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ilovemycat

ilovemycat
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Member since: 31.03.2011

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      20.06.2012 02:10
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      Solid but unsatisfying airport reading

      The Associate - John Grisham

      Legal thrillers are not really my thing, but I was given this book as a present. This is the second Grisham I have read, after The Broker.

      The book's central character is Kyle McAvoy, a young law graduate who is blackmailed into stealing secrets from his firm. The main antagonist is a man known as Bennie Wright, who has a video of Kyle from his student days which places him at the scene of an alleged rape. Threatening to ruin Kyle's future career by releasing the video on the internet, Bennie coerces Kyle into gaining access to confidential information on a huge litigation case.

      This is pure airport reading. A very simple writing style that keeps pages turning, enough action to keep you interested until the end, decent enough characters to make you care about what is going on, and enough legal background detail to make you feel like you've learned something.

      Despite this, the overall plot was very thin. At times the book felt like the diary of a young associate at a major law firm, with endless "shop-talk" about clients, donkey-work and billing, and you can almost hear Grisham's dislike for such firms coming through in Kyle's character. Kyle, in particular, is a frustrating protagonist, seemingly far too resourceful for a young graduate and also in very little fear for his apparent situation. The character of Bennie and his even lamer sidekick, Nigel, is also frustrating. He doesn't come across in any way fearsome or threatening, and Kyle's constant backtalk to him is more like a kid bitching at a teacher than someone afraid for his life.

      This book reminded me of the Dick Francis novel I read last year. It is the novel of a bestselling author on autopilot, giving you enough insider tidbits about the subject material to keep you interested, but leaving you feeling short-changed where the story was concerned.

      (Possible spoilers coming up)

      However, it was enjoyable enough that it would have got four stars from me where it not for the ending. Without going into details, the end is a massive anticlimax. At about halfway through the book I found myself thinking, if this plot is going to get resolved, Grisham better get on with it, then you get to the end and you're like, what? That's it? Half the plot is left unresolved, as though Grisham couldn't be bothered to finish the book. No book should have so many loose ends unless there's a sequel. It really left me feeling short-changed, put me off buying any other book by Grisham in the future, and drops my rating down to three out of five.

      ##this review can also be found on my blog at

      http://amillionmilesfromanywhere.blogspot.jp/

      My novel, The Tube Riders, is now available as both an ebook and a paperback from Amazon.

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    • Alien (DVD) / DVD / 32 Readings / 30 Ratings
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      15.06.2012 05:33
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      A brilliant sci-fi/horror that is a genre classic

      I love horror and sci-fi movies alike, and Alien is a recognised genre classic. There really is very little to dislike about this film; it is perfect for what it is. They really don't make them like they used to.

      Alien is a story about the crew of a deep space mining ship who are pulled out of cryogenic sleep (or whatever the term is!) to answer what seems to be a distress call from a neighbouring planet. When three members of the crew get off to investigate, one of them gets attacked by a strange lifeform which attaches itself to his face. Back on the main ship, the spawn of the creature escapes and grows into something huge, dangerous and deadly.

      This film was made in 1979 and has that realism that all good genre films made before CGI have. The space ships and the aliens were models or men in suits, filmed at careful angles and in certain lightings in order to create a more realistic effect. The simplicity of the effects and the sets are disguised so well that everything becomes very, very real.

      The alien, for example, is a man in a suit. You rarely see the alien out in the open unless its disguised by dry ice or flashing lights. The reason being that the producers don't want you to know its a man in a suit. Otherwise it looks like this. Had they left that awful scene in the movie, it would have ruined it, but they were trying to create suspense and atmosphere, and only seeing the alien in short segments gave it so, so much more menace.

      Another thing I want to mention is the cast. They're just brilliant, and there isn't a 'looker' among them. It's impossible to watch any kind of movie these days without one of the leading actors being blatant eye candy. Here, they're just good actors. Their characters are believable, the issues they have and the banter between them is very believable. And for that reason you can identify with them. I couldn't care less about a muscle bound Sam Worthington in Avatar. Yeah, he might look like a grunt, but I can't identify with that. Tom Skerritt as Captain Dallas on the other hand ... for a start he looked a bit like my dad but everything about him just seemed that much more believable.

      The last thing I want to mention, is the sound. Not just the music - which is excellent - but just the effects. The wind noise, the battering of the coolant showers as they go haywire, the screams of the alien, everything even down to the cat's hiss is visceral and authentic.

      This is a great movie. If you haven't seen it, you really should, and if you get a chance to see it on a big screen, don't miss out.

      ##Originally appears on my blog, amillionmilesfromanywhere.blogspot.jp

      Feel free to check out my blog, find me on Amazon or follow on twitter @chriswardwriter.

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      01.04.2012 13:07
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      A solid crime thriller

      I just finished reading this book earlier today.

      It centres around a man called Chris Lowndes, a man who writes musical scores for movies returning home to Yorkshire at the age of 60, shortly after his wife has died of cancer. He moves into a big old house and quickly finds out that it has a dark history - in 1953, the doctor who lived there was apparently poisoned by his wife who was then hung for his murder.

      With nothing better to do, Lowndes sets out to find out what really happened.

      I was given this book as a present so it wasn't the usual thing I read. Robinson is obviously good at what he does and writes with his fans in mind, with lots of detail about the area and the local towns (I gather all his other books are set in Yorkshire, most featuring a regular character called DCI Banks). The story itself was so-so, with some interesting detail about the Second World War and trials of the time but in terms of the current plot it was mostly the central character visiting old men and talking to them over a couple of beers before coming to conclusions.

      There was also a lot of superfluous detail, which again I think was aimed at Robinson's regular fanbase. For example, I really couldn't care less what Lowndes orders every time he goes to a restaurant, what brand of wine he drinks, which performer is playing which sonata on the CD he's listening to. Robinson obviously thinks these aspects add to the depth and most likely so do his fanbase, but for me there was a lot of padding and the novel could probably have been 50 pages shorter without any damage being done to the plot.

      I wouldn't read it again, but I wouldn't rule out reading other books by the same author in the future. It had enough to keep me reading to the end which a lot of books don't.

      Chris Ward
      Author of The Tube Riders

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      08.02.2012 06:56
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      Part six in Stephen King's epic Dark Tower series

      Dark Tower 6 - Song of Susannah

      I'd heard bad things about this book, from it's slow pacing to the introduction of a certain writer as a major character, but as always I approached it with an open mind, particularly as I'd already committed myself to reading the whole series.

      The Dark Tower is arguably Stephen King's finest hour, a seven volume urban-fantasy masterwork. However, if you look at the reviews for the books individually, it appears that the quality of the series begins to wane towards the end. Having read the first six back to back I'd have to agree. The Gunslinger was a sci-fi western masterpiece, The Drawing of the Three dropped Roland of Gilead into the fast-paced world of contemporary New York, The Waste Lands was a kind of steampunk action adventure (and up in the top five books I've ever read) while Wizard and Glass, despite being almost solely concerned with backstory, was a rollicking western adventure. Then came Wolves of the Calla, and the pace began to slow. It felt bloated, nothing much happened, and it was filled with annoying references to King's other works and contained pages and pages of uninspiring backstory. Song of Susannah, unfortunately, while shorter, is more of the same.

      Set now in New York in 1999 and Maine in 1977, the characters have been divided. Susannah is now struggling to keep her alter ego, Mia, in check, while Roland and Eddie hunt Calvin Tower and Aaron Deepneau. The Susannah/Mia parts are, for want of a better word, a mess, a mixture of dream sequences, internal dialogues and poorly expolated and unbelievable back story. Even Wolves of the Calla kept me pushing though but I really struggled through the first 150 pages of this book. Once it flicks back to Eddie and Roland though, the pace picks up, with some decent action set pieces. However, the characters spend way too much time standing around not doing anything, and fifty pages of action can't save the book from it's quagmire.

      I've read a lot about how King shows up in this book but really it wasn't so bad. If anything, it was confusing, but I didn't really see it as an ego trip like some reviewers have. In short, it wasn't great but it's far from the worst part of this book.

      Overall, if you're a fan of the Dark Tower and you've got this far you'll probably read the last one as I intend to, even though it clocks in at over 1000 pages. This one is mercifully short (for King) at around 500. However, if this is the first Dark Tower you pick up it's unlikely that you'll be back. Which is a shame, because books 1 to 4 are really very good.

      3/5

      Copyright Chris Ward 2012
      My ebook, Ms Ito's Bird and Other Stories, is now available for Kindle download from Amazon.

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        31.01.2012 07:50
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        The fifth volume in Stephen King's Dark Tower series.

        The Wolves of the Calla is the fifth volume in Stephen King's Dark Tower series. We meet up with Roland and his "ka-tet" (those held together by destiny) as they arrive at Calla Bryn Sturgis, a small farming town that is plagued by regular raids by the "Wolves" out of Thunderclap, the nightmare land that begins across the river. Roland and his friends decide to stop in the Calla long enough to defend it from the upcoming raid.

        This book is where the Dark Tower series starts to slow. This is the first book that I didn't race through, the first that I had to make an effort to finish. The previous books were pretty much non-stop action, while Wolves is basically 850 pages of waiting around, a 10 minute battle and then another 60 pages of aftermath.

        It's not that it isn't good. If, like me, you're in it to complete the series, then you must like it enough to battle on. It has some great touches, such as Andy the Messenger Robot who wanders around town like the tin man from the Wizard of Oz but is altogether more sinister. Some of the characters are interesting, but most of the townsfolk at least pretty much blend into one, and I thought their screen time was spread too thin to get to know them very well. We also bump into Donald Callahan, last seen in 'Salem's Lot, who becomes a major character. While this might interest a lot of King fans, I actually thought that novel was pretty rubbish so didn't really care much.

        The sections of the book based in Mid-World are pretty good, but there is an awful lot of to-ing and fro-ing from New York, a lot of which seems to be setting up the next two novels but made for pretty boring reading. And the hundred-odd pages of Callahan's back-story, mostly told by the priest himself rather than as a separate story (like Wizard and Glass) is dull. I'm not really interested in vampires but it seems obvious that King wanted to meld all his previous works into one. It's very readable in true King style, but it's very much in the vein of his garrulous later works rather than the tighter books of his earlier days.

        Overall, if you are a fan of the Dark Tower you'll probably enjoy this one, but if you read this one first it will probably put you off the rest of the series. Too long, not enough happens, way too much unnecessary baggage.

        Copyright 2012 by Chris Ward
        My stories Forever My Baby and The Ageless available for Kindle download now.

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        27.01.2012 04:42
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        A pop up book for kids based on the famous Christmas poem

        I bought this pop up book for my God Daughter's Christmas present, as I thought that a pop up book mixed with a classic story might be interesting to her.

        I hadn't heard of the author (of the pop up book, as opposed to the author of the original poem), but it turns out he's pretty famous in the field of pop up books and has made books of numerous classic stories. From browsing Amazon (after purchase) I saw mostly favorable reviews with one or two complaining that the pop ups didn't work properly, and a few others complain about the lack of colour.

        The colour issue was something I would agree with. The pop ups are wonderfully intricate, containing scenes from the poem such as Santa climbing down the chimney, and his sled flying over a town. However, the pop ups are made entirely of plain card, mostly red or white (in sync with Christmas) but with no other colouring whatsoever. Basically, the pictures on the cover are the way it is the whole way through.

        The pop ups however, (in my book at least) worked perfectly. I was a little cheeky and actually used it in a couple of lessons at work (I'm an English teacher in Japan) before I wrapped it up (it's a secret!) and even after being handled by a couple of dozen high school kids it still worked fine. My God Daughter is coming up for four and to be honest I don't expect it to last long. The pop ups were pretty fragile and would easily break, but that's just the nature of the product.

        One other downside is that it was expensive. I live in Japan and paid 3200 yen for it (roughly 30 quid), which is a considerable sum for a book of any kind, and I've noticed its around the 20 quid mark on Amazon. To be honest, with no real colour detail inside I probably wouldn't buy it again, but the pop ups are really wonderful.

        Overall, recommended if you're a fan of this style of book, but I've heard some of the author's other books are far more detailed.

        Copyright 2012 Chris Ward
        My story, "Forever My Baby" is now available for Amazon Kindle download

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          05.01.2012 09:05
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          The fourth part in Stephen King's epic western-fantasy series

          Wizard and Glass is part four in Stephen King's epic seven volume Dark Tower series. After the events of part 3, The Waste Lands, Wizard and Glass is mostly back story, as Roland tells his companions a story of his past, bookended by two sections which move the present story onwards.

          Without giving the story so far away, Roland of Gilead and his companions, Eddie, Susannah, Jake and the doglike billy bumbler Oy, find themselves in what seems to be an alternative version of Kansas. There is a strange building on the horizon that looks rather familiar, but before they head off to see it Roland sits them all down and tells them a story of his first days as a young gunslinger, and a story of his first love, Susan Delgado. This "campfire story", so to speak, takes up approximately 500 pages of the 700 in this volume (which, by the way, continues the trend of each book being longer than the last, as, incidentally, does part five, which is something in the region of 900...). It is told as a novel within a novel, with multiple viewpoints like a regular story (we find out how Roland knows all about the other characters later in the book).

          It is very much a Western-sci-fi story, in the vein of part one, The Gunslinger, except it is much, much longer. Roland, just fourteen, and his friends Cuthbert and Alain have been sent east from Gilead to apparently do a stock check of the town of Hambry in the Barony of Mejis. In actual fact they have been sent away to keep them out of danger, while a rebellion, led by "the Good Man" John Farson, rises against Gilead, and the Affiliation of Baronies, of which it is a part.

          While in Hambry, they discover that it is not quite the sleepy out-of-the-way town that it at first seems. Let by three mercenaries known as the Big Coffin Hunters, there is a traitorous plot to aid Farson against the Affiliation. The attempt to foil this, together with the young Roland's love affair with local girl Susan Delgado, is the central thread of the story.

          Susan Delgado is a sixteen year old whose father has recently died. She lives with her miserly old aunt, Cordelia, and when we meet her she has recently been promised to the elderly major to provide him with a child his current wife is unable to produce. In the very first chapter she gets on the wrong side of the ugly old witch, Rhea, whose job it is to prove Susan's virginity is intact. At first, Susan is happy to go along with her duty in exchange for land and money, but after she meets Roland, her ideas change.

          Okay, that's enough of the plot. If you want to know more you'll have to read it yourself.

          This volume of the Dark Tower series gives us more of a view of the failing Mid-World. Hambry is awash with objects of a bygone age, and having the old oil well outside town that still pumps simply because know one knows how to stop it gives it an interesting setting. This is a huge novel, with a massive cast of characters, some loveable, like jokey Cuthbert or cute, earnest Susan, some detestable like Rhea or Cordelia, some just interesting, like failed gunslinger bad guy Eldred Jonas. Roland is the central character, of course, and while good is probably the least convincing, mostly because he is supposed to be fourteen years old but comes across as just a slightly naïve version of his regular self. With him having a Romeo & Juliet style love affair with a girl who is only sixteen herself, it would have been more realistic if the gunslingers had been in their late teens or early twenties.

          That said, I'd heard mixed things about this book. A lot of people have called it long winded and boring, but it really wasn't. It's long, but a lot happens to a lot of characters and the pacing was excellent. I can't imagine what could have been cut to shorten it, but while it wasn't as good as The Waste Lands it moved along at a cracking pace with barely a pause.

          In addition, as it is essentially backstory, we know it's going to end bad in some way. It has a very Revenge of the Sith feel about it - the doomed love story (although it is much, much better) and you know it's going to end badly in one way or another (it does). In fact, it would actually be possible to read the backstory section of this volume before reading The Gunslinger, as it is pretty much Roland's past, although there are a few loose ends that aren't tied up, and we still aren't sure by the end just how long he's been searching for the Dark Tower.

          Overall, while it's not as good as The Waste Lands, its better than the first two books and I'd recommend it for fans of the series. I've heard the series starts to go downhill from now on, so we'll see...

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            29.12.2011 08:40
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            The story of two musicians who refuse to give up on their dream

            Anvil : The Story of Anvil (DVD)

            Nope, I'd never heard of Anvil either. In fact, from the trailers to this documentary I was convinced they were an invented band a la Spinal Tap. However, this darkly comic rockumentary has on thing that This is Spinal Tap doesn't - it's based on a real band.

            Anvil are a Canadian heavy metal band who formed in 1978. During their early years they seemed to be on the verge of large scale commercial success. However, despite opening for some famous bands like Motorhead and Aerosmith, and playing various festivals including Donnington Monsters of Rock, they never quite made it, slipping away into obscurity. However, Anvil never gave up, and the core members of Steve "Lips" Kudlow and Robb Reiner stayed true to a pact they made in high school - to rock together forever. Unfortunately, no one was listening.

            This documentary follows the band as they head out on tour in Europe in 2007 and attempt to record a new album. Both Robb and Lips have regular, poorly paid jobs, but playing in Anvil remains their passion. Lips, in particular, refuses to believe their dream is over.

            However, when they head out on tour it is a calamity of disasters. They play pubs where no one shows up, they miss trains, people won't pay them. It's pretty much a disaster from start to finish. The same goes for the new album - no one wants it, no one wants to fund it, but Lips and Robb, despite tensions between them, refuse to give up.

            This documentary is hilarious and heartbreaking in equal measure. You can really feel for them as they hang on to their fading dream for dear life. Some of the things that happen to them are hilarious in a Spinal Tap way, but that they are really going through these things gives it a real sense of human tragedy. It made me quite happy to know that Anvil achieved a modicum of success on the back of this documentary and the subsequent book, because they certainly deserved it, for effort if nothing else. Personally I thought that Lips came across as a bit of an idiot (despite his endless enthusiasm and obvious talent) while their songs just weren't that memorable. However, for sheer perseverance I take my hat off to them and wish them all the best. I was so touched by this documentary that I would probably go so far as to buy a ticket to one of their shows if they happened to be playing near by.

            Definitely recommended, especially if you are a fan of rock music, but even if you aren't you'll probably appreciate the endearing quality of this tale of how big a part luck can play when it comes to handing out success.

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              26.12.2011 04:47
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              A "Gordon" Thomas the Tank engine train

              I don't know a great deal about babies (the closest I've come is a cat) but I'm being forced to learn in the present buying stakes at least by having gained a nephew and a niece as well as two god-daughters over the last couple of years.

              The wife told me that our two-year old nephew had laughed at a picture of Thomas the Tank Engine so I decided to get him some form of train for Christmas. I usually go with Fisher Price as they're always big and colourful and the brand comes with a certain assumption of quality. This time around, though, I decided to go with a regular Thomas toy.

              I chose Gordon predominantly because he was bigger than the rest and comes with a little coal trailer that attaches via a magnet. Plus, he looked friendly!

              When It showed up I was a little disappointed with the size. I was expecting it to be about a foot long like most Fisher Price toys but its a little thing about 15cm long that fits into your hand. However, this actually proved to be beneficial as it fits neatly into my nephew's hand and it's light enough that he can wave it around. In addition, its a really well crafted toy, made of wood which makes it solid and therefore it should be able to handle a bit of rough treatment. It's nice and colourful and the wheels spin really easily meaning it should work fine on the track you can get (my nephew does't have this yet - I thought I'd see if he maintained his interest and then maybe get him the track for his birthday).

              Overall, I'm pretty happy with this toy and would recommend it. It was so well crafted that I actually felt a bit sad giving it to a young child who will probably give it a bit of a beating.

              I ordered mine through Amazon Japan, because I live there. It came the following day (Amazon JP is just wonderful) and I paid about 15 pounds for it. I see from Amazon UK that its 12.99, which seems a reasonable price.

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                22.12.2011 02:29
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                The third part of Stephen King's Dark Tower series

                The Dark Tower 3 - The Waste Lands

                The last of the "old" Dark Tower books before King took up the series again in 2003, The Waste Lands steps up a gear from the previous two books, The Gunslinger and The Drawing of the Three. I enjoyed those books greatly, but this one is on another level. Quite frankly, this is the best book I've read this year. It's King at his absolute best - the fluff is at a minimum, replaced by great dialogue, excellent characters, inventiveness and a story that rattles along with barely a pause for breath.

                Roland of Gilead has now been joined on his quest to find the Dark Tower by Eddie, an ex-junkie and Suzannah - formerly Detta Walker/Odetta Holmes - a disabled black rights campaigner. The first part of the book concerns the "drawing" of the fourth member, Jake, previously met in the first book, and then a supposed fifth, the "billy bumbler", Oy, a doglike animal which provides a cute touch in a dark, dark book as well as a little light humour.

                In The Waste Lands Roland's "ka-tet" start to learn more about Mid-World, the world that has "moved on". They establish a way to find the Dark Tower, and set off after it, eventually coming to the ruined city of Lud where they hope to find a special form of transport. All along the way they see signs of the world left behind, ancient traffic lights, crashed planes, a suspension bridge on the brink of collapse, but it is in the city itself, a horrible, horrible place that King paints in exquisite and terrifying detail, that they must come up against Blaine, their most dangerous enemy yet.

                All the elements that have made Stephen King so popular are present in this book. You have the flawed central characters, the nasty bad guys, the plot twists and turns. All the things that have made almost everything he's written since 1990 a chore to read have been kept in check, most notably the fluff and the slow storylines. There is still that propensity to refer to advertising slogans for additional detail, and that pulpy, cartoony dialogue (Eddie and his impressions, or Gasher's referring to the Tick Tock Man as "Ticky", for example), though here, rather than irritate, it actually fits well and adds to the feel of the book.

                You probably won't understand what's going on unless you've read the first two books, but if you've read them I'd strongly recommend this one regardless of what you thought of them. I'm a little worried because I've heard the next book, Wizard and Glass, written some ten years later, sucks, but we'll see. But, so far so good.

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              • Apple iPhone 4S 64 GB / Smartphone / 54 Readings / 49 Ratings
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                15.12.2011 06:27
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                Apple's new smartphone

                iPhone 4S 64GB

                As a self-confessed technophobe, I have forever found myself at the back end of any technological development, lagging some way behind the rest of the world, in the same way that I liked 70s music in the 90s, 90s Music in the 2000s, etc. The last computer console I owned was a Sega Master System; my car doesn't even have air-con, I still buy CDs. So, it came as somewhat of a surprise even to myself to suddenly find myself the envy of all my friends with my lovely new iPhone 4S.

                I live in Japan, so apologies if they aren't even out in the UK yet. I don't know, and to be honest, I don't care. A week or so ago, my friend dropped his old iPhone and broke the screen. He went into the phone shop and was offered a free upgrade to an iPhone 4S, because apparently they're running a campaign. My service provider do pretty good campaigns - a friend got a free 42 inch TV for signing up for a iPhone family plan, although the best I ever did was a talking dog). Usually I only get a new phone when the old one breaks, but seeing a chance to jump on the bandwagon, I decided to try my luck.

                My service provider is called Softbank (formerly owned by Vodafone). Trading in my junk old phone that was rubbish even when I got it new, I was given a brand new iPhone 4S free with a new two year contract. My contract works out at about 50 quid a month (6,400yen) which includes all free internet, free mails, and free calls to all other Softbank phones (except from 9pm to 1am - those are charged at 42yen a minute). It sounds quite a lot, but I was actually paying more for my old phone. The 16 or 32GB versions were a bit cheaper, but I decided to just go all out and get the best one.

                It's quite frankly the most impressive piece of technology I've ever owned. It does all the things that my wife's iPhone 4 does (she's so jealous..) but it does them faster. The camera is 8.2MP which is more than my regular camera, and the video is clearer too. It uploads to youtube faster than my Toshiba computer and that's not even using wi-fi. It's incredibly user friendly. I've managed to get the hang of it even without reading a manual and I'm notoriously useless with anything involving electricity.

                It's not all perfect. The new feature, Siri, the voice activation system, is really fun to mess around with, asking strange questions and the like, but it's often more hassle than its worth. It's fine for making a call but writing messages can be frustrating as it will often mishear what you said, meaning you have to do it all over again. Also, unless you have wi-fi or go somewhere that has it, it won't download anything over 20MB. I wanted to use Skype to ring the UK, but I don't have wi-fi and so am still waiting to download it. It might be different in the UK, but in Japan Softbank's actual network is not powerful enough to handle large files.

                In general though, I think it's wonderful. At first I found it difficult to use the keypad, but with a bit of practice even my stubby fingers can type without too many mistakes. It's good for reading the internet but its time consuming for other things. For example, I tried to write a review on Dooyoo on my iPhone and it took forever because I can't transfer my touch typing skills to such a small keypad. And another time, when I tried to play chess online I found it difficult to move the correct pieces.

                These are petty gripes though. Really, this is an incredible piece of technology as and as well as feeling immensely proud to own one before most of my friends (for a change) it really is a handly little tool to have around, doubling up as it does as a camera, mini-computer, i-pod, etc. The battery seems to last for about three days of moderate usage, which is more than my previous phone.

                Very recommended, particularly if you get one for free, like I did.

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                  13.12.2011 02:39
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                  The second volume in Stephen King's sprawling fantasy epic, the Dark Tower

                  The Drawing of the Three is the second volume of Stephen King's 7-volume western-fantasy epic, the Dark Tower. Following on from events in The Gunslinger, Roland Deschain finds himself on a beach where he is attacked by something from the sea he dubs a "lobstrosity". He escapes, but not before it badly wounds him, and he flees north along the beach, unsure where he's going or why, but only that he's getting weaker and weaker as an infection takes hold of his body. Then he comes to a door which opens into another world - contemporary New York. So begins the events of this book.

                  Unlike The Gunslinger, which was a short western with some fantastical elements thrown in, The Drawing of the Three is more in the vein that SK fans will be familiar with. It's dark and violent, and the vast majority of it takes place in New York, where we meet Eddie, a junkie with some nasty "friends", and Detta/Odetta, a handicapped black rights activist with a split personality. Roland finds himself inside the minds of these two people as he tries to "draw" them into his own world.

                  The Gunslinger, at times, was hard to follow, and this book, while a lot different, has some of the same frustrating issues. There are some sections, particularly near the back, which are a little difficult to follow. I found my second reading of the Gunslinger helped a lot, and no doubt the same would be true here. There is definitely a lot of deeper meaning in these stories.

                  The Drawing of the Three is also very old school King, a lot tighter and faster paced than some of his door stop novels. It's nearly double the length of The Gunslinger, but it doesn't feel it as the plot races along in a series of chases and shootouts.

                  A look on Amazon shows that ratings for the Dark Tower series seem to decline as the series goes on, both as King gets older and the books get longer. But this second volume is still King on top of his game, and well worth a read. If you've not read The Gunslinger, though, I'd strongly suggest reading that first.

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                  02.12.2011 04:31
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                  Probably the best hostel chain in Tokyo

                  Khaosan Tokyo Samurai

                  Khaosan Tokyo Samurai is one of a chain of relatively new hostels in the Asakusa district of Tokyo. Recently, a friend and I stayed there for two nights.

                  One quick word about Tokyo - unless you sleep rough or find a 24 hour internet café, sleeping in Tokyo is not cheap. Even capsule hotels, those coffin-shaped places of Japanese legend (some are actually quite pleasant) will set you back about 4000 yen a night (currently about 30 quid). Youth Hostels are rare in Japan and those that do exist have shockingly early curfews. The one in my city of Nagano, for example, has a doors locked at 9pm, lights out at 9.30pm policy. So strict the Lonely Planet dropped it.

                  On both respects, Khoasan Tokyo is a refreshing change. We paid 2500 yen/person for a twin room (a bunkbed) with shared bathroom. It was basic like all hostels are, but this is Japan of course so it was spotlessly clean. The beds were even quite comfortable. For the price you'll certainly get nothing better in Tokyo.

                  Khoasan Tokyo Samurai is part of a chain, with the others in the group, Khaosan Original, Annex and Ninja all within the same area. There is also a Khaosan Bar, for which you get a free drink ticket on arrival (it was basically a shoebox a couple of streets from the hostel where we found other tourists drinking their free drink before moving on. Certainly not a place for a party).

                  The staff were very friendly, there was A LOT of information about the surrounding area and day trips, etc., plus lots of useful multi-language information sheets you could pick up, such as how to get to the airport, how to get around town, the times of the last trains from every area of Tokyo, how to say "I have an allergy to ___" if you go to a restaurant. Although I have lived in Japan for seven years and didn't need much of the info, I was very impressed. As a newcomer to Japan, it would be the perfect place to stay.

                  The only downside was its slightly out-of-the-way location. Asakusa has a few shops and bars but nothing much to get excited about. If you want to go for a drink then Ueno was about a 30min walk, or a couple of subway stops, but if you wanted to really live it up somewhere like Roppongi, Shinjuku or Shibuya, you would probably want to stay somewhere else as each of those places was as good thirty minute train ride away. It is, however, near to the soon-to-be-opened Tokyo Sky Tree, at 634m the second tallest building in the world.

                  I would definitely recommend this hostel and its chain to someone on a budget or a newcomer to Japan. It was a good place to get information and work out your orientation, and really on a budget that is unmatched in Tokyo.

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                    24.11.2011 01:43
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                    A solid guitar pick

                    I picked up a couple of these in the music shop the other day as part of my most recent pick re-stock. My friends and I formed a rock band back in August and as a result I have only recently started to play with a pick, having before always played acoustic guitar with my fingers.

                    These are solidly made picks from a quality brand which have a slightly grainy surface. This means they are easy to grip, remedying one of the problems I've often had with picks in the past. They have a slight flex which makes them suitable for most styles of playing, depending on the thickness you buy (I honestly don't know what mine are, I just picked them out of a little tray). In general I'm just a rhythm guitarist who does the occasional riff and they work fine for me. Also, due to them being made of nylon instead of plastic they tend to wear down rather than just break like regular picks do when they get old, giving them a much longer lifespan. A friend of mine from the band has some really tatty ones worn down to about 60% of their original size. Of course, there is the common problem of guitar picks to deal with which is that there is a gremlin somewhere that steals them, meaning its near impossible to have one for any length of time without losing it.

                    Apologies, there's not really a lot more to say about a small triangle of nylon that's used to play guitar with. I live in Japan so costs are probably irrelevant for most consumers, but for the record they cost 105yen each (roughly 80p). Where I bought them they were sold singly, but you can probably get them in packs somewhere like Amazon.

                    Will probably appear on Ciao.

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                    16.11.2011 07:49
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                    The debut album by spoof hair metallers Steel Panther

                    The mighty Panther have just released a follow up to this masterpiece, so I thought I'd review this one first before I get on to the second.

                    Power-rocking Spoofers

                    I bought this on impulse after seeing it in the HMV bargain bin. I liked the sound of some of the song titles, and well, the band look like such idiots on the cover that it had to be either genius or arse.
                    While not quite being genius (way too many songs are obvious lifts of major '80s hair metal acts), it's pretty damn good. Feel the Steel is the sound of a group of high pedigree musicians finding a niche for their favorite style of music. Clearly, no one likes hair metal much anymore, so in order to sell it to a modern audience Steel Panther have taken a once-serious (believe it or not) musical genre and fused it with crude comedy. And they've done it very well indeed.

                    First up, a note on the players involved - Steel Panther are not a bunch of actors or comedians or C-list celebrities, they're lifelong musicians who've spent years honing their craft playing in bars and clubs. Musically, they're a first-rate band, and the songwriting is top-class. Quite possibly they would have made it back in the '80s as a serious band, but they exist today to inject a little humor back into the music industry.

                    Vulgar Lyrics

                    And they do it through their lyrics. Here lies, depending on your attitude towards such things, either the magic or the turn-off. Steel Panther's lyrics are toilet humor to the extreme. Extremely sexual and extremely explicit, they'll either have you crying with laughter as my friend and I did on our first listen, or reaching for a hammer.

                    In places they're straightforward, "Asian Hooker / hot little mother##ker," (Asian Hooker), while elsewhere there's some art to them, (if you can call it that) "Stripper girl / heaven sent / pay my phone bill / pay my rent" (Stripper Girl), "When I was only 3 / my mother said to me / don't go f##king a skanky ho / or you're gonna get VD" (F##k all night & Party all Day).

                    Perhaps the one song devoid of any vulgarity as an obvious attempt at getting a radio hit (Eyes of a Panther) proves there's more than just toilet humor to SP: "She's on the prowl, miaow / jaws ready to snap / like a game of cat and mouse / you're caught in the trap", but clearly they know where to find success and they go all out for it.

                    Nostalgia

                    While Steel Panther's songs veer from the all out metalesque, ("Death to all but Metal", "Eatin' Ain't Cheatin'", "The Shocker"), though heavy chuggers ("Asian Hooker") and power ballads ("Community Property") to acoustic chillouts ("Girl from Oklahoma"), even the casual rock fan will pick up riffs "borrowed" from classic rock acts. The intro to "Party all Night" comes straight from "Livin' on a Prayer", while "Girl from Oklahoma" borrows heavily from Extreme's "More than Words". With Steel Panther, however, this is intentional ("its that extra chord that stops you getting sued" said guitar virtuoso Satchel, on a recent youtube interview), that they are holding a candle of nostalgia out to the listener on every song, that they want their songs to remind the listener of '80s classics. This is just one reason while Feel the Steel works, it's like listening to an air guitar album that has not only been made funny, but better.

                    Divided Opinions

                    Make no mistake, no one will think this is "all right". You'll either love it or hate it. I fall firmly into the former group: I think it's a brilliant, hilarious album that rocks hard very hard indeed. It's great to listen to while drinking a few beers before going out, or for jogging. I've heard (and seen on youtube) that their live shows are even better, with special guests at every show and a few classic rock covers thrown in for good measure. They play weekly on Sunset Strip in Los Angeles and tour overseas pretty frequently, and if they ever play near me I'll be in the front row.

                    Then again, there will be people who despise this on first listen, others who will quickly tire of the explicit humor. A quick look at the reviews on sites like Amazon will confirm this, but for anyone who enjoys a bit of classic rock or likes their humor rude, this album will go down a treat.

                    Also on ciao.

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