Midnight Mysteries: The Edgar Allan Poe Conspiracy (2009 - PC)

I confess that I sometimes play hidden object games because I find them therapeutic. Considering that you can play a lot of these things online for free, I would expect there to be a little more to a hidden object game that you actually have to pay money for. And, in some ways, there is more to Midnight Mysteries, but in some ways less.

I know that I would probably get more out of the references if I could remember more of what I read of Poe's writings. I read some collections years ago, but only a few stories stand out to me now, some of which aren't referenced here at all. The game has far more gorgeous graphics than almost any free HOG I've played, and many scenes even sport limited animation. The gameplay is also mixed up a little with light puzzle-solving between some of the item-finding stages.

But despite all of this, the game has virtually no challenge. While I can't expect any HOG to be a hardcore challenge, Midnight Mysteries goes out of its way to be easy. I purposefully refuse to use the hints that show exactly where objects are on the screen, and I only use the lantern, which shows a silhouette of an object, very sparingly (mostly if I don't know what something is - one good thing about HOGs is that they have the potential to expand your vocabulary a little). None of the puzzles takes more than a few minutes to solve, except maybe the one about the three people on the boat, but that's only if you've never heard that riddle before. The hardest HOG I've ever played was one called "City of Dreams", which took me several days to complete. Midnight Mysteries took me an afternoon, and that was playing it around chores.

Um, one thing that concerns me... The story of this game is pure fantasy, but it proposes that Poe's death was actually a murder, and although the people it implicates in the murder have been dead for many years, they're real people that actually existed and could possibly still have living descendants! I don't know if it's a good idea for a silly hidden object game to be smearing people's names in this manner.
Rating: 1.5/5


S.C.A.T.: Special Cybernetic Attack Team (1991 - NES)

While this game does offer two very lengthy stages of challenge, it needed a little something more to become a true NES classic. The original Japanese game it was derived from, Final Mission, is much harder, and I can kind of see the wisdom behind making it more accessible, but Natsume went too far in their endeavor. For a full review, click here.
Rating: 3/5


Samantha Swift and the Hidden Roses of Athena (2008) & Samantha Swift and the Golden Touch (2009) (PC)

I bought these on a package deal during the Steam winter sale and beat both in the same day. They're hidden object games made by the same company that did the Midnight Mysteries games, and as such, they have the exact same advantages and disadvantages. Advantages: Absolutely gorgeous visuals and music, nice animation, lots of finding items and solving puzzles. Disadvantage: Far too easy, and too many available hints that I refuse to use (except in one case where a puzzle didn't seem like it would ever end - in desperation, I used a hint and that seemed to be the answer. I wonder what would've happened had I used all my hints before that point?)

What MumboJumbo and other makers of HOGs should do is include a hard mode for less casual players. Things like a time limit, stiffer penalties for incorrect clicks, less available hints, and puzzles that don't practically solve themselves (what if the cursor didn't change color when you have the right item placed over the correct spot on-screen? It would force you to use your brain more, like a Shadowgate-type of game). That really isn't too much to ask if you expect people to keep paying for these things.

Is it just me, or are these games even more messed up than the Edgar Allan Poe game? Well, maybe I'm the only one who would notice, but what am I supposed to think when I'm asked to take a rainbow or constellation out of the sky, or collect a person? I also felt like the stories were behaving as though I should be familiar with these characters already, and that's probably because there were two earlier games in the Samantha Swift series that aren't available on Steam and are too expensive to buy elsewhere.
Rating: 2/5


The Beatles: Parting Ways (2010 - Streaming Video)

A very cut-and-dry documentary on what happened to each member of The Beatles after the band broke up. If you're a superfan who knows everything there is to know about them, I don't believemuch content here would be new to you. Seeing as how I'm not the most knowledgable fan, there were a few things I learned. But the last few minutes turned into a really awkward pitch for the Beatles Rock Band video game and some project of Ringo's called Liverpool08.

Also, most of the background music isn't actually Beatles music. I know that Beatles songs have notoriously expensive royalties (which the movie even explains), but I think if you're going to make a Beatles movie, you have to be willing to pony up. Generic contemporary guitar playing and Rolling Stones songs don't quite cut it.


First Blood (1982 - DVD)

After seeing this movie, it became clear to me why the protagonist of Surviving the Game wasn't given the background of "war vet" as I had suggested in my review, because when a group of armed men take off after Rambo in the forest, and they start falling into traps set up by him, I realized how striking the similarities were. Yeah, The Most Dangerous Game was the #1 inspiration for that movie, but I believe it borrowed a lot from First Blood, too (which is also a "Most Dangerous Game" kind of story). However, this is a much, much better movie. Better acting, better character motivations, and it stays true to its theme unto the end.

Apparently, it's a common misconception that all Rambo movies take place in foreign countries (usually Vietnam), but First Blood is actually set in America. Rambo goes to a small town in Washington to look for an old war buddy, and ends up in trouble with the law. It's funny to me that so many critics knocked this movie for being unrealistic. It was made in the early 80s, before people got really used to the action genre in which heroes defy impossible odds without getting (at least not too badly) hurt or killed. But even in that sense, it's more realistic than some. Despite the fact that there is a very low body count (spoiler: only one actual confirmed death), I never got the sense that the characters were invincible. Part of the reason is because of how effective the scenes of violence are, whether it's people who get in Rambo's way as he goes on the lam, or his flashback scenes to his torment in Vietnam as a P.O.W.
Rating: 3.5/5


A Hero Ain't Nothin' But a Sandwich (1978 - Streaming Video)

A late 70s urban drama about a troubled teen growing up in the ghetto of L.A. that features Cicely Tyson and Paul Winfield. Thirteen-year-old Benjie is a very gifted student who knows his history and has a penchant for writing, but he's so disturbed by the absence of his father that he turns to drugs, which, despite the best efforts of those around him to help, causes his life to hit rock bottom. It's a very long struggle back to the top, and that's one of the problems - since Benjie continues to get into trouble time and time again, I began to think there was no hope for him, and a happy ending would be too unrealistic, yet a sad ending would be too depressing. So, it ends in a random spot that leans in the "happy" direction, but considering that even when the family was at their best, the slightest incident could shatter their fragile peace, I'm left feeling they still have a long way to go. I'll never really know for sure if Benjie was just going through a phase or will end up being a delinquent his whole life.

The film is exceptionally well-acted. Even though it isn't real, it's hard not to be disturbed by scenes of children shooting themselves up with heroin. Supposedly, the reason it has a PG rating despite the rampant language and drug use is because it was used as an anti-drug message for kids, but it seemed like the marijuana wasn't the problem. Things just got out of control when heroin became involved, and this is far from the only movie I've seen where that has happened. People can debate whether drugs should be legalized all they want, but it's probably a good idea to stay the hell away from heroin.

Some reviewers have wondered why Benjie doesn't accept Butler (Winfield) as his stepfather. I think it's more than just wanting his real father back - Benjie seems to have a serious Oedipus Complex. The way he describes, talks to, and compliments his mother often doesn't sound like the way a son would. Maybe the real issue is that kids need to go to boarding school once they hit puberty.
Rating: 2.5/5


My Neighbor Totoro (1988 - DVD)

I've seen this movie at least four times now and I feel like I get more and more out of it every time. I didn't, for example, ever notice before that the movie seemed to be taking place in the past (it does, in fact, the 50s), and that the most likely reason for the mother's illness was tuberculosis. While it may not hold the attention of very young children, it does seem like a good movie to "grow up" with. Part of the reason some details were new to me on this viewing might possibly have something to do with the fact that this version was re-dubbed by Disney. I own a VHS version of Totoro that had an earlier English dub with less recognizable voice actors, whereas the Disney one has notable names such as Dakota Fanning, Pat Carroll, Tim Daly, and Frank Welker involved. The nostalgic part of me preferred a few things about the original dub, but I'm okay with the Disney version, too.

One thing that I've always thought is that it's possible the magical Totoro creatures were invented by the girls' imaginations as a way of dealing with their mother being sick in the hospital. There are some clues that would suggest this, most notably, the tree growing out of the garden doesn't exist the next day and the fact that no one else is able to see them. On the other hand, it's entirely possible that they are real, but only make themselves visible to children if and when they're needed. The best part is, you can watch the movie one way - thinking they're just imaginary, then watch it another time thinking they're real, and it works either way.
Rating: 4/5


Scarface (1932 - Streaming Video)

The Howard Hughes-produced/Howard Hawks-directed (really, how did that happen?) 1932 masterpiece of gangster films provides a compelling tale of mob warfare in Prohibition-era Chicago, and an electrifying performance from Paul Muni as Tony Camonte, a gangster who begins as a lowly hitman for a crime boss and steadily works his way to the top. Tony is a loose cannon, murderous and ruthless in his quest for power, and he's crazily overprotective of his sister. Yet he has a certain debonair charm about him. That type of performance must be difficult to pull off, yet Muni makes it look so natural.

Though the movie's intro (added to appease censors) claims it's a statement against the mafia, films like this always have a way of glorifying it, despite the ever-increasing body count. They often provide great dialogue and quotes, such as, "Do it first, do it yourself, and keep on doing it". The influence Scarface had on later gangster films is very evident, especially in its structure. Things start off, perhaps a little slowly. Some gangsters get bumped off, but at least they're only targeting each other, right? But when the rival gangs get ahold of a shipment of Tommy guns, all hell breaks loose. Bullets fly constantly, mowing down anyone unfortunate enough to get in their way. Eventually, karma catches up to even the most untouchable anti-heroes, as the situation spirals more and more out of control to its eventual conclusion.

Glad I wasn't just imagining that "X" motif (spoiler warning). I knew when someone wrote a "strike" on their bowling card that his time was up, and I actually said "Uh-oh" out loud when I saw the X on the door near the end.

One thing I found amusing - Scarface is notable for the controversy it caused with the film censors of the era for its violence and (what was considered back then to be) the revealing outfits on the women. Nowadays, you get to the end of the movie and the rating shown is...PG. Times have certainly changed.
Rating: 4.5/5


A Talking Cat!?! (2013 - Streaming Video)

No, that picture is not photoshopped, at least not by me. That's exactly how the titular talking cat in this movie talks. A still shot is taken as a crude black line representing a mouth widens and contracts while Eric Roberts does a voiceover that sounds like he's trying to be more laconic than Lorenzo Music's Garfield and John Erwin's Morris the Cat combined from three rooms away.

I can sum up the plot as "Magical talking cat helps whiny rich people solve their whiny rich people problems". Seriously, there has to be people somewhere in the world who could benefit far more from the powers of a talking cat, right? Someone whose biggest problem isn't complaining loudly about cheese puffs all the time? Someone who has more to worry about than learning to swim to impress a girl?

The movie's excessive runtime is padded by endless shots of the woods, mountains, and streams where it takes place, which are pretty, yes, but some of them are repeated - multiple times, even! The soundtrack seems like it's trying overly hard to make up for the overall lack of wit, charm, and humor. For more than half the film, there's this loud, bouncy, calypso music playing that competes with the dialogue for dominance, as though it's screaming, "Look at how whacky and silly this movie is!!!!", even if it's just two people talking about nothing particularly festive or special.

You also know you're in trouble when the big "emotional" scene ends up being the only laugh out loud moment in the whole movie. Near the end, the cat is gravely injured in a car accident, and everyone runs into the bedroom to see him after being told he wouldn't live much longer. Camera cuts to what is very obviously a perfectly fine, normal, healthy, and uninjured cat rolling around on the bed with a small cloth bandage loosely placed around its neck. Couldn't they have at least filmed the cat while it was asleep and put a blanket over it to make it more convincing?
Rating: 1.5/5


Treasure Island (2002 - Streaming Video)

Robert Louis Stevenson's classic novel can be a very tricky thing to deal with. Roger Ebert once said that he never knew a kid who enjoyed reading the book, and argued that it was more for adults than it's often made out to be. That's the problem with this animated adaptation that was apparently made by DiC for some Nickelodeon thing back in the early 2000s. It's a little too serious for kids, but not serious enough for adults.

The story is very stripped-down, but is (oddly, like the Ralph Bakshi Lord of the Rings) a lot more detailed and lengthy in its setup, then rushed later on. So rushed, that sometimes things happen with little explanation. For example, Jim Hawkins gets on the ship and almost immediately learns the truth about Long John Silver and his ragtag crew. There's no time spent at all building rapport between Hawkins and Silver, so when Silver starts to show a soft spot for Jim later, it comes out of completely nowhere.

Characterizations are simple (pirates laugh a lot, I guess that's all you need to know), and some of the voice acting is too overdone (Jim's voice is particularly annoying). Worst of all is Ben Gunn, who is drawn as a hunchbacked old man with an enormous beard and jagged teeth of all shapes and distances from each other protruding from his mouth. It would be nice if for once eccentricity was not portrayed as being excessively goofy.

One good purpose an animated Treasure Island could serve would be to interest kids more in reading the book. But this version is so flat and uninspired, it might have the opposite effect. Despite Ebert's objections to the sci-fi reimagining of Disney's Treasure Planet, it was lightyears beyond this.
Rating: 1.5/5


Under the Boardwalk: The Monopoly Story (2010 - Streaming Video)

Seeing as how Crawl and I enjoy a game of Monopoly once in awhile, I really, really wanted to like this documentary. The best and most interesting parts are when they talk about and show the history of the game and how it was created, its influence on the world, the different ways in which it has appeared in pop culture (such segments play like a video version of the Cultural Impact section of a Wikipedia page - showing clips from TV shows and movies where Monopoly is mentioned or made an appearance), and the many different versions of Monopoly and the collector's memorabilia based on it.

Unfortunately, those segments make up about 10-20% of the movie. The other 80-90% is about the official Monopoly tournaments, which I found very hard to maintain interest in for very long, and I imagine the same might be true for all but the most diehard Monopoly enthusiasts.
Rating: 2.5/5


Ralph S. Mouse (1991 - Streaming Video)

I remember liking the Beverly Cleary Mouse and the Motorcycle books when I was a kid. Quite literally, they're about a talking mouse that rides a motorcycle who lives in a hotel with a human family. The details of the books are now vague in my memory, and I have no idea what I'd think of them if I read them as an adult, but I just hope they were better than this.

Ralph S. Mouse is an adaptation of the third book in the series that originated as an ABC Weekend Special. It features a combination of live action and stop-motion animation. Ralph is causing too much trouble at the hotel where he lives, so he decides to go live at Ryan's school instead. There he ends up unwillingly involved in a school project to run through a mouse maze.

The artwork in the books always depicted Ralph as looking like a real mouse. A real mouse that could do some highly unusual things, but still like a real mouse. Ralph in this movie, however, is anthropomorphized, and his character model is hideous. Every time the camera gives a close-up of his pink toothless gums and bulging eyes, I think what nightmares he would've given me if I had seen this as a child. His arms are overly long and ape-like; his body is that of an emaciated rat. To make matters worse, his voice is grating and his behavior is obnoxious.

There are no witty jokes or observations, and a complete lack of charm. The actors, including and especially the kid playing Ryan, look embittered to be involved in it. And seriously, people, quit it with trying to have songs in children's movies just because Disney does it! The scene of the kids dancing in the classroom was the most embarrassing musical moment in a kid's show I've seen since Johnny Storm took to the mic in that 90s Fantastic Four cartoon.
Rating: 1/5


Empire of the East
Author: Fred Saberhagen; Reader: Raymond Todd
(Audiobook - 2005; Original Book - 1968)

Originally, this was published as three separate books, The Broken Lands, The Black Mountains, and Changeling Earth (aka, Ardneh's World), but the audiobook contains all three, and it's a good thing that it does because the first book doesn't have much meat on its bones. I could describe the plot as, "There's an evil wizard in a castle. There's a rebellion fighting against the evil wizard. Farmboy-turned-rebellion leader finds a tank from the 'old world' in a cave. They use the tank to beat the evil wizard. The end." What makes it feel simplified is that even when other things happen, they don't have much effect on the overall plot. Like, for example, when the farmboy Rolf is captured and taken to the castle. Some stuff happens, but he just ends up escaping and going back to the tank.

The second book picks up the pace, with the focus shifting from the farmboy hero to one of the villains from the first book, Chup, who is a far more interesting character. There's a huge battle involving airships, demons, and yet another evil wizard who's more like a lich that held me enrapt. Then in the third book, the focus goes back to Rolf, so my attention started to drift a bit as he searches for Ardneh. I have to wonder if this book had any influence on fantasy writing in video games. What happens in the end feels like every video game I've ever played whose final boss is a sleeping/sealed up demon who is awoken/freed by a villain who doesn't know what he's getting into. See: Shadowgate, The Magic of Scheherazade, and Ninja Gaiden II to name a few.

Why does it seem like in fantasy novels there's always a character who has a wickedly evil wife? The main character had that problem in Beyond the Gap, and so does Chup.
Rating: 3/5


The Horror Stories of Robert E. Howard
Author: Robert E. Howard; Reader: Robertson Dean
(Audiobook - 2010; Original Stories - 1925-1936)

This has probably been my biggest disappointment all year. I wanted so badly to enjoy this, and I tried really hard, but it just didn't work out for me. I try to be forgiving and understanding of writing that reflects the attitudes of the time in which it was written. I was able, for the most, to put aside my feelings on racism in early American fiction for Tom Sawyer. But this was too much, even for me.

I've seen all manner of justification for Howard's writing and attitudes towards different races, but my problem is that "everyone who doesn't look exactly like a white person is scary!1!1!1!" is not my idea of "horror". The stories that involve race, even when they're slightly more sympathetic than usual, come across to me as being more about xenophobia than horror - when they aren't trying to convince me how "evil" and "primitive" black people are, they're yammering on about how you can't trust someone with "slanty eyes". "Black Canaan" was so offensive, I came very close to skipping it or stopping the audiobook altogether, and it just wasn't scary, anyway.

To be fair not every story in this collection is about race, and those tend to be the best ones. But sometimes even those have issues, such as long passages where several characters sit around a room while one of them delivers expository dialogue.

"The Hoofed Thing" may have been my favorite, because it's actually about a horrible monster doing horrible things, and it's a solidly-structured story with a real mystery involved, despite being a little predictable. Other good ones were "People of the Dark" (the first Conan the Barbarian story) and "The Horror From the Mound", a vampire tale set in the Old West. I also liked "The Man on the Ground", which is more of a western with a very surprise twist ending than a true horror story. And I liked almost all the stories featuring Professor John Kirowan ("The Haunter of the Ring", "The Thing on the Roof", "The Dwellers Under the Tombs"), except "Dig Me No Grave" was so ridiculous, it was almost self-parody.

Robertson Dean's voice is perfect for narrating horror stories, but I felt really bad for him having to use the N-word (amongst other slurs) so much.
Rating: 2.5/5


The Hunger Games
Author: Suzanne Collins; Reader: Carolyn McCormick
(Audiobook & Original Book - 2008)

As far as "humans hunting other humans" stories go, The Hunger Games was definitely a lot better than Surviving the Game. For whatever reason, the audiobook is a very easy listen - maybe it's the straightforward way in which the book was written combined with the narrator who reads at just the right speed (some of them read a little too fast for my liking). It's a very compelling story, but the outcome is predictable. Since the story is told from Katniss's perspective, then unless it was going to pull an "All Quiet on the Western Front", you can probably guess who wins. This also means that if Katniss is not present for an event, you don't get to see it happen.

Another problem this presents is that we never truly get inside anyone else's head besides Katniss. With 24 contestants in the Hunger Games total, I wasn't expecting a deep backstory on all of them, and of course there'll be the intial purge. But with the exception of Peeta and to a lesser extent, Rue, we don't really get to know much about any of the others. Seeing as how this is a story about kids ages 12 to 18 killing each other, maybe that's not such a bad thing. Sometimes, when other characters do get dialogue, it's cartoony. There's a scene where a girl who has gained the upper hand on Katniss takes an unnecessarily long time bragging about herself - this is a "kill or be killed" situation - there's no room for acting like a James Bond villain.

But it's not really so much the outcome as the journey getting there - seeing how Katniss survives against the impossible odds and how she adapts to the game's ever-changing rules is what's fascinating, and that's really what's best about any story in this genre that's any good. The Gamemakers' ability to manifest dangers in the arena without warning keeps up a certain level of suspense, since there's no telling what they'll do next. Any time the game starts to wind down a bit, I found myself getting uneasy worrying about what those bastards would do.

Uh, I just have one other nitpick - I'm trying to keep my plot details vague, but you might want to stop reading this if you don't want any spoilers at all: There's one part where a character makes a big deal about their first human kill. But that same character had earlier tossed a mutant killer wasp nest into the vicinity of several people, which resulted in the death of two of them. Maybe the logic is that the bugs did the killing, not the person. But the person should still hold some responsibility for that, since that character was well aware of what the wasps were and what they would do. It'd be like if someone dropped a bomb and tried to say later that any resulting deaths were caused by the bomb, not the person dropping it.

Finally, all the stuff that happens after the games are over felt like an attempt to prolong the suspense that didn't really work. Let's face it, it ends when the game does.
Rating: 3.5/5


The Invisible Man
Author: H.G. Wells; Reader: Scott Brick
(Audiobook - 2008; Original Book - 1897)

It's all fun and games until someone loses an eye, or in this case, is murdered. That sentiment sums up the beginning of the H.G. Wells classic, The Invisible Man. While it's generally thought of as a horror or science fiction tale, something about the reading caused it to come across more comically to me than it probably was supposed to. The first act starts with a mysterious man named Griffin, who is wrapped entirely in bandages and wearing sunglasses, a coat, hat, and gloves so that only his nose is visible, moving into a hotel room while the attendants and other visitors attempt to figure out what's the deal with him. Due to the title of the book, the audience knows he's invisible under that getup, but we don't know how he got that way or what he's doing there. So, it's like a mystery, but with this comical tone I'm not sure would be there if not for the goofy cockney accents the narrator uses for the characters. Eventually, it becomes impossible for Griffin to keep his secret anymore, and he escapes during an attempt to capture him.

For the second act, he ends up in the home of his former mentor where he tells him the entire story of how he became the Invisible Man. Because most of this chapter is his own dialogue, it's like the story has gone into first-person perspective, and the tone changes dramatically. Griffin is a brilliant scientist, but lacks remorse, conscience, and morality. He doesn't care about the consequences of his actions - a point that proves deadly to some, and could cost Griffin his humanity. When he invents a formula to make living things invisible, he thinks about the power and abilities it would give him, only to quickly discover the inconveniences far outweigh the good as his life becomes a living nightmare. His only hope is to find a way to reverse the condition, or go crazy.

Since you can probably guess which it is, the third act one again goes back into third-person perspective for a big chase scene. Yeah, there's definitely tension during the assault on the mentor's house. But when everyone starts running across the English countryside while yelling that there's an invisible man chasing them, I dunno, something about it just seemed funny to me again.

Oh, I still liked it a lot, but The Time Machine remains my favorite H.G. Wells story for now.
Rating: 4/5


The Laughing Policeman: A Martin Beck Police Mystery
Authors: Maj Sjowall & Per Wahloo; Reader: Tom Weiner
(Audiobook - 2009; Original Book - 1968)

Set in 1960s Stockholm, Sweden, in a time of political unrest, is a police procedural novel of the grittiest kind. Although it is considered part of the "Martin Beck" series, it differs in most mystery novel series that I'm aware of in that Martin Beck is just one character of many who work to solve the case. Many of the other police in his unit participate just as much as (if not more than) Beck.

And, boy, what a case it is. A gunman kills nine people on a bus, seemingly at random. Initially, it's passed off as a madman who did it for no other reason than insanity. But one of the passengers on the bus just so happened to be one of Beck's own detectives, and no one knows why he was on that bus at that particular time. Beck thinks it's possible he may have been targeted by someone, but with few clues and no witnesses, discovering the truth will be a daunting task.

The police begin their investigation by questioning family and friends of the victims, and most of the times, they're doubtful it will lead to anything. Much to their surprise, clues that could possibly link the murder to an earlier unsolved case begin bubbling to the surface.

This is not a whodunnit in the normal sense. It's not a matter of figuring out who's responsible from a pool of possible suspects. It's more of a fascinating study of detectives literally producing something out of nothing, like grinding drops of water out of a stone until they form a lake. Despite the title, the book is not a comedy, though it does have an underlying sense of humor that got a chuckle out of me here and there. The title comes from a 1922 Charles Penrose song that Beck receives as a Christmas gift on a vinyl record. He is the only person at present not amused by it (I looked up the song on YouTube - knowing what it sounds like makes that scene even funnier in retrospect). The title has some more significance beyond that, but there is no way I will spoil it. Let's just say that the ending is about as close to perfection as it gets.

Although reader Tom Weiner is good at doing the character voices (even if a few are bit hammy), I wasn't fond of the way he trailed the last word of every sentence of the narrative text.
Rating: 4/5


My Life As a 10-Year-Old Boy!
Author & Reader: Nancy Cartwright
(Audiobook - 2004; Original Book - 2000)

Out of all the audiobooks I've listened to, this is the one that I can say with absolute certainty that you are better off utilizing than the written version. Hearing Nancy do all the voices, especially (and of course) Bart Simpson (though she also breaks out into Nelson Muntz and Ralph Wiggum on occasion), is part of the charm, and that's something you're not going to get from print. Indeed, I've seen complaints about the book having too many words in all caps and exclamation points, causing people to read it in a "Valley Girl" tone, but in the audio format, it just comes across as her bubbly personality.

Nancy goes into much depth about the early history of the Simpsons, especially its start as a series of bumpers on The Tracey Ullman Show, to its meteoric rise in popularity as its own show on the fledgling FOX network. Going back even farther, she also relays the story of how she, personally, became a voice actor (hint: She left a silly message on Daws Butler's answering machine).

Unfortunately, I'm not sure how much material in this book would be new to the most diehard Simpsons fans, considering how much is documented on Wikis and Simpsons fansites across the internet. I had never known about the animation debacle that happened with the pilot episode, "Some Enchanted Evening" before this book, although apparently the early cut is on the Season 1 DVD. Still, I'd think there'd be some value in hearing these anecdotes told directly by someone who works on the show, especially Nancy who relishes every instant of this reading, only becoming somber when discussing some heartfelt memories of her mother's passing and the death of actor Phil Hartman.

Another complaint I've seen of the print version is that it (supposedly) didn't contain any information about how the episodes are made. The audiobook definitely does. The cover claims it's an "updated version". I don't know if that's what was added, but it is there. I personally felt it was the weakest part of the book, especially since I already know what goes into making a cartoon, and her telling was pretty much what I've heard. The stories about the celebrity guests, the other VA's, and all the drama were far more entertaining for me.
Rating: 3.5/5


Stealing MySpace: The Battle To Control the Most Popular Website in America
Author: Julia Angwin; Reader: Paul Michael Garcia
(Audiobook & Original Book - 2009)

From time-to-time throughout the years of running this site, I've gotten questions about why I've never turned it into a successful online business. If I ever get asked that again, instead of explaining that I've only ever seen this site as a hobby, not as something I intended to get rich doing, I'm just going to refer them to reading this book. It's almost unreal what went on behind the scenes of MySpace, a website whose 15 minutes of fame seemed to come and go in 14 or less. (If YTMND was the Hula Hoop of the internet, MySpace was the POG.)

It's not just because of MySpace that I implore parties interested in profiting from a website to read this book. It also gives a very sobering view of what it's like for startup internet companies. Many never go very far at all, and sometimes even if they do take off, they're only profitable for a short time before people either lose interest, or a competing knockoff site comes along that takes all their business away. The internet is like a tank full of fish - if one fish starts getting fat, a bigger fish comes along and eats it up, and that fish may only thrive until a shark comes along.

Hey, did you know that almost all the spam you ever received in the mid-90s to early-2000s was coordinated by one internet company called ResponseBase? And did you know that the same people behind ResponseBase created MySpace? Remember all those creepy ads for spy cameras that were all over message boards and websites back in the day? Yup, ResponseBase. That's how these guys were able to make a site that made money - they weren't just a couple of nerdy kids programming out of their basement who turned up a fluke. These guys were in the business of making money off the internet from the start.

The book makes it a point to mention that MySpace copied from Friendster and just about any other websites that had good ideas it could use. But what I find odd is that it makes it seem like the internet went right from Usenet/Geocities to the Friendster/MySpace era. There's a short history between there from the late 90s to the early 2000s that seems to be all but forgotten now - the BBS era. UBB, Inside the Web, ezboard, and phpbb were amongst the first to implement many of the same features that social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook would eventually utilize. Perhaps the fact that people forget their history is exactly why companies make the same damn mistakes! Even though the book was published, and thus ends, right before Facebook overtook MySpace in popularity, the reasons for the latter's fall from grace start becoming apparent towards the end - not least of which was removing features that made it popular in the first place (as someone who lived through the rise and decline of ezboard, I can tell you that they did the same thing).

There are times when the book indulges in the very specific details of the various lawsuits and business deals behind MySpace, and I imagine most people who aren't lawyers or businessmen will glaze over these parts (I've even seen other reviews say the same thing). I just zoned out until it got back to the more juicy drama.
Rating: 3.5/5


What Shamu Taught Me About Life, Love, and Marriage: Lessons For People From Animals and Their Trainers
Authors: Amy Sutherland; Reader: Hillary Huber
(Audiobook & Original Book - 2008)

In some ways, I don't feel it's fair to review a self-help book unless you try its techniques and see if they work for you. But since I mostly only took this out because I thought it had more to do with animals than it does, and I've seen enough reviews of this one that felt pretty much the same way I did about it, I'm going to go ahead anyway.

Author Amy Sutherland proposes that you can train the people around you by applying the same strategies that people use to train animals, like for SeaWorld or the circus. I'm just scientifically-minded enough to want to see an actual study that proves the methods described here have any significant effect. Because what I suspect the author has actually done is not so much trained the people around her to be nicer and pick up after themselves more, but trained herself to ignore it more. Her advice easily comes down to, "Ignore behavior you don't like; reward behavior you do like".

You could argue that there's a lot more to it than that, but she takes forever getting to a point at the beginning (it was originally a newspaper article that was stretched out to a book's length), and when she finally does, it's not quite clear what, exactly, it is. For example, the author will tell a story about how a trainer swatted a cheetah's paw when it attempted to smack her, and then complain about how her mother doesn't want to use a hearing aid. The connections between the animal anecdotes and the complaints about her husband, family, and friends (and, man, she's got some real First World Problems) are tenuous at best.

To be fair, I did learn a few useful tricks for dealing with my cats from the various animal training stories, and if they work, I will at least have gotten something out of it. But the rest of this book is mainly for people whose biggest problem in life is that their husband throws his dirty clothes on the floor (hint: put the laundry bin closer to where he drops them), then for people with more serious problems.
Rating: 2.5/5


Your Management Sucks
Authors: Mark Stevens; Reader: Alan Sklar
(Audiobook & Original Book - 2006)

I borrowed this by accident (don't ask), listened to the first 20 minutes of it, and almost decided to stop right there. The author boasts being a great leader and claims to have built the greatest company that ever existed by firing all of his original employees. Shouldn't a great leader be able to, I dunno, lead people? The basic advice of the book is to do whatever it takes to make it to the top, like outsourcing, long-term effects on the economy be damned.

There was a huge backlash against this author's first book, and nowhere near so much against this one. But there's also not as many reviews, so I'm guessing what happened is that everyone who got burned on the first book avoided him like the plague when he released the second book. Many of the reviews of this book claim there is good business advice in here, and one thing I do agree with is that businesses have to adapt to a changing marketplace and technology or fail. That may sound like duh-duh advice, but think about the Post Office - no matter how many old people write in to their local newspapers to yell at the younger generations to pay their bills by mail instead of over the internet, it ain't gonna stem the tide of change.

Like some other self-help books I've read, it's often not entirely clear what the advice exactly is. Specific examples can be questionable. For example, the author talks at length about why Woolworths went out of business. Yes, bad business decisions were part of it, but no mention of the fire in the Manchester, England store that totaled the company's reputation. He also talks about this time a clerk at Border's asked him if he had found everything he wanted before checking out, and he remembered a CD he wanted to buy. He explained how this added $10 to his purchase, and had the potential to add $10 to every purchase, which would result in millions more in revenue. But the key word here is "potential". That's assuming every single person would think of a $10 item to add to their order instead of just answering the question with "yes" and moving on (like I usually do). And, of course, we all know what happened to Borders.

So, yeah, business moguls might find something useful in here (though that thought kind of scares me), but everyone else can steer clear.
Rating: 2/5


Batman Returns Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (1992 - Digital Album)

I saw this movie once years ago and didn't like it much at all (looking over the plot description at Wikipedia, I can see why - it makes no damn sense!) The only reason I borrowed this album was because I had spent time playing the Super NES game (which is a huge Final Fight rip-off), and remembered reading that much of its soundtrack was digitized right from the film's score. Time to find out if that was true.

Well, I recognized some of it, but not as much as I expected to. There is, however, this seven-note sequence that appears quite often here and there in different tracks and I could swear I've heard it somewhere before, but not in the game. I think it's based on either a classical work, a Christmas song, or some folk song, but I can't place it, and I found it very distracting every time I heard it because I'd be thinking, "Where the heck have I heard that??" instead of concentrating on the music.

The score is typical of what you expect from Danny Elfman, but the strongest parts are when the music from the first Tim Burton Batman film is reprised. The squeaking violins to represent Catwoman were an interesting touch, but more pronounced overall themes for these characters were in order.
Rating: 2.5/5


The Best of 3 Dog Night (1982 - Digital Album)

I own the 20th Century Masters Millennium Collection for Three Dog Night, but I borrowed this anyway because it has eight more tracks. Both compilations contain all of my favorite songs from this band, including: Joy to the World, Old Fashioned Love Song, Mama Told Me (Not To Come), Never Been To Spain, Eli's Coming, One, Celebrate, and my personal favorite, Shambala. While this does have more tracks than the Millennium Collection I already own, none of them stood out to me as much as my favorite songs do, so I'm okay with what I have.

But if you like these guys at all and want a greatest hits set instead of their individual albums, it's not a bad choice, so long as you don't mind the weird cover art.
Rating: 4/5


Bouncing Off the Satellites (1986 - Digital Album)
Artist: The B-52's

The experience of this B-52's album was a lot like Nitro Burnin' Funny Daddy in that one song made an impression on me, but the rest was just kinda there. Seriously, "Wig" would be the most hilariously awesome song I've heard all year if it wasn't for the Barenaked Ladies' "Box Set". I did some research and found out that their original guitarist, Ricky Wilson, died while this album was being made, but they eventually finished it without him. That likely does account for the general lack of polish. I don't think a single song on this album gets any mainstream radio play. A few of them even sound unfinished.

It's not that they were a washed up band, because three years later they'd make a really big comeback with the tour de force that is Cosmic Thing. Satellites is not terrible, but it just isn't great song after great song like that album is. Considering the situation, I'm surprised it sounds good at all. I won't strongly recommend it, but I probably wouldn't mind picking it up someday just for "Wig" alone.
Rating: 3/5


Darkside (2013 - Digital Album)

Okay, this BBC Radio Play by Tom Stoppard that incorporates music from Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon album has received a lot of praise, but I feel like it was the most pointless thing I've listened to all year. It's about a philosophy student who ponders common philosophical problems, such as the Prisoner's Dilemma and the Trolley Problem, and meets up with the characters who are bumped off as a result of her professor's answers to them when they come to life in a wasteland she is exiled to. Cue pop culture references, existential monologues that sound like something out of a Mortal Kombat movie, and clips from Pink Floyd songs that are only tenuously related, if at all. Thank you, Telegraph, for confirming that it's not just me.

All things considered, I would rather be listening to the actual Dark Side of the Moon album.
Rating: 1.5/5


Excuse Me, Are You Reading That Paper? (1983 - Digital Album)
Artist: David Brenner

I remember seeing David Brenner on Late Night With Conan O'Brien in the 90s, and he did this routine that's kept with me all these years later. It was about how to get rid of annoying people, both in person and on the telephone. The in-person method was to look at their ear instead of their eyes so they'd constantly move to the left or right until you'd move into cross-traffic and lose them. The phone method was to hang up on yourself, so it would seem like you got disconnected.

Remembering how much that made me laugh years ago, I saw this 1983 comedy album on the digital service and borrowed it, not knowing if I'd find anything else he's done just as amusing and memorable. I have to say that this is a very pleasant surprise. A lot of it's about his messed-up childhood, like what happens when he gets a 20-year-old dog as a gift instead of a puppy, or the ridiculous things parents say when they're angry.

The only reason I don't rate this higher is because the album is a little short, and not all of the skits are as good as the best ones. I noticed some reviews praising the fact that he brought the actual people he's talking about, such as his father and teacher, onto the album to act out their parts. But I felt it was strongest when it was just David Brenner himself telling tales of his childhood and other experiences.

The final skit, "Favorite Joke", which explains the title of the album, nearly had me on the floor.
Rating: 3.5/5


The Lucky Sperms: Somewhat Humorous (2001 - Digital Album)
Artist: Jad Fair & Daniel Johnston

I have no idea who Jad Fair and Daniel Johnston are, but their idea of "music" seems to be pounding randomly on a drum set and an out-of-tune piano while singing like they're more stoned than Harold, Kumar, Cheech, and Chong in the back of Willie Nelson's tour bus. Unless you want to indulge in the world's worst rendition of "Ruby Tuesday", or your idea of "humorous" is a couple of kids in a garage performing fragments of random songs like "Bohemian Rhapsody" and "Ding Dong the Wicked Witch is Dead" as though they've never sung nor played an instrument before in their lives, you can probably go right on not knowing who Jad Fair and Daniel Johnston are.
Rating: 1/5

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