Archive for January, 2011

Young Wizards Books 1-5


Every now and then, I find myself trying to explain to someone why I’m not a big fan of the Harry Potter series. I still haven’t gotten good at this explanation, probably because I usually change the subject before the other person decides I’m an elitist snob who is trying to over-think their simple pleasures. When I do go into details, I try to explain that it feels like Harry Potter just throws in world-building elements because they are amusing or useful at the time, with no thought for how they fit in to the greater series. It’s not that I’m intentionally nitpicking it, but if I really like a series, the world will keep living on in my head. And it breaks the spell when I repeatedly realize that a conflict from one book could have been resolved easily if the characters had just remembered to use a spell or character from a previous book.

Sometimes, instead of just walking away, the person asks me what alternative I’d recommend to Harry Potter. Usually, I tell them about Diane Duane’s Young Wizards series. Unlike Harry Potter, these books kept kept a foothold in my imagination for years after I read them.

When I discovered the series, there were only three books, and the final one seemed meant as the end of a trilogy. I was happy to discover recently that the series continued after all, and is now up to nine books. I got the first five for Christmas a year ago, and I began re-reading them. It was exciting, but also a little worrisome. Would these live up to the standards that had been set by almost two decades of nostalgia? Short answer: they did sometimes, but disappointed me at other times. They probably aren’t the Harry Potter killers I remembered, but I can definitely recommend them as good young adult fantasy books.

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Blue Valentine (Movie Review)

Blue Valentine

Last weekend, Alicia and I went to see Blue Valentine. It tells the story of a husband and wife whose relationship is falling apart, and it manages to convey this so believably that it’s honestly unsettling. Maybe it wasn’t the best choice for the first movie to watch together after becoming engaged, but both of us are glad we saw it.


I want to keep this article much shorter than my other recent ones, and besides, most of what I want to say about the movie is based on spoilers. So I’ll be direct here: The acting, casting, directing, and writing are all excellent. Blue Valentine tells a story that is way too rare in movies, and makes its human drama absolutely convincing. In fact, the characters and setting are thought through so well that they can let many important things go unsaid. I assume you’re familiar with the feeling of a movie that starts to unravel as soon as you think about it afterwards, or one that you can’t even discuss afterwards without noticing all the plot holes. With Blue Valentine, everything fits together even better as you think about it. Alicia and I talked about it for a while afterwards, and every time one of us said that we didn’t understand a certain person’s motivation, or how something fit together in the timing or setting, we would talk it through and realize that it made perfect sense. The movie just hadn’t held our hands the whole way through it. In fact, I woke up the next morning with new insights into the characters and fresh opinions about their situation. I can’t remember the last time anything (other than reality) let me know people with such intricacy.

Blue Valentine receives a solid A- grade, and you should see it. If anything, I’m being too harsh in my grading. I’m going to discuss a central theme in spoilery detail below the cut, but you shouldn’t read that until you’ve seen the movie. Because this is one of the rare ones that deserve to be experienced.

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Game Reviews from 2010

After posting last week’s article about board gaming in 2010, I realized that it would be interesting to actually review those games that I played at least five times. I’d planned to skip that, because I’m not trying to just cherry-pick the things that I’ll review positively. But a few of the games I played repeatedly turned out to be disappointing once I really got to know them, so there is a good deal of variety in there. This list may not have any horrible games, but it certainly has some mediocre ones, and it’s worthwhile to think about what made them that way. Also, I definitely seemed to be drawn towards the more unique games to play repeatedly, so this list is fairly interesting.

Of the twenty-one games that I played five or more times, I excluded the nine that I’d already known before 2010 started. That left me with twelve, listed below in alphabetical order.

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The Year In Games

I just added my 2010 stats to Mark Jackson’s annual Five & Dime list, and it got me thinking about the board games I played last year. (Yes, of course I keep track.)

The “Five & Dime” list is a count of all games that reached the threshold of either 5 or 10 plays in the past year. In my case, 2010 saw 10 games played 10 or more times, and 11 more played at least 5 times. If you’re looking at my gameplay statistics, that tells half the story. The other half is that I played 153 distinct games a total of 388 times.

My full Five & Dime list, along with what it tells me about the year, is below the cut.

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Teenage & Torture (Music Review)

Teenage & Torture

Shilpa Ray and Her Happy Hookers - Teenage & Torture

Because I work on this blog in my spare time, and I spend some time figuring out what I think of something new, the earliest I can usually hope to review something is couple months after it is first released. But I managed to get my hands on a promo copy of the new album by Shilpa Ray And Her Happy Hookers, so I have the pleasure of reviewing it early. Teenage & Torture is released today (January 18), but I can tell you now: This will be one of the standout albums of 2011.
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New Albums, Old Sounds (Music Review)

This article continues my review of Alt Country CDs I bought in a recent Bloodshot Records sale. This time, I look at three albums that all call back to styles of the past in different ways.

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Nelson Tethers: Puzzle Agent (iPhone Adventure Game review)

Nelson Tethers: Puzzle Agent

Nelson Tethers: Puzzle Agent

Telltale Games is the force behind a recent resurgence in adventure games, with quirky properties such as Tales of Monkey Island and Sam & Max. Graham Annable is an animator behind the quirky Grickle series. Both Telltale and Annable have found success not through mainstream hits, but by developing a strong cult following for their low-budget work. On paper, then, their collaboration Nelson Tethers: Puzzle Agent should work perfectly. The results are disappointing.

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Jon Langford and The Waco Brothers (Music Review)

One of my favorite December traditions is the annual Bloodshot Records Christmas sale. They always provide a good, inexpensive variety of their albums from their 15 years of history. Over the next couple weeks, I’ll be discussing some of the CDs I picked up from last month’s sale. They aren’t recent releases, but as long as they’re new to me, they’re fair game for reviews!

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The Year In Books (Part 2)

Continuing from Part 1 a couple days ago, here are capsule reviews of the rest of the books I read in 2010.

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Stuff I Like

So now that I’ve had a few days of content, I feel like stepping back to list the different sorts of things that I’m interested in. I’m sure this list will evolve over time (what’s the point of having an unfocused review blog unless I maintain that lack of focus?), but here is a snapshot of my interests at the present.

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