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M. Harrison "Hamish" (London, UK)

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The Thirty-Nine Steps (Penguin Classics)
The Thirty-Nine Steps (Penguin Classics)
by John Buchan
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.99

2 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars By deuce - what a dated thriller!, 4 Dec. 2008
The Thirty Nine Steps thoroughly deserves its place as one of the first great modern thrillers. There are plenty of moments of pure Jason Bourne as our misunderstood hero trades different transport systems and identities in his quest to escape both police and villains and discover The Truth. The plot twists are recognisable from any number of movies and crime novels - yet this came before them all. No wonder it has just been adapted again for the screen.

However it is also a book of its time. And while that is not in itself a fault, the time (1915) just happens to be one of queer fellows, duecedly bad luck, and damnable Dagos. The comically pre-pc language merely raises a smile, and ultimately matters not a jot. More problematic is the storytelling. If published today this would be no more than large format airport fiction. Our hero Richard Hannay crashes around the Scottish countryside pursued by just about everyone, yet each person he encounters turns out to be either an old acquaintance from London or a mild-mannered Scottish proletarian who finds helping a well spoken and breathless English gent more than enough reward for putting their life in danger. It seems necessary for Hannay to borrow the clothes (and transport) of almost all of these individuals so that he can continue incognito, and yet the villains are nonetheless always waiting around the corner. Or even, in one case, occupying the only house on a blasted heath.

The international conspiracy that underlies the plot is pleasing, as is the conceit that this is a fictionalised retelling of the start of World War One. But great writing it aint. Happily it is such a short and snappy tale that it is just about worth diving in - with the sure knowledge that with one quick bound you'll be free.

Alternatively, if you have seen an adaptation there really is little reason now to consume the original: it's as if the original created all the unoriginal bits of all that followed.

Everything That Happens Will Happen Today
Everything That Happens Will Happen Today
Price: £58.85

28 of 30 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Utterly infectious, 4 Dec. 2008
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I bought this a couple of weeks ago and have listened to almost nothing else since. Odd, since it is by no means a flawless album. It just happens to have half a dozen tracks that are so infectious you find yourself humming them after only one or two hearings.

From the opening chords of the opening track, Home, you know you are in the company of two men of a certain age, comfortable in themselves, their lives and their talent. The song has the nerve to skate close to Simon and Garfunkel and still emerge as a distinctively Byrnian piece: 'Home, with the heighbours fighting/Home, always so exciting/Home, were my parents telling the truth?' It sets the tone for a determinedly upbeat, anthemic, collection: even Byrne's delight in dystopia and dysfunction is carried off with jaunty delight. Far more True Stories than Bush of Ghosts.

The second track, My Big Nurse, is the gentle star of the album. It has a melody that gets right under your skin right from the off. If listening on your MP3 player you will embarass yourself with good old fashioned foot tapping. And when the melody is picked up by the same unapologetic synth that joined in on Home, it reveals a simplicity that borders on the banality of a child's musical toy - and yet when the track ends after only three minutes you feel cheated: you could hum it forever.

With I Feel My Stuff you fear this is one of those albums that opens strongly but fades away. It is a bland, over-produced amble. And even the title track that follows, for all its hymnal quality, doesn't quite deliver on its glorious hook line. But then the collection returns to its pure pop best with the sing-along Life is Long. And then another instantly catchy melody follows with The River.

When Strange Melody starts up you think its going to turn into 'Last Night A DJ Saved My Life': it's pure 80s. But the laugh is on us as Byrne sings 'This groove is out of fashion/these beats are twenty years old.' As if he didn't know what he was doing. Wanted for Life may be the album's quintessential track: '10 to 12 going to hang them high/wanted for life' is the crime-soaked lyric, yet it's the jolliest song of them all.

The album's true final track is One Fine Day. You'll be so busy still singing it in your head you'll not even notice the two forgettable tracks that follow it.

I can't imagine what this album would be like if they had hit bullseye on every track instead of a little over half of them. It would have been the most unbearably perfect piece of pop for decades. As it is, there's more than enough here to fall in love at first listening. And every time of returning will always be like greeting an old friend: far from perfect, but just great to be with.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Mar 5, 2009 8:09 PM GMT

Logitech VX Nano Cordless Laser Mouse for Notebooks
Logitech VX Nano Cordless Laser Mouse for Notebooks

4.0 out of 5 stars A design triumph, 20 Oct. 2008
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I never thought I'd describe a mouse as beautiful - but this is a lovely thing.

Getting it set up could hardly be easier. Insert battery (supplied); insert neat little USB receiver into a USB port in your computer; and you're away. If you have a Mac, as I do, and you want to maximise your use of the mouse by configuring it, then you should also insert the DVD and follow the simple instructions. Again, this takes a moment and is a doddle.

Although designed for easy transport with a laptop it sits nicely under the hand and isn't too small. The controls are clear, definite and precise. And it feels well made.

Why not 5 stars? Two tiny gripes: I have USB ports on both sides of my laptop, and it only responds to the USB on the same side as the mouse, which is very slightly limiting. And second, our desk has a glass top which it doesn't like. We have had to get a mouse mat - which I'd prefer not to have, but hardly a deal breaker.

Mac users may be interested to know that we got this because my wife was getting arthritic symptoms in her thumb from sustained use of the MacBook Pro trackpad. Problem now solved.

Strongly recommended - and great value.

by Allegra Goodman
Edition: Paperback

7 of 12 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars A largely academic exercise, 6 Oct. 2008
This review is from: Intuition (Paperback)
Research scientists are working away in a well regarded lab. They are dedicated, and yet the endless drudgery of their experiments conflicts with the dreams that first provided their ambition. What if the breakthrough they all longed for was to come - but to come the way of one of them. Would they all be lifted to glory, or would it tear them apart?

It's a great premise. And, in the hands of a good writer who has explored her subject well, we should be set for a page-turner.

But for me, making my way through this book was a little like reading an academic monograph: thorough, well researched, and utterly unemotional. The reason for its strange coldness is, I suspect, simple. The book has no lead character. There is no person with whom to identify. Increasingly the parties in this tale take sides, but the reader doesn't. We are given no inside information: there is no irony - and though I can't prove it scientifically I am pretty sure you can't have a thriller without irony.

Goodman may have had no intention to write a thriller, of course. But then what was she trying to achieve? There is a rich enough ensemble cast of glory hunters, precocious children, quirky foreigners, and Jewish intellectuals - not to mention some homemakers, homebreakers, and a few geeks. But since the book provides only cool observations on these characters, they seem nothing more than literary lab rats whose lives would only be given purpose by the breakthrough that never comes.

The chiclit cover inexplicably given to the book by its American publishers suggest they had no idea what the point was either. But if you need something to focus on as you work your way through the mildly diverting lab politics that passes for plot, try and work out whatever you would have put on the cover...

Galt Toys 6850008 Folding Trampoline
Galt Toys 6850008 Folding Trampoline
Price: £48.99

603 of 613 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars They'll jump for joy - but you won't, 6 Sept. 2008
First things first: my two and a half year old loves this trampoline. It made him giggle with delight from the first moment he climbed on it. Once constructed, it is durable, a good size and well balanced. 'Folding' is a slight misnomer: the feet do fold, but you actually have to unscrew and remove the handle if you want to put the whole thing away.

But as you watch your child's happy face you will have to try and forget the trauma that was the self-assembly process. I'm not quite sure why the actual trampoline section of this toy has to be self-assembly. It's much like buying a tennis racket and having to string it yourself. And about as much fun.

In essence the task before you will be this: take one bungy cord, and, using brute force, stretch it to double its natural length in order to lace it between the eyelets in the metal base and eyelets in the trampoline mat. But that's not all. The mat will have to remain around 5cm equidistant from the metal frame at all times.

A few things will be working against you in this task. First: the laws of physics - specifically the one about gravity (the whole structure is light and wants to lift off the ground as you yank the bungy cord); and also Newton's third one about motion (the one that says that every stretched bungy cord has an equal and opposite unstretching if you relax your grip for a microsecond).

Secondly, your sense of humour. You will be familiar with the first law of self-assembly: time spent is inversely proportional to fun gained. Whenever you tighten the cord, the mat will naturally pull tight to the metal frame. But yet it must stay several centimetres from it. My, how you'll laugh.

And thirdly the resilience of your skin: the inevitable blistering of your hands as you attempt to wrap those last groaning millimetres of bungy around the final eyelets will be an impediment to the task-completion you will by that time be prepared to sacrifice your life for.

Its at about this point to you will remember how you scoffed at the manufacturer's advice that this toy is best asembled by two people. Two adults to assemble one modestly sized item of garden recreation? Don't be ridiculous. In desperation you will nonetheless summon your hapless partner/spouse to assist. But that, sadly, will serve only to double the frustration and half the viable duration of your marriage.

There is possibly a decent TV programme format in getting the manufacturers of self assembly merchandise to construct their own products in front of a hostile audience. Your small child however will simply watch your misery in bewilderment, and then climb on board and bounce. And as you watch them a tear will come to your eye. The tears of pure, uncomprehending, bewildered misery of a kind only self assembly can induce.
Comment Comments (51) | Permalink | Most recent comment: May 16, 2016 11:08 PM BST

Then We Came to the End: A Novel
Then We Came to the End: A Novel
by Joshua Ferris
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars It struggles to get to the end, 2 Aug. 2008
Rarely can the choice of voice for a novel have had such mixed results. And rarely has the choice of title seemed so ironic. Ferris opts to write in the first person plural - we - and the effect is very distinctive. Yet from pretty early on the reader cant help but ask: how ever will this come to an end?

For the first couple of hundred pages the choice of voice seems brilliant. The book is a portrait of the mundane mediocrity of modern corporate life: a world where the work is good enough and well paid enough to fear being sacked; and yet not sufficiently compelling to prevent puerile office politics from pervading every moment of the day. 'All today's intrigue was just cheap talk to better dramatize our lives,' says Ferris's collective narrator.

By adopting 'we' as the narrating voice Ferris brilliantly captures the collective ennui, and the sense of an office workforce as a moderately effective sum of dysfunctional individual parts. And this works fine for so long as there is no real plot. But when your voice is plural, and your book has to conjure an ending, what do you do? Whose story in the end will this be?

The answer Ferris probably should have chosen would have been to quit early: allow your book to be a wry and dry mood piece - a timeslice of corporate blandness - and call it a day on the sunny side of page 250. But instead Ferris tries to turn two of the slight plot lines into something bigger. For the first he actually leaves the office environment, goes home with a character, and abandons the first person plural for the third person singular for a while. It feels very odd - as if he has lost faith in his endeavour. He eventually brings the book back to the collective, and then pursues a more bold second plot line. But that too requires him to abandon his central device - and in any case it fails to deliver on the drama the reader thinks is coming.

At that point, with well over 50 pages still to go, you really want to leave this group of hopeless people. But Ferris plods on. He attempts a twist on the 'we' in the very last sentence, but this reader has long since lost interest, and the device just feels faintly irritating.

There is much to admire early on in the acute observation ('He was in Account Management, and, strange for any account person, he had hung something non-Monet on the wall.'), and it is satisfying to have the e-mail driven, faux-creative world of the modern media economy so exquisitely filleted.

But ultimately this feels like a flawed experiment in creative writing - and all the clever sounding people Ferris thanks at the end should have helped him out better.

The Road
The Road
by Cormac McCarthy
Edition: Paperback

16 of 20 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Desperately good, 8 July 2008
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This review is from: The Road (Paperback)
It is odd to recommend so strongly a book in which there is so little pleasure in the reading. From the opening sentences of The Road you are left in no doubt that this is going to be a tough journey. The central characters never have names. The prose is so pared down that even a comma soon comes to represent a feature in the landscape of the page. Even dialogue is given none of the normal grammatical flourishes.

Two figures - a man and a young boy - struggle to survive in a post apocalyptic landscape. Everything is burnt. Ash is like snow. Those who survived the initial conflagration have long since passed by, looted the food, and now learnt to live by preying on each other. The man and the boy travel in hope, but with fading expectation. And as the reader is drawn more closely to their ordeal, their hope fades too.

This is not a book to be constantly picked up and put down: the monotony of survival which provides the plot will make the plot itself seem monotonous. Read it instead in a burst. If you do you will get your reward. You will then experience the poetry of the barren prose in the barren landscape, and how it only serves to make the flame of human spirit which is at the centre of the book shine more brightly. And then gradually, and paradoxically, you will begin to enjoy reading.

Because oddly, brilliantly, and almostly unbearably sadly, this bleak book is entirely about the human spirit. It is like a humanist anthem: a tale of how when everything is gone, including religion, the flame of loyalty, love and devotion is almost impossible to extinguish.

By the end, which I read on the Tube, I was openly crying - it was impossible to do otherwise.

The Road has already secured its status as a modern classic. In years to come schoolchildren will be made to write essays on it, and doubtless seek out unintended metaphors and meanings. So read it now, before it is burdened by too much fame, and be enriched by its simple, skeletal beauty.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Aug 16, 2010 8:44 PM BST

Apple iPod touch 32GB
Apple iPod touch 32GB

11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars It's not what you need - but it is what you want, 26 May 2008
So what's the point of the iPod Touch? It's an iPhone without the phone isn't it? That's certainly what it seemed when it first came on the market. At that point the small memory made it more an expensive Nano than a new kind of iPod. But the arrival of the 32Gb model changes all that. It now has a big enough capacity to be regarded as the ultimate iPod - with some fun extras.

And that was the breakthrough realisation I had: it was worth buying one just as an iPod. It is true that the other functionality far exceeds most other handheld devices. Its web browsing is beautiful, simple and quick, and you can zoom in or out of the page by a pinching motion of your fingers on the screen: extraordinary. The direct access to YouTube, Safari, e-mail etc is also elegant and fun.

But the fact remains that in the UK there are still relatively few Wi-Fi hot spots where you can enjoy this functionality. If you live in New York it would be a different matter. But even in London you would find a palm device which uses a phone connection more effective (and I gather the iPhone swaps between a phone web connection and Wi-Fi depending on the best available option).

So, for all the great features, the iPod Touch stands or falls by its status as an iPod. And here it stands tall. The quality of the display is gorgeous. All the search mechanisms delight you even the hundredth time you use them. Seeing the album art swivel to display track information, or the whole screen change format as you turn the device on it side, is simply magical. And when it comes to photos and video the screen really comes into its own. You could happily watch a movie on this screen.

Sometimes the touch sensitivity can frustrate: you scroll through playlists by touch, but you also select by touch - so getting the right kind of touch is a knack. And sometimes the responsiveness of the screen to touching the pause and play buttons isn't all it could be. But you'll find yourself forgiving these lapses.

If you regard your current iPod as simply an MP3 player then you have no need for the Touch. But if you also regard your iPod as the kind of design achievement that demonstrates that humans are still evolving, then a Touch will confirm your status as a top notch Homo Sapiens.

Qualcast Easi-Trak 320 32cm Electric Rotary Lawn Mower (discontinued by manufacturer)
Qualcast Easi-Trak 320 32cm Electric Rotary Lawn Mower (discontinued by manufacturer)

23 of 23 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A basic mower for a basic price, 11 May 2008
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
My lawn is about 15m x 4m. The once a week, ten minute job hardly merits major investment, and this is just fine. It replaces a woeful battery mower I had before. It has plenty of power and the grass collector is big enough to hold all the clippings from one cut.

But this basic mower is no more than that. Anyone who invests any of their masculinity in garden chores - which thankfully I dont - should probably avoid. It is as light and plasticy as a child's toy. The power cable is hopelessly short at 11m (no wonder the manufacturer doesn't tell you in the details), ensuring you have to use an extension lead. The 3 height settings are crude, and altering the height of the mower is comical: the instructions are hard to interrupt, but on turning the mower upside down you discover they should have read 'grab each wheel in turn and yank it into place.'

It's a bit unfair to moan at this price. But I would now consider looking a little more closely at competing brands, and maybe spending a few more pounds.

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen
Salmon Fishing in the Yemen
by Paul Torday
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

4 of 6 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A tiddler, but fun to catch., 18 April 2008
I was put off by the sound of this book: it seemed whimsical, and the device of telling the story through diaries, reports and emails sounded laboured. But I nonetheless picked it up at someone else's house and read the first few pages, and was sufficiently gripped to feel compelled to buy it.

Sadly the charm of the early chapters wears off quite rapidly; and the device of reports and diaries gets less and less convincing as the book goes on.

This is a charming tale of a humble fisheries scientist with a dried up marriage who finds himself in the deep unchartered waters of a scheme to introduce salmon fishing to the wadis of Yemen. The painfully didactic 'Reading Group Notes' that came as part of the edition I bought, will try to tell you this is a tale of two cultures - western anglo-protestant and middle-eastern Muslim. But that is to over-claim. This is a light, and mostly likeable, comedy about the fine meeting points between British eccentricity, British bureaucracy and a peculiarly Britsh hubris that comes with British ambition.

The central character, Fred, is lovable, and his hopeless marriage and equally hopeless crush on his work colleague are both engaging and convincing.

The pity is that the structure of the book is overambitious. The 'found documents' device proves unsustainable, and Torday is quickly writing standard fiction prose within the unconvincing wrappers of supposedly official documents and personal diary entries. No one ever wrote a diary in the style of a novel; and even less has any formal government report ever been written that way. Torday unnecessarily sets itself the task of writing in numerous pastiche styles - political memoir, newspaper report, public enquiry, ordinary diary, military correspondence, and so on - and yet cannot manage any of them convincingly. The irony is that what he can do perfectly well is write straightforward prose fiction.

So ultimately this is indeed all I feared - whimsical, with a flawed device at its centre - but it makes for a speedy, distinctive read. The kind of thing to pass the time on a river bank while waiting for something exciting to happen.

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