Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Simply Laptops (paperback and ebook)

All that glitters...  3*
This book is beautifully illustrated with usefully annotated and labelled photographs which accurately reflect what is seen on your new Windows 7 laptop. Added to this are exceptionally clear step-wise, practical instructions in numbered sequences which correspond directly to the numbers and text annotations on the photographs. This means that the reader is shown exactly where to click, where to enter data and in what order. Bravo!
Although designed to a very high standard and printed on luxury, shiny paper with colour photographs, this guide has one or two drawbacks. Firstly, I wasn't sure who this book was aimed at. If you are familiar with using a desktop PC running Windows 7, much of this you already know and what you would need is a much expanded buying guide section.

Despite being described as jargon free, in this book we are told that, for example, DDR SDRAM means Double Data Rate Synchronous Dynamic RAM but not what that means - not that we need to know that either. All you really need to know is a laptop's current memory compliment and if it can be increased later. Where screen size and overall laptop size and weight are considered, tablets are given a cursory word or two but there is no mention of notebooks or netbooks.

The majority of laptops come as a fully manufactured package; you can't, as Ms Shoup suggests, choose a particular model and then decide you want to change some of the components. You simply choose the model that has the closest specification to what you want at a price you are willing to pay.

One thing that concerned me greatly was to see that computer security was left until the very end of the book, long after the description of connecting to the internet and the use of email.

There is no mention of making recovery disks, only of backing up one's files periodically. Making a set of recovery disks is one of the essential first things that should be done after plugging in any computer, so that if the system software is corrupted, it can be reinstalled. This is essential because these days no software discs arrive with the computer.

Another omission is the use of restore points, something that is not that difficult to do and yet which can get you out of a tight spot. Also, a useful warning that could have been included is that the first few times you connect to the internet, things may be rather slow, while the security software downloads all its updates and the other pre-installed programs automatically dial into their manufacturer's servers to announce your arrival as a new computer user.

One of the wonderful photographs in glossy colour shows laptop keys being removed using a large screwdriver for the purpose of cleaning underneath. In my opinion this should never be attempted and is an unfortunate inclusion in a generally well-thought out guide. As I found suggested elsewhere on the same page, a much better way would be to gently apply the brush attachment on your vacuum cleaner.

Right at the beginning it is stated "This book is for readers who have never used a laptop...". When you are stuck somewhere in Windows 7 and can't remember where to find something on your screen or what to do next in one of the sequences described, this book will get you back on track. The instructions explain precisely where, what and how. However, if a laptop is your very first experience of owning a computer, I suggest that, at the very least, you venture forth with the additional assistance of a knowledgeable friend.

Amazon UK Simply Laptops 
Amazon US Simply Laptops 

Monday, 25 April 2011

Alison Wonderland (paperback, ebook) Helen Smith

Alison Wonderland, all puns intended 5*
This book works as a light, fun read but is also thought-provoking, contains astute social comment and is at times brightly satirical. Woven into the tale are finely observed character studies, together with strands of whimsical, laugh-out-loud and very earthy humour. As the personal observations and reflections accumulate, you feel as though you come to know Alison very well.
Using the scenario of a detective's investigations is a clever way of looking at the world to make insightful (quirky) observations on the human condition. You will be treated to a delightful study of British eccentricity, with a darkly sinister undercurrent of corporate dirty tricks and curious fantasy. And there are revelations of quite astonishing honesty.

The characters inhabiting Alison's world are all memorable for their foibles: Mrs Fitzgerald (the detective agency owner), Creepy Clive (Mrs Fitzgerald's brother), Jeff the enigmatic neighbour, Bird, Flower and Taron. Trips out with Taron usually involve great hilarity - watch out for the Tooting Bec Lido afternoon and the night out in a Weymouth club.

There are some delightful little graphic illustrations. These make the reader feel the novel was put together with care and a genuine interest in the reading experience. As soon as I reached the last page, I went straight off and ordered Helen's second novel `Being Light'.

What sort of book is this? The kind where, when you have no choice but to put it down to take a coffee break, answer the door or put the lunch on, that's when you catch yourself smiling.

Amazon UK Alison Wonderland 
Amazon US Alison Wonderland 

Saturday, 23 April 2011

Diamonds of the Night (DVD) Jan Nemec

Running in Fear 5*
Two tortured young souls try to escape after leaving a train bound for a death camp in WW2 Czechoslovakia. The pain of their journey is evident in their faces and their feet as they run until they drop, get up and run again.

A waking nightmare bred of desperation, fear and persecution plagues an encounter with a farmer's wife. Just as shocking is the scene where the boys await execution, while their captors eat, drink and sing.

All the more terrifying for being based on the direct experiences of the filmmaker himself. This film will grip you and leave you shaken.

The well-presented booklet is very informative.

UK Diamonds of the Night 

Friday, 22 April 2011

Outlander (DVD)

Epic Viking SciFi 5*
An epic mythological chopper saga but with a plausible science fiction theme. It was the SF aspect which appealed to me most; the gore, of which there is plenty, not so much. I'd have given four stars for less blood. Caviezel is at his enigmatic best. Sophia Myles is a treat, both visually and as a powerful female character. She plays the fiery daughter (Freya) of the Viking chief (ably portrayed by John Hurt) and she has any man she comes across reeling, literally. Rival chief Gunnar, played by Ron Perlman is truly terrifying in hammer-wielding battle mode and only slightly less fierce than the monster itself!

The monster is all the better and more impressive, mysterious and scary for being only glimpsed and not fully seen until well into the film. This means that it benefits from the point of view that things scary are scariest when not seen, only imagined, and from being pretty fearful when it does finally appear. Possibly making reference to the `Alien' films, in one scene a monster drips saliva from glassy fangs onto Freya's cheek. Which brings me to special effects, here used in exactly the right proportion to generate the suspense and excitement required at the right moments, without being over-used or obtrusive.

More of what keeps the film moving, apart from the action, is the use of an inspiring sequence of locations: low earth orbit, desert planet landscapes, underwater, underground, and mist-shrouded forest with sunlight shafts stabbing through in anticipation of what is to follow. The SF special effects are excellent also and do a fine job of depicting an advanced civilization making a terrible error.
Plot treats include: wily norseman captures well-armed starman, using his horse; the boy with the bread; and of course, `shields'.

The film is well-paced and the entire narrative lavishly envisioned. The costumes and weaponry are spot on for creating atmosphere.

Finally, the bonus features are excellent, especially the deleted scenes. Although I can understand why some of the scenes were cut to maintain the momentum, they are particularly worth watching because they add humanity and soul to the story.

A breath-taking action ride. Incredible it wasn't widely distributed at the cinema, watch it now!

Amazon UK Outlander DVD
Amazon US Outlander DVD 

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Falling Star (The Watchers) - (print and ebook) Philip Chen

This guy knows his stuff! 5* 

Phillip Chen has written a remarkable and stylish SF thriller, so prepare for a front seat drive. At the outset, the immediate action and vivid description of pilots in peril pull the reader straight into the story. What becomes as a deep-sea mystery soon turns into a switchback ride of deadly cat and mouse. The story has a continuous forward momentum and an underlying tension that doesn't let go. It introduces a wide variety of richly drawn characters, each of which provokes an emotional response from the reader.

There is effective use of humour in tense situations and a consistent thread of military/security service banter. However, many of the personnel in the book are trained in the use of lethal weapons and deadly force. The plot also includes chillingly realistic fire fights and assassinations. Although the reader may not wish to imagine himself in some of the situations, it is difficult to believe that the author has not been there himself, so precisely are the details recorded.

Military use of undersea exploration craft and the reality of existence within such machinery is introduced in detail. Although the level of description might do justice to an internal security service report, on no occasion does it get in the way of this fast-paced thriller. The way the back story is woven unobtrusively into the action is very expertly done. A delight to the reader is the authoritative way the technical aspects of computer systems, submersible devices, weaponry and machinery are described.

The novel works well as a standalone, with scope for a sequel. If there is a sequel, I shall definitely be in line to read it!

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Slaves of the Klau (Paperback) Jack Vance

A lesson in how to write a novel  5*

Slaves of The Klau by Jack Vance is a short but intense novel. A lowly, though rebellious human servant to an advanced alien is seized and taken into the most desperate slavery under utterly ruthless masters. His initial attempts at escape turn into an ongoing journey of personal development as his mental strength and power grow to enable him to take command of increasingly complex and hazardous situations.
The story is completely believable and consistent, as the hero fights to overcome setback after setback. It is wonderfully woven between the different personalities of a number of alien races, a highly technological future, and intergalactic war. Very clever ideas, very visual, delightfully written. This is a timeless piece. It has been on my bookshelf for nearly thirty years and has been read many times.

Monday, 18 April 2011

Knight and Day (DVD) - dangerous fluff

Dangerous Fluff  2*

I bought this movie because I thought it might be fun. Cruise is in full 'Mission Impossible' mode from the start, stunning smile, irresistible charm, deadly precision. Diaz is no less charming in a tomboyish, girl-next-door sort of way. She spends the first half of the film in a state of unsurprising bewilderment but develops what Criuse calls 'skills', which magically upgrade her ability to survive against the odds.

What starts as a potentially interesting thriller or romantic drama rapidly begins to meander into ineffective comedy drama. Cruise manages to take over an airplane in such a manner that Diaz is inexplicably oblivious. He then lands the plane, which conveniently only explodes after the pair have escaped. There then begins a sequence of episodes, where whenever the film gets itself into a tight corner, one of the leads is drugged into unconsciousness by the other, only to awake, problem solved, somewhere else. This becomes a tiresome device which is employed several times to avoid an inconvenient explanation. In between there are set pieces of action involving total plausibility failure. Don't get me wrong, I like action movies: '13 blocks', 'Inside Man', 'Deja Vu', 'Next', but let's not beat around the bush, the stunts in this movie are just plain silly.

This film really has no idea what it is trying to do: it has too much violence for it to be a comedy (innocent fireman trying to protect his girlfriend being shot in the leg - hilarious); and there are too many over-the-top stunts for it to work as a drama or thriller. If anyone can see how Cruise extricated himself and Diaz after the Spanish ninjas dropped into the warehouse and Diaz went berserk shooting up a bunch of shelving, please let us know.

Because of the bizarre story breaks for unconsciousness, the film feels as though it goes on longer than it should. The only way to get through to the end is to ignore most of this review, completely disconnect your brain, then sit back and watch two glamorous actors grinning their way through a series of hair-raising but preposterous scenes to a predictable, though pleasant conclusion.

Saturday, 16 April 2011

Three Mysteries by Daphne Coleridge

Daphne Coleridge's first book of Claresby mystery stories.

Mysterious! 5*
A very pleasant and intriguing set of short mysteries, with a fourth bonus story for good luck. My personal inclination is very much towards science fiction and these stories are different to what I would usually choose. I came across the book on the UK Kindle Users Forum and found that I enjoyed it very much.

The first three stories are linked in location and by the two main characters. There is effective character development, which progresses throughout the set of three. I found I was interested in the relationship between the characters to such a degree that it was impossible to stop reading after the first story and had to immediately carry on to the second, and then the third.

The fourth story I read a couple of days later. It is a standalone and not connected with the first three. It is somewhat spookier than the first three stories and particularly effective.

All four stories are well-paced and I was quickly involved in both the characters and in finding the solution. I admit that each one kept me guessing to the end. The twist in the tail of each story is most skilfully revealed.

Ms Coleridge has an eye for detail and spreads it thinly enough to ensure that the reader is left always wanting more. I found the style very easy, natural and visual; just the thing for a comfortable evening in. I shall be looking for more by this author.

Friday, 15 April 2011

Helen Smith reads from The Miracle Inspector

A wonderful reading here by Helen from her novel The Miracle Inspector.

Be aware, the video contains bad language and a spoiler. However you view it, it is an excellent example of Helen's very talented writing.

Corsair Survivor Memory Stick

Corsair Survivor Memory Stick
8 Gig Marvel  5*

When my plastic bodied backup stick broke, I searched around for a metal one, needing something to securely attach to my key ring. The Survivor seemed to be the best choice. I only need to keep text files backed up off-site, so the 8 GB size is plenty.

I like the way the key ring/lanyard attachment is at the data end, so even if the strong alloy case was lost, the data would still be attached. Inside the case the stick itself is metal-clad also, so even on its own, it is still much more robust than many other sticks. Another thing I like is the bright blue LED that shows when the unit is in use. In addition to the stick itself, the package contains a handy 60 cm long USB extension cable and a Corsair dogtag with a ball link chain. There is a new method of attaching the stick to a key ring or chain. It is not as shown in most of the photos above. My photo shows the new method, which looks stronger.

The Survivor is big at approx 8.4x1.8 mm without the rubber bumpers. I took those off straight away because, although they look immensely cool, they also add to the overall bulk. As for speed, it's faster than any other stick I've got.

For my purposes, the Corsair Survivor is exactly what I need.

UK Corsair Survivor