Trip Advisor: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly?

I’ve been spending a lot of time this week looking online at London hotel web sites.

I’ve read Rick Steves’ recommendations; he has a certain point of view that I’m not sure I always share. I’ve read some other travel guides, but I often come back to Trip Advisor. My experience has been that if a hotel has mostly Excellent and Very Good ratings and has enough such ratings to actually have some credibility, I can trust Trip Advisor. Open online forums such as Trip Advisor allow for fake positive reviews posted by the relatives of the innkeeper, but also allow for negative reviews created by competitors to drive business away. That’s why I look for an accommodation with lots of reviews and I read them pretty carefully.

I rated the bed and breakfast we stayed at on our 2011 trip to England, and gave it glowing reviews on Trip Advisor. We were there for eleven days and knew the place inside and out. One morning there was a disgruntled guest who complained about her breakfast experience the entire time she was in the dining room — and she wrote a negative review on Trip Advisor about it. Hers is the only remotely negative review about the place, and frankly, people should take it with a grain of salt.

What’s your experience with Trip Advisor? Do you write reviews? More importantly, do you have a place in London to recommend to our readers? Please put links in the comments — we’d love to check out your favorite London accommodations!

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Book Club: Wolf Hall

Wolf Hall came heavily recommended — it won the Man Booker Prize, and all that.

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Hilary Mantel’s 672 page first installment of her Thomas Cromwell trilogy met every expectation. Once I sat down to finish it, I could barely put it down. I spent most of a full day devouring the last 400 pages. It’s not an easy read, but it’s a good one.

Does the name Thomas Cromwell ring a bell?

Not Oliver Cromwell, who was a distant relation and was also important to English history. Thomas Cromwell rose from impoverished beginnings to a post working for Thomas Cardinal Wolsey, Henry VIII’s chief minister. When Wolsey was unable to secure a dispensation from the Pope so that Henry could divorce Katherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn, Thomas Cromwell deftly insinuated himself into Anne’s favor and became Henry VIII’s favorite minister. This resulted in a rapid rise to power and riches, which lasted until his execution in 1540 over the poor choice of Anne of Cleves for Henry’s fourth wife.

Wolf Hall tells the story of Cromwell’s rise to power along with Anne Boleyn and her family. It’s a triumphant book, in which we can’t help but cheer for the success of Thomas Cromwell and his family. Hilary Mantel has created a new paradigm for Cromwell in this lovingly crafted piece of historical fiction.

We already know the story, but what makes Wolf Hall exceptional is its attention to detail.

The book is full of characters, and if you aren’t already familiar with Henry VIII’s court, you will be by the time you’re done — be prepared to read with your Wikipedia open :).

For example, Mantel vividly describes Thomas Cromwell’s relationship with Hans Holbein, who painted at Henry’s court. This painting shows the turquoise ring that Mantel tells us was given to Cromwell from Wolsey — it’s the little things about this book that give us a human picture of a statesman who was also a man.

In this interesting article from The Telegraph, Hilary Mantel talks about how she decided to write a trilogy about this time period.

I was kind of surprised how the book ended and since I already knew there was a sequel, I felt that the book came to a sudden stop.

When she completed Wolf Hall, she realized she had too much material to just put it into her planned two books. Between Wolf Hall and The Mirror and the Light, which will be about Cromwell’s final downfall, Mantel added Bring Up the Bodies, which covers the year prior to Anne Boleyn’s execution.

“When I came to write about the destruction of Anne Boleyn (a destruction which took place, essentially, over a period of three weeks) the process of writing and the writing itself took on an alarming intensity, and by the time Anne was dead I felt I had passed through a moral ordeal,” the author told the newspaper.

“I can only guess that the effect on the reader will be the same; the events are so brutal that you don’t want to take a breath and turn the page, you want to close the book.”

The beauty of Wolf Hall — and why we as readers care about the essentially despicable Thomas Cromwell — is Mantel’s genius at drawing us into Cromwell’s mind. Her plot structure allows us to trust Cromwell’s plan and we believe that he will be successful.

It’s all very well planning what you will do in six months, what you will do in a year, but it’s no good at all if you don’t have a plan for tomorrow.

I can’t wait to read the next installment; I’ve already got it on hold at the library! I hope I don’t have to wait six months.

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Views of the Thames

While watching the Golden Jubilee coverage today, I got inspired to do some research about the paintings of the Thames that the television presenters were referring to, and I discovered some gorgeous views of the Thames.

The River Thames with St. Paul’s Cathedral on Lord Mayor’s Day, c.1747- 48, was painted by the Venetian artist Giovanni Antonio Canal (known as Canaletto).

The Thames above Waterloo Bridge c.1830-35, by Joseph Mallord WIlliam Turner, shows an impressionistic view of the Thames, Turner “shrouds the river in a blanket of pollution, with chimneys belching out smoke” according to the Moderna Museet website.

James Jacques Joseph Tissot (15 October 1836 – 8 August 1902) was a French painter who spent much of his career in Britain. This painting, The Thames, c. 1876, gives the viewer a vision of a jaunty little group out for a pleasure trip on the crowded river.

Claude Monet’s Waterloo Bridge in Grey Weather, c.1903, shows a “crowded heaviness. Behind are the chimneys, dirt, smoke and steam of London and in front the bright dark flow of the Thames. Monet has parted them with his clever use or placing of the bright, red and green splashes on the vehicles crossing the bridge” according to the How Stuff Works website.

Finally, my 2011 photos of the Thames taken from the Tower Bridge show a modern London and a modern river. I hope you enjoyed today’s journey through history.

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A Bloody Season: Books on My List

A friend faithfully reads The New York Times and brings me clippings with tidbits he thinks I might like.

When he read Charles McGrath’s review of Hilary Mantel’s new book about Anne Boleyn, he knew I’d be hooked. I’ve put both books on my queue at the library.

I just finished Carolly Erickson’s The Favored Queen which visualizes Anne Boleyn’s fall through the eyes of her maid of honor, Jane Seymour, who eventually replaced her as Henry VIII’s wife. I wasn’t particularly impressed with the book, but it was an interesting perspective — and not a flattering look at the doomed Anne. As far as Erickson’s work on the Tudors, I think I’m done with her.

Since I’m retiring in eight days, I also will have time to watch more movies. In looking for a photo of Anne, I came upon pictures of Genevieve Bujold as Anne in Anne of a Thousand Days.That’s a movie I want to find, as well as watching all the seasons of The Tudors again.

That puts a thought in my head… how many movies are there in the Henry VIII canon? Do you have a suggestion for me? Or books — there’s bound to be one I haven’t read yet. Feed me, Seymour, with Tudor trash!

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Linky Love: Monday’s Child Is Fair of Face

This week I’ve decided to hook you up with blogs that I follow and love EVERY day. Using the ancient British nursery rhyme, I’ll take you on a tour of my favorite blogs. Everything about Mike’s photos are “fair of face.”

Monday’s Child is Wilden Marsh: Another Year of Living With Nature at Hoo Wood and Wilden Marsh Nature Reserve. Mike’s photography is crazy good — and I’m hooked on his stories about life at the reserve.

In addition to being funny, witty, occasionally sarcastic, and all around entertaining in a low-key kind of way, Mike teaches us about the beauty of flora and fauna in his role as Warden of this Nature Reserve in Worcestershire, England.

After having followed his blog, I am enchanted by his stories (especially about the foxes) and want to visit the next time I am in England!

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Food Cult: The Perfect Beef

I already blogged about our gastronomic extravaganza at the extraordinary Richard Phillips restaurant at Chapel Down Winery just outside of Tenterden, in Kent. Unfortunately, in checking my links, I found that the restaurant just closed. So, so sad. I hope you enjoy the photo anyway. It makes my mouth water for a taste of that perfectly cooked beef.

Does your blog need a restaurant bucket list? The idea’s not mine; I really appreciate the link-up at Hamburgers and Hotness!

Food Cult: Avocado Couscous at the Three Chimneys Freehouse, Biddenden, Kent

Whilst staying at the sublime Sissinghurst Castle Farmhouse, we dined three nights at a local pub just a mile down the road (or a good hike across the fields) from the bed and breakfast. I’ve talked about our Sissinghurst experience here and here and here, but I couldn’t resist showcasing this beautiful piece of food art again.

The bottom layer is a vegetable melange with eggplant, zucchini, and onions in a tomato sauce. Next is the couscous mixed with avocado. Then there’s a slice of potato that’s not overdone, so it can hold up the next layer. It’s topped with goat cheese and it looks like it was torched because the cheese would likely melt in the broiler.

The Three Chimneys Freehouse is a very special place, hidden away in the heart of Kent, and is frequented by locals and the guests at the Sissinghurst Castle B&B. Although we ate there three nights, enough to be recognized and seated at “our table” by the hosts, we barely scratched the surface of the delectable menu. We highly recommend The Three Chimneys if you are near Sissinghurst Castle.

You’ll need reservations — a fine restaurant in the country fills up — so call ahead if you find yourself in the neighborhood of The Three Chimneys at suppertime. It’s worth the trip.

Another hint — I keep Pinterest boards for all the areas I want to visit on vacation. You might want to start one for Kent in southeast England!

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Writing Workshop: My Drink(s) of Choice

Mama Kat asked me today, “How did your love affair with Coffee begin?” That’s a really good question, but ironically, a funny thing happened on the way to being sixty. I forget when I drank my first coffee, but I still remember that I pretty much can’t live without it now.

My husband is partly to blame for my addiction to coffee. We’ve become connoisseurs of the different Starbucks blends — venti, dark, and black is my order. He prefers decaf and I live for the kick of caffeine. We shop carefully for whole beans, always on the lookout for a sale. When we travel, he scouts out the Starbucks locations on his smart phone or maps them out on his computer before we leave. We plan our driving breaks around the visits to Starbucks, knowing they will have good coffee, won’t sneer because we bring in our own reusable mugs, and we can depend on clean bathrooms.

At the Sissinghurst Castle Farmhouse bed and breakfast in England where we stayed during the summer of 2011, we were always served coffee in a sprightly little press pot, so I decided to buy one for Christmas. I searched and searched for a coffee press large enough to satisfy our coffee habit. I wanted to make two fresh mugs for each of us, with one being decaf and the other caf. I hoped the freshly pressed coffee would satisfy our coffee hunger and that we wouldn’t just continue to drink the dregs of the big coffeemaker pot out of habit. That hasn’t worked out so well, as we are still using our big Gevalia coffeemaker and are each still sacrificing for the other — to caf or not to caf is an important question in our thirty-year marriage.

The second part of Mama Kat’s prompt is easier to remember. She continued the question by providing an alternative — “Or Diet Coke or Tea or whatever your beverage of choice might be.” My true beverage of choice is the nectar of the gods, a good wine. I blame it all on moving to California in 1974 and discovering wineries, and my love for wine has progressed from the Boone’s Farm Apple Wine, Mateus, and Lancers of our college days to the fine wines from around the world to which we have access (and can better afford) today.

One of our most recent trips to a winery was in southeast England, where some amazing wine is made. Our host at Sissinghurst Castle Farmhouse is also the CEO of Chapel Downs Winery, and I blogged about our visit here.

The bookends of my day are a strong jolt of joe in the morning and slow sips of liquid terroir in the evening. What’s not to love?

I’m linked up to Mama Kat’s Writer’s Workshop today. Please stop by and spread some comment love around to my friends.

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Book Club: A Table in the Tarn

France is probably going to be on my mind a lot during the next year; we’re planning another trip in 2013. That means it will probably be in my blog as well, since I mostly write about what I am thinking about. Not too much space between my thoughts and my fingers, actually. To paraphrase my favorite movie, Under the Tuscan Sun, “It’s my process.”

Given that we’re going to France and I love food, I put my name on the list at the library for what appeared to be a very cool book — A Table in the Tarn: Living, Eating, and Cooking in Rural France. I mean, really? How could this be bad? I read all of Peter Mayle’s books about his experiences living in southern France and reviewed a couple of them here and here. Oliver Murrin’s book looked like it was worth waiting for at the library.

I was right. It was a wonderful book, packed with personal stories of giving up the city life and starting up a bed and breakfast in southern France. It was also packed with recipes; about two-thirds of the book is mouth-watering ideas for fabulous eats. I was drawn to the Roquefort Tart pictured above — the recipe is here at what appears to be a blog on hiatus.

Imagine my surprise when I actually went to find the web site for Manoir de Raynaudes to see if we could stay there. It’s gone. Well, not actually gone, but sold to the highest bidder!

It appears that Oliver Murrin and his partner Peter Steggall went back to their British roots, bought a very old manor in southwestern England’s Somerset Levels, and operate it as a bed and breakfast. I’m pretty sure we’ll stay at Langford Fivehead when we do our southwestern England trip, which will of course include my pilgrimage to Daphne Du Maurier’s Cornwall.

But that’s another set of books and another year of traveling. 🙂

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Book Club: Writing Jane Austen

There’s just so much to say about Elizabeth Aston’s 2010 entry into her growing group of Jane Austen sequels and tributes. As I was listening to it in the car, I kept having to scribble ideas down on note cards because there was a lot of great stuff going on in this book.

It’s clear that Aston, unlike her heroine Georgina Jackson, knows a lot about Jane Austen and a lot about the literary world. That’s what makes this book work, because Georgina Jackson is one of the more unlikable main characters I’ve encountered in a while. She’s an American modern-day academic who specialized in downtrodden females and children from the late 19th century. She’s immersed herself in studying social history in the English industrial revolution towns such as Birmingham and Manchester, and has written a critically acclaimed novel about the degradations of growing up poor in the late 1800s. Unfortunately, it didn’t sell and Georgina’s fellowship is about to run out of funding which will force her to leave her beloved England and return to America as writer who never lived up to her promise.

When Georgina is offered the chance of a lifetime opportunity to finish a recently discovered novel fragment written by Jane Austen, she does everything she can to get out of it. Her dirty little secret comes out — not only is she supercilious about the society in which she believes Jane Austen lived and wrote, she’s totally ignorant of the truth about Austen. She’s a very well-educated literature scholar (Brown, Oxford) who has never read any of Austen’s novels.

As an Austen lover myself, I think it is truly masterful the way Elizabeth Aston unfolds the rose petals of the plot as Georgina learns about Jane Austen’s writing and struggles to recreate and match its tone and syntax. The story is populated by secondary characters worthy of an Austen novel, including a particularly unflattering subplot about Georgina’s literary agent and publishers. Aston drops all kinds of literary jokes and allusions to both Austen and other writers contemporary to her; references to Kim by Rudyard Kipling and Patrick O’Brien’s Aubrey-Maturin series, which includes Master and Commander, made me want to rush to the library to check them out.

English: Image of the High Street of Lacock Vi...

Image via Wikipedia

Georgina’s visits to Bath and Lacock brought back many happy memories of our recent trips to England, and I was particularly enchanted by her friend’s shop in which one could buy all things Austen. This website popped up as I was writing this post, just in case you want to skip the trip to Bath and let your fingers do the walking.

All in all, I was delighted with this book about a character who lives under a rock of misguided prejudice. I have to admit, though, I was surprised by the final twist to the story. Thank goodness Aston was true to her own plot; Writing Jane Austen ends, as in many Austen novels, with not one, but two happy marriages. The only reason I didn’t give this book a full 4/4 rating was that the unfolding of the rose was pretty slow in the beginning of the book, probably so that non-Austen readers could fully understand how far under the literary rock Georgina really was!

Elizabeth Aston was born in Chile to an impeccably English father and a distinctly un-English Argentine mother. Educated by Benedictine nuns in Calcutta, Fabians in London, and Inklings at Oxford, she’s lived in India, England, Malta and Italy. Her Mountjoy books (originally published by Hodder, and now reissued as ebooks) were inspired by years of living in York, where her son was a chorister at the Minster. They depict the unholy, unquiet, and frequently unseemly goings-on of an imaginary northern cathedral city and its peculiar inhabitants, enhanced with a touch of magic and enchantment – Elizabeth Aston has always been fascinated by what lies just beyond our sight. Her other books include the bestselling Darcy series – six historical romantic comedies set in the world of Jane Austen, and a contemporary novel, Writing Jane Austen. These were inspired by her love of Jane Austen – her heroes, her heroines and her wicked sense of humour (

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