Saturday, 16 December 2017

Kings of America by R.J. Ellory

Kings of AmericaKings of America by R.J. Ellory
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This Goodreads win is my first experience of Ellory's writing. As a piece of crime fiction it's more of a linear story rather than whodunnit. We know whodunnit in graphic fashion, it's the web of crime that slowly gets more tangled that is the glue in this thriller.

Danny McCabe flees Ireland for New York after becoming a wanted IRA fighter. Landing Stateside he meets Nicky and Lucia Marioni and together they start their life together in the land of dreams. At first Danny's boxing skills and Nicky's management looks to be their way to riches and the method of bankrolling Lucia's desires to get into the movies. Another bad turn sees them leave New York quicker than planned and the remainder of the story sees their lives move on in Hollywood as Danny changes identity to avoid the authorities and Nicky sinks into the underworld.

Now, I'm wondering if the publication of this book has been rushed. I'm happy for someone to point out to me that I've missed something but there are huge issues with the scope of the story and it's development. The blurb of the book states that it is set over 3 decades and the Goodreads description states it is an 'epic that spans the 1930s to the 1960s' (which is actually 4 decades) and yet it doesn't reach the 1950s. This wouldn't be an issue of the descriptions weren't read, I wouldn't have picked up on it otherwise, but it does also pick up on another nagging problem I had with the plot.

The second world war is pretty much mentioned in passing and the real action jumps from America's entry into the war in the early 40s to the end of the war. With a deeper plot this could be explained but for no reason we skip a few years. If Danny doesn't go back to Ireland and Nicky back to Corsica to fight then the same plot could be continued during the war but for some reason it is important that the war ends. Here comes the other hole that bugs me..

Louis Hayes is a detective determined to bring down the whole mob running Los Angeles. He's got his eyes on Nicky and doesn't let go in bringing him to book. So why take so long? 6 or so years after a crime is committed Hayes is still trying to resolve it. I'm wondering if there is a much more epic story here and an entire section set in the Second World war back in Europe so that the action in LA is put on hold for a while. Has this been cut? There may well be a finale that has been ditched that covers the later years - or maybe a sequel that hasn't been alluded to.

Given my criticisms above it could be a surprise that I gave as high as five stars. Well, the book is with it's high points. A bit of mob culture is always a good piece of escapism and this helps with that escape. The main characters are believable (although Hayes is clumsily brought into the story) and the lesser characters have their parts to play and play it well.

The biggest seller of all is the era. The glamour of Hollywood in the years either side of the war is fascinating and this story tells not of those that made it big in the pictures but who made a living around the edges - legally and illegally; easily and desperately. Real life people such as Lucille Ball and F Scott Fitzgerald appear at differing ends of careers and many, many references are made to classic movies. Film buffs might like the setting and it's a fair novel, but crime purists are going to be disappointed.

View all my reviews

Sunday, 5 November 2017

A fortnight of freebies

Another few weeks of varied freebies, all gained in different ways. You don't need much to have a good time.

A(nother) walk around Lyme Park ... and beyond

I'm starting to post a lot about Lyme Park aren't I? I have gone for years without visiting and now I seem to be there every other week. I do enjoy scouting walking sites for guided walks and trying them out and Lyme park crops up a lot, with the added bonus that it's not far from home. And having told you my little parking spot that saves me £7 each visit, you'll know it's a freebie. Sorry National Trust.

This walk was spotted at Countryfile and suggested another parking spot outside the grounds so I thought I'd have a pop at that. After 40 minutes of being sat in roadworks I sacked off the idea of waiting more to get to Poynton and parked up in my usual place, walking the extra couple of miles to join this walk half way round but still complete the full circuit. It was chucking it down too and the roar of the stags rutting was eerie through the thick mist. By the time I reached the view across the lake to the house I was wetter than Colin Firth after his dip but slightly less sexy. Slightly.

The walk took me out through the West gates of the park and onto a narrow lane where the first house, an AirBnB gaff with the wonderful moniker of Windgather, was selling homemade chutney and apple sauce. I dropped a couple of quid in the honesty box and it was money well spent I can tell you. Not a freebie though, unlike the windfall apples that the farmer at Haresteads Farm had left out with a note to help oneself. I picked through the spotted fruits and found a perfect one which crunched most satisfyingly as I carried on along the path to the Macclesfield Canal. This should have been the start point but today was my sandwich stop, interrupted by 4 different dogs not under the control of 3 different owners. All had their nose in my trough but got short shrift, I can tell you. nothing comes between me and a jam butty. 

 Higher Poynton marina has a lovely little shop and some madly named boats moored up - some seem to be there for good and have their own little gardens. About a mile along I left the canal alongside this fantastic little corner that the owner kindly let me photograph. From here it was along a track and through a small but enchanting wood before making my way back towards the main park entrance for Lyme. At the top of the ridge, near the Cage, the stags still honked their horny song. The mists had cleared and this Mr Darcy was drier as he reached the car half an hour later.

Healthy & not so healthy foodstuffs

Belvita were giving away free breakfast soft bakes at Piccadilly station. I grabbed a choco hazelnut filled one, not expecting much. It was alright, actually. Normally these things are quite bland, punishment for healthy eaters. These weren't too bad and the inside was just like Nutella. It probably isn't as healthy as we are supposed to think but that's probably why it tasted OK.

Something that never pretends to be healthy is pizza and Chicago Town gave away vouchers to exchange for a freebie from their Pizza kitchen range. Crisp base and decent veg that tasted quite fresh, definitely one to go back for.

Buy Art Fair & The Manchester Contemporary.

 Thanks to Manchester Confidential for free tickets to this fair, "the North's favourite art fair", held at Manchester Central. This country is marvellous for free access to art and art galleries are something I should feature more on this blog. It seems odd to pay to see artwork for sale but I think the regular entrance was only a fiver and that includes access to interesting talks and the chance to talk to dealers about art.

There is art you like and art you don't like, I reckon. I can't be doing with 'modern art is crap' as that dismisses an entire form based on it's point in time. I do think that the greatest creativity in a lot of art these days is the hype, the explanation or the concept rather than the piece itself but if someone's daft enough to spend £50k on anything that has only aesthetic function then that's up to Mr Saatchi himself. I'm content to spend £10 on a print if it gives me pleasure top look at and your rich collector is the same, it's all dependent on what you can afford. £50k would be better spent feeding the homeless wouldn't it? But then so would my tenner, so we're even.

Looking at something created by someone else that has no functional value and being moved in different ways is an odd thing. How can I spend 20 minutes at one stall, looking closely at every piece and then walk past another with a mere 'meh'? Some abstract pieces stopped me in my tracks, others barely raised a second glance. If I had the money, would I buy an original Lowry for £13k? Possibly. Would I buy the pieces described as a 'posthumous Warhol' for the same? No. The Banksy piece for sale ('Price On Application') was superb but would fit nowhere in my pokey terrace. 

My absolute favourite painting (actually, there were 2 side by side, both by Mark Demsteader) was beyond my means financially and spatially. They are in front of me in the picture to the left and I spent ages waiting for the right moment to get the photo as it was a view that captured everything about the fair - there are about 4 different styles on display along the sides with my favourite works at the end. It was reasonably busy though (a good thing) so this was the clearest view I got and is terribly focused. I didn't have the £18k to buy either of the paintings so this pic will have to do me.

Other stalls that made me stop and stare were by Sydney Clare Checkland and the Salvage Gallery. the latter does go beyond art into having some functional value (and at reasonable prices too) and I loved the rusty drainpipe made into a wonderful blue backlight. This could be affordable and next year I'll save up before I go. 

Some galleries showed works for sale by students (including 6th form students) and the quality was exceptional. I got so engrossed in looking at the art I completely forgot about the talks and was too late to catch Paul Stephenson's screening and Q&A on Warhol, which I regret. With the art cafe in the corner and practical hands on stands for adults and kids this was a great afternoon and I'll look forward to next year. 

Weekend i

This paper had their own stall at the art fair and gave away copies of that weekend's paper. It's only 80p anyway which is why it's my paper of choice anyway on the odd occasion I do buy a paper. The Guardian is my preferred read but like so many things the price puts it out of reach of being a regular buy, plus i is about the right length for a train journey. To be honest, these are about the only national papers I can stomach. I look forward to winning something from the Mail or Express (they do have good prizes) just so I can lambast them both for their preaching of hate. There, now you know where my morals lie - I'm happy to take the freebie and enter their comps but won't say a good word about the paper. I understand if you think that's hypocritical.
Anyway, I find i to be informative and well researched. I would say 'balanced' but it's left leaning so probably reports the world as I see it anyway. Good puzzle pages too.

Dangerous Lady by Martina Cole on the app

Two things to review here thanks to who included a link to a free download on their newsletter. Let's do the app first - it's free to download and you then pay for most of the books. There are quite a few freebies, usually read by amateurs and to be honest I struggled to listen in depth to many of them. Keep trying though, you'll find something free that suits you. If you are a regular audiobook listener then I'm not sure how useful the app will be. It's a subscription service - £7.99 per month gets you one download per month. That's a lot and is one book per month enough? More credits can be purchased but it seems like an expensive source of reading if you want to listen in the car on long journeys - I'd stick with CDs from the library. Those with visual impairments will find the service useful but again there must be a more reasonable way to meet the needs of those people? I'm sure they must get subsidised  services - Derbyshire Libraries gives you free, time-limited downloads of e-books, e-zines and audiobooks, for example. 
The app is excellent though - easy to use and navigate through chapters, plus you can pick up quite easily where you left and if you use it to fall asleep to you can set it to turn of in 10, 20, 30 etc. minutes. Quite useful when the book you are listening to is over 17 hours long...

I've never read a Martina Cole before and I'm not sure I've ever seen a TV adaptation of one of her books. I've been missing out - this was a great listen. Imagine the Godfather set in the west End of London. Instead of Italian ancestry imagine Irish ancestry. Instead of a godfather, imagine a godmother. 

The story starts with the birth of Maura Ryan in 1950, the youngest of a large family and the only daughter. dad is a drunken waster and the boys are a bad lot from an early age. Michael moves up from being a ne'er do well teen to becoming London's top geezer, feared by all. Maura, on the other hand, wants nothing more than to meet a nice chap and become a housewife and mum. She does meet a nice chap, but he's a copper innee?

No spoilers in my reviews - suffice it to say that Maura ends up as the top dog in Landun, dealing with the IRA, Yardies, other gangs, blaggers, construction bosses and her own employees in the clip joints she controls in Soho. It's an epic story that runs until the 1980s (the novel was first published in the early 90s) and sees Maura's rise amid the social history of post-war Britain. We see the rise of the IRA, the conversion of London's dockland to becoming the property capital of Thatcher's Britain, the changes from swinging London to yuppie London. It's an absolute belter with a sexy, strong and sensual lead character. If you don't want to download this version, get the printed one. if you saw the TV series in in the 1990s (which passed me by) then try it again, I think the plot was changed for that. I'll be seeking out more Martina Cole after this.

A word about the reading. Annie Aldington is the perfect choice - a Londoner herself (Sarf, I think, whereas Cole is Essex) she has the perfect voice for Maura Ryan and does credible differences for all the other characters. No mean feat considering the majority are all brothers from the same family. Aldington has a smoky voice, a London fog of a voice, that epitomises the atmosphere of the book. She can't do Irish, mind.

There's a lovely extra after the book has finished, a chat between Aldington and Martina Cole. If you thought Aldington's voice was smoky wait until you hear Cole's - you can almost chew it! 

Hound of the Baskervilles - a farce by northern Rep. 

And the best came last. Over the River Irwell to Salford I walked, and into the Victorian interior of the King's Arms. Great beer, great bar staff and a supporter of the arts - after a few pints I made my way upstairs (with another pint) to the tiny studio along with 16 other souls (this is pretty much a sellout, it really is that small). Inside the studio I'm greeted by the great Mr Holmes himself, together with his ever present companion Dr Jane Watson. After a brief game of charades whilst we waited for others to arrive (play and a book, 5 words, first word 'the') the telling of the great mystery was upon us. Holmes and Watson romped through this most singular tale, regaling us with accurate depictions of all the characters armed with nothing more than false moustaches and 2D pipes and pistols. How they capture the mystery of the moors, how they impart the terror of the hound - how we howled. We howled because we were the voice of the great dog (yes, it's a spoiler but come on, you knew that, right?), but we howled because every other line was hilarious. A real farce of theatre - cheeky, laden with double and triple entendres, corpsing, script and off-script, audience participation, the lot. I truly haven't laughed out loud for so long in many years. It's pure daftness, creativity that was probably born in a pub as well as performed above one. Christopher Brown roars his way through as the greatest ever sleuth (and others) whilst Angela Hazeldine encourages, discourages and sets 'em up as the ever faithful Dr Watson (and others). She absolutely nails a South African accent too. Pffft.

With a brief interval of 20 mins for another pint (we all came back, no danger of doing otherwise!) they kept up this pace for almost 2 hours. For £12 that's incredible value and you don't have to be a genius to work out that with a capacity of about 18 they ain't gonna make a killing. I don't know how many others had free tickets but I hope they also put a fair amount into the jar on their way out. I may love a freebie but I'm not out to put real entertainment like this out of business. Honestly, if ever you get the chance, free or otherwise, see this show. Now to look up other Northern Rep stuff.

Thanks for reading this huge blog (if you made it this far). It's a hobby, nothing more. I like to write but lack the talent to make money from it. I like new experiences but lack the money to pay for all I want to see. This blog lets me pretend I;m doing both and with the money I do have I can still support the peripheries - a drink in the bar before the show, a coffee in the cafe, a small souvenir or programme. I really don't aim to take take take all the time,  I do have fully paid for experiences I don't write about! Peace.

Sunday, 15 October 2017

Artistic ingenuity - WIN some!

My freebies are usually posted to Instagram first, when I'm in the moment. I then follow up with a full post of observations, reviews or anything else I fancy writing after I have had time to reflect.

During these past 2 weeks I've posted 6 free things but the highlights are around art and performance. Read through and at the end you'll find a chance to win a DVD copy of 'Fences', the Oscar nominated film starring Denzel Washington. In fact, let's start with that film...

Fences DVD. A competition win from Fabulous magazine.

Troy Maxson (our Denzel) is a former Negro-league baseball player who know works on the bins (I think it would be called a refuse collector) in 1950s Pittsburgh. His friend Bono (Stephen Henderson) has been alongside him for many years and they work hard to provide for their families. It is this sense of provision that is core to the story.

Troy sees providing for his family as his duty, and the duty of every man. We (or certainly I) see that Troy has other values that he may not even know he has himself. He does want to provide, but he also wants others to provide for themselves. He demands recognition for what he provides (maybe harking back to the adulation of being a revered sportsman) but fails to recognise the journey others wish to take. He loves and respects his wife, Rose Lee, but shows an incredible lack of empathy at a crucial point and his attempts to keep people near gradually seem to drive them away.

The film is adapted from August Wilson's 1985 play and the title reflects these values. Building a new fence is a sideline activity in the film that symbolises the fences Troy (and all of us) build in our lives. Some keep people out, some keep people in. Some come down, some need strengthening. The screenplay (by Wilson, just before his death) is astonishing and skilfully directed by our Denzel himself. With just seven characters and fewer locations it is the conversation that held me spellbound for two hours. A film can be judged on special effects, action, thrills and many other things. This relies on script and performances.

Oh my, what performances. Viola Davis won a 'Best supporting actress' Oscar as Rose Lee Maxson, the wife of Troy Maxson. Jovan Adepo excels as Troy and Rose Lee's son Cory and Mykelti Williamson is convincing as Troy's brother who suffers mental difficulties from a war injury. But for me Denzel Washington gave the best performance I have seen in a film for many years. Absolutely spellbinding in his portrayal of fun and humour, anger, arrogance and fight. Washington so easily shows that there aren't just many types of man, there are many sides to each individual.

One of you lucky readers is going to find this out for yourselves - there's chance to win this copy at the end of this post. I've redeemed the download code so this might not work twice, but you get the DVD so that'll do you.

Perkulatte Colombian Inza coffee. 

My thanks to Perkulatte for sending a free sample of their artisan coffee. They source unusual, quality coffees from around the world and then send them to your door in post-friendly parcels. Coffee orders can be for whole bean or ground and there are a range of subscriptions but all seem to work out at less than 40p per cup. The sample I received suggested it had ' juicy cherry notes with a candy sweetness' and that was bob on. A really unusual coffee and very enjoyable.


Looking for freebies isn't difficult really. There are tens of thousands of free games for mobile phones and I'm sure much better bloggers than me dedicate their blog to them. I can no longer call myself a gamer as the two boys in my house have full control over the Xbox and I only snatch the odd game of Fifa or COD. The heavily used iPhone can only really cope with one installed game at a time otherwise the memory and battery disappears too quickly.

This game has stayed as that sole game for well over a year now. Quite why a simple match-3 game has gripped me I'm not sure but I think it's the  progression and development of the garden that is the key other than the usual working your way through the levels that you get with games like Candy Crush. Completing a level wins a star and you swap stars for things for your garden. Austin the Butler is your trusty sidekick who guides you through the main storyline and odd sub-story. There are other little side projects every week and I'm fully lost in it. The pictures here show you how a small piece of my garden has developed in a week, and this is about 10% of my garden. I'm on level 1383 and there are at least 2000 levels I reckon with more added each week. Looks like me and Austin are going to be friends for a long time.

Gardenscapes is free to download and play. There are in-app purchases available to get you through quicker but just be patient, you don't need them.

A walk up Mill Hill to see a Second World War aircraft wreck. 

Every blog post sees me talking about the best freebie of them all - walking in our beautiful country. Accessible to most of us, free and beneficial to body and mind, walking for pleasure is my favouritest thing in the world. I do like eating and drinking though - that's why I'm portly.

 The High Peak area of Derbyshire is littered with aircraft wrecks. The remoteness of the sites means that little other the bodies and valuables were removed and in some cases a lot of wreckage remains. This Liberator crashed on the 11th October 1944 flying from the USAAF base at Burtonwood to USAAF Hardwick in Suffolk. The crew of just 2 were delivering the plane to its new home on this autumn morning through the usual clouds that gather over this part of the Peak District. Through a gap in the clouds the pilot noticed just how close they were to the ground and tried to power up higher but it was too late and the plane crashed into the hillside. Luckily, the crew survived with a broken jaw being the worst and managed to get themselves out of the wreckage and limp a couple of miles down to the nearest road. The call from the Grouse pub to their base must have been an awkward one.
This is an easy wreck to find. Over the stile opposite the junction with Monks Road and keep going for about 2 miles towards the summit of Mill Hill and it's next to the path. An engine and a couple of bits of wing are here. Leaving the path (only do it on a foggy day if you have your compass with you) and exploring a bit soon brings you to more fuselage, two more engines and a bit of wheel strut. The plane remains were burned or buried but the shifting peat has uncovered this. This is a bleak location with lovely views on a clear day but unforgiving on damper days. I love it, it's the wilderness on my doorstep. After viewing the wreck it's the 2 miles back down to the road or carry on for a more ambitious walk to Mill Hill summit and over towards Kinder, cutting back through William Clough and Middle Moor.

Mattessons black pudding.

Freebies come in many ways - a competition win, a sample, a free item in return for a review or simply finding something.
I'm not going to say where this freebie came from as someone will get into trouble. A high street supermarket is all I'm prepared to say. I always take a peek at the sections that sell things off cheap at the end of the day and on this particular day these black pudding rings were reduced to 19p and still in date - that's important to know. Now, I love a bit of congealed pigs' blood and happily eat it straight off the shelf, fried for breakfast or on a sandwich with mustard. It's a healthy food, delicious and good for keeping my iron levels up which is important to a platelet donor. I grabbed 2 of them, each in a bag with a printed barcode sticker on and headed to the till.
Well, the sticker wasn't having any of it. Beeping on the scanner, zapping it with the handheld scanner and then me reading the code out to have it typed in manually was all to no avail so the checkout assistant put them in my bag and said "oh, just have them." Sorted - £3.78 of black pudding for nowt. Blog alert.

Later that night I cracked one open and had a nibble with mustard and it wasn't too good. Dry and crumbly, I was disappointed but not surprised. Mass produced cheap food is never as good as the properly produced stuff. The next morning I fried a few slices for a breakfast sandwich and this was even worse. Not even brown sauce could save it and I am surprising myself, dear reader, to tell you that I didn't finish it and threw the other away. Powdery, tasteless and clagging up my mouth it's not an experience I'll repeat and will stick to Bury black puddings from supermarkets from now on.

Ballet at the Palace Theatre, Manchester - "The Song of the Earth" and "La Sylphide".

Going to see a ballet has been on my bucket list for a while and thanks to Showfilmfirst I managed to to tick it off as a freebie. I do like classical music (it's not all rock in my head) and have been to lots of classical concerts and a few operas so I was sure that it would be pleasant experience and I wasn't disappointed.

The Palace has been refurbished, I think, since I last visited some 10 years ago. Tidy, smart and filled with the most pleasant staff you can imagine, it's a fine theatre venue. It originally opened in 1897 but has probably changed over the years thanks to refurbs and the Luftwaffe who scored a direct hit. It still retains a traditional feel and charm and is a comfortable place to have a pre-show drink in, which is what I did so that I could peruse the programme and make sure I knew the plot of what I was going to see.
Song of the Earth is a spartan piece set to Mahler's music. No stage set or extravagant costumes, the choreography by Kenneth MacMillan interprets the music rather than gives a literal performance. As a first taste of ballet it was interesting if slightly strange. Musically, the orchestra seemed on song and the contralto and tenor performances of Rhonda Browne and Samuel Sakker were my personal highlight.
During the first interval the stage was set for La Sylphide set to music by Lovenskiold and with choreography by August Bournonville. This was more my sort of thing with a lore literal presentation of the plot and a storyline that I found it easier to follow. It's one of the oldest surviving ballets which made it a bit more special for me. Set in Scotland the costumes were traditional with kilts a-flying, witches a-plotting and booze a-flowing. My kind of party and I would have enjoyed the pre-nuptial celebrations of the story as James prepares for his marriage to Effy before being seduced by the Sylphide and the subsequent troubles this causes, aided by Madge the witch and Gurn (who fancies Effy himself).
This was pure pleasure and made all the better by having a great stage set. Stage sets fascinate me, they are my favourite part of any theatre visit - to see how the entrances and exits are managed and the Scottish farmhouse of Act 1 was one of the best. Follow the link for the dancers as this bit is important but I don't know enough to comment on how good each was. I do know that I had a top evening. That's why I started doing this blog - to get new experiences even though I don't have spare money. One day I will have disposable income and then I can pick and choose.
More ballets! More walks! More Denzel Washington! More artisan coffee! More discerning choices of black pudding! And I'll still be working through the levels of Gardenscapes....

'Fences' DVD giveaway

Sunday, 1 October 2017

Slasher to safety via Bush - my week of freebies

A walk around Lyme Park (with free parking tips). 

You know the place - it's where Mr Darcy swam in the lake. Lyme Park is about 25 minutes drive from me and a place I love spending time wandering around. I've been in the house and gardens a couple of times but not for ages now, yet the surrounding park is full of adventure from remote, mysterious buildings to wild moorland and woodlands. There are deer too, lots of them. The herd at Lyme Park descends from the original medieval herd and are fairly easy to spot if you know where.
You know the place, it's where
A good, short, walking route is freely available at site the National Trust's - as are plenty of other walks where you can see the annual rut each autumn. This is the one I followed and took me just under an hour, including the walk from my chosen parking spot where I picked up the walk at point 8 rather than the main car park.
National Trust won't appreciate this but I find £8 just to parking unaffordable. If the whole family are going for a day then fair enough and I'm happy to pay for that but I like the odd walk and I ain't paying that each time. Yes, I know that I can take out membership but that is also expensive and to be honest, Lyme Park is the only place I go to regularly. Here's my legitimate freebie tip for other walkers - on Mudhurst Lane there's a large layby right next to an old track that leads to the East Lodge. The track is no longer used for access as the old bridge halfway along is dangerous and it's a lovely quite walk that can form part of a longer perimeter walk. Walking though the East gate you enter the park alongside the deer sanctuary and the herd are usually easy to spot here. Fine views past the cage to Manchester and the Cheshire plain too - it's odd seeing planes flying lower than you as they approach Manchester Airport.

The walk takes you in a circular route past the old cottage gardens and up the edge of moorland into Lantern Wood with it's eponymous tower. Romantic but not much to see in the tower really, it's primary use is to be seen from the house and not the other way round. The walk brings you back down to the sanctuary. It's not a big walk out of your way to the Cage or the house, and there's a marvellous adventure playground for the kids too.

Prevenge on DVD

My blog overview states that I'll tell you how I got each freebie. This is so that you can decide
whether I'm biased in my reviews if I've been given stuff for free. There are 2 things you need to know about this review of Prevenge. The first is that I don't know where it came from, it just turned up in the post with no covering letter. It's most likely a comp win but I remember entering a few comps for this so I'm not sure which one I won.
The second potential point of bias is that I have a ridiculous crush on Alice Lowe that has lasted some 13 years since I first saw Garth Marenghi's Darkplace. This talented person wrote, directed and plays the lead in this film described as a 'comedy slasher' film.

This isn't a dark comedy, it's darker than that. 

Ruth is in the latter stages of pregnancy and her unborn baby is talking to her. "Ah, sweet," I hear you say. No. This baby is urging Ruth to avenge the death of baby's dad who was killed in a rock climbing accident by tracking down the others involved and, well, you can guess why this is in the slasher genre.

The greatest part of this film are the characters. Most are quite horrible with the exception of Ruth's midwife (played by Jo Hartley) who is just irritating and Mike Wozniak's Josh who is lovely.  In the first scene we are introduced to Dan Skinner playing a pet shop owner who is creepy, slimy and by the end of the scene, late. You think he's a horrible character? Wait until you meet DJ Dan (Tom Davis) who is the most marvellously grotesque creation I've seen for a long time. His scenes are wonderful, viewed through fingers, and you can feel good about sheering his demise.

Lowe herself is as you would expect - straight faced, casually delivering lines of comedic beauty and leaving the viewer unable to work out whether this is scripted or improvised. What isn't improvised is the pregnancy, Lowe herself being pregnant at the time of filming. I'd be a bit scared of Lowe if I met her, I think, if she creates stuff like this with a baby inside her. What if we end up reading some horrific story in the papers and we all realise she was trying to tell us something?

There are negatives to the film. I found the plot confusing at times. I'm trying to avoid spoilers but there were several unanswered questions at the end and even some of the things I thought were clear and talked about to my wife ended with her saying "really, I thought that she did that because...." and we were way apart. My wife thought long and hard about the film and the next day told me that she didn't think she enjoyed it. For her, the comedy wasn't enough to outweigh the horror in the way it would in, say, the Cornetto Trilogy. For me, I enjoyed it more than that but not as much as the aforementioned Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright films.

Bush at the Ritz O2, Manchester.

A fellow blogger was given 2 tickets for this show and shared the wealth. My first visit to the Ritz since seeing the Chameleons about 20 years ago although I was a regular at the student nights there in the mid-nineties. It didn't seem to have changed much - tiny lobby with box office then straight into the ballroom with a bar either side. The balcony was off limits for this gig which probably reflected the size of the crowd. Nice and compact it is - the bars are next to the floor so you miss nothing, there are no seats - we're all in it together. £5.40 for a pint of San Miguel kept the pre-show drinks to a minimum, mind. I like this venue - easy in, easy out and straight into the city.

It was my first experience of Bush. Straight face. None of my friends are really into Bush and I was surprised how little I knew of the band. I reminded myself of their back catalogue on YouTube before the gig but only 'Swallowed' was familiar - their only UK top ten hit. Yet, this London band are HUGE over the pond and the reason is probably why few people over here have taken to them. Their style is very American and a pretty straight up Nirvana clone years after grunge first appeared. They also launched themselves in the mid-nineties at the height of Britpop so most Brit guitar music fans seemed to have let them pass by.

This is also reflected in the crowd. The stadium selling band over there didn't sell out the Ritz over here and of those present I suspect many were on freebies too. The atmosphere was polite, intent and supportive but for a loud rock gig's opening salvo of chords not to be met with a bouncing mosh pit was telling.

And yet by the end this crowd was pretty much won over. At one point the still buff Gavin Rossdale went walkabout in the crowd and while the going was relatively easy the camaraderie was genuine. Corey Britz kept the arms aloft and engaged with the crowd while Chris Traynor and robin Goodrige maintained the pace on lead and drums.

Rossdale (did I mention his incredible figure - the man's 51!) bounced around with guitar, without guitar and stuck pretty much to working his way through 15 songs over 90 minutes. With each song more arms took to the air and there was a decent singalong to Swallowed and, during the encore, a cover of REM's 'The one I love'. My personal highlights was 'This is War' - tight, loud and heartfelt. The atmosphere got progressively rockier and I think a fair bit of respect was won from previously dismissive musos. Certainly the case for me.

I can't let the gig pass without mentioning the support, Raveneye. These boys rocked. Blistering rock 'n' roll from a British three piece that really looked like they were enjoying themselves. Laughter, high jinks and a wall of joyful noise. I posted at the time that I've never seen a support act win a crowd over as quickly as Raveneye. I really wanted to point you in the direction of the live Facebook feed they broadcast but the sound is awful. Have some YouTube stuff instead.

Rail safety week stuff - pen, ticket wallet and a bottle of water.

I'm a daily rail commuter and have been for several decades. I'm sensible but maybe take my safety for granted. I definitely take the safety of others for granted - there a some harrowing statistics on the website for this. One death, even one accident, is one too many and anything that raises awareness of this is a good thing. Rail Safety Week is an industry led initiative but focuses on all those involved with railways from the rail maintainers to the operators to users like me. Please do take time to visit the site.

Saturday, 23 September 2017

A surprisingly healthy few weeks of freebies

Well, I started my last post by saying I was going to start blogging weekly. That was just under 2 weeks ago. Meh.

School has started in earnest and I'm 4th in the queue for the laptop. My 3 kids all go to bed that bit later too so by the time I get my go I'm too tired to think. I wish blog posts were as easy as Instagram...

Late summer and autumn is a wonderful time for a walk - the greatest freebie of them all. The colours and smells change, the animals are grown, the leaves start to fall. Plus, there's an abundance of free food in those hedgerows. Off we set through one of my favouritest corners of Derbyshire for a blackberry forage. A tree full of crab apples was a welcome bonus too. We took just as much as we needed and left the rest for others or the birds - there are always plenty to go round.

A few days later my wife magicked these into a wonderful crumble - I don't remember a year we haven't had blackberry something. It's usually a crumble (sometimes eked with elderberries or, like this year, crab apples) but we've enjoyed pies, tarts and I've made a lovely liqueur before now. Popping blackberries into vodka with some sugar syrup at this time of year gives you a stunning drink just in time for Christmas, and the booze-soaked blackberries can then be mashed into whipped cream or ice cream for a boozy dessert.

The Carabao Cup appeared at Manchester Piccadilly station last week. Nobody seemed too bothered to lift it and have their photo taken, the cup seems to be as popular with commuters as it is with Pep Guardiola. Carabao gave plastic cups of the drink away and it was OK, as energy drinks go. I'm not a big user of them but I don't mind them - this seemed very similar to Red Bull (Carabao is also from Thailand) or stores own brand drinks to me. Fine, but nothing different. Other people seemed to disagree and maybe were caught out by it being an energy drink. The outside of the station had a few plastic cups lying around with this yellowy liquid in it - I was reminded of the aftermath of a large rock concert.

Dead Man's Fingers is a small batch spiced rum produced by the Rum and Crab Shack in St Ives. I've
entered a few competitions to try and win a bottle but in the meantime I received half a dozen cool stickers. I suspect they are bottle labels, but the kids loved them as stickers. There's something about skulls and a bit of kudos in having boozy merch on school books, I'm sure.

The highlight freebie of the last few weeks is my huge chimenea that I won from Santa Maria latin American sauces and stuff like that. It's a contemporary cast iron structure and was easy to assemble. We've had about an hours fun with it so far as the weather has been shocking but so far so good. Maybe this weekend we get to taste a marshmallow or 2. I really must highlight the incredible service from Santa Maria - the parcel company managed to lose the original chimenea (how you lose something this size I don't know) and then continued to mess up every instruction sent to them. I won't say which they were but I was tracking the parcel on the internet and it wasn't getting closer to me. The contact at Santa Maria was wonderful and kept in touch for the several weeks it took, even popping in a gift voucher as a gesture of goodwill. I hadn't paid for anything, it was a competition prize! If the customer service for paying customers is as good as it is for comp winners like me then they deserve every success. I must point out that Santa Maria have no idea that I write these blogs or post in Instagram, I was just any other comp winner to them.

I finally got to the end of The Ice by Laline Paull. full review is on Goodreads (yes, it was yet another of their giveaways sponsored by the 4th Estate) . An important environmental message comes through the story line but it did plod along a bit before rushing the finale.

L'Occitane en Provence have some very generous giveaways. One of their Manchester stores happily parted with a sample of a shaving balm in return for a voucher that was offered on the internet. It's lovely - you'd expect high quality as it's not cheap stuff and their shops look quite exclusive. It's on King Street, if that tells you anything. The balm is thick and soaks in wonderfully, lasting all day. It smells fresh and slightly manly but not overly so - it reminds me of holidays but I've never been to Provence.It's a smell I feel proud of when I get on the train in a morning.

Talking of generous giveaways in return for a voucher, Holland & Barrett surprised me when I went
to claim one of their freebies. I was expecting a sample sized jar of vitamin C tablets but no, it was about £9 worth to last 3 months. If I have a cold in the next 3 months I'll edit this post and complain but no complaints so far. they do taste a bit more orangey than the cheap soluble ones I usually get from a budget chain.

And so the last freebie and one I nearly passed up on. As you've noticed, I spend too much time noticing the best things in life and finding little victories that cheer me up cos I'm as skint as most other people with five mouths to feed, clothe and shelter. I walked past JD Williams giving away nags of something as it appeared to be stuff for the ladies and that's not part of
this blog's mission statement! However, a colleague did grab a bag and in it was a very good quality brolly that wasn't overly girlie. Now I love a brolly as the sound of walking under one in the rain reminds me of camping and makes me feel cosy. I went back and was cheerfully given a bag so thanks JD Williams and I'm sorry I won't be buying any frocks just yet. Mrs Blogger has flicked through the magazine though, so who knows.

Not a bad few weeks really. Nearly £200 worth of freebies I reckon and all happily given away. When I started blogging I had 2 rules - I won't lie and I won't beg or blag. See you next week (or the week after, whatever homework allows).

(All the photos are mine).

Sunday, 3 September 2017

Music, curry and clowns - my week of freebies

I've decided to change the way I blog and move to a weekly summary rather than individual posts. I like posting about each freebie on Instagram but trying to come up with something each day about, say, a bottle of Coke can be burdensome. I'll still post book reviews on Goodreads rather than here and link through but all others will be below. I also aim to still give away as prizes any freebies that I've enjoyed but don't want to keep - usually books or DVDs. Follow by email (it's on the right, over there) to make sure you find out when. I might not even run a competition and just give bits away to a subscriber drawn out of a virtual hat.

So here goes...

Sunday started the week well with the culmination of the Town Hall Sessions free music festival in Glossop. It moved into town centre this year rather than being in Bankswood Park in neighbouring Hadfield and several pubs and clubs also held gigs. Due to other commitments I didn't get to see as much as I liked but I did catch the closing set from Rook and the Ravens and they were excellent, as expected. Quite a coup getting a decent band like this at a free festival. They've been going for a few years now and have a great catalogue of songs (and singers) to choose from. Great weather and a decent turn out - roll on next year.

Monday was a Bank Holiday and a chance to try a free sample of Simoniz car shampoo. Instruction were followed to the letter and the results were fine. Nothing more special than most other shampoos but no smears or marks so fair enough. First time I've actually enjoyed washing a car for a few years too, not sure why that was. It looked great all week until today. I had to park under a telegraph pole yesterday and now it's splattered with starling cack. Gits.

On Wednesday I spotted the smiling face of a jolly chap outside Leon's on Piccadilly Approach in Manchester. Nothing unusual about that but this chap was holding a tray of samples. Free food is always good even in small amounts, and Leon's is good food. The South Indian spiced fish was delicious. Nice chap informed coley from Scotland and it was lifted with a creamy coconut and turmeric sauce. Slightly spicy but not too much to take away from the fish, although coley does have a stronger flavour than most white fish and can carry off spices well. It was on a wee bed of Leon's rice that is a triumph in itself. It's brown rice and is also lightly spiced or dressed in something to give it some body. For those not in the know, Leon's does fast food in a healthy and generally ethical way. Walk in, tell them what you want and it's already cooked just like any other fast food joint. The difference is that this is healthy stuff cooked well. It's a pay day treat as ethics don't come cheap but it does make a change.
me that the fish was sustainably caught

Also on Wednesday was the usual Shortlist magazine, I'll write more on this another time but it's a free magazine I look forward to each week and go out of my way to get. As I do with the Manchester Evening News every Thursday - it's jobs day!

The week finished with me finishing off another book that I was lucky to win in one of Goodread's giveaways. Clown Wars : Blood & Aspic is dark humour or humorous horror, whichever way round you prefer. It's gruesome, sickening and genuinely funny and a clever satire on the state of the modern world. The pictures in my head were like scenes from the League of Gentlemen and the plot like a terry Pratchett. My full review is on Goodreads and I can't wait to read the rest of the series. Nice of the author to comment on my review too.

So there it is, my week in freebies. Not a bad haul and not a penny spent on all those. I'll leave you with another freebie - a ten song Spotify playlist to see you through until next week.

Sunday, 27 August 2017

Berghaus give a masterclass in brand reputation

Today's freebie? Taking part in Berghaus' #TrailTakover in the Goyt Valley, with a bit of the ViewRanger app and others thrown in

Thanks to? Berghaus, of course.

Yesterday was a delightful example of those wonderful times when you take part in an event that was completely free, thoroughly enjoyable with happy, friendly people and with bonus freebies thrown in. Berghaus showed that building a brand reputation by holding an inclusive event can be fun and rewarding without needing to give the hard sell every few minutes. I shall certainly be looking out for the next one and absolutely recommend everyone else to do the same.

It started a few weeks ago when I spotted the first references to Berghaus' #TrailTakeover - the chance of winning a holiday drew my attention of course. I duly registered my interest and waiting to find the location. On Thursday (2 days before) the email came out with a link to the route on the ViewRanger app (more on that later) and I was pleased to see it wasn't too far from home and a place I knew well and had walked often - I even blogged on it last summer.

I rolled up to the Berghaus marquee at the Errwood Car Park just after midday and was greeted by a lovely person who ticked my name off, gave me a wristband to show I was part of the event and then surprise number 1 - a carton of Vita Coco coconut water and a block of Romney's Kendal mint cake. She checked I had the ViewRanger app and the route loaded (I did) and off I went.

I've had the ViewRanger app for a while as a few sites (such as the Outdoor Guide) release free walks through it. This is the first time I've actually used it though and it was useful for the first half mile or so as there are a few ways to get to Pym's Chair from Errwood. Once at the top of the woodland walk I didn't bother as I knew where I was headed after that. Being used to using paper maps I confused myself with the app at the start as the lines of the route and the direction I was headed clashed, but it was accurate and once I understood what it was meant to do then it was fine. Of course the real downside of walking apps is battery drain - I left the app running in the background to map my route, speed and collect all the other data it can but together with taking and posting a few photos on Twitter it meant my iPhone 5s battery when from full to about 20% over the 2.5 hours of the walk. Those with a portable charger or charging backpack will probably be fine but walking and following it for the whole route wouldn't have worked. The app is probably most useful to people testing new walking routes as it gives lots of detail on speed, elevation etc. Plus, it's free! There are purchases that can be made  - walks I have looked at are priced at 99p and you can also pay for OS maps on top, but this freebie released by Berghaus for suited me just fine.
[edit - one of the Berghaus people contacted me after I published this to say that ViewRanger had given them a battery-saving tip. If you download the route and then switch your phone to airplane mode it saves your battery loads]

The start of the walk is steep and after decades of walking my body still hates hills, particularly at the start of the walk before I get my rhythm going. I wandered off the set track by a couple of hundred metres as I got used to the app, probably to the amusement of the 3 much younger lads following who soon found me following them 😳. I hit my pace, overtook them again and soon found my heart thumping, copper taste in my mouth and realising I'd hit this climb too fast (even though I've done it a dozen times!) so I sat back in the heather and ate my lunch as they overtook me
again. I need to grow up.

After polishing off my homemade tarka dall whilst watching the paragliders over the later part of the route I enjoyed more freebies thanks to nature's bounty. The Goyt Valley is the best place I know for bilberries. They are plentiful, unbelievably healthy and delicious yet nobody seems to bother with these fruits - maybe the effort required to get to them and pick them isn't enough as they are quite small and would take some picking to fill a pie. All the more for me and the birds I suppose.

Up the Street and on to Pym's Chair with its incredible views over the Peak District, the Cheshire Plain and towards Manchester. The walk along from here to Shining Tor via Cat's Tor is stunning and has to be seen to be believed. It's within view of Manchester but you can't comprehend the beauty unless you are on the edge and can see either side.

More lovely Berghaus people at Cat's Tor who persuaded me to try and balance on a rope line (I struggle to balance on terra firma after a climb like that) and for the price of my email address a £20 voucher for in a lanyard. Free walking socks, I reckon! A nice chat and onwards and upwards to Shining Tor. The Berghaus guy here was resplendent in waterproofs with hood up and seemed surprised I wasn't cold. He has no idea how much sweat was trickling down my back. I welcomed the chance of another stop and chat and posed for my pic next to the #TrailTakover post that is now posted on Facebook and will act as my entry to the competition to win a holiday. No. I'm not posting it here, it's bloody awful and looks like a fat middle aged fella who has just walked too quickly up too many hills. More fine conversation with this lovely fella was cut short before I started to chill and off I set for the last part of the walk - probably about a third of the walk but as most is downhill it went so quickly.

Just before the descent I cracked open the Vita Coco water. Refreshing and 99% coconut water not from concentrate so if you have drunk the water from one you've won at the fair you'll know it's not unpleasant but a bit bland.

Halfway down I got my last boost of energy from a square of mintcake. I love this stuff but am good enough to keep it aside for when I need it (unless the kids find it, then it goes in seconds and they run around like loons) and it lasts for months unless it gets wet.

So, 2 and a half hours after setting off I reach the end and that included stopping for chats and lunch. And what a welcome at the end it was! A handbell tolls and I'm invited to the TrailTakeover pub (another marquee) for a beer. It would have been so easy to bulk buy bottled lagers but no, I'm handed a bottle of Hesket Newmarket's Helvellyn Gold - this was the point I knew how much quality means to Berghaus! A lovely golden ale that was welcome and given with beautiful smiles by people who have spent all afternoon being eaten by midges while seeing sweaty tired people come off a hill.

What a wonderful afternoon and I can't wait to hear about the next in November. 

Saturday, 12 August 2017

History of wolves by Emily Fridlund - an observant debut

What's today's freebie? History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund

Where from? Another from the mighty Goodreads

This uncorrected bound proof copy for review was a lucky giveaway gain for me from the blessed Goodreads where my profile grows. My review is posted on there and is copied below. A bleak book, but thoroughly engrossing and recommended.

History of WolvesHistory of Wolves by Emily Fridlund
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was a Goodreads win.
This is as remarkable a debut novel as any I have read for a number of years. It is quite beautiful, darkly mysterious and heartbreaking on many levels. Fridlund skilfully maps the Minnesota landscape with the human condition - bleak and dark in the winters of life, but warming and engaging at others.
This is a book of observation. Told entirely in the first person it is a story of a young girl's coming of age as recalled by her older self. Linda (also known as Maddie) develops a companionship with neighbours of her family in an old series of shacks near a lake. She becomes the babysitter for their 4 year old son and establishes bonds she is unable to forge with her own family.
This is a book about observation more than anything else. Events are related in a relatively factual manner, devoid of feeling. It is a story of disassociation - Linda doesn't fit in with anyone: school friends, family, neighbours. Even the core companionships with her neighbour, Patra, are lacking in closeness. Only young Paul seems to trigger any sort of emotion with Linda, maybe because he too is slightly odd and distant but is willing to learn and share with her.
Linda does blend well with the earth and land though and all non-human life. Trees, the lake, her dogs, insects and other pests are accepted, tolerated or even liked by Linda. She gets high; she even finds an enjoyment in chopping wood. She seems to understand anything which has no great thought of its own.
Although Linda lacks empathy she does seem to have an understanding of the human condition and an almost primeval instinct for life and self-preservation.
The second half of the book jumps in time to after the events of the first part of the book, recalling the circumstances they lead to but also jumping into the times leading up to them. The narrative moves from early childhood to the time of the main part of the story to adulthood and possibly ending in the present. It requires concentration and some effort of imagination - some things appear deliberately left to the reader to fill in the gaps.
The story, seen entirely through the eyes of a remarkably observant but unemotional narrator held me fascinated and broke my heart. The characters are not cruel; they have no hate or conscious cruelty, but each person's inability to understand the feelings of others can be a bleak read. The ending, unfortunately, needs some work. I have no problem with an open ending or things left unexplained, but I do get annoyed with them being confusing. This isn't as big a matter as it might be though. Whereas Maddie/Linda misses the bigger picture by concentrating on the detail, I enjoyed seeing the bigger picture where so many sub-plots are left unresolved. The style and language is mesmerising.

View all my reviews

Saturday, 22 July 2017

The Ship Trilogy by D Krauss - an epic journey that deserves wider audience

What did I get? The Ship Trilogy by D Krauss, comprising "The Ship to look for God", "The Ship Looking for God" and "The Ship Finding God".

How did I get them? The first was from a giveaway at, you've guessed it, Goodreads. The second and third were sent by the author after I posted a review at Goodreads. See? It pays off to post!

My review of The Ship to Look for God and The Ship Looking for God  are worth reading to see how my reviews progress with this strange series - the final review from Goodreads is below. They aren't good reviews, I'll admit that, as the trilogy is hard to talk about without giving too much away. They do deserve a wider audience though.

View all my reviews
The Ship Finding GodThe Ship Finding God by D. Krauss
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Thanks to the author for sending this book after I reviewed the first 2 books in the series.

This book concludes the trilogy after "The Ship To Look For God" and "The Ship Looking For God". The trilogy is an odyssey in which our hero, Otto Boteman, dies and embarks upon a journey through times, spaces, dimensions and mind boggling circumstances in search of an answer.

This volume moves Otto on to his goal and there are far fewer new faces in this book. The tone is different as the answer nears and the steady introduction of famous names from history makes way for angels and other beings. It's difficult to talk more openly for fear of spoiling the plot and the answer to the supreme question and I'm going to hope that this ambiguity encourages readers to read my reviews of the first 2 books and seek them out for themselves. This trilogy is not published by a major name, in fact it seems to have been self-published. In my view, Otto's journey deserves wider attention. Goodreads is full of testifying memoirs and books in praise of God, Christ and other deities. These books are different - they ask questions. Of course it leads to a spiritual conclusion and yes, JC has a cameo. But it also has an open ending that makes one think and leaves space for you to find your own interpretation. It's a positive message, I concluded, that steers away from hate and damnation and points towards being good.

I have typed this review some time after reading the book. I wasn't as pleased with the ending as I wanted to be as I, like most readers, expect and prefer a distinct conclusion. Maybe that's unfair with a subject matter like this and having re-read main parts again there are different interpretations that can be made by different readers. I'm not a very religious person but do appreciate spirituality and the loving parts of faith.

And after everything Otto has been through, he still seems oddly surprised at each new acquaintance!

View all my reviews

Saturday, 8 July 2017

The Index of Dreams by Vicky Matthews - a macabre tale of obession

Today's freebie - The Index of Dreams (paperback) by Vicky Matthews

Thanks to? Goodreads, as usual.

Yet another giveaway from Goodreads and another fine debut novel. My quick review below is taken from the Goodreads site.

The Index of DreamsThe Index of Dreams by Vicky Matthews
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I won this through Goodreads.

A fine debut novel that deserves a wider audience. Sabina (Beanie) is one of life's drifters - temping job after temping job with no plan and not much promise for the future. Her only meaning in life is an obsession with a film she hasn't seen (it's banned)- The Index of Dreams - and it's creator Ossian Brohmer. A chance encounter brings Beanie and the film closer together and Life takes on meaning and excitement. Beanie moves to the seaside and becomes acquainted with Brohmer as the story takes on deeper themes of control and obsession.
Everyone seeks some meaning in life and some people don't find that in day to day things that surround them - they reach for art or celebrity, anything that can hold focus. This is Beanie and the story of her search for meaning and whether she has the strength to control or be controlled.

Thoroughly recommended.

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