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October 19th, 2012
_John Dies at the End_ by David Wong
On the whole, I enjoyed it, so if you're a horror fan, you might consider picking it up from the library or if the Kindle version goes on sale for $3.99 again.
I ... really couldn't tell you what it was about, particularly. It's mostly about some people who become capable of seeing weird things in the world, and how they deal with it. Some bits of the plot feel like _A Wrinkle In Time_ put through the nightmare machine, but then I got the feeling that the plot had sort of wandered off and gotten lost. There were things that I *think* the author meant to explain, but which made no sense to me. To some extent, I thought that might be intentional -- a large chunk of the book was devoted to how confused the main characters were about what was going on. But then, there were very minute explanations of other things, in the manner that felt like I was *supposed* to see them as revelations -- and often I didn't. I'll grant that I was often reading the book when I was a bit sleepy, but even so, I think Mr. Wong didn't communicate quite as well as he intended to.
Also, there were times that the plot evaporated almost entirely for a few chapters, and became just an excuse to string together horrific scenes. Often very *inventive* horrific scenes, and the writing in them was pretty good, but it got to feel like he had a notebook of terrifying images he'd written down over the years, and wanted to make sure he got all of them into the book.
tl;dr: If you like dark-humored horror, you could do a lot worse.
October 5th, 2012
_A Wrinkle in Time_ by Madeleine L'Engle
Yes, I just read it for the first time. There's a startling number of classic books that escaped me in my childhood, so I've been spending some time running them down. (I haven't finished _The Phantom Tollbooth_, either; that's on the list, too.)
I really enjoyed it, and can see why it's a classic. There are some religious undertones that grated on me a little, but in fairness, I get unreasonably prickly about that sort of thing, and in my more objective moments I can see that they're minor and don't get in the way of the narrative flow or themes of the story.
At its heart, it's a story about fierce, uncompromising love, and understanding that "different" doesn't mean "wrong." Yes, there's also travel through folded space, alien worlds and creatures, and an eternal war against a darkness that seeks the subjugation of all sentient races. And, while that's fascinating and compelling, the story is really about a misfit girl named Meg, and the way she'll move heaven and earth to save her father and brother, and make her family whole again.
September 13th, 2012
_Myth-Ing Persons_ by Robert Asprin
Book five, apparently, in Asprin's MythAdventures series. (Also apparently, Asprin died in 2008; I'm not sure I knew that.)
I think I read one (or more) of the MythAdventures books when I was a kid -- he started writing them in 1978, so that sounds about right. I don't remember which one(s), but I had a vague memory that I liked it at the time, so when I had a hole in my reading schedule and saw it on a shelf, I grabbed it on the way out the door.
It's ... fine. Somewhat entertaining, some amusing parts, I like the characters. Not a lot of what you might call "content," though. Well, the book isn't very long (according to Amazon, the mass-market paperback is 208 pages -- if that's true, that must be some *big*-ass type), so I guess there's only so much that's going to happen.
I enjoyed it, overall. I'm not going to run out and try to find the rest of the series, but I might recommend it to Sarah when she's got a space in *her* reading schedule and is looking for something light and unassuming.
September 7th, 2012
_The Square Deal_ by David Drake
Subtitled (or maybe supertitled) "Car Warriors #1", and based heavily on Steve Jackson Games' "Car Wars" game. The novel is set somewhere in the midwest, but more broadly the setting is Car Wars' "Autoduel America": A global and suspiciously simultaneous grain blight destroyed a huge part of the world's food supply in 2012 (note that the original game and its chronology were written in 1981), resulting in widespread famine and (due to the suspicions that someone did it on purpose) a limited nuclear exchange. Not a nuked-back-to-the-stone-age kind of exchange, but of course even a "limited" use of nuclear weapons is going to kill a lot of people and render a lot of land uninhabitable. To say nothing of the people who died in the famine.
By the time we get to the time period of the story -- the 2030's -- the vast majority of the US has come to resemble the wild west, if the wild west had 20mm gatling guns and armor-plated cars to mount them on. What there is of the federal government has become entirely incapable of enforcing law on any meaningful scale, so towns and cities have largely become fortresses, and you're really only as safe as you're able to keep yourself. As a result, armor plating and weapons are now available from the factory on most cars, and nobody who isn't in one of the *very* few truly safe areas would dream of going on the road unarmed.
(Yes, this setting is a little bit absurd. But, as its main purpose is to give a setting where people spend a lot of time in heavily-armed cars trying to blow each other to pieces, it does its job pretty well.)
The actual novel ... isn't so bad. And I think it does a really impressive job of capturing what Car Wars feels like -- little bits of plot spread out through lots and lots of frenetic automotive combat. And, as in Car Wars, most of the fights are brutish and short. Car Wars runs on a five-phase-per-second time scale, so even though the game might take two hours, the actual *combat* it's simulating is generally over in under 30 seconds. The fights in the book aren't quite *that* quick, but not a one of them is what you might be tempted to call a drawn-out affair. And that's fairly impressive, given that the author wasn't a Car Wars player and, indeed, doesn't have a lot good to say about the game or the people who made it
So, in short, I guess I'd recommend this book -- slightly -- to people who played (or play) Car Wars and would enjoy seeing it in prose. Or if you're looking for a plain old, knock-down, drag-out, damned-near-everybody-dies-ugly combat book.
September 5th, 2012
_The Lies of Locke Lamora_, by Scott Lynch
Some months ago, I was working on the D&D campaign I run (sporadically; I need to work on that) for Elizabeth and Sarah while we were all watching "Ocean's Eleven" (the remake). This (inevitably, I suppose) made me begin wondering what "Ocean's Eleven" would look like in a fantasy setting, and I began reshooting scenes in my head. "Just out of curiosity, which ancient wyrm did you geniuses pick to rob?", and "This sorta thing used to be civilized. You'd rob a duke, he'd hang you. Done. But Chrysophylax? At the end of this he'd better not know you're involved, not be able to find your true names, or think you're dead." That kind of thing.
I mentioned these ruminations to Kurt, who said "Oh, you mean _The Lies of Locke Lamora_," and promptly brought it in for me to read. And, recently, I finally noticed it on the bookshelf (we keep talking about getting a shelf in a bookcase that's *just* for borrowed books, so I stop losing track of them like that), and slotted it into my reading schedule. And enjoyed the heck out of it.
There is, indeed, a huge caper aspect to the book, so I won't get into too much detail on the plot for fear of giving bits away that would be more enjoyably found by the reader. What I can say, though, is that Lynch builds a really compelling and detailed world, populates it with genuinely interesting characters (prime among them, as you might suspect, Locke Lamora), and gives them wonderfully clever things to do. It does indeed have a lot of the flavor you'd expect from "a fantasy retelling of Ocean's Eleven" (which, amusingly, is among the comments on the back of the book), though there's quite a bit more violence. In a lot of ways, it's also high-fantasy organized crime, though without the ubiquitous magic you find in, for example, Steven Brust's work.
There *is* magic, but the fancy stuff is both rare and expensive, so the guy on the street mostly has to make due with alchemy (which can do a lot, but doesn't have much on the "make things go big-boom" shelf). The city of Camorr itself has lots of what you might call "leftover" magic, mostly in the form of Elderglass: an indestructible (so far as anyone can determine) glass-like substance that was used to build towers, bridges, and such, by some unknown race (known only as "the Eldren") in some unremembered past.
If you're a fan of fantasy and cons (as in "con man", not "con vention"), I'd recommend the book.
August 25th, 2012
In the moderately distant past, there was a trading card game called "Duel Masters." It had a bit of a following, and (based on some reviews I read), some appealing game mechanics. Sadly, after a two-year run from 2004 to 2006, Wizards of the Coast dropped it (though it continued to be popular in Japan). Maybe they were just grumpy that it had answers for some of the annoying foibles in Magic: The Gathering.
For one thing, it didn't separate resource cards from cards that actually do things. In, say, Magic: The Gathering, you have land cards whose only purpose is to provide mana (which in turn is used to actually *do* things). In Pokémon, there are energy cards, whose only purpose is to power your Pokémon's attacks. In Duel Masters, *any* card can be put into the "mana zone" and used to power summoning creatures and casting spells. One result of this is that it's really difficult to have a genuinely dead hand -- and as someone who has on occasion been entirely unable to lay hands on an energy card during a Pokémon game for 3 turns running, let me tell you how appealing that is.
Another thing I like is that, at the start of the game, each player puts five of their cards face-down in front of them as "shields." You win a game by "breaking" all five of your opponent's shields, and then attacking them directly. The neat thing is that when a shield is "broken," the player whose shield it is *gets the card into their hand*. This is nicely balanced. Oppose, say, Pokémon, where if you knock out your opponent's Pokémon (which is bad for them), you also get a prize card into your hand (which is good for you). By getting the card when one of your shields is broken (and it could have a "shield blast" effect, which activates upon being broken), you get a boost which can help prevent a runaway game, where once one player gets an advantage it's incredibly difficult for the other player to ever come back.
Anyway, Wizards of the Coast decided to resurrect the old Duel Masters game, which is now called "Kaijudo," in June. Sarah and I got the two-player starter kit (two 40-card decks, two playmats, two really nice deck boxes, and a rulebook) last week, and have really been enjoying it. The rules are quite simple -- we were both pretty comfortable with them partway through the first game. And yet, you do need to try to think at least a couple of turns ahead if you don't want to get flattened. I suspect that, as more cards come into rotation, subtle strategies and a metagame will emerge.
Anyway, if you're in the market for a new collectible game to throw your money at, you could do worse than to pick up the "Tetsurion vs Razorkinder" two-player kit. And in a couple of weeks, the new "Rise of the Duel Masters" card set will be released and Wizards of the Coast will launch their Kaijudo League organized play wossname, so this is a pretty good time to get involved.
August 20th, 2012
Halting State, by Charles Stross
It's sort of one of his definitive works, and I've been meaning to read it for awhile. So, when it happened to be sitting on the shelf when I went to the library, I snagged it.
It's quite a good book, and what I liked most about it was the unusual writing style -- I'm not sure the last time I read a novel written in the second person (if ever), and I'm quite certain I've never read one that follows three main characters as their stories weave around each other (and orbit a weird cyber-crime that rapidly turns into a mystery and spy drama).
The setting of the book is also fascinating -- a near-future science fiction scenario that's notoriously difficult to write well (let alone accurately, but the jury is going to be out on that for a few years yet). I think you need to be a slight computer geek to fully enjoy the world, but that's true of a lot of Stross' work (he's a heavy-duty bull-goose math and CS geek, and loves putting oddball concepts into his writing).
Short form: if you like Stross' work, I think it's definitely worth clearing some space in your reading schedule. If you're a fan of oddball computery geekery, likewise. If someone prattling on about quantum codebreaking or distributed ad-hoc compute clusters isn't your cuppa, maybe give it a pass.
August 17th, 2012
The Apocalypse Codex, by Charles Stross
This is yet another volume in Stross' "Laundry" series, and while I did like it and would certainly recommend it to other folks who have been following along with his Cthulhuey goodness, it didn't bowl me over the way most of his other Laundry books have. And I'm beginning to worry that our boy Bob is beginning to inch towards being a superhero, where each book has him sprouting a new mystical abilities like his player is spending XP on them. It's not as bad as I've seen it happen (the Anita Blake books being just about the worst example of protagonist power creep I can think of, and there are few authors indeed who can aspire to *that* lofty goal), but it's still a little distressing. And I certainly don't mind Bob getting better at what he does, but I kinda liked him as the somewhat nebbishy nerd, always just barely on the ragged edge of his own abilities and terrified the entire time. In this book (SPOILER ALERT TO END OF PARAGRAPH) he runs up against the undead wardens around a sleeping god (which often have a starring role in his nightmares) and, hey, lookit that, he can order them around because of his newfound ability to eat souls and recently-acquired knack for free-form magic. I fully expect him to be tossing lightning bolts around in the next book.
All in all, though, it's a good book, and despite my fears of what Bob "Mordenkanen" Howard might get up to in the next installment, I'm still looking forward to it.
August 6th, 2012
A couple of ten-second book reviews
I seem to post here very nearly never, and I'd like to change that. Mainly because I *never* post anything lengthy on Facebook, and as a result spend all my social time online clicking "Like" buttons and dropping pithy comments on peoples' shared articles. Which is a little bit sad, really.
So, to try to get back to the ancestral social homeland of LJ, I'm going to try to post at least short reviews of books I've read. I (and Elizabeth, and Sarah) have sheets up on the wall where we write down all the books we read over the course of a year. My personal goal this year isn't so much *number* as *variety* -- I have a habit of picking up books I've already read and re-reading them, which is a fine and comforting activity, but if I'm not careful it means that I can go weeks or months without reading anything new. So, I'm making it a point to read (mostly) books I've never read before, and also to try to sample new authors now and again.
To that end, I recently picked up _The Maltese Falcon_, by Dashiell Hammett, from the Montclair library. It is, of course, a classic of the hard-boiled detective genre, written by one of its founders. And I liked it well enough, though I didn't find myself with any overwhelming desire to devour everything that Hammett has ever written. The characters, because they were gritty and realistic (or, at least, realistic in the view of a pessimist), were largely not terribly likeable. Sam Spade is sort of an asshole, honestly. But, all in all, I don't regret reading the book -- though I confess that I was really hoping that Sam Spade was going to be a lot more like Tracer Bullet from the Calvin and Hobbes comics. Well, I'd still like to read some of Raymond Chandler's work -- maybe he went in more for the over-the-top stuff.
I just finished _REAMDE_, by Neal Stephenson. I like Stephenson a lot -- among my favorite books are _Snow Crash_ and _Cryptonomicon_ (and some day I hope to tunnel my way through his "Baroque Cycle" novels). _REAMDE_ was ... meh. It had some interesting ideas sprinkled through it, but ... SPOILER ALERT (TO END OF PARAGRAPH) ... he inexplicably, around page 300, decided to do his best Tom Clancy impression, and a book that I thought was going to be about weird psycho-social events in a huge online RPG wound up being a book about terrorists and the very-carefully-described weapons and equipment they use. Which I guess is fine if you like that sort of thing, but I had no special use for it.
I finished the book (which is over 1,000 pages long) mainly because I wanted to find out what happened to the main characters, and in the end I didn't think it was worth the trip.
Next up on the reading list: _The Apocalypse Codex_ by Charles Stross, which I've only just started.
July 27th, 2012
I think DEXCON broke me. Or is gonna make me broke, anyway.
Ever since I went to DEXCON 15 a few weeks ago, I've wanted to buy every new game I see. *Every game.* I've already picked up a pile of Diceland sets (available from Paizo.com at half price!), I'm a hair from snagging the new Kaijudo starter set (it's a reboot of Duel Masters, which from what I've read, was quite a cool game with some interesting design goals and mechanics), I've got plans to fill out the Dragon Dice set I bought at DEXCON, and I've *still* got Small World at the top of my to-buy list.
I mean -- I really *don't have* this kind of money.