Monday, 19 June 2017

Today's freebie? A boxed set of 7 David Walliams novels

Thanks to? Not sure, but thanks!


I think I've mentioned before that my first degree specialised in childrens' literature. My love of reading started early and hasn't stopped. My reading choices haven't changed, they have just widened and I don't see why boundaries of reading material need to be dictated by age.
Having children that love books also made it easy to get into new writers and each sprog has introduced me to new authors. They're getting older now though and so I'm the first in the house to have read all 7 of the books in this set.


Not that you need to have read the books to be familiar with the stories of course. Billionaire Boy, The Boy in the Dress, Gangsta Granny and Mr Stink have all been made into film adaptations with Ratburger to follow this Christmas. If you've seen any of those then you'll be familiar with the style - David Walliams' books are very stupid, very British and very, very funny.

Like many famous books, the heroes of these books are mostly outsiders who are shunned by other children for something that is harmless and beyond their control. Each book focuses on a brave child overcoming the odds to beat the baddies and each book overcomes prejudice. The boy in the dress becomes the footballing hero despite enjoying female fashions; billionaire boy eventually has friends because of who he is, not what he's worth; Ben's granny shows that old ladies aren't boring; Chloe is bullied and is the loneliest girl in the world until she meets Mr Stink, who has his own story of prejudice to tell.

Walliams is the heir to the Roald Dahl throne. There is very little to tell between styles and themes (the description above could apply to any of Dahl's books too) and even the illustrations continue the similarity - Quentin Blake and Tony Ross providing the illustrations to these books, you can't get more heavyweight illustrators than that. Dahl's canon was always too short in my mind, so to have someone take that mantle and continue running pleases me.

Where Walliams differs just slightly is his willingness to put true sadness and tragedy into some of the stories, and when I say tragedy I mean true heartbreaking tragedy. While the baddies never win, the hero's victory sometimes comes at a price. There is an astonishing depth to each book and often I need to flick back through to remind myself of the breadth of storyline that has been covered in about 2 hours worth of reading.

Walliams is a man of many talents. Whilst his sketch comedy did start to wear thin with me he soon scotched any negative vibes by raising ridiculous amounts of money for charity by completing astonishing feats, then he becomes a genuinely supportive and amusing judge on BGT and still churns out these books.I hope he churns out many more, and my library and bookshop can continue wondering who I'm getting them for when I'm still reading them in 20 years time.

Friday, 16 June 2017

Saint Etienne at RNCM - I took it all in

Today's freebie? Tickets to see Saint Etienne at the Royal Northern College of Music

Thanks to? Northern Soul


Another first for the Best Things in Life Blog. I've done albums, DVDs, smellies, days out, food, crockery, footballs and all manner of stuff. This is my first gig review, and what a wonderful gig I'm kicking off with.

Saint Etienne are a cameo of my student days. If those days were a film you'd hear 'Who do you think you are?' in the background at a Friday Night Bop in the Students' Union or tracks from the 'Tiger Bay' album thumping from a housemate's bedroom. They never quite made it to the forefront of my taste in those early to mid-nineties days when I headed more towards the rockier, guitar sound of indie pop. I don't mind, it's lovely to be able to find a whole back catalogue of a band in later life and think "I remember this", "this reminds me of so-and-so" or "wow, this is brilliant!"

Saint Etienne formed in 1990 and early tracks had a 'baggy' drum pattern of that time on songs such as 'Nothing can stop us'. Where other bands headed in a guitar direction Saint Etienne stayed with the dancier beats and are essentially a pop group, but a proper and cool pop group that retained the integrity and popularity of the indie scene.

This was my first time seeing Saint Etienne and my first time back at RNCM since my student days too, it's a wonderfully relaxed venue. I'm sure it won't be my last of either. The band treated us to a masterclass of pop music and musicianship that was a joy. They obviously have a group of loyal fans and they give those fans so much respect and love back - this was one of the most intimate gigs I've ever been to and more like a party than a gig.

Let's get one of the main things out of the way and answer the question I have been asked most since I went to see them. Is Sarah Cracknell still, you know...? The answer is yes, she is still stunningly beautiful. And funny, charming, talented, caring, empathic and pretty much perfect.


Having listened to their latest album 'Home Counties' twice during the day I was looking forward to hearing a few songs from this sublime piece of observational pop and I wasn't disappointed. My favourite track from the album ('Whyteleaf,') featured, as did 'Magpie Eyes' 'and, during the encore, the brilliantly worded 'Train drivers in eyeliner' - an anthem in theme that makes you want to shout "Yes!! Yes we do need more train drivers in eyeliner!"

Amongst the pop and observances of modern life we see Saint Etienne's caring side. This is a band that states clearly where their beliefs and allegiances lie from their Tweets during the recent election to the backdrop of "for the many not the few" that appeared throughout the night. This is a group that cares, that invites fans to dance on stage at the end of the gig and that appeals to such a diverse audience - many of Manchester's most fabulous were out on Sunday and it was magical.

Older fans weren't disappointed - 'You're in a bad way', 'Sylvie', 'Like a motorway' and, to close, 'He's on the phone' were received with joy, flamboyant dancing in the aisles and sing alongs. It's clear why Saint Etienne have such a loyal following and have continued unabated throughout their career - these aren't comeback albums and tours, these are a continuation. I'm already looking forward to the next album and tour.


(video taken from this YouTube channel)

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

Into the Water by Paula Hawkins, by someone who hasn't read her other book

Today's freebie reviewed - Into the water by Paula Hawkins

Thanks to? - Penguin


Wonderful to have a hardback book drop on the doormat and at £20 not one I'd have forked out for. As my Goodreads review says, I have never read the "Girl on the Train" - a 20 million selling worldwide bestseller. That makes my review look at the book purely on its own merits, I bet there aren't many of those around.

You can own this copy by scrolling down and entering my competition. It's not a review copy, it's a proper £20 off the shelf copy. Good luck.


Into the WaterInto the Water by Paula Hawkins
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The next sentence is probably the most important in this review.

I have never read "The girl on the train" nor have I seen the film. The next book an author writes after a 20 million bestseller is going to draw lots of comparisons but not this one. The dust jacket biography mentions that this is Hawkins' second stand-alone thriller and it's important to note that this is standalone - as far as I am aware there are no continuities with any characters.

Nel Abbot dies just before the start of the book, drowned at a location known as the Drowning Pool. The pool has claimed several victims over the centuries, all women ("troublesome women" as one character describes them). Nel was obsessed with these women and the water and was researching for a book on them - research that seems to have got too close to uncovering secrets.

Nel's estranged sister, Jules, travels to Northumberland to look after Nel's troubled teenage daughter. It's a return to the scene of her childhood and many uncomfortable memories.

Each chapter is told from the perspective of one of the many characters in the vicinity. Most, but not all, are in the first person. Even those chapters written in the third person still divulge inner thoughts and feelings of the character an it's these half remembered, half told thoughts that reveal a very twisted mystery. It's a mystery that goes back several decades and covers each death.

The plot thickens and stirs. Many twists are revealed throughout the book and a whole history of a small area gradually reveals itself. The chapters are short and intense, jumping from character to character and sometimes going over the same scene from several viewpoints - it's a style that is mastered and for me keeps a perfect pace. I was happy to move the plot on as a personality is gradually revealed over the course of the book, some are quite plain until the very end.

A criticism is the number of characters - there are a number to keep up with. Several are similar - quite and loyal wives who take some reading to discern which wife is which. A bit sexist of me? This is a very patriarchal book - the men control the women throughout the plots and not always through explicit aggressive dominance. This harkens back to the earliest vignette of a witch trial and the first girl to drown in the pool, men subjugating women. Despite the number of characters I did find enough depth to keep me in the story, a story that kept me guessing and gasping until the very end.

It's inevitable that there will be calls for this to be made into a film like Hawkins' first book. I don't think it's suited to that. I see this as a series that gradually reveals itself over its course. I hope they keep it in Northumberland too - any sighting of Craster is a good one.

So there you go - a standalone review of a standalone thriller. No comparison to the Girl on the Train at all, I hope that helps.

View all my reviews

Listed On Loquax   Into the Water hardback giveaway- worth £20!

Sunday, 28 May 2017

Win a DVD of sex, drugs and cliches!

Today's freebie  - Vinyl, the complete series 1 on DVD

From? Not sure, it just kinda turned up in the post. Thanks!


Scroll down to enter to win this copy. You won't regret it, but be warned it has graphic images of everything your mother warned you about.

I'm pretty sure your job isn't like Richie Fenestra's. If your life is anything like Richie's then you wouldn't be reading this, it really wouldn't be your kinds thing. Unless you were trying to tap into the next big thing in blogs and wandered to sleazy corners of the internet to see what's going on, fuelled by cocaine and booze, having sexy young types throwing themselves at your feet and wasting money on extravagant food. I'll sleep with you if you can make me a star.

Richie is the main man at American Century records, a label that's on its arse and needs to get something big. Episode 1 sees the label lose out on Led Zeppelin having promised their German overlords that it was a done deal. Robert Plant is an early sample of real characters amongst the fiction and the casting is, well, fair. There's a small tendency for anyone British to have a mockney accent regardless of what they actually sound like (Robert Plant would NOT have sounded like that in the early 1970s!) but it's not too bad. Elvis sounds and looks great on stage in a later episode, as does Bowie, but when they talk the magic drops. I'm asking for the world here aren't I?

Richie is supported by a great cast of characters. Ray Romano is wonderful as Zak Yankovich, head of promotions and Max Casella as Julie Silver (A&R guy) provides my favourite moments when he dances to a new sound he likes, a dance I fail to be able recreate. Bobby Canavale tops the lot though as the wonderfully horrible Richie - the greatest anti-hero I've seen in recent years. He thinks he is trying to keep his marriage and fatherhood together but he's making no serious attempt to do so. He craves success and will even mess with the Mob to get it.

Everything is in here - gangsters, drugs, sex, murder, relationships, even a bit of the supernatural and lots of great music. The whole spectrum of the time is covered from rock n roll through blues, heavy rock, disco, mainstream and a good deal from the birth of punk. One of the several storylines running through the series stems from Richie's desire to find a new sound. Having witnessed the excitement of seeing the New York Dolls he finds himself signing The Dirty Bits, a proto-punk band fronted by Kip Stevens (played by James Jagger, son of executive producer Mick) and the series follows them through finding an image, a sound and a decent gig. I ain't gonna spoil it for ya...

I'm writing this a week after finishing watching the series and I'm missing it. There are so many more stories to tell but sadly it wasn't a success and there's no second series. You can, like me, hope that another network picks it up or you'll just have to finish it off in your head.

I'm giving away my copy of the series - try your luck below. UK only, I'm afraid, as I can't afford the postage further away! And check out the playlist of a selection of songs  that appear in the series (below) - everyone a belter.


'Vinyl' series 1 on DVD giveway



Saturday, 6 May 2017

Kung Fu cooking

What did I get for free? A Kung Fu Panda 3 noodle bowl and Chinese cookery book

酷!Who from? Lee Kum Kee


 
Ah, noodle soup! Most blessed of dishes! Lee Kum Kee have eased my ability to make nourishing, fresh food by sending a colourful bowl and a booklet of simple dishes to make.This bowl is incredible - it holds cereals, soup, stew and other stuff too. Most versatile of dishes!


Both products have been vigorously tested by making the Valley of Peace soup as directed by the booklet. Well, as nearly as I could. My local supermarket doesn't stock Lee Kum Kee products so I had to go for alternative brands. I swapped the beef mince for turkey mince as one of my warriors doesn't eat red meat and expertly flung in a handful of bean sprouts cos Tesco were flogging them off for 8p, other than that I was most faithful to my master's words.

Came out alright, really but needed more taste. Probably my fault for swapping the beef for turkey - it needed the stronger body of a cow. I made it up by adding more soy sauce and pepper post-serving. Dead easy to make though and had an authentic Chinese texture what with the cornflower and egg white.

Pleased to report that the bowl was structurally sound and all the soup stayed in it. It is a jolly bowl.

Saturday, 29 April 2017

The War against the Assholes - which side am I on?

Today's freebie - The War Against the Assholes by Sam Munson

With thanks to? Goodreads.com


Another review of mine is posted at Goodreads and I feel bad that it's another negative one. Still, feedback is why publishers give these proofs away and honesty is the best policy, even if that makes me an asshole.

Here is my Goodreads review:

The War Against the AssholesThe War Against the Assholes by Sam Munson
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I received this proof copy thanks to Goodreads.

The blurb on this book states that it is a YA novel with real crossover to an adult readership. I am mostly an adult but did study childrens' literature at University and have a teenage daughter who is an avid reader (and separate Goodreads contributor) and who passes many books my way. This should give me enough to enjoy a good YA novel and to appreciate it for what it is.

This isn't one of those novels. It is far too complex for readership of any age. The writing style is a stream of consciousness that flits from scene to scene with no coherent underlying idea.

Mike Wood is a teenager at a dull school in New York. It's only when he is introduced to a mysterious old book - The Calendar of Sleights - that he is introduce to an underground world of magic, wizardry and war. Mike's magic powers are unlocked and he becomes a soldier in an age long war...a war fought beneath New York City between classes of magical beings. Mike is quite possibly the person who can bring an end to this war.

And yet I found it hard to really care. No explanation is given as to when the war started, why the factions are fighting and what is at stake. What happens if Mike fails? We don't know.

The book obviously has hidden depths and meanings but nobody really wants to work this hard to find them and teens certainly shouldn't have to. The book is trying too hard to be teen rather than appeal to teens. It borders on pretentious and to me it read like a teen going out of their way to be weird for its own sake. The staccato sentence style didn't lose its irritation and wasn't the unique selling point it was probably meant to be. The book fought against me. But then maybe that was by design. As I'm an asshole.





View all my reviews

Saturday, 22 April 2017

A Hero in France by Alan Furst

Today's freebie - A Hero in France by Alan Furst

Thanks to - Goodreads.com


The review below is taken from the Goodreads site.

A Hero of France by Alan Furst
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This was a Goodreads win. A minor point - the edition I received is titled "A hero in France", not "...of France".

Set in 1941 at the height of Nazi gains in Europe and when Britain is on the back foot, this spy novel takes place in the back streets of Paris and elsewhere in Europe. Dark and murky, the characters dive and sneak their way around avoiding Nazis and collaborators. This is a story of the Resistance.

Their aim is to rescue British airman and get them out of France and into Spain. A wide network of operatives, message carriers and shopkeepers whose front belies what is at the back all collude to outwit the German command. The network is successful, so Berlin ups its game to break up the network...

The novel is superbly detailed and captures the atmosphere and challenges of wartime France, and this is the high point of the novel. Sadly, the plot lacks a coherent narrative. The various missions are simple vignettes of stories and there is no obvious spine or thread to the story. This is the first Furst (!) novel I have read but from the blurb and background reading I don't believe it is one in a series - I checked as there are so many gaps. I want and need to know more about the characters - how they are in this position, what drives them to do this, how did these relationships form?

The novel is relatively short - fewer than 240 pages in hardback - and needs much more. There are far too many characters introduced with not enough time spent on each so we don't get to form an empathic relationship. This feels like a novel cut short or rushed - the number of characters, the amount of short missions, suggest a longer book or a series of books was either planned or is warranted.

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