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Stewwydablue

Stewwydablue
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Member since: 19.12.2009

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      17.03.2014 10:17
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      A collaboration between two very good writers

      Jointly written by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter, the Long Earth is the first in a trilogy about modern day mankind being able to step sideways into past alternative planet earths, with the help of a home made machine called a stepper.

      Some of you my have heard of Mr Pratchett - he's responsible for the hugely successful Discworld Series of books about an alternate earth called the Discworld, and Stephen Baxter is a science fiction writer who has also written some non fiction books. I'm a bit precious over "my" Pratchett, I like his brilliance to be his only and have always been wary of his collaborations. However, I've yet to actually be disappointed by one of his joint ventures and the Long Earth is no exception.

      The main character is Joshua Valiente, a boy who built a stepper and was one of the first to move across into an alternative planet earth. It turns out that he has a special talent for being able to step without a stepper, and also without feeling the severe nausea that most people do when stepping, which means that he can step across the worlds very quickly. He is recruited by a soft drinks vending machine with a conscience (it went to court, "Lobsang" has been granted human status - it's very "Pratchett", just go with it!) to see how far back they can step to and the rest is just brilliant - I'll give my opinions about it all below.

      Firstly, the whole idea of alternative planet earths without people, buildings, technology etc absolutely appeals to and fascinates me. Imagine if such a thing existed? It would be like space travel and time travel all rolled into one - every nerd's dream! Some stories come to life in a very graphic way due to the way the environment or scenes within the book are described, this book was as visual to read as watching a film in my opinion. Very well done Mr B and Mr P for bringing the Long Earth to life. I'd love to pay a visit myself!

      I liked the way that as people get the hang of stepping, there are large movements of people who travel the earths as pioneers, homesteading and going back to a way of life where craft skills, woodsmanship and agriculture were king, as opposed to the world we live in where everything stops if the computers at work decide to "say no". I found this another appealing factor to the book. The flip side of this is that a welcome dose of realism is added to that concept - the lands of plenty were starting to be stripped of their resources and police forces had to work out a way of dealing with crimes in those other worlds, a point well made by the authors that humankind as a species never seems to learn how not to destroy things or how to look after the planet we have already been gifted.

      I'd recommend this to Pratchett fans who like / love his style but yearn for a setting other than Discworld. I found it thoroughly enjoyable and can't wait to read the next book in this series. Five stars, thanks for reading.

      RRP £18.99 (hardback)
      ISBN 9780857520098

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      • Sainsbury's Basics Teabags / Tea / 47 Readings / 47 Ratings
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        16.03.2014 00:08
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        Excellent value

        As much as I love drinking coffee, I've had to stop drinking it from late afternoon onwards as it has started to affect my sleep. Instead, I've moved onto tea bags after three o'clock - I know they still have caffeine in, but on average tea has about half the caffeine content and I have noticed a difference as I'm no longer still wide awake at two in the morning. As I'm not a tea expert, I didn't see the point of spending a lot of money as I don't notice too much difference when it comes to tea. At 27p for a box of 80 Sainsbury's Basics Tea Bags, surely it was worth a gamble?

        It was, definitely. Yes, I know that for such a cheap price, they've probably used the floor sweepings from a more expensive make of tea bag. However, it doesn't taste of floor sweepings and actually makes quite a tasty flavoursome brew. The only big difference I've noticed is that to get a strong brew, I have to leave the bag in for slightly longer before I add the milk than I would for a more expensive tea bag. For less than half a penny per bag, I'm sure I can cope with that.

        I haven't noticed that they lose their flavour quickly if left out of an airtight jar for long, as opposed to Sainsbury's own make Chai tea bags which lose their flavour quicker than United fans have lost their loyalty this season. I've convinced the person at work who is in charge of the brew fund to switch to buying these, we've slashed the amount of money we were spending on tea a month and instead buy more biscuits.

        I've sang the praises of other Sainsbury's Basics range products in previous reviews, and these tea bags are more proof, in my opinion, that the Basics range really is good value for money, without skimping on quality or taste. I'd recommend these to anyone who just wants a good cuppa for a fraction of the price you're probably already paying elsewhere. Five stars, they're that good.

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          10.03.2014 20:52
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          Another great smelling scent from Yankee

          This was another tart that we got as part of a massive stack for Christmas off various relatives. It was very gratefully received - we're still getting through them now and it's spring time! This tart has a wintery feel, but also has a freshness which I think works just an air freshener without making your room smell like a scene from a Christmas time love film.

          For those that don't know, Yankee are an American company who make all sorts of wax based scented products and other air freshener type things like reed diffusers and pot pourri. A wax tart is a petal / shell shaped disc of scented wax that releases its scent when melted by using a tea light underneath an oil burner. This particular tart has the scent of fresh snow and woods, as if you were out on a winter walk, hand in gloved hand with a loved one. I would say that the wood scents give it warmth, and the fresh air scent is strong, crisp and clean like ozone on the beach but without the smell of a Fleetwood trawler.

          Like most Yankee tarts, this still continues to blast out a scent when being melted well after the 8 hours that Yankee suggest - we use four tea lights on ours which gives us about 12 hours of melting time. This scent is still available in various formats on different websites. I would recommend to those who prefer a fresh, non food related Yankee scent, and as it's available for a pound on most websites it's good value too. Don't be put off by the winter connection, it's more of an outdoor scent. Five stars, thanks for reading.

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          08.03.2014 20:30
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          A good thriller about nazis

          I'm pleased to say I've just finished reading a thriller, Echo of the Reich by James Becker that doesn't go into the "blatantly trying to rip off the Da Vinci Code" category. I suppose there could be some similarities made between the two books, an old and clandestine organisation with less than pure intentions prepared to kill to put their plans into practice, but the style of the two books is vastly different. I think Becker has given us a book which should be enjoyed by most who like a tense thriller. I'll explain what the gist of the story is below then I'll give my opinions as well.

          Chris Bronson, police officer, is tasked to go undercover and infiltrate a group of anti London Olympics protesters who are trying to disrupt the forthcoming games by vandalising key Olympic sites and equipment around London. He manages to do this, and it quickly becomes apparent that the group is being used as a front for a deeper, more serious reason. A group of Nazis are planning to attack London with a form of vengeance weapon which was originally trialled in the war. Chris ends up in Germany, where he is forced to show his loyalty to the group by killing someone who turns out to be another undercover policeman. Chris is now in deep trouble, and decides he has to stop the group himself as his own police force have considered him to have gone rogue and he's now classed as a fugitive. In his attempt to stop the group, he ends up back in London at the site of the opening ceremony. Can he find the vengeance weapon in time and stop a huge chunk of London from being destroyed? - I'm not going to say as the Guides for this category will no doubt slap my wrists!

          I enjoyed this book, mainly for the sense of jeopardy surrounding the main character Chris as he gets further into trouble as he tries to stay one step ahead of the group of Nazis who are plotting to unleash terror on London. As the plot develops, you could say that it's far fetched, but I would counter that by saying that it's entertaining and developed in a reasonably believable way, piece by piece and I suppose that were that series of events to actually happen, it's quite perceivable that someone like Chris could find himself in the situations he encounters in the book.

          Looking at the author's profile inside the book, I thought that the titles of his other books do suggest that they could be Da Vinci Code-esque, "The Moses Stone", "The Messiah Secret" etc, but as the saying goes I shouldn't judge a book by its cover and hopefully if I do give them a go I might find them to be as enjoyable as Echo of the Reich.

          Not brilliant, but enjoyable, gripping and quite entertaining. Four stars, thanks for reading.

          ISBN 978-0-857-50090-8
          RRP £6.99

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            06.03.2014 12:18
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            A very soothing and moisturising after sun lotion

            My Lancashire skin doesn't cope with much sunshine, I don't tan, instead I roast. When I go to sunny climes with work (it isn't as exciting as it sounds!) I wear at least a factor 30 sun protection cream, yet I still get sore skin from the sun. I learned quickly that I also need to use aftersun to moisturise my skin and replace some of the moisture that the sun leaches out of it.

            This particular moisturiser, 'Boots Soltan Aftersun with Insect Repellent' is one of the more soothing creams that I've used. The soothing effect is due to containing Allantonin, according to the label. I'm not one of those sadists that semi freezes their aftersun then applies it onto hot skin, I find that if I just leave it in my daysack out of direct sunlight then although it might be slightly warm, it's never too hot to apply and I actually think that it rubs into the skin better when warmer.

            If I haven't used the bottle for a while, I have to remember to give it a good shake as over time the liquid separates and a thin runny clear substance trickles out of the hole if not shaken first. I think that this substance might be the insect repellent, which it is boasted does not contain DEET. For me, that is a bad thing as my employer only provides us with insect repellents that do contain DEET as it is a very effective repellent. I know that DEET doesn't agree with everybody's skin, but I personally can put up with the DEET if it means I am lowering the chances of getting malaria. The cream also contains cocoa butter which is well known for its properties on skin, how it nourishes and moisturises etc.

            There isn't much of a smell to this aftersun lotion, and also it doesn't leave behind a greasy residue on my skin. I've noticed that I hardly peel when using this, which is one of the main selling points for me as I don't have to attend meetings etc looking like an extra from the Walking Dead with bits of skin hanging off my face.

            I would recommend this to those who want to combine a good aftersun with a low level insect repellent - if you're in a high risk malaria region then I would suggest you use an extra form of insect repellent and not solely rely on this cream. As an aftersun though, it's great. Four stars from me, thanks for reading.

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            16.02.2014 15:39
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            Quick and tasty noodles

            I don't always have my full amount of allowed time for lunch, so consequently can't always have a full blown sit down meal. Unfortunately, my boss has a rare eyesight disorder which prevents him from seeing the clock at predetermined times of the day, like lunchtime or knock off time.

            As I'm therefore sometimes in a rush for lunch, I need something that's easy to prepare, quick to heat and goes well with a little bit of something else to pad it out a bit. A snack which matches those requirements of mine are the Sainsburys Basics Chicken Flavour Instant Noodles.

            Costing 21p a pack, you shouldn't be expecting gourmet food. They're not. However, sometimes 21p can give you a surprisingly good return. These noodles are pleasantly tasty for a supermarket's economy range product.

            You get 65 grams of noodles and a sachet of seasoning powder in the pack. The health police won't be pleased to see that there is a double dose of both salt and sugar as the noodles and the seasoning both contain these two evils.

            They're very easy and quick to cook. In a pan of hot water, they take five minutes - a couple of minutes to bring the water to boil then throw in the noodles and cook for a couple more minutes. Drain the water off and mix in the powder, then they're ready to eat. In a microwave, I put 200ml of boiled kettle water into a Tupperware box, break the noodles into four smaller blocks and plop them into the water. Cover, heat for two and a half to three minutes on full power then add the seasoning and mix it through the noodles. Very quick. I eat mine with two slices of cheese on toast, they're very filling.

            The other flavour in this range of Basics noodles is chicken curry. If you're willing to pay 9p more, the next range up of Sainsburys own make noodles contains more variety of flavour like BBQ Beef and Vegetable.

            For 21p, these are hard to find fault with. The only negative thing I have to say about them is that they contain 2.6g of salt per pack. Four stars, thanks for reading.

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              15.02.2014 13:48
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              A good scrub for the shower

              I've got a job which demands a certain level of physical fitness, which means that with all the running and training that I do I sometimes have 3 showers a day. Consequently I get through a lot of toiletries so am always on the lookout for whatever's on offer in the supermarket.

              The latest bargain I found was on offer in Tesco for £1 a bottle, Radox Men Watermint and Sea Minerals Deep Scrub. I normally avoid the scrub type showergels as they have those scratchy bits in which feel like you're washing in sandy water. However, for £1, I decided that I could put up with a bit of scratchiness and I would give it a go.

              The showergel smells of a good balance between the mint and the sea minerals, there isn't too much of one and not enough of the other, it's just right. For those that have physical and emotional scars from using the Original Source mint based showergels, don't worry as this Radox scrub is so much more gentler, and chaps - it's safe on genitals! (unlike the aforementioned other brand).

              It lathers up well enough and I wouldn't say that I have to use an excessive amount to get the job done so the concentration of it makes for a good value wash at £1 a bottle. It usually sells for £2, so shop around for offers.

              The smell lingers on my skin for a good couple of hours after a shower and it's good to get a whiff as I move around and notice it from time to time. Also, the "scratchy bits" aren't really that noticeable and it isn't too punishing to use on my face.

              I would recommend this for men who want a fresh, outdoor and natural smelling showergel, but only if it's on offer. Four stars, thanks for reading.

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              • Onions / Plant / 54 Readings / 53 Ratings
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                09.02.2014 20:27
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                Try growing some for yourself

                Introduction


                There are so many food crops which people never attempt to grow for themselves because they might think it would be too tricky or that you need a field the size of Wembley's pitch in order to do so. Did you know you can grow a few onions in nothing more than a bucket filled woith compost with some holes drilled in the bottom? Also, that if you do that, you don't have to spray them with potentially harmful pesticides like non organic shop bought onions are?

                Please find below my review about onions which I hope will either convince you to try growing your own or will encourage you to use them more often when cooking.


                Background


                Onions are a form of edible bulb which are part of the allium family, along with leeks, chives and garlic. They originate from North Africa and it is known that there is evidence of the Ancient Egyptians using them. There are many different varieties now as people have developed new species which come in various sizes and colours, from white skinned golf ball sixed onions to ones which are bigger than a tennis ball and have a bright red skin.


                How to grow them


                There's two different ways you can grow onions, either from seed or from what is known as a set, which is a juvenile onion that has been started off from seed by a commercial grower then pulled out of the ground and stopped from growing any more. There are different advantages to both. Sets are more expensive than seed but can be planted out earlier in the year than seeds so you get a quicker harvest. However, my problem with sets is that they nearly always go to seed (produce a flower spike) which causes the onion itself to have a large ring of green stem inside the bulb which makes it store for less time than an onion that hasn't gone to seed. Onions grown from seed don't tend to do this as much.

                Whether it's onions from seed or sets that you choose, wait till April before you plant them out. It's not scientific, but I plant mine just over a hand span apart in rows, with about 30cm between each row in a raised bed that I made. Any spare sets or seedlings I have go into all sorts of places, from pots to buckets and I've even grown some in an old tyre. When planting sets, keep checking them until they get a decent root system as birds mistake the green shoots poking out of the soil for worms and can / will pull them out. It's possible to start seeds off under cover from February on either a kitchen windowsill or a heated greenhouse in modules (seed trays with "plugs" or holes in them - one seed per plug), then when they are big enough to handle they can be transplanted into their final growing position outside.

                The soil for onions should be free draining and have had some manure or good compost dug into it the previous autumn. Adding manure or rich compost to the soil whilst the onions are growing will just encourage lots of leafy growth and prevent the bulb itself from swelling much as all the plant's energy is going into keeping the leaves growing.

                It's a good idea to plant them in rows as it makes weeding easier between each row with a hoe. If you keep the area weed free, you will almost certainly get bigger onions at harvest time. The onions are ready to pull when all the leaves have gone brown and collapsed. Lift the onion from the soil and allow it to dry and harden off before storing. I string mine up in a small plastic greenhouse we have outside so that the sun's warmth dries them out but are also protected from the rain. They store for at least three months if kept in a dry environment, too much moisture will promote mould growth and spoil the onions.


                Varieties


                One thing I haven't mentioned yet is shallots, which are like an onion in a lot of ways but are generally smaller and often sweeter. Shallots are best grown from sets and should be treated exactly like onions. Another difference with shallots is that one set produces a cluster of anything between five and ten bulbs, whereas an onion set will only produce the one onion. Shallots are good for using as a raw salad onion as they don't overpower everything else and their small size makes them good for fitting into jars and pickling. Varieties of Shallots include:

                Mikor - a slightly elongated bulb with white flesh that has a tinge of pink to it. Mr Fothergills sell approximately 30 bulbs in a pack for £4.95.

                Red Gourmet - an oval shaped shallot with a red skin and pink flesh. Thompson and Morgan sell 20 sets for £5.99.

                Back to more classic types of onions now. There is a huge variety to choose from. Some well established favourites include:

                Red Baron - a great red onion that's brilliant for cooking with and using in salads. The red baron has an award of garden merit from the Royal Horticultural Society. They also store well. Thompson and Morgan sell 50 sets for £4.99 that's ten pence an onion!

                Alisa Craig - this heritage variety is a favourite amongst those who grow their own as they store superbly well. A packet of seeds from Marshalls cost £2.85 which sounds pricey, but its always worth shopping around as I have seen the same variety for as cheap as 30p in various supermarkets.


                Pests and Diseases


                Onions are fairly robust, but there are one or two potential pests and diseases which have the potential to affect them. I'd say that the worse disease is white rot - I think it's the worse as the area of the garden which has had white rot shouldn't be used again to grow onions for eight years - crippling if you only have a tiny garden and no alternative space in which to grow onions. White rot will kill the plant and turn the growing bulb to mush. It's easy to spot though, the leaves will turn yellow prematurely and there will be a fluffy looking white mould growing on the bulb. Any bulbs you see like this should be removed and burned straight away, there isn't really a cure or treatment for white rot. It is thought that damp conditions and not enough airflow round the growing bulbs causes it to spread and take hold.

                Another potential disease for onions is rust. Rust also affects other allium family members. It shows itself as orange coloured spots on the leaves and is easy to spot. All affected plants should be removed and burned, and to prevent reoccurrence you shouldn't really plant onions or or their relatives in that spot for at least four years.

                A pest which can be harmful to onions is the onion fly. Onions that are being attacked by this very small pest will have yellow leaves and won't really grow much. You might even spot the larval stage of the fly (they look like maggots) in the stems of the plants' leaves. The best way to prevent onion fly attacks is to turn the soil over in the winter where you wish to plant the onions in the following spring. This will expose the pupae - these look like hard, still, maggots and birds or small mammals will hopefully gobble them up for you. If you have an onion fly infestation, the plants won't recover even if you kill the flies so they should be pulled out of the ground and burned.


                Uses


                Onions form an essential part of the "holy trinity" of home cooking - carrots, celery and onions. These are the base of all manner of soups, stews and stocks. If you do a lot of cooking from scratch, just have a think and try to work out how many onions you buy a year. It all adds up, and you might have an empty border down one side of your garden where you could grow your own for pennies! I'll come back to cooking with onions, but for now here are some alternative uses for the humble onion:

                1. An uncovered sliced onion will remove the smell of paint from rooms where you've been decorating.

                2. The smell of onions is known to repel mosquitoes, so they're useful to have when camping or staying outside on warm summer evenings.

                3. Slice an onion in half and rub it on your car windscreen if the forecast is for frost over night - it will help prevent the windscreen from icing up.

                4. Not strictly speaking a use for onions, but if you've been cutting onions and your hands smell of them, wash them in cold water to get rid of the smell. Using hot water will open up the pores on your skin, the onion residue gets in there and the smell is harder to shift.

                Back to more foody type uses of onions now. Here are a couple of recipes for onions that show off their taste superbly and are very simple.

                1. Onion Marmalade. I agree that this sounds disgusting as we normally associate marmalade as being a sweet accompaniment to toast. Onion marmalade is best used with meats, cheeses or dolloped onto a salad. I use red onions for this recipe as they are sweet and caramelise well.

                You'll need 2lbs of peeled and thinly sliced red onions, 4 tablespoons of sugar, 4 tablespoons of white vinegar, a big knob of butter, a splash of red wine and if you want heat you can add some chilli, either a chopped fresh one or dried chilli flakes.

                Melt the butter in a pan then add the onions. Mix the sugar in then turn down and cover, allowing them to caramelise for about 20 minutes on a low heat. Give them the odd stir so that they cook evenly and don't stick. After 20 minutes, add the vinegar and wine then leave the lid off. It will thicken up (you can add more sugar at this point if you want an even thicker "jam") and keep stirring it every now and again. Once you've reached the desired thickness, spoon it into sterilised jars and seal. It will keep for about 3 months. Try making some in December ready for all those lovely cold cuts of meat and cheeses people like to feast on over Christmas, it also makes a nice home made and cheap present.

                2. Pickled Onions. Try to use small, bite sized onions or shallots for this. The variety called Silverskin are an ideal size for pickling. Top and tail the onions then remove the paper like outer skins. Leave them to soak over night in quite salty water, then the next day drain off and allow to dry. Using sterilised jars, fit in as many onions as you can then pour spiced vinegar into the jars. I use white vinegar as it's cheap, but white wine vinegar also works well. To make a spiced vinegar, pour as much as you think you'll need (depending on how many onions you have) into a pan and add some peppercorns, cloves and a teaspoon of salt. Slowly bring this to the boil, then turn off the heat and allow to cool. Once cool, pour over the onions into the jars and fill right up to the top of the jar. Seal straight away, and they should last for at least three months. They're best to eat after a month as it allows the flavours to mature.


                Health effects of onions


                The immediate effects that spring to mind with onions are bad breath and crying when cutting them open. Far more positive effects are that onions have antibacterial, antimicrobial and antiseptic properties (they're good for fighting off colds and other minor infections), they also aid digestion by stimulating the stomach into producing more digestion juices, onions are believed to help the body produce insulin and also it is thought that they help to control the sugar levels in our blood. Also, onions are thought to contain a substance which removes bad cholesterol from our blood. Overall, quite a useful vegetable.

                As an aside, the reason onions can make us cry when chopping them is because cutting them releases sulphur particles, and when these particles mix with the moisture in our tear ducts and eyes it forms a mild form of sulphuric acid which acts as an irritant to the eyes - these then "cry" to flush the irritant out.


                Summary


                If you think about what we eat, onions form a large part of our diet. Why not try growing some for yourself and save a few quid as well as being able to try more than the two or three varieties which the supermarkets sell? Not only does their addition transform the taste of cooking, they're good for us in lots of ways too. A superbly useful vegetable, 5 stars from me. Thanks for reading.

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                  02.02.2014 21:20
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                  It's a shame there aren't any more books in this series

                  I absolutely devoured the first two books in the Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins and couldn't wait to finish the third and final book, Mockingjay. This trilogy has really kept me gripped, unusually so as it's aimed at teenage girls, in a similar way that the Twilight series is. However, I'm not so proud that I won't admit I have found these books to be a damn good read, so there!

                  The following description and opinions about Mockingjay unfortunately contains unavoidable spoilers for the preceding two books in the trilogy, as by reading the Mockingjay's review you will be able to work out the general gist of what has happened in the Hunger Games and Catching Fire.

                  Mockingjay sees Katniss (the main character of the trilogy) as now a major part of District 13's revolt against the Capitol, after those same rebel forces freed her from the arena in Catching Fire. She is the Mockingjay, the human symbol of revolution for the districts as they fight to overthrow and destroy the brutal regime of the Capitol, led by the ruthless President Snow.

                  She is mainly being used in a propaganda role, not being allowed to take part in much front line action but instead she gets flown to the aftermath of battles where she is filmed giving battle reports in the hope of undermining the Capitol's morale. The final throw of the dice by District 13 is to attack the Capitol itself, and Katniss finds herself getting sent forward to take part. I won't say exactly what the outcome of storming the Capitol is, all I will say is I found it quite a grim read and was surprised to see who lives and who dies.

                  Although there were no arena scenes in Mockingjay, I thought that the author had made the story good enough not to require what I think would have been an unconvincing third appearance by Katniss in the arena.

                  Instead, Mockingjay focuses on the outcome of the revolution she became the face of in Catching Fire after her suicide berries stunt at the end of book one, the Hunger Games. I enjoyed Peeta's (Katniss' love interest) role in Mockingjay, he had been brainwashed after being captured by the Capitol at the end of Catching Fire when the rebels broke into the arena to rescue Katniss. Peeta is eventually recaptured by the rebels and he is at first hell bent on killing Katniss, such is the extent of the brainwashing he has endured. This adds to the overall suspense of the story. Again, I won't say here what the outcome of that particular thread of plot is.

                  Considering these books are in the children's genre, there are some very heavy adult themes, for example the human shield of innocent children that President Snow uses in the final throes of the rebels' attack on the Capitol. However, I think that for teenagers, this would be an enjoyable yet challenging book and most teenagers I can think of should be able to cope with some of the more adult themes. My eldest is nine years old and I know that she would love these books, but for now I'm going to wait in giving them to her until she is at least at high school.

                  There are no sex scenes in the book (or the other books in the trilogy) with regards to me mentioning the adult themes, it's just that the whole concept of the Hunger Games is based around children being forced to kill other children, so that's why I'm reluctant to let my nine year old daughter read them.

                  Now that I've read all three of the books, I wonder if Suzanne Collins has any plans to write any spin off Hunger Games related books. I hope she does, but think that they would only be good if she puts the same amount of effort into the story as she has with the Hunger Games series - any less and it would just be a rushed spin off trying to cash in on the original trilogy's success.

                  I would only recommend reading this book if you have read the preceding two in the series, as a standalone story it's ok but for best effect I think the books need to be read in order. I thought this was an excellent end to the series, but am slightly disappointed that it doesn't really pave the way for any more books directly following on from it, as I said earlier I think any future books would have to be Hunger Games related rather than an out and out part 4.


                  Five stars from me, thanks for reading.


                  ISBN 9781407109374
                  RRP £7.99
                  Available on Amazon for £4.79 new or £4.19 used

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                    02.02.2014 09:50
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                    A tasty thin cracker

                    Some nights, I just can't be bothered eating a large meal for tea so instead I'll have a lot of different small snacks. One of my favourite snacks is cheese and crackers with a handful of olives on the plate. I've liked Jacobs Sweet Chilli Thins for a while now, so I'll try to explain about the product and give my opinions below.

                    The 150g box contains a roll of very thin, but not weak and crumbly crackers. These have a red tinge to them which I suppose would come from the dried red bell peppers, paprika powder and cayenne pepper powder they contain. They taste quite sweet, which isn't surprising considering that sugar is the third highest quantity of all the ingredients listed, but it doesn't say how much sugar exactly they do contain.

                    The sweet chilli flavour is almost like a very mild sweet chilli sauce, but without the sharpness of the vinegar that most chilli sauces contain. I think that the sweetness of the cracker counterbalances salty cheeses very well - try one with a strong blue cheese and hopefully you'll agree.

                    There's hardly any heat from the chilli element of the crackers, so people who don't like their mouths being on fire needn't be put off. Yes, they do contain sugar and salt, but like most things, if taken in moderation they shouldn't have too much of a bad effect. They're currently available for £1 in Tescos (normally they sell for £1.19 but are on offer at the moment), but shop around as I've seen them on offer in various supermarkets.

                    If you like a snack cracker and want to try something with flavour, I would recommend these as they're very tasty and the sweetness works very well with cheese. As I'm a little bit mistrustful of the amount of sugar they contain though, I'll only award them four stars instead of the full amount. Thanks for reading.

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                      31.01.2014 11:40
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                      An interesting enough look at organic lifestyle changes

                      I'm not sure that the goal of living a truly organic lifestyle is within the reach of most, but in my house it's what we aim for. We're certainly a long way from being fully organic, for all sorts of reasons, but all the things we do that can be classed as being organic certainly reduces the size of impact we have on the environment. This book, a Slice of the Organic Life, is perfect for my family. You don't have to be an eccentric, extremist environmentalist to make a series of small changes to a lifestyle which will have the net effect of having a positive impact on the environment.

                      The book's chapters cover the aspects of our lives into which we can start being more organic and the chapters focus on lots of little changes that can be made as opposed to huge lifestyle, root and branch changes which to be honest would put the majority of people off.

                      Chapter 1, "No need for a garden". This dispels the myth that you need as much land and disposable income as the Duchy of Cornwall to make organic changes to a lifestyle. Obviously, to grow organic carrots on large enough quantities to provide for your family for a full year would require a certain amount of outside space, as there are only so many carrots you can grow in a dustbin full of sand and compost (that's how I grow mine). More large scale growing requirements are dealt with in a later chapter.

                      "No need for a garden" looks at the organic changes we can make both in the home and outside of it, for example changing the cleaning products we use or how to travel wisely in order to reduce the damage we do to the world and sometimes ourselves. To be brutally honest, there are one or two suggestions in this chapter which I think are just outright daft and contribute to the negative perceptions a lot of people have about going organic - for example this chapter suggests that a child can have hours of fun with a wooden spoon and cardboard box for toys instead of plastic toys which have been flown thousands of miles to our shores. Thinking of my own children, if I gave them a wooden spoon and a cardboard box, I would be squashed into the box and beaten with the spoon before I could say "carbon footprint". Hours of fun for them maybe, but nothing but misery and bruises for me.

                      One suggestion that made perfect sense to me though was to forage for fungi. For years I'd resisted due to the fear of picking a poisonous mushroom by mistake and dying a horrible death, but after working a stone's throw from a large wooded area last autumn I finally took the plunge into mushroom picking, after being inspired by this book. We had some very tasty ceps, shaggy ink caps and cauliflower fungus as a result which went into some extremely rich homemade mushroom soups. I wouldn't recommend that you solely rely on the few pages about mushroom picking in this book though, there simply isn't enough information to make it safe enough. I don't know why more people don't pick their own mushrooms, with enough cross referencing from different sources to make it beyond all doubt that you're not picking a harmful mushroom you'll be having a free source of gourmet food quicker than Nigella Lawson on a trolley dash round Harrods. Hopefully this chapter will inspire to start foraging for your own like I did.

                      Chapter 2 is called "Roof terrace, patio or tiny garden" and looks at how to use your outside space (I've purposefully called it that rather than a garden as not everyone has a "classic" garden and may be thinking that the advice in this book is unachievable for them in their own circumstances) to grow an amount of food - how much depends on how much space you have and how willing you are to give it a go.

                      The benefits of "growing your own" in terms of the impact on the environment are many - for example, it cuts down on food miles, you can choose not to use pesticides and you can grow certain plants which have other uses like herbs - they taste great and also have medicinal properties.

                      This chapter isn't just all about food crops, it covers other things we can do in our garden to be more organic. For example, there is a (woefully) short introduction to urban bee keeping, a few pages on composting also a section about wormeries. As interesting as I found Chapter 2, I wouldn't be able to go out and buy a wormery based on what the book says about it, I would have to do a bit more research first I think.

                      Chapter 3, "Garden, allotment or field". Similar to chapter 2, but assumes you can grow on a bigger scale than one pot outside the back door or on the balcony of a high-rise block of flats with a blueberry bush in it. This chapter looks at the increased amount of opportunities to be organic that more space allows, for example keeping pigs and how to make cheese from the milk of the goats you could possibly keep if you had access to more land.

                      There's a part of me that sympathises with those who yearn for a larger garden but find this chapter a kick in the teeth as having a larger garden is out of their financial reach, but to look at it another way you could say "OK, I'll never be able to keep chickens but perhaps I could try to only buy organic / free range eggs in future". My wife and I started small, and slowly but surely we're moving in the right direction, so don't be put off by the assumptions about your garden size that the book makes and instead take a more long term approach to it, it's far less off putting and more realistic that way as opposed to the book expecting you to be in a position to go out tomorrow and buy a goat.

                      There's a few useful recipes in this chapter, like the one about pickling vegetables - it doesn't just give a list of vinegar, bay leaves and peppercorns but details the process of heating the vinegar and filling the jars etc.

                      In my opinion, the chapter in the book with the most practical use is the last one, Chapter 4 - the Directory. As the book itself doesn't contain enough information to be useful enough to set up a beehive or keep pigs, the Directory gives plenty of sources of further information including organisation addresses, contact details and websites from where you can find out the information needed to take such big steps.

                      Overall, I consider this book to be an appetiser rather than a main course, it's got enough information to catch my interest but not enough to be used as a "how to" guide if you're planning to do anything more intense than make some jam.

                      I would recommend it to the "organo-curious" those who at the moment aren't leading an organic conscious life but perhaps want to start making some small changes towards that goal. It's an interesting enough book, it's just not massively helpful as a guide to implementing large organic changes to our lives. Three stars, thanks for reading.


                      ISBN 978-1-4053-1775-7
                      RRP: £10
                      Available on Amazon for: 1p used condition

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                        27.01.2014 12:55
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                        Stops water freezing up in pet drinking water bottles

                        We've got two rabbits, Silva (named after David Silva the footballer) and the rather unimaginatively named Flopsy, called that because her ears look a bit "flopsy". Against my better judgement, we feed, house, water and care for these rabbits even though they don't give us any eggs in return like our ex battery hens do. When we first got them a few years ago, we struggled to keep the water in their bottle feeder from freezing overnight during winter, even though the hutch is in a sheltered position and the caged front that the bottle hangs on is turned deliberately out of the wind.

                        In an attempt to stop their bottle from icing up, I did a Google search looking for ways that I could prevent this. One of the results came up with the Scratch and Newton Bottle Snug, available on Amazon for £5.99. It's like a blanket that wraps around a standard sized rabbit / guinea pig water feeder bottle. The snug stays on the bottle with Velcro straps and the covered bottle is then attached to the cage of the hutch with a hooked bungee strap that comes with the snug.

                        We've had the snug for just over two years now and although it looks weathered, the straps and bungee have shown no signs of fatigue yet and still do their job holding the whole thing in place. The wrap around snug's material is a dark green nylon on the outside and the inside of the snug which is in contact with the bottle is a shiny silver thick foil with a circular pattern. This insulating material is apparently official NASA technology and prevents the water from freezing over in winter and also blocks out the light which encourages algal growth in summer.

                        I can honestly say that since using the snug the water no longer freezes over, but I can't say about the algae in summer as we change the water and clean the bottle on a regular basis so we've never had a problem with that to start with.

                        What the snug gives us is peace of mind - we know that unless there is ever a "Day After Tomorrow" apocalyptic ice storm that our rabbits' water won't freeze over whilst the snug is in place and that our rabbits won't be deprived of a drink. For how well it does its job, its durability and price I can't give it any less than five stars. I would recommend to those that have standard sized pet water bottles for their animals in outdoor hutches and want to stop the water in them from freezing, it's brilliant. Thanks for reading.

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                          22.01.2014 13:23
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                          A wonderful smelling washing up liquid that laughs at grease

                          Introduction

                          We do own a dishwasher, but to be honest we probably wouldn't have one at all if it wasn't left in the house when we moved in a few years ago. Call me a control freak, but I'd rather wash up dishes and pots by hand so that I know they've been properly cleaned - and the dishwasher is so expensive to run, so most of the time it's a squirt of washing up liquid in the kitchen sink and shrivelled up wrinkly hands. I normally buy whatever washing up liquid is on offer, and the latest one we are using is Fairy's pomegranate and honeysuckle.

                          The product

                          The washing up liquid is very strong so you don't need to pour in large amounts to get a decent lather. Its noticeable that you get what you pay for - when I normally buy the cheapest makes of washing up liquid it takes a lot of liquid to get a decent amount of bubbles but with this costing £1.00 on offer in Iceland at the moment it works out quite cheaper in the long run compared to using half a bottle of a supermarket's own brand for 30 odd pence a bottle.

                          The colour is the deep ruby red of a pomegranate and the smell has both a hint of sweet honeysuckle and fruity pomegranate. It's very pleasing to use, and I never thought I would say this about a washing up liquid but it's quite a sensual experience - like having an aromatherapy treatment whilst doing the housework!

                          It copes really well with an average sink full of pots to wash, a little squirt has a lot of staying power and so long as the pots aren't too heavily soiled, the soapy water will still be cutting through grease towards the end of the wash.

                          Recommendation

                          I would buy this again, but only if I saw it on offer. It normally sells for about £1.60 for the 630ml bottle which is quite pricey. However, considering how much a little of it goes a long way I think it's good value for money at £1.00 a bottle. If you like sweet smelling washing up liquids that are different from the normal industrial strength lemon types, I can recommend this. It's strong, smells good and doesn't cause me to have dry skin like some cheaper brands do. Five stars, thanks for reading.

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                          20.01.2014 19:26
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                          An excellent Neil Gaiman book

                          This review is about the tenth anniversary edition which contains an extra 12000 words more than the original. I'll do my best with this review, but to be honest I found it a difficult book to digest so I've had to think long and hard about describing it in review form. I've got quite a few opinions about it, but there's a part of me that feels I should see the brilliance of the book (as many do), and there's a part of me that feels like I've just seen a magic trick whilst being able to hear unproduced doves cooing in the magician's pocket - a bit bemused and still waiting for the good bit to happen.

                          What I'm sure about is that I have read a very soundly constructed and well told story, but I don't share the view of many others who have read this book that this is a statement about a godless society. When I've tried to analyse American Gods in that way, I can't help think that a fiction book about a non-fiction subject would be a very convoluted way of putting a point across, so why would Neil Gaiman bother?

                          I've read other Gaiman books and have to say he is a master story crafter - either I haven't read widely enough or he really is one of the very best at what he does. Purely as a story, I thoroughly enjoyed American Gods, but as I mentioned above I struggled to see those hidden depths in the tale that so many who've also read it rave about. Maybe it's just me though. I'll try to describe the story below and hopefully you'll be able to make your own mind up whether or not it's worth a try.

                          A man called Shadow is days away from being released from prison when the Governor tells him that his wife has died in a car accident. When he gets home, he learns rather cruelly that she had died performing a sexual act on the driver of the car, who was Shadow's friend and who had promised him a job once out of prison.

                          Whilst on his journey home, Shadow was sat next to a man on a plane who offers him a job, a mysterious man called Mr Wednesday. Shadow refuses and goes on his way with a rental car once landed. Having a last minute trip to the bathroom before driving home, Mr Wednesday appears next to him and doesn't take no for an answer.

                          Shadow and his very soon to be new boss drive towards Shadow's home, stopping off in a bar late that night. Over three glasses of mead, Shadow finally agrees to work for him and as the story develops more is revealed about Mr Wednesday. It turns out that Mr Wednesday is some sort of old God who needs Shadow's assistance to assemble other old Gods living in America for a forthcoming war against new Gods, a power shift in which at first Shadow is a reluctant participant then ultimately a major figure in the war.

                          The Old Gods were brought to America in the form of the beliefs of those who (for the purposes of the story) came to America in times long gone - Vikings, Chinese traders, various Europeans etc. (As an aside, there is a theory that it was Vikings who were the first from the West to "discover" America and not Christopher Columbus , but that is a debate for another time and place). Recent times are getting harder for the old Gods as people are forgetting about them. Gods who no longer have followers die; they need belief as a form of sustenance. On the rise are the new Gods representing cars, fame, drugs etc and their sustenance is the sacrifices people make in those ways - road traffic accident victims etc.

                          It transpires in the final showdown battle at a place called "the house on the rock" that both Shadow and Mr Wednesday had bigger roles to play than the author had revealed up to that point, and this makes for a good climax to the battle. I won't reveal what actually happens here as I daren't face the wrath of the plot spoiler police.

                          If you want something which is vastly different to an average thriller / mystery with a large dose of terror and fantasy thrown in then this would fit the bill perfectly. Every Gaiman book I've read has stood out as being different in a very big way to most of the other authors who write books in similar genres whose work I also read. Hopefully, like I was, you'll be left thinking that you've just read something that you know you'll never come across anything as good as or even vaguely resembling it again.

                          I'm aware that for existing Gaiman fans I will definitely be preaching to the converted, but if you've never read any of his work before but might be tempted to after hearing about him or possibly watching the film Stardust (based on a book by the same man), then I recommend you give one of his books a try - I'm almost sure you'll enjoy it. However, I'd suggest as a starting point trying his book called Smoke and Mirrors as opposed to American Gods as American Gods is a huge piece of work and it might be better to go for a starter rather than a main as an introduction to his style of writing.

                          A well written story will always be popular, and that's exactly what this is. American Gods, whilst big at the 579 pages that this "author's preferred version" of mine contains (plus the American Gods related novella at the end) was certainly worth my time as firstly, I enjoyed it immensely and secondly whilst I don't fully understand the underlying message it has certainly got my brain working, which can only be a good thing. I've got a strong feeling that eventually after mulling it over, I will finally "get" what the story was intended to mean by Gaiman.

                          Taken at face value though, it was thoroughly enjoyable to read and I don't think it matters too much about understanding what he's trying to say about a godless society. At first, take it for what it is and you should enjoy it. I'm sure it will be a long time until I read a story of this quality again and can't give it anything less than five stars. Thanks for reading.

                          ISBN 978-0-7553-8624-6
                          RRP £8.99 (paperback)
                          Available on Amazon for £6.29 brand new paperback or £3.95 kindle edition.

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                          18.01.2014 20:29
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                          A guilty pleasure, brilliant series and brilliant book

                          Introduction

                          Before you read on, I must say that this review contains unavoidable plot spoilers for the first book in this series, but I will endeavour no to include any plot spoilers for this actual book, Catching Fire.

                          Catching Fire is the second book in the Hunger Games series, the very successful trilogy by Suzanne Collins which has also been made into a series of films. I class the Hunger Games as a guilty pleasure of mine - I'm a mid thirties married man who has somehow stumbled across these books and found them impossible to put down - I've just finished Catching Fire in under four hours. The series is aimed at teenage girls, but I think I enjoy it so much because it's just a damn good story. I'm also writing this review literally just after finishing the book so that I can hopefully start (and finish) the third and final book without getting too mixed up when it comes to writing that review!

                          The Book

                          For those who aren't aware, the Hunger Games are a form of punishment used by the Capitol on the inhabitants of Panem - a country in the not too distant future. The punishment is for an uprising against the Capitol by 13 Districts who were and are under Capitol control. Each year, every District must send one male and one female tribute aged 12 - 18 to the Capitol to take part in the Hunger Games, where they fight each other in a last man standing struggle for survival. The winner is the sole remaining survivor, and their prize is money, food and gifts for their District every year for the rest of their lives.

                          In Catching Fire, it is the 75th anniversary of the first games so what is known as a quarter quell takes place. The requirement of this quarter quell is that each District must provide its tributes from their pool of previous winners.

                          Enter Katniss Everdeen, District 12's only ever female winner, and as the only ever female winner from that District she is forced to go and take part in the Games. The killer twist is that she will be accompanied, again, by Peeta the boy who their fake love for each other managed to force the Capitol into bending the rules in the previous year's Games - both Peeta and Katniss won as the result of an act of defiance involving a suicide threat by Katniss.

                          That act of defiance made the publiuc opinion of the Capitol's leader, President Snow, very weak and he comes across as a very menacing and ruthless man in how he deals with Katniss - the book even suggests that he fixed the requirement of the quarter quell in order to Katniss to return to the Games so that she would be killed off and therefore remove the thorn in his side which she has become.

                          Her act of defiance has been taken by the districts as a signal to openly revolt, so of course President Snow must take drastic action if he wants to remain in control. That, in a nutshell, is the bare bones of Catching Fire - I'll cover some further plot developments as I give my opinions below.



                          Opinion

                          Suzanne Collins hasn't just written another book which is an account of Katniss being in the Games Arena, there's a lot more going on besides which I'm pleased to say made this a successful second instalment of the trilogy as opposed to that "difficult second book" which I gather some Hunger Games fans think this second book is.

                          One of the main plot components which I thought made this just as good to read as the first book was the threats from President Snow to Katniss. Because of the way she embarrassed the Capitol by outsmarting them at the end of the first book with the "berries stunt", she is now a symbol of revolt which has set the spark to the Districts' tinderbox.

                          Desperate to quash a revolt before it takes hold and topples his power, he forces Katniss into complying with his demand that she must marry Peeta, her fellow district 12 competitor so that he can put the spin on her berries incident that it was the actions of a love sick girl in despair that either she or her love Peeta would die, as opposed to an open act of defiance. I thought that this was a brilliant twist to the story by Mrs Collins as it added a grown up twist to what is essentially a children's book.

                          Prior to the games taking place, she and Peeta must tour the districts on a victors' tour and, forced by Snow, she must use it as an opportunity to show off her "love" for Peeta in order to try and convince the masses that she is just a girl in love and not the face of a revolution. Again, this element added a good aspect to the story line which otherwise could just have been a slightly different rewrite of the first book.

                          Something that the author threw into the story once Katniss was back in the arena was the suggestion that there is some kind of plot backed by Haymitch happening to protect Katniss - it isn't explicitly laid out as such but there is definitely something going on. If I try and think what my reading level was like when I was a young teenager, my imagination would have been set on fire by the way this plot is hinted at, it was a very good twist. However, I won't say here exactly what happens as that would be a spoiler.

                          I enjoyed the added jeopardy that the quarter quell added to the arena part of the book, the nasty surprises that the game's organisers have added really ramp up the suspense.

                          I would recommend this to people who have read the first book and are undecided whether or not to go on and read the rest of the trilogy. Also, if you haven't already, read the first book! You would have to read them in order to be able to understand the ramifications of certain events in Catching Fire. When my eldest daughter is slightly older than she is now, I'll defiantly be getting her to read them - I'm now off to start book three.

                          Five stars, absolutely not that "difficult second book". Thanks for reading.

                          ISBN 978-1407139807
                          Available on Amazon for £3.85 brand new paperback

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