book review: World War Z

World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie WarWorld War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Pretty good, though the style of the story, told as interviews of survivors of the zombie war meant that there wasn’t a lot of tension. You knew that the war was over, and that these people had survived to tell the tale. That said, it was really interesting to see so many distinct character voices come out, and the stories they told were often fairly gruesome. Not usually a fan of horror stories, or zombie stuff, but quite enjoyed this.

View all my reviews

swiftkey

A while back I installed the Swiftkey keyboard on my phone. It’s briliant, with a pretty intuitive autocorrect. As you’re tapping words in, suggestions ping up above the keyboard allowing you to select words more quickly.

You get some nice stats too. Apparently I’m 32% more efficient at typing due to Swiftkey and saved 144,002 keystrokes in the time I’ve been using it. It’s pretty customisable too, with different themes and functionality. A couple of weeks ago I realised that you could swipe words – rather than tapping away at individual letters, you just swipe around the letters in the word and Swiftkey works out what word you’re looking for and away you go. They call it Swiftkey Flow and I’m a complete convert.

The fun thing is the auto-suggest though. Before you’ve even started typing, Swiftkey presents you with three words – based on stuff you’ve typed previously, or from what its ‘prediction engine’.

I fired it up and started tapping the middle suggested word:

I am a beautiful person who is the best #Bond movie and the bottom of the brass tube had two little spikes the best of luck with the latest version of the most important thing is that the information contained in this email address and password for the first time I’d been and gone to the House of Lords and famous high quality cover at competitive prices.

Brilliant. Sounds just like some of the spam comments I get on here!

Seriously though, Swiftkey is ace, and the autocomplete is really useful when you’re using it properly – it’s pretty good at suggesting stuff based on what you’ve typed before.

When I’m faced with the keyboard on the iPad (when I can wrest it from Kate or the kids) it feels really weird having to type properly! If you’ve got an Android phone, give it a go.

Sugru

I was sent a pack of sugru to review the other day. It’s pretty funky stuff – out of the packet it’s soft & pliable and feels a bit like blu-tack. You’ve got about 30 minutes to use it out of the pack and it cures in 24 hours, bonds to pretty much anything and turns into a flexible silicone rubber which is waterproof, heatproof (from -50°C to + 180°C) and really very strong.

The pack I got contained 8 mini foil packs of black sugru – according to the instructions it’ll last for six months at room temperature, longer if you keep it in the fridge). Cost via the website: £11 + shipping, or £1.37 per pack. You can get it in smaller packs too. The sugru store is here: http://sugru.com/buy

I decided to make some custom-fit earbuds, using my very cheap Philips earbuds – they were less than a tenner and a replacement for my beloved Shure SE115s until I can afford a decent replacement set. The Philips ones sound ok, but let outside noise in really badly (unlike the Shure buds).

The fix was pretty easy to do – roll back the outer rubber bit of the earbud, pop a bit of sugru behind, fold the rubber bit back over then stick the earbuds in your ear. Give it a wiggle to get a good fit, take the earbuds out and leave the sugru to set.

There’s a video on the Sugru website:

Tried them this morning, and whilst it’s not a perfect fit, it cuts out a significant amount of background noise, giving a much clearer sound. I might have another go and use a bit more sugru – I was a bit sparing with it, but the little individual packs hold a decent amount. 5g of sugru goes a long way!

I had some left over from the earbud fix, so decided to see what else I could use it for.

The locking ring on my Opinel pocketknife is metal, and can be pretty slippery if you’re trying to open the blade in the wet. I put a small band of sugru around the metal collar and used the back of a key to give it some ridges for extra grip.

Opinel penknife plus Sugru hack

Bonus is there’s now an extra grippy bit when you’re using the knife!

And one final hack using the last bit of the pack (and remember, this is all from one 5g packet), I added a little lump of sugru to the volume dial on my desktop PC speakers. The dial is black, with a tiny black dot indicating the volume you’ve got it set at. Pretty hard to tell how loud you’ve got it set.

Now it’s got a lump where the dot is (should have taken a photo really!) so I can see at a glance how loud the kids have turned up the speakers!
So, all in all, it’s pretty versatile stuff. I’m already looking at other things I can use it for around the house and garden, and the sugru site has some great hacks which I’ll be checking out.

books of 2011: mini-reviews

(nicked from my Twitterings, because I’m too knackered to do it properly)

Zoo City, by Lauren Beukes (@laurenbeukes): Brilliant. Compared favourably with Michael Marshall Smith (@ememess), I’d have to agree. Dark, gritty, deliciously original. Buy it. Thank me later.

The Fallen Blade, by Jon Courtenay Grimwood (@JonCG_novelist). Vampire assassins in Venice. Seriously, what more do you need to know? utterly brilliant.

 

Currently reading The Watchers, by Jon Steele, which has the tagline “Imagine the Bourne Identity rewritten by Neil Gaiman”. I’m *so* intrigued…

 

My top ten books

Inspired by World Book Day, I thought I’d pull together a list of my top ten favourite books[1]

So, in no particular order, I recommend:

1. Only Forward ~ Michael Marshall Smith

This was Mike’s debut novel, billed as a cross between Blade Runner and The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It’s neither, but an entirely original blend of smart-talking protagonist, weird & wonderful situations and locations, holding together a dark, funny, unforgettable story. This is the book I’m most likely to recommend to you on any given day.

2. The Stainless Steel Rat ~ Harry Harrison

My dad had a copy of this on his bookshelf at work, and I was drawn to it by the fabulous spaceship on the front. It’s a corking read which zips along without pausing for breath. The thing I love about old sci-fi books is that they’re short, skinny little paperbacks that you can get through in a couple of hours, but packed with excitement, adventure and really wild stuff. This is the story of Slippery Jim DiGriz, ace con-man, and titular Stainless Steel Rat, and his recruitment into the Special Corps, run by criminals to catch criminals. Who better to catch a thief than another thief? Brilliant. I’m not ashamed to say that Monty owes a lot of his heritage to the Rat.

3. Dune ~ Frank Herbert

Yes, it’s long, and yes the later books in the series do go on a bit, then turn utterly bonkers. But Dune is wonderful, deep and complex, laden with atmosphere.

4. The Kinky Friedman Crime Club ~ Kinky Friedman

A friend gave me a copy of this many years ago, and I was instantly hooked by the tales of Kinky Friedman, loft-dwelling, cigar-smoking, espresso-guzzling private dick for hire in NYC, with a great line in one-liners

5. Pashazade ~ Jon Courtenay Grimwood

The first of his ‘Arabesk’ trilogy, it’s a book I’ve read many times. Jon has a knack for finding a sentence or turn of phrase which is just *so* delicious and perfect that I find myself reading and re-reading sections, just to work out how the hell he did it. Masterful.

6. The Eyre Affair ~ Jasper Fforde

Ah, no list would be complete without Jasper. The adventures of Thursday Next, Jurisfiction Agent. The first book is literally stuffed to the gills with ideas which make your head spin. Superb.

7. Against a Dark Background ~ Iain M. Banks

A lot to choose from for Mr Banks, but this is my favourite. Dark, oh so dark, but a cracking good read. The Lazy Guns alone are worth the price of admission.

8. Pyramids: A Discworld Novel ~ Terry Pratchett

Again, lots to choose from. Pyramids is my favourite and most-read of my Pratchett collection. The opening scenes where young Pteppic joins the Assassin’s Guild are a joy to behold, and Arthur’s line

‘This is a No.2 throwing knife. I got ninety-six percent for throwing knives. Which eyeball don’t you need?’

cracks me up every time I read it. I went to get my copy of the book to check I’d quoted it correctly, and giggled when I read it.

9. Neverwhere ~ Neil Gaiman

I first read Neil’s ‘American Gods’, quite enjoyed it, but couldn’t quite see what all the fuss was about. Gaiman fans seemed to be *everywhere*, but on the basis of AG, I wasn’t entirely sure why. Then I read Neverwhere, and never looked back. Genius.

10. Un Lun Dun ~ China Miéville

…And if you’re having Neverwhere, you’ve got to have Un Lun Dun. Seriously, just go and buy it. It’s entirely different from China’s other stuff, but weird and wonderful and odd and inventive and just plain bloody marvellous. You can thank me later.

 

There are, naturally, some notable exceptions on there – The Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, for one. But then I’d assume that if you were likely to read it, you’d have done so already.

Also there are other books by most of those authors which I’d also highly recommend. Jasper’s second book, Lost in a Good Book, is arguably better than the first, but I think you’re better off starting with The Eyre Affair. In LiaGB he realises that he’s got a readership who will quite happily trot after him down whatever crazy labyrinth of ideas he comes up with, and the story works a little better.

Iain M. Banks (and his alter-ego, Iain Banks) has his Culture Books, The Player of Games or Use of Weapons, and for his ‘mainstream’ books, The Crow Road is brilliant. The Crow Road starts with the line

It was the day my grandmother exploded.

Seriously, how can you not want to read on?

Michael Marshall Smith’s other books are great too – Spares is a very close second behind Only Forward in my book, and some of his short stories are utterly superb, very dark, scary, thought-provoking and funny. If you happen to come across a copy of his collected short stories, More Tomorrow & Other Stories, snap it up. It was only a short print run, but is a great collection. Failing that, go for What You Make It: Selected Short Stories, a shorter collection in paperback.

I could go on, but I think that’s quite enough for now.

 

So, dear reader. What are *your* favourite books? And what did happen to my copy of American Gods?

 

[1]This list is subject to change depending on various factors, including my current mood, what I’ve just read, how much coffee I’ve had and the phase of the moon.

movies of 2010: Iron Man 2

Iron Man 2

Fun! Silly, but fun. Robert Downey Jr is fabulous as Tony Stark again. Gwynneth manages not to be too annoying, Sam Rockwell manages to be appropriately annoying for his character, Mickey Rourke mumbles and snarls along in perfectly decent Russian and Scarlett Johansson is woefully underused. Oh, and Don Cheadle tries very hard not to be Terrence Howard.

Lots of ‘splosions, cool tech and snappy one-liners. And a deus ex machina the size of a football field, plucked out of nowhere.

But hey. This is a movie about a guy in a flying metal suit. If you’re looking for Shakespeare, go and, erm, watch some.

One thing I wish they’d stop doing though is introducing lots of extra almost-main characters – We didn’t really *need* Nick Fury or Scarlett in the film – I suspect they’re in there as setup for the inevitable third movie.

That said, I really enjoyed it. I’m guessing that if you enjoyed the first movie, you’ll get a kick out of this one too.