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collingwood21
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      07.12.2011 20:52
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      A decent introductory text on paranormal investigations and sceptical enquiry

      The paranormal, it seems, is a subject with seemingly limitless fascination for us, and is something which people continue to hold on to as part of their belief systems. A Gallup poll taken in 2005 indicated that 30% of people believed in ghosts and 15% claimed to have seen one. Another survey taken in 2008 had 58% of respondents stating they believed in the supernatural - more than believed in God (54%). Professor Richard Wiseman states in his latest book Paranormality that between 40% and 50% of people in the UK (and between 80% and 90% in the US) claim to have had some sort of paranormal experience. These are extraordinary figures. For all that we live in a well-educated society where science is more readily accessible than ever before, belief in the things that go bump in the night is still remarkably persistent. As an arch-sceptic and Britain's only Professor of the Public Understanding of Psychology, Wiseman has investigated the paranormal for over twenty years, and all his experience has been poured into his latest book - Paranormality: Why We See What Isn't There.

      If you are expecting this to be a stern academic text with the Professor chiding us credulous members of the public for being so gullible, you would be wrong. This is a cheerful pop-science book written for those of us who find science interesting, but don't have the time, degrees or access to peer-reviewed journals that keeping up with latest developments in fields of interest would require. Here is a lot of interesting stuff compressed into 324 pages of childlike enthusiasm (plus plenty of end notes and further reading if you wish to delve further). Still don't believe me that science can be fun? Take a look at Wiseman's experiment on firewalking shown on BBC's Tomorrow's World (http://www.psy.herts.ac.uk/wiseman/research/psychics.html)

      In Paranormality, Wiseman takes us on a whirlwind tour around several areas of paranormal activity - such as precognitive dreams, ghosts, fortune telling, telekinesis, mediumship and out of body experiences - pulling each apart in turn and showing us how science can provide an alternative explanation to the supernatural as to why these things happen. Be it an interesting quirk of our psychology, wishful thinking or simply a con trick, Wiseman is adamant that nothing supernatural exists. As well as cheerfully debunking all claims of such activity presented to him, he also goes one step further and argues that investigating such cases can actually reveal more about the way the human brain works. Take the case of one of the most common types of supposedly paranormal experience: the incubus (or succubus, the female form of this beastie), a monster that appears on the chest of sleepers when they awake in the night, restricting breathing and movement, and causing terrifying visions. It was once commonly believed that seeing such a vision was proof of the existence of demons, but the psychology of sleep has revealed it as a condition called sleep paralysis that happens when the brains doesn't switch correctly from sleeping to waking. Other sections on how and why our brains sometimes fail to accurately represent reality were fascinating stuff, and you can even learn how to experience lucid dreaming or an out of body experience if you so desire (I don't, so I can't tell you how successful these DIY experiences are).

      While the book was well-written, full of lively examples and interesting "try it yourself" experiments, I felt it was more persuasive in some places than others. The sections relating to the psychology of sleep were especially fascinating for me as they were well backed up with convincing and quite detailed scientific explanation. However, the chapter on mediumship was nothing more than a bit of a rehash of well-worn "how to cold read" material with nothing new to offer. Anyone who has ever watched Derren Brown's TV shows or read anything on sceptical investigation will be very familiar with such material and will find nothing new here. It would serve as a decent introduction to the subject for anyone new to this sort of material, however.

      I did also wonder if there was any research to be found that showed up positive evidence of any of these weird phenomenon; certainly nothing was mentioned in the book, but absence of evidence is of course not evidence of absence. It is all well and good debunking obviously silly things like the experiment to try and weigh the soul at the moment of death (21 grams, apparently), but what about looking into some good, recent scientific studies that show up evidence that these things might just exist in some way after all? You may think that in saying this I am one of those people I mentioned earlier who have had an unexplained event happen to them or who desperately want to talk to the dead - but I am not. That I am a sceptic makes me want to see these things all the more: good science tackled as well as the obviously barmy bits. If these theories are to hold up, they need to work in all circumstances, not just against the easy targets that are repeatedly presented here.

      Despite my slight disappointment that this was science-lite in a few places, for the most part this is an eminently readable and enlightening tour of parapsychology that is bound to have wide appeal. Even you aren't quite convinced by one or two things, it is certainly enough to get you thinking about these effects for yourself, which has got to be a good thing. Fox Mulder once famously said that "the truth is out there", but I am more inclined to believe that the truth is in here, albeit in an introductory format.

      Final rating: 3/5 - recommended to newcomers to these ideas, but less so to those who already have a familiarity with sceptical inquiry.


      **Book Details**
      Paranormality: Why we see what isn't there by Professor Richard Wiseman
      Published by Macmillan (2011)
      324pp, Pbk, RRP £12.99

      www.richardwiseman.com

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        30.11.2011 16:56
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        Caitlin Moran's version of The Female Eunuch, rewritten from a barstool

        How To Be a Woman may seem an oddly titled book for a 33 year old woman to be reading - surely with 33 years of practice I must have figured it out by now? Yet despite this ample experience, being a woman is something I feel I'm a bit rubbish at. I only own one dress (the one I got married in, never to be worn again). I only own one pair of heels that I can't walk in (putting me apparently way below average on this count). I never wear, and never have worn, make-up (not even on my wedding day - I drew the line at having to wear a frock). I don't have a handbag, either (why would I need one when I have a perfectly serviceable rucksack and pockets in my clothes?). And the biggest failing of all - I don't want babies.

        While it seems quite straightforward to be a man (they even come with a Haynes manual these days), being a woman seems to be more complicated and involve a lot more faffing around. So, who better to explain it all to us than Caitlin Moran, someone with abundant experience of (a) being a woman, and (b) writing about it in a funny, engaging manner that makes you feel that you would instantly be best friends if you ever happened to meet her.

        How To Be a Woman is described as being part rant, part memoir, and part The Female Eunuch rewritten "from a barstool". Yes, that's right: a lot of How To Be a Woman is about FEMINISM. Before a lot of you flee before the very mention of this word, let me say that Moran is far from being one of those scary, aggressive men-hating feminists - instead she adopts her husband's rather charming definition of the term: "everyone just being polite to each other" and women not having to put up with a load of nonsense that men don't have to worry about. Backed up with rich examples from her own very colourful life, this is a sharp feminist manifesto written to appeal to a generation who might shy away from calling themselves feminists (only 29% of American woman and 42% of British women would currently apply the term to themselves, she notes). But why are so few of us proud to say we are feminist? "What do you think feminism IS, ladies?" she asks, "What part of 'liberation for women' is not for you? Is it the freedom to vote? The right not to be owned by the man you marry? The campaign for equal pay? 'Vogue' by Madonna? Jeans? Did that good shit GET ON YOUR NERVES? Or were you just DRUNK AT THE TIME OF THE SURVEY?" And don't just think that this is a book solely for women, either - men can be feminists too (although my Other Half did admit you get funny looks as a bloke reading a book with this title in public).

        Starting from a frankly awful 13th birthday (13 stone, provided with a "birthday baguette" instead of a cake, and so unpopular the local boys threw gravel when she walked past) and bringing us up the present day, How To Be a Woman takes us on a tour of feminist issues using both key points and anecdotes from Moran's own life to structure the work. So, as well as being treated to laugh-out-loud discussions about hair removal, designer handbags, the joy of bras and the worst wedding ever, we also read about more serious subjects - devastatingly honest accounts of starting her periods, miscarriage, a ghastly three day labour and an abortion. If you are a regular reader of her Times column, you will probably be quite familiar with a lot of these topics already, but here they are brought together into one very satisfying whole; it will have huge appeal to those who are already fans of her writing, and will no doubt convert many who previously weren't.

        My favourite thing about How To Be a Woman, though, has to be two shorter chapters near the end - one entitled "why you should have children" and the other "why you shouldn't have children". As someone who likes children but has absolutely no desire of have any of my own, I read the first with interest, and the second with a resounding "woohoo!" at the end of it; finally, I had found someone who could express what I have always felt in this regard with such wit and eloquence as I could never muster. I want to give that chapter to my in-laws for Christmas, wrapped up in paper made from further copies of that chapter. I want to give it to everyone who has ever asked when (note: never "if") I intend to have children. I want to give Caitlin a big hug for writing something that spoke to me so deeply.

        This book was hugely enjoyable and covers so many important issues for women that so rarely get discussed. But I hesitate in calling this a "must read". Some people may be put off by the explicitness of some of the writing - I don't mean her impassioned argument that women should always have the right to safe abortions after explicitly discussing her own experiences in having one, but more the frequently x-rated language and the lengthy discussions over what to call her breasts. Likewise, while Caitlin is witty, smart and very funny there are also times when the SHOUTY LANGUAGE and tone used make her hark back to the gobby teen she once was (the unnecessarily long "I met Lady GaGa and we got on really well" bit was a bit exasperating for someone with little interest in "slebs").

        It is also important to remember that this book is only How To Be a (certain type) of Woman - Caitlin's personal experience are far from what most of us would consider common or garden. Home schooled, she published a novel at 15, started working as a professional journalist at 16 and has written in one capacity or other for The Times since she was 17. There are also incidents where drug use is made to look cool and breezily normal, which made me suck in air in the manner of a mechanic about to announce a very expensive bill. I'm not keen on these bits, and do worry that they may put off people wanting to give this book to teens, which is a great shame - I know the teenage me would have got a lot from it.

        But these niggles aside, it is hard not to dislike her final, simple argument. There should be more women doing more things rather than simply "being", living unseen and unheard on the sidelines. We live in a time of unprecedented opportunity for many women, but there is still a long way to go for feminism to realise full equality. When I saw Moran talking about her book in Cheltenham recently, she commented that feminism will only have achieved true parity for women when the winner of the best actress Oscar goes up to collect her gong dressed in comfortable shoes. Until we reach that point, how about we worry and self-criticise a bit less and enjoy ourselves a bit more - and reading this book seems as good a place as any to start doing just that.

        Recommended.


        == Book Details ==
        How To Be a Woman by Caitlin Moran
        Ebury Press, 2011
        Pbk, 309pp, RRP £11.99
        http://www.how-tobeawoman.com/

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          19.11.2011 14:38
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          Everything you wanted to know about Wales but were too afraid to ask

          "Some are born Welsh. Some achieve Welshness. I am going to thrust myself upon Wales".


          Jasper Rees is a thoroughly English man; born in London, educated at Harrow, and brought up to cheer whenever he crossed the Severn Bridge in an eastward direction. But despite this background, he admits to an "unfilled sense of ancestral belonging" whenever he crosses the border to visit his grandparents in Carmarthen. This is what the Welsh call hiraeth - a deep longing to be somewhere (the nearest you can get to it in English is probably "homesickness", although the translation isn't quite literal). Jasper's hiraeth led him to establish Project Wales, an attempt to explore his Welsh ancestry, to reclaim his roots and to live up to his surname by way of a book deal that produced the wonderfully titled Bred of Heaven.

          So how do you set about doing something as nebulous as reclaiming your ancestry? Well, asking Welsh celebrity Bryn Terfel what he considers it takes to count yourself as properly Welsh seems like a good place to start. Bryn, as you might expect, sets the bar very high (he even reads the Mabinogion to his young children every bedtime), but ultimately he thinks Welshness boils down to one key defining characteristic: a willingness to learn and use the Welsh language. This, then, forms the first step in Project Wales.

          Jasper succeeds in finding a college in London that teaches an evening class in beginner's Welsh, and attempts to wrap his cut-class accent around Welsh words. Just as confidence that this may be a doable project begins to set in, however, he comes face to face with the shock that hits every learner new to Welsh: mutations. Mutation is a system whereby certain words change (or mutate) in certain grammatical situations - in English it occurs in plurals (e.g. roof/rooves), but in Welsh it happens more widely, and it is the first letter of the word that changes. For example, "Wales" is Cymru, but "welcome to Wales" is croeso i Gymru; the "c" has to mutate to a "g" to accommodate the sentence construction. It's a fiendish system, and for the beginner there really is nothing for it but learning these situations by heart and trying to remember to apply them in the correct places. Many a learner has thrown in the towel at this point, but Jasper perseveres admirably. He even gets to the point where he can attend an advanced week-long course at Nant Gwrtheyrn, the language centre on the Llyn peninsula (I attended for a couple of days on a school trip once, actually - but all I can really remember is that it rained a lot), and compete in the Welsh learner of the year competition (he didn't win).

          But learning and speaking the Welsh language alone isn't enough for Jasper. He tries to find out what it means to be Welsh by trying out every clichéd Welsh activity in the book - coracling, singing in a male voice choir, competing at an Eisteddfod (in said choir), playing rugby, mining coal, lambing sheep, writing bardic poetry, visiting Welsh chapels and - just to make sure he has seen plenty of the country - walking both the full length of the Offa's Dyke path and up Snowdon. I have done some of these things myself (the singing in a choir at the National Youth Eisteddfod, walking up Snowdon and spoken a few words of Welsh), and although I can only manages odd snippets of the language these days I am still rather pleased to conclude that I don't need to mine coal or get crushed in a scrum to confidently consider myself Welsh.

          At first glance, I was a bit concerned that Bred of Heaven would be a patronising or superficial tour around my home country, and I braced myself for the sort of annoyance BBC reporting on UK events regularly induces in me (an English event happens in a named town in a named county; the same event in Wales happens "in Wales"). I needn't have worried, however. Jasper is a man who clearly loves the land of his grandparents, and his enthusiasm comes across on every page. The whole book is a love letter to Wales, and he makes fun of no one but himself. To anyone who has ever misunderstood or been curious about Wales, here is everything you need to know: a whirlwind of history, geography, culture, heritage, sport, slightly odd bardic traditions, and plenty of keys words and phrases thrown in for good measure.

          Bred of Heaven is an enjoyable book to read, whether you are Welsh or not (my English husband also rather liked it). Personally, I enjoyed it because it brought back so many memories of growing up in Wales: the choir practice, the Eisteddfodau (both the National Youth and our own school competition), the bits of language that I had thought I had entirely forgotten. It was painfully funny in places, and quite poignant in others. My only criticism is that Jasper's ancestry is from South Wales, so the focus of the book is weighted in that direction, but not so much that a gog (northerner) can't find it immensely readable.

          Recommended for anyone who is Welsh, wants to be Welsh or is just curious about Wales. Da iawn, Jasper!


          == Book Details ==
          Bred of Heaven by Jasper Rees
          Profile Books (2011)
          290pp, pbk
          RRP £12.99

          With thanks to Profile for providing this review copy - diolch yn fawr!

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            10.11.2011 20:00
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            1 room. 3 detectives. 300 cases to solve.

            Twenty years ago, three uniquely talented men decided that there was far too much unsolved crime in the world, and set out to use their talents to do something about it. Put like that, this sounds like a story about a batman-style avenger of the wronged, but the true tale of The Murder Room is something altogether more remarkable. These three men - a former FBI agent, a forensic artist and a criminal profiler - are the founder members of the Vidocq Society, a pro bono crime-fighting society based in Philadelphia, named in honour of Eugene Vidocq, the head of the first known private detective agency. The Society is little publicised but has done a huge amount of valuable work over the years.

            The Murder Room is the name given to the society's meeting place in Pennsylvania, where Vidocq Society Members (VSMs) meet once a month for a gourmet lunch and the chance to discuss a cold case that has baffled the law enforcement agencies that have thus far investigated it. The Society has many applications to consider cases, and filters them based on three criteria - the case must be at least two years old, to give regular agencies a fair chance to solve it themselves; the victim of the case must have committed no crime, and there must be an element that would be of interest to or may be helped by discussion by the Society. The Society is made up of 82 invited members from a variety of criminal and forensic agencies from around the world, and is able to offer new perspectives, ideas and lines of enquiry to those presenting their cold cases - sometimes they may even be able to come right out with who the likely culprit is. Over these twenty years, the Society has consulted on over 300 cases, and claims a success rate of 90%.

            Capuzzo bases his book around the three founder members of the society (William Fleisher, the FBI agent; Frank Bender the artist, and Richard Walter the profiler), making it in part a biography of these three men and their remarkable careers, and partly a history of the society and its work. We are introduced to over a dozen of the most significant and interesting cases the society has consulted on - some of these are quite famous if you are familiar with American news or true crime, while others less well known. The Society provides a solution to many of these unsolved crimes, some of which have led to arrests and convictions, but others have sadly failed to provoke a response from the agencies involved. While the society may be able to offer a consultation on the cold cases, they lack the authority to make the necessarily arrests and bring charges themselves. In one such memorable example, a victim's friend presents a cold case to the society, only to be accused by profiler Richard Walter straight after lunch of being the murderer himself; not happy with just deriving pleasure from the crime, Walter argues, he now wishes to enjoy himself by toying with the detectives investigating the case. Based on the evidence presented the accusation seems reasonable, although the local police force refused to act on this information and man was never formally investigated for this crime.

            Capuzzo has clearly had a very high level of access to the Society - which usually works behind the scenes and remains uncredited in media reports - presenting not only a fascinating tale, but giving these men and women the praise and acknowledgement they so richly deserve from all the unpaid hours they have put into bringing justice to murder victims. The book is arranged in short chapters and whips along at a cracking pace, drawing you into each new case quickly and totally. The information is clearly presented, and while gruesome in places, it does manage to steer clear of crime thriller cliché and CSI-style storytelling. The variety of material contained within The Murder Room is also sufficient that if you feel one case, anecdote or biographical section doesn't interest you, there will be another one along in a few pages that almost certainly will.

            While I found The Murder Room to be a compelling read, I did get exasperated by the poor organisation of the narrative. The book regularly repeats itself, and jumps around, introducing an intriguing crime one minute and then dropping it, only to randomly pick it up again a few chapters later. Perhaps this was to keep the reader pressing on through the text, but I got a little annoyed by it in places. Even now, when I wish to go back to the book to retrieve a few choice quotes for this review, I can't find what I am looking for because the structure is so elusive and there is no index. So no quotes, I'm afraid. The lack of pictures was also a minor niggle for me, and at several points I broke off reading to look things up on the web to get a more visual dimension to back up what I was reading about.

            This is a book that should appeal to fans of crime novels and true crime books alike, who will find The Murder Room to be 400+ pages of hard-to-put-down material. However much the author lionises the three protagonists, it is hard not to be impressed by their work, their dedication and their detection skills - it is not for nothing that they are referred to as the heirs of Sherlock Holmes.

            Recommended.


            == Book Details==
            The Murder Room by Michael Capuzzo
            Penguin Books, pbk, 426 pages
            RRP £7.99


            == With thanks to Penguin for providing a review copy of this book ==

            == This review originally appeared on www.curiousbookfans.co.uk ===

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            05.11.2011 12:41
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            Reg Wexford solves the mystery started in A Sight for Sore Eyes

            If you are a fan of Ruth Rendell's work, you will have noticed that recently two unthinkable things have happened. Firstly, in The Monster in the Box, her much loved Chief Inspector Wexford retired, and then in her latest book The Vault, she has produced her first sequel in her catalogue of over seventy titles. The Vault is not just unusual in being a sequel, however, it also brings the two distinct strands of her work (the Wexford novels and the non-Wexford crime thrillers) together into an intriguing and compelling whole.

            Reg Wexford (plain old Mr these days) is taking some time to adjust to no longer being a member of Kingsmarkham's police force. Making an effort to keep himself busy, he and his wife Dora start dividing their time between their country home and their daughter's coach house in London. They plan day trips and outings, read books and visit family, and Wexford takes to walking around the city a lot, enjoying the exercise he used to struggle to find time to take when he was working. It is while on one of his long walks that he bumps into Tom Ede, a man he once knew as a young constable. Now a Detective Superintendent, Tom is a man burdened with a difficult case and takes the opportunity of meeting Wexford to invite him to use his years of experience as an unpaid advisor to his investigative team. It will come as no surprise that Wexford is keen to get involved in the police work he so misses, even as someone will no official standing or rank.

            The case itself is an intriguing one. Martin and Anne Rokeby are residents of Orcadia Cottage, a pretty Georgian house in St John's Wood. During some speculative examination of their property with a mind to building a basement family room, Martin lifted a previously ignored manhole cover in his back yard and made a discovery that would end up "wrecking his life for a long time to come". The discovery in question is four bodies in what was once the cottage's coal hole: two men and two women. Those of you who read Rendell's stand-alone crime thrillers may just have experienced a sense of déjà vu here and rightly so. If you have previously read 1999's A Sight for Sore Eyes, then you have come across Orcadia Cottage before, and will know who three of the bodies in the coal hole are and how they got there. The fourth body has, however, only been in this hole for about two years, leaving ample mystery for even the most avid reader of Rendell's work.

            The set-up for The Vault is probably the most interesting that I have seen in Rendell's work for quite some time. Apparently she was seeking inspiration and something to do with Reg Wexford now he was no longer a Chief Inspector, and her eyes fell upon her copies of her earlier books and she thought - well, why not? A Sight For Sore Eyes was never written to be a book that needed a sequel, but the opportunity the ending of the book presented proved irresistible in the light of giving Wexford - and her loyal fans - a good mystery to solve.

            Although I have only read a small number of the Wexford books, I have read the majority of her other thrillers; I loved the idea of these previously separate areas of writing being woven together. This must have created something of a difficulty for her to script, however, as the book had to be intelligible to not only people who had read little or no Wexford previously, but also readers who may or may not have read A Sight for Sore Eyes. In the end, it mattered little that I was fairly unfamiliar with Wexford, as he and his situation were given adequate background for it to work for me. Equally, knowing who three out of the four bodies in the coal hole were did nothing to spoil the plot - indeed, watching Wexford catch up with what many of the readers already knew was highly entertaining, and the well-hidden secret surrounding body number four kept me going until the end.

            While I was reading The Vault, I attended Rendell's interview at the Cheltenham Literature Festival, an event too rare to miss. In it, she admitted that Wexford is in many ways based on herself - much of his character, personality, likes and dislikes reflect what the author thinks. This is perhaps why Wexford has endured for so long, and also why he was retired rather than killed off - Rendell admitted that she couldn't bear to do to him what Conan Doyle did to Sherlock Holmes ("well, I would just have to find a way to bring him back again, wouldn't I?"). This makes me think that whatever happens to Wexford in the future, The Vault is not the last book we shall be seeing him in.

            Rendell's style has always been succinct and yet compelling and The Vault is no different. A short book at only 272 pages, it nonetheless presented a satisfying and involving story, although perhaps one a tad overpriced at £18.99 for the hardback version. It comes recommended from me, but to get the most out of it you really should read A Sight For Sore Eyes and at least a couple of Wexford novels beforehand; that is perhaps the only disadvantage I can offer.

            Recommended.


            === Book Details ===
            The Vault by Ruth Rendell
            Hutchinson, 2011
            Hardback, 272 pages, RRP £18.99
            Kindle edition, £7.19

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              29.10.2011 17:26
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              A real life Goergian whodunnit brought vividly to life

              Warwickshire, August 1780.

              Deep in the countryside near Rugby stands the Tudor manor house of Lawford Hall, occupied this summer by Sir Theodosius Boughton, his mother Anna Maria, his sister Theodosia, brother-in-law John Donellan, the Donellans' two young children, and a handful of servants. It is early in the morning of 30th August and something is about to happen that will bring notoriety and scandal to the Boughton household.

              Sir Theodosius, aged 20 and suffering from venereal disease he contracted at Eton some five years earlier, has just woken and is visited in his bedchamber by his mother. Anna Maria was keen for her son to take the medicine made up for him by the local apothecary Mr Powell in the hope that it might cure him; he, on the other hand, seems reluctant to take it as a dose he received from the same man the previous week made him ill. Anna Maria selects a bottle from the chimney piece, pours it out and hands it to her son to drink. He takes half and protests that the mixture tastes foul, but on his mother's insistence he finishes the drink. He initially appears as if he is going to vomit, but then seems to settle down once again. Satisfied, Anna Maria leaves the room, returning some time later that morning to find her son is in a much worse condition than when she left him and now appears to be seriously ill.

              Fearing for her son's life, Anna Maria dispatches a servant in a desperate bid to bring the apothecary to help Theodosius. Meanwhile, the room is visited by servants and John Donellan, who later report that the young man was unable to answer when they spoke to him. The coachman eventually returns with Powell, but it is by then too late - the heir to the extensive estates around Lawford Hall, who would have inherited a considerable sum upon turning 21 in just a few months' time, was dead.

              The circumstances of Theodosius' death soon invited rumour that the young man was poisoned via his medicine. His legal guardian until he reached his majority, Sir William Wheler, ordered that a local physician and surgeon carry out an autopsy - but more to quell these rumours than in any attempt at resolving a possible murder. The medical men soon arrive at Lawford Hall, but declined to carry out any more than a very cursory examination because, "the body seemed to us to be in such a very disagreeable state that we did not like to enter into the investigation of it". An autopsy was eventually carried out, but not until 9th September - three days after the body was buried, and in the local churchyard in front of 500 ghoulish spectators, such was the growing interest in this case. Theodosius may have been an unloved, drunken, womanising bully in life, but in death he seemed very popular indeed.

              In The Damnation of John Donellan, Elizabeth Cooke takes us on a thorough examination of this curious case, its outcome and consequences, in a book that plays like a Georgian Suspicions of Mr Whicher. Grounded in thorough historical research that is evident throughout the text, the reader is not only left with a full-colour mental picture of high class society at that time, but as a good an idea as possible of what the major players in this drama were like given that over 200 years have passed since these events unfolded. We have maps, family trees, court documents, coroner's reports, letters, diary entries, portraits, account books and John Donellan's pamphlet Defence as evidence; that Captain John "Diamond" Donellan was accused of this crime is evident from the title of the book, whether or not he did it is something that invites great speculation.

              Cooke is not the first writer to look back on this case and question the actions and inconsistencies of people involved in Theodosius' case; several contemporary and 19th century authors have found reason to question and discuss what happened at Lawford Hall all those years ago. This book should stand as the most thorough of them all, though, given its length (289 pages) and careful consideration given to each piece of evidence that we can still access. I have read many true crime books over the years where the author has written nothing more than a thesis as to why they are right in their conclusions and other people wrong, giving a skewed and biased picture of the evidence to their reader (Patricia Cornwell's book on Jack the Ripper springs particularly to mind here). The Damnation of John Donellan is different, and commendably so.

              A writer for over twenty years, Cooke's previous output were novels, so this book represents something of a deviation for her. She has handled the leap across into non-fiction work well, but the author's background as a novelist is evident in her ability to bring to life this piece of history as an absorbing story. Highly readable and clearly explained throughout, this is a fascinating book that will appeal to readers of true crime, historical fiction and crime fiction alike. My only criticism is that her conclusions are not as firm as you might have hoped, but that in itself is not a reason to not read this book if the era, the genre or simply the puzzle of this case appeals to you.

              Recommended.


              == Book Details ==
              The Damnation of John Donellan: A Mysterious Case of Death & Scandal in Georgian England by Elizabeth Cooke
              Profile Books (2011)
              Paperback, 289pp (including notes)
              RRP £14.99
              http://www.profilebooks.com/isbn/9781846684821/


              == With thanks to Profile Books for providing this review copy ==

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                21.10.2011 15:23
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                A shocking investigation into low pay and poor working conditions in the US

                America has long been billed as the land of opportunity, a place where the streets are paved with gold and anyone who is prepared to work hard enough can buy themselves a part of the American dream. "I grew up hearing over and over, to the point of tedium, that `hard work' was the secret of success," Barbara Ehrenreich writes. "No one ever said that you could work hard - harder even than you thought possible - and still find yourself sinking ever deeper into poverty and debt."

                On 22nd August 1996, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act brought about major welfare reform in the US. Couched in terms of promoting a work ethic amongst those in receipt of welfare payments, this act brought about significant change to the American poor, removing any automatic entitlement to payouts and restricting any that were received to a lifetime limit of five years. This reform meant that almost overnight, four million women (many of them with children) had to enter the work force in low-paid entry level jobs. Discussing this act with an editor over lunch at a pleasant French restaurant, essayist Barbara Ehrenreich idly wondered how such people - newly stripped of any safety net - survived on the wages paid by employers for such unskilled work. Her editor agreed that it was a good question and who better than Barbara to undertake the undercover work necessary to begin answering it? So was born a project that has become something of a landmark in investigative journalism, and a book that became a New York Times bestseller: Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America.

                As she set out on her quest to investigate the world of the working poor, Ehrenreich set a few rules that would bound and shape her experience: she would not fall back on the skills of her higher education (she has a PhD), she would take the highest paid entry level job she could find, and she would live in the cheapest accommodation she could locate and that considerations of personal safety would permit. She would also allow herself a car, although acknowledged that this was a luxury that many of the poorest people in America simply didn't have. Ehrenreich notes that "the idea was to spend a month in each setting and to see whether I could find a job and earn, in that time, the money to pay a second month's rent".

                She experienced three quite different settings between 1998 and 2000: Key West in Florida, Portland in Maine, and Minnesota in Minneapolis. Ehrenreich admits that these experiments are all too artificial - she is coming to these jobs as someone with good health and fitness, who has had the benefit of gym memberships, health insurance, and a lifetime of nutritious food; she can fall back on her emergency credit card rather than become homeless if things take a turn for the worse, and she can return to her normal life for extended periods between her sojourns as a low wage worker. All the same, her experience during the three month-long research periods are pretty realistic for all the benefits you take into account.

                The Economic Policy Institute calculated that a "living wage" at the time this book was written (2001) was $14 an hour. As Ehrenreich notes, "the shocking thing is that the majority of American workers, about 60%, earn less than $14 an hour." It gets worse - about a third of workers earned $8 an hour or less at this time, and this was in the middle of a huge boom in the American economy. So how much did Ehrenreich manage to earn when she presented herself as a newly divorced woman re-entering the workforce with no marketable skills? Her first job, as a waitress in Key West, offered just $2.43 an hour plus tips; even after a move to a better paying restaurant (but one that didn't hold with the idea of employees taking breaks), she had to live a 45 minute drive away from work as this was the closest place where rents became anything near affordable. It was worse for some of her colleagues, however, and one of them admitted to living in their car and relying on a friend's goodwill for bathroom access whilst working full-time.

                On to Portland and a chance to try out another area of low wage work - as a cleaner for a large maid company that services private houses, supplemented by a "dietary aide" post at the weekend at a local nursing home. Once again, finding somewhere to live proved challenging (despite working seven days a week), but it was the interactions with her fellow maids that were most memorable here. One worker survived on half a bag of corn chips to get her through the working day because she was too frightened to spend any more money than this on lunch, while another fainted at work due to a combination of eating too little and suspected malnutrition - a third desperately called around looking for a free dental service to treat her impacted wisdom tooth, as health insurance was unaffordable to someone earning $6.65 an hour. The situation in Minnesota wasn't any better, with work as a Wal-Mart "associate" proving demoralising and exhausting. The account of one fellow worker asking about a reduced polo shirt but turning it down upon finding the price had only gone down to $7 was telling; spending a whole hour's wage on one top was just not feasible.

                The result of all this labour is a book that is explosive. At turns angry, outraged, shocked and frustrated, Ehrenreich has produced an account that shows how the almost invisible workers of America's low wage economy exist, encountering too many cases of poor health, insecurity and borderline homelessness for comfort. What of other support networks to replace what was one provided by the government? Twice Ehrenreich tries to supplement her limited cash by asking after assistance from charitable organisations. There is no money to be given out, but after doggedly pursuing each case she managed to secure some free food in two of the three settings she visited - and it was all the nutritionally-challenged fare that would do no more that fill a stomach. No fruit, no veg, nothing fresh. One of her starkest conclusions is that, "there are no secret economies that nourish the poor".

                Her car aside, the author does an admirable job of keeping costs low and making her experiments feel as real as possible. It is all too clear that wages are too low to cover minimal survival in a free market economy where both rich and poor compete for living space - and the rich invariably win. Ehrenreich writes that prior to August 1996, it was a common attitude for the well-off to look down upon the welfare poor as being lazy, and that removing the welfare safety would force people into work, a job being the understood ticket out of poverty. After clearly revealing how hard it is just to survive when the survivor is a healthy women with no dependents working both a full-time and part-time job simultaneously, while living in the meanest digs that safety will permit, suggests there is something very wrong here. Ehrenreich unfortunately doesn't go so far as to discuss much in the way of practical solutions - she suggests greater unionisation would help, but acknowledged that most workers she met were too exhausted and demoralised for this to be easy - but that is the only real fault I can find with this book.

                "Now that the government has withdrawn it's 'handouts', now that the overwhelming majority of the poor are out there toiling in Wal-Mart or Wendy's - well, what are we supposed to think of them? Disapproval and condescension no longer apply, so what outlook makes sense?". The answer? Guilt and shame as far as the author in concerned. Whether or not you agree with this conclusion, one thing is for certain - no one who reads it will ever fail to tip in America again.

                Highly recommended.


                == Book Details ==
                Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich
                2001, 221 pages
                There are various editions available on Amazon (including one subtitled "undercover in low wage America"), which will cost from £3 for a new paperback copy.

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                  29.09.2011 20:39
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                  Silbury Hill - one of the oddest prehistoric monuments in Britain

                  The landscape around Avebury in Wiltshire is one of extremes and excess; longer, higher, larger, most numerous and most concentrated are all terms that can be easily applied to the abundance of ancient sites that crowd into a relatively small area between Marlborough and Calne. Silbury Hill occupies a unique place even in this special setting - as well as being the largest surviving prehistoric man-made structure anywhere in Europe (indeed, nothing higher than it was made in Britain until the middle ages), it could creditably lay claim to being the most puzzling of them all. There it sits next to the A4, towering over passing traffic and the rolling hills of the surrounding countryside like a giant upturned pudding bowl. It is an outlandish sight, even in a landscape liberally peppered with the results of ancient activity, the purposes of which have been lost in the mists of time.

                  The hill is in fact over 4,000 years old, with building having begun on it around 2,400BC. This time was an age of short (by our standards) life-spans and of great effort needing to be expended just to keep alive - yet people were also motivated to take on tasks which, given the resources available to them, must have seemed barely achievable when they started. Silbury Hill is a prime example of this. The mound is 37m (121 feet) in height, 30m (98 feet) wide across its flat top, and 500m (1640 feet) in circumference around the base; these are staggering proportions for something built not just without modern technology, but without metal of any kind.


                  == Why Build It? ==
                  Even living in a time where large man-made structures are nothing new, Silbury Hill is still a wonderful thing to see for yourself. It can't help but invite wonder as to what it may have been used for - why would the builders of it have put so much time and effort into constructing something without an obvious use? Past theories have ranged for the downright barmy to the halfway plausible. There is a story that the devil built it to hide a gold statue while on the way to Devizes, another that it was the burial chamber for a legendary warrior, others still that it is connected to Arthurian legend. One more practical theory suggested that the hill might have been built as a giant water cleaner, designed to filter rain water through its chalk and create a ditch of drinking water around it that was safer that drinking other water in the valley that could easily become contaminated by sheep waste. You start to think that this one could have been a good idea until you realise that the hill took anything between 100 and 400 years to complete; nobody needs a giant water filter that badly.

                  My own thought upon seeing the hill for the first time was that it may have been a site used for sky burials. Nearby barrows - mounds of earth raised over the dead - suggest that bodies were not complete when they were interred. This may indicate that the bodies were first laid in one place to allow natural processes to remove the flesh, before the bones were collected and put in special burial places. A mound like Silbury Hill might well have lent itself well to such a process, bringing the dead closer to the sky until they were ready for burial, with the height of the hill and the flat top providing ideal conditions.

                  My idea may well have been trumped by English Heritage, who manages the site, however. Back in 2000, great panic was caused by a collapse at the hill - caused, ironically, by previous archaeological excavations at the site. Back in 1776, the pioneering Duke of Northumberland, assuming the mound to be a giant barrow, thought to hire some miners and dig a shaft vertically down from the summit of the hill to see what on earth it had been built over (nothing, it transpired). A second tunnel was dug by a team in 1849, who chose instead to dig horizontally to the core of the hill, hoping again to find out why it was built (they didn't). Further, more scientific, excavations took place over the 20th century, revealing how the mound was built and an abundance of environmental data. Unfortunately, each dig structurally weakened the mound and all it took was some heavy rains for one of the old tunnels to collapse in.

                  Work to reconstruct and stabilise the site took a long time, but the data from this work seems to show that the mound was originally a complete dome - so no space for sky burials to be held. How do they know this? Well, remains of medieval building work on top of the hill suggest that later residents of this area may have lopped off the top of the dome, flattening it and putting up structures that look decidedly defensive. Finds of Viking age arrows heads support the idea of a military use, and indicate that the mound wasn't simply abandoned after its original purpose was finished with: it was used afterwards, quite possibly in an entirely different way. This doesn't explain why Neolithic and Bronze People wanted such a thing to start with, but it certainly makes you think about the monument tin a whole new light.


                  == Visiting Silbury Hill ==
                  While there is a car park and viewing area close to the hill, there is no public access to the mound itself; given that I have just told you about the recent collapse of the hill, this is hardly surprising. Fences around Silbury Hill bar (legal) access to site, helping to prevent further erosion, collapse and other damage to the site. It is an impressive monument close up, but I found it could be better appreciated from a short distance away. If you take the B-road just east of the hill and head towards Avebury, there is a small parking area next to the West Kennett Avenue that seemed a lot quieter that the one intended for visitors to the mound itself. A short walk up the hill next to the avenue will give you a spectacular view over the valley and an excellent perspective on Silbury Hill in the surrounding landscape.

                  You need a bit of thought and background knowledge to get the best out of a visit to Silbury Hill, but it is something I would certainly recommend to anyone with an interest in the past. If you want any further information than is provided at the site, a five minute drive or short walk will take you into Avebury, where you can buy comprehensive guidebooks (the one produced by the National Trust is only £4 and is very clearly written) or visit the Alexander Keiller Museum (see http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/main/w-vh/w-visits/w-findaplace/w-avebury.htm for details of opening times and cost), both of which provide interesting discussion about the site.

                  Recommended - but remember to bring your imagination when you visit!


                  == Practical Details ==
                  Opening hours: English Heritage say "during reasonable daylight hours", but warn that things may change around the summer solstice (20th - 22nd June)

                  Cost: Free

                  Public transport access: The Stagecoach 49 bus service between Swindon and Devizes stops in Avebury, which is ¾ mile walk from Silbury Hill. See www.stagecoachbus.com for timetable.

                  Road directions: Follow the A4 between Marlborough and Beckhampton - Silbury Hill is right next to the road.

                  Nearest visitor facilities: Refreshments, public toilets and more parking are available in nearby Avebury.

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                    01.09.2011 21:05
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                    A site of major archaeological significance - and some nice walks as well

                    When the Pretty family moved to Tranmer House on the Sutton Hoo estate in 1926, it seemed doubtful that their actions were ever destined to become anything more than an inconsequential footnote in the history of Suffolk. Just four years after their move to the house, however, Frank Pretty died, leaving his wife Edith and their young son Robert alone in the 15-room Edwardian mansion. Edith took solace in spiritualism, travelling to see mediums in London on a regular basis as she attempted to make contact with her late husband. It was this growing interest in spiritualism that probably made Edith take more notice than many would have done of a guest's reported sightings of ghostly soldiers around the strange field of mounds that lay on her estate. Put together with persistent local rumours that treasure had been found at the site in the past, Edith thought it was high time that some serious investigation took place. As it turned out, Edith's decision was to be anything but inconsequential.

                    In the summer of 1938, she commissioned local archaeologist Basil Brown to excavate the mysterious mounds that lay within sight of her house. Aided by the estate's gamekeeper and gardener, Brown spent two months digging up three of the mounds - all, it turned out, had been robbed, probably in the 16th or 17th centuries. They did, however, find a gilt bronze disc that suggested that the mounds were Anglo-Saxon, rather than Viking as first thought. Not to be put off by the ransacking of the site, Brown returned the following summer and began work on another mound. What was found that summer was to become recognised as one of the most important archaeological finds ever uncovered in Britain - some even referred to it at the time as "Britain's Tutankhamen" - although the declaration of war towards the end of the digging season threatened the loss of it all. As Edith Pretty later wrote, "'It was extraordinary to be uncovering the remains of this lost civilisation at a time when our own seemed about to be blown to smithereens".

                    That find was a magnificent 7th century ship burial, 90 feet (27.4m) in length and with a fabulously rich burial chamber within it - including the intricately patterned helmet that has now become the iconic symbol of Sutton Hoo. Other important archaeology has been found at the site since then, but it is this burial (in what has now been designated "mound 1") that remains synonymous with the name Sutton Hoo.



                    == Sutton Hoo Today ==
                    The 254 acre Sutton Hoo estate was donated to the National Trust in 1998, and opened to the public in 2002 with a newly built visitor centre and facilities. The estate lies just outside of Woodbridge in Suffolk, about 9 miles northeast of Ipswich, and is clearly signposted from local main roads. We had no problems in finding it and access roads were good.

                    A short distance from the entrance to the estate, you are greeted by a member of staff, and directed into the site car park. The car park was the one point of complaint I had from my visit. Given the scale and importance of the Sutton Hoo estate, the number of visitors you might therefore expect to visit it, and the point that it was laid out so recently, the parking area is tiny and parking bays are not marked. The result is plenty of spaces that would comfortably take two well-parked cars being occupied by one badly parked car instead (the superfluous greeter might have been better used getting people to park more considerately). It took several circuits of the car park to find a space, and even then it was one that required a tricky seven-point turn to get out of again when we left. My advice: if you are planning on visiting in peak season, plan to arrive early if you are driving to the site.

                    From the car park, you have two buildings head of you: the services building that houses the reception, cafe, gift shop and toilets on your left, and the exhibition building that acts as a visitor centre for the site on your right. Head to the reception area first to get your tickets and map of the site, and then you are free to explore Sutton Hoo in any way you chose. If you are new to the Anglo-Saxon period or unfamiliar with the finds made here, I would strongly recommend heading to the exhibition first to get some context for the site, as otherwise the all-important burial mounds risk looking disappointingly like bunkers on a golf course.



                    == The Exhibition Rooms ==
                    The exhibition room has three things to offer visitors - a short introductory video, the main gallery and the smaller "treasury room" that has changing exhibitions on themes relating to Sutton Hoo.

                    We were greeted by possibly the most enthusiastic National Trust volunteer I have ever met, who quickly checked our tickets, and offered us the chance to watch the introductory video, which was just about the start. The film lasts 8 minutes, and I think it is an excellent introduction to Sutton Hoo, especially for anybody unfamiliar with the period or site. The film tells you a bit about the Anglo-Saxons: who they were, where they came from and why they would have been living in Suffolk. This is nicely complemented by a reading in Anglo-Saxon, so you can hear what these people would have sounded like. The film also shows an actor dressed as the man found in the ship burial from mound 1 that Basil Brown found in the summer of 1939. I thought this was very engaging; the helmet found in the ship burial is the iconic symbol of the site, and to see it worn helps you appreciate it as the impressive symbol of power it would once have been to the man buried with it. The video re-starts about every 15 minutes, so although the seating area to watch it isn't very big, there is plenty of opportunity to watch it during your visit (and the volunteers announce that it is starting so you don't miss it).

                    As you leave the video area, you are directed to head around the gallery starting from the left. The information panels were clearly written and presented, although what struck me straight away was that for a site that has produced such an abundance of finds, very few objects were on display. The most important of finds - the iconic helmet and the other "treasure" from the mound 1 burial - were donated to the British Museum by Edith Pretty in a remarkable display of generosity, given that the treasure trove inquest in 1939 awarded all finds from the site to her (it was actually the largest gift given to the British Museum by a living donor at the time). Having seen these objects in the British Museum (they are amongst my favourite items there) I was well aware of this, but I still expected to see other finds here. There is one set of horse harness fittings and a garnet brooch from mound 17, but beyond that almost everything you see is a replica. Given the value of the most famous items found in Sutton Hoo, they will never realistically be housed in an exhibition such as this, but I found it a shame that more items - perhaps the smaller things that would be overshadowed or crowded out in the British Museum - couldn't be loaned to Sutton Hoo for display.

                    The centrepiece of the exhibition room is a full-scale reconstruction of the burial chamber from the ship in mound 1 that visitors can walk through. The chamber is laid out with a full set of all the items known to have been buried there, and a figure of the dead man himself; nobody knows who this man was, but there have been suggestions that anyone able to command such a rich burial in this area at this time might have been a member of the East Anglian royal family, possibly Kind Raedwald himself. I thought this was a very effective use of gallery space, and in the absence of objects from the ship burial, this was a great way to show visitors how the man was buried, and why the discovery of his intact burial chamber was just so important to archaeologists.

                    The smaller treasury room temporary display when I visited took a look at the lives of Anglo-Saxon women and children, who otherwise fade into the background somewhat behind the "kingly" burials discussed in the main exhibition. Mound 14 from the burial ground did contain the remains of a woman, and the objects found with her are taken as a starting point for showing the lives of her and her hypothetical children. The display did seem to be attracting a lot of positive attention from women in particular, but I felt it was a little too light on substance and I would have liked to have read a bit more detail about the women in mound 14 specifically because she was the only woman found buried here. A great deal of attention was given to thinking about who the man from mound 1 was - why not the same attention to the only woman important enough to be buried here?



                    == The Burial Ground ==
                    There are three circular walks mapped out around the estate, each colour-coded and marked clearly on the visitor map and on signposts around the grounds. The map claims that the walks will take between 30 and 50 minutes to complete, but we found this to be a very conservative estimate; for a group of even moderately fit adults, the walks will take barely half the stated times. I would add that the paths are uneven and hilly in places, though, so anyone unsteady on their feet or not wearing practical footwear may want to give the woodland walks a miss. The shortest of the routes, which goes straight to the burial ground and back to the visitor centre, is fairly flat and is marked as accessible by wheelchairs.

                    The burial ground is of course the core of the importance of Sutton Hoo. Originally the field would have been filled with 17 burial mounds of varying size, most of which are now greatly reduced due to a combined effect of excavation, robbery and erosion. Interpretation of such a site is not an easy thing, but I loved that the National Trust have rebuilt mound 2 (which originally held another, smaller, ship burial) to its original 7th century size and shape, so you can get an idea of how impressive they would have been to Anglo-Saxon society - and how irresistible they must have seemed to medieval robbers. Imagine 17 such mounds in this relatively small space; it would have been a great symbol of wealth and power, not only to those living locally, but to anyone passing by on the nearby River Debden, who could clearly see the mounds along the horizon. Whoever chose this site and ordered these burial mounds built was clearly powerful - it is no wonder that they have been considered the burial places of kings.

                    For me, seeing these mounds after reading so much about them for so long sent a chill down my spine; this was where those magnificent items in the British Museum had lain undiscovered for so long. I appreciate that the field may seem anticlimactic to many visitors, however, with just a small viewing platform and two interpretation panels to enliven a few shallow mounds of earth. One small graphic on the panel left a big impression on me, though, as it shows how close we were to never finding the famous artefacts of mound 1 - a robber trench had been dug into the mound in the past, but stopped an alarmingly short distance from the top of the burial chamber. Another foot and we wouldn't know anything about it.



                    == A Very Pretty House ==
                    Tranmer House, where Edith Pretty once lived, is also part of the Trust's Sutton Hoo estate and is open to visitors on some days. While the upstairs of the building is now converted into holiday lets (and if you fancy staying there, visit the National Trust's website for details - address given at the end of this review), the downstairs has the site's education room for school groups and a couple of rooms reconstructed in the style of a 1930s house (the furniture is all genuine to the period, but alas none of it is originally from the Pretty family). Occasionally the Trust arranges for re-enactors to dress up as 1930s archaeologists in the house, to talk to visitors about how the original excavations would have been carried out and give children some hand-on activities. I would have loved to have seen this as it sounds like a great way to link the archaeology of the site with its history, but unfortunately it wasn't available on the day I visited Sutton Hoo.



                    == Visitor Services ==
                    If all this history is getting too much for you, you can head over to the courtyard behind the services building, where we found a second-hand bookshop. The bookshop was great for a rummage, and to my great surprise, I saw that it was unmanned; visitors are trusted to take their purchases over to the main gift shop to pay for them. There were a few bargains to be had amongst the books, although sadly fewer in the main gift shop. Almost all of the items on display there were not specific to the site, expect for a few uninspiring t-shirts and pens, and a couple of books that I had already read. Prices were dear, but given that the National Trust is a charity, I always seem to manage to forgive them this.

                    The cafe is also worth visiting. While the selection of food wasn't massive, there was plenty of seating both indoors and out, and everything was very clean and well laid out. The cafe also has lovely views across the estate, making lunch there a rather relaxing affair. Food isn't cheap, but is very good quality - we paid about £12 for two soft drinks, a sandwich, a scone and a piece of flapjack, and all the food was homemade and delicious. If you decide to take your own food instead, there are some picnic tables outside.

                    I was particularly impressed by how the National Trust tries to make all visitors welcome to Sutton Hoo. As public footpaths run close to the site, ramblers' toilets (which you don't have to pay the NT entrance fee to use) and lockers are made available to those walking in the area. Likewise, a good number cycle racks and dog water bowls are provided outside the services building. As someone who gets around quite a lot by cycling, I always appreciate being given easy access to somewhere secure for my bike - it is something I notice, even when I arrive by car.

                    For those of you concerned that this site may not be suitable for families with children, please don't be. There is an outdoor play area - complete with wooden Anglo-Saxon ship - a free quiz sheet for children to take around the exhibition and the walks around the estate, and plenty of activities for them to get stuck into in the galleries and the children I saw during my visit seemed to be enjoying the quiz in particular. The best of all had to be the dressing-up box, though - complete with child-size Sutton Hoo helmet replica!



                    == The Final Word ==
                    I accept that I was not the typical visitor to Sutton Hoo. Having read so much about the site and having long wanted to see it for myself, it was always going to be hard for me to be disappointed with what I found - and I certainly wasn't. Interpreting a site of great importance - not only in terms of the objects found, but also what we have learned in terms of burial practice and ship building techniques - where there is very little in the way of tangible remains is never going to be easy, especially when your audience is likely to understand history in terms of much more solid remains: cathedrals, castle, country houses. The technique of reconstructing a burial mound and inviting you to rebuild the site with your imagination worked for me, although I accept this may not be the case for every visitor. I would have been interested to see the theme of 1930s archaeology developed into something more permanent for the site, however, as that has to capacity to offer a lot for both child and adult visitor alike.

                    Martin Carver, one of the more recent archaeologists to explore the site has written that, "Sutton Hoo is a constant provocation to thought and the imagination". I certainly found it so, although alas to fully appreciate it you really need to see the objects held by the British Museum as well - something not feasible for a good many visitors. Having been fortunate to have seen them and the site, just one thing lingers in my mind: if the other mounds hadn't have been robbed, what else might we be looking at in wonder?

                    Highly recommended.



                    == Visitor Information ==
                    Address: Sutton Hoo, Woodbridge, Suffolk IP12 3DJ

                    Telephone: 01394 389700

                    Web: http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/main/w-vh/w-visits/w-findaplace/w-suttonhoo.htm

                    Admission: National Trust members free / adults £6.50 / child £3.30 / family £16.30 / reduced rates if arriving by cycle, on foot or by public transport

                    Open: 10.30 to 5 daily in summer / 11 to 4 in winter, weekends only between November and February half-term / open all Bank Holiday Mondays

                    Public transport access: Nearest train station is Melton, 1.25 miles away / First 63/4/5 buses from Ipswich pass Melton train station

                    Allow between 90 minutes and half a day for your visit, depending on whether you plan to take the estate walks or not.

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                      27.08.2011 17:01
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                      A film about time travel if it were to happen to three ordinary blokes in a pub

                      FAQ About Time Travel - FILM ONLY REVIEW

                      Certificate: 15
                      Running time: 83 minutes
                      Released: 2009
                      Price: Amazon £4.93 / free to watch online for Lovefilm subscribers


                      Feeling like a cross between the spirit of Douglas Adams, Shaun of the Dead and one of those BBC3 comedies, FAQ About Time Travel is a cheerfully low budget film that offers a funny new take on the well-worn theme of temporal transportation. Taking a script by debut feature-length scriptwriter Jamie Mathieson, put together by BBC director Gareth Carrivick, and starring a cast of people who we mostly recognise from the television, the film manages to pull together a solid enough framework to justify this story being made into a movie with an (albeit very limited) cinematic release. And what's more, it's a film that shows that the British film industry can still offer up better comic fare than many other recent lamentable offerings (Sex Lives of the Potato Men, I'm looking at you).

                      Following the loss of his dead-end job, Ray (Chris O'Dowd) and his two mates Toby (Mark Wootton) and Pete (Dean Lennox Kelly) head to the local pub to let off some steam over a couple of pints. When Ray heads to the bar to buy his round, he bumps into Cassie (Anna Farris), a girl who seems to know a lot about him, but who he can't recall ever having met before. When Cassie reveals that she has travelled there from the future to meet "the great Ray" on her way to finding and fixing a time leak in the vicinity, Ray suspects that his mates have put her up to it to make fun of his obsession with science fiction. Toby, a failed writer and fellow geek, thinks that Ray's encounter might make a good story line, whereas cynic Pete dismisses the whole thing as nonsense and heads off to the gents. On his way back to his seat, Pete stumbles through the time leak that Cassie was looking for and sees a terrifying glimpse of the future. With only Toby now remaining unconvinced that there is something decidedly odd going on in the pub that evening, the lads try to reconstruct what happened to Pete. This starts a series of accidental trips forward and back in time as the three friends try to frantically find out what is going on and why.

                      Time travel may be far from a new plot device, but it works in this film by taking out the flux capacitors, spaceships, glowing portals and complex explanations, and instead using a simple "it happens" approach in an ordinary setting with ordinary blokes. We therefore have more time to concentrate on the possibilities thrown up by the chronological chaos and have to spend less on trying to understand the reasoning behind it. The roots of the story in the science fiction genre are not forgotten, though, and references to other well-known films are peppered throughout the plot, giving the geekier viewers an extra layer of enjoyment as they try to spot them. The film poster / DVD cover referencing Back to the Future Part 3 is an obvious one, quotes from Alien and Flash Gordon are also quite easy to pick up on, and Ray's donning of a red hoodie is awfully reminiscent of Elliot in E.T.; the background poster for a film called Paradox was a subtler touch, and hinted at the original title for the second Back to the Future film. I'm sure other viewers will have spotted plenty of other references that slipped past me.

                      FAQ About Time Travel is a quirky film, and I found it engaging and surprisingly funny, although it did have a few rough edges (Toby's joke about finding Narnia when they were hiding from their past selves in a cupboard fell embarrassingly flat for me) and it clearly suffered from lack of budget. I did like that the low budget special effects were nicely exploited by dressing the visitors from the future in the sort of shiny silver gear that wouldn't look out of place in an early (and equally low budget) episode of Doctor Who, though. However, despite its shortcomings, the logistics of what could be a difficult plot to film are well worked out, with the multiple groups of the lads trying to avoid each other within a confined setting is impressively done, and the timelines of the plot never confusing to the viewer. The comic performances - especially from Dean Lennox Kelly - were a pleasure to watch, and there is plenty to amuse the audience even when they are not a fan of science fiction in general.

                      This film will never be the next Back to the Future, Bill and Ted or Shaun of the Dead, but it was far funnier than the recent film adaption of A Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and really deserves to be more widely known. How much you enjoy it will depend to a degree on your geek quotient, but there is lot to offer an audience who want something funny, silly and a bit out of the ordinary.

                      Recommended.

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                      • The Box (DVD) / DVD / 75 Readings / 72 Ratings
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                        20.08.2011 17:42
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                        There are some buttons that are made to not be pressed

                        The Box - FILM ONLY REVIEW

                        Running time: 110 minutes
                        Certificate: 12A (UK) / PG13 (USA)


                        The problem with having your debut movie become a cult favourite is that you are setting yourself up for a fall with your subsequent releases. Writer-director Richard Kelly is a perfect example of this: "Donnie Darko" good, "Southland Tales" bad, and "The Box"...well, also fairly bad. You might argue that the Donnie Darko link might have lead viewers to expect more from The Box than it was ever really capable of delivering, but I only found out that Kelly was involved as the end credits mercifully rolled, so I had no expectations greater than the thought it might be a mildly entertaining 1 hour 50 minutes. And I still found it to be pretty bad.

                        The Box is based on the 1970 short story "Button, Button" by the science fiction writer Richard Matheson, which was later made into a 30-minute episode of The Twilight Zone. By taking this idea and expanding it onto a feature length film, Kelly has produced a case-study of why short stories are different form novels. The basic idea is an intriguing one. Norma Lewis (Cameron Diaz) and husband Arthur (James Marsden) are woken early one morning by a stranger (Frank Langella) delivering a package. The package contains a box with a large red button in it, which the stranger explains comes with an offer - they will have the box for 24 hours, and if either one of them chooses to push the button in it during that time, he will give them one million dollars in cash. For a family with a young child "living paycheque to paycheque" this offer seems irresistible, but it naturally comes with a catch: pressing the button will cause someone, somewhere (who they don't know) to die. If they call the police or involve anyone else in the decision, the deal is off.

                        Decision, decisions. What are the Lewis family going to do? The box is empty, so how will the stranger know if they push the button or not - and how could it possibly kill someone if they do? What harm could it do to humour this rich madman and take his money? But what sort of weird Faustian pact could they be making if they do? What are they prepared to live with to give their family the financial security that would allow them to continue their lifestyle without worrying about the next bill that arrives?

                        At this point the intrigue ends for me and I can see how a short story or half-hour episode could quickly bring this idea to a satisfying ending. However, the makers of The Box have now set themselves up with another 90 minutes to fill, so the film has to turn from an interesting moral dilemma, so beautiful in its simplicity, into a quasi-thriller in which the identity of the stranger and the reasons behind his offer have to be teased out while weird things continue to happen around Norma and Arthur. The story at this point reminds me very much of episodes of the X Files when it reached its frustratingly complex phase: mysterious and nonsensical plot leaps, supernatural nosebleeds, talk of government conspiracy, creepiness, and paranoia shovelled in like it's going out of fashion. The story ends up too big, too confused, too long, too slowly paced and utterly tiresome long before it reaches its welcome - and rather predictable - conclusion.

                        There were a couple of small points that redeem The Box somewhat. I liked Marsden in his role; he looked convincing and confidant throughout, and worked well with the often ropey dialogue he was given. The same cannot be said for his co-star, however. I suspect Diaz realised too late that she had signed herself up for a ludicrous film and as a consequence could not see the point of putting any effort into her part. Her character - not exactly exciting or rounded to begin with - seems unnatural in this setting, and her attempt at an intermittent Southern accent sounds embarrassingly fake. She was as clearly miscast in this role as Marsden worked well in his. There was another positive in the way the period setting was lovingly created with its garish colours, lurid wallpaper and flamboyant cars; this was as clearly a film set in the seventies as Donnie Darko was set in the eighties.

                        From the evidence of The Box, it looks like Kelly is dangerously close to getting a bad dose of the M Night Shyamalans, with his love for turning interesting ideas into overly long and overly freaky codswallop. If it is mysterious men with boxes offering money that you want, I think you would be better off watching Deal or No Deal - or better yet watching the original Twilight Zone episode.

                        Not recommended.

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                        • Amazon Mastercard / Credit Card / 91 Readings / 88 Ratings
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                          06.08.2011 17:45
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                          A useful credit card that earns me free Amazon vouchers for things I would have done anyway

                          You can view credit cards in one of two ways: (1) they make modern life easier by removing the need to be forever looking for the nearest cash point, providing payment flexibility and offering a way of managing your money, or (2) they are instruments of evil that tempt us into purchases we otherwise wouldn't have made and help us rack up huge levels of debt, which the card companies then charge us painful amounts of interest on. As the sort of person who is able to pay off their full bill each month, I fall firmly into the first camp. I like having a credit card; I find it convenient, invaluable for online shopping and more secure than carrying a lot of cash with me wherever I go. They are also fantastic in emergencies - as I found out the time my car broke down in the middle of nowhere.


                          === Why This Card? ===
                          Up until a year ago, my credit card of choice had been the Halifax Ipoints card - I had had it for about 8 years and it had suited my needs excellently over that time. Unfortunately, last year some changes at the Ipoints website (including a rebranding of their online loyalty scheme as "maximiles") meant their contract with Halifax was abruptly terminated, and I was given short notice that I would no longer receive Ipoints as a reward for purchasing items on my card. No bonus meant no more Halifax credit card as far as I was concerned, so the hunt was on for a new replacement, ready to take over the place of my Halifax card the moment I stopped earning Ipoints for using it. As you have probably guessed from the category this is posted in, my ultimate choice was the Amazon Mastercard. But why amongst the hundreds of potential credit cards out there did I choose this one? There were several reasons that influenced my choice:

                          * I don't earn a huge salary, so any card that required a large minimum income level (such as a platinum card) was not worth applying for.

                          * I pay off the balance every month, so looking for a low or 0% APR (annual percentage rate, or what proportion of the debt you pay to the credit card company in charges) was irrelevant to me. Equally, I never spent huge amounts on any card, so I didn't need to look for a company that offered high credit limits.

                          * By not being dependent on getting a low APR, this freed me to look for a card that gave me something back for using it. There are a wide variety of cards that offer such incentives these days, and without paying any charges, this effectively meant I would be paid for using the card on transactions I would have made anyway.

                          * If I was going to get something back I would prefer that it paid out regularly, rather than an annual cashback as most cards and loyalty schemes seem to offer - this would give me tangible results quicker! Cashback is available is a myriad of different ways from different schemes, so I also wanted payments that were going to be of practical use to me (so not in Airmiles, then).

                          * I wasn't keen on getting an American Express card as they aren't very widely accepted in the UK, which therefore reduced the usefulness of a credit card and limited opportunities for earning any cashback. This ruled out the Nectar credit card as well as the American Express cashback options.

                          After much consideration, I decided that the Amazon credit card fitted these requirements well. There were no restrictions on who could apply in regards to income level, it was a Mastercard and therefore widely accepted, and the rewards would come in the form of loyalty points that could be exchanged for Amazon vouchers (which are most definitely practical and useful to me). There was also an initial bonus when I joined up a year ago that gave me £10 after my first use of the card, which was applied automatically to my account as soon as I became eligible for it (after being a member of all sorts of online loyalty and cashback schemes over the years, it always amazes me when I don't have to chase after such things). This introductory offer now gives you £10 on to your Amazon account rather than your credit card account, which is awarded on approval of your new card instead of after the first use of it.


                          == The Application Process ==
                          Unusually for Amazon, finding the page that lets you sign up for their Mastercard proved quite tricky; they certainly don't seem to go out of their way to advertise this service (it's here: http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/cobrandcard/marketing.html/). Having tracked down the application page, applying for the card proves much easier: a short form to fill in with your details, and an instant approval process means some customers will get their new account straight away (if you don't, Amazon warn you that you will have to wait up to two weeks for a manual approval process to be completed). If you get instantly approved you don't need to wait for your plastic to arrive before you can use it to shop on Amazon - they add the card to your Amazon account as a payment method immediately. The full card number isn't revealed to you at this point, however, so you can't run amok with it elsewhere until you have received and activated it.

                          My card arrived in the post about a week after I applied for it (pretty good compared to some other cards I have had to wait weeks for in the past). Once you receive it, you need to visit the online card services website at http://www.bankofamerica.co.uk/amazon/ to activate it and set up your online account, which allows you to view your balance and statements, and make payments online.


                          == The Loyalty Scheme ==
                          The Amazon Mastercard gives you 1 Loyalty Point for every £1 spent on your card at Amazon and 1 Loyalty Point for every £2 spent on your card elsewhere. For every 1,000 Loyalty Points that you earn, you are automatically emailed a £10 Amazon gift certificate. The number of points you have collected is shown in your online card services account page, and the balance is updated after each individual transaction (so you don't need to wait until the end of the month if for your gift certificate if you qualify for it at the beginning of the month - another thing I like).

                          I'm sure you won't be astounded to learn that these loyalty points are not a huge amount in terms of cashback: you would have to spend £1,000 at Amazon or £2,000 elsewhere to qualify for a £10 voucher, which represents a 1% and 0.5% cashback rate respectively. Such rates are never going to make you rich, but in a world where every other thing you read incorporates the phrase "the current economic climate" as a reason for you getting less or paying more for something, this is still a case where I am receiving something I like for free. I have paid not a penny in interest or charges for my card in the year I have had it, all transactions made on it are things that I would have bought anyway, and every now and again I get a £10 Amazon voucher emailed to me to spend on what I please. Not great value admittedly, but a nice little bonus for anyone who is able to use their credit card carefully.


                          == Online Management ==
                          The whole of my Amazon Mastercard account is run online; I have had nothing since my initial paperwork through the post, and have never had any cause to phone their call centre (which is good for me, but it does mean I can't offer any information about what they are like). I find the website reliable and easy to use, although it does get a little slow sometimes. I have had no reason to question the security of the website; they have a two stage log-in process and say they use the highest level of encryption currently available.

                          The online service page allows you to access your statements, view your credit limit, apply for a higher limit (although I find they give me a very generous amount, so I very much doubt I would need this), transfer a balance, view your PIN (one number at a time for security reasons) and make a payment. Monthly bills are issued around the middle of the month, and once a new statement is available, you are emailed a notification that you can now log into your account to view it and make payments. It takes about 24 hours between the appearance of the statement in your account and the email being sent, so it is possible to pay off your month's bill before you receive your notice should you wish to.

                          I have not experienced any problems with the online services, although I do notice that the online payment system defaults automatically to taking a payment for the minimum amount, which I don't like but would expect from a credit card provider. It pays to check this carefully and amend the amount paid to "full amount" if you want to run your account without charges, as the standard APR on the Amazon Mastercard is a bloated 16.9%, which will soon make any unpaid purchases very expensive indeed.


                          == Final Thoughts ==
                          My year with the Amazon Mastercard has proved to be a positive one. I have no real source of complaints - the card has never been rejected; I have never needed to speak to customer services as everything has (amazingly!) just worked; the card has proved simple to manage online, and of course I have enjoyed spending my free Amazon vouchers. So do I recommend this credit card?

                          Yes, if:
                          - You can pay off your balance in full every month. 16.9% is a high rate of interest.
                          - You use Amazon regularly and would like to get free gift certificates for transactions you would have made anyway.
                          - You are happy to manage your credit card account online.

                          No, if:
                          - You have debt to clear on a credit card or only pay the minimum balance each month. Go for a card with a cheaper rate, or you will be paying far more in charges than you earn in Amazon credit.
                          - You can get accepted for a card than offers a more competitive cashback rate (some American Express cards offer up to 5% as part of their introductory offer, but you need a substantial salary to qualify for them).


                          www.amazon.co.uk/gp/cobrandcard/marketing.html/

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                          • Bonny Doon Framboise / Wine / 76 Readings / 74 Ratings
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                            29.07.2011 18:34
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                            A wonderfully non-traditional framboise from Bonny Doon vineyard, California

                            For most of you who enjoy a tipple, the word "framboise" will surely conjure up images of a fiery fruit brandy, clear in colour and light in flavour, something reminiscent of a Hungarian palinka or some varieties of schnapps perhaps. (Or possibly of something you might use to strip wallpaper with if you have been unfortunate enough to be served a cheap variety). In short, nothing to particularly get me excited and, given the state of one particular palinka I tried out of politeness, enough to have me edging towards bargepole territory.

                            Bonny Doon Framboise, however, is something entirely different. I was persuaded to try it when a friend bought a glass of it at a restaurant we were eating in, and I liked it so much that I ended up buying an entire bottle to take home with me. I don't know exactly what it is, but a traditional framboise it most certainly isn't; part fruit wine, part spirit, it is clearly made by people who have a deep love of raspberries and a deep respect for the process of fermentation. Served in a long, elegant glass bottle, this framboise is a deep, delicious shade of red with a heady aroma of fruit and just slight undertones of the alcohol beneath it. The bottle is sealed with a screw cap rather than the more prevalent 17th century technology you might associate with wine bottles, but as the manufacturers are at pains to point out, this isn't an inferior closure method - it means your beverage will never be corked and, well, it is easier to open.


                            === Tasting Notes ===
                            Like red wine, Bonny Doon Framboise should be served at room temperature, but unlike red wine it should not be served for casual drinking with a meal. Best served on its own or to accompany a dessert when you have the time to properly savour it, this drink is too rich to be drunk with savoury dishes (and doing so would probably taste decidedly odd). But on to the tasting. For anyone with even a passing liking for raspberries, the flavour of this framboise will make you swoon. Intense and heady, with just the right balance between sweetness and the natural tang of the fruit, this is a dense, smooth and velvety drink that avoids any hint of fieriness. Indeed, at 17% alcohol it is much nearer fruit wine than brandy - but quite unlike any other fruit wine I have ever tried.

                            While Bonny Doon Framboise will go nicely with fruity desserts and light sponge cakes, this glorious creation best matches (in my humble opinion) anything chocolaty - and the darker and more intense the chocolate, the better the framboise seems to complement it. Just the other night I enjoyed a small glass of it with a warm melting middle chocolate pudding, and the flavour combination was so marvellously consuming I wouldn't have noticed if someone had walked off with the TV I was supposed to be watching. Or cared, for that matter.


                            ===Finding the Framboise ===
                            The downside is getting a bottle of the stuff; it is made in California, and doesn't appear to be widely available in the UK. I continue to buy mine mine from the local restaurant where I first tried it (Storyteller in Cheltenham if you happen to be local) where I pay around £15 for a 375ml bottle. A fairly hefty outlay yes, but this reflects the quality of the product and the fact that it has to be imported from a single vineyard on the other side of the world; as it is only drunk is small measures, I am quite happy that this is worth every last penny. Bonny Doon Framboise can also be bought online, but given the highly variable delivery costs from different websites, I would advise shopping around if you want to try it (and you should). Some good places to look are www.wine-searcher.com and www.everywine.co.uk.

                            Highly recommended (if you can find it).


                            www.bonnydoonvineyard.com/

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                            • More +
                              19.07.2011 20:17
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                              A great wine cooler from the Screwpull range

                              Here is a conundrum for you. In a few days time, you are going to spend the night in a nice country hotel for your wedding anniversary. As part of said night, you wish to enjoy a nice, cold bottle of fizz with your Other Half in the privacy of your room. Do you:

                              (a) Order your wine from the hotel? This will address the "cold" part of your requirements and will be served to your room, but will set you back about the same amount of money that you spent on the room itself.

                              Or,

                              (b) Take a bottle of wine in with you? You have a good half-price bottle of fizz picked up in a recent supermarket promotion, but there will be some hours between removing the bottle from your fridge at home and serving it in the hotel room - and you know the hotel does not provide fridges in the rooms because you have stayed there before.

                              So which is it to be? Affordable warm wine or perfectly chilled but outrageously expensive wine?

                              Well, fortunately there is secret option number three - go online and find a method of keeping your wine cool between home and hotel.


                              === The Solution ===
                              Searching online for "wine cooler" will reveal about 8.3 million hits, although in all fairness most of these seem to be wine-orientated mini-fridges, which are not all that useful when one is trying to slip a bottle of wine into a fancy hotel without the staff noticing. Something inexpensive, effective and, above all, portable was required.

                              The option I chose after some deliberation was the Screwpull wine cooler sleeve. The Screwpull brand is part of Le Creuset, which I took to imply good quality and (hopefully) effectiveness. It was also surprisingly affordable for an item from their range - I paid just £7.88 for my wine cooler sleeve when I bought it from Amazon at the start of March this year, although I now see that it has gone up to £10, the price you pay when ordering direct from the manufacturer.

                              The Screwpull wine cooler is a wonderfully simply little product. Made out of a soft, padded material that feels like neoprene to the touch, it comes flat-packed in a range of colours along with a wine temperature serving guide (which seemed a little redundant to me as there was nothing on the sleeve to indicate the temperature either of it or the bottle it was chilling). You simply store the sleeve in the freezer, and when you are ready to use it just pull it over the top of your wine bottle so it fits tightly like a sleeve from the base of the bottle to about halfway up the neck. The cooler is designed to fit standard size 75cl wine and champagne bottles, and has stretchy material built into the sides of the sleeve to allow for some flexibility in size and a snug fit - a tapered neck to the sleeve is provided for maximum contact area and therefore maximum chilling to your wine. I was worried that freezing the sleeve would make it stiff and therefore hard to fit onto the bottle, but it stayed remarkably soft and pliable even straight out of the freezer, and I had no problems at all in getting it on the bottle.


                              ===Cool, Cool Wine ===
                              The big test for the Screwpull cooler was how well it would perform at keeping our chilled wine cool on the day of our anniversary. The chilled wine was taken from the fridge and placed in the frozen cooler around noon; from there it had about an hour in the boot of our car, and then spent the rest of the afternoon sitting in a corner of the hotel room far away from direct sunlight or the radiator. We eventually opened the bottle around 8pm, and were quite impressed to find that it was still cool to the touch. The wine wasn't that perfectly-chilled-straight-from-the-fridge-cool, but neither was it room temperature either; it tasted lightly chilled and impressively good given that it had spent a full 8 hours sitting around waiting for us.

                              Since our anniversary, the cooler has found other uses: in keeping wine cool on the table during warm evenings, and in helping to rapidly cool room temperature wine down when we had forgotten to put it in the fridge in advance of a meal. Le Creuset do claim on their website that it will cool a bottle of wine in just 10 minutes, but this is a little optimistic; in my experience a standard 75cl bottle needs about 20 minutes in the cooler to bring it down from room temperature to being chilled enough to drink. I am also hoping to have the opportunity this summer to use my cooler at picnics and barbeques.


                              === The Bottom Line ===
                              So am I glad I bought the Screwpull cooler? Absolutely. It is easy to use and store, is remarkably effective at keeping wine bottle cool over a long time, and even manages to look pretty good too. It comes with a five year guarantee, and for the price I paid for it represents excellent value - even at the inflated price it now sells for, it is a very useful item to have if you enjoy a nice, cold bottle of wine on a regular basis.

                              Highly recommended.

                              http://www.lecreuset.co.uk/Wine-Cooler-Sleeves.aspx

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                              • More +
                                16.07.2011 17:52
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                                Hugh Ambrose's book on the Pacific campaign of WW2 and companion book to the HBO series

                                It can't be easy writing a history book when you are the son of Stephen Ambrose. Ambrose senior was a writer of many popular books - including the famous Band of Brothers tome that was the basis for Steven Spielberg's HBO series of the same name - on a grand scale. Slate referred to him in 2002 as, "a history factory, using his five kids as researchers and assistants to streamline the production process". It was in this production line that Hugh Ambrose learned his trade as a writer of popular American history. It may seem that the only obstacle in junior's way was the hard task of living up to his father, but personally I read this book just hoping that the plagiarism scandals that dogged the last part of Stephen's life were not part of the apprenticeship that Hugh served.

                                Hugh Ambrose has claimed that he did not set out to write "Band of Brothers 2" when he wrote The Pacific, although that is largely what it is (all the more so given the same production team made a series of the same name, using Ambrose as the historical consultant, and have named this the "official companion book" for the series). There are some quite significant differences between the book and the resulting miniseries, but this seems to be largely due to the ways the different media need to work to tell an effective story. Both are good, but in different ways.

                                This may seem an odd choice of reading for me given my general disinterest in modern history, and indeed the Pacific campaign of World War 2 was not a part of history that I knew a great deal about until recently. However, a visit to Pearl Harbour in 2009 piqued my interest in the subject and this book is a pretty good way of taking a general interest further, taking as it does a complex series of battles and making them not only understandable and meaningful as historical events, but also providing the immediacy of first-hand accounts.

                                These accounts are the letters, journals, diaries, photographs and reflections of five participants in the Pacific war, chosen for the wealth of information they provided, and because the five viewpoints "are representative of the experience". These five men take us through most of the key battles of the Pacific campaign, through the viewpoints of officers, senior NCOs and enlisted men from both the navy and the marines. The participants are First Lieutenant Austin Shofner, a marine who spent time as a prisoner of war in the Philippines; Ensign Vernon Micheel, a navy pilot; Sergeant John Basilone, a recipient of the Medal of Honor; Private Sidney Philips, a young man who enlisted the day after the attacks on Pearl Harbour, and Private Eugene Sledge, a student so desperate to serve in combat that he drops out of college to join the marines.

                                The stories told aim to be more than just family histories and personal diaries rewritten by an author with a historian's training. In this book, Ambrose uses the five accounts to create a coherent narrative of the war, that rises above the "then this happened, then that happened" account that such a project could so easily have been. Through the eyes of these men - often using quotes from their diaries and letters - we as readers are taken straight into boot camps, foxholes and POW camps, feel the fear of front line fighting and the terror of dive bombing an enemy ship, not knowing if you own fleet would survive long enough to give you somewhere to land afterwards. Some parts bring out the humour and humanity of the men, while others show the horrors of war only too clearly. One scene where a marine driven beyond sanity after weeks of fear and exhaustion is killed by his own side because his terrified screaming threatens his entire company by giving away their position is one that I won't forget in a hurry.

                                The text in this book is supported by two sections of photographs and a few small half-page line drawn maps of key locations. The photographs are mostly a mixture of family photographs and official portraits of the protagonists in uniform, but there is also a selection of images taken by war correspondents. I enjoyed looking through these images, although the placement of them could have been better; a lot of picture captions from the second image section referred to events yet to happen in the text, and did somewhat act as a spoiler for the reader. The small maps were OK, nothing more. I would have liked to see a bigger map showing the Pacific in its entirety to lend more context to the movement of the marines over time, but this was just a minor issue I had with the book.

                                Ultimately, although it has different lead characters to the miniseries, I think Ambrose's text works quite well as a companion book and I think the two are mutually complementary when experienced together. The book puts a lot of flesh and background information onto the story the miniseries tells, while the miniseries gives an excellent extra visual dimension to what you are reading, thanks to its at times stunning cinematography. At 596 pages (including a substantial number of endnotes) this book represents good value for the £8.99 price tag it comes with, and it is one sure to appeal to readers with an interest in this period of history - regardless of whether or not they have seen or intend to see the parallel HBO series.

                                Recommended.


                                === Book Details ===
                                The Pacific by Hugh Ambrose
                                Canongate (2011)
                                Paperback, 596 pages
                                RRP £8.99 (currently £7 pbk and £4.78 Kindle edition on Amazon.co.uk)


                                === With thanks to Canongate for providing me with a review copy of The Pacific ===

                                === This review was originally posted on www.curiousbookfans.co.uk ===

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