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Tag: Books Page 2 of 5

Wesley: The Story of a Remarkable Owl

Doubtless recommended to me because I enjoyed Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? by Frans de Waal, this story was at first somewhat disappointing in the sense that it is to a greater extent a personal memoir rather than an investigation of animal intelligence. I had been expecting a heavier, more science-laden account of their relationship, but once I’d adjusted to the style and tone of the book, I found plenty here to enjoy.

In the mid-80s, Stacey O’Brien took it upon herself to adopt a young barn owl and started what became a relationship lasting nearly two decades. She packs a lot in this short and compact volume about their life together, which is filled with anecdotes and fascinating titbits, as well as a fair few fundamentals of owl biology and psychology. Stacey progresses from surrogate mother to partner for life and mass mouse murderer for good measure. While not offering the scientific rigour of a book like de Waal’s, there is still plenty of observational evidence. Aside from which it’s a touching story, with a predictable end, but one which offers a fascinating insight into the nature of owls and the intelligence and individuality of animals.

[Photo by Doug Swinson on Unsplash]

Freedom Next Time

What you need to know about humans is that they are dicks. And if you give them any power their dickness prevails over everything else.

That beautifully succinct phrase comes from a review on Good Reads and is an understandable frame of mind to find yourself in after reading this book. Reading it ten years after publication, it’s almost surreal how little has changed in the intervening period, how the wheels of progress continue to grind on the gears of conservatism. In Freedom Next Time John Pilger surveys the state of peoples suffering under the weight of ignorance, ill-will, apathy and condescension in various theatres of the world, turning the spotlight in turn on Palestine, India, Afghanistan, South Africa and the Chagos Islands.

The Chagos Islands is a pretty clear-cut test, and one which our western democratic system will likely fail miserably. In the dying days of empire, the British government swapped a conveniently located group of rocks in the Indian Ocean for a few bits of military hardware from the Americans. The people living there were forcibly evicted and will never be allowed to return to the place of their birth, never mind that their removal constitutes a crime against humanity. As Pilger attests, this buck will be passed back and forth, the Brits blaming the Yanks, the Yanks blaming the Brits, while the case is shuttled often enough through the courts until everyone affected by the travesty is tidily dead. Maybe in the middle of this century we’ll see an official apology to the victims’ descendants, similar to the likes given to victims of slavery and oppression elsewhere in the world. But the political establishment doesn’t give a rat’s arse, and those individual politicians who might are far too lightweight to go tilting at such windmills.

At least with the Chagos Islands, the case of moral virtue is clear and it is merely the duplicity of realpolitik which means that justice will never be served to the islanders. In covering Palestine, however, Pilger covers an area of the world which can only get worse until it gets better. The social equation underlying the political facts is a simple one, even if it remains unwritten: Jews > Arabs. Big mon Trump’s recent declaration of support for the occupying forces is just the latest embodiment of this, and indeed a rare case of someone being up front about reality. A two-state solution is a nice sound bite to be throwing around, the ‘peace process’ a wonderful phrase to pay lip-service to, but Palestine will presumably remain a problem zone until it is eventually eradicated, almost like Kosovo in reverse.

The more interesting chapters are also the less clear cut, more contestable issues, where Pilger investigates the lot of people left behind by political and economic change in South Africa and India. He points blame at the ANC for selling out the anti-apartheid movement and abandoning some of its core principles in cosying up to vested interests. However it’s hard to imagine how his occasional purported alternatives would have brought about more prosperity than the current situation. Similarly his chapter on India shines a beam to highlight the transparency of India’s booming economy, though the overall picture here is murkier than elsewhere, and there’s certainly been more positive change in this part of the world in the past decade than elsewhere, even if the problem of poverty remains a massively significant burden.

Obviously the style of this collection is journalistic and as such suffers from those usual pitfalls. Chapters are padded with random exemplary introductions, events highlighted which don’t necessarily have any bearing on the case at hand and indeed over time start to lose relevance and punch. But in particular, as Pilger has his agenda to pursue, the narrative isn’t drawn as broadly as it could be. Whilst happy interviewing the politicians and the victims of their policies, he does little to examine the opinions of the pillocks who put those politicians in power, which would have been of particular interest for example in the Palestinian conflict or the missed chances of the ANC.

Despite its advancing age, Freedom Next Time remains a worthwhile read since the political situation in many of these regions has barely evolved. The basic working principle which Pilger highlights time and again is that simple human trait, where political representation fails to defend the rights and interests of the downtrodden, whether it be through ignorance, apathy or occasional sheer malice. The book greatly attests to the prevalence of dickness in human nature.

2017 in Review

Why not make a habit? The forum hasn’t exactly seen much use over the past twelve months, but as there’s nowhere else I’d post this, following on from 2015 and 2016, here’s a short wrap up of the past twelve months, of no particular interest to anyone!


Words translated: unknown

PC games played: lots

Best PC games: Mini Metro, Turmoil, Tropico 4, Tomb Raider, Call of Juarez: Gunslinger, Her Story

Worst PC games: Cities: Skylines, Dustforce, Far Cry 2

Board games played: 91 plays (36 games)

Best board games: Exit (series), Kneipenquiz, Saboteur

Worst board games: The Resistance, 7 Wonders

Films watched: 16

Best films: The African Doctor, Dune, Love Actually

Worst films: Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Leaves of Grass, The Inbetweeners 2

Books read: 40

Best books: A Walk in the Woods, The Gods Themselves, Freedom Next Time, Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?, The Great Dune Trilogy, There Was a Country

Worst books: The Tipping Point, Me Talk Pretty One Day, How to be German in 50 Easy Steps

Countries visited: UK

A Year in Gaming

It’s strange really that I feel like I didn’t play many games this year, yet I’m sure my hours wouldn’t bear that out. Aside from our usual Thursday night bashes, I’ve put what feels like hundreds of hours into Heroes of the Storm with Steffi, some weeks literally playing a few rounds every night, though maybe averaged out over the year it’s not that much. Still, in terms of trying to whittle through my backlog on Steam I haven’t been particularly successful.

Having said that, my Steam list suggests I’ve hopped around quite a bit over these past twelve months. Certainly I played a fair few relaxing solo-player adventures. Mini Metro is one of those simple yet slick titles which is ostensibly easy but quickly ramps up the difficulty. All you need to do is build an underground network and get passengers to stations where they want to go. It doesn’t even matter which station per se, as long as the round peg goes in the round hole. It doesn’t quite satisfy me as a solid game of OpenTTD would, but for a quick ten minutes it’s fun trying the challenges.

In a similar vein I really enjoyed playing through Turmoil, which has a bit more scope in that there’s a campaign and more strategic planning about how you build up your oil business. More of a medium-weight title, there’s enough depth to sink several hours into, but after one playthrough I couldn’t really be faffed starting again on the harder difficulty.

It seems I did a fair bit of building this year, with Cities: Skylines and Tropico 4 also on the list. Skylines was a bit disappointing, at least with the base game I was playing with. It felt like I’d pretty much done everything there was to do after a few hours, and aside from setting up a new district and repeating the whole thing, there wasn’t much incentive to continue. Tropico on the other hand is nicely packaged up into specific scenarios which force you to play a certain way. Of course it’s just as repetitive in its own way, but having to tune your island paradise towards fat American tourists or greedy industrialists at least offers a different tack.

When not building, I’ve tried to run through a few of the solo-player games on my list. Tomb Raider turned out to be an enjoyable surprise, just the right blend of action and puzzle elements, the feeling of open adventure without having too much space to get lost in, a wonderfully weird storyline, and about the right length to enjoy playing it through without getting bored.

Surprise hits of the year? Call of Juarez Gunslinger doesn’t really count as a surprise, given as I’d really enjoyed Bound in Blood, but it’s a counterfactual pure action Wild Western romp, with barely a moment’s rest between gun fights, showdowns, wild chases and the like. I think it only took 6 hours but I ended up sticking around for the achievements, it was that much fun! Antichamber is a fantastic puzzle game, and one which I’d probably play more of if Steffi were interested as well. Unfortunately the puzzles are a bit too abstract for my meagre mind and I either got stuck or lost and ended up leaving it. But I’d recommend it nevertheless! Another neat surprise was Her Story, which is almost better described as an art project rather than a game. There’s nothing I can say about it without really spoiling the surprise, but the game will take probably only 3 hours to play, which is definitely worth the few pounds it costs if you enjoy adventure games or mysteries. (Side note: the recommendation came from watching Mark Brown, see below.) The final oddball I’ll mention was Party Hard, an ultraviolent 8-bit title in the vein of Hotline Miami, where the premise is essentially that you’re fed up of the kids making noise at the party, so you go in and MURDER EVERYONE! I played it as a two-player coop with Steffi and had an absolute riot, often just trying to work out what the hell we were doing.

Worst games of the year? There wasn’t really anything which stuck out as being ‘bad’, though there were a few I gave up on quite quickly. Far Cry 2 just felt way too open, a game you could sink hours into without getting anywhere, and which didn’t grab me sufficiently from the start. I played a few missions and forgot about it. Dustforce I probably picked up for free somewhere or had in some bundle. A weird premise, it’s like a race platformer which you could probably sink hours into mastering the moves, but I really could not be fussed!

A Year in Boardgaming

Didn’t play quite as much this year as usual, a lot of those 100 plays including smaller lightweight titles. Probably the Exit games are the ones which stand out. We’ve played three now – The Secret Lab, The Pharaoh’s Tomb and Murder on the Orient Express – and each is an enjoyable few hours deciphering clues and working your way through the puzzles to the end. We messed up the first game a bit because we were unsure how we were supposed to approach the materials in the box and ended up being too cautious (not looking at things when we were allowed to), but the second was a real blast. The puzzles are nice and varied, some quite tricky and abstract, others you look at and can solve without really needing to think about them, but overall the difficulty was about right to keep you guessing and not frustrate anyone. There are clues for if you get stuck, and normally we only needed one hint to put us back on the right track, since sometimes you end up convinced you need to combine two elements in the box which have nothing to do with one another. I imagine we’ll pick up a couple more of these in the year to come, and even though you can only play them once, at about €10 a pop it’s a decent price for the fun you get out of it.

Another game we’ve played a fair few times with different people is a pub quiz coop called Kneipenquiz. Essentially you form one team and play against three other imaginary teams through 5 rounds of 5 general knowledge questions. Aside from answering questions, you have to judge which ones you’ve answered correctly and make sure you earn the most points from them (or alternatively, that your opponents earn the least), meaning that even if you only get about half of them right, you can still sneak victory. Makes a nice alternative to the standard every-man-for-himself trivia games, though I don’t know if they’ll make an English version.

We didn’t play much in the way of standard Eurogames/strategy games this year, at least nothing new. I’d picked up a cheap copy of Caverna and got that to the table a couple of times, and Space Alert remains a regular favourite with our group. We managed to get a 6-player game of Battlestar Galactica going at long last, and although it was a fun evening, it again didn’t really deliver as it should’ve. One of the players deliberately half-pretended to be a Cylon just to keep the tension going, but otherwise it was completely obvious to him that there was only one Cylon in the game and that person had 0 chance of winning. Luck of the cards again, but I think the game sadly lacks a bit of depth to make it interesting enough beyond the traitor element (though theme and mechanics meld really well).

But the biggest disappointment of the year for me was our weekend in Scotland, when we seemed to be on one long treachery trip. One Night Ultimate Werewolf is a fun enough game, the rounds are short enough that it doesn’t drag, there are enough roles that it doesn’t get stale, but I quite often found that with so many players, the villagers or werewolves had more chance of winning/losing through random luck than through clever deduction. The werewolf would argue themselves into a hole and get lynched, only for someone to have swapped their card at random and the new werewolves to surprisingly find they’d won. Enjoyable, but just a bit dissatisfying to vote to kill the werewolf as a villager, and discover you’re actually a werewolf who’d got away with it.

Still, that game was 100 times better than The Resistance. I’ve been itching to play that game for a few years (and even own an unplayed copy here!) having read the reviews, but the actual experience, at least with those rules and that number of people, just felt like an exercise in frustrating pointlessness. I imagined it would be a cross between Werewolf and Mastermind, with traitors waiting to be unmasked by the voting, but in the end it felt as random as hell and way more about talking trash than really finding spies.

Saboteur on the other hand was a positive surprise and one where the mechanic worked really well. Certainly there was a decent amount of luck involved with the way the cards fell, but there was usually chance for the Saboteurs to do a bit of damage or at least keep people guessing without it being too obvious. Even when revealed, there’s still some tactics in how to use up the remaining cards. I think the game is perfect with five players, which helped with my first impressions, since it keeps open the number of Saboteurs present in the round. With four players it’s far too easy to lock the one Saboteur down once they’ve been revealed.

A Year in Cinema

My film list looks even bleaker than usual this year, with just 16 films (and most of them watched in Scotland!) Probably the favourite on the list was The African Doctor, a fairly touching story of a black doctor trying to integrate himself and his family in a rural French village. Comedic ups and downs, its also quite poignant without being overtly depressing.

Another was probably Dune, which I only watched because I was reading the trilogy. I’d watched some or maybe all of it once before as a child, but too young at the time to understand any of it. It’s a crazy story, and Lynch’s film version is a fantastic rendition, even if it can’t quite capture the sheer epic drama and depth of the novels and made a few strange choices in what was changed for the film (the ending in particular is really off the wall).

The two worst films on the list are at different ends of the spectrum. The Inbetweeners 2 was one I caught while in Scotland and frankly as puerile as they come. Reminded me of that dreadful Kevin and Perry Go Large for pure/poor toilet humour. At the other end of the spectrum was Star Wars VIII: The Last Jedi, which again just took away from the amazement I held for the original trilogy. To my mind, it’s as if they took a recipe book for making a successful film and followed it step by step. I’ve no doubt it will rake in millions at the box office, but in my eyes it was a soulless slog which added nothing to the Star Wars saga (and rather took more away) and only continued where the previous films left off on their quest to hoover up the dollars.

Perhaps the last film worth mentioning though is one of those annual favourites: Love Actually. We watched it in German this time for Steffi’s parents’ benefit, but it was a reminder of what you can do with a decent story. Yeah, a cheap and cheesy feel-good film, but the screenplay is nicely interwoven. Just quality.

One of the reasons we haven’t watched many films this year is probably for watching more telly. Nothing particularly exciting, aside from Steffi becoming a Doctor Who addict the only notable series we’ve watched was Broadchurch. I’m not normally a fan of series as they usually drag their plots out too thin, but the saving grace here is that it isn’t too long. The acting is great, they pack a lot of drama into a small space, and the biggest disappointment is probably when it’s over. We gobbled up the first series which I’d heartily recommend, the second isn’t too bad though I probably wouldn’t go out of my way to watch it. Steffi got the third for Christmas, so I guess that’s our televisual viewing for January covered!

A Year in Books

What I haven’t been consuming through flickering images I made up for through the written word this year, again reading over 11,000 pages. Since we’d been walking a fair bit this summer, I decided to re-read A Walk in the Woods. I love Bryson’s writing style, and this is one of his finest, laugh-out-loud funny, occasionally informative, even slightly inspiring given the epic undertaking he sets out on, recounting his efforts to walk the Appalachian Trail with an old school friend. I’d like to think I might achieve something similar one day!

Sticking with non-fiction but a rather more depressing read was Chinua Achebe’s memoir of the Biafran War, There Was a Country, an intelligent look back at one of those gruelling episodes of history so sadly invisible in the western conscience.

More recently I finally got around to reading Freedom Next Time by John Pilger. Published back in 2007 and looking at injustices in places like Palestine, the Chagos Islands and post-Apartheid South Africa, it’s amazing how relevant it remains a decade down the road. So much obviously broken while the wheels of change grind on the gears of conservatism. The chapter on Palestine seems almost prescient in light of big yin Trump’s decision to recognise Israel’s occupation of Jerusalem.

In a less political vein, I read Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? by Frans de Waal. Basically a summary of the previous decades’ study of animal cognition, it’s also fascinating as an anthropological study of the hubris of humankind, the constant battle against the raw egocentrical arrogance of the human condition. Highly recommended.

In fiction it seems that my favourites of the year were all science fiction. The aforementioned Dune is a stonking work which well deserves its place at the top of many people’s lists. I didn’t care much for the first sequel, the second was fairly interesting again, but the sheer scale and attention to detail well warrants this universe’s comparison to the likes of Lord of the Rings. I wouldn’t say it was a favourite, but I’ve got nothing but respect for it.

More of a guilty pleasure perhaps, but the other 5-star sci-fi romp this year was The Gods Themselves. Asimov had such a fertile mind and such prodigious output, even if his writing style wouldn’t win any beauty awards. The background in this case is an exploration of interactions between parallel universes simply sparked by someone mentioning an isotope that couldn’t physically exist in our universe. From that he managed to extrapolate an exciting little novel which contains more interesting ideas than some writers manage in a lifetime. It’s almost the antithesis of Herbert’s writing, but it scratches entirely different neurons for me.

There weren’t any serious stinkers on my reading list this year, but a few disappointments. The Tipping Point is one of those popular sociology books which hits the top of the bestsellers lists for its entirely unwarranted buzz. I hate the journalistic style which pads out a simple idea into a book, a book which is nevertheless brief and devoid of serious content. There are a few interesting titbits here, but all in all I’d prefer to read the brief summary (or just the blurb!) and have done with it. Nor has it particularly aged well, being published in 2001 before the virality of the internet really fledged.

Another book which didn’t meet expectations was Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris. I’ve no idea how this ended up on my Amazon wishlist (I should really add notes as to where they come from!) but after probably a decade I finally got around to getting a copy and reading it. And it’s… meh. Allegedly humorous, I found the author to be fairly obnoxious and decidedly unfunny in the vast majority of the essays in this little collection. Only at the end does it pick up a bit, when he moves to France and starts trying to find his feet in a new country with a new language, probably because it’s something I can somewhat relate to.

The final book in the “non-recommendation” pile isn’t so much there because it’s bad but because I could probably do better if I weren’t such a lazy bastard! How to be German in 50 Easy Steps is one of those light-hearted Michael-takers, a bit like the Xenophobes’ guides but nowhere near as polished. Seriously nowhere near. There’s plenty to giggle about, particularly as someone living here, or even for someone just interesting in different cultures, but the episodes in each chapter are way too short and leave a permanent sense of missed potential. I’m sure I couldn’t do better really, but the overall effect is poor enough that it gives me the feeling I could.

*A Year in casts

A new rubric for this year, though it isn’t new to my schedule, and those are just a few of those ‘subscriptions’ that have kept me going over the year. Podcasts, YouTube feeds, bloggers and whathaveyou.

I’ve started actually subscribing to channels on YouTube rather than always searching for stuff I want to watch manually, which means I actually end up watching a fair amount of trash while making pancakes on a Sunday morning. CinemaSins is always a blast when covering films I’ve seen, I dunno how long it takes them to produce an episode but it’s beautifully condensed into about 15 minutes of succinct critique. He’s totally on my wavelength about so many things. For gaming I have a few feeds, but one which I really enjoy is a series by Mark Brown on game design. His Game Maker’s Toolkit takes apart game mechanics and looks at how intelligent design can really make or break a game, from the tiny annoyances that interrupt the immersion, to the subtle and cunning tactics designers employ to get players to play the game the ‘right’ way. Seriously well worth watching if that at all interests you.

In terms of audio, I’ve been devouring two podcasts in particular. One going under the curious title No Such Thing As A Fish is related to the QI TV series. It’s basically a show run by the ‘elves’ who find out all those crazy facts that are covered on the show. The main crew are a delightful bunch and both their banter and the mad things they discover make it a seriously entertaining listen. The other podcast I’ve been listening to is Revolutions by Mike Duncan. I listened to his History of Rome series last year on my walks to the tram, and although I’m not quite as gripped by the subject of his new series, I enjoy his narrative style (and am so used to his voice by now!) that it fills a nice gap in my listening schedule! Only history buffs need apply here though.

Reading Roundup

Some years ago (last decade!) I decided to do a brief round-up of some recent reads. Sadly I don’t find make the time to gather my thoughts and sum up my opinions, so in no particular order, I thought I’d write a few words on some of the books that have graced my bedside table over the past few weeks.

Round Ireland with a Fridge by Tony Hawks

In essence, this is the story of what happens when you put your money where your mouth is, even when your mouth is currently being fuelled by the wrong kind of babble-juice. Tony Hawks found himself challenged at a party that his oft-regaled anecdote of seeing someone hitchhiking with a fridge in Ireland was pigswill. In the morning, a note beside his bed seemed evidence that he’d taken up a £100 bet that he could do the same, circumnavigating the emerald isle with a home appliance.

What follows is a quirky adventure blending English stoicism and the Irish devotion to the craic, replete with fridge surfing, radio DJs, island kings and a night in the doghouse, all culminating in a triumphal march through the capital celebrating the pointlessness of it all. For anyone enjoying Irish sensibilities, there are plenty of amusing moments along the way. Ultimately a very pointless little book, but entertaining nonetheless.

The Great Dune Trilogy by Frank Herbert

A handful of words aren’t enough to do justice to Dune, let alone its two sequels Dune Messiah and Children of Dune. The first novel in particular is something of an operatic masterpiece, which despite such a depth and richness of ideas never bogs down as something like the oft-compared Lord of the Rings clearly does. Where other series focus on the science or the fiction, Dune creates an entire mythology, replete with political system, religion and technology.

I’ll be honest, reading all three novels back-to-back was something of a stretch, particularly as the second doesn’t live up anywhere near the expectations harboured following the operatic majesty of the first. Dune Messiah has something of a marmite effect on the fans. Fortunately the final volume in the original trilogy returns to better form, adding more sweeping strokes to Herbert’s epic canvas, without dawdling too much on the details. Definitely well worth reading the first if you’re a fan of (science) fiction in depth. Despite the few tweaks, David Lynch’s film captures the general tenor of this vision beautifully.

The Lady Vanishes & The Spiral Staircase by Ethel Lina White

A pleasant surprise with two short novels in one slender volume. It’s something of a shame that they are both published here under the names of the films they inspired rather than the books as they were written (The Lady Vanishes was originally entitled The Wheel Spins; The Spiral Staircase as Some Must Watch). The Lady Vanishes is rather overshadowed by the films and has a somewhat slow pace, which probably isn’t helped by knowing the story in advance. It’s almost a pity that this novel gets first billing, since the lesser-known The Spiral Staircase is the stronger of the two in my view. An atmospheric setting, strong characterisation, the gradually building suspense – the comparisons with Agatha Christie are unsurprising and genuinely well deserved.

Both of these thrillers deliver some classic 1930s suspense and mystery, and while the films probably outshine the novels on which they are based, as a light diversion for fans of mystery and skulduggery, you could do far worse.

Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? by Frans de Waal

‘They’re very intelligent animals.’ There’s a platitude I’ll never tire of hearing. When it comes to

In this relatively short but accessible volume, primatologist Frans de Waal takes us on a tour through the world of animal intelligence, or at least the study of it. He points out how human beings, so obsessed with their own navels, are wont to move the goalposts any time some semblance of anthropomorphic intelligence is found in animal test subjects. ‘Animals aren’t intelligent because they can’t something’ is always true as long as something remains. They can’t use tools, talk, empathise, plan ahead, show regret, recognise their reflections, deceive. Each time some evidence appears which suggests the contrary, human exceptionalism comes up with the next new something to define the experience of the human condition.

Aside from the proselytising, de Waal rightly highlights the difficulties of any kind of study in this area. Human beings have an extremely difficult challenge in designing tests for non-human subjects to measure non-human capacities. That is the real question written on the cover, though it sometimes gets lost amidst the examples and de Waal’s broadsides against those in the behaviourist camp. Nevertheless, at its core it presents an interesting conundrum. The book could’ve done with some streamlining, but as a piece of popular science it offers an excellent introduction to the subject.

[Photo by Karim Ghantous on Unsplash]

2016 in Review

Twelve months down the line, I thought I’d post another year in review. Again, this post won’t be of any interest to anyone, but here’s a summary of some of the media I’ve consumed over the past year.


Words translated: 479,763 (plus 70,563 proofread)

PC games played: lots

Best PC games: Broforce, Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime, Door Kickers, SpeedRunners, Broken Sword 5

Worst PC games: Lovely Planet, Evolve Stage 2

Board games played: 98 plays (45 games)

Best board games: Splendor, One Night Ultimate Werewolf

Worst board games: Nightfall, Isle of Skye: From Chieftain to King

Films watched: 44

Best films: Calvary, Chef, The Artist, The Wrestler, Doom

Worst films: RockNRolla, Iron Sky, Catch .44

Books read: 34

Best books: The Blind Watchmaker, The Woman Who Walked Into Doors, Regeneration, Die vierzig Tage des Musa Dagh, The Martian, Keeper of the Nuclear Conscience: The Life and Work of Joseph Rotblat

Worst books: Er ist wieder da, The Spire, Das Wetter vor 15 Jahren

Countries visited: Austria, UK

Photos taken: 1373

A Year in Gaming

Another fairly docile year, at least as far as single-player gaming was concerned. I managed to play through Shadow of Mordor in spring, which had a really nice storyline and decent mechanics, even if I got a bit bored of running around towards the end. We also played through Broken Sword 5 which was a great return to form for the series, excellent story and interesting puzzles, without any pointless 3D models and awkward handling. More recently I’ve been running through Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime with Steffi, a cute little couch coop which has you piloting a ship through colourful space/underwater scenes to rescue bunnies… it’s a weird old setting alright, but it reminds me a teensie bit of FTL, just with two players. Hotseat the shields, engines and weapons to make it through safely!

Apart from that, most of my gaming action this year was reserved for our Thursday night sessions. Pretty amazing that we’ve kept it up for more than a year now, and I look forward to it every week just as ever. I’m also happy we’ve managed to try a nice range of titles. I think Broforce was probably the surprise highlight for me, suitably madcap, all the while challenging but without ever really being impossibly so.

Worst games of the year then? As ever I picked up plenty of cheapos or got free copies of titles for various things. I sometimes try them out at the weekends and screen them for ones which might be a laugh on Thursdays. Occasionally you find something cute, like that SpeedRunners game. Other times I find single-player titles which you can while away an afternoon on, such as Door Kickers, a cute tactical point-and-click which reminded me of Frozen Synapse without being anywhere near as serious in the planning aspect. But one truly painful half hour I put myself through was for Lovely Planet. I’m not even sure you can really call it a game! More like someone’s end-of-year project in a CS class, put together over a weekend fuelled by caffeine and bad cartoons.

Perhaps unfair, but I think the worst game we tried on a Thursday was still Evolve Stage 2. As much as you want to love the concept of that title, the game is fundamentally flawed because of the very nature of a game revolving around hide-and-seek with Godzilla. I’m sure it would be a bit more fun if you knew the person you were trying to hunt down, but essentially most of your time is spent trying to avoid combat, which makes for a rather dull game. I know they based the game off the way people enjoyed the interaction between the Tank and the survivors in L4D, but they needed to keep the story-driven elements or the environment interaction of that game to give the players something to do.

A Year in Boardgaming

So how about gaming of the analogue variety? Managed to play 45 different titles this year across nearly a hundred plays. I think that says it all for how much time you spend playing any one particular game. Remember when we were kids and you’d spend all your time playing Monopoly any chance you got, because it was one of only three games anyone ever had? Now we’re completely spoilt for choice and barely end up giving any of them any table time. Bit of a shame really, since that means there’s no opportunity to really get to learn them and understand strategies with any depth. On the other hand, maybe that helps to hide some of the fundamental flaws I’m sure many of them feature.

Anyway, we didn’t really try out any new heavy titles this year, rather sticking to lightweights. One great starter game we discovered was Splendor. Explained in 2 minutes, it’s nevertheless one which requires a fair amount of planning and watching what your opponents are doing if you want to do well. Certainly a nice opener for an evening. One in a similar vein which I found somewhat disappointing was Isle of Skye, winner of the Kennerspiel des Jahres. It’s a bit of a mongrel game, with Carcassonne-style tile-laying, auctions and modular scoring, but I didn’t really like the overall package. You can spend a lot of time trying to work out your strategy, but ultimately if your opponents want to drag you through the mud, there’s nothing you can do about it, and the four-player game to me seems rather broken. Maybe it works with 2 players, I can’t say.

Another game I wasn’t overly enamoured with, though I can see why it’s popular, is 7 Wonders. For me it offers strategy with a nice ramping effect, all wrapped in a quick quality package… and that’s exactly why I dislike it! We own one called Glory to Rome which to me is very similar, but actually genuinely allows you to plan ahead, rather than dangling on the end of an unknown hand of cards. 7 Wonders pretends to offer a lot in a quick burst, but it’s superficial in my eyes, and I’d rather have a serious game to ponder over, or a quick and quirky fun game rather than a mishmash of the two.

The last game I’ll mention is one I bought a number of years ago but which we only just got around to trying called Nightfall. It was sold to me as a kind of interactive Dominion with vampires and werewolves, but I found it to be dreadful, even worse than Dominion! The rules were fairly complex, although the gameplay was straightforward; there was potential for them to really use the theme, but it was entirely wasted and you ended up completely ignoring what was on the cards and just looking at the numbers; finally the sheer variety of cards meant we didn’t really have a clue what was going on half the time and just bought and played any old random thing. We gave it two strikes and I was frankly happy when it was back in the box!

A Year in Cinema

Didn’t get to the cinema much this year, only a few outdoor excursions and the company’s annual Christmas treat (for Rogue One). But we currently have a Netflix account we’ve watched a few things over, and there are plenty of DVDs still waiting to be watched. Following on from last year’s The Guard, which I watched last year, Calvary was high up on the list of top films. Far grittier, meatier, and with some more surprising roles for certain actors, it was an oh-so-very Irish film, but highly recommendable.

Another great drama I can heartily recommend is The Wrestler with Mickey Rourke. There’s not much of a plot per se, just the story of an entertainer at the end of his career, but a really poignant tale extremely well told. It’s documentary style, without going as far as to be annoying, and well worth a watch. In a similar vein I thought Chef with/by/from Jon Favreau was really good, if slightly more pointless than The Wrestler.

In terms of more action-filled movies, I didn’t see much I would recommend. In fact I saw some real stinkers and most of the rest disappointed me in one way or another. Since Steffi’d never seen any Guy Ritchie, we tried out RockNRolla and were frankly bored to tears by the end of it. It just doesn’t hold a candle to Lock Stock and Snatch. I also got a chance to watch Iron Sky and was honestly underwhelmed by the film. The idea in and of itself wasn’t bad, but it ended up falling flat even as a farce in my eyes, with very few laughs to be had. But taking the biscuit for worst film was far and away Catch .44. I’m still at a loss to explain how Forest Whittaker would take up a role for that script – although he gave a very good performance having said that! But otherwise the film had absolutely no redeeming features. It was like someone watched an early Tarrantino and thought it would be easy to copy. Inane storyline, terrible dialogue, pointless characters; it mostly came down to a bunch of criminals pointing guns at one another and using the eff word repeatedly. Yay.

As said, I managed to hit the cinema for the latest Star Wars instalment, and the Star Trek before that. Star Trek was a reasonable popcorn flick, but I was really disappointed with the story. It felt like the entire film was just an excuse to string together a few action sequences. Major kudos to Karl Urban though, his McCoy is almost as good as the real thing. Rogue One wasn’t quite as bad, probably better than Episode VII (which I watched again beforehand and thought even less about the second time round). There were a few decisions I felt were pretty stupid in terms of the overarching story, a fair number of cheesy crowdpleasers for the fans, but otherwise it was alright. Might write a post on that later if I can be bothered.

My surprise ‘hit’ of the year (despite it being a decade old) was probably Doom. I spotted it on Netflix and since I couldn’t find anything better, thought what the hell. I can honestly say I had zero expectations for this film, and it fulfilled all of them! The first hour or so they make up some fairly standard storyline about genetic manipulation, ancient alien civilisations and zombies. Then they just give up and admit they were only having a laugh, converting the film into a first-person shooter for the last quarter of an hour. Brilliant!

A Year in Books

I managed to trump this year’s target with over 11,000 pages read. A few highlights include: The Blind Watchmaker by Richard Dawkins, a classic exposition of evolution theory; The Woman Who Walked Into Doors by Roddy Doyle, a novel about domestic violence; Regeneration by Pat Barker, a brilliant story about the Great War poets, particularly Siegfried Sassoon; and The Martian, the self-published novel by Andy Weir that got turned into a Hollywood film. The story might be mundane, like Robinson Crusoe on Mars, but it’s definitely worth the read just for the amount of loving detail that went into writing it.

On the German side, I read through Die vierzig Tage des Musa Dagh, which quite frankly deserves way more attention than it gets. An epic tale of roughly historical events during the Armenian genocide, it was banned shortly after publication (by everyone’s favourite bogeymen) and is probably too long to enjoy widespread appeal, but in my eyes it deserves a place up there as one of the greatest novels in the German language.

Das Wetter vor 15 Jahren gets a thumbs down from me, even if I found the concept itself pretty interesting. The whole book is written in the style of a journalistic interview with the author, just questions and answers as to the story’s motivations, developments and meanings over pages and pages. The amazing thing is that he still manages to make it a page-turner, despite there not actually being a novel to go with the interview! Nevertheless I find that kind of interview tedious and annoying to read at the best of times, so it was something of a chore to read through 200 odd pages of one. Far worse was Er is wieder da, a story about Hitler waking up alive and kicking in the present day and becoming a media celebrity. Apart from a few pages where we read Hitler’s views of the politicians who followed him, the satire in this book is mostly cheap, often tasteless, and quite frankly boring. German humour at its finest, sadly. Nevertheless it sold in droves and got turned into a film.

Finally, one book I almost ended up abandoning despite being so short was William Golding’s The Spire. I remember someone having to study that for A-level and complaining how dull it was, but based on the other stuff I’ve read by him, I figured it couldn’t be all that bad, surely! No, it really is like pouring sticky treacle in your ear. Maybe I’m just too thick to understand it, but it really didn’t grab me at all.

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