Spring/Summer Reads

As the months are slowly turning towards summer the need to relax and enjoy the seasons becomes greater. If you’ve found yourself with no plans then there’s no better time to step outside and lounge away an afternoon reading. Even if you’ve not purchased a get away you can settle yourself on the grass and be taken to a far away place in the pages of these books.

 

Normal People by Sally Rooney

Sometimes books are written too late. Normal People is the novel I needed when I was sixteen and will now be the unwanted gift I give to all young adults. The story follows Marianne and Connell in Northern Ireland as they journey out of high school adolescence into university and subsequent adulthood. Rooney depicts these years with the quick pace, freedom of language and emotional intensity they deserve. It’s a must read for any age, even ease to get hold of after the recent paperback release.

 

Twelve Rules for Life by Jordan B Peterson

As the sun gets hotter you become more motivated to become a better person, stride outside and achieve your goals. Peterson shows you how develop as an individual through a combination of psychological, scientific, theological and personal examples. The journey the book provides is sometimes difficult to follow.  As a reader I found myself confronting some of my short comings and considering the negative traits I ignore. But by the twelfth lesson there’s a feeling of motivation and an urge to seize life a little harder. Overall, Peterson has presented the world with a particularly challenging book that will leave your reflection slightly altered.

 

The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco

I first came across Umberto Eco in a literary criticism lecture and had no idea he was a novelist until several years later. His role as an academic initially put me off reading his creative work. I’d developed a prejudice that his fiction would just be a vessel to demonstrate his critical thought, But after reading The Name of the Rose and The Prague Cemetery my opinion was quickly altered.

Prague Cemetery takes place throughout Italy in France from around the mid eighteenth century until the early twentieth. Through a combination of real history and conspiracy, Eco creates a complex and intriguing mystery novel. The most shocking part of the story is despite the Freemasonry, Illuminati, political upheavals, that all the characters (excluding the protagonist) were real and apparently committed the events within the pages. Eco’s vast historical understanding has truly enriched the book, transforming what could have been a seminar into one of my favourite books of the year.

 

Selected Poems by Wendy Cope

The title selected poems is a little misleading. Whilst there are compilations of Cope’s work there are three collections I’d recommend: Serious Concerns; Family Values; and Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis. Each of these books are a great introduction to the poet’s witty and accessible style.  With humour and tear wrenching emotion Cope explores the whole range of the human experience from Love and Loss to buses and motorway service stations. After a few books she’s quickly becoming one of my favourite poets and a perfect way to spend an hour, reclining in the summer sunshine.

 

 

Couch to 5K: The easiest way to start running

If you’re anything like me then running alone is a little nerve racking. Should you muster the energy to step outside you’re faced with the embarrassment in sweating past strangers as you try to shift your holiday weight. And when you stop you’re confronted with the feeling that you’ve not run fast or hard or long enough. Anxieties like these make it almost impossible to maintain a regular running routine and achieve long term health goals. Fortunately, we live in a digital age where even our exercise can be enhanced with mobile apps.

After an eighteen month running hiatus I downloaded Couch to 5k. Being away from exercise for so long meant I could only run half the distance I achieved less than two years before. My efforts were disappointing and I needed a programme to rebuild the lost fitness level Couch to 5k offers this. The app encourages you to slowly develop your running abilities over a nine week schedule. By the end of the plan you’ll progress from a one minute sustained jog up to a half hour run.

As well as a providing an effective exercise schedule Couch to 5k comes with several features to keep you motivated such helpful reminders and encouragement from a well known celebrity voice (personally I chose stand up Sarah Millican). Not only does the app help you reach a goal practically but it efforts to keep you on the track by supporting your exercise.  The steady but successful incline along side the helpful motivational features makes it an ideal app for the beginner runner.

Teeth Whitening Toothpastes: Do they work?

I like my coffee black, my wine red and I drink both far too often. As every good dentist will tell you, over indulging in my favourite beverages can quickly take the shine out of your smile. To prevent this I spend too much time scouring stores for new toiletries to preserve my dental sheen. Retailers are packed with toothpastes promising to remove discoloration and deliver an award winning smile. With heavy competition in a crowded marketplace good products need to whiten effectively and fit your budget. Most importantly, they need to give you a feeling of security. If you’re using a toothpaste twice a day it should not only brighten your smile but provide good oral health.

I’ve trialed three easily accessible examples against these standards over the past month. Giving each one week of twice daily use and compared it with the others. The reason for this project is because there are now so many choices all claiming to produce great results. Until you’ve tried a few it’s impossible to know which brand is best. Hopefully this will save you some of that effort.

Arm and Hammer Advance White

I stumbled across this toothpaste when packing for a city break in the travel toiletries section. At an affordable £1 (usually £2.50 for regular), this miniature was the perfect sample to start to my weekly trials. The unique selling point of Arm and Hammer toothpastes is that their whitening comes from bicarbonate of soda, a product most of us are familiar with. I found this immediately reassuring,  thinking that if it’s safe enough to eat, it’s safe enough for teeth. After a week your mouth feels healthy and after continual use the toothpaste is moderately effective. Unfortunately, I did not enjoy the taste of bicarb, which dampened my experience. I’d recommend people try Advance White but be wary that the flavour may prevent the product from becoming a favourite.

 

EcoDenta Black Whitening

Like most toothpaste brands, EcoDenta offer several products with a variety of  flavours and effects. On the recommendation of a friend I settled on trying Black Charcoal. My tube came from a health food store running an offer on the toothpaste at £2.50. EcoDenta state that this product is made of 96% natural ingredients and contains no fluoride. The dark colouring, unique taste and eco friendly origins make the brand appealingly unique. The main drawback of Black Whitening is the mixed reviews. There seems to be some online uncertainty if the product is suitable for daily use. After several days this made me feel slightly uncomfortable and regulated use to night time brushing only.

 

Colgate Max White Expert White Anti-Stain

When you think of teeth whitening toothpastes this is the most typical of the products. Looking over the ingredients there’s the usual list of chemicals, including Hydrogen Peroxide. My initial expectation was that the toothpaste would be unsuitable for daily use. Working more like a nuclear bomb to remove stains and discolouration but not having a positive lasting effect on my oral health. Thankfully, all my assumptions were pleasantly incorrect. After a week there was a visible improvement in the whiteness of my teeth and my gums felt healthy. Overall, this was my favourite product for both quality and taste but it does have a heavy drawback. Currently, a tube is retailing at a hefty £12. I anticipate this toothpaste will become more affordable when it has been on the market longer.

 

 

Easy Care House Plants

Over the last few months I have slowly been plodding through a quarter life crisis.  As thirty approaches existential dread started to seep in and I found myself desiring a new direction in life. Some impulses demanded to restart existence by moving to Korea; others wanted a whole new career path to find fulfillment. Most options seemed exhausting, so I settled on cultivating house plants because they’re much less time and attention consuming than dogs or children. Like most things in life I find the path of least resistance the most comfortable and determined to find the lowest maintenance flora possible. After some time experimenting these are the plants I would recommend to any budding botanist.

 

Cactus/Succulents

Probably the most relaxed plant in the world. If a cactus was a human being it would be the most stable stoner to exist. They’re so low maintenance that mine have survived being dropped from a second floor window and a semi accidental watering of day old coffee. If you can treated a cat in the ways I’ve raised these plants you’d be quickly arrested.

The stability of  succulents and cacti, alongside their plethora of shapes, sizes and colours make them fantastic first plants. I’d recommend to any novice or person working through commitment issues because no matter how hard you try to kill them these plants are for life.

 

Aloe Vera

A relative of the cactus, (and technically a succulent) Aloe Vera is more temperamental to care for than their spikier cousins. Everyone I’ve spoken to has had a horror story about them falling apart or exploding their antibacterial bodies at inappropriate moments. Fortunately, mine has been nothing but a success. Since purchase it has grown twice  the original size and seems to show no signs of slowing. It’s developing at such a ridiculous pace that I will soon need to register it as a room mate.

Keeping them comfortable is a breeze. They thrive on a fortnightly watering, light dusting and a thick atmosphere of depression. The watering itself relatively simple. Most house plants prefer to be stood in a tray of water, plant feed and a medium glass of Merlot over night, rather than dampening the leaves directly. By morning you’ll find their roots have guzzled the cocktail, moistening the soil and given the foliage a handsome purple hue.

 

Basil

After the success of rearing ready grown plants I decided it was time to create life from scratch. Lacking a laboratory and ready supply of lightning I turned towards seeds. Firstly I tried sunflowers but their soil quickly became mouldy so I threw them into the compost. Next I tried tomatoes but their vines immediately withered in my north facing room. Lastly, I trialed a £1 basil growing kit containing just the compost and seeds.

My growing technique is fantastically easy. Just stick the container in a bin bag, on its side next to a radiator. Take the plant out after a week and place it near the window. Surprisingly in a month it’s managed to sprout, grow several inches and has visible leaves. Naturally, I wouldn’t endorse this for other living beings but if you want your own pesto and the glory of creating life without changing nappies then it’s worth a shot.

 

Circe by Madeline Miller Review

Circe is Madeline Miller’s second retelling of ancient Greek legend. The novel introduces us to the title character Circe, an underdog nymph and daughter of the sun Titan, Helios. We follow the minor immortal from her creation to final scenes as she is interjected into the lives of some of Greek mythology’s most prominent players. But even when placed in the path of famous beasts like the Minotaur; heroes such as Odysseus; and the proud Olympians Athena and Hermes, Circe carves her place among the illustrious cast.

The legend of Circe is often forgotten outside of Homer’s Odyssey, however Miller paints fresh layers onto one of the lesser characters in the Greek Pantheon. We are given an imaginative retelling that is overflowing with tragedy, magic and destiny. Such a story allows Circe to steal the pages, upstage the most famous characters and cement her place in legend. A must read for anybody with an interest in mythology.

‘Introducing Lacan: A Graphic Guide’ Review

The Graphic Guide series take the complete works of writers or a subject and turns them into a basic introduction. For Lacan, they lead you through his biography and key concepts and demonstrate how they matured over the course of his career. The information is broken down into easily accessible paragraphs, accompanied by visual aids and humour to cement your understanding of his theories. This approach is particularly helpful for English speakers who often receive the psychoanalyst/philosopher’s dense works in translation. ‘Introducing Lacan’ gives clarity to the often muddy and sprawling sentences that form the writer’s original French texts. I’d implore every school, college and university to purchase a complete collection of these graphic guides to coax their students into complex writers and their concepts.

Rating: 4/5

Books Once Banned in Britain

It’s hard to imagine that the islands that cultivated Shakespeare, JRR Tolkein and JK Rowling have a strong tradition of literary censorship. I’m not referring to old restrictions placed by the church or crown to protect their institutions against opposing propaganda. But a whole back log of banned books leading right into the twenty first century. In fact, 2018 marked the fifteenth anniversary of England’s last book ban being lifted. In honour of this I have compiled a reading list of once unlawful texts that you can proudly display on your bookshelf, rather than hide under a loose floorboard.

 

Last Exit To Brooklyn by Hubert Selby Jr

Published in 1964 Last Exit to Brooklyn is an unconventional novel. The reader is dragged through an uncompromising set of stories that describes the lives of those residing in the New York districts.  In 1967 Last Exit to Brooklyn was trialed for obscenity by a UK court for its graphic content and depictions of cruelty. The jury consisted solely of men because Selby Jr’s narration of prostitution, homosexuality, violence and drug taking was deemed potentially embarrassing to women. After deliberating on the novel’s content the trial concluded it unfit for public consumption and prohibited sale and publication. Fortunately, this verdict was reconsidered, only to be overturned the following year.

Spycatcher by Peter Wright

Originally published in Australia Spycatcher is the candid autobiography of a British Intelligence Officer. A large portion of the book’s content covers work of MI5 agents during the cold war. Given the sensitive content it became immediately controversial leading the British government to prohibit the publication of the book as well as implement press gag orders in order to restrain reporting on the autobiography.

Unusually, Spycatcher managed to stay publishable in Scotland an copies began to trickle down over the border. Given the ineffective banning of the book the ruling was eventually overturned. After all, national security secrets are not worth safeguarding if the rest of the world has access to the text.

 

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

Lolita is probably the most famous and infamous book on this list.  The novel depicts the criminal relationship between a literature professor and a twelve year old girl. Given the dark subject matter it’s not surprising that censorship was the initial response to Nabokov’s work. Britain first declared Lolita an obscene text in 1955 and publication of the book remained criminal for four more years. Following the lead of France and the USA the novel became accessible to the public, however the initial English publisher Nigel Nicolson was forced to resign from his role as a Tory MP.

 

 

Playing with Water Colour Pencils

My first encounter with watercolour pencils was in an art supply kit. The kind you receive for Christmas as a kid containing pencil crayons, a couple of erasers and sometimes a few pieces of charcoal. Of course, I had no idea what to do with the water colour pencils and after a few failed attempts neglected them to the bottom of the box.

Recently, I stumbled across a set in a craft store and wanted to unearth the purpose of these mysterious objects from my childhood. So, I purchased a beginner sample of twelve pencils and some water colour post cards. For the first few weeks my efforts were appalling. But I persevered and discovered that I could replicate a half decent rock. With  bit more practice I was producing pretty impressive formations. However, whilst stone circles, cliff faces and craggy boulders are great, I started to become a bit bored of the only subject I could successfully capture. I found the solution on the internet.

Like every other skill there are online resources from masters in their field. After hours of studying their techniques and practice I am beginning to appreciate the diversity of water colour pencils. Their hybrid nature allows you to use them as a regular pencil crayons but with bit of water you can layer into effective, blended painting. Versatility is their main strength. With  few drops you can move from a fluid landscape into fine detailing with a dry pencil. This adds a depth and boldness to your creations that cannot be obtained using pencil crayon or water colour paints alone.

Another great aspect of water colour pencils is how portable they are. With just a few hues you can create on the go without having to carry a canvas and other art supplies. Being able to transport such a versatile and effective tool becomes a blessing on long journeys or if you want to paint outside the home.

I would have uploaded a few of my own attempts but I have no aptitude for art. Rather than let my hobby level efforts deter you from water colour pencils I’ve included some tutorials by professionals. Their tips and insight into watercolour pencil techniques will hopefully entice you into getting started.

 

 

 

 

World of Warcraft: Is it worth it?

Blizzard has recently released their latest expansion for the World of Warcraft Series, Battle for Azeroth. It wasn’t long before online recommendations pointed me towards it. The trailers, available cut-scenes and information about the new content were enticing. However, I have always been apprehensive about signing up for WoW. As a frequent player of MMORPGs I have sampled various titles from Lord of the Rings to Dungeons and Dragons. I played them for about a month, grew tired and turned to something else. Naturally, I was worried I would end up in the same scenario with WoW. To investigate I decided to dedicate some time to the free trial to discover if I could justify spending about ten Great British Pounds a month on World of Warcraft.

When evaluating if a game is value for money then we have to consider the amount of content available, and whether it is engaging. Since its inception in 1994, WoW has grown considerably and currently boasts a total of seven expansions. This provides players with a strong arsenal of backstory and gameplay to explore. In an RPG this is an essential element because it allows new players fully immerse in the universe from its early releases like The Frozen Throne right up to the latest title. Furthermore, Blizzard has split the character creation into two distinct sides, with multiple races and classes. This not only deepens the amount of content and lore available, but also provides several different opportunities in which you can tackle the game.

Most entertainment is now packaged as a subscription service: Our music comes from Spotify; films and television from Netflix; even snacks and toiletries are sent through the post to save a trip to the supermarket. Why should gaming be any different? Of course, the real question is whether WoW is value for money. Taking a browse over the price of new releases you see an immediate price difference. Most recent titles come onto the market upwards of thirty pounds (assuming there is no additional downloadable content). If you find yourself enjoying the game you’ll receive an average of four days worth of game-play. On a purely financial comparison WoW comes in cheaper than buying a new game, whilst assuring that you are making your way through the kind of content that you already know you enjoy.

After three weeks of exploring the free trial I have found that the pleasure in WoW comes from the immersion. Overtime, you and your friends have explored the world of Azeroth, enveloped yourselves in its rich lore and developed your skills throughout each expansion. What Blizzard offers, in their most famous title, is a fantasy world that can be continuously explored and challenged. The addictive nature as well as the frequency of fresh content sells a monthly subscription, often making World of Warcraft cheaper and more rewarding than buying a new game once or twice a month.

Frankfurt in Five Hours

In the life of every frequent traveler there comes a time when you’re left waiting at a layover airport for most of the day. No matter how carefully you align your flights it’s the only affordable or available option and you make the purchase. There isn’t enough time to commit to a full day at your pit-stop destination and the delay is too long to stay in the airport.

Two months ago I found myself in this same situation. Despite careful planning I had to take a seven and a half hour wait in Frankfurt. Instead of sleeping away the time in the airport lounge I seized the opportunity to sample my third German city of 2018. I’d like to share my experience exploring the best of Frankfurt in just over five hours, whilst spending less than thirty Euros.

Transport

Regardless of your destination getting from the airport to the city center is usually pricey via public transport, . Before you’ve even reached your location a large chunk of the budget has already been eaten. Fortunately, Frankfurt offers affordable deals in order to get you around the city. A same day return to the airport cost around fifteen euros. This ticket also allows you full access to the tram system. Overall, this is a great deal, it saves you time mapping your way to destinations, whilst encouraging tourists into the heart of the city to enjoy the attractions and businesses available.

 

Food & Drink

I’m always astounded by the food prices in Germany. If you are frugal with where you shop than you can feast for a surprisingly small amount. This doesn’t mean sacrificing the quality of your meals for quantity. After all, one of the fundamental pleasures of travel is another country’s cuisine but scaling yourself back to street food may be the answer. Like every other German city Frankfurt seems to have mastered easy eating. On every corner there is an option: curry-wurst; kebab or falafel. It’s hard to walk past bakeries without being drawn to the bargain price and enticing smell of freshly baked bagels. To accompany this German beer and regional soda is ridiculously cheap. Just don’t drink and eat too much, you want to be comfortable on the flight later.

 

Attractions

If you’re like me then you will have blown your budget on food and have little left for sightseeing. Thankfully, Frankfurt has plenty of things to explore for free all within a few hours walking distance or a quick hop on tram away. In your few hours you can enjoy the botanical gardens, the Euro Tower or Borse. If the weather is in your favour then I would head straight to City Hall Square. Here you will be greeted with iconic German architecture and witness the Römer– a medieval structure that has been Frankfurt’s city hall for around six hundred years. The square also houses an impressive statue of Lady Justice. This bronze figure enhances the calm and and inspiring atmosphere, especially when the town bells are ringing.