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For my 50th review on Dooyoo, I wanted to write about something very special. Whilst I dabble in other reviews, travel reviews are what I like the best and whilst I have a number of reviews in the pipeline, it seems very appropriate that this review is about The Great Barrier Reef. I hope you enjoy the review as much as I enjoyed the experience...... They say it is the only living thing that can be seen from space. They say it is the largest living thing on Earth. They say it is an area of outstanding Natural Beauty. I am not too sure about the first two claims, but whoever they are, they are absolutely spot on about the last. ***Background*** There is some dispute as to how big The Great Barrier Reef ("GBR") is but it is somewhere between 2300-2600 km long and consists of between 2700-2900 individual reefs and 900 islands. Each individual reef is made up of billions of individual coral polyps between 3-50mm in size and colony sizes between 75mm-1500mm. As each polyp dies, new growth starts on top of it building the size of the colony and the GBR is around 600,000 years old although the modern reef started growing on the older reef platform around 20,000 years ago. This is relatively young compared to other reefs around the world. There is a wide diversity of life living within the reef, some of which are rare or endangered. You are likely to encounter some of the 1500 species of fish, 5000 species of mollusc, 400 species of coral, 30 species of whales, 6 species of sea turtle as well as sea snakes, birds, seagrass, dolphins, sharks, porpoises as well as a whole range of other living things. It is situated just off the Queensland coast in North East Australia from around 250 miles north of Brisbane to the tip of Cape York Peninsular (the pointy thing on a map in the top right hand corner of Australia). A huge area covering nearly 350,000 square kms. It is one of the seven natural wonders of the world, became a World Heritage site in 1981 and has been part of The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park since 1975 and attracts over 2 million visitors pa. ***Getting There** Given the sheer length of the reef then there are literally dozens of places on the mainland you can travel to and use as a base for your trip. The likelihood is that a trip to the GBR will be done as part of a trip to somewhere else (or vice versa) for example a trip to Cairns to visit Cape Tribulation/Daintree (another World Heritage site) and Atherton Tableland can be used to also have a trip out to the GBR. If traveling from outside Australia you can fly direct to Cairns/Brisbane and take in the GBR from there. I am not going to cost out flights to Australia as they change daily but there are a large number of carriers and flights can be got for as little as £700 return. One point to note if booking from outside Australia is to ask your travel agent for free internal flights as these are often thrown into the equation or sold cheaply. Internal flights within Australia when booking in Australia are very expensive so any travel arrangements should be done before arrival. The reef itself is between 40-80 miles offshore (there are actually two reefs in places named the Inner & Outer reefs. The Inner reef is nearer the coast and the Outer reef out to sea). Unless you are staying on an island and can toddle down to the beach to see the Inner reef you will also have a 90 minute boat ride or seaplane journey to get to the Outer reef. ***Things to Do*** I have actually done three trips to the Great Barrier Reef in three different ways from two different starting points and this review is to cover my experience of these trips but note there are dozens of other options available. Trip one - from Airlie Beach by sailboat Airlie Beach is said to be the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef given its proximity approximately halfway down (or up) the reef. It exists purely as a tourist centre and is serviced by Proserpine Airport (circa 60 minutes away) as well as road. It is an area that looks totally misplaced given it was only set up to give tourists access to the reef as well as access to the Whitsunday Islands and is just a mass of bars, restaurants, tourist shops, gift shops, scuba outlets and places to book trips out to the reef for an immeasurable number of operators. We had booked on-line a one night stop over at Sunlit Waters apartments which cost around £40 for a double room and was clean, great location and excellent value for money www.sunlitwaters.com. The plan (this was in November) was a one night stop over then three days/two nights sailing around the Whitsundays and out to the reef on the Avatar (www.airliebeach.com/sailing-adventures/sports) a trimaran that generates tremendous speeds and which was a different way of seeing the reef and one which we fancied. It was a bit of a luxury though as this cost around £200 per person and was booked in advance on-line. The experience of doing it this way was worth every penny though as you get to meet other like minded people (21 in all plus crew). When we set off the weather was gorgeous although within an hour it had turned terrible with high winds and lashing rain. As a result the itinerary had to be changed as the weather was not fit enough and we had to detour to Hamilton Island on the first night to dock in the marina. Despite the weather two friends of ours who had not put sun cream on due to the clouds got serious sunburn and had to get off the boat on Hamilton Island for treatment. As a result of this detour the trip to the Outer Reef would no longer go ahead as there was simply not enough time to sail there and back in the remaining time. This would later turn into a blessing in disguise. The next two days were generally clear but the first days weather had stirred up the sand so the waters were not very clear. The beauty of being in a boat was we could largely go where we wanted and the crew were very accommodating in this regard and over these two days we stopped off around 6 times at various points to get out and snorkel with the fish and see the coral. The trip was fantastic although the experience of actually seeing the reef was somewhat under-whelming and I was left feeling very disappointed in a "is that it" kind of mood. I had been seduced by picture perfect post cards and National Geographic documentaries and was positively drooling at the prospect of diving into turquoise coloured seas, seeing coral of all colours and marine life swimming up to me for a closer look. The reality could not have been further from the truth with murky water, coral of various shades of gray and the odd tiddler swimming in the other direction. The site of a great white devouring one of the crew would have been a welcome bit of excitement at this stage. One memorable stop off was at Whitehaven Beach on Whitsunday Island. This is 7km long and pure white made from 98% silica (which is great for cleaning jewellery apparently) and is simply a stunning piece of natural beauty. We were surprised here by a 4ft monitor lizard walking down the beach but in the rush to get the camera it scuttled off into the undergrowth. Trip two - from Airlie Beach by seaplane When we got back to Airlie Beach and met up with our friends (who had of course missed out on seeing any coral) they didn't believe that we hardly saw anything and certainly nothing with any colour in it and as a result had been making some enquiries to fly to the Outer Reef the day after and did we fancy it. Well we had come all this way so why not and this was the second trip out to the reef and a totally different experience to the first one. We managed to book four seats with Air Whitsunday Seaplanes, Reef Adventure (circa £100 per person) and departing from Whitsunday Airport near Airlie Beach. This was booked direct with them on the phone at the time but can be booked on-line here www.airwhitsunday.com.au. Out of interest there is a video clip on the front page of this web site which gives you a feel for the trip. There were only six people plus pilot on the flight and from taking off you immediately saw so much more than we saw three days on a boat. It was actually fantastic to see many of the places we had sailed to including flying straight down Whitehaven beach which we had been stood on the day before. The true beauty of this flight though and the sight that justified every single penny of the cost was the first view of the Outer reef and specifically Bait Reef, Hardy Reef, Heart Reef & Hook Reef which we flew over and which nestles off the East Coast of Whitsunday Island, about 40 miles away. From a distance you could see the different blue/greens of the shimmering water and the reef below it and at low tides some of the reef is exposed above the water. It was a truly mesmerizing sight and even the pilot said he was transfixed every time he saw it. The first view of Heart Reef was truly awe inspiring, a near heart shaped reef in the middle of all this beauty. Despite it's beauty and the crystal clear water it is also clear that the vibrant colours I was expecting to see were not apparent with no evidence of any brilliant reds or yellows although the pure beauty of what I was seeing made this a minor inconvenience. We then landed near the reef on a special pontoon that is moored there and spent 90 minutes looking through the glass bottom and snorkeling. It really was an eerie place as there was absolutely no noise other than the soft lapping of waves against the pontoon. The water was millpond still with no wind. Here the water was much clearer than the experience on the boat although sadly there was indeed a lack of brilliant colours and it would appear that good camera work in the brochures enhances the reality. There were a lot more fish here that simply enveloped you when you went in, especially the Sargeant Major fish that came up to kiss your mask. Finally, the trip back gave us a last glimpse of the reef from the air and we strained our necks looking at it until it was too far in the distance. Without the seaplane trip I think I would have left feeling cheated. The view from the air gave a different perspective on it and whilst there is nothing better than actually being in the water, the snorkeling, once seen from above, seemed so much better. When we finished we realised that if part of the boat trip had not been cancelled then we probably would not have done the seaplane trip and this was a journey we were mightily relieved not to miss out on. Trip three - from Hamilton Island by boat This trip was in December when we stayed on Hamilton Island for three days. On this trip there was around 15 in our party and the vast majority wanted to go out to the reef so we booked through the hotel a trip out to Reefworld via Fantasea (http://www.fantasea.com.au/Reefworld/). You can pre book on-line and the cost is around £100 adults/£45 children. You go out to the reef on a large boat which takes 90 minutes and once at Reefworld (where you are at for around 3 hours) you are free to do whatever you like. Reefworld is a huge pontoon permanently anchored at Hardy Reef (or just on he edge of it) and offers snorkeling, scuba diving, submarine trip with glass walls, viewing platforms - it is set up to give you the maximum experience in a short space of time and whilst enjoyable, it was a bit of an anti climax as it offered nothing I had not seen before and I think the previous seaplane trip we did spoilt us. It was totally commercial with probably 100 people on it so it's just a hustle and bustle to do things whereby our previous trips had been relatively serene. One thing it did offer differently was that there was a 4 foot Mauri Wrasse fish that lived under it and was used to people so whilst snorkeling it would simply swim between everyone. After our final visit there I read that during November & December the coral spawns and this can cause the water to go murky. This explains why the water wasn't crystal clear in places. ***Environmental Issues*** Of course being a Natural Heritage sit as well as part of The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park demands a certain amount of environmentally friendly actions as well as steps to preserve the reef. It was clear that the staff are very protective of the reef with regular notices/warnings not to step on the coral and only a few places you can actually snorkel or dive. Conservation is high on the average Australian's psyche given they grow up with the message and wherever I have been in Australia this message is hammered home and the Great Barrier Reef is no different. Whilst catering for over 2 million tourists per annum this is not the main threat to the reef and every effort is taken to minimize this impact. It would appear the main threats to the reef are items such as climate change whereby any drastic water temperature increases can kill the coral and also effect marine life that has to move away to source food thereby affecting the food chain on the reef. When it comes to global warming I have no idea who to believe because from a layman's point of view who cannot say that the reef has experienced significant climate change already in it's history and replenished itself. One of our guides also said that the reef already has temperature swings of 4 degrees pa anyway and so a 1 degree increase in global temperatures should not affect it but who knows for sure? The crown-of-thorns starfish is also a major predator as it feeds on coral polyps and can wipe out vast areas of reef. This is apparently a cyclical event and we can only surmise has been going on for thousands of years and again the reef has recovered. The various pontoons moored throughout the reef are actually anchored outside the reef and not directly over it so do not appear to be causing any damage to the reef at all. ***Conclusion*** This is a must see attraction if you are in North Eastern Australia and there is a huge choice of where to go from on the mainland and companies to go with/places to book so shop around. I am sure there are other reef systems around the world that offer anything the GBR has got but the sheer size, options available and world famous notoriety the Barrier Reef has will undoubtedly continue to draw tourists in their droves for many years to come. If you are thinking of going to the Great Barrier Reef then stop thinking and go. It is an experience you will never forget. Also posted on Ciao with pictures.
***Why The St Giles?*** Back in September 2007 my wife and I had decided we would like to go to London for the weekend and at the same time take in a show. After further investigation, we also realised that The Terracotta Army was on show at The British Museum and a Tutankhamun exhibition at the 02 Arena so we wanted a hotel that was adjacent to most things on our to do list, close access to Euston as well as having easy access to the tube. We chose the St Giles simply because it appeared on almost every google search we did, had some decent reviews, offered an all in one price for the hotel and a show and was in a fabulous location. ***Location*** They say the three most important things for a hotel is location, location, location but I feel that location is relative. After all, an establishment cannot be located everywhere but the St Giles succeeds in being as good a location for a hotel as any I have ever been to. The location is without a doubt the one major factor in the success of this hotel and this alone excuses it for numerous other areas where it is a let down. The British Museum is a five minute walk away and our trip to the theatre was two tube journeys (15 mins) or a 15 minute walk. Even our trip out to North Greenwich to the O2 was quick (40 mins with a change) given the hotel is also 100 yards from Tottenham Court Road tube which services both the Northern & Central lines with immediate access to the rest of London. However, if a night at the theatre or a meal and drink in Soho is not your thing then this hotel may not be for you. It is five minutes by taxi from Euston and 15 minute walk from Covent Gardens/Theatreland, Soho, Piccadilly Circus, Chinatown, Leicester Square and a whole host of other places to see. ***Cost*** We booked on-line via www.superbreak.com and for 5 adults/1 child (although note that it is the same price for adults/children as you are effectively booking the room) the price was £882 for two nights including 6 tickets to see Lord of The Rings. This equates to just under £75 pp per night including the show which is good value for Central London, especially given this was also the Easter weekend. We could have got it marginally cheaper if we had spent more time shopping around though and a google search will bring up a host of links to the hotel. ***First Impression*** They say first impressions last and I will likely not forget this one simply because we couldn't find it! Whilst heavily promoted as being on Tottenham Court Road the entrance is actually on Bedford Avenue, just off TCR which was obscured by scaffolding. We eventually found it and once you do you are confronted with a 60s monstrosity that looks like it has been transported from an overspill estate. Looking up, you just see a strange design of staggered windows and a concrete façade. At ground level where you enter is an attempt of modernisation with a glass front and fancy ropes leading you to the reception up a flight of stairs. It is a totally uninspiring sight. ***Checking in*** This was very efficient as there were no queues on arrival and the process was very smooth and the staff appeared organised and polite. However, in the minute or so we were there a coach had deposited the next lot of visitors and before we knew it reception was absolutely jam packed with people attempting to check in. In the two days we were there the reception was very crowded every time we went through it with people either just arriving or leaving. It appears the hotel caters for vast numbers of people, arriving by coach, usually from Europe who arrive and depart en masse. There was no sign of any bell boys either then or throughout the stay so you have to carry your own bags to the rooms. The concierge is located near the entrance and advertises all kinds of sightseeing trips although the majority appeared to be to places outside London, further enhancing the feeling that visitors here are on pre planned/paid for outings, simply using the hotel for a bed. ***The Room*** We stayed on the 11th floor (of twelve) and because we beat the queue at reception had the lift to ourselves. Unfortunately, this was the only occasion in our two day stay that we did not have problems with the lifts. From the pretentious reception with it's fake gold & marble and wood veneer paneling to stepping into the lift gives you a sense of dread in terms of expectations. The first thing I noticed about the inside of the lift was the mirrors were tarnished to the point where they no longer acted as mirrors, giving off a very jaded, tired look which was depressing as it surely cannot cost that much to replace a mirror. Over my time there I went in every lift and each one was exactly the same. Upon leaving the lift on our floor the room numbers were clearly sign-posted and easy to find although again, the corridors and decoration had seen better times. Each corner had an aluminium cover on it, presumably to stop the plaster chipping as each punter banged their case against it whilst struggling to the room given the absence of bell boys, but the look it gave was far worse than the sight of chipped plaster. All the paintwork was old and was in desperate need of a touch up and the carpets were threadbare in places but the aluminium corner covering stopped you noticing too much. Access was via electronic keycard and you are immediately thrust into the tiniest of hotel rooms. I have stayed in railway sleepers with more room that this. The rooms are very small indeed but clean and surprisingly are a very efficient use of space although no expense was spent on the basic decorations. The bathroom was tiny but big enough although if you were disabled it would be difficult getting into the shower as it had a very high step up. I think it is fair to say that the rooms were functional although I wasn't saying this on the second day when there was no running hot water. Straight facing you as you enter is a double bed with bedside tables/lamp either side. On the right was a built in wardrobe and desk with a wall mounted TV above it although do not expect to get Sky News or CNN here. BBC News 24 is the highlight of the channels on offer. The first thing I did was go to the window to see what sights were available and I had a lovely view of the concrete patterning on the outside walls as the rooms are set back and gives the impression you are looking outside from the end of a corridor. There is a safe built into the wardrobe and basic tea & coffee making facilities. There is also a built in hair-dryer in the bathroom and I am told this was more than satisfactory. The bed was surprisingly comfortable, although there were two major problems with the room. Firstly, given it was tiny then it got very hot, even with the central heating off which meant you had to open the window. Unfortunately, this then prompted a cacophony of noise at all hours of the night which was loud enough to keep you awake, despite being on the 11th floor. It was therefore a compromise of having the window open ever so slightly but we never got the balance between heat/noise correct in our two days there and when workman starting drilling at 4am (on road-works outside) then the window had to be shut and we simply had to suffer the heat as it was the lesser of two evils. We had two nights of fitful sleep during our stay. Depending on which web site you read there are said to be between 600-670 rooms in this hotel. Now this could very well be true if you count the bedroom and bathroom as two rooms because try as I might I just could not find where there were 600+ rooms here. I worked out that at most there were 300 based on the number of rooms per floor and the number of floors. This was despite having a real nosy in places where I probably shouldn't go. Clearly, we didn't visit London to spend much time in our hotel room and this is the premis of the St Giles. I think that the owners must think guests just go there to sleep so sell themselves on the location and hope nobody notices the décor. ***Eating & Drinking*** We had paid for bed & breakfast and upon entering the dining room at 9am were met with a sight that I do not think I have seen before. It would seem this hotel has just continued to grow and space has been added on without any thought of matching the décor that is already there. The room was packed to the rafters with people and there was no way that six of us could sit together. The breakfast room is on the first floor and difficult for wheelchair access and once in is like a cattle market. My first impressions was a memory of school dinners with 70s style formica tables and cheap chairs thrown together in every available space. After five minutes though it reminded me more of a prison eating area, but more noisy. Despite the initial impressions and the fact our party was sat apart the breakfast was in fact seemingly run in terms of a military event with the idea getting people in and out as quickly as possible. Everything appeared to be well organised despite the initial thought of chaos. Both continental breakfasts, including cold cuts as well as the full English was available and was very good indeed. This is where the sheer volume of people is actually a positive given the buffet style cooked items are rarely out for long so taste fresh and hot. The only thing lacking strangely was toast although there was plenty of fresh bread. As soon as you finished you felt obliged to leave to allow another party in to eat so there was no chance of having five minutes to let things settle. The breakfast area doubles up as "Il Grasso" an Italian restaurant by night. We never ate in the hotel other than breakfast and I would not have been tempted to eat in "Il Grasso" given I could not rid myself of the memories of school dinners. Similarly, the Chinese Restaurant "Chikara" situated next to the hotel bar and the "Kobe Jones" restaurant which is around the back of the hotel, were not graced with our presence but in our time there I saw few visitors. The Lazy Dog bar did however, spring up a few surprises, the first of which was there were no Australians working behind it. We did frequent this a few times and service was good although each round came to a different amount despite it being the same round. Again though, the décor evokes memories of the 70s with low tables and chairs, dim lighting and huge, light shades which looked like the top of a baked Alaska. ***General*** The lifts were a nightmare. Very slow and if they had six people in claimed to be overloaded and stopped. Given we were on the top floor then common sense would suggest that when we got a lift it would be empty but this turned to be a pipe dream. The lift queues were that long people would get on the lift to go down, knowing it went up first so by the time it got to us it was always full. Disabled access appeared to be the most basic and there was no lift access to 12th floor so difficult if in a wheelchair/pushchair. A leisure centre and swimming pool is in the basement although was shut for refurbishment whilst we were there. Apparently it costs £4 to use it for guests and is run by the YMCA. ***Will I stay there again?*** I am absolutely, 100% certain that I will never set foot in this hotel again. There has got to be other hotels in London for the same price that offers a more comfortable experience and whilst they may not have the location of the St Giles given the excellent tube network it is easy to get where you want to go. ***Information*** St Giles Hotel, Bedford Avenue, London, WC1B 3AS Tel: 020-7300-3000. They do have a website www.stgiles.com but it has limited information on it. ***Conclusion*** I left feeling this hotel simply needed a damn good scrub and some serious modernisation. Don't get me wrong, there is nothing eminently wrong with it but it sells itself on it's location and gives the impression it couldn't care less about anything else. Everywhere I went I felt the hotel was tired. The staff were very polite and helpful but I feel what needs doing is beyond their control. This is not really a hotel you will go to "stay" in and experience what it has to offer. It is part of a mass production line in providing a service to guests whereby guests are transported to and from it and in between they will feed & water you but that's about it. It is clear from it's meaningless web site and heavy promotion by a myriad of other web sites that the St Giles is not a hotel that gives you the personal touch. Whilst you will be looked after you will not be cuddled. It will be functional rather than comfortable and once you are gone I suspect they will do little to tempt you back as a new stream of inmates arrive to take your place. Yep - it's a turd and it is beyond polishing.
No trip to Cairns is complete without a trip to Kuranda. Situated 25 kms from Cairns it is perhaps a trip best taken via an official tour which also takes in the journey to and from Kuranda. The journey to and from is undoubtedly part of the destination. We booked the "Kuranda" tour with Tropical Wings (can be viewed at www.tropicalwings.com.au) via the hotel. This cost around £50 each (£25 child) but was a full day tour starting at 7:30 when we were picked up by coach at the hotel. There were four parts to this tour starting with a short journey to the Skyrail terminal which is a ski lift up the mountain and over the Rainforest, a world heritage site. At this stage the coach driver left us and the itinerary advised that he would pick us up in just over two hours time in front of the Australian Butterfly Sanctuary. "Where is it" someone asks. "Don't worry - you will find it" was the reply in the typical Australian laid back way. The Skyrail is a wonderful, unique experience that has few equals anywhere in the world. Before we got on it though the coach driver injected a little bit of typical Australian humour into the moment when telling us about it's history. It was completed in 1995 and the construction was beset by environmental protesters trying to stop it saying it would harm the local environment and one woman glued herself to a tree (obviously in her mind gluing herself to a tree was deemed environmentally friendly). Unfortunately for her, it was the wrong tree and was not to be removed as part of the construction so they started building it around her. This typifies Australia for me and you can picture the workers having a laugh, working around her and leaving her to it. We had a car to ourselves and it takes you off into the Rainforest with Kurunda "The Village in the Rainforest" awaiting you at the other end. However, on this amazing journey there are 36 stop off (towers) points with plenty of photo opportunities and every where there are plaques detailing the history and the flora & fauna in that area. You are provided with brochures detailing the plant life at the various towers and can then get off at any stop to have a look. In addition to the towers there are two stations along the way. Qualified rangers provide regular guided tours along the boardwalks at Red Peak Station whilst Barron Falls Station provides an interactive experience. It is a holiday and history lesson at the same time and kids will love it. The stop offs are high in the rain forest canopy so you are actually stood near the top of it although views are restricted by the trees. You can get on/off as many times as you like but given we had a strict timetable wanted to get to Kuranda to have a walk round. The Skyrail covers 4.5 miles through the Barron Gorge National Park on it's amazing journey brushing the tree tops on the way. Kuranda is a sleepy village catering exclusively to tourists. It has little history although found an audience with the hippies in the 60s and with musicians and artists in the 70s no doubt that the fertile soils and lush climate helped tremendously in the growing of their own plants. It is quite small but packed with gift shops, cafes, Aboriginal artifact shops, the Rainforestation Wildlife sanctuary and various other attractions (including a huge reverse bungee jump when we were there). It is laid out like a model village with big, comical street signs pointing the way to the various attractions and there is also a visitor information centre that you really cannot miss and large scale maps of the village everywhere. After a simple snack at a roadside café we met up with the rest of the party for the next stage of the trip which was to Rainforestation Nature Park a couple of minutes away. This is a nature/animal reserve and the first thing we did was take a trip on an Army Duck which went through the reserve both on land and water. This gave us a fascinating insight into seeing the wildlife and plant life up close, especially turtles and water dragons. It was then straight on to a tour of Aborigine traditions with Aborigines leading the tour and showing us a little of their customs and explaining what each tool was for and how they were used. You could participate in this in terms of spear throwing and also boomerang throwing and my over-riding memory is a demonstration on how they throw several boomerangs at once so that they can take out several birds in a flock with one throw as it could be the difference whether they eat or not. From there it was a trip around their animal reserve meeting the kangaroos, koalas (you can have your photo taken cuddling a koala), a cassowary (a large bird that is known to attack humans and which I had never seen before) and other native Australian species. Especially fascinating was an up close and personal meet with "Jack the Ripper" - a 17 foot long saltwater crocodile, so named as he had killed twelve of his previous girlfriends! Just when we thought the trip was coming to an end we were treated to an added extra purely by chance. The Crocodile Bike race was coming to an end in Kuranda. This race is from Adelaide to Kuranda and covers many thousands of kilometers and the finish just happened to be the day we were there. The final bit of the trip was a near two hour train journey from Kuranda back to Cairns. This was a very special trip meandering through the rain forest and stopping off at selective points for photo opportunities. You would need to book this in advance to be sure of a seat although our ticket was part of the itinerary. It was great that this train was purely for tourists and if the driver spotted something then it would stop so everyone could have a look. By the time we got to Cairns station the coach driver was waiting for us to drop everyone back to their hotels. Overall, for £50 a head I feel this was a complete bargain. We saw many things we wouldn't normally experience (or think about seeing) and if you did all the activities individually under your own steam it would cost a lot more. Also posted on Ciao with pictures.
***Background*** It doesn't seem six months ago that we heard that The Terracotta Army was to leave the shores of China for the first time and take up temporary residence in The British Museum. This was an opportunity that simply could not be wasted as this exhibition may never find it's way to these shores again. We therefore booked tickets on-line and had a wide choice of availability in terms of time slots/dates given we were booking so far in advance. Tickets cost £12 adults/child under 16 free so for 5 adults and a child it cost £66 including booking fee. Booking was a very simple process and all tickets are for a timed entry slot (ours was 11:30, Sunday 23 March 2008). However, given the exhibition is nearing an end all advanced tickets are sold out although up to 500 tickets (Monday - Friday) or 700 tickets (Weekend) are available on the day from the Museum. At the time we went there were few people in the queue for on the day tickets so try and get there as early as possible. ***History*** The First Emperor, Ying Zheng, was born 259 BC and was one of the world's great rulers. At the age of 13 he became King of Qin (pronounced Chin) one of seven states at war with each other and competing for power. He conquered the other states using highly developed weapons technology and military strategy and upon completion of his campaign declared himself Qin Shihuangdi: First August Divine Emperor of the Qin. He introduced strict laws and reforms bringing in a common language, standard weights & measures, a single currency and built 270 palaces in his capital city Xianyang, as a display of power and to house the rulers of the states he had conquered. A truly remarkable achievement given the sheer size and diversity of the seven warring states. He wanted to govern forever and tried many potions to prolong his life. For over 30 years until his death in 210 BC he over-saw the building of his tomb complex, the centre of which stood his tomb which to this day remains undisturbed given it is surrounded by mercury, with no plans to excavate it. The reasons for building the complex and all the artifacts within it were to help in the afterlife. It is fair to say that the Terracotta Army has done him proud. The presence of his tomb has been known for many years although it wasn't until 1974 when a local farmer was digging a hole for a well when he came across a terracotta head. He had discovered the first of what became three pits of around 7000 terracotta warriors and other artifacts. He had stumbled upon what was to become one of the world's most important archaeological sites covering an area of 56 square kilometers. Now I don't know how big this is but it is big and it is truly fascinating that an area this large can remain undiscovered for over 2000 years. Over 30 years later the archaeologists have literally only scratched the surface of the site and to date around 7000 warriors have been found of which only around 1000 have been excavated. The site will clearly keep archaeologists in work for many years to come. Now I don't know about anyone else but I had never heard of Yinh Zheng or Qin Shihuangdi but I have certainly heard about the Terracotta Army and watched in amazement the TV pictures showing the rows upon rows of soldiers in the original site. When I heard a selection were going to be on display in the UK then this was an opportunity not to be missed. ***Exhibition*** Firstly, I don't think there is a better place anywhere in the world for this exhibition to be shown. The British Museum is probably one of the largest and most famous museums in the world but when you add into the mix the Reading Room there where the exhibition resides then a more appropriate place is difficult to find (or more accurately mounted above the reading room floor). With the high vaulted, stunning ceiling and history seeping out of every crevice then it justifies housing such a phenomenal exhibition there. The exhibition includes 120 pieces which in one way is disappointing given it provides no sense of the overall scale of things but the reality is it provides just enough of a flavour. What is good is that there is a specific order to the exhibition which promotes you to view it the correct way, take note of what you are seeing and how it fits in to the overall plans of Ying Zheng. When you first enter you are confronted by a kneeling Archer which even from a distance takes your breath away. The lighting is very dull and difficult to get used to but it does suit the exhibition given the artifacts are lit strategically. It is at this stage you become aware of the crowds and whilst the timed tickets help to control crowds enormously they only determine when you enter the exhibition and there is no restriction on how long you stay in there. It is initially frustrating that you cannot view the exhibitions without some jostling but be patient and your time will come. If you remain patient you will see everything there in its glory and read the history. If you decide to rush through something then you could miss some important information which means something else down the line doesn't make sense. Starting at the history of The Warring States right through to the Mystery of the Tomb you are presented with both the history and physical evidence from the exhibits which build you up to the next step, whilst giving you a tantalizing glimpse of a Terracotta figure in the distance. Don't even be tempted to rush forward to view it though. Take your time. Take it all in and get to understand the man behind it. They have been around for over 2000 years and will certainly not be marching anywhere in the next hour or so. The majority of exhibits are enclosed in glass cases but the main display isn't and whilst you cannot touch you can get up close and personal and walk between some of them enabling you to view them in great detail. There is also a miniature terracotta production line showing how they think the pieces were made. Whilst the bodies were largely a standard design each head was crafted individually and is unqiue. Don't be misguided thinking this exhibition is about The Terracotta Army. It isn't - it is about Ying Zheng and his role in what has become modern China and perhaps a missed trick by the Marketing Department. The soldiers are but a part of both the exhibition and the contents of the tomb. In addition to the warriors there were also terracotta acrobats, weightlifters, archers, horses and bureaucrats (thought to be tax collectors!), armour as well as bronze birds and chariots. The sheer detail in each piece is truly amazing from the creases in the sleeves, whiskers on their chin and rippling of muscles in the headless weightlifter. This is another thing that I really admired as well. Where pieces were missing they resisted the urge to fill them in. What you saw is exactly what was found. The producers of these were clearly true artists. I was also under the misconception that the figures were found intact. Again, this is not the case and they have photographs of the site showing thousands of pieces of broken clay which were painstakingly pieced together. Some of the exhibits have pieces missing or were clearly holding something when first made such as a sword, the wooden handles of which have rotted away. Again, the curators have declined not to guess what it was and so show it as it is. ***Conclusion*** This is a stunning exhibition and I would urge anyone to visit although time is running out. It is excellent value for money and an opportunity to view part of the world's history. Whilst it merely provides a glimpse of history of The First Emperor it provides an insight into his many achievements from a very early age. It would be very easy to exit and feel under-whelmed and I would suggest that anyone who has had this feeling has not given the exhibition justice. You really need to take in everything including the written history (or even hire headsets for £3.50) and only then will you appreciate the exhibition for what it is. Do not be seduced by thinking this is about The Terracotta Army as it is much more than that. The venue is both wheelchair and push-chair friendly but give yourself time to get around. Information is freely available in large print or Braille and there is an audio loop for the hard of hearing. Unfortunately, photography is banned. The exhibition runs from 13 Sep 07 - 6 April 2008. Address: The British Museum, Great Russell Street, London WC1B 3DG. Telephone: +44 (0)20 7323 8000/8299. Five minute walk from Tottenham Court Road Tube Station. http://www.britishmuseum.org/whatson/allcurrentexhibitions/t hefirst_emperor.aspx
Cairns is a strange place in that you do not really go to Cairns to experience Cairns. It is more of a focal point for exploring other areas around it. That is to say that Cairns has not got lots of attractions in it's own right because it has but the vast majority of visitors will use it as a stopping off place to see both Cairns and other attractions. After our trip to Ayers Rock, Cairns was totally different but equally appealing. ***History*** Discovered by Captain Cook in 1770 it took a further 100 years before white settlers took hold, mainly due to the wet weather, vegetation and treacherous reefs. The finding of gold in "them thar hills" put Cairns firmly on the map in 1876 as a frontier town. When this began to die out Cairns began to thrive as a fishing and pearling area and the lush land was ideal for sugar cane plantations which are still abundant today. It is difficult to believe that little over twenty years ago, Cairns was still a sleepy town but with the building of an International airport tourism exploded and Cairns is an extremely popular holiday destination for Australian and International visitors alike with a mind boggling 2.2m visitors annually. They have a permanent population of around 100,000 so it's more than half the size of Bolton. I would wager that there would be few who didn't enjoy their time there - we certainly did and would not hesitate to recommend it to anyone. Cairns is not a place you visit for the history and this goes largely uncelebrated. There are few museums worth note and little by way of historical museums ***Where is it*** Based in Queensland it is around 1000 miles from Brisbane and 1500 miles from Sydney, on the East coast of Cape York Peninsular. If you look at a map of Australia it is one the right hand side of the pointy bit in the top right. It enjoys a humid, tropical climate with temperatures rarely dropping below 20 degrees C and has a wet season (Nov to March when monsoons and cyclones can be expected) and a dry season April to November. However, it is in the tropics and it can rain at any time and averages 80 inches of rain pa. We arrived there via a flight from Ayers Rock (if thinking of visiting Cairns from the UK, as part of a trip to another part of Oz, check with the travel agent as it is common for free internal flights to be thrown into the mix). The town is an expanse of hotels, low rises houses and various buildings sandwiched between the Ocean on the East and the rain forest to the West. It is in many ways a typical Australian town with the dangly cork hats, stubbie holders to keep your drinks cool, a vast array of accommodation and eating places all on the door step of outstanding natural beauty. *Where we stayed*** There are lots of places to stay from top hotels to budget accommodation and they cater for anyone. We booked a one bed-roomed apartment at The Royal Harbour Tradewinds hotel on The Esplanade on-line (cost around £80 per night). Unfortunately the web site does not exist any more but a quick google search will bring up plenty of booking opportunities. Before we arrived however, we had a chirpy Cockney as a taxi driver from the airport who was a mine of useful information. Whilst we had an idea of what we wanted to do & see he made some recommendations for us which thankfully met our requirements. It was a very friendly introduction to Cairns which proved to be a common theme throughout our trip there. Whilst everything about it was truly appealing the people whose paths we crossed along the way made our stay more worthwhile. The Royal Tradewinds is a modern hotel over-looking The Esplanade and check in was very simple and efficient. At £80 a night it is quite expensive for Australian standards but when we got to the room it was worth every penny. It was a self contained apartment with separate kitchen/bedroom and had all mod cons in terms of TV, DVD, stereo, washer, dryer and Jacuzzi with a fantastic view of the Pacific Ocean. Again, the staff were very friendly and one of the first things we did after unpacking was to visit the tour operator connected to the hotel to book our trips. The variety of trips on offer was mind boggling and I was glad we had an idea as to what we wanted to do as we could have spent all day deciding. Again, booking the trips was very easy and we were presented with a voucher and the costs were added to our hotel bill when we checked out. ***Eating out*** Like most places in Australia, Cairns is very cosmopolitan when it comes to restaurants. There is a wide variety with Asian & seafood being a major influence given where it is. We never actually ate in our hotel as we wanted to get out and explore the city (although it has more of a large town feel). To some extent you could actually be anywhere. There is nothing that makes it stand out from any other Australian City in the culinary department with the usual array of seafood, Chinese, Thai and local restaurants. However, we weren't there for the food and what was there was totally adequate so we were happy enough. The Rattle & Hum Bar & Grill was chosen simply because of it's name and the fact it is named after a U2 album and also because it was very close to the hotel and we were starving. Similarly, another night was spent in the Night Markets Food Court which was directly underneath the hotel which had a vast array of cheap food, in a basic setting but with a great atmosphere. The last night was spent in The Harbourview Chinese Restaurant which was delicious. Truth is these types of establishments became the norm for our stay in Cairns given we were usually shattered by the time we got back from our trips and the trips we did go on mostly had food included so we weren't up for a major dining experience in the evening. Whilst undoubtedly Cairns has some top class restaurants if I wanted to experience culinary delights I would have stayed in Sydney. There is also a plethora of bars and PJ O'Briens and the Fox & Firkin became regular stop off points of an evening simply to have a pint or three of ice cold Guinness and some live music. By then we re ready for bed as the trips we were on were had early starts. Cairns is largely a budget town although does however cater for everyone. In all the bars the clientele was a mixture of back-packers, locals, seasoned travelers and pensioners alike. The atmosphere is very buoyant which is what you would expect from what is effectively a major tourist resort. However, there was no sense of any trouble brewing or things getting out of hand. Everyone was in holiday mood and nothing was going to spoil that. ***What we did*** Cairns is the gateway to three natural wonders which are Atherton Tableland which is the vast area of rainforest to the West, Cape Tribulation/Daintree to the North which is a world heritage site and the Great Barrier Reef about 90 minutes boat ride away. On this occasion the Great Barrier Reef was not part of our plans as we had planned to visit at some other stage of our trip and so had to resist the urge on this occasion although there were dozens of tours available. We were there for three full days and had a packed itinerary. We actually wanted to go hot air ballooning over Atherton Tableland although this is subject to last minute cancellation dependent on the weather and given we had no time to waste we had to pick trips that were going to go ahead irrespective of the weather. We booked two trips via the hotel and I would urge any visitor to do the same as the staff have a detailed knowledge of what's on offer although it may help beforehand if you have an idea of what you want to do. Alternatively, you could book the trips yourself on-line beforehand. If you are driving then you can do these trips alone although we preferred the guided tours as you could use the knowledge of the guides and get to the places much quicker, especially if you are on tight timescales. Kuranda Tour The first trip booked was the "Kuranda" tour with Tropical Wings (can be viewed on www.tropicalwings.com.au). This cost around £50 each (£25 child) but was full day tour starting at 7:30 when we were picked up by coach at the hotel. There were four parts to this tour starting with a short journey to the Skyrail terminal which is a ski lift up the mountain and over the Rainforest with Kuranda "The Village in the Rainforest" awaiting you at the other end. You feel a little queasy at first but soon get used to it. Kuranda is a sleepy village catering exclusively to tourists. It is quite small but packed with gift shops, cafes, Aboriginal artifact shops and the Rainforestation Wildlife sanctuary which was the next bit of our itinerary. This is a nature/animal reserve and the first thing we did was take a trip on an Army Duck which went through the reserve both on land and water. It was then straight on to a tour of Aborigine traditional with Aborigines leading the tour and showing us a little of their customs and tools. From there it was a trip around their animal reserve meeting the kangaroos, koalas, cassowary (a large bird that is known to attack humans and which I had never seen before) and other native Australian species. The final bit of the trip was a near two hour train journey from Kuranda back to Cairns. This was a very special trip meandering through the rain forest and stopping off at selective points for photo opportunities. You would need to book this in advance although our ticket was part of the itinerary. Overall, for £50 a head I feel this was a complete bargain. We saw many things we wouldn't normally experience (or think about seeing) and if you did all the activities individually under your own steam it would cost a lot more. Whilst there was a lot in this itinerary we were never at any time rushed and a lot of the stuff could be done at your own pace with you simply meeting up with your party at an agreed time and place (which was easy to find). Daintree Explorer Whilst a lie in would have been welcome the next day was another early start and this time it was the "Daintree Explorer" run by Trek North tours (www.treknorth.com.au). This again cost around £50 a head. This trip covered around 200 miles in total and we were heading for the Daintree River around 80 miles north of Cairns and situated on the edge of Cape Tribulation National Park, an area of outstanding beauty. All through this trip there were plenty of stop offs with the first being Mossman Gorge and a trek through the rainforest. Again, this was similar to the day before but still enjoyable. It was then on to Daintree Village for a coffee and souvenirs before we were dropped off for a cruise of Daintree River. Again, the guides were tremendously knowledgeable and we saw our first crocodile within minutes, that the guide said was 4.5 metres although it was difficult to tell other than the fact I did not fancy getting out of the boat. It was then onto the Daintree Teahouse for fresh caught Barramundi and chips and a tropical fruit tasting to finish. At this point I certainly wanted a nap but there was no time because we were off for a trip around a pineapple plantation. From there it was on to Port Douglas with the first stop The Rainforest Habitat Wildlife Sanctuary which by this point was becoming a lot like other habitats we had seen over the last two days but a great experience nonetheless. We had some free time in Port Douglas including a stop at a look out point at Four Mile Beach. This was another superb trip with a packed itinerary, great attractions, unique experiences and friendly people. Worth every single penny. Like the day before we would not have seen so much if we had done this on our own and it was certainly much cheaper doing this as part of a package. Surprisingly there is little by way of decent beaches. Perhaps unsurprisingly this is because between October and May you cannot swim within 500 metres of the shore due to box jellyfish being present and coming into contact with one of these is deadly if not treated immediately. ***Conclusion*** Before our trip I was a little worried as Cairns seem to come with a somewhat seedy reputation for catering for budget, back packing tourists. To some extent this is true - they are catering for the mass market but there was no sign of seediness at all. It is not a place you will go to simply because you want to visit Cairns but merely to use as a gateway to other places near it, of which there are plenty. I defy anyone to leave Cairns saying they didn't enjoy it (unless of course a cyclone comes through town whilst you are there). There is plenty to see and you can do this at your own pace. The people are very friendly due to them serving predominantly the tourist industry and so they are well honed at it and genuine. However, the lack of history leaves it somewhat soulless but this is more than made up for by what it does have to offer. When we went in September it was relatively cool but humid and in the peak summer months the heat & humidity can become unbearable. If you are planning a trip to Cairns then planning is the operative word. It is unlikely you will go to Australia and then feel the urge to go to Cairns due to time constraints and it's remoteness. If you are going then have an idea what you want to do beforehand.
Ayers Rock (or Uluru to give it it's Aboriginal name) is a place that you are unlikely to go for an extended stay. It is a place where you will stop off at on your travels around Australia or, like us, a quick flight in and out with an overnight stay. When you shut your eyes and think about Australia some people will visualize The Opera House, others will see The Great Barrier Reef but many will see the burnt orange glow of Uluru in all it's splendour and wonder what it is like in the flesh. Well, I can say that it is truly amazing. ***History*** The area surrounding the rock was first inhabited around 20000 years ago by the Anangu, the traditional owners and it was only discovered by white travelers in the 1870s. Uluru - Kata Tjuta National Park covers 1260 sq km and was set up in 1958 but the Anangu only became involved in it's management in the late 1970s. In 1985 the Rock was returned to the Anangu by the Australian Government although one of the conditions was that the park be leased back to a governement body for 99 years for an annual rent and a share of park entrance fees which are then used for the upkeep. In 1987 it was made a World Heritage site and recognised for it's geological and cultural values. Uluru is Ayers Rock and Kata Tjuta are known as The Olgas and about 30 kms West of Uluru and can be seen from Uluru. The rock rises around 1100 feet and can be seen for many miles and at first view is simply awe inspiring. ***where is it?*** Based in the Northern Territory of Australia, the nearest large town, Alice Springs is around 200 miles to the North East. If you imagine a map of Australia it is virtually slap bang in the middle. However, if you have never been to Australia before then this means it is in the middle of nowhere and if you are planning on going then you really need to plan it in advance. If you are visiting Australia from the UK then ask your travel agent about internal flights as it is common that free flights are thrown in (which we had). Other than that flights inside Australia are very expensive. **where we stayed*** It is likely, unless you are simply driving through, that you will need to stay overnight. You are not able to camp within the National Park and the nearest town and airport is at Yulara around 15 miles away. This is also known as The Ayers Rock resort and is outside the National Park area. We flew from Sydney (around three hours flight) and you simply arrive in the middle of a desert (or The Red Centre as it is known). We had booked on line to stay at the Sails in the Desert Hotel although had done little research other than to pick a hotel almost at random. Because the hotels and businesses in Yulara have a captive audience then they also have a monopoly and the first sign of this was the price of hotel rooms. Presently a twin room at the Sails is $230 AUS for a standard room which at Australian prices is very expensive indeed. That is £100 for a night in what proved to be a basic, expensive and very pretentious hotel. It soon became clear that the hotel was a mirror image of it's staff; obnoxious, arrogant, lazy and rude and I would urge anyone planning a visit to avoid this hotel at all costs and consider some other form of accommodation. There is also a huge camp site on the resort which is much cheaper. When we booked the hotel room we also booked a tour that was due to leave an hour after we arrived. This is where the first problems with this hotel started. Whilst we had a receipt for the tour and a voucher that was emailed to us, by the hotel, they denied any booking and insisted there was a mistake. However, unlike anywhere else I have been in Australia they point blank refused to sort it out and just shrugged their shoulders. After remonstrating loudly we finally got a member of staff to arrange a tour for us immediately as we were leaving the following morning. Luckily places were available although we had to make our own way to the Cultural Centre (around 15 miles away) as their tour bus had already left. Luckily, there is the Uluru Express which is a shuttle bus which collects you from your hotel and drops you at the Cultural Centre in the National Park (bus costs $15 each). ***what we did*** We booked the "Kuniya Walk Tour" of Uluru with Anangu tours via the hotel website although this can be booked direct (www.anangutours.com.au). On the way to the Cultural Centre we then bought tickets of entry to the National Park which cost $16.50 each and last three days. You need one of these with you at all times as there are stiff penalties if you do not have one. The shuttle bus dropped us at the Cultural Centre where you are then picked up by your tour guide. We picked Kuniya as it was a very traditional tour with an Aboriginal guide. The tour guides were superb with a traditional Aborigine and an interpreter. Ideally, a visitor would need to have a basic understanding of Tjukurpa (loosely translated as "Dreamtime") which is the Aborigine's religious heritage, myths, customs and laws and the Cultural Centre is an excellent source of information and it is recommended all visitors start here (free entry). The Aborigine's do not like Dreamtime as a translation as it implies that all the history is a dream when in their minds it is real. It is a modern museum showing the history of Uluru and we were led round by a local family interpreting for us the Aboriginal art and explaining how they live and survive in the bush. They also showed us and explained what tools and weapons they use including how they are made and what they are used for and it was a fascinating insight into their lives. The tour took around two hours in total and was a very serene experience. You really get to feel what Uluru means to the Aborigines and the respect they have for it is over-powering. From the Cultural Centre we were taken to the rock and on the way stopped for some bush-tucker. Thankfully, widgetty-grubs were not on the menu but the bush figs were in abundance. Everywhere we went the history was explained and you became more and more wrapped up in the history to be suddenly dragged down to earth by a reference to the current tourist problems. We visited Mutitjulu water hole which has a history greater than the USA, where the locals used to drink to be told they no longer go anywhere near it due to tourists who climb the rock, using the rock as a toilet and this then finds it way into the water holes. Every cave painting, outcrop, crevice, fissure and water hole has a story which all leads back to the ancestors of the modern day residents. From a cave painting in ochre that is thousands of years old, depicting a girl reaching puberty, to the legend of the Kuniya Python Woman & Liru, the poisonous snake, who left ripples and marks on Uluru. It is totally fascinating and indeed remarkable that these legends are so ingrained in the Aborigine way of life. Every little thing is connected to legend in some way. Tourists are also able to climb Uluru although this is discouraged by the Aborigines and a warning to this effect is printed on your National Park ticket. However, this can still be done. There has been a rope to help you up the steepest parts which has been there since the 70s. It is around an 800m climb which can take a couple of hours if you are not fit. The local people do not want you on the Rock as some paths cross ancient, sacred areas but also because they feel responsible for tourists whilst they are visiting Uluru and climbing it can be very dangerous. There are certain areas where photography is not allowed although you are advised politely beforehand and there are lots of opportunities for pictures. The tour is timed so that it comes to an end in time to get back on your tour bus and arrive at a look out point to watch the sunset and see the changing colours of Uluru. However, before then we had to try and find a lift back as we were in danger of being stranded in the middle of nowhere. The hotel, you see, had had the last say in our predicament with booking this trip. For some unknown reason they had only booked us a one way ticket on the bus. This was mean and nasty and could have been nothing more than deliberate. They would have known there was no way back and unfortunately the bus we came on (which was not our tour bus) was full. I had to go up and down the line and ask the driver's if they had any spare seats and thankfully one of them did without complaint (so he got a good tip!). Again, when we returned the hotel they didn't want to know and said we must have booked a one way ticket. The look out point is about a mile or so away from the Rock and is a huge car park where several hundred vehicles seem to turn up at once out of nowhere. This is a fabulous photo opportunity and very serene. You could almost hear a pin drop as everyone is just mesmerised by the apparent colour change to the Rock as it goes from red to orange to dark brown as the sun slips lower and the shadow races across Uluru. It is just a magical experience and you can feel why the Aborigines worship Uluru. ***Conclusion*** I will never forget our trip to Uluru. It would be easy just to think of it as a huge boulder in the middle of a vast, open plain but it is more than that. To view the changing colours at dusk is to see it in all it's spiritual glory. This is not just a rock that you feel obliged to look at. It is a monolith that demands and receives respect from simply being in it's presence. It's as though it is alive. It is unique and nothing like it can be seen anywhere in the world. It certainly has character and a soul although the increasing number of tourists allowed to clamour up it do their best to rip the heart out of it. I wish the guardians would ban anyone going on the rock because I think everyone will be better off for it. It is a sacred place and should be seen from afar. Given it's remoteness then it is not cheap to get to or to stay when you arrive but is well worth the money if you plan it as part of a trip, especially if you can get some free internal flights as part of your ticket. If you are planning a trip to Australia then try and find time to visit Uluru. You will not be disappointed. Over 500,000 visitors a year come to stare (and climb) and the numbers are growing annually so don't miss out before it's too late.
Released in 1996 this is another of Michael Crichton's best selling novels. Airframe is however very different from many of the other books that Crichton has written either before or since (with the possible exception of Disclosure) but reminds me throughout the book of a Arthur Hailey novel. Ordinarily, his novels are based around a subject that is both highly controversial as well in emerging technologies (ie, Jurassic Park/Next). That way he can put his own spin on things to show how things can go awry if these technologies are not controlled properly. Here, he concentrates on proven technology and still manages to pull off a fantastic, fast paced novel that again demonstrates on what can go wrong. In Airframe, Crichton attempts to get in to the inner circle of the airline industry and once again writes a novel of great research & depth and succeeds in portraying a true to life slant in a fictional novel. The story surrounds Norton Aircraft, an aircraft manufacturer whose N-22 model is the pride of their fleet with an unblemished safety record. Whilst on the verge of signing a contract to supply the Chinese government with eight billion dollars worth of N-22s, a transatlantic N-22 flight is forced to make an emergency landing in LA with 3 dead passengers and 56 injured. With a week left before the contracts are signed, Casey Singleton, a Vice President of Norton, is charged with the task of finding out what happened to protect the sale. Of course, with a Crichton novel nothing is as simple as this and there are various sub plots running through the book which come together exquisitely at the end. The characters in a way are superfluous to the book. They are just a means of stringing everything together so characterisation is kept to a minimum. This is not meant to be a book about the characters and it is therefore difficult to build up any empathy towards them but this comes close as any of Crichton's novels. This is a trait that Crichton does often and very successfully. His books are about the underlying story and Airframe is no different but this time his efforts are concentrated on the airline industry and airline safety procedures form a central theme to the book. His use of facts and figures from actual accidents are very cleverly used to seamlessly flesh out the message. He cleverly uses a wide number of airline accidents all within the same incident to show where things can go wrong be it due to pilot error, bad luck or technical problems with the plane whilst at the same time stressing how safe airline travel usually is. He covers numerous subjects within the book to do with the industry namely the involvement of the unions, politics, sensationalist journalism and cover ups and brings these together beautifully within the story. The research that has gone into it is astounding and Crichton writes with a real knowledge of the subject and in great detail. However, the technicalities are explained in a very easy to understand way. It would have been easy to be over technical at these points and lose the reader but Crichton is a master at doing this with the end result being the book is more believeable. A thrilling book that keeps you gripped to the very end but keeps you in suspense from the very start. The book thunders along at an electric pace but never gets ahead of itself, has numerous twists and turns along the way and reads like a real life account, which is difficult to achieve. The subject is very well researched and well written. A fictional storyline based on factual information which the author pulls off seemingly at will. I give this book four stars as I was hooked and have actually read it three times now. I wouldn't recommend reading it on a plane though because you will be having hot sweats. Amazon £5.99/Marketplace £0.01 * Paperback: 448 pages * Publisher: Arrow Books Ltd (3 Aug 1997) * Language English * ISBN-10: 0099556316 * ISBN-13: 978-0099556312
Every now and again you stumble upon a book where the title intrigues you and it turns out to be an absolute delight. This was precisely the case with The Professor, the Banker and the Suicide King: Inside the Richest Poker Game of All Time (to give it it's correct title) which I came across on Amazon (£7.69 new/£3.49 Marketplace). Given the world wide popularity of Poker, which these days seems to dominate the late night cable channels, you get to know a little about the superstars of the game and it has always fascinated me that anyone can go and play poker with these guys as long as you have got the bank roll or can win yourself a seat at a final table. A bit like having a round of golf with Tiger Woods or taking on Roger Federer in the Wimbledon Final. Well for some mere mortals this can become reality and in 2001 a stranger from Texas walked into the high-stakes poker room at the Bellagio in Las Vegas and threw down a challenge to the assembled pros. He wanted to play the world's greatest poker players, in a series of heads up (one on one) matches for high stakes. Seriously high stakes. Stakes that would break the bank roll of many top pros. A bank roll it had taken a lifetime to accumulate. Culminating in more than $20m on the table. This is the true story of what happened. The author has written this book with the co-operation of "The Banker" (who is the stranger, a very wealthy banker, who threw down the challenge) and also the pros, who were less than forthcoming (some were open and some were evasive) in putting their sides of the story across, probably given the egos that were bruised along the way. As a result it is a little one sided in terms of focus (but not on opinion) and can often read as though it is a story about the Banker. Whilst he has obtained significant input from the pros there are still gaps which don't detract from the story and which thankfully he resists the urge to fill in or guess at. He allows the reader to read between the lines to make their own mind up. In itself this is a superb story full of interesting characters, that would be worthy of a Hollywood blockbuster but it is not really a story about whether the Banker can go and win. And that is what makes this a compelling, fascinating read. For the Banker it was never about the money. It was all about the challenge, the psychology and his attempt to break the mind, spirit and bank rolls of the top Texas Hold 'Em players in the world over a series of games over a three year period. It is a battle of wits and full of twists & turns along the way which at times makes it read like a non fiction novel. Whilst the Banker is a competent player, where he was behind in skill alone he made up for in iron nerve that really cranked up the pressure on the pros. The level of the stakes meant that the Pros mettle was tested in almost every hand as a loss would have left some of them almost broke. The ending is a bit of a let down really but this book is not about the ending, but the journey. Throughout the book we are in the Bankers head whilst he plans his next strategy and learning about the lessons he has learnt along the way and how he is going to put these to good use in the next game. Similarly, it also goes into detail regarding the banker's frustrations & weaknesses so it is not all sweetness and light in favour of the Banker. The author does an excellent job of cranking up the tension and at times you can almost see the sweat dripping down the Pro's faces as they are left with a decision that, if wrong, could bust them. It is a book that actually gets you sat down with the players and gives you a look inside their heads with both the Banker and pros pushing each other's buttons to see who will crack first. The question is, how did it all end? This is a riveting book and provides a tremendous view from inside the rail. At 282 pages (including 20 pages of bibliography and acknowledgements) it is not a long read and the absorbing nature of it means it is very quick and enjoyable. Amazon £7.69/Marketplace £3.69. * Paperback: 282 pages * Publisher: Little, Brown & Company; Reprint edition (3 Aug 2006) * Language English * ISBN-10: 0446694975 * ISBN-13: 978-0446694971 * Product Dimensions: 22.6 x 15.2 x 2.3 cm
Michael Crichton is a highly successful writer with over 150 million books in print, going back 40 years. He is probably best know as the creator of ER and author of Jurassic Park, which became a hugely successful multi-million dollar movie. However, to his fans Crichton is much more than the creator of Jurassic Park and the release of his latest novels create a rush of both excitement and anticipation as to what it is going to be all about. I therefore couldn't wait to read Next when it was released as hardback in November 2006. In many ways it is similar to many of his other books in terms of covering a very controversial subject head on but in the form of a fictional novel. A lot of his novels explore scientific advancements and what can happen when they go spectacularly wrong (Jurassic Park) and Next is no different in this regard. However, in other ways it is very different to his previous work in terms of characterisation and overall plot. This is a book that could have gone spectacularly wrong. Whilst a book of fiction it is based around the highly specialised, complex and sometimes over-whelming subject of genetic research (or specifically transgenics) and the book treads a very fine line between being utterly boring and being brilliantly done. There are not many authors who can put a book together like Next and get away with it and this is not because his loyal fan base will support him but more through the cleverness of his research and writing and the blending of fiction & fact is done so convincingly that you would swear that they were true or about to happen. This is not a book about the characters. It has no real beginning or end and little by way of plot line and so, on the face of it, holds little appeal. It is a book covering numerous short sub plots with transgenics (for example what happens when you breed man & ape) the central theme. Each little story doesn't quite end or just disappears completely but underneath everything is brought together beautifully and convincingly. Each story covers a different element of genetics and presents a situation to the reader as to how this can go awry. It combines bizarre possibilities with frighteningly disturbing viewpoints and as a reader you are constantly forming opinions on the subject which for a work of fiction is a remarkable achievement. The book covers some well publicised areas of genetics such as gene therapy and presents a worst case scenario as to what could go wrong if this becomes the norm in the world. It challenges our sense of reality and also makes you question the moral side of this. At times it appears far fetched but I was always thinking that the picture he painted, in some cases, is more of a possibility. Given the subject it would have been easy to bog the reader down in scientific mumbo jumbo but this is one of the strong points of the book for me. The scientific explanations are done beautifully. The technology is explained in a very easy to understand way and whilst the subject is serious, the book has a light hearted theme throughout it. It is extremely well written and researched and demands your attention throughout. Opinions on this book will avoid the middle ground. You will either love it or hate it. You will either think it is a novel of almost limitless imagination or a factual documentation of what is happening in genetic research around the world. However, it is not Michael Crichton throwing his opinions down the throat of the readers but giving a view of what could go wrong in a spectacular way. In this book Crichton has delivered something that is very rare. He has turned a boring, scientific subject into a fictional novel but still got the readers believing it to be true and saying "What if...." This is a man who got half the world believing that dinosaurs could make a comeback so to convince them about a talking monkey should be easy. I would thoroughly recommend this book but you would need to have an open mind on the contents beforehand. I was gripped and read it quickly and will re-read it in later years to compare notes then. Four stars for me. It is clever, unique, different, controversial and has you questioning the ethics. It's Michael Crichton at his best. Amazon £4.84/Marketplace £0.01. * Paperback: 528 pages * Publisher: Harper (6 Aug 2007) * Language English * ISBN-10: 0007241003 * ISBN-13: 978-0007241002 * Product Dimensions: 17.4 x 11 x 3.6 cm
It was a pleasant surprise that in Nov 07 The Killers released their latest album, Sawdust. After the world wide success of their previous two offerings, Hot Fuss and Sam's Town, both of which had made it to the top of my iPod playlists, I was positively drooling with anticipation. I made the classic mistake of picturing it as a surefire winner before the first listen. I was left deflated, disappointed, frustrated and pondering into how the band can allow the record company release this album or how can the record company allow the band to. Whoever made the decision to release the album has clearly done it on a whim and it smacks of obnoxious arrogance. The naivety in Hot Fuss was endearing. The consistency of Sam's Town enduring. The cynical gap-filling of Sawdust has done nothing other than to provide ammunition to the people waiting for The Killers to fail. Why oh why oh why??? Sawdust is 18 tracks and 72 minutes long which makes it monstrous compared to their previous releases. The album is made up of a compendium of oddities, cover versions, B sides, re-recordings of previous album hits as well as songs recorded for their earlier albums which didn't make the final cut. Individually, a lot of these songs are superb but they just don't go together and just don't fit. How a band that has only released two albums can release an album of this nature is beyond me, no matter how good they are or turn out to be. Brandon Flowers (lead singer) was heavily influenced by Oasis at a Las Vegas concert in 2002 which shifted his dreams from leading a keyboard influenced band to one that would have stadiums rocking and ever since, everything he has touched has turned to gold. It seems the Oasis influence cannot be shaken off as they of course released The Masterplan in 1998, essentially a collection of B sides, which turned into a monster smash of which four singles subsequently appeared on the Stop The Clocks greatest hits collection. No mean feat for a group with six studio albums, 50 million record sales and a huge back catalogue of hits. Sawdust comes nowhere close to The Masterplan. It doesn't even scratch the surface of it. The opening song is actually quite brilliant. Tranquilize is a new recording featuring Lou Reed and for me that is where the problems start. Whilst a great song you immediately get the feeling it's a Lou Reed song featuring The Killers rather than the other way round and can't then shake this feeling off throughout the album. Similarly, there is a superb version of Sam's Town based entirely on great vocals with just a piano supporting in the background. It works wonderfully as a song but they have already done Sam's Town but one album ago. Why they have to do another one I do not know. It is however, little tidbits like this that just about keeps the album interesting at times and hooks you in. There is only one song on this album that I would have had on previous albums and that is Change Your Mind (which did actually appear on the US version of Hot Fuss but not the UK one). It is a very addictive song that you find yourself humming constantly. Cover versions of songs by Joy Division, Dire Straits & Kenny Rogers make for an interesting but uninspiring collection. The original Killers songs that didn't make the earlier albums could easily have been included on them and not be out of place. However, they are cast offs on the cutting room floor. If they weren't good enough for the previous album then why do the band think they are good enough for this one? And then there is something on the album that scares the bejesus out of me. Track 18. The last song, is a dance version of Mr Brightside over 10 minutes long. This is a gentle reminder of what Flower's influences have been and I only hope it is not a pointer to how things will become. I hope this is not the next direction the band is taking. I don't get it with this album. I do not see the point of it at all. Both Hot Fuss and Sam's Town had character. They had soul. Sawdust has no personality. It's as though it has been released to fill a void until the next album release. To scratch an itch if you like. Well, I for one still have an itch but this album has also given me a headache and it has done nothing to stop the pain. As a Killers fan you will buy, listen to and file away this album but it will hardly be an album that will bring legions of new fans into the fold. Price £5.97 Amazon/£5.97 Amazon Marketplace. Track Listing 1. Tranquilize - (new song with Lou Reed) - 3:45 2. Shadowplay - (Joy Division cover) - 4:07 3. All The Pretty Faces - (from the When You Were Young single) - 4:45 4. Leave The Bourbon On The Shelf - (from the Hot Fuss sessions) - 3:38 5. Sweet Talk - (from Sam's Town sessions) - 4:18 6. Under The Gun - (from Somebody Told Me single& Hot Fuss, US version ) - 2:33 7. Where The White Boys Dance - (from Sam's Town album, UK version) - 3:27 8. Show You How - (from Somebody Told Me single) - 2:46 9. Move Away - (from Spider Man 3 soundtrack) - 3:49 10. Glamorous Indie Rock and Roll - (from Hot Fuss album, UK version) - 4:16 11. Who Let You Go? - (from Mr Brightside single) - 3:42 12. The Ballad of Michael Valentine - (from Somebody Told Me Single) - 3:50 13. Ruby, Don't Take Your Love To Town - (from Smile Like You Mean It Single and also covered by Kenny Rogers) - 3:05 14. Daddy's Eyes - (from Bones single) - 4:14 15. Sam's Town - (from Reasons Unknown single) - 3:45 16. Romeo and Juliet - (Dire Straits cover) - 5:27 17. Change Your Mind - (UK Bonus Track originally on US version of Hot Fuss) - 3:11 18. Mr. Brightside - (Jacques Lu Cont's Thin White Duke Remix) - 10:39.
Here it was. The long anticipated second album after the world wide smash of their debut album, Hot Fuss. Released in the UK in October 2006 on the Lizard King label the critics were sharpening their knives in anticipation due to Brandon Flowers, the lead singer, describing the album as "one of the best albums in the past twenty years" and that it would be "the album that keeps rock & roll afloat." The amazing success of Hot Fuss, hype surrounding the second album release and claims of grandeur by Flowers made for a heady mix of both excitement and trepidation when Sam's Town was released. The album takes its name from the Sam's Town Hotel and Gambling Hall, a hotel-casino in Las Vegas, the hometown of the band. Sam's Town is nothing like I was expecting. Whereas Hot Fuss was influenced by 80's New Wave with the end result being an American Indie band trying to be British, Sam's Town is an American Indie band trying to sound like American rock with an 80s feel and the end result is just fabulous. Sam's Town received mixed reviews from the critics with some praising the new direction and others criticising it but what cannot be denied is that it was a massive world wide hit and a superb album that holds your interest throughout. Detractor's say the band is tring to model themselves on Springsteen. If that's the case then it's not a bad comparison to make although I don't see it throughout the album (apart from in The River is Wild). To me it sounds more like early U2, especially in the epic When You Were Young (which is the equivalent to Somebody Told Me on Hot Fuss) which is perhaps not surprising given it was co-produced by Flood who worked on U2 (The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby). Throughout this song you can close your eyes and imagine The Edge is playing the guitar. Where Hot Fuss was heavily influenced by the synthesiser sound, Sam's Town is rock led with drums and lead guitar at the forefront (with the addition of strings, saxophone and trombone and of course the synthesiser doesn't miss out either). Ronny Vannucci (drummer) must have been having a perennial wet dream recording and performing this album because in Hot Fuss, drums were largely an afterthought although in Sam's Town they are in your face. This is an album where The Killers are trying to return to their American roots albeit they just cannot let go of the UK music scene and the influence this has had on them. From the opening song that the album is takes it's name from with it's reference to London to Bones which is Morrisey-esque (and the video is superb - see Youtube). This is a fantastic start to the album singing about the disappointments they have experienced in US compared to the acclaim they get in the UK. The lyrics are fantastic and it's as though they are giving two fingers to the critics "I'm sick of all my judges, so scared of what they'll find". It's as though it's a challenge thrown down to the critics to say we have listened to what you say, we have made a return to our roots and this is what we have come up with but we don't give a toss if you like it or not because it won't make a blind bit of difference. Like a lot of the songs on the album the message they are trying to convey is a subtle one and at first listen the album does not jump out at you. Patience is a virtue and the more I listen to it the greater it becomes. You pick something else out of the lyrics which make sense. The songs seem a lot more personal than Hot Fuss with individual songs probably not as radio friendly as Smile Like You Mean It or stadium rocking as Mr Brightside. However, the album throughout has strong songs, with great, clever lyrics and overall is a more mature offering than Hot Fuss which came across as something of a mish mash of genres. Flowers's vocals also seem more controlled on this album but equally as powerful as though he has matured as a performer. The songs flow well and seem at home although "Uncle Jonny" is a little unsettling as it is about Flowers's uncle who was a cocaine addict which seems a little out of place on this offering. At around 45 minutes and 12 songs, The Killers have avoided over loading the album with filler although "Enterlude" and "Exitlude" would not be missed. "Enterlude" is a 50 second spoken welcome to the album although strangely is the second song on it whilst "Exitlude" is a goodbye and thanks for listening/what do you think type of message and surprisingly they both work. In the UK release there is also a bonus track called "Where The White Boys Dance". It is a downbeat, turgid affair which adds nothing and I am not sure why it's on there. Sam's Town is an album that will grow on you with more listenings. It's Fresh and exciting. You need time to take in the beauty and take in the details. Each listen snags you in even more. It is not an album that hits you between the eyes at first listen like Hot Fuss but over time it overtakes Hot Fuss because overall the songs are much stronger and it's more consistent. It's an album that has something to say but you need a few listenings to hear what that is. They took a huge risk and the band should be applauded for making something which on the face of it is different and unexpected but cleverly, if you peel back the façade it is still an album built on the same foundations of Hot Fuss ie, a little bit taken from all the musical greats and weaved together to make it their own. The Killers could have sunk under the weight of heavy expectation with this album but they have pulled it off. Whilst Sam's Town is a shift from Hot Fuss the shift is subtle because essentially they still sound like The Killers. Track listing: 1. Sam's Town 2. Enterlude 3. When You Were Young 4. Bling (Confession Of A King) 5. For Reasons Unknown 6. Read My Mind 7. Uncle Jonny 8. Bones 9. My List 10. This River Is Wild 11. Why Do I Keep Counting 12. Exitlude 13. Where The White Boys Dance (Bonus Track) Price £4.97 Amazon/£3.79 Amazon Marketplace
There cannot be many people who have heard of Royston Vasey although his alter ego, Roy "Chubby" Brown is well known to millions and there's no doubt many will have an opinion of him. I would wager that there are few people who sit on the fence where Chubby is concerned. He is very much an acquired taste and never makes any apologies for this. You will either love him or hate him. When I saw his book recently on a buy one get one half price offer at WH Smiths I thought I would buy it on the basis there are bound to be one or two laughs within it so thought it a worthwhile purchase to while away some time around the pool on my impending holiday. I was expecting the usual fare that seems to be served up these days with high profile celebrities bringing out high profile autobiographies that say a lot but don't actually tell you very much. My expectations of this were no different so it was a fantastic surprise to find that this book actually adds some meat to Chubby's old bones. It was a nice change to read about somebody's life rather than read what baby food some 20 year old superstar footballer was weaned on. The book actually starts at the present day and details an event that saw Chubby being arrested after an altercation with a fan who was abusing Chubby and things got out of hand. It is clear that Chubby wanted to portray his side of the story but the main reason for including this is because this episode is the essence of Chubby's life and a window into the story that was about to unfold. Chubby did not use a ghost writer and this is apparent in the text. He writes it as he says it (including the choice language) and you can actually hear him say the words which is an endearing part of the book. He uses the standard format for an autobiography from his childhood onwards although unlike many autobiographies the childhood elements are an integral part of the story as it forged the way he is and how he was to become. It is not just added to fill out the book. The early years are both interesting and heartbreaking although at no point is Chubby seeking sympathy and for the things he has done the book does not evoke any sympathetic feelings (other than his cancer). He is simply saying it as it is. It would have been easy for the book to concentrate on the "poor boy made good" scenario although this is in no way the case. Every other chapter returned to the recent period from when he was diagnosed with throat cancer to the present day. I thought this worked brilliantly. Between the sad stories and bad things he had done in the past, to the funny anecdotes of his days on the road we are brought back down to earth with an almost diary like update on his cancer and the effect this has had on his life. It is pretty clear that getting cancer has made him think back over his life and offer an explanation for his actions. It also enhanced the insecurities that have been just below the surface. Throughout the book his honesty shines through. At no point do you feel he is manufacturing anything to garner support. He goes into intense details about his sins, doesn't hide from them and offers no excuses for some bad things he has done. His private life is dominant throughout the book and there is no hiding place for his action. He tackles everything head on. Whilst the book is totally serious and at times both surprising and heartbreaking Chubby's humour is always at the surface, especially when providing anecdotes of his time as a comic and so it provides the right balance. This is a highly recommended read whether you like Chubby or not. It is written from the heart and you could almost picture him pouring out the words. I cannot find fault with this book. I was captivated from start to finish and read it in a day. This is not a book about Chubby Brown the comic. It is a book about Royston Vasey the man and his attempts to cleanse his soul. Amazon £5.49/Amazon marketplace £1.98 Paperback: 384 pages Publisher: Sphere; New Ed edition (5 Jul 2007) Language English ISBN-10: 0751539317 ISBN-13: 978-0751539318 Product Dimensions: 19.6 x 12.6 x 2.8 cm
I recently had a swap request on readitswapit.co.uk and out of pure boredom randomly agreed a swap by shutting my eyes and pointing, as I had turned down the previous five requests due to a lack of choice. Two days later, Scarecrow by Matthew Reilly turned up. "Breathless action.....Explosive stuff" the Daily Mirror comments shouted out on the back cover and coupled with the synopsis I was actually quite intrigued and looking forward to what looked a promising read. Now I had never heard of Matthew Reilly but this was his fourth novel with them all seemingly being best sellers. Given he is an Aussie then this may mean that he reached the Sydney top 100 book list as his parents bought one each. The surprising thing is it probably kept him there for a month. The plot itself was very promising: Fifteen targets of varying Nationalities, the finest warriors in the world and they must all be dead by 12 noon today. The term "I want his head on a plate" is taken quite literally, as the bounty hunters who set out to earn a crust must bring the heads of their victim in an ice box to a castle off the coast of France in order to earn $18m for each kill. The first strange thing is the noon today deadline as the start time of the novel is 9pm so either the time limit has passed or the deadline is 12 noon tomorrow or maybe the wannabee assassins simply got an extension that the author forgot to tell us about. This was the first subtle error that I happened to pick up on. There was nothing subtle about the others though. The targets are a mix of spies, terrorists or commandos one of which is Shane Schofield a simple US marine. Quite why he is on the list no one knows. The list includes the heads of Al-Qaeda, SAS, Mossad etc and then a bloke who is a marine. His call sign is Scarecrow and hence the name of the book. Every time his name came up though I could not help but replace this with Worzel Gummidge because he is more realistic. The book actually starts off quite well but it is a disappointment when you finish the acknowledgements page. Actually the acknowledgements page includes a little nugget that only becomes clear when you have started the book. He thanks some military advisors and then says "and mistakes were mine and made over their objections". The author is saying that he just made some of the stuff up so in that case what exactly is the point of having advisors? Lazy git. The authors stated view (in an interview he gave in the back in which he drops other bombshells relating to "poetic license", "outrageous" and "over the top") is that he wanted to write a book that went faster than his previous novels. He achieves this as the book goes off at warp nine then increases speed. There is no build up to any part of the book - it just arrives there and then seems to stop and say to itself what the hell am I doing here so the author comes up with some more implausible garbage to try and get it back on track. This usually means some outrageous ways and means Scarecrow has of escaping from certain death. David Blaine should sound out the author for ideas on his next trick. There is no characterization and a plot that just seems made up as it goes along. Characters just seem to turn up anywhere despite being half way round the world not five minutes ago - the author seems to forget there is a strict deadline to complete the kills but also forgets it takes up most of this deadline just traveling somewhere Reilly also has an almost insane, adolescent fixation on going completely over the top when describing military hardware the vast majority of which I am sure don't exist in the real world. There is a total lack of any meaningful research - Reilly just makes things up to get through a sticky plot part usually to do with a Maghook which is a magnet which sticks to things magnets normally stick to but this one sticks to anything. It's not any old Maghook though. Oh no. This is the skeleton key of the Maghook world and can do anything you want it to. Coming back to the main character. He is a US marine. The author has him as some form of superman. Whilst no doubt US Marines are good can they all fly any aircraft, can they time travel, can they pilot subs!! If the answer is yes then they are likely to be something other than a marine. This is really a fantasy book which with the implausible plot holes, can only be aimed at pre pubescent teens. However, given some graphic language then I can only assume it is aimed at pre pubescent teens who can't read. Which is probably why his mum and dad bought the earlier books. Despite my comments you cannot fault the authors enthusiasm which does come through the pages but it's like an over eager puppy trying to please it's owner as it is peeing on the floor. If this was the last book on earth I would avoid it. If Keira Knightley was having a leisurely Jacuzzi in my back room and asked me to hop in but on the proviso I read one chapter of this book then I would read it but blame it on duress. I give this book one star and that is because the word Scarecrow is spelt correctly. The one good thing about this book is that it has given me good ammunition for a review and the chance to earn 50 pence! With that in mind I will gladly use this to post this book, free of charge, to anyone who wants it. Drop me a message with your name and address and I will send it to you. But you have got to promise to do a review on it! Paperback: 496 pages Publisher: Pan Books (3 Sep 2004) Language English ISBN-10: 0330487590 ISBN-13: 978-0330487597 Product Dimensions: 17.6 x 10.4 x 3.6 cm £4.99 Amazon/1p Amazon Marketplace or if you are really desperate you may be able to swap it on readitswapit.co.uk
Whilst on holiday I as sat around the pool looking for inspiration, but couldn't really be bothered wading through the 10,000 songs on my wife's iPod. So I put it on random shuffle and the first thing that popped up was a song that blew me away. Whilst I had heard it several times before I didn't really know who it was by and by the time I had listened to the full album I was hooked. The song was "Mr Brightside". The album was "Hot Fuss". The band was "The Killers". I was mesmerized. I just had to find out about this band and was surprised to hear them described as "The best British band to come out of America". The surprising thing for me was that I thought they were a British band as the album has a huge British rock and New Wave influence coursing right through it so to find they were American was a major surprise. It would be wrong of me at this stage to ignore their history as it is this which is the very essence of this album. It is this history which makes this album work for me and it simply cannot be ignored. The lead singer, Brandon Flowers, grew up obsessed with the British music scene, thanks largely to the influence of one of his older brothers who played him U2 and Smiths songs from an early age. New Order were also a major influence and Flowers had dreams of setting up a world renowned band based around keyboards/synthesizer but attendance at an Oasis concert in 2002 shifted his dreams and forged the band into what they are today. He saw them perform Don't Look Back in Anger and saw the crowd's reaction and felt he would never be able to replicate this purely as a keyboard sound and so turned his attention to finding a guitarist to set up a new band largely around Rock/Indie. At the same time, David Keuning, lead guitarist, was also looking for a band and placed an ad in the local, Las Vegas, newspapers stating he wanted to set up/join a band something like Oasis. Flowers & Keuning got together, added Ronnie Vanucci jr on drums and Mark Stoermer on bass guitar and the rest as they say is history. The name of the band itself comes from the name of a fictional band in the 2001 New Order video for the song Crystal. Hot Fuss is their debut album and was actually written, produced and packaged up but they could not get a record label interested until Lizard King records, a UK Indie label, made an offer and shortly after the album's release they featured in NME and had all the major labels queuing up to sign them. It was released in the UK in June 2004 and heralded The Killers explosion onto the music scene where they steadfastly remain. At 46 minutes and 11 songs long, it is an album where every single song on it is worthy of it's inclusion and indeed you could release most songs as a single and it would do well. To me this shows the confidence of the band in the album as it must have been very easy to release a long winded album with lots of filler which this album certainly isn't. This is not to say that every song is great because inevitably there are some songs that are not as good as others. Having said that each song is performed with total confidence as to it's right to be on the album although the second half of the album is slightly weaker than the first half. This is not to say it is poor but merely shows the strength of the first half of the album. What I actually love best about this album is its diversity. It covers many genres and is difficult for the music press to pigeon hole into one particular segment. You go from rock/indie Mr Brightside to the dance influence on Somebody Told Me to the synthesizer led Smile Like You Mean it in the space of three songs before bringing you back down to earth with All These Things That I've Done which merely allows you to catch your breath, before exploding into great drumming and a catchy chorus. These four songs were actually released as singles reaching between number 3 and 18 in the UK singles charts. Starting with the haunting Jennie Was a Friend of Mine, which whilst not the best song on the album is a perfect song to open the album with. Catchy tune, great lyrics and superb vocals. The song never gets ahead of itself at any point just flows, almost seamlessly, in to the stadium rocking, radio friendly anthems Mr Brightside, Smile Like You Mean It and Somebody Told Me and back to the gentler, On Top and Midnight Show which is heavily synth driven and which builds throughout the song to keep your interest. The album finishes with the downbeat Everything Will Be All Right and you can almost hear Morrisey singing this in the 80s. This is a lot slower than anything else on the album but seems a perfect encore as it brings you back down to earth as it would have been difficult to improve on their earlier efforts for a huge finale. In a way the album's diversity is potentially a weakness but to me it is it's biggest strength. It's as though the band themselves are unsure as to what genre they belong and frankly who cares because it doesn't really matter. There is an element of naivety about the group which is endearing but also I feel the band's extreme confidence in the quality of this album. Whilst they sold many albums because of the hype, the high sales (5m worldwide) were also down to a top quality debut album that promised everything and delivered in abundance. To some extent the album does come across as unstructured but in a positive way. It's as though the band are saying "Hey, this album is great, it was put together by us and we love it so take it or leave it". Hot Fuss is an album you can listen to from start to finish, over & over again and not get bored with it. It continually keeps you guessing in terms of the meanings of the lyrics which are often multi layered and so you can make them mean anything that you want to. The songs are cleverly written from experience, with superb music and high quality vocals sung with emotion. Just as you think the quality cannot continue then up pops the next song which takes it to another level. Each time I listen to the album it sounds fresh and I never get bored with any song although inevitably there are a couple of songs that are not as good but in the main there is a seam of strong songs running through the album. If possible I would have rated this at 4½ starts but it's not so I can't. I don't want to give it 5 stars as it is not totally polished so will have to settle for 4. I always judge an album on whether or not I will still be listening to it in ten years time. I don't think there is any doubt in this case that this album will be a constant companion in the years ahead and by then it may be a 5 star album. It is already top of my iPod play list!! Price £4.97 Amazon/£3.89 Amazon Marketplace Track Listing 1. Jenny Was a Friend of Mine" (Flowers, Stoermer) - 4:04 2. Mr. Brightside" (Flowers, Keuning) - 3:42 3. Smile Like You Mean It" (Flowers, Stoermer) - 3:54 4. Somebody Told Me" (Flowers, Keuning, Stoermer, Vannucci) - 3:17 5. All These Things That I've Done" (Flowers) - 5:01 6. Andy, You're a Star" (Flowers) - 3:14 7. On Top" (Flowers, Keuning, Stoermer, Vannucci) - 4:18 8. Glamorous Indie Rock & Roll" (Flow, Keun, Stoerm, Vann) - 4:14 9. Believe Me Natalie" (Flowers, Vannucci) - 5:06 10. Midnight Show" (Flowers, Stoermer) - 4:02 11. Everything Will Be Alright" (Flowers) - 5:45 Historical/factual content courtesy of The Biography Channel.
***History*** In 1997 The Royal Bank of Scotland and Virgin Direct formed a joint venture and marketed "The Virgin One" to Virgin Direct's 200,000 customers and it was an immediate hit and so in 1998 it was marketed to the general public for the first time. Since then it has continued to be a huge hit. In 2003 it became known as "The One Account" and Virgin were no longer involved. From the regular TV ads and poster campaigns most people will have heard of the name but may not know exactly what it is. Web site is www.oneaccount.com. ***What Is It?*** An account that brings together your mortgage, savings, current account, loans and credit cards and operates all these through one account. It works like a normal bank account with a cheque book, debit card, credit card (VISA), direct debits, standing orders and pay ins. A point to note here is that the VISA is not an official credit card and therefore you do not get payment protection afforded by standard credit cards. It is unclear why but must be something to do with the legalities of the account. The idea being that you can manage all your finances under one account, make your money work harder and actually reduce the amount of interest you pay over the term of the facility by off setting your savings against your borrowings as well as reducing the repayment term. What's more you only pay one interest rate on the net balance of the account. Anyone can go to the web site to get a quote on how to shrink their mortgage based on your individual circumstances. Just click on "mortgage shrinker" via the above link and fill in the questions which takes less than a minute to complete. You will be amazed at the figures and if not then you will be no worse off. In our case it promised a saving of £88,000 over the term of the mortgage whilst shrinking the term from 20 years to 16. All through using your savings to offset the balance. It all looks very good and convincing but in truth I was still a little skeptical but felt that in the absolute worst case we will be no worse off so decided to give it a try. We have now just passed the first anniversary of having the account and thought it worth sharing the experience and thoughts. The One Account borrowing is secured via a charge over your property and is repayable in full at an agreed future date before your retirement (if you have not already repaid it by then!!). ***Other Points*** You can obtain quotes for home insurance/life cover although I have never done this. Similarly, they offer a Plus One scheme whereby they have negotiated exclusive offers with companies like RAC & Virgin, including discounts on mobile phones, wine, holidays and music etc but again I have not taken advantage of this. The mortgage is portable should you move home and they have a team of experienced staff available to talk you through the process. ***How To Apply*** The One Account is available to first time buyers, re-mortgages or if you are moving home. All applications are on line via the above link. This was very easy and took probably 45 minutes. It was detailed in terms of the questions asked about income/house value etc etc so be prepared. At the end if gives you an indication as to whether it has been agreed and we received a formal confirmation by phone of the facility being agreed within 24 hours as well as written details in the post. This then set off a chain of events to transfer both our mortgage and direct debits/standing orders. When applying you ask for a facility amount and if agreed, throughout the life of the facility you can draw up to this amount even if you have paid large chunks of the loan off. This can be very flexible in times of need ie, special one off purchases or rainy day fund but you need to be disciplined. Each part of the chain sets off another chain of events ie, by signing and returning the formal offer means you then pay the valuation fee, which then books a valuer to visit etc but at all times you are informed at exactly where things are up to by post. Every time something happens you get a letter and at all stages you know exactly where things are. If you have any queries you can phone the staff (UK based) who were very knowledgeable and helpful. During this time they are also contacting your direct debit originators to change bank details (in fact the biggest delay was waiting details of all direct debits and standing orders from our existing bank). From starting the process to actually repaying our existing mortgage took six weeks although we were actually on holiday for two of these which delayed things so it could have been done quicker. ***Rates & Fees*** Interest rate is staggered depending on your loan to value from 6.6% below 50% LTV to 7.45% for 99% LTV. It is a flexible rate (cannot be fixed) so if interest rates rise/fall then so does your borrowing cost but that is no different to a standard mortgage. If your net balance is in credit then you receive interest at 1.5% gross which is pitiful but in this scenario you would surely move your savings to a different deposit account. You will pay the valuation fee £250 (up front) plus legal/arrangement fees of around £500 (added to loan). However, the total fees depend on individual circumstances. ***Managing the facility*** This is done on-line and you are provided with a Global Key Code for logging on together with your own password and pass-code. Logging on is easy for anyone familiar with on-line banking. At first log in you are given the option of logging into the "Blue World" which is a standard, simple view or "Multi-Coloured World" which enables you to personalize the view and include all sorts of graphs and also manage e-accounts (see later). You can default either of these views so when you log in it goes to your desired view automatically. Once logged on (I have only ever use the "Multi-Coloured World") you are taken to your account main page which gives an overview of where your account balance is at. This shows the balance, recent transactions and various graphs to see how much in front of your original repayment guide you are at and the savings made. You can play about with this page to see various views by default so it is very much a personal choice as to what you see. From here you are then able to drill down into whatever you like really in terms of recent statement, pay a bill, make an ad hoc payment, view credit card transaction/standing orders/direct debits etc and also, if you are so inclined, you can break down each individual transaction into a category via the tools option ie, shopping, night out, car parking etc so you can produce a report on where you spend and what on. I have not used this however, as I personally don't see the need but it's there if you want to. What the "Multi-Coloured World" also does is give you an opportunity to separate out the various elements of The One Account ie, into mortgage, current, savings etc. This is by setting up an e-Account. This is not a physical account but a look at how the one account is made up. This is not something that appears automatically and is something you need to do yourself but it can be useful. For example, if your balance is £100k then this may be £120k e-mortgage, £15k e-savings and £5k e-current account in credit and some people like to see it this way to see how it is made up rather than just seeing one balance. Personally the one balance looks fine to me but my wife breaks it down (for a joint account you have separate log ons and your view is purely individual so we both see the same net balance but have different views of it depending on personal preference). It is fair to say that initially this is very confusing and it does take time to get used to it but you need to be patient. In essence, it offers everything on-line that standard on-line banking does with a few added extras that can be personalised. What I like about both the on-line system and paper statements is that you see straight away how far ahead of your initial projections you are in paying your mortgage off and it gives you some motivation to try and pay it off even earlier. The web site you use to obtain a quote is very obvious and easy to navigate however, the on-line banking site is not very well laid out at all. It can be confusing and garbled and not obvious what buttons to click to see, for example, a list of standing orders. It is listed under a payments button instead of simply having a button that says "standing orders". Any ad hoc payments are shown in a list with an option to arrange a payment near it. Unfortunately, the option is not sufficiently spaced on the view to show whether it is an option for the payment above it or below it and a few times I have set up a payment to the wrong place but noticed before I saved it. Despite having done dozens of payments I still get this wrong sometimes and you have to be very careful. It would be much easier if they simply had a line under each one to show where one finishes and the next one starts. Similarly, when you do set up a payment the final act is to save it but again this is not obvious as the save button is hidden below the screen and you have to scroll down to see it. If you go to another page without saving it you do not get a warning so you think you have made a payment when in fact you haven't. These are only small things and more irritable than annoying but you would think they could make it easier. ***Pros*** * If you have savings then you will undoubtedly save money over time (and you are effectively getting at least 6.60% tax free on your savings). * You will shrink your mortgage repayment date. * All your finances are under one account for ease of managing them. * The application and transfer process is simple. * Everything can be viewed online in a personalised view and you do get paper statements monthly. * The staff are very helpful and knowledgeable both during the application process and once you become a customer. * Enables you to fund one off major purchases, home improvements, university fees or pay for special occasions etc without the need to take out an additional loan. * If you are ill or lose your job it can provide flexibility until you get back on your feet. ***Cons*** * If you do not have savings or surplus cash then it's not for you. * The interest rate may be slightly higher than the market norm but this is cancelled out from the savings made. * The web site can be confusing until you get used to it but you can personalise it. * Any payments by VISA are debited to your account weekly on a Wednesday so you are paying for credit card purchases much earlier than with a standard credit card (but at a cheaper rate). * The VISA is not an official credit card and so you do not get payment protection. As a result I do not use it. It is actually much easier to use a normal credit card and pay the balance off in full so that interest charges are not accrued. * You need to have strict financial discipline to not get carried away with your spending. * You have to repay any outstanding balance on a future agreed date before your retirement which, if you have been indisciplined, could cause you a major heartache at that time. ***Conclusion*** The application and transfer processes were very easy - much easier than I expected which was a major worry beforehand as you don't suddenly want to find out your council tax payment has gone astray. The staff are very helpful, know precisely what they are talking about, are UK based and work with you throughout the transfer process whilst keeping you fully up to date at all times. Would I recommend this? Absolutely, but not en masse to everyone. This is very much a tailored financial solution but it will not be to everyone's taste or benefit. I would certainly not recommend this to anyone who does not have financial discipline because spending could very easily get out of control. However, if you are disciplined and have surplus balances in your current account throughout the month then over time this option will almost certainly save you both money and reduce your mortgage time period. I also find that I can become fixated almost to the point of obsession about looking at how far ahead of target we are and if we have slipped back I want to know why and the various filters & tools can show you quickly where you are spending money. It certainly drives me on to reduce our mortgage as quickly as possible whereby when we had a standard mortgage any surplus balances would just be sat in the bank account earning peanuts. It is only through having The One Account that I can see how much we have missed out on saving in the past. Now I am 100% guaranteed that our savings are working for us. It's not perfect and certainly not for the faint hearted who could allow things to go out of control but in the right circumstances this product will certainly work to your advantage. I found it very difficult to rate this product because there are so many different elements to it. Based on the savings it would have to be five stars but I have given it four stars overall as the on-line banking view and sometimes confusing navigation brings the score down a little. Is this The One for you?