Monday, January 31, 2011

Final Thoughts on Kingdom Hearts

I did indeed finish up Kingdom Hearts II on Friday, as I had hoped that I would, yay! The final battle was both more and less ridiculous than the final battle in the first Kingdom Hearts. I wouldn't have thought that was possible, but apparently I was wrong about that. Overall, I think I would give the game a C ++ or a B -. It is really somewhere in between there. Honestly, I think if there hadn't been so many cut scenes, and if they hadn't, all of them, been so long, I would have enjoyed this game a lot more.

The general plot of this game was kind of interesting, actually. A quick refresher of the back story:

In the first game, Sora's world is destroyed by the Heartless, and he is separated from his friends Riku and Kairi, so embarks on a quest to find them. The Powers That Be decided that he is a Chosen One of some sort, and the only person who can stop the darkness, so he is granted the ability to wield the Keyblade, which releases the hearts stolen by the Heartless as they destroy worlds. He teams up with Donald and Goofy, who are searching for King Mickey (who is also trying to stop the Heartless and restore the worlds they have already destroyed). Together, the three seal off many worlds infiltrated by the Heartless (using the Keyblade), saving those worlds from destruction. There are also seven princesses (of which Kairi is one) who are being kidnapped by the Disney villains because their hearts combined can unlock a door which leads to Kingdom Hearts, the heart of all worlds (I think). Possessing Kingdom Hearts means great power, which all villains are after. So, Sora stops the villains, saves Kairi, and finds Riku and Mickey, only to be separated from them at the last moment, in the act of sealing the darkness away.

In Kingdom Hearts II we learn that when a very strong-willed person becomes a Heartless another kind of entity, known as a Nobody, is created from the body left behind by that person. These Nobodies are under the control of Organization XIII, a group of alpha-Nobodies who want to gain control of Kingdom Hearts so that they can be granted hearts of their own and therefore become real people, not shadows. Sora knows that Kairi has been safely returned home, but he is still seeking out Riku (and Mickey). In his search, he keeps running into Nobodies and Organization XIII, who have begun using the Heartless to attract the attention of the wielder of the Keyblade. They are harvesting the hearts released when Sora kills Heartless with the Keyblade, attempting to create their own Kingdom Hearts. So Sora must go from world to world, trying to find a trace of Riku, and fighting off Heartless and Nobodies, and the members of Organization XIII, eventually realizing he must defeat Organization XIII on their own ground--which he does with the help of Riku, Kairi, and Mickey, who he, Donald, and Goofy do find in their travels.

I am probably not explaining it that well, there was a lot going on here. Maleficent and Pete were running around too, but I am still not quite certain what their endgame was. I think they may be leaving that for the next game. As I said, a pretty good basis for the plot, but I am not sure it was executed all that well. I feel like the story and the game play were actually two separate elements. The game play didn't seem to further the story along. It just moved you from point A to point B so you could get to the next cut scene. Even on the world map, when there was something new to do on a world you had already visited, the verbiage they used was "New episode available!" In a truly good story-based video game, the story needs be integrated into the game play itself, not a separate entity, at least in my opinion.

So, that's the story aspect of the game. Now, how about the actual game play? Hmm. I felt like this game was a little schizophrenic. It is as if the game designers were trying out several different ideas that really would have been better suited to be in several different games. Maybe there would have been a better way to get them to work with each other, but if so, they did not nail the formula in KH II, I can tell you that. It was just all over the place.

Some of the ideas were "upgrades" to the gaming system in the first game, tweaks here and there to how you could access items and magic and summons. They also added in "reaction commands" which meant that you pressed a certain button at a specific time when you got the right indicator on the screen. For many enemies, the only way to beat them was using reaction commands, and I feel like that takes some of the fun out of it. There is no developing and playing with your own set of skills, be it certain magical attacks or weapon combos, or limit commands. The limit commands were interesting, you could get skills used in conjunction with the other members of your team. My favorite was Donald's "comet" command, which would allow you to surround your enemy with fireworks that did lots of damage, and was also fun to look at.

There were a few puzzle-solving points in the game, which were okay, but seemed to be awkwardly placed. There was also the Little Mermaid level, which was entirely just about teaching you to hit buttons at the right time. You were helping Sebastian and Ariel put together the musical, and so had to sit through lots of random songs, hitting buttons at the right time in order to get past the level (kind of like Guitar Hero, but nowhere near as fun). It was weird and random and really had no place in this game.

As far as the actual combat goes, I don't even know where to start on that one. As I said, most enemies had specific reaction commands, and that was the only way to defeat them. The actual difficulty level of each enemy seemed to vary widely, and not in a way proportional to your experience level or how far along in the game the enemy appeared. There was, for every non-standard Heartless or Nobody a "trick" for how to defeat them. This was more puzzle-solving I guess, but less overt. Once the trick was figured out, it was usually just a matter of patience to defeat the enemy, but as someone who prefers to just run in an wale on things with my sword, I did not really enjoy this kind of combat at all. Also, the actual in-game reaction time was really skewed by all of the special commands and actions, so it was kind of hard to tell at any given point whether or not I was actually in control of my character. An "information" bar was added at the top of the screen with hints or instructions about your objective scrolling by. When it wasn't as distracting as all get out, it was usually information that was painfully obvious. I know this game was probably designed for a younger demographic than me, but I am pretty sure younger gamers are way better at this stuff than I am. They probably don't like being spoon-fed either.

I think the big problem was that there was just so much stuff on the screen you had to keep an eye on aside from your character and his foe. I never knew where to look. If I was paying attention to the actual fighting, I missed crucial information from the scroll bar, or didn't see when a reaction command became available. If I tried to read the scroll bar, I totally got my butt kicked while I was looking the other way. If I kept my eyes on the command box, then I missed moments when I should have been blocking and got more damage than I would have otherwise taken. It just felt like a no-win situation. In many cases, when the battle ended, I was sitting there looking at the screen with no idea what had just happened. I can only look at so many things at once, and this game wanted me to be looking at two more at least at any given time.

I don't know how much of the engine for this game is based on the Final Fantasy series, but I suspect a lot. I am wondering though, how players of FF would stack this game up against their franchise. I find myself hoping that the problems with KH simply arise from the designers trying to take the FF engine and gear it towards a younger demographic while trying to make multiple Disney stories fit into their already kind of contrived plot line. Maybe when they are making up their own world it feels more cohesive. My husband has asked me to give Final Fantasy VI a try, he says that is considered the definitive entry in the series. So after I play that maybe I'll have a clearer view of what went wrong with KH, or if I am just not cut out to play in that pool.

Either way, my copies of Kingdom Hearts and Kingdom Hearts II will be going along to be traded in the next time I visit my local Gamestop.

I started Star Wars: The Force Unleashed this weekend and already feel much more in my element. Maybe I am just a PC RPG gamer and I needed KH to make me see it. Also, the graphics on this thing are freaking fantastic. Wow.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Wrapping It Up

Despite a few bumps in the road, I feel like I've gotten a decent bit done this week. I started it out with two goals (partly because I like to set goals and partly to give me something to focus on other than the fact that my husband has been out of town and won't be back until Monday). They were:

1. Finish the crochet project I was working on.
2. Finish playing Kingdom Hearts II

I finished the jacket Wednesday evening, and must say I am extremely pleased with the results.

Cotton Jacket by Cori 2011.

Pattern: Essential Jacket by Lion Brand (Size Large)
Yarn: Lion Brand Cotton Ease in Violet (6 Skeins)
Hook: I

The pattern was pretty easy, actually. It is all half-double crochet with raglan shaping on the back and front pieces as well as the sleeves. I could see myself making this again, possibly for a gift if I decide I love someone that much. My only real beef with it at all is that I would have preferred the pattern to be a little bit more spelled out in a few places. Mostly for the two front pieces--we are given the pattern for one half of the front and at one point told to "continue as for the back," but it was a little unclear to me exactly which stitch pattern I should be following there, I would have liked more explicit steps for that bit. Also, for the other half, the pattern just says to "make another just like the first but reverse the shaping." That was easy enough, but only if I was paying attention. I could see where it would be very possible to just be working along and not realize you've made two identical pieces in error, rather than mirror images. But it all came out right in the end, so I am not complaining too much.

Yesterday, I started my Doctor Who scarf. My first knitting project, the slippers, helped me work on the challenge of using two strands at once, as well as changing up the stitches throughout the pattern for design and shaping purposes.  This scarf will give me a chance to practice changing colors. I have already completed my first color stripe (it was a very short one) and changed colors once. It was a little tricky (mostly because I had a toddler crawling all over me trying to alternately steal my yarn and needles) but seems to have turned out well. This will be a long-haul project (it is a dang long scarf), I fear, but very very good practice. As an added bonus, when I cast on and started knitting, I actually remembered how to do both and didn't have to look at my reference book until it was time to change colors, huzzah!

As for my second goal of the week. Well, as it stands now, I have just gotten to the last save point before the final battle. I am pretty confident that I can finish the game today. So that's on track.

In fact, realizing how well I am doing on my self-set goals, I decided yesterday to add a third.

3. Finish reading Good Omens.

Depending on how long it takes me to finish my game, I might actually be able to pull this one off tonight, since I am just rolling into the big climax of the book. Worst case scenario, I finish it tomorrow. Either way, I am a happy Cori.

All in all, I'd say I did good this week. I even took my daughter to the park yesterday to play for a bit with a friend (the weather has gotten gorgeous again), and today after music class, we are going to pay a brief visit at the zoo. My mother-in-law is coming out to do that with us, so I am looking forward to getting to visit with her as well as with my penguins and Komodo dragons.

While I head off to do that, why don't you check out this week's installment of Gronk? It is, as always, awesome-sauce. Katie is back next Friday (yay!) and will have a full week of guest strips leading up to her return, so that's pretty spiffy. Enjoy! Happy weekend!

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Maybe I LIKE Doing It Wrong

I love reading John Scalzi, I really do. Ever since I stumbled across his blog due to his role as a consultant for Stargate Universe, I have to admit I have enjoyed it immensely. He actually talks very little about SGU in his blog (even more so now that SGU has been canceled), but that makes it no less interesting. I very much enjoy his writing style, and though I do not always agree with the opinions he expresses on his blog, he usually makes his point in a way so as to not be even remotely offensive to me. Rather, I can nod and say, "alright, I see your point. I don't necessarily agree with you, but I respect your opinion."

But an entry on his blog a little while back has been rattling around in my brain ever since I read it, and the more I think about it, the less amused I become.

Here is a link to that blog: Farhad Manjoo is Right and I Will Go to This Barricade With Him

Here is the full text of that entry:

"The vile perniciousness that is the second space after a period. If you do this, you are everything that is wrong and bad in this world. That is all." 

The link is to an article by the titular Farhad Manjoo concerning the fact that when typing, the majority of the population still uses two spaces after a period, when in fact, contemporary thinking is that the correct formatting requires only one space.

I have to admit I am a little bit bemused by the whole thing. I have spent my entire typing life, be it at a typewriter or a computer, believing that two is the correct number of spaces to follow a period. I honestly had no idea that the times had changed. Manjoo's article gives a fairly interesting history of how the practice of typing two spaces came into being, along with when and why the professional shift back to one space occurred. He mentions multiple copy-editing and typing reference books (this is an important distinction from textbooks, I think) that have been updated to reflect the paradigm shift.

What Manjoo fails to offer, however, is a sound proposal for actually teaching new and existing typists the now correct formatting. Really he just offers a lot of anecdotes about professionals who are irritated (and wow, people are really emotional about this issue, believe it or not) at the perseverance of that second space. The blame seems to fall on the fact that typing teachers in schools everywhere continue to teach two spaces because that is the way that they were taught to type.  Yes, it is a valid point that teaching methods must evolve to match the ever-changing world, especially where technology is concerned. But just updating reference books isn't going to cut it. Someone needs to mandate a change to the curriculum itself if a change is to occur. This means changing teachers' training, textbooks, course plans, ect. In the current economy (especially with regard to cutbacks in educational spending), I don't see that happening any time soon, however.

This feels a bit to me like the people who still insist that "ain't" isn't a "real" word. It is in the dictionary now folks. You may not like it, but the word has been made official through its permeation into the common vernacular. Languages change and trying to insist that they haven't is a silly thing to do. Though in this case it is something of the opposite that is true. The common "vernacular" of typing hasn't yet caught up to the change. Just because the copy-editing community has accepted that one space is the correct format, the rest of us haven't quite caught up to that yet, and I feel the professionals need to be a bit patient. You may think (or even know) that you are doing it the right way and we are all wrong, but if the "we" is the vast majority, then I gotta tell you, two spaces is still perfectly acceptable for the time being.

Especially if your biggest complaint is that the use of two spaces is wrong because it looks ugly on the page. Seriously?

Look, I am not trying to say that just because everyone is still doing it that way, that's the correct way. Clearly that is unison among the people who "know better." But. Instead of going around writing (or linking to) snotty articles, start to figure out a way to get the rest of the world on board. Nicely, preferably. The best way will probably be to mandate a change in curriculum at all levels of school, from elementary straight up through post-graduate. That won't help those of us who are out of the education system, sadly, but this is the kind of change that I think you just need to accept will take a generation or two to come to fruition.

For example, ever since I read that article, I have tried to remind myself to only use one space after a period. I made a conscious effort to do so for this blog entry, and I have to say, it was hard. At the end of almost every sentence I hit space twice and had to backspace. I am not that old, but I am a writer and I am set in my ways. I don't know if there's any changing those of us who are to this point.

I mean, there's a lot going on in my life, and the number of spaces after a period just don't enter into it most of the time, even when I am writing. The thought will flit through my mind and then be gone again, and without thinking, I am hitting that space bar twice.

So, writers, teachers? What are your thoughts? One space, or two, or does it even matter?

Update: When I originally wrote this entry (last week) I was irked that the "professionals" seemed to be getting so offended by those of us who continue to use two spaces simply because that is how we were taught and we were never told it had changed. I still think that those individuals should seek to teach the change, rather than grump about it, but I am not so sure that the one-space practice is as isolated as I thought. Since posting my blog, I have obsessively been paying attention to the number of spaces in everything I read online, and it does seem that one is far more prevalent than two nowadays. So, either I know a lot more people trained by professional writers than I had previously thought, or the word about one space is getting around much more efficiently than I believed and I, in my little bubble, just missed it. My little sister did mention she had a professor laying out the guidelines for papers recently state that she required one space, but only in the bibliographies, so I am not sure what that means. But it does seem some professors are starting to require the one space of their students in spaces, which is a good place to start proliferation of the change at least. Still, people out of school, without access to copy editors and who do not publish their writing professionally, seem to have not learned of this change. I am glad to see the next crop is (starting to, at least) be taught the correct format, and I personally can strive to make the change in my own writing, but I think we need to accept that a lot of the "old guard" as it were are beyond changing at this point.


Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Character Flaws

I have a confession to make.  I haven't been making any progress with my writing so far this year.  I've certainly been thinking about it, and quite a bit.  But actual research?  Actual writing (other than on this blog)?  Not so much.   My current plan on the writing front is to start out February by printing the manuscript of my first draft of Living Legend, the story I wrote in November.  Then, I am going to sit down and just read through the darn thing once.  Probably with a red pen handy just in case of any glaring typos or proofreading finds, though that will not be the main purpose of the read-through.  Once I have done that, I am going to go back through the thing and start taking notes and editing.  I will also be finding the appropriate places to add new scenes or expand those already existing.  For instance, there is one scene, early on, from a specific character's point of view.  It is the only one for him, and I think the book would benefit greatly by seeing more of the story through his eyes.  I also definitely want to flesh out my characters.  Characters are important, you know.  I am anticipating at least three drafts of this thing before I start thinking about trying to publish it myself or looking for an agent (or sticking it in a closet and saving it for later before finally admitting it is crap and should never see the light of day again).  The goal is to get draft two done this year, while starting (or at least laying the groundwork for) another original story as well.

See, lots of thinking going on, if no other actual activity.  I have also been paying attention to articles about writing, bookmarking when appropriate and otherwise absorbing the information like the little sponge I am.  In the past few days I have stumbled across two that have really struck a chord with me, and I wanted to talk about what I took away from them.  Both articles spend a lot of time talking about characters and how important they are to any good piece of fiction.  I fervently believe this.  They also both suggest that characters need to have flaws that we, the readers, can latch on to and, if not actually identify with, want to know more about.  This gives us reason to root for them in their adventures. 

The first article appeared on Tor's website and was written by Jon Sprunk:  Characters:  What Are They Good For?

The second entry was the latest in Sylvia Bond's series about fan fiction over at Pink Raygun:  The Fan Whisperer-Part 4

Both authors argue that no one wants to read about a perfect character.  That character is not only less believable, but also runs the risk of being extremely annoying (or a Mary Sue, of which most of us have grown quite weary).  But.  I would argue that a character that seems perfect, at least to the other characters in a story, and is then revealed to have some really messed up stuff going on would be quite fascinating to read about.  Though that goes back to the "give your character flaws" suggestion, I suppose.

A writer certainly has to take character development and growth into consideration as well.  You can start with a "perfect" character and then present her with a situation that is completely out of her league, and which she has no idea how to solve or survive.  Focus a bit on how she does manage to muddle through (or doesn't, for that matter), certainly.  But the really interesting bit in this kind of story will be the consequences.  As a result of her failure, what has changed about her?  About how the world sees her?  How she sees herself?  Even more importantly, what happens the next time she gets thrown into an impossible situation?  You've given your perfect character a flaw, and then made her learn to live with it.  Now she's grown (whether for better or for worse is totally up to you as the writer), and the readers have a better idea of who she is, and are interested to find out what happens to her next.  It is extremely important to note (as Sprunk does), that a reader doesn't have to actually like a character to care about what happens to her.  But there's got to be something there to grab the reader's interest, whether they like the character or not.

That learning to live with it part is, I think, tricky for a lot of writers.  I'll admit that I probably haven't applied this principle very well to my own characters.  Yet.  But that is definitely something I will be looking to do as I flesh out Living Legend and try to make Cass and Niko as fully realized on the page as they are in my head.  It can be very easy for a writer to get bogged down in the struggle of dealing with flaws, and that is a very fine line to walk.  Let me give you two examples from series I enjoy to see if I can illustrate this point.

In both cases, the character in question begins to develop or discover latent supernatural abilities and, fearing what they are now capable of, tries to run away from them.  That's what I am going with for the flaw in common.

For my first example I will turn to the character of Perrin Aybara from Robert Jordan's (with some assistance by Brandon Sanderson, of course) Wheel of Time series.  In the very first book in the series (now up to book thirteen, with one left to go, not including the already published prequel), Perrin learns he has a very special ability.  He is what Jordan calls a Wolfbrother.  He can sense and communicate with wolves.  Upon leaving his home to set out on his adventures, his Wolfbrother talents, latent until that point, begin to emerge and develop.  In addition to his connection with wolves, his senses also begin to sharpen (particularly his sight and sense of smell) and his eyes turn yellow.  He is also able to walk in Tel'aran'rhiod, the world of dreams, through which wolves and some select others movie freely. 

Upon discovering these new skills and abilities (and they don't all come at once, with some developing more slowly than others, of course), Perrin, naturally, freaks the heck out.  He is afraid that these abilities come from a source of evil, or that they will at least be perceived that way by others.  This is such a rare talent that even the wolves only faintly remember it in their genetic memory.  Very few scholars and historians have heard of it, let alone the common folk Perrin encounters on a daily basis.  Then, he runs into a man named Elyas who, as it turns out, is also a Wolfbrother.  He is able to seek some guidance from Elyas, and his fears are somewhat abated.  He befriends one wolf in particular, Hopper, who practically bends over backward to welcome Perrin into the fold and teach him the ways of the wolves.

Perrin started out as one of the more well-balanced characters in the series, and was an early fan favorite.  His status as a Wolfbrother gave him great potential, and throughout much of the second book in the series his developing skills are crucial to the story.  He is, at this point, still trying to come to terms with what it is that he has become, however.  Some early experiences with the wolves have given him cause to fear that he may misuse his abilities if he relies on them too heavily.  So we've got a fairly likable character with pretty great potential.  He's been given what he considers a huge flaw in his character, and is working out how to deal and live with these changes.  His abilities really aren't a flaw in and of themselves, I think most readers would agree on this.  They are actually pretty freaking cool in my opinion.  But the way Perrin deals with them is what turns out to be his largest character flaw.  Mostly because, well, he doesn't.

After the second book, things go downhill pretty quickly for Perrin.  In the third book Perrin meets two people who alter his story arc in such a way that it quickly became the bits everyone stopped caring about and just skipped over upon follow-up readings.  He meets a woman (more of a girl, really), named Faile, who, for almost every inch of page she appears on, is excruciatingly annoying.  She gloms on to Perrin's party during a quest and refuses to go away.  Even Perrin can't stand her at first, but then, for no demonstrable reason, he ends up falling in love with (and eventually marrying) her.  This is not your typical "they hate each other but there's a spark and eventually they find out all they have in common" relationship.  No, Jordan truly shows the readers nothing to explain how Perrin suddenly and irrevocably falls in love with Faile, he just does.  That's a long enough standing gripe though that I don't want to get into it here.  The point is that the presence of Faile in Perrin's life and story arc gives him yet another flaw, and this is a huge one.  She makes his brain completely fall out of his head.  I don't mean he gets all lovesick and mopey around her (though he does), but he seriously just stops thinking whenever she's around or if a situation has to do with her.  Also, she has some insane cultural notions about how men and women should relate to each other, and he neither asks her flat out to lay out the rules for her or finds someone who has some sort of experience with Saldeans to just freaking ask.  So they fight.  All.  The.  Time.  It is painful.

Shortly after meeting Faile he also meets another young man who is a Wolfbrother (they're getting close to the end of days, so these things are popping up with more frequency than is usual).  Unfortunately, this man has completely given into the wolfish side of his nature and gone utterly feral.  Perrin then spends the next nine books worrying and fearing that the same thing would happen to him and then tries to run away from who he is.  Nine books.  Big, fat ones, with lots of words.  It isn't until the most recent book that he finally comes to grips with both his relationship with his wife (mostly), and his status as a Wolfbrother.  He finally stops running and accepts who he has become, and in the process, actually learns that he was being an idiot all along.  Huzzah!  Thankfully Jordan and Sanderson managed to give Perrin redemption in the most awesome scene of awesomeness ever, but I think almost every WoT fan would agree that it took too dang long to get there.

The point here is that Jordan had a really nice potential set up with this character and then, I can only assume perceiving he was too likable, proceeded to heap flaw upon flaw upon flaw on the character, without taking the time to actually resolve any of them and move on before it was almost too late.  He just let those flaws ride throughout most of the series, turning a really cool character into an utterly uninteresting one, which is a shame, considering that Perrin is actually one of the three primary main characters in the whole dang series.

Hint to television producers and writers:  This is actually the same affliction that causes many serialized shows to go down the crapper for audiences.  You can't just let a character's flaws ride out without having the other characters at least point out that so-and-so is being a douche.  Preferably this would then lead to some sort of confrontation and character growth or regression, breaking up the status quo.  The status quo really isn't all it's cracked up to be.

Though, I must note that in Jordan's case, the sheer volume of characters he has introduced in this series probably means that he just didn't have the time to get around to Perrin's resolution until much later in the series.  Still.  Bad form, that.

So there you have my example of character flaws allowed to go wrong.  Let's look at one that's handled a little better, shall we?

One of the first fantasy series I picked up on my own was Melanie Rawn's Dragon Prince/Dragon Star series (it is technically two trilogies, but they follow one right after the other for a six book arc).  Rawn gave us the character of Alasen, a young woman who has the ability to become a Sunrunner, which is the primary type of magic user in the series.  Usually, people with this ability are sent to Goddess Keep to be trained at a fairly young age (normally in their early teens), but because Alasen is nobility, she was never sent to be trained to access her powers.  Turns out, that's perfectly fine with her because she is absolutely terrified of those powers.  But then she meets a young Sunrunner, Andry, who is poised to take over as the next Lord of Goddess Keep (the head honcho).  The two hit it off quite well and it is clearly young love.  Andry, who loves his powers, wants to share them with Alasen, and attempts to get her to see what she's been missing.  His attempt is rather ham-handed and not only does Alasen basically run screaming into the night, she flat out refuses to pursue a further relationship with Andry because she has lost all trust in him.

This is a kind of trope that usually annoys me, I have to admit.  I can get being cautious of what you can do and respecting your powers, but hiding from what you are?  Refusing to learn more about them, about your self?  I don't get it, and I very definitely consider it a character flaw.  Too often writers will relish in this kind of character self-denial, and unless there's a very compelling reason for it, it is extremely difficult to pull off without just ending up becoming incredibly tedious.

Alasen ends up marrying the man that she perceives as having saved her from Andry, an older gentleman named Ostvel.  It is quite clear that her marriage to Ostvel is a knee-jerk reaction to get her away from any chance of being with Andry in the future, and at first, it is unclear what connection, other than an appreciation for his help, Alasen really has with Ostvel.  But.  Over the course of the next three books (all of this happens toward the end of the third), we not only see Alasen and Ostvel's relationship grow into something very real and solid and true, we also watch Alasen come to term with who and what she is.  Even if she doesn't want to use her Sunrunner abilities, they are still there, and a time comes when she can no longer afford to ignore them, because events play out that require everyone to give everything they've got.

Interestingly enough, Andry is also changed by this encounter.  He never really gets over Alasen, taking multiple lovers along the way but never committing to them.  Alasen's rejection of him, and subsequent acceptance of Ostvel, sets him on a downward spiral that has dire effects on the rest of the world.  When he gains control of the Sunrunners, he makes sweeping changes to policy that sets them apart and, in his mind, somewhat above the rest of the people.  He also, despite strong family ties, becomes very reluctant to cooperate with the leaders of the various Princedoms, even when a larger enemy emerges that requires a unified front if there is to be any chance of survival.  So even though Alasen eventually confronts her fears and grows from her flaws, these very flaws set in motion a series of actions on the part of others that have very far-reaching consequences.  That is a pretty darn good example of how to use a character's flaw within a story, I would say.

So, to sum up, characters are extremely important in a work of fiction.  It is a widely held belief by writers (and readers) that a well-crafted character comes complete with flaws that can be exploited to further the story.  While I agree with that, I think it is extremely important to remember that the flaws alone are not enough.  The character's flaws must serve a function in the development of the character.  It is in this manner that they should influence the plot, the plot should not be centered around the flaws themselves.  Just because I think I know what needs to be done here, I don't pretend I've actually figured out how to do it yet.  It's a tricky thing to get right, and even the best of authors sometimes fall down on the job. 

But that's what practice is for.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Unintentional Flashbacks

Twinkle Hope by dreamcicle19772006 on Flickr

There has been a trend over the last few years of making new and updated versions of cartoons from the mid-nineties and before specifically for today's children.  I don't really get this.  I would guess that the theory is that the kids who watched these cartoons back in the day are now grown up and have kids of their own.  These parents, upon seeing something from their own childhood will immediately warm to the newer versions and want to share them with their children.  But this is actually not the reaction I get from these newer cartoons at all.  Instead, I get mildly irritated (sometimes more than mildly, I'll admit) at the tremendous waste of time of this whole idea.  As a parent who is actually watching most of the cartoons my daughter watches right along with her, I find these modern versions are usually a very poor substitute for the original thing.  Often, they are rehashing original story lines with new animation and voice-acting, and I find that just lazy as well.  I know in some cases it is honestly a matter of expanding the existing number of episodes, and both are being offered up to today's children, with new actors and animation a requirement because the originals are no longer available.  But a lot of them, in my opinion, are just plain rip-offs, intended to cash in on parents' nostalgia and sell new toys without actually trying to produce a quality product.  What these cartoons do is leave me disgusted with the new offering and hungry for the originals.

Take, for instance, My Little Pony.

I have been peripherally aware for some time that there has been an updated line of these toys available for some time now.  The My Little Pony toys, television show, and movie were a firm fixture in my childhood in the eighties.  I am not ashamed to admit I owned more than my fair share of the pretty ponies.  I absolutely loved them, and do still harbor a soft spot in my heart for the memories of that part of my childhood.

That being said, however, I find the new line of toys just a little bit off.  Something about them just doesn't sit right with me.  They are too stylized.  I know, I know, the original line was definitely stylized too.  But these new ones are even worse.  I think it's because they made them skinny and gave them ridiculously oversized eyes (even more so than on the originals).

When I was buying the first tube of trainer toothpaste for my daughter to use with her first real toothbrush (after she had enough teeth that the little finger mitt was definitely no longer an option, which meant no more buying the kit that came with the toothpaste included), I did end up going with the My Little Pony toothpaste, despite my issues with the new version of the franchise.  Mostly this was because the other tube, with Thomas the Tank Engine, was either blueberry or bubble-gum flavored, as opposed to the Pinkie Fruity Flavor of the MLP tube.  It just sounded better.  It's not like my daughter is the one applying the toothpaste to the brush yet, so I wasn't too worried about it.

Last night, however, I gave in to a mild case of the Mondays and decided to pick up dinner from McDonald's rather than cook anything.  I forgot to ask for the toy for ages three and under (okay, that's not entirely true, I may have forgotten on purpose, because McDonald's three and under toys are kind of crap, at least Chick-fil-A has board books for the little ones), so she got a My Little Pony toy.  (I think it interesting to note here that as I was just typing "My Little Pony" I first typed "Phony."  That is not the first time that happened in the course of researching and writing this entry--not even the second or third.  Guess what that says about how I feel about the new line.)

Most of the time, I actually don't let my daughter have the toys out of her kid's meal.  But when I do (always after a thorough inspection for small and/or hazardous bits), it isn't until after she's done eating.  So during dinner last night I was looking at this toy, and reading the happy meal box trying to figure out her name and "personality" (her name is Pinkie Pie, she's fun loving and friendly, and has balloons on her butt, that's about it).  I decided to go ahead and let her have it, and she played with it for a little while after dinner (I actually didn't hand it to her straightaway, but set it down with her other toys and she stumbled across it later) and then moved on to attempting to demolish my crochet project.

As I was giving Baby Girl her bath last night, though, and putting the toothpaste on her toothbrush, I looked at the tube and realized that the pony pictured on it is the same pony she got in her happy meal, balloons on the butt and all.  Go figure.

The whole thing got me remembering my own childhood experiences with My Little Pony.  Looking around online, I see that several straight to DVD movies have been made featuring the new ponies, but even if I do concede and let my daughter have more of those to play with down the road, I think we'll be sticking with the original cartoons, thank you very much.  Amazon has the movie for only about thirteen bucks, so I think we'll be adding that to our collection pretty soon.  They've also got the first season (which looks like the bulk of the series) of the television show on DVD as well.  Might be a worthy investment.  With a few exceptions, I have been pretty disappointed in what passes for cartoons these days, so I have been stockpiling some old school stuff (sadly, some of it well before my husband and I even started trying to have a child) for Baby Girl to watch.  We've got the entire series of She-Ra and Powerpuff Girls, as well as a season and some random episode collections of Fraggle Rock, and a few other cartoons as well.

I'm gonna raise my kid right when it comes to cartoons.  She'll watch the good stuff, and I'll be right there watching it with her.  There won't be any of these crappy updated substitutions if I have anything to say about it.  I mean, don't even get me started on what they've done to Strawberry Shortcake...

Monday, January 24, 2011

Webcomics Are Awesome: Not For Kids Edition

So one of the interesting developments with the rise of webcomics is the fact that these comic strips are not being run in your daily paper.  That means that, while many webcomic artists try to make their strips fun and appropriate for the whole family, they certainly don't have to.  And there are quite a few that don't.

Today I thought I would share with you some of those that choose to break the traditional view that comics are only for kids.  I would rate these M for mature audiences due to language or content or both.  These aren't everyone's cup of tea, to be sure, but I enjoy them. Links in the name of the strip are to the comic's "about" page where available and to the first archived strip where not.

Gutters created by Ryan Sohmer (Art Director:  Lar deSouza, Artist:  various)
Updated:  Monday, Wednesday, Friday
Type:  Non-serial

This strip comes from the guys that created Looking For Group, which I have talked about before.  It is a series of stand alone strips that, as Sohmer describes them, basically amount to "an editorial cartoon targeting comic books."  Here Sohmer pokes fun at not only the comic book industry, but also the characters and stories found within their pages.  It is done lovingly, but with a biting humor that is hard to resist.  While his long-time colleague deSouza is the Art Director for the strip, one of the really nifty hooks of Gutters is that each strip is drawn by a different artist from within the webcomic and comic book industries, which results in a lot of absolutely gorgeous panels to look at.  The strip has only been up and running since last June, so it is an easy one to go back and get caught up on, although it is not necessary to do so since there are no story arcs.  The first strip can be found here

Hijinks Ensue by Joel Watson
Updated:  Monday through Friday
Type:  Non-serial (with the occasional multiple-strip story arc)

This is another webcomic that I decided to subscribe to after being directed to it many times by Whedonesque (the website that keeps track on all articles related to the Whedonverse and people perceived to belong to it).  Basically, this is a comic about geeky things, by geeks, for geeks.  Watson's strips often revolve around the current happenings in television shows, the news, video games, and other things of that sort.  The main characters in the strip are caricaturisations of himself and two of his friends.  The humor is often dark and snarky, in a way that provides an outlet for that nerd rage so many of us often feel.  It has been running since May of 2007 and you can find the first strip here should you wish to, though Watson freely admits that there is no need to start from the beginning, and in fact, the art gets much better the more the strip progresses.  Mostly just one-off jokes about whatever is going on in the world of geeks right now, this is a great strip to just dive right on into. 

Least I Could Do by Ryan Sohmer and Lar deSouza
Updated:  Daily
Type:  Serial (Monday-Saturday)

Huh.  Oh look, it's those guys again.  Yup, this is the "real world" comic by the Looking for Group guys.  It centers around an absolutely ridiculous sex-crazed guy named Rayne and his, um, adventures.  I started reading this because I love Looking for Group and wanted to check out more by this duo.  I'll admit, though, this has kind of become like a train-wreck that I can't look away from.  It's definitely the raciest of the webcomics I read.  There are the occasional nerdy references, of course, and Rayne is surrounded by friends and family who actually seem to be pretty well adjusted, and keep the story grounded.  More or less.  On Sundays the site runs a series of "Beginnings" one-off strips that show Rayne as a kid.  Dennis the Menace had nothing on him, let me tell you.  But it is an enjoyable strip, and it isn't always about sex.  I am not really sure how to describe this one, other than that.  Here I would just have to say, go check it out, read a week or two worth of strips, and see if it is your thing.  It's been running since February of 2003, and the first strip is here.  One day I am going to go back and get caught up on these, and then maybe I'll actually know what the heck is going on.  But that day is not today. 

Our Valued Customers by MRTIM

Updated:  Daily
Type:  Non-serial

Okay, technically, this one is a blog, not a comic.  This blogger works in a comic book store and at some point started doing little sketches of the people that come into his store and the crazy stuff they say.  That's all it is, but it is lovely.  With a few sketched lines and a little bit of dialogue, he manages to paint a picture of these people as clearly as if they were standing right in front of you, just waiting to be smacked.  Seriously, most of them need it.  I don't think it has been running for very long, but it is kind of hard to tell, because I don't see an archive link on the blog, unfortunately.  Thankfully, this is just one you can dive right into though.

Penny Arcade by Gabe and Tycho

Updated:  Frequently
Type:  Non-serial (mostly)

This is a long, long running webcomic.  If you're a gamer, you've probably heard about it.  It is mostly about video games and sometimes about technology or other nerd stuff.  Occasionally they'll get a story and go for a few strips in a row with that.  It is irreverent, and the language is definitely rated R or higher.  I'll admit that I only get about half of the jokes, because these guys are hardcore gamers on a level I know I will never achieve.  But when I do get the joke?  Oh.  My.  God.  HILARIOUS.  That's all I'm saying there.

Questionable Content by Jeph Jacques
Update:  Monday through Friday
Type:  Serial

Not gonna lie, out of the comics listed in today's post, this is my favorite.  It is right up there with Sheldon and Looking for Group as one of my favorite webcomics period.  This is about a group of twenty-somethings who all hang out or work in (or own) a coffee shop called "Coffee of Doom."  But it is nothing like that television show about a bunch of twenty-somethings who all used to work or hang out in a coffee shop, I swear.  Set in a college town (some of the characters work at or are students at the college as well), they are fans of indie music and are just trying to muddle through life trying to relate to each other.  My favorite character is Hannelore, who is super genius and super-OCD, but learning to loosen up a little as time goes by.  There are also AnthroPC characters, which are basically sentient MP3 players or other such like devices.  One of them is a dirty, dirty perv.  It's just a fascinating story and I get excited every single time I see that a new day's comic has been added to my feed reader.  I was, in fact, jumping up and down in excitement when I saw that Jacques had been added to list of artists who will be attending this year's Emerald City Comic Con.  It has been going for quite some time (since 2003), but I think this is a strip that you could jump right into, maybe only needing to go back as far as the current story line.  That's what I did.  I will one day go back and read it all though, so if you want to try that, the first strip is here. Also, this guy is responsible for some of the best t-shirts out there.  I own at least two from the store and have my eyes on several more.

Very Bad Koalas by Nicholas Brendon and Steve Loter
Updated:  Wednesdays
Type:  Serial

Yes, you read that right.  Nicholas Brendon.  This is a brand new strip, it just started at the end of this past September.  It's a weekly strip about two koala bears on the run from the law.  They are wanted for many crimes that they do not remember committing, nor do they seem to know each other, but they have found themselves thrown together on this adventure as they try to figure out just what the heck is going on.  It looks like they are planning for it to only run for a year, and you can start with the first strip here

So.  There you have it.  A little taste of what makes me laugh in the mornings.  Also, perhaps more of a glimpse into my psyche than you wanted.  Hopefully you'll find something here that you can enjoy as well.  There are a few other strips that would qualify as not safe for kids on my regular list, but I think those can each pull their own post, so I will save them for a later date.  For now, go check out a strip or two.  I am a firm believer that we should all start our day off with a few laughs.

Friday, January 21, 2011

My Thoughts on Black Swan

Made it out to see Black Swan with a friend last night.  It was freaking phenomenal.  I don't know that I ever need to see it again, but I am very glad I did see it, and in theaters at that.  The people who sat behind us who left the theater saying how horrible it was clearly didn't get it.  I think they were expecting a horror film though, and not a psychological mind trip.  This is a film for people who like cinema.  It is a piece of art that just happens to tell a story that is completely mind-blowing in the process.  A story that is all the more disturbing because despite the hints of something supernatural, it is a very human tale.

I am still trying to digest the film, but without getting too spoilery, here are some of the thoughts that have been running through my mind since I walked away from Black Swan.

Natalie Portman is an amazing actress.  She really is.  Wow.  That being said, though, Mila Kunis is a completely amazing, and utterly under appreciated, actress as well.  I am not sure where Black Swan falls for Oscar eligibility, but I would love to see her get a nomination for Best Supporting Actress for this because holy cow does she deserve it.  I think I am totally in love with her now, just a little bit.

Just typing that last bit, and thinking about it for a minute made me realize that it totally passes the Bechdel Test, and with flying colors.  While there are men in this movie, every last one of them, even the "main" male lead, is extraneous.  They are just part of the background, or the spurs to get the story moving in a certain direction.  And I didn't even notice that until just now.  This totally isn't a chick flick.  Even though it's all about ballet.  No, seriously.  It's not.  I am really not joking here.

I am still reeling over how well Nina's story was integrated and made parallel to the story of Swan Lake, the production which her company is putting on.  What happens to her throughout the film, as horrifying as it is (in a completely psychological way, not in a cheap thriller kind of way, which makes it so much worse and better), makes complete sense if you pay attention to what is said about how she approaches the roles she plays in each production.

There are a few moments from the film that, even now, I cannot decide if they actually happened (or which parts of them actually happened), or if they were all in Nina's mind.  That's some very, very good story telling right there.  

However.  Not to nitpick the story, but just an observation--I think about 98% of Nina's problems could have been avoided had she a) moved the heck out of her mother's house as soon as she turned 18, and b) invested in a good therapist.  But, had she done those things that would have told a very different, and probably far less compelling story.  But man, oh man, do I appreciate my mother so much more after having seen this.  I love you Mom.  Thank you for letting me live my own life and not being, you know, a freaking lunatic.

I really, truly, dearly hope that my daughter does not decide to become a professional dancer.  I realize that there is a level of passion involved here that I cannot even begin to comprehend.  But what these women do to their bodies in order to stay "in shape," and what they do to themselves mentally to be able to endure the lives they have chosen, these are not the things healthy, well-adjusted people do.  Nor is the abuse they willingly put up with from outside sources (mental and physical) so that they can get ahead.  It is disheartening, to say the least.  I wish I could say that I admired these women for their drive and their dedication, but really I am just saddened by them, because I can't imagine that they actually lead happy lives.

To sum up:  Black Swan is absolutely amazing.  It is extremely intense, and if you go to see it (which I recommend), be prepared to be put through an emotional and psychological wringer.  Wow.

Ending on a happy note, hey, look, it's Friday!  New Gronk!  There's some excellent Ghostbusters references going on in today's guest strip.  Enjoy!  Happy weekend, folks, see you Monday!

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Bits and Ends

 Just a quick post for you today.  I can feel the very edges of a cold coming on, and I am trying to fight it off with some preventative DayQuil, which means I am a bit loopy.  Thought I'd just share a few of my goings on with you and then be on my way. 

I took my daughter to an introductory class at The Little Gym today.  It was a lot of fun, and we are definitely going to be signing her up for regular classes.  We are probably going to wait another month to do so though, for two reasons.  Baby girl is right on the edge of the age groups, which means if we start now we'd have to transfer her to the older class in a month or so.  Also, this is an activity we are theoretically doing with a friend (a baby and daddy we met in swimming lessons over the summer), and he is a few weeks older than Baby Girl so we want to make sure they can be in the same class.  Although I don't know if starting her out in the younger group and then transferring her up would be a bad thing, now that I've been through a class.  Might bear some thinking about.  It will definitely be a test of Baby Girl's attention span, and I think that's a good thing.  She needs to learn to accept direction, and this might help.  I hope.  I am definitely looking forward to going to future classes while not strung out on cold medicine, as that will probably help me be more on my game.  Also, that was almost as much of a workout for me as for Baby Girl, so, you know, it helps to be healthy.

I'm looking forward to a Mommy's Night Out tonight--my friend Miss T and I are planning to get together and go see Black Swan.  I am very curious to see it, I've heard some pretty good things.  Also, much as I love my daughter, my husband is about to go out of town for a week and some change to sit in with The Frontier Brothers in New York, so I am really looking forward to getting some baby-free time while I can.

The last skein of yarn for my Doctor Who scarf came today, and I am about halfway done with my crocheted jacket project, so things are progressing nicely on the craft front as well.  Also, on the gaming front I am starting to get more into the game a little bit, which is nice.  It would be lovely if I could actually find myself enjoying playing, rather than viewing it as a chore, which you know, is kind of the point.

Finally, I have been reading one of my favorite books again for the umpteenth time.  It is called Good Omens and it is the funniest story about the apocalypse that you will ever find.  It never fails to cheer me up, and with the dreary weather we have been having, this was a good time for me to pick it back up.  I will definitely be giving you a review of that once I finish it.

That's all I've got for you today.  Have a great one! 

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Got Myself a Carrot

Heh.  At the very end of last year, I sat down and went through all of the console video games we have here at home, sorting them into several piles:  Played (Keep), Played (Trade In), Mini-Games or Party Games, Want to Play, No Interest.  I let Hubby know that he needs to go through the Trade In and No Interest piles soon and pull out anything he wants to keep before I take the rest to Game Stop.  The Want to Play pile is fairly substantial.  We have games for several different consoles--Playstation, Playstation 2, Gamecube, and Wii (we have a PS2 and a Wii system, which between them will play all of those games).

Then I went through my Amazon wish list and made a list of the games on there that I really want to actually get and play through (the RPGs), as opposed to the party games and mini-games that I would like to have but am not that serious about.  I then checked my open orders to see what games I have already preordered.  I also pulled out a few of Hubby's PC games that I want to or that he would like me to play and noted the PC games I have played that I would like to play again.

Then, I sat down and made myself a Game Plan.  I listed out all of the games I would like to play and tried to figure out a good order for them.  I did my best to balance out PC games with console games, estimate how long it usually takes me to play a game so I could figure out where to put the preordered games (which I will want to play as soon as they come out in most cases), and find good places to stick in the replays (some of which I might want to do before sequels come out). I wrote the list down on a piece of notebook paper and placed it in the back of my desk calendar for handy reference.

I fully acknowledge that this Game Plan is just a guide that I am sure will be subject to some rearranging.  For one thing, I started it thinking it would be my plan for 2011, but I somehow doubt I am going to make it through even half of these games this year.  For another, a certain Star Wars MMORPG that I will not name here is supposed to go live sometime this year.  Once that does it is going to wreak havoc on my other game playing for sure.  I just didn't expect to be messing with the Game Plan so darn soon.

As you know, I am currently playing Kingdom Hearts II, which is the second game on my list, since I started with the game I was playing at the time I made the list.  The next game on the list is Epic Mickey, which my super awesome sister got me for Christmas.  But.  I don't think I can do it.  For one thing, once I finish KHII, I am going to be a little burnt out on the console gaming, as well as on Disney, for a bit.  For another, my silly self went and treated myself to The Force Unleashed when I was purchasing something entirely unrelated on Amazon but realized I had a little bit of extra expendable cash at the time.  So The Force Unleashed has been sitting on my computer tower for the last week, just patiently radiating awesomeness and calling to me every time I sit down to check my email or write my blog.  As this was a "to buy" game at the time I made my list, it is way way far down there, but I think it is going to be next.  Heck, I even went ahead and installed it this weekend, I couldn't help myself.

I think I am about 2/3 of the way through KHII, maybe a little less, it is really hard to tell.  I did have to finally crack a peek at a few walkthroughs in order to figure out how to beat a required mini-game involving light cycles in the Tron level and then again to beat one of the circle of bad guys that I finally defeated yesterday.  I might have scrolled through the list of worlds just to get an idea of how far I was, and found out that even though there are pretty much no new worlds left, I still have to visit each of them again for another boss fight, and a few of them multiple times still.  Sigh.  Though I will admit the game is starting to get a bit more engaging, at least.  Still, I have been slogging through this game.  Part of it, I will admit, is because I have pretty much given up my evening gaming sessions.  But it wasn't exactly hard.  I suspect other games will make this decision much more challenging to adhere to.  Usually when I am playing a game I tend to get really sucked in, and I want to play it every minute possible, because I can't wait to see what is next.  Even with the first game, which I had played most of already, I was driven to keep going.

But with The Force Unleashed waiting oh so patiently on my desktop, I now have the motivation to plow through this thing.  Maybe that's all I've been needing all along.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011


My daughter has officially declared herself done with the high chair.  Oh she'll sit in it for her cup of yogurt at breakfast, sure.  But that is a super quick feeding and one that Mommy still "helps" with.  But for lunch and dinner she will sit and eat for maybe twenty minutes and then she wants to stand up and dance around in her seat.  I cringe with nervousness just thinking about it.

This has really just started happening in the last week and a half or so.  What I have been doing is picking her up and putting her in my lap and putting her plate or cup on the table in front of me, and she's settled down and resumed eating like a normal human being almost every time (some days she's just antsy).  Once or twice I've sat her in the seat next to me and scooted it all the way up to a table, keeping a close eye on her as she finished her meal.  That kind of works, but the table is just under her chin, so it's not very comfortable for her.

I had already been thinking maybe it was time to get a booster seat for a while so I finally broke down and ordered one.  This one, in fact.  It should get here today, and I am kind of excited about it.  We went out to dinner this past Friday and Sunday nights and had Baby Girl sit in a booster seat rather than a high chair just to see how it would go and both times she took right to it.  My fingers are crossed that she behaves as well at home.  The booster seat has an added bonus in that it is supposed to be ultra-portable, and folds right up into its own little pouch, with a storage area for dishes and such.  If it takes up even half the space that the high chair does, then it is going to be a dream to travel with.

It's weird all of the little things that over the course of a few months become the status quo with a kid and then suddenly just change.  Sometimes a switch just flips, like with the high chair thing, and sometimes it is gradual.

Just in the last few days Baby Girl has also finally been able to climb up onto the couch.  If you put her down in the living room now, nine times out of ten, she just ambles over to the couch and pops right up on it.  Very rarely does she actually just sit on the thing--she likes to run around and dance on it.  In fact, you know what, let's just say she likes to dance on any elevated surface she can get herself onto.  Girl is trying to give me a heart attack, I swear.

Now that she is running around and climbing up on things with some proficiency, I am starting to think that she may be ready for the switch from her crib to a toddler bed.  That is definitely going to be the top question on my list for my doctor at our 18 month check-up next month.  At least she's not climbing out of the crib!  (Yet.)

It's crazy how fast they grow up, isn't it?  I always thought it was just talk, but man, it is just so true!  I know a lot of moms get very sad as their kids fly past various stages of development, but I think I am more just kind of in a blown away state of amazement than anything else.  Besides, as much as I am enjoying these times (and I really am trying to remind myself to savor these moments as they happen), I really just cannot wait to see what she's going to do next, or to find out who she is going to become.

I just really, really hope it's not a cheerleader.  But that's okay, I've got a plan for that too.  Cheerleading will be allowed, but only if she joins the math club or the chess team as well.  I'm on it.

What?  I'm sitting in it, aren't I?

Monday, January 17, 2011

Reading Recommendation: Star Wars Imperial Commando: 501st

A thought struck him.  "So what happens if you're a nerf with a high midi-chlorian count?"
.... "Well, latent Force-user or not, I bet someone ate it."
                                 --Karen Traviss, Star Wars Imperial Commando:  501st

Warning:  You can safely assume that the following post contains spoilers for Star Wars Imperial Commando:  501st by Karen Traviss, as well as for the books in the Republic Commando series by the same author.

This past Friday night my husband and I had a moment of nerdvana.  We, along with our daughter, had gone to dinner at our local Genghis Grill and I was attempting to feed her a piece of carrot from her bowl.  Normally she goes straight for her veggies, but it appears she prefers her carrots in whole baby carrot form rather than the sliced bits GG had to offer.  Also, she was totally chowing down on her noodles and wasn't feeling the carrot love at that precise moment.  She let us know this fact by pushing away the carrot bit and making a gesture very reminiscent of the Jedi mind-trick move.  Immediately my husband and I both looked at each other and said, "This is not the carrot you are looking for."  It was priceless, and extremely amusing to the both of us, and a very good indicator that we chose well when we married each other.  This poor kid has no chance of escaping our house as any type of non-geek.

Last night I continued on the Star Wars love by finishing up the first and only book in Karen Traviss' Imperial Commando series, 501st.  Imperial Commando was set to be the follow-up series to Republic Commando, which concluded, fittingly, with the fall of the Republic and the slaughter of the Jedi Order in Order 66.  Originally Traviss had been under contract to write at least one more book in the second series, which was supposed to have come out in July of this past year.  The series was canceled by Lucas' powerhouse, however, which is unfortunate, because 501st ends with a beginning rather than an ending.  There is little to no closure here, and I am a little saddened to know that fans of the series are unlikely to get any in the future.  I am sure I can probably by now hunt down some fan fiction continuing the series, but without Traviss' unique voice I am not sure I want to read it.

As disturbed as I was left by the abrupt ending of this story, which has so much more potential, I would still heartily recommend 501st to anyone who has read the Republic Commando series.  While this was clearly meant to be the first in a larger arc of stories, there is still much worth to be found within its pages.  Again, as a fan of the Jedi, I found myself constantly challenged by the opinions of Skirata and his clan toward force-users, as well as some of the events in the book itself.

This story takes place on two fronts:  Skirata's hideaway in a remote section of Mandalore, and Imperial City (formerly Coruscant) where Darman and Niner are stuck as part of the Emperor's elite commando unit since they did not manage to escape with the others on the night of Order 66.  Skirata wants to bring Darman and Niner home to Mandalore, but it is not as easy as all that.  Things have, of course, changed under the new regime, and Skirata and his allies find themselves on the Empire's most-wanted list for desertion and conspiracy against the Empire.  Darman and Niner meanwhile have been tasked with hunting down the remaining Jedi.  They are among the few who know that Palpatine is really a Sith, though they see little distinction between the two factions of force-users.

Because of his loss during the execution of Order 66, Darman has become fiercely determined to wipe out any force-users that might attempt to rebuild the Jedi Order.  His reasons have nothing to do with serving Palpatine, however, and everything to do with protecting his son from ever being taken by the order that, in his mind, took away everything he ever loved, all the while using up his brothers like so much cannon fodder in a war they were too stupid to see had been engineered solely to wipe them out of existence.  There is a lot of intensity going on here.

Back on Mandalore Skirata is still doing everything in his power to find a way to stop the rapid aging of the clones.  He even goes so far as to give safe haven to a Kaminoan Jedi who, it turns out, it at least a thousand years old and who is perfectly willing to allow Skirata and Uthan to study her DNA to find a way to extend the lives of the clones.  Kina Ha is a character I would dearly have loved to see more of had this series continued.  She was once an outcast from Kamino because of her aberrations, but now she is largely forgotten, by the Jedi as well as by her own people.  She exudes the true manner of the Jedi, however, and bears no malice toward her people for shunning her, even though her force-sensitivity was the result of their own experimentation.  She bears no ill will toward Skirata for using her to further his own ends, in fact, she willingly offers herself up for study if they believe it will help the clones.  She is calm and polite and observant, and goodness gracious if I didn't want to know more of what was going through her head half the time!

Throughout the story some things go according to plan while others go off the rail.  There are a few loose ends from the Republic Commando series that get tied up, certainly, but mostly we see the introduction of a new set of story lines.  With the loss of Etain, we spend much more time inside Bardan Jusik's headspace, and I have to say he has officially made it onto the top of my list of favorite Jedi throughout the franchise.  Considering he walked away from the Order, that says a lot about how this series has made me look at the Jedi, I think.  I mean, I will still always come down on the side of the Jedi over the Sith, of course, and of force-sensitives over mundanes, most likely.  Come on, the Force is pretty freaking awesome!  But it is very interesting to follow Traviss as she explores the implications of the different ways to actually use one's force-sensitivity, as well as what that says about a person or a culture.  In 501st the readers get to meet Djinn Altis, a Jedi who walked away from the Order long ago and set up his own temple, following a more old-fashioned ideology, allowing his students to love and have families.  I would truly have loved to have gotten to explore more of his group and their dynamic, especially given the moral dilemmas this presented to many of our main characters.

One last thing I'll mention about this book that I really enjoyed was that having so much of it set on Mandalore offered up a truly fascinating look into the Mandalorian culture.  Throughout the Republic Commando series we were given glimpses, but we get a much deeper exploration here.  Some of the speculation as to why the Imperial Commando series was canceled was that the Mandalorian culture Traviss presented varies wildly from that the television series Star Wars Clone Wars has been developing.  Traviss denies this is the reason, stating there were contractual issues.  It does seem that a story line she had in mind about Boba Fett would have had to have been changed up however, due to the live action Star Wars series Lucas has in development.  io9 did a brief write-up on that here that you can check out.  I stress the word speculation, however.  I do have to say, I much, much prefer Traviss' versions of the Mandalorians to what Clone Wars has given us, truth be told.  I think this is because it tends to fall much more in line with the culture of Mandalorians presented in Star Wars The Knights of the Old Republic and its sequel game.  But also because the Mandalorians on the cartoon are a bit too touchy-feely for my liking.  This makes a little bit of sense, I suppose, since it is a show aimed at kids, but still.  The whole point of Mandalorians is that they were hardcore.

Despite its unsatisfying ending--which was unsatisfying only because it wasn't meant to be an ending--I really would recommend this book to anyone who is curious about Mandalorian culture or the lives of the clones outside of what we have seen in the movies or on the television show.  Traviss really knows how to get into the world of Star Wars and bring it to life with characters that feel so much more real to me than almost anyone I've seen on screen to date.  This is the nitty-gritty, the reality of a war brought on by scheming politicians, and the backlash on the innocent and not-so-innocent bystanders.

(Incidentally, if you'd like an actual coherent explanation of why this series is so awesome, here is the article on io9 that got me interested in the series in the first place, back when Order 66 came out.)

Friday, January 14, 2011

Real Life Crossovers!

I have mentioned before my love of fan fiction, and I think I have also said that one of my favorite aspects of fan fiction is the possibility for crossovers--when characters from one show or franchise appear on a totally different show or franchise.  It's fun stuff.  Every once in a while we'll get those on actual television shows, but usually within shared universes (the various Stargate franchises, Buffy and Angel, Torchwood and Doctor Who and The Sarah Jane adventures).  In fan fiction though, you can have The Sentinel and Stargate, Firefly and Star Wars, Harry Potter and Star Wars.  I once read a massively epic fan fic that retold the entire original trilogy as if Harry, Hermione, and Ron had somehow gotten sucked into the Star Wars universe just as the story was getting going.  It was pretty freaking spectacular. 

Anyhoo, I like to think of "real life crossovers" as events where I can take two completely different aspects of my life and mix them up with each other.  I am talking, of course, about genre-inspired crochet and knitting projects!  I have quite a few in the pipeline for this year, so I thought I would tell you what's coming up!

First up, after I finish my current crochet project, is, of course, the Doctor Who scarf.  Even if you are not too familiar with Doctor Who, you probably know about this scarf, as it is rather legendary.  Fourth Doctor Tom Baker's costume included a ridiculously long scarf made up of many colors (and different kinds of yarn, I think).  There are many stories about how this scarf came into being, and there were several different versions of it over the course of his time as the Doctor.  There are many websites devoted to recreating this scarf.  It is a nerd knitter's badge of honor to make this scarf.  Many Whovians (fans of Doctor Who) teach themselves to knit specifically to make this scarf.  Many then fall in love with the craft and continue to knit ever more while some, regrettably, do not.  The pattern I would like to make is based (color scheme and length) on the original scarf, that appeared in two episodes. 

You can check out the pattern for the one I am going to be making here:  WittyLittleKnitter's Season 12 Doctor Who Scarf

The yarn for this scarf actually came yesterday, and I was so excited!  Well, most of it did.  The box was full to the gills and was actually one skein short.  But I mailed the site and they responded that they would get the missing skein out to me right away.  I am not overly stressed about this, because I have a sneaking suspicion that whoever packed the box just chose one a bit too small and accidentally left the last skein out without realizing it because the thing was so darn full.  I would probably be more annoyed if I wanted to start the project immediately, but I am working on something else right now, so all is well.

The other Doctor Who project I would like to do this year is also by WittyLittleKnitter (her handle is actually a Doctor Who reference).  She whipped up a lovely lovely pair of TARDIS socks.  The TARDIS is the Doctor's time-traveling space ship (it stands for Time And Relative Dimensions In Space).  One of the reasons I wanted to teach myself to knit was so I could make the Doctor Who scarf, I'll admit it.  But the other was so that I could make socks.  So this works out perfectly.

You can see them here:  TARDIS socks

I will probably wait until later in the year (once I've got some other knitted socks worked up) before I try this pattern, but it is definitely in the queue.

Doctor Who is of course not the only genre I will be knitting (or crocheting) in.  After the scarf is made, my next genre project is to crochet some (several) amigurumi Super Mario Brothers mushrooms.  I can think of several children (and grown-ups) that need these, and they seem like they will be a quick and simple little project.  If I get ambitious, I may attempt to modify the pattern to make a giant one as well.

WolfDreamer's Mario Brothers Mushrooms

Then I will jump back to my Browncoat roots to make Jayne Cobb's hat from the episode of Firefly titled "The Message."  This hat, that appeared on screen only briefly, has come to be just as big a nerd badge of honor as the Doctor Who scarf, actually.  My goal is to get this done before June, when Browncoats the world over celebrate Joss Whedon's birthday with charity screenings of the movie Serenity, because I will totally wear it to that.

The Jayne Cobb Hat

Of course, what kind of Star Wars fangirl would I be if I didn't make some amigurumi for that fandom?  Etsy seller Lucyravenscar has patterns available for many different characters, and I purchased this set of ten.

Star Wars Mini Amigurumi

I am most keen to make R2D2, a stormtrooper, Yoda, and an Ewok.  Once I get the stormtrooper pattern down, I may play with it a little to make my own little stuffed Omega Squad from Republic Commandos.  Just because.

My last genre project will probably definitely not get done this year, but I do think I want to start trying to plan it.  I had toyed with making this in crochet, but it just didn't seem feasible--but I think knitting might make it possible.  What I want to make is a blanket that has on it an accurate depiction of a Pegasus Galaxy stargate (from Stargate Atlantis).  There are different versions of the gate for each series (explained as basically different generations of the same tech, like the different generations of iPods), and I am, of course, partial to the version from Atlantis.

Here's a shot of the gate activating:  Stargate Atlantis Gate Dialing

The thing that makes it so complicated is the glyphs around the inner wheel of the gate.  There are 39 or 36 symbols, and you dial a combination of six plus your "point of origin" symbol to make a connection to another gate.  Each symbol is a representation of a constellation.  That is going to take a lot of planning, and graph paper.  But the color-work possibilities on knitting might just allow for this.  Also, I would probably want to make it with the "puddle" or vortex in the middle that you get with an active gate, and that will be tricky.  I am going to need to find the right variegated yarn or the right combination of two colors worked at the same time to pull that one off.  But I think it can be done.  If I can make that, well, I will consider myself queen of the knitting nerds--at least in my corner of the world.

Heck, I didn't think I would be able to get my Yoshi blanket done in nearly as much time or awesomeness as I did, and look how that turned out:

Yoshi Blanket by Cori 2010 (crochet)

Baby Girl approves.

It is amazing what a determined nerd/yarn-crafter can do when she puts her mind to something, isn't it?

Have a great weekend folks.  Don't forget, new Gronk! Today's guest strip features nap-time teamwork

Thursday, January 13, 2011

I Don't Know What the Heck Is Going On...

...but I really, really don't like it.  Okay, this post is about television, which I watch way too much of.  I know this.  But it is what I do.  It is what it is.

I was just starting to figure out the new schedule for the shows I watch now that the holidays are over and shows seem to be starting up again with new episodes or settling into new timeslots and whatnot, and this week has thrown a big ol' wrench in the works.  Grumble grumble.

First, Tuesday night there was a new episode of No Ordinary Family that aired on ABC.  Now, this is far from my favorite show, but it is still fun, and until Glee comes back from hiatus, I can watch it live, which I have kind of been digging.  But.  For some reason, my local affiliate decided that instead of airing the new episode of No Ordinary Family on Tuesday, they were instead going to air "Good Morning Texas After Dark," an hour of the local morning show people talking about fashion during prime time.  What the heezy?  This wasn't even No Ordinary Family's first week back from break--who had this brilliant idea?  It is all the more annoying because the show did air everywhere else.  Yes, I know, I know, I can watch it online, but frankly, that's kind of a pain in the butt for me to do right now, because my time on the computer is limited to when the baby is asleep or watching Super Why, and I have other stuff to do besides try to watch television on it.  Besides, there is a reason we bought a humongous television--and it wasn't so I could watch television on my much smaller computer screen.  Sigh.  I emailed the affiliate and very politely asked if and when they are planning to air the episode (I worked at a cable company for over seven years, almost two of them spent in correspondence, you can bet your bottom I was polite, I know what kind of ire that kind of thing can invoke and how easily most people can go off the rails about it to people who had no control over the decision).  They responded quickly and just as politely to let me know it will run at 3 a.m. this Saturday morning.  Great, thank you.  My DVR is set.  I don't have to watch it on my computer, hurray!

Now, if this had been the only incident, I could chalk it up to a fluke.  But last night.  Last night.  Oh man.  First off, I was super jazzed because from seven to ten, miracle of miracles, I had three shows scheduled to come on, one after another, with no conflicting shows, and that was it.  Perfect.  Two of those were new episodes of Human Target, which, I have recently realized, truly is my absolute favorite television show that is still on the air (all time fave props still go to Stargate Atlantis), and then there was finally going to be a new episode of The Defenders, which I really enjoy despite myself and never get to watch live.

Dinner time ran a little past seven, but I wasn't worried because that is what DVRs are for.  So at 7:20 I sat down and fired up Human Target to episode of Raising Hope.  What??  Pull up the guide and it says that Human Target is what is currently on Fox, from 7 to 9.  Um...okay.  Fast forwarded through everything recorded up to the live footage, just in case something ran over, but nope.  After Raising Hope came the coverage of the Arizona shootings memorial.  Oh.  Okay.  Well, I get it.  That is something that it makes sense to preempt a show for.  I'm disappointed, because I was honestly really psyched about Human Target, but maybe it is just going to start late.  I go to Fox's website to see if there is anything about the rescheduled time, but nope, it says that Human Target is a two hour special event from 7-9.  Hmmm.  I remember that when I turned the television on, an episode of Big Bang Theory was playing on CBS, so I flip back to that.  The guide says "Live to Dance" is currently airing on CBS. it's not.  Then that other comedy that I don't watch comes on when BBT is over, but the guide still says dancing.  It also says that The Defenders is still set to come on at 9, but now I am skeptical, because the commercials I catch on CBS while I am flipping around say that the Dance show is up next, but nothing about The Defenders or the show that the guide says is supposed to be on at 8.  Seriously, what the heck is going on here?

Fox, I get, actually.  It was a last minute thing and they put some filler in around the special coverage.  Makes sense.  Their website now says that the Human Target episodes will be rescheduled soon.  I've got my DVR set to record every ep now, so in case I miss the announcement and they come on at 3 in the morning, it should still catch them.  It looks like they did tweet beforehand that the show would be preempted, but I of course did not get that.  Oh Twitter, how I loathe you.  The guide not catching the last-minute changes also makes sense, because, well, last-minute.  I mean, if even Fox's website didn't show the change until halfway through, then the guide is excused.  But I do not understand what was going on with CBS.  They didn't air any coverage of the memorial, so why was their schedule all farked?  It looks like the memorial went from 7:30 to a bit after 8, so CBS wasn't moving their show to a time where it wasn't against the special on the other network.  Around 10 I checked out what was recorded in my buffer and it looks like The Defenders did come on, but it started about 20 minutes late.  I hastily flipped over to CBS and hit record so I could catch the end of the episode.  Sigh.

It just seems to me that in this day and age it is hard enough for networks to get people to sit down in front of their televisions to watch a show live.  Screwing around with the time at the last minute, and not making sure that people are well aware of it (or keeping the guides updated so that the DVRs can catch the moved episode) seems like a monumentally stupid idea.  That's all I am saying.

I realize these are petty concerns.  I do.  But still.  I needed to vent a bit.  I am a creature of routine.  I get really really cranky when my routines are screwed with (just ask Hubby).  I am learning to be more flexible about changes to the routine--it is a necessity of parenthood--but a little notice would be nice.  It doesn't help when the change in the routine is also a disappointment in its own right.  Also, I am a little bit irked because I came very close to missing an ep of No Ordinary Family, and I probably did miss a bit of The Defenders, and neither of these are shows that I am going to get on DVD.  It is annoying.

But, on a happier note, the lack of anything new airing at a predictable time Tuesday night and last night meant that I burned through a lot more episodes of season two of Dollhouse, which I started watching this past weekend.  I am now officially past the halfway point of the season.  Four episodes to go.  I had forgotten how incredibly intense and amazing those last few episodes were.  Wow!  Such an amazing show.  Part of me wishes it could have gone on for a couple more seasons, because there were definitely some hints at stories I would have wanted to see developed down the road.  But honestly, I am okay with the short run of the series, because it was concluded in such an amazing fashion.  I won't call it satisfactory, because I think there was too much bad stuff that went down at the end to call it a happy ending.  But I don't feel in any way gypped.  A shorter story arc, when allowed to be given a start and a middle and an end, which this series had, comes away so much tighter and more intense.  The Brits figured this out a long time ago. I wish the networks here could grasp that concept.

But they apparently don't even know what they are airing any more, so...yeah.