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~My top find~ During my six month subscription to the Birchbox beauty box scheme, I received a few good samples, quite a lot of stuff I didn't want and subsequently gave away, but sadly not too many life-changing products or ones I thought I'd want to buy again. With Birchbox you can earn 'points' by answering questionnaires about the products that you've received and around Christmas time, I'd earned £20-worth of points and was determined to spend them before my subscription ran out. The only product I'd had up to that point which had really wowed me - and which wasn't a lot more expensive than my £20 target - was the Akane Mask Cocoon Nocturne which I'd received in my second month's box. My original small sample had lasted me a really long time and I thought a full sized 30ml pot at £18 was a good way to spend my points. Would I have parted with £18 of my own hard-earned money rather than a bunch of points? Maybe, but I'm not entirely sure. Akane Mask Cocoon Nocturne is something I had never seen before - an overnight mask that you apply before bedtime and wash off in the morning. ~Because She's Worth It~ The Akane range of skincare products are the creation of a French woman called Aline Foulet who worked for L'Oreal for ten years before starting her own company. What she did at L'Oreal, I'm not sure but all the publicity about her products seems to mention her past employers, perhaps as a way of saying "You've never heard of her but look who she worked for". The story goes that Foulet went to Japan and found the Akane apple tree which is high in antioxidants and has a history of use in anti-ageing products. Following organic principles, Foulet created a range of products that have organic certification from both Cosmebio and Ecocert organisations. The active ingredients are Akane apple and leaf extracts with rosehip oil, hyaluronic acid and a black tea extract called kombuchka which I suspect is the stuff that used to be in the rather nice fizzy drink of the same name a few years ago. The mask is claimed to protect the skin from stress, pollution and free radicals, and to nourish and regenerate the skin. It should be used overnight and it's also recommended for use on long haul flights - though quite what your seat neighbours are going to think of you whilst you're using it is another matter. ~How to use it~ Opening the tub the first thing to hit me is a blast of fresh juicy apple scent that reflects the high content of apple-derived essences and oils. There's also rosehip oil in there so the combination of apple and rosehips is delicious. Touching the mask the first time, I was reminded of a soft and spreadable chewing gum. It's not a cream, it's not a gel - it really is like gum crossed with silly putty and then warmed up to soften it. It's quite difficult to actually get a piece of this off the body of gooey gummy mass. Take the tiniest bit you can and spread it thinly across clean skin, avoiding the eye area and then let it dry before you go to bed. You'll probably feel the mask start to tighten as it dries. Next morning just wash it off but whatever you do DON'T forget to wash it off or you'll look like you let glue dry all over your face and then it cracked up. It's not an attractive look. Also take really good care to get it all off as I've found myself with little bits of dried on mask still stuck to my face in the evening or even stuck in my hair. I recommend to use this when you know you'll have time for a shower and a really good face wash in the morning. When I started using this I loved the way it felt but I wasn't entirely convinced that it was really giving me the moisturising effects that it promised and I felt that this mask on its own - especially when I was using so little - might not be giving me as much moisture as a normal night cream. I asked on the Birchbox facebook page about whether I was supposed to use this on its own or over a night cream. They recommended that if I didn't feel it was good enough on its own, I should use it over a serum that contained hyaluronic acid since the mask contained only a small amount of that ingreident. I have since tried it with several such serums and I do think I get an enhanced effect although the drying and flaking of the mask which happens when it's used on its own is much reduced with another layer between it and the skin. I also find it much easier to get the mask off when it's used this way. If you have oily or combination skin, you may well be fine just using the mask on its own but I prefer a bit more hyaluronic acid. ~Does it work?~ I would struggle to tell you that this mask somehow erases all sort of signs of ageing and environmental stress but I think it's naive to believe most of the claims made by skin cream manufacturers and I am always pretty sceptical. I would say though that what I'm mostly looking for in a product like this is for it to make my skin feel 'treated' and indulged and it does deliver on that. The weird way it dries on your skin means that this is something I usually use when I'm not at home - I don't mind if the goop flakes off on hotel pillowcases and I do wonder what my husband would think if he woke up next to me with dried flakey stuff all over my face and looking like I've developed a nasty skin condition overnight. I recommend this for people who live alone, stay in hotels a lot, or have partners with short sight and poor bedroom lighting. Akane Cocoon Night Mask is fun to use, lasts a really long time and it makes my skin feel good - especially if used with a serum underneath. I also like that I've never come across anything like it before and I enjoy the novelty of using it.
I wasn't planning to post this today but the first thing I heard when I woke up was that Tony Benn had died. It seemed to me that lots of Dooyoo members might not even know who he was or be interested in his passing. This is my little attempt to record a small taste of what Benn was about. I hope it helps to explain to those who never knew him why the media are giving him so much time. He was truly one of a kind. ~Mr Benn~ When the opportunity arose to get a pre-publication copy of Tony Benn's final diaries, A Blaze of Autumn Sunshine, my hand shot up quicker than my brain could actually process what I'd just done. I've long been an admirer of this controversial political giant, egged on no doubt by my grandfather who considered him some kind of living god, but was I really in the market for a politician's diary? What if it turned out to be drier than dust and deadly dull? Didn't I already have three volumes of Alan Clarke's diaries on my shelf, still unopened many years after his death? How on earth would I find something to write about in a review if all he did was bang on about politics? Silly me. Tony Benn couldn't be boring if he tried to and his latest book - his last set of diaries - is witty, entertaining and always deeply human. Benn is lauded as one of the great diarists of his era but most of the contents of this book were never actually written down by him. Instead he has for many years been recording his thoughts on audio tape and then trusting his friend and editor, Ruth Winstone, to pull them into a readable shape. Perhaps it's this origin as spoken rather than written word which helps the reader to feel as if Tony Benn is speaking to them rather than writing at them. At the age of 88, he no longer has anything to prove to anyone and what we see is a man entirely at ease with who and what he is, who and what he has been, and still fighting for the underdogs and the downtrodden, even at a time when he's barely able to get himself out of bed some mornings. ~It Can't be Easy Getting Old~ This is a book about reminiscing, about getting on and adding every day to his list of life's achievements, but also about taking stock and recognising what he can't do any more. The main diaries cover the period 2007 to 2009, a time when Benn and his old-style Labour politics were hard to find in Britain. He loathed Tony Blair and his 'New Labour' and in the early chapters before Blair's resignation, one of the most used phrases is "It's an outrage!" Blair's behaviour gave Benn plenty to get aerated about. He quite liked Gordon Brown but could see that his days were numbered. We live with Benn through the military action in Iraq and Afghanistan which he deeply and passionately opposed. We also accompany him through the economic meltdown of the global economy which he feared but at the same time seemed to have expected and to almost welcome for its ability to restart a new order. Repeatedly he wonders how it is that money can be found to rescue banks and wage wars but not to build hospitals or support British trade. We wonder how a man in his 80s can leap out of bed in the small hours of the morning, grab a taxi to the station, travel to the other end of the country for a protest march or to give a few speeches, then travel all the way back again, arriving after midnight. He often tells us he's tired and it's not surprising - men half his age would balk at his workload. ~The Man and his Clan~ I enjoyed his stories about friends and family and his clear love and pride in the achievements of both. His son Hilary was a minister during the period of the diaries and despite being part of Tony Blair's inner circle and part of the deplorable 'New Labour' ways, Tony Benn is always supportive of his boy. His granddaughter wants to stand as an MP despite still being in her teens and Tony only hints in passing that he has to be a little careful what he says as her political interpretations of Labour are rather different than his. He also knows anyone who's anyone in the world of trade unions and civil rights, name dropping the great and the good from Nelson Mandela to Billy Bragg, via Shami Chakrabarti. Benn's support of old Labour ways comes through in his tireless campaigning and attendance at campaigns and meetings all over the country. He also goes to Glastonbury every year, musing that it makes little difference who the audience are, the reactions to his speeches seem to be pretty much the same. As one of the few people old enough to remember some of the great events of Trade Union history, he's not one to ever pass up a chance to honour the dead of the labour movement. He'll turn up for an interview with the BBC and a slew of international television and radio stations to comment on just about anything that happens in the world and he'll churn out a speech at the drop of the hat. Often he'll tell us that he thinks the interview or speech seemed to be well received but it never feels like arrogance. ~Loving and Losing~ Perhaps the saddest passages in the book are those where he reminisces about the loss of his wife, the woman he was married to for 6 decades and to whom he proposed on a park bench in Oxford - later buying the bench and moving it to his garden. He tells us often that he thinks he won't live much longer, that nothing seems to work properly any more, that he's up every few hours in the night with prostate troubles and having tests all the time for various health problems. He loves the National Health Service and praises it at every chance, also reminding readers that the NHS would not survive with the tireless work of the very immigrants that the BNP and UKIP would love to 'send home'. Benn's socialism is of a type I can relate to and I cannot help but like this man and think it might be time to track down his diaries from his younger years. He's bright, bubbly, always on the ball and always capturing the minutiae of life that we might otherwise miss. One moment he's flying off to chat to ex-President Jimmy Carter, the next he's mentioning that Michael Jackson's death was all over the papers. I was so into the political vibe that my first thought was "General Sir Mike Jackson's dead?" and then I realised he meant the OTHER Michael Jackson. He has lots of friends in the political and media worlds, flirts with Natasha Kaplinsky, Kate Silverton and Saffron Burrows, takes phone calls from Kofi Annan, and spends a lot of time in Pizza Express and Starbucks. Not so much as 'champagne socialist' as a 'latte labourite' and a 'pizza pacifist'. ~An End to a Lifetime of Writing~ The diaries stop in 2009 when a hospital operation doesn't go as expected and he's bedridden for a period. He stops writing and when he's well again, he's lost the taste for keeping a diary. In his final chapter he brings us up to date on the changes of those intervening years, reflecting on the new Conservative government, the Coalition and even the death of Margaret Thatcher - a leader he seems to soften to a little after suffering years of Tony Blair's leadership. The main thing you'll take away from A Blaze of Autumn Sunshine will probably be the energy, the passion, and the warmth of this man. Whether the flavour of his particular brand of politics aligns with your own is not important - he's a British institution, a political giant and has a personality that's larger than life. He cannot live forever, nobody can, but I'm inspired by this book to want to go and buy his earlier diaries. I can think of no more pleasant way to fill in the gaps in my knowledge of 20th Century political history. ~Details~ A Blaze of Autumn Sunshine by Tony Benn Published by Hutchinson, December 2013 With thanks to the publishers for providing a review copy and to www.curiousbookfans.co.uk where an earlier version of this review appears. Not to be reproduced without the written consent of the review's author.
~Drink More?~ I suspect most people think that they ought to drink more water than they actually do. I would guess that many put 'Drink more water' on their New Year's Resolution lists and some may have thought about buying something like the Brita Fill and Go bottle. Let's be honest, water is one of life's essentials but it's a bit boring and forcing yourself to drink more of it can be a drag. Tea, coffee, cola - whatever your chosen poison, it's not easy to cut back on the stimulants and boost your intake of water so anything that can help you do that has to be a good thing. Or does it? One such product that is designed to help is the Brita Fill and Go bottle. The problem as I see it is that there's an awful lot of tosh out there about the pros and cons of drinking more water. For every health and beauty 'guru' swearing you'll radiate health and vitality and drop a few pounds from running back and forth between the water cooler and the loo, there's a cynic pointing out that too much water (as is the case with too much anything) can kill you. People love to tell you about horrendous things happening to people who go too far. But we're sensible folk, we're not going to burst our bladders or knock our electrolyte balance out of whack by overdoing it - we're just Joe and Joanne public, looking to drink more water but confused by reports about nasty chemicals leaching out of bottled water if it's stored too long, or worrying over the quality of their local tap water. Bottled water is controversial stuff, contributing shocking amounts of plastic waste to landfill and costing silly amounts of water. If your New Year's resolution about water was a financial one - a drive to cut back on the money you spend on bottled drinks, this might well be something you'd want to investigate. ~A good idea - but a poor interpretation~ Brita have tried to tap into what is undoubtedly a genuine consumer need to find easier ways to drink more water without costing a fortune. They got that bit right at least. What they've done with the Fill and Go bottle is to create a safe-to-use water container that uses Brita's famous filtration technology to upgrade the quality of your finest tap water. It's a pretty easy idea to get your head round. Instead of filtering your water at home and then having to find something to put it in to take it with you on the move, they've made a bottle with the filter built into the cap and it sounds like genius. I bought my Brita Fill and Go in the Salisbury branch of TK Maxx in November 2013 ago and it's seen a lot of action ever since. They come in a range of colours but mine is pink because it was the only colour they had in the shop at that time. If I'm honest, it was the colour I would have picked if there had been a choice. I had been looking at these bottles for a long time online without ever getting around to buying one, but seeing one 'in the flesh' persuaded me to part with my money. I paid £10, give or take a penny, which was as good as any price I'd seen on-line and considerably cheaper than most websites were offering. The bottle is big - considerably bigger than I'd expected - and it holds up to 600 ml. That's a little more than a pint or a little less than two cans of Coke. However, the bottle seems even bigger because the cap is quite bulky. It's worth keeping this in mind if you want to carry the bottle around with you because it's a lot more bulky than a neat little half litre bottle of commercially sold mineral water. You need a large handbag if you're going to pop one of these in it and I wouldn't advise to just shove it in a backpack or a work bag if you can't be sure to keep it upright as it isn't as watertight as I would like it to be. The bottle came with a pack of four filters and the advice from the manufacturers is to replace the filter every week. I don't do that because when I use it at work I'm filling it with water that's already been filtered, and most weeks I'm away from home and only using it at the weekend. The best price I've found for the filters is £6.80 for 8 on Play.com which means that even if you do change it every week, it's going to cost less than a £1 a week - or look at it another way, less than a single bottle of shop-bought water. ~Ready, get set, (fill and) go!~ To set up the bottle the first time, you simply open one of the filters from the box, run it under the tap to remove any dust, and then unscrew the top of the bottle and pop it inside the cap. The cap comes in two parts and if yours is anything like mine there's no effort involved to separate the two parts because they keep falling apart the moment I screw the lid off. The lower part of the cap is the coloured section and it has a circular pit into which the filter fits. Attached to the bottom of this part of the cap is a long, quite wide 'straw'. I think that the pink part ought to click firmly into the other part of the cap but it doesn't and I am irritated almost every time I have to fill the bottle and the cap falls apart. If I'm really unlucky, sometimes I can't get it to align properly first time and I have to make several attempts to get the water to 'suck' through the filter. I like the fact that the water is freshly filtered as you drink. The act of sucking on the sport's cap pulls the water up the straw and through the filter. Apparently you can remove the straw and drink from the bottle by just tipping it up but when I've tried that I've been well and truly dribbled on so I gave up really quickly and put the straw back in again. The bottle fits perfectly into my cup holder in the car and that's where a lot of my water gets drunk. It has helped me to cut right back on the amount of diet Coke I was previously drinking whilst I drive. At work I found keeping the bottle on my desk really helped when I had a horrible cough and I set myself a target of drinking two or three fill-ups per day. It's certainly easier to drink more water when you've got something like this to hand rather than running back and forth to the cooler. ~Tasty, tasty?~ One of the main reasons for me to buy the bottle was that the flat where I live when I'm working has horrendously poor water. I don't know why it's so bad but I suspect it doesn't help that the location is so close to the salt mines of Cheshire. The main storage depot for the salt that's used for gritting the nation's roads is a mile or two up the road which means the roads around that area are always clear in the winter because the gritters got back and forth but the water is a disaster. It's so poor that my husband says he can't even drink fruit squash that's made with the tap water and I can't drink it 'raw'. I hoped the filter bottle would help and it does - slightly. I cannot say that it makes the water 'nice' but it makes it less awful than normal. ~Recommended?~ As an 'on the go' bottle - which the name 'Fill and Go' surely implies - this product has some serious design flaws. It will fill and go in my car in the cup holder but it won't go in anything other than a large handbag and it needs to be kept upright. As a bottle that you 'Don't fill and go' but which you take with you and fill when you get there, it's absolutely fine and dandy but I don't really think that's what the product is supposed to be. If that's how you want to use it then it's going to be fine but if you imagine yourself running around with water at your beck and call, then it may well disappoint. I like that it's BPA-free and so safe to use but some days I'm ready to chuck it out of the window for the frustration it causes with the cap that falls apart every time you try to fill the bottle. It improves the water at my flat a bit but not completely but I suspect that's a challenge beyond the capabilities of anything other than boiling the nasties out of every single drop that comes out of the tap. So do I recommend? Yes and no. Yes if you want a way to encourage yourself to drink more water at home, in the office or wherever, but No if you want to be able to take it with you wherever you go. The leaking and the falling apart are two very basic failures for a product of this type. Brita really did make a few bad boo-boos with the design and I hope they give it another go and create something that can not only filter water, but can also keep it inside the bottle.
~Grandpas for Adoption~ When we are children we tend to take family for granted. We expect a mum and dad and a standard issue of two of each when it comes to grandmothers and grandfathers. With today's complex 'patchwork' families you can add in a bunch of step-grandparents to up the tally of Christmas presents and keep the kids showered with attention. But what would you do if you had almost no living grandparents - almost no relatives at all? What if both your parents had lost their parents in the war - victims of Hitler's mission to wipe out all of your kind? Perhaps you couldn't afford to be too be too literal in your interpretation of grandparenthood. In 'Our Holocaust' by Amir Gutfreund, young Amir and his friend Effi are encouraged by their parents to 'adopt' additional grandfathers, bestowing the title on elderly gentlemen they consider worthy of the honour. And since many of the neo-grandfathers have lost their own families, the community applies what one character calls 'The law of compression' - a philosophy whereby genetic connection is not a prerequisite for being part of a new family. If you like an old chap and he's of a grandfatherly disposition, then adopt him. Hence Amir finds himself with lots of grandfathers and plenty of uncles, almost none of them biologically connected to him or his parents. Necessity is the mother of lax interpretations of familial definitions. 'Our Holocaust' is quite simply the most impressive book I've found so far via the Kindle Owners Lending Library, the free service offered to all Amazon Prime members who have a kindle. You can 'borrow' a book each month, and this is the first that's left me thinking that I want to own it and not just return it. I have hung onto it for far longer than I intended because I don't want to let it go, but now I've found another Amir Gutfreund book on the Prime scheme so I'm grudgingly going to do the swap. I got so hooked up in the stories of Amir, his friends, his parents and adopted grandparents, and his neighbours that I didn't want to let them go. I had never thought before of what it would be like to have no grandparents and about the enormous gap their absence can leave in a young life. My mother's parents were an enormous influence on my life and whilst the death of my father when I was just four meant we pretty much 'lost' the Irish grandparents we really didn't miss out on anything by having only one 'set'. Amir is not so lucky. He tells us his real family was "pitifully small" with just one grandfather, one aunt and one cousin, plus his mother's half-brother. ~Haifa is Home~ Amir and his friend Effi live in Haifa, Israel, in a community that's rich in survivors, most of them from eastern Europe. These are people who fled to Israel after the war and brought with them the kind of emotional and psychological baggage that most of us will thankfully never know. The two young friends share several grandfathers. There's Grandpa Lolek, the miserly old boy with an ancient Vauxhall which seems to run on little more than willpower and the kindness of mechanics. He has "a wonderful ability to catch colds in tandem with us" which enables him to conserve his own stocks of cough syrup and use Amir's families syrups instead. Towards the end of the book when he's very ill, someone jokes that if it looks like he's a goner they'll tell him the cost of headstones has gone up and that should keep him hanging on to life a bit longer. Grandpa Lolek can get multiple cups of tea out of a single bag, lining up his used bags and joking about his 'selection process', hinting unkindly about the activities in the concentration camps where inmates would be regularly assessed to select those who would be killed and those who would be saved. Grandpa Lolek is a war hero, a man who fought against the Germans whilst his community went to the camps and were slaughtered. He looks down on the 'victims' of the camps, refusing to be seen in the same light as them and he's loved by the local labourers who applaud "a Jew who could tell of victories, but not over Arabs". Grandpa Yosef is the clever one, the academic who fills in as a sort of rabbi when his community needs religious support and his holocaust story touches a total of twelve concentration camps, ghettos and death camps. Along the way he's met pretty much anyone who was anyone in the Holocaust. You name a ghetto or camp and Yosef will have a story to tell - only he won't tell them to the children and even later when they're older the story he doesn't want to tell is why he saw so many and how he kept on moving on. If Grandpa Yosef has a penny, he'll find someone who has none and give it to him. He's generous to a fault and beyond. These are the two star grandpas but there are more. One is even sort-of related to them but he's gone a bit senile and he's not such an attraction to the children. ~Young investigators~ Amir and Effi long to know more about the horrors of World War II but their grandpas and their neighbours don't want to talk about the war. The children are not old enough to be told of the horrors and so they hatch ever more complicated tricks to try to get the older folk to tell them of the past. They make up school projects so they can ask questions, they try to pretend other people have told them things in the hope that more information will be forthcoming. They have a morbid fascination with knowing more about the things that keep their elders awake at night, the things that printed upon them the horrors of the past. But they also know there are things that can't be told, and questions that can't be asked, let alone answered. Why is Amir's mother so frightened of ants and does he really want to know what led to that fear? We also learn of this Israeli community's hierarchy of loss where losing your whole family in a camp won't earn any particular respect - you'll need to be able to line up a succession of dead babies and children as well as your spouse to climb the tragic tree of sympathy. The friends and neighbours in this Haifa suburb all have stories, most of them deeply tragic but such tragedy becomes the bread and butter of Amir and Effi's daily life. There are disabled children, sole-survivors of villages who've lost every other living being from their home community, women driven crazy by grief and yet this is a story of great hope. Prejudices abound, both within and between the different groups. This is illustrated beautifully when a young, good-looking German called Hans comes to study the community and nobody wants to like him but in spite of themselves they do. An older Amir tells him "I just want you to know that, personally, I have a bit of a problem with Germans" whilst Grandpa Lolek looks him up and down and declares "I killed a lot like him". There's a bittersweet irony towards the end of the book when we learn why Hans might be as much a 'victim' of the Nazis as the camp and war survivors. ~A trinity of tales~ The book is structured in three parts and part one is mostly about Amir and Effi's childhood and their attempts to find out about what happened to their neighbours and 'family'. The second part follows Grandpa Yosef's mission to go to the Caribbean on his own kind of secret mission, and the final section is one where Amir is a father with his own wife and son to take care of. Someone asks him if his child is his 'eternity', telling him "We had children too, but it was not enough". This is a community living in fear of the past. the present and the future. 'Our Holocaust' is filled with whimsical and life-affirming stories of survival. But don't let that ever let you forget that it's also filled with the kind of horror stories that history almost demands that we don't forget. It addresses all the sacred cows and says the unsayable things. That not everyone who was killed was a 'good' person, that people in the camps were forced to do such unspeakably awful things that some will struggle their entire lives to not think back on those abominations, and that good and bad is never a simple matter of black and white. Survival is as much about luck and being in the right place at the right time as it can ever be about deserving to survive. If I had a complaint, strange as it might seem, it would be that the book is very long. In effect, Gutfreund could easily have made three books out of this and I'd have wanted to buy them all. It's a little as if he's undervalued his work to make one big book when it's structured as if it were three volumes. ~Fiction or Faction?~ Our Holocaust is fiction, but not entirely - if you see what I mean. It's fiction with its feet planted firmly in fact. I read this entire book assuming it was biographically accurate, that these things happened to these people but I was wrong - and it didn't really matter too much that I was. I think the author intended we should assume it was autobiographical and that the stories were all true, although in retrospect I can see that finding quite so many amazing people with fascinating tales all clustered together might be a bit too much to expect. Much of the book is founded on fact - but the things that happened happened to someone, just not necessarily thel grandpas. There are also parts that are historically correct - some of the Nazi killers documented by a character called Attorney Perl were real people but others were made up - representing a sort of amalgamation of bits of people and their crimes. Attorney Perl himself was a real man, but he died in the camps. Gutfreund chose to use his name and give him the job of documenting the atrocities, perhaps to keep him alive in his own strange way. This book is full of such complexities and I can't rule out that some readers will feel a little bit cheated when they discover that what they assumed to be truth is slightly adapted from reality. For me it doesn't matter - it takes nothing away from the book. Earlier this year film footage shot in the Nazi camps came to light and a documentary was widely shared on facebook. If I remember correctly, some had been filmed by Alfred Hitchcock. Many will have watched some or all of this documentary and those who couldn't get through the whole thing can be forgiven for not being able to stomach the horrors of the footage. We sit back 70 years after the end of the war and feel horrified by what the film shows, but in Amir's Haifa community, people lived every day with having been present when the bodies were piling up, when people were starved to death or tortured beyond it. If you read only one book to learn about the Holocaust, but also about the impact it had on generations that followed, Amir Gutfreund's superb book should be one that you consider. By giving names to the people affected, by inviting us into their lives, he offers more than you can ever find from disembodied names and photographs. This book is truly extraordinary in offering horror and endearing humour, all rolled up together.
~I'm a Passionate Moleskine Lover~ As a great lover of all things Moleskine, a few bad experiences have never stopped me in my quest to fill my shelves, bags, boxes and life with their products. Whilst the standard notebooks and diaries deliver every time, I have a more chequered past with their 'Passions' journals. I've previously reviewed their book and travel Passions format and am now going to review the third of my purchases - the Recipe Journal. When I was a kid my grandmother had a recipe book that kept all her culinary secrets. Nan was a spectacular baker and would probably be laughing in her urn if she knew that all the Saturday mornings she spent teaching me to knock out shortbread, flapjacks, scones and apple cake and rustle up a Vesta curry would one day see me working for one of the world's biggest producers of sweet bakery products. Her cookbook was an old hard-backed notebook filled with grease-stained pages of neatly written recipes, pages torn out of her Woman's Weekly and scraps of paper that others had given her over the years with all their secrets. This was the book I had in mind when I ordered my Moleskine Passions notebook. ~The Ingredients for Success?~ All of the Passions notebooks are black and they differ only in the patterns embossed on the cover. To me this universal blackness is as short sighted as Henry Ford was when he said you could have one of his cars in any colour so long as it was black. If you have several of these - as I do - it's a recipe for confusion to have them all looking the same. Passions are large format notebooks - measuring 21 by 14 cm and a little under 2 cm thick. The cover is embossed with line drawings of cooking equipment and the book is kept closed with the classic Moleskine stretchy band. Once opened, you'll find all the usual characteristics of a Moleskine product. There's the return address panel on the fly leaf (as if I'd ever be taking my recipe book anywhere other than my kitchen) and the back cover has a large double 'pocket' for holding those recipes you've ripped out of magazines and not got round to copying out in your own fair hand or glued in to the main book. The pocket also contains several sheets of sticky labels for those who enjoy sticking labels all over the place. You can perhaps tell that I'm not one of those people and I find the sticky labels annoying and pointless. You'll also find not one but three ribbon place markers - a nice touch which will allow you to mark your starter, main and pudding recipes and flick back and forth between them. ~Cooking Instructions~ This is quite a substantial book with over 230 pages to write upon. It kicks off with a section on 'planning' where you could - if you are so inclined - plan your forthcoming culinary 'events'. I'm not sure that I would ever find a need for such a tool but I guess Moleskine know what they're doing. I could instead imagine getting more use from some pages to keep a record of what you've served at different events so you don't keep feeding the same people the same stuff over and over again. After the planner you'll find a Food Calendar with indications of which foods are in season during different months in the Northern Hemisphere followed by the same info for the Southern Hemisphere. Three sides list common foods with their calories, carbs, protein and fat contents and there are two additional pages left blank for you to list additional foods. You can also find conversion tables and information about different measures - handy if you come across an American recipe and don't have 'cups' to hand. The main body of the journal is split into six tabbed sections for different types of food. The first covers appetizers followed by first courses, main dishes, side dishes, desserts and - somewhat bizarrely - cocktails. Each page is pre-printed with templates for your recipes. They start with a space for the recipe name, a larger one to list the ingredients and then two-third of the page height is given for the preparation instructions. To the side of each page there are various reminders of useful info you should include in a good recipe such as the number of servings, how long it takes to prepare and to cook, and whether the cooking is oven, microwave or on top of the hob. If you are so-inclined you can list suitable wine-pairings and keep other notes. As a lot of my recipes come from websites or magazines or friends, I tend to list the source in the small section marked 'notes'. Behind the six pre-printed tabbed sections are another six for you to choose what you do with. I have one for veggie or vegan recipes but I've not found a use for the others. These sections are ruled into five equal sized page-portions and I'm struggling to see what I might need such a page format for. At the back of the book there's an index section which relies on you remembering to copy across the names of your various recipes so you can find them quickly. ~Washing Up?~ Although I don't LOVE my Passions recipe journal, I do use it quite a lot and I find it one of the simplest of the Passions formats to use and to understand. They've kept things relatively simple, not tried to be too clever and so it's pretty intuitive how to use it. This is not something I can really say for their Travel Passions journal and I do appreciate that the designers have resisted the temptation to try to dictate how I should use their product. This journal currently sells on Amazon for £12.78 although the recommended price a few pounds higher. At full price I don't think this is worth it but if you can get it for £10-12 and you think it would be something you'd use, then it's not a bad bet. As a potential Mothers' Day present or for someone building a recipe collection - going to college, setting up home or making a collection for specific nutritional needs - it's a nice idea. If you really want to make an impact, why not buy one and copy up your favourite recipes to pass on to a friend, child, god-child or nephew or niece. I would have loved for my Nan to have left me her cook book - I have no idea where it went when she died but it would have been a fabulous thing to have. The book can easily be wiped clean, the paper is the usual high-quality Moleskine paper which should last for decades, and for a friend or relative with culinary leanings, this could be a really thoughtful and personal gift.
~Retail Therapy~ My husband likes a good bargain and found this blender in the retail park near where I work at a knock-down price of just £10 in the Tesco Direct store. Normal price would be £49.99 so it was a shocking saving. "I guess they were just trying to get rid of them" he said, excitedly. I am not surprised by his blender excitement because this piece of kit has all the classic appeal of a super-charged power tool. There's nothing wimpy about its stylish black and chrome good looks and once you get it plugged in, the 800w motor packs one heck of a punch. Over the last 20 years I've had a lot of different blenders - cheap and not so cheap, own-label and branded - but never one that's a patch on the Breville. The last time I saw something this powerful it was in an industrial kitchen. This is less of a blender and more of a pulveriser, but it isn't all about beating the bejesus out of everything in its path; when called upon it can be quite subtle too. ~So what do you get?~ In my perfect world, you'd get the stick hand blender and that would be your lot. If I look through the boxes in the garage, I could find several each of the accessory bits that blender manufacturers use to boost the perceived value of their products. We'd had so many of these blender 'packages' and it's always the blender that breaks and the other bits rarely get taken out of the box. And then when the blender's kaput, the rest is obsolete. With this Breville you get an egg whisk attachment, an 800ml 'goblet' for putting stuff into before you zap it with the stick blender, and a 500 ml chopper attachment. IF you don't have an egg whisk, a suitable bowl or jug or a chopper, these may all come in handy but we do have them and we don't need the extras. In fact I've not only not used the other bits, I've not even seen them. My husband 'tidied them away' and can't remember where he put them. But let's be honest, if the stick blender is good then this is worth buying and if it's bad, any number of extra gizmos won't make it more attractive. We have a small Russell Hobbs chopper and an elderly Kenwood Chef food processor so we don't need the chopper or the egg whisk either. ~Give it some stick~ If you are thinking of buying a stick blender, I'd recommend you consider two things. Firstly be sure to buy one with a removable blade attachment so you can stick it in the dishwasher or the washing up bowl and not just run it under the tab whilst desperately trying to keep the electrical bits out of the water. Secondly, try to get one that has multiple speeds and a high wattage engine. The cheapest ones have only one or two speeds and limited power. The Breville has quite a heft to it's certainly the heaviest hand blender that I've ever owned. If it were not so stunningly powerful and therefore really quick, I suspect I'd soon find it got too heavy to hold for very long even with its rubberised grip. The black body has a button on either side which helps the body to clip onto the relevant attachment. These are also the buttons you click to remove the attachments too. On the top of the body there's a dial with setting from one to twelve to vary the power of the blending action and on the front of the body there's a swivel switch to either set the blender to 'ON' or 'TURBO'. If you use ON, the speed varies according to the setting on the dial. If you go TURBO, it just blasts the daylights out of anything nearby. We mostly use the blender for making vast vats of soup with the stick blender attachment. This attachment is stainless steel so it won't make any difference how deeply coloured the soup is - it won't stain or discolour. We've had plastic stick blenders that were badly stained and looked like they had a 60-a-day smoking habit after making carrot or pumpkin soup. We've also had low powered blenders that could barely cope with the softest of lumps and took forever to zap a large saucepan of soup. This isn't the case with the Breville. I like my soup smooth and this blender when set to TURBO will zap through a vat of soup in less than a minute leaving it lump free. I have also used it to beat eggs for scrambled eggs. If you want to make smoothies or baby food, this should deal with them without breaking sweat. It's quite possible you could use it for making cakes, but we would always use the Kenwood and it's much bigger bowl for that. For me a 500ml chopper bowl is a bit too small but you could zap up some hummus, salsa or guacamole if small batches are all you need. I guess the egg whisk would be handy for meringues if you don't have an alternative, but again that's something I'd put in the Kenwood Chef. ~Recommendation~ What you'll use the Breville VHB065 for will depend on what you like to make and what other equipment you already have in your cupboards. However, even if you don't need the other bits and bobs, this is an absolutely outstanding stick blender. I'm not sure I'd pay nearly £50 for it, but if you aren't fussed about the other attachments, then at any price up to around £35 it would be a stonking great bargain.
~There's research and there's immersion and they're not the same thing~ Norah Vincent is an investigative journalist and writer who goes much further than most would in search of a good story. She calls it 'immersion' - I'd say it's closer to obsession. For her first book - Self Made Man - she lived as a man for 18 months in order to better understand the differences between the sexes. As a result of her research, she ended up on a locked ward of a mental hospital. Let's say that some of the things she learned were just a bit too hard to handle. Norah is not gentle with herself; she puts herself into positions of danger time and time again. Like a kid with a stick poking it into a wasp nest, getting stung and then doing it again, Norah is drawn to trouble and puts herself into vulnerable situations. Many people with 'issues' would handle those problems by avoiding them. If you're scared of crocodiles, keep away from crocodiles. Norah doesn't do that. Knowing that she has a long history of mental health issues and chemical dependency, she doesn't go down the safe route of avoiding the triggers of her depression and sticking to the drugs she knows are least damaging to her. Her experiment with mental illness is the foundation of her second book 'Voluntary Madness - My Year Lost and Found in the Loony Bin'. Before you condemn me for the use of words like 'loony' and 'bin' these are Norah's words which she uses frequently, especially 'bin' as it does reflect the composition of most of the places she visits - they are full of societies 'refuse', the people and situations that polite society would prefer were swept away and dealt with by someone else. ~Loony Bin Addict~ After her post-'Self Made Man' incarceration, Norah decided to test the 'system' - to evaluate the options available for the treatment of mental illness in North America. She set out to experience three very different treatment regimes by checking herself into first a public inner-city hospital packed with down and outs, homeless folk and people whose family and friends had given up on them, then a rather more exclusive private treatment centre in the countryside, and finally to a Buddhism-inspired 'spa' packed with alternative treatment ideas. For her first admission she had to fake her illness, exaggerate and play it up in order to get in. She thought she was going in 'under cover' as an interested observer, a sane person in amongst the insane. By the second and third admissions she'd gone off her normal small dose of Prozac and into a genuine depression. She wasn't faking any more, she really needed treatment. In her first book Norah learned a lot about men - and women - and got quite a few surprises. Sadly it sometimes seems like all she managed with 'Voluntary Madness' was to prove to herself what she's already suspected before she started her experiment - that if you simply medicate the fight out of people it's cheaper and more effective in the short term, that if you treat people nicely and with respect, they'll probably perform more positively again in the short term, and that if you get someone like her who's a high-performing depressive, then a bit of yoga, 'talking about it' and going for a run every afternoon will be a viable alternative. Sadly she also comes to the realisation that she's not a 'normal' patient because she wants to be better. She differs from most of the people she meets because she wants to change and has chosen to have treatment whilst others are there because family, friends or the law sent them for treatment. Regardless of whether they're medicated into indifference or given daily exercise classes, most just want to get out, get drunk, get stoned or invite total strangers to see the truth of their particular religious beliefs whilst walking down the street. ~Partly fascinating, partly boring~ I found most of the book very interesting although I started to glaze over towards the end once Norah actually seemed to be understanding her problem and the root causes. The problem is - and there's no nice way to say this so apologies to those who've been through it - other people's depression just isn't really very interesting. Norah knows why she's 'different' though she could have saved us all a lot of trouble by confessing a lot earlier than she does, but even with several hundred pages of deep introspection, she still seems to be denying the cause and effect of things that happened in her childhood. I won't tell you more - it's quite a revelation when it comes but it's swiftly followed by not very much at all. In Meriwether, the inner-city hospital, the main treatment is medication. It's the easy way to get control - to pump the inmates full of one drug after another. When the first has side effects, they add a second to counter those effects and then a third to deal with the side effects of the second. Eventually the chemical cosh leaves the patients in a zombie like state. After years of therapy, Norah knows her meds - knows the potential side effects and what she will and won't take. Palming her pills and then flushing them down the toilet later, she's able to give the appearance of compliance whilst taking notes on her fellow patients in brown Crayola crayons because pens and pencils are considered too much of a suicide risk. Touching isn't allowed - so no sympathetic hugging can go on, and playing cards for Skittles is forbidden as it encourages gambling. The patients are dealt with rather than treated. She describes in detail how her room mates make tents of their bedding and hide away inside to try to get some privacy, and how she uses oranges to make bathroom 'pot pourri' to try to cover up the horrible smells of the aftermath of sharing a toilet with heavily medicated women who are too stoned to keep themselves clean and have lost the control to aim properly. Meriwether is a horrible place that will remind many of the asylum in the film 'One Flew Over the Cookoo's Nest' - albeit without the lobotomies and electric shock treatments. ~Catch 22~ When Norah checked into Meriwether, she told the hospital that she had no insurance. They ran checks, found she had and billed her insurers for more than $14,000 in fees. Norah tried to pay the insurers back and landed in a classic Catch 22 situation. You'd have to be crazy to want to reimburse an insurance company, and if you're crazy, then they pay the bills. She was never able to give them back the money that she'd assigned for her 'research'. Norah's second port of call was St Luke's, a small Catholic clinic in small town America. She didn't have to fake anything at her admission interview, crying and begging them to help her. She'd stopped her medication and found herself curled up in an empty bath one morning wondering what the point of everything was. At St Luke's they classify the patients as MI (mental Illness) or CD (chemical dependency). Those with both are DD - dual diagnosis. Norah comes to wonder - chicken and egg like - whether mental illness makes people susceptible to chemical dependency, or whether chemical dependency causes mental illness. Either way, rather a lot of the patients are 'DD', Norah included. The staff are nice, they don't force her to take medication she doesn't want, they respect her choices. She meets a doctor she really respects and enjoys being with, has a room and bathroom to herself, and even gets a daily 'two hour pass' so she can go out for a run. She can cook the food she wants to and make her own decisions. People are trusted at St Luke's in a way that the brown Crayola and no hugging brigade at Meriwether would never allow or understand. There's even a slightly crazy nun who lives in the grounds and who helps out at the clinic, dispensing her own brand of love and good will to the patients. At St Luke's Norah seems to be making good progress until the same insurance company who wouldn't let her pay them back decides that if she can be allowed out for two hours a day, then she's not sick enough to stay there and she has to leave. ~Rebirthing and Yoga~ Norah's final visit is to a place called Mobius, a detox/spa/treatment centre where well-meaning and well trained staff try to help people via less conventional, and less medicated routes. They do energetic yoga exercises every morning, encouraged to let their emotions out through lots of primal noises. They do a lot of group work, from art therapy to 'rebirthing' and they also have one to one consultations every day with the therapists. Everyone seems to be terribly 'nice', ever so wholesome and genuinely bought in to helping the patients. At 'just' $6000 for two weeks, it's less than half the price of St Luke's or Meriwether and medication is purely by agreement. Admittedly they're dealing with a different grade of mental illness and dependency than some of the other places, but they do seem to work well for Norah. This is part of the problem with the book - Norah's not 'as ill' as many of those around her and she's a lot more eager to improve and to find enlightenment. ~Lessons learned~ In Meriwether Norah 'buys' friendship in Big Macs and sweets, getting friends and family to bring in supplies for her fellow patients until she realises that no matter what she gives, they'll always want more. When she realises she can't eat anything she's brought in without others trying to take it from her, she sees that mental patients are not easy people to hang about with. In the other places, she sees that many of the patients are there because they have no alternative - they've been sent to detox before jail sentences, on court mandated assignments, or they've been checked in by parents and doctors who think they need help. Whilst Norah introduces us to a colourful cast of fellow inmates, tries to see the good in many of them, she eventually comes to the revelation that most of them aren't very nice, don't really want to be better and will be back again soon after. That's not the company that's designed to help a depressive who's empathetic to the negative side of other people's lives. I like Norah, and I mostly like her writing. Sometimes when she gets a bit too excited about something she thinks she's just discovered, or goes into too much detail about her feelings, I did find it a bit of a drag. Yes, maybe I as the reader am being disrespectful to the writer and her problems but in places she's so deeply self-indulgent that I struggle to care as much as I should. Hey, at the end of the day, I paid for the book, I'm allowed to judge a little bit. So did I learn much from 'Voluntary Madness'? Yes, I suppose I did. I learned that medication is a slippery slope and that far too few people know what they're getting into. That pharmaceutical companies are making a mint out of medicating the mentally fragile and that side effects are a way to sell even more drugs in a vicious circle of cause and treatment. Norah is on only 20 mcg of Prozac when she decides to slowly stop and come off the medication. I now feel very worried for the millions of Americans (and of course others around the world) who seemingly only have to be feeling a bit down in the dumps to be offered medication that's supposed to make them feel happy. Norah tells us of patients who started off as difficult children and were given Ritalin, only to end up with Crystal Meth habits. She concludes that it's much easier to medicate people than to get to the bottom of their bad behaviour or their psychoses. ~Recommended for????~ Would I recommend this to a friend? I'm going to say yes, but it depends very much on that friend. I'm probably a bit too sane to get as much from this book as many readers will. I'm not sure I'd recommend it to people who have issues with depression or pharmaceutical dependency because - not wishing to spoil it - it doesn't have a completely happy ending. Norah's intention was to write a book in which she'd show that she got off the meds, took control and got her life back but discovered it wasn't quite so straightforward. If you're slightly medicated or slightly depressed, this might help you see that the answer to your problems is unlikely to be found in a pill. But sadly it won't really give you an alternative answer either. I would be slightly concerned that some parts of this book could be 'triggers' for people with similar problems. This might be a better book choice if you have loved ones who have such issues, but for a sunny optimist like me, it's quite hard to get your head around quite how self-destructive so many people can be. ~Details~ Voluntary Madness, My Year Lost and Found in the Loony Bin Norah Vincent ISBN 978-0-099-51343-89 287pp Published by Vintage.
~Take Note~ I have a bit of an obsession with nice notebooks. I love Moleskine in particular, can spend hours looking at Paperblanks notebooks in book stores, and whenever I come across good quality notebooks that aren't too shockingly expensive, I buy them in numbers that would shock most people and which lead my husband to shake his head in weary resignation every time he sees them piled up in the cupboard. I'm a firm believer that if something is worth writing down, then it's worth writing down on good paper in a good notebook. Whilst I'm happy to scribble with disposable Biros and hotel pencils, I am a stationery snob and cheap writing pads set my teeth on edge like nails on a chalk-board. I'm far too mean to use my good notebooks at work and luckily I don't need to because we have a wonderful secretary who never quibbles about what we request from the stationery catalogue. In order to prevent myself from frittering away hours browsing in the catalogue, I now have a standard order that I place every six to nine months for a set of five Oxford Office notebooks in A4 size. I don't really know how much we actually pay for these as the prices in the catalogue are notoriously inflated to discourage us from spending too much. ~Options~ Oxford Office Notebooks come in a number of different formats. You can get different sizes - my preference is A4 but one of my colleagues always orders the A5 size. I've had one of her A5s when I ran out of A4s but I really couldn't get the hang of the smaller size. There's also a size called A4+ which is slightly wider than A4 and has perforations and pre-punched pages that you can tear out of the book. Those are only relevant if you are the sort of person who keeps things in ring binders and I most certainly am not one of those. Oxford Office notebooks come in both wire-bound and hard cover versions. I'm faithful to the wire-bound format because hard covered notebooks are both heavier and more expensive. As a notebook obsessive, I still can't quite believe I'm allowed to order nice notebooks at the company's expense and I don't want to take the Micky by going for the more expensive formats. If like me you stick to the wire-bound format, the other variable which has some impact on the costs is the choice of cover. For several years I was choosing the ones with the flexible plastic semi-transparent covers. When I made my last order, I downgraded to the slightly cheaper pearlescent cardboard covers but I probably wouldn't bother again as the plastic covers are so much nicer and I am prone to putting coffee mugs on them so I appreciate the wipe-clean surface. If you buy a pack of five, they come in five different colours. I find this helps me to remember which one I'm using and avoid taking old ones with me by mistake. ~Take the Money or Open the Book~ All of the Oxford Office notebooks I've had come with a clever plastic ruler inside which clips round the wires and can be used as a bookmark as it can be easily pulled out and repositioned. I don't do this but it is often the only thing I can find for measuring with so that's how I use it as a rule (sorry, pun entirely intended). The first and last pages are unruled. I use the first page for my name, contact details and the date I start the book. After that I have 90 pages of ruled and margined paper to play with. I choose the unperforated notebooks so the page is true A4 in size. The paper used is smooth and doesn't drag at your pen or pencil like cheap paper can do. It has a level of whiteness which the manufacturers claim is designed to be easy on the eyes and is of a quality that weighs 90g per square meter which makes it strong, non transparent and not prone to tearing or damage. The lines are ruled at 7 mm intervals which is wide enough for even my horrible scruffy writing. The world is full of wire-bound notebooks but I would suspect that anyone whose used cheap ones will have had the problem of the wires pulling out and distorting. I've had dozens of Oxford Office notebooks and to date none of them have done this. Mine normally looks just as good when I complete the final page as they do when I start writing on the first. ~What's the Damage?~ I'd been assuming that these notebooks were stupidly expensive because the stationery catalogue has them at around £40-50 for a set of five. Checking on Amazon, I realised just how much the catalogue prices are inflated as depending on the cover choice, a set of five will cost around £20 to £25 which is the sort of price I would pay if I really had no alternative and if work started to cut back on stationery spending.
~My life in small books~ I am a notebook lover. I don't mean those little computers, I mean real notebooks with smooth paper, nice covers, ribbon markers and often a little pocket in the back for keeping receipts and stamps and things like that. There's something about a really good notebook that touches my soul. When I find one that really fits my ways of using it, then I'm a very happy bunny. "Many are called but few are chosen" when it comes to such books - I buy many, some work, some don't, some fall by the wayside but every so often one pops up that's really rather special. At the moment I suspect that my Learn-Live-Hope journal by Eccolo might be my latest newest best friend. I have a weakness for shopping at TK Maxx but I'm not there for their famously cheap so-called designer clothes. The place is far too much like an oversized charity shop for me to battle with the rails of assorted oddities. Instead I make straight for the household section where I browse the aisles of strange kitchen appliances, soft furnishings and candles before zeroing in on my favourite shelf - the one with books and stationery. Many of my all-time favourite notebooks are leather ones I've bought in TK Maxx and my Learn-Live-Hope journal is no exception. I picked it up two or three months ago from the Salisbury store whilst visiting my parents and held on to it waiting for a new year to begin. In December I read the final diaries of the politician Tony Benn and felt inspired to have a go at keeping my own diary - something I hadn't done since I was about 15 years old. I firmly believe that adherence to such an activity is greatly helped by having somewhere beautiful to write down your thoughts so that's why I kept this notebook to use as a journal. ~Great Italian Exports - pizza, prosecco and notebooks~ Eccolo is an American company with Italian origins. It's not clear to me from their website exactly how this works, but my guess would be that they make in Italy and ship from the USA. On amazon.com it says the product is made in Italy but their website has a headquarters in America. It's not important really - all you need to know is that you can often find them in TK Maxx and various online stores. I really couldn't describe the brand as 'widely available' and it took me quite some effort to find a website so that I could get the product listed for review. They make a wide range of products, primarily focused on leather goods and notebooks - and naturally given that combination, leather notebooks. They offer thinks like leather cases for iPads and kindles, recipe books, journals, photo albums and frames, and perhaps a little more bizarrely, Murano glass paperweights. The Learn-Live-Hope journal takes its name from the message embossed on the cover which says : LEARN from yesterday LIVE for today HOPE for tomorrow. LEARN, LIVE and HOPE are embossed in gold, the other words are simply pressed into the dark grey background. It really caught my eye, and when I read the message I thought "Yes, that's absolutely something I can relate to". I had assumed that the cover was leather, but I have since discovered that it's not. Instead it's been made with a 'luxury leather feel, animal free' material. I'm more than happy with that - it has all the hard-wearing and tactile characteristics of leather without being leather. ~Structure~ Lovely cover aside, this is a rather basic notebook without the frills and furbelows I've come to expect after years of using Moleskine and Paperblanks notebooks. I can live with this, but it's only fair to make plain that there's a lot you don't get with one of these. Firstly, there's no form of closure - no elasticated band or clever magnets or ribbons to tie and keep it closed. This is a bit of an issue for me as I hate throwing a notebook in my bag and getting it damaged, pages bent or torn or marked because the book has come open when something else was thrown on top. I've gone for an ultra low-tech solution in the form of a rubber band. It doesn't look classy but it does the job and ensures I can keep a pencil or pen tucked inside the book. You also won't find a handy pocket in the back for storing stamps or receipts or other bits and bobs. That is less of an issue for me since I intend to use this as a diary and I don't really need those things. There is also no page marker ribbon which is a shame, but since I tend to leave a pencil inside, I can always find where I got to. So what DO you get? Well aside from a gorgeous cover with an inspiring message, you get a notebook that's 17 cm tall and 12.5 cm wide and contains 256 sheets of heavy-stock, acid-free ivory sheets. It's just under 2 cm thick. The size is an interesting one - quite a lot wider than a standard Moleskine or a mini format Paperblanks so there's more line to write on which is quite good. I do feel I can get quite a lot of information on a page without having to squeeze things in, but at the same time, I don't feel guilty for leaving the odd half page blank. The quality of the paper is excellent and smooth and I like the light cream shade. The line spacing is 7-8 mm which has proven to be fine for the size of my writing. In a perfect world, I prefer a plain notebook with no lines, but I can live with this one. Despite describing the paper as 'heavy-stock' it isn't really very thick and I can clearly see the text showing through from the other side. Again, I can live with this but it marks it out as a lower quality paper than I find with some other leading notebook brands. The one problem I'm currently having, a week or so into using this, is that the book is still very stiff. In order to get enough page to write on, I'm having to physically flatten the cover in a way that makes me feel a bit of a criminal for my intent to break the spine. The book is so well made that I'm sure it can handle such abuse and I'm sure it'll 'relax' over time, but for now, it's rather restrictive for a right-hander when using the left-side of the page. I paid something like £5 or £6 for my notebook and I'm really pleased with that. I would buy more if I saw them available at similar prices. Note - this review may not be reused by third-parties without the written consent of the author.
~Powerful in Pink~ 'Warrior in a Pink Sari' is the story of a remarkable woman called Sanpat Pal, the founder and leader of an Indian woman's group called the Gulabi Gang. Wearing their distinctive pink saris and carrying lathis (the bamboo sticks typically used by India's police), the women represent a form of mass 'direct action' that has proven to be remarkably effective. Whilst some people have described her as a women's rights activist (including her own website), she struck me much more as a woman who works against corruption and for the rights of the poor, whether men or women, and who uses large groups of her women followers to get her point across and get the results she wants. She's no Gandhi - indeed, his philosophy of non-violent direct action is so at odds with Pal's that he must be spinning in his urn - but she's certainly an activist with a high degree of impact. ~Effective but not necessarily likeable~ The book is written as a first-person account of Sanpat Lal's life but it's not written by her. It was originally told by her to a French journalist called Anne Berthod and published in French. A few years later, an Indian writer Shweta Vachani, translated the French into English to create 'Warrior on a Pink Sari'. Sanpat Lal doesn't speak French so her story has gone from Hindi (possibly another Indian language - I'm not sure) to French and then to English. I couldn't help thinking that voice had been filtered through two other people before it hits the page and that it probably appears on the page with a style that doesn't ring entirely 'true' for an under-educated village girl from Uttar Pradesh. The translator, Shweta Vachani, explains in the foreword to the book that she travelled to Sweden with Sanpat Pal to attend a conference as Pal's translator and found her to be a very complex character. The Pal she describes is not the most likeable of people and is someone who trusts nobody and barely lifts a finger to do anything if there's someone else around to cook her food, bring her cups of tea and dance attendance upon her. It seems incongruous with the image of the woman in the book who would like the world to believe her life is one of unstinting service to others although I can see the point that she can better use her time campaigning for justice than knocking up dinner for the family, especially when there are plenty of people around her happy to serve her. I had the impression that Shweta Vachani didn't like her very much, but I'm sure that translating someone else's story as told to another person isn't the way to really develop a close relationship with your subject. ~A life like many others~ Pal's early life was fascinating but far from easy. She tells that her family were of the Gadaria caste, a group traditionally working as shepherds or livestock herders although she describes a life working the land. Even as a small child she had a job in the fields, watching the seedlings and trying to stop the buffalos from eating them. One day she spotted a group of children in smart clothes and followed them along the road, until they arrived at their school. Pal wanted to learn and sat away from the children, trying to listen to the teacher. Her father wasn't keen on her going to school but her uncle supported her, helping her to learn after the family moved too far from a school. When she was 12, Pal was married to a 21 year old widower but she didn't have to start her wifely 'duties' straight away and stayed with her family in their village until she was 14. She was then sent to live with her in-laws but was soon back with her family after the consummation of her marriage led to her bleeding horribly. She hadn't started her periods and had to be sent home until she was a bit older. Her first child was born when she was 15, barely more than a child herself, and despite a rather fiery relationship with her husband, they went on to have five children together. Pal fell out with both her in-laws and the rest of her community after getting into a lot of different conflicts with the higher caste people in the village. Whilst others let the Brahmins in the village walk all over them, Pal stood up to their bullying ways. If that wasn't already bad enough, she then supported Dalits (the group previously known as 'untouchables') and horrified her neighbours by eating and drinking with the people she helped. ~You've got to fight for the right to (be in the pink) party~ Sanpat Pal undoubtedly had a taste for courting trouble, especially if she could get into a fight in the name of fairness and equality. When police refused to file complaints that had been raised by her or her friends and neighbours, she refused to leave the station until they did. When corrupt warehouse owners refused to give poor people their rice rations, she protested until they were forced to comply, only to find that the owners were stockpiling rice or wheat that should have gone to the poor. Her typical modus operandi was to turn up at the police station, demand action on whatever problem, and when the police refused to act, she would get a large group of women to sit down in protest outside the station. It sounds simple, but it proved to be effective. Your average corrupt policeman or government official might push around a woman on her own or with her husband or father, but would think twice when faced with a hundred women dressed in pink sitting outside their office. Pal got involved with local feminist groups, worked hard to set up cooperatives and micro-banking groups in the villages where women combined their small savings to build up a fun to help other women, and then set up her first organisation the Organisation for the Promotion of Tribal Women in Rural Industry in 2003. The Gulabi Gang came just a few years later. Gulabi means pink and her followers wear pink saris, a 'uniform' that many would already have at home, and which those who didn't could buy inexpensively. A single woman in a pink sari is not particularly noticeable but hundreds together make a big impact. She explained that she picked pink because all the other colours had already been adopted by various political parties but also recognised it as a colour that was distinctively 'female'. ~First Person Positive~ I enjoyed reading 'Warrior in a Pink Sari' a lot but I was left wondering how honest or how factual it was. When you read something like this, you're definitely getting the edited view of how someone has chosen to portray their own life. It's entirely one sided, like any other autobiography. I'm intrigued by Pal but I'm not sure I completely believe her story of selfless devotion to duty. I'm left with many questions about her activities, I want to know about when it doesn't work so well, about the people who have opposed her and whether things really are so clear cut. In her presentation of history, she's like a cross between Gandhi and Christ, praised and persecuted in equal measure and I'd like to know more about her and her work from a less biased point of view. I was only vaguely aware of the Gulabi Gang when I spotted this in the WH Smith's at Delhi airport. I would like to know more and I will try to track down other books about Pal and her gang. A couple of films have also been made about her and she appeared in some kind of Indian reality TV show which seems to have been very controversial. On the plus side, poor Indian women need someone to stand up for them and get them working together against corruption. I'm not sure that wielding lathis is necessarily the best way for them to achieve their means, and even though Pal says that violence is only ever their last resort, I do think she risks her moral high ground by resorting to beating up corrupt officials. By all means carry weapons for defence, but it's hard to justify using them proactively. Do I believe everything? No, I don't. Am I glad to know more about this fascinating woman? Absolutely. And if the purpose of a book is to make you want to know more, then this book certainly succeeded. ~Details~ Warrior in a Pink Sari ISBN: 978-8189884710 I paid about £3.50 in India - a new copy on Amazon.co.uk will cost you £9.27 at the time of writing.
~Bring Back the Birch~ If you are a regular reader of the beauty reviews on this site, you'll almost certainly have noticed plenty of reviewers mentioning that they got products from a company called Birchbox. You might be vaguely aware that Birchbox is one of several 'Beauty Box' schemes currently available in the UK and you might even know that it used to go by a different name - I think it was Jolie Box. There are quite a few reviews of Joliebox and other sites on here, but up to now (surprisingly) none about Birchbox. I'm now five months through a six month subscription and I think I know enough about the ups and downs of the scheme to give a balanced (I hope) view of the company and what they offer. Birchbox Bargain My six months subscription was a lucky find on the internet 'deals' site 'Living Social'. It offered me six months of Birchbox deliveries including delivery for just £38. Since the full standard cost of six months of boxes would be nearly £78, I snapped this up as a cheap way to find out just how good this box scheme was. The standard price is £10 per month with £2.95 P&P on each box. However, if you sign up for a six month subscription, they throw in the sixth box for free and charge just £50 plus the monthly P&P. If you're so sure you will love it that you want a one year subscription, you pay just £90 plus the monthly P&P, making three of the boxes effectively free. Should you go for an extended subscription? Well it's obviously attractive when a company is offering you twelve months for the price of nine but I would suggest not to get stuck in to a long subscription without trying a few boxes first. If I hadn't paid for mine up front, I rather doubt I'd have stuck around for the full six months of my deliveries. ~Sign up and set your profile - then have them ignore it~ If you've decided you want to give Birchbox a try, then you'll need to create an account and set up your profile. In theory, by telling them about your colouring, skin and hair concerns, age, favourite product types etc. it should be possible for Birchbox to send you products that are best suited to you and your preferences and needs. In reality, it seems to be a frustratingly random business. In my opinion the questions they ask are too general to be very useful. For example they don't ask for your age in the profile or whether there are products you really don't want to have and the info you do give seems to be used in a very random way. The first two months I received pale pink lipsticks. I have dark brown hair, dark brown eyes and these lipsticks were totally ridiculous for me (and so got passed on to more 'English Rose' friends as they were completely mismatched to me). I wanted to avoid getting loads of make-up - which I don't like and don't use - and have more body and skin-care products but every month I get colour cosmetics that I don't want. They do know my age and I suspect that has helped me to get some quite nice skin care products that they perhaps don't send to 20-year olds. But I still get ridiculous glitter nail polish that would have looked ridiculous even when I was a teenager and is utterly stupid for someone in their forties. That went to my neighbours daughter who is 18. I also got a skin serum to help skin after a night on the town - i.e. when you're really hit the booze. Again that's absolutely not me and not really age-relevant. ~What should you expect?~ I've had good boxes and I've had very disappointing ones. Sadly the last two were disappointing ones. Admittedly I'm less disappointed at the heavily discounted price that I paid but if I were spending nearly £13 a month, I would have cancelled long ago. The boxes come by courier and are very well packed. The outer boxes are attractively printed and I use them for storing small bottles of shampoo and other goodies in my bathroom. The inner boxes also come in handy and seldom make it into the bin without being diverted to some other purpose. Inside the Birchboxes there's always a small fabric drawstring bag which contains your products for the month. I find these little bags a bit silly and I have no idea what people do with them but they seem to be popular with members. Each month I have received somewhere between five and seven samples, although not all are beauty products. I've had weird herbal stuff to stir into drinks or yoghurt, I've had Pukka teabags, and even a tiny bar of Green and Black's chocolate. I've also had a 'keep in the fridge' gel eye mask, a pencil sharpener and a ridiculous stretchy pony-tail band. In addition to the products, you usually get a little magazine, sometimes presented as a series of postcards. If you aren't sure what to do with the products, there is usually more information on them on the Birchbox website. If you are signed up for their emails, they will pester your inbox all month with info about the various things they sent. You should also get a card that lists the retail prices of the items in the box in case you want to buy more. There's also a facebook page which offers more info and that's a handy place to have a moan when you really hate what they've sent you or to tell them how much you love them if you don't hate your box. ~What I've had up to now~ I don't recall every last item in five boxes but some have been very good. In my first box, I got plenty for my money with a chillable eye mask (that admittedly I've not used), a set of hair and nail strengthening vitamin tablets (which I've reviewed - they didn't work), and some interesting beauty products. There was a small tube of moisturiser and another of primer as well as a small bottle of Molton Brown Ylang Ylang shower gel. That's one of my least favourite Molton Brown scents but at least it was a brand I knew and recognised. I also got my first of the pale pink lipsticks and a Philip Kingsley hair elasticizer which was widely available the same month as a gift with purchase with one of the women's magazines. I don't do horrible things to my hair so this was a bit wasted on me. However, I could easily see that I got pretty good value in my box and only the lippy was passed on. In September I got some excellent goodies and I was very pleased with my box. There was another Molton Brown mini, this time the body lotion that went with the previous month's shower gel, as well as a small sample bottle of Bioderma cleanser and an Aromatherapy Associates body gel. I really like Aromatherapy Associates so I was pleased to get that especially as it was a good sized (50 ml) tube. On the cosmetics side, I had a full sized bottle of bright red nail polish which I'd have been more excited about if I'd not just had something very similar to test for the Beauty Bible just a few weeks earlier, but I was still impressed with the generous size. I had a tiny bar of chocolate and my second pale pink lipstick which once again got passed on to a friend. In October, I had a couple of hits and a couple more misses. Star of the box was the Laura Mercier tinted moisturiser which I loved and which was a beautiful, simple product that restored my faith in such things after several disasters with so-called BB creams. I also loved the Akane mask which you apply overnight and wash off in the morning. I'd never tried anything like that before and really loved it. I was fairly indifferent to the small samples of 'Egyptian Magic' all purpose skin cream which I've not even tried yet and to the ridiculously tiny sample of Dr Lipp lip balm which I could barely get out of the tube. The Staniac lip stain was - at last - a perfect colour for me but seemed a bit of a silly product and got shoved quickly to the back of the cupboard. I gave away the generously sized tube of hair styling crème as it was completely wasted on me and I chucked out the weird sample of 'chia' seeds without trying them. November was the month when I started to wonder if I was really suited to Birchbox. Their facebook page and emails had been making a lot of noise about there being another Laura Mercier product in the November box. I was so impressed by the moisturiser from the month before that I was quite excited, only to have my hopes dashed by the inclusion of a mascara. I've not used mascara since I was about 15 so that was a total waste. I also received a highlighter pencil that I didn't understand and a pencil sharpener. Once I worked out what it was actually for, I changed my mind about the pencil but initially I was pretty angry to get so much make up and had a moan on their facebook page. I was told to contact customer service and thought that maybe they would arrange for me to stop getting all these make-up items that I didn't want. Instead I got a complete brush-off and vowed never to contact customer service again. I also received a tiny bottle of Weleda shampoo - enough for two or three washes perhaps, three Pukka teabags, and the absolutely star product that made the whole box worth having - a tiny 7.5 ml dropper bottle of Matriskin collagen serum which totally changed my mind about serums. It was fabulous stuff and I deeply regret not screwing the top on properly and losing over half of it on a flight. For December there was a lot of email and facebook action and the arrival of the boxes led to much moaning from the members. To be honest this was the worst box I'd had and if January's is as disappointing, I definitely won't renew my subscription. I received a tiny pot of eye shadow - straight into the give-away box - a small bottle of body lotion marked 'free sample' which didn't impress me much as it was the sort of size I get for free in hotels every week. A tiny sample of perfume was included, along with ridiculous navy blue glitter nail polish, a small bottle of non-aerosol hairspray (which I gave away) and a serum called 'Sin-Care Party Girl' which was supposed to make your skin perk up after a night on the booze. I don't drink enough to get hungover but my skin felt like it had been burned badly and I only used it one time. The biggest joke was the little knotted bit of stretch fabric that was supposed to be a pony tail band. Looking at the stuff some other people got, there were good products available in December. Sadly none of them made it into my box. There really was nothing I'd have happily paid them a pound for in the entire box. ~What do points mean? Prizes?~ For every product you receive in your box, and for the box itself, there is a questionnaire for you to complete which earns you points to spend in the Birchbox store. I was credited with 77 points (value £7.70) just for signing up and then earned 50 pence worth of points for each short questionnaire I completed. Most months you get 6-8 questionnaires and can earn back £3-4 of credit towards purchases. I didn't realise this the first month and missed my questionnaires so be sure to go and fill them in well before the end of the month. With four months' worth of questions and my joining points, I had enough to spend £20 in the online store. I bought a larger tub of the Akane overnight mask and a tube of Weleda skin food. With free postage at that time, I paid just £6.95 for the two items. The prices in the shop are high - all at the upper end of what you'd expect to pay online - but if you are paying with points, you can't grumble too much. Credit only becomes available when you've reached 100 points or multiples of that so I will most likely not get another payout before my membership lapses. ~Should you sign up?~ Birchbox is ideal for people who like to try new things and who like colour cosmetics, skin care, hair care and body products, and just about everything you can think of in the realm of beauty. If, like me, areas of that list are not of any interest, then the value you'll get is much more variable. I would prefer not to keep getting lipsticks I don't want and nail polishes in colours and textures that are so childish as to be laughable. I don't 'style' my hair so all the hair sprays and styling 'stuff' is a waste for me too. I wish it were possible to make the profiles more relevant but it soon becomes clear that there are only a limited number of box combinations each month and you may well see people on the Facebook page who are 20-30 years younger or older than you, totally different in hair colour and complexion but getting exactly the same set of products as you. The Birchbox claim that they carefully select according to your profile is not backed up by my experience of what I've received. My recommendation would probably be to find a friend who lives locally who's also interested in signing up, and who ideally likes the things you don't, and then make sure your profiles are not too similar. That way you should be able to get enough things to swap between yourselves to make it worthwhile. Take care to complete all your surveys and don't sign up for too long when you join just in case you realise it really doesn't suit you. Alternatively, if you are the sort of person who'd rather choose what they are getting and just get what they want, I'd recommend to check out YouBeautyDiscovery boxes instead - at £6.95 a month and with almost total control over what you get, it might be better if you aren't open to all the different product types you might get via Birchbox. If anyone would like to be 'referred' please let me know so I can invite you - I think that both the referrer and the referred get a bonus in points to spend on the site.
~Go on then dooyoo, tempt me~ I have long been watching those little adverts that pop up at the bottom left of the dooyoo page, hinting at lovely things I might want to buy. One of the brands that pops up time and again is Dr Hauschka and the persistent pester-power wore me down. Curiosity sent me off to see quite how much it would cost to dip my toe in the waters of Dr Hauschka. Yes, I'll also admit that the temptation of review titles around Dr Koshkha and Dr Hauschka were also part of the temptation. Dr Hauschka is a German company which makes products with excellent ethical and natural credentials, stuffed full of plant extracts, many of them grown by the company or bought from fair trade farmers in other countries. That sounded like a company I would like and I wanted to give their products a go. I ordered two kits - the Body Kit and the Picture Perfect Skin kit, paying about £28 for the two from a company called Activebeauty.co.uk. The body kit was £12.95 and the facial skin care kit was a little more expensive at £15.46. Postage and packing were included in the prices. I don't know exactly how long the products took to arrive as I was not home when they were delivered but it was well under a week. ~Kitted out?~ Dr Hauschka products don't come cheap and I really didn't want to make an expensive mistake by buying some full sized items and risking that they wouldn't suit my skin. Buying these sampler sets seemed like the perfect way to find out whether the products were for me. Better to test a few and pick the ones that suited me best. Since it's my intention to take my time over the testing - and maybe review a few as I go along - I only intend to review the box concept and say a few words about the product rather than write thousands of words about each of the products. I think most people who fancy trying these products by buying a kit will be interested in knowing exactly what it is that they're going to get in these cute little kits. ~Body Care - for teeny tiny bodies~ Interestingly - well I find it interesting - the French on the sleeve identifies this as a box of test-sized products. In Germany they describe them as 'minipakket' (followed by a phenomenally long and unpronounceable word with 18 letters). Therefore both these languages are very up front about the tininess of the contents. In English it's just called 'Daily Body Care Kit' - although truth to tell, you'd struggle to get even one day's worth of use out of the six tiny samples inside. So what do you get? Firstly and most eye-catchingly you get a cute little metal tin which will instantly have you thinking "Hmm, I have no idea WHAT I'm going to do with that but I know I'll do something". Inside you'll find six small samples - four tubes and two bottles. If you notice the photo that dooyoo provided, that has three tubes and three bottles so maybe the composition has changed since the item was first added. Each of the tubes contains 10 grams of cream and each of the little bottles contain 10 ml of oil. Each of the tubes is an aluminium tube, similar to a tiny old-fashioned toothpaste tube. Each of the tubes is white with a narrow coloured band and the name of the product in German on one side and English and French on the other. At a quick glance you can be expected to not easily spot the difference between the different products so take care. My four tubes contain a hand cream, a rose body moisturiser, a quince body moisturiser and a body wash. There's nothing on the tube to say what 'flavour' of hand cream it's supposed to be so it was quite a surprise when I first used it and found the woody/spicy/fruity scent almost over-powering. The rose body milk is soft and spreads well, soaking in quickly, but the smell is quite unpleasant. Yes, there's a hint of rose but there's also something ugly and medicinal about the way this smells and I've certainly had much more authentic rose scents in much less expensive products. The quince body moisturiser has the same texture and spreadability as the rose but the smell is more pleasant and subtle. Most people probably don't know what a quince smells (or tastes) like (basically it's a bit like a bit apple) and this cream has a light, subtle scent somewhere between a juicy apple and a sleepy pear. The final tube is the lavender and sandalwood calming body wash and it's my favourite of the four. I love lavender and I adore sandalwood so it's not a big surprise that this one pushes all my buttons. If I did have a criticism it would be that it doesn't really foam up at all. My two bottles contain a lemon and lemongrass body oil and a rose body oil. The rose is again disappointing and quite unpleasant although the light texture of the oil is quite nice. The lemon and lemongrass oil is absolutely delicious and I know I'm going to be tempted to buy more of this one, even though I'm not really a great fan of body oils. ~So is it worth it to buy such a kit?~ I'd have to say that I'm glad I bought this kit even though I really don't love all the products inside. I have been quite surprised by the ones I enjoyed and very surprised at quite how much I disliked the rose products. On the basis of reading reviews about Dr Hauschka, I would probably have rushed out and bought rose products and regretted it deeply. At £12.95 for the set, I'd say this isn't exactly a bargain but it may well have prevented me making a very expensive and rosy mistake. I now know that I like the quince body moisturiser, the lavender and sandalwood body wash, and I'm absolutely blown away by the lemongrass oil. Some websites suggest this kit would be good for travel but I'm unconvinced unless that travel is a quick overnight trip. The hand cream would last a few applications but the two body moisturisers each wouldn't give enough for more than half a body's worth of use. The oils probably have a better longevity depending of course on how you use them. So in short, as an experiment, this was worth buying but more to save me from more expensive mistakes. The set represents fair value for money compared against the cost of full sized products but the doll-sized samples barely give you time to get to know what you've bought before it's gone.
~Amazing Amazon~ The power of Amazon to predict what we want to buy based only on what we've already bought can sometimes be frightening. Often they are very wide of the mark - especially when predicting on the basis of things I've bought for other people - but sometimes, in fact quite often, they hit the nail on the head. I suspect that my previous purchase of the DVD of the TV series 'Mumbai Calling' triggered them to recommend 'The Indian Doctor', a BBC 1 series which - like Mumbai Calling - starred Sanjeev Bhaskar. I hadn't heard of the series which was no big surprise as I miss dozens of good dramas every year and I later learned that it was originally shown in the middle of the afternoon - so no wonder I wasn't familiar with it. Watching it earlier this week, we didn't know it was only the first of three series - so we took nothing for granted. Time Travel The series is set in the early 1960s in a small coal mining community in South Wales called Trefelin. Everything - life, love, the local economy and the self-worth of most of the men in the town - revolves around the mine. It's a very traditional, very Welsh place and you get the impression that many of the locals probably haven't been further than the next town or the next valley. It's not perhaps the most logical place for a young, ambitious doctor to take over the GP practice of the recently deceased local doctor. Doubly so when that new doctor really is (as the expression goes) "Not from round here". Sanjeev Bhaskar plays Dr Prem Sharma and Ayesha Dharkar plays his beautiful wife Kamini. They are a lovely couple but we soon learn they have lost a child, a little girl called Rani, who died of a childhood illness that Prem could have treated if only he'd been there instead of many miles away working. Life in a new land is his attempt to run away from their tragedy. Whilst Prem is excited to be in Wales (yes, of course he calls it England a few times just to really wind up the locals), Kamini is used to a much fancier and cosmopolitan life in Delhi and is anxious to get out of this small town with its small minded people and move to London. Whilst some of the locals think she's probably spent her life crouched down cooking over an open fire, she's not used to doing housework at all - that's what you have servants for after all. Her parents were on good social terms with the Mountbattens and daddy is a friend of Enoch Powell, the man behind the campaign to lure young, highly qualified Indian doctors to come and work in the UK. Kamini can name drop so well that the local mine manager, Mr Sharpe (played by Mark Williams) and his desperate-for-love red-haired wife, Sylvia, can only assume that it must all be lies. After all, they couldn't possibly be outclassed by a foreign doctor and his wife, could they? ~Something for everyone~ The old doctor has left a diary, written in Welsh, and mine manager Mr Sharpe will stop at nothing to get possession of the book, believing that the doctor has been keeping records of the health of the miners which could destroy his career. Prem finds the diary but obviously knows no Welsh so he asks Megan to help with the translation. The diary and what it might reveal, keeping it out of Sharpe's hands and trying to prove his abuse of the miners, make up the main dramatic storyline. The plot is a lovely pot pourri of different stories. There's trouble at the mine where Sharpe has been cutting corners on health and safety in order to get the mine's profitability improved. Prem wants to find out how bad the problem is, but will the miners trust him enough to have their X-rays? The balance between risk and reward in mining is a constant tension - nobody wants to die horribly underground or from mining-related diseases but nobody wants the mine to close and leave the men unemployed either. There's young love between Dr Sharma's pretty receptionist and a young singer whose father is dying of lung disease. There's a touchingly affectionate friendship between haughty Kamini and young Dan, a tearaway truant whose father is sliding rapidly into alcoholism under pressure from Sharpe who knows about some stolen money. And then there's a bit of a 'will they won't they' relationship of lingering looks and self-control between Prem and Megan, the wife of the lung disease sufferer, step-mother of the singer and the woman who runs the local pub. ~Performances~ Most of us will be more used to seeing Sanjeev Bhaskar in comedy roles and will be familiar with him playing every situation for laughs. In The Indian Doctor, he delivers a gentle, endearing but never comedic performance. His character is always professional, deeply caring and tolerant of the attitudes of others, and eternally fighting for the rights of the underdog. I loved Dr Prem Sharma, and I say that as someone who normally finds Bhaskar a bit irritating. Ayesha Dharkar is a wonderful actress who proves beyond all doubt that being beautiful is no barrier to being able to act. Her character starts out haughty and superior, looking down her perfect nose at the townspeople, and soon comes to find friends in the most unlikely places, forming a wonderful friendship with young Dan. Mali Harries is excellent as Megan, balancing her concern for her dying husband with her affection for Prem, and proving the point that a bossy woman who runs a pub can move mountains and achieve more than any number of well meaning professionals. Jacob Oakley as young Dan Griffiths is convincing as the stroppy but sad young lad who can't read and write and needs a mum rather than a drunk dad. Perhaps the biggest star of the show though is the Welsh countryside and the cute little town where the series is based. The location is absolutely beautiful and it's easy to forget that the mines would have made such a place a dirty and unpleasant place to live. The other visual delight is the clothing worn by the characters - from the brightly coloured frocks of the local women to the ultra-dapper three piece suits of Dr Sharma and the stunning saris of his wife, the colours vibrate off the screen. ~Timely Themes~ The racism and xenophobia of some of the locals and their unwillingness to support the new doctor offer an interesting insight into 1960s immigration and the irony of Enoch Powell as the sponsor of the initiative to bring in Indian doctors will be lost on nobody who associates Powell with his famous 'Rivers of Blood' speech just a few years later. It's easy to think "Gosh, weren't attitudes primitive back in the 1960s" and forget that such attitudes and fears are still very present fifty years later. Many of the townspeople would have found it hard to accept a Welsh doctor who didn't speak Welsh, would have thought an English doctor a bit too much of a change, and so are really not ready for this well-spoken, dapperly dressed Indian and his beautiful wife. Watching this in 2014 when the government files have just been opened on the miners' strike of 1984, had me thinking about how times have changed. As a geology student, I went down a couple of coal mines and met a lot of miners and have some understanding of the impact of the mine closures on the lives of pit towns. However, I also fundamentally believe that Thatcher or not, there was no way that deep mines could have survived modern health and safety legislation. Watching the story develop with the 'evil' mine manager putting the men at risk in order to keep his mine open and get a promotion out of the area, I could completely believe that the miners were willing to keep on taking unacceptable health risks in order to keep their jobs and keep their towns alive. ~Recommendation~ We loved the Indian Doctor and watched the whole 5-part series over two evenings and then ordered series two which we devoured in a single sitting. This gentle but powerful series is absolutely delightful and a fine example of BBC drama at its best. Series three was broadcast a few months ago so the DVD must be due out soon and I expect Amazon will let me know that it's right up my street. I paid £12.57 for Series One, and a couple of pounds less for Series Two. Note - this review may not be reused by third-parties without the written consent of the author.
~Stephanie Plum never fails to get her man (or men)~ When the chance to read Janet Evanovich's latest Stephanie Plum novel, 'Takedown Twenty', arose I was first in line shouting "Me, me, me" in an entirely undignified way because Stephanie is an old friend of mine. It couldn't be any other way after I've read 18 books about her and her hapless attempts to bring in the bad guys whilst working as a bail bond enforcer for her cousin Vinnie in the New Jersey town of Trenton. I've been with her since the very beginning back in 1994 - I have a signed copy of 'One for the Money' - and up to now, have missed only one, and that's purely because I've not got round to tracking down a copy. As someone who spends most of her time on non-fiction or rather more 'literary' fiction, I love to step off my high-brow high-ground and have some fun with my favourite law and order girl. You'll not need to be a genius to work out that Takedown Twenty is the twentieth book in the Stephanie Plum series. If I were to be a tiny bit unkind, I would conclude that they became a bit formulaic after the first dozen. I wouldn't be surprised if Janet Evanovich has a computer programme into which she plugs a few key plot elements and out pops another best seller. But as they say, if it ain't broke, don't' fix it. I know what to expect and I love it every time. I know that Stephanie and her 'big black and beautiful' side-kick Lola will eat a lot of donuts and fried chicken (at Cluck in a Bucket), fall flat on their butts attempting to capture the bad guys, and that Stephanie's love triangle with good-guy cop Joe Morelli and Ranger, the mysterious man in black, will be a feature but will never really get resolved. Stephanie will go to the funeral parlour with her grandma, her mother will cook pasta and do a lot of therapeutic ironing, and a good few cars will probably get splatted. What I wasn't expecting this time was Kevin the Giraffe. No he's not a bad guy gangster with a cute nickname, Kevin the Giraffe is a real giraffe and he's lost on the streets of the 'Burg' where all the bad stuff happens. ~It's a busy life in the Burg~ In Takedown Twenty, Stephanie's falling out with all the locals, including her boyfriend's family. Top of her list of bond jumpers she needs to apprehend is Joe's Uncle Sunny, a local hero-villain who's related to most of the Italian community and famed for crooning Sinatra songs at parties. Like a Kray twin, he's considered a good baddie, one who only ever kills other baddies. She's also after a younger bad guy by the name of Antwan (presumably his parents couldn't spell Antoine) whose gang tattoos identify him as a ruthless killer. And if that weren't enough, along with trying to help Lola find Kevin and feed him lettuce, she's doing a bit of 'consultancy' work for Ranger, trying to help him track down the Dumpster Killer, a chap who kills old ladies who play bingo and then dumps their bodies in - appropriately enough - dumpsters. It's a lot for a girl to handle even without a complex love life and a certifiably insane family. ~Back to Basics~ The list of characters has been slimmed down a bit compared to some of the recent late-teens volumes which had brought in rather more up to date characters such as stoned computer hackers and people who love computer gaming as well as sometimes flooding us with Stephanie's sister and her children. There's a timelessness about Takedown Twenty which I appreciated, a return to a simpler time when all a girl needs in her bag is a stun gun, some pepper spray and a hidden tracker that Ranger's put there so he can come and get her out of trouble again and again. The Morelli-Ranger-Stephanie love conundrum had been wearing a bit thin for a while now. From the moment many volumes ago when Stephanie did the dirty with the man in black, a certain tension was lost. But she's playing relatively clean in this one. A few volumes back when Morelli's grandma put the evil eye on Stephanie and made her insatiably randy, I got a bit fed up with quite so much 'between the sheets' and not enough 'on the streets' action but Takedown Twenty is back to the basics and it delivers what every Stephanie Plum fan wants and expects. ~It's really never too late to get to know Stephanie~ Can you join the party after 20 books? To be honest, you can. Every one of the books stands alone and can be read without prior knowledge. For a while Evanovich was trotting out all the past history in each book but this one really does make sense without the back story. The characters are not so complex as to need a lot of padding out or explanation. There are good guys and bad guys, weird relatives, strange colleagues and lots of unhealthy bad food, and of course there's a hamster and a dog, both of whom will live forever because that's what Evanovich's fans need them to do. Kevin the Giraffe might not fare quite so well if the girls can't find out where he's come from and what he's doing on the mean streets of the Burg. But we all know that there will be a 21, 22, 23 and possibly all the way up to infinity so whilst Stephanie will be exposed to what the film-makers might call 'moderate peril' she'll never really be in serious danger of much other than accidentally shooting herself or chipping a nail. That's what we want, that's why we buy, and we all want to be a little bit Plum. ~Details~ Takedown Twenty by Janet Evanovich Published by Headline Review, November 2013 With thanks to the publishers, to Curiousbookfans.co.uk where this was first posted and to Sharon who received the book and passed it on to me for review.
~ A Lunchtime Favourite in Lisbon ~ I have been to Arigato with my Portuguese colleagues three times and it's one of my favourite places to eat. I originally wrote this review after my first visit, but every visit since has been just as excellent. This really is my top tip for dining in the Parque das Nacoes area of the city. We often eat in this area as it's not too far from the local office. The first time it was chosen because I had to take a flight mid-afternoon and the restaurant is not too far from the airport. That was the sensible, rational reason to go. The more emotional reason was simpler - FISH! Portuguese people adore fish and Arigao is a sushi bar. Not just a sushi bar but an extraordinarily unusual concept - an all you can eat Japanese buffet with really good food. And believe me, when it comes to raw fish, your average Portuguese can eat a LOT, even two dainty little ladies like Isabel and Ana. Arigato is located on the Expo site, the area of Lisbon which was developed for the 1998 Expo. It lies beside the river Tagus and despite the passing of 15 years since the world flocked to the city, everything still looks pretty good. I thoroughly recommend a visit to the Expo site, not just to see the world-class Oceanarium or to ride on the waterfront cable car, but also to just enjoy the bars and restaurants and soak up the view. There are also some pretty fine shopping opportunities to be found at the Vasco da Gama shopping centre. Arigato is close to the Oceanarium - I advise not to dwell on the fact that you're eating raw fish in the shadow of a world-class aquarium. In most European cities, an area as stylish and fashionable as the Expo site would be outrageously expensive but not in Lisbon. The Euro is being kind to the British traveller once again and prices in Lisbon are now, and always have been, considerably lower than over the border in Spain. Arigato was a bit of a treat and I learned that my colleagues don't go there very often for lunch because it's expensive. With the lunch buffet costing just under Euro15 (or less than £12 at current exchange rates) it's not something you could do every day, but the value for money was extraordinary. ~Something Fishy~ Our visit didn't start too well with the three of us clearly wearing special invisibility cloaks which meant the waiter ignored us for a good five minutes. Once we'd been spotted, we were offered a pleasant outdoor table on the terrace with a sun umbrella to protect us from the worst of the mid-day sun. We ordered our drinks - an ice tea, a juice and a Coke Zero - and without further ado, we headed inside to the buffet. The characteristics of most 'all you can eat' places are lots of cheap, rather unpleasant, often over-salted and generally unhealthy food. They want you to drink a lot and fill up on the minimum volume of the cheapest possible dishes. That's why I said earlier that 'all you can eat' and sushi don't really go together. Sushi - and even more so sashimi - tends to be offered in small portions at high prices. I did once go to an all you can eat sushi place in Munich which was absolutely diabolical but Arigato is rather special - good quality and good prices are not a typical combination you associate with Japanese food. ~How much fish can a hungry Portuguese eat?~ We headed inside to get our food, joining a short but slow moving queue. We took square white china plates from a pile at the start of the row of dishes and I thought that they were certainly not discouraging us from taking a lot by offering such big plates. The display of dishes started with some Japanese salads and I helped myself to a small spoonful of a couple of these. Next were some rather untempting rice balls, unlikely to appeal to anyone other than a strict vegetarian or parents of small children trying to avoid giving them too much raw fish. I can't imagine too many in either group would be keen on Arigato. Sushi purists will have to forgive me for not being conversant with all the technical names of different types of sushi, but my guess is that if I've been eating it for 15 years or more without learning the names, other sushi fans will be equally ignorant. The first display was of plates of the 'fish perched on top of rice' type sushi - some pretty obvious such as salmon, prawn and tuna, others less typical such as octopus, eel and clam. Next came more of the sushi rolls - with the fish and vegetables inside a sleeve of rice. I'm less keen on this type but I did pick up a couple which Isabel particularly recommended which surprisingly turned out to contain cheese and fruit. Given the local love of fish, the sashimi was taking a heck of a bashing and multiple slices seemed to be going onto most of the plates around me. I was quite taken with the tuna which was served with the outside slightly seared rather than just totally raw. There was a section of tempura or breaded fish - some juicy prawns and fish goujons - as well as a few other cooked dishes including an absolutely gorgeous aubergine bake. This seemed like a wise choice to include on the buffet as the place was quite popular with well to do families whose children weren't necessarily quite so taken with raw fish as their parents. At the end of the buffet was a side table with two vats of soup - one miso, one curry flavoured - and another table with desserts which were neither particularly exciting nor particulary Japanese. ~Raw fish heaven~ I thought I'd been a bit greedy with the amount of food I'd taken until I saw that Ana and Isabel easily had as much or more than me and both went back for seconds. I worked on the theory that I wasn't REALLY having seconds if I didn't actually go back to the buffet and Isabel brought me a bowl of the curry soup when she went back for more, and Ana snaffled a few of the prawns in breadcrumbs for me. I went back for some fruit more as a gesture of killing time before I had to go to the airport than actually really needing any pudding. The quality of everything I tried from the buffet was excellent. The sashimi in particular was so fresh it was practically still swimming. The terrace where we ate was warm and sunny without putting us in direct sunshine and we were set back a little from passers by so didn't have loads of people gawping at our dishes. The small downside is that you can't actually see the surroundings from the terrace which is a shame, but if you're anything like the three of us, you'll be too busy enjoying the food to notice. The bill for three of us, each with a soft drink or tea came to a few cents over Euro50 which was excellent value for what we'd had. The restaurant is also open during the evening but the buffet is only offered at lunch time. I believe during the evening you'll need to order individual dishes off the menu or take the so called 'tasting menu'. For a perfect summer lunch, I don't know much that's better than sunshine, good company and a mountain of raw fish - Heaven! ~Details~ Arigato Sushi House Alameda dos Oceanos 1990-223 Lisbon