Saturday, October 13, 2012

Review: The Fifth Science Fiction Megapack

The Fifth Science Fiction Megapack from Wildside Press is a collection of 25 “modern and classic science fiction stories.” It’s also the first of Wildside’s megapacks that I’ve read. At a very affordable price of $0.99, it’s hard not to like. In fact, I only have one negative thing to say about this ebook: The cover art doesn’t really fit the contents. I’m sorry to have to say that; I know the kind of effort that goes into choosing cover art. The floating astronaut connotes, to me at least, tales of hard science fiction – rocket ships, spacemen, and hard science. While the hard stuff is certainly represented, this collection is much more than that in scope.

Ranging from the opening tale of how robots learn emotions to the story of a retired super heroine’s legacy, to the tale of how the grooming of a planet’s cultural development failed, every story is fresh and different. There’s even a good Nazi story, sort of. I finally understood what this collection is all about when I read Peacemaker by Gardner Dozois. It is a dark tale about a bleak and depressing future. When I finished the story, at first I wondered why the editors chose to include it here and not in one of their horror collections. My very next thought was, “Well, it would make one hell of a good episode of The Twilight Zone.” And that thought can be applied to most of the stories here.

The stories are excellent choices for a wide audience. Overall, this ebook is a steal at only a dollar, but more importantly, it’s well worth the read. Now I’m off to read the Cthulhu Mythos Megapack (which I purchased while reading this one), and then I want buy the Macabre Megapack.

Now reading: Necroscope III: The Source by Brian Lumley

Thursday, October 13, 2011

New game: Love It! Hate It! by Patch Products

September through December is the annual Million Minute Family Challenge sponsored by Patch Products. The MMC is an organized effort to increase game playing (and therefore social time) amongst friends and families. As a family, we’ve been participating in this event for the past three or four years. Of course, we’re a pretty game-intensive family anyway, but this event gives an excuse to throw our family-time into overtime. 

Patch Products makes games and activities for families and younger children. They really don’t have many games that interest us, since our boys are older (preteen) and we specialize in niche games, but the ones I've played have been great. Their newest game is called Love It! Hate It! They sent me a promo copy a few weeks ago and we finally got a chance to play it. (Technically, it was a raffle contest for members of their mailing list.)

In play, this game is similar to Apples to Apples, a game with which many people are familiar. On each turn, the active player reads a question, like “If I were a cartoon character, I would LOVE it if I were ___, and I would HATE it if I were ___.” The other players write down their answers for the two questions, trying to guess what the active player would say. Then one of the players reads out the answers to the active player, who chooses his/her favorite of each. The other players whose answers are selected get tokens (green for Love It, purple for Hate It). The first player to earn three of each token wins the game. 

The game played well. Very well. We all loved it. This game would be great with people who are familiar with each other, ie, friends and family. It would also work as an ice breaker-type party game, but in that case, players would probably be trying to be funny more than trying to target their answers to the active player. 

The game components are high quality. Rather than printed paper sheets for players to write on (like you’d get with typical party games of this sort), Love It! Hate It! provides hard plastic (ABS?) slates and dry erase markers for the players to write on. There are six of each, which is enough for a group of seven people, actually. The scoring tokens are made of the same high-quality plastic. 

The downside to this game is the packaging. It comes in a metal storage box, probably due to the box’s awkward shape. Inside the box is a cardboard insert that acts to keep the components in place, but I’m betting we’ll pitch that soon. I’d much rather have the usual rectangular card-stock box.

I am grateful to Patch Products for sending this game to me. It will go into regular circulation in our mix of board and card games and I can’t wait to play it with our friends. I encourage you to give this one a try – give me a call if you want to play!

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Gamers to be

A note from this summer's scout camp. I originally wrote this back in July, and then misplaced my notebook and forgot about it.

I'm sitting here at Boy Scout camp listening to two groups of scouts. It's late and they're filling their evening with games and chatter. One group is clustered around the central picnic tables playing poker. The other group, which I am sitting with, is cloistered off in an unused tent at the rear of our campsite, playing D&D.

I get excited listening to their play and banter. They are all new to the roleplaying, and are feeling their way through the complex ruleset. I was about their age when I discovered D&D back in the early 80's.

The ringleaders of this group are a pair of brothers who are working as camp staff this year. One of them is a member of our troop and the other belongs to a different local troop. They are both very active scouts and attend each other's scouting events all the time. I found out that they were just discovering D&D on a recent canoe trip. I did my best to reinforce their emerging hobby by telling them that I still game, even in my advanced adulthood. By the end of that trip, they had organized their first game night.

Earlier today, I was sitting here at the picnic table teaching some of the scouts in our troop how to play the card game Fluxx, when one of the brothers, with some of his gaming group in tow, walked up and asked, "Do you happen to have any multisided dice?"

I looked up with a grin and asked, "What size do you need?"

His jaw dropped in hopeful amazement. "Really?!"

"Of course I do." I went to my tent and produced a zippered pencil pouch. "Here, this is two full sets — don't lose them."

They ran off to the spare tent and the orc-slaying began. I am jealous of that gleam in their eyes. They know they've discovered something magical, but they don't quite understand it yet. They have no idea what exciting and fun times await them. Fantastic realms of imagination and stories, shared fun with friends, and late nights filled with laughs, snacks, and dice.

Now reading: Well of Ascension, book 2 of the Mistborn trilogy by Brandon Sanderson.

Sunday, May 08, 2011

Thought for the day

From my wife: "My dog doesn't recognize that I have a culinary point of view."

He's a dog. He'll eat the remnants of a 3-day old cheeseburger found on the street. All he cares is that it fits in his mouth. On the other hand, my wife is terribly underappreciated, and not just in her culinary talents. She works hard to be a great mother, a wonderful wife, and a dedicated and resourceful teacher.

Here's to her and all the other mothers out there. You can always count on your dogs to appreciate you even when the rest of us forget to. But don't expect them to eat your leftovers.

Monday, March 07, 2011

Astrological predictions and my strange destiny

Astrology. The science of interpreting how the cosmic forces of gravity, spiritual energy (and according to some, white mice) combine to predestine our actions. I believe that there are forces out there greater than us, but also that we create our own destiny. Still, I like to have a little forewarning once in a while, a leg up on what's in store for me on any given day. Today's horoscope was rather pedestrian and encouraging. Tomorrow's foretells that I'll be feeling ill due to stress and anxiety at work - that one must be a replay from two weeks ago, when it was true.

While I was pondering the boring, nondescript nature of these entries in my starry fate, I was reminded of my horoscope from a few weeks ago. It prophesied a good day for me. My energy was focused, my body and my spirit were one. My horoscope said that there were no problems I couldn't handle that day, and that so long as I maintained my focus, I would "literally turn mountains into molehills."

That's the direct quote. I know that you can't always take a horoscope literally, but in this case it came right out and said so. Talk about setting me up for failure! My initial reaction was that I'd better go out and buy some dynamite. My wife suggested, "It means you'll overcome a big problem." I said, "No, it said LITERALLY. Mountains...molehills. Alakazam!" The Force is hella big with this one, baby.

Needless to say, I did not take up mining or tunneling. I have not destroyed any geographic features, nor have I invented a powerful shrink ray. To that end, I have also not used magic or science (of any sort) to mutate tiny rodents into giant atomic monsters. This pretty much exhausts all the ways I can think to interpret that prediction, so I guess, all in all, I'm a pretty big failure as far as my destiny goes.

Now reading: still working on Dreadnought. Too many things to read right now.

Saturday, March 05, 2011

Bambi = The Walking Dead

Amazon, as we've all probably experienced, is a pretty powerful shopping site. When I look up something that I'm interested in, they never fail to suggest several other things that I might also like, based on my browsing and purchasing behavior. But they can suggest some really weird things sometimes. For example, yesterday a coworker commented on the irony of a purchase suggestion that he received from Amazon:
"Customers who purchased movies and TV shows might also be interested in this week's notable new releases on DVD and Blu-ray, including Bambi, and upcoming future releases, including The Walking Dead: Season One."

Bambi and The Walking Dead. Out of all the new and upcoming releases, this targeted email pulled those two together? We had a good laugh about the crazy robots Amazon uses to make their marketing and merchandising decisions.

But the more I thought about it, the more the connections began to form. When you get right down to it, the stories are the same: They both center around a strong and upstanding character who's world is forever changed by an external force. One faces hunters and a forest fire, while the other faces an unending zombie apocalypse. The character is forced to band with other survivors as they all struggle to find their place in the new natural order. They meet friends and make alliances, and they experience scary new changes in the world they've always known. Both stories are about the survival and growth of the characters.

So yes, from this literary perspective, these moves are actually a well-matched set. And maybe those robots at Amazon are a little smarter than we give them credit.

Now reading: Dreadnought by Cherie Priest

Tuesday, March 01, 2011


Book review: 2011.01

Author: Gail Carriger

Gail Carriger's series came to my attention via Mighty Mur Lafferty's podcast (I Should Be Writing), I think. My wife gave them to me for Christmas last year, and they've been a delightful gift.

To be honest, I'm not sure why I liked Soulless as much as I did. It's Victorian era fantasy with a thick layer of steampunk frosting. This is good, I like both of those things. It also has vampires, werewolves, and ghosts openly existing in society among normal humans, and I don't like that. Monsters are supposed to be just that – monsters. They belong in the dark. But in this series, they are an integral part of society and Carriger has created a strong world where these 'monsters' are strongly integrated into the culture, society, and history. The setting is internally consistent, and crafted well, so I was able to forgive the things I don't usually like.

The main character, Alexia Tarabotti, is loveable because she's a misfit within Victorian society. Tall, dark complected, with a non-dainty nose and full figure, she's practically a pariah, especially compared to her mother and two step-sisters. Add to this an inquisitive mind and she's clearly doomed as a potential wife.
But Alexia has a secret. She doesn't have a soul, which really isn't as terrible as it sounds.

The author alludes that it's Alexia's soullessness that is likely the cause of her heroic nature. Soulless people are a rare species, called preternaturals, who are juxtaposed with the supernatural caste of vampires, werewolves, and ghosts. And preternaturals were historically the nemeses of the monsters. They were the monster hunters. And this puts Alexia at odds with the supernatural community.

More than the setting, which as I said, is very logical and internally consistent, it's the characters that I like. Carriger populates this silly setting with some fun characters and each one is a person unto themselves. Personally, I really want to see more of the Scarlet Pimpernellian Lord Akeldama and his cadre of spies…please Gail!

In truth, the story is as much a romance story as it is scifi/fantasy, and Carriger handles her stuff well in both courts. She does a masterful job of handling character relationships and interactions, especially the friendly ones. The characters are fun and their interactions are realistic. Characters put as much importance on society, appearance, and etiquette as they do the story at hand, and most characters have their own perspectives on the world around them. Their own motivations guide their actions, whether that is spying on the vampire hives or finding right hat or cravat for the day's activities.

The book is full of humor, full of adventure, and definitely a fun read. If Kim Harrison and Jane Austin got together to write a book, it might come close to this. My defining keywords for this book are: character, steampunk, adventure, humor, espionage, and romance; in that order.

As I'm writing this, I've nearly finished the second book in the series, Changeless. Alexia's Cinderella story has come true and this book finds the city embroiled in a panic as the supernatural denizens of London are rendered completely mortal for a day. Alexia is on the case trying to figure out the cause of this calamity.

This novel further develops the history of Carriger's setting, expanding what we know about the roles the supernatural elements have played in the past. We get more clues about Alexia's father and the nature of their species, the preternaturals. And the author treats us with some delightful new characters, including a cross-dressing, counter-culture mad scientist and a pack of Scottish werewolves. Steampunk elements feature very strongly in this story as well. Thus far, there are still no zombies, but I'm holding out hope for the third book on that note.

Changeless does everything a second-book should and it's been a fun read. I'm only about fifty pages from the end and plots are starting to be resolved, thanks to the unladylike willfulness of our heroic main character. Again, thanks to my wife, the third book is on my book shelf, and I just discovered that the fourth will be out soon. I'm looking forward to both!