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P. G. Harris
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Wolfhound Century
Wolfhound Century
Price: £4.31

5.0 out of 5 stars Steampunk noir thriller in an alternative universe with a Dickensian feel, 18 May 2015
This review is from: Wolfhound Century (Kindle Edition)
Vissarian Lom is a detective in a provincial town in an alternative Russia. He is good at his job, but not popular with hid superiors. So far, so noir.

However, it is the 'alternative Russia' part which makes Wolfhound Century interesting. It is never actually referred to as Russia, but the timbre of the place names and the nature of the countryside point strongly in that direction. Lom is called to the city of Mirgorod, reminiscent in its geography of Leningrad/St Petersburg to investigate a sinister gangster, Josef Kantor.

Having established his Eurasian canvas, author Peter Higgins hurls a great deal of mainly dark-hued paint at it. The setting is a totalitarian state in a seemingly pre-revolutionary turmoil. It is a society continually at war with the "Archipelago", which may be hinting at the Crimea. There is a definite whiff of steampunk in the technology. But then come the more fantastical elements. Giants are a normal part of society, but most importantly there is an alien war happening off stage, from which dead combatants fall to earth. Now,however, a live, but injured alien is trapped in the forest, and is increasingly influencing events. Finally, there are overlapping realities as different futures compete for fulfilment, creating echoes of China Mieville's City and the City or of branching quantum universes.

There is also a great deal of symbolism here. The violently manipulative criminal Josef Kantor nods towards the youthful Stalin, or indeed Hitler. The hard, rock like alien, destroying the forest is surely a metaphor for industrialisation, and a classic Apollonian/Dionysian dichotomy.

This is a highly violent book, full of bombings, disembowellings, beheadings, stabbings and shootings, but it manages to keep just far enough away voyeuristically wallowing in the blood and gore.

The main strength of Higgins' writing is not,however, the sheer volume of ideas he throws at the reader, though that is impressive enough. The biggest pleasure here is the evocative sense of place. His descriptions of the claustrophobic city are excellent, but he really comes into his own when Lom escapes with a young woman into the marshes outside the city. In that section, I suddenly found myself in the opening chapters of Great Expectations, or in Waterland, albeit marshes in which Magwitch has become a calcified alien killing machine.

Other books which this brought to mind, were 1984, Alastair Reynolds' Century Rain, and Kafka's Castle.

The quality of the writing is a long way above average Science Fiction, making this an exhausting read. It is the first book of a trilogy, but I think I'll have a bit of a rest before trying the second book.


Pearl Oyster Mushroom Kitchen Garden Grow Your Own Kit
Pearl Oyster Mushroom Kitchen Garden Grow Your Own Kit
Price: £18.95

4.0 out of 5 stars Fun foodie present rather than economic mushroom source, 14 May 2015
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
I am close being ready to harvest my first crop of mushrooms, whether it will stretch to a second crop remains to be seen, but thus far it is meeting its specification.

Things I like about it
- it is doing what it is designed to do - grow mushrooms
- I like the fact that this is a piece of recycled technology, the growing medium is old coffee grounds
- it's always fun to grow ones own
- I followed the instructions, it worked.
Things which could be improved
- one has to soak things for 12 hours, finding a vessel big enough and a weight heavy enough maybe a problemt unless you have a spare washing up bowl and house brick lying around
- the instructions are a little imprecise "spray twice a day" How much water?"
- the kit comes with a spray attachment but no bottle. "Attach to a suitable water bottle" What is suitable? In fact a bog standard Buxton Water (other brands are available) bottle does the job.
- You do end up with a soggy, wilting cardboard box.

At the end of the day, this is probably a fun novelty present for a foodie than a economic way of growing mushrooms.
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Poseidon's Wake
Poseidon's Wake
Price: £9.99

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, 4 May 2015
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This review is from: Poseidon's Wake (Kindle Edition)
Is there any point to life if we know, as individuals and as a species, that not only is there no long term future, but the universe could end at any moment wiping out us and all of our works? No memories, no legacy, no descendants, nothing. That is the central theme of what is apparently the final book of Alastair Reynolds' Poseidon's Children trilogy. In it a cast of characters who hark back in part to Greek mythology, a merman, giants (in the form of elephants) and a god-like woman, as well as machine intelligences and ordinary humans, confront technology left behind by a vastly advanced alien civilisation.

Just as with Blue Remembered Earth and On a Steel Breeze, there is a gap of many years between the end of the second book in the trilogy and the start of this. Once again we are introduced to a new generation of the Akinye family, this time in the person of Goma, granddaughter of Chiku, who was the centre of the second work at the end of which, Chiku, the machine intelligence based on her great grandmother Eunice and the elephant/Tantor Dakota left the new world of Crucible with the mysterious alien machines, the Watchkeepers. Now with a functioning city on Crucible, a message is received asking specifically for Ndege, Goma's mother, an old woman under house arrest following an horrendous but unspecified crime.

A mission is put together, but it is one crewed by a politically expedient group including the quasi-religious second chancers, who oppose the very journey on which they are embarking.

Meanwhile, back in earth's solar system, Kanu, from another branch of the Akinyes, acting as an ambassador to the autonomous machine intelligences of Mars, also hears of the message and sets his sights on the distant world of Gliese 163.

In his earlier works, in particular the Revelation Space novels, Reynolds wrote space operas, but the were very much inflected with the language of cyberpunk. They portrayed a universe in the grips of a dark technological nightmare, where different strands of humanity fought for supremacy over diseased technology, while in the background there was the threat of the malevolent Inhbitors.

Poseidon's Children as a whole comes across as the more optimistic cousin of the earlier works. It has its dark sides, but overall the tone is fundamentally positive. Different characters vie for supremacy, certainly, but in the end, everyone turns out to be basically decent, and even a seemingly horrendous war crime turns out to be less than it appears. If anything this harks back to the golden age of science fiction and the classic space opera of Asimov, Heinlein Clarke. If Revelation Space was Metallica, this is the Mamas and the Papas.

It is in its darker moments that Poseidon's Wake is at its most interesting. When it asks questions about the nature of trust and betrayal, about when a pragmatic evil is justified in the interests of long term good and about whether suicide is self-sacrificial, or simply an easier way out than some. At times the indecisive Kanu seems to resemble a Danish prince.

That is not to say that this is a contemplative slow moving work. It is rip roaring hard SF, with all out action sequences,including space battles fought with unconventional weapons, and a thrilling rescue sequence played out on a massive alien artefact.

So, summarising the positives, this is a fast moving science fiction novel which evokes some of the writers of the 50s and 60s. Within that it raises some interesting existential questions. It is also a pleasant change to read a work which is eventually positive and hopeful.

On the downside, I didn't find this as ultimately satisfying as I wanted to. It is big scale SF, but in the end the huge alien machines just felt a bit gratuitous. They were huge for the sake of it, for the sake of appearing awesome, not for any really coherent reason. Also Reynolds raises some interesting questions about the meaning of existence, but then doesn't really seem to attempt to answer them in any depth. Thirdly there are plot threads that peter out to nothing. The Second Chancers exist simply for one plot device, and to allow Goma to espouse rationalism. They felt like a wasted opportunity, or an unnecessary extra.

Overall, I would say good but not great. I enjoyed these three novels,but I am far more likely to re-read Reynolds' earlier work.

Finally, these have been marketed as a trilogy, but there are enough untied ends left at the end that I wouldn't be surprised to see a return to this universe.


Sony HT-XT100 Sound Base Speaker
Sony HT-XT100 Sound Base Speaker
Price: £159.99

1 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars big unit, big sound, 3 May 2015
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
First things first, I don't have a great big **** off telly, and this is one great big unit. It would probably look better with a wider set (say 70 cm wide)

It was pretty easy to set up and delivers vastly better sound than a standard TV speaker. Obviously its not up to a full home cinema system, but it gives some real oomph.

It also works as an audio only unit with blue tooth streaming or a USB port. I tested it with my usual sound test mix.

Speak to me /Breath by pink Floyd for complexity of sound
The first movement of Mahler 1 for delicate sound
Knights of Cydonia by Muse for an all out footstomper
Pump up the volume by Marrs for the base line
Superstition by Stevie Wonder for the top end percussion.

It delivered well across all of them, giving good bright sound at the top end, beautiful clarity in the Mahler, but it was the heavy stiff, Muse and Marrs where it really came into its own, turning listening into an even more physical experience than usual.


Lexar Professional JumpDrive S25 16GB USB 3.0 (150MB/s) Retractable Design Flash Drive Memory Stick - Teal
Lexar Professional JumpDrive S25 16GB USB 3.0 (150MB/s) Retractable Design Flash Drive Memory Stick - Teal
Offered by SuministrosMarchena
Price: £9.65

4.0 out of 5 stars Fast but plasticky, 3 May 2015
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
Physically, this feels pretty plasticky, and not very robust. The USB connector is retractable, which is always something I like. On a minor point, it comes with a split ring and cord loop, presumably for attaching to a key ring. It goes through the slot visible at the bottom of the device. It is extremely fiddly to attach.

The main selling point of this is that it is fast. I did a moderately unscientific test against two other 16 Gb USB sticks on my desk, transferring the same 3Gb of audio files to all of them. The timings were

Lexar professional JumpDrive S25 - this one - 3 mins 47 sec
Kingston DTSE9 - 8 mins 08 sec
SanDisk Cruzer Blade - 13 mins 24 sec

So against those two, it came out as pretty fast


Orfeo
Orfeo
Price: £4.79

5.0 out of 5 stars Orpheus in the Avant Garde, 28 April 2015
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This review is from: Orfeo (Kindle Edition)
Peter Els is a retired composer, attached to a university where he delivers part time lectures on the subject of the 20th century avant-garde. One night his dog dies, and the police who come to investigate become suspicious of the amateur micro-biology lab he has set up in his house. As Peter panics and blindly flees, we learn in flashback of his history, from childhood to middle age, and of the themes of his life which have lead him to a position where he is shocked from his quiet ageing bohemian lifestyle to being a suspected bio-terrorist on the run.

The central theme of Orfeo is music, as Peter is at first entranced by classical orchestral music, with Mozart's Jupiter symphony catalysing a love and a career. Then, as he grows up, an endless search for originality drives him to the avant grade. Peter is no melodic Orpheus, charming his listeners, and his dissonance and disharmony would drive sirens away rather than drowning them out with his beauty.

After a first love deserts him, Peter falls into a triangular relationship, with his future wife Maddy, a singer, and Richard Bonner, an anarchic choreographer who is to become his lifetime collaborator. Strangely, their relationship brought to mind that between Newman, Redford and Katherine Ross in Butch Cassidy and indeed there is a similar echo as the book reaches its conclusion. Equally, the early sections of the book are reminiscent of Vikram Seth's "An Equal Music" as author Powers writes passionately about the music which engulfs his hero's life.

Powers links Els's career with his later-life scientific hobby with the suggestion that music is a form of virus, which, when released on the world either dies quickly, or moves rapidly from person to person, mutating as it spreads.

In addition to the music, Orfeo is, in common with much contemporary American literature a book about the War on Terror, or more specifically about the effect of the conflict on domestic society. As Peter panics and runs from the authorities, so the media picks up his story and sensationalises it, turning him into a 21st century bogeyman, the "bio hacker Bach". Here perhaps Powers introduces a third form of virus as media hysteria infects the country and completely unconnected outbreaks of infection are blamed on the septuagenarian.

As a hero, Peter Els is a pretty unlikeable character. He seems almost incapable of genuine love, possibly as a result of his early rejection. He is capable of strong sentiment certainly, apparent in his sense of loss on the death of his dog, and his early relationship with his daughter, but the fact that he can cast anyone aside in his selfish pursuit of his muse throws doubt on the depths of his genuine humanity. He is an exasperating character, frequently making the wrong life choices in striving for his musical goals. And therein lies another frustration, he admits that he wants his music to be loved, but he goes about achieving this by writing pieces seemingly designed to alienate his audience.

In the weaker moments of the book, that charge of being exasperating could be laid against the author. This is a challenging, intelligent, and entertaining book, but every so often I found myself wondering if he wasn't going too far, becoming over elaborate in his prose, and getting dangerously close to Pseud's corner.

One area which Powers leaves open to doubt is his attitude to the avant garde. At one level, Orfeo could be read as a pretty damning critique, seeing much experimental art as being decadent, self indulgent, incapable of connecting with anyone outside a small circle of those in the know, and championed by selfish narcissists. Alternatively it also sees the avant garde as simply being the vanguard of future taste, and being a necessary form of rebellion in which genius can flourish. Shostakovich in particular represents the rebellious genius here.

To conclude, this will probably be a marmite book, but if you are prepared to go with it, it is a bold,fiercely intelligent, exhilarating work which tackles some big themes head on. Even if this wasn't an excellent read, it deserves five stars simply for its ambition.


Europe In Autumn
Europe In Autumn
Price: £3.99

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Le Carre rewritten by Mieville, 6 April 2015
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This review is from: Europe In Autumn (Kindle Edition)
First things first, Europe in Autumn is tremendous fun. Rudi is an Estonian chef working in a Polish Restaurant in a Europe which has fragments into hundreds of tiny states, which co-exist in a tense peaceful hostility. Rudi is recruited into a shadowy intelligence organisation which seems to be working to encourage free movement across the myriad network of new borders which slice Europe into a dizzying mosaic.

It's some time since I came across a book where I had so little feel for what I was reading. It starts off as a sort of Le Carre style spy story, full of trade craft, clandestine drops and confused identities. Indeed, author Dave Hutchinson explicitly references Smiley's creator. Suddenly, about halfway through it morphs into the world of the earlier and more action-oriented British spy thriller. Step forward James Bond, and a world of guns, gadgets and over the top chase and fight scenes. In the final section, it just goes (in a thoroughly entertaining fashion) completely bonkers, as it moves from being a future history to showing more overt science fiction chops. Science fiction, or maybe fantasy, although I use the latter term in its more modern sense and the New Weird, rather than meaning swords and sorcery.

While the complete fragmentation of Europe may stretch the bounds of credibility a little (but that's nothing compared to where we end up), on the whole Hutchinson writes with sufficient conviction and gusto to carry the story. On the way he brings in some great ideas,not least of which is the Line, a railway running from Portugal to Siberia, which has declared UDI.

As well as telling a good story, Europe in Autumn is interestingly structured. It's a bit like being given a airfix kit without instructions, or even having a picture of the finished model. The first half feels like a set of unfinished short stories, a collection of seemingly unconnected vignettes from the life of a spy in a near future world. As the book goes on, Hutchison leans over the readers shoulder and gradually cements all of the pieces into a coherent whole.

In terms of other authors, Hutchison brings to mind a pinch of Ken Macleod's politics, a few grains of Adam Roberts fragmentary Europe from New Model Army, with an underlying base of China Mieville. There is even,a slight hint (although it is something of an insult to a book this good, this intelligent, to make the connection) of Peter F Hamilton.

In summary, this could be approached as spy thriller, future history, SF fantasy, or Cold War allegory, but above all, as I started by saying, enormously enjoyable.


Brunton Power Knife Multi USB Charger
Brunton Power Knife Multi USB Charger
Offered by Leisure Lakes Bikes
Price: £22.49

4.0 out of 5 stars Convenient and also inconvenient, 4 April 2015
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This is basically a USB power lead with three outputs, micro USB, earlier iPhone (up to 4) and later iPhone (5 and up). As such it also works with iPad. You need to supply your own plug/transformer. The USB's USP is its size. It folds down into being the size of a standard pen knife as deployed by the Swiss Armed forces. There is therefore no long wire to loop up. The downside is that it is not convenient with every socket. The rubberised leads/blades are short and not terribly flexible. For example I tried using mine on a Virgin train and had to have my phone sitting on my leg, the lead wouldn't stretch round onto the table. However, as someone who hates fighting with the spaghetti of multiple leads, I'm prepared to live with that.


Purina ONE Adult Wet Chicken & Beef Mini Fillets in Gravy, 8 x 85 g (Pack of 5)
Purina ONE Adult Wet Chicken & Beef Mini Fillets in Gravy, 8 x 85 g (Pack of 5)
Price: £14.55

4.0 out of 5 stars The cats like it at the moment, 4 April 2015
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
Well, the only consumers who matter seem to love this. Both of my cats wolf it down, although there is occassionally the problem of the gravy being licked off and the tasty meaty chunks being left behind. Of course, in a week's time they'll turn their noses up at it and pretend to bury it, but that's cats for you. I'd prefer if it came in recyclable tins rather than pouches. I'd also prefer if the marketing didn't refer to 'she'. Why do marketing wonks seem to think that all dogs are male and all cats female?


A Stranger in My Own Country: The 1944 Prison Diary
A Stranger in My Own Country: The 1944 Prison Diary
by Hans Fallada
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £18.18

5.0 out of 5 stars Utterly Fascinating, 2 April 2015
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
I knew Hans Fallada's work only from having read Alone in Berlin, his novel of low level German resistance to the Nazis. A Stranger in my Own Country is his memoirs covering the period from shortly after the Nazis ascent to power to his period of incarceration in a psychiatric hospital in 1944.

This is an absolute fascinating read, on a historical level, on a literary level, on a personal level and on a political level. It is a work in which humour, tenderness and terror are never far apart. That is beautifully illustrated in one fairly early section when he goes for a walk in the park with his young son with "Teddy" swung between them, only for Fallada to be arrested by SA thugs for criticising the Nazi regime. On the way to gaol he narrowly escapes being murdered by his captors, but then, when in a police cell he is allowed to play cards with two other prisoners. The two guards who independently allow him to do this are desperate for him not to reveal their leniency to the other.

Despite being an autobiography, a Stranger in my Own Country strongly echoes works of fiction. In a direct link to Brecht and Arturo Ui, Fallada compares Hitler and his government to Chicago mobsters. As he struggles with the malign totalitarian bureaucracy, the other writer brought to mind is unsurprisingly Kafka. Fallada is living in one of the societies which gave birth to Kafka's works. Even though he is writing a non-fiction, his own non-fiction, the author is still very much a story-teller; his account of a farm-boy who rises to control a major publishing house takes on the feel of a classic Germanic fairy tale or morality story. On a more modern, non-fiction note note, this also brought to mind "Burying the Typewriter", an account of living under Communism in Roumania. In his rebellion which could appear irresponsible in a family man, Fallada is reminiscent of the father in the later work.

Fallada is a very honest narrator, never failing to recognise his own failings and stupidities. What gives him additional interest is his context. In a long section in the latter part of the book he catalogues the bickerings and petty jealousies of village life. These would all be very run of the mill, except for the fact that they become sinister and menacing when the self important mayor is a Party member in the Third Reich. More problematic is when Fallada talks about Jewish acquaintances and indulges in some pretty crude racial stereotyping. On the other hand he describes himself as a philosemite. While some of his views are uncomfortable to the modern ear, I don't think he is guilty of the classic racist "some of my best friends are Jews". It feels more like someone who starts off genuinely without prejudice gradually becomes tainted by living for so long in a poisonous society.

Just as I had little awareness of German Resistance until reading Alone in Berlin, here I learned about the concept of "inward emigration" and the viewpoints of those hostile to the Nazis but who remained in Germany. This is closely linked with a strong sense of patriotism. Early on Fallada blames Britain and France for the rise of Hitler, and in a later, astonishing, episode, a leading publisher who has fled the country, returns to fight once the war breaks out. The question the author raises is where true heroism lies, with those who fled the country and criticised the regime from afar, or those who stayed and were forced into compromises with the fascists in order to stay alive, just as Fallada himself wrote the screenplay, albeit heavily edited by others, for propaganda films.

While one is left wanting more, this is a short book for the period it covers with long stretches of time skated over, it is what a brave man was able to write in secret while incarcerated. The only real wrong note is in the translation which is occasionally self-consciously modern. To have a member of the educated literary elite referring to friends as "mate" doesn't ring true.

Overall this is a stunning book. It is a self aware portrait of the everyday life under a brutally evil regime. That Fallada himself comes across as flawed only adds to the fascination. It is also a highly readable book.as I said earlier, he is, at heart , a talented storyteller.

One final point, it is depressing,less than a century after this was written, to live in a Europe where populist xenophobes are once more influencing the political agenda.


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