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I feel as though I come to this biography from a different route than many others. I would imagine that most people who pick up 'Mao: The Unknown Story' are probably already familiar with 'Wild Swans' - Jung Chang's bestselling family autobiography that sold over ten million copies and became a worldwide sensation. However, when I first bought 'Mao' (studying post world war II China in A-Level meant that I had to buy the biography, despite the dread that having to read such an enormous book inspired in me!) I had no idea that Chang was already such a well-known author.
The first thing to note about 'Mao' is it's sheer readability. Coming from a person who, if confronted with any other biography (political or otherwise) of this size, would run a mile in the other direction, I could not put it down; it is an absolutely riveting read. Being a history graduate, I have read many a dry, dull, and leaden history book in my time, ones which I almost had to prop my eyelids open with toothpicks to read without falling asleep. This is none such book. Not once did I feel as though I were being talked down to, or as though I needed to have previous knowledge of the subject matter to even understand what the author was talking about. The writing style was full of verve, vigour and passion, and packed an emotional punch to boot. Believe me, it really was a fascinating, enjoyable read!
BUT, and that is a big but... this biography is the very definition of a one-sided narrative. It is absolutely savage in its condemnation of Mao. His crimes are recounted in horrifying, unrelenting detail. It's hard to believe that this book was intended to be an honest and impartial look at the rule of Mao, when right from the very beginning it's clear that Chang and Halliday are doing their very best to persuade you otherwise. At times I felt a bit like I was just reading a very long, one-sided rant. No attempts at impartiality are seriously made. I did feel as though much of the evidence was selected to give an extremely biased account. You only need to take a quick scan of the sources at the end of the book to see that far too many of them are unknown, or suspect.
This is a political biography of incredible magnitude. As far as serious history books go, this doesn't really qualify. It's entertainment, pure and simple. Well-written, heartbreaking, shocking, squirm-in-your-seat-make-you-really-uncomfortable entertainment, but entertainment nonetheless. It's designed to be as shocking as possible, to act as an diatribe against a man who had no qualms about killing millions of people in order to achieve his own, personal glory. And I don't think anyone will deny that Mao was a monster - being responsible for over 70 million deaths is something that he will never shake off, and neither should he be able to. But both Chang and Halliday seem to have taken it upon themselves to show Mao in the worst light possible and their objectivity in writing this book clearly has to be questioned.
I think perhaps I came to this book from a rather unfair perspective - having just finished the absolutely gripping, un-put-down-able 'Heartstone' by C. J. Sansom. As a great lover of both history (recent History Masters graduate here! Just had to get that in, haha!) and good literature (working in a bookshop) I devour any and all historical fiction I can find. Wolf Hall by Mantel, The Pillars of the Earth by Follet, pretty much all of the Philippa Gregory series (however much it embarrasses me to admit it), Fingersmith and Tipping the Velvet, Sarah Dunant's Italian historical trilogy, The Book of Human Skin by Louvric, Umberto Eco's 'Name of the Rose' and of course, the masterpiece of all series, C. J. Sansom's Shardlake series.
Therefore, 'The Gallows Curse' was always going to have a tough job, since I really do have such high standards for historical fiction writing (or any writing, really!) And I am afraid to say, that while Karen Maitland's novel was dark, supernatural, brilliantly researched and packed full of historical knowledge, it unfortunately left me a little cold.
So, let's start with a brief synopsis. The year is 1210 and King John is on the throne. However, after a recent barney with the Pope, England now lies under a Papal Interdict. Babies lie unbaptised in their cradles, corpses lie in unconsecrated ground, and the people of the land are ravaged by fear of their sins. In a small village in Norfolk, our heroine Elena finds herself drawn into a diabolical scheme to absolve a dying lord of his sins, unwittingly bonding herself to our tortured, repulsive anti-hero in the process, and paving the way for a dangerous plot of violence, backstabbing, double-crossing and treason to unfold.
All this happens under the watchful eye of the story's narrator, Yadua the Mandrake, a root that was widely considered at the time to have magical properties. It is in her retelling of ancient folklore and superstition that Maitland finds her greatest strength. She had obviously done a great deal of research on the subject, and it shows. It really adds a sense of mystery and feeling to the whole plot, and I would imagine that without it, the novel would fall completely flat. I really enjoyed how the start of every chapter included information about the use of certain herbs and animals, and the superstitions that peasants believed. Maitland also found a nice way of weaving that information into the storyline, which gave the plot much needed depth.
Nevertheless, I found there to be a lot of little things that niggled me about this book, which all piled up to converge into one great big niggle, that has now affected my rating. And so, on we go...
This is an adult story. There's death, mutilation, sexual licentiousness and rape. Exotic creatures, poison, a paedophile and a dwarf-sized prostitute. But it all seemed a bit too... forced? I can see Karen Maitland's editor on the phone, crying 'More, Karen! We need more realism! More death! More violence! More grit than you can shake a stick at! More interesting and colourful characters than you can ever believe!' It just all felt a bit too much.
There was nothing particularly stretching about the plot. Sure, there were twists and turns, but I felt like I'd seen it all before. Many reviewers claim that they felt as though they were transported back to the time. I don't agree. Although the novel is meticulously researched, I felt the descriptions of the towns and villages and people were shallow and repetitious. The language was a little pedestrian. I definitely felt there was something lacking.
In particular, it was the cast the let this novel down for me. They felt more or less like predictable clichés - the wise old woman with an ancient grudge, the young, naïve heroine who finds her 'inner strength' at the end, the angry, haunted anti-hero, the madam with a secret heart of gold... no thanks. There was some roundness and depth to a couple of the characters - Master Raffaele for one, (but I have a bit of a thing for tortured Byronic heroes!) and the previously mentioned old cunning woman who lives in the forest. However my main problem lay with the heroine of the novel, Elena. Some of the things that happen to her in the books are truly awful, but I found myself struggling to care. I did not find myself emotionally engaged with her at all, which in my opinion, is the death knell for any novel.
So there you have it. I have seen 'The Gallows Curse' compared to Ken Follet's 'Pillars of the Eath,' which is, in my humble opinion, laughable. Don't get me wrong, by no means is this a 'bad book.' I feel with all my moaning, some of you might be tempted to completely pass it on the bookself, which is not what I intended. It's good, but not great. Enjoyable, but not gripping. I could guess the ending a mile off, and where each of the characters was headed. All in all, if you want something entertaining that you will fly through in a week, this is for you. But for seriously epic, absolutely enthralling historical fiction, I'd look elsewhere.
About five years ago, I bought some dry shampoo to take with me when I went to a festival. The thought of going for four days without washing my hair (which used to get greasy quite quickly) absolutely filled me with horror, so I splashed out and bought something that I would never normally use. The results were terrible - I don't think I used it properly (because I'm a terrible one for not reading instructions!) and the ensuring experience meant that I've never again been tempted into buying another dry shampoo!
However, I think dry shampoos have come a long way since then, and actually become really popular, so I recently decided to buy another one - the Batiste Big and Bouncy XXL volume kind - and the results have definitely redeemed the 'dry shampoo' product in my eyes! When sprayed onto the hair, it leaves a fine white power that you have to rub in vigorously and then leave for a minute before brushing it out. Using in on two-day old hair, I noticed the difference immediately - my hair was fresh and shining, had completely lost the greasy shine and feel that it had before. It lasts all day as well - no need for me to keep it in my handbag in case of needing an emergency application! My hair looked just as freshly washed at the end of the day as in the morning when I sprayed it on.
With regards to the XXL volume, however, I'm afraid I don't have the same story to tell. On first application, it did make my hair a little bit bouncier with a little bit more volume. But as soon as I walked out of the door, it disappeared, leaving my hair just as flat as it was before, albeit completely fresh looking!
For me, finding a perfect mascara is like trying to find the Holy Grail - it's just impossible. I always think it's going to happen one day; I'll find that special one that will give me thick, long, fluttery, perfectly defined eyelashes for only a fiver, but it never does. So, in the meantime, I've tried absolutely loads of different mascaras with varying results. The waterproof Maxfactor Masterpiece mascara is the closes thing I've found so far to the 'perfect' mascara.
At ten pounds a pop, the price may be a little bit expensive for a cheapo student like myself, but being Maxfactor and a well respected brand, I find myself willing to pay a bit more for a product that I'm sure will be of a good quality. I really like the head of the mascara brush. I always get put off by mascara brush heads that are really big with really bushy, thick bristles, because I can never get them close enough to my eye to actually coat my eyelashes! But this brush has a medium shaped head, and instead of 'bristles' has small plastic 'spikes' that are not spaced too close together. This means that when I apply the mascara to my eyes (depending on how careful I am!) it really gives good definition, and my lashes rarely clump together. Fantastic! Also, the little spikes on the end of the brush are really small, and can get right into the corner of your eyes, meaning that every single lash gets coated.
The actual mascara itself is a nice consistency, and it perfect for daytime wear. If you wanted something really black, for a more dramatic look, then I'd suggest going for the Maxfactor Masterpiece Max version, but this one is fine for me! (you can always add another layer, although I always find that applying another layer makes it go clumpy and too thick) I always find that it lasts pretty much all day, without flaking or rubbing off, which is great as well.
Now, the reason I buy the waterproof version is because I have pretty bad hayfever, so in the summer I am constantly rubbing my eyes and making them water. But don't worry, because when Maxfactor says that this mascara is waterproof, they really mean it. I've been out in the sun, rain, I've even been swimming in it, and it doesn't run. BUT this does lead to its biggest problem: it is such a nightmare to get off! It sticks to your lashes like absolute glue! It's so incredibly hard to get off, that I can waste two or three make-up wipes getting it off, and then when I wake up in the morning, it's STILL on my lashes! But I suppose that you can't have a really great waterproof mascara that comes off easily, that would be besides the point!
So there you have it. A 'nearly- perfect', perfect mascara.
I first bought this conditioner the advice of my mum, who informed me that I take too long in the shower and use all the hot water. So, after much nagging and arm-pulling, I decided that to save time, I'd buy a leave in conditioner and just spray it on afterwards, rather than spending five minutes in the shower waiting for my conditioner to sink in and 'do the trick.'
So I decided to go for this Aussie Miracle Hair Insurance. Call me crazy, but I really buy into their whole 'There's more to life than hair, but it's a good way to start' philosophy, far more than the old 'Because you're worth it' rubbish espoused by Loreal or Maybelline or whoever it is. So I tried it on my hair, and the result was really great.
The first thing I noticed, it smells really, really good. I think all the reviews on here must agree, and it's true - this leave-in conditioner smells so gorgeous, I would literally spray it on myself as a perfume if I could (and sometimes I do... but I'm not sure how good that is for my skin/clothes!) I don't know what it is... the jojoba oil or something else, but I don't care. It just has this really distinctive, gorgeously DIVINE smell that stays in your hair for quite a long time afterwards, so you get to smell it all day long!
After repeated usage, it did make a difference to the condition of my hair. I don't have particularly dry or brittle hair, but it can be a bit frizzy and flyaway at times, and spraying on the conditioner totally alleviated these problems. My hair was left really smooth and soft (not particularly any shinier than before, but I can forgive that because I have pretty shiny hair anyway) and didn't leave my hair with that greasy residue that some leave-in conditioners can, or that 'crunchy' feeling that I sometimes get from using other haircare products.
In my opinion, at just under a fiver it's quite affordable as well, and lasts absolutely ages. I always find that about five or six presses of the pump is enough to cover my hair, which means that a bottle usually lasts me a couple of months if I use it every other day.
How much can you ever really know about the person you marry?
That is essentially the underlying theme of 'Gone Girl'. How much can you ever tell what another person is thinking? It's a pretty simple question, yet in the hands of Gillian Flynn, it helps to establish a psychological thriller of phenomenally tense and compelling proportions.
It's absolutely fascinating to read. As a single young woman myself, I found myself pouring over the pages, thinking 'Is this what all marriages are like? Is this how my marriage will end up?' Let my just say, God, I hope not, because the marriage of Nick and Amy is a relationship fraught with lies, manipulation, betrayal, doubt, and yep, you've guessed it, murder.
So let us start with a brief plot description. On the morning of their fifth wedding anniversary, Nick Dunne finds that his wife Amy has mysteriously disappeared. Like any ordinary couple, Nick and Amy have had their ups and downs, and right now are seemingly going through a bit of a rough patch after both losing their jobs, forcing them to move out of their hip New York apartment and back to Nick's Midwest small-town childhood home. Understandably, Nick is anxious to see his wife home safe and well, but of course, as anyone who had ever watched an episode of Law and Order can tell you, first things first: you check out the husband.
Must to his consternation, Nick immediately becomes prime suspect number one. During the investigation, a number of unsettling things are revealed about Amy's life, none of which Nick can verify, or even agree with. Amy's friends reveal that she was afraid of Nick, and kept secrets from him. He swears it isn't true. Despite his protestations of innocence, no one is able to confirm Nick's whereabouts on the morning of his wife's disappearance. Strange searches are discovered his computer, and his possessions start turning up in odd places. Soon enough, the whole town turns on Nick Dunne, and Nick Dunne can turn to no one.
For fear of giving anything else away, I'll end my plot description there. The last thing I want to do is spoil any plot twists or endings, so I'll keep quiet. But suffice to say, that this novel is definitely a contender for thriller of the year. With the characters of Nick and Amy, Gillian Flynn has created the most eloquent and well versed of plot devices: the unreliable narrator. The timelines flash back and forth between Nick on the day of Amy's disappearance, and Amy's diary entries from the early years of their marriage leading up to the present day, only with such conflicting accounts of their marriage, it's impossible to know who is telling the truth. It's not until midway through the book that you get to a breakthrough, and it's a jaw-dropping one at that. But even after the big reveal, Flynn still weaves a tension, uncertainty and suspense that stays with you right until the very last page.
The characters are not only realistic, but frighteningly so. My opinion of both Nick and Amy was constantly changing, fluctuating with every new piece of information revealed about them. This isn't a book that has a slow start. It's not a book that you have to read a few hundred pages to 'get into' it. The actions starts and pulls you in right from the get go.
With regards to any 'disadvantages' the book might have, I will only say this: on first reading it, the ending wasn't necessarily what I had hoped for. I can't really explain any more than that without giving everything away, but after closing the book, I did feel a tiny bit... shall we say, cheated? Only on deeper reflection, I think that the ending Flynn wrote was actually a rather more chilling, even devastating, finale than that which I would have wanted. I found myself still thinking about it days, even perhaps weeks, after I had put the book down. It had a sinister feel to it that literally leaves me with goosebumps when I think about it now. So actually, not a 'disadvantage' at all really!
So there you have it. With 'Gone Girl,' Gillian Flynn mixes toxic dialogue with two characters that are very much on the edge, and the result is a chilling, acerbic and witty portrayal of a marriage gone horribly, horribly wrong.
As a person who considers any lazy Sunday afternoon spent in the kitchen baking as a day well-spent, I get incredibly excited about any opportunity to go out and buy new kitchen appliances. New blender? Got it. New piping bag? Got it. Cupcake corer? Got it. Even if I don't need it, I've got it.
So when my old mixer started to go on the fritz, I practically fell over myself on the way to the shops to get a new one, and as this was a relatively cheap buy and it's specifications looked quite good (five speed settings! Wow!) so I decided to go with this one. Oh, how I regret that now. Never before have I found myself so frustrated with a mere kitchen appliance.
So let's start with the good points. It's powerful. It doesn't take long at all to whip things up - butter and sugar, eggs... it takes half the time that it used to with my old mixer. It's a good price, it won't break the bank. It also looks nice, a tiny bit 'plasticky' but hey, I'm not entering it into a modelling competition here. I use it, wash it and put it back in the cupboard, so that doesn't bother me. It's also really lightweight, but don't think that makes it feel flimsy. It's quite robust and actually, given that I've dropped it (or thrown it in anger) on the floor a number of times, surprisingly sturdy. It mixes quite well also - on my last mixer, the beaters were spaced quite far apart, so that little lumps in your mixture would go right through without getting beaten in, and it would take ages to mix into the right consistency. No problem of that here.
BUT... (and that's a big but) the most frustrating thing about this mixer is the speed. You might be fooled into thinking that since this mixer has five speed settings, they are pretty varied. Let's say - slow, slow to medium, medium, medium to fast, and fast. But no. This mixer has - medium, a little bit faster, and then FAST FAST FAST!
That is not exaggeration. The slowest speed on this mixer is just too fast! Whenever I mix anything, my whole kitchen (including myself) gets absolutely covered in dough, or cake mix, or whatever it is that's in my bowl. And if it's icing sugar you're mixing, then God help you; that stuff gets everywhere. The only way to remedy this a little bit is to use a big bowl, a very big bowl. But even then half the mixture still ends up splattered all over the counter, my recipe book and myself. When it first happened, yeah, I had a little laugh. I was covered in cake mix and it was kind of funny. Now? I nearly cry with frustration.
Another downside is that this mixer only comes with the two beaters and no other attachments. But then, what else can you expect when it's so cheap?
So there you have it. A powerful mixer that's great if you need to want something cheap, study, and that will get the job done in no time at all. But all this is overshadowed by the speed settings. There is just not enough variation. The slowest setting is just too fast, and unless you want half your mixture to end up all over the kitchen, I'd suggest going with something else.
This buy was a bit of an extravagance for me - I can't remember exactly how much I paid for it, but I remember thinking it was a bit much at the time. However, I'd been looking for a really good body moisuriser for a long time, and I decided to push the boat out and give it a go. I'm totally glad I did, because this is such a wonderfully luxurious body moisturiser!
I don't normally really care about packaging - as long as the product inside works well, I couldn't care less what the bottle looks like. But I really love this kind of tub packaging. Yes, it might take up a bit more space on my bathroom shelf that a small, squeezy bottle, but I really hate having to turn bottles upside down and bang on the end for ages just to get the last dregs of lotion out of it. With the tub, I can really scrape the last little bits out of it - it feels like I'm getting a little bit more for my money.
Talking about getting more for your money, it lasts absolutely ages, and I do not use it sparingly at all. I really slather it on, because it smells so great. Not an overly strong, floral scent or anything, just really light and feminine. But the absolutely best thing about it - it just feels so damn luxurious! Dove really aren't kidding when they call it 'body silk,' it literally feels like you're rubbing silk into your skin. The cream is really thick, but doesn't feel to heavy at all. It sinks into my skin straightaway, and doesn't leave the dreaded 'greasy skin' that so many other moisturisers leave me with.
All in all, it leaves my skin feeling much softer and fully moisturised. I don't have extremely dry skin, so I'm not looking for something to moisturise over a 48 hr period or anything (if you do have VERY dry skin, I would recommend trying something else) but for everyday moisture that feels like silk and smells great, THIS is the cream you want to buy.
I've been using this exfoliating scrub for years now, and in my humble opinion, it really is the best one out there. I actually went though a phase a while back, where I decided that I wasn't trying enough new products, so I started buying loads of new and different stuff, to see how it worked for me. And the result: absolute nightmare! So, I've gone back to using this scrub, and haven't looked back since.
The packaging is bright and appealing, and a really nice size - it always lasts me a few months, which is perfect, because I'm lazy and can't always be bothered to nip down to the shops to get another one. Plus, the smell is absolutely gorgeous! It smells really apricoty (not a real word, I know!) but not overly so. Just really natural and lovely.
The great thing about this scrub, is that you don't even need to use a huge amount get really great results. Probably a little blob the size of a ten pence piece would be sufficient for anyone. The exfoliating beads themselves are fantastic! I've tried a lot of other exfoliators, but none of them actually exfoliate my skin enough - The little beads are way too tiny, and there really isn't enough of them. I step out of the shower and I'm always left feeling as though I need to wash my face again to get better results.
However, this scrub is thick and creamy and absolutely PACKED with little exfoliator beads, that really gives your skin a good scrub. It's definitely not for those with sensitive skin, but for me it's absolutely perfect. It leaves my skin so soft and smooth; after I've used it, it really feels like all the grimeyness and dead skin cells on my face have been stripped away and I'm left with totally babysoft skin! (I would like to point out, that I'm not THAT dirty - maybe I shouldn't have used the word grimey...ha!) But seriously, it leaves your skin so soft and smooth. Fantastic!
I bought this concealer based on two things: Firstly, advice from a self-confessed 'make-up junkie' friend, and secondly, from a magazine review. Unable to resist their five star rating, I decided to give it a go, since it was so cheap and, being a poor student, it's price appealed to my money-saving instincts!
The first, and most obvious thing I can say about this concealer is the price: it's an absolute bargain at £4.99. There are many other brands of 'light reflecting/illuminating/dazzling' concealer out there, some incredibly expensive, and I would put my money (ha!) on this being the cheapest of the lot. So there you go - for a girl like me (who loves a bargain) this really is a huge plus point.
You might be tempted to think that because it's so cheap, it's not very good. Well, this isn't really the case. The packaging isn't particularly sleeek or fancy; in fact , it's pretty plain, but I'm not particularly worried about what it looks like, so that's no bother for me. Being one of those clicky bottom applicator pens, another plus point is that you never need to worry about too much concealer coming out and wasting it - each click pushes out a little more concealer, so you can be really precise with how much you want (The only annoying this is when you first start using it - you have to click the pen around for about a million years before you get any concealer out. Not a huge negative, but can be annoying if you're applying make-up in a hurry!)
The concealer itself is creamy and a really nice consistency. It blends in really well with my skin tone, and really does brighten around my eyes. Yes, it REALLY does! Here's a piece of evidence for you: One day I decided to go without it, because I was running late and didn't have the time to put it on. First thing my friend says to me when we met up - 'Wow, are you okay? You look really tired.' Thanks.
It also does really well hiding spots and blemishes, plus it lasts quite a long time - I'll buy one and won't have to buy another for a few months.
So, disadvantages. There isn't really a lot of choice with shades. Only three, which to be honest, is a bit ridiculous. I'm quite lucky, because I match one colour quite well, but if you're really pale (or really brown) then you're a bit stuck. It would really, really benefit from getting some more shades in there.
But apart from that, this really is a fantastic buy. I can't really comment on whether it helps 'diminish the appearance of fine lines' as it claims, because I don't quite have that problem yet, but it certainly does help brighten up my skin. I've tried lots of concealers, and a lot of them dry out quite quickly, look a bit 'cakey' and obvious, but this one is great. I can definitely recommend.
I only started using this primer a month ago, when I found it in my sisters make-up bag. Usually, I don't use a primer at all - I tend to see make-up products like that as just unnecessary 'extras' that are intended to dupe me out of my hard earned cash, but being the nosy (and slightly cheap!) sister that I am, I put some on, and was completely astounded with the results.
As soon as I squirted some out onto my hand and applyed it onto my face, I felt the difference. I always moisurise my skin first, but sometimes this leaves my skin a little bit 'sticky' and doesn't make applying foundation a particularly easy job. But this primer left my skin smooth and with a completely fresh and even complexion. Applying my foundation on top of it was the easiest thing in the world - it glided on, and stayed throughout the entire day! In the evening when I took off my make-up, there was still plenty of it left on my face to come off on the wipe, which never happens - usually my foundation has melted off my face by then! Using the primer even makes me feel more confident about going outdoor with no make-up on at all. My skin feels so smooth, looks less red and blemished - hard to believe it's all thanks to this tiny little tube of primer magic!
On top of it all, it's a steal at such a low price. I've seen other primers around that are doule the price, and I'm almost certain that they wouldn't work any better than this one. It's so brilliant, that I've stopped stealing it from my sister and started buying my own!