Friday, April 29, 2016

Book Review: Avatar The Last Airbender Smoke and Shadow Part Three by Gene Luen Yang et al.

Avatar The Last Airbender Smoke and Shadow Part Three written by Gene Luen Yang, lettering by Michael Heisler, art and cover by Gurihiru

Reviews of Part One here and Part Two here!

Fire Lord Zuko and Avatar Aang have chased down the Kemurikage and discovered Azula, Zuko's disenfranchised sister, is their leader. She escapes during the fight and kidnaps Zuko's baby sister. Zuko uses his authority as Fire Lord to shut down the capital city and round up all of the people involved with the New Ozai Society, which turns out to be an arm of the Kemurikage. Riots erupt. Can Zuko rescue the kidnapped children and keep the peace with his people? What is Azula's plan?

This volume finishes the story well. It focuses on the characters' motivations and has a nice awareness of the larger political situation. The book doesn't skimp on the action, either, though the humor is less than usual. The last page of the book promises the return of Sokka in October 2016 so you can be sure the humor will be back in full force then. I can't wait!

Thursday, April 28, 2016


After attending a birthday party at a local roller rink, my daughter loves rollerskating. With soccer done, we decided the kids should try skating lessons. The rink has very reasonable lessons each month. The kids have been going twice a week (Tuesday evening and Saturday afternoon) for lessons.

The local roller rink (unchanged since the 1970s)

The first lessons were pretty tough. Lots of kids and adults started on the first day of class. Many were gone by week three. Our children showed rapid improvement in both skill and enthusiasm for roller skating.

The daughter

Our son, the man in black

By week three, they were so enthusiastic that we stayed for the post-lesson skating session. As a break between lessons, we had a snack from the snack bar and my daughter checked out one of the video games.

The next lessons--learning to drive?!?

They loved skating around the rink and were eager to get back to the action.

Put me in, coach!

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Book Review: Richard III by David Baldwin

Richard III by David Baldwin

King Richard III (1452-1485) is one of the most controversial kings of England. He was the last of the Plantagenet line and was replaced by Henry Tudor, who became King Henry VII. Richard came to the throne through a mixture of circumstances and deliberate acts. His decision to take the crown may not have been the act of unbridled ambition it is often portrayed as. He lived a hard and unstable life, seeing many relatives die and many reversals of fortune as the Lancastrian Plantagenets fought with the Yorkist Plantagenets over the throne(i.e. the War of the Roses). His nephews (who were legitimate candidates for the throne) were taken into the Tower of London (which was both the royal castle and a prison), never to be heard from again. People assume he killed them or had them killed though there is no direct evidence. His efficiency at governing was at times ruthless and at other times completely just. He put in motion many reforms and established a courier system that eventually developed into the Royal Mail. His life is a lot more complicated than either Shakespeare or Thomas More make it out (though their writings have colored popular opinion).

David Baldwin's biography of Richard makes the effort to be objective, looking at the historical records and evidence. Baldwin does not want to paint Richard as a villain or as a saint, but to see him for he was. The story is complicated not only by the lack of records and the Tudor propaganda but also by the many overlapping names (the book starts with a list of 23 people who have similar names, including three Georges, three Margarets, and four other Richards besides Richard III!). These various challenges are well met in this book, which is readable and convincing. An extra chapter was added where Baldwin describes the discovery of Richard's remains in the Leicester car park.

The even-handed approach and clear writing make this an excellent look at the life of Richard III. I see the author has also written Robin Hood: The English Outlaw Unmasked. Based on the excellence of this biography, I am going to hunt down his Robin Hood book.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Movie Review: The Final Girls (2015)

The Final Girls (2015) directed by Todd Strauss-Schulson

Max is the recently-orphaned daughter of Amanda Cartwright, an actress whose most famous roles were in low-budget 1980s horror films. Max is having a hard time at school too. She agrees to go to a screening of her mom's most famous film, "Camp Bloodbath," when the nerd organizing it promises to help her with her studies. Some friends come along as moral support. A fire breaks out in the theater, blocking the exits. Max realizes there's an exit behind the screen, so she and her friends slice their way through the screen (one of the patrons came dressed as the movie's killer and conveniently dropped his machete in the confusion). Instead of making it to safety, they wind up inside the film! They have to work with the characters in the movie to survive the killer's attacks. Too bad those ditzy camp counselors are more interested in sex than anything else. At least Max has one last chance to talk with her mom, or at least the character she played. Max and her mom's character are both virgins, so they have a good chance of making it to the end and defeating the bad guy, if Max can keep her mom from following the plot.

The movie is surprisingly good. The first scene establishes the relationship between Max and her mom really well and makes them sympathetic characters and three-dimensional people. They give the film an anchor that keeps it from drifting off into mere silliness or excessive gore. Actually, the gore is surprisingly minimal--the filmmakers opt for style (there's a funny and impressive slow motion chase sequence) over splatter (one character falls head first into a bear trap but viewers don't see anything). The movie is creative in a good way.

While the box says this is a loving send-up of '80s slasher films, it actually has a bit more substance than that description implies. It reminded me a lot of Tucker and Dale vs. Evil, another surprisingly well-crafted horror comedy (though I don't think this is as good as Tucker and Dale vs. Evil).

Monday, April 25, 2016

Fooling with Fondant

My daughter's cooking enthusiasm has not waned. The latest adventure is working in fondant, a thick moldable icing used to decorate cakes. Or in our case, cupcakes. After making some delicious chocolate cupcakes to serve as a canvas, she prepared some white fondant as a base layer and colored fondant for decorative details.

Rolling out the fondant

One large flat sheet wouldn't do so she found a cookie cutter that was just the size of the cupcakes and made the perfect top.

Making circles

Careful alignment

Cooking is a full-contact sport

She used cake-decorating tools to make the colored decorations and combined them in creative ways.



In order to ensure the process did not ruin the flavor of the decorative icing, she did the only thing she could.


Saturday, April 23, 2016

Book Review: X-Men The Dark Phoenix Saga by C. Claremont et al.

X-Men The Dark Phoenix Saga written by Chris Claremont, co-plotted and penciled by John Byrne, inked by Terry Austin

The X-Men are returning from another adventure when Jean Grey experiences yet another seeming time slip where she inhabits an ancestor of hers from the 18th century. The 1700s Jean Grey is head-over-heals in love with Jason Wyngarde. Unbeknownst to her there's a modern-day Jason Wyngarde who is a member of the inner circle of the Hellfire Club. The overall club is populated by the rich and powerful of America. The inner circle is a bunch of mutants with world-domination ambitions. They want to bring other mutants into the fold, especially Jean Grey. Her telekinetic and telepathic powers recently went off the chart when she became the Phoenix. When the X-Men get back to headquarters, Professor X sends them to check on two new mutants detected by Cerebro (Kitty Pryde in Chicago and Dazzler in New York City). The Hellfire Club has secretly hacked into Cerebro so they are after the two new mutants and they know all the powers of the X-Men. A hard fight is in store.

This book is a far ranging and focuses on Jean Grey's psychological turmoil. At first she can't figure out what's going on with the time slips; the earlier Grey is more dangerous and cruel. But that's just a side of her personality she keeps under wraps. Keeping that undercover is harder and harder as her powers grow and the corrupting influence of Wyngarde deepens.

The story is also loaded with lots of action which occasionally go over the top, especially at the end. The drama goes to eleven, but in a satisfying way.

Friday, April 22, 2016

TV Review: Daredevil Season Two (2016)

Daredevil Season Two (2016) created by Drew Goddard based on characters by Stan Lee and Bill Everett

See the review of Season One here.

In the wake of Wilson Fisk's arrest and imprisonment, organized crime in New York, and especially in Hell's Kitchen, is not so organized. A fair number of major players were taken out and other, smaller gangs are trying to seize control. Someone had tried to put several gangs together with a drug deal in Central Park but that turned into a bloodbath. Among the innocent bystanders killed was the family of Frank Castle. Castle has gone on a one-man killing spree, but he's only targeting bad guys. With lethal force. Daredevil targets bad guys too but is no killer. That principle is put to the test when his old girlfriend Elektra shows up. She was a friend from college who has a dark and mysterious past that comes back to haunt everyone in the show.

This season has several intriguing plot lines. Castle is dubbed "The Punisher" by the media and he is definitely shown as Matt Murdock/Daredevil going too far in the vigilante business. The Punisher is, at worst, a very sympathetic villain--the show does a good job of keeping his status ambiguous, or at least letting viewers make up their own minds. Elektra is another murderous character whom Matt wants to reign in even though dealing with her makes his life more complicated. His old mentor Stick (played by Scott Glenn) shows up and he also pressures Matt into being a killer. Stick is back because another group of organized criminals, the Hand, has come to New York with their own nefarious agenda. The various threads interweave around Daredevil but never become confusing or convoluted, though occasional bits feel rushed.

The actors overall are very good, lending the right amount of gravity and humor to keep viewers engaged. The show suffers a bit from not having a clear villain. Matt has the typical trust issues with everyone so no one is ever fully in his camp, but they aren't fully opposed either. The ambiguity creates a certain level of tension, but not nearly as strong or as satisfying as the tension in season one with the clearly evil (though highly understandable) Wilson Fisk.

So this season is not as great as Season One but is well worth watching. Currently it is only available through Netflix streaming.