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C. Green "happily low brow" (Quenington, Glos, UK)
(VINE VOICE)    (TOP 500 REVIEWER)   

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House of Eight Orchids
House of Eight Orchids
Price: £3.98

4.0 out of 5 stars An Enjoyable and Welcome Return For The Author, 16 Jan. 2016
Back in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s I read a large number of James Thayer novels. I liked the fact that he tackled varied subject matter, from air crashes (in Terminal Event) to straight-up action thrillers (in White Star) to historical espionage (Five Past Midnight). I also enjoyed his clear no-nonsense writing style, his intelligent plotting and his ability to create interesting and believable characters with some genuine depth. Then, after a novel focused on the unlikely topic of architectural hubris (2002’s The Gold Swan) Thayer seemed to disappear, and I assumed that he had retired as a writer.

Now however, he’s back after over a decade with The House of the Eight Orchids and what a very welcome return it is too.

In some ways it represents a return to his roots as a writer, as he eschews the contemporary settings of his later novels and produces another historical adventure set during a turbulent and unpredictable time. However, unlike his earliest works set during or immediately after World War II, such as The Hess Cross and The Stettin Secret, The House of the Eight Orchids is set on the Yangtze River in China during the period prior to the outbreak of the Second World War, when Japan was occupying Manchuria and fighting the Nationalist Chinese Forces of Chang Kai Shek.

Here the reader is introduced to John and William Wade, two American brothers kidnapped as children from the streets of Chungking (Chongqing) and raised as respectively an enforcer/assassin and a forger by local organized crime boss Eunuch Chang, owner of the eponymous house. The story that unfolds follows what happens when John and William break from their kidnapper/master/father figure and are forced to go on the run through a land that is becoming increasingly lawless and chaotic.

It makes for a tale that is by turns tragic, suspenseful, entertaining, humorous, exciting and informative, and often several of these things at the same time. Told entirely from a first person perspective, with John Wade as narrator and lead protagonist, it becomes a combination of a literary chase-movie and travelogue through a long-lost, exotic and hugely unpredictable world.

To go into to too much detail regarding the story would spoil a plot that unfolds in surprisingly unpredictable ways. Whilst Thayer does bow to some conventions of the genre, for example by shoe-horning in the inevitable attractive and available woman for William to encounter, much what occurs tends to buck convention, with individual characters meeting often surprising fates or behaving in fashions one would not expect. As a result what should be a straight forward tale of pursuit, evasion and revenge becomes something far more interesting and entertaining.

It certainly had me gripped, both by the story and the vivid evocation of a time and place long since lost. I can only hope that this isn’t a one-off return to fiction for James Thayer and there are similarly entertaining works to come in the near future.

Excellent.


AmazonBasics Circular Polarizer-77mm
AmazonBasics Circular Polarizer-77mm
Price: £13.00

3.0 out of 5 stars Does The Job, 4 Jan. 2016
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
This is a perfectly well made Polariser that fits nicely onto my 77mm lens using a standard screw fitting. It comes well packaged in reusable plastic case inside a larger cardboard box. Like most AmazonBasics products, the packaging is entirely plain, which is fitting with the functional nature of the item inside.


Billy + Margot Luxury Christmas Cracker - Apple, Banana & Carrot Biscuits 60g
Billy + Margot Luxury Christmas Cracker - Apple, Banana & Carrot Biscuits 60g
Price: £5.99

3.0 out of 5 stars An Expensive Way To Buy Dog Biscuits, 4 Jan. 2016
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
What can I say about the biscuits inside this Christmas Cracker? Well my dog, a 10 year old Springer Spaniel, ate them quite happily but he's not the most discerning of gourmets so that's no indication of quality. To human hands they have a somewhat rough-hewn quality to them compared to other mass produced dog biscuits, I suppose to give them a healthy/hand-made/organic feel, but they are essentially still a mass-market product. The fact that they're 'vegetarian' might appeal to some owners, but I can't see that they're any healthier than other dog biscuits on the market. Bottom line, there's nothing much to set these biscuits apart from any others.

Any added value therefore comes from the packaging, and if you were looking for a 'gift' for a dog then the design of the box does make an attractive, chintz-free present. I'd question the worth of the inclusive hat and joke, but for owners who treat their dogs like human family members these maight have some appeal.

Overall however, this seems like an expensive way to give your dog a relatively small bag of unremarkable dog biscuits at Christmas. Personally I will be sticking to buying mine a large raw-hide chew for a couple of quid from now on.


Philips Star Wars Spaceship Portable LED Bedside and Table Lamp, Integrated LED, Battery Operated - Black
Philips Star Wars Spaceship Portable LED Bedside and Table Lamp, Integrated LED, Battery Operated - Black
Price: £8.83

3.0 out of 5 stars Great if you're a child (or a massive SW fan). Not so much if you want a high quality product, 14 Dec. 2015
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
If you're five-years old, like my son, this light is totally cool simply because it has X-Wing fighters on it. If you're an adult, even one who likes Star Wars (but isn't obsessive about it) then you'll find this light to be a somewhat flimsy affair that seems more interested in cashing in on a movie franchise that being a particularly good product.

When you first take the light out of its packaging two things strike you; firstly how small and secondly how light weight it is. In the case of the former this isn't necessarily a problem, but it might come as something of a disappointment if you're buying on-line based purely on photos. When it comes to the lamp's lack of weight however, I found this to be more concerning. Whilst the addition of the AA batteries (not included) that power the LED give it extra bulk at the the base, its all plastic construction and narrow, top heavy profile means that it remains rather easy to knock over. A child reaching out blindly in the dark to switch it on will easily send it tumbling off a bedside table.

Which brings me to the lamp's robustness. With an LED light source there's no potential for a bulb to break if the lamp does take a tumble, but frankly the plastic used in the stem and base feels cheap and insubstantial. Worse is the shade, which again is just a thin plastic sheet connected to the stem by three not very substantial plastic arms. I can envisage the latter getting broken with surprising ease by a careless child.

On the plus side the LED provides reasonably decent illumination and the 15 minute auto-shut off saves batteries (but can't be bypassed or adjusted). Overall however, if I had bought this rather than receiving it in exchange for an honest review I would be disappointed by the quality of this product. My son thinks its great, but we're not disposing off his larger and far more robust mains-powered bedside lamp as we have a suspicion it will be called back into service again in due course.


Playmobil 6695 Super 4 Kingsland Tribune
Playmobil 6695 Super 4 Kingsland Tribune
Offered by Apple Barn
Price: £20.87

3.0 out of 5 stars Solidly Built As Always With Playmobil But Questionable Value For Money, 8 Dec. 2015
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
The Kingsland Tribune is part of Playmobil's relatively new Super 4 range, which marks a departure for the company in that it moves away from the more generic ranges (City Action, Pirates, etc.) towards sets with a more clearly defined identity and deliberate cross-gender appeal. Personally I could do without the somewhat contrived and banal 'backstory' to the range and the TV-show tie in, but as none of these have yet impinged on the consciousness of either of my children (aged 5 and 3) I'll let them go and judge the set purely on its value as a toy.

Which to be honest is questionable. As always with Playmobil it is well built and rugged, but I'm not convinced about how much long term enjoyment children will get out of content of the Kingsland Tribune set by itself. Comprising a Knight & his horse, a man-at-arm's type and a King, a viewing platform and a few accessories (all of which will inevitably get lost/sucked up by the vacuum) there really isn't much to the set and what there is isn't terribly exciting. My children already owned a number of other Playmobil sets so were able to combine this one with those to expand its potential, but by itself I can't see a five or six-year old getting very excited by the likes of a 'viewing platform'.

Considering the RRP I also can't say that it represents great value for money (although as I write this review its heavily discounted on Amazon). There are far better equipped Playmobil sets available for the same price. I was lucky enough to receive it for free via the Amazon Vine Programme in exchange for this review, but had I purchased it at anything close to full price I would have been deeply disappointed by what I received.

The whole Super 4 range seems me to be Playmobil's attempt to create something with on-going and broad brand appeal that pushes children and their parents to acquire as many of the available sets as possible. I have no problem with this as a business concept, even if it doesn't appeal to me personally. However, considering what you get (or don't) in the Kingsland Tribune set and the price they would like you to pay for it, I can't help but feel that Playmobil are somewhat taking advantage of the demand they're trying to generate in their young customers.


Playmobil 6692 Super 4 Technopolis Chameleon Vehicle
Playmobil 6692 Super 4 Technopolis Chameleon Vehicle
Price: £32.34

4.0 out of 5 stars If You Ignore All The Super 4 Marketing Fluff This Is Another Fun, Well Built Playmobil Set, 8 Dec. 2015
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
The Technopolis Chameleon Vehicle is part of Playmobil's relatively new 'Super 4' range. This represents something of a departure for Playmobil, as it is the first time they have created what could best be described as a 'branded product'. Whereas their other ranges (Pirates, Knights, City Action, etc.) are generally pretty generic, Super 4 comes with a distinct, pre-determined identity. Characters are therefore given names and back-stories, there are wilder flights of fantasy involved (time travel, robots, etc.) and there is even, unsurprisingly, a tie-in TV-show. It also seems to be an attempt to create a range with greater cross-gender appeal, so as well as knights and pirates within the Super 4 universe there are Fairies and Princesses too.

I can understand Playmobil's motivation in creating a range with such a clearly defined identity. In doing so they're trying to foster the sort of brand desirability where children feel the need to possess every individual set within the range, and transmit that need to their parents. From a business point of view it makes perfect sense. However, it does mean that this set and others in the range are accompanied by a whiff of overly-calculated marketing that isn't present with other, less flashy Playmobil sets.

I'd also question how successful the whole Super 4 brand really is too. Our son, aged 5, wasn't aware of it through his peers and didn't seem to care greatly about it either. He likes the Technopolis Chameleon Vehicle, but purely because its a cool sci-fi vehicle and not because of the artificial and overly calculating 'story' it forms a part of.

And he's right, it is a rather cool vehicle in its own right, with its rotating wheels and sleek appearance. Its also built to the usual high, robust standard you would expect from Playmobil. As always there a bit of initial construction required, and younger children will need some adult supervision in order to complete it successfully. There's also the usual irritants, from a parental perspective at least, of smaller fixtures repeatedly falling off and requiring reattachment by older hands and the inclusion of little accessories seemingly designed to easily go missing. These however, are common downsides to all Playmobil sets and not just this one.

Overall the Technopolis Chameleon Vehicle is a fun, well built toy that offers plenty of potential for imaginative play. Especially if you ignore or play down Playmobil's contrived marketing guff and simply treat it as a fun, futuristic toy.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Dec 31, 2015 11:53 AM GMT


The Darkest Day: (Victor the Assassin 5)
The Darkest Day: (Victor the Assassin 5)
Price: £3.99

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Weak Thriller with a Bland Anti-hero and a Meandering and Unengaging Plot, 3 Dec. 2015
‘The Darkest Day’ is the third thriller by Tom Wood and featuring ‘Victor the Assassin’ that I have read, having previously tackled The Hunter and The Enemy, volumes one and two in the series respectively.

Having now become familiar once again with Victor and his adventures and with Wood’s style of writing I remember clearly the reasons why I never picked up volumes 3 (The Game) or 4 (Better Off Dead). Primary amongst these is the central character of Victor himself.

To put it simply I don’t like him. Not that he’s meant be ‘likeable’ in the usual sense. Victor is an anti-hero with the stress on the ‘anti’; an unrepentant, cold blooded assassin who does not do redemptive story-arcs where he atones for his previous crimes through the love of a good woman or is looking to leave the world he inhabits only to be reluctantly pulled back in. Victor know what he is, accepts it and doesn’t look to change.

Unfortunately what he is, in addition to being an exceptional assassin, is a very dull central character. Not only is he unsympathetic, which is excusable considering his nature and chosen profession, he also lacks the charisma that is vital to keep you interested in the fate of such a fundamentally dislikeable individual. Being a ruthless and efficient killer are not by themselves sufficient to make someone interesting or compelling enough to carry a whole novel, and The Darkest Day demonstrates this clearly.

If there was some sort of development of Victor’s character as the story unfolded, if he seemed to learn from his experiences or modified his behaviour as a result of what occurs it might have made the character more interesting. In the event however, Wood seems to be emulating Lee Child’s Jack Reacher by creating a central, recurring character who remain unchanging throughout multiple novels. Having read three featuring Victor it’s obvious that the character will remain almost obstinately resistant to growth or development. However, whereas Reacher is both a sympathetic force for good and, at least in Child’s early novels, a charismatic presence, Victor is neither of these so his rigidity and consistency become his sole defining traits, and they simply aren’t enough.

In the absence of a relatable central character the rest of the novel needs to be on top form. Unfortunately, The Darkest Day is a flabby, unfocused affair. Wood remains a good writer of physical action but whereas both The Hunter and the Enemy were precise, lean thrillers that unfolded with Swiss watch-like precision this latest effort meanders and is laden down with lengthy passages of exposition that seem to describe Victor’s every single thought and action in excessive detail. Wood needs to learn that ‘show’ is always preferable to ‘tell’ in these cases.

He also needed his editor to be more ruthless during what becomes an interminable foot and car chase through New York during the book’s second half. Whilst the Wood’s is good at portraying combat, both armed and unarmed, he struggles to maintain excitement during the seemingly endless pursuit of Victor. Such scenes work well on the screen but are difficult to pull off in on the page in anything other than small doses, and Wood doesn’t succeed here. By the end of the sequence I was skipping paragraphs and pages just to get past it.
The book’s only real saving grace, beyond some solid fight scenes, in the inclusion of the female assassin Raven. She is everything Victor is not; charismatic, witty and sympathetic, as well as being his equal when it comes to professional skills. She enlivens the book when present on the page and without her it would be even more of a slog to get through. Unfortunately her undoubted appeal also serves to draw more attention to Victor’s comparative failing’s as a lead character. When your central character is being outshone by a supporting cast member you really have a problem.

I was fortunate to be offered the chance to try The Darkest Night for free by NetGalley in exchange for this review. Nothing about the experience has radically changed my opinion of Victor the Assassin, the series of books or Wood as an author and I will not be picking up the next volume when its published or going back to read those I have missed.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Dec 7, 2015 3:24 PM GMT


San Andreas<NL>
San Andreas
Dvd
Price: £6.99

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A Somewhat Bland Disaster Flick Elevated By A Cast It Doesn't Deserve, 2 Dec. 2015
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This review is from: San Andreas (Amazon Video)
San Andreas pretty much has only one thing going for it; its cast. Between them Dwayne Johnson's charisma and sheer likeability, Carla Gugino's sparkyness and easy rapport with Johnson and Paul Giamatti's ability to deliver exposition without making it tedious pretty much rescue what is otherwise a slight, by the numbers disaster flick.

Falling somewhere between super-serious disaster dramas like The Impossible and utterly implausible efforts like Roland Emmerich's 2012, San Andreas manages the remarkable if unfortunate feat of making an epic disaster seem rather dull. The character-based drama elements are thinly written, entirely predictable and unsatisfying, as best demonstrated by both the entirely one-dimensional 'cowardly yuppie boyfriend' role played by Ioan Gruffudd (who must be wondering which God of acting he's offended if his career has come to having to take parts like this one) and the trite romance between Alexandra Daddario's and Hugo Johnstone-Burt's characters.

Meanwhile the obligatory scenes of mass destruction feel not only tired, repetitive and derivative (not helped by San Francisco having been recently decimated to similar but better effect by 2014's Godzilla [DVD] [2014]) but also strangely uninvolving. With the exception of one stand-out sequence, cleverly cut to appear to be one long take, of a rooftop restaurant collapsing around Carla Gugino that comes close to giving a genuine impression of how immediate, disorientating and genuinely scary a large earthquake can be (I say that as someone who was in Tokyo, in a high rise building during the Sendai Quake in 2011), the various scenes featuring building collapsing or vast tsunamis drowning whole cities come across as flat and overly burdened with not terribly convincing CGI. They might be on a vast scale, with famous landmarks being flattened or swept away, but they don't grab you or in-still a genuine sense of danger. In the cinema the sheer scale of some shots may have been enough to lend them greater impact, but that's not going to be the case even on the biggest HD TV with the best sound system. When a sequence filmed almost entirely in relative close up and primarily with practical effects, or a well staged helicopter crash, trump your big money shots of city-wide destruction you really have a problem.

That's why the film's producers should be so thankful for the presence of Johnson, Gugino and Giamatti, who by sheer charm and charisma manage to elevate San Andreas up a notch or two. They might all be playing one-note, stock characters (respectively stoic hero & father, ex-wife he still loves and who loves him back and wise expert/scientist) but they do so with genuine commitment and no little movie-star charm. In less capable hands all three parts could easily have been as bland and forgettable as the rest of the movie.

So, not a complete dud but nothing to get very excited about either. There are a couple of half decent moments of excitement on offer, the leading cast give more than the material deserves and it will pass the time if there is nothing better on offer. However,when it comes to both destructive spectacle and drama there are far better alternatives available.


Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation
Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation
Dvd
Price: £9.99

7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Lesson For The Bond Producers In How To Do An Excellent, Escapist Spy Movie, 1 Dec. 2015
Entirely coincidentally I ended up watching M:I - Rogue Nation (terrible title. Why not just settle for M:I5?) and Spectre within about three days of each other, the former on a plane and the latter on the big screen, and I find it somewhat painful as a lifelong Bond fan to say that Tom Cruise's movie is a far superior action & espionage thriller than Daniel Craig's glossy but flabby and somewhat dull effort.

Managing to combine some truly outstanding action sequences, many of them filmed practically or with minimal recourse to CGI polishing, a genuinely quite clever plot and a script that mixes humour and drama to good effect, M:I Rogue Nation (or M:I5 as I will now call it) continues the run of form for the series that began with JJ Abrams M:I 3 and was continued by Brad Bird in M:I 4.

Most welcome was the fact that the movie managed to keep surprising me with its plot developments. With Tom Cruise as your lead in a summer blockbuster the eventual outcome might never have been in doubt, but the journey to get there was full of genuinely unexpected twists and turns, some of which upended many of the standard tropes for movies of this type. I particularly admire the fact that the film keeps you guessing about the motivations and loyalties of Rebecca Ferguson's character so far into the movie, and that it avoids casting her in the stereo-typical love-interest-cum-damsel-to-be-rescued role. So many times in films of this type a strong female character in introduced to much fan-fare, only for her to become a disappointingly helpless pawn by the end, there to be rescued by the hero. Not only does M;I 5 dodge that cliché entirely, it actually manages to reverse it entirely by placing another, unexpected cast member into the 'damsel' role and allowing Ferguson to remain in control of her own destiny throughout.

When I compare that to Madeline Swann in Spectre, who remains almost entirely passive throughout the movie bar a brief moment during one fight sequence the difference cannot be more glaring and very much to Bond's disadvantage. The same can be said about the action sequences, which in M:I 5 are punchy, energised and have genuine grip but in Bond feel strangely weightless and un-involving (with the possible exception of the helicopter fight in Mexico). Compare for example the motorcycle chase in M:I5 to the car chase through Rome in Spectre. The former is an adrenalin filled rush where you truly believe that Cruise himself is riding through dense traffic at high speed and the opposing bikers pose a genuine dramatic threat, whereas the latter is filmed on nearly empty streets, almost for laughs and both cars are clearly driven by stunt personnel rather that actors. The first left me feeling genuinely excited and involved whereas the second felt perfunctory and throw-away, as if the producers were ticking a box marked ' obligatory car-chase' with as little effort as possible and hoping the admittedly very good looking and expensive cars would distract audiences from the total absence of real excitement or palpable danger.

In fact for the fifth movie in a long-running series that is primarily intended to be a commercial cash-cow for all involved and a way for Tom Cruise to maintain his movie star profile between doing smaller, more interesting projects, a huge amount of effort and care seems to have been put into M:I5 to make it a genuinely entertaining and exciting movie. This is not a film that is happy to rely purely on brand recognition, the pull of a movie star or nostalgia for earlier, better movies in the series whilst presenting expensive but tired action sequences, a few glossy locations and an entirely predictable plot (I'm looking at you again Spectre). Any film that boasts a sequence like the one in M:I5 set at the Vienna opera during a performance of Turandot that features atmosphere, action, suspense, humour, great music and brilliant editing, often all at once and to such great effect, is not one that is happy to simply coast along on past glories.

Excellent and highly recommended.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jan 12, 2016 7:23 PM GMT


Revenge of the Kremlin (Vintage Crime/Black Lizard Original)
Revenge of the Kremlin (Vintage Crime/Black Lizard Original)
by Gerard De Villiers
Edition: Paperback
Price: £10.49

3.0 out of 5 stars A Thriller That Is Interesting Rather Than Thrilling, 26 Nov. 2015
Revenge of the Kremlin is the second of De Villiers' Malko Linge novel I have tackled, having previously enjoyed The Madmen of Benghazi: A Malko Linge Novel. As with 'Benghazi', which was set around the collapse of the Ghadafi regime in Libya, in 'Kremlin' De Villiers takes another real life, contemporary event, this time the death of exiled Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky, and weaves his fictional tale around it.

The result is a somewhat strange book, as it’s an espionage thriller that lacks much in the way of genuine thrills. When it comes to action there is almost none, and whilst attempts (sometimes successful) are made on the lives of various characters as the story unfolds, including Linge himself, the book lends no sensation of genuine danger or real urgency to proceedings. There is no 'ticking clock' plot device here to drive the story forward to a definitive conclusion.

It doesn't help matters that Linge himself remains a rather passive, colourless cipher throughout. Having now read two of De Villiers novels I am struggling to see the appeal of Linge, who is often described as the 'French James Bond'. He certainly lacks the charisma or physical dynamism of Fleming's creation and beyond the fact that he is an Austrian aristocrat and is seemingly irresistibly attractive to all members of the opposite sex we are given next to no insights into his physical appearance or personality. Indeed it difficult to see exactly what unique skills or experience Linge brings to the party, since he doesn’t engage in any physical action and relies on others to do a great deal of the heavy lifting when it comes to investigating Berezovksy’s apparent suicide.

Linge’s lack of genuine presence leaves something of a hole at the heart of the novel, and the book’s only real selling point is the clever and frighteningly plausible conspiracy it weaves around Berezovsky’s demise. It has often been said that De Villier’s extensive contacts in the espionage world gave him insights and knowledge that other thriller writers’ lack, and that feel very much to be true as you read Revenge of the Kremlin. None of the ‘fictional’ events surrounding the oligarch’s demise feel outside the realm of plausibility, and De Villiers descriptions of the murky, morally compromised worlds of espionage and international diplomacy seem all too real.

It all makes for an interesting and through provoking exercise in ‘what-if?’ It doesn’t by itself however, suddenly turn Revenge of the Kremlin into an entirely satisfying and entertaining thriller. Nor does the smattering of graphic, and in one case entirely gratuitous and superfluous sex, scenes that De Villiers always includes in his books. Greater stakes, either personal or political, more incident and a stronger, far more charismatic lead character would be needed for Kremlin to be classed as genuinely good, all round spy thriller. As it is it remains an interesting curio with some significant flaws.


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