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I am a bit of a Georgette Heyer fan, (well, of her historical romances - I never could get into her detective fiction) and when I came across this book, 'Black Sheep', at the charity shop I was really excited: it was one I haven't read before. I bought it for 60p. *** The Novel *** 'Black Sheep' is a historical romance based in the Regency period. It is set in the city of Bath, with a quiet and regimented social scene for the upper class. The heroine of the novel is Abigail Wendover, a woman considered on the shelf at the age of 28, living with her elder sister, Selina, and raising her orphaned 17 year old niece, Fanny. Fanny has yet to make her debut in high society, but as an heiress has come to the attention of the caddish Stacy Calverleigh, who sets out to win her heart. This is much to the displeasure of the Wendover family generally and when Abby returns from a trip away, she is soon worried too. Stacy is seriously pressed by his creditors and is trying to persuade Fanny to elope. While Abby is not unduly concerned about Fanny making an advantageous marriage, she doesn't want her to marry someone who only cares for her money. But there's something else behind her older brother's opposition to the marriage as well, a scandalous secret between the Wendover family and the Calverleighs. When the Black Sheep of the Calverleigh family returns from exile in India in the person of Miles Calverleigh, Stacy's uncle, will this secret be revealed? And how can Abby dissuade Fanny from her love affair with Stacy, when she finds herself falling in love with the roguish Miles, an apparently equally inappropriate relationship? *** My opinion *** I really enjoyed this novel, as I always do with Heyer's historical romances. I feel this one is more openly critical of the constraints on women in the society depicted than the others I have read of hers. Abby is resentful of her (now deceased) father and brother's determination the sisters should marry well, with little thought to their happiness. One of Abby's sisters, Jane, is married to a horrible man, for example, and both her & Selina's choice in men has been thwarted by family interference in the past. It's a difficult balance for Abby as her niece's chaperone, for she wishes her to have the freedoms that she was denied, but has to enforce many of the social mores in order for Fanny to not be excluded from 'polite' society. These things are discussed by the characters more than I have previously been aware of in Heyer's books, and it was fresh & interesting. Abby is a forward-thinking woman, unshocked by Miles' dubious past, while her contemporaries would be expected to swoon away. 'Black Sheep' was a fun, light read from Heyer, although I feel more serious in tone than her others. I don't feel it was as funny as some, although the banter between Miles and Abby is frequently witty and amusing. It is an engaging novel and the characters likeable, apart from the selfish Stacy. As ever it comes to a satisfying conclusion for all concerned and it held my interest throughout. I'm glad to have it on my shelf with the rest of my Heyer's, and know I will re-read it. You can find it new online from Amazon for £5.99 in paperback, £5.22 for Kindle. Secondhand prices vary.
*** The product *** Cien cream soap is from Lidl's range of beauty and personal grooming products. It is dermatologically tested and available in a variety of fragrances & colours. I have tried the Orange & White Tea version and the Aloe Vera one. The first is a clear orange liquid soap, while the latter is an opaque white. It comes in a push-top pump dispensing bottle, of which the plastic bottle is recyclable, while the pump is not. It contains 500ml of hand-soap. The product is made in Germany. There is not a great deal of information supplied on the product other than these basics and the ingredients. The Orange & White Tea hand-soap is described as providing 'gentle and refreshing cleansing for the skin and hands', while the Aloe Vera says much the same but also offers 'nourishing care'. The price, as you would expect from Lidl, is low: 55p per bottle. *** My opinion *** I quite like the shape and overall look of the hand-soap bottles: the label design is simple yet attractive and the sides of the bottles are dimpled. I don't think it looks like a budget or value product. Sometimes I find pump bottles difficult to get working, ending up turning them round and round seemingly endlessly, but I haven't had any trouble with these at all: a twist & they're ready for use. I bought the Orange & White Tea first and really liked it. The scent is really nice, you can smell both the orange & tea clearly. Likewise, the Aloe Vera version has the distinctive fragrance of aloe vera without being overpowering. The liquid soap has a good consistency, not too runny and it lathers up nicely on your hands. I don't find either drying or harsh on my skin or the children's. It works well. I sometimes use the soap for things like cleaning hair-dye from my ears etc when I'm dying my hair at home, so it's effective. I've even been known to dab a bit on tissue to remove eye-make-up, which is probably wrong, but hasn't done me any harm yet! I think it lives up to its gentle but cleansing claims. I think this hand-soap from Lidl is a really good buy.
In further adventures with cheaper personal grooming products, I tried this shampoo called Finale, from Lidl. I picked the yellow, almond extract version. *** The Product *** There is not a great deal of information on the packaging about this shampoo. It comes in a 1000 ml, clear bottle with a gold cap. The bottle is recyclable. The shampoo is dermatologically tested and made in Germany. The only real claims it makes are to be a shampoo made with almond extract and that it is PH-balanced. Other than that, you are on your own. I can't remember exactly how much I paid for this in Lidl, but it was pence. I think in the region of 18p. *** My Opinion *** In the picture above, the shampoo doesn't look too bad, but in real life, I think the packaging is pretty unappealing. There's just something about the product that screams "I cost pennies!" (Which is fair enough, considering it does). The colour of the product is a gentle yellow. I was pleasantly surprised by the consistency of the shampoo - it's not runny and looks as you would expect any shampoo should. It produces a good foam and you can smell the almond extract. It's quite a nice aroma, so I was feeling quite positive about the purchase on first impressions. But, I found that it was rather a harsh shampoo that felt like it stripped my hair of all moisture. Even while in the process of washing my hair, it felt like my hair was turning into straw. I ended up having to put loads of conditioner into my hair to make it feel normal again. After washing with it, the results were fine: my hair was clean and fresh-feeling. So it hasn't been a disastrous buy but not one I would repeat, even at its low price.
*** The product *** Cien Haircare is a range available from Lidl. Their shampoo for daily use comes in a 500ml bottle, currently priced at 59p. I tried a bottle of the papaya & peach extract type, which is coloured orange, and comes in a clear bottle with an orange cap that matches the colour of the fluid. You use the shampoo in the usual way, no surprises there. The shampoo is dermatologically tested and made in Germany. The bottle is recyclable, while the cap is 'widely' recyclable. Product claims found on the bottle: - for daily/frequent use - for all hair types - fruit extracts & provitamin B5 help to rejuvenate & invigorate hair, with nourishing papaya & peach extracts - for silky, shiny hair - more manageable hair - Provitamin B5 strengthens & vitalises hair. *** My Opinion *** I think it's quite an attractive-looking product, which doesn't look 'cheap'. When lined up beside other hair-care products, perhaps it wouldn't look top-end, but neither would it look like a budget item, despite it costing the princely sum of 59p. I had my doubts when buying it, but I thought at the price, even if it wasn't very good, not much would be lost by trying it. The shampoo itself is a nice silky thick texture and consistency. It isn't thin or watery as you might expect a budget product to be, nor do you need to use great handfuls of it. A blob of this can be turned over in your hand and will cling on upside down for quite some time, defying gravity. It has a rich scent of peach. I think I can detect the papaya in there as well, but the peach predominates. I really like the smell. The shampoo lathers up well, producing a velvety foam. I feel it cleanses my hair effectively, although it is slightly on the drying side. Unless I use a conditioner as well, my hair tends to be rather fly-away for the first half-day after use, then it settles down into a more manageable phase. It feels really soft and glossy at this point. I am not sure about the claims of helping to invigorate, etc, but then all shampoos tend to say this and it's difficult to quantify such things. All I can be certain about is that it seems to look after my hair alright and I'm not unhappy with its performance. My hair has been through a few things lately: a botched bleach job and a cover-up colouring, and it's looking remarkably 'healthy' for all that. I can have quite an easily irritated scalp, but this shampoo doesn't trigger anything like that. I like this shampoo and I think it's great value for money. Since we have gone over to shopping at Lidl for the most part, I can't see any reason I wouldn't continue to buy this.
Candy Crush is a simple but addictive puzzle game from King.com. You can play it for free on FaceBook on your pc or laptop or download it (also free) from Google Play to tablets. The premise is fairly familiar, where the aim is to line up 3 or more objects of the same colour to make them disappear with a satisfying rattle of pops, scoring you points. The game is themed around sweets so we have yummy sweets as the objects in question. It's played on a Connect-4 type grid, which varies in dimension and shape from level to level. New sweets drop randomly into the grid from above as you destroy them. You can only move sweets beside each other, so it is basically swapping them vertically or horizontally to create lines. You can only move them if it will be aligning colours. Once you achieve a particular goal on a level, you are allowed to move onto the next. You use your mouse or your finger if you're using a touch-screen to move the sweets. I have played it both on my lap-top and on a tablet, and prefer the immediacy of the touch-screen interface. I had to give up playing it on my lap-top, in fact, because the game was constantly having trouble loading. I don't know if that was a problem with my computer or with the app. There is a storyline of sorts to Candy Crush, where you are helping various characters in this sweet-themed world by solving the puzzles. The characters are two-dimensional cartoon figures, while the sweets are gleaming and more three-dimensional in appearance. It's brightly coloured as sweets should be. The music makes me think 'France' for some reason and I quite like it, although it can get wearing after a while, but you have the option of turning it off. The game has bonus sweets that you can create. If you line up 4 of the same colour, 3 disappear and the fourth turns into a striped sweet that can zap a whole row when aligned with 2 more of its colour. If you cross two lines of three of the same colour, one turns into a wrapped sweet that can destroy the ones around it, pause and then have a second explosion. If you align 5 sweets, you're awarded one with sprinkles, that when swapped with another one of any colour will destroy all the sweets of that colour on the board. If you're lucky enough to have a bonus sweet beside another bonus sweet, you can use them together even more powerfully. When you've made a particularly good move that has a resulting cascade of point-scoring, the game tells you it's 'delicious'. It's quite a satisfying game when you create such a cascade effect. The levels do not all have the same aims. One might be achieving a certain amount of points within a set amount of moves, another achieving a number of points within a time limit, another getting rid of specific types of sweet or yet another, getting ingredients, such as hazel-nuts and cherries, out of the bottom of the grid. As you progress in the game, you are given booster items, such as a lollipop to smash sweets. The uses of these (for free) are limited, however. If you fail a level, you lose a life. You have 5 lives and these return to you after a time period, one every half-hour or so. This can be quite frustrating if you're stuck on a level. If you have understanding friends on FaceBook who also play, they can help you out with extra lives and boosters. If, like me, you don't have many gamers on your friends list, it can be a bit of a drag. I also found it really annoying that when I did have a few friends who were also playing, I'd come on to find I'd been sent a life, but I had to accept it before I started playing. If I already had a full set of lives, it was wasted. You don't need much help, other than lives for the first 35 levels, at which point you need three friends to send you tickets or you buy tickets for the next part of the adventure. This really irritates me! The same happens again at various stages of the game. I went much further (up to level 80 or more) when I was playing on the lap-top and could ask my FB friends, but I haven't synced the tablet with my FaceBook (strictly speaking it is my little boy's), so I am now stuck at level 35. I am not willing to pay actual money to progress. I suppose the makers have to make money out of their games, so I'm being a bit unfair there. Overall, it's a fun, strangely addictive game. I have played it almost obsessively at times.
Sorry about the appalling pun! I couldn't resist. As a teenager & young adult, I had a love of Doc Marten boots that made me wear them almost exclusively. I've never been what you'd call a 'girlie' girl. I would wear them with short skirts and opaque tights: my mum would call them my bovver boots and say I looked like Max Wall. Charming. Never stopped me 'though! Now I haven't owned a pair of DMs for about a decade, but recently the desire to rekindle that old love affair grew on me. Everyday I walk to work across some slippery cobbles and a concrete wharf and I'm sick to death of my trainers slipping and being worried about falling over. What DMs can truly offer is stability and non-slip grip. Their air-cushioned soles are, as inscribed into them, resistant to oil, fat, acid, petrol and alkali. They're also unfazed by seaweed and slime, in my experience. So it was partly nostalgia and partly knowing that if I went back to DMs I would be able to walk to work in confidence, no background noise of worry about staying up straight! So, I started looking online for some DMs. I didn't want the standard black ankle-boots, but something a bit more interesting. I'd had a great pair of red, grey & black DMs in the past and I sort of hankered for these, but they were no longer available, as far as I could see. But then again, they were going to be for work, and although I work in a pretty informal environment, I felt too bright or patterned would be pushing it. When I came across the Vonda DM, it fitted the bill perfectly: they are mostly black matt leather, but have red roses embroidered up the outside. I felt it was the perfect blend of statement and practicality. They are also longer than the basic DM, as a 14 eye, so end mid-calf. These boots ended up being my main Xmas present. The Vonda has the classic DM yellow stitching around the sole. The soles of DMs are Goodyear-welted, which means a combination of z-welt stitching and heat-sealing goes into the construction, making them super-hard-wearing. They also have the trademark loop at the back, bearing the legend "Air Wair, with bouncing soles". The leather the boot is made from is a soft, full-grain. To keep it nice & shiny, you need to use a clear wax-based polish. And if your boots develop scuffing over time, the same coloured wax-based shoe polish well-buffed can compensate. A friend has recommended that to keep the embroidered roses in good condition and avoid them getting dirty, I should apply a protective product such as you might use for a waxed jacket, which I'm certainly going to do. I haven't had them long enough to really need to start cleaning them, but I should do it as a preventative. The boots are really comfortable, once broken in. Breaking them in has been a bit of a trial, as my feet are not accustomed to boots, due to mostly wearing trainers in the past year or so. My heels blistered up when I wore them for too long in the early stages, but now they are my footwear of choice. They feel lovely and supportive. I had been a trifle worried about their weight, but the 'bouncing' soles make them easy to wear and you don't notice any heaviness. Although they are 14-eye lace-up boots, on the inside there is a sturdy zip, so once you've arranged your laces to suit you, you never need mess with them again. Taking the boots on and off is easy. You can tell just by the look and feel of these boots that they are quality. My experience of DMs has been that you can trust them to be long-lived and maintain their shape and appearance well. I have no qualms that it will be otherwise with my Vondas. The Doc Marten Vonda boot is available online for prices between £90 and £130, so it's not cheap - but you know it'll stay the course.
In this book, Mary Roach, an author and journalist, investigates what happens to dead bodies. There are more possibilities than you might think. The first chapter deals with bodies willed to medical research, or at least some of the heads, where cosmetic surgeons get the opportunity to practise procedures. The second deals with bodies that weren't willed to medical research, but rather were stolen for medical research, hence the title 'crimes of anatomy'. Here, Roach explores the history of human dissection. Obviously Burke & Hare make an appearance, but other interesting stories are discussed. The present realities, where she is reassured by the attempt by medical schools to foster respectful attitudes in their students through memorial services for the deceased. She also touches on the future, where 3D modelling is taking over. The third chapter is about the natural decomposition of bodies, where she visits a research facility, tracking what happens to bodies in various situations, in order to help identify time-lines for police investigations and the like. The fourth, 'Dead Man Driving', explores the use of bodies in car crash test scenarios. The fifth explains how the human wreckage from air crashes can help understand what happened 'Beyond the Black Box'. The sixth deals with historical incidences of the army using cadavers to test weapons and present day alternatives. It also discusses stopping power and how bullets could be designed to stop an aggressor rather than necessarily kill or maim - but aren't... It's fascinating to learn that most humans (and dogs) tend to drop instantly when hit by a bullet, even a non-lethal shot, but deer and other animals will keep going until the blood loss brings them down. Tribesmen (who haven't watched so much telly) are more likely to keep coming, too. Chapter 7 is about past experiments on bodies to help resolve the question of the authenticity of the Turin Shroud. Transplants, 'brain death' and a past of finding it hard to determine death inform chapter 8. In nine, Roach explores decapitation, the guillotine and experiments to transplant heads (on animals). Cannibalism for honour or medicinal reasons is the main theme of the tenth chapter. The eleventh chapter deals with the prospect of composting human remains as a greener alternative to burial/cremation. The final chapter is where Roach rounds up and gives her verdict on what she would have done with her own body when her time comes. *** My View *** 'Stiff' was quite a fun read. I really liked the other Mary Roach I'd read, 'Six Feet Over', so was very much looking forward to this book when I found it at a charity shop. It's a fascinating if macabre look at what we do with corpses. The main criticism I have is that Roach's humour was a bit more hit-and-miss in this book than I found it to be in 'Six Feet Over'. It's hard to balance a light-hearted tone with this kind of subject matter, and there are quite a few misfires. Trying to maintain respect while pointing out the adult nappy or roasting tin doesn't quite work... Her shock threshold (or expectation of her readers' shock threshold) was a good bit lower than mine is. I imagine a lot of her readers' thresholds might also be higher than she assumes, given they'd presumably be aware of the subject matter when they chose to read the book. Some of her attitudes seemed quite parochial, and I couldn't decide whether that was her catering to her audience, as she thought, or her real attitude. Her narrative voice was sometimes a bit irritating. Overall, I enjoyed it. It was mildly amusing where her humour worked, grisly at times and very interesting. There's lot more variety to a cadaver's after-life than I'd previously been aware of. Not one for everyone by any means. If you're of the morbid disposition this might suit, it's available on Amazon from between £3 and £7 new.
*** Film Only Review *** *** Storyline *** Unappealing teenaged dweeb Andrew (Dane DeHaan) lives a miserable life, both at home with a violent father (Michael Kelly) and dying mother (Bo Peterson), and at high school where he's a social leper that even his cousin Matt (Alex Russell) pretends not to be with. In an attempt to gain some distance from this soul-destroying subsistence, he starts chronicling his days with a video camera. Which doesn't help him fit in... When Matt and his friend Steve (Michael B Jordan) find something weird underground in the woods, they rope in Andrew to video their discovery. What could go wrong when you're creeping around in tunnels, half-drunk, investigating freaky objects? Of course, as they muck about with the unknown, the strange gets stranger and scarier... Having survived, the next thing they know is that the threesome have developed the ability of telekinesis. What will the three youths do with such a power? The possibilities are a prankster's dream. More than that, could it possibly help Andrew turn his life around? *** My view *** The film is shot primarily from the viewpoint of Andrew, at first as if with a hand-held camera, later with a little more distance as he is able to make it hover. It definitely keeps the conceit of it being a personal video account, with various breaks and gaps, and Andrew visibly setting the camera down or adjusting it as necessary. Later in the film, some of the shots are supposedly from incidental cameras, such as security ones or phone cameras. It's quite gritty and realistic in feel. The three main characters are played effectively, although I didn't feel emotionally connected to any. It's a bit unfortunate that Andrew is so very unprepossessing that even knowing his horrible background, it's hard to sympathise with him as a character. Perhaps I ought to have felt sorry for him, but I couldn't get there. The film doesn't go for a black and white morality: the violent father played by Michael Kelly is shown to be struggling financially and emotionally with his wife's terminal illness, stretched to the limit to provide even pain relief medication. Of course, spending money on alcohol doesn't help. The character with whom I suppose the audience is expected to identify with most is probably Matt, but he wasn't all that likeable, in my eyes. I was never really rooting for him. I found Steve to be the nicest, but he wasn't as developed a character and had less to do. His character was pretty much the Token Black Guy. It is possible to draw parallels between movies like 'Carrie' and 'The Craft' with this film: social misfits acquiring supernatural powers. It comes from that kind of tradition. There's a fair amount of darkness in this story, and while there are some uplifting and funny parts, can that last? It is interesting that the characters with the horrendous backgrounds in these sorts of movies tend to get a chance to glimpse social redemption, which is snatched from them, and we all know what happens then... It is rather predictable and formulaic, but nicely executed. Several plot points are left unanswered - the found footage style of shooting allowing the script-writers to run away laughing from explanations. The special effects are good, blending well for the most part, not screaming at you. The film is rated 15, with some violence and fairly intense scary scenes. I'd recommend it as one to watch, as it held my interest throughout. I wouldn't buy it, but would probably watch it again. It is available to rent or buy currently. As it's a recent release, the DVD is £9.99 from Amazon, Blu-Ray just under £15. Find it cheaper, or rent it, is my advice.
*** The storyline *** Cold-hearted libertine Duke of Avon, Justin Alastair, infamously known as 'Satanas', is startled into an act of apparent altruism upon meeting a young red-headed lad. Leon is running away from a beating from his brother, a low tavern keeper, and on a whim, Alastair decides to buy him from the man. Taking the impoverished youngster on as a page causes raised eyebrows from his friend, Davenant, who has never known Satanas to perform an unselfish deed. It provokes a stronger reaction still from the Duke's unspoken enemy, Comte de Saint-Vire, who has the same red hair, blue eyes and black brows as Leon. What is the secret of Leon's identity? Is the Duke's uncharacteristic kindness actually no kindness at all, but a scheme to undo his old nemesis? Or can he find it within himself to live up to his page's hero worship and adoration? *** My view *** This historical romance from Heyer is set mostly in Georgian era France, with references to La Pompadour and so on. It has a lot in common with Heyer's first novel 'The Black Moth', with strong resemblances between characters: most obviously the two dukes, Avon and Andover, 'Satanas' & 'Devil'. But the story here is more complex and everything filled out more. 'These Old Shades' is a stronger, more mature work. The main characters are lovingly created. (To avoid spoilers, I won't discuss the character of Leon). The reckless, feckless Alastair family are products of their unstable background, and the Duke himself is cold and aloof through his experiences. All the Alastairs are convinced they are fated to be the way they are because of their 'mad' parentage, but they do actually show the capacity to change and think of others (a little at least). It's easier to like the Duke of Avon because of this rounding of his character and because you don't see his villainy at first hand, just hear of it as acts from his past. As you'd expect, the plot of this historical romance is resolved in a most satisfactory way. Although I do have reservations about the large gap in age, experience and authority between the Duke and his eventual bride and his paternalistic need to take care of her rather than it being a marriage of equals. However, she is a feisty one. Heyer's writing has great flow and engages the attention. It's thoroughly enjoyable stuff. I think this novel is one of Heyer's best, with twists and turns and a lot of smiles along the way. To buy new from Amazon, the paperback is £5.59 while the Kindle version is £5.22. You should be able to find it more cheaply from other sellers or secondhand.
This recipe is a great quick dessert, that you can just whip up in minutes out of bits you probably already have in the kitchen cupboard, using the microwave. You need: - 4 and a half oz of self-raising flour - 5 oz of soft margarine - 6 tablespoons of caster sugar (or whatever sugar you've got around) - 4 tablespoons of syrup - 2 eggs - 1 teaspoon of baking powder You also need: - a Pyrex-type microwaveable bowl, (the one I use has a 4 litre capacity) - mixing bowl - an implement to mix with - spoon or mixer, who cares? - bit of clingfilm - and a microwave Grease the Pyrex bowl, then pour the syrup into it. Into the mixing bowl, sift the flour and baking powder together with a little height for air and flair! Then bung in the soft margarine, sugar and beaten eggs. Sometimes I don't bother to beat the eggs beforehand, I just make sure I've mixed them in well. Beat it all together. You should then have a nice gooey mix, with a soft dropping consistency, which you drop into the pyrex bowl on top of the syrup. Make the bowl a clingfilm lid and then poke a small venting hole in the middle. Then shove in the microwave for four minutes at full whack. Leave to stand for five minutes. Serve with custard. Or whatever you like. It's dead easy to do, takes very little time and comes out nice and light and fluffy. It's pretty hard to muck it up, which is why I like it. Sometimes it can taste a tiny bit eggy, but that is probably me not mixing them in thoroughly enough or using larger eggs when small ones would do. Once you're happy that you can produce the basic dish reliably, you can experiment with alternatives to syrup or spice it up with a bit of ginger or cinnamon, according to your tastes. For example, you can turn it into a marmalade sponge, simply by replacing the syrup with tablespoons of marmalade and adding a splash of orange flavouring to the sponge mix. That worked nicely for us, although my daughter prefers it as a syrup sponge. Alternatively, you can use jam for a nice jammy sponge. Or you can also do a chocolate version, replacing an ounce of the flour with cocoa powder and putting in (microwaveable) chocolate sauce instead of the syrup. I've also used several syrups, from golden to maple, whatever is to hand... I like this as a fail-safe emergency dessert I can knock up whenever the cry is "can we have something for pudding?" I probably wouldn't serve it at a dinner party, but it is great for family meals.
'The Black Moth' was the first book that the young Georgette Heyer wrote, initially just to entertain her sick brother. It's a historical romance set around Regency times. *** Storyline *** Jack Carstares discovers he has succeeded to the title of Earl, while living the life of a gentleman highwayman. He took to this life of (mild, the way he does it) crime having been disgraced as a cheat at cards and being ousted from high society. But is it as simple as that? And can he ever return to claim his inheritance and live a normal life? The personable Jack adopts several poses and characters as he lives his fugitive's lifestyle. As Sir Antony Ferndale, he's a frivolous fop; as a highwayman, he's a beery-voiced oaf; as John Carr, he's a romantic hero. Can the three be resolved into one Jack Carstares? Meanwhile, narcissistic libertine Tracy Belmanoir, Duke of Andover, known affectionately (and not) as Devil, has taken a fancy to the beautiful Diana. He is a malevolent figure, pale and habitually garbed in black, an almost a vampiric look. His attentions become distasteful to the lady, but rather than accept his rejection, he plots to abduct her. The two threads of the story meet, as they must, when highwayman stumbles across the attempted kidnapping and intervenes. Loveable Jack wins this time - but will Devil be foiled forever? *** My View *** I always like Heyer's historical romances, and this is no exception. There are sword fights and word play, loveable rogues, doughty servants and loyal friends. Miles O'Hara's marriage is charmingly drawn, (although his Irish brogue is a little overdone). The characters are for the most part endearing in their various faults and eccentricities. Diana is a rather passive heroine, sadly lacking in opportunities with a heavy poker - however, her emotions when she is kidnapped are movingly drawn and her budding romance with Carstares sweet and believable. The villain is sinister yet engaging, and is clearly the template for Justin Alastair, ('Satanas', Duke of Avon) from the novel 'These Old Shades' published five years after 'The Black Moth', in 1926. Although here, Heyer's theme of redemption through love is hastily sketched and less credible, more told than shown. In some respects 'The Black Moth' is a little weaker than later historical romances from Heyer, as one might expect from a youthful first novel. For me, it's hard to accept some of the resolutions of the storylines. Also, that Carstares could think Tracy 'not such a bad fellow' (apart from where it concerns women), after all that goes on in the book is fairly staggering. I don't think the redemptions of the novel work entirely and it's not as funny a book as many of her others. Aside from these reservations, 'though, I would say 'The Black Moth' is a lot of fun, with plenty of swash and buckle: a pleasurable read. Currently 'The Black Moth' is available from Amazon new at £5.59 in paperback and £5.31 for Kindle. It can of course be found cheaper secondhand.
*** Film Only Review *** 'District 9' is a film from 2009, directed by Neill Blomkamp. *** Storyline *** Years before, a spaceship arrived in South Africa, depositing its passengers and apparently ceasing to function, hovering above the ground but still, ever since. The aliens are like large insects, bigger than human beings but bipedal, and have been confined to a reservation-like area - District 9. As we join the story, the humans have decided it's time to restrict the 'prawns' further and are clearing the area, sending them to a newer camp. It is Wikus Van De Merwe's (Sharlto Copley) job to inform and evict residents from the shanty town that makes up District 9. He is being followed by a documentary team. When Wikus stumbles upon a resident's stash of contraband items, he is sprayed by some kind of chemical and almost immediately starts to suffer severe side-effects. It's not long before he is in deep trouble, no longer in control and in authority over the 'prawns', but is more in their place of oppression... *** My View *** The film is shot in documentary style, aiming for realism rather than glossy production values, occasionally having hand-held camera-type shots. It is interspersed with interviews and voice-overs with various characters, who tell the story of what happens to Wikus. There are special effects: after all, the aliens themselves are computer generated and the spaceships and technology require it, but it's cleverly done and not obtrusive. The film is not about the gadgetry or the special effects, it's about the story. I didn't recognise any of the actors in the film at all, which added to the realistic filming style for me. I loved this film - it had me thoroughly engrossed throughout. The audience is led to empathise and sympathise with the oppressed aliens more than the humans. It is an odd juxtaposition of the mostly defunct, yet superior alien tech against the slum conditions the poor 'prawns' are forced to live in. The prawns seem a degraded people, having had technology beyond human ability, yet reduced to scrabbling about for cat food on Earth. The humans are desperate to acquire the alien technology but are unable to work any of it, as it will only respond to the prawns' touch. You might say there's a kind of self-hatred in the depiction of humans in this film, which isn't an uncommon theme in s-f, (often humans as the biggest threat to themselves or the universe, or a virus/cancer on the face of the earth). Here, hardly any humans come out looking good. The exploitative gang who live on the edges of District 9 trade with the 'prawns' but have no compunction in killing them for their own ends, while the corporation involved with the 'prawns' is willing to experiment on them. Especially because it's set in South Africa, you can't help but think about the parallels between racial segregation and bigotry in real life and the past. It's somewhat problematic to my mind that the black gangsters are chaotic, superstitious evil-doers while the whites are scientifically/industrially evil. Wikus is almost an anti-hero, dismissive of the 'prawns', especially in the beginning. He will treat the aliens poorly, willing to stretch the truth and obfuscate, even blackmail the 'prawns' into co-operating in their own eviction. That said, he's not vicious in his work, whereas his military colleagues take pleasure in brutalising the aliens. He is desperate to save himself at any price and his eventual shift towards treating the 'prawns' as if they have worth or rights is hard-won. There are some grotesque moments, reminiscent of Cronenburg's The Fly (1986). There's violence, swearing and the film is rated 15. Whenever I watch this film, I'm always absorbed. It's amazing that I can be brought to wince on behalf of a machine, (as Wikus is under attack in an alien robot) - I feel every shot/blow and it's gruelling to watch. It's a bit of a change from the usual sci-fi imperviousness and disposability of tech. I think it's really interesting and well-done. It's available on DVD and Blu-Ray. New from Amazon the DVD will set you back £3.70.
In no particular order, ten of my favourite tv programmes: *** Green Wing *** This comedy series ran for (sadly) only two series from 2004. It was set in a hospital and featured a cast of quirky and dysfunctional characters as the doctors and office staff (patients had little to no presence). Loosely, the over-arching storyline of the series is the arrival of new doctor, Caroline (Tamsin Grieg) and her will-they-won't-they relationship with Mac (Julian Rhind-Tutt). This is subject to the interventions and machinations of jealous Sue White (Michelle Gomez) and Guy Secretan (Stephen Mangan), amongst others. My particular favourites amongst the characters are the deranged Sue White and the uptight Dr Alan Statham (Mark Heap). The show makes me laugh so much: bizarre happenings that no-one comments on, like Sue White dressing in strange costumes, the speeded up or slowed sequences, Alan Statham swinging his white coat... It's a gloriously subversive, anarchic comedy. Some of the events are in questionable, boundary-crossing taste and it can come from a fairly dark place - it's not one for everyone. It is rated 15. The Definitive Edition DVD boxset contains both series and the Christmas special and is available from Amazon at £16.37, new, presently. *** Jeeves and Wooster *** This production of the PG Wodehouse stories from the early 1990s features Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie as Jeeves and Bertie Wooster respectively. Both inhabit the roles perfectly: Laurie the foolish but good-hearted master while Fry is the perfectly correct, intelligent servant but power behind the throne, who always gets his own way in the end. It ran for four series of 6 episodes each. The later series set in the US are slightly less appealing, but still work. The almost hour-long episodes mostly consist of Bertie finding himself (or one of his dopey friends) in a scrape, usually the threat of marriage to some nice gel or the demands of an angry aunt, and Jeeves having to work out some clever plan to extricate him. It's beautifully done, gently funny and does justice to Wodehouse's books. I adore the theme tune. 'Jeeves & Wooster' is repeated during the daytime on ITV3 and all four series are available in digitally remastered DVD sets for around £15, new, on Amazon. *** Being Human *** This is a supernatural drama/comedy series from BBC3, first shown in 2008. It had its fourth series this year, although I don't know if a fifth is planned. The basic premise is that supernatural creatures/people do exist and three of them find themselves living together in a shabby house in Bristol. These are Mitchell (Aidan Turner) a vampire, George (Russell Tovey) a werewolf and Annie (Lenora Crichlow) a ghost. The relationships between the three friends and their attempts to stay human or regain their humanity are what makes the series. At times it can be very funny, for example where the two male characters displace their anger and pain onto the mundane, over-reacting to the change in scheduling of 'The Real Hustle'. Sometimes it can be very dark as well. It is quite gory, with swearing and violence at times and it is rated 15. The series is shot in a realistic way, although with special effects for werewolf transformation and the like. The fourth series suffers from unavoidable but major cast changes and I'm afraid it lost me as a viewer towards the end, but I will try to catch up at some point. If there is a fifth series I will give it a shot. The first three series, however, I was hooked on. The boxset of all four series (six episodes each) is available on Amazon for around £35, new. *** Supernatural *** This is another supernatural series in which mythical creatures are not so mythical after all. This time it's a US series that began in 2005, featuring Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles as Sam and Dean Winchester. The boys were brought up to be hunters of supernatural beasties by their father, who is out to avenge his wife's death. The brothers' at times strained relationship is the lynchpin of the series and the chemistry between the two actors is appealing. Each series has an over-arching storyline of some big evil that needs thwarting, interspersed with occasional 'filler' episodes that don't necessarily contribute to the main plot. The boys spend much of their time on the road in Dean's pride and joy car, going to the next threat, living in dingy motels. It's a good mix of humour and danger/action, held together by the personable characters of Dean and Sam. It's slicker and bigger budget than we can do over here and many more episodes per season (20-odd). It's on its seventh season presently. You can buy series 1-6, rated 15, in DVD boxset for around £50, new, at Amazon. *** Buffy The Vampire Slayer *** Unlikely heroine, schoolgirl Buffy Summers (Sarah Michelle Gellar) discovers she is the chosen one, the vampire slayer, whose role it is to fight back the forces of evil. It was a US series, which began in the late '90s and ended mid- 00s. Each season has a new (and worse) Big Bad to confront in the over-all storyline. Buffy's struggle to accept her destiny, her on-off relationship with Angel (David Boreanz) and her friendships with Xander (Nicholas Brendon) and Willow (Alyson Hannigan) are the most interesting and abiding parts of the show. The series grow gradually darker and more adult, although there is always a leavening of humour or the absurd. I really loved this when it came out over here, although my daughter was just a baby and her grouchy time used to perfectly coincide with when it was shown on BBC2! Hence the need to buy it all on video. All 144 episodes from the seven seasons are available in DVD boxset from Amazon at around £100, new. *** MisFits *** This is pretty much a British take on 'Heroes', only darker and grittier, where an unlikely group of people acquire superpowers. Our group consists of five youth offenders working out their community service. The main characters are the "weird kid" Simon (Iwan Rheon), disgraced athlete Curtis (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett), manipulative minx Alisha (Antonio Thomas), hard-faced toughie Kelly (Lauren Socha) and motormouth provocateur, Nathan (Robert Sheehan). These are the eponymous misfits. It's funny and dark, with violence and swearing at times. I loved the first series, shown in 2009 on Channel 4, while the second I enjoyed but thought pushed it a little far, what with superpowered primates and all... I don't like to shout 'jumped the shark', but it did put me off a bit and I haven't watched series 3 yet. I probably will give it a go, however. It's rated 18 and the three series are available in DVD boxset from Amazon at £18.97, new. *** The Tripods *** This is a series I remember fondly from my childhood. It was shown during the '80s and was heinously cut short when the budget gave out or the BBC lost its tiny mind. The world had been conquered by the Tripods, who mind-control most of the people left, using brain implants which are put in during the teens. Our hero, Will, and his cousin are prime for this procedure and run away, hoping to find an underground of free humans. But the Tripods aren't just going to let them go... Wonderful sci-fi for its time, and a great storyline. The two series are available together on DVD for £12.77 from Amazon, new. *** Babylon 5 *** It's ten years since the humans 'won' the war against Minbar. Babylon 5 is the fifth attempt by the human race to build a space-station for trade and diplomacy between Minbar, themselves and other alien species in troubled times. Previous Babylon stations were destroyed by saboteurs and the fourth vanished completely, so it's not an easy task ahead. The show follows the main crew of Babylon 5, led at first by Michael O'Hare's Cpt Sinclair, then in further series Cpt Sheridan played by Bruce Boxleitner. At first, it seems the main challenge will be dealing with infighting between the various alien races, but an emerging threat to all from a mysterious and powerful opposition, the Shadows, soon concentrates minds. This series was innovative in that it was written with a five-year framework in mind. The storyline and effecs were really interesting and my favourite characters were Ivanova (Claudia Christian) and Garibaldi (Jerry Doyle). G'Kar (Andreas Katsulas) and Londo (Peter Jurassik) had a great antagonistic relationship developing into an unlikely uneasy friendship of sorts. There were films and other material made apart from the main 5 seasons. The complete boxset is available from Amazon at around £50, new. *** Strictly Come Dancing *** A bit of a guilty pleasure this. It started in aid of Children in Need, getting celebrities to learn to ballroom dance and compete against each other. It's hosted by Bruce Forsyth and Tess Daly. Each celebrity is paired with a professional ballroom dancer and has to perform a different dance each week. A mixture of votes from a panel of judges and phone-in votes from the public decides who stays in the competition. Sometimes really bad dancers stay in because the public like watching them. I'm not sure why I like this. I kind of like making authoritative-sounding judgements on someone's performance without knowing the first thing about ballroom dancing! It's more of a pleasure to watch than other talent shows, to my mind, because it's celebrities who are used to being criticised and passed remark on, than amateurs who are pinning their hopes on stardom. You also don't get the manipulative emotional button-pressing of things like X-Factor, where you can see what they're doing with their 'human interest' sob-stories, but still somehow get sucked into it. I really hate that and I avoid watching those shows because of it. It's had some interesting moments, memorably John Sargent dragging Ola across the floor like a sack of spuds, and a morning tv presenter now forever known in our household as 'head-butty man'. It's also had some questionable results, such as the apparent rehabilitation of character Anne Widdecombe has had in the eyes of the public, from a political pariah to national treasure? Hmm. It's on every year in the weeks before Christmas. Fans can see the live tours or there are DVDs of the best of the series, tours or even fitness ones. ***I'm A Celebrity ... Get Me Out of Here*** Another guilty pleasure, this time putting celebrities through absurd tasks in a jungle setting in Australia. Most infamous for its eating trials where they are expected to consume odd and gross items, from wichity grubs to kangaroo testicles. Other trials might consist of crawling through places alongside rats and beasties, and fish guts and slime. It's a grown-up version of the gunge tank, really. It's presented by Ant and Dec, who bring a cheesy charm to proceedings. For the first week or so there is no voting anyone out, the public phone in to choose who to put through trials (usually the least popular/most annoying). After that, it's a case of voting each day to keep the most popular in and last man/woman standing is crowned king/queen of the jungle. Part of the programme follows the celebrities during their mostly tedious days and nights in camp, usually pared down to the bickering and tension between personalities. Generally each year at least one celebrity does him or herself no good at all in the eyes of the public, like Gillian McKeith or Pat Sharp, while others shine. The apparently thoroughly nice ones tend to win. I have watched it several years running, sometimes wondering why on earth I was, but still watching anyway. I'll probably watch again this year. It's usually on in the autumn on ITV. You can buy highlights DVDs, the board game and video games. *** Conclusion *** It seems I like sci-fi, supernatural and celeb torturing programmes! Honourable mentions should go to 'FarScape', 'BattleStar Galactica', 'Star Trek Deep Space 9', 'BlackAdder' and 'Red Dwarf'. 'Come Dine With Me' and 'CountDown' nearly made it too.
Cex is a chain of stores that deals in technology - you can buy or sell computers, video games, DVDs, phones, other gadgets and software. They also have an online presence, where you can find prices for your stuff and sell to them or buy what you want. I use Cex quite often. I have used both their online services and visit their Plymouth store fairly regularly. *** Plymouth Store *** The store is laid out pretty much like any other media/tech shop, with aisles of games/DVDs/music and the more expensive and desirable objects such as phones/computers/consoles behind glass. It generally plays metal or indie music at slightly too loud a volume for my agéd ears. The staff tend to be young adults and it seems obligatory that they are heavily tattooed or pierced! In my experience, they know what they are talking about when it comes to the products they sell, and display a genuine interest in them as well. There seems a fair amount of banter between the staff, but I've never felt it to be at the expense of customer service. I like the posters around Cex, which are comic-style images of robots etc explaining Cex's services, but I don't like the use of (mild) profanity in them. I'm not prudish but my children come in with me and I don't want to have to explain 'naughty' words in the eye-catching and sometimes floor-level posters. I can't see the point of using 'b*st*ard' in them when 'git' would do really. *** Buying *** Prices for games vary from under a pound up to around £30 for newer/popular ones - some games, like Mario titles, for example holding their value fairly well. CDs, DVDs and boxsets fare similarly, rare or recent releases fetching higher prices. Cex usually compares favourably in price with other stores that sell secondhand games, such as Game. I've generally been pleased with the games and DVDs we've purchased from Cex. It's as well to check you have the right disc before you leave, however, as once we bought 'Sims 2' for Playstation from them, only to find when we got home that we had been given the disc for 'Sims 2 Pets', which we already had. They exchanged it without a quibble when we went back, but it was a pain because we don't live in Plymouth. I have also bought an Ipod and Nintendo DS from there and been happy with the quality. You can have these sorts of things demonstrated for you while you decide whether to buy or not. Obviously as what they sell is secondhand it won't always come boxed or with instructions and not always in pristine condition, but that's why you can have it demonstrated. You have to be prepared to ignore the pressures of time the staff are often under (since the queues in Cex tend to be hideously long), and make sure you are happy with the product before parting with your money. *** Online *** I've bought a couple of games from them online, and found the service quick and smooth. The website is easy to navigate. I did have a problem with a copy of 'Tomb Raider' for Playstation - couldn't get it to respond. I emailed them about returning it and got a helpful response quickly: the returns process seemed straightforward. Rather embarrassingly it was user error (ie. the controller in the wrong port! Whoops!), which we realised, so we just drew a veil over that one... *** Selling *** To sell you need to get a Cex card, which involves providing proof of identity and address. This is presumably to help safeguard them from being used to get rid of stolen goods. Once you have the card, they will buy from you, but you need to have the card read each time and sign for the money or store credits you receive. You receive about a fifth more if you accept store credit instead of cash, but obviously it can only be used in Cex, and if I recall correctly there is only about a month's expiry date on it. The credit voucher looks exactly like any other Cex receipt, so if you're a bit prone to throwing away till papers, you'd better put this one in a safe place! Games & DVDs etc will be inspected at the counter immediately. This is a pretty thorough look-over and if they're unhappy with the quality of the item, they won't buy it. You tend to get pence for CDs and DVDs, while video games raise pounds. For phones and other gadgetry, they will need to test your item. If it's not busy, this can be done on the day and may only take an hour. If it's a busy day, they may ask you to come in the next day while they do it overnight. Testing requires the charger for phones and will mean the deletion of any personal information from computers etc. You can get a price for your gadget before having it tested. Recently we sold our daughter's netbook, as she has a pc now, but they didn't have the particular netbook on their system so had to email for a price. This, we were told, could take up to two hours for an answer. We wanted a price before we decided to put the netbook in for testing, since if it wasn't going to raise much we thought we'd just keep it and didn't want to have to go from original settings. It was quite frustrating since we had queued for what seemed like ages to get to the counter. I would have liked to have been able to phone instead of hanging around, but they don't have (or don't give out) the store's phone number. I guess I can understand why, as they would probably be inundated by calls. Anyway, we came back and had to queue _again_ to find out what they'd offer us. We had used the time to check out CashConverters and another shop of the same ilk to find out their best prices for it, and were pleased that Cex in fact did offer the largest sum for it by about £10. But we had to leave it in overnight for testing and come back for the money the next day. It was a hassle, and we had to queue yet again the next day. I wouldn't say it was the most pleasant or stress-free of experiences I've had. *** Conclusion *** I do like Cex for finding cheap games and DVDs and so on. It's also great when you have a clear-out to take in your never-watched or no-longer-played stuff: nice to come home with £100 to a half-empty media cupboard. The only problem is everyone else seems to have the same idea! It's not a place you can just pop into, choose something you want and be out in minutes - you have to be prepared to stand in line.
The bucket bbq seemed a brilliant idea to me: we like to nip down the beach and have a bbq when we can. It seemed a good alternative to the disposable ones that can be quite awkward to get rid of safely, while carrying them home isn't particularly desirable. The bucket bbq comes in a variety of colours. It has a metal handle which folds down around the bucket when not in use, and a handgrip made from a spiral of wire around the main handle. It has three fold-out legs to raise it from the ground, to allow good airflow through the bbq. These look flimsy, but they provide quite sturdy support. There are vents at the bottom and an inner bucket about half the height of the main bucket to put the charcoal into. To use, you shouldn't over-do it, but just have the charcoal filling the inner bucket. It doesn't take much to fill it really. I have bought those bags of charcoal which you light in their packet, but ended up having to break it in two to fit the bucket bbq. It takes about 20-30 minutes to get up to cooking heat. The grill fits over the top of the bucket and has a fold-out handle to enable you to lift it off should the charcoal need a poking or to add more. It is about 10 inches across. This isn't a huge area to cook on, but I find it enough for when it's me and the two children and we just want a burger and a sausage each. The Other Half scorns the bucket bbq because of its small cooking area, and I have to admit it wouldn't do for larger groups - unless they're patient. I found this bbq really quite handy last year. The only thing I found problematic was disposing of the hot charcoal after use - we tend to leave not too long after we've eaten. Clearly it wouldn't be nice to dump the stuff (or bury it, whatever some people might think) on the beach, so it's a matter of carrying it back up. At least the bucket makes that easy. If the kids have had their buckets and spades with them, then I pour a bit of sea-water on it to cool it down more. When packing up, you have to watch out for the ground underneath the bbq, as it can get quite hot and it wouldn't be good if someone barefoot stood where it had been unwarily. Once you've used it, if you're travelling by car, you may find it a bit of a pain deciding how not to make a mess in your car if there's nowhere to dispose of the charcoal. I think it would be a good idea if there was a metal lid you could clip on as well. When I came to dig the bucket bbq out this year, I found it had rusted quite badly and one of the legs was missing, so it was only good for a year for us. Admittedly it wasn't stored particularly well, so others may survive better. At around £7, I can't complain 'though, we got quite a lot of use out of it.