Tag Archives: London

Book Buzz: The Ecliptic

Writer’s block. The two words that can make a writer shudder. Or any creative person who produces, produces, produces and then — bump — hits a wall.

Book Buzz: The Ecliptic

I suspect we’ve all encountered this at some point or another. For promising artists on the rise, however, who have achieved some level of success, the public scrutiny can only exacerbate the problem, creating a vicious cycle of self-doubt and creative paralysis.

The Ecliptic

In Benjamin Wood’s novel The Ecliptic, a group of gifted but stalled artists is voluntarily sequestered on the Turkish island of Portmantle to have the time and space to be inspired to complete their work.

To become a part of this artist’s colony is actually a gift; one needs to be sponsored by a wealthy benefactor to even apply. Once there, the artist is free to stay as long as it takes, as long as the benefactor continues to provide support. In exchange, the artists agree to give up all ties to the outside world, including their own names;  they are assigned new names upon their arrival. They also surrender their passports.

The story is narrated by Elspeth Conroy, or Knell as she is named, a talented but insecure, even tortured Scottish painter who has achieved some renown in the London art world. She struggles to finish a mural featuring the ecliptic – the sun’s journey through the heavens as seen from Earth. She has been on the island for ten years. Her companions are Quickman, who was struck with writer’s block when his only novel became a classic, MacKinney, a playwright, and Pettifer, an architect who obsesses over the cathedral he has yet to create.

The setting shuttles back and forth between the isolated island and the London art scene, where we see Elspeth establish herself as an artist of promise, only to fall into despair when her creativity dries up.

The book is divided into four parts: the first, an introduction to life on Portmantle. The second section reveals Elspeth’s backstory, her rise in the art world and the concomitant struggles, internally, romantically and commercially. In the third part we return to Portmantle where mysteries  begin to unfold and there are rumblings of discontent following the untimely death of a newcomer to the island. Elspeth is becoming disenchanted with her stay and contemplates leaving. In the last section, well, I can’t say too much because of spoilers, but there are plot twists that will surprise or possibly disappoint you. But I’m not going to give it away!

Part fantasy, part mystery, part expose, The Ecliptic is a compelling read about the life of an artist, the day in, day out struggle to maintain one’s creative muse. Wood is a skillful, imaginative writer who brings these likeable, conflicted characters to life and gives us a bird’s eye view into their world.


One lucky reader will receive a copy of The Ecliptic. Please leave a comment below and a winner will be selected randomly. USA addresses only, please.


I received a copy of The Ecliptic from Penguin for a honest review,
which is the only kind of review I write.

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10 Fun Things to Do in London

I think London is officially my favorite city in the world.

Yes, I love my city of Philadelphia, and I love New York for Broadway and San Diego for the temperate climate and Paris for its romance … but having recently spent a week in London, my heart now belongs there. And beats wildly at the thought of returning someday.

I love London.

For so many reasons. The sheer history everywhere you go is pretty stunning (I visited a church that was built in 1008!). The art and culture and dining and the veddy veddy Britishness that is so charming.

I was lucky to travel with my fabulous friend Lois, who is always up for fun, and our visit was exactly that.

I have already waxed nostalgic over our memorable meals in London. But for what to do when you’re not eating (which for us was less time than I would have thought), here are some of the things we enjoyed most.

There are way more than 10 fun things to do in London.

The thing about London is that you have to go back again and again because there is so much to see and do, you would need a month to do it all. And then some.

So bear in mind, this list barely scratches the surface. My advice? If you are planning a trip to London, you should start thinking about going back again already.

1. The Victoria and Albert Museum

There are two exhibits running that are well worth a look see.

Wedding Dresses 1775-2014

Who doesn’t love looking at wedding dresses? And as the mother of a groom-to-be, I have a special interest. The dresses were beyond spectacular, as you can imagine — creations of key fashion designers such as Charles Frederick Worth, Norman Hartnell, Charles James, John Galliano, Christian Lacroix, Vivienne Westwood and Vera Wang.

Lois and I were transfixed watching a video of royal weddings over the years, and got teary-eyed seeing Diana in her beautiful gown.

Fun Things to Do in London

Model Jenny Bishop in Ian Stuart wedding dress © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Disobedient Objects

How does art and design overlap with social activism? This exhibit explores the powerful role of objects in movements for social change, such as a hand-painted placard made by gay rights activists in Russia and anti-Apartheid badges from South Africa. With meager resources, organizers of political demonstrations employ ingenuity and the use of new technologies to mobilize.

Inflatable cobblestone, Barcelona © Oriana Eliçabe/Enmedio.info

Inflatable cobblestone, Barcelona
© Oriana Eliçabe/Enmedio.info

The objects on display, all previously used, have been loaned directly from groups from around the world and are accompanied by newspaper clips and information from the maker to explain how and why the object was created. Especially with the turmoil in the world this summer, I found this to be a powerful experience.

Fun Things to Do in London

2. Kensington Palace

It was blind luck that we happened to be at Kensington Palace on the day of Prince George’s first birthday, so there was quite a bit of excitement (we saw the Queen arrive for the birthday party as we waited by the gate with an enthusiastic crowd and plenty of paparazzi).

Granted, not every day is a future king’s birthday. But don’t let that stop you from going. Kensington Palace is full of magic and majesty; with the ghosts of generations of English royalty whispering around every corner. History unfolds through the costumes, furniture and artifacts in each room. Don’t miss the current exhibit, “Fashion Rules,” a visual feast of selections from the wardrobes of HM Queen Elizabeth II, Princess Margaret, and Diana, Princess of Wales.

Fun Things to Do in London

Featuring rare and exquisite dresses from HM Queen Elizabeth II, Princess Margaret and Diana, Princess of Wales, this exhibition will provide a feast for the eyes and a nostalgic glance back at recent decades. – See more at: http://www.hrp.org.uk/KensingtonPalace/WhatsOn/FashionRules#sthash.Iklr3vWR.dpuf
Featuring rare and exquisite dresses from HM Queen Elizabeth II, Princess Margaret and Diana, Princess of Wales, this exhibition will provide a feast for the eyes and a nostalgic glance back at recent decades. – See more at: http://www.hrp.org.uk/KensingtonPalace/WhatsOn/FashionRules#sthash.Iklr3vWR.dpuf

Lois and I picked up some awesome souvenirs at the gift shoppe. We couldn’t resist stopping for tea and a scone before we left.

Fun Things to Do in London

3. Carnaby Street

If you’re a boomer like me, you’ll probably think of the Beatles, bell-bottom pants and Peter Max when you hear this name. Carnaby Street back in the day was the cool, counter culture place to hang out, and for teenagers obsessed with the British invasion (music, that is), Carnaby Street was our Mecca. Although now more mainstream, it is still cool, with cute boutiques, trendy restaurants and lots of people still just hanging out. I enjoyed being part of the crowd, and dinner at Antidote just off Carnaby Street with my son and his lovely fiancee was terrific.

4. Highclere Castle

If you are a Downton Abbey fan — or addict, as the case may be — this day trip from London to see the home of the fictional Crawley family is not to be missed. About an hour and a half west of London,  the castle is, in a word, extraordinary. You can stroll through the first two floors and marvel over the exquisite furnishings and architecture, and peek into the bedrooms of Ladies Mary, Edith and Sybil.  Incidentally, just to give you a sense of how vast it is, the third floor — off limits to visitors — has 80 bedrooms!

Fun Things to Do in London

The castle sits on a property of 5,000 acres. There are fields of grazing sheep and magnificent gardens. These are just a few of the many photos I took of the flowers.

5. Harrod’s and Selfridge’s

These famous department stores are fun to browse through. Harrod’s is the more upscale and high end. Think Neiman Marcus vs. Macy’s, if you want a visual. But the food courts at both are ah-maz-ing!

6. The London Dungeon

Call it hokey or cheesy or what have you. This attraction, which takes you on a sometimes scary, sometimes macabre but always fun tour back through London’s darker days, is a screamingly good time. Actors portray a variety of criminals and no goodniks and, with a wicked sense of humor and the use of special effects, pull audience members into the fray. You’ll meet Jack the Ripper and Guy Fawkes and other sinister characters amidst blood curdling shrieks and rattling jail cells. Poor Lois was thrown in jail for, um, impertinence? I begged her captor for her release and thank God, her captor showed mercy.

source: Wikipedia

source: Wikipedia

7. London theatre

Be sure to catch a play when you are there. London theatre is terrific and there are many shows to choose from. We saw “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime” which was excellent. By the way, “Curious” opens on Broadway this fall, and I highly recommend it.

Fun Things to Do in London

8. Afternoon Tea

Of course, a visit to London would not be complete without at least one of these. We learned that the correct name is “afternoon tea,” not “high tea.” The explanation was that, starting in the 19th century, high tea was what workers had at the end of a long day — after dinner — and afternoon tea was what the privileged class had in the late afternoon before dinner. Anyway, you can find many places in the city that serve afternoon tea, and if you happen to be shopping at Harrod’s, you can spend a relaxing interlude from shopping sipping tea and eating dainty tea sandwiches and pastries at the tea room in the store.

Fun Things to Do in London

9. Take the tube

By the end of the week, Lois and I were taking the tube like rock stars (although, I guess in reality rock stars take limos). Taxis can get pricey, and traffic is frequently bottle-necked, so London’s underground system is the best way to get around. It’s efficient, inexpensive and clean. Here we are looking very pleased with ourselves.

Fun Things to Do in London

10. Walk and explore.

Wear comfortable shoes because London is a city made for walking. Before we left for our trip, Lois and I read about Books About Town, a collection of 50 book sculptures in bench form. We were intrigued, and set off on a walk to find them. Since they are spread out all over the city, we only saw a few, but enjoyed discovering these benches adorned with artistic renditions of some of our favorite books.

And they were perfect for taking a rest before moving on to our next adventure.

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Fit for a Queen: Dining in London

Since returning from a trip to London in July, my jet lag has dissipated, but not the warm and fuzzy memories of a truly enjoyable week.

I almost can’t believe it happened.

Did I imagine it, or was that really me strolling through the magnificent Highclere Castle, otherwise known as Downton Abbey? Was it a dream, or did I really see Queen Elizabeth arrive at Kensington Palace in a chauffer driven Rolls, sitting primly in the back seat (and eschewing the royal wave) for great grandson Prince George’s first birthday party? Did I swoon over the luscious food courts at both Harrod’s and Selfridge’s?

Yes, yes and yes. And sharing all this and more with the best traveling buddy ever, my friend Lois, was the icing on the cake.

Lady Lois and Lady Helene

Lady Lois and Lady Helene

And speaking of cake? There was. We did. It was awesome.

Dining in London

But first, let’s debunk the myth that dining in London is one huge snooze fest. Not so! We dined with gusto at Indian, Italian, Thai and Turkish restaurants, devoured street food in Southbank and enjoyed nouvelle cuisine pre-theatre, and came away suitably satisfied with our choices.

Out of all of them, though, two in particular were so divine that I can … and must … recommend them unequivocally. You’ll thank me for this.

So, back to the cake.

Afternoon Tea at the Berkeley Hotel, Knightsbridge

What is a visit to London without afternoon tea? Unthinkable, say Lois and I. And to prove it, we had three-hour leisurely afternoon tea three times. All were lovely. But one place took the, ahem, cake.

Prêt-à-Portea — A Fashionista’s Afternoon Tea — is the quintessential English tea experience that every woman needs to indulge in at least once.

Inspired by the current designs of the fashion world, Prêt-à-Portea serves delectable teacakes and pastries that are created to look like the very latest designs you may have seen in the pages of Vogue or draped on models strutting on the catwalk. Every six months, as fashions change, the menu changes as well.

Of course, the actual tea is just as special as the delicacies. Lois and I mulled over a dizzying array of flavors and when we couldn’t make up our minds, our knowledgeable server recommended we sample a few. I happily sipped a loose leaf Pear Caramel, an herbal infusion Wild Blossom and Berries, and a fruit infusion Gorgeous Ginger.

As you leave, you are given a couple of pastries tucked in a sweet little box.

Dining in London

I can’t wait to go back someday and take my daughters and my future daughter-in-law.

Dinner at Fera at Claridges, Mayfair

If you are looking for a very special dining experience, with tasty and imaginative dishes, a sophisticated wine list, delightful ambience and incomparable service, look no further.

Tucked in a corner of the venerable Claridge’s is Fera, which opened this spring.



Lois and I were seated in the beautiful art deco-inspired room and greeted by our friendly and attentive waiter. He assisted us as we wavered between ordering from the regular menu or going with the 15-course tasting menu.

In the end, gluttony prevailed.

You can kid yourself that it’s not all that much food, since every course is a dainty bite-sized morsel, and each course leaves you expectantly awaiting the next one to see what intriguing flavors and textures will be married together.

But yeah. It’s 15 courses.

The name Fera means “wild” in Latin, and harkens to the profusion of natural ingredients in the dishes. Chef Simon Rogan is renowned for his dedication to using fresh ingredients found locally, and consequently the menu changes frequently depending on what is available.

It is this freshness — both in the quality of the food and the creativity in the use of ingredients and presentation — that made this experience so memorable.

Each course had its own unique garnish, edible flowers or wild greens, and creatively displayed. Some came on a board or beautiful bowl; others on smoothed pebbles.

But a truly fine restaurant has to be more than simply excellent food. What struck me was the enthusiasm with which each server answered our questions. And the pride with which they presented each course. The passion for fine food made from the freshest of ingredients is shared across the board, from Chef Rogan to restaurant manager Benjamin Hofer to the entire team.

That is what makes this restaurant shine. And made our dinner an unforgettable experience.

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Why I Will Fly Virgin Atlantic Again

Can you remember when airline travel was considered glamorous?

Not that old? Well, let me tell you.

When I think about travel back in its heyday, when I was a young girl, I just have to laugh.

One Christmas vacation, my parents took my brother and me to Disney World. We were so excited. Not just because we would see Mickey and Minnie – we were going to be on an airplane. What a treat!

I remember standing in front of my closet, debating which dress would be appropriate for the flight. With my mother’s help, I picked out my favorite yellow jumper, my black patent leather shoes, and my nylons, of course. And to accessorize, my little black patent leather purse. Hey, look at me!

Once at the airport, we sailed in (with no security to go through) and walked outside the terminal to board the plane. Then it was up the steps and into the cabin, where the smiling, handsome pilot greeted everyone. He would invite my brother to come in to the cockpit and sit in the captain’s seat, and then hand him one of those TWA wings or some such to pin on his jacket. The stewardesses would engage with us kids right away and offer my parents a magazine or newspaper. My mother often asked for a deck of cards so she could play Solitaire or challenge us to Gin Rummy. Settled in our sumptuous seats, we would have a drink or a snack in hand before the plane left the tarmac.

This was coach, mind you.

Can you even imagine?

Now it seems every time I board a plane the seats are more narrow and uncomfortable. The food is meager and disgusting unappetizing. The experience is more odious than getting a tooth pulled.

But not so with Virgin Atlantic.

I was pleasantly surprised when I flew Virgin Atlantic for the very first time. And no, I am not being compensated for this post. This is strictly my opinion.

In fact, I liked it so much that even though it requires that I depart from an airport an hour and a half from my home, I will gladly make that sacrifice again.

Here is why.

In my book, nice counts for a lot.

Everyone I had contact with, whether it was the woman at Virgin Atlantic check-in who wished me a good trip to the pilot to the helpful flight attendants, was courteous and friendly. Much more than what I’ve experienced elsewhere.


The cabin was not packed. Maybe that was just a lucky break, but refreshing nonetheless. The person sitting across the aisle from me had four seats to herself, lucky duck.

Settling in

You get a pillow, a blanket and … a Feel Good Kit! With a toothbrush, pen, booties, eye mask and earplugs.

Why I Will Fly Virgin Atlantic Again

A menu

OK, it’s not like you can order from a list of options. But it’s a nice touch to see what’s for dinner before it comes.

Why I Will Fly Virgin Atlantic Again

The food is not bad. Not bad at all.

The food is definitely better than most. I’m not going to lie and tell you it was gourmet. But for airplane food, a cut above the competition. Also, on the transatlantic flights I took, they fed us constantly.

Passing the time

Entertainment options on your personal screen are numerous enough to occupy yourself or your children for a long time. There were two children sitting next to me who were engrossed in movies for the entire trip.

Why I Will Fly Virgin Atlantic Again


The seats? Not great, but slightly better than the competition. I will say that although I did not get the window seat I prefer, I managed to sleep okay with the neck pillow I brought with me.

Flying will never have the cachet it used to be. But compared to British Airways, US Air and Air Canada – the other airlines I have tried when crossing the pond – Virgin Atlantic is the best I’ve found.

And I’ll be back.

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12 Reasons for Having Online Friends

“Online friends? You mean you’ve never actually met them?”

Maybe it’s a generational thing, but I often find myself on the defensive when I talk about online friends to real life friends (IRL). Ranging from the raised eyebrow to a gasp of incredulity, reactions from friends IRL have been, well, skeptical. “And you know these people how?” is commonly asked. “But how do you know they are who they say they are?” others will query.

Sometimes you’ve got to take a leap.

Case in point. I just returned from a truly amazing trip to London with my dear friend Lois, whom I met in a Facebook blogging group almost two years ago (more on the London trip when I recover from jet lag).

12 Reasons to Have Online Friends

Our paths most likely would never have crossed if not for this online connection, and since becoming friends, we’ve seen each other many times IRL.

12 Reasons to Have Online Friends

Other friendships that started in the online blogging community have blossomed into treasured IRL relationships. I am lucky that friends such as Cathy Chester and Estelle Sobel Erasmus live within a couple of hours from me and we get to see each other throughout the year.

12 Reasons to Have Online Friends

For those who fear that online friends are akin to stalkers or potential axe murderers (and no one yet has turned out to be either) here are a few of the reasons why I value my cyber buddies — and why it’s good to keep an open mind.

Getting together is effortless.

You know how you make a lunch date with a friend IRL and it gets rescheduled once or twice or maybe gets shelved indefinitely? Weather issues, last minute work constraints, other interruptions come up. Whereas online, having a lunch date is a piece of cake.

They share your addiction to social media.

In essence, they speak your language. You can mention the merits of Google+ or how to maximize SEO or the best time to retweet a post and they get it.

You get lots of birthday wishes.

Admit it, this is cool. Even though we all know that without the Facebook reminder it wouldn’t happen.

They don’t have to live in your neighborhood. Or even your time zone.

It’s the middle of the night. I’m tossing and turning, and finally give in to my wide awake self. I go downstairs, make a pot of coffee and get online where I know there will be someone to talk to, maybe clear across the world.

No one forgets where the conversation left off.

It doesn’t take much to lose a train of thought in real life discourse. An interruption as minor as a phone call can veer you off course. Ummm, where were we? Online chats will seamlessly steer you back on track.

There’s always something new to learn.

Some years ago, I had a Facebook conversation with a childhood friend who became well known in tech circles. I was curious about how he had become so savvy. He told me that he picked up everything through his relationships with knowledgeable tech people online. I now understand that, for that is exactly how I have picked up most of what I know on social media.

Live tweeting an event with online friends is really fun.

Only my online friends understand the sheer joy of participating in a live tweet. Whether it’s Election Day or a March Madness basketball game, or goofy reality shows, yukking it up with millions of other viewers is often the best part of the event.

The smartest people are online.

Whether it’s technical know-how, or cutting edge political analysis, or awesome recipes, online friends are my go-to source.

When you need it right now, you can get sympathy, appreciation and good advice.

There’s nothing like a virtual hug when you’re feeling down … or elated. Can’t reach a friend IRL to share the good news? Go online for that instant gratification.

It’s come as you are, 24/7.

Even though I had never been to one, I was always intrigued by the idea of a “Come as You Are” party. The Internet is just one big “Come as You Are” party all day, every day. Jammies, unwashed hair, no makeup … and no one is the wiser.

When you haven’t posted in a couple of hours, they think something must be wrong.

If I fell off the face of the earth, my friends IRL may not know until the body is discovered. Online friends would wonder where I was if I happened to sleep in one day.

If you’re bored with the conversation, you can just walk away.

I find it very hard to extricate myself from the nattering of a long-winded person IRL. The beauty of online relationships? You can sign off. Or even better, just pretend you’ve gone and lurk.

I adore and cherish my friends IRL. But I’ve also got a world of online friends. Who mean the world to me.

12 Reasons to Have Online Friends

How about you? Do you have online friendships?


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Wordless Wednesday: London Street Art











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Hip Hip and Cheerio: My Son is a Brit

The xylophone jingle on my cell phone announced an incoming text from my son as I drank my first cup of coffee this morning. This particular ring tone is his and his alone, and it is always music to my ears. The message was short but radiated excitement.

Wow. Just got an email. Papers cleared. I’m a Brit!

The dual citizenship that he had applied for months ago was now official. Here is an excerpt from the letter sent by his lawyer.

I am pleased to inform you that your naturalisation application has been approved and we have received your documents back from the Home Office! Congratulations!

My son, the seasoned traveler and seeker of adventure, is now also my son the Brit.  I suppose I will now have to answer to “Mum” and serve tea and crumpets when he comes home. Do I also have to spell favor as favour and program as programme?

1,000 Places to Visit

Evan, the “Where’s Waldo?” of our family, has fashioned a life for himself that combines work with travel and extreme adventure that we can only marvel at from afar. His passport is emblazoned with the stamps of about 50 countries and counting.

In Mongolia he lived in a tent with a family and learned how to hunt rabbits with an eagle. I’ll spare you the photo of the luckless rabbit.



He finagled his way into the 2012 London Olympic Games. I mean, he was in the Olympics. The Opening Ceremonies, to be exact.

My son in the Olympics

London Olympics 2012

If you blinked you would miss him. He is the third from the left in the white shirt and suspenders.

One Christmas Eve he hiked up the highest mountain in Cameroon, met a fellow hiker who happened to be a priest and a chaplain in the Australian army. They celebrated Christmas Mass together — a first for this nice Jewish boy from Philadelphia — and sat up all night talking about the meaning of life.



In Cambodia, he had dinner at Happy Pizza and ended up in the emergency room, not so happy. The pizza had been laced with a hallucinogen.



During a trip to Iceland with a buddy, he got caught in a huge snowdrift with only a windshield scraper at hand. Fortified by a pint of whiskey and a loaf of bread that fortuitously had been thrown in the trunk, they dug out the car and four hours later were able to make their way to safer ground.



Highways and Byways

One of the reasons he loves living in London is the ease of weekend travel. As he puts it, “You can be anywhere in two hours and 100 quid.” “Quid” is a currency denomination that Brits use but beyond that I’m clueless. Living in London has also given him opportunities to explore the rich history and culture just a tube ride away, “It’s an incredibly vibrant international city,” he says.

After several years of working in the UK and recently earning his MBA, it now looks like London will be a more permanent home. He recently launched his own business, The Travelling Classroom, an idea that has been marinating for a while and now has become a reality. With his background in travel, education and project management, The Travelling Classroom is a natural progression, and his passion for it is contagious. I can’t help but smile when he talks about it so animatedly.

My Son Grew Up Too Fast

I am so proud of him, of who is is and the life he leads. I just wish London were a little bit closer.

son at airport

Too many goodbyes.

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