Friday, 29 April 2016

They all count

What did I get? A pen
Where'd I get it? The Place Aparthotel, Manchester.

Another cheeky one. This was a training day from work but I'm keeping the pen for myself. Life's little victories - not only did I get something for free but I got paid for getting it. I like training courses, sometimes they are genuinely useful but even away days and team building mean I'm getting paid for not staring at my monitor for 8 hours. Coffee, biscuots and an Uncle Joes mintball probably count too.

Happy Friday.

Thursday, 28 April 2016

Rush DVD review

Whatcha get this time? Rush DVD
Where from? Part of a competition prize package from Gay Times

I was 5 in 1976. I first became aware of Formula 1 around 1979/80 when Niki Lauda was still racing and appearing in my Panini sticker book. It was the year james Hunt finished racing but I barely recall seeing him do what he did best. Hunt was there throughout my childhood but usually as a chat show guest or commentator.

This film tells the story of Hunt and Lauda's rivalry through the 1976 season when Lauda was reigning champion and Hunt an English playboy pretender to the throne. It's a true story and sticks mostly to the facts, the main ones being the eventual winner of that year's championship, the circumstances of that victory and Lauda's infamous crash part way though the season. Lauda was trapped in a burning car for over a minute and suffered horrific burns to his face and hands - the scars of which we have all seen throughout his continued involvement in F1. Incredibly, Lauda returned to race after just 6 weeks and became more successful in F1. Hunt died tragically early in 1993 at the age of just 45.

The story starts a few years before to set the scene of how Lauda and Hunt became F1 drivers. The film flies through this and barely sets the scene, but it's all that's needed to keep the film interesting and way from being a geek-fest.

Our Nellie found the acting incredible. She was most impressed with the accuracy of both actors. I'm a little more fussy and found the odd Hemsworth attempt at well spoken English awkward, but mostly fair enough. Bruhl, as Lauda, is more convincing with his dental work. One wonders how close their portrayed personalities are to actuality. Both come across as not very likable but brave and honourable. Hunt in his selfish quest for self-glory and fun, Lauda as the quintessential Teuton driven to succeed by efficient application.

At just under 2 hours Rush literally races through the plot and is no worse for it. I'll probably watch it again if it's on telly, but doubt I'll turn tot he DVD on a quiet night. It's a must for anyone unfamiliar with the story of the 1976 F1 season, an interest for the rest.

Tuesday, 26 April 2016

Ribena - a berry welcome freebie

What did I get today? A bottle of blackcurrant Ribena light.
Where from? Given away freely at Manchester Piccadilly Rail Station

A nice little freebie today. I arrived at Piccadilly at just after 8am to find marketeers dishing out free bottles of Ribena from a huge pallet load that probably took about an hour to dispense.

I do like blackcurrant Ribena, it's gorgeous. It's had a poor press recently as we all become more aware of healthy drinking and doesn't help itself by saying "only 10 calories per 250ml" on the bottle - a 500ml bottle. It's factually accurate but why not state there are 20 calories in the bottle? It's deceptive and the wording that suggests the bottle contains 2 servings equally small. Who buys a bottle like this for 2 servings?

There are no added sugars, artifical colours or preservatives. This is a step in the right direction for drinks manufacturers and personally I don't think there are many tastier soft drinks out there. My son had a taste and first commented on the smell ("berryness"), and decided the drink was berry delicious.

Pineapple and passion fruit flavour was also being given away. I'm not travelling by train tomorrow :(

Monday, 25 April 2016

Wrangler coat - warm, but pricey

What did I get? A Wrangler Blizzard coat
Where from? A competition win from Littlewoods

This is my biggest win of the year so far. In naive blogger style I am writing about it as the spring arrives and people aren't thinking about winter coats. I also think it's a discontinued line so no point waiting until next winter! Still, at least I am writing with 2 months of experience and not in the first flushes of excitement, which is pretty a good thing as you'll see.

The main point about the coat is that it's warm. Very, very warm. The snuggliest coat I've ever owned and I love that. I sank my chin right down on those snowy commutes or chilly night matches and at no point was I even close to being cold. It's (fake) wool lined in the hood and shoulders and quilted elsewhere.

It's also very waterproof. I get the impression that the waterproofness will last for years and not wear off like walking type jackets, it's not greasy either like wax jackets can sometimes feel.

Great point number 3 - loads of pockets. Decent buttoned waist pockets with hand pockets to the side of these. the hand pockets are lined with what's described as "smartphone cleaning lining" - a velvety affair. Well, my phone is in a case but it works a treat on my glasses. There's a decent sized pocket inside, a pen pocket where you'd expect that to be on the inside and 2 huge sized hidden pockets around the moob area that could be useful for tucking your hands into or carrying paperwork. There's even little buttons inside the sleeves and the only function I can think of for those is to attach your mittens when you go to the park with mummy.

The fur trim around the hood is detachable and this came off right away. that was a bit too trendy for me and as you can see from the pic it's a bit too in my face. The remainder of the hood sits OK on my head but I do find the wool clings to my hair so that when I turn the hood tends to come with me and needs adjusting once in a while.

And now the negative points, and some are quite serious when I get to the price. The first is about quality, and maybe I was unlucky ("unlucky he says - he got a free coat!") but the pocket stitching came apart in the first week with an audible ripping sounds. All I did was put my hands in my pockets, and they ain't big hands.

Secondly, the cursed zip. It sometimes takes me ages to get it zipped and it catches on the inside flap several times on the way up. Honestly, I have needed my wife to try and do it for me some days. This sounds daft but I can't begin to tell you how frustrating it is to have a zip that's so fussy, even though it is strong and tight when finally zipped up.

Final gripe - the design around the chin and neck. The arms and everything else is perfect so I don't believe it to be a sizing issue, but the chin part comes above the chin. This coat is made of VERY stiff material - I can stand it up on its own. Under my chin it rubs and I need to undo it (and the buttons) a bit, but then the zip works it's way down and before you know it you're open to the chest.

Overall, I do really like my coat. The pocket has been stitched and nowhere else looks to be a problem, I'm sure I'll get used to the collar and the zip and me will just have to learn to love each other. But the question of value....

The coat (so I was told by the very friendly and helpful marketing agent) retails (retailed) at £190. I would be very disappointed if I had paid that amount. I didn't, so I'm happy but this is meant to be an honest and objective blog after all. Looking at other outlets you can get this coat for £55 - £75, it's a fair deal at those prices.

Wednesday, 20 April 2016

A guided walk around Manchester

City Walk
What was the freebie? A City Walks App for Manchester
How? A competition win at Lindsey's wonderful Have Clothes, Will Travel blog

I've been looking forward to testing this prize for a while. Sunday was looming large and free and the sun came out to play so walking boots on, backpack on shoulders and on the train to Manchester to test the guided walks on this app.

The Hidden Gem
Manchester is my adopted 'home' city. I haven't lived in the city for some time but I've worked there for the past 25 years and love the place. I still get a thrill from exploring nooks and crannies and going back to spots I haven't been to for ages.

I used another freebie - the free bus, one for another post some day? - to get to the start point of the first walk. This walk is called the 'City Orientation Tour' and starts at City Walk before winding via Albert Square, Bridgewater Hall, Whitworth Street and ending at Piccadilly Gardens. 1.86 miles according to the app and a suggested 2 hours which allows for stopping and exploring some of the sites.

The app has GPS built in as you'd expect and it's very detailed. The suggested route uses footpaths, alleyways and canal towpaths that Google maps don't know.

Sunlight House - where I had my first job after university
Walking Manchester has great personal memories but I did learn a number of new facts such as the site of Manchester Castle (where Chet's School is now). I enjoyed the walk so much that after a stop for coffee and a pastry I walked back to the Opera House and started walk 2 - 'Historic Architecture' - that wound up to Cathedral.

Barton Arcade
At each stop I read the description and stamped the spot on the app. Flicking between the map with my little blue dot tracking me and the info does take it's toll on the battery but the app is used offline so you don't use all your data on the info, I used about 40Mb on the GPS for both walks. The only addition I'd like to see would be a chance to have audio directions rather than having to keep the phone out and using battery staring at the screen. I could have used Google maps like this but the app's routes are far more interesting if less direct, and as mentioned before it uses paths that Google doesn't recognise.

Manchester Central - my second (of 3) Blur gig

The app is free to download but you need to pay for the added content for each city. At just £3.99 these are a bargain and there are over 450 cities around the world available. I'll certainly be downloading others when I travel, starting with Munich this coming October.

A great prize, and a thoroughly recommended product, our kid.

Tuesday, 19 April 2016

Flip that fish

What did I get? A fish slice
Where did I get it? A competition win from Fish is the Dish

I love fish. It's healthy, many varieties are reasonably priced and it's delicious. It's remarkably versatile too - how about kedgeree or a jugged kipper for breakfast, smoked salmon sandwiches or pilchards on toast for lunch and proper fish and chips for tea? Most people don't eat enough and it's easy to cook too.

The fish slice is oddly named isn't it? It doesn't slice anything when used properly. It should be a fish flipper but that's probably just rubbing a dead fish's nose in it.

I'm not going to review this as I don't think it can be bought so a review wouldn't help you much. I just like keeping a record of my little victories. Suffice to say it's an excellent quality tool in chrome steel or something and engraved with Fish is the Dish. Take a look at the deliscious recipes on their site and get yourself healthy.

Here's a playlist of fish related songs to entertain you.

Thursday, 14 April 2016

Room soundtrack (Stephen Rennicks)

What did I get? Room original motion picture soundtrack by Stephen Rennicks
And how? Part of the same prize package as the book, thanks to the excellent Gay Times

So, after yesterday's post about the emotionally exhausting but stunning book I wanted to get straight to talking about the soundtrack. This is the soundtrack to the film (obv.) and I have no idea how the film might differ from the book. Looking at the song titles suggests not too much.

The song titles nearly threw me. I took the soundtrack on holiday with me last week, before I had read the book, and listened to it a few times. It was only when I started reading that I realised I might have a an idea about what might be coming. 'Mouse' might not give too much away but ... well, just be careful when checking the track list OK?

Like the story, the soundtrack is very minimal. The simple notes of 'Opening' are repeated in several other tracks throughout and even the track that I assume accompanies the most heart thumping, dramatic part of the book is barely a single note, the sparsest track here. It would be interesting to see the direction of the film using the music as a guide.

This isn't really a soundtrack, it's more incidental music. A book that is set in a single room that neither occupant has left for 7 years demands a soundtrack that fits the mundanity of their lives. This album is just that, but it is also beautiful. Simple, calming - it could be the sound of gentle rainfall, the birth of a baby, leaves falling from a tree. I might fall asleep to this album tonight.

Rennicks produced a few songs for the weird film 'Frank and they too fall into the gap between soundtrack and incidental music. A talented musician who interprets scenes well, I'm sure I'll be hearing more from this composer in the future. That's the beauty of Spotify, I can go explore like I did with other soundtrack composers such as Yann Tiersen.

Maybe the album's not quite as memorable as the book, but it's pleasing all the same. The film has a lot to live up to.

Wednesday, 13 April 2016

Room by Emma Donoghue - my new best read of the year so far

What did I get? Room by Emma Donoghue (paperback)
How? A competition win from Gay Times

This is the first instalment of a decent competition win from Gay Times. The soundtrack to Room will
follow and there were a few other DVDs in the package too, all deserving of their own article. Gay Times has some excellent quality reviews and articles on their site and I've been following it for many years. They have great comps too.

Room (not The Room - that's important) is by Irish writer Emma Donoghue but set in the US. It's a work of fiction that I assume is inspired by harrowing stories of people kidnapped and kept captive for many years. The entire novel is told from the perspective of 5 year old Jack as he describes his life with Ma in the room that has been his entire world since his birth. Everything in Room is part of his world - Bed, Wardrobe, Sink etc. Old Nick comes often enough to provide food and other essentials.

It's difficult to discuss too much of the plot without giving the development away. I was prepared for heartache (nothing - NOTHING - makes me sadder than things happening to kids who don't understand why, in fiction, film or real life) and I admit to having to wipe tears away on a busy train.

I don't think this is a spoiler, but if in doubt stop reading now...

...I wasn't as dismayed as I expected to be. Donahue could have taken the easy route and written the story we expect. The Hollywood story. That she chose to tell an entirely plausible story makes this book the stunner I wasn't expecting. It's interesting to see other reviews on Goodreads and find opinion split on writing from the perspective of the child. I found it sensitive, respectful and believable; others find it a but nauseating. I really hope all those negative reviewers stuck with it to the end and didn't give up. Being held captive in a single room IS boring, I believe that to be the point of the start of this book. I certainly didn't find it boring to read about because Jack has a child's enthusiasm and approach to play. There are two major points in the book that demand you read through to find the outcome - I defy anyone not to.

I really wasn't sure that I was in the right mood for this book but oh, my days! It left me emotionally exhausted and it fully deserves the praise it has received. The bond between a mother and son is so strong for most of us, maybe this is what strikes home most.

This song is relevant, but you'll have to trust me on that - or read Room.

Sunday, 10 April 2016

Schiele and Vermeer books for children

What did I get? 2 children's art books by Catherine de Duve
How did I get them? A competition win from Galina Varese's lovely blog

In my header I state that I don't enter competitions for things I don't want or need. I wasn't sure what to expect from these books when I entered. I enjoy art and art history and anything that keeps the kids interested in them is good by me.This prize contained 2 books - "The Little Egon Schiele" and "Colour and Learn with the Little Vermeer"

Catherine de Duve is on a mission to bring art to children and has many books in print. What is most interesting is that she produces books that cover artists beyond the usual Van Gogh or Monet. The books are aimed at different age groups.

The Little Egon Schiele is aimed at a slightly older age group, maybe 8 - 10 years. The book is 30 pages long and gives a brief overview of Schiele's life with some historic background. The words are challenging but well-chosen for the age group. They complement the wonderful illustrations well and probably deserve a place in a school library. What irks me somewhat is the questions posed on each page. They are pitched at a quite different level to the language used in the text and quite patronising to someone reading the book and understanding the biographical details. For example, on one page we have the paragraph

"During this time locked away, Schiele becomes even more indignant against the authorities. he is furious that people can be so narrow-minded. Alone in his cell, he produces 13 drawings, including one which he calls Obstructing an artist is a crime, like murdering a life in the making!"

This page is faced with an explanation that the orange in one of these drawings represents Schiele's hope. The reader is then invited to draw the fruit which represents hope for them. This is such a waste of space - an intelligent description of an artists troubles followed by a space to draw a fruit. It makes a half-decent reference book a piece of ephemera that can only be used by one child. The idea behind this was lost to me.


The Little Vermeer suffers similar confusions. This is most definitely aimed at a younger audience than the Schiele and the words are fewer and chosen carefully. The bulk of the book describes the cultural and historic context in which Vermeer worked. Sadly, the book contains little of Vermeer's work for the child to see and is instead filled with black and white representations of his work for children to colour. This is a good idea but the quality of the drawings is quite poor and I can't see how this would hold the attention of a younger child. 

My children are 11 and 13 so a bit older than my estimated target audience. They certainly didn't see it as aimed at them. I've judged the books on how they would have seen them a few years ago and also through my own undergraduate training in childrens' literature. The books are a great idea to bring art to a younger audience but I don't think they would hold attention for more than one sitting. At £6.99 for the Schiele and £4.99 for the Vermeer they aren't extortionately priced, but perhaps extravagant as colouring books.

Saturday, 9 April 2016

Why I'm fat

What did I get? A steak, red wine and mushroom pie.
How did I get it? Doing what I do best.

A return from a week's holiday and an unexpected little freebie. My local football club have a loyalty scheme during the course of a season. If you buy 10 pies you get the 11th free. Today was my 11th pie, so I'm claiming it for the blog as today's little victory - I had my money out ready to pay and the pie was free!

The pies are supplied to Glossop North End FC by Mettrick's and I've been enjoying them for years. They are award winners and one of the many reasons why I love watching my local team - affordable entry, friendly atmosphere, you can watch the match wherever you want, no segregation needed.

My choice of freebie pie was steak red wine and mushroom. Even when not given freely it's a steal at just £1.50 (the peas and gravy were an extra 50p, I paid for that).

Look at that lean chunky steak, all cuddled up with mushrooms in a red wine gravy. The pastry was sweet, moist and held shape well.  These are award winning pies from an award winning butcher - you won't find better value at any ground at any level.

We lost 1-0. Hey-ho.

Sunday, 3 April 2016

Harry Hill's novel is as daft as you'd expect.

What's the freebie? Escape from Deathrow paperback by Harry Hill
Where from? Another grab from a work clear out

A few posts ago I discussed Shogun by James Clavell, one of 2 books I liberated from an overflowing bookshelf at work. That took me months and I needed something different. Anne Diamond recommended this book to me one lunchtime as we enjoyed a Blue Bols spritzer in the Winding Wheel pub, Cannock.

It's the bizarre flight of fancy you'd expect. The novel is actually about 14 years old but you wouldn't realise it as neither Harry Hill or his output has changed me in 20 years. Look at this video, that's 20 years old is that.

Nowt wrong with Harry Hill maintaining the same act if you like Harry Hill. I don't mind him, he's found what he's good at and made a decent living out of it.

Anyway, back to the "plot". There isn't one really. A pig thrown into the world of celebrity culture, told by Harry Hill in the first person. It's a barely structured series of musings that has flowed from the end of Harry's pen (a 1993 Papermate judging by TV Burp or You've Been Framed you'll know Harry delights in putting celebrities into implausible situations. Thus it is here, including Harry himself.
the prose) full of pop culture references which do date the book. If you've seen

If you're amused by Hill and spot this at a car boot sale then give it a go, it's a daft bit of fun. if you don't like Hill then avoid like the plague, you'll hate it.