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razor_sharp

razor_sharp
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Member since: 04.06.2009

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      13.08.2010 17:54
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      Very good budget hotel ideally placed for road trips from UK to Spain or south of France

      I put my foot down this year and refused to even consider getting on a plane for our summer holiday. Volcanic ash, baggage handlers' strikes and the escalating cost of even the supposedly budget airlines had broken me. If we couldn't get there by car, we wouldn't go at all.

      Hence we faced the small matter of a two thousand mile round car trip to Spain instead.

      In a moment of sanity, I recognised that we couldn't do the whole journey in a day so set about finding a hotel en route. My criteria were strict. It had to be inexpensive, less than 5 miles from the motorway, do an early breakfast and have wi-fi access.

      I found exactly what I wanted with the 2 star Hotel Le Floride II in Clermont-Ferrand in France.

      The hotel is on the east of Clermont Ferrand so easily accessible in less than 10 minutes from the junction of the A71 and A75. Pictures on the internet showed a gloomy, modern block of a building locked behind a metal gate. However, the reality is not nearly so stark and was a very good stopping place.

      There is a small reception area and the lady who booked us in was charming, polite and very helpful with information about where to get an evening meal. We had booked two twin rooms, which are a little more expensive than double rooms but I thought they might be larger. Well, possibly they were but these are not rooms that you would want to spend a lot of time in. Very functional, faultlessly clean but tiny. The en suite facilities consist of a WC, bath with hand held shower, basin and, in some rooms, a bidet (why in some rooms and not others I can't imagine). There was soap, body wash and adequate towels in both rooms. All rooms have a small hanging space (adequate if staying just one or two nights) and a television. The beds were very comfortable and each had a bedside lamp. Key for my two daughters was the fact that they could get free internet after a day in the car without it (can you imagine!!). However, you do have to request it at the Reception desk when you book in and you are given a password for your room. We couldn't make both gadgets work in the same room at the same time so it appears there is a restriction on one gadget at a time.

      Hotel Floride II is on three floors. There is a lift which wasn't working on the night we were there and my heart sank when I discovered we were on the second floor. However, the stairs were wide and shallow so it wasn't a hardship going up and down.

      We wanted to leave early on the Sunday so I was pleased that breakfast was served from 7am. The breakfast area is very small and the receptionist advised us to get there early to make sure we got a seat - by 8am I think they must be queuing out of the door. We found the breakfast a little disappointing. There was nothing wrong with it - unlimited coffee, tea or hot chocolate, fruit juice, unlimited fresh bread or croissants, cereal and fruits. But the cost was 7.50 euros which we thought was exorbitant for what it was, particularly when you compare it to the F1 hotel brand where virtually the same breakfast is half the price.

      The hotel is about 10 minutes walk from the centre of the old town. By the time we arrived, it was quite late so we weren't in sight seeing mode but the town itself appears to be historic with lots of interesting buildings.

      We were able to park our car on the street right outside the hotel with no problem and on street parking is free of charge. If you are concerned though, the hotel has a locked ground level car park for 4.50 euros per day or an underground car park for 6.50 euros per day.

      We booked Le Floride II through the booking site Venere and paid 42 euros for each twin room plus 7.50 euros per person for breakfast. There was also a .7 euro 'holiday tax' per person so the total was 116.80 euros. Apart from the breakfast, I thought it was excellent value for money and would certainly consider returning.

      Now, one word of warning if you plan to stay at Le Floride II. We approached via the tram flyover and were delighted to see the hotel clearly as we drove into town. However we then spent another 10 minutes trying to get to it. The flyover has created a nightmare of one way streets, some of which have a signpost to the Hotel on them, some don't. Key to remember is that you have to go under the flyer to get to it; confusing, but it will make sense if you ever visit!

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        11.08.2010 00:36
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        You take out what you put in - give it your full attention and it is rewarding

        This is a stunning book - not only in the way the story moves forward but in the way it explores early ideas about psychiatry and madness.
        Sebastian Faulks has clearly researched thoroughly and intelligently the medical background but the story carries its learning lightly.
        At the end of it, I felt as though I'd learned as much as I would have done by reading a non-fiction book but in a much more engaging way.

        Set in the 19th century, the main plot concerns two medical practitioners, Jacques Rebiere and Thomas Midwinter, who come together through chance when they are both young men. At first, they barely even share a common language but they discover similarities in their thoughts and ambitions that bring them into a lifelong relationship. That relationship is cemented through work and marriage but shaken by the differences they find as they develop their own medical theories. Many of the theories have been discounted by modern medicine. However, Faulks shows how and why they were considered medically sound options at the time.

        The book takes us through Jacques and Thomas's lives as they set up a clinic together and develop individual theories about how to treat people with psychiatric problems. The progress they make in their professional lives is linked to their private lives and we see how the two weave in and out as times passes.

        It is slightly disconcerting how the narrative extends and contracts. There are parts where a decade passes in a single page; other times when a speech is given in what feels like real time. I think this is one of the reasons that the book has been criticised by some reviewers; when we are engaged with the characters in a story, we don't necessarily want to be treated to pages and pages of medical argument however well researched it is.

        The other weakness of the book is in the lack of depth of the main female characters. There are times when they seem to be little more than devices. However, this is more than made up for by the two main male characters who are completely believable.

        This is not a book that can be read quickly or lightly. However the beauty of the prose and the wealth of information make it well worth the effort.

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        • Rice & Pasta Dishes / Recipe / 18 Readings / 17 Ratings
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          11.08.2010 00:07
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          Perfect student / family / emergency supper.

          You can make this wonderfully fragrant sauce for pasta in less time than it takes for the water to boil and the pasta to cook so it's the perfect emergency meal. We're being encouraged to eat more fish and this makes a great change from battered, grilled or poached.

          The other brilliant thing is that you can have the ingredients in the house anyway.

          I have given several options so you can adapt it to your own tastes and what you have in the house. Although this appears to use a lot of oil, I always use olive oil which is a healthy option. Don't try skimping on it - the oil is essential to carry the other flavours and cutting it down means the dish will be dry and lack flavour.


          This recipe will feed 4.

          400 gms dried pasta (something small and chunky such as penne works best)
          7/8 anchovies - either from a tin or a jar
          Approx 75 ml olive oil or olive oil and butter mixed
          EITHER
          1 can tuna in brine
          OR
          Approx 200 gm fresh tuna steak (I buy mine when it's reduced in the supermarket then pop it in the freezer. It defrosts very quickly)
          Salt and pepper
          Parsley (optional)

          1. Boil a large saucepan of water with about a dessert spoon of salt and add the pasta. Stir well, bring back to the boil then allow to simmer.
          2. Warm the olive oil (with butter if used) then tip in the anchovies. As they heat through, mash them with a wooden spoon so they are integrated into the oil.
          3. Drain the brine from the tuna if using canned or break up if using fresh.
          4. Raise the heat under the oil and anchovy mix and add the tuna. As it cooks, break it up with a wooden spoon. Add a few grinds of pepper.
          5. When pasta is cooked, drain well then pour over the tuna and oil mix. If it seems dry, add some more oil or butter. The pasta should be glossy and moist with enough oil to start settling at the base of the pan.
          6. Tear over some parsley, mix again and serve.

          You can either serve this with a salad or add some heated sweetcorn kernels and cooked peas at the last moment. This gives a lovely variety of textures and tastes.

          Enjoy

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          • More +
            10.08.2010 23:38
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            Be prepared to get away from the coast

            So you're off to sunny Spain. Chances are, you'll be heading for one of the 'costas' - Blanca, Brava or Daurada, for example. We've just come back from Catalunya in the north east of the country, a region that includes Costa Daurada. And it's been quite an eye-opener.

            For most people a trip to Spain's Costa Daurada means a week or two soaking up the sun at either of the two main resorts - Salou or Cambrils. These lively, heavily built up towns offer everything you could possibly need if you're looking for sun, sea and sand.

            Of the two, I preferred Cambrils because it's quieter and a bit more upmarket with a marina, a wide promenade and some lovely clothes shops. It has a wide selection of harbour side restaurants with set lunches around the 15 euro mark. It's still a working harbour and if you hang around on the dock about 4 o'clock in the afternoon, you'll see small fishing boats coming in with the day's catch. It's fascinating to watch the speed with which the fishermen go through the mess of dead fish on the deck and sort them out into the correct types.

            Salou is much more vibrant with wall to wall restaurants, bars and huge apartment blocks. To give you some idea of the difference, set lunches tend to be much cheaper, around the 5 euro mark. It's much more a purely tourist resort.

            Both beaches though have gently sloping beaches and a wide variety of water sports.

            For the more intrepid though, you can hire a car and see a completely different aspect of this friendly corner of the Mediterranean.

            One of the biggest non-beach attractions is Port Aventura, the biggest theme park of its kind with all day rides and shows. We didn't visit, partly because it's not really our thing and partly because of the cost - it is almost 100 euros for a family of four. However, everyone we spoke to recommended it.

            Thanks to the Port Aventura development, the area has attracted huge sums for road development. As a result, there is a network of fast and generally clear motorways which mean you can be 20 miles inland in less than half an hour. And unlike other parts of Spain, these motorways are toll free.

            So where to go inland? Reus will be known to most visitors to the area because they'll fly into the airport there but it's also of interest because of the large number of modernist architects who have left their stamp on the town. The best known is Antoni Gaudi who was born in Reus and who is the architect behind the flight of fancy which is the Sagrada Familia church in Barcelona. Reus is best seen in the morning when it is quite busy and the restaurants are gearing up for lunch; their busiest time of day. It's also of interest for its shops - no huge and anonymous department stores here but lots of individual shops where service is still considered the norm.

            Even further inland is the old village of Alcover. The village itself is a place to get a sense of how Spaniards live their lives outside the narrow tourist strips. But if you're feeling more adventurous, head out north in the direction of Hermita del Remei and, when the road runs out, abandon the car and set out on foot for the Font de la Glorieta. It's a beautiful, cool, green walk along a narrow river. If you've thought to bring swimming gear, you'll be able to swim in the clear pools that you'll find en route.

            Heading back to the sea, Tarragona, along the coast from Cambrils and Salou, is best known for its amphitheatre. Originally built in 2AD it has a prominent position on a cliff overlooking the Mediterranean. Entrance is only 3 euros but unless you're really interested in walking where the Romans walked, you can see most of the amphitheatre from a promenade overlooking it. The remains look very odd because there is a church built right in the middle of the old amphitheatre.

            I would recommend getting inland even if it's just for a day. If you stay in Salou or Cambrils, you could be in any hot and sunny country. Go inland for just ten miles and you are, recognisably, in Spain.

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            10.08.2010 22:43
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            Funny, scathing and enlightening

            Once again the master of satire takes a modern phenomenon and tears it to pieces with wit and a perfect eye for detail.
            In 'Chart Throb' Ben Elton parodies the Pop Idol/X Factor style of reality show. He is merciless in the way he dissects the way the show is produced, the people who produce it and the wannabees who take part. It is perfect satire; everything he writes is grounded in truth but ratcheted up just the right amount to make it hilariously funny and just unreal enough to avoid a lawsuit.
            The book covers the months it takes to produce a single series of the eponymous show from the initial 'auditions' to the final. 'Ninety-five thousand hopefuls. Three judges. Just one winner ' as the tagline goes. Sound familiar??
            In Elton's show, there are the misfits looking for any kind of fame, the usual 'haven't got a hope' hopefuls, the averagely good and just a couple of reasonably talented singers - cruelly classified as Mingers, Blingers, Clingers and Singers. What we learn is that winning has nothing to do with the ability to sing - the backstory is everything. There is even a guest appearance from HRH the Prince of Wales which provides the catalyst for the main plotline.
            You'll recognise each of the judges whether you watch X Factor or not. There's a Simon Cowell figure, shown as manipulative but charming yet useless around women. Sharon Osbourne is replaced by a fearsome transsexual who, not surprisingly, also appears in a reality show with her dysfunctional family. (Sharon, of course, is no longer a judge on X Factor; 'Chart Throb' was published in 2006). Finally, there is the rather sad Louis Walsh figure, for some reason the least sympathetic of all the characters.
            There is a hidden target of Elton's satire in this book - the viewers themselves. He is just as scathing of the public's willingness to be deceived as he is of the participants' neediness and desire for their 15 minutes of fame.
            The book moves along at a fast pace and with a sense of impending implosion. Elton writes dialogue that you can immediately hear and is able to depict a character in the briefest of lines. It helps, of course, that we have already seen these characters on our TV screens; these are caricatures but beautifully etched.
            This is one of the wittiest books I've read in a long time with hints of the type of surreal world also created by Tom Sharpe.

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          • venere.com / Internet Site / 22 Readings / 21 Ratings
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            09.08.2010 12:50
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            Worldwide accommodation on a single site

            Venere.com is an online hotel booking site that acts as an agent between a wide variety of accommodation and the customer. You use the site to find hotels, B&Bs and self catering apartments and can then book online or by phone.
            I know a previous reviewer had a terrible experience using the phone option so I wanted to let people know how the online booking compares.
            I've used it on a number of occasions - probably double figures - and I've always found it to be reliable and reasonably fast and the accommodation I've booked has always been as described or better.
            When you key in the area or town in which you want to stay, you also give the dates that you want to stay, the number of guests and the number of rooms you want. You are then given a list of options that can be ordered according to price, star rating, guest rating or best selling. Useful if, like me, you are on a budget. The good thing about this is that the list only includes accommodation that is still available for the dates you've given so you don't waste time investigating hotels that are fully booked.
            The options list gives you the lowest priced room available. When you click through to further information, you might be given further options. Again, I find this useful because the more expensive price sometimes includes things that you wouldn't have thought to specify. You'll also be given information about what is included in the price, such as breakfast and local taxes. This isn't always as clear as it could be; for example, it doesn't always make it clear whether breakfast is included even if it's listed as a B&B.
            If you elect to book online, you give your personal details plus details of a credit/debit card. No money is taken from the card at this time, and it doesn't even have to be the card you plan to pay on. However, if you default on the booking, they will then use the details to charge for the first night's booking. Cancellation terms are quite generous however - generally as long as you cancel at least 24 hours beforehand, there is no forfeit. Again though, you have to check the small print for the individual accommodation.
            Confirmation of the booking is sent to your email address almost instantly. Remember that you still haven't paid for the room; you still need to have a credit/debit card or cash with you when you turn up.
            I've found that prices on Venere are often slightly lower than those quoted on the accommodation's own website, presumably because they pick up on last minute offers.
            All in all then, it's a site I would recommend but, judging from the other reviewer, I'd say only use it if you are happy to book online rather than choosing the phone option.

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            • Nation / Theatre / Musical National / 27 Readings / 26 Ratings
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              09.06.2010 00:32
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              If this goes on tour, take your children to see it.

              Note: Nation is no longer at the National Theatre but my suggestion was accepted after the production closed. I write this review in the hope that it might go on tour at some stage.

              Even though I saw Nation - the stage adaptation of a Terry Pratchett novel - in January, I was immediately convinced it would be the best thing I saw in 2010.

              Mark Ravenhill's adaptation is almost better than the book itself (and I am a huge Pratchett fan). The restraints of a theatrical production have forced him to cut out any flab in the book so that the stronger themes and ideas are thrown into focus.

              Nation, the novel, is completely different to Pratchett's usual work. No discworld fantasy here; instead it is a rite of passage novel set in mythical country in the South Seas in the mid19th century. It tells the story of Mau, a young man on the cusp of adulthood, who believes he is the sole survivor of a tsunami that has destroyed his island. As despair sets in, he discovers a 13 year old English girl, Daphne, who is one of the few survivors from a boat shipwrecked on the island by the huge wave.

              There is humour in the misapprehensions that arise from their lack of a common language and a common culture but gradually they discover respect for each other and a common purpose in doing the right thing. At the end of their adventures, they make decisions that are mature and unselfish - clearly a moral code is being set.

              Which all sounds rather worthy and, in fact, the novel is rather heavy going compared to some of Pratchett's books. However, on stage, the humour comes over much more strongly, helped by a foul mouthed parrot and some amusing puppetry.

              Visually, the staging is amazing. The difficulties of showing a tsunami, underwater sequences and a trip into the afterlife are dealt with imaginatively through video footage and clever sleight of hand.

              Gary Carr played Mau with a real sense of being at the extreme edge of boyhood and unwilling to take the final step into being a man. Emily Taaffe was at times less convincing as the 13 year old Daphne (it can't help that she is twice the age of the character she is playing).

              The production was criticised by some reviewers for being shallow. Others felt that the puppetry was disappointing compared to other National Theatre productions, such as War Horse. But why judge a production only in comparison with others? Nation was aimed at a younger audience and its visual effects, humour and sense of rightness at the end were, to my mind, perfectly targeted.

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              • Valued Opinions / Internet Site / 48 Readings / 48 Ratings
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                22.03.2010 23:52
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                Perhaps better for younger people with a family

                I started using Valued Opinions after it was recommended through MoneySavingExpert.com.

                It's a market research site that surveys members of the public on their use and experience of a wide variety of products. There are also some surveys that are more opinion based.

                You sign up for the site and answer a few basic questions about yourself. After that, you simply wait for links to surveys to be sent to your designated email address. The surveys are supposed to be chosen according to the information you originally give about you and your background.

                Payment varies depending on the survey but is usually around 50p - 75p for a survey that takes up to 30 minutes to complete. Payout is through vouchers but they are for well known stores such as Tesco and Amazon.

                The site says of itself 'we seek to create a problem-solving think tank which can provide qualified and effectual feedback for the business community.'

                However, although I will probably not bother to de-register, I am disappointed about the reality.

                I probably get sent around a dozen invitations to surveys a week. At first, I got really excited, with visions of earning a little bit of pocket money in the evening when the rest of the family is watching television or playing video games. However, I find that I am screened out of all but the very occasional survey.

                What irritates me is the amount of time spent answering the screening questions. By the time the survey loads and I've answered five or six questions, it can easily have taken around five minutes. So if there are three or four invitations in my Inbox..................

                What it means therefore is that, instead of earning a reasonable 75p for 30 minutes at the computer, it actually works out at about 75p for almost an hour at the computer.

                I've just gone through my account and, in the 7 months I've been a member, I've only been selected for 16 surveys and earned less than £14. OK, it's £14 I wouldn't otherwise have had but it does seem like an awful lot of work for very little return.

                I also find that some of the surveys are pretty dreadful in their design. Not all of them, but occasionally I come across one that is clearly intended to lead the respondent into expressing a particular viewpoint. Others are tedious, others appears to go round in rings.

                I can only assume from reading about other peoples' experiences that, for some reason, I am not from one of the popular categories of respondents. It seems that younger people, with young families, are more likely to get chosen and I understand that.

                But if I'm not from the target audience, why do they keep sending me the surveys??

                In fairness to the site I should note that, when you are screened out of a survey, you still get entered into a prize draw. I currently have 33 entries. Fingers crossed.

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                  22.03.2010 23:21
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                  An occasional tear jerker

                  The subject matter of this book means it's bound to be compared to Nick Hornby's work - single(ish) man, turning 30, makes lots of modern day mistakes but eventually finds redemption.

                  For me, however, Hornby has the lighter touch. Certainly, 'Man & Boy' has fewer laughs and it also feels more self-indulgent.

                  So, what's it about? Harry Silver is a respected radio turned TV producer. Approaching his 30th birthday, he has already been married 5 years to the woman he sees as his soul mate and they have a 4 year old son. In both his work and his private life, he is, by any standards, a success. But from the beginning, the reader is party to his doubts. What comes after 30? Did his wife give up too much to marry him? Does a new car say more or less about him as a man and father?

                  The catalyst for the events in the novel comes early on when Harry sleeps with a work colleague. The event is not written as a climax or even a pivotal point and the ensuing marriage break up is written in a fairly dispassionate manner.

                  But from the moment of his infidelity, Harry's real emotional investment is in the men of the generation above and the generation below him. He becomes a man defined by his relationship with other males; his son and his father.

                  There are times when I cried as Harry finds his emotional landscape changed through looking after his young son and discovering how much he cares for his father. But the moments of true feeling sometimes get lost in a self indulgent and long winded dissection of how a man feels when his father is diagnosed with a terminal illness. In the end, I just wanted the poor dad to pass into the Great Beyond and let us get on with the story.

                  I know that sounds hard-hearted and there appears to be genuine sincerity in Parson's writing about the relationship between Harry and his ailing Dad. But I got the feeling that someone - Parsons himself? His editor? - spotted a Good Thing and just couldn't let go.

                  The book covers a period of about a year in which Harry works his way along the steep learning curve of looking after a young boy on the verge of school. Rather unfairly, and unrealistically, I thought, his son is an angel despite his parent's breaking up (where were the sleepless nights, the sodden sheets, the anger issues?). Harry also manages to land a perfect part-time job (well-paid, respected) that thousands of single mums would kill to be offered and a perfect part time relationship with an understanding (and gorgeous) woman.

                  In that respect, I felt that Parsons himself just couldn't handle ( or worse, didn't know about) the reality of a single parent's life.

                  Like Hornby's heroes, Parson's Harry Silver is deeply flawed and, at times, downright unlikeable. He is redeemed by his love for his son and for his father and, in the end by another love (but I don't want to put in a spoiler).

                  'Man & Boy' is, at times moving. It does, at times, make meaningful points about choices in a man's life that validate him as a man. For me, however, it was ultimately disappointing.

                  I think it says a lot about the novel and the impact it will have on you that I was several chapters in before I realised I'd read the book before.

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                  • More +
                    27.02.2010 16:45
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                    A well-researched biography that grips like a novel

                    Political intrigue, scandal, money, celebrities and religious schisms. No wonder the Tudor period appeals to so many of the current era - there are almost too many similarities to mention!

                    Henry VIII's Last Victim is ostensibly a biography of the last person to be killed for treason on the orders of Henry before he himself breathed his last. But it's also a fast paced, evocative and gripping study of the time and, in particular, of the intrigues, scandals and outright bullying that were so much a feature of the Tudor court.

                    Henry VIII's last victim was Henry Howard, the Earl of Surrey, better known to many later generations as a talented poet who invented new ways of writing poetry and is credited with influencing Shakespeare, particularly in his writing of the sonnets and the use of blank verse in his plays. Not a bad reputation for someone who died when he was only 29.

                    Yet we find out in the book that the Earl of Surrey was only a part time poet. He was also a military leader and political insider as well as, by the standards of the day, being a devoted father and husband and keen house designer. He was intimately involved in events that epitomise the Tudor period. Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII's second wife and the mother of Elizabeth 1, was his first cousin, as was Catherine Howard, Henry's fifth wife. It would be naive to think that the king happened upon these women by accident. It was the Earl of Surrey's father, the Duke of Norfolk, who stage managed the marriages and both men were at risk when the marriages failed. And being at risk in the Tudor court didn't mean a couple of days in disgrace. It could mean losing everything; family, fortune and frequently, life itself.

                    It took a very special kind of person to ride out the constant changes in loyalty in the court - and for many years, the Earl of Surrey was very successful at it. However, as the book shows, he was always at risk through his own impetuousness and what appears to be a curious mix of poor self esteem and superiority complex.

                    The author of Henry VIII's Last Victim is Jessie Childs and although this is her first book, it won the Elizabeth Longford Prize for Historical Biography in 2007. One of the things that makes this book so wonderful is the sense that it is based on good solid research, using original documents. Like a detective, Jessie Childs has pieced together the Earl of Surrey's personal story from a wide variety of sources. A mention of him being present at a meeting tells us what he knew of the political intrigues; a letter written by him shows genuine care for the men in his charge; a poem written by one of his children tells us how they missed him during his long absences.

                    But despite the hundreds year old sources she uses, and despite the fact it is clearly fact, not fiction, the book is rarely dry. Jessie Childs has an easy and accessible way of writing that keeps the bare facts fresh and engaging. She comments, gives her own opinions and, sometimes, makes assumptions about what might have happened but as readers, we always feel sure that these assumptions are not mere flights of fancy.

                    The book includes a number of colour plates. The Earl of Surrey was the most painted noble of his generation and the freshness of his portraits is another factor in bringing him to life.

                    The book is cleverly designed to be both chronological and topic based. So although it follows Surrey's life from birth to death, Jessie Childs picks up on particular aspects of the Tudor period as each phase is covered. So, at the beginning of Surrey's life, she gives us information about how some of the greatest families in the land came to power. As Surrey goes through puberty, we learn about the Duke of Richmond, Henry VIII's illegitimate son. About half way through the book a chapter concentrates on Surrey's poetry, showing how much of it was autobiographical.

                    I finished the book feeling much more knowledgeable about the Tudor period and with a far better appreciation of what drove people at the time. Although I knew about people being locked up in the Tower and being beheaded, for the first time I really got an understanding of just how precarious life was at the Tudor court. The Earl of Surrey enjoyed fabulous wealth and power but in the end became a victim of one of the many conspiracies constantly being fomented around the king. A sick and feeble Henry survived him by only 9 days.

                    Henry VIII's Last Victim - The Life and Times of Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey is published by Vintage Books. It is available in paperback for £6.99

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                    • Skoda Fabia Classic 1.4 5dr / Car / 25 Readings / 23 Ratings
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                      24.02.2010 00:10
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                      A car to bring colour to your day and a smile to your face

                      It was when the rear view mirror dropped off in my hand that I realised my trusty 12 year old Ford Fiesta would have to go.

                      So a weekend spent on the internet looking for good value second hand cars (my daughter is just learning to drive so I needed something in one of the lower insurance groups) ended with 3 test drives booked: for a Ford Scenic, a Fiat Punto and a Skoda Fabia. Alas, the Scenic and Punto didn't even get out on the road. I took one look at the Fabia, which is lemon yellow, and I was in love.

                      Yes, it's the same colour as a banana. Yes, it makes street lighting unnecessary. Yes, when the bottom gets muddy, it looks like a liquorice allsort. Somehow, its sunny nature just appeals to me.

                      Because this absolutely is a car that doesn't take itself seriously.
                      The Classic is the most basic car you can imagine. My car is the 2002 model, a five door hatchback built just after Volkswagen took over the Skoda marque. When I phoned for the test drive, I knew it didn't have much power under the bonnet (1.4, 8v engine). I knew it didn't have air-con, or a sun roof or a large boot. What I wasn't prepared for though, is the lack of things I'd assumed now came as standard in the 21st century. When did you last see a car with non-electric windows? And, to my horror, not only does it not have remote locking, it doesn't even have central locking!! The last car I owned without central locking was a Metro back in the early 1990s!

                      So what has it got? Well, despite the jokes, I adore the lemon yellow colour. I like the boxy shape although it has been criticised by others. It has power-assisted steering and ABS. It has a power point for charging small electrical items. It has a reasonable 4 speaker radio and CD player. It has.....well, that's about it really (although.....did I mention the colour??).

                      The 1.4 engine actually performs quite well. I've already done a couple of motorway trips and it cruises at 70 with no shakes and no sign of effort (well, I wouldn't dream of going any faster would I?). For the price, the engine is very quiet and it's a smooth ride.

                      But most of my driving is done in town and this is where the Fabia really comes into its own. It hasn't got the power to allow you to be a bully on a busy roundabout but it parks in spaces barely larger than itself and the controls are comfortable and easy to use even in stop start traffic. The driver's seat can be raised and lowered as well as moved backwards and forwards which I appreciate as I'm quite short. I'm told by my passengers that it feels surprisingly spacious even with three people in the back. Other reviewers have criticised the sight lines, but this isn't something I've had a problem with.

                      From the research I did beforehand, I gather that Fabias can suffer from condensation and damp problems, both in the body of the car and in the engine compartment. Despite the fact that it has rained every day since I bought mine, I certainly haven't noticed any dampness inside. I'm also told they can develop electrical problems at about the 8 year stage (oops!) but everything seems good at the moment. The Skoda Fabia is said to average just under 30 mpg in town and a tad over 50mpg on motorways. At the moment, I would say that's a little optimistic (and I'm not a mad driver or carrying heavy loads).

                      Perhaps it's a girl's car (although another thing it doesn't have is a driver's sunshade mirror!). As you can tell from the above, I'm not a car expert - I really couldn't tell you exactly what's in the engine compartment let alone what it all does. But then generally I want to drive my car rather than tinker with it and with the Fabia I can enjoy doing just that.

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                      • Just Dance (Wii) / Nintendo Wii Game / 39 Readings / 39 Ratings
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                        20.02.2010 19:05
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                        Energetic and fun.

                        Wii games always seem so expensive that I generally do tons of research before buying anything. Even then, our family doesn't really go for the typical gamer type product; we have a Wii and two very energetic daughters so I'm much more likely to buy Personal Trainer than Call of Duty.

                        When I saw Just Dance for the Wii, I was attracted. And when I saw that it cost under £18, I forgot all about the research and somehow my finger just crept towards the 'Buy Now' button without me even realising it. Then I spent 24 hours worrying in case I'd bought a pup.

                        However, it arrived two days ago and it's been in almost constant use since! (OK, it is half term but even so, I reckon we've already got good value from it).

                        The point of the game is to copy an avatar on screen as it moves to one of 30 different popular songs. It's completely different to the Dance Games on Playstation which use a mat and concentrate on footwork; the Wii version works using only the remote held in one hand. As such, it concentrates much more on upper body movements.

                        The songs can either be chosen manually or you can put it on automatic and take what comes. My daughters were initially disappointed by the selection of songs. Quite of few of them come from the last millennium and they'd been expecting a more up to date selection. However, I think this is always going to be the case in a game such as this; here songs go from the 1960s and 70s (Beach Boys and Anita Ward) up to the 2000s (Katy Perry) and include numbers such as:

                        Kylie Minogue - Can't Get You Out of My Head
                        Katy Perry - Hot 'n' Cold
                        MC Hammer - U can't touch this
                        Fame - in the style of Irene Cara
                        Deee-Lite - Groove is in the heart
                        Technotronic - Pump up the jam
                        Cyndi Lauper - Girls just wanna have fun
                        Trashmen - Surfin Bird
                        Blur - Girls & Boys
                        Points are awarded depending on how closely you follow the avatar and how much energy you put into the moves. Each move is rated Great, OK or X and there are additional points to be gained by getting several Greats in a row or a 'Combo'. You see each move graded a fraction of a second after performing it and a graphic shows how well you are doing. If you get the highest score for a particular dance, the score is registered with the song for future dancers to aim for.

                        My daughters and I have all played on this for hours at a time and boy, it's a good workout. Even though you are playing using just the remote, you can't avoid moving your feet as well (in fact, I think the Wii somehow registers whether your feet or moving or not - perhaps I'm just paranoid). And on both evenings since buying it, we've had to turn off the heating in the house because we've got so warm. So whatever it costs, we might find we save even more on our oil bill!

                        There are two problems. There are times when, however closely you appear to follow the avatar, you just get a series of Xs. I'm not sure why this is; it doesn't seem to depend on rhythm or energy or the positioning of the dancer. It's extremely frustrating when you're giving your all and getting no points.

                        The other problem is with the multi gamer format. It's possible to play this with up to four people at a time (depending on the number of remotes you have) but we had problems with just two. Perhaps we're just too competitive or too energetic but we found it was genuinely dangerous once more than one person was playing. In order to see properly, you really have to stand side by side but we ended up punching each other quite frequently. Remember it's not just a hand you get hit by; it's a hand clutching a remote that has turned into a weapon.

                        The instruction booklet does suggest that if you haven't got space to stand next to each other, you should stand in formation but this does mean the person at the back feels somewhat left out.

                        However, we have found that even using just the single player format, this has proved spectacularly successful both to play and to watch. It's certainly worth the £17.99 that most sites seem to be selling it for.

                        An adapted version of this review now appears on Ciao

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                        • Anything Left-Handed / DIY Store / 25 Readings / 23 Ratings
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                          19.02.2010 14:50
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                          A superb site that seems genuinely to care about its customers

                          First, a confession. I'm not left handed.

                          However, I do live with two left handed people, my OH and my eldest daughter, and it was I who first found this shop when it really was a shop (near Carnaby Street in London) about 20 years ago.

                          There was no online shopping then but they had a very good mail order catalogue and the first thing I bought was a bread knife for my partner. It hadn't previously occurred to me that the reason he always cut the bread wonky was because the serrations on a 'normal' bread knife are the wrong side for a left handed person. Obvious when you think about it but it really is a right handed world to which left handed people have simply to adapt.

                          The bread knife was (and still is after two decades) brilliant and while it didn't bring permanent peace to the household, it did remove one minor irritation and that, as any couple knows, is something to be thankful for.
                          Since then, I have bought additional knives, both for us and for left handed friends, as well as a variety of other kitchen implements, scissors, and even a left handed fountain pen when my daughter started 'joined up' writing. Again, I just hadn't spotted that pen nibs are cut on an angle that favours right handers. The left handed pen made my daughter feel special but also genuinely helped her writing.
                          I also bought my daughter a book about left handed people and left handed facts which she adored.

                          All of these have been excellent quality and brought an identifiable improvement to my left-handers' lives.

                          I'm less enamoured of what I see as the more gimmicky things. A clock that goes backwards is an amusing subject for conversation for about ten minutes and then it's just irritating (for left handers as well as right handers). A pack of cards still sits unused because even the left handers in the family can't see the point.

                          Something else I like about Anything Left Handed is the fact that it's a family run business and, even on that most impersonal of outlets, a website, there is a real sense of community. The London shop closed down in 2006 and now all their sales are via the website.

                          However, there is still a feeling that you are getting personal service. It's not all about selling something. There are lots of pages explaining how the products work and why they are useful for left handers. There are also videos so that you can see how the product is used by a left handed person. And there is a Left Handers Club, a blog and regular updates on new items and news that affects left handers.

                          All good. The one drawback is the postage cost which is £4.95 whatever you buy. Now I'm not saying that isn't fair, it's just that so many online sites reduce the cost if you buy over a certain amount that it now seems to be the norm. I think it says something that several hundred words on the website are devoted to justifying the postage costs.

                          It's worth noting that Anything Left Handed will deliver to virtually anywhere in the world. The exceptions are listed on the site and are generally places where UPS doesn't operate. They will only use courier delivery to some countries and that bumps up the postage cost to nearly £18.95. Again, the countries are clearly listed.

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                          • Garnier Nutrisse / Hair Care / 24 Readings / 22 Ratings
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                            19.02.2010 12:14
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                            A good value product with good value results

                            Old photographs show that, until my late teens, I had lovely blonde hair. Then it started to darken and change until the description 'mouse' actually seemed like a compliment. In a further blow, I started to go grey around the age of 30 - but at least that meant I felt justified in turning to the bottle and, finally, a lovely blonde colour again.

                            Only you never really get to create that same colour, do you? And the Garnier Nutrisse range, for all its strengths, is never going to make me look like a teenager again.

                            One of its main strengths is the cost. It's one of the cheaper hair colourants on the shelves and can usually be found for under £4 a box in the larger supermarkets. There are others that are more than twice that price but I've never been twice as happy with them so I stick to the bargain one. I only use one box at a time because my hair is shoulder length - they advise two boxes if your hair is longer. My preferred colour is No 8, Vanilla Blonde.

                            Garnier Nutrisse has changed a lot since I first started using it. For one, the smell is much better. My family used to avoid the bathroom for hours after I'd used it but now - whilst not welcoming the smell - they're quite happy to put up with it. The packaging has changed, always staying reasonably contemporary. The protective gloves are now packaged separately rather than rolled into the instructions. And I think the colour is better; a little less brash than it used to be and it lasts a bit longer.

                            As with most hair dyes, you have to mix two liquids together into a single bottle, then apply to the hair. For me, that's just the roots in the first application and I like the long tip on the bottle which means that you apply direct from the bottle and get the colourant to the roots effectively. I then leave the dye for about 15 minutes before massaging into the rest of my hair (they advise between 10 and 25 minutes depending on the amount of grey). In the final stage, I leave the dye for about 10 minutes before washing off. It takes ages to wash out completely but I think this is a drawback with most hair colourants.

                            They now provide a small green plastic bottle of conditioner instead of a sachet as before; apparently it's enough for two uses but I think I used most of it on one. Still, it's a useful little bottle for travelling.
                            The box contains full instructions for use. Of course, you should do an allergy test before every use of hair dye; I haven't done one for years so I suppose I've just been lucky, but the instructions on how to do the test and how to use the colourant are clear.

                            Garnier Nutrisse sells itself on being 'enriched with fruit oil' and it has a picture of an avocado on the front so one assumes that avocado is in the hair colourant. However, a read through the largely incomprehensible list of ingredients on the back shows that the dye itself has grape seed oil in it and the avocado is in the conditioner. Does that matter? I'm not sure but it just feels a tad like cheating.

                            I also notice that it trumpets 'your colour stays looking radiant week after week' and then in small print 'with regular use of the After Colour Conditioner'. But they only give you enough After Colour Conditioner for two uses! So how are you supposed to use it regularly?

                            Generally, though, I think this is as good a product as you're going to get for the price.

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                          • More +
                            18.02.2010 00:15
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                            Perfect inexpensive base for seeing Vesuvius, Pompeii and Sorrento

                            If you like travelling in style; if you prefer personal service; if you're able to book a hotel without worrying about the cost - stop reading now.

                            However, if you're planning a trip to Naples, want good value (i.e.cheap!) accommodation and you're not worried about a few privations - I've got just the place for you.

                            B&B Bonapace Porta Nolana is one of three budget priced Bed & Breakfasts run by the same Neapolitan family. The other two are Bonapace Mergellina and Bonapace La Terrazza but I can't offer any comment on those.

                            Bonapace Porta Nolana is located in an old apartment block just outside the entrance to the historic city centre from which is takes its name. It could not be better placed: less than ten minutes from the main railway station with bus links to the airport, five minutes from the railway station that links to Vesuvius, Pompeii and Sorrento and a matter of steps to the ancient city walls and, from there, the historic centre itself.

                            Its location is the main reason I chose it because we had less than 48 hours in Naples - flying in late Friday night meant that I wanted to be able to get to our accommodation before the children got too tetchy. And the following morning, we wanted to get to Pompeii with as little fuss as possible. Bonapace Porta Nolana made that possible.

                            I found Bonapace Porta Nolana through an internet search. The website is written in both Italian and English which made it easy to understand exactly what the accommodation offered. I was attracted by the fact that they have quad rooms, which usually work out cheaper than two doubles and that most of the rooms are en-suite. I also liked the fact that they served breakfast (despite the name, some Italian B & Bs don't - they simply give you a voucher for the nearest bar). Another major attraction is that you can make an instant booking via a credit or debit card through the website (and there is no cancellation charge if you give them at least 7 days notice). There are also photographs on the website, so I was reasonably comfortable about what we were letting ourselves in for.

                            As someone who usually travels on the cheap, I know that the accommodation around a railway station terminal is usually inexpensive but that the area itself can be rather unpleasant. Even I was unprepared though for the message from Alessandra at Bonapace warning me that 'Naples is a very chaotic city.......and on the front building's gate, I don't prefer to have a big sign'. She also advised me to book a shuttle taxi from the airport at a cost of 30 euros. Now, Naples airport is only about 2 km from the city so I thought that was a little high - we caught the bus instead and although it took longer, Alessandra had given us clear directions to get from the bus stop to Porta Nolana.

                            It took us a while to work out exactly which building was the B&B - there really is no indication other than a little note underneath the correct buzzer - and then there are several flights of steep stairs to get to it (no lift). Once we arrived though, we could not have been made more welcome. Alessandra had warned us that last booking in time was 8pm and we crashed that by nearly an hour thanks to a delayed flight. However, we had phoned and texted her to let her know our progress and she was very pleasant despite having to wait for us for so long.

                            There is a tiny reception area with a couple of soft chairs and a bookshelf with information about Naples and the surrounding area (at this point, my excited teenagers - permanently plugged into their iPods - also discovered that the Reception area has free wi-fi.)

                            Then there is a short corridor to the kitchen area where guests are able to organise light snacks and drinks. From there the corridor goes at right angles and this is where the 6 bedrooms and one communal bathroom are found.

                            So to our room. I think it's fair to say they made the most of the space. There was one *huge* double bed and the two singles appeared to be sofas with the cushions removed. There wasn't a lot of space to move but there was a large wardrobe, a full length mirror and some little bedside cabinets so there were some creature comforts. The soft furnishings were quite opulent and the room very clean. The en-suite consisted of a loo, hand basin and a shower tray with a curtain around it. The bathroom looked and smelled damp but it was clean and functional. Like many cheaper B&Bs, there was some handwash but no other toiletries.

                            Enormous doors lead out onto a tiny balcony from where you can watch the chaos that is Naples at night. Thankfully, the doors are well soundproofed - helped out by luxurious heavy curtains that also block out all the light. Although Bonapace Porta Nolana is on a busy road, we heard virtually nothing and slept well.

                            Breakfast each morning was better than expected. There is just one large table that all the guests share - first game of the day is to work out what nationality everyone is. There is a choice of drinks - coffee, tea and hot chocolate - that are made fresh to order. A plate of cornetti (like croissants) was served warm from the oven and there were also fresh rolls, jam and butter. You could help yourself to a variety of juices.

                            Would I go back again? Like a shot. The cost depends on the time of year but at the end of October 2009, our total bill was150 euros for a two night stay for four people. The area was very seedy but the B&B itself was comfortable and clean and within walking distance of everything we wanted. The emails I received from Alessandra were friendly and informative and she was happy to give us additional information to help us plan once we arrived.

                            I was tempted to give this B&B five stars but, although it's great value, I thought the bathroom could have been improved through a better extraction unit and it is undoubtedly in a seedy area of a seedy city.

                            B&B Bonapace Porta Nolana can be found via their website www.bonapaceaccommodation.com

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