Sunday, January 31, 2010

I love my shiny new iPod

As many of you loyal readers know, I had a birthday recently. On its own, it was fine as birthdays go, but my wonderful wife wanted to spoil me with something extravagant this year. She gave me two options: an e-reader or an iPod. I was beside myself with ecstasy!

After debating with my ecstatic self over night, I made my decision: I wanted the iPod touch. To get a second opinion, I bounced the situation off of a couple of coworkers, telling them that I was faced with a difficult choice.

One of them said, “Well, you’re not exactly faced with Sophie’s Choice here, are you? I don’t see a wrong answer.” After a few minutes’ discussion, I felt that I had indeed made the right decision.

The e-reader would be nice because I buy a lot of gaming PDFs and it would be nice to have a more portable way to read them, especially larger ones that I don’t want to print out. But the iPod touch can handle that with the help of an app. And I really want the iPod’s ease-of-use for downloading and listening to podcasts.

So I’ve had my new wonder-gadget for a couple of weeks now. I added a few apps and eventually realized that I can put music on it too.

For my wife, the iPod has been a mixed blessing. There’s no doubt in her mind that it was the best birthday present ever(!), but now she has to vie against it for my attention. Harkening back to my coworker’s comment, she has dubbed it ‘Sophie’ and refers to it as my other woman. She felt REALLY threatened the night I brought the iPod to bed so that I could finish a story I was reading via the e-Reader app.

Now listening to: Alt Nation on XM

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

Book review 2010.03

Author: Jane Austen & Seth Grahame-Smith

This is one of those books I’ve been meaning to read for a while, and I finally remembered to get it from the library. While reading it, I decided to do the right thing and compare it to the original, so I downloaded Pride and Prejudice to my iPod via and the eReader app.

Seth Grahame-Smith did an excellent job of re-writing the story to layer in zombies, without changing the overall theme or details of the original. The zombie plague falls into the background as part of the setting and story, without overshadowing the original tale.

Pride and Prejudice is foremost a story about prattling women, what we nowadays refer to as a “period piece.” Quite frankly, I couldn’t bear to read it without the zombies to spruce it up. Let’s face it, A Room With A View is a great movie, but wouldn’t it be even better if Helena Bonham Carter’s character had been trained by Shaolin monks to be a katana-wielding zombie slayer, as young Elizabeth Bennet was here?

Of course, families of means have their daughters and sons trained in Japan, rather than by peasant monks, but the Bennet family is not so well off. Sometimes the story is over the top, as when Elizabeth slays three ninja without so much as drawing a breath, or entertains friends by doing a handstand for over an hour. That’s right – zombies AND ninjas! Seth Grahame-Smith did a great job with this re-imagining of a terrific piece of classical literature.

Whenever something fun happened in the book, I’d double check the original on my iPod to see how it played out without zombies or G-S’s humor. Many times I was surprised to find that the little bit of humor was not his doing, but was exactly as written by Austen. And it’s her sarcastic and humorous take on English society and culture that carries the story.

While I intended to read this lightly, skimming pages at a time while the women prattled on, and they DO prattle on for pages at a time, I frequently couldn’t. It was an interesting story and would’ve been even without the zombies. But I wouldn’t have read it were it not for the Grahame-Smith. And his handling of some details really enhanced the story, such as how he resolved things with that reprobate Wickham. Just what he and Lydia deserved and very funny too.

Dracula the Un-Dead

Book review 2010.02

Author: Dacre Stoker and Ian Holt

From the book's Afterword:
Dracula the Un-Dead is a multifaceted sequel to a multilayered novel. Dacre Stoker and Ian Holt follow the lives and fortunes of the surviving characters... All have suffered irreparable damage in both their personal and their professional lives as a result of their past encounters with Dracula. 

I wasn't sure what to expect with this novel and took it up with some trepidation and cynicism. I mean, you don't just pick up a classic and proclaim to write the second volume in the series.

This book represents not only a continuation of the story, but also a reimagining of the original. They approach this story as only two life-long fans of Bram Stoker's work can. The original story was told from the points of view of the heroes confronting the monster. In this sequel, we get the "monster's" point of view. Additionally, we are presented with a larger story, which the limited perspecitves of the intrepid heroes could not begin to be aware of.

Dracula the Un-Dead is a well-written, compelling read, very much in the spirit of the original work.Yet the story is fresh, and takes place 25 years later. I like that the authors took a lot of creative liberties with the time frame and historical data, and also made some adjustments to the details in order to create a wonderful and thrilling tale.

As much as I enjoyed this book, it has two faults: one minor and one major. First, this new take on the greatest of gothic monsters comes scarily close to making Dracula one of those monstrosities of modern day pop-fiction: a sparkly, romantic superman. They come VERY close to this travesty. Some people might say they do indeed cross that line. I'm willing to over look this because I'm just that much of a fan of Dracula, both the character and the literary work. And this work.

Now the second fault is this: the final chapter. Do yourself a favor and do not read chapter 63. The story ends with chapter 62. Those last five pages are meaningless AND don't make logical sense in the time frame. The character and the cargo could not arrive at the same place in the same, short amount of time, based on the events of the preceding chapter.

The authors claim that they included that chapter as a means of opening doors for the next book, but if you read it, you'll see that the chapter does the opposite and not including that chapter would have left things much more open, especially given the groundwork already put in place in the novel. So when you're reading this book, when the story ends -- stop reading. Let yourself savor that ending for a day or two. THEN come back and read the final chapter if you must.

This is a book I wouldn't mind owning because I liked it that much.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Little Brother

Book review 2010.01

Author: Cory Doctorow

This is a book I first encountered on Mur Lafferty’s podcast, “I should be writing.” And I’ve spent the past year trying to remember to find it and read it. I picked it up at the library last week and wolfed it down.

The title is a play on the Big Brother concept (that’s how I interpret it), and the first chapter reminded me of Harry Harrison’s Stainless Steel Rat. The main character, Marcus Yallow, is a 17-year-old computer hacker who quickly finds himself in a tight spot. The first chapter is great, introducing the characters and their modern cyberpunk lifestyles. Not really full-on cyberpunk, but the characters represent OUR children who are growing up immersed in an amazing level of technology. (Seriously, how much longer will it be before our technology becomes “sufficiently advanced” enough to be like magic?)

Doctorow doesn’t give you time to get bored because no sooner does he have the characters on the stage and having fun than he literally jerks the stage out from under them. And from here on, the story is all too frighteningly real as Big Brother steps in and takes over.

I couldn’t put the book down. Like I said, these characters represent OUR children in the modern world. Their lives are filled with social networks, pocket computers, and constant surveillance by an un-caring and non-representative government. I loaned this book to George Orwell and upon reading it, he turned to me and said, “Holy shit…this is scary as hell!” I kid you not.

But Doctorow gives us hope that for all of Big Brother’s evil, there’ll always be a small, rebellious army of Little Brothers out there subverting the Idiot Savant’s control. And that helps me sleep at night.

Little Brother is a Young Adult novel, so you’ll have to look for it in your library or book store’s YA section. And I strongly encourage you to do so.

Remember kids: Overthrow the dominant paradigm and never trust anyone over 30.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Leveling up

My buddy wrote a couple of excellent posts about his ambitious goals for 2010, and it’s made me jealous. I like New Year’s Resolutions. It’s as good a time as any to say, “Hey, I just passed ‘GO’. Time to start my journey around the game board again. I wonder if I can do anything differently this time around.”

Or, more to my perspective: “I just gained a level. Now how do I want to spend my skill points and advances on myself?” Whether it’s New Year’s Eve, your birthday, or some religious Day of Reckoning, we all need to pick an annual point of reference and use it to look back and reflect. I prefer doing this on my birthday, which is only two weeks after New Year’s, so I start thinking about it on January 1st, and by my birthday, I have a pretty good idea how I want to spend those experience points.

Wifey and I decided that this year we will spend more time with friends. Last year, our friends largely got pushed aside by family, and that left us both feeling unsatisfied. So we’re going to hang with our buds more this year and tell the fam to back off. 

I intend to do more gaming. It’s my favorite hobby and form of socializing, and quite frankly I want more. I’m going to launch that Savage Worlds game I’ve been talking about. I’m going to invite friends over for board games. And I’ll toss a couple of spare games in the back of the car. I’m going to be like the gunslinging paladin of old: Have games – will travel.

Unlike my buddy linked to above, I have no crazy notion of reading 50 books. I like Food Network and Netflix too much. Two books per month seems reasonable, but not very challenging. I’ll shoot for three, but I’m not going to count graphic novels or comics. (Although I’d count the six ‘pocket book’ volumes of Strangers in Paradise that I plowed through a few months ago. Damn good story too.)

Once again, I make myself an empty promise to blog more regularly. Weekly. Honest to Odin, a blog post each week is my goal and may Thor whack me on the head if I fail. One way I’m going to do this is by posting a short review of each book I read and any new games I play. I’ve been thinking a lot about other themes to blog on, so I might try a few experiments too.

Last summer I proved that I can easily drop a few pounds and keep them off if I give it an honest try – and that’s without doing much in the way of exercising. But my fondness for heavy beer and the October – December Hershey’s binge got the better of me, so now I’m starting over again. This year, I’ll keep a better eye on both and add a few more fresh fruits and vegetables to the mix.

I’ve challenged myself to rise up and do something this year at work. I work hard and do a good job, but it’s been a while since I really gave it my all and rolled a critical hit. So I’m putting a few XPs into my work skills this level.

That’s it for my resolutions for the year. I’ll keep you posted on how they play out.

Now reading: Dracula the un-dead (the new sequel) and Knights of the Dinner Table #157

Monday, January 11, 2010

Deal us a hand of winter games

The winter is off to a snowy, frigid start, with the most amazing snowfall ever (nearly three feet) followed by several weeks of below-freezing temperatures. We’re not used to this New England-style weather here in the foothills of the Shenandoah Mountains. But my wife & kids & I have taken advantage of the harsh outdoors by playing lots of games in the warmth of our home.

We’ve filled the days with endless combinations of Munchkin, using the epic rules to extend the game to level 20. Add in Killer Bunnies, Apples to Apples, and various other board & card games, and some family time on the Wii, and I’d say we’ve made the most of the winter break.

And somewhere out there, a greater cause benefits from our fun. As a family we participated in this year’s Million Minute Family Challenge. Unfortunately, I’m afraid I just wasn’t good about logging our time; our performance is underrepresented by a good 8 – 10 hours. But that wouldn’t have been enough to lift our state from third place in the rankings. 

New Year’s Eve included a few games as well, including the party game Werewolves of Miller's Hollow. It’s a fun murder mystery game wherein players play the roles of innocent villagers – except for the two amongst them who are werewolves. Each night the werewolves slay a villager, then during the day, the villagers have a witch hunt to find one of the fiends, whom they then put to death. Unfortunately, our group was not very good at this and inevitably lynched innocent villagers by mistake. We played twice and the werewolves were victorious both times.

Up next: ambitious goals.