Wednesday, 9 November 2016

Today's freebie? Jericho - the complete series on DVD

Who did I get it? A competition win

It's nice getting into the odd costume drama series isn't it? I don't have time to have loads on the go - my telly is not mine to command - and I always end up missing an episode and then never catching up. I recall with fondness my mom's excitement when the next episode of her latest series was due to start back in the pre-VHS days. Flambards was a particular favourite - we all settled down for that.

Having an entire series on DVD makes it easy. And what a strange series this is....

It's your bog standard costume drama on inspection of cover and plot review. Beautiful widow forced into setting up a lodging house in a shanty town to make ends meet. Handsome lodger moves in and inevitability ensues. In this case the shanty navvy town (known as Jericho) is set up next to the construction site of Culverdale viaduct, based on the real Ribblehead viaduct in Yorkshire. It's reet Yorkshire scenery, all barren moorland and accents to boot - but let's make one thing absolutely clear ...

This is a Western

Jericho is all wooden buildings set out like your typical Western town. It has a pub (or saloon); it has a brothel complete with lace bustled prostitutes; it is surrounded by empty moorland, isolated from other towns - much like the prairie or desert forms a wilderness around cowboyville. The characters wear borderline cowboy hats and even the background music hints at bluegrass type fiddly music.
One of the main characters is Ralph Coates, an ex-slave escaped from the American Civil War. the railroad leads them here, and it's the railroad they must construct to get them further on. 

The pitch must have been simple - a western costume drama, set in Yorkshire. The attempts to replicate such a town in 19th century England are sometimes bordering tacky.

But is it any good as a drama? It's average. Avid costume drama fans would likely be disappointed - the plot twists and romance doesn't deliver anything that hasn't been seen a hundred times before. At it's heart is a nice idea - an event that happens before us so we know what happened, but we watch as the series unfolds and everyone else catches up. There are heroes and villains, there's redemption and revenge. There are veiled references to the social norms of the time and intrigues around family, inheritance and class. Jessica Raine is in fine form, brooded over by Hans Matheson who (and this is cruel of me) comes across as a poor man's Sean Bean. The plot is OK - enough for me to watch all 8 episodes and not get too bored.

My main gripe is the lack of belief. All of the buildings are pristine wooden cabins. I realise that they would have been built at around the same time but I also think they would have had more character or personalisation. These looked like a theme park, together with perfect duckboards and nice grass in between, something that would surely have disappeared very soon under so many feet.

Difficult to believe number 2 - everyone willingly works for an American incomer, an escaped slave, no questions asked. He commands respect from the off, yet once people know the secret class origins of someone else they suddenly mistrust him - I found it difficult to empathise with people's fickleness.

Difficult to believe number 3 - the passage of time. Several plots appear to being played concurrently but it's not clear how much time has elapsed. In one case, (and it's difficult to explain this without a spoiler, but I think i can do it) the relationship between 2 characters starts to change after an event, an event which happens just as it is decided to build a mine. The way they talk to each other in one scene suggests that several days have passed since the event, yet they then wander down to the fully dug mine complete with pit props, rails and trolleys! And yes, the mine looks just like a gold mine from a Western, only this one mines sandstone.

It's a shame because the setting, context and basic plot line deserved better. The final scene finishes with a huge set up for the next series and I would gladly have settled to watch how things develop. Sadly, that won't happen - the small lack of attention to detail didn't wash with viewers or ITV execs and a second series wasn't commissioned. 

Monday, 24 October 2016

What was today's freebie? Sockpuppet by Matthew Blakstad

How did I get it? A giveaway by those wonderful people at Goodreads

This review is on my profile at Goodreads.

SockpuppetSockpuppet by Matthew Blakstad
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Matthew Blakstad obviously knows his stuff. A brief glimpse at his profile shows that he has qualifications in maths and has worked in online communications. This thriller isn't just a clever page turner, it's highly plausible and increasingly believable.
Dani Farr lives in an online world. She's created an online presence called sic_girl that shows intelligence and learning. It's all fun and showing off, until sic_girl starts getting herself involved in politics and out of Dani's control....

Blakstad plays on fears already present in our society - Big Brother; privacy; hacking; identity hacks. It's also possible Blakstad understands politics and spin. This book has more than just data and tech wizardry - it's a well crafted study in politics and spin. Even more plausible than the fact that privacy is vulnerable is the notion that politicians are out of their depth when it comes to modern life and are at the mercy of advisors, reliant on their explanations. It takes little imagination to believe that politicians may believe all the hype they read in a paper and launch the next great thing, only to be undone quite quickly with their own trust and naivete.

It's not just the plausibility and excitement of this book that should make it a hit, it's the fact that it avoids all other obvious thriller cliches. Violence and sex are present, but not graphically illustrated as if everyone is a trained assassin or hot porn star lover behind their quiet exterior. Those scenes are themselves believable, real and show a vulnerability in the characters.

It's the characters that show the final breath of fresh air in a thriller - the strongest and most interesting characters are all female. Jonquil, Beth and Dani herself are complex characters, all quite different and not subject to fitting in with the regular notion of lead females in thrillers. All their vulnerabilities are clearly played out, it's refreshing to recognise lead female characters that actually resemble people one might meet in real life.

The copy I received was an uncorrected proof for review, won from Goodreads. The hardback release deserves great plaudits. And I'm not just saying that because I think Blakstad will post all my secrets if I say otherwise.

View all my reviews

Sunday, 23 October 2016

Cow Pat hand cream. No, really.

Today's freebie? Cowshed's Cow Pat handcream

Charming. Who threw that at me? Stylist magazine

A photo posted by @thebestthingsinlifeblog on
OK, I'm not in the habit of reading women's fashion magazines. Stylist is a freebie (I should review it and it's brother publication Shortlist one day) given out in Manchester and other cities. I get a copy for Mrs Bestthingsinlife and sometimes have a punt at competitions where the prize is something I'd enjoy.

In this case it's a unisex hand cream. It's a posh one - £8 for 50ml - so should show results. So why the offputting name? Well, Cowshed were founded in a ... cowshed. It's a cowshed at Babington House, I grant you, so quite a nice one. They've grown and now have spas across the world and a range of products with names like Lazy Cow, Knackered, Cow Slip and this one, Cow Pat.

The smell is wonderful. Gently spicy and certainly not feminine at all. I put it on last thing at night and fall asleep smelling my hands. No, it's not weird.

Does it work? Well, I certainly felt some benefit when wearing it. Judge for yourself - I took before and after photos from the time I received the cream to when I finished it. I'd say it did it's job just fine.

Sunday, 2 October 2016

Tracey Ullman's Show - several of a kind

What's the freebie? Tracey Ullman's Show on DVD

How did I get it? A competition win from The Daily Mirror's We Love TV

A photo posted by @thebestthingsinlifeblog on
Tracey Ullman had several very successful years in the UK in the early eighties. Sketch shows A Kick Up the Eighties and Three of a Kind led to Girls on Top via huge music hits such as Breakaway. And then she disappeared...

...well, of course she didn't. She followed her husband to America and had even more success with her own show which trivia fans will also know launched The Simpsons.

And then she same back to Blighty. Tracey Ullman's show launched on the BBC in January 2016 to some critical acclaim. Was it any good? Well, having watched the first few I thought it was ... not bad. Now, having had chance to see the whole series .... it's not bad.

Ullman shows herself to be an adept impressionist. With the help of prosthetics (the voice needs no assistance) she does a great job taking off Judi Dench, Angela Merkel and others.

To be fair most sketch shows are hit and miss to me and this one is no different. There are some great characters - the US tourists amuse, the topless feminist MP raises a smile and the app guy (with a totally convincing male voice by the way) has the cringe worthy quality that the best comedy can provoke, whereas others such as the possessive zoo worker lack punchlines and the northern powerhouse businesswoman with a hatred of the south is a tired idea. maybe watching once per week stretches the gaps between episodes to make repetition less noticeable, but it can become tedious if you plough through a box set.

Ullman has always had talent and she's still on top of her game, certainly as creative and funny as any other sketch show I've seen for the past few years. She's always seemed to need to be the star - leaving a group to have her own show, having a music career and returning with another eponymous show. This series is a useful vehicle for her talents as a character actress and maybe a sitcom beckons - she would certainly provide excellent support characters to edgy comedies. To me, that's a better bet for the future rather than a second series of sketches.

Monday, 5 September 2016

Free things to do in Kefalonia

It's been a long time. The ageing laptop took a holiday for a few weeks and no sooner was it back than we went on our wonderful family holiday to Kefalonia. It was perfect.

Now let's clear up that my trip to Kefalonia wasn't free. Neither flight nor hotel, neither car-hire nor spends - I'm not that good a blogger . Greece isn't cheap, either. Their financial crisis seems to have caused a fair bit of inflation since I last visited and a weak Sterling/Euro exchange rate meant that meals for 6 in a taverna were out of the question. It's still a wonderful country though. Beautiful, friendly, HOT and steeped in history.

I thought I'd commit some memories of this wonderful holiday to my blog by looking at things that we did that didn't cost a penny.

History. This is Greece - everything about it is historic. It's not all about stones and ruins. It's about culture, food and influences from the many other civilisations that have had their say in how the island is now.

Kefalonia has a few Mycenean tombs and the first we came across was at Lakithra.
This probably isn't the most spectacular but it's the first old Greek thing my obsessed daughter has seen so it was a special moment. A walk through a quiet village finds the site looking out towards the Aegean. Strange holes in the ground look like they probably held treasure, whilst graves hewn from the rock once held the bones of ancients.
The ghosts of 3500 year old skeletons could rise at any moment like those in Jason and the Argonauts.

The ancient Acropolis at Sami was very spectacular. Again, the views are jaw dropping.
Just a short journey away is Ithaca, home of Odysseus and from whence he started his journey as chronicled by Homer. This huge site sits high on a hill and must once have been quite a sight from down in the waters. Like at Lakithra, we had the whole place to ourselves - only mad dogs and Englishmen do such

explorations in the midday sun. The size of the stones are truly impressive and one can understand why Cyclopean architecture is a known term for the Mycenean period - only the giants of Greek mythology could lift such stones so high up a mountain like this.

The Romans slaughtered the inhabitants of Sami after a lengthy siege around 188 BC. The Romans also left our final piece of free history - the Roman Villa at Skala. Located just outside the town it's not noticeably a villa, just a floorplan. But what floors - each still has remains of exquisite mosaics. An elevated walkway gives a good view down.

There are numerous other free historic sites across the islands, these are the only ones we saw. It wouldn't have been fair to drag the kids around more - we know how many we can get away with.

For inhabitants of a wet island at the edge of Europe it's also a free treat to see wildlife that we can only usually see in zoos, aquariums or similar. Lizards are plentiful and it's a novelty seeing fish swim past your goggles in the crystal clear waters off the beaches. I saw a few hoopoes too and was told that these were shot for sport. Not sure if that's true though.

My real 'bucket list' moments were marvellous. I'm also pleased that I saw them perfectly naturally and not through an organised trip. The real highlight was a pair of leatherback turtle. These frolicked quite happily along the harbour front at Argostoli and this is quite common. Magical.
My second magical moment happened as I walked along a farm track to the local shop one morning. The top of every plant along the edge of a field was topped by a dragonfly/mayfly type insect. One of them looked to be eating something but as I approached I saw that it was in a battle of life or death with a praying mantis. The fly escaped and the mantis turned its attention to me - I really think it would have taken me on, too.

A little gecko appeared outside our room a few nights. Not quite as spectacular, but something we don't see in England very often.

Saturday, 6 August 2016

Brut Sport Style deodorant - a lot of pain for no gain

What did I get? Brut Sport Style deodorant

How did I get it? Sent freely for trial by Trnd

Ah, the great smell of Brut. The smell of my dad for a month after each Christmas in the 70s. Jousted with Old Spice as the smell of man when I was a young child. Left behind during the 80s as newer, fresher brands such as Insignia took over.
I'm assuming Brut has kept going in the intervening period but to be honest I couldn't say. Even in my forties it's still a brand I wouldn't choose as it seems a bit too old-fashioned, so it was an interesting experience to be given the chance to try it by Trnd. A parcel arrived with cards to give out, money of vouchers, some cricket fixture lists (Brut Sport Style sponsors a range of first class cricket stuff) and instruction in how to trial the deodorant. Some of that is geared towards a different sort of chap than I ("invite your mates round for a beer and take photos of you opening the package and trying the fragrance"; "take it to the gym and discuss the new fragrance") which sounds a bit forced. I did open it with the kids though, took some photos of the packaging (I don't put myself in my photos) and had a go.

The design is the best bit of this new Brut. Great colours and a sturdy squirter. Sadly, that's the most positive thing I can say.

The first spray is one I'll remember for a long time. About a second after applying I gave a sound like Tom when Jerry traps his tail in a mousetrap and had a face like Macaulay Culkin in Home Alone. Jeez, does it sting. Really sting. I've used loads of deodorants over the years and never known a sting like this.

So it must be strong, right? Wrong. This is the most disappointing part of the whole 'Sports' thing - it hardly works. Most quality deodorants still smell at the end of the day but this stopped smelling in mid-afternoon and by the time I got to bed I smelled like a hadn't bothered putting deodarnt on at all - not nice.
I drive a desk for a living and don't do gyms but I do walk a fair bit. Let's be fair to Brut and say that maybe there's some magic ingredient that is triggered by hard exercise and I didn't trigger it.

The smell is an improvement on traditional Brut, which I didn't mind anyway. It still smells a bit like Brut but more modern (can a smell modernise? Probably not, I think I'm being pretentious there) but it's a shame I didn't get much chance to smell it. Maybe a couple of hours each day, nowhere near what I get from other brands. A thumbs down on this one.

A word for Trnd - the package received is good and they prompt in a timely manner for feedback. They're a marketing company and not involved with the brand, my poor review of Brut shouldn't reflect on Trnd.

Saturday, 23 July 2016

Shining Tor, Cat Tor and the Goyt Valley

What wonderful thing did life give me for free today? A wonderful walk along the border of Cheshire and Derbyshire, with historic ruins and FREE FOOD

How? Just get up and go. You can do it too
Errwood Hall


 The Goyt valley is a favourite of mine. It's got woods to get lost in, ruined buildings to play in, high hills to view from and babbling brooks. It's a beautiful and fascinating place and it's all free, including the parking.
A long walk up The Street to Pym's Chair and a view I've never appreciated before. With the aid of some new binoculars I could make out the hills near my hometown of Glossop (Lantern Pike, Chinley Churn and the Mare's Back quite easy to spot) but also the vista round past the airport to Jodrell Bank. Having been driving a desk in all the sunshine this week it was great to be out and part of it. From Pym's Chair it's a stride over Cat's Tor to Shining Tor along the Cheshire/Derbyshire border with constant views of the Cheshire plain.
Meadow Pipits aplenty over the moors here, kestrels hovering in the thermals running up from the plain to these high hills. Cotton grass thrives here.
Shining tor
Shining Tor is the highest point in modern Cheshire. It's a gentle ascent from Cat's Tor and from afar it's hard not to focus on the
para gliders that soar around the summit. On reaching the trig point it's odd to watch the sails of these gliders suddenly appear over the lip of the Tor and then disappear again below one's feet.
A quick banana and then over Shooters Clough and down to the Goyt Valley. The Cat & Fiddle pub is in the distance, an alternative starting point.
This descent to the Goyt is dominated by the most delicious bilberries.
There are millions of them spread either side of the path. Nobody picks bilberries yet they taste just like blueberries, which are really expensive in the shops. I grabbed as I passed, and munched all the way through Shooters Clough to the ruins of Errwood Hall.
This once magnificent hall was the home of the Grimshawes, a wealthy merchant family from Manchester. Sadly, the hall was only used for less than 100 years as the family dies out and it was soon demolished (over eagerly) as the nearby reservoirs were built. I'm not going to give you any more details as I urge you to visit David's excellent site and lose yourself in the photos there. I've been bringing my children here all their life, it's a great place for hide and seek.
Errwod Hall
From the hall I carried on down to the road and back to my car. An absolutely wonderful walk.
Errwood Hall