Mega Lolly & Chocolate Review

It’s been a while since I reviewed something heinously unhealthy on this blog, so when I saw a whole bunch of new and exciting permutations of sugar, cocoa, and chemicals at Woolies today I bought them all.

Let’s begin, as every good beginning does, with chocolate.

Lindt Orange Intense

I’m not usually a fan of dark chocolate, but this has almond slivers and orange bits in it which just works. It’s also beautifully thin, with a lovely crack when you break it. It’s also ten squares adding up to 100g, which pleases me immensely.

It’s particularly good at a certain time of the month, when I suddenly want more chocolate.

Not to be confused with their orange creme variety, which I don’t like.

Lindt Fruit Sensation: Raspberry & Cranberry

The fruity centres are quite sickly sweet, which is necessary to hold their own against the dark shell. I don’t think I’ll buy them again, but I may change my mind. I’m a sucker for a round chocolate, especially one that can be eaten without getting sticky fingers, so this wins points for shape and surface texture.

If you like dark chocolate, I think this will suit you. They also have another flavour (orange maybe? I can’t remember).

having said that, I think the candied fruit innards won’t appeal much to adults (who tend to be the ones eating dark chocolate) so I think this is a short-term product only.

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Cadbury Marvellous Creations: Clinkers, Raspberry Chips, Marshmallow

Love it, especially the clinkers. There’s a great range of texture and flavour without being excessively sticky (I’m looking at you, Cadbury Boost Block) or taking away too much important space in the chocolate. The eccentric shape is cute (and, I admit, fun to consume) but an obvious ploy to make the block run out faster.

Excuse me. I’m going to go eat some more right now.

Cadbury Boost Block

I’m a big fan of the Boost bar, and this is. . . not as good as that. It has a little bit of caramel, and plain crunchy things (similar to rice bubbles; no flavour to speak of but a crunch) in a differently-textured chocolate segment.

Yes, it’s fun to eat and a bit different. I don’t expect it to be around forever.

Cadbury Picnic Block

Like the Boost block, this is a variation of a popular (and superior) bar. The white stuff is pleasant but nothing to do with the original bar. I salute the creators for including a good amount of peanuts.

It’s a good way to have peanuts with your chocolate, but inferior to chocolate-coated peanuts, Darrell Lea brand peanut brittle balls/fingers (chocolate coated also; the pinnacle of chocolate/peanut relations and unlikely to ever be outdone in this world) and the Picnic bar itself.

Once again, this is a product that is fun to eat and a bit different for a limited time.

Cadbury Crispy Mint

I adore mint chocolate (I had mint M&Ms at my wedding reception) so I was initially disappointed by this block having those plain crunch things in it—I suspected they were there mainly to fill in space and save money as a result.

In the end, I grew to really like this bar. It has its own flavour (mint, obviously) and a distinct texture with both mini M&Ms (who doesn’t love tiny bits of crunchy coloured candy?) and the plain crunchy bits working together nicely.

Natural Confectionary Carnival Mix

The shapes are not as fun as dinosaurs (my favourite) or snakes (Chris’ favourite) but they are smaller, which might be good when bribing kids with a specific number of lollies. Also, the Cherry Cola and Watermelon flavours use the same shape—which is doubly unfortunate since it makes them difficult to distinguish.

Apparently these are “all new flavours”: Lemonade Float, Strawberries & Cream, Cherry Cola, Watermelon, Apple & Raspberry, Peach Pie.

I found the Lemonade and Cola flavours a bit syrupy; the watermelon, apple raspberry and peach pie were all probably a little too subtle, giving them a jelly-like effect (especially the watermelon; the peach pie also had a white section which offset the low flavour pretty well). The fruit-based flavours were clearly a minor alteration on existing flavours (and the existing flavours are better).

Conclusion: They’re an adequate addition to the range but not one that deserves to stick around.

NB: People on low-FODMAP or low-salicylate diets should be careful with Natural Confectionary, since they purposefully use fruits for flavouring, which is excellent except when one is intolerant of that fruit.

Natural Confectionary Sour Soda Pops

The soda pops are all bottle shapes, so some are quite difficult to distinguish. The flavours are Blackcurrant Soda, Raspberry Lemonade, Orange Fizz, Cola, Lemon Squash, and Lime Pop.

Fundamentally, these are sour lollies (a shocking conclusion, I know). I’m generally not a big fan of sour lollies (the best, in my opinion, are Sour Patch Kids, not least because the sourness goes away as you eat the lolly). They taste exactly as you’d expect a high-quality sour gummy lolly sprinkled with sugar to taste: not too sour, so as not to put off mainstream consumers, and with a nice texture.

Infinity War: Spoiler-Filled Impressions

I just watched this amazing video that has an amazingly high rate of correct theories about “Infinity War” (less so toward the end of the clip).

 

Now. Let’s talk.

I’m going to assume readers have already seen the movie, and need to talk about it.

There’s an entry here for those who just need to know who dies before they see the film.

The first scene established that Marvel wasn’t kidding about killin’ folks. I was aware that both Loki and Heimdall were at risk (for casting/narrative/contract reasons), and although both are fantastic characters brought to life by brilliant actors, killing them was the right thing to do to make a great film.

The writing throughout this film is tight. Sure, we don’t necessarily feel too close to any one character—that is the price of such an ambitious, hero-filled movie. But the film is fast and exciting and still manages to remind us why we care about each character in incredibly economic ways. For example, when some Avengers arrive in Wakanda and are greeted by King T-Challa, this happens:

Avenger Man #1: [realising the king is right there in front of him, and speaking under his breath] Do we. . . bow, or something?

Avenger Man #2: Of course. He’s a king.

Avenger Man #1: [bows awkwardly]

King T’Challa: We don’t do that here.

Avenger #1: [glances accusingly at #2]

Avenger #2: [grins at him]

This shows us a totally human moment of awkwardness, grounding the movie in an experience familiar to all of us. It also shows some of the character of Avenger #1 (the point of this example is somewhat marred by the fact I can’t remember which two Avengers were in this mini-scene), and his awkward bow, sideways glance, and realisation that he’s been had all show that he doesn’t think highly of himself, and that he can take a joke.

It also shows Avenger #2 has a wicked sense of humour.

It also shows T’Challa’s humility, confidence, and tact. He doesn’t giggle nervously or falter in the slightest when faced with other people’s nervous awkwardness. He clearly explains his ruling style & diplomatic relations in five words, and then smoothly moves on with more important matters.

Marvel is often criticised (these days) for ruining serious moments with humour. But humour used to show character (and often, at the same time, major plot points) is genuinely clever. It’s also Marvel’s signature style, and although I very much admire their courage in having real stakes in this movie (unlike so many), clever character-building humour is almost always worth having.

The characters in this film spark off each other beautifully. Thor (oh so masculine) and Star-Lord (oh so wishes he was half as masculine) are very funny together, and so are Iron Man and Doctor Strange (two arrogant geniuses).

There are man-to-man hugs in this film, which is special (even though the hugs are quite restrained, presumably due to the whole “World’s Ending” issue).

For me, the most emotional moment was when Spider-Man died. Now I KNOW he’s going to be fine. He has another film coming up really soon! But when he realises that they lost, and he’s dying, he reacts like a very brave. . . teenage human. It’s actually lovely seeing him absolutely fall apart. Tony Stark’s face as he immediately knows he’s failed to protect a child is perfect too.

Although I know Spidey can’t die at this time, he can be horribly traumatised. His innocence makes his so vulnerable. Besides, I saw him die, and I’ll breathe a little less easily until I see him in the next movie and know that he’s really truly okay.

Loki’s death was quite lovely too, as he tried all his tricks and mischief only to fail—showing his deep love for his brother in the process. He’s redeemed, and in such a Loki-ish way. I will miss him.

And poor Gamora, laughing in triumph at the idea that Thanos is too evil to love anyone. . . realising far too slowly that he truly cares for her, and that she is the key to his awful triumph. As always, she is ready to sacrifice herself.

And then. . . bubbles.

 

The end of the film was incredibly moving, even as we all know they couldn’t possibly kill off so many characters at once. The confusion is worse than anger or sadness, and it’s beautifully done.

I want to see it again, even though it hurts.

But most of all, I want to see Part 2.

 

These are the important characters in the Marvel universe, and my predictions for their futures:

Tier 1: Have at least one solo film.

Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, Hulk.

These are the oldest (from Phase 1), and thus the four most likely to leave the MCU, possibly passing their mantle onto someone else (eg Bucky could become the new Captain America). I’m pretty sure Captain America and Iron Man will die (or genuinely retire) in Infinity War Part 2. Hulk is clearly having trouble switching personas; perhaps he gets to retire and invent things. Thor is rejuvenated by recent movies and is likely to stay on for a few more, but he will need to quit at some point.

Star-Lord (very much part of a group), Doctor Strange, Ant Man, Black Panther (also very much part of a group), Spider-Man.

These guys are new and shiny, and it’s unlikely the MCU is done with them yet. Doctor Strange is the least interesting, and is extremely powerful. So powerful that he’s likely to get killed so he doesn’t just solve everything all the time.

Tier 2: Big Damn Heroes (just not, ya know, THAT big)

Black Widow, Hawkeye, Nick Fury, Loki (some of the time), Heimdall, Bucky (some of the time), The Falcon, War Machine, Wong, Scarlet Witch, Vision.

Hopefully Black Widow will finally get a solo movie at some point. Hawkeye and Nick Fury are both disposable at this point; they can retire or die. Bucky’s trajectory is upwards. He is now called the White Wolf, who is a familiar comics character, but that doesn’t mean he won’t also become Captain America. Not sure about the rest except I think Scarlet Witch will stay because she’s young and it’s a logical choice to use her as part of a literal new generation. She and Spider-Man are similarly aged, very attractive, and with EXTREMELY different outlooks and life experiences. It would take time for them to get close, and it shouldn’t be romantic (Spider-Man has MJ; Scarlet Witch is going to need time to get over Vision) but I think it would be really interesting for both characters. Other than that, anything could happen to the members of this list.

Tier 3: Part of the Group

Guardians: Gamora, Rocket, Groot, Drax, Nebula (some of the time), Mantis.

The sisters had similar skills and issues, so it’s possible we see more of Nebula now—but it’s more likely she simply goes off on her own. Rocket, Groot, Drax, and Mantis are all really fun. . . but it’d still be a great group if Drax and/or Mantis were knocked off.

Wakanda: Shuri, the queen mother Ramonda, Okoye (Dora Milaje leader), Ayo, M’Baku.

Shuri is the new supergenius in town. The queen, as a Parent Of Hero, is likely going to die (very possibly of natural causes) at some point in the next few years. Okoye, Ayo, and M’Baku are always in genuine peril. They’re in that sweet spot for being killed: interesting enough to miss, but not so much to stick around indefinitely.

Tier 4: Their plots exist in relation to the heroes (although they’re often AWESOME in their own right).

Pepper Potts (Iron Man fiance), Jane Foster (Thor girlfriend; apparently broken up), Peggy Carter (girlfriend to Steve Rogers; also became head of SHIELD at one point and had a cruelly short-lived TV series), Agent Coulter (recruited people; killed in the first Avengers movie but got better and has a TV show), Wong (effectively Dr Strange’s assistant), Nebula (Gamora’s sister and Thanos’s daughter).

One hopes that Pepper Potts and Iron Man finally settle down. Either that or horribly ironic death for one or both of them. Jane Foster may never be mentioned again. Peggy Carter died of old age a while back. No one is in love with Wong, so he’ll probably remain in the sidekick zone for plenty of time to come (although Doctor Strange comes across as quite cold, so the writers may kill Wong in order to deepen Doctor Strange). Nebula is unlikely to die I reckon. It would be too similar to Gamora’s death at this stage.

 


Here is my son yelling Wakandan war chants with me:

 

I. . . can’t stop.

 

Avengers: Infinity War (spoilers for those who wanna know in advance)

 

I’m really serious about this spoiler warning, okay?

I’m gonna tell you who dies.

Something unusual happened immediately after the final credits: people were talking. There was no relief, no certainty—and a whole lot that needs talking about.

In a minute I’ll do my own emotional/talky response-analysis thing.

This post is basically just a summary of spoilers. Seriously.

If that’s something you seriously want to know in advance (presumably in order to emotionally prepare yourself), then read on. . .

 


The main “teams” of Infinity War

*Guardians of the Galaxy + Thor. This is the most comedic meeting. Thor and Gamora matter the most here.

*Iron Man, Spider-Man, and Dr Strange (Iron Man and Dr Strange have a lot in common, specifically being up themselves).

*Wakanda: The Wakandans (including Bucky) join up with Captain America, Black Widow, Hulk, Falcon, Vision, and Scarlet Witch for the major show-down of the film, which takes place in Wakanda. There is a nice moment when three very different women fight together (Scarlet Witch, Okoye, and Black Widow).

Unsurprisingly, the Soul Stone shows up during the film.

Who do I care about most in this film?

Thor. Gamora. Spider-Man. Wakanda.

Who don’t I care about that the film thinks I should?

Vision. Paul Bettany manages to bring a smidgeon of British charm but I still find his relationship with Scarlet Witch (very young and lonely) icky.

Who didn’t even show up, like not at all?

Hawkeye and Ant Man. They’re both men with children to look after (and also both under house arrest), but writing-wise they got left out because they’re just not in the top tier of heroes. Sorry guys. I would have liked to see a tiny glimpse of the two of you in the climax.

Who do I think we’ll never see again?

Heimdall. Loki. Gamora. Vision.

How do I feel about that?

I am annoyed that Marvel killed off two awesome people of colour and their greatest ongoing villain… but I think it was the right thing to do writing-wise. Heimdall has saved Thor enough times, and Loki’s moral dubiousness is no longer surprising. Gamora is far too competent to stick around Star-Lord, and far too soft-hearted/self-assured to go off on her own (unless she had her own film, which would be fantastic but doesn’t seem likely). And good riddance to Vision, who is not interesting enough to keep around. Their deaths were necessarily fast due to a movie packed with heroes, but they still hurt. More so as I think about them afterwards.

What do I think will happen in the next movie?

It’s perfectly clear that Doctor Strange has this whole Thanos thing sorted. He specifically looks into the future and sees only one path that doesn’t suck. Then, as he dies, he says, “This was the only way.” Therefore, everything he did was necessary to save the day.

He also specifically states that he would let Iron Man and Spider-Man die in order to protect the Time Stone. Then, when Thanos threatens Iron Man, he immediately gives him the Time Stone. Dr Strange clearly wants Thanos to have it, and I don’t think it’s coincidence that it’s the time stone. Anything can be fixed with the power to rewind.

In the post-credits scene, Nick Fury realises what is happening and clearly has a plan of some kind already. He grabs a device and pushes buttons. . . then drops it as he dies. But one presumes it’s linked to Doctor Strange’s plan.

At his moment of triumph, Thanos sees a vision of Gamora as a child, who he genuinely cared for—and killed in order to fill up his gauntlet. That gives him a possible motive to reverse time and save her. (It also gives her the best chance of all the pre-climax deaths to come back.)

A LOT of people die in the climax. Then, suddenly, the film ends.

 

 

I’ve Seen Infinity War. Here’s What You Want to Know Going In (spoiler free)

Overwhelmed.

Yes, that is a good word.

Stuff happened. The Marvel universe will never be the same.

It’s going to be a long wait until the next Avengers film (a year, I believe).

It’s such a very Marvel movie. Funny, tragic, epic, spectacular.

It IS rushed. It has to be. The elegance of character introductions & relationships is extremely impressive from a writing perspective. It’s theoretically possible to come into this movie as one’s first comic book movie—it would, fundamentally, hold together—but the movie relies on the pre-existing love the audience has for these characters while also giving them speedy intros that pack a lot into a little bit of time.

The trailers lied at least twice.

The stakes are real.

Thanos isn’t nearly as boring as I expected.

The movie is fast-moving and complicated, so it’s worth a quick recap of the last EIGHTEEN movies.

There are many spoilers for past movies here, and a suspicious mind can extrapolate spoilers for Infinity War too. So if you’re trying to stay away from spoilers, stop here. But if you want reminders of who’s who (or you’ve missed some movies along the way), this is the useful bit. I’ll colour in the bits related to the Six Infinity Stones (the Mind Stone looks orange rather than yellow due to legibility concerns), and capitalise the most important characters.

You’re probably already aware that the plot of Infinity War is that Large Purple Humanoid Thanos has an infinity gauntlet designed to let him harness the power of six infinity stones, each of which has specific powers. He believes that the universe will be much improved by instantly killing half its population (no more overpopulation, etc). When he has all six infinity stones, he can kill half the universe by snapping his fingers. That is his goal.

Here’s a useful graphic that has been copied so many times I’m afraid I don’t know where it originally comes from. Please let me know in the comments!

Screen Shot 2018-04-25 at 7.10.09 PM.png

I’ll completely leave out plots, villains, problems etc that are fundamentally taken care of along the way. I’ll put an asterisk next to movies that are truly excellent.

Phase 1:

*IRON MAN Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) is a billionaire genius playboy who begins a relationship with his assistant, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow). He is a human who invents a very cool flying iron suit with many useful (military) features. It’s originally invented to save his life (he got some shrapnel in his heart), but gets more portable and deadly over time (in other movies). He is arrogant, charming, and later becomes deathly afraid of Really Bad Stuff Happening (which often causes him to make seriously bad choices). At the end of this movie, he publicly announces his private identity. At the end of the credits, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson with an eye patch) reveals the existence of SHIELD, a superhero group protecting the earth.

THE INCREDIBLE HULK Dr Bruce Banner (Edward Norton, now Mark Ruffalo) is also a genius, who due to SCIENCE sometimes turns into The Incredible Hulk, a giant green monster that smashes things fairly indiscriminately. Over time, he gains control over his ability to transform—but it’s still not 100%. Hulk is stronger than any other Avenger, and tends to get into pissing contests with Thor (but gets on fairly well with Tony Stark because they’re both super genius inventors heavily into SCIENCE).

Tony Stark approaches him in a post-credits scene, asking him to join “a team” (aka SHIELD).

Iron Man 2 Pepper Potts wants Tony Stark to stop nearly getting killed. This is an ongoing source of tension. His heart problem is repaired, but/and he makes more and more suits. Black Widow (aka Natasha Romanoff, played by Scarlet Johansson) is introduced here, as one of the members of SHIELD. She is human with no powers, but extreme combat ability.

THOR aka the God of Thunder (Chris Hemsworth), has quite a family. His father is Odin, ruler of the world of Asgard, who is worshipped as a Norse God on Earth. His younger brother is LOKI, God of Mischief, who it turns out is actually adopted from a different species. Thor’s hammer is super important and useful. Loki can shapeshift, and is Marvel’s most interesting villain for many years to come (partly because he sometimes does good things, and partly because he’s played by Tom Hiddleston). Thor is super muscly and masculine, and can be quite simplistic about good and evil and hitting things. But he grows up a fair bit here. Idris Elba plays Heimdell, a minor but powerful character who controls and guards the bridge into and out of Asgard.

Thor and SHIELD briefly cross paths. In the end Thor is trapped on Asgard due to sacrificing the rainbow bridge that connects it to the rest of the universe.

The Tesseract aka Space Stone, appears in a post-credits scene. Loki is pursuing it.

*CAPTAIN AMERICA: The First Avenger Steve Rogers is a wimp with a heart of gold who is transformed into a super soldier during World War 2. He consistently remains the superhero best known for his integrity, and has a distinctive shield made of vibranium (which, unbeknownst to all at this stage, is from the African nation of Wakanda) with a star on it. His best friend is Bucky, who is killed as they fight Nazis including the Red Skull (whose head is a… well, a red skull, and who is doing Bad Things with the power of the Tesseract/Space Stone, which ends up with Tony Stark. Steve Rogers is also recruited by SHIELD).

*The Avengers This brings together Iron Man, The Hulk, Thor, and Captain America, as well as Hawkeye (he shoots arrows really well, gets mind controlled in this film, and that’s pretty much it; played by Jeremy Renner) and Black Widow. Loki is the main problem (wants to rule Earth) and is ultimately defeated and imprisoned. There is lots of bickering but ultimately the Avengers work as a team and save the world. The Tesseract (glowy blue cube with the SPACE Infinity Stone inside) ends up safely (for now) in Asgard. The Chitauri Sceptre Loki has been using gets moved around to various places and is (much) later broken open, revealing the Mind Stone inside, which is (later still) used to make VISION.

Phase 2:

Iron Man 3 Tony Stark has much shenanigans and then promises Pepper Potts to be normal from now on. She is physically altered by villains in this movie, which helps her survive.

Thor: The Dark World Due to an accident, the Reality Stone is released from safekeeping, causing problems. In the end, it is given to The Collector, a random guy in space, for safekeeping on the planet of Knowhere. Thor is no longer stranded on Asgard, but able to travel again. Loki is apparently killed (but is actually shape-shifted into Odin, and now ruling Asgard).

+Captain America: The Winter Soldier Steve Rogers’ best friend (and only remaining person who lived in the same age as he did) is being mind controlled. He has also not aged, and is a super soldier too. Towards the end of the film, there are signs he may be breaking free of his mind power. In the meantime, SHIELD has been taken over from within by evil super-company HYDRA, and has to be utterly dismantled. The Falcon (Sam Wilson; a guy with giant mechanical wings played by Anthony Mackie) is introduced here.

*Guardians of the Galaxy Star-Lord (QUILL; Chris Pratt) steals what turns out to be the Power Infinity Stone (which can do all sorts of trippy things), and gets into a whole lot of trouble while partnering with a rag-tag bunch of criminals (GAMORA, played by a green Zoe Saldana, the adopted daughter of THANOS, who has committed horrific crimes and wants to kill Thanos “more than anyone”), Drax (Big tattooed muscly alien man played by Dave Bautista, who wants to kill Thanos for destroying half his planet including his wife and child—that’s what Thanos does), Rocket (a bloodthirsty modified raccoon voiced by Bradley Cooper with motion capture by Sean Gunn) and Groot (a tree voiced by Vin Diesel). Ultimately they put the Power Stone in the Nova Corps Vault on the planet Xandar, and it’s safe. Quill is the only human, kidnapped as a child in the 80s with nothing but the clothes on his back and a rocking 80s mix tape.

Avengers: Age of Ultron Scarlet Witch (who is extremely powerful, created by SCIENCE + the Mind Stone and able to alter minds and reality dramatically) and her brother (who dies) manipulate Tony Stark’s fears, causing him to create Ultron, a villain who does villain-y things. In the end they defeat Ultron and create Vision, who is a computer-y person powered by the Mind Stone in his forehead and played by Paul Bettany. Vision is good—so good he can lift Thor’s hammer (which only the worthy can do). Scarlet Witch joins the good guys, but they’re afraid of her (except for Vision).

+Ant-Man Ant-Man is a loser trying to hold down a job so he can pay child support and still see his daughter. Due to SCIENCE he gets the ability to turn super tiny (but with an even stronger punch).

Phase 3

Avengers: Civil War The usual bickering turns to actual fighting, particularly between Iron Man and Captain America (mostly over Bucky, who is by no means sane). Iron Man has been keeping tabs on a super-powered teen called Peter Parker (SPIDER-MAN, who is extremely agile, strong, and can shoot webs from his wrists) who helps a bit. The team is disbanded in various directions (The Hulk is blasted into space, sacrificing himself).

+Doctor Strange DOCTOR STRANGE (Benedict Cumberpatch) is a brilliant surgeon who’s badly injured in a car accident and goes to find peace under the instructions of The Ancient One. She recruits him into a group that protects reality using Mystic Arts, including the ability to make portals anywhere and alter physical reality. He can alter time as well using the Eye of Agamemnon, which is also the Time Infinity Stone (worn by Doctor Strange on a fancy necklace from now on). The librarian/sidekick Wong is similarly skilled in the Mystic Arts.

Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2 Star-Lord, Gamora, and the others reluctantly join up with Thanos’s other assassin-daughter, Nebula (Karen Gillan; blue and metallic), and an empathetic alien called Mantis (Pom Klementieff).

*Spider-Man: Homecoming Iron Man is (sort of) mentoring Peter Parker, who is extremely enthusiastic and in need of some training. Spider-Man matures somewhat over the film (quickly surpassing his own mentor’s maturity). He is very innocent, and a deeply decent human being who is very careful not to kill the baddie.

*Thor: Ragnarok Odin is dying, and Doctor Strange is concerned when Loki (one of several interplanetary threats he’s monitoring) lands on Earth looking for him, but is mollified that Thor and Loki are working together against their long-buried half sister Hela, God of War. They ultimately defeat her, but she has already destroyed Thor’s hammer. He maintains his powers of lightning because he is, after all, a god. Thor, Loki, and Heimdall rescue some of Asgard’s people (better than none at all), destroying their homeland in the process.

*BLACK PANTHER King T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) is deciding what kind of king to be. He rules Wakanda, an African nation that has hidden itself, its incredible riches (including a lot of vibranium), and its uniquely advanced technology (much of it invented by his brilliant younger sister, SHURI, played by Letitia Wright) from the world. Ultimately he decides to open up Wakanda to the world. His special forces are the Dora Milaje, shaven-headed warriors led by Okoye (Danai Gurira).

There is a really excellent video summary at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=97OJjlpbuBc

Groups that already know each other and are connected at the beginning of Infinity War:

*Thor, Loki, Heimdall, and The Hulk are still travelling in space together after destroying Asgard.

*Iron Man is engaged to Pepper Potts and still trying to train/protect Spider-Man.

*Scarlet Witch and Vision are in a relationship and in hiding.

*Captain America (bearded now) is also in hiding since “The Avengers: Civil War”, and connected to Black Widow and the Falcon.

*Ant-Man and Hawkeye are both under house arrest, since they didn’t want to be fugitives. They each have a family with children that they care for.

*Bucky is fully healed with a shiny new arm, living in Wakanda under the care of Shuri and King T’Challa the Black Panther.

*The Guardians of the Galaxy (Star-Lord, Gamora, etc) are in space.

Current Locations of the Infinity Stones:

*Loki stole the Space Stone (aka Tesseract) from Asgard before fleeing into space with Thor, Hulk, Heimdall, and the Asgardian refugees. A long time ago, Thanos sent him to get it.

*Vision has the Mind Stone in his forehead. It is an important part of who he is.

*A moderately bad individual called The Collector (planet Knowhere) has the Reality Stone.

*The Power Stone (aka Orb) is on planet Xandar, in a vault.

*The Time Stone is inside the Eye of Agamemnon, hanging around Doctor Strange’s neck and giving him power over time.

*The Soul Stone is a mystery.

Which movies should you see/re-watch before seeing “Infinity War” (in order of importance):

*Guardians of the Galaxy. It’s a great stand-alone movie (funny, charming, great soundtrack, and surprisingly emotionally compelling), has a lot of cast members in “Infinity War”, deals directly with one of the infinity stones & with Thanos, and includes some details of outer space that are relevant to “Infinity War”.

*Black Panther. A brilliant stand-alone movie (in so, so many ways), which once again has a lot of important “Infinity War” characters, and features Wakanda, which is important in “Infinity War”.

*Thor or Thor: Ragnarok or Avengers #1, or all of the above. All of them show the relationship between Thor and Loki. Ragnarok includes the Hulk, and Avengers shows how the whole primary group functions. Thor is the most independent movie, given that it’s all about intro’ing Thor properly.

*Spider-Man: Homecoming because Spidey is going to be more and more important, and because it shows his relationship with Tony Stark (which reveals a great deal about both of them). Also because Tom Holland has overtaken Captain America as the Avenger with the greatest heart. This is another fantastic stand-alone movie.

Gift Guide for Ages 3-6ish

I loooove buying presents for my kids. As in, I’ll cheerfully buy presents in June (like budget experts tell you to), and then continue buying presents for the entire rest of the year (which budget experts do not recommend). Having said that, we don’t do stocking presents in our house, and likely never will. I hate the idea of a pile of low-quality gifts. And I assure you that my kids have plenty of full-blown present-opening frenzies made up entirely of quality gifts (generally around $20 each, although often there’s one gift that is much more expensive).

We also have three Christmases every year: One for my side of the family (usually mid-December, since my Mum runs church services on Christmas Day), one for Chris’ side of the family (usually Christmas Day), and our own private small & special Christmas Eve. We light candles and open 1 or 2 gifts each (usually 1, but of course the kids want to give their gifts to each other and I try not to refuse generous impulses).

You may have heard of the Four-Gift Rule. There’s a few variations, but the idea is that parents can restrict themselves to four gifts. For example:

  1. Something you want
  2. Something you need
  3. Something to wear
  4. Something to read

 

Or:

  1. Something to play with
  2. Something to wear
  3. Something to read
  4. Something to share

 

I disagree with “something to wear” because clothes are only exciting if you only ever get one new outfit a year. Since there is more than one season in a year, my kids often get new clothes. (You’ll be shocked at the knowledge that I love buying them clothes and I’m certainly not going to only buy them clothes in December. That reminds me… Louisette definitely needs a new pirate outfit…)

But enough prologue. Here’s some awesome loot:

  1. Water. Always a winner, in virtually any form. I like a water table because then I can choose to believe that the kids won’t need their swimmers (until proven otherwise). We’ve had a water table before (which was also fun for collecting ice in winter) but after a couple of years outside it was so brittle it fell to bits. Which means I got to buy another one! A BETTER one!

This particular model was $40 from Woolies. But pretty much any one will do. The kids will love seeing the enormous box under (…next to…) the tree, too. The orange handles on the side turn wheels that make the water flow around the circle. How cool is that!

 

2. Books! It ain’t Christmas without books (for myself, Chris, and the kids). There are a million fantastic books for kids, so it’s well worth having a bit of a google, both for the stuff your kid likes, and for lists saying the best books—then you can click through for a better look at the ones that appeal. And of course this is a great time to go and support your local bookshop, too!

I noticed around this time last year that Louisette has a bent toward engineering, so I bought her books that were specifically geared (heh) to encourage girls to picture themselves in STEM careers (Science, Tech, Engineering, and Maths). Googling “STEM” in combination with “Books” and any other relevant words (age 5, girls, etc) will get you a lot of suggestions.

This particular book emphasises that things don’t work perfectly the first time. It also rhymes.

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This is also the book that inspired Louisette’s House-Car-Plane project, which won her an award.

The same authors have two other books. One is ADA TWIST, SCIENTIST and the other is IGGY PECK, ARCHITECT. They’re all in the same school, I believe.

ROSIE REVERE and ADA TWIST also have follow-up “project” books. Louisette is going to looooove hers!

For TJ, his grand obsession is puzzles (more on that later). For his books, I googled and then clicked on this list. Easy! Out of those, I chose:

 

A sleep time book (parents can fantasise that it makes bedtime easier), a singing book, and a book about kindness. As you may have guessed, TJ loves vehicles. Also dinosaurs and superheroes.

3. Pets

I dream of one day producing a suspiciously mobile box with air-holes in the lid and a puppy inside. One day. Not sure if it’s plausible. We’d need to have real grass in our backyard first, for one thing.

In the meantime, we recently bought some fish. They’re actually a terrible Christmas gift because the set up and cycling takes about a week (if it doesn’t, you’re likely to have mass extinction—ask me how I know), and it’s such a busy time that it’s hard to get good advice from your pet shop when you need it most. But it could work for a birthday, keeping in mind pets are a huge deal (and fish don’t cuddle, so it’s noticeable that Louisette quite likes the fish but TJ doesn’t care much).

Cats are awesome, of course. In my opinion, they’re easier than fish. You need to think about where they’ll poo (kitty litter? Your yard? The neighbour’s organic vegie patch?) and how much you care about native birds (something like 80% of cats kill at least one native bird and don’t tell their owners).

Pets are always super expensive and higher maintenance than expected. Mice and birds tend to stink. A five-year old can potentially do a small amount of pet-related jobs, but will never be reliable. You’re also taking a risk of experiencing death (although that’s technically an advantage, because it helps kids to understand death a bit better when they lose a human they really love).

4. Building kits.

We have loads of duplo and about five sets’ worth of wooden train set (which has a near-infinite number of possible permutations). But I wanted something a bit older for Louisette (and I fear the dreaded Underfoot Lego—Louisette has some lego, but she has to bring it out and put it away in one session at a time). Then I stumbled across this amazing thing:

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That’s right. It’s a building toy designed for six-year old girls THAT HAS A MOTOR. It’s made by a company called Roominate. This set has three permutations (helicopter, submarine and plane), and it also fits with their various other sets (which, disappointingly, do not seem to have a motor—although you can buy it separately).

I’m buying another set from the same range for Louisette’s birthday, so she can combine sets in unique ways. When I tried it out for myself, the motor was great but the pieces were a little hard to put together. Still, I like the curves and colours.

And it’s under $30. I really like that it has a person (particularly a girl, particularly a non-Caucasian girl—she is Hawaiian) and a rabbit. Not just because it encourages imaginative play, but because engineers SHOULD be thinking about what their machines are actually FOR. Are they big enough for people? Are they comfortable? Are they safe? Can she see out the window while she’s flying? Etc.

I also bought this Melissa & Doug building set for $40 on ebay:

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I look forward to seeing Louisette do weird and wonderful stuff with it. (Following instructions to build a specific shape is also a fantastic skill set that’s well worth developing.)

It’s a little silly to buy two different building sets for one Christmas, but here we are.

5. Speaking of personal obsessions… TJ and puzzles. He does puzzles every day, over and over again. He is very good at puzzles. Although he’s three (and a half), he is well above average when it comes to puzzles.

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Given that he’s just discovered (and begun obsessing over) WHERE’S WALLY? this was the obvious choice. It has 35 pieces, which is challenging but possible for TJ—and then he can amuse himself finding every single one of the items in the border. It’s $25 here.

That particular website gives free postage for non-bulky orders over $100 (I found them because they sell Roominate stuff). This was not a difficult task (although I have several very kind relatives who I tend to source gifts for, that they pay for and then give to my kids—I get to “buy” more presents, and my relatives save a bunch of time and brain effort).

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This is a simpler puzzle (also a floor puzzle, which is great for younger kids). It’s $27 and out of stock (apparently I bought the last one) here (same online store as the above). The genius thing about this is that TJ will learn his continents and several animals while doing this puzzle (over and over again). There are LOADS of puzzles that educate kids about various things (letters, numbers, maps, animals, even spelling).

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This is a 30-piece puzzle that is trickier than it looks. There are holes in the back that TJ will LOVE using to poke out the pieces (also solving a classic issue with new puzzles—pieces that don’t come out!) Every piece is a slightly different shape so it’s hopefully developing a slightly different part of TJ’s brain. It’s $14 here.

6. Trains. Wooden trains are seriously awesome (except for the crawling around on the ground part—we’re WAY past tables here). Pretty much all wooden sets will fit together in lots of different ways. Other than a $30 set that popped up at Aldi this year, they are super expensive. This tunnel is cool (the dinosaur on the top is a separate piece, which will be handy for attacking the trains below), but that one thing cost $20 (here), which is pretty standard.

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7. Active stuff. Any list of four gifts should include “Something Physical”. Some things are super expensive, like a trampoline or bike. Some not so much. This is very much billed as a Summer toy (it floats) but I thought it was a great toy for cold or rainy days when the kids need to do something silly and active… and inside. Even the rings are inflatable.

It’s $35 here. (I bought it when it was on sale.)

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8. Bath letters. Cheap, awesome, and educational. I guarantee Louisette will use these to teach TJ more of his letters. He can already count up to 12 and recognise ten or so numbers and letters—because he worships Louisette, and she loves teaching (which of course also helps her own knowledge). When wet, they stick to tiles. How fun is that!?!

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These were $4 on ebay, and I bet they’re a favourite on Christmas morning.

9. Tradition.

We have a special Christmas tradition in my family. Each year, I buy a small conifer to be our live Christmas tree. I take a picture with it and the children, so that as they grow they can compare their size to that harbinger of Christmas Day.

And every year, it dies. Before Christmas even comes.

I’m really not that good with… keeping things alive.

This year I found this. With postage, it was about $40 from ebay, which is quite a lot—but we can use it every year. There are loads of fun chocolate advent calendars out there, and loads of beautiful reusable ones (often with little drawers to put 24 small gifts in). I don’t want to make over-eating or buying-24-crappy-junk-gifts part of our tradition, so I was excited to find this. Each bauble has a different design, and is magnetised. Then there’s a star for Christmas Day. I think the kids will love it (so long as no one tells them about the chocolate variety), and I’m almost certain I can’t kill it. Although wooden toys DO burn really well…

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10. Something that definitely isn’t useful.

At the steampunk fair, flush with the knowledge that my pirate trilogy would soon be published, I saw someone with a half-goggle. Genius! And only a few bucks to get my own steampunk pirate patch on ebay.

So I guess this is more a present for me than for the kids. I can live with that. In my defence, Louisette specifically asked me for goggles after the fair.

11. Tech

A good friend of ours bought Louisette this talking (and programmable) toy dog for her first birthday. Since then we bought the other one for TJ (“from” Louisette). They’re called Scout and Violet.

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You can choose your child’s name from a list when you program it, and the dog will say things like, “I love you… Louise” (since “Louisette” is not common enough to be on the list). You can also choose volume, and switch it off at any time by squeezing the “off” foot. One of the paws plays “Bedtime music” which is a very useful feature.

These dogs have been a consistent favourite toy for a long time (although if it wasn’t for her computer Louisette would be over hers, I think).

Which brings us to… computers. For children.

I thought the entire concept of computers for children was madness—until I saw a four-year old drawing with her finger on an ipad screen. There was no mess, no stains on clothes, no eating crayons, no sharpening pencils, and no dropping fifty-seven textas on the floor and then wandering away. It blew my mind. Since then I’ve seen a bunch of fantastic, innovative games that make the world better. In my opinion, computer skills are vital, and it’s worthwhile to get kids started early. Plus, of course, when you need the kid to be quiet and still in a public place, a computer + earplugs is magic.

I did a bunch of research and then bought Louisette a LeapPad 3. That was back in 2014, so I think there are new models since then (and I imagine that the Leappad 3 will become obsolete at some point).

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It comes in either green or purply-pink (and so do the gel frames, as pictured). It costs somewhere between $100 and $200, plus $25ish for the gel frame (which protects it from breaking when it’s dropped).

The good: It’s designed for age 3 and up, so a lot of it is set out with pictures that make navigation easy for non-readers. (Louisette was often frustrated and not too fond of it for the first six months after she got it on her 3rd birthday; TJ took to it immediately when he received his on his own 3rd birthday.)

It has camera and video, which kids LOVE. (Caveat: Images can’t be taken off the computer, so it’s impossible to save or share them.)

It has a white-listed internet (which can be switched off and on via the parental settings), meaning that everything the kids can access (and there’s a lot) has been watched and approved in advance.

It has really excellent, educational games, that are tailored to the main user’s age and skill level. (But they usually cost around $20 each.) We’ve only bought a few games (and a book that “reads” to the kid as they touch the words) in almost three years. Plus, each new game (and switching the internet on) is a fantastic gift on its own.

When you have two LeapPads, the kids can actually message each other (using pre-written messages—so bullying is impossible—and a bunch of animated emoticons). It is hilarious to see my two kids with their heads together, screaming in laughter as they say, “I sent you a message!” “I got it!”

It has a lot of branded stuff—Disney and so on—which the kids adore.

The bad: It has an inbuilt game that is literally poker (spinning pictures which reward the user when they match, and can then be spent on features)

It also has an entire section that just advertises LeapPad games, and can’t be removed.

It doesn’t connect to other devices in any way (except, of course, LeapPad devices—it even has games featuring Scout and Violet).


 

Bonus points

Are you buying a gift for a child who’s not your own? You’d ideally check with the parents if you buy something on this list (I’m NOT aiming this at anyone specific, by the way! Please don’t think my kids dislike anything they’ve ever been given):

*Alive (including plants. Parents are very, very tired and even a plant can be too much to care for. The kid is definitely not going to look after it properly.)

*Larger than your head (or the kid’s head, if yours is unusually large). Kids have a lot of toys, and their parents probably don’t have enough places to put them all.

*Involving work for the parents eg craft or science projects.

*Messy, such as paint or play-dough (yes, play-dough is messy).

*Noisy or annoying (electric toys or certain high-pitched TV shows).

*Junk food. (And check for food intolerances if you’re bringing food that kids are likely to eat—food intolerances are on the rise, and some are deadly. Parents are not making this up for attention, I assure you. Peanuts in particular can kill, even if the allergic kid never directly touches the food item.)

If you buy soft toys, you’ll get a great reaction on the day—but by the age of 3 every child has at least twenty soft toys, and probably more like fifty. However, certain toys will be VERY beloved (especially those linked to a TV character the child already adores). So think carefully and talk to the parents. Kids are amazingly specific about their brands, even for intellectual properties they have never watched (such as Star Wars or Superheroes).

However!

Toys that get used up, such as textas (there are washable ones), coloured paper, colouring books, etc are good for homes that really don’t have much space.

When someone has a set of something—duplo, lego, building sets, train sets—you can buy a new set or part that goes with it. That’s brilliant for both kids and parents.

Pretty much everyone loves books (although probably not enormously long ones, which leads to trouble at bed time).

Kids and parents will both most likely adore you for taking the kids for some kind of outing.  Zoos, Questacon (if you’re in Canberra), and those trampoline places are all fun for everyone. Or you can simply take them to a playground they haven’t been to before (or even that they have). They will love you forever.

Also fantastic as gifts that don’t take up space—removable wall stickers. (If your friend lives in a rental, definitely query first; they may not be as removable as one hopes.) There are some gorgeous quirky designs here (I met the artist yesterday, so I’m a little excited).

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You do NOT need to spend a bundle on kids!

So here’s my Four-Gift Rule:

  1. Something to read.
  2. Something creative.
  3. Something educational.
  4. Something physical (fitness and/or coordination)
  5. Something silly.
  6. Something that interacts with an existing toy (lego is almost always a safe bet; duplo for younger kids).

Okay, that’s six. That’s what relatives are for. Or siblings. Or, if all else fails, an inability to accurately count to four. Or you can combine them in various ways.

It’s also vitally important (and easy) to get kids involved in the fun of giving gifts to others. My kids LOVE discussing, buying, wrapping, and giving presents to all their relatives, especially each other. They also love Christmas Shoeboxes and TEAR’s Really Useful Gift Shop (both of which are specifically Christian, which may or may not work for you), which are a nice tangible way of giving to others and being aware of the rest of the world.

(99% of charities benefit from cash more than physical gifts. Physical gifts are mainly useful for kids to get into the habit of giving, rather than for the charity itself. I really like TEAR’s Really Useful Gift Shop because it IS a cash gift, that the charity interprets in practical ways.)

PS This site did a very comprehensive review of nerf guns. Enjoy!

Pictures worth thousands of words

I’m not a visual artist, and I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of influence I was allowed to have on my books covers (Odyssey Books has a top-notch cover game).

It’s a good thing they go through a few drafts, too.

Can you see what’s wrong with the first draft of SILVER AND STONE?

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Thank goodness for Chris, and for my fellow ‘Oddies’ (we Odyssey authors are constantly talking book stuff together), who noticed what I didn’t.

So that was changed.

I was SO PROUD to finally have the finished cover, and to be able to put the two covers side by side on facebook. Only to realise (due to facebook’s arbitrary cropping) that half my followers were wondering why I’d called my first book “Fart of Bras”.

Does one’s underwear usually fart? If so, why? And how?

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In unrelated (but still vaguely visual) news, I was amused by the juxtaposition of these two reviews on the “Choices That Matter” Google Play app. The first made me laugh out loud, and the second was just icing on the cake.

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That’s an excellent screenshot summary of the review-reading experience.

There’s reviews on iOS too, but barely any (and they get deleted every time there’s an update). I gather it’s a lot easier to leave a Google Play review, since there are several new ones every day.

Dancing, Duelling, Delicious: The official book launch for HEART OF BRASS

You know what’s cool? Nurofen tablets are sugar coated.

*

HEART OF BRASS had her official Book Launch yesterday as part of the inaugural Canberra Writers Festival, an absolutely huge event. I was written about (with a cover image) in Canberra Weekly magazine (96,000 readers!) and in the Canberra Times, as well as various other places.

The launch took place in the National Library of Australia (pictured behind the kids and I), in the Ferguson Room. The Ferguson Room overlooks the foyer of the National Library, which gives it a grand air and means one can watch guests coming in. That was particularly fun for me, since I’d encouraged steampunk/historical garb and was well rewarded for my efforts. My kids loved it too. Louisette got to talk into the microphone before anyone else showed up, and she imitated my own test speech by saying, “I wrote a book”—which in her case is quite true (if you haven’t read “The Adventures of Pirate Captain Louisette”, just scroll down a couple of entries).

 

I’m usually a very confident public speaker, but I was intensely nervous (enough to have patches of time when I was breathing funny) before this event, even though I was rationally confident it would go well.

The best and most important thing is people.

I was very lucky in that regard. The Ferguson Room is meant to seat forty people, which is rather a lot for a debut author—but within a day of setting up the facebook page (and SMSing and emailing various people to invite them personally), I knew I had at least twenty people. The phrase “book launch” is haunted by the horrifying spectre of a desperately awkward room of four people sitting in a sea of chairs and wishing fervently that they were elsewhere (none more miserably than the author). By the time the big day rolled around I was slightly nervous that the room would be unpleasantly crowded or that we’d run out of books for people to buy (what wonderful issues to have!) I estimated 50-60 guests beforehand, and I was exactly on the money. Someone had added a few more chairs to the room, which was useful. We sold a very healthy number of books without selling out altogether (my publisher and I both had extra stashes of books just in case). I would have liked to sell more, but this means that the National Library bookshop still has copies on the shelf (excellent promotion in itself).

50-60 people is a lot. That’s a larger number than any event I’ve hosted before (with the exception of my wedding), and it was in a location I didn’t know well.

I get panicky in new places. The National Library as a whole is somewhere I’ve been to many times, and I visited the room before the launch to get a sense of the space, but the technical equipment was new on the day. It all worked well (strange but true), including the book trailer and the dancing music. I really enjoyed the location and I wish I could start over so I could have that confidence from the beginning. Bring on Book 2!

Robbie Matthews is a friend, a writer, and a generally charming and funny person who’s well known to the Canberra writing community. He was MC at my wedding, and I was very pleased with myself for thinking of him again for the launch (especially as it prevented me from haranguing other authors who I don’t know as well).

At my wedding reception one of the tables was “the minion table”—full of people who’d helped decorate, give lifts, take photos, etc. As MC Robbie was on that table and he made friends. Then he made a highly memorable speech about the wide range of colourful threats I’d made to all my sweet innocent minions in order to let them know what would happen if they didn’t do their assigned jobs. I vividly recollect how impressed I was at the time that I’d subconsciously tailored original threats to each person.

As the book launch drew closer I wondered what Robbie would say about me, since I hadn’t threatened anybody this time. He got up and explained how we’d met: We did Live Action Role Playing (LARPing is like a play where all the players have a general character and plot outline and then improvise to amuse one another), and I was his fictional daughter. “By the end,” Robbie explained, “she was wearing my spine as a necklace.”

Oh yeah… I’d forgotten about that. (To be fair, my character was under a lot of stress at the time.) One may draw one’s own conclusions about my general mental health…

A lot of book launches are introduced by the writer’s publisher. It’s a very neat way to do things, but I always felt it was a bit sad since the author and publisher are the people who are the most desperate to sell the book. Having Robbie meant that we had a disinterested party recommending the book (which he read before the launch). That made me feel much less like a grasping novice.

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I realised belatedly that the reason I was so nervous was that I was, in the most literal sense of the phrase, “selling something” (and to an audience that was trapped for the duration, too). It’s impossible for a writer to truly know if a book is good or not (although being published certainly helps) and that’s why I always find book launch speeches so horrifying. I acquitted myself well enough, I think.

I’d described the launch to Louisette in advance, and she said she wanted to help with my speech, so when I got up I summoned her as well. She is an adorable child and was adorably serious about the entire process—but she stood bravely (by herself, because I needed to stay near the podium microphone). She was very pleased afterwards with her own courage. Hopefully this will lead her to be a confident public speaker, rather than turn her into a full-time writer (creative jobs have a high personal cost that I wouldn’t wish on anyone).

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Clothing is tricky while I’m still waiting for my stomach muscles to be put back together (not helped by weird sensory overstimulation stuff that tends to give me panic attacks if I wear new clothes), but I’d had an idea (on Friday) to adjust a favourite skirt, and that very much improved things for me.

My other main panic was that I’d simply forget to bring something essential. I started putting things in the car last Thursday, and although there were certain things I meant to do and didn’t, all the important pieces (such as a copy of the book to give away to the best costume, and having my kindle prepped on the podium for my reading) were in place.

This was all very much complicated by the fact that I’d gotten overenthusiastic and decided to write and run a Live Action Role Play game inside Questacon after the launch. But that’ll need its own entry 🙂

The tea duelling and catering was complicated by the fact that no outside food was allowed, and no food was allowed in the room. That meant paying a huge sum to the cafe (which reserved tables for us and did a great job from beginning to end) and having biscuits that were fresh and delicious but not the right kind for duelling. Although the cafe staff were excellent and the location classy, the lack of ability to bring in a pack of plain dry biscuits was annoying. Still, it was entertaining and it looks great in pictures (useful for media coverage, which is useful for selling books, which is the point). And even though we under-catered, most people were so distracted by the duelling that they didn’t eat or drink at all.

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The waltzing was a huge highlight. I had one couple primed to lead the way, and Louisette is an enthusiastic amateur. I figured I’d waltz with Louisette while my dancers hopefully lured a couple or two to join them over the course of the piece.

Actually, I danced with Chris the second the music started, and several other couples willingly took to the floor in an instant. The space was perfect (everyone moved the chairs back); roomy enough to dance without feeling either crowded or lonely.

It’s been a long time since Chris and I waltzed, and it was a lovely moment for both of us. I found out later that one of the other people dancing was stepping out (invited by a nearby acquaintance because Canberra is like that) for the first time since major surgery, and it made her realise she might be healthy enough to dance regularly again soon.

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Adrenalin does wonders in carrying my wreck of a body through things (in fact that’s probably part of why I do things like this—for a while, I feel normal). My muscles were freaking out last night as the adrenalin wore off, and today I’m weirdly sore in a dozen places (hence the nurofen). Luckily I’m not involved in the rest of the Canberra Writers Festival so I don’t need to do anything more strenuous than writing and napping for the rest of the day.

I still can’t quite believe how many people came.

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The launch was as close to perfect as it could be. The festival, venue, and volunteers were all top notch. Ultimately I wouldn’t change a thing.

“Worst one I’ve played”: Reviewing the Reviewers

It’s finally happened: my first interactive (that is, Choose Your Own Adventure-ish) Australian steampunk novel is wandering unsupervised in the great big world, gathering reviews near and far (and scaring its mother half to death).
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My very first review was the hilarious comment “Worst one I’ve played”, accompanied by one star. I’m genuinely delighted by such a start to proceedings, and could only be happier if a major lobby called for it to be banned.
Moments ago, the very clever and well-respected Emily Short published her review, and said, “All in all, then, this is both the biggest and the best of the Felicity Banks games I’ve tried so far; the worldbuilding is more extensive and the plot better structured.”
She also said the beginning was nicely paced while the end was rushed… which is funny since another reviewer said the beginning was boring but don’t worry because it gets better once you get into it.
People say, “Don’t read your reviews” but with material like this, how could I resist?
It’s on Amazon (after 20 reviews – positive or negative – Amazon will start promoting the book for me for free!!), Apple itunesGoogle, and Google Chrome.
 
Or you can play directly through the publisher’s web site, here. That’s the simplest if you’re not tech savvy (although you’ll need a credit/debit card there).

On most sites, it LOOKS like the game is free, and has in-app purchases. This is just a backwards way of saying, “You can read the first bit before you pay for the rest.” It’s a one-off $5 payment.

I’ve started up a facebook page just for this specific gamebook (discussion, reviews and steampunk/Victorian-era fun), at https://www.facebook.com/attackoftheclockworkarmy/

And of course the Sydney Launch is at the Freecon at 11am today/Sunday (Garry’s even promised me wine, and I know there are lollies because I brought a huge pile). If you’re in Sydney, you can just show up:
O.E.S. Amenities centre, 190 William Street EARLWOOD, Clemton Park shops, next to the ‘Thai-in-a-box’ shop, about half way between the Bexley Rd. / William St. intersection and Main St., Clemton Park.
Bus routes M41, 400, 412, 423, and 473 all pass near the Freecon venue, Campsie (Bankstown Line) and Bexley North (East Hills line) stations are nearby.
I’ve been working non-stop to get the rumbling engine of promotion moving, and I now have a weird feeling that I’ve managed to start something I can’t stop. That’s the entire point of the whole thing, but that doesn’t mean it’s not scary to see the train suddenly belch fire and clatter off beyond my control.
Good luck, little e-baby. I know your friends are out there.

Naked Truth Chocolate Bars

I stumbled across these in the lolly aisle at Coles. The name reminded me instantly of “nudie” juice drinks – another deliberately cute, expensive company that pours heart and soul into being the very best in its field (and charges accordingly).

There was a wide variety of options, so I chose three.

1. Sweetie Pie: Lemon Coconut Cream Pie White Choc Bar.

This was my first taste of the Naked Truth company’s wares, and it was exquisite. The flavours of lemon, coconut and creamy white chocolate were perfectly balanced. The soft centre was a delightful surprise – I’m a sucker for different textures in food.

I regretted sharing this with Chris. (He is merely human, after all – and this is chocolate). I dream of the day when I eat another.

Five stars. If you see one, buy it for me. And another for yourself, because I ain’t sharing next time.

2. PG: Coffee Beans and Popping Candy Milk Choc Bar

I hate coffee, so I confess I really bought this for Chris, who loves popping candy, coffee, and of course chocolate (he is merely human, after all). He commented that the coffee taste was paramount – he wouldn’t have noticed the popping candy if he didn’t know it was there. For people who love chocolate coated coffee beans, this is the biz. It’s got that particular “bean” taste, but without the risk of the occasional too-dry or otherwise imperfect bean.

3. Get Naked: Fig and Macadamia Milk Chocolate Bar

I was a little disappointed that the block didn’t have the soft centre that delighted me so much in the “Sweetie Pie”. Most of the fig and macadamia pieces were on top – as if they were sprinkled on when the chocolate was partly set. It looks particularly attractive, and the chocolate was lovely, but I prefer larger macadamia pieces so the taste can be truly enjoyed.

Still a very nice chocolate block – similar in quality, cost and size to a Lindt bar, but without being divided into blocks. So you’ll either have an awkward task breaking it up… or you’ll have a serious chocoholic eat it like a bar.

How did I choose to tackle it?

Do you really need to ask?

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Kindle Review

I’ve owned a Kindle Prime (the old, black and white version) for more than a month now, and I luuuuurrrve it. I’ve been rolling my eyes at e-reader devotees for years, but when my Dad asked me to look at his I was converted in an instant, epiphany-style. One glance and I realised, “Oh. It’s a book!” (All the best epiphanies sound stupid when said out loud – I love him! What if we took bread and sliced it?)

The Kindle is just….books. A portable library that aims to simply let you read the stories and forget it’s there. And it succeeds almost instantly. I understood how to buy and read a book on it in about thirty seconds, and after five minutes more I was proficient in a few features. I actually use it to check my email (it can JUST access Hotmail, telling me I have email from so-and-so but not letting me open it – on my first few attempts it’d crash and at one stage I thought I’d broken it).

The page-turn buttons on each side are great, except I’ve had to teach myself not to accidentally press them whenever I pick it up or shift position. It also takes a little while to get used to a screen that’s not a touch screen (and having seen an amazing interactive children’s book on an ipad, I realise the lack of touch means missing out on a whole world of awesome), but these days I’d much, much rather own a book on my kindle than on paper.

I’ve recharged the battery only once, and was delighted that my kindle told me (in heaps of time and repeatedly) that the battery was running low. So if my book ever does run out of batteries, it’s definitely not the book’s fault.

I’m still getting used to the sense of how long a book will take to read. I know how long it takes me to read 100 pages, and I can instinctively adjust it for the size of the book and the typeface. But the Kindle is different. If you push a button, it will display “Location 456 of 987” (or whatever) but these make very little sense. I guess there are bugs to work out. Luckily, there is also a display bar at the bottom of the screen showing where you are up to in a book with a lengthening black bar and a percentage. This is brilliant (especially because it has dots for chapter divisions) but/and it changes the timing for each book. By now I’m starting to get the hang of it instinctively, but it’s definitely not as accurate when it comes to the inevitable, “Should I try to finish it before going to bed/work?” question.

Before my kindle arrived, I had a notion of happily reading in bed, not having to break a book’s spine to see words close to the margin, and not having to support the weight of the book with my arm when reading the “wrong” side. (Yes, I really am lazy enough that these things annoy me.) It’s even better: I can prop it up on its cover ($40 for lovely leather with a gorgeous look and charming tactile feel that appeals to my steampunk self) and use no hands at all. Oh, I like. (Speaking of steampunk-friendly aesthetics, I really like the black and white screensavers too.) Also, the book keeps my place for me and can bookmark other bits wherever I like. No more losing a vital scrap of torn paper and trying to figure out where I am without accidentally reading ahead.

Unlike the ipad, it’s certainly not designed to be multi-functional – but it DOES handle glare beautifully: better, in fact, than paper. And because the original Kindle is so old in tech terms, you can get one for under $100. And when your book is done, you can buy another one without getting out of bed.

I really, really love my Kindle.

(No, sadly they’re not paying me to say this.)

Beginner’s Guide to Steampunk Lit

Yes, it’s finally here! My idea of what a map of steampunk might look like. Harangue me on my choices and omissions below! Post it wherever you like, with a link back here. Caveat #1: This is only books (I tried to make it only novels, or at least novelists). Caveat #2: I’m only one person. This was a big job, and I chose to oversimplify rather than make it my life’s work. Also, there are some errors. And, as you can tell, I chose to finish the map this year rather than take longer and make it bigger, prettier, and funnier. And yes, I read and write mainly young adult, which is also obvious at a glance. Caveat #3: More is being written all the time. Tell us about your favourite steampunk in the comments! My reviews have all been moved to Comfy Chair, where I get paid for them:

“The Sky Village” by Monk & Nigel Ashland

“Pastworld” by Ian Beck

“Soulless” by Gail Carriger

“Clockwork Angel” by Cassandra Clare (1 of 3)

“Girl Genius” graphic novel series by Phil and Kaja Foglio: Incredibly manic hilarity. You can find them online here and get a thrice-weekly fix.

“The Difference Engine” by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling

“Worldshaker” etc by Richard Harland: Brilliant and satirically funny.

“Burton and Swinburne: The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man” by Mark Hodder

“The Affinity Bridge” by George Mann

China Mieville: Sheer imagination from a brilliant and complex mind.

“The Nomad of Time” by Michael Moorcock

“Airborn” by Kenneth Oppel

“Dreadnought” by Cherie Priest (not the first book in the series)

“Blaze of Glory” etc by Michael Pryor: Funny and action-filled. I’ve read the whole six-book series, so clearly I liked it – but I often found the hero annoying.

“The Northern Lights/The Golden Compass” by Philip Pullman (1 of 3)

“The Subtle Knife” by Philip Pullman (2 of 3)

“The Amber Spyglass” by Philip Pullman (3 of 3)

“Ruby in the Smoke” by Philip Pullman (1 of 4 Sally Lockhart books)

“Larklight” by Philip Reeve (1 of 3, though they can stand alone quite well)

“Starcross” by Philip Reeve (2 of 3)

“Mothstorm” by Philip Reeve (3 of 3)

“Mortal Engines” by Philip Reeve: Very very dark (in marked contrast to his kids’ books). Also brilliant. And violent. The prequels aren’t as good.

“Ichabod hart and the Lighthouse Mystery” by James Roy

“The Invention of Hugo Cabret” by Brian Selznick: Yep, the book on which the movie “Hugo” was based. Pretty clocks and pretty pictures.

“Warship at the Bottom of the Sea” by Oshikawa Shunro: I haven’t read it, but apparently it’s fun and has pirates.

“The Hunchback Assignments” by Arthur Slade

Jeff Vandermeer: I only read one story (the first in “City of Saints and Madmen”) because, although it was wonderfully involving and the sensory detail was exquisite, it was far too violent and dark for me to read any more. I also thought the twist at the end was stupid.

“20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” by Jules Verne: Good, but too much technobabble for my liking.

“The Time Machine” by H. G. Wells: Still readable and interesting (or, if you prefer, horrifying) today.

“Leviathan” and “Behemoth” by Scott Westerfeld (1 and 2 of 3)

“Goliath” by Scott Westerfeld (3 of 3)

“The Machine Maid” by Diana Wynne-Jones: A true steampunk short story (which I wasn’t able to get my hands on).

Edited to add: My own novels are Aussie-written with an Australian setting; crossover fantasy novels. The first is HEART OF BRASS. It’s on Amazon etc and various Aussie bookshops. You can get the ISBN off that link to request it from your local bookshop with ease. Or you can order it directly from that link (it will be printed for you in Melbourne, the US or the UK, so most of you won’t have to pay ludicrous amounts of postage).

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“Pride and Prejudice” by Jane Austen

That is a truly fine book. I wrote last week about Sandy Fussell’s “Samurai Kids” series, which sparkles with wit and warmth on every page. “Pride and Prejudice” is like that – brimming with brilliant one-liners and clever observations. The only other series that I think hits the “every page” rule so well is the “Larklight” trilogy by Philip Reeve.

“And Another Thing. . .” by Eoin Colfer

This is not an Artemis Fowl book – it’s a continuation of the Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. As a rule I flinch when I hear about any writer doing any reboot (gritty or otherwise) of someone else’s work – Arthurian myths, vampires (sparkly or otherwise), elves versus dwarves, etc. But I KNOW Colfer is a brilliant writer (and, obviously, so is Douglas Adams – except of course for being dead nowadays). So I was cautiously hopeful.

The rest of this review is at Comfy Chair.

“Fire in the Sea” by Myke Bartlett

A publisher once said to me, “We can’t tell if your book is literary or adventure. The writing is sometimes poetic and sometimes not, and it’s too slow to be popular fiction.” In Australia, “literary” is a dirty word – the conception is that the writing might be pretty, but it’ll be boring. So I sped up the pace of that book of mine, and all the others since. If I’d gone in the opposite direction – focusing more on stunning writing and less on a fast-paced plot – I might have won the Text Prize this year. Maybe. One of the editorial comments they gave me was, “You rush through things. You should slow down.” C’est la publishing biz. But I know what kind of writer I want to be.

“Fire in the Sea” won the Text Prize last year. I was lucky enough to acquire an advance copy – and even to get it signed. Myke and his wife were a lot of fun to meet and talk to, and Myke (a tall and easy-going man with a good sense of humour) was touchingly unsure of his signature, working it out over the course of the evening. I’m pretty sure that the awkward, half-formed autograph in my copy will be worth millions one day: catching the moment as a new and excellent writer is born.

I finished the book only moments ago, and wanted very much to sit and think about it before writing this review, but I knew that I wouldn’t have a better chance to blog in the next twenty-four hours, and I promised readers and Myke himself that I’d review it this week. I suspect if I re-read the book or engaged my brain a little more, it would have layers upon layers of smart symbology and intelligence. But, ya know, I got stuff to do.

The book was. . .

The rest of the review is at Comfy Chair.

Artemis Fowl and the Time Paradox

Okay, first up, a confession: I’m heartily sick of time travel tales. They’re just silly (as my Mum pointed out, “If we were ever going to invent time travel, we’d know about it”) and there are too many of them. This has three things in its favour: 1. It’s magic (which actually makes it far less silly – technobabble is unwanted and mercifully unnecessary). 2. It’s a story pitting Artemis against Artemis, which is cool. 3. It’s Eoin Colfer, and I trust him to spin a good yarn.

The rest of the review is at Comfy Chair, where I get paid for it.

“Red Dirt Diary” by Katrina Nannestad

“We have an extra special coffee and dessert evening planned for you !” said the woman at the front of church. “With a guest author!”

“Oh dear,” I thought.

A name was mentioned – Katrina Nannestad. I hadn’t heard it before.

“Oh dear,” I thought.

Someone beside me whispered that the author was somebody’s wife’s something.

“Oh dear,” I thought. “I bet it’s someone who’s busily congratulating themselves on the decision to self-publish their utterly awful drivel, and who is now desperately self-promoting while putting off the realisation that no-one would  willingly buy their book except through sheer face-to-face embarrassment.”

And everyone at church knows I’m a writer, too. I bet they think I’m SO pleased.

Oh dear.

I went home and googled Katrina Nannestad. The word “diary” in the title rang loud alarm bells – but she WAS published  by Harper Collins, so she had to be pretty all right. I emailed the woman from church saying I’d come, and ordered “Red Dirt Diary” from the library. If it was awful, I could just keep quiet at the ladies’ evening and no-one would get hurt.

The rest of the review is at Comfy Chair, where I get paid for it.