Family can support, and family can destroy.  Shirley Jackson's novel We Have Always Live in the Castle is a bleak and haunting look at an insular family haunted by their past and threatened by change.

This novel is told from the point of view of 18-year-old Mary Katherine Blackwood.  She lives alone with her older sister Constance and their wheelchair-bound, forgetful Uncle Julian.  Mary Katherine is fearful of the her neighbors in the town ("the people of the village have always hated us") and resentful that a home that she believes was supposed to go them was taken by someone else.  Mary Katherine only goes in to town for food, avoids everyone as much as possible, and "protects" the Blackwood home by burying and nailing up items in the home and fields.  Her only non-family friend is a black cat named Jonas.

The Blackwood family is famous and infamous because, six years earlier, most of the family were killed by arsenic and their dinner.  Mary Katherine certainly wishes people dead all the time, but she was in her room when it happened.  Constance seemed a likely suspect -- she knows all about poisons and washed out the sugar bowl that was suspected to hold the arsenic -- but she was found not guilty at trial.  Little kids taunt Mary Katherine by singing about it ("Merricat,  said Connie, would you like a cup of tea?  Oh no, said Merricat, you'll poison me") and Uncle Julian keeps copious notes about the night while trying to remember if it ever happened.  (His ailments seem to have come from the poisoning.)

Mary Katherine, Constance, and Uncle Julian have their routines, traditions, and life each other.  That all changed with the arrival of Cousin Charles.  This family member is not part of their traditions and seems only interested in the Blackwood's money.  But the antagonism between him and Mary Katherine is almost immediate, and their words soon lead to threats and actions...

We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a quietly horrific tale of madness and tradition.  Like Jackson's story "The Lottery," this novel looks at holding on to, or creating, routines as a way to cope even if they have no real use or power.  Jackson's prose is slow and steady, bringing us into Mary Katherine's child-like universe of three family members against the world while letting us see her paranoia and hatred.  We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a quiet yet powerful story with strong parallels to the Lizzie Borden scandal and the fears of would-be aristocrats fearful of everyone else.

Overall grade: A
Reviewed by James Lynch



Every year the folks at Sports Illustrated forget about sports and focus on gorgeous women wearing skimpy swimwear.  I approve.  This year is the 50th anniversary of this wonderful tradition, and the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue 50th Anniversary issue pulled out all the stops to celebrate, starting with their flip covers (seen below).


The magazine always tries to have more than just great-looking women is great-looking swimwear, and this year they had a variety of new items.  Famed SISI photographer assembled past cover models (including Babette March (the first SISI cover model) to Christie Brinkley, Kathy Ireland, Heidi Klum, and Cheryl Tiegs) to discuss their experience with the magazine -- and get a photo of all of them.  The traditional body paint swimsuit tradition had new models painted in classic suits from the earlier issues.  Kate Upton added to her cover with a photo shoot done in zero gravity, and Barbie finally made it into the issue as well.

For an issue theoretically dedicated to swimsuits, quite a few of the photos have a conspicuous absence of them, choosing instead to focus instead on the hand-bra, topless shots from the back, and strategically placed arms or decorations:

With that in mind, the issue does manage some startlingly beautiful photography.  The models posed in such exotic locales as Madagascar, Switzerland, Brazil, the Cook Islands, and even the Jersey Shore.
The Sports Issue Swimsuit Issue has become Sports Illustrated's biggest-selling issue every year, and the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue 50th Anniversary is a fitting tribute to the simple joy of combining beautiful women, beautiful (if optional) swimsuits, and amazing scenic locations.
Overall grade: Yow!  Er, I mean A+.
Reviewed by James Lynch



Politics may make strange bedfellows, but in 1933 it made the basis for the screwball comedy Duck Soup.   This classic Marx Brothers comedy is far more silliness than satire, and it still holds up very well today.

The fictional nation of Freedonia is almost bankrupt, but wealthy widow Mrs. Teasdale (Margaret Dumont) is willing to give twenty million dollars to the country -- on the condition that they appoint modern thinker Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho Marx) as president.  He's more than happy to take the job, even as he sings about being worse than the last ruler.  He also sets about wooing Mrs. Teasdale: "Will you marry me?  Did he leave you any money?  Answer the second question first."
 For a bad guy, there's Trentino (Louis Calhern), ambassador to the neighboring country of Sylvania.  He wants to marry Mrs. Teasdale, but Firefly is always in the way.  So he hires two spies to dig up dirt on Firefly.  Unfortunately he winds up hiring two incompetents: Chicolini (Chico Marx) is more interested in selling peanuts than spying, while Pinky (Harpo) is a mute pickpocket busy cutting things off of people and tormenting a lemonade seller.  Along the way Firefly makes Chicolini his Secretary of War, there's lots back and forth between Firefly and Chicolini, and a war breaks out -- with Firefly changing uniforms for every scene!
 Far from political satire, Duck Soup is a combination of clever one-liners and exchanges, and broad slapstick humor.  There are plenty of famous lines from the movie (not to mention Harpo;s physical comedy and several sight gags -- including the famous mirror scene), and Groucho, Chico, and Harpo are all hysterical in their roles.  But the other actors exist almost as straight men (and, for Dumont, a straight woman) and Zeppo Marx is pretty boring as Firefly's secretary Bob Roland.  But goofy as the movie is, it also creates an amazing amount of laughter.  My one big disappointment is that there are no extras on the dvd; given the classis status this movie has achieved, I would have liked some commentary from its supporters, along with deleted scenes and interviews.  But despite that lack, Duck Soup is an really terrific comedy.
Overall grade: A
Reviewed by James Lynch



One popular pastime for the geek world is arguing over what groups  would win in a fight (also the subject of the tv show Deadliest Warrior).  The card game Smash Up from Alderac Entertainment Games tackles this issue -- sort of -- as factions slug it out for control of bases.
Gameplay is, at first glance, simple.  Each player takes control of two factions (in the core game, these are Ninjas, Pirates, Zombies, Dinosaurs (with lasers!), Martians, Robots, Tricksters, and Wizards), mixes the cards for them together, and draws five cards.  Several bases (equal to to the number of players plus one) are in play.  Each base has a Breakpoint (how many points are needed to score the base) and victory point values (three, usually from highest to lowers); some bases also have a special ability.  Players can play one minion on a base, one action, or a minion and an action.  After a player finished playing cards, all bases are checked.  If the value of all minions (and modifiers) on a base matches or exceeds the Breakpoint, the base scores.  The player with the most points in minions gets the first victory point number, the second-most points gets the second value, and the third gets the last value; players can also play any card with a Special ability.  If any player has 15 or more points after scoring, they win!  Otherwise all cards on the base are discarded, a new base takes its place, the player draws 2 cards (and discards down to 10 if they have 10 or more), and the next player goes.

But Smash Up goes beyond simple "play and check" mechanics.  A lot of cards give you more plays (like a minion that lets you play another minion, and that new minion may let you play another card, and so on), and it's not uncommon for someone to go through most of the cards in their hand each turn.  In addition, the different factions feel and play like their namesakes: Ninjas are great at playing surprises from their hand, Dinosaurs are big, Zombies can play minions from the "dead" discard pile, Pirates can sail from base to base, and so on.  In addition, factions working together usually give their benefits to their allies, creating even more possibilities.  Since they all have their own strengths, players can do as well making their own fun combinations (my Plan 9 from Outer Space group was made of Martians and Zombies) as fretting over what works best together.  And Smash Up has a lot of humor, from the over-the-top instructions to cards like the zombie Tenacious Z or the Trickster's "Flame Trap" with an exploding cereal box that has a leprechaun on it.

Smash Up doesn't have any deep strategy or heavy thinking.  It does have a lot of gleeful celebration of its geeky groups, and there are plenty of ways of playing to reach victory.  Smash Up is very easy to teach, fairly quick to play, and a blast for all!

Overall grade: B+
Reviewed by James Lynch



Who's have guessed that a movie with the most blatant merchandising tie-ins ever would still manage to be so entertaining?  The Lego Movie has plenty of toy tie-ins, but it also has some terrific action, a sly sense of humor, and plenty of pop culture references -- plus some metafictional moments tossed in as well.

Emmet (Chris Pratt) is the ultimate regular guy and conformist in a world entirely made out of Lego.  Emmet always follows instruction manuals (from buildings to life), loves everything that's popular, and agrees with everyone in the hopes that they'll like him.  After a run-in with the free-spirited Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks), Emmet gets the Piece of Resistance attached to him.  This convinces the blind old prophet Vitrivius (Morgan Freeman) that Emmet is "the Special," a MasterBuilder destined to save the Lego universes -- with some help from other MasterBuilders, from Batman (Will Arnett) to the cute-and-repressing-rage Uni-Kitty (Alison Brie), to the 1980s spaceman Benny (Charlie Day) to Lego characters ranging from Shakespeare to Michelangelo (sculptor) and Michaelangelo (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle), and Lincoln.   Too bad Emmet doesn't seem to have any original ideas besides a double-decker couch.

It turns out that President Business (Will Ferrell) is also the evil Lord Business, a control freak who hates anyone showing any creativity.  Business' plan is to use a non-Lego artifact called Kragle to freeze all Legos in place on Taco Tuesday -- and send in his Micromanagers to pose them as he wants.  Business' enforcer is a split-personality police officer called Good Cop/Bad Cop (Lian Neeson), whose personality changes as his head spins around.  And there are plenty of robot cops and skeletons, not to mention vehicles, to chase the good guys,

The Lego Movie manages to be as entertaining in its own way as the original Toy Story.  The voice talent in The Lego Movie is impressive (especially Will Arnett as the self-important Batman and Liam Neeson alternating between menacing and silly), and the visual effects make almost the entire movie feel like it was built out of Lego sets.  There's lots of humor, some surprisingly touching moments, and plenty of excitement.  The Lego Movie is another terrific animated feature that has as much appeal for adults as for kids.

Overall grade: A-
Reivewed by James Lynch


 It's time for a mix of spelling -- and madness!  Unspeakable Words is a card game from Playroom Entertainment that mixes the spelling you might find in Scrabble with the sanity challenges from the writing of H.P. Lovecraft and The Call of Cthulhu rpg.

The goal of Unspeakable Words is to be the first player to reach 100 points without going insane.  Players begin with a hand of seven cards (each of which has a letter of the alphabet, points (based on the number of angles in the letter), and Lovecraftian image, except for the wild card Unspeakable Letter) and five sanity tokens (which look like little Cthulhu figures).  On a player's turn, they use cards from their hand to spell out (and define) a word, excluding proper nouns, contractions, abbreviations, acronyms, and any word previously made in the game  Players then score the points on the cards used to make the word, draw back up to seven cards, and the player to their left goes next.  (If a player can't make a word, they can discard their hand and draw seven new cards.)

But did I mention the insanity?  After a player scores a word, they have to make a sanity roll by rolling equal to or higher than the points of their word on a 20-sided die (or rolling a 20).  If the player succeeds, nothing happens.  If they fail, they lose a sanity token.  On the plus side, a player down to one sanity is no longer governed by the rules of spelling and can make any word they want from their cards (which is when the definitions get really fun).  On the minus side, a player who loses their last sanity token goes stark raving mad and is out of the game.  Also, a player who would reach 100 points has to succeed at their sanity check to get the points and win the game.

Unspeakable Words is both fun and flawed.  The game is amazingly easy to learn, plays pretty quickly, and has plenty of opportunities for strategy (go for big words that are likely to cost your precious sanity, or smaller words that won't get you to 100 points quickly?) and humor.  However, the cards are made of fairly weak card stock, so frequent play will give you some worn cards pretty quickly.  And as a Lovecraft fan, I was disappointed the Cthulhu minis were black with green eyes, not green overall.  But those are minor quibbles for a game that's an easy one to teach and play.  Unspeakable Words is slightly challenging, pretty funny, and a (literally) mind-blasting hoot!

Overall grade: B
Reviewed by James Lynch



The Disney princesses get a self-esteem boost in Frozen, the latest Disney animated movie.  Of course, in addition to life lessons there are dangerous chases, handsome guys, a goofy supernatural sidekick, and lots of songs.
In the kingdom of Arendelle, young princesses Anna and Elsa are best friends -- and Elsa's ability to create ice and snow are a thrill to Anna.  But when Elsa accidentally hurts Anna while playing, the King and Queen panic: They tell Anna never to use her powers, have Elsa's memories of Anna's powers removed, and shut themselves off in the palace from the rest of the world.  Several years later (which include Disney's frequent "very mortal parents" motif), the girls are now young women, and Elsa (Idina Menzel) is about to be crowned queen of Arendelle.  Elsa (Kristen Bell) is thrilled that the palace will be opened, and she looks forward to meeting new people -- and falling in love.  Anna and Prince Hans (Santino Fontana) sing and dance together, quickly getting engaged.  But when Elsa disapproves of their quick engagement, her powers erupt: The people all think she's a monster, and she flees.  But her powers also plunge the whole kingdom into a terrible winter (in the middle of summer)

Anna leaves Hans in charge of the kingdom and heads out to find Elsa, bring her back, and have her stop the storm.  Along the way she meets up with Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), a mountain man and ice-salesman, and his reindeer Sven.  There's also Olaf (Josh Gad), a living snowman created by Elsa who's always happy -- and whose naive daydream is to experience heat and summer.  Meanwhile, Elsa has found peace in isolation, creating a magnificent ice castle and deciding to stay alone forever.  The Duke of Weselton (Alan Tudyk) wants to exploit Arendelle and have Elsa killed as a monster.  And the storm keeps getting worse and worse...

Frozen is a fun little movie.  The film goes beyond the "find a husband, live happily ever after" themes (at one point Kristoff can't believe Anna got engaged in less than a day -- something that could apply to many, many Disney movies) for messages of self-acceptance, not isolating oneself, and not hiding what one truly is.  (The parallels with being gay are not subtle.)  The musical numbers peak halfway through with the rousing ballad "Let It Go," but that song alone is worth the price of admission.  I enjoyed the voice talent, and while the movie was somewhat predictable (with one plot twist), the action was well done and the icy images were appropriately scary and beautiful, as the story required.  Frozen doesn't break new (frozen?) ground in animation, but I liked it.

Overall grade: B
Reviewed by James Lynch

Robert W.. Chambers, THE KING IN YELLOW

Even the influential have their influences, and horror legend H.P. Lovecraft cited Robert W. Chambers as one of his.  Chambers' short story collection The King in Yellow: Tales of Mystery and the Supernatural certainly has some elements that carried over into Lovecraft's work; the collection also demonstrates why Chambers isn't better known today.

The first four stories in The King in Yellow are interconnected by a story element that would become common in Lovecraft's work: cursed writing.  In Chambers' case, that would be a banned play, The King in Yellow, that leads everyone who reads it to death or madness.  This work, featured in snippets through the stories, introduces the terrible King in Yellow and the shores of Carcossa.  The opening story, "The Repairer of Reputations," also has the narrator who may be living in a strange future (with racially segregated country and public suicide booths) or who may just be stark raving mad.Chambers' horror stories also end with a breathless final sentence (though with the italics that are omnipresent in Lovecraft's finales).

Unfortunately, Chambers' writing is a bit formal and lacks the madness and scares this sort of horror should inspire in the reader.  And it's not all horror.  Some of the stories take a romantic route, some look at live in bohemian Paris, and one is set during the fog of war.  While it's not terrible writing, it lacks the focus one could and should expect from "tales of mystery and the supernatural."

Chambers' cursed play and masked yellow king continue to pop up now and then in Lovecraftain horror, but The King in Yellow is an uneven collection of themes and talent.

Overall grade: C
Reviewed by James Lynch



What happens when the past and future collide?  On the Syfy Channel you get Opposite Worlds, a reality competition show that professes to be "a social experiment and social media experiment" but is in reality just another reality tv show.
Opposite Worlds pit two teams (Team Chronos and Team Epoch) against each other, competing and losing players until one player is left; that player wins the $100,000 grand prize.  While the teams have to live in a house, the gimmick is that the house is divided into two halves: a future half (with electronic luxuries and all-white suits for the team living there) and a primitive past half (where the team has to build fires, struggle for food, and wear fake animal skins), with the two sided divided by a clear divider so the teams can see each other.  Each episode either has a team challenge (where the teams compete to see which side of the house they live in) or an individual challenge (where two players compete against each other, and one is eliminated).

The "social media" side of Opposite Worlds is something that's been on reality tv shows for years: voting.  Viewers are urged to vote on everything from favorite and least favorite players (who get rewards and punishments) to what players get added to who is the Decider (who gets to select a player from each team to compete to be eliminated).  And host Luke Tipple continually tries to hype up the drama by giving summaries of what's happened and asking the players about what they think and feel.

Opposite Worlds claims to be experimental, but this show is almost completely familiar.  There's the usual planning, scheming, and secret alliances among the players and between teams.  The constant reminding viewers to vote quickly becomes very gimmicky.  There's little question that everyone wants to get on the future side of the house, so there's no surprises there.  Luke Tipple's Australian accent is the only thing that distinguishes him from every other reality tv show host.  And since the Decider doesn't know what the elimination challenge will be, but they're physical challenges, picking which players compete is as much guesswork as planning.  Opposite Worlds is another example of the Syfy Channel's mediocrity with reality television.

Overall grade: D
Reviewed by James Lynch


 Paula Abdul had a bare-bones greatest hits collection as part of the 10 Great Songs series, but she also had a more comprehensive collection in 1997.  Greatest Hits: Straight Up! provides more music from the '80s-'90s singer -- and shows that her musical style didn't change at all from start to finish.

Unlike 10 Great Songs: Paula Abdul, Straight Up! covers all three of Abdul's albums (Forever Your Girl, Spellbound, and Head Over Heels), plus a song from the Beverly Hills 90210 soundtrack.  Like the other collection, though, Straight Up! doesn't offer anything beyond the original songs.  There are no rarities, live versions, or other material not on the original albums

Paula Abdul's success was as much based on her dancing/choreography and sex appeal as on singing and music, and Straight Up! reinforces that.  (It's a shame there's no music video collection of hers instead of a music album.)  Her songs covered the standard radio-friendly range of perky romance ("Forever Your Girl," Opposites Attract"), slow ballads ("Rush, Rush," "Will You Marry Me"), dance tunes ("Straight Up," "Vibeology"), bad guys ("Cold Hearted," "One or the Other") and general optimistic perkiness ("The Promise of a New Day," "It's All About Feelin' Good").  The songs sometimes manage the "fun fluff" type of music, but even the best can't escape the weak lyrics and unexceptional voice of the singer.
Anyone who listened in the music will probably know the biggest hits off Paula Abdul's first albums (whether they want to or not), but anyone hearing them again on Straight Up! will probably be reminded of her limits as a singer, not some forgotten greatness.  And the lesser-known songs -- mostly at the end of the album -- won't add anything to her reputation.

Overall grade: C-
Reviewed by James Lynch