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.

View all my reviews

Monday, 17 April 2017

Haig Club single grain whisky

Today's freebie - a sample bottle of Haig Club single grain Scotch whisky

From - Haig Club


My exceedingly fascinating article on whisky was over a year ago. This is my first foray into a single grain, or at least the first time I've knowingly considered it. Single grains are, like single malts, made by a single distillery. The difference between grain and malt is that malt is always made with barley whereas grain can be be with any grain - corn or rye for example.

Other expert sites, who know more about this sort of thing than me, claim that single grains get an unfair press and can be as complex as single malts. The glass half empty would say that's poor man's single malt, the half fulls that it is a class above a blended.

Drinking this I fully agree that it's somewhere between a blend a single malt, and on a par with a cheaper single malt. A lovely pale colour and not harsh on the tongue, it's a fine drink. It's an award winning whisky that's produced in partnership with David Beckham and others. That name not only adds it a bit of gravitas, it also adds style - it comes in a stunning blue bottle that is a work of art in itself.

It also adds it a bit of price too. £45 for a bottle of whisky is not unusual for a good single malt and probably fine for a good single grain too, but to my palate I'd rather pay less for a single malt. Make no bones about it, it's a fine drink. For £45 though, you'll find better single malts.

Anyway, in drinking tradition, here's a playlist of every song in my iTunes that has whisky in the title.


Saturday, 15 April 2017

OV Guide - the doner kebab version of Netflix

Today's freebie? OV Guide - a website and app that lets you watch films and TV shows for free


Most of my reviews are things I've been sent for review, won in comps or received as samples. Sometimes, though, it's worth highlighting other good things in life that are free.

OV Guide is a website (and also a handy app) that aggregates free to play films and TV shows in your region. The definition of free is loose - a 30 day trial of Amazon Prime is free, so technically there are some good films out there to see. I can't be doing with that though, I want proper free. The site lets you choose these films so you filter out the links to pay to play streaming services.

According to the results, there are over 7000 full, free, films here. 7000! Of course, they'll be the ones that Netflix don't want, but there is some fun to be found in searching. It's why I think of a doner kebab - sometimes you don't want quality fine dining. Sometimes you want dirty, satisfying, messy fodder. This is where you'll find it.

My first foray was "Stag night of the dead", a low budget British zomcom that was neither funny nor scary. So bad it was entertainingly watchable. Horror does seem to be the dominant genre on OV.

I cleared my palate with a few old TV shows - this is the salad in your kebab, something healthy so you don't feel as guilty enjoying the junk. An episode of "The Jack Benny Show" had me laughing out loud, I love Jack Benny. I followed this with a 1937 episode of Zorro - proper Saturday morning fayre. A few dead links exist - it was suggested that Porridge was available and clicking to me to the BBC website where it wasn't available. I guess it depends on what's on the various players at the time.

I finished with "The Fat Slags", an ensemble piece in the finest British tradition. A cast of many stars to deliver a bilge fest that can hold its own with any British tie-in from the seventies onwards. Again, I enjoy the mulch sometimes. And it's got Don Warrington in it.

The adverts don't seem to work, so every 90 minutes you get a seconds blip and back to the show - an uninterrupted viewing bonus. The only time the ads did work it crashed the film and I had to relaunch and then scroll through to the point I was at, but this was once in about 3 hours of viewing. The streaming was slick, the sound perhaps below par. But come one - it's free. Thousands and thousands of new shows for free. They just need a smart TV app now...

Friday, 14 April 2017

Sleepy Moby music

Today's freebie reviewed - "Long Ambients 1: Calm. Sleep." LP by Moby

Who to thank? Moby himself - it's freely available.


I'm not alone in having trouble sleeping. I actually find it quite easy to fall asleep but wake up after a few hours and struggle to get back off. My mind races with thoughts and stresses so I rely on distracting them. Comedy podcasts is my distraction of choice, but calming music will do.

Moby, bless him, writes his own calming music. this is his own private soundtrack to sleep, meditation, yoga and calming down from panic attacks. Being a lovely chap he shares this for free with the world, and wouldn't it be nicer if everyone were a bit more relaxed?

"Think electronic whale song and you're there - which is apt given Moby's name and ancestry."

It's a big one too. 4 hours of solid music over 11 tracks. The shortest track is 17 minutes long and the longest a whopping 35 minutes. No singing, no percussions of any type, just chords. Think electronic whale song and you're there - which is apt given Moby's name and ancestry.

There's not a vast difference between each track, that's not the point. This was written for a purpose, and it's not recommended to be listened to in the car.

 LA1 opens, obviously, and is where the whale song feeling came in. Just looooong chords, one after the other.

LA2 is like the soundtrack to one of those arty Vimeo vids of the changing seasons filmed from a drone and resembling the flight of a hawk

LA3 - waves on a beach, back and forth. Back and forth....

LA4 is space. Vast, empty space.

LA5 is someone sleeping on a church organ. Slow changing chords for 35 minutes.

LA6 had me underwater, exploring caves.

LA7 had me back at LA2, or one of those new age shops in the late eighties.

LA8 is haunting, much more mysterious, the backing track to a video game where you creep around a house or space station waiting for things to jump out at you.

LAs 9, 10 and 11 had nothing new. But you really should be asleep by now.

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

Leroy Sane shirt - a happy son!

Today's freebie - A Manchester City shirt signed by Leroy Sane

Thanks to? JD Football


Not much to review on this one. It's too small for me to wear and even if I did it wouldn't make much difference to my skills base. I've got one happy son though! We're going to get it framed and on his wall.

Frank Skinner once said that working out which football team you support is easy. You put a pin in a map where you live and then work out which club is nearest. I don't think Frank was considering non-league clubs, which is a shame, but I get the point. It does make City a Frank-approved choice for my lad.

The lesson here is how easy it is to enter comps. This was a simple retweet on Twitter. A second's worth of thumb work and who knows....?




Sunday, 9 April 2017

A Warrior's Tail - is it actually finished?

Today's freebie reviewed - A Warrior's Tail on DVD

With thanks to - flickeringmyth.com

Savva is a ten year-old boy who lives in a  village that was once protected by white wolves. The wolves then disappeared and the village is now plagued by evil hyenas. When his mother is captured into slavery by the hyenas Savva escapes, and sets off on a quest to find why the village is no longer protected so that his mother can be freed.

Some say a magician turned the wolves into bad creatures and that one day a hero will come save the village from the hyenas, which are beautifully coloured, like a monkey's bum. Where the tail of the title comes in, I've no idea. It's the first of many confusions from this mad film.

This is a Russian animation from the writer of Lion King 2. An all-star cast (Milla Jovovich, Sharon Stone, Whoopi Goldberg) provide the voices for the dubbed English version.

Even for an animated film, this is unbelievable. Everything is just so convenient - there is little to thrill, it all just happens. Even the animation is not that hot for 2015 - this film has a lot of competition but the effort isn't there. The characters are stilted and there really is zero humour - I think the makers are trying but they are falling way short.

"... the madness and weirdness of Anime without the plot and the variety of characters of Disney without the charm."

Where I really started to lose it was the constant introduction of new characters. They appear from nowhere and with no prior mention and by the end it needs a clear few lines of dialogue to establish exactly who is on whose side. The plot is incoherent and thrown together - like a series edited to 100 minutes or so. The film has the madness and weirdness of Anime without the plot and the variety of characters of Disney without the charm. And why bother putting so few songs in? None would have been a better choice.

After watching this and starting to write this post up I looked at a few reviews and ratings to see if it was just me that didn't get it. It isn't - this is a bad film. Toward the end a "hut on fowl's legs" appears with no explanation why. Being right sophisticated and that I thought about the piece by Mussorgsky with the same name. I don't know if this is a coincidence or if cottages with legs like a chickens are common in Russia.


Thursday, 6 April 2017

Man cannot live on bread alone

Today's little victory? Twelve bottles of craft beer and some meaty snacks

Who's to be thanked for that? Grant at Looking for the Postman blog and Oliver at Craft Metropolis

 

Craft Metropolis source craft ales from that there London so you don't have to, which is handy for someone who lives in Derbyshire. There are a huge amount to choose from, or you can let CM choose for you. I'm a big IPA fan so went solo and picked the prettiest labels and most amusing names mostly from that section. A more discerning drinker would read the tasting notes but I like an element of surprise. Setting up an account gets you the same order on a regular basis (every 1, 2 or 3 months) at £36 for a dozen bottles (P&P is free). The quality of service is impeccable - quick responses to queries from Oli and a very well packaged box arrived a few days later (see the Instagram photos). I even got a text to say that delivery would be between 1438 and 1538 on the day, which was accurate.
Most of the bottles are bottle-conditioned so there's sediment around, yet this wasn't affected that much during transit. Any cloudiness in the photos is probably due to my extravagant pouring style or greed in trying to get every last clear drop from the bottle. I've got to say, of the 12 beers selected only 2 really disappointed.

Gorgon's Alive (4.3%)
Clarkshaw's

This impudent chap exploded when opened. Bottle conditioned it was the fizziest of the lot, Mrs Blog liked this - I'm a British chap and prefer my ales much flatter. It's light and slightly bitter - think Chris Packham.

Riding Ale (3% Pale Ale)
Howling Hops

Full of body in several ways (taste and hue) the taste of this chap belies it's weakness. A true session beer with a lemony taste. Charles Hawtrey.

Peel Sessions (4.3% Blonde Ale)
High Fidelity
 A warmer, caramel taste made this a favourite. A pleasant flowery taste made me want to spend more time in it's company. Slightly cloudy, but they might be my clumsy introduction. Noel Fielding.

Sandycombe (4.4% Golden Ale)
Kew Brewery

Mildly hoppy, the first sip is of rosy creaminess but a lingering bitterness lurks beneath. There's a dustiness here, a slightly spicy taste that doesn't quite burst through. Ben Kingsley.

Quartermaine (6.2% IPA)
Wimbledon Brewery

A mild taste for a strong beer, in fact surprisingly little taste for a beer of this stature. What is there is pleasant though. Big Pat Roach, the gentle giant.

Besko (6.5% IPA)
Pressure Drop Brewing
Classy little bugger, this. Deep and wholesome. On first taste this is your standard IPA but as the experience wears on you realise this is a cut above. Quite obviously Fiona Bruce.

Hepcat (4.6% IPA)
Gipsy Hill

Oh dear. Cited on the label as 'jazzy', it's a bit more quickly thrown together muzak. The label also says it goes well with roast lamb and a rimmed hat, I regret I drank without the hat. And the rim.
This is the most disappointing bottle of the lot. It's not foul, just unsavoury - a footpath through a field that runs a little too close to an abattoir. Jamiroquai.

Mariana Trench (5.3% Pale Ale)
Weird Beard
Oh, oh! Raspberries! I'm finally getting a taste I recognise and I've come over all Jilly Goulden. Am I right, does it say raspberries on the label? [checks] 'Mango and passion fruit'. It's fruit - I win!
The label also says to drink it with South East Asian food, but I only had Sou-Sou West so went hungry. An interesting brew this, fun and fruity - Jimmy Carr. And it's raspberries, the label must be wrong.

Brockwell IPA (5.6% IPA)
Canopy Beer Co.
Like the elephant on the label, rampant in trousers and tails, this is entirely run of the mill. Citra hops always sounds more exciting than they are, they're really not citrussy and all the beers I've knowingly had made with these hops have been fine but average. An unobtrusive tipple, try with a sunday roast. Matt Baker.

OA (6.5% IPA)
Partizan Brewing
I say 'IPA', the label calls it 'Centenniel Mosaic Pacific Jade IPA'. Pretentious hipsterism. This is a confused beer. It tastes like a half decent beer left under the bed for a week. It's dusty and soon forgotten, which is a shame. Les Dennis with a very late aftertaste of...no, it's gone again.

West Coast Special (6.9% IPA)
Howling Hops
Oh, that's lovely. Dark, rich and proper hoppy - the Beach Boys wouldn't have coped with this. Unless by 'West Coast' they mean Aberystwyth - those lads would do it justice. Dafydd Jones.
This beer was the one supped alongside the meaty snacks spoken of later, well suggested.

Five O' Clock Shadow (7% American IPA)
Weird Beard
A brute of a beer: rich and bitter but in a good way, not pathetic like Farage. Don't turn your back on this swine. It's lovely but could turn nasty. Hairy, outwardly dastardly but actually quite lovely. Giant Haystacks.

 

 

 

Cleaver & Keg meaty snacks

When a craft ale enthusiast joins with a high quality charcuterist to create pub snacks the end product should be screamingly good. These snacks are 3 ruddy farmers bursting into a pub, eager to slake their thirst and thrusting meaty goodness down everyone's neck. Being a Black Country lad at heart, would they compete with a decent scratching? Yes. Yes, they would. At £2.26 a pack you'd need to make them last, but with tasting notes to match yer snack to yer ale, these are a special treat because you're worth it. See the packets ripped open and displaying their meaty insides on my Instagram post)

Hot strips of beef
Oh yeah. Very hot and peppery. Cured with chilli jam for an extra kick, these are muscular and would have a moustache. Stunning.

Chorizo cuts
Dark and lean, salty and spicy. A decent chorizo, that's all.

Salami cuts
The fennel really stands out in these beauties. These are squat and funny, aniseedy pals have your back when you're supping.


Saturday, 25 March 2017

Fractured - a novel.

Today's freebie - Fractured by Clar Ni Chonghaile

How - A Goodreads freebie - the review below is from that site


FracturedFractured by Clar Ni Chonghaile
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This debut novel follows the experiences of 3 people - Peter Maguire, a journalist kidnapped and held for ransom in Mogadishu; Peter's mother, Nina, who has travelled to Somalia to try to get the release of her son; Abdi, a Somali youth coerced into working for the kidnappers and who, as Peter's guard, develops a relationship bordering on friendship with his captive.
Abdi assists in Peter's escape and together they head into the multitude of dangers that this part of the world holds. Peter's escape is also Abdi's escape - he wants to be free of the demands of kidnappers and from causing harm for a living. Nina also needs freedom from the burden of secrets she is carrying - finding Peter may well aid this release.
The author is a journalist who has covered and lived in many places, East Africa being one of them. This shows both in the knowledge of the profession displayed in the story and also in the depictions of the region and the understanding of its people.

This is a thriller but without the cliches of an airport paperback. The characters don't suddenly develop excellent gunmanship or the survival skills of an SAS soldier but without any training - they are plausible and garner empathy.

This is a fine debut that does thrill but also gives an experienced view of extreme journalism and the motivations of fundamentalism.


[I won this book through Goodreads]

View all my reviews

Thursday, 16 March 2017

Moments of honesty

Today's freebie? Bruce Guynn & Big Rain fan freebie


Bruce Guynn & Big RainBruce Guynn seems like a good man. He loves his music and wants to share this with anyone who will listen. The band are hard working and use their music to support a lot of causes and Bruce's blog is honest and open. Bruce Guynn is literally living his dream. Sending him your name and an email address brings you 4 songs.

Described as 'crossover', this 4 song collection leans more towards country than anything else to my ears. There are sounds of steel guitars in the background, that twangy sound that lends itself well to melodies.

"Sweet inspiration" and "I'm not running" are country pop type songs, straightforward pleasers in a George Harrison kind of way. The songs are positive and upbeat, the lyrics perhaps a little basic.

"Angel in my room" is quite a personal song. The 'angel' in question is vague - is this a song about death or protection? Or could the vagueness be an accurate reflection of a true experience? Dreams can be mad old things, perhaps it's just a memory of one of those.

My pick of the bunch is "Moment of honesty", a song that moves closer to the blues and brought Robert Cray to my mind. There's a juicy bit of guitar work in this too.

The website headlines Bruce Guynn and Big Rain as "The cure for the working classes". It's easy to see why they retain a popularity in the States. The style is unlikely to garner a huge British following but fans of country rock will be pleased, and come on - Bruce is giving the songs away! 



Saturday, 11 March 2017

Once you pop...

Today's freebie - A 40g tube of Pringles

How did I get it? An online coupon from Pringles themselves, redeemed at the Co-Op


Quite a straightforward freebie this one. I spotted a link to a free tub, printed off the voucher and then took it along to my local supermarket. 10 minutes later I've popped the top and you know the rest.

Funny old thing, Pringles. They have a wonderful crunch and satisfy my saturated fat and salt cravings, but they're horribly processed. All mushed up spud (less than 50% is potato) put back together in a clever shape. The manufacturers (Procter & Gamble) even went to court to argue that it wasn't a potato crisp (which attracts VAT) but an ordinary food stuff (which doesn't) - they lost. The judges ruled that even though it was less than 50% it was reasonable to assume that it was a potato snack and therefore subject to VAT.

Politics, economics and morals aside, these took me about 30 seconds to demolish. Salty, fatty badness that nails that satisfying crunch in your mouth.

Keep your eyes open, these promotions run quite regularly.

Monday, 6 March 2017

Gardens of the National Trust book

Today's freebie - Gardens of the National Trust by Stephen Lacey

How did I get it? A competition win

This took some reading. It's so big and heavy that I couldn't read it on my daily commute, and propping it up to read in bed or bath was tiring. I made it to the end though, even though I was quite bored at times. Neither encyclopedia not photographic table-book, it's an expensive (£30!) folly, I feel.

This review is from my Goodreads page.


Gardens of the National TrustGardens of the National Trust by Stephen Lacey
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This is a weighty book, well over 400 glossy pages. Those pages contain the expected beautifully shot photos of most of the National Trust's gardens. I very much doubt that anyone will ever be disappointed by a visit to one of the gardens as they are cared for by an army of dedicated experts.

The gardens are not just pretty to look at, they are also interesting and informative - an education in horticulture, history of gardening, gardening itself. Many are also productive, using traditional techniques to grow produce used in restaurants and tea rooms at the property. Unlike many of the buildings in the Trust's care the gardens aren't preserved, they are always improved, renovated or restored.

And yet it's hard to see where this book lies in highlighting this. The size and expense lead it to being a coffee-table book. One couldn't carry this as a portable guide to the gardens, one wouldn't heave it around the garden for tips - apart from the odd page from NT gardeners there are few practical gardening hints here.

The book is of greatest interest to plantspeople, those that really want to know exactly which variety of a particular plant is found at which property and probably recognise it from it's Latin name. It's a very specific book and that's what made it quite dull for ordinary garden enjoyers like me. The first few paragraphs give an interesting overview of the garden or property but after that it's lots of wordy detail of the garden contents, lists of plants and features.

It's a shame that the beauty of the garden is given over to words. Take this example from Ascott early in the book:
"Here the grounds open into an extensive arboretum, the foreground to a sweeping panorama across the Vale of Aylesbury to the Chiltern Hills...Everywhere, there are trees of eccentric habit and hue: weeping, cut-leaved and copper beeches, blue, golden and weeping cedars, variegated sweet chestnut, purple maple, cut-leaved alder, yellow catalpa - the scene further enriched in autumn by the potent tints of scarlet oak, red maple, tulip tree and liquidambar. In spring, waves of yellow and white daffodils wash over the slopes, followed by colonies of snakeshead fritillaries and native wildflowers".

All this accompanied by a single picture of an avenue of trees (in summer, not autumn or spring) either side of a road. That's it, not a single flower in sight. At £30 I would prefer a lot more glossy photos and far fewer words. If you were really interested in the detail of gardens you'd be more likely to just go than to want to read about the gardens, I feel. Those that could be swayed into visiting probably aren't drawn in enough by the too few photos.

One for the specialist.


View all my reviews

[This book is too heavy to post as a giveaway. My copy has been donated to a local charity shop that raises money for a local childrens' hospice]

Saturday, 4 March 2017

Oh Abbey day...

Today's lovely thing for free? A walk around Kirkstall Abbey

How did I get that? It's always free - go for it!


 I am a walker, it's my joy and my escape. I'm lucky enough to live on the edge of the Peak District so beautiful walks are easy to come by. Last weekend, though, I fancied seeing something new. Kirkstall Abbey is a place I've driven past several times but I have never ventured in. A quick check on the website for opening times and I find it's free - perfect for the blog!

An hour's drive later (with some classic prog to accompany me) and I pull up at the FREE car park. A quick visit to the Abbey House Museum shop (cos it has FREE, very clean toilets) and it's across the road to the Abbey.

The Abbey was founded in 1152 by the Cistercian order and the building was largely completed by 1182. How good is it to live in a country where buildings nearly 1000 years old are still in abundance all over the land and in some cases are completely free to enter?

Kirkstall Abbey is one of the best preserved Abbeys in Britain. Henry VIII's Dissolution of the Monasteries removed the power of the houses and the buildings were sold off to fund military campaigns. Some were converted into private houses, others left to ruin or to have the stone taken away for other purposes (bits of Kirkstall went to bridge building in Leeds), yet Large elements of Kirkstall have survived.

Entry is through a shop and visitor centre and a map can be borrowed to direct you around the ruins. Information boards are dotted about to give a potted history of each part of the Abbey. The most interesting fact to me was that the main road into Leeds from this direction ran straight through the aisle of the church and the carved signatures of travellers are still seen.

Once the main road into Leeds

Being free this is a popular site for families. It's been a wet and windy few weeks so the play area was too soggy to coax kids onto it but who needs it when hide and seek is there? The whole site is surrounded by a fence so children will get a bit lost, but can't leave the ruins themselves. With so  many walls and rooms around there were quite a few hide and seek games going on.

I made the most of being in the area by walking a few miles along the Leeds - Liverpool canal nearby. Kingfishers, marsh tits and many other birds serenaded the walk up to Bramley Fall park and back. I'll be back to see this is Summer when the trees are in full green, although the number of cyclists will also increase at this time. This is a VERY popular cycle route but the cyclists were all courteous. Back at the Abbey there is a lot of open green space inside and outside the ruins and picnic benches aplenty.

Hide and seek


The people of Leeds are very lucky to have all this on their doorstep.

Wednesday, 22 February 2017

The Good Gardener

What freebie reviewed today? The Good Gardener by Simon Akeroyd, a National Trust gardening advice manual.

How did I get it? A competition win.

It's taken me a week to plough through this, £25 worth of handy gardening advice. So handy, in fact, that Mrs Blogger is keen to keep it on the shelves rather than give it away as a prize - sorry!

The review below is taken from my Goodreads page. There's a lovely playlist at the bottom too, all songs from my collection inspired by gardens.

<The Good Gardener: A Hands-on Guide from National Trust ExpertsThe Good Gardener: A Hands-on Guide from National Trust Experts by Simon Akeroyd
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The National Trust know how to garden. I don't think I've ever been to one of their properties and been disappointed with the garden. Given that they aim to encourage visitors by maintaining beautiful gardens and have a self-endowed responsibility to preserve species and techniques then they know what they are doing.
This book is an excellent introduction to gardening. It covers all aspects of the garden, from designing the garden to identifying the type of soil; from choosing different plants for different seasons to advising on fruits and vegetables, herbs and grasses, trees and shrubs. It's hard to think of anything that isn't covered in its 284 glossy pages. Sowing seeds and propagation are covered as is choosing tools and encouraging wildlife into the garden - the Trust are notably green in their methods and materials.
Need to know how to dry out beans? Tick.
Moving a tree? Tick.
Grow your own herbs? Tick
Want bats in your garden? Tick.

Dotted within the pages are small gems from the Trust's gardeners - historical looks at gardening and insights into places that have embraced older methods of gardening. All of this is gloriously illustrated with photos from the Trust's gardens.

I'm a reluctant gardener but this book is simple and basic enough for people like me to get a bit of inspiration. Expert gardeners or someone looking for very specific information on one technique or type of plant won't get all they need, but almost every house with a garden small or large would benefit from having this introduction on their shelves.


View all my reviews

Sunday, 12 February 2017

Capability Brown & his landscape gardens - WIN A COPY!

Thing for free reviewed today? Capability Brown and his landscape gardens book.

How did I come by it? A competition win


The review below is from my Goodreads pages. Scroll down to win it for yourself!

Capability Brown: and His Landscape GardensCapability Brown: and His Landscape Gardens by Sarah Rutherford
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It's difficult to understand the impact Capability Brown has had on the British (but mainly English) landscape. In the eighteenth century it was his designs that changed the formal gardens of our large houses and palaces into sweeping, more natural landscapes. Indeed, it is the view that his work is so natural that you don't realise he has done anything that shows the impact he had. Aristocratic pursuits of hunting, riding and rearing livestock are enabled in his designs, yet his careful positioning of structures and clumps of trees shows his eye for views and showing off a house and its estate in full. Along with his trademark serpentine lakes the influence can be seen in many surviving parks, even those designed after his lifetime.
This National Trust book is a coffee table item. It has glorious illustrations on almost every page and is on very high quality paper. The blurb describes it as 'accessible' and this is a fair comment. It is an overview of Brown's life and works and not a detailed synopsis of the man, his works or the properties where the work can be seen.
Those seeking an academic work will be disappointed at the lack of footnotes, references or bibliography although there is a short list of suggested reading and an index. The gardens and houses are not covered in any detail and certainly not given any historical context but then that's not the point of the book.
As a short read it's biggest annoyance is in the way it jumps from property to property within each chapter. I found it difficult to recall specifics about certain estates from earlier chapters. Stowe, for example, has over 30 index references from the start to the end but no work has more than 2 consecutive pages devoted to it. A whole chapter is given to Brown's contemporaries and rivals which is of little interest - I'd have preferred more detail on his life or methods.
The real enjoyment of the book is in the photography. In particular, the aerial photos show the details and genius of Brown's works. It is for these that the book will be picked up and browsed.

View all my reviews Capability Brown book giveaway

Saturday, 11 February 2017

Do you want a postcard of an English Country Garden?

What did I get for free today? Gardens of the National Trust box of 50 postcards

How did I get it? A competition win

How can you get a postcard? Subscribe and send me your address by social media. Wherever you are.


A photo posted by @thebestthingsinlifeblog on
I started comping about 20 years ago and in those days a lot of them were 'answers on a postcard', something that will take fellow 40 somethings back to watching childrens' television as well as postal comps.

I've sent a fair few postcards over the years, but this requirement has dwindled over the past few years. This box should see me through the rest of my life although I am offering to send anyone that bothers to read this a free one, just to be lovely.

I'm not sure I would pay £12.99 for 50 postcards - I'm more of a pay-as-you-go kind of guy when it comes to these things. These do come in a sturdy box that stores like a book, it's a very high quality set as you would expect from the NT.

The pictures are from all over England with a few Wales and Northern Ireland ones thrown in (the NT doesn't cover Scotland which has it's own Trust). My absolute favourite is a view of the thatched cottage where Thomas Hardy was born. He's my literary hero and it really is a beautiful picture - I must go one day.

Lyme Park features and I spend a few happy hours walking the parkland here, it's the nearest NT property to me. Most properties are down South and with the slightly warmer weather it does seem that the gardens there are plentiful and flourishing.

Want one of these cards? Simply subscribe and send me a private message on one of my social media channels. This blog is mostly an escape and journal for my own pleasure and I suspect nobody ever reads it, so this is a little test. I'll send you a little note, wherever you are in the world. See - stamp collectors and postcard collectors both benefit!


Sunday, 5 February 2017

A plum job

Today's freebie? - A Regency Hamper of Winter in Venice rich plum goodies

And from whence? A competition win from Corgi Homeplan

 

This was a nice change from other wins. A hamper of any kind is always a treat - loads of goodies rather than one. I don't usually go in for the toiletries side of things unless they are proper manly, but this sounded pleasant so I had a punt. If you don't throw your balls around you don't win a coconut.

So what was in it? Bubble bath, shower gel, hand creams, bath salts, body lotion and several things with which to scrub and rub one's body.Throw in a bit of pot pourri and a handy wooden tub to hold them all and you've got a nice surprise after a knock on the door.

Question is - was it any good? Well put it this way, I didn't share it. The fragrance is a bit flowery rather than plummy but not feminine. Well, not to me anyway. The shower gel was a thick, proper gel affair - more jelly than gel. Lovely and strong that one, it didn't last long. Nor did the bubble bath or salts, I don't need many excuses to disappear into a warm bath with my book for an hour.

The creams are perhaps a bit more on the flowery side, I wasn't comfortable smelling of that on the train. Absolutely lovely for my daughter, but I'm looking at it from a rough-arsed bloke's point of view you know? Albeit a sensitive one in touch with my romantic side, of course.

The tools are high quality - the massage helps my plantar fasciitis (and tickles), the nail brush is solid wood. The loofah/sponge scrubby thing was OK for a while but soon lost shape. Still, I think these things are meant to be short-term affairs otherwise they must get full of dead skin. Nice.

So there you go, me all plummy and lovely and clean. £46 worth of pamper for nowt. A high class win and a nice treat, but if I were buying for a loved one, I'd probably settle for paying half that.

Sunday, 29 January 2017

Brian Pern - a laugh in rock

What's the freebie - Brian Pern : a life in rock (3 CD complete box set)

How did I get it? A competition win


A photo posted by @thebestthingsinlifeblog on
The longest gap between my posts thus far. The reason? A bit of ennui, a broken (and now repaired lap top), 3 kids that need the laptop for homework and the fact that I've now watched this complete box set 3 times.

This is by far the funniest thing I have ever won. From start to finish it's a laugh out loud mickey take of the music biz.

At the heart of it is Brian Pern, a parody of a prog legend and an amalgam of many artists, but openly compared to Peter Gabriel.



Brian was the lead singer in 1970s prog rock act Thotch, a band formed at public school (like Genesis) and with a variety of characters that need each other to prolong the legend. The relationship between Pern and guitarist pat Quid (played by Paul Whitehouse) is based on that of Pink Floyd's Gilmour and Waters. Who keyboardist Tony Pebble (played wonderfully by Nigel Havers) is based on I have no idea, but his sex mad quips and carefree approach to life are a highlight.



The core hilarity of the series is how the industry goes along with the fun. Roger Taylor of Queen, Roger Moore, Rick Wakeman, Chrissie Hynde and many, many others appear as themselves in ridiculous set ups, and the true humour is that these aren't set-ups (the lowest type of comedy in my opinion), these are carefully crafted scenes marvellously delivered by musicians in the know. Roger Moore, Martin Freeman, Christopher Eccleston, Vic and Bob and others all appear as outlandish characters. Typical rock events are parodied - charity albums, marriage breakdowns, meeting the kids that Brian walked out on and who want a hand with their own music careers (oh dear Kelly and Jack Osbourne!) as well as an alternative insight into Live Aid where even Noel Edmonds is funny. Yes, even Edmonds is funny in this series!

My own star of the show is Michael Kitchen as demonic manager John Farrow. His foul mouthed and ruthless approach to management is a joy to watch. It's Farrow that keeps Brian in work through the years, and at no detriment to himself.

Fans of comedy and music will love this series. Spot the songs being parodied on Brian's 'Best of' album below.