Thursday, May 18, 2017

Empire of Imagination: Gary Gygax and the Birth of Dungeons & DragonsEmpire of Imagination: Gary Gygax and the Birth of Dungeons & Dragons by Michael Witwer

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book is not a biography as much as it is a series of vignettes and anecdotes and I thoroughly enjoyed this book despite itself. Witwer is forced to make up some scenes and they often feel made up. There are some cheesy elements within the writing and structure, but at its heart, it's a fascinating tale about the rise and fall of Gygax's gaming empire.

Having grown up as a gamer, this history brought back many memories and so I cherished reading this book. I especially enjoyed the ending which delved into Gygax's enduring legacy. There's a great quote from Adam Rogers (editor of Wired magazine) who wrote, "Gary Gygax died last week and the universe did not collapse. That surprises me a little bit, because he built it" (p. 230). (To be fair, that credit should be shared with Dave Arneson who co-created D&D and died the following year).

Unfortunately, because of the narrative structure, the book leaves huge gaps in the timeline and leaves the reader yearning for more. Despite the book being over 300 pages long, the actual content is only 242 (the ending is filled with notes, a bibliography, a timeline, etc.) and with so many white pages between chapters, it's probably closer to 200. Hence, it's a quick read, but fails to give the full picture. It's unfortunate that no one took the time to write Gygax's biography while he was still alive and could easily fill in those gaps. I'm hopeful that a more thorough biography appears in the future as Gygax and Arneson both deserve one.

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Monday, May 8, 2017

Beyond Band of Brothers: The War Memoirs of Major Dick WintersBeyond Band of Brothers: The War Memoirs of Major Dick Winters by Dick Winters

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I wasn't sure what to expect in a book called Beyond Band of Brothers and so I was a little bit surprised to see that it basically covers the same ground as the original book and HBO series. The only major difference is that you're seeing it from the POV of Dick Winters, the leader of Easy Company.

Having read the original book and watched the HBO series numerous times, there really isn't much more to get from this book and yet I still enjoyed it. Even though it covers the same ground, there are a few moments here and there that are unique to Winters as well as his opinion of events. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

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Wednesday, May 3, 2017

The Fiddle is the Devil's InstrumentThe Fiddle is the Devil's Instrument by Brett J. Talley

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It's difficult to write in another author's well established universe, in this case Lovecraft's Cthulhu mythos, and really stand out. To that end, this collection of stories both succeeds and occasionally fails.

First, it succeeds at the most essential level: its writing. The stories are all interesting and certainly draw you in. Talley's modern style could easily attract readers into the Cthulhu mythos who might find Lovecraft's original stories too archaic and his lengthy descriptions tedious or too difficult. To that end, these stories are much more accessible to modern readers than the original source material. The problem is this: as a teenager, I noticed that all of Lovecraft's characters either die or go mad and most modern Cthulhu stories continue this trend so that the stories become predictable. Talley is frequently guilty of this (as an author, I confess I am guilty of this as well), but when he strays from the formula, his stories stand out. Indeed, our first story, "The Fiddle is the Devil's Instrument," is a strong start to this collection. Talley creates a strong and eerie mood that captures the feel of Lovecraft nicely, but then takes a turn in a different direction. My only criticism here is that it didn't feel self-contained, instead it felt like the opening chapter to a novel and to that end, I would have enjoyed reading more. But leave them wanting more is an old showbiz adage and so I happily continued.

The second story, though not my favorite, stands out because it's so outlandishly different from anything else I've read in the genre. Our protagonist is a rodeo clown! Again, Talley creates an interesting situation, but this time he falls into the predictable pattern of most Lovecraftian horror. In fact, the dramatic sting of the story's ending relies on the reader being familiar with Cthulhuian mythology, but to anyone already familiar with it, the second half of the story will also feel all too familiar.

Our third story, "What the Dead Can Tell" is one of my favorites in the collection. Talley seems like he writes best when he escapes the standard conventions of Lovecraft and updates the mythos to our modern times (well, more modern anyway). I don't want to reveal too much, but this story takes place during the final days of the Cold War as special agent Crowley (no comment) interrogates a KGB agent about the strange satellite findings deep in the country's interior.

Even though "The Space Between Spaces" follows the traditional Lovecraftian formula almost to a fault, draping it modern science (it takes place at the Large Hadron Collider) somehow makes it more fun and for that reason I enjoyed it even though I knew exactly where it was going.

I don't wish to summarize each of the stories, so suffice to say that there's no doubt Talley can write well and pull you through his stories, but it's what he does within that structure that decides if they will stay with you or not. Unfortunately, he ends too many stories with either someone's last words or the dramatic sting of a final line. Sometimes it works, but other times it doesn't and in the case of "The Piper in Yellow" I thought it completely unnecessary as it erases any subtlety to an otherwise enjoyable story.

Despite these problems, this is nevertheless a collection of mostly satisfying stories that traipse through the dark shadows of cosmic horror and I would certainly recommend it to anyone who is a fan of the genre.

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Thursday, April 27, 2017

World's Fair Goblin (Doc Savage #39)World's Fair Goblin by Kenneth Robeson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The scene opens at the 1939 World's Fair where Doc is performing a groundbreaking surgery, two people have gone missing, and Professor Martin Uppercue frantically runs from seemingly nothing. And then the Goblin shows up.

Of course, Doc immediately investigates and soon Long Tom, Monk, Ham, and Patricia Savage are all embroiled in a mad adventure.

Unfortunately, Pat Savage makes an appearance only to be taken captive and not seen again until the end. She needn't have been written in at all since she's captured along with Kay Uppercue and one maiden in distress would have sufficed.

As with most Doc books, there are occasional bouts of bad writing, but the most egregious example comes on p. 62 (Ballantine edition) when Monk hesitates trying to pronounce the word "fluoresce." He's supposed to be a brilliant chemist! Sometimes the writer, in this case guest author William Bogart, goes too far trying to give Monk and Ham something to squabble about.

While Bogart does have some fun with the World's Fair, mostly involving the iconic Perisphere and Trylon, it does seem that he under utilizes the event itself; a bit of a missed opportunity.

A fun little adventure, not the best, not the worst, but kind of nice that all of the events take place in one locale as a change of pace from their usual globetrotting.

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Monday, April 17, 2017

A Clockwork OrangeA Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There are nearly 10,000 reviews of this book on Goodreads, not to mention all the published reviews at the time of its release, the essays, the theses, the this and the that, so I'll be brief: I liked it.

Okay, I'll be a little less brief than that. I was a little intimidated by the Nadsat (the lingo) after reading the first page, but as you continue, it's easy to learn it or else intuit the meaning based on the sentence structure or the description. In other words, you'll soon pony it and quite skorry.

As for the now somewhat notoriously optimistic last chapter, well, it was Burgess' intent that it be there so I'm glad I had the option to read it, but I can certainly understand why the American publisher (and Kubrick's film adaptation) omitted it. It seems too optimistic and not really earned.

Lastly, if you want to have fun, I decided to look up to see if anyone created a translator from English to Nadsat and the internet didn't disappoint me. Here's the link:

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Free Play: Improvisation in Life and ArtFree Play: Improvisation in Life and Art by Stephen Nachmanovitch

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The book's prologue opened with a Japanese folk tale that I absolutely loved. I eagerly dived into this book... only to be bored and disappointed. Yes, there are occasional good ideas, and some very good passages, but they are too few and fleeting. As I continued to plod along, I kept thinking that this would have been a good essay, or maybe more than an essay, but definitely something shorter than a book. Unfortunately, the necessity of creating a "book" and trying to fill two hundred pages meant elongating it until the author becomes repetitive.

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Monday, April 10, 2017

Beyond the Farthest StarBeyond the Farthest Star by Edgar Rice Burroughs

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Beyond the Farthest Star isn't very good. It feels rushed, almost as if it's an extremely detailed outline for a future novel, but for Burroughs this is definitely not one of his better books. Some imaginative ideas and you can see where the events of WW II are clearly influencing him, but the writing itself is rather dull and far too expository. There's also an incredible amount of coincidence and Deus ex Machina as well. For purists and ERB fanatics.

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Saturday, April 8, 2017

The RiderThe Rider by Edgar Rice Burroughs

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I know you're not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but what's not to like about the Frazetta image that adorns this book. It's what inspired me to pick it up, many many years ago, from a used book store. However, it sat on my shelves for many years until I finally read it this evening in just a few hours.

I did try reading it once, many years ago, but immediately I could tell I wasn't into it. I was in the mood for a Burroughs adventure and this book is not your typical ERB novel. Instead, it's more a comedy of errors, kind of like watching a 1930's screwball comedy combined with an Errol Flynn adventure. And it is a comedy of errors as characters switch identities purposefully or accidentally as befits their needs. While the premise is a rather tired cliché by today's standards, giving the book some leniency (it was written over 100 years ago!) along with its brevity made it a nice delightful distraction.

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Monday, March 30, 2015

One of Our Deathbots is Missing! -- First Place!

I am very delighted to announce that I just won first place in a monthly writing contest. The goal is to write a story based on the provided image that must also be 500 words or less. My story is called "One of Our Deathbots is Missing!" and I hope you enjoy it.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Third Place

I recently won third place in two story contests.  The latest is in SFReader's yearly science fiction contest.  You can read "Price of War" here:

I also won third in another contest last November for "Babel On."  The story had to be about the image provided by the contest -- in this case, the Tower of Babel.  Oh, and it also had to be under 500 words.  So it's short!