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Beyond Sudoku is an unusual puzzle magazine that's published every two months, and is only available from WH Smith. It's printed by Puzzler Magazines and currently costs £3.30 per issue, which I think is quite expensive for a puzzle magazine; but I still treat myself occasionally as I enjoy it so much more than the other puzzle magazines available. When sudoku puzzles first started appearing in this country in around 2005, I got quite obsessed with them, like many other people. After a while, though, I got a bit bored with the same old style of puzzle, so I was very pleased when I found the magazine Beyond Sudoku. As well as a few sudoku grids, this magazine contains a mixture of other Japanese puzzles, all of which are challenging and very enjoyable. Like sudoku, they tend to require some sort of logical thinking, and they all involve numbers in some way. You don't need to be good at maths to solve them, though. The magazine is divided up into sections, with one section for each puzzle type. The current issue contains 13 sections. Within each section, it starts off with easier puzzles and leads onto harder ones of the same type. There are around 6 of each puzzle type in the magazine. Personally I would prefer it if they could fit in a few more of each puzzle, considering the cover price. Having said that, this magazine lasts me a lot longer than other more traditional puzzling publications, as most of the puzzles take a bit longer than for example a wordsearch. This just makes it all the more satisfying to solve them. The beginning of each section contains a detailed description of how to solve the puzzles for those who haven't come across them before. Here are some of the puzzles you can find in Beyond Sudoku: ~Sudoku~ As well as some standard sudoku grids, there are some variations such as Killer Sudoku, sudoku using letters instead of numbers, extra large grids and so on. ~Hanjie~ This is one of the few puzzles that is also available in its own dedicated magazine from WH Smith. You start off with a blank grid, with numbers showing how many squares are to be filled in or left blank in each row and column. Once you have filled in the correct squares, a picture will be produced in the grid. ~Kakuro~ This is another puzzle that's also available in a separate magazine. You must fill an irregular grid with numbers that add up to the amounts shown at the side of each block, without repeating any numbers in each section. ~Mosaic~ Produce a picture by shading in squares on a grid according to numbers that show how many shaded squares surround them. ~Hashi~ This is one of my favourites; you need to connect 'islands' with 'bridges' according to the numbers shown on the islands, which show how many bridges can connect to each one. ~Slitherlink~ Another favourite of mine: connect dots on a grid to form a continuous loop. Numbers in the grid tell you how many lines surround them. ~Battleships~ Based on the game of Battleships, you start off with an empty or partially filled grid and must find out where the Battleships have been placed using the numbers that show you how many Battleship sections are in each row and column. If you've never done any of these puzzles before, it may be hard to imagine what they're like as they're quite difficult to describe in a few words; the best way to find out about them is to get the magazine! Recommended for anyone who likes sudoku or logic puzzles.
Recently my boyfriend and I decided to spend our Tesco vouchers on a nice meal out. Looking at the restaurant options on the Tesco website, we decided to go for Italian chain restaurant Prezzo as we'd always liked the look of our nearest branch and thought we'd try it out. The branch we visited is in Thame in Oxfordshire. From the outside it looks very smart, and as you walk in it has a pleasant atmosphere with nice lighting and well-spaced tables. We visited on a Thursday evening and it was quite full with a low buzz of conversation. I can't remember if there was any background music playing, so if there was it can't have been intrusive. At first glance the restaurant seemed quite small, but then we were led upstairs to find there was another floor with plenty of tables and with just as nice an atmosphere as downstairs. We were taken to a table on a sort of narrow balcony that looked down onto the floor below, which seemed nice until we noticed that right next to us was a small area where drinks and a till were located, meaning the waiters were always coming and going right next to to our table, which didn't seem very private. First we ordered out drinks, which seemed quite expensive at £2.10 for a soft drink, and which turned up in a disappointingly small glass. After that we just ordered tap water to drink. Looking at the menu, there is plenty of choice and it all sounds very tasty. It took us both a while to choose what to have as we were tempted by several different things. It is very well laid out with good descriptions of the different dishes. First there is a selection of bread and olives to choose from, followed by starters including baked mushrooms, bruschetta, deep-fried mozzarella, and calamari. Starters cost around £5 each. Main courses are divided into pasta, al forno, risotti, grills, pizza and salads. Depending on the branch, there is also a section of either roast chicken, or calzone (folded pizza). The Thame branch has calzone. Prices of a main meal are around £7-£11. There is also a small dessert menu. We chose to share some Pane con cipolla, which is garlic pizza bread with caramelised balsamic onions and mozzarella. This was nice enough but nothing special, and didn't seem to have much mozzarella on it. For my starter, I chose tiger prawns in tomato sauce with garlic, chilli and spinach, served with focaccia bread. When the starter arrived, I was a little disappointed by the very small amount of bread with it, but the prawns looked fresh and juicy, and there were a reasonable number of them. They turned out to have a lovely texture, however I couldn't taste them at all as they were so overpowered by the chilli in the sauce. I didn't think it was a suitable combination at all and it seemed such a waste not to be able to taste what looked like very nice prawns. My boyfriend chose chicken with pesto on focaccia bread, which he said was quite nice but not something he'd want again. For my main course, I chose a pasta dish with chicken pieces in a saffron sauce, & my partner chose an al forno dish: chicken carbonara. The dishes arrived looking appetising and the ingredients looked fresh and well-cooked. Unfortunately neither of us managed to eat more than half of our main course as they both tasted very bland, and after a while the taste began to be a bit sickly & unpleasant. Despite the fresh-looking ingredients, the tastes all seemed to blend into one bland flavour, as if the dishes had been microwaved. I wouldn't be very keen on going to Prezzo again after this experience, however I imagine their pizzas would perhaps be slightly tastier, as in my experience chain restaurants are much better at producing nice pizzas than tasty pasta dishes. In fact, I normally avoid pasta when eating out due to several experiences of not enjoying it, but Prezzo lulled me into a false sense of security with its up-market atmosphere and fancy-sounding menu. I am giving Prezzo two stars based on the pleasant atmosphere and good service, and the assumption that some of the food on the menu must be more pleasant than what we chose!
Kafka on the Shore is a novel by Japanese author Haruki Murakami. It was published in 2002, and the English translation by Philip Gabriel was published in 2005. I'd seen novels by Haruki Murakami in bookshops and always thought they sounded interesting, but never got around to actually reading one. Then this Christmas I was talking to my brother, who is currently living in Japan, and he said I should really read one of Murakami's books, and recommended this one. Kafka on the Shore has little to do with the novelist Kafka; however the main character takes his name as an alias. Kafka Tamura is 15 years old and feels that he has to run away from home, for reasons that will be revealed as the story progresses. He takes a bus to a town called Takamatsu and ends up befriending a man named Oshima, who works in a small library. The other main character is named Nakata; he's an old man who's not very bright, but has the unusual ability of being able to talk to cats. I can't really say much about the story without giving too much away, but it is based around these two characters and the people they meet and the unusual things that happen to them. The novel contains 505 pages, and it took me around 10 days to read. It felt to me to be just the right length and it was the sort of novel I wanted to read quite quickly to find out what was going to happen next. It is nicely separated into reasonably short chapters, which alternate between the story of Kafka and the story of Nakata, though the two stories are interrelated. The characters are all very well-written and you want to read more to find out about them and their stories. Although I really enjoyed this book, it is not something I'd recommend to everybody. If you prefer books with straightforward, realistic plots then this book is definitely not for you. However, if you enjoy reading quirky, unusual novels that make you think then you should like Kafka on the Shore. Another thing is that it's one of those books with all sorts of riddles and not-quite-explained connections, and it's up to the reader to find the meaning and the connections within the story: it's not all neatly concluded at the end of the book and many things are never fully explained. This is the sort of thing that might annoy some people; however for me it fits in with the dream-like style of the whole novel. I don't speak Japanese so I can't exactly compare the translation with the original text; however I did study translation at university and I was very impressed with this version as it does not read 'like a translation' and it flows very naturally and with a unique style. Taking a look on Wikipedia, it tells me that Philip Gabriel did in fact win a prize for this translation.
We don't normally shop in Waitrose as it always seems very expensive, however this week we decided to give it a try after seeing their new 'Essential Waitrose' range advertised. This range promises high quality products at a reasonable price, & is supposed to persuade customers that Waitrose aren't as expensive as they might have thought. Unfortunately we haven't been especially impressed with any of the 'Essential' products we bought, & one of the least impressive is their reduced fat crinkle cut crisps. These came in a pack of six, containing three flavours: salt & malt vinegar, cheese & onion, & lightly salted. Each packet contains 25g of crisps. They were on offer at £1, but the usual price is £1.35. It states on the front of the pack that the crisps are made using British potatoes, & that they contain no artificial flavourings; both of these things make the crisps more appealing to me. The ingredients list is as follows: potatoes, high oleic sunflower oil, salt & vinegar flavouring (rice flour, salt, citric acid, maize maltodextrin, malt vinegar, sugar, anti-caking agents calcium phosphates & calcium silicate, sunflower oil, natural flavouring). Allergen information: contains gluten. The packet states that they are suitable for vegetarians. Most people wouldn't know what 'high oleic' sunflower oil is, but it says that being fried in this makes the crisps high in mono-unsaturated fats, which presumably is a good thing from how they make it sound. Nutrition information: 1 bag of crisps contains 113kcal, 1.6g protein, 15g carbohydrate, 5.2g fat, 1g fibre & 0.69g salt. When you bite into these crisps, they have a very pleasant crunchy texture which is enhanced by their crinkle cut nature. Unfortunately that is where the enjoyment ends as the taste turns out to be quite bland & nothing like the described flavour (salt & vinegar or cheese & onion). They even manage to taste blander than any normal 'plain' flavoured crisp, & when you swallow them the taste is actually slightly unpleasant. Looking at the ingredients, the main part of the flavouring is rice flour, & indeed the taste is a little floury. I certainly don't have any intention of buying these again.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a show that I'm extremely fond of; in fact it is probably my favourite ever television series. The show ran for 7 seasons, from 1997-2003. When it was originally on the television, I was around 14, which was probably the main target age group for the show, & it was advertised quite a lot & it felt like it was the show all teenagers should watch; unfortunately this put me off the show completely as I felt like it would be just another teenage show, & the fact that it was being marketed at me just made me determined to avoid it completely. It wasn't until around 2004 that a friend of mine finally convinced me to watch the show, though I was certain I wouldn't like it. As I am a fan of musicals, she persuaded me to watch an episode from Season 6, which was actually done as a musical. I was very sceptical about this, but within about 3 minutes of watching I had completely changed my mind & loved it already. I managed to catch a couple of other random episodes on Sky whilst at my grandparents' house, & that was enough to convince me that I'd love every episode; & so I went onto Amazon & spent around £100 on the entire box set! (I was a poor student at the time & would normally never have considered spending all that on some DVDs, so that shows how much I wanted to watch it!) The show is set in a town in California called Sunnydale, which is located on a 'Hellmouth': meaning lots of vampires & other demons are attracted to the town. 16-year-old Buffy Summers (Sarah Michelle Gellar) has just moved to the area & enrols at the local high school. As you may be able to guess from the title, Buffy is a vampire slayer (actually THE vampire slayer), meaning she is the 'chosen one' who must hunt down & kill vampires & demons. She's only recently found out about this, however, & is hoping it will all just go away, when she meets the school librarian Giles (Anthony Head), who just happens to be her 'Watcher': meaning he's in charge of training her to fight evil. She soon makes friends with fellow students Willow (Alyson Hannigan) & Xander (Nicholas Brendon), who of course find out her secret before long. Over the course of the series, we follow the lives of these characters, as well as others who are introduced along the way. The first three seasons are based around the high school, & then the last four are after graduation. Although the fight against evil makes up the major storylines, the most compelling aspect of the show is following the journey of each character. The characters are incredibly well written & you just can't help becoming attached to them & wanting to find out what happens in their story. When I first watched the show I often used to watch 3 or 4 episodes in one day if I could as I so wanted to see what would happen next. Although the show is clearly a supernatural one, the storylines are very much linked with real life & there is a lot you can relate to in the series. The scripts by creator Joss Whedon & his team of writers are one of the main things that makes this show so great as the style is just unique & they make you want to hear more. The episodes are often very funny, but can also be scary and sometimes deeply sad (I've cried at a few of the episodes!). I have a collector's edition of the complete boxset which can no longer be bought new; the normal complete boxset is available from Amazon at the moment for £60.97 (the RRP is £179.99). Each of the seven seasons is also available separately, with an RRP of £34.99; they cost around £20 each on Amazon. There are 144 episodes altogether (12 in Season 1, then 22 in each subsequent season); each episode lasts around 40 minutes. The DVDs also have lots of extras, including deleted scenes, outtakes, cast & crew commentaries, short documentaries & so on. I'm not usually a big fan of the extras on DVDs but a lot of these are very entertaining, & the commentaries are usually very funny.
Although I do most of my cooking from scratch, at lunchtimes sometimes I feel like just putting something into the oven with no preparation required. I also have a fondness for any sort of breadcrumbed chicken, so recently I was looking in my local Tesco & saw their Value chicken nuggets for the bargain price of 50p! For this price, you get a 320g bag, which contains around 21 chicken nuggets. These nuggets are described on the front of the pack as 'chopped & shaped chicken with textured wheat protein & added water in a crispy breadcrumb coating'. The ingredients are: chicken (27%), water, breadcrumbs, wheat flour, vegetable oil, textured wheat protein, chicken fat, pea starch, wheat protein, pea fibre, salt. Now, with a chicken content of only 27% it's clear these aren't exactly gourmet chicken nuggets, but then that's not what you'd expect from a value product costing 50p. I like the fact that they're very honest on the front of the pack about the fact that they contain added water; it's not like they're trying to trick you into thinking you're eating 100% chicken meat. I'm also impressed by the fact that there are no unpronouncable ingredients in the list. The only thing that worries me about the ingredients is that there's nothing to say where the chicken comes from. When I buy chicken for cooking I always like to buy British chicken with some sort of animal welfare stamp, but it's something you don't necessarily think about when picking up some chicken nuggets from the frozen section. Nutrition info: a serving of 5 nuggets contains 210kcal, 9.3g protein, 18.3g carbohydrate, 10.7g fat, 0.6g fibre, & 0.8g salt. This seems reasonable for a fast food type product. They are very easy to cook, taking 10-12 minutes in the oven or 6-8 minutes under the grill. I prefer to grill them as it makes the breadcrumbs nice & crispy & slightly browned; you have to be careful not to burn them though. When you bite into the nuggets, you get a nice crispy bite from the breadcrumbs, although the breadcrumb layer is rather thin, so you quickly get onto the very soft chicken part, which you can tell from the texture does not contain a large proportion of chicken. The texture is not unpleasant, but it is more soft & squishy than you might expect from a chicken nugget; this will be due to the added water & textured wheat protein. As you might expect, there is only quite a mild taste of chicken, however overall the flavour is reasonably meaty & quite pleasant, although not as tasty as similar but more expensive products such as Birdseye Chicken Dippers. They are nice enough to eat on their own, & if you prefer to eat your nuggets with a dipping sauce then you probably wouldn't even notice the slight weakness of the flavour as the sauce would overpower any other flavours. Overall, these are acceptable as a cheap, quick snack; however there are much tastier chicken products available, plus I worry about the welfare of the chickens used to make these nuggets.
I can remember the earlier episodes of the Cosby Show being on televison regularly when I was little, & I always liked to watch it. Having recently been re-watching this classic American sitcom, & finding it just as enjoyable as I remembered, I thought I'd do a review. ~The Show~ The Cosby Show ran for 8 series from 1984-1992. It was originally based on Bill Cosby's own stand-up comedy, which involved stories from his own family life with his wife & five children. The sitcom was one of the most popular American series of the 1980s, & was number 1 in the ratings for 5 consecutive seasons. ~The Cast~ The show stars comedian Bill Cosby as Dr Heathcliff Huxtable, with Phylicia Rashad as his wife, Clair. The children are played by Keshia Knight Pulliam (Rudy), Tempestt Bledsoe (Vanessa), Malcolm-Jamal Warner (Theo), Lisa Bonet (Denise) & Sabrina LeBeauf (Sondra). ~Series 1~ This review is of the Series 1 boxset, which contains all 24 episodes. In the first series, we are introduced to Dr Heathcliff Huxtable (an obstetrician), his wife Clair (a lawyer), & their five children. The youngest is Rudy, aged 5; and the oldest is Sondra, aged 20 & away at Princeton. The family live in New York City. Cliff is a fair & very loving father who likes to joke around & is very entertainingly portrayed by Bill Cosby, a man who is just naturally funny. He is very eccentric & regularly likes to sing, dance, pull silly faces, put on accents & so on. Clair is perhaps the most serious of the family, but she can also be a lot of fun. She's strict but fair with her children & is always there for them. She's one of my favourite characters & Phylicia Rashad is an excellent actress. Cliff & Clair together make a very convincing & sweet couple & it's a joy to watch their scenes together. Rudy is their very sweet 5-year-old daughter who is very well acted by young Keshia Knight Pulliam. She easily steals every scene she's in as she's so adorable. Vanessa is one of my favourite characters, however in this series she doesn't seem to get much to do & actually comes across as a bit boring. In Season 1 she's 11 years old. 14-year-old Theo is always providing reasons for his parents to worry about him but he is very honest & loving & never means to get into trouble. Denise is another character that doesn't seem to get a lot to do in this series & her character isn't very fleshed out. She's basically just a 16-year-old who likes dressing eccentrically & going out with her friends. It's not until later series that she gets more interesting storylines. Sondra is only in a few episodes as she's away studying at Princeton; again her story gets more interesting in later series. A wide variety of other characters appear in the series, such as friends of the children, & patients of Dr Huxtable, & they're always very well-written & entertaining. Some of the storylines in this series include: Rudy's pet goldfish dies & Cliff decided to conduct a funeral for it; Theo desperately wants a designer shirt to impress his date, so Denise offers to make him one just like it; Clair gets the chance to appear on a TV panel show; the family plan a big surprise for Cliff's birthday. The show is a sitcom about family life & what I like about it is the way it shows a close-knit, loving family, whilst also showing all the problems they can have & the trouble the children can get into. The best thing about it is the very well-written & well-played characters that you can't help but grow fond of. It is also very funny which is obviously a good thing for a sitcom! I wouldn't say this was one of my favourite series, as I think the storylines get more enjoyable later on & you get to know the characters better in later series; however Season 1 is a great introduction to the show & to the characters. ~Additional information~ The RRP for this DVD is £27.99, but it's currently available on Amazon for the bargain price of £4.98. There are no extras on the DVD.
When we bought our first pet Syrian hamster around 2 years ago, the Peggy Hamster Cage from Pets At Home was the largest suitable cage we could find, & also seemed reasonably priced. The cage has a red plastic base & the rest of it is made from metal bars that are spaced so that a Syrian hamster is unable to escape. The cage is not suitable for dwarf hamsters or mice as they may be able to squeeze through the bars. (By the way, a Syrian hamster is what most people think of as a typical hamster; i.e. the larger sized ones rather than the dwarf ones!) I prefer a cage with bars as it allows the air to circulate & also provides hours of fun for your hamster as they can climb up & along the walls, & even along underneath the ceiling! This has been a favourite activity of both our original hamster & also our new one who has inherited this cage. (NB Syrian hamsters should be housed alone as if kept in pairs they will fight.) This is also different to most cages as it does not contain the plastic tubing that's common in other hamster cages. Although this tubing looks fun for the hamster, I've read that the tubes aren't really big enough for a fully grown Syrian hamster, plus they must be very awkward to clean! The cage comes with two plastic shelves that can be placed at any height in the cage in order to provide two extra levels for the hamster. There are also plastic ramps provided so that the hamster can climb between the levels. It is slightly awkward to fit the shelves into place, but you get there eventually! You also get a small blue plastic house, a small plastic food bowl & a water bottle as part of the set. We bought our hamster a new water bottle & food bowl as the ones provided looked a bit tacky; however she loved the plastic house & now our new hamster loves it too. A running wheel is also provided, however we replaced this with a larger version as it seemed a bit small once our hamster was fully grown. Due to the large size of the cage, there's plenty of room for putting in toys, treats, extra hiding places & so on. There's also lots of room for the hamster to run around. There are two doors (one on top & one at the side), making it easy to put things into the cage or to take your hamster out for a play. The doors clip closed very securely & despite our original hamster trying her best, she never managed to open them! The cage is easy to clean as the base is a simple rectangle & the metal part unclips easily to allow access to the base. It's slightly more awkward to clean the shelves as you have to either reach through the doors or remove the shelves completely. Overall I think this is an excellent cage & one I would strongly recommend to anyone purchasing a new hamster. The Peggy Hamster Cage currently costs £35.99 from Pets At Home. It measures around 28 x 50 x 36cm.
The Pygmy Puffer fish is a tiny, freshwater puffer fish that can be kept in tropical fish tanks. It's also known as a Dwarf Puffer or a Pea Puffer. With a fully grown size of less than 1 inch in length, it's a very cute & appealing fish for tropical fish lovers, with more personality than your typical fishy. They can be bought in specialist fish shops for around £4 each. Pygmy puffers are a yellowy colour with dark brown/black patches & sweet little eyes that follow you around the room. Adult males have a thin dark stripe along the belly & small wrinkles near their eyes. Pygmy puffers can live for up to 5 years. As mentioned, unlike most puffers these fish are freshwater & not marine fish, so they need to be kept in a tropical tank (i.e. a heated tank that is freshwater rather than saltwater). It's recommended to allow at least 5 (American) gallons of water per fish (this is around 18 litres). Water should be heated to around 25°C. As pygmy puffers can be aggressive, it's best not to keep them with any other types of fish as they may harrass and/or nip them. Even keeping more than one pygmy puffer in a tank can be risky as they may fight, so it's best to make sure they have plenty of room & provide hiding places (e.g. plants, rocks, ornaments). If buying more than one, you need to accept that they may not get on & you might have to separate them. It's often recommended to keep 2 females for every 1 male; however this is difficult as they're usually very young when you buy them so you can't differentiate between the sexes. One of the important things to take into consideration if thinking of buying a pygmy puffer is the fact that they won't eat flaked fish food & most won't eat any sort of dried food. You'll need to be willing to buy either frozen or live food (such as bloodworms). This is more expensive than flaked food, plus some people may be squeamish about feeding their fish with live or even frozen worms. It's recommended that you feed pygmy puffer fish only once every other day. You can tell when you've given them enough as their tummies will get nice and round. As a special treat they love to feed on tiny live aquatic snails; it's fascinating to watch the way they hover over the snail before pouncing & swallowing it in one swift movement. You can't help feeling a bit sorry for the snails, but it's over so fast I'm sure they don't feel anything. Pygmy puffers can be messier than other fish, i.e. leave bits of uneaten food, so it's recommended to change 30-50% of their water every week. One important thing to note is that pygmy puffers do not have scales, meaning you need to be careful when using medicines or any other chemicals in their tank. Check on the bottle or at the pet shop whether what you're using is suitable for puffers. (Normal dechlorinating chemicals are fine & of course must be used to treat the water you put into the tank so that the chlorine is removed.) Also make sure there's nothing sharp in the tank that they could cut themselves on. The best thing about keeping pygmy puffers is that they actually show an interest in you, unlike many other small tropical fish. Their movable eyes follow your movements, & they'll swim up to the glass to watch you when you're nearby. They get very excited when they know it's feeding time! They're very sweet & make a nice change to other small fish.
Tours is a small city on the River Loire, in the Centre region of France. Having spent a year living & studying there in 2003/2004, I feel like I'm in a position to give a thorough review of this charming city. ~~Places of interest in the town~~ The main centre of Tours is located in between 2 rivers: the Loire to the north & the Cher to the south. Most of the places of interest are located in the northern part of this central section, near to the famous river Loire. The central point is the Place Jean Jaurès, an attractive square with pretty fountains, surrounded by large old buildings such as the town hall. Heading north up towards the river is the rue Nationale, the main shopping street; or you can head east along the Boulevard Heurteloup to reach the train station, the Tourist Information office, or the stopping point for the 'Petit Train' which will take you on a pleasant introductory tour of the city. Most hotels, restaurants & shops are centered around this small central area. One of the nicest things to do in Tours is just to wander around the older parts of the city looking at the medieval buildings. In particular, anyone visiting Tours should not miss the Place Plumereau, a square surrounded by timbered buildings, not far off the rue Nationale. Most of the buildings now house restaurants, & in the warmer months their open-air tables give the square a lovely atmosphere. Not far away is the St Gatien cathedral, some of which dates from the 12th century, & St Martin's Basilica. Museums include the Fine Arts museum, a stained glass museum & the museum of tradesmen's guilds. ~~Places to visit~~ Tours is a great base for day-trips to the chateaux, villages & vineyards of the Loire Valley. Obviously it's easiest if you've got a car, but several chateaux can be easily visited by train (including Chenonceau, Amboise, Langeais & Azay-le-Rideau). I think you can also go on organised tours to chateaux & vineyards; you can find out information about these in the tourist information centre. Paris is also very easy to get to, taking only an hour or so on the TGV (fast train). ~~Shops~~ The main shopping street, the rue Nationale, has the sort of high street shops you'd expect, with plenty of clothes shops, a Fnac (sort of like a massive HMV), a Galeries Lafayette department store, a large book shop & so on. There's an English bookshop just off the main street, & an interesting shop that sells all sorts of posters & postcards related to films & TV. There are a few shops around the Place Jean Jaurès, including a few newsagents; the Post Office is also just off this square. From here you can head down the rue de Bordeaux for a few more shops & restaurants, including a large card & gift shop, & also a McDonald's! There are plenty of more unusual, independent shops in the side streets around Place Plumereau. There are a couple of small supermarkets in the city centre, including a comprehensive food section in Galeries Lafayette. There are large hypermarkets on the outskirts, which can be reached by bus. ~~Restaurants~~ There is a huge choice of nice restaurants to visit in Tours, & they always seem to be very good value. A great many of them are concentrated around the Place Plumereau area, & it's especially nice in the summer when the square is filled with outdoor seating for the restaurants. I've eaten in lots of the restaurants in Tours & I don't think I ever had anything less than a beautiful meal, so just pick whichever one you like the look of! My favourite restaurant was on the rue de Bordeaux, but sadly I can't remember its name now. There are also lots of lovely places to buy a baguette for lunch; my favourites were from a cafe in Place Plumereau that did a lovely chicken salad baguette with slices of boiled egg! For an alternative to a baguette, there are also a lot of take-away panini shops which sell yummy paninis & chips. If you want a lovely breakfast then try Paul's bakery. I used to have half a mini baguette (called a 'flûte'), with a croissant & a beautiful mug of thick, proper hot chocolate; the nicest I've ever tasted. For something sweet, most restaurants sell beautiful crêpes, & there's also a dedicated crêperie in Place Plumereau, which sells both sweet & savoury pancakes. ~~Nightlife~~ I'm not really one for getting involved in 'nightlife' in general, so I won't go into great detail here. There are a couple of (very small) clubs in Tours, & plenty of bars, mostly concentrated around the Place Plumereau. If you're there for a long time & start craving the company of other English-speakers, the best place to go is The Pale, the only proper Irish pub in Tours, which has Irish (& other English-speaking) staff & is always full of English-speakers of various nationalities who are living/working/studying in Tours. They also show various sports matches, & even the Eurovision Song Contest! There's a cinema just down from the station (the English-language films shown here will be dubbed into French). If you want to watch English-language films which aren't dubbed there's a small arthouse cinema on the rue des Ursulines, near the cathedral. ~~Transport~~ I found the trains from Tours to be excellent during my stay. You can get a direct train to Paris which takes just over an hour (make sure you get the fast train (TGV) rather than the local stopping ones), plus it's also possible to visit many of the nearby chateaux & villages by train. If your French isn't that good & you're too shy to ask for a ticket, you can buy them from the automated machines! Remember that in France you have to 'stamp' ('composter') your ticket at the little machine next to the platform before getting on the train. There's an extensive bus network within Tours itself (called Fil Bleu); it currently costs 1.25 euros for any single journey on the network. The buses are very regular & go on late into the night. Most tourists probably wouldn't need to use the buses, however, as attractions tend to be concentrated around the centre of town within easy walking distance of each other. I only ever used the bus to visit the massive hypermarket, & also to go to A&E when I broke my finger!! (oh and also when I was late for lectures starting at 8am or was too lazy to walk the 1 mile to the university from where I lived!) ~~Where to stay~~ Having lived in Tours rather than visited as a tourist, I can't say much about the hotels. When I first arrived, I spent a couple of nights in the Comfort Hotel, one of the cheapest in the area, which was nothing special but still perfectly acceptable. It is 2 miles from the city centre, however, & the bus stop is a bit of a walk away from the hotel! A cheap, city centre hotel that I've heard good things about is the Hotel Terminus, which is right next to the train station. There are plenty of 'posher' hotels to choose from as well; I always find places like lastminute.com to be a good place to look. There is a Youth Hostel, which is very basic but does have a lot of single/double rooms & not just dormitories. ~~How to get there~~ Tours is easily accessible as it has its own small airport, with flights provided by Ryanair from Stansted airport twice a week (Tuesdays & Saturdays). There's a free shuttle bus from the airport to the city centre. As previously mentioned, there are also direct trains from Paris, which take just over an hour if you get the fast train (TGV).
After a quick search for Monkees on dooyoo showed me that the site didn't have any Monkee-related reviews, I decided it was time to write one! Despite having been born 17 years after the Monkees were first formed, as a teenager I became completely obsessed with the "world's first manufactured band". ~~A little background information~~ The group was put together in 1966 following an advert placed in a magazine requiring "four insane boys" to play members of a pop group in a new TV series. Despite popular belief that they couldn't write songs or play their own instruments, of the successful applicants Mike Nesmith was a guitarist & songwriter, & Peter Tork an accomplished musician able to play several different instruments. Whilst Micky Dolenz was primarily known as a former child actor, he threw himself into drumming lessons; & though Davy Jones (also a former child actor) primarily concentrated on playing maracas & tambourine, he did also learn to play drums & bass guitar. The problem in the beginning was that their management was not interested in letting them write songs or play their own instruments on their records; they had primarily been hired as actors for a TV show. As the Monkees phenomenon grew, however, they of course had to play their own instruments during their live shows, & as they developed more & more into a 'proper band' rather than a fictional one from the television, they were able to take more & more control over their own records. By the time of their very successful third album, most of the material was written & performed by members of the group. However, the success couldn't last, & after the TV show ended in 1968 the group's popularity began to wane. After six albums, Peter Tork decided to leave the group. The remaining three Monkees went on to produce two further records; followed by another in 1970 featuring just two of them after Mike Nesmith also left the band. Since then, all four members of the Monkees have been involved in various solo projects, & there have been two major reunions which each produced a new album - one on their 20th anniversary, in 1986, & another in 1996 - it was during this 30th anniversary reunion that I happened to watch the first episode of their TV show one morning on Channel 4, & I became hooked! ~~The album~~ Anyone looking to purchase a Monkees compilation will most likely come across three options: the albums 'Greatest Hits' & 'Very Best of the Monkees' are standard greatest hits albums, containing their most well-known songs: the ones they released as singles plus some that were regularly heard on the TV show. These are available on Amazon for a little under £10. The album 'The Definitive Monkees' is a little different, however, as you get 2 CDs: the first is more like a typical greatest hits compilation, whilst the second CD contains some less well-known songs that are very much worth listening to: these did not appear on any of the Monkees' studio albums. The Definitive Monkees is currently available on Amazon for £10.88. ~~CD 1~~ As you might expect from a Monkees compilation, the first CD opens with the theme from their TV show (unimaginatively titled Theme From The Monkees, but many people would probably know it as Hey Hey We're The Monkees). This is a nice bouncy, lively song which will bring back memories to anyone who used to watch the show. Next is their first single, Last Train To Clarksville, which got to number 1 in the USA, but only 23 in the UK. This is a catchy tune & one of my favourites from their early days. The song was written by Tommy Boyce & Bobby Hart, a duo who regularly wrote for the Monkees, including writing the Monkees theme. Another Boyce & Hart song found on the CD is (I'm Not Your) Steppin' Stone, probably one of the Monkees' most famous songs, which reached number 1 in the UK as a double A-side with I'm A Believer (written by Neil Diamond), which is of course also here. This was the band's only UK number 1. Of course Daydream Believer also features, a catchy pop tune written by John Stewart. Surprisingly the song only reached number 5 in the UK. Another famous songwriting partnership who worked with the Monkees were Gerry Goffin & Carole King; four of their songs appear on the CD, including one of my favourites, Pleasant Valley Sunday, a song that reached number 11 in the UK & is an enjoyable pop song. Songs that are most recognisable from the TV show rather than as singles include Take A Giant Step, Saturday's Child, & Shades of Gray (one of their better slow songs). Some of my favourite tracks on the CD are those written by Mike Nesmith & showing his country music influence (The Girl I Knew Somewhere & You Just May Be The One, as well as the later Listen to the Band). Another upbeat country-style song sung by Nesmith is What Am I Doing Hanging 'Round. Also featured is For Pete's Sake, a song written by Peter Tork that ended up being played over the end credits of the TV show during the second series. It's never been one of my favourite Monkees songs though. There's also a track written by Micky Dolenz - the rather bizarre Randy Scouse Git (the title was something he overheard whilst in England, but he didn't know what any of the words meant; in the UK the single was released under the name 'Alternate Title' so as not to cause offence!). If you ignore the shouty choruses, it's quite interesting to listen to the lyrics & work out their meaning (e.g. 'the four kings of EMI' refers to The Beatles). A song for which each of the Monkees gets a writing credit is the highly enjoyable Goin' Down with fantastic vocals by Micky Dolenz. It's fast & jazzy & the lyrics are wonderful to listen to; the song just makes you feel happy. One of the weakest songs here is I Wanna Be Free, a rather boring & sickly ballad that featured occasionally on the TV show. I'm also not a fan of the rather slow Look Out (Here Comes Tomorrow) by Neil Diamond. Porpoise Song is the theme from the Monkees' very odd 1968 film entitled 'Head'. The song is a bit too slow & boring for me, & I don't like the echoing effects added to the vocals. The Neil Diamond song A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You is unusual in that it was released as a single but did not appear on any of the Monkees' studio albums. This is because it was released by producer Don Kirshner without their knowledge, after he'd already agreed that their next single would be written by them (Kirshner was subsequently fired). The Monkees' two 1980s singles are also included here: That Was Then, This Is Now (only actually featuring Dolenz & Tork) and Heart & Soul (Dolenz, Tork & Jones). They don't really fit in with the styles of the earlier songs, but they're reasonably catchy & enjoyable. Other tracks on CD1 that I haven't mentioned: She, Sometime in the Morning, Forget That Girl, Words, Cuddly Toy, Valleri & Mary, Mary. ~~CD 2~~ Whoever put together the second disc was seemingly unable to resist starting it off with the Monkees' theme, so the first track is Tema Dei Monkees: an Italian-language version of the TV show theme tune (still sung by Micky Dolenz, whose pronunciation sounds pretty good to me but then I don't speak Italian). I think this is a bit of an odd track to find on a compilation CD as it doesn't really introduce the listener to anything new. The second track, So Goes Love, is another rather dull ballad sung by Davy Jones. Unfortunately Jones' vocals just annoy me sometimes - to me it's a bit like all he's interested in is trying to sound sweet & wholesome to keep up with his teen idol image. I'd much rather listen to a track sung by Dolenz or Nesmith. One of the most enjoyable tracks is the quirky Teeny Tiny Gnome, a fun song about an encounter with a magical gnome sitting on a toadstool. Dolenz's voice is very much suited to singing rather weird songs! Another unusual song that also tells a story is the next track, Mr Webster, about a man who's worked at a bank all his life & is about to retire. One of Dolenz's performances that I most enjoy is on the demo version of the song Midnight Train, another song that follows a story & has some fast-talking lyrics. The backing vocals are provided by Micky's sister Coco who also has a lovely voice. She also sings backing vocals on the next track, the ballad She'll Be There. A fun pop song that really should have been on an album is Apples, Peaches, Bananas & Pears (written by Boyce & Hart). Riu Chiu is an a cappella version of a Spanish christmas carol that featured on the Christmas episode of the TV show. Again this shows off Dolenz's vocals in particular, as well as the vocal talents of all the Monkees for singing a cappella & in harmony. This CD also features plenty of Mike Nesmith's excellent country music style tracks: Circle Sky, Propinquity, The Crippled Lion, Hollywood, Michigan Blackhawk, Angel Band & Little Red Rider. Mike was always my favourite Monkee & the only one whose solo albums I bought once I'd finished collecting all the Monkees ones! Other tracks on CD2: Hold On Girl, Love to Love, Merry Go Round, War Games, Seeger's Theme, Party, Shake 'Em Up, Rosemarie, Look Down, How Insensitive, My Share of the Sidewalk, If You Have The Time, Time & Time Again, Storybook of You, You're So Good, Steam Engine. ~~Additional information~~ The CDs also come with a booklet with pictures & information about The Monkees. There are 60 tracks on the CDs altogether. Overall this is an upbeat CD featuring lots of catchy tunes & great vocal performances. The well-known tracks are always enjoyable, & you may be surprised by how much you like the less familiar songs. The only thing I'm not sure about it why they used all previously unreleased material for the bonus CD rather than putting on some lesser-known album tracks. It doesn't have a negative impact on the CD, I just wonder why the decision was made. If you're looking to buy a Monkees compilation CD just to listen to their most famous songs, then you might as well buy one of the slightly cheaper greatest hits CDs; however I think it's worth spending an extra pound or two on this if you have any interest in hearing a bit more from this talented group.
The Chef'n SaltBall salt grinder can be found in many kitchen shops & stands out amongst all the salt grinders due to its appearance: unlike most salt grinders, it is ball shaped with plastic handles on top, & most noticeably it resembles a rabbit's head. I decided to try the SaltBall as I was dissatisfied with my more standard design salt grinder & thought that this would be more efficient, especially as it can be used one-handed. The SaltBall is operated by holding the plastic handles on the top in one hand & squeezing them together. This is very handy when you are cooking, however it also means you are more likely to drop the salt grinder despite the ergonomic design of the handles. I did indeed manage to drop it into a saucepan a couple of times, which is not a particularly good idea as the water will get into the salt & make it cake up. Even before dropping it in the water, I was expecting the grinding quality to be very good as the SaltBall contains a ceramic grinder (supposedly the best kind I believe), however I didn't find it to be much more impressive than my cheaper standard salt grinder. It takes a lot of squeezes to get enough salt out. You can adjust the coarseness but this never seemed to make a noticeable difference to me. Like most salt grinders, this one comes ready filled with sea salt, & it's easy to refill through a small sliding door in the side. Unfortunately it turns out that the SaltBall is quite poorly constructed, as after a few months of what I would consider normal use, one of the handles snapped, rendering it useless. I wondered if I had somehow been too rough with it, yet a quick search on Google showed several other reports on various sites saying that other people had also ended up with a broken handle on their SaltBall. Despite the problems with my original SaltBall, I then for some reason decided to buy the miniature version which is also available. I thought it would be less likely to be dropped due to its lighter weight, & hoped the handles would be less breakable. The miniature version also comes with a magnet on the back which makes it easy to store (although I can't say I'd ever found salt grinders difficult to store previously). Unfortunately the small size of the miniature version means it feels awkward to hold in your hand as it just doesn't fit properly, making it even more likely to be dropped. The handles are still intact but then I haven't had it very long. The worst part about this version is that very little salt seems to come out when you squeeze the handles. I won't be buying a SaltBall again. The Chef'n SaltBall is currently available in kitchen shops for around £12. A PepperBall is also available. The miniature saltball is around £6.
I never used to have much interest in hamsters as pets, but a couple of years ago my boyfriend talked me into the idea & we ended up falling in love with a pair of Roborovski dwarf hamsters that we spotted digging through their sawdust in Pets At Home. Having read up about the different types of hamsters before visiting the pet shop, I knew that dwarf hamsters (as well as mice) need a cage with narrower gaps between the bars than a typical hamster cage, as it is actually possibly they could squeeze through the gaps in a normal cage. This is particularly true with Roborovski hamsters as they really are tiny! As it was the only wire bar dwarf hamster cage available at Pets At Home, we ended up with the Mickey Max Dwarf Hamster Cage. (You could also keep dwarf hamsters in one of the plastic cages that consists of various tubes & compartments & doesn't have wire bars at all, or you could even use an old fish tank; however I like the idea of hamsters having plenty of ventilation from the bars, plus some hamsters enjoy climbing on the bars of their cages.) The cage measures 23cm x 36cm x 50cm, & has a plastic base (mine was blue, but I've also seen it in red, & the Pets At Home website picture shows it as orange). The wire top of the cage is detachable & there is one upper level with a ladder leading up to it. The main thing I dislike about this cage is the fact that the upper level is made of wire rather than solid plastic. This can be uncomfortable for hamsters to walk on & they can even get their legs caught between the bars. I solved this problem by putting card over the top of the bars, although this had to be replaced every so often as the hamsters chewed it! The cage is very secure as the door is in the ceiling so there's no chance the hamsters could escape. The door also fits very tightly & securely so even an acrobatic hamster wouldn't manage to find its way out! The top also fits securely onto the base with a strong clip at either end. The cage comes with an exercise wheel that attaches to the bars & is just the right size for a dwarf hamster. Roborovski hamsters are usually kept in pairs & they really love their wheels so I ended up buying a second wheel to stop them fighting over it. (Although they also managed to perfect the art of both running side by side in just one wheel! Very sweet!) The wheels can be quite noisy, & as hamsters are awake at night I'd recommend not keeping the cage in a bedroom. Oiling the wheels can help a bit (as long as you use an oil that would be safe if the hamsters licked it), & you can also buy special wheels that are supposedly silent but I've never tried these. The cage also comes with a small plastic food bowl, although I replaced this with a different one as it looked a bit boring. You actually don't necessarily need a food bowl as it encourages natural behaviour if the hamsters have to look around their cage for their food. A food bowl is useful at least to begin with though as it gives you an idea how much they eat (very little as they're so tiny!). A plastic water bottle is also included with the cage, although I also replaced this as it looked a bit childish. I bought one of the typical water bottles that are see-through plastic with 'Hamster' etc. written on them (although in this case I bought the one that says 'Mouse' as the hamsters were so small!). Roborovski hamsters drink very little water (less than a teaspoon a day). The cage is easy to clean as it is a simple shape without lots of corners. I imagine it's a lot easier than cleaning one of the cages with all sorts of tubes & compartments. I do think it is a shame that there's not more choice of hamster cages. Most are clearly designed for children with hamsters, & yes probably most hamsters are bought for children, but plenty of adults keep them too. This was also the largest cage available for dwarf hamsters, which seems a shame as I'd have liked them to have more areas to explore & run around. Luckily my particular hamsters liked to spend most of their time running in their wheel rather than running around the cage itself, & it wasn't really a problem that there wasn't much room in the cage for toys as they showed very little interest in toys anyway. I don't like the idea of having a pet only to keep it in a cage, so it's important to me to get my hamsters out of their cage as much as possible. Roborovski hamsters are extremely fast movers & very difficult to tame so I was never able to let them out of their cage for a wander around the room like I would with the Syrian hamster I now have. (This is one of the reasons I wouldn't ever buy Roborovski hamsters again; this is something I've discussed in a previous review on Roborovskis.) Instead I used to let them run around the carpet in their exercise ball, & sometimes let them play in a large cardboard box, so at least they weren't always in their cage. Overall, our hamsters seemed happy with this cage, although really it's quite hard to tell what a hamster is feeling! They certainly always seemed lively in it & especially liked digging in the sawdust & running for hours in their wheel. Sadly our Roborovskis have now both passed away so this cage is no longer in use & we don't see ourselves owning any more dwarf hamsters. The cage is currently available from Pets At Home for £34.99.
When I was 16 & had just started at sixth form, a representative from World Challenge came to talk at our assembly about an expedition they were organising to Brazil. She explained that World Challenge was a company who specialised in "educational expeditions" for students, & that they were going to take a team of people from our school to Brazil for a month in the summer of 2001 (it was October 1999 at the time). The expedition was open to people who were then in either Year 12 or Year 10, so that they would actually be going on the trip in the summer either just after their A-levels or just after their GCSEs. Whilst listening to the presentation, I remember thinking that it sounded amazing, & wishing I was the "sort of person" who would go on something like that. After thinking about it all morning, I eventually realised that there was no reason why I shouldn't be that sort of person, & I determined to prove to myself that I could do it. Which is how I ended up enrolling on this month-long trip to Brazil! ~~~The Team~~~ Obviously World Challenge doesn't just send a group of 16 & 18-year-olds off to Brazil for a month on their own. There is an expedition leader appointed by World Challenge - someone with plenty of experience of hiking, camping & so on. They are often people who've been in the armed forces, & also must have previous experience of leading a group of teenagers & travelling around the world. They also have to undergo special training with World Challenge. There are also two more adults on the team: two teachers from the school itself. I don't know how they're chosen as this is all organised before the students are even told about the trip. We were lucky as we ended up with two very nice, friendly teachers. They are also there to oversee everything leading up to the trip (you only meet the expedition leader once before the start of the trip). As you might expect, there was a lot of interest from the students & around 30 people initially signed up. Over the first few months, though, several people dropped out when they realised it wasn't just an easy holiday, & eventually we had a group of 10 girls (it was a girls' school). A few months before we left, we discovered that 2 boys from a nearby boys' school would also be joining our team (as everyone else from their school had dropped out of the expedition!). We weren't too happy with this, & indeed once on the trip they did end up causing a few arguments! (mostly due to their own unwillingness to really contribute anything to the team). This provided some useful lessons on dealing with conflict within a team, however! ~~~The Destination~~~ One thing I found slightly odd was that the destination for our trip was chosen before any of the students even got involved. I believe it was chosen by the 2 teachers who were coming on the trip, & I suppose this is to avoid disagreements & arguments when it comes to choosing the destination, but it seems slightly unfair that the people paying for the expedition don't even get a say in where they're going! Luckily the teachers chose an amazing destination for us. I don't know if this is the way it works for every expedition, or whether some teachers choose to let the students have a say. World Challenge provide a choice of many destinations, including Argentina, Peru, Chile, Borneo, Thailand, China, India, Tanzania, Madagascar, Norway, Iceland & many more. ~~~The Preparation~~~ Now, these trips organised by World Challenge aren't just a holiday, & they're not for children with rich parents who will pay for the trip for them - during the 20 months leading up to the expedition, we were expected to raise around £2000 each to go on this trip. This was mostly done by getting a weekend job (I worked at McDonald's!), & also by regular fundraising activities that we organised, such as a car boot sale, a quiz night, & packing bags at the local supermarket. The whole experience, including the time leading up to the trip, was supposed to teach us useful skills such as managing money, teamwork, leadership skills, & being independent. During this time we were also expected to prepare for our expedition by researching our destination, planning our route, & training. The training involved going on short hiking/camping trips to places such as the Peak District, with leaders & equipment provided by World Challenge. The walks were quite difficult but very helpful in preparing us for our trekking in Brazil, especially as we got to practise walking whilst carrying heavy rucksacks. Luckily camping in Brazil turned out to be much warmer than camping in the Peak District though! We were also all encouraged to do regular exercise to make sure we were fit enough for our treks in Brazil. I started cycling & swimming regularly. I also attempted to teach myself some Brazilian Portuguese in preparation for the trip, although this isn't a requirement & most people didn't bother. One of the teachers took Portuguese lessons which was very helpful as she was pretty good at speaking it by the time we got to Brazil. We had regular team meetings at school to organise fundraising, discuss our itinerary & so on. Sometimes a representative from World Challenge would come to these meetings to talk to us as well. You also meet your expedition leader at one of these meetings a few months before the trip. We also had to organise our travel vaccinations & get our malaria tablets. ~~~Equipment~~~ As well as raising the money to pay for the actual trip, each student is also expected to purchase the necessary equipment, including a rucksack, sleeping bag, sleeping mat, suitable clothes & shoes etc. A list is provided by World Challenge listing necessary & optional items. All this will set you back another few hundred pounds, & I was lucky as my parents agreed to pay for the equipment provided I was able to raise the £2000 to pay for the trip. The most expensive item you need is a rucksack, as you really need a good quality one (you'll be carrying it with you a lot of the time, & you need to fit quite a lot into it!). It's important to get a rucksack properly fitted to your size & build, otherwise it could cause back pain etc. Not long into the preparation stage, World Challenge organised an evening at our school when a company specialising in camping equipment brought in their products to show us & we were able to buy things at a special discount. Most importantly, they also helped us to choose the correct rucksacks. Obviously you can also go to camping shops to buy your equipment. Some essentials are provided by World Challenge, including tents & some cooking equipment. Each team member also usually takes some pocket money on the trip for extras like souvenirs. I took around £100 I think. The food budget was quite tight so it was handy if you wanted to buy yourself something extra like a chocolate bar! ~~~The final preparation~~~ The last bit of preparation that you have to do at home is packing up your rucksack - not an easy task, as you have a lot of stuff to fit in! This really teaches you that you must only take the bare essentials, as not only do they have to fit in your rucksack, you also have to be able to carry it! After an hour or so of thinking I'd never fit everything in, I eventually figured out the best way of packing & was ready to go. I couldn't believe how heavy my rucksack seemed & I wondered how I was ever going to manage, however after a few days you do actually start to get used to it. It's very important to do up the clasp around your hips so that you're carrying most of the weight on your hips & not on your shoulders! At 10am on Day 1, we all arrived at school & got on a coach down to London. We were to spend this first day doing our final training at an army barracks in Hounslow! It was quite bizarre to pull up at a gate & see armed soldiers, & watch all the activity going on around the barracks. We arrived at the barracks at around 4pm, & first we had to practise putting up our tents, which took longer than we'd expected! After spending the night at the barracks, the following day was called "build-up day". First we were given all the extra equipment that was provided by World Challenge, & couldn't believe it when we were told we each had to make room for some of it in our rucksacks! (I'm not sure where else we were expecting it to go!) Luckily our expedition leader had arrived by this point & he gave us some helpful advice on how to pack efficiently. We also had a very good example of how NOT to pack efficiently, as one of the boys had packed all his equipment with the packaging still on it! I ended up carrying part of a tent, a fuel bottle & some dried food along with all the rest of my equipment. At this point, the team was divided up into groups of 3 or 4 who'd each share a tent & 1 lot of cooking equipment. In the afternoon we had lots of meetings discussing what would be happening in the expedition, what we expected to learn, what we thought we'd bring to the team etc. Whilst on the expedition, one of the most important things was that everyone would take it in turns being the leader for a day. The idea was that the adults are only there to supervise & help out if really necessary. All the decisions & organisation were down to us. I was dreading my 2 days as leader! ~~~Brazil itself~~~ At the end of the build-up day, we got the tube to Heathrow & got on our flight to Rio de Janeiro. Now, on a World Challenge expedition, although your itinerary is planned, few things are actually booked for you in advance. The whole idea is that once you get there you find your own hotel/hostel/campsite etc. & organise everything yourself at the time. You also have a budget (which is a certain percentage of the money everyone paid for the trip), & each day one person is the 'treasurer' & is in charge of this. It's the team's responsibility to ensure they don't run out of money; luckily we budgeted carefully, so I don't know what happens if a team does run out of money. The adults would probably step in early on if the team was being particularly stupid with their money, & I'm sure they have access to extra funds in an emergency. There is lots of discussion about budgeting during the 20 month preparation phase so we knew that we had to be sensible. It was pretty scary arriving in a foreign country with nowhere to stay for the night, but luckily the lady in the tourist information office was able to recommend a good hotel for us & even managed to make a deal for us where we got to stay for half price, so it was only $15 dollars per room per night - bargain! It was also amazingly nice for a 1-star hotel (it was called the Hotel Turístico). The first couple of days were for "acclimatisation" & at this point it was a bit like a typical holiday - we visited the Statue of Christ & Sugar Loaf Mountain (both amazing!). Although we were seeing some amazing things, for about the first 5 days I felt terribly homesick & wished I hadn't gone to Brazil at all. This was then made worse when we had a bit of an unexpected problem. After a couple of days in Rio, we got the bus to a nearby national park (Serra dos Órgãos) for our first bit of camping and trekking. Initially I felt better after a lovely walk & after seeing glow worms once it got dark. We also cooked our first campsite meal, spaghetti with dried "McDougal's" bolognese sauce - sounds horrible but I thought it was yummy! When we got up the next morning, we found out that our expedition leader (Dave) had hurt his back & couldn't move. Most of the day was spent waiting around for an ambulance, then waiting around outside a very small, basic hospital, then going to a hotel in the nearby town of Teresópolis. Dave had refused treatment in the small hospital as he said it didn't seem very clean, & the next day another ambulance took him to a private hospital in Rio. We all then had to go back to Rio & no-one seemed to know what was happening; we didn't even know if we could carry on with the expedition. Eventually Dave received treatment & flew back to the UK, & one of the teachers phoned World Challenge & found out a new leader would be arriving for us the next day. It was very impressive how quickly all this was sorted out by World Challenge. In the end, it all turned out for the best, as our new leader Richard was very friendly (I'd always found Dave a little bit scary for some reason!) & we could finally get on with the expedition. Our next destination was the Pantanal region - a 21-hour trip by coach, followed by another 5 hours in a mini-bus! It was after this point that I finally started really enjoying myself. The Pantanal is a tropical wetland south of the Amazon Rainforest. This was one of the few things that was booked in advance, as World Challenge had made arrangements with a family who had a farm there to let us camp on their land. Once in the right area, we made the final part of the trip sitting in the back of an open truck, which was so much fun! Along the way we saw caimans (a bit like small alligators), rheas, howler monkeys & hyacinth macaws & it was amazing to see these animals in the wild. The family who owned the farm were also providing us with our meals & these were absolutely amazing! It was so good to be able to experience genuine Brazilian home cooking. The national dish, feijoada (a very flavoursome meat & bean stew), is particularly yummy. We did our first proper trek in this area, with one of the farm workers acting as our guide. We saw plenty more wildlife, waded through marshes, were given temporary tattoos using a dye from the inside of a fruit, & were shown how to make a sort of fly swatter using the bark from a tree! It was here that I also caught my first glimpse of a wild coati (a member of the raccoon family), which is now one of my favourite animals. One of the most unusual experiences we had here was piranha fishing! You could choose either to stand in the water with the piranhas, or to go fishing from a boat. I was a bit of a wimp & chose the boat! This was a bit silly though as the fearsome reputation of piranhas is really just a myth. Most people who were brave enough to stand in the water caught at least one piranha, whereas no-one in the boat caught one. On another day, some of the group went pony trekking, whilst the rest of us went on another walk, & had the chance to swim in a lake with caimans! Our guide assured us it was safe, but I stayed out of the water. Another time, one of the farm workers found a baby caiman, picked it up & let us stroke it! We also had the chance to sleep in our hammocks whilst at the farm - these were amazingly comfortable. And particularly appealing after someone found a baby tarantula in their tent! It was a bit scary one night as the hammocks were set up quite near to a lake, & in the middle of the night I heard growling nearby & thought it was a caiman coming to eat us! It took me a long time to realise that it was just one of the farm dogs! Our next destination was the amazing Iguaçu Falls: beautiful waterfalls on the border between Brazil & Argentina. The Paraguay border is also nearby & you can visit the point where all 3 countries meet. One of the guides from our time in the Pantanal had booked us a hotel in the town of Iguaçu, however once we arrived the area didn't feel very safe so we transferred to the Youth Hostel. I was the day leader at this point & found it quite stressful, especially as everyone was arguing over whether or not to move to the youth hostel! It was a really good experience though. One thing that surprised me was how cold it was here! Seeing as it was July, it was winter in Brazil, but up until then we'd had very warm weather (comparable to a hot day in a British summer). We were further south now though & it made all the difference - we slept with woolly hats & scarves on! We spent one day on the Argentine side of the falls, & one day on the Brazilian side. Personally I found the view more spectacular from the Brazilian side (it really is breathtaking). We also saw more wild coatis here, which were amazingly tame & came up to you in the cafe to try to get food! One of the best things some of us did was to go on a boat trip under part of the falls on a speedboat (although we had to pay for this out of our own money: it was about £20). Some members of the team decided to spend some of their own money going to a bar one evening, although I didn't go. This just shows that it's up to the team to decide what they do & not the adults! Richard did go with them to make sure they were ok & to make sure the under-18s didn't drink any alcohol! We also spent a day at a bird park, which was lovely although it was a bit weird seeing these birds in captivity when most of them lived in the wild nearby! After this we had a 16-hour bus journey back to the east coast, to Florianópolis, where we were doing our "community service" part of the expedition. This involved working at a creche, where we painted walls for them (including painting pictures on them which was really fun!), as well as playing with the children. We also visited the local university & had the opportunity to go on the school bus to see the poorer areas where the children lived. After a few days in Florianópolis, we had a short stop in the city of Curitiba, where we saw an amazing massive shopping centre with beautiful water features etc.; such a contrast to the poorer areas we had seen. Curitiba is one of the most prosperous cities in Brazil. Next up was our main trekking phase, in a coastal area called Superagüi. We also had a special guide in this area, organised in advance by World Challenge. On the first evening we went to a tiny local bar & received a very friendly welcome, & ended up with some locals playing music for us & teaching us to do the fandango. The next day we did what was meant to be a short practise trek, but ended up walking about 15 miles - almost as long as our main trek! The area was beautiful & we were able to watch wild dolphins from the beach. The day before the main trek was my second day as leader, & luckily it was quite stress-free! We spent most of the day buying provisions for our trek, & taking a lovely boat ride to the island we'd be walking on. The next morning we got up early for our 20-mile trek. I was relieved to find that it was along a very flat beach, as I'd always found walking up hills exhausting on our practice treks in the UK. Nevertheless, it was difficult as we were carrying our heavy rucksacks & the walk took us around 9 hours. Most of us got blisters on our feet. I was very proud of myself for managing the trek, especially as I'd been the least fit person on the team during our training. After this was the start of our "rest and relaxation" phase for the last few days of the expedition. We had a gentle walk on another beach & heard the calls of endangered chaua parrots that are only found in that area. We sunbathed on another beach, went to a local fair, then the next day got the bus to our final destination, São Paulo. We went shopping, & decided we had enough money left in our budget to go out for a nice meal. After one more day exploring São Paulo, it was sadly time to go home. I had an absolutely amazing time on my World Challenge expedition & would definitely recommend the company. I learnt a lot & definitely gained in confidence. ~~~More information about World Challenge~~~ A typical expedition is 1 month, however they can be from 1-6 weeks. I think the shorter trips are usually aimed at younger students (aged around 14), & tend to be in Europe. You also don't necessarily have to travel with a school trip, as they also do "independent expeditions" for 15-26 year olds, where they put together a team of people to go on a trip. Safety is of course a priority for the company. As well as providing an experienced expedition leader, the group gets plenty of training beforehand & the leader also carries a special emergency beacon which can be set off in a real emergency - it's some sort of satellite device that contacts the emergency services even if you're in the middle of a rainforest or up a mountain. See www.world-challenge.co.uk for more information.
NB: this is a film-only review. The play Love's Labour's Lost was written by William Shakespeare around the year 1595. It is based around the King of Navarre & his three companions (Berowne, Dumaine & Longaville) who together swear an oath to study for three years & not to see any women during that time. However, the Princess of France & her three ladies in waiting are due to visit the court, so the King decides that they are allowed to see the ladies briefly for the sake of politeness & diplomacy, but that the ladies must not come within the walls of the palace. As you may be able to guess, the four men end up falling in love with the four ladies, & make amusing attempts to try to hide this from each other. One of the main points of the play consists of the witty exchanges between the men & the women as they woo each other. The play could be described as a comic love story. There are also sub-plots involving a fool named Costard, a Spanish nobleman named Don Armado & two scholars named Nathaniel & Holofernes. For this year 2000 adaptation of the play, Kenneth Branagh has taken the unusual decision of turning it into a 1930s-style musical featuring well-known songs by people like Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, & George & Ira Gershwin. The play was adapted & directed by Branagh, & he also stars as Berowne. In order to fit in the musical numbers, the play has necessarily been very heavily edited & has apparently been cut down to only a quarter of the original number of lines (according to Wikipedia). This film has generally received very poor reviews, however I think perhaps these reviewers were taking it a bit too seriously. I see the film as a bit of fun & very enjoyable if approached in the right way. Yes, it is a shame that so many of Shakespeare's wonderful lines have been cut; however Love's Labour's Lost is not exactly one of his most well-known plays so I see this film as a good way of introducing it to people. Then if they like what they see, & want to see a 'proper' version, they can look out for it at the theatre (although they may have to wait a while as it's not performed that often). It would also be good for people to watch who generally think of Shakespeare as a bit dull & that the plays are too long & difficult to understand. (The film only lasts 90 minutes so you couldn't really say it was too long.) I knew nothing about the play when I first watched this film, & I think it was a really good introduction, & I have since seen the play on stage & it's now one of my favourites. Perhaps if I'd already loved the play then I wouldn't have enjoyed the film as much as I would have been too busy noticing what was left out rather than what was left in. The film begins with some lively music which instantly makes you feel like you're watching an old film musical from the 1930s or '40s. In another old-fashioned touch, the credits also appear at the beginning whilst the intro music plays (although there are extended credits at the end of the film as well). Every so often during the film there's a small bit of black & white newsreel-style footage, giving you an update of what's happening & adding to the 1930s feel (I should mention at this point that the film is set in 1939 to fit in with the period of the great film musicals that inspired it). The costumes & sets also add to the overall impression of a classic musical film. One of the first things you may notice about the film is that the characters/actors have a mixture of English & American accents. Some people don't like American accents reading Shakespeare, but I think that's a bit silly as it's not as if modern English accents sound anything like the accents people had in Shakespeare's time. And as this is not exactly a serious drama I don't think it's worth getting upset about the fact that the characters all have different accents. It doesn't take long to get to the first song & the musical numbers are all great fun, & fit into the dialogue without the transitions seeming awkward. Clearly with the characters all bursting into song every so often you can't exactly describe the film as realistic, however this fits well with the play as Shakespeare comedies aren't meant to be especially realistic, & indeed it was quite a long time after Shakespeare until naturalism was seen as a good thing in the theatre. The film includes typical Shakespearian silliness such as people hiding really badly yet the other characters still don't realise they're there; or characters not recognising each other just because they're wearing tiny masks. This all just adds to the fun though. Apparently the casting of the film was purposely based on acting ability rather than singing & dancing prowess, as Branagh wanted "to highlight energy and enthusiasm rather than smooth competence" (again according to Wikipedia). It is very clear which of the cast have experience in musical theatre (Nathan Lane as Costard & Adrian Lester as Dumaine), however the other cast members' singing & dancing is perfectly acceptable. Having said this, the presence of Adrian Lester with his elegant dance moves & clear singing voice does make me wonder how much better the film could have been if all the cast members were able to sing & dance so beautifully. As for the spoken lines of the film, it impresses me that the actors speak Shakespeare's lines very clearly & in a way that makes it very easy to understand their meaning (not always the case with Shakespeare). Branagh, with plenty of experience of appearing in Shakespeare, of course stands out with his delivery of the lines, & also makes the character of Berowne quite loveable (as I think he should be!). Handsome American actor Alessandro Nivola is also a pleasure to watch & listen to as the King of Navarre (Nivola is better known for films such as Face/Off, Best Laid Plans & Coco Avant Chanel). I have already mentioned Adrian Lester as Dumaine, who is perhaps the cast member the most 'suited' to the film, having plenty of experience in both musical theatre & Shakespeare plays. His acting, singing & dancing are a pleasure to watch (plus he's very good looking too!); it's just a shame he has such a small role in the film. Despite the poor reception of the film, Lester received a British Independent Film Awards nomination for his role. Lester is probably best known for playing Mickey in the TV series Hustle. The fourth member of the group, Longaville, is played by American actor Matthew Lillard, who is most well known for playing Shaggy in the Scooby Doo films, & for his role in the first Scream film. Unfortunately when I see him in this I just can't help thinking of his stupid character in Scream & I just can't take him seriously. Luckily his is one of the smallest roles in the film! One of the most well-known members of the cast is Alicia Silverstone as the Princess of France. Sadly I think she is very badly suited to the role. She comes across as very annoying, & never sounds particularly comfortable speaking Shakespeare's lines, which in turn makes them less easy to understand. She also has the weakest singing voice of the cast & it's not particularly pleasant to listen to. Luckily she doesn't have much solo singing to do. Timothy Spall appears as the comic Spanish nobleman, Don Armado. Spall is an excellent actor, however his very exaggerated Spanish accent gets extremely annoying & I don't really enjoy his scenes. It can also be quite difficult to follow what he's saying. Other cast members include the three ladies in waiting played by Natascha McElhone, Carmen Ejogo & Emily Mortimer (who is now married to Alessandro Nivola after they met on this film!). Boyet is played by Richard Clifford, & as mentioned Nathan Lane plays the fool Costard (he's quite funny but isn't in it much!). Richard Briers & Geraldine McEwan (famous for playing Miss Marple) appear in a sub-plot as scholars Nathaniel & Holofernia (who in the original play was actually a man called Holofernes). Of course they're very good actors but their parts have been cut so much that they don't get to do much. The sub-plots have been cut so much as to make them almost pointless, as you don't get to know much about the characters, & the best parts of the film are definitely the scenes involving the King & his pals. Unlike in a typical Shakespeare play, there are not many long speeches in the film, which many people would see as a good thing! Berowne does retain a couple of longish speeches, however Branagh is a pleasure to listen to & they never get dull. One thing that I don't particularly like is the unneccessary newsreel footage stuck onto the end of the film, which shows what happens to the characters during the war (the film is set just before the outbreak of the Second World War). It has nothing to do with the play & doesn't seem to fit in with the rest of the film; there was no need for it at all. Another thing you do have to accept is that though it is 1939, France has a king (seeing as one of the main characters is the Princess of France). This doesn't really matter but I just thought I'd mention it I was a little confused when at one point you see a newspaper with a headline about the King of France! Obviously there was no King of Navarre either in 1939, & you just have to accept that the play has been transported to 1939 & not everything may quite 'fit'! (Navarre is a region in the Pyrenees for anyone who was wondering!) The songs featured in the film include I'd Rather Charleston, I Won't Dance, The Way You Look Tonight, Cheek to Cheek, Let's Face The Music & Dance, No Business Like Show Business, & You Can't Take That Away From Me. I only have the film on video, but according to Amazon the DVD extras include a commentary by Kenneth Branagh, out-takes, deleted scenes & a featurette. As mentioned above, the film lasts 90 mins. Its RRP is £12.99, & it's currently available for £4.08 on Amazon. Certificate: U.