IF Comp: Arram’s Tomb

October 2, 2019 at 2:54 pm (Reviews)

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Link to all the games is here.

This looks so perfectly D & D. The cover looks amateurish, but it conveys genre and style perfectly. It is 100% consistent with the writing, which is deliberately cliched.

Heh. It took me five minutes to die on my first go.

Ooh, I think I died even faster on my second go.

On my third try, I lasted SLIGHTLY longer.

This is fundamentally an interactive game, which I know sounds like damning it with faint praise but it’s not I swear! It’s not that easy to make a truly interactive game, and James Beck has done it.

I found the thief creeping on the cleric a bit… well, creepy. But it’s clearly part of his character, and it would only have been truly problematic if he managed to “get” the girl. (It’s possible that he does in some versions, but I’ll give the story the benefit of the doubt and assume that IF they get together it’s because of his positive actions, not because he’s manipulated her into it.)

I have a personal hatred of accents, and I think most readers will find the accent annoying. But I won’t penalise for that.

There were a few minor typos and such, but not enough to penalise.

The formatting was annoying. Most IF engines don’t let you indent paragraphs (like in a novel) so people usually leave a line between paragraphs, exactly like in this blog entry. I think the writer should definitely have done that.

I’m gonna say 3.5 stars for this, because it’s not quite  MY cup of tea but it is well written (deliberate stereotypes and all). If the judging form doesn’t allow half stars, I’ll raise it to 4 stars there.


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IF Comp: Lucerne

October 2, 2019 at 1:36 pm (Reviews)

The first pic is not showing up. Possibly because I’m using Safari?

Gorgeous cover. Atmospheric and intriguing. Screams “dark fantasy/adventure” which is right on. You can play it by clicking through to the full list of games here.

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And, I know I said I’d skip the 15 minute ones. I just… didn’t find many that suited my criteria, and this one sounded like it wasn’t too dark for me.

This took me about 10 minutes to play, which is about right (I read very quickly). It was a decent story, with a character arc that I found interesting.


I don’t think I made a single choice the whole way through.

And, there were quite a few spelling and grammar mistakes (oddly enough, the visual settings and certain grammar mistakes reminded me of “The Island”, which I just reviewed a moment ago… could they be written by the same person?)

I’m going to give this 2 stars as well, because although the story is better written than “The Island” it still has room for improvement, and the number of spelling and grammar mistakes is still quite high. And the lack of interactivity is quite severe.

But it’s another story that is free of sex and violence, which is actually an achievement in itself.

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IF Comp: Valand/The Island

October 2, 2019 at 1:19 pm (Reviews)

How long it actually took me to play: 15 minutes (the author estimated half an hour but I’m a very fast reader)

The opening of this story was really intriguing: The main character (a child—their gender is never specified) comes to consciousness having washed up on a beach, where they immediately meet a magical creature (who is unhelpful enough to keep the story interesting).

From there, however, there was a lot of dialogue with not much description and not much inner dialogue. It felt quite cursory (very much like my own first drafts, in fact) and wasn’t super involving. A lot of the time no choice at all was offered, and even when there were two or more choices I got the feeling that it barely made any difference (perhaps a line or two; perhaps looking at one part of a room instead of another) or when it did make a difference it wasn’t skill-based (eg finding a crucial object within two tries where there were three equally arbitrary options).

There were a LOT of spelling and grammar issues throughout, so much so that I wonder if the writer speaks English as a second language, or is dyslexic, or very young. My money is on, “Very talented, but very young” in which case the harsh standard of reviews for IF Comp may be discouraging (there are a few shocked and wounded writers every year) BUT if the writer is 16 or less they are definitely someone to watch in future. I feel like even one beta reader would have dramatically improved this story. It’s also possible that the writer is simply a newbie writer (newbie here meaning less than 1000 hours spent writing creatively and learning the basics like grammar). I also feel like there were no beta readers at all, which shows a lack of understanding of the (very generous and helpful) IF Community.

It was really good to see some diversity in the story, which felt natural and showed that the writer has the ability to write interesting stories.

I’m giving it 2 stars, which I feel terrible about, but there are two flaws. First, the writing is fine but not brilliant, and lacks truly interesting choices. Second, the spelling/grammar is quite bad. So if a perfect story gets only 4 stars, this one has to be penalised twice.

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(The above is a screenshot, go here for the full list of IF Comp entries, including this one.)

(Great cover, by the way. I would add half a star except covers aren’t officially part of the judging criteria.)

It’s awesome to find a G-rated story that kids could play safely.

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IF Comp

October 2, 2019 at 12:42 pm (Reviews)

I looked forward to entering IF Comp all of this year, as my reward for finishing an unexpectedly difficult story (due at the end of August). I’d done a bit of research and written the opening. The first week of September I did barely anything. I was utterly exhausted—and besides, I had two months to write this thing. It was gonna be fine.

Then I realised I had the date wrong. The IF Comp deadline is the end of September, not October. And I wrote like a wild thing, often writing 5000 words  a day. Then, with 48 hours to go, I went to the web site to do an upload test and… I couldn’t. Because the deadline had passed.

I’d got it wrong twice. It was due 28 September, not 30 September.

The good news is… it doesn’t really matter. It’s going to be a Hosted Game eventually anyway, which will get me more money than the IF Comp anyway. I’m going to take the extra time to write another couple of chapters and of course much more editing. It’s a great game, I think. Here’s the cover:


It’s a prequel to “Choices That Matter: And Their Souls Were Eaten”, which means it’s a prequel to alllll my steampunk tales. It starts in late-1700s France (a rather exciting time) and the player character is a mad scientist who gets off death row by volunteering to be the first person to fly in a hot air balloon. If you want to help edit it (and read it for free), go ahead and email fellissimo@hotmail.com.

But the point of this entry isn’t that. It’s the IF Comp, which I can now judge freely (although I can’t rank anything I beta tested).

So here’s my method for selection: I scrolled past the first ten or so entries, on the basis that most people would start from the top (and a strong minority would start from the bottom), so I should start from the middle (this was unnecessary because the comp automatically shuffles entries for you anyway). I went right past everything parser-based (parser makes me cry, possibly because of the same brain damage that made me get the due date wrong twice). I also skipped anything dealing with suicide, death, or horror. Or experimental (again, brain damage – I’m already confused, and don’t want more confusion on top of that), poetry (which is more or less experimental, isn’t it?). Also anything that’s too close to my real life (making money, raising children), because that’s way too stressful. And I skipped most of the super-short ones on the basis that they should get plenty of readers.

I’m gonna try and do five today. Five is the minimum amount for a judge to do, so if I can do five today then I have room to not do any more (assuming the rest of life overwhelms me, as it usually does).

So here is my opening impression of the comp, based on skimming through less than half of the entries:

People definitely put a lot less time into a lot of these than I did into “Flight”. Some don’t have cover images at all, and a lot of others look terrible. (I confess, I have a weakness for beautiful imagery, which isn’t necessarily a prerequisite for a good cover. Still.) I gather a lot of people joined the competition for the same fundamental reason I did—for fun. But I was aiming for a top ten finish, which meant writing a game that was between 1.5 and 2 hours (the rule is “judge on the first two hours of game play” but games with more content tend to do better), and highly polished.

I’m going to try to be a harsh critic, just so I can differentiate good games from brilliant. So if a game is fundamentally perfect, I’ll give it a 4. If I think it might win outright because it’s so incredibly amazing, I’ll give it a 5. Anything else gets less.

Wish me luck. I’m diving in…

Edited to add: So, games are scored out of 10, not 5. I adjusted my official scores accordingly.

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Captain Marvel vs Wonder Woman

March 13, 2019 at 12:24 pm (Reviews)

See? I can do blindingly obvious clickbait too!

But I do legitimately want to explore my feelings about these two beautiful films, so here we are.

OBVIOUSLY team Wonder Woman and team Captain Marvel are all just one big ball of love and congratulations. And the fan art of the two superheroines is glorious. Do yourself a favour and let me google that for you.

Now, let’s talk. . .








In a romantic comedy, you expect to feel a certain gooshiness as the couple gets together at the end. You can experience that feeling a hundred times and it’s still worth seeing another romantic movie. So there’s PLENTY of room for two films that both make women (and humans in general) feel empowered, particularly since there are roughly a zillion that create a similar feeling in men.

Yes, that feeling of mighty feminine power is very similar in the two films. If one got you in the feels, the other one probably will too. I’ll talk about the precise flavour of those wonderful feelings a bit later, because these films are certainly not the same story.

Opening Scene:

WONDER WOMAN has a brilliant opening. The sheer shock of seeing COLOUR in a DC film was a revelation, and a revelation that paved the way for genuine sincerity and love throughout the movie. Kid Diana was instantly engaging and interesting, and showed us plenty about the core of who Diana is, and why (as well as very clearly showing both the world she lives in, and the characters of her mother and aunt—so the painful death and departure of Act 1 actually hurt—which is excellent writing).

And that fight on the beach, when a bunch of women with bows and arrows and spears face men with guns… and win? It’s unique, exciting, important to the overall plot (including the “shield” manoeuvre that Steve Trevor uses later) and it once again shows that our expectations about this movie are wrong.

The opening scene of CAPTAIN MARVEL is… dull. The character wakes up after a bad dream/memory. “Character wakes up” is probably the single most cliched opening of any story ever. It’s so very, very ordinary. Of course, the dream/memory she has is a crucial (arguably the crucial) moment in her entire mixed-up timeline, so that was definitely worth putting right up the front.

And when Captain Marvel realised her full powers and casts off ALL the gaslighting throughout the entire film, it was probably all the more powerful because of the ordinariness of the opening. I think it was a deliberate choice, designed to make the full film experience more satisfying. But it still made me want to rewrite things.

So did the out-of-order flashbacks onto her childhood as a girl getting knocked down both literally and figuratively (“What are you doing? That’s for the boys.”), because the clenched-fist moment of the trailer was so exciting and I expected to see the same thing (but longer and more so) in the movie itself. It’s probably for the best that the film used that for the trailer, and let us-the-audience extrapolate it during the actual movie.

So I guess I won’t be rewriting the film after all. But the urge was there, for a bit.

Title Character:

Interestingly, neither movie actually mentions the main character’s title. After seeing a billion origin stories in the last three weeks or so, we really don’t need to get into how they get their names.

Both have important figures in their life gaslighting them, as well as a group of strong, supportive women. Both actors/characters have spent significant time in physical training and can fight very well without their powers. Both are aware of some of their powers, but become aware (and briefly startled) of much more during their film. Both are far more interested in ending wars than starting them—Wonder Woman’s most iconic weapon is not a sword but a shield. Both are stunningly beautiful. (It has been pointed out elsewhere that, now we seem to have got the hang of female-led superhero movies, can we have some women of colour? Gay women? Trans women? Fat women? Disabled women?)

Diana is ignorant about the real world, and Carol has amnesia. That could be interpreted as lessening their power (gently accustoming viewers to the idea of super-powered women), but it’s also a very handy narrative device for letting the hero and the viewer discover things at the same time, so I’m okay with it in their opening films.

Both women are seen as girls fighting against the limitations placed on them by others. Difficult, determined women. I think it’s significant those both flashbacks focus on the girls before they hit puberty. It’s an unfortunate fact that girls are encouraged to follow their dreams before puberty and then get psychologically beaten up during and after puberty. Teenage girls inspire two reactions: lust and hate. No one wants to hear or indulge the desires or opinions of teenage girls. Statistically, both girls and boys experience a sudden sharp dip in self-esteem around puberty. Boys get it back; girls never recover.

I find myself making them sound like clones of one another, but I swear they’re not. Yes, they have a LOT in common, from a desire to be a hero to a compassion for refugees. But in my opinion there’s a deep and archetypal power to each of them that is precisely what each film needs to give viewers that amazing feeling of empowerment and hope.

Gaslighting (for definition of ‘gaslighting’, see tvtropes here):

Both women are told over and over and over, “No. Don’t do that. You can’t do that. Stop.” There is one crucial difference: Wonder Woman is told these things by two good characters—her mother, and Steve Trevor. Captain Marvel is told these things by people who are trying to trick her.

It is clear in WONDER WOMAN that Diana’s mother is making bad choices where her daughter is concerned; lying to her to try to protect her, and keeping her from training as a strategy to keep her power under wraps. It’s understandable, a plausible weakness, and she gets over it (mostly) when she switches strategy to tell Aunt Antiope to “train her harder than anyone else”. She’s still moderately horrid when Diana wants to leave the island, but (again) it’s plausible in an overprotective mother (so, good writing—when two characters both have noble goals that happen to clash).

But, even on my first viewing, I was annoyed by Steve Trevor. Sure, Diana has no concept of the scope of World War 1 or how war works. But he’s seen the Amazons fight and win on the beach, and he knows some of their magic (eg the lasso of truth) before he and Diana get to London. He shouldn’t be as patronising as he is. Especially AFTER they’ve saved a small town thanks entirely to her. Before that he is annoying, after that he’s a jerk. This is narratively necessary, but it badly impairs the character, which in turn makes me think less of Diana for loving him so much. He’s a decent man, but not THAT great. (Yep, that’s right—sacrificial death ain’t enough to impress me if the guy isn’t as hot as Chris Pine AND smart enough to let Diana call ALL the shots a lot sooner.)

So that’s a significant flaw, in my opinion.

The gaslighting is 100% deliberate throughout Captain Marvel. Given her amnesia, it’s a sound strategy to keep her close and trusting (and makes narrative sense without making her stupid). It also works perfectly thematically and emotionally. When she throws off everything she’s been taught and comes into her full power, it is truly glorious.

Menfolk and Womenfolk and otherfolk:

It’s a little bit of a shame that we see so little of Diana interacting with other women. When Etta Candy is present, it is utterly glorious (and extra points for her using Diana’s sword to stop a baddie escaping from the alleyway, especially after neatly foreshadowing it with her saying that women fight with their principles, but she’s “not opposed to a little fisticuffs, should the occasion arise”). Oh, and Doctor Poison is rather excellent (although I find it a teensy bit patronising that Diana let her live, when she executed at least one male character). I love all the minor characters in this film (especially Charlie, whose character—singing, angry, and afraid—is devastating and beautiful), and World War 1 is a somewhat masculine affair, but still…

It’s a delight to have several important female characters in CAPTAIN MARVEL, from the Supreme Intelligence to Mar-Vell to the two Rambeaus. It’s not insignificant that (with the exception of the Supreme Intelligence, who isn’t technically female, and the minor villain whatserface played by Gemma Chan) none of the female characters take part in the planet-wide gaslighting of “Vers”.

It’s a simple fact that women are gaslit every day, usually unintentionally, and usually by men.

For example, my husband leaves dirty socks on the floor. To me, this is a feminist issue. When it comes to cleaning our house, the buck always stops with me. This is so, so obvious. I pointed out to him the other day that I find it sexist that he leaves his stinky socks for me to pick up. He said it’s not sexist, because he’s not leaving them for me to pick up—he’ll pick them up himself. Later. But I spend 20 of every 24 hours in this house, while he spends less than half of his waking hours here. He also has ADD, which means he notices much less about his environment already, and is far more likely to forget something anyway. So he’s not deliberately leaving his socks on the floor (and his breakfast bowl on the table, and his empty milk containers on the bench, and his cleaned-and-sorted-by-me washing on the bed, and his jackets on the couch, etc) because he is thinking, “Ha-HA! I shall trick my helpless woman into cleaning up after me” but because he’s not thinking at all. Because he has the privilege of not having to think about such things, because they magically get done when he’s not looking (about 80% of the time). After ten years of marriage, how could this blindingly obvious fact have not occurred to him? (Believe me, we have had many conversations about chores. Most of which he has forgotten. Most of which I remember vividly.)

So I’m left angry and sore (yes it literally hurts me to clean up) while he floats along in life thinking he’s the perfect husband, because he’s not thinking at all. (Disclaimer: obviously he’s a pretty good husband all things considered.)

All of which is to say that women are less likely to gaslight other women (although unfortunately it absolutely does happen, eg this article that I can’t bear to read), and CAPTAIN MARVEL reflects that. Without saying a word in the script, it conveys that she’s getting psychological strength from her female friends. And that is something that is deeply satisfying (and healing) for female viewers, and almost entirely absent from WONDER WOMAN.

WONDER WOMAN has Etta Candy (1000 points) and Charlie, who are perfect.

CAPTAIN MARVEL has Goose (1,000,000 points, sorry Etta) and young Nick Fury, who are also perfect. And so are the Rambeaus.

The YEAHHHHHH!!!!! moment:

Both films have a scene that makes every living human in the audience want to jump on their seat and cheer, then go and find a Nazi to punch in the face.

WONDER WOMAN: The moment she chucks off her boring London clothes and runs across no man’s land.

CAPTAIN MARVEL: The fight scene set to “Just a Girl” by No Doubt.

Both scenes are in their own way, perfect. WONDER WOMAN is tinged with sadness on a second viewing, because the town she saves is soon to be murdered. You definitely feel her pain and disillusionment as a result, which makes sense thematically.

CAPTAIN MARVEL: Something about that iconic song—so familiar to me as a 90s teen, although back then I didn’t know enough to feel that righteous anger myself—makes CAPTAIN MARVEL’s power explosion feel 100% REAL. Sure, it’s magic and fiction and there are aliens and blue blood and so on. But with that song right there, CAPTAIN MARVEL cuts into our Trump-poisoned reality with pinpoint accuracy. I never would have thought I’d see a more potent female empowerment scene than in WONDER WOMAN, but CAPTAIN MARVEL did it. For that reason, I will love CAPTAIN MARVEL forever. Plus she’s fighting the very people who gaslit her so bad for so long, which gives it extra zing.

Historical Setting:

(A zillion bonus points to WONDER WOMAN for giving us Themyscira. A bold, beautiful place that now exists forever in the collective imagination.)

It’s been established elsewhere that the World War 1 historical accuracy of WONDER WOMAN is top-notch. Kudos to every single person involved.

From the moment the trailer showed Captain Marvel crash-landing through the roof of a Blockbuster Video store, everyone in the world who is around my age (37, by the way—old enough to have been avidly following the MCU since it began, with our own money) emitted a “squee” of delight (followed by a gasp of horror that a film set in the 90s is now officially a period piece). It was beautifully done throughout (without, I think, banging on about it), and I enjoyed it very much. Also the de-aging on Nick Fury and Agent Coulson was fun and looked great.

The Twists:

Both movies feature betrayal by the big bad. Wonder Woman is betrayed by the man who funds their mission to the Front, and Captain Marvel is betrayed by her mentor (who was only her mentor in order to keep her close).

Neither of these land properly. In Wonder Woman, David Thewlis just doesn’t work as the big bad. Even the betrayal doesn’t feel quite right, because why did he bother funding their mission in the first place? I guess to keep tabs on Diana, but meh.

In Captain Marvel, even those who don’t know Yon-Rogg is evil from the comics know he’s evil as soon as he and Captain Marvel (“Vers” at the time) do a training fight in the opening scene. It is a law universally acknowledged that a mentor and mentee fighting in Act 1 must fight as enemies in Act 3.

Wonder Woman also has the betrayal of her Mum never telling her that SHE is the God-killer, not the sword.  And Captain Marvel has the larger betrayal of her entire (she thinks) home world being the villains. (Sidebar: I felt that the switch from “Skrulls are evil” to “Kree are evil and skrulls are good” happens a little too quickly, without sufficient proof. And now I need to go back and wince every time a skrull is punched/killed in Act 1…)

The Villains:

Yes, Yon-Rogg fundamentally worked, especially when he tried—and failed so badly—to gaslight her one last time. (Note to self: When theme and action fit together perfectly, it’s a beautiful thing.) Some of the second-tier villains were underdeveloped. Hopefully there’s a longer cut of the movie somewhere.

I’m glad the Captain Marvel movie didn’t waste the opportunity to have shape-shifting enemies, even if it was only in Act 1. Hurrah for punching sweet old ladies!

Wonder Woman’s Dr Poison would have been a better big bad, I think. She was more interesting than General Ludendorff and scarier than Sir Patrick (if she ignored the general and decided to do her own thing). The idea of Ares as a whisperer/evil muse rather than the controlling force behind World War 1 was sort of cool, but then undercut by the fact that people DID immediately lay down their arms once Ares was killed.

The Third Act:

Wonder Woman wanted to be epic, but we’ve seen so many epic fights (and we were so unimpressed by Sir Patrick) that it was the weakest part of the film.

Saving Captain Marvel’s greatest scene for the third act REALLY worked. The only flaw is the second-tier villains not feeling like real three-dimensional people.


It was really excellent that Captain Marvel didn’t have any romantic interest in anyone. Her (platonic) chemistry with other actors was an absolute delight, and it’s just SO nice to not have a romance subplot just because it’s a female main character. Sure, I like Steve Trevor (with the exceptions outlined above), but I think Captain Marvel gets extra points on this one.


Now I want to see both films again.





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Mega Lolly & Chocolate Review

May 8, 2018 at 10:35 am (Food, Reviews)

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

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

Lindt Orange Intense

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

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

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

Lindt Fruit Sensation: Raspberry & Cranberry

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

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

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


Cadbury Marvellous Creations: Clinkers, Raspberry Chips, Marshmallow

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

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

Cadbury Boost Block

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

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

Cadbury Picnic Block

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

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

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

Cadbury Crispy Mint

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

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

Natural Confectionary Carnival Mix

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

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

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

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

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

Natural Confectionary Sour Soda Pops

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

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

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Infinity War: Spoiler-Filled Impressions

April 25, 2018 at 11:20 pm (Daily Awesomeness, Reviews)

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


Now. Let’s talk.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Avenger Man #1: [bows awkwardly]

King T’Challa: We don’t do that here.

Avenger #1: [glances accusingly at #2]

Avenger #2: [grins at him]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then. . . bubbles.


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

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

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


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

Tier 1: Have at least one solo film.

Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, Hulk.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tier 3: Part of the Group

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Here is my son yelling Wakandan war chants with me:


I. . . can’t stop.


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

April 25, 2018 at 9:35 pm (Reviews)


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

I’m gonna tell you who dies.

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

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

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

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


The main “teams” of Infinity War

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

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

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

Unsurprisingly, the Soul Stone shows up during the film.

Who do I care about most in this film?

Thor. Gamora. Spider-Man. Wakanda.

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

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

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

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

Who do I think we’ll never see again?

Heimdall. Loki. Gamora. Vision.

How do I feel about that?

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

What do I think will happen in the next movie?

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

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

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

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

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



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

April 25, 2018 at 8:18 pm (Reviews)


Yes, that is a good word.

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

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

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

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

The trailers lied at least twice.

The stakes are real.

Thanos isn’t nearly as boring as I expected.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Phase 1:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Phase 2:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Phase 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Current Locations of the Infinity Stones:

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

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

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

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

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

*The Soul Stone is a mystery.

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

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

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

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

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

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Gift Guide for Ages 3-6ish

October 23, 2017 at 11:35 pm (Daily Awesomeness, Mum Stuff, Reviews, With a list)

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

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

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

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



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


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

But enough prologue. Here’s some awesome loot:

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

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


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

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

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

Screen Shot 2017-10-17 at 7.57.02 PM

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

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

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

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


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

3. Pets

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

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

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

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

4. Building kits.

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

Screen Shot 2017-10-17 at 8.00.14 PM

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

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

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

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

Screen Shot 2017-10-23 at 4.29.11 PM.png

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

9. Tradition.

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

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

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

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

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10. Something that definitely isn’t useful.

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

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

11. Tech

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

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

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

Which brings us to… computers. For children.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Bonus points

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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You do NOT need to spend a bundle on kids!

So here’s my Four-Gift Rule:

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

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

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

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

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

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