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Bob Sherunkle (London, UK)

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God is an Astronaut
God is an Astronaut
by Alyson Foster
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 16.99

3.0 out of 5 stars Planet Earth is blue, is there something I can do?, 30 Jun 2014
This review is from: God is an Astronaut (Hardcover)
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
Left to her own devices, Jessica would probably be more than happy to be an obscure but happy botany professor and mother-of-two. However, her nerd/alpha-male/workaholic husband Liam is a key member of Spaceco, a company which offers the rich trips orbiting the Earth. When one of their rockets crashes, not surprisingly killing all the passengers, Liam (and by association his family) become the focus of national media attention and public censure.

The development of the drains-up on the crash and how Spaceco try to work their way out of disaster is described in, and counterpointed by, Jessica’s email correspondence over six months with her ex-colleague Arthur, now “in the wilds north of Winnipeg”. (We see only Jessica’s own emails, but they give us a pretty good idea of what Arthur says.) Jessica is clearly more in tune with Arthur than with Liam, and as the story progresses the relationship between Jessica and Arthur turns from “will they or won’t they” to “did they or didn’t they”. The third man in the plot is the enigmatic, perceptive film-maker Theo, hired by Spaceco to produce a cinema-verite account of the company’s rehabilitation. There is no romantic interest between Jessica and Theo, but his increasingly incisive observation of her behaviour, though at first it infuriates her, gradually forces her to confront reality.

I enjoyed it up to a point, but it left me unsatisfied:
-There is little to indicate why Jessica married Liam in the first place. To quote Roxette, “it must have been love”, but, rather than Jessica regretting that their relationship has cooled, it doesn’t sound as if there was ever much fire to it. To make it worse, although Jessica is a university professor, Liam drastically talks down to her (shades of Sheldon in Big Bang, but without the humour).
-Although there is a nice twist towards the end, whereby Jessica becomes a possible saviour of Spaceco, the ending is sudden and inconclusive – a whimper rather than a bang.

As the novel is published in June, I assume it may be scheduled for the “holiday reading” market. Personally, I’d prefer something with a little more bite, even when I’m on holiday. (My wife confirmed my assumption that it is aimed at female readers, but she gave up on it after 50 pages, which is why I ended up reviewing it.)

Fabulous Foil Galt
Fabulous Foil Galt
Price: 7.99

3.0 out of 5 stars Good concept, could be realised better, 15 Jun 2014
This review is from: Fabulous Foil Galt (Toy)
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
We had the ideal chance to bench-test this – a caravan holiday with our grand-daughters, aged 7 and 11. They both enjoyed trying out the kit, but we found a few drawbacks.

The view from the 11 year old, who has done lots of craft kits in the past: “The colours and patterns are very good, so the pictures you make are lovely, but the instructions could be clearer, and you end up with several messy bits of paper” (she meant the offcuts). She conceded that she was at the top of the target age group (6 to 11), but we agreed overall with her.

As grandparents, having done several craft kits with two generations, we noticed that this one didn’t keep their attention for very long compared with some other Galt kits (though the 7 year old was a bit more interested, probably because of the novelty value); I’m a little surprised that some reviewers have said it gave their children hours of fun.

The Word Exchange
The Word Exchange
by Alena Graedon
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 8.19

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars À la recherche des mots perdus, 11 Jun 2014
This review is from: The Word Exchange (Hardcover)
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
As a Baby Boomer, I’m one of the unique generation who both had their education a la Gutenberg and have access to the toys of Gates, Zuckerburg et al. (Random case – while writing this review, I was interrupted by my wife asking about a song on a TV film, and a Google lyrics search told me it’s Bob Seger – but my daughter could have answered much quicker using Shazam.)

Having worked in IT for many years, I’ve always regarded it as a two-edged sword, and as with any product launch the owners won’t tell you about the downsides of new applications (well they wouldn’t, would they). A prime example is Wikipedia – a wonderful resource, but with accuracy dependent entirely on collaborators and moderators (not as rigorous as the editors of old-fashioned encyclopaedias).

The Word Exchange takes this one step further, dealing with the downgrading not of knowledge but of language itself. Set some time after 2016, books are dying out – even ebooks don’t get much of a look-in – and the only authoritative American Dictionary is about to print possibly its final edition. People increasingly depend for management of their lives upon the Meme (a 6G mobile?) Then the Dictionary’s editor, Douglas Johnson (middle name Samuel) disappears. The story, told by both his daughter Ana and his colleague Bart (Bartleby), in a plotline vaguely reminiscent of The Da Vinci code, is of Ana’s quest to find her father and to save the Dictionary (which two issues are of course heavily linked). Along the way, the dreaded “word flu”, a virus which simultaneously affects a person’s body and their linguistic skills, becomes an epidemic, and Ana has to peel away several layers of complicity to get to the truth.

I was highly impressed with the way that Alena Graedon has focussed her evidently fertile imagination to make her point. The novel is, almost, the first worthy heir to Orwell’s 1984, but I have some reservations.

One is the occasional over-intellectuality. For example, the book is split into three sections as per Hegel (thesis/antithesis/synthesis), but there is also more than one attempt to make a point by quoting Hegel. If, as owner of a (very mediocre) philosophy degree, I struggled with some parts like this, I suspect a more general readership might be turned off. (Unfortunately some of them may just prefer to spend their time believing whatever they see on a certain social networking website!) Then there are the sometimes obscure literary references - most will know who Samuel Johnson was, but less will know of "Bartleby" (I only found out by accident some years ago). This is a pity, as the novel contains an original, vital message which is told very well.

Another is that it is a slow burn, not really getting going until nearly halfway through. Whatever one may feel about Dan Brown’s command of English, the action of his novels is non-stop from page 1. If, like many readers, you’re looking for a fast-paced thriller, The Word Exchange isn’t for you.

I’m not enough of a techie these days (if I ever was) to judge how well the technology and IT business aspects of the plot stand up, but they look good enough to me.

Scholl Velvet Smooth Pedicure Overnight Foot Mask 60 ml
Scholl Velvet Smooth Pedicure Overnight Foot Mask 60 ml
Price: 7.49

2.0 out of 5 stars A quick fix, not a long-term solution, 11 Jun 2014
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
Review by my daughter, who wasn’t over-impressed, but conceded that she hasn’t found much in the way of alternatives:

“It softened the skin up for a short period of time; I used it before going to bed, and the next day my skin was smoother but not significantly. It did continue to soften up during the day, but it wasn’t a major change and the results didn’t last for more than a couple of days. It would be worth using if you wanted to go barefoot, or were going to wear open shoes for a big occasion.

I have very thick, dry skin on one foot for most of my life (the other foot has normal skin and the podiatrist is happy with it.) I have tried numerous remedies to get rid of this – pumicing, over-moisturisation before putting a sock on overnight and a gadget rather like a cheese grater. Nothing seems to work long term, and it gets repetitive trying different products without much success.

For me , the use of this cream is mainly cosmetic. You would have to use it regularly and frequently if you were trying to really sort out dry skin problems, as I think you would notice missing an application.

Even though it did rub in reasonably well, I still felt I needed to wash my hands afterwards – a bit awkward when you have a foot covered in moisturiser and you have to go down a set of stairs to the bathroom!”

Robo Rover Galt Toy
Robo Rover Galt Toy
Price: 15.99

2.0 out of 5 stars Cheap but not cheerful enough, 26 May 2014
This review is from: Robo Rover Galt Toy (Toy)
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
This would do as a novelty toy, but like many novelties this would probably pall fairly quickly.

My grand-daughter (11) made it in about 10 minutes, but needed adult help. The first few instructions are out of step with the accompanying diagram, and this meant they had to stop and go back to the beginning at one stage.

The toy has LED sensors to detect obstacles; you can adjust the trim on the sensors, but it’s still rather hit and miss as to whether the sensors do their job before the toy runs into something and stops dead. For this sort of price, you can nowadays buy a radio controlled car which performs better.

It is a bit of a negative that there is no cover for the batteries; this isn’t a safety issue so much for the target age-group as for younger children who might prise them loose.

The kit includes stickers which are not particularly impressive, and in a few cases are too big to stick on effectively.

The sound produced by the speakers is a rather annoying whine; fortunately you can switch this off.

Moving the Goalposts: Why Maradona Was Really Useless... How to Win a Penalty Shoot-Out...and 65 More Astonishing Statistical Football Revelations
Moving the Goalposts: Why Maradona Was Really Useless... How to Win a Penalty Shoot-Out...and 65 More Astonishing Statistical Football Revelations
by Rob Jovanovic
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 11.99

5.0 out of 5 stars To quote Gianluca Vialli, "It's an old funny game" ..., 18 May 2014
This treads some of the same ground as Kuper and Szymanski’s “ Soccernomics”, but it doesn’t go into the realms of football economics. It is much more accessible than “Soccernomics”, making it point very concisely in bite-size chunks.

To give you a flavour of the insights given, here are some of the player stats produced:
-Examples of great players who fail to excel in tournament finals – Henry and Ibrahimovic (Henry has never scored in a final for either club or country)
-England had a much higher success rate in games when Jack Charlton was in the team than when Bobby Moore played (as a West Ham fan, it pains me to read this)
-Contrary to the popular view, England play almost as well when both Lampard and Gerrard play as when only one of them is in the team

One could argue that the book isn’t as statistically sound as “Soccernomics”, but I don’t think it’s intended to be; this is a book to dip into quickly.

The Gro Company Height Chart Sticker Set Alfred and The Aliens
The Gro Company Height Chart Sticker Set Alfred and The Aliens
Price: 12.88

4.0 out of 5 stars Amazing height chart, 8 May 2014
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
This looked to me like a fun, brightly coloured chart which most children and parents would like. My son snapped it up, and his comments are as follows:

“The height chart is made of high quality colourful vinyl stickers which make it easy to attach to almost any surface. I have mounted it on the back of my bathroom door, as other walls and surfaces would present an issue with damage when removing in the future. As I rent my property I cannot risk damage to wallpaper or painted areas.
As it is a sticker chart, rather than the traditional full length chart, this means you can add the provided four height increments as your child grows – however, I have mounted them all as fun to measure all my kids.
The graphics are very vibrant - I have saved some stickers for mounting at a later point, as you are provided with so many. (This is a definite plus, as compared with the type of product where you are given the bare minimum of items and have to pay out if you want more.)
As I’ve said, the only drawback is the potential damage when peeling it off the wall.”

Wild Born (Spirit Animals)
Wild Born (Spirit Animals)
by Brandon Mull
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 5.24

5.0 out of 5 stars Magic + mystery = fun!, 8 May 2014
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
I passed this on for review to my 11 year old grand-daughter, as I thought she would love it, and she did …

“This was a great story, which kept me turning to the next page all the way through. I enjoyed the supernatural/magic bits, which were combined with some fairytale story telling. It had an exciting plot and a good ending, with plenty of twists and turns. The animal characters were great, and I was really pleased that the story involved animals of all types”.
[I’m not surprised she appreciated this aspect, as she has several different types of pets herself!]
“I enjoyed the book so much that I wished the story was longer. As it’s the first in the series, I’m really keen to read the rest – I haven’t read anything similar before, so it’s a new type of story for me. I liked being able to carry on my adventure online.”

As she is an avid reader with a reading age above her age-group, she had no problems following every word, but some children of her age might struggle a little.

My son added that the only downside was with the online game [url for this is given in the book, with a secret code], as it took more than 10 minutes to load on a 4Mb broadband connection.

Pale Blue
Pale Blue
by Thomas Meinecke
Edition: Paperback
Price: 7.64

3.0 out of 5 stars Lots of content, but heavy going - unless you're a real afficionado, 23 April 2014
This review is from: Pale Blue (Paperback)
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
It's often said of a book that it defies categorisation. You could say it of this book, but not in a very good way. Nominally it is a novel, but much of the time it reads like research notes for a PhD thesis, and you have constantly to strive to keep track of the plot (such as it is) amid the welter of information and exposition.

It achieves the objective, as defined in the jacket blurb, which is "exploration of how ethnicity, race, and gender are defined--particularly for America's African and Jewish diasporas", with particular reference to American popular music. So far, so good. There are some good examples of where these two groups combined, e.g. the Chess brothers setting up a label specialising in black R&B. However,Meinecke appears to be an elitist, preferring the obscure and "authentic" to the mainstream. So, for example, Motown is mentioned in a throwaway sentence; Meinecke has nothing to say about social landmarks such as What's Going On and Innervisions , not to mention (in other parts of the wood) A Change is Gonna Come, or (Something Inside) So Strong. The same goes for no mention of the first mainstream racially integrated rock groups (Booker T and the MGs, Sly and the Family Stone).

If I've already lost your interest, bear in mind that much of this book deals with much less widely known areas of music. OK, I'm a fan of rock and classical, not blues and jazz, but if Meinecke intends to appeal to more than a very restricted audience he needs to make the content more accessible.

During the book, Meinecke develops a convincing argument to bring together German history, Zionism and their very different effects on American culture, but I don't think this book is the right vehicle.

Using the approach "by their works shall ye know them", I checked on youtube for examples of Meinecke's own music, expecting perhaps to find some of the powerful post-modernist slabs of techno to which his characters lovingly allude. The only piece I could find was a tepid bit of rapping to an unimaginative keyboard track - like an outtake sort of Beastie Boys backed by Kraftwerk.

If you are an anorak for musical roots, or a sociologist/historian looking for a new angle on aforesaid diasporas, you will probably be interested. Otherwise, I'd give it a miss.

by Harriet Lane
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 7.69

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Through the past, darkly, 17 April 2014
This review is from: Her (Hardcover)
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
One day Nina sees Emma in the street, and recognises her as a face from the distant past. It is not made clear whether Nina has always remembered Emma, but from now on she works hard to become Emma’s new best friend, for reasons unclear to both their husbands (and, at first, to us). Harriet Lane slowly builds an atmosphere of menace, and simultaneously reveals the mystery of the past, keeping you mesmerised until the denouement. A feature of the action – not mentioned by Nina, but skilfully planted in the reader’s mind by the author – is whether Emma will remember Nina from the past.

The story is told by Nina and Emma in alternate chapters, which overlap like tiles (a device which I don’t think I’ve met before). Their descriptions of the events which involve them both are the same yet different, a fascinating description of separate perceptions.

In one sense, both women have the same view of each other: Nina thinks she has it all [the best way to sum this up is the Kathleen Tynan “inner poise” tag ruefully quoted by Bridget Jones), and Emma shares this view; similarly, Emma feels worn down by motherhood and her stalled career, and Nina has the same perception of her. However, we gradually become aware that Emma came from a happy family, and she and her husband love each other, whereas it seems Nina has never really been close to anyone, except perhaps when her daughter was young. You are left to decide for yourself whether her increasing malevolence is due to unhappiness and isolation.

The problem with this novel, as with so many (my wife read it before me, and warned me of this), is the ending. Ironically, Nina herself says of a thriller she has read, “I found the final plot twist unsatisfying, as plot twists often are nothing like life.” Two pages before last page, you wonder how it’s going to end, and the ending for me is inconclusive; you can either interpret this as a masterly and deliberate loose end, or as a bit of a let-down. Personally I incline slightly to the latter, but . achieving a really good ending to a novel as powerful as this is a big ask.

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