Review: Gone Girl

Gone Girl
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

My wife had finished reading Gone Girl on the same day that I picked up a copy of Old Man's War from the Humble Bundle program. She was insistent that I read it so we could talk about it (she didn't want to give anything way) and so I read through the first two chapters. I immediately found that neither Nick or Amy appealed to me, so I set it aside and spent the next couple of weeks leisurely reading Scalzi's book. Once finished with that I felt I should take another stab at Gone Girl.

First, I'm not typically a fan of relationship drama or crime fiction. I recognize that there are good works in this genre out there, and I can read them and appreciate them, but it isn't my go to genre. So I was already biased against this book. Secondly, the first few chapters of the book are very slow. Amy's diary entries are frustratingly wimpy and Nick narrative is very self-absorbed. We know from the dust jacket that there is some excitement coming, but we need to pay our penance of getting acquainted with our characters before we get to the fun.

Then Amy is gone, and I'm learning new things a bit at a time about each character. Unlikable things about people I already didn't like. Then, around 200 pages in, whammo, major shift.

In the end, Flynn is to be commended on some exceptional writing here. The characters are extremely well done. So my rating here is less about the quality of the book (it is quite good) but a reflection of my own tastes. I wouldn't read it again, because it isn't the type of book I enjoy. On the other hand, for fans of crime dramas, I would highly recommend it.

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Over the past year I've fallen back in love with board gaming in a big way. I've always enjoyed table top games, but finding a group to play with has been a struggle. Fortunately, I've met several locals that also enjoy games, and I've befriended the owner of our local board game store, which has led to lot better opportunities to game.  I have had a chance to play quite a few games that were new to me, and picked up my own copies of some games that I've particularly enjoyed.

One such game is Munchkin, a Steve Jackson game.  Munchkin is a card game for three to six players that condenses a Dungeons and Dragons campaign to the core elements of defeating monsters and grabbing treasure.  Each player begins as a level one plain old human and is dealt four "door" cards and four "treasure" cards.  These cards might allow them to become a class of hero, such as a Cleric or Thief, or change their race to something like an Elf or a Dwarf.  In addition, some treasures provide armaments that increase the power of the player.  On each player's turn they first setup their items, races, and classes as they like, then they "Kick in a door".  This means the top door card is revealed.  If it is a monster, the player tries to defeat it by using a combination of levels and items to have a higher power than the monster.

Of course, it isn't that simple.  Other players can get involved in combat too, and not just to help you out.  The other players can offer to help you defeat the monster by adding their own power to yours, but often they will want a bit of the treasure in return. Defeating a monster awards a level to the player who kicked in the door, and the game is won by reaching level 10.  This gives the other players an incentive to mess with you, and the game provides plenty of opportunities to do just that.  There are cards that allow players to curse one another and demote them a level or steal items.  There are powerful enhancement cards that can either make a player more powerful or make the monster more powerful.  There are cards that allow springing additional monsters into combat when they are least expected.

The game is given a light feel by the humor found both in the art style and the flavor text of the cards (i.e. Pantyhose of Giant's Strength).  In the box you will find door cards, treasure cards, and a dice.  It would have been nice if it included something for tracking player levels, but that is reserved for the Deluxe version of the game.

I've had the occasion to play several games now, and it has left me with a distinct impression of the game.  Given the right players, this game can be a lot of fun.  The right players are people who have been exposed to the concepts of role playing games and likely have spent time, if not actually role playing, at least playing video games with role playing elements such as item management and leveling.  The humor is geared towards players familiar with role playing and fantasy tropes.  These types of players will quickly pickup on how the game is played and will likely enjoy themselves quite a lot.  On the other hand, playing with the wrong players can be a miserable experience.  The wrong players are folks who have never been exposed to role playing or fantasy games, rules lawyers, and jerks.  A jerk is going to be painful to play with in any game, but this game intentionally provides opportunities to harass each other.  This can bring out the worst in people, especially if two or more of your players have some issues with each other.  It can be painful to watch them hate on each other during what can sometimes be a two hour game.  Rules lawyers are also painful to deal with because the rules of the game are intentionally terse and open to interpretation.  A lot of time can be lost quibbling over how cards might interact and timing elements that the rules simply don't cover.  This distracts the focus from the fun of the game and leads to constant refereeing of disagreements over mechanics.  Finally, players with no background in role playing or fantasy can feel like the entire game is foreign.  I've played with three folks who fit this mold, and I felt bad watching them play because it was clear that everything in the game was alien to them and they were having absolutely no fun.  These aren't problems with the game per se.  Instead, it is best to know your audience when you consider breaking out the Munchkin box.  Be sure the players are going to be right for having a fun time.  If in doubt, pick something else.

I've enjoyed playing Munchkin, and while I have had some bad experiences, the good experiences will keep me looking for the right group to play this game with again.

Review: Old Man's War

Old Man's War
Old Man's War by John Scalzi

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Old Man's War is a fun read that was a nice fit for a lot of the themes I enjoy. It isn't breaking any new ground as far as profound thought or mental stretching. I could easily see this becoming a summer blockbuster film (and I believe the process of producing a film version of the story is already underway). I really enjoyed the first Starship Troopers film, and this book has a lot of that flavor to it.

The story centers on John Perry, a former advertising copy writer who is coming up on his 75th birthday. The year is sometime in the future, and for our elderly citizens there is an alternative option to simply passing away of old age; you can sign up for the Colonial Defense Force. The CDF is a military organization that takes on elderly recruits and ships them out into the universe for a minimum two year deployment of fighting. John has already lost his wife to a stroke and has heard the rumors of how the CDF has some flashy tech to make him young again. It has to be better than dying old and lonely, so he enlists. What he discovers is that the CDF is much more alien than he could have ever imagined. What follows is the story of John's second life as a CDF recruit.

I enjoyed Scalzi's style and humor from [b:Fuzzy Nation|9647532|Fuzzy Nation|John Scalzi||18280046], and there is plenty of that on display here as well. Ultimately this book is an amalgamation of many other science fiction story elements, but that is just fine with me. I'll probably be picking up the rest of the books of the series.

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Review: Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass by Lewis Carroll

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I think these stories probably do a good job of capturing how mad the real world must feel to a child, especially a child growing up in Carroll's time. I don't know that it is as applicable now as it was then (we tend to coddle our children to a great degree now) but it certainly highlights how the lessons we are taught in elementary school and by our parents leave out much of what we might call "street smarts". People will try to hurt you for any reason at all, and even without one. You will never be sufficiently prepared, so learn to cope as you go along. Rules will often make sense only to the rule maker. I get the message here, but for whatever reason, these stories just didn't appeal to me.

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Review: Lucifer's Hammer

Lucifer's Hammer
Lucifer's Hammer by Larry Niven

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I love a good apocalypse book, and this was a good one. I liked how the story was told from a variety of perspectives, and how the same moment in time is retold from several viewpoints in various locations. I think this story may have heavily influenced the screen writers responsible for Deep Impact, but this story doesn't end at the point of impact.

I'm compelled to compare this to [b:One Second After|4922079|One Second After|William R. Forstchen||4987669], a much more recently published apocalypse scenario that I had previously read. I enjoyed One Second After, but I thought it could have been much better. There are some distinct differences in plot. In One Second After, the population has no warning at all of the apocalyptic event. The population of Lucifer's Hammer has months of advance notice, but are not entirely convinced that the comet will hit. The event in One Second After only disabled electronics, while Lucifer's Hammer sunders the earth. Lucifer's Hammer is better in a variety of ways. I felt more connected to the characters. I felt the science had a better foundation. I felt the reaction of the public was more believable. My only gripe with Lucifer's Hammer is the part that women play throughout, and this is likely due to the time the story was written. The story was written in the mid seventies, and you definitely get the "Mad Men" vibe what with alcohol as tonic throughout, and women largely as bedroom furniture. Even so, there are some female characters with strong, constructive roles (watch for Eileen particularly).

I really enjoyed this book, and would recommend to any other fans of post apocalyptic scenarios.

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Journey is the third video game produced by independent development house thatgamecompany. I really enjoyed their previous games Flow and Flower. These games stretch the definition of "game", and Journey stretches that definition the furthest. In Journey you play as a...well.. who knows. Your character is an armless humanoid dressed in a robe that covers you from head to foot. Your objective is rather vague: there is a mountain in the distance, and you will journey towards it. Your interaction with the world is limited to just a few actions: moving about, vocalizing, and leaping. The world that you move through is really extraordinary, and it is fun to explore and find out just how much you can do with these limited controls. Still, this limited interaction leaves me wondering if "game" is the right term to apply here. In Flow you battled against other organisms to become king of the depths. Flower was more vague, essentially a finding exercise as you searched for enough flowers to bloom in order to open up the next section of the game. Journey offers even less direction. If you wanted, you could just tape the joystick to point forward and come back in two hours to see the credits roll.

There has been a lot of dispute about whether or not video games should be considered art. Acclaimed film critic Roger Ebert has famously said that they are not comparable to film and books as art, while the Smithsonian Institute has created a traveling museum honoring the art of video games. Journey, in my view, is trying very hard to be considered art. It is an interactive experience that each person is going to react to differently. The gaming press has been falling over itself to lavish praise on this game, but I'm not sure that this is necessarily a good thing. Yes, Journey is beautiful and unique, but the "game" element here is pretty weak. Someone looking for the same sort of release that a game like Call of Duty provides isn't going to find it here, and that could create a backlash by the gaming community. The entire experience can be completed in under two hours, and many gamers might feel cheated by that.

I definitely recommend giving Journey a try, but caution to approach this as a piece of interactive art rather than a video game. Consider it a $15 door fee to a private showing at an artist's gallery.

Review: A Princess of Mars

A Princess of Mars
A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Well, now I know what SF pulp is.

I had put this book on my to-read list some time ago, and then forgotten about it. With the movie in theaters and a free digital copy available I decided to finally do something about that. At under 200 pages this is a breeze to get through, and the chapters definitely feel episodic.

A Princess of Mars tells the story of John Carter, a Virginian civil war veteran who headed West to claim his fortune prospecting. He finds himself magically transported to Mars amid barbaric alien races pitched in constant battle.

What follows is combination Axe body spray / Old Spice commercial where John Carter exhibits supreme manliness in the face of danger, dealing death to his foes and leaving a trail of adoring fans in his wake. The story reads a bit breathless. I found the book entertaining overall, but not something I would eagerly recommend.

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Review: Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal

Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal
Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal by Christopher Moore

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Within a few pages of reading this one I started recommending it to anyone who would sit still long enough to listen. Our image of Jesus is shaped from just brief moments at the beginning of his life and the end. This book provides a humorous back story for the 30 something years we don't know about. Told from the perspective of Joshua's childhood pal Levi bar Alphaeus, also known as Biff, we hear of how Biff and Joshua stumble through adolescence and into their adulthood. The humor here runs the gamut from subtle wink to raunchy blue, and I loved it. It isn't very often that I literally laugh out loud when reading, but I enjoyed several such moments while reading this one. Highly recommend!

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Review: Time Travelers Never Die

Time Travelers Never Die
Time Travelers Never Die by Jack McDevitt

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Michael Shelbourne mysteriously disappears from his home, sending his son Adrian on a quest to find him. What he discovers is that his father, a reknown physicist, has managed to create a time travel device packaged much like an iPod. Adrian and his friend Dave embark on a quest to discover where in time his father has disappeared to, and why he hasn't returned.

Overall I enjoyed this book, and I would likely have enjoyed it more if I were a history buff. There are all sorts of references to historical events and people that I'm hesitant to admit I know very little about. One thing that frustrated me is that there are points in the story where the solution to a plot point or question are painfully obvious, yet the characters trudge on, completely oblivious to what should be right in front of their face. It would be one thing if these were men thrust into a completely unexpected situation outside of their normal pursuits, but these are a college professor and son of a physics genius. This is a minor quibble though.

Philosophically, I have to disagree with one of the major plot elements of the book. The author introduces a "cardiac principle" whereby anyone who attempts to modify an event that has been observed such that it can no longer be observed will be foiled in their attempt, possibly by being killed. This would infer that all time is fated. All of the major events we experience in our lifetime were fated to be and no other experience is possible. That's not an idea I agree with. It doesn't detract from the story, but I had to put my thoughts out there on the matter.

The sci-fi element of this story is pretty light, so I would recommend this to historical fiction fans who like to dabble in sci-fi before I would recommend it to science fiction fans with a penchant for history.

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Review: Full Dark, No Stars

Full Dark, No Stars
Full Dark, No Stars by Stephen King

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

King is known for striving for high page count, so it is always nice to come across a selection of his short (by King standards) stories. As explained in the acknowledgments at the end of the book, these are stories that ask what would a real person do in this situation. There is very little of the supernatural here.

The longest and possibly most difficult to get through of the stories. A study in how the torment of guilt can ruin your life.

Big Driver
This one reminded me of the exploitation film "I spit on your grave". If you were mildly famous and something tragic happened to you, what would you do?

Fair Extension
I think this is my favorite from this book. A man doomed by cancer meets a salesman who can give him an extension on his life at the price of 15% of his salary for the remainder of his years. Oh, and he has to pick someone else to be saddled with the burden of bad luck that is being lifted from his own shoulders. I Like this especially due to the fact that the protagonist is so blissfully unapologetic about the troubles that befall his friend.

A Good Marriage
What would you do if, after decades of marriage, you discovered your spouse was hiding a terrible, terrible secret? Would you be able to live with it? Would you be able to live with yourself?

The paperback edition I read also included an additional short story.

Under the Weather
It's hard not to spoil this one as it is so short, but I did like it. Would you be able to say goodbye to the one you love?

Overall, I think this is an excellent collection of short stories. Many are going to feel familiar, but King's storytelling style keeps them interesting. Also, these are told without the usual gotchas and twists. I'd recommend to anyone who is a fan of King's work, or just looking to see how dark the human soul can be.

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Jade Mason