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Jim (Blackheath, London, UK)

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Grand Designs 3D Self Build & Develop (2008)
Grand Designs 3D Self Build & Develop (2008)

3.0 out of 5 stars A handy tool for all Grand Designers - but with some reservations, 26 Jan 2009
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
As an avowed Grand Designs fan, and someone who is self-building their own home in Ireland, I was delighted to receive a trial copy of the Grand Designs 3D Home Designer Software. Having been quoted fees in the range of 50,000 for an architect it offers the opportunity to save some considerable money, but I was ultimately left to conclude that there is no substitute for the real thing.

Designing the basic shell of a house is fairly simple. I have played around with other 2D design programmes in the past, and Grand Designs trumps them. Better still you can toggle in and out of 3D views very easily, so you can see if an element, such as a window, looks okay in the position you put it, and if not toggle out and move it. It took me around 4 or 5 hours to build a basic shell with windows and internal doors and properly laid out rooms.

Beyond that, it's a case of how much time and effort you wish to put into the project. You can design the interiors to quite a high standard, but this part of the programme is much less intuitive and requires some work. It's true that there's a fairly broad catalogue, but my view is that you could spend weeks on it and it would still just look like a house off Sim City.

The Grand Designs tie in is a bit tenuous. It includes designs of a handful of TV houses, but that's about it. Maybe I was getting something wrong, but I didn't find them all that easy to manipulate.

Indeed I would argue that this programme betrays some of the principles of Grand Designs. Kevin McLeod always bangs on about the need to go with an architect when building your own grand design, but the principle underlying this programme seems to be that anyone can do an architect's job. That's palpably not true, and while it's useful for playing around with ideas, I don't think it can devise plans up to the standard an architect would. Any layman who thinks that they can add the flourishes of someone with almost a decade's training is, frankly, deluded.

This is a handy piece of software, but it does have limitations, and I feel that the price tag means it needs some serious consideration before a purchase is made. I would counter that it's worth up to a third of the RRP, but no more. I enjoyed playing around with it, but after coming up with a concept for my dream home I didn't quite know what to do with it - other than show those ideas to a proper professional, who might be able to incorporate some of its principles in our ultimate design.

Philips TT2030 Rechargeable Bodygroom
Philips TT2030 Rechargeable Bodygroom

9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars For the modern metrosexual, 15 Jan 2009
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
I've used it in and out of the shower and feel that it's easier to clean midway through a grooming project in the shower. The sized guards are pointless, as the smallest number one is the only one that effectively trims curly body hair. It takes a few swipes over the same area, but the trimming results are very good, with little to no irritation. With the guard off, I was able to get a pretty close shave with no irritation. That was a huge plus for me. The ergonomics are excellent and the ability to use it in the shower distinguishes it from the rest. I highly recommend this product.

And Maybe A Tree Will Rise Out Of Me
And Maybe A Tree Will Rise Out Of Me
Price: £5.00

4.0 out of 5 stars Enjoyable, despite the questionable concept of fan-funded albums, 15 Jan 2009
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
Although the `funded by fans' premise might seem a little dubious, this is recomended for lovers of well written music. It is a folksy-jazzy type album, occasionally reminiscent of Norah Jones, although T-KA's vocal range is less impressive. There is no theme running through it, but this really makes each song carry more clout.

Every song is enjoyable in its own way though my highlight of the album would be "Flyin", with T-Ka's lovely vocal range playing over the piano.

Granta 104: Fathers the Men Who Made Us (Granta: The Magazine of New Writing)
Granta 104: Fathers the Men Who Made Us (Granta: The Magazine of New Writing)
by Alex Clark
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.82

5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Granta's new direction?, 14 Jan 2009
`Here is the space - now tell us the story,' Granta's new editor, Alex Clark, concludes her introduction to Granta 104, making clear that her magazine is not just a place for established writers, but new voices too. Boldly she backs up her rhetoric, affording space to such hitherto unknowns as Justin Torres and Daniyal Mueenuddin in this debut issue. Indeed this is where Granta 104 stands tall, with Mueenuddin's beautifully written short story `Provide, Provide' possessing the scope, ambition and elegance one might expect from a more distinguished name. Torres's tautly written piece, `Footsteps', was deeply impressive too.

Elsewhere, Ben Markovits on his relationship with his high school basketball coach is a compelling piece of sports writing. David Goldblatt on the brutal murder of his father was shocking, and yet I felt that there were important parts of the story that were left out. Writers, such as Joseph O'Neill and Ali Smith, writing on portraits of their fathers worked well, and the photo essay on Runcorn wrestlers at once amused and confused me (yes, it's funny; but what on earth was it doing in a literary magazine!?!). Even Francesca Segal's essay on her father and the geography of his New York neighbourhood, which I found at times sprawling and somewhat tenuous, was ultimately moving.

In sum, a promising debut, although it would seem clear from this reading that Granta is taking another distinct editorial direction. Can youth sustain it though?

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running
What I Talk About When I Talk About Running
by Haruki Murakami
Edition: Hardcover

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars What I talk about when I talk about Haruki Murakami, 4 Jan 2009
In this slight, well rendered telling of Haruki Murakami's life as a writer and runner, the celebrated Japanese author takes us into his life as a writer and runner, existences which he says are indistinguishable. There is a clear sense that if he stopped running, he may not be able to write.

I had often read about Murakami, and been intrigued by his sense of purpose and the monastic routine he deems essential to his life as a writer. But before this book, I had never read anything by him. He has a strange tone, at once stark and minimal, but chatty too. At times it was like reading an American self help manual. It fascinated me.

I would, however, imagine that my own reasons for finding this book so interesting (I am a writer, who has run two marathons) might not be shared by other readers. Indeed a scan through other readers' reviews on this site confirms such a view. As such, if you don't fall into the narrow category I share with Murakami I would definitely consider the thoughts of other readers before buying.

Personally I enjoyed this short book hugely. Writers lives are usually boring, but I certainly found something compelling in the ascetic, single minded existence of Murakami; and as a new year and new start beckons, dare I say that I found it inspiring too.

My England Years: The Autobiography
My England Years: The Autobiography
by Bobby Charlton
Edition: Hardcover

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A well rendered telling of England's glory years, 4 Jan 2009
A year after the publication of Bobby Charlton's outstanding `My Manchester United Years' comes volume two - concerning his England career, which spanned 106 caps and an unprecedented four World Cup Finals.

No living player is better qualified to write about their experiences with England than Charlton, whose time in an England shirt spanned from the monochrome era of Tom Finney to that of Peter Shilton (whom even I, a thirty year old, recall as an England player).

The problem with it, particularly in the pre-Ramsey years, is that too little material is stretched out. Most other players combine their club and international volumes into a single volume. The length of Charlton's England career allows him to do two books - but in the context of a player's career, 106 games is the equivalent of a couple of seasons. It would be a bit like David Beckham writing `My LA Galaxy Years' in forty years time.

There is also a sense that he plays up to his status as the grand old man of English football. And who could blame him? He has, after all, won everything there is to be won in a career marked with courage, dignity and distinction. But the tone can seem fogeyish and at worst rambling, inane, and not true to Bobby Charlton's voice. After all, could you imagine him saying the following passage?

"Perhaps he decided that in this new world of football, of changing formations and the clearest evidence that in terms of ball skills and tactical subtleties many rival nations had passed us by, we need, as another embattled public figure, Prime Minister John Major, would later say `to get back to basics'."

Fortunately, most of the rest of the book isn't as horribly written as this, and by the time Alf Ramsey comes on board this volume hits full pace. The insights into the imperceptible Ramsey are compelling and better dealt with than by the likes of Alan Ball and Nobby Stiles in recent years. Charlton is particularly good on the routines and intensely close camp in the run up to the 1966 World Cup. He makes clear the debt of gratitude that the nation owes Alf Ramsey and he was surprisingly accepting of the way in which he was dropped by him after the 1970 World Cup.

Criticisms, however, tend to be oblique. I was surprised that there wasn't greater anger at the disgusting way Alf Ramsey and Bobby Moore were latterly treated by the FA. Perhaps he doesn't want to upset friends in high places? On the other hand, Peter Bonetti is singled out (albeit in Sir Bobby's roundabout way) for the defeat to West Germany in 1970.

In sum this is a decent companion to Sir Bobby's first volume of memoirs, even if it is slow to get going and, particularly in the early pages, there is a sense that his publishers are milking him for everything. Perhaps it fails by comparison to volume one, which was one of the best sporting memoirs of recent years. On its own merits, however, this is often a compelling story, generally well told if not sometimes eccentrically structured and strangely written - but it beats hands down any one of the turgid offerings by the current crop of underperforming England stars.

The Road
The Road
by Cormac McCarthy
Edition: Paperback

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An apocalyptic vision of the future that is destined for greatness, 29 Dec 2008
This review is from: The Road (Paperback)
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
In The Road, Cormac McCarthy presents an apocalyptic version of the future that recalls the great post-war novels that predicted a post-nuclear future.

Some sort of environmental catastrophe has sucked the life from the country. A grey pallor hangs over everything. Society has entirely broken down. A man and boy - we never learn their names - are emerging from the shadows to take the road to the ocean where the promise of redemption lies. Until they do, they lead the lives of rodents - scavenging, hiding, watching, fearful.

It is a perilous journey fraught with constant dangers. In the world of the man and boy, there are only good guys and bad guys, but everything they seem to encounter is bad and to be feared. The prose is unremittingly bleak but it is compelling throughout - I read it in one evening. Although I had seen the film of No Country For Old Men, this is the first Cormac McCarthy novel I have read, and he has a way of cranking up the tension to fever pitch that was reminiscent of that movie. Yet at the same time his language has an almost Beckettian quality (eccentric pronunciation, parsimonious prose).

This isn't just about the breakdown of society, or the preface to the world's end - it as an exposition of the bonds between man and son. This relationship, which was at the book's core, was as poignant and tender as anything that I can remember reading and ultimately marks The Road out for greatness. And despite the dark tone that exists throughout, the message at the book's end is one of hope and the promise that goodness will prevail.

Granta 103. The Rise of the British Jihad
Granta 103. The Rise of the British Jihad
by Jason Cowley
Edition: Paperback
Price: £10.37

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An issue made memorable by the late, great Simon Gray, 24 Nov 2008
The title of Granta 103, The Rise of the British Jihad, comes from its lead essay, an investigation by the BBC reporter, Richard Watson, into the ascent of Islamic extremism in this country. In giving it such prominent billing the implication is that this will be a landmark work, much like James Fenton's `Fall of Saigon' in Granta 15, or Ian Jack's report on the SAS killing of IRA terrorists in Gibraltar - a piece that is still memorable twenty years after publication.

While there is nothing wrong with Watson's article, I found there to be little new or revelatory within it. Since the 7/7 terrorist attacks on London in 2005 - and even before then - much has been written and broadcast that has covered the same ground, including by Watson himself on BBC2's Newsnight. He is at his best when offering personal insights into the jihadis he encounters - when he goes in search of them in insalubrious parts of London or Leeds. But these glimpses are too rare and too often this seems like a summation of Watson's broad portfolio of BBC work than something new or fresh.

Elsewhere in the magazine there is less of the consistency that has marked recent issues, but Granta always has an ability to surprise and even delight. While I found myself unmoved by Lois Williams' memoir of growing up in The Wash, I thought a photo essay on British troops in Afghanistan and Iraq was deeply affecting. The three pieces of fiction, by Jennifer Haigh, Daniel Alarcon and Tahmima Anam were of a high standard; Alacorn, who I had not read before, was reminiscent of Kazou Ishiguro, one of my favourite novelists, and I will surely revisit his work again.

The star of the show, however, is the late Simon Gray. A deeply moving extract of his final, posthumously published diaries, Coda, is included at the end of this issue, and brings a memorable conclusion to Jason Cowley's year long editorship of this magazine.

Where In The World Is Osama Bin Laden? [DVD]
Where In The World Is Osama Bin Laden? [DVD]
Dvd ~ Morgan Spurlock
Offered by best_value_entertainment
Price: £1.18

6 of 9 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars War on Terror-lite, 21 Nov 2008
This is Morgan Spurlock's `difficult' second movie - in which he, as the title suggests, goes in search of Osama Bin Laden.

Given the gonzo nature of Supersize Me, in which Spurlock really put himself out by existing off McDonalds for a month, I was expecting some sort of epic odyssey in the badlands of the Pakistani-Afghan border. Spurlock does visit this area, but really it's just part of a grand tour of the Middle East.

Egypt, Morocco, Palestine, Israel, Jordan, Afghanistan all get visited - but not Pakistan, where Bin Laden purportedly hides - in what is less odyssey to find the world's most wanted man than to offer an insight into why America is so hated. In doing so he hopes to uncover why al-Qa'eda are sustained - but really he doesn't come close. In fact the whole film is a bit of a con: Spurlock gets to about 200 miles away from where Bin Laden is meant to be, freaks out a bit, and then goes home.

Indeed this film is less about Bin Laden than it is about Spurlock. The somewhat spurious premise is that he's about to become a father and wants to find out.... actually, I'm not sure what he wants to find out... he says he wants to find Bin Laden (but doesn't really), but I can't actually remember what that's got to do with impending fatherhood.

Anyway, it's a good excuse to offer a personal touch for all those dullards whose attention spans would otherwise wane at a 90 minute documentary about the Middle East. For that is what this movie is: Middle East-lite; an uneven attempt to unravel the dramas of the past seven years. Spurlock doesn't actually come near to addressing the scandal of US policy in Afghanistan and elsewhere, and when it is revealed that military incompetence led to Bin Laden escaping Tora Bora in November 2001, he fails to probe deeper.

This is pretty lame stuff, but there are some interesting snippets- notably in the section filmed in Saudi Arabia, a notoriously difficult place to get access. He even interviews two hijab-less women in a Jeddah shopping mall, which I found the most extraordinary thing in the film (but which aroused no comment).

The other interesting aspect, which surely merited comment (but invariably didn't), was the hospitality and decency which he met throughout the Muslim world. At the start Spurlock is shown getting conflict training and throughout wearing bullet proof jackets - but he met good cheer and friendliness everywhere he went. Everywhere, that is, except by Hassidic Jews in Israel - his country's main ally in the Middle East.

Overall this is bland and rather perfunctory, if not occasionally entertaining. It lacks the anger that drives Michael Moore's films and their wit and intelligence. Spurlock's attempts to personalise his quest are lame and really, there's little new or interesting for any informed viewer to derive from watching what is ultimately a half-baked effort.
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Secrets of the Sea
Secrets of the Sea
by Nicholas Shakespeare
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.88

5 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An enjoyable read that falls short of the standards set in Snowleg, 5 Nov 2008
This review is from: Secrets of the Sea (Paperback)
There seems to be a growing fashion among British novelists to write about erectile dysfunction. First we had Ian McEwen's prematurely ejaculating protagonist in On Chesil Beach, now we have the impotent Alex Dove in Secrets of the Sea, the new novel by Nicholas Shakespeare.

Set in small town Tasmania, where Shakespeare has himself relocated, it tells of the lives of Dove and his wife, Merridy; her cousin, Tildy, and her husband Ray. Underlying each of their existences is history and tragedies great and small. Their quiet lives are shaken by the arrival of a mysterious stranger in the novel's final third.

The small town set up - with the avaristic local businessmen, the old timer running the local store, the grumpy English exile - will be familiar to anyone to have spent time in Australia. Shakespeare is particularly good at building a sense of place.

His characters have charm, but it is sometimes difficult to understand their motivations. Merridy Dove is a case in point. I never really felt convinced as to why she chose to get married and become a housewife in the book's first section. Why was she attracted to her rather bland husband? Why does she subsequently indulge in infidelities, which seem shockingly out of character? Nor is the sense of loss and yearning for her lost brother adequately unravelled.

I also felt that Secrets of the Sea was somewhat flabby, that it would have been better, more taut book were it a third shorter. It is, in essence, a domestic drama, certainly not an epic narrative as his previous novel, Snowleg, and, as such, could be better contained. Some characters - the store keeper, the retired journalist - are carefully constructed, but only really had walk on parts, and this confused me. And at the novel's critical dramatic juncture I was left scratching my head and re-reading bits, such was the (possibly intentional) confusion.

Yet for all of these complaints I enjoyed Secrets of the Sea. It is not a great novel, nor is the prose or storyline particularly memorable; worse still it falls short in comparison to Shakespeare's previous novel, Snowleg. But fans of that, like myself, will find something to enjoy and being second best to such a fine work is nothing to be ashamed about.

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