Book Review: War Horse

I've mentioned this before on these blogs, but I have a bit of a thing about reading the book of something before I see the film, and as we're in prime adaptation season I'm having to do a lot of reading! This is the first in a double-header of reviews of books which are hitting the big screen, and I've chosen Michael Morpurgo's War Horse, mainly due to its relative slimness as I was waiting for my Kindle to be delivered when I bought it (more on that later).

If you don't know the plot of War Horse, then presumably you've been living under a rock for the last few months, but to recap: it follows the story of Joey, a horse bought by a farmer who gradually develops a strong friendship with the farmer's son Alfred, before the First World War and family money problems mean the pair are separated and Joey is shipped off to fight in France, with Albert pledging to come and find him as soon as he's old enough. What follows is an epic tale of human nature and how war draws everyone into its grasp.

I really liked the originality of using Joey's voice to show the war from both sides, as well as those who weren't involved directly in the conflict. It seems like a really obvious way of going against the typically over-simplified war narrative of 'British good, Germans bad' but it's incredibly effective, and really gives a sense of both the fear and cameraderie of battle. However, it does have a slightly episodic feeling and a sense of 'it was like this, and then this happened', which made it feel a bit simplistic, although I suppose that's the way that a horse would think in terms of distinguishing the passage of time.

The book is peppered with beautiful snapshots of the relationships Joey develops with specific people as well as brutal moments where they are snatched away, often in the full-on battle scenes but equally in the slow, painful way that life so often takes people. There are also two heart-rending if predictable scenes near the end, where if you don't at least get sniffly then you have a heart of stone. Overall, whilst it's not exactly the most dense of novels and you do need to get into the right mindset to truly appreciate it, it is heart-warming and uplifting and great as a quick read. I can't wait to see if the film matches up.

Beauty Review: Missguided Nail Splash in Misstaken

I love bright colours, especially on my nails, and particularly in the winter - when it's cold and dark and wet outside, a bright colour on my nails makes me feel like summer isn't too far away. Back in the days when I was still buying magazines - as mentioned in my New Year's resoultions post a few weeks back, I'm currently trying to give them up - I got this beautiful fluorescent orange shade free with one of them over the summer, but just hadn't got round to trying it until now.
I have to say that I haven't tried any Missguided products before, but I was really impressed with this one. It's easy to apply as it's got quite a wide brush, and the coverage is great - I would have felt happy to use just one coat but as always I used three to keep the comparisons the same.

However I think my favourite thing about this polish is its durability. It took around five days to start showing even tiny chips, which in my book is really impressive because I know my nails get quite a battering from typing and taking notes all day at work, so I'd definitely invest in more Missguided shades based on how well they'll last and the fact that they tend to be lovely and bright. They're also very reasonably priced at £5 a bottle - I think you can only get them through the Missguided website but they do also sometimes give them away free with women's magazines, so keep an eye out for them!

Overall this is a lovely vibrant polish which makes me feel more positive every time I look at it. I think I can definitely get through the winter with nails this bright! It'd also make a fabulous polish for toenails in the summer.

Lates @ Science Museum

As I've mentioned in previous blogs, I take advantage of London's cultural opportunities far less often than I'd like, and particularly its museums; so often I'll be standing on a train platform and see an ad for this or that exhibition and think 'that looks really cool, I must go to that'. However, one of my goals for this year is to go to more exhibitions and museums, and I've started as I mean to go on with last night's trip to the Science Museum Late.

For those who don't know, Lates are after-hours, adults-only events held by museums and other attractions, normally about once a month and often with special talks and activities going on. Last night's event had a space exploration theme, so it included stargazing sessions, talks on the end of the universe, a silent disco, postcard workshops, live experiments to take part in (there is now a 3D photo of my face somewhere in Great Ormond Street Hospital's research), science-based comedy, a pub quiz and even getting to drive the Mars Rover and operate robots.

The highlight however was the Launchpad, which is basically a huge area full of interactive machines and experiments that you can have a go on - technically it's for kids but as the whole point of Lates is that there are no children it basically ended up being a bunch of adults having enormous fun messing about with levers and pulleys and building bridges and experimenting with heat and light and energy and all the rest of it. That's a really ineloquent sentence but I genuinely don't think it's possible to sum up how much fun it actually is. They also run the talks normally given to school groups; we went to one about rockets, complete with loud bangs and explosions and all the rest of it, and I was ridiculed by the presenter for my weedy attempt to push someone along in a demonstration of Newton's Second Law (and subsequently squealing like a girl when it was my turn to be pushed). But it was an absolutely brilliant evening and I'll definitely be going again next time if I can.

Science Museum Lates take place on the last Wednesday of every month - the next one is on the 29th February - and are free to get in, although there may be a charge for some of the activities.

Beauty Review: Essie Lollipop

There are some nail colours you just need to have in your collection. Sometimes it's because you fall in love with them on the spot, sometimes it's because it's the 'it' shade of the season, and sometimes it's because it's an absolute classic. A great red definitely falls into the latter category, and whilst I have a fair few - more on them another time - today I thought I'd show you Essie's Lollipop, which is described as a 'candy-cane' red.

This is the first Essie polish I've tried, and I acquired it by virtue of a happy accident - I ordered a different shade (Lilacism) from an eBay site in the US, but was sent this one instead. I was very tempted to send it back but it looked so pretty in the bottle I decided to keep it.

That's not a chip on my index finger by the way, just a reflection of the trees outside the bedroom window! As usual, base is Nails Inc Hyde Park and top coat is Seche Vite.

I really can't fault the formula of this polish - it's quite thin but the coverage is still brilliant, even with just one coat (as always, I used three for comparative purposes). I love the colour as well - it is super-bright but it's also got a lovely classic feel to it without being too brash. Sometimes a brighter red can look a bit too tarty but this is just a nice, bright, funky shade. I think it'd look great with a monochrome outfit to add a splash of colour or perhaps with a little black dress.

Essie polishes can be bought in the likes of John Lewis or at BeautyBay.com for about a bottle, but I got this one from an eBay shop called beautyzone2007 - they're based in the States so admittedly the shipping costs aren't cheap, but they're great for brands like OPI, Essie and China Glaze, especially discontinued colours.

Film Review: Adventureland

Do you ever get to that stage where you seem to have been saying you'll watch a film forever and then never get round to watching it, and then it randomly shows up on TV? That's happened to me a couple of times recently with two movies, both of which I'll be blogging about this week. First up is Adventureland, a coming-of-age comedy set in a Pittsburgh theme park in the 1980s. It stars Jesse Eisenberg as James, a college graduate whose parents tell him they won't be able to afford to help pay for his trip to Europe before he goes to grad school, and who ends up getting a summer job at the Adventureland of the title, where he sets out on a summer of love and self-discovery.

I am a sucker for a good 80s-themed movie - an awful lot of my favourite films are either made or set in that time period - and so I had high hopes for Adventureland. I can safely say I wasn't disappointed. Admittedly it's more a film to raise a smile and a giggle than outright laughter, but the setting is captured perfectly in the music and the characters' looks which gives it a great, authentic feel.

I was also particularly impressed with the performances, especially Jesse Eisenberg in the lead role and Kristen Stewart as the love interest. Granted I haven't seen The Social Network yet, and admittedly since making that Eisenberg seems to have gone back to these types of low-budget comedies, but Eisenberg is perfectly cast as the sweet, geeky, nerdy, socially awkward James. And it's quite nice to see Kristen Stewart playing a character with a bit of personality - it's a shame she's been typecast by the Twilight films as from what else I've seen of her she's a much better actress than those films allow her to be. The supporting cast is also really strong and adds great depth to the film, particularly Martin Starr as James' deadpanning fellow games worker Joel, Bill Hader as Bobby the games manager, who is brilliantly ridiculous, and Ryan Reynolds playing completely against type as Connell, the womanising, guitar-playing maintenance guy.

Overall, this is a charming if lightweight comedy which is perfect if you need something to chill out watching on a lazy Sunday afternoon, and I'll definitely be watching it again if I can.

Bar Review: Barrio Central

I freely admit that I don't often tend to have 'proper' nights out - maybe one every couple of months or so at most - and that when I do we generally don't go into Soho, preferring to stay around Covent Garden and Charing Cross Road. However, when I went out last weekend we decided to wander deeper into Soho and head to a bar called Barrio Central on Poland Street.

I have to say it was a real little gem - it's tucked away but as it's quite tiny it can fill up quickly, although we noticed there seemed to be a rush about eight, then it went quiet for a couple of hours and then got busy again. There's a main bar area upstairs, which I think is also a restaurant during the day, and then a club area downstairs, although we spent most of the evening in the bar as they played the same music but you could still have something resembling a conversation. The mix of music was really good as well, with everything from current chart to 80s and 90s hits and decent old-school hip-hop.

The bar menu is mainly cocktails, most of which are exclusives to the bar and come in around £7 or £8 each depending what you have, although they also have a three for £20 deal on cocktails specific to certain regions of the world. My personal favourite was the Ramos Gin Fizz (gin, cream, lemon and orange flower water), which was absolutely yummy and very drinkable. The only quibble I have is that it was quite expensive outside of happy hour, when there's a smaller classic cocktail menu for £4 a pop, but they do have that every day until 8 o'clock which is quite surprising to see for central London on a Saturday night, so I suppose I can overlook that.

I'm definitely going to be coming back to Soho, as sadly we didn't stay out as long as we might have liked to, and when I do Barrio Central will be my first stop for its choice of drinks, friendly staff and good music. Highly recommended.

Book Review: The Night Circus

I freely admit that I get reading recommendations from anywhere and everywhere - book blogs, friends' bookshelves, Amazon emails, train station posters, magazine reviews and cover blurbs. The Night Circus definitely came under the latter two categories, as just before Christmas every magazine seemed to be raving about it and the two main reviews on the cover were from Audrey Niffenegger (author of one of my favourite books) and Tea Obreht (whose novel, The Tiger's Wife, I am absolutely desperate to read). So I put it on my Christmas list and Father Christmas was kind enough to bring it for me.

For those who've been living under a rock for the past couple of months, The Night Circus is the story of two magicians, Celia and Marco, who are put into a competition against each other when they are children. The venue for the competition is the mysterious black and white circus of the title, which travels across the world throughout the late nineteenth century. There appear to be no definite rules and the winner will only emerge when one or other can no longer endure. As time progresses, the pair gradually fall in love, risking the survival of the circus and its company.

I have to say that the book does initially seem frustrating as it took what seemed like forever to get going and to pull all the different threads of the narrative together due to its jumping about in the chronology, with the consequence that it then feels like the last third of the book is rushed in order to get everything in. That said, when the book does finally get to Marco and Celia's relationship it is utterly gorgeous and I got completely drawn into it. In a way it feels a lot like the relationship between Henry and Clare in The Time Traveler's Wife, in that they are kept separate for a lot of the book and express their love through creating tents in the circus for each other, and particularly in the similarity of the ending (although I'm trying not to give too much away).

Other than Marco and Celia, there doesn't seem to be an enormous amount of depth to the characters; granted there are some who can be glossed over because they don't have a huge part in the narrative, but there are others who I would loved to have known more about, such as Tsukiko the contortionist who ends up playing a key part in the narrative. That said, Morgenstern more than makes up for that in the beautifully realised setting - every little detail of the circus is perfect, right down to the stripes on the confectionery bags - and you feel completely immersed in the world, almost to the extent that you don't mind the lack of depth to the characters. Normally that is a massive bugbear for me but looking back now it marries better with the shadowy nature of the circus.

Overall, a slow burner of a book with an ending that made me get a little teary, and one that has stayed with me even though it's been a few days since I finished it. I'd hesitate to say I loved it, but I think that's partly due to the amount of hype it's had which never really seems to bode well for me - if everyone is raving about a book it always seems to make my expectations of it a bit too high. I will definitely go back to it in a few months though as I think there is more to be uncovered it in on a second reading.

Beauty Review: Rimmel Lasting Finish in Lemon Drop and 17 Lasting Finish Nail Polish in Sherbet Lemon

As we move towards the spring, my hankering for nail colours always turns to sunnier shades, and a really good shade of lemon yellow is something I've been looking for for a while. I spotted two at similar price points - Rimmel Lasting Finish polish in Lemon Drop and 17 Lasting Fix polish in Sherbet Lemon - and couldn't tell the two shades apart in the bottle, so I thought I'd do an alternating manicure to see which one I preferred.

To start off with the Rimmel, unfortunately it's quite sheer and does streak which meant I ended up going over each nail twice on the first layer to get decent coverage. The 17 shade was better in terms of coverage but still a bit streaky, although considering that happened with both polishes I'm not sure if that's a formula thing or if it's more to do with how pale the colours are, as I've noticed similar things with pale polishes in the past. The other concern I have is that both of them, but particularly the Rimmel shade, chipped quite easily - I took this photo about a day after I originally painted them, with top coat, and already you can see there are a couple of tiny chips on my middle and ring fingers.


Base coat is Nails Inc Hyde Park and top coat is Seche Vite, same as always.

When they're on though, I can't tell the difference between the colours (little and middle fingers are 17, index and ring fingers are Rimmel), which seems to be in keeping with the theme of this blog post. These two seem to be the twins of yellow polishes - similar formula and near-identical shade - but at this point it all feels like much of a muchness, because I've got to say that neither of them really made me excited to wear them. They're just a little bit too bland for my liking and I think I'd prefer something brighter.

I think this might have to be the first time on one of these blogs where I admit defeat and that I just can't get on with these polishes. The Rimmel in particular I was very disappointed in as I've come to expect a certain level of quality from them and that just wasn't there this time. If I had to choose one though then I'd go with the 17 shade, purely because it had a marginally better formula and lasted slightly longer, but part of me also thinks that maybe with another coat of polish I might have felt a little less 'meh' about them.

Both polishes cost £2.99 a bottle, which is a reasonable amount to pay for a nail polish in my view, but I think my expectations of these two brands were just too high this time. Oh well, onwards and upwards to find that perfect yellow...

Beauty Review: 17 Fast Finish Nail Polish in Fury

Ah, 17. I think this range was probably some of the first make-up I ever bought back when I was a teenager - and even now it's a brand I come back to more often than I'd like to admit, as it's well priced and has a good range of fashionable colours as well as more classic shades if you're in need of a cheap beauty fix. I've sung the praises of the 80s neon Poncho Pink before, but today I'm wheeling out something a bit more on-trend - Fury, a metallic shade from their Fast Fix line (17 has three different nail polish collections which regularly rotate their range of colours).

First thoughts are that it definitely lives up to its claim of being a one coat polish - the coverage was absolutely perfect after the first application, although I did do three coats for consistency with my other nail blogs. It also dries really quickly which is great if you're a bit pushed for time but still want to do your nails before you go out. The shade can be a little bit deceptive though as it almost has a duochrome feel to it - in the bottle it looks quite golden but when it's on it looks like more of a bronze.

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

This probably seems too good to be true - it dries quickly, it doesn't streak, the coverage is fantastic and the range of shades are great. However, there is a fairly major catch: it's not exactly the most durable. I put this on last night and within 24 hours two of my nails had chipped majorly. That said, for £2.99 a botttle I suppose you can't complain.

I'd recommend this if you're hankering for a new nail polish but don't want to spend too much and aren't time-rich enough to do a full manicure, but it's definitely a formula for a quick fix before a night out or a special occasion.

Newton's Last Alchemist @ the Wellcome Collection

One of the best things about living in London - and one which I'm ashamed to say I make use of far too little - is the sheer variety of things to do. So, in a bid to make better use of the available opportunities for fun and unusual activities, a friend and I headed off to the Wellcome Collection last night for a talk by Dr Richard Barnett on the early history of gin, complete with a Renaissance philosophers' drinking game. :)

I have to say it was absolutely brilliant - the 45 minutes simply flew by as Richard hopped through history, from the early alchemists of the Middle East in the seventh and eighth centuries all the way to Isaac Newton, via the Dutch East India Company. Most of the time referrals to gin in history only ever look at the gin crazes of the 1800s and vilify it as 'mother's ruin', so it was really interesting to learn the history of the spirit and how it went from being more like a sticky medicine to something closer to what we have now, although even at the end of the period - and in Holland today - it was still very much at the stage of being something that was drunk neat as a sweet liqueur rather than the slightly sour, citrussy spirit mixed into cocktails. I've never really been a sciency person but hearing about the chemistry of gin and how it evolved was absolutely fascinating.

What amazed me was the sheer scope of the talk; it wasn't just around the science elements but also took in literature, military history, economics and the rise of an empire. Richard himself is also a fantastic speaker and struck the perfect balance between a serious lecture and some more light-hearted moments, which made the event even more enjoyable and completely immersive. The only slight quibble I had about the evening was that I wished it could have gone on for longer, although (shameless plug alert!) Richard has written a book on the history of gin which I may have to purchase to find out what happened next. And of course, there will be a blog when I have finished reading it...

The evening also featured a delicious gin and tonic from the guys at The Travelling Gin Co., made with Sipsmith gin, Fentimans tonic and lime - yum yum yum. The guys who ran it were also really friendly and I've signed up to their mailing list to see where they'll be next. I loved the concept and think it would be absolutely great for a summer garden party for a special occasion or - although my boyfriend would no doubt freak out if he knew I'd said this - a wedding.

Overall, it was a fantasic way to spend an evening, and I'll definitely be keeping an eye on the Wellcome's website to see what other talks they do - the others in this series which were mentioned before the talk sounded fascinating, so it's a place I hope I'll be coming back to a lot over the coming months.

Beauty Review: Topshop Nails in One Hot Minute

I must admit I'm not normally a big fan of the clothes in Topshop - it always seems a bit too trendy and cool for the likes of me - but I do adore their nail polishes. The Oxford Street store has a whole little section tucked away near the entrance for its make-up, including walls of nail polishes, and I can never resist popping in there to have a look at the latest shades. I spotted One Hot Minute a few weeks ago and completely fell in love with the name and the colour (Topshop polishes always seem to have brilliant names!).

As always with Topshop nail polishes, the application was really good - even in one coat it goes on really well and two coats was plenty to give perfect coverage, although I did three coats for fair comparison across my other polishes which I've blogged about. I do think this affected the colour of the polish though as it says 'magenta', which I would expect to be more of a bright purply-pink, but when it's on it's actually more like a reddish hot pink. Not that I'm complaining of course, it's a fantastic colour in and outside the bottle!

However, the day after I did this manicure I went to the zoo as my lovely boyfriend bought me a 'meet the penguins' session as a birthday gift, and the penguins kept pecking my fingers, which apparently is because they love bright colours and shiny things. However, amazingly despite the sharpness of the penguins' beaks, the polish stayed on and there were no chips! I may have just given Topshop and Seche a new advertising slogan: 'Our polish is penguin-proof!' :)

Overall, this is a great polish: well priced, lasts a long time, applies well with good coverage and bright enough for a night out whilst still smart enough for the office. If you fancy picking up some up it costs £5 a bottle and is available in larger Topshop stores or via the website.

Book Review: The Return of Captain John Emmett

I have to admit that I didn't do as well with the amount of reading I did last year as I'd like, mainly because it got swallowed up with fairly arduous books that I took a while to plough through. However, this year I'm aiming to read a book every ten days, preferably more, so I'm starting off with my first book review of this year - Elizabeth Speller's 'The Return of Captain John Emmett'.

Set in the early 1920s, the novel follows Laurence Bartram, a former captain in the British army during the First World War, who receives a letter from the sister of his old school friend, John Emmett. John has been admitted to a hospital for shell-shocked veterans but committed suicide just when he seemed to be turning a corner, and his sister has asked for Laurence's help to find out why. What follows is the unravelling of a mystery that stretches back years and causes Laurence to question everything he knows.

First of all, I have to say that Speller's research really shines through but never overshadows the narrative; both the trenches and 1920s London are both beautifully realised. The gorgeously drawn setting sucks you in and you become completely immersed in the environments. The transitions between the two worlds are also beautifully realised; where some war novels drop you back into the present with a jolt, this is much smoother and consequently enhances the feeling of getting inside the characters' memories. By contrast to the settings, the characters always remain tantalisingly distant, even as more is revealed about them. Normally a character I can't connect with really frustrates me, but for a novel like this where no-one ever seems to really know the full story, even right up until the end, I think it works incredibly well. And for once, the twist at the end is one you don't see coming.

Ultimately, if you like a good historical mystery then this is the book for you, although I will warn you it's not for the squeamish. The blurb on the front says 'The new Birdsong - only better', and whilst I haven't read Birdsong, I can safely say that this is a fantastically slow-burning book which will completely draw you in. Highly recommended for a long winter's night.

New Year's resolutions

Another year over, a new one just begun... So, after my brief foray into John Lennon's contribution to festive tunes, the time has come to make New Year's resolutions. I have to admit I'm

Learn to drive. This is my big one. I've been saying I'm going to do it for years and years and years - I did have lessons when I was a teenager but I was far too nervous for my own good (a shouty instructor didn't help) and I just didn't have the confidence to keep going - but now I think I finally feel ready. That, and I have a bet with my boyfriend that I'll pass my driving test before he does, and I really hate losing. :P Ideally I would love to get to the stage where I could drive up to visit my family by Christmas.

Stop wasting money. For me, this mainly means not buying magazines - I do buy a fair few of them and having worked out the amount of money I spend on them I definitely need to give them up. I've decided I'll subscribe to one magazine (I've settled on Company because it seems to have the best mix of decent articles and affordable clothes) and get Stylist at the train station because that doesn't cost anything, but that is it now! I'm also cancelling my Graze boxes as they just cost me far too much money. The savings will go towards my Kindle fund which hopefully I should have enough for by the time I go on holiday in the spring, and then into my main savings account.

Exercise every day. I was really good about doing my Zumba over the summer and then massively fell off the wagon after my boyfriend's sister's wedding, so I'm determined to get back into it to tone up for my holiday - the boyfriend has hinted that he'd like to go somewhere hot so I need to look my best! I actually kind of miss the workouts, they were fun and made me feel a lot better about myself and I feel a bit sad to have lost the confidence I got from it, so I'm looking forward to being back on that particular wagon.

Sort out my finances. This is kind of tied in with the 'stop wasting money' resolution, but hopefully both of these will help me in my ultimate goal which is to start saving for the future. I've also had a little bit of a pay rise due to the new regulations about temporary workers which came into effect last month so will be putting that extra money in my savings account. The other thing I'm going to do is match any winnings from surveys etc by putting the same amount of cash into the savings account. Ideally I'd like to have savings of around £15,000 by the end of the year.

Sort out my style. Again linked to not wasting money, ie by not wasting money on clothes that I don't like or that don't suit me, because they constantly end up languishing in the back of my wardrobe for ages and I just never wear them. So this will mainly consist of promptly trying on and returning stuff I've ordered from the Internet and not keeping anything I don't love when I try it on as opposed to just on the hanger. I also want to get myself out of a rut of constantly buying the same things all the time and stop dressing like a teenage boy.

Cook more. I used to cook a lot when I was at university, and I like to think I was pretty good at it - I loved finding new recipes to try and making yummy food - but since I moved back home and then down to London I just haven't done it as much as I know I should, for various reasons. So one of my goals this year is to try at least one new recipe every week.

Write more regularly. I touched a little on this in my Priscilla blog, but I definitely need to get back into the habit of writing regularly, both on my blog and in terms of working on my novel. So the plan is to set aside an hour a day to blog or write, depending on the day, which hopefully will mean that by the end of the year I've written a good chunk of the novel and have blogged a few times a week.

I also have one particularly big plan which I don't want to say too much about just yet - mainly because I haven't the foggiest how I would go about getting it off the ground and I want to see how much of a market there might be for it first - but I think that's a pretty good set of goals to be getting on with for the year. Now, let's see how well I do at meeting them...