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C. Green "happily low brow" (Quenington, Glos, UK)

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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: £9.94

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.

Good Girls Revolt
Good Girls Revolt

4.0 out of 5 stars Impressively Realised Period TV In Need Of Some Minor Tweaking, 26 Nov. 2015
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'Good Girls Revolt' is what I would call a 'shiny pilot', in that its tone, production values and casting choices are all very much high-end and fully locked in. This is not a rough-and-ready first stab at a concept that will be refined and improved if a full series gets commissioned, as is the case with some Amazon pilots. If Amazon choose to go ahead with a full series of Good Girls Revolt then what viewers will get will, in all likelihood, look and feel just like this pilot episode. In that respect it feels very much like the pilot for 'The Man In The High Castle', which also seemed to have worked out its look and feel well ahead of time, and less like an offering such as 'Red Oaks', which gave viewers a rough idea of the sort of show they could expect, but still felt very much like a work in progress tonally and visually.

Admittedly the need to produce a good looking pilot with high end production values is unavoidable for a show like Good Girls Revolt. Period TV shows, and specifically those set in the 1950's and 60's such as Madmen, are commonplace these days and most go to great lengths to recreate their settings with a high degree of expense, accuracy and realism. To meet audience expectations any new period show, even at the pilot stage, is going to need to get the look and details right. Dressing up a bit of LA studio back-lot to look roughly like New York in the late '60's will not cut it these days. Therefore Good Girls Revolt really had no choice but to go all out on both the period details and the realism of its setting in terms of both time and place.

All that effort does however, make it far easier for the show to sell its central concept. If the late 60's setting had felt less plausible then in all likelihood it would have been far harder to invest in the story being told. As it the characters we meet feel more solid and more grounded purely because the world in which they exist also feels real, even before we get to know them. Which is really no bad thing, because at this stage characterisation is the show's weakest element. Whilst the acting is generally good across the board, the characters remain walking and talking archetypes rather than complex living and breathing human beings. Hence you have the counter-cultural female researcher pushing back against the sexism of the system, her rebelliousness signposted by her micro-skirts, flower-power-ish hairstyle, sexual freedom, soft-drug taking and love of Iron Butterfly's music. Then there's the fifty-something, sexist news editor (James Belushi) in his three piece suits and with his unbendingly misogynistic view of the world. Or the uptight, buttoned up, WASPish researcher with the hinted at suppressed passions (Anna Camp). I could go on, but in almost every case each character represent a type or a particular fixed outlook rather than individuals with varied and often conflicting motivations and emotions. Its broad brush characterisation which feels calculated and predictable, rather than natural and surprising.

Of course, should Good Girls Revolt go to series hopefully some greater complexity will be allowed to intrude. Certainly the script, which despite the rote characters remains witty, intelligent and rapid-fire, suggests the show's producers are aiming to create something of reasonable intelligence. Given the greater room to breath that a full series of ten or twelve episodes would allow them, hopefully they will allow individual characters to grow and develop. Certainly the Pilot's final few moments signalled that this was the intention, as various characters begin to try new experiences or contemplate fresh path's in life, so there is some hope in that regard.

A full series would also, I would like to think, soften the show's central theme of the incipient fight against rampant sexism in both the workplace and the home. Whilst I have no issue with the message and the lessons that Good Girls Revolt is trying to get across, the need to do so within the space of a single hour-long pilot results in something of a sledge-hammer approach being taken. Therefore, every single man in the show, without exception, is an unreconstructed, sexist dinosaur in their own way, often irrationally so, every single woman is a free spirit-in-waiting who just needs a catalyst to set them on the path to freedom, and the 'man' in the form of the male-dominated establishment in general is conspiring to keep women, minorities and alternative cultures down. Whilst some of the points the show makes about life & society at the time are entirely valid, the hectoring style with which it makes them does become a little trying after a while.

There are though, hints that a full series would allow more subtlety to creep in. Nuances, such as the fact that Belushi's unreconstructed, reactionary misogynist, who represents a firmly conservative outlook, also has surprisingly deep and genuine concerns over the escalating toll of the Vietnam War that he wants the magazine to bring to readers' attention, suggests that a full series wouldn't be a relentless, one dimensional, feminist polemic where all men are pigs. Equally the show finds time to laugh at absurdity of some of the aspects of early feminist movement and west coast counter culture, rather than treating both with uncritical reverence as you might expect.

If Good Girls Revolt manages to develop these unexpected aspects of the show, tones down the mega-phone messaging, gives its characters room to breath and grow, and maintains the spiky, humorous, fast paced script then it has the potential to grow into a genuinely entertaining show. I certainly found the pilot, for all of its obvious flaws, to be surprisingly entertaining and enjoyable.

Edge: The Loner
Edge: The Loner

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A Messy Pilot Episode With A Great Pedigree, But Shows Some Longer Term Promise, 13 Nov. 2015
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Frankly 'Edge: The Loner' is a mess. If I didn't already know that it was written & directed by Shane Black, writer of Lethal Weapon and Last Boy Scout and writer/director of the excellent Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and the more than passable Iron Man 3 I wouldn't have guessed. Jumbled, inconsistent in tone and visually flat, it has the look and feel of something that has been dashed-off quickly by all involved.

However, and its a big however, this has very much the feel of a genuine 'Pilot' episode that is intended to give an indication of the type of show that would be produced if a full series was commissioned; namely a sort of hard-boiled, contemporary spaghetti western with elements of the likes of Sam Raimi's The Quick And The Dead [DVD] [1998] and James Mangold's '3:10 to Yuma'. What Edge: The Loner doesn't seem to be is fully formed show, with cast, tone and look all fully established and locked in. The somewhat rickety look of some of the sets (especially the burnt out church), the killing off of several major characters in the course of the episode and the somewhat open ending suggest to me that what will follow if a series is commissioned may not do much more than pay lip service to what we see here. I wouldn't even be that surprised if some surviving recurring roles are recast along the way.

If all that is true then Edge: The Loner holds some promise despite its somewhat cobbled together, low budget feel. A hard-boiled, loner with a gun Western could be fun. Especially if its backed up with scripts that contain at least some of Shane Black's clever plotting and sharp dialogue. The lead actors are also well cast and the ongoing conspiracy/mystery introduced in the latter scenes of the pilot gives the whole thing an intriguing hook.

So, in and of itself this Pilot really isn't up to much. There are however, enough promising sparks there to make the prospect of a series a potentially appealing one.

Playmobil 5361 City Action Fire Brigade Station
Playmobil 5361 City Action Fire Brigade Station
Price: £30.39

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A Glorified & Expensive Accessory, 7 Nov. 2015
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
Normally I tend to give Playmobil 4 star review ratings. However, with the City Action Fire Brigade Station I feel I can only rate it as okay.

It has nothing to do with the build quality, which is as excellent as usual with Playmobil. Nor is it down to the complexity of construction, which is pretty high and will almost certainly require adult assistance. No, my reason for only giving this set three stars is because of its limited potential for imaginative play.

Don't misunderstand me; children of the right age will love the fire station. However, it only really comes into its own when used in conjunction with either the Playmobil 5363 City Action Fire Engine with Lights and Sound, the Playmobil 5364 City Action Fire Brigade Chief's Car with Lights and Sound or the Playmobil 5362 City Action Fire Brigade Engine Ladder Unit with Lights and Sounds. Without one or more of those sets the enjoyment potential of the Fire Station is, in my opinion, somewhat limited.

In reality this is essentially just a glorified accessory. Yes, its well made as you would expect and comes with some nice accessories, but as a standalone toy its limited and also rather expensive. Frankly, unless my children already owned every other City Action fire set, I would choose any of the others over this one. For that reason I really can't rate it as anything more than just 'okay' by comparison.

Playmobil 5363 City Action Fire Engine with Lights and Sound
Playmobil 5363 City Action Fire Engine with Lights and Sound
Price: £38.53

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Great Toy For Children Of +5 Yrs, 7 Nov. 2015
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
The City Action Fire Engine with Lights and Sound is recommended for children 5 years or older and unlike some other Playmobil sets with similar age recommendations but which are actually suitable for slightly younger children I would say that in this case its an accurate assessment. The main reason for saying this is because of the sheer quantity of small, fiddly parts and accessories that the City Action Fire Engine comes with. Whilst most Playmobil sets come with a few little items like torches and walkie-talkies, this one comes with what seems like dozens of attachments and items of fire fighting equipment, from hoses to axes to cutting equipment. Children will love playing with these extras, but their size and in some cases their comparative delicacy means that they're really only suitable for older children.

In some ways the same goes for the fire engine itself. Whilst its just as robust as all other Playmobil sets, the fact that its covered in doors and hatches that require a degrees of manual dexterity and strength to open mean that again older children will get more out of it. Our son is 5 and even he struggles to open the rear doors, and they're entirely beyond our 3 year old daughter.

For older children however, the City Action Fire Engine offers great and varied opportunities for play. The sheer number of accessories and functions makes it very appealing. Its also a good size and is easy for smaller arms to carry between rooms.

My only other and final observation for parents is that, as with all Playmobil, some construction is required out of the box. Older children (7+) may be able to take care of this themselves, but younger ones will need assistance or more likely and adult to do it for them. It took me about half an hour to put it all together, and I have several years experience of building Playmobil sets. Personally if I was buying this as a present for a younger child I would seriously consider building it beforehand and then putting it back in the box.

Otherwise this is a great toy for children of the right age.

Playmobil 5364 City Action Fire Brigade Chief's Car with Lights and Sound
Playmobil 5364 City Action Fire Brigade Chief's Car with Lights and Sound
Price: £18.95

4.0 out of 5 stars An Updated Version Of An Already Very Good Playmobil Set, 6 Nov. 2015
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
Kindly supplied to me via the Amazon Vine Programme, the City Action Fire Brigade Chief's Car with Lights and Sound is an updated version of a previous Playmobil set that we bought for my son a couple of years ago. It also represents a substantial improvement on that older set.

The most obvious change is the addition of both lights and sound effects, where the older version had neither. The lights I like, but as a parent I'm less keen on Playmobil decision to add sounds to this and many other previously silent sets. There is nothing more irritating than constant electronic chirping; especially early in the morning. However, our children as you would expect love the sound effects, so I guess your opinion of this new feature will depend greatly on your age.

The other changes are more welcome. Whereas the older set had a detachable roof to allow you to get figures and equipment in and out, this latest version has both a hinged rear door, a detachable front section and a large 'sunroof'. This combination makes it far easier to access the inside of the car and most importantly makes it something children can do without help. On the old model reattaching the roof required a degree of precision that was beyond many smaller children and necessitating the assistance of an adult. Whilst reattaching the roof on the new version is still a little tricky for smaller hands, its easier than it was and there are other options for getting inside the car that don't need a parent to help with.

This car is also accompanied by far more extra 'equipment' than its predecessor, which if memory serves came with a fire extinguisher and that was about it. Again parents may have mixed views about this, as these smaller items can and do go missing very easily, only to turn up underfoot at inconvenient moments. For children however, the extra items will expand the play potential of this set.

As with all Playmobil the set is well constructed out of sturdy materials. Our previous Fire Chief Car is still around and being played with after two years, despite missing its roof lights and having been on the receiving end of some pretty rough treatment. In terms of longevity Playmobil is up there with LEGO.

Also be warned that some initial construction is required before children can begin playing with the set. Older children should be able to handle this themselves, but smaller ones will need help as it involves the addition of fiddly parts like stickers. This is pretty much par for the course with Playmobil and as a smaller set the time required to put it together isn't that great. However, its not something that can be played with straight out of the box.

Once put together however, it offers plenty of potential for imaginative play. If the popularity of its predecessor with my children, currently aged 3 and 5, is any guide this new set will still be irritating me with its warbling siren in several years time.

The Madmen of Benghazi: A Malko Linge Novel
The Madmen of Benghazi: A Malko Linge Novel
by Gerard De Villiers
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.84

3.0 out of 5 stars A Decent Contemporary Thriller Let Down By Weak Characters, 5 Nov. 2015
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French author Gerard De Villiers wrote hundreds of thrillers during his lifetime, and became well known in Continental Europe. Working in France periodically during the late 90's I became aware of his books and would have liked to have tried one, but for some reason they had never been translated into and published in English and my French wasn't good enough to tackle a whole novel. Therefore, when I became aware recently that English translations had started to be published in the US, I picked up the first of these, 'The Madmen of Benghazi', to see if De Villiers lived up to his reputation as the 'French Ian Fleming'.

The answer, it transpires, is no; De Villiers is no Ian Fleming. Partly because his writing style is entirely different to Fleming's and partly because De Villiers novels, beyond having a playboy secret agent as their recurring central character, are completely different to Fleming's Bond novels in both substance and tone.

In terms of tone 'The Madmen of Benghazi' is a strange hybrid. On the one hand you have De Villier's hero, Austrian Aristocrat and freelance Secret Agent (yes really) Marko Linge, hired by the CIA seemingly for his ability to seduce attractive women out of their underwear at will. Marko as a character and his glamorous, globe trotting, lady killing ways seem like someone from another age, as if he'd accidentally crossed over from a mid-70's airport 'bonk-buster' from Jackie Collins or maybe a Harold Robbins. On the other hand the central story, set around Cairo and Benghazi after the falls of Hosni Muhbahrak and Colonel Gaddafi, feels ultra-contemporary and is in many ways a rather hard edged tale, with suicide bombings, missile attacks on planes and murky tactics being pursued by all sides.

De Villiers just about manages to marry up these two, rather contradictory elements without Linge's presence, or even existence, within the story feeling too preposterous, but its a delicate balancing act that has the odd wobble.

It doesn't help that Linge himself is rather underpowered leading man. Besides his aristocratic roots and skills in wooing ladies the reader get's to next to nothing about him. Even physical descriptions are pretty scant, and when it comes to his background or personality he remains a pretty blank slate. Whereas with Fleming's Bond you got a sense of the inner man even if the author didn't go into a huge amount of character detail here Linge remains a cypher. Now admittedly the Madmen of Benghazi is one of De Villiers later thrillers featuring Marko Linge, and its possible that by the time he wrote it he assumed that fans would have become familiar with the hero over the course of the dozens of earlier novels so there was no point wasting time with detailed descriptions of the character, but as this book is the first to be published in English its a handicap not to be given more of an insight into mind and personality of the hero.

Especially as it makes believing him to be such an effective womaniser so much more difficult. Its easy to assume that Linge is handsome, as most fictional heroes inevitably are, but he would also need to be charming to an extraordinary degree in order to persuade women to sleep and fall in love with him so easily and regularly. Unfortunately, as the character is so thinly sketched this charm and charisma never comes across, leaving his sexual conquests feeling perfunctory rather than genuinely earned.

Which brings me on to the sex, of which there is quite a considerable quantity and most of which is quite graphic. De Villiers has something of a reputation for including a substantial amount of sex in all his books, and for not being shy when it comes to descriptions. How individual readers respond to this element of the book will depend partly on how prudish they are. Some may be offended, whilst some may simply find it superfluous to the overall story (and certainly some of the sex is entirely extraneous). Personally I found much of the sex innocuous, and certainly no worse or more graphic that anything I've read in other thrillers. My only observation is that there is just a hint of misogyny in the way the sex is presented, but that just may be down to it being written by a man.

Then again De Villiers doesn't seem particularly good at writing strong female characters. The only major one in the novel is Cynthia Mulligan, who apart from having a terrible name is essentially just a walking male fantasy; a bi-sexual, sexually adventurous, promiscuous supermodel. Like Linge she's both underwritten and feels like she has stepped out of another era, this time the Roger Moore Bond movies of the mid-70's but with more sex. Like the Bond girls from that period she's there as a convenient plot device and to be a damsel in distress. She even speaks like she's channelling someone from that period, using expressions such as 'Go easy love' and 'you ripped my knickers'. What she lacks is any personal agency or sense that she's a genuine, contemporary woman.

With the key characters being a bust, and the supporting cast offering little, its down to the underlying plot to save The Madmen of Benghazi and here De Villiers seems to be on firmer ground. The story doesn't break new ground, but Linge and Mulligan's presence aside it feels nicely plausible. It helps that its centred around recent, real world events, but the plausibility is further reinforced by De Villiers painting what seems like a realistic portrait of life in both Benghazi and Cairo. Despite having Muslims as the bad-guys it also avoids crude religious or racial stereotyping. It also offers a suitably murky view of the world of modern day espionage, where all sides are capable of nefarious practices and dodgy alliances in pursuit of their agendas, and even erstwhile allies can work against each other's interests.

As thriller plots go its not going to set the world alight, but it also benefits from being tightly written and comparatively short in length. In that respect it does share some DNA with Fleming's Bond novels, which were also succinctly written and relatively short, but that's about the only thing they do share.

Will I be coming back for more by De Villiers? Despite only giving this first effort three stars and being pretty critical the answer is probably yes. Despite its flaws I did enjoy The Madmen of Benghazi on a 'guilty pleasure' level and even in translation the book retains a certain European charm that you don't get with contemporary thrillers by British and American authors.

Field of Mars: Episode II (Collision)
Field of Mars: Episode II (Collision)
Price: £1.78

4.0 out of 5 stars Enjoyable But Better As A Single Volume, 3 Nov. 2015
Having read Episode 1 of Field of Mars by David Rollins and enjoyed it (albeit with some reservations) I was interested to see where the story would go in Part 2. Especially since it’s at this juncture in the story of the Roman Legion led by Crassus to destruction at the hands of the Parthians that the historical record such as it is runs out and the writer’s imagination is left to run wild.

Would Rollins take the story off in a new and entirely unexpected direction, or would it become yet another string of sword and sandals clichés strung together? Having been a fan of the author’s previous Vin Cooper thrillers, which provided a nicely sardonic and original take on the military thriller, I was hoping Rollins would find a similarly fresh approach to a well worn genre.

In that respect I was disappointed. Even freed from the shackles of factual accuracy, Episode II remains a relatively straight forward Roman military adventure. There are massed battles of legionaries against ‘barbarians’, scenes of bawdy banter between legionaries and lengthy descriptions of equipment and tactics. Rollins does manage to avoid huge, ungainly data dumps of factual information that often pepper historical novels by inserting it naturally into conversations between Romans and their non-Roman captors, but otherwise all the standard elements of this type of story are delivered in a generally straight-up fashion.

That’s not to say that Episode II of Field of Mars isn’t enjoyable. It sufficiently action and incident packed to hold the reader’s attention. The fact that the story is now entirely fictitious lends it an unpredictability that is refreshing. The addition of more female characters is also welcome after a male dominated first Episode. In fact all of the characters introduced in this Episode, male and female, are welcome additions to the story as they shift the book further away from being exclusively focused on Roman military adventures. Horizons are quite definitely broadened in this Episode, both figuratively and from the characters perspective literally, which is all to the good.

Its just a shame that Rollins doesn’t manage to conjure up something more unexpected in terms of the feel of the book. Whilst there are some twists and turns to the plot, this essentially remains a linear story told in a very conventional fashion. There’s little of the wry humour that peppered Rollin’s Vin Cooper novels. The behaviour of the central characters remain straight and for the most part predictable. They are archetypes and behave as such.

I am also still struggling to see the reasoning for publishing Field of Mars in Episodic form. Having received Episode I as a stand alone pre-publication e-book via NetGalley I then received all three Episodes as a single pre-publication volume from the same source. To my mind, reading Episodes II and III back to back in this latter format worked better than reading them individually with breaks in between. The book tells one continuous, linear story that feels designed to be read as a whole. There are no jumps in time or perspective that might better justify the episodic format. Rollins inserts a cliff-hanger at the end of Episode II, as if saying to the reader ‘make sure you come back for Part III to find out what happens’, but it feels forced, underpowered and unnecessary. There are enough positives in Field of Mars Eps I & II to bring you back for Ep III without further inducements. The episodic publication just feels like a bit of a gimmick rather that something intrinsic to the structure of the book or the thinking behind it.

Playmobil 5362 City Action Fire Brigade Engine Ladder Unit with Lights and Sounds
Playmobil 5362 City Action Fire Brigade Engine Ladder Unit with Lights and Sounds
Price: £40.30

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars High Quality Playmobil Set With Loads of Long Term Potential, 2 Nov. 2015
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
The Playmobil 5362 City Action Fire Brigade Engine Ladder Unit with Lights and Sounds is an updated version of an earlier model that we bought for our son a couple of years ago. The biggest change with the latest model is the addition of sound effects to go with the flashing lights. Children will love this addition. Parents may be less pleased.

The only other significant alteration is the removal of a equipment storage area behind the front seats and its replacement with a second row of seats, allowing the fire engine to carry up to four fire-fighters. As a parent I quite liked this change, as the storage compartment in the previous model was always pretty much dead space. Its also nice to have somewhere to put spare Playmobil figures rather than having them lying around the place and going missing.

Other than that the Fire Brigade Engine Ladder Unit represents pretty much business as usual for anyone familiar with Playmobil. On the plus side its well constructed, robust and offers lots of potential for imaginative play. Certainly both my children (3 & 5) love playing with both this and the older version of the same toy.

On the downside from the parental point of view, and like all Playmobil sets, its accompanied by lots of smaller pieces that are definitely not suitable for smaller children (less than 3) and can easily go missing. It also requires a significant amount of adult construction prior to play, and some parts are prone to repeatedly falling off and requiring the help of an adult to reattach. I can't remember the number of times I have been asked to reattach the roof/seat/basket/etc. by one of my children.

Overall however, it represents good value for money. After two years our previous Fire Brigade Engine Ladder Unit is still in full working order (albeit minus a few smaller accessories) and I would expect this new one to be equally tough. It also continues to get regular playtime, along with all the other Playmobil sets we have acquired in recent years, whilst other, flashier toys fall out of favour and are relegated to the back of the cupboard never to be seen again. Playmobil, along with Lego, is one of those toys that my wife and I don't mind buying for our children because we know how much use and enjoyment they will get from it. This is especially true of the City Action sets, which although less flashy than some of the lines based around spies or pirates, seem to stimulate free, imaginative play far more easily due to their familiarity.


Vax U86-AL-BA Air Cordless Solo Vacuum Cleaner, 1.05 Litre, Silver/Blue
Vax U86-AL-BA Air Cordless Solo Vacuum Cleaner, 1.05 Litre, Silver/Blue
Price: £129.99

3.0 out of 5 stars Great At Doing Floors. Less Good At Other Stuff, 29 Oct. 2015
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
The Vax Air Cordless is the second 'cordless' vacuum cleaner we have owned, having previously received a BISSELL Multi-Reach 2-in-1 Light Weight Cordless Vacuum with 18 V Lithium-Ion 90 W - Orange via the Vine programme. The Vax however, is the first 'full-size' cordless device we have used that is intended to be the primary household vacuum, so it was interesting to see how it stacked up against our aged but reliable Miele Complete C2 Cat & Dog PowerLine, 1600 watts, Red.

The answer is that in some important ways the Vax surpasses the Miele. In key areas however, the older, corded vacuum remains vastly superior and the Vax is significantly flawed.

First I should say that we live in a four bedroom house with a mixture of carpeted and hard floors. We have two children, both under the age of six and a dog that sheds quite heavily. We live in the countryside and spend a lot of time outdoors, so mud and other external dirt is always an issue. These are the challenges that both the Vax and the Miele have to cope with.

So where does the Vax win out? Well as a floor cleaner it is vastly superior. Whilst the Miele is no slouch and leaves floors looking and feeling reasonably clean a quick pass over with the Vax quickly sucked up a substantial amount of dirt, hair and general fluff that the older vacuum had missed. In fact one pass of our reasonably spotless, carpeted sitting room floor filled the Vax's bagless cylinder, and the results elsewhere were equally impressive.

The upright Vax, with its powered beater-bar is also faster on floors than the Miele, with its manual hose and suction head arrangement. Add in the fact that you don't need to keep moving a power cable around furniture, repeatedly swapping power sockets, or changing bags as you do with the Miele and when it comes to the basic job of keeping expanses of floor clean as quickly and efficiently as possible then the Vax is the clear winner.

The Vax even runs the Miele pretty close when it comes to getting into the nooks and crannies and around furniture, with its relatively small suction head and decent manoeuvrability. It doesn't have the reach under low furniture that the Miele does, but its not far off. The Vax is also significantly lighter, making it easier to carry up and down stairs when needed.

However, that is pretty much it in terms of where the Vax wins. In every other respect our seven year old Miele remains superior. When it comes to basic build quality the Miele feels far more robust than the Vax. After nearly six years of continuous use the Miele has never broken down and whilst its a bit scuffed in places it remains structurally sound. By contrast the Vax feels flimsy, and connections between various parts are not as precise as they should be. For example once you have emptied the collection cylinder on the Vax you're supposed to reattach the head containing the motor and twist the two units together until two arrows line up to show they have locked. At no point since first unlocking them to empty the cylinder has it been possible to get those arrows to line up properly. The Vax seems to function okay and they appear to be locked together, but the lack of engineering precision compared to the Miele is telling.

The Miele is also a far more flexible device than the Vax. Whilst the latter wins easily when it comes to floors, the older vacuum is vastly superior for everything else. With the Miele attaching smaller vacuum heads for doing stairs, furniture and hard to reach spaces is simply a case of popping off the main vacuum head, opening the compartment where the three smaller tools are stored and attaching one. Its quick and easy, the hose itself has decent reach and is made from heavy duty plastic. and there is a telescopic (but detachable) metal tube to extend its reach further. With the Vax by comparison the same process involves detaching the far flimsier and shorter hose from the base of the vacuum, which is rather fiddly, attaching it to the vacuum handle, which also detaches but isn't extendable, and then attaching the tool you want to use. Except the Vax only has an external storage point for one of the two tools it comes with, so if you need the other one you'll need to go and fetch it. There's also no flat tool designed for handling stairs or similar and putting everything back again so the Vax is back in upright mode is equally time consuming and fiddly.

Of course the Vax had the great selling point over the Miele and other corded vacuums that its battery powered, removing the need to deal with awkward power cables. Yet whilst there are some advantage to this when it comes to portability, accessibility and saving time there are also some significant disadvantages. The biggest is the amount of actual cleaning time the battery will give you. Vax claims a full charge will provide approximately 30 minutes of cleaning, which sounds plenty but is actually barely enough to cover a four bedroom house. That's also the maximum time it will last when the battery is new and holds charge well. Given a decent amount of use the battery will inevitably degrade and the available time will fall, making the Vax rather less useful as time passes.

There's also the question of what to do if you need to vacuum something when the battery is charging. With a dog and two small children there are regular occasions when dirty foot prints or spilt cereal needs to be dealt with. If the Vax was your only vacuum then such incidents would not be a problem when the battery is charged, but more problematic if you've just finished cleaning the house and the battery is flat. Vax do sell spare batteries separately, so you could keep one on standby if you needed to, but at seventy five pounds per battery this is not a cheap option.

In our case we're planning to keep the Vax Air Cordless and use it on the floors of our house because it really is very good at those. But we're also keeping our Miele too because its so much better at everything else and hasn't ever let us down yet. And if we ever had to choose between the two then I'm afraid the Miele would win easily because, power cord or not, it remains a far better all round performer than the Vax.

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