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P. G. Harris

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American Gods
American Gods
by Neil Gaiman
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.29

5.0 out of 5 stars Götterdämmerung, 24 Nov 2014
This review is from: American Gods (Paperback)
Shadow is nearing the end of his prison sentence for assault. Shortly before his release date he is called into the governor's office to be told of the death of his beloved wife Laura. Stunned and bereft, he is released early and on the way home he makes the acquaintance of the mysterious Mr Wednesday, who offers him an ill defined job, the contract for which is sealed by Shadow's drinking large quantities of mead.

The premise of American Gods is that every race and nationality settling in America has, by worshipping its own Gods, brought them to the new world. However in a society where they are largely forgotten they have lost many of their powers, but live on in the margins. It is their world into which Mr Wednesday (it shouldn't take too much thought to work out his true identity) draws Shadow to act as an odd job man, bodyguard and courier. It is a world where the cultural melting pot of America is mirrored in a bewildering mix of Gods and deities from Norse, Egyptian, Indian, middle European, Native American, and many other religions and mythologies.

However the old Gods are under threat as America worships the car, the computer and capitalism, and these new subjects of devotion become aggressively embodied, seeking to wipe out their forbears.

American Gods is a massively ambitious work, seeking to explore, through this fantastical netherworld, the very soul of America. It is also an interesting work to categorise. Very obviously it is a work of fantasy. However, if Gaiman wasn't already pigeon-holed as a genre writer, and perhaps if he wasn't a Brit writing about America, this could easily be seen as a magical realist work.

It is a very dark, multi-stranded book, asking, for example, through a small town in which Shadow becomes a temporary resident, to what extent America, and by extrapolation we, ourselves , are prepared to turn a blind eye to evil in order to preserve a comfortable, affluent lifestyle. While setting up a war between the old Gods and the new, Gaiman also suggests that behind it all, humankind's true, and enduring, Gods are chaos, death and destruction.

American Gods is almost Reithian in the extent to which it entertains, educates and informs. For instance, before reading it I knew nothing of the death of the "All Father" tied to a tree with a spear in his side. That his son later suffers the same fate as part of saving America echoes the Christian story in an almost deafening manner.

Finally, I would say that Gaiman is a wonderful writer of prose, his use of language is clever, economical and evocative. To give just one, small, example which struck me "Then she jumped down from the sill, onto the bed,where she wrapped herself into a curl of fur, and went back to sleep, a circle of cat on the old counterpane."

Highly recommended.

Rapoo Super Mini Wireless Mouse black
Rapoo Super Mini Wireless Mouse black
Price: £19.99

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars if you don't like using a touchpad or mini joystick on a laptop, 3 Nov 2014
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
This is probably ideal for ocassional use, possibly when travelling, if you don't like using a touchpad or mini joystick on a laptop. It is very small, probably too small for regular comfortable use, but it is an easy to use,fast, sensitive mouse.

It connects wirelessly via a small USB plug-in which is stored in a socket on the underside when the mouse when not in use.

Using Windows 7, it is straightforward "plug and play".

One concern is that it feels a bit lightweight, so I'm not sure how robust and long-lasting it will be.

AEG DB5210-U 4 Safety Plus Steam Iron, 0.3 Litre, 2200 Watt
AEG DB5210-U 4 Safety Plus Steam Iron, 0.3 Litre, 2200 Watt
Price: £40.51

5.0 out of 5 stars Good, high quality iron, 3 Nov 2014
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
It'squite difficult to review an iron. It's an iron. It makes things flat. So this is more of an instinctive than a factual, objective review. Everything about this iron feels good. It comes up to heat nice and quickly. It gives a good steady level of steam. It glides nicely, giving a quick, smooth job. The controls are easy to use and reach, and the reservoir is easy to fill.

The USP for this iron is the alarm and switch off if it is knocked over or left face down for 30 secs. That feels like rather a long time to me.

Still, gimmicks aside, its a very good iron.

The Dreaming Void: The Void trilogy: Book One
The Dreaming Void: The Void trilogy: Book One
Price: £4.49

3.0 out of 5 stars Every rose has a thorn, 1 Nov 2014
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
The Void is a vast, mysterious area of space which threatens to engulf the rest of the Galaxy. The powerful alien Raiel have established defences on a stellar scale to hinder expansion and also to prevent access to the Void as such access seems to trigger expansion.

Within the human diaspora, there is a different view of the Void. Centuries before people passed in and established a society mediaeval in its technology and structure but vastly advanced in its telepathic and telekinetic powers. One man in the outer universe has been able, through dreams, to make a connection with Edeard, a lowly apprentice living in a backward village on a planet within the Void.

Based on Inigo's dreams which tell the story of Edeard's career and ascent through society, a vast quasi-religous movement called the Living Dream has emerged. Their aim is follow the journey to the Void, and as the main part of the book opens they have announced the forthcoming launch of their mission.

This causes crisis across a factionalised galaxy. Another alien race, the Ocisen, launch a battle fleet to intercept the Living Dream. Within the human worlds where there is a drift towards mental ascension into a digital universe, different factions squabble over the pace of evolution and the part which can be played by the Void.

A spanner is thrown into the works by the emergence of a second dreamer, initially unaware of being linked to the Void, but for whom the different factions launch a desperate search, seeking to validate their positions.

The Dreaming Void, the first of a trilogy, is set, several centuries on, in the same Commonwealth universe as Pandora's Star and Judas Unchained. However the development of life extending and relifing technology mean that many characters from the earlier works reappear to the extent that it is difficult to view this as a standalone trilogy. It is quite a few years since I read the preceding books and I often struggled with the level of pre-knowledge required to understand fully the actions of some of the characters.

The first stage of the saga, in a classic rags to riches tale of a gifted boy hero, takes Edeard from his lowly beginnings as a village apprentice using his telekinetic powers in genetic engineering, to his first successes in the major city of his world. In the outside universe, the second dreamer's identity is on the verge of being revealed, while agents of the different factions, jostle, often violently, for position, as the wider game being played begins to emerge.

Overall this is a typical Hamilton work. He has three main strengths, firstly his ability to come up with the big single idea. The return of the dead in Night's Dawn, the psychotically xenophobic Primes in the initial Commonwealth books, and here the whole idea of the Void. Secondly there is his characteristic weaving of multiple threads. Finally, it must be said he is a good yarn spinner, he is good at driving a story along at a pace which leaves the reader wanting more but which also manages to skate over the many plot holes.

However, and it is a big however, the way in which he sketches in the detail leaves much to be desired. Firstly he is a supreme magpie of the genre. The whole edifice of a mediaeval fantasy set within a galaxy spanning high tech war for survival is a direct lift from Verner Vinge's Fire Upon the Deep. The virtually impregnable super soldiers are clearly recognisable from gaming and its associated authors such as Neal Ascherson and Richard Morgan. The factions within human society have a great debt to those in Reynolds' Revelation Space. Secondly, while better science fiction retains recognisably human characters within a fantastical setting, Hamilton's basic future society seems to ossified around 20th/21st century mall culture. It is a universe of adolescent male wish-fulfilment. Characters seem to live on a diet of teenage comfort food and sex is readily available, commitment free, and unfailingly fabulous. The women are a combination of protective mothers, worshiping and enthusiastic lovers, and scheming harridans with the odd gutsy heroine thrown in for good measure. This is a highly conservative universe.

If I compare Hamilton and two of his main contemporaries with rock bands, Iain M Banks is Muse, completely over the top and bonkers, but with both an intelligent core and a knowing wink to the reader that he is revelling in the sheer fun of writing. Alastair Reynolds is darker, heavier, more like Metallica. Hamilton on the other hand is 80s hair metal. Initially bright and beguiling, but eventually unsatisfying and at best a guilty pleasure, at worst leaving the reader with a slightly distasteful, grubby feeling.

The Humans
The Humans
Price: £2.69

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars The Curious Incident of Rosie the Alchemist's Guide to the 3rd Rock fron the Sun .... And Mindy, 1 Nov 2014
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This review is from: The Humans (Kindle Edition)
I feel I must start by apologising to the many people who seem to love this book so much. I'm afraid that it seriously didn't do it for me. When in the late 70's, Douglas Adams wrote that human beings were so amazingly primitive that they still thought that digital watches were a pretty neat idea, it was original, fresh and done with a lightness of touch which bordered on genius. Trying to pull off the same trick here, getting on for 40 years later, author Matt Haig comes across as lumpen and unoriginal, repeatedly banging his point home with a sledgehammer. Indeed, the first quarter of the book comes across a bit like a school creative writing project, "tonight's homework, class, is to write an alien's first impressions upon landing on earth."

This is the story of an alien who takes over the body of Cambridge maths professor, Andrew Martin, in an attempt to stop his proof of a theorem becoming known, as this will have dire consequences for the rest of the galaxy. He is a cold, logical being, thrown into the turmoil of Andrew's dysfunctional family. His mission is to kill all who may have knowledge of the achievement, and while he initially tackles his task with gusto, he soon starts to have doubts as he learns what it is to be human. Therein lies my first problem. The plotting is achingly simplistic. Emotionless alien starts to learn what it is to be human. If you haven't read the book, you now have sufficient knowledge to sketch out 60% of the story. If I say that he has problems in his relationship with his teenage son(it's just so unfair, I hate you), bang, you now have another 20%. And so on.

My biggest problem is that the story doesn't follow its own logic. This is a work of speculative fiction, a satirical fantasy, and as such a necessary part of reading it is to accept it on its own terms, and to suspend disbelief. However, by not following his own logic, the author constantly breaks his own illusion, shifting the scenery, to make the backstage machinery visible through a complete lack of consistency in terms of what the alien does and doesn't know. This race of super-intelligent aliens have observed the earth so closely that they know when a mathematical theorem has been proved, and yet they don't know what a road is. "The minimal research he had done before arriving suggested that Ford Prefect would be an inconspicuous name" Is a brilliant satire on lazy travel writing, the inconsistencies in this book, on the other hand, are just a bit rubbish. The invading alien doesn't know about clothes, and yet he instantly, on first meeting Andrew's wife,recognises her eyes as being tired. The alien's level of human understanding is, at any point, governed purely by what is required for the author to set up his next gag or big scene.

The whole scenario of the tangential, disengaged, observer has been played out, much more successfully to my mind, by other authors, with more charm in the Rosie Project, and with more genuine sensitivity and feeling in the Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time. In choosing the cover for the paperback, the publishers have shamelessly tried to cash in on the popularity of Mark Haddon's superior work. It smacks of, "One for the fans of..", "Try this if you liked ...." . That lack of really saying anything genuinely new and meaningful was another difficulty I had. I'm afraid when it comes to profundity this book strikes me as being dangerously close to the Paulo Coelho/Alchemist school of bland homilies rather than really illuminating the human condition.

My final main criticism could mark me down as hopelessly geeky and rather missing the point, but here goes. The central character is a mathematically advanced alien living in the body of a world renowned authority on hard sums. And he gets the maths wrong. Not once, but again and again and again. Basically it reads as if Haig has read the bluffers' guide to maths, picked up some apparently impressive phrases, and then used them with no understanding of their meaning. This, however, is not a complaint about incorrect mathematics. It is a complaint about poor research, poor checking, poor editorial oversight. If Haig had written a book about a history don, I feel pretty sure he would've got the facts correct.

I've given the book a hard time, but in truth it's not terrible. It's inoffensive, kind hearted and occasionally buried amidst the platitudes, particularly near the end when he writes a list if rules for life for his son, there is the odd snort out loud with laughter moment. To steal from Douglas Adams a final time, Mostly Harmless, two and a half stars.

Oh, and Newton the dog is great.

The Village
The Village
by Nikita Lalwani
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.62

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Alienation - 3.5 stars, 18 Oct 2014
This review is from: The Village (Paperback)
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
Ray is a BBC programme maker of Indian descent who travels to the sub-continent to make a film about a radical open prison. The prison is one where the inmates, all of whom are killers, are free to work in the outside world, and can have their families living with them. It is the Village of the title. On her journey she is accompanied by fellow film maker Serena, and by the planned programme's presenter, ex-convict Nathan.

Through the story , and as the documentary is put together, we learn the histories of some of the inmates, the strong, principled Nandini, the tragic Daulath, the entrepreneurial Ratrap. However, this is not really the story of the prison, of its inmates, or indeed of its Indian setting.

Its is a story about the relationship between the three documentary makers, their in fighting and petty jealousies. It is a claustrophobic environment, with the three westerners forced together into a world where every word or action seems to be overloaded with meaning.

It is an account of a culture clash and massive cultural insensitivity. While the inmates of the prison are all murderers, they are also very conventional, and are shocked by the drug taking and sexual liberality of the journalists. Lalwani unfavourably compares the arguably irresponsibly taken freedoms of the film crew with the strict morality of the supposed criminals, many of whom, it emerges, are really victims of their society. The blurb describes the book as a morality tale. If it is, on this level it is a pretty conservative one.

It is an uncomplimentary portrait of documentary film making. Serena and to a lesser extent Ray are deeply manipulative, working to generate confrontation, trauma and artificial drama with the sole aim of generating voyeuristic entertainment. Nathan is a selfish chancer with no empathy for the subjects of the drama.

So this is a highly intelligent and thought provoking piece of writing, and yet I never really engaged with it. There are probably two reasons for that. Firstly I found the three central characters pretty unattractive. Serena is an ambitious bully, Nathan is a cocky, testosterone fuelled Chancer, and Ray comes across as rather a self obsessed, self pitying whiner. Even when she reaches her Damascene moment at the end, her response seems weak and cowardly.

Secondly, there comes a point where good writing is in danger of becoming self consciously literary. I'm afraid Lalwani rather crosses this line and breaks the fourth wall to the extent that the writing ceases to be inclusive and evocative, and starts to become intrusive, shouting for attention. "her pony tail bobbed with crazy asymmetry", "the English spoken a zig zag of local accent and quick rhythm". It also manifests itself in playing with tenses. At one point, one of the characters refers to a documentary having more impact when it is told in the present tense. From then on the reader becomes all to aware of the author switching between tenses for effect.

So, overall,this is a three and a half star book. It is better than just OK, but I found the characters and writing style too alienating for me to describe it as good.

Hotpoint Hand Blenders 3 in 1, 700 Watt, Silver
Hotpoint Hand Blenders 3 in 1, 700 Watt, Silver
Price: £43.94

5.0 out of 5 stars Leave the bulky food processor in the cupboard, 7 Oct 2014
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
This is a really good piece of kitchen equipment. The core is a stick blender, which in and of itself would be excellent. It's a good powerful example of its type, it has variable speeds and it blasts through the chunkiest soup I've made.

So, I would recommend it just for that, but it is the additional attachments which really lift this product. They are extremely useful for those times when would get the food processor out of the cupboard, but it feels like a bit of overkill for the size of job you are doing.

First up there is whisk, which used in conjunction with the measuring goblet can whip up, for example, a yorkshire pudding or an omelette mix in no time at all.

Secondly, there is the chopping bowl. To try it out I put in all of the ingredients for a hummus with virtually no chopping. Put the lid on, fit the motor unit into the top, press the button and , shazzam, instant chick pea dip.

Definitely recommended

Greenpan Venice 24 cm Ceramic Non-Stick Open Frypan, Grey Aluminium
Greenpan Venice 24 cm Ceramic Non-Stick Open Frypan, Grey Aluminium
Price: £29.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent sturdy small- medium frying pan, 30 Sep 2014
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
This is a nice sturdy small to medium sized frying pan. Admittedly it can take over a year to truly judge a pan, does the non stick remain non stick, does the handle stay firmly attached etc etc, but first signs are excellent.

The build quality feels excellent, and the ceramic non stick is very very non stick. The handle though metal doesn't get hit on the hob, and the whole thing feels nicely balanced.

It's not big enough to cook a full breakfast in, but for general frying, omelletes for example, for one person, its spot on.

The Paying Guests
The Paying Guests
Price: £6.99

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, 27 Sep 2014
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This review is from: The Paying Guests (Kindle Edition)
Frances Wray and her mother live in a large house in South London. Solidly middle class, they have been left in poverty by the death of her father whose reckless investments frittered away the family fortune. Financially troubled, they have also been left emotionally bereft by the death of Frances' brothers in the Great War. Into this world of sad and shabby gentility burst the Barbers, the Paying Guests, the "clerk class" lodgers to whom Frances and her mother are forced to rent part of the house in order to bolster their income. Len works in insurance, Lil,Lily, Lillian has a delicious desperation to be something more than her mundane working class roots.

The first part of the novel is a wonderful study of claustrophobia, as Frances' (the choice of name is surely deliberate) house is invaded, in what seems to be an echo of the previous conflict and a prediction of the next, by the brash outsiders. Frances and her mother are trapped in their own rooms by the words, laughter, footsteps, bumps and scrapings of the interlopers.

From there Waters moves the story on to a familiar theme, and one she handles extremely skilfully, as the house is once more taken over, this time by an exquisite and almost unbearable sexual tension. It did strike me that this element of the tale was moving on too fast to be whole story, anD indeed that is the case. A repeated motif throughout the book is Anna Karenina. While Waters may not show any happy families being similar, she does show unhappy families being unhappy in their own and wildly different ways. However, as the book reaches its centre the reason for the rapid development is revealed as there is a sudden and shocking switch and what we are confronted with is not Tolstoy, but Crime and Punishment. For most of the rest of the way, it is not a highly charged love story, but a tale of guilt, deception and pursuit by an apparently remorseless detective.

Comparing this to other work by the same author, in tone it seemed to have more in common with her sexually powered victorian melodramas than with the gentle loss and longing of the Little Stranger, and it doesn't reach the quality of Waters', to date, greatest work, the Night Watch.

The strengths of the book are what one would expect. Waters is terrific at creating a sense of place, in this case both in the dim claustrophobia of Frances's house, and in portraying the sight sound and feel of early 20th century London. She is also a writer of great intensity, the claustrophobia of the start, the eroticism of the central section, the guilt , paranoia and eventual exhaustion of the end. After a fairly low key start, she quickly turns all of the dials up to 11 and keeps them there most of the way.

Her female characters are thoroughly convincing, I was completely swept up with Frances and Lillian, and there is a delightful section fairly early on where Frances and her mother have their middle class sensibilities exposed to Lillian's chattering, squabbling, gregarious extended working class family. The male characters are perhaps less successful, Len is much more of a stereotype, a caricature, as is Spencer Ward, character who emerges later.

This is also an excellently plotted novel, as seemingly minor events come to have a much greater significance later on. It almost feels like Waters puts up the screen of the love story in the first half while behind it she is building the architecture of the second half which she reveals with a flourish as she shocks the reader with the significant event at the centre of the book. The strength of the plotting is also evident in the way she keeps the reader guessing right to the end. In fact the end itself, while fully conclusive from one angle, leaves things intriguingly open as to the eventual fate of the central characters.

This is a morally ambivalent, or at least non-judgemental book. There are certainly victims an perpetrators, but who the real villains are, and who their genuine victims are is not clear. Perhaps Waters is saying that it is all relative and depends on the perspective from which events are viewed. Maybe that it the meaning of the end as she gives the reader the opportunity to judge the characters and determine their ultimate fate.

So, in summary, this is an intelligent and gripping read. I'm not sure it is a book to read if you are looking for relaxation , it's far too tense for that. Finally, while not quite up with her best work, It is too melodramatic for that, this is definitely worth the investment of your time and money.

Hama Dispersion Headset -  Blue
Hama Dispersion Headset - Blue
Price: £13.11

3.0 out of 5 stars For computer use, not smartphone or tablet, 27 Sep 2014
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
This is a set of headphones suitable for computer use. The blurb refers to using them with an ipod, and indeed they can be plugged in and used to listen to music. What they are not really suitable for is use with iphone or ipad. This is because the headset includes two jack plugs, one for the headphones, one for the microphone. If you use them as remote headphones on a smartphone or tablet, you are relying on the microphone in the device, not the one in the headset.

That aside, the appearance is fairly cheap and nasty, and the sound quality is probably what you'd expect from a pair of headphones at this price.

So, it really comes down to what you are looking for, if you want a headset to use with a computer, and aren't too worried about high quality sound, this may well be for you.

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