Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Review of Illuminations: Stories by Alan Moore

Alan Moore is one of the most recognized names in comic books/graphic novels of the past five decades. V Is for Vendetta, Watchmen, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, From Hell, and several other IPs circulate widely among relevant readers, and in the case of film adaptations, viewers as well. But Moore likewise picks up the pen to write fiction. He has published a couple of novels, and in 2022 his first collection was released, Illuminations: Stories.

A re-readable and re-readable story kicks off Illuminations: feeling like something out of Tanith Lee's brilliantly dark imagination, “Hypothetical Lizard” is the baroque story of a sex slave captive in the most fantastical of bordellos, The House with No Clocks. Witness to a bizarre act of revenge, Moore spins an intriguing cast of mysterious characters around her, adding a thick layer of detail to bring their eerie, shadowy world to life. When one thinks of the visual power of fantasy to conjure otherworldy visions, this story is an excellent realization that rewards on a second (and third) read.

Cardboard Corner: Review of K2

Everybody has the game type which works best for them. Trick taking, deckbuilder, worker placement, blah blah blah, certain types of games click with certain types of thinkers. Hand management, for reasons I don’t understand, clicks with my brain the most. (And it’s not even my favorite game type.) Thus, if hand management is something that also clicks with you, or you are interested in experiencing a tight hand management game in a mountain climbing theme, check out K2 (2010).

A mid-weight family/strategy game for 2-5 players, in K2 players try to be the best manager of two climbers attempting to summit the synonymous mountain. Be the player to get your two climbers collectively the highest, you win. Control of your team is handled by cards, of which there are two types: movement and oxygen. Movement cards allow players to move their teams higher or lower, and oxygen cards allow players to survive high-altitude, all of which are dependent on mountain conditions. Cards of each type extremely limited, players must choose wisely when to play their best cards, and when to hold them for later moments. Burn them too early and your team may die. Wait too long, and, you guessed it, your team may die. Weather affecting and influencing game state, as well as players’ ability to set up tents, the player must combine cards with these elements to most effectively and efficiently maneuver their team toward the top.

Friday, November 25, 2022

Review of Venomous Lumpsucker by Ned Beauman

Ned Beauman's debut novel Boxer, Beetle (2010) is one of those pieces of fiction impossible to sum up in a line and still do the book justice. The book not complex, rather, it's singular to the point of defying easy description. And it's a brilliant read regardless which spectrum(s) of fiction most interest you. Beauman's oeuvre has been worth following since. 2022 sees the release of his fifth novel, the wonderfully titled Venomous Lumpsucker. Where has he come since Boxer, Beetle?

Venomous Lumpsucker kicks off as near-future cli-fi with one tongue in cheek. The world has reached the point where major animal species are dropping off the evolutionary radar at an incredible speed. In an effort to forestall extinctions, global governments agree on the idea of extinction credits—a cost to corporations who exploit environments for resources but in turn eliminate species. This raises the question: which species are worthy of credits? Enter species intelligence analysts, people who evaluate whether or not certain living things cross the sentience threshold, and are this worthy of credits.

Console Corner: Review of Hob

Heavily inspired by Nintendo's Legend of Zelda, Hob (2017) is a single-player environmental puzzler with bits of melee combat. Like Link running around the land of Zelda, Hob pulls a lever here which opens a door there, which leads to a key that can be used to access the elevator you first encountered entering the level, that leads to another level which... You get the picture. Regardless of influences, the question is: how well is the game done?

But where Legend of Zelda had 3D pretensions in a 2D world, Hob is fully 3D. Accordingly, Runic Games put the majority of its time into the game's visuals and puzzles such an environment has the opportunity for. And it paid off; they are the strongest elements of the game. The graphics emphasize machines, gears and interlocking pieces, which feel great spinning and clicking into place. (Sound effects are complementary.) If games can be reduced to pleasure, then solving a puzzle and watching how the pieces click into place is where Hob's dopamine hits.

Monday, November 21, 2022

Review of The Fifth Elephant by Terry Pratchett

According to the lore, Discworld flies through space on the back of the great turtle Atuan and is supported on four sides by four great elephants. But there was once a fifth, and in the twenty-fourth Discworld novel, The Fifth Elephant (1999), readers learn of its fate, and continued impact on Disc life to this day.

Things are getting political in dwarf land. Conservatives are even clashing with liberals on the far away streets of Ankh-Morpork. Someone has stolen the dwarves' sacred Scone of Stone (or at least a reasonable facsimile thereof). And Wallace Stonky, Discworld inventor of rubberized “preventatives”, has somehow turned up dead. Investigation is needed all around. As Lord Vetinari dispatches Vimes to mediate the situation in Ubervald, enter the Night's Watch.

Cardboard Corner: Review of Neuroshima Hex

I don’t hate chess. As a young teen, I played a fair amount, and I still remember the rules. When they are old enough, I will teach my kids. And beyond my personal interest, I clearly understand it’s the most well-known board game there is in the world. But ultimately I don’t go to chess for fun. Something about it, perhaps the perceived weight that you must be a master to have success, turns me off. Neuroshima Hex (2006), on the other hand, is a neon light switch.

No need to be a master, anybody—older child to adult—can sit down and learn to play Neuroshima Hex. A post-apocalyptic, quasi-cyberpunk, mutant army vs mutant army type of game, it’s a family weight game that sees players deploying different hexagonal tiles (representing army units) on a board. Melee, ranged, and special attacks available, the base box comes with four unique armies, all with their own playstyle. As with chess, turn by turn players deploy their soldiers onto the field until one plays a battle tile, which triggers a set of chain reactions. Those which survive the battle remain, and those which died are removed. The goal to attack and defend, the first person to put 20 points of damage on their opponent(s), wins.

Friday, November 18, 2022

Review of Glitterati by Oliver Langmead

2084: The Anthology appeared a few years ago in tribute to the 70th anniversary of George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-four. A solid anthology of stories presenting innovative spins on dystopia, one which stuck out was Oliver Langmead's “Glitterati”. Featuring a world in which Haute couture ruled, fashionistas were at the top while uglies and the unfashionable languished at the bottom. Langmead keeping the tone appropriate for such an over-the-top idea, the visuals were on point describing a day-in-the-life of a glitterati. Possessing substance, in 2022 Langmead expanded the story into a novel of the same name, Glitterati.

Glitterati opens with the short story from 2084. It's a Tuesday afternoon and fashionista Simone is at home, getting ready for a typical Tuesday afternoon in the office reading fashion magazines. Fashion magazines dictate that Tuesday is white day, so he spends the appropriate hours preparing his makeup and outfit, only to discover, to his horror, that he has committed the faux pas of faux pas; today is in fact Wednesday, purple day. And making matters worse, his most fashionable of bosses has scheduled a surprise visit to see how his team are dressing themselves. Wearing white when he should have worn purple just the beginning, Simone's day only unravels further, including bodily fluids, inopportune paparazzi, and the ickiest of all things, a crying child. Just how far he plummets, however, is for the reader to discover.

Monday, November 14, 2022

Review of Drowning Practice by Mike Meginnis

I used to laugh at the idea of 'slipstream' fiction. “It's fantasy, folks.”, I was inclined to say. But with time, the idea has grown on me. It describes a very specific interstice. Far too mimetic to be fantasy yet containing a little something that just can't be reality, it's a subtle, delicate term which describes a subtle, delicate area of fiction that requires a tight hand on the wheel to keep within that specific interstice lest it all fall apart. Keeping things tight and under control is Mike MeGinnis' excellent Drowning Practice (2022).

The nexus of Drowning Practice is located in the idea that, every person, on the same night, has the same dream: the entire world will drown on November 1st. Different people react in different ways, including the three central characters: David, Lyd, and their daughter, Mott. David is a delusional secret service agent, Lyd a marginally successful novelist, and Mott the product of their collective personal issues.

Cardboard Corner: Review of The Magic Labyrinth

There are probably five or six games that I love playing with my children more than any other games we own. And the reason is simple: the playing field is even. The brain is needed but my children have an equal chance at winning, which creates an atmosphere of truly fun competition—joking, cheering, and over-the-top boasting. And with The Magic Labyrinth (2009) it’s likely my kids will be joking about ol’ dad’s fading memory.

While at heart a memory game, Magic Labyrinth brings so much more to the table in terms of a hands’ on, competitive experience for 2-4 people. The game box is constructed such that players build a walled labyrinth inside, then cover it with the game board. Players then take the meeple of their favorite color (complete with strong magnet located inside), and place it on their corner of the board’s grid. After, each player puts a small metal ball under the board so that sticks to the other side of their meeple/magnet. One player draws a token from the bag, places it on the appropriate symbol on the grid, and play begins. The first player rolls the die, and moves their meeple that number of spaces through the grid, guessing where the walls are under the board and thus trying not to have their metal ball knocked off by them. If their ball gets knocked off, they collect it, return to their corner, and await their next turn. Slowly, players build a mental map of the shape of the walls under the board. The first player to successfully navigate the hidden labyrinth to the token, collects it, another token is drawn, and play continues. First person to collect five tokens, wins.

Wednesday, November 9, 2022

Culture Corner: Indonesia - Yogyakarta & Jakarta

 And Part II of my two-week holiday in Indonesia.  Where the first 8 days were spent in Sulawesi, I spent the final four days in Java in Yogyakarta and Jakarta.  

Volcanos are everywhere in Indonesia, including as a backdrop to Borobudur.

Culture Corner: Indonesia - Bunaken & Tomohon

Hello, and welcome to Part I of my photos from a two-week holiday in Indonesia. It's a huge country, of which I saw only tiny pieces. The photos here are from the northern part of Sulawesi, specifically the island Bunaken and a city on the “mainland” called Tomohon. Part II to come.

After a quick stop in Jakarta, it was to the air again to Manado for diving at Bunaken and exploration of Tomohon.  In the photo above, Bunaken island is located directly in front of the volcano.

Monday, November 7, 2022

Review of Stamping Butterflies by Jon Courtenay Grimwood

Brilliant, absolutely brilliant. Unfortunately, I know why novels like this fade: their heart requires patience for understanding, and we know most readers have trouble engaging with books where effort is required beyond turning pages and comprehending words. Thus, for that portion of sf readers who enjoy meeting the author halfway, Stamping Butterflies (2004) by Jon Courtenay Grimwood may be his masterpiece (End of the World Blues is in close competition) and is certainly a speculative fiction gem worth looking for.

Ostensibly, Stamping Butterflies is three independent tales. The first is of a street rat named Moz growing up in Marrakesh in the 70s. And while French colonial rule is fading, its impact remains in the lives of Moz, his friends and enemies on the streets, and his family. The second is of a strange, zombie-esque man who gets it into his head that he needs to take an old rifle and assassinate the President of the United States. Captured, he becomes Prisoner Zero, and the weight of American intelligence services is unleashed against him to get to the bottom of his actions. The third storyline, and the one most divorced from the other two, is set far in the future in a planetary system populated by hundreds of billions of people ruled by one person, the emperor Chuang Tzu. Chuang Tzu the only mortal, the hundreds of billions he rules are virtual people, while he suffers the cycle of life all animals do. The latest Chuang Tzu more than upset with this fate, little does he know help is on the way in the form of an assassin.

And we're back...

And we're back.  After two weeks in Indonesia in the hot sun (and sometimes in the hot water), real life has returned but millions of motor bikes still buzz in my ear.  My internal clock still catching up to European time, in the next couple of weeks I will post photos here.   

I read James Clavell's King Rat in airports, airplanes, and beaches, and can say: overrated.  I don't know if I can summon the strength to review it.  Much easier to (re-)read on the beach, airports, airplanes, trains, etc. was George R.R. Martin's A Game of Thrones.  This book holds up very well,  Say what you want about the tv series, but in the book Martin does a masterful job spinning wheels within wheels within wheels while keeping morality, at least for the most part, human.  

I also read Jon Courtenay Grimwood's Stamping Butterflies, which was superb.  Review coming in a moment...