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Our slow cooker is basically one of the family. There's a lot of love connected to this little bit of kit; first of all it was one of many foodie Christmas presents from my wonderful mum, and secondly it is a gem for gently cooking to perfection all the chillis, pie fillings, casseroles and more that Mr Rarr enjoys so much. And me...more on that in a second. Now, a quick word on design; my model is precisely the same as in the product photo here on Dooyoo; however a look on Amazon and Argos etc suggest that either the base design has changed or the exact model is not available new any more. However, what seems to be the updated version is available in the £30+ region, and I'm going to continue with this review in case it is helpful to anyone who is contemplating an ebay or second-hand purchase. My advice in that situation would be positive; this is a great bit of kit. What you have is a stainless steel main body in which you rest a smart-looking, smoothly-finished black ceramic bowl. This has good-sized handles which mean you can lift it out of the main body with oven gloves if you need to. It's smooth finish means that it is easy to clean and it still looks like new even now - and I can't even recall how many years I've had this. The main body has a brushed finish and can be slightly harder to remove stains from if any splashes occur during cooking stages, and there are some stain on the inside where liquid has bubbled over when I've overfilled the basin, but who looks in there? Now to why a slow cooker suits me so well; I'm not a vegetarian by any stretch of anyone's overactive imagination, but I am quite selective when it comes to what I can eat with enjoyment. I appreciate the taste and health benefits of meat being included in a balanced diet, but I am very sensitive over the issue of texture. I am fully aware that meat products come from something that has lived, and anything chewy, likely to contain gristle or lumps of fat, or have a fatty texture overall, makes me feel physically sick. I don't know how Mr Rarr can eat every part of a pork chop, for example, and cheap mince is a no-go in this house. What the slow cooker offers is a cheap and efficient way of slow-cooking down chunks of braising steak, which I can cope with when cooked to my definition of 'properly'. It also gives you hours of the house smelling of gorgeous food. The slow cooking process allows your seasoning and herbs to get into the meat, and you get a harmonious, beautifully tender meal at the end of it. Meanwhile you can get on with your day. If you're dieting it has the added benefit that excess fat rises to the top of the mixture, so you can scoop that away towards the end of cooking, once it has done its job as a flavour carrier. Part of my ethical consideration of meat coming from living things is our approach to waste; stock is a regular bonus from this machine, every carcass is used in this way, along with any veg that needs using up. The result is stock for future casseroles, or soups. Even now and then the Rarr Hounds get a scoopful as a treat to moisten their mixture in their feed, although as our stocks usually contain onions or shallots, this is a rare and moderate treat. This particular model comes with a black setting dial on the front; your options are Off, Low, High and Warm. If I'm in the house on a day off I'll use the high setting, although after several hours this can leave your mixture bubbling rather than gently cooking, so I would never leave this on whilst out of the house. I haven't actually left it on low and gone out for the day; for a start, work plus my epic commute would be too long, and secondly I'm paranoid. Not because of anything this item has done to make me worry about its safety, but because I'm the sort of person who has to turn the TV off at the mains and check I've locked the door twice before I can leave the house empty. However, I'm sure this product would be fine for hours on its own on low. I couldn't be without a slow cooker. This one gets used at least twice a week between meals and subsequent stocks and I have never had a reason to be disappointed with how it operates. It is still going strong and at just over £30, it must have saved in electricity that and more over years. And the food it produces is the type of food that underlines my belief that the best way to show someone you love them is to cook them something that will both please them and help keep them healthy and well-fed. In doing so it basically does most of the work for you in a resource-efficient way. There is nothing I could complain about regarding this slow cooker, it has been hoisted in and out of cupboards and probably been treated a bit roughly and my god do we make it work, but there is no sign of damage, there have been no problems, and never once has it not shown up to work without a smiley little 'on' light beaming brightly. It's fantastic and I highly recommend this model.
Philippa Gregory and I have an odd relationship. Some of her books I think are really fantastic to read; some are far less convincing. But, be it because I'm either stupid or extremely stubborn and determined to get to the bottom of my actual opinion of her work overall, I keep reading more of them to see if the below-average offerings are the anomalies. And so I came to read The Virgin's Lover. Score another one up for the duds. ***GREGORY*** Earns her crust by writing fictional accounts of historical characters. An award winner in 2001 for The Other Boleyn Girl, which was one of her better offerings, she has also written entirely fictional works (ie, crafted her own characters - more on this in a second), although I have yet to read any of these. I admit to a wry smile when I saw a quote apparently attributed to the author in which she says that an important element of her work is "historical accuracy". What utter toss. I've just started another of her books which in the first few pages had me confused, because she has taken a historical figure which in a previous book was cast as a shrewd, sly, resentful and devious wife and turned her into a woman moping over her beloved lost husband after his execution, as if they had been a passionate and adoring all along. She can't keep her own 'characters' accurate, let alone historical accuracy. Don't read this thinking it's a cheat to revise your History A Level; you'll fail. It's fiction and that's that. And anyone who tells you otherwise, even if it's Gregory, is selling something. Well, her especially. ***THE VIRGIN'S LOVER*** Moving on from the Henry VIII shag-fest that was the previous forty or so years, and neatly skipping Mary, I've landed at the start of Elizabeth I's reign. Bang at the start, as in the first pages we meet Amy Robsart who, hearing the bells toll for the new Queen, is bereft. She's married to Robert Dudley. He saw his father and brother executed for treason under the previous Queen, and lost his remaining brother in war in France. But he returns alive and finds himself in the court of his childhood friend, Elizabeth. She is a strange creature, having spent half her life in some sort of gilded captivity, declared a bastard by her own father, the daughter of a Queen executed for high treason and little more than a girl thrust into great power over a country that is on the knife edge between power struggles, religion and threat of invasion. And she's unmarried. So, effectively, if you happened to be a total rake and focused only on regaining your family's great power, a pretty useful potential bit of skirt. Something of a step up from the era's equivalent of Take Me Out. Clearly the solution is plain as day; you're a bit fit, quite the charmer and aspirational as hell, so do your thing and marry the woman. Job's a good'un. Slight problem in that you're already married, but hey, I'm sure she'll understand. There are titles and swathes of land and power at stake, surely your wife won't let her mere existence get in the way. ***THE READ*** Okay. Now as a story as a whole, this is readable, engrossing and trots along at a good pace. At risk of venturing into spoiler-land, I'll try to keep this vague; you can take your own line on conspiracy theories and considerations of historical accuracy, this is Gregory's take on it and you either sign up for it or you don't. As a story, I get it. It works, it's believable enough. But the read is ruined for me by the characterisation; I realise by definition of the story itself that to some degree it is necessary but the overriding feeling I came away with was distaste. Not because of the story itself because I don't doubt there is some historical basis for the original rumours, but what ruins it as a book is the fact that the characters are all thoroughly horrible people. First of all there is Dudley, the ultimate self-serving male tosser. Totally focused only on restoring himself to his family's former station of power, becoming more and more monstrous in doing so, and seemingly totally incapable of even contemplating that he or someone else might be at threat because of his behaviour. Sod the country, sod the people, sod the wife, do what you want. It's the Robert Dudley show. Then the Queen; young and 'naïve' she may be, and even though she is painted here as vulnerable, she's also a massively stupid, selfish and irrational cow. This character was the tipping point which caused me to start questioning how far from historical accuracy the author can really push her formula; any more spouting of the Queen's staggering beauty and innocence and girlish weakness and stupidity and I was going to vomit. And as for the 'passion' between the two of them, this felt so convoluted and shallow that I honestly reckon I have more affection for my iPhone than these two genuinely had for one another. So then there's wifey. Poor little Amy Robsart. Told in this tale to have married Dudley for love rather than arrangement, and then expected to stay away while hubby gallivants about at court casting puppy dog eyes at the Grade A simpering loony we apparently had on the throne. Clearly, here is where your sympathies should lie. Right? Wrong. I didn't even find this character likeable. Pathetic, yes, and totally delusional. But overall I had no respect for her. I realise that her character was meant to be painted as the product of a society in which women were subservient to their lord husbands, with the obvious exception of one who had a posh chair, but still. Her total refusal to accept what was going on, and bloody well deal with it, starts as weakness and seems to escalate into total denial and borderline nutter status. And unfortunately, as I'm the reader and my opinion therefore counts for something, I didn't really give a stuff. Which was unfortunate, as that could have been the angle which lifted this tale from being pretty average and further weighed down by a cast of utterly unlikeable individuals, into something quite dark and interesting. But as it is, this is just fluff, and whilst I saw it through to the conclusion it was more determination than being riveted. Gregory has done her job well; with the exception of stretching the character and beauty of a certain Queen a bit far beyond reasonable doubt, she's crafted a fictional tale with historical characters, applied her formula of a bit of sex, plotting and political tension and turfed out a perfectly acceptable take on a tale which is readable, engaging enough and clearly going to be popular. But in personal conclusion, whilst I can see the popularity and can understand why this book might appeal, but I certainly won't be reading it again. There are too many utter arses in the modern world to deal with, I don't want to indulge the respective ego trips of two of the worst of them play out in front of their surrounding court of simpering, snide, gossipy sub-arses on my time off, thanks very much.
There's a lot of food love in Rarr Towers. But, truth be told, I'm not a stereotypical woman who loves chocolate. If I do get a craving it is usually for the dark stuff. If I do buy it, I tend to invest in good stuff - none of your Mars bar nonsense, I couldn't eat a whole one of those. And if I have actually bought it I'll only nibble a square. But the other day I decided, having seen mini bars of Montezuma's chocolate on sale in a London train station shop, that it was one of those occasions that I did fancy chocolate. Mr Rarr was doing the shopping so I asked for him to pick something up, and this name came to mind. Okay, what I actually asked for was a chocolatey carriage for my love affair with all things chilli, but he didn't disappoint. ***CHILLI, LIME AND CHOCOLATE*** A combination which first burst into my life when our office were sent a box of Thorntons as thanks for a project. That was a soft-centred offering and my god did I find it delightful. I love chilli, and I love lime. So when Mr Rarr came back offering me this, I was anticipating greatness. ***THE BAR*** Mine was a 100g Montezuma bar. This is milk chocolate with chilli and lime flavour. It comes in a neat cardboard box and foil wrapping inner. This particular bar was apparently invented for a Chilli festival in the South Downs, and was so well received that it's special edition status was revoked and it became a mainstay. Thank god for that! For your 100g the official website price is £2.39. Pricey compared to your Galaxy nonsense, but worth it. ***MONTEZUMA*** A British foodie independent business success - started in one shop in Brighton, and now one of the most trendy and popular chocolate ranges going. ***THE EAT*** Well a square of this is generous and it's milk chocolate rather than dark, so already I shouldn't be a fan. But I am. I love this flavour combination and the chocolate carrier isn't overpowering. It's a gorgeous mix, with smooth chocolate which isn't overly rich and isn't gritty or sugary. The lime kicks off first, fresh and fruity and zesty and uplifting, then you get a mild heat and a little kick afterwards, as well as the odd heat sensation down the back of the throat. The bar is about half a centimetre thick and has a nice crack to it when I bite through. What I love about it is that I can have a square on the go for a while - this isn't like Lindt where it melts in a second and you crave another (more a festive feeling for me). I can bite little chunks off my cube of chocolate and put the rest down for ten minutes, then revisit that combination of flavours playing off one another all over again. This isn't something you eat whole when you've been dumped by Mr Right Now. This is something to savour and enjoy, in moderation as chocolate should be and as a treat. Which it is. The product page on the company website has a quote in which the co-founder describes it as an unlikely combination, but for me it is anything but - two things I love wrapped in chocolate. I suspect that it is better treated by milk chocolate, that I would not normally choose, whilst dark would overpower the balance with bitterness, but I am so pleased this rocked up in my life. This is without doubt my current favourite milk chocolate and when I'm feeling really, really indulgent, I might even find myself cooking with this. Absolutely gorgeous, and totally recommended if you like your flavours to have massive personality.
Matthew Shardlake, fictional lawyer from the era of Henry VIII, has basically ruined my life. Why? Becaues C J Sansom's accounts of his life are absolutely unputdownable. Since I chanced upon them they have eaten up hours of my life, but I have finally finished them. I've just completed the fifth novel, Heartstone - and it is without question just as good as the third and fourth books in the series, which I considered to be magnificent. ***THE PLOT*** The presence of Henry VIII takes something of a step back in this book as his reign nears its end. Instead the royal presence is more that of his final wife, perhaps the original 'strong woman' as she is portrayed here. Without wanting to give away the details of previous books, let's just say that Shardlake, despite not being in the King's favour, becomes an associate of the Queen after his efforts in the previous novel. We are now a couple of years down the line from that, and she summons him to ask him to undertake a case on behalf of someone who the Queen has affection for. The case concerns a Wardship of two children which was bought by someone whose lands neighboured those which were the estate the children would ultimately inherit. Despite there being a lack of concrete evidence in a society where such tricks of Wardship were commonplace, Shardlake, with the Queen's support, forces the case past its initial court hearing and he finds himself and his counterpart lawyer Dyrick sent to Portsmouth to investigate further and question all those concerned. But it is there that the French invasion is expected to land. Not far behind them on the road, the Royal procession launches, with the King due to inspect what is rumoured to be a woefully inadequate British defence. Shardlake needs to solve this case and quickly but he can find no real evidence to go on apart from a massively dysfunctional family - and even that's not illegal. But then, just as Shardlake resigns himself that he will have to tell the Queen and his client that he can find no case to answer, a massive development changes everything. As the truth finally unfurls, it forces Shardlake into incredible danger and up against an old enemy, as even he starts to question if he is following a case too far. ***ANY GOOD?*** Yes! Course it is - it's Shardlake. But even relative to the rest of the five books currently in existence, it is very good indeed. Whereas Sovereign had that surreal, proper serial killer plot line, this was a return to more subtle ways. Again it is well written and the characters are strong and mature in keeping with the timeline that the author sets out. Barak has more maturity than his early swaggering self, and his relationship with his formerly estranged wife is now his priority. Rather than being first to charge after a mystery, he is now desperate to escape a case that he sees as a nothing, and return to his wife as her second pregnancy develops. Indeed, he was only there as Shardlake sought to save him from being enlisted in a country where any suitable young man was being ordered to defend their land from the French. The looming prospect of war, and a country under great strain, is well crafted by Sansom and this offers more tension to the background of the seemingly non-existent case of cruelty and exploitation of inheritance. The characters of the family in question are all done well in my opinion; whilst you don't have the time to familiarise yourself with them as you have the main recurring characters, it is immediately obvious that something is not right. Each of them has a different weird characteristic and almost all of them seem deeply unlikeable, but just being a bit of a nutter wasn't basis enough for any further investigation. Shardlake's opposing lawyer, Dyrick, is a crowing, argumentative arse but even he starts to show that he has an unusual amount of authority in the house, and over time all these unusual characters start to bounce off each other with more and more animosity and tension, so when the twist comes you can almost feel the thick atmosphere between them and yet you see that Shardlake has nowhere left to turn in trying to untangle the threads. The climax of the book is hugely dramatic and certainly doesn't conclude too quickly; as the truth behind the case unfolded I realised that I still had a remarkable amount of pages to read. And with this huge conclusion playing out you then see the resulting character development both in and between Shardlake and Barak. Sansom's characters have a self-awareness and none of them are perfect, but their awareness of their flaws, however long it takes to come, is what makes them grow from book to book. So yet again it's full marks and a massive recommendation. May Sansom pick up his pen again soon, because these books get better and better. Whilst my personal favourites perhaps were Dark Fire and Sovereign, this was a fantastic read in its own right and that preference is merely personal taste in story telling. Here's hoping we meet Shardlake again very soon.
I recently reviewed Warburtons crumpets under a clear understanding; that I would rather make my own, real bread is the only bread truly worth bothering about, and I only use shop-bought crumpets because they are quick, convenient, relatively low in calories and facilitate me getting some extra sleep. Real crumpets, and real bread, take time, love and care to produce, and work shift patterns don't always allow that. Warburtons are nice. I don't ethically condone them (I have surprisingly strong feelings about crumpets, I realise), but they have a use and therefore a place. But the other day, they had a place for too many people and I couldn't get some. So, as shop-brand crumpets are bastardisations and filth across the board, it had to be Kingsmill. Good grief, they're bad. ***THE DETAILS*** I'm not giving Kingsmill themselves the time of day as far as company research goes; it's a waste of all our time if these are anything to go by. Stats are thus: one of these pathetic offerings will give you 102 calories (relatively high), 1.6g sugars, 0.5g fat (0.1g sat) and 0.7g salt. Six of these will rid you of roughly 75p. Made from wheat flour, water, dextrose, vinegar, raising agents, sodium carbonates, salt, yeast, acidity regulator, preservative and potassium sorbate. They're not meant to have half of that in them. Yummy. ***THE EAT*** Is naff. Awful. Where Warburtons manage to put out a thick, fluffy-on-the-inside-crisp-on-the-outside-ARMADILLOS! (sorry) offering, these resemble shop-brand versions. They're flatter. Yet they have more calories. So they're denser. They're chewy. They have an odd, and not particularly pleasant, taste to them. They don't really crisp, and the only fluff is the stuff you're watching on breakfast TV when you eat them. If you must do it, I advise a topping of strong flavour to combat the taste these offer. Like rotten mackrel, or possibly tripe. I will give them one thing in their favour. I am currently blimmin' knackered after yet more commuting. I had been contemplating a day of gross laziness, massively low productivity and about 400 pages of the last Shardlake novel. But no. I am going to get off my ever-expanding rear, and make some real bread.
Well this was always going to get written eventually. My make up bag goes everywhere with me. If I leave the house, so does it. Unless I'm going within ten minutes of walking distance and back and have already applied everything. The reason basically comes back to insecurity, but that's another discussion. But over the years the contents have changed and some of the current ones are probably keepers. Some specific brands and products will be repurchased after proving themselves to be superb, whereas some are just staple products, of which I am not sure if I have found the ideal yet. So here goes. To me a make up bag is a transportable vessel, so this is basically what I keep with me when commuting or out for a full day. 1 - Powder. Not in the make up bag itself because it won't fit, but I risk life and limb (and the tenacity of plastic) by having a little of Max Factor's loose powder in an old pot, which I wedge firmly at the bottom of my bag in the hope that it won't get carried up on the tide of handbag contents. I sometimes lean towards shininess - less now because of a variety of skin treatments and a good foundation, but still invariably in summer - and it make me paranoid. Therefore... 2 - Powder brush. This was, I believe, from the Cosmopolitan brush range, I have had it about eight years and it has never let me down and still looks virtually as good as new bristle-wise despite years of abuse and not nearly enough cleaning. 3 - Mascara. Must have. I don't know why I carry it with me because I rarely re-apply, but when I do get lured to the pub before my lengthy commute home, it sometimes helps the old self esteem to flutter that bit more. Currently not brand-loyal, although I do rate Max Factor's False Lash Effect highly. By a series of chance events I have since tried some products I received for free, and then bought out of necessity when I couldn't get a Max Factor one. But it is an essential - black in colour also. 4 - Max Factor Creamy Blush. Mine is in Soft Pink. I love this product - see recent gushing review. It's so creamy, it stays put, it makes you look healthy, well rested and charming, it's just gorgeous. For well less than an English tenner, all this can be yours. Again, I rarely if ever reapply, but I love keeping it with me. 5 - Perfume. Not in the bag again, but in the handbag. Elizabeth Arden Provocative. Absolute go-to perfume for me, although I do like to try others. But I always like the option of a top-up as I have such a long day, so if I buy a new one I always try to get a mini. 6 - Lip balm. LIP BALM!!!!!!! For some reason in winter this time around I have had almost constant split lips. Painful, and hideous. So I always have at least one balm and recently have carried a real bit of weaponry in Yu Be Moisturising Cream, which Glossybox sent me a small tester tube of which is perfect for carrying around - a little goes a mile, and it works. It's not the nicest thing to use, and it's pricey, but it works and fast. 7 - Eyeliner. Again not brand loyal but this is essential. 8 - MUA Eyeshadow Trio. My GOD these are brilliant. I can't believe they're not on here for review purposes. As soon as make up is freed up for suggestions, I swear they shall be!!! For less than a fiver - quite a lot less, in fact, you get a sturdy package with a mini brush and three domes of varied shades of a colour. They are dirt cheap. They don't break, nor does the package. They apply well. THEY STAY WHERE YOU PUT THEM. Minimal, if any, creasing, and if there is it's normally when you've been on the tube for two hours in midsummer. They're flattering. They blend. They shimmer but don't look cheap. The domes last forever and barely seem to wear down even with daily application. You can go light or build up a smoky look even with their predominantly light pink trio. You can contour, highlight....oh god, there's nothing they can't do. The only regret I have is that I have never found the green trio which I am dying to try with my green eyes. BUY SOME. They're about £3 or something and they're amazing. 9 - Lip colour. I'm quite fond of lip butters - Revlon do a great one and Max Factor do a similar sheer, moisturising balm stick - but I also quite like L'Oreal's Glam Shine Splash, which comes in a nice gold vial-shaped tube...until that gets scuffed to stuff by the other contents of your bag. 10 - And finally, painkillers. Because having a belter of a migraine doesn't make anyone look good. I also keep an emergency biro, for when I'm out in the field working and might plausibly have had all my other pens - the primary pen, back up pen, and secondary spare - pinched by someone else. Yes, I'm a bit OCD. So there you go. Analyse that...or save yourself the time and go and buy the blush and eyeshadow. Unless you're a chap. Oh sod it, give it a try, they're that good you might even like them.
A lot goes on in my kitchen. I love food, I love to cook, so I've vowed in 2014 that I will be reviewing more food products and cookery books as it's daft that I don't - of course normally, once I've got into the swing of cooking and then eating the resulting goodies, reviewing them is the least of my thoughts...time for some willpower! One staple of Rarr Towers kitchens is the humble crumpet. They're quick, easy, comforting and yummy. But there are some evil imitations out there - Asda's own brand, I'm looking at you. And you at the back Tesco, thinking you can get away with skulking in the shadows blameless - your are naff as well. Basically there is only one king of crumpets. Short of making them yourself, if you want a crumpet that is cushion-thick, cripsy and yet fluffy on the inside with good air holes, then you've got to go Warburtons. That insipid, flat, depressed looking alternative offered up by Asda is a crime against flour. Now I'm a proper real bread advocate and I love to bake bread so I have made my own crumpets before, but one thing I am not is a morning person, and so usually I do buy in crumpets, unlike bread which is rarely in my kitchen from a supermarket shelf. I like my work-day breakfasts to be quick and easy and so these are perfect, and this is the only brand to get. ***WARBURTONS*** I feel guilty for supporting fake bread pedlars but in this instance needs must. Warburtons are basically a bread giant and if you haven't heard of them then congratulations on being able to live under rocks for extended periods of time. Based on sales, they claim to be second only to Coca Cola in grocery business in the UK. Apparently they produce two million products per DAY. Christ, I can barely organise a sock drawer. In fact I don't even HAVE a sock drawer. Wait for it - they are branching out into baked snacks. In short, they are successful. But I'm determined to stick in a moan here - they are still purveyors of fake bread. Their loaves have a place in the world, as do their crumpets, and I know I am on here giving a positive review to one of their products, but it is in context. But please, do yourself a favour, get yourself down to your local bakery, or even better knock up a proper loaf (so to speak) yourself. You'll know what's in it, and it will be good for your soul. This lot are still selling you the bread equivalent of garbage. ***THEIR CRUMPETS*** As I said, this is a positive review in context. I buy these and I like them. But given a day off, and some 'me time' in the kitchen, I'd prefer to belt out a batch of my own. But when I've fallen out of bed, knackered and facing a whacking great commute, cursed with the female sensibility of wanting to look my best and having to slap on my face and dry my hair into something socially acceptable in the least amount of time possible so as to best utilise my sleeping hours, I just want to sling something in the toaster, whack the heat on, and get something satisfying out of it at the end. And for that, Warburtons offer the best option. Were I a lady of leisure, I would perfect the recipe of the crumpet and live in buttery comfort for the rest of my days (with a waistline of epic proportions, probably). So, in context, here we go. Nutrition first. One of these puppies will provide you with 98 calories. This is one thing I like about them - it's easy to keep a rough guess on the calorie consumption, whereas with bread, there's a lot of variation depending on the type, and whether you're a bookmark or a doorstop sort of a person. You will also take on board 0.4g of fat - before you whack on a load of butter of course - and 1.1g of sugars, 0.1g saturated fat, 0.81g salt and 1.3g fibre. They contain wheat gluten, but no soya, egg, milk, sesame seeds, barley or rye. A pack of six will set you back 98/90p although you can also buy them in bigger packs. So what are they like? Well they're thick and fluffy, which is great because there's nothing more soul-destroying than biting into a flat, soulless crumpet of a morning. You have a good structure of air bubbles through the batter, and given a good and proper toasting you have a resulting breakfast that boasts a crisp top, spacious gaps for butter to run down into, and a crisp base. Meanwhile, the inside retains its soft fluffy texture, and these don't feel claggy, stick to your teeth or leave a nasty aftertaste. Taste wise, they're nice. But they are a carrier for food, and they are what they are - a basic batter mixture. So it's a neutral taste which doesn't overpower anything and which doesn't do much on it's own. My preference is for a lashing of butter, the ultimate comfort food on a winter's morning, but you can basically go for your life. If I'm dieting I'll just have a scrape of marmite alone, but I've also tried egg mayonnaise. You could go sweet an treat it like an American pancake or waffle with syrups and chocolate, but for me, this is all fluff. Just stick some butter on it, wear a big jumper, put your slippers on and scoff. Or, shove it in your gob, guzzle down some tea and try not to get butter on your face and hair as you fall out of the door swearing at the Gods of employment. So in conclusion, they're affordable, they're low fat, calorifically easy to keep measure of, they're filling enough and don't leave me hungry ten minutes later, and they definitely beat all competition on the mass-produced crumpet front. They're not home-cooked, soul-filled nourishing love on a plate, but they have their place in this world and there's nothing out there that can beat them. Therefore a high rating - but only in that context.
After thoroughly enjoying Sovereign, it was straight on to Shardlake number four. ***REVELATION*** All the poor guy wants is a quiet life. But it just ain't gonna happen. Just when you think it's safe to go to a dinner party, hang out with your pals, and generally think you've got things how you want them, someone goes and bumps someone off. Matthew Shardlake is a character created by C J Sansom. During the reign of Henry VIII, Shardlake is fundamentally a lawyer. However, more than once he has become an inadvertent detective, or tool of the political powers that be. He's hoping that's all in the past though, and we see him some time after his last brush with murderers, politicians and kings. He's getting on with his job, he has a new case which presents a puzzling case of religious obsession. Barak still assists him, and if anything it is Barak and his wife, who we met in the previous novel who are giving him the most cause for concern. Then a brutal killer strikes close to home; Shardlake can't help but get involved in the pursuit of the killer. But what he thought was a random, if unfathomably violent, murder quickly becomes something far darker; Shardlake again finds himself working for Archbishop Cranmer. This murder is not the first of its kind, and at a time of great religious unrest and with an ailing King Henry pursuing his sixth wife not long after having the last one's head removed for certain indiscretions, the country's situation is volatile. Now is not the time to have a serial killer running around London, and certainly not one of the motivation that Shardlake figures out. The matter must be solved and until then it must be kept quiet - or more people could lose their lives than the victims of an apparently highly intelligent and massively violent killer. ***ANY GOOD?*** Well in my opinion the Shardlake books up to now had been getting better and better with each title. And this is also superb, carrying on that trend in my opinion - but it is also quite different to the earlier books. Now I, as someone who loves Messiah, Midsomer Murders, Se7en and Silence of the Lambs right through to A Touch Of Cloth, love a good murder (fictionally speaking!). And of course previous Shardlakes contained plenty of people bumping off other people. But this is a proper, full-on, gory and violent serial killer mystery. Brilliant. That's my opinion. Others may think differently. Perhaps others read previous Shardlakes because of their historical context and because of their murders being less graphic than modern media equivalents as a result. If so, you might not quite have the same fondness of this fourth Shardlake outing. I personally loved it. The tone and characters of Shardlakes past is still there but now he is up against a terrifying serial killer whose motivations are so contentious that wide knowledge of his actions could have far more dangerous repercussions - a man who is so capable and calculating that he seems impossible to find. Along side this story runs the human element of both Shardlake and his assistant, Barak, and his young wife. As always, the characters are solid, believable and capable of inspiring empathy in the reader. The supporting cast, if you like, are all well crafted, and the imagination in the writing and the attention to detail mean that the reader enjoys almost feeling as if they were in the scene, looking on. And yes, yet again I couldn't put this down. I remember bemoaning the fact that I had a million things to do and none of them were going to get done until I had finished this one - and it's a pretty hefty book. But it is definitely one for me to reread one day - for me, with a leaning towards these tales of dark, gothic and sinister murderers, the combination is perfect. Indeed, there are very strong likenesses to Se7en throughout this book; which might illustrate why it is a question whether it will be for everyone is a different matter; my mother has also read this and she wasn't as keen on it as she was on previous books (worryingly, she also insists that the one I have yet to read, Heartstone, is by far the best of the lot - so that'll be another four days of my life written off, then!). But for anyone who enjoys this type of tale, as well as historical-based stories, you can't go wrong with this. Not only do you have a brilliantly crafted story on that front, but you also have the more sensitive personal experience and emotions of Shardlake and those he holds dear. C J Sansom has done it again, and it's an absolutely brilliant read.
Anyone who reads my reviews regularly will probably have observed that I have recently become a fan of C. J. Sansom's Shardlake novels. This is the third in the series, and as soon as my mother had finished reading it (she's also hooked), I snapped up my chance to do so. It's also the best of the bunch, and has basically ruined my life for the last four days I've had off as I could barely put it down. At risk of sounding middle aged, I've been dying to catch up on some sleep, but this damn book just won't let me. Well I've finished it now, so there, damn you!! ***THE BOOK*** Matthew Shardlake is a lawyer in Tudor England, assisted by Jack Barak, his rough-around-the-edges friend who we met in the second book, Dark Fire. Initially quite cold to warm to in Dissolution, he as become a much more likeable character over time. Previously a supporter of religious reform and an associate of Thomas Cromwell, we now see Shardlake during the latter stages of the reign of Henry VIII. Cromwell has fallen and the Archbishop Cranmer summons Shardlake to send him to oversee the legal matters as the King's Progress reaches York. Shardlake is honoured to accept and see such a sight as the Progress, but Cranmer has something else to ask of him...every cloud and all that. An important prisoner is being held in York and has held out against torture, refusing to share his knowledge of uprisings in the North. Shardlake is charged with ensuring he reaches London alive when the Progress returns, so that the more 'highly skilled' torturers in the Tower of London can attempt to extract his secrets. Unpleasant work, but Shardlake has already agreed to attend in an official role and cannot refuse. Being apparently cursed with bad luck, Shardlake hasn't been there long before someone shuffles - or is shuffled - off their mortal coil. And before you know it secrets, revelations and mysteries are popping up all over the shop, playing out behind the scenes of an even bigger show, as Henry VIII himself, now with a young wife in Catherine Howard, rolls into town. ***ANY GOOD?*** Definitely the best of the first three Shardlakes. The story has many layers and is totally engrossing. It is not quite so religiously heavy as Dissolution, but the mysteries are still there and Sansom's writing style and characters have settled into a reliably readable pace without losing the mental stimulation. Shardlake is a more and more likeable character, and as he tries to cope with politics and secrecy as well as his own conscience, seeking to solve a murder, maintain the facade of elegance and peace in front of the royal procession, and suffer discrimination at the hands of the highest society for his physical condition (he has a hunched back which is a cause of great feelings of inadequacy for the lawyer). All this and he realises that his own life is in danger for secrets he has come across - and he has a day job as well. Blimey... Barak grows into himself as a character, something that is inspired further by the arrival of a bold young woman from the Queen's service, Tamasin, who takes a shine to the assistant from the outset. She is a brave character and it is refreshing to have a wider spectrum of characters than just Shardlake and Barak on our side. The pace of the book is perfect and, whilst I figured out what was going on to some extent before Shardlake twigged, with Sansom there is always a little bit more to it than him just pointing out the killer and that's the end of that. The ending was satisfying and not rushed, and what happens before that cannot fail to make you warm to the lead character if you haven't already - he really has a pretty naff time of it, suffice to say. So yes, highly recommended. If you want murder, mystery, politics, secrets, strong characters that you come to identify with and support, as well as danger and sinister plots, then this is for you. And if you prefer it to be long before Alex Cross was running around America with an iPad, then all the better. I truly couldn't put this one down, so my productivity went through the floor when I was reading it, but I enjoyed every page.
In 2006 a film interpretation of the legend of Tristan & Isolde was released and I was desperate to see it; it ticked many a box for me, with first off being set back in the far distant past when proper men had swords rather than iPad Minis, a hint of Irish history (I am half Irish and am very proud to be so), and was a British film with a promising couple of young leads and the presence of Rufus Sewell, who is basically brilliant. So I bought the DVD as soon as it came out, and promised myself I would wait for the right time to sit and watch it. I duly did...then something happened and I stopped watching after about half an hour, and never found the time to do it again. Lately we've been mucking out through our combined possessions at Rarr Towers because, basically, we have too much stuff and with a house move imminent, it has to go. And I came across my DVD copy of Tristan + Isolde. I thought to myself that it had been too long since I'd sat and watched a film on my own without having the laptop or something else on the go alongside, and put it on. Then the phone rang, and then I ended up having a long conversation, and then the film was about halfway over, and just when it looked like I was fated never to see T+I, I had a word with myself and started from the beginning. Again. Was it worth it? ***THE LEGEND*** Basic research points at a 12th century legend of romance and tragedy - to suggest the obvious links to Romeo & Juliet wouldn't draw accusations of total lunacy. There are many variations on the names although Tristan most often is the male title - there are plenty of different versions of Isolde's name, such as Iseult. But the basic story is that of Cornish knight who falls in love with the princess of the Irish at a time when relations between England and Ireland weren't exactly pally. So romantic legends that last have to have tragedy and rivallry. The bottom line is Tristan is sent to Ireland to bring back the princess to marry King Mark. They fall in love, an affair ensues, things go a bit awry. The original legend apparently has two variations, one being that the hopeless lovers drank a love potion which caused all their problems. Another version has something similar to Greek mythology involving the wrong colour of a sail. But you get the idea - young lovers who cannot be apart but are doomed before they even realise. The thing that makes this legend so powerful is that undeniably, all three characters have a feeling of great love for one another. Mark is a kind husband to Isolde, he loves his bride, and Tristan loves his uncle as if he were his father as well as his King, and Mark favours him as both his relative and a knight. Which, in my book, puts Romeo & Juliet into a cocked hat. ***SO WHICH VERSION IS THIS?*** Okay, so the team behind the film went for this interpretation: Marke (as it is spelt in this version) is trying to unite England and knows more than most the threat of the Irish across the sea as an early meeting of leaders is ambushed, an event which claims the life of his brother and his own hand, which he lost as he tried to defend his young nephew Tristan, who survived the attack by hiding in a cellar. Forward in time we see Tristan as a young boy learning to fight, and then we see him as a young man. Throughout, Marke nurtures and loves him as his own son. We also meet Isolde, daughter of the Irish King, as she is betrothed to one of his best knights, Morholt. Suffice to say, she's not impressed. Morholt gets packed off to Cornwall to have a big fight, meets Tristan and dies by his hand - but in doing so Tristan is poisoned. Marke, mourning him as if he had lost a son, sets his body on a boat at sea, and flaming arrows are fired after it to start the pyre. Obviously, if there ended the film, we wouldn't have much to go on, so it's fairly safe to point out that Tristan is not dead. He washes up on the Irish coast as Isolde and her maid are walking, and Isolde realises that he is as good as dead if she does not conceal him, so she does so in a cave on the coast, visiting when she can and healing him. Be warned, beyond here proper spoilers are contained, but without them it's pretty much impossible to illustrate the creation of the scenario that is the true point of the story - the tragic love story. Isolde gives Tristan a false name, telling him nothing of her background. They become close, and finally their feelings become obvious; conveniently, about the same time, her father learns of the wrecked boat on his shore and starts hunting an enemy. Isolde helps Tristan escape and knows that she cannot go with him and will never see him again. Then, with Isolde now a bargaining tool again, her father sets a tournament for an English lord to win his daughter. Tristan is sent by Marke to win the hand of Isolde, and duly defeats all rivals. Isolde, seeing her lost love, is delighted - until she learns that she has been won for another to unify the countries and end years of battles. So Isolde and Marke marry but the passion between her and Tristan eventually overcomes their loyalty and love of the King, leading to consequences they couldn't imagine. ***THE PEOPLE BEHIND THE FILM*** Tony and Ridley Scott were behind this, with Kevin Reynolds directing. Tristan is portrayed and cast well with James Franco in the role, whereas the Irish princess is played by Sophia Myles, who executes the role with something a little more believable and human than a breathless Keira Knightley type might. Sewell is Marke, and a capable, if not star-cast, array of British and Irish talent support the film. You'll recognise plenty of them - Ronan Vibert from The Buccaneers perhaps, Mark Strong from many things, Henry Cavill from now being Superman, etc. The Irish King could recently be seen hoofing it around London generally making life difficult for Luther. It's a good cast. ***IS IT A GOOD FILM?*** Well it took me long enough but when I did concentrate and got into this I did really enjoy it. It has two strengths - a classic story structure, and good actors. It may not be a Hollywood cast but god I get fed up of films which just have beautiful people in them that you can't psychologically remove from the red carpet. Here you have understated, honest British actors in many roles and I enjoyed the honesty and rawness that brought. Myles is very convincing as Isolde. She's not the easiest to warm to but then she's hardly meant to be - she's raised a princess to be bargained with. Franco is good as Tristan, conveying much with a look. Sewell acts them both off the screen as Marke, and if anything I would say how he conveys his love for the two characters opposite him blows away the chemistry between the lovers, which I have to admit was slightly underwhelming. He also act his understanding of betrayal in a regal, but human manner, and whilst I think this is a story well interpreted for the screen, the performance that lasted with me was his rather than the romance. In short it was worth watching. Not worth waiting about seven years to do so, but it was a good film and I will definitely be watching it again. I like the understated casting and manner of telling the tale, and whilst the suspension of disbelief required to accept the nature of the events is pretty high, it is just such a great story and the conveying of human emotion so convincing that it is worth it. I like that the team behind the film haven't gone all out for the high drama of That Other Shakespeare Play, but instead told a story true to its era and relying on the people on screen to carry it as normal, honest people bound by love. In conclusion, not the best film I have ever seen but a success regardless, much more my style of film than the Luhrmann interpretation of Romeo & Juliet (by which I mean no disrespect as it is awesome). A different interpretation of the practicalities behind the legend but a faithful retelling of the emotions involved.
So I finally come to reviewing Yankee Candles for their Fluffy Towels offering. An odd scenario. Before popping my Yankee cherry (which wasn't cherry at all but Bahama Brezze, if you must know), I recall saying somewhat mockingly, "What the hell are fluffy towels meant to smell like, anyway?!". Ah, what little I knew. I tried my first Yankee tart and now we're overrun with the things. Admit it, you know you are too. But I still felt wary of this Fluffy Towels nonsense. Fluffy is a sense of touch job, not a candle. I could surely just set fire to a bottle of Comfort if I wanted to, which I didn't. Right? Basically, I still loved an opportunity for sarcasm more than I did Yankee. I'm pretty sure there's one called Pink Sand, for example. What does Pink even smell of? These candles are getting above their station. British rant, etc. Then Mr Rarr introduced me to the effective mother-in-law, who is just as obsessed with these scented wonders as me - and fast forward a good few months when I am basically an accepted fixture in the family and I happily unwrapped a pack of the smaller jar candles this Christmas - one of which was Fluffy Towels. My nemesis and I had finally met. ***A PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT*** For all of you out there who have been dragging out your best towels when you have guests around, and practising acts of pyromancy on them, you can now stop. Just get this candle instead. Equally, those of you who don't know how your towels should smell, get one of these and educate thyselves. Apparently this blend has notes of apple, lavender, lemon and lilly. Lavender is normally the boss out of any scent combination, but it has been reined in here and I suspect that if I can identify any of those scents then it would be the lilly. To be honest, before I looked it up, I had no idea what was in this blend, but it certainly has its place. First of all, it's pleasant, clean, pretty universal and would be good for meeting rooms, dinner parties, anything in which you want a smooth background scent which doesn't clash with anything. There is a touch of freshness to which I would tip the nod for the apple, but again I would never have guessed that without researching the notes. Basically, I'm currently marketing my home for sale, and this is what I burn for half an hour every time we have a viewing. Well, there's actually a strategy that goes a bit deeper (slow cooker in the kitchen, Black Cherry in the living room, Fluffy Towels actually scents the main bedroom). And I think that says all you need to know - this is a scent which isn't going to offend anyone, it's a soft background. That said, the candle itself is pungent - I find that I can burn it in periods of one hour, and I'd burn it for less than that were it not for tunnelling the candle. It lingers nicely after that, neutralising any stale air or mustiness when it's chucking it down outside, and generally just makes things all smell very nice and agreeable. Is it my favourite scent? No. But I am first and foremost a hedonist and love the fruity Yankees in summer and the spicy ones in winter. If I can't have them I want the smell of a roast dinner or pie wafting from the kitchen, or bonfires outside in autumn. But if I want things to feel clean, soft and welcoming to guests, Fluffy Towels certainly has it's place. It's a very well balanced mix of four very strong characters, because none truly dominate, but it is basically the Yankee equivalent of a palette cleanser. Not a detrimental comment, it has undeniable value, if not a huge amount of character.
I've caved in. I wanted to try one for ages, and I've finally signed up to one of these monthly boxes of beauty product delights - Glossybox, to be precise. My first one arrived this month and whilst I wasn't initially over the moon with the contents, I have to admit that the only one I have used so far does work rather well. Which is not to say it's flawless... ***YU-BE*** Apparently invented in 1957 and ever since a massively popular seller in its native Japan, Yu-Be is a glycerin-heavy skin moisturiser which is apparently capable of curing some serious dryness and soothing skin exposed to the elements. And now it's over here too. I received two small tube samples in my Glossybox, and upon reading that this can be applied to both dry skin and dry lips, I decided to see if this is finally the wonder product that could cure the awful cracked lips look that I have unwillingly been sporting all winter. An initial bit of internet research claims that there is a particular processing stage back in Japan which makes this cream so rich. You can apply it as often as needed but it claims to lock in moisture for hours. ***IN USE*** Right, first off I have to admit this did cure my dry, chapped and indeed split lips - and in a matter of days. I can't really put this down to coincidence either, given that they had looked frankly shocking for months beforehand. I have also used it lightly as a hand cream and indeed it is soothing and quick to absorb. It's effective, undeniably. But there is something in the instructions for use that I noted from the outset - "Camphor scent fades quickly". This is the first time I've seen a bit of honest marketing on a cream before - not only do they openly acknowledge the presence of what I can only describe as a bit of a stink, but they seem to basically take the line "but it's worth it, so stop grumbling and get on with it". And it does whiff a bit. It's not pleasant. Simple as. Particularly if you are using this as a lip product, you don't get the urge to virtually cannibalise yourself that you might had you just slapped on something chocolatey and sold by The Body Shop. You really, really don't. So to the price. A pot of this in Boots will set you back just shy of £20 for 70g, so the fact that it works and is imported isn't lost on the market. For something that isn't a luxury as much as it is a somewhat unpleasant but functional moisturising product, you're certainly shelling out a bit here. So that's two examples of suffering for beauty right there. But on the flip side you barely need to use any and - frankly - you probably wouldn't want to. The scent may fade quickly but for me, it isn't quickly enough. So you won't need to repurchase in a hurry. My two tiny sample tubes will probably keep me going through this winter and well into, if not throughout, the next. Could I envisage slapping this stuff all over my body after a luxurious soak? I know it works, so in theory I should. Anything to stop the ageing process, after all. But I can't envisage that. I just couldn't stand to smell like that for a good three or five minute, although I must give it credit that this stuff does absorb quickly if you don't overdo it. Perhaps I am shooting myself in the foot and should woman up...or perhaps I'd rather just slap on something hedonistic and gorgeous from Sacntuary Spa instead...isn't life just a bit too short? (Oh, and by the way, a little further research suggests that camphor is also used as an embalming fluid. Now that's taking the prolonging of youth a bit too far....) ***RECOMMENDED?*** Well you can't deny that this stuff is effective. A quick google brings up a raft of 4-5 star reviews on various platforms. I admit it works - I was sure I was stuck with painful chapped lips all winter until this came along, so for that I should be grateful. But undeniably it isn't the most pleasant product in the world to use. I know I sound like I'm on a massive downer about a product that I openly admit is effective, but maybe we're a bit spoilt and not only expect wonder creams to do what they claim on the tin, but also be luxurious and lovely to use at the same time (damn you, Sanctuary Spa!). So in effect what I am saying is that I am sitting here having a big old moan about a product that solved a painful skin condition, which apparently offers relief to sufferers of eczema, can help heal hard-worked winter chaffed hands and heels, and leaves skin and lips feeling soft and soothed, all because it's a bit whiffy for a minute or two. So to surmise...whilst we're not talking plague-ridden corpse stink, it's not the nicest scent but it doesn't last for long. It's very pricey for something that is more effective than indulgent to use, and it's a bit no-thrills really, but it works. And at the end of the day that's what matters. It works quickly, too. If you happen to have a job which requires a lot of hard work outside in winter, then I'd recommend you get a tub of this post haste and safe yourself a lot of discomfort. Hey, we all have to suffer for beauty...and I guess on balance this is probably worth doing so. Ingredients: Glycerin, Water, Isopropyl Myristate, Stearic Acid, Glyceryl Stearate SE, Triethanolamine, Tocopheryl Acetate (Vitamin E), Glycyrrhetinic Acid, Camphor, Riboflavin (Vitamin B2), Hydrogenated coco-glycerides, Stearyl Alcohol, Polysorbate 80, EDTA, Methylparaben, Ascorbic Acid (Vitamin C), Sodium Hyaluronate
I don't know if it was just a massive confidence crisis or even a flirtation with depression, but I spent much of 2013 feeling pretty naff about myself. Maybe it was down to the bad hair...the weight, the fact that I wasn't sleeping well and getting very stressed, felt uncomfortable about pretty much every aspect of my working and personal life...yeah, it wasn't great. BUT. Work got better. I realised I am quite good at what I do. Family stuff got better. Various situations played out and were resolved - and by the time 2014 rolled along, I was ready to go at the year with life a lot more sorted and with clear goals. One of which was to stop moping about feeling sorry for myself and looking, frankly, crap. Enter stage left shedloads of beauty products and skin treatments, and a really fundamentally honest enjoyment of using them, rather than plastering my face like some sort of camouflage shield to hide behind. And one of the old staples that I have pressed back into service was Max Factor's Miracle Touch Creamy Blush, of which I was lucky enough to receive a generous sample in a promotional giftbox some time ago. To give you some idea of where this review is going, I have loved using it again. It's just a superb product - more on this later. But I had to review it and in doing so I just checked out the price of the Superdrug product page, and saw this introduction: "Foundation might perfect your skin but a hint of cream blush is the secret weapon to a healthy glow." And how very true it is. ***THE PRODUCT*** What you get for your £6.99 is a small round pot with what looks like a screw-off lid. My personal sample is a small square wit ha lift-off lid, which is a fiddly nightmare and has involved several incidences of thumbnails accidentally ending up squidging the product everywhere - thankfully the standard packaging looks far superior. Within this clear-lidded pot you get a silk-smooth, cutter-like consistency blush in gentle shades of pink - mine was Soft Pink, although there are now a few variations of shade. This is probably as close as I shall ever get to a beauty tutorial but this is now I use it; having applied a foundation - which happens to also be a Max Factor product- I then gently sweep my ring finger (I don't know why but this just seems to work and feel most natural!) across the surface of the product until a little has built up. I then share this product with the ring finger of my other hand and sweep both gently over the cheekbones. Set with a little powder if you fancy - I tend to become a little 'shiny' over the course of the day if I don't - and job's done. You have a pretty, natural and healthy glow. Very English rose. Sweep it lower over the apple of the cheek for that fair English maiden look, maybe a little higher on the cheekbone if you fancy a touch of the Cersei Lannisters. And once you've done that, it stays there. Apply it over powder and you may find that it shifts but if you use powder on top to set it, this stays on all day. It doesn't budge, smudge, cake, dry, irritate or vanish. It's just a pretty, soft tone which honestly makes you look like you've had a lovely spring walk in some fields. You might even have conversed with a lamb, or patted a horse. You don't look like that bloke from Northampton who dresses up like a clown and scares the living daylights out of people, and if there are any passing knights on white chargers going about, all you need is a bodice and it's job done. It's that good. Alright it can't give you tumbling tresses, but you get the idea. Blokes in tights with those things that look a bit like banjos, and stupid hats with feathers in them, will sing songs of your beauty to weary travellers over roadside campfires. Okay that might be something of an overstatement, but I really, really love this blush... Oh, and it lasts forever. Honestly. My sample pot is probably about half of a full pot and it's still going strong with pretty regular use. I my not be able to comment fully on the sturdiness of the official release packaging but then I'm reviewing the product, not the vessel it comes in. Will I be purchasing when I finally run out of my sample? Good god yes. For £6.99 you'll likely get about a year's worth of use of a product that makes you look more refreshed, glowing and gorgeous on a Monday morning than half the coffee in Costa ever could. It's brilliant. Go forth, buy it, thank me later.
My historical book leaning has claimed my mother as a victim and so it was that The Red Queen appeared in my life, something that I wouldn't have predicted on the basis of my feelings on The White Queen (also reviewed). Both stories were drawn together in the BBC adaptation of The White Queen, but the book of the same title, which focused entirely on Elizabeth Woodville, left me somewhat cold and decidedly hacked off with the massively abrupt ending. Would The Red Queen leave me feeling equally disappointed? ***THE PLOT*** The Red Queen tells the story of Margaret Beaufort, a hugely pious member of the House of Lancaster during a time when York take power. Convinced of her religious importance and relationship with God, she is still powerless to stop herself being given to a marriage contract at the age of twelve; it is a marriage which results in one child, the birth of which nearly kills the mother. But both she and the child - Henry - survive, although she is to see little of him in his first near-thirty years of life as his guardianship goes to his uncle. Whilst she is soon remarried after her first husband dies, in later life she gains power over her own choices and marries to further the cause that she is convinced was her divine birthright - that of her son's claim to the throne as King of England. ***ANY GOOD?*** I'm very pleased to say that this was far more engrossing and enjoyable than The White Queen, and whilst it had a similarly abrupt ending, it wasn't nearly so irritatingly ill-timed. Beaufort is not an easy woman to like; first of all I knew this from the TV adaptation, but for all her religious fervour (I don't do religion), I can understand her drive and obsession. What I didn't expect from the character after seeing the TV version was a depth to her from her frustration as a woman forced into marriage, later kept from her son, frustrated at her previously royal lineage being usurped by the House of York. I was amazed to find that I actually understood and even supported the character towards the end of the book. Where The White Queen felt shallow, this book has much more depth of character. Beaufort's first husband doesn't have much characterisation and her ensuing passion for her first brother-in-law never truly washes, but her second and third husbands have much more credibility about the way they are written. But this is a tale told from the protagonist's perspective and so you only see so much of the overall story; I think that the BBC had it right when pulling all these tales together. Would I go on to read the Anne Neville account of the Cousins' War stories by this author? Perhaps not. I am intrigued by The White Princess but I can't see myself reading all of Gregory's books on this particular literary bend...this is far better, in my opinion, than The White Queen but I think it does have to be taken as part of a bigger body of work - were I asked to read and review it as a stand-alone piece, then I doubt that I would rate it so highly and I think that it is also better for reading after first going through The White Queen. On balance, a good book, a good read if this is the type of book that you enjoy, but very much part of a grander scale of work.
Strange how one chance 'suck it and see' purchase of a book in a charity shop can subsequently dictate where a lot of your time goes. It was such incident which led me to first read C J Sansom's 'Shardlake' series, detective novels featuring the humpbacked lawyer Matthew Shardlake during the rule of Henry VIII and a time of great religious and social turmoil. Now both my other and I are hooked, and between us have bought all of the books currently published in the series. It shouldn't have taken me as long to read this book as it did; I was belting through it having finished the first book in the series, when my (or rather, mum's) copy decided to slide inelegantly into a rapidly-filling bath. Looking at it sat, moping on the drying wrack in the bathroom for four days, was a form of torture. Because it's really, really good. ***THE PREMISE*** Matthew Shardlake, lawyer during the reign of Henry VIII, is the lead character in this series of books by C J Sansom. His first outing was in Dissolution, a murder mystery set at the height of religious formation, a cause which Shardlake was supportive of. His appointment to that murder case was at the hand of Lord Cromwell, with whom he was associated as a supporter at the time. ***THE PLOT*** Now we meet Shardlake a few years after the Scarnsea murder case. He has distanced himself from Cromwell and the Lord's position is under threat as Henry VIII tires of his second wife, Anne Boleyn. In the time since his last case he has conducted himself simply as he always intended, as a lawyer, and as he approaches his forties he even contemplates retirement in the countryside. Then a friend contacts him with a troubling case; his orphaned niece is the obvious suspect in the apparent murder of her own cousin. But the girl will not talk and so she faces the excruciating form of torture known as 'the press' to try to force her into confession. Can Shardlake make her talk in time to save her? All seems lost for the young girl until intervention from above makes itself known at the last moment; Cromwell has sent word to the courts that the girl is to have a stay, his way of manipulating her lawyer back into his service on a much larger case. Cromwell has been contacted, and seen demonstrations by, people who claim to have uncovered and recreated Greek Fire - a monumentally devastating weapon of war which could be just the thing to restore Cromwell to the favour of the King. But both they and it have gone missing - and Cromwell demands that Shardlake, accompanied by Cromwell's man, the somewhat uncouth Jack Barak, trace the potential source of his redemption within two weeks. So Cromwell is thrust back into a world that he had tried to stay out of, one of political and religious pressure and turbulence, and realises that in order to save the young girl he has come to believe is entirely innocent, he must once again serve Cromwell, and yet again doing so brings great risk to himself and those around him. ***ANY GOOD?*** Yes! In my review of the first Shardlake book, I remarked that it was in some ways quite hard to warm to, as indeed was Shardlake himself. Here you see a softer side and a smoother writing style; indeed I soon found myself well into the plot and racing through the pages - which is not to say that it is an easy read, because it is still a well thought out plot and it is well structured and written. As well as Shardlake being more human and easy to associate with, his new partnership with Jack Barak, the rather harsh and cynical aide of Cromwell, brings another new dimension and their working relationship soon settles into a believable scenario of almost resentful respect for one another, which in time starts to gel into a proper working partnership as the danger against them becomes more apparent. And, as with Dissolution, the book takes in a notable period in the history of the reign of Henry VII; the emotions this inspires within the characters is believable throughout. And then the plot itself. It is perhaps more sensational than the Dissolution plot, but it is still crafted in a way which makes it believable and holds the tension both in the main plot and also the subplot of the girl apparently almost lost to madness and the strange family behind her story. So, do I recommend? Well I did recommend the first book and I think this is far better, so yes - definitely. It is an easier read that would probably appeal to more than Shardlake's first outing but loses none of its authenticity and tension. Shardlake himself is becoming a character more likeable and more suited to carrying a series and his interaction with new characters is far superior to how it was in the first effort. I enjoyed this quite a lot more than the first book and I now can't wait to move on to the third - which I am assured by my mother is the best of the bunch. So defintely another five stars from me as I bolt towards the next book.