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.