A Gnome's Ponderings

I'm a gamer. I love me some games and I like to ramble about games and gaming. So, more than anything else, this blog is a place for me to keep track of my ramblings. If anyone finds this helpful or even (good heavens) insightful, so much the better.

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The Gates is one _hell_ of a good time

Lowell Kempf
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I hadn’t realized when I decided to read John Connolly’s The Gates in the middle of October that it was set at Halloween. Mind you, I’d have enjoyed it any time of the year.

In a small English town, a boy named Samuel Johnson and his dashchund Boswell see a portal to hell open up. Demons come out, just in time for Halloween, and hijinks and comedy ensue.

Okay, it was impossible for me not to compare The Gates to Good Omens. They both have that cheeky, self-aware tone that resonates with the works of Wodehouse or Jerome K. Jerome. And they both are about biblical-style end of the world.

That said, the differences are significant enough that the Gates stands as its own book. Good Omens has an ensemble cast and a fairly complicated plot. The Gates is clearly centered around Samuel and has a simpler plot. A ton of footnotes about physics but a simpler plot. Samuel is very different than Good Omens’ Adam. Quirky and a bit nebbish and coping with his parents’ divorce, he’s more developed (but he is the main character so he should be)

And, yes, Good Omens is the better book but it’s a modern classic. That leaves plenty of room for The Gates to still be very good.

I have to note, while a dedicated cat lover, I adored Boswell the dashchund. Neurotic but brave, he demonstrates endless love for Samuel and more common sense than any other character. I cheated and checked to make sure he doesn’t die at the end of the book (spoiler)

The real strength of The Gates is tone and characterization. Plot wise, it doesn’t break any new ground on the idea of kids saving the world. But that doesn’t matter. The voice that the book has and the characters easily carry the work.

Years ago, I read John Connolly’s Book of Lost Things, which is one of the best fairy tale deconstructions I’ve read. After The Gates, I won’t wait so long to read more John Connolly. For instance, the Gates is the first book in a trilogy
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Wed Oct 20, 2021 9:10 pm
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The Night Wire is a tasty bit of dread, perfect for Halloween

Lowell Kempf
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With Halloween coming, I took a moment to reread The Nigjt Wire, a short story by Henry Ferris Arnold. It’s from 1926 so public domain and free to read online. It’s also pretty short so it’s easy to read in half a sitting.

In it, two men are on the night shift of a telegraph office, typing out news stories as they come in when they start getting live reports about a terrible apocalypse happening to a city they have never heard of.

I honestly don’t want to go into too many details because that would spoil the story. Mind you, it’s nearly a hundred years old, apparently was one of the most popular stories in that era of Weird Tales and has been frequently anthologized so you probably have already read it

And you can click on the link below and read the thing in five minutes if you haven’t

There are two elements in the story that I think make it resonate. Atmosphere and uncertainty.

The entire story takes place in one room in the middle of the night. The sparse setting manages to convey a sense of isolation where the only connection to the world is the telegraph and that is a tenuous connection.

But the uncertainty is the real power of the story. We never have a clear idea what is going on. Is the night wire describing a Biblical apocalypse? A Lovecraftian cosmic horror? The afterlife? Or is the narrator having some kind of psychotic break? You can make arguments for all of the above.

But you get enough details for it to be really creepy. The story gives your mind enough to work with.

If you need a tiny taste of Halloween dread, the Night Wire should do the trick.

https://en.m.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Night_Wire
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Fri Oct 15, 2021 4:23 pm
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Shangri-La is a weird place

Lowell Kempf
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Rereading Lost Horizon (by James Hilton) for the first time in maybe five years was like reading a completely different book.

Okay. There will be spoilers ahead. For a best-selling book from 1933 that was turned into a famous movie from 1937 that turned Shangri-La into a common noun. So it’s like spoiling the end of the Wizard of Oz. (Pssst… Dorothy gets to go home)

Here’s the elevator pitch: four westerners get flat out kidnapped to the mysterious and mystical lamasery of Shangri-La.

My vague memories were that, by the mystical lamasery’s standards, Shangri-La was pretty mundane. No warrior monks with magical martial arts or wizards. I had completely forgotten that the High Lama claimed to be telepathic or that the longevity apparently had a narcotic drug component.

I had also been under the impression that Lost Horizon had been the start of the whole mystical monastery genre when I was younger. Now I know it was a well-used device by 1933. So I am now left wondering if Lost Horizon is a straight take on the mystic monastery and great white savior tropes or a deconstruction of them.

Conway, the protagonist, is the guy who the High Lama chooses to succeed him, even though he’s just got to the place. However, his inner calmness comes from being a shell-shocked survivor of World War I. The book makes is abundantly clear he is very damaged, even though everyone wants him to be their hero.

And, judging by the ending, he doesn’t end up saving anyone. But, to be fair, he never asks to be anyone’s hero.

Shangri-La, on the other hand, is fascinating. The highlights of the place include plumbing from Akron, Ohio, central heating, a library with lots of western elements and a grand piano. The High Lama is actually from Luxembourg. The special treatment that extends lifespans doesn’t work on native Tibetans.

More than that, Shanghai-La doesn’t seem to have any goals relating to enlightenment or philosophy. What little we learn of the place makes it sound like scholarly hedonism, like a group of professors were given lifetime tenure and sabbaticals at the same time. The main goal of Shangri-La is to be a repository of knowledge and art after the rest of the world blows itself up.

Don’t get me wrong. Shangri-La sounds like a lovely place to chill out but it doesn’t seem very deep. Given their mantra of moderation, the characters in the book might agree with me. It’s a tempting but I don’t know if it’s a good idea.

I wonder what Hilton’s goal was with the book. But the layers of ambiguity may be part of the book’s lasting success.
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Thu Oct 14, 2021 12:10 am
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Nine Horrors and One Dream is all fun

Lowell Kempf
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I’ve been poking around Horror: The 100 Best Books (mostly because it was edited by Kim Stanley) and one of the books I decided to try from it was Nine Horrors and a Dream by Joseph Payne Brennan.

Brennan was a prolific writer. According to Wikipedia (so, take with as many grains of salt as you choose to) he wrote four to five hundred short stories, two novellas and thousands of poems. And he was apparently a frequent contributor to Weird Tales during the 50s.

And yet, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of his work in print. Do I consider this collection to be some of his best work and the rest isn’t as good? Do I assume there are legal issues that keep a lot of his stuff out of print?

Judging by how well regarded he is (and I have read his stories in other anthologies) and the fact that what I have read is good stuff, I am leaning on the latter explanation.

Nine Horrors and a Dream is just what it says on the tin. Ten stories, although I don’t know which one is the dream. While, with one noteworthy exception, the actual concepts and ideas on his stories aren’t too original, the actual execution is excellent. Almost all the stories are written in that plain style that looks like it’d be easy but is actually really hard. Otherwise, everyone could be Hemmingway.

Okay, time to comment on a few stories.

Slime is the exception to the plain writing. It’s a blob monster story with purple prose that reminds me of P. Schuyler Miller’s Spawn (and that’s one wild ride of purple prose) And it’s a story I’ve read in anthologies more than once.

Slime is a story that has stuck in my head for a few reasons. Part of it is the over-the-top prose. However, it gives a slightly more reasonable version of the blob monster, which was old hat by the time it was written. It’s an adapted deep sea creature that doesn’t have an acid touch. Just crushing strength.

The one story that actually creeped me out was the Calamander Chest, which is oddly the least original concept in the book. A guy buys what turns out to be a haunted chest and bad things happen. If it isn’t an homage to M. R. James, I’d be surprised. But by being very visceral without being graphic, it just worked.

I’d read, more than once, that the best story in the collection was Canavan’s Backyard and it did not disappoint. The title location is a plot of land that warps time, space and anyone who goes into it. The most original and interesting story in the book, it’s a nice use of Genius Loci, the idea of place being aware and intelligent. Brennan also does a good job of hinting more than showing.

As I mentioned, I have read Brennan before but this was the first concentrated amount. It was worth the read.

Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.con
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Wed Sep 22, 2021 9:18 pm
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Even middling Lord Dunsany is good stuff

Lowell Kempf
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I was surprised to realize, when I started reading it, that I hadn’t read Tales of Three Hemispheres before. While there are vast sections of Lord Dunsany’s writings I haven’t read, I’ve still read a lot of his early short stories.

There was a period about ten years ago when I was reading collection after collection on Project Gutenberg and I assumed I had read Three Hemispheres then. I’m glad that I didn’t. While it isn’t the best Dunsany wrote, if I had read it amidst a flood of other Dunsany, I’d have missed what nifty elements it does have.

The book actually breaks down into two distinctive parts. Some unrelated stories and three interconnected stories, including the previously published Idle Days on the Yann.

I enjoyed the first part. The stories might not have been extraordinary but even middle of the road Dunsany is good reading. I particularly liked the Old Brown Coat, which would have been at home as a Jorkens story.

But the last three stories, collectively known as Beyond the Fields We Know (a phrase that since been pounded into the ground until it has reached the Earth’s core), that’s the best part of the collection. Although the best story being a reprint from an earlier collection doesn’t Tales of Three Hemispheres any favors as a stand-alone book.

I’m not exaggerating that each of these stores is Lord Dunsany going to the land of dreams… and being a tourist. In particular, Idle Days on the Yann is a flat-out travelogue. It isn’t a narrative. It’s world building. And in Lord Dunsany’s hands, world building is magical.

Between The Gods of Pegana and Beyond the Fields We Know, Lord Dunsany basically created splat books.

Tales of Three Hemispheres is not one of Lord Dunsany’s greatest hits. However, it isn’t just for the completists either.
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Wed Sep 15, 2021 6:28 pm
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Wow, the Great Pumpkin is BLEAK

Lowell Kempf
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Since stories are already selling Halloween stuff and you can only watch The Nightmare Before Christmas so many times in rapid succession, we let out seven-year-old watch Its The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. It’s a special that neither of us had watched in at least a couple decades.

Wow. Was this actually aimed at kids?

The world of Peanuts is always bleak but there is usually some element of hope somewhere, particularly in the specials. And there are some many that there have to be ones I’ve forgotten or never seen. But the Great Pumpkin seems particularly bleak.

All of the characters are either mean or miserable, with the exception of Snoopy. It’s just a profoundly unhappy setting. In particular, the way that the world treats Charlie Brown is rough. Linus and Sally choose to ignore trick or treating and parties to wait for the Great Pumpkin. Bad things just happen to Charlie Brown. Every adult in his neighborhood singling him out to give him a rock is Kafkaesque.

The most redemptive character is Lucy. While she is cruel and bullying, she also gets extra candy for Linus and brings him home from the pumpkin patch in the middle of the night.

Truth to tell, given sophisticated jokes (needing to have a signed document notarized, denominational differences between Santa Claus versus the Great Pumpkin, demands for restitution) as well as the black comedy (as opposed to the slapstick of, say, the Three Stooges), I honestly wonder if adults were the actual intended audience for real.

Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Mon Sep 13, 2021 7:19 pm
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The Sound of His Horn is a fever dream of a dystopia

Lowell Kempf
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The Sound of His Horn is a novel that I occasionally saw listed as an influential one but not one I heard a lot of conversation about. As if it was a book that mostly read by authors It was written by Sarban, which was the pseudonym for the British diplomat John William Wall. And, as I read the book, I couldn’t help but wonder if his professional life influenced his artistic one.

The Sound of His Horn is a ‘What if Hitler won WW II’ stories but it’s one that not like any other I have read. Instead of an authoritarian dystopia, it is a fever dream with touches of primal fear and Brave New World eugenics.

The story is framed as a story within a story. An unnamed narrator hears the story from a WW II veteran named Alan Querdillon who is clearly suffering from PTSD. During the war, he escaped from a German prison camp. Shocked by a mysterious barrier, he wakes up a hundred years later in a world where Germany had won.

The entire future section of the book takes place at the hunting estate of Reich Master Forester Count Hans Von Hackelnberg. Almost medieval in many respects and science fiction in others, the estate is an absolute horror show where human beings, sometimes genetically modified, are the prey.

There is absolutely no way to talk about The Sound of His Horn without mentioning the complete objectification of women in the bad future. They are hunted, bred to be hunting animals and even used as furniture. Since this is depicted as despicable and nightmarish, I’m choosing to believe that Sarban does not support such a view. The degree of dehumanization is profoundly and effectively disturbing.

And I also have to mention Von Hackelnberg. While he actually shows up in a relatively small portion of what is already a short novel, he looms over everything. A giant of a man who is full of primal rage and violence, I’m not sure if he’s supposed to be supernatural or not. His scorn for his fat, pampered guests emphasizes his other nature.

As I mentioned before, Querdillon is clearly suffering from PTSD in the present time and the future section has a definite fever dream quality. A very possible interpretation is that he went mad and all of his fantastic experiences were in his his head. That possibility makes the already dreamy, nightmarish book even more uncertain.

After reading The Sound of His Horn, I can see why the book is considered so influential and also why it doesn’t seem to be widely read. I don’t know if it is a good book but it is a memorable and disturbing one.
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Fri Sep 10, 2021 10:19 pm
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Nearing the middle of Cozy Grove

Lowell Kempf
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As I wrote a couple months ago, we started playing Cozy Grove. It’s a video game about being gently helping unhappy ghosts let go and pass on. And we’ve made it to about the halfway point.

Short version: the game has kept us engaged and want to keep playing. So, that’s a thumbs up.

Here’s a recap: You are a spirit scout, a branch of scouting that is into wildernesss skills and helping the restless dead find peace. And you are stuck on an island that is full to the bursting with unhappy ghosts. Who are all pretty friendly. At the worst, they are rude but they will still talk to you. You don’t have to worry about the dead trying to horribly murder you.

While there is a plenty of crafting and decorating for you to do, the heart of the game is fulfilling literally hundreds of fetch quests. And, slowly, you find out each ghosts story. As opposed to random, faceless ghosts, you have a small collection of ghosts, each with their own story to explore.

And so far, those stories range from the melancholy to the seriously depressing.

Every time you level up, the island expands and you get a new ghost so we haven’t seen everyone yet. But none of the stories have been ‘inappropriate’ and forced us to edit them for our seven-year-old.

None of the stories are that surprising. We’ve only completed one but they all seem to have plenty of foreshadowing.

Cozy Grove hasn’t been shocking or surprising but it has been a slightly sad way to decompress.
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Wed Aug 18, 2021 8:04 pm
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Okay, Tom Baker was great. I admit it.

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I keep going back and forth when it comes to Tom Baker.

As someone who got into Doctor Who in the mid-80s, Tom Baker was _the_ Doctor. He still holds the record for the most years on the show. He was the iconic version of the character. If people knew nothing else about Doctor Who, they knew about the scarf.

And there have been so many times that I have felt his time on Doctor Who is so over-hyped. But, to be completely fair, I blame that almost entirely on Graham Wilson.

While my introduction to Doctor Who was reruns of the Jon Pertwee era, a lot of the people I knew who loved Doctor Who had been introduced through Tom Baker. For some, he was their only Doctor. I’ve heard of at least one station (I think it was a college TV station, not a PBS one) that ONLY showed Tom Baker. When they’d get to Logopolis, they’d loop back to Robot.

I think of Tom Baker’s time as breaking down into three distinct parts. Phillip Hinchcliffe as the producer, Graham Wilson as the producer and John Nathan-Turner as the producer. And, frankly, I don’t think Phillip Hinchcliffe’s time as a producer can be overhyped. Those three seasons are such a golden era of Doctor Who that I have seen retrospectives that basically ignore Tom Baker’s other four seasons!

Graham Wilson’s time, on the other hand, was hit by budget struggles, production union strikes and a demand to make the show lighter and sillier. (Mary Whitehall was the murderer of children’s dreams) There were still some gems. City of Death is a _classic_ But I sometimes rewatch The Horns of Nimon just to relive my utter amazement that it exists.

Honestly, as controversial as John Nathan-Turner was as a producer and a human being, I remember having a sense of relief when I first watched his one season with Tom Baker. I was just so tired of the goofy tone of Wilson and the Doctor being so unbeatable.

Tom Baker’s time had some low points (The Nightmare of Eden anyone?) but it had more high points than low points. It was during his time that Doctor Who had its first time as an international phenomenon. And as singularly unique as Tom Baker is, I don’t think another actor could have done the same. We may well not have a New Who without him.

Okay. Tom Baker’s Doctor was great.
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Tue Aug 17, 2021 12:16 am
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My biggest takeaway from Coco

Lowell Kempf
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As I am perpetually years behind watching even kids movies (and I have a kid so those are usually the only movies I watch!), it was only a month or so ago I finally saw Coco. It only took me four years.

And everyone I know who watched it and didn’t force me to see it has a lot to answer for.

While Coco doesn’t knock Inside Out down from being my favorite Pixar movie, it is very high in my opinion and enjoyment. Not only is it ridiculously visually beautiful, I really enjoyed the music. I don’t know if Pixar has done any other musicals.

And keeping with how rare their musicals are, all the music is diegetic (I had to look that word up), meaning all the musical numbers comes from the characters actually performing them within the context of the story. IE, there isn’t an offstage orchestra and the songs aren’t in theater of the mind.

I am not going to give away any spoilers because there must be some people like I was who haven’t seen the movie yet but would like to. But there is a takeaway I want to comment on.

The movie has two protagonists, Miguel and Hector. They both have their own character arcs and personal journeys to make.

However, I believe the actual hero of the story is Mama Imelda. (Okay, just saying that is a spoiler) While she has her own character arc, she is also the one who saves the family in life and in death. Imelda gets things DONE and she is magnificent for it.

I really enjoyed Coco, not the least for its kickass skeleton great great grandmother.

Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Wed Aug 11, 2021 7:00 pm
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