Friday, December 31, 2021

Best Books of 2021

Some how, some way, I ended up reading twenty-four books published in 2021, seventeen novels/novellas, and seven anthologies/collections. But I struggled in selecting the best of the year—not for lack of reading, but for lack of contenders. Nothing stuck out, There was a clear best anthology/collection, but nothing 'timeless' in novel/novella form. I flirted with the idea of 'No Award'. and as the end of the year approached, I thought about lowering my expectations. But ultimately I decided to go with one award. Forgetting about length and form, I went with just 'Book of the Year'.

But before getting to the best book, I'd like to sneak in an honorable mention. All of the books below are fiction from 2021, but I would like to call out John McWhorter's non-fiction Woke Racism. Addressing a key factor in the culture wars of the West today, McWhorter's book coherently, respectfully, and practically delineates a position that, if adopted by more people on the extremes of right and left, would reduce much of the nonsense and violence happening today. While the connection may not immediately seem apparent, McWhorter boils down “wokeness” to its component parts, and lo and behold they are akin to religious dogma—which goes a long way toward helping the average, intelligent person's understanding of what is happening in the media and in society today around “racism”, CRT, intersectionality, etc. If you are interested in racism and “racism” in the 21 st century, particularly a view which does not result in victimhood or discrimination, try Woke Racism. And now, on to the book of the year—the fiction book of the year.

Wednesday, December 29, 2021

Culture Corner: Ignorance Is Not Bliss: A Critique of Education in the US

I am an American. Born and raised, I spent my first twenty-three years in pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness. Wanting to see the world, I started traveling, and for the last twenty years I have not lived in the US, save the odd year here or there. Australia, Poland, Czech Republic, China, these and a couple other countries have been homes—not tourist destinations, homes. Less than twenty-three years, yes, but I have spent enough time in these other places to get a good feel for how people live elsewhere. Naturally, my upbringing has been put in a different perspective.

And it is with sadness and condescension I look at the US as of 2021. Family, friends, and places of value to me are caught in whirlwind of information and disinformation. How to tell the difference? That, my friends, is where a person's education becomes extremely important. Ignorance at the political level is not bliss (unless, of course, you are a dictator).

Tuesday, December 28, 2021

Review of Bloodheir by Brian Ruckley

Bloodheir (2008), like The Two Towers and some other trilogy bridge books, is difficult to review. It carries forward the story begun in Winterbirth, but doesn't stand on its own. It works only in context.

Bloodheir carries forward the Godless World story at exactly the point Winterbirth left off. And it does so in extremely consistent, just-as-enjoyable fashion. Like Tolkien, it's clear Ruckley wrote the three books as part of one, long story. At the most basic level, if you enjoyed Winterbirth and were looking to go deeper into the characters and world, then Bloodheir fully delivers.

Monday, December 27, 2021

Review of Bewilderment by Richard Powers

Like many people, I stand by, curious and confused by what is happening in the world today. Social media seeming to have not only opened a window into the dark side of humanity (at least the USA), it also seems to feed it. The global population having crested seven billion and on its way to eight, and with environmental issues becoming ever more concerning, social media makes it difficult to find shelter in the storm—a safe harbor where some sense of factual stability can be found. Looking at this situation through a character portrayal is Richard Power's Bewilderment (2021).

Bewilderment is the story of father-son duo Theo and Robin (Robbie) Byrne. Robin on the autistic spectrum, his challenges in school are exacerbated by the recent death of his beloved mother in a car crash. With difficulties fitting in already, her death gives rise to further challenges, emotional and logical, for the boy. Theo is an astrobiologist. Using the latest in astronomical data, he works to posit the different forms of environment, and as a result life that could/might exist on the planets which deep space telescopes discover. His work filled with imagination and creativity backed by science, he likewise works with Robbie, trying to balance the boy's happiness with events in the wider world. Child rearing proves the more challenging job. But can an experimental new technology help his son?

Wednesday, December 22, 2021

Review of Winterbirth by Brian Ruckley

Different books provide different feelings—and I don't mean the emotions stories draw out of you. Passion project, arte nouveau, winging it, trying to earn a dime—each piece of writing provides a subjective feel as to its origin. Why did the writer choose to spend X days/months/years of their life putting this story to paper? With Brian Ruckley's Godless World trilogy, led off by the novel Winterbirth (2006), the answer seems: to see an idea that had been taking shape and building structure in the author's mind for years, to finally to bloom to life on the page for other readers to take advantage.

While technically epic fantasy, Winterbirth feels more akin to historical fiction. Playing out across a complex society set in a version of northern Britain, the clans battle for honor with a sense of realism that is more like Bernard Cornwell than Robert Jordan. George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire is an extremely fair comparison (save that Ruckley has completed his series, and done so in consistent, contained fashion). The underlying motivations for each character, regardless which clan they fight for, feels proper. There initially seem good guys, bad guys, and those in between.  Indeed, there are a couple who never achieve status beyond caricature. But as the story progresses, most all feel in between—more human than the vast majority of epic fantasies on the market.

Monday, December 20, 2021

Console Corner: Review of Oxenfree

There are many fans of the video game Firewatch. A Hitchcockian story built on a walking simulator, players traverse (and re-traverse, and re-traverse, and re-traverse) a national park, uncovering a mystery as they go. For many people the game is a hit. For me, it clicked only at the level of understanding. Satisfaction and enjoyment did not follow. There stories are different, but looking at Night School Studio’s 2016 Oxenfree I still see many similarities.

Oxenfree opts for classic horror/paranormal. It tells of a group of teens on a weekend trip to an island with an old military base, now abandoned. (Classic, yes?) Partying on the beach, they discover a nearby cave which is purported to have a supernatural vibe. And indeed, when the main character Alex tunes her radio to specific frequencies, weirdness breaks loose, followed by a blackout. The group of characters wake up scattered around the island, and it becomes the player’s job to reunite them and get to the bottom of the weirdness.

Saturday, December 18, 2021

Non-fiction: Review of From Cradle to Stage: Stories from the Mothers Who Rocked and Raised Rock Stars by Virginia Hanlon Grohl

I think it’s fair to say that every parent, at some point in time, at least daydreams about their child growing up to be a sports star, famous actor, or rock star. We want to believe that we’ve done our jobs to spark our children’s natural talent, and they’ve become a success in the public eye as a result. In 2017, one mother who actually saw her daydreams come true in the form of a rock star son, decided to go to other such mothers and talk about their lives and their musically talented children. From Cradle to Stage: Stories from the Mothers Who Rocked and Raised Rock Stars by Virginia Hanlon Grohl is the result.

From Cradle to Stage is the short biographies of nineteen mothers, and their recollections of raising their musical children. Everything is based on face-to-face interviews performed by Ms. Grohl. (Forgive me for calling her Ms. Grohl, but after reading the book and falling in love with her approach to life and raising Dave, it feels natural to call her as such.) On top of this, scattered throughout the book are Ms. Grohl’s own vignettes describing her life and time being mother to Dave Grohl. (For the unaware, Dave Grohl is the former drummer of Nirvana and now leader of the band Foo Fighters.)

Wednesday, December 15, 2021

Review of A Fine Dark Line by Joe Lansdale

It’s a slow process, but a steady process: coming to the realization Joe Lansdale is one of the most consummate storytellers of the past several decades. Each book a chunk of rich plot and characters with its own idiosyncrasies, I’m approaching the point where I’ll buy a Lansdale book sight unseen. Presenting an ultra-believable vision of 1950s’ life in East Texas, A Fine Dark Line (2002) is a fine dark thriller that keeps the pages churning throughout its colorful story.

Stanley Mitchell is your typical thirteen-year-old boy growing up in a small Texas town, Dumont. Comic books, learning about girls, and riding his bicycle, he helps around his family’s drive-in cinema when he’s not being a boy. But things change one day when he and his older sister discover a tin box full of letters in the woods behind their house. Recounting a love affair between two people identifying themselves by their initials, Stanley learns that one of them would go on to be murdered—at least that is the rumor floating around Dumont. Over the course of the summer, Stanley gets to the bottom of the mystery, but not before embroiling himself in some of the most frightening, scariest backwoods scenes small town Texas has to offer.

Saturday, December 11, 2021

Review of Hard Landing by Algis Budrys

Pierre Boulle’s 1963 novel Planet of the Apes is a classic of science fiction. Hollywood has since wiped a bit of the luster off the book by rendering Boulle’s universe in less rigorous terms, but that should not detract from the commentary inherent to the book. I will not spoil it, save to say there is a strong reciprocity to the relationship between the humans who come from Earth and the apes they find on the planet Soror. Shifting from atavism to the Cold War, Algis Budrys uses his own sense of reciprocity in telling of humanity’s relationship with a certain race of methane-breathing aliens in Hard Landing (1993).

Hard Landing kicks off in classic hardboiled detective style. Apparently falling from above onto railroad tracks, a body is discovered, dead. But during the autopsy, things quickly depart from classic. The doctor on duty discovering highly unusual aspects of the corpse, he quickly sweeps the info under the rug for the media, in turn reporting the situation to American intelligence. The broader situation slowly peeled back, it seems a secret war has been happening on Earth and elsewhere in the galaxy for some time, and important albeit subtle changes are afoot.

Thursday, December 9, 2021

Review of Frost and Fire by Roger Zelazny

There are writers who play in all areas—Ian McDonald, Brian Aldiss, Gene Wolfe, among them. And then, there are writers who work with a limited palette—a palette that rarely changes its colors. Jack Vance, Lois McMaster Bujold, Guy Gavriel Kay, and others all use a template working out their stories. Said template clearly flexible enough to allow for success, they nevertheless can be depended upon to produce something familiar. Roger Zelazny is another writer who flows firmly in this vein. Is his formula successful in short form, i.e. repeated? Let’s look at the collection Frost and Fire (1989).

The collection kicks off strongly with “Permafrost”. Possessing a premise similar to Stephen King’s book The Shining, the story features a man living alone on an Arctic planet overseeing the maintenance facilities through a long winter. Said man a classic Zelazny, he finds a peculiar ice statue in a cave one day, and his personal troubles are revealed. Zelazny working with symbolism nicely through one of the foundation stones of human society (male-female relations), it’s an interesting story at a couple levels, and one of Zelazny’s career best (at least that I’ve read).

Wednesday, December 8, 2021

Review of The Secret of Life by Rudy Rucker

For some it is religious piety. For some ‘age is just a number’. For some it is to party like there is no tomorrow. For some it is do what mom or dad say (sadly). For some the bottle. For some the next big challenge. Undoubtedly there is a litany of other things people hold as dear: the secret to existence. For Rudy Rucker in his 1985 novel The Secret of Life, it is something more alien, and oddly enough, still very human.

The Secret of Life is the coming-of-age of one Conrad Bunger in the 1960s. An impulsive yet inquisitive teen, Conrad spends his time popping zits, doing his best to fit in despite his awkward personality, chase girls, and otherwise physically survive the accidents of fun and adventure he puts his body through. Conrad also has an abiding interest in existence, particularly of the French, Sartrean, existential variety, specifically raison d’etre (natch). The thought strikes him one day that life is meaningless, and thus he makes it his (admittedly young) life’s ambition to find meaning. A few years of sex, drugs, and college later, he discovers something about himself that is so profound that it changes the very shape of the question. Or does it?

Sunday, December 5, 2021

Review of Terminal Boredom by Suzuki Izumi

I get a glint in my eye seeing that a book, a book with several years under its belt, will be translated into English. It means many people believe it still has value. It’s passed the test: Worthy of Time. This is why Suzuki Izumi’s collection of short stories Terminal Boredom, originally published in 1980 and revived in English in 2021, brought a glint. Having finished the collection, the glint should have been a lightning storm.

Terminal Boredom kicks off with a story that ironically feels more at home in 2021 than when it was originally published decades ago. “Women and Women” describes one young teen’s experiences in a matriarchal utopia. Reproduction controlled at specific locations, men are born but kept in lockdown, and as a result only women form society. Very much a precursor to Lauren Beukes’ Motherland and other such contemporary stories, Suzuki explores the idea of a world without men. Though a large topic, the story manages to feel greater than the number of its pages, and gets the collection moving forward in meaty, down-to-Earth fashion: I’m not afraid to address major issues but will keep both feet on the ground.

Saturday, December 4, 2021

Review of Feet of Clay by Terry Pratchett

There are some writers that every once and while you just crave a slice. There are a few on that list for me, and one is certainly Terry Pratchett. You know what you’re going to get, at the same time you don’t know what you’re going to get. You know there will be clever humor of all varieties. You know there will be imagination galore. And you know the Disc will continue to be revealed in all its kooky glory. Last week I had a hankering and went for a slice of Pratchett pie—Feet of Clay (1996) the flavor.

A threat is looming in Ankh-Morpork. First one corpse appears, then another, then another. Each of the bodies bludgeoned in some fashion, the Night’s Watch is called in to investigate—and their detecting skills only become more valuable as further bodies stack up. Captain Vimes hires a new detective, the dwarf Cheery Longbottom, to get to the bottom of things. Meanwhile, a small army of golems has been mysteriously activated, appearing at odd times in Ankh-Morpork and causing trouble. And if all this is not bad enough, someone has poisoned the city’s leader, Lord Vetinari. Are all these events linked in some fashion? The Night’s Watch has their work cut out for them.

Thursday, December 2, 2021

Non-fiction: Review of The Feather Thief by Nick Johnson

Growing up, it was not strange for my father to suddenly pull our family’s vehicle over to the side of the road and pick up a dead bird. Usually partridge, but sometimes quail or other birds spending a lot of time on the ground, he would gently pick them up, put them in a bag or whatever was available, and take them home. Not a morbid fetish or indicator of psychopathy, he had an intended use: the brightly colored plumage to tie flies for trout fishing. Every spring, just before fishing season kicked into gear, he would get his special wooden box out of the closet, set up a vice at the kitchen table, and tie flies until all hours of the night, selecting many of the needed ingredients from the birds he’d found on the road. Looking at the extremes to which this hobby is taken in the real world in utterly fascinating fashion is Nick Johnson’s The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century (2018).

The Feather Thief is the real-life story of Edwin Rist. And what a story it is. An American flautist with dreams of playing in the world’s most elite orchestras, he also had a side hobby, the mother of all passions really, of tying fishing flies. Discovering the art of faux flies at an early age, he fell in love with the colors and shapes, and by default the material and ingredients needed to make them, namely different types of feathers. The more exotic the more artistic/prestigious, Rist eventually fell into collecting, buying, and selling expensive feathers on the global market. Through all of this, he achieved world fame tying flies at a very young age. Unfortunately, it was also an age when the blindness and immaturity of youth led him to take a fateful decision: to rob the British Museum of Natural History of some of its most prized bird specimens.

Cardboard Corner: Review of The Cave

There are moments that I perceive my wife to be in some kind of unwritten, unadvertised competition with herself as the only competitor—who is the best at packing for a trip, for example. The demons of necessity and forgetfulness pursuing her, there is high tension ensuring every possible, needed thing is not only packed away, but packed efficiently such that no tiny space in our luggage is wasted. In Adam Kałuża’s The Cave (2012), she finally has a chance against real competitors—the possibility for a few hours of virtual underground exploration the icing on the cake.

A game for 2-5, The Cave sees players exploring a modular cave, trying to collect the most points in the process. Resource and action management key to winning, players must use the limited items they bring with them over a finite number of actions to: take photos of beautiful rock formations, explore underwater pools, squeeze through tight spaces, set up camp, and traverse the lowest depths possible—each activity having its own variety of inherent points. Being modular, each game evolves in its own directions, the final board state looking different than any previous game. Thus if players find the rule set engaging, the possibilities for exploration are endless.

Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Review of The Incarnation of Making by Tom McCarthy

Like some people watch football or baseball, I regularly watch an esport called Starcraft 2. Called a ‘real-time strategy’ game, players make reactive and proactive decisions on the fly while building the right army to attack and defeat their opponent. Gameplay is typically divided into two parts: micro and macro. Micro is the player’s ability to control their army in real time—engaging, retreating, selecting individual units and groups of units to attack and defend, and so on. Macro is the broader picture, the strategic decisions above the real-time decisions that players make toward victory—which units to construct and in what quantity, how to prioritize economy vs military, how to disguise certain activities to fool the other player, etc. In Tom McCarthy’s 2021 The Incarnation of Making the overarching concept is a micro vs. macro affair.

After such intros, I normally jump to a quick plot summary. But there is no story per se in The Incarnation of Making. For lack of a better metaphor, it can feel like channel surfing on valium, with the occasional channel playing the same movie.

Thursday, November 25, 2021

Review of Last Summer at Mars Hill by Elizabeth Hand

I have read a huge swathe of Elizabeth Hand's ouevre. She keeps producing tasty meals, and I keep devouring them. But for whatever reason, her first collection, Last Summer at Mars Hill (1997), eluded me for years. That has been remedied. And it makes me wonder whether she was born a chef.

The collection kicks off with the title story—a novella actually, “Last Summer at Mars Hill”. A poignant, soft-spoken story, it tells of a pair of teens, Moony and Jason, and their last summer vacation before university. Terminal illness, mysticism, painters, hippies, and the Maine coast all featured, the story ultimately pulls gently but firmly on the heartstrings without resorting to cheap drama. (Longer review here.) A tale of faery (maybe even phaery), “The Erl-King” is a jungle of a story with exotic animals, the ethereal, and an occasional Texas accent. And it only gets wilder. Ambitious, I daresay it's not as mature as later Hand novellas but at least keep the dynamic meter spinning. A hard-edged, angry thriller, “Justice” tells of a journalist investigating mutilated hogs in a farmer's field in Oklahoma. Uncovering more than she ever expected, she finds a whodunnit, but it's certainly not the serial killer she expected. It’s strange that I wish this story did not have fantastical elements...

Wednesday, November 24, 2021

Non-Fiction: Review of Mars Rover Curiosity: An Inside Account from Curiosity's Chief Engineer by Rob Manning & William Simon

When I'm not in the phone booth, putting on my super hero blogger costume, I work in the business world. My Peter Parker persona is involved with IT operations and budgets, resource management and projects. Ahh, projects. Those finite loops of effort that, in theory, bring about a new means to... something. In the case of the Mars rover Curiosity it was the means to directly drill, extract, and analyze Martian rock over multiple points on the planetary surface. All it took was a ten year, multi-billion dollar effort to put the most sophisticated technology humans have on the red planet. Hats off, now that's a project—and something fascinating to digest the details of in Rob Manning and William Simon's book Mars Rover Curiosity: An Inside Account from Curiosity's Chief Engineer (2017).

To review the content of Mars Rover Curiosity in detail feels like a spoiler. Its truly best read on the page. What I can say is that Manning and Simon do a good job covering the project, from pre- to post- from multiple perspectives. There is, of course, the technical perspective, which will have nerds doing what nerds do reading of the highly unique gadgets and gears implemented in the rover. If there were somehow a measure of content, tech might have a slight majority.

Starcraft 2: Greatest Match of All Time

Since 2018, most fans of SC2 have been waiting and waiting for the Maru–Serral showdown. And while the two have faced each other a few times, none never seemed to be 'the match'. There was a best of 1 at GSL vs. World. There were a few group stage meetings, and a couple Ro8s. Maru's wrists weren't in good condition, the meta-wasn't right, there wasn't a lot at stake, Serral wasn't his normal self... a lot of reasons why the match fans wanted never took place. But finally, as of yesterday, we've got it. The Maru-Serral showdown fans have been waiting for, and it produced the greatest sc2 match EVER. Yes, capital letters-worthy. Let's set the stage.

The Players

2021 has been a good year for Serral. While he doesn't have the hardware that he racked up in 2018, he has arguably been playing at a higher level. SC2 is now better balanced, and many players have finally caught up, pushing him to somehow be even better. The past few tournaments have seen extremely dominant runs by Serral—literally over the world's best players. He has finished top-two in all four premiere tournaments he played in, winning two of them. Maru's 2021 has also not been the same year as his 2018. It's difficult to top winning four GSLs in a row. But it's clear this year his career is once again on the upswing. He has been top-four in six premiere tournaments, with runner up twice, and winning one. His major-class tournament victory, given the best in the world were his competition, should also be considered: ASUS ROG. Overall, he has regularly shown this year the form people would call Just play like Maru. And finally, as of the writing of this article, Serral and Maru are ranked number one and two in the world, respectively, on Aligulac.

When the dust is settled on Starcraft 2, and fans are arguing who was the greatest of all time, undoubtedly Maru and Serral's names will be discussed to the very last moments. What better way to fuel that conversation than put them into an important match with both playing their absolute best?

The Arena

The arena was the King of Battles tournament. Unfortunately online, the maps had to bounce back and forth between the Americas West and North servers in order to keep ping fair. It was early-early in the morning for Maru and evening for Serral. Both players had come out top in their groups; Maru did not drop a map, while Serral dropped two. In the bracket, however, things reversed. Maru dropped a couple of maps, and struggled to put away a fighting Dark in the semis, but did. Serral, on the other hand, breezed through the bracket. After playing two Bo5s each that day, that left the duo fighting for the final spot in the tournament: the winner.

Prior to the King of Battles, Serral and Maru had played each other a total of eight times (according to aligulac). One Bo1 and the remainder a mix of Bo3s and Bo5s, Serral held the edge in terms of victories (6-2), but the score is a more even in terms of maps (12-8). They had not, however, played a Bo7. The King of Battles grand final was a Bo7. The only way to raise those stakes is make it a Blizzcon final. If a grand finals Bo7 is not the place to have the Maru-Serral showdown, then I don't know what is.

The Match

I will not go over the match in detail, nor will I tell you who won. What I will tell you is that the match had almost, if not, everything. Short, long, micro, macro, early game, mid game, late game—I would guess viewers were able to see, at some point in time, every unit, upgrade, and spell that SC2 offers terran and zerg. You want massive, late-game clashes with huge, complex armies? Serral and Maru put on a clinic. You want nail-biters for which supply is no indicator of eventual victor? You should wear gloves. You want matches which are so high level that the macro management of economy (as opposed to purely army production and control) proves to be the decider in key maps? Get out your calculator, nerd. You want games which shift momentum multiple times? Make sure your head is screwed on tight (good advice, regardless). Add to this all the weight of expectation fans have, and you've got the perfect marriage of hype and reality. The two performed to the top of their ability, and we the viewers reaped every reward. Two days later and I'm still raving.

I have watched thousands of SC2 matches. Several times per year I walk away thinking: OMG, that was an awesome match worthy of the annals of the game. Never have I thought: it can't get better than that. But with this match it happened: That is the pinnacle of SC2. It can't get better.

Go ahead. Do it. Type “greatest sc2 match ever” into YouTube's search box and see what you get. Watch the top hits, come back, tell me what you think. Then watch this match.

Without further ado, here is the link. Good luck to all of us that such a match can somehow be topped.

Monday, November 22, 2021

Review of First Person Singular by Haruki Murakami

I'm always a bit skeptical when hearing of a writer attempting to work within the realms of both fiction and non-fiction together. Have they reached the end of their creative rope and are now desperate for material? Has fame gone to their head and ego now part of their fiction? Such are the worries I have. Ultimately, writers are creative people, and in the case of Haruki Murakami's semi-autobiographical collection of short stories, First Person Singular (2021), my concerns were mislaid.

That being said, the title is appropriate. All of the stories are first person, and though never explicitly stated, Murakami is the viewpoint of each. Comparing them to Murakami's profile, and a number of similarities pop out: classical music, reading/writing, jazz, place of birth, etc. I will not spoil everything, but suffice at saying the stories are definitively not all autobiographical, however. A few things occur in the stories, letting the reader know that things have been dressed up a little. But where, the reader never knows. Thus, all that follows is ostensibly Murakami, but certainly more.

Saturday, November 20, 2021

Review of The Past Is Red by Catherynne Valente

You know it. You've seen it. You've stared at it. People online, on fire about perceived and real problems in the world. You can question their logic but you cannot question their passion. There is something burning inside them, a sense of right that bursts out in emotion. One such outburst is Catherynne Valente's 2021 The Past Is Red (a novel-length treatment of her short “The Future Is Blue”).

As with such emotional displays (and in keeping with the color scheme), The Past Is Red is a fiery blast. In telling the story of Tetley and her life in garbage-world (aka future Earth filled with trash), the reader gets feminism, environmentalism, bildungsroman, psychology, surrealism, and mythpunk (a Valente specialty), all in a setting that is more satire than realist. A chipper, upbeat young lady despite the tragedies around her (trash, distant parents, unloving and disjointed society...), Tetley makes the most of things to find her own crooked way in life.

Console Corner: Review of Black the Fall

There is a lot to like about Limbo, Inside, Little Nightmares, Far: Lone Sails, and other such bite-sized puzzle games. They exercise the brain without overloading it, offering tantalizing glimpses to imaginative places and worlds along the way. Recently Black: The Fall, another such puzzle game, fell on my radar. This time around, however, it's difficult to say what there is to like.

Black: The Fall is precisely in the vein of the games mentioned above. A 2.5D side-scroller, players are tasked with guiding a character, in this case a robot-esque man, through a series of traps and environmental puzzles. Jumping, dashing, activating buttons, and an arm-mounted laser are the tools at your disposal. Die, and you respawn where you left off, the puzzle still in front of you.

Wednesday, November 17, 2021

Review of The River by Peter Heller

As with many, if not most novels in the 21st century, Peter Heller's The Dog Stars was a mix of genres. Post-apocalypse and outdoor survival, Heller nevertheless told a traditional tale of heroism and romance that hearkened back to the golden era of fiction. Continuing in this vein with a more relatable apocalypse is The River (2019).

Best friends Jack and Wynn have set out into the deep wilderness of Canada for a two-week canoe trip. Dropped off in the middle of nowhere, they are surprised to to run into a couple of other parties on the river. They meet a pair of drunk rednecks, who are quickly left behind. But they never have a chance to meet the second pair; only the sound of the couple's argument can be heard carrying through the trees. But nothing prepares them for a forest fire appearing on the horizon. Jack and Wynn outdoor veterans, however, they proceed carefully. But no matter how cautious they are, some things simply cannot be prepared for.

Monday, November 15, 2021

Review of The Midnight Library by Matt Haig

The glass half full or half empty is a common enough cliché. Appreciate what you have or critical of what's absent, it's a litmus statement about a person's view to the world. And, if Matt Haig's 2020 novel The Midnight Library has any say, it's indicative of something much more.

Nora Seed is a woman living in London. Her life largely directionless, she was briefly in a band, chose to study philosophy at uni, and now in her late 20s works in a record shop earning minimum wage. Likewise single, her only companionship are a couple long-distance social media friends and a cat, Voltaire. But even those circumstances are subject to change, and when they do, Seed elects to end it all. Situation is, however, that she never gets a chance to finish the job. Ending up at the midnight library, she has the opportunity to see life in a way we can only imagine.

Sunday, November 14, 2021

Review of Tales of the Sun Eater Vol. 1 by Christopher Ruocchio

I read the majority of Christopher Ruocchio's debut novel Empire of Silence with an eyebrow raised in skepticism. It felt retro. It felt tried-and-true. It felt like it was kicking a dead horse rather than a live one. But by the time I'd finished the +/-700 pages, I was surprised to find I'd somehow been won over. Beach read nothing more, I nevertheless was interested in checking out the second Sun Eater volume when it was published. The sum was more than the parts. So what does that world's first collection (i.e. breaking the world into smaller pieces), Tales of the Sun Eater (2021), have to offer?

Familiar territory, Hadrian Marlowe kicks off the collection in “Demons of Arae”. Commanding an army, he is tasked with suppressing a pirate insurrection on an alien planet. The real enemy, however, has yet to show its “demon” head. First-person Hadrian, the story is very comfortable, if not a little over the top. It does, however, complement certain scenes in Demon in White.

Thursday, November 11, 2021

Culture Corner: Idiocy on the Loose: Kyle Rittenhouse and American Culture

The Kyle Rittenhouse trial is ongoing. We don't yet know the verdict. If I were in Vegas, however, I would lay odds he will be acquitted. As paradoxical as it is, there seems enough evidence to warrant “self-defense”. Such is the state of America.

Right off the bat: get out of here with politics. We're talking about the individual's decision. Who in their right mind thinks: There are riots occurring in the next state. So, I'll strap on my assault rifle, grab a first aid kit, and jump into the fray. Nothing bad will happen, right? Sorry.  Guns and riots don't mix. It's not altruism, it's stupidity. And its stupidity costing two lives that Rittenhouse will likely be acquitted of.

Review of The Crook Factory by Dan Simmons

Dan Simmons has never allowed his creative output to be confined by anything. From horror to science fiction, fantasy to historical fiction, thriller to action, and other areas, you never know what he will produce next. One interesting vein he’s fond of exploring, however, is real author’s lives via fiction. The Fifth Heart looked at William James and Arthur Conan Doyle. Fires of Eden featured Mark Twain. Drood was a take on the demons potentially haunting Charles Dickens. And with The Crook Factory (1999), we have a view to Ernest Hemingway and his double life beyond writing, helping the US government during WWII.

The Crook Factory is a story told by retired FBI agent Joe Lucas. Half Irish and half Mexican, he has used his heritage for a couple successful missions in Latin America. Getting the call from J. Edgar Hoover at the outset of the novel, he receives his newest mission—something so outrageous he almost can’t believe it. His job is to represent the FBI alongside Ernest Hemingway as they do their counter-espionage part to gather information and hinder the Nazis in the Caribbean. What follows is double-agents, colonial cities, palms and parties, and the blue seas between Cuba and Florida.

Monday, November 8, 2021

Review of A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

When you’ve had the best chocolate ice cream you think you've ever had, it puts a new spin on any chocolate ice cream you have later. It can be good, tasty, even highly satisfactory. But there can also be a nagging thought: I’ve had better. Unfortunately for Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad (2010), I’ve been spoiled.

In structure, A Visit from the Goon Squad is like a food web that’s been chopped up and put out of evolutionary sequence. Rather than the line of dominoes most novels are, Goon Squad moves from this animal to that, bouncing over to this phylum and rank a decade ago, then to this species in the future. Each chapter focuses on a new specific person or situation. There are stories of women, men, rich, poor, black, white, young, old, and everything between—a real spectrum of humanity linked in direct fashion (family or friends) or indirect fashion (same time and space or industry).

Saturday, November 6, 2021

Review of The Body Artist by Don DeLillo

I’m about to show off how a real book blogger does it.

The author’s name escapes me as I sit here, but there is one, a famous one from the early 20th century, you know that guy whose name I can’t remember, who said something to the effect “Fiction which does not concern itself with life and death is pointless”. I paraphrase, mightily, but you get the idea. Stories themed beyond mortality do not address the burning question of life, and are therefore of lesser quality. If there is any late 20th century writer who has taken this to heart, it’s Don DeLillo. (Cormac McCarthy also, but this is a DeLillo review, natch.) In his 2001 novel/novella The Body Artist, he brings the idea front and center through the eyes of a performing artist.

The Body Artist is the story of a few months in the life of Lauren Hartke. Married to the famous film director Rey Robles, the story opens with the couple in a quiet but sublimely tense scene over breakfast. More happening than the simple details of toast and coffee, in the next scene, Robles is found dead of suicide in his ex-wife’s apartment. Hartke withdrawing from the world afterwards, she finds solace in an isolated life, that is, until a man reveals himself in the attic one day. Forced to care for the man, Hartke’s life changes directions yet again.

Cardboard Corner: Review of Pandemic

With the COVID situation burning a hole in our understanding of work, society, the world, even existence, what better thing to do than try and relieve some stress by cracking open what many board gamers revere as the granddaddy of all cooperative board games, Pandemic? Is it just what the doctor ordered (har har), or a relic of the past which has since been surpassed by the numerous other coop games on the market today?

In Pandemic, one to five players are charged with finding the cure to a global, viral outbreak. The board a map of the world with major cities interconnected by travel routes, players start by taking on one of five unique roles to fight the virus, then set forth on their globetrotting mission. Set collection combined with action points, players must collectively use their wits to move efficiently around the board knocking back outbreaks, setting up research stations, and collecting the cards necessary to find a cure. There are, after all, three losing conditions compared to only one winning condition.

Wednesday, November 3, 2021

Review of Island Reich by Jack Grimwood

Jon Courtenay Grimwood, aka Jon Grimwood, aka Jack Grimwood, may be the best chameleon in fiction (that you’ve perhaps never seen but perhaps should check out). Publishing multiple novels in and among cyberpunk and fantasy, his full name is his fantastika skin. “Jon” is his skin for realist/historical fiction (at least to date), and “Jack” is the skin he has used for his past two LeCarre-esque novels of Cold War espionage. Through these different names Grimwood has proven himself capable of imagining his way through multiple genres in his own, quality way. The name Jack giving things away here, in 2021 he comes at readers with another subtle spy thriller, Island Reich.

While Island Reich moves like a school of minnows, the central story—the biggest minnow—is Bill O’Hagan. Convicted as a thief just as WWII knocks on Britain’s door, he’s given a choice: hang by the neck or put his skills as a safecracker to use for British intelligence. And so it is that as Hitler invades the Channel Islands, Bill is given the fastest agent training possible and airdropped onto the main island Andernay, there to pose as a British aristocrat while finding and cracking an important safe. To tell the rest is to spoil the story, suffice to say that with elements of the British monarchy, American intelligence, and a tight, tense, a detailed historical setting all coming into play, it’s a thrill. (That O’Hagan is not James Bond likewise lends the story a little realism.)

Saturday, October 30, 2021

Review of Under the Wave at Waimea by Paul Theroux

Regardless whether you loved him or hated him, there is no doubt after finishing Paul Theroux’s The Mosquito Coast that the main character Allie Fox has burned a place in the reader’s memory. Brought to life on the page, his inflammatory character, his petty emotions, his raw intelligence, his dauntless can-do attitude, his sheer humanity are so utterly convincing that he becomes real in the reader’s mind. While I doubt Theroux was attempting to scale that precise mountain again, he nevertheless has succeeded in creating another memorable character portrait in 2021’s Under the Wave at Waimea.

Readers are introduced to ageing surf star Joe Sharkey on a typical day-in-the-life-of. Aged 62, he no longer competes in big surfing events but still looks forward to hitting the waves on the Hawaiian coastline every time the surf’s up. Mango salad for a late breakfast, a day under the sun and in the water, sunset on the beach, and a beer for a nightcap—it’s a good life. But this does not prevent the world from weighing on him. Getting a little tipsy with his girlfriend one evening at a restaurant, the drive home proves to have a surprise. While the impact is not immediately apparent, slowly but surely it whittles away at his psyche. Laid bare is when the real story takes off.

Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Review of Hollywood Fantasies: Ten Surreal Visions of Tinsel Town

When looking at purchasing yesteryear anthologies, I almost always look to the contributing authors rather than theme. Theme a fluid, relative thing, it’s more about the authors’ treatments of it than any central idea that might transcend their efforts. Otherwise, I can’t think of any other way an anthology like Hollywood Fantasies: Ten Surreal Visions of Tinsel Town (1997) makes its way into my reading list. Several of the authors also known to me, was it worth it?

Addressing the Daoist wheel of Hollywood actors through the lens of westerns, Hollywood Fantasies kicks off with “The Never-Ending Western Movie” by Robert Sheckley. It features an ageing western star named Washburn (John Wayne, no?). Recently remarried to a much younger woman, he has signed up for his last big show, his last Western on the silver screen, and so heads on set. Slightly slipstream and wholly western, Sheckley’s sharp, intelligent style exposes one of the darker yet human aspects of Hollywood ego. More a vignette than a story, “Reality Unlimited’ by Robert Silverberg sees a couple attending a new virtual reality exhibition. Proving itself to be ultra-real, it’s so real in fact that it affects the couple. But like a train wreck, can they look away? A story that film connoisseurs will likely appreciate more than casual watchers, “One For The Horrors” by David Schow tells of a small, down-on-its-luck cinema which plays “lost” movies—movies which fell into development hell and were never made. Schow’s effort is a short but erudite piece that has passion and verve.

Sunday, October 24, 2021

Review of Cities of the Plain by Cormac McCarthy

I know the meaning of belles-lettres; but there are times I encounter stories which make me want to translate the phrase literally, “beautiful letters”. Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses was one such story. Romantic in both sentiment and plot, it evoked strong images of the American west while telling the story of a young cowboy learning how warm the tongue yet sharp the teeth of the world can be. It was a pleasure to read. McCarthy’s authorial voice smooth and impeccable, he changed things up a little, however, in the follow up novel, The Crossing, by adding a little grit and worldly wisdom. Bringing these two novels together into a third is 1998’s Cities of the Plain. Does it evoke belles-lettres, add grit, or choose its own path?

John Grady Cole and Billy Parham were the main characters of All the Pretty Horses and The Crossing, respectively. In Cities of the Plain, readers discover their ultimate fates. At the outset, it’s post-WWII 1952 and the two young men work as cowboys on a small farm in New Mexico raising horses. Their industry dying, rumors loom of the government taking their ranch via eminent domain to build an army base. A pall of uncertainty exists over the pair’s lives. Getting by as they can, however, they live simply in their bunkhouse, occasionally going out for a glass of whiskey or horse rides. Things kick off when Cole falls in love with a Mexican prostitute at a brothel just across the border named Magdalena. Trying to fill a void in his life, Cole pursues Magdalena with the help of Parham. It’s a decision which has consequences for everyone involved.

Friday, October 22, 2021

Review of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John le Carre

John le Carre is today (almost) a household name. Even if the millions of books sold has not raised awareness, then it’s likely people are familiar with the several film and television adaptions of his books (The Constant Gardner being the most recognized?). Point blank: you cannot talk about spy novels without mentioning le Carre. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963) is the novel that put his name on the map.

Alec Leaman is a down-on-his-luck British intelligence agent working in Berlin post-WWII, the Cold War in full swing. All of his contacts and potential informants turning up dead, he and his boss eventually decide it’s a good time to return to England and start something new. Blurring the line between reality and playing a role, Leaman is “kicked out” of the agency and forced to enter normal society in an effort to lure certain foreign agents out of the woodwork. The ploy eventually works, but at what cost? And what effect does it have on Cold War politics?

Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Review of The Summer Thieves by Paul Di Filippo

That thimbleful of readers who regularly visit this blog (fist bump!) know that Speculiction is bosom buds with Jack Vance’s fiction. Having completed his oeuvre, there is good, local knowledge of what qualifies as a ‘Jack Vance story’. That thimbleful will also know of the praise often lofted the way of Paul Di Filippo. One of the great chameleons in fantastika (able to change colors but also imitate), hearing he was publishing a Vance-esque novel in 2021, I was all ears.

I was all ears because, Di Filippo’s tribute to Stanislaw Lem “The New Cyberiad” is brilliant. Capturing all the glory of Lem’s robot stories while spinning a worthy, parallel tale, I was hoping Di Filippo would be able to capture the essence of a Vance story in his own way. Let’s see if The Summer Thieves (2021) does as such.

Monday, October 18, 2021

Review of The Summer Tree by Guy Gavriel Kay

C.S. Lewis’ Narnia and J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth are two of the great high fantasy settings of all time. Known by most Western readers even outside the genre, the books play a large role in helping define what high fantasy is—a chicken and egg thing. Looking to combine the look and feel evoked by those worlds and stories is Guy Gavriel Kay in his debut novel, and first in the Fionavar trilogy, The Summer Tree (1986).

What Farah Medelsohn would classify as portal fantasy, The Summer Tree begins in our world but soon enough moves to a world in another dimension, Fionavar. The portal not a clothes closet a la Narnia, it is instead a magical transportation performed by high mage Loren Silvercloak. Known to people on Earth as Professor Lorenzo Marcus, it’s in a Canadian academic setting he convinces five people to travel with him back to Fionavar to celebrate the 50th anniversary of his king’s rule. The group transported to Fionavar with only a minor hiccough, they discover a kingdom in despair. The ruling king refusing to sacrifice himself at the summer tree, a new era of fertile lands and good weather lies in waiting. Seers, mages, dwarves, and elves coming out Fionavar’s woodwork as the group gets into the dire situation, bringing stability back to the land proves an adventuresome task, even as their own potentials are unleashed.

Review of More of the Best of Science Fiction & Fantasy (ed. by unknown)

After thousands of books and stories, and almost ten years reading exclusively fantastika, there are a few things I've become aware of. One is that The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction is likely the best venue for quality short fiction. Hardcore readers will have their own favorites, and within specific niches there are likely better venues available. But when looked at across the scope of fantastika, the magazine is consistently able to commission the best short fiction. Naturally, this means they are able to pull together the best anthologies. An overflow of riches, in 1995 the magazine published More of the Best of Science Fiction & Fantasy.

Things kick off with an oldie but a goodie. Precursor to 2001: A Space Odyssey, “The Sentinel” by Arthur C. Clarke channels a mysterious sense of wonder after a scientist discovers a strange artifact on the moon. Clarke really gets all he can from mood—not something you can often say about Clarke. While the story doesn't fit in very well to the rest of the collection in terms of era and style, it remains one of Clarke's absolute best shorts. A story with a dim view to human evolution, “Fat Farm” by Orson Scott Card tells of an obese businessman who checks himself into a futuristic fat clinic. They clone his sentience into a slimmer version, send it back into the real world, then give his fat self a choice: die or labor. The end of this story, while indeed dim, has more than a whim of truth to it.

Friday, October 15, 2021

Non-fiction: Review of Twelve Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos by Jordan Peterson

Full disclosure: I am one of many politically moderate people who +/-10 years ago became aware of burgeoning social movements, and with more trust than thought, supported them. Fairness, equal rights, justice, all are good things to get behind, right? Looking at early reviews on this blog, undoubtedly you will find a wildly sympathetic ear to many concerns—feminism, racism, sexism, and other types of discrimination. The female characters in this book are treated like trash... But as time went on, and many of these movements came to the forefront of the media, I began to question my blind support. Despite knowing there were real issues and livelihoods at stake, and despite knowing justice was not being served in every case, I also knew not everything I was witnessing was cohesive. I needed to look in more detail.

It became clear there were no common agendas. Unlike the social justice movements of the 19th and 20th centuries, today there are no “movements” per se, just individuals or smaller groups pushing varying degrees of viewpoints, conservative to extreme, all from differing places and platforms. It’s a shotgun blast of feelings and facts. And so I started to put more thought into it, and look into what experts, and people who had more time than me to invest, had to say. What, after all, can we look to as a baseline in the modern world when reality and opinion are so spread?

Sunday, October 10, 2021

Review of Billy Summers by Stephen King

Stephen King, Stephen King, Stephen King. After dozens and dozens and dozens of novels, as well as more dozens of short stories, how to contextualize his latest novel, 2021’s Billy Summers, in an intriguing intro? If you’re a Stephen King fan, it’s likely you’re not even reading this; you’ve already read the book. If you’re not a Stephen King fan, how to convince you Billy Summers is worth it—something that pokes out from King’s massive oeuvre and your impressions of it? Guess I have to dive in…

Billy Summers is the story of Dalton Smith, David Lockridge, dumb Billy Summers, and smart Billy Summers—all the same person. Smart Summers is an orphan turned marine sniper. After the Iraq War, he turned his killing talents to the mafia, particularly a Vegas kingpin named Nicky Majerian. To this underworld, smart Summers has played himself off as dumb Summers—a man of limited intelligence capable of cold assassination. At the outset of the novel, Majerian offers him one last job: 2 million to snipe a rat informant in custody. David Lockridge is the persona Majerian and dumb Summers create while preparing the hit. Ostensibly a writer, Lockridge befriends the office workers in the building where they are setting up shot a la Lee Harvey Oswald. Smart Summers constantly wary of how ‘one last job’ can go wrong, he sets up yet another persona, one that Majerian knows nothing about, called Dalton Smith. These multiple guises setting Summers’ head spinning in the days leading up to the hit, his mental stability is no guarantee even if the hit goes off as planned.

Friday, October 8, 2021

Non-fiction: Review of Dinosaurs Rediscovered by Michael Benton

Dinosaurs are one of the most fascinating aspects of life on Earth. Massive animals that dominated our planet for millions upon millions of years, humanity is but a drop in the bucket, comparatively. It’s thus inevitable that lessons learned from their existence might help humanity understand our own. But the related science seems to be constantly in flux. Looking at portrayals of dinosaurs forty years ago compared to today is different in significant points. Satisfying the inner child while bringing together the largest pieces of confirmed/discovered science as of 2019 is Dinosaurs Rediscovered: How a Scientific Revolution is Rewriting History.

Science being one of the most ubiquitous aspects of life in the 21st century, there are likely others, like me, who cannot keep up with all these latest findings and speculations on interesting subjects, like dinosaurs. Where research is ongoing and new things are being regularly confirmed or learned, Dinosaurs Rediscovered summarizes what is known to date, in turn creating the latest knowledge as to what, why, where, and how dinosaurs lived. It’s amazing the knowledge modern technology can unlock from old bones and rocks.

Cardboard Corner: Arkham Horror: The Card Game: Ranked Content Overview

The following is a ranked overview of the official long-play campaigns and the stand-alone scenarios released to date for Arkham Horror: The Card Game. I hope it may offer people getting into the game a rough idea of the quality of content released to date, as well as veterans something to chew over. It's also a live page. I will be keeping it up-to-date with the completion of each new campaign and stand-alone. Warning: opinions ahead, but no spoilers. Feel free to chime in if you agree, disagree, or both.

Without further ado, here is a breakdown of the campaigns: