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The Dark Tower: Song of Susannah Bk. 6 - Stephen King 08/02/2012

Dark Tower 6 - Song of Susannah

The Dark Tower: Song of Susannah Bk. 6 - Stephen King Dark Tower 6 – Song of Susannah I’d heard bad things about this book, from it’s slow pacing to the introduction of a certain writer as a major character, but as always I approached it with an open mind, particularly as I’d already committed myself to reading the whole series. The Dark Tower is arguably Stephen King’s finest hour, a seven volume urban-fantasy masterwork. However, if you look at the reviews for the books individually, it appears that the quality of the series begins to wane towards the end. Having read the first six back to back I’d have to agree. The Gunslinger was a sci-fi western masterpiece, The Drawing of the Three dropped Roland of Gilead into the fast-paced world of contemporary New York, The Waste Lands was a kind of steampunk action adventure (and up in the top five books I’ve ever read) while Wizard and Glass, despite being almost solely concerned with backstory, was a rollicking western adventure. Then came Wolves of the Calla, and the pace began to slow. It felt bloated, nothing much happened, and it was filled with annoying references to King’s other works and contained pages and pages of uninspiring backstory. Song of Susannah, unfortunately, while shorter, is more of the same. Set now in New York in 1999 and Maine in 1977, the characters have been divided. Susannah is now struggling to keep her alter ego, Mia, in check, while Roland and Eddie hunt Calvin Tower and Aaron Deepneau. The Susannah/Mia parts are, for want of a better word, a mess, a ...

Wolves Of The Calla: the Dark Tower - Stephen King 31/01/2012

Dark Tower 5 - Wolves of the Calla

Wolves Of The Calla: the Dark Tower - Stephen King The Wolves of the Calla is the fifth volume in Stephen King’s Dark Tower series. We meet up with Roland and his “ka-tet” (those held together by destiny) as they arrive at Calla Bryn Sturgis, a small farming town that is plagued by regular raids by the “Wolves” out of Thunderclap, the nightmare land that begins across the river. Roland and his friends decide to stop in the Calla long enough to defend it from the upcoming raid. This book is where the Dark Tower series starts to slow. This is the first book that I didn’t race through, the first that I had to make an effort to finish. The previous books were pretty much non-stop action, while Wolves is basically 850 pages of waiting around, a 10 minute battle and then another 60 pages of aftermath. It’s not that it isn’t good. If, like me, you’re in it to complete the series, then you must like it enough to battle on. It has some great touches, such as Andy the Messenger Robot who wanders around town like the tin man from the Wizard of Oz but is altogether more sinister. Some of the characters are interesting, but most of the townsfolk at least pretty much blend into one, and I thought their screen time was spread too thin to get to know them very well. We also bump into Donald Callahan, last seen in ‘Salem’s Lot, who becomes a major character. While this might interest a lot of King fans, I actually thought that novel was pretty rubbish so didn’t really care much. The sections of the book based in Mid-World are pretty good, ...

Wizard and Glass - Stephen King 10/01/2012

The Dark Tower 4 - Wizard and Glass

Wizard and Glass - Stephen King Wizard and Glass is part four in Stephen King's epic seven volume Dark Tower series. After the events of part 3, The Waste Lands, Wizard and Glass is mostly back story, as Roland tells his companions a story of his past, bookended by two sections which move the present story onwards. Without giving the story so far away, Roland of Gilead and his companions, Eddie, Susannah, Jake and the doglike billy bumbler Oy, find themselves in what seems to be an alternative version of Kansas. There is a strange building on the horizon that looks rather familiar, but before they head off to see it Roland sits them all down and tells them a story of his first days as a young gunslinger, and a story of his first love, Susan Delgado. This "campfire story", so to speak, takes up approximately 500 pages of the 700 in this volume (which, by the way, continues the trend of each book being longer than the last, as, incidentally, does part five, which is something in the region of 900...). It is told as a novel within a novel, with multiple viewpoints like a regular story (we find out how Roland knows all about the other characters later in the book). It is very much a Western-sci-fi story, in the vein of part one, The Gunslinger, except it is much, much longer. Roland, just fourteen, and his friends Cuthbert and Alain have been sent east from Gilead to apparently do a stock check of the town of Hambry in the Barony of Mejis. In actual fact they have been sent away to keep them out of danger, ...

The Waste Lands - Stephen King 10/01/2012

The Dark Tower 3 - The Waste Lands - Stephen King

The Waste Lands - Stephen King The Dark Tower 3 - The Waste Lands The last of the "old" Dark Tower books before King took up the series again in 2003, The Waste Lands steps up a gear from the previous two books, The Gunslinger and The Drawing of the Three. I enjoyed those books greatly, but this one is on another level. Quite frankly, this is the best book I've read this year. It's King at his absolute best - the fluff is at a minimum, replaced by great dialogue, excellent characters, inventiveness and a story that rattles along with barely a pause for breath. Roland of Gilead has now been joined on his quest to find the Dark Tower by Eddie, an ex-junkie and Suzannah - formerly Detta Walker/Odetta Holmes - a disabled black rights campaigner. The first part of the book concerns the "drawing" of the fourth member, Jake, previously met in the first book, and then a supposed fifth, the "billy bumbler", Oy, a doglike animal which provides a cute touch in a dark, dark book as well as a little light humour. In The Waste Lands Roland's "ka-tet" start to learn more about Mid-World, the world that has "moved on". They establish a way to find the Dark Tower, and set off after it, eventually coming to the ruined city of Lud where they hope to find a special form of transport. All along the way they see signs of the world left behind, ancient traffic lights, crashed planes, a suspension bridge on the brink of collapse, but it is in the city itself, a horrible, horrible place that King paints in exquisite and ...

The Dark Tower: Drawing of the Three Bk. 2 (Dark Tower) - Stephen King 10/01/2012

The Dark Tower 2 - The Drawing of the Three - Stephen King

The Dark Tower: Drawing of the Three Bk. 2 (Dark Tower) - Stephen King The Drawing of the Three is the second volume of Stephen King's 7-volume western-fantasy epic, the Dark Tower. Following on from events in The Gunslinger, Roland Deschain finds himself on a beach where he is attacked by something from the sea he dubs a "lobstrosity". He escapes, but not before it badly wounds him, and he flees north along the beach, unsure where he's going or why, but only that he's getting weaker and weaker as an infection takes hold of his body. Then he comes to a door which opens into another world - contemporary New York. So begins the events of this book. Unlike The Gunslinger, which was a short western with some fantastical elements thrown in, The Drawing of the Three is more in the vein that SK fans will be familiar with. It's dark and violent, and the vast majority of it takes place in New York, where we meet Eddie, a junkie with some nasty "friends", and Detta/Odetta, a handicapped black rights activist with a split personality. Roland finds himself inside the minds of these two people as he tries to "draw" them into his own world. The Gunslinger, at times, was hard to follow, and this book, while a lot different, has some of the same frustrating issues. There are some sections, particularly near the back, which are a little difficult to follow. I found my second reading of the Gunslinger helped a lot, and no doubt the same would be true here. There is definitely a lot of deeper meaning in these stories. The Drawing of the Three is also very ...

Lessons with Laughter - George Woolard 05/01/2012

Lessons with Laughter

Lessons with Laughter - George Woolard Lessons with Laughter (first published in 1996) is a photocopiable resource book for TEFL teachers, in a similar vein to the same author’s Grammar with Laughter (previously reviewed by myself). However, where Grammar with Laughter followed pretty much the same format all the way through, Lessons with Laughter is separated into 92 lessons in four sections and three levels of difficulty – elementary, intermediate and advanced. The four parts are – 1. Jokes 2. Cartoons 3. Misprints 4. Reading for Fun Jokes These consist of simple one-liners where the student must choose either a word to complete the gap or match two halves of a sentence. Each lesson focuses on a different topic, some of them grammatical (conditionals, present perfect, so…that, etc), others on types of language (puns, idioms, etc) and others on types of jokes (Doctor, Doctor!, Elephant Jokes, etc). As with Woolard’s other book, the jokes are the tame kind of playground jokes you find in books like 1001 Jokes and the ilk. “Who is the strongest criminal?” Answer “A shoplifter”, etc. They’re harmless fun, but a little cringeworthy so beware if you’re teaching from this book with a particularly “cool” high school class. Cartoons Just as it says, this short section consists of a handful of newspaper comment-style cartoons and requires the students to write captions or explain a series of pictures. Unlike the Jokes section, though, it doesn’t seem to be split into particularly levels of difficulty, although I ...

Dexter - Series 4 (DVD) 05/01/2012

Dexter Season 4

Dexter - Series 4 (DVD) Superb, superb, superb. Just had to get that out. The wife and I finished watching the final four episodes of Dexter Season 4 at 3am last night, and I have to say I'm still catching my breath. After the slight dip in form of Season 3 I was wondering how Season 4 would hold up and it came with bells on. Brilliant acting, brilliant writing. Brilliant plot twists. Just great. Anyway. If you don't know, Dexter is a darkly comic US TV drama from Showtime. It stars Michael C. Hall as Dexter Morgan, a blood splatter analysis for Miami Metro Police by day, and a serial killer by night. Unable to hold off his "dark passenger", Dexter at least controls him/her by killing only people who deserve to die. Series one dealt with the Ice Truck Killer, who turned out be closer to Dexter than he would have liked. Season 2 had Sargeant Doakes hot on Dexter's trail as he was nearly ousted as the Bay Harbour Butcher. Season three had Miguel Prado trying to join up with Dexter in a kind of serial killer tag team. After the first two series, Season 3 was a little off the boil, good but not great. Season 4, however, is fully back on the horse in quite spectacular fashion. FBI agent Frank Lundy turns up again, retired now but only the trail of someone he calls the Trinity Killer, who kills in threes, first a murdered girl in a bathtub, then a forced suicide, and finally a bludgeoning. The FBI don't believe him, but Debra Morgan (Dexter's sister) does and soon Dexter himself finds himself ...

Days of the New II - Days of the New 05/01/2012

Days of the New - Days of the New 2 (Green)

Days of the New II - Days of the New To call most musicians “artists”, particularly when most of them these days are the abominable children of crimes-to-society reality TV shows such as X-Factor, is an insult to people with actual skills, but when it comes to Travis Meeks, erstwhile frontman of the band Days of the New, the title perhaps does not go far enough. Perhaps “craftsman” is more suitable for a man who makes such intricate, inventive music with so little care for the mainstream that it generally slips by unnoticed. After their acoustic grunge-styled self-titled debut album (known by fans as “Yellow”) sold one and a half million copies off the back of a dying musical movement, Travis Meeks, still only 19, sacked the rest of the band, whom you felt he didn't really like that much anyway, and got to work on the follow up. In 1999, Days of the New (effectively Travis and whomever he gave the honour of working with him to) realised their second self-titled album, known to fans as “Green”. While maintaining the same acoustic-based structure as the first album, complete with Travis’s baritone vocal delivery and mostly dark lyrics, it branched so far out into unknown musical territory that it alienated a lot of his old fans. Those that have stuck with Travis since Green and into its successor, “Red”, and the wilderness years that have followed, are the hardcore, the select few that understand that the man they follow is an under-appreciated musical genius. Green, while containing Travis’s trademark ...

Wooden Thomas&Friends: Gordon the Big Express Engine 02/01/2012

Wooden Thomas & Friends - Gordon

Wooden Thomas&Friends: Gordon the Big Express Engine I don't know a great deal about babies (the closest I've come is a cat) but I'm being forced to learn in the present buying stakes at least by having gained a nephew and a niece as well as two god-daughters over the last couple of years. The wife told me that our two-year old nephew had laughed at a picture of Thomas the Tank Engine so I decided to get him some form of train for Christmas. I usually go with Fisher Price as they're always big and colourful and the brand comes with a certain assumption of quality. This time around, though, I decided to go with a regular Thomas toy. I chose Gordon predominantly because he was bigger than the rest and comes with a little coal trailer that attaches via a magnet. Plus, he looked friendly! When It showed up I was a little disappointed with the size. I was expecting it to be about a foot long like most Fisher Price toys but its a little thing about 15cm long that fits into your hand. However, this actually proved to be beneficial as it fits neatly into my nephew's hand and it's light enough that he can wave it around. In addition, its a really well crafted toy, made of wood which makes it solid and therefore it should be able to handle a bit of rough treatment. It's nice and colourful and the wheels spin really easily meaning it should work fine on the track you can get (my nephew does't have this yet - I thought I'd see if he maintained his interest and then maybe get him the track for his birthday). Overall, I'm pretty ...

Apple iPhone 4S 64GB 21/12/2011

iPhone 4S

Apple iPhone 4S 64GB iPhone 4S 64GB As a self-confessed technophobe, I have forever found myself at the back end of any technological development, lagging some way behind the rest of the world, in the same way that I liked 70s music in the 90s, 90s Music in the 2000s, etc. The last computer console I owned was a Sega Master System; my car doesn’t even have air-con, I still buy CDs. So, it came as somewhat of a surprise even to myself to suddenly find myself the envy of all my friends with my lovely new iPhone 4S. I live in Japan, so apologies if they aren’t even out in the UK yet. I don’t know, and to be honest, I don’t care. A week or so ago, my friend dropped his old iPhone and broke the screen. He went into the phone shop and was offered a free upgrade to an iPhone 4S, because apparently they’re running a campaign. My service provider do pretty good campaigns – a friend got a free 42 inch TV for signing up for a iPhone family plan, although the best I ever did was a talking dog). Usually I only get a new phone when the old one breaks, but seeing a chance to jump on the bandwagon, I decided to try my luck. My service provider is called Softbank (formerly owned by Vodafone). Trading in my junk old phone that was rubbish even when I got it new, I was given a brand new iPhone 4S free with a new two year contract. My contract works out at about 50 quid a month (6,400yen) which includes all free internet, free mails, and free calls to all other Softbank phones (except from 9pm to 1am – those are ...

Planet Of The Apes (DVD) 16/11/2011

Planet of the Apes (2001)

Planet Of The Apes (DVD) Planet of the Apes I remember seeing this movie at the cinema when it first came out and enjoying it, but on watching it again on the TV recently it really hasn't aged well. Basically a remake of the original classic movie but with better make-up and special effects, Planet of the Apes has Mark Wahlberg as the spaceman who crashes on an unknown planet where apes have become the dominant species and humans are captured to be used as slaves and pets. In that respect, it is a very poignant role reversal of actual society, however, it contains enough cheesiness that it is unlikely to be taken seriously. Wahlberg is as good as he is in everything, a poor man's Tom Cruise with about the same okay-at-what-he-does acting ability and he spends most of the time running around trying to look tough. The monkeys obviously are the best, particularly Tim Roth disguised as the truly nasty General Thade, and to a lesser extent Helena Bonham Carter who is a perfect specimen of a human female even when barely recognizable. The humans, on the other hand, are particularly forgettable, especially Daena as Wahlberg's love interest, who looks great while running around semi-naked but says about five words in the whole movie. The special effects are decent, particularly when the apes are jumping around. Up close the make-up is clearly fake, but at least they don't walk around like humans in costumes like they do in the original. However, despite this, in terms of impact, good-for-its-time and ...

Chausuyama Zoo, Nagano 28/10/2011

Chausuyama Zoo, Nagano, Japan

Chausuyama Zoo, Nagano Chausuyama Zoo is a quaint little city zoo in Nagano, Japan, where I currently call home. While certainly not a major attraction even in Nagano, it makes for a nice half-day trip particularly if you live in the city. General The zoo is located on a hillside some way out of the city, quite inconveniently. In order to get there without your own transport you must take a train from Nagano to Shinonoi Station (four stops, 190yen) and either catch one of the infrequent buses up the hill to the zoo, take a taxi, or walk. I actually did the latter the first time I visited some six years ago, and it took a good hour. Not recommended for the unfit as its all uphill. Most people travel by car, and there are signs from Shinonoi Station. Parking at the zoo is free. It takes about an hour and a half to walk around the zoo. It has all the usual suspects – a lion, a tiger, an elephant, a few giraffes, zebras and assorted monkeys, but for me it is most interesting for the native Japanese animals such as two brown bears and numerous Japanese serows which I can see up close having fleetingly glimpsed in the wild. It also has a couple of raccoon dogs, wild ones of which I often see wandering around the streets near my house at night. The zoo’s main draw though is its selection of red pandas (the Japanese name is “Lesser Panda), of which it currently has twelve, now housed in a recently built enclosure near the zoo’s east entrance. These teddy-bear like little things climb trees and walk ...

The Gunslinger - Stephen King 23/10/2011

The Gunslinger - Stephen King

The Gunslinger - Stephen King The Gunslinger is the first part of Stephen King’s attempt at epic fantasy with the Dark Tower series. Written way back in 1978, it is the gritty, tight Stephen King of his earlier days, rather than the overblown melodrama he spends most of his time writing now. Set in a world that might be our distant future, or might be a parallel world only part based on our own, The Gunslinger follows Roland of Gilead, the last Gunslinger, on his trek across a bleak desert in search of The Man in Black. At 296 pages it is minute for a Stephen King novel, but the writing is tight and sparse and a lot is packed into those pages, probably more than in a lot of his 800-page door-stopping novels. The Gunslinger blends high fantasy with post-apocalypse Western, with its mid-west backwater townscapes and gangs of ragged, desperate people that are very Mad Max. It’s obviously just an introduction into the world of the Dark Tower, so as a result we only get glimpses of the wider history of Roland’s world and his intentions. In fact, at times the explanation is so sparse that some areas are left open to interpretation, such as the whole sub-plot with Jake or the very reason why Roland is pursuing The Man in Black in the first place. King often has omnipresent narrators who fill in the backstory (and fill his books with endless waffle) but here we only see what Roland sees and discover what he discovers, and it makes for much tighter writing. Despite being a Western-fantasy, its actually a lot ...

Roadside Crosses - Jeffery Deaver 17/10/2011

Roadside Crosses - Jeffery Deaver

Roadside Crosses - Jeffery Deaver Roadside Crosses Roadside Crosses is a crime thriller written by Jeffery Deaver and featuring Kathryn Dance, his second most popular character after the quadriplegic detective, Lincoln Rhyme. This novel sees Dance on the trail of a murderer picking victims off an internet forum, and leaving roadside memorials the day before the planned murder. At the same time she has the added worry of her own mother being accused of a mercy killing murder. This is the third Deaver novel that I've read, and of the three it's the weakest. The other two featured Lincoln Rhyme, who is a much better character than Kathryn Dance, who actually popped up in the second of those books (The Cold Moon) before getting her own series of novels. Dance is a kinesics expert - an expert in body language and interviewing techniques, but in Roadside Crosses she doesn't actually spend much time interviewing people, and with the exception of the occasional "and Dance could tell he was lying from the way he touched his leg" etc. there's not a great deal of insight into the world of interrogation. The best thing about Deaver (apart from that he looks like his dog - see the author photos on hardback editions!) is his skill with the plot twist. He's very old school with this in a way that only an established author can be - few publishers are interested in plot twists these days from new writers but once you've got a fanbase you can pretty much do what you like - and there are the usual plethora on show here. ...

What does Halloween mean to you? (Newsletter creative writing) 13/10/2011

What does Halloween mean to you?

What does Halloween mean to you? (Newsletter creative writing) For the last seven years I have been an English teacher in Japan. For me, Halloween is a chance to bring fun and interesting activities into the classroom. There are many games and activities you can play – the apple bobbing and the dressing up for the youngsters, the monster dictations and mimes for the middle schoolers, the study of the history of All Hallow’s Eve for the adults. More than anything, though, it means a chance to connect. In the same way that Christmas does, Halloween gives students that would otherwise be too shy to speak to the foreign teacher a reason to make that little bit more effort. I received the first tentative “trick or treat?” on October 12th, and over the coming weeks I’ll need to have that bag of sweets ready while I roam the school corridors because more and more will pluck up the courage to come and talk to me. Rather than just handing over the sweets though, it means I have a chance to talk to students that would otherwise never speak to me, and maybe plant some seeds of confidence that will help them over time to break down mental obstacles and open up some new aspect of the world. Japan has a notoriously rigid society where “the nail that stands up is banged down” so part of a foreign teacher’s job is to encourage the students to look beyond the traditional boundaries that their society offers them and see some of the many opportunities that the wider world offers. As an English teacher, particularly one in a business school where English ...
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