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SueMagee

SueMagee
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Member since: 11.05.2001

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    • Looking Back at 2006 / Discussion / 137 Readings / 111 Ratings
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      05.01.2007 18:43
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      The year that saw the launch of www.thebookbag.co.uk

      January began, as so many of our years seem to at the moment, with further health problems for our older dog. Rosie O'Hooligan Magee is the Rhodesian Ridgeback the vets love. She's a delight to treat, but then she's had a lot of practice. This time it was ears and we gained a lot of knowledge about perforated eardrums. Two operations in the space of a week seemed to clear the problem. By February I'm sick of winter and this year was no exception. "Do you know what I'd like?" I asked my friend Jill Murphy. Before she could reply I said that I'd really love us to have our own website, just for book reviews. "Why not?" said Jill and then added "let's do it!" There were a couple of snags, not least that neither of us had the faintest idea of how to go about it. Fortunately my friend Keith had no idea of the depths of my ignorance when he offered to teach me HTML and show me the basics of how to run a website. He was soon to find out though. He has the patience of a saint even though his thoughts about some of my very basic questions ("What do you mean by 'open a folder'?") must have been less than saintly. March the first, just over a week after we first had the idea, saw the launch of www.thebookbag.co.uk to mild critical acclaim, but a great deal of excitement on our part because we'd actually managed to do it. It was the doing that mattered, you see; we simply wanted to prove to ourselves that we could have our own book review site. It grew at an amazing rate and we never bothered about how many unique visitors or hits we were getting – all that would come later. April saw more health problems for Rosie. This time her old tummy problems flared up again and we were back to small, frequent meals and steroids. Having to feed a large dog every hour or so is a wonderful excuse to do little other than read and I must confess that I took full advantage of the situation! May is my busiest time in the garden as I plant out and tend all the vegetables that are going to feed us through into the winter and Bookbag had to take a little bit of a back seat. Rosie's tummy seemed to have improved though and she was looking better than she had done for quite a while. It's difficult to relax when you have a sick dog, but I did at last manage to breathe out. June saw the turning point for Bookbag and I still have the crucial email. An author wrote to me: could she send me her book? I was inclined to email back and be very grateful for the honour. It was Keith who told me not to be so gushing – and to ask for two books so that we could use one as a prize. By the end of the month we'd been contacted by a couple more authors and the books began to trickle in. July was very hot and that was why I wasn't unduly bothered by the fact that I didn't seem to have much energy and felt generally under the weather. It should have been another marvellous excuse to sit and read but I struggled to do all that I had to do in the garden and then fell into uneasy sleep each night. I vowed to lose weight and to get myself fit again. August brought the cough and even I thought that a visit to the doctor might be in order. The word 'pneumonia' is accompanied by antibiotics, x-rays and blood tests. I felt dreadful and there was no choice but to lie back and read which was as well, because some of the major publishing houses had started to send books and I discovered the statistics for The Bookbag. In August more than a thousand individuals from all over the world visited the site and we had more than 20,000 hits. Jill and I began to invite more reviewers to join us. We couldn't offer any payment as the money we receive in affiliate income provides competition prizes and postage, but we were in a position to offer free books from the publishers and we're eternally grateful to the wonderful people who let us have their reviews in exchange for nothing more than good books before they're published. By September the trickle became a flood. On occasions Royal Mail sent the van round rather than burdening the postman with all the packages. There was a tremendous satisfaction in what we were doing. Some reviews were getting hundreds of hits from people wanting information rather than someone hoping for a return read. There was satisfaction in other areas too. We forwarded a mildly critical comment about audio CDs to a publisher and our reader had a full response that same evening with offers of help for her dyslexic son. Our unique visitors and hits had both increased by more than 30% on the previous month too. In October we bit the bullet and told a publisher that we were not prepared to publish a review of a book they'd sent us. It would be ungracious to say which publisher or which book but instead of the huffy 'never darken our doors' response which we half expected the publicists were keen for us to explain our views and keener still to pass them on the editors. We're to let them know if we ever want any of their books to review. September's figures had stunned us and I would have been happy if we'd just maintained them in October. We didn't. We trebled them. By November most of the books intended for the Christmas market have been published and the flood of books coming to us and being posted on to reviewers continued unabated. At times I was uploading two new reviews every day and just occasionally I saw HTML in my sleep. There were wonderful moments though – several librarians have asked to be put on our mailing list and we've had some interesting discussions with authors. One told us that he'd had more support and encouragement from Bookbag than from the local (big chain) book shop where the book was being launched. I can't think of a downside to it all, unless it's the emails from children who think that we are Daisy Meadows, tell us that they love us and ask for a signed photo. Could we do any better than October's figures? Yes – we just about doubled them again. In December we had to put a note on the site asking authors not to send us their manuscripts: much as we'd love to, we're really not in a position to help. I'd also like to put a note up saying that we did out own homework when we were young and we're disinclined to write a one page summary of a certain book by tomorrow evening. Our figures improved yet again but I'm afraid that we ended the year much as we'd begun it with Rosie needing emergency surgery in the middle of a Saturday night. A friend was moved to comment that she has a remarkable ability to recover, but an unfortunate ability to be sick in the first place. So, another year begins with a pile of lovely books waiting to be read or posted out to our reviewers. Hopefully it will be a good one for all of us.

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        01.03.2006 07:14
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        It will chill and warm wine but no guidance on correct temperatures and champagne bottles!

        Disgruntled of Burgundy There comes a time in your life when those fine judgements about how long you can safely leave a bottle of sparkling wine in the freezer before it explodes and how close to the central heating boiler you should put the bottle of red become tiresome. You want an easy way. You certainly don’t want to have to clean out the freezer or drink mulled wine on a regular basis. We enjoy wine. We’re also probably better-known than we ought to be in various wine-merchants and supermarket wine departments where we’re happy to pay more for a good wine. It makes sense to ensure that you serve wine at the correct temperature so that you get the best out of it: most people have grimaced when given a tepid white wine or one so chilled that it tastes rather like water. Worse still, if that’s possible, is the red that’s served cold and all it tastes of is, er, cold. Shortly before Christmas I was browsing for something else entirely when I chanced on the Oz Clarke Electric Bottle Chiller for £29.95. I’ve seen Oz Clarke on television and thought that he was a bit of a buffoon, but a buffoon who knew something about wine. Not only would the machine chill wines, it would also warm them, having a temperature range of 3°C to 50°C. It would, I was told, ensure that my favourite wine was served at the correct temperature. Two extras sealed the deal for me – it was wide enough to take champagne bottles and an Oz Clarke wine guide was included in the price. It was sold to the lady whose dogs were trying to do some wine tasting on the bottle she’d just put near the radiator in the dining room. I fondly imagined that I would select my wine, say a decent Rioja, look up the correct temperature in the wine guide, pull the cork, pop the bottle in the machine and then enjoy the wine at its best. I’m easily fooled. Packaging, when the machine arrived, was appropriate and there was nothing there that I couldn’t recycle. The chiller itself is smart with a slightly retro look in grey and burgundy. I’d have preferred something plainer myself, but it wasn’t there for its looks. The first problem was where to put it. The diameter, at 20cm was alright, but the height of 28cm meant that it couldn’t go under a wall unit in the kitchen if I was to get the bottle into it without a struggle. You’re also warned that it shouldn’t be placed near a source of water. There’s a decent length of flex, but a rather bulky and ugly transformer which you might not want to have on permanent display. So, kitchen rearranged and bottle of wine selected, I settled down to see what the wine guide would tell me. Disappointment began to set in. In fairness, no one said that it was a book, but I was expecting something a bit better than a sixteen-page leaflet with a glossy cover, particularly when two pages are the instructions for use for the chiller, a further two pages are the instructions for an electric corkscrew and another two pages are adverts for other products. The instructions are not a great deal of use either. There’s a picture with various parts labeled and a list of things that you mustn’t do, which most people would never think of doing. As to how the machine works there’s not even a hint other than to say that you should pre-cool white wine in the fridge before using the chiller. Er, that was the sort of thing I was trying to avoid! The advice given by Oz in the leaflet would cure this, surely? No, it doesn’t. I headed straight for the single paragraph on temperature. He talks about “room temperature” and bandies about such words as “chilled”, “cool larder temperature” and “well chilled” but nowhere does he put a figure on it and when you’ve just bought a machine where you turn a knob to set the temperature which you wish to achieve that’s exactly what you want. There’s some reasonable information about matching wines with food, tasting wines and storing it, but if you’ve been drinking wine regularly for over a quarter of a century there’s unlikely to be anything there you’re not familiar with. It was down to trial and error then. We found a bottle of wine which showed the recommended temperature, opened it and wrapped the insulating collar, which comes with the machine, around the neck. The wine reached the “temperature” – and was tasteless. We had, of course, over many nights, to try a considerable selection of wines at different settings and we have now worked out our own “tastes best at” settings. They might not be right for the purists but they suit us and I regard the machine as a success on that point. It didn’t come easily though and I still have a niggling feeling that I’m getting something that we like but it might not be the best that can be achieved. Our treat on Christmas Day is a good champagne. We pre-chilled it in the fridge and then went to put it in the chiller. The bottle wouldn’t fit in. Wondering if this was just an isolated incident we searched through the wine rack and found four other champagne-type bottles, all different. None of them would go into the chiller. In buying this machine I broke one of my golden rules – never buy machinery with a celebrity endorsement. It probably means that it wouldn’t sell otherwise and all you’re doing is feeding someone’s greed. The chiller is manufactured by Catalyst Home Products Ltd and they’re an authorised licensee of the Oz Clarke trademark. I did wonder if Oz had seen the machine at all. It also struck me that Oz wasn’t quite such a buffoon, particularly where money is concerned. I’d just paid nearly £30 for something which was probably worth about £15 to £20. It’s enough to drive you to drink.

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          22.02.2006 07:31
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          Sweet and savoury recipes using fruit.

          Delia Smith taught me to put food on the table, but two people have influenced more than any others the way that I buy and prepare food. They’re Nigel Slater and his predecessor as the Observer food writer, the incomparable Jane Grigson. I indulged myself at Amazon last year and bought “Jane Grigson’s Fruit Book”, first published in 1982, but republished in the Penguin Cookery Library in 2000. I was going to say that it’s as relevant today as it was when it was published, but I think it’s actually more relevant today given the poor choice of fruit provided by the supermarkets. The format is very simple: think of a fruit and it will be there in alphabetical order. If it might be known under a different name – Chinese Gooseberry/Kiwi fruit for example - then it will be cross-referenced and to tie it all together there’s a very comprehensive index. Each fruit is considered in real depth. Let’s take apples as an example. We start with some interesting facts about the history of the apple and even some speculation that the fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil was actually a banana rather than an apple. The discussion about the best apple variety is knowledgeable and comes down in favour of Cox’s Orange Pippin, Blenheim Orange or Orleans Reinette, but only if the Cox’s is of the standard that it was many years ago. She doubts that Mr Cox would recognise his apple these days. “Our growers have turned the richness of the Cox into a boring crunch … all the smart packaging in the world will not disguise its descent.” She laments the fact that supermarkets want every food to be as “cheap and inoffensive” as every other similar food. There’s a woman after my own heart! She separates apples into eight different groups according to their individual characteristics and gives advice on choosing and preparing them. Then we get to the recipes. Like me you probably thought that a book on fruit would be about pudding/dessert recipes. I was certainly wrong. There are recipes for every course of the meal, ranging through a Waldorf-type salad, apples stuffed with a spicy beef filling, Normandy pork, apple and horseradish sauce and more desert recipes than you can shake a stick at. When I read a book of this type I leave slips of paper in as markers for recipes that I want to try – I gave up with this book because I had a marker in just about every page! In amongst all this you’ll find quotes from books, sometimes going back for centuries, frequently translated from a foreign language and topped off with some rather lovely – and relevant - poetry. Now, think of this being done for every fruit you can imagine. I tried dreaming up exotic fruits to see if they were there. I tried cherimoya, medlar, mangosteen and physalis. They’re all there. Mrs Grigson admits that she hasn’t included the durian, mainly because it couldn’t be brought out of Pakistan at the time. The variety of fruits is breathtaking. The depth of research which backs up what she has to say is amazing. At the end of the book is an appendix and this is an absolute gold mine. There are one or two miscellaneous items such as which wines go with which fruit, along with excellent sections on fruit preserves, pastry, biscuits, bread, creams and sugars. On the front cover there’s a recommendation from Loyd Grossman: “If you were marooned on a desert island … this would be the book to have”. Personally, I think it would be frustrating to have this book and no means of producing the food, but if it was the only recipe book in my kitchen we wouldn’t go hungry. In fact, we’d eat very well indeed. When I read books this well-researched I usually find that they’re hard going – learned books written for learned people. Well this book isn’t like that at all. The writing can only be described as seductive. She’s the master of the telling phrase: “a strawberry that becomes acquainted with water loses its virtue”. You’re drawn in, wanting to know what’s next. When the book was published her views were ahead of her time: even today she’d be a forward thinker, wanting quality rather than quantity and diversity rather than being “reduced to a steady bottom of horticultural plonk” as provided by the supermarkets. Her writing isn’t as easy on the brain as Nigel Slater’s, but she’s more accessible than Elizabeth David. As a writer Mrs Grigson was never frightened of pointing out the truth. She maintained that the most flavoursome bananas were those from the Canary Islands and was taken to task by a major banana-importing company because only 5% of its imports came from the Canaries. Sadly it’s probably much less than that these days – the last time I tasted them was when I was in Madeira. One of the things that I love about this book is that there are no glossy pictures of food that’s been artfully arranged and carefully lit. The only illustrations are exquisite line drawings in black and white of the individual fruits done by Yvonne Scargon. They’re only about two or three inches square and they complement the text perfectly without intruding. I often feel that large colour photographs in cookery books are there to pad out a flimsy text. There’s definitely no need for that in this book. I didn’t find any recipes which I thought complicated or which required a lengthy shopping list before you could start. Just occasionally she uses a cookery term which might not be in common usage – she talks for instance of “larding the pheasant” – but what she means is obvious from the context – in this case covering the pheasant’s breast with lard to stop it drying out. This isn’t necessarily a book that I would recommend to a complete beginner, but if you’ve reached the stage of wanting to put quality fresh food on the table then I think you’d get a lot out of it. All quantities are given in metric, imperial and American cups. You can use any version, but don’t mix them. Temperatures are for gas, centigrade and Fahrenheit. Some cookery books live in the kitchen. This isn’t one of them. It’s the book that sits at the side of my bed and I’ll dip into it if I can’t sleep. In the early hours of this morning I was reading about oranges and we’ll be having an Andalusian Tart for pudding this weekend. That’s a pastry base covered with cooked apples and topped with slices of orange and cooked in the oven. I shall serve it with ice cream, I think! I’ve only one quibble with the book and that’s that most of the recipes cater for six people and sometimes more. This is fine if we’re entertaining but the majority of the food in the book is glorious everyday food rather than dinner party fare. Recipes can be reduced, but you do need to have some knowledge before you do it and this effectively limits the number of people who will get value from the book. Quick facts: - Paperback: 528 pages published April 2000 - Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd - Price: £8.99 but available on Amazon for £7.19 in January 2006 - ISBN: 0140469982

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            20.02.2006 07:29
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            Saves time and effort when making cakes in a loaf tin.

            Rather than making a circular cake which has to be cut into wedges I prefer to make cakes in a loaf tin. It’s easier to cut exactly as much as you want and a slice fits neatly into a lunch box. There’s always a loaf on the go in our house and I keep a few in the freezer – they stack like bricks and defrost quickly in an emergency. I can mix up the ingredients in less than five minutes, but it used to take me a lot longer than that just to line the loaf tin with baking parchment. It caused a lot of bad language, I always managed to waste some paper and sometimes I didn’t bake a cake simply because of the time and bother of lining the tin. Then I discovered Lakeland’s Loaf Tin Liners. They come, forty at a time, in a see-through plastic container which keeps them perfectly in shape. I can’t recycle it, or use it for anything else and normally I would object to this, but a pack of liners lasts me about nine months and the container means that the last liner out of the pack will be in the same condition as the first. It keeps them dry and means that you don’t need to be quite as careful about where you store them as you needed to be when they were packed in a cardboard box. There are four different sizes of liner. Lakeland stress that you should measure your loaf tin before buying/ordering. When you see them in the shop it is very easy to guess and buy the wrong size. I know – I’ve done it. You should be able to find a liner to fit your loaf tin, and I’ve listed the sizes under “quick facts” at the end of the review for easy reference. Each size of liner is made to the same design - it’s a flat piece of paper that’s been pressed into shape, so the corners are pleated to take up the excess paper. Using them really couldn’t be simpler. Take one liner and drop it into your loaf tin. There's no need to grease the tin or liner. Pour cake mixture into liner. Bake cake. When the cake comes out of the oven you can remove the liner from the cake or not, as you wish. It does peel away from the cake very easily – unlike when we had to use greaseproof paper and it had to be torn away in little strips. The liners withstand temperatures up to 230°C – which is far hotter than the temperature required in any cake recipe I’ve ever seen. Are they value for money? Disregarding the convenience aspect altogether and looking only at the price, each liner costs about twice as much as the same paper bought on a roll. That’s buying the £6.45 economy roll though and not everyone wants to tie that amount of money up in baking parchment. Depending on which size you buy, the liner adds 8p to 10p to the cost of a cake. Lakeland says that these liners can be wiped and reused, but I’ve never been tempted to do that – I couldn’t be certain that they were clean! There are benefits other than convenience though. Whenever I made my own lining I always had some leakage of the cake mixture through to the tin. One of the cakes that I make is gingerbread with a high sugar content and this mixture stuck to the tin like superglue. I frequently had to soak the tin and sometimes even to attack it with a knife. This didn’t do tin, knife or fingers any good. With the liner I’ve never had any leakage. Tins stay in better condition. They certainly never need to see the inside of a dishwasher and frequently all they want (or get!) is a wipe with a damp cloth. I used to have to replace my tins every few years. The tins I’m using now have been in use for over a decade and are still looking good. I find that loaves stored in the liner don’t dry out as quickly and if the cake is of a crumbly texture it does give some support. This can be particularly useful if you’re making a cake to take somewhere. Sometimes I make cakes for the local Bring and Buy sales and I find that cakes in liners always sell best. Paradoxically it’s this last point which can also be the liner’s only disadvantage apart from cost. One of the cakes I make is a carrot cake, which has a fine texture and a pale appearance. The lines where the paper is pleated at the corners are noticeable on the cake and this makes some people think that it’s a bought cake rather than homemade. Mind you, if it wasn’t for the convenience of the liners I might not eat so much cake and that probably wouldn’t be a bad thing! Quick facts: 1lb Loaf Tin liner: 6½”L x 3”W x 2½” H (16.5 x 8 x 6.5cm) Ref 5552 £3.55 2lb Loaf Tin Liner: 7½” x 3½” x 2½” (19 x 9 x 6.5cm) Ref 5553 £3.95 1lb Loaf Tin Liner: 5” x 3” x 3” (13 x 7.5 x 7.5cm) Ref 6545 £3.20 2lb Loaf Tin Liner: 6” x 3½” x 3¼” (15.5 x 9 x 8cm) Ref 7321 £3.50

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              17.02.2006 08:47
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              One of the better books about Rhodesian Ridgebacks, but some of it is only relevant in the USA.

              For several years I’ve been looking for a specialist book about my favourite breed of dog. I wanted details about the breed standard (that’s the written list of the characteristics which would make up the perfect dog), quirks of character, training needs and possible health problems. I was interested too in having some background to the development of the breed and some good pictures wouldn’t go amiss. The dogs which have my heart are Rhodesian Ridgebacks – the lion hunters of Southern Africa. They’re big dogs in every sense of the word, weighing in at about 35kg (the size of a small adult) and a heart, as the song says, as big as all outdoors. The first book on the breed which I bought was Stig Carlson’s “Pet Owner’s Guide to the Rhodesian Ridgeback” which I found disappointing, but I’m happier with Eileen M Bailey’s “The Rhodesian Ridgeback”. It’s part of the “An Owner’s Guide to a Happy Healthy Pet” series of which 1.5 million copies have been sold. It’s good but it’s not perfect. Although this is sold as one book by Eileen Bailey it’s actually three books in one, with three different authors. The first and most substantial part of the book deals with the Rhodesian Ridgeback dog and is written by Ms. Bailey. She’s a breeder of Rhodesian Ridgebacks and lives in New York State, USA. She begins with a description of the Ridgeback, complete with a diagram showing the names of all the different parts of the dog. This is very useful – too many writers of books of this type forget that a lot of the people buying the book will be unfamiliar with some of the more technical terms. It’s pointless saying that a dog should have “a good stop” if you don’t explain that it’s the bit at the top of muzzle just below the eyes. She gives details of the breed standard and I was a little disappointed that she didn’t allow for any deviation from the relatively strict requirements of the standard. One of my bitches, for instance, is 5kg heavier than the standard allows and is a couple of inches taller. Her vet feels that her weight/height ratio is correct. This would be a problem if I wanted to show her, but I want her as a pet and in a “Guide to a Happy Healthy Pet” I think this point should be made. The development of the breed is well covered, with fact neatly separated from fiction. It’s interesting, not over-long and leads us into a fascinating chapter entitled “The World According to the Rhodesian Ridgeback”. The love of the breed shines through here as she describes the quirks and characteristics which make the breed so special. I felt a tug at the heart as she talked of their bonding with one particular person. I can spend all day looking after our dogs – feeding, grooming, walking them, but the moment my husband walks through the door they light up and come to life. He is their human. For anyone thinking of taking on a Ridgeback this chapter should be compulsory reading as it describes the good – their loyalty and sense of humour, the bad – their independent streak, and the ugly – their destructive nature in adolescence. If you still want a Ridgeback after you’ve read this chapter then they are probably the dog for you. The chapter on “Bringing your Rhodesian Ridgeback Home” is full of practical common sense, ranging through choosing a breeder, the equipment you’ll need, picking a vet and preparing the house and garden. Much of this would apply to any breed of dog, but it’s worth reading all the same. The chapter on feeding the Ridgeback is a little more breed-specific and gives some good suggestions. I discovered long ago that my Ridgebacks would eat trolley loads of raw fruit and vegetables and it’s suggested here that these should be used as treats rather than doggy junk food. My older dog will do anything for her ultimate treat – a lettuce leaf. “Grooming your Rhodesian Ridgeback” is short (rather like the dog’s coat) and to the point. Frankly they’re the easiest dogs in the world to groom once they reach the point of realising that you are going to do it. I had some problems with the chapter on keeping the Rhodesian Ridgeback healthy – mainly because this is a book by an American and published in the USA. Laws are different, veterinary procedures vary and different vaccinations are required. A great deal of this part of the book simply doesn’t apply in the UK. What I did like was the attitude that the most important thing you can do is get to know your dog well and note and investigate any changes. It’s an attitude of mind which every dog owner should adopt. Unfortunately what are common to the two countries are the majority of the health problems which a Ridgeback can encounter. These are carefully and sensibly explained but I was surprised that there was no mention of allergies which seem to bedevil the breed in the UK. It may be, of course, that the problem is not so extensive in the USA. Ms Bailey’s input ends on page 97 of a 158 page book. As an introduction to the breed it works well. Allowance needs to be made for the health points I raised but this is otherwise the best book on the breed that I’ve read. There are some excellent pictures of Ridgebacks and they cover all variations of the breed. The next part of the book is on dog training and is written by Dr Ian Dunbar, an animal behaviourist. The training he recommends is reward-based and I can tell you from experience that it works well. Based on the principles of praising good behaviour, distracting from bad and ignoring what you can of the rest he lays out a simple training plan covering all basic commands. It’s simply and clearly written and a pleasure to read. The final part of the book is about being active with your dog and is written by Bardi McLennan. I’m afraid I found this part of little use: it’s not breed-specific and all relates to the USA. It was a minor annoyance though in an otherwise good book. I’d have liked an index, but that’s me being greedy. The book’s recommended, particularly to anyone considering taking on a Ridgeback for the first time. Quick facts: • Hardcover 158 pages (April 1, 2000) • Publisher: Howell Book House Inc., U.S. • Price: £8.50 but available on Amazon for £6.80 in February 2006 • ISBN: 1582450110

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              • Leo Dog Ear Cleaner / Dog Accessory / 60 Readings / 54 Ratings
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                15.02.2006 08:12
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                A soothing and effective ear cleaner for dogs.

                If you know a friendly dog, have a look inside his ear. Even in the bit you can see quite easily there are a lot of folds. The ear then gets more complicated because the canal makes a right-angle turn towards the ear drum. Wax is just one of the substances produced along the length of the canal to keep it healthy and supple. The only way this can escape is upwards – against gravity – and a lot of it is going to get caught in all those folds. Have another look at this friendly dog. Does he swim a lot? Does he love hunting in the long grass? Does he generally like rooting around in the undergrowth? If he does then the chances are that all sorts of grass seeds, micro-organisms and general gunk are going to be meeting the wax that’s trying to make its way up and out of the ear. The ear then becomes the perfect breeding ground for an infection. I have two Rhodesian Ridgeback dogs – Rosie and Kia. Ridgebacks were originally bred as lion hunters, so the long grass is their natural habitat. They swim regularly. Although they’ve got short hair their love of anything messy in the undergrowth means that we have to be very careful about their ears and my cleaner of choice is the Leo Dog Ear Cleaner. The first thing to be clear about it is that if your dog’s ear is hot, red, bleeding or showing signs of puss then it’s not an ear cleaner he needs it’s a vet. He may well recommend the use of an ear cleaner, but he will also want to look at the underlying cause and possibly give some antibiotics. The Leo Ear Cleaner is intended to be used on healthy ears, which haven’t been along to the vet’s surgery, with the intention of keeping them that way. The manufacturers describe the product as “organic solvents and moisturisers” and I’ve included a list of the ingredients under “Quick facts” at the bottom of the review. I was concerned to find Sodium Lauryl Sulfate in there as it’s an industrial degreaser but it’s the least of the ingredients and the vet assured me that it would not be harsh on the ear canal. The most startling ingredient though is menthol. The cleaner comes in a plastic bottle with a long and very flexible nozzle on the top. This is gently inserted into the dog’s ear and a liberal dose of the colourless liquid is squirted into the ear. The ear – just below the opening - is then massaged. Most dogs will love this bit – one of our dogs actually purrs with pleasure. The menthol will act within moments to cool the ear, which soothes any irritation and this effect lasts for about half an hour after the treatment. The cleaner quickly loosens even hardened wax and accumulated debris in the ear and cotton wool is then used to gently remove this from the ear. You should never use cotton buds or even a human-ear cleaner on a dog. The first time that I cleaned the dogs’ ears I was shocked at the amount of dirt which was removed – particularly considering that I had been “cleaning” their ears on a regular basis. My efforts had simply not loosened the hardened wax and debris. This cleaner is very effective but is still gentle enough for regular use. As my dogs have short hair I clean their ears once a week, but the cleaner can be used twice a week, or as directed by your vet. It must not be used if the ear drum (the tympanic membrane) is perforated, but I would expect any dog with this problem to be in the care of the vet and he would advise as a matter of course that no drops should be used on the ear. Some cleaners stain or mark the dog’s coat, particularly with regular use and this did worry me as both our dogs have a light, smooth coat. The cleaning can be quite messy, but despite using the cleaner for about a year there are no marks on either dog’s coat. So, how do the dogs feel about it? My older dog already had a problem with one of her ears when I discovered the Leo cleaner and she’s understandably nervous of anything touching that ear. Once the cleaner is in she will happily allow me to massage the ear, and if I can get it just right she will purr! She has no problems with me cleaning out her ears with cotton wool afterwards. My younger dog loves the whole process and will happily allow me to go through the whole procedure without any problem. Kia’s ears are in excellent condition: I only wish I had found this cleaner earlier and I might be able to say the same thing about my older dog. A 100ml bottle last me about two to three months, but I am using it on two dogs. I normally buy mine from the vet (goodwill, you see) but I am aware that it can be bought cheaper elsewhere. The cheapest deal that I could find was from www.hyperdrug.com where the large bottle costs £6.60 including VAT. Quick facts: Ingredients: Aqua, Isopropyl Alcohol, Menthol, Sodium Borate, Chlorothymol, Sodium Lauryl Sulfate.

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                  13.02.2006 11:17
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                  There are niggles about the design but they don't affect the fact that the machine does a good job.

                  With a bad back and problem hands I needed some way of vacuuming the stairs without having to resort to our weighty and cumbersome Dyson. I wanted a handheld machine which I could use to clean up small problem areas or which would allow me to get to those places which the bulky Dyson found impossible. I needed something which would effectively swallow all the dog hair and dirt which accumulates in our car - and I didn't want to spend a lot of money. There was an added complication too - one of our dogs has an allergy to house-dust mite, so I needed a machine with a HEPA filter. A HEPA filter is the one that removes most of the pollens and dust motes from the air rather than recirculating them. What I bought was the Home-tek HT807 also known as "The Hunter" and I got it from Lakeland Ltd for £29.95. The packaging was appropriate and all recyclable. What I got for my money was a retro-looking machine 17 x 30 x 20cm weighing no more than a lightly filled shopping basket. It comes complete with a motorised brush, dusting brush and crevice tool. The manual with the machine is comprehensive and bearing in mind the necessity to give warnings to fools ("Do not pick up anything that is burning…") is as short as possible. I read it in a few minutes and had the machine fully-operational in less than ten. I've now been using it for about six months. It comes with 6m of flex, which is comparable to many full-sized vacuum cleaners and means that there's no problem when cleaning the stairs. I can start at the top and work my way right to the bottom without having to change sockets. There's no automatic cord re-wind or even anywhere specifically to store the flex and it ends up looped around the body, which looks untidy. Nor is there a clip on the flex to hold the plug secure, so when you're carrying the machine you have to hold the plug or the flex unravels. I'm not unduly worried about the storage of the flex, but a clip would have made life easier and cost only a few pence. In operation there's a choice of using the motorised brush or the hose, which operates with the crevice tool or the dusting brush. The motorised brush operates much like any upright cleaner (except you're going to be on your hands and knees to use it) but it's unfair to make a direct comparison. This machine has a 730w motor. Some of the newer Dysons have 1400w motors, so performance is never going to be on a par. The Hunter has about half the power for roughly a tenth of the price. Having said that, the suction is good. In a couple of sweeps on each tread of the stairs it removes all the accumulated dog hair and fluff. Because there's a revolving brush it leaves the carpet looking smart rather than flattened. The height of the machine does mean that you can't use the brush under low furniture - particularly as you're actually holding it at the highest point, but I've found it very good at getting into places like the space between the loo and the wall in the cloakroom. It also works on hard floors. I did worry about how I could get to the brush to remove the long threads which seem to bedevil the Dyson, but in six months it's never happened. Using the dusting brush or crevice tool is a little more complicated. The dusting brush is a permanent fixture on the hose and when you want to use the crevice tool this fits into the middle of the dusting brush. It's also necessary to remember to close a flap over the motorised brush to stop air being sucked through that area. If you forget you find yourself enveloped in a cloud of dust. I speak from experience here. I've found the dusting tool excellent for removing the dust and fluff from curtains which aren't in regular use. A pair which I though were going to have to go to the cleaners got a reprieve last week after The Hunter left them looking smart again. At rest the hose is just 24cm long but extends to over 80cm in use. Holding the machine in one hand and the hose in the other it was the work of only ten minutes or so to thoroughly vacuum the curtains. The crevice tool works well on the edges of the stair treads and is good for getting down the sides of the cushions on the sofa, where dog hairs seem to accumulate. I've a minor quibble that there's nowhere to house the crevice tool on the machine, so it has to be stored and carried separately. Debris is collected in a clear pod - there are no bags to change. I've two quibbles here. The first is that the pod is easy to remove but difficult to replace. It's been the cause of more bad language in our house than almost anything in the last six months. There is a knack to doing it, but I have to work it out every time that I empty the pod. The second is that the pod comes in two pieces but debris doesn't always move smoothly through from one part to the other. The pod can look as though it's empty whilst fluff is backing up elsewhere. The HEPA filter seems to be effective. Our dog with the problem skin has not complained. The filter needs to be washed about once a month and replaced about every six months at a cost of £4.99. I've only found the filters to be available from the manufacturer but my recent purchase was trouble-free. Obligingly you're supplied with an order form pre-printed with the filter details on the back of the manual. Some thought has gone into the design of the machine. The on/off switch comes very neatly to hand as you hold the machine and it's nicely balanced when you carry it. I do feel though that functionality has been sacrificed to design in the overall look. There are two wheels at the front of the machine just behind the brush head, but just one roller in the middle of the machine. When the hose is extended it's very easy to unbalance the machine. It tumbles very neatly down the stairs and catching it by hauling on the hose should be a one-off, I think. I know that I've produced quite a few niggles about this machine but I'm going to recommend it and give it four stars. It's value for money, does a good job and the niggles don't really affect that. My husband will even use it to vacuum the inside of the car. He thinks the machine is noisy. I don't, but that's perhaps because I've got a greater tolerance to the sound of a vacuum cleaner, particularly when it's being used by someone else.

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                    11.02.2006 08:20
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                    A refreshing drink, hot or cold.

                    It may be that I’m getting old (well, I am, I know) but I can no longer drink coffee or even tea in the quantities that I managed ten years ago. They contain caffeine and this acts on the central nervous system to increase the stress hormones in the blood. I can’t relax properly and sleep is almost impossible. I suffer from mood swings – and so does everyone around me. There are, of course, de-caffeinated drinks but I always find the taste disappointing when compared to the original. For many years I’ve drunk Twinings’ Wild Blackberry and Nettle Infusion. It’s naturally caffeine-free which means that I can drink it at any time of the day without it affecting my sleep patterns or mood. There’s also no added sugar and as an unsweetened mug of the infusion comes in at only four calories I don’t mind how many drinks I have in the course of the day. I like the packaging. There’s nothing there that I can’t recycle. It’s simply a cardboard box containing twenty teabags. The cardboard will compost or recycle and the used teabag goes into the compost bin. It’s easy to open and closes sensibly for storage. There’s no cellophane wrapping to end up in landfill and nothing superfluous. Twinings have various ethical and Fair Trade initiatives and whilst there’s no suggestion that the ingredients in this infusion are Fair Trade they do seem to be a company that tries its best. It’s very easy to make. Pop a teabag into a mug – or if you’re posh and use a teapot, allow one teabag per person. Add boiling water and leave to infuse for two to three minutes. Older boxes suggested an infusion time of three to five minutes, but I find three minutes to be about perfect. If you want the full effect serve it in a white mug. The infusion will be pink and then gradually turn into that dark red that wants to be purple when it grows up. The aroma is pure blackberry. I’ve had a cold this week but I could still smell the infusion from several feet away. It almost takes over the room. Of the other ingredients – hibiscus, rosehip, orange peel, liquorice root and strawberry flavouring – there isn’t even a hint. That blackberry is a thug. Blackberry leaves and blackberry pieces make up 11.2% of the ingredients, but 100% of the aroma. The taste is not pure blackberry though. My first thought is always of the rosehip syrup that I was given as a child, but without the sweetness. Next comes what I can only describe as the red berry flavour. It’s the taste of a mixed fruit summer pudding with just a delicate hint of liquorice. There’s a taste there that reminds me of Christmas – that’s the orange peel. The nettle comes through as a slightly peppery aftertaste. It’s a robust flavour too. With other brands I’ve sometimes resorted to drinking the tea with the bag still in the mug (disgusting, I know), but that’s not necessary here. This is not an infusion that smells better than it tastes, as so many are. I find the mixture sweet enough for my taste, but then I drink both tea and coffee black with no sugar, so it might be that it’s not sweet enough for everyone. It can be sweetened with honey or sugar, but never, ever add milk. In summer I make up jugs of this to have as a cold drink – just make it in the normal way and allow to cool. I’ve also given it to children as a cold drink, although I have added a little honey. My most indulgent use for it is as the liquid when I bake tea bread. I look and feel better when I drink this regularly. Being caffeine-free it counts towards all that water I should be drinking everyday, whereas normal tea and coffee don’t. Nettle has a natural cleansing effect. Because of my cold I’ve just about doubled my consumption of this over the last week and I’ve been in the annoying situation of feeling under the weather but having people telling me how well I look! The price is reasonable. In my local supermarket the regular price is 99p for a box of twenty with occasional offers of two boxes for £1.50. I’ve never bought a box with a use-by date less than a year away and it’s usually more like eighteen months, so it’s possible to stock up and have a supply of delicious hot or cold drinks for less than 4p a mug. Not all supermarkets stock this tea – I’ve been unable to find it in the local Tesco or Sainsbury, but if your supermarket stocks the Twinings range it might only need the nudge of you asking to get it on the shelf. Boxes of the infusion currently on sale are now described as “Blackberry and Nettle” rather than “Wild Blackberry and Nettle”. The ingredients are exactly the same and I can’t spot any difference in the taste of infusions from the new boxes. It could be that the blackberries have got over whatever it was they were cross about or an acknowledgement of the difficulty of sourcing sufficient wild blackberries to ensure a continuous supply. Either way, it tastes good.

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                      09.02.2006 17:21
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                      One of the better Wexford novels of recent years.

                      A block of concrete is dropped from a bridge and hits the car in front of the one driven by Amber Marshalson. A passenger in the car is killed. Some weeks later Amber’s father finds his daughter bludgeoned to death after a night out and it’s obvious to the police that Amber was the real target in the earlier attack. Why would anyone be so determined to kill an eighteen–year-old single mother? Where did Amber get the thousand pounds which she has in her bag and why has she recently been to Frankfurt with an acquaintance who has disappeared? I’ve been a fan of Ruth Rendell’s Chief Inspector Wexford novels since they first appeared more than a quarter of a century ago. Wexford himself (who must surely be coming up to retirement sometime soon) tries to be politically correct but doesn’t always succeed in the finer points. He’s certainly not in tune with current trends. He and his wife Dora are shocked to find that their divorced daughter is pregnant, and uncomprehending when they realises that Sylvia is to be a surrogate mother for her ex husband and girl friend. For the first time I thought about surrogacy from the point of view of the grandparents who would be parting with their grandchild. Inspector Mike Burden was more interesting in his youth when he did occasionally kick over the traces. Now he seems to be little more than a foil for Wexford, albeit a rather well-dressed and modish one. This is the twentieth book in the series and I suspect it wouldn’t harm Burden to get a transfer to another force where his abilities could be tested. The books have always been dominated by the middle-class, white male and it’s probably to update a long-running series that two new members of the team have been introduced and this was my only problem with the book. Detective Sergeant Hannah Goldsmith isn’t a character; she’s a caricature with political correctness taken to awkward extremes. A little would have added depth to the character, fleshed her out, but it was overdone. I couldn’t believe that a woman who seemed to worry about whether or not it was politically correct to worry about being politically correct could function as a Detective Sergeant. Frankly she annoyed me and I couldn’t relate to her at all. Even less convincing is the new Detective Constable Baljinder Bhattacharya. As the name gives away, he’s definitely not white, but the intention seems to be to stress the “just like us really” aspect of race. Personally, I’ve always felt that we should celebrate, enjoy and appreciate racial differences and I felt that too little was made of a potentially good character. Once I got over the points about the two new characters I thoroughly enjoyed the book. Essentially it’s a book about babies. There’s Amber’s baby who seems destined to be left with grandparents who make no bones about having no particular feelings for him. He reminds the grandfather of the daughter he’s lost and the step-grandmother obviously resents the fact that she’ll be the one who has to look after him. Then there’s the baby that Sylvia’s expecting and the wedge that the baby drives between Wexford and his wife. The background on surrogacy was carefully researched and well-presented. I’d never before thought through the consequences for other members of the family or the feelings of the woman who is to be the mother of the child after it is born. Rendell brings all this out without being heavy-handed. There have always been comparisons made between P D James’ Adam Dalgliesh novels and Ruth Rendell’s Wexford series. What takes Rendell head and shoulders above James for me is the clarity of her writing. It is an absolute joy to read and puts me in mind of Agatha Christie at her very best in some of the mid-period Miss Marple stories. She uses simple, easy-to-understand sentence structures and never uses a long word where a short one will do. She has no need to show off and there’s none of the self-indulgent padding that you find in the Dalgliesh novels. I don’t think there’s a superfluous sentence in the book. The plot is superb and probably one of the best that Rendell has produced. I was so convinced that I knew how the plot would resolve itself that when it seemed to be going in a different direction I reread the preceding chapter to see if I’d missed the exposure of the murderer. When all was finally revealed it was so totally, utterly obvious that I couldn’t understand how I’d failed to see the answer. Every one of the clues was there. I’d read them, noted them and completely failed to understand their significance. It was simply brilliant. Had the characters of Baljinder Bhattacharya and Hannah Goldsmith been better handled I’d have unhesitatingly given the book five stars. The four stars are well-deserved though and the book is definitely recommended. Quick facts: • Hardcover 336 pages (October 20, 2005) • Publisher: Hutchinson • Price: £17.99 but available on Amazon for £12.59 in January 2006 • ISBN: 0091796415

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                        06.02.2006 18:01
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                        A change of direction for the Lynley and Havers novels - and better than some recent stories.

                        The serial killer had been at work for some time before anyone noticed. Sometimes even the parents didn't realise that their son was missing. The boys were all in their early teens, usually they'd been in trouble with the police and they were of mixed race. The murders took place in different parts of London and the bodies were mutilated. When Acting Superintendent Lynley is given the case he has to contend with the trauma and pressure of further boys being murdered as well as the political pressures within a Scotland Yard striving to prevent a charge of institutionalised racism being made by the media. I'd just about decided to give up on Elizabeth George and her Lynley and Havers detective novels. Lynley is a suave, Bentley-driving Earl who is a policeman because he wants to be. Barbara Havers is his opposite in every way. Early books in the series made good reads, but recent novels seemed to concentrate far too much on the private lives of the main characters with the investigative side coming a poor second. "With no one as witness" was Elizabeth George's final chance and I'm glad I took the risk. The underlying theme of the book is racism within the police force. It's frighteningly easy to see how the individual murders of boys in their early teens were not linked as some of the boys remained unidentified until well into the enquiry. To the local police the body was just another tearaway who'd got himself into trouble and whom no one would miss. Would there have been so much publicity about the disappearance and murders of Jessica Chapman and Holly Wells if they'd been mixed-race boys of approximately the same age? Realisation that the connection should have been made earlier puts Scotland Yard on the back foot and the powers-that-be promote black Winston Nkarta to Detective Sergeant and he accompanies the Assistant Commissioner to news conferences. There's a complete disregard of how Nkarta feels about being the token black to appease the media. The defence against the charge of racism effectively proves it. There's an insensitivity to race issues which would seem to echo how the Stephen Lawrence murder enquiry was handled. I'd like to think that the intervening thirteen years have brought about a change in police and public attitudes, but I lack any confidence that this is the case. This is the first time that Lynley has been on the trail of a serial killer. Determined to prove that everything possible is being done to arrest the murderer a profiler is brought in, over Lynley's head and against his wishes. By studying details of the crimes which have been committed predictions can be made about the perpetrator and what might happen next. I hadn't appreciated the extent of the guidance which can be given by profilers, or, indeed the decisions an investigator has to make as to the extent of access to the crime scene and evidence which is to be allowed to the profiler. They're difficult decisions to make and I found the background to this point fascinating. Elizabeth George conveys the pressures of the investigation well. In a normal enquiry the murder has been committed and the investigator only has the responsibility of unearthing the perpetrator but it's rather different when a serial killer is at work. The pressures applied by the media, the public and superior officers within the force put responsibility for allowing further murders to take place on the shoulders of the investigators. There were times when I felt the pressure on Lynley and his team was almost unbearable, particularly when ruthless budgetary restraints were applied. If you're a fan of the details of police procedural novels - where you get the details of how the police work the investigation - then you will love this book. It's all there. In a case involving young boys it would be surprising if paedophilia didn't rear its ugly head. It's covered with as much sensitivity as possible given the circumstances, but it's one of the reasons why I'd regard this book as adult reading. Another is the language. Some - particularly from Barbara Havers - is basic and beyond colourful! There were certainly a few phrases there that I'd never heard before and probably won't be sorry if I never have cause to hear them again. I'd be happy to give the book to a mature adolescent, but I think a parent should read it first and make their own judgement. Characters are well-developed and I had it clear in my mind as to who-was-who early in the story. Whilst not strictly a "closed room" murder it became obvious fairly quickly that the murderer was likely to be one of a limited number of people and a convincing case could be made against each. The book is well-populated. If you read a P D James book featuring Adam Dalgliesh you'll find that the author concentrates on a limited number of people. Elizabeth George develops the suspects and their friends and families as well as some of the victims. The characters who appear throughout the series continue to develop. The book could be read as a stand-alone novel, but knowledge of what's gone on in earlier stories does make it more enjoyable. The plot began slowly and for the first fifty pages or so I did wonder if I would get into it. Persistence paid though and I read the last three hundred pages in one sitting, avid to know what was going to happen next. I didn't guess the name of the murderer. Once you're into the story it's very easy reading. Elizabeth George has a good ear for dialogue and there's plenty of it. If I have to make a criticism it's that I think the book is overlong. At 644 pages in a hardback book it's almost the blunt instrument so beloved of crime novelists. I think a hundred pages could have been culled without greatly affecting the plot. I'm still glad that I took the chance though. Quick facts: • Hardcover 644 pages (June 6, 2005) • Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton Ltd • Price: £17.99 but available on Amazon for £12.59 in February 2006. The paperback will be published in March 2006. • ISBN: 0340827467

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                          03.02.2006 19:27
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                          An indulgence that you can justify!

                          Cheap bath and shower products do nothing for my skin. They leave it feeling dry and itchy. Our everyday bath "gelee" is Badedas, but the one I like best is Clarins Tonic Bath and Shower concentrate. Let's deal with the question of price straight away, because it is expensive. The recommended retail price is a frightening £13.50 for 200ml, the equivalent of £6.75 per 100ml, nearly five times the price of the Badedas, which isn't exactly a cheap product to start with. You will sometimes get special offers on the Clarins, but the cheapest I've seen it recently is £9.50 plus £1.95 p&p from www.lapreya.com. So, what are you getting for your money? Well, the first thing you buy is a lot of excess packaging. The concentrate comes in a sturdy plastic bottle with a firm screw cap which incorporates a flip top. It is at least as substantial as the bottles of shower gel, shampoo, etc which you see on supermarket shelves and which seem to travel unscathed. Unfortunately the Clarins product is then packed in a cardboard box, which, in turn, has a separate cardboard stiffener inside it. Add to these two leaflets in more languages than I can readily recognise and you can imagine how much waste there is. It does all recycle, but that's no excuse to force me to buy it and then deal with all the bits and pieces. I've deducted one star for this and complained to Clarins, but to no effect. Given that it's expensive and there's a lot of waste packaging why do I think it's the best? Well, what you get is a form of aromatherapy treatment and a good wash. I'll deal with the aromatherapy aspect first. There are three products in the Clarins Bath and Shower range: Tonic, Relax and Contour. They're designed to be used for specific purposes. Tonic is the wake-up call, Relax helps you to wind down and Contour helps with body firming. All have essential oils which, when the aroma is inhaled, give a form of aromatherapy. The Tonic scent which predominates for me is geranium, which I've always found uplifting. I can also detect juniper and rosemary which is good for de-stressing. I'm told that there's also arnica, balm mint, big black root, gentian, hops, mint and witch hazel in there. Personally I can't distinguish them but the overall aroma is invigorating. I have used this product in the shower, but I really think that it's best enjoyed in a leisurely bath. Clarins recommend a temperature of 37°C, which is warm rather than hot and enhances rather than killing the scent. I like to relax for ten minutes and breathe in the aroma. It leaves me feeling more ready to face the day. I have tried doing the same with the Badedas gelee but the effect is never quite the same. The concentrate produces rich lather based on natural coconut, although I do notice that sodium laureth sulphate is up high in the list of ingredients. This chemical is a degreaser. It reduces the surface tension of water and allows foaming. For this reason you should make certain you keep the concentrate well away from your eyes. I did wonder if the fact that sodium laureth sulphate came so high on the list of ingredients would mean that Tonic dried the skin, but I've not found this to be the case. I've used it intermittently over a number of years and occasionally (when finance has permitted) over a long continuous period. I've never found my skin to be dry despite the fact that I tend to be forgetful about applying moisturisers. Tonic cleanses well. Even in the bath I apply a very small amount to a sponge and use this to clean my body. I look clean and I feel clean. My skin is lightly perfumed and this lasts for a few hours. It isn't heavy enough to clash with a perfume even straight out of the bath. Clarins say that this product helps to tone the skin, but I find that aspect difficult to comment on simply because I'd probably need industrial scaffolding if I really was looking to achieve toned skin. They also say that it neutralises the drying effects of hard water, but one of the benefits of living in the Yorkshire Dales is that the only hard water you get is ice. Clarins products are not tested on animals, but it would be a mistake to assume that the individual ingredients had not been so tested. If I'm very careful with a bottle of Tonic I can make it last for about three weeks, so it is outrageously expensive. On the other hand it does make me feel good and that's not expensive at 65p a day.

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                            18.01.2006 12:43
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                            A fascinating story which will make you think.

                            I’ve been guilty of judging a book by its cover. I’d skipped over it so many times because of the delicate pastel colouring, glittery stars and sweet-faced child on the front. There’s little indication that inside there’s a tightly-plotted, well-written story which explores one of today’s ethical dilemmas. When she was two Kate Fitzgerald was diagnosed with a rare form of leukaemia. Without blood, bone marrow, lymphocytes, granulocytes from a matched donor her life is likely to be short. The best match is likely to be from a brother or sister but Kate’s brother, Jesse, isn’t the perfect match that’s required. Kate’s parents, Brian and Sara, decide to have another child to be a donor for Kate. This baby isn’t pot luck though. This is a designer baby – the foetus selected because it’s a perfect genetic match for Kate. That’s how Anna came to be born. Within minutes of her birth she donated blood from her umbilical cord and this put Kate into remission for some years. Some thirteen years and various donations later Anna has had enough and sues her parents for the rights to her own body. This may be fiction but it’s also a book from which you’ll learn. Primarily it’s about the feelings of a child who is brought into the world to save another. At first sight it seems innocuous: the blood from Anna’s umbilical cord put Kate into remission. The cord would have been thrown away and there was no effect on Anna. That’s not the end of it though. When Kate becomes ill again more donations are required and these are invasive. Each time the extent of the invasion escalates and we join the story when Anna is required to donate one of her kidneys. Is it reasonable that she should be expected to do so? How will she deal with the consequences if she gains the right to refuse? It’s a story too about parenting and about the effect on the whole family when one member is seriously ill. Kate is the centre of attention. She’s the one who is thought about first and life revolves around her needs. Her elder brother, Jesse, reacts with bad behaviour, escalating to the point where he will put life at risk just to get attention from his parents. Anna feels that she’s invisible, that she’s nothing more than a donor for Kate. Her life has to revolve around Kate even more than the rest of the family. She can’t even go away in case she’s needed to give another bit of her body for Kate. Sara, the mother, is single-minded, but had she not been, Kate would have been dead for many years. She sees Kate’s needs as being paramount. Brian, her husband, is torn between the two points of view. What is obvious though is that neither parent has any idea what is going on in Jesse and Anna’s lives. This is an extreme example and thankfully not a common one, but I suspect we’re all guilty of, or subject to, this discrimination on occasion and it’s made me rethink my attitudes in a couple of areas. Not many novels do that. It made me think too about the ethics of using a child as a donor. The child is not in a position to make an informed decision about what’s happening as they’re unlikely to be able to understand the long-term implications. If they refuse how will they deal with the guilt? If they agree do they understand the medical implications for themselves? On the other hand if the parent making the decision is also the parent of the recipient it’s difficult to see how the decision can be unbiased and in the donor’s interests. It’s also a book about illness. The forms of leukaemia have been carefully and thoroughly researched but in many ways this is irrelevant. It could have been any life-threatening and debilitating disease. It raises questions about when it’s right to continue invasive treatment and when it’s right to let go. It’s about the risks that are taken in the hope rather than certainty of getting a little more time. Ultimately it’s about the “when” not the “if” of terminal illness. The characters are well drawn. They came out as balanced people rather than caricatures. The story is told in a series of snapshots, each narrated in the first person by different people. Anna’s sassy, intelligent but unsure of herself. Sara has an iron will where Kate’s concerned and Kate herself, despite never taking part in the narration, comes across as having some of the less-considerate traits of an invalid but still being something more than her illness. There is a less-sure touch with the men in the story. I was never quite certain that the character of Campbell, the lawyer, made sense and Brian, the father, didn’t seem consistent. These are minor quibbles and didn’t spoil the story for me. The story is well-plotted and tightly drawn. There’s little there that’s superfluous and once started I finished the book within a couple of days. I found the ending shocking but a little disappointing. It was a little bit too convenient, but still didn’t spoil the book for me. Whilst reading I was put in mind of “The Lovely Bones” by Alice Sebold although there’s much less sentimentality in this book. If you enjoyed that book you’ll certainly enjoy this one. The book’s recommended. I don’t reread many books but this might be one of the ones that I do. Quick facts: • Paperback 448 pages (January 10, 2005) • Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton Ltd • Price: £6.99 but available on Amazon for £3.99 in January 2006 • ISBN: 034083546X

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                              16.01.2006 08:02
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                              A collection of superb writing from Alan Bennett from 1996 to 2004

                              Four years ago I read Alan Bennett’s “Writing Home”. It was a collection of short writings, his “Lady in the Van”, excerpts from his diaries during the nineteen eighties, notes on his plays and some short pieces to finish with. It was all topped off with some decent black and white photos which linked neatly with the text. I found the book enjoyable, but not overwhelmingly so and concluded that it had been published with the intention of making the most of the Christmas market. I decided that I wouldn’t buy another like it. It reminded me of a large suitcase into which everything gets stuffed. There’s no accounting for gifts though and that was how I acquired “Untold Stories”, published in October 2005 – just in time for the Christmas market. There’s an important difference with this book which makes it far superior to “Writing Home”. In June 1997 Alan Bennett was diagnosed as having cancer and given only a 50/50 chance of survival. He wrote with the thought that his executors would make the decision as to what was published and what was not. The result is a book which is more open, more frank and, for me, more readable than “Writing Home”. He’s made the most of the freedom to write as he wished and then been brave about what he published. The title of the book is taken from the first few stories. I’ve always had the impression that Bennett was close to his mother – “Mam” as he called her – but his stories about the family background and his parents’ social inadequacies paint a darker picture. His mother suffered from depression and the burden fell heavily on the family. He allows his exasperation – with his mother, with the people who treated and cared for her – to show through more clearly than ever before and to me he seemed more human and I liked him the better for it. It’s all sharply observed but gently understated. There are pen portraits of his relatives and the interaction of an “ordinary” family is fascinating to read. In “Written on the Body” he talks openly for the first time about his homosexuality. He’s never gone to any particular trouble to hide the fact but prefers it to be something understood rather than talked about. He’s gentle and self-deprecating as he charts the development of his sexuality and talks about other gay men. The writing is frank but there’s nothing there to which you could take offence. Sometimes I wanted to laugh: sometimes I wanted to cry. The excerpts from his diaries cover the period from 1996 to 2004. They’d previously been published elsewhere and this was why I found them a little odd. Having read at the beginning of the book that he’d been ill with cancer I fully expected the diaries to show how this had affected his professional life but he avoids the subject, not wishing to live his illness in the public view as John Diamond so famously did. Disregarding this point though, the diaries make for compelling reading, not least for the picture they paint of a man who never seems to be in one place for very long. In the “Theatre and Plays” section I was a little annoyed, to begin with, that there was another piece about “The Lady in the Van”. It struck me that he’d written about Miss Shepherd (who lived in a van in his drive for fifteen years) then written a play about her stay and now was writing about the play. She’d certainly given good value. Reading this piece (and the others in the section) gave me a different view as this wasn’t about the experience itself but about converting it for the stage. This section and the following “Radio and TV” give a valuable insight into his profession and the people who work in and around it. There’s a particularly moving piece about Thora Hird who died in 2003. I’ll be frank and say that the chapter on “Art, Architecture and Authors” largely left me cold. It’s beautifully written and insightful, although the reproductions of pictures in black and white did seem a little miserly, but the subject is generally one which leaves me cold and even our national treasure couldn’t warm my heart. That’s down to me though, not him. The best part of the book was the final chapter – “Ups and Downs”. The first part could loosely be called “Accidents I’ve had on or around my birthday”, culminating in a homophobic attack on himself and his partner in Italy. He seemed most incensed about the fact that his insurance company refused to refund his air fair back to London, so that the money he’d not been robbed of in Italy was effectively removed from him by a suited gentleman in the City. In “Arise, Sir” he discusses his feelings about the Honours system. He’s always refused to discuss whether or not he’s been offered any honours and I couldn’t make up my mind whether he wrote this piece thinking that it was unlikely it would be published in his lifetime or because information about who has refused an honour is now freely available. I must confess that I was less interested in whether or not he’d been offered an honour than in his thoughts on the system. The best piece in the book is undoubtedly “An Average Rock Bun” which was how his doctor described the size of his malignant tumour. It’s written with a wry sense of humour and there isn’t a trace of self pity. It may sound strange to say that sometimes I found myself laughing out loud and I was completely in sympathy with his views on medical insurance. Once again there’s an interesting set of photographs in the book. One of them is slightly risqué and I couldn’t really see the reason why it was included. I can’t see it giving a great deal of offence though. I was mortified by the picture of Alan Bennett on the cover – no man in his seventies has the right to have such a full head of hair with hardly any sign of grey! The book’s recommended. Quick facts: • Hardcover 672 pages (October 3, 2005) • Publisher: Faber and Faber • Price £20, but available on Amazon at £8.39 in January 2006 • ISBN: 0571228305

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                                09.01.2006 06:56
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                                Of all the books I read in 2005, this was the best.

                                Hidden away in the back streets of Barcelona is the Cemetery of Forgotten Books and when ten-year-old Daniel Sempere is introduced to it by his father he’s allowed to choose one book from the millions of dusty volumes stored there. His choice is “The Shadow of the Wind” by Julián Carax and when he reads it he’s completely enchanted. It’s 1945 and the world is emerging from war and Spain has the added burden of the memories of the Civil War. As the years pass Daniel realises that a lot of people are strangely, dangerously interested in his book. What begins as curiosity about Carax, his life and his other books becomes an obsession to discover the truth behind the disappearance of Carax and the girl he loved. I delayed reading this book for quite a long time. It’s a translation from the original Spanish and so often translations fail to live up to the promise. I was put off, too by the quote from the Daily Telegraph on the front “…an instant classic”. I’m increasingly finding that book reviews in national newspapers are rarely critical and seem designed only to sell books, so when I finally started to read the book, I expected little. At the beginning of the story we meet Daniel as a shy, uncertain and motherless boy, frightened that he can no longer picture his dead mother. Over a period of ten years we watch him mature into a confident, responsible man. I’ve read many “coming-of-age” books where the accent has been on the sexual aspect of maturing. There is an element of that here but there’s far more emphasis on emotions and obligations. We see Daniel’s first, unrequited love for the older, blind daughter of a rich bookseller in Barcelona and the brutal shock he receives when he witnesses her involvement with another man. The relationship between Daniel and his father is skilfully conveyed as we see the parental ties slowly but inexorably loosen. The “coming of age” aspect is only a small part of the book. For me it was primarily a closely plotted work of detection and an historical thriller. The story begins in 1945, not long after the end of the Spanish Civil War. Old scores are still being settled, loyalties change almost by the day and there’s an atmosphere of fear about the activities of the police in the form of Inspector Fumero who is nothing more than a psychotic killer. In his presence I felt a complete sense of helplessness. As a teenager Daniel becomes aware of a shadowy man who is trying to buy up all copies of the books by Julián Carax with the intention of burning them. Who is he? Why is he doing this and why will Fumero stop at nothing to trace Carax? There’s a tremendous dramatic tension in the book with its stories of sudden disappearances and lives broken for the flimsiest of reasons. Ultimately it’s a magnificent story about a doomed love that someone will go to any lengths to bury in the past. There’s Gothic melodrama and even the hint of a ghost story. The plotting is superb as we realise that parts of Carax’s book reflect the problems of his own life and then that events in Daniel’s life are reflecting the life of the man with whom he’s obsessed. I’ve barely scraped the surface of the many (or even the main) characters in the book. It’s a very varied cast and each is skilfully drawn. All are essential to the plot. They’re all three-dimensional and very believable - male and female characters are all equally strong. That’s very unusual. The star of the book for me though was the post-war city of Barcelona. It’s beautifully drawn and very evocative, but then Zafón is a native. I enjoyed too the detail about the book trade. Daniel’s father is a bookseller and Daniel joins him in the business, but I was fascinated by the details about acquisition and sale of books and their care. I had a real sense of the story being set within a business rather than the way in which people earned their living being an inconvenient fact to be filled in, as in so many novels. The translation is as close to perfection as you’re likely to get. The translator is Lucia Graves, daughter of the poet Robert Graves. It’s more usual for her to translate from English into Spanish or Catalan but she has excelled herself with this book. Zafón’s style is expansive and witty but Graves loses none of the subtleties of the work. The book is very easy reading and I simply couldn’t put it down. There are sexual references in the book but nothing that I found offensive. Although there are some violent scenes I didn’t find any that are gratuitously so - I’d regard this as adult reading but without any other restrictions. I read a lot of books in 2005. This was the best of them all. Quick facts: • Paperback 512 pages (October 5, 2005) • Publisher: Phoenix mass market paperback • Price £7.99 but available on Amazon for £3.99 in January 2006 • ISBN: 0753820250

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                                  04.01.2006 14:21
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                                  A mixed bag of good and poor tracks, - makes reasonable listening and conveys the story of the film.

                                  Full review -------------------------------------------------------------------------------- I can't understand it, you know. I don't like musicals. I don't like Madonna. The tracks swing between the dreadful and the good but this CD is one I play regularly. It's a guilty secret and even I don't know why I do it. It's an original soundtrack recording from the 1996 motion picture, which was based loosely on the life of Maria Eva Duarte de Perón, commonly known as Evita. It's loosely based because the movie and this CD, if you listen to it as a story, will lead you to think sympathetically of Evita, whereas the truth is that she was one of the most hated and powerful women of the age despite having died at the relatively young age of 33. In its turn the movie grew from the nineteen-seventies stage musical of the same name, with lyrics by Tim Rice and orchestration by Andrew Lloyd Webber. As you might expect it's an altogether grander production than the original musical, with additional orchestration by David Cullen and even a couple of extra songs. It may sound obvious to say that the trouble with sound tracks is that you can't see what's going on, but the CD opens with "Requiem for Evita" and it's more than four minutes of deadly dirge. If you're watching you see the extravaganza that was Evita's funeral, but the music on its own saps me of the will to live every time I hear it and it's a track I regularly skip. It slides neatly into "Oh what a circus" and we meet Antonio Banderas as Che, the narrator of the story. I was impressed by Banderas' singing voice when I saw the movie, but it lacks something when you can't see facial expression or gestures. He's an actor who can sing, rather than a singer who can act. The best balance between acting and singing ability rests with Jimmy Nail, who plays Magaldi, the singer who is Eva's ticket from rural poverty to the big city. When I saw the movie I felt that Nail had been miscast. The part really needed someone older, seedier. I was more impressed when I listened to the CD. In "On this night of a thousand stars" and "Eva, beware of the city" the quality of his voice is apparent and he manages to convey emotion, something which wasn't always achieved by other members of the cast. My niggling doubts about Madonna surfaced in "Eva, beware of the city", but in fairness it's not the type of song where her strength would normally lie. She is far better on the slower songs and in this one, with its regular changes of pace, I felt that she was keeping up with Nail rather than matching him. It also demonstrates that she's a singer with acting ability rather than the other way round. She has the telling lines "My father's other family were middle class and we were kept out of sight, hidden from view, at his funeral" but manages to deliver them with a complete lack of bitterness, despite having just said "Screw the middle classes. I will never accept them." "Another suitcase in another hall" is a triumph for her. She brings out the vulnerability of the young girl, alone in the city, passed from man to man and unsure of where she's going. The orchestra is quieter, softer, and it sets off her voice to perfection. The song she really had to get right though was the dreadfully saccharine "Don't cry for me Argentina" which she delivers perfectly. She couldn't have afforded to have done otherwise. I've always thought it a great pity that this happened to be playing on the local radio when Argentina invaded the Falklands all those years ago. Had it not been it would probably have died the death it deserves. Jonathan Pryce, as Perón, doesn't have a lot a lot to sing in the movie, which is a pity as he's well up to conveying the emotion, particularly in "She is a diamond" and the hesitancy in his first meeting with Eva in "I'd be surprisingly good for you". His voice lacks technical brilliance but he more than makes up for it with his acting ability. I've a personal favourite on this CD: "Perón's latest flame" sung by Antonio Banderas and Madonna. With its lively, foot-trapping backing the upper classes detail their dislike of Evita. They wouldn't mind seeing her in Harrods (they used to have a branch in Buenos Aires) but "behind the jewellery counter, not in front." The lyrics are clever and witty: they leave me with a smile on my face. Listen to the CD as a story rather than as music, but be aware that it isn't the complete truth. It fails to bring out the evil that she perpetuated in Argentina. You will get slight hints of the way money was diverted for her personal use in "And the money kept rolling in" and of the way she flaunted her glamour and money in front of her "shirtless ones" in "Rainbow High". Don't cry at her funeral though. The CD is cautiously recommended, but if I had the choice again I'd probably buy the DVD and have the option of watching the movie. It's also available on Amazon for £6.97 - less than the price of the CD. Quick facts: Audio CD (October 28, 1996) Number of Discs: 1 Label: Warner ASIN: B000026HEJ Catalogue Number: 9362464322 Price: £10.99 (Amazon) Track listings: 1. Requiem For Evita 2. Oh What A Circus 3. On This Night Of A Thousand Stars 4. Eva And Magaldi/Eva Beware Of The City 5. Buenos Aires 6. Another Suitcase In Another Hall 7. Goodnight And Thank you 8. I'd Be Surprisingly Good For You 9. Peron's Latest Flame 10. A New Argentina 11. Don't Cry For Me Argentina 12. High Flying, Adored 13. Rainbow High 14. And The Money Kept Rolling In (And Out) 15. She Is A Diamond 16. Waltz For Eve And Che 17. You Must Love Me 18. Eva's Final Broadcast 19. Lament Playing time 77m 15sec

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