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P. G. Harris

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Radiant State: Book Three of The Wolfhound Century
Radiant State: Book Three of The Wolfhound Century
by Peter Higgins
Edition: Paperback
Price: 14.88

4.0 out of 5 stars In the Court of the Red Tsar, 29 Sept. 2015
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As the third of Peter Higgins' alternative novels opens, the mysterious eco-device, the Pollandore has activated in the cataclysmic events at the end of the previous instalment, Maroussia Shauman has disappeared, and ex police inspector Vissarian Lom is left trying to make sense of it all, while trying to find Maroussia, and bring down criminal Josef Kantor, who has transformed himself into President General Rizhin.

If the first book had strong similarities with China Mieville's City and the City, set in a parallel Russia, and the second was based around the siege of Stalingrad, this is even closer to the life of Stalin. In fact certain scenes, dangerous dinner parties at the leader's Black Sea Dacha, Rizhin feigning annoyance at being given the title Generalissimo seem to be lifted directly from Simon Sebag Montefiori's Court of the Red Tsar.

Higgin's delivers a high octane political action thriller, as Lom, aided by the Gaia-like Forest seeks to firstly understand Kantor/Rizhins aims and then, when learning the true horror of what he proposes, to thwart him. Also thrown into the mix are an assassin targeting Rizhin, and the alien Angel, trying to escape the clutches of the forest.

Radiant State is a satisfying conclusion for this trilogy, tying up all, or most, of the threads of the two previous novels,including remembering to return a character buried at the bottom of a river at the end of the first book. It is also an excellent and internally consistent addition to the world building of the earlier instalments.

I probably found this the least satisfying of the three, as a much more straightforward action adventure set in a country more like the actual Russia, it isn't as subtle or as intriguing. Also, while it is well written, I wasn't as conscious of there being as beautifully lyrical descriptive writing as previously. Finally one slightly odd element of Higgins' writing is that he isn't great at describing conflict. Several times over the trilogy he builds up to a climax excellently but then the ultimate conflagration is over in a straightforward fashion with no great sense of jeopardy.

To summarise the trilogy, it is well plotted, highly original, and much better written than most SF. It deserves to become a recognised classic of the Alternative History genre.

V is for Vegan: The ultimate vegan cookbook packed full of amazing recipes
V is for Vegan: The ultimate vegan cookbook packed full of amazing recipes
by Kerstin Rodgers
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 15.00

4.0 out of 5 stars Good cookbook, irritating mumbo jumbo, 14 Sept. 2015
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
The core of this book is actually very good. It is packed full of some pretty exciting vegan food. It has a section on how to make vegan substitutes for some staples such as cheese, butter and mayonnaise.. It has some great ideas for snacks, a double page spread of things on toast is really fun. Shortly after that is a section of different and enticing dips. We then get breakfasts from poppyseed waffles with blueberries, orange zest to quesadillas with black beans and tofu, huitlacoche and Rajas. Lunch recipes are soups, salads, burgers and noodles. Main courses include potsticker dumplings, chocolate smoky tofu mole in tacos with grilled calcots, and watermelon stir fry with rice. This is not dull food. It is food which should excite vegan,vegetarian and omnivore alike. From a food perspective my only complaint would be that this is a very metropolitan book. The ingredients are frequently things unavailable outside the very largest cities.

So, as a straightforward recipe book it's really good. It's just that everything wrapped round that is seriously irritating. The book starts off by apologising for itself. "If you thought vegan food was brown and bland, think again" . Vegetarian and vegan books should've got over this 25 years ago. Secondly, it is achingly trendy. Thirdly there is some frightful new age claptrap. I''m sorry but the colour wheel of food really is jumbo jumbo.

In summary, it's a very good cookbook, if you can ignore the wiffle.

Wahl James Martin MultiFive Mini Blender 300 W, 0.6 Litre, White/Black
Wahl James Martin MultiFive Mini Blender 300 W, 0.6 Litre, White/Black
Price: 27.56

3.0 out of 5 stars Stylish but limited, 13 Sept. 2015
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
This is a stylish and slightly unusual product, which I can see being attractive in some ways, but it feels like a bit of a niche market. It might be suitable for a single person who doesn't envisage ever blending larger quantities, or for someone who's got room in their kitchen for more than one blender and wants a smaller one for little jobs. However, you'd have to really like the features of this product to choose it over a stick blender, or just not put as much in a larger blender.

What you get is a motor, and two lidded 600ml goblets. It is the goblets and the fact that are two of them which point to the particular feature of this product. The goblets are only open at one end, unlike blenders which I am used to with the blades attaching at one end and a lid at the other. Here the idea is that you put all of your ingredients into the goblet, screw the blade attachment onto the top, then invert it and attach it to the motor unit. Once you've finished blending, take the goblet off the motor, invert it again, take the blade unit off, and put the lid on. The lid has a click open flap on it. The design is particularly intended for making smoothies (as indicated by the enclosed recipe book) and having blended your smoothie you can now store it in the fridge in the goblet. Hence the two goblets, with one storing your smoothie, you can use the other.

So, if you want a small capacity blender which enables you to store what you've blended in the goblet, this is a good product. However, if you want to do a wider range of things, it's a bit limited.
The goblets are a perfect size to store with bottles and jars in the fridge, but that makes them a bit narrow, making it slightly difficult to get chunky stuff in. They have a mark at the top/bottom showing the 600ml capacity, but don't have a measurement scale all the way along. The motor unit is quite big, and the goblets are quite tall, so for the capacity it can handle, it's a pretty big unit.

The Stone Diaries
The Stone Diaries
Price: 6.36

5.0 out of 5 stars The meaning of a life, 21 Aug. 2015
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This review is from: The Stone Diaries (Kindle Edition)
The Stone Diaries is the story of a life in the twentieth century. To be specific it is the story of Daisy Goodwill, from her birth in 1906, during which her mother died, to her death in a nursing home in the last decade of the century.

In tone, to me, the closest parallel would be the works of Peter Carey, a family saga set against the backdrop of a young and growing country. The big differences would be, fairly obviously, that Carol Shields is a woman and Canadian.

This is not a huge, sprawling epic of extraordinary events and achievements. Even though Daisy's life covers most of, and is contained wholly within, the 20th century, the big historical events occur offstage, and have only peripheral impact on the central character's life.

To call this a small scale novel would, however, be to do it a disservice. Better words would be intricate and detailed. Shields takes Daisy through ten ages of woman, birth, childhood, marriage, love, motherhood, work, sorrow, ease, illness and decline, and death. At each stage she provides a touching portrait of an ordinary life, showing a deep understanding of the human condition.

This is not a romantic story, Daisy marries twice, but neither time is it the result of great passion. The first time, it is what is expected by society of a young woman, the second, an older Daisy, more in control, makes a very pragmatic choice about her own life. That is not to say that this is a dour, tragic or traumatic tale. Daisy's story is a happy one, which celebrates the beauty of an ordinary life.

Possibly the main enjoyment of the book is in the relationships, between Daisy's parents, between Daisy and her daughter, Daisy and her niece, but above all between Daisy and her friends, Fraidy and Beans, largely played out through a series of letters between the three of them.

The Stone Diaries is a book of strong symbolism, with its two main recurring themes being stone(unsurprisingly) and flowers. Stone is about solidity, permanence and remembrance, but it is also, stultifying, ossifying and entrapping. Flowers are Daisy's release, escape and freedom, and in the end as she declines she confuses her friends with flowers while she herself solidifies and returns to stone.

In summary, the Stone Diaries is a highly intelligent, insightful compassionate novel, but also very entertainingly and extremely easy to read.

Truth and Fear: Book Two of The Wolfhound Century
Truth and Fear: Book Two of The Wolfhound Century
by Peter Higgins
Edition: Paperback
Price: 8.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Alternative Siege of Stalingrad, 21 Aug. 2015
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Truth and Fear is the second novel by Peter Higgins set in an alternative Russia in an alternative 20th century. At the centre of the novel are two conflicts. One, between the parallel USSR, the totalitarian Vlast, and it's enemy the Archipelago, mirrors aspects of WWII . The other is between an alien fallen to earth, an "angel", which seeks to take over the Vlast as a prelude to returning to the stars, and the vast forest which lies to the east of the city of Mirgorod. This latter is seemingly an allegory for the battle between nature and industrialisation.

Truth and Fear is the most direct sequel to Wolfhound Century imaginable, in that it starts immediately after the events of the earlier book. The central character is once again Investigator Vissarian Lom, accompanied by the mysterious young woman, Maroussia Shaumian. Arrayed against them are the forces of the state, primarily in the Beria-like Chazia, and the self serving Josef Kantor, both of whom are influenced by the malign Angel.

The central story is Lom and Shaumian's quest to reach the Pollandore, a source of power aligned to the forest, which is in the possession of Chazia. The scenery this is played out against is an assault on Mirgorod, clearly drawn from the Siege of Stalingrad, and a deportation of citizens which includes elements of both Stalin's purges and Hitler's holocaust.

As well as the intended parallels with 20th century history, I found myself cross referencing the works of China Mieville. Wolfhound Century had a distinct feel of "The City and the City", as a detective noir set in a metropolis of overlapping realities. This, on the other hand felt closer to Perdido St Station as a supernatural fantasy, with vampires, werewolves and Lom's own unearthly powers more to the fore.

Truth and Fear is very much the second novel in a trilogy, or possibly longer sequence. It takes the story forward, and indeed reaches a denouement, but it's purpose seems mainly to be moving pieces into place for what is to come. Interestingly, the denouement is one which might have been expected to form the final resolution of the sequence, but then while it occurs, its consequences are not explained at all, hence things are left open for future novels.

As a result, this is slightly dissatisfying as a standalone novel, but then it's narrative strength can only really be judged when the whole story has been revealed by later works. What is genuinely less than satisfactory is the way in which. Two major players on the dark side of the novel are built up as major forces, but then easily disposed of in a rather perfunctory fashion by the heroes.

The major strength of Truth and Fear is the quality of the writing, and in particular the descriptive writing, far beyond what is normally found in science fiction. Particular examples are the lyrical opening passage, picturing dawn rising over the city, the horror of that city's near destruction in a bombing raid, and a seaplane flight over an icebound northern landscape.

So, in summary, this is an unusually well written novel of an alternative reality, but I reserve my final judgement until I've completed the sequence.

A Canticle For Leibowitz
A Canticle For Leibowitz
Price: 5.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Timeless classic, 21 Aug. 2015
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The very best science fiction uses imagined worlds as a laboratory for exploring human nature and our contemporary world. The names which come to mind when making that statement are ones like Philip K Dick, Kurt Vonnegut, and Ursula K LeGuin. With a Canticle for Leibovitz, Walter M Miller earns himself a place at that table, and his novel rightly appears in many lists of the greatest works of science fiction.

A Canticle for Leibovitz consists of three linked novellas set in a catholic monastery over a period of hundreds of years. The first is set in a world plunged into a new dark age in the aftermath of a nuclear war. The cataclysmic conflict was followed by a reaction against learning and a burning of books. In the monastery of the Blessed Leibovitz, monks preserve and copy relics written by a repentant weapons scientist, I E Leibovitz, with no understanding of their meaning or purpose.

In the second section, both a renaissance and a reformation are occurring with a tyrannical ruler displacing the pope as the head of the church, and natural philosophers seeking to mine the archives of the Abbey. In the outside world rulers of disparate small states fight each other in both political and military arenas.

In the final section, humankind has returned to and surpassed the pre holocaust level of technology with spaceflight now a reality, but nuclear weapons have also been reinvented and a familiar shadow hangs over the world.

A Canticle for Leibowitz is very much a novel of its time. It is a very clear child of the 1950s and the immediate threat of nuclear apocalypse. In its portrayal of a rejection of science by the mob, it is informed by growing anti-intellectualism of the Eisenhower/McCarthy era. However, unlike much older science fiction, it has not become dated. Firstly this is because there is not a great deal of technical foresight. There doesn't need to be, this is primarily about a society which has regressed. In the last section there are one or two things which don't ring true (an electrical rather than electronic translator), but these are unimportant in the overall picture. The second reason it hasn't dated is that the themes of nuclear destruction and anti-intellectualism remain completely relevant today. If the former became a less immediate fear with the fall of the Berlin Wall, it is surely only a temporary reduction, the danger is still there and likely to grow again.

The third reason why Canticle for Leibowitz remains relevant is that it isn't really about the future, it is about the present. The central question it asks is whether the human race learn from past mistakes, or is destined by its very nature to repeat them? The answer it gives is, on the surface, a fairly dark one, but not one without hope, in the spark of light kept alive by the monks, and in a potential escape from the cycle of destruction at the end of the novel.

Alongside the central theme, Miller also explores other ethical dilemmas. Is the role of science simply to expand knowledge with no thought for how that knowledge is used by other, or should the scientist take responsibility for the technological uses to which discoveries are put? Very near the end of the book, there is a heartbreaking conflict between a very catholic espousal of the unequivocal protection of life and the use of euthanasia to prevent/end hopeless suffering.

I suspect that a lack of understanding of Catholic doctrine meant that I didn't get as much out of the book as a might have done. There are probably subtleties in the ways in which Miller modifies the monks' practices which I missed. There is also a Lazarus-like figure (is he indeed Lazarus?) whose significance I am still trying to come to terms with. At the end there is also a suggestion of a Second Coming.

This all possibly makes "A Canticle for Leibowitz" sound like a heavy and depressing work. Certainly it is dark, but it is told in smooth flowing prose, and with a constant wry humour, which make it eminently readable.

In conclusion, I am in full agreement with those who have listed this as a classic.

What a Carve Up!
What a Carve Up!
Price: 5.69

4.0 out of 5 stars Carry on up the 80s, 28 July 2015
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This review is from: What a Carve Up! (Kindle Edition)
In 1961 the wealthy Winshaw family meet in the family home on the Yorkshire moors to celebrate Mortimer's 50th birthday. It is not a happy family, son Geoffrey was killed in the war and his apparently insane sister holds her brother Lawrence responsible. Mortimer's wife Rebecca cannot stand her in-laws, but her unruly children Harriet and Roddy seem to have inherited the family's ruthless streak.

Meanwhile, in Weston-super-mare, Michael Owen is traumatised on his ninth birthday by being dragged out of a screening of a sub-Carry On film, a murder mystery set in a mysterious mansion on the Yorkshire moors.

Switch to 1990 and the Winshaw family have done very well out of the economic changes of the eighties, while Michael has retreated from early success as a writer to become a recluse, failing to complete a biography/expose of the Winshaws. He sits in his flat, endlessly rewatching a scene of coitus interruptus, or rather coitus non initium from the aforementioned film, What a Carve Up!

Jonathan Coe uses this set up to write a massively entertaining, completely OTT, satire of the excesses of the eighties. Different members of the Winshaw family personify different aspects of the darker regions of the late Thatcherite period. Dorothy is, in a particularly stomach churning section, an unscrupulous proponent of factory farming (with dire consequences for Michael's father). Mark is an arms dealer, merrily equipping Saddam Hussein, and peripherally involved in the Westland and Matrix Churchill scandals(with dire consequences for the husband of Michael's friend). Henry is at the forefront of the commercialisation of the NHS. (With dire consequences for Michael's sort of girlfriend). Hilary personifies the Murdoch media, and is a remarkably prescient forerunner of the appalling Katie Hopkins.

Coe makes some serious points, many of the more dreadful acts of the virtually pantomimically villainous Winshaws are, according to the notes at the end, based on real events. However he also brings a massive amount of fun to writing his over-blown tale. The country house theme is a connecting thread throughout the book. It starts almost with a nod to the quintessential eighties TV drama, Brideshead Revisited with its location at Castle Howard. It then descends to the gothic setting for the titular film before shrinking to a game of Cluedo, eventually growing back to full size for the novel's climax in a real life maze of secret passages.

Coe's writing is full of references to other authors, at one point it feels like a Carry-on film scripted by Paul Auster as the ludicrous and seemingly unconnected story threads rub against and spark off each other. There are references on the way to Agatha Christie and Conan Doyle. There is also a strong whiff of a West Midlands childhood, bringing to mind Coe's other work, Sathnam Sanghera and even Nigel Slater's Toast. In a strange way, the other book this brought to mind was the History Man. While at opposite ends of the political spectrum, the Winshaws are used to ridicule the faults of the 80s in the same way as Howard Kirk personified some unedifying themes of the 70s.

What a Carve Up is a masterpiece of outrageous plotting as Coe frantically ties together disparate strands with what appear to be ridiculous coincidences which turn out to be the result of heroically Machiavellian machinations.

Alongside the satirical barbs, and the narrative fireworks there is some good, old fashioned, straightforward beautiful writing here. A car journey with a fractious father law is a comedic delight. A scene in a broken down tube train is wonderfully claustrophobic. A death in a hospital is tear inducingly poignant.

If I had any criticisms, they would be firstly that Coe's satirical edge is a little blunt. The Winshaws are just a bit too stereotypically villainous. But then maybe that's just in keeping with the larger than life style of the book. Secondly at times it felt that Coe was trying a bit too hard, throwing so many different stories at the reader that it became rather fragmentary.

Overall though,the verdict has to be that this is great fun, whilst also carrying a bitter satirical edge.

Year of the Fat Knight: The Falstaff Diaries
Year of the Fat Knight: The Falstaff Diaries
by Antony Sher
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 14.39

5.0 out of 5 stars The theatrical knight in late summer, 26 July 2015
I have recently posted a review of Anthony Sher's "Year of the King", a book I first read in the 80's, shortly after it was first published. That was an account of playing Richard III, written by an actor still building his career. The contrasts (and similarities) with this work are interesting.

Here we see a fully established theatrical knight, confident in his place in the world, working on the character of Falstaff in the two parts of Henry IV. That is not to say that Sher in without insecurities. He is in the favoured position of being married to the Artistic Director of the RSC and director of the plays, and yet this simply leads to concerns about perceived nepotism. In the Year of the King he worried about his physical ability to play the part, having ruptured his Achilles while playing the fool in Lear. Here he worries about whether a short Jewish South African can play the quintessentially English fat knight. This is despite the book opening with an endorsement from Ian McKellen.

At its heart, this is a similar work to Year of the King, but that is its strength. It is the portrait of a massively talented actor putting together a performance. It is a picture of a company gradually coming together (and Sher is a very generous writer in his appreciation of those around him, both on and off stage, there is no bitchiness or backbiting). It is an account of the mechanics of rehearsals, previews, press nights and openings.

The Year of the Fat Knight, like its predecessor, is illustrated throughout by the author's own drawings and paintings. These include a series of pictures of other actors playing Falstaff, which are both very recognisable, and also have a similarity, with the fat knight himself present in all of them. Amongst others, there is a touching picture of Sher with husband Greg Doran.

In summary, this doesn't have the raw energy and excitement of the earlier book, but it instead gives a much mellower, considered view of an actor working at the top of the profession.

Braun Series 9 9040s Wet and Dry Electric Shaver
Braun Series 9 9040s Wet and Dry Electric Shaver
Offered by EveryDay-Shop
Price: 179.49

4.0 out of 5 stars One of the best electric razors I've used, 5 July 2015
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
I judge all razors against my normal standard of wet shaving with a safety razor.

This is one of the best electric razors I've come across. It gives an even shave, without pulling, even when I've not shaved for a few days.

I like the tilting head, which can also be fixed and all of the controls are conveniently placed.

It's a bit on the large side for travelling purposes, but then the battery has a good long left

Webbox Cats Delight Complete Chicken & Duck 400 g, Pack of 4
Webbox Cats Delight Complete Chicken & Duck 400 g, Pack of 4
Price: 9.34

3.0 out of 5 stars No better or worse than their normal brand, 5 July 2015
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
Not being a cat, I'm afraid I can't tell you what these taste like.

When I first put them down, my cats shunned them in favour of their normal brand, but when not given a choice, they trough away at them quite happily.

Now the two brands side by side go down equally quickly.

So I guess the verdict from my cats is "OK"

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