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October, 2008:

Stephen King – Blaze

This was a very satisfying novel. It’s pretty short – maybe it could even be classified as a novella – and I read it one sitting. After reading Toll The Hounds, Book 8 of the Malazan Series (review coming next) it was pretty relaxing and enjoyable to read a “straight” story such as this.

Blaze is supposedly written by Richard Bachman, Kings alter-ego, and is really a book King wrote just before Carrie which launched his world wide success, at one time the most popular author in the world. I love Stephen King, his books have classed as “horror” but are really much more. He writes with a realism that bring his books to life. He is a master storyteller, experienced at the craft of novel and short-story writing with a firm grasp of what his “constant readers” want and expect. Of late, many of his books reference each other – even to the extent that characters from earlier books appear as part of his Dark Tower series… And even to the extreme that King the author appears in the series himself!

But back to this particular story. Blaze concerns the story of Clayton Blaisdell Jr, a small time crook of low intelligence. He’s a big brute of a man, and after the death of his partner he embarks on one final big crime – that of kidnapping the infant son of a millionaire.

The novel is really the story of Blaze himself. Flashbacks show his upbriging from abuse by his father, to his upbringing in a childrens home, through to the start of his criminal life – mainly his being used by others for his size and imposing stature. In some ways it’s a moving story. Blaze is sadly misguided, but you see how this came about. He struggles with his low intelligence but has a heart of gold.

Apparently King re-wrote the original novel to update it and remove some of the sentimality, but you still feel for blaze even though he’s ostensibly the “bad guy”. Life has dealt him a hard hand but he usually manages to land on his feet. A lot of the book covers his imagined relationship with George, his deceased partner, but in at least one passage you get the hint that Blaze may have some kind of extra sensory power that is guiding him.

To pad the novel out King’s short story “Memory” is included that eventally became Duma Key – another excellent novel.

Rating: 8 / 10 – Short, but exciting and moving.

Wikipedia | Amazon | Stephen King Official Site

World of Warcraft

What is there to say about World Of Warcraft that hasn’t already been said? Well, for what it’s worth, this is my view.

WoW is an astonishing success. It’s a subscription based Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game (MMORPG) based on a fantasy universe populated by elves, dwarves, gnomes, orcs, humans and the like. At the last count there were over 11 million people wordlwide inhabiting the world, each paying a monthly fee. Yep, it’s a massive moneyspinner for Blizzard – the developers.

There’s a lot to love about WoW. There’s a very rich history and mythology created from the original strategy titles, through books and guides, right up to this online installment. And there’s a gigantic world to explore across multiple continents and dimensions, with every terrain from lush jungle, barren desert, marshland, populated cities, mountainous domains, magical wastelands and the like.

You start the game as a lowly level 1 in whatever race and profession you choose, so you could – for example – be a Human Warlock, a Gnome Theif, or a Dwarf Warrior. Or whatever takes your fancy. You choose a name and use some basic customisation options for your looks, and away you go. You also choose a faction to play for, Alliance or Horde.

You’ll soon hit the quest system. Because quests are pretty modular in nature, you’ll discover they only take a few basic types. Most are pretty simple, kill x amount of a certain monster, or recover some treasure, or escort a charcter through some difficulties. At their best some quests are told with panache and are pretty memorable – but at their worst they are mere “grinds”, a stepping stone to advance through the levels.

And it’s this grinding that plagues the game. In order to advance you need experience, which is derived mainly from killing monsters and bosses or completing quests. Some people choose to play by following these quests and advancing the story, while others will take the shortcut of simply killing endless poor monsters without remorse. Whatever rocks your boat!

Along the way there are extras to enhancement your playing experience. You can learn professions, for example, to create weapons, gadgets, jewels, or whatever. And you can even go fishing, mining and herb picking and other “gathering” skills.

The main problem with games of this nature is that there’s no real end. Sure, there are interim targets: for example, you’ll want to reach level 40 to get your mount, then level 70 to get your flying mount and hit the level maximum. You may aim to conquer certain parts of the world, or seek out an elusive treasure, or build up massive wealth. Some people say hitting level 70 is just the start of the game – as then you’ve reached the “end game” and can really start playing.

However, in the latter stages WoW just becomes a numbers game. You only play to increase your stats, perhaps conquer certain dungeons where the end reward is the fact you’ve gained an extra +5 advantage to your combat scores. It can become a full time job working out strategies of what equipment to carry, what spells and abilities to learn, and what skills and professions to foster.

Wow has been criticised for being addictive, sometimes going by the humorous moniker “World Of WarCrack” 🙂 This is certainly true for some people, the endless search for a better character can take an extraordinary amount of time and patience. And people who are active in guilds – groups of like minded players – even set their calenders and lives around in game events, such as raids on dungeons or enemy territories.

World Of Warcraft isn’t going anywhere soon. One massive expansion was already released (The Burning Crusade) and another is imminent (Wrath of The Lich King). These serve to keep interest in the game with extra lands to explore, higher experience levels to reach, and new professions to learn.

But the fact remains: World Of Warcraft faces a difficult balance to appeal to the casual gamer who wish to invest a few hours a week in their advancement, and the hardcore gamer who is willing to spend all day online and become “the best”, however ephemeral and ultimately worthless that accolade will be. There has to be enough content to appeal to both, a solid advancement process you can follow, and enough strategy and skill involved so that game has a real sense of acheivement when you face down a difficult boss.

Ultimately, WoW succeeds. It’s by far the most popular and accomplished of the MMORPGs around today. Because of it’s longevity and popularity (the title has seemingly been in the games charts forever) it’s difficult to see how others can topple this titan and take it’s crown.

WoW only requires a modest PC by todays standards to run. Graphically, it’s attractive – even beautfiul and times – but it’s by no means state of the art. Sonically, background music and sound samples help to immerse you in the experience.

Whether you want to play solo or seek to join in partys and guilds of other players – or even battle them in player vs player realms, arenas and battlegrounds – WoW hits the mark. But those who like traditional games with a real, scripted path and a definite ending may look to look elsewhere.

Rating: 9.5 / 10 – at least until bordeom sets in!

I don’t play much anymore. But if you do see an alliance human warlock called Essjayar or a horde tauren druid called Wreck on the Ghostlands EU realm, be sure to say “Hi!” 😀

Literal Music Videos

These have been very popular on the net recently. Take a classic music video – and change the lyrics so their reflect what you see on screen. Very well done, with excellent vocal talents, and some very imaginative takes on the originals 🙂

This is starting to turn into an internet meme: Apart from the videos shown below you might like this take on Radiohead’s “No Suprises” and U2’s “Still Haven’t Found” –  though it has to be said they’re not up to the quality of the following two, but still pretty well done.

Taken

One word: Breathless !

This is an action tour de force, with Liam Neeson as a one man army out to find his daughter. Expect amazing action and stunts and over-the-top fight scenes all the way.

Don’t worry about the implausibility of it. It’s part written by Luc Besson, so if you’re familiar with his other work you’ll know what to expect.

Neeson an ex-government man who’s retired to be nearer his estranged daughter. He allows her to travel to paris with a friend, then one thing leads to another and she’s kidnapped by Albanian sex slavers. Cue Neeson hunting her down and taking on everyone single handed.

This shows Neeson as an action star, similiar in a way to Bourne or perhaps the Daniel Craig Bond reboot. It’s non stop, adrenalin fuelled, hard core action. You’ll feel every punch and no-one is spared. The bad guys are distatesful sex slavers – soon killed in droves with impunity – and even tortured. Needless to say, not for minors 🙂

If you like action – you’ll love this!

Verdict: 9 / 10 – Neeson takes no prisoners and pulls no punches…

IMDB | Rotten Tomatoes

Righteous Kill Review

Billed as the big reunion of De Niro and Pacino this movie falls far short of doing either justice. It’s not a bad movie – it just feels like it would be more at home as a direct to DVD release… or even a TV movie.

For a start, De Niro and Pacino both sleepwalk through their roles – as they have done for a number of previous movies. It’s obvious they are only in it for the paychecks these days. That said, these two on a bad day will still outclass some of today’s stars. Ultimately it’s the writing and direction that let this down. It’s simply a weak story.

The plot is really just a simple good cop / bad cop story, and the twist can be seen coming from a mile away. Detectives Turk and Rooster have had an illustrious career and partnerhsip, but the planting of evidence on a child abuser who is about to walk changes things. Cue scenes of the cop being judge, jury and executioner – and that’s the bulk of the film.

The supporting cast don’t have much to do, but all are pretty good. Brian Denehey, John Lugiazamo, Carla Gugino and even 50 Cent can at least say they’ve acted with De Niro and Pacino 🙂

Robert De Niro and Al Pacino are some of the great actors of our times. Both appeared in Godfather Part 2 and Heat to excellent reviews, but never shared much screen time together. And that’s what makes this such a disappointment. I’d love them to get together in a new, meatier film – perhaps with Scorcese at the helm! – but if the pay is good for easy films like this sadly I can’t see it happening. I don’t think they have the hunger anymore.

Then again, Jack Nicholson, Anthony Hopkins, and other such veterans still prove they have the acting chops – so here’s hoping!

Rating: 7 / 10 – Both actors can still hack it, but this film feels lazy. Entertaining enough for a Saturday night in.

IMDB | Rotten Tomatoes

BBC Iplayer Picks

The BBC Iplayer is the UK’s main catch-up and program streaming service. Unlike the USA where almost every TV network have their own services, or perhaps use Hulu, here we really have only Iplayer, 4oD (Channel 4 on Demand), ITV and Joost.

But… Iplayer is excellent! I rarely watch TV these days – I’d rather just pick what I want to watch, when I want to watch it. Stuff the schedules 🙂

Of course, Iplayer is only available in the UK and is just part of the BBC’s gigantic web presence. In fact, I’d say that the BBC is my favourite website, from the News pages (especially the Magazine section) right through to their TV program support sites. Yeah – it does come at a premium, since we pay a TV licence here, but as the BBC is fond of reminding us it’s this unique funding method that allows it to make the programs that it does. The envy of the world? Just maybe, in some areas at least.

Anyway, to get back on track here’s my favourites on Iplayer at the moment. No point in providing links because they’ll fall out of date rather quickly, but you can search the program titles.

Stephen Fry In The USA – not up to his usual standards so far, but Fry is eminently watchable.

Little Britain USA – This feels a little like they’re flogging a dead horse, but there are good moments.

Merlin – I reviewed the start of this series below, perhaps only a “B” but still entertaining.

Heroes – only an episode or two behind the US but if you’re a major fan I guess you’ll be using, erm, other sources…

Friday Night With Jonathan Ross – you will love him or hate him, but when he’s good he does get the best out if his guests.

Never Mind The Buzzcocks – I don’t think Simon Anstell is as good as Mark Lamarr was, but he does bring something different to the show. And now that Bill Bailey’s left they’ve taken the Have I Got News For You approach… guest captains!

Mitchell and Webb – Both “Look” and “Situation” are up on Iplayer, and the Peep Show guys sketch show continue to mix gross, surreal and plain weird comedy. You can of course go over to 4oD for Peepshow 🙂

James May’s Big Ideas – Here the Top Gear guy looks at the future of transport, robotics and energy.

If your broadband has limited bandwidth beware that streaming video can eat it up, fast. I’m on Virgin Media and although they’ll cut your speed once you hit the limit iPlayer is still very usable here. Yay. And be careful with certain sites like 4oD since it uses Kontiki as it’s peer-to-peer to service, and it may continue to use bandwidth even when not in use. Disabling it will disable 4oD so your best course is to press ctrl+alt+del, start task manager, and kill the Kservice process when not in use.

I’ve just noticed ITV.Com has updated their site and have a new catch-up service. ITV are not the best network in my opinion, plagued with reality shows and very little quality drama and non-existent comedy, but there is one reason to visit… Wire In The Blood! Another hard hitting crime-series that I’ll review in another post sometime.

The Akinator

This is a simple web-based knowledge game, where the computer will try to guess any character or person you think of.

You’ve probably played something like this before – it’s based on knowledge trees where the program builds up a database of questions that link to the answer (eventually). What’s great about this one is how much it actually “knows”. I must have tried tons to try and catch it out!

Of course, essentially this is ” 20 Questions ” 🙂

The Akinator

PS.I found this site from the wonderful B3TA newsletter. Along with Popbitch , well worth subscribing too…

Open Your Mind!

There are many great Science, and Popular Science books around – perhaps “A Brief History Of Time” by Stephen Hawking being #1.

Here’s a great list from Read Write Web that suggests some more, with many more possiblities mentioned in the comments:

http://www.readwriteweb.com/archives/5_great_science_books.php

Along with authors such as Richard Dawkins (“Gods Rottweiler” 🙂 )  these would make cool additions to your Amazon list.

And, if you want some more wackiness – try Robert Anton Wislon (RIP). Read the Illuminati! trilogy first for some really out-there SciFi, then try his “non fiction” books. They at least will make you see and think of the world a little differently, even if his ideas are a mixture of science, pseudo-science, and metaphysics. Start with the Cosmic Triggers and go from there fnord. Excerpts and mucho articles available from his homepage linked above.