Star Wars: Aftermath: Life Debt

Author: Chuck Wendig

 Published By: Del Rey Books

 Reviewed by Melissa Minners

                When I first started reading this trilogy, I wasn’t sure I was going to like it, but after the first novel, I had changed my tune.  I really liked the characters in the book and I enjoyed Chuck Wendig’s writing style.  It’s taken me a while, but I’ve finally gotten around to collecting the rest of the Star Wars Aftermath series.  Next up: Life Debt.

                As we reunite with our heroes, we learn that Norra Wexley has been given a new assignment by the newly formed New Republic – to hunt down various members of the Empire for information as well as to bring them justice for their actions.  Joining her on these missions is former Imperial Loyalty Officer Sinjir Rath Velus, bounty hunter Jas Emari, commando Jom Barell, her son Temmin and his reconstructed battle droid, Bones.  Their missions have been mostly successful, but they are about to head out on a mission of a lifetime. 

               Han Solo and Chewbacca have gone out on a mission not sanctioned by the New Republic government – to liberate Kashyyk.  Unfortunately, Han has been double-crossed by one of his contacts.  Chewbacca has been captured and the last transmission sent to Leia ended with Han under attack by an unknown assailant.  In desperation, she seeks out Norra and her team, hoping that they will take this unsanctioned mission – to find her husband and his wookiee best friend.

Meanwhile, Grand Admiral Rae Sloane continues her pursuit to unite the various factions of the fractioned Empire under her command…well, hers and that of Gallius Rax, the mysterious Imperial war hero who pulls the strings behind the scenes.  Right now, Rax appears happy to take a backseat to Sloane, giving her the credit for any job well done, but Sloane doesn’t trust him and inquiries she has made into his past reveal nothing…as if he is a ghost.  Still, Rax’s plans have worked out well, so when he reveals that he is prepared to strike out against the heart of the New Republic, Sloane plays along.  Could she be playing into a trap, or is Gallius Rax the genius Imperial strategist that will unite the galaxy under the Empire’s reign once more?

Once again, Chuck Wendig had my full attention with his captivating writing, interesting characters, awesome storyline and interesting interludes.  Sure, parts of his tale change the timeline of the Star Wars universe that I once knew, but I can’t blame him for this – it’s what the powers who now own the rights to the Lucas empire want.  And it’s not just that Wendig has an interesting cast of new characters, but it’s just as important that he has a handle on older Star Wars characters like Wedge Antilles, Princess Leia Organa, Mon Mothma, Admiral Ackbar and, of course, Han Solo and Chewbacca.

The adventure involved in finding Han Solo, the action involved in rescuing him and Chewbacca and in liberating Kashyyk makes for a fun-filled adrenaline ride.  The intrigue behind Sloane’s search for answers to Rax’s true identity was quite interesting.  I also enjoyed the various moments of soul-searching in some of the main characters, increasing the interest in each as they struggle to discover what they are really about in this new stage of a world no longer under Imperial rule.  Once again, I loved the interludes that gave us a look at what is going on in various parts of the galaxy that are not involved in this storyline, like Ryloth, Corellia, Takodana (where we meet Maz Kanata again), Tatooine (where we run across Jabba’s Rancor trainer again), Hosnian Prime and more.  The surprises along the way, especially one that takes place during the Chewbacca rescue mission, make for interesting plot twists and the unsuspecting attack orchestrated by Rax is great, though not so unexpected (I kind of guessed this from the moment they rescued Chewbacca). 

What I am trying to say is that Star Wars: Aftermath: Life Debt is a terrific sequel to the original novel!  I can’t wait to read the trilogy finale, Empires End!

Buy Star Wars: Life Debt: Aftermath at Amazon!

Star Wars: Aftermath

Author: Chuck Wendig

 Published By: Del Rey Books

 Reviewed by Melissa Minners

                When Lucasfilms was taken over by Disney, I wasn’t sure what to expect, especially when the newest movie, Star Wars: The Force Awakens turned out to be a reboot of the Star Wars universe that would make the older novels in the Expanded Universe obsolete (something I was definitely not happy about).  Thus far, the new novels set around The Force Awakens haven’t been bad, but I haven’t been very quick to check them out.  I hadn’t heard great things about the newest trilogy – Star Wars: Aftermath – but a coupon and a gift card had rendered the first book in the series free, so I thought, why not?

                Star Wars: Aftermath takes place just after the destruction of the second Death Star.  Sure, the major battle is over, but the war is not won.  There are still remnants of the Empire out there and though the New Republic is trying its best to return the galaxy to some semblance of normalcy again, those who willingly served the Empire are not exactly ready to relinquish control.  Distinguished war hero Wedge Antilles has been tasked by Admiral Ackbar to find some of these Imperial remnants, but is captured just as he discovers what may be a secret meeting between Imperial factions taking place at Akiva.

                Meanwhile, former rebel fighter Norra Wexley has returned to her home planet of Akiva only to discover she has to fight her way past an Imperial blockade to do so.  Reunited with a son who doesn’t really want her around, Norra is torn between helping her son duck a serious criminal element whom he has stolen from and helping Wedge Antilles who she has discovered is in trouble and somewhere nearby.  She had promised herself that she was done fighting and was only returning to Akiva to retrieve her son, but once again, she finds herself being pulled back into the fight against the Empire.  

                With the help of a Zabrak bounty hunter, a former Imperial Loyalty Officer and her technologically advanced son, can Norra hope to alert the New Republic to the presence of high ranking Imperials on Akiva and still somehow save her old friend Wedge?

                I hadn’t heard great things about Aftermath.  Perhaps people weren’t all that fond of Chuck Wendig’s writing style with his short, often clipped sentences and equally short chapters.  Maybe they didn’t like the fact that major characters were left on the backburner in this novel.  Sure, we saw Mon Mothma, Han Solo, Chewbacca and Ackbar, but the novel really focused on characters we had never met before.  Maybe they had no interest in the Interlude chapters that told the story of the aftermath of the destruction of the second Death Star on other planets

                Whatever the problem with other readers, I happened to find Star Wars: Aftermath quite intriguing.  I liked the Interlude chapters, which gave us different perspectives as to how others were dealing with the chaos during and after the major battle between the Empire and the Rebellion.  Wendig’s clipped writing did take some getting used to, but I think that the fact that the novel mainly centered around characters we had never met before helped in that aspect.  There were no preconceived notions about these characters.  We weren’t expecting these characters to talk, think or react in a certain way. 

I liked that we got to see the galaxy through the eyes of fresh faces.  I enjoyed reading the thoughts of Admiral Rae Sloane as she struggles to contend with a subpar military, most of the best trained having fallen with the destruction of the Death Star and the Battle for Endor.  I enjoyed her animosity towards the surviving factions of the Empire she was trying to bring together.  Though I did find myself rooting for Norra and her crew to win in the end, I actually even found myself liking an Imperial – no small feat for an author to create a likeable bad guy.

The action and intrigue of Star Wars: Aftermath was intense and Chuck Wendig described it all perfectly.  I could picture everything taking place as if I were watching a movie.  There is plenty here for fans of action in the Star Wars universe, including dog fights, hand to hand combat and more.  Wendig’s characters are not short on ingenuity and the ability to think fast on their feet.  I had fun reading how each of the characters were able to get out of some very sticky situations.

Fact of the matter is, I enjoyed reading Star Wars: Aftermath and found myself wanting to read more Norra Wexley adventures.  I can’t wait to get my hands on the next novel in the series, Life Debt.

Board Games

By Melissa Minners

            As children, we can all remember playing board games with friends and family members.  Growing up, board games were an enjoyable way to pass the time, but they were also an important teaching tool.  They taught you how to follow directions, how to share and take turns, monetary denominations, strategic analysis, memorization skills, competition and more.  These games often taught you how to use your brain – to think about things differently, to use different strategies to puzzle things out.  Board games were essential tools that helped prepare us for life.  As adults, we continue to play board games for recreational purposes and to soothe our competitive spirits.  Although I don’t have an opportunity to play a great many board games nowadays, I do have a few favorites.

            As a child, I liked board games that made you use your head.  This meant that, although I played games like Trouble and Candy Land, I actually enjoyed games that forced you to think a lot more.  Battleship was one favorite – figuring out where to place my ships so my opponent couldn’t sink them while forming a bombing strategy of my own to sink my opponent’s ships.  Concentration was a fun game when I was young.  You matched like game pieces hidden behind point cards – here’s where the memorization skills come in – and receive points for each match.  Removing the matching pieces would eventually reveal parts of a picture puzzle you would then have to solve in order to win.  Perfection and Super Perfection were fun games in which skill, speed and memory were key to solving the puzzle and beating the timer. 

            Always somewhat of a wordsmith, I loved games like Scrabble where you built words with letter tiles and earned points for each word created.  The only catch was that any word you did create had to be linked to another word created previously.  This could get rather hard as the game went on.  Boggle was another favorite in which you find as many words as you can in the letter dice as they appear on a grid before the hourglass runs out.  I love these games to this day.  I also loved games like Monopoly, The Game of Life and Pay Day.  In these games, depending on the decisions you made and the numbers of players involved, the game play was different each time.  Yet another fun game I still love to play is Trivial Pursuit.  There are so many different versions of this game allowing for new varieties of questions.  I’ve played Star Wars Trivial Pursuit, The ‘80’s Trivial Pursuit and more.  In answering each question received, you may learn a thing or two.

            In writing this article, I became interested in learning what board games my friends and acquaintances enjoyed.  So, I decided to ask all of my fellow message board members and email companions to tell me what their favorite board games were and why they loved them so much.  Their answers are featured below:

“My all-time favorite board games are not the obvious ones.  They are Taboo and Cranium.  I love these because they are all about big groups of people and making fools of yourself.  In Taboo you get a word you need to get your team to say, along with a series of words you cannot say to describe it.  You can’t mime, you can’t point, you just have to find a way to get the right message across.  This is usually most fun when playing with people you know really well, because you can say something, “That thing my boss did at work the other day,” or “when I was a kid I wanted to be one of these,” and score points.  Also, it gets competitive.  As for Cranium, this game has very nearly made me pee my pants on many occasions.  This is because it is another group game, but to get around you have to choose a variety of types of mini-games.  These games involve spelling puzzles, guessing games about your partner, art projects (such as, draw a picture with your eyes closed, your teammate has to guess what it is), and my favorite, acting games (such as, pretend you’re this celebrity or move your teammate around like a puppet until he/she guesses what he/she is doing).  Very much fun for play, especially in large groups.” – Justine Manzano 
 

“My favorite board game is Risk.  Why do I like it?  Well, who doesn’t love the prospect of world domination!?” – Kate Foster
 

“Unfortunately, we don’t do board games too much, at least, not anymore.  The only game I would deem to play would be Rummikub.  I think that’s the name, and I don’t even know if it’s considered a “board” game. It’s played with tiles.  Hate Monopoly and Life.  Have done Clue when the kids were younger.  Was interesting until you got the gist of it.” – Helen Minners 
 

“My favorite game board game is Pop Culture Trivial Pursuit. I like it because I don’t know squat about squat, but I always manage to steal the other person’s pie piece at the last moment to win the game.” – Ismael Manzano 
 

“I loved Candy Land as a kid.  I just loved the board and loved the characters, especially Queen Frostine.” Helena Wayne, BOPOnline.com 
 

“My personal favorite has always been Monopoly in any, and every form. I think it has to do with the concept of slowly taking over a little “world”, so to speak. Creating an empire is a joyous thing indeed.
And besides, where else can a thimble be a Harbinger of Doom?
Muahahahahaha….” – darkphoenix, BOPOnline.com 
 

Monopoly – it’s fun and you interact a lot with your family and friends.  Never is the same.  Every situation is different.  Never would be a boring game.” – jaguarin, BOPOnline.com 
 

Monopoly and Life.
These two games have a different outcome every time. In Monopoly, you don’t just hop around to the finish line. In Monopoly, you have to make drastic decisions on what to buy and sell and who to buy from and who sell to. There are many extensions like houses, hotels, rent, and it’s always fun to sell a property for big bucks even when you don’t know how much it will help the opponent. Monopoly takes your mind off things and briefly takes you to a different world of battling realtors, properties, and hopefully riches.” – Chris McIntosh 
 

“I personally have three.
Clue…loving mystery and detective novels as I do. I loved the aspect of having to solve the crime and trying to figure out who done it!
Operation….takes a fine hand to get those pesky pieces out and what fun it was to harass your friends into missing lol…
Hungry Hungry Hippos… for the sheer chaos and loud noises that just annoyed the hell outta your parents!!! Always fun to play that game now with kids and is always a priority for Aunty Linda to get when they turn of age!” – Linda Lafaire 
 

“I have two:
Balderdash….because some of the definitions are just as out there and wacky as the crap people make up. That game has me laughing the whole ime. I hate it being my turn cuz there is just no WAY i can keep a straight face when it’s my family playing. We have to end up giggling through all the definitions.
The second is Pictionary. I can’t draw worth beans..along with most of my family. So it makes the game really challenging and hilarious.
Me: “It’s a cow!…now it’s a cow udder!…Udder yeah!”
Dad: “Time…the real answer was United States.”
Sister: “Cow udder? How could you not see that was the US?”
Me: “The US? You call that a pic of the United States? The south looks nothing like that!
Yeah…you all know what I mean lol!” – Firedancer34 
 

Monopoly: it’s soo much fun and it really is a gambling game.
Operation: that game just gets me every time.” – beehearts, BOPOnline.com 
 

“My personal favorite is Scrabble, the only problem is no one wants to play with me anymore or personally they hate it. So I have a computer version of Scrabble.
Another board game I enjoy playing is Trivial Pursuit – any edition (just not the kiddie one).” – Rowena Kemp

The Last Herald Mage Series

Author: Mercedes Lackey

Published By: DAW Books

Reviewed by Melissa Minners

   Mercedes Lackey sees herself as a storyteller.  It’s her job, she states on her website, and a job well done in my opinion.  Fantasy novels aren’t the only forms of literature Lackey is interested in.  She has also received acclaim for the lyrics she has written for Firebird Arts & Music , a small recording company that specializes in science fiction folk music.  She often combines her lyrical work with her fantasy novels, weaving tales within tales. 

         Mercedes Lackey strives to make certain that her characters are unique in their own ways.  She does not deal in stereotypes.  Never is this more apparent than in her series of novels entitled The Last Herald-Mage.
           
            The first novel in the series, Magic’s Pawn, introduces the reader to Vanyel Ashkevron, first-born son to a tyrant of a man named Lord Withen. Vanyel dares to question things. He dares to learn different fighting styles than those beaten into him by the Arms Master. He dares to love beauty and have a talent for music. He dares to defy his father in all of these things. For this, he is sent into exile to live with his aunt Herald Savil. What was meant to be a punishment, turns into a blessing as Vanyel learns to love living in Valdemar. Though confused about a great many things and distrustful in the beginning, Vanyel begins to realize that not everyone is the enemy. He also realizes that his talents do not only lie in music. Vanyel has the ability to work both Herald and Mage magic – a rare talent indeed.

            Mercedes Lackey’s efforts to incorporate lessons in her novels should be commended.  In this novel, the hero is not only different in that he can wield magic – he is a homosexual.  Throughout the novels, Lackey uses her characters to impart the message that homosexuality is something the individual is born with and not a choice.  Another powerful message her characters deliver is that of acceptance.  The world of Valdemar is by no means perfect and the reader is shown both sides of the issue – reasons for denial as well as acceptance – through the thoughts and reactions of the characters in the novel. 

            Magic’s Pawn is more than just a tale of good versus evil.  The reader is drawn in as Vanyel struggles in his acceptance of his powers, his sexuality, and his new role in a world that had once labeled him an outcast and often still does.  Although the characters in Mercedes Lackey’s novels have powers the reader can only dream of, the issues they face are often one’s that any reader can relate to.  One could say that Lackey herself is gifted with mage powers, as each novel mesmerizes the reader so entirely that he or she can scarcely put the book down.  In fact, once the novel has been completed, the reader will find his/herself yearning for the next installment in the series, eager to discover what trials Vanyel has yet to experience.  Magic’s Pawn is an experience that no fantasy enthusiast would want to miss.

            In Magics Promise, Vanyel Ashkevron is now a 28-year-old man and a full Herald-Mage. He is so powerful that all those who hear about him are either fearful or are in awe of him. Unfortunately, it is that very power which makes him invaluable to the kingdom of Valdemar. Vanyel has been through many trials and has lost many a friend to the outbreak of war on the Karsite borders. Having just returned from this very war, all Vanyel is looking for is some time to rest and restore. Although he loathes visiting his parents, Vanyel believes that this will be the only way to get some rest before the King sends him on another mission. But his return to his homeland is anything but restful. Unrest is brewing along his homeland’s borders and it is feared that mage-work is at its root. Vanyel must investigate and bring the evil-doer to task before more devastation can be unleashed on his people.

            Throughout this novel, we begin to see Vanyel in a very different light.  He has matured a great deal and is willing to face people and places that have caused him pain in the past.  He is willing to put that pain aside in the hopes of bringing some peace and closure to his life.  Although his family finds it hard to accept all that is Vanyel, they have come to see him as a man they can be proud of.  When Vanyel gives a newly Chosen Herald sanctuary at Forst Reach, his actions are unquestioned and the Ashkevrons protect the young man despite the rumors that he has killed his family with powers that he could not control.  In fact, the Ashkevron family’s trust in Vanyel is so great as to cause all those in Forst Reach to offer the utmost protection to the lad while Vanyel conducts his own investigation of the events at Highjorune.

            Readers will quite possibly find this second installment of The Last Herald-Mage to be more enjoyable than the first.  While the last novel was very dark, this novel has a sense of humor. Light moments are interspersed throughout the novel giving the reader some respite from the dark and brooding character Vanyel can often be.  Many are the playful quips between Vanyel, his aunt, and his Companion, eliciting quite a few chuckles from the reader…and some dubious looks for those around him not privy to the humor. 

            Also enjoyable is the fact that Vanyel has grown up.  Gone is the whiny teenager asking why and bemoaning his fate.  He’s now an adult who has begun to take control of his life.   Vanyel’s lost love and life bonded, Tylendel, figures heavily in this novel as Vanyel finally comes to terms with Tylendel’s death and his survival.  The reader will find that there is a great deal of closure in this novel, even though it is only the second installment in the trilogy.  Mercedes Lackey’s literary magic is still as powerful as ever, completely capturing the reader in her spell and refusing to let go even after the last sentence has been read.

            With a title like Magic’s Price, one can assume that some very painful lessons of life were about to be forced on Herald-Mage Vanyel Askevron.  That would be a fair and accurate assumption.  This novel begins about a decade after the events in Magic’s Promise.  With the health of King Randale failing, Valdemar’s enemies are keeping a careful watch on the Kingdom of Valdemar.  Conscious of the growing threat to peace brought on by the King’s eminent death, Vanyel has discovered a way to keep Valdemar safe by linking all of the Heralds together through magic. He is one of the last Herald-Mages and being that the Herald-Mage is a rare commodity in Valdemar, protection of its borders must expand from Herald-Mages only to that of all of the Heralds in the kingdom. 

            Meanwhile, Journeyman Bard Medren comes up with an idea that he thinks will help both King Randale and his Uncle Vanyel.  It would appear that his roommate Stefen is a tremendously gifted Bard in his own right.  Stefen is able to soothe pain with his voice and instrumental talent.  Medren is convinced that Stefen can use this gift to help ease the pain, if not cure the ills of the ailing King.  The fact that Stefen is also “shaych”, the Valdemar term for homosexual, fair on the eyes, and a good match for his “shaych” uncle had not escaped Medren’s attention.  Medren is unable to accept Vanyel’s isolationist attitude.  While he understands that his uncle is doing his best to keep those he loves safe from harm, Medren is convinced that Vanyel is cheating himself at life and happiness. 

            Medren seems right on both counts:  Stefen’s bardic talents have a profound effect on King Randale’s health and somehow, Stefen succeeds in befriending Vanyel.  What Medren doesn’t know is that something mystical is at foot concerning Stefen and Vanyel’s relationship; something that will virtually ensure that Vanyel and Stefen will become more than friends in the future.

            Unfortunately, just as things are starting to look very promising for the kingdom and for Vanyel’s love life, a series of events begin to unfold that spell doom for the Herald and all those he holds dear.  Vanyel soon discovers that he has created the new Herald network none too soon, for the Herald-Mages are succumbing to unexplainable deaths at a rapid rate.  When Vanyel discovers that the source behind these deaths is something he has been having nightmares about for much of his life, he realizes that he is the only one that can stop this new threat to the kingdom.

            Magic’s Price is a tale of anguish and pain.  Some folks will find some of the violence hard to stomach – this is definitely the darkest novel in The Last Herald-Mage series.  But despite the vengeance and violence, there are many answers to be found in this novel.  The reader will put the book down realizing quite a few things about the characters he / she thought she knew.  Many a puzzle is solved in this novel, such as the scarcity of the Herald-Mage gift and the source of Vanyel’s haunting nightmares.  With Magic’s Price, Mercedes Lackey ties up all loose ends in The Last Herald Mage series, leaving the reader with a feeling of satisfaction.

            The Last Herald-Mage series by Mercedes Lackey is a rollercoaster ride of emotion, intrigue, action and suspense and one that surely should not be missed.

Pac-Man Fever

By Melissa Minners

            When I was a kid, I loved watching my Dad play softball.  His job had organized a softball team and he played the catcher position.  I didn’t get to accompany him often, but when I did, we always made a night of it, going to the local eatery, buying hot roast beef sandwiches and checking out the video games.  It was then that I was introduced to Pac-Man and we’ve been great friends ever since. 

           Pac-Man was developed by Namco and distributed in the United States by Midway.  The game was created in Japan by video game designer Toru Iwatani.  Originally released as Puckman in Japan, the name was changed to Pac-Man for the US release for some less than obvious reasons – folks were afraid that people might change the name into a vulgarity (think about it). 

            At the time of its release, most of the arcade games to be found were either of the pinball variety or shooter games like Asteroids, Tempest and Space Invaders.  The graphics weren’t very well developed and there wasn’t much to look at.  Pac-Man presented something a bit different on two fronts, gameplay and graphics.

            Basically, Pac-Man is a little round yellow guy who is all mouth and perpetually hungry.  The object of the game is to guide Pac-Man through the maze as he eats dots which gain you points.  But don’t get caught by the ghosts who haunt the maze (Blinky, Pinky, Inky and Clyde) or your turn will be over.  Eating special power dots will allow you a brief respite from the ghosts and you will be able to eat them as well.  Fruit will periodically appear near the center of the maze and eating it will earn you a lot more points.  Once you have successfully eaten all of the dots in the maze, you move on to the next level. 

            Of course, with each level, the ghosts gain some speed, making maneuvering the maze a bit more difficult.  But the intensity of the pace is rewarded with comical intermission action after certain levels featuring Pac-Man and the ghosts in humorous situations.

            Whether it was the different style of gameplay or the newer style graphics, one thing is for certain, Pac-Man became a video game sensation, eventually becoming one of the most famous arcade games of all time.  The popularity of Pac-Man led to over 30 officially license spin-off games (we’ll get to some of those later), a board game, a card game, numerous clone versions, a cartoon series and even a popular song.  Pac-Man Fever reached number nine on the Hot 100 Billboard Charts in 1981.

            It goes without saying that I was obsessed with Pac-Man.  So, it wouldn’t be surprising to discover that I was a huge fan of Pac-Man’s first spin-off game.  Ms. Pac-Man hit the arcades in 1981 and had similar game play, but with some very interesting new additions.  First, there are four different mazes that appear in different colors, adding new dimension to the game.  Second, there are two warp tunnels for more stylized maneuvering around the maze and avoidance of the ghosts.  Third, the fruit that appear in the maze move around, bouncing through the maze and making it more challenging to gain extra points by eating them.  The orange ghost’s name is Sue instead of Clyde – this is the female version of the game so that makes sense.  The intermissions between certain levels follow the relationship developing between Pac-Man and Ms. Pac-Man.

            I was in love with this game – and very good at it, passing levels in the arcade with abandon.  And then I heard the best news – Ms. Pac-Man was made available for our newly purchased Atari 5200.  Score!  That was a game that received a lot of playtime as my brother and I tried to top each other in levels.

            Shortly after my parents purchased Ms. Pac-Man for the Atari 5200, I saw a new and rather innovative incarnation of Pac-ManBaby Pac-Man strove to unite the best of arcade games by merging video game play with pinball action.  The gameplay starts off in the same vein as the original Pac-Man until you hit one of the warp tunnels.  That’s when the pinball action comes into play as you earn extra points on the pinball machine just below the video game screen.  Another difference to this game is that the ghosts much more aggressively, faster, and more randomly, making it extremely challenging to escape them as you travel through the maze.  And you won’t get any help from power dots in the beginning of the game – those have to be earned in the pinball section.  What a fun game.  Sure, it was difficult, but it was different.  Baby Pac-Man has the distinction of being one of only three video game / pinball machine hybrids.

            Then came the miniature games and you know my brother and I simply HAD to have a miniature version of Pac-Man.  Distributed by the handheld game wizards, Coleco, this game was a miniature replica of the video game found in arcades, down to the miniature arcade console and joystick.  Much fun to play with despite the lack of graphics and the annoying sound.

            For years, we were satisfied with the games we owned or could play in the older arcades as newer games began to phase out the Pac-Man machines of the 80s.  And then, in 1999, I received a promotional disc for a new Pac-Man based game created for the PlaystationPac-Man World featured our favorite dot-eating hero in a 3-D gaming platform.  There were some similarities to the old game, but the 3-D platform allowed for new moves very reminiscent of characters like Sonic the Hedgehog and the Jersey Devil.  This was a new dimension of Pac-Man with even better graphics than the games of old and numerous levels and worlds to play in.  I was in heaven.  Of course, at the time, I was poor and couldn’t afford to buy the game, so I kept playing the demo until I couldn’t play it anymore.  So sad.

            Years later, I was walking through one of the numerous arcades found on the Jersey Shore and guess what I found – a throw back Pac-Man machine.  You just knew I had to play it!  I squealed with delight – yes, I squealed, so what!  The machine was only a quarter to play – that’s right, in this day and age with video games costing a dollar or more, I am dating myself by admitting that I remember when arcade games could be played for hours on one quarter.  Oh, how much fun I had.  Years older and Pac-Man can still bring me a delightful thrill as I make my way through each maze.

            Pac-Man is a game that will never grow old.  Mention this game to anyone and they will definitely know what you are talking about and will have played some incarnation of it.  Generations later, Pac-Man is still an arcade favorite and will be for generations to come.

Check out all things Pac-Man at Amazon!

Bones Coffee

Review by Melissa Minners

               I’ve been drinking coffee since I was four…no kidding, since four years old.  It’s a cultural thing with my family, so yeah, four even though it was probably more milk but coffee back then.  Unlike some I know, I never grew out of drinking coffee.  I don’t drink it for the wake-up value – I’ve long since outgrown that.  After all, when you’ve been drinking coffee for as long as I have, coffee doesn’t really have that effect on you.  I have been known to drink a cup of coffee and fall asleep with the empty coffee cup in my hands.  For me, it’s all about the taste.

               I’ve tried all different coffees, from the popular (Dunkin Donuts, Starbucks, Folgers, Peet’s, etc.) to the less popular store brands (Quick Chek has some good coffees) or coffee they grind at local farmers’ markets.  I’ve had instant, but prefer to brew a pot of my own.  In fact, every morning before work, I brew a pot of coffee and take some with me in my trustee coffee tumbler

I often get advertisements for various types of coffee on my Facebook feed and I’ll look at them…then scroll past.  They don’t really catch my eye.  Then one day, I saw an ad for Bones Coffee Company and I was intrigued.  Here was a coffee company with a unique look and a promise to give you the best coffee drinking experience you ever had by selecting the perfect beans in small batches to ensure that the freshest coffee is sent to your door.  This is not coffee that sits on a shelf for weeks on end until you put it in your cart.

I loved the horror style of the packaging and the names and flavors were what really caught my eye.  Some examples are From Dusk Till Donuts, a jelly donut flavored coffee; Shark Bite, a spiced butter rum flavored coffee and Salty Siren featuring a sea salted caramel mocha flavor.  And yet, I was worried about making an investment in this coffee…a $14.99 investment for a 12oz bag plus shipping and handling.  It was a little steep for a coffee that nobody I knew was drinking.  Then I saw it advertised on Amazon during Prime Day for almost half the price and I decided to check it out.

I selected Mint Invaders, featuring the flavor of mint chocolate chip ice cream, and Cookies N Dreams, featuring a cookie and vanilla flavor.  I figured those were safe selections.  As soon as they arrived, I dug into Cookies N’ Dreams.  What a smooth coffee!  There was no bitterness there and the flavor of cookies and cream was easily recognizable.  Once I got through that 12oz bag, I turned my attention to Mint Invaders.  This coffee was different than other peppermint chocolate coffees I’ve had in the past.  Again, this was a smooth coffee with no bitterness.  You tasted the chocolate right away, but the mint was subtle and only hit you after the swallow.  I enjoyed not being overpowered by minty flavoring.  Most importantly to me is the fact that this is low acidity ground coffee.  My stomach can be sensitive and, though I have never let that stop me from having coffee, it is always nice when my coffee doesn’t cause me stomach pain because of high acidity levels.

Now that I was nearing the end of my 12oz bag of Mint Invaders, would I continue to invest in Bones?  The answer is a hearty yes!  I ordered some Shark Bite and Maple Bacon (I never had a coffee in this flavor before, so why not?).  They should be arriving in a couple of days and I can’t wait to try them. 

I ordered the 12oz bags of ground coffee, but you can get 12oz bags of whole bean, k-cups for your Keurig, single-origin coffees like Kenya, Sumatra, Costa Rica and more.  They have holiday flavors like Jingle Bones (coconut, vanilla and caramel), Gingerbread, Eggnog and more.  They also have decaf.  Not sure what flavor you want?  No problem, they have coffee bundles and starter kits that you can gift to someone or even yourself.  Some of these bundles include mugs, because, yes, Bones sells gear with their logo on it as well.  By gear, I mean mugs, t-shirts, tumblers, hoodies, hats, posters, bags and more.  You can purchase Bones gift cards for friends and family.  You can even subscribe to their coffee club, selecting flavors you want and the frequency in which you receive them.  You can even gift someone with a subscription.  Nice, huh?

In closing, though Bones Coffee may look expensive at first glance, the smooth taste, low acidity, great variety of flavors and purchasing options and more make this a coffee worth checking out.  I can’t wait for my next package of Bones Coffee to arrive!

Check out the Bones Coffee Company website at http://www.bonescoffee.com

or check out Bones Coffee at Amazon!

Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey

Author: Gordon Doherty

Publisher: Ace

Reviewed By: Melissa Minners

               I’ve been truly enjoying the Assassin’s Creed novel series based on the video game by Ubisoft.  I’ve finally reached the last one in the series and, lo and behold, I discover it is written by a different author.  Most of the Assassin’s Creed novels have been written by Oliver Bowden, but Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey is by Gordon Doherty.  Will this novel measure up to all of the ones I read previously?

               Odyssey is centered on a Spartan woman named Kassandra.  In 451BC, Kassandra was a happy child, doting on her new baby brother when a prophecy by the Oracle turns her life upside down.  Because of this prophecy, Kassandra’s brother, Alexios, is to be cast from the top of Mount Taygetos to prevent the fall of Sparta.  Loyal Spartan, Nikolaos, sees it as his duty to his country, but the rest of his family doesn’t quite see it that way.  In an effort to prevent her brother’s death, Kassandra attacks the senior ephor presiding over the ceremony, accidentally sending Alexios to his doom in the process.

               Now, as an adult, Kassandra is repenting her actions, living in Kephallonia as a mercenary for hire.  At her side is an eagle named Ikaros and Phoibe, a young Athenian orphan.  Down on her luck, Kassandra sees an opportunity for a better life when she is offered a new job – to assassinate the Wolf, a Spartan general.  To do so would mean facing uncertain danger infiltrating the battle lines of the war between Sparta and Athens, but it would mean wiping her debt clean and a life of freedom.  Her journey will be fraught with danger and deception, but success will mean so much more as she discovers the true identity of the man she is about to kill. 

For Kassandra is about to learn that the prophecy that brought doom to her family was orchestrated by individuals seeking absolute power.  And those involved in the cult that has grown in strength since 451BC are masterfully hidden amongst the innocent on both sides of the war.  Can Kassandra see through the conspiracy and put an end to the cult that threatens to destroy Sparta and Athens both?

Gordon Doherty does a great job in maintaining that gaming atmosphere, his descriptive writing allowing us to observe Kassandra’s various trials in our minds’ eyes as though it were scenes from a video game.  Kassandra is a character we instantly relate to and root for.  She is flawed, but she has strength of determination.  The various events of her life are often exhilarating in their action-packed sequences, but the danger and betrayals can be equally crushing.  As the tale of her journey unfolds, the reader is absolutely mesmerized, trying to figure out, just as Kassandra is, who the true enemy actually is and how he or she can be stopped.

Odyssey is not your average Assassin’s Creed novel.  There is no mention of the Order of the Assassins or the Knights Templar, for this tale takes place long before the creation of either order.  This novel takes place at a time when the “apple” of the original novels was a pyramid hidden inside the Cave of Gaia.  Fittingly, the final book of the series speaks of the beginning of the journey. 

I loved every minute of it.  Gordon Doherty is a gifted writer, able to captivate his readers with characters they grow to love…or hate, depending on the individual.  Either way, these are characters we become invested in.  The locales are beautifully described.  Being an avid reader of Greek and Roman mythology and a study of the war between Athens and Sparta, I loved the historical references in the novel, with appearances by such historical figures as Hippokrates, Pythagoras, Aristophanes, Sophocles and more.

Whether you like action novels, mysteries or a mix of both, Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey is a great read and Gordon Doherty has proven more than up to the task in following in Oliver Bowden’s footsteps.

Buy Assassin’s Creed Odyssey (The Official Novelization) at Amazon!

Get the video game here!

Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag

Author: Oliver Bowden

 Published By: Ace Books

 Reviewed by Melissa Minners

               I love Assassin’s Creed for the fact that the video game combines a great deal of real history with the fictional events placed in them.  In other words, this is a historical fiction video game.  Now, granted, I haven’t played the game yet…I’m ashamed to say that I haven’t had much time for video games on gaming systems lately and thus, my copy of Assassin’s Creed: The Ezio Trilogy has sat on a shelf, unopened.  But I have read the novel series based on the games and my latest foray into the Assassin’s Creed novel series is Black Flag.

               Black Flag is a new series of Assassin’s Creed video games that take place in the world of pirates.  The novel begins in 1711 with a young man named Edward Kenway.  Edward worked in the family business helping his father and mother sell their wool, but he is not exactly enamored by the business.  Instead, he longs for a life of freedom on the high seas, sailing around the world in search of exotic lands and adventure.  Unfortunately, Edward is also fond of his drink and often gets himself into trouble with the locals for putting on heirs.

               One day, he gets into a battle with a local, defending a woman’s honor.  What he believed to be one nasty fight turned into a vendetta taken out on his family.  When his family homestead is attacked and their business ruined, Edward attempts to exact revenge and finds himself facing a battle with a member of the Knights Templar.  Though he does finish off some of his enemies, Edward doesn’t last long against the Templar and he soon finds himself a privateer, traveling abroad on the Emperor.  Unable to return home to his wife, father and mother thanks to the murder charges he was bound to be facing, Edward throws himself into his new job, hoping to return home a better man both in growth and in monetary value.

               Unfortunately, Edward’s plans don’t turn out the way he wanted them to and instead, he becomes a wanted pirate.  He eventually runs into an old enemy – the mysterious Templar who caused his family so much misery.  Finally exacting his revenge, he discovers the Templar is planning on a meet and Edward sees a way to make some money by posing as his enemy.  Again, his plans are foiled, but he soon finds himself working counter to the Templars, not actually joining the famed Assassins, but working with them to foil the Templar’s plans to control the world, all while captaining a pirate ship

               That historical fiction element is still present in this addition to the Assassin’s Creed series.  Throughout the novel, we meet a number of historical figures in the Golden Age of piracy like Benjamin Horngold, Calico Jack Rackham, Edward Thatch (AKA: Blackbeard), Lt. Maynard of the English Navy, Bartholomew Roberts, Woodes Rogers and more.  All have a profound effect on Edward Kenway’s life and career, some good and some bad, but always important.  Edward Kenway does not exactly start off as a loveable character.  He will strike the reader as a lazy drunk in the beginning, but one will notice that he does have a heart and he is loyal to a fault.  Even though he constantly yearns for riches just out of reach, there is a moral code he maintains that makes him one of the good guys, even when he is not exactly acting on the side of the law.

               Black Flag is full of everything I love about the Assassin’s Creed series.  There’s action aplenty, a storyline that fits into world history quite nicely, adventure, romance and more.  Oliver Bowden’s writing is so descriptive as to transport the reader to the various locales of the storyline.  Whether it is on the shores of the secret hideout of pirates, sailing across the sea, in the jungles of a hidden temple or in Kenway’s hometown, you can picture events and incidents perfectly in your mind’s eye.  At almost 450 pages in length, with fairly small font, one might find the look of Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag daunting, but once you get started reading, you will cruise through the tale fairly quickly thanks to the engrossing storytelling of Oliver Bowden.  I was done with the book in a week and looking for more if that’s any indication of how good this tale is. 

               Fans of the video game are going to love Oliver Bowden’s adaptation.  I can’t wait to read the next novel in the Black Flag series!

Buy Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag at Amazon!

Buy the Assassins Creed IV Black Flag game for Xbox One!

Star Wars: Thrawn Ascendancy: Chaos Rising

Author: Timothy Zahn

Publisher: Del Rey

Reviewed By: Melissa Minners

               I love Timothy Zahn’s writing, particularly his work in the Star Wars Universe.  He created one of the best, most well-rounded Star Wars villains in Grand Admiral Thrawn.  He also created one of the best heroines in Mara Jade, but that is not the subject of this review.  With the total revamp of the Star Wars Universe by Disney, some of Zahn’s characters have gone by the wayside, but one still remains – Thrawn.  His story has been rewritten, but fascination with his character remains.  When I heard a new Thrawn trilogy was in the works, I was excited.  So, on one of my latest excursions to Barnes & Noble, I made sure to get my hands on the first book in that series, Star Wars: Thrawn Ascendancy: Chaos Rising.

               Most recently, Zahn has taken to telling Thrawn’s backstory by writing a Thrawn tale set in a specific time period and then using flashbacks to explain things Thrawn does.  Previous books have taken place during the Rebellion while flashing back to the Clone Wars.  This time around, we are taken back to Thrawn’s time as a Senior Captain in the Chiss Ascendancy.  Lately the Chiss have experienced minor attacks on the fringes of their territory and recently, they have discovered a ship of dead refugees in the area.  The military believes this to be a message of impending attack, but the Aristocra see things differently. 

Much to the Aristocra’s chagrin, Thrawn is called upon to give his observations of the incidents.  In flashbacks, we travel to a point in time when Thrawn is selected to be a member of the Mitth family.  At the time, he was a bright and shining star, expected to bring honor to the Mitth, but it is clear that he has no interest in politics and a different thought process regarding the Chiss isolationist views.  When he sees a people in trouble, Thrawn finds it difficult to leave them to their doom, despite the Chiss view that Chiss should not be involved in issues outside of their territory.  It has gotten him in trouble in the past and it threatens to ruin his career now.

In this novel, we are given insight into Admiral Ar’Alani’s beginnings, her rise to Admiral and her relationship with Thrawn.  We are also introduced to a new character in Thalias, a former sky-walker who has applied to be an observer on Thrawn’s latest journey aboard the Springhawk, seeing it as an opportunity to thank him for helping her in her youth.  Bureaucracy has caused her admission as an observer to be declined, but she is able to board by volunteering to be a caregiver to the ship’s young sky-walker Che’ri.  Her ward is not happy with the situation, but soon realizes that her new caregiver is different from the ones she’s had previously – this one actually knows what it is like to he a sky-walker…and what it is like to lose those abilities. 

When the Springhawk embarks on its journey to determine the origin of their pirate attacks, Thrawn discovers a similarity to an enemy he has faced in the past and Ar’Alani, Thalias and Che’ri are all drawn into his plan to stop them.  Thrawn’s enemies are none to happy with the situation.  Will their enmity mean the end of Thrawn’s career in the face of a danger the Ascendancy has never before faced…that of invasion and subservience?

I still love Timothy Zahn’s writing style and Thrawn’s ability to understand his enemies through the analysis of art is still as enjoyable as ever.  I also loved the new characters and can see a possible love triangle forming between Thrawn, Ar’Alani and Thalias…though Thrawn might be oblivious to it.  That being said, I’m a bit annoyed at the changes being made in the Thrawn origin story that have been going on over the past few years.  Call me a purist, but I really enjoyed the original origin story and felt the changes being made were unnecessary.

Okay, I’ll get off my Disney is messing too much with my Star Wars soapbox now.  The fact of the matter is that Thrawn is a fascinating character and Timothy Zahn is an excellent writer.  For those non-purists out there, Star Wars: Thrawn Ascendancy: Chaos Rising is an excellent read, full of action and adventure and thought-provoking as well.  For those reasons, I can honestly say that even purists like myself will enjoy reading this novel as much as I did, origin changes aside.  Well done, Mr. Zahn.

Buy Star Wars: Thrawn Ascendancy: Chaos Rising at Amazon!

Aaron’s Animals

Artist:  Aaron Benitez

Reviewed by Melissa Minners

                Some time ago, I was scrolling through my Facebook newsfeed and noticed a video one of my family members shared.   Home Alone featured an adorable Russian Blue cat named Prince Michael who is accidentally left home alone when he is supposed to be on vacation with his human, Aaron, thanks to some trickery from his rival, the moustached kitty, Phil.  The video is a hilarious kitty take on the famous film with Prince Michael foiling a home invasion using cat litter and laser light traps and more.  I couldn’t stop laughing and had to watch more.

                Every Prince Michael video I watched was hilarious, not just because of the storyline and the antics cat owners like myself often imagine our own cats getting into if they could, but because of the special effects.  Prince Michael is already a gorgeous cat, but the special effect eyes added in make him just sooo cute!  And that evil pencil moustache Phil wears – hilarious.  As I looked back into the various videos Aaron’s Animals has produced, I realized I was late to the ballgame.  The latest videos on the Prince Michael show are generally about four minutes apiece, but Aaron’s Animals features a ton of videos averaging about 30 seconds to a minute apiece featuring Michael and many other kittens and animals.

                But just where did Aaron’s Animals come from?  From the mind of Aaron Benitez and his story is enough to make anyone dreaming of a career in film become a believer.  Aaron was already into visual effects when he graduated high school and it was a music video that he created, complete with visual effects, that got him into Biola University in California.  Unfortunately, after his sophomore year at the university in 2010, his parents could no longer afford to pay for his college tuition.  Instead of giving up on his dreams, Aaron did something remarkable – he bought a used Suburban purchased from Craig’s List

                Having gone to Biola for two years qualified Aaron as an alumnus, thus giving him use of the facilities at a low cost.  To support himself, he started VFX Bro, a visual effects training website and YouTube channel, and a wedding videography business.  Parking the SUV near the school, Aaron would spend his day at Biola, using the gym and the showers and then heading off to the cafeteria, where he would work on video edits and his two businesses until the cafeteria closed.  Then, he would head off to his Suburban to try to catch some sleep, an oft-elusive task thanks to the busy neighborhood and street.

                After two years, Aaron had saved enough for a down payment on a condo, but chose to rent it out instead of living in it in an effort to earn more income.  By 2015, Aaron had created Aaron’s Animals, using visual effects and real animals to create hilarious videos.  Yes, Prince Michael is a real cat, adopted by Aaron when he was living in Brooklyn.  He accompanied Aaron everywhere he went, even walking on a leash and generally assimilating well wherever he went, thus making Prince Michael the best and most willing model for Aaron’s videos.  Co-stars in Aaron’s Animals videos include neighbor’s cats and their various offspring from around the neighborhood.

                I’m amazed by Aaron Benitez’ story –  what a terrific tale of what an individual can accomplish with a little ingenuity and a great deal of drive.  Aaron wanted a career in filmmaking and he worked hard to attain it while living in a car – incredible.  His visual effects, combined with his fun sense of humor make his videos incredibly fun and sharable.  I can’t stop watching them and sharing them with others…and I can’t stop laughing!  I’ve watched them all and I can’t wait to see more from Aaron’s Animals and Prince Michael in the future!

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