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Reviews Written by
Charles Green "happily low brow" (Gloucestershire, UK)
(VINE VOICE)    (TOP 1000 REVIEWER)   

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Zyliss Control Paring Knife, 9 cm - Black
Zyliss Control Paring Knife, 9 cm - Black
Price: £17.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Decent, Small Paring Knife, 25 May 2017
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
Its rather difficult to review a kitchen knife. What is there you can say? Its sharp? Well, that's the minimum you would expect a new knife to be and the Zyliss Control Paring Knife is certainly that. Its also well built, with a slightly rubberised grip and curved notch on the blunt side so you apply pressure or control with a finger with less risk of slipping. Overall this is a perfectly decent small paring knife, and deserving of four stars.


House of Marley Get Together Bluetooth Portable Audio System - Black
House of Marley Get Together Bluetooth Portable Audio System - Black
Price: £192.19

4.0 out of 5 stars Good Looking Bluetooth Speaker System That's Great For Use At Home, But Questionable Portability, 4 May 2017
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
The House of Marley Get Together Bluetooth Portable Audio System is a well put together and attractive Bluetooth speaker system. Easy to use straight out of the box (turn it on, press the prominent Bluetooth button, pair with your device and away you go), clad in an attractive combination of wood and fabric (more on this later) and feeling solid it offers decent audio quality across a substantial volume range. If you're looking for a BT Speaker system for the home that looks a bit different and performs well then this would not be a bad choice.

However, there are a couple of issues you should be aware of before you part with your hard earned money.

Firstly and most significantly, I would question the 'portable' part of the product's name. Yes, it has an integral battery so can be used anywhere. What it is not though, is designed with mobility in mind. For a start the speakers themselves are not terribly well protected from potential impacts with other objects when in transit. With no protective grill over them it wouldn't take much to crack or puncture either of the drivers' dust caps. I can't see them being splash proof or handling being dropped terribly well. This is not a speaker unit you will be tossing in your luggage to take on holiday or to a party.

As the photos of various hipster-ish models on Amazon show, each unit is also about the size of a large house-brick and weighs not far off the same. If you were planning to take the House of Marley Get Together Bluetooth Portable Audio System away with you it would have to be in the back of your car (or VW camper van if you live in hipster-model land).

The second issue I have with the product is the decision by the manufacturers to encase four sides of it in fabric, I get that one of the key selling points for the speakers is that they're made from natural, ecologically sourced materials like wood and fabric, and that this give each unit a retro-vibe. However, using cloth comes with one significant downside; dust. Or to be more precise the inability to get rid of the dust that will inevitably build up on the speakers over time, or the dirt that might adhere to them if you did take them out and about. First hand experience tells me that the rough, fuzzy fabric used on these speakers not only acts as a magnet for dust, hair and fluff but is almost impossible to keep completely clean. I fear that after a few weeks my House of Marley speakers are going to be one big dust and hair ball.

So, if you're looking for a BT speaker system you can carry around with you for music on the go the House of Marley Get Together Bluetooth Portable Audio System is probably not the one to go for. As a system for use at home however, it does the business and looks good fresh out of the box. How long it will stay looking that way though, is a tougher question to answer.

Note: This is a review of the House of Marley Get Together Bluetooth Portable Audio System - Black, which I was supplied with for free via the Amazon Vine Program in exchange for an unbiased review.


BRITA fill&go Active Water Filter Bottle - Pink
BRITA fill&go Active Water Filter Bottle - Pink
Price: £11.99

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Well Put Together Water Bottle But I'm Not Sure The 'Benefits' Outweigh The Ongoing Costs, 1 May 2017
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
Whilst this water bottle from Brita is well put together (I encountered none of the leakage problems encountered by other reviewers) it suffers from a single key flaw; the need to replace the filter.

The recommendation is that this is done monthly (although I guess that depends on how often you use the bottle) which means you're committed to spending approximately three quid per month on filters if you can get them at a discount; more if you can't. Now this doesn't sound much, its only thirty six or forty quid per year after all, but does water filtered in this way taste so much better than standard tap water that its worth the money? Personally speaking I can't say that it does or is.


LEGO 60140 "Bulldozer Break-in" Building Toy
LEGO 60140 "Bulldozer Break-in" Building Toy
Price: £47.99

4.0 out of 5 stars A Far Better Lego Set Than I Expected, 1 May 2017
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
I will confess that I was sceptical about the appeal of this Lego set. How much enjoyment, I wondered, would my seven year old son get out of a bank, a small bulldozer and another police van and helicopter (he already has several of both)? As it turns out he got plenty. For a start he was able to build the entire set unaided, which pleased him. Secondly, it turns out that he loved the idea of the police chasing the bank robbers. It seems that there's something about the idea of good guys pursuing bad guys that really grabs the imagination of small boys.

Combining those positives with the fact that this is a really nicely designed set, built to Lego's usual high quality standards, means I can recommend the 'Bulldozer Break-in' wholeheartedly. It might not seem the most exciting set on the surface, but if your child is anything like my son then it will offer more than enough in the way of entertainment.


LEGO® Star Wars: Quest for the Kyber Saber (Activity Book with Minifigure)
LEGO® Star Wars: Quest for the Kyber Saber (Activity Book with Minifigure)
Price: £6.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Well Produced Activity Book, 29 April 2017
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
My children (7 & 4) both like a good activity book, and in their opinion this isn't a bad one. Its obvious selling points are the fact that it's Lego, Star Wars and comes with a mini-figure. Beyond that initial appeal however, it also offers a decent mix of puzzles and games that are interesting and complex enough to challenge and entertain children the age that mine are.

Whether it's worth the money is more subjective. Although well produced on decent quality paper stock it's really nothing more than a magazine and it's appeal will last only as long it takes to complete the various activities. As a way to keep children occupied on a long journey, in my opinion it's worth the money. Its certainly higher quality and better value than some of the children's magazines available in newsagents.


Nest Cam Outdoor security camera
Nest Cam Outdoor security camera
Price: £179.00

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Great Hardware and Software. Pity About The Ongoing Operating Costs, 10 April 2017
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
II was very lucky to be offered a free Nest Cam Outdoor Security Camera for trial and review via the Amazon Vine Programme. Although I had no plans to purchase any sort of security camera, indoor or out, it seemed too good an opportunity to pass up. I was already familiar with Nest products, having owned two Nest Protect 2nd Generation Smoke + Carbon Monoxide Alarm (Battery) since 2015. Having grown to appreciate the detectors' reliable technology, solid build quality and thoughtful design touches such as the integral night lights I was curious to see if the outdoor Nest Cam would grow on me in a similar fashion.

The answer is a highly qualified yes. Whilst the case for buying the Nest Smoke Detectors seemed obvious from the get-go, having the Nest Cam hasn't fully convinced me of the need for owning an outdoor security camera. However, we live in a small village in Gloucestershire, with a very low crime rate, so we’re probably not the target market for this sort of device. If I was in a position where I needed a security camera though, I could do a lot worse than choose this outdoor Nest Cam.

Like all Nest products it comes nicely packaged in recyclable materials. The camera itself feels solid and well built. It’s also aesthetically pleasing in a clean, contemporary way, so long as you don’t mind having a small white pod attached to your property.

The instructions for mounting and setting up the camera are straightforward (although you will either need a secure outdoor power source or need to provide access to an indoor one. Services of a qualified electrician may be required). I attached mine outside our garage with a view of the driveway and ran the power cable to a socket inside garage. All in it took me a couple of hours and the use of some basic tools to securely mount the camera.

Once mounted setting up the connection to the camera was also very easy. It helped that I was already familiar with Nest’s products, including the App that provides the user interface, but their systems are generally pretty user friendly and even a novice shouldn’t have any problems navigating the set-up process. Of course, your experience may vary due to external factors such as strength of wi-fi signal or speed of broadband connection, but these are issues beyond Nest’s control.

Up and running the Nest Cam performed well. Images were clear and a quick check of the microphone proved it worked too, even if I never plan to use it. The ‘Activity Alert’ system also worked; although how reliable it is only time will tell. Generally speaking, the outdoor Nest Cam did everything it claimed to do out of the box.

It is at this point however, that I encountered the issue that means I can only offer a qualified recommendation of the outdoor Nest Cam. Whist the hardware and the software does exactly what it’s supposed to, if you want to use the camera to its maximum potential then you have to sign up to Nest’s ‘Aware’ service via a paid subscription. This will automatically retain either 10 or 30 days of recordings from a Nest Cam, depending on your subscription level, so that you can review them later, as well as providing some secondary services such as live streaming of Nest Cam feeds to other people. Without Nest Aware all you can do through the app is watch a live stream from your camera. You can’t check what has happened when you weren’t watching, which isn’t much good if you’re burgled or your car is stolen and you want to identify the perpetrators.

With no option to record to local media such as a memory card or a hard drive, if you choose not to subscribe to Nest Aware then your Nest Cam becomes effectively a glorified outdoor webcam and an expensive one too. Whilst the cheaper subscription rate for one camera isn’t that great; especially if you buy 12 months in advance, if you want more than one Nest Cam the cost goes up with each unit you add to the subscription. If you want 30 days of recordings over multiple cameras you could end up paying hundreds of pounds per year in fees.

Which is my issue with Nest Cam. The hardware is great, the software works and I trust Nest with my data, something I couldn’t say of some lesser known companies providing similar services. However, by giving used no option but to subscribe to Nest Aware if they want to use their Nest Cam(s) to their full potential, Nest are effectively holding their customers to ransom and that I have problem with. I understand why Nest would do it that way, as it maximises the revenue potential of the products, but to offer no free service that provides limited recording (say 24hrs worth) and no option for local data storage strikes me as being unduly mean and restrictive.

So, if you’re thinking of buying a Nest Cam, I would strongly recommend thinking carefully about whether or not you want to be locked into paying an ongoing subscription in order to use it fully. The quality of the hardware and the software are great. The ongoing operating costs are less so.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Apr 12, 2017 4:26 PM BST


Cast Iron: Enzo Macleod 6 (The Enzo Files)
Cast Iron: Enzo Macleod 6 (The Enzo Files)
by Peter May
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £8.94

0 of 2 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Bland and Unengaging Unless You're Already A Fan, 9 April 2017
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
Three caveats to this review. First one is that I received my copy of Cast Iron via the Amazon Vine Programme in exchange for this review. The second is that I have never read any of Peter May's previous novels. The third is that I don't normally choose to read crime fiction.

Its probably no surprise therefore, that I really didn't enjoy Cast Iron. As the last in the ongoing Enzo Macleod series it would no doubt have helped if I had read and enjoyed the preceding novels and was more familiar with the recurring characters and invested in their lives. My opinion would almost certainly have been more positive if I also enjoyed stories featuring the murder of young women by serial killers, but I can't say that I do.

However, I would probably have given Cast Iron at least a solid three star rating if there had been enough to good stuff to compensate for my lack of familiarity with Macleod et al or to get me past the rather unpleasant subject matter. Unfortunately there isn't. This is an entirely pedestrian affair in every respect, with no obvious spark of originality in terms of character, structure, prose or plot. Fans of May's work and this series in particular may find the novel's bland predictability comforting or appealing, but for the uninitiated such as myself it provided no reason to pick up any of the author's other novels.

One for fans of May only I feel


Finisterre (Wars Within 1)
Finisterre (Wars Within 1)
by Graham Hurley
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £15.90

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Solidly Written But Ultimately Unexciting and Unengaging, 9 April 2017
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
I have only one issue with Graham Hurley’s novel, Operation Finisterre, an otherwise well written, impeccably researched novel set in the dying days of the Second World War that recounts a fictional German plot to bluff their way to a negotiated peace treaty with the Allies. Unfortunately that issue is a pretty fundamental one and negates a great deal of Hurley’s otherwise good work in establishing believable and complex characters and a genuine feel for the period and locations in which the book is set.

The problem I have with Operation Finisterre is that for a supposed thriller it almost entirely lacking in excitement.
I can forgive the fact that it takes a substantial amount of time to establish its two parallel narratives, as doing so allows Hurley to develop his lead characters of Gomez and Potische and establish what is an entirely plausible plot. Not all thrillers have begin with a bang (although this one does open with a shipwreck, albeit not a terribly exciting one) or be wall-to-wall action. Slow burn of the sort offered here is absolutely fine.

However, at some point in a thriller either the action or the tension has to begin to mount as the story develops and builds towards its ultimate conclusion. There has to be a genuine sense that characters are in real jeopardy or that the threat or the stakes are real. A thriller has to grab the reader and hold their attention in a tight grip.

With Operation Finisterre at no point was I gripped or did I feel that either of the lead characters were in real danger. Nor did I feel that there was a genuine chance of the Germans achieving their aims. It doesn’t help that we know how World War II in Europe was ultimately concluded, so the reader knows going in that the German plans will fail. However at no point did Operation Finisterre make me believe that they would even come close to success or that some sort of last minute heroic sacrifice would be required to deny them victory. In the end the German’s plan just sort of petered out, and without much in the way of direct input from either of the book’s ostensible heroes. Infact events in the book’s final pages suggest that the plot never had much chance of success from the get go, irrespective of the actions of the ostensible heroes.

All of which renders Operation Finisterre denouement a very anticlimactic experience. Not that what leads up to is particularly exciting either. You know that a book is lacking in genuine thrills when the author inserts an unrelated killing just to provide some action and generate some much needed jeopardy. Hurley does precisely this during the book’s latter half, which just draws attention to how unexciting events were up to that point but doesn’t do anything to actually spice them up from that point forward.

So, what we have with Operation Finisterre is a smart, plausible espionage thriller but one that is also entirely predictable and ultimately rather dull. With the Second World War providing a treasure trove of real life tales of intrigue and deception that are far more exciting and complex than the fictional one offered up here, the question is whether it’s worth bothering with Operation Finisterre. The answer, unfortunately, is that it really isn’t.


The Collapsing Empire
The Collapsing Empire

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Good, but a bit too much set-up and not enough pay-off, 2 April 2017
After the alt-earth-bound Lock In (which I will confess I have not yet read) and the overly-meta (in my opinion) satire Red Shirts, The Collapsing Empire marks a return for John Scalzi to long-form, space-opera (yes, I’m ignoring The Human Division and The End of All Things, but those were originally published as series of short stories and/or novellas). However, those hoping for another return to his Old Man’s War (OMW) universe, or something with a similar flavour, are going to be disappointed. The Collapsing Empire represents a definite new direction for Scalzi; one for the most part he navigates successfully.

Whilst the possible future in which the OMW novels are set has recognisable, direct links with our own present, The Collapsing Empire is set far further forward in time. As a result the commonalities between now and then are far less tangible. When it comes to everything from technology to societal structures to politics to characters’ names, the future of The Collapsing Empire has little in common with our own here and now.

As if to ram home the point that humanity has moved on Scalzi even removes Earth from the equation. Whereas in the OMW universe Earth played a central role in events, in The Collapsing Empire humanity has long been cut-off from its home-world. It still exists but no one has been able to reach it for hundreds of years, and it has become more of a distant memory than a real thing.

Scalzi also omits other key elements of the OMW universe. There are no aliens in The Collapsing Empire. And very little military action either. In-fact much of the focus of The Collapsing Empire is on politics and trade, rather than gun battles or engagements between armies. There is action but its sporadic and often quite short lived; a mutiny on-board one spaceship, dash to escape another as it breaks apart. These incidents are all very well written as you would expect from John Scalzi, but they do not form the central core of the book.

In truth, The Collapsing Empire lacks a central core narrative, which is also a new departure for a Scalzi novel. He has experimented with more episodic narratives in The Human Division and The End of All Things, but in his standalone novels he has generally focused on a relatively small cast of central characters. In OMW the focus was John Perry and his wife and daughter. In Android’s Dream it was Harry Creek and Robin Baker. The Collapsing Empire by contrast follows multiple characters and several interconnected storylines which slowly converge as the novel progresses. There is no ‘main protagonist’ and no key ‘antagonist’. No-one is on a quest or seeking a single, specific goal. There are dangers, plots, conspiracies, murder and skulduggery aplenty, but the only real, tangible threat is an entirely natural and unstoppable phenomenon; the gradual collapse of the Flow that allows travels between the various worlds humanity has colonised.

The absence of a central, human-scale plot or hook, does make engaging with The Collapsing Empire somewhat tricky at first. Not only does the reader have to try and quickly understand the unique universe Scalzi has created, they don’t have a clear central character to act as either a guide or to immediately identify with. It leaves the book’s opening, establishing chapters feeling rather confused and unfocused. Were it not for Scalzi’s usual highly accessible writing style it would be difficult to get quickly and fully engaged with The Collapsing Empire.

Over time however, as the structures of Scalzi’s possible future become clearer and the various plots establish themselves and begin to slowly intertwine the book holds your attention with an increasing grip. Despite the strange names and odd societal structure that is vaguely reminiscent of Frank Herbert’s Dune, many of the characters begin to grow on you. As a result, you begin to care about their ultimate fates, which in-turn increases the potential significance of the imminent collapse of the Flow.

It helps that the pace of the story slowly ratchets up as you get deeper into the book. Whilst the opening chapters feel rather disjointed and stilted as Scalzi establishes his various characters and plots along with the overall universe he has created, once the scene-setting is out of the way the narrative becomes smoother and pace faster. By the end events are unfolding at a speed that is genuinely gripping.

However, as this is just part one of a series with a single overarching narrative, the book inevitably has to conclude in an open-ended fashion, something that the OMW novels always avoided and is rather anti-climactic. There is a grand denouement of sorts, and a number of plot threads are wrapped up, but with no central bad guy to defeat or quest to complete The Collapsing Empire does lack an emotionally satisfying finale. The threads that are left dangling however, are sufficiently intriguing for you to want to pick up the next book in the series when its published, so in that respect the ending is a success.

Overall I enjoyed The Collapsing Empire. It didn’t blow me away, and it felt at times rather like the opening act of a disaster movie where the huge cast of disparate characters are all introduced and the scene is set before the inevitable tragedy unfolds, but without the payoff of the main event. In that respect it was somewhat underwhelming, but it was buoyed up by Scalzi’s typically strong, witty and accessible writing style, some likeable characters and some intriguing world-building. I will look forward to reading the next novel in the series.

Thank you to the publishers for providing me with an advance copy via NetGalley.


The Red Hand: Hunter of Sherwood 2
The Red Hand: Hunter of Sherwood 2
by Toby Venables
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Good, But Not Quite Up To The Standard Of Its Predecessor, 1 April 2017
The Red Hand, the second in Toby Venables ‘Hunter of Sherwood’ series which reverses the positions of Robin Hood and Guy of Gisburne to make the former the villain and the latter the hero, is marginally less successful than the first novel.

It shares most of the strengths of its predecessor, including a clever narrative structure, solid action, a strong cast of supporting characters, a firm sense of place and time, accurate historical details and a welcome unwillingness to dumb things down or resort to clichés. However, what it lacks is a story that is as compelling or satisfying as the first novel’s.

There are several key problems with the story that Toby Venables decides to tell. The first is that it’s really too slight to sustain the book’s length, dragging painfully in places and becoming repetitive. The second is that it feels overly contrived, with too many lucky or unlucky coincidences and manufactured twists inserted along the way. Finally, and possibly most damagingly, the Red Hand simply doesn’t convince as an antagonist and isn’t that interesting either. Whilst Tancred in the first book felt like a genuine and plausible threat to Gisburne and his allies, the seemingly indestructible Hand simply doesn’t. Not only does his anonymity render him rather bland but the idea that one man could wear armour that rendered him impervious to any form of arms just doesn’t work. It’s a flight of fancy too far and jars painfully with the book’s otherwise realistic portrayal of medieval England.

All of which is a great shame, because there is still a great deal to enjoy about The Red Hand. The parts dealing with Hood remain a high point, and Gisburne continues to grow as a protagonist. Fortunately the weaknesses of the Red Hand are not enough to put me off picking up the 3rd novel in the series, Hood, which promises to bring the most compelling part of both the first two novels, the battle between Gisburne and Hood, to a fine and exciting conclusion.


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