Book Reviews

End of Summer: A Post-Apocalyptic Shit Storm That Hit A Little Too Close to Home

S.M. Anderson’s End of Summer is one of those books that happened to come out at a very appropriate time. The premise of the book is that an air-borne virus with a 7-10 day incubation period (sound familiar??) kills 97% of the human population.

End of Summer was published in August of 2019, which means it rolled out a few months prior to the pandemic we’re all in. That said, reading a post-apocalyptic book with this premise while in the midst of a pandemic caused by an airborne virus definitely made the material hit closer to home than it might have otherwise. 

A Believable Apocalypse

Generally, when I read post-apocalyptic novels or books that take place in a dystopian future, the premise seems either wildly improbable (read: zombies) or so far from our current technological capabilities as to be not worth worrying about (a la the Giver). 

Not so with End of Summer. Not only does our current pandemic make the concept of an airborne pathogen hit close to home, but Anderson clearly did his research. The opening chapter of End of Summer takes place in the lab where the deadly virus was cultivated, and Anderson crafts an all-too-believable tale of an intern’s ineptitude and refusal to follow directions causing the virus’s escape from the lab and ultimate infection of humanity. 

This is why we can’t have nice things

The fall-out from the virus is equally believable. Some people try to flee town while others gather supplies, but ultimately, personal immunity is the only thing that saves the 3% of the human population that remains. 

The Best and Worst of Humanity

One of Anderson’s skills when writing End of Summer lay in the fact that he knew that no one would be left unscathed by the end of the world. Moral ambiguity is a major underlying theme in this novel, and the so-called “good guys” are really just “better than the worst guys.” This doesn’t make them any less likeable. Rather, the absence of any Ned Stark-esque naivety in the face of the apocalypse feels very real.

Besides, we vote for this guy.

People are trying to survive in terrible circumstances with no warning and little-to-no training. In light of that, it’s no wonder that some of the shit they do to survive is less than ideal. 

Many post-apocalyptic novels have the survivors spread out into different pockets, wandering desert wastelands. Anderson went the other way, choosing to have the vast majority of survivors in End of Summer gathered in one location. Led by a former police chief who seems to have lost his mind after the end of the world, the mall contains what’s left of “civilization,” led by the very worst of humanity.

The strong have taken control here, forming a militia of “soldiers” that rule through fear and through complete control of weapons. Women, children, and any men who don’t agree with how the soldiers are running things are treated as slaves (dubbed “sheep”) and forced to complete any menial labor that needs doing. They’re not allowed to leave the camp, and any attempts to escape are met with a painful and public execution. The soldiers, meanwhile, continue to sweep through the city, gathering supplies and survivors while killing anyone they think is too old or too young to serve a purpose in their twisted new society. 

Within this setting, the “best” of humanity–as depicted by Anderson–is filled with their own set of grievances. Here’s a quick rundown of the main players:

  • Jason: An ex-marine, Jason’s only reason for staying alive is to fulfill the promise he made to his dying wife that he’d help the survivors. So far, he’s been helping by killing soldiers any chance he gets. Only after running into Pro does it even cross his mind that some of the soldiers might not be pure evil, and may only be doing what it takes to survive their circumstances. 
  • Pro: When we meet Pro, he’s very much still a boy, baseball-obsessed and hiding in his apartment with the bodies of his dead mother and sister, whom he’s too terrified to bury. Like any survivor, he learns to spend his days hiding from soldiers and his nights gathering supplies to survive. Early in the book, he’s captured by the soldiers. He spends some time surviving in their camp, but when he’s nearly raped by a soldier and murders the man in self defense, he finds himself fleeing into a blizzard to escape. By the time he and Jason are together, Pro has grown into someone who is no longer afraid of death and is happy to do just about anything to take down the soldiers who held him captive. 
  • Daniel: AKA Sleepy. This high-ranking soldier lost his way in the post-apocalyptic months and did some things he seriously regrets. Throughout the novel, he tries to account for his past misdeeds by infiltrating the soldiers ranks from the inside. 
  • Michelle: Daniel’s girlfriend and one of the “sheep,” she’s been somewhat protected from the other soldiers since she and Daniel got together. However, months spent passed from man to man without her consent before she and Daniel hooked up have taken a toll, and she is thoroughly eager to take down the soldiers. 
  • Rachel: Found by Jason and Pro tied up with a girl named Elsa in the back of a clothing store, Rachel has some serious PTSD going on. Her story is told mostly through allusion, but you can garner that the guy who’d tied her and Elsa up was pretty effed in the head. She legitimately enjoys killing the men from the mall. 

Master of “Show, Don’t Tell”

Lit teachers, take note: when you’re trying to explain the concept of “show, don’t tell,” to your students, S.M. Anderson is a prime example of what writers should be aiming for. Dialogue and setting combine to tell you more about characters than a million Dickensian descriptions. 

The only words TRULY needed to describe Ebenezer Scrooge.

For example, Anderson doesn’t ever come out and say that Pro is from an underprivileged immigrant family. You get that impression, however, from pieces of dialogue–a smarmy lady who tells Pro that he “speaks really well” and a snide comment about how he’s probably never stayed in a hotel because his family couldn’t afford it gives us these details without slowing the pacing of the story to describe them outright.

Of course, that writing technique has some flaws–Pro’s age in my head jumped up and down several times before it was finally revealed that he was about 15–but I was happy to do the occasional mental gymnastics in return for tight writing that felt natural. 

A Lackluster Ending

If there’s one flaw with End of Summer, it comes at the end of the book. (Note: Spoilers ahead). 

First of all, there’s a weird romance added between Rachel and Jason that had minimal–if any–set-up. This seemed especially trite since I know that End of Summer is the first book in a series. It would have been easy enough to have Rachel sit by Jason’s bed as he was recovering from his injuries and for them to share a smile and squeeze each other’s hands at the end of the book, alluding to something more down the road, without coming out and saying everything

Instead, this was the one place where Anderson really told us what was happening instead of showing it naturally, and I wasn’t a fan. Suddenly, in the last couple of chapters, you have Pro commenting that Rachel is in love with Jason, and then you have Michelle calling her out on it, and then you have Jason’s dead wife giving him permission to be with her… 

It was all a bit heavy-handed for me. 

It would have been one thing if there had been a hint of a spark between the two characters throughout the novel. Instead, it felt like Anderson’s editors told him that he needed a love story, and he shoved it into the last two chapters of the novel.

I’m not anti Rachel/Jason… but it could have been saved for book two.

And speaking of things that could have waited for book two, the weird field trip we took to Antarctica in the middle of the last chapter slowed the pacing down waaaaay too much. That storyline either needed to be sprinkled throughout the novel, saved for an epilogue, or excluded entirely and saved for book two.

How I feel about new characters introduced in the last chapter of a book.

My complaints about the ending of the book aside, Anderson did a nice job wrapping up the plot lines. In fact, while I absolutely plan to give this writer another go—I loved this novel and want to read more by him—I’m not actually sure I’ll read the rest of this series. I liked where the characters were at the end of this book, and while I didn’t like the neat bow he placed on the Rachel/Jason plot, since he put it there, I’m not compelled to read the next book to see if they maybe get together. Cuz, you know, it already happened.

Worth the Price of Admission

Overall, I’m glad I invested both my time and money in the End of Summer. It wasn’t what I’d call a LIGHT read—the material gets a little heavy at times—but it was a relatively quick read with a good amount of payoff. For my first experience with this writer, I’m calling it a win, and I definitely intend to see what else Anderson has up his sleeve… even if I likely won’t follow this particular series any further.

I’m giving End of Summer a more-than-respectable 8.5/10 for solid characters, down-to-earth writing, and an engaging plot. And, honestly, that last point and a half was killed in the final 3 chapters, not because the ending sucked, but because it dragged longer than it needed to and tied Rachel & Jason’s story up a little too neatly for a book that’s supposed to have a sequel. 

Video Game Reviews

The Tenants (Early Access): A Promising Landlord Simulator

The Tenants is an up-and-coming simulation game available for Windows. It was developed by Ancient Forge, a 2-person company operating out of Poland, and produced by Frozen District—the same indie publisher responsible for Mr. Prepper and House Flipper. It’s currently in Early Access, which basically means that the developers know it’s a work-in-progress and are creating regular patches to update and improve the game. 

The Tenants is all about renovating apartments and renting them out to tenants to make a profit. You have to keep your tenants happy and regularly negotiate contracts. Between working on your apartments and satisfying your tenants, you can also make money doing renovations around town or helping out other landlords. 

And So, Our Story Begins

The Tenants has a story progression to it — what I might call “Story Mode” in a different simulation game. You always start out in the Slums with the same starter apartment, left to you by your aunt, and you progress through certain tasks given to you by your uncle. 

The first time you play the Tenants, this Story progression makes a lot of sense. It operates like a tutorial where you learn as you play, and it’s not so in-your-face that you can’t go off and do other things as you’re playing. But my biggest gripe is that for a simulation game that is clearly supposed to have a Sandbox feel to it, this way of playing through the game gets frustrating after the first time. This is largely because you are forced to progress through certain steps, even if you aren’t ready yet.

I’m not saying I CAN’T fly. I’m saying maybe I don’t want to yet.

On my second playthrough, I wanted to spend more time in the Slums and perhaps buy up every property before moving on to the Suburbs, but once your Uncle has decided you’ve progressed far enough, the game forces you into the ‘Burbs to start the next step in their predetermined story. 

While you can return to the Slums at any point if you want, the new story progression bar is exclusive to the Suburbs. This means it ends up feeling weird to try to go back to the Slums once you’ve been forcibly moved out, and that you can’t necessarily accomplish everything you want to in your preferred order. 

I’m hoping that in a future patch, they separate this tutorial-like Story Mode from a Free Play mode where you start in a random apartment in the Slums and see how long it takes to make a certain amount of money without any other goals or distractions directing your gameplay. 

That Damn Green Rug

For an Early Access game, The Tenants has a lot of furniture and decor, and you can almost guarantee that more options will become available as they develop the game further. With the furniture they do have, they managed to do some interesting things already. 

One thing I like is that the best objects are only available once you reach the prerequisite level. When you first start out in the game, you only have access to low-level objects. As you level up, you get better stuff in your store. 

I also enjoy the fact that people care about the quality of things. Basically, the more expensive an item is, the more people will like having it in their house or apartment. 

Basically, everyone in this game would sell their soul for a Birkin Bag.

However, people’s expectations of the item quality you can offer directly coincides with your actual level. If you only have Level One wallpaper available in your game, no one will be disappointed that you used Level One wallpaper in their home. Once you have access to Level Two wallpaper, their expectations automatically increase. I would prefer it if levels were a little less perfect. For example, if people in the Slums always expected one quality — perhaps slightly higher than the baseline for Level One, but not particularly high — while people in the Suburbs expected a slightly higher quality, and so on. This would prevent you from always being able to achieve a 5-Star rating on your renovation job, especially early in the game, and would also make levels feel more rewarding. 

The other downside to this system is that, because people only like the higher-priced items, you basically HAVE to use those items if you want people to like your apartments. And since they don’t come in different colors, you get stuck with the same objects at every apartment. I can’t tell you how tired I am of the gaudy-ass pea-green rug I’ve been stuck placing in apartment after apartment after apartment after… well, you get it. 

There’s an easy solution to this problem. If they just had each item come with several color variants, it would be possible to create a cohesive apartment that you’re proud of AND that your tenants appreciate. 

Until then, I hope you enjoy this pea-green rug on a stone floor with hot pink polka-dot walls, because that’s basically the only way to get a five-star bedroom rating. 

Accessibility is a Missing Key

The Tenants has a top-down view, and your jobs are assigned via messages on your in-game phone, with additional details in a drop-down panel on the left. Overall, the point of view makes sense, and I enjoy the cartoonish art style they chose, as well as the white-on-black font choice. 

My only issue with the way they assign tasks and give updates in the game is that all the font is small. My eyes start getting tired after 30-40 minutes of playing The Tenants, which makes it hard to get into a long gaming session with this game the way I normally do with sandbox games like The Sims.

You know, with a baby hanging off of me. Like ya do.

I’m really hoping that, in the future, they offer some more accessible features for those of us with distance vision issues, such as the option to use a larger font size or the ability to zoom in further on the rooms themselves while playing. 

Controlling the Controls

When I first started playing Tenants, I thought the controls were really clunky. However, I blame this less on the controls themselves — which, if I’m remembering correctly, were a standard WASD set-up — and more on the fact that the Sims is my go-to simulation game and the controls were just different in this game than in that game. 

I told myself what I always tell myself when dealing with change…

Luckily, they do allow you to reroute the controls in the Options menu. This let me set up keyboard controls that made sense to me, and allowed me to quickly get accustomed to playing The Tenants

One thing I do wish is that they had spent more time in the Tutorial showing how to do keyboard shortcuts for activities unique to this game. Your Uncle says something in an early tutorial about how you can “look at rooms to see what you need to do to get a high score,” but it took me a really (embarrassingly) long time to figure out that you either needed to go to the third tab in your store and click on the individual rooms OR you needed to hit ALT to make that happen.

For a game with such a comprehensive tutorial, this is one area where they really dropped the ball and could have spent a little more time walking the player through the game itself. 

What’s My Goal Again? 

Although the Tenants does have story progression, and you always have a small goal that you’re working on, I really wish I knew what my character’s reason for buying and selling apartments was. You jump into the story with your uncle telling you how to renovate homes, but you’re never given information about why you’re in the renovation position or what your ultimate end-goal is. 

This is one of those times I really wish we’d gotten a Stardew Valley or YouTubers Life-style introduction to the game. If they’re going to guide you through a story, I want to know that I just moved into town after my grandma died, took over her apartment, and am fulfilling her lifelong dream of buying up every apartment in town… or owning the biggest house in the nicest part of the city… or making a certain amount of money…

..or the revenge plot no one saw coming….

Instead, I’m just sort of flipping apartments to flip apartments, and while that’s fun, it’s hard to feel a sense of satisfaction without some sort of overarching goal that I’m working toward. 

I’d even enjoy it if they offered 3 or 4 different “modes” of the game with different goals, as well as a goal-free sandbox version for those people who just want to putz around. 

A Promising Simulator with Room for Improvement

I’m really enjoying playing The Tenants, but I think more than that, I’m excited to see where they take the game. If this was the final release of the game, I’d feel like I could get $20 worth of enjoyment out of it, but I wouldn’t be super impressed. Since the game is in Early Access, my little heart can dream that they’ll patch in some fixes to make this game even more fun. 

If they do it right, The Tenants has the potential to be my new favorite building and interior designing game. For now, I’m giving it a lukewarm 6/10 with high hopes for a better score when the final version of the game is released and I can give it an updated review. 

Until then, I’m off to try to make an ugly-ass green rug look natural for the 1,000th time.

the Kids Menu, TV Show Reviews

DuckTales 2017: Tales of Daring Do…

Even before Vuk and I brought our little Squishface into the world, we enjoyed the occasional cartoon. But now that we have a two-year-old, TV shows aimed at kids have taken up a large swathe of our viewing time. Most of what we watch with our toddler is along the lines of Blippi or Mickey Mouse Clubhouse–the sort of drivel that has parents yelling at their television screens in frustration to our toddler’s chagrin. 

Turn around! The bridge is behind you!
How has he lived this long?

But every once in a while, a show will come along that we’ll enjoy just as much as (or more than) our 2-year-old. Disney’s DuckTales revival is one such show. And while it helps that this show is aimed more at older kids than at toddlers, Disney has done so many things right with this television show that I would urge you to watch it even if you have no kids in your life at all. 

Telling the Triplets Apart (and Other Key Characters)

Let’s get real for a minute: Huey, Dewey, and Lewey have always been used as a set in Disney shows and movies. They had different colored t-shirts, but their personalities were so matchy-matchy that they may as well have been one character, not three. 

They may as well be the Delightful Children from Down the Lane

With DuckTales 2017, this is no longer the case. Disney has infused each boy with such a unique personality that you can’t help but learn to tell them apart. Not only do they have personalities, but they also participate in different story arcs. One episode may focus exclusively on one of Lewey’s get-rich-quick schemes, while another episode hones in on an adventure Dewey is taking with Webby. The triplets are no longer treated as a single unit, but have finally been given permission to individualize, and it is amazing

But they’re not the only characters to shine in the new DuckTales series. In fact, just about every character, from the main characters to the recurring antagonists, has a personality that feels more real than you may expect from your traditional cartoon. 

More Than a Monster a Day: the Plot

Too often, cartoons lean into the monster-a-day format, with no overarching plot holding things together. That works for some cartoons–Phineas and Ferb leans heavily into its formulaic episodes, and marketers love being able to offer disjointed 5-episode DVDs so they can charge parents out the nose to entertain their kids–but some cartoons go above and beyond, creating comprehensive stories that actually track from one episode to the next. 

One of the OG plot-driven cartoons… Man, I miss this show.

DuckTales is of the second variety. While most episodes can stand on their own, they definitely lead one after the other. 

Every once in a while, the pacing gets a little weird. They’ll introduce a major, catastrophic event, and then there will be a few filler episodes before they get back around to resolving that event. But for the most part, the DuckTales plot holds the show together without being so robust that it confuses its younger audience members. 

Adults Will Enjoy…

If you grew up watching original Disney-channel cartoons, you’ll love all the call-backs in the new DuckTales. From Darkwing Duck to the Care Bears, DuckTales 2017 has made everything you loved about 90s Disney channel canon. Heck, they even sing the Power Line song from A Goofy Movie.

Between that, the solid characters and plots, and the occasional laugh-out-loud jokes, there’s plenty for adults to enjoy about this show. 

Though I AM still waiting for Gargoyles to make an appearance.

Kids Will Enjoy…

Our toddler’s favorite part of this show is the theme song–which is great, since they’re using an elongated version of the original DuckTales theme song. 

After the theme song, her favorite parts include the moments of slapstick humor, the adventures, and any time Donald Duck goes off on a rant. 

Age Considerations

As I’ve already said, we let our 2-year-old watch this show. But since your mileage may vary, here’s what you need to know when deciding if DuckTales 2017 is something you want your kids to watch: 

  • Not Directly Educational: Though there are occasional life-lessons included in the show, the characters aren’t directly trying to teach your kids their colors or numbers, and they’re not smacking you over the head with the morale of the episode, either. 
  • Cartoon Violence: In this adventure show, you’ll see lasers zap, punches thrown, and the occasional Donald Duck rage rampage. There’s no blood or death (unless you count disintegrating clones), but if you don’t like your kids to see any violence at all, this maybe isn’t the right show for your family. 
  • Strong Family Relationships: One of the things I tend to hate about TV shows is the way they make families seem continually contentious. Siblings fight, teenagers roll their eyes at their parents, parents complain about their kids… I haven’t noticed that concern at all with DuckTales. There are occasional disputes in the family, but it’s clear that, on the whole, they love each other, care about each other, and respect one another. I also love that their family isn’t exactly traditional, and they make a point of including family members who aren’t blood related in their family. 

Overall Rating

Other than a few pacing issues, the new DuckTales is a nearly-perfect cartoon show. It’s one of the rare instances where the reboot actually surpasses the original, and Vuk and I have been thoroughly enjoying the ride. 

I give this show a heartfelt 8.5/10 as I try to convince my toddler to let me sing along with the theme song.

Book Reviews

Horns: Hell Hath No Fury Like a MAN Scorned

Two years ago, when Vuk and I had our daughter and I made the decision to become a full-time work-at-home parent, I suddenly found myself with a gaping chasm in my social calendar. I’d always considered myself an introvert, but spending days on end with no one to talk to except for our scowling pink blob was–shockingly–not great for my mental health. As one of our strategies to combat my postpartum depression, Vuk and I agreed that I should find some ways to interact with other stay-at-home and work-at-home parents. I joined an organization called MOPS (Moms of Preschoolers), I started taking Babyvore to Toddler Time at our local library, and (the actual point of this whole rambly introduction), I joined a monthly book club. 

Book club consists of four of us. Each month, one of us chooses two books–one mystery and one fantasy or science fiction book–to read, and then, at the end of the month, we get together to discuss them. This month, it was my turn to choose. For my fantasy book, I chose Horns by Joe Hill. I had not read this book, but I had seen the movie, and I thought it would be interesting to see how similar (or dissimilar) the two turned out to be. 

Basically, this.

I was right. It was interesting. At times, Horns seemed to be in line with the movie almost word-for-word, while at others, the two were so dissimilar that it was like a punch to the throat. In this review, I’ll go over Horns (the book) in detail, while at times also mentioning similarities and differences to Horns the movie. 

The Horns of Battle

Horns is about Iggy Parish, whom everyone in town believes raped and murdered his girlfriend, Merrin. One day, Iggy wakes up with horns growing out of the top of his head. The horns make people behave strangely around him: they begin telling Iggy their most terrible, intimate desires; if Iggy touches people, he can see glimpses of sins they’ve committed in their lives; and he can influence people to commit sins (providing they already have a desire to do so). 

Like this, but with more horns. And less sex-appeal.

As Iggy uncovers the truth about what actually happened to Merrin on the night she died, he has to decide whether to use his new powers to avenge her death–and, if so, what he’s willing to sacrifice to bring her killer down. 

Jigga-what-now? 

The first thing I noticed when reading Horns was how gut-punchingly offensive the material was.

Of course, when the plot of a book is that you literally bring out the worst in people, being offensive is sort of the point. But I have to say, seeing it on TV was different from reading it. Shows like The Purge and The Boys have already leaned into that shock-and-awe trope, and I found myself somewhat desensitized to it on the big screen. 

Not so when I was reading it. 

When Iggy, the main character, touched a woman, and she referred to her black golf instructor as a “jiggaboo,” I found myself literally sick to my stomach at the casual racism.  

Me, the whole time I was reading the book

Hill never once pulled his punches when it came to showcasing the absolute worst vestiges of humanity. It made the book simultaneously hard to read and impossible to put down. But more importantly, it made the moments when characters were behaving kindly all the more beautiful in contrast to the evil that was so apparent in the rest of the book. 

The Devil is in the Details

Symbolism of heaven and hell played major roles in Horns. One of the reasons Iggy was able to make a deal with the devil and grow horns in the first place was that he grew angry with God after Merrin’s death, frustrated that a devout Christian could be allowed to be killed in such a brutal fashion. 

It’s an anger that’s recognizable to anyone who has lost a loved one, and it rang true throughout the book. His continued struggle to understand his relationship with God, the Devil, and religion as a whole was emphasized by the chapters that discussed his childhood in the church, as well as the chapter where he tried to go to his priest for help and got painfully rebuffed. 

Thusly.

As Iggy Parrish played judge, jury, and executioner to all the people who’d wronged him in his life, Joe Hill repeatedly asked the reader to make their own judgements about heaven, hell, and morality. For example, did the 80-year-old woman who was faking a hip injury and silently thought of her daughter as a whore deserve to crash into a fence going 40 miles an hour? 

As the story came to a close, you had to wonder if Iggy was still a victim, or if he had become the devil that everyone in his town had assumed he was. 

A (Nearly) Soulless Dimension

One issue with Horns was that the majority of the characters were two-dimensional in nature. Of course, for the most part, we were seeing a snapshot of characters on their very worst days as they provided Iggy with the worst parts of themselves. But even in the chapters where we looked back on Iggy’s childhood growing up with some of these same characters, the presentation we got was far from multi-faceted. 

Merrin was presented as Lily Potter-levels of perfect. Even when she broke Iggy’s heart, it turned out to be for a completely noble reason. Bullies were brutish and thickheaded, with no redeeming qualities. Even Lee Tourneau, who was clearly supposed to be a complex character, gave off so many bright red warning flags that Iggy’s blindness to his faults was a little hard to believe. 

There were a few signs…

The one exception to the rule of flat characters came in the form of Iggy’s brother, Terry. Throughout the book, Terry showed a level of character growth that far exceeded any other character in the story–Iggy included. He had compassion not only for his brother, but also for other characters in the story. This included Glenna, who was repeatedly treated poorly by both Iggy and Lee. Terry was also the only character in the book who was able to fight off the influence of Iggy’s horns, symbolizing that he was the only character in the book who was able to resist the pull of the devil and do the truly good thing. 

In fact, you could almost call Horns Terry’s story, rather than Iggy’s story. It’s Terry, not Iggy, who grows throughout the novel, and it’s Terry who is given a shot at redemption and a happy ending when the novel concludes.

This is where the book was really different from the movie. The movie’s version of Terry was impossible to like, shown as a drugged-out nobody who cared only for himself, whereas the Terry in the book made some questionable choices but ultimately tried to do the right thing and take care of his little brother. 

Beyond Fire and Brimstone

Horns went beyond your usual novel about the torments of hell. Although there were some allusions to the traditional devil, including the use of a pitchfork and Iggy’s eventual ability to communicate with snakes, Hill bypassed the seven layers of Hell made popular by Dante and managed to create something truly unique. 

For these reasons, I’m giving Horns a 7/10. It was a captivating read, and I’m glad to have read it. However, flat characters and the poorly-conceptualized treehouse of the mind prevented this book from making it onto my list of all-time favorites. 

Gift Buying Guide

Ultimate 2020 Geeky Holiday Gift Guide for the Mediavores in Your Life

Last week, when I published a guide of 20 stocking stuffers for mediavores under $20, I explained how important I think it is to celebrate the holidays however we can during this tumultuous year. That may or may not involve presents in your family, but if it does, I wanted to put together a guide to help you shop for any video game, movie, or TV show-fanatics–aka mediavores–you may be struggling to find gifts for this year. With that in mind, here’s 2020’s Ultimate Mediavore Gift Guide.

Note: This post contains affiliate links. This means that if you click on a link and make a purchase, we will–at no additional cost to you–receive a small portion of the profits. Thank you for supporting our family this holiday season.

Best Gifts for Gamers

Big Ticket Gift Idea for Gamers

Playstation 5 | $400-$500

The PS5 was released on November 19th. It’s currently sold out in every store near Vuk and me. So if you’re looking for the gift for gamers this season, this is it. If you have the money to splurge and you manage to get your hands on a PS5, you will make some mediavore VERY happy on Christmas morning (or whenever present-giving happens in your family). The $400 console only allows for digital game downloads, while the $500 console also accepts physical copies of games (and plays DVDs), so you’ll have decide if that extra $100 is worth those features.

5 More Great Gifts for Gamers

Gaming Headphones | $50

A good pair of gaming headphones is a must-have for competitive gamers, who need to be able to hear which side an enemy is shooting at them from and need to be able to communicate with their teammates via the built-in microphone. Non-competitive gamers will also appreciate the ability to hear their audio the way it was meant to be heard–in surround sound–without disturbing the other people in their lives–while the microphone can be equally good for twitch streamers who want to be able to narrate while they play.

Game Console History Book | $25

There was a trend that went around a few years ago talking about the four gifts of Christmas. You can read all about the idea here, but the basic premise is that, to save on holiday expenses (and reaffirm that Christmas isn’t just about getting presents), each family member receives just four gifts: something they want, something they need, something to wear, and something to read. Whether or not you stick to just those four gifts, I know many people–parents especially–like to include books as part of what they purchase the people in their lives. If you’re planning to do that anyway, why not get a book they’ll be eager to dive into? This photographic history of game consoles starts with the Atari and moves all the way up to the XBox, giving the mediavore in your life a history lesson about something they truly care about.

Nuka Cola Checkers | $25

Fans of the Fall Out franchise will love this checkers game, which uses bottle caps from an in-game brand, Nuka Cola, as the pieces. They’ll feel like they’re playing checkers with a makeshift board in an actual post-apocalyptic wasteland. Meanwhile, for those of you parents eager to get some 1:1 interaction with your gaming-obsessed kids, this will also drag them out of their room–at least for the length of a game or two of checkers.

Oathkeeper Keyblade | $20

One of the keyblades from the Kingdom Hearts series, this model Oathkeeper is made of molded foam over a solid frame. It’s like the video game lover’s version of a foam sword. Younger gamers who were drawn to the Kingdom Hearts series because of the fun Disney characters will enjoy play-fighting with this, while older gamers will be just as happy keeping the replica on display. (Okay, they’ll sneak in a play-swordfight or two as well).

World of Warcraft: Official Cookbook | $35

There’s no better way to elicit help in the kitchen than to get someone excited about what they’re cooking. This cookbook cobbles together recipes from World of Warcraft, one of the best-selling game franchises of all time. However, they also have an Overwatch cook book and a Elder Scrolls cookbook if either of those are more to your gamer’s tastes.

Best Gifts for Movie Lovers

Big Ticket Gift Idea for Movie Lovers

LED Movie Projector | $530

There’s nothing better than seeing your favorite movie on the big screen. With this home movie projector, the mediavore in your life can have their own big screen at home. This projector is compatible with phones, TVs, Amazon Fire Stick, laptop, XBox, and Playstation–so, basically, whatever format their movie is in, this projector has a way to make their movie-watching dreams a reality.

5 More Great Gifts for Movie Lovers

Blockbuster | $25

This Family Feud-style movie trivia game is the perfect place for a movie lover to put their skills to the test. Last year this became Vuk’s favorite party game, hands down. It’s simple and easy to learn, but the thing that makes this game stand out against more traditional trivia-style games is that you have to work with your team. So, even if you have a movie guru on your side, you won’t automatically win. It evens the playing field, allowing it to be fun for the whole family.

100 Movie Scratch-Off Poster | $28

It’s always good to have goals. For movie lovers, this scratch-off poster offers a range of 100 must-see titles that they can work through. This updated version includes movies released in 2020, and while they’ll be proud of any movies they can scratch off as having already seen when they get the poster, they’ll be amazed by how many more movies they haven’t seen.

Popcorn Seasoning Sampler Pack | $33

For many people, movies and popcorn go hand-in-hand. With this popcorn seasoning sampler pack, the movie lover in your life can try out 8 different popcorn seasonings throughout the course of the next year. This is especially great during a year when many movie lovers are watching movies at home rather than going out, allowing home-cooked popcorn to have more of the seasoning options they’d have at the theater.

Cards Against Muggles | $70

This offshoot of the ever-popular Cards Against Humanity game makes the perfect gift for the (adult!) Harry Potter fan in your life. Both the question and answer cards make reference to scenes and characters from the series, making it a hilarious game to play with other Potter-oriented friends.

Cinemaps | $30

This atlas offers hand-painted maps for 35 classic films, including charted paths that the characters took throughout the course of the film. For the true movie buffs in your life, you can’t find a more beautiful book than this one. They’ll love perusing it on Christmas morning, and love even more having it to reference on their next watch through of their favorite films.

Best Gifts for TV Addicts

Big Ticket Gift Idea for TV Addicts

Waterproof TV | $460

True TV addicts don’t want to stop watching TV for anything–especially boring stuff like taking a shower. With a waterproof smart TV, they don’t have to. They’ll be able to watch TV while taking a shower, doing their hair, shaving… heck, they can even have a luxurious bath while watching their favorite sitcom. I literally can’t think of anything better than sitting in a warm bubble bath watching Gilmore Girls. It’s a dream that likely won’t come true for me. Make it come true for someone.

5 More Great Gifts for TV Addicts

Wedge Pillow | $57

Anyone who’s ever tried watching TV in bed knows the struggle of getting squishy-squashy pillows to support your back and neck enough for you to feel any kind of comfortable. The wedge pillow turns those issues on their head. It props you up easily, allowing you to comfortably watch a show before falling asleep. And apparently it helps with snoring. So, you know. Bonus points.

Luke’s Diner Candle | $26

Nothing will make you feel like you’re in Stars Hollow as much as the perpetual smell of coffee wafting throughout your home. With this Luke’s Diner candle, any Gilmore Girls fan in your life can have that true Stars Hollow experience day or night. The candle features the logo to Luke’s on the front and his oft-joked-about No Cell Phones sign on the lid as two fun references to this cult TV classic.

Game of Thrones: Pop Up Guide to Westeros | $75

Pop up books aren’t just for kids any more. This beautifully-made pop up guide to Westeros is a perfect gift for any Game of Thrones fan in your life. Detailed recreations of key scenes from the show, including Winterfell and King’s Landing, will help bring Westeros to life like never before.

Rick and Morty Total Rickall Card Game | $15

In the “Total Rickall” episode of Rick and Morty, the show’s main characters have had their minds imbued with false memories of other characters (who are really parasites), and they have to figure out who is real and who is fake. This cooperative card game recreates that show by having you determine which cards hide parasites beneath them. It’s one of those games that’s easy to learn and hard to master, and while Rick and Morty fans will love the reference to the episode, it’s a genuinely good game that’s fun to play even if you haven’t seen the show. This means it’s a good gift to give to a Rick and Morty fan even if you don’t watch the show and you know you’ll be the one dragged into playing it with them.

Wearable Blanket | $45

Remember when snuggies were all the rage? This is WAY better than that. A wearable blanket pulls on like a hoodie, but it’s Sherpa-lined and oversized so you can tuck your whole body into it while you watch TV. It’s a couch potato’s dream come true. And yes, I own one. It’s the best.

Don’t Get Stumped Shopping for Mediavores

Gamers, movie lovers, and TV addicts all have one thing in common: they’re passionate about their fandoms. Ask one or two questions about what they’re playing or watching and you’ll find that you open up a whole world of gift possibilities.

Gift Buying Guide

2020’s Guide to 20 Geeky Stocking Stuffers Under $20!

Let’s be real: 2020 has been a shit show. We started with a bushfire in Australia, moved into a global pandemic, had a brief encounter with murder hornets that almost immediately got side-lined by reports of police brutality and civil unrest… The economy is collapsing, natural disasters are on a rise, and those of us who haven’t taken to the streets in protest about one thing or another are just keeping our heads down and praying that the Gods of 2020 see fit to spare us and our loved ones from this barrage of apocalyptic disasters.

I tried praying, but this is all the Gods of 2020 had to say to me.

In light of everything going on right now, holiday celebrations may seem frivolous. Many won’t be making it home for the holidays this year–it’s safer to stay home for one Christmas than to risk anyone missing future holidays–and rising unemployment rates mean that the holidays look different for many of us this year than they did last year. But I would argue that it’s in the face of such adversities that celebrating the blessings you still have becomes even more important. As a mother, especially, I feel like it’s my duty to teach my daughter to enjoy the family she has, help those who are less fortunate than we are this season, and work toward a brighter future. Ultimately, it’s that–and not presents, or ornaments–that makes Christmas such a special time of year.

With all of that being said, for those of us still in the financial position to do so, presents will likely continue to be part of our holiday season. In our family, we swap stockings, with each adult filling a stocking for one other adult in the family. We’ve found that this is a relatively inexpensive way to make sure that everyone has something special to open on Christmas morning.

As I was looking through stocking stuffer ideas, I kept coming across ideas that would have been perfect had I drawn Vuk’s name. Since I did not, I figured I’d instead pull aside some of those ideas for any of you who may have media-lovers in your lives whom you’re struggling to come up with gift ideas for. These 20 stocking stuffer ideas are small enough to fit in a stocking, cost $20 or less, and would be perfect for any gamer, TV-lover, or movie fanatic in your life.

Note: This post uses affiliate marketing. This means that if you make a purchase after clicking on a link in this post, we will–at no extra cost to you–receive a small portion of the profits. Thank you for supporting our family this holiday season.

1.) Overwatch Face Mask

If you like including practical gifts in your stockings, consider this Overwatch Face Mask. Competitive gamers will love showing off their favorite battle royale game when they’re out in public, and you’ll love knowing your loved ones are staying as safe as they can from the continuing global pandemic. Cost: $14

2.) Blue Light Glasses

Blue light overexposure can lead to tension headaches, blurred vision, and overall discomfort, making it hard for media lovers to enjoy their beloved games, movies, and shows after a long day at work. Enter blue light filtering glasses, non-prescription glasses that help filter high-intensity blue light from screens like computers and TVs, allowing the mediavores in your life to indulge in their favorite hobbies without sacrificing their vision. Blue light glasses come in a variety of shapes and styles, and you might want to shop with your loved one’s face shape or eye color in mind, but if you’re looking for a basic suggestion, try this standard pack of 2 blue light glasses. Cost: $15

3.) Trigger Extensions & Joystick Caps

For competitive gamers, there’s nothing better than having a slight edge over the competition. By extending the controllers slightly, these trigger extenders and joystick caps allow the Playstation 4 controller to respond more quickly to the slightest movement of a player’s hands. Because… science. Cost: $11

4.) Cord Organizers

There’s nothing worse than tangled web or cords that most gamers have spiderwebbing across their living room floor… unless you try to travel with your gaming supplies and find an even worse tangle in your carrying case. The solution? Reusable cable ties that you can tie your cords off with. These ones even come in different colors so you can color-code your systems and keep track of which cords go to which devices. Cost: $6

5.) Legend of Zelda Bow Tie

If you’re shopping for a guy who has to wear formal clothes at any upcoming engagements, you’ll score huge brownie points with this Legend of Zelda bow tie. The mandala design ensures that those not in the know won’t realize it’s from a video game, while those in the know–your happy recipient included–will delight in the stealth Zelda reference. Cost: $9

6.) Apex Beanie

Another practical gift idea, this slouchy knit beanie is designed to look like the death box from Apex. The simple black and white design will look good with whatever winter gear your loved one is already sporting, making this design a cut above some of the other gamer beanies on the market. Cost: $10

7.) Chocolate Game Controller

If you’re the type of family that’s always included candy, of some sort, in your stockings, then you’ll love this chocolate bar shaped like a PS4 controller. This sweet surprise is a surefire way to bring a smile to a gamer’s face on Christmas morning! Cost: $18

8.) Single-Serve Popcorn Maker

Moment of truth: neither Vuk nor I actually like popcorn. But for many movie lovers, popcorn is a staple, and I’ve been told more than once that you can’t have a “real” movie night without copious amounts of popcorn and candy. If the person you’re shopping for falls into that camp, they’ll love this single-serve popcorn maker. All they have to do is pour kernels to the fill line and pop it into the microwave for some fresh, theater-quality popcorn in a portion-perfect container. Meanwhile, it’s silicone, so it can squish or expand into your stocking as needed to give it that perfectly-stuffed appearance. Cost: $15

9.) Poké Ball Bath Bombs

Hoping to indulge your loved ones with something relaxing? Try these bath bombs, which have been shaped to look like Poké balls from the Pokémon series. You’ll look like a genius for having found such a unique stocking stuff, and you can feel good about encouraging your loved ones to take some time for self care at the end of such a stressful year. Cost: $18

10.) Light Saber Tooth Brush

A tooth brush is always a pretty safe stocking stuffer. The average person is supposed to swap their toothbrush out every 3-4 months, so even if they just bought themselves a toothbrush, they’ll need another one relatively soon. This tooth brush is designed to look like Rey’s light saber from the Star Wars series, making it extra-cool while remaining affordable and practical–the best of all worlds! Cost: $8

11.) Arcade Light Switch Cover

Maybe you’re shopping for an adult who has a designated gaming-themed media room, or maybe you’ve met someone (like Vuk and me) who enjoys showcasing their passions in their home. If that’s the case, they’ll love this light switch cover, which is designed to look like the buttons on an arcade game. Seriously. I want these to replace every switch in my house! Cost: $11

12.) Sailor Moon Wine Stoppers

Dedicated anime fans will love these decorative Sailor Moon wine stoppers, which will class up any function they invite their friends to while simultaneously showcasing their love for Sailor Moon. This set of two is perfect for people who host friends relatively often, though they also have single wine stoppers for a few dollars less. Cost: $20

13.) Mockingjay Pin

I’ve never been a huge fan of buying button pins as stocking stuffers, because I find that even funny ones still look like generic button pins from a distance. Not so with this Mockingjay pin, which replicates the iconic pin from the Hunger Game series in a stunning way. This can be clipped easily to a purse or backpack to nerd it up in a fun and classy way. Cost: $5

14.) Fingerless Compression Gloves

Gaming puts a lot of stress on your joints, especially in your fingers and wrists. These fingerless compression gloves help gamers relieve early arthritis and carpal tunnel symptoms while leaving their fingers free to move about the controller as needed. Because if you can’t drag gamers away from their games, you can at least make sure they’re comfortable! Cost: $20

15.) Video Game Rage Candle

The issue with a lot of gag gifts is that the laugh you get for your joke is great, but too often, the gift then winds up shoved in a drawer of forgotten things, regifted, or–worst of all–tossed in the trash entirely. Not so with this Video Game Rage candle. The joke is that your gamer will need a relaxing scent to cool down after they rage-quit out of a particularly frustrating gaming sequence. But the truth is that just about everyone can use candles, making this a pragmatic gift that they’ll actually use even after the laughter dies down. Cost: $17

16.) Floppy Disk Coasters

These floppy disk coasters are a throwback to the early days of gaming, when the only “console” you owned was a massive Windows-brand computer and games came not on digital download but on literal floppy disks. These coasters are made of silicone, making them as floppy as the name suggests and a fun call-back for older mediavores and retro-lovers alike. Cost: $9

17.) Dobby is Free Socks

Let’s face it: though he had many positive characteristics, Harry Potter wasn’t often clever. Which is possibly what made the moment he tricked Lucius Malfoy into freeing his house elf, Dobby, by giving him a pair of socks so beautifully memorable to many fans. With this pair of socks, Potter-heads can celebrate this classic moment. Best of all, from the ankle up, they look like a pair of basic blue socks, making it easy to match them with most outfits. Cost: $6

18.) Death Star Salt & Pepper Shakers

At the intersection of classy and nerdy lie these death star salt and pepper shakers. They’re perfect for a Star Wars-loving couple or a bachelor/bachelorette who has just moved into their first home. If you want to be really pragmatic, you can even include some salt and pepper in their stocking so that they don’t have to go shopping to fill these shakers up! Cost: $20

19.) Cards Against Humanity: Geek Pack

This stocking stuffer idea comes with one caveat: you have to know that the recipient owns the original Cards Against Humanity game. Assuming they do, this R-rated booster pack makes for a perfect stocking stuffer. It adds some geek-themed cards to their game, keeping things feeling fresh on their next play through. Cost: $5

20.) Rick and Morty Toxic Energy Drinks

Let’s face it: waking up at the butt-crack of dawn to greet Christmas morning isn’t as fun when you’re the one who had to shove presents under the tree after coaxing hyped-up kids to sleep. And so we have the adult Christmas tradition of drinking copious amounts of caffeine while plastering a pleased-to-be-here grin on our faces for the sake of the small folk running around. When you tuck these Rick and Morty energy drinks into an adult mediavore’s stocking–especially if that mediavore has kids–you’ll be doing the silent nod of understanding while also giving them a little laugh at one of the most outlandish shows on TV today. Cost: $12

Stuff Those Stockings Full of Nerd Love!

There was a time when finding the perfect gift for movie-lovers, gamers, and TV-fanatics was hard to do. Today’s media-laden culture all but begs you to find not just any gift, but the perfect gift for your local mediavore, no matter what their preferred fandom happens to be. So while they’ll still love go-to favorites, like Steam, Playstation, or Origin gift cards, 2020 is the year to branch out with your stocking stuffers and find them something truly unique!

Surf and Turf Reviews

Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey and Bill and Ted Face the Music: Party On, Dudes

Vuk and I try to set aside one night a week for a double-feature movie date. Normally, he picks one movie, I pick the second movie, and we enjoy them back to back. After, I write this “Surf and Turf” review where I look at the merits of each movie individually and then discuss how they worked–or didn’t work–back to back. 

This week’s a little different. Bill and Ted Face the Music was recently released , and Vuk was so excited to see it. Unfortunately, while I have seen Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, I hadn’t gotten around to seeing the second movie in the series. Rather than have him wait two weeks to see the new Bill and Ted movie, I agreed that he could pick both movies this week and I will pick both movies next week. So, rather than a Surf and Turf review, this week you’re getting a Turf and Turf review. (I’d call it Surf and Surf, but Vuk doesn’t really eat seafood). 

Okay, he’s not really a fan of surf OR turf, but I had to put him in charge of one of them.

Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey Review

The second movie in the Bill and Ted series takes place a few years after the first. Bill and Ted have graduated from high school and are getting ready to participate in the Battle of the Bands that’s supposed to launch them into fame. The movie’s antagonist is a man from the future who sends two Bill-and-Ted-shaped robots to kill the original Bill and Ted and take their place at the battle of the bands. 

The robots succeed in killing Bill and Ted, and the boys literally have to fight their way through heaven and hell to make it back to the mortal realm, take on the robot versions of themselves, and perform in the battle of the bands. 

Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey was just as campy as you’d expect after seeing the first film. The series draws on stupid humor to propel its plot. The writers went all-out with Bogus Journey, ensuring that … 

Once you add God, Death, and aliens into a movie, it can either go really well or really, really wrong. Luckily, they nailed it, and the movie managed to be super funny and deliver a heartwarming message without ever taking itself too seriously (or any level of seriously at all, really). 

Some of the best aspects of this movie include: 

  • Death. Just… all of him. He’s, by far, the funniest part of this movie. 
  • The realization that the alien is just a giant butt with two legs and a face. 
  • Learning that Bill and Ted have two very different ideas of hell. 
  • The Battle of the Bands, where the actual fight between Bill and Ted and Evil Bill and Ted just looks like an epic rock battle to the audience. 

Overall, I’d give this movie a solid rating. It was enjoyable in a campy, dumb-movie way, but it’s in no way a high class movie. 

Chosen By: Vuk

Would Have Paired Perfectly With: Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure

Rating: 7/10

Bill and Ted Face the Music Review

Face the Music takes place when Bill and Ted are grown men with teenagers of their own. They have not yet managed to write the song that will unite the world. They spend their time coming up with increasingly eclectic music in an attempt to fulfill their destiny. 

Time anomalies are beginning to unravel the fabric of the universe, and people from the future try to force Bill and Ted to bring the prophecy to fruition before the entire universe comes undone. Of course, there are many ways to interpret prophecies, and not everyone in the future has the same understanding of how Bill and Ted bring about peace on Earth. 

And some people like to cherry-pick their prophecies

It’s no surprise when a skewed version of the prophecy ends up saving the day. While not entirely fresh, it was a solid follow-up movie. It’s honestly one of the better revamps I’ve seen in a long time, somehow offering a fresh, modern take on the series while also staying true to the original characters. While the plot was a little choppy, and Death didn’t have as big a role as I’d hoped, overall I was happy with how this movie finished the series off. 

Chosen By: Vuk

Paired Perfectly With: Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey

Rating: 6.5/10

3 Major Differences Between Bogus Journey and Face the Music

Normally, I take this time to rustle up 3 similarities between the movies Vuk and I chose. However, since this set of movies are in the same series, I thought it would make more sense to look at key differences between the movies and how the Bill and Ted series changed between Bogus Journey and Face the Music

Introduction of Girl Power

Bill and Ted aren’t the only main characters in the third installment. Their teenage daughters take center stage, going back in time to collect musical geniuses from different eras while their dads try to write the perfect song. 

In previous movies, girls–aka “babes”–have had minimal involvement in the storyline and were largely two-dimensional characters. Not so with Face the Music. Bill and Ted’s daughters have every bit as much relaxed attitude and charm as their dads, but theirs is tempered with an intelligence that we haven’t seen in other Bill and Ted characters–much less in the women. 

A shocking concept as recently as 1998

Billie and Thea come out the gates strong in this movie, and only become better characters as the movie progresses. Their presence is symbolic of what all good parents hope for their children: that they represent the best parts of their family while being even better than the generation before. 

A Little More PC

One of the things that is a little cringe-y when you watch the first two Bill and Ted movies is the frequent use of words like “fag,” which comes across especially tone-deaf when their main message is, “Be Excellent to Each Other.”

Of course, the original Bill and Ted movie is over 30 years old. While the movies largely hold up as funny, the lack of concern about certain language dates them quite a bit. It’s like being blasted back to a different time.

Face the Music stays true to the characters Bill and Ted, but that doesn’t mean they remain completely unchanged. Words like “heinous” and “awesome” stay key components of their vocabulary, but “fag” has fallen by the wayside.. and that’s a good thing. Because, ultimately, the Bill and Ted movies have always been about two guys who don’t have a lot of brains but do have a lot of heart. And in today’s day and age, that wouldn’t be believable in conjunction with hateful slurs. 

The Absence of Rufus

Rufus, played by George Carlin, was a major character in the first two movies, and it would be impossible to do a review of their differences without mentioning his absence in the third film. Carlin died in 2008, making it impossible for him to appear in the third movie (other than a brief holographic tribute to the man). 

Rufus’s daughter set out to honor her father’s memory by helping Bill and Ted along. The actress who played Rufus’s daughter did well in her role, but let’s be honest: there’s no way to replace Carlin on screen, and his absence was still felt in the movie. 

Non-Heinous Double Movie Night

Overall, the double feature of Bogus Journey and Face the Music made for an enjoyable date night. If you’ve seen the first Bill and Ted movie and enjoy that kind of humor, you’ll probably like these two follow-up films. Though this is not necessarily my favorite type of movie, the writers knew what they were creating and they did a solid job within their world. Together, the two movies paired as well as Steak and Also Steak. 

Overall Turf & Turf Rating: 9/10

Surf and Turf Reviews

Starship Troopers and Burlesque – A Lopsided Meal

All right, guys. Let me apologize in advance. This week’s two movie “Surf & Turf” review is… a hot mess. 

In case you’re new here, every week, my husband and I choose two movies to watch together. He picks one, I pick the other, and we enjoy a date night. We don’t base our choices off of what the other one is picking, and the pairing can be anything from Wine and Cheese to Wine and burnt hotdog buns. 

This… was a hotdog buns week. Let’s take a look at Starship Troopers and Burlesque and review why these two should not be paired for a double feature movie review.

Starship Troopers Review

This movie fucking rocked

And yes, I know I’m late to the game in realizing that.

If–like me–you’re a Starship Troopers newbie, the movie is a political satire disguised as a humans-versus-aliens war movie.

Don’t get me wrong, the humans-versus-aliens war movie was decent. But the hidden political satire–which Vuk admitted went over his head when he watched this movie as a kid–is really what made Troopers shine. 

The movie takes place in a future where violence supposedly solves everything. Children are handed guns at a young age. Accused criminals are captured, tried, sentenced, and executed on the same day without time or hope for appeal. Even “censored” television footage showcases way more blood than I’d ever expose my child to. 

Considering today’s heated socio-political climate, Starship Troopers felt fresh, original, and impactful. 

About the only negative thing in this movie was the fact that everyone was cheering for Carmen when she wheeled her starship around and very narrowly missed hitting the edges of her parking spot. I know, I know, it’s supposed to show that she can handle the spaceship well in tight spots. But in real life, no one would commend a rookie for showing off on her first day in the driver’s seat. They would tell the rookie to respect the fucking multi-billion dollar vehicle and get her head–and ego–out of her ass. 

That annoying moment aside, this movie kept me on the edge of my seat from beginning to end, somehow telling a compelling story about friendship, love, and coming-of-age while also holding up as a satirical allegory. 

Would you like to know more?

My favorite take-ways from this movie include: 

  • The unexpected appearance of a young Neil Patrick Harris as one of the tertiary characters. Be still, my heart. 
  •  The beautifully-executed line, “Figuring things out for yourself is the only freedom anyone really has.” 
  • The fact that humans were really the bad guys in this movie, but the propaganda-like telling of the story ensured no one said so directly

Chosen By: Husband

Would Have Paired Perfectly With: Live, Die, Repeat 

Overall Rating: 9.5/10

Burlesque Review

Look, guys. Sometimes, you just have to be woman enough to say, “I made a mistake.” 

That’s what happened with Burlesque. 

The worst thing is that I’ve seen this movie before, back in college. I remembered it being powerful and strong and heartbreaking. I don’t know if that memory was colored by a few too many “special” fruit punches or if it was just because that was when I was first getting exposed to musicals, but the rewatch on this film was a total let down. 

But let’s talk pros. It’s not like there was nothing good about the movie. There were a couple of things that kept Vuk and me sitting through the whole 2 hours (more than two hours. We have to pause so I can pee. A lot). 

  • Cam Gigandet is hot AF (admittedly, more of a pro for me than for Vuk)
  • The platonic love between Cher’s character and Stanley Tucci’s character was amazing, and there should really be more of this kind of representation in media
  • The burlesque choreography was really pretty, and it gives you a good introduction to what burlesque is (and isn’t)
  • The singers could really sing

So, how is it that this movie, with its all-star cast and heart-warming story, barely held our interest? 

Put simply: it wasn’t really a musical.

Sure, it had lots of music in it, but the music didn’t do anything to further the story. It was just shoved in there–an excuse to show off burlesque costumes and choreography while occasionally featuring their vocal talents. 

The story was… fine. It’s basically the same as Rock of Ages, except set in a burlesque club. It was predictable (and not just because I’d seen it before). The love story was probably the best part of it, and even that felt a bit trite. 

Overall, the whole thing felt like something you’d see on a cruise ship after dinner. It was entertaining, in its own way. But it wasn’t a good movie. 

Sorry, Vuk. My bad. 

Chosen By: Me

Would Have Paired Perfectly With: Rock of Ages or Mean Girls

Overall Rating: 5/10

3 Similarities Between Starship Troopers and Burlesque

Despite the striking differences between Starship Troopers and Burlesque, the two movies had more in common than you might think. Here are three key similarities between these two very different movies. 

Following Your Own Path

In both movies, the main characters are young adults who are trying to figure out their own paths in life.

In Starship Troopers, the main character is a rich, entitled young man who chooses to enter military service despite the fact that his parents threaten to cut him off if he doesn’t follow their dream of going to Harvard. In Burlesque, it’s a young woman who leaves her small-time waitressing job to follow her dream of becoming a singer (and, eventually, a burlesque dancer). 

In both cases, the main characters have to grow throughout the course of the movie in order to become the people they’re supposed to be. Or something like that.

Accidental Promotions

Both movies also use accidental moments to propel their main characters from “rookie” status to “important” status. 

In Starship Troopers, the main character’s many promotions are due largely to the fact that the person who was in that position died in combat and Rico was in the right place at the wrong time. 

Burlesque’s “accidental promotion” was a bit more overt, coming as a result of the fact that Ali’s rival, Nikki, cut the music in the middle of a show and Ali was forced to improvise. Unfortunately, Nikki didn’t realize that Ali was played by Christina Aguilera and was, therefore, shocked when Ali managed to sing her way through the rest of the set.

Who Knew?

Totally Expected “Unexpected Romance”

Both movies have romances as a B-plotline, and in both cases, the romance is set up at the beginning of the movie as “impossible” and then becomes possible in a way that was maybe supposed to be unexpected but was totally expected. 

In Starship Troopers, Rico only enters the federalist service to impress his high school girlfriend, Carmen. Despite the fact that his best friend, Dizzy, is clearly in love with him, Rico has eyes only for Carmen. 

No one is surprised when Carmen dumps Rico shortly after they both enter the federalist service. And despite Rico initially being rude to Dizzy when she joins the same squad he’s in, no one is surprised when he eventually falls in love with her, either. 

In Burlesque, Ali initially thinks that bartender Jack is gay, and when she eventually finds out that he’s straight, it’s because she learns that he’s engaged to a woman following her dream in a different city. Despite this obstacle, Ali eventually wins Jack’s heart, and Jack dumps his fiancé to be with her. 

And once again, no one is surprised

Overall Surf & Turf Rating

The issue with the pairing of Starship Troopers and Burlesque has nothing to do with genres or whether or not they have compatibilities. The issue is that Starship Troopers was fucking amazing and Burlesque was… meh. It was like eating quality escargot–the kind that’s all buttery and melts in your mouth–and then washing it down with a pint of flat soda. 

Double Movie Rating: 6/10. 

Video Game Reviews

Sims 4: Journey to Batuu

When I heard that the latest game pack in the Sims 4 franchise was based on the Star Wars universe, I honestly thought it was a joke. 

I’ve been playing in the Sims franchise since the first installment of Sims came out back when I was a kid, but Journey to Batuu is unlike anything EA (or Maxis) has ever tried to do with this franchise. Sure, they’ve thrown in the occasional nod to Star Wars–Yoda masks and whatnot–but I never thought they’d create an entire game pack dedicated to a galaxy far, far away… 

When I realized that the Journey to Batuu trailer was no joke, I was one of the simmers who got really excited.

I know, I know. This is a contentious game pack, and some of y’all think that the Sims and Star Wars go together about as well as Mentos and cola.

Volatile.

Personally, I’ve always enjoyed it when Sims goes out of its comfort zone. I supported Sims: Life Stories when that came out, and I play Sims: Medieval to this day. 

What can I say? I’m a rebel. 

Now that I’ve played Journey to Batuu for about a week, I’m ready to give my honest feedback about what EA got right–and oh so wrong–with this divisive pack. 

Fan-CAS-tic

Let’s start with Journey to Batuu’s new CAS (Create-a-Sim) items, which are fucking gorgeous. New hairstyles include Rey’s signature updo as well as a twisted-braid-bun-ponytail… thing… that I can’t describe but am absolutely obsessed with. 

This thing. Right here.

Batuu also introduced some new clothes that, while geared toward Star Wars gameplay, I can honestly see myself using on a daily basis. The Star Wars fashion lends itself perfectly toward those sims who like to be comfy. Most of it looks like modern, fashionable lounge wear–the sort of stuff I’ve been wearing 24/7 since the pandemic gave me an excuse to not leave my house. 

Let’s also mention the Star Wars masks, which are in the CAS system. While I don’t agree with the unique Batuu citizens being “sims in masks” — more on that later — the masks themselves are gorgeous and really well executed. #Sold. 

Build Me Up… and Down

Batuu’s build mode items are another slam dunk–and not just for those of us into Star Wars. Sure, you’ve got some items you’ll never use outside of franchise-related gameplay, but other items are completely versatile. I’m currently obsessed with using their new stone floors in my builds, and I love decorating my kids’ rooms with things like the Millenium Falcon model. 

LilSimsie goes through the Build/Buy items much more comprehensively than I plan to, but the summary is that EA really spent time making sure the items in this pack looked right, and it paid off. I’m currently enjoying the challenge of building Batuu-inspired underground houses using some of the new gamepack items. 

I haven’t shared any to the gallery yet. They’re pretty awful. But I’m having fun. 

Fine! I wanted to start over anyway!

A World Without Lots

For many simmers, the real aspect of Batuu that is hard to swallow is the fact that Batuu, itself, is a vacation world with no buildable lots. 

Basically, when you travel to Batuu, you have a choice between three neighborhoods: the Black Spire Outpost, the Resistance Encampment, and the First Order District. The Black Spire Outpost is your neutral zone, where you can meet with scoundrels, gamble at the Cantina, and refill your needs at your little Rabbithole Hotel. 

I’m going to be unpopular and say that I’m actually really happy with the way EA designed this world. Sure, I can’t build there, and that’s sort of a bummer. But the trade-off is that, when you’re playing in Batuu, you don’t have to wait through loading screens to go from building to building. Batuu is largely mission-based, and if you had to wait for a loading screen each time you ventured from the Cantina to the Millenium Falcon, gameplay would drag.

I just want to play the fucking game!!!

Instead, what they’ve offered is a best-of-both-worlds experience, with one fleshed-out area in each neighborhood and a bunch of rabbit holes.

It actually reminds me a fair amount of Sims Medieval. Pop-up dialogue boxes–complete with character faces–lend your missions verisimilitude without slowing you down.

Unlike in Sims Medieval, there is no menu bar on the bottom left to help you find the building you need to trigger the next part of your mission. The result is that I spent a fair amount of time clicking around the Outpost, trying to figure out which beige, dome-shaped building my sim could pee in.

Mission Possible

I’m having fun with the mission system in Batuu, but I’m not sure if everyone will. 

Basically, you can choose to receive missions from the leader of the scoundrels, the First Order, or the Resistance. Depending on where you receive missions from, you’ll have different opportunities available to you and gain renown with different factions. 

I’ve only played with the scoundrels so far, so I can’t speak much to the Resistance or the First Order.

My experience is that the missions can get a little redundant… but no more than anything else you do in Sims. The missions–such as “transporting someone off-world”–are generic enough that it makes sense that you’d do them more than once.

It’s strangely addictive

Certain missions require you to build skills up, and having a Droid or a lightsaber opens up different dialogue options than heading into a mission empty-handed, which makes it feel worthwhile to invest in these items early on. 

I’m enjoying the story-style of Batuu more than I enjoyed Strangerville, as it honestly feels like it has a greater replayability. Instead of there being one mystery to solve, which is then… solved… there are a lot of smaller missions that can be completed over and over again. It’s like how you can choose to follow the same career path with different sims and it doesn’t get old.

Separate… but Not Completely

Batuu feels like it was built so that you can play it separate from the rest of your game. Batuu townies don’t wander into your neighborhood when you go home, and you even have a completely separate Batuu wardrobe. It’s as if you can play your regular game and then occasionally wander into Batuu for a different experience. 

Except… not really.

Because while you’re in Batuu, you’ll still receive notifications about festivals that you’re missing back home, or invitations from friends to attend Singles Night. If you spend long enough in Batuu without going home, you’ll even get notifications that your utilities were turned off because you didn’t pay your bills. 

On the one hand, I get it. In real life, your mortgage doesn’t pause just because you go on vacation. 

On the other hand, Batuu stops feeling separate from the rest of your game when mundane things like homeworld bills keep seeping into what you’re doing. I found myself missing how vacations worked in Sims 3. You had a limited number of days to vacation, but you didn’t age, time didn’t pass back home, and you were free from your obligations.

As it stands, you basically need to create a new save file to play Batuu anyway. In which case, you may as well let the Batuu townies wander in and out and allow me to toggle that on and off in my save, the same way I can toggle seasons or eco lifestyle or any number of other factors. 

Also. As an aside. It’s complete bullshit that I can’t call Kylo Ren when I’m home because I “can’t get a signal” to Batuu, but when I’m on Batuu, my friends can call me constantly to tell me about stupid shit happening in our neighborhood. 

What provider are you even using???

Aliens or Just Convincing Cosplay? 

When it comes to the “aliens” introduced in Batuu, EA swung and missed.

Hard. 

Basically, you’re not dealing with aliens at all. To create the unique alien-esque features, EA just created masks (and attached gloves in the same skin tone) to put on some of the Sims that populate Batuu. 

Don’t get me wrong–these masks are gorgeous. But they’re also suuuuper problematic, especially if–like me–you’re a legacy simmer

Say you make friends with one of the aliens while you’re on vacation on Batuu. You invite them to join you on vacation. Suddenly–and without any real reasoning behind it–they take off their mask, and you find yourself vacationing with a human. You sigh and put the mask back on them.

It’s just like the real thing, right?

Later, you move them in with you. As you create their homeworld outfits, you find the second glaring issue with your “aliens”: the masks only go to their chests, and the arm tones only go to their elbows. This means that you are forced to keep your alien Sim in high-collar shirts with full arm sleeves. It doesn’t matter if they’re swimming or sleeping–they have to be dressed like they’re hiding tattoos from their mother. 

Theeeen you try to have babies with them. I didn’t even worry about the baby stage of life, because we all know that EA shit the bed with that one and infants are little more than objects in the game anyway. I was interested in toddlers

Guess who can’t wear alien masks?

Yeah, that’s right–toddlers. 

And so my dream of bringing Batuu aliens into Windenburg failed spectacularly. More importantly, masks made it impossible to suspend my disbelief with Batuu when I’m clearly dealing, not with aliens, but with people in costumes. 

It’s like you’re not vacationing on Batuu. You’re vacationing to the Star Wars area of Disneyworld. Except they didn’t accommodate kids there. 

It’s 100% the most disappointing aspect of this pack.

Honestly, they have occult sims. I would have been through the roof if they’d given us just give us one good alien species from Batuu complete with working genetics. As it stands, I’m pretty bummed, because while I can travel to Batuu, I don’t feel like I can ever bring Batuu home with me. And that’s a shame. 

Making the Journey to Batuu

Overall, I don’t regret buying Journey to Batuu. I’m enjoying the missions, I’m having fun with it, and I feel like I got $30.00 of entertainment out of the deal. I mean, let’s be real–it costs nearly that much to go to the theater with Vuk.

The fact that I’m enjoying it personally does not, however, mean that I would recommend it to all simmers out there. If you’re not a Star Wars fan, this pack isn’t going to convert you, and the CAS items alone aren’t worth the cost of the pack. 

Despite having fun with the pack, I’m disappointed with its wasted potential. If they’d fleshed it out, EA could have made a serviceable spinoff Sims game that would have been really fun to play, rather than the sort-of fun Batuu they handed us. In lieu of that, just giving us a genetically-based occult alien would have launched this game pack into my favorites. Instead, it wades in the waters of mediocrity–not bad, but not as good as it could have been. 

I’m giving this pack 6.5/10 stars. And two hands on my hips toward EA for, once again, proving that they don’t think through family play when they create their packs. 

Surf and Turf Reviews

The Thing and Trolls: World Tour – A Lesson in Assimilation

For our weekly Two-Movie Tuesday, which I’ve taken to calling our “Surf and Turf” special, my husband and I each pick one movie to watch together. We don’t run the movies by each other first, and sometimes the pairings can get a little… esoteric. That was definitely the case with this week’s line-up, which consisted of the Thing followed by Trolls World Tour

Let’s take a look at each movie individually and then investigate how they did (or did not) work together as a pairing. 

The Thing Review

About 10 minutes into The Thing, I was ready to fall asleep. Other than some guy in a helicopter trying to gun down a dog and a fair amount of casual xenophobia (McReady mixed Norway and Sweden up so much that I’m still not sure which base was actually near them), the opening felt like To Build a Fire. Characters wandered in and out of supposed-Antarctic bases wearing little more than leather jackets, sometimes shrugging them on as they walked outside, and I fully expected the plot to focus on them getting stranded in the cold somewhere. 

It doesn’t help that the only thing I knew about the movie going into it was a single gruesome, poorly-shot picture of the Thing, which I had grabbed from Google in preparation for this review. 

Six years ago, when Vuk and I met, I’d have fallen asleep or started scrolling on my phone during the wearily slow beginning. I’m glad I didn’t, because what followed was a grisly, horrifying mindfuck that was totally worth watching.  Despite being released in the early 80s, the Thing’s sparse setting and lack of CGI’d effects allowed it to hold up over time and still creep me out ever so gently. 

Good choice, Vuk. Solid. 

Chosen By: Husband

Would Have Paired Perfectly With: Gremlins

Overall Rating: 8/10

Trolls World Tour Review

Trolls World Tour was… weird. 

And, honestly, disappointing. 

The first Trolls movie stood out by perfectly pairing beloved music to what was happening in the story. But, despite having a wider arsenal of music at their disposal in Trolls World Tour, this movie missed the mark. They could have done so many cool things with music, but instead seemed to pick songs at random and hammer them awkwardly in place like misshapen Ikea furniture. 

the map was a disappointment

It wasn’t a bad movie. Justin Timberlake still has the voice of an angel. Anna Kendrick still makes the perfect, vivacious Poppy. But the plot was weak, the motivations of the new characters ambiguous, and the music–the driving force behind the original movie–left something to be desired. 

Chosen By: Me

Would Have Paired Perfectly With: Trolls or The Willoughbys

Overall Rating: 4.5/10

3 Similarities Between The Thing and Trolls World Tour

As I mentioned before, this pairing was esoteric. So much so that Vuk all but bet me that I wouldn’t be able to find my requisite 3 similarities to tie the movies together. 

But I did. 

Proving, once again, that women can do anything. #Feminism. 

Here are three (loose) similarities between The Thing and Trolls World Tour. 

The Crazy Old Coot

Although this is a small scene in both movies, it was so strikingly similar that I had to include it as a similarity. Basically, when shit starts to hit the fan, the Old Coot of the civilization loses his goddamn mind and starts destroying stuff. 

In Trolls, it’s played for humor, with Poppy’s dad denying their history and eating the invitation mailed to them by the Queen of Rock. 

It’s less humorous in the Thing when the (scientist? doctor?) realizes any one of them could be possessed by The Thing and begins destroying their communication and transportation to keep from infecting the world. 

I said NO TECHNOLOGY, damn it!

But in both cases, the Old Man sees the end of times on the horizon and decides that destruction of property is the only solution. 

Isolation from The World

Both movies deal with civilizations that have been isolated from the rest of the world for a significant period of time. 

In Trolls, the Pop trolls have been isolated since the six strings of music were separated an uncertain amount of time ago. 

In the Thing, the isolation is due to the main characters being from a scientific research base on Antarctica. 

In both movies, isolation from the rest of the world colors the actions of the characters and is a driving narrative force.

Assimilation

The central theme to both movies is that the antagonistic force is trying to assimilate everything in the world and make it the same. In Trolls, the Queen of Rock is trying to make all trolls Rock n Roll trolls. In The Thing, the monster is trying to make… everything… the thing. 

LOTS OF MEEEEE

Of course, Trolls, as a kids movie, sort of hit you over the head with the moral that individuality is good and sameness is lameness. 

The Thing was less didactic, and at the end of the movie, you still can’t be sure that assimilation hasn’t won out. But the thread of assimilation that ran through both movies actually held them together as a combination and kept the pairing from feeling unpalatable. 

Overall Surf & Turf Rating

The Thing and Trolls World Tour made for a strange combination. I’m all for watching something cheerful after something scary, but there was just something unsettling about moving from the gore of The Thing into the acid-trip that was Trolls World Tour. It wasn’t bad. It was just odd, pairing about as well as ice-cold water and circus peanuts (which, incidentally, is what I ate while watching these movies). 

Double Movie Rating: 5/10.