Star Fluxx, the latest in the Fluxx series of card games from Looney Labs, brings the players into the world of science fiction and outer space (not to be confised with Martian Fluxx, which brought alien invaders to Earth). This new game isn't very different from previous versions of Fluxx, but it is pretty fun.

As with previous versions of Fluxx, players begin Star Fluxx with a hand of three cards and the rule of "draw 1, play 1." Players can play several types of cards. Keepers are objects (Robot, Energy Crystals, Alien City) or characters (Captain, Time Traveler, Cute Fuzzy Alien Creature) that stay in front of a player unless stolen or discarded. Goals lead to victory, showing what two Keepers a player needs to have to win. (For example, the goal City of Monsters gives the victory to whoever has the Alien City and Bug-Eyed Monster.) New Rule cards change the basic rules for all players, by doing things like letting players draw more cards and play more cards, or limit how many Keepers or cards players can have. Action cards let a player do something (such as steal a Keeper or draw 3 cards and play 2 of them), and Surprise cards can be played as an Action on your turn, or to counter a card played by an opponent on their turn. There are also those pesky Creepers, cards which (in Star Fluxx) attach themselves to your Keepers and keep you from winning -- unless they're part of the Goal.

There are very few changes in terms of gameplay in Star Fluxx, and anyone who's played a previous incarnation of Fluxx will be able to play this one without glancing at the rules. The main appeal of Star Fluxx is for sci-fi fans. This game has plenty of allusions to science fiction classics, like Star Wars (the Laser Sword, These Aren't the Droids...), Star Trek (the Expendable Crewman -- in red shirt, naturally -- and Energy Crystals), Doctor Who, Forbidden Planet, and even The Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Some cards have interesting effects, like the Wormhole (which lets each player draw and play the top card from the deck without looking at it), the Time Portal (which lets you take a card from "the past" (discard deck) or "the future" (draw deck)), and Brain Transference, which makes two players switch seats and take over the other's position in the game! It also happened that in one game the Cute Fuzzy Alien Creature was turned Evil, and next game the critter was infested with Brain Parasites.

"If it works, don't fix it" may be Looney Labs' unofficial motto for the Fluxx games, as they keep the format the same while changing genres with each edition. Star Fluxx is further support for this theory, and while it'll be very familiar if you're played any previous version of Fluxx, it's still pretty fun -- especially if you're a science fiction fan.

Overall grade: B+
Reviewed by James Lynch


Britney Spears, CIRCUS

Back in 2008, the Britney Spears album Circus wasn't just another album from the pop star -- it was an attempt to get away from her disastrous public disasters (from the MTV Video Music Awards lip-synced performance fiasco to the shaved head and child custody battle) and return to the music that made her (in)famous. While the scandals and incidents haven't ended, the album did return Britney Spears to pop success.

As one might expect, Circus has Spears venting about being in the public eye with songs like "Kill the Lights" and "Mannequin." This self-awareness of the scandals also surfaces through the album, with lyrics like "You call me crazy/I've got your crazy!" and "Love me, hate me, say what you will about me."

Beyond the scandal, Circus covers some very familiar musical topics for Britney. There are love songs ("Unusual You," "My Baby"), blatant sexuality ("Lace and Leather," "If U Seek Amy"), emotional ballads ("Out from Under," "My Baby"), fluffy pop (the title track, "Mmm Papi") and some good ol' male-bashing ("Womanizer"). The result is, for better or worse, a return to form for Britney. As always, she doesn't exactly stand out when it comes to either vocals or lyrics. What she aims for -- and often succeeds at -- is delivering simple, fairly mindless fun. There's an awful lot of repetition in the songs, and for every song that's a guilty pleasure ("Mmm Papi," "If U Seek Amy") there's one that crashes and burns (the what-happened-last-night "Blur," the synthesizer-heavy "Shattered Glass").

Circus provided a number of hits for Britney Spears, and looking back it's not hard to understand why. This album may have Britney aware of her troubles, but it's less of a confrontation of her problems than an escape through, well, the cliches of pop music. The album is uneven, and hardly a musical masterpiece, but there are enough decent songs to make it sometimes enjoyable.

Overall grade: C+
Reviewed by James Lynch


Anonymous (Columbia Pictures, 2011)

As Derek Jacobi, the narrator or “chorus” of Roland Emmerich’s new film Anonymous, tells us, little evidence remains of the life of the playwright called William Shakespeare. The film begins with Jacobi addressing a contemporary audience in a Broadway theater about this issue, and then shifts to London at the turn of the seventeenth century, where his imaginative tale plays out. Jacobi/Emmerich’s tale is not history, but an imagined story based on some historical facts which, as my colleague Constance commented, might best be considered a kind of “fan fiction” regarding the theatrical world of early modern England.

Emmerich is clearly of the “Oxfordian” school, which posits that the works of “William Shakespeare” may have actually been penned by Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, an Elizabethan courtier—while “Stratfordians” maintain that the actor and theater shareholder named William Shakespeare, originally from Stratford-Upon-Avon, did indeed pen the works which bear his name. William Shakespeare was the son of a glover, and one claim Oxfordians make is that a man from a middle-class background would not have the erudition to create the wondrous works of “Shakespeare.” However, humanist education in English grammar schools of the late 16th-century provided boys from the middle class with a curriculum based on Latin classics, read in the original language—those works upon which the plays and narrative poems of Shakespeare are largely based. Furthermore, the plays of Shakespeare, while artistically brilliant, are not particularly “erudite,” when compared to those of his contemporary Ben Jonson, who throws around classical allusions like nobody’s business…and who was, incidentally, the son of a bricklayer, who famously teased that William Shakespeare had “little Latin and less Greek.”

Interestingly, Ben Jonson is the central character of Emmerich’s film, to whom the “Shakespeare secret” is entrusted. This would help to explain why Jonson wrote the dedicatory poem in the 1623 Folio collection of Shakespeare’s plays, which maintains that William Shakespeare was indeed the author of these works—helping perpetuate the big coverup. While Jonson himself was quite a colorful character, it’s a shame that his personality is not at all developed by Emmerich; in the film, he is simply a frustrated playwright put into a tough position, about whom we really know very little.

Other characters in the film are more colorful and more developed, but some, like Vanessa Redgrave’s rather dithering elderly Elizabeth, are somewhat annoying; others, like the Queen’s advisor Robert Cecil, remain charicatures with uncomplicated motivations. The fact that William Shakespeare is played to be, not only a simple actor and no playwright at all, but also an absolute lowlife, is regrettable. No spoilers here, but the plot also becomes so convoluted by the end that it’s ludicrous. Overall, the film’s dialogue is not strong, but it does improve from the beginning to the end.

Overall, this is an entertaining story which, with all its gorgeous clothing and dashing young courtiers, is visually appealing. Don’t take it too seriously, and you’ll have fun.

Overall grade: C+

reviewed by Rachel


THE THING (2011)

This year's The Thing is a prequel to John Carpenter's 1983 movie of the same name, but it might as well be a prequel. The new movie has not just the same creature, but virtually the same story as well.

In 1982, Dr. Sander Halvorson (Ulrich Thomsen) invites grad student Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and research assistant Adam Goodman (Eric Christian Olsen) up to Antarctica to help with an amazing discovery. A team of Norwegians have made two amazing finds: a spaceship lodged deep within a glacier, and an alien creature frozen in the ice.

While the spaceship is forgotten about for most of the movie, the creature is of great interest to all involved. It's broght up in a block of ice, brought to camp, escapes, and kills someone before being torched. The alien autopsy reveals it was creating a perfect copy of its victim -- and Kate learns that the creature's cells are still alive, and some of the other people at the site may be alien copies.

The Thing is about an alien that copies people, yet this prequel copies the original in most respects: the combination of claustrophobia (trapped in Amtarctica) and paranoia (who can be trusted?), a menace that alternates between stealth mode (disguised as human) and horror (in the new one, with tentacles and tendrils flailing about), chasing the creature with flamethrowers, and a test to discover who's human (this time, it's people's fillings in their teeth). Unfortunately, there's virtually no character development of any sort -- except that Kat's spunky and Dr. Halvorson is controlling -- and most of the encounter is a sudden appearance of the creature, followed by desperate combat.

The Thing would have felt more... honest if it had just redone the original instead of borrowing so very heavily from it to create a barely-new movie. The result is a movie almost totally unnecessary.

Overall grade: D+
Reviewed by James Lynch


The Steampunk Bible

Jeff Vandermeer with S.J. Chambers

Abrams Image


              The Age of Steampunk has arrived! 

            I can say this with complete confidence because The New York Times ran an article in May 2008 about the movement, signifying its emergence from underground aesthetic to a sort-of, kind-of mainstream thing.  And how can the Times be wrong?  Author Jeff VanderMeer's The Steampunk Bible is just the book to help steampunk fans and newbies alike figure it all out for themselves. 

            Steampunk is hard to define, much like its predecessor, goth.  There are a few things that can be said about it with confidence.  Steampunk is a playful re-imagining of the past, usually, but not always, that of Victorian England of the later nineteenth century, especially if the Victorians had employed their technology in a more forward-thinking, or fanciful way.  That really doesn't do steampunk justice, true, but defining a movement is never easy.  There are many components to it.  Foremost today is its increasing presence in mainstream science fiction.  Like tribbles infesting a starship, every month seems to bring more steampunk titles to the shelves of my local bookstore.  Many pay homage to the earliest pioneers of the SF genre, Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, and Edgar Rice Burroughs, and the tropes of those authors – airships, submarines, strange technology festooned with brass – increasingly find their way into modern novels. 

            Steampunk has a longer history than you might think.  A couple of decades ago, Game Designers' Workshop produced a startlingly different role-playing game, Space: 1889.  Humanity had made the voyage to Mars and found an ancient civilization there similar to that of the Barsoom of Edgar Rice Burroughs' Martian tales.  While it never achieved the success of Dungeons and Dragons - what did? - it proved to be a welcome change of pace from the usual fantasy and science fiction game systems prevalent in that era. 

            “Steampunk” as a term originated in 1987 with K.W. Jeter, author of Morlock Night and Infernal Devices, as a means of describing this new type of Victorianesque science fiction.  Perhaps the most influential text of the steampunk genre is The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling.  This was published in 1991, and followed closely on the heels of that other influential SF genre, cyberpunk.  The Difference Engine is where modern steampunk fiction shows its original DNA most clearly.  Just as cyberpunk was obsessed with the burgeoning silicon-based information technology, steampunk dwelled in the same way on old-fashioned technology, and how it might have been harnessed to produce an anachronistic information revolution concurrent with that of the actual nineteenth-century Industrial Revolution.  It is no coincidence that Gibson was involved with both. 

            The Steampunk Bible is visually stunning, with extremely high quality photographs of a kind that you don't often see these days in print books.  The many facets or branches to the movement are each covered at length.  Most of us will have previously encountered steampunk either as part of the science fiction that we have read, or as a film.  These are strong chapters, and I enjoyed VanderMeer's discussion of the origin of steampunk as a subgenre of the broader SF market.  There is also a retrospective of films that can be considered, even if only retroactively, as steampunk.  There are more of these than you might think.  20,000 Leagues under the Sea (1954) and The Time Machine (1960) are obvious examples, but don't forget more recent productions such as Steamboy (2004), Laputa: Castle in the Sky (1986), Howl's Moving Castle (2004), Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004), and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003) - okay, perhaps you should forget that last one. 

            It turned out, much to my own surprise, that my favorite portions of The Steampunk Bible were not those areas in which I was originally most interested, print fiction and films.  VanderMeer's most intriguing chapters concern the aesthetic facet of steampunk.  There is an extraordinary subculture devoted to a reworking of Victorian fashion, complemented by the accoutrements of steam sci fi.   Steampunk fashion is, to say the least, baroque, but also elegant, a far cry from the simpler but perhaps overly-minimalistic fashion prevalent today.  Steampunk aficionados like to dress up! 

            A question that has arisen again and again is why steampunk has proven to be so popular.  Just as almost all modern fantasy fiction has been placed in some quasi-medieval European someplace or another, steampunk is almost exclusively set in a late-nineteenth century variation on Britain, or to a much lesser extent, America.  What is it that is so intriguing about that time and place?  Britain in the throes of its Industrial Revolution was not an especially clean or happy place.  Hasn't anyone ever read Dickens?

            But the era was optimistic, about technology, science, and above all the future.  The Victorians believed in Progress with a capital “P.”  Perhaps there is some envy of their faith in the future, that things would be better tomorrow than they were today.  Also, modern science fiction, even though usually based upon the extrapolation of some underlying real-world science or technology, often has a strong element of fantasy to it, even if the authors who produce it are themselves are reluctant to admit it.  Victorian-themed steampunk simply acknowledges the fantastic element more readily.  Steampunk fiction, I find, often has more color to it than the hard SF currently in vogue.  

            Jeff VanderMeer has done a great job.  Since the genre is something of an acquired taste at this point in time, The Steampunk Bible is primarily for fans.  But if you are already an aficionado of steampunk, or want to be one, you will certainly enjoy this book.


Little Dragon, Ritual Union (Peacefrog, 2011)

Little Dragon are a techno quartet from Gothenburg, Sweden consisting of Yukimi Nagano (percussion), Erik Bodin (drums), Fredrik Källgren Wallin (bass) and Håkan Wirenstrand (keyboards). Their third album Ritual Union came out in July. The album consists of pleasant enough pop and R&B flavored songs with basic electronic arrangements, but it lacks a real spark or genuine originality.

While electronica has remained popular in Europe, it went out of vogue in this country almost as quickly as it came in during the nineties. Ironically, despite the fact that it was more cutting-edge than a lot of other pop and rock styles that remained popular despite not really evolving in the ensuing decade, it is a challenge for performers still in the genre to keep from sounding dated when they come over here. Little Dragon do have some pop sensibility, but their music ultimately sounds a little too familiar. A couple of songs are at least pleasant or danceable in a light sort of way, like the title song, "Shuffle A Dream," and "Please Turn," but there's nothing sufficiently edgy or energetic on Ritual Union to demand the listener's attention.

Ultimately, Little Dragon preach to their choir more than they break new ground or achieve any crossover appeal. Fans of the mellower side of electronica will find Ritual Union to their liking, but the album will be a tough sell to people who never got into the genre in the first place.

Overall grade: C+

reviewed by Scott

A live performance of "Ritual Union"



Ever wonder what sort of person plays an online game for hours and hours every day? You'll get a nice cross-section of this segment of geek life in The Guild, a webseries (free on YouTube, pretty cheap on dvd on Amazon.com) about six varied, dysfunctional people united through their guild ("The Knights of Good") in an unnamed sword-and-sorcery MMORPG. (That's "massive multiplayer online roleplaying game" for the uninitiated.)

Codex (Felecia Day) is a neurotic mess. Recently dumped by her boyfriend (another one who decided he was gay while dating her) and her therapist (for playing the game too much), her days seem divided between webcam entries (which open every episode of The Guild) and hours online, playing with people she's never met in real life. She's insecure, nervous, and uncertain -- and less than thrilled when fellow Guild member Zaboo (Sandeep Parikh) turns up at her doorstep, tells her that he's in love with her (from their in-game chats) and has been cyberstalking her (plus Photoshopped picture of them "together" using his image and her DMV photo) -- and them moves himself into her apartment.

Zaboo's action leads Codex to get the rest of the Knights of Good together to deal with their problems -- and things don't get better in person. Vork (Jeff Lewis), the group leader, takes his responsibilities as guild leader incredibly seriously -- and he's also amazingly cheap, hoarding food and bringing individually sliced cheese to a restaurant to avoid paying for a cheeseburger. Clara (Robin Thorsen) is a stay-at-home mom and party animal -- who has a tendency to forget that her three young children exist. Bladezz (Vincent Caso) is an arrogant teenager who makes every sexual innuendo possible. And Tinkerballa (Amy Okuda) is a selfish, rude woman who is very happy taking advantage of others. The four of them aren't so much friends as people with a common obsession, making them less than helpful or supportive of one another.

So far there are four seasons of The Guild. The first season has Codex dealing with Zaboo's obsessive love -- and Zaboo's smothering mother (Viji Nathan). Season two brings the Knights of Good away from their computers when the game server is down for four hours (gasp!), leading to significant problems between the folks. Season three had the Knights of Guild not just dealing with the events of the last season, but also battling the Axis of Anarchy, a rival (and much more evil) game guild led by Fawkes (Wil Wheaton) and including Venom (Teal Sherer), a dark and morbid player very willing to exploit her being in a wheelchair. And season four explored Codex' relationship with Fawkes and the Knights of Good competing to design their new guild hall. There are also online "specials" of The Guild, such as them going Trick-or-Treating, the music video "Do You Wanna Date My Avatar" (shown below), Christmas specials, a Bollywood musical number, and even the show selling out through merchandising!

As a gamer, I am quite impressed with The Guild. The never-seen MMORPG has standard traits familiar to most gamers, and (for better or worse) we've all seen variants of the obsessed players shown here. Even better, we may like the characters -- but we see how deeply flawed they are and remain through the series. There's seldom a discovery of inner goodness or bond of loyalty between them; instead, they remain consistently self-obsessed, trapped in their own aspects of the world of the game. Felecia Day is a terrific narrator and guide in this world, trying to be nice and good yet continually over her head. The rest of the cast is excellent, making the characters entertaining. And the dialogue and situations are nicely twisted, such as Vork driving around looking for free WiFi, Zaboo trying to hang himself with his ethernet cable, or the latest way Clara lets her kids fend for themselves.

The Guild is a laugh-out-loud journey with six people for whom computer gaming is the center of their lives. It's twisted, it's disturbingly accurate in some ways, and it will keep you wanting more. (I'm hoping season 5 is available soon.) So spend some online gold and raise a fake weapon to the Knights of Good!

Overall grade: A-

Reviewed by James Lynch



Having tackled misconceptions (and a few unfortunate truths) about romance novels in the book Beyond Heaving Bosoms, Sarah Wendell goes on to the effect that romances have had on people in Everything I Know about Love I Learned from Romance Novels. This book collects not only Wendell's views on the positive aspects of the romance genre, but also comments from romance novel readers and authors (and many quotes from their books). The results are pretty impressive.

Everything I Know... doesn't suggest romance novels are a literal guide to finding love and happiness, urging women to wait for perfectly sculpted males with a fortune and, er Mighty Wang to sweep them off their feet. Instead, Wendell examines the more positive behaviors and messages that are common in romances. The nigh-inevitable Happily Ever After (HEA) may be predictable in romances, but it also promotes an optimism for many readers that there is a bright future ahead. Wendell also advises that happiness begins with oneself, and that the HEA must be both sought after (instead of waiting for it to just come to you) and maintained (instead of taking it for granted). Romance problems may be over-the-top, but readers can learn that all problems have a solution -- and maybe one's own problems seem small compared to the over-the-top dilemmas of the romances. As for men, Everything I Know... offers everything from the real-life qualities that make a man a hero to actual ways the books can teach people about communication and what really counts in a partner.

Wendell nicely supports most of her views with comments, either from romance authors talking about what they write and what they've learned from it, comments from romance novel readers and visitors to www.smartbitchestrashybooks.com (including me: I got two paragraphs in the book!), and appropriate quotes from the books themselves. These give a variety of voices that show how romance novels have actually helped a lot of people, from trivial difficulties to significant traumas and tragedies in their lives. And Everything I Know... does it with a sense of humor, from lighter terminology (like "hornypants" and "asshat") to various lists, to a "what kind of romance novel are you?" chart. (I think this book is an improvement over Beyond Heaving Bosoms, as these extras are brief and don't distract too much from the main material.)

I found Everything I Know about Love I Learned from Romance Novels to be both entertaining and informative. While this is far from a scholarly analysis of the romance genre, it makes an excellent case for the romance novel's positive impact on the lives of its readers. This may not get you to start digging through the romance section of the bookstore/library/retail chain, but it will convince you of the positives of the genre in the lives of its fans.

Overall grade: B+
Reviewed by James Lynch


Adapting a comic strip to animation can be tricky. If done well, it can become a classic work, as happened with the Peanuts specials; if done poorly, it becomes a simple rehash of the original strip, with a little movement added. The webstrip PvP www.pvponline.com falls somewhere in the middle, as the collected webisodes PvP: The Series, Season One DVD demonstrates.

Like the original strip, PvP: The Series is about the comic goings-on in and about the offices of the gaming magazine PvP. Brent Sienna (Bob Bray) is the snarky, cynical main character. Cole Richards (Ari Ross) is the boss who's both friendly and professional. Jade Fontaine (Jessica Gee) is the hot redhead who's usually the voice of reason. Francis Ottoman (Casey Mongillo) is the smart-ass teenager at the office. And since most comic strips have a non-human sidekick, there's Skull the Troll (Dino Andrade), a large blue creature who's like a hyperactive child. I can't say what anyone but Cole does at the magazine, as the episodes have almost nothing to do with gaming or writing, and more with wacky situations: Brent dreading his "surprise" birthday party, Cole working hard to prove he's not a racist (and making it worse), everyone battling for an actual office, and a three-part Christmas episode that borrows heavily from other Christmas specials.

I enjoy the PvP comic, but PvP: The Series left me wanting a little more. This may be due to brevity -- I suspect this collection, made in 2007, will be everything and not just "Season One" -- but a lot of the gaming commentary and interpersonal relationships between characters is missing or barely present here. The animation is also a bit rough (from fairly static movement to Cole's wandering unibrow), and the voices are decent but nothing extraordinary (though Andrade's child-like take on Skull grew on me, as I felt it matched the character's young exuberance). There are some funny bits here, but most of them will be familiar to readers of the online comic. And the DVD extras are basic: a making-of feature and Andrade's laying down his vocal tracks.

PvP: The Series, Season One DVD isn't bad, but it isn't all that good either. If you're a fan of the webcomic it can be interesting to see the characters moving and speaking -- but it's far from a replacement for the more involved and engaging strips.

Overall grade: C+

Reviewed by James Lynch


Celtarabia, Ancient Forces (Osmosys Records, 1997)

Celtarabia are an English duo from the nineties (they've recently begun playing together again), consisting of Quentin Budworth (hurry-gurdy, cittern) and Amanda Lowe (dulcimer, vocals). As their name somewhat implies, they mixed traditional Celtic music with Medieval tunes from the European and Arab worlds. Accompanied by dideridoo, sax, fiddle, and an assortment of drums and percussion instruments from around the world, the duo specialized in extended, rhythm-heavy, trancelike jams. While they used all-acoustic instruments, their influence on techno-world music fusion bands like The Afro-Celt Sound System is obvious, as is their influence on more esteemed Celtic/world bands like Kíla. Their 1997 sophomore CD Ancient Forces combines instrumentals with songs, crossing centuries and continents. The instrumentals hold up very nicely nearly fifteen years later; unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the songs.

Ancient Forces
is very much a tale of two albums. On one hand, the instrumental arrangements are generally of excellent quality. The didgeridoo may seem out of place at first, but the combination of its drone with some rudimentary percussion gives many of the tunes on the album a surge of primal energy. The mellower instrumentals wouldn't sound out of place on a Loreena McKennitt CD, but if you pick up a copy of Ancient Forces it will be for the extended jams. Several of the tunes run over five minutes in length, and the best tune, "Eight Step Trance," exceeds eleven minutes. At their best, the heavy percussion, the bellowing didgeridoo, and the melodies played with steadily increasing urgency on the hurdy-gurdy and dulcimer mix together like ingredients in a potent spell.

Regrettably, the songs are as bad as the instrumentals are good. I respect Amanda Lowe for her dulcimer playing and her contribution to Celtarabia's musical vision, but as a singer she just doesn't cut it. Her range is limited, and her delivery is forced at best. The original lyrics are trite statements of the band's purpose ("come alive with the ancient forces," or "succumb to the trance"). The traditional songs just expose Lowe's limitations as a singer; I've heard many other versions of "She Moved Through the Fair," for example, and they're all better than the one recorded here.

While Ancient Forces has several worthy tracks and was important and influential on some levels, it's also maddeningly uneven. Celtarabia give equal time to their strengths and weaknesses, and the album suffers significantly as a result.

Overall grade: C+

reviewed by Scott


Sarah Jarosz, Follow Me Down (Sugar Hill, 2011)

Despite being only 20, Texan native Sarah Jarosz has already built up a sizable following among bluegrass fans with her pure voice and instrumental virtuosity. She recorded her second album, called Follow Me Down, while simultaneously preparing for her second year of college. Saying that Follow Me Down reflects a maturity beyond Jarosz' years might sound like a cliché, but Jarosz is already a first-rate performer on the mandolin, octave mandolin, and banjo, and her songrwriting does not lag that far behind.

Plucked strings dominate the sound of Follow Me Down. Jarosz plays the octave mandolin more than anything else, but she also plays regular mandolin, banjo, and guitar. Her skill as a player is particularly evident on the traditional-sounding "Annabelle Lee" and the blistering instrumental "Old Smitty." Jarosz gets help from some familiar guests as well; Shawn Colvin sings backup on the opening song "Run Away," and Bela Fleck's very busy banjo really spices up the single-worthy "Come Around." While most of the songs are original compositions, Jarosz does like to sprinkle in a few covers. The most notable of these is a Tennessee waltz arrangement of Radiohead's "The Tourist"; it's certain to catch listeners off guard, but I take that as a good thing.

Ultimately, though, this is an album made by and for people who like the sound of a good strum -- and if you're one of those people, Follow Me Down comes strongly recommended. Sarah Jarosz may still be in school, but she has the chops of a seasoned veteran. The sky is the limit for her right now, and I look forward to hearing where she goes next.

Overall grade: A-

reviewed by Scott

A live performance of "Come Around"



This is a new one to me: a soundtrack album

inspired by a video game that hasn't come out yet -- and the music's not in the game, just inspired by it. Welcome to Batman: Arkham City -- The Album, a largely goth collection of songs that match the grim and gritty feel of how the Batman: Arkham City game looks and plays.

If you were wondering, neither Batman nor the other characters from the game are mentioned directly on the songs here (except from a dialogue sample used in Panic! at the Disco's "Mercenary"). Instead, the soundtrack is about obsession, rivalry, the darkness of the city, madness, etc. It's not exactly cheerful.

Fortunately, the artists here are skilled at making music out of dark themes, whether it's punk loudness (The Damned Things' "Losing You") or almost acoustic intensity (Serj Tankin's "Total Paranoia"). Many of the bands here are new to me, though I have heard music from Panic! at the Disco, Coheed and Cambria, and Daughtry before.

My main issue with Batman: Arkham City -- the Album isn't with the songs (which are all solid), but with the concept. The game may have inspired the music, but you could just as easily remove all traces of Batman and Arkham City, call it an alternative collection, and no one would notice any difference.

Overall grade: B-
Reviewed by James Lynch


The comic book Knights of the Dinner Table is primarily a bunch of buddies sitting at a table and playing games -- but what happens when several of them sit around a table and talk about books? This is the premise and setting of Knights of the Dinner Table: The Java Joint. This collect all the Java Joint strips from the gaming magazine Black Gate, with an extra one thrown in.

The Java Joint is set at, well, the Java Joint, a coffee shop in Indiana where every week "The Java Joint Fantasy-Sci Fi Book Club is in session." It's members are: Sara, who tends to act as both intellectual and goody two-shoes; Eddie, who skims more than he reads, is perpetually poor, and often misses the point being made; and Patty, who usually sides with Sara but has a mischievous side to her as well. (Early strips have Stevil in the background, commenting to himself about what he overhears.) Most strips have the trio sitting around and discussing (or trying to discuss) a fantasy book; there are a few exceptions, as when Eddie enters into extended dealings with a Nigerian internet scam, or when he confronts Neil Gaiman about stealing all the ideas Eddie wrote in a notebook in seventh grade that got lost at "Sister Eileen's Discount Summer Camp for Laconic Youth."

As with the Knights of the Dinner Table comic, this is about the dialogue, as the art is very static (mostly the same characters in the same positions, with only the eyes or mouth changing). Fortunately, this is often very funny. Most of the humor comes from Eddie who, like Cartman on South Park, is a character you seldom agree with but usually laugh at. He has a resistance to anything out of the ordinary ("So what you're saying is... reading books I don't like will get men women?"), loves a Danielle Steel novel after imagining the main character as a vampire, and bemoans the supernatural in romance novels. ("Publishing today is all about getting hot and heavy with the unholy.") Sara and Patty work mainly as the voice of reason, continually frustrated trying to discuss great books with a guy who's more excited about watching sci-fi shows.

The Java Joint does have a fairly static setting, and seeing Sara and Patty dealing with Eddie's bizarre logic and thoughts can get repetitive. But The Java Joint also has plenty of laughs -- and a surprisingly touching final story. This is an enjoyable little comic book collection that's a nice read for anyone who likes discussing books -- even with that one person who always manages to go off in a bizarre direction.

Overall grade: B
Reviewed by James Lynch


Armchair On the Move

As our web browsing changes, we here at The Armchair Critic will change with it.  Our site is now optimized for use on smaller devices as well.  A simplified view will come up when accessed on a mobile browser.  I just got it to work on a Blackberry 6 device and it should work on Android and Apple iPhone etc as well.

Feel free to let us know in the comments of any issues that arise, and now take us with you... well everywhere!




How do you add to a card game about making hapless family members as miserable as possible, then killing them? By bringing in the Lovecraftian mythos, naturally! Cthulhu Gloom, from Atlas Games, bring the characters and horrors of H.P. Lovecraft to the original Gloom game -- with quite pleasing results.

As in the original Gloom, the goal of Cthulhu Gloom is to give your family members negative modifiers and kill them, so when the last member of a family is done away with you win by having the lowest score. Players can control members of Miskatonic University, the Whateleys, Village of Innsmouth, or Arkham Sanitarium; no family has any special abilities, so the selection is for personal preference, not strategy.
On a player's turn they can take two actions: play a modifier, play an event (for an immediate action), play an Untimely Death (only as their first play, and only on a character with a negative value), claim a story (if they have the requirements, giving a point advantage for the end), discard their hand, or pass. Some cards also give players free actions. After their second play they draw back up to their hand limit -- usually five cards.

The key to Cthulhu Gloom is the modifier. These cards have Pathos points in some of the three spaces on the left side of the card, possibly Story Icons on the spaces on the right, and often a game effect on the bottom. Negative modifiers help you win the game, but they often have a bad effect on you (like reducing the size of your hand or letting other players take cards from you). Conversely, positive modifiers hurt your score, but they can have a good effect on you. And all Modifiers are transparent, and what a new Modifier covers up replaces any modifiers under it. It's not uncommon for someone to play positive Modifiers on themselves early for the benefits, then cover them with negative ones later -- or to play positive Modifiers on an opponent's family members.
And if this sounds dry, Cthulhu Gloom also follows its predecessor with a wicked sense of humor. The art on the cards is inspired by such souces as Charles Addams and the opening of Mystery, as it works just as well for the Lovecraftian goings-on. The card titles usually have clever alliteration or assonance -- "Went Mad at the Mountains," "Saw the Sticky Star-Spawn," "Matriculated at Miskatonic" -- and the flavor text is also quite amusing: "Found a Curious Color" informs us that "We're calling it 'smellow'" while Lavinia Whateley is described thus: "Lavinny's read some, an' has seed some things the most o' ye only tell abaout. So back off, nerd." For a game about misery and death, this has plenty of laughs.

Cthulhu Gloom doesn't wander far from the rules of the original Gloom -- but why should it? The dark humor works as well for Lovecraftian characters as it did for the original doomed English families, and the strategies (choosing negative points or advantages in play, for yourself and your opponents) change from game to game. Cthulhu Gloom isn't original, but it remains challening, funny, and fun -- even if [shudder] you're not a fan of H.P. Lovecraft.

Overall grade: B+
Reviewed by James Lynch


Eliza Doolittle (Capitol, 2011)

With two parents who are prominent players in London's theater scene, 23-year-old Eliza Doolittle (born Eliza Caird) is a young singer with some pedigree. Her self-titled debut CD was a top 5 hit on her home turf, and while her unapologetic Englishness may limit her exposure here, it's a likable pop record regardless.

The album is generally mid tempo, as Doolittle manages to stay away from ballads, overly blunt dance tracks, and hard rock. Still, Eliza Doolittle works pretty well by mixing different pop styles from different eras with subtle jazz, Latin and R&B influences and by keeping things sunny and upbeat. The lyrics cover the usual topics, but a few of the songs stick out. On the first single "Skinny Genes," Doolittle sings about having positive sexual chemistry with a partner she doesn't always see eye-to-eye with otherwise. On, my favorite song on the album, called "Nobody," she sings about defining and achieving success on her own terms, and not making herself something she's not just for a crack at fame. The biggest hit on the album is the soulful "Pack Up," on which Doolittle disregards other people's negative energy and moves forward.

Doolittle's voice is more pleasantly appealing than technically superior, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. Neither is her willingness to let her London accent come across loud and clear on the vocals. Eliza Doolittle ultimately strikes me as a good kid with some talent and a healthy attitude towards her work. Hopefully, she can maintain her charm and spirit as she matures with her music.

Overall grade: B

reviewed by Scott

"Pack Up"


The Silmarillion

J.R.R. Tolkien/Christopher Tolkien,editor

Illustrated by Ted Nasmith

Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004


First, let me tell what TheSilmarillion is. It is J.R.R. Tolkien's legendarium, orcompilation of stories, of the First Age of Middle Earth. They arefor the most part set many thousands of years before Frodo ever cameinto possession of the One Ring. Now let me tell what TheSilmarillion is not. It is not a prequel of any sort to TheLord of the Rings, although the tales found within it are indeedthe ultimate backstory of that trilogy.

The Silmarillion was notpublished until 1977, four years after Tolkien's death. The storiesthat form it, though they had been worked on by the learned professorsince the First World War, were not set down in a truly completedstate at the time of his passing. The task of hammering his writingsinto publishable form was left to his son, Christopher Tolkien, aidedby the young Guy Gavriel Kay, who would later achieve fame as afantasy author in his own right.

This was not an easy orstraightforward task. In many instances Tolkien's thoughts on hisstories changed over time, and required his son to pick and chooseamongst various narrative strands. There were also some serious gapsin the story. There is a definite end to the the tale of the FirstAge, but getting there required the introduction of some supplementalmaterial by Christopher.

It is a commonplace that Tolkien wasdeeply interested in languages, being as he was a professor of suchthings, and this interest comes across markedly in his writings. Insome cases, his interest in words actually drove his writings, andthey contain a marvelous depth because of his philological efforts. There was also Tolkien the philosopher, who interwove his storieswith much that was derived from his Christian, specifically Catholic,heritage and beliefs.

The beginning of The Silmarillionis undeniably religious in tone, if not on a theological basis. Iluvatar (the One; God) makesappearances, as do his angels, called here the Ainur. A number of these are sent into the created world, Arda, to act asdemiurges and guardians. These are the Valar,or archangels, and the maiar,or lesser angels, who aid their superiors the Valar in their tasks.

The Valar dwell in glory in Valinor,in the far west of Arda, under the kingship of Manwe, and go aboutreadying the world for the coming of the Children of Iluvatar, theElves and Men. There is only one problem that troubles them, andthat is that the mightiest and greatest of all the Valar, Melkor, isalso a first-class jerk. Melkor is the Satan-figure of thissoon-to-be lost paradise, and he corrupts and mars all that hetouches in his bid for selfish domination. You might ask yourselfwhy Iluvatar allowed this wretched miscreant, who caused trouble inHeaven even before the creation of the world, to gain entryinto this new realm. This is nowhere answered, at least notsatisfactorily, and you will have to content yourself with knowingthat it is Melkor who will at least provide the dramatic tension thatmakes The Silmarillion great.

Back to the Children. The Elves,immortal and beautiful, are the firstborn children of Iluvatar, andawake in the far east of Middle-earth. They are also bereft of anyreal means to defend themselves from the depredations of Morgoth, whohas established a fortress, Utumno, in the frozen north. From therehe preys upon the Elves, snatching some whom he will twist into thefirst of the orcs.

The Valar bestir themselves to emergefrom their splendid isolation in the western paradise of Valinor, andattack Melkor, taking him captive, and destroying Utumno, albeit notcompletely. The Elves are summoned to join the Valar in the west,and begin a long trek across the face of Middle-earth to the ocean,and thence to Valinor. Some stay behind, and among these are theancestors of the latter-day elves of the woodlands, such as Legolas. Others travel all the way, and become inhabitants of the Valar'sBlessed Realm. Among them is the kindred of the Noldor, who areconsidered to be the most learned and skilled in craft of all theElves. The Noldor are also the most headstrong and willful of theirrace, restless and proud.

Unwisely, the Valar in time releaseMelkor from his long captivity, thinking that he is reformed andrepentant. He is not. Melkor goes amongst the Elves, especially theNoldor, stirring up things, and causing them to chafe at what theydeem to be their confinement in Valinor.

One of the leaders of the Noldor'sdiscontent is Feanor, the greatest craftsman that the Elves or anyother race will ever produce. He creates the Silmarils, threeincomparable gems that capture the holy radiance of the Two Treeswhich provide brilliant light for Valinor. But he is jealous of hisjewels, and also of his station, especially when his father, Finwe,the king of the Noldor, remarries after the death of Feanor's ownmother. He develops a dislike of the Valar, but never allies himselfwith Melkor either, whose anti-Valar poison he nevertheless imbibes.

Melkor, covetous of shiny things,steals the Silmarils, and slays King Finwe, who perishes guardingthem. The Two Trees are sucked dry by a great spider in league withMelkor named Ungoliant. Melkor flees to the North again, where hetakes up residence in another of his fortresses, Angband, and recallsto there all of his servants who survived the incomplete destructionof Utumno.

Feanor vows revenge and follows afterhim, killing innocent Elves who stand in his way. Many other Noldorreturn to Middle-earth, not so much to follow Feanor, but to seekvengeance for their murdered king, and to rule for themselves theirown realms free from the tutelage of the Valar.

This proves to be a gigantic mistake. Great crimes were committed by Feanor on his way out of Valinor, andso the Valar impose a blanket ban on a return trip by all of theNoldor, even for those that bitterly regret their departure. TheNoldor will be essentially on their own against the most powerfulbeing in all the world and his legions of orcs, dragons, and balrogs. Their quest to avenge their king and regain the Silmarils is doomedto failure, they are dramatically warned by the Valar, and they willshed unnumbered tears in the futile attempt. Feanor himself is slainby balrogs soon after the return to Middle-earth, and he realizes ashe lays dying that the Noldor will never overcome Morgoth.

Got all that?

The foregoing gets you about one-thirdof the way through The Silmarillion, and the great war ofElves (and in time, Men) with Morgoth has yet to be told. But all ofthis is necessary for Tolkien's design to succeed. We must know theorigin of all the players, their motivations, and backgrounds, sothat their actions are explicable within the intricate secondaryreality invented by the learned professor. It can at times be slowgoing. There is a biblical quality to The Silmarillion, andindeed, a criticism leveled against it over the years is that it istoo much like the Bible, and not enough like The Lord of theRings. More specifically, The Silmarillion is notnovelistic in its form, but is instead a collection of interlinkedstories, generally arranged chronologically.

This criticism, as old as it is,misses the point of The Silmarillion. It is not a novel,although portions of it contain somewhat similar pacing and characterdevelopment. It is more akin to a compilation of ancient sagas,with which Tolkien was well-familiar.

And how does The Silmarillionwork as fiction? The finest tales, I think, combine the particularsof Middle-earth with age-old themes. Of Beren and Luthien is aRomeo and Juliet love story as rich as any from literature. It could easily be made into a motion picture as vivid and engagingas The Lord of the Rings. Are you listening Peter Jackson? It could be the first billion-dollar grossing romantic fantasy filmto win an Academy Award. Of Turin Turambar is a tragedy ofShakespearean dimension, darkly Nordic in its tale of a noble butdoomed hero, whose fate overwhelms all chance for happiness. Ofthe Voyage of Earendil and the War of Wrath has a strongsoteriological theme, in which the remaining Elves and Men ofBeleriand are saved by a mission of mercy of the mariner Earendil tothe now-ready-to get-over-their-anti-Noldor snit Valar in theUttermost West.

Also included in the book are theAkallabeth, the story of the drowning of the human realm ofNumenor, in an Atlantis-style cataclysm, and Of the Rings of Powerand the Third Age, which retells, in greatly abbreviated form,the story of the One Ring and the war that concluded with itsdestruction in Mount Doom. These are both set long after the primarystory of the First Age and the Silmarils (which is officially calledthe Quenta Silmarillion, if you must know) but both flesh outkey elements of the background of The Lord of the Rings. Theformer explains the origin of the Kingdom of Gondor, founded as itwas by refugees from the drowned island-civilization of Numenor, andthe latter describes the making of the Rings of Power and why theElves (those headstrong Noldor again) were a trifle unwise to makethem.

What makes this 2004 edition specialare Ted Nasmith's illustrations, which are uniformly excellent, andmatch closely what is described on the page. Nasmith generally workswith a limited palette of colors, but one still noticeably wider thanhis contemporary Tolkien artist, Alan Lee. The forty-five paintingsare evocative of the setting, and truly do add something to theexperience of reading the book. They are not necessary for itsenjoyment, but this hardcover is worthwhile, especially if you are adedicated fan of Tolkien. Also included is a frameable map ofBeleriand, that part of western Middle-earth where the great waragainst Morgoth takes place. 

By Marc