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I had my 30th birthday recently and decided I'd finally go and watch The Mousetrap. I'd wanted to see it for a while, being a big fan of Whodunnits, and it certainly didn't disappoint. This may even be the best thing I've ever seen on stage, though of course you can't really compare this to something like one of Lloyd Webbers musicals. They are just completely different types of performance.
Let's start with a bit of the history, which is actually very interesting in itself. First off, this show is the longest running of any kind, in the world, ever, which tells you something about how good it is. This year is its diamond jubilee, so it's been on stage for as long as the Queen has worn her crown. In fact, if London is a bit of a trek for you, check out their website, as the show is going on tour for its 60th anniversary celebrations, and you may be able to see it somewhere more local to you: www.the-mousetrap.co.uk
There have now been more than 24,000 performances, and if you go and watch it at its home of 35 years, St Martin's Theatre, you will see an electronic screen in the foyer which will tell you the exact performance number you'll be watching.
To give you a few interesting facts from the website: in its 60 years, there have been 382 actors and actresses appearing in the play (even though the cast only includes 8 characters), 116 miles of shirts have been ironed and over 415 tons of ice cream have been sold.
Most impressively, the set has only been replaced once during its entire 35 year run at St Martin's Theatre, to the same design as the original, and it was replaced over a weekend with no loss of performances!
It's hard to explain exactly why this particular play is so popular, but I think it's very impressive that in 60 years, the mystery of who the killer is remains a well-kept secret. This is partly due to the fact that a cast member asks you at the end of the play to 'keep the secret close to your heart,' in order to keep the performance alive. Apparently people respect this wish.
The Mousetrap began life as a radio play entitled Three Blind Mice, written in honour of Queen Mary, consort of King George V, and broadcast in 1947. It was then made into a short story with the same title, but Agatha Christie requested that the story was never published as long as the play was still running; as a result it has never been published in the UK, though it is available in the States. The story is based on a real life case- the death of a young boy in the care of a farmer and his wife in 1945.
I'm sure that even if you've never read an Agatha Christie story, you will still be familiar with the structure of a murder mystery, the chosen genre of The Queen of Crime. The play more or less follows this typical structure- we are first introduced to each of the relevant characters, who all become suspects when a murder is committed about halfway through the play. After the murder the policeman who is present begins to interview all the suspects and eventually the truth is revealed, though not until the very end, so you have plenty of time to work it out for yourself.
As I said, the story is based on the real life case I mentioned. The idea is that somebody in London has been murdered right at the beginning of the play, and offstage, and the story is in all the newspapers and on the radio. The stage setting is a newly-opened guest house run by a young couple, and each guest arrives in turn on this, their opening night, from a dark, cold and snowy evening.
What is really clever about the stage set is that it remains the same throughout the entire play, and is deceptively simple.The whole stage is taken up by the living room of the guest house, with a log fire in one corner, which actually glows cosily when stoked up, a couple of overstuffed chairs, a sofa and a few rugs. However, exiting to the wings are several doors which we are told lead to different rooms of the house, or upstairs to the guests' bedrooms. You can't help believing that the drawing room really is off to the right hand side, and that the kitchen disappears off to stage left. At the back is an opening window which, whenever it is opened, swings open and shut violently in the stormy weather from 'outside.' To add to the atmosphere, each character arrives bundled up in a coat, scarf and hat with 'snow' covering their clothes. To add the finishing touches, lamps are switched on at 'night-time,' creating the illusion of the passing of time.
Added to this very clever stage set is the subtle humour and some tremendous acting. Every conversation I overheard during the interval related to everyone's various theories on the killer. Just enough is revealed before the interval for you to be able to speculate before sitting back down. I didn't guess the killer, personally, but two of my family did, and when I went back in to the second half I realised that they were probably right.
Unfortunately the killer is revealed in the Wikipedia article relating to this play, so if you don't want to know then DON'T READ IT! I'm very glad I didn't look at the article before watching The Mousetrap, as it reveals the killer without any warning that it is about to do so, following on, as it does, from a paragraph about how the audience are asked not to reveal the killer for the sake of future audiences! Slightly ironic and totally unnecessary, I think!
One last point to mention is that St Martin's is an old theatre, so there isn't a lot of legroom, but it was just about comfortable enough for my fiancé, who is 6'2". If you're any taller, I recommend asking for a seat at the end of an aisle!
Ticket prices are between £16 and £41 and performances are Monday to Saturday at 7.30pm with a matinee at 3pm on Tuesdays and 4pm on Saturdays. You can book on the web address provided above.
We got this along with our new LG TV, but although the picture quality of our new TV is a vast improvement on that of our old one, there is also a marked difference between the quality when watching TV and the quality when watching a DVD or blu-ray. Obviously the quality is best when watching blu-ray, especially when there is movement on screen- it really shows off the sharpness and clarity of the images. Having said that, the quality of DVDs is also automatically upgraded, so even old episodes of Friends look better on this new blu-ray player.
It's actually quite strange watching Friends on this blu-ray player because you end up watching whole episodes in the style Joey's soap opera is usually shown in. This is apparently because blu-ray players play DVDs and blu-rays at the same shutter speed they were originally filmed at. I suppose that's why movement looks particularly sharp and clear.
This model doesn't have any particular features, though it is very lightweight and slim line, so it looks quite elegant alongside the TV. It is also possible to control the blu-ray player with the TV remote, if you've also got an LG TV, which is a nice, handy feature.
It's very easy to work out how to use the appliance, and it's a doddle to plug the wires in to the TV. You just need to make sure you've got an HDMI cable to be able to do this- they're relatively cheap if you buy them at Morrison's or Wilkinson (about £7), although at Curry's, where we bought the TV and blu-ray player, they charge £15 for one. Definitely worth shopping around!
The remote is very clearly laid out and simple to use- I tend only to use stop, play, skip and forward or back, but these are easy to find. The only problem I have is that we have a big coffee table in between the TV and our sofa, and I end up having to bend my arm at some awkward angles to make the player respond to the remote, since the infra-red can't beam through solid wood. That's probably not a product fault though- more to do with laziness on my part! The remote only takes one AAA battery, so it won't be at all expensive to run.
The only thing that does annoy me about it sometimes is that I can never get the disc holder to open first time. I don't know if it's just my tactics in opening the thing, but a press the open/close button and I get the nice, friendly 'hello' greeting, and then nothing more. I then have to press it a few more times before it actually seems to register what I'm asking it to do. I don't know; maybe I'm pressing the button too many times and confusing it or something, but that is one thing I don't like about this model.
Aside from this one little irritation though, everything else about this blu-ray player seems to very good, and very good value for money as well, considering it's currently £65 on Amazon. If you want simple good quality at a reasonable price then this is probably the make and model to go for.
These are remarkably long-lasting earphones, especially for me, who generally gets through a pair every few months. I got my i pod for Christmas three years ago and the earphones are still working perfectly well, if at a slightly reduced quality compared to when I first started using them.
They are a fairly simple set of white in-ear earphones. There's no remote control, no volume control on the earphones themselves-nothing fancy at all about them really. The ear pieces themselves are coated in a layer of protective plastic and the wire leading to the i pod is a nice length. I can clip my i pod to my trouser pockets and still walk comfortably. If I had tried that with my last pair I would have had to walk at a constant stoop to prevent the earphones from popping out of my ears. The only problem with the length, which I think really applies to any earphones, is that no matter the length of time I keep them in my bag for, they will somehow tie themselves into a series of knots, creating some kind of irritating logic puzzle for me every time I want to use them. I can put them in my bag when I enter a shop, pull them back out when I leave five minutes later, and they will have managed in that time to create utter havoc.
This does also show how hard-wearing they are, mind you, as I sometimes become impatient and tug at them to try and loosen them, and yet they still haven't broken. Usually if I tried such a trick the wires inside the casing would loosen or snap, resulting in me not being able to hear my music with the earphones in. Obviously not good, considering that's the sole purpose of a pair of headphones.
The only other thing I really need to mention here, aside from their durability and the length of the cord, is the sound quality. For me, this is the only other thing that's important when I listen to music. I would say the sound quality is above average- music doesn't come out sounding tinny or muffled, but it doesn't have an amazingly sharp quality to it either. I remember, though, that when I first got my i pod and started using these new headphones, I was very surprised at how good the music sounded with them. That could be explained by the fact that the pair prior to these was very cheap and very poor quality, however.
Considering the sound quality and the durability of these particular earphones, the current amazon price of £2.56 is excellent value for money, and I would definitely recommend buying a pair, unless you are a real musical expert and require the highest sound quality possible. If so, you'd need to look elsewhere.
We all know this tea, since we apparently drink 35 million cups of the stuff between us on an daily basis. Thinking about it, that's a massive amount of tea for one country, and only from one particular brand! My Dad has a saying, which I'm sure most English people would agree with, and it goes: 'have a cup of tea; take your mind off it.' This he uses regardless of what the 'it' might actually be- a slogan PG Tips might do well to adopt!
I don't actually remember drinking much of this until I got together with my boyfriend five years ago (tomorrow!) and now I drink no other brands, as he will only have PG Tips. He's very particular about his tea drinking- this rule goes hand in hand with several others: one is that tea must always be made in the pot, not the mug; you shouldn't warm the pot before pouring the water in, and you should, under no circumstances, stir the tea as it's brewing. Fortunately these kinds of stringent rules only apply to tea preparation!
Let's start with a bit about the history, then: this tea was originally just called PG, which stood for pre-gest-tee, which referred to its ability to aid digestion. After the Second World War, when Unilever were told they had to stop using this name as it wasn't necessarily true that tea aids digestion, they shortened it to PG. Tips, of course, refers to the fact that only the top two leaves and bud from the tea plants are used in making the blend.
It's a relatively ethical company, in that its tea plantations in East Africa are rainforest alliance certified. Apparently they also announced this year that they plan to stop testing the tea on animals- I'm not exactly sure how these kinds of tests would work anyway, to be honest. I have images of the PG Tips chimpanzees sitting around in a laboratory sipping from delicate bone china cups and making notes on the flavours. Presumably the reality is quite different, and it's a good thing they've decided to put a stop to this.
I must admit that I do really like the flavour of PG Tips- it's rich and smooth, without having a bitter aftertaste or being overwhelmingly strong, as other brands can be. It doesn't need brewing for long before pouring, and the colour is a lovely golden-brown. You only two bags in a pot to make a nice, flavoursome brew, and even if you under brew it it doesn't come out horribly weak.
The other thing PG Tips are now doing is their collection of 'the strong one,' ' the fresh one' and 'the delicate one.' I tried 'the fresh one,' and I have to say that it didn't taste any different to their ordinary blend to me, though perhaps I don't have a sensitive enough palate! The pyramid bags, likewise, don't seem to make an awful lot of difference as far as I'm concerned, though when it comes to the decaffeinated bags, I'm quite grateful that the difference is minuscule, because it means I can still enjoy the flavour but without the extra energy just before bed.
I think PG Tips are actually quite expensive compared to other tea bags, but it's worth spending a few extra pennies for the quality of taste you get from these bags. If you haven't tried them already, make sure you do.
For those of you have read my slippery elm review, I bought the aloe vera juice for exactly the same reasons which, to cut a long story short, was because I get gastritis and the nutritionist I visited recommended this to help soothe the stomach and aid digestion.
Initially I bought one from the website she recommended, as she had told me it's more pure and better quality than what you can buy in Holland and Barrett. It did seem like very high quality liquid when I received it- it was very thick with pieces of aloe vera floating in it. However, the bottle didn't last all that long, probably about three weeks, as I was taking a shot glass full of it twice a day, so I decided to try the Holland and Barrett one anyway. It isn't as thick, but it still says it's 99.9% pure and it cost about half the price, so I'll definitely be sticking with that one!
Apparently aloe vera juice has all kinds of health benefits; it's supposed to improve the immune system- the person who set up the company I originally bought it from claims he used it to overcome pancreatitis, so it's a very useful product if that's true. It can be used by anyone just for general health purposes then, but also for more specific problems, such as gastritis or other ailments of the digestive tract. It's also supposed to be good for athletes and the elderly, or those suffering from arthritis, as it helps to reduce inflammation in the joints.
It isn't the most pleasant thing in the world to drink, but it's certainly not intolerable. It has a nice texture and just smells a little bit like antiseptic. I was worried I'd bought the wrong product and should be smearing it on my knees or something, rather than drinking it, initially, but I soon got used to it. I wouldn't recommend drinking too much on a daily basis though, as it can aid digestion to an excessive extent, if you see what I mean... you don't want to be sat on the toilet all day having drunk half a bottle! The two shot glass portions seem to be a good measurement, and my bottle conveniently comes with a measuring cap so I can make sure I don't drink more than 25ml each time.
I've found it helpful, along with a few other changes in my diet, and am using it as a support to come off the stronger medication I was on at the moment. So far, so good...touch wood! I'd certainly recommend it- I think the benefits would be different depending on why you're drinking it, but it certainly works for me.
The stuff I ordered off the internet was £24 including postage and packing, which is definitely too much, but in Holland and Barrett it was more like £10, and I'm expecting the bottle to last 3 to 4 weeks, at least.
Slippery elm is a herb extracted from the inner bark of the slippery elm tree, which is native to parts of North America. I'm reviewing it here because I've been using it to soothe the digestive tract as I get gastritis.
First I'll just tell you what gastritis is, to put my review of the herb into its proper context- it's inflammation of the stomach lining, which is a lot more painful than it sounds, and in my case it's been treated with some fairly strong drugs (a proton pump inhibitor which prevents the stomach from producing acid).
As I'd been struggling with the symptoms for quite some time, I decided to go to a nutritionist, who recommended slippery elm to me, among other things. As a result I've now tried two different types of capsules and the powder, which you mix with hot water to make into a tea. It's not that one hasn't worked and so I've gone onto the other- it's just worked out that way.
The capsules are supposed to be taken during or after a meal, as they ease the process of digestion, but actually, according to the label, they can be taken at any time when you feel discomfort, and more than the stated dosage (1 to 2 tablets twice a day) can be taken as there are no known side effects. I ought to stress that not a lot of research has been done on this particular herb so any side effects haven't been investigated, though it is supposed to be a particularly gentle herb which can be used by the elderly and infirm because of how mild it is. It was used by the Native Americans, not just for the purpose I've described, but for the treatment of wounds too.
The first set of capsules I bought were meant to be taken with water or fruit juice, although you can either swallow them whole or break them open and dissolve the powder, but the set I bought today are bigger and should be chewed. I must say, chewing them isn't a very pleasant sensation as the texture is nasty, though they don't taste too bad because they also have cloves and peppermint in them, which are also good for the stomach.
The powder that you dissolve to make a tea is actually more effective, because it has the chance to coat the lining of the throat and stomach, as opposed to the capsules which won't dissolve and release the powder until they at least arrive in the stomach. The very real problem with the tea, however, is that it isn't pleasant to drink. The powder forms into a very clumpy, sticky gel which you are supposed to be able to dissolve by whisking, but which in fact rarely does anything except break into slightly smaller lumps. I add it to herbal tea, so that I can't taste it so strongly, or you can add honey, but it still doesn't have a nice texture. It is very soothing though- you can actually feel it lining the throat as it goes down. The nutritionist I saw, though, said that she sometimes tries to make some slippery elm tree for children to have, as they find it hard to swallow the capsules, but they refuse to drink more than a sip because they don't like it! As I said, for me the taste isn't too bad, it's just the texture that's the problem.
So, I suppose the big question here is: has it worked? Well, I'd have to say that it has, to an extent. It certainly isn't a miracle cure but then, what is? It does soothe and make my stomach feel a bit better, and I appreciate the fact that I can use it whenever I feel I need it, but I couldn't use it as the sole treatment of my gastritis. Having said that, Gillian Mckeith recommends it in the book 'Food Bible' as a natural aid to curing stomach ulcers, so it can't be bad!
It is also supposed to be a good herb for irritable bowel syndrome and Crohn's disease, and can help to calm the digestive system after a tummy bug or similar. This is because it coats the lining of the whole digestive tract and stimulates the production of mucus, which can help to protect it from acid. There's no evidence to suggest that it shouldn't be taken while pregnant or breast feeding, though there isn't any to suggest it's safe either, so the current recommendation is to avoid it while pregnant.
It's a bit expensive compared to some other herbs- somewhere around £10 for 100 tablets, but I'd say it's worth it.
Anyway, hope that helps!
We managed to buy this TV just in time to watch Frozen Planet, which has been very fortunate as the picture quality could almost be described as breath-taking, especially when projecting a stunning arctic landscape directly into our living room. For some reason we viewed the TV as more of a necessity than a new sofa, and so are still sat every evening on a rather hard, coverless futon, which gets less and less padded by the day, watching our brand spanking new TV. We have interesting priorities.
I'll begin, then, with the technical details, though I'll try to keep this section as brief and as interesting as possible. The LG 42" LCD TV is backlit, which apparently makes it ideal for watching fast-action movies and sports. I don't watch much of either, but I can tell you that animations look fantastic on it. A nice feature running alongside this is that you can adjust the energy settings, so if you're watching something that doesn't require such impressive visuals, like the news or a quiz show (must be careful not to mention my addiction to Eggheads here) then you can just down the light levels and thus save some energy. What do you know- a giant, flat screen, eco-friendly TV. Well, let's face it, no 42" LCD TV is going to be particularly eco-friendly, but at least if you're going to buy one anyway then this is a good start. According to the information we were given in-store, the average LCD uses 30% less energy than an LCD or a plasma TV anyway.
You also get a freeview tuner with this model, meaning you can get all those extra digital channels and radio stations free, and there's a USB port for plugging in a memory stick to watch your photos as a slideshow on the big screen.
In fact you can also, according to the manual, pick up wireless, though we haven't tried this yet. We really should though, because with our Lovefilm subscription that would mean we could watch films via live streaming as well as being posted DVDs and Blu-rays, but without having to hunch in front of a laptop.
The one major disadvantage of this TV, in my view, is the sound quality. It just doesn't match up in any way with the picture quality, and in fact once you turn the volume up to about 20, it seems to remain the same from there onwards. You can turn the volume all the way up to 40 or more and it will still sound quite quiet, especially when people are speaking. It isn't that the sound is tinny or muffled in any way, however. It sounds quite sharp and clear, but somehow just never quite loud enough. I suppose the answer to that is to buy a home cinema system to go with it, or at least a set of speakers, but that's quite a commitment when you'll already have forked out around £600 for the TV itself. The home cinema systems are about another £200 on top of that.
Having said that, I'm not sure it's only LG that has this problem with sound quality. My parents have a Panasonic TV which is like ours, 42" with great picture quality, but again, the volume just isn't really there. Perhaps it just isn't possible to make a slim, sleek-looking TV with decent enough speakers to give the sound the volume it really needs. If I wanted to be really cynical about it I might even suggest this was a deliberate ploy to get people spending the extra £200. The logic, after all, is that if you've spent £600 on the TV, what's an extra £200 to get all the benefits of it? Not a logic we'll be following just yet, mind you. I think the sofa may actually need to be the next purchase on the list.
The only other thing I can say about this TV is that it was very easy to set up. You'll need an HDMI cable if you want to plug it into a blu-ray player, but the instruction manual is very clear and easy to understand and there isn't a lot that needs plugging in to get it working anyway. It's also easy to tune, as instructions are given on screen.
We've been very happy with our purchase so far and I'd definitely recommend it to anyone looking for a new, very good quality TV. Don't be put off by my comments on the sound quality either- the actual quality is good, but some people may prefer a higher volume than this TV can offer without speakers but, as I said, I think this may be something that's common to all wide, flat screen televisions.
I thought this looked intriguing and was excited about watching it, considering it stars one of Spain's most talented film stars of the moment, in the form of Javier Bardem. However, I'm disappointed to have to report that it wasn't as good as my high expectations had hoped it would be. I suppose the answer is not to have any expectations at all when you set out to watch something.
Despite my opening paragraph, Biutiful starts off promisingly, with some wonderful cuts of a snowy forest, footsteps crunching through the snow, and a whispered conversation between a father and his daughter. It's artistic, it's creative, and I thought I was in for a treat. Unfortunately not.
However, I don't want to completely trash this film- it was decent. The storyline is generally there and the actors are excellent. It's just about 45 minutes too long (with a total running time of 2 hours, 28 minutes) and the plot is weak in places.
Right, time I got down to the nitty gritty and told you what the film is actually about! Bardem is a father who looks after his two children (Ana and Mateo- Hanaa Bouchaib and Guillermo Estrella respectively) alone. They live in a small, dingy flat in Barcelona, and it quickly becomes clear that they don't have a lot of money and are struggling financially. Uxbal (Bardem) has some dodgy dealings going on in the Barcelona underworld and is trying hard not to fall back in love with his ex-wife, Marambra (Maricel Alvarez). Marambra has bi-polar disorder and, though not necessarily as a direct result of this, is sometimes physically or mentally abusive towards their two children.
The very real problem with all of this is that Uxbal finds out he has terminal cancer. This isn't a spoiler, as it happens early on in the film and is essential to the whole plot. He struggles for the rest of the film with trying to find a safe place for his children after he's gone, with someone trustworthy and caring to look after them, and at the same time with trying to find peace spiritually so that he can move on without regrets and avoid becoming stuck between this world and the next. I should mention here that Uxbal can also communicate with dead people's spirits, so he knows what it is to have unfinished business.
Really, this is a touching story and, as I mentioned before, the acting is very impressive, especially from Maricel Alvarez, who was virtually unknown before this. In fact, Bardem got a Best Actor Academy Award nomination for this film, which is the first time a film entirely in Spanish has been nominated for this Oscar. An impressive feat then, and a well-deserved nomination, even if the film itself isn't one of the most engaging I've ever seen.
One of my favourite things about the film is that it's set very firmly in Barcelona, the characters have Catalan names and the plot is very much about Barcelona and what some of the daily struggles are for somebody living there. Of course, Uxbal's problems have a very human quality to them, which anyone, anywhere could identify with, but he is also quite firmly placed in a particular situation, both geographically and socially. It's nice to see a film set in what is currently still Spain, but which expresses an independence from Castilian culture and shows off its own Catalan culture, albeit a darker side of this!
If you're worried about watching this because of Uxbal's cancer, and thinking it might be very depressing, I can at least calm your anxieties on that front. It isn't an overly sentimental film, and it's not set in a hospital, nor does it focus on Uxbal's physical decline. The plot centres very definitely on his human struggle to keep his children safe and to find peace, and so it isn't a depressing or overly negative film. Having said that, it isn't relaxing viewing either, and I certainly wouldn't choose it for a Friday or Saturday night's viewing. It's one of those you watch mid-week, when you fancy something a bit more challenging than Eastenders or Big Brother. That is, of course, if you have over 2 hours to spare after a hard day at work!
My parents had been encouraging me to start watching this series for ages before I actually got around to it. I just didn't expect it to be very funny as the premise sounded so uninspiring and, let's face it, the BBC isn't always on top form concerning comedy these days. However, a few weeks ago I borrowed series 1 from them and had both series 1 and 2 finished within days- that's how good it is.
So, let's start with this 'uninspiring' premise: it focuses on a totally average family who live somewhere in west London in a terraced house- they're white and they're middle class, and in fact the only thing that isn't average about them is the number of children they have: 3. There's Karen, who's 6 in this series, Ben (9) and Jake (12). The dad, Pete (Hugh Dennis), is a history teacher in a tough secondary school none of his own kids attend, and the mum, Sue (Claire Skinner), is a part-time PA.
Added to the mix is the irritatingly realistic Auntie Angela (Samantha Bond), who lives in America and pays only fleeting visits to the family, particularly as she seems to want to shirk responsibility for Grandad, who has early Alzheimer's. Grandad (David Ryall), the father of Sue and Angela is an excellent character who comes out with some hilarious lines when you least expect them, making them even funnier.
Most episodes are set in the family home, although this series also sees the family at a cousin's wedding and a Spanish airport on their way home from a holiday. 'The Airport' is my personal favourite of all the episodes on series 2; Karen becomes obsessed with terrorism after hearing announcements about never leaving baggage unattended, Ben and Jake manage to drink half a double espresso each before their parents notice, and the whole thing is 'getting on Grandad's tits.'
The best thing about the series, as anyone who's a fan will tell you, is that it is largely unscripted. The script writers (Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin, of Drop the Dead Donkey fame) wanted to create an authentic feel to the actors' lines and felt that the only way to do this was for the children to, effectively, write their own lines. As a result, the children are only given a rough outline of what's going to happen in any given episode and they then improvise, using language they would actually use in real life, rather than something written by an adult 30 years their senior. The adults then need to respond spontaneously to what the children say, and it is sometimes obvious that they're struggling not to laugh at something one of the kids has said, because it was so unexpected.
Personally I think series 2 is much better than series 1, partly because Ben is less annoying. Actually, this is my one real gripe with the series as a whole. Ben, the middle child, is very precocious and actually can be very irritating, though less so in series 2. I realise that the idea is for the adults to be 'outnumbered' by the kids, but sometimes I find myself watching what the children are doing and just thinking 'for goodness sake, send him to his room!' The chaos and lack of disciplining can sometimes be quite frustrating to watch, while also entertaining, but I can't really criticise this too much, since I've never had kids. Perhaps in a few years my own kids will be running riot and I'll have a lot more sympathy for the parents in 'Outnumbered'!
Anyway, I would definitely recommend 'Outnumbered,' and particularly series 2. If you haven't seen it yet, definitely go out and buy it....or stay in and buy it from Amazon for £3.94....bargainous! Even better, you can series 1-3, plus the Christmas special for £15.49. The perfect thing for those dark winter evenings.
I managed to bag myself a free copy of this book for agreeing to review it, and I'm finally getting around to doing so. Not too late, I'm sure! Although Chemistry for Beginners claims to have been written by a certain Mr Anthony Strong, it's actually Anthony Capella using a pseudonym. He thought the style and theme of the book was so far removed from anything he'd done before that it would more sensible to sell it under another name. A good idea, I suppose, although actually this isn't a million miles from something like 'The Food of Love.' His really distinctive title, I think, is 'The Various Flavours of Coffee.'
So, what is this book actually about, and what makes it so different from his previous novels? Well, for a start, there's an awful lot more sex. Well, not sex as such. Rather, orgasms. Dr Steven Fisher works in a research lab at Oxford University studying female orgasms, as he's hoping to develop a female Viagra pill. All is going swimmingly until he receives a new test subject, the mysterious young lady dubbed 'Miss G.'
Miss G is a university student who is in a stable, long-term relationship, but fails to have orgasms when she has sex with her boyfriend. She comes to the lab hoping they might be able to help her. However, the mystery is that all the lab equipment indicates that Miss G is able to orgasm, and yet she appears to feel nothing physically. A puzzler, to be sure.
Some of the scientific detail is interesting here. In fact, it's not so much scientific detail as trivia thrown in to increase interest in the story, reminiscent of the way Bill Bryson writes, only sexier. For example, there's a quite in-depth description of the orgasm of a human female and the uniformity with which it will occur in any given person.
The problem with it is that what the book gains by including the trivia it loses in plot. Dr Fisher is deliberately portrayed as a stereotypically obtuse and rather emotionally stunted man who doesn't realise that Miss G finds him attractive and / or has feelings for him. As a result, we are left with a plot in which no progress seems to be made, even from the scientific point of view, and instead the plot seems to be cyclical, arriving back at the same point once every few pages, in a most frustrating manner!
As with 'The Food of Love,' I found that Capella had taken an intriguing and original idea and started off well in the style of writing and the characterisation and then gone off on a bit of a tangent and 'lost the plot,' both literally and metaphorically, which is a shame.
I would cautiously recommend this book, on the basis that it's quite unique and may be of interest to the non-prudish among you (!), but I certainly wouldn't recommend it for a school library bookshelf, for instance! I would also be hesitant to say that it's worth the shelf price (currently only out in hardback and £12.74 on Amazon), as the plot is quite weak. See if you can get a charity shop or library copy first, before shelling out too much hard-earned cash for it.
This was a surprising read, and I don't want to insult your average chick-lit book by saying that it was surprisingly good 'for a chick-lit,' as many are very well-written. There are elements of the average formula apparent, but it's rather more, dare I say it, 'literary' than most. In fact, it was surprisingly similar in structure and narrative style to 'One Day' by Paul Nicholls; it's just a shame that his novel was labelled a 'literary sensation,' whereas this one has had the always slightly patronising 'chick-lit' label assigned to it.
In fact, the blurb on the back cover doesn't really do the story itself justice, as it talks about how Nat and Neil thought they were made for one another and then he decides he wants a baby and she doesn't, so she starts delving into her past to ensure that none of her ex's were 'the One.' In fact, this is rather more sensitive and profound than simply a woman looking for Mr Right.
The story is told in the third person, and Adele Parks makes a very good attempt at relaying events from the perspective of both male and female characters, particularly from that of the two protagonists. She builds up a wonderfully vivid portrayal of their lives together; a life that may be viewed as mundane from an outsider's perspective, but which is full of love and affection on both sides, and the detail with which she depicts their everyday life makes their story all the more convincing.
The fact that you end up knowing so much about Nat and Neil and how much they care for one another makes what happens next so much more real, and heartbreaking, beginning with Neil realising he wants a baby and Nat refusing to even entertain the idea. This fundamental lack of agreement over such a big issue, coupled with a refusal on both sides to communicate about it, leads to them starting to move gradually in separate directions, and directions which will only end in hurt and upset in the long run.
This is a more serious storyline than you might expect from looking at the front cover, and its tagline: She thought he was definitely The One. But what about the one before? It's also very well characterised and there's a hard, sexual edge to it which I found refreshing.
Having said that, Parks does seem to do a better job of portraying Nat and her mother than she does either Neil or Nat's father. The male characters seem to stick slightly too closely to their safe, masculine stereotypes and this was something I found a bit disappointing. I also found Nat to occasionally be very frustrating, and in a partially inexplicable way. I'm not sure that the way she reacted to Neil was always entirely realistic. Still, who's to say how anyone might react in the same situation?
Another slightly weak point is that there is a bit too much description on occasions. A degree of subtlety in describing the life Nat and Neil lead would be useful sometimes, rather than just having long paragraphs specifically dedicated to description.
On the other hand, I do like the fact that she gives insight into characters' thoughts when they have conversations or arguments. These seem believable and go some way towards explaining the characters' reactions to things. Sometimes I felt I knew too much more about Nat than what she was telling Neil though, which led to my feelings of frustration in her not being honest with him.
In short, this is a complex, well-written story about believable characters, which goes off track sometimes but is generally well worth a read. Highly recommended, to both sexes!
The genre of 'Winter in Madrid' is described as historical fiction, although actually it's also a very decent thriller. Set in Madrid during the winter of 1940-41, it follows the story of three English former public school boys who have become caught up, in differing ways, with Franco's rule in Spain.
Attending Rookwood during the 1920s were Bernie, son of a grocer, who was able to attend the school through a scholarship, Sandy, a boy with a strict father who immediately sent him to a second public school after he managed to get himself expelled from the first, and Harry, who was caught between the two as he liked them both and they, being polar opposites, hated one another. The story mainly centres on Harry and is, I suspect, the character with whom the author identifies most strongly.
Harry is sent home from the war effort after being wounded at Dunkirk- he continues to suffer from tinnitus in one ear, as well as frequent panic attacks, but is asked by British Intelligence to return to Madrid in order to spy on his old friend, Sandy. He goes under the guise of working as a translator at the British embassy, but has in fact been commissioned to find out whether Sandy has found gold reserves which may help strengthen Franco's cause.
At the same time, Barbara, who was Bernie's old flame, has received information that has convinced her Bernie is still alive and being held in a labour camp, although they had thought he died fighting for the communists during the civil war. To complicate matters further, she is now in a relationship with Sandy, who Bernie always detested.
I found it slightly odd at first that C.J. Sansom had chosen to tell a story woven around an important era in Spanish history from the perspective of a group of Brits in Madrid. However, it becomes clear that this is more of a thriller centred around a love triangle than it is a historical novel; while the setting is far from irrelevant, it does seem to be there more to add to the atmosphere of intrigue and corruption than to serve an end in itself.
Having said that there are numerous flashbacks, told from Harry's perspective but in the third person, in which he goes on holiday to Spain with Bernie before the civil war and returns shortly afterwards to try and find out what has happened to him, and these scenes give us something of the flavour of the country and the historical background necessary to understand the main thread of the story.
While the story is not told from the perspective of a Spaniard, the situation Madrid was in during that winter is certainly more than just peripheral- Harry falls in love with a Spanish woman and we learn through her and through things Harry and Barbara see for themselves on the streets of Madrid some of the horrors Spaniards on both sides of the civil war endured; the oppressive atmosphere and the fear permeating it during that winter is also clearly evident in the narrative.
Interestingly, parts of the story are also told from the perspective of prisoners at a labour camp, and the ruthless manner in which they were treated as well as demoralised and sapped of their physical and mental strength is written of in a factual yet sympathetic manner.
The last book I read on the subject of the civil war and its aftermath in Spain was 'The Return,' by Victoria Hislop, and I have to say that I found 'Winter in Madrid' much more convincing, in that it is written in a non-sentimental way while still managing to cast a sympathetic eye over the events which occurred, whereas in 'The Return' I always felt that the author was writing with the sole intention of dragging an intense emotional reaction from the reader.
So, as a work of historical fiction I enjoyed this book and found that it told me what I wanted to know about this period of Spanish history, although I would like to expand on this by reading something from a Spanish perspective next.
From the point of view of it being a thriller it certainly works- I found myself gripped, especially by the last 100 pages or so, and noticed that my heart was beating faster in anticipation of the final scene, which I was completely unable to predict right up until the moment it occurred.
I would certainly recommend this book to anyone interested in Spain and its history, and to those who simply enjoy a good thriller, though it must be said that Jo Nesbo or Linwood Barclay, for instance, would provide a much easier, though less intellectual, read.
With Darren Aronofsky having previously directed The Wrestler I had high expectations of this new film of his, and I was not disappointed. Natalie Portman, the star, thoroughly deserved her Best Actress award at the Oscars for her stunning performance here.
This is another of those films where providing a synopsis could prove difficult, but I'll give it my best shot... Natalie Portman plays Nina- a young ballerina working at the New York City Ballet and obsessed with dancing. She lives at home with her mother, a former ballerina who seems as obsessed with Nina's dancing as she is, if not more so.
Just before work on the latest production, Swan Lake, begins, Beth (Winona Ryder), who is the current favourite, is retired off and auditions are held for a new Prima Ballerina to take her place. Whoever is chosen as the lead must be capable of playing both Princess Odette (the white swan) and Odile (the black swan, who has a much darker nature). While Thomas Leroy, the director (Vincent Cassel) sees Nina as being perfect for the role of Odette, he can't envisage her portraying the character of Odile. Add to this the new girl on the block, Lily (Mila Kunis), who also impresses Leroy, and you've got the makings of a darkly dangerous and obsessive situation.
As Nina struggles to fit the role she so desperately desires her mind darkens and she finds herself doing things she would never have dreamed of. Strange and sinister things begin to happen- she constantly finds cuts on her skin, or pieces of skin peeling off and then mysteriously reappearing moments later. The scratch on her back that never disappears, but only gets worse, is particularly frightening for her as she doesn't remember how the marks appeared there.
Added to this is the potent sexual nature of the film as she experiences a sexual relationship with her darker counterpart, Lily, and also with the director, Leroy. This side of the film lies in stark contrast to the nature of her relationship with her mother, who doesn't appear to want her to grow up and keeps all her cuddly toys in her daughter's distinctly infantile bedroom.
The sinister nature of the story and the atmosphere is portrayed extremely effectively on screen, and particularly in the way that almost every scene with Nina in it includes a reflection of herself in either a mirror or a window pane. This builds the suspense wonderfully, as you constantly expect something to happen, or an image to suddenly appear.
The soundtrack, as may well be expected, is fantastic. Apparently the composer, Clint Mansell, used the music from Swan Lake, but distorted it and played it backwards. This adds an interesting twist, as it feels like music you can recognise, but not enough to relax and enjoy it because there's something distinctly unfamiliar about it at the same time.
In this review, though, I've saved the best until last. Obviously much credit goes to Darren Aronofsky for making a film which perhaps even outstrips his last outstanding effort, but without Natalie Portman all his hard work may just have gone to waste. She in fact doesn't look much like herself in this film- she is incredibly thin, to an unhealthy level, and looks utterly exhausted- the exact prototype of an overly ambitious ballerina. However, she is so convincing physically that this could only have been achieved by over-exertion in real life, which appears to be exactly the case. Apparently she lost 20 pounds in weight for the role, and trained seven days a week in ballet to be able to perform most of her own dancing on screen.
It's not just the physical aspect that makes her performance so impressive,
however. Much like James Franco in 127 Hours, Portman must carry large chunks of the film on her own, and it is fortunate that she is able to do this.
This is not to say that the supporting actors do not play an important role, and many of them are just as good as Portman. Kunis, for example, is very good at creating a convincing tension between herself and Portman, both sexual and otherwise. Vincent Cassel (the director) has probably been most notable for his roles in French films, at least as far as I'm concerned, and was excellent in La Haine, but here he excels himself once again.
Aronofsky also managed to make this film on a relatively low budget (13 million, though he was expecting much more financing than this)- in fact, when Portman cracked a rib during a practice lift, there was no medic on set to help, due to the lack of a budget. Under these circumstances, her performance and the film as a whole are even more remarkable.
As you can probably tell, I highly recommend this film, though it's certainly not going to provide an evening of light entertainment, so save it for when you're in a serious mood and can stomach it!
A red panda who's a Kung Fu master, a turtle who's a wise old sage and a big, fat panda bear who's the new Dragon Warrior...the makings of a hugely successful and wonderfully funny kung fu animation. At least that's what I think, and I can't wait for the second instalment, due to be released this June.
As mentioned, Po, the big, fat panda, has dreams of becoming a kung fu warrior and joining the furious five at the Jade Palace, just up the road from his dad's noodle restaurant somewhere in China. The furious five are a tiger (Angelina Jolie), a praying mantis (Seth Rogen), a monkey (Jackie Chan), a crane (David Cross) and a viper (Lucy Liu). Po himself is voiced by Jack Black and master shifu, who eventually trains him, is voiced by Dustin Hoffman. So, you can see that at the very least the characters are voiced by an all-star cast. The actor who most stands out as having thrown himself into the role heart and soul, however, is Jack Black.
So, Po is desperate to become a kung fu warrior, but unfortunately his dad (a goose, of course) has other ideas, and believes that Po is destined to take over control of the restaurant. One day, a poster is put up announcing that the dragon warrior is about to be chosen at the Jade Palace, and Po is desperate to go and watch. In a hilarious turn of events, and after he struggles firstly to lug the noodle cart up the steps to the palace, and then struggles to see anything when the doors are shut in his face, Po ends up being chosen as the dragon warrior.
This coincides with the escape of Tai Lung from prison- he's a dark and dangerous leopard (I think!) who was once trained himself by master Shifu, but turned evil in his obsession with obtaining the dragon scroll.
There are some very nice themes for kids here, such as Po refusing to give up, despite the fact that no one believes he can succeed against Tai Lung- nobody believes him to be special, but he learns that the most important thing in achieving success is for him to believe in himself. Awww. A good lesson even for adult viewers.
I know that Dreamworks are renowned for poor animation when compared with Disney Pixar, and for not convincingly animating people, but this film should shatter any doubts that they are more than capable of competing in the big leagues. Fortunately, perhaps, there aren't any humans in this film, and although some have said that the animals are a bit 'glassy-eyed,' I would have to disagree with this. The animals are convincing enough, but what is really spectacular is some of the scenery, and in particular the peach tree when it blossoms. A lot of the special effects used are also very impressive, such as the old-style Kung Fu movie split-screen scenes and Po doing his kata (or whatever the kung fu equivalent is) in front of a huge setting sun. Tai Lung's escape from prison, with its stop-motion effects and incredibly detailed action sequences is also noteworthy. In fact, I've watched this film with a few of my English classes now, and every time they gasped in surprise at this scene- it must be good if it's capable of silencing a group of rowdy Spanish teenagers!
The blend of humour, sentimentality, special effects and voicing of this film makes it a definite must-see. I remember being very pleasantly surprised the first time I watched it, as it was a breath of fresh air in terms of plot too- at each turn, and just when you think you can predict what's coming next, (mainly based on expectations instilled by Disney Pixar), something funny and / or unusual happens to take you by surprise. It hasnt lost any of its magic in the dozen or so times I've watched it since, either. Highly recommended.
The third in the Jo Nesbo series starring Harry Hole as crime-solver extraordinaire, this book is not as good as The Snowman (which seems to be the 5th in the series- certainly the 5th to be translated into English), but still has its definite plus points.
Set in Oslo, between late 1999 and early 2000, the story at first involves Hole being promoted upstairs when a security assignment he's involved in goes horribly wrong (it's a long story!) He is then put on an assignment to deal with Neo-Nazis in the run-up to Norwegian Independence Day on the 17th May.
However, while the plot involves the neo-Nazis at certain points, the real focus is on a group of Norwegian defectors who ended up fighting on the Russian Front alongside the Germans during the Second World War. One of these men, now an old man, has managed to get hold of a rare piece of weaponry which has evidently been used at a couple of crime scenes Hole is called to. Realising he means to eventually kill someone prominent with this weapon, Hole finds himself in a race against time to stop the killer before he completes what he's already started.
The plot itself I found quite confusing, in all honesty. For a start, I couldn't work out initially who on earth the group of Norwegian men in WW2 were fighting for or against. Then I couldn't understand exactly what the killer's motives were and who was supposed to be who. The killer himself is anonymous throughout most of the book, and you're left constantly guessing at which character form the 1940s he may actually be.
Whether this confusion is a result of my own occasional lack of ability to follow complicated plots (which more often occurs when watching films), or a weakness on the part of the author in making things clear enough to the reader, I'm not sure, though I strongly suspect the latter. As I said, The Snowman, by the same author, had an excellent plot which was much easier to follow.
Fortunately the weakness of the plot, or at least its haziness, is made up for in other ways. Firstly, Hole is sympathetically characterised- he's an inherently flawed character, who has developed a terror of flying in recent years and can't seem to stop hitting the bottle when stressed- elements of his character which help the reader to identify more closely with him.
Secondly, there are sudden flashes of humour to Nesbo's writing, usually in the form of sarcasm, which is quite unusual in crime writing and adds a nice touch. That this humour comes across in the English translation is, I suspect, largely thanks to Don Bartlett, who has done an excellent job of making Nesbo's writing flow effectively in another language.
Rather unfairly, I feel, Jo Nesbo (who is Norwegian), has been described as 'the next Stieg Laarson.' In fact, all the new editions of his harry Hole series have this stamped on the front. As far as I can tell, however, the only thing they have in common is that they are both Scandinavian crime writers, and I have to say that of the two, Nesbo is by far the more engaging.
As I said, this is quite a good book, but to get a really good introduction to the works of Nesbo, it would be best to start with The Snowman (or maybe one of his others, though these are the only two I've read myself). Starting with this one you may be put off by the plot, and it would be shame not to want to read any more of his afterwards.