Thursday, December 31, 2015

Best of 2015: Books and Comics

So to finish off our trilogy of 2015 reviews, we come to the written word. This year I've managed to read 30 books, which I think is a record for recent years, and I'm quietly pleased about it. It's been skewed in some strange ways (more on that for a minute) but its also broadly diverse in others. I've rolled comics into this post as there has been a more "steady as she goes" feel to my comics reading, but even there I think I've done alright. Lets get to it.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Movie Review: Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens

I was sitting waiting for The Force Awakens to start, and in that moment of semi-darkness before the adverts roll, I found myself worried about my own reaction to a film I hadn't yet seen. The thing is that I wanted The Force Awakens to be good, I'd been told it was good, the trailer had pre-sold me on the notion that it would be good, and yet I'd spent a long time trying to hold back that hope for fear of dissapointment. I'm not someone who hates the prequels - I'm rather fond of Revenge of the Sith, for a start - but they are flawed and dissapointing, only sporadically capturing what is so attractive about the Original Trilogy. So my fear was simply that if The Force Awakens showed even a pretty basic level of competance, some sort of dam would break in my head, and any critical thought would be washed away in gleeful enjoyment.

And yeah, thats pretty much what happened. A couple of days on I think I'm capable of a more balanced appraisal, but beware, all the spoilers await below.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Best of 2015: Games!

Right, onwards with the review of the year. For all we watch about a movie a week, and for all I've managed to read quite a bit, this year has probably been dominated by gaming; both electronically and around a table. The former has become a main source of relaxation; and a lot more solo-oriented than previous years, whilst the latter has has largely been driven by the kids, now Robert is old enough to get into something a little more complex than Mousetrap. By my count I've played 14 video games this year, and 18 boardgames (some several times and one a lot) so I feel thats a pretty varied run. Lets break it down a bit.

Monday, December 21, 2015

TV Review: Marvel's Jessica Jones

When Netflix announced it's deal to bring a bunch of Marvel Superheroes to it's service in the form of four "street-level" stand-alones followed by a "Defenders" series, one of the more interesting aspects was the choice of characters they were using. Sure, Daredevil is a reasonable name, and Power Man and Iron Fist (currently also appearing in the Ultimate SpiderMan cartoon) are names you might be able to pick of a line-up, but Jessica Jones? Thats pretty obscure. Not that that is in itself a problem, of course - a clean slate in terms of wider perception can be a great opportunity - but there was definately an audible sound of journalists rushing to Wikipedia to try and work out who she is, and what the story would be. And Daredevil came and went, and was a great meditaion on the morality of violence, and guilt, and power, and brought us the stand-out villian that the MCU in any form has been desperately lacking (give or take the occasional Loki). But now we have Jessica Jones, which is about something entirely different. (Warning: Spoilers) 

Friday, December 18, 2015

Best of 2015: Films (and DVDs)

No, I haven't seen The Force Awakens yet. However, I'm going to start what I hope will be a short series of posts with a run down of the best films I've seen this year. The rules are pretty simple - it has to have been the first time we've seen it, so doesn't have to be a technical 2015 release, and it can be DVD, cinema, streaming, whatever. TV movies don't count, documentaries do. I count 11 trips to the cinema this year and 35 Home viewings, which is pretty going going! So, lets work through this. 

Monday, December 14, 2015

Life with Rats

Over the summer we started to get some pressure from Robert to get a pet. We're not too sure where it originated - school probably - but he was sufficently persistant that we started to have some confidence that it wasn't a passing fad, and so looked into it a bit. Our two-jobs-two-kids lifestyle isn't good for dogs, and whilst we've had cats in the past the house is now a little bit small for us, and has no catflap, so that seemed out too. Also, our last two cats were living with my parents, and were now too old and spoiled to come home. So small pets - you'd have to be nuts to believe any child will really pull much weight in looking after them, so it would be down to us, and ideally something (bluntly) doesn't live too long but is still lively and interesting and fun to be around. Somehow Zoe and Robert put their heads together and came up with...Rats!  And a lot of people said "What? Rats?!!" but thats what we went with. So here is a brief summary of our first month with our furry nutters; Nibbles, Curious, and  Cheeky. 

Yes, we let Robert name them. 

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

TV Review: Doctor Who, Series 9

Another series of Doctor Who rolled to a close on Saturday night, with all the attendant trappings that we have come to expect - rampant speculation as to the future of the show, complaints from people who never liked it but watch anyway, and enouogh spoilers to equip the NASCAR racers for a year.  I understand that there was a happy time, once, when people watched Doctor Who because it was fun family entertainment, but that may just be a myth, or perhaps a story, where a memory once was. It's certainly been an interesting season, where the transistion from the tone of the 11th Doctor to the tone of the 12th has been completed. and we can perhaps get a better idea of what this era is all about.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

DVD of the Week: Pitch Perfect 2

If it seems a little like our frantic consumption of pop-culture has slowed a little, then I guess that's because it has. Some of this continued busy times in the household in the run-up to Christmas (yes, its that time of year!) which seems to peak in early December before slowing down for the actual holiday. But it's also because a lot of the "new season" shows are now up and running, and filling our hours without actually finishing; a quick count reveals at least 7 ongoing shows we are working though at varying rates. But, we are trying to stick to "Movie Night" on saturdays, and most recently it was the follow up to the unexpectedly good Pitch Perfect, expectedly called Pitch Perfect 2. 

Monday, November 23, 2015

Games Review: Tales from the Borderlands and Borderlands: The Pre-Sequal

It's fair to say I'm a big fan of the Borderlands series of games. Over the last few years I've got a lot of play out of both Borderlands and Borderlands 2, mostly playing co-op with a freind, so the gaming experience has been greatly enhanced by good company and the occasional outburst of mutual competance. It's a series that has an emphasis on pace, humour, and a lot of loot, and Borderlands 2, especially, managed to bring all it's disparate elements together in a mechanically solid, and flashily entertaining way. This year I've had a double bill of the Borderlands universe, with Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel, and the more offbeat Tales from the Borderlands. They've very different experiences. 

Friday, November 20, 2015

DVD(s) of the Week: Ex Machina and Foxcatcher

Yes, it's catch-up time. I've been pretty busy - exams, Thoughtbubble, attacks of Real Life, but we have managed to squeeze in a couple of movies in the last couple of weeks. So, lets dive right in. 

Monday, November 16, 2015

Movie Review: SPECTRE

Having failed to go and see SPECTRE a couple of weeks back, we seized on the opportuity this weekend, prior to Thoughtbubble, to catch up with it. After all, we've seen every Bond film since Goldeneye together - even the bad ones - and it's important to keep these traditions up. Also, Ewan saw it with my dad already, and we can't have him seeing films we want to, but can't! Before we get onto SPECTRE, it's worth mentioning that we got the full Star Wars: The Force Awakens trailer on the big screen, and boy does it look pretty. And if the silent excitement from the audience anything to go by, it may as hard to get tickets for early on as the lastest Bond outage has been. So, Bond is again a big box office draw, but this far into an actors tenure, it's usually starting to creak. How is Daniel Craig's Bond doing? Warning - Spoilers.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Audio Review: Welcome to Night Vale

It's fair to say that I've been neglecting my growing backlist of podcast listening in the last few weeks. Hours of content lie dusty and unheard, voices crying out into the digital wilderness, their stories left unheard. I have been distracted, absorbed, and entertained by something new and strange, something that has drawn me in obsessively, in a way that feels pretty rare, these days. In a lot of ways I should have been onto this months, if not years ago, only picking it up as it's popularity seemed to explode across the wider geek-scape through the summer. But I'm here now, and, after about 6 weeks of commutes, totally up to date. I am speaking, of course, of Welcome to Night Vale

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Book Review: Career of Evil

There was a bit of excitement yesterday when J K Rowling mentioned on a Radio 2 interview that she has "written some of a childrens book", which more than anything else seems to demonstrate the hold that Harry Potter maintains over our collective imaginations. It also helps to vindicate her decision to publish her crime series under the pseudonym "Robert Galbraith", helping to to differentiate it from the Potter brand and avoid some of the snobbery about a "childrens author" writing "grown up" books that affected reviews of The Casual Vacancy. To be honest though, as much as I enjoyed the Potter series, I am quite happy with Rowling/Galbraith the crime writer, and she can keep writing books like Career of Evil for as long as she likes.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Boardgames: Pathfinder Adventure Card Game: Rise of the Runelords

Over the past year, a regular feature of our week has been sitting down, myself, Zoe and Ewan, to play a scenario from the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game: Rise of the Runelords, or to shorten it here, PACG. The very fact that this has become a thing we can all do together (once Robert is in bed, unfortunately for him) means that I suspect that I would have warm feelings about the game no matter what, but as it turns out, PACG is a pretty solid co-operative experience, with some interesting that can do a pretty diverse range of things over the course of 6 adventure decks, of 5 scenarios each. 

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Games Review: Mad Max

It's been a big year for the once dusty and slightly forgotten Mad Max franchise. George Miller's Mad Max: Fury Road is probably the best film I'm going to see this year, with sequels on the way and burst of relevance I don't think the franchise has ever known thanks to it's treatment of it's female characters and lurking themes behind the exploding cars. On top of that, it's also gotten a big-budget, AAA gaming release in the "open world" style, promising the power to let you wander the wasteland and gruffly right wrongs. It's called, simply, enough, Mad Max, and I finished it over the weekend.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

DVD of the Week: What We Do in the Shadows

Ah, Vampires, you just can't seem to keep them down. We still seem to be in the midst of a never-ending zombie-apocalypse, but Vampires have been with us a lot longer, and show no signs of going away. Yes, they've been (mostly) turned from blood-hungry predators to slightly creepy ideal boyfreind material, but that mutability is in many ways a strength, and certainly the more sympathetic, tragic vampire had given us some good stuff as well as the bad. There is also enough breadth of material that I'm surprised there isn't more spoofery around. Certainly there has been a couple of pretty terrible attempts at it, but it's taken a long time for me to finally find on I really, really liked. And that honour goes to indie New Zealand mockumentary, What We Do In the Shadows

Friday, October 16, 2015

Boardgames: Round Up!

I have often joked that my secret agenda for parenthood is simply to grow my own gaming group. It's actually going pretty well, too - Ewan will play almost anything, and Robert, at 5, is already keen to play almost anything, whether he understands it or no. Mostly not, truth be told. But it does mean that wet afternoons can be filled with getting the family around a table, and the general renaissance in quality and availability of modern boardgames means that the ancient horrors of Cluedo and Monopoly (shudder) long consigned to the dustbin of history. We manage a pretty good turn over of games, too, and I'm always confident that buying a new one won't be a waste of money. So, lets have a quick look at some of our recent additions.

Exploding Kittens
Produced from one of the largest Kickstarters to date, Exploding Kittens is a fast paced card game where you have to draw cards from a central deck hoping that it's not an eponymous detonating cat. To avoid this fate you can manipulate the deck, skip the forced draw, defuse them, and so on, but if not, you explode and am out of the round. Its a very lightweight game; luck plays a large factor, but is mostly balanced by it's speed, accessibility joie de vivre.

It feels, in a lot of ways, like a great "warm up" game. The rounds can be over pretty quickly, it's easy to drop people in and out, and it's hard to take seriously by design. We've mostly played it with 3, but I suspect it will scale pretty well. One of it's great strengths is the card designs, actually, but was probably a big contributor to the somewhat viral nature of it's kickstarter success, and we also ended up with the "NSFW" deck, which is the same game but with more scatological descriptors. Anyway, it's a lot of fun, if a little bit shallow in the long run.

Sushi Go
The other card game we've got a lot of play out of is Sushi Go. You start by dealing a hand of cards to each player, who takes one, and passes the hand onto the left. You reveal the cards, and then pick from your new hand, continuing until all the cards are picked, when you score. Each card scores points based on other cards - some you need pairs, or threes, or simply having the most points. Some cards carry over between hands, and after three hands you declare a winner. Very simple, right? I mean, Robert plays it, and has even won a couple of times.

But there is actually a huge amount of depth here. For a start, the game is gradually revealing information to you as you see the hands going round, telling you what is "in play". Then there is the cards people are chosing, based on their information. Then, as you discard each hand at the end of each round, and draw from the pile, you also have some idea what is left in the main deck. I've got to say I loved Sushi Go, and it's become a firm family favorite.

There doesn't look like a lot to Quirkle. It's a bag of small wooden blocks, each with a coloured shape - 6 shapes, 6 colours, with 3 of each combination. The idea of the game is to place them in a grid, but you have to them up matching either the colours or the set of shapes (or both, if overlaps require it). You score points for the length of each run you add to, and  get a bonus for completing a run of either all six shapes in one colour, or all six colours and the same shape. Again, pretty simple at first, but increasingly a complex pattern matching problem.

You may be spotting a pattern here but this is another game that is very quick to learn but with a decent level of complexity to the decision making. Being good at pattern spotting is a huge help, of course, as it being able to keep track of which options are still open. You can also play to distrupt patterns if you're afraid of others completing them, so whilst there isn't any direct competition, you can still feel like you're impacting other players if you're that way inclined.

Terror in Meeple City
Finally, to  Terror in Meeple City. In this game you play a rampaging monster intent on destroying the city and devouring it's inhabitants, and so does everyone else. So, you start by building the city, stacking cardboard floors on meeples to three or four floors. You move your little wooden monster around the board by flicking its base with your finger, or jump on building by picking it up and dropping it, or throw cars by flicking them off the heads of your monster. Chaos and debris abound, and meeples go everywhere, including, but not limited to, the stomach of your monster.

Terror in Meeple City is not a game for people who like order and control, but is a game for people who like random destruction. You win through destruction, and get points for wrecking buildings, eating meeples and attacking other monsters. As you can probably guess, accuracy can be a problem, and things do go awry, and I'm not sure I'd want to play it all the time. But it's great for kids, with the right supervision, and we've definately had our moneys worth!

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Movie Review: The Martian

Some of you may recall that I really like The Martian, Andy Weir's self-published tale of a stranded NASA Astronaut on Mars. I've been wildly recommending it to anyone who will listen, or indeed anyone just in earshot at the time, and have had pretty good feedback from them too. Hooray for good, thoughtful SF novels! As you also may be aware from bus shelters and the like, The Martian has also been made into a movie, scripted by Drew Goddard (Cabin in the Woods) and directed by Ridley Scott (actually quite a lot). With a bit of nifty footwork on the scheduling and child-minding front, we managed to get out to see it this week. 

Friday, October 9, 2015

Box Set Blues: Justified, Season 6

It remains a mystery to me how a show such as Justified has remained such a secret pleasure over the six years it has run. It seems never to have acquired a vocal critical following, nor a substantive fan base, and over the UK it's distributer dropped it entirely after four seasons, leaving Sky to pick it up for it's on-demand "Box Sets" service, where we eagerly snapped it up. It's always been a smart, witty and well acted show, a modern mix of Western and Crime drama, and with it's sixth and final season it looks to pull everything together, and give it's cast of characters the send off they deserve. And in the end, it really does, and not in the way I expected either. 

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

DVD of the Week: Belle

Britains Colonial and Imperial History seems to be something that, by and large, our general culture has become keen to forget. It's going back a bit, but when I was a kid the history I was taught was decidedly anti-colonial, keen on the wrongs of the Empire and framing the slaughter of the First World War as it's natural end. My fathers generation, growing up immediately after the Second World War and the End of Empire, was well versed in the battles and heros if Colonial Myth, of it's self-identified civilising mission, and a misty eyed look at a Great Power now fallen from grace. Now, it seems, we hardly talk about the Empire and it's legacy at all, despite the long shadow it casts over Britain even now. And of course that means we're left with even less awareness of the engine that funded it as it got rolling; slavery. 

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Documentary Review: Going Clear

Literary Science Fiction fandom has long had a slightly wry and embarrased relationship with the Church of Scientology. After all, it's found L Ron Hubbard cut his teeth as a writer for the pulps, and when I was growing up it wasn't uncommon to find his books on the shelves of the local library's SF&F section. I even read a load of them - and yes, even then I knew they were pretty terrible. At University, the SF&F Society got a steady stream of leaflets and so on from them, although we never really worked out if some previous members are registered with them for real or for a joke. But certainly in the circles we moved in, it was a joke, and its still slightly strange to me that out  in the real world Scientology is a serious, and slightly sinister thing. The Church has a reputation for being extremely litigious and aggressive and controlling, and it's this side of the church that new documentary Going Clear aims to address. 

Friday, September 25, 2015

DVD(s) of the Week: Round Up! (Again!)

I  know I said I was done with catchup posts, but I guess that was a big lie! Well, it's partly due to some slackness at writing this stuff up, but also, truth be told, that none of these three movies have really fired me up, and all, for one reason or another, don't quite linger in the memory. It's strange that these sorts of films come in runs; the summer had a wave of excellent saturday night viewing as caught up with last years Oscar contenders, and now we seemto be getting the run-of-the-mill, fun, but forgettable filler. So with that glowing endorsement, lets get stuck in.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Box Set Blues: Orphan Black

Our current series of Dissecting Worlds is due to contain a couple of episodes looking at artificial people; ranging from droids and replicants to uplifted successor species, which has been a huge subgenre of Science Fiction since, oh that Frankenstein book that started it all. You may have heard of it. Along the way it's given me the push I needed to start on the often recommended Orphan Black, a Canadian show funded by BBC America, and it seems mostly ignored by the BBC over here, given that they're about to burn off it's third season in the middle of the night on a channel so few people watch they're talking about shutting it down. Seriously, what the hell, BBC? Anyway, thats a rant for another day. For now, the first two series are on Netflix, and here's why you should be watching it. 

Monday, September 14, 2015

Book Review: The Martian

In conversation last week I realised that I've already sailed past my target of reading 20 books a year. In some ways thats not a challenging target, because I've always been a voracious and eclectic reader, but its hard to find the time these days - or rather reading time has to fight with everything else and often ends up losing. But it's only early September, and I've read 22 books so far this, even managing to plunge back to the Science Fiction genre; my first and greatest literary love that I've been neglecting as I've been distracted by "other genres". I hope it'll forgive me. At the far end of the Space Operatics I've been reading over the summer, there is the "Engineering in Space" genre, set tomorrow, with tomorrow's tech, and here I find The Martian, Andy Weir's self-published, and soon to be a major motion picture-ed, tale of isolation and survival on the edge of manned exploration. 

Friday, September 11, 2015

Games Review: World of Warships

One of the lasting joys of being a predominantly PC game-player is that there is a lot of diversity out there and a lot of it is Free. Well, "Free", I guess, as the "play to win" model is ever-present in there, but there is also a lot of games you can get a lot of fair, and balanced enjoyment out of without paying a penny for. I tend to find that if I've got a certain amount of play out of a game I'll end up spending money anyway, partly as a thank you, and partly because the sort of shinies a lot of these games offer can indeed be pretty shiny. In the case of World of Warships, we're talking about shiny, shiny battleships.

Monday, September 7, 2015

TV Review: Round Up!

So, we reach the final entry in our short "Round Up!" series, where I turn by somewhat behind gaze on the TV we've been watching in the last few months, yet not got around to writing up. It's a bit of a mixed bag, both in quality and content, but I guess it's pretty reflective of our TV habits these days. There is, in fairness, a huge amount of shows we are simply letting pass us by, as you just can't keep up with everthing, meaning I can feel guilty about the more popcorn stuff, but at the same time comfort blanket TV is as valid as any other form, and ultimately I make no apology for watching it.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Book Review: Round Up!

So, we are still in "round up" mode and this time it's all the reading I've been doing. Somehow, I feel I'm making more time for reading this year (writing being a whole different story, sadly) and I'm making an effort to try new stuff that I've missed. I also want to make a bit of a return to the Science Fiction genre, which I've not been deep into for many years now, hence the prescene on this list of a couple of "classic" series that have been mentioned us as we've put out new episodes of Dissecting Worlds. So, with apologies for the brevity, lets get on with catching up.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

DVD(s) of the Week(s): Round-up!

So, the holidays have come and gone, and as we've been out and about and not sat in front of a computer screen, the blog has taken a week or so off. To bring us back up date, I'll do a few catch-up posts, for books and films and so on. First up will be Gone Girl, which we had started to watch a few weeks back only to discover that the disc was faulty, leading to a somewhat frustrating case of interuptted viewing! So if nothing else, it was good to get closure on that!

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Movie Review: Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation

We suddenly seem to be on a run of actually getting out to see movies. OK, so we've usually got at least one child in tow, but with Robert now old enough, and interested enough, to go to the cinema, and Ewan reasonably keen on the idea too, it feels like we've turned a bit of a corner. No longer is a relatively rare, logisitically fraud special occasion, although I would perhaps like to see something with a more adult rating at the cinema more than once a year. Yes, I know I went to see Mad Max Fury Road twice, but shush, OK? So with a couple of days off for just me and Ewan last week we took the opportunity to catch up on our blockbuster watching, this time with Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation

Friday, August 14, 2015