“Crystal Phoenix” by Michael Berlyn (1980)

(This is 2018 Reading Challenge Book #4.) 

For “The Adventure Gamer”, I have been reviewing Infocom text adventure games from the 1980s. If you are not familiar with the genre, these are games without graphics where you interact with them only through text commands like “pick up the key” or “eat the sandwich”. Sometimes called “interactive fiction”, the form branched out from its Dungeons and Dragons-inspired roots to mysteries, science fiction, pirate adventures, and just about everything else. Since the best “interactive fiction” games were well-written, Infocom experimented with hiring real writers to design the stories, working with their programmers to implement them. Although bigger names would come later, the first writer that Infocom hired was Michael Berlin, a science-fiction writer from Brookline, Massachusetts, who had at that point had published three novels and two computer games. Because of his mix of experience both writing stories and writing software, Infocom felt he was just what they needed. I’ve reviewed the first two (of four) of his games with Infocom already, but as I am about to play his third, now seemed like a great time to dig into his published work starting at the beginning: 1980’s Crystal Phoenix. Let’s just say it wasn’t what I expected.

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“The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck” by Don Rosa (1994)

(This is 2018 Reading Challenge Book #3.) 

For my third “book” of the year, I selected to read a comic that I have been wanting to look at for some time: Don Rosa’s The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck. For this, I have been the subject of incessant teasing from my wife who keeps asking me why I am reading those “duck comics”. Since this isn’t a novel and comics are faster to read, I read both the original Life and Times stories (written 1992-1994) as well as the official “companion” stories which were written as one-offs between 1988 and 2006. All in all, it’s more than 400 pages of comics and supplementary material, so I think it counts.

So, why am I reading “duck comics”? As a kid, I was a fan of Ducktales (1987-1990) and those stories featured the adventures of Scrooge McDuck with his great-nephews, Huey, Dewey, and Louie, as well as a cast of other characters. Unknown to me at the time, Ducktales was based in large part on the “Duck Universe” established in comics, especially those by Carl Barks. (Originally a Disney animator, he worked on Disney comics from the 1940s to the 1970s.) It was during his run on these comics that Mr. Barks created the character of Scrooge McDuck as a one-off in Christmas 1947 (“Night on Bear Mountain”), but the character became a breakout star and eventually was fleshed out with his own universe of eccentric supporting characters.

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“The Storm Before the Storm” by Mike Duncan (2017)

(This is 2018 Reading Challenge Book #2.) 

I have been a fan of Mike Duncan’s work for a very long time. I became hooked on his History of Rome podcast somewhere around 2009-2010, during a period where I became sick of news radio after the excesses of the 2008 election. It was a simpler time! I followed him onto his new Revolutions podcast. He is one of the best serial history storytellers on the planet; many other podcasters have tried to match his scope and style (I regularly listen to a dozen of them), but no one quite manages to be as engaging on a week-over-week basis. I could write forever on the strengths and weaknesses of my favorite podcasters, but perhaps another day.

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“Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance” by Lois Bujold (2012)

(This is 2018 Reading Challenge Book #1.) 

I still love the “Vorkosigan Saga” books, but recent events have caused me to reflect more on what is in them and I am finding some aspects uncomfortable. I had tried reading the “Ivan Book” once before and gave up halfway through, but this time I knew I had to power on and it was worth it, in the end. We have a fun, if meandering, science fiction adventure which ends with a literal bang. Ivan isn’t my favorite protagonist as he just lets things happen to him much of the time, but when he needs to be crafty, he is. Tej, the second viewpoint character, is craftier but she gets completely subsumed when her family reappears in the midpoint of the book. (I had given up just prior to that point, during a long section of continuity-porn as Ivan had to interact with as many of the established Vor Saga characters as possible.) That said, I love her love of languages and only wish that Ms. Bujold had gone deeper into how languages evolved on the planet… but maybe no one else wants that.

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My 2018 Reading Challenge

Stated briefly: I don’t read enough anymore. In my youth, I could eat books like candy and go through multiple novels a day. Now, I hardly read at all except for research. Most of my information today gets digested in podcasts and audiobooks. In 2018, I want to change that. Naturally, I want to do it in an overly-complicated way.

My goal will be to read 24 books, fiction or nonfiction. Not that many, still doable even with a schedule of work, teaching, blogging, and family time. I’ve decided to select the books by somewhat randomly rotating through four categories:

  1. Books my wife recommends. She gets the lion’s share and she has never led me wrong before.
  2. Books that I want to read. This consists of a few that have been on my list for years (“Journey to the West” as a prime example) as well as books written by my friends. I am gifted to know many authors and a few I have not read more than a sampling of their work.
  3. Books that I buy. I am not permitted to buy any books this year which I will not read. For that reason, I already have “The Storm Before the Storm” by Mike Duncan on the reading list, as well as the new “Fire and Fury”. I am also going to randomly pick out books that I own but have never got around to reading.
  4. Finally, but most importantly, books selected by my friends earlier this year. Since they suggested 50 books, far more than I may get to, I have an overly complicated process for randomly picking which I will read.

As I read each one, I will write a little thing– not a full fledged book review, but my thoughts. This may interest no one but me, but writing it will help me to cement the book in my brain before moving onto the next one. I want to make sure that I savor each one, not just consume and throw away.

Onward to the first book: “Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance” by Lois Bujold (2012), selected by my wife. (Always the right way to start!)

“Tom Swift and His Atomic Earth Blaster” by Jim Lawrence (1954)

As I prepare to play Seastalker for The Adventure Gamer, I am continuing to read Jim Lawrence’s earlier juvenile fiction. Last month, I took a look at my first Hardy Boys story, The Ghost at Skeleton Rock. This time, I wanted to jump back to Mr. Lawrence’s very first (that I have been able to find) published novel, 1954’s Tom Swift and His Atomic Earth Blaster.

Tom Swift was, like the Hardy Boys, a Stratemeyer Syndicate series. Like all Syndicate series, Tom Swift stories were written by a pseudonym consisting of a collection of writers and editors rather than a specific individual. Individual stories could be outlined by one author, written by a second, and edited by a third before having a finished product. (And, in a few cases, completely rewritten by a fourth for re-releases.) Tom Swift stories were actually among the oldest of the series, with the first novel, Tom Swift and his Motorcycle, published in 1910. In these early stories, Tom Swift was an adventurer and inventor who solved problems using the power of his intellect and his increasingly sci-fi inventions. Unlike most of the later series, Tom Swift was allowed to age over the course of his adventurers, eventually getting married and having a son, Tom Swift Jr. His son then became the star of the stories from the 1950s onward, although from that point the characters did not continue to age through their original runs. The original continuity ended in 1971 although three further Tom Swift series were released through the mid-00s. It’s likely the stories will be picked up again.

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Jim Lawrence’s Bibliography

In the next couple of weeks, over on The Adventure Gamer, I will be playing Seastalker. I mentioned this earlier in my review of a Hardy Boys mystery, and I am presently working my way through stories featuring Tom Swift, Jr. and Nancy Drew. All of these young-adult novels were written by Jim Lawrence, but you would never know it from their covers. Jim was a dedicated ghostwriter, creating fiction that he would never get credit for. Nonetheless, I have become quite interested in his history and have started to pull together a bibliography of his books based on various sources that I found online. This is most likely not a complete list. This is made more complicated by the fact that there are at least three authors named Jim (or James) Lawrence, including one artist who worked in comics. Trying to separate out which Mr. Lawrence wrote what has been quite a challenge!

That’s where you come in. Do you know of any additional works by Jim Lawrence? Do you have details of specific radio play scripts that he wrote? If so, please drop me a note below. For everyone else, here is the list that I have gathered so far:

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“The Ghost at Skeleton Rock” by Jim Lawrence (1957)

This week, at approaching four decades old, I read my first Hardy Boys book. In specific, I read the thirty-seventh Hardy Boys book, The Ghost at Skeleton Rock, ghost-written by Jim Lawrence. It’s a strange place to start, but my interest is not with the Hardy Boys in general (although I find the whole industry that produces these serial books fascinating), but rather with the author, the late Jim Lawrence. Over on The Adventure Gamer, I have been slowly working my way through all of the games created by Infocom. In a few weeks, I’ll start playing Seastalker, the twelfth adventure, and the first written by the pair of Stu Galley and Jim Lawrence. The game is Infocom’s first “juvenile” game and they brought on board a master of juvenile fiction to help script it. By the 1980s, Jim had already proven himself a master of juvenile fiction across radio, newspaper comics, and books– most of the latter ghostwritten for the Stratemeyer Syndicate. To ensure I approached his game with an understanding of the genre, I committed myself to reading several of Jim’s original books. This is my first.

Continue reading “The Ghost at Skeleton Rock” by Jim Lawrence (1957)

Thirteenth Doctor: Revealed In A Familiar Setting

I love the choice of location for the 13th doctor reveal, but did anyone else notice that it closely echoes the location where War + 10 + 11 met during the Day of the Doctor? Notice the 16th/17th century setting, the woods, and the wall with the convenient hole in it where the TARDIS emerges. Where have we seen that before?

I am excited for our new Thirteenth Doctor! While I am sure there are fans that won’t appreciate the gender-swap, it was about time to do something new and exciting with the series. Capaldi was fantastic but traditional; I am positive the new Doctor will shake things up.

Infocom’s The Witness (1983)

Not too long ago, I took a look at Deadline, Infocom’s first adventure game mystery as a side-story to the marathon that I’m currently writing for The Adventure Gamer. It was a genre-buster, proving once and for all that great adventures could be found in many genres. I am still slowly winding my way through early Infocom classics and I have finally reached Deadline’s pseudo-sequel: 1983’s The Witness. Tucked away in the middle of a run of science fiction adventures (after Starcross and Suspended but before Planetfall), it abandoned the contemporary setting of its predecessor for the hard-boiled detectives of the 1930s. Even though my colleague Ilmari already reviewed this game, I could not resist poking my head in to get the full Infocom experience.

While Deadline has been designed by Mark Blanc, one of the Infocom founders and co-writer on the Zork series, he did not have time to work on the sequel. Instead, he provided some aspects of the basic scenario to design-newcomer Stu Galley. Stu had been an Infocom founder, but he worked on the business side rather than the creative one. Nonetheless, Marc had too much on his plate and Stu was convinced to headline the game. Even from the start it is different than what came before: this time, the crime has not been committed yet. We’re going to witness the crime (hence, the title) and have twelve hours to figure out what really happened. Let’s play!

Continue reading Infocom’s The Witness (1983)