Friday, 30 December 2011

Further Adventures of a Bibliophile!

After a day of rest and reading, my wife and I were off again, this time to the sea-side town of Folkestone, known for its cliff-side walk (and one of the best public children’s playgrounds I have ever seen).

My father-in-law had mentioned that the town had an interesting book shop that I might want to investigate. How right he was!
Marrin’s Bookshop is a bibliophile’s dream.  Situated in the ground floor of a Victorian house, the shop consists of three small rooms, crowded with overflowing bookshelves and packed glass cases. In one cramped little room, I found books stacked neatly all around a coal burning fire. There were no junky paperbacks in this shop. All of the books were little treasures in their own way: first-editions, rare works, beautiful bindings.  I easily spent an hour in those small rooms and would have stayed longer if my purse could have handled it.  As it was, I came away with a pair of finds. One, I cannot discuss in an open forum. The other is an 1852 life of King Alfred, written by a German and bound in handsome, if worn, green leather. I’m sure it will merit a closer look in a future post.

Should you ever find yourself in the town of Folkestone, make sure you take the chance to visit Marrin’s. If you love books, you will not be disappointed.

Thursday, 29 December 2011

Christmas and the Bibliophile

I spend a lot of time thinking about books.  The written word, and the binding thereof, has been one of my life-long passions and has served as the nearest thing I have to a profession in my adult working life.  But even now that I am away from work, celebrating the twelve days of Christmas, books are playing a huge role.

Yesterday, my wife, my teenage sister-in-law, and I travelled on the fast train to London. The girls were off to Camden Market for a little alt-culture shopping.  I was after books.  I began my day at the British Library which I’ve never before visited. They have a free exhibition room, which shows off many of their treasures, including the fascinating St. Cuthbert Bible, which they are currently attempting to raise £9 million to purchase.  However, perhaps the coolest site for the bibliophile is the King’s Collection.  This is a four-sided glass tower, stretching up for some score feet and containing thousands of leather bound tomes and incunabula on dark bookshelves, all facing outward. The effect is incredibly dramatic, and the library has wisely placed its cafe in its shadow, so that visitors can have their coffee bathed in the glow of the books.
Later in the day, I also visited Forbidden Planet, arguably the best Science-Fiction/Fantasy store in the world; Stamfords, the famous travel shop; and made my first visit to Daunts, the Edwardian-style bookseller, that arranges all of its volumes by country.  The day finished with a nice meal with the girls, and a quick train-ride out of town.

Speaking of books, here’s a list of titles that I’ve acquired over the Christmas period, none of which have I yet has the chance to really get into:
A Christmas Carol and Other Christmas Writings by Charles Dickens: Part of the new beautifully hardbound Penguin Classic series.

Four Cause and Country by Jacobson Rupp: A critically-acclaimed and family-history-relevant account of a Civil War campaign.

The  House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz: a new Sherlock Holmes Novel by a respected writer of television mysteries and children’s fiction.

The Death of King Arthur by Simon Armitage: a new translation of an old poem.

The Outcast Dead by Graham McNeil: the latest instalment of the Black Library’s The Horus Heresy series, which I picked up for half-price in a sale at Waterstones.

The Greatest Gift by Philip Van Doren Stern: the short story upon which It’s a Wondeful Life is based, published in small book form.

All Hell Broke Loose by Max Hastings: a new single-volume history of World War II that everyone is talking about.

The Boston Braves by Richard A Johnson: a photographic history of the early days of my favourite baseball team.

Saturday, 24 December 2011

Rendezvous with Rama

A few weeks ago, I was in the ‘Last Chance Bookshop’, a new remainder bookshop in Oxford. While perusing their science-fiction/fantasy table, I found a copy of Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke sitting between Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination and Joe Haldeman’s Forever War. Considering the author and the lofty company, I figured the book was worth a £2 investment.  I was right.

Rendezvous with Rama is a fantastic work.  Set in a not too distant future where man has colonised several planets and moons in the solar system, the story begins when a giant cylinder comes hurtling through space towards the sun. When humans realize that the cylinder is not a naturally occurring body, they dispatch the nearest spaceship to explore. I don’t want to say too much about the book. Essentially, it is a story about exploration and first contact with an alien civilization. It is filled with adventure, interesting twists and scientific possibilities. 

In truth, they just don’t write them like this anymore. For the most part it eschews characterization, concentrating on the wonders of discovery.  I get the feeling this plays to Clarke’s strengths. It’s a quick read and highly recommended.

P.S. ‘Rendezvous’ is just about the only word I can honestly say I learned to spell because of grade-school spelling tests. I fear Mom put a lot of work into this without much to show for it.

Saturday, 17 December 2011

It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year!

Yesterday, I cleaned up my desk, turned off my computer and left the office for the last time this year! My company is very generous when it comes to holidays. Not only do we receive the normal holidays of Christmas and Boxing Day, we are normally given an additional day as well. Combine this with the large amount of holiday (vacation time) offered by most United Kingdom companies, and it is pretty easy to assemble a very nice Christmas break.
So this morning I’m kicking back with an imported Mountain Dew and my clunky wireless internet, preparing for a day of rest and leisure. With my Christmas shopping all done, my big tasks include painting miniatures, reading books, doing a few little home improvements, and generally taking it easy.
Tonight, my wife and I are going to take advantage of the wonderful city of Oxford. There are two markets on today, a Christmas market and a French market which we plan to visit. Then we are off to see Oxford’s very own Creation Theatre perform a Christmas Carol.
These are good days.

Friday, 9 December 2011

Christmas Ready!

Yup, its time to sit back and gloat. Apart from a few small gifts for office mates, I am done with my Christmas shopping. While I hate living so far from the rest of my family, especially at Christmas, it does force me to get things done early. With that major stress removed, I am more free to kick back and enjoy what is, by far, my favourite time of the year.
Personally, I don’t think it is worth having a real Christmas tree unless you are going to be home on Christmas day. This small fiber-optic one looks great when it is turned on and serves well enough for the time being.  The cat, however, is not so sure…

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Great Gifts for Geeks – Transformers USB

In my humble opinion, the recent Transformers movies have the worst dollar-earning to movie quality ratio in the last five years.  Okay, I only watched the first one, but that was enough to convince me not to watch the rest, and most people seem to agree that it is the best of the lot.  But there was a time when Transformers were cool. Back in the eighties when they existed only in cartoons, comic books, and toys.  In those days, everyone’s favourite Decepticon was Shockwave, the big blue robot who could turn into a boom box and fire out cassette tapes that turned into robot animals.
There isn’t much call for cassette tapes anymore. These days we used DVDs or USBs. So it makes sense that a modern Shockwave would spit out USBs (or Ipods) and that they would turn into cool robot animals.  Well, here you go! A USB Decepticon that transformers into a jaguar! I can’t find them for sale on any specific site, but if you search for Transformers USB on ebay, you should come up with several.

Monday, 28 November 2011

Resistance is Futile!

Here is one of the first miniatures I have painted in the new cave!  It’s not for any specific project; I just found it amongst the lead pile and thought it would be fun. I believe it is from the AE Bounty line. I’m sure I’ll find a use for him.

Sunday, 27 November 2011

Star Trek: Nemesis

Last weekend I was in the video store, thinking how good space battles must look on my new television, when it occurred to me that I have never seen the last Star Trek: The Next Generation movie, Star Trek: Nemesis. It’s strange. Though I was never a Trekker (or a Trekkie for that matter), The Next Generation was one of the few decent science-fiction shows that aired during my youth, and I was a fan. I’m sure I saw the other three Next Generation movies in the theatre, but never Nemesis.
Well, this would never do.  How could I live with such a hole in my sci-fi geek knowledge? I picked up the movie for £5 and brought it home to await the next quiet evening. Last night was that evening.
Let me just say this straight off. Star Trek: Nemesis is a bad movie. In fact, it is bad in almost every way.   Its premise is silly. Its pacing is terrible, and it is filled with pointless Hollywood-isms. No, it isn’t the worst Star Trek movie (thanks to Star Trek V, it would take something really special to claim that title), but it also isn’t worth watching unless you are a die-hard fan...
So here’s the premise. A few decades ago, the Romulans created a clone of Captain Picard in the hopes of fashioning the perfect spy.  However, the next Romulan government discarded the plan and the clone, and sent Piccard MkII (now named Shinzon) to the horrible mines on the planet Remus. Shinzon spent the next decade planning his revenge and, by means never fully explained, manages to escape his prison, create the galaxy’s most fearsome warship, lead a military coup and become the leader of the Romulan Empire. Sigh.
Seriously, how did anyone agree to a script that had a clone of Piccard as the bad guy? It’s worse than that though. Shinzon is not fully grown, so our fearsome baddy is actually a petulant teenager bent on destroying earth because...well, I’m sure there was a reason in there somewhere.
So, throw in another android that looks exactly like Data (because Lore wasn’t enough), a bunch of space orcs, a new type of super-deadly, previously theoretical radiation, and 60 minutes of really dull dialog and you’ve got the first half of the movie.
The second half is just as bad, if slightly more action packed. My favourite low was when the baddies send a boarding party over to capture Piccard, a boarding party consisting of six guys, six guys to capture the captain of a ship containing hundreds, if not thousands, of trained personnel. Smart.  Unsurprisingly, it doesn’t work, but it does allow Commander Riker to personally kill the orc that used mental powers to assault his wife.
If I’m being negative, it certainly isn’t without reason, but there are a few good moments.  Probably the best is when a hole is blown in the wall of the Enterprise’s bridge, exposing it space. There is also a really cool scene where Data jumps across the void of space from the Enterprise to the enemy ship.
Unfortunately, both of those just serve to set up the whimper of an ending, when Data heroically sacrifices himself to save everyone (which feels like a last, desperate, attempt to bring gravitas to an otherwise pointless film).
It is quite sad to see the Next Generation crew go out on such a story. While the series certainly had its flaws, its run was filled with interesting, complex philosophical questions in the best traditions of science-fiction. And even though I often found their conclusions a bit liberal and utopian, I give them credit for their exploration.

Saturday, 26 November 2011

Troll Cave Update

It’s now been two weeks since the big move to the new cave, though it seems a whole lot longer. It still doesn’t quite feel like home, but it is getting there. There are still a couple of pieces missing: curtains for the lounge, a second desk in the study, a miniatures cabinet...but these will all come in time. Of greater annoyance is the large number of items currently not working at full capacity.

Phone (dead)
Internet (dead)*
Boiler (circuit board is dying)
Television (no reception on any of the BBC channels)
DVD Player (you get what you pay for...)
Stove (has to be lit with a match)
Bathroom Extractor Fan (on/off switch is broken)

That said, the weeks have not been without their good news and victories as well. The leak in the ceiling turned out to be nothing major. We now have curtain poles and blinds. After several gruelling hours in the arena, I managed to get the refrigerator doors reversed. I’ve nearly got my gaming cupboard set up the way I want it. All the lights have lampshades.

It’s a work in progress, and we still have a long way to go, but it seems to get a little more like home every day.

* I’m currently bringing you this blog thanks to a pay-as-you-go wireless internet connection. It’s slow, and I have to worry about how many MB of data I’m using, but it is better than the nothing I have otherwise.

Friday, 11 November 2011

Packing up Under the Bridge!

Please pardon the mess.  Hopefully, in the next few hours, I will own my own home. We've got one van-load of stuff packed up and ready to move. The entire upstairs is empty, the downstairs is littered with boxes and furniture bits.  Now we are sitting around, waiting for 'the call' to say we can collect the keys.  This is probably the last time I'll have the internet at home for a couple of weeks, so the Troll might be a little quiet over the coming weeks.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

A Doom-Laden Tale

A few years ago, I remember hearing the announcement that the last story of Middle-Earth had finally been released.  One can argue the truth of the statement, but there is no doubt, that at least here in Oxford, the release of The Children of Hurin by J.R.R. Tolkien was a big deal. I really don’t know why I didn’t buy it when it was first released, but I didn’t, and it soon faded from my memory. Recently, I found a very nice used copy in a charity shop for £3, snapped it up, and read it over the weekend. If you skip the rather extensive notes by Christopher Tolkien, then it’s a pretty quick read.
But is it any good?
Well, the short answer is yes, it is very, very good. But, when dealing with works of this magnitude, the short answer is rarely enough.  I have little doubt that there are many people, even Tolkien fans, who don’t like the story, perhaps even finding it unpalatable. It is a dark, doom-laden tale, the equal of any Greek tragedy. The hero of the piece, Turin, is a great warrior, but a man constantly undermined by a dark fate brought about by his own pride and stubbornness. If it were a longer tale, I think the constant dark cloud of death that follows Turin would have worn down even this willing reader, but two things drove me forward.
The first, and most important, is Tolkien’s language. Anyone who has read The Lord of the Rings knows that Tolkien was a master wordsmith and this work displays his skill like never before.  His command of the English language and the many languages of his own creation are what truly sets him apart, even from the other great writers of fantasy.  Once again, he uses his words to bring Middle-Earth to life with this tale of men, elves, and one really evil dragon.
Yup, by the time the tale is winding down, it has become a classic dragon-slayer story, and neither the evil of the worm, nor the cunning and courage of our hero disappoint.
Did I mention the book also includes a bunch of colour plates and pencil sketches by Alan Lee?
In the final analysis, The Children of Hurin is a must-have addition to the shelf of any serious fantasy fan, even if it isn’t likely to leave you feeling upbeat and positive.

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Allamagoosa by Erik Frank Russell

For the most part, I don’t enjoy reading comedy. I especially don’t like it in my science-fiction and fantasy. Thus, I was a bit disappointed when I read the first few sentences of Allamagoosa by Erik Frank Russell, the second story in the Citizens anthology.  Mr. Russell makes it clear from the beginning that his story is a light-hearted poke at the military and not to be taken too seriously. As it turns out, I quite enjoyed the tale. It felt a bit like an episode of Black Adder set in space.  Still, I found it a bit inane. 
After finishing the story, I read the notes on Erik Frank Russell in the back of the book and was astounded to discover that the story won a Hugo. Seriously?

Sunday, 6 November 2011

Citizens - Keith Laumer

MOn a recent trip to Forbidden Planet, I stocked up on Sci-fi Action paperbacks.  The first I cracked open is Citizens, a collection of military science-fiction short stories edited by John Ringo and Brian M. Thomsen.  It caught my eye with its impressive, if strange, cover.  The more I look at the cover, the more it just doesn’t look right. Certainly the guy’s bayonet isn't right – it only projects about an inch past the barrel of his gun!
Last night I read the first story in the collection, ‘Field Test’ by Keith Laumer.  The story features the very first self-aware Bolo (a giant cybernetic tank which would spawn several collections of short stories and a couple of novels by Laumer and others). It’s interesting that a book entitled Citizens would open with a story about a robot tank. That said, Bolo stories often show the tanks as having more honourable human traits than the human’s themselves.  Written as a series of 43 short monologues, it’s a bit tough to read, but worth it, especially for the last line...
If the majority of the stories in the collection are of this quality, I’ll be pleased. There are a lot of really big names in the table of contents, so I’m hopeful.

Saturday, 5 November 2011


It must have been 1984 or 1985. I was attending a local comic book convention with my best buddy Peter Kranz.  I don’t remember anything about the convention itself, but I do remember getting a special G.I. Joe preview comic, which included information on the new Joes joining the team. Why do I remember this? Because amongst the new Joes was one named Cross-Country who came from my hometown, Greensboro, North Carolina. 
I’m not going to lie, as a ten year old, this was a big deal, and I was filled with pride.  If he could be a member of the G.I. Joe team, maybe I could as well? It was certainly a brilliant marketing move by somebody. Every G.I. Joe had his hometown listed on the back of his card, and I’ll bet, like me, most kids had to have the hometown figure! (My parents were probably much chagrined to learn that my hometown hero was only available with the purchase of a big vehicle set).
From that day on, I kept tabs on Cross-Country, following his career as best I could. He first appeared in the cartoon is season three, during the Arise, Serpentor! saga, and is first seen installing a tape deck in his vehicle. “Don’t worry sir, it’s fightin’ music. Every time I play it, somebody wants to punch me out!”.  During this set of episodes, he would also shout one of the more amusing non sequiturs during a charge at the evil Cobra forces, ”JEB Stuart you are avenged”.
In the long history of GI Joe figures, there have only been two made of Cross-Country. I have them both.  They may someday make another, although I doubt it.

Thursday, 3 November 2011

Killing a Pumpkin, Native American Style

While my troll ancestors were fond of grabbing passing billy goats and eating them raw, the modern Renaissance Troll should posses at least some skill in cooking and food preparation.  Last night, I decided to test out my baking skills, while at the same time disposing of the now superfluous jack-o’-lantern.
I believe, whenever possible, we should take the Native American approach to our food and use every part that we can. (Actually, that’s one of those things that Americans are taught as children, I really have no idea how true it is). So, when I first cut open my pumpkin, I separated out all of the seeds. These I roasted. Roasted pumpkin seeds taste a bit like popcorn, and certainly fulfill a similar spot on the snack food chart. Usually, I add a healthy (read: unhealthy) dose of salt, but this year I went with a bit of Creole seasoning to give them a bit of extra kick.  I threw out the gooey pumpkin pulp. If someone knows to what useful purpose this can be put please let me know.
Anyway, last night, I cut the dead jack into eight pieces and put them in the oven to slow roast for an hour. I even included the pumpkin stem. Why the stem? Well, as a guy pointed out over on the Lead Adventure forums, these little suckers look exactly like miniature tree stumps. I wanted to dry it out to use in a future modelling project.   After an hour, I took the pumpkin bits out of the oven, scooped the pumpkin meat out of the skin, threw it into a blender, and reduced it to a fine soup. Then, following Mama’s recipe, I added flour, a couple of eggs, butter, sugar, cinnamon, poured them all into a bread tin, and put it all back in the oven.
Fifty minutes later, I had a really tasty pumpkin bread.  Well, one could argue the dividing line between ‘cake’ and ‘bread’, but it was bread shaped, so that’s what I’m going to call it.
Okay, I didn’t use the pulp, and I’m not sure to what good use I could put the pumpkin skin, but all in all, I’m pretty happy with my efforts to make my pumpkin count!

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Halloween 1862

According to Osprey Publishing's: Zombies: A Hunter's Guide, the Civil War was one of the most necromantic wars in history. However, it wasn't only zombies that stalked those dark American nights...

October 31, 1862. Somewhere in Tennessee

A small encampment of Confederates bunks down for the night in the ruins of a burnt-out farmstead. 

Along with the 30-odd Confederates were a group of 5 Union captives under guard.

Unfortunately, in the darkness nearby, the evil Vegimancer was gathering his pumpkinheaded forces.

Leading his main attack group, the forces of the Vegimancer drove in the Confederate pickets and reached the baracade before the rebels could fully moblize.  Still, the Confederates managed to form a makeshift firing line to meet the threat.

Meanwhile a smaller force of pumpkinheads attacked from the rear, lead by Col. Seed.

Confederates fight back against the rear attack.

The Union prisoners flee, along with one of their guards, while the other is left to fight a pair of vicious little gourd heads.

A shot of the whole table just after the initial Confedrate line is overrun.

Rotpatch, the pumpkin patch golem, wades into the rebels weilding his rusty scythe.

Confederate infantrymen desperately fight against Rotpatch, buying time for the artillery crew to load the cannon. Seconds later, the cannon would blast Rotpatch into a spray of orange pulp.

Desperate hand-to-hand fighting around the cannon as the main body of pumpkinheads reaches the Confederate second line.

Thankfully, Confederate fire had taken down enough pumpkinheads that they were able to overwhelm the remaining gourds.

The humans were victorious, but the price was high. Only fourteen Confederates and two Union soldiers survived the night.

The horrors of the battlefield.

The Vegimancer disappears into the night, his forces defeated.

A very fun little solo game that I was able to play between handing out candy on Halloween. I used a modified version of the Battlefield Evolution system, which works very well for these last-stand style games.

Halloween Report

For the last five years, I have enthusiastically manned the door each Halloween night, prepared to face a horde of little ghouls and goblins. But each year, I have been slightly disappointed. Never have we received more than twenty trick-or-treaters.
    This year, I decided I needed more advertising to get the message out. So I carved a jack-o’-lantern, stuck a candle in him, and plonked him in the window.  Within 90 minutes, the house had been visited by 36 little spooks and spectres and emptied out my candy bowl! So I had to close-up shop early, which was a little disappointing. Still, it was nice to see the tradition being carried on, and to hear the loud voices of excited children as they roamed the night (every group under supervision, I might add).

Sunday, 30 October 2011

An Audience with Smaug

Oxford is a small city. It contains only around 150,000 permanent residents, and you can cycle around its borders in only a few hours. However, having lived here for the past five years, I have come to realize, that despite its small size, Oxford is one of the most culturally rich cities in the world. Here is just a little example.
Earlier this week, my wife and I both had the day off from work, and we decided it would be nice to do something cultural and free. A quick check online revealed that the Bodleian library had a new exhibit showing off many of its treasures, so we decided to go.
The exhibit only consisted of one room, but that room contained enough to make any renaissance troll gape in wonder.  Among the items that caught my eye, J.R.R. Tolkien’s original watercolour painting A Conversation with Smaug.  This sat next to a gorgeous thirteenth-century illuminated bestiary, which lay open to a spread containing a dragon (strangling an elephant – apparently its natural enemy) and a basilisk (being attacked by a weasel, its archenemy). Also behind glass for all to see, a handwritten page from Mary Shelly’s draft of Frankenstein, complete with notes and corrections by her husband!
Of course they also had a Guttenberg Bible, a Jane Austin manuscript, an original copy of the Magna Carta, a heavily illustrated fourteenth century copy of the Divine Comedy, and an original leaf from the third century Gospel of St Thomas (bet my brother-in-law would like to get his hands on that!).
I didn’t take us more than 45 minutes to see the whole exhibit, but it was time well spent.

Friday, 28 October 2011

Best National Geographic Cover Ever?

Every month I receive the new issue of National Geographic Magazine. Almost every issue contains something of interest, and, I have to admit, I feel a little smarter for having read it. A little more – reniassancey… But rarely am I actually excited about its arrival.

This month, however, my eyes went wide when I got home and found the November issue featuring a beautifully painted Anglo-Saxon Warrior on the cover! I don’t know if it is the best National Geo cover ever, but it is certainly the best since the N.C. Wyeth cover a few years back.

The article that goes with the cover is just as exciting, a quick look at some of the treasures of the Staffordshire Hoard, discovered in 2009.  If you haven’t heard of this discovery, it is one of the biggest finds of Anglo-Saxon stuff ever. We are talking about a Sutton Hoo level find here, and, even better for me, it is almost all military related.  It includes ninety-two sword pommels. Ninety-two!  Many of these are gold incrusted with deep red garnets.

It’s really only a short article, most of it pretty basic stuff to someone who has studied Anglo-Saxon history, but, as usual, the photos are fantastic. It’s probably not worth buying the issue just for this article, but next time you are in your local library, give it a flip through.

Thursday, 27 October 2011

Great Gifts for Geeks - Lego Star War Advent Calendar

Kids of today have no idea how lucky they are.  I think if someone had given me a Star Wars Lego Advent Calendar when I was ten, my brain might have exploded with excitement.  Seriously, a full month of little legos? Not only that, but it has a nice combination of figures and tiny little space ship models. Heck, I’d still love to receive one of these to brighten my advent.

Even if Star Wars isn’t for you, they’ve also got calendars with Lego Kingdoms (comes with a wizard!), Lego City, and I even found one for Lego Pirates (including a couple of redcoats)! I’m not sure all of these are from this year, but I don’t suppose it makes any difference.

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Monster-Hunting Highlander

When in doubt, paint a highlander. Taking a break from my many larger projects, I just finished painting this sixteenth century highlander from Warlord Games. He’ll be joining a little monster-hunting team I’m assembling for no particular purpose.  Warlord figures are on the smaller side of 28mm, which I prefer, however, that certainly don’t lack for detail. 

Monday, 24 October 2011

Curse you Norton Anti-Virus!

Being ancient, semi-mythical beings, trolls have real trouble with technology. Sure, we understand a lot of the concepts behind cars, computers, and cell phones, but when it comes to actually using them...

Yesterday, my wife got a new laptop, which meant that we could get rid of the old desk top and 'go wireless'!  My own laptop has never gotten much of a taste for the internet, so it was an exciting time.  Despite my technological deficiencies, I was able to hook up the wireless and get us all linked up. I even figured out how to recover my Microsoft Office product key to install it on the new computer. Then I figured out how to transfer over the itunes library. Yup, I was on a roll!

This morning, I got up and turned on my computer to do a little emailing and updating, when I got an annoying reminder that my Norton Anti-Virus was out of date. Of course it was out of date, I've never used it for this computer, opting for a different piece of protective software.  Annoyed, I decided I would get Norton off my computer, which I promptly did. However, Norton is apparently a spiteful program and took my internet down with it. 

It turns out, loosing your internet is a very common result of uninstalling Norton.  Well, I did exactly what most trolls would do in such a situation, I ranted and raged for a bit, then slumped in peevishness. Eventually, I was driven out of the house and over to Comptuer Assistance. Expecting to have to leave my computer, these guys jump on the problem, fixed it in ten minutes and charged me a fiver. 

I'm now at home, with a victory coke, ruling the internet from my wireless office.

Monday, 17 October 2011

Rise of the Vegimancer

With Halloween just around the corner, I’m gearing up for a little solo wargame I can play while answering the door and passing out candy.  What could be more appropriate than an army of Pumpkinheads!

The Vegimancer with his legions!
I’m not sure where my attraction to pumpkinheads originates, but they are just so creepy (and delicious as pie)!

The evil Col. Seed leading the left wing

Zen and the Art of Bicycle Maintenance

A few days after exhorting my cycling accomplishments, I rode my bike to pieces. In a short space of time, I flattened two tires, cracked my brakes, and bent a wheel.  While I’ve learned a lot about simple bike maintenance and repairs over the last few years, I figured it was probably best to let the pros handle this one.

So I’ve been relying on public transportation for the last five days or so, and it’s really got me down.  There is nothing wrong with the bus system here, in fact, it pretty good, and it has given more time to read. But I miss the freedom of making my own way, and I miss the exercise.

I’m supposed to pick up my Ridgeback Meteor after work; so, hopefully, I’ll be back on the bike for the trip home.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

A Weekend with Gaunt and his Ghosts

Not much time to write today. You see, I've just gotten my hands on the 13th (and latest) installment of Dan Abnett's Gaunt's Ghosts series: Salvation's Reach!

I bought it in hardback and was happy to do so.

I'll share my thoughts once I've finished.

Saturday, 15 October 2011

Return of The Shadow

My favourite superhero wasn’t born in the comics. Instead, he came from the pulps, those cheaply produced fiction magazines that entertained the masses during the interwar years and beyond. Several famous characters were born in the pulps: Tarzan, Zorro, Doc Savage, and Conan the Barbarian. But the most popular by far was the mysterious cloaked crime-fighter known simply as The Shadow.  The Shadow Magazine ran for over 300 issues, far more than any of the other ‘hero’ pulps. Each issue presented a new story of the dark avenger, the vast majority written by Walter Gibson.

Times changed. Radio and television came along, while paperback books replaced magazines as the most popular form of cheap reading.  The Shadow Magazine faded away with the rest of the pulps.  However, in the early 1960s, Belmont Books attempted to resurrect The Shadow for a new generation, and they hired Walter Gibson to write the first novel in their new Shadow series.  Thus was born, Return of the Shadow.

I acquired my badly battered copy of this book on a shopping trip to Hay-on-Wye, the wonderful little book town that sits on the border between England and Wales. 

The story starts in classic Shadow style, with Harry Vincent, the Shadow’s most trusted agent, on stake out in some lonely part of upstate New York. Soon Harry and The Shadow (in disguise as the eccentric millionaire Lamont Cranston) are embroiled in the investigation of the murder of a rich business man. It’s a great set up. A lonely house, a handful of suspects, with the investigation hanging on the order the suspects left the house and the order they all arrived at a dinner party elsewhere. Soon The Shadow is calling in all his top agents, Cliff Marsland, Clyde Burke, Hawkeye, Rutledge Mann, even the mysterious contact man, Burbank. Gibson obviously took the chance to have a little character reunion.

And then, on page 90 of a 140 page book, something very strange happens. The main plot shifts away from the murder investigation and refocuses on a vast, highly unlikely plot involving the kidnapping and substitution of United Nations representatives! It’s almost like someone told Walter Gibson in the middle of writing that the book needed to be less Sherlock Holmes and more James Bond!  In fact, I must admit that I found The Shadow a little too chatty and outgoing compared to his more reclusive older pulp self.

Well, of course our hero triumphs in the end.   There is one superb moment near the end where The Shadow pulls of a surprise reminiscent of his very first story. There is also a wild and improbable battle with the baddies that comes straight out of the pulp tradition.

If you are unfamiliar with The Shadow, this probably isn’t the book to start your acquaintance. It is fun though and worth picking up should you ever see it in the used bookstore.  I believe that another dozen or so novels were printed in the series, though they weren’t written by Gibson. I probably won’t go out of my way to get them, but should I ever come across one, I’ll definitely pick it up.

Friday, 14 October 2011

Great Geek Gifts - The Star Wars Moleskine

Confession time. I am a notebook addict. I just really love buying blank notebooks, even though I have more than enough already, and almost never actually fill one up. I think there is just something about the ‘potential’ of blank notebook that really appeals to me.
For me, the best blank books currently available are the jet black Moleskines, which can now be found in most major bookshops and stationary shops.  I carry one with me nearly everywhere I go, just in case I need to jot something down.
A couple of days ago, my wife bought me this Great Geek Gift, just because she knew I would love it -  A Limited-Edition Star Wars Moleskine!

The picture pretty much shows it all. It’s just a normal Moleskine but with the Star Wars logo embossed on the cover, along with the introductory words from the first movie receding into space. That, and a little reproduction of the movie poster that comes tucked in the back pocket, are the only things that distinguish it from a regular Moleskine.  But life is in the details. I have no idea what I’m going to use it for, something suitably geeky, I hope.
Tell me you don’t want one?

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Soldier – The Stupidest Bits

Yesterday I admitted to having a soft spot for the much-loathed movie, Soldier. However, that doesn’t mean I think everything about it is great. In fact, some parts are just downright stupid.  After a bit of consideration, here are the stupidest.

1. Garbage Planet: As I mentioned yesterday, I think a garbage planet is an awesome setting for an action-adventure movie. It’s also a heavy-handed metaphor for what is happening to the main character. Unfortunately, it makes no sense what-so-ever. Assuming for the moment that someone is willing to go through the trouble and expense of getting garbage off of earth and up into space, why not just fire it into the sun or out into the void of interstellar space? Heck, if you absolutely feel the need to dump it on another planet Jupiter is a lot closer and you aren’t likely to do much damage to its environment.

Instead, in Soldier, vast garbage ships make the run to another solar system and dump their trash on a human habitable planet! You don’t have to read much sci-fi or study deeply into astronomy to realize that human-habitable worlds are few and far between.  Are you really going to waste one as the galactic dust-bin?

2. Todd Survives the Trip:
Okay, let’s give them the garbage planet. Now the main character’s presumed dead body is thrown into a garbage ship, taken who knows how many light years, gets dumped, and manages to survive the trip!  So, not only is someone transporting all this garbage, they are doing so in cargo holds safe for human survival.   Then, the garbage ships drop low enough into the planet’s atmosphere so they can drop their contents low enough that someone can survive the fall.  

3. Planet-Killer Bombs: Near the end of the movie, the head bad guy turns to one of his underlings and says something like ‘Do we have any of those planet-killer bombs onboard’.  Wait, the ranking officer needs to ask if they have any weapons capable of blowing up a planet on the ship? Good job reading the pre-mission report.  It gets worse, his subordinate answers: ‘we’ve got fifteen of them’.  Fifteen? Just encase you need to blow up this planet and fourteen more on the way home…Luckily, an officer of the bad guys (unspecified) military rank can detonate planets without too much worry about repercussions – hey, it was just a garbage planet anyway…

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Re-watching Soldier

Soldier, starring Kurt Russell, was box-office bomb when it came out in 1998, and it's not hard to understand why. The plot is wobbly, the villains are horrible caricatures, and the special effects already looked dated by the time it hit the screen.  And yet, I kind of like it.

Soldier tells a very simple story about a man trained from birth to be the perfect soldier. He follows orders without question and he kills without compunction. He knows no life other than warfare. But what happens when he ages out and is finally replaced by a better soldier?  Well in this case, he is dumped on a garbage planet, recovered by a group of stranded colonists, tries his best to understand what it means to be human, and then gets into a huge fight at the end.

It’s a small-scale movie, about one ex-soldier, that doesn’t even concern itself with what is going on in a wider galaxy. In many ways it is probably closer to a western than a space opera, and it has many elements I like.

The garbage planet itself is a very cool setting, with lots of room for interesting scenery. Kurt Russell does a fantastic job conveying the conflicting, confused emotions of an abandoned warrior, while saying less than 100 words in the whole movie.  The uniforms and equipment of the enemy Soldiers are very cool retro-sci-fi, with heavy armor and gas masks. Finally, the drawn-out fight scene at the end is filled with a variety of weaponry and plenty of explosions!

Okay, the movie didn’t win any awards and it probably didn’t deserve to, but there is enough in it for me for a fun night’s worth of entertainment.

It makes it into the DVD collection.

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Lord of the Oxford Ring

Unlike many so-called Renaissance ‘men’, the Renaissance Troll knows that academic and artistic endeavours must be balanced by physical pursuits. So said Socrates, or perhaps Plato, or probably Plato quoting Socrates.

My two physical pursuits of choice are softball and cycling. With the softball season over, it’s back to the bike for me, and this weekend my wife and I decided on a new challenge. We would circumnavigate the city of Oxford, a route apparently known as the ‘Lord of the Oxford Ring’! See, even when I try to be all cool and athletic, there is still a touch of geekery to it.

In the interests of full disclosure, we actually rewrote part of the route to avoid a very nasty section of road cycling and replaced it with a nice section of cycling next to the Thames. That said, we still spent three hours cycling nearly twenty miles around the city. It’s not the most beautiful cycle route as most of it follows the ring road, but it did come with a nice sense of accomplishment when we had completed it.

A few years ago, I set myself the task of cycling 10,000 miles, which raised a few eyebrows since I hadn’t ridden a bike consistently since I was a boy. I’m proud to report that I have just passed 6,000 miles on my quest.

Monday, 10 October 2011

Star Wars - Republic Commando: Hard Contact

Bad news on the reading front, after 180 pages, I have abandoned Star Wars – Republic Commando: Hard Contact 
[Spoiler Warning]
In many ways, this book turned out to be the exact opposite of my expectation. I bought the book thinking it would be a bit of light, action-packed pulp fiction with mediocre writing. What I got, however, was a well-written, but somewhat dull, novel.
Having read plenty of purple-prose in my time, I can honestly say that Karen Traviss is a much better writer than many who make their life churning out tie-in fiction. She has a smooth, easy style and shows considerable restraint in using unnecessary literary devices.  Normally, when reading a book, I go by the 100 page rule. If I am not interested after the first 100 pages, I don’t bother to finish the book (there are too many other books I could be reading), but Karen’s good writing kept me going for an extra 80, even after my interest in the story began to wane.
The problem with the book was the general lack of plot. Essentially a team of four clone commandos is dropped ‘behind enemy lines’ with orders to kidnap a scientist and destroy her work. As a secondary objective, they are to locate a missing Jedi. The plan almost immediately hits a snag. The commandos' insertion vehicle is damaged during the drop, and one of the four clones is separated from the rest of the team. This lone clone eventually teams up with the missing Jedi’s padawan.

It all started pretty well, but then the novel seemed to come to a stand-still. For the next hundred or more pages, all of the characters seem to just wander about in the woods and fields. There is a little bit of action, but it is quick and lacks tension. 
Also, the book includes one of my least favourite story-telling devices. It spends long sections of the book following the bad guy (a rather one-dimensional ruthless Mandoloran).   Having not finished the book, I can’t say for certain that these passages weren’t necessary, but I have read far too many books where sections showing the bad guy were obviously used to pad out a story that otherwise wouldn’t be long enough to be considered a novel.  Bad guys in these stories are rarely interesting and almost never sympathetic, so why bother showing them? Tell the story from the protagonist’s point of view. Let us learn important facts as he learns him. Sorry, minor rant over.
Perhaps those who read a lot of Star Wars fiction are used to a certain pace and style of storytelling, and this book will be right up their alley. For me though, good-writing not withstanding, I need a bit more plot and a lot more action in my tie-in fiction.

Saturday, 8 October 2011

Inquisitorial Highlanders

Over the past few years, I've gotten away from painting Games Workshop figures.  Partly this was a reaction to their ever-increasing prices, but more because my interest wandered onto other things.  However, when I recently came across the Highland Guard conversion kits from Victoria Lamb, I really wanted to give them a try.

I ordered up a few kits and they arrived from Austrial to the UK in less than two weeks.  I got exactly what I ordered and all of the casts were flash free and with only a few mold lines. 

The only full 40K army I possess is a Demon Hunter's army. I don't know if these guys are still leagal in the game, but I'm not a tournament player anyway. (In fact, I'm mostly a solo player and don't tend to use 40K rules anyway, but that's another story.

I'm not much of a free-hand painter, but I do enjoy putting the =I= on their shoulder pads.

Squad Support Weapon. I think it comes from a Void figure
Great figures. Definately worth picking some up to add to any human force.

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Lovecraftian Nerd-Rock

As a lifetime Renaissance Troll, I have heard many, many songs based on the life and works of H.P. Lovecraft, and while many of them have been amusing, few have actually been good songs.  Well, here is an exception.

Lovecraft in Brooklyn is a punk-rocky track by The Mountain Goats out of Durham, North Carolina.

You've got to love the line about storing 'our brains in mason jars'! 

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

What I’m Reading

Thanks to the wonders of Amazon, a pristine copy of Star Wars Republic Commando: Hard Contact arrived in my mailbox yesterday.

Now, despite my love of the original Star Wars film trilogy, I haven’t read a lot of their ‘Expanded Universe’ books.  Okay, I read a couple of books about Boba Fett as a youngster, but that’s it.  For the most part, I’m not that interested in tie-in fiction that uses movie characters. I really just don’t need to know everything that Han Solo was doing before, after, and even during all of the movies.

That said, I love military/adventure science fiction novels. If I find some good ones, such as Jack Campbell’s Lost Fleet, I gobble them up. I’m always on the lookout for new series, or one-offs to give me a few hours of laser battles and space-ship actions.

Hard Contact, written by Karen Traviss, is apparently based on a video game (making it a book based on a video game based on a movie). Usually this isn’t the sign of a great book, but us sci-fi-battle geeks can’t afford to be too picky.

Two things attracted me to this book. First it doesn’t deal with any of the main characters from any of the movies, instead it is about a squad of ‘grunts’. Well, clone commandos. The book isn’t about galaxy changing battles, but just about a bunch of grunts on a behind-the-lines mission. This was enough to peak my interest, so I checked out the book on Amazon, where it has gotten a whole host of good reviews. 

Now, as I work in publishing, I know to take Amazon reviews with a pinch of salt. However, if a book has loads of reviews, including a few really good and a few really bad, you can often trust the average.

We shall see. Hey, it’s got a bunch of guys in combat armor on the cover; it ought to be good for some entertainment.

I’ll let you know.