Monday, March 06, 2017

Weekend of Gaming Awesomeness at SaltCON 2017

This past weekend was my chance to escape away to my personal convention of choice...SaltCON. This multi-day event is held up in Layton, Utah and is filled with hours and hours of board games. It's a time to catch up with friends who I only see online or at this yearly convention.

It's a time to find out about brand new games, play prototypes of games still in development or play games that I otherwise won't get a chance to play at home (usually due to length or complexity). It's also a place to meet with vendors and exhibitors selling goodies that are specific to the board gaming hobby like player maps, game inserts/organizers, special dice or other fun items to show off your love for the hobby. It's one of my favorite weekends every year and I'm always excited for the first week in March to arrive. Here's a low down of my gaming experiences from the event.


I started out my Thursday with a game of Terraforming Mars (By the Way - wait for the price to drop a bit closer to $60...current high price is because it's sold out by retailers, but a new printing should arrive soon) by Stronghold Games in the Envoy room. Thanks to Scott from Envoy for teaching. I had a good time with this one although I diluted my strategy by trying to do too many different things (and made a bad name for myself by sending a big fat asteroid to destroy a ton of plant life, but hey, all's fair in gaming and terraforming). I look forward to trying this again to try out some different strategies and improve the ones I tried this time.

Next I learned and played Trickerion: Legends of Illusion by Ape Games. Thanks to Mark for teaching. This is a fun worker placement game with a great theme.
I enjoy the balance of trying to figure out which tricks to learn and prepare for and how to do all of that in a way to optimize your time to get on stage and perform the show. Quite a fun game that I'd enjoy playing again.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Book Review - Ready Player One

I first heard about this book shortly after it came out and I was curious but not enough to immediately pick it up. Over the years I had various friends and colleagues tell me how fun it was and that they thought it was right up my alley so I boosted it higher on my "must read" list. Now that I've finally read it, I'm glad I did. I truly did enjoy it even though it didn't quite live up to my expectations. Whether I had over-inflated expectations thanks to all the recommendations or if I was let down by flaws in the book, I have yet to determine. My general feel is that this is a good fun book with an intriguing plot and fun story development but it won't appeal to everybody.

Ready Player One is set in a mid-21st century dystopia where fossil fuels are largely gone, global warming has made a mess of things and society is functional but very divided. The author doesn't get overly political or provide big socio-cultural narratives but there is an enormous wealth and knowledge disparity that grants amazing power to some while stifling others. If you imagine exacerbating our current socio-economic problems you'll have the general idea.

The first many chapters involve a fair amount of exposition and information dumps to set up the world and the situation. Even though these chapters were a little slow I personally found them to be interesting world-building and I also really enjoyed the 1980s references (more on that later).

Our main character Wade lives a pitiful existence with his aunt in "the stacks." The stacks are an intriguing concept from the author...society has over-maximized the space in mobile home parks by creating vertical "stacks" of mobile homes one atop another. This allows hundreds and hundreds of families to live in a mobile home park that otherwise would only fit maybe 50-100.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Book Review - The Bone Clocks

David Mitchell is another one of those authors for whom I’d seen a lot of praise but I’d never actually read any of his work. I decided to dive in with The Bone Clocks. I didn’t realize until I reached the very end of my copy that it included a section with questions and discussion points for “book clubs” reading the book. I don’t know that I would have read the book any differently with those questions in mind but I found them interesting…particularly one of the questions that talks about the scope and nature of Mitchell’s writing and the suggestion that “Bone Clocks” is Mitchell at his “most-Mitchell”. In other words, the question indicates that some people suggest that the scope and ambition of this book is the apex of his form. Since this is the only Mitchell book I’ve read, I can’t speak to the comparison but I can say that this book is definitely very ambitious in what it tries to achieve.

The quick synopsis of this book suggests a story of a teenage girl who has a fight with her family, runs away and inadvertently stumbles into an epic battle between good and evil. The synopsis also suggests that the story unfolds over many decades and involves a number of other characters such as a Cambridge scholar and a bestselling author. What the synopsis doesn’t explain is that the structure of the book is atypical and will leave the average reader feeling a bit lost at sea without a compass or maybe even without a boat.

The book is split into 6 main parts, each of which could have been an individual novella. We begin in the first section focused on a teenage girl named Holly Sykes. I really enjoyed Mitchell’s use of language and the vivacity of the scenes. I didn’t grow up in 1980s Britain but I really felt like the scenes were true to the situations. The narrative style is angsty and full of teenage passion and emotion. We learn a lot about Holly, her family, her situation as well as a little about her past through flashbacks about crazy things that happen. The back of the book synopsis gave some hint that these flashbacks about “The Radio People” were important but otherwise they would have just been interesting anecdotes revealing some strange pieces of Holly’s life. Not until a few hundred pages later do we realize just how important these flashbacks truly are.

Once Holly decides to run away from home the novel gives a few glimpses into the ambitious and bizarre territory the plot will eventually try to land. Along the road, Holly is thirsty and meets a strange old woman willing to share some tea with Holly in exchange for asylum someday if she should happen to require it. This innocuous request seems harmless and perhaps a little senile but is another moment that has immense importance later. A little farther down the road Holly has a terrible encounter that can only be explained as supernatural or paranormal. She manages to walk away safely with her memory of the incident erased and not mentioned again for hundreds of pages. Holly’s section ends with a huge revelation that seems to have little or no importance on the story but once again we’ll realize later that’s not the case.

Friday, December 30, 2016

Books Read in 2016

For the past few years (2015, 2014, 20132012, 2011, 2010, 2009) I've had a goal to read and review a bunch of books over the course of each year.

My goal had been to average a book per week and end up with 50 books read and reviewed at the end of the year. I usually don't include smaller books (early middle grade, picture books, etc) unless I feel really strongly about them. For the past couple of years I've dropped well below my 50 and only ended up reviewing 9 books last year (though I did read more than that). I'm determined to pick up the pace for 2016. I don't know if I'll get back to the ~50 range, but we'll see what I can do. Wish me luck.

  1. The Ocean At the End of the Lane
  2. You're Never Weird on the Internet (Almost): A Memoir
  3. A Scanner Darkly
  4. The Game of Lives (Mortality Doctrine Book #3)
  5. The Girl on the Train
  6. The Name of the Wind (The Kingkiller Chronicle: Day One)
  7. At the Mountains of Madness
  8. Station Eleven
  9. The Wind in the Willows
  10. The Secret Keepers
  11. All the Light We Cannot See
  12. The Return of Tarzan
  13. The Gathering (Shadow House Book #1)
  14. The Circle
  15. Dark Matter
  16. The Bone Clocks

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Book Review - Dark Matter

I haven't previously heard of Blake Crouch but Dark Matter was getting some pretty good buzz so I figured I'd take a look. The "back of the book" summary and blurbs further intrigued me and prompted me to give it a try.

(NOTE: I'm tempted to add "spoiler" notes for the next paragraph but really it's just a summary of the synopsis given by Amazon and other sites, so I figure it's fair game)

As the summary informs us, we are following the life of a man named Jason Dessen. Jason is a scientist who gave up a life of research and design to teach at a small local college and raise a family. The book starts off by taking us through a bit of his life and his interactions with his wife and child. He seems generally happy but holding a bit of discontent especially since one of his old friends/colleagues has just earned a scientific award that Jason believed he might have been able to win if he'd stayed on his previous life-path rather than settling down to be a family-man and professor. After meeting briefly with his friend and thinking about "what might have been", Jason is kidnapped at gunpoint, stripped down and knocked unconscious. When he wakes up, he's strapped down in a strange laboratory and finds that the life he knows no longer exists.

While the abduction was well written had elements of suspense and tension I have to admit that I felt the scenario and the (undisclosed) identity of his abductor to be a bit predictable. It was a little frustrating to me that it took Jason so long to figure it out...yes, it would have been a shocking and stressful situation but there were a few giveaways that would have been hard for him to have missed. I had to "suspend disbelief" a little bit and try to put myself in Jason's shoes...since Jason didn't have the benefit of reading the story synopsis beforehand.

Anyway, after Jason wakes up the plot twists start happening. Again, even though some of the general ideas felt a little predictable to me they were organized, written and carried out in ways that were very engaging and a lot of fun to read. I was truly uncertain just how he would go about carrying out the escape and return to normalcy that I predicted must certainly happen. And once things were set in motion and things finally got a little closer to normalcy another batch of brilliant twists and very smart elements came into play that were really a lot of fun.

For me, the second half of the book is where things really took off and the plotline got exceptionally fun and surprising. The scientific explanations and machinations where well explained and felt credible enough to keep the story together without being overly bogged down with highly technical descriptions. Some of the character reactions to situations seemed to stretch a little thin sometimes but were generally believable as well.

The plot and theme twists and turns and asks you to contemplate your life and the choices you make acknowledging that every choice takes you on a path with certain consequences. The book prompts you to take stock of your life and your priorities and to ponder more intently about the decisions you make with an emphasis on what matters most to you. Jason's character realizes that his family and the love and joy they share is the most important thing to him and that his choices need to be made in a way to ensure they are saved no matter what. The impact of that set of decisions has large implications for Jason's life in more ways than he initially imagined. Each of us must similarly contemplate what we love in our life and live in such a way to keep it safe.

Overall I had a lot of fun with this book. It started out as a slow burn that picked up momentum and intensity as time went on. Some of the predictable elements kept the suspense and thrills at bay but the story and pacing was still exciting. The writing was an excellent balance of crispness to bring tension and elegance to bring beauty and form. The result is a wonderful combination of heightened emotions that make this a wonderfully engaging read.

4 out of 5 stars

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