Northern Lights

I have always encouraged the boys to read (which is not difficult) and now we appear to have come full circle, with the boys encouraging me to read (again, not difficult). Specifically, Macsen told me that I would really enjoy Northern Lights (also known as The Golden Compass in some regions), the first book in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy.

He wasn’t wrong. The book is superb.

Obviously this novel, and the series of which it is part, is very much aimed at a teenage audience. But there is so much depth and detail to Pullman’s world that it really does draw you in.

Set in a world slightly parallel to our own, the book centres on Lyra, an orphan growing up in Jordan College, Oxford under the slightly unfocused guardianship of the college master. Plots are afoot, though, and Lyra finds herself on a journey over the course of which she learns about herself, her parents and the world in which she lives.

There is a great deal to like here. The characterisation is consistently solid and the world depicted is deep, complete and fascinating. By setting the story on an Earth that is almost, but not quite, like our own, Pullman manages to create an environment that is both familiar and strange, and one that never leaves you floundering. For someone who had never read a fantasy novel before, this book would probably be a very good place to start.

Northern Lights is also a book that works on multiple levels. On one hand, much of the plot revolves around a chase through increasingly mysterious lands which, even with the darkness of the ending, will appeal to any teenager. However, embedded in the world-building and in the motivations of the various characters is a deeper exploration of the way in which religion — when given too much power — both corrupts and harms those who fall under its influence.

I will certainly be reading the next novel in this series (just as soon as Macsen has finished with it) and I sincerely hope that we will see more of the panserbjørne, who must go down as one of the most spectacularly awesome fantasy races ever conceived.

Bärenpark

Bärenpark is a tile laying game, the aim of which is — as the name suggests — to build a bear park.

Each player starts with a park area board and a single tile and each turn consists of three steps. Firstly, the player places a tile; then he takes one or more additional tiles (depending on the icons covered) and finally, if all the available spaces on an area board have been covered, the player places a bear statue. Different tiles have different vales and, once all of the area boards have been filled, these values can be totted up and a winner declared.

Bärenpark is a really simple game and one that is very easy to learn. Moreover, the design of the game is such that it is very easy to understand, at a glance, exactly what is going on. As with the best of games like this, however, this simplicity hides a surprising level of depth. While, on the surface, the game is essentially a spacial puzzle derived from fitting together the different shaped tiles, there is also a reasonable level of planning that needs to be taken into account.

The area board has various icons printed on it and the icons you cover determine which tile or tiles you can draw. This means that you have to think ahead a bit and to determine what tiles you will need in two or three turns time to most effectively fill the available space. Or, you can do what I do which is grab the highest value tiles first and then start trying to figure out how to fit them all together.

The fact that there is very little direct player interaction (grabbing a tile before an opponent is about the limit) gives the game a very gentle feel which gives rise to plenty of discussion about how best each of the players can solve the various puzzles in front of us. This is quite a change of gear for me — I usually want to crush my enemies and see them driven before me — but it does make for a genuinely pleasant game-playing atmosphere.

Bärenpark is a great little game — one that is easy to pick up but that retains enough depth to make it worth coming back to again and again. The indirectness of the competition also makes this a game that can be brought out and inflicted on people that aren’t used to (my) normal game playing behaviour.

I’m special. Just like everyone else

Thanks to Claudette, the Writer of Words, etc for nominating me for a special blogger award.

Here’s how it works

Rules:

  1. Thank the blogger who nominated you (as above )
  2. Answer the questions you are asked (if you’re comfortable doing so!)
  3. Create 10 questions for the bloggers you’ve nominated.
  4. Nominate at least 3 bloggers for the Special Blogger Award.
  5. Comment on your nominees most recent blog post to let them know you’ve nominated them.
  6. Have fun!

So here are Claudette’s questions and my answers

Name the book you’re currently reading.

Northern Lights by Philip Pullman. This was recommended to me by my eldest son and it’s proving to be really, really good.

What is the best/favorite time of day to write your blog posts?

Either first thing in the morning (before anyone is awake) or last thing at night (once all the boys are in bed).

If money and time was no object, where you would you like to go on your next vacation?

When I was younger, I was very taken by the idea of great train journeys such as the Trans Siberian Express. Having checked to see if this is still a thing, I quite like the idea of taking the train from Berlin to Beijing.

They’re planning to send some people to Mars. Putting aside all the complications involved with this trip, would it interest you to be a part of that group, and if so, why or why not?

If people went to Mars, they would need to spend most of their time underground to avoid the radiation and the lower gravity makes for a high likelihood of bashing your head on the ceiling every time you move too fast. The younger me would have leapt at the opportunity but, now, I’m too old for this.

Name a TV show or movie you really didn’t like but were compelled to keep watching anyway, and explain why.

I have enough trouble finding time for TV series I do like. If anything, I am too quick to give up on a series only to discover that after a rough start it proved to be quite popular.

I have walked out of films in the past, which is particularly easy in Belgium where there is often an intermission around half way through. This is always a good opportunity to establish whether anyone actually wants to see the second half.

Describe the most challenging part of a relationship (current or past). Could be with anyone (family, friend, professional etc.)

Communication. There are many situations in which I find that I’m not making myself clear enough. This is often compounded by the fact that, in any conversation, at least one of us is speaking a second language.

Which politician today do you find most entertaining?

I’m always a but wary of describing politicians as entertaining because their actions do affect people.

On the other hand, there is Chris Grayling, the incompetent’s incompetent who, among other things, managed to give a £13m contract to a ferry company that didn’t have any ferries.

What is the most irksome thing you’ve come across in recent days?

I’m unirkable. Except when people are unable to put their mobile phones away.

If someone placed two bowls of nuts in front of you, one with shells and a nutcracker, one without shells, which bowl would you choose to eat?

Neither. I don’t like nuts.

What’s the first word that pops into your mind when you hear the word Toronto?

Bulls. Which is weird because I have no idea from where I have picked up this reference.

And now for my questions

  1. What book, or books are you reading now?
  2. Do you ever re-read books and, if so, how often?
  3. eBook or paper?
  4. Cinema or DVD?
  5. What was the last film you saw?
  6. What film have you watched more than any other?
  7. You hear that a book you like is about to be adapted into a film: Do you squee or cringe?
  8. Is there a book of film that you like, even though everyone else seems to dislike it? Or one that you dislike even though everyone else raves about how wonderful it is.
  9. If you could go and live in any fictional world, universe or location you like, which one would you choose?
  10. What is the first thing you think of when someone says “Belgium” to you?

And I’m going to nominate three people

Carissa of Rubbish Talk, an Indonesian book blogger who has recently returned from a bit of a hiatus with the wonderful concept of binge reading.

Amanda Cade of Worth It who blogs regularly and entertainingly about books, films and life.

Sophia Ismaa. Another book blogger whose insights into several popular franchises are well worth reading.

Five Things #13

The Devil Buys Us Cheap and the Devil Buys in Bulk by M. Bennardo is a morality tale about unearned money.

Helen Claire Hart argues that we should lift the ban on asylum seekers seeking work.

Kieren McCarthy at The Register looks at the creative accounting that helps Apple get away with charging an unjustifiable mark-up on repairs while also claiming to make a loss.

Funk’s House of Geekery looks back at Tank Girl, the movie.

Susan D’Agostino talks to Barbara Liskov, the architect of modern algorithms.

Frozen 2

We saw Frozen 2 at the weekend and I have been hesitating a bit as to whether to mention it here because I am so clearly not part of the target audience. This is probably also why I am so ambivalent about the film.

With Frozen, Disney managed to come up with an original spin on The Snow Queen in which all the parts slotted together so perfectly that it launched a phenomenon. This time around… Not so much. Instead, we have the same characters pressed into (what certainly feels like) a very generic plot in which Anna and Elsa are sent on a Quest to Save The Kingdom.

And every step of the way I was able to accurately predict what would happen next.

On a purely technical level, Frozen 2 is every bit as impressive as you would expect but the film is let down by the weakness of the story. It’s probably because of this narrative weakness that I couldn’t find any reason to care about any of the characters. That and the songs.

All Disney animations (with the notable exception of Atlantis: The Lost Empire, a film that deserves a much larger audience) are built around their musical numbers. The songs in these films tend to be of a very high standard — even if they’re not my cup of tea — and the songs in Frozen 2 is no exception. My problem is that they felt intrusive.

Whereas Disney scripts usually manage to move seamlessly from dialogue, into the musical number and then back again, this didn’t feel to be the case this time around. Instead, each line of dialogue was followed by a pause, then a song, followed by a pause, and so on. This gave the songs a very tacked-on feel which made them painfully noticeable.

Disney Animation Studios don’t tend to make sequels (only three, if I’m counting correctly). Frozen 2 provides a very good case for continuing this policy.

But what do I know? The kids all enjoyed it.

We appear to have adopted a tiger

When we went to Blankenberge a couple of weeks ago, we picked up some books at the Serpentarium. The book Macsen chose was on the subject of predators and he was quite vexed to discover just how endangered a species are tigers.

On the subject of endangered species, the WWF Christmas advert is well worth seeing.

The description on the YouTube page points you to their Adopt a Jaguar page but, after a minimal amount of poking around, I found that you can also adopt a tiger. And for Dutch speakers in Belgium, you can adopteer symbolisch een tijger .

So and we did.

Now we are just waiting for the You Are Wonderful People pack to arrive.

It’s not even December…

The Sint hasn’t been yet…

But there is a Christmas Tree in Brussels.

At around 6:00 AM on Thursday the Christmas tree bound for Grand Place finished its journey to Brussels, ready to prepare for the launch of the seasonal festival in the city at the end of November.

Welcomed by Alderman for Culture, Delphine Houba, the tree was erected shortly before 8:00 AM under the eye of Mayor Philippe Close.

I was going to wander out at lunchtime to take a look but work got in the way. Luckily, however, you can watch it on the webcam.

It doesn’t move much.