Book Review: Alex's Adventures in Numberland

I'm going to admit this right off: I am not a maths person. I only managed to scrape an A* at GCSE by covering my room in flashcards of formulas and obsessively writing down equations, and even now I suspect it was a total fluke. So when my boyfriend, who is very into maths and science, offered to lend me his copy of Alex's Adventures in Numberland when I was waiting for an Amazon order to come and needed a book to read, I was a bit sceptical about it at first but thought I'd give it a try. And I'm very glad I did.

The book is basically written as something of a history of mathematics, although it actually turns out to be a history of much more than that - there's a lot of anthropology and linguistics in there too, which made it instantly more appealing to me as I really enjoy that kind of thing and I think it helped me ease into the book a little better, as well as adding to the feeling that mathematics truly is the international language - the chapter on zero, for example, focuses heavily on the development of mathematics in India, whilst the chapter on counting goes from the Amazon to Japan via medieval Lincolnshire. Alex is also a very patient teacher, guiding you through the processes for how certain calculations are worked out and turning what (for me) was complete gibberish into something clear and simple that I could actually understand despite not feeling like I have a particularly mathematical brain.

However, I must say that my favourite parts of the book are the interviews with various mathematicians and those involved in the mathematical world. The chapter on pi is particularly good for this, with the competitiveness of the various mathematicians involved to calculate the number to as many digits as possible really coming through as well as their love for the subject and dedication. Plus, as someone who's much more of a natural creative, I really like the ways in which they demonstrate mathematical elements in simplified ways, like the professor who's expressing a very complicated equation through a crocheted pattern based on the formula. That marriage of creativity and practical application is a thread running through the book and really ties it all together nicely in taking mathematics out of this abstract state and into real life.

It is a bit of a struggle to get going, but once you can begin to get your head around it it's actually a fairly engrossing read. A great re-introduction to a subject a lot of us will have dropped once we left school and proof that, as the risk of sounding cheesy, maths can actually be fun. Highly recommended.

Film Review: Strictly Ballroom

As anyone who knows me will know, I am a huge fan of Strictly Come Dancing. I've been watching it since the start (minus the year Darren Gough won which I missed most of due to not having a TV in uni halls and this being before BBC iPlayer existed) and just love it - the costumes, the music, the chemistry between the celebs and pros, and even the judges' spats, although I do wish Alesha would learn to speak properly. So with the new series starting in just a few days, I figured what better time to do a blog on its namesake, Strictly Ballroom.

Shot in a mock documentary style, the film tells the story of Scott Hastings (Paul Mercurio), a rebellious Aussie ballroom dancing star who causes chaos when he chooses to dance his own crowd-pleasing steps rather than those prescribed by the strict Australian Dance Federation, much to the upset of his mum Shirley and partner Liz. The only person who believes in Scott is shy beginner Fran, and they secretly begin practising together to dance Scott's steps at the Pan-Pacific Championships.

More a film to raise a wry smile than belly laughs, the film's star turn is the late Pat Thompson as Scott's Avon lady mum who's so wrapped up in her children's dance success that she loses sight of what will truly make them happy in a cloud of over the top cosmetics, frosted hair and fake tan. Even though I'm not normally a fan of kids in films, Lauren Hewett and Steve Grace make a great pairing in the roles of Kylie, Scott's little sister who turns out to be surprisingly insightful, and her partner Luke. It's also got a wonderful sequence in which Scott and Fran dance the rumba to Doris Day's 'Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps', completely lost in their own world as the others look on, made even more stark by the contrast between the simplicity of Scott and Fran's look in comparison to the neon make-up and gravity-defying hairstyles of the other characters. In fact the film's ballroom sequences are a visual riot of lurid colours and sequins, balanced with the more toned down palette of Fran's family life and her dance training with Scott.

Yes the plot's a bit simplistic - at its heart it's a Romeo and Juliet-esque tale of following your heart and standing up for what you believe in - and there's never a sense that many of the characters are particularly likeable, but there's something about the film as a whole that's ultimately uplifting and will have you rooting for Scott and Fran to win. Almost 20 years since it was made, it's still the best thing director Baz Luhrmann's ever done and highly recommended if you need a film to get lost in for a couple of hours.

Film Review: Dazed and Confused

As you may have guessed from my previous movie blogs, I have a very specific taste in movies: I like comedy (ideally witty and possibly with the occasional dash of romance), I like retro stuff, and I tend to like quirkier, more offbeat films. So it stands to reason that Richard Linklater's Dazed and Confused, made all the way back in 1993, is a film that I absolutely love and come back to time and time again.

If you haven't seen it, it's set in a high school in the Dallas suburbs on the last day of school in 1976, and follows various groups of teenagers as the school year finishes and they mark the beginning of summer through the incoming senior class hazing the freshmen in various ways, followed by a party out in the woods. The 'film about nothing' idea is something that's very common to a lot of Linklater's other films, but for this I think it works really well as the focus falls on the ensemble cast. Ostensibly the main character is Randall 'Pink' Floyd (played by Jason London), the star quarterback who spends large parts of the film wrestling with his conscience to sign a pledge that none of the football players will take drugs, but the sheer array of different age and social groups means that ultimately you end up investing in all the characters and their stories, however they pan out. That's the other great thing about this film; it's very much a 'before they were famous' moment for a lot of those in it, such as Parker Posey, Mila Jovovich, Adam Goldberg and even Ben Affleck as the slightly sadistic O'Bannion. Star turns however have to go to Rory Cochrane as Slater the stoner and Matthew McConaughey as the creepy, sleazy Wooderson, who left high school many years ago but still hangs out with the local teenagers.

The film does have a very offbeat sense of humour and tends to be done in lots of little vignettes, with snippets of different characters' stories interacting with Pink's life and occasionally detouring from him, but in a way that brilliantly captures what teenage life is like in terms of the fleeting moments where you cross paths with other people in your age group. Plus in terms of the overall look of the film it's incredibly well done - girls having their friends help zip them into super-tight jeans with a pair of pliers, boys with collar length hair and oversized shirts whose psychedelic patterns make your eyes hurt - and the 70s soundtrack of Peter Frampton, Alice Cooper, ZZ Top, Lynyrd Skynyrd and KISS just adds the most fantastic atmosphere. The film also has what may possibly be one of the best endings in cinema - Pink, Wooderson, Slater and Pink's girlfriend, still slightly high from the night before, driving down the freeway to get Aerosmith tickets as Foghat's Slow Ride plays in the background. It just perfectly conveys the whole feeling of the film: that this is about the choices we make and the transitions that come naturally in life, but that you should make sure you have a lot of fun while you're here. As Wooderson says, "You just gotta keep livin' man, L-I-V-I-N".

Ultimately, it's a film that perfectly captures the culture of a period in the recent past with an array of brilliant characters. If you like your films to have more action then this might not be for you, but as a Sunday afternoon film it's a great snapshot of teenagerdom and shows that despite the different times and fashions, some things don't change.

Beauty Review: Models Own Nail Polish in Gold Rush

Continuing my love affair with nail bling, this week's manicure is Models Own Gold Rush - which, as the name suggests, is a glittering gold shade. I'd been in two minds about this one because I didn't know if it was too much as it looks really glittery in the bottle, but in my eternal optimism I thought I'd give it a go.

One of the good things about Models Own, as well as the vast array of colours and the reasonable price, is that the polishes apply really well and last for ages. This is with three coats, but even with two the coverage was almost perfect (I personally like three coats just to ensure minimal streaking). As you can see it looks a lot less glittery on the nail than it does in the bottle and is more of a general gold shimmer:


I could quite happily wear this polish on its own without any nail art over the top on a day where I felt like having a bit of sparkle in my life, but of course I always get the urge to do something else to a manciure instead of just leaving it be. So once again I brought out my trusty Barry M black crackle polish, applied a thickish coat, and this is the result:


As always, base coat is Nails Inc Hyde Park and top coat is Seche Vite.

There is something a bit ghetto fabulous about this one, but I must confess I do rather like that as it's so different from the sort of thing I'd normally go for. It's quite out there so probably not for the faint of heart or if you've got a job where your bosses are very strict about this sort of thing (although I'm lucky enough to have a relatively casual office so could just about get away with it!). I think it'd make for a fab look at a Christmas party with a fairly simple outfit like a little black dress, so you can let your nails do the talking.

You can buy Models Own nail varnish from their website or in some larger Boots stores, and it'll set you back around £5 per bottle, although they do have three for £12 and five for £13 deals on the website.


Film Review: The Inbetweeners Movie

I have to admit it's been some time since I saw a film at the cinema. Back when I lived in Lancashire, the cinemas were fairly difficult to get to, and since moving to London I just haven't had the time. However, there are lots of films coming out soon that I want to see, and one of those was The Inbetweeners Movie. For those who don't know of it, it's based on a TV series about four geeky awkward teenage boys - intellectual Will, lovelorn Simon, dopey Neil and foul-mouthed Jay - and follows their adventures on a last lads' holiday in Malia before they go their separate ways after sixth form. Hilarity, cringing and a lot of nudity ensue.

I make no bones about the fact that I am a huge fan of The Inbetweeners TV show and had high hopes for this film. Yes it's something of a 70s British sitcom cliche to take your characters on holiday, but this is what teenagers do in 2011 and so it feels like the right place for them to go, as well as all the daft things that go with it such as fishbowl cocktails and dodgy hoteliers. Having never been on one of 'those' holidays when I was 18, I must admit it gave me mixed emotions in terms of wishing I had and then really wishing I hadn't. Sadly I suspect I would have been very much like Will - not handling my drink very well, overanalysing everything and (in large part) failing miserably to pull - but the fact they manage to make it look fun even when it's eye-coveringly terrible is a tribute to the writers and director.

This is balanced by excellent performances from the four main actors who have matured incredibly well from when we first saw them; the endless mickey-taking is still there, but they're also able to portray a true level of support and an almost poignant sense of loss at the end of an era. Although you don't get much more insight into why they are how they are (other than Will's dad being equally as harsh as Jay's, in an entirely different way - watch it to understand why), you're also left with the sense that these are friendships which will last. However, the standout turn has to be Blake Harrison as Neil, both for managing to give his character some surprising depths and displaying some brilliantly funny dance moves which will surely become a craze in a club near you within weeks. The writers have also managed to provide strong parts for the main female leads, particularly Jane, the sparky girl who might be what Gok Wan would describe as 'curvy' but holds her own and more with Jay, and Will's love interest witty and charming Alison.

There are a few jokes in it which feel like they've been rehashed from the TV series, and the slightly sweet ending feels a bit unnatural after three series of watching everything end badly for the Rudge Park boys, but overall if you're a fan of the show you will absolutely love it and it's easily the most I've laughed at any film in a very long time. Highly recommended.