Wednesday, 17 April 2013

A Book To Read in Amsterdam

Posted By Daisy
THE last three months have been utterly lovely. I met a man. A gentlemanly, kind, generous, funny and tall one. He’s my brother's friend and is six years younger than me. Since meeting on St Stephen’s night, we’ve dined in gorgeous restaurants, browsed a car boot sale and smooched while cycling through the Killarney National Park. I cooked my first roast for him, had some hilarious nights out and spent many evenings on the sofa with my legs thrown over his chatting and watching ‘The Birds’ or ‘Skyfall’. And last week, we went to Amsterdam.
I decided to be a bit quirky and booked a studio apartment via Air BNB in the gorgeous area of Prisengracht (near the Anne Frank House) for 3 nights. However, quirky meant bookshelves full of CD’s and books, huge paintings of naked men and women on every wall, some tired Philippe Starck furniture and a fur throw on the couch which I refused to touch. The location was amazing – but using someone elses non-fluffy towels and standing on their flat bathmath every morning is just not romantic.
Amsterdam is fast. The city soundscape is the whoosh of a bike or the bell of a tram. It’s also achingly cool. I peeked through the windows of countless canal-side tall houses and spied modern magazine-style interiors.
 We spent an afternoon browsing the boutiques on Prisengracht and the Nine Streets. It's all vintage furniture, light fittings and even a shop devoted to Japanese Bento boxes. How he laughed when I coveted a paint-speckled wooden ladder (€60), and told me he’d give me the one he has in the shed at home.
 We sampled the famous crumbly apple pie in Cafe Winkel.
I braved the queues for the Anne Frank House at 8:30am one morning, trotting across the bridge as fast as I could while the 20-deep queue filled up before my eyes. I touched the bookcase and saw Anne's patch of blue sky through the attic window.  A glass panel on one wall preserves the sisters heights marked out in pencil on the old wallpaper, and a magazine montage of movie stars carefully cut from Anne's favourite magazine.
 I thought the Red Light District (just off Dam Square) at midnight would disturb me, but it was funny. All the ladies posing in the windows of their booths reminded me of Roald Dahl’s description of the giants lounging around in 'The BFG.' Wearing stockings and suspenders, they smoked languidly or chatted to their window buddy or on their phones, while smiling at the gangs of (mainly) men walking past. I watched as a man entered a booth and the young woman inside coquettishly took off his furry Russian hat and tried it on. In the darkest, loneliest corner near the church, there were two older, fatter models in the window. Rates are cheaper off the beaten track. It’s €150 to rent a booth for eight hours, and prices for punters start at €50. And no, according to a local barman, the punters don’t have the luxury of a shower afterwards -  a spray detergent is used.
The funniest fact I read in my guide book was that they experimented with putting men in the red light district windows once, but it just didn't catch on!
              Grubs up
On the last night, we dined in De Kas (the best restaurant in Amsterdam, apparently). It’s in a huge glass building surrounded by greenhouses with home-grown produce. A glamorous lady and her friends sat next to us, and a family of four sat at a high table in the kitchen, watching the chefs cook while they ate. There’s no menu in here - you eat what you’re given. And every course is described in detail by the staff.
The food was nice, but everything was concentrated on The Up-Sell, with the waitress mentioning the cheeseboard throughout the meal, telling us threateningly that 'we'd talk about it later.'
I kept thinking of the story of ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’. Were we all fools eating the same meal and oohing and ahhing at the miniscule portions, reverential explanations and overpriced aperitifs? On the way out, the waitress held our coats and offered us an apple from a big sculpted bowl beside the door. I nearly started laughing as I took a tiny windfall and put it in my pocket.
I like small portions but he was still hungry and we stopped for drinks and a huge plate of tapas in the lovely CafĂ© T’Smalle in Prisengracht.
                                             Cafe T'Smalle - because we were still hungry after spending €150 on dinner in De Kas.

We had a freshly-made Wally's waffle in the Albert Cuypt market, before wandering down to the Heineken Museum. Not my first choice, it was actually a very enjoyable and relaxing way to spend a few hours, learning about the history of the beer, customising our own Heineken bottles, and culminating in a few free glasses of Heineken.

We pootled down the canals in a hop-on/hop-off canal boat tour and I could have stayed there forever. A native taxi driver told me that his favourite summertime activity is to rent a boat with his friends and spend the day on the canal.
It's Wally's Waffles or pickled herring in the Albert Cuypt market - which would you choose?
There must've been something in the water in Amsterdam because we decided to break up when we arrived home. We are better as just friends.
But this isn’t a sad story. It’s a hopeful one. It taught me that there are amazing men out there who treat women like princesses, and are respectful and fun. I won’t call off the search just yet.
'Perfect People' by Peter James
I had never read any Peter James before, but when my sister gave me this book I trusted her judgement. It's about a couple who are grieving the death of the four-year-old son who died from a rare genetic disorder. They want another baby but are afraid to risk him having the same genetic condition. Along comes the dodgy Dr Leo Dettore, who promises them a genetically perfect child, with choice of hair, eye colour and sporting ability.
This is un-put-downable and the ending still makes me shiver.
*In case you think I sound too blasĂ© about the break-up, it took me a week to lift my suitcase from the hall where he left it, and I’ve watched at least 15 episodes of my Gossip Girl box-set since then. And I’m still wearing the bracelet he gave me for Valentine’s Day.

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

A Book to Read During Book Camp in the Country

Posted by Daisy


ON a muddy walk through the Berkshire countryside, three deer with white bottoms stand perfectly still in the middle of a field and stare at us, long-eared hares bob up and down in the distance, and pheasants fly out of the underbrush as pink-wellied Cesca, CEO of Book Camp tells me that Kate Middleton attended her school for a term, and that her cousin is Coldplay’s Chris Martin.
It’s afternoon break at Book Camp – I’ve already had a two-hour morning session with women’s fiction author Rowan Coleman, written over 1000 words in a word race session, scanned through a book on plotting, and begun planning my novel.
Last year, I decided to embrace my inner geek. In ‘The Happiness Project’, Gretchen Rubin urges people to just be themselves. So in a bid to ‘Be Daisy, I joined a writing group and set up a blog with two other girls. Irish author Roisin Meaney has said that a weekend writing retreat gave her the impetus to quit her day job and finally kick-start her writing career. So when I spotted a four-day bookcamp in Berkshire on Twitter over the Christmas holidays, I immediately signed up.
Each morning began with a two-hour writing session around the huge kitchen table with Rowan. We did writing exercises and listened to each other’s plot descriptions, and by day three I was no longer embarrassed about reading out my paltry word count or over-descriptive text in front of the others.
Five of us stayed in the converted country barn, with new students joining us for daily sessions. One girl wrote a short story, another re-worked her chick-lit novel (it was fascinating to have read her first chapters and then listen to Rowan edit it), and I started a story about my grandmother and her sisters in 1950’s Ireland. And for anyone with writer’s block, there was a never ending supply of tea, rosewater cupcakes, apple crumble and jam roly poly as well as a pile of shiny ‘How to Write’ books on the antique writing desk to peruse.
It was lovely to be embroiled in a literary world, listening to Cesca and Rowan talking about authors and reviewers by their first names (‘Kirsty’ and ‘Katy’ and ‘Cressida’) over a roast chicken dinner, or having Rowan critique my short story over an evening glass of wine. And it was strange to sit in a tiny bedroom with Caroline Hogg, senior commissioning editor at Pan Macmillan, listening to her feedback on my (fledgling) book plot and reeling off a list of similar-themed book titles to study.
The main thing I learned from Book Camp is to stop being so precious about writing and just write. Seeing Rowan write and edit daily, while showing us iPhone pictures of her children at home also made me realise how much dedication and hard work it takes to write a book.
  • Do hour-long word races and just vomit the words onto the page. They can be cleaned up and polished later.
  • Do a plot outline on which to hang all the beautiful descriptions.
  • Use less description – anyone can write description.
  • Write for at least 30 minutes per day.
  • Aim for at least 1000 words per week.
  • There is no muse involved in writing. It takes lots of plotting and planning, and at least 3 edits.
  • Do proper planning and a complete plot outline before you begin, or otherwise you might end up having to delete 60,000 words.
  • Spend time formulating an Elevator Pitch - a two-sentence synopsis of your book.
  • Editors and agents love when authors describe their books in terms of films/other books e.g. My book is 'Bridget Jones meets The Texas Chainsaw Massacre'.
  • The term ‘Chick-lit’ is frowned upon. It’s called ‘Women’s Fiction’.
  • Women’s fiction may be easy to read but it is very difficult to write.
Check out Cesca's 'Beat the Block' videos at
Elevator Pitch: A group of college students loose their best friend in a terrible accident on holidays in Ibiza. The story follows the lives of the gang as they each struggle with a secret sadness and guilt over the death of their friend.
The best I can come up with today is: It's 'One Day' the book meets 'One Day' the film. Maybe this is because we hear the thoughts of a male and female protagonist - and hearing a male point of view is unusual in the women's fiction genre.
I read this book in two days and loved its intelligent grittiness with a happy ending.
Next Monday: A Book to Read after a city break in Amsterdam.