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Andrew Johnston "(www.andrewj.com/books)" (LEATHERHEAD United Kingdom)
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Crashers
Crashers
by Dana Haynes
Edition: Paperback
Price: £12.03

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Ripping Yarn, but Dodgy Details, 13 Oct 2010
This review is from: Crashers (Paperback)
This is a good thriller, set in the world of air crash investigation, which makes a very welcome change from the all too formulaic patterns of most current escapist literature. Choosing reading matter for my last holiday I really couldn't face another "serial killer" or "ancient secret / modern conspiracy" tale, and this caught my imagination.

The story romps along with a pace and complexity reminiscent of "24", and I mean that as a great compliment. It's enjoyable, and you won't want to put it down.

But..., and it's a big but, you may also find this book a bit frustrating. Too many of the details are clumsy, or just plain wrong.

For example, one of the characters is supposed to be a Mancunian ex-DCI, but instead of making him sound like Gene Hunt the author has him tacking "innit" on every sentence, like the dimmest illiterate London hoody. Worse, the author thinks that DCI stands for Deputy Chief Inspector! Elsewhere the villain uses Apple Mac control sequences to initiate events, but on a laptop which is variously described as "homemade" and an IBM T43.

And is it really credible that a top air crash investigation team would be taken in by fake flight data records inconsistent with all their other findings, and take almost a day to start trying to cross-check them?

The book also suffers from the increasingly common American fiction malady of stereotypical good guys and bad guys. The former are a politically correct cross section of races, ages and sexes, but all portrayed as handsome, wholesome and beyond reproach. The villains are a bunch of Ulster thugs, the one gay guy, and an overweight, bespectacled computer nerd called Dennis. That's so, well, Jurassic Park!

This is still a good yarn, but more focus on the details and more rounded characters would have made it a better one.


Canon EOS 7D Digital SLR Camera (Body Only)
Canon EOS 7D Digital SLR Camera (Body Only)
Price: £699.00

31 of 51 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Great electronics, poor ergonomics, 24 Aug 2010
I've just replaced my trusty Canon 40D. The choice wasn't easy, as Canon have not continued the XXD series directly. The 50D is now two years old. Instead of a 60D, last year Canon introduced the 7D. This is more like a cross between the 40D and the 5D MkII, and is rather more expensive, but at least it's compatible with my ES-F lenses, so after some umming and ahhing that's what I decided upon.

Now before I get to the negative bit, let's acknowledge that the 7D is a very good camera. It does well all the things that other Canons do well, and I have great hopes for the advanced auto-focus, although I haven't yet found anything to really test that. I also really like the built-in level and composition grid, and the much-improved live view features.

Low light performance of the new cameras is very good, although the improvement is marginal over the 40D in the crucial (for me) 1600-3200 ISO range. If you want to see what I mean, have a look at the full version of this review on my website.

ISO 1600 shots will clean up well, and should make a decent print, the ISO 3200 shot is marginal, and will take some juggling to get a good balance between noise and sharpness. 7D shots at ISOs 6400 and 12800 will never be portfolio quality.

The 7D produces good pictures. Its offences are against ergonomics and design purity.

First up, weight. The dimensions of the 40D and 7D are almost identical. However, it weighs a whopping 80g more. That's all but 3oz in old money, or a more than 10% increase. Obviously my previous entreaties to Canon to "just add lightness" haven't yet borne fruit. There's no good explanation for the increase. Weather sealing has allegedly been improved, but rubber isn't very heavy. Maybe there's a lead weight (or, marginally more realistically, a tube of mercury) swinging around for the level? Whatever the cause, I predict a number of 7D owners becoming tired either directly of the weight, or the blurry images to which it may well lead.

Then there are several completely superflous controls, most of which just get in the way. My bète noir is the rear control dial lock switch. What's the point of this? If you're such a klutz you can't pick up a camera without randomly twiddling the controls then maybe a high-end Canon isn't for you. And why just lock the RCD and no other controls? It doesn't even lock the RCD fully - the latter can still be used in the menus. Instead it's a needless point of failure - my first 7D had to be returned because this switch had failed, and I have seen several similar cases on the web.

Next, the "multi-function button", and auto-focus control. Functions carried across from the XXD series have a delightfully consistent logic: press a single button, and then the front control dial sets one aspect, while the RCD sets the other. For example, exposure compensation and bracketing. In most other Canons, AF is similar. Not the 7D. First you press the AF select button as before, then you have to press this fiddly new button next to the shutter release to cycle through the AF modes, and finally you can select an AF zone or point with the RCD. Why not just cycle the AF mode with the front dial, and the detail with the RCD?

The "multi-function button" isn't well named, as by default it only perform this function and flash exposure lock. However you can, if you ferret around in the custom function menus, assign a much more useful function - triggering the viewfinder display of the level and composition grid. This excellent capability really needs to be enabled by default - why not on the wastebasket button, which falls naturally under the left thumb and otherwise has no function when shooting?

The idea of being able to re-assign some buttons is a good one, but very strangely and half-heartedly implemented. For example, I'm never going to use RAW+JPEG button, because I always shoot with that combination anyway. Why can't I assign this to something useful, like mirror lock-up? Yet I can re-assign the shutter half-press to another function (from the absolute SLR standard of "focus and meter"), which would be a remarkably contrary thing to do.

Finally, what's with the "reprofiled grip"? I don't know who Canon reprofiled it for, but it's certainly not men with average sized hands, who now find a painful ridge under the thumb pad where the 40D was fine. At least one 7D is going to have to be modified with rubber tape, and that's not good.

So sorry Canon, I can only give the 7D 7/10, and I wanted to love it like its predecessor. You've got the electronics right, now focus on a more consistent, streamlined and comfortable user experience. You know how to do this - just look at the 40D.
Comment Comments (18) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Aug 28, 2012 3:34 PM BST


As the Earth Turns Silver
As the Earth Turns Silver
by Alison Wong
Edition: Paperback

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Hard to get in to, 9 July 2010
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
I received this book on the Amazon Vine programme, and it wasn't really my cup of tea. It's a shortcoming of that programme that you have to order books on very short descriptions, and sometimes you get it wrong. It would have helped if the author or publisher had provided Amazon with an abstract describing the nature of the story, rather than just the style of writing.

I found the book rather hard to get in to, and rapidly felt the story was going to be very predictable - a typical tale of social hypocrisy.

The characters were very confusing. I know that in a family story several people will share a surname, but this got seriously complicated! Eventually I got completely lost and gave up.

If this is your sort of book, look to other reviews by more sympathetic readers. I'm afraid it didn't work for me.


Architectural Photography: Composition, Capture, and Digital Image Processing
Architectural Photography: Composition, Capture, and Digital Image Processing
by Adrian Schulz
Edition: Paperback

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A sandwich with not quite enough meat, 2 May 2010
This is a good, broad introduction to the field of architectural photography which will suit photographers with basic to intermediate skill levels. That said, the level of detail varies, and it will leave some readers wanting more.

After a good general introduction, the second chapter is on photographic technology. This starts with a discussion on analog vs digital photography which rather annoyed me, with its gross over-simplification of digital processing and generalisations on digital camera characteristics, with some confusion between dynamic range and aperture settings. In fairness many of the omissions (such as RAW workflows) are dealt with at length later in the book, but this section sets a simplistic tone which is not representative of the rest. The section proceeds with a reasonably fair comparison of different camera formats, albeit slightly hung up on pixel size, and a good, even-handed discussion and recommendations on lenses and additional equipment, but contains nothing of great value to the reasonably experienced photographer.

The chapter on shooting techniques is the core of the book. This starts with a discussion on the various objectives of architectural photography, and moves on to consider how to extract very different images from the same basic subject. After that the book leads the reader through perspective and its relationship to camera position, and the various ways to correct perspective distortions such as converging verticals. All this is done with clear examples, showing the effects by comparison of two or more shots of the same subject.

The various sections on composition are excellent, with good advice on how to emphasise different aspects, or make an image more inclusive, but I found the section on panoramas a bit basic, with no real advice on how to avoid common stitching distortions. A similar complaint might be levelled at the sections on exposure and shooting interiors, which are very dry and concise, although I can't find fault with anything which is said. The author does make the positive recommendation of using naturalistic HDR to address extreme dynamic range, and provides good exterior and interior examples, plus a comparitive example of the technique overdone.

A following section on lighting considerations, including shadows, reflections, weather and seasons is short, but has some good recommendations, including how to exploit different conditions for different moods. The chapter then finishes with a short section on photographing buildings creatively, which contains a number of simple yet powerful suggestions.

The third chapter is a slight oddity - a "commentary" by experienced architectural photographer Marcus Bredt. This summarises a lot of the main chapter's themes, but with a different photographer's words and examples. In another book this would be the guest forward, but I rather like this "tell them what you have told them" positioning.

The final chapter is on image processing. It starts with quite a detailed discussion on RAW vs JPEG, and a rather mechanical account of setting up a RAW conversion in Adobe Camera Raw. There's nothing wrong with these, but they feel slightly out of place. A useful but short section on perspective correction is followed by a long worked example of general image adjustment in PhotoShop, which has nothing to do with the book's main topic. Worked examples on panoramas and HDR are more relevant, but still have too much image-specific blow by blow detail and insufficient discussion of the general issues which arise when applying these techniques to architectural photography.

The book finishes with a short and very basic section on creative adjustments, but there's no overall conclusion. I was hoping for more detail on things like perspective correction techniques, but that's missing.

This book is rather like a sandwich with too much boring bread, and a tasty filling which isn't quite thick enough. The processing section feels like filler, and detracts from the excellent core on composing and shooting architectural photographs. The latter is good enough for me to recommend the book, but I must warn you that some topics will leave you wanting more. This is a good book, but could have been better.


Superfreakonomics: Global Cooling, Patriotic Prostitutes and Why Suicide Bombers Should Buy Life Insurance
Superfreakonomics: Global Cooling, Patriotic Prostitutes and Why Suicide Bombers Should Buy Life Insurance
by Steven D. Levitt
Edition: Hardcover

4.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating, fun, and more depth than the first book, 2 May 2010
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
This book is a worthy, and in my view a better, successor to the original "Freakonomics". I found the original book fascinating, but ultimately frustrating because after good beginnings it lost its way and felt light on content. The second book avoids that problem, keeping the thought provoking analysis and insights coming all the way.

The new book has a very broad scope - trying to understand the economics and human psychology which drive aspects of human existence as disparate as female oppression and prostitution, terrorism, effective medical treatment, altruism, vehicle safety, and global problems such as climate change.

As before, Levitt and Dubner spend a lot of time challenging received wisdom, citing detailed research and comprehensive data which prove that in many cases our common understanding of how things work "just ain't so". Typically the underlying research is not their own, but they have done a wonderful job of bringing together a larger number of different findings into a set of readily readable chapters, each of which have a strong unifying theme in the form of a key question. My favourite: "What Do Al Gore and Mount Pinatubo Have In Common?"

Towards the end of the book, they also make an interesting proposition, that a large number of human problems can be resolved with relatively simple solutions, if we have the will to make it happen. The adoption of seat belts is cited as a major previous success, and the idea is then developed to explore several possible relatively low-cost geo-engineering solutions to global warming. Views may differ on how humanity must balance behavioural and technical solutions to its current challenges, but their argument is a strong one, based on a frank and realistic assessment of typical behaviour.

As a counterpoint, the final chapter recounts an experiment which proved that much of human economic behaviour can be replicated in other animals. I just loved the story of the monkeys who were introduced to the concept of money, and promptly invented prostitution!

Despite the range and depth of the subject matter, the book is always readable, with frequent "laugh out loud" moments. Anyone can pick up this book, enjoy it and take away an improved understanding of the underlying drivers for human (and monkey) behaviour. I freely recommend it to anybody interested in doing so.


Heresy
Heresy
by S. J. Parris
Edition: Hardcover

62 of 66 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Dodgy Dons Done to Death in Troubled Tudor Times, 2 May 2010
This review is from: Heresy (Hardcover)
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
Initially I thought of this book as "'The Name of the Rose' meets 'Elizabeth'", as it combines religious themes into a murder mystery set in Elizabethan England, but on reflection that's not quite correct. This is "'Elizabeth' meets 'Inspector Morse'".

Not only are the victims a series of Oxford University academics, who meet progressively stickier ends, but the central character is a lonely polymath with an ambivalent attitude to authority, and his own intellectual obsessions. That and the Oxford locations are both reminiscent of Dexter's stories, but this is very much its own historic tale, focused on the turmoil caused by the multiple violent shifts in English religion between the reigns of Henry and Elizabeth.

This is a well-written and captivating story, which kept me turning the pages. The characters are all well-drawn, whether heroes, victims or villains. A few are well-established historical personages, like Elizabeth's spymaster, Sir Francis Walsingham, and these are portrayed very much as we might expect. Similarly the practical aspects of Elizabethan life and the physical details of the Oxford and London locations are brought clearly and colourfully to life by Parris' descriptions.

The decision to tell the story in the first person, from the standpoint of the central character, is a slightly odd one, in that it allows for no uncertainty in respect of his motives or progress. His own ambivalence on certain moral issues, and some self-doubt, are well portrayed, but overall I think I prefer a slightly more neutral viewpoint in stories of this nature.

Another minor complaint is that my pre-publication copy of the book had a few errors of typography and grammar, but I hope these will be eliminated in the fully proof-read published version.

Those niggles aside, this is an excellent read, which I thoroughly enjoyed, and I heartily recommend it to anyone who fancies a good mediaeval murder mystery.


Photographic Multishot Techniques: High Dynamic Range, Super-Resolution, Extended Depth of Field, Stitching
Photographic Multishot Techniques: High Dynamic Range, Super-Resolution, Extended Depth of Field, Stitching
by Juergen Gulbins
Edition: Paperback
Price: £21.15

11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Disappointing content, and too much Photoshop, 26 Mar 2010
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This book should really be titled "Photographic Multishot Techniques with Photoshop CS3". Although it does touch on some other software (in particular a quite detailed look at PhotoAcute) you get the distinct impression that the authors are out of their comfort zone unless they can "do it in Photoshop".

This is a great shame, because multishot techniques such as panoramic stitching and HDR are areas in which smaller software vendors have frequently produced powerful, innovative, inexpensive software solutions. Also, it makes the book less relevant to anyone who cannot afford (or does not want to invest in) full-blown Photoshop CS3.

The introductory sections are quite good, introducing the reader to basic multishot workflow techniques. However, there's not much here for the more advanced reader. For example, the book explains how RAW files differ from processed files, but doesn't really explore the pros and cons of feeding RAW files straight into multishot processing vs pre-processing them in a separate RAW convertor.

Surprisingly, the authors decide to start their exploration of multishot techniques with super-resolution, combining very similar shots to increase resolution or decrease noise. This is an odd choice, partly because it's a relatively rare requirement, and partly because the only effective software support appears to be from PhotoAcute, which makes this a "one solution" chapter. Given that there's another section at the end dealing with issues like sharpening and local contrast enhancement, it might have made more sense in that position.

The next section turns the attention to focus stacking. This is at least a balanced chapter, exploring techniques with Phtoshop, PhotoAcute, CombineZM and Helicon Focus. However, rather than exploring the options within the stacking tools, the authors seem happier to take the default output, and then extensively post-process it in Photoshop.

The section on panoramic stitching is particularly disappointing. Although there are a wealth of alternatives available, some of which are absolutely excellent, the authors don't do a single worked example using anything other than Photoshop 's Photomerge command. They also use some very poor examples: some are just bad photography, like the wedding group with a number of people facing away from the camera, but others simply emphasise the limitations of the Photoshop focus. In one example the authors show a first-cut panorama which Photoshop has distorted wildly and stitched badly, but there is no "corrected" version.

HDR gets a better treatment, but again very much "Photoshop first". After a good introduction to the general subject, the first worked example uses manual blending of layers in Photoshop, then there's a brief but effective example with PhotoAcute, then it's back to Photoshop again! Finally they get to the clear leader in this space, Photomatix Pro, but again there's very little attempt to explore the options of this powerful software. One key function is simply described by comparison to a Photoshop CS3 function, which is meaningless if you don't have that software. FDRTools gets a surprisingly detailed review, given that the authors were working with a beta release of the software which was clearly not fully functional.

The final section is about improving image micro-contrast. While of interest, it's not really a multishot technique, being more about various post-processing options in Photoshop. This is another missed opportunity to explore the trade-offs between pre-processing and post-processing component images, which would have perhaps been more useful.

Overall this book left me frustrated, as an opportunity lost. I did learn things from it, but instead of a balanced overview and keen insights into technique, this is just too much about fiddling in Photoshop.


Take Your Photography to the Next Level: From the Inspiration to Image: From the Inspiration to Image
Take Your Photography to the Next Level: From the Inspiration to Image: From the Inspiration to Image
by George Barr
Edition: Paperback
Price: £25.99

4.0 out of 5 stars A Great Inspiration For When You're Stuck or Frustrated, 30 May 2009
This is an unusual book, being almost as much about the psychology of photography as its craft. There are better books about technique, but none I know better lead the reader to analyse his or her successes, failures and way forwards in photography. If you feel stuck or frustrated, unable to improve, or have ever thought "I can't photograph anything here" then this may be just the book for you.

In the introduction, Barr suggests you shouldn't read the book if you can't relate to his images, but that's wrong. If your photographic interests are sweeping landscapes, stunning action or unambiguous portraits then you may well be puzzled by the images, as Barr focuses strongly on abstract details, usually of faded industrial objects. However, rejecting the book on that basis would cause a great many readers to unjustly ignore this work.

After an introductory chapter in which Barr analyses some of his own work in detail, the core of the book focuses on success and failure in photography: what photographs well; how photographs, and photographers, may succeed or fail; and what to do if you are dissatisfied with your ability to find images, capture and render them, or present them to others.

Where this book really scores is in the numerous "how to" bullet lists, of things to do and processes to follow in order to both find an image, and then ensure you have the best possible composition of it.

George Barr is obviously, as a project manager once described herself to me, a "very listy sort of person". Sometimes this works very well, but at other times it feels a little like things are being analysed past the point of usefulness.

In the final chapter Barr presents a pair of five-level capability models, of the form much loved by management methodologists, against which a photographer's technical skill and artistic achievement can be measured. After guides to assessing one's level, there are then suggested steps to progress between levels, encapsulating the book's earlier advice. This has to be the most scientific way to present "taking your art to the next level", but it works well.

The book is not perfect. In particular some sections where Barr analyses individual images are poorly laid out, with the discussion two pages or more adrift from the relevant photos. In the middle of the book the analytical approach gets taken to an extreme, listing multiple variants of corner and frame structure, and I confess to hurrying through this.

Ultimately, however, such criticisms are relatively minor, if you focus on the book's core strengths. I would heartily recommend this book to any photographer seeking inspiration for those times, which we all experience, when photography becomes difficult, disappointing or frustrating. Plus, of course, anyone wanting to move up to the next level.


City of the Sun
City of the Sun
by David Levien
Edition: Hardcover

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Well written, but uninspiring, 24 May 2009
This review is from: City of the Sun (Hardcover)
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
By a weird co-incidence, I watched "Ocean's 13" the night before this book found its way to the top of my reading pile. Levien also wrote the screenplay for that film, which I enjoyed enormously, and I was looking forwards to a similar mix of complex plot and light touch dialogue in the book, but sadly I was to be disappointed.

Basically this is a book about a grim and serious subject - the kidnapping of children by organised peadophiles - and as a result it demands a rather grim and serious treatment. At the end there is hope for the boy's parents and the detective, but otherwise this is an unleavened slog which does not make you feel good about the world.

That said, the book is quite well written, and held my attention with its steady pace and well-drawn characters. I expect that readers who prefer their crime novels straight, rather than with Hiaasen-like comic twists, will enjoy it more than I did.

However, I can't agree with the fulsome praise heaped on the book by other writers such as Lincoln Child and Harlan Coben. It isn't that well written. The protagonists always get the information they require for the next stage of the trail before the appropriate baddy comes to a well-flagged sticky end, and a bit more obfuscation might have been better. The central characters are reasonably well drawn, but many of the others are very stereotypical.

The hero of the piece is himself a stereotype retired cop become private detective, blessed with both prodigious physical talents and well-honed police skills. While he has suffered a great tragedy, he doesn't seem to have any real weaknesses. Homer knew that a real hero needs his "Achilles Heel", but Behr is like Sherlock Holmes and Casey Ryback (from "Under Siege") rolled into one. I realised part way through the book that I had been mentally pronouncing his name "Bayer", but was probably meant to pronounce it "Bear". Come on, we can try harder than this!

While I'm on a critical note, I was also annoyed by the cover artwork! One of the plot's turning points is where Behr works out exactly where the child was snatched, with careful description of the street names. The cover does indeed show an abandoned bicycle at a suburban US road junction, but the street name is clearly wrong, and in the book the bicycle is stolen, not abandoned. I wish publishers would show a bit more attention to detail!

If you want to read a solid, serious crime drama then this may be a good choice, but don't expect humour or challenge from this book.


The Last Days of the Lacuna Cabal
The Last Days of the Lacuna Cabal
by Sean Dixon
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £10.10

3.0 out of 5 stars Not my type of book, 1 Nov 2008
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
I was invited to review this before release under the Amazon Vine programme, but I'm afraid I didn't get on with it.

I suspect I am a different age, sex and socio-economic group from the book's target audience. Neither the subject - the trials of a group of bohemian young women, trying to live out the books they review - nor its introverted and many-layered literary style appealed to me, and I could not finish it.

Please note that I am not saying this is a bad book, and it has received good reviews from others. However the very short descriptions provided for Amazon Vine items will sometimes mean the "wrong" reviewer receives an item, and that was the case on this occasion.


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