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sonic0209

sonic0209
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Member since: 09.10.2007

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      12.05.2013 15:46
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      A must see if you are in this region. Compelling, poignant and enlightening - I can't fault it.

      During our trip to Ghent earlier this year we took a day trip out to nearby Ypres to the In Flanders Fields museum. This exhibition was completely renovated and re-opened in June 2012.

      I was so impressed with our visit I really want to recommend it to you - if you are in this part of the world it is worth a detour. It is a WW1 museum that focuses on the human stories of those caught up in the conflict that racked the town of Ypres and is one of the most informative, engaging and moving exhibitions I have ever been to.

      ~~~~The Exhibition~~~~
      The name of this museum comes from poem by the Canadian Major John McCrae who wrote this poem after conducting the burial for a young artillery officer who was killed by artillery shell near Ypres on 2nd May 2015.

      We are the Dead. Short days ago
      We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
      Loved and were loved, and now we lie
      In Flanders fields.

      The many personal stories of those who fought, those who died, those who served and those who lost the people they loved form a thread running through this museum, bringing together the political and military backdrop into a very real and incredibly moving reality.

      The personal is made even more so through the use of a multi-media wristband in a poppy shape that you receive as you enter the museum. You enter personal details about yourself - your gender, age, name, where you are from - and as you go through the museum you can touch your poppy against a reader that then displays a personal story that has been selected to have some relevance to you, either because they came from you area, or shared your surname, or were your age when they fought / died, etc.

      Technology is used to excellent effect throughout the exhibition. There is an extremely moving film of monologues by actors portraying medical staff dealing with horrific injuries in numbers that they can hardly comprehend. There is a 3rd map in relief of the area that shows, through projected words and colours, the progression of the battles, frontlines and occupations across the region that brings a series of dates and battle names and allied forces into a coherent series of events. My sons of 9 and 12 stood by this for a long time, fascinated by what it told them.

      As well as the excellent use of multi-media technology, there are collections of uniforms, personal belongings and letters amongst the very clearly presented textual and photographic explanations of the events of the war. There are larger displays of trench reconstructions , weaponry and waggons used to collect the injured and dead. Everything is thoughtfully laid out, the information presented is clear and concise, the stories shocking.

      The exhibition ends by reminding us all of the context of war, both the lingering impact of WW1 on us and our surroundings, but also of wars since and wars still ongoing.

      ~~~~The Setting~~~~
      The museum is set in the Cloth Hall in a central town square in Ypres.

      Ypres itself was decimated through shell bombardments and fire during the war and there is an area of the exhibition which shows the state of the town before and after the war. The people of the town decided that rather than take on a new look, they wanted their own town back and it has been rebuilt in its former image. Nothing in the town is, therefore, very old, but if you didn't look closely you would never know that it had been rebuilt 100 years ago.

      The Cloth Hall has been recently renovated and is a beautiful building with open wooden beams and tall ceilings, the setting for the café and the wooden staircase that leads to it are particularly attractive. The Belfry in the Cloth Hall is also open to the public for an extra ticket and you can climb the many stone stairs to the top and a stunning view across Ypres. Armed with the information you have just read about the impact of the war on this town, the view is all the more significant to the viewer.

      ~~~~Facilities and Practicalities~~~~
      If you are travelling to Ypres (or Ieper as it is known in Flemish) by train, then the museum is a 10 minute walk along a straight road into the centre of town. Very straightforward. We travelled from Ghent to Ypres and I have to say that the staff in the travel centre in Ghent delivered an excellent service. Their English was impeccable, the told me where we could find my train, printed out an itinerary for us and was polite and friendly. A real lesson in customer service for our Brit counterparts!!

      There are directions and parking advice on the web site for those of you who go by car.

      There is a Tourist Info centre in the museum so you can get the info you need ot move on from here to explore the town and the region.

      The café was an absolute treat - a really beautiful setting and just excellent food. We had sandwiches and pasta, all of which was really well presented and delicious. We noticed that the café was open to the public without requiring tickets to the exhibition and it appeared to be very popular with local people and business people as well as tourists.

      If you don't want to eat in the museum, there are plenty of places on the way from the station to the centre of town to get picnic food.

      The web site is: http://www.inflandersfields.be/en/ and has information about prices and opening hours.

      ~~~~Conclusion~~~~
      A must see if you are in this region. Compelling, poignant and enlightening - I can't fault it.

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        05.05.2013 18:21
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        Definitely worth a detour if you are in Belgium.

        Last February half term, we had a family trip to Ghent in Belgium. The fact that Ghent is less popular as a tourist destination then Brussels, Bruges or Antwerp, was part of what really sold it to us. It is an attractive university city with rivers that run through it and a wealth of medieval history. It is as pretty as Bruges, but, with fewer tourists and a large student population, it has a different feel - a bit edgier, just a little bit more cool.

        ~~~~~~~~ Getting There~~~~~~~~~~
        We took the Eurostar from London to Brussels which took less than 2 hours and there was a quick and very easy connection from Brussels to Ghent, a 20 minute journey away. You can fly to Antwerp or Brussels, but I do like to take the train! Everything ran to time and was pretty stress free and you have the added bonus of watching the countryside slide by.
        http://www.eurostar.com/uk-en/ destinations/belgium/flanders/ghent

        We chose to walk from the station to our hotel, but in the event the station was quite a walk away from the town centre and I would probably recommend that you get yourself a taxi. I guess it must have taken us about 30 to 45 minutes to get into town.

        There are also trams that run from the station into the centre of town. You want the number 1 line. Tickets are on sale at self-service kiosks or you can buy them from the driver.

        ~~~~~~~~~The City~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
        Ghent has a relatively small city centre, making it possible to walk around and get to know easily in a couple of days. The city built up around the confluence of the rivers Lys and Scheldt and the waterways and bridges not only contribute to the city's attractiveness, but also provide a structure and logic to the layout so that places and roads and riversides become quickly familiar to you.

        At the heart of the city are The Three Towers: St Bavo Cathedral, the Belfry and St Nicholas Church. They are literally next to each other with large squares in between, quite indulgent if you ask me!! You can enter all of these, and we did visit the Belfry, climbing to the top (ok, part climbing the spiral staircase and part taking the lift...). You get very good views of Ghent from the top. As well as the principal bell (Roland, a local hero!) there is a truly fantastic carillon (a bell instrument driven by clockwork and with melodies created from a rotating metal drum) and an old iron dragon sculpture that used to be perched on the top of the belfry, breathing fire.

        Much of the medieval architecture remains intact despite the rigours of the passing years and being occupied in each of the world wars. It is a joy to just walk around. The castle (Gravensteen) dates back to the 12th century and was renovated in the 19th century, so is in pretty good nick, but even some of the ordinary buildings are extraordinary - the old post office building is all gothic intricacy. At night, many of the buildings and bridges are lit up and it is a real pleasure to stroll about after dinner.

        ~~~~~~~~ Stuff to Do ~~~~~~~
        1. Take a river trip - several companies run these year round, but there are more options outside of winter months. It's a really nice way to see the city and get a little more info and history. There are also certain views that you can only get from the river.

        2. Go shopping - there are plenty of little and interesting boutiques as well as quite a good selection of more high street style shops. Make sure you buy some:
        a. Ghent noses - these are locally made jelly sweets in a cone shape (like a nose...). They are made with fruit juices and rose water and sold from carts on Groentenmarkt. Delish!
        b. Mustard - there is a shop in Ghent (just behind the carts of noses) called Tierenteyn Verlent that has been making its own mustard since 1790. You select your preferred receptacle from the shelves and they fill your pot using a ladle from a barrel at the back of the shop. It is smooth and dark brown and quite delicious.
        c. Chocolate - how could you possibly leave Belgium without them? So many options to choose from in Ghent. Why not read about the options from a true chocaholic. http://melissabedinger.wordpress.com/2012/ 04/09/when-in-ghent-mission-for-chocolate/
        d. Wallpaper...??? - No seriously, there is a shop in Ghent called Priem (on Zuivelbrugstraat) that still stocks original wallpaper from the 1950's to the 1980's. The place is dusty and full of higgledypiggledy piles of rolls of paper. Fun just to walk around.
        e. Memorabilia / Bits and bobs - Check out Fallen Angels and the Antique shop opposite it. There are posters, dolls, old toys, lots of lace, racy postcards and plenty more.

        3. Design Museum, Museum of Fine Arts, the Alijn House Folk Museum (this had a truly fantastic exhibition about marching brass bands whilst we were there)

        4. Eat - of course!!! We particularly enjoyed:
        a. Steak and Chips - there are a few places that pride themselves on their quality steak and we can vouch for them!! Spare Rib was less expensive than the very popular Du Progres, but just as tasty
        b. Spare Ribs - try Spare Rib or Amadeus
        c. Waffles - oh my, you have GOT to have some waffles - we really enjoyed them at Max, which is just outside the hotel we stayed at - Novotel Centrum, but there are plenty of options.

        5. Take a Trip out of Town - we went to the In Flanders Fields museum in nearby Ypres, which was a short train journey away and I have to say I think this is one of the best museums I have ever visited and warrants a review all of its own. This museum tells the story of the First World War and particularly of the impact on Flanders and Ypres itself and concentrates on the human story of this war. It is set in the beautiful and recently renovated Cloth Hall in the main square in Ypres and the current permanent exhibition, which opened in June 2012, makes stunning use of multi-media technologies. Utterly engaging and incredibly moving.

        6. Get a photo of yourself from St Michael's Bridge with the iconic view of the river and medieval buildings behind you.

        ~~~~~~Conclusion~~~~~~~
        We had a really enjoyable family holiday (my boys are 9 and 12), but I can see Ghent being a popular place to visit as a couple on a weekend break, or as part of a longer trip around Belgium. Given the student population here and the trendy bars and cafés, it could be just as appealing to younger travellers.
        We had 3 nights in Ghent and a day trip out to Ypres and still there was more to see. The pace of the town is relaxingly slow, and the fact that it does not feel like part of the tourist trail make for a really enjoyable break. If you enjoy 'slow tourism' and want to a soak a place up slowly, there is plenty of opportunity to do this at your leisure in Ghent. If you want to hit the high spots and move on, then this city offers some obvious gems and is conveniently close to its better known neighbours of Brussels, Antwerp and Bruges to allow you to sneak the best from all of them.

        I would recommend Ghent in a heartbeat.

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          20.03.2009 19:03
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          If you loved the Wire, you'll love Generation Kill

          Generation Kill is a 7 part American mini-series, that has just finished showing on the FX channel, which follows an elite group of Marines from the First Recon Battalion through the first 40 days of the assault on Iraq.

          The credentials for Generation Kill made it essential viewing in our house. It is the latest offering to hit the UK TV network from HBO, the US TV production company who brought us The Sopranos, Six Feet Under and The Wire. HBO have been lauded by many as moving television into a new realm, where it competes on an equal footing with high quality cinema. Generation Kill was written by David Simon and Ed Burns, the team behind The Wire, a stunning series that followed the drugs in Baltimore from the highest level of politics, through the ranks of the police, to the barons, the dealers and the addicts. Generation Kill was adapted from the prizewinning book by Evan Wright, a contributing editor at Rolling Stone who was embedded with a battalion from the US Marine Corps during the 2003 assault on Iraq.

          If the subject matter of following a unit of US marines through their experiences in Iraq was not appealing (and as a 37 year old English mother of 2, I am probably not the target audience), then the promises of excellence from these credentials just made it impossible to ignore.

          The series really shows up the sense of chaos: one mission follows another, without any apparent clear progression or end target, the men complain about their lack of equipment, the orders that come down are sometimes clearly ill-considered, decisions being made away from the frontline and without the appropriate information. The frustration of the marines is palpable, for the audience this is a real eye opener.

          It takes a while to identify with the characters. The characters are all in uniform, they might get called by their name, their rank or a nickname, the program treats you like a fly on the wall, never formally introducing you or slowing the dialogue so you can keep up or explaining what the military jargon actually means. All of this means that the characters slowly emerge, their personalities only gradually coming out as we follow their reactions to the events that follow. There are, however, some very strong, if understated characters.

          First Recon's Bravo Company is led by Sgt Brad Colbert, otherwise known as Iceman, who is tall and lean, quiet, disciplined, principled and experienced. His driver, Ray, who served with Brad in Afghanistan, is small and wiry and never stops talking, entertaining and irritating his passengers in equal measure with his random and funny views on just about everything. The platoon commander, Lt. Nathaniel Fick, is intelligent and steadfast, getting himself into trouble when he questions commands from his superiors that to him are clearly flawed or self-interested. His frustration grows as the series progresses and the mutual respect between Brad and Nathaniel allow the audience to trust their judgment and understand the shortcomings of superiors and peers who are driven by ambition and self-preservation, rather than by 'doing the right thing' or even just doing what they have been trained for.

          None of the actors are big names. I've seen only one of them before - the actor who plays Ray appeared in Series 2 of the Wire. The performances are excellent - subtle even when they are incredibly brash.

          In the same way as the Wire did, watching Generation Kill makes you feel like you are actually there in the thick of it. This is achieved in a number of ways:

          Firstly, nothing is ever explained to you. In other words, there are no corny plot set ups, no simplification of military jargon, no narration. Yes, you have to concentrate if you are watching, but you do feel more like a fly on the wall than a TV viewer and you are still able to follow the plot and understand the subtexts, even if you don't fully understand everything in the dialogue.

          Secondly, there are no Hollywood style set ups, no moving soundtrack to tell you that a scene is dramatic or moving or exciting. Indeed, there is no soundtrack at all. The episodes open and close with titles accompanied by footage from radio exchanges. The only music is the singing of the troops themselves, who seem to enjoy a good singalong.

          I admit that I have absolutely nothing in my experience bank that bears any resemblance to what the soldiers are going through. I have, however, read reviews on Amazon several of which are by servicemen who served in Iraq who are amazed at how true to life it is and also how much they enjoyed watching it. If ever there was a commendation, this would have to be it.

          Generation Kill is not overly sentimental or judgmental, there doesn't appear to be any message, it is just what it is and that in itself is quite extraordinary and at times very disturbing.

          Having watched this episode of recent history unravel on the news, I had not given much thought to the troops themselves. Here in the UK the media was far more preoccupied with the politics of the situation and the rights and wrongs of being there than of the way that the operation itself was being executed. Then, of course, came the images of torture and mistreatment at Abu Ghraib, which cast a shadow over the whole campaign. Generation Kill does not try to right any wrong, it does not paint a picture of a group of irreproachable young men or of victims, but it does make you think about the conflict from a different perspective and consider the different motivations of the people involved on the ground.

          Most of all, though, it opens your eyes to the shocking events and injustices mostly suffered by Iraqi civilians.

          I would thoroughly recommend this series to any one who enjoys serious drama. The acting and the writing are both excellent. It is at once incredibly disturbing and moving, but there is also humour and humanity, making this a compelling and very watchable series.

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            19.03.2009 21:38
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            A recommendation with a health warning

            The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai is the Booker Prize winner from 2006 and is a novel about a community of misfits from the north eastern Himalayas, each with a very different background from this caste based society, still rocking from colonial days. The novel follows them as they try to find their way in a very harsh environment that is jostling for survival, position and for power, struggling for change in a society where tradition is so important.

            Why I Read It
            ~~~~~~~~~~~
            My favourite way to select a book to read is through a recommendation from a friend with similar taste, but at a loss recently as to what to read next, I had a look at previous Booker Prize winners to see whether any caught my imagination (and was available on the library book shelves!). I selected the Inheritance of Loss and The Gathering by Anne Enright (you can read my review on this too, if you like!).

            Reading is so subjective and such a personal experience, that you cannot guarantee that just because a book has won a prize or been included in the Richard and Judy Book Club, that you are going to enjoy it. Still, selecting from a prize winner means you will usually get SOMETHING out of reading it, even if it is not entertainment...

            I had no pre-conceptions about this book, but I was attracted by the quote from Suketu Mehta (the New York based, Indian born, author 'Maximum City')on the blurb:
            "A revelation. Vast in scope, from the peaks of the Himalayas to the immigrant quarters of New York; the gripping stories of people buffeted by the winds of history, personal and political"

            The Plot
            ~~~~~~~
            The novel centres around a household in Kalimpong in the foothills of the Himalayas, made up of a gruff and grumpy old judge, his orphaned teenage grand daughter, Sai, and their overly talkative, poverty stricken cook. They live in a large, crumbling house, obviously grand at some point in the past, but left to deteriorate in the harsh climate of the area.

            The book also takes in the struggles of the cook's son, an illegal immigrant in New York, working his way through menial jobs with no rights, making no impression on the world he has entered, literally lost in the system.

            Their individual stories are revealed through the novel and through the impact on their life of an insurgency by the Gorkhali people fighting for their own identity.

            The novel takes on some really big themes, those of love and loss, the fight for and against change, poverty, deception and the fight for survival.

            The Author
            ~~~~~~~~
            Kiran Desai was born in India in 1971 and was educated in India, England and the US. Prior to the Inheritance of Loss she published one other novel - Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard, which was very well received by the critics and published across the world.
            Whilst it is not autobiographical, the novel is said to have some parallels with her own life. In the novel the character of the judge travels from penury in Gujarat to Cambridge University. So did Desai's grandfather. The mansion in the book was inspired by Desai's aunt's house in Kalimpong. Like Sai, the teenager in the novel, Desai attended a convent school in a Himalayan town.
            Apparently, the small town of Kalimpong is now railing against it's portrayal in this book which has now brought this small, beautiful and troubled corner of the world to the attention of so many. They do not appreciate Desai's portrayal of the people there.
            My Thoughts
            ~~~~~~~~~~
            There is no doubt that this is beautifully written. The prose is not complicated, but it is subtle and well observed. The opening is a good example of Desai's description of the area:
            "All day, the colors had been those of dusk, mist moving like a water creature across the great flanks of mountains possessed of ocean shadows and depths. Briefly visible above the vapor, Kanchenjunga was a far peak whittled out of ice, gathering the last of the light, a plume of snow blown high by the storms at its summit."
            The juxtaposing of old and modern, traditional and changing, natural beauty and the ugly poverty and hardship of the inhabitants was interesting and at times a confusing and uncomfortable read.
            The internal workings of the characters are well portrayed. In particular the relationship between Sai and here tutor, Gyan, is well played out. Their immediate attraction is followed by emotions of anger, resentment, regret brought on by the confusion of young love and the complexities of their very different social backgrounds. The dynamics of this relationship are well played out and whilst the characters are not always particularly engaging or sympathetic, you do wish this would have a positive outcome and each time they clash you are disappointed.
            The inner turmoil of the cook's son, Biju, as he tries to make a life for himself in New York, is also very well played out:
            "Clumsy in America, a giant-sized midget, a bigfat-sized helping of small.... Shouldn't he return to a life where he might slice his won importance, to where he might relinquish this overrated control over his own destiny..."
            My main complaint about the novel is that for the majority of it, the portrayal of these individuals' lives are a bit like fragments of short stories, sewn together to make a rich tapestry of this world so different from our own. I found this left the novel lacking in any real momentum and made it difficult to care about what happens next. The pace does pick up right at the end of the novel, making sure that it is not an unsatisfying read overall, but I didn't find it to be a page turner at all.

            Recommendation
            ~~~~~~~~~~~~~
            Maybe 3 stars is a little harsh, but there is no option for 3.5 stars and for me it doesn't compare with other books I've read and given 4 stars to.

            If you look at the reviews on Amazon, the are very evenly spread across the marks, demonstrating that people respond to this novel in very different ways.

            So, would I recommend this novel?

            Well, I think it would have to be a conditional recommendation. Consider the content carefully - if you would find this geographical area and/or culture interesting, then I would recommend it. If you have no vested interest in this area, but enjoy being engaged in a compelling story, then I would probably steer clear.

            Practicalities
            ~~~~~~~~~~
            The book is available in paperback from Amazon at for £5.99. You can get a second hand copy for under £1 and my copy came gratis from the library.

            It's published by Penguin in the UK and my copy is 324 pages long.

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              18.02.2009 09:54
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              Not a quintessential PJ album, but definitely worth a listen for fans

              The very fact that the last and only other review of Dance Hall at Louse Point on Dooyoo was in 2000 is indicative of this way that this album was released, promoted and received. It was released in 1996, just as PJ Harvey was riding the crest of the wave of success of the album 'To Bring You My Love', but it seemed to go almost unnoticed, perhaps because top bill went to John Parish (who wrote and played the music, whilst PJ Harvey wrote the lyrics and sang vocals) and she was listed as Polly Jean Harvey rather than the usual PJ Harvey we know and love her as. Critics saw it as an art experiment, reviews of it are mixed, but to me it retains that bluesy rock sound that we know PJ Harvey for and is a beautiful and oddly crafted album of dark moods, angular guitar and percussion and an array of vocal styles that surprise, entertain and disturb.

              As John Parish and PJ Harvey prepare to release a new collaborative album (release date in March 2009, to be followed by a live tour), I have re-discovered Dance Hall at Louse Point and thoroughly enjoyed doing so.

              PJ Harvey
              ~~~~~~~~
              PJ (Polly Jean) Harvey released her first album, Dry, 17 years ago (1992) to critical acclaim. She has been likened to Patti Smith. True, she shares with Patti the poetic lyrics, the strong, deep vocals, the longevity, but as I understand it her influences are more blues (e.g. John Lee Hooker) and indie (e.g. The Pixies). I think she has a similar attitude (not sound) to Tori Amos - she's upfront, not afraid to play with those images of sexuality, femininity and ambiguity.

              Along this journey, Polly has demonstrated her keen musicianship, playing many of the instruments on each of her albums, and mastering the piano for White Chalk, her last album release. She has collaborated with many other artists, including Josh from Queen's of the Stone Age under the Desert Sessions project, which is another stunning album. She has also demonstrated her versatility having done some acting and published her poetry.

              PJ Harvey has a strong fan base, but has never really been mainstream. I admire the fact that she continually pushes herself, trying different sounds, styles, instruments and collaborative partners. How else can you enjoy such longevity and long standing respect.

              Over her career she has won 1 Mercury Prize (2001), 7 Brit Award nominations, 5 Grammies nominations and has appeared in several magazine best artist and best album compilations.

              John Parish
              ~~~~~~~~~
              PJ Harvey had played in John Parish's band as a teenager in Dorset and he worked with her on 'To Bring You My Love', the album released just before 'Dancehall at Louse Point', on which he served as co-producer, guitarist, percussionist and keyboard player.

              PJ Harvey told NME 'I know John can write demanding and intellectual music, much more than mine, which is very simple' and explained that she wanted to be able to concentrate on the lyrics. Her view of the album is that it was a major turning point for her in terms of the development of her lyric and song writing.

              The Music
              ~~~~~~~~
              The brief intro track, Girl, sets the scene for the album that follows. A high pitched, thin vocal (just ah's - no lyrics) is accompanied by eerie and dark guitar. This is like the soundtrack to a very spooky film.

              Rope Bridge Crossing is all jagged layered guitar and snare drums. The spoken word verses are like being told a secret story - you are being drawn into her world and her confidence. The chorus takes you on a hurtling run with vocals reminiscent of the attitude PJ Harvey first displayed in Dry.

              City of No Sun is almost hard to listen to. The vocals move from a slow, quiet, ambient verse, backed only by fast strum of just two chords on a solitary guitar, into a banshee screech of a chorus, with accelerating and layered guitar. Both the content and the delivery are dark and brooding.

              That Was My Veil was a single from the album and lifts the mood at this point. It has a beautiful melody accompanied by acoustic guitar which builds into use of a slide guitar in the chorus and an organ in the Middle 8. The vocal style is soft and lyrical, the words poetic:
              No words can heal my heart
              Inside I'm broken, now it's done
              Was she a pretty girl

              Urn With Dead Flowers in a Drained Pool has a really rocky chorus, but this is still not music you can dance to. The overall mood is anger, the structure of the song quite complex, and the vocal styles varied, encompassing spoken word, a vocal line that sound a bit like sung poetry and a high pitched rocky thrash of a chorus. Experimental art rock is how I'd describe this track.

              Civil War Correspondent has a really beautiful sound to it, the guitar and organ is incredibly atmospheric. PJ Harvey sings a hushed verse, but this builds into a deep, sombre chorus where she sounds incredibly like Iggy Pop:
              I shout but he don't hear
              I put down on a page
              Darling spare me your tears
              Just send me the light of day

              Taut is my favourite track on this album. It opens with the spookiest refrain, which really does sound like the soundtrack to a scary film, but then the guitar kicks in and, much like Sonic Youth (probably my all time favourite band), it's fast and discordant, the percussion making this really edgy listening. The spoken word verses are reminiscent of Kim Gordon's, but her furious whisper is almost disturbing. The chorus is like an island of melody amongst a sea of furious musical noise. 'Jesus save me'. I've never heard anything like this before or since.

              Un Cercle Autour du Soleil is a slower number, still guitar and unusual percussion giving it an almost oriental sound. The lyrics are not in French, as the title suggests, but they are as ominous:
              No more
              Laughter
              Since the
              Black come

              Time here
              Lingers
              Trace with
              My finger

              Heela is approaching a more conventional blues/rock song with slide guitars, but with it's chanting chorus, it is not as strong or as interesting as many of the other tracks on the album.

              'Is That All There Is' is a cover of a Peggy Lee song. I haven't heard the original, so it's hard for me to comment, but the song fits in with the rest of the album in that the verses are spoken word, telling the stories of childhood memories of extraordinary experiences, but with something missing - is that all there is?

              Dance Hall at Louse Point is an instrumental, ironically, as it is the title track and the lack of vocals means that PJ Harvey wasn't involved in it. It's great, though, and shows what John Parish is really good at - wild percussion, unusual arrangements and quirky discordant guitars, all of which keep you guessing and make for interesting listening.

              The brief closing track, Lost Fun Zone, has a mono and quiet guitar riff, which means that the vocal track is absolutely in the foreground, until the chorus kicks in and the full force of the layers of music are felt. An unusual arrangement, it leaves you with a clear imprint of this unusual, adventurous album.

              Conclusion
              ~~~~~~~~
              Well, yes, I am a PJ Harvey fan. This is the 3rd album of hers that I have reviewed on Dooyoo out of a total of 7 album reviews, which I think shows how easy it is to write about her music - it is so varied and so interesting. The reason I like this album is the reason I like her as an artist, it is daring, unusual, evocative, brooding.

              There is a lot in the way of unusual arrangements and structure in this album and such a wide variety of vocal styles that it's almost as if it was her way of trying things out to see what effect they had. As with all experiments, this does not make for a very commercially successful sound, or for very wide appeal, but to hell with that, I say. Music is far too much about the money these days, and not enough about the music!

              So, I would recommend this album to others, however, it would be a guarded recommendation.

              If you have not listened to PJ Harvey before, this is probably not the best album to start with (better to go for To Bring You My Love or Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea).

              If you know and have enjoyed PJ Harvey and have not heard this album, then I would recommend giving it a go - my copy from Amazon cost £4.98, what a bargain.

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              • Eight Below (DVD) / DVD / 57 Readings / 54 Ratings
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                06.02.2009 19:36
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                Good value family fun

                Eight Below is a Disney action film, released in 2006, which tells the story of a group of huskies who are left to fend for themselves through the harsh Antarctic winter and their handler who is fighting to be able to return to collect them. It is 'inspired' by a true story and is a remake of a Japanese film. I first went to see this at the cinema with my eldest and we got the DVD at Christmas. It got mixed reviews at the time, but it's very popular in our house.

                The first almost half of the film introduces us to the huskies and their handler, Jerry, as they take a visiting scientist on a hazardous journey to find evidence of a rare meteorite. The trip introduces us to the beauty and the dangers of this part of the world and to the bravery and obedience of the dogs who evidently love their work and unquestioningly get the visiting scientist the hole in the ice he's fallen through.

                When a serious storm starts up, they are forced to return and the science centre closes for winter. There is not enough room to bring the dogs on board the plane they leave on and Jerry is promised that they can return immediately to collect the dogs, who he leaves chained up. Once they reach the staging point, he is told that it will not be possible to fly back as the weather has deteriorated and it is not safe to fly. The dogs are left to fend for themselves whilst Jerry battles to find a way to return and recover them.

                It's a good old fashioned tale of endurance that Disney does so well, with the added twist and interest of its location. The cinematography is quite stunning at times and it is a pleasure to watch as well as an education for the kids. It is at times difficult to work out which of the eight dogs (of the title) is which and only on a second viewing have we been able to follow this side of things fully. Still, it is the animal story that is the most compelling as they have to work together to find food and protect each other from danger. There is an interesting sub-plot here about the hierarchy within the pack and the way that the leadership is passed from one dog to another, which is cleverly done given the lack of dialogue and narration.

                The human story is less interesting. There is a slightly pointless love interest between Jerry and his pilot ex-girlfriend, and Jason Biggs (from American Pie and My Best Friend's Girl) is a slightly irritating gormless sidekick for Jerry, who is ably played by Paul Walker. I did, though, genuinely feel Jerry's anguish as he was separated from the dogs for whom he feels responsibility and to whom he promised he would return. Also, given that this is a Disney film, the character of Davis McClaren, the visiting scientist (played by Bruce Greenwood from Racing Stripes and John from Cincinnati), and his relationship with Jerry is quite ambiguous. He's a pushy character, managing to persuade Jerry to go on a mission that he advises against and of staying longer when the advice is to return due to the imminent storm. Once they've left the Antarctic he repels the request from Jerry to assist in finding the means to return, despite the fact that he owes the dogs his life. I just felt that this was a more realistic character than the others in the film and showed that people, and life, are not black and white.

                If you are watching with children, you need to be aware that there are a couple of scary scenes. One in particular involves the dogs being attacked by a Lion Seal, which is a huge and pretty ferocious beast ('more lion than seal' as Jerry says). It's a PG certificate, and it may be worth reading what the BBFC says about it on www.pbbfc.co.uk.

                I really liked this film. It's got adventure and it's got sentimentality, but it's not overly soppy. You genuinely feel for the animals and want the best outcome for them and you can empathise with Jerry who is separated from them against his will.

                My boys both enjoy this film, which is particularly surprising for my youngest who is only 5 and who does not usually sit through a film, but he sat through this one more than once and is genuinely moved by it.

                I'd recommend this film - the story is exciting and the scenery is beautiful. There's no great dialogue or performances and it is not a classic, but it is a diverting way to spend a couple of hours.

                HMV are selling it on line for £3.99 - at this price it is definitely worth a punt.

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                  05.02.2009 14:48
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                  Recommended for lovers of introspection and prose

                  At a loss as to what to read next, I went in search of Man Booker Prize winners and found this one (from 2007) in the local library. The blurb describes it as a 'family epic', 'tracing the line of hurt and redemption through three generations', but at its heart is the story of one woman's inner turmoil, her scrambling through family history to find whatever it is that will help her to make sense of and then return to, the life from which she has become both physically and emotionally detached.

                  In the review I wrote of the last book I read, Down River (John Hart), I said that I prefer less action and more emotion, character, prose. Well, I certainly got what I asked for!

                  The plot itself is very simple. The protagonist, Veronica Hegarty, is bringing her brother's body back to Ireland from Brighton where he walked into the sea to his death, his blood full of alcohol, his pockets full of stones. The Gathering of the title refers to his wake, attended by the vast Hegarty clan. Veronica believes that the seeds of her brother's suicide were sewn many years earlier, when they were children staying at their grandmother's house.

                  And so she reaches back into history reimagining events that she never witnessed, retelling stories that she has heard, delving into her own unreliable memory to paint a picture of the past. Some of this comes across as a stream of consciousness, with her sometimes correcting herself when she remembers wrongly, or questioning her own memory. This is not the strict telling of a story or a family history, but is an impression of it, a version of it, a perfect demonstration of the fact that history is always subjective. She says herself of history and of her brother, Liam's story: "If it would just stay still, I think, and settle down. If it would just stop sliding around in my head."

                  There is not much action in The Gathering. External action, that is. This novel concentrates on the internal noise and images, not the external ones. There is a scene, for example, where her grandmother first meets Lamb Nugent, a man who she will not marry, but who will not leave her life and who will have a profound effect on the rest of the family. They see each other across a hotel lobby. That is it. And yet, whilst the eight pages that describe this meeting have no external action or dialogue, the internal noise and turmoil of desire and restraint is very powerful and somehow, through Enright's writing, incredibly noisy.

                  When Veronica talks about the event that started this story back in their grandmother's house, she says she can 'feel it roaring inside me'. How better to summarise this book - a memory that can be felt and that has an incredible internal clamour.

                  Enright's observation is compelling, it's not the detail that she observes, but the otherwise unseen. She paints a picture with her words and the imagery is beautiful and sometimes humorous, but always perfectly crafted. For example, she says of her grandmother: "Her own hands, as she unsheathes them from her black leather gloves, are skinny and restless: a tangle of strings and knobs and bones, like ship's rigging."

                  As is to be expected from a novel about family and about the gathering of that family at a moment of significance, this novel addresses the big issues of life and death, love and loss, memories and family secrets. It is, though, essentially a personal take on all of this, as Veronica struggles with her own demons. It is not a book that will change your own view on these big issues.

                  Before writing a review, I usually read a few to see what other people's impressions are and it has to be said that The Gathering gets a very mixed response. What's for sure is people either really enjoy it or really hate it. The main complaint is that it is tedious and some feel it is pretentious. Those who love it talk of the clever and beautiful prose.

                  I do understand why people may not enjoy this novel. I expect the younger me would have thought it pretentious, but the older me can empathise with and understand the internal dialogue of this unhinged mother!

                  If you like a story with plot and action, then I would caution against this book. If you find memories, emotions and introspection tedious then steer clear.

                  I personally really enjoyed it. I did not feel it suffered from a lack of plot, because I felt the plot was actually Veronica's own story of confusion and anguish, her bereavement. I loved the prose and found it a joy to read.

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                  • Wall-E (DVD) / DVD / 54 Readings / 53 Ratings
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                    30.01.2009 21:23
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                    Absolutely recommended, a fantastic family film

                    One of the homework activities suggested by my son's school as part of their 'Space' topic, was a review of a film set in space, such as WALL-E. In solidarity, I have decided to write a review of the same film.

                    WALL-E is the most recent film from the Disney Pixar studio, the computer animation wizards who gave us Finding Nemo, Cars and Ratatouille, all of which our family have thoroughly enjoyed. The film was released in 2008 to critical acclaim and the DVD was released in time for Christmas - my sons got a copy as a gift.

                    The film is set in a world abandoned by humans because 'trash' has taken over. The WALL-E bots were designed to clear up the earth's surface, whilst humans took off in huge cruise liner style space ships. Something has gone wrong, though, as there is now only one WALL-E robot (maybe some one missed him when they turned the others off) left doggedly working away on his own amongst mountains of rubbish and sky scrapers of 'garbage cubes'.

                    WALL-E is very resourceful - he fixes himself from parts he salvages from other defunct WALL-E bots, he recharges his battery through solar power, he has found himself a container in which to live and to shelter from the wind storms that ravage the abandoned earth. There is no telling how long he has been here endlessly doing the job for which he was created. He is very lonely.

                    Until one day a space ship lands. A robot is deposited and then the ship disappears. The robot is sleek and white, all smooth curves and hovering above the ground - such a contrast to WALL-E's dirty, clunky boxy shape and caterpillar tracks. At last WALL-E has some one to share his days with and he soon falls in love with 'Eve'. When the ship returns to collect her, WALL-E suspects she is in trouble and follows.

                    And so the adventure really begins. Any more of the story and I'll spoil it for you.

                    The reviews when it came out said that WALL-E was a brave film, given that it is aimed at children. There is very little dialogue in the film - indeed, almost the first half of it is entirely WALL-E alone, or WALL-E with Eve, neither of whom can talk beyond saying their own and each others' names. The plot really takes off around half way through. It is testimony to the imaginations and the creativity and artistry of the makers that this part of the film is so atmospheric, funny and touching.

                    The vision of earth completely covered in heaps of rubbish, with what looks like a city skyline, but turns out to be neatly stacked towers of 'garbage cubes', is quite chilling. The lack of human life, or indeed any form of life, is haunting. Set to a soundtrack of the optimistic 'Out There' (from Hello Dolly), the irony is obvious and effective.

                    WALL-E is a truly lovable creature. With is large camera like eyes and his squat body, he reminded me a lot of ET (what a superb film that is - must review that soon!). The animation is so clever, managing with simply a droop of his eyes as he watches his film of a dance routine to relay the longing and melancholy of this lonely little robot. We feel his affection for Eve, even though he is a robot and should by definition be devoid of emotion.

                    There is humour, despite the loneliness of the protagonist and the desolation of his environment. For example, when sorting through the rubbish he comes across a small box. He is interested in this and opens it to find a diamond ring inside. What a find, you think, a jewel amongst all this dust and dirt, but WALL-E discards the ring and pockets the box.

                    Once he's off on his adventure following Eve up into space, the pace and the excitement increases. Now you in a more traditional Disney film with chases and crashes and explosions. And yet all this is set amongst the chilling vision of life on board the super-cruise space ship. The people travel round on armchairs that hover above the ground - there is no longer any need to walk and after generations of this life the human form has become mutated, with smaller bones, and more fat. The people look like Weebles (remember them?). They talk to each other via computer screens that hover like holograms in front of their faces, robots deliver liquidised meals to their hover chairs, there is no longer any vestige of what makes being human bearable, but they are unquestioning, blind to what they have become.

                    WALL-E really is a superb family film. It appeals to children because of the humour, the characters and the adventures. It appeals to adults for the same reasons, but also because of the message, which may not be subtle, but is at least not patronising. If you take progress over the last 50 years say and extrapolate it out you could easily reach the same conclusions as the film makers. My faith in human nature tells me that common sense will kick in before we reach this point, and if it doesn't, at least I won't be around to witness it!!

                    I thoroughly recommend this film to any one, young or old. It is touching, funny, entertaining and thoughtful. Families who buy the DVD could get watch after watch out of it, ours has already!

                    Bonus Material on the DVD and Other Practicalities
                    =======================================
                    We have a 2 Disc Special Edition, thoughtfully in a card case rather than plastic, appropriate to the subject matter of the film. It is jam packed with extras, some of them really good quality.

                    In particular, there are two a Disney Pixar shorts,

                    BURN-E is written by Andrew Stanton who also wrote and directed WALL-E (and Finding Nemo), called BURN-E, which takes one of the characters from the main film and tells a brief and highly amusing, Mr Bean style story. My kids love this!

                    Presto is about a magician and his white rabbit, who is hungry and won't co-operate until he's fed. This is old school Tom and Jerry style cartoon humour.

                    There is also an interesting brief documentary on the use of sound in the film - given that there is very little dialogue, the beeps and other noises that the robots make become all the more important.

                    There are lots of other bonus features, including deleted scenes, a the making of feature and a documentary about the Pixar Story.

                    Amazon are selling the 2 Disc Special Edition at £12.98 at the moment. No doubt the price will come down in time, but given the quality of the film and the amount of bonus material on it, this doesn't seem an unreasonable price. This is up on our shelf along with classics like ET and Star Wars and I'm sure it will get watched repeatedly over the years.

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                      25.01.2009 10:26
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                      A great summer read - recommended if you like thrillers

                      Down River is the second novel from John Hart. Based in North Carolina, both Hart's novels are thrillers and met with a positive response from critics and enjoyed sales accordingly (the cover of my copy describes him as 'international best seller'). I reached the end of my previous book over Christmas whilst staying at Mum and Dad's and borrowed a copy of the book off my Dad. It was an opportunistic choice as I knew nothing of the author or the book, but it had a Richard & Judy's Summer Read sticker on the front, so (once I'd put my snobbery to one side) I guessed it was probably a safe bet.

                      The novel tells the story of Adam Chase who returns to his home town 5 years after having been acquitted for murder. He's spent the intervening time in New York trying to forget the trauma of this experience: the betrayal of his family (his step mother was a witness against him in the trial, his father stood by her) and the judgement of the people in town. His best friend manages to track him down and calls him, asking for his return. Adam tells his friend 'no', but the call stays with him and the wall he's built between himself and home starts to crumble. In the end, he decides to return. As soon as he arrives he's beaten up, then a young woman is attacked and not long after that a dead body turns up. Adam is under police scrutiny once more.

                      The book addresses his relationship with his family, each of whom have a different take on what happened to him, and in particular with his father, who he feels betrayed him. It also has a love interest, his partner when he left is a police officer and she is bitter and has been hardened by his absence. Whilst Adam's interaction with these people, their reaction to his return and to the turn of events, are all covered by the book, this is not its strength. There are no nuances and emotions are not left unsaid, but are explained through the narration. I didn't find this aspect of the book particularly effective, I simply didn't care enough about the characters.

                      Adam is a troubled man from a troubled childhood, his mother's suicide when he was a young boy has put a strain on his relationship with his father and has made him an angry and violent young man. His moral code is essentially good, but his short fuse and his disregard for authority mean he gets himself into situations that most other people wouldn't. No wonder he's an obvious target for the police, but more importantly this makes him a useful dramatic tool in unravelling the plot.

                      The writing style is efficient. That is, you get what is necessary to steer you through the twists and turns of the plot. Whilst it is set in Rowan County in North Carolina, it doesn't make very much of the setting and I didn't get a real sense of place. The opening paragraph references the river evocatively: "Everything that shaped me happened near that river. I lost my mother in sight of I, fell in love on its banks. I could smell it on the day my father drove me out. It was part of my soul and I thought I'd lost it forever." And yet, it does not really maintain this importance in the book - the imagery is not that strong.

                      The novel is, however, a pretty effective 'whodunit'. The pace is relentless, the twists and turns intriguing, the outcome harsh.

                      I suspect what I see as shortcomings are simply due to the fact that this is not my usual kind of book. If you like a strong plot that keeps you guessing, then you will thoroughly enjoy this book. I tend to like books with less plot and more imagery, nuance, character and emotion (ok, call me girly, I don't care!). I enjoyed the fact that the plot meandered in and out of his friends and family, his relationships with them and their relationships with each other.

                      If you like thrillers, then this is a good read: fast, furious, and with a strong conclusion. I can see that this is, indeed, a very good summer holiday book - beyond trying to get to the bottom of the mystery, there is little to think about. I guess this just isn't my kind of book - I'd rather have had more character, more interesting prose and something to make me think.

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                        23.01.2009 21:56
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                        A fun experience, very glad I did it, unlikely to be repeated soon

                        I was so looking forward to travelling to Vienna through the Rhine valley on the night train. I imagined gazing up at flood lit Austrian castles under the stars, eating a meal in the dining car amongst crystal and porcelain, clinking wine glasses with my husband as we celebrated our 10th wedding anniversary. Somehow, the whole vision took place in black and white and amidst steam and whistles (think The Lady Vanishes, The 39 Steps or Brief Encounter)

                        Could the reality ever live up to my ideal?

                        What is the City Night Line?
                        ===============================
                        This is a service operated by Deutsche Bahn that runs through Europe, connecting cities in France, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands, Czech Republic and Italy.

                        The service operates specially designed trains incorporating couchettes and sleeper cabins as well as seats and (apparently) cushioned axles for a smooth ride, and therefore a good night's sleep.

                        Why Did We Choose the City Night Line?
                        ===============================
                        In 2008 my husband and I celebrated our 10th wedding anniversary. We had been away for a weekend to Umbria on our 5th anniversary where we'd vowed to do similar each 5 years and so we were looking for a suitably romantic way to mark the achievement that is 10 years of marriage. My husband travelled by train to Berlin a couple of years back and noticed on the Cologne to Berlin leg of his journey that you could get a night train from Cologne to Vienna. Due to my work, we are fortunate enough to have international rail passes that provide discounts on rail fares, so this had the potential for being a cost effective option for us.

                        I found the idea of a night train from Cologne to Vienna really appealing - a bit of an adventure and romantic in an old-fashioned way. When we had a look on www.seat61.com (more on this website later in the review), I was sold on the whole idea because of the following description:

                        "The train travels along the famous Rhine Valley between Koblenz and Frankfurt, so if you are in a sleeper and your compartment happens to be on the left-hand side of the train, switch off the lights and watch the Rhine pass by, mountains and castles lit by moonlight, while sipping a glass of Riesling. Wonderful!"

                        Information and Booking
                        ===================
                        I have to say that I find the prospect of travelling by train in Europe confusing, in particular knowing how to best plan your route. Take the UK Rail Network with it's 20 odd different Train Operating Companies, each offering heaven knows how many different fare options and some operating on the same line but offering very different services. All of this can be confusing to a new comer, but add in the fact that you want to go through several different European countries and this could get very confusing.

                        Our starting point was the website www.seat61.com, which is run by a rail enthusiast. Given the status of this website, I wouldn't rely on it solely for travel information as there is no guarantee that it is up to date and accurate, but as a starting point for considering your options, I found it to be very informative and easy to follow. It seems to have won some pretty serious awards (including best website award at the Guardian & Observer Travel Awards 2008) as well, so it is obviously generally well thought of.

                        Once we'd got the basics of what we wanted to do, we contacted the Deutsche Bahn call centre in London. You can go on their website (www.bahn.co.uk) for timetables, availability information, pricing and you can purchase your tickets in this way. The website is pretty well laid out, but we didn't use it because we needed to get our discounts, which had to be done over the phone.

                        We made several calls to the call centre because we were booking very early and the different legs of the journey were only available for booking at a certain period of time ahead of departure, so I rang once to get information, again to book the Eurostar Leg and finally to get the DB legs. I found the staff to be not only very helpful and polite, but also enthusiastic. When I explained the trip that we were undertaking one operator was genuinely interested in it and offered advice about what to do in Cologne whilst we waited for our connection. You can contact them on 08718 808066. I would say that if you fancy travelling in Europe by train, but don't know where to start, they would probably be really helpful in helping you to plan your trip.

                        Connections, Travel Planning and Punctuality
                        ===================================
                        Our trip to Vienna went like this:
                        - Eurostar service from London to Brussels
                        - Thalys service from Brussels to Cologne
                        - City Night Line service from Cologne to Vienna

                        Working out which train to get for each of these legs is actually trickier than you might imagine. Whilst the staff at the DB Booking Centre were really helpful, you still have to make a call about what connections you are going to make and how much time you allow.

                        Making sure we were on time to catch a Night Train was really important. Missing it would have meant finding accommodation for the night and then buying another ticket for a train the next day.

                        In the event, we ended up spending much longer than we needed at Cologne waiting for our connection especially as this was the only train in the trip that was late. The upshot is that we could have got up and left home later than we did and spent less time waiting at Cologne, but for peace of mind I think we probably did the right thing giving ourselves plenty of time between each connection.

                        The whole trip nearly didn't happen as the fire in the Channel Tunnel took place soon after we booked and for quite a while we were unsure as to whether the first leg of our journey would happen at all. Fortunately, about 2 weeks before we left they announced a new timetable and around 1 week before we left we were assigned a firm seat. Luckily, we'd decided to hold on and not purchase a flight instead as the cost of the flight would not have been refundable. The whole thing was pretty stressful, to be honest, but there is no one to blame for this and Eurostar were clearly doing all they could to operate as effectively as they could in a difficult time.

                        Prices
                        =====
                        Well, this was not a particularly cheap way of getting from London to Vienna to be honest. If you want to get there quickly, then you would be far better off getting a flight. Flights are available for around £120.

                        For us, though, the journey was part of the weekend and the first night away was to be spent on a train rather than in a hotel and you have to bear that in mind when comparing the prices.

                        We also got our tickets cheaper because of our discounts and our decision making process would have been a lot different if we hadn't had that. Because we had discounts we were able to choose the more luxurious modes of travel, so we went First Class in Eurostar and took a luxury cabin on the City Night Line.

                        The total cost of our trip (London - Vienna) was £140 Per person, so just slightly more than flying. Without the discounts you are looking at around double this. If you are happy to travel overnight in a seat and will be travelling standard class on Eurostar, you might be able to squeeze the price in under that of flying.

                        Catching the Train
                        ==============
                        We caught the City Night Line from Cologne, or rather Koln Hauptbahnhoff.

                        Our connecting Thalys train from Brussels arrived a couple of hours ahead of our City Night Line connection. Cologne cathedral is literally right outside the station and there is a large square with steps leading up to the cathedral where visitors mill and locals meet up. We idled away some time looking around the cathedral, eating in a nearby café and ringing Nana and Grandpa to check up on the kids.

                        Koln Hauptbahnhoff is large, full of shops and cafes, but not a particularly attractive place to hang around. There was an intriguing luggage locker system, where you put your luggage into what looks like a locker, but is actually a sort of luggage lift which takes your case away underground and stores it, then collects it again when you enter in the code that you are given at the time you deposit. We had visions of never seeing our case again, but we needn't have worried.

                        The train was late. Not a good start to be honest and the trouble was that because we didn't know how late it was going to be, we ended up sitting on the platform waiting for it for around an hour, whereas if we had known it was going to be that late we would have gone for a coffee. Given that the train was due to leave at 20:06 and we'd been travelling since first thing, we were by now pretty tired and could have done without the wait.

                        We were able to determine which part of the platform we needed to be on by consulting a diagram on the platform and our ticket so that when the train pulled in we were able to get on the correct carriage straight away. A steward checked our tickets and showed us to our cabin.

                        The Cabin
                        ========
                        The cabin itself was small, but well designed. We had two beds (like bunks), a table and two chairs, an area for hanging clothes and storing bags and a shower/toilet room. It was clean and the bedding was crisp and fresh. Towels were supplied.

                        There is a large window the length of the carriage which arches into the roof so you are able to look up at the scenery. Blinds afford you privacy and shut out the station and other lights once you want to head off to sleep.

                        We rather liked our cabin, small as it was, but if you are not very mobile, it would have been a real challenge. You ascend a couple of pretty steep steps to get to the upper cabins, of which ours was one, and getting up to the top bunk was quite a feat - there was no ladder and you had to just stand on the bottom bunk (trying not to squash your travel companion) and heave yourself up. I'm pretty impressed I managed it without straining any muscles, but maintaining any decorum whilst doing so was simply not possible.

                        The shower was miniscule, but worked and was hot and we both used it and were glad of it to freshen ourselves up in the morning ahead of our arrival.

                        Food and Refreshments
                        ===================
                        I'd love to give you a blow by blow account of our dinner in the dining carriage, but I'm afraid that there was a technical problem which meant that there was no dining carriage on our train.

                        This was a real let down. Fortunately, my husband had insisted on buying crisps, chocolate and wine at Cologne station. I'd been saying that this was over the top as I wanted to have a proper meal on the train, but in the event these snacks ended up being our evening meal and I was might glad of them!

                        The steward brought us coffees (which we had to pay for) and a small bottle of wine each (which was complimentary). He was very attentive and polite. We sat in the privacy of our cabin and drank and munched into the early hours.

                        In the morning, the steward brought us breakfast, which was included in the price of the ticket. This was pretty impressive and comprised a croissant each, a yogurt, a roll, cheese, various hams and jams and marmalades. There was orange juice and the choice of coffee or tea. It was a filling and tasty breakfast.

                        The Sleeping Experience
                        ===================
                        Well, I found sleeping on the train quite difficult.

                        Firstly, there is the simple fact that you are somewhere quite different/alien, which always makes it difficult.

                        Then, there is the movement of the train. It is not so much that there is a constant jostling and noise, because there isn't. It is more the fact you stop and start. As a commuter who is automatically programmed to wake when the train stops to make sure I don't miss my stop, each time we stopped I woke up, wondering where we'd got to on our journey.

                        Actually, the beds are quite comfy and if you are so disposed you probably could get a good night's sleep on the train, but it just wasn't for me.

                        Conclusion
                        =========
                        Well, it was not the romantic experience of my imagination in that we did not dine amongst crystal and porcelain, but instead ate crisps and chocolate, nor did we see any mountains and castles - we passed through the Rhine valley in the early hours of the morning when we were attempting to sleep. We did, however, have the privacy of our own cabin and we enjoyed taking the time to just sit, talk, gaze out the window at the lights of the cities and suburbs that we passed through. We talked, reminisced and laughed, all of which was pretty special thinking about it.

                        The reality may not have lived up to my idealised imaginings, but in a world where we are in a constant hurry to be somewhere, I found that travelling by train and taking 24 hours to get from home to Vienna, actually gave me the time to unwind, relax and to talk. Passing through France, Belgium, Germany and Austria on our journey gave us a real sense of what our trip meant (geographically speaking) and it felt really good. If travelling for you is as much about the journey as the destination, then I would definitely recommend the City Night Line.

                        I don't like to say that it was disappointing, because that would somehow devalue the experience and I certainly don't want to do that as I have very fond memories of it. It was an experience and it was fun. I probably won't repeat it anytime soon, but nor would I rather not have done it. I will always look back on it and smile.

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                          15.01.2009 19:25
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                          I know they're far from consistent, but this one is worth a punt

                          In 2008, Primal Scream, who have now been going for a staggering 26 years, released Beautiful Future, their 9th studio album. They started out as part of the Scottish indie scene that gave us Jesus and Mary Chain, but left behind their jingle, jangle sound to take on a more rocky sound. They've been in and out of the charts over the years and have collaborated with various other artists (Kevin Shields from My Bloody Valentine, Barnie Sumner, Robert Plant, The Chemical Brothers to name but a few).

                          There is no way a band can survive 26 years unless they keep moving, morphing, trying new things, whilst maintaining some thread of a story. Not only will most of the audience get bored with them, but they too risk getting stale and disinterested. I guess that Primal Scream have managed to do something different with each of their 9 albums, with varying success. The high points (for me) were Screamadelica (1990), which, with it's dance based slant on indie rock, was hailed as being 'of its time and timeless' and XTRMNTR (2000) which was darker, faster, harder rock with an electronic edge. The main low point for me was Give Out but Don't Give Up (1994) which just seemed to be a Rolling Stones tribute album. They have not been a consistent band in this sense.

                          The line up has changed quite a bit over the years, but front man Bobbie Gillespie, with his distinctive, if somewhat weak, vocals, is a constant and guitarist Andrew Innes is from the very early days. Bassist Mani (ex Stone Roses) seems like a relatively recent joiner, but even he has been in the band for 12 years now (ah how the years accelerate...).

                          Beautiful Future is the most melodic I remember Primal Scream being and it's quite a bit more poppy. Five songs for the album were recorded with Bjorn Yttling [from Peter, Bjorn and John] at Atlantis Studios in Stockholm, which is where ABBA recorded 'Dancing Queen' and 'Knowing Me, Knowing You'. Perhaps some of the disco pop vibe wore off. In any case, it's definitely an easier listen than many of its predecessors. There a good variety of sounds and styles on the album, from soul to the more traditional Primal Scream rock sounds right to disco (yes, I said disco!). Ultimately, I think this is why I enjoy this band so much - their love of all good music is evident and their love and enthusiasm for what they do is patent. Live, it is palpable (the subject of a separate review, no doubt).

                          The album opens with the title track Beautiful Future, an upbeat pop track, as happy as I've ever heard them sound, complete with bells (yes, bells) - it sounds almost Christmassy, until you hear the lyrics with their reference to naked bodies hanging from the trees. I read an interview where Bobbie Gillespie said "it's nice to have the lyrics being the way they are, kinda mocking and sarcastic, with that big, happy chorus."

                          This is followed by the single 'Can't Go Back' which is a return to the fast, rocky sound that we are more familiar with for Primal Scream. It's catchy, that's for sure, with it's sing-along 'woooooo' refrain and hurtles along at breakneck speed.

                          Uptown is verging on disco, albeit a mellow disco (rather than Hi-NRG) with it's synth violin's and it's vibe about escaping the mundane daily grind by going 'uptown' on a Saturday night. This segues into the Glory of Love, which has a glam feel to it with an 'uh huh huh' chorus and hand clap, but the soaring strings elevate into a more modern sound. Zombie Man is a more upbeat glam with a stomping rhythm and gospel-fuelled chorus.

                          Suicide Bomb is slower and darker with a reverby guitar riff, building into a crescendo - despite the words 'I see the beauty in everything', the crescendo is pretty angry sounding, as a suicide bomb no doubt should be.

                          Beautiful Summer is my favourite track on the album. It is atmospheric with a cello baseline and eerie synth, the guitar on this is also really simple but works very well. Primal Scream at their surprising best.

                          There are a few collaborations on the album:

                          Lovefoxxx from CSS duets with Bobbie on I Love to Hurt (You Love to be Hurt), an edgy track that is heavy with electronic beats and quirky synth sounds, complimented by a high guitar wail.

                          Folk singer Linda Thompson duets with Bobbie on OVER & OVER (a Fleetwood Mac cover). Despite Bobbie's voice, Primal Scream are capable of a very moving ballad ('Damaged' from Screamadelica is another one).

                          Josh Holme from Queens of the Stone Age plays fantastically dirty, rocky guitar riffs and self-indulgent solos on Necro Hex Blues.

                          Urban Guerrilla is somewhere between 'Rocks' (probably their most successful single) and the Stooges, with it's repetitive two-note riff in the verse and it's three chord chorus. So much better than the final track which is an instrumental and for me the weakest track on the album, falling somewhere between the pomp of Simple Minds and the pointlessness of Yes.

                          Beautiful Future is not ground breaking, but it is a collection of strong songs from a band whose love and enjoyment of music is evident and whose experience allows them to carry off a variety of styles whilst maintaining something that is their own sound.

                          If you are a Primal Scream fan you are unlikely to be disappointed, if you know who they are and are not keen, this album is unlikely to change your mind. If you're not very familiar with Primal Scream, but want to find out more, this album is probably not the place to start. So, in conclusion, I'd say that whilst I've always found Primal Scream to be a bit hit and miss, Beautiful Future is definitely more hit than miss.

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                          • More +
                            13.01.2009 23:07
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                            Should be on every child's bookcase

                            My 4 year old son received this book for Christmas and have so enjoyed reading it to him that I'm sharing the experience with you all.

                            The Green Ship is written and illustrated by Quentin Blake, who you will probably know from his illustrations for Roald Dahl. He has illustrated books by many other children's authors and has illustrated his own books, some of the most well known are Mister Magnolia and Clown. He was Children's Laureate in 1999 and generally considered a national institution.

                            The Green Ship takes you into the world of fantasy - two children, whilst staying with their aunt one summer, climb over a wall into the neighbouring garden of a large house. Here they discover a 'ship' made out of hedges trimmed to be a bow and stern, two trees clipped to look like funnels and two tall trees with a few branches and leaves to look like masts. A garden shed perched on an old tree stump makes a wheel house. They make friends with Mrs Tredegar who owns the garden and spend a summer of adventure on imaginary voyages on the 'green ship'.

                            This book is a real joy to share with your children. The language is a pleasure to read aloud, the illustrations are colourful and humorous, the story is warm and meaningful. My son has requested it being read and re-read and his 8 year old brother has also enjoyed it. I've been happy to read it over as I enjoy it as much as they do.

                            So what makes it so good?

                            The illustrations are superb. I asked my 8 year old why he liked them and he said that they were 'funny'. Perhaps not a particularly helpful analysis, but Quentin Blake's illustrations ARE inherently humorous. There's something about the way that he captures the human form and, despite his drawings' simplicity, the nuance of expression. There is a liveliness about his illustrations that makes them almost animated and the colour he uses in this book is very effective, particularly the skies, which (very much like the skies at sea) can be very dramatic.

                            The illustrations also support the story telling. What is said in words is then added to through the illustrations. For example, the words tell us that when they first meet Mrs Tredegar they are invited to sit down for tea (Madeira cake and cucumber sandwiches). The illustration tells us that this is in the garden, next to the Green Ship, and that they are perched on barrels for seats. Mrs Tredegar is talking and the children are sitting with their saucers carefully balanced on their knees listening intently and smiling as if she is telling a most amusing story. In other words, the illustration is of a friendship developing.

                            My sons enjoy the story because to them it is about two children going on imaginary voyages of adventure. They wish they could have a green ship to play on.

                            I enjoy the story because to me it is about the preciousness of childhood that is so fleeting and once over can never be recovered. The book portrays this at the end through the children saying that they return each year to visit, but the green ship grows out of shape through lack of maintenance until you can hardly tell that it was ever there.

                            I also enjoy the story because there is an unspoken story about Mrs Tredegar. Whilst the words never say so explicitly, I understand her to be a widow who enjoys the friendship of the children and is happy to indulge their fantasies as it brings her closer to 'the captain' her lost husband and allows her to briefly recapture her own childhood. The poignancy is greater for the fact that it is unspoken and only an adult would pick up on this aspect of the story, so it is your reward for reading aloud to your child.

                            I would thoroughly recommend this book, particularly for children from 3 to 8, but for fans of Quentin Blake of any age. It would make a lovely gift (as my son's did) and in any case will be one that to keep on the bookshelf for you to read and re-read and for older children to re-visit, perhaps in an attempt to recover their own childhood memories of you reading to them!!

                            ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

                            Strangely, Amazon seem to have both paperback and hardback versions, but both at very high prices. WHSmith are selling it for £5.99 and it is available at most good bookshops at this RRP.

                            Published by Red Fox Picture Books. 32 pages long.

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                            • Build a Bear / Highstreet Shopping / 37 Readings / 35 Ratings
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                              12.01.2009 21:42
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                              Highly recommended as a gift idea

                              My two sons (5 and 8) have often lingered at the window of the Build-a-Bear Workshop in our nearest shopping centre as their dad and/or I try to drag them past because there are chores to be done and because going in will no doubt mean copious amounts of money being spent!! Our youngest is particularly keen on soft toys and has often talked about the Build-a-Bear Workshop as somewhere he'd like to go. So when Nana and Grandpa asked for ideas for his 5th birthday, I suggested vouchers, and we planned an outing for him to spend them. His 8 year old brother so wanted to join in that he raided his Christmas money and started to fuel the excitement that built up ahead of our trip.

                              The Concept
                              ==========
                              In the Build-a-Bear Workshop you select what kind of bear or other soft toy you would like, you stuff it and insert its heart, choose clothes for it and then print off a birth certificate.

                              Being a cynical old (OK, not THAT old) lady, I find this to be just a concept and a corny one at that. It's simply a teddy bear shop, isn't it? You go in wanting a teddy, you come out with one. Same as any other toy shop, except with a gimmick that is probably going to cost me money.

                              And yet, this is missing the point. This shop is not aimed at me, but at my kids and this is NOT how they see it. They feel they have created their own bear, they thoroughly enjoyed the whole experience and they love the bears they've brought home (sorry, they DO have names, Tom and Bill) all the more for it.

                              The shop floor is laid out to guide you through the steps that you follow, which are:

                              Choose me
                              You select your teddy design from the options available. There are quite a few different designs (different colours, pandas, etc), including other stuffed animals, such as a rabbit and a moose, and some recognisable brands, such as Hello Kitty. My eldest chose a honey coloured bear, my youngest a white and blue bear. The different designs are in tubs as yet unstuffed with a gap in the seam that runs down their back, so you pick up your chosen teddy 'shell' and move on to the next step.

                              Hear me
                              You can optionally choose to include something that the bear will say or sing (all of it in a horrifically syrupy sweet American twang), thank heavens my two were more interested in pressing the buttons on the display panel at the shop than selecting one for their bear.

                              Stuff me
                              One of the sales assistants helps here - they have a large machine with stuffing whirling around inside and hoses coming out of it. Having fed a hose into the back of your teddy 'shell' they then invite the child to step on a foot pedal which will start the machine blowing stuffing down the hose into your teddy. You then get to choose how soft/firm you want your teddy to be (testing is, of course, a cuddle of the newly stuffed bear). Once stuffed, you can select a heart. These are small stuffed hearts made of red or red and white checked satin material. The sales assistant took the boys through this most bizarre ritual of rubbing it with their hands to make it warm, rubbing it on their chest (heart) to make the bear love you, rubbing it on their heads to make them brainy and rubbing it on their funny bones (elbows) to make them funny. Then they had to make a wish, then give the heart a kiss, then finally put it in to the back of the bear. This sounds as corny / cringe worthy as it was, but my boys both followed every word of advice and their wishes looked serious and sincere!

                              Stitch me
                              Now the sales assistant closes the bear up at the back. Before doing so they tear off the bar code on the bear's label and put it inside. This is so that if the bear gets lost, it can be taken to a Build-a-Bear Workshop anywhere where the barcode will lead to the owners details on the database (see 'Name me' below) so that it can be posted back to you. Apparently, a bear from France was brought into our local store and successfully returned to its owner through this scheme.

                              Fluff me
                              You can then give the bear a 'wash' (this is in a pretend bath - no water involved) and brush them up. We skipped this as it seemed a bit pointless the bears being brand new and in no need of washing or fluffing.

                              Name me
                              Once you've done all this you can choose a name for the bear and register them on the computer system which will print out a birth certificate. You also provide your postal address so that the bear can be returned to you should it be lost (see 'Stitch me' above).

                              Dress me
                              Well, this is clearly where they make their money. There are all sorts of outfits for you to choose - t-shirts, shirts, jumpers, shorts, skirts, shoes, hats, etc, etc. There are football kits (Man-U and Chelsea, not ALL of them) and Batman outfits. They are very brand aware - you can buy pretend Converse One Stars and pretend Adidas All Stars and pretend VANS. There are roller skates and skateboards. There are handbags and sunglasses and all sorts of accessories. Everything in this area is individually priced and it can all add up to quite a bit of money! (see Prices below).

                              Take me home
                              They put the bear in a sweet carry box that also looks like a little house with heart-shaped windows and a heart-shaped door. There is no question that the boys will allow us to fold these flat and put them in the recycling...


                              Execution
                              ========
                              By this I mean, how well is the concept executed - I'm not suggesting any kind of capital punishment.

                              The Build-a-Bear Workshop has a very strong concept, pulling the punters in and delivering on its promise. I wanted to hate it, what with it being so American and tacky, but to be honest the boys enjoyed it so much that I couldn't.

                              It was quite busy on the Sunday morning that we went and there was a bit of waiting around to get onto the stuffing machine and the birth certificate database. We also waited in the queue to pay and it took them a while to open up a second till. All in all, though, what could have been a nightmare, given that over excited children and waiting in queues don't generally go together, turned out to be a pretty easy experience. The children in there were all so happy to be there and seemed to be enjoying the experience so much that there was no whingeing, crying or crazy running around by our kids or any other kids whilst we were there.

                              If you look at their website, they say that their mission is 'to bring the Teddy Bear to life'. They say that 'from the moment you walk in the door you know you are in a magical world'. Well, I have to say that this is probably a claim too far!! It certainly was fun, but if you can put to one side the schmatlz-fest that this place seems to an adult's eye, you will see that it really does work well for the kids.

                              Prices
                              =====
                              Well, I thought this place would be ludicrously expensive.

                              It is and it isn't.

                              What I mean is, you can buy a bear for as little as £8, which is not a bad price for a bear of this size compared with other retailers, BUT I could pretty much guarantee that no one comes out of there spending just this amount because the extras are just so very tempting....

                              The bears themselves go from £8 for a basic 'Butter Bear' up to £18 for a High School Musical Bear.

                              Sounds cost from £2 to £5.

                              Then the clothes and accessories:
                              - Clothes cost from £4 - £5 for a pair of shoes, the same for trousers and t-shirts.
                              - Outfits (policeman, beefeater, Spiderman, Batman, Tinkerbell) range from £10 to £15.
                              - Then there are the accessories, £4 to £5 for a hat, £3.50 for glasses, and so it goes on.

                              By the time you've made your way past this lot you are likely to have spent much more on these than on the bear itself. My eldest has now announced that he is saving his pocket money to return and buy another out fit for his bear. This is clearly where they are making their money.

                              Other Stuff
                              ========
                              There's a Bearville website that you can sign your bear up to when you get home. This has games and chat and the option of meeting other bears. Not sure about this yet as we've not done much more than register.

                              They host birthday parties, details on their website.

                              You can buy on the internet.

                              Gift cards are available from shops and on-line. I would highly recommend this as a gift idea.

                              Conclusion
                              ========
                              All in all, I have to conclude that our experience of Build-a-Bear Workshop was positive. The kids loved it and would give it 5 stars. I see through the consumer glitz and can't bring myself to give it 5, so I've knocked off 1, which is probably a bit mean of me.

                              It was a fun thing to do as a family and it was a great idea for a gift. There are 50 odd stores in the UK so there will be one not far from you. You can buy on-line, but then that really does defeat the object.

                              www.buildabear.co.uk

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                              • More +
                                09.01.2009 18:22
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                                The hotel I have most enjoyed staying in

                                In October of last year my husband and I celebrated our 10th wedding anniversary. Astounded at how quickly the years had passed and determined to reward ourselves for our staying power, we looked for a suitably romantic/memorable way to mark the occasion. It was my husband who hit on the idea of getting the night train to Vienna (must write about this too) and I was tasked with selecting the hotel. Well, I really wanted to make sure I picked something special for the occasion. I work away quite a bit (only in the UK - nothing special) and get to stay in Hiltons and Crowne Plazas, and, whilst these are really good quality chains, I was really hoping to find something different so that I wouldn't feel like I was on a work trip! I found the Altstadt Vienna on tripadvisor where it was the 5th most popular hotel in Vienna.

                                Well, the Altstadt Vienna certainly fitted the bill. It was just right for a romantic stay and was the perfect base for our weekend.

                                Location
                                =======
                                The Altstadt Vienna is situated in an old-fashioned Viennese apartment building. As you enter the hallway you have to go up the wide and sweeping stone staircase to get to the reception which is on the first floor. Also on this floor is the 'red salon' and breakfast area (more on this anon), the 42 rooms are spread across the 2nd and 3rd floors. Because it is not a custom built hotel building, it feels like a slice of 'real Vienna'.

                                The hotel is just 5 minutes walk (to the west) of the famous Vienna Ringstrasse where all the grand buildings are and a further 5 minutes to the heart of the city. It is situated in the Spittelberg district, which is known for its 'artistic flair' and is made up of a number of small streets, mainly built around the turn of the century, which have recently been pedestrianised and restored. There are quite a few bars and restaurants within walking distance of the hotel.

                                Arrival
                                =====
                                We arrived at Vienna Westbahnhof early on Friday morning and walked to the hotel - we only had weekend bags so were happy to walk, but the area around the station is typically grim with 'adult' shops and bars. Not the nicest of welcomes, if we did it over we'd get a taxi. Thankfully, by the time we reached the hotel the area had improved significantly.

                                The welcome from the staff was very warm. We arrived far too early to check in, but our luggage was locked away and we were invited to come into the breakfast area to have something to eat and drink. When we returned to the hotel later to check in properly, the receptionist came out from behind the desk and gave us a tour of the hotel and then took us up to our room. It was a genuinely warm welcome and we felt very much at home.

                                The Room
                                ========
                                I have to say, this was pretty special.

                                According to the reviews I've read of the hotel all the standard rooms are well furnished with arty touches, but as it was a special occasion, we selected (for a small premium) one of their recently renovated rooms, design by Matteo Thun. The design is inspired by that period of Vienna, around the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, where art and music flourished. The culture of cafés and concert halls that pushed the boundaries in art (think Klimt and then Schiele) are the inspiration.

                                The room had a high ceiling, silver/black flock wall paper, an elaborate chandelier, silver curtains, red velvet bedstead and a pretty erotic black and white photo on the wall. Think boudoir, but classy!

                                The door to the shower and toilet was glass (yes, pretty intimate stuff this!!!) and was all black tiles and shiny chrome. The shower had a huge rose which meant it was a divine experience. The products provided were all from the Provencal retail chain L'Equitaine.

                                What a great place to spend a romantic weekend away!

                                The rest of the Hotel
                                ================
                                The hotel is pretty arty with lots of great photographs and artwork on the walls. The 'red salon' is a lounge where you can come and sit in comfy chairs by an open fire and have tea and cake FOR FREE in the afternoons. Yes, that's right, FREE CAKE. You can help yourself as many times as you like to the amazing array of different teas and the never ending supply of cake (as soon as all the slices of cake have gone, a new one appears). There's also a bar here for later in the evening. What more can a girl want?? This was a lovely place to spend a little time after traipsing round the city and before venturing out for an evening meal.

                                The corridor to the Matteo Thun rooms is pretty stunning, too, all deep reds and clever lighting and large black and white prints of photos of glamorous young ladies that look like they're from the first few decades of the 20th Century. So classy and (dare I say it) erotic.

                                The Breakfast
                                ===========
                                This was simply the best I've had anywhere. There was an incredible array of cheese and cooked meats (very Austrian) with all different types of bread. Alternatively, you could have muesli or any other kind of cereal, various fresh fruits (both prepared for putting into a bowl as a salad or adding to your muesli/cereal and not-prepared). There were various pastries and the facilities to make toast along with plenty of different kinds of jams and spreads. If you really couldn't find anything to tempt you in all of this, you could order hot food, which would be prepared for you - none of that sitting on a hot plate getting dry business here.

                                Now, I like my food and so being able to return as many times as I liked to try out as much of the various options available was just too good to be true. There are not superlatives enough to describe this breakfast....

                                The Rates
                                ========
                                OK, as you will probably have gathered from this review, this is no budget hotel.

                                A standard double room costs between 139 Euros and 179 Euros depending on when you stay.

                                The Matteo Thun double rooms cost between 169 Euros and 209 Euros depending on when you stay.

                                Given the poor exchange rates right now you're looking at somewhere between £120 and £180 depending on what you go for.

                                We paid £150 per night. It's not cheap, but I definitely didn't feel I'd been ripped off - the hotel and the room were well worth this price. It's also not much more than you'd pay at a quality hotel chain, such as the Hilton (whose standard rooms are 119 Euros and whose Deluxe rooms are 139 Euros).

                                Conclusion
                                ========
                                The overall design of the place was pretty classy, but it still had a really comfortable and welcoming feel to it. The staff were very friendly, attentive and welcoming. The room was luxurious. The breakfast was to die for. They give you free tea and cake, for heaven's sake!

                                I would not hesitate to recommend this hotel if you are looking for something special when staying in Vienna. For me, it was a key part of the success of our weekend (along with the superb weather and the good company) and well worth spending a bit more.

                                Quite simply, it is the hotel I have most enjoyed stayed in.

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                                • More +
                                  03.01.2009 10:15
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                                  Highly recommended

                                  The Time Traveler's Wife is essentially a love story, but it's a love story with a twist - set in Chicago, Henry has a genetic dysfunction which results in him travelling through time, where he meets Claire. For the first half of the book she is a young girl who is visited occasionally by Henry, the older man, who knows all about her and what happens to them in the future. Then they meet in real time and it is Clare who knows about Henry through his visits from his future into her past, whereas he is meeting her for the first time.

                                  Niffenegger's version of time travelling is completely outside of Henry's control - that is, he can move in time without notice, and can end up anywhere and anytime, although usually (but not always) in his own past and in places with which he is familiar. He can take nothing with him and arrives in his destination naked, leaving nothing but a pile of clothing behind him and often resulting in dangerous situations on his arrival. As a result, he develops survival skills such as lock picking, pick pocketing and fighting. He can also travel to a time where another version of himself is present so that it is possible for two versions of the same person to be in the same room interacting with each other.

                                  The concept of time travel is not a new one and has been used many a time in science fiction. I enjoyed the mind twisting scenarios that came up and the occasional having to pause to make sure I'd 'got' it. One example of this is where Henry, whilst travelling into the past and meeting Clare the young girl, gives her a list of dates when he will return to visit so that she will know when she can expect to see him. Thinking about it, he must have been older on this visit than he is on the later dates in the list he gives her, so that he will know of their existence. When they meet in the present, she gives the list to the younger Henry so that he will know when to expect to be returning to her. This forms a loop in time. Similarly, when he visits a time in the past where he comes across a younger version of himself he teaches his younger self some of the survival skills that he will need over the years. This is also a loop as he originally learnt the skills he is passing on from himself passing them on to him..... Anyway, I have learnt from doing this review that this is called a predestination paradox.

                                  Whilst suffering from an extreme disorder, Henry chooses to live his life as normally as he can, this results in embarrassing, unexplainable and sometime comic scenarios - meeting the future in laws and getting married are stressful enough experiences, but factor that you cannot control when you might disappear, how long you will be gone for in what circumstances you will reappear (naked). When Henry disappears just before his own wedding, quite fortunately a slightly older Henry visits from the future and takes his place, to almost comic effect.

                                  The whole theme of time travelling throws up questions that are absolutely relevant to us non-time travelling readers. In particular, how much of our future is pre-determined and what is it pre-determined by? Henry and Claire do have a pre-determined future and they know what that future is (Henry because he is visiting from there, Claire because she has had visits from Henry and can pass this on to the Henry of the present) and the novel explores the impact that this has on their relationship.

                                  Because it turns time on its head, and in particular because Henry can travel to a time before his mother's death and visit her, or visit his wife and his daughter in the future to a time after his own death, I also found that the novel made me think about the transience of time, the painful loss of loved ones, the yearning for times gone. These are big subjects indeed and it is a brave novel that will put you in this place.

                                  The strength of this novel is that it deals not just in plot twists or the adventures that you would expect when you travel unexpectedly in time, but is rooted in the characters the form the heart of the book and their relationship. The characters are very well developed, their motivation and their emotions explored, explained and understandable. And yet, somewhere in the novel, perhaps in the odd inconsistencies over how the time travelling is used or in one of the more casual sex scenes or in one of the less than necessary sub-plots, a little bit of momentum is lost and along with it some of the sympathy I had with the main characters. So that when the novel reached its (inevitable and pre-determined) end I was moved, but the book down feeling it was a very good, but not an exceptional read, hence the 4 star rating. I would, however, strongly recommend it.

                                  About the Author and the Publication of the Time Traveler's Wife
                                  ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
                                  This is the debut novel from Audrey Niffenegger. Apparently, she is an art professor at the Columbia College, Chicago, and has written and published her own picture books since she was a teenager, usually in print runs of 10 copies. The Time Traveler's Wife started life as a title. Once she started work on the book itself, she realised it was impossible to tell the story in pictures and decided to write a traditional novel. It took her four and half years to complete.

                                  The story of the books publication has caused a storm in the States. It was picked up by a small publishing house called Macadam/Page, which publishes around 30 books a year and which seeks out new talent. Where the larger publishing companies do not read any unsolicited manuscripts, Macadam/Page read everything that they are sent (they receive around 100 a week). The book spent weeks in the best seller lists before being published with further success here in the UK.

                                  Other Info
                                  ~~~~~~~~
                                  Published in the UK by Random House and then Vintage. Originally published in 2003, new edition in 2004.
                                  Amazon are selling it at £4.99 (RRP is £7.99), but other vendors on the site are selling it from £2.49.
                                  A film is being made based on the book and is due for release in the USA later this year. According to IMDb the rights were snapped up early on by Jennifer Anniston and Brad Pitt.

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