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P. G. Harris

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Inverted World (S.F. MASTERWORKS)
Inverted World (S.F. MASTERWORKS)
Price: £4.99

2.0 out of 5 stars Hanging on in quiet desperation, 11 May 2017
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Having tired of the violent sterility of much modern Sci-fi, I've recently been reading a number of works from the Gateway, SF Masterworks series. I have thus been introduced to some excellent novels, by stand out authors such as Ursula Le Guin. And then I came to this, touted as a classic of British SF. If that is the case, then Lord help British SF.

It is the story of Helward Mann. Problem no.1. I shall later consider whether this is a allegorical novel, but by naming his central character in that way, author Priest may just be seen as handing the reader a sledgehammer with the word ALLEGORY cast into the metal.

Helward lives in a city which is set on rails and is constantly moving. As it progresses it exploits the countryside around it materially, sexually and for the labour of the people. At the start of the story he is a young man just entering an apprenticeship with the guilds which run the city. It is thus a fairly bog standard coming of age story. Young person finds out about the realities of the world around him/her. Problem no.2. For 90-95% of the book that is all it is. Helward finds out about the physical realities of the world around him. Aside from that there is little else. There are sub stories which peter out to nothing, and the characterisation is non-existent. The inhabitants of Edwin Abbot's Flatland have more emotional depth than the cardboard cut outs who populate Inverted World.

Actually, for a long time I thought he was going to get away with it. Despite the shallowness of the characterisation, the central idea of the weirdness of the physical environment seemed so extreme it looked like it might be heading for something interesting. With strange things happening to gravity, time and geometry, I was hoping for things to be set in a relativistic environment. Perhaps it would evolve like Baxter's Flux or Niven's Integral trees, with humans adapting to a non-planetary environment. However, then the twist comes at the end, and it is simply rubbish. It is as if Priest doesn't know where to take his story, loses the courage of his convictions and comes up with an utterly unconvincing explanation for everything which has occurred. Bobby Ewing in the shower is the height of credibility compared with this.

So, this doesn't work as a straightforward story, does it work as an allegory? Well, no. That is not to say that Priest doesn't raise some interesting issues:-

How dedication to a cause an tip over into monomania
Perception vs reality
How customs adopted for the good of society can lead to ossification
The rape of the environment by industrialised society.
How good intentions can decay into immoral acts.

It is just that he seems to say "here is an interesting question", but then doesn't take it anywhere, there is no detailed exploration.

In summary, this book made me quite grumpy. It could've done something quite interesting, either as hard SF, or as a metaphor, but it fails to follow through in either direction.

Price: £2.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Speak to me, 4 May 2017
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Rydra Wong is a poet, fantastically successful across a human inhabited Galaxy. She is also a linguist with near telepathic ability to understand the thoughts and feelings of others. Earth is involved in a war with the equally human "Invaders" while various aliens look on. The military have intercepted messages in an impenetrable close, to which they refer as "Babel 17".

This is a novel which sits securely as part of 60s science fiction. It steps beyond the boundless optimism of the 50s Golden Age, hasn't succumbed to the more recent obsession with simply trying to devise "cooler" technology, or shoot em up video game-like stories. This is a novel of ideas and as such is comparable to the works of Ursula Le Guin or Philip K Dick.

Babel 17 is based around the idea of the power of language, and it's symbiotic relationship with thought. Language is shaped by thought processes in one glorious section Delaney describes a race whose reproductive cycle is based around temperature, but who have no need for a fixed physical location, hence they do not have a concept of home, and need long paragraphs to describe it. Conversely, highly technologically advanced, they can describe complex equipment in very few words. On the other side of the coin, Delaney also sees language as capable of steering thought, going as far as to position it as a computer programming language for the brain.

This is not however a dry treatise, the exploration of linguistics is set within what often feels like a supremely pulpy piece of sci-fi, with space battles described in flashy, dynamic prose. With such flashiness, the book is a definite pre-cursor of the cyber-punks, not least in the space pirates whom Rydra encounters. I would also be surprised if the makers of the 2016 film Arrival hadn't read this. In her demand for context to understand a language, Amy Adams's character directly mirrors Rydra.

In the end the pulpiness meant that this felt a little lightweight when compared to LeGuin,but it is still an entertaining and interesting read.

Luna: Wolf Moon (Luna 2)
Luna: Wolf Moon (Luna 2)
by Ian McDonald
Edition: Paperback
Price: £14.88

4.0 out of 5 stars Dallas in space, 21 April 2017
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This is the second of Ian Macdonald's Luna sequence set on a heavily colonised moon. It is a commercial outpost where no earthly government has control, and the only effective law is contract law. There is a central governing body, the Lunar Development Corporation, but it is largely powerless in comparison to the five dragons, dynastic companies who control the major elements of the lunar economy.

Wolf Moon takes up shortly after the end of the first book, after whose climactic events, the Corta dynasty have lost position. Teenage Robson is a hostage of the Mackenzies. Lucasinho, whose exploits opened New Moon is under the protection of the Asamoahs. Lawyer, Ariel is living in reduced circumstances with family bodyguard Marina. Major player Lucas has disappeared. Taking a more leading role in this instalment is rogue family member, Wagner, who lives with the cult like wolves. One interesting development in Wolf Moon is a revelation about the true nature of the wolves.

On the positive side, Macdonald seems to have more confidence in his own creation. This is a lot less derivative than the previous outing. It is still, in its libertarian lunar society, heavily indebted to Heinlein, a debt which the author fleetingly but explicitly acknowledges, and when Macdonald himself has described it as Game of Domes, the similarities to the work of George Martin are inescapable. However, the direct thefts from Kim Stanley Robinson and Frank Herbert are much less prominent here.

As an exercise in technological world building, these books are also excellent. This genuine hard-SF, with the creation of a credible industrialised society on the moon. I still have some problems with the concept that such a libertarian anarchist society, completely free of Terran control would be allowed to develop.

The major strength of Wolf Moon is as the literary equivalent of an action movie. As a series of action set pieces it is excellent. It starts with Robson in extreme physical danger in a way which replicates Lucasinho at the start of the first book. It continues with the destruction of massive industrial installations, perilous treks across treks across the unforgiving lunar landscape, and bombardments from space. All of this is described in a fluid and dynamic style of prose.

I found the plotting less satisfactory from two perspectives. The first derives from the basic nature of the book. It is one of the middle books of a series (whose length is indeterminate). As such, it feels less like a coherent story, and more like the shifting of games pieces round a board in order to prepare for the next instalment. Secondly, elements of the plot didn't ring true. A character travels to earth. In the super connected society described here, there 't seem to be any real need for him to go. The only purpose of his trip seems to be to introduce a new character who will presumably become significant in future instalments. Also what he achieves on his trip is difficult to swallow. He arrives a busted flush and yet seems able to move mountains.

As I said, this is an improvement on the first book, and is less derivative, but I couldn't get a scurrilous analogy out of my mind. With the cut throat commercial shenanigans, I couldn't help but thinking of this as Dallas in space.

Dissolution: Tenth Anniversary Edition (The Shardlake Series Book 1)
Dissolution: Tenth Anniversary Edition (The Shardlake Series Book 1)
Price: £1.89

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars It was a dark and stormy night......, 16 April 2017
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'Salright. It's not a book about which I could get too excited, but it's ok. Strip away all of the history and it is a pretty much by the book, insert tab A into slot A, detective story, right down to the fact that the detective has to have his USP. In this case it is that he is a hunchback.

The story is set at the time of Henry VIII's dissolution of the monasteries. Matthew Shardlake (the crook back) is sent by Thomas Cromwell to investigate the horrific murder of a lawyer sent to ferret out the secrets of the Scarnsea monastery. He arrives just as a snowstorm cuts off the monastery, leaving him and assistant Mark Poer isolated in the midst of the hostile monks. As Shardlake blunders around, both the body count and the list of potential murderers build. As I write this,I've just realised another aspect which points to this being a flat pack plot. The structure is that of an absolute classic country house murder mystery, - isolation, a chain of murders, multiple suspects and seemingly cast iron alibis. It was indeed a dark and stormy night.

On the good side, it is a definite page turner, easy to read, with a plot which cracks along. I read it in 3 or 4 days. Also, the historical aspects are pretty interesting. One knows of the dissolution of the monasteries, but I'd always thought it was something which Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell just did. I'd never really considered the political machinations behind it. Having read Hilary Mantel, it feels a bit unsatisfying to return to a more classically villainous Cromwell, rather than hermore nuanced portrayal. At least, however, Sansom makers it easier to identify his characters, referring to them by name rather than the ubiquitous "he".

My problems start with the characterisation. Shardlake aside, the rest feel strangely inanimate, game pieces which Sansom moves around the board of his plot. They all have distinctive characteristics painted on their surface, but no real sense of an inner life. Even Shardlake is a bit unconvincing in that, for someone with such a reportedly analytical mind, he really is a bit unobservant, and indeed unintelligent, not least about his master, Cromwell.

Secondly, the writing is just rather dull. The short sentences make things move along at a reasonable speed, but there is no beauty in the prose, it is all a bit utilitarian, and cliche-ridden. A glaring example is when, from a high vantage point, Shardlake describes people as being like ants. Well, I've never heard that one before. Also Basil Exposition is alive and well, particularly in the early part of the book, as characters explain the plot and surrounding historical circumstances to each other in long didactic conversations.

The last novel I read before this was Charlotte Bronte's Shirley. By portraying credible complex characters, Bronte's words have a strong relevance today. Contrast that with Sansom, a modern author who attempts to make contemporary comment but ends up putting words in his protagonists' mouths which just make them sound like Nostradamus. Ooh sir, this dissolution of the monasteries will lead to a materialistic society, you mark my words.

My final criticism would be that the dramatic denouement is ridiculous to the point of laughable. It is almost impossible to keep the old Quasimodo "his face rings a bell", joke out of one's mind.

I've probably been a bit harsh on what is a perfectly good piece of genre fiction. If you are after an unchallenging, moderately formulaic detective novel, with a bit of historical detail, then it would make a reasonable holiday read.

Shirley (Centaur Classics)
Shirley (Centaur Classics)
Price: £0.00

5.0 out of 5 stars Literary genius, private tragedy, 11 April 2017
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If I think of the greats of 19th century English literature, I see Jane Austen's elegant rapier in Bath, I hear Dickens' satirical blunderbuss, but if I force myself to express a preference I will opt for the emotional heavy artillery emanating from Howarth Parsonage.

Shirley, Charlotte Bronte's second published novel isn't quite the equal of its predecessor, but what does that mean. It isn't the equal of one of the absolute pinnacles of world literature. Shirley is still a truly great novel, and is superior to Dicken's Hard Times. Both are industrial novels set in the north of England, but Hard Times is the work of an outsider, a Londoner, whose uses exaggeration and grotesquery to satirise his characters. Bronte, on the other hand was of the north, which doesn't make her any less of a critic, but allows her to create a realistic world peopled by utterly credible characters. This is best characterised by comparing the industrialists at the heart of the works. Bounderby is a pastiche, a stereotype, whereas here Robert Moore is a living, breathing, flawed human being.

Shirley is set in Yorkshire at the time of the Napoleonic Wars. Robert Moore is a half Belgian entrepreneur who is seeking to build a business in the face of two existential threats, the war is throttling trade, and Luddites are resisting his attempts to mechanise. He is also looked down on by the Yorkshire establishment,who have time for philanthropy while Moore is attempting to scratch a living. For the first few chapters I wondered why the book was even called Shirley, as the only female characters were Moore's sister Hortense and cousin Caroline Helstone. When heiress Shirley Keeldar makes her entrance,it is a notable one, and from that point it moves away from being an industrial novel to more of a romance. She is worthy of her top billing, a magnificent heroine who fully deserves the title "leopardess" later bestowed on her.

Bronte is definitely guilty of misleading the reader when, very early on, she intimates that the book will not be melodramatic, passionate or romantic. You certainly could have fooled me when it comes to a novel containing riots, assassinations, the reappearance of long lost parents, rabies, and both familial and national politics.

I am not really qualified to say whether this is a feminist novel. The ending is strangely submissive in a way which would suggest not, but then it is a consensual submission, and through the rest of the book, Bronte has a great deal to say about the place of, and lack of opportunity for, women in 19th century life.

This is also a novel in which Charlotte Bronte draws very clearly on her own experiences. When Caroline feels rejected in love, it is very easy to see through to the author's own longing for Constantin Heger. Her railing against the lot of the governess clearly comes from her own experiences, and it is very easy to believe that Emily and Ann provided the templates for Shirley and Caroline respectively.

Whatever genre of fiction I read, I have one over-riding demand, that the characters are credible human beings who behave in recognisably believable ways. This is part of Bronte’s genius. Not only are her characters recognisable in their own time and society, but they are also very contemporary. On the personal level, Caroline’s pining after her beloved, attempting to bump into him “accidentally” make her archetypally a teenager. With a wider perspective, the struggle between profit and compassion, between the entrepreneurial instinct and a humane society is as relevant today as it was then. Within this, the relationships between the characters are stunningly well portrayed, particularly in dialogue. A dispute between Shirley and her uncle is particularly thrilling, a scene with her suitor contains an outrageous level of sexual tension for a Victorian novel.

Having referred to Austen and Dickens, Shirley also brings to mind another 19th century author, the Wessex chapter. Bronte’s descriptions of the natural world, especially at night, are every bit the equal of Thomas Hardy.

My biggest problem with Shirley is also one of its (possibly macabre) facinations. It is a rather uneven novel, with enormous swings of mood from chapter to chapter and sudden plot twists coming out of nowhere. However , when one considers that when she started writing Shirley, Bronte had two sisters and a brother, and by the end all three had died, emotional volatility is the perhaps the least one should expect.

So, this isn’t the easiest novel in the world, but it is massively rewarding, and despite what the Philistines in my book club thought, I absolutely loved it.

4 3 2 1
4 3 2 1
by Paul Auster
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £13.60

7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Funny, moving, intelligent, sexy, I absolutely loved it, 25 Mar. 2017
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This review is from: 4 3 2 1 (Hardcover)
Let us start with the very end. As I approached the conclusion of Paul Auster's massive, moving, engaging novel I became concerned that too much was unresolved, that it might peter out inconclusively, and lazily adopt the epithet, "post-modern". A writer as good as Auster deserves more trust than that. I found the end,when it came, massively satisfying. That is not to say it is a classic tying up of loose ends, that everything ends happily ever after, or indeed, reader, that she married him. It does, however, throw a stunning spotlight on all that has gone before. It is an ending which means I am tempted to go straight back to the beginning and re-read the whole 800 plus pages. It is an ending which changes the whole meaning of the book. It is an ending which suggests that certain elements of the book which didn't ring true, about which I had doubts, are in fact the result of brilliantly subtle writing. I did at one point wonder if it was too clever by half, but concluded that it isn't, it is exactly as clever as it needs to be. is the story of a boy, Archibald Ferguson, born into an American Jewish family in 1947. It tells the story of his childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood in the mid to late sixties. It is a story of the happiness and pain of infant-hood, of the frustrations and confusions of puberty and of growing up and becoming an adult in an imperfect and troubled world.

It is not however a single story. Right from NewYork Stories, Auster showed himself to be a master of rubbing together multiple stories and making sparks fly between them. He employs that technique in virtuoso fashion here. This is the story of four boys called Archie Ferguson. For movie-goers, it recalls the film Sliding Doors, as minor incidents in the lives of the quartet of Archies create lives which are both very different, and strikingly similar. It also seems to be influenced by theories of the multiverse which derive from quantum physics, as chance occurrences create multiple overlapping universes. For this reader at times it felt like a (not "the") matrix. The four rows of the Archies' lives intersect with the same columns. His parents marriage is either enduring,or ends in divorce or death. His father's business prospers or fails. Death enters young Archie's life and those of his friends in different ways. He always has some form of sporting prowess, he always becomes involved in some form of writing, France and French literature always feature. Above all Amy Schneidermann, and her brother Jim always play a part in Archie's life, although like everything else, it is only at the very end that the true meaning can be discerned.

This is very much a novel of personal development, it is also a very American novel. In the last twelve months I have also read Jane Smiley's Some Luck, and Donna Tartt's Little Friend. While the three are very different, they also seem to me to have much in common as books of childhood and young adult development against a backdrop of different American geographies, the Mid-west,the South, and here New York/New Jersey. In reading Some Luck it struck me that America is just too big for the Great American Novel to be practical, but perhaps these three are part of a patchwork of great American novels.

As well as being a portrait of development to adulthood, and of North Eastern middle class Jewish life, this is also very much a book about the sixties. About JFK and Bobby Kennedy. About Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. About the counter culture and Vietnam. It is an almost nostalgic look back to an age of idealism.

So, this is a huge book, and one which explores some heavyweight themes. It is also immensely readable, and is a massive entertainment. It is funny, moving, enlightening, sexy, and above all its heart is in the right place. It is an intelligent novel, but doesn't descend into cynicism. It is a novel of depth, honesty, and sophistication which deserves to be appreciated in our current age shallowness, lies and simplicity.

In short,I absolutely loved it.

The Little Friend
The Little Friend
by Donna Tartt
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Scout Finch's Gothic Second Cousin, 1 Mar. 2017
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This review is from: The Little Friend (Paperback)
In a strange way, this book, for me, resembles a sort of inverse curate’s egg. Yes it has some not so good bits, but overall it’s so good that it deserves an excellent rating. To put it another way, this will be about the most qualified 5 star review I’ve ever written.

It tells the story of the Cleve/Dusfresenes family in a small Mississippi town, at a time which it slowly emerges is sometime in the early seventies. In a prologue, set twelve years before the main narrative, Tartt tells of the death of the beloved nine year old Robin, murdered and left hanging from a tree in the family garden.

As the main narrative opens, the Dusfresnes family has disintegrated. Father, Dix, has left home, mother Charlotte is still disconnected from life by her grief, and Robin’s sisters Allison, and Harriet, who was a baby at the time of his death, are left to run free. What adult supervision they receive comes from a matriarchal network with Grandmother at the head of a network of aunts and great aunts, a hive of eccentricity.

The early part of the book is a stunningly beautiful, but exquisitely painful description of the minor tragedies of childhood and the agonies of adolescence. In one particularly poignant and touching moment, Allison runs from the confusing trauma of the first time a boy tries to kiss her, and seeks solace in a bed stuffed with soft toys.

Tartt however, chooses Harriet as her main protagonist, and in a wonderfully concise phrase says “Harriet wasn’t pretty but she was smart”, so giving the reader a clear picture of the little girl who will figure at the centre of what is to come. The central thrust of the novel is Harriet, avoiding being sent to a Baptist Summer Camp decides to revenge Robin’s murder and fixates on the Ratliff family, firmly from the other side of the tracks, as the culprits. In turn, Danny Ratliff, paranoid from protecting the family drugs business and from the effects of taking those drugs becomes aware of Harriet, and not knowing who she is, becomes equally fixated on her. Thus starts a battle of wills which starts as an Enid Blyton-esque story with Harriet and her sidekick Hely setting out to unravel the mystery, but which very rapidly descends into something much, much darker.

This is definitely one of those books where the blurb on the cover misleads. I was expecting a mystery story, with Harriet inspired by Treasure Island and Houdini. What one gets is a thriller in which Treasure Island and Houdini are mentioned in passing, and only the latter has any significant impact on the plot. To get any kind of feel for what the book resembles I would point to two wildly different authors. Harriet, a feisty tomboy in a southern setting could be Scout Finch’s darker second cousin. The gothic criminality brings to mind Particia Cornwell’s Kay Scarpetta thrillers.

Around the time of the publication of the Goldfinch, I heard an interview with Tartt in which she described the process of writing as being, for her, as being like painter a mural with a nail varnish brush. Her dense and detailed style is very much to the fore here, describing the sun bleached, dust scratched world of the deep south. But from within the detail, the occasional sentence or phrase flashes brilliantly into view. I was particularly taken, at a funeral, by a reference to characters’ “brisk expertise in the protocol of grief”.

Tartt’s other great strength is in character, the Goldfinch gave us the glorious Boris, and here Harriet is a fascinating heroine, a Tartt classic, arguably aspirationally autobiographical as the feisty but bookish little girl. The aunts and great aunts are massively entertaining, and the Ratliff family, while possibly leaning in the direction of stereotype, also look recognisably Trump-ian, even if they are 40 years early.

I am not sure if plotting and narrative are strengths or weaknesses of Tartt’s writing. Certainly the intricacy of her description means that pace is not one of her virtues, but equally, if one has time, it is a pleasure to be able to sink into the depths of her world. Also, her works are unashamedly literary, but her plots verge on the melodramatic. When it comes here to speeding cars, flying snakes and homicidal juniors inadvertently attacking septuagenarians, I did find myself asking “Really?”

As a final note, amidst the intricate imagery and symbolism, I have to say that any books which sees the sympathetic treatment of cats as a metaphor for humanity and vice versa gets my vote.

Rovtop Desktop Cell Phone Stand, Cradle, Dock For all Android Smartphone, iPhone and More, up to 5.5 Inch, Accessories Desk - Silver
Rovtop Desktop Cell Phone Stand, Cradle, Dock For all Android Smartphone, iPhone and More, up to 5.5 Inch, Accessories Desk - Silver
Offered by Jakuton-EU
Price: £6.99

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful, 7 Feb. 2017
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Well, this passes the William Morris test by meeting the first criterion but not the second. This wins out over another stand I bought recently in two key factors. Firstly it has non slip feet on the bottom. These stop any tension in the charging chord from making the thing spin round inconveniently. Secondly it is suable with smart phones with the charging socket in both side and bottom.

But boy is it ugly. A not very well finished lump of aluminium is not aesthetically pleasing.

CamelBak Eddy Water Bottle - Acai, 750 ml
CamelBak Eddy Water Bottle - Acai, 750 ml
Offered by MMP Living
Price: £15.33

5 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars It's just a bottle - why is it so good?, 4 Feb. 2017
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I'm not quite sure why I like this product so much. It is pretty common knowledge that we all need to drink plenty of water, probably more than feels normal. That is a pretty easy thing to do right? Get a receptacle - mug glass, cup, one of myriad different (and cheaper) water bottles than this, and drink from it.

That is all very true, but it doesn't alter the fact that I find myself drinking more as a result of using this bottle, possible reasons are.
- I can have it on my desk, wherever, with no risk of knocking it over
- it is so ridiculously convenient, just grab and drink
- I am used to, and like, the bite valve - I use camelbaks a lot for outdoor activities
- it is a good shape which fits my hand well
- it is a good capacity, one in the morning, one in the afternoon, one in the evening - 2.25 litres
- the loop in the top is easy to hook a finger through when carrying other things
- the mouthpiece folds down to keep it clean when out and about.
- (really shallow) it looks pretty cool

I guess it all adds up to that undefinable concept - a good piece of design. All of the individual elements come together to create something that just works.

When access to clean drinking water is a luxury for so many in the world, I feel a bit guilty to rave so much about a first world product like this, but I'll go and donate the same amount to water-aid, and give this the thumbs up.

Oenbopo Universal Samdi Wood Phone Desktop Stand Dock Station Holder Bracket For iPhone 6s 6 Plus 4.7" 5.5" 5S Samsung Note5 4 3 S6 S5 HTC LG(Phone Holder White)
Oenbopo Universal Samdi Wood Phone Desktop Stand Dock Station Holder Bracket For iPhone 6s 6 Plus 4.7" 5.5" 5S Samsung Note5 4 3 S6 S5 HTC LG(Phone Holder White)
Offered by oenbopo
Price: £4.99

3.0 out of 5 stars Lack of anti-slip feet is a problem, 4 Feb. 2017
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I bought this for use with a smartphone, and it has two main problems. Firstly it is too light with no form of grip on the base. This means that it slides around, and if there is any stiffness in your charging cable, it twists about and it's difficult to get it to sit exactly how you want it. Secondly I have two smartphones, my personal one and one supplied by my employer. This is fine with the work one, where the charging socket is on the side. It is not so good on my own phone where the socket is at the bottom.

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