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Simon Brooke (Auchencairn, Scotland)

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ASUS UX21E-KX004V 11.6 inch Ultrabook (Intel Core i5 2467M 1.6 GHz, 4GB RAM, 128 GB Solid State Drive, LAN, WLAN, Webcam) - Silver
ASUS UX21E-KX004V 11.6 inch Ultrabook (Intel Core i5 2467M 1.6 GHz, 4GB RAM, 128 GB Solid State Drive, LAN, WLAN, Webcam) - Silver

16 of 20 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Exceptionally elegant and desirable, 29 Feb. 2012
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OK, so let's talk about this little machine. I come at it from a different perspective from most people - I don't have electricity in my home, and I haven't had a home desktop computer for more than a year. So this is very much my main computer, and for my use its ability to work away from mains electricity is significant. So I can confirm you get about three and a half hours on battery - less if you plug in an external drive - which is, frankly, not quite as much as I'd hooped. Obviously there are a lot of things you can tune to improve economy, and I'm still experimenting there. It's also not quite as quiet as I'd hoped. Don't get me wrong, by PC standards it is pretty quiet, but you can hear the fan. No part of the machine gets more than mildly warm, though.

For the rest? Well, it may not quite look a million dollars, but it looks amazingly good for eight hundrd pounds. It's a beautifully crafted piece of kit. The case looks extremely sharp and designer - yes, I know that it's a very sincere flattery of the Apple 11 inch MacBook Air (Dual-Core i5,1.6GHz,2GB,64GB Flash,HD Graphics), but frankly it's none the worse for that. The screen seems extremely sharp and bright; the keyboard, despite its very short travel, is positive and pleasant to type on.

Obviously, as I'm using Linux, I can't comment on the problems Windows users are having with the touch pad. Multi-touch drivers for the touch pad are apparently in bleeding edge kernels already but I'm using 3.0 which doesn't have multi-touch. But as a single-touch touchpad, it's very good. And the machine feels blazingly fast, booting from cold in under ten seconds, and snapping large applications like Netbeans and Eclipse open.

Linux? Oh, yes, it installed very straightforwardly. Almost everything worked out of the box. The significant thing that didn't is sleep mode - you need to set up a sleep/wake script in /etc/pm/sleep.d, but fortunately there's documentation on how to do this out there on the Web...

Which brings to the matter of Windows. I haven't wiped it off yet, but Windows - by itself, with no user data or applications - occupies more than half of the total 128Gb SSD. By contrast, Linux, with a full graphical desktop, two software development environments, several games, a full office suite, three browsers and all my music fits into 9.7Gb of the 40Gb I've partitioned off for it. I'm not - yet - pushed for space, but sacrificing more than half my total storage for an operating system that's only any use for playing games seems a waste.

In the long term, both the SSD and the screwed-in battery are slight liabilities; both will, in the long term, need to be replaced. But, brutally honestly, we don't keep laptops in the long term. I bought this one because the SSD in my three year old Dell Mini 9 has died. I could have replaced just the SSD, but I didn't.

In summary, the Zenbook is exceptionally elegant and desirable; nice to work with, well made, light and portable, and seems likely to be durable. In terms of bang for your buck, it isn't bad, but you are paying for the fancy aluminium case and you would probably get better graphics performance for the same price if you bought a standard plastic laptop. You'd also most likely get more storage, but I do appreciate the dramatic speed of the SSD. There are also machines that you can buy for the same money which have more battery life. But there are few machines which are more elegant. If you want MacOS, then by all means buy a MacBook Air; but putting any other OS onto a MacBook Air is significantly less easy than putting it onto a PC, so if you don't want MacOS then the Zenbook - with almost identical specification - is a better buy.

Edited to add - if you're going to use Linux, I standby my opinion this is a very nice machine. But if you want to run Windows, don't buy it. Under Windows neither the WiFi nor Bluetooth work (they work out of the box under Linux) and you can't download update to the Windows drivers without clicking to 'agree' to a legal document which takes away all your consumer rights.

A Sword for Hire (The Silent Blade Chronicles Book 1)
A Sword for Hire (The Silent Blade Chronicles Book 1)
Price: £0.99

3 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fantasy that does not take itself too seriously, 30 Jan. 2012
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Fantasy is a literary genre which takes itself awfully seriously. The intersection between fantasy and humour - at least, intentional humour - is small. There's Terry Pratchett, of course, but I always feel that Pratchett is too aware of his own status as the fantasy funny man - even his humour is taken awfully seriously...

So it's a real joy to encounter a fantasy which is also, and perhaps primarily, a farce. David Graham takes us to a world where wizards are mostly senile, and those who are not senile are mostly engaged in office politics. When the unexpected happens, both sorts are inclined to panic and run around like scatty old women. It's fortunate for them that the old women of their world are not the least scatty, and for good or ill rather less inclined to panic.

The plot is the classic sub-Tolkien fantasy story: an ill-assorted band of questors seek to recover a Lost Artefact of Unimaginable (if, in this case, little understood) Power while triggering all manner of Portentous Ancient Prophesies. However this variant of that classic tale features a Mother in Law, who is not, it transpires, a dragon. Altogether a rattling good yarn which manages to laugh at all the key beats of the classic fantasy plot, while managing to surprise you at each twist and turn.

Read and enjoy - I'm looking forward to the sequel!

Missee Lee (Swallows And Amazons)
Missee Lee (Swallows And Amazons)
by Arthur Ransome
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.39

8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Amo, Amas, Amat: you cannot help but love this, 13 April 2011
We know from references in other books in the series that the events of 'Peter Duck' didn't happen within the fictional lives of Ransome's heroes; rather, it's a metafiction - a narrative that they composed together in the cabin of an old wherry over the course of a winter holiday. There's no such intertextual reference to Missee Lee in the canonical stories, but nevertheless we know it is a sequel to Peter Duck. We know this because we find our heroes on the same little schooner that Peter Duck had helped them sail before.

So we know from the start that Missee Lee is also a metafiction, or rather, a metafantasy: a fantasy of a China which never existed but which, one cannot help thinking, should have.

Missee Lee is the most sustained comedy in Ransome's oeuvre. The first chapter gives us none of this: it's a rattling good yarn in the best tradition of rattling good yarns. But as soon as our heroes get ashore and meet the eponymous pirate queen, a twist no-one would have predicted takes the plot by the tail. Roger is discovered to have just one unique talent - a talent which none of the others had ever thought might come in useful; and throughout the delightful romp which follows, this unlikely talent is the one thing which saves everyone's life.

In summary, this isn't a 'Swallows and Amazons' tale like any other. It stands alone. It's more exotic, funnier, odder, and ultimately more poignant. But it is probably some of Ransome's finest story telling, and certainly his finest writing. And although aimed at a teen audience, this really is a story to delight any reader.

Read it, as they say, and weep - but weep from laughing.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jul 4, 2012 7:29 PM BST

50 Dollars and Up Underground House Book
50 Dollars and Up Underground House Book
by Mike Oehler
Edition: Paperback

11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Thoughtful and thought-provoking, but will give a building standards officer heart attack, 27 Feb. 2011
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Mike Oehler is an autodidact, and a man - he admits it, nay, proclaims it - of strong and idiosyncratic opinions. He has a recipe for building small dwellings cheaply in Pacific Northwest USA - which is to say it's as wet as western Scotland, warmer in summer and considerably colder in winter. He designs houses that I could afford to build using materials which are - with the exception of the polyethylene membranes which are key to his system - considerably more ecologically sound than most modern building materials. He makes substantial use of roundwood poles - which I have in abundance for the cost of cutting and seasoning them.

All these are reasons I should take him seriously. And yet, I'm wary. He's built - or claims to have built - remarkably few dwellings (two, as far as I can see, although people using his method have built many more). He doesn't seem to use any moisture barriers in his floors - in fact, he extols the virtues of earth floors. I simply don't see that working in Scottish conditions (In fact in the 'Update' section at the end of the book, Oehler now has a membrane under the floor of his house - which is now carpeted).

The other thing is that I strongly suspect that if you showed one of his houses to any self respecting British Building Control Officer you'd get something between a hearty guffaw and a shriek of horror. Indeed, Oehler's own response to building standards is clearly expressed on page 100 of his book: 'will a home built with the PSP system pass the code? The answer is, sadly, no... you may move to an area which has no codes...'

Well, you may. But I want to build my home on my land in my home valley, so I can't. I could adopt Oehler's alternative suggestion, of evasion... but the less said about that the better.

Finally, a note of caution about the title. Oehler's quoted prices relate to the 1970s; and even then I think a certain amount of creative (or merely forgetful) accounting was involved.

Nevertheless Oehler's book is both thoughtful and thought provoking. I'm glad I read it, and will continue to mull over it.

Subtext: A Modern Day Tale of Female Submission
Subtext: A Modern Day Tale of Female Submission
by Kate Marley
Edition: Paperback

5 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars More erotica than memoir, 27 Oct. 2010
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Subtext is a memoir of a real person; but it is, I think - I hope - somewhat fictionalised or exaggerated to work as erotica. And if I was considering it just as erotica, I might give it five stars. As memoir, however, as a document of lived experience, it fails, and it fails just because it seems exaggerated and fictionalised.

The book is an account of Marley's discovery and exploration of her submissive and masochistic nature. I've no doubt that the overall story she tells is more or less true, although she's clearly chosen to narrate it in an erotic manner (which I don't object to!) However, one or two episodes don't ring true.

For example, in chapter twelve, Marley describes being used as a rope bunny - someone being tied - by an experienced rigger, Mark, who is demonstrating rope bondage to her friend Russell. Marley wants to be released quickly, and, with an experienced rigger present, the rope can't be untied and so it is cut. This makes a funny episode in the story, and is effective as narrative, but it doesn't seem likely.

More significantly, Marley describes a series of beatings she endures which seem to me to be improbably severe. I'm well aware that there are a number of people on the scene who choose to allow themselves to be beaten to the point of actual injury, but that isn't what Marley seems to be saying. Nevertheless I would expect at least one of the beatings she describes - the one with the wooden spoon - to have caused lasting tissue damage.

On the other hand, she describes an episode (the same wooden spoon beating) after which the sadist is so shocked and repulsed by his own cruelty that he withdraws from the relationship. This I believe. I have worn that t-shirt. It is not a comfortable one.

I bought the book intending to give it to a woman friend who has not yet seen herself as submissive, but who I think is and would benefit from accepting the fact. I'm not going to give it to her. The masochism that Marley expresses is so profound that it seems more likely to repel than to convert the uncertain; and that seems to me a shame. Particularly as it seems a trifle over-egged; a little exaggerated.

From a literary point of view one thing really niggled, which was her repeated use of the sentence 'I've never felt pain like it'. It becomes almost a catchphrase, and repetition robs it of effect. It is - probably - true of one of the episodes she describes. It is possibly true of more than one, because pain can be qualitatively different. But it can't be true of every one. It grates.

And, therefore, as both memoir and as erotica, it doesn't quite make top marks; four stars not five. However, it is a rattling good read, and, considered simply as erotica, very hot.

Under Heaven
Under Heaven
by Guy Gavriel Kay
Edition: Hardcover

23 of 23 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Kay's transcendent masterpiece, 15 July 2010
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This review is from: Under Heaven (Hardcover)
Guy Gavriel Kay is one of my favourite authors, has been for a long time. His early Fionavar Tapestry caught my interest: flawed, derivative of Tolkien, but nevertheless full of knowledge and understanding of European folklore, and expressed in lambent prose. His Sarantium duology disappointed slightly, but he found his rythm again in his evocations of early medieval Europe, the hauntingly beautiful Song for Arbonne, the rich and tragic Lions of Al Rassan, the exquisite and almost flawless Tigana. The Last Light of the Sun is possibly better than these, but did not move me personally so much; and Ysabel, which I love, is perhaps less ambitious. But nevertheless Kay is one of two writers I pre-order in hardback as soon as a book is announced. But I confess I wondered: could this writer so steeped in the history of Europe do justice to ancient China?

Oh, ye of little faith.

This novel is transcendent. It stands alongside Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose as the equal finest piece of narrative fiction I have ever read. There is so much richness, so much depth, so much knowledge, so much understanding here. So much compassion; so much subtlety. And the evocation of ancient China rings entirely true. No slightest hint or detail of scene or voice interrupts or jars the willing suspension of disbelief. The evocation of a world that sweeps from the empty grasslands of the steppe through the mountain wastes of the abandoned battlefield, over the lonely forts on the Great Wall and by way of the isolated fastness of the soldier monks to the pleasure gardens of the imperial palace is solid and firm and credible in each perfectly observed detail, in each perfectly crafted phrase.

Kay shows us in words, as Antti-Jussi Annila has in film, that Europe and China are not in fact so far apart across the top of the world; that people are, always, people; and that the core of every narrative is those people and the complex web of interaction - of love, of loyalty, of respect, of rivalry, of conflict, of hatred - between them. All that is here. All that is here, and this prose sings. It's no accident that Kay's heroes here are poets, as in the Song for Arbonne they are jongleurs. Kay loves language, and narrative; and with this book he has mastered both. This book - this text - is his masterpiece, under heaven.

Servant of the Underworld: Obsidian and Blood Trilogy, Book I
Servant of the Underworld: Obsidian and Blood Trilogy, Book I
by Aliette de Bodard
Edition: Paperback

4.0 out of 5 stars An unexpected gem, 6 May 2010
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Just occasionally, my practice of reading odd books by new authors pays off, and this has been one of those occasions. Aliette de Bodard clearly has a deep knowledge of Aztec culture, and is able to present it freshly and interestingly. But there's more than that. She writes a well plotted puzzle thriller, she presents a modest and engaging first person protagonist, and she writes with an elegant and laconic prose style which, for me, seemed strongly reminiscent of Raymond Chandler. This is, almost, Philip Marlow in Tenochtitlan.

Much of the action is magical, and the publishers have chosen to sell this as fantasy. I think that's a misunderstanding. De Bodard does her best to show us the Aztecs as they would understand their own lives, and in their lives these magics were very real. This is historical fiction comparable to (but much better, in my opinion, than) Lindsey Davis' Falco novels or Ellis Peters' Brother Cadfael. Magic is tricky to handle in story telling, of course, and I found the climatic magical battle slightly weak. But on the whole de Bodard writes compellingly and makes it easy for us to suspend our disbelief.

Strongly recommended. I look forward to her next book!

Dancer of Gor
Dancer of Gor
by John Norman
Edition: Paperback

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Strangely, not trash, 5 May 2010
This review is from: Dancer of Gor (Paperback)
There was a period in English language - and especially American - popular culture when it was impossible to write explicitly about sex. But people still wanted to read - and write - sexy books. John Norman solved this dilemma by writing about a culture of male warriors and female slaves, and in doing so wrote books which have enormous influence in the less intellectual end of the BDSM community. There's a group of people - not small - who treat these books as holy texts, and more, as manuals for life.

So I read this one as much out of sociological as out of literary interest. Why had they been so influential?

Let's start by saying I expected it to be trash, and it isn't trash. Norman has an annoying habit of using repetition as a rhetorical device, and there are places where the text could benefit from more vigorous editing, but on the whole Norman writes clearly and well; persuasively, even. And although all the punches are signalled well in advance, there's a sense of plot which is normally missing from commercial erotica.

I also expected to find very much a male fantasy, and again, I didn't. This particular book is presented from the point of view of a female first person narrator, but it's clear that Norman has a good understanding of and sympathy with female psychology, and there is a lot of female fantasy here. This will be a compelling read for some women, and a slightly squeamish but interesting read for many others.

In the narrative, the narrator (kidnapped from Earth, naturally) is initially a virgin, in a privileged but largely powerless role within Gorean society. Her city loses a war, and, after some adventures, she is captured.

The first man who rapes her is not violent. But he is, contrary to my expectation, not a handsome virile warrior either, but instead a merchant, presented as slimy and deceitful. This is another of the areas where the story is more subtle and more complex than I expected. Of course (given its provenance) the story jumps somewhat awkwardly from the point where rape is inevitable to its aftermath. Again, contrary to my expectation of the story, the first rape is not an ecstatic experience (although it's also not a traumatic experience).

This is (of course) the first of a series of rapes, as the narrator is captured again, formally enslaved, sold, and sold again. Obviously - this is commercial, escapist fiction, after all - she ends up slave to the man who had been her bodyguard in the early part of the book, to whom she is strongly attracted. But she remains explicitly a slave, unable to make any sexual choice of her own, used at her master's whim.

For me the biggest fault in the narrative is this. The narrator never hates what is done to her, by any of her rapists. She doesn't always positively enjoy the rape, but does enjoy the submission and the powerlessness. This I find credible - I know women who enjoy submission and powerlessness, to an extreme degree. But I find the lack of a negative reaction - fear, trauma, despair - to some of the incidents not credible, and I think the narrative would be stronger (and the polemic points Norman is making more persuasive) if he did explore this more realistically.

I'd assumed that Norman was just writing commercial fiction - stuff that would sell. But clearly he has a mission: clearly he believes that society would be happier if women were submissive and men dominant. Some of the time, he is preaching. The book would be made a lot stronger - and a lot more persuasive - if that preaching were cut out fairly ruthlessly. And there are are a lot of places where the text would benefit from being tightened up. But this is more than simply a masturbatory fantasy for immature men. It's actually an interesting read.
Comment Comments (4) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jan 4, 2011 2:15 PM GMT

Dell Inspiron Mini 9 Netbook Computer
Dell Inspiron Mini 9 Netbook Computer

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Excellent little machine, 21 Mar. 2010
I bought my Mini 9 direct from Dell over a year ago. It came with Ubuntu 8.04 'Hardy Heron', with a rather horrible 'quick launch' overlay from Dell which I immediately removed. Hardy Heron worked very nicely. Recently I've upgraded to Ubuntu 9.10 netbook remix, and that's proving even nicer. The machine has been absolutely reliable, except for a tendency to fail to wake from sleep mode. It's very compact, the keyboard is good, the screen bright and clear, the battery life long. It's also proved pretty robust, and, despite a hard life on the road, still looks very smart.

I've used it for web browsing, word processing and email, as most users will, but also for network security testing and a small amount of programming. It's been a very good machine and I'd have no hesitation buying another.

Dragon Age: Origins (PC)
Dragon Age: Origins (PC)
Offered by GeeksWholesaler
Price: £5.95

10 of 13 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars It's good. It isn't good enough., 21 Nov. 2009
= Fun:4.0 out of 5 stars 
I'm now about eight hours of play into Bioware's latest, about where I was in The Witcher when I wrote my first rave review. So what have I to say? What do I think of the show so far?

The truth is I'm deeply disappointed.

This is very much 'Bioware's latest'. It is Neverwinter Nights with a new skin. The plot is hocum sub-Tolkien, with all the standard sub-Tolkien elements (the wood-elves here doubling up as both elves and hobbits). There's some witty banter between your companions - like Neverwinter Nights (and unlike The Witcher) the multiple-henchman mechanics are very good. The cutscene engine is extremely good - possibly the best yet in a fantasy RPG. Landscape, too, is much better than in Neverwinter Nights - but it needed to be; and now we have seen the landscapes The Witcher's team can produce with Bioware's engine, 'much better' is just not good enough.

The architecture and overall design is poor, too - it's very much on a par with Bethesda's Oblivion, no better, no worse. But unlike Oblivion, this is a Bioware world. You can't swim across lakes. You can't even wade through puddles. The playing space, instead of being continuous like Oblivion's, is broken up into disjointed patches, crudely stitched together with cutscenes and with seemingly longer-than-ever delays for the next bit of game world to load. And, while a lot of the visuals pay clear homage to Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings films, the weapons follow and even exaggerate the old RPG trope of gigantism. High-level fighters wear shoulder armour so exaggerated that they are totally blind to attacks from the side, and carry swords so long that, in reality, they could neither draw nor wield them.

As in Neverwinter Nights there's a vast array of 'stuff' to acquire, most of it apparently fairly random - kill a wolf, for example, and you're quite likely to find it is carrying a healing kit or a potion.

In short, there's a lot getting in the way of willing suspension of disbelief, of immersion.

There are a couple of other really wanton immersion breakers, too - when you put your avatar into stealth mode, he announces the fact in a loud voice. Duh? And, although your avatar chatters noisily enough when going into stealth mode or opening boxes, when it comes to dialogue he isn't voice acted at all.

None of this says that Dragon Age isn't a good, an enjoyable experience. I've been playing it for eight hours, and I expect to play it for at least another twenty, perhaps much more. If Bioware had never licensed their engine to a bunch of upstarts in Poland I would certainly consider this a very good game, and be praising it. But compared to The Witcher's near-photo-realistic landscapes, it's carefully crafted architecture, it's original, vital and (to a western audience, anyway) novel world and characters, it's wonderful soundscapes, it's adult themes and it's gritty cynicism, this just doesn't cut it.

It's good. It isn't good enough.

This is, of course, a preliminary opinion. In another twenty hours my opinion may have changed. But I don't think it will change much. I'm even missing Deakin. In short, if you've played The Witcher, buy this, it'll pass the time until CDPR bring out their next. But if you haven't played The Witcher, play The Witcher.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Oct 19, 2012 3:55 AM BST

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