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:

Tuesday, October 5, 2021

Review of Eye of Cat by Roger Zelazny

Roger Zelazny is a hit or miss writer. When he's on, he's on—a multi-layered, colorful pleasure to read. When he's off, it's an awkward, disappointing experience that seems like it could have been more. There were also ups and downs in his career—success early on, followed by periods of struggle to achieve the same success. Some books achieved kudos from critics, and others sold serious copy. But through it all, there were three common motifs to Zelazny's fiction: myth, psychology, and the gruff, cigarette smoking, tough-skinned man. In 1982's Eye of the Cat, Zelazny takes this formula through far future Navajo.

The gruff, cigarette smoking, tough-skinned man this time around is Billy Singer. Humans have gone to the stars, but Billy, a Navajo Indian, is one of few people to have been raised apart from technology and society. As a result, he has a special set of skills as tracker and hunter, skills which allowed him to capture one of the most dangerous aliens humanity has come in contact with, the shapeshifting, evil Cat. But when an extra-terrestrial terrorist threatens to assassinate a leading political figure, Billy is called into action again.  Trouble is, he may need Cat's help to take down the assassin.

Friday, October 1, 2021

Review of Big Dark Hole: Stories by Jeffrey Ford

If by chance this is your first visit to this blog, be aware Jeffrey Ford is on the short list of writers whose work I will buy and read sight unseen. His last collection A Natural History of Hell, combined with his more commercial releases the past couple of years, however, have not tickled my fancy as delicately and nicely as so many other Ford efforts. In no way did this prevent me from picking the latest Ford collection, 2021's Big Dark Hole: Stories. Why did I ever doubt him? Let's get into the goodness.

Big Dark Hole kicks off with “The Thousand Eyes”. About a remote New Jersey bar, it draws a young painter for a famed Wednesday evening show. Crossing the line from ghost story into artistic reflection, the show turns out to be life changing for the painter. “Hibbler’s Minions” is a good ol' fashioned, traveling circus story. The narrator a man with two faces: one in front and one behind, the circus' freak show is healthy even as the show falters. That is, until the day the circus gets a present: a dust demon. And that’s how the flea circus is born. Classic horror.

Cardboard Corner: Review of Arkham Horror: The Card Game expansion "Guardians of the Abyss"

Note: As always, reviews of Arkham Horror expansions on this blog are spoiler-free and assume you are familiar with the base game.

To date, the Arkham Horror: The Card Game standalone expansions (“Curse of the Rougarou” and “Carnevale of Horrors”) have provided interesting side trips from the main campaigns. The former a werewolf story through the swamps of the American south and the latter a Venetian parade gone amuck, the third, “Guardians of the Abyss”, sees investigators traveling to the deserts of Egypt, and the mysteries of the Sphinx (and beyond) which remain to be uncovered.

At the outset of “Guardians of the Abyss”, investigators find themselves called to Cairo at the behest of a friend named Jessie. Her husband, along with an ever-growing number of city dwellers, have fallen into perpetual slumber. None have awoken, and she needs your help to get to the bottom of the mystery. While the dark streets of Cairo lead to a number of clues, getting into the wilds of the desert reveals the real threat—and it’s one that will require all of your talent—ahem, deck building skills—to eliminate.

Cardboard Corner: Review of Arkham Horror: The Card Game expansion "Carnevale of Horrors"

Note: As always, reviews of Arkham Horror expansions on this blog are spoiler-free and assume you are familiar with the base game.

In a (successful) attempt to keep content in the Arkham Horror: the Card Game universe fresh, Fantasy Flight have steadily released an ever-widening variety of products. On top of the deluxe campaigns and mythos packs, we have seen investigator packs, April Fool’s jokes come to life, as well as a series of stand-alone scenarios that can be played independently or as side-trips within the larger campaigns. A horrific trip to Venice, “Carnevale of Horrors” is second of these stand-alones to be released, and one of the most thematic.

Mimicking a Venetian parade, the layout of “Carnevale of Horrors” sees players moving in a clockwise circle, location to location, unmasking parade-goers in an attempt to find cultists who need questioning. Something dark and sinister hanging over the festive events, your only friend seems to be a friendly nun offering sanctuary for innocent bystanders. Evil ultimately unmasked, the colorful streamers and mysterious masks prove to be the least of your concerns.

Cardboard Corner: Review of Arkham Horror: The Card Game expansion "Murder at the Excelsior Hotel"

Note: As always, reviews of Arkham Horror expansions on this blog are spoiler-free and assume you are familiar with the base game.

The term “investigator” is so redolent to Arkham Horror: The Card Game that it has evolved to simply “‘gator” in online discussion. (Who’s your favorite ‘gator?!?!) But in terms of P.I.-type private investigation, there hasn’t been a major focus on delivering such a specific noir-esque experience. Certainly strong elements of the detective motif exist throughout the scenarios and campaigns released thus far, particularly the Path to Carcosa campaign, but a true murder mystery with a dark and stormy night, bloody murder weapon, corrupt police, damsels in distress, and the like has not been done. “Murder at the Excelsior Hotel”, a standalone scenario, fits that niche, however.

Action beginning in situ, investigators in “Murder at the Excelsior Hotel” start the scenario in the awkward position of holding what seems to be a murder weapon in a blood-spattered hotel room. Putting the knife away and moving out into the corridor, the guests and hotel staff give you strange looks, and it isn’t long before the police arrive. In the course of your investigation, it becomes apparent that something strange is afoot, and you’ll have to use all of your gumshoe cleverness to get to the bottom of the crime scene, even if it means implicating yourself. The story which involves from here is Agatha Christie… and more.