Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Wintersmith - by Terry Pratchett

WintersmithWintersmith is the third Tiffany Aching novel and the 35th in Terry Pratchett's Discworld series.
Two years after the events of A Hat Full of Sky, young Tiffany Aching is now 13 years old and in training with the terrifying old witch Miss Treason. When Miss Treason takes Tiffany to witness the secret "dark morris", the dance that welcomes in the winter, Tiffany finds herself drawn into the dance and joins in. Unfortunately, she finds herself face to face with the Wintersmith, the spirit of winter himself, who mistakes her for the Lady Summer and falls in love with her.

The Wintersmith pusues his suit well and gives her gifts of ice roses, her name in the frost on windows, snowflakes with her picture on and even giant Tiffany shaped icebergs. When Miss Treason, Nanny Ogg and Granny Weatherwax find out about all this they try to recify things and recruit the Nac Mac Feegle to find a hero that will rescue Summer from the Underworld and sort things out before the prolonged and harsh Winter descends forever. Meanwhile the Wintersmith is trying to make himself ... a man!

Wintersmith is another cracker of a read from Mr. Pratchett. The characters are, as ever, up to par with the best in comic theatre. Miss Treason, the blind old witch, lording it over her flock with a rule of fear and Boffo is perfect as Tiffany's tutor. Regulars like Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg still deliver some amazingly funny quips and the Nac Mac Feegle are hilarious all through the tale in their attempts to protect their Big Wee Hag and avoid the wrath of the witches.

Then there's Tiffany! In training but wiser than any witch her age should be and the side-story around Miss Treason's cottage with Annagramma and Mistress Earwig and the other young witches adds yet another layer to the tale.

The idea that an ageless elemental like the spirit of Winter could imagine itself as human or even in love adds a dark and mysterious edge to the story as well and the trip into the Underworld is both frightening and funny. I mean the ferryman wants his fee but also really doesn't want the always-skint Feegles to stay and cause absolute chaos in his nice, ordered realm.

A very funny book and well worth reading if fancy something light and humourous.

Genre: Comedy, Fantasy
ISBN: 978-0-552-55369-8
My Rating: 8/10

AVPR: Aliens vs Predator - Requiem

The Golden CompassIt was a boring, wet Friday night so the movies were calling to us. Trouble was, the only one that really suited the mood was AVPR: Aliens vs Predator - Requiem, the sequel to AVP: Aliens vs. Predator. I'd seen the trailer so we knew it was going to be a bit of a uber-violence flick but that's what both of these guys do. Anyway, on with the brief intro to the story…
AVPR picks up exactly where AVP left off, where the Alien infested Predator gives "birth" to a hybrid Alien-Predator monster aboard the spaceship heading into orbit and then no doubt homeward bound. Of course, this little guy gets bigger very quickly and runs riot, freeing up some captive face-huggers on the way, and causing the ship to crash-land somewhere near the little town of Gunnison, Colorado.

Before being killed, one of the crew manages to send out a message, which is received on the Predator homeworld by a lone warrior (Ian Whyte) who immediately embarks on the journey to Earth to rectify and clean-up the situation. Meanwhile, the hybrid and face-huggers escape from the crashed ship and impregnate a father and son hunting team before heading down into the sewer system and some more mayhem around town.

The unfortunate townsfolk of Gunnison have to contend with a rapidly growing infestation of Aliens and a rampaging Predator, neither of which cares a jot for any humans getting in their way so it's left to ex-con Dallas (Steven Pasquale), his younger brother Ricky (Johnny Lewis) and soldier-on-leave Kelly (Reiko Aylesworth) to try and save the day.

As with AVP, the reviews leading up to this release weren't that encouraging but I'm a sucker for science-fiction movies and again, the violence has been toned down a bit so it gets a 15 certificate so it still doesn't deliver on the gore front. It's directed by Colin and Greg Strause in their first shot at directing a larger budget movie. They're better known as visual-effects designers/supervisors and have a decent track record, having worked on 4: Rise of the Silver Surfer, 300, X-Men: The Last Stand, Poseidon, Æon Flux, Syriana, The Fog and Flightplan among others.

As for the cast, there are no no big-budget names here and most of them look to have come from US TV series roles. That said, they're probably right at home here as the movie itself plays along just like an episode from a series and, since we never get any real character development, we don't care who gets killed off and a lot of them do. There's no grand storyline as in AVP or any of the previous Alien movies, although the writers did inject a wee teaser at the end for a possible follow up movie but it'd need to be something much better than this to satisfy any true Alien or Predator fan. I mean the whole movie takes place over about a day and then it's over.

On the plus side, the special effects are excellent and both Aliens and Predators are up to spec but they've changed the biology to suit the faster pace of the movie. Full-grown Aliens seem to appear very quickly after a victim is injected, something that appeared in AVP so AVPR isn't entirely to blame for this, but it happens ever quicker here. Then there's the hybrid! Okay, we don't know how Predators breed but really, making it the equivalent of an Ichneumon wasp and firing its eggs into pregnant women as hosts is a bit far-fetched and then there's the speed at which these hatched. Damn that's fast!

On the whole, if you like Alien and Predator movies, then this'll pass an hour and half in a kind of no-brain required mode. It's full of plot holes and the script is awful but we get to see more Predators and more Aliens giving it to some small town Americans so what not to like at that level. I think I liked AVP a bit better than this one just for the more expansive story behind it.

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

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

My First Glasgow Flickr Meetup Group Outing

Went out with The Glasgow Flickr Meetup Group the other night for the first time. The object was to try and get some long-exposure shots showing light trails.

St. George's Cross Mansions, GlasgowSt. George's Cross Mansions By Night

It was the first time I'd tried any long-exposure shots and, given that I've got a mid-range camera and not a dSLR, I think the results weren't too bad. On top of that, I'd forgotten to take my tripod along so the shots are hand-held and as steady as I could manage, which is quite tricky on long exposures.

If you're on Flickr and live in or around Glasgow, then you could do worse than join the group and come along to the next meetup, whereever that will be. You might even get a free Flickr badge and sticker.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

China Buffet King, X-Scape, Braehead, Renfrew

We needed something quick to eat before going to the movies the other night and Lorna fancied a Chinese so, since we'd already tried the Glasgow restaurant, we thought we'd try the China Buffet King in XSpace. I'd much rather have gone to a more traditional Chinese restaurant but CBK is the only Chinese restaurant at XScape.

Unfortunately, I wasn't impressed with this one. It's over-large and has the atmosphere of a work canteen with all the associated noise and clamour. It was also very busy with loads of young people filling up cheaply before hitting the nightlife. On a plus side, you do get a good view of the snow slope so you can watch the kids slide, fall and roll down the slope as you eat. On another downside though was the fact that the buffet servery looked like a feeding frenzy at shark island - hordes of hungry diners moving in, grabbing something and then retreating to eat before going back for more.

As for the food, they do have a large range of stuff on offer. Starters and sweets are pretty good, if cheap and cheerful, but the mains are almost all deep fried, battered, covered in MSG laden-sauce (I had a very sore head next day) and high in salt. Great if you like that kind of food but eat it more than occassionally at your own risk.

Unless you're either strapped for cash or in a such a hurry that either the taste of the food or the fact that you're probably damaging your health doesn't bother you, then I'd avoid this place.

Cuisine: Chinese
My Rating: 5/10

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The Last Hero - by Terry Pratchett

The Last HeroThe Last Hero is Terry Pratchett's 27th Discworld novel and it's been published as a graphic novel, fully illustrated by Paul Kidby. It features a couple of characters that were introduced in the very first Discworld story - Rincewind and Cohen the Barbarian.
Legendary Discworld warrior Cohen the Barbarian is getting on a bit. He's been there and done it all, seeing most of his old friends pass away into obscurity and, now the current ruler of the Agatean Empire, he is unhappy with his Gods. He doesn't like the way they let men grow old and die so now he and his band are heading for Dunmanifestin, the home of the Gods, with the intention of giving them back something that mankind stole from them long ago - fire!

Trouble is he wants to do it with a 50lb keg of Agatean Thunder Clay and, given that the Gods live on top of Cori Celesti, the highest mountain on the Disc and the hub of the world's magic field, the explosion will result in the magic field collapsing. Unfortunately, the Discworld needs magic to exist - the turtle and the elephants holding it all up could very well just vanish.

Cohen and his Silver Horde may want to go out with a bang but it's a bang that could destroy the world. So, Lord Vetinari and the Magicians of Ankh Morporkh send gather their finest, or in this case, Leonard of Quirm, Rincewind and Captain Carrot, to go on a mission to try and stop them.

It was nice see Rincewind and Cohen back in a Discworld tale, even if it is a fairly short story. Pratchett's wit and humour are up to their usual par and there are some very funny moments in there. Also back in the frame are the Silver Horde, who made an appearance in Interesting Times, but they're minus Old Vincent, who has passed on. So Ghenghiz Cohen, accompanied by Truckle the Uncivil, Boy Willie, Caleb the Ripper and Mad Hamish, is on a kami-kazi run to give the Gods a bit of his mind (and body).

On the other side, we've got Lord Vetinari and the wizards of Unseen University, who've somehow got wind of his scheme and obviously want to put a dampener on it. Without going in to much detail, they choose Leonard of Quirm to build and pilot a device that will enable them to catch up with Cohen, Captain Carrot for some muscle and Rincewind as he's been in so many scrapes and is still alive they reckon he must have some serious luck on his sideand they're going to need it this time.

Then there the Gods, who're watching all of these goings on with some amusement. And there's Evil Harry Dread, the stock Dark Lord of the tale, who accompanies Cohen's band but really can't act out of his mould for very long. There's The Code to be followed you know!

It's actually quite a funny story and the book is fleshed out with a fair number of illustrations by Discworld artwork regular Paul Kidby, which helps make it last a wee bit longer.

Genre: Comedy, Fantasy
ISBN: 978-0-575-08196-3
My Rating: 7/10

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Rail Travel - SNAFU

The train situation gets more confusing. First ScotRail are saying…
Services between Glasgow Central and Ayrshire/Inverclyde are gradually returning to normal from 0700.

A bus shuttle remains in operation between Glasgow Central and Paisley Gilmour Street.

Sorry but I can't see what's "normal" about that and yet again, we have no rail service today. What's even more annoying is the fact that they are running rail services along our line as one of my work colleagues came in on an Ayr train yesterday and it stopped at Cardonald.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Network Rail Are Full Of Wind!

Yet again, we have no rail service today but this time they're blaming the weather…
Train services on all routes across Scotland are subject to disruption during the morning of Wednesday 9 January due to high winds and poor weather conditions.
The following lines are currently suspended and customers are advised not to travel or to make alternative arrangements. Replacement transport will not be provided on any of these routes:
- Between Glasgow Central and Ardrossan Harbour / Largs.
- Between Glasgow Central and Wemyss Bay / Gourock.
- Between Balloch and Renton.

Okay, it's a bit windy out but I've never heard of them stopping the trains because of wind or a bit of rain before now. I remember being in a train travelling to Helensburgh where a combination of high wind and tide had the waves breaking over Craigendoran Harbour and hitting the train windows. Yet, the trains ran on without any bother.

So they won't be running trains between Glasgow and Paisley for yet another day! How very convenient of another excuse to surface and give them yet more time to finish off the engineering work they started on the 27th of December. If you ask me, they're full of it - wind that is or am I thinking about bullsh1t!

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Happy New Year From Fort William

We woke up on New Year's Day in Fort William to yet another fairly grey and damp outlook but, undeterred and after a decent breakfast, we drove round to the Nevis Range ski resort to take the gondola up Aonach Mor for a bit of a cobweb-breaking wander around the mountain and then lunch in the Snowgoose Restaurant.

Loch LinnheLoch Linnhe On New Year's Day

The gondola cable car system transports visitors over 2.3km up to 2,150ft on the north face of Aonach Mor, the eighth highest mountain in Britain, in about 12 - 15 minutes. That's only just over half-way to the summit but you can get some pretty good views of the surrounding landscape on the way up.

Unfortunately, the weather wasn't great and the cloud was swirling around up there along with a little light drizzle. Not exactly brilliant weather for a stroll. There are a couple of shortish strolls from the gondola top station out to some viewpoints. You can go west to the little hummock of Meall Beag, where you can get some good views of Carn Dearg Meadhonach and Carn Mòr Dearg on the back side of Ben Nevis. These two peaks form the lead in to the Carn Mòr Dearg Arrete route to the top of our highest mountain.

Carn Dearg MeadhonachCarn Dearg Meadhonach from Meall Beag

We climbed the Ben by the Carn Mòr Dearg Arrete route some years ago and it's well worth the effort as the views out over the Aonachs and Grey Corries are excellent and you don't need to trudge up that boring tourist path. On top of that is the perceived danger of walking along the arrete itself and then the stiff climb up a boulder field to the summit. The other walk on Aonach Mor takes you north out to the little top of Sgurr Finnisg-aig where there are some good views out over Corpach and the Great Glen, weather permitting.

Feeling a bit damp and cold after both walks, we headed back to the Snowgoose for a bowl of hot soup and a roll to warm us up. It's a bit like a motorway café half-way up a mountain but the food is definitely better. They do a good range of hot and cold meals, catering for tourists, walkers and skiers alike. A cup of steaming hot tea and a cake to follow and we were ready to head back down to civilization.

Eating Out

We'd spotted a little restaurant in Cameron Square, called simply -No4-, the night before and after a shuftie at the menu, we'd booked a table for our New Year's evening meal. Situated just off Fort William's High Street, -No4- is a quiet little place with a touch of old fashioned colonial style, from the prints of India around the walls and the fact that the waiting staff were all pretty obviously from around there too.

However, you won't find any curry dishes here as the food is most definitely focused on local Scottish produce such as salmon, venison and lamb. Lorna had a Caesar Salad and I had more soup to start and then we tucked into a Chicken Forestiere and a Braised Lamb Shank on crushed potato with a rich port sauce and a fairly decent serving of fresh vegetables on the side. I was pretty stuffed by the time we'd scoffed that lot but Lorna finished of her meal with what looked like a very tasty Sticky Toffee Pudding.

If you fancy a bit of civilized dining with good food and service, then you might well find it worth trying. Strangely, or maybe not after the night before, most of the bars were closed so we headed back for an early night.

No Trains Today Again!

It'll have to be the bus for us again today…
Services for Wemyss Bay/Gourock are starting/terminating at Paisley Gilmour Street.
This reduced level of service is expected to continue throughout today Tuesday 8 January.

I wonder how long this will continue for and it's bound to cost ScotRail passengers as people find alternative methods of transport.

Monday, January 07, 2008

We Hates Network Rail!

We're still having to use the bus to get in and out of work as the idiots at Network Rail still haven't finished the two-day work programme they started on the 27th of December last year. While all the media focus has been about the fiasco on the west coast main line, we're still without a train service between Glasgow and Paisley on the Wemyss Bay/Gourock line, which must count for thousands of commuters every day.

This is all the information available today…
There is currently no estimate for a normal train service to resume between Glasgow Central and Paisley Gilmour Street. Services between Glasgow Central and Paisley Canal are expected to remain suspended throughout Monday 7 January.

How on earth can someone estimate the work at two days and then still not be finished after 12 days! We definitely hates Network Rail!

Sunday, January 06, 2008

The Golden Compass

The Golden CompassThe Golden Compass is the first installment in a new children's movie trilogy based on the His Dark Materials novels by Philip Pullman. This first movie is based on the novel called Northern Lights, although it was re-titled for the US market to The Golden Compass.
The story takes place on a parallel universe where everyone possesses a dæmon, a shape-shifting animalistic manifestation of their soul. Our tale begins when young Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards), an orphan residing at Jordan College, Oxford, secretly enters the Retiring Room, despite resistance from her dæmon, Pantalaimon (Freddie Highmore).

Hiding inside the room, she espies someone attempting to poison her uncle, Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig), and stop him revealing the existence of mysterious elementary particles called Dust. Lyra warns her uncle, preventing his murder, and he tells the scholars about his findings.

When her friend Roger is kidnapped by the mysterious Gobblers, Lyra vows to rescue him and gets her chance when Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman), a powerful figure in the Magisterium, offers to take Lyra away from Jordan College to become her apprentice. Before she leaves, the Master of the college gives her an alethiometer, a mystical device resembling a golden compass and which he says can give the answer to any question posed it. But the Magisterium and Mrs. Coulter know of the existence of the alethiometer and have very definite plans for both it and Lyra.

The Golden Compass
I was a bit wary about going to see yet another children's novel made into a film as we seem to be being flooded by them lately. However, this isn't quite as silly as the first Harry Potter movie and it has a fairly decent story behind it. Besides, it was the Christmas break so it's kind of expected.

It's always difficult transferring books to film because of the time constraints but it comes with a pretty good cast including Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig, Sir Ian McKellan, Tom Courtenay, Ian McShane, Sam Elliott and Christopher Lee and, along with some very good CGI visual effects bringing the dæmons and the ice bears to life, it tells a very watchable tale. I wouldn't recommend it for very young children though as there is a fair level of violence

I haven't read the books but, going by this film, the story seems capable of holding an adult audience as well as any Harry Potter book did so they may be worth checking out as well. Hopefully the sequel will be as good. It's called The Subtle Knife and is due for release in 2009.

Genre: Adventure, Drama, Family, Fantasy, Thriller
My Rating: 7/10

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Hogmanay in Fort William

Faced with a dismal menu of TV programmes over the New Year break, not having tickets for the Glasgow Hogmanay celebrations and the weather across the central belt looking very bleak indeed, we headed north to Fort William and potentially better weather, maybe even some of the white stuff. Setting off just after lunch, we arrived at about half past three, just as the sun was starting to go down.

Loch Linnhe Sunset on HogmanayLoch Linnhe Sunset On Hogmanay


As usual we left it to the last minute to decide on going. That and the fact that our wireless router had given up the ghost left us with very little choice of accommodation and not much in the way of a means to locate more options.

Anyway, Lorna ploughed though her pile of old business cards and tourist information brochures and called one we'd stayed at some years before, Blythdale, and which we'd remembered as being okay with some pretty good views out over Loch Linnhe, but they didn't have any room and suggested we try their neighbour at Balcarres. Luckily they had a room but, being the New Year and with them touting the fact that they had a four-star rating from the Scottish Tourist Agency, it wasn't that cheap but we took it anyway.

Unfortunately we couldn't really recommend Balcarres to anyone planning on staying in Fort William. Their web site makes it look not too bad and the owner was pleasant enough but the accommodation is definitely in need of a bit of renovation. The decor looked like it was last done in the 1980s, there were damp patches in one corner of the room, the bathroom radiator didn't work at all, there were mould stains round the shower and the TV was so old, the remote didn't work very well at all.

I've no idea when they got their four-star rating but it's in serious need of re-evaluation. We've stayed in two-star B&Bs with better facilities, etc. We even had to ask for fresh towels on the second day. These comments have been passed on to the tourist agency.

Eating Out

We booked a table at the Highland Star Chinese restaurant on High Street as we'd eaten there before a few times and it had always been pretty good. It was quieter than we'd expected but that could have been because of the time of year. It's usually packed during the main summer season.

Still, the food was good as usual and the service quick and friendly. The menu is pretty straightforward Chinese fair with nothing extraordinary on offer but it's always been good in the past and it's happily free of MSG as I usually get a pretty severe headache next day after eating anything tainted by it. If you fancy a Chinese meal in Fort William, then I'd recommend it.

The Entertainment

So, well fed and looking for some entertainment to see us through the bells, we wandered down High Street to see what was on offer. We already knew that there was a Hogmanay Ceilidh on at the Nevis Centre but it was ticket only and was predicted to be a sell out as it had been the previous couple of years. If we'd known we were going to Fort William earlier in the year, then we might have tried to get tickets. However, there were quite a few lads wandering around town in formal Highland Dress, obviously heading for the Ceilidh so it may well have been too posh for the likes of us.

With quite a few of the local bars staying open over the bells, we opted for the Ben Nevis Bar. It certainly seemed the liveliest and we've spent a few good nights in there before with some good live music acts as well. This time it was a disco and I know that sounds bad, almost as bad as karaoke, but it was actually quite a good night. I think we called it a night about one thirty and trudged wearily, or was was that wobbily, back to our bed.

Friday, January 04, 2008

Cold Turkey Spell Over!

Well that's me back online again after almost a week. I woke up on the 29th of December to a wireless router showing no wee blinky lights at all. It was deid!

Talk about Christmas Cold Turkey! Finagle's Law strikes again so, just when I'd be settling in to doing a bit of surfing over the holiday period to pass the time, I couldn't. Even buying a replacement wouldn't be simple - no internet to check prices, models, etc. and, it being the holiday period, no guarantee of quick delivery.

We were planning to go away for a few days over the weekend and the new year so it wasn't a huge deal but it is very, very unsettling to have no connection to the net. Anyway, I'm back online again now. The problem was the the power supply, which was easily replaced.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

The Illuminatus! Trilogy - by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson

The Illuminatus! TrilogyThe Illuminatus! Trilogy is a compendium of the three books (The Eye In The Pyramid, The Golden Apple and Leviathan) in one volume.
The story begins with an investigation by a couple of New York City detectives into the bombing of a leftist magazine called Confrontation and the disappearance of its editor. The two discover that it was currently looking into the John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, Jr. assassinations and, following a trail of memos that suggest the involvement of powerful secret societies, they become drawn into a web of conspiracy theories.

Who really shot the Kennedys? Why is there a pyramid on a one-dollar bill? Can dolphins really talk? All this and the mysteries of of the lost city of Atlantis are answered within.

Unfortunately, for all the back cover hype, this was perhaps the most disappointing book I've read in a long time. There were so many occasions that I thought about just giving up and reading no more but I persevered just in case something could resurrect my interest. Sadly it was not to be and I ended up finishing the book with no more satisfaction than I had after the first 100 pages.

The writing style is atrocious! There is literally no structure to the work. There are no chapters and sentences can run on from one to the next with no breaks or punctuation. What's even worse is the fact that, within a paragraph, you can be reading about one character's exploits and in the next sentence the focus switches completely and there's no indication that anything has changed at all until it dawns on you that something doesn't seem right.

How anyone can rate this as a "cult masterpiece" or a "devilishly funny work" I'm not sure. There's very little in the way of humour in it and most of the story is either just confusing or absolute waffle. Okay, they've seeded it with a few hard-core sex and drug scenes to appeal to the pulp-fiction junkies but even that gets a bit tedious after a while. Most of the main characters meandered through the story while high on drugs so I wouldn't be surprised to learn that the authors were in a similar condition when they wrote it.

If you want to retain your sanity, then give this one a miss!

Genre: Mystery, Science-Fiction
ISBN: 978-1-85487-574-7
My Rating: 3/10