Tuesday, December 31, 2013

5-Star Books 2013

Here is a listing of the books that I read in 2013 that received a 5-star rating from me. I have not put them in any particular order. Most of them were not released in 2013; in fact, only one of them was, so far as I can recall (and it's New Year's Eve day - I'm too lazy to look it up). There's a preponderance of graphic novels which probably means: 1) I like graphic novels, 2) I am so busy with other projects that I don't have enough time to read too many full-length novels, or 3) I write, but am not a great artist, and am in awe of what artists can do. Probably "all of the above". In any case, these were my favorite reads this past year. I've provided links to each review so you can get more details on each one. Of course, you can probably guess what my favorite novel of 2014 will be . . .

  1. Codex Seraphinianus, Luigi Serafini.
  2. A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess.
  3. Fatale, Vol. 2: The Devil's Business, Ed Brubaker.
  4. Mars Attacks, Len Brown.
  5. The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald.
  6. The Manhattan Projects, Vol. 1: Science, Bad, Jonathan Hickman.
  7. Cinema Panopticum, Thomas Ott.
  8. A Stranger in Olondria, Sofia Samatar.
  9. The Manhattan Projects, Vol. 2: They Rule, Jonathan Hickman.
  10. Moby Dick, Herman Melville.
  11. Prophet Volume 1: Remission, Brandon S. Graham.
  12. Roadside Picnic, Arkady and Boris Strugatsky.
And there you have it. Here's to a  great 2014 spent discovering new authors, new characters, and new adventures! Happy New Year!

Thursday, December 26, 2013

The Lovecraft Anthology: Volume 1

The Lovecraft Anthology: Volume 1The Lovecraft Anthology: Volume 1 by H.P. Lovecraft
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Jeff VanderMeer gave me some great advice as we were editing the Leviathan 3 anthology: Don't ever put your own fiction in an anthology you're editing. That's proven to be good advice, and, after having edited several anthologies and written my share of short fiction, I've learned that editors are often their own worst critics. And by this, I don't mean that editors are too hard on themselves. In fact, I mean quite the opposite. It is extremely rare that an editor doesn't at least hamper, if not ruin, their own anthology by including their own work therein. The Lovecraft Anthology: Volume 1 is no exception.

Let's do some math. There are seven adaptions of Lovecraft's work in this anthology, including "The Call of Cthulhu," The Haunter of the Dark," "The Dunwich Horror," The Colour Out of Space," "The Shadow Over Innsmouth," "The Rats in the Walls," and "Dagon". Of these, Dan Lockwood, the editor, adapted three. Four of the adaptions are uncompelling. Can you guess who adapted three of the four that I found least appealing? Bingo!

Now, just because four out of seven adaptions were less than stellar doesn't condemn this anthology. Adapting from one media (the short fiction form) to another (graphic novel form) is hard work and easy to bungle. So we have to make some allowances for difficulty in translation. There was bound to be some bad work here.

And the art ranges from good (in the case of Alice Duke's rendition of "Dagon") to very clever (in the case of D'Israeli's "Call of Cthulhu") to comic book genius (in the case of I.N.J. Culbard's "The Dunwich Horror"). There really is no bad artwork in this volume. There is a wide range of styles represented, each with its own strengths.

Unfortunately, the art is saddled with the adaption and, though visually appealing, it is difficult for the dark beauty of the art to overcome the poor adaptions.

Three of the adaptions are excellent: Rob Davis' treatment of "The Dunwich Horror," David Hine's take on "The Colour Out of Space," and Leah Moore and John Reppion's collaboration on "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" are all faithful enough to the original texts, without being unoriginal, that even the most hard-core Lovecraft fan should find a great deal of enjoyment in them. If you're an old hat at Lovecraftian terror, you're not likely to enjoy the others.

If you are new to Lovecraft's work, I wouldn't recommend this anthology outside of the three stories I've mentioned above. The others cut far too much out of the original stories and don't allow the reader to build up to the sort of cosmic dread for which Lovecraft is known. "Dagon," a story which I love, was particularly dull, I thought.

And I'd be ungrateful if I didn't acknowledge that my daughter bought this for me as a Christmas gift. The girl knows her old man!

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Wednesday, December 25, 2013

A History of Weapons: Crossbows, Caltrops, Catapults & Lots of Other Things that Can Seriously Mess You Up

A History of Weapons: Crossbows, Caltrops, Catapults & Lots of Other Things that Can Seriously Mess You UpA History of Weapons: Crossbows, Caltrops, Catapults & Lots of Other Things that Can Seriously Mess You Up by John O'Bryan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A compendium of weapons from pre-history to fairly-recent history, illustrated throughout. This book is NOT for children - more four-letter words than an episode of Hell's Kitchen. But it is for adults with a sense of humor who want to know about a broad variety of handheld and other weapons, not just from European history, but from the Egyptian, Chinese, African, Mesoamerican, Indian, and Native American theaters, as well. As funny as it is informative, I especially recommend it for RPG geeks who don't take themselves too seriously. Douchebag nerds need not apply.

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Monday, December 23, 2013

And Now, the Real Work Begins

Here we go! Just got notes from my editor, +Mark Teppo on the first seven chapters of Heraclix & Pomp. I've only briefly perused them at this point, but I can already appreciate how Mark is able to figuratively pull me back from the novel's plot and characterization to see some mechanical problems that I have entirely missed. Because of this, he's able to point me to some specific moments, words, and sometimes entire paragraphs that just plain don't work. This is exactly what I need right now. I've become so enmeshed in the characters and their story that it's difficult for me to take several steps back, as I should, and look at the overall elements of construction to see where things may have gone awry.

Since the story is told from multiple POVs, it's important to get the right emphasis at the right time. This is difficult to see when one is in the middle of writing. This is particularly true because Heraclix and Pomp both have some very powerful personalities. Once I'm in Pomp's head, for example, I don't want to leave it because she's not a natural fit to my way of thinking. I have to work at trying to see things from her perspective. So there are times when I "bleed" a little too much like Pomp. I try to stay in her POV too long, because I'm not looking forward to the effort of getting back into her head once I leave. I feel that I can pop into Heraclix's POV a lot easier, but with his complex history, I have to be very careful to not reveal things that he does not yet know about himself. But that's a problem that is more easily solvable, so long as I carefully map what he knows and when he knows it (or doesn't), and write accordingly. Unfortunately, I find it all too easy to slip into my "dark" character's heads. In fact, when the book is finally done, you'll notice that Pomp provides a strong counterpoint to my usual, admittedly dark, fictional writing. I think you're going to like her . . . and Heraclix . . . and the other evil, good, and ambiguously-aligned characters they encounter.

So, consider this a shout-out to excellent editors and the work they put in to helping writers present their material in the best way possible. It's difficult for us writers to check our egos at the door, but with the right editor, auctorial humility makes for a much better reading experience for our readers. And isn't that the end goal, to share a piece of us in such a way that people can understand and appreciate the journey we've already undertaken?

Friday, December 6, 2013

Arkham Horror, Maiden Voyage

Last night, my friend Dan brought over his copy of the Arkham Horror boardgame. I had perused the rules with him a couple of months ago, and he's played a few times, but this was to be my true introduction to this beautiful game. My two oldest sons, K and H (or H&K, for gun-lovers), also made the slow-trek home through beltline traffic to join us. They were brand, spanking new to the game, never having seen it in-person before.

Though we could have carefully-doctored the setup to our best advantage, Dan and I thought it would be best, in the true spirit of Lovecraft, to make things random and "hidden" so as to preserve that element of horrific surprise. So I randomly picked Jenny Barnes, dilettante, as my investigator.

Not bad! Jenny does a little bit of everything, and her $1 a turn trust-fund means that you can buy a lot of equipment/spells/etc over the course of a game. She's very well-balanced, in terms of her sanity, stamina, and stats, and gets a wide range of random possessions, not to mention $10 starting money as her Standard Possession (remember, folks, this is 1930's dollars). Dan had the Salesman (a few jokes about work were shared - Dan and I work at the same place), K had the Scientist (appropriate for an Aerospace Engineering major), and H had the Photographer (who turned into a gate-crashing fool by the time we were done - who woulda thunk?).

Random possessions were really a game-changer, especially for Jenny. She pulled the Sword of Glory, instantly changing her from Dilettante to Death-U-Taunt.

After spending a good hour going over the rules (yes, it's a little complicated, but not bad once you get going), we started off. I'll save you the blow-by-blow, mostly because I don't remember all the details. I was having too much fun to document everything!

Suffice it to say that, before too long, we had inadvertently opened a few gates. For some reason, the Unvisited Isle kept coming up as the place to be. We encountered cultists and crazy old men, opened a gate there, had a baddie walk in through the gate, and clues kept popping up there like workplace rumors after an office party. It was all a bit strange, seeing that we had two characters up there by the second turn of the game, and it just became the hub of a lot of (nasty) stuff. This is not a complaint, mind you! We thought it added to the creepiness that the Unvisited Isle was such a hotspot of weirdness.

The only downside to all the insanity (well, there was a little insanity, anyway), was that before too long, I found myself stuck in Arkham all alone with four gates to other worlds gaping wide open. Everyone else was either in the Abyss or the Dreamlands getting all kinds of cool gear while I was wandering the streets hoping not to get overwhelmed by creatures coming through the gates.

Of course, my luck didn't hold out. I took on a Gug and, with a little luck, was able to kill it. You can see the trophy down at the lower-right of Jenny's investigator card. The Sword of Glory made me a little cocky (what, me? Cocky?). Now I was jonesin' for a fight! And the cosmos accommodated me! The turn after I took this picture, what should pop out of that southernmost gate but a Maniac (all juiced up because the Terror level was so high by this point) AND The Hounds of Tindalos. Gulp!

Here I thought it would be wise to take on the hounds first, since Maniacs are a dime a dozen (go for a drive through Las Vegas, and you'll know what I mean), but those dimensional dogs are rare and nasty. The dice were on my side and the hounds became my second trophy. So, on to clean up the Maniac. Take him by the scruff of the neck and toss him into a homeless shelter, right? Wrong! I had forgotten that the terror had mounted so high that the Maniac was strengthened by all the horrific energy in the world. Guy kicked my butt. Thankfully, he only took one stamina from me, but that's 1/4 of my stamina! When another Maniac gated in next turn, I was starting to get a little worried. That's when H the Photographer returned from the Abyss and started kicking booty. Now, he had to churn through some clue-sacrificing re-rolls, but he made his way through the second Maniac (Grr! I have the Sword of Glory!), then proceeded to gather more clues and close that gate. In the meantime, Dan the Salesman and K the Scientist had each returned (from the Abyss and the Dreamlands, respectively) and sealed a gate. I head over to Ye Olde Magicke Shoppe (or however they spelled it) while H the Photographer went on a gate-sealing rampage!

Feeling like I was a tiny pseudopod of this gigantic cosmic amoeba, I decided to go do some more exploring/monster carving. I made it to the Witch House, where a gate opened and, next thing I know, I find myself in Another Dimension with H the Photographer by my side.

And then . . .

And THEN . . .

Time ran out. H had to get to bed, as did my wife (who was in another room working on school-teacher stuff). So we had to wrap it up at that point. 3 1/2 hours is apparently not enough to run a full game, at least it wasn't for us. Given the frequency with which we were closing and sealing gates, we could have been there all night before we got to the Big Baddie. So we called it quits. Our last gesture was to reveal who the Big Baddie actually was. We had chosen one randomly and "blind" so it would be a surprise when we got to that point. The big winner was:

Cthulhu himself!

Overall assessment: HOLY CRAP WHY HAVEN'T I BEEN PLAYING THIS FOR YEARS?!?!? In other words, I quite liked it. Spot on, brilliant, rathah! I haven't had a good look at all the supplements, but I'm hoping they do an At the Mountains of Madness expansion set, if they haven't already. We're planning on doing this again sometime (between all of our incredibly busy schedules). I can hardly wait. In the meantime, K, H, and I will content ourselves with a few rounds of Munchkin Cthulhu. So if you're looking for us, you can find us in the Arkham Asylum!