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

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Into The Fire
Into The Fire
by Manda Scott
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £11.29

1 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Competently Written But Didn't Engage Me, 6 July 2015
This review is from: Into The Fire (Hardcover)
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
I am always willing to try out an author whose work I haven't sampled before, even if they work in genres that I'm not typically drawn to. Its good to broaden your reading horizons now and again Doing so can lead to some pleasant surprises and new authors whose works you should follow going forward (as well as identifying some to avoid like the plague).

Manda Scott was an author I had been vaguely aware of but had never thought to sample as she worked in genres I either steered clear off (crime) or only dipped into very occasionally (historical faction). When I was offered the chance to try our 'Into The Fire' I thought why not. The premise of the book was intriguing and I hadn't tacked a new (for me) author in a while.

Whilst I can't say I regret my decision, nor will I be hurrying to read another book by Scott any time soon. 'Into The Fire' is a perfectly passable novel that tries, semi-successfully, to marry up two different genres; contemporary crime and historical faction. I say passable because its reasonably well written by an experienced author who knows how to tick the boxes for both genres, construct a narrative and turn a phrase or two. What it wasn't, for me, was an attention grabbing page turner that had me hooked from first page to last. In fact, had I not owed Amazon a review I would probably have given up on Into The Fire well before the dénouement, because something about the book just simply failed to engage me from the get go.

Neither the contemporary crime thriller nor the retelling of the story (supposedly) of Joan of Arc had anything that really gripped and kept me reading. I didn't feel sufficiently invested in or intrigued by the two parallel plots to really want to know what happened in either. Nor did I connect with any of the characters to care sufficiently about their fates. Some of that I put down to me simply not being a huge fan of crime and historical fiction and therefore not really in tune with the attractions of both. However, some of my lack of engagement is down to Scott's writing itself, which I found on the one-hand too lacking in warmth during the contemporary scenes and too overblown during the historical ones. I can only assume that the difference in styles was deliberate, but neither for me worked successfully. Add in the fact that the narrative focus changes so frequently, and just as you are, possibly, starting to connect with one of the two stories the reader is yanked across the other and by the time you return any sliver of connection or engagement has been lost.

So, overall I don't regret that I gave Manda Scott's work a try but I can't honestly say that I derived much pleasure from reading Into The Fire. Its a competently written thriller that does try to mix up genres a little bit, but it just came across as too calculating an exercise stylistically to really hold my attention across its not inconsiderable length.

Motorola Moto X+1 UK Sim Free Smartphone - Bamboo
Motorola Moto X+1 UK Sim Free Smartphone - Bamboo
Price: £275.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Pure Android Experience In a Decent Handset, 30 Jun. 2015
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
Since dumping my iPhone 4 and switching across to Android I have owned a number of different handsets and one of the things that irritated me about most of them was the bloat-wear that manufacturers insisted on adding to the OS. Especially having experienced the efficiency of 'pure' Android on Nexus 7 and Nexus 10 tablets. Why take a perfectly decent operating system and muck around with it in ways that don't do anything to improve its functionality and in some case actually made it less user friendly?

Which brings me to the primary strength of the Moto X (for me), which is that it offers as close to a 'pure' Android experience as you will get on a phone that isn't the size of a small paperback book (I'm looking at you Nexus 6). Yes, there's are some proprietary Motorola apps installed, but these are, for the most part, actually reasonably useful (spoken SMS whilst you're driving for example) and aren't shoved in your face. There are definitely no manufacturer's home screens getting in the way and no heavy pushing of social media apps. It all makes for an attractive, sleek uncluttered interface that can be adjusted in whatever way the user wants. Moreover, being unadulterated Android the Moto X receives OS updates pretty much straight after launch, rather than having to wait until the handset manufacturer tweaks all their proprietary bloat wear to work with the latest version.

Beyond the software experience, the Moto X is a decent handset with solid performance. Its not going to set the world alight aesthetically (at a distance it looks alot like the Smansung Galaxy SIII & SIV when face up) or in terms of specs, but its got a decent processor, a reasonable camera, front mounted speakers that aren't too tinny and its all solidly put together.

So, overall a decent handset that isn't a tablet pretending to be a phone running the best and most uncluttered version of Android available, with some nice little tweaks from Motorola. I heartily recommend it.

LG G Watch R Smartwatch Water Resistant Fitness Activity Tracker with Heart Rate Monitor Compatible with Android 4.3 Devices or Higher - Black
LG G Watch R Smartwatch Water Resistant Fitness Activity Tracker with Heart Rate Monitor Compatible with Android 4.3 Devices or Higher - Black
Offered by Mobile Phone Island
Price: £219.99

4.0 out of 5 stars A Great Smart Watch, 30 Jun. 2015
I will confess that I am a sucker for a decent Smart Watch, having owned a Sony Smart Watch II and then a Moto 360 (which I still own and wear most days for work). Therefore I couldn't resist picking up the LG G Watch R too, even though it pretty much identical to my Moto 360 in terms of functionality. I just liked the idea of having another smart watch that had a different, slightly more rugged look than the Moto (my Moto 360 is the steel version with a metal strap).

I can't say that I regret the purchase. The G Watch R is a nice piece of kit. It looks good, is comfortable on the wrist and the Android Wear software runs smoothly and reliably. Its not as slick a package as the Moto 360, with no wireless charging dock that converts the watch into a desk or bedside clock, no wi-fi functionality, a slightly smaller screen/face size and a marginally less robust feel to the case. However, the G Watch R's battery life tends to be better than the Moto, the heart rate monitor is more reliable (although that may be down to having a snugger leather strap on the LG compared to a looser metal band on the Moto) and the magnetic charging dock works just fine (even if the dock feels a tad on the light and flimsy side).

I now tend to wear the G Watch R at weekends, since it goes better with a dressed down look, or when exercising, and the Moto 360 at work and when out socially since its definitely a smarter package. If I had to choose one over the other I would probably go with the Moto, but that's for reasons of personal aesthetics and others might prefer the look of the G Watch R (it does benefit from not having the 'flat tyre' on the face that the Moto has). However, in terms of overall performance there really isn't much to choose between the two. They're both great watches and I'm glad I own both.

PS - I bought the G Watch R in June 2015. If you're wondering why I didn't buy the more recent LG Watch Urbane instead its simply because the latter looked too similar to my Moto 360, and I wanted something that had a different aesthetic vibe to it. However, since the Urbane is simply the G Watch R in a different case its probably a pretty decent watch in it own right.

Disney Inside Out Control Console
Disney Inside Out Control Console
Price: £16.99

2.0 out of 5 stars Limited Long Term Appeal Without Addition Accessories, 29 Jun. 2015
Okay, first a declaration. My son was provided with a free 'Inside Out Control Console' toy at a free screening of Inside Out for Amazon Vine Members, hosted by Disney at their London Offices in June 2015. All the children attending received free toys and the adults were asked to provide reviews on Amazon, albeit outside the 'Vine Programme'.

As you can tell from the star rating, my opinion of Tomy's 'Disney Insider Out Console' has not been positively influenced by receiving it free of charge in conjunction with an advance screening of the movie. In fact I can quite honestly say that I would never consider buying this toy for my children. Whilst its soundly built and doesn't feel cheap, it has next to no real appeal as a play thing. The console lights up when the child presses a button. Move the figure of 'Joy' close to the console and she too lights up. That's it. After about five minutes of interacting with the toy my son, aged 5, completely lost interest in it and hasn't expressed any desire to play with it since. Its possible he might pick it up again, but based on initial impressions it didn't fire his imagination, and that was having seen the movie that it ties into.

Its possible that, if you bought the other figures (Anger, Sadness, Disgust, etc.) that are sold separately but will also interact with the console there might be more play potential to this toy, but by itself this is seriously lacking in entertainment value.

The movie however, is great and I would highly recommend it.

The Suicide Exhibition: The Never War
The Suicide Exhibition: The Never War
Price: £4.35

3.0 out of 5 stars Entertaining and Exciting, But Crying Out For More Depth And A More Satisfying Ending, 9 Jun. 2015
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
I genuinely enjoyed The Suicide Exhibition. Its an entertaining and easily digestible alternative history/sci-fi/chariot of the gods/WII thriller mash-up that ticks along at an energetic pace, with plenty of action and incident.

However, as much as it was a fun read it was also a flawed and fundamentally unsatisfying one for a number of reasons. First up was the disjointed, episodic nature of the narrative. Dotted with seemingly random time jumps, the story leaps from one incident to another with barely any explanation or exposition. One minute the characters are in one place, the next minute weeks or months have passed, about which the reader is told little, and the characters are elsewhere and otherwise engaged. I appreciate that the author wants to maintain the fast pace of the story whilst adhering to the historical record, but the result is a lumpy narrative that is sometimes difficult to engage with. Slowing the pace here and there and filling in some of the blanks might not have gone amiss.

It would also have allowed more time for the main characters to develop, because that is the book's second significant fault; from Davenport the actor-cum-spy, to Pentecross the former soldier turned civil servant and on to Colonel Brinkman, their boss, none of the main or supporting characters are ever fleshed out. Yes, they're given short biographies and some character traits to distinguish them, but never any real depth. Its almost as if the author isn't really that interested in interpersonal relationships, and therefore doesn't expend any time on them in the narrative. We are given no genuine insight into individual's motivation beyond the superficial, and are just left to assume that all the heroes are good people who get on well together and the bad guys are boo-hiss bad. This robs the book of any genuine emotional depth and means that you really don't care that much about the fate of individual characters. It also renders a tentative romance between two characters almost entirely redundant as the reasons why they're attracted to each other are never made clear.

Finally, and possibly most significantly, the author makes the mistake of assuming that the reader will automatically come back for the next volume in the Never War series, and therefore fails to provide a proper dénouement for this one. Yes, there is a grand finale in the North African Desert, but it feels strangely inconsequential and doesn't provide any genuine closure or answer any questions posed by the story up to that point. Its just another action sequence out of several in the book.

As a result The Suicide Exhibition ends on an unsatisfactory note. I would not expect every question to be answered or all the plot threads to be wrapped up, but almost none are. Combine this with the lack of depth of characterisation and the somewhat jumpy narrative, and whilst the book is an easy enough and at time exciting read it doesn't leave you really gasping to know what happens next or get answers to the central mysteries. I might pick up the next book in the series at some point, but I'm not clamouring to read it straight away and that fact speaks volumes.

Ultrasport Trampoline Ladder - Silver/Black, 75 cm
Ultrasport Trampoline Ladder - Silver/Black, 75 cm
Price: £17.39

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Solid, Easy to Set-Up Product, 5 Jun. 2015
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
When we moved house recently we inherited from the previous owners of our new abode a large trampoline in the garden. Although the trampoline itself was in decent condition, it was missing a ladder to allow access. This wasn't an issue for our son, who was tall enough to clamber on without assistance, but it did hamper his younger sister's ability to join in.

When I was offered the chance to try out the Ultrasport Trampoline Ladder via the Amazon Vine Programme, it seemed serendipitous. Hopefully it would turn out to be an improvement on the small set of folding steps we had been using as an interim solution but weren't renowned for their stability.

First impressions were pretty good. The ladder comes as a self assembly unit, and all the parts were present and correct. The main struts felt nice and solid, as did the non-slip plastic steps. There was no sense of cutting back on materials to save a few pennies here and there. Construction took less than ten minutes and could be completed by anyone, whether DIY was their thing or not.

Attaching the steps is just a matter of hooking them onto the trampoline. They're free hanging but feel totally secure, with big hooks at the top of the two struts. Even though our trampoline isn't an Ultrasport unit the ladder fits fine and both my son and daughter are happy to clamber up and down it without any problems.

On this basis, and assuming that the ladder is tall enough for the trampoline you want to use it on, I can heartily recommend the product. It does the job its intended for and it does it simply and competently.

Taylors of Harrogate Espresso Coffee Capsules Nespresso Compatible Colombian Huila (Pack of 6, Total 60 Capsules)
Taylors of Harrogate Espresso Coffee Capsules Nespresso Compatible Colombian Huila (Pack of 6, Total 60 Capsules)
Price: £16.33

0 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Decent Coffee But Unreliable Capsule Design, 5 Jun. 2015
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
First let me begin by saying that the coffee in these espresso capsules is perfectly fine; a nice rich, smooth Columbian coffee. If your taste runs to the more bitter end of the coffee spectrum they might not be to your taste, but as someone who likes a smoother finish to their espresso I found them perfectly palatable. Four stars for the quality of the coffee.

Two stars however, for the capsules themselves. Whilst Taylors claim that they are Nespresso 'compatible' they obviously still have some work to do on this front. I have a U-Milk Nespresso machine that I have never had any performance issues with when using Nespresso's own capsules. However, the first time I tried a Taylors' capsule a small dribble of coffee emerged into the cup and then the machine stopped pumping water and went into error mode, before ejecting the capsule and resetting itself.

When I checked the ejected capsule I found that it had become misshapen when inside my machine, which had prevented water from being pumped through it, resulting in the error. A second capsule worked more successfully, as did the next three, but then a sixth capsule suffered a repeat of the first's problems.

Part of the problem I think, is that the Taylors' Capsules are made from plastic with a foil lid, whilst the Nespresso ones are thin metal and foil. As a result the latter hold their shape better when pieced by the machine, whilst Harrogate's can become deformed, preventing the machine from injecting water.

It doesn't happen every time, but is frequent enough it would seem to be annoying (and a waste of good coffee). I suppose there is also the potential for damage to the machine, although after two failures mine still seems to be in full working order.

For these reasons I can't award the product more than 3 stars and I would be wary of buying Taylors' Coffee Capsules in future. When they work they make decent enough coffee, but the quality of the drink isn't outstanding enough to outweigh the unreliability of the capsules themselves. Not when Nespresso offers coffees of similar quality and taste in a far more user friendly package.

Osomount 360 Flex Universal In-Car Dashboard Windscreen Mount Holder for Smartphones
Osomount 360 Flex Universal In-Car Dashboard Windscreen Mount Holder for Smartphones
Offered by Zero 50 Retail Ltd
Price: £14.99

3.0 out of 5 stars Does What It Needs To, 29 May 2015
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
What can I say about the Osomount 360 Flex? It does the job it is intended to do; namely hold a mobile phone in a position where you can see the display when driving. It performs this one task pretty well. The suction mounting on base is rock solid (helped by a mildly adhesive outer ring). The spring loaded grip holds phones tightly and securely. It also has pretty wide play, so can handle most sizes of smart phone out there (although it might struggle with the larger phablets). The armature is firm but not too stiff and allows for the phone to be positioned at pretty much anyangle the driver could want.

In terms of looks the Osomount is hardly the most unobtrusive. The base is big and chunky and the combination of shiny black exterior plastic and red cushioning inside the phone mount draws eye; especially when there is no phone in the holder.

However, if you can live with looks then this does the job it was intended for and does it pretty well. Owners of phones with side buttons should be aware that they will need to be careful how they position their handsets so as to avoid the grip unintentionally activating features or even switching off the phone. That is a minor niggle though, and generally the Osomount is a doddle to fit and use.

It isn't though, an object of great beauty or desire.

The Leopards of Normandy: Devil: Leopards of Normandy 1
The Leopards of Normandy: Devil: Leopards of Normandy 1
by David Churchill
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £12.99

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting History Let Down By Soap Opera Dramatics, 5 May 2015
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
Devil, the first volume in David Churchill's 'Leopards of Normandy' trilogy following the life and times of William the Conqueror, is not a bad stab at historical 'faction'. Its certainly no worse than many best selling efforts in the genre. It also benefits from the advantage of dealing with an individual who may be well known by name but whose autobiographical details have not been widely covered. That lends the book's story a degree of both originality and unpredictability; especially as this first volume concentrates more on the lives of William's parents, wider family, friends and enemies rather than the Conqueror himself. Despite knowing something about William's origins much of what 'Devil' revealed was new to me and much of it was fascinating.

Indeed Churchill is a good history teacher, laying out the story of William's origins clearly and succinctly. Bearing in mind that the book covers the events of several years and features a cast of over a dozen key characters, its to the author's credit that the reader never gets lost or becomes overwhelmed with facts and historical minutae.

However, whilst the history is handled well Devil is let down by weak characterisation, a lack of emotional depth and subtlety and some lumpen prose and dialogue. Churchill may have done his historical research, but when it comes to creating compelling characters or generating atmosphere he has a great deal to learn. None of the characters in the book really leaps off the page or feels like a real, living and breathing human being. Even supposedly charismatic individuals such as William's father Robert come across as one dimensional and lacking in substance. The problem is compounded by the lack of nuance in the characterisations; in Devil the bad guys are wife beaters, perverts or worse, whilst the good guys are heroic, strong yet caring. In a fantasy epic this black and white treatment might just about be acceptable, but for a book purporting to be based on fact and set in the real world its just too simplistic.

Combine the poorly drawn characters with an excessive amount of sub-Mills and Boon style sex (which in one case involves literal bodice-ripping) that is simultaneously cringe-making and strangely coy in a 'pre-watershed' way and therefore unsatisfactory to both those wanting less detail and those desiring more, and the end result is fascinating story undermined by soap-opera level dramatics. Even some medieval military action, competently described by Churchill without generating real heightened excitement or a sense of genuine danger, and a tacked on conspiracy/murder mystery can't elevate Devil beyond the run-of-the-mill.

So, points to David Churchill for trying to shine a light on the background and early years of an infamous but much misunderstood character from history and doing so in a clear, easy to follow fashion. Its just a pity that he isn't able to mix the fascinating play of historical events he lays out so well with equally interesting, intriguing and well drawn characters, or breath genuine life into their interactions.

Skin Game (The Dresden Files, Book 15)
Skin Game (The Dresden Files, Book 15)
Price: £5.99

5.0 out of 5 stars A Return To Top Form For Harry & Co., 17 April 2015
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
Although I have enjoyed every one of Jim Butcher's 14 previous 'Dresden Files' novels, my one significant criticism of the more recent entries in the series is that the big finales have sometimes gone somewhat OTT. The trend started with Harry Dresden riding a zombie dinosaur though downtown Chicago, but it reached its peak with the massive island assault at the end of vol. 14, Cold Front, which became an all-out supernatural battle in the middle of lake Michigan.

I have nothing against big set pieces per se, but for me the Dresden Files' increasing over reliance on them robbed the series of some of it original appeal. After all, as the 'Dresden Files' sub-title suggests, this was originally an urban fantasy take on the film-noir Detective series; Philip Marlowe with magic if you like. However, over time and as Jim Butcher expanded the alternative universe in which the stories are set, the books have become less mysteries with a magical spin and more grand fantasy epics. They were still enjoyable, but some of what made the early novels such as Storm Front so great for me had been lost.

I am happy to report therefore, that with Skin Game Jim Butcher seems to have rediscovered some of the old magic, if you will pardon the expression, by returning Harry back to a smaller scale adventure. The ever expanding universe is still there and there are still moments that make me wonder how the general public could still possibly be in denial about the existence of magic (bronze lion statue coming to life in downtown Chicago anyone?), but there are no massed battles between supernatural armies, the stakes aren't world-changing and the central cast is kept to a reasonably tight number of players.

Moreover Skin Game is very much a 'crime novel' with a robbery, albeit a supernatural one, central to the plot. Its also plays homage to the series' noir-ish origins and inspirations by having more crosses and double crosses than the Maltese Falcon and featuring all the staples of a good pulp Detective novel, including femme-fatales, hulking henchmen (or hench-monsters in this case) and mob-bosses.

It also features an ending that for once feels like a proper, satisfying ending, with minimal loose ends left hanging. No, Jim Butcher doesn't wrap up every sub-plot in the wider Dresden-verse and I wouldn't expect him to in the course of one novel, but the novel's central plot is brought to a pretty definitive conclusion, there are no cliff-hangers, and many of the series heroes and their interpersonal relationships are left in far better places than when the book began.

All of which serves to make Skin Game the most enjoyable Dresden File for a long time and has restored my slightly waning faith in the series. Next time I will not wait nearly a year to pick up the latest volume in the series, and I will hope that Jim Butcher manages to maintain Harry and his Friends' return to form.

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