Wednesday, 28 December 2016

Christmas thoughts, yearly round up, and what I hope for the new year.

My life has been busy in the week leading up to Christmas, so this is just a small post to talk about how my Christmas was, how the year has been and what I hope for the new year.

This Christmas, more than any other, I felt grateful. I got bad presents, but I'm okay with that because  it means I have relatives who give me presents. We saw extended family on Christmas Day, and I didn't mind, and it was quite a nice afternoon, really. And we had a quiet, smaller family Christmas on Boxing Day, so I didn't miss out on that, either.

I flew out to Texas to visit friends just before Christmas, and I'm not even going to complain about the badly delayed flight I took to get there. Because the trip itself was worth every minute on a plane and every penny spent. And I have the means to go on trips like that, and people there who I can visit, and those are opportunities not everyone has.

And why do I feel so much more grateful this year than I have in years past? Because even if mine was bad, which it wasn't, some people had it worse. Carrie Fisher's family, George Michael's family, the families of all those who were on the Russian plane, will be reminded every year about their loss. I feel like Christmas must be the worst time to lose loved ones, as everyone else is so happy, and every year after, you'll be reminded about it as soon as decorations start going up.

As for the overall year, I feel I can't complain. Some things happened that I didn't like, but a lot of good things happened, too. I hope that people can look forward to next year in the hope that it might be better.

My new years resolution was to read over 40 books in the year, keeping a count of them. Well, I can tell you now that my end figure was... 51. To some people, that's a large figure, to others it might seem sort of small. For me, though, I'm happy with that. I'm very sporadic about my reading - some months I can get through eight books, others I can barely get through one. And that's okay, as reading, like so much else, is different for everyone.

For my new years resolution this year, it is to finish a book. I don't care if it's 50,000 words of unpublishable tripe, just having the feeling that I can write that much would be good, and would spur me on to write more in the future. At least I hope so.

Thursday, 15 December 2016

Only Child Things

At this time of year more than any other, I find myself pondering the idiosyncrasies of being the only child. At least, the parts of my personality that were somewhat formed by it. And no, I don’t think I’m selfish or spoilt, and we aren’t necessarily as a rule. But I guess every family position has its own standard character trait. The oldest is bossy, the middle is ignored by their parents, the youngest is the baby, and only children are selfish. There are a lot of books that use these tropes and link their personality traits to their position in the family. It’s a lazy writing technique. If you are trying to portray a character as spoilt, show us that, don’t just say they are because they are the only child. But this wasn’t meant to turn into a writer’s workshop.

At Christmas, there were only three of us. And I don’t feel like I got an especially large number of gifts because I was the only. My extended family is rather small, too. Seeing the presents of some of my friends with siblings and more relatives, I was often surprised by how large their piles were. But I never minded this, because the presents I did get, I liked. They were often something I had chosen myself. Since I often got a new game, the rest of Christmas was me playing the game while my parents cooked the dinner. At dinner, it was the only time of the year I could say no to vegetables. Afterwards, the three of us would sit on the sofa, watch Christmas movies and eat chocolate. It was perfect to me, since this was what I was used to. But for people with more siblings and larger extended families, this seems surprising. “Isn’t that boring?” I’ve been asked before. Now, having experienced a few Christmases with the larger family, I would quite like to go back to our quiet ones.

I was never spoilt. Since there was only one of me, it was hard for me to talk my parents into buying things. It took a while for me to get a games console, as I “had no-one to play it with.” I never got the trampoline I wanted, either. I feel like with a sibling, we could have both tried to convince our parents of the necessity of having the current ‘In’ toy of the period. I also got the blame for everything, even when it was my friend’s siblings that had drawn on the walls. If there’s only one, bad grades stick out more. Messy rooms stick out more. Well, probably not, but it felt like it sometimes, growing up.

I also was never lonely. I was, however, often called a 'loner' by teachers. But I liked being alone, and that isn't the same as being lonely. Of course, liking to be alone is considered odd in today's society, and I had to go to classes to get me to mix. Funny, I never remember the other children having classes about being more including. But I had friends, and my close family, and never considered myself lonely until "only children are lonely children" was said to my face. I still like my time alone, even now.

There is also a lot of pressure. In families with more than one child, the expectation is that one will settle down and start a family, therefore giving their parents grandchildren, and one will have the high-powered career they can brag to their friends about. If they’re lucky, it will be abroad somewhere, so they don’t need to pay for hotels when they go on holiday. And when parents grow older, duties for looking after them can be handled between siblings. But with an only child, there is none of that. I’ve expressed a desire to live in other countries before, at which my parents acted affronted about me leaving them on their own. If I express concern for how I might look after them when they’re older, they say “well, you’re not putting me in a home,” and about five seconds later worry about the care of an elderly relative if he doesn’t go in a home. And I’ve had people completely unrelated ask me when I’m going to give my Mum a grandchild – like that’s my sole responsibility. I know a lot of people feel the pressure to have children, but when people say it to me, I get the air that they consider me selfish for not doing it, since I’m my parents only chance to have grandchildren. I genuinely love kids, and I would think the most selfish thing I could do is to purposefully have a child when I know I’m in no-way ready for it.

One thing I do think came mainly from being the only child is my independence. I had to find ways to play by myself, so I was quite content making up imaginary worlds in my head. I would often be reading or gaming solo, and it has had the effect of making me gravitate towards single-player games over multi-player games as a whole. Now, I can easily get myself from one end of the country to the other by myself, and keep myself amused the whole way there.

I did express the wish for a brother or sister a few times, but I don’t remember doing it that often. I think seeing how my friends interacted with their siblings put me off!

Where do you fall in your family tree? Do you have any traits that might have been influenced by that?

Monday, 12 December 2016

A Train-Hiker's Guide to the UK

The UK rail network can appear confusing to people who are not used to dealing with such a large train system, but it’s easy once you can get to it. Every big city, most small towns and even many villages are somewhere on the rail network, so it’s a convenient way to get from place to place.

Sunday, 11 December 2016

How to Handle an Airport and Flight

I love airports, and flights, and I think they’re my favourite part of going on holiday. However, I understand not everyone feels that way. As someone who’s been doing airports since I was very young, and have done them solo, let me share with you some tips for keeping your cool while going through an airport.

Drink plenty of water: I like to buy a bottle at the airport to take on the plane, but you can have an empty bottle in your hand luggage when you go past security. Planes are very dehydrating, so take any liquids they offer you, too. Don’t worry about annoying the person in the aisle seat by going to the toilet often, you need fluids.

Figure out your favourite seat: Personally, I like the window seat! I love to see the sky and ground from on a plane, and get very disorientated and dizzy when I can’t look out a window. If you find the concept of looking out the window a bit scary, maybe get the aisle seat. And if you’d rather be in between two people, especially if you’re flying with people you know, get the middle seat.

Eat, little and often: I like to have a smallish meal in the airport, and nothing too salty and sweet. Since it's such an early start, I'm never really hungry before I leave the house, but I will be once I get to the airport. I’ll also buy one of those little meal deals for the plane, since airline food is hit-or-miss. I was once taking a morning flight, took off a little after nine, and I was served a hot pasta dish as my first meal. Since it was early, and I hadn’t had much sleep, the smell of it turned my stomach. It was a good thing I’d bought a little extra! I also get a bag of sweets to have while in the air. You can prepare this in advance and pack yourself a little snack, but I like having things to do at the airport.

Look up maps of the airport: If you google the name of every airport you’re going to, you can find a basic map of most of them. This can help you familiarise yourself with the layout beforehand. Find out where the departure gates are in relation to security, and know where you need to go if you have to change terminals. You’ll also get to see a list of shops and services, which can be handy if you need to pick up something you forgot.

Be mindful of changing terminals: In most airports, I understand this isn’t so bad, and most terminals are a short walk away. But in Heathrow, the separate terminals can be a bit of a drive away. They’re all individual buildings roughly the size of a standard airport each. Again, though, a lot of information on this should be provided on the airport’s website.

Locate the necessary things, first: Once you get to the departure lounge, the first thing you should find is a departure board. (They’re huge, and you can’t miss them) Next, find the gates. Some airports will have half their airports at one end and half at another end, so bare that in mind. Airports are so well-signposted it’s hard to get lost, but

Give yourself extra time: That three hours early thing they tell you is very good advice, I actually like to give myself four. For a very large airport, I often find that’s just enough time to get through check-in and security and relax in departures before your gate is called. Better to have everything

Dress comfortably: Now, this may differ from person to person. I like loose jeans that stay up without a belt, others prefer leggings. Don't bring anything that needs a belt, unless you want to be that person at security awkwardly holding their trousers up. Flat shoes, because there's a lot of walking involved at airports sometimes. Don't wear things that are a complete hassle to take on and off and security, either. And take into account the likely weather at both destination and origin!

Print off everything you might need: Itineraries, boarding passes, confirmation emails, I tend to go overboard. It just makes me feel a little better that if they ask, I have everything right here with me.

Don’t take too much hand luggage: Either see if you can get some of it into the hold, leave some at home, or fit some of it into your other bags. Two is that maximum I like, my carry-on case and my handbag to give me easy access to the important documents like flight details and passport. You don’t want to

Give yourself something to do: Take your mind of your impending anxiety about your flight. Bring a book and sit somewhere you can keep an eye on the board, or have a wander. This is why I leave myself a lot to get once at the airport – I can’t stand waiting around. If you’re the sort who likes to buy make-up, why not give yourself something to buy when you’re there? Decide what you could do with before the flight and have fun testing out a range of different brands. Understand that “Duty Free” doesn’t mean cheaper, but it passes the time and is better than potentially spending on stuff you don’t need.

Have a lot to do on the flight, too: I like colouring books for this, as they don’t require too much concentration so they don’t make me sick, are relaxing for any nerves you might have, and can pass the time quickly. Bring a book to read, too. Also, if you are long-haul, you might well have an in-flight entertainment system, which can have some of the must-see movies of the year and popular TV shows of recent times.

So, there you go. Do you have a particular thing you like to do at airports?

Friday, 9 December 2016

Christmas Spice Biscuits!

Here’s my recipe for Christmas spice biscuits. My recipe is based on a German sort called
Lebkuchen. You may know these from the brightly-iced hearts that get sold from stalls sometimes, but the traditional version from Nuremburg is quite different, too. This recipe produced biscuits which are not dissimilar in texture from the ones you can buy from the stalls!

Tuesday, 6 December 2016

A Guide to British Chain Restaurants

This is a guide for tourists on some common British chain restaurants. If you’re in London, you can probably find more unique places to eat at then these. And there are the British staples I recommend everyone try, like roast dinner (preferable home-cooked, or failing that from a pub) and fish and chips from a chippy. But if you’re in a smaller British city, and you don’t know what any of these places are, this is some advice on which ones you should try. This is not a complete list, just a run-down of some of the most ubiquitous. Under a cut because I've included some pictures for some of the places on this list.

Monday, 5 December 2016

Alternative Christmas Crackers

You know those sad little crackers you buy every year, and they have the silly hat, bad joke and cheap toy in them? You could say that the worse the crackers are, the more charm they have. Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without them, right? Well, how about these fancier versions? You could do them instead of, or as well as. What about putting the bad ones out on the table as is tradition, and giving one of these out as people go home?

Chocolate Crackers from Hotel Chocolat :  You get three chocolates (as if you won’t have had enough to eat already) and the traditional hat and joke, so you don’t miss out on those, either. Any excuse for more chocolate, right?

Snowman Crackers from Not on the High Street: Not on the High Street has a really nicely curated range of Christmas crackers, but these ones especially caught my eye. They might have very traditional insides, but look at how cute they are! A little extra decorative touch to the table.

Nails Inc Christmas Crackers: One that’s good for a girly night in on the lead-up to Christmas, you could pull one each and paint your fingers and toes in whatever colour comes out of it. Have everyone wear their comfy clothes, put on a proper Christmas movie and set up the snacks!

Gin Crackers by Gin Tales: One for the grown-ups, I’m afraid! If you know your party likes to drink, why not invest in these? They’ll keep the conversation flowing before you’ve even pulled them and drunk the contents. Somewhat on the pricy side, but you get six in a pack with a small bottle of gin in each, in three different flavours. You might want to be careful if you’re pulling them, so you don’t break the bottle. Also contains the traditional hat and joke, which are always better once you have some alcohol in you, so it’s a win-win.

Make Your Own: You can buy kits with everything in them already and it’s a great activity to do with children. Why not buy lego figurines or small individual chocolates to go inside them? You could also but in a scattering of sequins to cover the table. If someone is a comedian, they could write the jokes, too. Based on the people you have over, you could do family in-jokes, geeky references or passages from a favourite book. Get creative and have fun!

Sunday, 4 December 2016

Pros and Cons of Winter

Last season, I posted my “Why I Dislike Autumn” blog. I wasn’t very complimentary about it, shall we say. Winter, which I like a good bit better, has some pluses and minuses for me. So, lets run down my pros and cons of Winter!

Christmas: I love Christmas! The food, the decorations, the presents! I’m still like a little kid on Christmas Day. I wake up super early to open my stocking. Still leave out the mince pie and sherry for Santa and a carrot for the reindeer. Get excited to open my presents. I like both the giving and receiving of presents. I like to put a lot of thought into what presents I get other people, and I love to see them react when they open them. And I love the mystery of what presents are there under the tree, too. And feeling the wrapper to try and guess what they are. You know, I have received some bad Christmas presents before, but the majority of presents I tend to get are useful.

Pancake Day: The other big eating holiday of this season, but one that’s all the way in February, so it’s still somewhat in the distance. The only way to make pancakes on this day is in the traditional English way. Not those American interlopers. I won’t hear a word about how they’re “just” crepes, either. English pancakes are traditionally served with lemon and sugar, and French crepes are usually thinner. Also, crepe is the French word for pancake, so you’re kind of proving your own point. Also, you have to attempt to toss at least one pancake on this day. It’s the rule.

New Year: A fresh start, and a new beginning. A chance to put all the bad from the old year behind you, and hope the next year will be better. It feels like a chance to change your life. I know most resolutions are abandoned in a few days, but the illusion is there. This year especially, I’m quite looking forward to seeing the back of.

Days Get Longer: Longest Day passes in late December, and by February there’s a significant change in the length of the days. It is seriously nice not to have to walk home in the dark at four o’clock.

Curling up in your Duvet: especially on a cold night, while the wind and raid hits your window, and with a good book. It’s a shame we have an electric fire, so I can’t pull off that sitting by the fire and reading look.

Chance of Snow: I love snow! It’s so fun to play in, and there’s always that chance of a day off school/work because no-one can get in, and it gets large groups out of the house to have a snowball fight. Give me a walk in the snow, any day. Especially with a dog, they love the snow!

Chance of Snow: In England, it’s very rare. Where I am in the country, we’re going three years without a decent snowfall. I’ve never had the illusive White Christmas. Normally, snow only matters for a week a year. What happens is, it gets cold over the weekend and every weather report mentions chance of snow. No-one listens, because they’ve said this every weekend since November. So on Monday, we wake up to a decent covering of snow and its chaos. Trains will stop. Roads will be blocked back for miles. Schools will shut, some workplaces will close. Tuesday, the snow will freeze and there may be a fresh covering, but in most places will be able to deal with it. Schools will still be shut. Wednesday, it will be mostly melted into that brown slushy stuff and most places will reopen. Thursday, it will be mostly off the roads but still present in heaps on the sides. By Friday, we have a rainfall that washes away the rest of it. And that’s it, no more snow likely until next year.

Sometimes, it’s just too cold: There’s a very specific British sort of cold, I think, where it was very damp overnight and no amount of layering can prevent that chill from getting into your bones. The wind is northerly, and bites at your exposed face. It might not be below zero, but it feels colder than it actually is.

Family Visits: Over Christmas, there will be a lot of these. Growing up, we lived quite far away from family, so Christmas was just the three of us, and I loved it. It’s what I grew up used to. In fact, the whole concept of leaving the house on Christmas Day feels weird to me. Now, we live closer to my extended family, which leads to quite a few visits over the Christmas period. I am a total introvert, and after spending three hours around my family, I would be quite happy to go home and chill out quietly by myself. However, some days we can spend upwards of nine hours with them, and every nerve in my body is screaming for some peace. And the inevitable politics discussions come up at some point…

Clothes are Uncomfortable: Wool itches. There’s only so much layering you can do before you can’t even move your arms, so you walk around with this stiff padding and your arms can’t bend. You have to wear pants, rather than shorts/skirts. Or, even worse, the itchy leg prisons that are tights. Why can’t we all wear our onesies for the whole season?

Tuesday, 29 November 2016

Holiday Gift Guide for grown-up Disney fans!

Have you got a grown-up Disney fan in your life? Wondering what to get them? Well, you could just give them the newest DVD they haven’t got yet, but there’s a few little things you could get that shows that you really put some thought into it. I’ve put these in an order of somewhat cheap to the more expensive end of the spectrum.

Lush bath bombs: They can make anyone feel like a princess, by their mere presence in a bath. They’re cheaper than most people think, too. Three can make a nice gift, without spending much over £10. As for which ones, what about Frozen (themed after the obvious) or So White (Snow White themed)? You can combine them with a bubble bar such as Pop in the Bath (Mary Poppins themed) or a soap such as Snowcastle?

A Disney cookbook like this one: Great for those who like to cook, and those who like to eat. Next time you have a Disney movie marathon, convince them to make one of the recipes in this book. Conversely, if you’re the good cook, bake them a Disney-inspired treat and wrap it up neatly. Everyone appreciates a home-made gift.

The book a movie was based on: How about a really nice edition of Peter Pan or Alice in Wonderland, 101 Dalmatians by Dodie Smith or The Hunchback of Notre Dame? If you look into it, there are a surprising amount of books that inspired Disney movies, and some you don’t even realise came from a book. You’re bound to find something here they don’t have.

Disney Christmas decorations: I’ve seen a lot of really nice Disney decorations. From dangling, small figures of characters, to packs of adorably cute baubles, you can find most things with a Disney twist. Why not see if you can go all the way and slowly add more things to their tree over the years?

Disney nail wraps from Jamberry: I think most female Disney fans would love these, even if they don’t spend much time on their appearance. Since they’re stick on nail wraps, they should be easy to use and then they can feel a little happier every time they look at their nails. The variety here is, again, impressive, and no doubt include one of their favourite movies. Also, these come in smaller sizes, too. Perfect if a younger Disney fan wants to match with an older one!

Disney make-up collections: For the person who does spend more time on their appearance. There have been quite a few good quality Disney make-up sets released, but most of them are limited edition. If you look around a bit, you can find some before they go out of stock.

Disney Showcase Collection: These are decent-sized resin figures of Disney characters. The range is quite extensive, so they will most likely have one of your fan’s favourite characters in there somewhere. The detail on these is exquisite, as is the crafting. Some follow the dress design of the film character exactly, others embellish it somewhat, and still more only use it for inspiration, but I’m always impressed when I see these figures either on my shelf or in a shop. They have several of the princesses, many of the villains, a "masquerade" themed set, a twenties themed set, and still many others!
My personal collection is a small sample of the whole collection, but I
hope this gives you some idea of the detail in these figures.
Disney Pandora/Chamila bracelet: It can be hard to find Disney jewellery that works for an adult, and they can build up more charms over time. You could either theme it around one character they like, or get them a selection. This one can be expensive, since you would need to buy a good few beads as well to make it viable, so perhaps best as the one big, special gift.

Once you have one, wrap it up in Disney paper and leave it under the tree for them! And if all else fails, I guess none of us would say no to an all expenses paid trip to the parks! All joking aside, you know your friends best. If they have a collection of tsum tsums, you could always buy them a few more, or start their collection off if they have a soft spot for stuffed toys.

Monday, 28 November 2016

Reviews of London: A Review of the Peter Grant Series

The Peter Grant series follows a policeman called Peter Grant who is a constable in the London Metropolitan Police. However, he also happens to be a junior wizard, in apprentice to a wizard much older than he is. He joins a department of the London Met dedicated to investigating anything that could be considered supernatural. The result is a blend of crime and urban fantasy that plays like a mystery genre novel. I'd compare it to Neverwhere in as far as both are fantasy stories set in London, except that the similarities end there. Well, apart from the fact that they are both really good.

There are six novels in the series so far (Rivers of London, Moon over Soho, Whispers Underground, Broken Homes, Foxglove Summer and The Hanging Tree) as well as a few companion graphic novels. Rivers of London is known as Midnight Riot in the USA.

Getting to read about London is a very high point for me. Ben Aaronovitch knows the city inside out and has done a lot of research, and I love to find out more about one of my favourite cities. As someone who has a cursory knowledge of London, I like it when I can picture the action taking place in a location I’ve been to. Aaronovitch also did his research into the inner working of the Met, to such an extent that many real-life coppers have expressed surprise that he isn’t a copper himself.

The series celebrates the diversity of London amazingly well. To do anything less would be an injustice to London itself, as one of the most diverse cities in the world. Our protagonist himself is mixed-race, in one of the books we meet a police officer called Sahra Guleed who describes herself as a “Somali Muslim ninja” and Peter often gets help from people who live on his old estate, many who have non-British ancestry. But nowhere is this more beautifully shown then in the two Gods of the Thames. One is a Nigerian Goddess who moved to London in the 60’s and one is known as “The Old Man of the Thames” who was in charge back when London was Londinium, Roman settlement. It really is the meeting of both sorts of London, the old, historic London and the modern cosmopolitan city.

The series uses shout-outs liberally, but they aren’t as obnoxious as they could be, much of which is due to how wide-ranging the references can be. Part of the joy is in recognising a shout-out when it’s made. They run the gamut from the predictably common references to a series as popular as Harry Potter (given the premise of the series, it’s had to avoid) to obscure in-jokes about more popular works (the sort where you would have to know the work well to get the joke) to altogether obscure works. Since Peter is an avowed geek, the references come from every aspect of geek culture, too.

These books always keep you on your toes with twists and turns around every corner. You will be wondering who’s the next person to hide secret magic powers, what supernatural creature Peter will run into next, and where the next fae enclave is.

I do have to talk about one aspect of these books I don’t like – scenes of a sexual nature. I’m not a big fan of sex scenes in any book, and how they are written in this series makes me feel uncomfortable. I tend to gloss over these pages as fast as I can.

I recommend this series to anyone with a love of fantasy, especially urban, anyone who loves a good detective mystery, and anyone who likes stories set around London.

Thursday, 24 November 2016

Top Five Disney Movies!

In honour of Moana’s release (sometime this week, or yesterday depending on where you live) I have compiled my list of top five favourite Disney movies!
  1.  Lady and the Tramp: this was actually the first film I ever saw in the cinema, on a rerelease, and I do like it because of that level of nostalgia. I also hold this film responsible for my childhood love of both dogs and spaghetti and meatballs. I also like how surprisingly dark it is for a Disney movie, too. Try and imagine this film with humans. That’s a plot that Disney would not go for, and also would not be acceptable in the time period this film was released in. Since the main characters are all dogs, though, people don’t tend to realise that. On the other hand, so many scenes in this movie are utterly charming and sweet that I can’t help but get happy when I watch it.
  2. Mulan: I can also remember seeing this at the cinema, when it first came out! I really liked it even then, but I may not have fully understood its nuances. It’s another one with a surprisingly dark plot, with whole villages being massacred and the main character killing almost the entire enemy army on her own. I like movies that could fall into more than one genre, and this one qualifies – comedy, action, romance, drama. I also find Mulan’s desire to find somewhere she fits in quite relatable. “To prove I could do something right” as she puts it, and I think everyone can relate to that in some way. Mulan is also a fantastic heroine. I don’t believe she was the only – or even the first – Disney heroine to be the hero of her own story, but she was a hero in her own right.
  3. Sleeping Beauty: Fantastic animation, and one of my favourite villains in all of Disney. Some beautiful song. I’m struggling to come up with another reason for it to be on this list, but honestly, do I need a reason other than those three?
  4. Cinderella: I like Cinderella as a protagonist. She is a lot stronger than people give her credit for, and surprisingly sarcastic. You know how people talk about “The first Princess with personality?” Well, I believe that started with Cinderella here. She didn’t just wait around for the Prince to save her, she tried to work so she could get to the ball in time. She wanted to go to the ball to enjoy herself, and I don’t even think meeting the Prince crossed her mind. She never gave up hope, and kept dreaming. She kept her good-natured optimism the whole time while stuck in an abusive house, and that takes some serious strength.
  5. Frozen: I know, I’m putting the most popular Disney movie of recent memory on this list, sue me. It has three of my favourite songs in Disney. I love the movies focus on female friendships. Olaf may be the best Disney sidekick ever, or at least my favourite, and doesn’t annoy me like some do. Hans as a villain feels like he crawled out of Game of Thrones. And the snow and ice animation is awesome, particularly the scene where Elsa builds her ice castle.

    Honourable mentions: Aladdin, The Little Mermaid and Hercules. So, what are your top five favourite Disney movies?

Monday, 21 November 2016

The Review Chronicles: A Review of The Lunar Chronicles

The Lunar Chronicles is a series of fairy-tale retellings with a sci-fi theme. There are four main books – Cinder, Scarlet, Cress and Winter – and two companion novels, Fairest and Stars Above. I love anything to do with fairy tales and the quickest way to get me to read something is to tell me there is a princess in it. I also like sci-fi, so this series is a blend of my two favourite things.

Cinder works well to set the theme, by going with one of the most well-known fairy-tales. The sci-fi aspects and world around her is intricately crafted. It feels like the world was made first, then the characters placed inside it. Most everyone will find themselves working out the big twist before Cinder does, but that works too, as the reader starts to wonder when she'll find out and what she'll do when she does. It’s a lot darker than idealistic fairy-tale settings, but the overall message of the series is one of hope, of the actions of the few benefiting the many, of love and friendship conquering all. Okay, not that last one so much, but the girls’ quest would have been much harder if they didn’t have each other and their respective love interests.

I feel Scarlet suffers because a reader picking it up just after finishing Cinder may be more interested in Cinder’s story of being a fugitive on the run, rather than Scarlet’s attempts to rescue her Grandmother, until towards to end where both stories come together. I found myself more excited to read Cinder’s parts of the story in Scarlet. Cress and Winter avoid this pitfall by tying into the larger overall story earlier in their respective books. The fact that both had cameos in earlier books helps the reader feel more intrigue towards them, too. This isn't to say that Scarlet is a bad book, as when the stories come together, they do it well.

Cress is perhaps my personal favourite of the four. The overarching story is starting to build up, and we’re properly introduced to Cress. This one hits the ground running, with Cress starting in her satellite where she hacks into the databases of governments on Earth. She quickly gets embroiled in the story of the other girls

When you start reading Winter, set yourself aside a good few afternoons to read it. It’s long. However, never once did I feel like it was too long or overly bloated. Everything in it served to contribute to the overall story, and to develop the characters and build up the world around it.

As a set of fairy-tale retellings, there is obviously some romance there, too. There are four different pairings over the course of the books, and each one is well-written and believable. I found myself routing for each one of them. The lack of love triangles is to the series absolute benefit.

I love how each of the four girls are different from each other. They all have different talents and personalities. Cinder is a mechanic, who deals with her situations with a good helping of snark. She is also a teenage girl in way over her head, in a situation she never asked for, dealing with things she should never have had to. Scarlet is a farm girl with a business head on her shoulders and is awesome with a shotgun. Cress has many anxieties and doubts in herself, but she’s also a programmer and hacker unparalleled by most governments. Winter is the nicest girl you could ever meet, and her sweet nature helps them get many people on their side.

I highly recommend this series to anyone who likes fairy-tales, anyone who likes romances, and anyone who likes sci-fi. While the premise might put some people off, the sci-fi elements are really well done and blended into the story. Really, though, it’s a great series that I’d be happy to recommend to anyone who likes good stories.

Saturday, 19 November 2016

Fantastic Movies and Where to Find Them: A Review of Fantastic Beasts

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a spin-off from a movie series called Harry Potter. I assume I don't need to tell you much about the story of those films. Fantastic Beasts is a little more unusual, in that it's not directly based on a book. The book with the same name is actually a published version of the textbook that Scamander writes mostly before the events of this movie. It was nice for me to see a Harry Potter movie where I wasn't bothered by inaccuracies at every turn. I also don't believe you'd need to have much experience with the Harry Potter series to enjoy this movie.

There is a fantastic movie here, buried under layers of exposition about the magical community in America. As someone who likes to know everything I possibly can about fantasy worlds, I didn't mind that so much. There's still plenty of action and comedy though, for those who prefer that. It also touches on more serious elements of the universe.

The film combines the visual style of the Harry Potter movies, the wonder of New York City, some beautiful special effects and the aesthetics of the 1920's to make a movie that is a real visual treat. Some scenes are just awesome, like the inside of Scamander's bag, which reminded me of the first time we stepped foot in Diagon Alley. Others have a darker feel more reminiscent of the later movies. But the film always managed to remain it's own thing, connected to yet distinct from the wider Harry Potter canon.

The movie uses it's characters to great effect. Newt being a newcomer to America and a Muggle (sorry, No-Maj) protagonist helps us to learn along with the protagonist in the same way as Harry Potter. Eddie Redmayne pulls of a delightful role as the protagonist, and the American cast play well together, but the stand-out role here has to go to Ezra Miller.

The movie also doesn't bog itself down with references to the first Harry Potter series, either. They are present, but infrequent. This helps the movie stand as its own thing and not just a part of the Harry Potter franchise. I can point to a few sequels and spin-offs within the last few years that did throwback every little thing to the original movies every time it possibly could. While it works in some cases, but not in others, it was for this one's benefit that it didn't tie it into Harry's journey too much.

The twist (Graves is Grindelwald, which is sort of obvious when he gives a necklace with the sign of the Deathly Hallows necklace to a young boy) might be easy to see coming for anyone with a small background knowledge in Harry Potter, but getting to piece the threads together early is part of the fun. I will say that it suffers from "prequel syndrome" where we know how events of this movie play out because of facts we can extrapolate from the original. But the suspense then comes from finding out how they will prevent the events from happening!

All in all, I give this movie 4/5, and a final word of "watch it in theatres" because I'm doubtful if the visual effects will look quite as good on a smaller screen.

Wednesday, 16 November 2016

Harry Potter and the Ranking of the Books and Movies

In honour of Fantastic Beasts coming out later this week, I thought I would rank the Harry Potter books and movies in order of which ones I most enjoy. This is my own opinion on which books/movies I liked best, not a definitive ranking on which one is better. There will be spoilers, as it is hard for me to write a review on this series without spoiling parts of them. I am one of those people who would watch an 18 hour movie with every scene in the books left in, and am very picky with the movies. Also, this turned out long, so enjoy!

Saturday, 12 November 2016

Victoria Sandwich Recipe

Here is my instructions for making a Victoria Sandwich. It's one recipe I believe everyone should learn, as it is simple yet versatile. You can make it for charity bake sales or visits from friends. This has the effect of making bake sales in England have about five of these for sale. But in America, you can brag about your traditional British cake! Also, you can leave out the jam and use flavoured icing, and it's easy enough to turn the basic recipe into a chocolate one, too. The recipe is under the cut!

Sunday, 6 November 2016

On Being Half-Irish but not Really

“I’m half-Irish” I tell people who ask.
“Half-English, half-Irish,” I say with a smile on my face.

Sometimes, I wonder about my connection to Ireland. It’s tenuous at best. My Grandfather was Irish, but my Grandmother was Welsh, and even though they settled down in Ireland (Northern Ireland at that), they travelled all over the world while my father was growing up. He was born in Germany on a British Overseas military base, and lived most of his life in Singapore. As a result, he has no Irish accent. I myself was born in Bristol and have lived in England my whole life.

I don’t have the stereotypical ginger hair, although some of my family members do. I have brown hair and brown eyes, which I’ve heard come from my Grandmother. I look so much like my father that it gets commented on a lot. I’ve been mistaken for European before, which confuses me. My skin burns easily, but with a slight tan I look Mediterranean? I’m not sure, since I wouldn’t say so myself.

At least my last name is so obviously Irish that it is instantly recognisable when mentioned. “Oh, you must be Irish!” a lot of people say. I smile, and bring out the reply “Half-Irish.” I’ve been to Northern Ireland once to visit relatives, but that’s it. I do know an aunt of mine, my father’s sister, was in Omagh during the bombing. She’s actually got the Irish accent that most of my family lack. She’s also about the only family member still living in Northern Ireland.

I guess what I’m asking here is, does anyone else have a part of their heritage they feel somewhat distant from?

Tuesday, 1 November 2016

Places I Want to Revisit

This is sort of a second post to my post on Sunday. It's all places I've been to before, that I would like to go back to at some point in my life.

  1. DisneyWorld – when I went to DisneyWorld, I was seven. I’d like to go back now to experience it in a different way, and be able to do my own thing. With my parents, we stayed offsite and rarely ate in a Disney restaurant. I'd like to go and plan out a full Disney experience, and combine it with a visit to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter.
  2. Paris – I’ve been to Paris twice now. Once when I was 12 on a school trip, and once very recently. As it turns out, there’s still a lot in Paris I haven’t done yet (for example, the Palace of Versailles and Notre Dame) and a lot of what I’ve done before I want to do again. Plus, so many of the streets are incredibly beautiful even just to walk down. And I know a lot of people rave about French cuisine, but it is the originator of some of my favourite food (moules mariniere, macarons and quite a few other patisserie dishes)
  3. New York City – another one I did when I was very much younger, and with my parents. I just like to have the opportunity to re-experience things on your own (I am very much an advocate of travelling on your own).  This is a city that changes almost as fast as it moves, and the city would probably be unrecognisable to me now as the one I went to when I was younger. It really is a place where you can eat in almost every country in the world without leaving the city, and I'd love to go for the food alone.
  4. London – is it weird to list your own capital on a list like this? Still, London is my favourite city in the world. Just passing through it tends to put a spring in my step. There’s so much to do that every time I go, I get to do something new. I love watching a West End musical and rather like strolling down the South Bank.
  5. India - The reason this is a whole country is that I visited a few different parts of India on my last trip (New Delhi, Agra, Jaipur and Manali) but only visited most of these places briefly. Also, it was on a school trip, which didn't give me as much freedom to look around by myself as I like. I'd like to visit the places I'd been to before and 

        Do you have any places you would like to revisit? 

Sunday, 30 October 2016

Places I Want to Visit

   Here is my kind of cliche post of places I really want to visit at some point in my life.
  1. Tokyo – Let’s face it, who doesn’t want to go to Tokyo? I’ve wanted to go since I was in my early teens. Harajuku and Shibuya for the shopping. Fantastic restaurants (I want to eat at Jiro’s sushi restaurant) and adorable cafes. Going up Tokyo Tower. Tokyo DisneyLand and DisneySea. Viewing the cherry blossoms (why I’d like to go in April.
  2. Rome – I’ve wanted to go to Rome for so long, and it’s so close that it’s a shame I haven’t gone yet. Imagine me, eating pizza and gelato every day and strolling in front of the coliseum. Well, that might be a romantic view, but you know, why not. Also to toss a coin in the Trevi fountain and make a wish. Just walking around the old city would fascinate me.
  3. New Orleans – I can’t put my finger on exactly what fascinates me about this city. Maybe it’s Mardi Gras. Maybe it’s the food such as gumbo and beignets. Maybe it’s the French quarter. Maybe it’s because of its birthplace of jazz history. Maybe it’s the romanticised view of it in media. Whatever the reason, I’m sure it would be a trip I wouldn’t ever forget. 
  4. Berlin – I’ve enjoyed trips to Germany ever since I started learning the language in school. However, I’ve never managed to see the capital. I’d like to see the historical sites such as the remains of the Berlin Wall and the Checkpoint Charlie museum.
  5. Rio de Janeiro – I’m going to add an addendum that this is a maybe not at the moment. But it’s another one that has been on my list for a while. I’d love to visit during Carnivale! There’s quite a lot of South America I’d like to do, actually. Macho Picchu, Buenos Aires. One day, hopefully.

So, there’s that (Honourable mentions to Vienna and Dubrovnik)! When (well, if) I go to these places, I’m sure I’d discover things I’ve not heard about before. That’s one thing I like about traveling, that most people only discover things about a country once they visit. I will say that if someone gave me a ticket, there’s almost nowhere in the world I’d say no to visiting, but these are a few that have been on my list for ever. What’s on your list?

Saturday, 29 October 2016

'Get to know me' questions

I've taken these questions from a list of 25 I found online and eliminated a few I felt didn't apply.

What is your middle name?
Jane! I use it for this blog though, so it shouldn’t be a surprise.

What is your favourite colour?
Red, but specifically a metallic, chrome red.

Who was your first best friend?
The first person I could call a best friend is still my best friend now! We met when I was seven and moved in next door to her!

How tall are you?                                         
5’2. It’s a weird height, because it’s short, but not short enough to be noticeable.

Cats or Dogs?
Dogs. It’s not that I hate cats, I still like them, but I had a dog as a pet growing up so I have a soft spot for them. Plus, dogs are always affectionate and happy to see you. Cats could take you or leave you.

Funniest moment throughout School?
The one that sticks out is when my best friend (mentioned above) was reading out a story from a magazine. “Hey, listen to what this man said to his girlfriend! ‘your bum is so smooth, it’s like polished wood,” at which time another friend nudged her to tell her that a teacher had come walking in behind her.

How many countries have you visited?
The Netherlands, France, Germany, Spain, Hungary, Greece, Turkey, UAE, India, Thailand, Canada, USA, Antigua and Barbuda.

What was your favourite/worst subject in Secondary (High) School?
Favourite was Science. Does that seem unusual? I was good at it until I wasn't, and at that point I had spent so much of my life being good at Science that I didn't know what else to do. I'd never learnt how to be good at anything else.
Worst subject was PE, easily. Spend 15 minutes getting changed in front of people who I'm sure are judging me on my underwear, finally get outside and stand around in the freezing cold and normally rain while the teacher instructs us on some rule of whatever sport we're attempting to learn, 15 minutes of my uncoordinated flailing about while the same judgey girls make fun of how useless I am, then quickly get changed before you're late to your next class. Oh, how I hated it.

What is your favourite drink?
Alcohol-wise, I’m not a massive drinker, but I will have a cocktail with a meal sometimes. I like my cocktails on the sweeter side.

What is your favourite animal?
I like a lot of canines! Dogs are so friendly, I think foxes are really beautiful with their red coats and wolves are

What is your favourite perfume?
I’ve used quite a few but I haven’t narrowed down a particular favourite yet!

Tea or Coffee?
Honestly, I like both, but very specifically? I like coffees iced and sweetened. Not necessarily frappe-like, but I like those too. And tea, I like most herbal/fruity/green teas but not a big fan of the ordinary English breakfast tea blend.

What would you (or have you) name your children?
I go back and forth on this a lot, especially considered I’m not remotely ready to have kids yet. Currently, I like Coraline, as in the Neil Gaiman book, but we’ll see.

What is your favourite book?
I can’t possibly pick just one, but I’m going to have to put Harry Potter top, just because of the memories it gives me when reading it.

What is your favourite movie?
Pretty much any movie from Disney! (Is that too much for one favourite movie?)

Do you speak any different languages and how well?
Very minor French and German, from school.

Do you have any siblings?
Nope, only child!

How would you describe your fashion sense?
Cute but quirky? My everyday outfit tends to consist of jeans and a hoodie, but I love getting dressed up for special occasions.

What is your favourite restaurant?
The New York Café in Budapest! Just walking in feels magical.

What are some of your favourite tv shows?
Game of Thrones, Once Upon a Time, Great British Bake Off, Orange is the New Black.
Hmm, I don’t tend to be a big TV watcher! I want to be, but I’ll start watching something and really like it, but never get back into it.

Tell us one of your bad habits!
I tend to rub the skin around my nails when I’m nervous. I don’t like it and it makes them look really tatty.

So there we go! Do you like my answers? Any you really disagree with?

Thursday, 27 October 2016

Not Being Into Music

“So, what music do you listen to?”

I can’t be the only one who anticipates this question with some form of dread. I’ve taken to answering it with “oh, just what’s on the radio, really” which normally gets me some form of “oh, okay,” reply. I know, it sounds like I only listen to music that’s popular enough to be on the radio. But I really only listen to music when it’s on the radio in the car. It’s not something I go out of my way to do, normally.

The truth is that I’m just not that into music. This reply tends to lead to responses ranging from incredulous disbelief to outright shock. Someone once replied with “but what do you do when you’re alone in the evenings?” At the time, I just spluttered out a “Huh? Oh, well, stuff I guess,” sort of answer. The real answer should have been “watch movies, watch TV, read books, play video games,” which are all things that engage me more than music, which tends to annoy me if it’s on for longer than about a minute. Music kind of becomes the background radiation of my life, being on in every shop and as soundtracks to every film, but never as something I pay much attention to.

I guess I’ve never really seen the point of listening to music when you’re alone. What do you do, just sit there and listen to it? And sure, occasionally I’ll hear a track I like, but I never go out of my way to listen to it when I’m home. I’d much rather do any of the activities I listed above. Public transport, I’m much happier with a book or even just the ability to have some quiet time looking out the window. You can do it when people are over, I guess, but there’s still so much else I’d rather do with someone else. Like, you could watch a movie together, have a nice catch-up chat, you could bake something, (Wow, I’m turning into my mother) or you can go outside somewhere. And for large groups? You can go to a concert or clubbing, sure, but I’d much rather sit down and enjoy a nice meal together where you can actually talk.

All this would be fine if music wasn’t treated with such importance by the majority of the population. We live in a society where not liking music marks me as different, weird. Everyone else places such a high importance on it, that it forms a basis of many a social interaction. I spent much of my life thinking I could ‘develop’ a taste in music over time. I thought it would be something that would happen as I got older. I bought an iPod and an iTunes card once (biggest waste of money I spent in my life) and thought that would do it. I used it about twice and it had something like the exact same twenty songs on it for its whole life. I went clubbing, I went to concerts, and my opinion on both of them is about the same – too loud and too many people. Maybe I just don’t have the music gene.

It also tends to take me a long time to recognise tunes. I can hear a song I’ve heard thousands of times as a background track to a video game and I can’t work out where it’s from. Sometimes, I won’t recognise songs until the chorus hits. Connecting songs to the band that sings them is an impossible puzzle. My cousin (she’s ten) has taken to asking me “do you like this song, Fiona?” within the first four beats of a song. My reaction is usually “Meh, it’s okay.” “Do you like this one?” “I don’t even know which one it is, yet.”

Does anyone else feel this way about music? Am I making this out to be too much of a special snowflake style trait? Do you have something that the public in general treats as highly important but doesn’t really click for you?

Wednesday, 26 October 2016

Eating Idiosyncracies

“Eat your greens or you won’t get dessert”
“But I don’t like these!” or “but I’m full up!”
“Fine, no dessert for you.”

I’m sure the above conversation is familiar in some form or other to many of us. On me, all it did was make me dig my heels in and not try anything, ever. I’ve got better at that and will now eat most veg if it appears in my food. I tried a larger variety of foods out of necessity when I was a vegetarian for two years. I actually think most people should try to eat vegetarian for a short while, just to encourage them to try different foods. A big one I only tried because I was vegetarian which I still eat now is tofu. I wouldn’t even have known how much I liked it if I hadn’t been vegetarian for a time. I am glad that I grew out of my picky eater phase, and as a "foodie" can now enjoy a larger variety of meals. Instead of making your child eat everything on the plate, encouraging them to try a bite of everything and allowing them to leave what they don’t want is far more beneficial. Remind them that taste-buds change as they get older, so they might try it again in future.

The other thing I had a lot of in my house was “you’re not eating fast enough, why are you eating so slowly? We’re all waiting on you!” Consequently, I now tend to shovel food in my mouth as if it will disappear if I don’t. If I eat fast, I don’t notice food I dislike as much. If I eat fast, I finish it before I get full. It’s easy to see where that trait comes from. I eat food before I can even taste it, sometimes. As someone who enjoys food, I find it a shame that I can’t slow down and take meals easy.

There is one thing that still turns my stomach, however. I can’t deal with onion in my food. Since onions seem to be in everything, this can be quite the challenge. I’m okay when they are too small to be noticeable. I don’t mind if they’re big enough to avoid. But medium-sized onions are my nemeses. I am trying. I keep trying small slices of onion occasionally, but they still make me almost be literally sick.

Do you have one vegetable you won’t eat? Have you picked up any unusual eating habits over time?

Tuesday, 25 October 2016

Why I Dislike Autumn

I know, hating autumn, right? Well, I don't hate it, it has some good points, but it's a rather strong dislike. What kind of person must I be to dislike a season like that? I'm going to be honest, it's not my favourite. (which is actually spring)