Friday, 27 January 2012

Getting (almost) anything onto your Kindle

Hey folks, it's time for another of those "I just discovered something that everyone probably knows about but it was news to me" posts. Specifically this is about the Amazon Kindle and how to get non-amazon ebooks onto it. As much as I love my Kindle my one complaint has been having to buy eBooks only from Amazon. Though I think their pricing is pretty good, I've always been uncomfortable with having no choice. Well that problem was solved when I discovered a little downloadable programme called "Calibre".

Marketing itself as the ultimate eBook organiser I watched the short introduction movie and was pleased to see how simple the tool is to use. You simply add your eBooks to Calibre and they are stored with editable meta-data (so if you don't agree with the genre listing you can change it to something else), with the option to add more metadata if you want. The layout is simple but attractive, with a list of your books in the middle and the details about the one you have currently selected shown on the right, front cover and all. When I first added my books to it one of them had no image but this was easily solved with the edit metadata option, which lets you "download a cover". After it searches the inter web it will show you what covers it found and allow you to select one to be shown in your library. Voila! One attractive book cover added.

The reason I sought out Calibre was more to do with buying a lot of books in ePub format for a lot less than they would have cost at Amazon (from Angry Robot, who have some really original Fantasy and Horror titles). But the Kindle only accepts Mobi files, so what's a girl to do? The answer is find a programme that will convert the file into a format the Kindle will accept. Calibre does this, and is super easy to use; you simply add your device to the programme (again this is incredibly easy and intuitive) and you click and drag your book to the device icon. It asks immediately if you want to convert the file and hey presto - one ePub book added to your Kindle. So far this seems to have worked perfectly and all the books I've converted look spot on.

I have to say I've been incredibly impressed with Calibre and am now using it as my eBook back-up system. I'm in the process of adding all my Kindle store purchases to the Calibre library, so I can see them on my Mac, and edit the details to make it easier for me to find things. I particularly like the ability to "tag" your books so I can add whatever phrases make sense to me, rather than having to stick to just dull "Drama", or "Funny" genres. Instead I'll have "Dragons", "Intellectual Stuff", "Slow Builder" and "Brainless Fun" among others. The only downside I can see with Calibre is it doesn't track where you've put your eBooks, but as I'm currently only using one eBook reader I don't think that will be a problem for me, though I could see it causing confusion where multiple devices are used. This is a really minor issue though, and I really recommend Calibre if you need to convert some ePubs or other formats, or even if you just want to have your eBook library stored in one easy to use place.

And the best part of it all? It's entirely free (though they are more than grateful for donations!)

Monday, 23 January 2012

Book Review: The Moonstone

The Moonstone - Wilkie Collins - 1868 (Kindle 2006 version reviewed) - 664 pages

Image source: Amazon UK
I'm determined to review every book I finish in 2012, so that I can see how many books I get through in that time, as well as to share my thoughts on them. At the end of last year I bought a lot of classics on my kindle (they are free after all) and the first one I started reading was The Moonstone. Well, two and a bit months since starting I finally finished it and, despite how long it took to get through, I have to say it was thoroughly enjoyable.

Monday, 16 January 2012

Deja Boob

I happened to catch a recent article in IGN, "Opinion; Boobs, Bad Games and Misogyny", and almost had to restrain a sigh of utter boredom. Not because it's a bad article, it isn't, but due to the fact that this is still, STILL, a subject in gaming circles. Don't get me wrong, it's good we discuss gender issues relating to games; there's still progress to be made in the gaming world with regard to full gender integration (and full sexuality integration - how many LGBT characters can you think of in video games?) But it depresses me that we still have articles and arguments about "boobs in games". The fact there are (relatively) so few women in the industry is far more interesting to me, especially the fact that the number is starting to grow. But instead most discussions of misogyny in games comes down to the size of characters tits... *sigh*

I've played games most of my life; I am no stranger to the way that some female characters have been designed. The most obvious that springs to mind is the one and only Lara Croft, who was known as much for her chest size as her ability to raid a tomb or two. If I'm honest it never bothered me or made me angry when I played the first game - because it was a good game. I do remember playing it with a friend and both of us collapsing into a heap of giggles when we started talking about her boobs, but it never annoyed me. In fact I think I was just happy to have a female character at all, considering before that there hadn't been that many. This doesn't make it okay for all women to be portrayed as Playboy bunnies of course, but what this never ending topic always misses are the countless female characters that were not like this. Those with realistic bodies, sharp minds, and the ability to sharp shoot. So I'm going to list here five of my top female game characters who don't conform to the stereotype of "all sexy, no substance". Feel free to add your own in the comments.

Samus Aran - Metroid Prime series

One of the earliest female characters to not conform to expectations, many players got a surprise when they finished the first Metroid Prime game to discover that the character they'd been playing all that time was in fact a woman. Of course in later iterations when we do get to see her she has the big chest to be expected in games (apparently) but it doesn't detract from the fact that the Metroid games were never about her looks.

Samus has become something of a sex
symbol outside of the games. Unsurprisingly...

April Ryan - The Longest Journey

Not many may have played it but I loved the Longest Journey (and to a lesser extent it's sequel), mainly due to April Ryan being a fantastic and deep character. She has parent issues, ambitions, dreams under threat - and at no point are her looks an issue.

Aeris - Final Fantasy VII

She may have started out as the "girl needing rescuing" but Aeris develops as a substantially important character in her own right, and again her mind and abilities are the focus. Also; Most. Tragic. Event. Ever. In. Games. Period. (If you don't know what I mean, I pity you; you missed out big time)

Alyx Vance - Half-Life 2

A companion to the main character, Alyx is a very useful helper; she hardly dies, opens doors, and helps in combat. And no huge mammary glands.

Jade - Beyond Good and Evil

Also one of the first non-white main characters to grace a game, Jade was smart, brave and has all her clothes on. The developer behind her creation, Michael Ancel, admitted that he wanted to create a realistic character, rather than a "sexy action woman".

Other notable mentions should go to; Chell - Portal, Chloe Frazer - Uncharted, Elena Fisher - Uncharted, Grace Nakamura - Gabriel Knight series, Lightning - Final Fantasy XIII, and the most excellent Elaine Marley - Monkey Island series. The thing all these characters have in common with the "stereotype" is their attractiveness - so far no ugly main female characters have graced our screens. But the same could be said of TV, films, music videos... hell, any visual medium. And I want to emphasise here that I'm not saying it's fine to portray ALL women as bouncing bimbos who get rescued by the big strong man, and can only help by healing him when he gets hurt. But that isn't what I see in the gaming world. I see a vast diversity in female characters; some are 'bimbos', some are smart, some are vulnerable, and some are tough as nails. Some are even a mixture of all of the above. There's still work to be done to get more of this variety into games, but it isn't, in my opinion, the sexist mosh pit that some articles/commentators would have us believe.

The last thing I want to say on this subject is that I've never been insulted by a female character having big breasts, a small waist and a pert bum when I've been playing games. I'm far more insulted by a bad game with awful game play being sold at the same price as the good stuff. It's no surprise that when you're playing a game, especially one that may last for 60+ hours, you want something nice to look at (I play as a male Shepherd in Mass Effect - partly because I feel he fits better with the story, and also so I have a nice bum to look at for the hundred or so game play hours I'll be putting in. I can't blame straight guys for doing the same with female characters).

We can all agree that outright objectification is bad (and lazy). But if that's the case, I think the guys have a lot to complain about too, don't you think?


All images from Wikipedia, unless otherwise stated

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Inspiration at Home

I decided to take this week away from work to focus on the writing, as well as to recharge the batteries a bit for the year ahead. If the last one was anything to go by I'm going to need it; where does the time go? Before tucking into my own stories I spent yesterday learning more about the tales and life of Charles Dickens, at the Museum of London's exhibition "Dickens and London". Though it's more about the man and the city he inhabited, it reveals where his stories, characters and settings came from. It turns out the best inspiration can be just outside your own door.

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Flash Fiction Challenge - "Miss Billet Investigates"

Post New Year and I'm trying to get back into a writing schedule. To get the engine running I've taken part in another of the dastardly Flash Fiction Challenges concocted in the deep recesses of Chuck Wendig's mind. This week's challenge was to write a 1000 word story mashing up any of the two following genres;

Dystopian Sci-Fi!
Cozy Mysteries!
Slasher or Serial Killer!
Lost World!
Spy Fiction!
Bodice Ripper!

I won't say which ones I chose (hopefully it will be obvious) but have to say I enjoyed writing this. My entry is no where near as good as some of the others and I highly recommend checking them out via Mr. Wendig's blog. So here is my humble offering;

Miss Billet Investigates

A loud bang upstairs made Miss Billet spill a bit of her precious tea on her lap.

“Oh, that just won’t do,” she said, as she wiped the wet patch with her hanky. Her sister, Mrs H (for she had refused to change her name since the divorce, but insisted on not having to hear it ever again) threw the parlor door open.

“Did you hear that terrible noise? You don’t suppose one of them got in do you?”

“No, my dearest, I doubt it. We have triple bolts on all windows and doors, a double row of grating, as well as the best laser defence this side of London. I rather imagine it was the cat, making a nuisance of himself as usual.” Miss Billet rose to her feet and went upstairs, her sister close behind her. They passed their lodger’s locked door, before finally reaching the third floor.

The rejuvenation room’s door was open. There was no sign of any damage to the windows, so being kidnapped by the Shadows didn’t seem to be an imminent problem. The floor had scuff marks on it, with a scattering of the cat’s fur, but other wise all seemed normal.

“I can’t see anything wrong, can you sister” Mrs H asked.

“No... and yet something must have caused that noise dearest. I wonder--”

Mrs Billet stifled a cry. It was most unlike her to express emotions of any sort, but what she had just seen, or rather not seen, was enough to make a stone scream. The de-aging machine was gone. Everything else was present; the anti-wrinkle rejuvenator, the bone marrow renewer, even the long unused breast augmenter. But the one thing they needed the most, the one machine that would allow them to live forever, was gone.

Though she hadn’t said a word her sister soon noticed the missing object, and she did in deed scream. So loud in fact that the next thing they heard was their lodger running up the stairs.

“Dear god, they haven’t got in have they?!”

“No, Mr Jag, no one has got in. But something has very much gone missing.”

After explaining what had happened, the young man (having had his latest de-aging treatment a few weeks ago) slumped into one of the oversized bean bags that littered the floor.

“Where could it have gone, Miss Billet? How could it simply disappear?” As he spoke Mrs H took a seat next to him, her head shaking back and forth.

“Mr Jag, you know perfectly well it couldn’t have disappeared. Someone took it,” replied Miss Billet.
Both of her audience gasped, and looked everywhere except at each other as they both said simultaneously, “well, it wasn’t me.”

Miss Billet smiled. She considered torturing them a little longer with their suspicions, but thought better of it.

“I am well aware it could not have been either of you. After all, you were together in Mr Jag’s room when the loud noise was heard.”

They both paled, Mrs H’s lower lip shaking in an attempt to form the letter “b”. Mr Jag got there first.
“But... but how could you know that?”

“With all due respects Mr Jag, I’m not senile yet. And you must recall I was the Met’s best detective before the Shadows descended. I admire your efforts to keep your affair secret, but I have known of it these past thirty years.”

Her sister jumped to her feet, “Then why didn’t you say anything!?”

“I felt if you wanted to keep it secret you had every right to do so, dear sister.”

At that Mrs H sank back into her chair, looking the way she normally did with one of Miss. Billets perfectly logical replies. She replied, “But then who took the de-ager? You couldn’t have, for I ran downstairs the moment I heard the noise.”

“No dear sister, I didn’t take it.”

“Then who? There’s no one else in the house... unless... one of them is in here.”

The two lovers looked about as though they may be able to see one of the Shadows standing next to them if they only looked with the sides of their eyes.

“You’re not looking in the right places. Are they my little friend?” Mrs Billet said into the air.

The cat jumped up on the ornate table to Miss Billet’s right and curled its tail delicately around its feet. He looked at Miss Billet with huge, green eyes.

“None of that. Your game was up a while ago with me. Now explain yourself.”

For a second longer the cat continued to look at her in blissful ignorance. Then, when it clearly wasn’t working, the gaze relaxed and the cat swung his head down to stare at the table top.

“I’m sorry.”

Mrs H and Mr Jag let out a cry as the small voice sounded from the cat.

“That’s not really good enough,” Miss Billet replied, “What did you do with the de-ager?”

“I... I just needed to borrow it. I dropped it. I... I hid it.”

“But... but... but...” Mr Jag muttered.

“It’s quite alright Mr. Jag. We do indeed have one of them residing with us. But he is not, exactly, one of them.”

“Oh no,” exclaimed the cat, meeting their gazes without hesitation, “I hate my kind. We’re so mean. In here... well I can relax. I can live a good life. I just needed the de-ager for a bit, to hold off my own years. I’ve used it before and no one noticed, but this time... I panicked. I’m sorry. I’ll bring it back.”

No sooner had the last word been uttered than the de-ager reappeared in its correct place, undamaged by its inter-dimensional travel.

“I suppose you’ll want me to leave now,” asked the cat.

“Not at all. In fact I want you to stay. It will give me someone to talk to while these two canoodle upstairs,” replied Miss Billet.