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Reviews Written by
Charles Green "happily low brow" (Gloucestershire, UK)

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House of Spies
House of Spies
Price: £11.99

3.0 out of 5 stars Enjoyably Familiar But Lacks Real Punch, 19 Sept. 2017
This review is from: House of Spies (Kindle Edition)
Having become a little tired of the seemingly never-ending adventures of Gabriel Allon I had skipped Daniel Silva's previous three novels, The Heist, The English Spy and The Black Widow. However, an opportunity to read House of Spies for free via NetGalley in exchange for an unbiased review was enough to bring me back into at the Allon-fold.

And what a warm, comfortable, familiar fold it is. After 17 novels featuring his assassin-turned-art restorer-turned-master spy, Silva has the formula down to a fine art. Both his prose and his plotting flow effortlessly, and his recurring characters, having had seventeen novels in which to grow, have inner lives that give them real depth and humanity. If you're familiar with Silva's books then you'll devour House of Spies in a couple of sittings, carried along by all the familiar beats, from the inevitable sting operation to the final, tense denouement.

At the same time however, you might also find yourself, like me, strangely disengaged by events on the page. Whilst I rattled through House of Spies at a decent pace and was glad to be back in the company of familiar characters, at no point would I describe myself as 'gripped'. I felt no sense of fear on behalf of any of the olde characters, and the big bad at the centre of it, 'Saladin', never seemed to pose a genuine threat to Allon or his allies Maybe the fact that I hadn't read the preceding novel in which Saladin first strikes to devastating effect meant that I didn't fully appreciate the danger he posed, but if so then that's a failing of the book, not of me.

The simple fact is that Daniel Silva's novels have become soft and formulaic. Allon is no longer the lone wolf, tortured assassin/artist; working in the shadows with limited support and taking questionable actions that sometimes cross moral and legal lines. He's now a man who can apparently have billions of ill-gotten dollars stolen from the Assad family with a single order, who has a direct line to the British PM and the Pope, can purchase a grand villa on the Riviera and many very expensive paintings simply as part of an operation and conjure a fictitious Russian oligarch seemingly out of thin air whose cover story will withstand close scrutiny from both terrorists and criminals. These novels are no longer gritty, plausible spy thrillers with murky plots and grey areas; they're now big budget Hollywood-style escapism and all the less interesting and gripping as a result.

Will I return to Allon's adventures again after this brief return? Possibly, if Silva pushes him to background and brings Christopher Keller, SAS-officer turned-assassin-for-hire-turned-British Agent, more to the fore. Keller is now a far more interesting character than Allon, with far greater potential.
The scenes in this novel where Keller operates solo, chasing down a lead amongst the drug dealers of Marseille are some of the best in the book, and reminiscent of earlier Allon adventures where lines would be crossed in the name of the mission. Give me more of that unpredictable edge and I could probably be persuaded back.

Battle for the Shadow Sword: Series 1, Book 1 - With Bonus Extra Content! (Team Hero)
Battle for the Shadow Sword: Series 1, Book 1 - With Bonus Extra Content! (Team Hero)
by Adam Blade
Edition: Paperback
Price: £4.99

3.0 out of 5 stars An Okay Book For Younger Readers But Feels A Little Soul-less, 18 Sept. 2017
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
I'd describe Team Hero as a comic-book in novel form. Aimed squarely at young readers, and especially boys, in the 7-9 year age bracket, its wish fulfilment from start to finish, with super-powered children as heroes, top secret, super hero schools and saving the earth from evil threats. Add in some comic style illustrations and this is clearly intended to try and drag younger readers away from video games and other distractions and into reading.

For that it should be congratulated and in terms of those aims its mostly successful. Certainly my seven year old son thought it was ace, even if reading it by himself was a little too much of a stretch (other seven year-olds might be fine with it, as reading skills develop at different speeds from child to child). However, to an adult it all seems far too calculating and just a little soulless. 'Adam Blade' is a pseudonym for a collective of authors, and there is a definite 'written by committee' feel to the prose and the plotting, as there is with the Beast Quest series from the same group. Its not unbearable as a bedtime read, but there are far more interesting and lyrical books out there.

There are also better series of a similar type out there too. My children have also discovered the Jack Stalwart series, which features a similar pre-teen hero engaged in breathless adventures. But whilst they offer a similar mix of escapism and wish fulfilment as Team Hero, they also manage to mix in some real factual information about history and geography along with the chases and explosions. By comparison Team Hero feels far more superficial.

So not a terrible effort and it does have its selling points. However, if you're looking for a series to get younger readers interested there are better options available

CYGNETT 4000 mAh 2.1 A 1 Port Lithium Polymer Powerbank - Green/Grey
CYGNETT 4000 mAh 2.1 A 1 Port Lithium Polymer Powerbank - Green/Grey
Price: £24.99

3.0 out of 5 stars Efficient, reliable and affordable, 23 July 2017
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
Although it's far from the smallest powerbank on the market, being about the size of a credit card holder or in iPod Touch, this unit from Cygnett is a decent product.

It's well put together and has a very useful display showing the percentage of a full charge remaining. More importantly it charges devices quickly and reliably, taking about the same time as a standard mains charger, and has enough capacity to recharge a modern smartphone from flat to full.

It doesn't reinvent the wheel and there are no extra bells and whistles like Bluetooth connectivity, but if you're looking for an affordable, reliable backup power supply could do far worse that choose this unit.

*Note: powerbank was tested with a Moto X smartphone and iPod Touch. Both charged successfully on multiple occasions. Powerbank was received free of charge via the Amazon Vine program.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jul 30, 2017 6:26 PM BST

Philips GC7805 PerfectCare Compact Steam Generator Iron with 250 g Steam Boost
Philips GC7805 PerfectCare Compact Steam Generator Iron with 250 g Steam Boost
Price: £159.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Decent Compact Steam Generator Iron That Could Do With Being a Bit Quieter., 16 July 2017
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
I am very fortunate that this is the second Philips Steam Generator Iron I have received via the Amazon Vine Program in exchange for an honest review, having previously received a GC9630 back in 2015. It was therefore interesting to see how the GV7805 compared to the far larger and more expensive GC9630.

Bearing in mind the difference in size and price I wasn't expecting the GC7805 to perform to the same standard as the very good GC9630, but I was still pleasantly surprised by it. For a start it is genuinely compact and lightweight. The GC9630 is a bit of a beast, can be awkward to lug about and needs a large and robust ironing board to rest on. By contrast the GC7805 is light and slim. If you're someone with limited storage space or who worries about carrying heavy items around then the GC7805 may well be the Steam Generator for you.

It also does its key job very well, which is ironing clothes. As with most Phillips Steam Generator Irons the GC7805 doesn't have a temperature setting. It simply relies on the near constant flow of steam combines with a relatively low hot plate temperature to smooth any fabric (what Phillips call OptimalTEMP technology). I was sceptical about this system when I acquired my GC9630 back in 2015 but it worked then and it works on the GC7805 too. It makes using the Steam Generator Iron a doddle and removes the risk of burnt fabrics. You can even leave the iron face down on your ironing board for a prelonged period without risk of scorch marks.

Other useful feature on the CG7805 include an effective descaling system, which uses a clever plastic tray included with the product, a lock to hold the iron in place during transportation and storage and a design that allows you to tuck the main hose away also when its in storage. All together its a well designed, effective product.

Of course there are negatives, but many of these can be put down to compromises required to keep the GC7805 light and compact. The lack of a removal water reservoir is annoying, but at least they have provided a large spout to make refilling the Generator from a jug or tap without spills easy. The fact that there is nowhere to store the power cable is also a shame, but again they have provided an attached velcro strap so you can keep the cable neatly folded up. Even the weight of the iron itself, which is somewhat chunky, can be put down to the fact it has to contain the heating elements for the steam. In the GC9630 heating takes place in the base, leaving a slim, light iron to hold, but there simply isn't room in the base of the GC7805 for that configuration; resulting in an iron that feels rather bulky in the hand.

The only significant negatives I find it harder to forgive are the noise the GC7805 generates and the effectiveness of the steam control trigger. In the first case the GC7805 is a very noisy device. Don't try listening to the radio, watching TV or having a conversation when doing the ironing using the GC7805 unless you want to miss every other word spoken. Both my wife and I agree that this is a far noisier machine than the GC9630 and for no obvious reason.

The second problem I have with the GC7805 is the way that the trigger that delivers steam works. Most of the time it works perfectly well, delivering steam as and when you want it in short bursts, but it also offers the option of also delivering a single, long, continuous flow of steam. Unfortunately the way this longer flow is triggered is by squeezing the trigger rapidly several times, which is very easy to do accidentally. I found myself unintentionally triggering a lengthy blast of steam several times on every occasion that I used the GC7805. Now this wouldn't be that much of an issue except the noise made by these lengthy blasts of steam is far worse than the iron in normal operation. First time it happened it sounded like a full size steam train had just pulled in and I thought there was something wrong with the product. After a while though it just became deafeningly irritating.

These are however, relatively minor niggles and don't detract too badly from the fact that the GC7805 is a very good compact steam generator iron. They're enough to knock a star and a half off my Amazon rating but out of generosity I've rounded it back up to four rather than down to three.

NESTLÉ Break Pack KITKAT and NESCAFÉ Mixed Box, 1.504 kg
NESTLÉ Break Pack KITKAT and NESCAFÉ Mixed Box, 1.504 kg
Price: £20.79

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Aimed At The Commercial Market, 14 July 2017
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
If you work in commercial catering or your job involves providing snacks and refreshments to company employees then this pack will probably be of interest. Offering a mixture of two-finger Kitkats in three varieties (standard, dark chocolate and cookies and cream) and two varieties of Nescafe instant coffee in sachets, the box is designed to act as a display as well as a means of storage and transportation. Its the sort of thing you'd find in a company break room or canteen. Its not necessarily the sort of item you'd have in your cupboard at home, unless you really love KitKats and/or Nescafe.

Running a small company meant that I could share the box with my employees, and it was perfect for that environment. However, It wasn't so great that I'm going to be ordering more. Personally I avoid instant coffee like the plague and nothing about the Nescafe sachets offered here made me change my mind on that front. The KitKats were just as you would expect them to be. It was nice that they were the traditional foil-wrapped variety, with the paper sleeve, rather than the more modern vacuum sealed type and the Dark and Cookies & Cream flavours were decent enough. However, there was nothing so remarkable about this pack that I'm going to have it on repeat order from Amazon's Subscribe and Save.

So overall a perfectly decent box of confectionary and coffee aimed squarely at the commercial market, but one that offers nothing particularly new or indispensable.

Zero Sum (A John Rain Novel)
Zero Sum (A John Rain Novel)
Price: £3.98

2.0 out of 5 stars Another Anaemic John Rain Prequel From An Author Who Can Do So Much Better, 12 July 2017
After the tonally misjudged standalone novel Livia Lone I was hoping for a return to form from Barry Eisler as he went back to his well-established series featuring Japanese/American assassin John Rain.

Unfortunately and disappointingly, rather than coming up with a contemporary Rain thriller that would pick up where ‘The Detachment’ left-off, Eisler has decided to produce yet another prequel to the John Rain series, following on from 2014’s ‘Graveyard of Memories’.

Whilst Graveyard was set in the mid-Seventies, Zero Sum brings Rain forward to 1980’s Tokyo and finds him back in the city looking for work after a stint as a mercenary in the Philippines. The 80’s setting should be a real strength for the book, allowing Eisler to paint a fascinating and evocative portrait of Tokyo in the midst of an unprecedented economic boom that would bring rapid change to all parts of Japanese society. However, whilst Graveryard of Memories was successful in it evocation of 70’s Japan, Zero Sum fails to generate the same tangible atmosphere. At no point do you get a real sense of the changes Japan was undergoing at the time, beyond some passing comments about the number of cranes on the Tokyo skyline. Whilst Japan has almost been a character in its own right in previous Rain novels here its relegated to a bit player at best.

That wouldn’t necessarily be a problem if what Eisler presented instead made up for the lack of atmosphere or a sense of time and place. Unfortunately, with Zero Sum he doesn’t. Instead he offers up many of the same weaknesses that afflicted Graveyard of Dreams.

The most obvious of these, which is insurmountable when writing a prequel to existing stories featuring the same character, is the book’s complete lack of genuine jeopardy. We know from page 1 that John Rain will ultimately survive the events that will occur and will go on to become a master assassin. We also know from the later books that he will not suffer any permanently debilitating or disfiguring injuries. Therefore there is no question or ‘will he prevail’, just of how. This robs the whole novel of any real sense of danger, and with it much of the expected excitement. As a reader you’re never really on the edge of your seat because you already know pretty much how the story will end.

Some may argue that if Rain himself isn’t in any real danger then it’s the fates of the various supporting characters that lend the book its unpredictability, and this is to an extent true. However, to be genuinely gripped by what happens to lesser characters you have to be engaged by them and to care about what ultimately happens to them. However, with the entire story narrated by Rain and everything filtered through his perspective, none of the supporting characters get any real life of their own. Whether bad guys, allies or love interests, they all remain entirely one dimensional. Some might get their backgrounds broadly sketched out but they never become proper, living breathing human beings who leap off the page.

It all makes for a somewhat ho-hum reading experience that never really grabs you. Eisler’s prose remains accessible and easy to read, he keeps the plot moving forward and the bursts of action that pepper the story are well written and dynamic, but everything else about Zero Sum feels rather anaemic.

Even the bad guys in Zero Sum never feel like they pose a genuine threat to Rain, which really says it all. This is despite Eisler working hard to build up one as a psychotic live-wire capable of unpredictable violence and the other as a mysterious, Machiavellian power behind the throne who we don’t even meet until his first and only confrontation with Rain. Again, the foreknowledge that Rain will survive going up against both reduces the danger they pose, but equally Eisler never really convinces you that either man could really, seriously challenge Rain. It doesn’t help that the ultimate ‘big-bad’ remains off-stage until pretty much the very end so that the reader knows almost nothing about him or his capabilities apart from a few vague snippets Rain gleans as the story progresses.

The result of all these issues is that Zero Sum is a thriller that never really sparks into life on any level and has none of the strengths of the other John rain books beyond some punchy action. Which is a shame, because I know first-hand that Barry Eisler can produce excellent and genuinely exciting thrillers. Maybe he just needs to stop with the prequels and bring John Rain back to the unpredictable present day.

Note: I was lucky enough to receive my copy of Zero Sum as a pre-publication copy via NetGalley in exchange for an unbiased review

Prestige Prism Aluminium 30 cm Frypan - Silver
Prestige Prism Aluminium 30 cm Frypan - Silver
Price: £34.57

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Big But Does The Job, 3 July 2017
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
This is a large, deep, non-stick frying pan. Although the description says it has a diameter of 30 cm it feels very much larger. That isn't a criticism, just an observation. You'll need a decent sized drawer or cupboard to store the pan, if you're not planning to hang it up.

Assuming you have the space for it then the Prestige Prism Aluminium 30 cm Frying Pan is a very nice pan to own. It works with every type of hob, including induction (which I can testify to based on first hand experience) and despite having a rubber coated handle can be used in ovens up to a temperature of 180 Degrees Centigrade. It feels nicely solid and weighty, without being too heavy, and it heats up evenly. The rolled lip allows for easy pouring, the depth of pan makes it versatile and the non-stick surface works just as you'd expect it to.

There's no lid supplied with the pan, and I'm not convinced that the rubberised grip will prove to be robust and long lasting, but the first is a minor complaint and I'd be happy to be proved wrong on the second niggle.

Overall then, this is a decent, versatile, if somewhat large, frying pan.

Onkyo E700MB HiRes In-Ear Headphones with Mic (Aluminium Housing, Twisted Cable, 3 Sizes Silicone Caps) - Black
Onkyo E700MB HiRes In-Ear Headphones with Mic (Aluminium Housing, Twisted Cable, 3 Sizes Silicone Caps) - Black
Price: £74.99

4.0 out of 5 stars High quality sound, well put together and slickly packaged, 29 Jun. 2017
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
Like many sets of high end headphones, the Onkyo E700MB Hi-Res In-Ear Headphones come packaged in the sort of box that would not disgrace an expensive cell phone. Although undoubtedly attractive, the heavy cardboard, magnetic catches and expansive plastic insert all feel rather wasteful for what essentially quite a small product. However, that seems to be the way headphones in this price bracket are presented these days, so its hard to fault Onkyo for feeling they need to join in with the excess.

It certainly helps that the product itself lives up to the excessively elaborate packaging. In terms of audio quality I really can't fault the E700MB. As you would expect from a product proudly labelled as offering Hi-Res Audio, both clarity and range are impressive. They're certainly more than good enough for listening to digital tracks that have undergone some form of compression, and they're even good enough to handle higher quality recordings. I'm no expert but the audio performance was easily on a par with that of the P5 headphones from Bowers & Wilkins that I have been using recently.

In terms of build quality I also can't find much to criticise on the E700MB. With brushed aluminium casings and robust connectors they feel solid and durable. They're also extremely comfortable to wear for extended periods of time. I tried them over a 5 hours of a trans-Atlantic flight and never felt the need to remove them due to discomfort. Their light weight and In-Ear design also make them feel secure. I'd feel comfortable running or cycling wearing the E700MB's.

The claim that they're tangle free is also mostly accurate. A small clip that allows you to link the two upper wires together when the headphones aren't being worn does prevent the worst of knots but isn't foolproof. I'm also not entirely sold on the contrasting, twisted copper and black rubber wires (although the copper wire is actually sheathed in clear plastic). Its purely a design choice and does nothing in terms of performance. It does however, draw the eye, which could be a good thing but might equally focus unwanted attention on both the headphones or whatever they're connected to.

Apart from the headphones themselves, the overly large box also contains the standard storage pouch, made from fake leather and with a snap close opening, various earpieces in rubber and two made from the same expandable foam as ear plugs. The latter do reduce interference from surrounding, ambient noise, but how long they will last under repeated usage is hard to guage.

Overall then, the Onkyo E7000MBs offer high quality sound, are well put together and slickly packaged. They don't offer anything radical or new in terms of design or performance, but if you're looking for well built headphones at a price that isn't excessive then these are definitely worth considering.

STABILO Trio Thick Colouring Pencil, Zebrui Case - Assorted Colours, Pack of 15
STABILO Trio Thick Colouring Pencil, Zebrui Case - Assorted Colours, Pack of 15
Price: £5.63

4.0 out of 5 stars Great Pencils For Smaller Children, 24 Jun. 2017
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
If like me you have young children who are just learning to write then these pencils are ideal. With their broad, triangular shape they make forming the correct grip easy for small hands. This improves control, which makes forming letters and other shapes easier. They're also great for colouring and general craft work.

The plastic tube they come in is useful if you want to have a pack of pencils for travelling. The design of the lid means it will not pop off easily, spilling pencils everywhere at inconvenient moments. However, on the downside smaller children might have difficulty removing it without help.

Overall therefore, this a great set of useful pencils tgat's well presented. Perfect for children from nursery age up to Years 1 or 2.

TP-Link LB130 Smart LED Wi-Fi Light Bulb, Colour-Changeable Light, E27, 11 W (Works with Alexa, B22 Bayonet Adapter Included, No Hub Required)
TP-Link LB130 Smart LED Wi-Fi Light Bulb, Colour-Changeable Light, E27, 11 W (Works with Alexa, B22 Bayonet Adapter Included, No Hub Required)
Price: £39.99

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An Easy to Use, Reliable Wi-Fi Enabled 'Smart' LED Light Bulb, 13 Jun. 2017
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
I was a big fan of TP-Link's wi-fi enabled bulbs and sockets before I was offered the chance to try out the LB130 version of the E27 LED Bulb courtesy of the Amazon Vine Program. I liked the fact that they were simple to set up, didn't require you to install a dedicated hub, were well built and very reliable.

The LB130 does nothing to change that opinion. Its a solidly constructed, easy to use device that works exactly as advertised. Yes, its rather large and is therefore really only suitable for use in lamps with the biggest shades, but that's down to the need to squeeze in all the necessary wireless components and control circuits, not poor design. Its a compromise you have to accept if you want the wi-fi connectivity.

If you're prepared to do so then what you get is an LED Bulb that can be controlled remotely via TP-Link's Kasa App and tuned to pretty much any colour and/or brightness you want. It can also be linked via the App to other wifi enabled products from TP-Link, allowing you to create different 'scenarios' that can be activated with a single instruction. For example, I have an LB130 LED Bulb, an LB120 LED Bulb and three HS100 Smart Plugs, with the latter three all controlling lamps in various rooms. With one click I can turn all of them on simultaneously and with another I can turn them all off. Alternatively, if I want less light then with another 'scenario' created through the Kasa App, I can just turn on the two wi-fi enabled bulbs without activating the sockets too.

Its a wonderfully flexible system that's very easy to manage and operate. Its also, based on several months of use, a very reliable one. So far none of the bulbs or sockets have suffered network drop outs or other glitches. It takes a bit of trial and error to set the bulbs' brightness and hue correctly, but once done they perform flawlessly.

I can't comment on how well the LB130 Bulb interconnects with Alexa or Google Home because I don't have either system. However, I can say that this Bulb and the other wi-fi enable components from TP-Link offer an easy way to create a smart home without the need for expensive additional hardware.

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