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Monthly Archives: May 2012

Review: The Dresden Files (Storm Front)


I’m not sure how I managed to go so long before discovering the Dresden Files series.  The series has run for about 12 years so far, composed of 13 novels and 2 short story collections and even had a short-lived TV series on Sci-Fi/SyFy.  Yet somehow the first I heard of it was about 3 years ago through the blog of one my favourite authors, Patrick Rothfuss.  Since then I’ve heard about it everywhere, like a word you’ve never heard before then everyone else seems to say it all the time.  From the many times its come up on my favourite book club podcast, authors blogs and my friends who are a little more clued in than me, it seemed pretty obvious that this was one to look out for.

The Dresden Files is a fantasy/mystery series set in modern-day Chicago and follows the investigations of a wizard named Harry Dresden who spends his days working as a detective, occasionally doing some consulting for the local police force.  It seems that a major side effect of being a wizard is that technology starts to fall apart when he gets too close, whether it’s a fancy mobile phone, a car, or even a simple gun.  Between this and the inhabitants of Chicago not being too confident about hiring a “wizard” to help them out he’s forever struggling to make ends meet, giving the series the feel of a 1930s hardboiled detective novel, which I just so happen to be a casual fan of.

The series starts with the unfortunately named Storm Front (sharing a name with a white supremacist neo-Nazi group is rarely a good thing).  I started reading this one partway through The Amber Spyglass, after thinking that the way Lyra’s dream sequence just cuts out at the end of the first chapter was a result of a badly assembled eBook, rather than artistic style.  It wasn’t too long, so I expected it would take me maybe a week or so of bus journeys to/from work to finish up.  Instead it took 3 days of reading it every chance I could bring it up on my phone or Kindle, whether it was waiting for the bus, standing in the queue at the chip shop, or missing the latest episode of Game of Thrones.

Harry Dresden doesn’t seem to been cast the best lot in life, as the book reveals early on. Trained in the ways of magic by a fairly unscrupulous teacher who he kills in self-defence when he refuses to become involved with the dark arts he finds himself blacklisted by the higher-ups of the wizarding community. Even worse, the warden assigned to keep an eye on him is particularly zealous, ready to execute him at the slightest sign of him breaking any of the rules governing the use of magic.

Back in the present day, the police have a new case for Harry Dresden, investigating a particularly gruesome killings performed using dark magic. Unfortunately, this case seems to have drawn a lot of attention from other less-reputable members of society, leading him on a merry chase involving vampires, crime lords and even the odd demon. Worse still, his ever-likable warden suspects that Dresden himself is responsible for the killings, and is eager to have him put on trial and executed for his crimes. On top of all this the police don’t pay in advance, and Harry’s already overdue on next month’s rent. Luckily he does have one client who’s willing to pay in advance, but trying to find the time to help her out on top of everything else proves a little tricky.

As you can gather from my quick summary, this book’s pretty damn packed. There’s not a single chapter in which didn’t have me glued to the pages and desperate to find out what happened next.  You’d worry that a wizard might have an unfair advantage over many people, but as it turns out that’s not really the case unless you’ve had enough time and resources to prepare. Trying to wave your arms around and mutter some half-remembered words of power doesn’t really have the same effect when someone’s repeatedly hitting you over the head with a baseball bat. The author, Jim Butcher, manages to take things such as magic, demons and vampires and merge them in such a way that it doesn’t really feel out-of-place in the otherwise regular, mundane world.  It’s also worth noting that the audiobooks are read by James Marsters of Buffy and Angel fame, and that’s pretty damn awesome.

The only thing stopping me from reading the rest of this series immediately is that we’re already approaching the end of May, yet this is only the 3rd of the 12 books I decided I’d read this year, and most of those are pretty hefty reads. Once I’m back on track with them, I’ll be coming right back to find out what happens next.

 
 

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Review: The Golden Compass and the “His Dark Materials” trilogy


The “His Dark Materials” trilogy has been hanging around on my radar since my younger brother read them about 10 years back.  Then again when mum read them a year later.  Then yet again last year when they came up in conversation with my fiancée.  Every single time they were amazed that I’d never read them before, insisting that it was an absolute must-read for fantasy fans.  So I figured its about time to check them out.

My original plan was just to read the first book for now, but as with Skulduggery Pleasant I got hooked into the series and went straight into the rest of trilogy.  Unlike skulduggery pleasant though, I found these to be a much slower read, but not necessarily in a bad way.  But anyway, the review.

The first book in the trilogy is called The Golden Compass (or “The Northern Lights” depending on where you live) and is set in a world similar to our own during the late 19th century.  Since it is a fantasy story after all there’s a few pretty big differences, the main one being that everyone has their own daemon, which is an external manifestation of their soul that travels with them wherever they go.  The first book doesn’t go into too much depth into what these daemons are and what other differences exist, instead letting you figure these things out yourself based on the little things that happen throughout the story.  I personally found this annoying at first because I wanted to know more about the lore of the world , but in retrospect this was done pretty damn well (I’ll explain why shortly).  The story of this book tells the tale of a young girl named Lyra, living out her youth in the city of Oxford by playing at wars with the other local children and generally milling around having fun.  Until a mysterious group appears in town and children start disappearing, including her friend Roger, starting her off on a grand journey to the north to find and rescue him.  It all sounds a bit too kiddy at first, but the story slowly takes a much more mature turn as you make your way through the series, ultimately becoming an all-out war against the forces of what’s pretty much the entire Christian pantheon.

***Spoiler Warning***

The high point of the series for me though was in the first book.  I was reading through it fairly slowly, not thinking it really deserved all the hype and praise it got until I reached a certain scene about halfway through.  Lyra’s up north with a group of friends and travellers, trying to find the kidnappers headquarters, when she takes a detour to visit a boy who’s appeared in a nearby village.  Nothing seemed strange about this until she met the boy, and then my horror and disgust matched Lyra’s own.  The boy didn’t have a daemon.  It’s hard to get across just how big an impact that had on me, but I’ll try.  Even though they hadn’t delved into the lore too much, the book had subtly been swaying my opinion towards what was considered normal within this world. I hadn’t realised the depths this had sunk in until this young boy without a daemon appeared, and I was struck with the feeling that someone being separated from their daemon was the most unnatural affront to nature imaginable.  That was enough to convince me that Phillip Pullman was a damn good writer and kept me going through the rest of the trilogy.  The only problem was that I never encountered another moment quite like that again.  Sure there were plenty of well-written scenes and parts which made you feel tense, sad or excited, but that one scene was the pinnacle of the series for me.

 
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Posted by on May 18, 2012 in 2012 reading challenge, Reading, Review

 

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Auto-Backup your saved games


Those of using Steam probably already know about Steamcloud, the service which automatically backs up the saves for certain games.  The problem is a lot of games that don’t support this and probably never will.  So I did some digging around online and managed to figure out how to set up a system to do this for you.  It’s fairly easy to get working and once you’ve set it up for a game you don’t need to worry about it again.

The first step is to install a file backup/sharing utility.  There’s quite a few available, but I’ll be using Dropbox for this guide since that’s what I’m already using.

Once you’ve got this set up you then need to find where your saved games are held for each game. For some it might be a single file called “Been.sav” or “data.sav” (if it ends in .sav it’s probably a save file).  Or it might be a large number of files and folders, all within another folder called “Save”.  You can back them up regardless, but there’s slightly different steps for each type.

Either case you’ll want to copy the save file(s) somewhere into your Dropbox folder.  Then open up a command prompt (Start menu, then “run” and type “cmd”) and do one of the following steps for each computer you’re using.

Single save file:

For single files you’ll be using a little utility called “fsutil”.  This comes pre-installed on Windows XP (and Windows Vista and 7 as far as I can tell) so you don’t need to install anything extra to get it working.  What you need to do is type the following command into the command prompt, swapping in the location you want to store the save file, and the location that the original file was held at.  You need to make sure you remove the save file from the original location (make sure you’ve backed it up first!).

C:\>fsutil hardlink create "new location" "old location"

For example, to move my Sonic 3 saved file to my Dropbox folder, I would type out something like this:

C:\>fsutil hardlink create "C:\Dropbox\Saved games\Sonic 3\sonic3.sav" "C:\Program Files\Sega\Sonic3\save.dat"

As you can see, the files don’t have to share the same name.  Now both of these files actually refer to the same file, it just has 2 different names and locations.  Practice with a few .txt files if you want some practice before just diving into moving and deleting your saved games.

Save folder:

As far as I can tell, there’s no built-in program for doing this in Windows XP, so you’ll need to get a (free) program called “Junction” which is available from Microsoft (There is a built-in version for Windows Vista/7, but I’ll say why I’m not using that later).  Using Junction isn’t much more difficult than using fsutil, except you have to first navigate to wherever you’ve stored the Junction program.  The easiest way to do this is to copy to your main C:\ drive, then type “cd\” into the command prompt.  To set up the link between the folders though, you type the following

C:\>junction "new location" "original location" 

So if I wanted to back up my Baldur’s Gate saved games folder I’ll type something like this

C:\>junction "C:\Dropbox\Saved games\Baldur's Gate\" "C:\Program files\Black Isle\Baldur's Gate\Saved games\"

And that’s that.  Just like when you’re backing up a single save file, it doesn’t matter if you name the directories anything different.

mklink for Windows Vista/7:

If you’re using Windows Vista/7 there’s a built-in program you can use called mklink.  This does the same thing as junction, only you don’t have to go to the same folder every time you want to use it.  However, it doesn’t let you run it on an administrator’s account, so you have to create another user account with the ability to create symbolic links.  That makes it a bit too lengthy to cram into this post, but if you’d like to check it out you can follow these links to find out about mklink and how to get it working.

 
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Posted by on May 11, 2012 in Computing, Gaming

 

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My single new year’s resolution – Progress so far


It’s a few months into the year, so now seems like a good time to give an update on how my single new years resolution is going.  Judging from my fingers not looking a complete mangled mess I’d say I’ve made some progress, but I’ve still got a fair way to go.  As I mentioned back  in my original post I’ve been keeping track of how often I end up chewing or picking at my fingers and each time I either give in or find myself idly gnawing on them I’ll be putting £1 in my “chew box”, then donating that money at the end of the month.  The original plan was to give it to one of my favourite podcasts, Nerdy Show, but by the end of January that plan changed somewhat so the money’s now being donated to the charity “Find your MAP”, which I’ll be talking about another time.

Here’s the tally so far:

  • January: 22.  Not the best score, but pretty good considering what I was like before.
  • February: 21.  Bit of an improvement here, but there were fewer days in this month.
  • March: 27.  Ah…  Not quite going in the right direction any more…
  • April: 16.  Now we’re getting somewhere.  Using clippers to carefully remove any hangnails and not just biting them is definitely helping.

So I did take a bit of a dive during March, but in retrospect that seems to made me redouble my efforts for the next month.  If I can just keep the hangnails at bay for a few weeks or so then I’m home free.

 
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Posted by on May 4, 2012 in Self-Improvement

 

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