Thursday, December 29, 2011

Review - NotDoppler Games

After having gone through two depressing and stressful months, and spending hours on, I've decided to gain something from all my "lost time."  I'll review the games I've been playing!

Click on the pictures below if you want to play.

Into Space: In this game, you are tasked to build a rocket to go into space.  On the first day, you start off with a dinky rocket, which crashes after twenty puny seconds of flight.  But you earn money from your achievements, and you can build on to your rocket: add better fins, boosters, fuel tanks, etc.  Once you hit space, you win.  The goal is to reach space in as few days as possible.  I've done it in 16 days.  Today I almost did it in 14.

I give this game high marks.  It makes sense.  The controls are accurate.  The physics are passable.  The whole thing of earning money and building better ships is fun, too.  When you're more experienced, you start to develop a strategy--deciding what you don't need to buy, and how to time everything to your advantage.  A full game could last less than an hour.

Isoball X1:  This is a very satisfying puzzle game.  The goal is to lead a ball through a grid to it's goals.  You can use ramps, arrows, bridges, energy bridges, elevators, and triggers.  There are 36 levels that begin with "easy" and work up to "difficult."  I strongly recommend this geometrical logic puzzle game.

Solarmax:  This is a poor-man's StarCraft.  The concept is simple.  You colonize planets.  Once they're yours, they produce ships.  When you attack enemies, the side with the larger numbers wins.  Then you can neutralize and colonize those planets for yourself.  This game also includes warp stations, space stations, lasers, and motherships.  This game is addictive, and it's fun to try and get the lowest time possible.  The only drawback is that there are only eighteen levels.  Also, the AI isn't the best and is easy to beat once you learn how it works.  I would love to see a Solarmax II with more levels and more advanced AI.  Still: high marks for this version.

Bubble Shooter: This game is fun to beat, but I've also found it to be irritating in many ways.  The goal is to shoot your bubble such that you get three or more of a color in a row.  If you achieve that, those bubbles disappear.  Also, if you orphan any bubbles (not attached to any other bubbles or the very top), those bubbles will disappear as well.  Once you remove all bubbles of one color, that color disappears forever.  If you don't get three in a row, you get a strike against you.  In the picture above, you have four strikes left.  Once you run out of strikes, the bubbles come down on you: 1 row if you have all your colors; 2 if you eliminated 1 color; 3 if you eliminated 2, etc.

At first, the game is fun, and it's really satisfying to clear out the whole grid.  And then the game ends.  But the more and more I played, the more I got annoyed with this game, and now I just don't play this game anymore.  These are the annoying points:

#1) The colors are sometimes hard to distinguish.  Red is close to purple, and green is close to light blue.

#2) Though the physics is pretty good, there's a little inconsistency as to whether the bubble passes through a gap or whether it gets stuck.

#3) When the bubbles come down on you, they shift, disturbing the order of the colors.  Sometimes bubbles disappear without apparent reason (of course you won't complain about the latter--take your gift horses when they come).

#4) The number of strikes is random.  This is very irritating when you've eliminated two colors and you get one strike four times in a row.

#5) When you die, the game claps--the same as if you clear the field.

#6) The most annoying of all: the scoring doesn't make sense.  If you clear the field quickly, there should be a bigger bonus than if it takes you over an hour to do so.  If you're trying to maximize score, you don't want to clear the field, but rather keep missing that last bubble until you get some infinite score.  Boring!

So, there you have it.  Four games from NotDoppler that'll keep you busy while you work through your own stress and depression.  Go beat these games, and have fun!

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Review - War Horse

This most recent installment from war horses Steven Spielberg and John Williams entertains while following the life of Joey the horse.  If you love horses, you will love this movie.  Even if you don't love horses, you may find yourself overlooking all the cliches and enjoying the masterful story telling.  Either way, the two and a half hour movie flies by quickly and leaves you wanting for more.

The movie begins with Joey's birth.  The colt is quickly separated from his mother and ends up on a farm.  The boy trains the horse to save the farm.  And, so it continues until the horse ends up participating in World War I.  Along the way, we see different vignettes about people the horse meets.

A lot of the movie looks familiar, as it's full of cliches.  Or more precisely, it's full of Spielberg techniques you've seen in other of his movies.  But it all fits together well.  Spielberg sticks with what he knows works.  Though, his use of coincidences to drive the story gets a little annoying.

The John Williams score is really good in spots, but in my opinion a little lazy in others.  Decades of success shouldn't give a license to overuse parallel fifths (a technique usually reserved for Americana, which the film isn't, or for inexperienced composers).  As the film progressed, I realized the parallel fifths persisted mainly during the farm scenes, something I still don't understand, but hey - Williams made up for it in later scenes.

The acting was good.  Perhaps some new talent will arise from this movie.

Be warned that there are some violent scenes when you get to the war, so I would not recommend this for young children, even those who really love horses.

My advice: go see this movie with your date, especially if you love horses, or even if you just like good story telling.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Mel's Year in Review: 2011

2011 has come to an end.  Looking over my writing goals for 2011, I see that I made great strides in some areas and fell short in others.  I'm still unpublished, but yet it was a productive year.
  • Novel Writing
    • I revised the first three chapters of Escape From the Planet Justice, and submitted to an agent.  I was rejected instantly.  Then I realized the book could use a different angle.  First person and more back story may make the book more exciting.  (Though I'm told by some the book is fine as-is.)
    • I extracted a short story from the first chapter of The Silver Lining.
    • In general, I came to realize that I need to build up some short story credits, so I began setting aside novel writing temporarily in order to devote more time into short stories.
  • Short Stories - I worked on several stories, submitted 10 entries and received 9 rejections.
    • "A Turn-screw tlhImqaH": I submitted this more before realizing it is probably considered to be already published, as I had entered it into the Actuarial Speculative Fiction Contest in 2009.  If you search on the title, you can find a pdf file with the story included.  I submitted it again to a publisher that does reprints, but only got a semi-warm rejection.
    • "When Time Flows West": I finished and submitted this story and got two rejections.
    • "Actuarial Weeding": I completed the final version in January and submitted to the Actuarial Speculative Fiction Contest in 2011.  It placed 4th out of 23 in the contest.  I submitted it three times to magazines before realizing it's probably "already published."  Since the story was well received in the contest, I'm considering expanding it to a 20,000-word novella.
    • "Depths of Inner Space": After several revisions and condensing, this story is ready to go.  I've submitted it once and it's been rejected.
    • "Cat Scratch": This new story about a cat gone wrong is in its second draft.
    • "Gamma Base: Mars": My first horror story set on the planet Mars is in its first draft.
    • "The Long Hall" is an excerpt from the middle of Escape From the Planet Justice.  It's in its third draft.  I'm trying to do this in first person.  If well received, I may rewrite the whole novel in first person.
    • Silver Lining - Chapter 1: I submitted this extract back in March, but have yet to hear back.  I'm concerned the 13,000 word length may be too large, so I may end up condensing and submitting to another Mormon publication.
    • Mighty Kid - Episode 1: After revising and condensing the first chapter of this superhero genesis story, I submitted and was rejected.  I'm learning that there aren't very many paying markets for superhero stories.
    • Time Sleuths - Recruit: Another Chapter 1 extract from my upcoming novel Time Sleuths is in its fourth draft.  I'm still struggling to find the right voice in that story, but I feel like I'm close.
  • I joined my first writing group: the Press 53 Center for Creative Writing.  I attended several monthly meetings, attended book author events, took a class, and joined a critique group.  It was fun and useful until Press 53 closed down the Center in October due to the economy and other issues.  More details of my milestones:
    • It was my first time attending monthly meetings where writers talked about anything and everything on the subject of getting published.  It was very enlightening.
    • My first author reading event was Marjorie Hudson at Barnhill's.
    • I also attended the Press 53 Author Dinner event in August.
    • I took my first writing class.  (Review yet to be written...)  It helped me realize the direction I need to go next.
    • I joined my first in-person critique group.  But it died out shortly after the Center closed.
  • I joined my first writer's forum: AbsoluteWrite.  On these messages boards, I submitted three short works for critique, and I critiqued four works of others.
  • I attended my second writer's conference, and met Ed Schubert, the editor of Orson Scott Card's Intergalactic Medicine Show.
  • I created my Facebook fan page.  Be sure to visit and "Like" the page.  I need 12 more Likes to reach 50.
  • I continued posting in this blog.  I...
    • Wrote some 105+ blog entries, averaging about 2 a week.  I learned that my incoming views are proportional to the frequency of my posts.  I hit my biggest fame with 720 views in July when I wrote 23 posts.
    • Reviewed 7 books, 25 movies, several TV shows, and a couple of restaurants, and a few other things.
    • Created a new blog: The Econo-Mel and I repeated two blog posts from this blog.  (So many ideas and not enough time!)
    • Made several improvements to this blog, including a new title (The Word of Mel), a new look, a new Site Map and a page for News & Reviews.
    • My personal favorite posts of the year:
And that's about it.  What did you accomplish in 2011?  I hope you also had an enjoyable writing year.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

VOCE: Christmas Concert 2011

As an aspiring writer, you learn how to occupy your time with other things while you're busy not getting published.  For me, music is a big outlet.  A couple of months ago, I joined VOCE, a singing group based in Mt. Airy, NC.  I'm often asked why I travel 70 miles round trip to practice with this group.  My answer: my free time is short, and if I'm going to sing, it should be something I've never sung before.  VOCE is one of those groups that dares to try new things.

My first concert with them was a week ago: "Christmas Blessings" performed in Mt. Airy's Central United Methodist Church.  To be honest, I expected no more than five rows to be filled, all of whom would be family members of the singers.  We were all surprised to see the whole sanctuary filled.  The only open spots were a couple of rows reserved for the camera.

I suppose it helped to have local special guests Melva Houston (jazz and blues legend) and Doug Reeves (country singer & writer of "Christmas in Mayberry").  In the audience, we also had Betty Lynn (actress who played Barney's heartthrob, Thelma Lou), but she was too frail to come up front.  I also halfway expected Andy Griffith to make a surprise appearance, and that he'd come shake our hand after the concert, but alas; I was told he lives out in California and no longer lives in Mt. Airy.  Dang!

My claim to fame is that I got to be a backup singer for Melva when she sang "Elijah Rock."  You can watch it for yourself in this video.  Start it at about 6:00.  (Though, Doug Reeves' "Andy's Mayberry Christmas Card List," which comes first, is very entertaining.)

VOCE is directed by uprising conductor and composer, Mark Daniel Merritt.  Three of his pieces were featured in this concert: "Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day", "Deo Gratias", and "Precious Little One."  The last of these pieces was my favorite.

With Melva's gospel singing, Doug's Mayberry songs, the brass and organ, the choir's singing, and the standing ovation at the end, it was all an enjoyable experience.  I'm proud to be part of this organization and look forward to future concerts.  I may not be published, but at least I'll be happy until I get there!

Here's our whole concert minus the congregation sing-along in the middle.  Enjoy!

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Friday, December 9, 2011

Review - Cinder by Will Wright

Cinder, written by uprising author Will Wright, is an epic fantasy filled with dragons, wizards, archers, sailors, cats, dogs, and a few surprises. 

The title character, Cinder, is a young dragon who loses her parents to an unknown force.  The wizard Tig (short for Tigris), protects Cinder and embarks on a quest to learn what killed her parents.  For a disguise, Tig transforms her into a human girl--the girl you see on the book's cover.  The result is a fun-filled journey as Cinder learns to cope with humanity while helping to save her fellow dragons.

The book's biggest strength is its vast array of colorful characters.  Each member of the cast is distinct and well formed, and each one acts on its own.  Half of the characters are human, and the rest are dragons and other magical animals.  My favorite happens to be Mank, the cat.  You won't find any halflings (that is, elves, dwarves, hobbits, Elvis, or any of those Star Trek aliens that look like humans with fancy makeup thrown on), which some people see as a plus.

The many characters are also the book's main weakness.  It takes a while to introduce the cast, which is okay until you realize that some characters cannot be fully explored.  There just aren't enough pages to cover everyone.  I found myself caring for half of the main characters, while others would meet their demises without a sniffle from me.  Same as with the first book in the Harry Potter series, most of Cinder's energy is spent in introductions and worldbuilding.

A lot of these concerns could be alleviated with sequels and/or prequels.

The book is well-edited, family-friendly, entertaining, and recommended for anyone who loves epic fantasy.

Finally, a disclaimer: you might find my name in the acknowledgements (included in the free sample).  I helped to critique the first draft, but I received no favors to write this review.  I'm happy to see he took some of my suggestions, though.  :)