Saturday, July 29, 2017

Book Review - Herland

Herland is an early 20th century piece of adventure fiction showcasing feminism and gender roles in an interesting way. The book tells the story of three male explorers who hear rumors of a hidden city populated entirely by women. Intrigued by the idea they set off on an expedition to discover this hidden society and learn the truth of how such a thing is possible.

The writing style is simple and easy to follow. This is especially nice when it includes extensive exposition and detailed description. The story is told in first person which gives it a conversational narrative style and keeps it approachable. By making the narrator a sociologist we are given thoughtful contemplation into the interactions between the characters in the newly discovered culture.

The book starts out simply enough by introducing us to the characters and the plot. Our three male characters each have different views/stereotypes towards women and they span the spectrum from end to end. Jeff is at the end that views women as treasures that should be served, protected and idolized. Terry is at the end that sees them as things to be conquered and made to submit and fit into their 'appropriate place' in the world. Our narrator, Van, sits in the middle of the spectrum trying to piece together his viewpoint. He acknowledges a disagreement with Terry's perspective of women as objects to be conquered but he also somewhat pities Jeff's perspective of women as beings to be worshiped. The banter between the three characters as they begin their expedition illustrates the nature of each character and also brings up the big question of "how can a society with only women survive for does the population continue?"

When our "heroes" first arrive in Herland, they admit that they do not see any men but they are still skeptical that such a thing is possible. After some misadventures and some struggle to learn the language the men eventually learn the history of the land. Gilman ads a bit of fantasy/religion and explains how the females are miraculously impregnated without any interaction with males. This is presented as a sort of religious miracle but not in the sense of the Biblical Virgin birth but as a different sort of miracle that evolved a physiological/biological change on the women to allow them to survive in a situation that came upon them when their men were all lost to them. The skepticism of our male explorers continues for a bit but eventually they relent and acknowledge that the women have indeed changed in a way to allow birth without being impregnated by men.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Game Review - Exit: The Pharaoh's Tomb

My family and I had a lot of fun in a mini "brick and mortar" escape room at a recent convention but the price to take 5 of us into an escape room is pricey so it's not something we're going to do much. Even as a date night for just my wife and I, the cost is up there. So this new trend of escape room games at home has me excited. Having the "Exit" series also win the German Spiel des Jahres award this year also means that the trend will likely continue to give us fun new offerings.

I ordered a copy of the Egypt themed "Exit" escape room game "The Pharaoh's Tomb". My daughter wasn't super excited for it so it was just my two boys, my wife and I. We sat down, not knowing exactly what to expect, and opened the box. I'll work to avoid spoilers while also letting you know what's in there and what we experienced.

The contents of the box are simple...basically you get a bunch of cards, a decoder disk, two "strange items" (paper strips with hieroglyphs), an instruction book and a diary/notebook from a previous explorer. (It's not a spoiler but I enjoyed the nods to pop culture in that the notebook was from "Dr. Ford" and there are some hidden images that remind you of a certain whip toting, snake hating adventurer)

The instructions outline how to play the game and then give an introductory story to get you started. You are part of a tour group touring the Egyptian Pyramids. You've been separated from your group and find your way into an impressive burial chamber. Through some accident you triggered a trap of some kind that rolled a massive stone door closed. You spy the notebook of Dr. Ford, an explorer who was searching the pyramid earlier and has discovered some clues that he hopes may lead to escape and/or greater treasure. Using his clues (and your imagination that the images from his notebook and the deck of cards represent an ancient pyramid in which you are now trapped) you must try to escape or be entombed wth the ancient pharaohs. You start a timer (not included) and work your way to escape, hoping not only to escape but to achieve a good score to brag about your exploits.

Even though we obviously weren't trapped in a pyramid (which is good since my wife is a bit claustrophobic which can cause anxiety in small escape rooms) the art, storytelling and puzzles helped draw us in and feel like we were part of an actual adventure.

The first couple of puzzles were tricky but were good to help us get a feel for the way the game was meant to be played and what we were expected to do. Or so we we continued working through the puzzles and opening up new passageways we found ourselves stumped. Fortunately this game system includes a series of "help" cards that can be used to nudge you in the right direction (for a score penalty of course). We used one hint early on to just help keep the group from getting frustrated too early. Then we used additional hints later on when we felt like there was nothing else to do...and boy were we surprised at the results. I won't spoil anything but I will applaud the creativity and the way this game really makes you try to think differently. Thematically it required a little imagination but once applied it really worked and I really enjoyed the tricky bits.

It took us 88 minutes to escape and we used 6 help cards which scored us 4 stars (out of 10). Probably not a great score but definitely a great experience and I look forward to trying out the other Exit games (as well as other escape room home games).

The one problem I have with the game is that it really is a "play once" game. I know that I personally probably couldn't/shouldn't play it again (because I now know all the puzzles) but I would have loved to have an Escape Room game day and let family and friends try this one out while perhaps I played a different one. Due to some of the things you have to do to the game pieces it really can't be replayed (unless you plan ahead of time to not cut up pieces but instead make photocopies/ would be tricky even then for some of the puzzles). Really I can't fault the company too much. Making it repayable means people would play once and then pass it to a friend rather than having to buy a new copy for the friend. And really the price of the game is reasonable when you consider it is the same (or less) than the price for one person to attend a "brick and mortar" escape room.

5 out of 5 stars

To see the rest of my board game collection, click here.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Book Review - The Ultimatum

I hadn't read anything by Karen Robards before but the premise of The Ultimatum sounded fun so I picked up a copy in exchange for a review. The summary introduces us to Bianca St. Ives, a woman who grew up being trained by her father in covert skills to help her in the family business of high profile grifting and theft. The summary continues to explain that their latest job "has a little hiccup" and she is set on a path to try and uncover the truth "behind what really happened."

I'll avoid spoilers in this review but I will say that this book plays an interesting balancing act between focusing on the present time and the history that lead Bianca and her father to the life they are currently involved in. The book begins in Bianca's childhood with an explosively traumatic event that goes largely unexplained for hundreds of pages while still hanging on the periphery as a suspicious influence on the action of the book. When the prologue of the book eventually connects to the main plot, the effect is surprising in a disconnected sort of way. It's an unpredictable twist which is normally fine except that it felt so disconnected from everything else that it left me confused as to what the book was trying to do beyond being 300+ pages of developing Bianca's character to be used in future books. As a side note on Bianca's character, the book summary (and the series subtitle of the book) says "She's known as the Guardian" but nowhere in the book did I notice any reference to her being called the Guardian or any reason why she would be called the Guardian (her role in the jobs she did with her father weren't really "guardian" roles).

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Books Read in 2017

For the past few years (20162015, 2014, 20132012, 2011, 2010, 2009) I've had a goal to read and review a bunch of books over the course of each year.

My goal had been to average a book per week and end up with 50 books read and reviewed at the end of the year. I usually don't include smaller books (early middle grade, picture books, etc) unless I feel really strongly about them. For the past couple of years I've dropped well below my 50 and only ended up reviewing 9 books last year (though I did read more than that). I don't know if I'll get back to the ~50 range, but we'll see what I can do. Wish me luck.

  1. Ready Player One
  2. A Wrinkle In Time
  3. King Solomon's Mines
  4. The Ultimatum

Monday, June 19, 2017

Book Review - King Solomon's Mines

The 19th century had a boom of English adventure novels. By the end of the century it had really hit a great stride which also brought high expectations. As with any genre there were plenty of books that have faded from common reading while others still invoke imagery and seem familiar even to people who have never read them. To me, King Solomon's Mines is one of those novels that always felt like a stalwart example of English Adventure fiction so I was a little surprised when people saw me reading it and had little or no knowledge of this novel or the adventures of Allan Quartermain. Those who recognized Quartermain largely only did so thanks to the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen movie that came out a few years ago. Now that I've finished reading King Solomon's Mines I must say that I'm a little sad that it's slipped under the radar. Maybe I'm just in the wrong reading circles. *grin*

The basic story (minor spoilers of the first chapters' setup) introduces us to adventurer and big game hunter Allan Quartermain. Allan isn't old by our modern sense but in terms of his career he is beyond his standard life expectancy and is expected to either die on safari or to retire somewhere. While thinking about this, he is approached by an English aristocrat (Sir Henry Curtis) and his friend (Captain Good) who want to hire him as a guide and protector to lead them north across the wilds of Africa in search of the lost brother of Sir Henry. Quartermain is wary especially when they tell him that Sir Henry's brother was lost searching for King Solomon's Mines...the mythical mines used by the Biblical king to fund his nation and build his famous Temple. It takes some discussion and a promise of significant wealth (not only for Allan but also for his son) to finally convince Quartermain to help. They gather supplies and natives to help them and they're on their way. As they get ready to depart, another native approaches them having overheard their general destination and he asks to accompany them as a servant. They agree and the small party sets off.

The novel is written in first person as a sort of journal or letter from Allan to anyone who may be interested in the story. The narrator Quartermain often apologizes for his lack of style and sophistication as well as for possible errors either in terms of form or in terms of scientific/geographic accuracy. The edition I read included annotations by the editor but I also found it interesting that there were included annotations that were supposed to have been written by Quartermain to further explain or clarify some point of interest. This added narrative element was a fun addition not just to add details to the story but also to provide more insight into the character of Quartermain. I especially enjoyed the side commentary that Quartermain-as-narrator added to the story with his thoughts about the situations he encounters.