Thursday, April 22, 2021

Review of Convergence by C.J. Cherryh

The surprise of Visitor floored me. Like Make Room! Make Room! (Soylent Green) or Planet of the Apes, it was us all along! A second, minor surprise is that the kyo left Atevi space, leaving Bren and company with… what? A couple of things: what to do with the secret the kyo left with Bren, and also, what to do with overpopulation on the space station? Add in an atevi family feud, and you’ve got the recipe for Convergence (2017).

The title Convergence, indeed the events of the novel are a conflation of a few thnigs. As is the Foreigner series’ identity, this conflation is not without the need for diplomacy, negotiation, and compromise, however. Enter our hero Bren Cameron. The secret of the human war with the kyo burning a hole in his thoughts, Bren and his entourage head to Mospheira to deliver humanity’s copy of the treaty and to resolve the overpopulation situation on the station. Some members of the Mospheiran government displeased at having been left out of kyo negotiations, Bren must deal with aggressive questioning and general enmity to find a solution. Meanwhile, Cajeri is sent on a publicity mission to uncle Tatesegi’s home. Little does he know that the skeletons of his mother’s family’s past are about to come out of the closet.

Cardboard Corner: Review of the Arkham Horror: The Card Game expansion "The Forgotten Age"

Note: This review covers the deluxe expansion The Forgotten Age, as well as the six Mythos packs which complete the campaign. It will not contain any spoilers save the roots of story which introduce the campaign as a whole. All other card, scenario, and story details will be untouched.

You’ve done it. You’ve made it this far. Umordhoth did not kill you (at least the last, successful attempt did not compared to the thirty-seven unsuccessful prior…). You survived the brood of Yog-Sothoth through time and space. You held on to your sanity tracking/being tracked by the Yellow King. Now you’re ready for a new challenge in the Arkham Horrror the Card Game universe. Well, if there were any disagreement about the definition of “challenge” beforehand, the game’s third campaign, “The Forgotten Age,” looks to ensure everyone now has a higher standard.

Fully embracing the fantastical fun of an Indiana Jones/Tomb Raider-esque expedition through the jungles of Central America, “The Forgotten Age” sees players answering the call of an eccentric historian who believes that an untouched Aztec city-state still exists in the wilds of Mexico. With grant money from Miskatonic University, he organizes an expedition, on which you and potentially one to three other people can go to see if indeed there are still mysterious wonders in the world to be discovered. Arkham Horror being Arkham Horror, the answer is of course ‘yes’, the only question being: How deadly is it? (Answer: the deadliest yet.)

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Non-Fiction Review: Why We Sleep: The New Science of Sleep and Dreams by Matthew Walker

As a teenager, I recall ruminating on how absurd sleep is. After sixteen hours of consciousness—eating, socializing, relaxing, etc., we lay prone in a soft place and semi-voluntarily lose consciousness for an eight hour period of which we have no memory, not to mention no seemingly obvious need of. Like an automaton we turn off, exit the world, and get turned back on in the morning—surprised to find the world is the same as we left it. That lack of direct accounting accounts for one-third of our lives—one-third. Matthew Walker’s Why We Sleep: The New Science of Sleep and Dreams (2017) is an absolutely fascinating look at that absurdity, and the need for it.

Grounded in decades of global, clinical research (not only Walker’s), Why We Sleep answers the titular question by breaking sleep down into its relative components. From addressing the question directly: why does the animal organism require sleep, to the consequences of sleeping well, and conversely the consequences of not sleeping well. It pulls the cover off (slight pun intended) one of the most basic and fundamental yet most taken-for-granted aspects of life. What are our brains doing while we sleep? What are our bodies doing while we sleep? What are dreams? What old wives’ tales are true, and which not? How does modern Western culture affect the quality of our sleep? This and more.

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Review of We Shall Sing a Song into the Deep by Andrew Kelly Stewart

There is no doubt the past two or three decades have highlighted the seemingly ever increasing disparity between classic religions and an expanding sense of global liberalization. While a major component of ongoing culture wars, nothing is as simple as left vs right, however. Religion as wide open to interpretation as liberalism, there are certainly degrees of separation. For dramatic fiction, however, none may be more powerful than extreme versions of religion. Enter Andrew Kelly Stewart's We Shall Sing a Song into the Deep (2021).

Alternate Cold War history, We Shall Sing a Song into the Deep is set in a version of the 1980s where the nukes went off, killing millions and scattering civilization. A group of Catholic zealots able to steal the last nuclear submarine, the Leviathan, they enforce a draconian version of Catholicism upon their haggard, all-male crew, holding the world hostage with the last remaining nuclear warhead as they wait for the Second Coming. Remy is a teen chorister onboard the Leviathan, and in an early chapter of the novella is secretly given responsibility of the key which unlocks the warhead. With surface groups trying to locate and stop the Leviathan, things start to get dicey for Remy and the crew when a hostage—a hostage unlike Remy has ever seen—is taken aboard. It spells the beginning of the end.

Sunday, April 11, 2021

Review of Visitor by C.J. Cherryh

The tides of the Foreigner universe shifted at the end of Peacemaker. The conflict within the atevi resolved, sure enough, right on time arrived another source to fill the void of drama (that every series needs to maintain momentum). The count actually shifting to two in Tracker, Bren faced both the kyo bearing down on the scene and a cabal brewing on the space station. One resolved and the other un-, it’s up to Visitor (2016), seventeenth—seventeenth!!—book in the series, to tell us how or if it remains un-.

The title seeming to make things clear <wink-wink>, in Visitor the reader finds the atevi and humanity adding to the list of sentient species encountered in atevi space by one. Difficult to write a plot intro without spoiling how un-simple that encounter is, what I can say is that the first chunk of Visitor is spent cleaning up the mess of Tracker. A new, more competent human station chief is installed. The children are taken care of after the kidnapping attempt. And big questions are started to be asked of Braddock, and his actions during the Phoenix mission. These things handled in Bren’s periphery, the paidi is clear to prepare for the arrival of the kyo—if it is even them.

Thursday, April 8, 2021

Review of The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut

Hugo, oh Hugo, you underachieving, unambitious award... Such is the sentiment I arrive at comparing the content regularly making Hugo news today to a high quality book of yesteryear that was once upon a time nominated for the award. To think the likes of Leigh Brackett’s The Long Tomorrow, Algis Budry’s Who?, or Theodore Sturgeon’s Venus Plus X could have been in the spotlight of genre makes the works by John Scalzi, Ann Leckie, N.K. Jemisin, etc. quiver in weakness. No offence to those writers; they are all successful in their own right, but it’s clear quality sales are not a guarantee of quality substance. If only works celebrated today by the award had the class and sophistication of Kurt Vonnegut’s The Sirens of Titan (1959)…

Remote-controlled humans, Mars attacking Earth, UFOs, robots—such are the fever dreams fueling a lot of Golden and Silver Age science fiction (and if I had to be fair, books even today). But in The Sirens of Titan, these devices are deployed in the service of satire, humanism, philosophy and dark humor. A doomsday tale that peels away its layers of doom until only the concept of the individual’s free will exists, in Vonnegut’s novel the reader is forced to confront realities of existence, even if they are not technically part of our reality.

Cardboard Corner: Review of Monza

Vroom-vroom!—in color! I wish I had had Monza when I was three-years old…

Aimed at small children, Monza (2000) is a racing game for two to six people. The game sees players taking turns rolling six dice, and using the colors that are rolled to advance their race car along the multi-color track. First car to complete a lap, wins!

Candyland but with one, important added layer of sophistication, Monza asks small children to think a little. They take turns, identify colors, compare colors, and chain the movement of their cute little race car by color—the last being the thinky bit. Initially the game will be more reactive for small children. What color do I need to advance my car? Red. Do I have red? Yes. Use the red die and move my car. What’s next? Blue or white. Do I have blue or white? No. Ok, now my sister’s turn. But as time goes on and children become more comfortable with the concept, they can start to plan their moves. Ok, I need a red or green next, and after that it will be either purple, red, or blue. And then it’s white or green. I have only four of those colors, so how can I chain them together to get my car the furthest along the track? I can…

Saturday, April 3, 2021

Review of Robot Artists & Black Swans by Bruce Sterling

If science fiction were a tree, Bruce Sterling would be a renegade branch growing outward in spiraling and incongruent direction - of the tree but divorced from it. And it's something that has only become pronounced as time goes on. It's a reason aficionados and connoisseurs love him, and likely much of the mainstream is unaware of him (the view obscured by too many leaves, natch). The latest blossom sprouting from his deviant branch is Robot Artists & Black Swans: The Italian Fantascienza Stories of Bruno Argento from Tachyon (2021).

Despite the label 'Italian', Robots & Swans is not a frame collection. More like a concept album, Sterling plants his tongue firmly in cheek and marches forth into the world—his world—of science fiction through the lens—his lens—of Italy. Wriggling his moustaches, the collection kicks off with “Kill the Moon”, a story taking the shape of a newspaper article whinging on the presence of Italy on the moon—at last . The final great country to do so, but damn didn’t the ship look good.

Cardboard Corner: Review of Dead Men Tell No Tales' expansion "Kraken"

This review assumes you are familiar with the Dead Men Tell No Tales base game.

Pirates of the Caribbean in board game form, Dead Men Tell No Tales is a rounded, fun, cooperative game that requires nothing additional to thoroughly enjoy. The art, the gameplay, the variety and variability, the teamwork—it is one of my family’s favorite cooperative games. And with the modular tiles that change each game, replay value is higher than a lot of games whose setup is static. All that being said, it’s possible to spice an already spicy meal. With the Kraken expansion, Dead Men Tells No Tales has dug out the pepper grinder. Question is: is it full of habanero? Let’s see.

In highly thematic fashion, Kraken adds a big, fat chunk of fun gameplay and additional level of complexity to Dead Men Tell No Tales. If looting, fires, and undead skeleton warriors were not enough, then Kraken throws in the need to destroy a massive sea creature to beat the game. Attacking you as you move through the burning rooms and loot treasures, players have an additional, tentacled variable they must factor into tactics. Impossible to ignore, if the creature gets too big, he swallows the ship, and everything and everybody on it.

Console Corner: Review of Metro 2033: Redux

If you’re on my blog, then there is a chance you are aware the primary content is book reviews. Omnivorous, I try to read things that appeal from all areas, regardless of gender, height, hair color, favorite ice cream flavor, or religion. For whatever reason, Dimitri Glukhovsky’s Metro series has escaped my notice. (Perhaps because it’s more popular in European media than American or UK?) That is, until the video game Metro 2033. Solidly blending narrative and gameplay (with a few hiccups), I’m now looking for the books.

In Metro 2033, it’s a few decades into the future and mankind has finally pushed the button, setting off a nuclear war that makes living above ground impossible for what’s left of humanity. Mutant creatures now roam the Earth, attacking people, all the while another, more ethereal threat emerges from another reality, attacking peoples’ minds. Living in a grungy metro tunnels of Moscow is Artyom. A young soldier, he aspires to be like the Hunter—one of his fellow tunnel dwellers who is a master survivor and killer of the mutants. When Hunter disappears one day, Artyom decides to try to find him.

Monday, March 29, 2021

Review of Phoenix Extravagant by Yoon Ha Lee

A few years ago media hype grabbed me and I purchased Yoon Ha Lee’s Ninefox Gambit. Dense diction and subtle theme, Lee seemed to want to write New Wave-esque space opera. Though perhaps a little too ambitious, I nevertheless tucked Lee away in memory as a writer with potential, and in the time since have encountered a couple of their short stories which delivered on the hope. Thus, when seeing a new novel come available in 2020, Phoenix Extravagant, I bought it sight almost unseen. Hmm…

But before the questions, Phoenix Extravagant is the story of the artist Jebi, and their quest for personal value living among a culture oppressive to their own. A Hwaguk surrounded by Razanei, Jebi learns the Razanei language and takes on the nationality in an attempt to become a renowned painter. Things not going as planned, however, Jebi ends up at a threatening, exploitative job—but with access to one of the most amazing pieces of tech the world has ever seen. Powered by art, Jebi is put to work by the oppressive Razanei, but not forever…

Friday, March 26, 2021

Review of Tracker by C.J. Cherryh

Can we finally put the plots within plots within plots within plots regarding the assassin’s guild behind us? Can we finally stop the seemingly unending attempts at kidnapping Cajeri? Can we finally give Boji a moment of peace in his cage? Can we give the battle bus a deserving break in the garage for repairs? The sixteenth book in the Foreigner series, Tracker (2015), says Yes! Yes! Yes! to these questions. (The battle bus does make an appearance for an airport trip, however.)

Indeed, Peacemaker seems to have finally brought to an end nine books’ worth of internal atevi machinations. In Tracker, the focus shifts back to atevi-human relations. On planet and off, issues on the human side of things that have been brewing in the background since Explorer (sixth book) decide to boil over in Tracker (good timing, no?). Is it all germane? Yes—almost all…

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Review of The Wolf of Oren-Yaro by K.S. Villoso

This will not be a long review. I did not finish The Wolf of Oren Yaro by K.S. Villoso (2017). Too unfocused, too rebellious for rebelliousness' sake, and ultimately too unaware of itself…

This view is personal; I‘m sure there are many Villoso fans out there. Nevertheless, reading the novel I found: A) inconsistent, barely controlled writing, B) character action and emotion with little if any background or motivation framing them, C) scenes set in the most generic fashion with little to make them unique, D) spurious details which do not seem to add anything to atmosphere... Meh.

The Wolf of Oren Yaro feels like a hungry Chihuahua helpless to supply its own food. Tightly wound, turning on a dime as the moment demands, and with little thought to the details beyond its nose, it paces the yard but is never sated. Villoso seemed to be leading her main character toward self-awareness—a theme with potential. But the portion of the journey I read did little to distinguish itself as a singular piece of writing to attract the imagination or mind—to pull me along a “well written story”. Instead, it paced here, it paced there. It yipped and snapped at the moon, then jumped left. Then it... Eventually I stopped reading. Maybe you will, too. Maybe you won’t.

Saturday, March 20, 2021

Review The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North

Gimmick” (noun): a trick or device intended to attract attention, publicity, or trade. Such is the thought sparking in my mind reading the back cover of Claire North’s 2014 novel The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August. Could be an interesting gimmick unpacked to character and plot effect, could be a gimmick that is beaten like a dead horse with little else to support it … Which side bore out?

Groundhog’s Day but for a lifetime, Harry August bears the burden of reliving his life from the beginning every time he dies. Also burdened with a perfect memory, each time he is reborn he carries with him the memories of his previous lives. While initially finding his own way through multiple lives, often tragically, August eventually meets up with others similarly burdened. And while there is a chrono community intended to help and foster such people, there are certainly others interested in using their condition for more nefarious ends. And above it all, a threat looms that the youngsters are reporting back as: The End of the World <sound the doom>.

Cardboard Corner: Review of Outfoxed

Imagine sitting down to do a list of 25 of the following questions: X + 4 = 6. What is X? 3 – Y = 1. What is Y? It’s boring—educational for those whose math skills are still acquiring such logic, but eventually still boring. It’s so much better to use realia. We know there were six apples, and Sally ate three. How many did Johnny eat? But what’s even better? Answer: Sherlock the Fox chasing down a pie thief before he escapes. Helping small minds develop deduction skills in simple, accessible, and delightful fashion is the game Outfoxed.

In Outfoxed, one to four players take on the role of detectives, working together to discover which fox stole the pie. Choosing to either reveal suspects or search for clues at the beginning of their turn, players will roll dice to see if they are successful, and if so, have a chance to peel back a layer of the mystery. Fail with the dice, and the thief moves one step closer to escaping with the sweet treat. Once players believe they have enough clues and suspects to deduce who the thief is, they can risk it all by guessing. Guess right, and you win. Guess wrong, and the real culprit escapes to steal another pie.

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Review of Radiomen by Eleanor Lerman

There is in-your-face science fiction—silver screen splashes of action that slap the eyes and tickle the leftover child’s imagination. And there is science fiction of a more delicate variety, understated stories that look deeper into the meaning of existence—and possible existences. Thought experiments, social reorganizations, extenuating circumstances—all have the potential of digging into and exposing specific aspects of being human. Belief one of the wildest, wooliest, and most personal subjects possible, Eleanor Lerman’s Radiomen (2015) is one such delicate novel. The uncanny events, little green men, sentient (?) dogs, and the strange cult are just the guiding lights.

A bartender working at JFK airport, Laurie Perzin is introduced to the reader in middle-age after a rich youth, traveling, working, and generally living as she saw fit. Single, she enjoys her freedom, coming and going to work and enjoying her interests in her own peaceful way. Late one night, however, she decides to dial in to a radio show, and in the conversation that follows, a forgotten memory of her youth re-surfaces. The call having a ripple effect, not long after additional elements of her past resurface, including her and her since-deceased uncle’s hobby of radios. The uncanny emerging from the woodwork thereafter, Laurie finds herself in a place she’s never been before: her worldview challenged by aspects of existence she’d previously ignored. What does humanity do when presented with challenges?

Saturday, March 13, 2021

Review of Some of Your Blood by Theodore Sturgeon

We can cut right to the chase. If the idea of a psychological character study of disturbing and empathetic proportions, all written in dynamic, tangential style, and with an undercurrent as to the story’s broader relativity does not seem interesting, look elsewhere. Otherwise, for readers who enjoy the unravelling of a mind in steak-knife prose, Theodore Sturgeon’s Some of Your Blood (1961) may be for you.

Sturgeon never letting the narrative come anywhere close to routine, Some of Your Blood would be the equivalent of a well-edited movie. Part flashback, part autobiography, part document samples, part therapist’s notes, and part other forms of writing, the novel offers multiple perspectives into the life of George Smith. Born into a poor, abusive family, his consolations in early life are the joy he finds in nature, becoming a master hunter and trapper of small game. Taking an unfortunate direction in life after his mother’s death, he ultimately enters the army.  While there he gets some discipline, but upon release Smith discovers there is still an itch needing scratching.

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

Review of Ysabel by Guy Gavriel Kay

Guy Gavriel Kay, you know him. He’s that guy taking real-world, historical backdrops and infusing them with subtle yet epic fantasy storylines. Tigana, The Lions of Al-Rassan, River of Stars, these and other novels, while likely less known on the market in 2021, nevertheless successfully deliver operatic storylines with a heavy dose of sentimentality in timeless fashion. What then could Kay do in his one and only novel in a modern setting, Ysabel (2007)?

Loosely young adult, Ysabel is the story of fifteen-year old Ned Marriner. Son of a famous photographer, the reader meets Ned onsite in Provence, France as his father shoots an old cathedral. Ned meeting an exchange student named Kate as he bums around waiting for his father to finish the shoot, the two have a bit of a run-in in the tunnels beneath the cathedral while looking at Celtic ruins. Nothing coming of the uncanny event, Ned nevertheless becomes gravely ill when he and his father’s team approach the next day’s location, the site of an ancient Roman battle. Ned’s sickness fading the further he moves from the location, things seem to return to normal. It’s a repeat meeting at a café, however, that pushes things over the top. The supernatural emerging from woodwork, Ned’s life is never the same. Question is, how long will that life be?

Saturday, March 6, 2021

Review of Available Dark by Elizabeth Hand

In case you were living under a rock, Scandinavia has exploded with a milieu of thriller/criminal/horror fiction in the past decade (branded Nordic noir if memory serves). The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo just the tip of the iceberg, there are a number of other writers producing novels of a similar mood—mysterious events, bizarre murders, sinister personalities, and of course, the bleak Nordic sun barely lighting a path forward. Possibly intentionally, possibly not, doesn’t matter, into this atmosphere Elizabeth Hand brings her own book of black metal with myth-infused murder, 2012’s Available Dark.

Hand’s 2007 Generation Loss introduced the broken “hero” Cass Neary. Washed up punk rock photographer, at a low moment in life she finds herself in small-town Maine, a threat looming as she tries to find some certainty in life. Seeing greater potential in Cass, five years later Hand follows up with another excellently unraveled, accidental mystery in Available Dark. Broke and confused in New York City after the events of Generation Loss, the drug-riddled, angst-bedeviled woman gets an offer she can’t refuse from a wealthy art patron: paid travel and a paycheck to go to Finland and verify the authenticity of a set of rare photographs. Heading to that cold, austere country, Neary performs her service. After confirming a set of chilling yet beautiful crime scene photos as authentic, she stops in Iceland to visit an old friend. Heavy metal, snow storms, a bizarre pair of brothers, and volcanic hot springs becoming an unwelcome part of her agenda, the situation finds a way to let her inner demons off the leash just when she thought healing was possible.

Console Corner: Review of Doom (2016)

I am of the Doom generation. Italics and a capital letter going a long way, no, we have not condemned the Earth to become a nuclear wasteland, but certainly some “traditional people” (trying to be diplomatic here) would point a finger at violent video games whenever the latest psychologically ill shooter kills a dozen or so people. The most violent of its day, 1994’s Doom was a first-person blast ‘em, smash ‘em filled with violent demon and labyrinthine puzzles. Popular to this day, it is a game that proves quality + simplicity can be a magic formula. A handful of sequels have been released over the years, and in 2016 a version was released for the PS4 generation of consoles. If the Earth hadn’t gone to hell in the twenty+ years which transpired since the first Doom, Doom (2016) proved there was still hope.

Remaining 100% faithful to its 1994 roots while taking advantage of technical possibilities in the 21st century, Doom (2016) is wholly informed on both fronts. Anybody who played the original game will quickly recognize its core presence in Doom (2016), and thereafter play with joy seeing how it is updated and implemented for the PS4. The new details and nuances are only the icing on the cake. Weapon and armor upgrades, new guns, 3D maps, music, multi-player, and other features, alongside the amazing new graphics, are all part of the package. I imagine there a couple of purists in the world, but I can’t imagine the majority of original Doom players not at least respecting and having a blast (no pun intended) with the reboot.

Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Starcraft II - 2020 Year in Review

Let's get the big stuff out of the way first. 2020 was a long site better than 2019. Point blank: Starcraft 2 was not overtly broken. Zerg was successful, but it did not dominate to the point an asterik is necessary for any premiere victory. How Stats won ASUS ROG in 2019, I don't know. We didn't have complete parity in 2020; save Trap's success in the last 2 months, Protoss struggled mightily. (Three years and counting, the last Protoss victory in GSL was in 2017.) But there was nothing approaching a feeling of inevitability... Zerg... zerg... zerg...

My notes for 2020 include the fact Europe is drawing ever closer to Korea in terms of talent. Certainly Korean stars are aging or going to the military, and almost zero fresh blood is rising to take their place. But at the same time, talent in Europe, and to a minor degree in NA, is meeting the challenge. Koreans still occupy the majority of success in non-region locked tourneys, but it's not always Koreans lofting the trophy anymore.

And of course no notes on 2020 can escape COVID. Rendering all tournaments online, audiences didn't get to see what zero ping looked like. All battles were micro time delayed, which may not be visible to the casual observer, but is certainly a factor to be consideredwhen looking at success. Players either adapted, or didn't. Secondly the feeling of being in person, of having Home Story Cup, of camaraderie between the players and community—all different. Webcams are great, but nothing like sitting on the other side of monitors from your opponent and feeling the energy of the crowd.

But enough of my notes, here are the year's awards:

Sunday, February 28, 2021

Review of The Warehouse by Rob Hart

It’s been a week and my mind is still turning over the ideas inherent to Rob Hart’s 2019 The Warehouse. Talk about creamy brain candy. Spinning a (fictional?) Amazon-esque future into an Adam-Smith, late-game, capitalist scenario, the novel raises a huge number of questions that touch upon the majority of aspects of 21st century existence in ways we consider sacred. Is it as rigorous as it could have been plot-wise, perhaps not, but what what’s there is inciteful enough—in a good way. (It’s also extremely insightful, in case you thought that was a slip.)

The Warehouse follows the lives of three people, leading up to a key moment in the history of The Cloud. An ultra-mega corporation unlike any the world has ever seen, The Cloud started as an Amazon-esque online shopping portal, but evolved into a global, corporate entity unlike humanity has ever seen. Through the hard work and acumen of its founder and leader, Gibson Wells, the company finds its fingers not only in almost every key pie that consumers have the possibility of spending money on, but also in the government organizations which regulate and deliver some of our most valued services and utilities.

Friday, February 26, 2021

Cardboard Corner: Review of Dead Men Tells No Tales

To this day, the best Pirates of the Caribbean movie is the first one (the one before Disney sunk their teeth in to suck the dollars from it with a franchise). It’s no Citizen Kane or Blood Diamond, but in terms of light entertainment, it’s a solid mix of humor, fantasy, cutlass duels, undead skeletons, and of course, pirates fighting over power and treasure. Capturing something of the feel of the movie in board game form is Dead Men Tell No Tales.

A cooperative game for two to five players, Dead Men Tell No Tales sees players exploring a burning ship, trying to loot as much treasure as possible while preventing the ship from exploding underneath them. The fires burn hotter all the time, not to mention skeleton fighters protect the ships’ treasures, meaning it’s not easy being a pirate. But if you want to get rich…

Thursday, February 25, 2021

Review of The Artifical Kid by Bruce Sterling

Science fiction is often unfairly unburdened with the expectation of predicting the future when in fact the majority of sf is just trying to tell a story that uses what’s known in the present to extrapolate upon a future or alternate setting. Science fiction is not in the business of futurism. Yet still, a number of books and stories have described situations or scenarios which have become reality. The usage of technology for the public broadcast of personal life is where Bruce Sterling’s The Artificial Kid (1980) accidentally, or at least partially so, becomes a prophet.

In the future, humanity has spread across on the universe, and on the planet Reverie it has created for itself a future, hyper-corporate, neo-Victorian version of itself. Twirling nunchukkas through the streets of its largest city is the Artificial Kid. A reality tv star with waves of fans, the Kid is surgically altered in ways today’s plastic surgeons may dream of but don’t yet have the technology for (plastic hair, faux-skin, muscle healers and the like), all in support of his combat lifestyle. A mini-swarm of drone cameras following him wherever he goes, the Kid films his encounters with a rival gang, then edits the material later to be published and sold to his fans. It’s during one of these encounters with the gang that things get out of hand, and the Kid finds himself outside, far outside his comfort zone.

Console Corner: Review of Wasteland 2

Mad Max without the spiky cars? Radioactive cowboys and robots? Cyberpunk in a nuclear wasteland? Somewhere in the middle of all of these ideas is the nexus which encapsulates inXile Entertainment’s Wasteland 2: Director’s Cut (2015). A mix of sci-fi and western tropes which produces something standing on its own, the game is a deep, story-based rpg experience that is by turns futuristic and historical (at least from the perennial perspective).

It is decades in the future after a nuclear war has left humanity scattered with varying degrees of technology functioning and not functioning. Some old school and some new, things like water and electricity are hard to come by even as there are new albeit rare forms of science that twist anything resembling John Wayne into science fiction. Reduced to tribes and communities, people try to survive in the desert of Arizona as best they can, scrabbling for supplies while dealing with warlords, cults, bandits and raiders. Life isn’t easy in the desert wastelands, if it ever was.

Saturday, February 20, 2021

Review of The Year of the Ladybird (aka The Ghost in the Electric Blue Suit) by Graham Joyce

They are increasingly rare, but there are still examples of books whose titles molt crossing the Atlantic. Graham Joyce's The Year of the Ladybird (2013, UK) became The Ghost in the Electric Blue Suit (US). And it's clear why: the US has ladybugs not ladybirds. The better question is: which title fits this fun novel most?

The setting is 1970s Britain in a coastal village, and at the outset the reader is introduced to David as he begins a summer gig working at a family holiday resort. Organizing children's games, helping set up events, and otherwise chipping in as he's able, he comes to know the resort's odd assortment of characters. From one of the attractive dancers to the snaggle-toothed stagehand, the creepy owner to suave singer, David slowly becomes part of the crew. He also meets a macho, aggressive man and his huddled wife, and in the process gets himself into a fair bit of trouble—trouble that only exacerbates itself as nationalists, disappearances, and a plague of ladybirds/bugs invade the resort.

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Non-fiction: Review of The White Sniper: Simo Hayha by Tapio Saarelainen

Like a lot of reviewers, I struggle with objectively reviewing a book vs. injecting strong emotion, and more terribly, expectation. With Tapio Saarelainen's biography of Simo Hayha, The White Sniper (2016), that conflict came front and center. I will start with what I was hoping for, and follow up with what it is.

With The White Sniper, I was hoping for a biography that told stories of the Finnish winters of World War II through the eyes of its most lethal sniper, while digging into the psyche of a man who could calculatedly, coldly kill hundreds of people one by one. What effect did that have later in life when the war was over and “normal life” returned? Was he a soldier doing his duty, did it extend from a place deeper, or something else? And the war stories, of the hundreds of kills, surely some must have happened in unique circumstances, or unraveled in unplanned fashion—the stuff of drama which can make for good historical reading. Most war stories happening on the front lines or back at the base, rarely do we get a look into the quieter sides of war, like sniping.

Saturday, February 13, 2021

Review of Paradise Sky by Joe Lansdale

Different writers are to be read for different reasons, and with Joe Lansdale it's a combination of style and edge. I almost wrote 'plot' instead of 'edge' , but upon closer examination it's larger, the qualities—the edge—of dialogue, story, and character which draw the reader's attention and have them bought into what are could be standard story entrees—tragedy, revenge, drama, mystery, etc. Paradise Sky, Lansdale's 2015 western, is a steak knife, sharpened to a bleeding edge.

Paradise Sky is the story of Willy Jackson. Set in East Texas a couple years after the Civil War, Willy is a young black man trying to make it as a farmer when he runs into a little bad luck on the way home from the store after having a gander at the figure of a lady hanging wash. Her husband not pleased at Willy's wandering eyes, he gives chase with a noose, and Willy goes on the run. Tragedy ensuing, the young man is forced out of his town and on the road. With little to his name except an old horse and a busted revolver, Willy's luck improves shortly thereafter, and he learns the ways of the world. Good luck not lasting forever, however, it isn't long before the winds change again, and every bit of learning, plus a little good instinct, is needed to stay alive.

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Review of Graveyard Shift and Other Stories by Stephen King

It's probably quite fair to say that in the 70s, few if any people were thinking Stephen King would become a franchise, a thing unto itself in the publishing industry. I doubt there are many in not only the US but the globalized world who have not heard of the man. But with one of his first collections, Graveyard Shift and Other Stories, it's tough to tell.

The titular story kicks this short collection off. Classic (in my opinion completely vanilla) horror, “Graveyard Shift” tells of the crew and foreman working the night shift at an aging mill. Rats in the floorboards, all hell breaks loose when cleaning time comes and the men need to go below floor. King shows a little of the flair that would go on to make him literally a household name, nevertheless, this cannot stop the story from feeling like cheap television. Another cheap bit of content, “The Man Who Loved Flowers” at least does a good job of setting the reader up, then pulling the rug out from under their feet. For those who make it to the rug, gotcha! And that's it...

Review of The Bounty Hunter Wars trilogy by K.W. Jeter

Note: this review is not for a single book, rather for the three novels, The Mandalorian Armor, Slave Ship, and Hard Merchandise, which comprise the Bounty Hunter Wars trilogy. I will not be spoiling any of the details of the latter novels in the course of the review.

About the same time Star Wars: A New Hope hit the big screen, George Lucas opened the gates to tie-in fiction. Relatively unknown and with not many examples, a couple decades later things changed with the publication of the Thrawn trilogy—episodes VII, VIII, and IX in novel form by Timothy Zahn. Evolving the Star Wars storyline in wholly organic fashion yet remaining faithful to the characters and ideas that made the movies so popular, tie-in fiction took hold and the universe exploded on paper. Numerous authors and projects were commissioned thereafter, including K.W. Jeter to write a trilogy about Boba Fett, now known as The Bounty Hunter Wars trilogy: The Mandalorian Armor (1998), Slave Ship (2001), and Hard Merchandise (2002).

Friday, February 5, 2021

Review of The Thicket by Joe Lansdale

Despite that more than a century has passed since the wild west was the wild west, stories set in the era continue to put asses in the seats—perhaps not in the same numbers as a few decades ago, but there isn't a year that goes by that the western genre sees participants across all media. Coming at the reader with bbq sauce dialogue, a hand of jacks, deuces, and kings as characters, and an undeniable authorial voice is Joe Lansdale's The Thicket (2013).

Tarantino with a splash of Cormac McCarthy and Texas drawl, The Thicket tells the coming-of-age story of sixteen-year old Jack Parker after his family is hit with one piece of bad luck after another. A pox descending upon Jack's town at the outset, it quickly takes his mother and father, leaving him to abandon his family farm with his grandfather and younger sister to start a new life elsewhere. Tragedy besetting their journey, Jack is left alone, burning red with revenge. A classic Western setup, what follows is a bloody manhunt that sees Jack collect a hard-edged, unlikely set of characters who have their own stake in the game.

Console Corner: Review of Star Wars: Squadrons

Note: This review will be for the Squadrons single-player campaign only, no comments on multi-player.

I am of the Nintendo generation, a console I received at age twelve and played for several years. I eventually also bought a Sega Genesis, but around the same time I also received my first desktop computer (Windows 3.0!!) While I did use it for word processing and other school related activities, for sure it was also used for games—Dangerous Dave, Corridor 7, Commander Keen, Wolfenstein 3D, etc. I also played X-Wing. And while lamented the simple graphics, they didn't stop me from completing the game. (I still distinctly remember beating the whole game without cheat codes, except the final, f#$%ing Death Star trench run. Damn trench run...) Twenty-five years and multiple generations of Windows later, X-Wings are finally back in video games, this time in EA's Star Wars: Squadrons.

An arcade dogfighter, Squadrons takes advantage of the Star Wars universe by putting players in the cockpits of eight famous Rebel and Empire ships. From X-Wings to TIE Fighters, Y-Wings to TIE Bombers, and four more, players take pilot roles on both sides of the fight throughout the single player campaign. The prologue is set in the middle of Star Wars: A New Hope, but the remainder of the story takes place just after Return of the Jedi as the Rebels look to clean the galaxy of what remains of the Empire. The story bouncing back and forth between sides, the player gets access to different ships and more powerful weapons as things progress. Escalating nicely, the campaign gives players a strong taste of what the game has to offer should they want to move to multi-player where I imagine the competition gets even fiercer.

Monday, February 1, 2021

Review of Hogfather by Terry Pratchett

There is the internal smile of appreciation. There is the light chuckle to one’s self. There is delightful giggling inside. All of these happen reading Terry Pratchett. The meta-mixing. The word play. The authorial voice. The double-entendres. The slap-stick. And there is the laugh out loud funny—moments that cause the reader to break the sacred silence of reading with actual-to-goodness, honest mirth. Certainly there are many Discworld books which have caused me to break this “fourth wall”, but perhaps none as much as Hogfather (1996).

In the days leading up to Hogswatchnight (the Disc’s equivalent of Christmas) in Ankhmorpork, things seem to be going as normal, that is, until a mysterious… thing shows up at the Assassin’s Guild with a massive sum of money in hand, and the most unique target whom they want dead. But things come off smoothly to the public, at least initially. With Death assuming the role of the Hogfather in the jolly man’s absence, children’s holiday wishes are heard, gifts are delivered, and the world seems to go round. Until it doesn’t. Susan Sto Helit hot on the trail of just where the Hogfather has been taken and getting to the bottom of who wants the Hogfather eliminated is an adventure that could only come from the pen of Terry Pratchett.

Friday, January 29, 2021

Review of Tiamat's Wrath by James S.A. Corey

It’s here, the penultimate tale in the Expanse novels, 2019’s Tiamat’s Wrath. Picking up where the wild swing of Persepolis Rising left off, the novel doubles down on the crew of the Rocinante in old age and their fight against the authoritarian Laconian government which would have the human universe conform to its rule.

Tiamat’s Wrath opens with the crew of the Rocinante still scattered. Jim remains captive on Laconia, but is in daily contact with Dr. Cortazar, passing on what he knows about the protomolecule while sowing seeds of knowledge of his own. Naomi, in an attempt to deal with Jim’s absence, has taken a passive role in the resistance, while Bobbie plays the active role plotting sabotage, and more. Not seen since Cibola Burn, Elvi Okoye returns, this time as chief science officer aboard a Laconian military ship investigating the warp gates. And newly introduced to the series is Winston Duarte’s fourteen-year old daughter, Teresa. Highly intelligent, both in IQ and EQ, she is being groomed by her autocrat father to someday be leader. Little does he know, however, the effect his tight grip on her upbringing will have.

Console Corner: Review of Figment

If a video game can be likened to a kitchen, then there are a finite number of ingredients which can be combined, in various proportions, to make a near infinite variety of foods. After all, flour and egg alone can produce a number of unique dishes. At the risk of being wholly cliché, the same is true with video games. Graphics, sound, gameplay, etc. are ingredients each designer decides how to combine, and in what proportions. Bedtime Digital Game’s Figment (2017) would therefore be crème brulee with raspberry sauce—quick, sweet, and tasty.

Figment’s prologue features a family riding in a car, when suddenly there is an accident. The events not directly seen, players are given a first-person view to only the auditory aspects of the conversation leading up to the crash from the perspective of the child riding in the backseat. After, the game proper kicks off. Dropped into a strange cartoon land, players quickly realize they are inside the mind of the child as they fight for consciousness. Taking on the role of Dusty and his faithful sidekick Piper, the player then puzzles, and occasionally fights, their way through the cobwebs of the unconscious, trying to wake up.

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Review of Persepolis Rising by James S.A. Corey

Hang on to your boots: Persepolis Rising (2017), seventh book in the Expanse series, takes readers a place they never would have expected upon the conclusion of Babylon’s Ashes: thirty years in the future. The time gap allowing events put in motion in previous novels the chance to blossom, indeed the solar system is turned upside down—but I’m not sure ‘blossom’ is the right metaphor.

Amos has gray at the edges. Alex is balding and looking in the rearview at a second failed marriage. And Holden and Naomi are retiring, handing the reins of the equaling aging Rocinante over to Bobbi. What is going on here? With humanity flung to the far reaches of space through the warp gates, colonies have begun to thrive, and establish governments of their own. The Earth has begun to re-establish normalcy after being decimated by meteors. Drummer is the leader of the Transport Union, an organization that has gone down the road of many large-scale organizations with time: bureaucracy. And there is still another group which has evolved: Admiral Winston Duarte’s band of breakaway Martians, and the protomolecule they stole. Evolved, in this case, is figurative and literal.

Saturday, January 23, 2021

Review of Re-Coil by J.T. Nicholas

Short Review: Altered Carbon with zombies… for better or worse.

Longer Review: It’s the future, and humanity has achieved near immortality through the transfer of sentience and memory to new bodies—coils. Death is just a blip on the mental radar. Carter Langston is a space salvager, working on the crew of a small ship when they discover what seems to be an abandoned ship in the inner solar system. The operation goes smoothly, until it doesn’t, and Langston finds himself waking in the body of a new coil. His last backup having happened before the crew left station, Langston is unaware of what happened, only that there is a gap. When an assassin comes knocking, however, the gap urgently seems worth investigating.

Well-paced, nicely structured, and featuring straight-forward diction, J.T. Nicholas' Re-Coil (2020) is genre, consumable science fiction that deploys its devices well. Readers looking for escape will find it in Langston’s space opera adventure. If a sophisticated look at the meaning of existence in a world where corporality has become a commodity is your aim, you will need to look elsewhere. Zombies requiring blasting are here.

Monday, January 18, 2021

Review of Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi

The past centuries of book publishing in the Western world has seen a slow but steady expansion. The point we’re at now is barely recognizable from the era it began. Where novels were once extremely limited by literacy, class, and publishing possibilities, they are today a ubiquitous item available to anybody (libraries, people!) in quantities it is literally impossible for any one person to even make a significant dent in reading the entirety of. With globalization, this has likewise meant a massive cross-pollination. It is only possible in the past few decades that books like Ahmed Saadawi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad (2014) can be made available to the wider, global audience. Having read the book, I’d like to think the globe is better off for it.

Frankenstein in Baghdad focuses on the lives of a handful of people living in the titular city in the early 2000s after Western forces have taken control of Iraq. Things kick off with a bomb blast, a blast which sends these people’s lives spinning in different directions. The handful come and go, meaning the majority of the book focuses on Hadi. A junk dealer before the blast, he becomes a body-part collector after, eventually assembling his collection into something more. A strong secondary character is a journalist who finds himself not only with the task of reporting on a series of inexplicable murders, but also in a surprisingly newfound position of power at his publication—his boss’s actions just as much an inexplicable mystery. With American soldiers on the streets, locals living in uncertainty, and society, economics, politics, and power in a massive state of flux, what role does a man pieced together from body parts have to play?

Cardboard Corner: Review of Colt Express

For those so inclined, there are board games which feature endless pages of rules. Tediously complex, such games capture the interest of deep, multi-layered thinkers, people who like to sit quietly around the table, strategizing, min-maxing, and sweating out the best move. Then there is Colt Express.

BAM! CRASH! POW! In the best, cartoonish sense, Colt Express sees players taking on the role of bandits robbing a train, fighting each other and the marshal to see who gets the most loot. An action-programming game, players take turns playing cards from their hands until a number of turns have been taken (varies, depending on the round card), and once completed, the cards are revealed one by one and the actions on them taken. Go up to the roof of the carriage, punch a bandit, move ahead, grab some loot, shoot a bandit, swing and miss, run into the marshal and get knocked to the roof—on the surface it seems beautiful chaos. Bam! Crash! Pow! Thus, for as much as you can see what action cards other players are playing and react accordingly, there is still that wonderful, fun-inducing element of chaos when you forget or make a wrong move that throws a wrench in the works in the most delightfully fun of ways. Another way of saying this is, if you are a person who sours seeing your best laid plans destroyed, don’t buy Colt Express. Your dreams will certainly be destroyed once, if not more often, a game. If, however, you see the comedy and fun in knocking you and a couple friends or family around a train as you desperately try to grab bags of money and jewels, then this is a game for you.

Friday, January 15, 2021

Review of Qualityland by Marc-Uwe Kling

Tired of getting online advertisements tailored to your previous searches? Tired of having your hobbies quantified by algorithms like they know you best? Tired of the media and politics curated by user groups prior to publication? Tired of Terminator sequels? Check out Marc-Uwe Kling’s 2020 Qualityland, this is the pink dolphin dildo jazz to blow your 2020 blues away.

The love child of Nineteen Eighty-four and Slaughterouse-Five after they made love in a global, corporate 2020 bed, Qualityland is the story of Peter Jobless, and the trouble he gets into trying to return an item that his super-Amazon equivalent has deemed he needed based on his user profile. Society delineated along Facebook, social profile lines, the Queen’s aristocracy this is not, rather the newer, deceptively scarier version in which even dating has been commoditized. Peter's journey taking him from the backrooms of his scrap robot workshop to the screens of daytime television talk shows, it's proves a tough thing to return an item.

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Review of The Vanished Birds by Simon Jimenez

A phrase I picked up, unfortunately later in my reviewing “career”, is: “When everything is possible, nothing is interesting.” A debilitating aspect of many fantasy novels, there is real value in working with a select few items to build a story's panoply, allowing character, style, and theme to fill the vast spaces between. In The Vanished Birds (2020), debut novel by Simon Jimenez, ever thing is possible—not quite, but almost, which is a shame considering character, style, and theme are strong.

The Vanished Birds is a space opera-esque story, focusing on a handful of people trying to sort out their personal lives in a colonial—not colonized—universe (gotta get creds with the post-mods, natch). The majority focuses on Nia Imani, a space ship captain who makes a most interesting discovery, not in the freight she and crew deliver, but in the form of a teen. The relationships and quests for identity of Imani, her crew, the teen, as well as the people Imani left behind at her home world drive these stories across the universe.

Cardboard Corner: Review of Mice & Mystics Expansion: Downwood Tales

Note: You need the base game Mice & Mystics to play its expansion Downwood Tales.

Mice & Mystics is a game beloved by thousands and thousands of families. Reprinted numerous times in its lifetime, the game goes in and out of stock as more people discover it. But for as charismatic as the heroes are, for as satisfying as the overarching story is, and for as wonderful as the production is, it is not a perfect gaming experience. Playing M&M for an extended period makes it apparent that the minion encounters are repetitive; they detract from rather than contribute to the unique experience each chapter brings. The second expansion to Mice & Mystics, called Downwood Tales, fixes this aspect, then heaps on a whole lot more.

In a word, Downwood Tales doubles the number of enemies, heroes, skill cards, ability cards, terrain tiles, and stories available in the base game, then adds more. Another way of looking at this is: Downwood Tales has more in the box—and the base game already had a lot. Let’s look a little closer—just a little closer—what that is.

Monday, January 11, 2021

Review of The Arrest by Jonathan Lethem

Despite growing up in one of the most populated cities on Earth, Jonathan Lethem has largely been a literary fringe walker. From his criticism of mainstream science fiction to the stories which, regardless of quality, back up that criticism and are at least original, the writer has consciously kept himself a degree apart. It's the presence of this degree in Lethem's 2020 offering, The Arrest, which will have readers once again putting the book down with disappointment, or turning the pages with interest.

Roger Zelazny meets Rudy Rucker, The Arrest is their suitably odd offspring. Set largely in pastoral, post-apocalyptic Maine, all technology has ceased functioning after the unexplained, titular event. The event forcing people back to the land, readers are introduced to the main character Journeyman as he sets off on a walk to talk with a distant neighbor—their version of a phone call or SMS. Journeyman's agrarian community brought to the forefront in the pages that follow, Lethem also takes readers back to the man's pre-Arrest days in LA, writing film scripts with his loquacious partner, Peter Todbaum. Todbaum soon enough makes an appearance in Maine, driving, of all things, a burrowing, nuclear-powered, coffee-brewing, super machine he calls the Blue Streak. Journeyman's organic community shaken by Todbaum's “nuclear” arrival, things (proverbially) are never the same.

Wednesday, January 6, 2021

Best of 2020's Books

I would definitely stop short of calling 2020 a landslide or watershed year. Those types of changes are perhaps possible to identify only in the context of history. But I would definitely say it was a good year from a speculative fiction perspective, at least of the fourteen books I read published in the year. Most interesting perhaps, is that it was a good year despite the utter dilution and saturation of the market. (Question to self: does this only mean I’m getting better at filtering the fluff?)

Where in years past I’ve struggled to find a book that could qualify for “best of”, in 2020 I read several contenders throughout the year. Cutting a fiery line through much of the contemporary feminist fog (i.e. lack of global, cohesive vision) is Lauren Beukes’ Afterland. The setting a post-apocalyptic, all-female society, the book tells of a woman and her “daughter” looking to escape personal troubles in a world reeling from the loss of men. M. John Harrison’s The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again is a subtly phenomenal novel. Ostensibly the personal stories of a couple with subconscious, existential issues, slowly the landscape around them shifts and trembles in delicate ways, buoying them to new places. Harrison’s prose is sublime.