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Claire DeWitt is back, investigating the murder of an ex and doing way too many drugs.


Claire DeWitt and the Bohemian Highway

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013, 288 pages



When Paul Casablancas, Claire DeWitt’s ex-boyfriend and a popular musician in the Bay Area scene, is found dead in his apartment, his cherished guitars missing, the police are convinced it’s a simple robbery. But Claire knows that nothing is ever simple. With the help of her new assistant, Claude, Claire follows the clues, finding hints to Paul’s fate in her other cases - especially a long-ago missing girl in New York’s gritty East Village and a modern-day miniature-horse theft in Marin.

As visions of the past reveal the secrets of the present, Claire begins to understand the words of the enigmatic French detective Jacques Silette: "The detective won't know what he is capable of until he encounters a mystery that pierces his own heart." And love, in all its forms, is the greatest mystery of all - at least to the world’s greatest P.I.

With a heroine hailed as "a charmer" (New York Times Book Review), from an author who "reminds me why I fell in love with the genre" (Laura Lippman), this is an addictive new adventure for an irresistible detective.


New Age Noir with a detective who really needs a stint in rehab.Collapse )

Also by Sara Gran: My review of Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead.




My complete list of book reviews.
An octogenarian vs. Balkan mobsters proves the adage about age and treachery beating youth.


Norwegian by Night

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012, 304 pages



Sheldon Horowitz - 82 years old, impatient, and unreasonable - is staying with his granddaughter's family in Norway when he disappears with a stranger's child. Sheldon is an ex-Marine, and he feels responsible for his son's death in Vietnam. Recently widowed and bereft, he talks to the ghosts of his past constantly.

To Norway's cops, Sheldon is just an old man who is coming undone at the end of a long and hard life. But Sheldon is clear in his own mind. He'd heard the boy's eastern European mother being murdered, and he's determined to protect the child from the killer and his Balkan gang. With an endearing combination of dexterity and daring, Sheldon manages to elude the police in what is hostile, foreign territory for him. But what he doesn't know is that the police and the gang both know where he's heading.

Norwegian by Night is the last adventure of a man coming to terms with the tragedy of his own life as he tries to save another's. It combines laconic, deadpan humour, moral seriousness, visceral grief, and narrative tensions in a remarkable way - and Sheldon, in particular, is about to become a famous fictional hero.


He runs away on a tractor...Collapse )



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What killed nine Russian hikers in the Ural mountains in 1959?


Dead Mountain: The Untold True Story of the Dyatlov Pass Incident

Chronicle Books, 2013, 288 pages



In February 1959, a group of nine experienced hikers in the Russian Ural Mountains died mysteriously on an elevation known as Dead Mountain. Eerie aspects of the incident—unexplained violent injuries, signs that they cut open and fled the tent without proper clothing or shoes, a strange final photograph taken by one of the hikers, and elevated levels of radiation found on some of their clothes—have led to decades of speculation over what really happened. This gripping work of literary nonfiction delves into the mystery through unprecedented access to the hikers' own journals and photographs, rarely seen government records, dozens of interviews, and the author's retracing of the hikers' fateful journey in the Russian winter. A fascinating portrait of the young hikers in the Soviet era, and a skillful interweaving of the hikers narrative, the investigators' efforts, and the author's investigations, here for the first time is the real story of what happened that night on Dead Mountain.


It probably wasn"t giants.Collapse )




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Book Review: Double Whammy, by Carl Hiaasen

A murder mystery surrounding pro bass fishing in Florida. It gets weird.


Double Whammy

Putnam, 1987, 320 pages



"Robert Clinch loved his boat more that anything else in the world...more than his wife...his kids...his girlfiend...even more than the largemouth bass he was pursuing." Thus begins a twisted tale of murder in the world of big-stakes bass fishing tournaments. Filled with ex-wives, evangelists, and an armed pit-bull, this is a story that could only be concocted by Carl Hiaasen, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, New York Times best-selling author, and czar of Florida noir fiction.


Televangelists, pro bass fishermen, private detectives, and runaway governors - everybody is crazy in Florida.Collapse )


Also by Carl Hiaasen: My review of Nature Girl.




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Urban fantasy for gun nuts: hunting monsters for fun and profit.


Monster Hunter International

Baen, 2009, 457 pages



Five days after Owen Zastava Pitt pushed his insufferable boss out of a 14th story window, he woke up in the hospital with a scarred face, an unbelievable memory, and a job offer.

It turns out that monsters are real. All the things from myth, legend, and B-movies are out there, waiting in the shadows. Officially secret, some of them are evil, and some are just hungry. On the other side are the people who kill monsters for a living. Monster Hunter International is the premier eradication company in the business. And now Owen is their newest recruit.

It's actually a pretty sweet gig, except for one little problem. An ancient entity known as the Cursed One has returned to settle a centuries-old vendetta. Should the Cursed One succeed, it means the end of the world, and MHI is the only thing standing in his way.

With the clock ticking towards Armageddon, Owen finds himself trapped between legions of undead minions, belligerent federal agents, a cryptic ghost who has taken up residence inside his head, and the cursed family of the woman he loves. Business is good.... Welcome to Monster Hunter International.


Harry Dresden, with less magic, more guns, and lots of bitching about the government.Collapse )

Also by Larry Correia: My reviews of Hard Magic, Spellbound, and Warbound.




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Book Review: Stoner, by John Williams

A finely wrought tale of mediocrity and disappointment.


Stoner

Vintage, 1965, 288 pages



William Stoner is born at the end of the 19th century into a dirt-poor Missouri farming family. Sent to the state university to study agronomy, he instead falls in love with English literature and embraces a scholar's life, far different from the hardscrabble existence he has known. And yet as the years pass, Stoner encounters a succession of disappointments: marriage into a "proper" family estranges him from his parents; his career is stymied; his wife and daughter turn coldly away from him; a transforming experience of new love ends under threat of scandal. Driven ever deeper within himself, Stoner rediscovers the stoic silence of his forebears and confronts an essential solitude.

John Williams's luminous and deeply moving novel is a work of quiet perfection. William Stoner emerges from it not only as an archetypal American, but as an unlikely existential hero, standing, like a figure in a painting by Edward Hopper, in stark relief against an unforgiving world.


What "Mrs. Dalloway" might have been if written by a man.Collapse )

Verdict: You probably won't appreciate this book if you're too young. I also think this is very much a man's book — which is not to say a woman might not enjoy it, but it's a male point of view, and it completely puts the lie to the idea that slow-moving introspective novels about "feelings" and "relationships" can't be extremely masculine. Stoner is all about the interior life of a single character; one might even say a Mrs. Dalloway for dudes. It is perhaps not surprising that I liked Stoner far more. 10/10.




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Three Comic Book Universes on the Table: Comparing Superhero Deckbuilders

I may have mentioned a time or two that I am fond of superheroes, and have been a comic book geek since way back when.

Combine this with my gaming hobby, and that means of course that I am always down to try out a superhero game.

I actually own a Super Deck! starter pack. Super Deck! was one of the many CCGs published in the 1990s, trying to capitalize on the Magic craze, but Super Deck! was worse than most. Actually, it's probably a contender for Worst CCG Ever Made.

Super Deck!

Fortunately, the game industry has moved on. While CCGs still exist, there are also collectible dice games, cooperative games, and deckbuilders. Most of the latter are trying to capitalize on the popularity of Dominion, and as usual with copycats, the quality ranges from very good to horrible. But when you're dealing with big money licenses, you usually get something at least decent, and here's where I start.

For those who have never played a deckbuilder, the basic idea is that each player starts with a small deck (usually a dozen or so) of relatively weak cards, and by various mechanisms is able to add new cards to his deck. Selecting the right cards to get powerful combination effects, managing your hand in such a way that you don't wind up with worthless or unusable cards, trying to thin the weak and useless cards out of your deck, are all elements of a typical deckbuilder. This is very much like most CCGs, the difference being that you start with a fixed set of cards.

Marvel Legendary: In which we get two Wolverines but no Kitty Prydes



Marvel Legendary

Marvel Legendary is, you guessed it, a deckbuilder based on the Marvel Universe. At this time, there are five expansions (of which I own all but one), plus a companion game, Legendary: Villains, plus a game using the same engine but based on the Aliens franchise: Legendary Encounters. Supposedly these are all combinable, with some tweaking, so you could in theory have Wolverine and Dr. Doom teaming up with Ripley to defeat the Alien Queen and the Heralds of Galactus.

Sticking to Legendary, a game consists of a random (or semi-random) combination of heroes and villains, with a single Master Villain and a Scheme defining the unique conditions for the game. The players' decks consist of superheroes, each player drawing from the same hero deck. Every turn you can "recruit" new heroes and/or fight supervillains (which are drawn from the villains deck) while trying to build up cards powerful enough to fight the Master Villain. You start with mere S.H.I.E.L.D agents, but soon can acquire hero cards who have more recruiting ability, thus allowing you to recruit more powerful hero cards, which allow you to lay some serious smack down on the bad guys.

In a typical game, the hero deck has five different heroes (with five different cards for each hero), and your deck will work best if you try to concentrate on recruiting two or three of them.

So for example, a Legendary game might consist of Wolverine, Storm, Spider Man, the Hulk, and Mr. Fantastic trying to defeat Dr. Doom in his Scheme to Unleash the Legacy Virus, aided by Doombots, Hand Ninjas, the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, and the Sinister Six.

Marvel Legendary player mat

Thematically, the cards and the player mat do evoke the Marvel Universe, though actual game play often becomes an exercise in combo-optimization (but this is true of all deckbuilders). One can actually feel like you are "recruiting" Wolverine and the Hulk to go kick Dr. Doom's ass, while the Legacy Virus is constantly knocking heroes off the board. The combinations are variable but well-balanced; you start out slow but by the end game may well be able to dish out enough damage with one hand to knock out Galactus. Sometimes there isn't that much strategy involved, since you will buy the best hero card you can afford each turn, and the optimal order to play your hand is usually fairly easy to determine. There are a fair number of decisions to make, though.

Legendary is "semi-coop," meaning that players are in competition for the highest final victory point total (scored mostly by the number of villains you defeat), but you must collectively defeat the Master Villain before the Scheme ends the game, or else everybody loses.

The challenge level is variable, but I've played very few games in which the Master Villain won. Some Master Villains are harder to fight than others, and some Schemes are fairly easy to beat, while others impose a very challenging ticking clock for the players. Some combinations are brutal, while others are a bit silly. (If you generate your scenario completely randomly, you can theoretically wind up with Galactus and a Scheme to Rob the Mid-Town Bank...)

I've played a couple dozen games of Legendary and have not gotten tired of it yet. However, the expansions add dramatically to the variability and the challenge. The base game comes with Marvel's biggest heroes (the Avengers, the X-Men, Spider Man, and a few others), while the expansions add the Fantastic Four, Marvel Knights, Spider Friends, X-Factor, and others. Notably missing so far is Dr. Strange, and some of my personal favorites like Kitty Pryde, Dazzler, and Nova. There is also (as yet) no She-Hulk, or Captain Marvel. And yet there are two versions of Wolverine, which reminds me of the 90s when Wolverine was Marvel's most popular character and so he was guest-starring in every other series practically every month.

For game play and theme, Marvel Legendary scores very high. I will note that, in addition to the expense of collecting all those expansions, there are a lot of cards to sort out for each game, so the setup and breakdown time is considerable; it's not something you can casually whip out for a quick game.

DC Comics Deck-Building Game: In which you throw the kitchen sink at random villains



DC Comics Deck-Building Game

I tend to be biased in favor of Marvel over DC, but I still have fond memories of the Wolfman/Perez run of the New Teen Titans and John Byrne's Superman. (I also seem to be the only person I know who prefers Superman over Batman.)

So anyway, I finally got a chance to play the DC Comics Deck-Building Game recently.

The problems with this one start with the title. "DC Comics Deck-Building Game." Really. That is the name of the game. Could they possibly have come up with anything more generic and less exciting?

The same thing seems to be true of all DC licenses, from movies to card games: their marketing sucks.

Unlike Marvel Legendary, in the DC game, each player pick a single hero. Well, supposedly. What this means is you start with one DC hero card — Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, the Flash, Cyborg, or even good old Aquaman.

Aquaman.jpg

Each hero has one starting power. The Flash gets to draw extra cards, Superman gets a power bonus when using multiple superpowers, and so on. So far, so good — that much is thematic.

However, the common deck that everyone "buys" from consists of an undifferentiated mix of superpowers belonging to all heroes in play, equipment, additional heroes, and supervillains. So for example, as Superman, you can wind up with the Batmobile, Kid Flash, Harley Quinn, and Marine Telepathy in your deck. In theory, trying to purchase all the Superman powers that come up would make for a more thematic (and efficient) deck, but in practice, this seemed difficult to do. (In our game, the player with The Flash did manage to pick up most of the Flash/Kid Flash cards, which meant his deck was cycling at... well, super-speed.) The idea is supposedly that, as in the Marvel game, you are "recruiting" other heroes to join you, but this doesn't explain why you add supervillains to your deck.


Punch

Batman is punchy.


Instead of a single Master Villain to fight, there is a stack of them, and they are basically just more expensive cards that you can buy like any other. Each one does something nasty when he or she first appears, but after that you just add them to your deck when you have enough power. The game ends when the master villain deck is empty, and everyone counts victory points (more expensive cards are generally worth more points, with a few cards granting special ways to add bonus points) to determine the winner.

Whereas playing Legendary does evoke some of the feeling of playing a team of superheroes trying to defeat a supervillain and his minions, the DC Deck-Building Game evokes the feeling of trying to buy random cards with pictures of DC characters on them to accumulate the most victory points in the end. Being non-cooperative, there is more opportunity to screw with other players' decks, which is a mechanic I personally dislike in games; it makes it harder to plan your next turn, and thus to my mind, more random and luck-based.

I was glad I got to play someone else's copy of this game, as now I won't have to buy it myself.

Sentinels of the Multiverse: In which you kind of need an app for that



Sentinels of the Multiverse

Sentinels of the Multiverse is an independent game, unconnected to any existing superhero franchise. It has all the good and bad features of independent comics: it's fresh, original, fun, and a little unpolished, with art that is... well, if not exactly up to Marvel and DC standards, captures the four-color vibe very effectively.

There are already a ton of expansions available, but I've only played with the base set so far.

Sentinels is a fully cooperative game; all the players are working together to defeat the villain, and you either win together or lose together. There are four starting supervillains to choose from, helpfully ranked according to difficulty. The base game also comes with ten heroes. The designers have actually written up fairly detailed "origin" stories for all of them, making you feel like you are actually entering into an established superhero universe.

Unlike the Marvel and DC games, in Sentinels each hero has a unique deck, so everyone is drawing only from their own set of cards. This makes the theme much stronger, as all of Ra's cards are fire powers, Tachyon's cards all relate to her super-speed, Bunker gets a bunch of equipment cards and "modes," and so on.

Each round, players go around the table, each chooses one card to play and one power to use. Their objective is to defeat the villain by damaging him, knocking his health down to zero, at which point the villain card is flipped over, usually to a berserk or a diminished form which has to be defeated again.

Then comes the Environment phase, in which a card is drawn from the Environment deck. Usually this is something bad, an effect that will persist until the heroes do something to end it, either by destroying the card, discarding cards from their hand, or something else. Then comes the villain's turn, in which a card is drawn from the villain deck (each villain having his own deck, like the heroes). This is always something bad: either the villain acquires a minion, or a device, or a new power, and usually it involves doing damage to the heroes and/or making him harder to defeat.


Ra

Ra is my favorite damage-dealer so far.


As a superhero-themed game, it works wonderfully. I love Sentinels of the Multiverse. It comes the closest of all three games to feeling like you are a team of superheroes battling a master villain, with defeat always imminent. Some of the villains are especially brutal if they get the right combination of cards, so defeating them feels like an actual accomplishment. There are constant choices to be made — attack the main villain, or knock out the runaway monorail that's doing damage to the heroes every turn? Take out a minion while you can, or use a power to buff your defenses or heal before the next Environmental hazard knocks you down to zero health?

Like all cooperative games, there is a slight danger of an "alpha player" taking over and telling everyone else what to do. What may be a bigger problem for some players is that as powers, environmental effects, and villain tactics accumulate, the game requires an awful lot of bookkeeping. Although lots of "+1 Damage Dealt" and "Immune to Damage" counters and so on are provided, the mid to late game slows down as each player must carefully tally up all cumulative bonuses and penalties to figure out how much damage he can actually inflict on any given target. Since there are different types of damage and every hero and minion and villain may take more or less damage from different effects, the game is, again, quite good at simulating unique power effects, but it's no surprise that many players use an app to track numbers during play.

Rating the games: Which one is best?



Although I like Marvel Legendary very much, and it does have the most polished game mechanics, for sheer fun and superhero action Sentinels of the Multiverse is my favorite.

Legendary would probably be my pick if I had to choose one game to teach new players, especially if they are not familiar with deckbuilders (or if they love the Marvel movies). On the other hand, Sentinels is going to appeal more to true genre geeks, especially the sort who have played the Champions RPG or similar games.

Legendary and Sentinels both play very well in solitaire mode, and are almost as much fun in two-player mode as they are with three or four players. I've played Legendary with up to five players, and while it works, it starts to become a much longer and slower game.

The DC Deck-Building Game, alas, just doesn't make the cut for me in any respect. In fairness, I have only played it once, but that was enough to convince me I had no desire to get a copy for myself. It's not a terrible game, so if someone else brought it to the table, I would be willing to play it again, but it's not as fun as the other games, and of the three, it does the poorest job of capturing a theme or exciting interest in "playing your heroes."

Book Review: Jumper, by Stephen Gould

A teenager with teleportation acts like a real person instead of a comic book character.


Jumper

Tor, 1992, 344 pages



What if you could go anywhere in the world, in the blink of an eye? Where would you go? What would you do

Davy can teleport. To survive, Davy must learn to use and control his power in a world that is more violent and complex than he ever imagined. But mere survival is not enough for him. Davy wants to find others like himself, others who can Jump.


It"s not a superhero novel, but it"s about super powers.Collapse )




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Terrible Swift Sword

It's kind of strange to see the Confederate flag becoming a flashpoint now, triggered by the mass murders in Charleston. I have always been very skeptical of the "Heritage not hate" crowd — I'm sure there are Southerners for whom the battle flag of a failed insurrection just represents their childhood and their upbringing, but you really cannot get away from what it symbolizes. In the 70s it could be painted on a Dodge Charger for an inane TV show, but if you wave it around today and affect wide-eyed indignation that anyone might think you are sending a message, I'm going to call bullshit.

My father, who was born in Mississippi, raised in backwoods Alabama, and spent his childhood in the deep, deep pre-Civil Rights era South, has never in his life indulged in veneration of the Confederate flag or other antebellum nostalgia.

But, the purpose of this post is not to weigh in on Confederate flags per se. People have posted thoughtful (and not so thoughtful) things about that all over the Internet. Instead, I'm just going to use it as a springboard to write about my current obsession: board games.

Board games! Images! Nazis! Suicide bombers! (No images of Nazis or suicide bombers.)Collapse )

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Apple is a small town like Sunnydale that makes you wonder why the hell anyone would stay there.


Bloody Bloody Apple

Bell Bridge Books, 2014, 204 pages



Apple, Massachusetts is rotten to the core.

Every fall, when the orchards ripen and the leaves begin to die, there are murders. We know it, and we accept it. It's the price we pay for living in Apple. Families mourn, but no one is ever caught. Now, there's a body in the woods, and the cycle is starting again. People bruise easily in Apple.


Finding a murdered and mutilated girl plunges Jackson Gill into the middle of a decades-old horror. For Jackson, the newest murders become personal.

When sick, cryptic predictions prove true, Jackson will have to believe the unthinkable and stop what no one has been able to stop in sixty years.

He has no choice. He lives in Bloody Bloody Apple.


A classic teen popcorn slasher movie in a book.Collapse )




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