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Recent book reviews for SFX magazine

by Dean on July 9, 2010

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book reviews sfx Recent book reviews for SFX magazine

In addition to my work for Orange, the National Trust, TechRadar and others, I’m also an occasional book reviewer for brilliant sci-fi/fantasy mag SFX. My recent reviews have included:

City of Dreams and Nightmare

On a foolhardy mission to reach the roof of Thaiburley, trespassing street-nick Tom witnesses an ambitious arkademic murder his rival.

Shrugging off magical attempts to restrain him, Tom flees down through Thaiburley’s Rows towards his home turf in the City Below. He’s pursued by Dewar, an assassin, and Tylus, a flying policeman with a cape that acts like a stunt kite…

Ambassador’s Mission

Reading Trudi Canavan’s newest fantasy novel is like wrapping yourself up in a towel that’s been left on the radiator overnight. The Ambassador’s Mission has a warm, satisfying cosiness to it, wrapping you up in the continuing story of Sonea and Cery from Canavan’s earlier Black Magician trilogy.

Of course, this familiar feel doesn’t mean that it’s a great towel. To be honest, it’s a little thin. As the opening salvo in the new Traitor Spy series, you can’t help feeling that there are better towels to come.

The Griffin Mage trilogy: Books 1 & 2

Like an old Hitchcock movie, Lord Of The Changing Winds starts surprisingly quickly, confidently and revs into second gear before you’ve had time to put your feet up. By page 26, in fact, when a young farm girl named Kes is abducted from her village by a shape-shifting griffin mage…

Black Lung Captain

For anyone who hasn’t read Chris Wooding’s rip-roaring Retribution Falls, try to imagine Firefly meets Pirates of the Caribbean, a light-hearted dose of steampunkery that mixes cutlasses and grog with giant airships.

The sequel, Black Lung Captain, continues the tale of freebooting, quip-happy Cap’n Darian Frey. Also returning is hiscrew of rough-hewn characters who the description ‘rag-tag’ fits as snugly as ‘Shiver me’ does to ‘timbers’.

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SFX book review – “The Gathering Storm”

by Dean on February 24, 2010

gathering storm SFX book review   The Gathering Storm

Another book review written for the excellent SFX magazine. This time, the chunky 12th book in Robert Jordan’s lengthy Wheel of Time saga…

“When Robert Jordan died in 2007, he left his mammoth Wheel of Time saga unfinished. But not for long. Armed with Jordan’s notes, story outlines and some completed scenes, Mistborn author Brandon Sanderson was hand-picked by Jordan’s widow to complete the final book.

The good news is that, after 11 books and 9,261 pages, we’ll eventually get to see Rand Al’Thor battle the Dark One at Shayol Ghul.

The bad news is that it doesn’t happen in this book. Or the one planned after it. It seems Jordan’s many sub-plots, sub-sub-plots and lengthy character arcs will take three books to wrap up.

The Gathering Storm is the first book in this final volume, to be followed by Towers of Midnight and A Memory of Light. Yes, it smacks of padding and you’d be right to wonder whether climbing this 783-page cliff is going to be worth all the huff and puff.

The saga certainly lost momentum in the middle (Path of Daggers, we’re looking at you), bogged down with side quests and forgettable chapters about minor characters and Aes Sedai politics.

If you’ve read this far, you deserve a little action. You’ve earned it. You want to know whether Perrin rescues Faile and if Egwene can unify the White Tower? But most of all, you want to know whether you’re any closer to Tarmon Gai’don, the final showdown between the forces of Light and Shadow?

Well, you are closer. These questions are answered, although it’s still heavy going. Much of The Gathering Storm is business as usual – Tel’aran’rhiod dream meetings, Aes Sedai squabbling, smug-faced Wise Ones and hide-and-seek Forsaken.

But there’s also a renewed sense of purpose. Various dangling plot ends get tied off – some spectacularly. There are Seanchan attacks, peace talks, mass murder, even zombies.

Some of this is certainly the Sanderson effect. The stand-in author brings a fresh pair of eyes and a faster pace to The Gathering Storm. But he also remains faithful to the Jordan-esque levels of detail that fans of the series have come to expect.”

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Review – PagePlus X4

by Dean on October 4, 2009

pageplus review Review   PagePlus X4

PagePlus X4 offers professional-looking DTP results without a hefty price tag. This is an excerpt from a review written for PC Plus magazine (issue 288).

PagePlus knows its place. Along with Microsoft Office Publisher, it shies away from targeting pro designers to pitch its wares at small business users and enthusiastic amateurs.

InDesign might be powerful, but it can also be notoriously unfriendly to new users. There’s not so much a learning curve involved but a sheer learning cliff face. Made of ice. If all you want to do is knock up a parish newsletter or car boot sale flyer, spending £684 on InDesign CS4 is overkill.

In comparison, PagePlus X4 ducks in well under the £100 mark. That makes it over £600 cheaper than InDesign, yet it never truly feels like a bargain-bucket DTP package.

Much of the same page layout functionality is present, enabling you to design brochures, business cards, flyers, newsletters, posters and even web pages. What makes PagePlus X4 stand out is its friendly usability. The learning curve here is a more of a gentle hill, well-signposted and with buses that run every half-hour.

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SFX book review – The Dwarves

by Dean on September 11, 2009

the dwarves SFX book review   The Dwarves

This review of Markus Heitz’s novel ‘The Dwarves’ appeared in science fiction magazine SFX, issue 186.

The Dwarves

Make a list of all the things you know about dwarves – braided beards, battle axes, good with hammers, fond of a beer or two, surnames designed to inspire respect (like Balendilin Onearm and Giselbert Ironeye), but actually give you the giggles.

Even the cover has a certain John Rhys Davis feel about it.

Because as you read The Dwarves, you can tick these attributes off one-by-one as the pint-sized Tungdil quests across an evil land to save the world of Girdlegard from a crazed sorcerer.

Yes, it does sound a little Lord of the Rings-y. But it’s a little faster on its feet than Tolkien’s classic. Our dwarven Frodo is Tungdil Bolofar, a bookish dwarf (and part-time blacksmith) who’s been raised in isolation by humans. For plot’s-sake, this means that Tungdil is rubbish at being a typical dwarf – he’s never met another one and can’t swing an axe.

So when a D&D army of Ȁlfar (think dark elves), ogres, gnomes, kobolds and orcs threatens a full-on fantasy apocalypse, Tungdil is the least-equipped to do anything about it.

Uprooted from his home, he finds himself proclaimed the unlikely heir to the dwarven kingdom. Cue a quest to see whether the unstoppable bad guy has his own tiny exhaust port, barely two metres wide.

Translated from Heitz’s German original, The Dwarves often reads like it’s been written by an English student with a new Thesaurus. The high fantasy flourishes do settle down. But for every inventive set-piece or dramatic skirmish, there’s a silly name to dent the mood – Nudin the Knowledge-Lusty and Maira the Life Preserver being two of our favourites.

Of course, it’s still strangely readable, chucking in zombies, self-centred wizards, political bickering and betrayal. It’s probably the greatest dwarf opera since George Lucas finished the script for Willow.

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Review – Mr Site Takeaway Website Pro

by Dean on July 15, 2009

mrsite1 Review   Mr Site Takeaway Website Pro

Another review for PC Plus magazine, issue 283. Mr Site Takeaway Website Pro offers you everything you need to get a website up-and-running. In a box.

You could argue that Mr Site Takeaway Website Pro has no place in the pages of PC Plus. At first glance, this one-size-fits-all approach to website construction is far too simplistic and restrictive. For anybody with an ounce of web knowledge, it’s a frustrating experience – like trying to paint a fine watercolour with a stiff bristle B&Q broom.

But what do you expect? Mr Site Takeaway Website Pro boils down the mechanics of a new website build into six simple steps. Log onto www.mrsite.com/create and the software will help you register a domain and get your first pages online within a few minutes. No technical knowledge required. No jargon. No fuss. No imagination. No flexibility… There isn’t even anything useful in the box except a manual (so don’t pay an extra £3.50 for a boxed copy). The whole process takes place online.

Of course, this almost effortless simplicity is exactly what some people want. There’s a memorable episode of The Simpsons where Homer runs for Sanitation Commissioner with the slogan: “Can’t Someone Else Do It?” This outsourcing is the essence of what makes the Mr Site software and any ‘in a box’-themed product so attractive. Not only are they convenient, but you don’t have to put much effort in to make them work, and the end results are usually pretty decent.

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Review – Fujitsu PalmSecure Login Kit

by Dean on July 14, 2009

palmsecure Review   Fujitsu PalmSecure Login Kit

My review of Fujitsu’s PalmSecure Login Kit appears in PC Plus, issue 283. The PalmSecure Login Kit, as its name might suggest, uses the palm of your hand as a next-generation password-replacement system. Here’s an excerpt of the review:

Biometric technologies waiting in the wings include DNA matching, ear shape analysis, even body odour recognition. It seems that our bodily smell consists of a unique blend of chemicals known as volatiles. These chemicals can be extracted and analysed by ‘electronic nose’ biometric systems and subsequently converted into data strings for pattern matching. “That’ll be £10.99, sir. Could you excrete some scent towards the scanner please…”

A much more viable alternative to fingerprint recognition is the vein pattern recognition technology used in Fujitsu’s PalmSecure USB mouse. The technology works by identifying the vein patterns in your palm. These vein patterns are unique to each person and the structure doesn’t change as the body ages.

For this authentication technology to work, an image of the vein needs to be captured using near-infrared light emitted by a scanner. Deoxidized hemoglobin in the blood flowing through the hand absorbs this radiation, causing the veins beneath the skin to appear as a distinct black pattern. This pattern is then simplified, encrypted and stored as a master template.

There are several advantages to vein pattern recognition. It’s quick to authenticate, clean and contactless, plus it’s difficult to cheat the system as it relies on analysing a subcutaneous pattern. In fact, Fujitsu says that the technology is close to foolproof — it apparently works to a false acceptance rate of less than 0.00007%.

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kis2010 eng Review   Kaspersky Internet Security 2010

A slice of my review of Kaspersky Lab’s Internet Security 2010 software, written for PC Plus magazine. The full review appears in issue 285.

Like a EA Sports videogame franchise, Kaspersky Lab has rolled out new 2010 editions of its flagship Internet Security suite and standalone Anti Virus package. It’s a chance for Kaspersky Lab to point point out that it detects over 17,000 new and possible threats to your computer every day; an opportunity to make you think twice about whether your current security measures are really coping with the 2.4 million malware threats currently listed in the Kaspersky Lab database.

Peace of mind is a yearly subscription away.

Of course, it’s questionable whether this 2010 version is really any better at combating Internet evil than its predecessor. Isn’t it just an incremental update? An annual spit-and-polish with some new, bolt-on extras? Well, yes. And no. You could argue that, as the threats to our PCs evolve, so the technology to spot and eliminate them also needs to change.

There are always new ways of approaching the problem – updated virus definitions, a bulked up malware database, trusted application management and new crowd sourced early-warning systems.

Protecting a typical PC against Internet threats is much like a game of Desktop Tower Defence. Using only Pellet Guns and Squirt Towers will still allow a few Creeps to get through. You also need Dart, Swarm and Frost Towers in your arsenal to handle every situation. Because those Creeps will keep on coming.

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Review – LG Viewty Smart

by Dean on June 26, 2009

viewty smart Review   LG Viewty Smart

Mobile phones, and smartphones in particular, are big business. The technology has come along way since I first owned a brick-like Motorola phone in the 1990s.

Post-Apple iPhone, manufacturers like LG have rushed to embrace similar touchscreen control systems. But while it might look like an iPhone wannabe, the LG Viewty Smart (aka the Viewty 2) is actually pitched against digital cameras.

The 8 Megapixel Schneider-Kreuznach lens is the dominant technology and it makes it obvious that less attention has been lavished on some of the phone’s other features.

So rather than compare the LG Viewty Smart to the iPhone 3GS, Palm Pre and the HTC Magic, it slots into a segment of the market where the Samsung Pixon, Sony Ericsson Cyber-shot C905 and Nokia N86 do battle.

These handsets aren’t designed specifically to rival the iPhone. Yes, they’ve been inspired by it, and yes, they often blatantly ape some of the iPhone’s better features.

But, without the core iTunes integration and without an App Store that can deliver hundreds of new games, widgets, applications and utilities over-the-air, the Viewty Smart and handsets like it are second class smartphones.

Read the full LG Viewty Smart (GC900) review on TechRadar.

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Panasonic HDC-TM10 and HDC-SD10

by Dean on June 23, 2009

sd10 2 copy Panasonic HDC TM10 and HDC SD10

Haven’t done many reviews recently. So it’s nice to get back into the swing of things with these two Panasonic camcorder reviews for TechRadar.

The Panasonic HDC-TM10 is a full HD (1920×1080) camcorder that features a clever dual storage system, combining 8GB of internal flash memory and slot-in SD/SDHC memory cards.

This gives it a maximum storage capacity of around 40GB if you use a 32GB SDHC card. The TM10 also features a 16x optical zoom, 2.7-inch touch-sensitive LCD and advanced optical image stablization.

The Panasonic HDC-SD10 (pictured) is its almost identical twin brother, boasting the same core specifications but lacking the TM10’s built-in flash memory. The SD10 is an SD-only model.

Read the full Panasonic HDC-TM10 review.

Read the full Panasonic HDC-SD10 review.

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SFX book review – “The Ancient”

by Dean on January 12, 2009

the ancient 2 SFX book review   The Ancient

This review of R.A Salvatore’s novel ‘The Ancient’ appeared in science fiction magazine SFX, issue 179.

“Compared to new-wave Noir novels like Joe Abercrombie’s The Blade Itself, The Ancient wears the breeches and wide-brimmed felt hat of purist high-fantasy.

And for the most part you get what you expect – feisty dwarves and warrior monks, save-the-day magic and fight sequences that spill over several pages.

Having plucked the hero from his previous Corona novel, The Highwayman, Salvatore’s rag-tag band of characters take two-thirds of the book to reach a climactic battle with Ancient Badden (“Hi, I’ll be your villainous priest for today) and his army of glacial trolls.

If anything retains your attention, it’s the ‘Highwayman’ himself. Bransen Garibond is a fascinatingly flawed lead, tricked into fighting a war he couldn’t give two hoots about. While he’s clumsy and crippled, he’s also capable of Errol Flynn derring-do whenever he straps a magical gemstone to his forehead. It’s the perfect dual identity. Give the man a pair of tights.

Unfortunately there’s less of the Highwayman’s effortless heroism than you might like. This is the first novel in a new ‘Saga of the First King’ series, so it’s slow going as Salvatore manoeuvres his super-swordsman, a disaffected monk, barbarian priestess and indestructible dwarf into position for the finale.

But come the third act, the author lights a rocket under the plot and lets you ride it to a satisfying (if wholly expected) conclusion.

With faint echoes of 1930s action flicks like The Scarlet Pimpernel and The Adventures of Robin Hood, the Highwayman’s heroics underpin a story that also clutches forbidden love and religious nutters to its fantasy bosom. You don’t even have to have read The Highwayman or any of Salvatore’s Drizzt novels to find The Ancient curiously likeable.

And yes, that surprised me too.”

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