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Reviews Written by
alextorres "musiclover" (Near Bristol, UK)

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House of Suns (GOLLANCZ S.F.)
House of Suns (GOLLANCZ S.F.)
by Alastair Reynolds
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.99

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant science-fiction!! Totally absorbing!, 10 Feb. 2010
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I've read most of Alastair Reynolds's SF novels and enjoyed them all, but "House of Suns" is exceptional, even by his high standards. It is VERY close to being the perfect book: truly a story that you can immerse yourself in. Its power makes you feel as if you are in that world, living the experiences of the characters and feeling their emotions. It is an immense experience!

Reynolds's science is not only tremendously creative, it becomes wholly believable through his skilful writing, so that this extraordinary tale, told over a span of tens of thousands of years, following characters that have been alive for millions of years, becomes as natural as popping down the road for some fish `n' chips!

The stunning science would be no good without a good yarn to tell, and Reynolds excels himself on "House of Suns". Keeping the story in a pacey "first-person" format, he alternates the viewpoint between the two main characters, as well as filling in some introductory background from the perspective of a third person during the preamble to each f the book's parts. Of course, the beautiful twist is that these three people are - it could be said - one and the same, as they are "shatterlings" - cloned versions of the original (but the original also continues as a clone of itself).

The amorous involvement - a taboo, given their cloned origin - between the two central characters adds extra spice to the unfolding tale.

I'm not going to reveal details of the plot - I always view that as a "spoiler" - suffice to say that this is the best SF book I have read for about 30 years! It also scored a first - the emotional intensity of the finale was such that I was close to shedding a tear or two!

It is not quite "perfect": in terms of its own self-consistency, the scene-setting that leads up to the finale doesn't quite ring true, there's a bit of conveniency there. However, Reynolds does such a good job overall that it is easy to forgive this small aspect - a stunning and extremely enjoyable book!!

Raven Stole the Moon: A Novel
Raven Stole the Moon: A Novel
by Garth Stein
Edition: Mass Market Paperback

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Good thriller (though not as good as "The Art of Racing in the Rain"), 9 Feb. 2010
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I came to this book having read Garth Stein's second novel, "The Art of Racing in the Rain", which is so wonderful that it made me search his debut out. I ordered a second-hand copy from the US from one of the sellers on Amazon - no problems with that, it arrived very quickly.

The book itself is good - very different to "The Art of Racing in the Rain" - but not as strong as that second novel. The writing is not as strong but the plot is absorbing enough to keep one reading avidly to the end.

Stein is a descendant of the Tlingit indians and he chooses to weave some of their spiritual beliefs into this suspenseful, spooky thriller. It works well for the bulk of the novel but, for me, having asked the reader to sign on to the reality of the "kachtuka" soul-stealer spirits, the novel's finale is then unrealistically "happy", a fact for which the minor twist at its very end is unable to recoup the novel's self-integrity.

Overall, however, this is an enjoyable, easy to read book that demonstrates that Stein has a keen story-telling skill.

If you enjoyed the author's style and ethos on "The Art of Racing in the Rain" then it may be worth your while to hunt out for a copy of this book.

The Quiet Woman
The Quiet Woman
by Christopher Priest
Edition: Paperback

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Worth persevering with until the finale., 9 Feb. 2010
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This review is from: The Quiet Woman (Paperback)
"The Quiet Woman" is an unusual book for Priest, in that, superficially, the plot is thin and basic. It is set in an alternative version of the "present" (the book was first published in 1990), in southern England.

The beauty of the writing keeps you reading until some unusual events start occurring when one of the two central characters - Gordon Sinclair - is involved in the story. These events are left unexplained, the main thrust of the story following the activities of Abigail - "the quiet woman" - to the extent that the writing dwells on minutiae of her life that authors usually ignore. This pattern persists for most of the short book, and there are occasions on which these minutiae irritate, but somehow, to Priest's credit, the plot and the skill of the author maintain enough momentum and interest to keep you reading.

The perseverance is rewarded when everything becomes clear (well, nearly, this is a Priest novel after all!) towards the end, and the over-riding sensation is one of chilly eeriness. Very creepy!

Selfless Persons: Imagery and Thought in Theravada Buddhism
Selfless Persons: Imagery and Thought in Theravada Buddhism
by Steven Collins
Edition: Paperback
Price: £33.94

7 of 10 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Thorough...but very academic., 10 Jan. 2010
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A warning: this book, good as it is, will only be suitable for a small percentage of people.

I bought it because it was one of the "recommended reading" titles in a list provided in "What the Buddha Taught" by Walpole Rahula, and it was going to deal with a subject of Buddhist thinking that I was struggling with: the teaching on "no-self".

Well, this book certainly deals with that in great detail. However, it should be noted that the book is written as an academic one; in fact the author undertook the research for his Ph.D. thesis, and the book is the result of that. As an academic book, and at the level that it is written, it is very difficult for the "lay person" to read, irrespective of how thorough the research and the treatment of the material.

Having said that, it certainly deals with the topic in detail, delving into the original texts of the Therevada tradition and exposing the full teachings, as well as the social context of Buddhism.

Ultimately, however, it failed to satisfy me even on that count, because written as academically as it is, the author is clearly not very sympathetic to the Buddhist "feel", if I can put it that way, and so the book ends up almost as a soulless denunciation of the whole system.

Perhaps rather than reading all these books it is actually better to do as the Buddha recommended: follow the Middle Way, meditate, and make up your own mind about the truth of things.

Swing Vote [DVD] [2008]
Swing Vote [DVD] [2008]
Dvd ~ Madeleine Carroll
Price: £3.99

2.0 out of 5 stars Poor - daft plot, annoying characterisation, unwatchable., 29 Nov. 2009
This review is from: Swing Vote [DVD] [2008] (DVD)
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
I'll be honest and admit straightaway that I could not watch this film to its end: it was just too corny for me! It comes with a "12" rating but, to be honest, it's not enjoyable as a family film: the only people I can see enjoying this movie are the toddlers to 10 year-olds.

It's not just that the plot is implausible in the extreme - a middle-aged male single parent gets to have THE deciding vote in the US presidential election by means of some far-fetched, unbelievable jiggery-pokery. - but the acting and the story-line are schmaltzy in the extreme.

Kevin Costner directs and plays the role of the hero, Bud Johnson. Whilst I usually like Costner as an actor, on this occasion the film is just too poor for him to shine. Another annoyance is the character of his precocious 12-year old daughter, Molly; an over-intelligent, controlling brat. The vast majority of adults and teenagers will find her characterisation off-putting. The only audience to which this film would be enjoyable, as I said, is the under-10s - it's a shame that the classification precludes them from seeing it!

Price: £7.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Mantric, soft, lush soundscapes, 28 Nov. 2009
This review is from: Oval (MP3 Download)
Group du Jour's Oval is one of those tricky albums to genre pigeon-hole, making it more difficult to assist fans who may be deciding how to spend their cash.

To give you some idea of Group du Jour's musical soundscape, it will help if we list the instruments that they play: there are the "conventional" rock instruments of electric guitar and acoustic guitar, but that's it; very little else is strictly "conventional - we have fretless bass and lap steel guitar; we have synths and piano; we have "samples, loops & sequences" and something called a "M-Audio Black Box" (I don't know what that is); we have harmonica; and, finally, we have a series of percussion instruments that create a hypnotic musical world that is characteristic of nearly the whole of Oval - gongs, xylimbas, tongue drum and marimba. The way these percussive instruments are played often creates a mantric web to hold the listener in thrall, whilst other instruments - for instance the flutes or the electric guitar - paint bright musical colours. Unarticulated voice is occasionally also used as a "colouring" instrument but, more often, there is normal singing (there are lyrics to most of these, rightly called, "songs"). The overall "feel" is almost ethereal almost and I would perhaps categorise this as a form of "ambient": ambient-pop, perhaps.

The title track, "Oval", is clearly the major opus of the album. Its 22+ minutes are subdivided into four clearly musically demarcated sections: sweeping synths and flute predominate during the first; the second has the mantric rhythm building in intensity through the section, until they subside completely for the third phase, which features chanting oscillating between the speakers for a pleasant effect before some vocoderised singing comes into the mix; then the last phase builds up the intensity again, some meaty electric guitar and flute runs painting a picture over a mantric backdrop. It's a good composition, fully justifying its length. Elsewhere, there are other highlights: the flute and the percussive instrument rhythms are always enjoyable; "The Voices" is as close to pop as you could get with its symphonic synth and romantic vocal; "Number Factory" is the folkiest number; the lap steel guitar adds an almost country flavour to "The Players". It's all very pleasant.

If you enjoy eclectic ambient music, then it may be worth giving this a spin, although bear in mind that the mantric nature of much of it means you need to allow some time to immerse yourself in its web.

Sennheiser HD 438 High Quality Closed Back Stereo Headphones
Sennheiser HD 438 High Quality Closed Back Stereo Headphones

8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Excellent sound spoilt by slight discomfort when using for long time., 24 Nov. 2009
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
Three aspects spring to mind when considering whether or not to purchase some headphones: (1) their sound quality; (2) their comfort; and (3) ease of use.

(1) Sound Quality : is first class, I doubt that anyone would have a complaint in regards the sound quality from these Sennheiser HD 438 headphones. The bass is powerful and responsive, but not at the expense of treble performance. The foam pads that fit around the ears filter out all but the loudest external sounds so that the listening experience becomes as high fidelity as you can hope to get it.

(2) Comfort: whilst first impressions are that the headphones are very comfortable, courtesy of the soft, padded cushioning on the ear-pieces, you may find, as I did, that if you do want to listen for a couple of hours or so that the pressure becomes a slight irritant. In fairness, I find this a common problem of these "around-the-ear" headphones, as opposed to "in-ear" ones, but at this price I would have liked to have been able to listen for longer before becoming uncomfortable - I don't think that two hours is a long time for the enjoyment of music !

(3) Ease of Use: The headphones come with two lengths of cable; one clearly designed for "on the move" listening (from an iPod, say); the other, longer cable for in-home listening from a hi-fi (for which a separate connector is also provided). I found changing between the two cables to be quite a fiddly experience: in fact I thought I was breaking the connection at one point trying to remove it from the headphones. Of course, this is not a problem if you always use them for the same thing, in particular if the as-fitted length (the shorter) is the one you require. However, this was a niggle. All other aspects of use are straightforward and satisfactory.

Conclusion: Excellent sound quality but a couple of operational niggles mean that a 5-star rating would be unfair.

The Whirlwind
The Whirlwind
Price: £11.75

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Enjoyable...but beginning to retread old territory., 22 Nov. 2009
This review is from: The Whirlwind (Audio CD)
Transatlantic are the progressive rock "supergroup" formed by Neal Morse (ex-Spock's Beard on vocals and keyboards), Reine Stolt (Flower Kings, on guitar), Pete Trewavas (Marillion, on bass) and Mike Portnoy (Dream Theater, on drums). The band came to fame in the progressive rock world for two excellent albums in the early part of the Noughties: 2000's "SMPTe" and 2001's "Bridge Across Forever". Since then, however, the four have gone about their own business, each with their own bands or solo projects, only deciding to reband as Transatlantic earlier this year; "The Whirlwind" is the result.

Transatlantic's brand of progressive rock is no-nonsense, unabashed symphonic-rock: this album is a concept and "The Whirwind" is, essentially, one composition that is subdivided into various phases. There is plenty of opportunity for the instrumentalists to display their technical prowess throughout the piece, although, on this occasion, there aren't actually that many lengthy instrumental passages; the short "Pieces of Heaven" is the only totally instrumental composition and there is plenty of singing through the other numbers.

The album will appeal to fans of Transatlantic's previous two albums and to fans of symphonic-rock in general. It may well have appeal beyond those narrow categories as the music is melodic and rhythmic, often catchy, and the subdivision into manageable "songs" would allow for easier dissemination in the modern, urgent world: you don't have top be in for the full 78 minutes to get some enjoyment from this music!

So, how good is it? Personally, I'm finding that music that has recently come from Neal Morse - the de facto leader of the supergroup - is beginning to sound as the rechurning of previous motifs and compositions. The music on "The Whirlwind" is credited to "Transatlantic" but the lyrics, for a start, are clearly Morse's, being as they are an allegory about finding oneself spiritually. A common subject for him, of course, but the use of the allegory allows those non-Christians to "shelve" any concerns they might have about being preached. I suspect that what has happened on the musical composition is that Morse has come in with the basic structure and the guys, being the vastly experienced progressive rock musicians that they are, have written all their own, very often considerable, parts. Whichever way it was done, "The Whirlwind" lacks the sparkle of either the previous albums or fo Morse's best solo work.

Compositionally it sits closely to something like Morse's "Sola Scriptura", without ever reaching the power or melodic heights of that album. Similarly, there is no melody to match "Bridge Across Forever" nor the force of the earlier Transatlantic albums.

Despite those criticisms, it is an enjoyable album and fans coming to it as their introduction to Neal Morse or Transatlantic may well fall in love with it. For others there are highlights to pick out from what is an album without any real bad moments: my personal ones being "Out of the Night", for its catchy rhythm, and the closing number "Dancing With Eternal Glory/Whirlwind", which has the sweetest melodies integrated into a fine composition.

Like much music these days, the album is offered in a number of formats: I have teh single-disc version; although there is a two-disc version with some more original music and some covers, as well as a version with a DVD charting the making of the album.

Offered by jim-exselecky
Price: £7.99

14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Good first part of Mostly Autumn's 2009 Spring Tour, 18 Nov. 2009
This review is from: LIVE 2009 PART I (Audio CD)
Aside from the annoyance factor of the band having decided to release their latest live album as a separately packaged, separately priced two-CD set - more profit for them, I guess, during this "sabbatical" from studio recording - this first part of "Live 2009" is very good!

Recorded by what is, arguably, the definitive Mostly Autumn line-up of Bryan Josh, Heather Findlay, Iain Jennings, Andy Smith, Liam Davison, Anne-Marie Helder, Gavin Griffiths and Olivia Sparnenn during the Spring 2009 tour, this first Part features some of the band's best loved songs. The total set-list (not given on Amazon) is: Fading Colours, Caught in a Fold, Flowers for Guns, Unoriginal Sin, Simple Ways, The Spirit of Autumn Past (part II), Half the Mountain and Evergreen.

The sound quality is very good for a live disc and the band really benefits from having Iain Jennings back on keyboards: his is a great sound. Heather Findlay is in fine voice, the guitars sound great and the whole band delivers a fine performance.

The CD packaging could have been more adventurous: there is a basic cardboard sleeve only, no info booklet, basically it is a bit paltry: clearly the band is struggling financially and is out to maximise profit on this endeavour, which comes hot on the heels of the three-disc "Pass the Clock" retrospective set. It is to be hoped that Heather will soon be able to juggle motherhood with studio work so that "normal service" can be resumed.

Anyhow, like I said in the opening, aside from that particular annoyance factor the disc is excellent musically and a worthy addition to Mostly Autumn's fans' collections.

Different Realities
Different Realities

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Enjoyable retro psychedelic rock with an eastern flavour!, 27 Oct. 2009
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This review is from: Different Realities (MP3 Download)
Siena Root's "Different Realities" is an enjoyable album of retro psychedelic rock fusion with eastern music. For anyone who has heard the band's previous work, then "Different Realities" will be an enjoyable addition to your collection.

For newcomers, the band plays a unique style of "retro" rock, steeped in late sixties/early seventies sound, occasionally reminiscent of bands like Led Zeppelin, but they infuse that soundscape with influences mainly from the east, principally from India. One of the instruments used is the sitar - don't be frightened, it's used within the context of the rock fusion and is well integrated. It makes for a very attractive sound indeed.

"Different Realities" is a slight departure from the band's previous work, the excellent "Far From the Sun", as it is mostly instrumental. The outstanding "We Are Them" opens the album: this is one of onl;y two only sung tracks (in English) and is quite exceptional, the vocals adding interest to the musical soundscape. After this, whilst the music is still very appealing - in particular for instrumental music (which I prefer less than sung music) - the near continuous absence of vocals for the remainder of the album makes it less pleasing overall than "Far From the Sun".

However, if you enjoyed that album, then I can recommend this too. If you don't have either, buy "Far from the Sun" first.

Incidentally, I bought the download version of the album from Amazon and the sound quality is very good.

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