Happy Christmas 2016!

Hello everyone! Just a short post today to say hope you're all having a lovely Christmas Day and that Father Christmas brought you what you wished for :) See you all soon!

Thomas Rhett at O2 Shepherd's Bush Empire

A version of this review appeared previously on Entertainment Focus on Sunday 13th November 2016.

Regular readers will remember that Thomas Rhett was one of my biggest surprises at C2C: Country to Country this year, so when he announced a European tour I snapped up tickets as fast as I could! Since then he's won a CMA Award (Single of the Year for 'Die A Happy Man') and released a deluxe version of his album Tangled Up, so anticipation was high when the tour rolled into London on Saturday. I'm pleased to say it did not disappoint.



The show was a family affair, with Thomas' dad Rhett Akins as the support act. Although he had a brief career as a country artist in the 90s (showcased in his opening song, 'That Ain't My Truck'), in recent years Akins has made a name for himself as a Nashville songwriter. He took the crowd on a whistle-stop tour of hits he'd written including Luke Bryan's 'Huntin', Fishin' and Lovin' Every Day', Frankie Ballard's 'Young and Crazy' and Blake Shelton's 'Boys Round Here', and I was amazed how many songs he's written that I love! He managed to keep the energy levels up with just vocals and a guitar and I was seriously impressed by his combination of singalong melodies and well-crafted lyrics. Plus he was a great storyteller and kept us all laughing with his stories about visiting the UK and hunting out punk records in Georgia in the 70s.


Then it was time for Thomas. He kicked off his set with party song Anthem, which was the perfect start to get the crowd singing and dancing along. That set the tone for the first 'funky' section of the set, with the high energy maintained through Make Me Wanna and a shouldn't-work-but-does mash-up of Tangled with DNCE's Cake By The Ocean.


At this point the set was almost identical to his C2C performance and I was slightly concerned it would be more of the same. However, once Rhett moved into current single Star Of The Show, I knew I needn't have worried. The song worked really well as a transition between the more uptempo songs and the ballads and conveyed a great sense of emotion, particularly in the stripped-back acoustic ending. This pattern of upbeat songs and more laid-back tracks was repeated throughout the show and I liked that these 'waves' gave it a nice balance.


My personal highlight was Rhett's performance of The Day You Stop Lookin' Back, which showed off his incredible vocals as well as his range. It's one of my favourite songs on his Tangled Up album and I'm really glad he got to showcase it in front of an audience, as it deserves to be heard far more widely.


One of my favourite parts of the show was Rhett's opportunities to show other aspects of his personality that aren't just 'party guy'. He chatted and joked with the audience, even pulling a fan up on stage to sing along on a cover of Garth Brooks' 'Friends In Low Places' (despite the guy not knowing the words!*) and it was lovely to see him so relaxed and at ease. He also got to show off his impressive dance moves on an Uptown Funk cover and his songwriting chops on an acoustic section, including a version of Florida Georgia Line's Round Here (which he originally wrote) and giving a slight Beatles-esque vibe to One Direction's Whole Lotta History. It was a great display of his showmanship and charisma and demonstrates that, as an entertainer, he can compete with the best of them.

* To be fair, I didn't know the words either. I think this means I get my country fan card revoked...


If I had one criticism, it would be that there were perhaps one too many covers and I would have liked a bit more of Rhett's original material (particularly South Side and Something To Do With My Hands). But overall this was a great introduction for new fans as well as a chance to see a different side of him. I'm just sad it was over too soon!


C2C: Country To Country 2017 - My Dream Line Up

Excitement is building amongst country music fans ahead of the long-awaited announcement of the headliners for next year's Country to Country festival next week. And I'm one of them, to the extent I've had dreams about the line-up (both good and bad!). So whilst we're eagerly awaiting news, I thought I'd do a quick blog post on who I'd love to see at this year's festival. Fingers crossed some of these come true!

Note: all these predictions are for London, so your mileage may vary if you're going to Glasgow or Dublin.


Friday headliner: Keith Urban
All signs point to Keith for me. American Idol is finished, he has a new(ish) album out as well as a hefty back catalogue, and he's said his Ripcord world tour will 'go to places I've never been before' - I couldn't find anything indicating he'd been to the UK previously, though if you know better please correct me. Plus his US and Australia dates line up pretty perfectly for an European leg in early 2017, which could quite possibly include a stop at C2C. I've put him on the Friday purely because that's where Miranda Lambert was as the 'never-been-before' headliner but wouldn't be surprised if he was moved to the Saturday either.

Saturday headliners: Tim McGraw & Faith Hill
Carrie Underwood's appearance at this year's C2C has opened the door for returning acts, and Tim McGraw would fit perfectly. Like Keith Urban he released a new album relative recently, and as far as I can tell he hasn't toured the UK outside of C2C, so no doubt there's a huge appetite for him to come back. Faith Hill, meanwhile, has never played C2C, yet has a back catalogue full of hits that I can already picture the whole of the O2 singing along with. Add to that that they've just announced a joint 'world' tour - which starts in the US in April - and surely C2C would make the perfect warmup gig, especially as there are few other big solo female acts who haven't played C2C recently.

Sunday headliner: Dierks Bentley
I was lucky enough to get to see Dierks when he played at the Hammersmith Apollo in April (one of the best last-minute decisions I've ever made) and was absolutely blown away. He has a great mix of uptempo party tunes as well as more introspective, guitar-driven pieces and from all accounts he was great when he last played C2C back in 2014. Now his Black album is out and he's announced a 'world' tour - currently finishing in early February - surely it's time for him to get upgraded to C2C headliner. If he brings his support acts Cole Swindell and Jon Pardi with him then even better; I'm a huge Jon Pardi fan in particular, which is partly why I've suggested him for the Sunday to go into the slightly more 'traditional' slot occupied by Andrew Combs and Chris Stapleton in 2016.

Other acts I'd love to see:

Cam - I'm aware this is a very bloke-heavy line-up, but with a lack of major female stars in country at the music (especially given that we had so many of them at last year's C2C) it's only really Cam and Kelsea Ballerini who could fly that flag. Kelsea is out on tour in the States with Thomas Rhett in March - although I wouldn't be surprised if she came over here for his November shows - so Cam it must be, and I'd be very happy indeed with that as she has some utterly beautiful songs.

Darius Rucker - he's said he's coming back to the UK 'early next year', he should have a new record out by then and the returning act argument applies here too, although it's hard to say if he'd do C2C again without being moved up the bill. Then again, Little Big Town have played C2C twice and not headlined, so you never know...

Kip Moore - mainly because I'm gutted I missed his tour earlier this year and by all accounts he puts on a great show. He's played C2C before but much lower down the bill, so I'm hoping 2017 will be the time he gets a much longer slot.

The Shires - this is a bit of a cheat as I've seen them before, albeit fleetingly, at last year's C2C. But given they are the biggest UK country act I think it's high time for them to get a slot on the main stage and showcase their music to the biggest audience possible.

Are you going to C2C 2017? Who would you love to see performing?

Season's Readings: August and September 2016

I have to admit that, until August, I had got really slack on the reading front. (Let's be honest, I still am.) I think it's because I've got into the habit of watching TV on my commute instead - great as it means I can catch up on things Nick doesn't like as much as I do, bad that it massively eats into my reading time - and then I'm so tired that I end up going straight to bed without even looking at my Kindle. But over the last few weeks and with a concerted effort to read every night, things have picked up a little. So here's what I've been reading in August and September...

Also, a brief pause to say: HERE BE SPOILERS. If you haven't read the Divergent series (and you want to), then you've been warned. If you have (or you don't want to), carry on.



Allegiant by Veronica Roth
I have set myself a goal this year that I am not allowed to start any new book series until I've finished the ones I'm already working through. Allegiant is the final book in Roth's Divergent trilogy, following Tris Prior as she chooses her 'faction' based on her personality, whilst aware she is 'Divergent' - not easily fitting into one category - and considered a threat to society. In Allegiant, the faction system has been shattered to create an equal society, whilst former faction members are plotting to restore the old ways, and Tris and her friends must choose where their allegiances lie. One of the things I liked about this book was the switch between Tris and Four as narrators - it's nice to see different characters' perspectives, especially in YA fiction which is so often in the first person - and the ending, which puts a different spin on the typical dystopian novel but still has a hopeful note. It's also well-paced and, unlike other final books in trilogies, doesn't feel like it's shoehorning too much in or tying the loose ends up too neatly. Overall, a well-written, satisfying end to the series.

Warleggan by Winston Graham
With the new series of Poldark in full swing, I wanted to get ahead and read the books it's based on. Warleggan is the fourth Poldark novel, which sees Ross and Demelza's relationship being tested as they and others around them make decisions which will have a lasting impact. (I'm really trying not to spoil this as you can tell!) After the seemingly unrelenting misery and slow pace of the third book, it's refreshing to see things pick up; there's still a lot of emotional involvement but (initially at least) I felt a lot more connected to the characters and less frustrated. I also like that I could get properly into Ross and Demelza's heads - as the previous novel was largely Demelza-driven, getting more of an insight into Ross is refreshing, even when he's doing utterly shocking things. It's perhaps not quite as enjoyable as the first two books, but you sense that a corner has been turned.

The One by Kiera Cass
After the slight emotional trauma of Warleggan, I needed some light relief, which came in the form of the third book in Kiera Cass's The Selection series. Another YA near-future dystopia, the series follows American Singer, who is competing for the affections of Prince Maxon in a Bachelor-style TV show. In the third book, the threat from rebels is escalating and pressure is growing on  I'll be honest, it's not exactly going to win any awards for being a great work of literature and the ending is glaringly obvious, but as a bit of escapism it worked. It was also nice to see some well-developed supporting characters - too often they're one-dimensional, particularly the antagonists, but in this instance I felt like we got to see different sides to them. Not necessarily one I'd recommend though as it was a bit too formulaic for me by the end.

Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie
And then it was back to the heavier fare - although given this is a relatively short book, appearances can be deceptive. As the title suggests, it focuses on the detective Hercule Poirot's investigation of a murder on a train stranded in the snow and a limited number of suspects to choose from. It's brilliantly atmospheric - I felt as though I was trapped in the carriage with the characters - and there are so many twists and turns you honestly don't know where it's going to end up. Consequently (and I'm aware this is controversial) the actual ending feels like a bit of a cop-out, but Christie has told the story so well and created such rich characters that it's entirely forgiven. It builds the suspense absolutely brilliantly and I'm looking forward to reading more of Poirot's adventures in future.

Black Eyed Susans by Julia Heaberlin
Rather unusually, I stuck with crime for my next book, as this one had been on my to-read list for a while and I wasn't keen on starting a new series. Set in Texas, it's the story of Tessa, the lone survivor of a serial killer whose victims were dubbed the 'Black Eyed Susans' after the field of flowers they were buried in. As his execution draws closer, Tessa begins to wonder if he is really innocent, and works with investigators to uncover the truth. I felt like this book did a great job of recreating the Texas summer - you can almost hear the pavement sizzling and feel the oppressive heat - but equally I felt like you never really got to know any of the characters well enough to truly warm to them. The ending also feels like it's too neat for my liking, which for me is the book's major flaw. But it's well-written, with a great build-up of suspense, and I really liked the twisted fairytale elements of it.

Total books read in August: 2
Total books read in September: 3
Total books read in 2016: 26

So overall August and September haven't been particularly intense reading months, and I'm still a way off my target off 40 books for the year, but I think making a concerted effort to read more is definitely helping. Onwards and upwards for October then...

What have you been reading lately?

Bobbi Brown Afternoon Tea at Balthazar

Afternoon tea is one of my favourite things; I love tea and cake to begin with, and being able to enjoy that turned up to 11 in beautiful surroundings makes it even better. Throw in an interesting theme, and a good thing is made even better. So when I found that Bobbi Brown had teamed up with the London branch of legendary New York bistro Balthazar to create a beauty-themed afternoon tea for her 25th anniversary, I booked a spot for myself and my friend C as a treat for her birthday a few weeks ago.


I got there a little early so used the time to take a few snaps of the building (just me who feels bad for taking blog pictures when there are other people with you?). Inside, it is exactly as you picture a classic French brassiere to be - beautiful tiled floors, dark woods, red leather banquettes and age-spotted mirrors. The warm, low lighting sets it off perfectly, making it feel cosy and romantic even on a sunny Sunday afternoon; I imagine that on a dark winter evening it would be utterly lovely.



We decided on the classic afternoon tea and both chose a different tea - I opted for the Darjeeling whilst C went for the jasmine. Both teas arrived in the most beautiful antique-look silver teapots (I like that they don't match, it adds a certain charm to things) and with all the accompaniments. How cute is that little milk jug?!




Shortly afterwards our tea arrived and it was absolutely delicious. We started with the sandwiches - all afternoon tea classics, apart from the pastrami and pickle bun which nodded to Balthazar's New York origins, and all absolutely delicious. I particularly liked the chicken and guacamole, which was a nice alternative to coronation chicken, and the lemon tang of the salmon and cream cheese. Then it was on to the scones, which were absolutely top-notch: light, fluffy and a perfect balance for the rich cream and fruity jam.


But of course the highlight was the cakes, which have each been crafted to represent one of Bobbi's classic beauty products. They're almost too beautiful to smash into! Due to C's nut allergy she took the sachertorte 'eyeliner' and rhubarb 'shimmer brick', whilst I got the macaroon and foundation stick and we split the 'kiss' (that's the red lips in case you were wondering).


The 'kiss' was made of the lightest, creamiest sponge-mousse that utterly melted in the mouth, and had a cluster of blackberries in the bottom which gave it a nice added tang. I really liked the foundation stick too, with its gooey middle offset by the sharp citrus of the jelly and the sweet crumbly biscuit base. The macaroon was lovely and had a good balance between the redcurrants and the lemon cream, but I didn't like it quite as much as the others. It looks beautiful though; the little pearls remind me of Guerlain Meteorites. C also very kindly gave me a little bit of the sachertorte and it was really delicious - super-chocolatey and rich - so not sure I could have managed a whole one!


Overall we really enjoyed our afternoon tea at Balthazar and if you've got a special occasion coming up for a beauty lover in your life then it's very much worth a visit. They have actually reworked the patisserie selection since I went a couple of weeks ago - you can see the new menu here - but if it's half as good as ours was I'd definitely recommend it!

The Bobbi Brown x Balthazar Afternoon Tea is served every day (hours vary so check the Balthazar website for details) and costs £27.50 each for the standard afternoon tea or £37.50 with a cocktail or glass of champagne.

Where is your favourite place for afternoon tea?

Friday Five #4: Strictly Come Dancing

Regular readers will know that I am a huge fan of Strictly Come Dancing. I was lucky enough to go to the live show in 2014 - you can read my post about it here - and most Saturday nights in autumn find me glued to my sofa enthralled by the fancy footwork and gorgeous costumes. So, on the opening weekend of the new series (I'm rooting for Greg, Naga and Will in particular), what better pick for a Friday Five than my favourite Strictly routines?

I have to admit it was a struggle to pick routines - I really wanted to include a jive (my favourites being Austin Healey, Scott Maslen and Jodie Kidd) - and was very keen not to have two from the same series or two from the same couple or professional, which is why Austin Healey's paso isn't here either. They're also mostly from 2007 onwards as that's when I really started watching the show

1: Tom Chambers & Camilla Dallerup - Showdance to 'If My Friends Could See Me Now' (2008)
Tom and Camilla were one of my favourite pairings (though I loved her partnership with Gethin Jones the year before as well) and this is everything I want my showdance to be. For me the showdance isn't about how many lifts and tricks you can cram in, but rather about showing off everything you've learnt - see also Chris Hollins - and they do that brilliantly with sections of tango, quickstep and Charleston before Charleston was ever a thing on Strictly. Their musicality and timing is fantastic too and they just look like they're having the best time! Nick's stepmum and I sneaked off from his brother's wedding to watch this and it was worth every second.



2: Chris Hollins & Ola Jordan - Charleston to 'Fat Sam's Grand Slam' (2009)
I could probably have done a list of five favourite Charlestons - Louis Smith, Sophie Ellis-Bextor, Kimberley Walsh, Denise Van Outen and Caroline Flack are all in my top routines - but if I had to pick one it would definitely be Chris Hollins and Ola Jordan. Having been consistently middle of the pack for most of the series, he suddenly came into his own midway through and peaked with this routine. It's full of exaggerated moves, perfectly co-ordinated and great musical timing, and set the bar for every Charleston since. And it's seriously fun to boot.



3: Simon Webbe & Kristina Rhianoff - Argentine Tango to 'El Tango De Roxanne' (2014)
Simon and Kristina were one of my favourite couples in the 2014 series - I loved their jive in particular - but this is by far and away my favourite Argentine tango I've seen on Strictly. As well as dripping with sensuality and drama, their footwork is utterly amazing and the amount of control demonstrated in the lifts, kicks and flicks is fantastic. Plus the music choice and raspy vocals transport you to a smoky bar in Buenos Aires, creating exactly the right atmosphere. The icing on the cake is the incredible lift at the end, but the whole thing is completely mesmerising.



4: Katie Derham & Anton du Beke - Quickstep to '42nd Street' (2015)
I'm fully aware the cheese stands alone on this one, but I am an Anton du Beke fan and it was fantastic to see what he could do given a decent partner like Katie Derham, making it all the way to the final for the first time ever last year. Quickstep and jive are two of my favourite dances and, as Anton is ballroom king, I had to include this one (honourable mention here to my other favourite quicksteps from Tom Chambers and Jodie Kidd - you can tell I like the same couples a lot can't you?). It's light, bright and although there are a couple of little mistakes in there her performance and willingness to keep going is what carries it through for me.


5: Michael Vaughan & Natalie Lowe - American Smooth to 'New York, New York' (2012)
One of the things I love about Strictly is watching the journey the contestants go on. I always have a soft spot for people who start out a bit awful (see Jeremy Vine last year and his hilarious tango) and in 2012 that firmly went to ex-cricketer Michael Vaughan, who produced possibly the worst jive I have ever seen on the show. But he hung in there week after week and improved dramatically, culminating in this amazing routine at Wembley Stadium which is straight out of a Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers film and shows just how far he'd come - lovely posture, beautiful footwork, great control in the lifts. And the look of triumph on his face at the end is just utterly brilliant, to the extent it makes me a bit emotional.


Will you be watching this series of Strictly?

Birthday Wishlist 2016

So I'll be turning 29 *gulp* a week on Sunday, and what better time than to put together a birthday wishlist? It's a bit of a strange one because there's quite a lot of stuff I've got my eye on that's not coming out until after my birthday (the Shires' album, Sali Hughes' new book) so part of me feels like I'd almost rather have cash/vouchers and spend them on those things afterwards. But there's still a few things I'd love to open on my birthday, so here's what I'm hoping for...

Birthday Wishlist 2016


I've been after a pair of Chelsea boots for a while (especially after last week's torrential rain!) and this black pair from M&S would be perfect to wear with my jeans as well as with skirts and dresses to toughen them up and be an alternative to my winter Converse. This ASOS pair are lovely too.

Our holiday to Cuba is fast approaching and I'm on the hunt for a new holiday bag. This one from Oasis is ideal - it's a cross-body zip-up bag which expands, meaning it should be great for the flight and once we get there, as well as after the holiday. On a far less practical note, I'm also a bit in love with this quilted badge clutch from New Look.

I'm currently in the process of overhauling my wardrobe, including trying to buy more 'proper' tops, and this one from Superdry is exactly what I'm after. It's a beautiful autumnal colour and the lace detail gives it a nice feminine touch. Boden also have some great classic Breton tops and this - literally - lovely jumper (and yes I'm aware that's a sign of me getting older).

I'm a big fan of dinosaurs and these adorable stud earrings from jewellerybox.co.uk would be a great match with my Tyrannosaurus rex necklace I already have from there.

Recently I've really got into my scented candles, and Diptyque is the absolute king of creating beautiful fragrances. Their Baies candle is an absolute classic and the jar would look chic to display cosmetics after the candle has been used up.

I love the Urban Decay Naked eyeshadow range and their new Ultimate Basics looks like a surefire winner - twelve mattes in a range of gorgeous shades and with the most beautiful packaging (though I'd be equally happy to get the Naked 2 and Naked Basics 2 palettes as well!)

Kat Von D makeup has finally launched in the UK and, although I want pretty much the entire range, I'd settle for the Everlasting Liquid Lipstick in Lolita and/or A-Go-Go - I've heard great things about the colour payoff and longevity and they look such pretty colours!

I've got the itch to get back into sewing again since my course in the summer and this set from The Make Arcade has three great little projects to get started, plus all the kit you need like pins, scissors and a stitch unpicker. Sew Over It has a great one too.

OK, this is completely ridiculous, but I am a huge Poldark fan and if you can't ask for something at least slightly impractical for your birthday, then when can you?! This tote bag also has loads of room for carrying my life around in.

Is there anything on here you've got your eye on?

C2C Social with Lucie Silvas at Brooklyn Bowl

One of the things I've been trying to do more of since going to C2C earlier in the year is to see more live music; it was something I loved doing as a student and then once I started work and wasn't in a place where it was easy to get to gigs I kind of fell off the wagon. So when C2C announced the latest of their regular 'socials' - essentially small-scale shows with one main artist and a couple of support acts - would feature Lucie Silvas I snapped up a ticket as quickly as I could!


The show finally rolled around this weekend and so on Saturday night I headed off to the O2. After a quick pre-show Five Guys burger (which was awesome as always but if you've ever been to Five Guys then you don't need me to tell you that), I made my way over to Brooklyn Bowl for the show, grabbed a beer and found myself a good standing spot. Rule one of being a short person at gigs: get as high up as possible so you will actually be able to see over the head of the tall person who inevitably stands in front of you watching it all through their phone.

Waiting for the show to start...
Jake Morrell was the opening act and I really enjoyed his performance. His five songs were uptempo jangly tracks with melodies which belied their slightly darker, cheekier lyrics - think a more upbeat Ben Howard. Particular highlights for me were his cover of the Beautiful South's 90s hit 'Perfect 10', which had the whole room singing along, and his single 'Not Too Late For New'. Definitely one to look out for in the future.



Next up was Ryan O'Reilly and I have to say he couldn't have been more different from Jake. Taking to the stage alone with an acoustic guitar and a harmonica, he span sparse yet heart-wrenching tales of love, loss and London from his album 'The Northern Line'. The thing that really stood out for me in his performance was the raw emotion; at times his voice almost turned into a raw, laced with anguish on songs like 'The One' and 'The Flood', whilst showing his defiance on the likes of 'November' and 'Your New Man'.


Finally Lucie arrived on stage, looking absolutely stunning in a gold-trimmed military-style jacket and black leather shorts. She and her band moved seamlessly through a brilliant set, switching back and forth between low-key ballads and rip-roaring uptempo numbers. What really struck me was the sheer range of her voice; she was equally as home on stompers such as 'Find A Way', 'How To Lose It All', 'Happy' and the anthemic 'Unbreakable Us' as she was on the more delicate tracks like 'Villain', 'Roots', 'Smoke' and 'Shame' The highlight of the set for me, however, was her beautiful cover of Roy Orbison's 'You Got It'. After a barnstorming record of 'Letters To Ghosts', for her encore she performed her first major hit, 'Breathe In', and the beautifully sparse 'Pull The Stars Down', a combination which encapsulated the entire set for me. Her performance was completely spellbinding and I really hope she comes back to the UK soon!





Have you been to any gigs recently?

Edinburgh

Nick celebrated a rather large birthday a few weeks ago (clue: it ended in a zero) and, as he never wants 'things' for presents, we decided that instead we'd go out for a super-fancy dinner. Both of us wanted to go to The Kitchin in Edinburgh and so we decided to make a weekend of it, as the city was somewhere we'd always wanted to visit. We had a really lovely few days up there and are already planning a trip back for the festival. So without further ado, here's what we got up to...

View from Caxton Hill looking out over the city with the castle in the distance
Sightseeing
Top of the list is Edinburgh Castle, especially if you're a fellow history nerd. The free guided tours are great to give you a quick overview but then I'd highly encourage you to go for a wander; you'll need at least half a day to see it all. Top sights for me are the Honours of Scotland (Scotland's Crown Jewels, in a room also housing the Stone of Destiny that Scottish kings put their feet on during their coronation ceremonies), the Great Hall with its stunning ceiling and the Prisons of War exhibition, where the haunting stories of former dungeon residents echo around you. Then I'd head down the Royal Mile to Greyfriars Kirk and grab a photo with the statue of Greyfriars Bobby, the Skye terrier who sat by his master's grave for years.

Edinburgh Castle Portcullis Gate (with added Nick waiting for me to take the picture!)
The view over the city from the castle ramparts
We also really liked the National Museum of Scotland - it's like a mash-up of all the best bits of the Natural History Museum, the Science Museum and the British Museum, which are three of my favourite places to visit. Start from the new wing basement in the Early People gallery and head up through the first two levels of Kingdom of the Scots, then cross over to the Grand Gallery and keep going until you reach the top. I'd definitely recommend checking out Dolly the sheep in the science section, the enormous hall of animals (go on the weight machine!), the Lewis Chessmen and the view from the roof terrace - not for those who like heights but utterly breathtaking.

Hall of animals at the National Museum of Scotland.
Dolly the sheep.
Edinburgh also has some great galleries if you're into art - my favourites were the Scottish National Portrait Gallery (which had a really good self-portrait exhibition on when we were there) and the Scottish National Gallery on Princes Street. I particularly loved the Great Hall at the entrance to the Portrait Gallery and the section on Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Jacobite rebellion, which gave me a great insight into a part of Scottish history I didn't know much about. The National Gallery also backs onto Princes Street Gardens which are a lovely place to sit out in and enjoy your lunch if the weather's good (which thankfully it was!)

Sir Chris Hoy's gold postbox from the 2012 Olympics on the Royal Mile
Finally, if you want something more outdoorsy then I'd recommend an early morning walk up Caxton Hill for some great views over the city. You can climb Arthur's Seat in Holyrood Park as well but it's much higher than Caxton Hill and I felt that the view from Caxton Hill was good enough without needing to schlep up to the top of Arthur's Seat! And of course don't forget to take advantage of your chance to see the pandas at Edinburgh Zoo; they weren't particularly active when we were there but still worth a visit. The daily penguin parade is also a lot of fun to watch.

Edinburgh Zoo penguin parade
My tips for all the attractions: get there early, book in advance (particularly for the castle and the pandas) where possible, and pick three main things you want to see in each place. That way you'll get a pretty good overview of everything but also have a bit more time to explore.

Eating


Sunshine on Leith on our way to The Kitchin for dinner
There are a ton of nice places to eat in Edinburgh and wherever you go you won't be disappointed, so it really depends on your budget and what you want. We had Nick's super-mega birthday blowout at The Kitchin in Leith; it is not cheap by any means (for equally good food at a far less bank-breaking price, go their pub The Scran & Scallie in Stockbridge) but the food is amazing and there are lots of great little touches. Get the seasonal tasting menu with the matched wines and settle in for a meal you won't forget in a hurry. My favourites were the gooseberry soufflé and the shrimps nestled in a ring of ice and seaweed.

For something a bit more budget-friendly, I'd recommend The Dogs on Hanover Street for a relaxed lunch or dinner of posh comfort food (the pork belly is excellent and comes in possibly the best gravy I've had in my life), and nearby Urban Angel for a relaxed weekend brunch. Café Marlayne on Thistle Street is great for a date night - really affordable and delicious French bistro food with décor straight out of your eccentric nanna's front room (think jungle-print wallpaper). Finally, try Valvona & Crolla for a hot chocolate after a morning's shopping at nearby Harvey Nichols, and for the best ice cream in the city, head to the Grassmarket and pay a visit to Mary's Milk Bar.

Drinking
Amazing pre-dinner cocktails at The Kitchin,
By far and away my favourite bar was the quirky Roseleaf in Leith, which is all cocktails in teapots (get the Breakfast Club) and cosy dark woods. If cocktails aren't your thing, try Teuchters Landing pub round the corner. For a posh drink, Juniper on Princes Street is lovely and has some wonderful views over the city - it also confirmed that gin and rose lemonade is a thing of deliciousness and wonder - and hole-in-the-wall cocktail bar Bramble made for an excellent nightcap after our visit to Café Marlayne.

If you want a 'proper' pub, the Oxford Bar in the New Town is excellent; apparently this is where Ian Rankin drinks! I also couldn't resist popping into the Cumberland Bar which features in the 44 Scotland Street series. For those who like whisky, try the Old Town - Nick liked both the Bow Bar and Whiski Rooms.

Misty atmospheric view over the hills from the zoo
Reading
Well it wouldn't be me if I didn't recommend an Edinburgh reading list now would it?

44 Scotland Street by Alexander McCall Smith: Series of books told in serial format and set in Edinburgh's New Town, following a varied cast of characters. I particularly love Bertie, the six-year-old who's rebelling against his unconventional mum Irene.
Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott: Scott is everywhere in Edinburgh - there's even a whopping great monument to him in the middle of Princes Street - so it only seems right to throw in his medieval romantic epic.
Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone by JK Rowling: OK, it's not set in Edinburgh, but given that most of the first Harry Potter book was written in various Edinburgh cafés then I had to include it in an Edinburgh reading list.
The Falls by Ian Rankin: Rankin's Rebus is the definitive Edinburgh detective. The Falls, the twelfth novel he appears in, revolves in part around the Arthur's Seat coffins (which you can see for yourself in the National Museum of Scotland)

The view up the Royal Mile to the castle.
Have you been to Edinburgh? Where were your favourite places?

30 Days of Lipsticks

If I had a favourite beauty product, it would have to be lipstick. I like that it's really easy to whack on and instantly makes you look 'done', which for someone like me who is both cack-handed and lazy is ideal. However, despite having a fairly large collection squirreled away in various drawers and bags, I don't wear those I have anywhere near as much as I should.

Some of the lipsticks in my collection
So I've decided to do a '30 days of lipsticks' challenge. Every day in September, I will wear a different lipstick (or gloss, or tinted balm - mainly as I'm not sure I have 30 'proper' lipsticks!) and take a photo of it. I'm hoping it will get me to use my lipsticks more and to try some different colours - although I'll warn you now that the vast majority of them will be reds, as I am that person who buys very slightly different coloured lipsticks and then ends up with loads of the same colour.

I'll be posting each day's lipstick on my Instagram - you can follow me here - with the hashtag #30daysoflipsticks, and track the lipsticks I've worn so far in this post. There will also be a mini review of all the lipsticks I've worn in the last week so you can see what I thought of them. Wish me luck!

Day 1: Maybelline Baby Lips in Cherry Me

Have you ever done a '30 days' challenge? How did you find it? And are there any tips you'd give me?

Friday Five #3: Favourite Country Albums of 2016 (So Far)

We're over halfway through 2016 already and it's been a cracking one for country music, so for the latest version of the Friday Five I thought I'd do a round-up of my favourite country albums of the year so far. It was really hard to choose just five as there have been so many great records out - I could have quite easily turned this into a top ten - but here are the ones I eventually narrowed it down to...

1. Jon Pardi - California Sunrise
There's definitely been a more traditional bent to country music in recent months (helped by the huge success of a certain Mr Stapleton), and Jon Pardi's sophomore set has capitalised on that perfectly. It's an album full of twang but with enough pop sensibilities to translate nicely on country radio and packed with songs that stick in your head for days. Standouts for me are the opener 'Out Of Style', rollicking lead single 'Head Over Boots' - which demands to be a country wedding staple - and the heartfelt ballad 'She Ain't In It'. This is going to be on heavy rotation all summer.


2. Dierks Bentley - Black
Country is a genre all about story songs, and Bentley took that one step further with his eighth record; Black is a story album, loosely structured around an illicit relationship that evolves from being purely carnal into a true romance - with some ups and downs along the way. I really like that this album shows a more emotional side to Bentley, particularly on the two duets 'I'll Be The Moon' with Maren Morris (more on her shortly) and 'Different For Girls' with Elle King, but without losing the party vibe on tracks like 'Somewhere On A Beach' and 'Mardi Gras'. In an age where music is delivered in bite-size three-minute chunks, it's refreshing to have an album that requires you to sit down for an hour and really listen to it, and Bentley's pulled off taking the listener on a journey along with his protagonist.


3. Maren Morris - Hero
Maren Morris' major label debut was one of the albums I was most excited for this year, and thankfully it delivers in spades. From the opening slinky, funky bassline of 'Sugar', the album oozes cool, with the neo-soul-tinged '80s Mercedes', the tongue-in-cheek 'Drunk Girls Don't Cry' and the ska-influenced 'Rich' (which wouldn't sound out of place on a Gwen Stefani album) begging to be played at full volume on a hot day. But it's also a great showcase for Morris' songwriting skills, particularly on tracks like 'I Could Use A Love Song' and the gorgeous 'I Wish I Was'. If this is the future of country music, then I am definitely along for the ride.


4. Frankie Ballard - El Rio
I've had a complicated relationship with Frankie Ballard. I loved his last record Sunshine and Whiskey, which I played on repeat last summer, but was left weirdly disappointed by his Yamaha Stage set at C2C. Thankfully the southern rock-influenced El Rio sees him back on form. It's another one that could be seen as a story album - man gets dumped, moves to the desert, finds new love - but I actually think that narratively it holds together better than Black. Standouts for me are the opener 'El Camino', new single 'Cigarette' and the Eagles-meets-ZZ Top 'LA Woman', but the whole album is one to play on a hot day with the windows down whilst wearing your aviators and leather jacket.


5. Keith Urban - Ripcord
If California Sunrise shows country going back to its traditional roots, then Keith Urban's eighth album highlights just what a huge range of influences the genre now covers. Shimmering beats sit comfortably alongside banjo twang throughout, backing up nostalgic lyrics on songs such as 'Gone Tomorrow (Here Today)' - a tribute to Urban's late father - 'Wasted Time' and Carrie Underwood duet 'The Fighter'. But for me, Urban is at his best on more typical country tracks like 'John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16' (which demands a stadium full of people singing it back at him), 'Blue Ain't Your Colour' and 'Boy Gets A Truck'. The one thing that lets the album down is Pitbull - 'Sun Don't Let Me Down' is a perfectly fine song without him - but overall this is a great showcase for both Urban's skills as a musician and where country music is in 2016, as well as where it's going. Now all we need is him to tour the UK...


There's lots more to look forward to though, with new albums in the pipeline from Jason Aldean, Florida Georgia Line, Kenny Chesney, Chris Lane, The Shires and Ward Thomas among others (plus I'm hoping Brad Paisley and Miranda Lambert will have new records out in the next few months too). So I'll definitely be reviving this post in early 2017 with my favourites from the year as a whole - wonder if any of these will still be on the list?

What are your favourite albums of 2016 so far?

Crafty Sunday: Intro To Sewing at Sew Over It

For my birthday last year, Nick super-generously bought me the most beautiful red sewing machine. However, to my utter shame, it has sat in its box in the spare room gathering dust, because I simply haven't had the time - or been brave enough - to break it out. However, the latest series of The Great British Sewing Bee has re-sparked my interest in it, and I decided to hunt out a sewing course to give me a little boost to crack on with it.

Nick was away on a stag do last week so I thought I'd take the opportunity of a free weekend to do the course, and as luck was have it Sew Over It was running their Intro to Sewing class on those dates - perfect timing! So on a bright Saturday morning I trundled off to Clapham full of nervous excitement and trying to remember as much as I could from my GCSE Textiles course.



Our first project was to make a cushion cover. We learnt how to thread the sewing machine, which seems fiendishly complicated at first but by the end of the weekend we were doing it so much it felt like second nature. I ended up thinking of it like driving and all the things you have to do before you can 'set off', so to speak - winding the bobbin, threading the needle and bringing the bobbin thread through, then putting the foot down and the needle into the fabric. I opted for a sunny yellow fabric with a polka dot print as I'd been after something similar for a while, but people chose all sorts of things including penguins, cows and teacups with images of London icons on them!

The cushion cover was actually fairly easy to sew due to its square shape but it was a really great opportunity to get used to the rhythm of the process, such as remembering to backstitch to secure your seams and pattern matching (getting the pattern the same way up on both sides of the fabric). It's definitely a good beginner's project and I'm already trying to hunt out some similar fabric in duck-egg blue to make a matching cushion (we got to keep the instructions and make a paper pattern for everything we made over the weekend).


Next up was a tote bag, where I opted for the penguin fabric. Although lots of the techniques and shapes were similar to the cushion, meaning we had a chance to practice what we already learned, it also taught us some new techniques like zigzag stitch (used to secure raw edges as an alternative to overlocking, which is what's used on most shop-bought clothes) and how to sew straps. I did find this harder going and have to admit that the stitching on this bag wasn't my finest hour, but looking back now I'm actually really pleased with it. I've even bought some gorgeous Eiffel Tower print fabric to have another go!


We returned the next day for our third project - making a makeup bag. This was definitely the hardest challenge of the weekend for as it involved putting in a zip, which requires an absolute shedload of pins to hold it in place so it doesn't move when you're sewing it. I ended up sewing mine quite far in, so it ended up being more of an accidentally concealed zip, although it looked fine in the end. Then I had a minor disaster when I was pressing my lining, didn't pin the corners together properly and ended up cutting a hole in my lining! *insert monkey covering eyes emoji here* Thankfully a bit of speed sewing saved the day and the bag ended up not looking too bad, although I think it might be one for filling with sewing accoutrements at home rather than taking out in public...


Finally, we spent the afternoon working on our own projects. One of the main reasons I wanted to learn to sew was to alter my clothes - the issue with being short is that nothing ever really fits me properly - and this was definitely my favourite part of the weekend. I managed to fix the hem of a favourite skirt and took in a T-shirt I'd loved but that was a bit too baggy on me (although when I got it home I realised it had a hole in it so needs going over again).



Our teacher Ellen was absolutely lovely - I must confess that I was very slow and needed her help with quite a few things, but she was so patient and kind and enormously helpful so thank you Ellen if you're reading! The class also had a really nice relaxed atmosphere with everyone chatting to each other throughout and partaking of the utterly yummy tea and cake. I really want one of the 'Sewing soothes the soul... or something like that' mugs because although I enjoyed it when I was doing it there were a few points when it was hugely frustrating. Such is life with all creative projects though I suppose...



Overall I really enjoyed my first foray back into sewing - I feel like it really helped to refresh the things I knew from school but has also fired me up to start trying new projects. In fact, as you may have guessed from the title of this post, I liked it so much that I'm planning to start a new, semi-regular 'Crafty Sunday' series to show you what I've been making (not just sewing I should add - there'll be embroidery and possibly some other things too) and how my sewing journey unfolds. Next project: a new invisible zip for one of my skirts...

Have you ever learned to sew? Would you be interested in taking a class like this?