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, 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.

Sunday, 26 June 2016

Happy Gilmore is happier than me

What did I get? Happy Gilmore on DVD

How did I get it? Annoyingly, I can't remember. It was a competition win.

My longest break without posting. One major reason - the European Championships and endless football matches. England are still in it, as are Wales, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland - an incredible feat.

There have just been 2 rest days without football but I still didn't post as I'm a bit sad and very scared over Brexit. But this blog isn't a politics blog (although the ability to vote freely is a freebie and a victory that we all should use at every opportunity), so that's the last of saying why Happy Gilmore is happier than me.

If you've seen Happy Gilmore then you'll know he's anything but. Adam Sandler plays the titular chap who isn't one of life's winners. Happy has anger issues that stem from the walk out of his mother and the death of his father when he was a kid. Only grandma (with whom he lives) seems to get Happy's unconditional love. All this is played out in the opening few minutes as a scene setter.

Happy shares his father's love of hockey (ice hockey to us Brits; field hockey is what we know as simply 'hockey') but he really isn't very good. Every year he fails the trials but he still classes himself as a hockey player. Barely able to skate, lacking basic hockey skills and hampered by his temper, Happy does possess an incredibly hard shot. Using this in an unconventional way, Happy takes on the world of golf ... and this is definitely a golf film.

The film is rated 12 and I watched with my eleven and a half year old son. It's not bad, but there is a fair bit of cussing in it that would have made it a 15 back in my day. The gorgeous Julie Bowen appears in stocking and sussies a couple of times too, but nothing worse than that really.

As a comedy ... it's OK. It harkens back to an eighties Police Academy affair a few times but there are some amusing slapstick scenes and some surreal moments which tickle my fancy, plus a cameo appearance from Lee Trevino. It's a heavily sponsored film too - I bet a large portion of it's gross takings are from Subway.

I'd give it 6, my son says 8.

Friday, 10 June 2016

Mimes of Wine - "la Maison Verte"

What did I get? "la Maison Verte" album by Mimes of Wine
Where from? Given freely for review by Subba-Cultcha

When I go on the Subba Cultcha site to apply to review an album I do listen to the Soundcloud or YouTube clips to see if it's something I'll like. It does obscure the reviews as you're already halfway to liking something before you've listened properly, so most of the reviews are positive. It wouldn't be fair for me to review some EDM or R&B album when I really am not into either genre.

Mimes of Wine fall into my favourite type of music though. There'll always be room for heavy stuff in my life (see Wednesday's post) but mysterious, melodic swirly music with a fair bit of guitars suits me just fine.

My full review is on the Subba Cultcha site. Links to Mimes of Wine songs are above.

Monday, 6 June 2016

Dead Label - a game of Throne of Bones

What did I get? Throne of Bones (LP) by Dead label

How did I get it? Freely sent for review by Subba Cultcha

I love rock music and as I get older I'm enjoying it louder. My thirteen year old daughter says I'm too old and it's not fair to hog it from teenagers like her. Fair point.

One aspect of thrash I'm not too fussed with is the death growl. I get why it's done - it's part of the atmosphere of the song and depicts death, hell and despair - but it means that I can't hear the probably hard worked on lyrics. There, that's me being old.

The wonderful Subba Cultcha site allows you to apply for albums, gigs and festivals in return for an honest review. My full review of the album is here.

Saturday, 4 June 2016

Nostell Priory - a grand day out

What did I get? A day out at Nostell Priory

How did I get it? Part of a competition prize package from Caboodle

What I actually won was free entry to a National Trust property, but having visited the other main properties near me (Dunham Massey, Tatton and Lyme Park) I wanted to find somewhere different for this special day out. Heading in the other direction this is the nearest (1 hour away) and a new one to us all.

Parking near the entrance from road one walks down the drive to the property, making it an exciting moment when the house appears in view.

Nostell Priory, like several other  stately homes, was a monastic house until Henry VIII's reformation when he disbanded the traditional (catholic) churches and founded his own church - the Church of England. Properties were given over to Henry's favourites and often rebuilt or expanded to the house we see today. In this case James Paine and Robert Adam were architects at different phases, and the building is famed for it's collection of bespoke Chippendale furniture. Whilst not the original owners, Nostell has been the home of the Winn family for over 300 years.

Free tickets happily exchanged, I'll take a moment to tell you why this day started very well - no hard membership sell. Oh, what bliss! The National trust do an excellent job and without them we'd lose a lot of our heritage, I know that, but I do get so frustrated by having to explain so often that family membership would not be worthwhile for us (we've tried it) and we prefer to pay as we go gets tiresome. Not on this visit though, everyone was just happy for us top enjoy our day out and learn about this beautiful property.

We enjoyed the gardens first. The kitchen gardens and rose garden
are not as large and spectacular as other houses, but they are neatly maintained and have an array of interesting fruit and vegetables (including banana plants. Outside. In Yorkshire!) Being in the middle of a Wodehouse novel (Leave it to Psmith since you ask) I wanted to bother the gardener to see if his name was McAllister and quiz him on his flowers.

From these gardens we wandered through the adventure playground and along the lake, stopping at the perfect spot for my all-time favourite activity, a picnic.

Sandwiches and chicken legs consumed, we headed to the other side of the lake and the quieter, tranquil menagerie garden (where one expects they used to keep menagers).
This was my favourite spot with wonderful smelling shrubbery and interesting buildings.

Gardens fully explored we ventured into the house. A friendly welcome and offer of an activity sheet for the kids was just inside the door and off we go to explore. The entrance hall is dark and huge, quite imposing and not at all like other large houses. This is likely because the grand entrance was planned on the first floor at the top of the grand external steps. The first floor is, as usual, set out with magnificent rooms. I particularly enjoyed the bathrooms
- they are still set out with soap and toiletries from a bygone era. I could feel like a guest at Blandings stood here.

In the rooms there are priceless artworks by Brueghel the Elder, Hogarth and Gainsborough. The wallpaper is fine Chinese and the Chippendale furniture is dotted around everywhere. The interiors really are stunning, fine plasterwork and carvings abound. A clock made by the renowned John Harrison (who invented a method for calculating longitude at sea) sits state like in the billiards room.

The volunteers around the house are, as ever, knowledgeable and eager to tell you all they know.

Downstairs we see how the servants looked after the house. An array of bells is still present, waiting for the people of the house to summon them and cater for every whim. The butler's pantry has all the paraphernalia of buttling - Beach would be at home here. Kids can dress up in the scullery and play with cooking implements or make a rag rug.

House tour over we repaired back to the vast stable block
, topped up on the inevitable souvenirs, enjoyed a cup of lovely coffee and made our way back to the car past the huge parkland, all there for exploring (if you pay just the car park fee you can still use the cafe, shop and parkland, only the gardens and house cost extra). The tired kids, wife and mother-in-law all agreed, this was a fine day out.

Wednesday, 1 June 2016

Jungle Book at the Manchester Odeon

What did I get? A ticket for the Odeon cinema at the Printworks, Manchester.

What did I see? Jungle Book

How did I get it? A raffle win on the MacMillan coffee morning.

Way back in 2015 I was lucky enough to win 2 tickets for any Odeon cinema. Not a freebie in itself as I paid for the tickets, but I'm working on the basis that one of the tickets was cheap and one was free. It's a chance to highlight the World's Biggest Coffee Morning and a fair chance to review a good day out.

The Printworks is an exciting development in the centre of Manchester housing a 20 screen cinema, various bars and restaurants. It winds through an indoor street that retains many of the features of the original newspaper printing industry. It opened in 2000 having been left derelict after the evil Robert Maxwell bought it for £1 in 1986 and then closed it down.

Walking into the Printworks is exciting for the kids. It's quite dark but sufficiently lit to make it look like it's permanently night time on a busy street. It's been a while since I spent time down here at night and even then I felt a bit old. I'm told it can get a bit rowdy at weekends, but it's fine during the day.

Hard to believe that this is my first visit to the cinema here. Hard to believe there are 20 screens hidden away, including the North West of England's first IMAX. Queues were small, the friendliest service I've ever had in a cinema from Leah, and prices reasonable (well, the adults were free!, kids and senior were £4). Up the escalators to a large area selling the usual sweets, drinks and popcorn but also plenty of video games, air hockey and penny flips too. There's a Costa up here, but that wasn't open at the time. Having just spent an hour having a buffet lunch as part of our day out treat, these weren't close to being sampled!

Comfortable seats with plenty of leg room, good sound and a clear picture. Odeon Printworks cinema gets the thumbs up!

So what of the film? Oh, my word. My sister had told me it was good and not just a kids' film, but I never expected anything like this. The production is incredible - CGI now seems to have reached perfection. The only actor in the film is Neel Sethi who is incredible. To think he would have filmed opposite puppets against a blue screen shows just how good a performance this is. Amongst the many good voice performances my favourites were Christopher Walken as King Louie and Ben Kingsley as Bagheera. Idris Elba (my choice for the new James Bond) makes a good baddie, the odd 'proper Landun' word creeping out.

The real star is the storyline. More faithful to the original book than the 1967 version, but making sure it's not so faithful as to be a bit boring (come on, you've read them right? The films are much easier...). There is also the surprisingly brave move to omit any semblance of romance (Shanti is nowhere to be seen), and keeps sentiment about family to a minimum. Mowgli has been raised by animals since he was a toddler, he has no memory of mankind so why would he have those feelings.

Some better reviewers than I would consider the deeper meanings of the film (be true to yourself; consider your own strengths and not what others expect of you; wolves stick together...) but I'm shallower than that when it comes to a kids film. I enjoy the scenery, laugh at the jokes and cry at the end).

I'll finish with the songs. It's not a musical, but music from the 1967 film makes it in there. As well as excellent versions of 'The bare necessities' and 'I wanna be like you' I also noted background music calling on 'Trust in me', there may have been others.

Oscar nominations are likely to be made, this film is a cracker for all ages.

Monday, 30 May 2016

When literature is too much for me

What did I get? Slenderman, Slenderman take this child

How did I get it? Sent freely for review by the author

This is a sad post. My review (I won't say full review, I didn't post much) is at  (see below), but it made me question myself. I'm really not comfortable reading a depiction of a 12 year old girl masturbating, written in the first person. To hide this behind 'horror' seems the cowardliest part of all. I've spent a lifetime being against censorship in most forms and this won't change that, but being allowed to write such passages as part of a horror novel seems a get around, if it were on a fantasy site or similar it would be borderline illegal.
Am I getting old? Has the world changed so much that I'm the one being left behind? Should I just accept that reading about 12 year old girls masturbating is part of the modern age?
The author sent me this book as I had reviewed a previous work of his after winning it on Goodreads. That's a great gesture, and the author is sensible enough to know that an honest review was forthcoming. I wrote what I felt on Goodreads but tried to keep it to the book. This sad post just wanted to record a general feeling about society.
The book is challenging, and most that read it and enjoy it won't be paedophiles for enjoying it, but sometimes I think people throw in challenges for the sake of it. Looking at the average rating on Goodreads it's me that sees things differently, I can't argue with that.

Slenderman, Slenderman, Take this ChildSlenderman, Slenderman, Take this Child by Lee McGeorge
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

This book was sent to me by the author in return for an honest review.

Having previously enjoyed The Thing : Zero Hour by the same author I was looking forward to reading this. Sadly, I couldn't make it past page 60. I was expecting horror and the quotes on the cover (same as above) suggested a treat to look forward to. Unfortunately I put the book in the recycling after reading about a 12 year old girl masturbating, about the 4th sexual event described in the first person. 12 year old girls' 'slits' really aren't my bag and I was very uncomfortable with this.

View all my reviews

Thursday, 26 May 2016

Windows 10 - worth the wait?

What did I get? Windows 10 operating system
How did I get it? if you use Windows, you'll know. If you're a Mac user, you'll be sneering at me....

You've been seeing the pop-ups for weeks, if not months. You've been getting the prompts. Have you taken the plunge?

I'm reticent with things like this. I'm never the first to venture to a brave new world, preferring others to go first and tell me what it's like. Also, I'm a bit contrary. For someone who blogs on freebies, I hate being pushed into upgrades that are free.

Yesterday I saw a news item that criticised Microsoft's tactics in getting people to do the upgrade. Apparently MS have altered the settings since the message first appeared so that rather than asking if you want to install windows 10, the installation is scheduled to install itself unless you say otherwise. Most people close the dialog box using the 'x' in the corner without realising that they weren't declining the install, they were declining the opportunity to decline.

A dirty trick, Microsoft.
But I'm too tired to fight for ages, and am I spiting myself? Well, having read a few reviews it turns out Windows 10 is OK. Respected sites gave it a thumbs up, one describing it as the 'best Windows yet'. I decided to go for it.

By golly, it's a long download and umpteen restarts. About 2 hours from start to finish.

First impressions are favourable. It looks smart, but it doesn't really do anything different. The real changes come with menu choices. The start button brings up a whole different set of choices than before. Microsoft are no longer leading technology, they're keeping up with others. Programs are now 'apps' - fair enough, 'application' was a word long before iTunes store shortened it. This pop-up menu is now your first port of call. It has the news, weather, quick links to Twitter etc. Your computer is now more like your phone. It's not  bad thing, we've come a long way since that bloody paperclip.

One benefit I do like is how much easier it is to connect your applications to a profile. My webmail accounts is linked to my user profile so much more easily. Navigating to photo albums is more inuitive too.

The Microsoft store offers the same sort of service as the Play store or iTunes store and is in very much the same format. You now have access to loads of free games such as Crossy Road (Disney edition)  and the ubiquitous Candy Crush. Maybe this was available before, now it's just more obvious. The kids'll love this.

The downsides? Well I spent a further 3 hours trying to resolve the simple fact that my touchpad drivers were lost. I had a cursor and could click but without 2 finger scrolling I felt lost. Research revealed a problem that could be much more serious - HP haven't kept up with Windows 10 and no drivers were available. I faced life without 2 finger scrolling and went to bed fed up.

Today, scrolling is back! It's opposite (I swipe down to scroll up) but I'll take that. Now the OS has bedded in and things aren't loading for the first time speeds seem back to how they were before.

I'm not even going to bother trying Edge, the internet browser. I'm a Firefox man and happy with that.

Go on, swallow your pride and download the update. It's worth the long wait.

Blind Haze & Daxx and Roxanne at The Globe, Glossop - boogieing in my own backyard.

Dirty, dirty rock 'n' roll Back to The Globe, Glossop for yet another incredible gig with no entry fee. I've happily parte...