Charles Dickens Challenge: Nicholas Nickleby

I'm on to book three of the Charles Dickens Challenge, and this time it's Nicholas Nickleby. The book tells the story of the eponymous Nicholas, who is blackmailed into finding work by his money-grasping uncle Ralph after the death of his father. Initially sent to work at a Yorkshire boarding school run by the avaricious and cruel Squeers family, Nicholas's hot temper gets the better of him one day and, accompanied by the school's drudge Smike, he returns to London, determined to make his fortune as an independent man.

From the off this is a much lighter tale than Dickens' previous novel, Oliver Twist. It's much closer to The Pickwick Papers in terms of its episodic style as Nicholas jumps from job to job in the hope of earning enough to support his mother and sister Kate. There were further echoes of TPP in the relationship between Nicholas and Smike, a drudge at the school who escapes and accompanies Nicholas on his return to London. Smike's unwavering devotion to Nicholas put me very much in mind of Sam in The Pickwick Papers and his relationship with Mr Pickwick. There are also many more comedic characters in Nicholas Nickleby than there are in Oliver Twist - even the Squeers family, who are amongst some of literature's most odious creations, are particularly ridiculous in terms of their relationships with each other, from the lovey-dovey romance between Mr and Mrs Squeers to their daughter Fanny's over-the-top flirting and fainting when she convinces herself she and Nicholas are in love.

That said, there is overlap with Oliver Twist as well, specifically in the Dotheboys Hall sequences which have very strong echoes of the earlier book's workhouse scenes. I'm also struck by the similarities between the depiction of Dotheboys Hall, the school Nicholas teaches at in the early part of the novel, and of Lowood, the Yorkshire boarding school Jane Eyre attends. I can't find anything to say that Charlotte Bronte took any influence from Dickens (Nicholas Nickleby was published eight years before Jane Eyre) but it's certainly possible she may have read his work and the thought may have lingered in the back of her mind.

In terms of influences on Dickens' later work, Ralph Nickleby seems to be something of a model for Ebeneezer Scrooge - both of them care more about hanging onto every last penny than helping people in need, even their own family. What is different, however, is their nephews' reactions; where Fred Scrooge keeps trying to build bridges with his uncle, Nicholas is bettered by his hot temper and swears to have no dealings with Ralph after his ill treatment of his mother and sister. Dickens also develops his ability to write a tragic death well. I won't spoil it but there's a particularly famous death scene in his next book, The Old Curiosity Shop, and you can definitely see the trial run he took at doing that in Nicholas Nickleby.

Nicholas Nickleby also has the most brilliant cast of supporting characters, from Sir Mulberry Hawk's henchmen Mr Pluck and Mr Pyke, who are to Mr and Madame Mantalini, owners of the milliners where Nicholas' sister Kate works early in the novel. Mr Mantalini in particular was a favourite of mine for his various pet names for his wife - 'my essential juice of pineapple' is one of the many highlights.

Overall, I enjoyed Nicholas Nickleby a lot more than Oliver Twist, because there seemed to be a lot more light and shade in the characters - although Nicholas in particular will have points when he gets on your nerves - and a slightly more humorous tone overall. There's also good development from The Pickwick Papers; it retains the episodic structure but equally feels much more like a coherent plot than the previous novel, and has a similar ending with everyone paired up but also feels less shoehorned in as the romantic relationships are introduced earlier on. I'd definitely say this is my favourite from the challenge so far.

Have you ever set yourself a challenge to read an author's complete works or a full book series - and if so, what was it?

Pixar Pyjama Party at the Prince Charles Cinema

Even though I've lived in London for almost three years, there are still lots of places that I don't yet know about. Up until about a month ago, that included the Prince Charles Cinema just off Leicester Square, which specialises in obscure films, retrospectives and movie marathons, including this weekend's Pixar Pyjama Party. Basically it's exactly what it says on the tin - you spend the night in the cinema watching Pixar films back-to-back. I found out about the event via Becky from Becky Bedbug, who is one of my favourite bloggers (and I can confirm she is just as awesome in real life as she is on her blog), and so on Saturday night the two of us met up for eleven hours of animated brilliance.

As we had a bit of time to spare before the film we headed off to Five Guys to get burgers before the film started. I'll do a proper review soon but I can safely say that it was easily the best burger I've had in London so far - even if I was beaten by my bacon cheeseburger with all the toppings and small chips. My favourite thing there is definitely the drinks machine though; over 100 different flavours of Coke, Sprite, Fanta and pretty much any other kind of fizzy drink your heart desires. For the record, I'd say mix your own Cherry Vanilla Coke with two-thirds cherry (or cherry vanilla - yes, it exists) and one-third vanilla to get the best combo,

After our burger feast we headed back round the corner to the cinema. Annoyingly we had to wait for the best part of 45 minutes once we got in as apparently the people who'd been in the screen before us had been quite messy, but we still managed to get really good seats. It was actually surprisingly emptier than I'd thought it would be - we had about half a row to ourselves which turned into a whole row about halfway through when the other people on our row left.

I think I must have developed a secret skill of being able to sleep well in a chair after overnight buses in South America, as I made it through Toy Story, A Bug's Life and Monsters, Inc., then dozed through Finding Nemo and The Incredibles before watching WALL-E and Up. Considering that normally on nights out I'm falling asleep by midnight this is something of an achievement! I also loved that the audience really got into it - we were all singing along to 'You've Got a Friend in Me', quoting the films (for the survivors' photo at the end we shouted 'Squirrel!' in homage to Doug from Up) and laughing, crying and 'awww'ing at all the right moments. I even wore my monster feet slippers so I could do 'scary feet' in Monsters, Inc. Yes, I am that much of a Pixar nerd.

It was a brilliant night and I'll definitely be coming back to The Prince Charles, and probably getting membership too (£10 for a year or £50 for life, which sounds like a really good deal to me). They're doing a Back to the Future marathon on 19th April which I am seriously considering going to as it's possibly my favourite film series - if anyone would be up for coming along to that please let me know and I'll try and organise something.

Also I'd like to say a huge thank you to Becky for organising the meetup, and for the lovely present she very kindly got me: 

The Bunny Bubble Bar smells amazing - I don't normally tend to go for sweet scents but this is so utterly gorgeous I'm almost reluctant to 'waste' it on a bath! So at the moment it's scenting my sock drawer instead :) And I love the little notebook, I am a sucker for cute stationery and this will be perfect for blog and video planning. So thank you Becky!

Do you have a favourite Pixar film?

The Bookworm Tag

Those of you who are regular readers will know I am a bit obsessed with books. For as long as I can remember, I've always been a keen reader, and I love being able to disappear into another world or find out something new in amongst the pages. So when I spotted the Bookworm Tag on the lovely Gemma's blog Lipsticks and Lashes, I thought it was absolutely perfect for me, especially as I haven't done a tagged post for a while. So without further ado, here are my answers!

Our bookshelves
Do you remember how you developed a love for reading?
I was always into books right from when I was little - I remember not being allowed to open books first at birthdays or Christmas because I'd just sit there and read them, and my mum had to hide books I was taking on holiday or I'd read them all.
Where do you usually read?
I do a lot of my reading on the bus to work - often with the train I'm so wedged in that it's difficult to position myself to read my Kindle, whereas on the bus I can usually get a seat and spend the journey happily reading. I also like to read in bed, either before I go to sleep at night or at weekends when I first wake up.
Do you prefer to read one book at a time or several at once?
One book at a time - I think if I tried to do more than one at once I'd get it all mixed up in my head.
What is your favourite genre?
I like a bit of everything, but if I had to pick a favourite it would be modern or historical fiction. I also tend to like things with a bit of a supernatural twist.
Is there a genre you will not read?
There isn't anything I absolutely won't read, but I haven't read many crime novels. Though I am writing a murder mystery at the moment so I probably should, just to get a feel for the style etc, but I'm a bit worried that it will somehow change what's in my head...
Do you have a favourite book?
It's got to be The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger, which I reviewed for the #2014BloggerChallenge here. I love the combination of the relationship between Clare and Henry and the slight fantasy element. Apparently there is a sequel coming soon too which I'm very excited about!
What is your least favourite book?
The only two books I've really struggled with are Doctor Zhivago and The Silmarillion. But I am stubborn and will keep coming back to a book even if I don't like it because I can't leave it unfinished! I wasn't keen on Oliver Twist either as it's so relentingly bleak.
What is the longest book you have ever read?
If we're counting all three volumes as one book, then The Lord of the Rings by a country mile. That said, I'm currently doing a Charles Dickens Challenge and he has some books that are well over 800 pages long, so it'll probably be more than that by the end of the year!
What was the last book you bought?
As in actually paid for money for? Oliver Twist - the grand total of 49p on Amazon.
Do you prefer library books or buying books?
I think there's something lovely in the history of library books - looking at the stamps in the front and thinking about all the other people who've read the book before me. But equally I love getting a new book and the joy of opening it for the first time, so I'd probably have to say it's a bit
What are you currently reading?
I'm very close to the end of Nicholas Nickleby and once I've finished that will be starting on Falling Leaves by Adeline Yen Mah.
Where do you buy your books?
Mostly on Amazon to be honest, as these days I tend to do lots of reading on Kindle. But I find it a bit of a soulless shopping experience and
Do you ever pre-order books?
Not that often to be honest, although I have pre-ordered Dreams of Gods and Monsters, the last one in Laini Taylor's Daughter of Smoke and Bone trilogy which is coming out in April. I loved the first two and am ridiculously excited for Dreams, but also really sad that I'm going to be leaving these characters behind!
How many books do you buy a month?
It varies wildly - sometimes it can be up to six, if I'm going on holiday for example, and at other times I can buy none if I get lots of free classic novels on my Kindle or (as happened recently) a friend offloads a heap of their books onto me. But on average it's about two or three.
How do you feel about second hand charity shop books?
I kind of think of them as the book equivalent of Primark and H&M; you have to sift through the rubbish (in this case multiple copies of The Da Vinci Code and Fifty Shades of Grey) to find the gems, but when you find something good it's worth all the effort.
Do you keep your read and to-be-read books together?
No - my read books live on my bookshelf but my non-read paperbacks tend to live in a pile on the windowsill in our room. For the Kindle, I tend to only buy new books when I've finished the old one, but they are kept together if I've bought lots of new books in one go.
Do you plan to read all the books you own?
Of course! I can't imagine buying books I wouldn't actually read - does anyone seriously do that?
What do you do with books you own that you know won't be re-read?
It depends where I got them from - the Kindle books stay on there (though will get shifted to The Cloud when I eventually run out of space), books I was bought as presents get kept, and books I bought myself go to the charity shop or on PlayTrade.
Have you ever donated books?
All the time - I regularly give unwanted paperback books to the charity shop or to friends.
Have you ever been on a book buying ban?
Not intentionally. I'm not buying books at the moment (well beyond my Charles Dickens Challenge books, but they rarely cost much more than a few pennies) but that's because I got a big load of books when my best friend moved out of her flat and asked if I wanted any. I don't think I could ever go long enough to have a book buying ban - it just feels wrong to go anywhere without a book with me.
Do you think you own too many books?
Honestly, yes. My bookshelves are crammed and I still have loads of books left at my parents' house, but I can't bring myself to get rid of them for various reasons...
Let me know if you do this tag, I'd love to see your answers!

Wedding Planning: Dress Shopping

The wonderful Fur Coat No Knickers (image source)
So last week was a bit of a wedding blitz for me - I saw our caterers and the florist on Monday, sent a flurry of emails to cake makers in the week and then on Saturday went shopping for my dress! I have to admit that dress shopping was one of the parts of the wedding planning process I'd been most nervous about. Whilst I like a whirl round the shops to browse as much as the next person, I find shopping for an outfit for a specific occasion really stressful and have on occasion ended up in floods of tears in a changing room. So the idea of traipsing round shops looking for the perfect dress for one day made me feel really nervous - what if I didn't find anything I liked? Or worse, what if I found dresses that looked lovely on the hanger but turned into sacks of potatoes on me?

Thankfully, I'm pleased to say it wasn't like that at all - if anything quite the opposite! So I thought I'd do this post as a mini guide to wedding dress shopping with my tips for finding something you love.

Get ideas of what you like
Like a lot of brides, I have a wedding scrapbook with all the photos I've torn out of magazines and put together to create an idea of what I want the wedding to look like, and of course it included a dress page. Whilst I picked out a lot of different lengths and patterns, the one thing that was consistent was the shape of the dresses. I seemed to be drawn to the styles with a fitted top half and flared skirt, so I booked appointments at two shops that specialised in those types of dresses - Candy Anthony and Fur Coat No Knickers - in the hope I'd find something I'd like.

Go with an open mind
I'm not the tallest girl in the world, so I was a bit worried that I'd be swamped by a long dress or a big skirt. However, I was persuaded to try a dress with a four-layer petticoat in one shop, and actually it was fine - I didn't feel restricted or weighed down by it, and I liked the shape it gave to the dress. Similarly, in another shop I tried on a full-length dress, which rather than swallowing me ended up being very flattering. So you never know what might look awesome on you until you try it!

Don't be afraid to be picky
I've always had a bit of a 'don't make a fuss' attitude in life and am often a bit reluctant to say if I'm not keen on something, but I suddenly discovered a ruthless streak when it came to my wedding dress. After all, this is probably going to be the most photographed dress you ever wear and so it's important that you feel happy and comfortable in it. If there are things you don't like so much about a dress, tell the staff - and of course mention the things you do like about the dress as well - so they can help you find one that you absolutely love.

Take someone you trust
I went dress shopping with my mum and my best friend C, who is also my chief bridesmaid, because I trusted them both to give honest opinions about whether something suited me and also to suggest things I might not have thought of myself. I have to say they were a great help and I tried on some really gorgeous dresses that I probably wouldn't have looked at twice if they weren't there, so I'd definitely recommend taking at least one person with you when you go shopping to be a helpful sounding board. But equally, don't feel railroaded into picking a dress you're not 100% sure about because your mum/sister/friend loves it. You're the one who's wearing it so it has to be something you're completely happy with.

Down your drinks!
It's fairly common practice for wedding dress shops to offer you a drink when you get there - some places it might be tea or coffee, others it'll be champagne or Bucks Fizz. However, as the bride I spent the entire time getting in and out of dresses, having sleeves pinned etc and so ended up not finishing my drinks because I was so worried about spilling on the samples! So, as a slightly flippant last point, I'd say drinking quickly is a very good idea...

I must also give a special mention to the staff at Candy Anthony and Fur Coat No Knickers who were absolutely lovely and couldn't do enough for us. If you're shopping for your wedding dress, fancy something a bit different and can get down to London then I recommend them highly.

So did I find 'The One'? Well, the short answer is that I found lots I loved, and I have it down to three favourites (which I may share on Instagram if people would like a sneak peek as it's pretty much the only place N might not see them! You can follow me there at cherrysodablog). I am ridiculously indecisive though so have given myself until the end of the month to make a decision - watch this space!

What would be your top tips for brides-to-be looking for their wedding dress?

#2014BloggerChallenge: Healthy Sugar-Free Snacks

As those of you who read my monthly goals posts will know, one of my goals for March was to cut down on processed sugar in my diet. It's going pretty well so far - I haven't had sugar in my coffee all month, and have been good at resisting the sweet snacks too. But quite often I'll still be struck by a mid-afternoon hunger pang, and although I've been good and resisted the cakes and chocolate (and giving up sugar has made me realise how much of it is around in my office!) I'll still want something to stave off my rumbling stomach. So this is what I've been snacking on when I can't wait until dinner but chocolate biscuits are off the menu.

Image source

Graze boxes
Graze boxes, for those who haven't heard of them, are basically cardboard boxes containing four individually portioned snacks, which could range from crackers and dip to a mini pudding with sauce. You can get healthier boxes where they won't send you the sweet treats, but I've been either palming the chocolate off onto my colleagues or simply locking them away in the depths of my work box. I haven't missed the chocolate or cakey ones yet though as the other snacks are so good. In the last couple of weeks, for example, I've had nori seaweed crackers, black pepper cashews, toasted pistachios and an awesome snack they do called 'Cheddar Gorge' which is cheese cashews, baked herb bites and salsa corn sticks. I am looking forward to getting the chocolatey ones back soon but for the moment these are enough of a treat to stop me reaching for the office biscuit tin.

Just as a sidenote, if you'd like to try a Graze box you can get your first (and 5th and 10th, if you stick around that long) box free if you use my code - just click here and your snacks will be sent to you before you know it! Full disclaimer: if you use the link, I get a pound off my next box.

Veggie sticks/mini breadsticks and hummus
This is a really good way to get more vegetables in your diet. I've always preferred veg to fruit anyway but find that having it readily available as a snack is helping a lot in terms of remembering to eat more of it. I bought a big bag of carrot sticks from Tesco and normally take a handful of those and a handful of something else - usually cucumber or pepper sticks which I prep myself - in a plastic bag, and then decant some hummus into a little plastic tub to take it to work. It takes a couple of minutes to prepare the night before and it means that when I do want a snack at work I can just grab this from the fridge.

Natural or Greek yoghurt is best for this; look for ones with no added sugar. If I'm at home and I want a quick easy dessert I'll make myself a bowl of Greek yoghurt and mix in a handful of berries, which stops me craving sweet things and is also another good way to boost my vitamins if I haven't had many vegetables that day. I'm still holding out for supermarkets to do little pots of natural yoghurt similar to the six packs of fruit yoghurt you can buy though!

I did say I wasn't big on fruit, but since axing processed sugar I've been adding it to my diet more, such as having bananas with breakfast, adding raisins to my cereal or eating handfuls of berries either in the afternoon or after tea. I always go off it a bit in the winter but as we've had some good weather recently I've been more inclined to eat things like strawberries and blueberries. Plus as it's still got that bit of sweetness about it it's making me miss the processed sugar a little less.

Whilst I will admit there have been times when I've really wanted a biscuit, I'm actually pretty proud of myself for resisting temptation so far and replacing it with stuff that is (hopefully) a lot better for me. It's certainly something I'll stick with on some level because of the benefits I'm noticing from it. I feel less tired, have more energy and am sleeping better, and my skin has improved a little as well. So I'm hoping that six weeks of trying to kick the sugar habit will encourage me to finally get into the good eating habits I've been promising myself all year...

What are your favourite healthy snacks?

Charles Dickens Challenge: Oliver Twist

Image source
Oliver Twist is arguably the most famous of Charles Dickens' novels, and the only one I had much knowledge of before I started the Charles Dickens Challenge (though admittedly said knowledge mainly came from a Ladybird book version I had as a kid and I'd Do Anything, Andrew Lloyd Webber's TV series that aimed to 'find a Nancy' - pun, I suspect, intentional - to star in a new West End version of the musical). As most of you will know, the eponymous Oliver is orphaned at birth and sent to the workhouse, where he is starved and abused by the beadle Mr Bumble, before escaping to London and falling in with Fagin and his gang of pickpockets.

I've mentioned before that one of the most interesting things I've found in doing this challenge is seeing the overarching themes that I associate with Dickens emerge, particularly that strong sense of injustice at the divisions between the haves and have-nots in Victorian society. There are bits of that in The Pickwick Papers, but Oliver Twist takes those elements and turns them up to 11. The workhouse scenes and the atmosphere of Fagin and Bill Sikes' dens in London are relentlessly grim, and even in the likes of Mr Brownlow's house the sense of foreboding never quite goes away until the ending. It also has a surprisingly dark ending; I know the version I read when I was younger would have been edited but there are quite a few scenes which could be described as bleak and fairly graphic in the last couple of chapters of the book.

The characters also seem a little one-dimensional and very much split into 'goodies' and 'baddies', with the exception of Nancy, who finds her loyalties divided between her love for Bill Sikes and her wish to keep Oliver out of the gang life. Whilst the setting leaps off the page, the characters don't seem to have the same roundedness that those of The Pickwick Papers do. Instead, it just feels like everyone is a cartoonish representation of either good or evil, and this is only increasingly exaggerated as the novel goes on. Even at those moments where you're meant to sympathise with certain characters, I couldn't bring myself to do it and instead just felt nothing towards them.

Overall, I have to say I felt quite ambivalent towards Oliver Twist. It is incredibly well-written and the settings are brilliantly portrayed, but it feels much more moralising and - dare I say it - almost a little bit preachy in comparison to The Pickwick Papers. But it does create a wonderful atmosphere of London life at the time and sets the scene for a lot of what we perceive as 'typical' Dickens, particularly his outrage at social injustices.

Have you read Oliver Twist or any other Charles Dickens novels?

Restaurant Review: Penang!

And no, the exclamation mark is not a typo.

When N and I were travelling last year (it does not feel that long ago!), one of the places we were most excited about visiting was South East Asia, mainly because of the amazing food. From banana pancakes in Laos and Cambodia to Thai curries and Vietnamese spring rolls, we pretty much pigged out for an entire six weeks. But one of the places that most surprised me in terms of its food culture was the island of Penang, off the western coast of Malaysia. It's a real melting pot of different cuisines including Chinese, Thai, Indian and Malaysian and there is so much choice that I could often spend a good ten minutes deciding what to eat. So when I went up to Westfield this weekend and spotted that there was a Malaysian restaurant called Penang!, I couldn't resist popping in for some lunch.


The set-up at Penang! is pretty similar to other South East Asian chains such as Wagamama or Busaba Eathai - you can order a selection of small plates such as chicken satay, salt and pepper squid or various dumplings, or can opt for a larger main meal like char kway teow (rice noodles with soy sauce, prawns, chicken, beansprouts and spring onions). Inside, it's incredibly colourful, with bright yellow chairs, hanging paper lanterns and a huge wall mural of Mr Zhuri, who is everywhere in the marketing and who I'm not quite sure is real. It definitely reminded me of street markets in Malaysia but with a trendy London twist, and I liked the family-friendly vibe from the wall of kids' drawings.

There is a ridiculous amount of choice on the menu, but as I had a bit of a cold coming on I opted for the laksa, a slightly spicy dish of rice noodles in coconut broth served with what were billed as 'fish bites' - but which tasted quite a lot like tofu - plus chicken, prawns, half a boiled egg, some kind of green bean-like vegetables, mint and coriander. Foolishly, I didn't think it would be as big as it was - there was a lot of sauce and at the end I was drinking it like soup. Note to self: next time, get a roti parata (Indian-style flatbread that is everywhere in Malaysia) for dunking purposes. However, it tasted absolutely amazing and took me right back to being in Singapore and sitting in a hawker centre eating bowls of fresh laksa and swigging iced Milo, a malty chocolately drink that I got slightly addicted to in South East Asia. It was spicy, but not too much so, with big chunks of chicken and prawns and a lovely, slightly rich sauce - a meal you could sit and enjoy for a while, providing you don't mind the occasional sauce splatter (don't wear a white top if you're coming here!).

Total cost for one bowl of laksa, a ginger beer and tip: £15, which I think is pretty reasonable considering how big the bowl of food was! If you were going for the small plates I think depending how many you got - they recommend two to four - you'd be paying about £20-25 each including drink and tip, so a bit more on the expensive side. I also have to say that the service was great - admittedly it wasn't particularly busy when I went but the staff were still very quick and attentive whilst not seeming too eager to get rid of me.

Overall I have to say I was very impressed with Penang! and would definitely go back there again. The only disappointment I have is that there aren't more branches - at the moment it's just the one at Shepherd's Bush Westfield - but if you're there shopping and fancy something a bit different for lunch then I highly recommend it.

Do you have a favourite Asian restaurant?

Beauty Review: Soap & Glory Peaches and Clean

Packaging plays such a huge role in beauty products for me. The product inside could be the most wonderful thing in the world but if the packaging doesn't match up then there's always something a bit disappointing about using the product. I personally tend to favour either something that looks really sleek and classic, or something that's a bit quirky and slightly retro. Soap & Glory does some of my favourite packaging on the high street - beautiful retro photographs and punning product names - so having heard good things about their Peaches and Clean cleanser, I decided to pick some up when I needed a new cleanser recently.

On first impressions, as you can see from the bottle, it's a pretty classic design, with a very simple text that's something of a departure from the more typical Soap & Glory packaging of vintage photographs, but still retaining the pink and white colour scheme and different fonts that make it instantly recognisable. I also really like the pump top as it helps you to dispense just the right amount of product. The one slight criticism I have so far is that as far as I can tell it doesn't have a lock function, which always makes me a bit nervous when I'm travelling that the product will end up splurging over all my stuff (though I should add I haven't had that problem yet).

In the packaging, the product looks like a thick, white cleanser. When applied to the skin, however, the texture changes - as you can see from the swatch on my hand below it's very light and milky. It also smells lovely; you definitely get a subtle but distinct scent of peaches, which adds to the fresh, clean feeling of the product.

I've been using this with the hot cloth cleansing method, so I apply one pump of the product all over my face (including my eyelashes) and work it in for around 30 seconds, then remove it with a flannel soaked in hot water before doing a second cleanse with my L'Oreal micellar water. I've found it works incredibly well at tackling my spots but also didn't make my skin feel too dried out, which is exactly what I want from a cleanser with my sensitive dehydrated combination skin.

However, when I was getting down to about the last quarter of the bottle, the product just suddenly stopped coming out of the tube. And despite my keeping it upside down for the last week, as you can see there's still a solid chunk of it that's refusing to come out no matter what I do. The thick plastic also means it's very difficult to cut the tube open, meaning that I'll probably have to decant as much as I can into another pot and then chuck the rest out - so effectively throwing away money, which is something I always hate doing!

Overall: lovely cleanser, shame about the packaging. If this came in a squeezy tube I'd be very happy as it works so well for my skin, but in its current bottle I don't think I'd repurchase as it just seems like a completely impractical design. However, if that hasn't put you off, you can pick up a bottle of Peaches and Clean from Boots for £8 for a 200ml bottle (though it is quite often on offer).

Have you tried Peaches and Clean? And which beauty brand's packaging is your favourite?

#2014BloggerChallenge: All About Nails

I have accumulated a ridiculous amount of nail polishes over the past few year (and dread to think how much money it represents - it is literally an entire shoebox!). So initially I struggled with how I was going to do this 2014 Blogger Challenge post, which as you may have guessed is all about nails. A nails tag or favourites post would simply have been too difficult to choose, but a nail collection post would have felt a bit too much like bragging. So instead I thought I'd widen the brief a little and do a post on what I use to look after my nails and hands, to make sure that I've got the best canvas to show off my nail polish.

My first thing is that I'm fanatical about using hand cream  - there are pots and tubes of it in every one of my handbags and all over the flat as I like to put it on after washing my hands or if I've been outside without my gloves. I really notice the difference if I don't use it regularly, especially in the couple of recent cold snaps we've had in London. In particular I have an odd trick where I put hand cream on before I put my gloves on when I leave the house or the office. It sounds mad but it works in a similar way to wearing socks over your foot cream at night by helping to trap the heat of your hands in, so the cream sinks into the skin better.

You can see some of my current hand creams in the photo above - I'm using a lot of Burt's Bees ones at the moment as I got quite a few of their hand products in a kit N's sister bought me for my last birthday. They're a bit more expensive than what I might buy for myself but they smell absolutely beautiful, particularly the Almond Milk Beeswax Hand Cream which has a lovely marzipan-like fragrance, and do a great job at moisturising the hands without making them feel greasy. It also helps to moisturise the skin around my nails and stops me getting hangnails, which both look awful and are quite painful to deal with.

The other big aspect to looking after my nails for me is taking care of my cuticles. I use a Nails Inc cuticle oil pen every night (you can see it in the bottom of my photo) and rub that into my cuticles, which then makes them a lot easier to work with when I'm putting on nail polish. Before I do put polish on, I soak my hands in warm soapy water for a couple of minutes and then push the cuticles back with an orange stick wrapped in cotton wool. I find it makes polish stick a lot better and last much longer.

Finally, I really cannot stress enough the importance of a decent base coat and nail varnish remover for keeping your nails in good condition. I use Essie All In One base coat, which does an absolutely brilliant job at stopping staining, filling ridges and strengthening nails. It also makes a lovely clear polish for those days when your nails are knackered or you can't wear colour on your nails for whatever reason. In terms of nail polish remover, I go for Boots Conditioning Nail Polish Remover - it removes polish really easily and always feels like it's working well at treating my nails, especially when they're particularly ratty-looking. Unfortunately I don't have a photo of it at the moment as I ran out the other day, but I will be getting some more soon!

So that's my nail and hand care routine. It might seem a bit time-consuming, but I've found that it's all about building it into my routine as a course of habit and making sure I look after my hands, especially in the cold weather we've been having lately. Because after all, there's no point in spending money on pretty polish if your hands aren't looked after, right?

Do you have a favourite hand or nail care product?

Awards Fashion: The Oscars

So we come to the last of my awards fashion posts this year, and it's the big one: the Oscars. This is traditionally when everyone pulls out the big guns fashion-wise, and there were definitely a few stars who'd saved the best til last - whether they'd had a consistently good awards season or a disappointing one. I have to admit that this was probably the

There weren't many exciting new trends to report to be honest - again it was lots of block colours, with a fairly even split between pastels and

Lupita Nyong'o in Prada
Image source
Was it really going to be anyone else? Lupita makes it three out of three with this beautiful baby blue halterneck. The shape works well on her, the floaty fabric is beautiful and the colour looks gorgeous against both her skin tone and the red carpet. I also love her hairband, which adds a touch of fairytale princess to the whole look.

Cate Blanchett in Armani Prive
Image source
I'm not crazy about the beading up the throat, but apart from that I absolutely love Cate's look. There were loads of similar nude dresses on the red carpet but Cate manages to pull it off better than most. The combination of the gorgeous floaty shape, the delicate feel of the decoration (is it just me or do they look almost like petals?) and the slightly retro hair means that it all comes together brilliantly. And memo to Charlize Theron: this is how you do invisible sleeves.

Jennifer Lawrence in Christian Dior
Image source
J-Law in Dior again, but she wears it well. Having disappointed in her Golden Globe choice, she's clearly been keeping her powder dry for the Oscars and it definitely paid off for her. This is very reminiscent of the dress Michelle Williams wore to the Oscars a couple of years ago, but I can forgive it because it works so well on Jennifer - the colour highlights her skin tone and I like that she's kept her jewellery simple. Her hair shouldn't work with it, and yet it kind of does.

Jennifer Garner in Oscar de la Renta
Image source
Who said Great Gatsby chic was dead? Jennifer Garner looks stunning in this beautiful silver waterfall of a dress. The shape of it works really well for her and I like that she's kept it really simple with her jewellery and hair, rather than letting the rest of the look fight with the dress. I think this may well have been my favourite look of the night.

Sandra Bullock in McQueen!image-number=45
First of all, on a red carpet where natural make-up dominated once again, props to Sandra Bullock for turning her smoky eye all the way up to 11. Coupled with the beautiful midnight blue colour and draping of her dress she looks like she's walked straight out of a dark adult fairy tale. I love that she wasn't afraid to go for something a bit different and in this case she's definitely pulled it off.

Emma Watson in Vera Wang
Image source
I'll be honest, the first time I saw this dress I didn't like it. But the more I look at it, the more it grows on me. The T-shirt shape of the top half adds a young, cool edge, while the velvet skirt gives a nod to the 90s trend that's still hanging around. I also really love the juxtaposition of Emma's 'done' red lip and her slightly messy ponytail - it looks effortless, which is something you don't see a lot on red carpets.

Kerry Washington in Jason Wu
Image source
Similar to Natalie Portman's Rodarte dress a couple of years ago, Kerry Washington's dress does a great job of disguising her baby bump whilst still making her look beautiful and glamorous. The pearly grey colour is just gorgeous and I love the silver detail at the top to add a bit of interest in place of a necklace. It's simple, elegant and classic - a definite winner for me.

Karen O in Camilla Steark
Image source
I love the slightly Gothic feel of the dress - it's a bit Morticia Addams but in a very, very good way - and the way Karen O has paired it with the glossy monochrome clutch, red lip and subtle smoky eyes to lift the look whilst keeping it very simple. There's a very nonchalant attitude to the look where's she wearing the dress rather than letting it wear her, and consequently looks really comfortable and relaxed in it. Just so freakin' cool

Chrissy Tiegen in Monique Lhullier
Image source

The trend for dresses with a slightly raised hem at the front seems to have disappeared a bit, but Chrissy Tiernen has brought it back with this beautiful, beautiful dress. As well as the relaxed vibe added with the pockets (is it just me who wants to know what if anything they've got in there?), the print is just gorgeous, like a flurry of cherry blossoms in a breeze. I love the carefree feel of the dress and think it's a brilliant mix of springlike florals and classic awards black.

June Squibb in Tadashi Shoji
Image source
I'm not normally a fan of looks that are too matchy-matchy, but this dress/jacket/bag combo looks great on June Squibb. The colour is perfect for her skin tone and I like the cut of the jacket highlighting her waist. Plus the touches of gold and black and the pattern of the fabric add interest to the whole thing, turning something that could have been a bit mother-of-the-bride into age-appropriate-yet-still-classy.

Jared Leto in Yves Saint Laurent
Image source
OK, so the pickings for best dressed bloke were particularly slim at the Oscars, which looked even more like a casting call for Men in Black 4 than awards shows usually do, so Jared Leto wins it by being one of very few actors to not opt for the safe black tuxedo. I'll admit that I'm not so keen on the hair, but the bow tie is rather jazzy in a sort of dirty ever-so-slightly-hipster James Bond way and it's nice to see a bit of colour on the red carpet.

Honorable mentions
Portia de Rossi in Naeem Khan
Olivia Wilde in Valentino
Amy Adams in Gucci
Anna Kendrick in J.Mendel
Naomi Watts in Calvin Klein
Bette Midler in Reem Acra
Sarah Paulson in Elie Saab
Julia Roberts in Givenchy
Anne Hathaway in Gucci
Kate Hudson in Versace

Did you have a favourite Oscars dress this year?

Theatre Review: War Horse

I've talked before on the blog about the fact that often when I come to something that has loads of hype around it - usually a book - I end up feeling like it was good, but not the life-changing, earth-shattering sensation I'd been led to expect from the reviews. So I have to admit that I approached going to see War Horse with trepidation. I'd read the book and really enjoyed it (you can read my review of it from back in my early blogging days here), but hadn't seen the film or the stage show, though I'd heard nothing but good things about both.
Image source

For those who don't know the story, War Horse is the story of Joey, a hunter - half thoroughbread, half draft horse - who is bought at an auction as a foal by farmer Ted Narracott in an attempt to outdo his brother Alfred. Ted's son Albert develops a strong relationship with Joey and the two quickly become inseperable. When war breaks out and Ted sells Joey to the army, Albert sets off to France to find the horse who has become his best friend.

The first thing I have to say is that the puppeteers are absolutely brilliant. From the moment we meet Joey, you truly feel his emotions as he goes from the fear of being alone to slowly developing a lasting bond with Albert and then the pain of their separation, and that is down to their acting skills to give the puppets personality. In fact all the puppets and their puppeteers are fantastic, from the birds - whether they're swallows soaring in the sky over Devon or crows feasting on the bodies in France - to the scene-stealing goose, who provides much of the show's comic relief. You quickly forget that you're watching puppets rather than living, breathing animals, which is entirely what you want from a theatre production and is a huge part of the play's strong sense of realism as you're immersed in the world on the stage.

That said, there are some brilliant performances from the actors as well, who are all so perfectly cast and really make each character distinct. The standout turn is, of course, Sion Daniel Young as Albert, but I also loved Ian Shaw as Freidrich Muller, the German officer who finds Joey after his original rider is killed and takes him away from the front line to pull an ambulance. The conflict he feels between his duty as a soldier and his longing to go home to his family is beautifully acted and he actually helped enormously with the play's sense of sympathy for everyone involved in the war, rather than the traditional narrative of 'British good, Germans bad'.

The performances are supported by a wonderfully simplistic set, with a gash-like expanse of white in the backdrop onto which is projected scenes of Devon life, the journey across the Channel and the horrors of going over the top. Coupled with ingenious use of light to create explosions and illuminate the big moments - particularly one highly dramatic scene in which technology finally renders the horses' presence on the battlefield obsolete - and the gorgeous folk songs that litter the production, hearkening back to Joey and Albert's idyllic life together in Devon and the soliders' longing for home (there's a couple of numbers that sound like they've walked straight out of Vera Lynn's 'entertaining the troops' setlist), they enhance the story but don't overshadow the actors' and puppeteers' efforts.

But what really struck me about the show was the level of emotion in the show as a whole. I can't remember the last time I cried in a theatre, but I was sniffling as soon as Joey appeared on stage and had weepy moments up until the end when I think pretty much the whole audience was in floods. The play really throws you into these characters' lives very quickly and you connect with them through the horrors of their experiences. It's a brilliant marriage of fantastic performances, lovely music and great design and it all comes together perfectly to create a show you'll never forget.

War Horse books up incredibly quickly, but you can see it at the New London Theatre until 14 February 2015 - plenty of time to get saving! And if you can go, I insist that you do - it's one of the best evenings I've ever spent in a theatre. Just wonderful.

Have you seen or read War Horse?

2014 Resolutions: March Update

It's that time of the month again - my resolutions update! February has been a month of slow progress for me I'm afraid, as whilst I did manage to stick to lots of my
  1. Blog at least every other day. I'm actually doing pretty well at this - although I haven't necessarily managed to get the blogs out when I'd like, I have managed to post every day. It is actually working really well as although it is quite stressful it's giving me a real urge to post more often!
  2. Run a 5K. I've been running in Greenwich Park on Sunday mornings now it's getting lighter earlier and the weather has been improving, and have also managed to get a little bit quicker on the treadmill. So I can definitely feel I'm improving but hoping to keep going with that until race day in August.
  3. Buy a flat with N. Same old same old - still saving, still staring wistfully at places on Rightmove.
  4. Perfect my skincare and everyday make-up routines. I'm still refining this and have invested in a couple of new products in the past weeks which seem to be helping, although I have had a small breakout on my chin (which I think is due to eating too much sugar and a couple of nights falling asleep with my make-up on). But overall it is improving, so onwards and upwards.
  5. Use up a net balance of 30 beauty products. Current balance is -7 as I've bought 12 things this year and used up/thrown out/given away 19, so I'm on track to hit my target of having used up 30 products by the end of the year. However as usual my beauty obsession is making me want to buy All The Things!
  6. Read at least 50 books. At the moment I've read six - Oliver Twist, Anita and Me and The Blackheath Seance Parlour are the new additions to my list. I was hoping to have finished reading PopCo by the end of the month but with 150 pages to go at the time of writing I'm not sure it's going to happen, but am hoping I can make up some lost ground this month.
  7. Take more photographs that aren't just for blogging. I am getting better at this as those of you who follow me on Instagram will have seen,but it does still need work so I'm going to keep trying to remember to put my photos on there. I might try and do a Photo of the Day challenge one month as well.
  8. Watch all the TV series I started but haven't finished. I've watched most of the third season of Heroes so will shortly move on to season four, and have nearly finished Firefly, which was my goal last month. Next up will probably be season eight of Criminal Minds, and then I think I might start watching either Smash or Nashville.
  9. Wear the clothes I already own regularly and only buy new stuff when I need it. Actually, I didn't do too badly at this! I bought some basic long sleeved T-shirts in Primark the other week (OK, and one with My Little Pony on it) but beyond that I haven't really spent much on clothes. However, I think my resolve may weaken in March as I want to get my spring/holiday wardrobe bought early ahead of going to Cornwall this year, but it is all stuff I can wear most of the year and would have for ages, so it's justified, right?
  10. Eat more healthily. It's been pretty mixed to be honest - I'm doing OK at cutting down on caffeine and drinking more water, but we still need to eat more fruit and vegetables and I'd like us to eat more fresh food. I think as I get a bit more confident that I'm not actually going to poison N I'm going to start trying to cook from scratch more - I did it all the time at uni but I think it's something about cooking for 
  11. Learn to drive. Driving license has come through but I still haven't booked any lessons. I think I might wait until it's lighter in the evenings and then get some booked up. I'm also debating taking a week off work and doing an intensive course, as I know from previous experience I learn better if I don't leave too long between attempts, especially as I don't have anyone to practice with in London.
  12. Finish writing my novel. It's coming along, but slowly. I always hate the idea of scheduling my life too much - my blog, however, is another matter - but I know that if I'm not working on this regularly then I'll get further behind. I'm going to try and put aside some extra time every day to work on it; even if it's just half an hour, that will hopefully soon add up!
  13. Go to at least one blogging event. I completed this one in January, but I'm going to a blogger Pixar sleepover (being organised by Becky from Becky Bedbug) on the 22nd March. I'm ridiculously excited to finally get to meet Becky as her blog is one of my favourites, and obviously an evening spent watching Pixar movies is going to be awesome :)
So, let's move on to my February goals:
  1. Finish watching Firefly. I haven't completely finished it but I've only got a couple of episodes left to watch, so will try and do those whilst on a blogging spree this weekend.
  2. Go to parkrun at least twice. Well, I did go to parkrun three times - but it was all as a volunteer. I wanted to get a feel for the run before I attempted it myself (apparently it's the hardest in the country due to all the hills!), and I can't get any more volunteer points this year so later today I will be off for my first run. I'm a bit nervous and don't expect a brilliant time, so if any of you are reading this between about 9 AM and 10 AM on posting day please send any 'keep going, you can do it' thoughts my way!
  3. Shoot, edit and post my first YouTube video. It's not brilliant by any means, but I did it :) A beauty forum I visit fairly regularly was asking its members to shoot everyday make-up videos, and I made one which you can watch here. It was time-consuming in terms of all the editing etc but I'm weirdly proud of it even though it's a bit rubbish. I think that's due to shooting on webcam though so next time I'll try it with N's bridge camera.
And finally, my new goals for March:
  1. Cut out processed sugar as much as possible. This was originally for Lent rather than just for March, but I'm going to go straight through until the 11th April when I go to Cornwall as I want to be able to indulge a bit whilst I'm away. I don't eat that much processed sugar generally but I'm aware that when I do have too much of it (such as last weekend) I break out, so hopefully eating as little of it as possible will help my skin improve ahead of the wedding.
  2. Blog every day. Yes, I know, I am mad. But in the past couple of weeks I've felt like I have more and more to write about and that posting every other day just isn't going to be enough to do it in, so I'm going to aim to post every day for the month. If I can do it, I'm hoping it might become permanent...
  3. Run 5K in less than 40 minutes. I am bang on 40 minutes for 5K on the treadmill, so I'd love to get under that by the end of the month.
Do you have any goals you want to achieve in March?