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This story starts a few weeks ago when I was walking past a charity shop of the cancer research type. The bookstand happened to catch my eye and I discovered this little gem. (I'm trying to step up my charitable donations and, being a bit broke, shopping in the occasional charity shop seems to fit the bill. This particular book was in perfect condition and a snip at £1.20 - a saving of £5.79 against the original cover price.) I don't normally read modern fiction but after a brief perusal (I confess, I'm the annoying person who left smudged thumbprints and dog-eared all the books you?ve ever bought) I had to buy it. The story follows the romantically hapless Jane, who belongs to the overworked-underpaid school of journalism. While Jane's life gets steadily more glum, she struggles to fill a weekly column about the increasingly glitzy life of celebrity "it" girl, Champagne. Needless to say, quite a lot of the book rests on the strained relationship between Jane and Champagne. As a side story to space out the OTT Champagne moments (also the name of Jane's column) there's the even more bizarre and hapless life of Jane's best friend, Tally. Being a rather impoverished aristocrat, Tally is in danger of losing the family mansion through family debts - not to mention her appalling taste in men. I won't give away too much of the plot, beyond the fact that there is the obligatory happy ending - Jane finds her Prince Charming where she least expects to and Tally narrowly avoids losing her home. This book probably sits quite happily in the modern fiction section but could have romance/humour tagged on. If libraries and bookstores were more specific it would sit in the Witty and Amusing Mind Candy section. It's perfect holiday reading or whenever you feel like a dose of frivolous escapism. Do note that the language and subject matter means only older teens and upwards.
Wow, another great free "click to donate" website! I found Ecology Fund through Dooyoo and thought I simply had to give it a go. (I've lately become enamoured of a similar type of charity portal called Care2 and have warmed to the notion of donating money quickly and easily from the comfort of home - at no additional cost to myself.) On first impressions, Ecology Fund looked like it would be a winner - it seemed to be packed with all the "click to donate" opportunities and portal extras that I've come to expect - especially in a for-profit organisation rather than a non-profit one. REGISTRATION Registration is very simple; you submit your email address plus a few minor personal details including name, country and postcode. You donate 500 square acres simply for registering plus there's the opportunity to donate some extra funds to protect additional multiples of 500 by registering for various newsletters. Once you've registered, you're able to keep tabs on your donation totals. They aren't very detailed - merely a running total of all land preserved through all your "click to donate" activities. (Other activities, such as using their search engine to donate funds to protect land, are not counted.) CLICK TO DONATE There are eight "click to donate" buttons on the homepage - a veritable wealth of donation opportunities. You can click on each button once per day. Each button generates funds, provided by sponsors, to protect land around the world including - to my surprise - RSPB nature reserves in Scotland. There are also numerous other opportunities which are not, strictly speaking, "click to donate". The entire site is littered with buttons and banners asking you to register at sponsor sites or to buy products - each activity generates funds to protect a fixed amount of land. These additional activities seem to be rather tedious, although you
do feel guilty for thinking that way when your acceptance of vast quantities of junk mail could be helping to protect endangered land or nature reserves around the world. FREE EMAIL To protect your inbox from a daily stuffing of junk mail, you should really sign up for Ecology Fund's free email before you register or start clicking randomly on sponsors. It's provided through Everyone.net, a well-known reliable email provider. It compares well with Care2, another similar eco-portal, as it provides 6 Mb of storage as opposed to Care2's 3 Mb. Also, 50% of revenue from email account ads goes to Ecology Fund projects as opposed to Care2's 10% contribution. However, there the favourable comparison must end. Ecology Fund's email service is stuffed with advertising and account features are very basic - just the usual POP collection, address book, filters and folders. Still, if you are looking for a reliable free email account with basic features, this is surely a worthy candidate. The service is clearly undersubscribed at the moment (I was able to get my first name - which was rather surprising) and if you want a decent username, you should sign up while the best names are still available. You should keep your username short and sweet though, as the domain ending - ecologyfund.net - isn't exactly short. OTHER RESOURCES There are quite a few other resources available at Ecology Fund. The usual "green" news and information, plus online activism details. Unlike Care2, there are no quick and easy ways to participate in anything; Ecology Fund lists various current concerns plus addresses to write. It's a matter of opinion whether Care2's online petitions are preferrable to information on which politician/company you should be personally lambasting via snail mail ... As this is a website, I feel Ecology Fund should make better use of the internet but perhaps we are becoming armchair enthusiasts and we
should be doing things the "old" way. There's also a twee search engine box, which hasn't really drawn my interest, and a handy sitemap, which I didn't notice until it was too late and I was hopelessly entangled in their website. Oh, and I almost forgot to mention the free e-cards ... but that's understandable as there's only five, which are provided in association with AmericanGreetings.com. CONCLUSION Ecology Fund is backed by CharityMall.com, a for-profit organisation that donates all affiliate shopping revenue to charity. It's popularity seems to be limited (see the email, above) and it is almost wholly US focused. If this was the first charity/eco portal that I'd seen, I would probably be more impressed than I am. It does have some good intentions and it does provide a lot of free opportunities to donate to land preservation projects - throughout the world (not just America). Unfortunately, I am a big fan of Care2 which is an infinitely superior eco-portal. Care2 provides all of the resources that Ecology Fund offers, with more professionalism and more style. I could be willing to forgive Ecology Fund a great deal of its shortcomings, as it is a charity/eco focused site, were it not for one major problem. After I madly rushed in to register with Ecology Fund and started clicking here, there and everywhere, I noticed that I couldn't find the "log out" button. After searching the homepage diligently, I proceeded to comb through the sitemap and faqs. After a considerable period of time spent fiddling with the computer and searching through all my temporary files, I discovered what the problem was: Ecology Fund operates on permenant cookies. A cookie is a file that is stored on your computer e.g. containing log in details. The only way to logout of Ecology Fund is to delete their cookie from your computer. This is an unacceptable security risk and an unacceptable way for a supp
osedly professional website to behave. Furthermore, if you are willing to continue using Ecology Fund and simply delete their cookie each time you want to logout, you must re-register each time you want to use the site again. Admittedly, all you need to do is use the same email address (this ensures that your personal "click to donate" totals are retrieved) but this is more than I'm prepared to put up with! In conclusion, Ecology Fund could have been a wonderful way to help donate to charity and preserve endangered land but their amateurish behaviour, cookie invasion and security risks are just too much to endure. Sadly, I shall not be returning to their website again. My peace of mind is worth the hassle of donating through regular methods (e.g. post, stores, in the street) rather than saving time on the internet. http://www.ecologyfund.com/ http://www.care2.com/
I have been fascinated by eBay for a long time, by the concept that quite ordinary individuals can enact trades with complete strangers to their mutual benefit. It seems to me that a good deal of trust is involved in such transactions and that there's a lot of scope for things to go wrong. However, eBay has become a household name with a good reputation for honesty. So, a couple of weeks ago, I finally bit the bullet and signed up. STEP ONE: Registering ===================== You must register with eBay if you want to buy or sell anything (feel free to "window" shop though if you don't want to trade anything). Simply choose a username and fill in some personal details and you're away. You may also want to set up an optional "about me" page, as this helps people to trust you if you're a new user. The whole "trust" issue is a big thing on eBay. Every username has a little number in parantheses after it, indicating the number of comments/feedback a user has received. You can view the feedback to find out whether it's positive, neutral or negative. This is very helpful to established users as people are more likely to trust them if they have 50+ positive comments in their feedback. It does very little for the newbie though, as people will have to decide whether or not to trust you and sell/buy depending on such trivial factors as your username, "about me" page and possibly email contact. As I was rather wary of eBay, I decided my first experience should be selling. The logic being that this presented the least amount of risk to me and the greatest gain. So, I selected a rather nice health encyclopedia CD-ROM and embarked on the daunting task of listing it for sale. There seems to be a myriad of confusing sales options. I was offered the choice, among other things, of setting a bid price, a reserve price, placing my ad in bold text, adding a picture, selling worldwide or just to the
UK, and specifying postage and payment options. Hmm. I decided that the simplest and easiest method would be to sumbit a basic product description (you're allowed to use HTML tags) and ignore the fancier options. "Excellent," I thought, "this should sell no problem ..." (But more about that later.) STEP TWO: Selling/Bidding ========================= Once you've engaged in listing a product for sale or bidding on an item for purchase, you are committed to following through with the transaction. The winning seller and buyer/bidder must follow through with the transaction on pain of having their membership revoked. Fortunately, this isn't as troublesome as it sounds. Firstly, sale prices tend to be fairly low and you don't have to continue bidding on an item if Joe Bloggs decides to outbid you by a factor of 20. Secondly, there are no addition fees to be paid if you are buying an item and the fees charged for selling an item are very low. (Listing an item costs from 15 pence and selling an item costs from 5% of the sale price.) I initially decided to sell my CD-ROM for an ambitious £4.99 and pay the postage costs myself. This cost me a grand total of 15 pence. (NB: You will be involved monthly and must pay any balance over £1.00, although you do have an "overdraft" of £15.00.) You receive a daily email update on all transactions you are involved in, telling you whether people are bidding on your item or whether your bid is still winning your chosen product. To bid on an item, you need to be logged in and you then enter your bid and wait to see what happens. The minimum bid is decided by eBay depending on the starting price of the product. For example, an item starting at £1.00 will have a minimum increment of 20 pence so your minimum bid would be £1.00 and the next bid would be £1.20 then £1.40 and so on. STEP THREE: When the fish aren't biting ===============================
======== As eBay has a large member base, you can well imagine that sometimes you will be outbid by another member. If that happens you can either tell eBay to continue bidding for you up to a fixed maximum or you can simply log on and re-bid yourself. The flip-side of this is that, even though eBay is chock-a-block with members, sometimes no one will be interested in your sale offering. In that case, you can simply alter your sale price and conditions to be more favourable in the hope that this will increase bidding interest. This certainly happened to me. In my foolish newbie frame of mind, I supposed that people would prefer to buy something at a low cost and avoid paying postage charges themselves. After browsing through several other offerings, I noticed that everyone was either asking for buyers to pay the actual postage charges or a fixed postage charge. So, I logged in and altered my sale price to a meagre £1.00 and set a fixed postage charge of £1.50 - this didn't incur any additional charges. After altering my sale conditions, I immediately attracted a bidder. So, there's a tip to anyone hoping to sell on eBay: pick a low sale price and charge a fortune in postage costs. I don't know why but it seems to work. STEP FOUR: Completing the deal ============================== Once the sale ends, somewhere between 1 and 10 days depending on what the seller has chosen, eBay will contact the winning seller and buyer/bidder telling them that now it's time to follow through with your trade. You can then log in and obtain the email address of your seller or buyer and contact them to arrange exchange of money and goods. You must do this yourself within 3 days of the end of sale - eBay will not arrange this and will be rather cross if you run away. As I'd managed to attract a bidder for my little CD-ROM, I immediately contacted him to exchange addresses and confirm costs. This was all new territory for
me. Obviously, I hoped that the buyer was a nice honest person willing to place by the rules and ... admittedly, somewhat to my surprise, he was. A few emails later, I was the proud recipient of £2.50 and he was looking forward to the delivery of my CD-ROM. STEP FIVE: What happens next ============================ Now that you've sold or bought your chosen piece of tat (or delightful item of value) you can submit some feedback to your seller or buyer's feedback profile. Obviously, you don't have to but this is what keeps eBay honest so to speak. The trail of positive or negative comments on your profile marks you out as either a reliable user or a veritable con artist. Like Dooyoo, you can't edit comments, so do be careful and comment honestly and accurately. Now that I've experienced eBay for myself, I can honestly say it is extremely easy to use and I would definitely use it again - whether to sell or to buy items. Admittedly, my profit on my CD-ROM came to a grand total of £2.35 less postage but I have learnt a lot about using eBay and will now feel a lot more confident about buying and selling. Plus, I even made a friend as my winning bidder turned out to be a rather nice email correspondent. :) So, in conclusion, I would say that eBay is definitely worth visiting and does live up to its reputation. Give it a go! I'm sure you'll pick up a few bargains and shift some of the junk lying around your house (it may be junk to you but it's worth something to somebody). You may even make a few friends along the way ... and that's always worth something. :)
Free email is a top priority for a lot of internet users these days and that's what initially attracted me to this website. I was browsing through my usual email bible, Emailaddresses.com, when the name "Care2" just seemed to jump out at me. So, off I went to check it out. Free Email ----------- In order to sign up for free email, you have to register as a Care2 user. This is totally not a problem - usual questions with the ever irksome non-USA categories to check off. When registering, you're given the option to chose an email address then and there or to do so later. As email was the whole point of the exercise, I immediately chose one of the interesting "animal lover" type domain names available e.g. wildmail.com, animail.com, Care2.com - your Care2 username also doubles up as your email username. Once registration is complete, you can log in to the site and access your email account. Each email account comes with a reasonable 3 Mb of storage, although this can stretch up to 6 Mb before they get seriously peeved and start bouncing your incoming emails. All the usual features are available e.g. address book, folders, filters, POP email collection, out-of-office reply. On top of that is a rather neat feature that I can't help admiring: the red light/green light filtering service. Basically, you can choose to accept all incoming emails or only emails from your chosen list (green light) or all emails except those on your "spam" list (red light). It seems to me that this would make Care2 email especially suitable for tiny tots as you could guarantee no nasty spam and only email from folks that you put on the green light list. I signed up a while ago and have no complaints. It's very easy to set up, there's no irksome pop ups, no spam and emails are sent and delivered quickly. The only problem I have encountered is that the POP collection is dreadfully slow. I can't figure out
if this is due to Care2's servers (unlikely as their own email works quickly) or if they've set POP collection to once every blue moon (far more likely than you realise). This is not an issue for me as I was only after an alternative web account to supplement my "regular" email and won't be using POP collection but this may be an issue for other folks. Other Care2 Features --------------------- Care2 has a lot more to offer than mere free email accounts. They are a for-profit company that donates 10% of all revenue to charity, raising funds mostly for animals and the environment. Every activity you do on their website generates a little bit of money, so it's the ideal "armchair" donation solution. It's really a portal site - in their own words, it's a Yahoo for folks who care about the environment. You've got a wide range of eco-type news, stock tracker, US weather reports, search engine (powered by the wonderful Google.com), newsletters, free ads (GreenPages), shopping, forums, polls, petitions, click-to-donate and e-cards. The e-cards are great as they cover a wide range of categories e.g. birthdays, holidays. You can choose the card design, background, "stamp", music and date of "posting". (There's a particularly cute card called Bear Hugs featuring a baby and mommie polar bear but the cards aren't all animal/eco themed. Everything from Chinese New Year to Ground Hog Day is represented.) You can also keep track of the last 20 cards you sent plus a list of favourites for quick reference. The shopping section is clearly a big money spinner for Care2. They have strategically placed internal ads for their products throughout the site. It's basically divided into three categories: partner store Green Home (whom I've never heard of), their own CafePress.com store and a huge list of associate program stores (e.g. the Amazon associate pro
gram). Green Home flogs a range of organic eco-friendly goods, presumably just to America although they don't actually tell you this. As an example of their "interesting" goods, they sell a terracotta water dispenser for $65 USD plus $10 USD postage. CafePress.com you may have heard of - anyone can sign up and set up their own store selling customised CafePress goods at a mark up (store owners receive the difference between their advertised price and the item's basic price). You'll definitely be familiar with associate programs; most folks have these on their websites, hoping to generate a few pennies whenever someone clicks through and buys from their associate. Unfortunately, all the associate stores are American based. Of course, I'm saving the best Care2 feature for last ... Click To Donate ---------------- One of Care2's best features is the click to donate pages. Currently, you can raise funds for the rainforest (and other habitats), big cats, pandas and combating breast cancer. If you're unfamiliar with the concept, basically you just go to a page and click on a link - a sponsor will pay Care2 some money for displaying their logo and a portion of the funds generated goes to charity. Registered users can keep track of how many times they've visited, how much habitat they've saved (or how much money has been raised) and how many friends they've encouraged to participate. In Conclusion -------------- Care2 is graphics heavy and has a very colourful website theme (think tropical animals) but the site is reasonably fast loading and the shock of colour is actually a welcome relief from some of the dull tedious websites out there. To get the most of it (email, e-cards) you will have to register but it's not onerous and you can maintain a good level of security - you can hide your profile, disable online password retrieval, block incoming emails, etc. Alth
ough the site is heavily (practically 99%) American focused, visitors on the wrong side of the pond needn't feel left out - unless they're desperately keen to go shopping. Care2 is definitely worth a visit. Even if you aren't after email or eco-warrior news, then do stop by to send an e-card and click to donate. Go on. You know you want that warm fuzzy feeling inside from doing your bit to help charity ... http://www.care2.com/ - Home Page http://rainforest.care2.com/ - Click to Donate (Habitat) http://breastcancer.care2.com/ - Click to Donate (Breast Cancer) http://bigcats.care2.com/ - Click to Donate (Big Cats) http://panda.care2.com/ - Click to Donate (Pandas)
I'm not the world's greatest cook but one thing that always astounds me is that boil in the bag rice is so popular in this country. Rice has to be one of the simplest staple foods in the world; so in case you didn't know how to fix it, I'm going to go all Delia on you and tell you How To Boil Rice. Boiled Rice ----------- Ingrediants: Long grain white rice Water Method: 1. Measure out your rice into a lidded saucepan. I believe the suggested amount is 25 grams per person but I just guess how much to use. As a rough guide, use a wine glass or tea cup - about one and a half measures is enough for two. 2. Stand by the sink. Pop some cold water into the saucepan with your rice. Here's the tricky part: swill the water round the pan (it'll go white and milky) and empty the water out leaving the rice in the pan. Repeat several times until the water is clear. (This cleans the rice.) 3. Now add just enough cold water to your rice. As my mom says, with practice you'll "know" how much water to add. Infuriating but true. As a rough guide, the water should come up the side of the pan half as far again as the rice does. 4. Put the saucepan on the hob, turn up the heat and let the water start to boil. When the water is bubbling away, turn the heat down very low and put the lid on. Leave it alone for about 20 minutes (don't peek) and it'll be done. Of course, the first few times you try to boil rice, it'll come out looking horrible. You'll either add too much water and it'll be soggy. (Don't try to salvage it by leaving it on the heat - it's ruined for good.) Or you'll add too little water and find a pleasant popcorn smell awaiting you when you take the lid off. (If you catch this early enough, adding a little more water may help. If it's 19 minutes into the cooking time, obviously it'll do nothing.) Anyway my point is, after you've tried
this two or three times, it'll be dead easy - just as easy as boiling potatoes or pasta. Plus, as an added bonus, the next time you talk to a Chinese relative, they won't laugh at you when you mention Uncle Ben. To clarify the "don't peek" situation, if you lift the lid a lot (more than twice) then a lot of steam will escape. If this happens, then your rice will not cook properly. Also, when the rice is done, "fluff" it up using a handy fork or knife or chopstick. (Cut through it and give it a little stir.) I can't honestly believe you'll be stuck for something to serve with rice. I know you eat potatoes with everything (when was the last time you didn't see a restaurant with chips on the menu?) but this is just as nutrious and filling and possibly healthier. Serve rice with anything from curry to chilli con carne to chicken kievs. Or just with a simple stir fry, like the one below. Beef with Spring Onions ----------------------- Ingrediants: Lean beef steak Spring onions Ginger Garlic Cooking oil Red chilli Method: 1. Prepare all your meat and vegetables. Slice the beef into thin bite size pieces. (About 350 grams will be enough for two. You can marinate the beef in half and half rice wine and soy sauce, if you wish. It will improve the taste.) Cut the spring onions into one inch pieces. Thinly slice or shred a knob of ginger. Remove the seeds and slice the chilli. Slice or shred the garlic - perhaps one or two cloves. 2. Pop a little fat into a wok on a very high heat (as high as you dare). When the fat is hot, add the ginger and garlic. 3. About 30 seconds later, add the beef. Use a spatula to move the meat around and cook it evenly. After a couple of minutes you can either (a) remove the meat, drain the liquid and keep warm or (b) just leave it in the wok (lazy but harmless). 3. Now cook the spring onions and chilli until fragrant
. (Add the beef now if you removed it earlier.) At this point you can add an optional sauce - any packet mix will do e.g. Cantonese black bean sauce. Or you could mix together a tablespoon of rice wine, soy sauce, half of cornflour, two of water and a pinch of sugar, salt and pepper. 4. Give everything a quick final stir - it should all be very hot. (You can toss a little sesame oil through it if you like - it'll make it glossy and fragrant.) Serve with rice or noodles. Very simple stuff, which can be altered to suit whatever's left in your fridge or store cupboard. The main thing to remember is that the meat should be thoroughly cooked and the vegetables should still be crisp. If you want to leave out the garlic or chilli or stir in some of Uncle Ben's sauce - who cares? It's your meal and you won't be graded on how authentic it is. By the way, Shaohsing wine or rice wine is available from Chinese supermarkets. Some big supermarkets may also stock this - I believe I saw some in Waitrose. If you can't get it, just use dry sherry. Also, although I've specified salt above, you're really supposed to use MSG (monosodium glutamate) but it's rather unhealthy so you should leave it out or substitute some other salty flavouring. Leftovers --------- Finally, I'd like to discuss leftovers. The quick and simple answer is: eat it or bin it. Rice does not keep and it does not reheat well. If you've cooked too much, remember it only cost you a few pence so it doesn't matter if it goes in the bin. (Cooked meat and vegetables will keep under the usual conditions - covered container (lid or cling film) in the fridge for a day.) Yes, it is a pain to cook more rice. And no, there are no breaks - sometimes life is just tough like that. Enjoy!
If you've never encountered Bill Bryson's work before then you're in for a treat. 'Notes from a Big Country' is essentially what I'd consider a condensed summary of his best features - writing wise that is. The short introduction indicates that sometime in summer 1996, Bryson was persuaded to write a weekly column about America for the Mail on Sunday's 'Night and Day' magazine to be called 'Notes from a Big Country'. This book features 78 columns from the first 18 months. Fans of Bryson will need no urging to dive straight on in. For the uninitiated, about all you need to enjoy this book is a good sense of humour and possibly any nationality other than American. Confused? Well, although several of the columns characteristically follow Bryson's love of trivia and inspired off-topic ramblings, quite a lot of the columns are pretty much a summary of America's shortcomings. And that's putting it nicely. For example, did you know that in 1995 computer hackers successfully breached the Pentagon's security systems 161,000 times or about once every 3.2 minutes? Called me a fool but I don't think I'd leave tons of nuclear weapons lying around so that folks can see what happens when you press the 'fire' buttons. Still perhaps it gives the Pentagon something to do on those cold winter nights - figure out a way to patch up all those security holes (personally, I'd just hire some of those hackers). It may be mildly alarming stuff to know that the world's foremost superpower is unable to stop teenage nerds from leeching away their country's top secrets but that's Bryson special skill - finding something amusing in any situation he comes across. Interspersed with all these American facts, there's all those wonderful mundanities that Bryson always has to share with his readers. Apparently 85 per cent of Americans are 'essentially' sendentary an
d 35 per cent are 'totally' sendentary - the average American only walks about 1.4 miles per week. This means that when Bryson tried to get to a bookstore one day (about 50 feet away, across a busy intersection) he had to get back into his car or face turning into a curiously flat red pancake. Not to mention having groceries bagged - what does that achieve for you beyond getting to watch your groceries being bagged? Or the fact that "There is always a little more toothpaste in the tube. Think about it." One of the reasons why 'Notes from a Big Country' is pretty much stuffed with Can-you-believe-those-Americans type jokes is that Bryson spent quite a long time living over here in Britain. Spending most of your adult life in another country before returning home can leave you feeling like you've been catapulted somewhere into the future, where everything is strangely familiar yet slightly different. Can you imagine going on vacation and then returning home to have conversations along the lines of "I need some of that stuff you fill holes in the wall with. My wife's people call it Polyfilla" and "I need some of those little plastic things you use to hold screws in the wall when you put shelves up. I know them as Rawlplugs" only to be greeted with "Oh, you mean spackle" and "We call them anchors". I think this is why Bryson spends half his time enthusing about how wonderful America is and how nice it is to be home and the other half of the time laughing at his compatriots and raging about their shortcomings. There are many things that underline the difference between America and Britain. We might speak the same language (mostly) and share the same background (loosely) but when it comes to cupholders, we might as well live on entirely different planets. Americans buy cars on the basis of cupholders. Honestly! The Dodge Caravan has 17, leaving a generous ratio of 2.43 cu
pholders per passenger. This is important to American car owners. Apparently Volvo had to redesign all its cars for the American market because it foolishly left out cupholders on the premise that what people really want are reliable engines and side impact bars. Well, they soon learnt their lesson. 'Notes from a Big Country' is rich in pointless trivia, outstandingly stupid facts and life in a (nearly foreign) home country. More importantly it is full of humour. Witty, dry, laugh-out-loud humour that is just crying out for you to join in the laughter. This book should be on the bookshelves of every Bryson fan. It would also work extremely well as an introduction to Bryson's writing style. 'Notes from a Big Country' is arranged as it was originally published - as short magazine column length sections. This makes it perfect for dipping in and out from when you have half an hour to spare. Buy a copy and keep it by your side for your mid morning coffee breaks.
Together with 'Belgarath the Sorcerer', this novel forms the prequel to ten novels known collectively as the Belgariad and the Malloreon. Right there, you can see an ambitious undertaking - twelve novels forming one giant series. Well, not to worry. David Eddings carries a familiar theme throughout all his novels (or should we say his wife's novels, as he's lately taken to crediting her as a co-author) so once you've read one, you've read them all. The eternal Belgarion/Sparhawk/Athalus central character is nearly always present to plague readers with familiar overwraught plot holes. Fortunately, 'Polgara the Sorceress' sees the emphasis shift - for one time only - to the title character, Polgara, who is slightly more approachable and less hackeyed. Polgara is a beautiful, powerful sorceress who, in addition to being magically gifted, is also apparently immortal. This seems to immediately call for (a) a suspension of belief in reality and (b) feverish reading of the other eleven novels to catch up on the storyline. An obviously tacked on prologue and conclusion sandwiches in a condensed history of Polgara's life to date. From her earliest years (starting ambitiously in the womb) through her rebellious teens to her adulthood and ... through her lengthy extended adulthood. Fans may be pleased to read the missing background to the Belgariad and the Malloreon (as already told in 'Belgarath the Sorcerer') from a new perspective. The gentle, flowing tide of prose will sweep readers from Polgara's idyllic childhood with twin sister Beldaran to her initial discovery that she can do magic, from her beloved twin's death to her increased dabblings in politics, from her ... Well, I simply can't keep up this sham any longer. 'Polgara the Sorceress' really is just a dull monotonous volume of twee cliched events. Moreover, try as you may, it is impossible to read it without having previously
indulged in wading through its eleven companions. The other eleven novels are the only things that bring a little colour to the monotone world of 'Polgara the Sorceress', inviting you to say 'Ooh, that ties in with novel four of the Belgariad and novel five of the Malloreon' rather than simply yawning all the way through. I am perfectly aware that I will be offending vast legions of Eddings fans but at least I'll be saving a few newbies from swearing off reading any of his works ever again. Eddings has written some good stuff in the past; the Elenium and the Malloreon are not too shabby at all. However, even the best author in the world can't keep milking the cash cow forever. (NB: Christopher Tolkien - take note.) Readers are intelligent enough to notice when the same characters and the same storylines are being continually recycled, with the only token difference being a price hike. Sorry folks, but this is one for the fans only - or possibly die hard fantasy addicts.
In the grand tradition of everyone's favourite epic, 'Lord of the Rings' (by J R R Tolkien), Terry Brooks has managed to create a sweeping vision of good versus evil on our very own humble planet. Unlike 'Lord of the Rings', the Shannara series is set in the future not the past. At some point in the future, once mankind has grown to technological maturity, the Great War wiped out most of the world's population and laid a strange new course for the races. All the old sciences have been lost and, as new races evolved, emphasis has shifted to "magic". The First War of the Races saw a horrific misuse of magic and those who still possessed a little knowledge of science founded a new academic order, named after the druids. At Paranor, the Druid Council devoted itself to studying the lost sciences in order to help the races build a new civilisation. Only Bremen and a few other Druids persisted in studying magic, convinced a combination of magic and science would be the key to future success, but their vision was rewarded with distrust and Bremen was cast out from the Council and Paranor. Wandering the Four Lands, Bremen discovers a sinister mobilisation of trolls and gnomes. Directing the army are Skull Bearers - disfigured Druids whose minds have been broken by the insidiously seductive study of magic. More importantly, at the very heart of the army was the powerful former Druid called Brona. With great daring, Bremen manages to sneak into the army camp and discover some of its plans. His frightening conclusion is that the people of the Four Lands must immediately unite and prepare for the Second War of the Races. Moreover, they need a special weapon, powerful enough to defeat the magic of the evil Warlock Lord, Brona. The 'First King of Shannara' follows Bremen's fight to save the people of the Four Lands, aided by a meagre scattering of allies - a Borderman named Kinson, an elf named Tay,
a dwarf named Risca and a mysterious girl named Mareth. Tay and Risca are immediately dispatched to rouse the elves and dwarves to war; Bremen, Kinson and Mareth have the more difficult task of creating a new weapon when they haven't the slightest grasp of the old sciences and the Druid Council, who might have possessed the knowledge, aren't willing or able to assist. Although the basic plot outcome, as is ever the case, is expected - the triumph of good over evil - there are numerous side missions and skirmishes to keep the reader entertained. Moreover, the characters and background are simply fascinating. If, at first glance, you dismiss this novel as simply a fantasy offering then you'll be missing out on some compelling science fiction. I very deliberately compare Brooks' Shannara series to Tolkien's Middle Earth because both authors were trying to create a mythic era in Earth's history. Tolkien looks to the past, convincing us that Middle Earth really existed and that the War of the Ring really was a chapter of lost history. Brooks, obviously, can't match several decades worth of academic labour but I feel the Four Lands could possibly be the outcome of the much debated Nuclear War (World War III). There is no pretence that fantasy is wholly believable; rather, there is deliberate reference to the past (or indeed, our present). Although magic is used in the forging of the sword necessary to defeat Brona, science "brought out of the old world" is equally necessary. After all, "a metal as strong as iron, but far lighter, more flexible, and less brittle" was probably considered magic when it was first forged all those centuries ago. A "locat" named Vree Erreden is described as operating on "prescience, intuition, even hunches, all of them stronger than the instincts normal men and women might experience" - not so very different to the way some people believe fortune tellers oper
ate (whether we believe it works is another matter). The Southland woman Mareth is described as an "empath" - many science fiction novels operate on an extension of the premise that telepathy, empathy and telekinesis might indeed be possible. Of course, not all of the elements in the Shannara series can be placed into a cosy approximation of science fiction. Scientific explanations can only be stretched so far before you run into the unbreakable barrier of magic and the Shannara series is first and foremost a work of fantasy. However, if you view the Four Lands as being the remnants of our future, then the 'First King of Shannara' (and all the Shannara novels) becomes very interesting indeed. The 'First King of Shannara' is a prequel - written quite some time after 'The Sword of Shannara', the first Shannara novel published in 1977. So, I think the tie in with our world's future may be an afterthought that is, incidentally, being more heavily developed in 'The Voyage of the Jerle Shannara', the current 5-parter. Still, it does create an extra dimension of interest in what could have been just another outlandish fantasy.
So you want to be a Java Programmer? Well, if you don't know how to program in Java then I *can't* help you. If you do know how to program in Java, then I can definitely give you some pointers. About The Exam ============== To earn your Java certification, you'll have to pass the Sun Microsystems exam 310-025. It's sounds scary but it isn't really! The exam consists of 59 multiple choice and short answer questions, to be completed within 2 hours. If you've prepared well for the exam, then you should be okay. Exam Preparation ================ Even if you've been programming away merrily for several months/years, that doesn't mean you should cut corners on your exam prep. At the very least, you will have to check the exam objectives - there's no point revising material that won't be included in the exam. You will find information about the exam (including objectives) here: http://suned.sun.com/GB/images/certification_progj2se_07_01.pdf If you're fairly new to Java programming, then you'll definitely want to read at least one good text book. Personally, I used Programmer's Guide To Java Certification by Mughal et al and Complete Java 2 by Roberts et al but you should use whichever books you feel most comfortable with. A Programmer's Guide To Java Certification, by Mughal et al, ISBN 0201596148 - Best for all levels, beginner to advanced - Definitely my favourite text book, lots of detail Complete Java 2 Certification Study Guide, by Roberts et al, ISBN 0782128254 - Best for folks with some Java programming knowledge - Brief and to the point (if it's not in the exam, it's not in this book) Java 2 Exam Cram, by Brogden, ISBN 1576102912 - Best for folks with a C or C++ background - Does exactly what it says on the tin (a la Roberts et al) If you've got the money (or a nice employ
er) then by all means take some Java courses. However, they will be staggeringly expensive (you're looking at over £1,000 GBP for up to 5 days, ex VAT of course) and you *can* prepare for the exam without attending a fancy course. Sun Educational Services has a catalogue of courses here: http://suned.sun.com/GB/catalog/java.html Booking The Exam ================ You must purchase an exam voucher from Sun Education Services at a cost of £100 GBP plus VAT i.e. £117.50 GBP. The phone number in the UK is 01276 416520. If it's the first time you've contacted them, you'll have to give them your contact details. Otherwise, you can just confirm who you are and purchase the voucher. The exam code is 310-025 and you must pay by credit card. You can note down your voucher code over the phone, or wait for the voucher to arrive through the post. Once you have the code, you must contact Prometric to schedule an exam time. The phone number in the UK is 0800 592873. If you've contacted Prometric before, you can just give them your ID number. Otherwise, they'll assign one to you. (Keep it safe, as you'll need it in the future!) The Prometric rep will walk you through the booking procedure. Make a note of the details e.g. venue, time. There are test centres throughout the world, so I'm sure you'll find one near you! Once the exam is booked, you can cancel and reschedule up to two business days before the exam date. Taking The Exam =============== Arrive at the test centre at least 15 minutes before your exam time. (Sometimes, if you're early and the centre is quiet, they'll let you start early.) Bring two forms of ID with you - one with a photo and one with a signature e.g. photo driving licence and credit card. Sign in at the test centre with your Prometric ID, leave your belongings at the reception area, and take a deep breath. This is it. Go into the test room w
ith the centre rep, who'll sign you on to the computer. You'll have the option of doing a short sample test to get the feel of the exam layout. It will not be related to your exam and will not show up on your transcript! It is just to give you an idea of how the exam will be conducted. The exam is very straight forward. You can select the answers using the mouse or the keyboard - except short answer questions, which obviously have to be typed. There'll be code snippets with most of the questions. If they're longer than about 10 lines, you'll have to press the 'exhibit' button to display the code in a seperate window. (Which reminds me ... Yes, the exam is all Windows based. The Microsoft Corp have their sticky tentacles everywhere.) Although you can't take anything into the room, you are allow some paper to scribble on - you must hand this back at the end of the exam. You must get 61% in the exam i.e. 36 out of 59 questions correct. Once you've gone through all the questions, you'll have the chance to review your answers. Questions that are incompleted or unanswered will be flagged for your attention but you can review all the questions if you want to. I strongly recommend you review all your answers at least once, to make sure you've completed them all and to check for errors. Keep reviewing them until you feel sure you've got at least 36 right. If you haven't run out of time, you can now end the exam. (If you have run out of time, the exam will automatically terminate.) Swoosh, swoosh. You'll hear the soft sounds of a printer irritating all the other exam candidates in the room. Toddle over to the printer and pick up your transcript. Dah da dah dah! You've passed! (Hopefully.) Take your transcript and the scribbled on notepaper to the test centre rep (probably back in the reception area). The rep will whip the paper off you (in case you were planning to sell notes on y
our exam questions!) and emboss your transcript, to validate it. Congratulations! Now go home ... After The Exam ============== Assuming everything went to plan and you passed, you should now be at home basking in the praise of your nearest and dearest and eagerly awaiting your exam certificate. Well, you'll be waiting a long time as it's going to be shipped out from the USA. Within about 3 to 5 business days (after your exam) you can log on to the Sun certification website to check your personal details. The first time you log on, you'll need to answer questions from your personal exam transcript and create a password. Thereafter, you can use your password and Prometric ID to log on. http://www.galton.com/~sun This secure website contains your contact details, which you keep updated, and your certification details. You can check your grades, which exams you've taken, and the 'fulfillment' details i.e. when your certificates have been posted out to you. Depending on where you live, certificates can take up to 30 days to arrive. For regular surface post from America to the UK, I would estimate up to a fortnight. Your certificate will be part of a 'welcome' pack including a cute badge/pin and a certification agreement to be signed and returned (this will give you access to official SCP logos). That's All Folks ================ So there you go - full details on how to prep, plan and pass your Sun Certified Programmer exam. So, go on: you *can* do it. --- Best wishes to all exam candidates from: An official Sun Certified Programmer! (I passed October 19, 2001.) http://suned.sun.com/GB/certification/ - Sun Education Services http://www.galton.com/~sun - Sun Certification http://www.2test.com/ - Prometric
Yet another free web-based email provider? Perhaps. I wouldn't have looked at it if my email provider hadn't let me down. I'd been happily immersing myself in Fetchmail.com, chortling with glee over the simple, speedy interface and the customizable outgoing email addresses until admin problems wiped the smile off my face. "Fetchmail is suffering from intermittent failure at the moment. We are awaiting for a replacement item of hardware that will fix the problem." Fine - except we've all been waiting for over a month. So, back I went to Emailaddresses.com - my trusty online bible of free email providers. Noting, with a trace of dismay that Fetchmail.com has disappeared from their list of web-based providers, I decided to check out Email.com instead. I'm a low volume email user and all I need is a few megs of storage and external POP consolidation. Email.com seemed to fit the bill. First Impressions ================= Email.com has to be one of the most memorable addresses out there. Of course, several addresses fit that description, e.g. Law.com and Scotland.com, but [yourname]@email.com does roll off your tongue with ease. The home page looks clean and the sign up process is easy. There's the usual nosy demographic questions but only name, address, date of birth and gender must be specified. Once you've selected a snazzy username and password, you're free to explore your new 10 meg account. Log in using frames or no frames (the layout is the same in either case) and all the usual features are there in a menu panel on the left hand side - folders, address book, filters, auto-reply, etc. The best features are tucked under "options" and "help" in the menu panel. The help section is obvious and needs no explanation. There are tons of FAQs available; if you're still bemused, you can also find the customer service contact details here. The options s
ection contains all the goodies: change password, mail filters, auto-reply, email organizer, external email, auto forward mail, preferences and signature settings. Most of these are self explanatory e.g. password and filters. The "external email" option allows you to specify up to 5 POP/IMAP email accounts for automatic collection. The "preferences" section has the mundane message display options and, more importantly, the time zone settings (make sure you check GMT). The "email organizer" is especially cool; it allows you to colour code up to 5 incoming email addresses and 5 outgoing email addresses i.e. all your emails from your mom can be flagged red-alert so you know which emails require urgent responses! The only disappointment I've experienced involves the "signature settings" option. Try as I might, I can't get my emails to display a handy signature - still, it's not a great inconvinience. So far, so good. It's all so easy to use, the pages load quickly (my modem averages 32 kps) and the blue and white colour scheme is pleasant. There has to be a catch, and, as always, it's the ads. As Email.com is a free service, there's a button on the home page, two buttons and a banner on the main pages plus an extra button on the "front page" i.e. the one you see once you log in. On top of this, there are two irksome pop-ups that appear on logging in - close the windows after they load and you can forget about them. The advertising is no more insidious than that of most free email providers, although the pop-ups are a bit too O.T.T. Where's The Catch? ================== The catch is always the storage space. Email.com provides you with 10 Mb, which, for me, is plenty. I don't store my emails for long and I don't keep more than a dozen in my folders at any one time. However, I realise that, for some people, 10 Mb will seem like a straight-jacket. The maximu
m email size - incoming and outgoing - is 2 Mb including attachments, so you could be stuck with 5 emails in your account and a hot temper. There are a few ways round the storage problem, though ... If you're tempted to send huge attachments, you can restrict yourself by going into "options", "preferences" and chosing an email size limit between 20 k and 2 Mb. If you constantly forget to empty your trash folder, then you can set your trash to automatically empty whenever you logout - once again, in "options", then "preferences". If these two simple, cheap solutions don't fix your storage needs, then you're going to be in for a surprise. On reaching 80% capacity (80%! - I never reach more than 1 or 2!) you'll receive an email warning you that you're approaching your limit. On clogging up your entire 10 Mb storage, your incoming emails will be bounced back to the senders. You don't have to put up with 10 Mb storage space. You can upgrade to a premium account (a standard option with most free email providers). MailPRO costs from $2.95 USD per month or $29.95 USD per year; this gives you 20 Mb storage and email size limits of 4 Mb. Frankly, I can't see the point - if your storage needs are that great, there are free providers who offer more storage. In fact, if you need tons of space, you might as well use a regular computer-based type account as only you can limit your hard drive space. About The Company ================= Prima facie, this looks like a neat set up - a trusty partnership between Email.com and Mail.com Inc. In the "about Email.com" section, they imply they're listed on the NASDAQ - although the keyword "MAIL" seems to belong to another company called Easylink Services (go to http://www.nasdaq.com/reference/IPOs.stm to try this). Mail.com Inc (http://corp.mail.com) appears to be a mainstream global company providing email and
messaging services for various companies. However, once you start following the links, searching for the name behind the face, you find that Email.com is provided by Mail.com, which in turn is a division of Net2Phone (http://www.net2phone.com). Net2Phone is another global company providing internet telephony services in several countries including the UK. In fact, Mail.com has it's own free email service, which is identical to Email.com and ... it's all getting rather confusing. The main facts you need to know are (1) Email.com seems to be backed by several companies and (2) the main company behind it is Net2Phone, which was established in 1996. Conclusion ========== I've been using this email provider for about a week. They seem reliable and fast. The parent company has been going since 1996, so they're likely to stay around for a while. The ads are annoying but I can put up with them. My emails get delivered safely and my incoming mail arrives without any problems. (Tip: the priority flags - high, normal and low - really do affect the speed that emails are delivered in. Make sure you select "high" priority if your email is urgent.) I think I'll stick with Email.com and give them 4 out of 5 (1 point dropped for the inoperative signature settings and the complicated/misleading trail of backing companies). If you need something simple and storage isn't an issue, then Email.com could be the email provider you've been looking for.
As everyone knows, "best for baby" and "best for you" equals Johnson & Johnson's baby products. Their detangling baby shampoo is a stunning example. Unlike the old, original, plain jane shampoo in chemical yellow, this detangling one is a hot neon pink - albeit in the familiar, clear tear-drop shaped bottle. It looks very girlie (sorry, baby boys) and it has a sweet, honey fragrance to match. Johnson & Johnson is a trusted, well known brand, so we expect a lot from their products. After all, it's "the brand UK health professionals prefer" so it must be something special. On application, the shampoo lathers well and continues to exude a subtle fresh scent. (Those of you with babies may liken it to the smell of clean, soft baby skin. Everyone else will probably picture warm talcum powder.) After my last shampoo (Timotei), this product feels like it's really "clinically proven [mild]" and not full of scalp-tingling chemicals. Although I've clearly sold my soul to Johnson & Johnson, I'm not prepared to test the claim that the shampoo is "as gentle to eyes as pure water." There must be something sinister lurking in the bottle as it carries a "keep out of children's reach" warning. It probably just means that children (and adults) shouldn't ingest the shampoo ... but anyone seeking medical, lathering or other guidance can call the Johnson & Johnson's help line on 0845 602 0333. Rinsing out the suds poses no problems. There's none of the slimy, lingering caresses that other shampoos and conditioners like to bestow on your hair. This shampoo disappears without a trance - except the all-pervasive fragrance that can't bear to say goodbye. Finally, once your hair is ready to approach a state of dryness, you can test the "special detangling formula" claim. This claim is no idle boast; despite my previous declaration of corpor
ate soul-selling, please believe that the detangling formula really works. Although this shampoo is not your average 2-in-1 shampoo (which never works), it really does leave your hair reasonably easy to comb. Of course, I don't mean that there's no tangles at all - I simply mean your hair is in a better condition after you wash it and it's easier to run a comb through it than if you'd used another (ordinary) shampoo. Over all, this shampoo leaves me a soft, purring kitten of contentment. It, like the infamous Ronseal products, does exactly what it says on the tin. Although the shampoo is clearly intended for babies with soft, fine hair, it has definitely worked its magic on my thick, long hair - so, I would infer that it'll work on most hair types. I would unhesitatingly recommend this shampoo to anyone. (Except folks with permed or dyed hair - keep using those specialist shampoos!) It's shocking to realise that initially I only bought this shampoo because it was the cheapest brand shampoo in my local Waitrose supermarket! (It costs £1.89 for 300 ml.) Buy some Johnson & Johnson's baby shampoo today - your hair and scalp will love you for it.
"Only one queen in a hive! Slash! Stab!" If the kingdom of Lancre is the hive, then Going-to-be-Queen Magrat must contend with the Queen of the Elves for the royal jelly. It's all great fun so long as you don't get in the way. However, a little background reading is essential to a full understanding of the novel. Background ========== Pratchett fans will know that this is the 14th novel in the Discworld series and, more importantly, they've probably read all the preceding novels. Normally this isn't necessary as you can read each novel in any order you like but 'Lords and Ladies' is different. It is, for those in the know, another witch novel featuring the infamous Nanny Ogg, Granny Weatherwax and Magrat Garlick. Those of you drawing a blank will have to refer to novels 3, 6 and 12 - 'Equal Rites', 'Wyrd Sisters' and 'Witches Abroad'. 'Equal Rites' first introduced readers to Granny Weatherwax. Her initial incarnation was of a common country witch - a sort of old biddy - who did a few spells, distrusted 'city' folks and pottered uncertainly through life. 'Wyrd Sisters' widened the 'coven' of witches and transformed Granny Weatherwax into a force to be reckoned with. She became the supremely confident, powerful witch that readers know and love. Granny was also established as the most respected leader of all the local witches. Her sidekicks, if fans will excuse the expression, were Nanny Ogg and Magrat Garlick. Nanny is a many times married and wickedly earthy matriarch of a huge family. Magrat on the other hand is a soppy, young witch who nurses baby birds and cries when they die. 'Wyrd Sisters' was basically a parody of Shakespeare's 'MacBeth' - with a bit of confusion over the actual heir to the throne. There was the guy who murdered the king, the actual heir and some guy called Verence who, after a bit of fast dealin
g by the witches, ended up as the new king. 'Witches Abroad' saw Granny, Nanny and Magrat travelling to Genua to stop a servant girl from marrying the prince. With the aid of a magic wand attuned to the miraculous production of pumpkins and nothing else. Needless to say all stories must have an ending - except when you're dealing with life, which just goes on. After all, the witches had to return home to Lancre at some point ... Lords and Ladies ================ After their huge success in Genua, Granny, Nanny and Magrat are ready to settle back into the familiar routine of daily life in Lancre. Since they'd been away, though, some of the local girls decided to fill the void and play at 'witching'. That's not a big issue for the witches; especially Magrat, who's rather more preoccupied with discovering King Verence has made the wedding arrangements without asking the bride-to-be i.e. her. To add a bit of confusion, it's circle time and one of the pretend witches actually has the power. Before you can blink, circles are opening up everywhere - in the crops, on flannels and on heads (but perhaps that's just baldness). The Lords and Ladies could be coming back - "The Fair Folk. The Gentry. The Shining Ones. The Star People. You know." Well, if you don't know, it's the elves. Although Magrat was a bit put out with the wedding arrangements, she does actually love Verence so she's happy to let things go on until she discovers Granny's note. Granny being somewhat older and wiser realised that Verence and Magrat had a lot in common such as the inability to talk to the opposite sex, the inability to get past the first date, a lack of understanding about 'the birds and the bees' and the inability to organise a drink in a brewery. This being the way things stood, she decided to make a few decisions for them. So the wedding was off ... but sort of on ... bu
t really off. (I've been to a wedding like this.) Fortunately, the elves are on hand to stir things up. "Elves are wonderful. They provoke wonder ... Elves are glamorous. They project glamour ... Elves are terrific. They beget terror." A bit of a blow to anyone who still believes in kindly flower fairies. That's the whole problem; "No-one ever said elves are nice. Elves are bad." They're mean and they're nasty and they want a piece of the action: they want Lancre. Magrat probably wouldn't have noticed, amidst her pre-wedding nerves, were it not for the fact that the Queen of the Elves also wants Verence - "There's more to being king than wearing a crown. The king and the land are one. The king and the queen are one." So, on to battle stations: Magrat must challenge the Queen of the Elves, if she wants to hang on to her bridegroom. Ordinarily, she wouldn't stand a chance but as every statistician knows, there's always one result that won't fit in the charts. Of course, it helps if there's a lot of other people on your side - as long as you're winning, there's no need to worry that one of them is an orang-utan. Conclusion ========== There's a lot of action to pack into this novel and, as usual, I've left most of it out because I'd end up writing 382 pages and there's no need to spoil the story. The main story thread follows Magrat en route to her wedding with several unexpected detours. However, there's lots of secondary threads that bring in favourite characters like Ridcully, Casanunda and the Librarian. Although Pratchett has included a rare foreword in this novel, advising readers of the background (see above), I think this novel can be read on its own provided you realise Magrat and Verence have a tenuous 'understanding' which is yet to come to fruition. Anything else is just to add fans in gleeful heart-hug
ging I've-spotted-so-and-so mode. 'Lords and Ladies' is humorous and entertaining and thoroughly packed with adventure. I'd recommend this novel to anyone who enjoys the odd smirk and a jolly good read. Being a Pratchett fan or a sci-fi/fantasy buff is strictly optional.
"What gods need is belief, and what humans want is gods." This is why the Church of the Great God Om is all-powerful and why Om is somewhere up a brown river. Humans want gods but they don't necessarily believe in them - it's the difference between wanting a church wedding and actually going to church. Om started out as one of the billions of small gods, hanging on to existence while trying to attract believers. One day a shepherd came along and Om helped him locate a lost sheep. Et voila, Omnianism. There's an old story that says if you whip a horse, it'll run faster but eventually, when you stop whipping it, it'll lose the desire to run. The Great God Om whipped his followers into a frenzy but when his back was metaphorically turned, they stopped believing in him. Now, he has just enough power to manifest as a tortoise and a desperate fear of losing his one remaining believer, Brutha. ("Sheep are stupid and have to be driven. But goats are intelligent and need to be led." - If only Om's first believer had been a goatherd.) History is about to be made: the next Prophet is about to come forward. Unfortunately for Om, Novice Brutha the Chosen One has to compete with Deacon Vorbis who Chose Himself for the position. Brutha hears the voice of his god but Vorbis hears the voices in his head. (As head of the Quisition, they usually tell him to turn up the heat.) In this novel, we follow Brutha as he accompanies Vorbis from Kom, across the sea to Ephebe - city of gods, philosophers, democratic people and other barbarian infidels. It's the perfect setting for a lively I'm-mightier-than-you discussion. This means Brutha is accompanying Vorbis back home sooner than he expected and taking a risky shortcut through the Klatchian desert. All Brutha and Vorbis need to do is make it across the desert and ensure there's at least one survivor to become the next Prophet. Starving in a
desert doesn't do much for your health but sanity isn't a prerequisite for the Prophet job. Things look decidedly dodgy for Brutha and Vorbis but fortunately there's a whole host of individuals along to keep an eye on them. Om the (former) Great God is still plodding along in tortoise form, a stray lion is quite happy to follow them along, there's quite a few small gods whispering in the night and, of course, there's St Ungulent - "Friend of all small gods. Everywhere." History is rapidly getting confused and it's at times like these that you could do with a History Monk to witness all the "random events" and keep the plot on track. Well, perhaps once Brutha and Vorbis reach the dubious safety of Kom, the Monks of History can give things a bit of a nudge before History loses all credibility. All they need to do is witness the arrival of the Prophet, the recovery of the (not so) Great God Om, and the effects of the invading Ephebian army. This is the lucky 13th novel in the Discworld series and it is one of the most challenging novels in the series. Initially, it's quite hard to get into the story. Religion is a difficult topic to translate into comedy and the results can easily offend. Fortunately 'Small Gods' copes rather well and smiles do start to break through. The only problem is Vorbis - he is simply unlovable and untouchable. Vorbis is only there as a plot aid - to get Brutha to Ephebe and make him think for himself. Asides from this little grumble, the rest of the novel is as humorous and as entertaining as the rest of the Discworld series. In other words, if you like the Discworld series then you'll like 'Small Gods'. Terry Pratchett utilises a peculiarly British type of humour, which involves being irreverent and sarcastic. The Quisition, like their 'real' Spanish counterparts, torture people to death to obtain confessions; their mugs are "grouped
around a kettle on the hearth of the central furnace which incidentally heated the irons and knives" and had legends like "To The World's Greatest Daddy" written on them. It's a kind of humour that you either 'get' or you don't but this novel is a good place to find out.
Acorna is an orphaned alien girl who has fur and a horn like a mythical unicorn albeit a humanoid one. She's rescued by 3 space prospector foster fathers and grows up to save the exploited victims of the child labour trade on the planet Kedzet. It's all rather unlikely but that's the nature of science fiction and fantasy. The Plot ======== Gill, Calum and Rafik float about in space and mine likely asteroids for valuable minerals. They detect a distress signal and discover an enchanting alien infant in an escape pod, whom they name Acorna. They have to return to their HQ to unload their minerals. Unfortunately, the company they were contracted to switched hands and the new owners are only interested psychology and all mining operations are being phased out. A nasty side effect is that the psychologists are rather interested in Acorna. Losing their jobs is bad enough without losing their foster daughter so they immediately beat a hasty retreat with the help of Judit, a former child labour victim. The next problem comes in the form of Rafik's uncle Hafiz, who is willing to help them become anonymous in exchange for Acorna joining his collection of "rarities". By this time, Acorna seems to have grown considerably - more like a 7 or 8 year now rather than a toddler. Anyway, of course Rafik and the boys have to trick Hafiz and escape with Acorna. Believing themselves to be safe, the 3 prospectors find the time to do a bit of shopping on a handy planet. I hardly need to mention this was a bad decision. The shopping trip turns into a one-way trip to the planet Kedzet, where Li - a businessman as rich and powerful as Hafiz - is waiting to "persuade" them to part with Acorna. So they escape ... Actually, they don't because that would turn the novel into a boring set of capture/escape sequences. This point in the novel, instead, heralds a change of style. Acorna and foster fathers are re-united w
ith Judit (a sort of plot link) and agree to embark on a huge search and rescue mission as virtually all of Kedzet's trade is founded on illegal child labour. Fortunately, Acorna has now reached maturity - in a rather speedy 2 or 3 years - and can become a mother figure for the abused children. The main change in style involves switching constantly between Acorna and the children, to weave 2 concurrent story threads together. The big plot change though is the sudden and complete acceptance of the rescue mission by Acorna and the 3 men. Not only must they find and remove all the child labour victims but they must build and maintain a moon base to house and protect them. No small undertaking is this but the little family seem to have no problems suddenly turning their lives upside down for it. Well, needless to say, there is a happy ending - with a small hook thrown in to ensure readers will buy the sequel. If you're interested, the second novel in the series is Acorna's Quest and the third one is Acorna's People. The Problems ============ It grieves me indeed to report that a novel is anything less than delightful but I can't recommend Acorna unless you happen to be McCaffrey or Ball fans and need this novel to prop up your collection. The first part of the novel, detailing Acorna's charming childhood, is an enchanting albeit saccharine encrusted piece of prose. The infant Acorna seems so real that you want to make goo-goo baby noises at her. It's not really an auspicious start for a novel and the plot, having no initial direction, bounces along in a sort of Brownian Motion. Every time the plot bounces off a new character, it pinwheels off into a new direction. The second part of the novel involves the rather distressingly realistic tales of the child labourers interspersed with the slow construction of the moon base and the urgent pairing off of the characters in preparation for the inevitable hap
py ending. It is impossible not to feel sympathetic towards the children but it is impossible to believe the plot as the other characters free-wheel through it. The plot is not the only problem and I can't be so blind towards literature to say that a vacant novel is a good read. After the plot, the next problem I must highlight is the language. Despite the fact that my copy of this novel was both printed and published in Britain, it is entirely in American English. A minor irritation, to be sure, but too vexing to ignore when followed by all the other faults. Next to the language comes the "science" elements of the science fiction. As we can only assume the novel was deliberately set in American English, we can only assume that "Basic Interlingua" - the universal human language - is based solely on American English. On top of this, other elements have been crudely inserted to make the novel's version of the future seem realistic. Rafik and Hafiz seem to be following a religion that can only be a spin-off of Islam designed to amuse the reader - references to "the bad old ways" of the Koran and hijab are unmistakable. Even more insultingly, Li (a Chinese character) talks in broken Basic (English) e.g. "Also need someone with sense" and "Is offer of [Hafiz] acceptable to you". Perhaps all these defects could be overlooked by fans but there is one final flaw to marvel at - the jarring historical elements. To further endorse the McCaffrey-Ball vision of the future, historical anecdotes and references are sprinkled throughout the story. Among others, there's the infamous tale of King Edward VIII of England who abdicated to marry American divorcee Mrs Wallis Simpson, the Celtic horse goddess Epona and Judit (a Chinese character) quietly thinking of herself as a Victorian governess. Not one of these elements sits comfortably in the story and, although it is impossible to say which author inserte
d them, they can only be seen to mesh as poorly as McCaffrey and Ball. Conclusion ========== Acorna is something of a disappointment. Some authors work well together, e.g. Pratchett and Gaiman's Good Omens, but McCaffrey and Ball just don't mesh. Superficially, they have enough in common: McCaffrey is US born and Ball is a US resident; McCaffrey is a part-time lecturer and Ball has a PhD in Linguistics; both authors specialise in science fiction/fantasy; both are married with children and love animals. Unfortunately, this hasn't translated well into this novel and I suspect it will appeal only to fans or the curious. I don't think McCaffrey and Ball were deliberately trying to insult; in fact, I believe they were attempting to be humorous in parts in order to balance the tone of the novel - which is necessarily sober when dealing with child labour. Writing about an alien species is unquestionably difficult as we only have our imaginations to go on. Over all, though, McCaffrey and Ball form a distinctly uneasy team and this novel provides no credit to either of their careers.
Sense and sensibility are the hallmarks of sisters Elinor and Marianne, allowing the former to present a facade of dignity and civility in the face of disappointment and the latter to "[abhor] all concealment where no real disgrace could attend unreserve". (Sensibility in this context represents behaviour governed by emotions.) They and their sister, Margaret, and their mother, Mrs Dashwood, are happy at their home in Norland but circumstances force them to leave and retreat to Barton. Mrs Dashwood married a widower whose estate was wholly tied up for his son, John, by his previous marriage. Although John promised his dying father to provide for his sisters and step-mother, the influence of his wife - "a strong caricature of himself; more narrow-minded and selfish" - quickly reduced this promise to nothing, forcing their relations to fend for themselves. So, under relative poverty, Mrs Dashwood and her daughters set out to Barton Cottage at the invitation of their kind cousin, Sir John Middleton, rather than spend any more time lingering around their unfeeling nearer relations. At this new setting, a couple of romantic dramas unfold involving Elinor and Marianne. The more obvious one is Marianne's rapid attachment to John Willoughby, a dashing young man with charming manners and as little sense as Marianne. The other drama is Elinor's deep disappointment over Edward Ferrars, her sister-in-law's brother. Although Elinor's relationship with Edward was never as advanced at Norland as Marianne's relationship is at Barton, Elinor did love him and continued to think of him with hope. However, the introduction of Lucy Steele, a more distant and less appealing "illiterate, artful and selfish" cousin, reveals that Edward has been secretly engaged to Lucy for the past four years. One character I must highlight is Colonel Brandon who, although (initially) too "old" to win Marianne's hear
t, is happy to seek the consolation of Elinor's friendship. Colonel Brandon, like Elinor, is entitled to bear the title of Sense and I feel these two characters are the real heros of the novel. Both of them are at work throughout the novel to provide assistance and promote tolerance and understanding between the other characters. After the developments at Barton, Elinor is reluctant and Marianne eager to follow their respective beaus, Edward and Willoughby, to London. They travel there with Mrs Jennings, the mother-in-law of Sir John. Events in London rapidly spiral out of control, resulting in heartache for Marianne as well as Elinor, and some painful months later see them returning home to Barton via Cleveland. Even on this simple journey, the sisters cannot be left in peace for fate decrees that Marianne's health - dangerously compromised by her sensibility - necessitates a protracted stay at Cleveland. Fortunately, for all concerned, Marianne's illness and recovery promote the discovery of certain truths and helps sort out a few misunderstandings. This, last but not least, leaves Colonel Brandon and Elinor to finally be rewarded for their wisdom and merit. "Sense and Sensibility" was first published in 1811 and nearly two centuries later it is still being read. This is a fascinating story of domestic dramas and the minutae of family life. Like all of Austen's novels, the story draws you into a self-contained little world and leaves you marvelling at how such (ordinarily) mundane events can hold so much charm. The premise that good sense is better than unchecked sensibility is entirely reasonable and is continually promoted by the novel. Perhaps this strong notion of duty or righteousness came from Austen's father, a parson in the Anglican church. In any case, although Marianne - representing sensibility - is unquestionably the more vibrant character, the reader's sympathies are strongest with sensible
Elinor who bears so many difficulties with no less feeling but more grace than her sister. Although "Pride and Prejudice" is my favourite Austen novel, "Sense and Sensibility" comes a close second. It may already be familiar to many people as, like most of Austen's novels, it has been translated on to the Big Screen several times. The most recent version starred Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet; it was reasonably close to the novel although certain elements were exagerated to enhance comprehension. "Sense and Sensibility" has some of the sparkle of "Pride and Prejudice" and some of the solemnity of "Persuasion". Essentially, though, it is a love story - both dramatic and deeply engrossing.