(mostly spoiler-free) Port of Shadows is the newest in the Black Company series, my favorite fantasy series when I was a young lad. As much as I respected and enjoyed Tolkien, revered Eddings, was dazzled by Zelazny, was charmed by the Dragonlance books, and enthused about Moorcock, Cook was the guy who wrote the book that inspired my own creation of a D&D world. Looking at Orphel, the fantasy world I created for RPGs back in high school, is heavily influenced by the gritty Black Company novels. While none of them live up the original book, many in the series get close and Cook’s characters are real people like you see in Game of Thrones, not perfect fantasy-book archetypes. I found this far more interesting than regular ‘quest-fantasy’.
I excitedly read through Port of Shadows new Black Company book since it’s the first one in ages. Cook is the same guy he was before, lots of excellent plotting (if they are sometimes more complex than they need to be), names that are sometimes awesome and sometimes ludicrous (and he goes full Russian Novel here with people going by three names), and the often lazy writing (the anachronistic phrases members of the Black Company slide into and the tendency to leave all the voices sounding the same. This was always a bit of a problem but it’s maybe worse here than ever before. A good editor could make Cook’s books all the more wonderful but he’s never found his own Maxwell Perkins.
I’d also caution readers who are sensitive about his treatment of women (others have commented on it and his racially-insensitive language in the past), but he’s fully writing about a society with a different attitude that is in line with historical views. My 2018 sensibility made me cringe at times, but I cringed at A Column of Fire earlier this year, too, which is a historical novel. I don’t think Follett or Cook advocate these views, they just write about them. Anyway, a word to the concerned.
While it’s nice to have series star narrator Croaker back after Murgen’s fussiness (who narrated a bunch of Black Company books more recently), the narrative takes some odd turns and there is more focus on an intriguing history than there needs to be (it’s good, but less of it would have been better). There’s also a truly bizarre epilogue that kind of gives Cook the option to kind of dismiss things he brought up that sounded kind of problematic for the lore. Insurance for inconsistencies that hardcore fans might find? Perhaps so.
All in all, a fun read and I hope the next book is also earlier in the timeline like this one. The grittiness of the series (which I re-read this year in anticipation of Port of Shadows) reminds me of the strong influence he was on GRRM’s Game of Thrones. Even a lot of his language goes directly into phrases used in GOT, although Martin does a finer job of turning that language into a real vernacular where Cook just spits out tough-guy talk. This is also one of the longer Black Company books and I’m inclined to think that Cook is best when he is briefer.
If you love the Black Company (as I do, warts-and-all), you will enjoy Port of Shadows for sure – which is why this decidedly three-star review has a fourth one up there. Pure nostalgia, folks – uncut and effective.
Last year, I read an article that suggested CEOs need to read 60 books a year to keep up with what is happening in the world. Presumably, that means a cross-section of books that would make them effective leaders, track what is going on in the world that would have an impact on their business, and maybe some notable new books about non-fiction subjects on what is to come.
My interest wasn’t in just doing what the CEOs do. I wanted to read what I wanted, which would be a mix of books about being more effective at my job (sure, that one’s similar and what I do for a living), data and social sciences (this is what we work on at my company, and it’s something I’m passionate about), and a smattering of fiction to keep myself level. This makes me laugh, thinking of the quote in Sideways (yes, I saw the film first) when the soon-to-be-father-in-law of Jack says, “I can’t read fiction, it’s all made up.” So funny to think you can’t learn from fiction.
Anyway, I was more inspired by the number, the sheer volume of knowledge flowing into the heads of these exceptional CEOs than their subjects of choice. But I also didn’t want to set myself up for failure. New Year’s resolutions are kind of a joke. We break them all the time because we set goals too far beyond our ability or in categories we just don’t care about. Then, we buckle. So, I went low. I thought one book every two weeks would be a good place to start. So, I set the goal in Goodreads for 26 books.
To my delight, I surpassed that quickly and hit 64 books for the year with a combination of reading physical books, Kindle books, and audiobooks when I would commute. In this way, I can read two to three books at all times depending on the circumstances. Next year, I plan to double my goal to 52 books, one per week, to see if I can match this excellent reading year.
I would note that I consider all of these options ‘reading’ a book. I have some friends who think otherwise, suggesting that listening to an audio book is somehow less pure than reading the words on a page. That’s hogwash, of course. Douglas Adams famously noted that people who are concerned about this are ‘mistaking the plate for the meal.’ If the information flows into your head, you read it. The whole point of reading is to get that information into your head so it will be knowledge you have available to filter against everything else that comes out of your mouth (or your pen), not so you can consume it in a certain format that will allow you to line shelves in your home with your accomplishments. Reading 60 books a year isn’t about showing off, it’s about learning enough to feel you spent that part of your life well this year.
Why do I read so much despite a busy life with work, family, and time-consuming hobbies like tabletop board game design? I have been asked this a few times this year – ‘how do you find the time?’ Well, as a Franklin Covey class taught me over twenty years ago, you don’t ever ‘find’ time. You make time. You schedule, you keep conscious of where you waste time (e.g., the television and now, the internet), and you just simply turn over some of that time to books. Not all of it, because the reality of the situation is that most modern people want to spend some amount of time consuming content. That’s what the books are anyway: consumption. But it’s not empty consumption like watching sitcoms or crime shows. It’s the vitamin-enriched meal, versus the junk food, and moderation is key.
With that, let me jump into my list for 2017. I find my year in books to be, in many ways, as compelling as a lot of physical experiences. The flowering of one’s brain should really be enjoyable on the level of exercise from being out of the woods, or effective days at the gym.
While this last year was a grim one in many ways both personal and political, my reading year was truly wonderful.
Geek confession, I suppose. As someone who called a BBS in the 80’s called The Dark Domain where you needed to know the books in Adams’ famous series to understand what people are saying, I had read the first novel when I was 14 years old. But I never got to the other novels in the series because that first one gave me a sufficiently solid grounding to understand why someone was called Hitchhiker, someone else Trillian (his girlfriend), someone else was Arthur Dent, etc. I’d say thatanyone from the geek persuasion needs to, and will, in fact, enjoy the series. So, when my son Alaric read the first one and asked if the others were any good, I had to say I wasn’t sure. That would not stand. My friend Kai has been encouraging me to read more books for pure fun (although he’s been pushing Douglas Adams’ fantasy counterpart, Terry Pratchett), so I thought I’d give the second novel in the series a try. It’s not Hitchhiker, with the wall-to-wall uproarious entries from the books that gives the series its name, but it is funny and a quick read to delight geeks, nerds, and thoughtful people in general. I will continue the series in 2018.
After seeing Mr. Gladwell on a talk show last year, I’d meant to read his books. I first tackled Blink after finding it at a used bookstore for a great price. This exceptional book had a major impact on me. Blink explores the human tendency to make judgements quickly, for better or worse. Interesting examples of both abound and it made me consider how thoughtful I can be about judging people in the world, and how often a gut reaction can help when considering the response to a situation. That ‘gut’ just needs a history of context to be useful. A wonderful read that I found rewarding.
Perhaps a week or two after finishing Blink, I took up The Tipping Point, which was an earlier book that made Mr. Gladwell quite famous, it seems. While it similarly takes on the subject (journalist that he is) of explaining a concept through stories, I found The Tipping Point to be a lot less intriguing. Sure, it’s mildly interesting to think about why some things hit big and others do not (that is the titular ‘Tipping Point’), the revelations from the book were only somewhat useful to me as a marketer. Worth a quick read, but it doesn’t have the impact of Blink.
One of the more popular and well-respected games of the last few years is a monster called Terraforming Mars. I don’t call it a monster due to its size, but due to the enormous number of cards in the game. My first play was just okay, due to an early card mix that tended towards attacking cards that seemed to just slow the game. The second one was better, and by game three, I understood why so many of my hardcore gamer friends were playing it: it was rich in game-play like Race for the Galaxy, another exceptional game that had so much to explore. Word on the street was that the designer of Terraforming Mars had been inspired by Kim Stanley Robinson’s trilogy that began with the novel Red Mars. I had not read the series but I recalled it from my days working at a bookstore in the 80’s. It was hard sci-fi, the type I typically only read if it is from a Golden Age author like Clarke, Heinlein or Asimov. Yet, I was excited to check it out due to its inspiration for the game. I got what I expected: hard science fiction heavy on plot and details of scientists doing scientific things, low on character development. The novel is rich in details easy to turn tiny plot points into cards within the game, so it was ideal for this purpose. It’s a hefty book and playing a little ‘spot the card’ was a side activity while I read through the novel. I might read the sequels (Blue Mars and Green Mars) as I explore the board game with my son (who loves it), but they aren’t on the top of my list.
Picked off a list on Product Hunt about the most gifted books, Kalanithi’s book does not fit any of my normal reading areas, except maybe the unspoken one about being a better human being. The difficult narrative follows the life of a budding surgeon who gets a diagnosis of cancer that will end his life. The acceptance of that situation and the choices one has to make once one knows that time is short are essentially the subject of the book. While I would not opt for anything Kalanithi did (including having a child so he could feel the experience of fatherhood, while robbing said child of having a father for most of her life – or pursuing a career as a surgeon and putting people at potential risk), his story of letting go, learning to accept that there are others in your life who might have the right perspective to help you, and, finally, focusing on family, were insightful and useful to me. At times, the book was very hard to read because I lost two important people in my life this year, including my Uncle Bill (someone who was like my second dad and an inspiration for much of my personality) and my father early in 2018. The book was also illuminating and made me value the life I have and think ahead about planning for the world without me. I plan to make a chatbot. 😉
Silverberg has always struck me as one of the underrated writers of speculative fiction. Within the sci-fi world, he’s been recognized but he doesn’t get enough mainstream respect because he writes things that can be a trifle odd. His work is consistently interesting, he knows how to create great characters, and he has a head for new ideas that can match the Golden Age greats and a weirdness that can match those 60’s sci-fi greats like Philip K. Dick and Samuel R. Delany. I had read Nightwings was one of his best (probably in a Harlan Ellison essay) and I’m glad to report that it certainly is right up there with Tower of Glass, my favorite of his works. A heartfelt piece of science fiction taking place on an alien world, Nightwings still conveys a lot about the human condition and is possessed of Silverberg’s lovely prose. I will be hitting more of his books in 2018 for sure. It’s a crime that I haven’t read them all.
My love of Prof. Galloway’s L2 videos is hard to overstate. While they have gotten sillier (not ideal), the main appeal is his no-BS take on brands, society and the world in general. His book takes a lot of his observations on the power and damage to the world done and potentially to be done by these massive companies and puts it into book form. While I think most would probably be just as well served by watching his recent Ted Talk on the subject, I enjoyed the detail and examples he provided as I am a student of these four companies and share similar concerns about their power and influence. A fun read, and a quick one, too. And he just did a board game themed episode so, here’s an embed.
The founder/VC/Product leader Horowitz quickly became a member of my CEO crush list (including Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Marc Benioff) with his no-nonsense guide to getting tech companies right. While Mr. Horowitz had his ups and downs over time, he’s learned a ton and generously shown it off here, down to the details of hiring, managing and operations for tech startups. This book is like a textbook for the biz and I immediately purchased a physical copy after reading it on Kindle so I could make use of it. Highly recommended for those who work in technology or startups in general.
The Martian is a very pleasant book, a good film and on the basis of those facts, I definitely was going to give Artemis a try. I heard the audio book, which is narrated by Rosario Dawson – a woman with one of those voices that sounds more pleasant than a Chopin composition. The book itself is a heist story set on the moon and feels like Weir wrote it with the expectation that it would hit the big screen soon enough. Based on the success of the last story getting into movie form, this is a fair assumption, but it also makes it read a bit like a screenplay. Not a bad thing – Artemis reads quickly, which makes its initially-unlikable heroine easier to like as the story moves fast. It’s not as awesome as The Martian but Weir’s version of the moon’s society is interesting (although I’ll take Heinlein’s version in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress over this one for sheer oddness-while-plausible). Worth a look if you really like the author.
My friend and colleague Kai pushed me to read this one and I’m glad he did. Butcher’s Dresden series will likely get read entirely because the easy style of this wizard-detective in modern times goes down like sweet tea. Butcher’s take on magic-users in the now is clever and while the mysteries themselves will probably not interest me from the POV of trying to solve them ahead of time, I did enjoy the ride. Not quite bringing me back to the fun of Glen Cook’s old Garrett Files, but there’s a little something there. Also, there’s a new game based on these books but it’s another deckbuilder. Sigh. I think we’ve had enough.
Every week, I go to the Glendora Library and pick up used books for my father to read (until his passing in early 2018). He lacks mobility here in his mid-80’s but his mind still wanders constantly among the stories and books I bring him. And the man reads fast. He used to do two books a day when he was a younger man, reading on his bus ride to work, at lunch and breaks, and on the ride home. Insane. I can’t do that, and I’m not sure I want to try. But this means regular trips to find him new material now. The upside of these regular hunts is that I find books for myself sometimes, too. Couch was one of those finds. It’s an odd book that I knew wouldn’t work for my dad, but would work for me. Three geeky slacker friends are forced to move a couch from their apartment and that process unearths an adventure that takes them to the sea and into another country as they realize there is more to this piece of furniture than they ever imagined. Strange, delightful and well-written, I recommend Couch to anyone who likes oddly diverting fiction that just tells a good story.
Wizards of the Tabletop is a worthwhile addition to the non-game shelves of any passionate tabletop gamer.
Do people still read paper books much? I like to call them “dead-tree books” as sort of a poke at people who collect books like they are secret talismans that somehow makes them more powerful or more prestigious since they keep all that knowledge in their home. Don’t we all have that knowledge on our phones all the time, every day now?
While my attitude about this subject is somewhat informed by the fact that I was an early e-reader who pulled PDFs off the bibliophile’s version of the Dark Web, it also comes from being raised by a voracious reader who never kept books. As soon as my father read something, and he was an Evelyn Wood-trained speed reader who polished off a book and a half a day, he would get them into a bag to be sent off to his friends or the library for donation.
Amusingly enough, the reason my snarky comments stopped is because I started buying dead-tree books on Amazon at ridiculously cheap prices. I think the turning point was when I purchased a copy of Morrissey’s autobiography for eight cents plus shipping; that’s quite a bit less than the cost of the Kindle edition. Suddenly, these dead-tree bits were showing up on my doorstep and I ended up rediscovering the beautiful, tactile experience of reading a physical book rather than simply paging through it on an iPhone. It’s not the first time I found something that seems like going backwards is actually just a new path to happiness. I doubt it’s the last.
Wizards of the Tabletop: This is a review, right?
Yes, I was getting to that. So, when I saw that Douglas Morse, who has already made one of the best board game movies that we have yet to see (The Next Great American Board Game), has a new coffee table book on Kickstarter that included photos of game industry folks, I was intrigued. Certainly, I thought Wizards of the Tabletop: A Game Designer Portrait Book sounded like something that was worth a little space on my largely uncluttered shelves. I’m glad to say that I was able to obtain a preview copy of the book’s photos and accompanying text. In the book, Mr. Morse has captured some terrific photos of various game designers and industry luminaries at conventions or, in some cases, in an environment suited to the kind of games that they produce.
In his travels to put together his original documentary, Mr. Morse had an opportunity to visit many of the conventions that are the gathering places for our hobby, including both public and private conventions. He captured signature shots of great designers like Reiner Knizia, Friedemann Friese, Alan Moon, Steve Jackson, Matt Leacock and so many more. Frankly speaking, it’s just a lot of fun to see these creative, intelligent, and witty folks hamming it up for the camera. But Morse also captured the more reserved among them (that’s the minority, in my experience) in a manner that suits their personality. There’s just so much joy in this shots. And why not – game designers and people in this hobby are incredibly friendly. When you go to tabletop conventions, it is so easy to meet game designers, so simple to try out their new game, and even contribute to its development. Few other hobbies have such a close relationship between creators and enthusiasts.
I should note that Wizards of the Tabletop isn’t all pictures. Morse has interspersed text with the photos that lightly touches on the modern history of gaming, tying it to some key points in the last fifty-ish years that led to the current sustained renaissance in the hobby. To that end, he’s also included photos of a cross section of games that highlight key moments or movements within modern board game design. These complement the designer photos to tell a compelling story about how the hobby has crawled out of the college campuses, geek basements and back rooms of game stores into the charming board game cafes, libraries, and homes of regular folks everywhere.
It’s a wonderful tale that is well-told and one that is dear to my own heart; indeed, it should be for anyone who has a deep love for “These Games of Ours,” as they were often called in the past. I’m glad they aren’t just ours anymore. I love that I can’t contain the size of the board game night I started at work. I’m thrilled that board games are having their day and saving us from endlessly looking at screens. I still delight in seeing a big shelf of quality games at Target or Barnes and Noble. To commemorate how far the hobby has come, I think having this particular talisman in my home makes good sense.
Wizards of the Tabletop is live on Kickstarter and will close in just a few days. You can pony up $20 for the PDF but I can’t imagine not wanting to get the physical copy for another ten bucks. It’s worth a few more trees. Any gamer who enjoys this hobby should delight in the images and story contained in this fine book. While it won’t ship until next June but, in the spirit of the season, it would make a lovely gift to be enjoyed for years to come. After all, a printed out Kickstarter order confirmation email fits nicely into a stocking.
In a way, I’m surprised I bothered to read this book.
I haven’t really played role-playing games since the 80’s, when I was in high school. But in the last year, my teenage son had expressed an interest in playing them just to give it a try. So, we tried a 4th Edition D&D game with a friend and, despite the earnest effort on the part of our awesome DM, it wasn’t for my son or me. A long time and little action. Yawn-tastic. Later, at the urging of the same trusted and great friend, I played an ‘indie RPG’ and it was also not at all for me. We have, however, had fun playing Descent (well, the one time) and have actually had a really enjoyable time playing Mice & Mystics from Plaid Hat Games with our friend and his elementary school age son. Since my son thinks of our friend’s son as a kind of little brother, he’s having fun spending time with him even if the M&M game is more geared to the younger crowd.
All this RPG-like activity led me to pick up Ewalt’s book, Of Dice and Men: The Story of Dungeons & Dragons and The People Who Play It, and I’d hoped for a good history of the game’s origin, which I knew little about. I knew Gary Gygax was the man and then he wasn’t the man so much, that Wizards of the Coast swallowed up TSR when they were in dire straits, only to sell the whole shebang to Hasbro a couple of years later. But that’s about it.
Unfortunately, Ewalt’s book is decidedly gonzo (I shouldn’t say this in a negative way since I tend towards the same) and is much more about him than about the game. Sure, you get a serviceable account of the early days of TSR/D&D that worked well enough when it stayed on point. Sadly, the book is dominated more by Ewalt’s geek-guilt, professions of love for the game, and tiresome ‘fantasy interludes’ written in italics that document the D&D game he’s playing in. I think there’s an ancient joke about how much fun it is to hear about another person’s RPG games and reading about them is even worse. Tracy Hickman he is not and when I read the title of the book, I did not expect so much of it to be devoted to this doofus and his adventures in desperately finding D&D games when he travels, his brief exploration of LARPs, and his eventual attempt to DM a game himself.
When the book sticks to the history and the fun encounters the author has when he makes a few pilgrimages to D&D’s historical locations (Lake Geneva, Gary Con, and some other things I can’t recall), it’s good and pretty breezy. But I had to push hard to get through the chapters when he went on and on about his game, his goofy obsession with it, and shame over being such a dork. It’s 2015, dude, D&D dorks are everywhere. Your geek guilt just seems silly now.
In the end, I found myself skipping over the hard-to-read italicized adventures and stuck to the history. I’d advise readers interested in learning about the history of the game to do the same. Helpfully, Ewalt suggests some more on-point books at the end of the tome and I’m toying with the idea of reading one of those but not right now. I think I’ve had enough D&D for the time being and it’s back to the board game table with me.