TV: How I Met Your Mother season 9 (2013-14)

how-i-met-your-mother-season-9-premiere-1creators: Carter Bays & Craig Thomas
language: English with bits of Italian, Spanish, Russian and probably something else I forgot
length: 24 episodes, 22 minutes each
finished watching on: 1 April 2014

I’ve been roughly keeping up with this series since it started in about September last year – well, I’ve often forgotten about it for a few weeks and had to catch up, but last year I think I watched the whole series in two days and felt empty afterwards because none of the episodes had time to sink in. So this time it was a bit better.

This one is about Barney and Robin’s wedding, and the premise is now that it’s set over the course of about 24 or 48 hours. As such, there’s a lot of filler – but there’s also the opportunity to establish some running gags over the whole series, which perhaps wouldn’t have staying power in any of the series lasting a year.

Here, unlike previous series, the mother has been introduced (although we don’t hear her name until the final episode, I think). We now get to see more episodes involving her, and some flashforward to after they’ve met – and the 200th episode tells her story up to that point. I think it would have been better for them to have introduced her a few seasons earlier – the format of this season worked quite well in that respect, and her introduction was a bit of an anticlimax after 8 years.

But perhaps it wouldn’t work that well – part of How I Met Your Mother’s appeal is that they had so many conflicting theories on who the mother would be and how they’d meet, especially in the early days before facts started really pouring out. And then the ending wouldn’t have worked quite as well – or maybe it would. Need I mention that the next paragraph contains spoilers?

The ending was a big disappointment for a lot of people. I’m inclined to agree, but I can see some sort of sense in it. The idea is that after the end of the season, Barney and Robin get divorced and then the mother dies of some unknown illness, and in the final scene, the kids convince the older Ted to go find Robin. It was made worse for me because I had downloaded a mislabelled file which skipped the first half of the final episode, meaning that I missed them getting a divorce.

In some ways, this follows a realistic plotline – in the real world, people die and people get divorced, and stories don’t always have a traditional happy ending. However, this is not the real world, this is TV world, and in TV world, when you’ve worked your way up for around four seasons to the climax of a wedding (where we already know Ted will meet his future wife), it’s downright mean to have it not work out properly. The mother is a different case, and I’m a bit more sympathetic to the idea of that not working out properly because of outside factors, but Barney and Robin spent a lot of time emotionally adjusting to each other during this season and the ones before, so even though it can be expected that it might not work out, it feels like we’ve wasted time. The problem with the mother’s ending is the converse: we didn’t get enough time to become attached to her, so the final episode, while sad, couldn’t make me react in a very strong way.

The final ending where Ted goes to get Robin back just makes the whole series feel like a “shaggy dog” story (I can’t remember the origin of that term, but it means like a pointless story). Sure, it explains why he went into so much detail about his feelings for Robin, but it again feels like we’ve been cheated. Perhaps even worse is the fact that it’s well known that the final scene was filmed about 7 years ago – when it became clear that the kids were growing up, and that they could only have them reacting to things Ted said in the first two seasons or so, they filmed the final scene early. So the producers have known exactly how the series would end for a very long time.

But that said, I did see someone reacting to the ending by editing all the depressing and unsatisfying parts out entirely and posting it on Youtube as an alternative ending, and I’d have to say I disagree with that. The ending is what it is, and I think it’s realistic enough that I’ll give it a pass on that. In some ways, because the finale had been built up so much, if nothing had happened and we’d got a completely happy ending, it would be more disappointing.

Book #55: Something Like Spring (2014)

20652686author: Jay Bell
language: English
length: 460 pages
finished reading on: 31 March 2014

This is the fourth book by Jay Bell in the series that began with Something Like Summer, which I listened to last year and followed up with the next two books on Kindle. I actually finished it in about five days, much quicker than I had even done with the previous books in the series, because I got right into it.

The story is again intertwined with the previous stories, but not as directly as previously, as the main character is a new one. Again, he’s gay, and again, he enters first into a doomed relationship before leaving it to find himself and grow up. This particular character is Jason, not to be confused with the Jace of the previous story. He’s an orphan in the foster system, so at first it seems like a foregone conclusion what will happen next: he will move in with Ben and Tim, have a great time, and end up living with them. But first he has to move in with a horrible family, and sleep with their son to establish the bad circumstances that can be healed by living with the characters we already know. In the end it’s a little different, as his relationship with the other characters is established once he’s already an adult, so not a true foster relationship, and it’s a kind of weird situation where they originally just help him get back on his feet, and then get attached to each other.

The first relationship that the boy has, with a guy called Caesar, of all things, very much falls into the category of wish-fullfilment, just as I mentioned with the teenage Ben/Tim relationship of the first book. Jason also comes across as a bit creepy at the start of the book, so it’s a wonder he manages to get into bed with the other boy at all. Caesar does provide an all-too-rare example of a bisexual character, so can be commended for that, but I didn’t believe on a fundamental level in his relationship with Jason.

The second relationship he has comes later, with someone he meets in a gay youth group. It’s much more believable, although the law of conservation of detail seems to decree that at the group meeting, only that guy and one other person are even described at all, to the point where it’s obvious that he’s going to end up in a relationship. I can forgive this because I was pretty much engrossed in the book the whole way through, but it felt a bit lazy that none of the other characters were being fleshed out. Anyway, this guy is in a bad relationship, which he gets out of, but then he leaves to become a rescue swimmer for four years, leaving the main character alone.

Perhaps it was just the fact that I was reading the book very quickly, but I felt like not enough detail or time was being devoted to each event in the story. Some events felt very rushed, and there would be a sudden time jump afterwards, leaving the conclusion and consequences of the event hanging. In a few cases, this seemed to be to match the events of this story with those of the previous stories, although this was strange, because the story is much more standalone than the others.

It was great to read about all the characters from the other books again. Some loose ends from the other books were finally tied up, such as Tim’s crazy ex, who shows up in a particularly hair-raising scene. Some characters hardly showed up at all, like Ben’s friend Allison, who only appears near the end a couple of times, but was a major character in the first book.

The seasons theme seemed very tacked-on in this book. The author didn’t make any secret of the fact that he was writing it to complete the set of four season-themed books, although he’s expressed an interest in continuing the stories of the various characters somehow, but while Something Like Summer had a very obvious summer motif running throughout, if there’s any spring motif here it’s very subtle. I can see it a bit with, for instance, the main character having a picnic with his boyfriend, or other things like that, but it didn’t seem desperately important to the story like it did in the first one, where I remember Ben moving away to a Chicagoan winter and becoming miserable.

More than ever, though, this book just showed me how much I like Jay Bell’s writing, despite the flaws and the imperfect storylines. I really wanted to just keep reading the story and reading about the characters. I hope I get another chance soon. In the meantime I should probably try some other gay romance, or another book by Bell, although it’s always been one of those situations where I don’t know where to start.

Book #54: Dodger (2012)

dodgerterrypratchettauthor: Terry Pratchett
language: English
length: 416 pages
finished reading on: 26 March 2014

When I first heard about Dodger, Terry Pratchett’s novel about a character based on the Artful Dodger of Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, I immediately thought that it must be just Pratchett writing about London in the same way he’d usually write about Ankh-Morpork in the Discworld novels, since Ankh-Morpork is pretty much a stand-in for Victorian London anyway. To be fair, my assumption was largely right, although it is also more than that.

Pratchett’s vision of London does actually include many characters who really lived in London at the time he is talking about. Charles Dickens is introduced as a character very early on – perhaps implying that the Artful Dodger of his own novels is based on the Dodger from Pratchett’s novel, at least in that universe. Other characters with recognizable names include Benjamin Disraeli, a contemporary Prime Minister, and Pratchett includes a historical postscript detailing how some of the other characters are based on real life. Another obvious example is when Dodger defeats Sweeney Todd, who becomes known as the Demon Barber of Fleet Street.

In the story, the main character Dodger is what he calls a tosher, meaning someone who scavenges in the sewers. He actually does alright for himself this way, occasionally coming into wealth accidentally by picking up a more valuable than usual coin (all valued in pre-decimal lunacy, of course, things like farthings and sixpences that we don’t have anymore). Then he discovers a girl being attacked by men, and fends them off, then accidentally gets embroiled in an international scandal as a result and becomes known in London’s high society.

One advantage of not being Discworld is that Pratchett is freed up from having to use all his recurring characters all the time – he doesn’t do this in every novel, of course, but frequently it feels like he’s only including a character because he feels obliged. Here he has free reign over who gets into the book. He’s also able to actively explore Victorian history, rather than obliquely alluding to it. As his postscript notes, it’s something he’s had on the backburner for a while, and it’s good that he’s had the chance to write a novel about it while he still can. It’s just a shame that by writing about something non-Discworld, he’s chosen the place that most resembles the Discworld, and I feel like he could have used the opportunity to write about somewhere else instead, or another period.

Ultimately, I didn’t find it as engrossing as I used to find the Discworld when I was a teenager, just like as I must have mentioned on the more recent Discworld reviews, I feel like he’s been losing his touch recently, or at the very least been a bit more hit-and-miss, because I think the Long Earth series was a definite hit. This was fine, indeed exciting, but I wasn’t very motivated to read it. In fact, it’s the first book I’ve actually read (rather than listened to) since November. I think this is as much for time considerations as anything else, since I have been getting through a lot of audiobooks by doubling the use of my time cycling to also listen to audiobooks. But that’s not the full story, because as soon as I finished this book, I devoured another one in about five days (up next!!). So I’m going to go with that: fine, but not engrossing enough to motivate me to keep reading every day.

Book #53: The Cuckoo’s Calling (2013)

9780751549256author: Robert Galbraith—oh who am I kidding, J.K. Rowling!
language: English with quotes in Latin
length: 955 minutes (15 hours 55 minutes)
finished listening on: 23 Mar 2014

This was Rowling’s “secret” novel, written under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith. The story is now fairly famous, so I won’t recount it fully here – suffice to say, I heard about it after the news broke last year, and I decided to go for it, as it was being promoted on Audible.

Immediately it was a much more engrossing listen than two other books I’d been trying to listen to before that – both of those came from the Humble Audiobook Bundle and both were terrible teenage fantasies and Twilight clones, which almost put me off the other Audiobook Bundle books. But I’m not here to talk about those. In contrast to the other two that I could barely listen to for half an hour at a time, I listened to the first two hours of The Cuckoo’s Calling continuously. There’s something about Rowling’s writing style that is addictive – maybe it’s that her sentences flow very well, and build up a coherent narrative gradually.

The story here is about two main characters, Robin, a temp secretary, and Strike, a private detective, working in London. They get the job of a lifetime when they’re asked to reinvestigate the death of a famous model called Lula Landry, who’d fallen off a balcony months before and whose story had been all over the news in Britain, presumed to be suicide, but her brother is insisting that she was actually killed. The rest of the novel mainly involves dialogue, between the two main characters and every person Landry had come into contact with in the days leading up to her death. I was a little surprised at how much the conversations didn’t feel like they were repeating themselves, even though they ostensibly were, because each character has something wildly different to say about their encounters. Like all the best murder mysteries, the reader is kept in titillating suspense right until the last moment when the killer is revealed.

Like all the best audiobooks, the narration plays a huge part in how the book comes across. In this case, the narration is very high quality, and each character is given a distinctive voice by the talented narrator – helped in part by Rowling giving them all different accents, which at times feels like we’re doing a tour of the world of English accents (for instance, Strike is Cornish and Robin is from Yorkshire, while many of the other characters have varying London accents). This does help a lot in making the otherwise-similar conversations feel more distinct even than I think they would in print. The narrator is also skilled at portraying emotions, which can be make-or-break for an audiobook.

The characters are definitely the best aspect of the book in general – even small characters are fleshed out to an extent, and the main characters all have their life stories fleshed out fully, even where this is not strictly relevant to the plot. Strike’s family life is discussed at length, in a secondary plot which never truly becomes entwined with the main murder mystery plot but helps to emotionally develop the character fully.

On the flipside, the fact that there so many characters becomes confusing, especially when characters are mentioned again in passing after a long time – and as is the curse of audiobooks, I can’t just flip back to remind myself who they were talking about. The other point here is that because Strike’s and Landry’s family lives have quite striking comparisons, and likewise contrasts, to be made, it became at times difficult to remember whose family was whose.

I enjoyed listening to this book a lot. I’m now eagerly anticipating the next one, if this turns out to be a series. I’d also be interested in finding out for sure what Rowling will be writing next – I heard she might be returning to the Harry Potter universe. Well, I can live in hope.

Game #28: Lego Star Wars: The Complete Saga (2007)

lego-star-wars-the-complete-saga-10096director: Jon Burton
language: English, though not really spoken
length: 36 levels, took me in the region of 16 hours
story mode finished on: 21 Mar 2014

I downloaded this when I was on a renewed app-downloading spree after getting a new phone, which has a lot more space to play around with than the previous one, so randomly buying 800 MB apps has become a possibility. It lets you play the first episode (six levels) for free, before asking you to pay $10 for the privilege of playing the other five episodes. I’d already played the original trilogy levels a few years back, first in 2007 when my housemate bought the game, and later in 2010 when I wanted to replay it myself. The game is getting old now.

The iOS version is pretty much a straight port of the console version, although it misses one of the most crucial elements of why Lego Star Wars was successful and popular in the first place, which is the co-op two player mode. You can’t even connect two phones over wifi in order to play co-op, so they’ve just taken it out entirely. The game is still fun to play single-player, but there are a lot of design choices that make absolutely no sense without the implicit assumption that they were made to accommodate two players. There’s even a whole “arcade” mode which hinges on the idea that you have two players competing.

The controls can be a bit frustrating. There are two ways to play it: touch controls and a virtual D-pad. I went for the D-pad, because the touch controls were inaccurate and led me to accidentally kill civilians by touching them. The initial problem with the D-pad is that it appears wherever you first touch the screen, and you have to physically move your finger in the direction you want it to go, if that makes sense. If you release your finger and press down again you won’t keep going in the same direction, you’ll have to move the finger again. It took me a long time to work out that there’s an option to “lock” it in one position, which is much better for muscle memory. With the D-pad there is also a set of right-thumb controls in the same layout as the Playstation or X-box, with little icons for their function instead of symbols like Triangle and X.

Anyway, the game is fun – fun enough that I wanted to replay it even after several years. The prequel trilogy levels aren’t as good as the original trilogy levels – they’re partly hampered by a worse story, to be fair, but because they were actually made first, the game makers had a lot to learn. The original trilogy levels tend to be longer and make use of different mechanics: for instance, there’s not as much jedi force manipulation and there’s a lot more brick-building. The prequel trilogy has high-jumping sections which don’t occur in the original trilogy. A bit of digging tells me that the level list for “The Complete Saga” has a few differences from the original games, and that Lego Star Wars I, the prequel trilogy, had something called fruit blocks. It also had a practically impossible level in the podcast race, which is only level 4 or so – its time limit is absurdly low and it’s very unforgiving. It’s replicated in this game as a bonus. The new version is very easy to pass.

Lego has been very successful about expanding their brand to video games, and I’ve heard good things about the new movie (although I’ve yet to see it), so maybe that should be my next step. I should note that while this game is good, the iOS version of Lego Harry Potter didn’t live up to my expectations, as it seems to have been greatly simplified for the platform. I guess my main criticism of Lego Star Wars is that it can get basically too cutesy and a little insufferable at times. The music is also repetitive (although it mostly fades into the background, to be fair), and the 100% completion drive is a little irritating, as it means that to complete the game fully (which I haven’t done yet, technically) you have to play every level three times: first on story mode to unlock everything, then on free play mode to get the hidden minikits, and then on challenge mode, which is a time trial. Then there are enough bonus levels and so on to keep you going for months. I don’t think I have the energy.

Game #27: 2048 (2014)

Screen Shot 2014-03-20 at 01.16.42creator: Gabriele Cirulli
language: this game transcends language
length: you can easily waste hours
completed on: 19 March 2014

2048 is the latest time-wasting fad spreading like wildfire across social media. Only a couple of months ago people were talking about Flappy Bird, but they seem to have moved on now. It’s a simple premise: press the arrows to “tilt” the board and shift all the numbers in a certain direction. Combine two of the same number to double it, and the goal is 2048 (although thanks to a persistent guy that I follow on Tumblr, I know that 4096 and probably 8192 are possible if you keep going). Every turn there’s either a 2 or a 4 piece added to the board.

I saw an interesting article about it which claimed that the reason why it’s so addictive is diminishing returns – that is, it’s very easy to get low numbers, but to reach the next number in the sequence you have to have two of one number, which means that the next number in the sequence is always twice the effort of the one before it. A lot of progress early on to hook you and very little progress later. This sounds about right to me, although I think the simplicity of the game is also one of its strengths. It’s one of those easy-to-learn, hard-to-master games.

I think I played it for about three days before beating it (the screenshot above is one of the few that I didn’t just steal off Google Images, incidentally). At first I played in a very random fashion, but it turns out that doesn’t get you anywhere, and the most common strategy is to bunch the tiles into a corner or row, which allows you to make chains and means that you can move around the other tiles in certain directions without moving the highest-valued tile. Almost inevitably, you end up with the situation where you have to move the high value tile, so you just have to hope it’s not replaced by a 2, and that you can move it straight back to the previous position.

It’s also an interesting game, as because it was released open-source, copycat games sprung up very quickly, such as one based around the annoying meme “doge” with the shiba-inu dog picture, or one with phonetic symbols like schwa and engma, or one where the target is explicitly 4096, just to torture players, or one where it’s 4, just to be nice.

It’s also good to play on smartphones, as I found to mixed emotions while I was on my break at work. So I can waste as much time at work on my breaks as I can at home, then?

But despite all that, the game doesn’t hold water for me personally. I beat it once, and have no real intention of doing so again. Sure, if a new variant comes out again I might try that, but for now I’m fine. I have better things I could be wasting my time on.