Sunday, January 22, 2012

Book Review: A Study in Scarlet, by Arthur Conan Doyle

Title:  A Study in Scarlet
Author:  Arthur Conan Doyle
Genre:  Mystery
Rating:  4 out of 5 magnifying glasses

A Study in Scarlet is the first Sherlock Holmes story written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  I recently acquired the collected Sherlock Holmes stories, and I figured I should start at the beginning.  This is not only my first Holmes story - A Study in Scarlet was the first pure mystery novel I have read.  I always hesitate in reviewing classics such as this, but I plan on reading more of Doyle's work in the future, and documenting how I felt about his first novel seems like it would be helpful.

A Study in Scarlet is written as a first hand account of one Doctor John Watson, a former military man who fought in Afghanistan during the war.  Upon returning to London, he quickly finds he is without a roof over his head!  He discovers that a strange fellow by the name of Holmes is looking for a roomate, and they quickly strike up a partnership.

Soon after Watson discovers that Holmes works as a consulting detective, they are employed in a very sticky case involving a dead man found in a room that is splattered with another man's blood.  One of the only clues: the German word for "Revenge" scrawled on the wall in scarlet blood.

The character of Sherlock Holmes is nothing short of amazing.  He is at once timid and outgoing.  He is a genius when it goes to clues and the violin and completely ignorant of other things - such as the fact that the Earth revolves around the sun.  Holmes is truly eccentric and I love him all the more for his short-comings in all areas other than his profession.  Watson, on the other hand, is a little less vivid.  We get a bit of back story on him at the beginning of the story, but he is often relegated as the "straight man" as played against Holmes' genius.  His most common lines seem to be on the theme of either "But wait, I don't understand your logic" or "Truly you are brilliant Holmes!".  I kept yearning for more of a relationship to form between the characters, but it never quite got there.  Of course, this is only the first in a series of many stories, so I'm sure there is still ample opportunity for Watson to emerge from his sidekick cocoon and grow into a deeper character.

The mystery itself (don't worry, no spoilers here) was well done.  Clues were presented at a regular pace, and you just knew that Holmes was piecing them together even before you realized their importance.  There were multiple suspects and you definitely won't see the end come until Holmes has the perpetrator in shackles.

There was one thing that took away from the quality of the story.  About half way through, after Holmes apprehends the murderer, the entire narrative completely changes.  Instead of first person from the point of view of Dr. Watson, the narrative turns into third person omniscient.  This is done to detail the history of the murderer, his motives, etc, but the transition is so jarring that it almost made me want to stop reading.  The witty observations of Watson were gone, and in their place, col, impersonal descriptions of a completely different country in a completely different time.  Luckily, I was able to get through this and Watson's account quickly resumed.

A Study in Scarlet was a fun little story to read.  Its genius comes from the fact that it is so succinct and compact, while still managing to illustrate a convincing protagonist and compelling plot.  If you have any interest in starting to read about Holmes, you should start here and enjoy, as I did!

4 out of 5 magnifying glasses!

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Card Game Review - Fluxx

Title:  Fluxx
Publisher:  Looney Labs

# of players:  2-6
Time:  15 minutes
Age Range:  8+

Rating:  3 out of 5

The rules of Fluxx are simple:  Draw one card, play one card.  You play cards to try to meet the current goal...  But... then someone can change the goal.  And then they make it so you can draw three instead of one, play two cards instead of one, and shuffle up all of the cards on the board and deal them out randomly!  The goal changes again and the discard pile is shuffled back into the deck.  How will you win now?

As the box states, Fluxx is a game of ever-changing rules.  If you're going to win, you will need to keep up!

That intro may have made this game seem complicated, but you really shouldn't be too intimidated.  At its heart, Fluxx is very simple and is more about altering current rules than adding completely new ones.  There are four different kinds of cards...

Keepers:  These cards represent things or ideas.  You play them from your hand and you try to make a collection that meets the current goal.  If you meet the current goal, you win the game!  This include Milk, Cookies, Time, Death, the Sun, Love, Money, and so many more!

Goals:  These cards tell you which keepers you need to have in front of you to win.  These goals combine keepers in ingenious ways such as "Time is Money" (you win if you have Time and Money on the table) and "Hippyism" (you win if you have Love and Peace on the table).

Actions:  These cards are used to do a ton of different things including drawing extra cards and stealing keepers.  These are really powerful - use them wisely!

New Rules:  These cards are placed in front of you and alter many different rules of the game.

So that is how you play... but what does it FEEL like to play?  Well, Fluxx is a lot of fun!  The game is easy to learn and each round plays very quickly.  The goals make you really think about which keepers you want to play, and there is some degree of strategy in the order of the cards you play.

The thing that really draws this game down, however, is that all it takes to win is a bit of luck.  At its heart, Fluxx is just a card-drawing game, and that means that play can get very random.  No matter how much strategy you try to put into the game, your carefully laid plans are always vulnerable to a lucky draw on the part of one of your opponents.  But in the end, Fluxx isn't supposed to be a serious strategy game.  So you lost that round to a lucky draw - so what?  Just shuffle up and play again?  Odds are, you will get completely different cards and will win through a completely different route.

Fluxx is a perfect game to pull out and play if you only have a few minutes to spare, or if you want a light enjoyable experience with which to pass the time.  What it lacks in depth is made up for in charm.

3.5 out of 5.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Television Review - Alcatraz Pilot

Title:  Alcatraz
Creators:  Elizabeth SarnoffSteven LilienBryan Wynbrandt
Producer:  J.J. Abrams

Genre:  Drama / Science Fiction
Rating:  4 out of 5 cells

Let me first say that I am a big fan of J.J. Abrams.  I had a lot of fun with Alias, Fringe and LOST, and I loved Cloverfield, Star Trek, and Super 8.  Imagine my excitement when I heard that the man was producing another television show to soak up another free hour of my life every week.  Yes, the pilot of Alcatraz premiered this past week, and I was watching.  What follows is a quick summary of the episode and main characters, and my thoughts on it.

In Alcatraz, three unlikely allies team up to investigate a series of murders committed by people who shouldn't even be alive.  In the 1960's, 302 prisoners were said to have been transferred from the island prison.  We quickly learn, however, that these inmates in fact simply vanished out of thin air.  Fast-forward to present day:  these same criminals are showing up in San Francisco with a debt to settle.  What is even more strange, however, is that they haven't aged one day.

Our journey begins with Rebecca Madsen (played by Sarah Jones), a San Francisco Police Officer, as she gets called in to investigate a murder.  We learn (through a convenient LOST-esque flashback) that she witnessed her partner's death at the hands of an as-yet unidentified criminal, and we assume that she wants to be the best cop ever to make up for not being able to save him.  She is quickly shoo'd off the scene by Emerson Hauser (Sam Neil), a tight-lipped know-it-all federal agent.

Leaving the scene with nothing but a stray fingerprint to guide her, Rebecca discovers that the evidence points to one Jack Sylvane, a man who was imprisoned on Alcatraz four decades prior.  She meets up with Diego Soto (Jorge Garcia), a Double PhD/Alcatraz Book Author/Comic Book Salesman (no, I'm not making this up) to investigate The Rock further.  Through a series of unfortunate events, Madsen, Hauser, and Soto (a.k.a. "Doc") decide to work together to find and incarcerate (again) Sylvane.

(end of ridiculous exposition)

As you can see, a ton happened in the Pilot.  Questions were answered and new questions were raised.  But how does it stack up to Abrams' other shows, and is it even worth watching?

The first thing people usually want to know about an Abrams show is how "cliffhangery" it is.  As much as I loved LOST, it would get so frustrating because there were so many plot lines and questions that were never really answered.  Each episode would just make you feel more... well... LOST.  Fringe started to get away from this, but still required a lot of patience to watch.  From what I hear, Alcatraz will try to focus even more on the "one episode, one story" formula.  They will be investigating one case and catching one criminal during each episode.  This sounds a lot like a cookie cutter cop drama (I'm looking at you, CSI and friends), but watching the pilot gives you a feel that there will still be some twists and turns for those devoted to the series.

First of all, Alcatraz employs liberal use of the flashback, something that payed off big for LOST.  Between each commercial break, we are treated to the present-day exploits of our three heroes as they try to catch the villain as well as a look into what this villain's life was like while imprisoned on the rock.  These flashbacks to the criminal's past gives you a lot of insight on the character and renders him more memorable than those goofy bad guys you see at the end of Scooby Doo (or CSI).  It reminds me of Criminal Minds, and the extra effort is appreciated.

Another thing that makes Alcatraz stand out from the pack is that there is obviously something supernatural going on here.  People don't just disappear for 40 years and then pop back up again to commit crimes and run 40K's.  Through a combination of flashbacks and present-day character development, I am sure this story arc will add a lot more energy to the "catch one bad guy a week" formula.  The question is this:  How bogged down will the series get because of it?  (Spoiler:  Only time will tell.)

In terms of characters, we get about as much as we expect from Abrams.  We stick to the formula that worked for Fringe (strong blonde female protagonist, older male superior who keeps information from said protagonist, crazy civilian who really has no business investigating murders) and really don't make any deep changes.  This isn't necessarily a bad thing, however because it could all change when we learn more about the characters.  I, of course, immediately love Emerson Hauser because everything Sam Neil does is genius.  And Hurley Soto isn't bad either.

Finally, the show is visually beautiful.  The past and present time periods are immediately recognizable.  Past-Alcatraz is dark and gloomy, while the prison that Hauser puts the criminals in during the present (which looks structurally similar to the interior of Alcatraz) is bright and sterile.  Even Soto's comic book shop has a bit of a charm to it.

Though eerily reminiscent of Abrams' past projects, Alcatraz seems to be a perfect mix between cop drama and supernatural thriller.  Time will tell how popular the series is, but I plan on watching regularly.

4 out of 5 cells!


I hope that you enjoyed this review, and if you are watching the show as well, I would love to know what you think!  I don't plan on writing a review for every episode, but I may do an end-of-season and beginning-of-season summary when applicable.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Lions and Men is Branching Out!

Hello everyone!  As you may have noticed, I haven't posted in a while.  What can I say, school has started up again.  And although I wish it was not the case, I just don't have as much time to read and post as much as I would like.

With this in mind, I plan on taking this blog in a couple of different directions.  Don't worry!  I will still be reading and reviewing science fiction, fantasy, and horror novels (albeit at a reduced pace).  In order to provide you with more content, however, I plan on also reviewing and giving my thoughts on other fun and geeky things, namely board games, card games, and movies.  Luckily, my taste in games and movies aligns closely with my taste in books, so you can still look forward to the same genres that Lions and Men tends to focus on.

I think reviews of more varied forms of media will be a lot of fun to write, and I hope they will be fun to read. You can look forward to some new content along these lines in the coming days!