Archive for May, 2013

Liane Moriarty – What Alice Forgot (Book Review)

What Alice Forgot cover

Liane Moriarty – What Alice Forgot

I was a little worried when my new book club chose a chick-lit selection for the second month in a row, but it ended up being an interesting opportunity to consider what makes “chick-lit” good or bad. Liane Moriarty’s What Alice Forgot doesn’t always feel like it’s aimed at me, but it’s still a very good read.

At it’s heart, this book is about understanding people: Alice Love is a woman who bumps her head at the age of 39, and can’t remember anything from the past decade. In her mind, she’s a flighty 29-year-old woman pregnant with her first child and madly in love with her husband, while in reality she’s a sharp, efficient middle-aged soccer mom going through a bitter divorce. Alice sets out both to fix and figure out her life. The reader will be pretty interested, too, especially after the abrupt beginning that puts them right in Alice’s shoes.

I guess the common complaint about “chick-lit” is that it focuses on exaggerated clichés about domestic women, leaving everyone else out. In the past, I’ve argued that the problem with most romantic comedies and similar works is that the characters feel as much like unrealistic fantasies as the people in action movies. But while characters are expected to be secondary in an action movie, I want interesting, believable people in a story about relationships. I’m not completely sure if that was a fair criticism on my part, but if it’s true, What Alice Forgot is the answer I’ve been looking for. It’s protagonist will definitely appeal to the chick-lit audience, but the book is smart, funny, and features three-dimensional characters. Some early character-building is based on flashbacks and discussions that simply tell the reader what to think of everyone, which is an overused technique, but the book proceeds to reveal nuances that sometimes call those first impressions into question. Most main characters have to reconcile the person they used to be with the person they are now, and if it’s a little suspicious that everyone has changed so much, each individual person is believable and sympathetic.

Alice’s unfolding story is fascinating, with lots of uncertainty about if, or how, she’ll reconcile with her husband, bridge the gap with her sister, and keep up on her life. The book relies too much on “muscle memory” and scheduled events keeping Alice on track, but the scientific realism isn’t the point. The biggest problem is a couple distracting side stories: While Alice’s story is told by a third-person narrator inside her head, her sister Elisabeth gets frequent interludes with diary entries. Elisabeth’s story is as interesting as Alice’s, and makes a good counterpoint to it, but her writing voice is overly precious and seems too aware of the fact that she’s in a book. Worse, an elderly friend occasionally shows up in letters that tell a story about her falling in love. That whole plot is telegraphed in its first page, but is supposed to be funny and surprising. I’m sure that it was shoe-horned in by an editor who said that the book needed another romance in order to appeal to women, since it barely intersects with the main story at all.

I was disappointed by the ending, but the more I think about it, the more I realize that that is mainly due to the high standards set by the rest of the book. There are several sudden twists related to Alice learning important details of her past, and it jumps ahead to provide a couple different endings. The important thing is that the characters end up in places that feel fair to them, and the full details Alice learns do flesh out her backstory believably. But the strength of the book before that point is in how the characters evolve according to the surprising events. When the ending rushes through that to just show the surprise and then the eventual result, it feels like we’re missing the most important part of the experience.

What Alice Forgot is a moving, memorable book. Though I don’t feel any compulsion to run out now to buy more books featuring blurbs from Woman’s World and Marie Claire, I will be interested the next time my book club selects a title along these lines.

Grade: B


GyrOrbital (iPhone Game)

GyrOrbitalA space station in the middle of nowhere is under attack from all sides, and needs you to defend it. It’s a pretty common video game premise, but the thing that makes GyrOrbital unique is what it means to be attacked “from all sides”. Using the built-in gyroscope, your iPhone requires you to physically turn around in order to watch for attackers around you. It’s not a game you can play everywhere, since you need to be able to stand up and spin around like an idiot, but it’s a pretty fun gimmick when you’re able to try it.

GyrOrbital is a very simple game other than that: Basic vector art portrays missiles streaking towards the spherical base, and a field of stars moves when you do to maintain the illusion that you’re peering through a porthole into space. Tap or drag over missiles to lock on and destroy them. (It’s not an option to spin around and swipe your fingers across the screen wildly. In a clever bit of game design, the base doesn’t fire shots until you’ve lifted your finger.) It’s very simple, and admittedly looks pretty pointless in still screenshots, but it’s the simplicity of a game like Pac-Man. It doesn’t need to be more complicated.

There is one serious weakness that undermines the comparison to iconic video games, though. To play the game, you stand in one place and spin around, so it should feel like you’re on the central spot that missiles are converging on. Instead, though, the view is perpetually looking towards the base from a little ways off. When you spin, the camera is actually rotating around in a fixed orbit. I understand why this was done, because when a missile gets within your orbit, you can see it approaching the station no matter which way you’re facing. This gives a little warning and makes the game feel fair – if you constantly got hit from behind without any notice, it would be too frustrating. On the other hand, this way I don’t feel like I’m actually spinning around. It seems more like a traditional scrolling view on a video game, just with an unusual way to control the movement. While playing, I’ll catch myself thinking things like “move back to the left” rather than “turn left” or “it’s coming from my left!”. It’s a subtle distinction, but it means the game failed to erase the abstraction between me and my avatar.

What is left, though, is still a fun little video game with a unique control scheme. It’s a cool experience, and based on how well I’m doing in the Game Center rankings, it’s being unfairly overlooked. Go check it out.

Grade: B


First Looks at Space Games

Every year after Origins, I post thoughts on the board games I played. But since I don’t want to give them “official” ratings after a brief introduction, I use a 10-point scale instead of my usual letter grades. Origins isn’t the only time that I get introduced to games, though. Whether because my regular gaming friends don’t own it, it didn’t grab our attention, or something else, it’s common for me to try a game once and never come back to it. So here is an Origins-style report on my first impressions of a few space-themed games I tried within the past year or so.

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The Gatsby Mythos

While reading The Great Gatsby, I was struck by the end of the first chapter. This is how F. Scott Fitzgerald chose to introduce the title character:

 I didn’t call to him, for he gave a sudden intimation that he was content to be alone – he stretched out his arms toward the dark water in a curious way, and, far as I was from him, I could have sworn he was trembling. Involuntarily I glanced seaward – and distinguished nothing except a single green light, minute and faraway, that might have been the end of a dock. When I looked once more for Gatsby he had vanished, and I was alone again in the unquiet darkness.

A brooding figure in early Twentieth Century New England, gesturing over the ocean? Everything about that quote screams “H. P. Lovecraft” to me. It’s mysterious and moody, and both that paragraph and the preceding one (in which Gatsby “regards” the stars) could easily describe someone attempting to wake Cthulhu from his slumber.

Unlike Lovecraft, who spelled out every detail in the end of his stories, the narrator of Gatsby never admits to anything supernatural. I couldn’t help watching for hints of this, though, and there were enough to keep me interested. Here is what I found.

(From here on, there are major spoilers for The Great Gatsby.)

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F. Scott Fitzgerald – The Great Gatsby (Book Review, Mixed with Off-Topic Rambling)

The Great Gatsby cover

F. Scott Fitzgerald – The Great Gatsby

I’m one of the few Americans to somehow make it to their mid-30s without reading The Great Gatsby. Finally trying it, though, I’m glad I waited. It’s a beautiful book, but one that I’m sure would have seemed dry and frustrating if it were forced on me as a youth. Its culture and vocabulary is a century old, while the prose is flowery and would be slightly daunting to a teenager. Why do we always insist on forcing adults’ ideas of classics onto children? Without the perspective to see the qualities that adults do, and also without the romanticism about a title that charmed previous generations, kids just find most classics off-putting. I think we’d be much better off using fun, age-appropriate novels in schools to foster a love of reading, so that the students will be motivated to seek out the classics when they’re ready.

The Great Gatsby still seems to be one of the most accessible ones, though, and that’s probably why so many people consider it to be the Great American Novel. With a light story, anger at a hypocritical society, and a short reading time, it must come as a relief to students picking this up right after The Scarlet Letter. It describes the upper-class people of the “Jazz Age” the the matter-of-factness of someone who knows no other way of life, but also with insightful criticism. Less frequently remarked upon is the fact that most of the story establishes very common tropes of romantic fiction, but the story takes an abrupt turn away from the comforting ending one would expect. It’s cynical and different, but in a way that doesn’t feel challenging.

Like many classics, Gatsby has beautiful writing, complex characters, and a weak plot. The prose has an efficiency that sets the scene and people, while leaving enough unsaid to keep them intriguing. The best parts of the story are watching them react to each other, whether it’s happily or angrily. Nick, the narrator, is amazingly passive in his own tale and usually serves as a stand-in for the similarly powerless reader, but his motivations and internal reactions to people make him surprising as well. That magic only falters when the plot has to move things along. Gatsby’s implausible rise is fortunately not shown first-hand, but the collection of people who end up around him is harder to swallow. The discoveries and misunderstandings that unravel the web of deceit near the end feel contrived, more like necessary steps to reach the climax than natural actions of these otherwise three-dimensional characters.

The Great Gatsby remains one of the rare classics that really does hold up well today. And for those students who found this page while looking for help on an essay, I’m just going to say: Don’t bother. I’m writing an intentionally vague, spoiler-free review, which is not what your teacher wants to see. But take heart in what I said in the first paragraph: If you didn’t like Gatsby, go find whatever sort of story you would like to read, whether or not it’s “low art”. Stories you’ll like are out there for you. Then try this book again in five or ten years for your own sake, and you’ll probably like it. And that is an idea you can take from this webpage to your teacher.

Grade: B


Two iPhone Games – Ruzzle and Take It Easy

Today, here are two quick reviews of iPhone games I’ve played recently.

RuzzleRuzzle is a 2-player Boggle-like game played over the internet. Each person tries to find words on the same board of letters, though not necessarily at the same time, and compares their score. It has an intensity that Boggle doesn’t have, partly due to the short two-minute time limit on each round, and partly because the board has letter and word multipliers similar to Scrabble. This makes scoring a little more varied from round to round, but it’s also a fun, quick fix. The available multipliers increase over the game’s three rounds, keeping the game interesting even if one person gets an early lead.

The banner ads on the main screen plus full-page ads, sometimes with video and delays, between each round, really interfere with that simple Boggle-on-steroids rush. There is a premium ad-free option, but I don’t see much reason to pay for it since my friends have given up on the game. Notifications about your turn can be inconsistent, and if you go a couple days without thinking to check you’ll forfeit. (I’ve found this game is best for matches against random opponents, because then you’ll both want to play through quickly. This isn’t good for that Words With Friends experience of challenging a friend, since the waiting isn’t fun. With only a few rounds, and only being able to play one round ahead of your opponent, it has a weird flow.) Even worse, when my games have been interrupted by a phone call, I was kicked out of the round with a zero score.

All together, this is almost a very fun game.

Grade: C+

Take It EasyTake It Easy is a puzzle game in which you line up hexagonal tiles on a board. Each has three numbered lines, and the goal is to make unbroken lines across the board. Each of the three directions has only three possible numbers, so there will be plenty of possible matches, but there’s no way to handle all the intersecting lines at once without blocking some of the possibilities.

The design makes all the chaotic pieces easy to follow, with lines sparkling when they score and fading out if there is no way for them to complete. Even so, the basic game, a solitaire experience of receiving and placing one tile at a time, is pretty boring. Reiner Knizia did it better with Robot Master, which felt less chaotic due to its simple two directions and knowledge that tiles came from a “deck”, so you can consider the odds of what the next tile will be. Being a Knizia game, that also had more interesting scoring. This one gives you the points for the number times the number of tiles in that line. Obviously, the key is to focus on 8s and 9s and ignore the 1s and 2s.

Despite that, Take It Easy manages to succeed through its eagerness to do everything possible with its system. In addition to that basic game, there are Progressive and Puzzle versions, as well as several options for multi-player games. I didn’t find the Progressive version that appealing; It’s just the standard game played over multiple rounds with increasing target scores and a few new obstacles. But the Puzzles change things up by giving you a full board in which you need to swap tiles around. It isn’t especially original, but the game is more fun without the random solitaire aspect, and there are many different puzzle goals (from points to creating lines with specific numbers or in a specific position). With multi-player, every person plays the same game and competes to either get the high score or finish first. Even the standard game becomes a little more interesting as part of a competition.

It’s not ground-breaking or addictive, but Take It Easy is worth coming back to from time to time.

Grade: B-


Country Capsule Reviews: Neo-Traditionalists

Today, I have a few quick reviews of new country albums from people who stick carefully to old styles. This can work well, as there is a lot of emotional depth left to explore in traditional country, but being too strict can also become a straightjacket. All three of these artists are people I’ve reviewed before, but surprisingly, my opinion of each one has changed since then.

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Was the Book Better?

I have compared books to their movie versions a few times on this blog, and of course that topic comes up pretty often in conversation. The universal conclusion that I hear from everyone is “the book is [almost] always better than the movie”. Although I agree with their sentiment, I don’t actually think that it’s true. Here’s my explanation.

It is true that when a movie adapts a book, it’s almost always a disappointment compared to the original. But it’s also pretty common for people to write novelizations of movies. No one ever says “Yeah, Back to the Future was a good movie. But the book was so much better!” I remember, as a kid, finding a book version of Ghostbusters years before seeing the movie, but even though I read it first there was never any doubt that the movie was better. These days, movies often have comic adaptations instead of prose novels, but no one is talking about how the graphic novel of Django Unchained is the real masterpiece.

Your first reaction is probably to dismiss those examples by saying that those books don’t count. We don’t take novelizations of movies seriously. But that’s my point. We don’t take them seriously because the movie came first. Instead of saying “the book is always better”, we should be saying “the original is always better”.

Every medium has its own strengths and weaknesses, and almost no good works are going to translate easily into another medium. When someone tries, they’re likely to be hobbled by the need to “feel like” the original or please its fans, and they’re also more likely to be motivated by money than the original creator. In those rare cases where a movie does surpass a book, it’s almost always because the creators of the movie were confident and free enough to turn it into their own thing.

This rule is true for just about any creative medium you can imagine, and it does always work both ways. Video games based on movies are usually unimpressive cash-ins, for example, but it’s also the case that movies based on video games are consistently awful. The important thing to remember is that one medium is not inherently better than another. Instead, a fundamental truth of the creative process is that you get the best results when you’re not trying to duplicate something else.

Jello Biafra and The Guantanamo School of Medicine – White People and the Damage Done (Music Review)

White People and the Damage Done cover

Jello Biafra and The Guantanamo School of Medicine – White People and the Damage Done

It’s strange that I summarized Jello Biafra and The Guantanamo School of Medicine’s last album by saying that the band’s creativity covered up Biafra’s dated lyrics. In their new release White People and the Damage Done, it’s an energetic Biafra driving the project. The musicians are versatile for a punk act, but they’re mainly content to back up the star lead. Their accomplishment here is that the Guantanamo School appear at first glance to be a straightforward band, because their variations mimic Biafra’s own flights of fancy so well.

All that said, White People gives you exactly what you’d expect from a Jello Biafra album. His nasal voice and prankster attitude provide everything from intellectual arguments and ad hominem attacks, usually in service of political screeds but sometimes just for shock value. Biafra’s recent career in spoken word performances comes through for better and worse in “Shock-U-Py!”. At its best, the song is an inspirational speech set to music. Other times, though, his attempts at catchy verbal hooks fall flat: Lines like “to all of those who Occupy, and feel the spirit of Shockupy” are earnest but cringe-worthy.

The highlight is the blistering “Mid-East Peace Process”, a song that rivals “Holiday in Cambodia” in its ability to actually shock and unsettle the listener. The first verse is a violently noisy depiction of a strike on Palestine, while the second is slow, paranoid story of Israelis wondering who around them could be a suicide bomber. So potent that it should come with a trigger warning for anyone who’s lived through the past decade of fear, it will grab anyone’s sympathy by the time Biafra is screaming “I don’t want to live in a world like this, you don’t want to live in a world like this… No one should have to live in a world like this!”

It’s a sign of the album’s weakness that that song is followed up by the lackluster “Hollywood Goof Disease”. Biafra has nothing new to say about people’s obsession with celebrities, and his complaints (“what in the world is a Kardashian?”) are the opposite of “Mid-East Peace Process”‘ insightful commentary.

There are too many weak songs like that. “Crapture” takes easy shots at fundamentalist beliefs and makes an unsuccessful attempt at slowing down the music, while “Burgers of Wrath” is virtually unchanged from the version Biafra recorded twenty years ago. Other than “Mid-East Peace Process”, Biafra is at his best when he sticks to focused political rage that preaches to the choir. His distinctive voice and off-kilter views still keep that fairly interesting, but it doesn’t feel like he’s taking chances any more.

The album needs more songs like the remix of “The Brown Lipstick Parade” that appears at the end. The original is one of the good-but-unsurprising tracks on the album, but the bonus version replaces most of the guitar riffs with a brass band, to great effect. It’s still punk, but with an absurd carnival atmosphere that fits Biafra’s voice and jokes. If he’s going to turn out the occasional gem and fill the rest of the album with familiar repeats, then the goal should be unexpected twists like that.

Grade: B-


Dixit (Game Review)



As one of the more distinctive games in the Apples to Apples genre, Dixit has gained a lot of popularity over the past couple years. Though I’m not the target audience, I have to say the attention is well-earned. One game every few months is enough for me (sometimes more than enough), but it’s interesting, and I can play it with people who wouldn’t otherwise be interested in games.

Dixit is by otherwise little-known designer Jean-Louis Roubira, but artist Marie Cardouat deserves at least as much credit. After all, the first thing anyone notices about it is the evocative artwork. Each card is wordless, with a dreamlike, almost menacing, picture. They’re almost too weird to work for a family game, but the creativity and soft focus make them more interesting than off-putting.

The mechanics are solid, too. Players take turns being the storyteller, who must say a word or two about one card and then play it face down. Everyone else plays a card they think matches the description, and then each player except the storyteller guesses which one was played originally. Points are, of course, earned for choosing right and for convincing other people to choose your card.

Dixit cardsAll of that may sound like a typical Apples to Apples-style game, but Dixit is the only game I’ve seen like it that actually provides a balanced gameplay. First of all, almost everyone at the table is making a quick, simultaneous choice, which feels a lot less arbitrary than a single leader choosing one person to get a big bonus. But also, the storyteller’s goal is to have at least one person choose their card, and at least one person choose wrong! This forces them to be creative, offering hints that aren’t too strong, especially since a lot of the cards have similar themes. This resolves a lot of the issues that plague similar games. There’s no motivation to be especially clear or vague, and if the description is well-chosen, other players will have to play cards that are also only slightly like the description. There are real choices every round.

Playing with the same cards over and over does get tiring quickly (even if you buy some expansions), and it can be difficult to catch up if someone else gets a lot of points in the first few rounds. As I mentioned above, this isn’t the kind of game that usually grabs me. I definitely respect how well it fills the niche it aims for, though, and it’s a great choice for a lot of people. Dixit is proof that games with popular appeal don’t have to be lazy and unbalanced.

Grade: B

 (Images taken from Board Game Geek. Follow the links for the originals and photographer credits.)