Review of Atlas 10 Pro+

Back in June I was looking for a laptop or tablet that could be something that I could use on the go as a way to keep up on writing and work while traveling.

However, since I’m going back to school and doing writing as my main way of getting money, I had to get something extremely cheap. I was looking at Chromebooks ($200 or so), Windows laptops ($300+), and Android tablets ($100 or so), but I hadn’t been able to find anything that met all my needs that I felt comfortable shelling out the money for.

Then I called my brother, who works at a church. It turns out that they were using RCA tablets that came with detachable keyboards that they liked quite a bit, and he sent me a link to a few of them on Amazon.

I ultimately settled on the Atlas 10 Pro+ (affiliate link), which ran me about $100. The selling point here was that I’d have something similar in style to the Surface Go (tablet functionality, keyboard), but pay about a quarter of the Surface Go would cost if you wanted the type cover. There were also some very low-end Windows laptops that I had considered, but I wasn’t really sold on them.

Now, you do make a lot of sacrifices for that, especially in system memory (the Surface Go’s lowest end model has 4 GB of RAM, the Atlas 10 Pro+ has 1), and Android isn’t going to offer all your old Windows software if you’re committed to the ecosystem like I am, but the price was right. All of the alternatives I’d considered were pretty much equivalent in user experience, with the downside of being at least twice as expensive (Microsoft was actually sold out of the HP Stream 11, which would have been my first choice from my research at the time) and trying to run an operating system that is notoriously hungry for system resources.

The Atlas 10 Pro+ runs Android 8.1 Go. The Go variant is a special version of Android for low-spec systems, but I haven’t noticed the difference in any significant way. There are Go versions of a couple apps, like the Google Assistant and Google Maps, and supposedly more on the Play Store (I haven’t been able to figure out how to use Go-specific apps), but you’re not locked out of any apps. I ued the standard version of Docs to type this and I’ve also gotten Firefox as my main browser, and I’ve been pretty happy with it. Without a cellular connection, the Atlas 10 Pro+ isn’t going to replace a phone, and it certainly won’t replace a full desktop or laptop (though I did use it on my GenCon trip and found it quite satisfactory), but I’ve been liking it so far.

The performance is acceptable, and largely limited by the system memory. YouTube is a passable experience in Firefox and through the native YouTube app. Never having used Android with a keyboard and touchpad before, I was pleasantly surprised by how much it felt like a standard laptop experience. The 10” size definitely becomes a factor in what you can and can’t do, but it acquits itself pretty well. As an added bonus, it actually works as a laptop without being hot on your legs or feeling too large and awkward, because the tablet is vertical and so the part that gets hot (though it really only gets warm even under stress) is not resting on your lap.

The one thing to get used to is being patient. Apps load okay, but you’ll see a little delay between pushing play and Spotify starting if you haven’t listened in a while and the app isn’t open (this may also be Android not knowing which application to use), or between tabs in Firefox (which seems to reload the webpage every time it gains focus, perhaps due to memory constraints). Chrome may be smoother, but I don’t like it as much. You get used to this pretty quickly, and when you’re actually using stuff it feels responsive.

The camera is… about what you’d expect in a really cheap Android tablet.

Yikes! Yeah, this was probably not the ideal test environment (on my kitchen table, taking a photo of a reflective surface a few inches from the camera). There is a front facing camera, which is just as awful (perhaps even more awful; it’s hard to describe how awful it is), but given the price it’s still an addition. Given the fact that most people have smartphones and I’m not going to be using the Atlas 10 as a photography tool, I’ll give it a pass. However, if you absolutely need to take a photo or video, it can do that. In fact, it’s probably the perfect photography tool to use if you spot Bigfoot!

The screen resolution is not terrific, but honestly I don’t notice it all that much. As someone using a fairly large 1080p display as my primary driver, it doesn’t bother me to have a 1280×800 resolution on such a small screen. While the display is glossy turning up the brightness can help to mitigate any unwanted reflections; I haven’t had any problems with using it in any indoors condition, though I haven’t actually tested it. The touch-screen feels very much like plastic, and I’d bet that they’ve traded scratch resistance for something more shatterproof. After a couple months’ use I haven’t seen any issues. Since the keyboard makes for a very natural screen cover, I’m not too anxious about this, and since a lot of the touch controls are used less than they might otherwise be on a tablet because of the pairing with a keyboard I’m not too worried about it.

The touchscreen is one slightly annoying bit. It’s not inaccurate in the sense that you’ll get crazy wild results, but it’s not sensitive and there seems to be distortion around the edges of the screen. Having a dedicated keyboard makes this better, but I find the on-screen keyboard somewhat painful to use (though I don’t use the standard Google keyboard on my phone, so there could also be an adjustment pain here).

The speakers are not super-tinny, though you can definitely detect some distortion at higher volumes. They come out of the side of the tablet when it is docked (bottom in portrait mode), and they don’t get particularly loud. I’m not an audiophile, and they work fine for me, though I’d usually not use them unless I had to. It has a headphone jack, which is perfectly functional. The microphone is miserably awful, and sounds like you’re about eight thousand feet under-water and about twenty or thirty feet away from it. There was a little background noise when I was testing, and the one upside is that you can’t discern it. In an ideal situation, it might be better, but it’s probably still going to be terrible. If you want to do a whole lot of Google Hangouts, you might want to consider a Bluetooth headset with a microphone.

The actual build itself feels pretty good. Both the keyboard and tablet feel sturdy, as does the connector that runs between them. It’s thicker and meatier than a lot of alternatives, and the whole setup weighs somewhere between two and two-and-a-half pounds, with the vast majority of that being in the tablet. This means that if you pick it up and carry it by the keyboard it feels really awkward, but it still keeps the same angle it’s open at despite a little wobbling in the joint during sudden movements. There’s a micro USB port (which may or may not double as a charger; I’ve never bothered testing) and a DC charging cable that you can use for either the tablet, or the keyboard (which has its own battery and DC charging port, though it doesn’t have any USB ports that I can see). The keyboard is connected through a six-pin connection and uses magnets to stay connected to the tablet: this makes it really easy to remove when you want but also feels pretty sturdy against accidental jostling. Compared to something like the Surface Go, the Atlas 10 Pro+ is bulky, but I found that once it was in my laptop bag I’d forget which pocket I’d tucked it in. It’s all relative, and it’s light for its size.

Both the keyboard and tablet can be charged at the same time by a dedicated wall adapter; the keyboard does not have its own micro-USB port for charging, but both have the wall adapter plug (it’s a standard one that I’ve seen Chromebooks use, but I’m not familiar with the terminology).

If, like me, the disappearance of the humble headphone jack bothers you, you will be happy to know that there is one on the Atlas 10 Pro+ (which is something of a conceited name), as well as an SD card slot. The internal storage is 32 gigabytes, about 6 of which is used by Android, but that’s probably enough for most users given the camera short-comings.

The keyboard itself is surprisingly good. Honestly, it’s got one of the better laptop-style keyboard layouts, and while it’s tenkeyless it includes a full set of media controls. Some of the keys are pretty small, but despite my relatively large hands I actually don’t find them that bad. I’m not making typos, even adjusting from a glorious mechanical keyboard. My only gripe is that the left control key is really small and there’s a function modifier key where a full control button would extend, so I’ve fairly often hit that instead of control and not gotten what I wanted. The keyboard is not capable of wireless functionality, despite having its own battery, so you have to attach it if you want to use it. If you’re like me and you want something that has similar functionality to a laptop you won’t be disappointed; the keys actually feel really good to use. This morning I actually dug out an old Gigabyte gaming laptop, and I was surprised by how bad the keys on that felt compared to my tablet’s keyboard.

The integrated trackpad is actually better than I thought it would be, though it lacks dedicated buttons so you’ll have to tap on it to click. Since there’s a touchscreen on the tablet this is easily overcome if you find it frustrating, but I’ve found it really natural to use. The only downside is that it doesn’t really do multitouch, though I prefer to scroll and zoom using the touchscreen anyway since it’s more precise to work in screenspace rather than on a small touchpad no matter which device you’re on. If you don’t like the touchpad, you can disable it (and re-enable it) with a keyboard macro (FN+Space bar), which is nice.

In the few months I’ve been using the tablet, I’ve never had any issues with the battery life. As far as I can tell I get the six hours it says on the box (I’ve never let it run all the way down), and while there’s no way that I’ve found to figure out how much juice the keyboard’s battery has stored I’ve been able to use it in lieu of the charger (I did this in Indianapolis the first night I was there).

I’ve used it for a few things; I haven’t tested its outbound screencasting functionality (it is compatible with Chromecast devices, from what I gather), but it is able to be used as an external display with the help of apps. It’s not really a remote desktop option so much as a mirrored display, because it’s pushing its abilities to the limit with something like Parsec. Slack and Spotify work fine, as do the Google Suite and Firefox. I have intentionally avoided putting any games or other distractions on the tablet, so I can’t report on their functionality.

Screen rotation is sometimes a pain because the Android Go setup seems to love portrait mode, but this is a very small portion of the use experience, limited to first-time setup and the built-in Android Go app hub thing (I’ve used it three times, mostly out of curiosity).

In terms of value, I’m not 100% certain how other tablets compete. This is a pretty humble Android device in terms of specifications, and it lagged a lot during initial setup and app installation. The lag went away after that was done and it’s actually pretty smooth now (not as smooth as my Android phone, but my phone’s more expensive). If a lot of apps are running at once you may get some weird performance, but I’ve found that closing unused apps by swiping them away in the app-switch view usually fixes any issues.

The real question here is how you would value the tablet and keyboard combined. I didn’t do a whole lot of research into the competition in terms of tablets since this came with a personal recommendation, but as far as I could find on Amazon there didn’t seem to be a comparable 10” tablet available new at the same price range, much less one that came with a keyboard and external battery as part of the bargain.

If, like me, you’re primarily looking for something that lets you do light productivity-related tasks and function as a sort of computer away from home, this is a surprisingly full experience. It’s not going to win any performance benchmarks. When I tried using Parsec to stream a game from my PC to the tablet, it definitely hit its limits pretty quickly. However, for actual daily use it works fine; it definitely isn’t high-end, but it handles typing well.

I think I’ll be able to make this thing pay for itself pretty easily. After a few months’ use, I’ve found it to be really handy. The more I use it the more comfortable it gets, and it definitely is something that is pretty hassle-free to travel with (if you remember the charger). The only superlative it gets is “Cheapest laptop experience you can get without going for a used device”, but that’s quite a deal all things considered. I’ve been typing at least a few hundred words per day on it pretty consistently now, and I like the way that it’s liberated me to move around and find places where I can focus on my work, then get that work done.

Review of Stephen King’s On Writing

I recently read Stephen King’s On Writing (Amazon affiliate link), which I found to be interesting. I’ve read a few other books on writing recently, so I figured it’d be interesting to compare King to other writers.

In the past I’d heard that King’s book was not really all that great for a writer, so I approached it with a certain amount of skepticism.

I split my reading across four days; the first two days covered roughly a third of the book each, then I split the remaining third up between the rest of the main text and the appendices.

At the end of the first day, I was in agreement with the skeptics. On Writing contains enough autobiographical content to be considered King’s memoir (which, coincidentally, is mentioned right on the cover, so there’s not really a surprise there). If you like King’s writing (I do) it will be a pleasant enough read, but other than seeing some traits and habits you can emulate there’s not a whole lot there in the way of practical advice.

The rest of the book, the remaining days of reading, were much more effective. King launches into a top-to-bottom overview of his writing process, which is quite interesting. Although it generally doesn’t do a whole lot of coaching on some of the elements, it gives a certain amount of insight to each.

And this is really where the recommendation gets tricky.

You see, King doesn’t give a whole lot of details about how you should write. He gives points you’ll need to address if you want to be a good writer, sometimes in a very basic way (e.g. “What is a good starting seed for a story and how can you tell?”) and sometimes being more specific (e.g. “How should you structure paragraphs?”), but he never goes into meticulous detail about anything.

For me, as someone who’s a fairly comfortable writer who wants to open up the world of creative writing, that’s useful. But I taught English, and while I don’t always adhere to best practices (do as I say, not as I do), I am at least familiar with them.

If you’re writing and you worry that the quality isn’t good enough, King doesn’t really have a lot of stuff for you, other than the reminder that he practiced a ton and wrote a lot of subpar stuff before he got good (which is largely communicated in the memoir portion of the book). If you’re putting out work that other people find unintelligible, you’re going to need to learn to fix that elsewhere.

I think this is best illustrated by his example for editing.

Now, this comes from work that was contemporary with On Writing, so it’s after he’s already become an expert writer, but his first drafts look tremendous compared to any first draft I’m currently in the realm of (not that I’m a good benchmark for quality), or any I’ve ever seen outside Stephen King’s (people do not usually rush to present me with first drafts, so again I’m not the best benchmark here).

By the time King’s showing us the process, the manuscript would probably be in a publication-worthy state for a lesser writer.

Now, a lot of that’s because King doesn’t want to waste his reader’s time time; proofreading isn’t the focus, revision is.

But it is an example of how the book generally goes.

As someone who’s been through four books on writing in two (three?) months, I think it’s a great example of a companion to other books. A more advanced, less specific book that leaves more to the individual and treats them like a journeyman or master instead of as an apprentice.

Plus, it’s written by Stephen King. Even if the lessons are occasionally thin, the writing is good enough that I found it a pleasant read; King intersperses humor and examples well enough that you forget you’re reading what could be an incredibly dry book (and I’ve read the dry writing manuals, ones with exercises, for crying out loud!).

Review of Justice Velocity

Justice Velocity (affiliate link) lives up to its name: it’s fast-paced high octane roleplaying.

Now, that’s right up my alley, so when I heard about it I had to go and check it out.

I’ve played various examples of games that claimed to be action-oriented, and the question is always how well they do at streamlining and simplifying play versus how well they do at making the game feel thematic. I’m going to focus my review on that, today.

The Overview

Justice Velocity runs about 70 pages. I’d say it’s done really well; there’s not a whole ton of art, but what’s there is good and thematic, and the cover does a really good job of getting players involved.

I’m going to take a moment to talk about what I perceive as the target audience of this game: people who want a break from their regular game or who are not roleplayers (or not frequent roleplayers) who like action films.

That’s not to say that you couldn’t play Justice Velocity for a long campaign as a stand-alone game, but I think this is outside of its primary wheelhouse. It’s 70 pages, and a lot of the rules for stuff are “do what seems cool” instead of highly fleshed out and meticulously balanced things.

And you know what? I like that. It’s a game that respects the intelligence of its players; it’s simple enough to play without the rulebook being referenced all the time, but elegant in its threshold-based 2d6+modifiers mechanic.

Now, it’s not going to let you achieve a lot of mathematical whimsy, it’s a thin book, but one of the things I’ve learned as a game designer is that sometimes people need a game they can play without worrying about a bunch of math, and Justice Velocity is in a genre that lends itself to raw cinematic action and hits that niche.

Now, with that said, it is simple. If you like Shadowrun or GURPS or even D&D you might feel like you’re moving to a much simpler system.

But that’s where we move into the more specialized parts of this review.

Is it Sleek?

Yep.

One of the reasons why Justice Velocity is 70 pages is because it sticks to very basic rules for everything but cars and gunfights (or fistfights, if that’s your speed) and doesn’t complicate those terribly much either.

But the rules actually deliver on that.

It has rules for grid-based play, but the book recommends theater of the mind for most combat (and trackers for vehicles, which is a must). If it’s a one-on-one cinematic moment, you can easily do away with the trackers in vehicle races and chases, both of which can be represented at varying degrees of detail.

It’s worth noting that while I describe Justice Velocity as simple, it has an attributes, skills, special abilities, gear, and usually vehicles to track. That’s a handful of moving parts, but it doesn’t worry too much about the nitty-gritty. Gear is handled entirely by GM fiat (which could cause issues), and advancement is very simple.

One nice thing is that whenever the rules extend beyond simple mechanics, they are very clearly explained and usually get a nice in-depth example. I’m willing to bet that people who play Justice Velocity and want to stick to the rules-as-written experience all play pretty much the same game, which I can’t say about every roleplaying game out there. It’s tremendously clear, and I could probably run almost every part of the game from memory after reading it once (the one exception being the vehicle rules, which get a little more detailed).

Now, I will say that I am a little concerned that the point-buy system might not actually work the best for what they’re hoping to achieve. This might be the only time in history that I’ve ever said those words. There’s a certain amount of character overlap because it’s a game primarily focused on guns and cars, and a good handful of character options aren’t about guns and cars and are unlikely to be taken.

So you’re in an odd place where a lot of people are going to have the same skills (in theory; in practice you never know), and a lot of skills might not be represented. Combat skills come free, though, so it’s more a question of what would matter.

In this way I think the system is perhaps over-streamlined. Skills all cost the same, for instance, and characters don’t necessarily start with any skills. So you wind up with a situation where a lot of people are going to have a couple skills (especially Driving) but not necessarily have any skill represented.

This is probably fretting about nothing; skills give a +2 bonus, but there’s no penalty for not having them. The majority of a character’s bonus is going to come from other sources anyway, but it might have been nice to have a couple free knowledge or language skills, especially as a way to ground people, or have them cost 1 point instead of 2 during character creation.

A small concern I have is that in theory Will could be a little strong because it feeds skill rolls, gives limited uses of a bonus die, and boosts HP. However, since the distribution curve of attributes is relatively slender (players spread 20 points across five attributes) I don’t see a huge problem barring a couple weird situations I’ll discuss elsewhere.

The important thing here: the rules are simple enough for players to understand without needing to read (always a good point, especially for a game you could play impromptu and a genre that fits that style), and a competent GM can take them a long way.

Is it Thematic?

Yes. Eight hundred times yes. It may have a little testosterone poisoning, but it’s both self-aware and blissfully unconcerned about what people think about it.

Cars. Guns.

You want ’em? Justice Velocity’s got ’em.

It’s the sort of game I’d be totally happy just kicking back and playing, and one that’s a great rainy-day or missing-player backup game. I don’t know if the rest of my group would enjoy it, because they’re not really into the genre like I am, but if you ask “Could I use this game to recreate X?” and X is any major action movie of the last 20 years, the answer is almost certainly yes.

The one exception I’d point out is that the rules are very focused and tight. You wouldn’t be recreating Netflix’s Bright, for instance (but why would anyone in their right mind?) or some of the other genre-action hybrids like superhero movies, but that’s not the point of Justice Velocity and they don’t lie and pretend that it is.

Vehicle chase rules are a stand-out positive part of the ruleset. I don’t think I’ve ever seen them better elsewhere, and it has one of the few random tables to help with inspiration for obstacles and boosts that you might encounter while racing around a city.

They do get a little complicated compared to the other rules, and it would’ve been nice to see perhaps a little more of the under-the-hood dice in the way of examples (the first example is a little vague on what exactly people rolled).

The Elephant in the Room

Before I move on, I want to quickly address a couple issues I do have with the game. I don’t want to be too negative here; they’re not deal-breakers, but they are things that I would be remiss if I overlooked.

A lot of things are left to “roll with it” mode. I’m a believer in the intelligence of average (and even slightly below average) players and GMs to figure out what the heck they want from their games, so I’m totally fine with this.

The problem is that if you don’t know what you’re doing, or even have an idea of it, you can really easily mess stuff up.

Character advancement is practically nonexistent; though it’s present the rules are basically “Throw some AP (Advancement Points, of which each player gets 10) at it”, and the method for determining that is left up to you. If players expect AP every session in a fifteen session game, you’re going to run out of options for them very quickly before they start stealing the spotlight from each other, and I don’t think the book is clear enough about that.

One of the suggestions is to base AP gained on Will, which is probably the only big balance issue I see; the game is generally loose on balance, but as an exercise in collaborative storytelling I don’t see a problem here. With that in mind, you could expect to see people gaining 2 AP per session and people gaining 6 AP per session if someone were liberal with AP (I don’t think anyone who read the book would go beyond that), and the people who started with high Will could easily dominate the competition.

Keep in mind, however, that they are clear that the idea of the story isn’t to follow people gaining bigger numbers but to follow high-octane action. Not having advancement is not the issue; not being consistent with it is.

For a group that’s already frequently roleplaying, I think this is a non-issue. People will use the method they like from other games. It’s for first-timers and infrequent roleplayers that I see this becoming an issue, which is why I’m hesitant to openly recommend what would otherwise be an excellent first-time game, unless the GM has experience.

If there were two things I’d change about Justice Velocity, I’d put a lot of the things that currently are just given the “season to taste” treatment into organized tracks for “high-power”, “baseline” and “high-stakes” play so that things like the rates at which you refresh resources and how to handle character death could be communicated to players directly. This would make it playable by novice roleplayers and address 99% of my concerns about the game.

The second is that I’d tweak the AP costs of some things or give starter packages for players.

Other things are all nit-picky. The sample enemies are next to sample PCs and other content in Chapter 3, when it might make sense to move them to the GM-specific section in Chapter 7. There’s inconsistent capitalization in the Abilities table. The word roll is misspelled as role once.

Very nit-picky. This game is well-edited and obviously lovingly playtested to get rid of any significant errors, and while it’s not A-list Hollywood production value, it’s probably the most solid indie title I’ve seen in a while.

The Verdict

I really like Justice Velocity and don’t regret buying it. Will I recommend it? Conditionally.

If you’ve played other roleplaying games and want something fast and light that’s built with some really solid chase scenes, this is an easy option to recommend. I feel like its bespoke mechanics do a better job than, say, Savage Worlds, which would handle the action movie genre well but has a lot of extra stuff to handle other stuff as well, for the particular milieu it occupies.

It’s also easy enough that you can play it with your friends who are interested in roleplaying games but think that “dice” is what you do to vegetables when you’re cooking. Because you can pretty much play with just a couple six-sided dice, you can really easily play anywhere, and you can make characters super-simply by using a point pool system, which is great for both speed and balancing some of the otherwise frenetic moments, and despite my griping about a couple small elements it’s tremendously well-made with room to customize it to fit your needs and the theme you’re going for.

That there are two things I’d change about the game, and both of them are easily resolved by a good Session 0 or a savvy GM is a good sign. I’d like to see a second printing/edition with a little more bulk (perhaps delivering on more of the Kickstarter goals?) that keeps the underlying stuff exactly as it is.

Review of Bird by Bird

Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird (Amazon affiliate link) offers a different look at writing than you are likely to see in other writing books. It does so with passion, zeal, and above all else a sense of clarity and purpose which combine make it refreshing.

I’ve read or listened to quite a few books on writing recently, like John McPhee’s Draft No. 4, which I also highly recommend (my review), but Lamott takes an approach that is conversational and cordial, making the reader (or listener) a co-conspirator with her in the ups and downs of life as a writer.

Two of the most challenging parts of writing are finding a spark, figuring out what you want to write, and then figuring out how to transfer it to paper. Lamott focuses on these two subjects almost to the exclusion of everything else, but she does so with such depth and from so many different angles that she never repeats herself and covers a good portion of everything else that you would want to know as a writer on the side.

Lamott captures the spirit of writing without feeling preachy or over-romantic. I think of Colum McCann’s Letters to a Young Writer (my review) as an example of a book that is sentimental rather than practical, basically a collection of calls to action and motivational speaking rather than an example of what writers are likely to encounter. Lamott, on the other hand, takes the experiences from her own personal perspective, giving the reader emotional attachment and lending them part of her drive.

Lamott is bitingly sarcastic and incredibly funny. She is transparent about her personal crises, leading to a book that shows both the bigger picture of the publication process and the smaller moments that make up the triumphs and ordeals of the writing process; from the feel of getting galley copies in the mail to the shared anxiety of calling another writer on the day of publication to realize that neither she nor he achieved the runaway success that they had dreamed of.

I wouldn’t suggest this book to younger readers due to some of the language and content in it, but it is still one that I would recommend to novice writers because Lamott never does anything that might come across as intimidating or elitist (at least, not without lampshading it in a devilish self-aware fashion). You get a feel for her personality and character and how her life has motivated her to write:

“I try to write the books that I would love to come upon, that are honest, concerned with real lives… and that can make me laugh… Books, for me, are medicine.”

I think this is a meaningful outlook, and it’s worth noting that unlike some authors Lamott leaves it to the writer whether they want to have any overarching message or ideas. If all you have to say is a small truth that you learned from something that happened to you, Lamott gives as much encouragement as you would expect if you were to say that you had figured out the way to fix the universe. She also avoids giving too much of a dogma. A large part of her advice is to figure out methods that work for the individual writer, as a more airy and vapid individual or someone who wishes to sabotage their potential rivals might, but she actually gives enough advice and framework to make it possible to follow that path.

I went into this book with no knowledge of Lamott or her work, and left feeling like she had given me an intimate look into both her writing process and her advice for writers. Comparing it to something like Stephen King’s On Writing, which is definitely more autobiographical and takes longer to get into the craft side of things, or John McPhee’s Draft No. 4, which is heavily predominated by craft.

I’d recommend Bird by Bird without reservation. It’s like having an intimate conversation with a great writer, and even barring an interest in writing it’s funny enough to be worth reading. That it has surprisingly practical and down-to-earth writing moments tucked underneath every joke and anecdote is a triumph that makes it sublime.

Review of Unbroken

I recently read the book Unbroken (Amazon affiliate link), written by Laura Hillenbrand. Unbroken came out as a “major motion picture” a few years back, and I saw it in theaters and thought it was pretty good, but the problem with any film is that they have to choose between making things interesting and dumping a bunch of information on you.

A book, on the other hand, offers the potential to provide both information and engagement, since good writing can carry even a dry and boring subject to an amusing or fulfilling conclusion.

I’ve been meaning to read the book, written by Laura Hillenbrand, ever since I watched the movie. It tells the story of Louis Zamperini, an Olympian and WWII veteran, as he goes from a youth during the Great Depression to a man who overcomes some of the worst situations and harshest environments that people have ever found themselves in.

The book doesn’t pull any punches (a young-adult version is also available, aimed at students), but this helps it overcome the potential boredom that a 500 page book could descend into. A good portion of the book is dedicated to footnotes and notes, which turn Unbroken from mere story into a well-researched history and biography.

The story by itself would still be inspiring. Louis finds himself in Germany for the 1936 Olympics, joining the likes of Jesse Owens and others. Although Zamperini doesn’t directly experience or witness any persecution in Germany (which was trying to hide its crimes from the world at that point), he does see the gathering storm through a variety of signs, both subtle or otherwise.

Louis’s role as a bombardier in WWII is one of the more harrowing parts of the book. The sheer toll of the bombers on their crew and the number of airmen lost not just to the enemy but also to accidents sets a bleak precedent.

When Louis’s bomber crashes and he escapes along with two others (from a crew of around 10) to rafts, the story gets even more desperate, culminating in his eventual capture by the Japanese.

The POW experiences are captured well by the film, but the book goes into more detail about Louis’s fellow prisoners, showing them with a depth and richness that the film was incapable of replicating.

The film also ends with Louis’s freedom at the end of the war (a sequel was made, but went direct-to-disc), where Hillenbrand’s book carries through to the end of Louis’s life, with a major focus in the immediate postwar years.

It adds a level of complexity and hope to the story, showing not just what Zamperini went through but also what he accomplished.

Unbroken tells a tremendous story through its subject, but it matches the strength of its narrative with precise and deep language, the willingness to slow down to explain where necessary coupled with the skill to keep the pace flowing, and a raw and objective look at important events in history.

Unbroken may aim to tell a single person’s story, but it manages to speak to the human condition through its remarkable subject.

I recommend it wholeheartedly.

Review: Of Dice and Men

I recently read David Ewalt’s Of Dice and Men (Amazon affiliate link), a book that provides an overview of what roleplaying games are and how they came to be.

I’m a game designer myself, so I’m fairly familiar with the industry. However, Ewalt’s work is intended for anyone; a novice or outsider can benefit just as much as an old-school gamer.

This can be credited to his journalistic work, actually going on the ground and talking to people who were intimately involved with the advent of Dungeons and Dragons.

And the book predominantly focuses on D&D. There’s a few reasons for that; not the least of which being that D&D is the largest game and that the events surrounding it tend to have to been played out over and over again within the industry. Ewalt’s own gaming hobby extends beyond D&D, though most of the examples of gaming are given from the context of D&D’s “3.5” edition.

With that said, it’s worth pointing out that in a 250 page book, more mention could be made of alternative games. Ewalt has a connection to D&D that runs deep, both in terms of the game itself and the interviewees throughout the book, but he misses a lot of potential by not looking outside the box. While he is able to draw a few connections that would be difficult to draw from scattered details and show a side of the industry that you don’t always get to see from the outside by getting an inside look at how the sausage is made, so many of the events are part of “nerd canon” as it were that there’s a little bit of overlap.

And it’s worth noting that Ewalt’s story is deeply personal. If you have no experience with D&D at all, this serves an illustrative purpose. I can appreciate it as a journalistic device as well, since it’s giving an insight to how the game is actually played.

These interludes are not poorly written, though I wouldn’t describe it as being made up of grand narratives. They’re evidentiary, not epic, and somewhat romanticized and streamlined (at least compared my own experiences).

I personally enjoyed the book quite a bit. It covers a variety of angles: personal interest, living history, explanation of a phenomena, and so forth. However, the one place where I will give it a bit of grief is this: Of Dice and Men really wants to be incredibly dramatic, and there are places where it is willing to sacrifice to do so.

Let me give an example. There’s a section where Of Dice and Men covers the whole history of gaming, but goes through it in maybe twenty or thirty pages. It also spends thirty pages on wargaming, which directly preceded D&D (Gary Gygax was primarily involved with wargaming when D&D became the new hot thing, as was Dave Arneson). The legal woes of TSR practically get a chapter unto themselves (which is not necessarily bad), while the decade and a half following them gets largely blipped over until we come to D&D Next.

Admittedly, this is the time which would be familiar to most gamers at the time of publication, but at the same time it feels like it’s a bit of a jarring transition. When you’ve already got 250 pages, what are another 50? Some incredibly influential games, like White Wolf’s Vampire: The Masquerade get hardly any mention, and despite the in-depth history of TSR almost none of their other games get any serious coverage.

I don’t think that this is accidental, but I do think that if Ewalt had wanted to cover the full phenomena of roleplaying games as a culture he could have included some of the more notable alternatives, both because they’ve had a huge influence and because they serve as a potential gateway to people who don’t have an interest in the swords-and-sorcery setting that D&D is most known for. Likewise, the main discussion of D&D’s many settings is limited to Greyhawk and Blackmoor, both of which are noteworthy and meaningful, but the transition to different settings marks noteworthy philosophical shifts.

Do I recommend this book? Yes, I enjoyed it quite a bit. It has a lot of good ideas for people who want to get into gaming, and it has stuff that even an old hand like myself can get into and learn from. However, it doesn’t quite achieve what I think it set out to achieve. If you rely on it for all your knowledge you’ll be left with gaps. This is true of almost any book, but Of Dice and Men comes so close to greatness that it legitimately hurts when it only nears its potential.

Review of Spider-Man: Far From Home

So I’ve got something of a love-hate relationship with Spider-Man. For a long time, I would have considered him my favorite superhero. However, he just didn’t age as well as some of the other superheroes, especially in a post-Dark Knight and Iron Man universe, and the result was that for a while I just stopped following him.

That’s not strictly true; I watched The Amazing Spider-Man and was fairly disappointed (barring the action, which was okay), and I was basically put off enough that I never watched the Tom Holland versions.

Then I eventually caved and watched Into the Spider-Verse, which was absolutely amazing, and I started reconsidering my approach to Spider-Man. Then I got a discount on a movie ticket, and figured I may as well use it to see Spider-Man: Far From Home.

Personally, I had found Tom Holland a little annoying in the MCU. Because of that I hadn’t seen Spider-Man: Homecoming, and I only saw Into the Spider-Verse because I was hounded to by friends and reviewers (they were correct; it was awesome!).

So I went to the theater, not yet having watched Homecoming. I’ve watched it since, because Far From Home is just so awesome, but I was really going in blind.

Which lets me say that Far From Home doesn’t require a whole lot of recent Spider-Man experience. It helps to know the basic concepts and who the main characters are, but it’s a great film and really delivers on a lot of fronts.

All-in-all, I found it to be one of the best action/superhero movies of the year. There were a few spots where it wasn’t perfect, but the merits were strong enough that only a wholehearted critic wouldn’t have enjoyed the film.

I got to watch on a massive screen (not the largest out there, but more than the average movie theater), and it was really a great experience.

The CGI is fantastic, but it doesn’t overshadow the characters. It feels much more like a MCU movie than Homecoming does, and Homecoming is much better than the earlier Sony affairs that I watched. The choreography of the fights is tremendous. It all comes together in a fantastic way, and the post-credits scenes tease things that I’m really looking forward to.

The plot is deep and well-developed, with Peter Parker’s internal conflict being as much a driving force as external events. Set after Avengers: Endgame, Far From Home deals with the threats that almost nobody has the tools to take care of.

There’s a lot of talk about Spider-Man taking over for Iron Man as head of the Avengers/Stark Industries, and I feel like Tom Holland’s performance could be sufficient to help him carry the franchise forward if that’s the role Spider-Man winds up taking in the MCU.

Really, all the acting is great. Every major character gets enough screen time and development to really have a reason to be there, and the minor characters serve their roles without getting in the way.

Far From Home is executed almost flawlessly, and shows that the MCU doesn’t need to end with Endgame. It’s the sort of high-quality fare that one would hope to see more of in the future: elevated superhero stories that focus on people and conflicts with inspirational meaning, but still give a great spectacle.

Review: The Role of the Scroll

The Role of the Scroll (Amazon affiliate link) is a non-fiction book by Thomas Forrest Kelly, a professor of music at Harvard. It focuses primarily on how scrolls were used in the Middle Ages in Europe (but also covers the global use of scrolls in passing), and gives plentiful examples from a variety of contexts.

When I say that The Role of the Scroll covers a niche topic, I do not mean to say that it is strictly scientific and bland. Far from going into meaningless specifics about minutiae, it focuses on the historical significance of scrolls both as a class of document and as individual examples of manuscripts that changed or represented the world.

I generally enjoyed the book, though I have a few complaints that I’ll get to later. First I’d like to start with what I liked about it, and I’ll get to the rougher patches in a bit.

The strongest point of this whole book is that it elevates a very humble thing and dives into it in a way that to my knowledge has never been done before. As someone who likes reading quite a bit and has a connection with the written word, it’s interesting to see examples of a device that is not quite as dead as it may seem (I am typing this review in a text-box, a sort of digital scroll), and which had a tremendous value for shaping our world.

The opening chapters are strictly limited to scrolls themselves, giving examples from across world history and not just Europe (something I consider a strong point), and they’re probably the most similar to the sort of history book you’d expect.

Once you get past the opening chapters, Kelly moves into overviews of the various types of scroll used in the Middle Ages. Each overview uses examples from surviving scrolls, and the overall style is more lively and deep.

Kelly is professor of music, but he handles history fantastically well. The only hint that one gets that Kelly’s focus is in music and not history is in his deeper focus on musical works than some of the other documents, but even this is handled in a way that’s tremendously accessible.

The print edition I had was printed on thick glossy paper and had beautiful illustrations. The actual printing itself is fantastic and the book feels both good in the hand and easy to read. Some text for the captions around the illustrations of scrolls was hard to read in certain light (white text on a glossy black page background), so I might recommend the digital edition for anyone who would find this to be an issue. The scrolls themselves are not always able to be read; the reproduction is good, but often a whole scroll of several feet in length winds up on a page. Fortunately, Kelly points out interesting excerpts from the text, sometimes in captions by the illustration and sometimes in the main body text of the book, and one gets a feel for the beauty and majesty of the scrolls without necessarily being able to read them.

My only gripe is that The Role of the Scroll feels like it’s half-way between being a book for laypeople and a book for historians. On one hand, Kelly goes into a lot of detail explaining what people might need to know and establishing the human condition that led to the creation of scrolls. This is generally done in a way that even those not familiar with European history would be able to appreciate.

On the other hand, Kelly’s focus on making things immediately comprehensible to a layperson also means that basic things that would be common knowledge for people with a good knowledge of history get expanded upon greatly. This is then mirrored by an abstention from going into the most deep and complicated elements of the situations surrounding scrolls (except as pertains to music, where Kelly goes into greater detail). It may be that some of this information is not immediately available or would quickly veer off topic (for example, only a very cursory account is given of alchemical scrolls, but to give greater detail would definitely require going on a tangent).

Ultimately, this is a good book for an interesting read, and the illustrations stand out wonderfully throughout. It gives both a personal and serious look at its historical subjects, and leaves one with a greater understanding of the topic.

Writer’s note: Because The Role of the Scroll has no reviews on Amazon, I cross-posted this text there. I gave a five-star review, though if given more granularity I’d probably give it more of a 4.5 or 4.7 out of 5. It’s far from a perfect text, but it is a pioneering one.

Review of The Hero With an African Face

I read Clyde Ford’s The Hero with an African Face (Amazon affiliate link) this week and found it to be one of the best books I’ve read this year.

Now, with that said, it’s not a book I’d recommend to a disinterested novice. It targets an audience already familiar, to an extent, with the work of Jung and Campbell. While this knowledge isn’t strictly necessary, it helps. People familiar with literary criticism in general should not have difficulties.

The Hero with an African Face shines in its respect and depth of interaction with the myths it presents. Ford does a tremendous job bringing everything together in a meaningful way. Likewise, he builds from simple to complex themes and topics.

He also does not try to cram the whole of African mythology into a single schema. He addresses the contrasting and parallel elements within individual cultures without over-simplification. Ford talks about both the myths and the culture surrounding them with great detail. This allows Westerners with different cultural assumptions than Africans to better appreciate the myths.

As is common among surveys of mythology, Ford groups the myths by topic. He spends some time with creation myths, then on to myths about the underworld, and so forth. He also, as mentioned earlier, focuses on the cultural origins of the myths. The Yoruba oreishas’ stories come separate from the stories of ancient Ghana. The exception to this is when they are deliberately compared, which is always marked.

I’m not an expert on African myth. My limited knowledge of the subject is much less than Ford’s, so I can’t critique his own knowledge. I can say with confidence that my knowledge of African mythology has grown by reading this book.

A book like this has three ways it can provide value.

The first is its information. Assuming Ford’s work is correct, The Hero with an African Face delivers. His work is recommended by experts, which I will have to satisfy myself with. While the body is just 200 pages long, each page carries new and significant information. The book cannot cover the entirety of African mythology, but it gives a foundation.

As a source of stories, the book has more ambiguity. Its length limits it, and its stories are often abridged. Despite this, it still offers glimpses at captivating, and unfamiliar, stories. Many of the stories show the deep archetypal underpinnings of storytelling. These stories are absent in the Western canon, and give a feel for the breadth of human expression. It gives a whole new context for understanding the modern African writer.

The last criteria is how pleasant the book is to read. Ford uses diagrams and images to great effect, and bolsters the text. He intersperses personal and historical experiences with stories and literary theory. The whole text rings with passion and conviction, and carries such meaning that it is hard to pull away from.

Ford is a master wordsmith. Although he contents himself to apply others’ methods to a new frontier, he elevates their work. By applying a different perspective, Ford unlocks secrets that others were blind to. In particular, his take on the heroic cycle is refreshing. Ford contrasts the fact-based Western culture with the expression-based African culture. This paints the picture of a hero who gains qualities, instead of one who passes waystones.

This is an easy book to recommend. It’s academic, but also bears intrinsic interest. It tells stories that touch on universal themes, and helps us interpret all stories. It deals with the individual and the whole of humanity in one marvelous attempt.

Review of Letters to A Young Writer

I recently listened to Colum McCann’s Letters to a Young Writer (Amazon affiliate link), and since I often write reviews I figured I’d write a review of it.

If that feels like an uninspiring opening, you might not be too far from the truth.

Letters to a Young Writer was born out of the seeds of a blog, which McCann mentions in an early chapter, and it feels kind of like a blog.

So, with that said, you have the crux of the weakness in the book. It’s a collection of essays, but they’re all largely independent of each other. The result isn’t terrible, but it means that the entire book has very little build-up and delivery.

If you’re looking for a more comprehensive book on writing, I’d suggest John McPhee’s Draft No. 4 (my review), or quite frankly any of the longer-form books.

With that said, there’s only a couple criticisms that I would care to level McCann’s writing itself instead of the format of the book.

First, it’s overly flowery, and this is keeping in mind that it’s written for writers, and we tend to be flowery sorts. When McCann’s trying simply to inspire, this works really well. However, there are times when he could be giving a practical insight but it’s lost under layers of wanting to look good.

Second, it’s very experiential. McCann acknowledges this and provides plenty of places where he confesses to not knowing things (which I consider a great positive), but the problem is that when you combine this with the flowery nature of the prose you wind up with situations where you get an almost Montaigne-esque “Oh, but I don’t know for sure.”

While that’s certainly better than pretending to know, and it does enable McCann to explore some avenues he might not otherwise want to talk about because he wouldn’t feel authoritative on them, it feels like he’s going off the cuff and hasn’t done research (the idea of whether writers should go for a MFA in writing, for instance, is one where he prevaricates in a particularly noticeable fashion).

As for inspiration, McCann is very inspiring in the sense that he offers good pick-me-ups and a lot of encouragement. Some of the work feels overly political or, perhaps, not political but attached to the notion that the current moment is radically different than all past moments.

To clarify what I mean, it feels like McCann tells the writer to write because only writers can bring truth and purpose to being. Now, I’m not necessarily opposed to that, as someone who is very into the theories of Jung and Campbell and the roles stories play to our psyche, but this sort of weird teleological devotion sends him off-topic.

If you’re into that, it works well for inspiration. It’s very emotional, however.

All-in-all, the fifty-two essays feel almost like they’re intended to be a once-a-week thing, but the question then is why one wouldn’t just look at a blog. McCann certainly is a gifted writer, and he hits some high points, but with an average length of about three pages the essays generally don’t build on what there is to know about writing beyond a very elementary level.

There are also parts that would be a little too crude for a young writer (i.e. a child), with McCann letting his language get a little coarse. It’s not excessive vulgarity, but I wouldn’t feel comfortable putting it in a classroom library or giving it to a student.

The audiobook was read by McCann himself, and I actually found him to do a really good job of putting emotion into it and making his meaning clear. He has an Irish accent and musical cadence that really makes his point build to a crescendo and carries more than just the letter of the word.

So do I recommend it?

It’s hard to say. At its price ($14 for a Kindle version at the time of writing), there are a lot of alternatives that could serve just as well, either in the form of blogs or more authoritative volumes. If you like McCann, or you’re looking for something like a writer’s devotional, then it might be more of an option.