Archive for November, 2013

Maria V. Snyder – Poison Study (Book Review)

Poison Study cover

Maria V. Snyder – Poison Study

What would you do if you were forced to become a king’s food taster, and also given a poison that would kill you if you ever tried to run away from that dangerous job? Would you rebel, quietly work on staying alive, or just give in and become completely loyal to your captors? Yelena, the hero of Poison Study, goes through all those stages. Admittedly, this captivity doesn’t sound as bad as her alternative, since she was a condemned prisoner before that. Still, her behavior would seem like Stockholm Syndrome if author Maria V. Snyder didn’t stack the deck in her favor from the beginning: Yelena has a front-row seat to most royal events, protection from the second-in-command, and a personal history with the people who turn out to threaten the crown. Also, there’s a love interest to keep her loyal. Though this is a fantasy book, there’s a strong dose of the romance genre in it.

In general, your opinion about the book will depend on how much you mind the deck-stacking. Snyder definitely sets up the world and the situations so that Yelena always has a way through. A lot of that makes little sense – Why is Yelena granted so much freedom, as well as so much personal help from the head of security and intelligence, when that man other times makes it clear that he doesn’t trust a condemned murderer like her one bit? Yelena is skilled – she’s no passive heroine-in-distress – but these skills usually feel like arbitrary decisions made by the author to get her through the story. Everything about the rules, traditions, and situations that occur has been set up to get her from Point A to Point B.

On the other hand, Poison Study is light and often fun. Even if most of the characters and plot events are foreshadowed, it’s still interesting to see the details unfold. And the setting is clever. Ixia is ruled by an iron-fisted dictator whose harsh laws make no exceptions for people’s motives or life situations. However, it replaced a corrupt kingdom which rewarded only power and bribery. The book doesn’t shy away from the evils of the current system, but makes a good argument that the citizens are better off than they had been before.

Though there is magic (arbitrary rules have been set up to ensure Yelena’s victory, remember?), most of the book feels grounded in reality. A romance fan could enjoy this easily, although it’s still definitely more of a fantasy novel. The romance never derails the plot, even though it is fairly obvious all along. I did mind the abusive undertones to it – The man is controlling and violent, but that’s ok because Yelena understands him. These are just undertones, at least, making it better than a lot of successful romances, and I was glad to see Yelena stand up for herself most of the time.

I can’t recommend Poison Study, but didn’t dislike it either. It’s clever sometimes, predictable others, with two-dimensional characters in an interesting situation. Yelena succeeds at times just because she’s the main character, but other times because she’s a strong, confident woman. It’s blandly enjoyable and doesn’t insult the reader’s intelligence, but it frequently skirts that line.

Grade: C+

 
Advertisements

Hank3’s 2013 Releases (Music Review)

Two years ago, Hank3 released four albums from very different genres. Some were much better than others. Now he’s back with two albums (one a double) that total almost two and a half hours of playtime. It’s not surprising that one of them is country (Brothers of the 4×4) and the other punk (A Fiendish Threat), but it is interesting to see that neither is very similar to what he was doing in 2011. Love him or hate him, it’s obvious that he’s always pushing himself and unwilling to play it safe.

A Fiendish Threat cover

Hank3 – A Fiendish Threat

Let’s get the bad news out of the way first: The punk album is disappointing. It’s not bad, but it rarely feels like his heart is in it, either. It became obvious with his last crop of releases that Hank3 has only a passing interest in lyrics and mostly focuses on constructing soundscapes. But punk has to be a lot more about the lyrics and less about the “construction”, so it mainly sounds like an imitation of a genre he’s interested in. Some songs use sped-up country instruments and rhythms, which add a unique twist, but otherwise this doesn’t stand out. Hank3 needs to find a producer and editor he can trust, rather than running everything himself, because someone else would have made this leaner and shorter. More importantly, Hank3 needs to figure out what he wants to say when he does this. It’s a good sound, but it’s not compelling punk.

Brothers of the 4x4 cover

Hank3 – Brothers of the 4×4

Brothers of the 4×4, on the other hand, is one of his best albums. He obviously isn’t beholden to the over-the-top rebellion he pioneered in the last decade, but he isn’t necessarily interested in returning to his early traditional music, either. That rebel is still part of him, but he doesn’t feel the need to press the issue. Songs here are more likely to be about complex relationships or his love of nature as partying and fighting. In fact, “Farthest Away” is a surprisingly introspective song about a relationship growing cold, and in “The Outdoor Plan” he sounds more excited about finding bear tracks than he used to be about drugs. He even talks about wanting to find a woman to settle down with. There’s no doubt that this is an honest slice of life from someone who refuses to be pigeonholed by anything in his past.

The songs are long, though. Almost half of them cross the six-minute mark, and album-opener “Nearly Gone” is eight and a half. The first time I listened to it, I was saying “this sounds good, but it’s a bit long” by four minutes. Long, repetitive refrains and instrumental breaks are used in almost every song.

They sound good, though, and I enjoy it now that I’m over the initial shock. Hank3 has written good songs, and he takes the time to play with each one’s sound. I wouldn’t quite call this his “jam band album”, but if I wanted to convince someone from that scene to try country music, this wouldn’t be a bad album to start with. Each song does have a distinct sound, from the electric riffs in “Hurtin For Certin” to the clawhammer banjo in “Possum In A Tree”.

The lyrics are still sometimes weak. I can ignore the repeated “Losing like a loser who’s got nothing to lose” in the otherwise-good “Deep Scars”, but “Held Up” is nothing but bad repetitive rhymes about visiting each southern state. (“Ain’t nothin’ like the feel of Virginia’s vagine.” Seriously?) Hank3 isn’t stuck in the trap of repeating themes from old albums, though, as he seemed to be in 2011, and so they are almost always new and interesting enough to carry the songs.

The 89-minute running time gives me plenty of chances to enjoy it and then to get bored. As with A Fiendish Threat, it wouldn’t hurt to have someone else to force Hank3 to pare this down sometimes. However, most of it is very good, and I think that almost every song on here will be someone’s favorite. Personally, I keep coming back to the catchy “Hurtin for Certin”, the freewheeling groove of “Dread Full Drive” and “Toothpickin”, and the depressed, human groove of “Deep Scars” and “Farthest Away”. “Looky Yonder Commin” is also a great song full of personality and confidence, which surprised me because the odes to his coon-hunting dog were the weakest part of his last country albums.

A lot of baggage and expectations always come along with Hank3’s new albums, but if you set all that aside and just look at the music, Brothers of the 4×4 may be his strongest country effort ever. He’s confident and experienced, and that rebel energy that could have driven him to an early grave has instead been harnessed to keep him experimenting with new sounds. This one has a couple songs that just need to go, and several more that should have been cut back, but there’s still more than one full album of great stuff here.

A Fiendish Threat: C

Brothers of the 4×4: B+

 

Reviewing Games on Boîte à Jeux – Previously Reviewed Ones

Boite a Jeux logoI’ve been playing a lot of board games recently on the web. I discussed these in general a couple months back, but I should start talking about the specific games as well. It actually seems a little tricky to review: How do I tell if my opinion is based on the game itself, or the way it plays on the site? So I’m going to start by looking at games that I had already played in person and reviewed before I played them online. Today, I’ll look at four on Boîte à Jeux, and next week I’ll talk about ones on Yucata.

My reviews for these games are focused mainly on why they work, or don’t, online. I’ve already covered the mechanics in earlier articles. My grades here do account for whether or not I enjoy the games in general, but also how they work in a turn-based system and how well they were implemented.

It turns out that the games I already knew are some of the best ones on Boîte, so the reviews here are very positive in three of the four cases. Strangely, the Yucata games I have reviewed already are some of the more disappointing ones there. Don’t think the extremes in these reviews represent the whole sites, though. As you’ll see when I get around to reviewing other ones in a month or two, both sites have their good and bad games.

Continue reading

Webcomics Roundup for the End of 2013

It’s been a while, but I want to get one last webcomics post in for the year. True to my headline, this will be an unfocused roundup of topics.

Continue reading

Neko Case – The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You (Music Review)

The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You cover

Neko Case – The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You

Neko Case has covered a wide variety of styles in her career, from sedate to swinging and from honest to impenetrable. Since finding success, though, she has stayed fairly settled: Simple symphonic music sets off her clear voice, letting her seem simultaneously exposed and in control. Her lyrics are compelling, but usually impossible to interpret clearly, and even the songs that sound personal are not. This paradoxical mix has won her acclaim, but honestly it’s been a few albums since I really enjoyed her songs. They seem to promise a lot, but aren’t very satisfying.

That changes with her new release, which has the attention-grabbing title The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You. It is similar to those last few, with very little sign of the Case who used to sing with Maow, The New Pornographers, or on solo country albums. But this finally has a strong personal feeling to it. Maybe it’s as much an act as the old albums, but for once I feel like I’m listening to a person, not to a brand carefully test-marketed to hipsters.

That makes a huge difference, because Case’s power and confidence is incredible when I can accept it. These songs are beautiful, and while there are still some inscrutable lyrics, there are also entire songs that are straightforward. If the only frequent theme in the last few albums was cheering on nature and animals against mankind, this one has her taking a place among humanity. The repeated theme here is of woman standing up for themselves and reaching their potential. There is also “Nearly Midnight, Honolulu”, a message to an abused child which contains too many details not to feel true. That song has no musical accompaniment and feels emotionally naked. In less confident hands, it would seem like a cynical attention-grab, but here it’s an honest attempt to struggle with a difficult topic.

Not that everything on The Worse Things Get is straightforward. There are plenty of lines like “I’m a Friday night girl bracing for Sunday to come”, and those messages of female empowerment come from unexpected angles (“hey little girl, would you like to be the King’s pet or the King?”) This is an album that feels both complex and simple at the same time. Of course, that sort of dichotomy has always been a part of Case’s appeal, but this time it’s finally working for me. If you’ve spent the past several years wishing you appreciated Case’s songs, this may be the album you’re waiting for.

Grade: B+

 

Interactive Fiction Competition: Results and Final Review

The IFComp 2013 results are out. I only found the time to play nine games, and for the most part I was disappointed in what I saw. I’d expected that this would be similar to two years ago, when it turned out that my random list mainly focused on the middling games. This time, though, I played the fifth and eight best out of the thirty-five, and I was disappointed to see that there were seven rated at least as bad as the two I disliked. I suppose that the influx of new games did include a lot on the low end of the scale. On the other hand, Coloratura is the highest-scoring winner in years, so there was apparently some great stuff on the high end as well. I’ll have to check that out.

I see that my impressions largely matched the consensus. Saving John is the only one I was way off on. Yes, searching through scattered memories is already a Twine cliché, but I thought there was an evocative personality behind it all. On the other hand, I’m happy that Machine of Death did well; I’d worried that my interest in the general MoD community made me overrate it. The game I still need to review, Tex Bonaventure and the Temple of the Water of Life, came in at #5. I’ll just go ahead and review it now.

Continue reading

Interactive Fiction Competition: Machine of Death and Trapped in Time

There are only a couple days left in IFComp 2013. (You can always play the games, of course. That’s the deadline to participate in the voting.) I have a couple more reviews today, and fortunately they’re more positive than last time.

I don’t expect to have time to post again by Friday. Even if I do, I’ll probably write about something else. I want to write my last IFComp article after I can see the full results.

Continue reading