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We’re skipping a few Honour Harrington books here to review book four in the series, Field of Dishonor. I should mention, I’m not skipping The Honour of the Queen or The Short Victorious War because I don’t like those books, but for me, Field of Dishonor is quite an important book and provides us with a greater insight into Manticorian culture – as well as Honor as a person.

The start of the book deals with the immediate aftermath of the events of The Short Victorious War, where an act of cowardice leads to avoidable casualties in battle, and Honor finds herself fighting an internal battle against a very personal enemy. She effectively humiliates a man who wronged her in the past, with the consequence that she angers a politically influential family within Manticorian society. By this point, she has already begun to polarise the opinions of her commanding officers (some regard her as a great officer, others feel she is reckless and untrustworthy), and Honor soon finds herself confronting a painful personal loss, and facing an overwhelming desire for revenge, despite knowing the political implications of where that desire might lead.

In the end, I couldn’t help but sympathise with Honor greatly. She doesn’t do anything wrong, but is nevertheless the subject of a personal vendetta by a man who hates her (and whom she hates). She faces orders from her superiors that are politically motivated but she sees those orders as unfair and unjust. She is put through a great deal of pain, for more than one reason, and through it all, it shines through to me that Honor is a determined person, not prepared to let those who wrong her get away with it, and damn the personal (and especially the political) consequences. I couldn’t help but root for her, even though I knew her choices were potentially quite reckless .David Weber is also keen to ensure we feel little sympathy for the villain of the story. He is offered few (if any) redeemable features, presented as pompous, arrogant and cowardly. He is everything that Honor isn’t.

We learn that Manticorian society (already established as a constitutional monarchy) is quite in favour of equality, but unfortunately, there are elements of the nobility who are very much elitist and snobbish. These elements stretch to the military, forming some of the political enemies that Honor has to deal with, despite her own disdain for politics. We also get to see the practice of dueling in action (seen as archaic to some, but an element of Manticorian life that isn’t going anywhere).

One of the things I enjoy about this book is the ‘lived in’ feel. People argue, they go out to dinner, they worry about money and they aren’t perfect.

A thoroughly entertaining read!

9/10

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Having reviewed my phone (the venerable Samsung Galaxy S4), I thought I would weigh in with my thoughts on the Apple vs Android debate. It can be a thorny one at times (brand loyalty can be a big thing to some people), but nevertheless I wanted to have my say.

The contenders:

Apple

AppleLogoOne of the largest companies in the world, Apple to begin with made iMacs and Macbooks, that offered an alternative to Windows-based PCs and laptops. The interface has often been described as friendly and easy to use, though personally, I have never enjoyed using Macs. To be honest, I don’t find them to be especially straightforward.

Where Apple came into their own was with the development of iPods (of various shapes and sizes), and in particular, the iPhone. These products propelled Apple forward, cementing their reputation for excellence and giving them a platform to spring forward from. It wasn’t long before they began to dominate the smartphone market.

It was all the way back in 2007 that the first iPhone appeared, and since then Apple have continued to develop it (we are now on to the iPhone 6).

Key Features:

Like pretty much all Apple products, the iPhone uses iTunes (Apple’s online music directory and store). If you have iTunes you can download a huge selection of song to your device, capped only by the storage space and what you’re willing to spend. There is also an apps market, and Apple tightly control what apps are available, to ensure quality. Because iTunes is software used across different Apple devices, if you purchase a book from the book store, it will automatically be available not only on your iPhone, but on other Apple products you might own.

Needless to say, this is quite convenient!

Generally speaking, the iPhone, iPad and other Apple products are well-made. They are virtually carved out of metal and glass and screen quality is superb. Even older generation iPads hold up quite well in terms of their build quality.

The Downside

Of course, with this there comes a catch or two. The price of Apple products is usually considerably more than that of rival products, and there is little variation. For example, the cheapest iPhone 6 contract available on Vodafone is £39 a month, and you have to pay £99 up front for the phone! The cheapest Samsung S6 contract on Vodafone is £39 a month, you pay £49 for the handset, and the phone has twice as much storage space. The S6 is also a more recent handset, making it the latest technology.

Historically there have also been problems with being unable to change the battery in iPhones (they are sealed units). This means you have to take your phone back to a phone shop or Apple store, and there may be charges involved for this.

Android

AndroidLogo

The Android system first appeared properly in 2007, after being developed by Google and a handful of phone manufacturers. It is purely an operating system (unlike Apple, who make both the hardware and software), and it has filtered through onto a wide range of devices.

Many major phone companies make Android products – Samsung, HTC, Sony, LG, Acer and Asus are among just some of the companies who had or are making Android smartphones and tablets. As a result of being available to a wide range of companies, Android devices are a major force in the market place.

Key Features:

Android is what is known as ‘open source’. This means that anyone can create apps for Android devices, because the source code is available for anyone to view and make use of. The apps market is huge, as anyone can publish an app.

Because Android is available for any manufacturer to make use of, there is tremendous variety on the market for people seeking smartphones, and some of these are quite cheap.

Problems

Because the Android software is open source, and because anyone can develop apps for it, it is largely unregulated. This increases the risk of viruses corrupting the hardware (though anti-virus software is available for phones and tablets). Additionally, the quality of the hardware varies wildly.

There are also quality issues concerning apps. Anyone can make a game for Android, but this doesn’t mean everyone who does should.

Conclusions

Personally, I favour Android products. This is largely because they are cheaper (in some cases considerably) than Apple products, and because there is greater variety. If you want something running iOS, it has to be an Apple product. Yes, you get excellent build quality, but they are not without their flaws, and Apple’s tight regulation of their software and what you can do with it feels restrictive to me.

That said, the iPad is the best tablet device out there, despite its price tag.

I also take issue with Apple’s stance toward its competitors. Apple have been engaged in legal disputes over patents with Samsung (amongst others) for a number of years. To me, this smacks of fear over the growing success of the Android platform and a desire to control competition through the courts rather than through sales. Apple’s anticompetitive stance has sullied its image in my eyes.

This isn’t to say Android products are flawless and I would never say no to owning an iPhone or iPad. The prices need to be better for that to happen.

SamsungGalaxyS4As part of my ongoing review series, today I turn my attention toward a device that none of us can do without these days – the mobile phone.

Mobile phones are a terrific measure of technological progress. My first phone, the Siemens C35i, had a black and white display, a small screen and physical buttons. I got it back in 2000, and to be fair to it, it did its job pretty well.

Flash forward to 2015, and within fifteen years I’ve seen phones transform from bog-standard devices for calls and texts, to mini computers, capable of letting us access the full sum of human knowledge and history from nearly anywhere on earth.

The smartphone can be used to access the internet via mobile data (which is getting faster and faster), whilst bigger and clearer touchscreens make using them easier, and there is a dizzying array of applications you can get (from games, to recipe ideas, to exercise regimes and booking holidays).

My current phone of choice is the Samsung Galaxy S4. It was first released in March 2014, so by phone standards, it’s old, but it is still more than capable of doing the job it needs to do.

The S4 runs the latest version of Google’s Android software, meaning it can run the latest apps designed for Android devices. In direct comparisons with Samsung’s latest offering (the S6), the S4 actually stacks up quite well. It’s two years older so naturally the S6 has it beat in some respects (screen resolution, processing speed and RAM), but the differences are not spectacular. The battery life is comparable, and whilst the S4 had a maximum capacity of 64GB (compared to the 128GB of the S6), the S4 can accept micro SD cards, which the S6 can’t.

Perhaps the S6’s best feature is its construction. It’s made from glass and aluminum, so therefore feels more solid than the plastic construction of the S4. However, you can change the battery on the S4 yourself if you need to – on the S6, you can’t.

In short, the S4 offers a decent service. It’s pretty quick, it can handle the latest apps, it’s got a good sized-screen, and it’s not too far behind Samsung’s flagship model. If you can find one, it will not be as pricey as the S6 (or S5 for that matter) and I would recommend snapping it up!

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SuperMarioKartTime for a bit of shameless nostalgia. Back in 1992 (that feels like a long time ago!) Nintendo released Super Mario Kart for the SNES, and a life-long love affair was born.

By today’s standards Super Mario Kart is hardly amazing in terms of graphics or sound, but the true mark of any game is replay value, and to me, SMK still has this in spades!

The first entry to the Mario Kart series introduced several staples to the series that remain to this day, such as turtle shells and other items designed to boost your race or impede someone else’s race. It was a lot of fun making my way around the various circuits, hurling heat-seeking red shells at racers ahead of me, or getting a jump feather at just the right time to hurl myself over an obstacle. The track design was clever and varied, with ghost houses, muddy chocolate tracks and lava-pocked fortresses. With various levels of difficulty (both in terms of available cups to compete for and the aggression of the AI) I can honestly say the original Super Mario Kart is still one of the best entries in the series, and one of the finest games ever made full stop.

SMK1(Being able to have a map up on the screen was extremely useful!)

Another great thing about Mario Kart is that it’s two-player. No, it isn’t something you can play over wifi or anything so elaborate, but the two-player aspect of the game led to some great fun with my friends, as we fought hard to win championships. We enjoyed fighting it out, race after race, the margins between us often quite fine.

smk2(Two players could play at once)

SMK also had a ‘battle mode’, where two players could go head to head in arenas, battling to pop the other player’s balloons. Finally, there was a time trial mode, which is literally as it sounds.

After so many new incarnations of Mario Kart, the original is still one of the best ones. It offered challenge, it offered fun, and it still offers replay value, even after so many years!

9/10

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With my appreciation of the Honor Harrington series well known to my wife, a couple of years ago she asked a guy in the local bookshop about other, similar stories. He introduced her to The Lost Fleet series, and she in turn introduced it to me.

I’ve got to say, I’ve been hooked since the first book, Dauntless!

Written by John G Hemry (under the pen name Jack Campbell), Dauntless puts us in the boots of ‘Black Jack’ John Geary, Alliance captain, and to some, saviour. He’s been absent for nearly a hundred years, frozen in stasis and with stories of his heroism growing to near-Biblical levels, and when he’s found by a beleaguered Alliance fleet, Geary is thrust into command.

I couldn’t help but warm to Geary. He’s a man out of time, having to somehow lead his fleet home whilst deep behind enemy lines, whilst teaching the fleet a thing or two about how his generation practiced warfare. He’s idolised by some, feared by others, and has to juggle so many different balls at once. I’m sure we’ve all felt like we have several competing priorities and even if you’re not in the military, if you’re in a position of responsibility you’ll empathise with Geary.

The battle scenes are well constructed and allow for both a tense buildup and a sense of directed chaos once the fighting starts. The heart of the story though, is Geary’s personal journey. He’s got the weight of the world on his shoulders, in more ways than one, and as soon as I finished the final page, I wanted to pick up the next book!

10/10

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OnBasiliskStationOne of the things that I love is books. I have always enjoyed reading, and as a kid I would read Roald Dahl books over and over again. It was his vivid and often macabre imagination that fired my own, and his books were just a joy to read!

As an adult my tastes lean more toward science fiction, and I dare say I’ve read a lot of science fiction! I was introduced to the Honor Harrington series by a guy that worked in my local bookshop, and whilst I have a few reservations about his later work, David Weber’s earlier entries to the Honorverse are superb examples of not only good science fiction, but good storytelling and good characters.

The first entry is On Basilisk Station, first published all the back in 1993, and whilst some stories suffer from having to explain a lot of back story, Weber manages to maintain a sense of pace to this story whilst giving us insights into the characters that aren’t full of exposition. Honor is presented not as a flawless Mary Sue-type character, but rather, as a woman of strong will who nevertheless holds on to insecurity that stems from her academy days, thanks to events that haunt her, even as she begins her first command. She doesn’t let these issues stop her though, despite being undermined by certain superior officers who feel embarrassed by how she shows them up during training exercises, and despite facing a devious external plot with the resources of only one ship.

One of the things that sets this book apart from its peers is that the characters and setting have a ‘lived in’ feel. This is not some pseudo-plastic, shiny universe where everything gleams and is perfect. The characters are human beings, flawed people, subject to the same fears and frailties as the rest of us, and ships and equipment get dirty, break down and need fixing. Politicians still argue and lie, and people can still reach high ranks within a military because of their family name, rather than talent. This all helps the reader to relate to the characters, and the nice attention to detail by Weber sucks you into this world and helps you care about the characters.

It all builds up to a tense finale that actually had me sweating with anticipation and concern about the fate of various characters. The battle scenes are reminiscent of 19th Century naval duels, except fought over much greater distances! If you like naval combat scenes that are realistic, good, consistent portrayals of technology, political intrigue and most of all, relate-able characters, On Basilisk Station is a fantastic start to a good series!

10/10

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