Targi.

targibox

Andreas Steiger’s two-person game Targi, published in 2012 as part of Kosmos’ two-player series, combines several simple, familiar mechanics for a new, easy-to-learn game that still requires moderately difficult strategic decisions, with more interaction than most two-player games offer because of the nature of the board. Games took us 30-45 minutes, and I had no problem teaching the game to my eight-year-old daughter, especially since most of the scoring is clear and immediately visible on the game’s cards. The game was nominated for the Kennerspiel des Jahres (Connoisseur’s Game of the Year) in 2012, but lost to Village, which I own but haven’t opened yet.

Each player represents a tribe of Tuareg nomads competing to acquire goods (salt, pepper, and dates) as well as gold to allow them to acquire “tribe cards” that award both victory points and special abilities. Players purchase tribe cards and arrange them in their own camp, a 3×4 array where each row of four can earn bonuses based on the symbols on the cards placed there – four of a kind or four unique symbols in a row. The game has two end conditions, so its there’s a cap on how long a game can go, and also creates a little tension if neither player has filled his/her array before the final turn arrives.targibox

Targi’s board is created by placing cards on the table in a 5×5 grid, with the sixteen cards around the border fixed in every game. These “noble cards” include twelve cards that award free goods or special abilities that may be used only on that turn, as well as four “raid” cards that require all players to surrender goods, gold, or victory points to the robber. The central nine cards (3×3) change every game, and vary over the course of the game; they begin with five goods cards, from which a player may get salt, pepper, dates, a combination of two of those, gold, or a victory point; and four tribe cards, described above, awarding one to three victory points, bearing one of five card symbols, and possibly granting some special abilities. When a player purchases a tribe card from the central square, a goods card replaces it, and vice versa.

Each player has three Targi tokens and two marker tokens, and players alternate placement of the Targi, with the first player changing on each turn. A player places his/her Targi on the noble cards around the outside of the board, creating two points of intersection on cards in the central 3×3 grid, on which the player places her two marker tokens for a total of five affected cards for each player. One noble card is out of play on each turn because the robber occupies it, and a player may not share a noble card or place his own Targi on a noble card directly across from one of his opponent’s Targi. On his turn, a player may resolve his five tokens in any order he wishes. If a player has the opportunity to purchase a tribe card but lacks the necessary goods and/or gold, she may hold one tribe card in her hand for purchase on a later turn. After each player has taken a turn, the robber moves forward one space on the noble card track and all cards in the central grid that were used or purchased are replaced with a card of the opposite type.

The Targi "board."

The Targi “board.”

There are several ways to score points in Targi, starting with the most straightforward method – scoring one to three points for each tribe card purchased. There are a few opportunities to take a victory point directly from the supply, such as a goods card that awards one point rather than awarding salt or pepper. The key to maximizing your score, however, is to get the right cards into your 3×4 camp array in the right order. Each row can earn a four point bonus if all four cards in the row have the same symbol (there are five symbols in total), or can earn a two point bonus if all four cards have different symbols. Many tribe cards award other bonuses, such as granting an extra point for every two cards of a specific symbol in the camp – for example, one extra point for every two “oasis” cards the player holds – or doubling the two point bonus for a row of cards with unique symbols. Other tribe cards award goods rather than points, reduce the costs to buy tribe cards with specific symbols, or offer protection from or bonuses during raids, while tribe cards that bring three victory points carry no bonuses at all.

The main constraint in the game is gold. Of the 45 tribe cards in the deck, 26 require a gold token as all or part of the purchase price. Each player begins the game with a single gold token, but acquiring more is harder than acquiring more goods is. Three of the 19 goods cards reward the player with a gold token, but the exterior noble cards track has no direct way to get a gold token, as opposed to two noble cards each for salt, pepper, and dates. Players may use the Trader card to swap three goods of a single type for a gold token, a function available once per turn to whichever player places a Targi token on that noble card, and unavailable when the robber occupies it during the game’s fourth turn. There’s also one tribe card that grants a one-time bonus of a gold token, and that’s it. Therefore acquiring gold is key for players, as is using it wisely and avoiding a commitment to a strategy that requires more gold than the player can get.

The game’s main interaction comes in the competition to place tokens around the noble track. It can be easy to guess what your opponent wants or needs, and because the game includes just three goods it’s also likely you’ll be going for the same thing(s) and can line up your move with one that blocks your opponent or at least reduces her options. There’s one end-run around this, the “fata morgana” noble card, which allows the player whose targi is on it to move a token from one central card to any unoccupied one, but at the cost of using two tokens (one Targi, one marker) to accomplish one goal.

Winning scores tend to be in the upper 30s and low 40s, and we’ve had games end due to both conditions – one player buying his 12th tribe card or the robber making it all the way around the noble track to the fourth and final raid card. Even our first game, where we only botched one rule (a record of sorts for us), took maybe an hour. Because the options for moves are few and there’s a constant back-and-forth, the game feels quick and players rarely have long to wait before they’re asked to do something. I’d still slot it behind Jaipur for pure two-player games, but Targi is among the best of its breed, a two-player game that doesn’t feel like it was dumbed down in any way.

Entombed A.D.’s Back to the Front.

My breakdown of the Peavy trade is up now for Insiders.

Entombed was one of the most important bands in the history of heavy metal, a death metal act that veered hard back toward the mainstream with their epic 1993 album Wolverine Blues, which featured substantially slower tempos, fewer blast beats, and somewhat more comprehensible lyrics. The band didn’t eschew its detuned guitar sounds or heavy riffs, but the newer style drew more from classic dark metal acts like Black Sabbath and Slayer, rather than the straight-on (and in my opinion unlistenable) early Nordic death metal pioneers like Mayhem or Emperor. Their new style earned the moniker “death-and-roll,” although that sounds pejorative to me rather than recognizing that what they were doing was ingenious.

Personnel disagreements splintered the band, however, and founding vocalist LG Petrov has split off with three later members of the band to form Entombed A.D., whose debut album Back to the Front is set to drop on August 5th. It’s not Wolverine Blues, but it’s very much in that vein, with huge, heavy, almost bluesy metal riffs reminiscent of British Steel-era Judas Priest, along with unmistakeable death-metal elements like growled vocals and faster percussion. The album is uneven, but fans of Entombed’s work with its classic lineup should be interested in the new output.

Back to the Front couldn’t start off any better, with the menacing “Kill to Live” driving forward on thick buzzsaw guitar riffs, leaving the rapid-fire drumming just to brief passages that punctuate the heaviness of the verses and chorus rather than overpowering the music. “Second to None” employs a similar mix of elements, like a sludgier, bluesier track left off of Pantera’s A Vulgar Display of Power. (I’m not a Pantera fan, though, as the whole “groove metal” movement left me cold.) The closer, “Soldier of No Fortune,” sees Entombed stretching out into more melodic territory, a nearly seven-minute opus with multiple segments and tempo shifts, but which never loses the force or heaviness of Entombed’s signature sound.

The album veers back and forth from the Entombed death-and-roll sound to some more conventional death-metal numbers, and the quality of the songwriting rises and falls at the same time. “The Underminer” opens with a incredible rapid-fire guitar riff, but the whole thing is, er, undermined by the blast beats that follow and wipe out the guitar sound. “Bait and Bleed” has a similar problem, starting with a pair of overlaid guitar lines that would appear to promise more complexity, but by the chorus we’ve drifted into more cliched death-metal territory and lost the plot of the opener. Even “Bedlam Attack,” which has some tempo shifts later in the song, loses me with the fastball before we get to the changeup because it’s so repetitive.

I said on Twitter last week that this album isn’t as good as Wolverine Blues, but it’s a solid add to the Entombed canon. The more I’ve listened to Back to the Front, however, the less positive I feel about it. There’s too much here that I think I’ve heard before, from Entombed’s early/mid-90s output to the groove metal movement to earlier touchstones like Motorhead, Sabbath, and Slayer. If you’re a longtime Entombed fan, Entombed A.D. won’t disappoint you, but I don’t think it’ll stay in my own rotation for long.

Saturday five, 7/26/14.

My content at ESPN.com over the last seven days…

* My analysis of the Huston Street trade
* My analysis of the Chase Headley trade
* My (very brief) analysis of the Kendrys Morales trade
* This week’s Klawchat

I reviewed the outstanding new boardgame Splendor for Paste, giving the Spiel des Jahres nominee a grade of 9/10. It’s also back in stock at amazon for $35, after some insane pricing earlier in the week when the award was announced. My daughter loves this game and grasped the basic strategy very quickly.

And now, this week’s links – a few more than five, as I came across too many things worth passing along…

  • Nobody had a better take this week on the joke of a punishment wife-beater Ray Rice received from the NFL than Keith Olbermann did.
  • The little girl who may hold the secret to aging. She’s five years old with the body of an infant, but is her whole life just to be a test subject for scientists?
  • On the nascent baseball culture in Iran. I love the idea of sport as diplomacy, although I fear it makes for better headlines than understanding.
  • Nestlé is bottling huge quantities of water from the California desert. Not that anyone’s inclined to stop them.
  • John McPhee on writing, part of The New Yorker‘s now-free archives. Warning: There’s a fair amount of rambling here for a piece on writing.
  • How to spend the first ten minutes of your day, from Harvard Business Review. I use several of these tips, from a morning to-do list to tackling some more daunting tasks earlier in the day – but I also try to knock off a few quick items in the first hour, because there’s a quick psychological payoff from crossing off a few things on the list.
  • R.J. Anderson with a good piece on Big Data coming to baseball. His piece is ostensibly about defense, but the real message here is how critical data management, from building and maintaining a data warehouse to developing tools to access and query it quickly, has become to baseball operations – which supports David Murphy’s excellent column for philly.com on how the Phillies need to revamp their organization.
  • And finally, an audio clip from the BBC: This week’s World Have Your Say discusses balance and media bias in the coverage of the Israel/Gaza conflict, which is great until they invite three guests who claim the media are biased, all three of whom sound like tin-foil hat lunatics and/or teenagers who just read Howard Zinn for the first time and think they have the world figured out. The one guest who claimed there’s an anti-Israel bias was the worst, however, with frequent invocations of the guilt by association fallacy when discussing al-Jazeera.

Minneapolis eats, 2014 edition.

Today’s Klawchat came a day earlier than normal to accommodate my travel schedule. I’ve already filed my Soria trade reaction post.

I didn’t get to try nearly as many places as I wanted to hit in Minneapolis, since I had the family in tow and was a little limited by actual work. We also all overate so much at Tilia, in Linden Hills, for lunch on Monday that no one wanted an actual dinner that night.

Tilia’s menu changes often and features more small plates than entrees, so, with a group of four adults and four kids, we went mostly for the former. The first start was the braised pork belly, finished with a sweet glaze and I assume roasted at high temperature to brown the exterior; that’s just so not good for you but one of the greatest pleasures of the meet world thanks to the texture of pork belly fat. The roasted Brussels sprouts were the other star, featuring “ham” (not just ordinary country ham though – some sort of dry-cured variety instead) and walnuts as well as a very lightly applied sweet/tangy balsamic glaze. The grilled chicken thighs came with diced chorizo, pickled pineapple, & black bean-Oaxaca cheese fondue; I actually would have been happy with a plate just of the accompaniements, like a bowl of that chorizo served over a little rice, as the chicken was well-prepared but a bit light on the seasoning. The grilled shrimp plate came with fresh English peas, grilled scallions, and a “spicy” (highly flavored, but not hot) sauce, but the general sense around the table was that it was just okay.

The flat bread starter with olive oil and dukkah (an Egyptian spice blend that often includes seeds and nuts, here with slivered almonds) is a must, and the French fries with a mayo/ketchup style fry sauce were a big hit with the kids. I didn’t try the fish taco torta, but the friend who tried it raved, and it looked ridiculous with an enormous piece of fried fish (I think the server said mahi-mahi, although that’s not frequently deep-fried) on a telera-style roll. The only miss was the “chicken liver BLT,” mostly because the bread had an off taste to it, like it was made with too-sour buttermilk or sour cream, but also because there was no bacon involved, despite the name. The server, whom I might have mentioned looked quite a bit like Anna Friel (this is a good thing), ended up taking the charge off the bill even though I didn’t ask her to do so.

A reader of mine invited me last year to visit Saffron, where he worked in the kitchen at the time, so that was my first stop on this trip. Saffron offers eastern Mediterranean food, mostly straight-up, including some of the chef’s family recipes – like the slow-cooked green beans with tomatoes, good enough that we ordered a second dish of them to pair with the hummus and warm pitas (that was our server’s suggestion). I think the fried cauliflower was the best of the mezze (small plates) we ordered, with a thin crispy coating along with a moderately spicy harissa mixture and a thick sheep’s milk fondue for dipping. The grilled octopus a la plancha was my least favorite starter, but then again I’m not sure I’ve ever had an octopus dish I really loved because the meat is always tough, the result of cooking something with a very high protein content but little fat. The grilled kofta meatballs with a spicy tomato sauce were the hottest thing we ordered, so the kids didn’t enjoy them but the adults inhaled them; they’re denser than Italian meatballs (at least good ones), but the salt and spice were perfect with alcohol, such as the house negroni I ordered.

Two of the three larger plates we ordered were huge hits. The gnocchi were spectacular, pan-seared, soft and light inside, served with a panoply of herbs and spring/summer vegetables. The roast chicken was among the best I’ve ever had, perfectly crisped but incredibly moist and juicy on the inside, pulled from the oven at just the right moment. The chicken comes with a giant lavash wrapped around steaming-hot roasted vegetables, which were well-cooked but underseasoned. However, the chicken “bisteeya” was a little too odd for me – an aromatic saffron-stewed chicken & almond pie, wrapped in a phyllo pastry and dusted with cinnamon sugar. I don’t mind savory applications of cinnamon at all, but the overt presence of the sugar turned my palate to dessert mode, after which it’s not so receptive to meat. We didn’t have room for dessert, as with Tilia.

At Target Field, I only had time for a quick stop at the Butcher & Boar stand for the BBQ rib tips, which were delicious, with a sweet/smoky sauce and good tooth to the meat, as well as very, very messy. It wasn’t really a full meal – I love meat, but generally in concert with something not-meat at the same time, perhaps a plant of some sort – but I wouldn’t be able to walk past that stand again without stopping for another serving.

While we did one breakfast at Hell’s Kitchen, because I love their cornmeal waffles and our friends in town (and their kids) like the lemon ricotta pancakes, we had breakfast two other mornings at Blackbird, a very cute corner coffee shop with a lot of local ingredients across the menu. I ended up getting the same thing twice because it was so good – their norske scrambler, with house-smoked salmon and crème fraiche, alongside these almost-perfect hash browns (really crispy exterior, soft interior, just a little bit greasy) and toast made from Patisserie 46 breads. I tried the sweet potato biscuit, which, shockingly, tasted like a sweet potato in biscuit form – a good idea but too dense for me. They brew coffee from local small-batch roasters B&W, with bagged high-end teas from Tea Forte, both good options for your caffeine intake.

Finally, I managed to try an espresso from Dogwood Coffee Company, which appears to be the best artisan roaster in the Twin Cities, with a late-night run to Urban Bean Coffee at Lyndale and west 24th street. It’s small and simple, just expertly prepared coffees, and Dogwood’s Neon espresso beans (a blend of Colombian and Brazilian coffees) produce a shot with great body and sweet-tart berry notes.

Readers offered many, many suggestions of other places to try that I just didn’t have the time or opportunity to reach. Chris Crawford checked out the Bachelor Farmer and raved about it. Travail was closed that week. I didn’t make the Butcher & Boar, Brasa, 112 Eatery, Bar La Grassa, Sparks, or Coup d’Etat. We stopped by George & the Dragon again (hi, Fred!) for beer and a few small plates in lieu of dinner a few hours after the Tilia extravaganza, and one of these trips I’ll have a proper meal there. I do appreciate all the recommendations you offered. Now I just need the Gophers to bust out a junior lefty throwing 95 next year.

Midnight Masses’ Departures.

I ranked the top five farm systems right now for ESPN, and broke down the Headley trade. I also reviewed the Spiel des Jahres-nominated boardgame Splendor for Paste, giving it a rating of 9/10.

I’ve never been more than a casual fan of … And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead fan, although I love contorting their fantastic band name to mock arm-shredding coaches and managers. Their music defies categorization beyond “alternative” or “indie rock,” as they moved from noise-rock in the late 1990s to the less aggressive and more nuanced sound of 2002′s Source Tags & Codes, earning the band universal acclaim but not commercial success. It’s a solid album, but I concede I didn’t share the priapistic enthusiasm of so many music critics of the time.

In 2008, founding member Jason Reece formed a side project with Autry Fulbright II, who is now the bassist for Trail of Dead as well, called Midnight Masses, with Fulbright the project leader and a number of mostly NYC-based musicians rotating through the other spots in the lineup. Their debut album, Departures (amazoniTunes), came out on Tuesday of this week, and only bears a passing resemblance to Trail of Dead’s music, more in structure than in sound. Where Trail of Dead are guitar-heavy and deeply rooted in rock, Midnight Masses is spacey, ethereal, built on percussion and bass lines that lull you into a trance-like state when they work … and might put you to sleep when they don’t.

Departures opens strongly with two of the album’s best tracks – a trend I’ve noticed recently that I suspect has something to do with the rise of album streaming, so listeners get hooked right away and don’t have to go six songs deep to get to The Hit. “Golden Age” epitomizes Midnight Masses’ blend of throbbing drums and waves of keyboards, giving the impression of languor at the tempo of a typical rock song, before a confused drum loop kicks in around the three-minute mark behind heavily reverbed vocals to enhance the song’s mimicry of a chemical high. Lead single “Am I A Nomad” is the catchiest song on the album, with the rhythm of a traditional march but reverb and delay on the drum lines, destroying the sense of order that tempo might evoke, replacing it with an impression of disorder. Later in the album, the two-minute “Clap Your Hands” provides a needed respite from the melancholy of the album’s midsection, with a syncopated drum/guitar riff that wouldn’t be out of place on a Motown record aside from the guitar’s repetition of dissonant chords, culminating in a brilliant descending staircase in the brief chorus – and it’s the perfect example of a songwriter getting in, having his say, and getting out just in time. “Be Still” also marries sparse instrumentation with intense percussion to build a spooky, psychedelic framework around Fulbright’s lyrics, a little reminiscent of Syd Barrett-era Floyd.

Midnight Masses came about after the death of Fulbright’s father, and much of the album takes on the tenebrous tenor of a funeral, including the barely-there “If I Knew” and the anti-ballad “All Goes Black,” songs that desperately needed any kind of sonic or textural contrast to break the cafard that overwhelms those tracks. The formula works better on the closer, “There Goes Our Man,” where the morose vocals take on a gospelly quality thanks to more uptempo drum lines and piano lines, alluding to earlier tracks while also suiting the more spiritual lyrics. A similar attempt to merge two contrasting lines falls short on “Broken Mirror,” largely because the production creates a seething mass of unfriendly sounds between the various keyboard lines and the insistent drums, none of which sufficiently lifts the tempo, only providing relief when the noise stops in the final minute and guest vocalist Haley Dekle (of Dirty Projectors) can actually be heard again. And the title track just completely lost me, between more underproduced vocals and music that made me think I was trapped in a bad planetarium show.

I’d prefer not to consider Departures as a collection of singles, which is how I approach every album I hear, but as a single if disjointed experiment in undefinable alternative music. I haven’t heard much that sounds like this, and Midnight Masses is certainly creative even if only some of the attempts are successful. It’s also an album that grew on me through repeated listens, perhaps because it’s so quiet in places that it was easy for me to zone out and miss some of its subtler points – but that’s not to say the album is soft, merely a different approach from that of Fulbright and Reece’s other band.

Saturday five, 7/19/14.

Busy week here between travel and a few major events. Here’s my ESPN content from the last seven days:

* My ranking of the top 50 prospects in the minor leagues.
* On the Astros failing to come to terms with Brady Aiken or Jacob Nix.
* My recap/analysis of the players in the Futures Game, part one and part two.
* This week’s Klawchat.

This week’s links…

And a bonus link: one of the chefs I follow on Twitter (probably Tom Colicchio but I’m not sure) posted a link to exo, a company that makes nutrition bars using cricket flour – yes, cleaned, dried, ground-up bugs. While my immediate reaction was to be very weirded-out, that’s probably not rational, no more so than people who eat common cuts of meat (as I do) but refuse to eat offal (much of which I do eat and enjoy). So, would you eat a protein bar made of finely milled crickets?

The Dagger & The Monuments’ The Amanuensis.

My Futures Game preview went up this morning, and I did a Klawchat on Thursday. I’ll be at the Futures Game, of course, and will head to the Butcher & Boar stand out by right field after BP, around 3 pm. Hope to see many of you there.

The Dagger’s self-titled debut album (due out July 22) is one of the strangest releases you’ll hear this year – the music itself isn’t odd at all, as the eleven tracks are all very straightforward blues-rock songs, the kind of tracks you’d expect to hear on a classic-rock station. What’s strange is that the trio of death metal musicians in the band have produced a record that, if you didn’t know it was new, you’d assume was written and recorded in the late 1970s. It’s not especially innovative and a little lacking in certain areas, but if The Dagger wanted to bring the New Wave of British Heavy Metal back to life, they’ve succeeded.

Three of The Dagger’s members were once part of the defunct death metal band Dismember, and here they’re joined by Swedish vocalist Jani Kataja, who sang in a pair of stoner-metal acts before joining the Dagger in 2010. (It’s not that strange a transition for Kataja; Bill Steer, co-founder of Carcass and former Napalm Death guitarist, had a blues-metal side project called Firebird before Carcass reunited a few years ago.) Their bio specifically refers to Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Rainbow, and Deep Purple as influences, although I also hear a lot of lesser-known acts from that era like Saxon and Quartz, bands that leaned toward the less heavy, more melodic end of the range. You’ll hear that especially on The Dagger‘s best tracks, “1978” and “Inside the Monolithic Dome,” songs driven primarily by brief, pronounced guitar riffs and mid-tempo rhythm sections.

As a whole, however, the album feels far too familiar, as if these are actually songs we all heard in the late ’70s or early ’80s but haven’t heard much since because they were overshadowed by stronger tracks. There aren’t enough memorable hooks, and the lyrics vary from weak to embarrassing (“Nocturnal Triumph” is just cringe-inducing, which is too bad as the guitar lines behind the verses would make it a great driving song). The Dagger appear to be more influenced by bands that drew from blues-rock rather than acts like Maiden or Priest that used faster tempos and, in Maiden’s case, more technical skills that came down from classical roots.

The Monuments’ sophomore album, The Amanuensis (for the people who like country music, amanuensis means “the secretary”), melds progressive metal with heavier “groove” elements – I hate the term, but it does fit here – like a blend of early Fates Warning and peak Pantera, with both clean and screamed vocals along with fugal guitar lines. There isn’t enough variety across the entire album, with many of the guitar melodies sounding too similar in structure, but it’s a highly precise, almost severe album, with appropriately serious lyrics. They also get bonus points for naming a song “Horcrux.”

That song and “Origin of Escape” are among the highlights of Amanuensis for the variation within each song – changing tempos, lyrical styles, but still relying on the same staccato-picked guitar riffs that populate the entire disc, so the second half of the album starts to sound too much like background noise. “Atlas” begins with the clich&ecaute;d death-metal growl but morphs into a jazz-metal track, a little less experimental than Cynic or Atheist might have produced but in a similar vein, with a seamless transition into the very similar “Horcrux,” which makes better use of undistorted passages to break up the monotony of the austere up-and-down lead guitar lines, concluding with the counterpoint pairing that makes the song the strongest on the entire disc. (It doesn’t hurt that the song also includes the highest ratio of clean to growled lyrics of the eleven tracks here.) But by the time we get to track five, “Garden of Sankhara,” the lead guitar riff style, both in meter and technique, has become too familiar already. Using the same motif across an entire album can be clever, providing a measure of artistic unity to a set of disparate songs, but the Monuments take it too far.

The Monuments rose from the ashes of English experimental-metal act Fellsilent, who had a cult following among fans of extreme metal but lacked enough of a melodic component to find a broader audience or to appeal to me. The Amanuensis is a significant step in that direction, even further towards the commercial end of the extreme-metal spectrum than their debut album, Gnosis, although it’s best consumed in small chunks, with a focus on the first four tracks of the disc – which on their own would have made an outstanding EP release. It’s not up to the standard set by Insomnium earlier this year but worth the $6 amazon is asking for the album right now.

The Solitude of Prime Numbers.

The Italian physicist Paolo Giordano became the youngest winner ever of the Premio Strega, Italy’s equivalent to the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, when his debut novel, The Solitude of Prime Numbers, took the award in 2008. It became a feature film in Italian in 2010 and made its way here in an English translation that same year, earning very positive reviews around the world for its prose and the development of its two central characters. It is a beautiful rendering of those two horribly broken individuals, and one of the saddest novels I have ever read.

Giordano begins the novel by breaking those two characters in harsh, haunting ways. Alice, pushed too hard by a father whose impetus is never quite clear, suffers a horrible accident while skiing that leaves her scarred, disabled, and bitter. Mattia, meanwhile, is saddled with a twin sister who is severely developmentally disabled, and one day, while taking her to a birthday party to which they’ve both been invited, he leaves her in a park and tells her to wait there for him rather than taking her to the party. She vanishes and is never seen again, leaving Mattia a shell who fears the outside world and inflicts compensatory punishment via self-mutilation.

Solitude cover The two end up meeting in secondary school and forge a friendship based on their mutual recognition of each other’s willful isolation. Mattia is a math genius who has a single friend, Denis, who himself is gay and in love with Mattia but, of course, closeted and himself ostracized from the cruel society of his classmates. Those same classmates taunt or ignore Alice, and eventually the school’s mean girls clique targets her, both because of her disability and her late entry into puberty – the result of her anorexia, which worsens as she gets older. Mattia and Alice seem like a perfect couple, the two peas in the pod on the paperback’s cover, but Giordano argues through his prose that people this detached from others cannot be together. They are twin primes: Two prime numbers with a difference of two, like 11 and 13 or 59 and 61, as close as a pair of odd primes can get, but never actually adjacent. (Only 2 and 3 are neighboring primes. Because 2 is the only even prime, all other pairs must be separated by at least two places on the integer scale.)

Eventually, other circumstances drive Mattia and Alice apart, both as a couple and as neighbors, as Mattia takes a job in Germany and Alice ends up in another relationship. But a strange coincidence, one that Giordano wisely never confirms in full, brings them back together for one final attempt at … something, a connection if not an actual romance, because Giordano hasn’t given us any reason to believe these two broken people can heal themselves enough to be with each other. If this were Hollywood, they’d promise to fix each other (with Coldplay softly playing in the background) and that would be the ending. Giordano gives us ambiguous realism rather than pat endings, and while it doesn’t offer the catharsis a book this sad might call for, it keeps the ending in tune with the remainder of the story.

Alice’s character felt more familiar than Mattia’s, probably because we’ve all known someone who had one of her major issues – a physical disability, leading to social isolation; or an eating disorder. Piling both on Alice might have made her more pathetic, yet Giordano gave her more strength of character, more forcefulness than Mattia, to balance the scales. Mattia’s disappearance into math, especially into research on prime numbers (and specifically Riemann’s zeta function, a key component in the search for a proof or disproof of the Riemann Hypothesis, an unsolved problem detailed extremely well in the book Prime Obsession), further underscores his difficulty with communication – as if a man that comfortable with numbers and order could ever be comfortable in the subjective, anarchic world of words and feelings. He comforts himself by counting objects or looking for familiar shapes or structures in the world, but eventually ends up hurting himself or drawing his own blood in almost every disturbing situation. Is it really right to expect two “primes,” two loners whose self-inflicted solitude has become inescapable, to be able to save each other when neither is capable of helping him- or herself?

As gorgeous as Giordano’s rendering of his characters, even secondary ones like Denis or Alice’s housekeeper Soledad, can be, Solitude can also be intensely painful to read because of the damage he inflicts on them, as if he were pushing and prodding them to see how far they can bend without breaking. Where Alice responds with anger, Mattia responds by becoming increasingly insular, as if even the solitude he finds in numbers isn’t alone enough for him. I was also a little surprised that none of Mattia’s or Alice’s parents seemed to take an active role in trying to draw their children out, showing more resignation, perhaps provoked by guilt (on Alice’s father’s side) or shame (for Mattia’s parents). The only hints of this come with the primes’ rejection of their parents as adults, something I found even more painful now as a parent – to love and raise a child, only to find that child has no use for use once she’s grown, would be the dementor’s kiss of parenthood.

If you’ve already read Solitude, Giordano’s second novel, The Human Body, will be released in the U.S. on October 2nd.

Next up: J.K. Rowling’s first non-Potter novel, The Casual Vacancy.

Redshirts.

I’ve been busy on the baseball side too, with Insider posts on All-Star snubs, the Samardzija-Hammel trade, and the Brandon McCarthy trade.

John Scalzi’s Hugo Award-winning novel Redshirts takes Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds (#52 on the Klaw 100) and transplants it into a science-fiction setting, where the characters in question appear on a Star Trek knockoff TV series rather than in a book. Metafiction where the characters interact with or rebel against their author is nothing new, and Jasper Fforde (who gets name-checked in one of the book’s three codas) pioneered the destruction of the wall between fiction and metafiction in his Thursday Next series, leaving Scalzi with a narrow space in which to craft something new, without settling for some light satire of the “redshirts” phenomenon. By focusing on the redshirt characters and allowing them to muse on their metafictional status, he has created a witty yet intelligent philosophical novel that covers themes from the writer’s responsibilities to whether man has free will.

The term “redshirt” refers to the disposable characters found in the original Star Trek series who would join three regular/named characters on away missions and never make it back, typically dying before the show’s halfway mark. They’d appear to represent the danger of a situation without the need to sacrifice a series regular. In Scalzi’s universe, a few techs and ensigns on the starship Intrepid have started to pick up on the trend that such crew members typically die horrific deaths on away missions, often as a result of rash or irrational actions. When Andrew Dahl, a new crew member who realizes that the ship and its inhabitants are all behaving in weird ways, decides to investigate, he realizes what they are and what’s causing all of these calamities, cooking up with a crazy plan to try to save all of their lives by using the Narrative’s illogicality in their favor.

The setup here is truly brilliant as Scalzi sends up Star Trek and its many derivatives in so many ways, targeting the obvious and the subtle equally well, while even hitting problems that plague non-sci-fi series like the various crime-solving shows that make use of bullshit scientific explanations and impossible coincidences to get the perpetrators caught (or killed) and everyone home by the end of 44 minutes of screen time. Most of the jokes will make sense even to folks who’ve only seen a few episodes of any sci-fi series, and some, like the Box, are just funny in their own right – only funnier if you realize Scalzi is mocking every hack writer in Hollywood who decides to hand-wave away days or weeks of science because that won’t fit in the show’s timeline.

Around the midpoint, when Scalzi has his characters come to the realization one-by-one that their will may not be their own, he sends the core quintet back in time to our present to confront their Creators, relying on one significant coincidence to push the plot forward but otherwise driving it by the consequences of their appearance in the wrong timeline – and in the wrong universe. (There’s some many-worlds-theory quantum thinking behind this, but Scalzi wisely stays out of that sort of digression.) After that, the novel doesn’t lose much wit, but it’s more dialogue-driven than satirical humor, as Scalzi shifts course, mixing in more philosophical musing on free will and the nature of existence. If the show is cancelled, do the characters disappear? Does their whole universe end? How can they believe in free will if the Narrative turns out to be real?

The novel itself only runs about 225 pages, after which Scalzi gives us three codas, all worth reading. The first one delves further into a question first broached in the novel proper: Does the writer have a responsibility to treat his characters more seriously? Ignoring the novel’s conceit that characters put on paper or screen become real, there’s a legitimate argument here about using death or injury as a cheap plot trick. I’ve read and still do read many classic novels, and few use a character’s death as a mere convenience to move the story along; the main exceptions revolve around wills and inheritances. Characters’ deaths may be exploited for the responses of others, but they don’t usually come cheap. (Mr. Krook notwithstanding, and besides, that’s the best example of a character killed for humor’s sake in literary history.)

I enjoyed Redshirts as a brilliant satire that turns into a compelling adventure story with surprising dashes of heart, but there’s also an exhortation here for other purveyors of fiction to just write better. I can see why it earned the Hugo Award and why FX is trying to turn it into a limited-run series. It’s an outstanding mix of humor and action layered on a thought-provoking concept. Even if you’re not a Trekkie – I’m far from one myself – it’s a must-read.

Next up: I’m about halfway through Paolo Giordano’s Premio Strega-winning debut novel The Solitude of Prime Numbers.

Les Misérables (book).

My breakdown of the Jeff Samardzija trade is up for Insiders now.

Victor Hugo’s The Wretched (Les Misérables) is by far the longest book I’ve ever read, over 1300 pages and well over half a million words, and if you’re considering tackling it too, I strongly suggest you just watch the musical instead. Cameron Mackintosh changed very little of the novel’s plot for the stage version and omitted nothing of significance; Hugo padded his novel with lengthy expositions on topics from Napoleon’s fall at Waterloo to the structure of the Parisian sewer network, none of which is remotely worth your time.

If you’ve avoided the musical in both its stage and film versions, the plot of the book is quite simple and linear given the tome’s thickness. Jean Valjean was convicted for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his family and ended up spending nineteen years in prison after multiple failed escape attempts. He gains his freedom but finds himself rejected by everyone in society, unable even to find a place to stay, only finding shelter with a bishop possessed of impeccable compassion, a night that leads Valjean to a religious awakening and gives his life new purpose – but also makes him (in modern terms) a parole violator, doomed to a life of fleeing the robotic law-and-order Inspector Javert. Valjean takes on responsibility for Cosette, the orphaned daughter of a fallen seamstress named Fantine, after a handful of coincidences – something that Hugo uses repeatedly to put his small universe of characters into incessant contact with each other. When Cosette reaches her late teens, she falls for the student Marius, who’s tangentially involved with a group of would-be rebels who set up a barricade in the streets during the uprising of 1832, after which everyone dies but Marius, who’s saved by Valjean … and I haven’t even mentioned Thénadier, who hangs around this book like a bad penny.

There aren’t any proper subplots and most of the characters get minimal development other than Valjean, leaving the book somewhere between a character study and a vehicle for Hugo to discuss his views on religion, politics, and French history, as well as the sewers. Valjean’s status as an iconic character of literature may result from his own impossible goodness, his willingness to subvert himself to help others, notably Cosette, but he’s far more interesting for his verbose internal debates over the proper course of action when faced with difficult moral decisions. Fantine’s story is sad and probably well-founded in reality, but it’s a straight-line descent, and Hugo makes them almost comically good – sweet, dainty, ladylike. Javert lacks any sort of nuance, rigid in his adherence to order and authority, devoid not just of compassion but of emotion. Marius is the standard romantic-heroic doofus, and he and Cosette deserve each other if only for their mutual insipidness – each of them has the personality of a root vegetable. Gavroche, the imp who dies helping the insurgents at the barricade, might get more character development than most of the adults, as well as some details that are left out of the musical, such as the fact that he’s Éponine’s younger brother – and that they have three other siblings. Éponine is a very different character in the book, less overtly tragic than in the musical. Her love for Marius isn’t lifelong, but fleeting, and he’s barely aware of her existence, but “On My Own” wouldn’t quite pack the same punch if Mackintosh had left it as a mere crush than unrequited love.

Hugo’s purpose in writing the novel was social criticism, particularly the French systems of economics and justice, which resulted in huge disparities between the wealthy and the poor, while creating (in Hugo’s view) a very high risk of recidivism for released convicts. He paints dismal pictures of the lives of the poor in France and the plight of women born or left outside the narrow upper echelon of society, especially those who, like Fantine, are left as unwed mothers, with no recourse to make the fathers of their children take responsibility. But to craft these polemics, he relies on endless coincidences and forces his characters to make choices or decisions that beggar belief, right down to Valjean’s final, ridiculous choice to remove himself from Cosette’s life after her marriage to Marius without explaining to her why he’s done so – or to Marius why his revelation of his criminal past should be irrelevant. (Marius is such a doofus that he goes along with Valjean’s self-imposed exile anyway.) Heck, even Fantine’s decision to house her child with the Th&ecaute;nardiers, a critical plot point several times over, makes no sense – yet without it, nothing that comes afterwards would hold together. She happens to work in Valjean’s factory, he happens to come upon her as she’s about to be arrested by Javert, and so on. Hugo writes as if there were only a half a dozen people in France and it was perfectly normal for Valjean to bump into Javert or Thénardier while walking down the street – or that all of these nitwits should end up at some point in the same ramshackle tenement.

Had Hugo published Les Misérables as a 300-page romantic/adventure novel, it would have been a much better read but might not have endured as a work of populist fiction. Yet despite a mediocre contemporary reception and the presence of those tedious harangues on social or political subjects, it ended up at #90 on The Novel 100 and made the Bloomsbury 100 too, which I have to assume is as much about the book’s renown as its quality. There’s a decent story in here, but it’s just not a very good book.

Next up: I knocked off the sixth Flavia de Luce novel, The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches, in a day – and feared, incorrectly as it turned out, that it marked the end of the series – and am now halfway through John Scalzi’s Hugo Award winner Redshirts, which is hilarious.