Saturday, December 31, 2005

King Kong

We finally got to see Peter Jackson's King Kong the other night and, after all the hype and build-up, we still really enjoyed it!

This is essentially a remake of the 1933 original and Jackson has pretty much stuck to the same plot and, unlike the 1976 version, it hasn't been modernised...

It's the 1930s and the depression is having an effect on the entertainment business and when ambitious young actress Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) finds herself out of work when the theatre closes, she is desperate for another job. Times are hard and she's advised to use "what she has" to make sure she eats!

Meanwhile, almost famous, but not quite, movie producer Carl Denham (Jack Black) has come across a map to the undiscovered and reputedly mysterious Skull Island near Sumatra and plans to wow everyone by shooting his movie using it as a location. But Carl has problems with his investors and no leading lady so when he spots Ann outside a Vaudeville theatre, he reckons she'll do just nicely. Besides she's a size 4 and she'll fit the costumes.

So, on the run from his creditors, Denham gets Ann, script writer Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody), and what film crew he can muster onto a ship and sets sail for the far east in search of his island. After searching for some time and with the crew ready to give up, they find the island but it is surrounded by an enormous wall and their initial meeting with the natives does not go well. When they kidnap Ann and offer her as a sacrifice to their god, a gigantic ape called Kong, then Carl, Jack and the crew venture beyond the wall to rescue her and that's when the adventure really gets going.

I was a bit worried about the casting of Jack Black as Denham as he's better known as a comic actor and, while the part is written with a slightly comic feel, Black pulls it off reasonably well. Naomi Watts does a good job competing with Fay Wray and her screaming is pretty convincing. I'm not sure Adrien Brody is exactly my idea of the hero and as a bookish looking scriptwriter, he's not really built like Arnie or Sly. Still the star of the piece has to be Kong, motion captured by Andy Serkis who played Gollum in Jackson's excellent The Lord Of The Rings trilogy, and brought to life by the brilliant WETA Digital team.

The movie is excellent and, even though it's a bit slow starting, once the action gets going it's really good. The realization of Kong is seriously well done and the action sequences with him, Ann and the dinosaurs is phenominal. The island is also very well designed and, along with the sound, it really gives it the air of mystery and foreboding required to make a great film. Well worth seeing!

Genre: Action, Adventure, Drama, Fantasy
My Rating: 9/10

Friday, December 30, 2005

Amalfi, West Nile Street, Glasgow

The Amalfi is one of our favourite Italian restaurants. It's small, seating only about 36, and the chef cooks the food in a really small kitchen right out there in the body of the place. The menu isn't vast and extensive but, given the space he has to work with, it's really pretty good. The wine list isn't huge either but the house red is an excellent Sangiovese and it usually does us.

The place is always reasonably busy, the staff are friendly and the food is really good. Service is usually fast too, even with the chef going manic, trying to cook about four different dishes at once, but at least that can be entertaining as well.

We'd popped in yesterday on the off chance of a table before going to the movies and just managed to get in before they started turning people away. It was a bit chaotic as they'd been holding a table for 17 (about half the capacity) and they hadn't turned up so that had to be rearranged and the queue was building up. Still we enjoyed our meal and will be back.

Cuisine: Italian
My Rating: 9/10

Monday, December 26, 2005

Aftermath and a Discovery

Well the big day is over and we're recovering from the over-indulging. We've been out for the obligatory walk around to clear the tubes, etc. and now it's time to settle back down and think about more food and drink...

A major discovery we found on our stroll around the area was a new supermarket. When the local Safeway got sold off to Morrisons, it ended up being shut down and boarded up, which meant having to drive to the nearest Sainsbury's at Braehead. Not that Morrison's is a patch on Sainsbury's but it was handy enough to stroll down to for odds and ends.

Anyway, we were just getting to the end of our wandering and were about to turn and head home when lo, rising from the skyline, we saw a great big Morrison's sign. Approaching nervously, we came across the car park and, nestling at it's centre, a brand new Morrison's mega store (shut of course as it's Boxing day).

The obvious excitement at the revelation of a new store aside, the best present we've had so far are the first indications that our noisy and anti-social nightmare neighbours are moving out!

All that's left now is to decide on whether it's the duck or fajitas for dinner.

Friday, December 23, 2005

Must Kill Fridge Designers

Having just spent about two hours trying to reverse the doors on our new fridge/freezer, I've decided that a rant against the designers is necessary...

The instructions looked simple enough, pop the doors off, reverse the fittings and pop'em all back on again - hah!

In order to get at the screws to release the top door, the instructions indicate pulling off a little top cover. Looks easy on paper but it wouldn't budge and both of us were grunting and pulling at it for ages until a cup of tea was required and tempers cooled. Of course, smart arse that she is, Lorna looks at it and pops it off easily by pulling it up the way. I should have sensed that things were going to get worse.

Okay, the doors came off pretty easily after that and we thought this is okay, we're going to do it, until we got to the bottom. With Lorna tilting the unit back so I could get underneath it, I discovered that lying on the floor isn't that easy a way to unscrew fittings while hoping my better half won't drop the fridge on my head. It gets worse, I'm lying there, trying to unscrew these bottom fittings and having no luck - none of my screwdrivers'll fit. Then it dawns on me - these are bl**dy TorX bolts, now how many people have TorX tools at home?

Do they do this intentionally, just knowing that some poor sod will have the fridge half dismantled and be lying on their back when they find that they're stuffed?

It's the start of the weekend before Christmas, the old fridge is outside and all the food, and there's a lot of it, is in the garden shed waiting for a nice new fridge to go into so what can you do? Obviously we needed to go get a TorX driver so off we go to B&Q and return about 40 minutes later and seven quid poorer, bearing the magic tool that we'll probably never need again.

We hates the Whirlpool engineers, we just hates them!

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

The iPod video

Finally got my hands on one of the new 5th generation iPods (with video) and now I'm wondering why Apple bothered...

I remember Steve Jobs being quoted as saying that Apple had no plans to upgrade the iPod to play video and that it was essentially a bad idea with no market. Of course a few months down the line and out comes a video enabled iPod to much marketing hype selling TV series episodes via the Apple Music Store.

However, having seen the woefully small images of a few widescreen movie trailers displayed on the tiny 2.5" (320*240) screen, I believe Jobs is probably still right and they should have left well enough alone or developed a much more video specific device. Sure, the quality of the picture is exceptionally good but it's still too small to view comfortably for long periods.

The iPod is essentially still the best personal music player available and I don't think that'll change anytime soon but to promote it as a video player that you could use to watch a full movie or even an hour-long TV series episode is pushing it too far. Not that you'd get much viewing done as the battery life while playing video is said to be reduced to just over two hours.

I can see the potential use in storing decent quality video on it for replaying back through a TV for say, going on holiday but there's no actual movies available unless you rip'em off yourself or download them illegally. Even the TV stuff is still limited to the US market at the moment so where's the market for this?

In my opinion, it would have been a much more viable prospect if they had turned the screen sideways, made it 16:9 (568*320) and boosted the battery life but that would probably have made it too large to accommodate the click-wheel control.

One of the guys in work brought in his early Christmas present, a Sony PSP and boy is that so much better. Pity it didn't have a video out capability or we'd have been seriously entertained. Of course, it can't compare to the iPod for music storage capacity but for video and games - wow!

Horizon Storms - by Kevin J. Anderson

This is the third installment in Anderson's excellent series, The Saga Of Seven Suns and it just gets better and better. If you're not familiar with the story, here's a very brief outline of the tale so far...

Earth and its colonies comprise the Terran Hanseatic League (Hansa), which is run as a corporation headed by a ruthless chaiman and ruled by a puppet king. Interstellar space travel is only possible using a stardrive given to them by the alien Ildiran Empire and which runs on Ekti, an exotic allotrope of hydrogen harvested from the atmosphere of gas giants.

When an archaeologist, exploring a world once occupied by the now extinct Klikiss race, finds the designs for a device that can turn a gas giant into a sun, the Hansa are keen to use it to allow them to terraform the moons and thus get more space for humanity. When they use the Klikiss Torch on Oncier, the planet is indeed converted into a sun and the Hansa are delighted but unknown to them, Oncier was the home of the Hydrogues, an immensely powerful species living at the super-dense pressures in the core of such gas giants. Needless to say the Hydrogues aren't pleased at the deaths of millions of their kind and issue a declaration forbidding all Ekti harvesting on pain of destruction and they back up the threat by destroying several harvesters on different worlds and assassinating the current King. They're not interested in other species, hence the fact that their existance was unknown, and simply don't care that Ekti is vital to both the Hansa and the Ildirans and so war ensues.

I could go on and on as there are loads of sub-plots and character stories but that would only spoil it for anyone wanting to start reading from the beginning. Here's a taster of Horizon Storms...
The titanic war between the elemental Hydrogues and Faeros continues to sweep across the Spiral Arm, extinguishing suns and destroying planets. Chairman Wenceslas and King Peter must now unify the human race with iron-fisted policies in a final bid to stand together -- or face total annihilation. The breakaway Roamers and Theron clans are forming an alliance at odds with the Hansa and the Ildiran Empire struggles after the death of their Mage-Imperator. On taking over his father's throne, Jora'h, the new Mage-Imperator, learns that the Hydrogues are not unknown to them and that they barely survived a war with them 10,000 years ago and that only because of a secret pact with the Klikiss Robots.

This is one of the best science-fiction series I've read for a while and I can really recommend it. The depth of the story and the well developed characters make it really worthwhile and enjoyable reading. Roll on book four, Scattered Suns!

Genre: Science-Fiction
ISBN: 0-7434-3067-0
My Rating: 9/10

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Paperino's, Byres Road, Glasgow

Friday saw about 120 of us heading out to our annual work's Christmas lunch and this time, it was the local Italian restaurant Paperino's that had to cope. As usual, mostly everyone sat in their own little groups and didn't mix very much.

Lorna and I have eaten in their Sauchiehall Street restaurant and really enjoyed it so it seemed a good choice to try out their new Byres Road venue, which only opened in May 2005. It had been a Kentucky Fried Chicken and before that a Burger King so this was a bit of a step up the ladder for the building. It's a good size as well, easily handling our numbers with lots more space left over for the passing trade. Not that too many ventured in, seeing as our horde was monopolizing the kitchen and serving staff.

The menu looked pretty good but it was Christmas and I didn't fancy pasta so I'm afraid I had good old turkey (Tacchino Natalizio) followed by Christmas pudding (Budino Natalizio) but at least they had Italian names and it was all washed down with a few bottles of Sangiovese. It's difficult to judge a restaurant based on festive fare like this but they did a really good job, the food came pretty quickly and was still hot, even with over a hundred to serve. Tasted good too and we all pretty much enjoyed it, didn't here anyone complaining!

Then we all went to a pub and again, pretty much split into work groups and proceeded to drink and drink. Well I hate to say it but I don't have the stamina I used to and gave up after about eight or nine hours so we went home via Burger King in town.

Gone are the days when we used to have the "do" in-house and you could quite easily find yourself dancing with the CEO, well if you were young and female you could. We'd get a bar in and hire a disco and you wouldn't feel it as a real event unless there was at least one fight or the Police stopping in to see what the hullabaloo was.

Anyway, that's the season under way and I think I've just recovered from Friday night and there's about two more weeks of this... aaaaagh!

Cuisine: Italian
My Rating: 7/10

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Big Fridge...Small Kitchen!

Our fridge freezer has decide to trying warming stuff up instead of cooling it down and, since it's over 10 years old, it was time to order a new one. So, the online shopping engine clanked into gear and...

...have you ever tried to find a 50cm wide fridge freezer?

Our kitchen is very small, about 6' * 6', so there's very little space for appliances. So that means we can only fit in a narrow 50cm wide fridge unit and there's very little choice of models out there. I'm sure this is a side effect of the current trend towards large American style fridges, some of which could easily masquerade as a small spare room for visiting Eskimos.

We found one, not exactly ideal but there wasn't much choice, so it'll hopefully be here before Christmas or we ain't having a very festive time food wise and I really want my trifle!

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

On The First Day Of Christmas...

...you find out that your Christmas tree lights have a few dud bulbs! Yes that was us last night, putting up the tree and getting all the decorations out. I know a lot of people do this much earlier but we're a bit more traditional.

Anyway, some of our bulbs appeared to be dud so that was a pain, having to try and find the one on that line that was actually blown. Luckily we eventually found the spares and fixed it so we had an official switch on.

The heavy work done, I left Lorna to continue decorating (she likes playing with glass balls and tinsel) while I did something else like search for a present for me online.

Nipped down to Woolies today to try and get some extra bulbs only to find that they didn't have any. Hopefully the line hasn't been discontinued or it's new lights next year.

My Life: Cows, Scones and Porridge!

All Packed And ready To Go!
Cousine Roderick and I on Aunt Jean's Suitcase.

School holidays were always something to be looked forward to. I'd usually be bundled off to my aunts in Dennistoun for most of the summer break while mum and dad were at work but that was okay as there were a couple of lads in the close of a similar age and we got on fine together. Holidays abroad were practically unheard of back then but we'd usually go away as a family for a few weeks and stay with relations.

However, my earliest memories of holidays were when my aunt Jean would sometimes take me up to stay at her father-in-law's croft at Forss, near Thurso, and we could be up there for weeks over the summer break. If you thought having no running hot water was bad, the house didn't even have running cold water and all the water had to be hand pumped into the tank from a well up the hill. This was usually done twice a day and it was one of those chores that a wee boy just had to have a shot at every now and then - builds character and muscle doing that for twenty minutes, twice a day.

Farm life was great for a small boy as there was loads of stuff to be getting into. Probably a health and safety nightmare these days to let children anywhere near half of it but things weren't so strict then but the really dangerous stuff like sickles, shears and scythes were always locked away.

Great Aunt Liz and Uncle Arthur were seasoned crofters, renting their bit of land from the Milk Marketing Board of the time. They had a small herd of dairy cattle that produced the milk quota for the board, which amounted to only about two or three churns of about 45 gallons each a day. There was even a little dairy shed for pasteurizing the milk, all shiny pipes and bubbling noises. The full churns were heaved onto a wheel barrow, usually with me on top, and then dropped off at the end of the lane beside the main road for pickup by the milk lorry and I'd get a hurl in the barrow back up the lane. That's me and Arthur in the photo.

It was standard practice for Uncle Arthur to be up and about by 5:30 to get ready for milking and if he slept in, the cows soon woke everybody up, complaining about being full of milk and fit to burst. Same again at around six in the evening, the cows were brought in and milked again so having a day off just wasn't really on the cards for a small farmer. I liked the bit where I got to feed one of the calves, me holding a bucket of milk for it and trying desperately not be trodden on, as they weighed a lot more than me then, or licked by their sandpapery tongues. I also didn't really like getting squirted by milk if Uncle Arthur was feeling mischevious and I got too close during milking but then he got a milking machine and some of the fun went out of it, at least for me but I'm sure he appreciated not having to milk each one by hand. By the way, you have to try real fresh milk at least once, it's so different from the processed, semi-skimmed stuff we get nowdays but was really thick and creamy.

There were hens and a few ducks so I got to help collect the eggs and could be a dangerous job. They'd often give you a solid peck while you were rummaging around under them, feeling for any eggs. I also liked searching around the farmyard as you'd often find a few rogue layer's nests in the barns or beside the dykes. The there was the barn, an amazing place full of hay and occupied by an old mechanical wooden threshing machine, which was still used to strip the various cereal crop grains of the stalks and bag it up for market. It was a great place to have adventures and to chase the ever present mice around.

As well as cows, they had sheep that lived mostly up on the hillside above the farms and Arthur had a really good sheepdog that loved herding the hens around as well. Mind you it was a working dog and you daren't ever try and pet it as it'd have had your hand off. The sheep'd only be brought down into the fields for lambing, shearing and wintering. Shearing those days was a manual job and I kept well out of the way as that was serious work.

Uncle Arthur had a little blue tractor that ran on paraffin and when I was a bit older I sometimes got to drive it around the field while he dropped off turnips for the sheep from the trailer at the back. It was his normal practise to start the tractor running across the field with the throttle set and then start unloading the turnips out back and one of my firmest memories of the time was of me, seeing that the tractor was about to run into the burn at the edge of the field, taking control of the wheel and saving the day. I'm sure he would have nipped up and turned it himself before it was too late, as he did it by himself all the time, but I felt like a wee hero back then. After that it was my job to steer the tractor while he did the feeding - kept me out of his way I suppose and made me feel useful.

Aunt Liz was an amazing person, one of those wee women that never stopped. She cooked, cleaned and fed the poultry and collected, cleaned and graded the eggs into boxes, which she sold to a shop in Thurso. She also made crowdie, sometimes flavoured with caraway seeds, butter and cheese from the milk and sold that too. On a Monday she baked, and I mean baked, almost the entire day was taken up with baking the week ahead's supply of soda bread, scones and pancakes on her trusty Raeburn stove and on Wednesday, she topped up the supplies again. English readers please note that Scottish pancakes are not the thin things you know by the same name, they're about 10cm in diameter and up to 1cm thick. Our crumpets are closer to your pancakes but they're much lighter. I suppose I began my love affair with scones back then as they accompanied almost every meal.

Breakfast, which was taken much later than you'd normally have it nowadays, at around 10:30 as Uncle Arthur had been on the go for several hours, was usually porridge accompanied by a bowl of fresh creamy milk and followed by lots of Aunt Liz's baked wonders. The porridge was made with salt and the concept of putting sugar or honey on it just never arose, probably an English corruption of one of our national dishes, and I've taken with salt ever since. Also, you didn't pour the milk over the porridge but instead took a spoonful and dipped it in the bowl, which stopped the milk warming up. I can't remember having lunch but we did come in mid afternoon for what was called "half-yoking".

Once I'd got into fishing I used to walk round the hill and fish for trout in the River Forss or we'd go down to Brim's Ness and spin for coalies and pollock. Great times and great memories were had there.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Gore-Tex and Heavy Metal

Spent another afternoon in town yesterday. We'd decided that we'd get each other decent weatherproof outdoor jackets for Christmas as we do a bit of walking and we've got just about everything else we need. I keep asking for an ice-axe but Lorna's of the opinion that, if I had one I'd actually try and use it on something dangerous.

Anyway, the ice-axe issue aside, we're not badly equipped...

  • Boots - ✓
  • Binoculars - ✓
  • Bobbly Hat - ✓
  • Camera (Digital) - ✓
  • Scarf'n'Gloves (uncoordinated) - ✓
  • Walking Poles for Lorna (women and wooses only) - ✓
  • Rucksack (small) - ✓
  • Rucksack (mid-sized) - ✓
  • Waterproof Jacket - ✓ (but not Gore-Tex)
So it was a trek around the outdoors shops to see if we could find anything that suited us. We were looking for light, breathable ones that you could zip a fleece into so that meant decent quality and a good make. These ain't cheap and the shops have most of the good ones wired to alarm systems so trying them on is like negotiating a bank loan. No, actually that's easier! Anyway I got one for Lorna but the shops were closing by then so I'm still looking for mine.

Tried to persuade Lorna to go see The Chronicles of Narnia since we were in town but she wasn't up for it, having tramped around the shops for hours.

'course we ended up in Virgin and I bought a couple of stocking fillers. I love the way you can pick up any CD, scan it and then listen to a sample of each track. It's a great way to discover new music.

The first choice was Ghost Reveries by Swedish band Opeth for me, which is pretty heavy metal stuff and that means David'll blag it once I've digitized it. Also picked up Highest Hopes by Finnish band Nightwish - a bit lighter than Opeth but still listed as Metal. This is a "best of" CD that includes a live cover of Pink Floyd's, "High Hopes" and a three-track live bonus DVD.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Doom

After all the hype and what looked like a promising trailer, we went to see Doom last night. It hasn't been out long and it was looking like it wouldn't be hanging around for very much longer either but, being a sucker for a no-brains action movie, I persuaded Lorna that it'd pass the evening.

Based on the best-selling computer game of the same name, the story is as follows...

There's a problem at the Olduvai research station on Mars. All communication has stopped and what little there was before that happened was very worrying. A level 5 quarantine is now in place and it's now up to the Rapid Response Tactical Squad to go in and investigate, sort things out and neutralize any threat with extreme prejudice.

The RRST are a bunch of hardened Space Marines and they're pretty confident they have the determination and the means to do the job. The squad leader is Sarge (The Rock), a seasoned marine who'll stop at nothing to do his duty, and backing him up are an experienced team of men with some serious history. But Olduvai will prove to be their hardest mission and for some of them, their last!

Okay, it's based on Doom the computer game, a first-person shooter where Marines were sent in to investigate something gone wrong on a Space Station so the plot is very close to the original. As with most computer games, depth of plot and character development goes pretty much out the window once the lead start flying as you're usually too busy trying to stay alive to worry about those kind of things. But here, we can sit back in the cinema, relax and watch someone else do all that so the writers have had to do a little work this time.

There's not a lot of mystery to the plot and it soon becomes clear what's happened. Some scientists have fallen foul of their own genetics research and when their test subject mutates into a monster and escapes, it kills most of them and infects a few with the same condition so we have a station full of nasties.

One of the surviving scientists is Samantha Grimm (Rosamund Pike) and she accompanies the squad in order to download and save the research files but she's also the sister of one of the squad, John Grimm (Karl Urban). The pair have some some history at Olduvai as their parents were killed in an accident there some years before. The rest of the squad has its share of motley misfits; Goat - the religious fanatic, Portman - the mouthy one, Destroyer - the big hard dude, The Kid - the green recruit and Pinky - the disabled backup. These along with Sarge, Mac, Duke and Hell Knight make up the team but that's as complicated as it gets.

So it's pretty much a no-brainer as expected and, while there is a fair bit of action, it doesn't come close to the non-stop mayhem of the video game. There is one sequence that tries to recreate the first-person view of the game as Grimm wanders through the station, blasting anything that moves, but it only lasts about ten minutes. The monsters, when you see them, are pretty well done though.

Doom may be a classic video game but this incarnation certainly won't help Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson's career much. If he intends to try and take over Arnie's crown as the movie super-hero, he'll need better stuff than this.

Genre: Action, Science-Fiction
My Rating: 5/10

Just Another Saturday

Got dragged into Glasgow town centre by the kids today, even though Jac had already been in with her mother in the morning. It's a kind of ritual, we go in for a couple of hours most Saturdays, sometimes just to buy a magazine but I get to spend some time with them and we usually drop in on their grandparents on the way home.

The Christmas shopping frenzy is well underway as the place was packed. Got lucky in the car park and got a space without having to prowl around for ages, stalking anyone that looked like they were getting ready to leave.

Anyway, the usual route usually means we go into GAME first to see if there's anything new and to check for a copy of Baldur's Gate 2 in the second hand PS2 games bin. David's after a few games this Christmas so trying to steer him away from any that we know have been bought already is getting trickier as time goes on. Still no Baldur's Gate 2 and we leave empty handed.

Then it's sometimes a guitar shop for David to drool over the merchandise. If we're lucky he'll have a play with something way too expensive, usually gathering a small audience, before we depart. We almost never buy anything unless he sees a song book he fancies. Anyway, we've been looking at effects processor boards for a few weeks and the shops are full of Boss GT-8's but his mate has one and says it's pants. David already has a POD XT but fancies the larger POD XT Live so maybe Santa will come good again this year.

Then it can be anything from a wander through the St. Enoch's centre or up to Buchanan Galleries, never seriously looking for anything and really just passing the time.

We always end up in W.H. Smith's where Jac looks for some TV series magazine like Star Trek or Cult Times and I get a fortnightly copy of Web User and look wistfully through the sound and vision mags.

The Christmas light pixies have been busy this year and there are several really well lit up houses on the way home. I'm definitely going to take the camera with me over the next few weeks as some of them are really over the top.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Century Rain - by Alastair Reynolds

Another cracking science-fiction tale from Alastair Reynolds. author of the excellent Revelation Space series. This is a novel of space and time travel, adventure and mystery and a bit of a detective story...

When an archaeological trip to the frozen city of Paris on an Earth devasted by the Nanocaust goes wrong and a team member dies, Verity Auger is forced to take part in a dangerous mission to redeem herself.

While exploring on Phobos, one of Mars' moons, a buried portal is discovered that leads into an uncharted region of the Hyperweb, an unstable alien transit system. The portal leads to an astonishing discovery - Earth during the mid-twentieth century, but this Earth is different because World War II never happened!

Verity is tasked with entering the alternate city of Paris in 1959 and retrieving the lost documents of a murdered spy. A simple enough task for someone of her advanced civilization you might think but there are factions at work that seek to destroy this alternate world and would rather she failed. On top of that she has to contend with a struggling Parisienne detective's attempts to solve his one final case.

I really enjoyed this one. Fans of Revelation Space and its sequels should note that, despite the cover artwork, this story is not related in any way. That aside, it's an excellent story with a fair mix of action, adventure, mystery, romance and good old science-fiction. The characters are well developed and believable and the plot trots along at a reasonable pace with some pretty good twists and turns to keep you guessing as to the outcome.

It's pretty much a stand-alone story and, while there are no familiar faces or names here, it's left in such a way that perhaps a few of those here might come back and see us in a sequel.

Genre: Adventure, Mystery, Science-Fiction
ISBN: 0-575-07691-7
My Rating: 8/10

Saturday, December 03, 2005

China Sea, 12 Renfield Street, Glasgow

Got back from training in Edinburgh on Friday night and met Lorna in town so we decided to go and get some food. We fancied Chinese food so started hunting around out from Central Station.

There are quite a few Chinese buffet restaurants around there but we fancied something less frenetic. Anyway, we had passed by the China Sea as from the outside it looks really dingy and uninviting (map). It's basically a doorway between shops with stairs leading up and it doesn't really attract you in but we decided to go back and look at the menu anyway. The menu looked good and they had a pre-theatre deal for under £8 so in we went and boy was this a revelation...

Upstairs is pretty large and it was bustling with staff and customers, what had we been missing all these years. If you're going in then look up slowly, there's an enormous carved dragon coiling in and out of the cloud painted ceiling. Look up to quick and you'll do a double take, it's a fair sized beast.

The service and food were excellent, couldn't be faulted at all. The staff were friendly and the food and drink came really quickly. I had a really nice sweet and sour chicken, which had a really light batter, and Lorna had a chicken satay. The place has been there for years and I'm now sorry I'd passed it by so many tiems.

Cuisine: Chinese
My rating: 8/10

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Even More Edinburgh Lunches

Back to Edinburgh for more training, only three days this time though...

Wednesday - Zest, 15 North St Andrew Street, EH2 1HJ (map)

Back to Zest again. The atmosphere hadn't improved, still cold and not very inviting and it was pretty quiet. There was about 15 of us course delegates there but other than that, there was only one couple there.

I had a Chicken Jaipuri this time, which was an improvement on the last time's offering and quite tasty so I'll up my rating a bit.

Cuisine: Indian
My Rating: 5/10


Thursday - Smoke Stack, 53-55 Broughton Street, EH1 3RJ (map)

A wee change this time, Smoke Stack is a chargrill restaurant serving up a mix of burgers, sandwiches, steaks, pasta and salads, etc.

The decor is pretty sparse but the staff were friendly, business was brisk enough and the food was pretty good. I had a nice 6oz burger with bacon on a bun and some fries. Not very healthy but tasty just the same.

Cuisine: Various
My Rating: 7/10


Friday - Buffet
Time's a pressing so it was buffet time again. pity as we were supposed to be going back to Saigon Saigon but that's life.

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Harry Potter And The Goblet Of Fire

In the fourth installment in the tales of Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling, Harry is now fourteen years old and Hogwarts is getting ready for the Quidditch World Cup and the Tri-Wizard Tournament. Here's a brief introduction to the story...

Voldemort's followers are stirring and when they cause havoc at the Quidditch World Cup it's seen as a sign that the Dark Lord is preparing to rise again. When the time comes round for the Tri-Wizard Tournament, held this year at Hogwarts, the names of those eligable are put into the Goblet Of Fire and the Goblet chooses one student to represent each of the three schools. But this year is different, the Goblet chooses four students - one from each school and...Harry Potter.

Harry is too young to enter the tournament but the Goblet has spoken and rules is rules so young Potter must pit his wits and skills against the formidable challenges ahead, some of which could prove fatal if he fails. And all the while behind the scenes, the Dark Lord stirs and schemes with his own plans for Harry.

This was the best Harry Potter movie so far. It's a very dark story and there are a few pretty scary moments in there. Harry, Hermione and Ron have grown up quite a lot since last year and so has the story telling. Romance has been added to the mix as the three find their interest in the opposite sex blooming along with their hormones. On the downside, there are a few bits that happen that aren't really explained or don't make sense and I have the suspicion that you'd need to read the books to "get it". Yes, I haven't read any of the books but my daughter has and she's of the same opinion as it's a big book and they've had to be pretty ruthless to get it down to movie length. Another gripe, probably due to the same time constraints, is that the editing is pretty tight in places and some scenes seem to get cut off pretty sharply and you're off somewhere else.

The CGI effects are absolutely excellent - the dragon chase and underwater challenge are really well done. Gone, or at least minimalized, are the childish effects and props from the earlier films - this is aimed at a slightly older audience and the darker tones definately make this the best so far.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Bella Italia, 96 Hope Street, Glasgow

Missed our train back from town on Sunday so, since we'd have to wait 30 minutes, we thought we'd just go and get something to eat instead. Hope Street is just round the corner from the station so Bella Italia (map) looked like a reasonable choice.

Given that I'd eaten in a Bella Italia in Edinburgh a few weeks ago (see Edinburgh Lunches), it was reasonable to assume that it'd be okay and it was pretty much that. We had a better choice of menu this time but this wasn't a special lunch deal so that was to be expected. The food was okay, nothing special but there was plenty of it and it was tasty enough.

The only downside was the service, it was very, very slow. Having sat for over ten minutes waiting on someone taking even a drink order, we were on the verge of leaving just as the waitress arrived.

Cuisine: Italian
My rating: 5/10

Friday, November 25, 2005

The Companions - by Sheri S. Tepper

This is yet another science-fiction tale from the author of such excellent tales as Grass, Raising The Stones and Sideshow. Here we are shown the dire consequences that could await those who would meddle with world ecology so here's the basic storyline...

Humankind has arrived on the planet Moss, a verdant paradise, to discover if any intelligent native life exists there, and to assess the planet for development - and profit. When multi-coloured shapes of dancing light are spotted and strange sounds heard in the night, the researchers send for a linquist to ascertain if it is evidence of intelligent life.

The linguist who tries to decipher the strange language of the Mossen is Paul Delis who is accompanied by his half-sister Jewel - but Jewel has a secret mission. A new law on Earth means the imminent extermination of all animal life on the planet, so Jewel must discover if Moss holds the promise of sanctuary for the doomed animals including her dogs, once mankind's beloved companions.

Time is running out for Jewel's creatures, but it might be running out for Humanity too: An interstellar war is brewing and Moss, itself a living entity, is not sure it cares for any of the species currently living on its surface...

I quite like Tepper's books, and this is one of the better ones, but her feminist eco-warrior themes tend to get a bit predictable. Women as the underdogs in a male dominated society and religious fanatacism are also recurring sterotypes in Tepper stories and it's also fairly obvious that she isn't very keen on war or fighting just for the sake of it either.

Jewel, obviously the heroine of the piece, is so talented at everything she undertakes it's a wonder she's not running the planet and she's surrounded by bad guys and incompetents. The bad buys are obvious - her brother, a fairly disturbed misogynist, treats Delis as his property; the reptilian Derac, a nomadic race that discovered the planet, fancy trying human flesh for dinner and cross breeding with them to try and make their own females more intelligent; the insectoid Orskimi race have plans of galactic domination that includes the destruction of both Derac and Humanity; the IGIHFO fanatics who want to kill all non-human life on Earth and eventually everywhere and last, but not least, her mother-in-law. The incompetents are the ESC (Exploration and Survey Corps) and PPI (Planetary Protection Institute), who've been on Moss for some time and can't see what's so obviously in front of their noses.

The book's title is a bit confusing in that it could refer to either the mysterious Concs, also called Companions, that have appeared on Earth and are being adopted by all and sundry as pets or sexual playthings. It could also mean the dogs as man's best friend and long time companions.

All that aside, the story has well developed alien races and societies, a well developed human space culture, a fair bit of action and mystery and even a wee bit of humour.

Genre: Science-Fiction
ISBN: 0-575-07628-3
My Rating: 7/10

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

My Life: Schooldays

Dunard Street Primary School

Dunard Street Primary SchoolPrimary school for me was Dunard Street Primary in Dunard Street, Maryhill and I can remember my first day as a four-and-a-half year old, betrayed when my mum tried to get me to go into this ominous looking building surrounded by metal bars with the horrible intention of leaving me there! It took her a while but she finally managed it, regardless of my screams and tantrums, and so I embarked on my journey through Scottish education.

I remember using a little slate and a piece of chalk to start with but it must have been just at the end of that era as I don't think we did it for very long. Pity as it's much cheaper option than using paper and pencils but a bit limiting having only one surface to work on.

I only have a few memories of my time there but they were mostly happy ones and I graduated as Dux in my final year so it can't have been that bad. I didn't get the usual medal for some reason as that year the prize was a whopping great encyclopedia, which was almost certainly more useful and my mum still uses it to help solve crossword puzzles.

About mid-morning we'd all get a break during which we'd be issued with a little bottle of milk, about a third of a pint I think. This was the government's scheme to make sure all us kids got something in the way of nourishment, and a bit of calcium, in the morning. Everyone got this free, so even the really poor kids got something, until education secretary Thatcher the snatcher abolished it in the 1970's for children over seven. Quite often, if it was really cold during the winter, the bottles would be frozen solid and we'd bring the crates into the classroom early and stack them besides the radiators to thaw them out.

The only negatives that come to mind were the school dinners and learning that I needed to wear glasses. Bit of a bummer finding out at age seven that I'd be being called "speccy four-eyes" for years but I've been wearing them ever since.

As for the dinners, let me clarify the nomenclature a bit. We had dinner at what is now called lunchtime and we had our tea when most of you lot now have dinner so we had breakfast, dinner, tea and supper (still do really). Anyway, that aside, there was no such thing as a menu back then so there was always a bit of anticipation of what was going to be served. Memories of horrid little balls of mashed potato that never tasted anything like what I got at home, carrots boiled to buggary and tasteless gravy still linger to this day. Every now and then they'd inflict a wee variation on us like cheese potatoes, where the colour of the balls changed to yellow but the taste never quite resembled any cheese I was familiar with.

I hated fat as a child, still do mostly, and I remember a teacher insisting I eat eat some really fatty Irish Stew and to clear the plate. Of course I promptly threw it up over the table - revenge is sweet (or at least a bit stewy).

Not a bad school really and I think I only got the belt once and that was for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. "Wusnae me Sir!" but we all got it. The belt I mean or the Tawse as it was really called. See the section at the end of this post on Corporal Punishment for a better explanation of this.

North Kelvinside Senior Secondary School

I was only 11 when I started secondary school in 1966 and I think being six months or so younger than most of the year's intake made me a bit of an outsider. On top of that, friends from primary were either in different classes or had gone to Garrioch Road Junior Secondary as we had a two tier system in those days.

I wasn't great at sports and didn't follow football much so it wasn't too long before a couple of swines called Ranstead and Gillespie decided to make to make my life there as miserable as possible. Being bullied isn't any fun at all and I wasn't the only one they picked on so here's hoping they've had their comeuppance by now.

One other memory I have is of the panic that ensued when it was rumoured that the Mummies were going to be round at four to sort out one of the teachers. Glasgow had a fairly unhealthy gang culture at the time, nothing like it had been some years before, but they wear still pretty rife and the Mummies were one of the local gangs along with the Fleet, Tongs and the Toi. Such was the reputation of this gang, we were sent home early and the police were were called in to fend off any impending attack. Needless to say that nothing transpired and the streets were quite. I suspect now that the rumour was just that and was probably started as a joke by some schoolkid. The gangs then mostly fought among themselves and rarely bothered anyone else.

Got the belt a lot more here but then almost everyone did. Our maths teacher belted anyone for anything but she was so useless at it that no one was that bothered. However, there were a few teachers there that were good at it and had seriously nasty belts and you behaved in their class I can tell you.

I have to say that I hated my time at this school and was so glad when we moved from Maryhill to Knightswood in 1968. The school was closed in 2001 and has since been demolished.

Knightswood Secondary School

We moved to Knightswood just after the great storm of 1968 and it felt like a new page had been turned - a new house and a new school. To a kid from Maryhill, Knightswood was like moving out to the country. The streets were wider and had much less traffic and almost every house round about had a garden - amazing.

Knightwood Secondary was pretty good and I enjoyed it far more and made some new friends as well and it even had a decent dinner hall. Can't say as anything momentous ever happened to me there but the teachers were a reasonable lot and most everyone got on fine. From there it was off into the grown up world of 1972. I didn't fancy going to university or college (and probably didn't have the qualifications anyway) so it was time to look for a job but I'll cover that later.

Corporal Punishment

Just to explain about the belt or Tawse, which was the official form of corporal punishment dished out in Scottish schools when I was a boy. Basically it was a leather strap of varying length and thickness and some even had three tails. The "Lochgelly" was the model to have as well as that was where the best ones were made. Depending on the model and the teacher dishing it out, the effects ranged from a mild slap to extremely serious pain.

To receive it, you could stand with one hand out to the front or side or with both hands crossed in front. Some teachers had a preference on how they liked you to stand and either way could cause problems. Too close to the side attack and the belt could wrap around the hand and arm and too close in front and you could get it all the way up the wrist and arm. Too far away from either angle and the ends of your fingers could get a bad hit.

Of course a miss was always your fault as it got a laugh from the class at the teacher's expense. Deliberately dodging the belt by moving your hand or hands out of the way was a risky move as it almost always added a stroke to the sentence. Refusing the belt outright meant a trip to the headmaster's office and invariably a stronger sentence from him or your parents were called in.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Wallace & Gromit - The Curse Of The Were-Rabbit

This was the last of the holiday movie backlog so it was good to get to see it before it disappeared from the cinemas. This is Wallace & Gromit's debut on the big screen and here's the plot...

Mapcap inventor and well-known cheese addict Wallace (Peter Sallis) and his trusty hound Gromit run a fairly lucrative humane pest-control business called Anti-Pesto. With only a few days to go until the Annual Giant Vegetable Competition, they're up to their ears in work and rabbits.

When a huge Brassica munching beast begins raiding the townfolk's beloved garden plots at night and destroying everything in its path, the competition hostess Lady Tottington (Helena Bonham-Carter), commissions our heroes to catch it save the veg. However, her ladyship's slimy suitor, Victor Quartermaine (Ralph Fiennes), would rather shoot the creature to try to impress her and gain recognition as the local hero. Of course, catching or killing the monster rabbit isn't as straightforward as any of them might think.

Well we thoroughly enjoyed this one, Wallace and Gromit's first full-length feature film is hilarious. If you liked Aardman's previous shorts of the pair - A Grand Day Out, The Wrong Trousers and A Close Shave, then you'll love this. I thought it might be too long for clay-mation to sustain audience interest but the plot and all the little visual jokes keep it ticking along just nicely.

Genre: Animation, Adventure, Comedy, Mystery
My Rating: 8/10

The Westerton Arms, 34 Henderson Street, Bridge of Allan

Went over to see Lorna's dad at the weekend and thought we'd try a Bridge Of Allan again but see what else there was on offer. The Westerton Arms (map) looked pretty busy, which is usually a good sign, and so we went in...

Well it was busy and we had to wait for about 30 minutes before they had a table but, having a bar attached, that wasn't a problem. The bar was pretty busy with a mix of locals and people waiting for tables but not over-busy so it was reasonably comfortable.

The food was mostly pretty straightforward fayre with a good few exotic additions and it was not bad at all. The menu is on the web site above. The only downside was the that the service was a bit slow and, while we had asked for the dessert menu, we gave up waiting on anyone asking us if we wanted anything from it.

Cuisine: Varied
My Rating: 6/10

Sunday, November 20, 2005

More Edinburgh Lunches

It was a full five day course so here's the continuation of what I started in part one...

Wednesday - Domino's Pizza

We were falling behind due to the amount of firefighting required to get the labs to work as they hadn't been properly set up and the servers weren't responding as expected. Anyway, to try and catch up some time they sent out for pizza instead of taking us out.

Anyway, to start we had portions of the Garlic Pizza Bread, which were simply small cheese and tomato pizzas and totally boring. As for the pizzas, I had a Cheese Steak Melt as I thought it might be a change and I was right. It was basically a congealed lump of cheese with bits of rubbery steak embedded in it and with very little of the green peppers, onions and mushrooms advertised.

I don't think I'll be sending out for a Dominos Pizza anytime soon!

My Rating: 2/10

Thursday - The Buffet Lunch

We were still way behind so this time we had a buffet lunch brought in. You know the stuff - sandwiches, chicken drumsticks, wraps, cold quiche and cold pizza. Don't know where it was ordered from but it was pretty good and did the job.

Friday - Saigon Saigon, 14 South St. Andrew St, EH2 2AZ (map)

Being the last day, and even though we were still behind, we got a bit of a treat. Saigon Saigon is an "All You Can Eat" buffet restaurant and it had loads of interesting and standard Chinese and Thai dishes to choose from. The food was hot and well replenshed so you could really pig out if you wanted to.

It was reasonably busy and is obviously popular for a even quick lunch and empty plates were quickly wheeched away by the staff so there's was always room on the table for more. Not a place for a quiet or romantic lunch though.

Cuisine: Oriental
My Rating: 7/10

Thursday, November 17, 2005

The Madagascar Penguins in a Christmas Caper

Went to see Wallace and Grommit movie tonight and got treated to this 15 minute short, starring the penguins from Madagascar.

Frankly I thought the penguins were the best and funniest characters in that movie and they could easily find success in a movie of their own. Anyway, we've now got this hilarious short animation to keep us amused. Certainly got the laughs going before Wallace and Grommit so it's a good warm up act...

It's Christmas at the New York Central Park Zoo and all the animals are happy and having fun, all except the polar bear, who has no-one else in his enclosure to share the festivities with. Private notices this and, being a concerned penguin, tries to get the others to help but they're all busy being penguins and partying so he heads downtown to buy the bear a present. Needless to say, he gets into bother and requires a military style rescue attempt by Skipper, Kowalski and Mason.

More Madagascar penguins animations please!

Genre: Animation, Adventure, Comedy
My Rating: 7/10

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Edinburgh Lunches

I'm at a training course this week in Edinburgh and so far we've been being taken out for lunch so here's the breakdown so far...

Monday - Bella Italia, 9 Hanover Street, EH2 2DL (map)

Fairly busy little place with friendly staff and a simple menu. I've no idea what the prices are like as we ordered before we got there but the food was reasonably good and there was enough of it. It was okay and I had Lasagne Al Forno for simplicity but I've had better.

Cuisine: Italian
My Rating: 6/10


Tuesday - Zest, 15 North St Andrew Street, EH2 1HJ (map)

Zest is billed as a contemporary Indian restaurant, which basically means minimalist decor, bright and airy lighting, laminate floor and a fairly cold atmosphere. Oh, and no sitar music either! It was pretty quiet for the time of day so maybe the "contemporary" theme doesn't work as well as they'd like.

I had a Lamb Karai, which was okay although I felt it seemed a bit like a tourist curry and the portion was tiny. I usually try to avoid Indian restaurants outside of Glasgow and especially in tourist towns as, in my experience, they tend to cater to a general market, which means that the curries are usually a bit on the mild or tasteless side with not enough bite. I had a vindaloo once in Fort William that tasted like a plate of stew and potatoes! Anyway, Zest didn't do it for me.

Cuisine: Indian
My Rating: 4/10

Sunday, November 13, 2005

The Legend Of Zorro

Yet another of those movies that came out while I was on holiday, we went to see it through the week (Orange Wednesdays are great). It's the sequel to The Mask Of Zorro, an excellent romp starring Antonio Banderas, Anthony Hopkins and Catherine Zeta-Jones. Banderas and Zeta-Jones are back in this one so here's the plot...

Ten years have past and California is poised to enter the American Union. Alejandro and Elena have a son, Joaquin, who wishes his father was more like Zorro while Elena wishes Alejandro would give up the mask and spend more time with his family. Alejandro is torn between his two lives and things are not going well in casa de la Vega.

When Alejandro breaks his promise to put away the mask, Elena leaves him and sues for divorce. Alejandro starts drinking and Elena starts seeing a new arrival to the area - Armand, Comte de la Fère, a wealthy French landowner. Needless to say, Alejandro doesn't like the man and when he witnesses a huge explosion on his land, he decides that he needs to look into things as Zorro. Especially as someone has also been trying to thwart California's entry to the Union.

Things have moved on - California is growing up and both the characters and actors have aged alongside. Both Banderas and Zeta-Jones are more accomplished in their art and reprise the roles very well. As a sequel, this works very well although it is much more aimed at the family audience. The violence is much watered down from that in The Mask Of Zorro - there's no blood on view and definitely no severed heads. That aside, it still works quite well and the action scenes are excellent.

I don't think I've ever seen a bad Antonio Banderas movie and he obviously loves the swordfighting and acrobatic action stuff. If you're looking for a good old swashbuckling movie with a fairly simple and transparent plot for the whole family to enjoy, then this easily fits the bill.

Interesting Note: The Comte de la Fère was the title of Athos, one of The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas.

Genre: Action, Adventure, Comedy, Western
My rating: 6/10

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

The Scar - by China Miéville

The Scar, by China Miéville, takes place on the world of Bas-Lag, first encountered in the multi-award winning Perdido Street Station and chronologically following the events that occurred there. While there are a few references to events in that story, this is not a sequel but those that have read it will be more familiar with the world and it's exotic mix of arcane and mutant inhabitants. Here's what this one is all about...

When her friends and acquaintances start to disappear, courtesy of the New Crobuzon authorities, Bellis Coldwine decides that heading across the Swollen Ocean to Nova Esperium for a while might be a good idea. Her fellow passengers include scientists and misfits mostly heading for the new land and a new life. They also carry a cargo of Remade, criminals physically altered as part of their punishment, bound for a much grimmer life of servitude. They never make it...

On the way, on a diplomatic detour to the vast undersea city of the Cray, the crew discover that one of New Crobuzon's secret underwater drilling rigs has inexplicably disappeared and when a shadowy individual called Silas Fennec, working for the government, takes command of the ship with the intention of returning home immediately, Bellis fears her escape has been cut short. However, on the way back, the ship is attacked by pirates and they find themselves pressganged into the population of a vast floating city called Armada.

Bellis, resigned to her fate as a citizen and prisoner of Armada, longs to return to New Crobuzon so plots a means of escape with Silas
, knowing it will be nigh impossible and could lead to theur deaths if discovered. However, the rulers of Armada have plans of their own that lead to an island of forgotten people, the raising of a vast underwater beast and a journey across the Hidden Ocean in search of The Scar, a massive wound in reality but possibly also a source of ultimate power.

Miéville has crafted a rich world as the background for his tales in Bas-Lag and the sprawling metropolis of New Crobuzon and this story extends that world to encompass new lands, oceans and peoples. Those who have read Perdido Street Station will be familiar with that city and the spiked Hotchi, the thorny Cactacae, the insect-headed Khepri and amphibious Vodyanoi races but we get also to meet some new ones in this story - the blood-sucking Anophilii, the part-crustacean Cray, the Vampir and the mysterious and powerful Grindelow. The concept of Armada, a vast floating city of ships tethered together, being pulled across the oceans in search of booty and trade, is simply amazing and makes the story so much more detailed and involved. On top of this there's the wealth of diverse and well developed characters - The Lovers, Shekel, Tanner Sack, Johannes Tearfly, Uther Doul, Silas Fennec and The Brucolac.

I preferred Perdido Street Station but The Scar is well up there and well worth reading, even though I was slightly disappointed with the ending. Gaining a Special Citation in the Philip K. Dick Awards and nominated for The Hugo Award, The BSFA Award and The Arthur C. Clarke Award, this is well worth a place in any science fiction fan's bookshelf.

Genre: Adventure, Fantasy, Science Fiction
ISBN: 0-330-39290-5
My Rating: 8/10

Monday, November 07, 2005

The Brothers Grimm

Having just come back from holiday, there are so many movies out to catch up on! Anyway, the first one we went to see was Terry Gilliam's The Brothers Grimm, starring Matt Damon and Heath Ledger as the two brothers...

It's an alternate take on the lives of the famous fairytale authors, where Jacob (Ledger) and Wilhelm (Damon) Grimm are a couple of con-artists, travelling around Europe during the French occupation of Germany collecting folklore and tales. They then make a living by setting up all manner of enchanted situations and get the terrified villagers to pay them to boldly vanquish the demons or exorcise the evil spririts, etc.

However, when young girls start to disappear in the forest near the village of Marsbaden, the regional French military govenor (Jonathan Pryce) captures the brothers and threatens to have them executed if they don't go in there and get rid of whoever is copying their "act" as it's causing unrest among the locals.

But this is no act and the pair soon find themselves pitted against a real evil and they have to find the courage to save the girls and vanquish a 500 year old Witch Queen, who wants them to restore her beauty.

Being a Terry Gilliam movie, it's pretty manic from the start and there are some very funny scenes and lines in there. But a lot of the script was written by Ehren Kruger, who wrote the horror movies The Ring and The Ring Two, so there are also some very dark and scary moments in there as well.

Both Ledger and Damon seem miscast here, Damon is an outgoing womanizer and Ledger is the bookish one, but they do a reasonable job and seemed to gel together fairly well. Apparently, they were originally cast in opposite roles but both obviously fancied a change and they swapped. The heroine of the piece is played well by English actress Lena Headey as the huntsman's daughter. Pryce is good as the ruthless French General, constantly more interested in what he's having for dinner, but the comedy prize has to go to Peter Stormare for his Pythonesque performance as Cavaldi, his chief torturer.

All in all, it's a reasonably entertaining few hours and there are loads of homàges to Grimm's Fairy Tales in there as well such as Little Red Riding Hood, Hansel and Grethel, Sleeping Beauty, Rapunzel, Jack and the Beanstalk and Snow White.

Genre: Comedy, Fantasy, Horror.
My Rating: 6/10

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Beware Of Budget Airlines

We've just come back from a holiday in Lanzarote (more about that in a later posting) and we flew with budget airline flyglobespan and I have to say that the return journey really put a dampener on the trip.

Excess Baggage

The first thing to say is be very, very careful about your baggage weight! Go over your 20kg and they hit you for €7 for every kg over. Our cases were obviously close to or slightly over the limit so they asked us to weigh our hand luggage, which mostly contained presents and some stuff for eating and drinking while waiting on the flight. Anyway, we stupidly put the lot on the scales without thinking and it all came in at 13kg over and they wanted an extra €91!

This is obviously a common way to boost the takings as the queue to pay for the excess amounts was a constant stream during check-in but when you think about it it's really a bit of a scam as well as they've no checks beyond that and you can easily load up in the shops beyond passport control. Sure, they say that the cabin crew have the power to refuse excess hand luggage but unless you're obviously over-loaded with bags, they would never have the time to police this while boarding the aircraft.

Anyway revenge of a sort was to come calling as, once we'd all boarded amost an hour late and then hung about while they dragged the paperwork around for another hour or so they pilot announced that the plane was too heavy to take off and we'd all have to get off while they siphoned off some fuel. So they were happy to take everyone's money for the excess weight but the smaller aircraft that they put on for the return flight, a Boeing 737-300, obviously didn't have the power to take off with that extra weight and the allocated runway and associated steep ascent that this and the wind conditions required.

Now that meant that we took off two and a half hours late and had to stop over in Malaga to take on enough fuel to get home. I say revenge as it must have cost them much more to offload the fuel and then stop and refuel again than they made skimming the extra baggage weight.

Mind you, I had the credit card out to pay the extra charge but Lorna decided that we weren't going to pay more to carry some of the stuff than it was worth (good Scottish head on her shoulders) so we dumped about 9kg worth of wine, liqueurs and sweets and made them reweigh the bags to save us a fair bit of money. Anyway, the moral here is to check your baggage weight if you're flying on the cheap as the airline surely will and charge you heavily for any excess.

The Service

The second thing is that the service is shaved to the bone. There were only three cabin crew to deal with over 150 passengers. No complaints about the staff as they coped pretty well with the constant workload and were pretty friendly. There's no onboard entertainment at all so take a book or puzzles or something like that to pass the time and, if you've got kids, some toys will be essential. As for food, they sell a pretty limited range of sandwiches and sweets onboard and they're happy enough to let folk bring their own food on as well so you won't go hungry.

Whoever was flying the plane could have done with some lessons on how to land the thing. When we landed for the fuel stopover in Malaga I thought the undercarriage had cracked as we practically bounced with the impact and the landing in Glasgow wasn't that much better. It might just have been this one particular bloke but I'd hope he wasn't their regular standard of pilot.

Conclusion

Would I use flyglobespan again? Possibly but I'd make sure I had some spare baggage capacity for the return flight. I can't really complain about the flight service as that's part of how they keep costs down so if you're happy with no entertainment, very few cabin crew and do it yourself meals, then you'll definitely save on normal package holiday prices.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Going Postal - by Terry Pratchett

We're back in Ankh-Morpork with Going Postal, the 29th instalment in Terry Pratchett's Discworld series and this is definitely one of the good one's - I was practically crying with laughter at some points...

Moist von Lipwig is a con-man, one of the best in the game but as Albert Spangler, he's now languishing in a condemned cell in Ankh-Morpork. He may not have ever hurt anyone in his life but he's stolen from some of the most powerful people and everyone knows that's far more serious than murder so he's to be hung at dawn.

While Albert is almost certainly for the drop, Lord Vetinari offers Moist a choice - revive the city's ailing postal service or well, die! Simple choice you might think but, faced with a seriously run down postal business, a staff of two (three if you count the cat), Mr Pump his parole officer and the unscrupulous chairman of the Grand Trunk Semaphore Company, there are times when Moist almost wishes he hadn't accepted it.

Basically the story is about Moist's attempts to get the Postal Service back up and running in the face of lethal opposition from the Grand Trunk Semaphore clacks service but it's so much more than that and seriously funny too.

Pratchett is excellent at describing characters and scenes in the most humorous ways - Lord Vetinari is a well known fixture to Discworld fans and these new characters of Moist, Groat, Stanley, Adora Bell (Killer) and Mr. Pump fit so well into the mix that you can easily visualize them. There's also an Igor in there and we get a fleeting appearance from a couple of the Night Watch favourites and good old DEATH himself.

The story is well composed from several diverse threads and the relevance of some earlier sections only emerge as the tale progresses along its hilarious path. From the moment we meet Moist trying to escape the cell, you just know it's going to be a good one. Definitely one to read for Discworld fans and easy enough for the casual reader to pick up and enjoy.

Genre: Comedy, Fantasy
ISBN: 0-552-14943-8
My Rating: 9/10

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Take A Google At The Movies

I know this may be old news to some but I've just noticed that Google has a new feature enabling us UK users to quickly find film showtimes in our local area, access film information such as critics' reviews, and search for films by plot, genre and more.

Including the words [films] or [showtimes] in the web search query will allow you to see information about showtimes and film reviews displayed above the Google web search results. If you're only interested in film information, then specifically type [film:] in the query. Go to Google Film to get it to remember where you're based.

They've also added a new SMS feature that enables UK users to get film showtimes and cinema listings on their mobile phone/handheld device via text messaging. Just send a text message, for example [serenity g52] to 64664. See Google SMS for more details.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

The Forge Of God - by Greg Bear

The Forge Of God by Greg Bear is quite an old science-fiction book, written in 1987 and set in 1996. It tells a very convincing and plausible story of how, after decades pouring radio emissions into space, actively searching for extraterrestrial intelligence, we could just as easily attract the attention of those who seek us harm rather than the hoped-for, beneficent bringers of new technology.

Here's the short description from the back cover, just to set the scene...

1996. Europa, one of Jupiter's moons, suddenly disappears; it is as though it never existed.

Shortly after, a mysterious mound, evidently a disguised spaceship, is found in the California desert. Beside it lies a dying alien creature, which when approached says very clearly, "I am sorry, but there is bad news."

But Australia doesn't think so, for another spaceship has landed there, carrying friendly robots who promise a new era of peace and plenty.

Is all this linked? Arthur Gordon, recently science advisor to the President, cannot escape the feeling that something very terrible indeed is about to happen...

This is a very well crafted story that you won't want to put down. Indeed, you have to resist the urge to turn to the back and see how it turns out. I really want to tell you what happens but it'd ruin it for anyone that wants to read it. Suffice to say that nothing is as straightforward as it seems and the story develops at a fairly steady pace. The physics and science involved seem genuinely feasible enough and it includes a very good mix of politics and well-detailed characters, each dealing in their own way with the growing realisation that the end of the world may very well be in sight.

There's a sequel called Anvil Of Stars and a potential movie deal for a three parter, comprising The Forge Of God, Anvil Of Stars and one still to be written book, in the pipeline with Warner Brothers. That movie deal was negotiated back in 2002 with no obvious progress to date and frankly, I don't think the studios would ever want to make it without some radical changes - this is no Independence Day. However I'm definitely going to try and get hold of Anvil Of Stars to see what happens next.

Genre: Science Fiction
ISBN: 0-09-961870-2
My Rating: 7/10

Monday, October 17, 2005

Serenity

The second movie of this weekend was Serenity, the movie spin-off from the failed Joss Whedon science-fiction series, Firefly. Whedon's reputation, with the likes of Buffy: The Vampire Slayer and Angel, precedes him and this is in no way going to diminish that or his fan base - this is one excellent science-fiction movie...

Serenity is the name of a privateer spaceship, plying its sometimes illegal trade on the fringes of Alliance controlled space. The crew, led by Captain Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion), are mostly outcasts or on the run so make the best living they can while keeping a low profile.

The latest additions to the crew are doctor Simon Tam (Sean Maher) and his sister River (Summer Glau). River is telepathic but also a bit disturbed and when she goes berserk and single-handedly beats up an entire bar full of roughnecks, it becomes obvious to Reynolds that she's much more than she seems.

When the incident is noticed, the Serenity is suddenly high on the wanted list so with a ruthless Alliance hunter (Chiwetel Ejiofor) on their trail, they go looking for someone called Miranda to find the secret to River's suddenly revealed talents. The only thing is, it looks like they're going to have to go deep into Reaver territory to do it.

Whedon's script is truly excellent, it'll have you laughing, crying and whooping along with the action, which is plentiful. Fans of Buffy and Angel will be familiar with the style of dialogue but it works so well here and the cast pull it off to a tee.

I haven't seen Firefly so it was all new to me and I have to admit to having had some worries about the "Western" aspects of the stories. For example, Captain Reynolds favours a six-shooter as the weapon of choice and, while that may seem strange, it works among the rough and ready edges of civilized space.

It'd be nice to see Firefly resurrected by the studios but I can't see it happening, those guys only see things in dollar bills and it was very expensive to produce. My daughter has Firefly on DVD so I'm definitely going to borrow that and get more into it.

Genre: Action, Adventure, Science Fiction.
My Rating 8/10

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Night Watch (Nochnoi Dozor)

Just back from seeing Night Watch, a dark fantasy about the battle between Light and Dark. This is the first in a trilogy of movies and is set in modern day Moscow. Here's what it's all about...

There are those among us called Others, humans with special gifts that make them part of the war and they must choose their own path, light or dark. It is said that a perfect Other will come and, choosing one side or the other, will either raise the Earth to the light or plunge it into darkness. Both sides are evenly matched and a truce is in effect, has been for centuries. It is policed by the Night Watch for the side of Light and the Day Watch for the Dark and punishment for any transgression is harsh but neither side is allowed to take the life of the other.

The plot centres around Anton Gorodetsky, a seer with the Night Watch. While trying to protect a young boy from the call of a vampire, he accidentally bumps into a young woman and has a premonition of doom centering around her. He then goes on to save the boy but inadvertently kills the vampire and so becomes a target for the Day Watch. It is believed that the woman is cursed and her coming will herald the end of the truce, the coming of the perfect Other and the final battle to decide the fate of the world.

One thing to mention is that this is a Russian film with a Russian cast and, although there is some English narrative used to good effect, the dialogue is in Russian with English subtitles. However, these are extremely well used to enhance the story. They come and go, dissolving, wafting away, sliding behind objects, etc. and it gives it almost the feel of a comic-book.

This is definately different from the usual fantasy movie and I quite enjoyed it even though it's a wee bit hard to grab hold of at first. There are two definite sub-plots on the go, which don't actually merge as you'd normally expect, and a definite twist or two two as well. Can't say more than that, other than I expect the sequels will pick up and run with the main storyline as well as dealing with a few of the loose ends.

Genre: Action, Fantasy, Horror
My Rating: 6/10

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

My Life: Puddles, Hudgies and Frogs

I grew up in Maryhill, living there for about 13 years up till 1968. Glasgow was coming out of it's "No Mean City" era and while we still lived in what would be called a tenement block, it was far from being a slum. The photo here is of Queen's Cross at the junction of Maryhill and Garscube Roads. Looking down the road, we lived in the first street on the left.

Life as an under ten was pretty idyllic as I'd no worries or cares as long as I was warm, fed and clothed. All we had to concern ourselves about was school and playing. We mostly played as a group of friends in and around the local tenement blocks. There were a few playgrounds with roundabouts and swings, etc. but they were a bit of a walk away so going there was a special occasion and we usually had to make up our own entertainment...

War Games

All we needed was a ball for a kick around on the street or round the back and if we felt like being organised it was war games in the form of two teams pretending to be anything from cowboys and indians to WWII soldiers and usually involved popping up every now and then, making "ack-ack-ack" machine gun noises and then diving back down out of sight again.

Stankie

One street game we played was "stankie" with marbles or, if you were one of the lucky ones, with steelies, which were basically steel ball bearings. Play consisted of rolling your bools up the stank covers in the pavement, which were always at a slight angle, and trying to get them to stop in the little holes while your opponent tried to use his to knock yours out. You could either play for fun or keepsies depending on how many marbles you had and how confident you were.

There was an engineering works a few streets away and it was always good for a rummage around outside looking for steelies that had been dropped or discarded. Needless to say that marbles were a common drain on everyone's pocket money.

Puddles

If it rained, then there'd be puddles and, once the deluge stopped, a rush to get the wellies on and get out for a splash around. Puddles are great things for a small boy - you could float bits of wood in them and pretend they were boats or you could even use toy boats if you had them. I remember my mum buying me a nice blue boat after being brave and not crying while getting one of the standard "jags" (innoculations) kids had to get back then, but back to the puddles!

Obviously, splashing was mandatory as was bombing any pretend boats but god help you if you got covered in the muddy water or worse, wading in too deep and filling your wellies with it. The street gutters were also good for racing old ice-lolly sticks down when the rainwater was flowing but you had to catch them before they disappeared down the drain.

Running Around Madly

These games were the traditional fall back for something to do round the backs. You'd probably know it as Tag but we called it Tig, same thing though with all it's variations. Basically if you were "het", then you got to chase the others around until you touched one and then they were "het" and so on until everyone fell about exhausted.

Hide and Seek required a bit more cunning and, if you were "it", the ability to count as fast as possible, which always got everyone tongue-tied. Of course if the really cunning ones managed to hide themselves well enough, everyone gave up searching for them and went off on another tack.

The new urban sport of Free-running was being practised by almost every kid in Glasgow when I was a boy. We'd be running, jumping, climbing and dreeping over walls, wash-houses, middens, etc. in a kind of "follow-my-leader" chain to see who could get over the trickiest bits.

Saturday Matinees

The Blythswood CinemaAlmost every Saturday morning we went to one of the local cinemas, either the Blytheswood or Seamore in Maryhill Road, to see the latest children's movie. It was usually a comedy or a cartoon, which passed the morning, and if you'd been lucky enough to collect a few empty lemonade bottles during the week, then that paid for the ticket. Of course if you didn't have enough for a ticket or were just feeling adventurous, then it was common practise to wait outside at the side door until some helpful friend nipped down and opened it once the lights had gone down and you could sneak in. Unless the manager caught you coming in, he didn't really stand a chance of trying to catch a group of small boys running wildly around in a cinema full of noisy kids in the dark and once you'd found a seat, you were pretty safe.

The Blythswood was a pretty plain looking place but I remember the Seamore as having a big illuminated windmill, or more likely a lighthouse, above the doors but it closed in 1963 and got burned down about five years after that.

Dinkys, Corgis and Matchboxes

I'd play with them for hours on end if I was stuck in on a rainy day or for a wee while before bedtime. What are they? Why die cast model cars, buses, lorries and tractors, etc. I wish I'd kept them now as they're worth a lot off money these days. Just do a search on the net for them and you'll see just how much they can go for and to think we used to actually touch them and play with them like they were of little value. Of course we always chucked the boxes away and the lot were kept willy-nilly in an old shoe box (I can just hear the serious collectors shuddering with horror).

Better off kids (or their dads) had train sets of the Triang/Hornby variety or slot car racing games like Scalectrix but we made do with our little metal cars.

Hudgies

A hudgie was the art of jumping onto the back of passing carts, lorries, trucks or vans for a short ride along the street. Obviously no one ever attempted it if the vehicle was moving fast and the best candidate was usually a coal lorry as it made frequent stops along the street to sell sacks of coal or briquettes. We'd get chased by the driver if he saw us but was part of the fun of the game.

There was no green-cross code when I was a boy and growing up playing in the streets was a good way to learn to be traffic-wise as you always had to keep an eye out for anything coming. We also soon learned to be adept at crossing the roads among moving traffic and the thought of dashing across the busy Maryhill Road never phased us at all. There was a Zebra Crossing, with its trademark yellow Belisha Beacons, just up the road a bit but that'd have been too easy.

Adventures

Adventure is in a boy's soul and we were boys. Three of us, aged about five or six, caused an uproar by wandering off after school to see Santa's house, which I suspect now was probably a park-keeper's cottage in either Ruchill or Kelvingrove Park. Needless to say we got in terrible trouble when we strolled in later that afternoon, blissfully unaware that quite a lot of people were out there looking for us.

Other standard adventures were trekking off to one of the local public parks for the day. we had a choice of Ruchill, which was closest, Kelvingrove and Dawsholm Parks or the Botanic Gardens. Ruchill Park was fairly ordinary but had a good wide hill for sledging in the winter, My uncle Hugh, an engineer, made me a sledge one year and, being solidly made, I think it's still kicking around in the family somewhere, having been passed on by me a long time ago. The park also had an excellent little conical hill with a flagpole on top from where you could get a great view over the city. That hill was apparently artificial, having been constructed from the rubble of a demolished hospital and was nicknamed Ben Whitton after the Parks Superintendant of the time.

Kelvingrove Park is a vast place, straddling both sides of the river Kelvin and stretching from the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum practically all the way to Charing Cross. Dawsholm Park is also quite large but further north and we used to venture up there to feed the grey squirrels that were always keen to eat peanuts right out of our hands.

Botanic Gardens Station, Photo by Duncan Cumming, some rights reserved.When we were a bit older we found the tunnel entrance to the unused railway station in the Botanic Gardens. It required a walk of faith, feeling our way along the pitch black tunnel, until there was a break above that let in some light. Then it was on again for a bit in the dark until we got to the station platforms themselves, which were open to the sky above but access from the street was blocked off. What did we go through all that for? Why frogs of course! The wee blighters bred in the puddles and water filled holes in the trackbed and if it was the right time of year, then you could be sure we'd catch a few.

Photo of Botanic Gardens Station by Duncan Cumming, some rights reserved.

Seasonal Fun

Guisin' was the art of dressing up at Halloween and going round the neighbourhood in groups of two or three chapping on doors. We'd sometimes have a hollowed out turnip lantern and I was almost always dressed as a pirate with eye-patch, cape and sword and one of my mum's scarfs tied jauntily around my head. If the inhabitants were welcoming, you'd recite a wee poem or sing a song and get rewarded with a selection of fruit, nuts or sweets or sometimes even a few pennies. If you were really lucky, you'd be invited in to dook for apples, which involved perching on a chair with a fork in your mouth above a basin of floating apples and if you could drop the fork into an apple, it was yours. You might even get the chance to try to eat a scone covered in treacle hanging on a piece of string. A far cry from the Americanized "Trick or Treat" nonsense we have to endure these days.

Bonfire Night (Guy Fawkes Night) was a major event in the calendar. Fuel for the bonfire had to be gathered from near and far in preparation for the big night and it had to be guarded too. Almost every tenement block had its own bonfire and it was quite common for your stockpile to be raided by nearby gangs. Not that we'd ever have done that ourselves (sound of low whistling can be heard here). Our wood was usually stored in one of the old wash-houses in the Doncaster Street back and consisted of everything flammable we could get hold of - old doors, furniture, pallets, settees and chairs, the more the merrier. Mum would usually buy me a box of fireworks to set off myself - things like bangers, jumping jacks, Catherine wheels, rockets and maybe even a Roman Candle or two. The bigger your bonfire, the more people would come and let off their fireworks too. Too big though and the Fire Brigade might just turn up as well and put a real dampener on things.

Next time, I'll deal with school and my education, such as it was...