, Monet and Cezanne used to gather (at the Café Guerbois on the Avenue de Clichy). It boasts a pretty park, a village-like atmosphere and lots of quirky shops and art galleries. My daughter bought a pink hyacinth at the lovely flower shop below – I only hope it survives the winter on her student windowsill.

Mama Shelter is a five-minute stroll from the famous Père Lachaise cemetery so on Sunday morning we headed down the rue de Bagnolet and through the ancient archway. It’s the largest cemetery in Paris and one of the most famous in the world. Among the renowned names buried there are Chopin, Moliere, Proust, Colette, Modigliani, Edith Piaf, Oscar Wilde and Jim Morrison. Not surprisingly, with a total of 69,000 tombs at the cemetery, a map is essential.

Actually, a snowy Sunday morning in February was definitely the time to visit this historic graveyard. A distant church bell tolled solemnly and the pale grey sky gave it a gothic, rather eery air – like something out of a Balzac novel in fact. Actually - and rather appropriately - he is buried there too.

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

What would my mother say?

I’ve been looking forward to reading Lucy Boyd’s book, Kitchen Memories, for ages. The daughter of Rose Gray, the inspirational co-founder of the River Café, Lucy is now head gardener at Petersham Nurseries in Richmond, Surrey and an accomplished chef herself.

I met Lucy at HarperCollins last autumn when I was invited to the publisher’s Fulham HQ to give a talk about blogging. 

Kitchen Memories is a captivating mix of recipes, memories and stunning photography. In a moving interview with The Times yesterday Lucy spoke about her mother’s massive – and ongoing - influence on her. Rose Gray died in 2010 but even now, when Lucy’s cooking she can hear her mother’s voice in her ear.

“I bought some asparagus out of season the other day and I’m still covered with shame,” Lucy told interviewer Andrew Billen. “It’s like ‘God, what would Rose say?’ She’d say 'Traitor.'”

Lucy’s words resonated so strongly with me. My mother died more than eight years ago but every time I do something she’d disapprove of (not often, I admit) I feel desperately guilty. We were incredibly close, spoke on the phone every day and agreed on most things  – apart from poached eggs, brackets, flat shoes and telling people your age.

She loved poached eggs, I hate them. She loathed brackets, I love them (as you can tell). She loved sky-high shoes and well, so do I (but I’m quite keen on my Converse too). And last of all she thought you should never ever let on how old you are. Actually, come to think of it, I’m coming round to that one…

Kitchen Memories by Lucy Boyd (HarperCollins, £20)

Saturday, 16 February 2013

Another Country - Huhne Junior at the Oxford Playhouse

There are lots of great things about living in Oxford but one of them is the chance to see some stunning student drama productions.

Last week – on Valentine’s Day in fact – I booked tickets for Another Country, Julian Mitchell’s famous public school play. Set in the 1930s, it’s the story of a group of public schoolboys struggling to work out what they believe in after the suicide of a fellow pupil rocks the school.

I was lucky enough to see the play in the West End thirty years ago, when it starred a young Rupert Everett and an even younger Kenneth Branagh. So I had high hopes for the production by the weirdly-named student company Screw the Looking Glass – and I wasn’t disappointed.

But two performances towered over the rest at the Oxford Playhouse. The actors playing the parts taken by Everett and Branagh 30 years ago were by turns charismatic and moving, insightful and funny. I found myself gripped whenever they were onstage, not quite so gripped when they weren't.

I stupidly hadn’t bought a programme so when I got home I checked out who these fine young actors were and nearly fell off my chair in surprise. The actor playing Guy Bennett (based on spy-in-the-making Guy Burgess) was none other than Peter Huhne, a second-year languages student at Oxford and the son of former cabinet minister Chris Huhne. As virtually the whole world knows, the student’s bitter text messages to his father were read out in court following Chris Huhne’s guilty plea for perverting the course of justice and were plastered across the papers for days afterwards.

Huhne Junior is only 20 but talk about impressive. How on earth he got through the media firestorm, carried on with his studies and gave a towering performance like this I don’t know. But then again, as all great actors know, the show must go on.

PS. The other fine performance was by Jo Allan, as Bennett's Marxist sympathiser friend Tommy Judd.

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Yvette Cooper, family life and dressing up for school

There’s a great interview in this week’s Grazia with Yvette Cooper, who as well as being the shadow home secretary is married to shadow chancellor Ed Balls and has three children between the ages of eight and thirteen.

The best thing of all about the piece (written by Gaby Hinsliff) is that it gives a vivid glimpse of life in a hectic household, where two high-flying politicians are juggling about a million things at once. On the morning of the interview the roof was leaking, a builder had arrived to fix it, they were busy getting the children off to school and Cooper was trying to agree a quote about the police reforms.

And, I must say I couldn’t quite get my head round this bit, in the midst of the chaos Balls was trying to do his piano practice. Piano Practice? At eight-thirty in the morning?

Cooper admits that domestic life “may be a bit of a muddle” sometimes but they muddle through it together. She says that while Balls does “more tidying up and cleaning than I do” she tends to panic about things like “how come they need a Spanish costume for school tomorrow?”

Now that, I reckon that will strike a chord with parents everywhere. I’m a mega-admirer of teachers but the one thing I couldn’t cope with when my children were at primary school was the vogue for themed days. Over the years my two had to dress up as Victorian children, characters from their favourite books, characters from Roald Dahl stories, French children, animals, birds - you name it.

Quite apart from the fact that I’m the worst seamstress going, my son usually only mentioned it the night before. So I'd stay up till midnight  trying to cobble together an owl costume out of an old blanket.

And worst of all, schools assume that children love dressing up. Well, my son HATED it. On World Book Day the only outfit he deigned to wear was an aviator’s boiler suit and goggles. In the end we had to pretend that Biggles was his favourite book and he went as a pilot. Even though he’d never read any of the Biggles stories – and still hasn't.

And the following year he refused point-blank to dress up at all.  

Monday, 11 February 2013

Hotel review - The Pig in The Wall

I’ve just discovered my all-time favourite B&B. Surprisingly, it’s not in a secluded Gloucestershire valley or halfway up a Cumbrian mountainside. It’s actually in Southampton – which is brilliant for catching the Isle of White ferry or a cruise to sunnier climes, but not exactly known as a holiday destination.

The Pig in the Wall is the sister establishment to the Pig in the Forest, a five star hotel in the New Forest, and opened in October 2012. The name is inspired by its unusual (and very striking) location – the 12-bedroom boutique hotel is built into a gap in Southampton’s medieval wall, just minutes from the harbour.

Inside, it is utterly stunning. The rooms are designed by Judy Hutson (wife of co-owner Robin Hutson, who founded the Hotel du Vin chain) and are so chic and comfortable that I’d love her to sort my own house out. My favourite touches were the mismatching (deliberately) multicoloured floor tiles in the bathroom, the railway sleepers used for the floors and landing, the Roberts Radio and old-fashioned alarm clock by the bed and the framed newspaper prints (one with the headline Titanic Disaster from April 1912) lining the walls.

The Southampton Pig doesn’t have a formal restaurant although there’s a smart-looking Land Rover in the car park that whisks guests to the New Forest Pig if they so choose.

But the Pig in the Wall has an informal deli-bar (serving salads, charcuterie and wines by the glass) and also serves up a cracking breakfast. The stylish green drawing room is filled with books, wooden trays of plants and an eclectic collection of jugs and china and I felt so at home in my leather armchair that I could happily have stayed for hours. I helped myself to fresh apple juice and banana bread, the friendly staff brought several pots of Earl Grey tea and yes, all was right with the world.

The Pig in the Wall, 8 Western Esplanade, Southhampton, SO14 2AZ.

PS. Watch out for the next Pig venture. The Pig on the Beach, at Studland in Dorset, is coming soon...

Thursday, 7 February 2013

Moving On, my second novel - out as an ebook TODAY

Moving On, my second novel, is published as an ebook today – and I’m over the moon. It’s the novel I’m most proud of so I’m hoping that new readers will enjoy it.

When the book was first published it had a lurid pink jacket with daisies scattered across the front but now publishers Piatkus Entice have given it a gorgeous mauve cover (I must say I rather covet the heroine’s green and black spotty shirt) and it looks far more stylish.

Like my first novel, Moving On is set in the world of newspapers. But this time round the main characters are two sisters, Kate and Laura Hollingberry. Their father, HH, is a mega-successful newspaper tycoon, but they know next to nothing about their mother, Clare, who walked out in mysterious circumstances when they were little.

The two girls are close but they’re poles apart in character. Laura is happy to get an undemanding job until she finds Mr Right, while Kate is fiercely ambitious and wants more out of life. Determined not to rely on her father's money or influence, Kate takes a job on the Bowland Bugle, a struggling weekly newspaper in the wilds of Lancashire. It's her first job and her first bid for independence. Anything can happen – and it certainly does.

Kate arrives in the north of England as a naive, inexperienced reporter (hmmm, shades of autobiography there), but is forced to grow up fast. Especially when she’s faced with a distraught couple whose teenage daughter has gone missing, a boss who seems hell-bent on tripping her up at every opportunity and a love affair that doesn't go according to plan. Meanwhile, back in London, Laura is facing her own heartbreak and the future of the family business is looking uncertain...

Moving On by Emma Lee-Potter (Piatkus, £3.99)

Saturday, 2 February 2013

Celia Birtwell teams up with Uniqlo

Celia Birtwell is one of the UK’s most talented textile designers. Her gorgeous prints were tailored and cut into romantic dresses in the  60s and 70s by Ossie Clark, her late ex-husband, and worn by the likes of Marianne Faithfull, Bianca Jagger and Pattie Boyd.

Not only that, she also became the long-term muse of David Hockney, whose Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy portrait is one of the Tate’s most famous paintings.

Now in her 70s, she’s still turning out stunning designs. When she created a fashion collection for Topshop six years ago it rapidly became their most successful designer collaboration. The clothes flew off the shelves in next to no time – in fact I remember Topshop staff having to limit the number of Celia Birtwell designs eachcustomers could buy. Then she designed a range for outdoor clothing store Millets (I immediately snapped up some wellies and a sleeping bag).

So it’s great news that Birtwell has now teamed up with Uniqlo. Her archive prints have been transformed into an exclusive range of T-shirts, vests, shirts, tote bags, scarves and much more and will be launched in Uniqlo stores from March 21.

Wow. I’m definitely going to be in the queue…

Friday, 1 February 2013

Friday Book Review - The Girl You Left Behind by Jojo Moyes

Reviewing a book by an author you’ve met in real life can be tricky. But actually, when the author is as talented as Jojo Moyes it’s not difficult at all.

Over the past year Jojo has become one of our most successful novelists. Me Before You, her tear-jerking story of a hotshot city financier who becomes wheelchair-bound after an accident, was one of the top five paperbacks of 2012 and has sold more than 500,000 copies in the UK so far. Her ninth novel, it’s now a New York Times bestseller and this week MGM acquired the film rights. Me Before You is an amazing book and if you haven’t yet read it, go and download it NOW.

As I wrote in my House With No Name review last year Jojo is one of those writers who surprises her readers with every novel. While lots of novelists play it safe and stick to familiar themes and subjects, she always chooses something different. To date she’s written about everything from brides crossing the world to meet their husbands after the Second World War (The Ship of Brides) to a businessman planning a controversial development in a sleepy Australian town (Silver Bay).

And her latest, The Girl You Left Behind, is different again. It’s the story of two women, unrelated and separated by 100 years, who are united in their determination to fight tooth and nail for what they love most. One is French artist’s wife Sophie Lefèvre, who is forced to make a terrible decision in the hope of being reunited with her beloved husband during the First World War. The other is young widow Liv Halston, who a century later finds that her future is inextricably linked with Sophie’s past.

There’s no doubt that Me Before You is a hard act to follow but Jojo has managed it with style and panache. The Girl You Left Behind isn’t quite as spellbinding as its predecessor but it’s still utterly compelling and the two stories are skillfully entwined and meticulously researched. At first I found Sophie’s story – her courage, pragmatism and determination to keep her family safe against all odds – far more gripping than Liv’s. But as the novel progressed Liv and the ex-NYPD cop she falls for completely won me over. I can’t wait to see what Jojo writes next.

The Girl You Left Behind by Jojo Moyes (Penguin, £7.99)

PS. Jojo Moyes is speaking at the Chipping Norton Literary Festival on Sunday April 21.  You can book tickets here.
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