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Kukana

Kukana
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Member since: 01.11.2003

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      10.09.2013 16:07
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      Moving contemporary family saga novel

      I do like it when I discover a new author whose work I enjoy. Even better when I find that her books are all different, yet very appealing. This is my impression, so far, of Jojo Moyes, an English writer who has several published titles. I am slowly collecting them.

      SILVER BAY - OVERVIEW
      Liza and her daughter Hannah live with Liza's Aunt Kathleen, at a small beach hotel in Australia. It's a popular location for tourists - in a low-key kind of way - for observing whales and dolphins. Local staff take visitors out on boats in the hope of seeing something special. Unfortunately, there's starting to be a worrying tendency to attract noisy boats that scare away the marine life.

      We quickly learn that there is some mystery about Liza's past. She suffered immense heartbreak shortly before arriving at Kathleen's, and we soon discover, in general terms, what that was about, although the details only emerge slowly. But even this trauma does not quite explain why Liza is so very protective about Hannah; she doesn't want her to learn to swim, nor does she allow her to go out on the boats - although Hannah regularly stows away and shows that she is quite mature enough to sail.

      Then one day a smartly suited man from England arrives in the bay. Mike is uncomfortable at first, feeling out of place. He quickly makes friends with Hannah, and is quite taken with Liza. But he also attracts some bad feeling, particularly when the locals discover just why he's there...

      SILVER BAY - OPINION
      'Silver Bay' is written from several different perspectives. It's a technique that works well, giving a bit of background to each of the main characters, letting us see inside their heads for a while, and enabling us to understand something of their motivation. The characterisation is very good; I found myself becoming quite fond of Hannah, and also of Kathleen, although for some reason it was harder to be sympathetic with Liza despite the trauma she suffered in the past.

      If I have a criticism of this book, it's that it was quite slow moving in the early chapters. I only usually read in the evenings, and it took me quite some time to get into this book. Perhaps it's that my ecological tendencies are mostly theoretical, as far as the sea goes. While I don't wish to see harm done to any creatures, I don't actually have any interest at all in marine life boats, and a lot of the early part of the story was woven around these themes.

      Other parts of the story involved business ventures - we meet the English businessman Mike on his home territory before he arrives in Silver Bay - and there are scenes with attempts to manipulate investors... again, this kind of thing does not interest me, and I found myself skimming those scenes, even while realising that they were going to be important to the storyline.

      Yet, somehow, very gradually, I found myself drawn into the lives of this small community. As Mike started to relax, and found that he was beginning to be accepted, so I found myself caring more about these people and their everyday lives. By the time I was around half way through the book, I was hooked. When, out of the blue, there's a major crisis scene, I was totally gripped, almost unable to put the book down. Then, when we finally learn the full details of Liza's past trauma, I had tears in my eyes. Even more so later on...

      Jojo Moyes has a great writing style that drew me in, kept me reading, and made me believe in the story, even at the end when - if I'm entirely honest - reality felt a little suspended, although it led to a most satisfactory conclusion. Things came together just a bit too tidily for real life, but by then I didn't care. I like a happy ending, even if it doesn't reflect typical what would probably have happened had the story been true.

      All in all, I liked this very much and immediately put a couple more of this author's books on my wishlist.

      Highly recommended.

      'Silver Bay' can be found on Amazon UK for £3.85 currently, or about 20p cheaper for the Kindle edition.

      [Note: Review slightly amended from one I originally wrote for my book blog, suesbookreviews.blogspot.com Also on Ciao]

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      • My House In Umbria (DVD) / DVD / 55 Readings / 53 Ratings
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        04.09.2013 19:35
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        Gentle, scenic, and sometimes moving. For adults and older teens.

        From time to time, Amazon recommends various films to me based on others I have rated. I can only assume that it suggested 'My House in Umbria' because I have liked other films featuring Dame Maggie Smith. I had never heard of it, but it sounded like an interesting film so I put it on my wishlist, and was given it by a relative last Christmas.

        Maggie Smith is, indeed, absolutely brilliant in this film. She stars as the romantic novelist Emily Delahunty who is is a likeable, quirky kind of person. We only learn gradually that she has an ugly and sordid past. I'm not sure that this knowledge really adds anything to the plot, other than to show the contrast with her current wealthy and altruistic lifestyle.

        Emily is on her way to Rome by train, and just getting to know the other people in her carriage. Suddenly - and I knew this was coming from the blurb, but it was still a shock - a terrorist bomb explodes, killing four passengers. It also seriously injures others - including Emily - and leaves a child as an orphan.

        I assume that this film, which was originally made for TV, is set in about the 1950s. My assumption is based on the cars, an old-fashioned record player and some general props from that era. It moves at that kind of pace, which is fine for me; I get confused when films have rapid action. It's primarily a character-based story, too. As the survivors recover, Emily invites them - including the orphaned Aimee - to stay at her house in Umbria. There, in idyllic surroundings, they all begin to find some measure of healing... at least, they do until Aimee's rather cold uncle arrives to take care of her.

        There is some stunningly gorgeous scenery in this film. There is also some wonderful acting by Dame Maggie, who was almost 70 when this was made in 2003; yet her character could easily pass for 60 or less. I was also very impressed with Ronnie Barker: he plays an elderly general who lost his daughter in the explosion. It's a far cry from his usual humorous roles for which he is better known.

        Emmy Clark as Aimee is a bit two-dimensional and difficult to feel much empathy for, but then her character is clearly suffering from what we would now call post-traumatic stress disorder. She and Emily strike up an odd friendship, based perhaps on their mutual neediness, and it works well.

        It's a shocking plot in some ways, portrayed in an otherwise gentle, attractive setting, but there are one or two moments of humour amidst the darkness. There is also a wonderful inspector (Giancarlo Giannini) who is quite determined to get to the bottom of the explosion. I wasn't sure that I entirely understood the political ramifications when it was eventually explained... but it didn't much matter.

        I suppose my only slight niggle with this film is that Emily's character becomes increasingly strange towards the end. No longer so kind and altruistic, she seems to force confidences and also drinks too heavily - something that seems unconnected to her earlier character. Perhaps it would make more sense if I read the novel - for this story is based on one of the same name, by William Trevor.

        Still, overall the film flows nicely, and we both found ourselves caught up entirely with the diverse people as they gradually blended together into a little family. The ending, if a little unlikely, is entirely satisfying and left us with a pleasant feeling.

        There are no extras on this DVD other than a brief original trailer. The only subtitles available are English for the hard of hearing.

        'My House in Umbria' runs for about 100 minutes - not that we were aware of the time as it passed, and it was quite a shock to return to our living room as the credits rolled. The film is rated 12 in the UK, which seems about right to me, given the flashbacks of past abuse in Emily's life. I doubt if it would be of much interest to anyone under the age of about 14 or 15 anyway. But to adults and older teens who enjoy a gentle, scenic and quite moving story, I would recommend this highly.

        Amazon UK are currently selling this DVD for £4.25, plus postage where applicable; Play.com have it new from various stockists, starting at £3.61, with free postage to the UK or anywhere in Europe.

        (Review modified from one I originally wrote for my DVD reviews blog suesdvdreviews.blogspot.com. Also on Ciao)

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          30.08.2013 14:59
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          Excellent and thought-provoking women's fiction

          THE AUTHOR
          Alice Peterson is a British writer, who thought, as a child, that she would be a champion tennis player. She had been awarded a scholarship to train in the US when she learned that she had rheumatoid arthritis, a painful and debilitating chronic condition. While the pain is controllable by drugs, it meant that she had to give up her beloved tennis; she then turned to writing, and has now written several moving and poignant novels.

          YOU, ME AND HIM - OVERVIEW
          Josie and Finn's marriage has been going through a stressful time, although they very much love each other. It doesn't help that their six-year-old son George has been diagnosed with ADHD and is extremely difficult at times. They love him dearly, but their lives (particularly Josie's) have been disrupted since his birth.

          Finn is a successful doctor. He's very good-looking, and also a great father who understands his young son well - but unfortunately he's often too busy to spend time with him. He is frequently late for family events, or finds that can't get to them at the last moment. This makes Josie become resentful which in turn leads to Finn becoming defensive.

          There's another man in the picture, too. Clarky, Josie's childhood friend, lives nearby and is George's godfather. He's the first person Josie turns to when anything worries her, as he's sympathetic, caring and warm; at times she finds herself comparing Finn with him negatively, wondering if she should have married her best friend rather than the man she fell in love with. Finn and Clarky don't much like each other.

          Although Finn is eager to have another baby, Josie - who deals with the brunt of George's problems - isn't sure at all. Then she discovers that she's pregnant, and panic sets in...

          The book takes place over the nine months of Josie's pregnancy, with a lot of flashbacks to the past. These are mostly to the time when Josie and Clarky lived together in an entirely platonic friendship, and when she first met Finn. It's very well-written, with the glimpses into the past melding easily with the main narrative, and gradually building up more of a picture of the three-way relationship Josie is struggling with.

          MY OPINION
          It's not often that I fall in love with a book within the first few pages, but it happened to me with this wonderful novel. The story is told in the first person by Josie, and I found myself relating to her strongly, right from the start. She is totally honest about her feelings, her worries for the future, her confused emotions when she thinks about her son, her anger with Finn and her reliance on Clarky. It's also clear that Finn's irritation with Clarky, which verges on jealousy at times, is actually quite reasonable.

          I did wonder if there was going to be an 'agenda' to the book, pushing acceptance of ADHD, with lots of detail about possible causes and treatments. Clearly the author knows a great deal about this condition, but I thought she managed to avoid pushiness, while undoubtedly educating. George is a likeable, intelligent lad who knows that his brain doesn't work like other children's. We see him trying to behave, but unable to concentrate; forgetting what he has been told, throwing tantrums, fighting his way out of trouble - and being rejected and bullied by other children. We see the negative side of school for such children, with a most unpleasant class teacher, but thankfully she is balanced by an excellent new headmaster and a swimming teacher who recognises George for who he is, and helps him in ways he understands.

          I certainly felt that I understood ADHD a bit better by the end of the book, but I didn't feel that the knowledge had been thrust down my throat, for which I'm thankful. I also saw how easy it is to deceive oneself by self-righteousness - both Josie and Finn do this at times - and how even a small lie can grow into immense proportions and threaten a relationship. So it wasn't the average light chick-lit; instead it was quite thought-provoking, often moving, and very satisfying to read.

          My one slight complaint about the book is that there was rather more bad language than I'm comfortable with, and some of it seemed unnecessary. But that does seem to be a trend in modern books, and most people aren't worried by it. So I have no hesitation in awarding this book five stars and a strong recommendation for anyone - male or female - who likes modern novels with well-drawn characters, and a great deal of human interest.

          PRICE AND AVAILABILITY
          'You, Me and Him' was originally published in 2007 and is not currently in print as a paperback, although it can often be found in Amazon's Marketplace. However it has recently been produced in Kindle form, where it's currently selling at £4.27 from Amazon UK.

          [Note: Review slightly adapted from one I originally wrote for thebookbag.co.uk, also on Ciao]

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          27.08.2013 14:44
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          Good for quick online use, ideal for travelling if only using online

          I'm not really a laptop kind of person at all. I like to sit at my desk for email, word processing, bookkeeping, blogging, website updates and (ahem) Facebook. And so on.

          However, I was sent - free - a Samsung Chromebook as part of a survey. In return, I had to agree to fill in three online questionnaires over a period of six months.

          INITIAL SETUP
          The Chromebook arrived, looking slim and sleek (albeit perhaps a little plasticky with the clinical white outside) and my technically-minded son set it up in just a few minutes. It was quite intuitive, he told me. There were instructions which I could probably have followed myself, had I been so inclined. The computer quickly found the relevant wi-fi network and asked for the password; I had to log in using my Google username and password, and it was really very quick indeed.

          There was a 'training' session in which I learned to use the touchpad. I don't like touchpads, but I had to get past this before I could do anything else. I managed eventually to get it to do what it was supposed to do, with a little help from my son. He even applauded when I finally completed all the tasks it set me. I still didn't like it, however, and promptly plugged in an external mouse for future use.

          The Chromebook opened up directly into the Chrome browser which is what I use on my desktop computer anyway. When I clicked a few settings in the browser, I found that I could configure it to synchronise with my other computer, so that bookmarks and so on are the same in both. And, sure enough, it is very fast at finding websites. On it, I can do everything I normally expect to do online, including playing the Flash-based Scrabble on Facebook (very important). I can use my web-based email, and I can surf the web.

          FAST BOOT-UP, EFFICIENT BATTERY
          The boot-up time is excellent. In less than ten seconds after I open it, I'm online. Assuming there's a suitable wi-fi connection, anyway. I was a little worried when I opened it one day after not using it for a week or so, to be greeted by a black screen. Had it died already? Would I have to send it back...?

          However, I don't totally lack technical expertise. After my momentary panic, a flash of intuition led me to the realisation that it had probably gone flat. So I plugged the battery charger in, and sure enough, within about half a minute my screen leapt into life and was usable. It takes a few hours to be fully charged - at least, when it's completely flat at the start - but the battery life is quite impressive. I haven't timed it exaclty, and have never used it for more than an hour or two at a time, but I can easily believe that it lasts for six to eight hours.

          WEBCAM AND SPEAKERS
          There's a small built-in webcam which is reasonable quality - not great, but fine for Google Video Chat or Google Hangouts. It doesn't have to be set up; it defaults to being available. There's no way to use Skype, as far as I can tell, but that's not unreasonable; I prefer Google Chat anyway.

          The speakers are built in, and, again, reasonable but not great. There are simple + and - sound buttons (as well as other shortcut keys which I have not used) at the back of the keyboard, where one would normally expect to find function keys.

          But...

          That's basically all there is to it. The Chromebook is a computer that runs Chrome. For everything online, it's fast and efficient. I like Chrome as a browser, and I like being able to open the Chromebook at any time to check something quickly online without having to switch on and boot up a desktop computer.

          WORD PROCESSING
          Google Drive - which has superceded Google Docs - is fine for basic typing, such as articles to publish on review sites like Ciao, or short stories to submit to magazines. It's useful to save webpages for future printing (recipes, for instance). And it's great for opening pdf files sent by friends. But it's not so good for more complex word processing such as creating newsletters.

          No problem, I thought - I downloaded the free Zoho suite which looked, at first glance, somewhat like the Microsoft Office suite. There are lots of familiar word processing functions, and documents are stored online as with Google Docs. Unfortunately, there was a recent upgrade to Zoho, and since then it has not been very reliable.

          So for any complex word processing, the Chromebook really isn't very useful.

          HARD DRIVE
          The Chromebook does have a small hard drive. Small, that is, compared to today's typical hard drives. It's 16 gigabytes, which is twice the size of the old PC I used for many years. So I can transfer photos to this from my camera, as temporary storage while travelling, or download zip files to unzip (which can be done automatically). I could put music files there to listen to, or even documents exported from elsewhere. My memory stick plugs easily into one of the two USB ports (the mouse is usually in the other one) and it's easy enough to move files on and off as needed. Items in the hard drive can be accessed when not online.

          OFFLINE WORKING
          When I first had my Chromebook, there was no way to edit anything while not online. This was my biggest problem with it, since I wanted to use it when travelling, but did not always have access to wifi. Google upgraded the Chrome operating system in 2012 to allow for offline editing of Google Drive documents - albeit somewhat limited so far. In my view, this instantly made the Chromebook a much more useful computer.

          One problem, however, is that it's surprisingly difficult to edit PowerPoint displays. For one of the websites I maintain, I get sent a weekly bulletin produced in this format (don't ask why...). On my desktop computer I can open it, make one or two adjustments if necessary, then save as a .pdf file to upload to the site. It takes a few seconds. On my Chromebook, even with the latest upgrade of the Chrome operating system, I can open these presentations without difficulty... but when I try to edit them the formatting goes all over the place.

          LACK OF OTHER OFFLINE APPLICATIONS
          While there are thousands of applications available, mostly free, from the Chrome Web Store, I've found very few that are of any use to me. If I wanted to play games all day, I could find an almost infinite variety. I could get news feeds, educational applications, entertainment to suit any tastes. I could find accounting packages too... but unfortunately, I have not found anything as useful as the one I use offline which deals with multiple currencies easily.

          SECURITY OF ONLINE DOCUMENTS
          When a file is stored on a computer's hard drive, it's reasonably secure. Yes, there are backdoor trojans that allow hackers to gain access, but modern anti-virus and anti-spyware software protects most of us. And if we go offline (or switch the computer off) then we can be pretty sure that nobody else can read it.

          But with the Chromebook, everything is stored 'in the cloud' (ie on the Internet). Google assure us that our documents can only be read by people we give access to, and in general, that does seem to be the case. But how can we be sure? Google must have ways of accessing everything, in theory. Most of the time it probably doesn't matter, but if someone has sensitive documents stored in the cloud, they could theoretically be found by hackers, or indeed by government agencies. Even if we delete something after transferring to a memory stick, there is no guarantee that the document is permanently gone from the cloud.

          QUICK MENTION OF TECHNICALITIES
          You can find technical specifications in many places (http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/B0052JBIPK/ for instance) so I'm not going to copy them in here. What's relevant to me as a non-technical user is that the keyboard is just about full size, so easy to use; the screen is 12 inches in diagonal, so quite readable, and the weight is about two and a half kilograms.

          And the cost? It's currently listed at a few pence under 300 pounds sterling at Amazon UK. Although less than the original price, I still think this is too much to pay for a glorified browser. Still, if you want a reliable online tool with plenty of applications and a good battery life, I guess it's better value than a tablet, though it's rather heavier...

          CONCLUSIONS
          Each of the surveys I was sent included the question: 'Do you use your Chromebook as your main computer?'

          My answer each time was 'no', and in the comments I explained that this was not just because of it being a laptop. I could, after all, have set it on my desk, using my screen and keyboard, as well as my mouse. No, the problem with the Chromebook, from my perspective, is that I want my main computer to run offline applications, and that's not what the Chromebook is designed for.

          So, while I was more than happy to have a Chromebook as a gift, I would not consider buying one unless its offline capabilities change fairly dramatically, or unless the price drops considerably more. I ended up passing it to my son, who installed Linux on it to work when he was on trains... he found that it didn't do all he wanted it for, so passed it to my other son, whose laptop had recently died. He finds it ideal for travelling - though he has kept Linux rather than the Chrome system - but I prefer to use my smaller, slower Netbook when I need something portable, since it let me install everything I wanted to use.

          As a second computer for quick online referencing, or for tucking into hand luggage to take on holiday (so long as you'll have reliable wi-fi available) the Chromebook is great. But in my view, there are cheaper and more useful alternatives. I would rate this with three-and-a-half stars I could; but will give four since I didn't pay for it.

          (Review originally published on Ciao)

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          • More +
            21.08.2013 14:55
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            A light book that will appeal most to girls between the age of about eight and twelve.

            It's only a little over a year ago that I first read a book by the British children's author Hilary McKay, on the recommendation of a fellow blogging book reviewer. I loved 'Saffy's Angel', and determined to get hold of others in the series, and also look into different series she had written.

            I bought 'The Exiles' from Amazon's marketplace when we were in the UK, for a couple of pounds including postage, and then read it a few months later. I very much enjoy reading older children's fiction when I feel like something light and undemanding. Children's fiction often has a depth of characterisation and an innocent charm that is sadly missing from the majority of contemporary fiction intended for adults.

            THE EXILES
            This book, which is the first in a trilogy, features the four Conroy sisters: Ruth, Naomi, Rachel and Phoebe. Their ages range from 13 (Ruth) down to 6 (Phoebe), which suggests that a similar range of ages could make up the potential readers

            The Conroys are quite unsophisticated girls, whom I took a liking to immediately. They're hanging out together when we first meet them, and it becomes clear that they don't at all like going to school... but are not particularly keen on the approaching summer holidays either. As they talk, it seems that they consider their lives to be rather dull, since they never go anywhere or do anything much outside the home. They don't even have a television. However, as we soon learn, all the girls read a vast number of books, and also manage to get into various scrapes at school and elsewhere.

            EXILED TO BIG GRANDMA'S
            The reason for the book's title soon becomes clear. The Conroy parents decide to do some major house renovations over the summer, and the girls - much to their horror - are packed off to stay with their rather scary grandmother (whom they barely know) for six weeks.

            'Big Grandma' turns out to be far less of a dragon than the girls feared. She listens to them, takes their concerns seriously, and is really very fond of them. However, she does expect her granddaughters to do some chores, to take responsibility for themselves, and to go out for daily walks, whatever the weather. Since these activities are new to them all, they all object stringently. Worse still, from their bookaholic perspective, she has no books in the house, other than a few recipe books and a large volume of Shakespeare. So they have no idea at all how they will spend the summer...

            MY OPINION OF THE BOOK
            I wasn't at all sure that I was going to enjoy this story at first. Although I did relate to the Conroy girls, their parents are barely mentioned. Perhaps they felt too ordinary to me - a dull book-lover myself as a child - but somehow the family did not have the instant humorous appeal of the Casson family of 'Saffy's Angel'.

            However, slowly and surely the characters all crept under my skin, and I found myself liking the story more and more. The pace is just right, in my view. There's a little light humour, here and there, and I very much appreciated the ways in which each of the girls gradually develop as individuals. The four girls are extremely likeable in their different ways, and felt quite believable, albeit in a slightly caricatured way at times. Ruth, who has a great imagination, is particularly interested in natural history. Naomi, who is more down to earth and practical, develops a keen interest in gardening. Rachel, the placid one of the family, who tends to be pushed around, starts to think for herself. The only one who doesn't change much is the vocal and precocious Phoebe, who takes very little notice of anyone, but exerts her own independence regularly.

            The climax of the story is somewhat predictable; at least, parts of it had been hinted at, and there was thus a growing tension, since I was quite sure that something dramatic would happen. When it did, it was well-written and exciting, with some parts that I was certainly not expecting. The ending of the story was perhaps a little too quick after the climax was over, but on the whole I thought it quite satisfactory. I found that the story as a whole reminded me at times of Noel Streatfeild's 'The Growing Summer', which I haven't read for many years. That also features children sent to stay with a relative whom they don't know very well, who gradually become more self-reliant.

            'The Exiles' is not a long book; I read it in a couple of hours, and enjoyed it very much, once I got into it. It's suitable for any age, but is likely to appeal most to confidently reading girls of between about eight and twelve. It would make a good read-aloud for slightly younger children, too - and is one of those classified as 'crossover' in that there is much to appeal to adults too.

            PRICE AND AVAILABILITY
            This book has been printed many times since it was first published in 2007, and is available in Kindle form as well as paperback. Amazon UK are currently selling a paperback edition for almost £10, which I think is over-priced for a children's book, although the Book Depository are showing it at a slightly more reasonable £7.50. Best value currently is Play.com who are offering used editions in good condition for under £2, postage free.

            (Review also on Ciao, based on one written originally for my book blog)

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            17.08.2013 13:49
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            A light and enjoyable book, most likely to be appreciated by women. Great holiday reading.

            GOOD HUSBAND MATERIAL - THE AUTHOR
            Trisha Ashley is a fairly prolific British writer of light, often mildly humorous women's fiction. The first time I read one of her novels, I found her somewhat informal writing style a bit difficult to get into, and was irritated by some apparently random switches from past to present tense. But as I started to become involved in the story, I enjoyed it more and more.

            I found the same to be true for subsequent books I read by this author. 'Chick-lit for the middle aged' was my overall opinion - and I don't mean that disparagingly. It was light, free from anything X-rated, and had a positive ending. I held out high hopes that this book would be similar.

            GOOD HUSBAND MATERIAL - INTRODUCTION
            Fergal is part of a popular pop band, and is reputed to live a shocking lifestyle. Regularly in the news for various scandals, he is introduced in the prologue to this novel when he recalls his first, somewhat dramatic meeting with 17-year-old Tish, and the year-long romance which followed. The title of the book, 'Good Husband Material', does not refer to Fergal!

            The majority of the book is told from Tish's point of view. Now thirty, comfortably married to the hard-working and somewhat stolid James, she longs for a place in the country. She writes popular romantic fiction, some of which is inspired by her memories of her first love. We quickly learn that she was badly hurt by Fergal when he left her abruptly to go on tour in America, and she is trying to forget him.

            James is a solicitor, with upwardly-mobile desires. He wants to mix with the right people, and would love Tish to have permed hair and wear smart dresses, like his colleagues' well-behaved wives. But Tish prefers jeans, and likes to think for herself. She will happily mix with anyone interesting. Unfortunately, her husband's colleagues do not fall into this category. She prefers ordinary people, such as the local general shopkeeper, or a hard-working lad who is not very bright, and likes to be paid in colourful magazines.

            While house-hunting, Tish falls in love with a country cottage in need of a great deal of renovation. James is not keen at all, and insists on offering a ludicrously low amount for it. This means that when the offer is accepted, he can hardly refuse. So they move, and Tish sets about turning into the house of her dreams...

            GOOD HUSBAND MATERIAL - MY OPINION
            It's fairly clear from the beginning of the book that Tish's teenage romance with Fergal is going to be re-kindled. That's how the chick-lit genre, in which I include Trisha Ashley's novels, seems to work. Since there are also brief snippets from Fergal interspersed with Tish's accounts, they are obviously going to meet again. Going by the author's other books, I decided that they would most likely have some conflict, and then finally get together. So I felt quite sorry for James at the start of the book; he seems a worthy, caring man, if somewhat dull.

            However it wasn't long before I lost any sympathy I had for him, even before his inevitable dalliances with other women. James, it turns out, is not just dull: he is thoughtless, snobbish, and something of a male chauvinist. He seems to consider Tish's writing career as little more than a hobby, and treats her more like a housekeeper than a wife. He expects his meals to be ready whatever time he arrives in from work, and all laundry to appear, clean and perfectly perfectly ironed, whenever needed.

            In her shoes, I would have rebelled much earlier than she did!

            While the main plot is pleasantly predictable, there are fascinating observations about village life, and some wonderful minor characters. I particularly liked Tish's eccentric and outspoken Granny, and I was very taken with the shopkeeper Mrs Deakin, who knows everything about everyone and likes nothing more than a good gossip with her customers. There is a hint of mystery about Tish's own past, and also about why James is spending increasing amounts of time away from home, but in both cases I easily guessed what was going on, long before Tish herself was enlightened. I wasn't surprised, either, at a more significant revelation near the end of the book which somehow startled Tish - but none of that mattered. Reality was nicely suspended, and while the characterisation isn't particularly deep, I certainly felt something for Tish.

            There's a bit of humour here and there; it didn't make me laugh out loud, but I certainly smiled a couple of times. The informal style was less intrusive than in other Trisha Ashley books I have read, although there are still a few tense-changes that jolted me a little. I was a bit surprised to realise that this was first published in 2000; rather than being the author's latest novel, it was the first one she ever had published.

            So, I'm happy to confirm that the book met my expectations. 'Good Husband Material' is light, and fluffy, and good fun. I read the second half of the book almost in one sitting and did not get bored for a moment.

            All in all, I would recommend this to anyone who likes the genre as ideal light holiday reading; it's available for the Kindle at just 99p, currently, as well as having been re-published in paperback: it can be bought new from Amazon at £3.85.

            (Review slightly adapted from one I originally wrote for The Bookbag; it is also on Ciao)

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            • Dixit / Board Game / 65 Readings / 63 Ratings
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              14.08.2013 14:56
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              An excellent and original board game with unusual large cards to inspire creativity.

              We love board games in our family. Our sons are now adults, and have left home, but we still play games regularly with local friends. So we were delighted when one set of friends turned up in March with a new game called Dixit which they had bought in the USA.

              The playing part of the game is simply a set of 84 large cards with brightly coloured and somewhat stylised images on them. There are also little square cards with numbers on them (1 to 6) and six little wooden rabbits, in six colours, for tracking the scores. The inside of the box, which stores the cards, doubles as the scoreboard - it's decorated to look a bit like a field for the rabbits to jump through.

              DESIGN AND DETAILS
              The images on the cards are quite stunning. I wouldn't want them enlarged and put on my wall, but as part of this game they're a delight. Most of them have a lot of detail, which can't all be taken in at once. The second time we played, we were convinced that there were some cards we had never seen the first time.

              The game is best played by 4-6 people, age 8 and up, and can take anything from about half an hour. It's a visual, creative game; the play is a little bit like that in Apples to Apples, and also slightly like Balderdash; but the images themselves are unique and the game particularly appealing to those who think visually.

              PLAYING THE GAME
              Each player is dealt five of the large picture cards, the others being placed face down on the table to form the stack. One person is allocated as the first 'storyteller'. Not that they tell a story - the idea is to select one of their cards, without letting anyone else see, and then say a word or phrase that is in some way connected with the image.

              The aim is for some - but not all - of the other players to guess correctly which of several cards matches this phrase. So the storyteller must choose something which is neither too obvious nor too subtle. A hard balance, sometimes. For instance, one of the more straightforward cards depicts a pair of ballet shoes. The storyteller might notice that, although empty, they are shown en pointe, and might say, 'Get the point!' Or perhaps their mind would wander, as mine would, to the Noel Streatfeild classic book for girls called 'Ballet Shoes', and say, 'Fossils' (the name of the family). This would work well if one (but not all) of those playing was also familiar with the book. Or they might focus on the fact that the shoes are empty, and say, 'Missing limbs'.

              As the storyteller says their phrase, the selected card is placed face down on the table.

              Then each of the other players selects a card from their hand which they feel is also, in some way, connected with the word or phrase, and places it face down with the first one.

              The storyteller picks all these cards up, glances at them to see what has been chosen, then lays them face up (including the original one) in a row on the table, without comment - other than numbering them from 1 to however many cards there are (maximum 6).

              Each player other than the storyteller tries to guess which card was the original one, on which the word or phrase was based. Which might sound easy, but it's surprising how often there is at least one card which seems to fit the theme rather better than the original.

              When each player has made their selection, they place the little coloured card with the relevant number down on the table. When all have placed a card, the storyteller turns them over, and lets everyone know which card was the original one.

              SCORING
              This is the most complex part of the game, in my view; we refer to the scoresheet every time for the fine details. Basically, if either everybody OR nobody guesses the correct card, then the storyteller gets no points. If just one or more (but not all) of the others guess it, both they and the storyteller score. Also, if one of the other players has their card chosen by another player, they also score.

              Each player's coloured rabbit is then moved the relevant number of spots along the scoring track, and everyone picks up another card from the stack, so that they have five to choose from.

              The next player, counting clockwise, then takes over as the storyteller.

              The game continues until all cards are used up. This means that in the final rounds, players will have fewer than five cards, and in the last round each will only have one. It's amazing how often even that final card will somehow have a connection with the storyteller's phrase.

              COMMENTS
              I'm happy to play almost any board game that has a mixture of skill and luck, and while I wouldn't want to play Dixit every week, it makes a nice change from our usual favourites. I'm not a visual person, and I find it remarkably difficult, sometimes, to come up with a suitable word or phrase that suits any of my cards - usually I either make it too obvious, so that everyone guesses, or too subtle, so that nobody gets it.

              On the other hand, I like the guessing part - it usually provokes much discussion, although of course each player must be careful not to indicate in any way which of the cards they have played. Possibilities for bluffing and double-bluffing at this stage are almost limitless, although it can get boring if this stage goes on for too long.

              I did wonder if the game would rather quickly grow old - that we would find it hard to come up with new ideas for phrases, or that we would get to know the cards so well that it became dull and predictable. I'm happy to say that this has not yet happened. Every game so far has been different, and everyone we have played it with has very much liked it.

              Eight is the recommended minimum age for this game; this is the stage where most children are able to think in metaphors reasonably easily, and come up with connected phrases rather than simple descriptions.

              Obviously it depends very much on the child; but while there's no reading involved, some younger children may find it hard to keep a straight face, and not to make it obvious which card they have played. Not that this matters if you're just playing for fun, and if the child doesn't care about winning; this game could be very good for helping young children to think laterally.

              If there are just three players, the two who are not storytelling in each round select two related cards from their hand rather than just one, so that there are five to choose from each round.

              I would recommend this to anyone who likes board games, with the proviso that it probably won't appeal to those who tend to be very literal in their language, or to people who like a lot of strategy in games. Nor is it really suitable to those who are highly competitive. However, it's ideal to play at a small, relaxed party, or for a bit of socialising with good friends.

              PRICE
              The basic game can be bought for about £22 from Amazon, which is a little over-priced, in my view, for what it is. It's just $22 from the US Amazon, so, depending on where you live, may be better value there even with postage taken into account.

              (Note: Review also appears on Ciao under my username)

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              • Musicroom.com / Online Shop / 57 Readings / 54 Ratings
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                10.10.2006 15:21
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                online shop for all books, sheet music and other necessities for musicians

                This site is the equivalent of Amazon for musicians. It contains a vast selection of sheet music, instrument teaching books, CDs and DVDs about music, and even some instruments and accessories. I've been using it for a couple of years now, to order books and other items for my sons: one is a pianist and guitarist, the other a clarinetist and drummer. Living abroad, we don't have the wide selection of music shops that can be found in the UK, so we were very pleased to discover this site. Although it's a British site, the address is http://www.musicroom.com

                Entering the site, the look is a little like that of Amazon UK. Smart and professional, without being flashy: a white background, and simple layout with clear links. There's typical 'browse' menus down one side, lists of bestsellers down the other, and new items linked in the centre, with a search box near the top. Above that are tabs to the main divisions of the site: sheet music, tuition books, school music, and so on.

                The search box can lead to further ways of browsing, much like on Amazon. For instance, if I enter the word 'clarinet', I'm taken to a page which has all the possible categories down the side for more specific browsing: sheet music for bands, strings, woodwind, tuition books, instructional DVDs, or accessories. But whereas Amazon UK has about 450 books of music related to the clarinet, Musicroom.com has over 4,000. For the more popular ones, Amazon is sometimes cheaper but for advanced musicians searching for rare products, I haven't found anywhere as good as Musicroom.

                When you click a product to find out more, there's usually a general publisher description, a list of songs or music included (if relevant), and - for sheet music - a 'skill level' indicator, which gives a rough idea of whether the music is adapted for beginners, slightly adjusted for intermediate students, or is advanced. This is an excellent idea, although unfortunately a significant amount of the music hasn't been given a skill level. Similarly, each product has a section for user reviews, but very few of them seem actually to have been reviewed. Perhaps as the site gains in popularity, more people will take the time to leave a paragraph or two about the items they have ordered.

                To order a product, the process is familiar for anyone who's ordered books online: you register with your email address and a password (or log in if you have previously registered) then simply click to add an item to your basket. There's even a wishlist system, like that on Amazon, to store links to products you might be interested in but don't want to buy at once. Assuming you have ordered what you want, there's a standard checkout with secure entry for your address, credit card details, and so on. Then there's a chance to change the order, and a final confirmation page which can be printed, although they also send an email.

                About a year ago I had a new credit card, and there were problems with several online sites since it's a British card, with registered address is in Cyprus. The rules on money laundering and security have been tightened, and several companies wouldn't accept the card without further evidence that it was valid. For Play.com we had to fax a copy of the latest statement. Musicroom.com, however, was happy simply to accept my word that this situation is indeed valid. They sent an email asking the question and apologising for the inconvenience, and then processed the order shortly after I replied.

                For those in the UK, postage and packing is £1.99 for orders up to £15, free for orders over £15. It's also possible to choose UPS, with next day delivery; delivery prices are higher, but for orders over £99 that goes free too.

                In the rest of the European Union, orders over £25 have free postage; those under that amount cost £3.99. This is a huge saving for us when compared to Amazon UK, who still consider Cyprus as 'rest of the world' rather than EU. But even for non-EU buyers, Musicroom.com's postage prices are not unreasonable: £4.99 for the first item, £1.50 for each subsequent item, and orders over £99 are postage free.

                Since I like to take advantage of free postage, we've ensured that all our orders are over £25, combining tuition and sheet music books two or three times per year. We've never yet had a parcel go astray, and they've always arrived within about ten days of dispatch. A couple of times items went out of stock, but then they sent the items they had at once rather than waiting until they had everything we wanted.

                For those outside the UK ordering expensive items, or wanting something more secure than airmail, there's an option to use DHL. Even this is free if your order is high-priced enough (over £99 in Europe, or £299 in the rest of the world), otherwise it starts at £16.50. Since we've only ever ordered books, we've never bothered with this option.

                However, we recently discovered that the site is selling didgeridoos at under £20. We would not normally buy instruments unseen, but didgeridoos don't have fine tuning, and one of our sons - who is currently abroad - has wanted one for years. I don't know how they managed to offer such excellent value, particularly since they are, according to the site, made under fair trading and ethical principles. But it seemed too good a bargain to miss. So we ordered one, along with a couple of books to take the amount over the free postage barrier.

                I was startled to find, two days later, a DHL man at the door. One didgeridoo, wrapped in oceans of bubble-wrap, and two books. We had not asked for DHL delivery, and I wasn't charged anything for postage, so I'm sure they must have made a loss on this sale. Perhaps it's because we're regular customers, or perhaps they take this much care for everyone. Whatever the reason, we were very impressed.

                Are there any drawbacks? The only minor one I've found, other than the lack of reviews and skill levels in some products, is that the search engine doesn't always give me what I'm looking for unless I'm very specific - or I have to trawl through dozens of pages to find something. There doesn't seem to be any way of refining a search, other than clicking the category list at the side. Still, this is a minor disadvantage. If I know exactly what I'm looking for, it's not usually too hard to find.

                Of course, it's a fairly specialist site. If you and your family and friends are not interested in music, you won't want to go there. If you have a good local music shop that sells all you want at reasonable prices, there's no reason to visit an online music supplier either. But if, like us, you have a frequent need for sheet music or other supplies, and no useful local providers, I would highly recommend musicroom.com.

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                • More +
                  04.10.2006 15:43
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                  A good light read for holidays

                  Anna is an Anglican vicar's wife in a small village. As the book opens, her husband Peter has just been refused a promotion that would have increased his salary, and he's feeling rather depressed about it. At the same time their 10-year-old daughter Flora is being badly bullied in school. Anna, who has felt like an unpaid curate for the past twenty years, without any vocation - and not even any definite faith - decides to take matters into her own hands. So she gets a job as a supermarket packer, in order to send Flora to a private school. Unfortunately Peter sees this as proof that she thinks he is inadequate, and some of the ladies of the parish consider it a disgrace, if not outright defiance.

                  In a way it's a 'coming of age' book, except that the heroine discovers indepedence twenty years later than would be expected. I found I quickly warmed to Anna, who simply wants to be herself: a person in her own right, rather than simply being known as the Rector's wife. I've known one or two Vicar's wives who found it extremely stressful being thought of as an appendage to their husbands. They were unable to make close friends (for fear of favouritism) and felt that they had to compete sometimes not just with God, but with the demands of their parish - almost worse than another woman.

                  So it seemed quite believable to me that Anna finds herself torn between her wish to support Peter in every way possible, and her need to help her daughter. Flora is a creative, original soul who simply doesn't get along in a large state primary school. But Joanna Trollope isn't really casting aspersions on state education, although she could have done so. We're told that Anna's older children were quite happy in the same school, some years previously. Flora's predicament is simply one of several factors in Anna's need to make a stand.

                  Inevitably for this author, there's a romantic interest through the book. As Peter becomes more withdrawn and uncommunicative, three quite different men come into Anna's life: the new Archdeacon, his agnostic brother, and a wealthy businessman. All three of them find Anna very attractive, and this too is a factor in her 'growing up' - suddenly she realises that she's a woman!

                  I first read 'The Rector's Wife' about six years ago, and remember enjoying it. When I re-read it recently, I had almost entirely forgotten what happened. I couldn't remember whether or not Anna became involved with one of these three men, and if so which. I had also forgotten what happened in her marriage, and whether or not Flora was happier in the Roman Catholic convent school where her mother sent her.

                  All in all it was a good light read. I felt that it delved quite deeply into the feelings of the people concerned without being predictable. Although some of the parishioners were somewhat caricatured, making a bit of pleasant light relief at times, the main characters of Anna and her family were very well portrayed.

                  My first slight gripe is that while the author obviously knew a fair amount about church politics and rural living, it felt that she was writing from outside a Christian perspective. Not that this is necessarily a problem, but it meant that some things didn't quite ring true - in particular Peter's reasons for some of the things he did, and some comments from the Archdeacon. However I doubt if this would be at all obvious to most casual readers.

                  The only other disadvantage was that I didn't find the book particularly moving, even though some distressing circumstances were described. I liked the characters, but did not feel as if I knew them. I would have liked to read more about Anna's relationship with her children, but the glimpses were fleeting and often fraught.

                  Still, overall I would recommend it to anyone interested in light village type novels. It's under 300 pages so ideal for a wet weekend or a holiday.

                  Amazon have this book in paperback published by Black Swan, ISBN 0552994707 for £5.59, and play.com have it for £5.49, postage free within Europe. There are also audio versions, either abridged or unabridged, and a large text print edition for those with sight problems.

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                  • More +
                    24.09.2006 17:14
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                    Excellent and inexpensive camera in a great range by Canon

                    We had a basic digital camera for a couple of years, which was fine for web photographs, but not good enough quality for prints. In July last year I managed to lose it. It was the excuse we needed to look for a better one! With our first, we did almost no research. This time, we spent several weeks considering all the options. We looked at camera shops locally to find out what various makes felt like, and how easy they were to use. We researched online, and were particularly impressed with the site dpreview.com which gives full specifications for every camera, a gallery showing what kinds of pictures can be taken, and a useful search facility for narrowing the choice down.

                    We had several criteria in our minds which immediately ruled out quite a few possibilities:

                    - Size: we didn't like the very lightweight cameras. They feel flimsy to us, even if they're quite strong, and it's hard to hold them steady. We wanted something that felt reasonably substantial, and decided that 150g was the minimum. On the other hand, I wanted something small enough to fit in my handbag.

                    - Zoom: we wanted an optical zoom. Our old camera had no zoom facility at all, and that was often a disadvantage. Digital zooming has no advantage over zooming in on images with a photo editor, but an optical zoom allows close-up photos from some distance. A little experimentation and research told us that 3x optical zooming was the minimum we wanted, preferably 4x.

                    - Batteries: we wanted a camera that took ordinary A4 batteries. Digital cameras do get through batteries quite fast, so we wanted readily-available replacements and the possibility of using rechargeable batteries.

                    - Memory card: my husband wanted to ensure that the camera would take a non-specialist memory card - one that could be found at various places rather than being brand-specific, and which was unlikely to be discontinued.

                    - Budget: we had a maximum budget of £200. We weren't particularly worried about the megapixels, realising that these days most digital cameras can take pictures with resolution good enough for prints. There are very few that have less than 3 megapixels, and with a good lens we could expect results as good as from a 35mm film camera.


                    Using the dpreview site, we narrowed the field down to about twelve possibilities. Then we browsed their galleries, to find out what kind of quality we could expect. Not surprisingly, we found all the cameras we had chosen (or similar ones, if there were no pictures for the actual models) produced good photographs. But both of us noticed an unexpected theme: the Canon camera pictures were not just good, they were outstanding. The colours were bright and realistic, the subjects were sharp but not artificially so. On my flatscreen monitor, the differences were even more obvious: some cameras were good, but the Canons were brilliant.

                    There were four Canon cameras that fit all our criteria. Two of them, the A85 and A95, were older models which had been upgraded to the other two possibilities: the Powershot A510 and A520. Since the older ones were more expensive, and took four batteries rather than two, we decided to buy one of the Powershot models. The A510 was cheaper, but it also had lower resolution: 3 megapixels as opposed to 4.

                    We looked at local shops, and browsed several online stores. Eventually it became clear that the cheapest place for us to buy a camera was Amazon UK, which (at the time) was selling either of these cameras bundled with a free case. The A520 was £165, and a 256 megabyte memory card would cost us another £15. So since we could get all we needed for around £180, we decided to opt for the A520.

                    We've used it now for over a year, and are extremely pleased with it. In its most basic mode, it's very easy to use, even for someone like me with little technical awareness. A button on the top switches it on or off, a little knob at the right adjusts the zoom, and a button in the middle of it is for taking pictures. There's an ordinary camera viewfinder as well as the usual LCD screen on the back, and if I want to see what's on the camera already there's a little switch on the back which enables me to go into viewing mode rather than taking more pictures.

                    Equally, there are many varied settings for the more advanced user. There's quite a complex manual, full of diagrams and technical detail, although my sons assure me it's mostly intuitive. I learned easily enough how to switch off the flash, how to go into 'macro' mode which allows extreme close-ups (for instance of flowers), and how to use alternative settings such as those intended for snowy days, or for artificial light.

                    Obviously a big advantage of a digital camera is the ability to experiment without wasting film, and the A520 has plenty of scope for experimentation. I particularly liked the 'panoramic' mode, which enables me to take several photos, moving around, and then 'stitch' them together on my computer. One of my sons likes being able to adjust the focus, the shutter speed and the f-stop, as with a manual camera, and my husband is pleased to learn that it's possible to attach other lenses. Not that we have any need to at present: the quality is every bit as good as we had expected. We've had prints made of several of the photographs taken, and they're excellent quality.

                    Transferring photos to the computer isn't very difficult either. We had to instal some software from a CD which came with the camera, but that didn't take long. Now all I have to do to upload photos is to plug in the USB lead (also supplied), turn the camera on, and switch it to viewing mode. This prompts the camera software to open on my computer, and shows me all the photographs currently on the camera. I'm not an expert at learning how to use new software, but it was all quite straightforward. The software for organising the photographs is rather basic so I don't use that; instead, I open Google's Picasa software and edit or sort my photos in that. For some reason, Picasa will not recognise the Canon camera, but this is only a minor inconvenience.

                    There's a video clip mode which we've used occasionally: it will take up to about 30 seconds at a time of fairly low-quality video, including sound. Useful if you want to catch something quickly and only have your camera to hand, but obviously nothing like the quality of a video camera.

                    The battery life is considerably better than that of our previous camera. Of course, if we use it a lot (particularly with the flash) and then look on the LCD screen at what we've taken, they won't last long. But for regular use - a few snaps here and there, mostly without flash - I find a pair of batteries lasts at least a month or two, sometimes more. We did try using rechargeable batteries for a while, but were not so impressed with those as they seemed to run down more frequently. But inexpensive regular batteries are just as good as the higher-priced ones, in our experience.

                    There are several different qualities of picture that can be taken; but with our extra memory card we can fit nearly 200 highest-quality photos on the camera, so it's rare that we bother to reduce the quality. When I want to send a picture to someone, or use it on my blog, I Picasa to reduce the size to something suitable for a screen, but when we're having prints made it's best to use the highest possible quality. It's rare for me to take as many as 200 pictures in a month, so I leave them all on the camera when I'm uploading them to my computer until the end of each month, when I make a CD backup.

                    Of course, companies improve their range all the time, and I see that it's now less easy to get hold of an A520. Amazon has them available at the Marketplace, and there are two new editions: the A530 (at just over £110) and the A540 (at £140). They look very similar to our A520, with yet more megapixels.

                    Since buying this camera, we've seen more and more people using digital cameras, and had the opportunity to compare results. Taken overall, it seems that our initial conclusion was correct: most of them take good pictures, but those from Canon cameras are stunning. Naturally the results from our A520 aren't as good as those from the highest-priced cameras used by professionals, but compared to other basic digital cameras in this price range (and, indeed, some more highly priced) this one stands out for quality.

                    Highly recommended for anyone looking for an inexpensive but good quality digital camera.

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                    • Directfoto / Other Service / 44 Readings / 41 Ratings
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                      15.09.2006 15:03
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                      Excellent photo processing, for prints from digital or film cameras

                      When we first bought a digital camera, we assumed that we would make our own prints from those we wanted to put in albums or on walls. No more waste of films and processing pictures we didn't like. Or so we thought.

                      Unfortunately, our printer wasn't good enough, and the results were disappointing. They were also remarkably expensive: by the time we'd bought specialist photo paper, and replenished the ink cartridges, and made two or three prints before we got it right, the cost for a photo-sized print was two or three pounds. So much for the saving on buying film... particularly when the mail-order company we used, DirectFoto, offered a new film alongside full processing for 24 prints for under £3.

                      Then, a couple of years ago, I realised that DirectFoto were offering a service for digital prints. Send them a CD and they would produce the photos. We tried this, and were very pleased with the results and the price. A few months later, I discovered that they had a web-site where digital photos could be uploaded, so that the ordering could be done online. Since we're not in the UK, I opted to do this, despite (at the time) a rather unfriendly layout to the site, and slow uploading procedures.

                      Fast-forward, as they say, to 2006. The site has been redesigned. The upload process is easy to use, and while uploading large photos naturally takes some time, a whole directory can be uploaded at once so that I can continue doing other things on the computer while it's happening in the background. The quality continues to be good, the prices seem to get less every few months, and even the speed of dispatch isn't bad. We usually find prints are in our mailbox about ten days after the online order; if we were in the UK, it would be around a week. No good if you're terribly impatient and need your prints within an hour or two, but fine if - like me - you only want to make an order every couple of months.

                      The site is http://www.directfoto.co.uk/

                      It loads quickly; it looks professional and reasonably attractive without being garish or flashy. There's a basic menu down one side, a few special offers down the other, and the main part of the site is linked from the middle. At the top are two options for making prints, and one for gift ideas such as prints on tee-shirts, mugs or jigsaws. Lower down are links for the shop, which has items such as paper, memory sticks or batteries.

                      Now here's my one slight reservation about the site. Along the top of the screen, are three boxes: Digital prints, Online albums, and Photo Gifts. Which one would you expect to use for ordering prints? Well.. a friend of mine chose the first ('Digital Prints') option. It advertises prints from 6p each, with 15 free if your order is over £2.50, so it seemed the logical one to choose. Clicking the link leads to two possible ways of uploading the photos - and it's all very straightforward.

                      Unfortunately, this system doesn't store the photographs anywhere, so if there's a temporary lapse from the Internet provider, or if someone clicks away from the page before the order is copmlete, all uploads are lost. My friend spent about two hours trying to order 80 prints of a wedding, then - without thinking - went to a different site to check something else, without keeping the DirectFoto window open. She lost all her uploads and had to start again.

                      I have always used the second possibility for making prints: that of uploading my pictures to an online album (which can then be shared with anyone I wish) before ordering. I'm impressed that DirectFoto keeps the photos indefinitely, so I can make further orders if I wish. I wondered if they would delete albums that had not been viewed for a while, but on checking recently mine are all still there, including some I uploaded a year ago.

                      However, it's not immediately clear from the front page that prints can be ordered easily from online albums - hence why my friend did not choose this option. Possibly it's because they don't want to encourage people to store all their digital photos at their expense! But this is the option I would definitely recommend. You have to register to store prints in albums, but it's straightforward and free. As far as I know, there isn't even a limit to how many pictures can be uploaded and stored.

                      Slightly confusingly, you still click the 'register' button even on returning, then enter your email address and password afterwards. This page opens a new window on a separate part of the site, with the address http://directfoto.shareaphoto.com/index.jsp - so if you have a popup-blocker you may need to disable it for this site. I have never seen any advertising or other popups on the site, so it's not a problem.

                      Having logged in, the procedure is simple. I'm not particularly technically aware, but I had no trouble choosing 'Upload your photos' and then selecting the images from my hard drive which I wanted to print. If your computer has java installed, a whole directory can be uploaded at once; if not, there's a little 'click here' notice that leads to a basic upload tool, enabling just five pictures at a time to be sent to the site. This is a little tedious - but other things can be done at the same time. I've used both systems, and much prefer the java one, but for some reason it doesn't always work properly.

                      Obviously you can upload any size of photograph, but it's best to send the highest quality possible. Directfoto will warn you if something is too small to give a good quality print, although of course they can't check for things like blurring or camera-shake!

                      Having uploaded photos, they can be arranged in albums, or you can select the 'order' button and then select the ones you want to be printed. The checkout - which works much like any other online ordering site - gives thumbnails of everything in your basket, so you can choose more than one, or different sizes of print. You can also choose a basic cropping tool if the photo is not the right format; if you don't select that, the print may arrive with white bars down the sides.

                      Standard details - address, card number, etc - are entered securely after you've made your final selection, and you'l receive a confirmation page once you've submitted the order.

                      The last order I made was for 60 photos of size 15cm x 10cm. They were 10p each, but I was able to enter their promotion code '15free' which meant that I only paid for 45 of them. With £1.25 for postage, that means the entire cost was £5.75 - remarkable value, in my opinion. If I had ordered more than 100, I would have received a further discount.

                      There are, of course, several such sites available now, with similar prices and quality. However I have been very pleased with DirectFoto and see no reason to change. I was particularly impressed, a couple of months ago, when there was a problem with the 'worldbank' system they use for payment. This was nothing to do with DirectFoto as such, and there did not seem to be any problem with the order when I made it. However the following morning I received an apologetic email giving me their phone number, asking if I would give the details again.

                      I phoned, and spoke to a very friendly woman who said she had in front of her a list of all orders made during the problem period. She assured me that my order had gone through, and the only problem was that it wasn't yet paid for. The credit card details weren't visible to the company, apparently. She chatted while searching for my details, despite having had to spend a considerable amount of time dealing with other customers, sorting out someone else's problem! She took my details, and asked for my phone number in case there was any further problem (there wasn't).

                      Ironically, I felt happier about DirectFoto after this conversation. It's when something goes wrong that a company's true colours show, and it seemed to me that they handled it extremely well.

                      They still do regular film processing too. You can't order these online (obviously!) but their envelopes seem to appear fairly regularly in magazines or junk mail, with prices ranging from about £1.80 to £2.99 for any 35mm film, plus around 70p postage. Sometimes a free film is included in the offer, sometimes not. Having tried several companies over many years, we felt this was one of the most reliable and economical, producing excellent results every time. They also offer a full enlargement service. There are contact details on the website, so anyone unable to find a Directfoto envelope could ask the company to send one.

                      All in all, highly recommended.

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                        10.09.2006 17:12
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                        Romance, history, drama: sequel to 'Cross Stitch'.

                        Bonnie Prince Charlie! That name conjures up many different images in people's minds. Was he a great romantic hero whose army was tragically defeated, or a self-centred power-seeker who cared little for his men?

                        We shall never know for certain, but reading the book Dragonfly in Amber', I began at last to get an idea of what life could have been like for the Scottish armies in the 1740s, and the reasons why so many people followed the young prince into the ill-fated battle of Culloden.

                        This novel is actually the story of Clare and Jamie Fraser, sequel to the book 'Cross Stitch'. But it's not a straightforward historical novel: Clare was born in the 20th century and accidentally went back 200 years in time in the first novel, so the conditions and people of 18th century Scotland are seen from the perspective of someone not unlike ourselves. It's a clever device, and one I found very effective. I don't usually read books that centre on armies and battles, but I've found both these books gripping.

                        'Dragonfly in Amber' begins in 1968, with Clare back in the 20th century visiting Scotland with her grown-up daughter Brianna. Clare commissions a young historian called Roger to do some research for her, and then - after several chapters - sits down to tell him and Brianna her story. Until this point Brianna had no idea that her mother had been back in time, or that her father was from 200 years previously.

                        So the bulk of the book is a continuation of 'Cross Stitch', beginning with Clare and Jamie in France, where they had fled after his life was in danger at the end of the first novel. Clare is well aware of the horrors to come with Culloden, where thousands of Scots are to be slaughtered, and hopes that they might somehow be able to thwart Prince Charlie"s attempt to regain the Scottish crown.

                        I had mixed feelings reading this book. The opening chapters seemed to me rather disjointed, not helped by switches between first person and third person narration. Brianna is a rather flat character so it was difficult for me to relate to her, and there were some anachronisms that were mildly irritating. These weren't in the main historical section, which was excellently researched, but in the early part of the book when the author (who is American) slipped up more than once in her use of English. For instance she has characters talk about a 'geyser' in the bathroom, rather than a boiler.

                        Had I not previously read 'Cross Stitch', I think I might have given up. However I was eager to know what happened to Jamie and Clare, and most of all what had persuaded Clare to return to the 20th century. For theirs was an incredible romance - deeply-rooted, strong and passionate, despite entirely different backgrounds and upbringings.

                        Besides, Jamie is a fascinating character, albeit a typecast hero: well over 6 foot tall, handsome, generous, erotic and powerful.

                        I found the answers to my questions, and learned a great deal about life amongst Scottish armies as well. On the whole, as with the first book, the goriness and horrors were described lightly. There was enough description to make me aware of what was going on, yet not sufficient to give me nightmares. All except for one section, which I could not even bring myself to read after the first paragraph. This was the detailed and vivid description of what it meant to be 'hung, drawn and quartered' - the terrible punishment awaiting traitors. I had previously assumed that the quartering took place after the victim had died. But apparently (even without reading the majority of the description) this process was only carried out by expert executioners and was designed to cause the maximum agony for the longest possible time.

                        Other than this - which seemed to me quite unecessary - I was able to read of stabbings and other deaths without too much emotional involvement. Inevitably Culloden was going to happen. The idea of altering history has often been proposed in science fiction books, but any such changes always seem to bring about even worse consequences. There are many other more minor threads of this sort lying through the book too: what happens to people in the 20th century if their ancestors die unnaturally early? What changes happen if Clare (who is a 'healer', well-versed in herbalism) saves the life of someone who would otherwise have died?

                        The author deals with these problems satisfactorily, I felt, in a down-to-earth kind of way. I'm not a huge fan of time-travel books in general, but there was really no science fiction element at all in this novel.

                        It took me over two weeks to read it, and I'm quite a fast reader. It's nearly 1000 pages, and I didn't find it exciting enough to abandon everything else and read continuously, at least not until I got to the last 100 pages. However, when I reached the section about Clare returning to the 20th century, and the reactions of Brianna and Roger to her story, I was utterly gripped! The ending of the book was excellent with an unexpected final cliffhanger that ensured I went straight ahead and bought the third book in the series, 'Voyager'.

                        Three stars for the first section, four for the middle, five for the last. So an average of four. If this kind of book interests you, I would highly recommend reading 'Cross Stitch' beforehand, as I think it would be very confusing trying to read this one first. There are too many events that are referred to, which would not make sense without the background of 'Cross Stitch'. There's not too much repetition of the previous book, which was good from my perspective (flashbacks of that sort can become tedious), but it does mean that it really has to be read as a sequel.

                        Published in paperback in 1994 by Arrow, 'Dragonfly in Amber' costs £6.39 from Amazon UK, or £5.99 from Play.com, postage free in Europe.

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                          02.03.2006 16:33
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                          A pleasant modern novel of family life and romance, revolving around a hotel.

                          This is the story of Genevieve Baxter: thirty-something, dyslexic, recovered anorexic, and still nursing a broken heart from a teenage romance. As the novel opens she is almost single-handedly running her parents' country hotel, Paradise House. Her mother recently had some kind of mid-life crisis and disappeared across the world, and so when Genevieve's previous job came to an unpleasant end, she returned home to help her father - temporarily, she hopes. She has two younger sisters but neither of them is much help.

                          So, a good basis for one of Erica James' village-style romance novels. The three sisters have quite distinct characters, and their father is a delightfully practical man, who thinks nothing of himself and everything of his daughters. Just to add to the cast there's an outspoken grandmother, a four-year-old girl, and a selection of local friends and acquaintances.

                          Inevitably the object of Genevieve's broken heart reappears, and much of the book is concerned with the question of whether they can re-establish a relationship. Underlying that is Genevieve's search for her future: there's a sense that she has drifted since recovering from her illness, but realises that she does not want to stay forever as general dogsbody in nominal charge of someone else's dream. Yet she lacks confidence. The book is mostly told from her perspective, so we get quite an insight into her thought processes, which makes her seem very real.

                          It's exactly the kind of book I usually enjoy thoroughly, and by the time I was half-way through I was completely absorbed. Some of the characters are movingly portrayed, and by the final climax of the book I found tears coming to my eyes more than once.

                          On the other hand, it was quite an effort to get to the stage of being half-way through. The first few chapters grated. They felt almost as if they were a first draft, where the author wrote down all the details about Genevieve's surroundings, friends, family, and past history. All information which is very important to a writer to know, but which isn't really of much interest to a reader. I found the number of characters quite confusing at first, too, with no real way of working out which were going to be the important ones.

                          I suppose the idea was to portray Genevieve's life and perceptions accurately. As she had known all these people all her life, she might well have had anecdotes about them going through her mind. As a reader, though, I found these reflections confusing and distracting, and I felt that the first few chapters could have done with some thorough editing. I particularly found it unhelpful when scenes from the past intruded into the present. An entire flashback section is fine - indeed, one occurs shortly after the start of the novel, when Genevieve tells a friend in depth about her teenage romance and how it ended. That works well. But the minor flashbacks within the main body of the text make it difficult to read, and in general (in my opinion) are not necessary.

                          I also found the style a little annoying at times. The book is written quite casually with a lot of contractions: 'she'd decided' and 'he'd always been a good friend'.. and so on, rather than 'she had' or 'he had'. Minor, I know, and in conversation these are entirely natural. If the story had been written in the first person, they would have come across as Genevieve's voice, and that would have worked. But it was told in the third person, and this stopped it from flowing smoothly.

                          Then my final problem with this novel is there are a lot of places where other characters are subjectively described. We have to take Genevieve's word for it that one of her sisters is dreamy and the other irritable, and that certain behaviours of theirs are typical. But as it's not written in the first person, it just feels like the author telling us what to think. I would prefer to have seen more of the behaviour in action and drawn my own conclusions, rather than being given descriptions before I got to know the characters in the book.

                          Nevertheless, despite all these criticisms, I kept going. I have enjoyed nearly all of Erica James' novels (other than 'The Holiday'), and her book 'Precious Time' is one of my all-time favourites. So I thought it only fair to give this book a chance, and I'm glad I did. Once I began to understand the significant characters, and could put aside the minor ones in my mind, I began to relate strongly to several of them. It took me about four days to read the first hundred and fifty pages... and then just one day to finish the rest of the book! It's just under 450 pages in all, so that last day was quite a mammoth effort, but by the time I was half-way through I could barely put it down.

                          After I had finished the book, it occurred to me that little was made of Genevieve's dyslexia; I felt as if it was researched rather experienced by the author. It was often mentioned as something that caused her embarrassment in childhood, and references were made to her inability to spell and her dislike of writing letters; yet this could have been omitted entirely without changing the course of the novel. Other illnesses and disabilities, however, were included far more believably.

                          So overall, four stars. A pleasant easy read without any deep issues to consider. More plot and characterisation than chick-lit, faster-paced than a village novel, and not as thought-provoking as a family saga.

                          The paperback edition is published by Orion, costing £5.59 from Amazon.co.uk, or £5.49 delivered from Play.com.

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                            13.02.2006 15:59
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                            Enjoyable light humour in this 'Witches' novel in the Discworld series

                            For those unfamiliar with the Discworld series, it takes place on a disc-shaped imaginary world with a culture that's roughly mediaeval in technology, but ultra-modern in outlook. Humans mix reasonably comfortably with dwarfs, trolls, vampires, witches, werewolves... and yet it's not really science fiction, or even fantasy, in the general sense of those genres. Terry Pratchett writes with ironic humour, and even a little pathos at times, cleverly pointing out the eccentricities of life that we so often take for granted.

                            This is a book about Discworld witches. Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg and Magrat are trying to form a coven. At least, that's what Magrat wants. She is the youngest, newest witch in the neighbourhood and would love to do things traditionally. She has yet to come to terms with the relaxed and permissive lifestyle of Nanny Ogg or the practical 'headology' taught by the austere Granny Weatherwax.

                            Meanwhile, the King of Lancre just happens to be murdered by a Duke. The Duke is apparently next in line to the throne, and is persuaded to commit the murder by his loud and ambitious wife.

                            Does that sound vaguely familiar?

                            Yes, this book is an overt spoof on Shakespeare's 'MacBeth'. With a sprinkling of 'Hamlet', just to make it more interesting, and a touch of 'King Lear'. Familiarity with these plays definitely enhances the enjoyment of 'Wyrd Sisters', although it's not vital.

                            A baby, the son of the murdered King (complete with the royal crown), is rushed from the palace by a lone horseman. This brave man hands the baby to the witches before dropping dead. The three decide that they can't possibly look after a small child, so they pass him on to a band of travelling players and hide the crown...

                            The story veers well away from Shakespeare many times, although I expect the Bard would enjoy it thoroughly if he were still alive. Time passes - at times considerably more quickly than usual - and eventually the baby, now grown-up, arrives back in Lancre.

                            But the plot really isn't all that important. This is a light-hearted book, one to make you laugh out loud if you're so inclined, or at least smile inwardly. There are some lovely images, and references not just to Shakespeare but to classic fairytales: for instance, Granny and Nanny knew personally the witch responsible for the Sleeping Beauty. Apparently she lived in a gingerbread house. Perhaps all fiction in one world is a slightly garbled version of reality in another.

                            Slightly unusually for Discworld books, 'Wyrd Sisters' is very much character-driven, with the focus primarily on the three witches and the contrast between them. The short, dumpy Nanny Ogg is an earthy type who enjoys a drink (or several) in an evening, and has clearly led a very colourful life. When she's been on the beer, she starts to sing - and her choice of song is generally rather embarrassing to those around her.

                            Granny Weatherwax is different. She's tall and thin, frugal and strict. Like Nanny she is very caring, although she hates to admit it. She refuses to meddle in politics, doesn't like 'magic' of the wizardly sort, denies any kind of positive emotion, and yet does all she can to assist those whom she cares for.

                            The newest witch, Magrat, is idealistic and naive. She has studied hard with many books, yet she is mostly unaware of the way men and women are supposed to interact. She becomes friendly with the palace fool: a young man who clearly isn't a fool at all, but who trained at the Fool's Guild because that's what all his family did. So there's even a hint of romance in this book.

                            Of course Terry Pratchett doesn't appeal to everyone. I'm not really a fan of science fiction or fantasy in general, but I love Pratchett's books. Some fans of serious fantasy find him frivolous, even silly. So, for that matter, do people who prefer serious documentary style books, or realistic novels set in familiar surroundings. You won't learn much from this book, although you might find yourself wondering about the nature of story-telling. There isn't even a great deal that's thought-provoking, unlike some of the more recent books in the series. I suppose you might possibly be inspired to re-read some of Shakespeare's works as a result of 'Wyrd Sisters', but then again you might not. I wasn't, and I've read this book three times now.

                            Still, if you want something to lighten your mood, or feel like spending a few hours being frivolous, this is an excellent book to pick up. Suitable for adults or teengagers; indeed there's no reason why fluently reading younger children shouldn't enjoy it too, although they would probably miss many of the references. My younger son was about nine when he first read 'Wyrd Sisters', but he enjoyed it more when he was about fourteen.

                            All in all, I would recommend it highly for an enjoyable light read. There's no need to have read any other Discworld books beforehand since this stands alone, although it works quite well to read 'Witches Abroad' soon after.

                            As with most of Terry Pratchett's books, this has stayed in print ever since it was first published (which, for this book, was 1989). Amazon.co.uk have the paperback version for £5.59 or second-hand from their marketplace starting from about 90p. Play.com have it at the same price, delivery included within Europe.

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                              06.12.2005 17:06
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                              For healthier veggies, excellent rice, and perfect Christmas puddings! Recommended

                              I had often considered having an electric steamer. Partly to save space on my cooker hob when I want to cook a lot of vegetables, and partly because steaming is considered one of the healthiest ways to cook: it adds no fat, but it doesn't reduce vitamins and minerals as much as boiling does. So when a guest offered to buy us a kitchen appliance, I chose a steamer.

                              Electric steamers all work on similar principles. A heating element at the bottom of the machine is filled with water, then covered with a drip tray. Over that a number of baskets are placed, either stainless steel or plastic, with small holes in the bottom a little like those of a colander. Food is placed inside one or more of the baskets, and a timer is set. No mess, no possiblity of it boiling over, and perfect vegetables at the end. Or so the theory goes.

                              I didn't read any reviews on steamers since I didn't expect to have a wide choice, so I was surprised to find five or six different possibilities, all between about £30 and £45. I was first tempted by a neat-looking Tefal steamer, which wouldn't take up too much space on my worktop; however our guest pointed out that with a family of four - and frequent visitors - we would be better off with rather larger baskets, and that three would be better than two. He suggested the Morphy Richards 48850 steamer which was labelled 'Healthsteam'.

                              There were samples of all the steamers on display so we took them apart to compare. They all had plastic baskets which felt a bit flimsy, and this bothered me somewhat. However the Morphy Richards version came with a two-year guarantee and it's a name we trust. When I discovered that it also had a good instruction guide and an interesting looking recipe book, I decided to opt for that one.

                              Putting it together was reasonably easy, once I realised that the baskets had to be stacked in a particular order. Eventually I spotted that the handles were labelled 'top', 'middle' and 'bottom', to make this easier! The bases are easily removable from the baskets, although a little awkward to fix back in place. The instruction guide was straightforward and clear, and while the recipe book didn't tell me how to steam different types of vegetables, it did give some delicious sounding healthy meals which could be cooked entirely (or almost so) in the steamer. It had not occurred to me that I could steam fish or chicken breast, but the booklet assured me I could.

                              To use the steamer, the base has to be filled with clean water, then the plastic funnel and the drip tray slot over it. On top of that the basket or baskets containing food are placed, then a lid goes on the top basket to contain the steam. Obviously if cooking meat or chicken, they need to be in the lowest basket, so raw juices do not drip over vegetables underneath! When steaming just one type of food, only the top basket should be used since the lid fits it.

                              The timer can be set for an hour at most; when it has finished the machine pings. In general this is sufficient for most steaming, but if more is needed then it's easy enough to set it for more time after the first hour. If so, then extra water must be added: there is a convenient slot in the side which means that it's easy to pour water in without having to disassemble a steaming hot appliance.

                              A few days after buying it, when I was still a little reluctant to try out anything other than simple steamed broccoli, I was forced to use the steamer to its limits. Here in Cyprus most ovens run on bottled gas, and I managed to run out. Not my fault: the last cylinder turned out to be empty when I changed it, but I had a hungry family waiting for their meal and no oven or hob to cook it on! So I used the steamer for potatoes and two types of vegetable - including frozen broad beans - while using the microwave for the main part of the meal. The kitchen was rather full of steam by the time the meal was ready, and it took a little longer than I had hoped for all the vegetables to be steamed to perfection, but overall we were very pleased with the result.

                              One of the features I particularly like is the ability to cook rice in the steamer. There's an oval-shaped plastic container without holes which was included in the set, which sits inside any of the baskets and which will easily cook easily enough rice for up to about six people. It's easy to do: the rice must be rinsed thoroughly, then put in the oval container with an equivalent volume of water. Steaming takes a little longer than cooking in a saucepan (about 25 minutes for white basmati rice, 45-50 for wholegrain rice) but it can't burn or run out of water, so there's no need to check it once it's switched on.

                              Another benefit is that steamed puddings can be cooked in the steamer. When I've used saucepans previously for Christmas puddings, I've always worried about the water boiling dry. However if I put too much water in, the puddings don't get hot enough and so don't turn dark brown. Making them with the steamer turned out to be very straightforward. I used two half-litre pyrex containers, having checked that they would fit into two of the steamer baskets, and tied greaseproof paper around the tops as usual. I filled the base of the steamer with water and set it for its maximum setting, one hour.

                              Then I left it alone until it 'pinged' after the first hour, at which point I poured more water in down the side opening and set it for another hour. I repeated this six times, then left it to cool down. Result: two delicious looking puddings which I then re-steamed in similar fashion for a couple of hours when we decided to eat them. This was much easier than having them on a crowded hob on Christmas Day, and there was no possibility of their boiling dry. I've made other sorts of steamed puddings in the steamer too, and find it very convenient if I'm cooking a Sunday roast: all I have to do is top up the water once or twice, and they cook without taking up any oven or hob space, and without needing any other attention.

                              I've had the steamer now for just over a year, and use it regularly. Despite its apparently flimsiness, it hasn't broken, which is encouraging. I must admit I haven't used it as much as I might, partly because it's quicker and easier to cook frozen vegetables in the microwave than in the steamer, and partly because I'm not very good at experimenting. Steaming takes a bit longer than either boiling or microwaving: fresh broccoli, for instance, needs at least fifteen minutes, more if the pieces are large. Potatoes can take up to forty-five minutes. However we've been very pleased with the results of steamed vegetables in general,as well as the rice and puddings. The only thing that has caused a slight problem is frozen peas: they cook well and taste fine, but tend to slide through the top unit into whatever is cooking below, and are difficult to move from the steamer to a serving dish.

                              Inevitably it takes a while to get used to any new appliance. Even now I still find it a bit awkward slotting the bases in place after washing up, although having removable bases certainly makes them easier to clean. I also occasionally catch my hand in the steam when removing the lid. I haven't scalded myself seriously (yet!) but if there were small children in the house I would keep it well out of their reach. The instructions say that the steamer must be left to cool down before draining the drip tray and cleaning it, but of course steamed food has to be served while still hot - and oven-gloves aren't all that helpful, since they become damp with the steam and then conduct heat.

                              Argos usually sell this for £24.99 but currently (December 2005) they have it on special offer at £14.99 - an excellent bargain. See http://www.argos.co.uk/static/Product/partNumber/4225458.htm

                              Amazon.co.uk also sell it, currently at £26.97.

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