Category: recommendation

Candyland 2.0

Late last year I tried to turn my four year old daughter into a proper hex-and-counter wargamer by running her through the first few scenarios of Advanced Squad Leader, but she just cannot ever remember to pop smoke before rushing a full squad through a lane open to fire by a squad support weapon.  Kids these days, I tell ya!

Having learned my lesson, this past Christmas focused on a hunt for games suitable for helping her move beyond the realm of Candyland.  Candyland is a fantastic game – it is the perfect introduction to gaming, what with its imminently relatable fluff and its focus on the core game concepts of taking turns, obeying the dictates of the randomizer*, and looking forward in the game.  “Oh, I hope I get a blue card on the first turn so that I can take that shortcut,” is music to a gaming Dad’s ears.

After a few months of learning colors and making no decisions, she was ready for something a little more involved, and so my Christmas gift list included a healthy dose of games that could help up the complexity just enough for her without being overwhelming.  In the end, we found three, and the best part of the hunt was that I didn’t have to give any money to Hasbro to find them.

Rhino Hero is a basic card stacking game.  Players are dealt five cards and have to play them as the ceiling/roof of a building.  A separate stack of folded cards is used to build the walls of the tower.  To complicate matters, some of the roof cards have a rhino icon which forces the next player to carefully remove and place a small rhino-shaped block onto the top of the tower.  It’s a bit like Jenga, but with cards and with the advantage of forcing players to choose the order in which to play their cards.  The little bit of strategy is less important than the opportunity this game provides for challenging a child’s manual dexterity, and the fact that even an experienced adult sometimes fumbles the ball means that the kids have a pretty good chance at learning how to be a good winner when playing against their parents.

Tiny Park is a ‘fill in the card’ version of Yahtzee game where players roll five dice to generate resources that they can use to buy attractions for their tiny park.  Players have three chances to get the resources needed to buy an attraction, and the attractions have Tetris-like shapes, which forces the players to plan ahead when building their rides.  Unlike the other two games, this one lacks any player interaction and becomes more of a race to finish your park first, but that provides ample opportunity for teaching your child how to plan ahead, and how to judge risks as they select which dice to reroll.  The import of teaching them how to make these small scale decisions occurs in Tiny Park without the pressure of adversarial competition, making it a prefect introduction to the basics in a low pressure gaming environment.

Rally Run mixes the pathfinding fun of Streetcar style game with the memory checks of the Match Game.  Players have wooden car tokens that have to race to the center of a five card by five card grid, retrieve a fuel can and finish line, and then race for the win.  The cars move from one over-turned tile to the next, with the path of the card being revealed only when a car is on the tile.  Instead of moving – such as when blocked in by the dreaded dead-end tiles – players may swap the positions of two of the face-down cards.  A full version of the game with a seven by seven grid might make for a better adult version of the game, but the small size and fast play make this perfect for younger children, and the randomness of the cards help level the playing field, making this a perfect game for older kids to enjoy as well.

All three games are light on rules, and a little heavy on the luck, which makes them perfect starter games for children ready to move up to the next level of board games.  They all play in a matter of a few minutes, making them perfect for those whose attention spans are growing, but not quite ready for a full-on game of Diplomacy.  And they are all pretty cheap – I think 15 bucks is the most I spent on any of them – which makes introducing them to your gaming table a low-risk investment for you.

I’ll definitely be giving more HABA games a shot in the future.

*I’ve gamed with more than a few DMs who could use a Candyland refresher on that score!

Planetary Defense Awards – 2017 Ballot

January means that it’s time to start thinking about awards season.  And when it comes to sci-fi, the hot new award on the block is the Planetary Awards.

This year, I’m going to go with “The Last American” for the short category.  Schuyler Hernstrom’s poignant and rambunctious kitchen-sink adventure complete with astronauts, wild-haired barbarians, lizard men, and oh, so much more was another breathtaking read from my favorite modern era author.  It’s a standout, even among the excellent company it keeps in Issue #5 of Cirsova Magazine.

For long form, I’d like to nominate “The Corroding Empire” by Johan Kalsi, but that’s an edge case that might get dinged for being more of a collection of short stories set in the same milieu.  Another honorable mention goes to “The Heretics of St. Possenti“, which is a prequel to a sci-fi book, but doesn’t actually qualify as sci-fi itself.  So instead, we’ll play it safe and nominate Nick Cole and Jason Anspach’s “Legionnaire“.  I’m not usually a big fan of mil-sf, but the characters and writing were so engaging that the book sucked me in, drained me dry, and spit me back out.  Nobody does jaded old warriors clinging to last scraps of decency like Nick Cole does – he even clears the very high bar set by Glen Cook – so this ranks as the best SF book I read in 2017, and my nomination for the award.

Make sure you get your own votes in before February 14th!

A First Rate Second Chance

“Thrust into the savage Martian past, Garvey Dire must solve the mystery of time in a world of alien monsters and brutal violence or see his own world destroyed by war.”

I’m currently reading Dire Planet, a novel by Joel Jenkins, one of those guys who (I think) hangs around with the New Pulp crew.  I’ll have a full review of the book over at the Castalia House Blog in a week or so, but wanted to take a few minutes to provide my early impressions and to provide some context.

My first encounter with Joel’s work came about as a result of a crossover that he did with Derrick Ferguson.  In Ferguson’s Four Bullets For Dillon, the eponymous Dillon meets up with Jenkins’ rock star mercenary, Sly Gantlet, in a high class nightclub where the two are attacked by a man with a vendetta against both of them.

I was not impressed.  The whole story came off a little too try-hard for my taste.  The tale spent too much time telling the reader how bad ass the heroes are and too little showing the reader how bad ass the heroes are.  As a result, I’ve shied away from Joel’s work for over a year now.

I’m want to say right here and now, that was a mistake.

I’ve bumped into Joel a few times on social media.  He comes across as a good guy, and I have to give both he and Derrick Ferguson credit for bailing on Big Publishing, and for helping to kickstart a renewed interest in pulp style fiction years before I realized such a thing was even possible.

In was in the mood for some planetary romance, and liked my encounters with the guy.  As one of the CH Bloggers tasked with plumbing the jungle of self-publishing for the lost shrines and hidden gems, it was high time to take another look at Joel’s work, and I’m glad I did.

Garvey Dire makes for a great hero – he is both heroic and flawed, and is motivated for all the right reasons.  The women of the Dire Planet are strong but retain their femininity – that’s a neat trick that few modern writers manage.  Jenkins’ version of Mars strikes a careful balance between “the same but different” when compared to the Burroughsian elephant in the Martian Room.  He adds and unexpected element of modern action that interweaves with the story of Garvey Dire in a way that shouldn’t work, but does.

At the halfway point, there’s a lot of time left for this book to fall flat on its face, but I don’t think that’s going to happen.  At this point, I’d recommend Dire Planet to anybody who wants to see how pulp style writing can be seamlessly wedded with modern action.  And I’d also recommend it to anyone who wants to join in the conversation when my full review goes up at the CH Blog. (Which will probably be next Wednesday).

For the Deus Vulters

Alternatively, “A Reminder: Catholic’s Who Support Socialism are Heretics”

If you’ve never heard of Taylor Marshall – founder of the New Saint Thomas Institute, Thomist, former Episcopalian Priest, and father of eight(!) – represents an antidote to the cancer of Father James Martin.  While far more moderate than we happy, internet Deus Vulters, his blog and podcasts are my go-to for Church scholarship bereft of the mealy-mouthed pandering to the Gospel of Niceness.  Lately, he has been a stalwart thorn in the side of the USCCB as they capitulate to the architects of the modern day tower of Babel, seemingly in pursuit of accolades from the Fake Media.

Recently, Taylor posted a reminder of Pope Leo the XIII’s, Rerum Novarum, which explicitly condemned socialism for its love of envy, and the way in which it seeks to absolve mankind of his responsibility to his fellow man by transferring the responsibility from the individual to the state.  His response to the usual bleating objections makes me laugh like JJ Jameson:

  • [F]olks came out of the word work saying things like “Aha! But the Church doesn’t condemn Christian Socialism, but only condemns Marxist or atheistic Socialism.”

This isn’t true. Simply read Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum and you’ll discover that he condemns Socialism as an economic error contrary to natural law and social justice. But if that does not convince you, here are some quotes from subsequent Popes further laying the smack down on Socialism and even on so-called “Christian Socialism”…

Read on for quotes from Popes Pius XI, John XXIII, Paul VI, and of course the rock star John Paul “The Deuce”, whose resistance to the Soviets played a pivotal role in lifting hundreds of millions out of the hellish nightmare scape of socialism writ large.

But Taylor isn’t just a level-headed guy when it comes to the intersection of religion and economics, he’s a sturdy defender of the faith in all its forms, and a solid speaker.  Unlike most religious scholars, who tend to strive of the NPR style of earnest softness in their delivery, he speaks with a strength and fortitude that is refreshing.  He also hosts the Maccabee Society a website geared toward religious men that celebrates masculinity in a way that modern society rejects – they present articles that embrace such things as a man’s role as provider and protector, while rejecting the hedonism, gluttony, sexualism, and narcissism that characterize so much of what the Madison Avenue types peddle to men.  Consider these recent articles:

Even if it doesn’t enter your daily reading list, if you’re a man looking for solid, dependable reading from a masculine Catholic perspective – a rarity in this day and age – you owe it to yourself to give them a shot.


Short Post on Short Fiction

Reading more short fiction allows the easily digestible chunks of fiction to fit neatly into my modern, family-oriented lifestyle.  At the end of a day of back-breaking labor spent repairing a crumbling stone wall (and the multiple runs to the hardware store because you always need just two more bags of cement) followed by an evening of dinner prep and board games it’s nice to grab a 20 page story, finish it off, and close your eyes to recharge for another day of the same.  It also lets you skip around and read a lot of different authors on consecutive nights.

The downside from a blogging perspective is that you don’t have a whole lot to talk about because you’re only halfway through a number of different books.

For those of you who share the misery of a long commute, here’s a little something to ease the pain.  Robert E. Howard, even when he isn’t writing about Conan or Solomon Kane, is one of the best of the best.  I’ve been poking around CensorTube for some of his short fiction in audio format, and found this reading of The Fire of Asshurbanipal to be imminently listenable.  The fact that this contemporary 1920s/30s tale fits so neatly into the Lovecraft universe makes a strong case for playing Call of Cthulhu in the pulp era.  Also listen for the strongly sympathetic characterization of the Afghan tribesman – it’s the sort of writing we are constantly told was invented in 2012 by the SFWA “in-crowd” by that very crowd and their media sycophants.

Here’s another great one by the old master. Two men enter a room with a corpse, and four men leave. Sort of. Things get confusing toward the end of this suspense tale, but in a way that heightens the sense of unreality and doom. This story is another masterclass in horror fiction that doesn’t get enough attention.


EXTANT! publishing announced its intentions back in June:

More than ever, there’s space in the market for new ideas and new voices – and that means there need to be plenty of dynamic new venues where the emerging writers can experiment and polish their craft. Where better than in the modern, digital equivalent of the pulps.

That’s what I want to do with EXTANT! Here I plan to publish the most amazing fiction I can, both old and new. I’ll be going back to basics, looking for exciting, energy rich stories to put in front of readers. And there are so many new authors popping up today that I’m sure the hardest part of my side of the job will be choosing them.

Springtime for fantasy and sci-fi readers continues to bloom, and one more flower is ready to open it’s petals and reveal…thrilling twenty-first century tales.  The author list includes writers whose work has already made me a fan such as Alexandru Konstantin, Misha Burnett, Schuyler Hernstrom, and Rawle Nyanzi , and a list of familiar names that I’m excited to see what they can do – like Nathan Dabney, Tomas Diaz, and Dan Wolfgang.  But this collection is just the start.

Last week, EXTANT! officially announced it’s first project, “a collection of stories that aim for the passion and drive of Radium Age action and adventure, but drag that energy into the modern age.” I’m happy to say that one of my own stories will feature in this collection, but I’m even happier to say that EXTANT! has plans for even more collections. Check out this line-up:

•Weird New World: Secret histories of the Americas (in planning)
•Karakuri: Action and adventure…with robots! (in planning)
•In Nomine: Dark forces – and the faithful who face them (in planning)
•After Us: Tales of adventure from a world after human civilization (in planning)
•Fair is Foul, Foul is Fair: The parallel world of the fae (in planning)

If that series of collections doesn’t get your heart pumping for a nice long reading sessions, you’re reading the wrong blog, buster.

The man behind EXTANT!, Kevyn Winkless, knows his stuff. When it comes to walking encyclopedias of knowledge about the original pulps, he ranks as one of my personal Big Three. (For the record, Cirsova and The Pulp Archivist are the other two members of the triumvirate. If none of those three have the answer to your burning pulp question, then it probably wasn’t a question worth asking.) Not only that, but his steady demeanor and solid analysis have talked me down from more than one clock tower of literary ranting.

Kevyn and I might never see eye to eye on Donald Wollheim*. But who cares? Kevyn has a keen eye for the written word and a excellent taste in fiction, and I trust Kevyn to serve as a phenomenal steward for this latest branch of the resurgent tree of pulp.  It’s an exciting time to be a reader, thanks to men like Kevyn.

* Don's later career notwithstanding, I find it hard to have much faith in a man who so fully embraced the Communist plots of the 1940s and 50s. Particularly given the predilection of those types for infiltrating society like termites to subtly undermine its foundations.

Backing A Book You Can’t Read

My cover artist, Rapha Pinheiro, launched his crowd funding project for his next comicbook:

Salto is a Fantasy Steampunk, written and drawn in France when I was living in Angoulême to study comics. The book tells the story of Nu, an inhabitant of an underground city where everyone is made of fire. They live in this city for fear of the rain that plagues the outside world and rely on an oxygen factory to keep their flames burning.

After witnessing something he should not, Nu is bound to leave civilization and venture into the cave where he discovers a secret that can change the life of the entire city.

Since I don’t speak Portuguese, I’ll never be able to read this comic book.  It doesn’t matter, because I’ll still be able to enjoy the pretty pictures.  If you live outside of Brazil, you can’t get the hard copy, but the digital copy will only set you back R$20, which is about six bucks.  As I type this, I’m one of 38 backers who have brought the project to 1/8th funding in five days, so Rapha has made good progress on funding already.
So if you like steampunk, and you like weird, alien vistas populated by creatures of living flame, give it a shot.  I backed it just because I like the art, and Rapha has been such an easy artist to work with.
Just wait until you see what he worked up for my forthcoming space princess story – this space princess is a lot more helpless than Karenina, but you’ll have to wait to find out why.
[EDIT:  Found out the comic itself is actually in English – it’s just the Not-KickStarter that’s in Portuguese.  So my headline is fake news.  Oops.  We regret the error.]

It’s Research, Not Gravedancing

My morning commute has slowly evolved into the Diversity and Comics Roadshow.  For those not in the know, the nameless creator of this YouTube series talks comics.  Usually, he reviews a single issue of a comic book, but he also produces episodes on various subjects, many of which revolve around Marvel’s self-inflicted gunshot wounds.  Not only does he provide interesting historical background information, he spots trends, and calls out the good and bad of every issue.  From his analysis of the artwork itself, it’s obvious the man knows what he is talking about.  He is also a funny host with a dry wit and often a barely restrained rage that entertains even as it informs.

Most of the information that he provides in his autopsies of what doesn’t work does me no good.  The constant litany of SJW and barely past their teens writing mistakes are not the sorts of things that I need to guard against.  But it’s darn fun to be able to vicariously experience the dreadful writing and erratic plotting and clumsy left-wing preaching through D&C.  The guy tries to bridge a middle ground, but the egregious own-goals of Marvel are clearly pushing him hard into the welcoming arms of the alt-right.  His SJW takedowns and thorough and professional and hilarious.

The field of comics serves as a useful case study in the cancerous effects of SJW culture in general and feminism in specific.  Comic books themselves did about $1 billion in sales in 2016, compared to a global film market of $38 billion and video games market of $91 billion.  As a content creator in the literary world (the biggest of the four mediums at $127 billion), this serves as a powerful incentive to rein in any impulses you might have to sip from the SJW kool-aid.

With a smaller environment, we can more easily see the market effects of a little thing like erasing the biggest names in the industry (Hulk, Iron Man, Thor, Spidey, etc.) and brown-washing them with brand new demographic placeholders.  Spoiler alert!  It’s not pretty on either the creative or the financial side.

Or take this classic example of what happens to the sales of a comic book as it’s main writer and intellectual shepherd continues to drink from the SJW kool-aid spigot:

That’s a drop off in readership of 75%, and you can make chin music about dying industries and the death of print media all you want, and you’ll still be left with a minimum 25% dropoff in readership due to the quality of the work produced.
While comic books are only directly analogous to literature, they are a powerful analogy.  All of the rules of plot, pacing, characters, personality, writer’s voice, underlying messages, and so on apply equally to my chosen medium as they do to comic books. 
The dearth of quality writer’s podcasts has long been a complaint of mine.  Oh, sure, it’s easy to find podcasts full of NPR’s “Writer’s Almanac” style wankery.  It’s easy to find writers talking about their own work.  Finding nuts and bolts analysis of what works and what doesn’t when it comes to stringing sentences together is a lot harder.  Luckily, D&C doesn’t just produce that style of critique, he floods the digital airwaves with it.
And my commute is all the better for having him along for the ride.

Unexpected Classical Music

Lately I’ve been enjoying a lot of saxophone quartet music while writing.  Saxophone quartets are grossly underrated.  String quartets get the headlines because in the small parlors of the 1700s, the lightweight and soft tones didn’t blast the audience seated just a few feet away, but I’m partial to the sound of the woodwind, myself – and not just because I came of age listening to the sax-heavy soundtracks of the 1980s.  There’s something clean and pure in this particular woodwind that lends itself to a quartet.  The natural blend of the different sizes of a saxophone, and the natural volume you get from them makes these perfect instruments for listening to on the streets and in the concert hall. 

But that’s not what this post is about today.  Today’s post is about the classic modern masterpiece that is the theme from “Super Mario Brothers”.  Check this out:

Four movements.  Three styles.  Peppy, breezy, maniacal interlude, menacing, then back to the original theme with a huge flourish at the end.  That’s a real crowd pleaser.

Speaking of which, have you ever been to a concert where the performer broke into this song?  It’s electric.  Those first few bars are not just recognizable, they are beloved.  Everybody knows them.  Everybody loves them.  The intro of this song makes the crowd sit up, laugh, and pay attention.  They make people of all ages smile, and it’s a safe bet they will continue to do so for the next 200 years.

Gingerbread Wolves: The Non-Spoilery Discussion

The Book of Lost Doors wraps up with one heck of a bang.  Misha sticks the landing.  The American judge gives him a 9.5!

There’s not much to say about it that won’t detract from your own enjoyment of the series.  Misha Burnett gives you the slowest of burns with this series, but that slow burn is a lit fuse burning its way to a great big powder keg.  In this final Misha puts a fresh, modern take on some old ideas that normally done so ham fistedly that a reader can be forgiven for a twinge of trepidation heading into that final confrontation.

What I can talk about without spoiling anything is Misha’s writing.  He reminds me of Steven King without the bleak, broken on the inside, point of view.  Now, some people claim that King’s writing horror fiction and so he necessarily will write about broken and vulnerable people.  Hogwash, I say.  Watching sympathetic characters struggle against the long, dark, uncaring universe detracts from the suspense.  You care less about characters you don’t like, and characters you don’t like describes almost all of King’s characters.

Misha’s a good guy and a good pal of mine.  Steven King is an ass that doesn’t like my kind of people and won’t shut about it.  So I’m necessarily going to be biased here, but…well, let’s just rip off the bandage.  Misha is a better writer than King.

There.  I said it.  I stand by it.

They both focus mainly on the people and relationships.  The weird monsters and existential threats are icing.  They both spend as much time dealing with how the bizarre situations in the story affect the relationships between the characters.  They are both enormously creative. 

Where they differ is that reading Burnett’s books doesn’t leave you with that gross feeling of having just walked out of a porno theater.  You don’t feel depressed and vaguely queasy and like you could use a good shower.  You don’t put down a Burnett book and .

Burnett also doesn’t have great openings, solid mid-sections, and then completely drop the ball in the end.  There are no “hand of god nukes Vegas” or “a gang bang with 11 year olds saves the day” or “the devil closes up shop after having spent a week wrecking a small town” or “the dimensional portal in the trunk of the car just stops working one day, like they do”.  Burnett doesn’t cop out – he gives you exactly what he prepared you for the whole time, with every action made by the protagonists being important, even little ones that didn’t make sense at the time.  What you get is an epic confrontation with a satisfying resolution that leaves you sated and yet ready for more.

Really, the only comparison where Burnett comes up short is in the number of zero at the end of his savings account balance.

I’m done with King, but I’m just getting started with Burnett.

I can also talk about this:  If you’re going to read this series, you have to read the whole thing or stop after catskinner’s book.  That first volume is a nice, tight adventure yarn in which the, er, hero…finds peace and contentment with the, er, girl…he loves.  That’s a nice ending.  You can quit there.  You’ll have a few loose threads dangling and mysteries unresolved, but nothing too major, and a few of those mysteries don’t ever get resolved, so seeing the series through to the end won’t help you with those.

If you decide to move on after catskinner’s book, trust Misha.  The next two books are just as well written, but the destination for James and his “if only he was imaginary” friend is a lot less clear than it was in the first volume.  Volumes two and three introduce new characters, new threats, and a lot more complexity.  James growing list of friends and responsibilities draws him into ever increasing dangers and puts him at odds with ever increasing threats.  They make fine individual chapters in the saga, but it’s clear that their real purpose is to set up all of the dominoes for the last stage toppling, and that last topple is a real humdinger.