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Dr. Simon Howard "sjhoward" (Newcastle upon Tyne, UK)
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Symphonized DRM Premium Genuine Wood In-ear Noise-isolating Headphones with Mic (Red/Gray)
Symphonized DRM Premium Genuine Wood In-ear Noise-isolating Headphones with Mic (Red/Gray)
Offered by SeventhContinent
Price: £19.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent pair of headphones, 27 Sept. 2015
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
I was given a pair of these headphones by the manufacturer to review. They give excellent, rich sound which I wouldn't expect for headphones in this price range. I use them mainly for listening to spoken word material, and the richness of the sound works particularly well for this. They seem very well built. The body of the earbuds is wooden, and they come with a number of different sized end plugs. The package also contains a round rigid case for storage. The box they come in is smaller and smarter than other Symphonized headphones I have had in the past, and as a result these are perhaps better suited to giving as a gift than other products in the range. Highly recommended.


Symphonized MTRX Premium Genuine Wood In-ear Noise-isolating Headphones with Mic and Nylon Cable (Black)
Symphonized MTRX Premium Genuine Wood In-ear Noise-isolating Headphones with Mic and Nylon Cable (Black)
Offered by SeventhContinent
Price: £49.99

5.0 out of 5 stars They look great, and seem very well-built, 31 Aug. 2015
The manufacturer sent me a pair of these to review. They look great, and seem very well-built. The sound is particularly rich and full, as with all the Symponized headphones I have tried. I mainly listen to spoken word content, which sounds especially good on these. They came with a small storage pouch. My only minor criticism is that the "L" and "R" markings on the earphones on this model are hard to see - but as there is a microphone on the left headphone wire, this becomes an easy way to distinguish between the two after first use. Overall, I'm quite delighted with the quality of these headphones.


Symphonized XTC Premium Genuine Wood In-ear Noise-isolating Headphones with Microphone (Black)
Symphonized XTC Premium Genuine Wood In-ear Noise-isolating Headphones with Microphone (Black)
Offered by SeventhContinent
Price: £39.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent headphones - good sound quality, 24 Aug. 2015
The manufacturer sent me these headphones for review. They are excellent quality and seem very well built. They look exceptionally stylish with the wooden body to the earpieces, and with a nylon-like material wire. The sound they give is very full, particularly in the bass, and spoken word recordings (which make up the bulk of what I listen to) sound especially good through them. They also come with an included storage pouch. The microphone and control button work well with my iPhone. All in all, thoroughly recommended at the £20 asking price.


Symphonized NRG Premium Genuine Wood In-ear Noise-isolating Headphones with Mic (Black)
Symphonized NRG Premium Genuine Wood In-ear Noise-isolating Headphones with Mic (Black)
Offered by SeventhContinent
Price: £19.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Great product - sounds better than I expected, 15 Aug. 2015
Symphonized Audio provided me with a free pair of these to review, and I was very pleasantly surprised by the quality given the £16 price tag.

I mainly listen to spoken word audio, and the rich bass on these headphones makes it sound almost as if one is in the same room as the speaker. The quality is absolutely excellent for this purpose - actually, for the spoken word, the sound is better than far more expensive headphones I've used in the past. When I've listened to music with them, they seem a little bit heavy on the bass to my untrained ear, but nonetheless very clear.

The wires on these headphones are a sort of nylon-like material design, and the overall build quality seems great. I also think they look great - they go very well with my OnePlus One mobile phone with the wooden back.

I will certainly buy another pair of these when they need replacing - although the quality seems high enough that they won't need replacing for some time.


The Hot Zone: The Chilling True Story of an Ebola Outbreak
The Hot Zone: The Chilling True Story of an Ebola Outbreak
by Richard Preston
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars and those who enjoy a horrifying, 1 Oct. 2014
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
The Hot Zone by Richard Preston is a book which has been on my ‘to read’ list for years. But, in the light of the recent outbreak, I thought the time to dive in has come.

The book describes an outbreak of Ebola, which occurred in the late 1980s in Washington, DC, a mere stone’s throw from the White House. The outbreak initially spread among imported monkeys and (I don’t think this is too much of a spoiler) then to a small number of humans. The narrative follows the medical, public health, and scientific teams involved in controlling and tackling the outbreak; describing not just their actions, but also their thoughts, feelings, fears, and reflections.

Preston converts this tale into a page-turning thriller. Much of the content isn’t typical thriller material, but Preston does a sterling job of explaining complex scientific concepts and processes in simple (yet accurate) terms; this is quite an achievement. Preston lends his eloquence to horrifying descriptions of Ebola-related deaths, which, I suspect, some readers might find hard to stomach. He also adds heaps of drama and tension that might reflect the atmosphere of a group of experts grappling with an outbreak of a deadly virus.

However, Preston does tend to lean toward the more extreme end of the physical and emotional range. He certainly has a talent for sensationalism. It is important to consider this book for what it is: a mass-market paperback thriller based on real events, not a level-headed factual report.

This book should appeal to many audiences: those with a passing interest in public health and infectious diseases; those with an interest in how major incidents and outbreaks are coordinated and handled; and those who enjoy a horrifying, suspenseful, and thrilling tale of a race against time.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I admire the considerable skill of the author in creating a page-turner that stays true to the facts of the case, and in deftly explaining complex scientific concepts. Yet, I don’t think this is a book that I’ll ever re-read; once is enough. Still, I would absolutely recommend it.


The Remains of the Day
The Remains of the Day
by Kazuo Ishiguro
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £10.68

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Review: The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro, 23 July 2014
This review is from: The Remains of the Day (Hardcover)
You may know that The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro won the Booker Prize in 1989. You may know that it remains one of the 20th century's most critically acclaimed novels. You may know that it was adapted into a film starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson, nominated for 8 Academy Awards in 1994.

Somehow, all of this passed me by. Indeed, when I downloaded it onto my Kindle, I thought it was a new release. Despite having read several of Ishiguro's novels in the past, my addled brain had (very) wrongly confused him with Haruki Murakami.

Yet even with my warped preconceptions, The Remains of the Day blew me away.

It is absorbing, beautifully composed, moving, and deep. The way this novel subtly drew me in and toyed with my emotions put me in mind of a Shostakovich piano concerto: the music does the work of capturing attention and emotion, and before you know it, without any particular effort or concentration, you are drawn into and beguiled by a whole new world.

The novel is narrated by an elderly butler on a road trip in the 1950s. He reflects on his life, and his strive for professionalism and 'dignity'. The characterisation is so complete that when I think of the narrator, Stevens, I think of a person rather than a character. The Remains of the Day is a novel about the nature of relationships: professional, personal, and, almost existentially, with oneself. It has glittering moments of humour which made me laugh out loud. And it has moments of remarkable tenderness – which are almost painful to read – and moments of morality and politics which provide genuine food for thought.

The composition is wonderful. The narrator is not entirely reliable, and infuses much of his commentary with predictable (possibly professional?) bias, but he also accurately reports speech in a way which allows the reader to fill in the gaps. This is hardly an original device, but it is rarely used to such profoundly devastating effect as in this work.

It is a matter of some fascination to me that so many other readers and reviewers describe this novel as 'sad'. Certainly, it reflects on a life which some might consider unfulfilled, and certainly, the tale of the narrator is heart-breaking. Yet I found the novel itself rather life-affirming. The Remains of the Day caused me to reflect on my own life – as all the best novels do – and to reflect with some satisfaction.

If I were to summarise this book in a single word, it would be: beguiling. I mean that in the more traditional sense of the word, both enchanting and mildly deceptive. Ishiguro does all the heavy-lifting in this book, guiding the reader through Stevens's world and gently signposting his flaws. Each word is chosen so carefully as to turn the prose into poetry. This is a challenging book, but by no means a challenging read.

I cannot recommend The Remains of the Day highly enough.


One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories
One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories
by B. J. Novak
Edition: Paperback
Price: £12.99

9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Review: One More Thing: Stories and other stories by BJ Novak, 11 Jun. 2014
I confess that when I bought One More Thing: Stories and other stories, my expectations were low. I braced myself for a comedian's memoir, not unlike the tens of recent precedents. I foresaw a series of anecdotal tales with varying levels of humour and, if I was lucky, a little pith. I knew Novak only from The Office and, regardless of others' plaudits, I never rated his acting. All of which is to say: I was expecting a car crash.

My expectations were confounded. I thoroughly enjoyed this wide-ranging collection of short stories, which deftly covers every aspect of the human condition. Some stories are a couple of sentences; some are considerably longer. Some are funny; others thoughtful; others genuinely moving. Others miss the mark, but this latter category is by far the smallest. He litters the text with some mildly irritating "discussion questions", which have a tendency to point to the obvious or become indulgently self-aware, but they're easily skipped.

While the stories are clever, however, Novak's ear is excellent. At his best, he crafts lines that live long in the memory, and captures characters and dialogue with the deftness of a literary great. I could write about his use of language all day long, but I'll restrain myself to a handful of examples.

While spinning one corporate yarn, Novak uses the pitch-perfect phrase

"more than 140,000 distinct units of social media approval"

This phrase could have been uttered in any one of tens of meetings I've endured over the past twelve months. It captures so perfectly that self-affirming desire of so many corporate shills to name things in ways which are understood by everyone but familiar to no-one.

Novak is also possessed of a poetic ability to use adjectives in a metaphorical, rather than literal, way. This seems to have become rarer in recent years, for reasons that I don't fully understand. But Novak has a teacher "nodding without moving their head", and some "bold, capital numbers" to name but two examples.

I feel obliged to single out some individual stories for comment. If I Had a Nickel was, perhaps, the only story which was far longer than its point required. Closure felt tricksy, rather than clever, and didn't make much of a point. Beyond that, most of the stories are pretty good. Some are brilliant.

Recently, I've given poor reviews (in both senses of that phrase) to books by Paul Carr and Dave Cicirelli which cover much the same ground as Novak's One of these days, we have to do something about Willie. And yet, Novak communicates more and gives more pause for thought about the same topics in a short story than either of those two managed in their respective books combined.

The Man Who Invented the Calendar is one of his "Just So" style stories, which I had previously read in the New Yorker without ever mentally attributing to Novak. Indeed, it is one of the weaker of these stories in the book, but I suspect reading it will provide some indication as to whether one might like the book as a whole.

For my money, this book is great. It is a bold and captivating literary debut, and the most thoughtful and enjoyable book I've read in some months. Novak is a bona fide literary talent, and I'll hunt out his next work.


The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon
The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon
Price: £5.49

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Review: The Everything Store by Brad Stone, 28 May 2014
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
The Everything Store, by Brad Stone, is appropriately subtitled Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon. I understand that the veracity of the content of this book has been challenged, particularly by Amazon, and I have no way of assessing where the truth lies. With that in mind, I can only comment on the book as it stands.

The Everything Store is so named as Bezos expressed a desire to use the internet to build a store with limitless stock, where one could purchase anything. On reading this, I was immediately struck by the similarity to Harrod’s motto and goal – omnia omnibus ubique – but this is an aspect that is not discussed at all in the book, more’s the pity. I think it would have made a fascinating comparison – the modern retail behemoth and the Victorian equivalent, sharing much the same goals but approaching the problem in totally different ways. But I digress.

Stone’s book gives a comprehensive account of how the company has developed, from it’s small beginnings as a low volume book store, to it’s current world-leading status. It isn’t shy about discussing the financial difficulties Amazon has faced, and indeed still faces. It is difficult to turn a profit on narrow margins, and even more so when one is selling below cost price. It also doesn’t shy away from discussing some of the questionable ethics employed by Amazon, and appears to do so in an even handed manner that is genuinely enlightening.

One particularly good example is the discussion of Bezos’s simultaneous exploitation of and protest against patent law. A lesser author would present this as rank hypocrisy; Stone presents the facts and explains Bezos’s motivation as he understands it. He then allows the reader to determine whether Bezos is acting with reprehensible hypocrisy, or acting in the most logical way possible given the circumstances. I still haven’t quite made up my mind.

The book also gives a comprehensive pen portrait of Bezos as an individual. He is clearly exceptionally driven, possibly to the point of fault, much like his CEO contemporary Steve Jobs. By the end of the book, I was a little tired of reading descriptions of his laugh, but perhaps it is such a dominant feature of his personality that it bears repeating ad nauseam.

To my mind, the book fell down a little when discussing contemporaries and other Amazon executives. The balance between detail and length doesn’t feel quite right in these passages. We are told about many of their childhoods, for example, even though they play a relatively minor role in the story. It feels as though Stone wants to share the detailed background research he has done, rather than concentrating on crafting the broader story and characterisation.

I also found the timeline difficult to follow in some passages. Stone will often abberate from the main timeline to tell the story of how a particular feature or policy developed over time. This means that there is a fair amount of jumping around, and if one doesn’t fully concentrate, it’s easy to get lost.

Overall, though, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It was engaging, balanced, and informative. The story is told with a degree of page-turning drive that isn’t typical of business books. I’d highly recommend it.


Red Notice: (Tom Buckingham Thriller 1)
Red Notice: (Tom Buckingham Thriller 1)
Price: £3.99

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Review: Red Notice by Andy McNab, 14 May 2014
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
A few weeks ago, I decided that I should read a book by Andy McNab. After all, he’s an author that sells books by the pallet-load, generally to positive reviews. Red Notice is the first book in a (relatively) new series, and with it being on offer, I thought this would be as good a place to start as any.

The experience was one that I did not enjoy. The plot involved the ‘hijacking’ of a Eurostar train as it passed through the Channel Tunnel. Of course, both an SAS man and his girlfriend were on board. This plot managed to be both desperately implausible throughout and yet also somehow thoroughly predictable. In addition, as I understand to be typical of this genre, a man who is close to death several times over the course of the novel is regularly able to “bounce back” within minutes, running and shooting with the best of them.

There is a an astoundingly badly written subplot about a pregnancy, which is diagnosed in a rather unusual fashion:

“There’s nothing quite like morning sickness on a woman’s breath. It’s unmistakable.”

Not only is this somewhat medically unlikely, it’s also notable that the sex of the baby has been determined at this early stage – far earlier, in fact, than the sex of the baby can be determined. From the timeline of the book, it’s clear that this pregnancy is well within its first trimester.

Similarly, there are some amusing internal inconsistencies sprinkled throughout: a car mysteriously changes from a Jaguar to a BMW in less than a page; the geography of where people are at any one time seems inconsistent (though it is so difficult to follow at times that it is hard to tell for sure).

There are also some passages laden with unnecessary military jargon, which is often used to cover a lack of detail in the narrative. It’s almost as if he’s trying to set up a “Chekov’s gun” scenario, but without the foresight to know specifically what “Chekov’s gun” will be. My personal favourite example:

“The Slime carefully unpacked their geeky stuff from its protective aluminium boxes.”

The dialogue varies throughout from Hollywood-esque catchphrase to speaking in perfectly formed sentences. An ideal example of the former is this cringeworthy passage:

“Unless they were asleep, they were dead. And from what he’d seen of these guys, he knew they wouldn’t be sleeping.”

An example of the latter is when a character reportedly angrily yells at the top of his voice:

“I’ve got an important event tonight and I need my dinner jacket.”

On the positive side, this book does have pace. It also has a stab at discussing some of the governmental politics of SAS work, and even touches on the questionable ethics at times. Unfortunately, these elements are harmed by a lack of any depth or real substance, and a frustratingly frequent repeat of what I assume to be the shallow political views of the author (best summarised as: the SAS are professionals, politicians should let them do what they want).

All things considered, this isn’t a book I’d recommend. There’s nothing especially creative about it, and it lacks any air of authenticity. The writing and dialogue is so poor as to border on comedy. I suggest giving it a miss.


No Title Available

5.0 out of 5 stars Review: Never Push When it Says Pull by Guy Browning, 4 May 2014
Never Push When it Says Pull is something of an odd-man in my series of book reviews: it was published eight years ago, and is a collection of inconsequential but amusing newspaper columns. Yet I recently re-read it, and enjoyed it so much that I couldn’t resist including it some time.

Guy Browning’s series of five hundred How to… columns in the Saturday edition of the Guardian, which finished in 2009, remains one of my favourite columns of all time thanks its absurdist satirical view of everyday life. This book is the second collection of these columns – a follow-up of sorts to the previously released Never Hit a Jellyfish with a Spade.

The fact that I find each individual column laugh-out-loud funny means that the book is like a little bundle of hilarity. I read this pretty much in one sitting, but it’s also the perfect book for reading at random, in odd moments – after all, each column is only about 500 words, and each is an individual nugget of joy. Read it when you’re stressed at work and need some light relief, read it while relaxing on the beach, or read it on the toilet. All are decent options, although reading it at work might be inadvisable if this book makes you as prone to outbursts of laughter as it does me.

If you want a taster of what you’ll get in this book, all Browning’s columns are available on the Guardian website. You can read up on how to use a library (aka brothels of the mind), how to wiggle (after all, pleasure is wiggle shaped), or – if this review isn’t doing it for you – read up on how to sulk. I should confess that I’m writing this review in a coffee shop, and have attracted some strange looks thanks to the outbursts of laughter that re-reading those columns has produced.

I cannot give this book anything other than five stars. It might be the case that the slightly strange humour of this book passes you by, but for me, this is pure comedy gold, and I can only highly recommend it.


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