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    • Gear4 UnityRemote / Apps / 26 Readings / 26 Ratings
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      13.05.2011 17:42
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      Another App you didn't know you needed

      UnityRemote

      Do you ever look at your iPhone and think; "I wish it could do more"? Of course you don't. Right out of the box it already does more than you thought a phone could ever do and a few minutes spent in the App Store will result in your iPhone doing stuff you never imagined and pretty quickly realise you can't live without. When you've had an iPhone for a while you begin to take this for granted, to the point where should you pay a visit to the App Store and not come away with something awesome you feel personally let down. This is rare though and this review is the story of one of my more useful visits.

      I'm not sure where to start this story without giving the game away and making it all sound too glib but suffice to say, as is so often the case, an app came along that neatly and efficiently solved a problem I didn't know I had and in a way that is now utterly indispensible.

      So, what was the problem? Well, towards the end of last year I felt the need to update my TV setup. Although I already had a nice big-screen plasma it wasn't fully HD and I felt I was missing out. Obviously, being married, this willy-nilly upgrading isn't straight forward so I had to start by explaining the need to upgrade our cable to the lovely Virgin V+ HD service. Easy enough first step and quickly followed by explaining the need to upgrade the telly to a fancy LCD HD one. A fancy HD telly would be a waste without a decent Blu-Ray player feeding into it and with all that lovely HD coming out of the screen it would be a travesty not to add in a decent amp system. You see, it all makes perfect sense when you think it through logically. Anyway, by the time Christmas rolled around we had all this lovely new kit in place and we were ready to go. I won't go into detail about all these bits, they can wait for their own reviews (although, given my recent track record I probably won't bother) but they did present me with a problem. Each unit came with its own remote control but because they were all being piped though the amplifier they became more like minor components in a larger, integrated whole. This makes watching (and listening) a tremendous pleasure but the control aspect has become a bit of a mess. Even though everything is routed through the amp, each box still needs some aspects managed by their specific remote control. No matter what you are watching you need access to at least three remote controls which is clearly a bit of a pain.

      Enter the UnityRemote iPhone App. I saw an advert for it in one of the Mac magazines and was immediately hooked. Like most adverts for apps the picture had the iPhone front and centre with a clear view of the screen showing a very practical set-up. The accompanying blurb stated "Turn your iPhone into an advanced Universal Remote using the discrete UnityRemote device and free app." Like all good Apple consumers I immediately latched onto the Carrot part of the message ("Universal Remote" and "Free app") and completely ignored the Stick parts ("UnityRemote device" and the rather sinister looking object, slightly off centre and soft focus in the picture). By the time I realised I would have to spend actual cash on something else to make it work I had already downloaded the app and it was with very little resistance that I had my credit card out and was ready to pay. I am so in the Apple demographic.

      Ok, that's enough colour commentary; let's have some play by play. What is the UnityRemote, what does it cost and why is it so brilliant.

      Firstly then; what it is. UnityRemote comes in two parts, the free app that sets up and controls everything and the little device that acts as the interface between the iPhone and AV equipment. Why is this device needed? Because even though the iPhone offers seamless connectivity via wi-fi, 3G and Bluetooth it doesn't have infrared which is, unfortunately, exactly how the AV kit receives instructions from the remote controls. The little unit is needed to receive instructions from the iPhone via Bluetooth and then send on via infrared. Because the unit uses infrared it requires line-of-site positioning relative to the AV kit but it does have a 360 degree range so if a suitable vantage point can be found it can be used to manage all IR controlled devices dotted around the room. There is probably a limit to the number of devices that can be connected but I doubt any living room would come close to hitting this. The unit is about the size of a cup cake and looks both smart and discrete at the same time.

      I'll quickly mention price, just to get the unsavoury business out of the way. The unit cost me £99 from John Lewis back in January (it was the same price everywhere online). A quick look this morning had prices of £75 headlining a Google search but I don't know if these are genuine. Yes, this is a lot of money for something you don't actually need but you're living in an Apple world now. Get used to it.

      How does it Work?

      The UnityRemote can be configured to control your devices in two ways. The simplest way is to use it to control each device individually; the more practical way is to set it up to control multiple devices in order to achieve a single goal. For example, if you want to watch TV you will want access to the TV and tuner (freeview, cable or Sky box) at the same time so the app will present you with pertinent controls from both devices on one screen.

      Setting up

      When it comes to devices there are two kinds of people in the world and as luck would have it my wife is one kind and I am the other. My wife is a 'plug-and-play' kind of gal (I'm not being rude and I won't entertain any rude comments either) and either a device works straight out of the box or it is quickly consigned to history. On the other hand if I don't get at least twenty minutes of fiddling out of a new device I feel cheated.
      The UnityRemote satisfies everyone. In short order you will download the app, unpack the unit (giving it some batteries) and Bluetooth connect it to the phone. You are then ready to set it up with your equipment and while it is clever it isn't quite sentient and you will have to tell it what devices you have. To add a TV go to the relevant list within the app, find your make and model and all the controls are imported, then do the same with your DVD player, cable box/freeview tuner, iPod dock and so on. It really is that quick and the remarkable thing is that everything worked first time. If you have a device that is missing from the app's list or it has missed some of the controls it is a simple matter to add these manually. The device will learn as many controls as you need; point the original remote at the device, hold down the control you want to add until the app accepts it and then assign an icon or text to describe the action. That instruction has now been memorised and can be called up whenever required.

      That covers the 'plug-and-play' part; the configuration part comes with setting up the Unity part of the app. This is where it really begins to make those old remote controls redundant as you will now be controlling multiple devices from a single screen. The app will start you with two unity screens, one for watching TV and one for watching a DVD, and this begins to show the strength of the system and one of its main drawbacks. The default settings will have a stab at what controls you'll want to see on screen but most likely you'll need to configure these to match your own set-up. This is where the fun is and you can spend as long as you like fiddling around to get the best configuration. You will learn through experience and this is something you're unlikely to get right first time but juggling the controls is a simple operation and so far it has never stopped working, whatever changes you make.

      The need to spend so much time getting the screen configuration right flags the main drawback of the app. That is screen size and the number of controls that are visible at any one time. Around the outside of the screen are the navigation buttons for managing the app itself and in the centre of the screen is a 3x3 grid where the remote control buttons live. This grid set-up is constant for every Device screen so the most buttons you can see at any one time is nine. Now the average remote control has a lot more than nine buttons on it so to control any device fully means swiping across several screens, for the Unity screens where you are controlling multiple devices this problem is exacerbated which is why configuring the app to show the most relevant buttons on the first screen is something that develops through usage. Having controls buried across several screens means they can be awkward to find.

      Now then; why it is brilliant. I want to watch a DVD so I pick up the iPhone and engage the app. Select the 'Watch a Movie' Unity screen and one button will power up the DVD player, the TV and the amplifier. In the 3x3 grid I have buttons controlling playback, volume and access to the DVD Joystick. Pretty much everything I need when I'm watching a DVD on one screen, brilliant.
      When the DVD has finished and I want to watch something on Sky+ a couple of screen swipes later and all the controls I need to do that are there for me to use, brilliant once more.

      You can connect more than one iPhone to the unit (although only one will work at a time) so everyone can share the joy.


      I really like this app (and device); it works well and is definitely not a gimmick. There are constraints with screen size, and this is a definite drawback, but overall I'm glad I bought it. Whether it is worth a hundred pounds is another matter and one I'll leave up to you.

      UnityRemote is produced by Gear4 and full details can be found on their website - http://www.gear4.com/showcase-unity/#/explore_the_unityremote/

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      • Charge Mixer / Bikes / 70 Readings / 68 Ratings
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        01.06.2010 10:21
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        An excellent all rounder

        Charge Mixer

        I used to dabble in a lot of sports, not that I was particularly good at any of them but the beauty of sports is that you can usually find your competitive level and have some fun. Over the years a lot of these sports have dropped by the wayside as work and family have encroached on the time available and participation has become sporadic at best. It is a strange paradigm that as family life has reduced the time spent on the playing field it has equally increased the time spent in National Trust tea shops. Now, as we all know the National Trust has one main raison d'etre and that is to provide customers with a wide choice of lovely, home-made cakes. They also maintain historic estates, landscapes and whatnot but it's pretty much all about the cakes. So it is that following the inescapable lifestyle equation of Passing Years minus Sporting Activity plus National Trust Cake the inevitable result is an extra pound or two around your Bottom Line. C'est la vie.

        I used to do a lot of cycling as well, not as a sport but as a practical way of getting around, but when I made the tragic move from north of the river to south my comfortable 10 mile commute became an unrealistic 20 mile challenge and slowly but surely my cycling declined to the point where when my last bike bit the dust several years ago it wasn't replaced.

        But time marches on and I recently found myself missing the old bike so I started giving some serious thought to getting back on two wheels. By glorious happenstance this has coincided with the government's (the old Brown one that is, not the shiny happy coalition one), frankly rather generous, Ride2Work scheme*.

        Now you'd think that the world of bikes was fairly straightforward, but no. It would appear that at some point in the recent past it was decided that we should have lots of different bikes so that people have the excuse of buying two or three each. In my day you had racers and that was it. Drop handle bars, skinny tyres and uncomfortable seats - that's what bikes looked like. Next some smart alec added chunky tyres and heavier frames and called them mountain bikes, still a simple enough choice even for me. But then I go away for a few years and it's all road bikes, hardtails, fixies, single speeds, urban, hybrid or cyclo cross. Apparently, some even fold up now. Crazy. When you add in the fact that in each category the prices can range from a couple of hundred pounds to a couple of thousand pounds it soon becomes clear that some serious research is required.

        At this point I'd like to tip my hat to the magazine Bicycle Buyer, which was invaluable in helping me choose the right bike. There are several excellent cycling magazines out there but most target people who are already cyclists, their reviews and commentaries are all about whether a new bike is better than your current bike or how to improve your cycling skills. Bicycle Buyer focuses on the cycling newbie and does a great job debunking and demystifying the inevitable web of jargon and terminology in the world of bikes. I should also mention that they made this bike (the 2009 version anyway) their bike of the year last year.

        The type of bike you need is clearly dictated by what you are going to use it for. Obvious enough I know but really important when you remember that whatever you buy it is you who will have to drag it around the terrain when you go out. So, while the latest mountain bikes look awesome with all that front and rear suspension and chunky tyres they are heavy, and if you are only going to be riding on roads do you really want to be dragging all that weight around?

        I might be taking it around some fields on weekends but most of my riding will be on the roads so I was inevitably led towards the urban/hybrid end of the market. These are quite generalist bikes, good for tramping around town or gentle off-roading they have the lighter frames and thinner tyres of the road bikes along with the upright sitting position and flat handlebars of mountain bikes. This also makes them good for people new to riding or who have been away for a while, the lack of specialisation is also good news on the price front as even top end examples will come in at well under a thousand pounds. For serious hobbyists it doesn't take long for specialist bikes to crash through the grand barrier.

        ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

        Charge is a relatively new, UK based bike manufacturer. They started trading in 2006 and have gradually grown their range to the point where they now have several options available covering most bike specialties. Their bikes are freely sold across the UK and are exported around the world so it is hard to call them a niche brand but their range does call on a central design ethos and aspiration that is easily identifiable. All Charge bikes share the same understated design cues, single colour frames and minimalist branding which means that they manage to look both exceptionally cool and unobtrusive on the bike rack. They are usually pitched at the mid range price bracket between £500-£900 and offer fair value for the quality of components and build.

        Like most manufacturers they often update each range annually and the 2010 Mixer retails at £899.99 with little scope for discounting. However, there are still plenty of (near identical) 2009 models available on the high street and these should save you at least a hundred pounds.

        Once the price ticket goes beyond a couple of hundred pounds your bike becomes a bit like a PC in that it is more or less a collection of branded components combined to make a well balanced whole. The logical extension of this is that you can, if you should wish to, upgrade individual components as far as your personal budget and preferences want to go. I'm not aware of any factory customisation being available but I'm sure any decent retailer with a workshop attached will offer aftermarket work.

        However, given that you will also probably be buying this out of the box a summary specification is as follows:

        Frame: Charge Mixer with Tange Prestige Double Butted frame
        Fork: Charge Whisk Disc - Tange Prestige
        Shifters: Alfine Rapidfire (Right only)
        Chainset: Alfine Hollow Tech II
        Chainrings: 39 tooth
        Bottom Bracket: Shimano outboard bearings
        Cassette: Alfine 18 tooth cog
        Pedals: Wellgo LUC-27G
        Front Brake: Shimano M485 hydraulic disc
        Rear Brake: Shimano M485 hydraulic disc
        Brake Levers: Shimano M485 hydraulic disc
        Handlebars: Charge Alloy Flat Bar
        Stem: Charge 3D forged Ahead stem
        Headset: TH 857 1-1/8" Forged Alloy Caged Bearing
        Grips: WTB Street Smart
        Rims: Alex DP17
        Front Hub: Shimano M495 Centerlock Disc
        Rear Hub: Shimano Alfine SG-S500 internal 8 speed, centerlock disc mount
        Front Tyre: Continental Sport Contact 700x32c
        Rear Tyre: Continental Sport Contact 700x32c
        Saddle: Charge Spoon
        Seatpost: Micro Adjust Alloy

        The bike was purchased from Evans Cycles by Waterloo Station where the staff were very helpful and personable on each of my visits. Knowledgeable without being exclusionary they helped me through bike selection, test ride and then when choosing some accessories. It may have been something of a done deal with the £1000 voucher already paid for but the final visit took over an hour to complete and the assistant's enthusiasm didn't waiver throughout. The bike was delivered 95% assembled with most of the accessories fitted, the only remaining tasks were to attach the pedals and line up the handlebar. Even for these minor tasks tools and detailed instructions were included. Delivery was free but a bit of a faff. An early morning text promised an AM delivery but as lunchtime and then afternoon passed several telephone exchanges at various levels of emotion were held before the van finally arrived at 9:30PM. Oh well, it was here now and it was with deep joy that I unpacked each part and put it all together before launching on a midnight ride through the now empty roads down my way.

        ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

        With just eight gears running through a single front chain ring this is a simple and practical set up. Gears can be selected up or down via finger paddles on the handlebar and contribute to making this bike very easy to ride and get on with, this is completed by the Alfine internal hub gearing system which ensure that gear changes are smooth and forgiving. This is intended to be an urban / near-road bike and so the gearing doesn't have the long-leggedness of genuine tourers and road bikes, there have been times when I've wished for a couple of higher gears but on the whole it is a fair compromise.

        Braking is provided by front and rear discs and is reliably powerful without being disconcerting. They look rather complicated, however, and any maintenance should probably be approached with caution but for now I am very happy with them.

        Wheels are the road bike standard 700C (mountain bikes tend to have 26 inch wheels) and this is matched by the slim(ish) frame. Not the lightest you can find it is easily hefted and thrown around but is reassuringly robust enough to handle our capital's rougher roads and lighter trails. The lack of suspension is noticeable on trails but as the majority of my riding is on the highways I'll happily trade this for the saved weight. Riding this around my local roads you do feel confident that your exertions are suitably rewarded and you are not wasting energy dragging excess weight around.
        The frames are available in four sizes from extra small up to large and tend to err on the large size so you will probably want to look at one size smaller than you'd expect, whichever way you go a test ride will be priority. Despite being out of the saddle for several years the standard seat provided has proven very comfortable and I see no reason to change it for the moment.

        Finally, let's talk about the look of the bike. Style is obviously a very personal matter but these Charge bikes really are a bit special. The Mixer is available in silver but it really works best in black, offsetting perfectly the simple white branding. The large road wheels against the mountain bike stance of the frame make this a really good looking bike. Backed up by the top quality components this is a bike to be taken seriously that you can also have a lot of fun with. Proper biker types that I know nod appreciatively when they see it and I have to say that after a couple of months and a couple of hundred miles I really couldn't be happier with it. It really is the perfect antidote to those home made National Trust cakes.


        * The Ride2Work scheme is the government's attempt to create a healthier, greener commuter community. In a nutshell, your employer buys a voucher from a participating cycle supplier on your behalf (value up to a thousand pounds). You then use that voucher to buy a bike and accessories of your own choice, your employer claims back the VAT from HMRC and the remaining balance from you before tax. This means that the nett cost to you of that £1000 voucher is somewhere between five and six hundred pounds. Nice eh? Get in while it lasts, I say.

        Most bike shops participate in this scheme and will have comprehensive details on-line but as a starter try these sites:

        http://www.cyclescheme.co.uk/

        http://www.evanscycles.com/ride2work

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        • More +
          30.04.2010 15:26
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          Football management in your pocket

          Eidos - Championship Manager 2010 Express

          Is it morning already?

          This is a familiar refrain from any of those caught in the insidious grip of this game over the last dozen years or so and with this latest incarnation the same time-warping capabilities are now available on my phone. Many games are addictive, many get under your skin and threaten to over take you but I suspect that Championship Manager (and its various incarnations which I'll cover later) is the most addictive, un-putdownable game ever made.

          Now available as an App for use on the iPhone or iPod Touch it would seem, at first glance, a natural fit for the handheld, but how it has coped with this transition will form a large part of this review as well as its ongoing playability and value for money.
          But first; a bit of history. Dreaded words in a review, I know, but totally relevant here. Trust me.

          What is Championship Manager?
          (Very briefly)
          At the beginning of the game you become the manager of (depending on the version you're playing) pretty much any professional football team in the world. You then control transfers, tactics, training, team selection etc and watch them play through season after season until either you get bored or you get sacked. At which point you roll back to the beginning and start again.

          The Beginning
          The story begins in 1992 and like the best stories about computing involves a couple of geeks fiddling around in their bedroom. Paul and Oliver Collyer had the idea and after a couple of weeks bashing out code published the first edition of this game under their company name Sports Interactive (SI). I've not played this version but by all accounts it wasn't all that great, even by the standards of the day. Regardless, they persevered and taking advantage of the natural seasonal cycle of football released new versions each year. A few years ago I got hold of the 1994 version and while it was incredibly basic to look at you could definitely see the seeds of the game it would become. With very little activity outside team selection and basic tactics it ran very fast and seasons could be rattled through quickly.

          The Middle
          Now labelled Championship Manager 2 this had become a much more mature game and from 95/96 onwards became far more popular. I got my first copy in 1998 and it was a revelation to play. It remained a basic looking game, entirely text based the user interface was at least a lot more attractive than before but the real draw was what was going on under the bonnet.
          The game took realism to a new level. By now you could manage teams from dozens of leagues around the globe and the player database seemed to cover every single professional footballer in the world. Each player was rated across a wide range of attributes and the accuracy of this information became legendary, there were even stories of Premier League managers using the database for scouting. Certainly at this time there were several well rated lower league players it was worth buying early who also went on to achieve great success in the real world (Neil Lennon and Kieron Dyer stand out).
          The game engine became incredibly sophisticated and subtle changes to tactics and training regimes would have noticeable effects on match day performance but the central draw remained the same. Once a game started, all you could do was watch and hope as it was played out in text updates on the screen. The tension as you took a one nil lead into the final minutes of a game is hard to convey but is as close to watching a real game as makes no difference.
          When the history of computer games is written, Championship Manager 2 will be right there amongst the best of them.

          The End
          Not the end as such, more a bringing up to date. This bit is quite important so I hope you're not skimming.
          Championship Manager 2 became Championship Manager 3 (and inevitably 4) and its popularity grew accordingly. More elements were added to increase the complexity, more media interaction and player relation issues reflected the real world of multimedia demands and player/agent power and there was now a top down view of the in-play action but the basic premise remained the same. No matter what you do between games once the match starts it's out of your hands and this is what makes it so addictive.
          Now comes the important bit. In 2004 Sports Interactive split from their publisher (Eidos) and joined Sega. They got to keep the game engine and database, Eidos kept the name and user interface while they were both free to release games based on the original. Having retained all the important bits Sega could release a naturally updated version of the original game, now called Football Manager, several months before Eidos who had to work pretty much from scratch. This allowed them to steal the market share and capture the thoroughly confused consumers desperate for that season's fix.
          The two titles now compete annually and the general consensus is that FM has more depth and realism and is preferred by players of the original versions but that CM is easier to pick up and play.

          Remember this is the Championship Manager version adapted for the iPhone.

          What is Championship Manager 2010 Express?
          (Rather more detail this time)
          CM2010E (as I shall now call it) for the iPhone is a pared down version of the PC game of the same name. At the start you set up your user details and pick the team you want to manage and immediately the limitations of this handheld version become apparent; you can only select from the four English leagues. OK, not a problem for me as I always play as Spurs anyway so let's crack on.

          The UI is well adapted for the iPhone, menu options for training, transfers, management actions etc are all reached via touch screen buttons and various information pages can be navigated by swiping through. All context relevant information is contained in a single screen so scrolling is not required but text is still large enough to be readable. The limited screen space means that the number of options available on each screen is restricted so you sometimes need to drill down through several levels to get to the page you want, although there is a shortcut menu for key screens.

          One of the first things you'll do is have a look at your squad and here further limitations in the game are found. The reserve and youth teams are gone and you are left with a small first team squad to choose from. My Spurs team had twenty two players to choose from and while most of the key players were there the fringe and younger players were absent. This immediately removes one of the core pleasures of the game, talent spotting and player development but never mind, sacrifices have to be made.

          Once you've reviewed your squad you need to prepare for the coming season and this means heading for the training ground. Over the years both CM and FM have become very complex at this part of the game and the amount of time you could spend creating and implementing training regimes was staggering. For this version training is rather simplified and this is no bad thing. Players can be assigned either individually or in groups to eight different training regimes, these will affect a players attributes but not as dramatically as in the full games and a general training approach tends to work better than trying to work on an individual aspect of each player's game.

          The final core part of the game is managing transfers and for players of the full versions this is one of the best parts of the game experience. Inevitably this is badly affected by the transition to the handheld platform. The player database appears vastly reduced and there is no facility for setting up scouting networks to discover the next Fabregas or Messi. The player search function seems limited to English league or Champions League teams so the chances of discovering new talent is limited. Players can be bought and sold throughout the year and the whole process is unrealistically simple. Put in a bid for a player, the owning club will come back with a revised price and assuming you can match this the player will invariably join your club. Therefore you can get players like Torres or the aforementioned Messi joining mid-table clubs like Spurs for £20m or so. In the full size versions (as in the real world) this would never happen.

          There are elements of player/media interaction for you to deal with as a manager but these are fairly straightforward and I'm not convinced have much influence on your teams ongoing performance. You can call on an assistant to handle aspects of the game (team selection or training for example) but to be honest the game has been simplified to the point where this is unnecessary.

          Now then, you've reviewed your squad, trained them to a peak of performance and added depth and a touch of quality through your transfer wheeler dealing. It's time to put it all to the test and play the first game of the season. Once you press Start to get a match going there isn't a lot you can do except watch the updates but paradoxically this is also probably the best part of the game. Unfortunately it is impossible to compare this aspect to the full version as all the computations are whirring away in the background but in terms of gameplay it is every bit as nerve wracking and rewarding. The game engine must inevitably have been simplified but this hasn't unduly affected this part of the game and it remains a high point of the overall experience.

          Final Score
          The full version of this game is a truly immersive, time devouring experience. You can spend hours designing training regimes, scouting Scandinavian lower leagues and fine tuning tactics. Or you can hand it all over to your assistant manager and just pick the team when Saturday comes - your level of involvement is hugely negotiable. The handheld version has been pared down to such a degree that all aspects can be handled without slowing down progress through a season. It has all the 'just one more match before I leave it' playability of the full version put the paucity of transfer and training action makes it a less challenging and therefore less rewarding experience. The knock on effect of this is that it probably won't have the longevity of the full game either.

          But, you know what? That isn't the important thing, I've spent a long time comparing it to the full version because it was important to do so but equally it needs to be taken on its own merits. It's an iPhone app, not a full blown PC game. It costs £3 not £20 and is meant to pass train journeys and boring meetings not long weekends.

          And following that criteria it is fair to say it is a bloody brilliant app.

          Obviously you need to be a football fan, and ideally support a team, to have the necessary buy-in to enjoy this but if you are you will love this game. It might not keep you up all night but it will make travelling a lot more fun.

          Buy it.

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          • Favourite Authors / Discussion / 74 Readings / 73 Ratings
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            16.03.2010 13:39
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            Knowledge is power - read more.

            A Q&A about reading
            ~~~~~~~~~~~~~

            Found this little challenge while trawling the archives a few years back on another review site and seeing as reading is one of my favourite activities thought I'd give it a go. Glad to see it has surfaced here so with a little updating I'm happy for it to see the light of day on this side of the fence.

            I hope you enjoy it....

            Q. What is your favourite genre?
            ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

            There is no particular genre of books that I would say is my favourite. I like to read a variety of types, interchanging between fiction and non-fiction. I can be quite snobby about books so try and read my share of 'good' books but am equally happy with popular fiction. As long as the book is well written and constructed I am happy to go with any genre.
            There are particular authors where I have read all their work, usually when they follow a character through the books. This often happens with crime novels and I particularly enjoy Ian Rankin's Rebus stories and James Lee Burke. The best way I can answer this would be to say which sections of the bookshop I would or wouldn't visit when looking for new reads. First port of call would be general fiction, then classics and then non-fiction. I'll look at the crime section but generally for authors I've read before. Sometimes I'll look at history or science if I'm feeling in the mood to learn something new. I never visit SF, fantasy or biography sections unless I'm after a particular book. I make a point of reading different kinds of books to keep things fresh, to give you an example the last few books I've read are:

            An Utterly Impartial History of Britain (John O'Farrell - Non-Fiction)
            The Ancestor's Tale (Richard Dawkins - Science)
            Oliver Twist (Dickens - Fiction)
            Mother Teresa - Missionary Position (Christopher Hitchen - Non-Fiction)
            Dead Famous (Ben Elton - Fiction)
            Postcards from the Beach (Phil Tufnell - Diary based Non-Fiction)

            Next up is another one by John O'Farrell then some Ken Follett and possibly some Jonathon Meades.

            Q. Do you read the classics, i.e. the great authors of the 18th/ 19th centuries?
            ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

            Yes. Recently I've read Oliver Twist and Moby Dick and I've just rediscovered a battered copy of Voltaire's Candide which I will be looking at again soon, all great reads regardless of their worthiness. People shouldn't be afraid of these books just because they might be on the A Level syllabus as more often than not they are very accessible stories written in very readable styles. There is a reason these books are studied and that is they have a depth of characterisation and plot that stands up to analysis. They are books you can think about and pat yourself on the back when you pick up the various themes involved. Another bonus is that often these books will be in the Classics section and can be bought for as little as a pound.

            Q. Are you interested in thrillers?
            ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

            Not really, I've read and enjoyed my share of Tom Clancy and John Grisham and they probably count as thrillers but I'm not one for experimenting in this genre. Unfortunately the thriller section is probably the one most cursed by bad writing.

            Q. What about horror stories?
            ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

            As a teenager I was an avid reader of James Herbert and Stephen King, probably because they were banned at my repressive catholic school, but found them too formulaic and repetitive and soon grew out of them. Can't remember the last one I read.

            Q. Do you read science fiction?
            ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

            Again, not a big fan. If I'm looking for a new book I wouldn't look in this section. However, one of my favourite fiction writers (Iain Banks) also writes SF so I have read his ones. I've also read some classic SF from Isaac Asimov and Arthur C Clarke and would like to get into Carl Sagan. I like science fiction on TV and films so I probably should try reading more.

            Q. How many Harry Potter books have you read?
            ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
            I've read them all now, and each one more than once. I was quite snobby about these for years and made a point of not reading them but having enjoyed the films, and finding myself with a copy of the first book, thought I'd give them a crack. I'm glad I did because they really are very good; my daughter has just read the first one and loved it.
            I don't know if they justify the hype and mania that surrounds them, I doubt any book could, but they are well written and have a broad range of well fleshed out characters and story lines. Despite working in the realms of fantasy Rowling has managed to overlap very well with the real world and tap into a dream most people would have had as children - the ability to do magic in everyday settings.

            Q. Have you ever read and enjoyed biographies or autobiographies?
            ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

            I haven't read many biographies and am not generally a fan of the type. I'm not particularly interested in celeb kiss n tell books, nor in the potted history of a twenty year old sportsman/popstar. A couple of biographies I've enjoyed are Howard Marks 'Mr Nice' and Bob Geldof's but I prefer ones that are more diary based. I can read and re-read Spike Milligan's war diaries and Simon Hughes (a journeyman cricketer) 'A Lot of Hard Yakka' was a very good read.

            Q. Do you remember any of the books you read and loved as a child?
            ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

            The first proper (ie no pictures) books I can remember reading were the Doctor Who books when I was in primary school. Like most kids in the late seventies I was a huge fan of the series and ploughed through dozens of them. Later on I remember reading the Narnia series and Tolkein's 'Lord of the Rings'. I used to read a lot but can't honestly recall many others. I don't remember there being the range of junior fiction that is available now so by the time I was in secondary school I was reading grown up books. These tended to be typical schoolboy fare and included James Herbert, Clive Cussler and the like. These would become pretty dog-eared as they were passed around the class so that everyone could have a good read of the naughty bits.
            As I approached my O Levels my reading tastes became more sophisticated and included George Orwell and DH Lawrence (with his more literary naughty bits).

            I suppose if there is one book (or series of books) that stand out and that I remember with affection it is 'Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy'. For a good two years I would read and re-read these and virtually every story I wrote in English lessons was irrevocably influenced by them.

            Q. Have you re-read these books as a grown-up?
            ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

            Well, I sold all the Doctor Who books several years ago having never re-read them and I haven't yet re-read the Narnia ones although I might when my kids are old enough to read them. Tolkein I've re-read a couple of times, most recently when the films were coming out and I'm sure I'll revisit them again one day. I doubt I'll be reading the James Herbert books again although some of the earlier ones were probably better than I'm giving them credit for. Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy is probably due for a dusting down now as well.

            Q. Is there a book of which you can say it has influenced you?
            ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
            If I'm thinking of a book that has changed my life or how I go about things then I don't think there has been one. The closest is Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy when I was at school whose style I copied repeatedly in all my stories for a while.

            More often I'll read something that challenges my thinking on something or opens my mind to things I hadn't been aware of and I find myself thinking about it for months afterwards. This most often happens with non-fiction work and two I can think of are 'The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail' and 'The Selfish Gene' which I re-read recently.

            I read 'Holy Blood...' many years ago and while the entire pretext is a bit fanciful it did open my eyes to a lot of Dark Age and medieval history as well as the early Christian church that I found particularly interesting. I'm not a big fan of this kind of Templar based conspiracy and a lot of it keeps getting rehashed but this was my first exposure to it and having been brought up with a fairly dogmatic Catholic education still find many of the ideas fascinating. 'The Selfish Gene' is a pro-Darwinist work explaining evolution and natural selection, pretty heavy going in places it is a fascinating study of the basis of life that challenges many a concept of the meaning of life.

            Q. Which are your favourite authors?
            ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

            There are a couple of authors where I will buy most of their work. This is usually where they write a series following a single main character, Ian Rankin's 'Rebus' series; James Lee Burke's 'Dave Robicheaux' and the Flashman papers from George MacDonald Fraser come to mind. I think Bill Bryson has the most engaging writing style I have ever come across but his work is usually 'of the moment' and I'm rarely tempted to revisit.
            The best single piece of writing I have ever read is Ernest Hemmingway's 'The Old Man and the Sea', a stunning short story that played a big part in him winning a Nobel Prize.

            I wouldn't say any of these are my favourite and it is hard to come up with single person to apply that epithet. It might be easier to do it by category, so here goes:

            Non-Fiction Science - Prof Richard Dawkins
            Non-Fiction General - Bill Bryson
            Modern Fiction - Iain Banks
            Classic Fiction - John Steinbeck
            Historic Fiction - George MacDonald Fraser
            Foreign Language Fiction - Fyodor Dostoyevsky
            Crime Fiction - James Lee Burke

            Having given it some thought, I can say I have a favourite author:
            John Steinbeck.

            Steinbeck has produced two novels that could easily stand as the best ever written; 'The Grapes of Wrath' and 'East of Eden' redefined the art of novel writing 50 years ago and are both works of breath taking scale and depth. He could also produce short stories of outstanding beauty; 'Cannery Row' and 'Of Mice and Men' stand out but there are many others.

            Can't believe it wasn't obvious at the start, but then I don't give much thought to 'favourites'. John Steinbeck: head and shoulders above all others.

            Q. Which book would you take with you on a desert island?
            ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

            This is easier to answer after the previous question. If I had to keep one book, forsaking all others, it would have to be Steinbeck's 'East of Eden'. This is a work of such epic scale that you could read it a dozen times and still find something new the next time.

            Q. What is your attitude towards translations?
            ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
            Being English and therefore having zero understanding of any other language I am at the mercy of the translators. As a rule I've not had a problem with translations and it would never put me off buying a book.

            Q. Do you buy or borrow your books?
            ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

            I tend to buy books as I enjoy seeing them around the house and will usually re-read most of the books I own at some stage. If I don't think I'm likely to read one again I will probably sell it or pass it on to friends. I use the library occasionally but my visits are few and far between. I recently joined the Book Mooch website where users exchange books so have become much more willing to pass books on.

            Q. When you buy books, do you prefer hardcover editions or pocket books?
            ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

            Always go for paperbacks as I usually read while commuting and hardbacks are too bulky. The exception being if the writer is doing a signing session.

            Q. Have you tried Audio books
            ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

            I haven't really tried these. The problem I would see is that it's good to be able to read at your own pace, skimming a section here or re-reading a bit there which is probably a bit fiddly with an audio book. I think they're great for making books more available to a wider audience but they're not for me.

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              19.01.2010 11:39
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              As close to ready meals as you can get

              Real Family Food - Tana Ramsey

              We got this cook book a year or so back, that would be Christmas 2008 if you're reading this in the future, as a present from my niece. It was very sweet and thoughtful of her, I mean she is a grown up and everything but we do like cooking and trying new things, without being too adventurous, so this book is probably pitched at the right level for us and it was nice that she'd given it some thought. It's just a bit of a shame that it is probably the lamest cook book I've ever read.

              This book is aimed squarely at that wonderful advertisers dream: the busy mum. Ideally the kind of busy mum who is nicely middle class with oodles of disposable, a kitchen the size of a squash court and children who have to wear hats to school. It intends to offer a range of recipes and meal options that are easy to make, acceptable to children and grown ups alike and won't cost the earth or require esoteric ingredients. As the blurb says:

              'Tana's trademark simple and delicious recipes make it easy to cook fabulous food every day whether you want to rustle up dinner in a flash, impress the in-laws over a big family lunch or linger over brunch in your pyjamas'.

              How nice.

              Unfortunately, what we are given is page after page of pointless recipes and descriptions of food that you could probably have worked out yourself. Confused by Cheese-on-Toast? Panicked by Baked Potatoes? This is the book for you.

              All right, not quite true but you get the idea. However, I've fallen into bad habits again; I've given the game away before allowing the product to give a fair account of itself. So let's take this opportunity to look at the wider pantheon of cook books and this effort's place amongst them.

              What do we know about cook books? Firstly, there are an awful lot of them. They come in all shapes and sizes (mainly 'book' shape to be fair, but you get the idea) and you can probably find one to suit every culinary need. I could try and summarise the different categories and target audiences that all these books address but really that would be just so much padding and rather hypocritical given what I'm going to be saying about this book. But I do need to place this book into context so let me offer a couple of examples so that we all know what we're talking about. At the entry level end of the spectrum are the basic 'How to Cook' offerings and pretty much every kitchen should have one of these. Say what you like about her but Delia is a genius at this kind of thing and for all those occasions where you've forgotten how to make that cheese sauce / pancake batter / Victoria sponge cake is completely indispensable. Further up the chain are the speciality books. These are my favourites as they are usually unbranded and therefore cheap but give you the tools for some proper cooking. They don't necessarily give full blown recipes but will give you a grounding of (for example) regional cooking. I like these because learning the basics of, say, Indian, Mexican or Chinese cooking opens up a wide range of options and means that as long as you have a stock of core items in your cupboard you can knock up a variety of dishes as you see fit. This doesn't make you a great cook but it does give you confidence in the kitchen. The final category I'll mention are the 'event' books. Usually tied to a TV series they contain a series of unrelated recipes each designed for one off production. They don't really teach you how to cook, just hold your hand while you produce dishes that inevitably look nothing like the picture on the page or what Hugh Fearnley-Posh pulled from the Aga all those weeks ago.
              Don't get me wrong, I love these programs, I really do. River Cottage, Hairy Bikers, the delectable Nigella - even Jamie Oliver - all are welcome into my TV schedule but their associated books are more often than not less than useful. A couple have sneaked their way into my house but after some half hearted attempts at a couple of the recipes they usually retire pristine to the cupboard. Delia's, by comparison, is absolutely filthy which is how it should be.

              But back to the sloppily spelt Tana Ramsey and her offering. It intends to sit somewhere between the first two examples I gave above, a 'how to' book where the speciality is cooking grown up food for children. A follow-on book for the Annabel Karmel generation if you like. Where Ms Karmel has successfully helped us wean our little ones and introduce them to the wonderful world of food La Ramsey picks up the baton as those unfussy toddlers turn into decidedly fussy primary schoolers. Her recipes are straightforward and healthy and certainly look nice on the page, the ones you can see anyway but more of that later.

              I've put it off for long enough now but a cook book can really only be judged on the recipes and instructions it contains so let's have a look.

              The book is structured around the meals throughout the day making the first section Breakfast/Brunch and continuing forward logically. There isn't a lot of commentary so after a page or two of self serving introduction we're straight into the food and it's fair to say that Tana likes toast. At least half of the recipes involve bread based products being warmed up and really aren't that clever. I'm trying so hard to be objective here and not just criticise but honestly, every time I open the book something akin to a cooking red mist descends. Let me just give a couple of the early offerings:

              Grilled Mackerel on Toast (mackerel warmed under the grill, on toast)
              Croque Madame (TWO slices of toast with ham in the middle and an egg on top (with instructions for making the toast))
              Smoked Salmon, Cream Cheese and Scrambled Egg Bagels (Smoked salmon, cream cheese and scrambled eggs in a (toasted) bagel)
              Eggy Bread Soldiers with Yogurt (toast and yogurt)

              Now these are all pretty tasty (although I'm not convinced about dipping soldiers into cold yogurt) but you don't really need a glossy cook book to tell you this. There are a couple of good offerings here: Ham and Cheese Pastry Rolls, simple but a nice idea; Lamb Samosas, again a simple recipe and a nice change of pace but not enough to rescue the situation.

              Moving through lunch and dinner there is more nice food but not a great deal of inspiration. On the good side are dishes that encourage some variety in ingredients and flavour; Calamari Fritters or Bang Bang Chicken stand out but on the bad side is Honey Mustard Chicken (delicious but just chicken with a spoon of honey and mustard on top) and Pasta with Mushrooms and Bacon (again less a recipe and more a serving suggestion). There are plenty of nice dinners presented but most are too straightforward to merit inclusion in a cook book, the roast chicken and lamb chops ideas are particularly weak and none really stand out as worthy of mentioning.

              Reaching the final sections covering puddings and treats things begin to look up and there are several nice recipes for biscuits and cakes, those for Anzac Biscuits and Bakewell Slices stand out but bad habits die hard and the recipe for Jam Tarts (pre-made pastry with strawberry jam) is a juddering return to the banal.

              That's the food dealt with, what about presentation. These cook books take presentation very seriously and this is no different. The recipes are nicely laid out on the page but too many are not supported by photographs. The majority of the pictures in the book are of Ramsey herself, she is absolutely everywhere. I doubt three pages ever go by without a shot of her smiling indulgently at something unseen or staring intently at some chopping board with indeterminate food in hand. Very rarely do these pictures align in any meaningful way with the recipes alongside and the sheer vanity of this is nauseating. Now I know that many celebrity chef books have plenty of 'at home' pictures but these are usually in diverting, between chapters sections and aren't nearly as dominating. The ratio of Ramsey shots to food shots is probably three to one and that is just ridiculous.

              The book really fails on several counts. Going back to my earlier criteria it is a long way from a 'How to' book, you'll learn nothing helpful about general cooking here and there isn't enough room for customization in the recipes for it to be a speciality book. In reality it is a low rent version of the final 'event' examples. Each recipe stands in isolation but none are really worth the entrance fee, they are invariably too simple to need to be read in a book. Now far be it for me to suggest that no publisher would've touched these pointless recipes if she hadn't been married to one of the most bankable chefs currently around, but it's probably true.

              My copy has a cover price of £20 but I would be amazed if this hasn't been remaindered in the meantime and should therefore be available for a much lower price, from The Book People perhaps.

              Not recommended.

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                07.11.2009 15:39
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                Sometimes the best way to describe facts is through fiction.

                The Tin Roof Blowdown - James Lee Burke

                I never had any intention of reviewing another James Lee Burke / Detective Robicheaux novel. He is a writer I have long admired and I continue to draw much enjoyment from all the Robicheaux books, but in all honesty they are not hugely different from each other and having articulated the reasons I'd enjoyed one I would have been largely repeating myself to review any others.
                However, that was until I read The Tin Roof Blowdown. In many ways this is the book that Burke has been waiting to write or, to put it another way, the book I've been waiting for him to write. You see, Burke builds his Dave Robicheaux stories on the colourful backdrop of Louisiana, the Deep South and New Orleans and these are invested with as much narrative care and attention as the leading characters. Burke has such a passion for the region, its beauties and its glory but is never afraid to shine a light on its shortcomings. Its violence, its racism and its corruption are all exposed but never allowed to overwhelm the affection he holds for it.

                So when New Orleans and swathes of the gulf coast were devastated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 I knew that one day Burke would have to address this and I knew it would be worth reading. It's hard to over estimate the impact, both physically and culturally, that the hurricane had on New Orleans, the United States and indeed the wider world. That so much devastation and human suffering could be visited on such a famous city, in the most powerful country in the world was deeply shocking, the news footage from the first few days looked more like third world events than mainland America. It asked some very uncomfortable questions of American society, questions that remain largely unanswered even today.
                The story opens in the days preceding the arrival of Hurricane Katrina. The population of New Orleans and the surrounding conurbations are either evacuating or battening themselves and their property down in preparation for the onslaught. Predictions of its severity vary but when it hits the impact is far greater than anyone thought possible and the once thriving city is thrust back to the middle ages. In the chaos that follows Robicheaux and his department are called in to assist in bringing a sense of order and protection to the city but what they find is a horror beyond any recurring nightmares the detective has of his time in Vietnam.

                The flooding has deprived the city of all utilities; it has backed up the sanitation system so that the streets run with a city's worth of effluence and the bloated bodies of drowned victims pile up uncollected on the streets and in the houses. While many of the city's authorities; the coastguard, the hospitals, work to help as many as they can there is talk of profiteering and looting across the city both from the criminals and corrupt police officers and city officials. Street gangs are running wild, terrorising survivors and murderous score settling is being carried out on both sides of the legal divide.
                Amongst this horror the core stories of the novel are played out. Four looters strike lucky and find money and diamonds in a house they visit, unfortunately for them the house belongs to a local mafia boss. As they leave the property they are shot at and injured by local homeowners turned possible vigilantes. As Robicheaux investigates the shootings, amongst all the other cases he builds up in the aftermath, he uncovers a web of intrigue and corruption that again threatens to overwhelm him. As he chases down lead after lead he finds that his family are being stalked by a psychopath and are in very real danger.

                If you remove Hurricane Katrina from the equation this becomes a very straightforward Robicheaux novel. The crimes and the characters are not especially compelling, the looters and the Mafiosi are pretty low rent and the psychopath, while well written, is not a patch on those encountered in previous books.
                But you can't ignore the hurricane. It is the elephant in the room and it squeezes everything else to the margins. It will define New Orleans for centuries to come and it will have changed every book Burke intends to write. The world of Dave Robicheaux has been changed forever by events in the real world and Burke will have to factor this into his future work. For now he has done the city he loves justice. He has weaved the tragedy of the real world into his fictional universe in a completely plausible way. He has ensured that those events are not forgotten and they are not revised. It is an awful story, it is distressing and it is chastising but Burke has done his job well.

                This may not be much of a Robicheaux mystery but it is one hell of a great book and I would heartily recommend it.

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                  22.10.2009 13:01
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                  Art fans attempt unlikely heist

                  Doors Open - Ian Rankin

                  Before I talk about the book 'Doors Open' written by Ian Rankin let me tell you a little story of my own.
                  Many years ago I was the chief cashier in a branch of a high street bank. It was a small branch with a low foot flow of customers. However, it was in the very wealthy Belgravia area of London so what customers we did have were of the well heeled variety, premiership footballers and senior politicians were regulars. Even if they weren't famous many of our customers were titled and came from famous families. These customers requested a lot of cash over the counter so we would hold rather more in our safe than similar sized branches elsewhere. Most weeks this would be around two to three hundred thousand pounds, at busy times it could reach perhaps three quarters of a million pounds.
                  The money was held in a safe, the safe was in a vault secured by a barred gate during the day and a thick steel door over night. Once sealed, the alarm would be set; the alarm was monitored but not time-locked and each member of staff had their own code. Each stage required two key holders (red and blue for differentiation) who would have the keys and combinations for one half of each lock. Half the branch staff would be red key holders and the other would be blue. I was a red key holder.
                  My colleague, a blue key holder, and I would regularly go for a post work drink and do you know what we often discussed? Robbing the bank, obviously. Or, more exactly; robbing the bank and getting away with it.
                  You see that's the tricky bit. With a bit of careful planning I could probably have shepherded the cash balance up to one and half million, perhaps even two, on a one off occasion without drawing too much attention. Being joint key holders we could have emptied the safe on a Friday and no one would be any wiser until Monday morning by which time we would have been in Brazil. You see, getting the money - actually committing the crime would have been a piece of cake. Unfortunately, having used our own codes everyone would have known it was us who had done it so the 'getting away with it' part would have been a bit tricky. The point is; two nice middle class boys like us just weren't set up to be master criminals. I mean, just how do you go about getting fake passports and so on. It was a nice idea to get our hands on a million or so but the idea of spending the rest of our lives on the run was less appealing. Despite some very serious thinking and some very serious drinking there was no obvious way round this and the plans were filed in their rightful place. Under 'S' for Stupid Ideas.

                  Which leads me nicely onto the book where three nice middle class boys discuss, over drinks obviously, how nice it would be to steal priceless paintings. This is perfectly natural given the three men in question. There is Professor Robert Gissing, head of the Art department at the University. There is Allan Cruikshank, high flying banker with an appreciation (if not the budget) for fine art and finally there is Mike MacKenzie, a software entrepreneur who having recently sold his company for millions, has found a worthy outlet for his new found wealth in collecting expensive paintings.
                  They meet informally but regularly at exhibitions and auctions across the city, each time expressing their frustration at the exclusionary cost of classic art (Cruikshank), frustration that the best pieces are hidden from public view in warehouses and corporate collections (Gissing) and frustration that the pieces that they would want to own will never come onto the market anyway (MacKenzie). They idly discuss the inequities of this and joke about how they could remedy the situation. They talk of stealing paintings but it is all in jest, these are nice middle class boys after all and cold blooded thievery such as this is not really very likely.
                  However, one evening Gissing proposes a plan that is both plausible and achievable. Under cover of the Open Door day (the day when many private buildings open up to the public) they can go into the National Gallery Warehouse, swap masterpieces for fakes and leave no one the wiser. A perfect, victimless, white collar crime it would seem. Hmm, we'll see about that.

                  Doors Open is the first novel written by Ian Rankin since he pensioned off his most famous character, John Rebus. Retiring a character as popular (and lucrative) as Rebus was a brave choice for the writer and he would have known that his next few publications would be crucial. Rankin has built a large following (I know, I'm one of them) with the Rebus series, a ready market for his next book but the question is; are we Rankin fans or Rebus fans? Most Rebus loyalists will buy this book but if the author doesn't deliver many will drift away.
                  I fear that with this book Rankin does indeed risk losing a significant number of his readership. It just doesn't have the quality of his earlier work, and it doesn't move far enough away from the Rebus books to hide this. The infamous detective may have gone away but this is still a crime story set in Edinburgh, and includes a tenacious detective willing to go against his superiors to investigate a crime. The Rebus stories were built on a collection of very strong and well defined characters. Rebus himself, obviously, but with support (dramatically at least) from Detective Sergeant Clarke and the gangster Cafferty each episode was driven and defined primarily by character. In Doors Open all the characters have a vagueness about them, a lack of definition and the reader doesn't really get close to any of them and therefore any emotional engagement is missing.

                  The story is a lot lighter in tone than the Rebus series, even when some unpleasant gangsters become involved in the boy's plans things don't feel particularly serious. Unfortunately this lightness is less to do with any humour, Rankin doesn't really do 'funny', and more to do with the story and plot being very lightweight. It was an ongoing frustration with the story that throughout there was a lack of believability and logic in both the plot and the characters.
                  Three regular guys talking about stealing millions of pounds worth of art I can live with. The three guys coming up with a feasible plan for committing the crime, and having access to the necessary forging skills, I can also believe - like I said in the completely true introduction there are occasions when the commission of a crime is not that difficult. While it remains a plan and a crime that is unlikely to be noticed, or discovered for many years, it all makes sense but once the theft escalates to a full on armed heist with intimidation of security guards and deception of officials and police its credibility begins to creak.
                  It just does not make sense that these characters would act in the way that they do. None of them are under personal pressure, or driven by desperation. They could all have backed out at any point and there is no satisfying explanation for them committing a crime of this nature. Once this central plank has been undermined there is little left to raise the book above the ordinary. No humour, no suspense, even the old Rankin standby of Edinburgh itself is unutilised and all that is left is deeply unsatisfying.

                  For a writer as talented as Rankin this is a curious state of affairs. Doors Open feels very much like a book written early in a writer's career but left unpublished, brought to light only once a reputation has been created. To see that it is a new book and, further, the one chosen to launch his post-Rebus career is perplexing. If this was the only Rankin book I'd read I'm not sure I would have read another. Maybe I was just a Rebus fan after all, what a shame.

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                    15.10.2009 11:58
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                    A lighthearted way to learn

                    An Utterly Impartial History of Britain

                    Learning things is fun. Well, that's what I tell my daughter now that she's started school anyway. But it is true, increasing the sum of your knowledge is enriching and empowering and for this reason I like to mix up some educational non fiction on my daily commute amongst the normal run of pot boilers and pulp fiction.
                    Now, as much as I like to learn things I don't really want to have to think too hard if I can help it so most of these books need to be pitched at the right level. That might mean that they are aimed at a populist audience but as often as not it means they are written with an eye to the humour as much as the subject matter.

                    So it was that this book caught my eye in Borders when I was spending some book tokens given to me by former colleagues last Christmas. I'm not that familiar with the writer; John O'Farrell, I believe he writes for the Guardian and has been a comedy writer for some years but I haven't knowingly read or seen his work in the past. I had seen him on various 'Have I Got News for You' type panel shows and 'Grumpy Old Men' and he was usually entertaining enough without really standing out.
                    The jacket art work grabbed my attention initially and the blurb made me chuckle. History, especially the history of your own country, is one of those things that you feel you have a pretty good handle on but you also know that you are probably just one follow up question away from ignorance. We may not have the antiquity of your Romans, Greeks and Egyptians but we do have two millennia packed full off interesting stuff that you'd think would be pretty well known to us (at least those of us brought up through the English schools system anyway) but a quick straw poll around the office came up with the following, rather sketchy, historical outline:

                    Ancient Britons, Romans, Boudicca, More Romans, Saxons, King Arthur, Vikings, Ethelred the Unready, Normans, Crusades, St George, Richard the Lionheart, Robin Hood, Agincourt, Henry VIII, Spanish Armada, Cromwell, Mad King George, Wellington & Nelson, Empire, Victoria, two World Wars and one World Cup.
                    OK, most of the people in my office are outsourced IT workers from India but that is still a fair summary of most people's knowledge, give or take the odd mythical character. Sure, with a bit of time we could add a few royal houses, battles and Chartist Uprisings but you get the idea. Clearly there was a need for this book in my schedule.

                    Content ~
                    The book covers two thousand years of British history from Roman occupation and Boudicca's uprising around 50BC to the end of World War Two in 1945, approximately the point at which we stopped being interesting on a global scale.
                    The book is sub-titled '2000 Years of Upper Class Idiots in Charge' which, while not as informative as the actual title is at least rather more representative of the contents. This is an English history in all honesty, the Celtic nations are only referenced by association, and a history that focuses almost exclusively on the kings, queens and ruling classes rather than the nation as a whole.
                    Weighing in at a hefty five hundred plus pages this is a big book, but then there is a lot of ground to cover. Divided into several sections, loosely governed by density of action and interest rather than duration, we start with the Ancient Britons and the Roman invasions, before moving through the Dark Ages and into the Normans. The Tudors and Stuarts are dealt with in detail before the ages of Revolution and Empire bring us to the final section covering the two World Wars.

                    There are no gaps in the history, all the ages in the timeframe are covered but where there is a scarcity of knowledge this isn't hidden and a wider discussion of the period is covered. As we reach more popular ages the author is able to provide more detail but manages not to lose the momentum of the book. Inevitably, the book is rather superficial in its treatment and in many places provides little more than a headline tour of the ages. There is precious little detail about the broader social history of the country, particularly in the first one and a half millennia, and while this is a shame it is understandable.
                    What it does provide is a very useful pointer, I hesitate to use the word 'reference', to the end to end history of the country. Who followed who, who ruled who and why so few of our kings actually spoke English is all covered at pace and this is where the interest in the book comes from. It doesn't tell us everything we didn't know but it does fill in gaps in our knowledge and expands on those bits we do know.

                    Style ~
                    As I mentioned at the beginning O'Farrell is a satirical writer, columnist and panellist. He has several books to his name as well as the newspaper work but I get the impression he started out as a sketch and gag writer for TV shows.
                    This provenance comes across clearly in his writing and certainly in the first half of the book you sense that he is intent on finishing each paragraph with a joke. Usually these are pretty funny and it is the kind of writing I enjoy but page after page of it makes it wear a little thin. A bit of variety in the humour wouldn't go amiss, he never builds up to a gag or tells a funny story as such, rather he'll relate an episode and then tack on the gag at the end. It is funny, just not very sophisticated and what works well in a thousand word newspaper column does not necessarily scale up to a full size book.
                    There also appears to be some statute of limitations on the humour, in the early pages every episode is rounded off with a joke no matter what the circumstances. Now, while Edward II being killed by having a red hot poker stuck up his bum is funny whichever way you cut it, it was probably quite traumatic at the time. Likewise the Vikings repeatedly tearing through the country destroying everything and everyone in their path is unimaginably horrific but after a thousand years has become fertile ground for jokes. Once we reach the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the humour is more rationed and the targets more carefully selected.

                    O'Farrell isn't much given to editorial digression, he pretty well sticks to the job in hand throughout, but towards the end of the first half of the book he does stray into personal opinion on the nature of Englishness. In a brief diversion he highlights the inherent riskiness in tracing Englishness through the millennia. The number of invasions and incursions in the first thousand years wreaked havoc with the population and claiming descendency from the builders of Stonehenge, Boudicca or the Saxons is optimistic at best. If the Warrior Queen was English then we aren't and vice versa. Interesting stuff and a good prompt towards further reading.
                    Opinion ~
                    I enjoyed this book. I learnt a fair amount I didn't know before, I reinforced and enhanced much that I already knew of and I was reasonably entertained throughout.
                    'Reasonably' entertained sounds devastatingly damning with faint praise but I don't mean to be harsh. O'Farrell writes well and is funny it's just that it is all a little one-paced when a bit of variation would have been welcome.

                    I will read this again one day and I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it to anyone else.

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                    • Taken [2008] (DVD) / DVD / 56 Readings / 54 Ratings
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                      08.09.2009 12:46
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                      Only for when you are really bored

                      Scouting around for some films to watch I came across Taken, starring Liam Neeson. An action thriller following a father searching for his kidnapped daughter all the ingredients are there for cracking blockbuster entertainment but is it worth sacrificing two hours of your life for? In a word: No. I'm not going to beat about the bush here; I thought this film was a big let down, a ludicrous disappointment. I wish I hadn't bothered and I'm going to tell you why.

                      Synopsis ~
                      Liam Neeson is David. Aging, lonely and out of touch with his estranged daughter his is not a happy existence. He plays cards or does some low rent security work with his buddies but his main thoughts are how to fill the time until he can see his daughter again. At her birthday he is marginalised as his (frankly rubbish) karaoke machine present is blown out of the water by her stepfather buying her a pony. That's heavy handed plot set-up #1 by the way - he's devoted to his daughter but is thought by one and all to be surplus to requirements.

                      Next we see him working security for some pop pixie (Holly Vallance in a career high role). As he is escorting her from the stage a 'crazed' knifeman jumps out but is swiftly dealt with via some canny martial arts magic. That'll be heavy handed plot set-up #2 - he's a bit useful in a fight. In case we weren't sure a conversation with his daughter establishes that he was some kind of CIA / Secret Services spook who spent his career making sure bad things didn't happen to good people.
                      That's David then, next we need to get the plot moving. His daughter Kim (played by Maggie Grace who was in Lost) wants to spend the summer in Paris studying art (yeah, right) but for legal reasons needs David's permission. Being the over cautious type he is against this because he knows the world is a bad place and she is bound to be kidnapped and murdered but eventually gives in, and there you have heavy handed plot set-up #3 - who'd bet against him being right on that one.

                      Within minutes of arriving in Paris she and her friend are kidnapped but by great good fortune she is on the phone to her dad at the time who is able to gain some vital clues from which he can launch his rescue.

                      Opinion ~
                      Oh, where to start. On the face of it this film has a lot going for it - a good lead and cast, European locations and lots of actions. The trouble is it is all hung around a storyline so weak and unambitious that you are left feeling empty and let down by the end. Let me break down the elements so that you can see what I mean.

                      Plot premise ~ A father, desperate for his daughter's affection, must save her from unimaginable danger. Okay, not a brilliant pitch but that shouldn't be a problem. I knew that before I started and I wasn't put off, all the right elements are there: good versus evil, heroics and action before a suitably happy ending. The problem is that that is all there is, there are no sub plots, no secondary stories or motivations to flesh the movie out. With just one narrow story to tell it really needs to tell it well. It doesn't.

                      Characters ~ There's only one really, Neeson's David. No other character is allowed the slightest glimpse of personality or development. Apart from the fight sequences there was really no need for any other character to be on screen. All the interaction between father and daughter, father and ex-wife and so on would have been just as effective off screen or by telephone for all that is added by their being on screen. In fact, isolating the lead character in that way might well have been very effective and made the film more edgy.

                      By showing us Maggie early in the film we are supposed to identify with her and be emotionally engaged in her rescue but there is nothing there. She is so bland and inconsequential that if we do want to see her rescued it is more so that David is successful and less that Maggie actually gets saved.

                      Realism ~ This is where the film really falls down, it is just too unrealistic to be enjoyable. Not in terms of plot, you can make the plot whatever you want and I'll go along with it but once you start to progress that plot it had better make sense and follow sound dramatic logic or it will just end up as fantasy or farce. The director mistakenly assumes that if he shoots lots of fight sequences in gloomy, grubby European suburbs the film will have all the realism it needs. This is not true, realism comes from the character's humanity but this hero is super-human, he is infallible and therefore unrealistic. From the moment of the kidnap nothing goes wrong, while on the phone he can immediately lay his hands on sophisticated recording equipment, wire it all up and then get his security buddy to identify the kidnapper, and the village he comes from for heaven's sake. From that point on every decision he makes, every hunch he follows is right on the money. His path from kidnap to rescue is arrow straight with no set backs, blind alleys or mystery - which, let's face it, in a thriller is unforgivable. Everything plays out like a cheap video game where you have all the cheat codes before you begin - too easy and too quick.

                      Next is the action sequences, and in particular the fight scenes. Following the cinematic fashion of recent Bond and Bourne films the fighting is very fast, very technical and undoubtedly very impressive. The problem is that Neeson's character is old and long retired and this fighting style is definitely a young man's game. Now, I accept that 'old' is a relative term but they've taken the character in the wrong direction. I can believe that he will be a bit useful and pretty tough but to have him as some supreme fighting machine is ludicrous. It's like Get Carter, the wrong way round - 'You're a big man but you're out of shape and I do this for a living' is what all the henchmen should be saying to him except they're all scrabbling on the floor in their own blood. He has dozens of fights against all manner of tough bad guys yet doesn't take a scratch until the very end, everybody is dispatched in seconds and the damage is all one way. I mean, even Jason Bourne bleeds sometimes.

                      The film is technically well made and polished; the locations are good and representative of the world he is fighting through (albeit that they are a bit more Bourne derivative than is strictly necessary) but this is not enough to save it.

                      This isn't really a bad film, there are certainly far worse, but it is very lazy and wastes talent and budget that should have made something far, far better. Make the lead a realistically aging tough guy. Add some tension and blind alleys, make us fear for their future - anything really.

                      This film is, sadly, not recommended.

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                      • More +
                        24.07.2009 13:07
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                        The best Brit TV programme in years

                        It's a God awful small affair

                        I clearly remember when Life on Mars first hit our screens. Heavily promoted by the BBC there were posters everywhere; bus stops, on the underground and in the papers and I have to say first impression were positive. First up was the star, John Sims. One of our best young actors, hugely underrated I'd seen him in several very different roles but not once seen him put a foot wrong. Then there was the other bloke, I won't pretend I knew his name at the time but I'd seen him in a couple of shows and been struck by his ability and charisma on screen. Next up was the premise, a cop show clearly but also a time travelling cop show. An entertaining idea but not exactly what you'd call original, it's one of those Sci-Fi devices that gets recycled every ten years or so (the other is the old body swap chestnut currently being performed by Zac Ephron and Matthew Perry in 17 Again) where a contemporary character is sent back into the past or a future character brought back to our times.
                        So, anyway, with my appetite whetted did I go on and watch the series? No, I didn't. In recent years I've become a bit rubbish at watching telly and can never keep up with the channels and the schedules. Don't get me wrong, I watch as much as the next potato but tend to stick to DVDs or reruns of QI and Top Gear on Dave. I finally got around to watching the series when those lovely people at Virgin Media stuck it on their free On Demand service (I've been giving that some hammer recently I can tell you) and I managed to plough through all the episodes in both series in less than a week before going back and watching them all over again. Since then it has been in and out of the On Demand play lists but you can't beat the joy of ownership and I've kept a beady eye on it on Amazon so that when the DVDs recently dipped to £8 per series they found themselves snaffled.


                        Now he walks through his sunken dream

                        Has he gone back in time, is he in a coma dreaming or is he dead? This is the question that Sam asks himself at the beginning of each episode and it is the underlying question that drives the whole series.

                        Sam Tyler is a detective in Manchester on the hunt for serial killer. In his mid-thirties he has achieved the rank of Detective Chief Inspector which marks him down as a high flyer, the opening scene has him bringing down a suspect on his own which indicates that he attained this rank by achievement and not funny handshakes. So we know he is a good detective, next we're shown how he works. Interviewing the suspect he makes full use of forensic and technical evidence, all the tools of a modern copper in fact and when the interview doesn't go to plan he resolves to try harder, not cut corners. Various other cues are provided, some only become obvious second time round but all are relevant. The very modern corporate office set against the slightly dated concrete police station exteriors. The music comes from an iPod and all conversations are conducted over mobile phones, there should be no doubt we are looking at a 21st century world.

                        The switch to 1973 comes when Tyler is knocked down by a speeding hit and run driver. In the background Bowie's Life on Mars drifts through from his iPod and as he swings in and out of consciousness this soundtrack swells and fills the scene until he sits up and sees that he is most definitely not in Kansas anymore. I must have watched this scene a hundred times and I fully believe it is one of the best 'reveals' ever filmed. The direction, the cinematography, the music and the editing are all superb and, finally, Sims wonderfully contained performance perfectly conveys the disorientation of the character with the merest flick of an eye or twitch of the mouth. The following shots take us on a return journey where the contrasts come thick and fast. Bowie is still playing but now through an 8-Track, a Rover P6 has replaced his Jeep and where before he was in a smart grey business suit now he is in a shiny brown leather jacket and slacks. The exterior shot of the police station gives a brief respite as it is the same concrete monstrosity as before but we are then plunged into contrasts again as he enters what was his office. Gone are the clean modern desks, computers and swathes of natural light and in is neon strip-lighted gloom, clutter and a cigarette smoke haze.

                        As a modern audience we've all seen enough Sci-Fi not be phased by the whole time travel thing, give us the concept and we'll run with it, but there still needs to be the set up and how this is handled is crucial. In Life on Mars it is done impressively and the more you watch it the better it gets. During the reveal images are glimpsed that only make sense once the whole series has been watched, and then serve only to raise more questions. It is intelligent television, having faith that the audience has the patience and wit to match but it wears its cleverness lightly. So many things only become apparent on second or third viewings but it isn't hard to follow. Far from it, you could watch it once and feel satisfied but watching it again (and again) is very rewarding.


                        Take a look at the lawman beating up the wrong guy

                        Tyler's confusion is not helped by the fact that no one else is surprised to see him. He is, if not exactly welcomed, at least expected as it appears that he has been transferred from a neighbouring division and he is soon crossing paths with his nemesis in the show; Gene Hunt. Hunt is pretty much everything a modern audience wants in a 1970's throwback old school copper. The hard drinking, the aggression and the short cuts, the whole 'Put your trousers on son, you're nicked' Sweeney experience is here in good order. He's racist, sexist, violent and on the take. He beats up witnesses and suspects alike and has no time at all for due process. The fact that we love him and his 'roguish' ways is due in equal measure to the superb writing and the stand out performance from Philip Glenister. Big and bear like, Glenister's Hunt is like an aging heavyweight boxer, going to seed but still a bit useful. More intelligent than he first appears, this Hunt is not the two dimensional caricature you might expect and often brings elements of humour and insight to proceedings that work well to bring to life what could otherwise be a rather formulaic show.

                        The rest of the cast include Ray, a Detective Sergeant who bears a particular grudge against Tyler. Ray is a mini Gene Hunt - all violence and short cuts - but without the wit and insight. There is Chris; the young wide eyed Detective Constable. Very much the Seventies man he is open to Tyler's seemingly progressive ideas about policing. Finally there is Annie, a WPC she is inevitably the only one with any brains and becomes Tyler's confidant and love interest.


                        Look at those cave men go

                        Whatever the high concept for the series may have been, at its heart Life on Mars is a cop show. Each week has a new cops 'n' robbers story; armed robbery, murder - the usual suspects - and for the show to work over time these are as important as any other element. Fortunately the writers are fully aware of this and invest as much effort in the stories as into the overarching mythology. In good detective story style each week's episode is a self contained mystery, with the added incentive that several of the cases have hooks into Sam's modern world. There is the murder in the rundown 1973 factory that will eventually become his trendy 2006 apartment block. There is the serial killer whose Modus Operandi matches the case he was investigating when he was run over. Other episodes highlight the differences between the two eras but all are competent stories that will satisfy the straightforward dramatic requirements of a TV series.
                        At the risk of being overly forensic about the structure of each show you can break them down to the following three elements. Foremost is the investigation inevitably followed by the conflict between Hunt's 1973 and Tyler's 2006 policing styles, instinct versus procedure if you like. The final element is Sam's ongoing search for why he is here, is it a dream or time travel. Is he in 1973 for a purpose and if he achieves this will he be allowed to return to his old life. These elements and issues are developed throughout this series; Tyler's initial aversion to Hunt and his knuckle dragging methods is slowly replaced by a grudging respect, at least on a personal if not professional level. In contrast, his nightmares and hallucinations become more vivid as time progresses.

                        In terms of characters and character development this is something of a mixed bag, each character is well written and well played but no one goes on a particular journey. Tyler is a pretty 'straight' character, if rather dry and removed. Once his initial disorientation is out of the way he finds himself settling into the world around him, although he stays aloof from the 1973 police style and sticks rigidly to his own methods. He does develop a respect and friendship for the others but never to the point where he sees merit in their methods. You would expect the character of Gene Hunt to change significantly as his eyes are opened to the benefits of modern policing but to be fair he welcomed Tyler's input and methods from the very first episodes. All he wants is an arrest and he'll follow any method that gets him there, if Tyler's forensic approach works then great but equally if gut instinct and a good beating does the job then so much the better, business and pleasure so to speak.

                        Ray's character doesn't have a lot of room to grow, consistently unreconstructed if there is ever a need for a racist, sexist or generally offensive line it is usually given to Ray. He is there to represent the most unsavoury aspects of policing at the time. Chris, the young detective, is in awe of both Hunt and Tyler and often finds himself caught between the two. He has the most potential to grow and develop as he is keen to take on many of Tyler's methods. In many ways he represents the future of policing; it's just a shame that he is a bit thick. Finally there is Annie, a university graduate she is the sharpest tool in the box but as a WPC is considered barely more than window dressing by her colleagues. Tyler sees her potential and helps to bring it out, almost to the point were it is recognised by the other detectives. Almost, but not quite - it is still 1973 after all.


                        It's the freakiest show

                        So it's a cop show (yawn), it's time travelling Sci-Fi (been there) and a 70's nostalgia fest (save me). What is it about a show drawn from these three uninspiring elements that has made it one of the best home grown dramas I've ever seen? In a word: quality. Quality writing, quality acting, quality production. If it's in the show it was done with quality. They could easily have made a much weaker show with these elements (in fact they did and called it Ashes to Ashes) but whether by luck, judgement or plain good fortune everything came together to create something special. Something that will, I have no doubt, stand the test of time and be enjoyed when we look at the 2006 Tyler as every bit as antiquated as the 1973 Gene Hunt. And I never even mentioned the car; a Mk 3 'Coke Bottle' Ford Cortina - what a motor. My big brother had one of these and I thought he was the man. Enough said.

                        Being a DVD release there a couple of extras to mention. A lengthy 'Making of...' feature is spread over discs 1 & 2 (of four), this is pretty good as these features go and gives plenty of background on the creation and production of the show. Disc 3 has an interview with the composer of the theme and incidental music, this feature is a bit lame as he is a bit weird and spends far to long fiddling with his sampling equipment. The final disc has an interview with the production designer (the person responsible for creating the 1970's look of the show); this is OK but probably could have been better. Finally there is the faithful out takes section. There is no deleted scenes piece but I did notice that several episodes had additional scenes that I hadn't seen on my On Demand TV version.


                        Hunky Dory

                        Do I recommend this show? Let's just say that my favourite Bowie song had been 'Oh, You Pretty Things' but is now 'Life on Mars', and there aren't many TV shows that will do that to you.

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                        • More +
                          30.06.2009 13:26
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                          Now you know it

                          At work we have a lounge. It's a very nice lounge with comfy chairs and a view over the atrium. It's a place where you can have a break-out meeting or a little quiet time, it is also popular with non smokers looking to take advantage of the hourly ten minute breaks their puffing buddies appear to be entitled to. In this lounge is a selection of books, left by community minded colleagues. As you can imagine there is an awful lot of jumble sale tat fodder here but the odd interesting book has been known to turn up. Alongside the usual crime/historical pot boilers this little number stood out. I mean, Arthur Schnitzler? Who ever heard of him.

                          Well, not me anyway but the back cover blurb was intriguing. Regarding the man it went as follows: 'Like his Viennese contemporary Sigmund Freud, the doctor and dramatist Arthur Schnitzler (1862-1931) was a bold pioneer in exploring the dark tangled roots of human sexuality.' And for the book itself it read thus: 'Schnitzler is probably most famous for la Ronde, a play whose daisy chain of couplings was too scandalous to be published or performed in his lifetime. Dream Story is an equally erotic work, in which a married couple are first traumatised and then achieve a new depth of understanding by confessing to each other their sexual fantasies, dream-like adventures and might-have-beens...'
                          Time to pull on the clever trousers and read on, I thought.

                          The book starts with a comprehensive introduction by Frederic Raphael. I often find these very useful, particularly with a writer I'm unfamiliar with as they can provide masses of background detail and contextual information. Sometimes they lean towards overly academic discussion and can be guilty of over-egging a topic and this is the case here. It does well to place the book in context, although published in 1926 the Vienna of the story feels much more pre-Great War. The talk of duels and calling people out on matters of honour as well as the lack of motor cars on the city streets evokes an earlier age. There is also mention of the rising tide of anti-Semitism in Austria at the time (the author and, by intimation, the lead character are both Jewish) and much is made of this. While this may inform a study of the author it adds little to the understanding of the story as it refers to a very minor episode where Fridolin is jostled by some drunken German students. The story is more human than social anyway and is more concerned with the lead's, albeit short, journey of self discovery.
                          The story revolves around Fridolin and his wife Albertine and one event filled night and day. Again, I am paraphrasing the back cover but Fridolin's journey takes us on a tour of Vienna's seedy cafes, red-light district, decadent villas, hospitals and morgue. From the outset we learn a great deal about Fridolin's character. Young, handsome and self confident he is sure of himself and pleased with the respect that his being a doctor engenders in the neighbourhood. The night starts with the couple daring each other to reveal their sexual fantasies and dreams. Things start innocently enough with them both recalling a couple of 'what if' events; people met in passing who in other circumstances may have become something more. This leads onto Albertine recounting a disturbing dream where the couple, living in a castle above a town become separated and while she is pleasured by hordes of young men the townsfolk take him away to be hung. Given the opportunity to save his life Albertine feigns ignorance and he is killed. For Fridolin, faced with his wife's albeit dream-state dismissal, this comes as something of a blow and rather takes the wind out of his sails.

                          With these disturbing thoughts in his head Fridolin is grateful for the opportunity to escape provided by a call to visit a dying patient and so leaves the house. As he visits the patient and later when wandering the streets he is able to repair his bruised ego by spending time talking with a young prostitute and spurning the advances of the patient's daughter. At this point in the story I was becoming distracted by a vague tinkling in the back of my mind and as he enters a bar and meets an old, piano playing, friend the tinkling turned into the unmistakable clanging of pennies dropping.
                          Maybe you're way ahead of me, maybe not but when I go further and mention that the pianist is talking about his next gig where he will be playing blindfold at what amounts to an exclusive orgy you may well find yourself dodging those falling pennies as well. This is the film Eyes Wide Shut. Directed by Stanley Kubrick, starring Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman. Damn.

                          Perhaps some of you are thinking: Durrr, of course it is. Others, perhaps the lucky ones, are thinking what is Eyes Wide Shut anyway. Either way it threw me, and over shadowed my enjoyment of the rest of the book as it followed the film almost scene for scene (obviously the film followed the book but you get my meaning).
                          The remaining story follows a series of set pieces centring on his ill fated gate crashing of the exclusive party from which he is brutally exposed and expelled and where the fate of a beautiful woman who protected him is very much in doubt. For the rest of the night Fridolin must face up to the challenges his world view has undergone, his wife's dreams of betraying him and how all his charm and presumed social status could not prevent his utter humiliation at the masked party.

                          By uncovering the fate of the young woman or unmasking the revellers maybe he can recover some of his lost self worth. The question is do we, as readers, care? By now I'm seeing Tom Cruise as I'm reading and you certainly don't feel a lot of sympathy for his character but even before then, when Fridolin was just Fridolin with no baggage he was a character that was hard to warm to. A little too full of himself, a little too sure of others opinions of him he carried himself with an arrogance that was off putting and while he is pleasant to those he encounters his aloofness and superiority make you quietly rather pleased when he his caught out and brought down a peg or two.
                          So, is the book worth reading? Not surprisingly I found my enjoyment curtailed once I'd made the connection with the film not least because I then knew how every scene would work out. The book itself is diverting and pleasant and a good example of early social eroticism but it doesn't reach any great heights (or depths for that matter). Despite its age, Schnitzler's writing hasn't dated and it is easy to forget that a century may have passed since it was penned. At less than 100 pages it is a very short book and there is not a great deal more to the story here than in the film. If you happen to come across a copy I'd recommend a read but I wouldn't suggest you go out of your way to find one.

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                          • Dell Inspiron Mini 9 / Laptop / 46 Readings / 41 Ratings
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                            04.06.2009 13:30
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                            Small is beautiful

                            This is something of a two-fold review. Mainly it will cover the Dell Mini9 netbook, which is after all the heading under which it is filed, but inevitably it will also cover the Vodafone mobile broadband contract under which it was bought.

                            Computing has gone through a bit of an upheaval recently. Things used to be so much more straightforward; ever since I bought my first PC the standard domestic buyer would need to spend about £1000 to get something that could cope with all their needs, for a couple of years at least. When that machine began to show it's age you'd buy another for the same price but with a specification to match the current needs. This was true of the first three or four PCs I bought and only the most recent allowed me to spend under £800 and stay current. The same was broadly true of laptops, prohibitively expensive in the early days for quite a while they would cost a little more than a desktop and offer slightly lower performance but again the price would remain fairly constant while the specifications increased. This was all blown out of the water a couple of years ago when Asus produced the EeePC that was, frankly, nothing short of revolutionary. Whereas before you paid a premium for miniaturisation here a mainstream supplier had gone completely the other way and was offering a fully-fledged, yet tiny, laptop for peanuts (about £200 anyway).
                            These days all the key manufacturers provide small, cheap laptops (although as these are often noticeably lower specced than normal laptops they are often referred to as netbooks).

                            A nine-inch laptop - what's the point?
                            As any bloke will tell you a gadget is its own justification but what Asus did is the holy grail of retailing - identify and exploit a gap in a saturated market. In our increasingly wired world many of us will now have a house full of IT kit; desktops, laptops, smart phones and so on. In my house we have the desktop, my work laptop, my own laptop, my iPhone, my wife's work laptop and my daughter's laptop. So when my own laptop packed up around Christmas I found myself in a bit of a dilemma. Not about whether to replace it, leaving myself one gadget down was never going to be an option, but what to replace it with. Ever since the EeePC came out (and further back in time the Toshiba Libretto) I've fancied one of these mini laptops. I've never bought into the laptop as desktop replacement so for me they have always had to be portable, but with the best will in the world affordable and decent laptops were usually knocking on for 3kg, light enough to be portable but heavy enough to make daily lugging on the train a pain.
                            So, now that circumstances and technology have converged I could get down to the fun business of comparing and selecting some lovely technology to buy.
                            First up was to lay down some minimum specs. Screen size (and therefore overall size) was the first consideration; I didn't need another full size laptop but wanted something a bit more usable than the iPhone. A nine inch screen

                            Dell Inspiron Mini 9is more than usable, for short periods of time, and allows you to do pretty much everything you want to do on a PC. Next up was the operating system, purely in terms of pick up and go familiarity I wanted to have windows XP installed. One of the main reasons for getting a netbook (and hence the name) is the ability to get on-line when you're out and about, so connectivity is important. The final consideration was the usual build quality / reliability question.

                            Looking around the market place there are several good options; with Samsung, Toshiba et al all offering models you should find one to suit. It was hard to find one that came out on top across the board and while the Dell isn't the best in all categories it really only falls down in one area, which I'll cover later, and it does have one significant advantage in terms of connectivity. In order to get internet access out and about, while not relying on wireless hot spots etc, you're going to have to sign up to a mobile broadband account. These are usually provided by the big mobile phone carriers and service is delivered via a dongle (a memory stick-like device that plugs into the laptop). The Dell's USP is that this modem is integrated into the netbook itself meaning that you don't need to carry around an extra piece of kit that is easily damaged and highly losable.
                            The Dell Mini9 is, at the time of writing, only available through a Vodafone mobile broadband contract meaning shopping around is not an option. For 3g/gprs access with a 3GB monthly limit you will pay Vodafone £25 per month including VAT, based on a 24 month contract. Given that similarly rated access via a dongle will cost in the region of £15 per month this means that overall cost of the netbook is about £240 including VAT.

                            The Dell Mini 9 ~
                            Weighing a fraction under 1kg this is noticeable yet unobtrusive. Similar in size to a hardback novel it is smaller and lighter than most text books. The 8.9inch screen has a widescreen aspect and a glossy finish. Corners may have been cut to build the Mini to the budget but not with the screen, running with a resolution of 1,024 x 600 it is bright and clear with vivid colours and sharp text reproduction. The discrete power cable, not unlike a phone charger, adds about 200g to the overall carry weight.
                            The Mini9 runs on the back of an Intel Atom 1.6GHz N270 processor, partnered with 1GB of memory. Performance is never going to be its strong point and it'll never be a match for the full size machines but that is not the point. It will run just fine with a single Office application open along with e-mail and internet ticking over in the background. Open a second or third application and you may begin to notice the difference but as long as you stay in 2D mode it is always workable. Watching video is a pleasure largely due to the excellent screen and another good use of the Mini9 when travelling. I haven't tried any proper games on it and I wouldn't expect it to be any great shakes but if it's a couple of years old and not too resource hungry you might get away with an old favourite.
                            Given that it will spend its life bouncing around the bottom of bags a certain robustness is required, although this should not be at the expense of weight. The Mini9 achieves this and surpasses many other netbooks and budget laptops I've seen. Reassuringly the plastic casing is strong and there is no flex in the chassis, this contrasts with the full size budget Toshiba laptop I bought last year where money had clearly been saved on a more flimsy chassis.
                            In terms of looks the Dell manages to achieve a high quality appearance, akin to higher end Sony's and Dell's. Glossy silver/grey and black panels make up the case and everything, keyboard, track pad, is pleasingly proportioned. A web cam is also integrated into the case.

                            What's pleasing on the eye, however, isn't always pleasing in use. The slimmed down keyboard makes serious work a bit of a chore, the keys are uniformly a fraction smaller than normal and while this itself is liveable the right hand shift/cursor keys are significantly shrunk making them awkward to use. They've gone as far as dispensing with dedicated Function keys altogether - instead relegating them to secondary FN key functions along the middle ASD row - and have done away with F11 and F12 completely. The keyboard is perfectly usable for light Office use and internet surfing but any attempt to touch type at speed will prove tricky.
                            I'm not a big fan of track pads, and if I was using the netbook more seriously I would plug in a mouse, but the one supplied here is as comfortable to use as any I've used before. Virtually full size it is easy to use with the right degree of sensitivity

                            The second negative is far more important, and may well be a deal breaker for many. The Mini9 has a paltry 8GB SSD hard drive, surely the smallest currently supplied. Given that nearly 4GB of that is taken by the XP installation and a further 1GB by necessary utilities, that doesn't leave a lot for the user. I have managed to squeeze in a slimmed down MS Office set as well as some all important net applications (who can live without Google Earth?) but I'm left to juggle about 1.5GB of spare capacity. An internal SD card reader has alleviated data storage constraints to some degree as I have added an 8GB card (£10 from Amazon) but I'm still switching additional applications in and out in a way I haven't done since my first PC. Obviously, with a unit this size there is no optical drive.
                            The PC comes pre-installed with the usual software suspects and given the paltry HD supplied most of these will be stripped out ASAP. The resource hungry MS Works and McAfee security suites are the first to go followed by the unnecessary Google Desktop. These can be replaced by the more useful, and free, Open Office suite and equally free Avira anti virus. There are also a whole host of wireless/broadband/connectivity applications installed but as I don't know what they all specifically do I've had to leave them in place.

                            In terms of connectivity the Mini9 has pretty much all the bases covered. The internal HSDPA adapter allows 3g and GPRS mobile broadband access at very acceptable speeds. Google Earth downloaded and installed in around a minute and streamed audio/video has been handled comfortably. Connecting to my home wireless network was predictably straightforward with XP's wizards leading the way and there is an Ethernet port for wired network connection. Bluetooth is available but there is no infrared.
                            In addition to the SD slot there are three USB 2.0 slots split across both sides, a serial port for outputting to a monitor or projector and jacks for microphone and headphones.

                            I've found the battery life quite impressive. I use this mostly at work where my current client declines to provide internet access to freelancers. Turning it on at around 9:00am it will run constantly until midday before giving any low battery warnings and I've used it to drive two hour presentations and used barely half the battery. It should easily cope with viewing a film and some serious surfing between charges.
                            When I purchased this from the Vodafone showroom I was also given a couple of extra items as sweeteners. First was a carry case, more of a protective wallet/pouch as it fits the Mini9 very snugly with no room for anything else, including the power cable. This was retailing at £15 and even if it isn't thrown in I would recommend buying one just to keep it protected in transit. Like a little Russian doll the free carry case also came with a couple of free gifts inside. This time there was a screen cleaner and cloth set and an 8GB SanDisk Cruzer memory stick, the memory stick comes with U3 software that allows some software (Open Office for example) to be run from the stick rather than the internal hard drive further relieving the pressure on HD capacity. All very useful and all worth buying separately if not included. A PAYG sim card was also thrown in.

                            Vodafone~
                            The showroom staff were helpful and patient when I was setting up the contract and didn't try to push any extras onto me. They did sneakily add an insurance package (£3.50 a month) but this could be cancelled over the phone the next day. Everything was arranged there and then and by the time I got back to the office an hour later I was able to get online straightaway. The Vodafone Mobile Connect software makes hooking up to the internet very easy and includes some useful features for managing your usage. This is very important when you're on a strictly limited tariff, going over your monthly allowance can be costly. I was initially concerned that the 3GB monthly limit might prove a problem but this has not been the case. If your surfing is of the Web 1.0 variety (calling up web pages, viewing and then moving on) then 3GB is plenty and you could almost run it 24/7. If you are more of a Web 2.0 style user (uploading and downloading content) you should still find this plenty but you will need to keep an eye on the usage metres if you are streaming a lot of video etc. After four months of use I have barely managed to clear 2GB in any month although I have cheated by deferring any software updates for when I'm connected to my home network.
                            I have had no problems connecting to the mobile broadband service, the Connect software will usually detect and connect in about 30 seconds and the number of dropped connections can be counted on one hand. All my usage has been in London where you would expect coverage to be good so I can't comment on life outside the M25 but Vodafone claim 80% coverage in the UK. Broadband speeds are a murky area at best, both for mobile and fixed line, but Vodafone are well regarded in the trade papers and as I've said I've no complaints with speeds.

                            In summary~
                            On the plus side the Mini9 is small but beautifully formed. It is light yet robust and has a great screen. The integrated modem makes it a virtually unique all-in-one mobile broadband/netbook package. The Dell/Vodafone partnership is well met; quality hardware allied to reliable connectivity has so far been faultless.
                            On the minus side the keyboard can be constraining for serious use and the paltry hard drive capacity is an unwelcome reminder of early PC's. Being internal the modem cannot be shared with other computers.
                            These negatives are all relative though. Realistically this will be your second or even third, PC so the number of applications you need to run on it should be limited. Likewise, alternative storage options can be used, online or networked for example, and capacious SD cards and memory sticks are now so cheap that you should have plenty of storage space for all that digital media we need to get by on.

                            Conclusion~
                            As gadgets go this is a good one, it might even justify itself for its own usefulness. I ummed and ahhed for a good while before going for this option but after several months usage I have no regrets. All the drawbacks were clear before I took the plunge and there have been no nasty surprises since. Recommended.

                            Also posted on Ciao under brereton66

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                            • More +
                              22.04.2009 14:59
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                              When will I see you again?

                              Ah, let's slip into something more comfortable shall we? A new Inspector Rebus story is usually a time for celebration and the welcome return of the familiar. Through sixteen previous adventures we have come to know and love John Rebus and the opportunity to get into a new episode is the reading equivalent of slipping on a comfy fleece and watching a Bond film one more time.

                              Exit Music is the seventeenth stop on the long journey of Edinburgh's finest and as the name suggests the curtain is soon to close on his gloriously inglorious career. But before he goes gentle into that good night there is one more case and several glaring loose ends that need resolving.

                              The case involves the violent death of a Russian dissident poet and the loose ends include several unsolved cases and the fact that his long time nemesis, local gangster Morris Gerald Cafferty, remains at large and just beyond the reach of the long arm of the law. This last fact gnaws deep into Rebus' soul and feeds his anger and remaining ambitions.

                              Synopsis~
                              The story opens with the discovery of the badly beaten body of Alexander Todorov, the apparent victim of a mugging gone wrong. This seemingly undemanding case is given to Rebus to keep him busy for his final few days before his retirement. As he works through the statements and the victim's background he sees links to the new Scottish Parliament, a group of visiting Russian businessmen and most tantalisingly a link to his old enemy Cafferty. Could there be more to this than meets the eye? Could this simple mugging be the tip of a bigger corruption? Could - oh what am I saying. This is a John Rebus story, of course there's more to this than meets the eye and of course there is a far bigger mystery behind. That's why we love these books and we're not let down here.

                              The Book~
                              Exit Music takes Rebus fans down a well-worn path. Once again we find him becoming obsessed with a case and letting it take over his life. With no concept of work/life balance he spends his days, evenings and nights chasing down leads and hunches (not to mention grudges). If he hadn't already lost touch with family and friends he would do so all over again here. Some familiar characters return, the most important of these is Siobhan Clarke, his long time junior partner, and she is joined by a number of minor characters returning from previous stories.

                              The fact that Rebus and Clarke return largely unchanged from before should not be taken as a negative, throughout the series Rankin has allowed his main characters to grow and progress organically. Not much changes from book to book yet taken over the course of several episodes you see clear development and this is a credit to his skill and patience as an author.

                              Despite this character development and this being number 17 in the series, there is nothing in Exit Music that would exclude a newcomer. Obviously there is enjoyment for the regular getting reacquainted with the usual suspects but beyond having a head start there is no other advantage. There isn't a great deal of back story for the reader to worry about, the occasional reference to an earlier career in the army being the limit of early Rebus history and it has been a while since any of his family made an appearance in the books so beyond an innate sense of order there isn't even any real need to read the books in the right order. The only problem for a rookie reader is that if this does turn out to be the last in the series they'll have nowhere to go but backwards.

                              The character of John Rebus is not especially original. A hard drinking cop who plays by his own rules, he has a problem with authority but invariably gets his man. So far so familiar and the casual visitor can be forgiven for dismissing it as same old, same old. But it should be remembered that Rankin was a young and naïve writer when he started the series so perhaps he went for a safety first approach when designing his hero. Throughout the series, as Rankin has developed as a writer, so Rebus has developed as a character. Never betraying his original make up he has developed into a more complex and satisfying creation, which is brought forward a little with each episode. Some back-story is provided in the first novel but we know very little about his past and early police career and his early life is only rarely mentioned. There are some romantic diversions but these too are few and usually doomed by his obsessive nature as another case takes over his life and every waking hour. The one constant in the stories and one of the main things to give Rebus his humanity is the relationship with Siobhan Clarke. Entirely professional it is nonetheless very endearing and has passed through various guises: master/apprentice, father/daughter and as Clarke has become a senior detective herself now more equal partners. This book shows Clarke stepping out of the shadows, taking over the case from Rebus and preparing to move up to Inspector on his retirement. The character of Clarke shows sufficient independence and depth while retaining enough of the spirit of Rebus to indicate that she could make a successful spin off / continuation character. I'm sure Rankin will have considered this, I wonder which way he'll go.

                              There is the return of another familiar character that should not be over-looked, that of the city of Edinburgh itself. From the very beginning the Rebus stories have been very much Edinburgh stories, the streets and history of the place integral to every book. The plots, the crimes and the characters track relentlessly across the cityscape in every episode, Rankin describes locations and movement as if giving directions and road names and places fill the narrative. This benefits the novel on several levels, for those who don't know the city it provides an authenticity and sense of scale. For regular city visitors like myself it allows me to picture many of the locations and backdrops while locals and city experts can track the action and characters making the whole experience that much more vivid. Edinburgh is a city full of character, within a relatively small area there is the Georgian splendour of the New Town, overlooked by the Gothic malevolence of the castle and Arthur's Seat and in between are the mysterious disappearing bridges and subterranean streets, often buried intact as the city expanded. It is a great city in which to set a mystery series and the affection that Rankin has for the place is clear to see.

                              This book shows Ian Rankin near the top of his game, well written it is polished and professional in execution but perhaps lacks a little of the inspiration of other mysteries and there are better books in the series. It is, however, a satisfying novel and provides a well-judged conclusion that will appeal to the regulars who would be foolhardy not to read this. I would recommend that newcomers look to novels much earlier in the series to give themselves the best chance of getting the most from the character.

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                            • Stark - Edward Bunker / Fiction Book / 54 Readings / 53 Ratings
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                              03.04.2009 13:35
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                              Straight from the horse's mouth

                              There are a couple of things that are pretty remarkable about the book 'Stark'. Firstly, the author was a life long career criminal who'd spent the majority of his time in juvenile and adult prison. Secondly, it was written in 1962 yet in language and construction is as modern as it is possible to imagine. Thirdly, despite the writer achieving wide ranging acclaim and success as an author and some-time film actor this book went unknown and unpublished until after his death.

                              For those steeped in popular culture the name of Ed Bunker will be very familiar, others may not have heard of him at all. To fill in the gaps let me provide a little background, as Mr Bunker is a very interesting character indeed and to know him a little better will greatly improve your appreciation and respect for his work.


                              Born in 1933 Bunker's early life was a round of foster homes and institutions after his family broke up when he was five. Resentment led to trouble and he soon came to the attention of the authorities and before the age of 14 he'd already racked up several years and several escapes from juvenile detention. By the age of 16 he was heading for adult prison and became the youngest inmate of San Quentin Prison. It was over the next few years that his first forays into writing began. Through a generous patron he got his first typewriter and on parole was given opportunities to work and stay straight. The lure of the easy win grew too strong to resist, however, and Bunker was soon back in the life, his notoriety growing to the point where he featured on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted List. A failed bank heist led to his final spell in prison in the early 1970's and it was here that he began writing in earnest, producing the first full draft of his debut novel 'No Beast So Fierce' that was published in 1973. A second novel, 'Animal Factory', was published in 1977 followed by the painfully autobiographical third novel 'Little Boy Blue' in 1981. He came to widespread attention in 1992 playing Mr Blue in Reservoir Dogs alongside a plainly infatuated Quentin Tarantino which in turn led to the release of a final novel, 'Dog Eat Dog', in 1995 and a fully fledged autobiography, Mr Blue, in 1999. Edward Bunker died in 2005. Following his death the draft for 'Stark' was found amongst his possessions and subsequently published.

                              Synopsis of Stark~
                              Stark is a grifter (a con-man) and a drug addict. Despite spells in prison he is good at what he does and is relatively successful but he has a problem. One more conviction and he will be going down for a very long time and a police detective has just such a charge against him. He is therefore forced to play informant against his criminal friends in the hope that he can get off. Being an informant isn't that much of a problem as he has the morals of an alley cat, getting found out and killed is more so. Therefore, he has to walk a fine line between keeping the police happy, keeping the faith of the criminals he is betraying and organising the 'last big score' so that he can escape and start afresh elsewhere. Stark lives for these schemes and complications though, born into the criminal life it is all he knows and all he wants to be. The idea of going straight isn't one that occurs to him, he is a hunter, a predator and everyone is a possible target but as the scheme unfolds he will be lucky to escape with his life.


                              Stark the Novel~
                              I have to say I approached this novel with some trepidation. Having read and enjoyed his previous novels, and autobiography, on hearing of his death I assumed that would be that and it was only by chance that I came across this book. The trepidation inevitably comes from the idea of posthumously publishing work the author didn't see fit to publish during their life. The fear of 'cashing in' is unavoidable and the expectation is that it will be of a lower quality, especially when you see that it predates his first novel by ten years. This is manifestly not the case. Stark is the equal, if not superior, of his later work, only the eviscerating Little Boy Blue clearly stands ahead of it.

                              All of Bunker's work is underwritten by his career criminal background and from having spent half his life in prison. His characters and plots are accessible and instantly believable; there is no artifice and no glamorous concessions - he tells it like it is. These aren't stories of gangsters or mobsters, there are no Hannibal Lecter or Joe Pesci style psychopaths, just plain and simple criminals. Equally there is no attempt to glamorise the criminals or justify their behaviour, the basic idea is simple - some people (like Ed Bunker did) live a life entirely based on crime and these books describe that. It is as close as most of us can get, or would want to get, to the working of the criminal mind.


                              Bunker writes with articulacy and a fluency that completely belies his upbringing and life. It may have been written in 1962 but the writing is so free from pretence that it remains almost entirely contemporary. This contrasts dramatically with the bizarre foreword written by James Ellroy, which is entirely at odds with the rest of the book both in terms of style and content.
                              Although written at street level and undeniably cool his delivery never slips into slang or arcane criminal language trickery, all the more remarkable given that this was pretty much the only world he knew in 1962, but remains arrow straight and entirely honest throughout.

                              An interesting point with this novel is Bunker's choice for lead character and plot. All his later novels were to a greater or lesser extent autobiographical and were populated with characters and events that you could clearly see were sourced from his own direct experience. There's no denying that Bunker was a violent man who served his time for violent crimes, armed robbery and so on, but he would see himself as honest and 'stand up' at least within underworld definitions. Conversely he had little time for con men whom he saw has predators, attacking those weaker than themselves. It is therefore interesting to see the con man lead, Stark, painted so sympathetically and operating in relatively optimistic circumstances, when compared with the largely doomed and self destructive characters of his later work.


                              This is also probably his most accessible work. Far less violent than his later books it is hard to see many people being in any way offended by it. If this had been published earlier it is interesting to wonder if he would have become better known as it would have appealed to a far wider audience, and see what influence this would have had on his subsequent work.

                              If you enjoy the crime genre I'd go so far as to say that this is a must read book, and if what I see on line is true there are several more novels and dozens of short stories all written before 'No Beast So Fierce' but that remain unpublished. Here's hoping some more gems will be found there.

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                              • More +
                                19.03.2009 17:47
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                                Worth basing a reputation on

                                I must be such a sucker. A year or so back I bought the book Jpod by Douglas Coupland and hated it with a degree of hostility out of all proportion to its inherent quality, yet here I am shelling out good money for another one. I'd bought that first book largely on the basis of the author's reputation as a modern, zeitgeist surfing writer with a savvy appreciation of the turn of the century world. A reputation almost entirely earned with this break through novel; 'Generation X'. Unfortunately, Jpod was so annoyingly self-regarding, so out of touch with the 21st century that I felt almost personally insulted that I had been so duped - hence my disproportionate loathing. Still, once bitten - never learn is my motto and I resolved to go back to the source of all this trouble and actually read Generation X, the book that created a reputation and (supposedly) defined an age. No pressure then.

                                Actually, there wasn't much pressure at all to be honest. Preconception is a capricious beast and my high expectations had all been used up with Jpod to the point where I approached this book expecting to be let down and ready to sneer from the outset.
                                The problems with Jpod were manifold but can be summarised in three main areas. Self aggrandising: Coupland name checked himself in the first line and then introduced himself as a major character in the final chapters. Gimmicky: Coupland insists on replicating, verbatim, internet searches spam e-mails etc for no purpose except to waste pages. Arrested development: although set and published in 2006 the characters, IT workers who should have been a lot more Web 2.0 savvy, are stuck in some 1998 early dot com world. The effect of this was to make me want to pick up the book and punch it right in the face but (always a but), there were some redeeming features. When he got round to some proper narrative writing Coupland was able to show himself to be really quite talented and some of the characterisation and set pieces were genuinely funny. That, and the popular opinion into which I found myself flying persuaded me that I should give it another go.

                                So, there I was and here I am. A lurid pink edition of Generation X, freshly read, sitting in front of me and I am left to wonder was it any good or have I totally wasted another £7.99 (less my wife's 10% teachers discount).
                                Well, the good news is that I didn't waste my money and Coupland has gone some way to redeeming himself in my all-important eyes. This book is a lot better than his later effort, largely (although not entirely) free from gimmickry it is a more straightforward character piece, although to be fair it isn't strictly about the characters. To put it another way, did I enjoy it?

                                Yeeeeeessss (a drawn out, thoughtful yet reserved affirmative) but I enjoyed it more for what it was rather than what it is, do you see? That probably doesn't make a lot of sense but don't worry, I'm a little confused myself and I feel the need to work things out through the rest of this review.
                                This could take a while so for those that appreciate brevity I'll cut to my conclusion right here so that you don't need to read any further: this book is good, you'd probably enjoy reading it and I fully expect to read it again (and again) in the future. Four Stars.


                                For those others of you with the interest and patience to join me on what (I fear) may be a rambling journey let us continue.
                                Generation X is about three friends living in Palm Springs, California. Andy, Dag and Claire are white, college-educated middle class twenty-somethings. They have given up on their old lives, careers, family et al, to take a series of low rent jobs to support a low rent lifestyle defined by zero ambition and zero expectation. The fact that they have chosen to move to this perennial retirement town should not be over-looked. They fill their days telling each other stories. Sometimes funny, sometimes disturbing these stories define and underscore their lives and worldviews and reveal their real thoughts and intents. There is no plot as such, no start and finish, more it is a look at how a certain class of person live their lives. It is a snapshot in time and like a photograph it should be judged and measured with regard to the time it was taken. The book was written and is set in 1990, this is important so keep it in mind as we proceed.

                                The book primarily deals with 'Life Crises' and disillusionment, a curious late twentieth century development. It seems to me it all comes down to choices. Before the Second World War people didn't have choices, they'd slog their guts out all their lives and then die with precious little choice over career or lifestyle. After the austerity of the war years a boom spread across the western world as personal wealth, education and mobility increased. With these came a degree of anxiety as people asked whether they had made the right choices, made the most of their opportunities. The mid-life crises entered public awareness and a generation of 50 year olds got earrings and bought sports cars. By the 1980's the age of crisis and disillusion had reached the thirtysomethings made famous by that eponymous, whiney, show that was so inexplicably popular at the time. After a brief hiatus where Yuppiedom allowed everyone to be smug about their prospects and house prices another recession again brought down the age of disillusion to the range we find in this book, the mid twenties, where it is not so much a fear of making the wrong choices but a realisation that whatever choice you make it's all going to hell in a hand basket anyway. Incidentally, to bring this up to date I suspect that disillusionment is the new Original Sin and people are just born with it now, but that's another story.
                                At its heart Generation X is about this disillusionment. The three leads would appear to have all the opportunities that modern America can offer. From stable, pleasant families they are smart, articulate and well educated. They could, and indeed did, get good jobs that would have offered a certain amount of security and quality of life but all three walked away from their past to start new lives in Palm Springs. To call them drop-outs would be misleading, what they've done is step away from the ambition and competitiveness expected in modern life to scrape a living from a series of undemanding McJobs. They know that no matter how hard they work or how far they go they won't match the earning potential of the previous Yuppie generation nor will they ever have the spending power of their parent's Eisenhower generation and so they stepped off the treadmill for good.

                                Amongst their story telling and slacker lifestyles the three characters also do a fair bit of moaning; moaning about their own lack of prospects, moaning about those younger than them having it easier, moaning about contemporaries who are doing well and have therefore sold-out, generally moaning about a lot of things really. By rights I should hate them but I don't, I like all three of them quite a lot. They might moan but they don't whine, they moan with a healthy sense of humour and irony and at heart are more critical of themselves than their would-be targets. They are entertaining and generous of nature, they understand that their choices are their own and may not be for everyone and they don't evangelise that their choices are the right choices.
                                One of my biggest fears when I started this book was that Coupland's love of gimmickry, so heavy handed in Jpod, would be present here as well and it was with sinking spirits that I saw footnotes on almost every page containing Roy Lichtenstein style cartoon panels and pseudo bumper sticker statements but in all honesty these aren't that intrusive and in some ways are representative of the characters progress and thoughts. The footnotes are also packed full of epithets and labels, each with Coupland's own definition alongside. Coupland is fairly obsessed with these and there are hundreds throughout the book and he seems determined to get as many as possible out there and hopefully to become commonly used. Two of these: 'McJob' and 'Generation X' itself have achieved this and many others come close or predict a different term in the future with the same definition. They can often be a little laboured and several don't really work but in their own way they are just as representative of the times as the rest of the book as this was an age when everything had to be labelled by the media. It was the age of the New Man, the New Lad, Downsizing, Post This and Neo That and there was a real competition to be the first to name a trend or movement. All of which leads me back to my earlier comment where I said I enjoyed it for what it was rather than what it is. Generation X is a period piece now, almost a historical novel and needs to be judged as such.

                                The world hasn't moved very far since 1990 but twenty years is still twenty years and much of the book is beginning to feel a little dated. Reading it for the first time now falls between two stools, it's all too recent to make it a retro piece but enough time has passed to dull its relevance. I recognise the book's commentary of the times as being right on the money and I'm kicking myself for not having read it at the time because its impact then would have been a lot more profound, despite that I can see me reading this again and again in the future and I can see new generations of readers discovering it for many years to come.
                                Generation X comes with a fair amount of baggage; it has been compared to the novels of Salinger and Fitzgerald for its era defining quality. This gives it a reputation that is hard to live up to but stripping most of this away leaves a work that is satisfying and highly enjoyable. He may not be as accomplished or skilled as those authors but this is an effective and well-written book. I'm glad I gave him a second chance and look forward to reading this again in the future.

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