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sharper_fin
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Member since: 14.06.2013

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      03.11.2014 15:01
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      • "It's cheap"

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      • "Nowhere near all the hype"

      Not even Breaking Even

      'Breaking Bad' is frequently hailed as one of the best television drama shows ever. It has been nominated for scores of Awards and it's difficult to find anyone who hasn't seen and raved about it, despite the program never officially having been shown here in the U.K.

      Now that the series has finished I decided to finally find out what all the fuss was about. The whole box set of series one is now available on Amazon for around eight pounds, though you can find it cheaper elsewhere if you shop around. For your money you get all seven episodes of the season (apparently it was shorter than expected due to a writer's strike) spread across three discs.
      I know that I'm going to upset a lot of people when I say this but the most praise - and worst insult - that I can give this show is that, in my view, it's OK. That's it, just OK. Nothing special at all.

      The basic premise is that a chemistry teacher (Walter White) discovers he has terminal cancer. He's fifty years old, struggling financially and his wife is unexpectedly pregnant. This mild-mannered teacher decides that there's only one way that he can provide for his wife, disabled teenage son and unborn child after his death. He decides completely out of the blue to cook crystal meth as a way to make money. As the series progresses this gentle everyman character takes on the toughest crime lords and muscles in on their territory. To tell any more of what happens would be falling foul of Spoilers but that's the set up for series one and the rest of the show.
      I'm sorry but I simply didn't believe a word of it. There's nothing in the early scenes to indicate that this squeaky-clean character would even know what crystal meth is, let alone have the wherewithal to confidently enter the shadowy world where it's dealt and taken as a matter of routine. The fact that White's brother in law is a detective investigating the local drug production scene is presumably meant to add to the tension. Will he / won't he discover that Walter is making the purest crystal meth ever seen on the streets? I just thought that Walter's love and respect for his brother-in-law would be yet another reason why he wouldn't touch this stuff with a barge pole.
      Lots of viewers have commented on the gripping slow-burn of the show, how it builds the tension and pressure on the characters gently, almost imperceivably. Many call this genius scripting and character development. I call it boring. There are long scenes - occasionally almost entire episodes -where nothing much happens at all. Honestly, half an hour of 'Father Ted' is much more intriguing.

      There's nothing wrong with Bryan Cranston's acting as the schoolteacher Walt White, nor any of the actors in the other roles. They all did a fine job with the characters and scripts that they were given, but for me it's those scripts that are the problem. I know that many, many people really love this show but I found it to be completely unbelievable, unconvincing and slow to the point of tedium. There were however a few very blackly comic scenes that I enjoyed. I guess that I - a middle aged man from the north of England who knows nothing of the world of drugs and cares even less - may not be the target audience.

      Postscript - After I shared my views with some friends most of them said, "Oh, you just have to give it time. It grows on you." So I watched most of the second season too. Sadly this didn't change my view. I got two fifths of the way through the drama's entire run. I think that any quality show should have grown on me by then.

      (Also published on Ciao)

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        03.11.2014 14:54
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        • " and the yellow bottle makes me smile"
        • " relaxing"
        • Calming

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        • "Not Cheap"

        As Calming as a Bach Prelude

        It's a stressful world we live in. Never before have so many people suffered from panic attacks and depressions. Over a third of us will suffer from these debilitating symptoms during our life. Given these facts it's no wonder that Bach Rescue Remedy is so popular.

        Bach Rescue Remedy famously comes in a little yellow bottle and you apply a few drops of it onto your tongue, but now there's a new way to calm down in the form of this spray. It too comes in a small glass bottle with a bright yellow cap and label. You can get a tiny 7ml version but the one I have is 20ml. The 7ml cost around £4 with the 20ml being much better value at around £8. As always though you can get bargains if you shop around.
        It's made from a combination of 38 Bach Flower Essences, the main of these being Rock Rose for terror and panic, Impatiens for irritation and impatience, Clematis for inattentiveness, Star of Bethlehem for shock and Cherry Plum for irrational thoughts. The point of the spray is to calm you down during times of anxiety. It can raise your spirits too and give you a little bit of a boost when you need it. On the bottle it sums this up quite nicely, simply saying "to comfort and reassure". That's the idea anyhow. Thankfully it's 100% so is non-addictive, so it has to be worth a try, right?

        The instructions say to spray two or three times onto your tongue as necessary. I thought that it would have a floral taste, being made up of all those flowery ingredients, but of anything it gives a hit of whiskey on the tongue. That's not a bad thing (for me) and brings plenty of calming associations with it on its own.
        There's no doubt that Rescue Remedy works for me. Within just a few seconds of squirting it I feel calmer and more in control of things. Not hugely, but it does take the edge of whatever panic is getting hold of me at the moment. I can't say that it's the answer to all life's problems but it helps, a bit - and every little helps.

        Is it the product that makes me feel less stressed? Is it the whiskey taste and association of good times? Is it just the placebo effect, the knowledge that I'm taking some action? I don't know and really, does it matter? I'm not too bothered by the science of what's happening in my brain and nervous system. All that I care about is that Bach Rescue Remedy helps me face the world in those times when it all seems too difficult. And that's a very good thing indeed.

        (Also published on Ciao under the same user name)

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        12.02.2014 11:07
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        Possibly Charlaine Harris's best work

        Let's get this out of the way right at the beginning. This book has nothing whatsoever to do with William Shakespeare. It's not written in Ye Olde English and there are no ruffed collars to be found. What it is is a very decent 'whodunnit' murder mystery in the style of M. C. Beaton but with a slightly darker edge. This is perhaps to be expected when you realise that it's written by Charlaine Harris, the best-selling author of the Sookie Stackhouse Southern Vampire Mysteries series of books which were adapted for television as 'True Blood'.

        I really like those novels but actually I think that I prefer this. One of the (few) problems that I have with the True Blood books is that the world they create is huge, sprawling, and populated with a huge amount of creatures. Sometimes you can get a little lost in that (admittedly brilliantly conceived) world.

        The reason behind the book's title is that it's set in the small American town of Shakespeare and because it never ventures outside the town limits you get a chance to really get to know the place and its limited number of inhabitants. They're fleshed out much better than those in Miss Harris's more famous works and it seems a more intimate work because of it. It's like a gentle chat between author and reader.

        The main character is a humble cleaner named Lily Bard (and that's where the Shakespeare reference end). She has moved to the small town to escape from her horrible experiences in the big city where she was raised. It's quite a way into the book before her secrets are revealed but when they are they are truly horrific. You can easily understand why someone in that position might want to leave everything behind and start again.

        The trouble is that you can never fully leave your past behind. You carry it with you, and Lily is a deeply troubled person because of hers. She has trouble making friends, keeping her anger in check, sleeping... and it's this last problem that starts the book as she takes a late night walk and witnesses someone disposing of a dead body.

        From therein it becomes a standard 'cosy crime' novel. I could easily imagine Agatha Christie's Miss Marple on holiday solving the same crime in the same location, although her techniques would be very different to Lily Bard's. Lily's only real release is her obsession with martial arts and she gets to put her training to good use when she's attacked on more than one occasion. I can't imagine Miss Marple taking on people with her secateurs while trimming her roses.

        The story is, if I'm honest, quite so-so. It's as if the author set up a whole load of possible suspects and at the end picked one of them at random and worked a fairly weak resolution to make them guilty. But then again that summed up the vast majority of Miss Christie's work too and it didn't do her career any harm. What's most important in this book (as with Dame Agatha's) are the characters. Lily Bard is an utterly believable twenty-first century woman. Damaged but determined to keep going, one day at a time. That's how healing works and that's why Lily is in Shakespeare, to heal. But sadly her sudden involvement in the murder and consequently the police threaten to undo her hard work. And when it becomes apparent that someone in town knows her past, she has to fight to keep her anonymity and sanity.

        As a murder mystery, it's as good as any other. I've read many many similar novels. But as a character study it stands head and shoulders above the rest.

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        22.01.2014 11:35
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        A great book if you can go with its flow

        Although most people will have heard of 'Rosemary's Baby' and many will have seen the unsettling 1968 film by Roman Polanski I'd guess that few will have read Ira Levin's original novel. Levin also wrote 'A Kiss Before Dying', 'Sliver', 'The Boys from Brazil' and 'The Stepford Wives', all of which would become successful movies, but it is probably 'Rosemary's Baby' for which he is best remembered.

        The novel begins with Rosemary Woodhouse and her struggling actor husband Guy moving into a prestigious apartment block in New York City. They can't really afford it but they're hoping that Guy will land a big role soon and hoping even harder that Rosemary will fall pregnant. The accommodation and the area would be perfect for children. The neighbours are fine too; mostly elderly people. They soon become firm friends and, when Guy's work does indeed take off and Rosemary does indeed find that she's going to have a baby, then everything seems perfect for them.

        In these initial stages the book portrays an idyllic version of life in 1960's New York. It's 'Friends' for the Baby Boomer generation. Cocktails, house parties, actors and artists. It could also be seen as slow. The book definitely doesn't start with a bang. It revels in the details of Rosemary's everyday life as it slowly turns the screw on the terror that begins to take over her life.

        Readers who remember the film version may be surprised at this as Mia Farrow's brilliant portrayal of the stifling claustrophobia of her life pretty much from the beginning of the film isn't here. She and everyone around her appear perfectly 'normal' (given their supposed lifestyles) until well into the book. Indeed it's a perfect study of everyday life among the wannabe glitterati until late into Rosemary's pregnancy when she begins to suspect that something is very wrong indeed. That's when her panic sets in. That's when she becomes sickly and in need of near-constant doctoring. And that's when she begins to worry that she's becoming paranoid and maybe a little insane.

        Is she paranoid? Is she crazy? Is it just her raging hormones playing tricks on her? Or could those that she's come to know and love actually be more than they seem? She doesn't know, and neither does the reader until very close to the end. It's that psychological confusion that adds to the book's unsettling effect.

        Any parent - especially mothers - will be able to identify with Rosemary's terror that something is wrong with her baby. That someone wants to abduct her baby. Or worse. Even talking about it is a taboo that is rarely broken and certainly wasn't in the late sixties when this novel was written.

        There's no graphic violence here, no huge jumpy shocks, nothing to make you throw the book across the room in disgust; just a collection of unsettling ideas that build into a whole idea that couldn't possibly be true. But the moment that we put ourselves into Rosemary's position and wonder "What if..?" it becomes one of the scariest horrors ever put to print.

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          20.01.2014 14:51
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          Not the worst yogurt out there but definitely not the best

          This pack of four Shape yogurts by Danone contains two strawberry and two raspberry tubs, each weighing in at 120g. They're normal sized pots of yogurt. Straight off I better say that they were just 75p for the pack of four from Asda (as at January 2014). This information may colour your view of my review.

          Danone make a big thing about these yogurts containing zero fat yet will 'make you feel fuller for longer'. And for me at least, it's true. Eating one of these little tubs at lunchtime does actually keep me feeling full enough that I can avoid raiding the biscuit barrel for the few hours until my evening meal. That has to be a good thing.

          As soon as you tear back the foil lid you can smell that these yoghurts are very fruity. They even have tiny chunks of real fruit in them, which is lovely. They're quite thick and creamy (though nowhere near the lusciousness of, say, a Muller fruit corner) and stick to the spoon well. They're not runny at all. Both varieties are a pleasant pinky-red colour although some consumers may be put off my the fact that this colouring is cochineal and is derived by crushing lots of beetles. It's also known as carmine or E120. I know that some people might be disgusted by this but this dye is incredibly common. Drinks, food, cosmetics, clothes... basically if you've ever eaten anything with a red tinge or used any red cosmetics, hair dye or lipstick, the chances are fairly good that there was some cochineal dye in it. So if you can get past that....

          I have to say that I found these yogurts to be quite chemical tasting. Yes, they're creamy as advertised. Yes, the bits of fruit make a nice addition to the texture so that it's definitely not slimy like some ultra-low calorie yogurts can be, but I really wanted to taste the sweet tang of the fruit and the acidity of the fresh yogurt. What I actually got was a chemical tartness that seemed to cling to the back of my tongue for quite a while afterwards. It's not unpleasant by a long way and I'll certainly eat them again, but only if they were on offer I think, and certainly not if something like an Activia yogurt was the same price.

          Overall then cheap enough, tasty enough, creamy enough and low enough in calories for most people.
          If you can get over the beetle thing.

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          • The Works / Highstreet Shopping / 38 Readings / 38 Ratings
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            17.01.2014 12:42
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            If you want it, grab it now!

            From its name you'd imagine that this High Street shop would sell everything. "The Works." But it doesn't. It sells mostly cheap books and, with over three hundred shops around the United Kingdom, the chances are that there's a branch near you.

            It's basically the Poundland of book shops. They pile lots of books in, price them as cheaply as they can and the customer never knows what's going to be available on any given day. If you see something that you like in a branch of The Works, grab it as soon as you see it. It may never be there again. Then again, they may have thousands of copies and they'll clog up the shelves for months on end. You never know.

            As an example of the kind of savings you can get, my local branch currently (January 2014) has boxed sets of George R. R. Martin's "A Song of Fire and Ice" novels (filmed as "Game of Thrones") for sale. They have a printed retail price of £60 but The Works are selling them for just £32. Or you could by the complete "Hunger Games" trilogy for eight pounds instead of twenty-four. If thriller fiction is more your style then you can get eight different Lynda La Plante novels for just thirteen pounds. Those are the kind of prices that you're looking at here. But as I say the stock varies massively and changes regularly. They usually have a huge display of cookery books too, with most of the latest TV chef offerings available for a half or a third of cover price. As you can imagine these make great Christmas and birthday gifts.

            The thing that I like best about The Works is their huge selection of novels priced at three for a fiver. You can find a lot of big names in this section (they had all three "Fifty Shades of Grey" books in recently) but I like to try authors that I've never read before at this price. True, I've bought some that haven't ultimately been to my taste but I've had a lot of nice surprises too which has encouraged me to seek out more work by authors that I'd previously not known had existed.

            If you have young children then The Works is an absolute must. Not only do they sell lots of young reader books (they usually have a large stock of books featuring Disney and other well known characters) but they sell lots of crafting equipment really cheaply too. Most of it is aimed at youngsters so if you want to get messy but don't want to spend a fortune then try this shop.

            Most branches have a section of audiobooks too, again cheaply prices. I like to listen to books while traveling so at three for ten pounds it's a great place to stock up on discs. It's important to say here that these are the proper item, usually read by some famous name. There's nothing 'knock-off' about them at all. As with the books, they're just overstock - the producer hasn't been able to sell as many as expected of the full-priced product so The Works can buy them up cheaply and in bulk and pass that saving on to the likes of you and me.

            They also stock DVDs. These aren't likely to be big name blockbusters (although you never know) but are more often satellite television series collections. A boxed set of things like "Meerkat Manor" or "Ice Road Truckers" for around three or five pounds. As with everything else at the shop you have to just grab what's there.

            And that's the main problem that I can see with The Works. You can't ever plan to buy anything there. It's the ultimate impulse purchase store. It's impossible to say "I want to buy (x), I'll see if they have it in at "The Works". You just turn up and see what they have that you didn't know that you wanted! In that respect it could be said that it's not a great shop, that it only exists by making you buy things that you didn't really want.

            But at these prices, it's usually worth a risk.

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              14.01.2014 17:07
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              A great gift, but I don't know if I'd have bought it for myself.

              I had no idea that this little book existed but I received it for Christmas from my niece who knows that I like to experiment with sweet concoctions in the kitchen.

              It's called "The 30 Best recipes - Ferrero Nutella" by Jacqui Small, and the first thing that immediately strikes you is that the book is actually shaped like a large jar of Nutella chocolate and hazelnut spread. It has a padded cover to give it a 3D effect too so it certainly stands out on my shelf of recipe books.
              There are, as the title suggests, thirty recipes in the book and I expected them to be all different kinds of cake fillings and the like. That's the only way that I've seen Nutella used in cooking before. But the author has been incredibly inventive with her choice of recipes.

              They fall into four (quite random) categories:

              *** Little Nutella Treat
              This section contains ideas for Nutella and fruit sandwiches, little sponge cakes with Nutella fillings, banana tartlets, soufflés and croissants. There's nothing too out of the way here but it seems to be a gentle way of getting you into the idea of using the spread as an integral ingredient.

              *** Melt-In-The-Mouth Nutella
              This section definitely covers deserts, with recipes including panne cotta, merangues, crème brulee and rice puddings, all with a Nutella twist. Kids will find the banana and Nutella milkshake especially easy to have a go at.

              *** Nutella For Sharing
              Things start to get a bit more complicated and sophisticated in this third part of the book with cheesecakes, pear crumble, caramel cream lollies and an amazing looking chocolate terrine to have a go at.

              *** Amazing Nutella
              I'm not so sure what's so 'Amazing' about this final segment. It has some very nice rice cakes, macaroons, spring rolls and truffles (all, again, flavoured with Nutella) but some of the earlier recipes are much more inventive and surprising. Still

              All the recipes have beautiful colour photographs to accompany them and the instructions are very comprehensive and easy to follow. Even a novice cook should be able to have a go at just about everything in here. It sort of goes without saying that you have to like Nutella to get the most out of this book but I guess that many of the recipes could be adapted to use plain melted chocolate or even leave it out altogether. But that pretty much defeats the object.

              All in all it's a great idea and a great gift. Honestly I don't think I'd have paid the cover price of £8-99 for it but I'm glad someone thought about it for me. It's only a small book but it certainly makes you think a little outside the box. There's nothing wrong with a Victoria sponge or apple pie but sometimes it's good to experiment, and this book definitely points you in that direction.

              Go nuts. Get cooking.

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              • Lush Lord of Misrule / Bath & Shower / 32 Readings / 32 Ratings
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                14.01.2014 10:48
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                Hedonism in a ball

                I'm a big fan of Lush's bath bombs. They're basically balls around the size of a tennis ball that you drop into your bath. They then fizz and foam away to leave the water, the bathroom and the bather smelling gorgeously for some time - up to a full day - afterwards. Of course some of them smell better than others, that's all down to personal taste, but I've yet to find one that was really bad. The only problem is that they're so very expensive.

                This particular ball, the Lord of Misrule, is priced at £3-30. That's not a cheap bath by anyone's standards especially if you're the kind of person who just has a quick dip. Fortunately I like a big long soak. Listen to the radio, read a book, glass of wine, whatever. I like to enjoy baths for up to an hour or more. If you look at it that way then £3-30 for an hour's relaxation isn't a bad price.

                It's a gritty sea-green ball which doesn't smell too much of anything when you pick it up but when you drop it into the bathwater it reacts in one of the strongest ways I've seen of any Lush bath bomb. It immediately lathers up into an apple green foam, fizzing and spinning as the ball slowly dissolves. But then the foam briefly turns white as the outer layer breaks down to reveal its secret. The centre is a deep, rich purple colour filled with popping candy - but I don't think it's of the edible kind. I certainly wouldn't try it. This of course sets off an even stronger reaction with the water, sparking and jumping around the bath as each little candy piece explodes, breaking the ball into lots of little green and purple clumps. As these slowly fizz into oblivion they give off little foam aura islands which float around them like some a hippy dream.

                The kids would love it but it's not a childish smell at all. It's a complex, mature aroma of autumn, all cinnamon toffee apples and bare trees. It's officially vanilla, black pepper and patchouli oil but to me it's a twilight walk in an autumn wood. Try it at sunset and see if you agree. The fact that the water eventually settles (after about ten minutes of fizzing and foaming) into a lovely mulled wine colour all helps to give the overall effect. I just wish there was a roaring fire in my bathroom!

                The Lord of Misrule was supposed to be a special release for the Pagan feast of fools festival on Bonfire night but there are still plenty around (in mid-January) and the staff tell me that they have no plans to remove them just yet. Still, I may just get a couple more, just in case.

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                  09.01.2014 13:25
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                  An excellent business book

                  This hardback book was published in 2006 and rocked many people's view of the cute and cuddly Walt Disney Company when it was released. There's little fun to be found in this book. To start with it's pretty hefty, with my hardback version coming in at almost six hundred pages. It's also quite serious, being a business study of one of the darkest periods in Disney's corporate history.

                  If the above hasn't put you off and you can get hold of this long-out-of-date volume at a reasonable price then you're in for a treat. It's a fascinating account of (Walt's nephew) Roy E. Disney's attempts to oust Disney chairman and C.E.O. Michael Eisner from the company's boardroom in the early years of the 21st century.

                  Pulitzer prize-winning author James B. Stewart had unprecedented access to both sides of the battle and gives a glorious account of a company in danger of destroying itself from the inside out... and coming through the battle scarred but arguably stronger than ever. He paints a balanced picture of Eisner as micro-managing control freak who wanted to run the company as his personal empire and didn't mind who he upset on the way - but got some amazing results too. And Roy E. Disney comes across as a man living in the shadows of his older (and now deceased) family members, trying to clear up a mess that he knew he was largely responsible for creating.

                  It would be a great read if it were about any large company. The fact that so many of the major players - both real and fictional - are known to Disney fans makes it all the sweeter.

                  A version of this review was previously published on the website www.BooksAboutDisney.co.uk

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                    07.01.2014 14:30
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                    Perfect for coffee breaks

                    Once upon a time there were lots of readers of glossy weekly magazines. They had titles like Women's Own, Woman, Take a Break and More. These magazines contained lots of different features and at least one short story in every issue, which the readers loved.

                    But then a whole batch of newer, trendier magazines pushed their way onto the newsagents' shelves. These were the likes of Best, Now! and Bella and they found a readership that liked true stories of personal suffering much more appealing than life-affirming fiction. So instead of stories about people who had interesting incidents the magazine shelves became full of lurid tales of abusive partners and gory illnesses. And they also carried the promise of huge payments if the readers were willing to air their own personal dirty laundry through their pages.

                    For reasons that are beyond my comprehension these became hugely popular. So much so that the more traditional magazines quietly dropped short stories from their publications. Now there's pretty much only The People's Friend (aimed at older ladies) and Take A Break that include these little coffee-break slices of fiction, with Take A Break even producing an entire monthly magazine devoted to the short story form.

                    Take A Break's Fiction Feast costs £1-80 (at January 2014) for every 50-page issue. There are usually around twenty short stories in each copy, with each story being between one and six pages long. Anyone can submit a story for consideration - there are no in-house staff writers commissioned to produce this magazine - but in truth the same names do crop up time and time again. That's presumably because they write good, tightly crafted stories that people seem to like reading, but anyone can have a go and, if they're accepted for publication, all get paid the same.

                    Of course having a multitude of writers of varying different experiences and abilities means that the quality of the stories does vary quite a bit. A lot of it is down to personal choice (and whether your preferences coincide with those of the editor) but most of the short stories included in the magazine are of good quality. Some can be a little predictable and most of them feature a young woman as the main character. This makes sense, as most people like to identify with fictional characters and young women in their twenties or thirties make up Fiction Feast's core readership.

                    Until very recently the stories were divided into categories called Love Story, Put Your Feet Up, Spine Chillers, One From the Heart and Tale With a Twist. This gave you a clue as to what to expect from the story but in recent editions they've done away with these pointers, letting each story stand on its own without a category header. I think that I like this recent change as the reader goes in to each story cold, with no preconceived ideas and prejudices.

                    At the end of the day whether you like this magazine will depend totally on how much you like to read a short story in your coffee break or on the bus on the way to work. That's the kind of length of story we're talking about here, ones that take just ten minutes or so to read. They're generally simple tales, many with a little twist at the end and sometimes a little spooky, but there's nothing that will scare you or require you to think too hard to understand it. It's simple, gently, non-demanding fare.

                    There are very few non-story pages in the magazine. No advertisements, very few competitions or editorial pieces. It really is all about the stories. And that can't be a bad thing.

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                      06.01.2014 16:02
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                      A must for some (like me!), a useless gadget for others

                      Joseph Joseph is a small British company that make some funky-looking kitchen stuff. Most people won't be aware of them but if you know any of their products it will be this one - the Chop2pot Plus board.

                      It's basically a chopping board made of a thick plastic polymar. They come in several sizes and colours - the one that I have is lime green. The sizes are Standard (chopping area) 27 x 21 cm and Large (chopping area) 36 x 27 cm. Recommended retail prices are £13-50 and £16-50 respectively as at January 2014.

                      It has a hook for hanging it up when not in use and a series of rubberised strips on the back to stop it slipping around on your work surface when you're chopping things up. Knives and slippages are never a good combination.

                      So far so normal choppy board, but the unique thing about the Chop2pot Plus is the way that it's designed to lie flat while you're using it to chop food on but then the sides can fold up so that you can carry your chopped carrots, peppers or whatever to the pot with a much lesser chance of spilling them.

                      It works like this - the make of the board is deeply scored so that it can fold when required - they call this a 'living hinge'. When you're chopping there's a lump on the back of the board that forces that handle up and locks the board surface in the 'flat' position. I've read other reviewers say that they cannot get theirs to lay flat. All I can imagine is that they're not using it correctly because if you put any kind of pressure on the board at all (for example, chopping food on it) then it automatically flattens out brilliantly.

                      When you've done chopping and wish to carry your chopped up produce to the hob or just to pop them into another dish then just grab the handle. The natural squeezing motion of your hand around the handle (and no pressure at all is required other than that normally used when holding a handle) will automatically cause the sides of the board to lift up, a little like wings. This forms a kind of chute, forcing the chopped items into the middle and vastly reducing the chances of them falling off. It's an ingenious design and, while hardly life-changing, remarkable how quickly you get used to it and wonder why you 'struggled on' for years without one.

                      It feels very plasticky, which might put off anyone who likes the organic feel of wood or marble in a chopping board, and the surface does scratch up after a while. This is not a big problem though. They're just little surface scratches that you're bound to get on a chopping board. It's nothing to get worried about. It's dishwasher safe too.

                      I can't make my mind up if this is a nice-to-have kitchenware gadget or an immensely useful bit of kit that every home should have.

                      But I know one thing. I absolutely love it.

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                      • Starbucks Christmas Blend / Coffee / 31 Readings / 31 Ratings
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                        05.01.2014 11:00
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                        The best high street coffee there is. Bar none.

                        Some people just don't like the Starbucks brand. They object to it for economic, social or political reasons. I'm not going into those arguments at all apart from to say that if you hold those views then you won't like this coffee whatever I or anyone else says. It's Starbucks.

                        Me, I like Starbucks coffee. I like the fact that you pretty much know what you're going to get wherever you are, it'll be the same great coffee. And I especially like their special Christmas blend.

                        Some people start to get excited about Christmas when they receive their first Christmas card or hear Roy Wood and Wizzard for the first time that year. For others it's when they see the Coca Cola "holidays a-coming" trucks on television. For me, Christmas really starts when Starbucks get their delivery of Christmas blend. They first started selling it back in 1985. I haven't been drinking it for quite that long but for the last half-dozen or so years I've waited excitedly for my local Starbucks to bring out these distinctive red bags. Sad, I know, but I really do love it. You can buy it to drink at their shops or get the beans to take home and prepare itHi yourself. Like all Starbucks blends, they'll grind the beans up for you at no extra cost. The Christmas blend is now also available in their Via instant coffee sachets so you don't even need a coffee maker at home. Just add water to the microground Via and you get the perfect cup of Christmas, just like in the shops.

                        What does it taste like? Well here's what their advertising blurb says...
                        "Starbucks Christmas Blend brings bright, lively Latin American coffees together with smooth, mellow Indonesian coffees, including rare aged beans from Sumatra. The aged coffee dramatically balances out the overall flavour to create luscious, sweet spice notes."

                        I say that it's much like the normal Starbucks taste but a little gentler. It's still very strong indeed (with a full-on, front-of-forehead coffee hit) but not harsh in any way like you can get with some strong coffees. It's certainly got a little tickle of spice in there as they suggest but there are also subtle traces of a toffee sweetness hidden within the complex taste. It's also a taste that hangs around in the mouth a while after you've finished the cup. You certainly know that you've drunk it.

                        It's a very dark, almost black coffee which adds to the idea of it being like a spicy treacle toffee to be savoured, not thrown down the throat in a rush. It's bold and distinctive, there's nothing insipid here at all, but it's classy and not brutal. Some big flavour coffees would chew a mug of Mellow Birds or Nescafe and spit it out, giving it a battering for being so weak and feeble. This one wouldn't even notice the mug of cheap, instant coffee; it's in such a different class that the cheap, standard coffees wouldn't even register as being the same drink.

                        I wouldn't want to drink too much of it (honestly, it does affect my tummy a little if I have too many cups in a day) but as a wintertime treat it's magnificent. And It's not for everyone. Some won't like it just because it's Starbucks. Some will say it's too expensive. Some will say it's too strong.

                        But for others, it's simply the king of High Street coffees. Get it while you can.

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                        • More +
                          04.01.2014 15:50
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                          Worth a try

                          Right now it's winter where I live. That means cold, for both the weather and for many of the people who live with it. And when you feel cold, you catch cold. That's what my mother used do say, at least.

                          The Wrigley chewing gum company (a subsidiary of Mars) make a range of boiled sweeties called Lockets that are supposed to relieve some of the more annoying symptoms of colds. Lockets are designed to soothe sore throats and the irritation of a tickly cough, and when you suck them they release a vapour which is meant to help clear blocked nose and sinus problems. They come in packs of ten individually wrapped lozenges and are available at something like 65 pence per pack. The original (and biggest selling) variety is honey and lemon flavour and they come in a very familiar golden yellow packet.

                          Do they work? Well I guess so, yes, but only on mild cases of cold or man-flu. Honestly, anything worse than "a bit of a snuffle" and they probably won't help all that much but they won't make your symptoms any worse either. When you first suck them you get a nice menthol and eucalyptus taste and smell that starts to clear your head. It's a reassuring smell, the kind that makes you think that it's already doing some good.
                          Then, after you've sucked it for a while you break through the boiled sweet outer and release the golden honey and glycerine centre. This trickles down your throat and soothes the soreness there. Hopefully it will take the edge off your cough too.

                          I'm a fan of Lockets, they're my first choice for this kind of light cold relief sweetie, but there are a couple of things that I don't like about them. The first is that they stick to your teeth both when you're eating them and for a long time afterwards. I know that they're supposed to coat your throat with a balmy lubricant to calm the soreness and wanting to cough but it's not good feeling as though you need to clean your teeth after each time you have one.

                          The other thing that I don't like about them is that after say three or four in a day I find that they give me a bit of a tummy ache. Apparently you're not supposed to eat more than about two full packets in any given day. I think that if you did that then your tummy troubles would be more concerning than your original cold.

                          Some people find that the honey and lemon taste isn't to their liking either. There are a couple of other flavours available - extra strong and cranberry & blueberry - which may be more to your taste.

                          Maybe it's all in my head but I do find that I feel a little better after eating a few of these.

                          But only just a little.

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                        • Premium Bonds / Discussion / 35 Readings / 32 Ratings
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                          03.01.2014 12:11
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                          Go for it if you have lots of spare cash, or you feel very VERY lucky

                          Premium Bonds were introduced by British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan in 1956 as a way of encouraging people to save money after the austerity of the second world war. They proved incredibly successful and today almost a half of us holds some Premium Bonds.

                          The attraction is very easy to understand. Anyone over sixteen years of age can buy bonds from the government website (http://www.nsandi.com/savings-premium-bonds) and these are entered into a monthly lottery with a top prize of a million pounds. Many other cash prizes are available each month, down to as little as £25, and all winnings are tax free. One of the other advantages is that you can withdraw your original stake at any time, so there is no chance of you actually losing any money.

                          You can hold any amount between £100 and £30,000 of bonds and every bond gets an equal chance of winning in the monthly draw. Of course, the more that you hold, the greater your chance of winning. Think of every pound that you hold in bonds as buying one ticket to the monthly draw. The more tickets you have, the better your chances of winning something, maybe even becoming a millionaire.

                          But is it worth it?

                          Only you can answer that question but the bare figures are these:

                          The government works out how much is held in bonds every month. It then pays 1.3% interest on that money into a prize pot. It allocates £1,000,000 of this to the first prize and then divides the rest up in various smaller cash prize.

                          The odds of an individual bond winning the smallest cash prize (£25) are 26,000 to one. Already you can see that the odds are very much against you. The chance of winning the top prize in any given month is a staggering 46 billion to one.

                          The conclusion should be obvious: you are much better putting your money into a cash ISA.

                          BUT

                          If you've maxed out your ISA holding for the year and still have a hefty chunk of cash left, then why not? It's no secret that most of the big winners are those who hold close to their maximum bond allowance. This stands to reason as if you have 30,000 tickets in the draw then your odds of winning are far greater than someone who only has 100 tickets.

                          As for me, all I can say is that I have been lucky. I got made redundant a few years ago and got a large payoff. Seeing as savings interest rates were only at around 1.5% I decided that Premium Bonds would be worth a go and have currently made about a 5% annual earning on my cash. That is way above the average person's winnings, but I'm not complaining. I haven't had any big wins, just a little trickle of £25 and £50 cheques. They'll do

                          Honestly, if you only have a few hundred quid to spare then it's probably not worth it.

                          But then again, you'll never win the raffle if you don't buy a ticket.

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                          • More +
                            02.01.2014 15:29
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                            A fantastic, loud speaker

                            They say that the two things that every product has to have are form and function, style and substance. That is it should look good and it should do its job well. I'm going to lay my cards on the table right from the start of this review. I think that this small portable music speaker from Kitsound puts lots of ticks in both those boxes.

                            I don't think that anyone could argue that this impossibly cute little penguin scores on the first count. It looks brilliant. It's such a fun little item. It's basically just a black round ball housing a speaker. It's about ten centimetres across and has some black moulded wings and a pair of orange moulded rubber feet securely attached to the ball body. That's all there is to it, apart from a cute paint job to make it look like an incredibly appealing penguin. Just look at the picture above. What comes between Q and S? That's right. Ahhh.......

                            As for function - well it's a little speaker so I didn't really expect much from it. I just wanted something that was hopefully a little better than the built-in speakers on my laptop. Well I got what I wanted and so much more! The sound is clear and loud without being trebly at all or muddy at higher volumes. I expected it to be really tinny but it's a very balanced sound for such a small unit. Obviously it's never going to compare with one of those triple-speakered-super-sub-woofer thingies that bad boys stick in the boot of their cars but it bangs out a tune with the best of them. Crank him up to eleven and he's one shouty little penguin, brilliant for annoying old ladies with badass rap at the back of the bus or for listening to downloads of the Archers while relaxing in the bath (guess which I use it for?).

                            For those who know / care about such things, here's the tech details...
                            Frequency response: 100 Hz -20 kHz
                            Driver size: 36 mm
                            S/N: 85 dB
                            Output: 2 W RMS @ 4 ohms
                            Cable length: 8.5 cm

                            There's also a socket under his wing into which you can plug another speaker or a pair of earphones. This works exactly as it should and he doesn't seem to mind having a plug rammed into his side too much. I guess you could chain a little penguin colony up this way if you wanted some serious noise.

                            He's rechargeable, and comes with his own USB charger cable. Sadly it's a non-standard type so you'll have to be careful not to lose it. Even more sadly, you have to stick it up his bottom to charge him. Fortunately it doesn't need to be done very frequently though as he keeps his charge for an impressively long time, around six or seven hours of play time on a ninety minute charge.

                            For those of you who aren't particularly attracted to penguins (and who couldn't be?) you can also get these speakers in several other equally cute shapes such as bear, monkey, dog, owl or bee. But it's the penguin that does it for me. And it's priced at just under a tenner.

                            What's not to love?

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