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C. Green "happily low brow" (Quenington, Glos, UK)

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Red Phoenix Burning
Red Phoenix Burning
Price: £4.17

2.0 out of 5 stars A Weak Sequel Where Genuine Thrills Are Replaced By Contrived Plotting, 25 July 2016
Its decades since I read Larry Bond’s Red Phoenix, first published in 1989 and to which Red Phoenix Burning is a very belated follow-up. However, I do remember it being an exciting techno-thriller full of action and suspense as North Korea made an unprovoked attack on its Southern neighbour and pushed them and their American allies to the limit militarily.

Unfortunately, being full of action or suspense is not how I would describe this sequel. Whilst Bond and Carlson should be praised for trying something a bit different by focusing on an unprovoked collapse of the North Korean regime and its aftermath, rather than repeating the North/South conflict of the previous book, their choice of scenario has one essential flaw; it’s not that exciting.

Yes, it’s interesting to see how the collapse of Kim Jong Un’s regime in North Korea might occur, and the in-fighting that might follow, but it isn’t edge of your seat thrilling.

The main problem from a dramatic point of view is the lack of a single, identifiable antagonist for the reader to root against and the protagonists to defeat. Yes, the chaos the book describes, with multiple North Korean factions fighting each other for supremacy as the state collapses, the US and the Americans trying to stay ahead of the rapidly evolving situation both politically and militarily without making things worse and the Russians and Chinese either meddling or directly intervening in the ensuing chaos, may all be part of a realistic ‘what-if’ scenario, but chaos is not by itself dramatically satisfying. Rather offering a clear, propulsive narrative, what Red Phoenix Burning supplies until very close to the end is a series of separate dramatic vignettes such as South Korean Special Forces incursion or a short naval action between North and South. The result is a book that feels episodic rather than cohesive.

Even when Bond and Carlson do pull all the threads together for the big finale, an attack on the remaining North Korean forces holding out against their Southern compatriots and the US in hardened bunkers in the mountains and threatening nuclear strikes, it really doesn’t grab you as a reader. By this point the remaining North Koreans are entirely faceless. Never once do we see inside their redoubt during the final assault or get any insight into who they are as people. Whilst the details of the assault may be interesting, without a proper, human enemy on the other side it all becomes about the hardware and the tactics, and as a result rather sterile.

Not that you ever really get to know the comparatively large cast who you are introduced to well enough to care about any of them that much. There simply isn’t enough space to paint any individual in enough detail for them to become fully rounded human beings and for the reader to become involved in their lives that you’re invested in their ultimate fate.

Re-introducing characters from the original Red Phoenix might be seen an attempt to address this issue, but unless you read the previous book very recently the chances are slim that you’ll remember any of them, or as a result care any more deeply about what becomes of them.

It doesn’t help either, that the once character who is given the most attention and depth is Kary Fowler, a white, middle-class American charity worker in North Korea. Not only does her presence; a do-gooding innocent compared to all the other military characters, feel entirely contrived from the get go, the focus on her plight smacks awkwardly of ‘white-washing’. Red Phoenix Burning is essentially a story about Korea. Yes, the events it portrays have wider geo-political implications which Bond and Carlson do try to highlight, and the Americans do play a peripheral but significant role in events, but at its heart this is a story in which Korea and its people should be central to it. To therefore spend a large amount of time following the fate of one white American woman who’s never in that much danger to begin with, feels like skewed priorities on the authors’ part. It also suggests that they neither trust their readers to stick with a book with a primarily Korean cast, which is patronising, or that the rest of the book is exciting enough without a stereotypical damsel in distress to root for, which doesn’t instil much confidence.

Bottom-line, Red Phoenix Burning is a poor sequel to an excellent thriller. Yes, it provides some interesting speculation on how a collapse of North Korea might unfold and the consequences if it did so. However, it lacks any genuine sense of jeopardy or characters you really care about, and attempts to provide both feel both contrived and slightly cynical.

Crisis (Luke Carlton 1)
Crisis (Luke Carlton 1)
by Frank Gardner
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £9.09

3.0 out of 5 stars Debut Thriller With Good Insider Knowledge Let Down By Weak Characters, Poor Pacing and Unrealistic Plotting, 17 July 2016
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
Normally when writing reviews I try to avoid spoilers like the plague. However, in order to give Crisis a fair review I really can't find a way to avoid at least hinting at some minor plot developments within the book. Therefore please accept the warning that what follows does contain SPOILERS.

Crisis is the first non-fiction work by Frank Gardner, and as befits his day job of BBC Security Correspondent he has chosen a spy thriller as the genre for his debut novel.

As you would expect from a journalist who has spent a considerable proportion of his career covering matters relating to National Security, International Affairs and Terrorism, Crisis is a novel packed full of accurate details, or at least details that feel entirely plausible. From descriptions of the processes and procedures followed by the UK security services during a national crisis to how special forces operate and deploy, you get the sense that Gardner writes either from first hand knowledge or from knowing people with direct experience of similar events, people and places. It gives parts of he book a clear feeling of plausibility and verisimilitude.

Its a shame therefore, that such details are wasted on a plot that never feels entirely credible, lead characters who are either bland, misconceived or one dimensional and some very questionable decisions regarding both pacing of the story and individual dramatic developments.

The central plot of the book is a critical problem from the get go because it fits so poorly with the tone of the book. The idea of a Colombian drug lord, incensed by successful, British lead attempts to curtail his business, scheming with the North Koreans to set off a nuclear dirty-bomb in the UK sounds like the stuff of a lesser Bond movie, and if the rest of Crisis was similarly fantastical it might have worked as a plot hook.

Frank Gardner however, whilst not resorting to Le Carre-style kitchen-sink realism, definitely wants the reader to feel they’re being shown an accurate portrayal of contemporary intelligence gathering and espionage, not a world of tricked-out Aston Martins and bikini-clad babes (the former even gets a jokey reference in the book’s dialogue, as if the author was trying to make a none-too-subtle point). In that context the idea that a Colombian drug lord, even one as moustache twirlingly irredeemable as Nelson Garcia, would go to all the expense, trouble and risk of mounting such an attack just doesn’t ring true. As a result the central story is holed below the waterline before it even gets going and no amount of factual detail regarding the intelligence services or anti-terrorist operations is enough to refloat it.

What might have helped though, would have been a central character with enough charisma or complexity to let the reader overlook the inherent implausibility of the villainous conspiracy. Instead we get Luke Carlton, and instead of complexity we are given what can best be described as bland competence. Again, I understand that Gardner is trying hard to keep things within the bounds of the plausible, and ex-SBS officer Carlton fits that mold to a tee. However, just because the hero needs to be realistic and human doesn’t mean he needs to be dull, and giving him a tragic childhood or a slightly compliictedd love life is not enough to make him instantaneously more interesting or automatically grant him depth. Gardner needed to work far harder to create a more rounded, and complex lead character, rather than relying on lazy shortcuts. By resorting to the latter Crisis is left with a bland-cypher where its hero should be.

Its also lumbered with an entirely one-dimensional bad guy in Garcia, who never becomes more than a stereotypical drug baron of the sort beloved by Hollywood action movies in the mid-90’s before he war on terror. Gardner should be congratulated for not falling back on using the standard Islamist-terrorist as the book’s primary antagonist. Its just a pity that he does nothing interesting or fresh with the Garcia character to make him stand out from the crowd.

Although the reader should count themselves lucky that Gardner doesn’t lumber Garcia someone as pointless and irritating as Elise, Carlton’s entirely superfluous girlfriend, in order to flesh out the drug lord’s character. I appreciate what Gardner is trying to do with Elise; which is illustrate the complications and personal compromises those working in Intelligence have to make in order to protect their countries. Unfortunately by introducing her and then finding ways to shoehorn her into the plot, all Gardner does is slow down the narrative unnecessarily, add yet another unrealistic and ultimately superfluous, yet entirely predictable, subplot (from the moment in the opening chapters that you find out Elise knows martial arts you’re just waiting for her to be placed in a situation where she needs to use them) and irritate the reader. Honestly, if she had said ‘Babes’ one more time in a way that no real woman outside of The Only Way Is Essex actually would I would have screamed.

Unfortunately Elise is not the only superfluous element in Crisis, although she is the most significant and irritating. The book is peppered with excessive detail, unnecessary exposition and minor characters who could be excised entirely. We don’t need to spend time with the man organising the Rememberance Sunday ceremony at the Cenotaph, or need to know so much about the welder working for the bad guys to help them build their bomb (another entirely unrealistic character). All of these and more could have and should have been edited out to streamline the plot and cut the page count significantly. Crisis is a book that needs a propulsive and dynamic narrative. Instead it meanders, lacks focus and is at least 100 pages to long. The final section does ramp up the tension, although the stakes are set too high for you to ever really believe that the bad guys will succeed in their goals, but it far too much of a slog to get to that point.

Frank Gardner could, over time, become a half-decent thriller writer. His inside knowledge certainly gives him an edge, and Crisis does have some areas of promise. He just needs to tighten up his plotting, take some more time in crafting his characters and find a ruthless editor who will cut out the narrative deadwood and keep his stories focused and moving forward.

HALTI Collar, Medium, Black
HALTI Collar, Medium, Black
Price: £7.99

4.0 out of 5 stars A High Quality Fabric Dog Collar, 5 July 2016
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
This is a decent dog collar. Its well put together, with stitching that feels nice and solid. There are no uncomfortable buckles or studs that will catch on your dog's fur or rub on their skin. The reflective material woven into the fabric provides an additional safety feature without making the whole collar too garish. Its easy to fit and remove, with a large, single snap-and-click buckle. Adjustment is easy, but everything feels tight enough that you're not worried about it coming loose or slipping off. The metal ring for attaching tags, leads, etc. is big enough take most clips.

Motorola Verve Life Ones Plus Wireless Bluetooth Earbuds
Motorola Verve Life Ones Plus Wireless Bluetooth Earbuds
Price: £200.37

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Premium Price For Flawed Design and Substandard Performance, 4 July 2016
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
I really had high hopes for the Motorola Verve Life Ones Plus Wireless Bluetooth Earbuds. Finding a set of decent wireless headphones would be great for when I'm travelling. Whilst I have a fantastic set of in-ear noise cancelling headphones for use on the many long flights I take, when out and about by myself in various cities around the world not having obtrusive and inconvenient wires running across my body from phone or ipod would be great. I'm also a bit of a Motorola fan, owning a 2nd Gen Moto X phone and a Moto 360 Smartwatch, both of which I love.

Its therefore hard to describe how disappointed I was when I received the Verve Life Ones Plus headphones and realised what a poor product they are. Had I actually purchased them rather than being lucky enough to receive them for test and review via the Amazon Vine Programme I would almost certainly have returned them for a refund. After all, based on the sale price, it would appear that Motorola view these as a premium product, so having paid the money you would expect a premium experience in exchange. What I got was definitely not that.

Admittedly first impressions were good. The headphones come in a very solid box, similar to what you would expect to receive a top end mobile phone in. Like a mobile they come with a small mini-USB cable and some very simple, multilingual start-up instructions. There's also a selection of different size rubber ear buds so that you can sit the headphones securely and comfortably in your ears.

There's also the charger case that the two ear phones sit it when not in use, which is nice piece of design. Cylindrical, about four centimetres in diameter and about eight or nine centimetres long, it holds the two headphone very securely in individual charger recesses. A simple twist of one end then rotates the recesses so that they're hidden behind a cover, providing more protection and putting the headphones into sleep mode (or waking them when opened). A micro-USB jack at one end of the cylinder provides access for a power cable. Its simple and elegant way to store and charge the head phones. The only off-note is the garish orange used for the twist grip. I'm guessing Motorola were aiming for cool with this flash of colour, but frankly they missed by a mile. All black would have been so much better.

Even more unfortunately they have chosen to carry the same colour scheme through to the headphones themselves, which also sport two-one orange and black casings. I get that brightly coloured headphones are in right now, courtesy of the trend setting Beats cans, and more johnny-come-lately entrants into the market such as Sony, but those are over-the-ear headphones, not in-ear buds. Frankly the Verve Life Ones+ look odd enough by themselves, without drawing further attention to them with a hi-vis orange casing. The result is that you look rather as if you're wearing oversized ear-protectors of the sort sported by operators of heavy machinery, not expensive bluetooth headphones, and this is not a good look. It is also one guaranteed to draw strange looks, which again is not a good thing. Both my wife's and my mother-in-law's initial reaction to seeing me wearing the Verve Life Ones+ was to burst into laughter.

Admittedly I could have more easily accepted the mild mockery had the performance of the Verve Life Ones+ been absolutely stunning, but not only are they ugly and vaguely ridiculous when worn, they're also not much good as headphones.

Some of the issues are again down to hardware design. Whilst each earbud is relatively light and Motorola have made them as small as possible, there is no denying that they weigh more than your average in-ear headphone. As a result you have to use the largest possible rubber surround in order to get a strong enough grip to hold each bud in place, which some users who prefer a looser fit may find uncomfortable. Especially since each bud has to be positioned carefully so that the main part of each unit is above your ear hole in the centre of the ear, rather than dangling down.

Even with the biggest rubber surround providing maximum grip the Verve Lie Ones+ do not feel as secure as your typical wired in-ear headphone. I didn't find any issues with them falling out when wearing them whilst walking or doing domestic activities but nor was I entirely reassured that more they would stay in place during more strenuous activities. Considering that Motorola actively market them as suitable to be worn running, cycling or generally working out this lack of a sense of total security is a problem. I don't deny that all headphones can be prone to falling out or off our ears when exercising, but most have some sort or wire to arrest their fall when they do and allow their easy recovery. The Verve Life One+'s don't, and if one was to fall out the chances are it will hit the floor/treadmill/road/etc before the user could catch it. The drop is unlikely to damage it, but having to stop and retrieve it would be annoying and the risk of losing it, even coated in bright orange, would be there. I would certainly think twice about wearing them when out cycling. If one fell out when you were travelling at speed the chances of safe recovery could be low.

Of course you might make a grab for one as it fell out and get lucky. If so then you'd probably encounter another design flaw; the control buttons. On the outside of each bud is a small round button which when depressed will pause music, answer a call or initiate other actions depending on the device you're connected to. For example pressing either button twice will skip tracks on albums or playlists. Most modern headphones have similar controls. Unfortunately, with the Verve Life One+ these are buttons more of a hindrance than a help.

Firstly the lightest brush of either button register as a clear push, resulting in unintentionally paused tracks or killed calls. This by itself is not a major problem, but because of the need to periodically adjust the headphones when wearing them to keep them secure, it can happen quite regularly. It also happens very easily when inserting or removing the headphones or putting them in their case. Several times I took the Verve Life One+'s out, accidentally hit the control button and a few moments later heard the tinny sound of music emanating from them.

Its an irritating flaw, but no where near as annoying at the performance of the Verve Life Plus Ones+ as actual headphones. I could forgive design flaws if they performed their primary task impeccably, but here they really fall down badly. The problem is down to the fact that only one of the two ear buds actually connects to the user's device, taking the Bluetooth signal and forwarding it across to the other ear bud. Whilst this doesn't cause any issues with audio synchronisation between the two ear buds, what is does result in is regular signal drops between the two. The outcome of this is that on a horribly frequent basis you lose audio to one ear. The break only happens for a moment, but it can happen so frequently that it becomes truly irritating. Although the overall playback quality isn't bad, repeated breaks in the feed to one ear are simply unacceptable. During my test of the Verve Life One+ it often got so bad that I had to give up listening entirely.

That of course, was when I could get the headphones to connect properly at all. In the order to be fair to Motorola I tested the One+'s I was sent with two devices; my Moto X phone and a 6th Generation 32Gb iPod Shuffle. Despite sharing a common manufacturer, connecting to the One+ to my Moto X proved close to impossible. Pairing over blue tooth was easy enough, but the phone kept losing the pair. When I finally managed to get a stable connection however, the audio quality was truly awful, with each ear-bud out of sync, signal drop out between them and interference. In the end, after much struggling, I simply gave up trying to get Moto X and One+ to work together.

Interaction with the iPod Shuffle, by contrast, was far smoother. Pairing again was no problem, but also remained stable (although I do find the lack of a pairing code being a worry, since theoretically anyone could hijack the One+ bluetooth link if they chose to). Playback was smooth and in-sync, with only the regular audio drop outs from the ear-bud not directly linked to the iPod ruining the experience.

I'm not sure why the iPod worked so much better with the One+ than the Moto X. It might have something to do with the 'Hubble Connected for Verve Life' App that Motorola require you to download in order to configure the One+. Another black mark against the Verve Life One+, the app did work marginally better on the iPod than the Moto X. On the latter it would regularly fail to connect up to the headphones themselves, or lose connection and be unable to restore it, whereas the iPod app maintained its connection.

Not that its greater reliability on the iPod made the Hubble App much more of a pleasure to use. Very similar to the Moto Connect App that acts an interface for Motorola wearable like the 360 (why the One+'s can't run off Moto Connect rather than their own memory sucking app I don't know), its supposed to allow users to configure their headphones to their own particular requirements. However, the functionality is limited to a few preset audio equaliser options, none of which make much difference to the performance of the headphones, and some other minor changes to settings. For an app using up 32.41 Mb of storage you don't get much bang for your buck, even when it works properly. Moreover it will only allow you to make changes to the headphone settings when they're in their storage case; not during live listening.

Add in battery life that even on a full charge the Hubble app says will only provide four hours of playback (not the 12 hours quoted on Amazon), making the Verve Life One+ impractical for heavy use on long journeys, and the case for forking out the equivalent cost of a pair of high end, wired noise cancelling headphone just doesn't stand up. Especially since Motorola themselves produce the Motorola Verve Life Loop+ Wireless Bluetooth Earbuds, which have the advantages of Bluetooth connectivity but are vastly cheaper, avoid the issue of signal loss on to one ear by having both buds run off a single Bluetooth receiver, are more comfortable and more secure to wear. In the face of such competition and the failure to deliver a premium experience there is no good reason that I can come up with to invest in the Verve Life One+
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jul 20, 2016 5:46 PM BST

Russell Hobbs 21840 Purify Multi-Health Fryer, 3 L - White
Russell Hobbs 21840 Purify Multi-Health Fryer, 3 L - White
Offered by TOTAL AV
Price: £99.99

3.0 out of 5 stars Inaccurately Named and of Limited Use, 4 July 2016
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
First thing to say about the Russell Hobbs 21840 Purify Multi-Health Fryer is this; IT IS NOT A FRYER.

Yes, it will cook (oven) chips and bacon and other things that you can conceivably fry. Yes, it can be helpful to baste some of things you want to cook in a little oil beforehand. However, the latter is not vital and it will also cook things you would never, in a million years, think of frying, such as cakes.

What the Russell Hobbs 21840 Purify Multi-Health Fryer should actually be described as is a small fan oven. A very small fan oven in terms of its capacity. That's it. There's really nothing else to it. It uses convection and radiated heat to cook food, in exactly the same way that any conventional electric fan oven does.

So it you're looking for an air-fryer this is not the option to go for. As an air-fryer it would win one star on Amazon, and only that because zero-star ratings aren't allowed.

As a small fan oven however, it just about scrapes three stars. Admittedly none of those are for looks. Vaguely egg shaped and surprisingly old fashioned in appearance (my wife says it reminds her of a juke-box) this is not some sleek design masterpiece that will complement any kitchen and you will want to have out on display. Ours now lives on some shelves in out utility room, safely out of sight.

Its also surprisingly large on the outside, occupying a decent amount of counter top when in use. Its not very portable either. There are two recesses either side of the base to act as lifting points, but with all the oven part at the bottom and the electrics at the top it is rather top heavy, which makes it a slightly awkward affair to carry.

The build quality is okay, with the whole thing feeling solid enough. The oven door closes with a satisfyingly solid click, and the two dials that control heat and cooking time don't feel like they're going to come off in your hand anytime soon. The plastic casing does feel a little cheap, and gives the whole device a rather retro 'made in the 80's' air, but not to the point where you're worried about anything cracking or snapping off. It also provides solid insulation, with none of the external surfaces becoming dangerously hot during cooking

On the plus side its extremely easy to use. Simply set the heat you wish to cook at and the length of time and away you go. The timer (a manual rather than digital affair) will shut the whole thing down when it runs out. The oven comes with a timing guide for a selection of food types, but its simple enough to do a bit of trial and error and you can always open the door to see how things are going without needing to turn off the heat.

The oven comes with a basket which is good for cooking chips and vegetables and a grill rack that will also take skewers. Both sit on a small removable drip tray and they're all non-stick and will easily fit in a dishwasher. In fact keeping the oven clean is incredibly easy. Once the basket or rack, along with the tray, have been washed all that's needed it to give the over itself a quick wipe out and you're done.

Of course the all important question is how does it perform as an oven, and the answer so far is so-so. We've only had it for a couple of weeks and have only used it for simple stuff like oven-chips, bacon and sausages, but so far its done a decent job at cooking everything we've tried. The chips came out evenly cooked and crispy (albeit after needing a quick shake halfway through). The bacon especially was very good; crisp and dry. I'm sure with a bit of practice someone could make some very tasty meals with it.

What you're not going to be able to do though, is cook any large meals. We just about managed to cook enough chips for two people, and it will handle about three rashers of back bacon in one go. That, along with the fact that it is essentially just a very small fan oven, leaves me wondering exactly what the purpose of the Russell Hobbs 21840 Purify Multi-Health Fryer is. Based on our experience of using it the only advantages it offers are:
1. You can cook bacon without filling your kitchen with the smell of frying bacon and/or smoke and without splattering the hob with oil.
2. If you're doing a BBQ and want to cook chips outside this is portable enough to do the job (as long as you have an extension cord)
3. The same applies if you're going camping and want a small oven for cooking. Again, you'll need power and its not exactly small enough to go in a backpack, but it should fit easily in the back of a car.
4. Its ideal for a very small flat or an office kitchen.

If however, you already have one or more standard fan ovens in your kitchen then I'm really not sure what the Russell Hobbs 21840 Purify Multi-Health Fryer will do that your existing appliance(s) don't, which makes it very difficult to recommend.

Mitre Super Dimple Training Football - White/Light Blue/Blue, Size 5
Mitre Super Dimple Training Football - White/Light Blue/Blue, Size 5
Price: £9.00

4.0 out of 5 stars Initial Impression: Cool Football, 23 Jun. 2016
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
With two children, both of whom love playing outdoors, we've acquired a number of footballs over the years. Based on initial impressions this is one of the better ones we've owned. Not only is it lightweight without being flimsy or fly-away, making it perfect as a kick round ball for our six year-old son, but because its made out of a single piece of rubber, rather than being stitched together using multiple fabric panels, its better able to deal with being left outside in all weather, kicked across patios and at walls. Other balls we've owned have quickly become scuffed and frayed under similar punishment, but this Mitre ball seems better equipped for rough handling on hard surfaces.

Whether it continues to wear well will remain to be seen, but for now I can leave the summing up of our initial experience of the Mitre Super Dimple Training Football to the word of my son, who simply said 'Cool football'

The Smoke Hunter
The Smoke Hunter
by Jacquelyn Benson
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Entirely Derivative But Also Genuinely Good Fun, 15 Jun. 2016
This review is from: The Smoke Hunter (Paperback)
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
Jaquelyn Benson's 'The Smoke Hunter' has to be one of the more diversely derivative books I have read, stealing as it does from a wide variety of sources.

The greatest unacknowledged debt that it owes is to the first modern cinematic reworking of 'The Mummy' released in back in 1999 and starring Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz. Benson's heroine, the prim but independently minded and resourceful Elleanora Mallory is almost a carbon copy of Weisz's character from the film, Evelyn Carnahan, right down to their Englishness and shared lack of parents. Similarly the book's hero, Adam Bates is physically and in terms of personality pretty much indistinguishable from Fraser's Rick O'Connell, with both men also filling the role of token American in the respective stories. Even Ellie's and Adam's relationship develops in the same highly predictable fashion to that of Evie's & Rick's in the movie.

The similarities don't stop at the romantic leads either. Just as with 'The Mummy' the Smoke Hunter features underground burial chambers filled with deadly creepy crawlies (albeit scorpions rather than man eating scarab beetles) and deadly man-made traps. The book even manages to rip off the movie's inferior cinematic sequel, The Mummy Returns (2001) with its hidden pyramids and incidents featuring hot air balloons. Almost certainly unintentionally, the book even comes very close to replicating the denouement of that second film, albeit without a computer generated version of Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson or any reincarnated Mummies.

Not that The Mummy franchise is the only work The Smoke Hunter 'pays homage to', to put it politely. This book has elements of Romancing the Stone (1984) with its Central American setting, and mismatched leads who bicker their way through a treasure hunt to romance. There are also hints of H. Rider Haggard, with the book's late Victorian colonial setting, and more recent novels by the likes of James Rollins, with the hunts for lost civilisations, chases through underground chambers, rediscovered, ancient, possibly supernatural technologies and sinister conspiracies.

At no point whilst reading The Smoke Hunter did I feel I came across anything that I hadn't seen or read somewhere before. In every respect, from characters, to plot, to set pieces to period to geographical setting it is a hybrid of other, earlier works. Its also written in what could best be described as a pedestrian style. Locations are given functional descriptions but fail to leap off the page. Characters, especially the supporting cast, are given next to no depth and are less than memorable. The various plot twists are entirely predictable. Action, when it occurs, is hurried and perfunctory, lacking a sense of genuine jeopardy. For a book featuring fantastical and supernatural elements there is distinct absence of magic or wonder emanating from the page.

However, despite all these manifest failings, The Smoke Hunter does has one critical thing in its favour. Its FUN, and in a way that you don't find very often these days. There's no edge to the book; no post-modern cynicism or need for knowing winks at the ridiculousness of what occurs on the page. It is what it set's out to be; a good, old fashioned, pulp-fiction adventure full of brave resourceful heroines, laconic but honourable heroes, hidden mysteries, derring-do, romance, cold-eyed bad-guys and far-off-lands. I raced through it and enjoyed the experience immensely. The memory of it is quickly fading, but that's not the point of this sort of book. Its meant to deliver a quick dose of excitement and adventure and it manages to do just that.

And yes, it steals blatantly from earlier works, but then so did they. For all I have criticised The Smoke Hunter for ripping off The Mummy, that movie owed a huge debt to the Indiana Jones series, which in turn was a reworking of movie-serials and pulp-stories from the 1930's, which themselves had owed a clear debt to the likes of H. Rider Haggard and the Victorian Penny Dreadfuls. Whilst its perfectly fair to point out that The Smoke Hunter tells a far from original tale, in its defense it is merely adopting a tradition followed by many other works in this particular genre.

Chains of Command (Frontlines Book 4)
Chains of Command (Frontlines Book 4)
Price: £3.98

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Solidly Entertaining Fourth Novel In The Series, 24 May 2016
Chains of Commmand is the fourth in Marko Kloos consistently entertaining sequence of ‘Frontlines’ military sci-fi novels. Following a single, overarching story arc, albeit with a degree of self-contained plotting within each individual novel, this is not a series that you can easily pick up four books in. Chains of Command is therefore not the place for newcomers to the series to kick-off; far better to go back to first volume Terms of Enlistment and start there.
Assuming that is what most prospective readers will do, it’s more than likely that those picking up Chains of Command will have read and enjoyed the previous three books in the series. That makes this latest novel somewhat critic-proof; it’s unlikely fans of Kloos work are going to find nothing that they like in this latest adventure for Andrew Grayson, his wife Halley and other recurring characters.
Therefore, the question becomes whether Chains of Command lives up to the standards of the previous three books in the sequence and indicates a series going from strength-to-strength or is the first sign that this is a saga on the wane and one that is no longer worth following.
The answer, fortunately, is that Chains of Command maintains the overall level of the series. I wouldn’t describe it as a standout entry, but it has everything that fans of the series will be looking for. Its written in Kloos’ usual, economical but accessible style, with Grayson once again acting as first person narrator. Like the previous books it follows what could easily be described as the ‘Full Metal Jacket’ narrative structure, with the story being split into two distinct Acts with very different feels to them. Act 1, like with Full Metal Jacket, is slower and focuses on training and more domestic matters, allowing Kloos to set the scene, establish and re-establish characters and introduce the latest developments in the overall plot. In this way it’s very much like Grayson’s time on the frozen colony of New Svalbard during the first Act of the previous book, Angles of Attack. There’s no lack of action or incident, but the pace is deliberately measured and it feel like the book is setting itself up for the main event to come later.

Just as with Angles of Attack, with the stealth run of the Indianapolis to Earth and the subsequent incursion by the Lankies into Earth space during the second half of the book, Act 2 of Chains of Command is definitely where the story and the pace picks up. Whilst all of Kloos books are very much military sci-fi, with the civilian world only encroaching briefly now and again, the second half of Chains of Command is pretty much pure ‘men & women on a mission’-style story telling. I will not spoil it by describing exactly what that mission is or how it plays out, but it’s to Kloos credit that it is very different in style and focus to the military adventures of the previous books. He also wisely allows the Lankies to take a back seat as antagonists for much of the book’s length, providing a fresh feel to events after the Lanky-centric conclusion to Angles of Attack. The big aliens are still there, still pose a threat and do put in a brief appearance in the narrative, but with this fourth adventure Kloos finds a way to differentiate it from what’s gone before rather than sticking to rinse-and-repeat plotting that will grow stale quite quickly.

Not that there aren’t familiar beats on offer for fans of the series. Well liked characters from the previous books put in appearances; some brief and others more substantial. There’s regular bursts of action, which Kloos excels at, and there’s the usual cynicism regarding authority and the ‘bigger picture’ those who hold it may be pursuing. Like with Kubrick’s ‘Full Metal Jacket’ and the previous books in the series, Chains of Command offers very much a grunt’s eye-view of war (albeit a grunt in Grayson who is slowly moving up the eponymous Chain) where those in command are seen as variously distant, incompetent, devious or in some cases a combination of all three.

But whilst all of the above gives the book its welcome, familiar tone and reinforces the series strengths, there are also the weaknesses that have been present since the start. Not least amongst these is fact that due to the first person narration we’re never allowed to get inside the heads of any of the characters except Grayson. The narrative style keeps the story focused and the pacing swift, but it means that the supporting cast, even those we and Grayson spend extended periods of time with, remain frustratingly one dimensional. This is especially true of Halley, his wife, who has yet to develop beyond her dual roles of moral support for her husband and hotshot pilot into a fully rounded, complex individual, despite having been in the series almost from the beginning.

However, this and other niggles, such as the inconsistent approach to the levels of technology seemingly available in Kloos’ possible future, which sometimes seem determined more by the needs of the plot than some overriding logic, aren’t nearly enough to derail Chains of Command or the series as whole, which continues to be more than worth fans’ time and loyalty. I for one am certainly interested in finding out where Kloos takes Andrew Grayson next after this latest, highly enjoyable adventure.

BISSELL ProHeat 2X Revolution Full-Size Carpet Cleaner
BISSELL ProHeat 2X Revolution Full-Size Carpet Cleaner
Price: £249.99

4 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Excellent Carpet Cleaner, But With A Few Downsides, 17 May 2016
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
Okay, first question; does the BISSELL ProHeat 2X Revolution Carpet Cleaner actually get your carpets clean(er)? The answer is emphatically yes. Even on the lightest of two cleaning settings it removed two stubborn stains in our sitting room carpet, one the result of a small child suffering from a sickness bug. One sweep of the BISSELL and it was gone.

So in terms of doing the job it is intended to do the BISSELL ProHeat 2X is a total success and easy to recommend.

However, there are a few things any potential purchaser should be aware of before they buy, and they are as follows:
1. The BISSELL ProHeat 2X is BIG. Bigger than any vacuum cleaner you'll ever buy, and it doesn't collapse for storage. If you live somewhere with limited storage this might be worth taking into account.
2. The BISSELL ProHeat 2X is heavy; especially when the tanks are full of water. If you live somewhere with a lot of stairs or you're not physically strong this is also worth bearing in mind.
3. The BISSELL ProHeat is easy enough to set-up and use, but a pain to clean when you're done. Even if you give your carpet the best possible vacuum beforehand the BISSELL will still pick up enormous quantities of fluff, especially if you own a pet. Now this has its positive side, since it shows the BISSELL is doing its job, but it does mean that when you're done (or even during a clean if you're doing multiple large rooms) you have to spend quite a long time cleaning wet fluff and dirt out of the cleaning head. The fact that Bissell provide a special tool just for doing this tells you that it is not something that only happens on rare occasions. Even if you only doing a quick clean of a small area you can find yourself spending longer cleaning the BISSELL than you spent cleaning your floor.
4. Its ugly. Now this may be more a matter of personal taste, but I challenge anyone to think that the ProHeat 2X looks good. Of course this is a minor issue, but considering the machine's size and therefore the issues of storage (see 1 above) having it look a little more attractive, or at least be less visually invasive, might have been nice.

None of those observations alter the fact that it is a very good carpet cleaner, but as there are other similar options out there, some of them smaller, lighter, more user friendly and/or more visually attractive, I think they're probably worth expressing.

You should also be aware that I received the BISSELL ProHeat 2X Revolution Carpet Cleaner for free via the Amazon Vine Programme in exchange for this honest review. I have used it periodically over six weeks and it has performed without problems every time.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jun 17, 2016 1:33 AM BST

Orphan X (An Orphan X Thriller)
Orphan X (An Orphan X Thriller)
by Gregg Hurwitz
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £5.00

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Riddled with cliches and highly implausible, but also exciting and manages to make you care about the characters, 15 May 2016
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
Its taken me a while to get around to reading and reviewing Orphan X, which I received prior to publication via the Amazon Vine Programme in exchange for an honest review. It sat on my shelf, everything about it, from the puff quotes on the cover from Lee Child to David Baldacci to the blurb on the back screaming 'over-hyped, wafer-thin pot boiler' and as a consequence I prioritised other, seemingly more sure-fired options over Greg Hurwitz's debut.

In retrospect I regret both that decision and my hasty prejudging of Orphan X. Not only were some of the books I placed ahead of it in the queue massive disappointments, but more significantly Orphan X turned out to be a highly enjoyable, if somewhat outlandish thriller very much in the vein of the Matt Damon-lead Jason Bourne movies.

Featuring at its lead Evan Smoak, former covert government assassin turned, quite literally, one-man A-Team (based in LA, helps innocent people with major problems, doesn't ask for payment), you will need to be able to suspend your sense of disbelief in order to enjoy Orphan X. This is the sort of book where the US Government trains orphaned children to be deadly assassins, teams of heavily armed mercenaries can run around the streets of LA with apparent impunity, shooting and blowing stuff up, and the hero can live in what its essentially a combination of Bat Cave and minimalist chic apartment (a Bat-Penthouse if you like).

Like most authors writing this sort of over-blown thriller, Hurwitz falls back on peppering the narrative with apparently factual nuggets about the weapons, technology and fighting styles used by various characters in an attempt to lend a veneer of plausibility to what is an inherently implausible tale, but he mostly avoids stalling the narrative momentum with too much pointless exposition or excessive data-dumps. Infact its the sheer pace of the story that is Oprhan X's real strength. It prevents you from caring too much about the unlikely or downright improbable events that occur on the page, or that the book both steals shamelessly from other literary and cinematic thrillers (a debt is certainly owed to La Femme Nikita, Bourne and Jack Reacher, to name just few) and is packed with cliche--after-cliche, including the inevitable 'attractive-single-mom with adorable & precocious son who befriend the hermit-like hero-with-a-mysterious-past and humanise him in the process.

As a reader you can easily forgive all these flaws because the story moves so quickly, keeps you guessing about characters' loyalties and motivations, contains enough genuine mystery to avoid total predictability and is liberally laced with well written, exciting and tense action scenes that skirt just the right side of over-blown.

By the end, which is only marginally spoiled by a final twist that you can see coming a mile-off and so feels unnecessary, I genuinely wanted to know what happens next to Evan, Mia, Peter and the rest of what will obviously become reoccurring characters. Sensibly Hurwitz eschews the Lee Child or A-Team route of having Smoak become a wandering hero out to right wrongs wherever he conveniently stumbles across them. Having managed to make the reader care about not only his hero but also the people he interacts with, good and bad, which is no small feat in a fast moving thriller like this, I am pleased that this marks the beginning of a series and will be picking up the next episode when its published.

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