Dyson V6 Slim Cordless Vacuum is Perfect for Quick Clean-Ups

Image: Dyson

There are few things in life less glamorous than vacuuming. Cleaning the bathroom and ironing shirts are both up there, but vacuuming is definitely high on the list. That’s because it’s never-ending and tiresome. Hauling out a huge vacuum is a pain and when you have kids, there’s constantly stuff that needs to be cleaned. The Dyson V6 Slim is a cordless vacuum with all the power of the big ones in compact form.

Let me go on record saying I hate housework. I keep a very tidy home, which is why I hate housework so much. There’s always something in need of tidying. I no sooner vacuum the floor than the entire thing is a mess again. It’s like there’s an invisible version of Pig-Pen from Peanuts and he’s lurking in my house. It drives me crazy.

I have a very nice upright vacuum. It is a Kirby and it cost me a small fortune many years ago. It works, but it weighs a ton and I hate dragging it around the house. The Dyson V6 Slim takes care of that problem by being a lightweight 8.25 pounds. It’s easy to carry up and down stairs and even the kids can use this thing. That right there is enough to make it worth the price.

There’s a motor that spins at up to 110,000 rpm, which is three times faster than a conventional vacuum motor to generate plenty of suction. The main body is where the motor is housed, along with a clear bin that collects debris. There’s a long, hard tube that extends out from the motor and two different attachments.

You can opt for a bristle head attachment or a narrow nozzle that has a brush or hard end, depending on what you’re trying to clean. You can also lose the hard tube and connect the attachments directly to the motor. This makes it compact and perfect for cleaning up in the car.

Image: Dyson
Image: Dyson

The vacuum worked well and that bristle head picked up dirt better than my pricey Kirby. I vacuumed once with the Kirby and once with the Dyson V6 Slim and was amazed by how much dust it still sucked up.

Emptying the clear bin is easy. You just hold it over the trash and push a little red button. Since it’s clear, it’s easy to see when it’s full. No trying to figure out if a bag is full or if a hidden receptacle is about to overflow.

The Dyson V6 Slim cleaned my home beautifully. It is lightweight and easy to pull out for quick clean-ups, but there were a few drawbacks. It gets warm and you’ll feel the heat in the trigger after a few minutes. You also have to keep that trigger pressed the whole time. This helps conserve the battery, but it is tiresome. Lastly, it only runs for about 15 minutes per charge. It’s not for whole-house cleaning, but for quick clean-ups.

The vacuum comes with a charging unit that can be screwed directly into the wall. It holds the accessories and is an easy way to store your vacuum when not in use. I didn’t think I needed a vacuum like this, but now that I have one, I wonder how I managed without one for so long.

The Dyson V6 Slim is available for $259.99 through Walmart. It’s not a cheap vacuum, but it is worth the price for its convenience, versatility, and cleaning power.

GeekMom received these items for review purposes.

Should You Take Your Kids to See ‘Tomorrowland’?

Image courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures.

I had a strangely nostalgic feeling when watching Tomorrowland. I say strange, because the movie is supposed to be about the future, yet I couldn’t help looking back, and not just because there are so many subtle stylistic elements straight out of Disneyland (at one point you can see the white Space Mountain building dotting the landscape of the movie’s titular futuristic city). It reminded me of going to the movies as a kid, back when “family film” meant something different than it does today.

Now that term generally means a film aimed at a younger audience, but I remember a time when it referred to a movie the whole family could see together. Back in the ‘60s and ‘70s, Disney was as renowned for these kinds of live-action adventures as they were for their animated features. On the surface, Tomorrowland may have little in common with cheesy-by-today’s-standards classics like Flubber, The Love Bug, The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes, Escape to Witch Mountain, or The Black Hole. But it shares that same spirit of whimsy and adventure, as well as a universal appeal that will thrill kids and their parents in equal measure.

It doesn’t hurt that the young members of the cast–Britt Robertson, Thomas Robinson, and especially Raffey Cassidy–are often the most interesting on screen. Not to take anything from the always affable (even when he’s trying to be curmudgeonly) George Clooney, of course, but the kids really do hold the film together. The relationships between them are the true heart of the story, and one of the most interesting aspects of it.

Image courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures.

It begins with a boy named Frank Walker (Robinson plays the young version of Frank), an aspiring inventor who brings his jet pack to the 1964 World’s Fair (an event, incidentally, which included many attractions created by Walt Disney himself). Frank is turned away from the Hall of Invention because his jet pack doesn’t quite work, but a strange little girl named Athena (Cassidy) takes a liking to him and slips him a pin which grants him access to an astounding, futuristic place called Tomorrowland.

Five decades later we meet Casey (Robertson), a bright young rebel who spends her nights sabotaging the ongoing demolition of a NASA platform where her dad once worked. After she’s caught and released from detention, she discovers a strange pin just like Frank’s, slipped in with her belongings. When she touches it she’s instantly transported to the same Tomorrowland, looking much as it did in 1964. The pin eventually loses power and she feels compelled to find a way back. Her search leads her to Frank (Clooney), now grown up and living as a recluse in a house full of incredible inventions, including an elaborate defense and surveillance system.

And that’s about all I can tell you without spoiling it. The film is filled with unexpected twists and turns. I was somewhat surprised to note at one point that I had absolutely no idea where it was going next. That doesn’t happen very often these days, with all the safe, predictable, by-the-numbers studio fare in theaters. It only occurred to me later that it might have been because the filmmakers didn’t know where it was going either. For the first two thirds of the film I was on the edge of my seat, as each new revelation uncovered another piece of the so-called “mystery box.” It’s not until the final third, when we get back to Tomorrowland, that it all comes apart.

Image courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures.

If you’ve been to a Disney resort you’ve likely had the experience of riding an attraction that breaks down while you’re in the middle of it. You sit there in your vehicle for a while and then the lights come up and you see the animatronic figures for what they are and something is lost; it’s not quite so magical anymore. That’s the ultimate flaw in Tomorrowland. At some point they have to reveal the secret they’ve been teasing, to essentially bring up the lights, and suddenly this amazing world loses its luster. The internal logic doesn’t hold up under any sort of scrutiny. There are glaring plot holes, things left unexplained, and connections made out of nowhere. It only scratches the surface of a deeper mythology involving historical figures and a secret organization called Plus Ultra that I wanted to know more about. I got the distinct impression that a lot of exposition was cut out to make room for the showy action set pieces, and the film is worse for it (though with a little digging you can find a lot of this supplemental material online). I’d still say it’s enjoyable, so long as you don’t think about it too much.

Which brings me to the question in the title of this article. Should you take your kids? As long as they’re comfortable with a small amount of non-human violence (certainly no more than your average superhero movie), then go ahead and bring them along. It does get a bit preachy toward the end in delivering its ultimate message about the power of hope, idealism versus cynicism, and the battle between competing visions of the future, but there are worse messages to take away from a movie. I’d go so far as to say that kids might actually get more out of it than their parents. They’re more likely to take it at face value, not to notice the smoke and mirrors that create the illusion of an amazing spectacle. They don’t need it to make sense, they just want it to be fun. And that’s what family movies are all about anyway.

The 2015 Ford Edge Gives You New Tech in a Family Crossover

Image: Nicole Wakelin
Image: Nicole Wakelin

Crossovers are smaller SUVs that make it easy to carry kids and cargo, are much more affordable than full-size SUVs, and have fuel economy that won’t have you crying when gas prices rise. The Ford Edge has been leading the pack in sales, so Ford was very careful to improve things with their 2015 redesign.

It’s definitely a mom car in all the best ways. It manages to be functional and stylish so that you’ll like carting your kids to and fro and won’t mind having to make a mad dash to the grocery store because you suddenly need supplies to bake cupcakes for a party at school tomorrow.

Let’s start with the new technology in the #FordEdge, in particular the parking package. The Titanium trim level comes with an option package that will help identify a spot that is large enough for your car, and then steer you into that space. You manage the gas and brakes while the car manages steering.

Image: Nicole Wakelin
Image: Nicole Wakelin

As the wheel spins, a disconcerting thing if you’ve never experienced this before, messages on the infotainment screen will tell you when you need to shift from Drive to Reverse. It will do this both for parallel and perpendicular parking and if at any time you want to take control, then just put your hands on the wheel and the system disengages.

The only drawback is that the system is slow. If you’re in heavy traffic and there are cars waiting for you to park so that they can pass, then you’re going to get a few honks of the horn.

There’s also lane keep assist which will help keep you from drifting out of your lane. If the car drifts past the lines, it will let you know and it will nudge you back in the right direction. There are limits, however, as it will eventually tell you to put your hands back on the wheel. This isn’t full-on self-driving technology, but it’s getting close.

One of my favorite bits of technology wasn’t as fancy, but it was very useful. There’s a 180-degree front camera that lets you see when you’re trying to pull out. My drive was in Arizona so there wasn’t a snowbank in sight, but this feature would be so helpful when the winter snows make pulling onto the road an impossible task. It even has a washer so you can clear off mud and salt.

Image: Nicole Wakelin
Image: Nicole Wakelin

The inside benefits from an upgrade with materials that look and feel better than the previous generation of the Edge. I also liked that surfaces aren’t fussy, so when your kids inevitably get something icky and sticky on the seats, the seats will be easier to clean.

Soft-touch surfaces abound and there is storage everywhere you look. There are spots on the doors for holding water bottles that keep them in place so they don’t fall out when you open or close the door. There is a cubby on the top of the dash and another to the left of the steering wheel. If there was a spot that could hold something, Ford made it usable.

Storage right on the dashboard! Image: Nicole Wakelin
Storage right on the dashboard! Image: Nicole Wakelin

The rear seats fold down easily and even kids could push them back up into place. The best part about these seats is that when they fold up they do not catch the seat belt.

I cannot count the number of times I’ve managed to catch the seat belt as I’ve pushed the seats back and then had to open them up, adjust the belt, and push the seats back again. There’s a gap that lets the seat belt easily move so this just won’t happen in the Edge. It’s a small thing, but the kind of thing you’ll really appreciate when it’s freezing cold or pouring rain and you just want to get into the car.

Ford has also made the Edge a very smooth and comfortable ride no matter where you sit. The rear seats are large enough that the kids won’t be touching each other, God forbid, and front passengers won’t be bumping elbows either. The Edge evens out rougher roads nicely and the ride is quiet so you will be able to hear your kids and talk to them without that awkward half-yelling thing you do in noisy cars.

There are three engine choices starting with the all-new 2.0-liter EcoBoost twin scroll turbo 4-cylinder with 245 horsepower and 275 lb-ft of torque. This is the smallest of the engines and if you’re looking for oomph, then this is not the engine for you.

Image: Nicole Wakelin
Image: Nicole Wakelin

The 2.7-liter EcoBoost V6 gets 315 horsepower and 350 lb-ft of torque and is a lot more fun to drive. There’s more power here and you feel it when you accelerate, but you’ll also pay an extra $10K for the option, so drive them both to see what you think before you make the call.

The last choice is a naturally aspirated 3.5-liter V6 with 280 horsepower and 250 lb-ft of torque that has flex-fuel capability. They all get a 6-speed automatic transmission and can tow up to 3500 pounds for when the weekends come and it’s time for a getaway. Trucks are great, but they’re far from your only option for hauling stuff behind a vehicle.

The Ford Edge has received myriad updates for 2015 that not only keep it from falling behind in this competitive segment, but help keep it leading the way. Pricing starts at $28K making it easy to get into this comfortable, attractive, and functional crossover.

Ford covered my expenses to attend this drive event.

The Depths of The Riverman Triology

Image By Farrar Straus Giroux Press

“Aargh!” I yelled.
My son poked his head out of his room, “You finished the second book, right?”
“It’s so good, right?”
“And now we have to wait for the third book!”

This is about The Whisper, the second book in the The Riverman trilogy by Aaron Starmer. My teen son was in-between books, saw The Riverman on our shelf, devoured it, read The Whisper, and asked, “Where’s the third one?” I let him know it wasn’t out yet. That’s when he let out his own sigh of frustration, and then told me to read the books so at least we could discuss them.

These books are ones you will want to talk about.

Now before I get into the ever-moving plot, the complex characters, the imaginative worlds-within-worlds, I want to talk about Starmer’s writing. There are plenty of modern YA authors who are good storytellers, but not so many are good writers. Aaron Starmer is an intelligent writer that paints pictures with his words.

“Cars moved slowly, as if they weren’t really going anywhere. They were nothing but steel wolves, out roaming.”

“The spot where her nose had been broken all those years ago—that knobby bit of cartilage right below her eyes—made me imagine that a tiny asteroid had crashed into her face and had determined the orbit of her life. She probably hated that asteroid, but to me it was essential.”

“Your mind is constantly wishing, even if you don’t realize it.”

In the first book of the series, the main character, twelve-year-old Alistair Cleary, wonders what is real or not; what’s the story behind the story? The reader is waiting along with him. Fiona Loomis, his neighbor, has decided he should write her biography. She tells him about traveling to a magical world where imagination rules, where storytellers can see creations come to life around them, where children are gods. It is called Aquavania.

“In Aquavania you can create anything your mind can think up. You’d be surprised what your mind can’t create. It’s often the things you really need.”

Fiona describes the worlds she creates: creatures, landscapes, impossible things. Then she tells of other children imagining their own ridiculous, outlandish, weird creations. But the story Fiona tells Alistair has a dark edge, and she truly believes children are in danger, including herself. He decides that either Fiona is crazy, or hiding a terrible truth behind the fantasy. Can Alistair keep a secret? Should he? Does he truly understand what is going on? You will be guessing alongside him until the end. The next book ends with another twist to this tale. It’s a great ride.

“Well,” Charlie replied, setting down the controller, “the most powerful monsters are the ones that don’t even seem like monsters. They’re the little things, the soft things that sneak in and haunt you.”
“Ghosts?” Alistair asked. “That might be a good title.”
Charlie shook his head. “Whispers.”

Alistair is one of the most real and likable characters I’ve met in a long time. Too often, writers are unable to create young characters that are both heroic and true to their age. Alistair cares about people, he has a strong sense of right and wrong, and his need to help is genuine. But how to show he cares, seeing the gray areas in choices, and figuring what is the best way to help, are a struggle that is depicted honestly through this young man’s actions, words, and thoughts. His weaknesses frustrate him, but he doesn’t know how to change fast enough to keep up with the problems and events happening all around him. That’s relatable to all ages. Besides Alistair, the novel is full of characters that are conflicted, flawed, changing, and all too recognizable.

“He’s not a bad guy, deep down,” I said.
My dad slipped the key into the door. “Deep down, no one is. But you make choices.”

I recommend this for twelve and up. Kids younger than that can enjoy the story, but much is implied, things get dark, and the headier stuff will be appreciated more by an older reader. I can’t say much about the plot of The Riverman or The Whisper without giving everything away, which makes it hard to review, so you’ll have to trust me (and my son) on this: It’s very, very good.

GeekMom received a copy for review purposes.

Passion and History in ‘She Makes Comics’

Image by Respect! Films

Being a geek is becoming more and more mainstream. Yet there are still stereotypes of what makes a geek a “geek.” Being a comic book fan is a quintessential sign, and often linked to the old-school idea of socially-inept, single guys. For women who proclaim their love of comics (like me), it’s just…strange.

But that is changing. I was just invited to a Fan Girls Night Out at my local comic store by another mom who is also into comics. There are more of us than you realize. And although it may seem new to the mainstream world, it is far from abnormal. The history of women in comics as both fans and within the industry stretches back to the beginning.

The new documentary She Makes Comics is an eye-opening and heartfelt look at women within the history of comics, and I highly recommend watching it. The film is directed by Marisa Stotter and produced by Patrick Meaney and Jordan Rennert of Respect!Films. It is executive produced by Sequart’s Julian Darius and Mike Phillips and by Columbia University comics librarian Karen Green. It is a series of interwoven interviews of passionate people with different roles and points of view. My teenage son and I watched it together, finding it informative and entertaining.

Did you know that women and men made up equal numbers of comic book readership before the 1950s? American comics were about many topics, had various settings, and reflected every possible interest. By the ’70s, women readers started to drop off dramatically, partly due to the focus on male superheroes as the best-seller comic book theme, as well as the feminist movement awakening a generation of women who were tired of the same “wedding bliss” ending. An underground women’s comic movement began, and it was fascinating listening to the creators talk about it on camera: both the excitement and the fears.

Several women really changed the comic book world, from Wendy Pini, the original chain-mail bikini awesome cosplayer who then created ElfQuest, to Janette Kahn, former publisher of DC who broke the glass ceiling, to Gail Simone, notable comic writer, and author of Women in Refrigerators, an unapologetic look at how female characters are unfairly treated in comic stories, to Kelly Sue DeConnick, the creator of the hugely popular female Captain Marvel, and many more.

How do women get into comics in the first place? Better comics. The consensus of the interviewees was: Give us a variety of women featured, complex characters, and in-depth storytelling. As an X-Men fan, it was cool to know how many other women in this film cited that series as their turn-on to the whole genre. The fact that the male creator of the series had two female editors makes sense. Neil Gaiman’s Sandman was another “gateway” comic, again, with a female editor. In fact, that editor, Karen Berger, is credited with developing the talents of some of the biggest names in comics for the past several decades.

I personally got into comics in the 1990s, and was quite alone. I took my two young children to the comic book store and was the only female there, let alone a mother. I found it interesting to hear about that time period. The film talked about how more women were getting into the creative side of comics then, but still not equally represented by a long-shot. The industry was not welcome to women or women-centered stories, but also, women are not as confidant in promoting themselves.

Comics used to be sold in supermarkets and bookstores, but then only in specific comic stores that were (and mostly still are) very much a bachelor den of boob posters and all-male staff who assume a girl is only there because she is dating a comic book fan. In 1994, a support organization for women in comics was created called Friends of Lulu which put out a book helping comic book stores understand how to attract more females to their stores—why shut out the biggest consumers in the country? The internet ushered in a huge change. This has given women a place to connect, collaborate, and share their love of comics. The film also mentions the influence of the manga craze during that time as well, with comics targeted to girls.

There is so much to this film, but what stood out to me most was the passion of the people interviewed, and the range of ages. I loved hearing from the elder pioneers in the industry, as well as the younger talents of today. Inspiring the next generation of comic creators came up a lot, and is something I support wholeheartedly. Everyone should be able to express themselves in whatever medium suits them best, boys and girls. Check out the film!

She Makes Comics is now available to order on DVD and as a digital download at SheMakesComics.com.

GeekMom received a copy for review purposes.

Princess Decomposia And Count Spatula

Image By First Second Books

Andi Watson has created a creepy-cute romance with the new graphic novel, Princess Decomposia and Count Spatula. The Princess is overwhelmed taking care of the business of the Underworld while her father convalescences in bed and complains about his food. In comes a pastry chef vampire, Count Spatula, who sees the stress the Princess is under, and tries to help.

Andi was kind enough to answer a few questions about this sweet gothic tale.

GEEKMOM: What was your inspiration for the story and characters?

ANDI WATSON: As always with a book, several different elements have to come together to spark things off. Most importantly I wanted to create a full length graphic novel for the first time in my career, a challenge I hadn’t met after many years of making comics. At first I was a bit intimidated, knowing I’d have to write the whole thing ahead of time, but that became an advantage as I could go back and forth over the course of the story, adding and taking away scenes and dialogue. I loved being able to clearly see the overall shape of the story, something it’s quite hard to do when I’m serialising. The other inspirations came from my sketchbooks. Both Princess Decomposia and Count Spatula had been lurking in the pages in separate stories for years, but neither of their stories worked alone. It was only when I put them together that the book fell into place. I love it when that happens.

GM: Did you see romance right away for the Princess and Count?

ANDI: One of things I wanted to achieve with the book was tell a relationship story, a romance that would be fun to write and draw. I’ve told “real world” romance stories before, and enjoyed writing the dialogue and creating characters. The slight downside is that I’ve found them a bit less fun to draw. It’s often two or more people in a room talking. That’s a real challenge to keep visually interesting, so I wanted to combine a relationship story with a strong visual element and I found I enjoyed drawing the spooky stuff. Having more freedom to play visually and allowing my imagination a bit more of a free reign was a real treat. That the Princess has the cute bat-wing hair and the Count is a vampire made it extra fun to draw. Add to that, designing all the other characters and I had a blast.

GM: The relationship between the Princess and King changes over the course of the book. What’s the message about father/daughter dynamics?

ANDI: Yes, I thought it would be interesting to explore the family dynamics of who’s in charge and who is driving things behind the scenes. The child has adult responsibilities without being allowed her own choices, while the King enjoys power with none of the obligations. The adult is the child and vice-versa. The shape of the story follows how that balance changes. I’m not sure I have a message about father/daughter dynamics, although I am interested in them, being dad to a daughter myself. One thing that strikes you as a parent very early on is how much and how little power you have over your kids. On the one hand you’re completely responsible for every aspect of their lives, on the other you can’t make a child eat, you can’t make them sleep, and you can’t make them stop crying. You are utterly helpless, as any parent with a crying toddler on a long haul flight knows!  As children grow up that divide is less stark but you’re still trying to juggle how much responsibility to give a child and also the anxiety that comes from letting them go little by little. Perhaps this whole book is about my daughter becoming a teenager and my wanting to take to my bed and hide!

GM: The Count’s fun desserts like Mud Monster Cake and Lemon Drizzle Cake were charming to see and imagine the taste! Do you bake? What’s your favorite dessert to make or eat?

ANDI: Yes, I began baking with my daughter when she was little. We both enjoyed making a mess and eating the results. I hadn’t baked since school so it was the perfect way to begin again as the emphasis was on fun and play, not on some exquisitely presented end product. As long as it was edible we were happy. I’ve continued baking over the years, which is why it was a joy to invent the Count’s set-piece desserts. My job was to flick through recipe books and doodle ideas in my sketchbook… it was tough, I tell you. Sadly, my own skills fall well short of the Count’s, but I do enjoy making quick and simple recipes like cookies, rock cakes, fairy cakes and the like. I’ll have a go with fondant icing for birthdays. Past projects have included Minions from Despicable Me and a crash landed Tardis. I also made a traditional Yule log over Christmas that turned out all right. The recipe my family likes best is a chocolate cake with Terry’s Chocolate Orange ganache. Super sweet and easy to make.

GM: Finally, what project are you currently working on?

ANDI: I have a couple of books in the bag, including my webcomic Princess Midnight which finishes up at the end of January. I’ve also finished a graphic novel for grown ups that I’m hoping to find a publisher for. As for brand new stuff, I’ve finished writing another spooky graphic novel that I’ll start drawing and aim to have done by the summer.

GM: Thanks, Andi!

Princess Decomposia and Count Spatula comes out February 24th by First Second. GeekMom received a copy for review purposes.

Shaping A Life In The Sculptor

Image By First Second Books

When I introduce graphic novels to those new to the format, I advise them to read through once to get the story, and then look at it again, lingering on the images to catch nuances. Often, those used to novels-sans-graphics miss the extra dimensions to story and characters that the art provides.

This is especially true with The Sculptor by Scott McCloud. I read many comics and graphic novels, both for GeekMom and for fun, and I appreciate when an artist puts in the time and effort to detail, especially the background. He literally draws you into the New York City of the main character, David Smith: a close-up swipe of a metro card or a birds-eye view of towering skyscrapers in the rain. What word-based novels provide with beautiful phrases to set the tone, McCloud gives in his expressive panels; each series cinematically moving from shot to shot, creating a consistent pace. The fact that The Sculptor is 490 pages makes that attention to detail extraordinary.

So the art is good, but what about the story?

The novel has an intro that only makes sense when you finish the whole thing, so let’s start with the first chapter. Meet David Smith, a young artist in a diner, talking to his Uncle Harry about his lousy life at the moment: his absolute positions on artistic integrity have cost him his career and social life. He’s happy to see his uncle whom he hasn’t seen in a long time. Nothing too exciting until David realizes he hasn’t seen his uncle in awhile because… he’s dead.

Uncle Harry reveals that although, yes, he lived the life of Uncle Harry, he is in fact Death. Yup, Death personified comes to this down-and-out sculptor to offer him a deal: David will be able to sculpt anything with his hands, but will only live another 200 days in return. It sounds like a dream for someone who has put art before everything, but having a superpower doesn’t solve his problems. That’s something he has to figure out by experiencing life, even if he only has 200 days left of it.

David is an unlucky person who has lost his mother, father, and sister to unrelated deaths in the last several years. His art is the only thing he has left, but even with the ability Death gives him, David has to find focus and meaning to make a name for himself in the world. Along the way he falls in love, but all people are complicated, and love doesn’t come easy.

Even if you are a regular reader of graphic novels I recommend lingering over the pages of The Sculptor. There is much to take in, and it’s worth it.

The Sculptor comes out February 3rd, for around $23. I recommend this book for upper YA and adults (sex and profanity).

GeekMom received a copy for review purposes.

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies: An End Worthy of a Song

Image © Warner Brothers Studios.

Just before the holidays, my youngest son and I performed our usual mid-December ritual: Skip school to see The Hobbit on opening day. It’s been this way for all of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings films. For one, it’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. For another, the films always release on or around my birthday (December 18).

The advantage of playing hooky to go to the first showing of a movie (in daylight!) is that there will be some folks in the theater, but it’s usually never crowded. Vin and I had our pick of seats and were very comfortable during the show. While I’ve seen some of The Hobbit/Lord of the Rings films in 3D, I prefer to see them in standard format (the cinematography and movement doesn’t need it, IMHO). However, I wouldn’t mind seeing The Battle of the Five Armies in IMAX—and I will be seeing it again, because I really enjoyed it and I forgot to look for Peter Jackson’s cameo.

I would consider myself a pretty hardcore Tolkien fan. Behold the rubbing I made of his gravestone:

Tolkien Rubbing
J.R.R. Tolkien is buried in a quiet graveyard in Oxford. Photo by Natalie Zaman.

I was excited about the films when I first heard of them, because I would have access to another Tolkien film; that’s rare. The Rankin/Bass animations from the 70s and the incomplete Bakshi Lord of the Rings hold special places in my heart, but Peter Jackson’s films feel closest to Tolkien’s vision for me. I will never forget when I first “saw” Bag End. It was an emotional moment for me because up to that point, that place had been in my head and drawn as a cartoon. Now, it is real. Here are some memorable moments from the last installment that may contain some light spoilers…

Cinematography, Design, Costumes, Makeup, etc.
Visually, the film was appropriately dark and brooding, as the scenery centered on dragon-ravaged Lake-town, Dale and Erebor, and the haunted forest of Dol Guldur. Brightness and beauty returns at the end when Bilbo goes home; the Shire is as it should be—filled with Hobbits, fine country craftsmanship, and lush green hills—but only at the very end.

The costumes were magnificent; a challenge, as this portion of The Hobbit centers around devastation and destruction. Here, you can see how the details of costume can be used to forward the plot and stir the feelings of the viewer: The heavily embroidered folksy details in the clothes of the tattered and battered citizens of Lake-town are still there underneath the rips, tears, and scorch marks. I loved that everyone was appropriately filthy. (I had a problem with this in the Eregon film.) The elves alone remained spotless despite the conflict raging around them. Thranduil and Legolas emerged with only black scratches on their faces. Tauriel was the exception. She gets bloodied during her battle with the Orcs, which only adds to her aura of being a “different” elf, living outside the tribe, doing her own thing, and being real. And then there is the armor—lots and lots of armor. The most beautiful (and what you really get to see in detail) are the pieces worn by the original 13 dwarves of the company. The knot-work patterns on the shields, helms, breastplates—all of it—is just gorgeous. I also loved that Dain wielded a Thor-esque hammer.

Weta Workshop continues to amaze with the creatures (including new steeds and the bats that make their appearance in the last battle) and scenes of destruction—of which there are many. Afterwards, my son said that he thought that Dain was completely CGI, but it wasn’t something I noticed. I’ll be paying closer attention to this when I see the film again.

The Death of Smaug
The film starts immediately with Smaug attacking Lake-town. Great scenes of the dragon swooping low, crashing into things, and setting the place on fire take up the first 10 to 15 minutes. We get a wee bit more of Ben Cumberbatch’s evil banter; this time with Bard, which differs from the book. There are more deviations in how the dwarves find out about the dragon’s demise and we also finally get to see what happened to the Arkenstone.

Thorin’s Dragon Sickness
The film had a short time to show Thorin morphing from his hard-headed (but respected and lovable) self to a gold-obsessed crazy-dwarf—and then back again to come out of the mountain to save the day and his honor. I liked Richard Armitage’s treatment of this aspect of the character. He wavered realistically several times between the Thorin we know and love, to the tyrant who you want to hate but you know that it’s Thorin inside. He redeemed himself so well that I cried in the end, even though I knew what was going to happen.

The Showdown at Dul Guldur
This inclusion of this storyline in the film was necessary in making The Hobbit a three-part series. Gleaned from other works, epilogues, and notes, it fills in the background of where The Hobbit fits into The Lord of the Rings. In The Battle of Five Armies, these scenes confirm that, “he’s baaaaaaaaaack!” Galadriel, Elrond and Saruman have a face-off with Sauron and rescue Gandalf. It was interesting to see Saruman as a good guy (even though you know what happens with him if you’ve read the book or have seen any of The Lord of the Rings films). When that segment ended, I found myself wondering if he had already started down that path, or if he was trying to be the hero and unwittingly opening himself up to his downfall. I just love Sir Christopher Lee.

Tauriel and Kili…
Until The Hobbit films I never thought of dwarves as objects of romantic affection, but Kili and Fili (and Armitage’s Thorin) changed all that for me. I admit I ate the elf-elf-dwarf love-triangle up with a spoon. I felt that Tauriel was a character that was added to the film to give it a strong feminine presence as it’s so overwhelmingly male, and to add a love interest as there is none in the book. I liked the added romance and the idea of an elf and dwarf getting together (almost a kind of foreshadowing of the friendship between Gimli and Legolas that comes later). It also provided a kind of foil to the “us versus them” theme that emerges between the various peoples vying for the treasure of Erebor.

tauriel and Kili posters
Image © Warner Brothers Studios.

This also had me thinking about what was going to be done with the ending of the film. If you’ve read the book, you know what happens to all of the members of the company, but this added twist had me wondering if anything was going to change on that score. No more deets as it would be a major spoiler—but I will say Tauriel and Kili’s story, like the rest of the film is song-worthy.

Orcs with Forks…
…for hands, and feet. Okay, maybe not forks, but one difference that both my son and I noticed between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings films, and particularly this last film, was the plethora of Orcs and trolls with amputated limbs replaced by weapons. Azog was the first we saw in this film with his missing arm replaced by a spiky pike (it’s a sleek, silver blade for The Battle of the Five Armies). But suddenly, it seems that there are lots of maimed Orcs and trolls. One had both legs replaced by round-headed maces—awkward and… weird.

Afterwards, it made me think that portraying some of the Orcs and trolls like that showed how these creatures were seen by their masters as expendable: If they’re not dead, fix ‘em up and send ’em back out. If you really look at it, the whole of the film shows the utter uselessness of war—that it breaks down more than it could ever lift up. Tolkien, who experienced World War I first hand, seems to have felt this way (as can be judged from his letters), though he professed many times that his stories have no symbolic or metaphoric messages in them.

“At least… we may make such an end as will be worthy of a song!”
Before a reprise of Howard Shore’s enduring score kicks in, the ending credits are backed by a song sung (and written) by Billy Boyd (along with Fran Walsh and Phillipa Boyens). “The Last Goodbye” has words that are reminiscent of Tolkien:

“…To these memories I will hold
With your blessing I will go
To turn at last to paths that lead home
And though where the road then takes me
I cannot tell
We came all this way
But now comes the day
To bid you farewell
I bid you all a very fond farewell.”

Besides being a good ending song, this seemed to me, a clear message to everyone who was involved in these films—the viewers and fans included. So many people went on the journey of The Hobbit andThe Lord of the Rings. They’ve been a part of my life and my family’s life—watching them, waiting for them, talking about them, rereading the books—for over a decade. It is bittersweet, but as the song says, worth it.

Should Kids Go to See This Film?
My children range in age from 14 to 22, and all three have read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy. I went with the 14-year-old and we were both pretty giddy over it. However, I would use caution in bringing younger children to see it. The film is rated PG-13 for violence and there a good deal of it (the film focuses on the final battle described in the book, but on steroids):

• The film starts out with Smaug attacking Lake-town. There is fire, toppling buildings, screaming people, people falling out of boats. The aftermath is realistically gruesome, with bodies being pulled from the lake. Young children might have a hard time with that.
• The Orcs, trolls, and goblins in the movie have a clear purpose: kill or be killed—and both happen. Often. Besides the violence they perpetrate, they’re very realistic, frightening to look at, and there were enough with severed appendages refitted with weapon limbs make them even creepier, if that’s possible.
• Romance between Tauriel and Kili blossoms, and it is more about deeper feelings than the flirtations of the past films.
• The film is 2 hours and 24 minutes long, which might be too long for young children.

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies is a satisfying ending to over a decade of Tolkien movies from Peter Jackson. Like the other Hobbit and Lord of the Rings films, creative license has been used to bring the book to the big screen. I felt that the film respected Tolkien’s vision and was visually stunning to watch. It is a war film and the horrors of war are captured in it. As the title suggests, the story is very battle-centered. There is a good deal of violence and even though it’s started for the most part by monsters, there are many images of the dead, of all races, and all ages. Use your best judgement when it comes to bringing younger children to see it.

This Book Just Ate My Dog!

Image by Henry Holt and Co.

I had believed the Choose Your Own Adventure books were as interactive as it got. But what about a book where the book itself is a character? And the reader has to help out to move the story along? Yeah, that blew the mind of my five-year-old niece, too.

That’s exactly what happens in This Book Just Ate My Dog! by Richard Byrne. He got all meta on himself with this picture book. Brightly illustrated with adorable-looking characters, it’s a quick read and very, very silly. Both my nieces enjoyed it, the younger one especially. When has your child been asked to shake a book sideways by a character?

The main character here is Bella. She was innocently walking her dog across the page when the book ate her dog (it disappears into the crease). Her friend Ben walks by and is eaten too, then an ambulance, and finally Bella! It’s up to the reader to sort it all out and save the day. Though, things aren’t sorted out perfectly in the end…

Interactive and funny, I recommend This Book Just Ate My Dog! for preschool and up. GeekMom received a copy for  review purposes.

Enhance Your EV3 Robot Experience With The Lego Mindstorms EV3 Discovery Book

Cover for The Lego Mindstorms EV3 Discovery Book: A Beginner's Guide to Building and Programming Robots. Photo: No Starch Press
Cover for The Lego Mindstorms EV3 Discovery Book: A Beginner’s Guide to Building and Programming Robots. Photo: No Starch Press

I’m a rookie First Lego League (FLL) coach, so when I was offered the opportunity to review The Lego Mindstorms EV3 Discovery Book: A Beginner’s Guide to Building and Programming Robots by Laurens Valk, I was thrilled. I am very pleased to say that the book did not disappoint! Within 15 minutes of picking up the book, I had already learned 3 things I didn’t know. As I continued to read, I picked up many more concepts and tips to take back and share with my First Lego League team. Laurens Valk is very qualified to write about the EV3. He helps test new Mindstorms products, and one of his robot designs is featured on the EV3 packaging as a bonus project.

Johnny working on the EV3 EVR3STORM sample robot. Photo: Maryann Goldman
Johnny and friends working on the EV3 EVR3STORM sample robot. Photo: Maryann Goldman

I started working with the Lego Mindstorms EV3 robot after my son, Johnny, received it for Christmas last year. Johnny and I installed the EV3 Software and set about building three of the sample robots (TRACK3R, EV3RSTORM, and R3PTAR) from the instructions. Then, in May 2014, I began the journey of organizing and coaching a FLL team. Although there are a lot of resources online, knowing what I know now, I’d recommend that each of my team members purchase a copy of The Lego Mindstorms EV3 Discovery Book. The book has an impressive 396 pages filled with all the information about the EV3 that you could possibly want to know. There is both a “brief” and a “detailed” table of contents covering 19 chapters that are divided into six sections. Each section contains a multitude of full color diagrams providing concise and detailed pictorial information about the topics being discussed. The book walks you through what’s in the EV3 box and the basics of using the EV3 software, then the book proceeds to explain in detail the robot sensors and more complex programs. There are additional sample robots to build (e.g., EXPLOR3R, FORMULA EV3 RACE CAR, ANTY, SNATCH3R, and LAVA R3X) as well as scores of activities to test your new found knowledge. Whether you already have some experience with the EV3 like me or are totally new to the EV3, The Lego Mindstorms EV3 Discovery Book has an appropriate starting point for you.

The Brief Contents of The Lego Mindstorms EV3 Discovery Book: A Beginner's Guide to Building and Programming Robots. Photo: No Starch Press
The Brief Contents of The Lego Mindstorms EV3 Discovery Book: A Beginner’s Guide to Building and Programming Robots. Photo: No Starch Press

For a full run down on the EV3, check out GeekMom Marziah’s review. Although this book states that it requires the Lego Mindstorms EV3 retail set 31313, the vast majority of the book will also work just as well with the Lego Mindstorms Education EV3 Core Set 45544.

Here’s a short list of some of the take-aways I had from this book.  It’s amazing how much you can learn even when you’ve been working with the robot for a while. I learned:

  1. How to go back and forth between the Lobby, my program, and the Content Editor in the EV3 Software. (page 29)
  2. You can double click on a program name tab to rename the program to something more meaningful. What a relief to finally be able to give our programs a name related to what the program does instead of just “program”, “program2”, etc. (page 30)
  3. How to use the hand tool to pan around large programs. It didn’t take long before our programs became so large that they wouldn’t fit on the visible computer screen. It’s very useful to be able to quickly move around and scan our entire program.  (page 31)
  4. How to create My Blocks. These are essentially what I’ve always called procedures. You can save a group of programming blocks that perform a specific task into one block that you can insert anywhere in your programs without having to recreate all the individual blocks. My Blocks can be shared among team members or groups too. (page 53)
  5. How to view ports and sensor values, and move motors, all right on the EV3 brick. I knew you could do a lot more on the brick itself, but I hadn’t run into any text describing the specifics before this book. (page 66)
  6. Switch blocks have tabbed views. If your switch block has a lot of cases, you can use the tabbed view to tidy up your view and analyze one case at a time. (page 72)
  7. About the unregulated motor block. From the book, “When you don’t want the EV3 to supply that extra power to maintain constant speed, you can use unregulated speed.” (page 101)

As I mentioned earlier, The Lego Mindstorms EV3 Discovery Book is full of color images and samples. Page 52 has an awesome example program showing a loop. I love how easy these examples are to replicate on my computer in the EV3 software and try out for myself. The examples are visually accurate and taken directly from the EV3 software, and the extra write-in comment boxes make the examples easy to understand and follow.

Page 52 of The Lego Mindstorms EV3 Discovery Book: A Beginner's Guide to Building and Programming Robots. Photo: No Starch Press
Page 52 of The Lego Mindstorms EV3 Discovery Book: A Beginner’s Guide to Building and Programming Robots. Photo: No Starch Press

Besides having great example programs, The Lego Mindstorms EV3 Discovery Book also has fantastic exercises for you to try in the form of Discovery sections. My favorite was Discovery #32 in Chapter 7 “Using the Color Sensor” where the EV3 color sensor is used to follow a track that you can design for yourself. Check out this video of my robot in action trying to move around and stay inside a green rectangular track constructed from white poster paper and green electric tape. I would never have known to try this if it weren’t for The Lego Mindstorms EV3 Discovery Book!

Whether you’re new to the EV3, a FLL coach, on a FLL team, or maybe your robot has been sitting for a while and you’re looking to breath new life into it, The Lego Mindstorms EV3 Discovery Book is for you! This book would also be great to include along with the EV3 as a gift this coming holiday season.

The LEGO MINDSTORMS EV3 Discovery Book: A Beginner’s Guide to Building and Programming Robots retails for $34.95 but currently sells on Amazon for $22.10 (hardback) or $9.78 (Kindle).

In addition to The Lego Mindstorms EV3 Discovery Book, No Starch Press has a large selection of Lego books including The Lego Mindstorms EV3 Idea Book due out in November. I can’t wait to check it out!

GeekMom received this item for review purposes.

Building an Elder God: A Review

IMG_4263 - Version 2
Photo: Melanie R. Meadors

Who wouldn’t want to grow a Lovecraftian terror in the comfort of their own living room?

Building an Elder God: A Game of Lovecraftian Construction is a game from Signal Fire Studios, first published in April of 2012. I bought the game for my son because he loves all things Lovecraftian. I am pretty sure he might be one of the only young children in the world who gets comforted by getting told that Cthulhu will watch out for him in the night. Yes, he has the stuffed animal.

Photo: Melanie R. Meadors

Building an Elder God is a tile-based game, reminiscent of Waterworks, but with—at least in my opinion—far more interesting subject matter. The basic concept is to connect the pieces of your monster, starting with a body and ending with a head, to make a complete monster with no damaged pieces or open ended tentacles. But you have to finish your monster before your competing insane cultist friends finish theirs!

During your turn, you can put a damaged tentacle on an opponent’s monster. They won’t be able to win unless they heal that tentacle either with a whole tentacle that matches that card or with a Necronomicon card (you get two of these cards and you can place one on a damaged tentacle to heal it). There are immune cards, distinguished by a purple glow, which cannot be damaged, and only one damage card can be present on anyone’s monster at a time.

Photo: Melanie R. Meadors

At first, this game seemed really simple, almost too simple, and would be something only kids could enjoy. But if adults are a bit more competitive and the cards come up right, it can prove to be quite challenging. I’d say it is a game suited for families with people of all ages. It usually takes between fifteen and thirty minutes to play a full game. We have a lot of fun playing it.

The artwork on the cards is very enjoyable, especially with the five bonus cards that were available when I bought our set. Ben Mund, the illustrator and designer, also did the artwork for A Very Hungry Cthulhupillar, also out from Signal Fire Studios. I’d suggest sharing this video to enhance the game playing experience. My son, who is a very young twelve, got the biggest kick out of it and quoted from it all day.

Photo: Melanie R. Meadors

Building an Elder God is best played with three or four people, but can still be fun with two. The more people you have, however, the bigger of a playing area you would need. With three people, we almost didn’t fit on the dining room table. Most of our elder god building takes place on the floor. The game says it’s best for ages six plus, but with some help I think slightly younger kids could enjoy it as well. The instructions suggest that the damaged tentacles had been shot, but you can easily explain it with something else—experiments gone badly, etc.

All in all I recommend this game. There is always a lot of laughter and fun when we do. And check out Signal Fire Studios, they have a lot of fun related products you might enjoy as well.


Korra: Why You and Your Kids Should Be Watching

Image By Nickelodeon

There are many reasons to enjoy The Legend of Korra. It’s full of action: stunning martial arts, elemental power fights, speeding car chases, airship rides, and flying bison. There’s comedy in every episode: Bolin’s silly and frightening romance with Eska, one-liner brilliance from Varrick, and various cute animal antics. There’s romance too. The plot keeps moving and moving. The characters grow and change. And the world itself is artistically creative and engaging.

But there are other, very important reasons to watch The Legend of Korra, and I will give you a brief description of some characters to prove the first one:

1. A trainee who will never let a friend down, but is quick to fight and lacks patience.
2. A ruler who keeps order with cruelty, and steals from the people.
3. A stylish and good-looking engineer who likes fast cars and planes.
4. A thoughtful child who struggles with Dad to take on responsibility.
5. A captain of the police force who doesn’t crack a smile, but is clever and self-sacrificing.

These characters may not be anything you haven’t seen in a show, but in this case they are all female and in the same show- sometimes even the same episode! Gasp!

Like its predecessor, Avatar: The Last Airbender, the female population is represented in an equal and diverse way—the way it should be in every story. I wrote a post awhile back called “Great Heroines for Boys“: “Why should you encourage your son to read books with heroines? That’s easy. You want your son to grow up knowing that a strong female for a friend, wife, or boss is normal and good.”

Korra is the lead character in the show, but she is far from the only interesting girl and woman to watch. When first watching, you may think it is female heavy in its speaking and side characters, but don’t be fooled! We have been trained to see mostly males on screen, even though our real world is half and half. When seeing something in entertainment that is closer to reality, it seems odd. That’s a good reason to watch Korra with your kids. Make seeing women and girls as part of the “normal” storytelling world. Regardless if they are good, bad, speaking, or in the background—just make us be there!

Are there awesome boys and men? Absolutely! The cast is full of great male heroes, villains, and some that play both sides too.

Besides being diverse with gender roles, I have never seen a show that has strong characters of so many different ages—this is truly a family show where everyone can see themselves in a cool role. There are children to kick ass, teens that kick ass, mid-lifers that kick-ass, and a couple of grannies that made me laugh. When Lin Beifong had a big scene at the end of Season One, I found my new hero—and she was an older woman with gray hair. In season three we meet her sister (with curly gray hair!).

Working through relationships is a huge part of the plot lines between siblings, friends, children and parents, and romantic interests; even the spiritual essence of GOOD and EVIL had a relationship to balance out. One of the overall plot arcs is a romance with Mako, the angsty, fire bending teen boy. Within the first two seasons (or books), Mako alternately is dating the main character Korra, and/or Asami. They all make mistakes, and by the third season Mako isn’t dating anyone. Asami and Korra become friends, and it’s an important relationship for both of them. And although it’s awkward with Mako for awhile, eventually the need to work together overshadows everything else, and he is able to be friends with his exes. Rarely do series show the normal ups and downs of dating, such as how time is needed to heal, and how to handle it all in a mature way.

I recommend The Legend of Korra because it proves that bringing quality and equality to cartoons only adds to the fun and entertainment. We need more shows like this!

Back to School with the Lenovo Flex 2

Deadpool Labbit approves of the Lenovo Flex 2 \ Image: Dakster Sullivan
Deadpool Labbit approves of the Lenovo Flex 2 \ Image: Dakster Sullivan

I might not be in college anymore, but I still consider myself a student. I’m always looking for an online class to take, or a new book to read and learn something new. When looking for a laptop that would work for those simple needs, I checked out the Lenovo Flex 2.

The specs include:
AMD A8-6410 APU with AMD Radeon R5 graphics card (2.00 GHz)
8GB of RAM
(1) HDMI port
(1) USB 3.0 port
(2) USB 2.0 ports
DVD-RW Drive

Currently retailing for $500 at Best Buy stores, the Lenovo Flex 2 is a nice little laptop for the price. I found the speed to be comparable to that of my HP Envy with the added bonus of the flip screen.

The screen can flip 300 degrees with enough pressure to make you feel secure about what you are doing. It didn’t take too much effort to make the switch, but it wasn’t so easy that I was worried about the screen loosening up on its own. When the flip happens, the keyboard area is disabled so you don’t do something by accident. Programs that work best in the flip screen mode are Netflix, YouTube, and webcam apps.

In comparison to other laptops of the same price range, only one laptop beat the Lenovo Flex out in specifications: the Toshiba Satellite. The only area the Toshiba really beat the Lenovo in was the memory, and its ability to be expanded. What the Flex has that the Satellite doesn’t is the flip screen feature. It’s a coin toss as to which one is better, but for those who enjoy being able to flip their screen and use their laptop in other ways, the Lenovo wins.

For students on a limited budget (that statement is kind of redundant), try downloading these programs instead of their more expensive counter parts.

The biggest piece of software that I downloaded to my laptop was OpenOffice. OpenOffice is a great resource for those who
need the ability to create and edit Office documents, but can’t afford the $300 price tag for the license of the name brand. I’m very happy with how fast the Lenovo Flex handled the programs. On average, it took only four seconds to open one of the OpenOffice applications and start working.

Gotta love my TMNT pajamas...oh and the laptop is pretty cool to.
Gotta love my TMNT pajamas…oh and the laptop is pretty cool to.

Another free piece of software I downloaded which works great with this laptop is Avast virus protection. It’s the only virus protection I use on my personal devices. It works great for keeping you aware of anything going on behind the scenes. The best part is that it doesn’t bog down your computer while keeping you safe online.

My final piece of freeware that I downloaded was Fotor (a simple photo editor) that has some of the same functionality of Photoshop without the cost attached to it. I like this program for its simplicity and how quickly I was able to install it.

No laptop is perfect though, and I do have a bone or two to pick with this one.

Lenovo VeriFace facial recognition software on this particular device is really annoying. Half of the time it didn’t recognize me and the other half I realized I could type my password in before the computer could even have one attempt at recognizing my face. After a few tries with this one, I finally just uninstalled it.

The only hardware problem I have with the Flex 2 is the fact that you can’t expand the memory. Memory is the cheapest and easiest upgrade you can make to your computer, and to not be able to give a boost later on could be a deal breaker for me under some circumstances.

I’ve been working on the Lenovo Flex 2 for a little over two weeks now. I’m surprised at how happy I am with it, especially since it doesn’t have my office programs on it. The speed works for what I need, and the weight isn’t a brick like my previous Asus laptop. I haven’t used the flip screen feature that much, but what little I have used it I found it to be a neat feature.

If you are looking for a laptop for your student that has enough resources for them to do their work, but not enough that they will be tempted to download focus breaking games like World of Warcraft, the Lenovo Flex 2 is the one you are looking for.

Disclaimer: GeekMom received a review sample. 

Building the Future with Lego Space

LEGO Space: Builiding the Future \ Image: No Starch Press
Lego Space: Building the Future. Image: No Starch Press.

All kids go through learning phases where they just can’t get enough of a particular topic. For my son right now, that topic is space and what better way to learn about it than through Lego? That’s where Lego Space: Building the Future by Peter Reid and Tim Goddard comes in.

I was really excited to check this book out because: 1. My son is really into space and I knew he would love it; and 2. it puts the topic in a way that will not only teach my son, but also inspire him to get creative with his own Lego bricks.

The book doesn’t so much tell the real history of space as much as it tells it’s own story. The first 10 pages are filled with some history, but after that, the book goes its own way and takes some creative licensing. Throughout the story, the authors take some time to stop and show you how to build what you are seeing. I thought this was a neat aspect of the book, because my son already wanted to build what he saw, so this gave him a head start.

LEGO Space: Builiding the Future Sample Page \ Image: No Starch Press
Lego Space: Building the Future sample page. Image: No Starch Press.

The only downside to this book that I can tell is the price. I showed it off at my son’s science fair night and the first thing the librarian and his teacher did was note how expensive it must be. Considering the quality of the photos inside and the fact that’s a pretty hefty size, it doesn’t surprise me that it costs $24.95 retail.

Lego Space: Building the Future has inspired my son to put down the video games and instead got him to focus on his much-neglected Lego bricks. I’m not kidding when I tell you that he spent hours building space stations and looking over the book for ideas. A few times, I would hear him get really excited about a particular fact and he would read it out loud with enthusiasm that I’ve only seen when he’s in a theme park.

If your child is into Lego, space, or both, I highly recommend Lego Space: Building the Future. It might be a bit more expensive than other books, but in my opinion, it’s well worth it if it gets my son reading.

Lego Space: Building the Future is available on Amazon for $19 (hardback) and $12 (kindle).

GeekMom received this item for review purposes.

Drift: A Unique Summer Read

Drift FC
Image by Tu Books.

I’ve been reading fantasy novels since I was a kid. Most of them had a new take on a similar world based on European folk tales, a la Tolkien. I have no problem with it and still enjoy reading stories like that. But when someone writes a fantasy novel in a new setting, with practically nothing I find familiar, I’m fascinated. That’s what happened when I read Drift.

Drift, a new Tu Books YA novel by M.K. Hutchins, has some references to ancient cultures the world over, specifically the Maya, but those are only inspiration.  It’s a unique world that you have to paint in your mind, instead of just filling in new characters on old fantasy landscapes.

The main character, Tenjat, lives on an island on the back of a giant turtle that swims the oceans of Hell, while it feeds, keeping the soil good for farming, and a giant tree alive. But nagas (nasty mer-creatures) gnaw at the roots of the tree below water and want to kill the people on the island. The Handlers and Tenders are the high-ranking groups that defend the tree and turtle. The farmers and artisans are low-ranking, with those who have many children being the despicable members of society.

But that’s just what you learn in the beginning. It’s more than that (but I won’t spoil it for you). And the true story is not the world, but the young people we follow: Determined Tenjat, wise Eflet, fierce Avi, mischievous Daef, and more.

Tenjat and his sister Eflet are trying to live independently on this turtle island. They fled their own turtle when a family secret put them all in danger. Their father and younger brother were left behind; their mother sacrificed herself on the way. They lied to be taken in by this new community, and are struggling. Tenjat believes the only way to help himself and his sister survive is to become a Handler, but that requires a test. This test is shrouded in secrecy, but those that fail come back with scars, both physical and emotional. Eflet, who knows more than anyone should, tries to convince Tenjat there is another way, but Tenjat can’t see beyond what he has been taught of what life is about…yet.

This is a story of breaking out of the set ways of a culture, of (literally) realizing your world is upside down. But it’s also a story of the importance of family and friendships. There are battles, magic, and love. I recommend Drift for ages 12 and up.

GeekMom received this item for review purposes.

A DIY Mid-Century Medieval Guest Room Upgrade


With two kids, a dog, and space at a general premium, having a guest room has never been an easy task for our growing family. We’ve made some sad attempts over the years to accommodate visitors, including a futon (shudder), a second-string queen sized bed (which ended up covered in marker), and an office/nursery combination.

A year ago, we finally moved to a house that had an additional bedroom, a flex space. Naturally, that means that for the last year, it’s pretty much stood as a testament to every last box we didn’t unpack, and included a mountain of computer junk.

No. More.

When I had the chance to try out a new mattress from Simmons—the Simmons ComforPedic iQ™—I knew the time had come for a redesign. A DIY project of, well, moderate proportions (kids, job, deadlines).

First things first: Behold the mess of our guest room.

Before - Room.jpg
I don’t even. Image: Natania Barron

Believe it or not, this picture was taken after two room overhauls. We knew we couldn’t lose the office space—face it, we’re not the kind of family that can afford to let a whole room sit unused most of the time. But the setup we had didn’t work. My husband Michael works from home up to two days a week, but the big square table we had just wasn’t happening.

I envisioned a wall dedicated to the office, while the rest of the room could serve as a comfortable space for sleeping and resting guests. The ComforPedic iQ™ is a particularly nice choice for guests (and non-guests, as I have a feeling our 8-year-old is getting a bit jealous) because it’s all about, well, you guessed it: comfort. Seriously, I can attest to how comfortable it is—and not just in the ways you’d imagine. The mattress itself is built around Smart Response™ Technology, which naturally adjusts to the sleeper’s body weight and proportions. Plus, it’s topped with Ultra Cool™ Memory Foam to help regulate temperature. If you’re at all like we are, that’s a really important part of the equation. (Also, diamond dust. Yup. Diamond dust.)

Now, we purchased a bed a few years ago from Costco that we call the Space Bed. That’s because it’s a knockoff of another foam bed and was significantly cheaper. It certainly does its job, but the support is nowhere near as comprehensive as with the ComforPedic iQ™. In our testing of the bed, we found less aches and pains (and my husband suffers from sciatica, so we’re very familiar) and, in my case, less legs and arms falling asleep. Not to mention that you can, quite literally, feel it subtly adjusting to you as you relax. It’s kind of amazing.

A cross section of the ComforPedicIQ — image: Simmons

So, good for the goose, good for the gander. Actually, in this case—better for the gander. (Wait, are my guests ganders? I’m confused.)

But I digress. I’m unapologetically addicted to Pinterest, and given the opportunity to design a bed in a small space, I decided to gather my craftiness and have a go. Initially, I was going to make a headboard out of some material I got over at the Scrap Exchange in Durham, and affix it to cardboard. But then I did some more Pinteresting and decided that, given I had extra curtain rods, a sort of medieval drapery action would do the trick. As a result, the whole room has a medieval feel. The yellow and black fabric was cut and draped (no sewing for this gal…) and then I hammered some medieval-looking mirrors to the backdrop. A duvet set from Amazon and Ikea added the final touch for the bed and, I’ve got the say, the final result is a lot nicer than I thought it’d be. I call it Mid-Century Medieval.

The desk situation is a more difficult nut to crack.

Initially, since our budget is basically as thrifty (not cheap) as humanly possible, we were going to use an old door to make a long desk. Now, I already have a DIY standing desk that I put together with some shoe organizers from Target and an old desk we had (total price: $50). But Michael needed something that would allow him to sit and stand during the day because he’s just not as awesome as I am.

Anyway, given that I didn’t want to turn our precious weekend into a sojourn and since we didn’t find anything serviceable at The Scrap Exchange, we went back to Costco and took a look around. While they have some really awesome and awesomely expensive computer desk arrangements, it was a simple, sturdy, foldable table that got my interest. Yeah, it’s pretty basic. No, it’s not gorgeous. But set with some more risers and some lightning, it really gets the job done. Most importantly, it allows for free movement in the room and it doesn’t crowd the living arrangement. And best yet? It was $50. Sure, we’ll likely spring for something nicer down the road, but the current setup is smooth. I’m thinking of upholstering the table with some oil cloth for some extra texture and color.

As a special bonus? For the last six years, we’ve been schlepping around a large Dwarven Forge collection, which is absolutely phenomenal stuff, but… well, pretty much took up the entire space of our closet. But with a bed comes an added magical plus: under-the-bed space. And wouldn’t you know, the whole collection fit there seamlessly. It’s sort of like the TARDIS of beds.

That's more like it!
The final product. Plus kid. Image: Natania Barron

Oh yes, I also have a sword by my desk. Because you never know when you—or your guests—might have to fend off zombies. See? I’m thinking ahead.

This weekend, we have our first guest arriving. And for the first time in a decade, I’m ready to show the room off. I don’t feel like I have to make apologies for the crib/desk/blow-up mattress/futon lumps. It’s a room I’d like to live in, and where sleep will come easily to those who seek it. Zombie invasions, notwithstanding.

This post is brought to you by our sponsors, ComforPedic iQ™ by Simmons.
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Cruisin’ Alabama in the 2015 Hyundai Sonata

2015 Hyundai Sonata Profile
Image: Nicole Wakelin

The 2015 Hyundai Sonata is all new this year and the folks at Hyundai invited me down to Montgomery, Alabama to spend some time behind the wheel of their newest vehicle. Why Montgomery, Alabama? Well, it’s home to the plant that makes the #NewSonata so not only did we get to drive the car, we got to tour the factory, take pictures where it’s not normally allowed, and drive a car right off the line and onto the street.

It’s not every day that you get to see first-hand how cars come together, especially not at a place as incredible as the Hyundai plant in Montgomery. It is an expansive place that operates 24/7 without a break in production. It makes over 1000 cars a day during three shifts, and although that’s a lot, the people at Hyundai said they could make more, but choose a slower production rate.

Hyundai Assembly Line
Image: Nicole Wakelin

The reason is simple, and it’s one that, in an age of recalls that roll out daily and have everyone a little on edge about the safety of their car, should make you feel good about driving a Hyundai. Their goal is to have 97% of vehicles roll off the line in perfect, ready-to-ship form. That means that only 3% have to have adjustments made due to a problem.

Those problems might not be very big and could be as minor as paint with a finish that doesn’t pass muster, but Hyundai puts a focus on quality. Quality over quantity means you’re driving a car that was made with care.

Hyundai Plant
Image: Nicole Wakelin

We toured the factory on a tram straight out of a Disney ride and were permitted to take pictures in areas where it’s normally forbidden, and what we saw was wonderful. It’s spotlessly clean, much quieter than you’d expect, and a genuinely happy place. The employees waved and smiled, and even posed for the camera. The guys on the line making your car are a happy lot who take pride in their work and look to really enjoy their jobs.

I drove a shiny red 2015 Hyundai Sonata Turbo right off the line and into the humid Alabama weather for a tour through some beautiful countryside. I partnered up with the wonderful TerriAnn van Gosliga of CookiesAndClogs and DrivingMamas on a drive route that took us on highways and through winding country roads so we got a good feel for the car.

Hyundai Line
Image: TerriAnn van Gosliga of CookiesAndClogs.com

There are two different engines, one being a turbo with 245 horsepower that, if you love to drive, is going to put a nice wide grin on your face. Even the smaller 185 horsepower engine is powerful and makes merging onto highways and passing other cars easy.

It handles beautifully and feels like a much more expensive sedan than it is—something that Hyundai excels at in all their vehicles. You can get into a Sonata for a starting price of $21,150 or get a totally loaded model for $33,525. That’s a very reasonable price considering the huge number of features in the car.

2015 Hyundai Sonata
Image: Nicole Wakelin

There are seven standard airbags including one for the driver’s knees, a rearview camera, available Forward Collision Warning, Blind Spot Detection, Rear Cross Traffic Alert, and a Lane Departure Warning System to keep you and the family safe. Convenience features are there, too, with heated and ventilated front seats, and even heated seats in the back as well as beautiful leather seats and accents that really add to the luxury vibe.

Driving it for several hours through unfamiliar roads was really quite a test for me since I had back to back plane rides and was pretty tired. Amazingly, it wasn’t tiring at all driving the #NewSonata. It was relaxing, comfortable, and fun from beginning to end.

2015 Hyundai Sonata Front
Image: Nicole Wakelin

Hyundai has really stepped up their game over the last few years and they aren’t the brand they were ten years ago. Their cars are plush, well-equipped with safety and convenience features, and boast prices that are far less than competitors.

If you’re in the market for a mid-size sedan, the 2015 Hyundai Sonata is arriving at dealer showrooms now and is definitely worth taking for a test drive.

Hyundai covered all expenses to attend this drive experience.

Get Wired for the Latest From Recess Monkey

Recess Monkey features Drew Holloway on vocals and guitar, Korum Bischoff on drums, and Jack Forman on bass and vocals. Photo: Kevin Fry.

Sometimes, children’s music really makes me want to punch a wall. However, there’s a reason that Recess Monkey is a GeekMom favorite. The band combines humorous lyrics with different styles of music—and there really isn’t a stinker in the bunch. The trio’s latest album, Wired, should be considered required listening for anyone in our audience.

Photo: Recess Monkey.

Described as “gadget rock,” the group’s eleventh studio recording is actually an ode to inventions, machines, and the maker culture in general. Um, do you really need to know more?

Just in case, it should be noted that this album is busting with songs that aren’t just perky, but they’re pretty funny as well. The album kicks off with the honky-tonk of “Take Your Kids to Work” and eases right into the sugar-induced title track. From there, it goes through a few familiar family scenarios, such as “Braces,” “Car Wash,” “Garage Sale,” and “Skee Ball.”

True makers (and those in training) will probably have songs like “Duct Tape World” and the Lego-inspired “Brick by Brick” on an endless loop. The latter is destined to be a radio hit with lyrics like:

Don’t walk in bare feet ’cause the blocks are littered around
Find a piece of green ground, sit down, and build up a town
We made a castle once that reached above our big bookshelf
That giant spaceship there, I designed it all by myself…

All of the tracks are equally as energetic and original. That said, one of my personal favorites is definitely “Lazy Susan.” I just love the bouncy, ska-style beats!

With a title like Wired, you shouldn’t be surprised that this album was designed to get you moving. However, there are plenty of chances to catch your breath, including the Beatles-esque “Wishing Well” and the mellow sign-off of “Off the Grid.”

One of the great things about Recess Monkey is that the band isn’t afraid to try out different styles of music. Wired is filled with all sorts of musical experiments, with fantastic results. The album is recommended for ages 3 to 8, but Wired should keep the entire family bopping, bouncing, moving, and grooving for most of the album’s 43-minute runtime.

Wired will be available starting June 17, 2014.

GeekMom received this item for review purposes.

Everyone Should Meet The Shadow Hero

Image By First Second

“Look at this.” I showed page twenty-nine of The Shadow Hero to my daughter, who has been taking a comics and cartooning class. “You see how your eye flows around the page, the action and reaction shots branch out in all direction, yet clear storytelling and speech bubbles properly placed—brilliant comic montage! And check out this completely different take on page 105, artistically reflective of the spinning barrel of a gun as the panels…”

I’m not an artist, but wow, do I appreciate a good one. First Second has put out a superhero graphic novel with ties to the history of comics, racism, and the duality of first generation Americans, in an entertaining format that young YA and up will enjoy.

Gene Luen Yang, creator of award winning American Born Chinese, and Sonny Liew, who recently did a graphic adaptation of Sense & Sensibility, have come together to introduce The Shadow Hero. It is the origin story for a long-forgotten comic superhero from the 1940s: The Green Turtle. As a history geek, I was curious to hear there was an Asian-American comic so long ago, since mainstream comics are amazingly white and male. Yang explains that in 1944, Blazing Comics asked Chu Hing to create an original superhero for them. Hing came up with The Green Turtle, but not everything is clear about this superhero during his brief run.

Yang and Liew have filled in the past with The Shadow Hero. Yang is a powerhouse in the graphic novel world, and does not disappoint. The story takes place in West Coast Chinatown during the early twentieth century. Hank is a young, handsome, nice guy, whose only goal in life is to be just like his father: an honest grocer. But then his mother decides her son should become a superhero, and since his father has an ancient Chinese spirit residing in his shadow, fate leads Hank to become more than he had planned.

Although Hank is our hero, his mother, Hua, is my favorite character. Starting with her resignation of the drabness of American life, to her being flattered that another superhero was checking out her “bosom” (really a hidden pork bun), to her inability to keep her son’s dual identity a secret, this lady made me laugh.

Speaking of women, although there is a kick-ass, sexy romantic interest here, she isn’t the only girl around. Not only is the mother a big role, but there are two other dangerous women introduced. Yay!

The plot is fast-paced, the dialogue true, and the artwork brings a likable personality to the world. Besides page 29, there is creative use of the comic format throughout, especially during the action scenes. I really liked the ending (defeat by the clever use of words!), and hope there is more to come.

The Shadow Hero comes out in July. GeekMom received a copy for review purposes.

Review: Wordsearch!

Wordsearch, board game, Goliath Games, GeekMom review
Image by Julie Tiu.

My kids and I had plenty of time this past winter to play indoors and try new games, like Wordsearch! by Goliath Games. This is a fun game in which, as the name suggests, players search for words.

The age range is appropriate at 7 and over, and seems well-played with three or four people. Two players worked, but it wasn’t as fun.  The game includes 20 cards (10 double-sided) and small, colorful game pieces that are definitely not appropriate for small children. The pieces also pose a threat to your vacuum cleaner if your kids aren’t good at putting things away. Geek that I am, I enjoy the packaging and the efficient container design.

Wordsearch, board game, Goliath Games, GeekMom review
Image by Julie Tiu.

The object of the game is to find the most words. The hidden words on the themed cards (i.e. school, home, cities, etc.) are in all directions: horizontal, vertical, diagonal, from left to right, and right to left.

Players take turns revealing the next word by spinning the disc. An opening in the ring reveals the word. The first player to find the word reaches for the totem—a squeeze toy that looks like the exclamation point in the name of the game. I think you could play the game without it, but it adds a level of competition. I was constantly wondering if the kids would accidentally knock over the board trying to get their hands on the totem. But, if you happen to grab the totem and don’t find the word right away, you lose your turn until the next word.

Wordsearch, board game, Goliath Games, GeekMom review
Image by Julie Tiu.

When you find the word, you use the colored pieces that look like contact lenses to mark it. The game gets competitive when markers are removed by other players finding words that intersect words-in-play. The only way to avoid this is if the markers are the same color as the previously found word.

We found that the downside to the board is that it can’t be read right-side up by everyone. The person reading upside down is at a disadvantage, especially if he or she is younger. Some fighting and nudging occurred.

After some rounds of play, you begin to remember where words are hidden. So, what do you do when you run out of cards? Perhaps an expansion set? Another alternative to the game rules: A single player could play a timed game.

Check out the giant Wordsearch! board pictured at the Chicago Toy and Game Fair last November!

Wordsearch! is available online at Amazon.com, Kmart, Target, and Walmart. It retails for $24.99.

GeekMom received this item for review purposes.

This One Summer: Beauty In Realism

Image By First Second

This One Summer is a new graphic novel by Mariko and Jillian Tamaki. It is a YA book that transcends the genre into where most adult novelists wish they could go: honest and nuanced characters in that familiar world you forgot to cherish. The details of a summer beach town, and two girls on the brink of teen, may not be your memories, but the yearnings, confusion, and relationships certainly will reveal half-buried reminisces.

Stories can be told in many ways, but this one is a perfect example of the depth of the graphic novel. Unlike a book of text, the artwork speaks on a level beyond even what the characters appreciate. Unlike a movie, you control the pacing, the ability to linger on that moment of perfect dialogue.

Here is an interview with the creators of This One Summer.

What was the inspiration behind the story and characters of This One Summer? Was there a specific place (or places) that inspired the illustrations?

MT: Originally, my inspiration was my own cottage setting, in Northern Ontario, near a town called Penetanguishene. That was the location of the original corner store, although just about every cottage has something like that, I think, a local place with little to no merchandise that smells like suntan lotion.

For research, though, we were very lucky that Jillian had a friend with a gorgeous cottage up in a similar area, Muskoka. We did what you would call a little research tour up into that area the summer after the script was done and it was very inspiring, and relaxing.

The characters are mostly a mix of people I’ve met in my adult life, not so much the people I knew when I was little and at my own cottage. I’m definitely paying more attention to teens and pre-teens as an adult than I was as a kid. As a kid they were mostly a blur.

Although the main characters are pre-teen girls, dealing with their own friendship and parents, the reader also encounters issues of teen pregnancy and infertility. I see this book for a large age range. When creating the book, did you have a specific age of reader in mind?

MT: I try and keep a story in mind more than a reader. I would hope this is a book that could be read by a wide range of people, and I would guess that they would all probably hone in on different parts of the story.

JT: I think it can trip one up to try to create specifically for certain age groups. Mariko and both naturally gravitate to stories and treatments that appeal to both teen and adult audiences and have been lucky to have publishers that don’t push us into publishing categories. I think kids like stuff with a bit of edge to them anyway.

What do you hope the reader takes at the end of the story?

MT: At the best of times my favorite books are both familiar and a kind of discovery. I hope it evokes for some people some memories of summer times, which are such amazing, if sometimes complex, memories. I hope it’s also a chance to think about all the different kinds of stories and connections that can exist in a small space. Plus I hope some people get lost in it a bit. I love when books do that.

JT: I hope to convey the emotion and sensory feelings of summer, which is both very sweet and melancholy because it’s fleeting. Also the idea of adolescence and seeing things with new eyes. Situations. Relationships. Your family. You develop a sense of nostalgia.

The often harsh dialogue is paced perfectly with the timing of expressions, or a focus on something else in the scene creating beauty in ordinary reality. Was every moment planned out in a script, or did it evolve with the art?

MT: Nothing visual is really planned out in the script.  Sometimes there’s a little setting or some objects that feel part of the story, but all that timing and those moments where text meets illustration is all Jillian.

What writers and artists inspire you?

MT: Writer wise? Alice Munro, Timothy Findley, Lynn Coady, and John Green for writing. I’m a big fan of Jeff Lemire, Kate Beaton, Lisa Hanawalt, and Hellen Jo for comics and illustration.

JT: For this book: Alice Munro, Ghibli/Miyazaki… I dunno, that question always befuddles me. How do you isolate what influences a work that takes place over the course of 3 years? Real life. Memory. Our visit to Northern Ontario were all more influential.

I recommend This One Summer for ages 12 and up. The book comes out in May from First Second.

Review: Muppets Most Wanted

Still from Muppets: Most Wanted. Photo credit: Walt Disney Pictures.
Still from Muppets Most Wanted. Photo credit: Walt Disney Pictures.

You’ve seen all of the pre-movie build-up—some of it quite charming—but your wallet has been burned by kids’ movies in the past. So before you shell out 10 bucks a head, you’re asking yourself that perennial question of 21st century parenthood:

See it? Stream it? Or forget about it? Is Muppets Most Wanted actually worth seeing in the theater?

The short answer, of course, is see it. In a theater. Now. I mean, what kind of a heartless bastard are you, anyway? This is the Muppets we’re talking about. It’s the only show your parents ever allowed you to watch at the dinner table in the entire 873 years of your misbegotten childhood—not some anodyne, anthropomorphized travesty devised by Madison Avenue Mad Men in order to fill in the space alongside the fries in a Happy Meal box.

Now, once you get to the theater, you’ll need to spring for a treat, because this is a cause for celebration. Skip the $4 bottled water, however: This baby moves at a decent clip and a mid-movie trip to the bathroom is going to mean missing one, maybe two of Bret McKenzie’s brilliant songs. If that means missing Constantine and Ricky Gervais’ toe-tapping, soft-shoe laden “I’m Number One” duet, well…I’m here to tell you, you don’t want to do that (#ruetheday).

While we’re on the subject, you will also not want to miss the Russian Gulag gang’s Tina Fey-led “The Big House” or Ty Burrell and Sam Eagle’s Sondheim-ish “Interrogation Song.” Really. All people with walnut-sized bladders should be told that they have the rest of their long, happy, productive lives to hydrate and that children who want to live to see tomorrow should quietly rot their teeth with Jujubes or Rolos and allow their mother to enjoy a brilliant piece of musical theater uninterrupted for once in their lives.

As to the plot of Muppets: Most Wanted, frankly, we’re not exactly treading on unexplored plot-device territory here. Turns out, the number one most-wanted criminal in the world, Constantine, is a dead ringer for our favorite amphibious hero, Kermit—and with the help of his henchman, Dominic Badguy (a brilliantly-cast Ricky Gervais), Constantine plans on stealing the royal crown jewels and framing Kermit for the crime.

Meanwhile, the freshly-reunited Muppet gang is putting on shows all over Spain, Germany, and Ireland with the booking guidance of their new assistant manager, Dominic Badg–heyyyy, wait a minute—all the while, wondering if there’s something just a little different about Kermit these days. The gang is onto something because the real Kermit is actually imprisoned in Siberia, forced to produce Broadway-caliber shows with the inmates, all while Constantine breaks into some of the world’s most famous museums, woos Piggy, and plots the theft of the century.

  • Will Constantine succeed in his dastardly plot?
  • Will Ty Burrell’s Jean Pierre Napoleon solve the caper in time to take six weeks of vacation with his family?
  • Will Tina Fey’s prison matron, Nadya, single-handedly bring back the ushanka and long coat?

For now, I leave the answers to these and other questions to your frenzied imaginations…

"MUPPETS MOST WANTED" (Pictured) KERMIT. Photo by: Jay Maidment ©2013 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Photo from Muppets Most Wanted by: Jay Maidment ©2013 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

But Andrea (I can already hear you saying), I was hoping for more from the cameos. Where was the surly, tyrolean brilliance of Steve Martin’s sommelier in this new Muppet movie? Or Madeline Kahn’s mythic lush? And surely you thought Christoph Waltz and Salma Hayek were grossly under-utilized? Yes, absolutely. I hear you. At the same time, I see your Steve Martin and raise you a Tom Hiddleston… and a Zach Galifianakis…

Listen, I didn’t say that this movie was perfect (did I mention the Celine Dion/Miss Piggy duet? That is your chance to run to the bathroom if you need to; like her heart, that particular song goes on. (Forfreakinever!) With those small caveats I am here to tell you, though, that Muppets Most Wanted is very good, charming, sincere, clean fun. You will feel as if you are holding hands with your younger self as you hum and laugh along with the film—or maybe that was just me. Actually, I make no promises there.

Just know that in an entertainment landscape where dystopia and sexuality (both of which have their place and time) seem to be encroaching on movies for younger and younger demographics, Muppets Most Wanted winds up being an all-ages-appropriate, song and dance-filled romp—and if you ask me, that is worth endorsing with your hard-earned cash.

(This is promotional material from Disney Australia. Hence, the April 10 release date. Don’t be fooled, the movie opens Friday, March 21, in the United States.)

Review: Adventure Time: The Complete Third Season

Our Adventure Time superfan enjoyed every single episode of the Season 3 DVD set and we all enjoyed the extras. The small BMO figurine is not included, but the DVD set includes paper arms to cut out for the DVD box. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.

If you’re a fan of the Cartoon Network series Adventure Time, you’ll be excited to know that the Season 3 Blu-ray and DVD sets hit retailers today!

Our family had a chance to preview the two-disc DVD set and enjoyed reliving the 26 episodes (over four hours’ worth of Finn and Jake fun!) and particularly enjoyed many of the extras. As I’ve talked about here and here, we have an Adventure Time superfan in our house, so he was thrilled to help me with this particular product review.

Most of the fans who would buy this Adventure Time set have probably already enjoyed most, if not all, of the episodes, so this review will focus on the extras. There aren’t many extras, so it’s easy to cover all of them.

The BMO Box

Like Seasons 1 and 2, the DVD box itself is fun. If you haven’t seen them, Season 1 features Finn and Season 2 has the Ice King. The boxes are custom die-cut sleeves of each character, and each disc in the set is an additional layer. In Finn’s case, one of the discs is his skeleton and another is his muscles. Very interesting, indeed. For Season 3, you get to enjoy the insides of our favorite video gaming console character, BMO.

The two discs inside are decorated with BMO’s heart and his CD-ROM drive. In addition, the information sheet inside the case includes cut-out arms that you can tape to the exterior of the casing for, as the Cartoon Network press release suggests, your “very own collectible BMO figurine.” Paper doll is more like it.

Alternate Introduction by Screen Novelties

The DVD includes the Lego alternate introduction assembled by the Los Angeles animation company Screen Novelties. It’s really cool! I tried to find some fun facts about how many Lego bricks were used and how much time it took for the talent to come up with the introduction, but I couldn’t find anything. It turns out, you can simply watch the introduction on YouTube:

Interview with Creator Pendleton Ward and Friends

There is a 7.5-minute interview with show creator Pendleton Ward, supervising producer Adam Muto, and head of story Kent Osborne. The title of the video is “How an Idea Becomes Adventure Time.” The video features a lot more than the title suggests. It’s mostly assorted commentary about the nostalgia, the assorted writers, and the storyboard artists incorporated into the show.

Muto’s parts of the interview are the best presented. The other two are a bit more babbling. I still encourage listening to the whole thing, particularly the section about how parents come up to the creators at Comic-Con to thank them for creating a show that the whole family can appreciate. You can also catch a glimpse of the young man who voices Finn, Jeremy Shada (who, by the way, was also a star of the short-lived Cartoon Network sketch comedy series, Incredible Crew.)

Commentary Tracks

Finally, like so many other TV-to-DVD releases, cast and crew commentary tracks are available for each of the 26 episodes. Personally, there are very few commentary tracks that I can stomach. I think for me, it’s the chaos of trying to listening to the commentary while watching something completely different on-screen.

I listened to two episodes’ worth of commentary tracks. There are several commentators introduced at the beginning of each episode who were telling assorted stories full of tangents. In the episode “Too Young”, I’d estimate about 20 percent of the commentary was actually relevant to what we were looking at. Some of the tangents offered some historical perspective and creative inspiration for the characters and storylines.


Adventure Time: The Complete Third Season (MSRP: $32.07 Blu-ay, $26.95 DVD) is available now, at major entertainment retailers such as Amazon.

GeekMom received this item for review purposes.

Product Review: WeatherFlow Wind Meter for iOS and Android

The WeatherFlow Wind Meter is durable, portable, and has potential for easily sharing your locally-generated wind data. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.

After my experience with the Vaavud Wind Meter last fall, I was pleased to be invited to check out the WeatherFlow Wind Meter.

There are so many differences between these two systems that I can’t believe they were actually designed to do the same thing. Each system has pros and cons that make them useful for your specific needs. Allow me to investigate further.

Bear in mind that I will be very nitpicky about this app, because of my background in precise weather instrumentation. Overall, this is a great device for outdoor enthusiasts who need wind measurements for activities such as kiteboarding, R/C aircraft, skydiving, and model rocketry. At only $34.99, this is one of the least expensive smartphone anemometers on the market, and is among the most durable.

The WeatherFlow Wind Meter is smaller and more durable-looking than the Vaavud. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.
The WeatherFlow Wind Meter is smaller and more durable-looking than the Vaavud. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.

What Comes in the Box

The WeatherFlow Wind Meter is a small device that makes for a nice stocking-stuffer-sized gift. The package includes:

  • One wind meter
  • Lexan plastic carrying case

Pretty simple, isn’t it? On the back of the carry case are the two logos explaining how to download the accompanying smart device apps on Google Play and the iTunes App Store.

The wind meter is very lightweight and seems much more rugged than the Vaavud. The blue outer casing is rubberized and I’d trust that it would bounce back just fine from the occasional fall to the ground. I didn’t trust the Vaavud like that; it was much more fragile.

Downloading the App

Make sure you find the proper “Wind Meter” app in the App Store. It’s a free download. Image: Patricia Vollmer.

I only have iOS devices compatible with the WeatherFlow app, so that’s what I’ll be demonstrating here. However, I did go to Google Play on my Samsung tablet to see that the app is indeed there. I just can’t download it to my particular tablet; it’s more for phone-sized devices.

It’s important that you download the correct Wind Meter app, because there are several out there on the market. Case in point: If you just search for “wind meter” on Google Play, the one you actually need will be the sixth choice returned. Incidentally, the Vaavud will appear first.

For best results, go ahead and search for “WeatherFlow Wind Meter” for the most accurate results. The icon will look like two commas overlapped on each other.

It’s a straightforward download, and it will easily prompt you to plug in the wind meter to begin the measurement process.

Note: Without a WeatherFlow Wind Meter, this app is useless. 

Without the wind meter itself, this is all you’ll get out of this wind meter app. Image: Patricia Vollmer.

Once you plug the wind meter into your headphone jack, it will ask to use your current location (for reporting purposes, if you choose to use it). Then, the app will be ready to take a measurement.

This app will measure for up to 30-second increments. That's it. I'm not super-fond of that. Image: Patricia Vollmer.
This app will measure in up to 30-second increments. That’s it. I’m not super-fond of that. Image: Patricia Vollmer.

Taking Measurements

To take a measurement, face the direction the wind is coming from (i.e., the wind should be hitting your face) and hold up the wind meter as high as it will go. Hit the green “Start” button and let it do its thing. It will measure for a prescribed period of time and then present you with a wind report that you can save, discard, or share via email or social media.

Note: The smartphone’s compass is providing the direction, not the Wind Meter. Keep this in mind for a more accurate wind measurement.

The Vaavud only measured the wind speed itself, while the WeatherFlow will allow a direction measurement. But an accurate direction is up to the user. If you’re not taking the time to orient your device to the wind, you will be sharing an inaccurate measurement if you choose to share it on social media or through the Wind Alert app (discussed later in this post).

I was very surprised at how this app will only take the wind measurements for 30-second increments. You can see in the image above how there’s a large red button that’s taking time. You can stop the measurement sooner or let it go to 30 seconds. After that, you’re presented with a 30-second average sustained wind, as well as an average of gusts.

If you need longer-than-30-second averages, I’m afraid I haven’t figured out how to do that yet. What’s also unfortunate is that you can’t easily hit the “Start” button again without weeding through some pop-up screens with choices of what to do with the measurement just taken.

What to Do With the Measurements

As I just mentioned, you’re presented with numerous options after you take the measurement. You can save the measurement, discard it, and then choose to share a saved measurement via email or social media.

I decided to tweet the measurement. Like other apps, it will easily tie in with your existing Twitter and Facebook apps on your smart device.

You can Tweet your measurements. Feel free to add @weatherflow and any hashtags you want. The app won’t do that for you. Image: Patricia Vollmer.

This is the tweet that went live after I transmitted it from the Wind Meter app:

Alrighty then. There were no indications of how I came to that value, no advertisements for the app that I used, nothing. The shared Facebook status was similar. Of course, you can add whatever hashtags and handles you like, but I think this feature needs work. I recommend the company tweak that feature to fill it with hashtags and the company’s Twitter handle.

For those who are more interested in precise wind direction measurement, it won’t go to social media this way. Considering it’s up to you for accurate direction, perhaps reporting to only 8 compass rose directions is the best way to go.

Another thing that I’d like to see is the option for users to share the wind report with multiple social media platforms at once. As it stands, you can share it one time as soon as you finish the observation. Then, you need to dig into the history listing to share it additional times. This can be refined with subsequent app version releases.

The WindAlert App

One of the options for sharing your Wind Meter measurement is to post it to the WindAlert app. I decided to download the app and check it out. Like the Wind Meter app, it’s available for iOS and Android.

WindAlert is a wind-display app that allows you to customize data to the outdoor activity you prefer. Image: Patricia Vollmer.

WindAlert is more than just a means to display your Wind Meter observation, it also serves as a full service weather awareness app. Users can view current observations from numerous weather networks, U.S. NEXRAD radar, and National Weather Service forecast information conveniently.

It’s been pretty windy in Colorado Springs lately. You can click on an observation point and view the wind trends for the past several hours. Image: Patricia Vollmer.


After having tested the Vaavud smartphone anemometer, I was pleased to see an option that was more rugged and suitable for outdoor activities where you’d want an instant wind reading, such as kiteboarding, R/C aircraft flying, and model rocketry. The WeatherFlow Wind Meter easily fits in your pocket and performs accurately for these purposes.

Users can upload their data to WeatherFlow’s observation network through the WindAlert app. This helps give an idea of winds at nearby locations.

The WeatherFlow Wind Meter retails for $34.99 and is available through the company’s online store, as well as other electronics retailers such as Amazon.

GeekMom received this item for review purposes.

Book Review: Ex-Purgatory Is a Welcomed Addition to the Ex Series

Ex-Purgatory Cover
Image: Broadway Books

Ex-Purgatory: A Novel by Peter Clines is the fourth installment in Clines’ Ex series. It’s a solid read and a very welcomed addition to one of my favorite series.

Overall, I was very satisfied with Clines’ latest offering.

Unlike the first three books in this series (Ex-Heroes: A Novel, Ex-Patriots: A Novel, and Ex-Communcation: A Novel), Ex-Purgatory: A Novel is not a republication. It’s a brand new story set in a post-zombie apocalyptic world, featuring a rich cast of superheroes.

Without giving spoilers, St. George and his team of superheroes have forgotten who they are. Slowly, St. George’s life, as he perceives it, begins to unravel causing reality and dreams to collide and bleed into each other. But, what is reality and what is a dream?

Ex-Heroes: A Novel was one of my favorite reads in 2013. So was Ex-Patriots: A Novel. Clines was also one of my favorite Geeky Pleasures Radio Show guests of 2013. I have yet to read Ex-Communcation: A Novel.

In the first two novels of this series, I loved Clines’ ability to paint vivid action scenes, create a wonderfully dynamic cast of superheroes, include many geek and pop-culture references, and balance gruesome descriptions of zombies with humor.

It takes a lot to cause me to squirm in my seat, and I always appreciate it when an author succeeds in making me uncomfortable. In the first two books, Clines’ managed to cause me to squirm, then quickly offset that with humor. Another bonus for my personal tastes.

In Ex-Purgatory: A Novel, the gore factor, which I loved so much in his previous novels, was missing. That’s not to say it was without gore. It did have that, but the depictions never made me uncomfortable. I thought most of the gore was fun because it accompanies great action sequences. The rest of the elements, which I loved in his previous novels, were very much present:

  • Vivid action scenes fit for a movie screen, using very little words: Check.
  • Geek and pop-culture references: Check.*
  • Humor that caused me to, at a minimum, chortle out loud: Check.
  • Dynamic superheroes: Check.*

In some ways, Ex-Purgatory: A Novel reminded me of Q-Squared by Peter David. The latter frustrated me in many ways because there was too much jumping back and forth between realities. Plus, it took way too long to reveal what was behind all of the alternate timeline events. While Clines doesn’t reveal the full cause of the alternate states experienced by our superheroes until near the very end of Ex-Purgatory: A Novel, thankfully the reader has a pretty good idea of what is going on within the first 60 pages. But, like in his previous novels, there is always a wonderful twist.

The two items marked with an asterisk need some elaboration.

Some of the geek and pop-culture references will not be fully appreciated unless you have read Ex-Heroes: A Novel. Other geek and pop-culture references stand very nicely on their own. There is a Star Trek: The Next Generation season six episode reference, and a Matrix reference made near the end of the book which I really much appreciated, as I was already thinking the same thing. I would have also added an Inception reference to that part in the novel.

Unless you have read Ex-Heroes: A Novel, the subtle new details added to our favorite superheroes will be lost to the reader. As a stand-alone novel, the characters lose most of their dimensionality and appeal. Clines writes the novel as if you already have a very firm grasp on who these characters are and the world in which they live. Past events are only mentioned in passing, and you’ll be completely lost in this post-zombie apocalypse reality without the first book.

You could get away with not reading Ex-Patriots: A Novel and be fine. Yes, events from Ex-Patriots: A Novel are referenced, but Clines included enough information in Ex-Purgatory: A Novel so that you will not be lost, even if you won’t be able to fully appreciate the dynamics of current events. As for how much you’ll lose by not reading Ex-Communcation: A Novel, I don’t feel like I’ve missed out on anything overly crucial because I have yet to read it.

Overall, I do recommend reading Ex-Purgatory: A Novel, once you have read Ex-Heroes: A Novel. You’ll probably want to read the other books in this series, too. But, if you’re impatient, yes you can jump from the first to the fourth book with relative ease.

Dynamic, fun, and fast-paced action scenes, humor, and characters I have grown to adore, Clines manages to, yet again, deliver in Ex-Purgatory: Novel.

GeekMom was provided with a copy of this book.

Review: Is nüüd Safe for Your iPad mini?

nuud case for iPad mini from LifeProof. (photo LifeProof)
nuud case for iPad mini from LifeProof. (photo LifeProof)

I’ve never dropped a cellphone or laptop into the toilet, but I have spilled drinks so close to my beloved gadgets that I stopped breathing.

So while I’m not planning to drop my iPad mini into a body of water, offers to protect my tech from my coffee habit have the irresistible sound of protecting me from myself. The LifeProof nüüd case for the iPad mini (retail price $120) suggests that it will keep my mini safe from a life filled with liquids, dirt, snow, and falls. I used it for several months and tested the watertightness. I was not disappointed in its protective claims. Those of you in the Northeast and Midwest may be particularly interested in the claims of snow protection.

The nüüd case is unique in that it offers protection against water while simultaneously offering direct touch access to the iPad’s actual screen. This is achieved by a tight, waterproof gasket that runs around the screen edge–it truly stopped water leakage in my tests. I much preferred touching the screen rather than transferring touch through some intermediary material.

What’s in the Box

– back cover (clear, so iPad’s design shows through)

– front cover (just a frame holding the waterproof gasket)

– shoulder strap, not adjustable

– screen cleaning cloth

– plastic water testing test unit (substitute for iPad mini)

– owner’s manual

– 1-page quick start

– Limited warranty statement (for nüüd only, not for your mini)

Not in the Box, Available Separately for Additional Cost

– Screen cover/stand

– Warranty for non-LifeProof items (for example, your iPad)

– Extra-rugged bumper and float jacket

Features and Experiences

I like to always have a lightweight, low-profile case on my iPad to protect it from drops and scratches. I used the nüüd case on my iPad mini, 24×7, for several months, and I applied it and removed it several times. It comforted me knowing that any liquid demon had to sneak past the nüüd’s gasket. The protection from drops and dust was also welcome (no snow or ice here).

LifeProof says that watertightness is tested at the factory for nüüd cases. The contents of the nüüd box include a testing unit (a plastic unit the size and shape of a mini) so each of us can test our own case on an iPad-like unit. I applied the case to the test unit, closed the ports for the audio and charging, and submerged the case into the bottom of a bucket, weighted down with a coffee cup for the suggested 30 minutes.

I tested like this twice, removing the case and re-applying it in-between. In each case, there were just tiny beads of water at the edge of the gasket and no visible leakage at the ports. Of course, this doesn’t test what happens at greater depths with greater pressures, more agitation, or bumping and fumbling, like dropping over the side of a boat.

LifeProof’s specs say the case protects to a depth of 6.6 feet for up to 60 minutes, and there are stories online of iPads surviving short immersions or splashes. In spite of the waterproof case, I kept mine as dry as possible.

The case adds slightly to the weight (4.64 ounces) and increases the measurements to 8.6 x 5.8 x 0.63 inches.

No one wants their mini to have a bigger footprint but I especially liked the easier grasp that I got with the nüüd– instead of the smooth, slippery glass at the margin of the iPad, I now had a small plastic lip that ensured a good grip. That raised lip also made touching the screen at the very edge difficult because my finger or stylus would bump against the edge of the case. At the same time, that elevated lip protected the screen when lying face down.

There are rubber flaps that work well for sealing and accessing the ports for the audio and charger. The case meant there was extra depth for the connector for my favorite earbuds, which have a bend where the pin meets the cable. An adapter solved the problem, and most connectors have no bend at all.

Rubber buttons on the nüüd transfer presses for volume control, on/off, and orientation. These are not as responsive as the iPad’s own buttons and my sense of touch did not let me mindlessly work controls with the oddly shaped rubber buttons as I do with the iPad native buttons, but they do work.

The sound was good when the case was on, and the camera is covered by an optical glass lens that preserved high fidelity for my snapshots.

Removing the case is a bit of a struggle, requiring a large coin as a twisting lever and quite a bit of torque, but my case worked after being removed and re-applied. The case actually survived removal even though I feared I was breaking it.

In addition to the water protection, LifeProof offers three other “proofs” in the nüüd case: protection against dust/dirt, drops, and snow/ice. The specifications suggest drops of 4 feet are survivable; I dropped mine a couple times from hand-held height on carpeted and hard floors and the case and the iPad survived unscathed.

The LifeProof nüüd case for iPad mini is available in black or white. A separate cover/stand is available, which I was unable to test, but would recommend on principle since otherwise your screen is exposed to the cruel world and the inside of all my tote bags. You also can purchase a float jacket that pops over the edges of the nüüd, like bumper pads, to help it float or survive harsher drops.


The nüüd iPad mini case passed the watertightness test and protected my mini from falls. It was lightweight and made the mini easier to grasp and protected the screen from face-down contacts. I believe it will also offer protection from snow and dust but I did not test for those conditions. I found the edges of the case somewhat awkward when I was touching, tapping, dragging or pinching at the margins of the screen and could not be comfortable with the unprotected screen. Overall, the case was useful as long as the screen wasn’t threatened and I didn’t need to carry a keyboard.

The nüüd iPad mini case is available from LifeProof and other vendors.

A Monsteriffic Christmas

All Images: Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

It’s a first world problem I know, but in my life there are several things that have to happen on Christmas Day to make me feel like I truly kept Christmas well. As I look back on Christmases past, I can see how these things morph over time. Though traditions have changed with marriage, trans-Atlantic moves, and children, many of these things remain the same: we eat Chinese food on Christmas eve, we have an enormous roast beast dinner on Christmas day, and we watch a good movie. Not necessarily a new movie, but a good, sit down together as a family, laugh, cry, carry on kind of movie. Growing up we watched The Wizard of Oz, or Hook, or the remake of Miracle on 34th Street. Last year it was Arthur Christmas. This year, after much internal debate, it was Monsters University.

MikeMy son and I went to see Monsters University when it came out in theaters, and though I was slightly dubious about a fraternity version of two of my favorite monsters, I was pleasantly surprised. Toby talked about the movie for weeks, and from then on every time he saw Mike or Sully, they were from Monsters University, no longer Monsters Inc. I thoroughly enjoyed the movie and looked forward to the DVD release. So this year, after mulling over Planes vs. Thomas’ King of the Railway vs. Turbo I finally decided that Monsters University would be under the tree on Christmas morning.

Ever since I found a Robots multi-pack at our local Sam’s club, our disc of choice has been the DVD/Blu-ray/digital combo pack. We don’t own a Blu-ray player yet, but friends and family do, and I’m told it’s inevitable. Having gone through the VHS and DVD versions of all the other Disney movies, I like the idea of having the digital copy for when Blu-ray becomes antiquated!

Without giving away the goose, the collector’s edition currently available has everything I could have wanted from post-roast beast viewing. In addition to the movie, there is of course the short that came with it in theaters “The Blue Umbrella.” I remain fairly disinterested in this short; for me nothing will ever beat “For The Birds,” which was, funnily enough, shown before Monsters Inc back in 2000.

There are several hours of extras, including some great behind the scenes sequences. Audio commentary is provided by director Dan Scanlon, producer Kori Rae, and story supervisor Kelsey Mann. I found “Campus Life” to be the most interesting of the real world extras. It’s a tamer version of the Scare Games featured in the movie itself, giving you a glimpse into a real day at Pixar. To go along with this, “Paths to Pixar” shows animators talking about their many rejection letters before landing the dream job.

RandallFor those wondering about the oft-quoted line from Monsters Inc., “You’ve been jealous of my good looks since the fourth grade, pal.” You will get to see some footage created in the early stages of development. You get to see a young Mike in the final cut of the film, my oh my, are fourth grade Mike and Sully ridiculously cute. The fact that Monsters University dispenses with the history behind this line really didn’t bother me, but I did enjoy a look at the story line that was discarded. Like many, I always assumed that “since the fourth grade” just meant “a really long time.”

In case you were wondering what constitutes a geek Christmas in our house, in addition to a good movie, I like a good book and a good game on Christmas day. This year we played Dan Shapiro’s Robot Turtles leading to many screams of “Mommy! I wrote my first code!” and read Jennifer Oxley and Billy Aronson’s The Chicken Problem, featuring Peg plus Cat from PBS Kids.

GeekMom received Monsters University for review purposes.

Just a Spoonful of Truth in Saving Mr. Banks

© Disney

Before seeing Saving Mr. Banks I didn’t know much about the negotiations between Walt Disney and author P.L. Travers leading up to the production of Mary Poppins. After seeing it, I still don’t feel like I know the whole truth, but the film delivers such a well-told story, such a compelling depiction of two visionary artists and the fluidity of the creative process, that I have to appreciate it as a terrific piece of fiction.

From the moment the film begins, we know how it’s going to end. After all, Disney did make a Mary Poppins movie, so at some point author Travers must have given him the rights to her beloved characters. The big question for the audience to ponder throughout is how Disney (played by Tom Hanks) will eventually get through to the seemingly intractable Travers. Ultimately, there are two contributing factors (and I don’t think this is giving too much away)—the irresistible charm of the Disney dream factory and a keen understanding of Travers’ psyche and the emotional scars that have yet to heal. At least, according to this story. The first is not hard to believe if you’ve ever seen how a visit to Disneyland can melt even the most hardened of hearts; the second is a bit tougher to swallow, and may in fact be a complete fabrication. As long as you accept that going in, you’ll find a lot to enjoy about Saving Mr. Banks.

There are so many ways this script could have gone wrong. It could have come off as cheesy or pandering or boring or a run-of-the-mill biopic, and yet it is none of those things. What sets it apart is the way it weaves together a parallel narrative, showing us flashbacks from Travers’ childhood in rural Australia in between scenes of her trip to Los Angeles, as Disney and his creative team try to woo her into signing a contract. We see the mature Travers (Emma Thompson) scoff and squabble and make unreasonable demands— like the film being devoid of the color red—but we also see her as young, vulnerable Helen Goff (Annie Rose Buckley), who idolized her loving, yet deeply flawed father (Colin Farrell). Through those flashbacks we come to understand the experiences that shaped her work and why she is so protective of it. At times it’s a bit too neat the way the past merges with fiction—memorable lines of dialogue and even entire scenes are lifted directly from Mary Poppins—but those moments underscore the theme of life’s influence on art and vice versa.

© Disney

It doesn’t hurt that the film has some of Hollywood’s most distinguished actors in the lead roles. Thompson, now a Golden Globe nominee and a strong contender for an Oscar nomination as well, accomplishes the very tough job of making Travers simultaneously disagreeable, vulnerable, and ultimately endearing. Hanks had a different kind of challenge in portraying such a well-known media personality. He does a passable impression, coasting on his own natural likability and building up to a powerful monologue near the end. As musical composers Richard and Robert Sherman, Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak get some great comedy beats and musical sequences, performing iconic songs like “Chim Chim Cher-ee,” “A Spoonful of Sugar,” and “Let’s Go Fly A Kite.” Paul Giamatti also shines in a smaller role as Travers’ personable driver, a character invented for the film. But the unsung heroine of this star-studded cast is Buckley, whose sad eyes and ginger curls melt and break your heart at the same time.

It should be noted that despite this being a story about the making of a children’s film, it is not a film for children. If the PG-13 rating and the 125-minute running time aren’t enough of a deterrent, the themes are mature in nature and some of the scenes may be disturbing (including depictions of alcohol abuse and an attempted suicide) for sensitive kids or younger teens.

For anyone else, especially creative types or those interested in Disney lore, I can give Saving Mr. Banks a confident recommendation.

First Look and Giveaway–Dot Complicated: Untangling Our Wired Lives by Randi Zuckerberg

Randi Zuckerberg signing her book. Image: Zuckerberg Media, Dotcomplicated.co
Image: HarperCollins

This post is sponsored by HarperCollins.

Randi Zuckerberg is known to most because of her familiar last name. But where Randi and her brother Mark deviate is precisely where she begins her new book, Dot Complicated. It’s that moment where, after an immense town hall event with President Barack Obama goes off without a hitch (though not without an absolute metric ton of work), that Zuckerberg—in her last weeks of pregnancy—realizes that her life can’t be just about the big blue F. That being part of Facebook, a company she joined with reservations and later defined herself there as a forward-thinking (see her involvement in the 2008 elections and her contributions to the conversation) and unforgettable presence, isn’t a good fit any longer. There’s something more, even if at that moment she isn’t sure what it is.

And it’s that event that really propels the book forward and brings Zuckerberg to her new calling, that of a social media guru of sorts, digging beyond the technology and through to the real meat of the matter: the people, the connections, and the complications brought on by social media. Since she’s had such a front seat to the social media boom, she’s definitely an ideal host, and the book is very much an extension of her website, DotComplicated.

Zuckerberg comes to the realization after an extensive tour around the country that her career should be more about the stories and less about the tech. She comes back with all sorts of questions—personal questions—that the rise of social media had provoked among her audience members. They’re questions anyone who’s visited a GeekMom convention panel will likely have heard: How do I protect my kids? How much is too much technology? How do I keep my husband from bringing his iPhone to bed? And she’s got great answers. Because it’s not just about a work-life balance, she insists; it’s a tech-life balance.

What follows are Zuckerberg’s personal stories (her son trying to get a picture frame to play his favorite Barney video is particularly endearing, as is the tale of all the Zuckerberg kids filming a Star Wars homage in their house as kids) and advice on maintaining privacy, balance, and sanity in the online world. Sure, Facebook features from time to time as would be expected, but Zuckerberg’s bright personality shines through. Perhaps no one on earth is as close to social media as the Zuckerbergs, and yet it’s clear that the author still struggles with finding balance, changing her relationship status, and accidentally sharing things that should have been kept personal. That measure of experience goes a long way in a book like this.

But Zuckerberg also touches on the thought behind social dos and don’ts. Particularly informative for the geeks among us are the sections that put the social boom into perspective. When talking about the “grey zone” of privacy, she says:

Before the Internet arrived, the gray zone was there, but it was much smaller. You could be fairly certain that if you showed your vacation bikini pics to your friends, it didn’t mean your aunt and your aunt’s friends and some random guy you once went to high school with were also going to see, distribute, and comment on them.

Suddenly, a yearbook message doesn’t mean what it once did, especially considering that so many of us aren’t just in touch with our high school friends, but in some cases even elementary (or earlier) because of social media. With those connections, though, friendships can suffer. And Zuckerberg is clear that you can’t have it all. Yes, gadgets and connectivity are wonderful—and addictive. But if you don’t take time to take a deep breath and back off, to “retro” and “go out alone” (meaning without devices) every once in a while, you won’t truly experience life.

That sentiment reminds me of a similarly “retro” movie. In Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Ferris is, without a doubt, a bit of a tech nerd. But he doesn’t have a cell phone. He doesn’t have Facebook. And yet he still understands that there’s so much noise out there, we’re all at risk of losing out what’s really imporatant. In his case, he makes life interesting simply by performing in his own movie and pushing everything to the very limit. But his sage advice is even more pressing now: “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”

Dot Complicated reminds us that life is full of awesome things, online and off, but how we manage it is up to us. A truly fulfilled life isn’t perfect, but it’s balanced and approached with both eyes open. And possibly also carrying a lightsaber. Y’know, just in case.

Dot Complicated is available online and in stores, MSRP $27.99.

We’ve also got 3 copies of the book for our lucky readers. Just leave a comment below by midnight 11/7 and let us know how you keep your life from being too Dot Complicated, and you’ll be entered. We’ll pick three random commenters. 

This post is sponsored by HarperCollins.

Review: Monster Fluxx—A Spooky New Addition to the Fluxx Family

All Photos by Lisa Kay Tate
Looney Labs’ new Monster Fluxx, the latest in their line of Fluxx card and tabletop games. Photo by Lisa Kay Tate

We’ve always been a tabletop gaming family, as well as Halloween enthusiasts, so when Looney Labs announced Monster Fluxx, a variation of its wildly popular card game Fluxx, we couldn’t wait to give it try.

The best thing from this mom’s point of view is the compactness and portability of this and all the Fluxx games. I can keep these in the kitchen drawer for easy access on game nights or toss it in my travel bag for overnight road trips. I’m forever looking for ways to avoid the television during hotel stays, and games like these are perfect pre-bed family activities.

This variation, featuring artwork of “premier monster artist” Derek Ring, features many of the favorite mainstays of the monster genre, including the classic mad scientist and creature, vampires, zombies, ghosts, teenage detectives, and a one-eyed moon man.

hand with cards
Keep an eye on the goal and actions, as they will change throughout gameplay. Photo by Lisa Kay Tate

The basic starting premise, as with most Fluxx games, is simple: draw a card/play a card per turn. However, that simplicity gets laid to waste once the first card is played. Thanks to the use of new rules and ever-changing goals, Monster Fluxx goes off in more directions than a confetti canon.

This frenetic quality caused the biggest points of frustration regarding the game, but also created some of the most fun moments. This is not a game for the easily distracted, as close attention must be paid to ensure you don’t get utterly, completely, and devastatingly lost (like I admittedly did a time or two).  There were also a few times when we weren’t entirely sure we were playing correctly. This is part of the beauty of the game, as it made for some big laughs and silly conversation; one of our main reasons for enjoying these types of games.

Patience is a key to getting the most out of this one as a family. Some younger players might need a few go-rounds before they catch on, while others who enjoy role-playing card games like Pokémon or Magic: The Gathering might find this a snap.

Two things are certain: it won’t be the same game twice and there will never be a dull moment for any player.

Monster Fluxx retails for $9.99, and is intended for 2 to 6 players, age 8 and older. Learn more at looneylabs.com.

 GeekMom received this item for review purposes.