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steves001

steves001
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Member since: 11.11.2010

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    • BT 6500 Twin / Telephone / 58 Readings / 57 Ratings
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      31.01.2014 21:12
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      A DECT phone with a difference

      As its name suggests, this is an up-to-date cordless phone from BT, with all the usual functions including answering machine. As such, it works perfectly well. Calls are clear and messages reliably recorded and played back. Battery capacity and range are fine for most purposes, and there's room to store up to 200 contacts. You can send and receive text messages. In fact, all the usual functions seem to be supported, and more. But this is also a phone with a difference: it's designed to block nuisance calls, and that's the main focus of this brief review.

      The BT6500 is available with up to 4 handsets. The model reviewed here is the twin handset version.

      WHAT PRICE PEACE AND QUIET?

      If, like us, you've been increasingly plagued with calls about PPI etc., despite being registered with the Telephone Preference Service etc., you might like to investigate this product. Since installing it a month or so back, our house has fallen strangely silent. We'd become so used to cold calls constantly disturbing us that this actually felt quite odd at first. I couldn't quite think what was 'wrong'! It may not be quite 100 per cent, but it's definitely a big improvement for such a modest investment.

      At under £50 this was a good investment last year, having almost entirely eliminated our nuisance calls since then. The only extra cost may be from your network provider to enable caller display if, like us, you're not BT subscribers. I can confirm this product works fine with a Virgin Media landline, but there is a small monthly charge for caller id - currently just over £2 per month.

      AVAILABILITY

      At the time, this model seemed to tick all the right boxes and was available at our local Argos for £49.99 when I checked their website. As it was the last one in stock I reserved online and collected the next day. It's currently available from Amazon for £50 with free delivery, and from Argos or the BT online shop for £69.99. (January 2014)

      PACKAGING, INSTALLATION AND USER INSTRUCTIONS

      The phone came neatly packaged, and installation was straightforward: just open box, unwrap, plug in to mains and phone sockets, charge and go. (Though you are advised to charge the batteries for 24 hours initially).

      The 4 page illustrated 'User Guide' included is really just a quick start guide to check package contents, connection and initial setup. The sockets and cords are well illustrated. There is also a handy card with brief instructions for blocking calls, but the full instructions are available online in the full user guide - see address below.

      Having dutifully charged batteries initially for 24 hours, I found the automatic setup quite straightforward and the initial settings sensible, with one exception: the answering machine is set to answer after just 4 rings. The downloadable guide does advise you how to change this to answer before any voicemail service. In fact, I'd strongly suggest saving a copy of this publication locally for future reference. It tells you, for instance, how to go about blocking those pesky nuisance calls. (See below)

      Help is also available via the BT telephone Helpline and online at bt.com/producthelp.

      SPECIFICATION, COMPATIBILITY, PERFORMANCE AND USABILITY

      I've had no real difficulties using this phone. It ticks all the right boxes, and it's pretty much 'plug and play'. Calls are clear, as are the buttons, menus and controls. The handsets are virtually identical in size to our old Philips phone (reviewed previously), but the graphical display is slightly larger (at 1.8 inches) and easy enough to read with its light blue background illumination.

      Although this is a BT product and some of the features and default contacts relate to BT services, it is compatible with other network providers. The only thing I needed to do was ask for Caller Display to be enabled on our account, which incurs a small monthly extra charge (currently just over two pounds per month). This can take up to 24 hours but is needed to allow call blocking.

      In addition to text messaging and call controls (see below), all the usual functions are supported, including:

      * Caller display
      * Hands-free mode
      * Mute
      * Clock
      * Call list/redial - up to 80 calls (50 incoming/30 out)
      * Contact list - up to 200 entries
      * Answering machine/call screening (up to 30 minutes)

      Other functions (not fully tested)

      * 'eco mode'
      * Keypad lock
      * Change ringtones
      * Speed dial
      * Alarm
      * Handset paging
      * Call waiting, ringback and diversion (check with network provider)
      * Outgoing message recording
      * Memo

      So far not tested as I've never actually attempted to use a handset beyond the immediate vicinity of the house and garden - there is apparently an out-of-range warning. In fact, I don't recall ever encountering this with a cordless phone, though it could be an issue for some.

      One niggle I did have with our old phone was that entries and changes to the contact list on one handset failed to update the other. I was pleased to note this works seamlessly with the BT handsets. The other problem we had with our previous phone was a recurrent issue with batteries on one of the handsets. No problems here with the BT product.

      The only other usability issue worth noting here relates to last number redial. There's no dedicated button for this, but redial is available from the call list.

      TAKING CONTROL - THOSE PESKY CALLS!

      This is where things get a bit more interesting with this product. The call controls on this device are fairly sophisticated. They allow you to set up 'Do not disturb', parental controls, assign VIPs and change access PIN. But the ones that attracted me were controls to block calls. These include blocking specific numbers - up to 10, a limit that may seem restrictive but has actually proved sufficient to date. The other options for 'blocking by call type' is less straightforward and should be approached with some caution.
      Briefly, call types include:

      * International
      * Withheld number
      * No Caller ID
      * Payphone

      For a better understanding of each of these, it's worth reading various sources online. For example, I read that blocking calls with withheld numbers and no caller ID might block genuine calls from certain organisations and Skype calls. Callers will, however, still be able to leave messages.

      DISCLAIMERS

      I claim no expertise in this area, though I did find some very helpful information about call types on the web, and there are other organisations which offer help with nuisance calls.
      It may also be worth noting here that, as I understand it, call blocking relies on network functionality, which may depend on your service supplier and contract.

      CALL BLOCKING: THE BOTTOM LINE

      Circumstances probably vary, but judging by our experience, you may find registering with Telephone Preference Service and using the specific number blocking feature on this device prove effective enough at cutting down on those intrusive calls.

      VERDICT

      We may just be lucky but so far this has been one of our best investments in recent years. The house seems almost too quiet - famous last words! In any case, this is also a perfectly functional and usable twin cordless phone still available at quite a reasonable price.

      SELECT LINKS

      * Product description and full user guide from : www.shop.bt.com
      * Frequently asked questions: bt.com/producthelp
      * Telephone Preference Service : www.tpsonline.org.uk

      [© SteveS001 2014. A version of this original review may appear on other review sites under the same name]

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      • More +
        29.11.2013 23:09
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        Good basic clock radio at a very reasonable price

        ROBERTS CR9971 Chronologic VI Clock Radio - Silver

        As the name suggests, this little alarm clock radio comes from a well established manufacturer and does a pretty good job of waking us up on time. It has dual alarms and weekday/weekend options, as well as automatic time, summer/winter and date settings (see below). There's a backup battery to preserve these too.

        The radio is not digital, so the choice of stations is limited to fm and medium wave, and the clock isn't radio controlled. But sound quality is quite acceptable for a compact clock radio.

        This may not be the cheapest analogue model, but at under £20 it is well presented, functional and good value compared with DAB units.

        BACK TO BASICS

        When our digital clock radio expired prematurely (reviewed previously here), I was reluctant to replace it with like-for-like and resigned myself to relying on phones for those morning alarm calls. But we both prefer to wake up to the gentler sound of the 'wireless' (Radio 4, to be precise), and we do sometimes need to rise at different times. A dual alarm radio clock ticked all the right boxes, and I was very lucky to be given one as a present not long afterwards.

        I was actually quite relieved to see this was a relatively 'old tech' analogue model from a quality manufacturer, as it seemed less likely to break down before its time, so to speak. That was many months ago, and the Roberts is still going strong.

        AVAILABILITY AND PRICE

        This model is widely on offer at the moment for just £17.99, which brings it well below the price of most digital alternatives.

        SPECIFICATION, PERFORMANCE, USABILITY AND DURABILITY

        While the time setting is described as 'automatic', this may be slightly ambiguous. 'Semi-automatic' might be more accurate. It is initially set at the factory and then largely self-adjusting, which is good enough for me. It can be manually adjusted too. I'm not so sure about the term 'chronologic' or the satellite icon on the front, but these are minor quibbles really, at this asking price.

        Setup is straightforward. Channels do have to be tuned in manually but date and time are preset.

        The dual alarms and weekday/weekend options work well, as do the automatic summer/winter settings.

        There's an automatic dimmer, which is a nice touch at night, but the display remains very clear at all times.

        Radio reception is good, though limited to the range of local and national analogue stations. Tuning is manual only. Sound quality is as good as you might expect from a bedside device - fine for voice and occasional light music.

        'Look and feel' (design and build quality) seem ok to me. It's solid enough and fits well into the corner of a bedside table.

        Controls may be slightly fiddly, with the on/off switch three (small) buttons in from the right-hand-side and the volume control behind the tuner, but I'm used to these now and don't find it too much of a problem.

        It's all quite self-explanatory really, but the manual covers everything quite clearly if in any doubt.

        So far, we have had no problems with this clock radio. It may be quite basic but it does the job at a very reasonable price. We might not be winding the clock back to steam radio here but there is something reassuringly familiar about this product.

        USER MANUAL AND HELP

        The 22 page manual is clearly written and fully illustrated. This includes the (UK) postal address and phone number for Roberts Radio Technical Services and Helpline, as well as the web address (below).

        OTHER FEATURES

        *Snooze function
        *Headphones/speaker socket

        ADVANTAGES

        Reliable; good value for money

        DISADVANTAGES

        Somewhat basic; limited range of analogue broadcasting stations; controls slightly fiddly

        VERDICT

        A good basic clock radio at a very reasonable price

        SELECT LINKS

        * Roberts Radio website : www.robertsradio.co.uk

        [© SteveS001 2013. A version of this original review may appear on other review sites under the same name]

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        • More +
          24.10.2013 21:25
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          Readable novel based on a London street, its residents and the recent financial crash

          'All human life is there' - that was the motto of a certain recently demised national newspaper, based in Wapping. John Lanchester's 'Capital' might not have quite the same cast, but it's not a bad title for a novel based on a London street, its residents and the recent financial crash.

          LONDON LIVES!

          At nearly 600 pages, the story somehow managed to sustain my interest to the end. Despite the absence of a single character with whom it was possible to fully identify, and the lack of any truly gripping plot, its success lies elsewhere. It's all about change and values. We follow the turbulent events affecting the lives of a wide range of households over a few dramatic months in recent history.

          The 'Capital' cast ranges from City dealers and 'yummy mummies', through Premier League footballers, to legal and illegal immigrants and potential terrorists. There's conspicuous consumption, crime and craziness, and hand-to-mouth poverty. The art world doesn't come off too lightly either, with street art naturally in Lanchester's sights here.

          This is not East Enders or 'The Street'. It could all be the stuff of soap opera but somehow succeeds in rising above this. The quality of writing has a lot to do with it, and the main storyline is just sufficiently engaging, being something of a 'whodunnit'. But there's also humour in the parody of excess, and empathy with some all-too-human characters and their foibles. I particularly appreciated the portrait of the Pakistani family and its relationships at home and abroad - both light-touch and touching.

          ROAD TO RUIN?

          The residents of Pepys Road are being subjected to some sort of campaign relating to property values, the mystery being the identity of the perpetrator or perpetrators. On paper, the owners have all become millionaires with the rising price of housing and rented accommodation in the capital. But there's a pervading sense of unease as the main plot unfolds and residents' lives take dramatic turns, for better or for worse.

          The events take place in four brief periods between December 2007 and November 2008. People's stories are nicely interwoven, with short chapters helping to sustain the pace and the language shifting subtly between characters. (I'd never come across the term 'breadhead' before - for someone who seems to be only concerned with money).

          Samuel Johnson is often quoted as saying 'When a man is tired of London, he's tired of life' but he also went on to say (to Boswell, a Scot) 'for there is in London all that life can afford'. Well, I didn't tire of Lanchester's 'Capital' before reaching the end. There was more than enough to sustain my attention.
          Whether everyone will be able to afford to 'live the life' in London may be another matter. Pepys Road might be a snapshot of the city (and the City) at the time of the financial crash but perhaps not the complete state of the nation. I'm not sure whether Lanchester set out to create anything so ambitious. It's just a good story really, about values, aspiration and change. My only criticism might be a tendency to caricature. But, on reflection, maybe that's a small price to pay for satire(?)

          I enjoyed it!

          CONCLUSION

          A worthwhile read.

          AVAILABILITY & PRICE (September 2012)

          From Amazon: Kindle version £3.66, paperback £3.99, hardcover £14.74

          Paperback details:
          577 pages;
          Publisher: Faber, 2012;
          ISBN: 978-0-571-23462-2

          Audio edition also available.

          RELATED LINKS

          * Publisher's website : www.faber.co.uk/catalog/author/john-lanchester

          [© SteveS001 2013. A version of this original review may appear on other review sites under the same name]

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            08.05.2013 18:33
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            Rankin has pulled it off again with the return of Rebus in this latest romp

            Back in 1982 Films of Scotland produced a documentary on the remaking of the main A9 road to the highlands: a ten year civil engineering project. Reading Ian Rankin's latest crime novel recently, I was reminded of watching this on an early VHS video, then driving along the upgraded route shortly afterwards. The road features prominently in the book, which also marks the welcome return of Rankin's popular Detective Inspector John Rebus.

            Regular readers will find all the required ingredients here, along with familiar characters from previous stories: Siobhan Clarke, Cafferty etc. Rankin cleverly reintroduces 'old school' Rebus, now working in a 'cold case unit' and considering a return to mainstream policing with the recent extension to the official retirement age. He's as sharp and witty as ever, doggedly determined to pursue, by any means, an investigation into a series of disappearances linked to the A9 north of Perth, going back at least a decade.

            The plot is as complex as ever, too, but with the scene in this latest story shifting back and forth between Rebus' Edinburgh and all points north to Inverness and beyond: an effective combination of 'road movie' and crime novel.

            Rebus may be out of his comfort zone here but there's life in the old dog yet, despite all those years of fags (of the cigarette type!) and booze. He is still all-too-human: a flawed, unconventional but brilliant detective. Rankin skilfully sets him against the more recently introduced Malcolm Fox, of 'The Complaints'. We see Fox from a slightly different perspective here than we have done in the last two works where he has become established as the central character. I found this slightly disconcerting, as he appears in a much less sympathetic light here, distinctly 'straight-laced', and determined to thwart Rebus' return to the main force.

            'The times they are a changing', to coin a phrase, with so many major organisational changes and old habits dying hard, but the often witty musical references here will resonate with many readers (including the slightly obscure title, though all will be explained in the end!). For Rebus, along with the whisky and tobacco, his music may help mitigate the 'shock of the new'; for Fox, we feel something might actually have been lost.

            As ever, the characters are sharply observed, the dialogue positively crackles at times and the plot is engaging and well-paced. My only quibble might be with the plausibility of the ending, but that's a relatively minor issue as I'm sure fans will find this a rewarding read from start to finish.

            Rankin has pulled it off again with the return of Rebus in this latest romp. What's more, we are left feeling there may be plenty of scope left for further interplay between the wily Fox and our favourite old dog detective!

            AVAILABILITY & PRICE (May 2013)

            From Amazon: Kindle version £6.49, paperback £5.27, hardcover £10.00

            Bibliographic details:

            Hardback: 356 pages
            Publisher: Orion, 2012

            ISBN: 9781409144717

            Audio (CD) and large print editions also available.

            RELATED LINKS

            * Ian Rankin's official website : www.ianrankin.net (includes 'Rebus's Edinburgh')
            * Orion Books : www.orionbooks.co.uk
            * Scottish Screen Archive: http://ssa.nls.uk/

            [© SteveS001 2013. A version of this original review may appear on other review sites]

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            • Lepai TA2020 / Amplifier / 73 Readings / 63 Ratings
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              18.03.2013 16:26
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              Incredibly neat little amplifier for very little money

              This incredibly neat little amplifier can transform almost anything with a headphone socket into an audio device capable of powering a pair of medium range hi-fi loudspeakers. It's powerful enough to fill our living room and also suitable for a car, caravan or boat (if you're lucky enough to have one). While maybe not quite up to the exacting standards of hi-fi purists, the sound quality seems amazingly good for such a low price.

              I ordered this from Amazon for under £25 when one of the speaker channels on our Denon audio system (reviewed some time ago) suddenly stopped working. Everything appeared to be functioning apart from the final audio stage powering one of the speakers. The digital radio, cd player and USB etc. were all fine. Crucially, the headphone socket still worked and both speaker units were ok, so with a bit of lateral thinking it occurred to me there might be a simpler solution than attempting a repair to the Denon itself. There had to be something designed for use with MP3 players, phones, laptops or tablets, and indeed there was - in the form of the Lepai mini amp.

              INSTALLATION, SETUP AND USABILITY

              Connecting this to the headphone socket and speakers was simplicity itself, using the 3.5 mm stereo input jack and the spring terminal speaker connectors. The controls are equally straightforward. The tone controls can be bypassed, leaving only a volume control to adjust for optimum level. There's very little to go wrong.

              Without going into too many technicalities, this device can be powered from a 12 volt DC (battery) supply or from the mains using the international adaptor supplied. This does seem to be a bit of an afterthought and somewhat cumbersome but it is at least serviceable - and note that some suppliers appear to sell these without any power adaptor. So beware!

              Once connected, with tone controls bypassed and volume set, there's really nothing further to do. You just have to switch on manually.

              PERFORMANCE

              The sound and power output may largely depend on the audio source and the quality/impedance of your speakers, but I remain impressed with both, especially considering the low price.

              Don't ask me about signal-to-noise ratio, frequency response, channel separation or all that 'buff stuff' these days - what I will say is that this little amp produces a nice clean sound from a decent original source, especially if you select the direct mode that bypasses its bass/treble tone controls. I can't say I've noticed any distortion but for some further information, please see technical details reproduced below.

              DESIGN AND CONSTRUCTION

              This Chinese manufactured audio component is straightforward in design, functional and solidly constructed. The integrated circuit board, controls and sockets are enclosed in a light alloy body which feels reasonably robust and looks smart enough. The bright blue LED power indicator that surrounds the volume control might seem a bit intrusive to some but doesn't particularly bother me.

              While this may be designed at least partly for in-car mounting, it sits well next to our existing home hi-fi units. It's certainly unobtrusive with a remarkably small footprint. (See dimensions below)

              DOCUMENTATION AND HELP

              In a nutshell: strictly limited! All you get with this is the briefest of user manuals, but to be fair that's probably all you'll need for this simple device. (Just as well, as the lepai.com website appears to be in Chinese!)

              VERDICT

              This workaround avoided a potentially expensive repair to our main hi-fi system. But, more to the point for this brief review, I've been so impressed with it that I'm considering buying more for use with our new TV and possibly with laptops and tablets. It could also be used with iPods and other devices.

              My only minor quibble might be with its lack of remote control, though there are possibilities at least for remote control for on/off power switching.

              AVAILABILITY AND PRICE

              Currently available with power supply included from £16.99 to £23.99 from Amazon, with free delivery.

              TECHNICAL DETAILS (COLLATED FROM MANUFACTURER'S MANUAL AND AMAZON UK WEBSITE)

              Integrated circuit 'class T' audio amplifier:

              * Input power: DC10-14.4V c.2A
              * Power output: 2 x 20 watts RMS (with 4 ohm speakers)
              * Speaker impedance: 4-8 ohms
              * Dimensions (D x W x H): 120 x 147 x 42 mm.
              * Input impedance: 47k ohms
              * Frequency response: 20 Hz - 20 kHz
              * Signal to noise ratio: >80dB
              * Total harmonic distortion: <0.4%
              * Input sensitivity: 200 mV

              RCA 'phono' and miniature jack audio input sockets are both provided at the rear, along with the spring terminal connectors for speaker wires.

              Speaker and voltage protection are built in.

              Further information about amplifier classes, Tripath etc. are to be found on Wikipedia and elsewhere.

              ADVANTAGES

              Excellent value for money; simplicity; connectivity; tiny footprint

              DISADVANTAGES

              No remote control

              RELATED LINKS

              * Wikipedia article: 'Class T amplifier' : http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Class_T_amplifier

              [© SteveS001 2013. A version of this original review may appear on other review sites]

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              • Breville VKJ557 / Kettle / 59 Readings / 59 Ratings
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                07.03.2013 20:41
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                A quality cordless jug kettle at a reasonable price.

                Breville's VKJ557 illuminated jug kettle is a good looking, fast boiling model with a reasonable water capacity and all the basic features that we've come to expect from a modern cordless automatic kettle. It's ergonomically designed, with a 360 degree rotational base and dual illuminated water level indicator windows, for right and left handed use. The on/off switch and lid release button are both at the top, which might not be to everyone's taste but are in fact perfectly usable.

                This may not be the lowest price electric kettle on the market but it does represent pretty good value for a quality product. It feels robust, performs well and looks quite sleek in our recently refurbished kitchen. Ours is shiny black but it is also available in white, for potential colour co-ordination.

                Why 'again'? This is our second Breville kettle, replacing our previous VK396 model reviewed here some time ago. Our old kettle was very efficient and gave good service for several years until its base was accidentally submerged in water last year and it became the first of several electrical appliances to bite the dust within a few weeks of each other. (Still, at least that means plenty of replacement products to review this year...!)

                The old appliance could probably have been resurrected but for the sake of safety I decided its time had finally come. So it was down to Argos again for the nearest equivalent at around the same price - just under £20.

                Like our previous model, this is an energy efficient cordless jug version from Breville. It's equally powerful at 3kw, quick to boil and well insulated. So the water stays warm for some time

                I've grown quite fond of Breville's blue water level window illumination, which at first seemed a bit of a gimmick but now seems to be quite popular. Still, when I do occasionally think about it, boiling water glowing blue does seem somewhat counter-intuitive!

                PERFORMANCE

                The 3000 watt fast boil element does precisely that: it reaches boiling point quickly. (See test results below)

                EFFICIENCY

                Compared to many kettles we've had over the years, this one is less noisy and, as it switches itself off automatically in less time, that means less disturbance all round. This may in part be due to the materials used.

                CONSTRUCTION

                Like our previous model, this is a well constructed appliance. It's not the most basic or indeed the cheapest. The plastic body is quite lightweight yet feels solid and is proving equally durable with use.

                HANDLING AND GENERAL USE

                As with our previous Breville, we've had no problems using this kettle. Ergonomically, the design seems fairly standard with the rotational base, the usual arrangements for filling (via the spout or a lid at the top) and an on/off switch on the easy-grip handle, in this case near the top.

                My only initial concern was the design of the pull-back lid and release button, but this has turned out to be perfectly usable in practice.

                Importantly, this kettle feels quite stable and safe in everyday use, with no tendency to tip or slip.

                CAPACITY

                The 1.5 litre capacity is slightly less than our previous kettle but still more than adequate for our household. For economy (and due to lack of patience), I rarely fill it to the maximum level!

                TESTING

                According to my somewhat unscientific tests:

                * Weight (empty): c. 757g
                * Time taken to boil full kettle: c. 3 minutes (may depend on ambient temperature, and I usually boil much less!)

                OTHER FEATURES

                * Thermal safety cutout (not yet tested)
                * Anti-calc filter (not essential for us living in a 'soft water' area)
                * Instruction booklet: illustrated, with cleaning instructions, safety information and energy saving tips

                ADVANTAGES

                Efficient, usable, robust and good-looking appliance.

                DISADVANTAGES

                No 'keep-warm' or 're-boil' functions, perhaps? But water stays warm for some time with the good insulation properties of this device, and it's easy to re-boil manually!

                VERDICT

                A quality cordless jug kettle at a reasonable price.

                [Note: Please disregard ratings for 'picture and sound quality' as these are not relevant to this product]

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                  18.02.2013 17:15
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                  A more demanding murder mystery that's worth the effort

                  Not so much a 'whodunnit' as a 'who-was-it', this is a mystery with a difference. The title doesn't give much away, referring to a dog-walker who discovers the body of a vagrant on a beach. The story follows the lengthy police investigation into the apparent murder. But it's the identity of the apparent victim 'Henry' and the gradual revelation of his background that provide the real interest, along with the unexpected effect all of this has on the somewhat diffident narrator.

                  This is something of a slow burner but ultimately worthwhile. The narrative style seemed slightly eccentric, demanding some effort on the part of the reader. Perhaps it was just me, but at times I had to deduce the identities of speakers and narrator. This might not appeal to all mainstream crime fiction fans, but the plot is original and perseverance is ultimately rewarded.

                  The main setting is a small seaside community on the south coast of England, with the scene shifting from town to town as we retrace Henry's peregrinations. He remains an enigma throughout much of the book, defying all lines of enquiry, and the final 'reveal' certainly took me by surprise, as did the unexpected outcomes for our narrator/investigator.

                  'So he takes the dog' is essentially a story of lives and relationships profoundly affected by events. Populated by a colourful cast of characters and personalities, on one level this is a tragic tale of death, loss and infidelities, but it is also an intriguing case history that catches the imagination and retains our interest. I thought it significant that my wife enjoyed it so much, perhaps more than I really appreciated it, given her background in social work.

                  Not having come across this author before, I found Buckley's writing quietly effective and affecting. This is more than a standard formula detective 'procedural', though it does give some insight into the challenges facing police, their families and friends: a sort of value-added murder mystery.
                  I just hope our own dog never comes across anything quite so morbid when we're out walking!

                  ~~Verdict~~

                  This is a more demanding murder mystery which may not appeal to all crime fiction fans but it is an interesting novel that rewards perseverance.

                  ~~Availability & price (February 2013)~~

                  From Amazon: Kindle version £4.99, paperback £10.79

                  ~~Bibliographic details (from Amazon)~~

                  Paperback: 346 pages
                  Publisher: Harper Perennial; (Reissue) edition (17 Aug 2009)
                  Language: English
                  ISBN-10: 0007228295
                  ISBN-13: 978-0007228294
                  Audio (CD) and large print editions also available.

                  ~~Related links~~

                  * www.jonathan-buckley.co.uk

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                  • More +
                    21.01.2013 12:15
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                    An affordable lightweight 9 inch Android tablet pc

                    Update, February 2013:

                    After using this budget tablet quite extensively for some time, my only real disappointment was being unable to print with the Android system. Luckily, Epson's free iPrint app for Android has resolved this issue and I am now happily printing using the excellent little wifi printer that I reviewed back in November. (Epson SX435W: 'Small, smaller, smallest 'Small-in-One' ')

                    I've also established that the latest version of the Touchpad for 2013 has been upgraded, which should further improve performance and responsiveness, for much the same price.

                    --------------------------------------------
                    VERSUS TOUCHPAD - HOME AND AWAY

                    This version of the Versus Touchpad, also badged as an identical 'CnM' product, represents good value for a slim and very portable 9 inch tablet PC. It may not be quite as fast as expensive 'high end' tablets but I find it generally performs well enough for the price. The 'multi-touch'-sensitive screen is responsive and easily personalised, as the Touchpad comes with a fairly recent version of the increasingly familiar Android operating system.

                    The built-in storage may be limited but can be expanded. In practice, I've found the inbuilt capacity adequate for a device I use mainly for checking email and accessing the web while out and about. I much prefer it to my smart phone for this as its screen is bigger and better, though you do have to be within range of a wifi network. At home, it's also faster to start up than a Windows laptop, which is great for a quick web search or email check.

                    Battery life certainly hasn't let me down so far. This is claimed to be up to 5 or 6 hours, depending on usage, with more on standby. But I've not fully exploited its potential in any session yet, nor am I likely too, not being a heavy social network user or downloader. I should also stress here that this is not our main home computer, just a very handy extra, especially when out and about.

                    Fully charging the Touchpad seems to take just 2 or 3 hours, using the supplied charger. It's also possible to charge it via the USB port.

                    KEY PERFORMANCE & TECHNICAL SPECIFICATIONS

                    * The Android 4.0 operating system ('Ice Cream Sandwich') may not be quite the latest but is fairly up to date, and I find it reasonably friendly to use
                    * The ARM processor and limited memory seem to cope well enough with most common tasks like email and web browsing
                    * Its 8 gigabytes internal storage is expandable by up to 32 gb with a micro-SD card (not yet tested)
                    * The screen resolution of 480x800 may sound relatively low but in fact the graphics seem quite sharp enough and the multi-touch screen sensitivity is very good.
                    * Wifi connections are easy to establish, though I find the signal somewhat less strong than other devices within the same range
                    * The mini-USB port supports a variety of devices and functions - I've used this to access a USB memory stick successfully

                    For full details, please refer to websites below.

                    USABILITY

                    This being my first direct experience of the Android system, it took me a few hours to familiarise myself but no installation is required and I managed to download 'apps' and customise the home screen quite quickly. Setting a PIN for secure access was also quite straightforward, as was configuring the email app that comes pre-installed along with several others - e.g. iPlayer, YouTube etc.

                    The virtual keyboard is remarkably usable, though I still prefer a real one for typing, and text editing is a bit fiddly. But these are minor quibbles really, given the portability and convenience of this compact device.

                    AUDIOVISUAL

                    * The camera is just a basic webcam
                    * Graphics and video playback (even HD) are more than adequate for such a portable device - e.g. for iPlayer, YouTube etc.
                    * Adobe Flash is supported
                    * Sound quality seems acceptable (as above), though only experienced so far through its internal speakers

                    It's worth noting that, realistically, this was never intended to be our primary music, video player or camera device!

                    CAPACITY AND CONNECTIVITY

                    Built-in storage may be limited at 8Gb but can apparently be expanded by up to 32Gb with a micro-SD card.

                    I've also managed to transfer photographs and other files to and from a USB flash memory stick.

                    AVAILABILITY & COSTS

                    Currently available from £109 (sale price) at Currys to around £120 via Amazon. Other versions are also available, with 7 inch and 9.7 inch screens. Note slight variation in product names - e.g. 'Touchtab'

                    MANUALS & HELP

                    * Quick start guide
                    * User manual
                    * Versus & CnM websites (see below)

                    The 54 page manual is illustrated and all I needed to get fully up and running.

                    OTHER FUNCTIONS (NOT YET TESTED)

                    * Voice control system
                    * Encryption
                    * A multitude of apps!

                    VERDICT

                    Not the fastest kid on the block but a remarkably affordable lightweight 9 inch Android tablet pc with acceptable performance for the price, this is a particularly handy extra when out and about, and within range of a wifi network.

                    SELECT LINKS

                    * www.versusuk.com - includes manuals and software downloads
                    * www.cnmlifestyle.com - [ditto]

                    [© SteveS001 2013. A version of this original review may appear on other review sites]

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                      30.12.2012 21:02
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                      Good historical thriller

                      This first novel in Edward Marston's popular Victorian detective series is an undemanding, entertaining read. It has all the basic ingredients for a good historical thriller, with plenty of twists and period interest. The book should appeal to anyone who enjoys a well told period detective yarn.

                      The usual suspects are all here - the smart police detective with his trusty sidekick and obstructive superior officer, the criminal mastermind with assorted villains, plus an element of romantic interest thrown in for good measure. Add steam engines and train robbers and you have a potentially winning formula.

                      I had no great expectations of this book. It was chosen for me as a gift because I had enjoyed Andrew Martin's 'steam detective' series set in Edwardian England, and this must have seemed a promising title. Not being a devotee of Marston's previous historical fiction set in earlier times, I was surprised how much I did enjoy this.

                      ~~Anoraks not required~~

                      This is not really a book for trainspotters or steam 'anoraks', though there is always something atmospheric about train journeys in fiction, and the historical context is particularly interesting here. The setting is 1851, the year of the Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace with its celebration of engineering triumphs. It is also a time of dramatic expansion for the railways and considerable tension between entrepreneurs and conservative landowners.

                      ~~An original plot~~

                      The story involves aggravated train robbery, kidnap, murder, blackmail and destruction. Everything unfolds at a cracking pace. The investigation takes us to the Royal Mint, to England's industrial heartland (by train, of course), to London's darkest Dickensian corners, and ultimately to the thriving port of Bristol via the newfangled train-line. But The Railway Detective is not a straight 'whodunnit'. For me the main interest lies in establishing the motive, plus the thrill of the chase in a murderous game of cat and mouse with the culprits.

                      While it may at times feel more like a modern police procedural than, say, a Conan Doyle, it still works as a ripping yarn with an original storyline.

                      ~~With colourful characters~~

                      This first book of the series establishes the main characters, including Inspector Colbeck and his colleagues in the recently established Scotland Yard. Colbeck is something of a maverick, with exceptional deductive skills, a gentleman and also a bit of a dandy. In solving this mystery he becomes known popularly as 'The Railway Detective'. We are told something of his family background, which lends insight into the psychology of the main villain of the piece.

                      Other reasonably rounded characters include a controversial MP at the centre of the intrigue, an injured engine driver and his beautiful daughter.
                      Marston leaves plenty of scope for further character development in subsequent adventures.

                      ~~Anachronisms, anomalies and other animals~~

                      Apart from a few minor 'typos' which seem to have eluded the proof-reader, my only quibble might be with the dialogue, which sometimes sounds unlike mid-nineteenth century English. I can't vouch for the accuracy of some of the technical detail but it sounds convincing enough.

                      ~~Availability & price~~

                      Paperback currently available from Amazon for £5.99.
                      Kindle version: £4.79.
                      Other formats available.

                      ~~Bibliographic information~~

                      Marston, Edward
                      The railway detective
                      Publisher: Allison & Busby, 2005
                      ISBN-10: 0749083522

                      ~~Verdict~~

                      A ripping yarn - most enjoyable - looking forward to reading more in the series.

                      ~~Select links~~

                      * www.edwardmarston.com/colbeck.html

                      [© SteveS001 2013. A version of this original review may appear on other review sites]

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                        11.12.2012 16:41
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                        A handy product for anyone struggling to cope with a heavy vacuum

                        The Bissell FeatherWeight is a full size, lightweight vacuum cleaner that's much lighter than a traditional upright but better suited for carpets than a handheld. It has a long handle which, I find, means less bending down or fiddling with tubular attachments. It's lighter to use around the house than traditional vacuums, and far easier to carry upstairs for a quick clean up. At under £40, the current asking price seems quite reasonable too, compared with some other products.

                        As this appliance is mains powered, no charging is required and there is no need for a separate charger. It can be a handy tool for lightweight cleaning, but it does have to be plugged in and the mains lead has to be wound manually. I'm no expert but I have found this a useful addition to our household cleaning arsenal, if not a complete substitute for existing tools. It's certainly better suited to family members who now struggle with heavier appliances.

                        ~~About this review~~

                        I wouldn't normally review anything that I hadn't acquired new, but I was sufficiently impressed with this to make an exception. It was no longer required by elderly relatives who had moved from a two storey house to a bungalow and now have help with the cleaning. So the lightweight Bissell was actually more use to us now - hence this brief review.

                        Our specific model number appears to be '3105J'.

                        ~~A hybrid design~~

                        When I first saw this appliance, it struck me as slightly odd: a kind of 'dustbuster' on a stick, or a cross between a carpet sweeper and a 'hoover'. But it actually makes sense, at least for us. I always associated Bissell with manual carpet sweepers, but in fact they produce quite a few lightweight sweepers nowadays, both manual and electrically operated. These seem to have various specialised features, including dry and wet, steam and other functions. But this model seems relatively simple and inexpensive.

                        Although this comes with a crevice tool and will convert to a handheld, in practice we mainly use it in upright mode, as we already own a cordless 'dustbuster'. Others may find this versatility more useful.

                        ~~Performance & Usability~~

                        The cleaning performance seemed a little disappointing initially but was significantly improved once the filter had been thoroughly cleaned. Clearly this is no Dyson but then neither is the price! The power consumption seems low too, at just 150 watts. For a machine with a fixed bristle attachment, it picks up reasonably well from hard surfaces (e.g. kitchen and bathroom) and carpets. The long cable copes well with stairs too.

                        This is in practice quite a good all-rounder. It's handy for upholstery as well as floors, though for a very quick clean up I still tend to prefer our cordless as there's no cable to complicate matters. I also still use the main 'hoover' for heavier duty cleaning.

                        The FeatherWeight controls are clear and simple enough to use. While the slider switch is situated quite low down, this presents no real difficulty as the whole appliance is so light and easy to lift. There's a simple latch to release the handle and transform the tool to a handheld. This may also be used to allow adjustment to the length of the handle, though we've kept this at its maximum for our purposes. This vacuum is bagless and easy enough to empty too. It must be easy enough to use as it never even occurred to me to ask about a user guide and I've had no problems at all, so far.

                        ~~No more lugging or bending : weights and measures~~

                        At under 1.6kg, the FeatherWeight is said to be 'Up to eight times lighter than most upright vacuums'. A quick comparison of specifications listed on other manufacturers' websites appears broadly to support this claim.

                        The full height of 118cm is roughly comparable with other upright vacuum cleaners.

                        ~~Availability and price~~

                        Currently available direct from Bissell for £39.99 with free delivery option (see address below).

                        ~~Brief technical specifications~~

                        From Bissell website:

                        Dimensions: 118 x 11 x 24 cm
                        Weight: 1.59kg

                        For full details, please refer to manufacturer's website.

                        ~~Verdict~~

                        Potentially useful for anyone struggling to cope with a heavy vacuum, this is an inexpensive lightweight appliance that's full height but can also be a hand vac. It can also save some time and effort more generally.

                        ~~Select links~~

                        * Bissell website : www.bisselldirect.co.uk
                        * Product details : www.bisselldirect.co.uk/featherweight-1

                        [© SteveS001 2013. A version of this original review may appear on other review sites]

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                          26.11.2012 19:38
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                          A potentially good choice for many home users

                          The Epson Stylus SX435W is a reasonably priced multifunction inkjet printer with Wi-Fi connectivity. The smallest model in Epson's new 'Small-in-One' range, this is a smart compact printer/copier/scanner that's easy to set up and reasonably economical to run.

                          Ours has proved reliable in regular use since we bought it several months ago to replace our elderly Brother model. It's better designed and equally functional, with superior performance, a smaller 'footprint' and Wi-Fi capability instead of fax, which we never actually used.

                          THE DEVIL'S IN THE DETAIL

                          Print quality from the Epson is fine for our purposes - mainly text, web pages and graphics, plus the occasional photograph or two. For resolution details etc. see below.

                          Not being heavy users, speed isn't our primary consideration. Colour printing seems fast enough, as does copying and scanning, but this is clearly aimed at the domestic market and more demanding users might want to check the technical specifications (see below).

                          The other big advantages this printer offers are:

                          * Wi-Fi connectivity with easy setup
                          * Individual colour ink cartridges
                          * Colour LCD display
                          * Memory card reader

                          It's easy to share and use wirelessly, relatively economical to run, with a clear display and menu system. The printer just sits there quietly on standby until summoned by one of our laptops, then it's fairly silent in operation too.

                          Epson are a well established manufacturer. I've used quite a few of their products over the years, starting with some of the first dot-matrix and daisywheel printers and graduating to various models in their 'Stylus' range of inkjets in more recent years. Our old Brother machine was actually a gift some time ago. Although it proved a willing workhorse, it was not a model I would necessarily have chosen for myself. So when it finally gave up the ghost, I surveyed the market and was impressed with the latest 'Stylus' on offer and its positive reviews. So far, I haven't been disappointed.

                          INSTALLATION

                          I had no difficulty unpacking and installing this printer. It's quite light and compact for a multifunction device, occupying slightly less room than our previous model. According to Epson these are '39 percent smaller than previous models'.

                          Once in situ, installing the software took a little time but was trouble free, including setting it up on the wireless network and sharing it between several laptops, a task that might have proved quite challenging not so long ago. (No USB cable required or provided.)

                          SOFTWARE

                          This product comes with a significant 'bundle' of accompanying software on CD, which might cause problems for netbook owners and others with no onboard optical drive. However, all the latest manuals and essential 'drivers' required for Epson products will be available online for downloading from their technical support website (see address below).

                          I just installed the Epson printer driver and utilities initially, not the photo printing software. I already have suitable graphics programs for image handling etc. and I haven't needed this so far.
                          The only drawback worth noting with our setup is an issue with Windows drive mapping that relates to the networked memory card reader. This generates an error message on startup. It's just a minor irritation which may be version-specific but doesn't actually affect functionality.

                          AVAILABILITY & COSTS

                          Epson printers are very widely available at competitive discounted prices. Ours was on offer from our local Argos Extra store for under £50, substantially below RRP. Similar offers are still available online.

                          Running costs were my only concern initially, given the price of branded ink cartridges. But cheaper alternatives are readily available, with the usual caveats. We've had no problems using budget inkjet paper either, which also helps. Note: Larger capacity cartridges are best value.

                          MANUALS & HELP

                          * Basic operation guide (50 pages, illustrated, pdf format) - covers basic use and problem solving. May be all you need, at least to get started.
                          * Network guide (html format)
                          * Full user guide (html) - Includes full technical specifications, ink and paper information etc.
                          * Epson website (see below)

                          OTHER FUNCTIONS (NOT YET TESTED)

                          * Mobile printing - from smartphones & tablets
                          * PC-free printing - using memory card and LCD
                          * USB (2) connectivity

                          VERDICT

                          A potentially good choice for many home users.

                          KEY PERFORMANCE & TECHNICAL SPECIFICATIONS

                          * Maximum print resolution: 5760 x 1400 dpi
                          * Print speed: 15 pages per minute in colour
                          * Dimensions: 390mm x 300mm x 145mm
                          * Scanning Resolution 1,200 dpi x 2,400 dpi

                          For full details, please refer to manufacturer's website.

                          SELECT LINKS

                          * Epson website : http://www.epson.com - 'latest drivers, FAQs, manuals, or other downloadables'
                          * Technical Support : http://support.epson.net/

                          [© SteveS001 2013. A version of this original review may appear on other review sites]

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                          • SanDisk Cruzer Edge / Flash Drive / 60 Readings / 59 Ratings
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                            02.11.2012 18:21
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                            Small, stylish, high capacity USB flash drive with secure access software and online storage option

                            PRODUCT: SANDISK CRUZER EDGE - USB FLASH DRIVE - 16 GB

                            This neat little flash drive ticks most of the right boxes for me. It's tiny and highly portable, lightweight but with plenty of storage capacity for my needs. The device is compatible with most computers and comes from a well established manufacturer in the field. Its plastic construction might seem a bit fragile at first but actually feels quite rugged in everyday use. For this specification, at 'under a tenner' the price seems reasonable, but a real bonus for me is its 'SecureAccess' security feature. Shame it's just a tad slow to load!

                            ABOUT THIS REVIEW

                            After reading a helpful review of this elsewhere by a non-Windows user, I thought it might be useful to add a brief perspective here from an everyday Windows customer. The main advantage for us Windows folks is SanDisk's 'SecureAccess' software which is included on the drive and provides password protection. I can't speak for Mac owners, except to note that a download is required for this.

                            DOWN IN THE VAULT OR IN THE CRYPT?

                            The Windows software allows you to set up a password protected secure 'private vault' into which you can drag & drop valuable files. I understand this uses '128 bit AES' data encryption but those sufficiently interested can find out more from the addresses below.

                            I had little difficulty setting this up but have found the security software very slow to load. This may vary depending on the speed of the rest of your equipment but there may be better solutions on offer. Otherwise, transferring files seems relatively quick and easy. (More about performance below).

                            UP IN THE CLOUDS?

                            Some 2 gigabytes of free online ('Cloud') storage is also provided with this package, though this requires registration with YuuWaa.com, SanDisk's online backup partner. I haven't actually needed to explore this yet but their website address is listed below for information. Other free solutions are, of course, available!

                            LEADING 'EDGE' DESIGN AND USABILITY

                            This flash drive incorporates a sliding connector which retracts to protect the USB contacts and makes for a streamlined design. It may take a bit of getting used to at first, can feel a little stiff and slightly fragile, but works quite well in practice.

                            The 'standout' compact style may particularly appeal to some, compared with the many alternatives currently on offer. Available in several colours.

                            PERFORMANCE AND SPECIFICATIONS

                            The precise transfer rate may be difficult to determine but seems acceptable for most domestic purposes. There appeared at first to be a delay with some file types when using secure access, due to the encryption process. But the main performance issue that I've experienced is the slow loading security software.

                            In a quick unscientific test it took over 3 minutes to transfer a folder with 650 megabytes of photos into a secure 'vault'. To my surprise, transferring the same files without encryption took much the same length of time. (Interestingly, this took roughly the same time using my old 4gb Bytestor drive).

                            My main use for this flash drive is for temporary backups, photos and documents like spreadsheets etc. For videos or multimedia files an even larger capacity might be desirable.

                            This review is based on the 16gb version - other capacities are also available in the range, up to 32gb.

                            The device complies with the USB 2.0 standard, for wide compatibility, but not the latest USB 3.0 as far as I can determine.

                            At just 50 x 30 x 10 cm and weighing only 9 grams, this is a tiny storage device - hardly any larger than a AAA battery.

                            Full details of compatibility etc. are available online.

                            DOCUMENTATION AND HELP

                            A multilingual 'Quick Start Guide' is provided on the drive (in pdf format). This is illustrated with screenshots but quite basic, with just 8 pages on using the 'bundled' software and 6 about the online backup storage from YuuWaa TM.

                            Support is also available on the SanDisk website (address below) but I have had no need to explore this.

                            AVAILABILITY AND PRICE

                            Widely available and currently on offer from Amazon for as little as £5.99 with free delivery (October 2012).

                            VERDICT

                            A tiny, stylish USB flash drive with a relatively high capacity from an established manufacturer at a competitive price, just let down by slow loading security software.

                            RELATED LINKS

                            * www.sandisk.com/support
                            * www.yuuwaa.com/support.html

                            [© SteveS001, 2012. A version of this original review may appear on other review sites]

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                              12.10.2012 18:38
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                              This variant of the original Fairy liquid has stood the test of time and remains good value

                              'Really hot water is half the battle' - so I was reliably informed as a teenager washing dishes for a few extra pennies back in the 1960s. The other half of the solution was ' mild green Fairy Liquid ', for that's how it was advertised. As far as I'm concerned, it still is, though my favourite variety is now less green - in colour at least.

                              According to the manufacturers, Procter & Gamble (P&G), it has '50% more grease cutting power' and 'lasts up to 50% longer than the next best-selling brand'. (Note the 'up to...'). I can't vouch for the accuracy of these figures, but Fairy certainly lasts longer than other brands I've used. Small quantities do cope quite well with greasy dishes, cutlery and glasses etc. This is an effective product and good value, particularly at discounted prices currently available from supermarkets.

                              ~~The Reluctant Dishwasher~~

                              Relegated to the role of chief (human) dishwasher in our household, given my strictly limited expertise elsewhere in the kitchen, I can't say the washing-up process is ever much fun. But this product does at least make it slightly less of a chore. Has done for years. I'm a firm believer in the soak-and-rinse method, and a decent detergent does help with this. (For information: P&G's 'Future Friendly' website has some relevant tips on energy saving techniques - see below.)

                              ~~Mild?~~

                              Fairy's slogan used to be 'For hands that do dishes...' Even so, for some time we used another brand of detergent on the understanding that it was especially kind to sensitive skin. But when, due to extreme winter conditions some time ago, we finally ran out and were forced to trek to a local shop, Fairy was the only brand available there. We've stuck with it ever since. While I can't say I've noticed any real difference in 'mildness', obviously this may vary from one individual to another.

                              The label on our latest 650ml bottle refers to a relationship with the British Skin Foundation (BSF). For those sufficiently interested, the BSF website address is provided below. In any case, we have had no cause to change back.

                              ~~Green?~~

                              Fairy Lemon is yellow, naturally, with an accompanying citrus scent which I find quite pleasant but may be a matter of taste. While there may be little evidence of real lemon juice, and there are other products on the market overtly badged as 'green', Fairy does proudly claim to be 'part of the Future Friendly Programme'. Note, however, that this is Procter & Gamble's own programme - see link below.

                              ~~Fairy 'nuff!~~

                              This variant of the original Fairy washing-up liquid has stood the test of time and remains good value for money. Other variants are available in this range and may suit different tastes. Seems fair enough to me!

                              ~~Availability and price~~

                              Widely available, often at substantially discounted prices, Fairy Lemon is currently on offer from as little as £2.50 for two 650ml bottles (Asda price, 10/10/12)

                              ~~Related links~~

                              * www.fairy-dish.co.uk/uk/fairy/
                              * www.futurefriendly.com
                              * www.britishskinfoundation.org.uk/

                              [© SteveS001, 2012. A version of this original review may appear on other review sites]

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                                22.09.2012 21:27
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                                Excellent. Rankin's next thriller can't come too soon for me.

                                Ian Rankin's second Malcolm Fox book confirms him as a worthy successor to Rebus. This latest page-turner from the bestselling crime author managed to hold my attention for nearly four hundred pages.

                                Like many other fans of the highly successful Inspector Rebus series, I had my doubts when Rankin risked creating a new set of characters in 'The Complaints' (the first Inspector Fox book - reviewed earlier) but my fears proved unfounded, and this new story builds on that success.

                                ~~Location, location~~

                                Based in present day Edinburgh, Fox works in the Lothian & Borders Police Complaints and Conduct Department - 'The Complaints' - who investigate complaints against their own colleagues. The City of Edinburgh was the main focus of the first book, but in 'The Impossible Dead' we are also taken to towns in neighbouring Fife, Stirling and elsewhere. The locations happen to be familiar to me; they are well portrayed and provide a great backdrop to the action, but this is just a bonus as the story will have universal appeal.

                                ~~No time like the present~~

                                This is bang up to date, present day Scotland with a historical and United Kingdom perspective. The subtitle is 'Some secrets never die', some 30 year old 'skeletons' do end up being unearthed here. Hence the title 'The impossible dead', perhaps?

                                ~~The plot thickens~~

                                The complex plot involves Fox's team initially investigating a complaint against officers in another force, across the River Forth, in Fife. What appears at first to be a straightforward investigation turns into a web of intrigue, corruption and murder, going back several decades to a period of political unrest and elements of violent separatism in Scotland. Times have changed, as have the names of current politicians and key players in the ensuing drama!

                                As Scotland Yard Special Branch becomes involved, the pace gathers with every twist and turn of the plot, however implausible, and the suspense is maintained right up to the frenetic conclusion. All the elements of a great whodunit are here in spades.

                                Rankin's writing is as taught as ever here, his dialogue is sharp and he demonstrates his usual insight with his latest set of characters.

                                ~~A wily Fox?~~

                                Malcolm Fox is a deeply conflicted character drawn into an increasingly fraught investigation, leading to the highest echelons of present day Scottish society. As he feels professionally obliged to dig deeper to get to the truth, despite universal opposition and great personal risk, his elderly father is ailing and relations with his sister become increasingly strained. Much of this rings true and develops background established in the first book.

                                Fox is an interesting persona. He has (unfounded) doubts about his own professionalism - ironically, given his role in ensuring professional standards. His conscience plagues him in his personal life too. Relations with family and colleagues are central to the story.

                                ~~Extras~~

                                No, this isn't a DVD review, though a film or TV version could be great! Somehow I managed to acquire both the hardback and paperback editions. Apart from the slightly clearer text on my copy, the main advantage the hardcover edition has over the paperback is the additional short story included at the end. I'm keeping this one for later...

                                ~~Reflections from 2012~~

                                Reading this fairly recent work in the current political climate, I couldn't help reflecting again on SNP plans for a single police force for Scotland and legislation on minimum alcohol pricing. This latest Complaints story again involves separate regional police forces investigating each other; and unlike Rebus, Fox is a reformed heavy drinker. I hesitate to comment further on the politics of 'separatism' or nationalism'. We live in 'interesting times'!

                                ~~Verdict~~

                                Excellent. Rankin's next thriller can't come too soon for me.

                                ~~Availability & price (September 2012)~~

                                From Amazon: Kindle version £4.99, paperback £3.86, hardcover £11.00

                                Bibliographic details (from COPAC):

                                Hardback: 373 pages
                                Publisher: Orion, 2011
                                0752889532 (hbk.)
                                9780752889535 (hbk.)
                                9780752889542 (pbk.)
                                9781409136408 (pbk.)

                                Audio (CD) and large print editions also available.

                                ~~Related links~~

                                * Ian Rankin's official website : www.ianrankin.net (includes 'Rebus's Edinburgh')
                                * Orion Books : www.orionbooks.co.uk
                                * COPAC: National, Academic, and Specialist Library Catalogue : http://copac.ac.uk

                                ~~'Footnotes'~~

                                When Fox loses his way in St Andrews this surprises him as we are led to believe it only has two streets. In fact, it has many more, including three parallel main streets: South Street, Market Street and North Street. But maybe that's just Fox's misapprehension as Rankin most probably knows better(?)

                                Odd coincidence: this is the second novel I've read this summer which involves a character visiting a 'secure unit' inmate (patient?) - this time it's Carstairs, last time it was Broadmoor. Maybe best not read too much into this!

                                [© SteveS001 2012. A version of this original review may appear on other review sites]

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                                  27.08.2012 11:28
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                                  An enjoyable ghost story, told in the traditional manner

                                  Despite some initial reservations, I have to concede Susan Hill's novella soon had me hooked. The opening pages struck me as a pastiche of Henry James or the M.R. James school of traditional English ghost story but, having brought the paperback on holiday with me, I decided to persevere. As the plot unfolded, it actually turned out to be a real chiller. I was glad I'd packed it.

                                  The book was first published nearly thirty years ago and a stage version has so far had a twenty two year run in the West End, starting to rival 'The Mousetrap'. It was only when a film version was finally released earlier this year to some critical acclaim that I noticed this lying on our bookshelf, bought some time ago on a whim but still unread. I'm not sure how this escaped me as the London show has been running all that time at the Fortune Theatre, which coincidentally happens to be right next to the church where we got married in Covent Garden. Still, better late than never...

                                  Maybe I was just in holiday mood, suspending normal critical faculties, but I actually quite enjoyed this. It's quite sparsely narrated, with less than 200 pages. The plot held my attention for just long enough, the atmosphere was remarkably foreboding and, to my surprise, I found myself quite caught up in the suspense as the pace gathered after the first chapter.

                                  The sense of time and place is fairly imprecise, but this seemed a broadly successful attempt at a classic ghost/horror story, in a bygone English rural setting and a creepy old country house. All the ingredients are there, including unpredictable sea fogs ('frets') that roll in across the marshes, graveyards and, of course, the isolated Eel Marsh House only accessible via a tidal causeway. But it's the malevolent presence of the eponymous Woman in Black that really catches the imagination. What is her terrible secret?

                                  The story is told in the first person of young solicitor, Arthur Kipps, sent to attend the funeral and deal with the affairs of the recently deceased reclusive Alice Drablow, sole resident of Eel Marsh House. His sense of foreboding is well conveyed, from his arrival at the village of Crythin Gifford with its taciturn inhabitants, their air of superstition, and his first encounter with the spectral Woman in Black.

                                  Slightly hackneyed perhaps as a narrative device, but quite effective nevertheless, the tale is told on Christmas Eve years later to a cosy family gathering. The domestic setting contrasts nicely with the unsettling gothic atmosphere of the main story.

                                  Suffice it to say, this is basically 'just' a classic ghost story, set around the turn of last century. For me it's the sparse descriptions and brevity that really make it succeed: less is more!

                                  Without giving too much away, I found the ending slightly disappointing, somewhat predictable and a decidedly cheerless twist to a dark tale. Nevertheless, this is still an enjoyable ghost/horror story, told in the traditional manner. It will probably appeal to anyone who enjoys classic English ghost stories.

                                  ~~Bibliographic~~

                                  Hill, Susan
                                  The woman in black
                                  Vintage, 1998
                                  ISBN-13: 978-0099288473


                                  ~~Availability and price~~

                                  Paperback currently available from Amazon: £3.86
                                  Kindle edition: £3.74
                                  Audiobook also available as CD or download

                                  ~~Related links~~

                                  * www.susan-hill.com

                                  [© SteveS001 2012. A version of this original review may appear on other review sites]

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