Exit: The Game.

I have a new board game review up at Paste today as well, covering Pandemic: Rising Tide, a standalone spinoff of the best cooperative game on the market.

Exit: The Game won the Kennerspiel des Jahres in 2017 in a bit of an upset over the heavily favored and much better-reviewed Terraforming Mars, which I thought was the best complex game (or “expert game,” which is the literal translation of Kennerspiel) of its year. (It also beat Raiders of the North Sea, which I have played just once but enjoyed.) I’m guessing Exit won because it’s novel – it’s a series of cooperative puzzle games that are supposed to mimic the escape-room experience in a tabletop setting. There are other new games in this vein, like Unlock!, but Exit does this really well, with puzzles that you can reasonably solve in the allotted time and, more importantly, a very strong system for helping you if you’re stuck.

Each Exit box gives you a single play, because you’ll be changing destroying components, including tearing or cutting cards, marking up pages, and maybe even disassembling the box. I played four of the games: The Abandoned Cabin (the first in the series), The Forgotten Island, The Polar Station, and The Forbidden Castle, which vary from two to four on the game’s 1-5 difficulty scale, and there was a noticeable difference in the challenges – although I’m not sure the difficult boxes are better, just harder.

One Exit game box comes with three card decks – riddles, solutions, and help cards with hints – plus a booklet specific to that game, a disk of three concentric dials used to decipher codes, and sometimes some “special objects” that may be stencils or windows for finding clues on other cards or pages. You’ll start the game with one of the riddle cards plus the text on the first page of the booklet, and then must find a series of three-digit codes to progress through the game. Each game has roughly ten codes to find, represented by different shapes on the disk, which also help you figure out which cards and pages might work together. The puzzles come in lots of forms, and we found it was better to think a little like a kid to solve many of them. Some of the puzzles are visual – you have to trace things, connect dots, color in cards, fold pages into different shapes, cut pages into strips, all things you’d never expect to do with a board game. Some puzzles are self-contained, while others require you to solve three smaller ones to get each of the digits for the code.

Once you think you have the code for a specific puzzle, you locate that puzzle’s symbol on the outer rim of the disk and then rotate the three inner dials to match the code. (Some games use colors or other glyphs instead of numbers, but there will then be a reference card to help you translate them into numbers so it doesn’t become a drag on the game time.) A card number from 1 to 30 will show up in the center of the disk, which sends you to the Solutions deck. Some cards in that deck will tell you you’re wrong right away; others will ask where you saw that symbol – on a piece of furniture, a briefcase, a trunk, a door – in one of the images you’ve seen in the booklet or on a new card. You’ll then be directed to yet another Solution card, and if you were right, that new card will give you further instructions that will include at least one new Riddle card and perhaps give you a special object. This multi-step process makes it difficult to accidentally see an answer to a Riddle, and cheating via the Solutions deck would be nearly impossible.

Components from Exit The Abandoned Cabin
Components from Exit: The Abandoned Cabin.

The Hints deck is the cleverest aspect of Exit’s mechanics by far, and I think it’s what makes this game so playable even if you run into a puzzle you can’t solve. Every puzzle gets three Hint cards with its symbol on it, with the first card telling you what cards, pages, and/or objects you need to solve the puzzle (and maybe one small hint), the second card telling you most of the information on how to solve it, and the third giving the actual solution with an explanation. There were puzzles we solved without any Hints, and a few where we needed all three hint cards to move along. (The game has a timer app you can use, but there really isn’t any need for it except to let you know how long you’ve been playing and nudge you into looking at Hint card.) Having the first Hint card tell you which cards you must have to solve that puzzle is particularly useful if you have pieces of a few puzzles and aren’t sure which one to attack next.

Everything is fair game for solving these puzzles, including things like the game box itself, outside or inside, and each game we played had at least one puzzle that required us to use something that you might assume wasn’t part of the task. (The image on the inside of the top of the box in one game was quite faint, though, which I think is a mistake and makes the game less accessible.) We did find one glitch in The Forgotten Island, as the final riddle’s solution didn’t work; I haven’t heard back from the designer about this, but I’d pass on that particular module for now. The other three were all quite good and my daughter and I were able to solve them in about an hour using a few hints here and there; each had at least one eye-roller solution, but I think that’s the price of entry given that the designers have to come up with ten or eleven puzzles for each box, meaning some are going to be a little weird or ridiculous, especially when the designers, Markus & Inka Brand, try to make the riddles more difficult. The games list for $15-18 and, even as single-play games, they seemed like a good value to us, enough that we bought one after we finished the review copies I’d received (and my daughter will get some more for her birthday). If you’re intrigued, start with The Abandoned Cabin, since it’s first and I think the most straightforward of the four I’ve played.

Music update, December 2017.

I sometimes post a monthly playlist for December after my top 100 songs of the year come out to catch singles that came out after I posted the rankings, but this year there weren’t quite enough songs for that, so this is more of a salmagundi of singles I missed from earlier in the year, new stuff that didn’t make the list, a few songs that did but are good enough to mention again, and so on. You can access the playlist here if the widget below doesn’t work.

Artificial Pleasure – Wound up Tight. This was #80 on my top 100 songs of 2017, the first song I’d heard from this London electronic-rock group, who have released a few singles but no full-length album yet. I’d say it’s like the Human League meet Wild Beasts.

The Decemberists – Ben Franklin’s Song. A “Hamildrop” with lyrics courtesy of Lin-Manuel Miranda, who apparently wrote the words with the Decemberists in mind, then sent them to Colin Meloy, who produced what I think is one of the band’s best tunes to go with it. Warning: There’s some choice language within.

Kid Astray – Roads. This was #85 on my best of 2017 list, the third time this Norwegian indie-pop act has made one of my annual top 100s.

The Fratellis – Stand up Tragedy. I feel like the Fratellis’ lyrics are sort of a poor man’s version of the wordplay we get from the Wombats’ Matthew Murphy, which may in turn be a reaction to the Fratellis’ biggest hit coming from their 2006 debut. It’s a bit of a shame that “Chelsea Dagger,” a great song in its own right, has overshadowed their later work; they’ve produced plenty of solid-average tunes like this one even if they haven’t matched their first song’s peak.

The Wombats – Turn. Speak of the devils. This is a little more midtempo than my favorite Wombats songs, and didn’t make my top 100 (although “Lemon to a Knife Fight” did at #17. Beautiful People Will Ruin Your Life drops on February 9th, and their US tour starts this week (with a show in Philly I can’t make, unfortunately).

HAERTS – The Way. HAERTS released this single on December 8th, their third of 2017, but there’s still no word of a new album.

Van William – Before I Found You. The WATERS lead singer’s debut solo album, Countries, is due out on January 19th, and includes this single, “Country” (#91 on my 2017 top 100), “Revolution” (#41 on my 2016 top 100), and “Fourth of July (#15 on my 2016 list). So I’m looking forward to it.

Belle & Sebastian – The Girl Doesn’t Get It. The Scottish stalwarts are releasing three Eps over three months under the collective title How to Solve Our Human Problems, with an expected 15 songs in total. It’s more of a return to their typical style, if they can even be said to have one, after their outstanding pop/dance-tinged Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance.

Sunflower Bean – I Was a Fool. “Wall Watcher” was #87 on my 2015 top 100; this is the band’s first new single since their 2016 debut album and their last single, “Easier Said.” The indie/jangle-pop trio should release their second album some time in 2018, but there’s no date or title yet.

Anteros – Love. Anteros’ “Cherry Drop” was #43 on my top 100 from last year; this December single was my second-favorite track of the four the band released last year.

The Afghan Whigs with James Hall – You Want Love. The Afghan Whigs released this song in June, a cover of a 2004 song by Pleasure Club, as a tribute to the Whigs’ late guitarist. Whigs lead singer Greg Dulli is a longtime fan of Hall, who was the founder and lead singer/guitarist of Pleasure Club and has had a lengthy underground career as a solo artist.

Buffalo Tom – All Be Gone. I assumed Buffalo Tom were on a permanent hiatus, but this single just appeared a few weeks ago ahead of a promised new album, their first since 2011. This feels like their ’90s peak in the combination of upbeat music and melancholy lyrics, although the production puts Bill Janovitz’s vocals further out front.

Ten Fé – Single, No Return. Ten Fé’s debut album, Hit the Light, was my #10 album of 2017; they’ve since become (officially) a five-piece band and released this new single in November.

Saxon – Thunderbolt. Saxon were a major part of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, although they didn’t have as much success in the U.S. as they did in the U.K., never landing a top 100 album over here. They’ve continued recording and have had a modest comeback over their last few albums, with this the title track from their upcoming 22nd LP.

Legend Of The Seagullmen – Shipswreck.. The band’s own site describes them as a “genre destroying super-group,” even though they’re a prog-metal band. Featuring Brent Hinds of Mastodon, Danny Carey of Tool, and the guy who directed Horton Hears a Who!, the band played its debut show on New Year’s Eve as an opener for Primus.

Stick to baseball, 1/6/18.

I’ve had no new content off the dish this week, as baseball is boring, and I’m working on my top 100 prospects package, which will run later this month. I will have a new board game review up on Paste next week, however.

Feel free to sign up for my email newsletter, which costs you nothing and totters somewhere between occasional and infrequent. And, of course, thanks to everyone who bought Smart Baseball for themselves or as a Christmas gift, or as a Christmas gift for themselves.

And now, the links…

On Immunity.

Eula Biss’ brief 2014 book On Immunity: An Inoculation takes a novel angle on the subject of childhood vaccinations by weaving the science around the subject into her personal experiences as a first-time mother hearing all of the nonsense anti-vaccine arguments out there and finding herself bombarded with information. Biss makes it clear that she is pro-vaccine and pro-science, and that she did get her son vaccinated, but her essay-like style puts the reader on the ground with her as she’s navigating the uncertainties and fears that come with parenthood, which may also give some readers a new window on how new parents get bamboozled by the many charlatans and frauds out there telling them not to vaccinate.

When my daughter was born, vaccinating was never a question for us … but we were shocked to learn that they vaccinate newborns for hepatitis B, a viral infection that is probably best known as a sexually transmitted disease but that can also be transmitted through many other bodily fluids, including blood, so it’s possible for a child to get an infection through exposure from another kid in school or day care. We made the mistake of looking online for information on the hep B vaccine, and found the website for the so-called “National Vaccine Information Center,” a dangerous anti-science group that spreads misinformation about vaccines and, of course, presented horror stories from parents who claimed the hep B vaccine harmed or even killed their babies. (We vaccinated anyway.)

Biss’ recounting of her own meanderings through the world of vaccine information and bullshit felt very familiar to me, as she obviously understands science – her father is a doctor, and she refers to him frequently in the text – but also gives real credence to the fears of the new parent, and how overwhelming all of the information coming at new parents can feel. Biss hits all of the notable cranks, from the NVIC to Andrew Wakefield to Bob Sears (who has been accused of selling medical exemptions for California kids) to well-meaning but clueless parents who talk about “toxins” or “natural” or “organic” as if those terms really mean anything when it comes to health. She walks back through the history of vaccinations, to Edward Jenner’s experiments with cowpox and previous awareness in non-European societies of inoculation techniques, and the associated history of anti-vaxers, a group that once at least had a legitimate complaint because vaccines weren’t regulated for safety or efficacy; in 1901, two separate batches of vaccines caused deadly tetanus outbreaks in St. Louis and Camden, New Jersey. Now, such groups just capitalize on the public’s science ignorance – and fear – to make a few bucks from selling books or “alternative” therapies. (Note: There is no such thing as “alternative medicine.” If it works, it’s medicine.)

Fear is just as much a theme of On Immunity as science, and Biss, unlike many writers (myself included), has quite a bit of empathy for parents who hear (bogus) horror stories of vaccine “injuries” or who see that vaccines contain aluminum (in adjuvants, which make the vaccines more effective) and waver on vaccinating their kids. Failing to vaccinate puts your kids at risk, but also the community as a whole; Biss discusses herd immunity, which was first identified nearly a century ago, and the societal cost of failing to vaccinate, as well as the risk posed to vulnerable populations who can’t be vaccinated, such as newborns, the elderly, or the immune compromised. This understanding tone makes it a better read, I think, for folks who are on the fence about vaccinations; she was essentially preaching to the converted with me, while hardcore denialists won’t bother with the litany of facts she includes or the blithe knockdowns of anti-vax tropes.

Biss is a “professor of instruction” in Northwestern’s English Department and has garnered praise both for On Immunity and her 2009 essay collection Notes from No Man’s Land; she writes here like an essayist, with a strong first-person perspective that allows her to bring the reader inside her head, so to speak, as she became a mother and experienced all of the typical anxieties and moments of panic that come along with new parenthood. It makes the brief book both readable and engrossing, almost as if Biss wanted to slip in a little education – a dash of history, a pinch of immunology – along the way. And the resulting work may do as much or more to address new parents’ fears of vaccines, fears that are unfounded, irrational, but still quite common, as direct attacks on anti-vaxer falsehoods.

Race for the Galaxy app.

I’ve mentioned previously that I don’t share the broader tabletop community’s love for Race for the Galaxy, a very popular deckbuilding game that ranks in the top 50 on BoardGameGeek, for two reasons – you need to know the deck rather well to play the game at even a competent level, and there’s one strategy (produce/consume x2) that is superior to others (military, trade). That strategy isn’t entirely dominant, but you are also somewhat restricted in your choice of strategy by the ‘home world’ card you’re dealt to start the game; if you get New Sparta, you almost have to use the military strategy, for example.

So it might surprise regular readers to hear me offer a strong recommendation for the Race for the Galaxy app ($6.99 on iTunes or Google Play) given what I’ve said before about the game itself. Those problems still hold true in the app, of course – this is a faithful implementation of the physical game. The app, however, is just about perfect in how it implements the game, with strong AI players (on the hard setting), and because it’s so fast to play, you can start to learn what’s in the deck a little faster to get yourself up to speed.

In Race for the Galaxy, players must build out their tableau of cards, representing worlds, ships, or people in their empire, using specific action types each turn – drawing cards, spending them to play cards, producing goods on cards that have that power, trading goods for more cards, or trading goods for victory points. Cards you play also carry victory point values of their own for the end of the game, and some award bonuses based on what else you have already played. You start with a home world card that, as I said above, kind of dictates your strategy for the game – some home worlds are ideal for trading, some for the military, some for the produce/consume strategy.

On a turn, each player chooses one of the available seven actions, and then the choices are all revealed simultaneously. Every player gets to take all of the actions chosen in that round, but you get an extra ability when taking the action you chose, such as building for one card less than the normal cost, or getting to keep two cards of the ones you draw instead of just one. Turns are fast, and players can usually do their turns at the same time. The game ends when one player has built (played) 12 cards to the table, or when the communal pool of victory point chips is exhausted.

The app is nearly perfect, and it helps reduce the time new players might spend learning what’s in the deck and what cards are useful (or even essential) for certain strategies – for example, if you are trying the military strategy, getting the cost-6 development card New Galactic Order, which gives you one victory point per unit of military strength on all your cards, is critical. The AI players move very quickly, and the actions chosen by each player are clearly visible twice, once at selection, then during the round in a bar on the left side of the screen that highlights the actions in use for the round. You can see the details on any card – the app uses the graphics from the physical game – with a double-tap, which is necessary to play it on a small screen, and you can see key details, like cards or VP tokens remaining, easily on the right side. You can also see how many cards your opponents have played and what goods they have available without expanding their tableaus, so you have ample warning if the game is approaching its end. There’s an undo button on the right-side menu for just about every action you can take, and the app requires your confirmation of certain actions, like discarding cards or trading multiple goods. The trading/consuming mechanism isn’t quite obvious – when that phase starts, cards with a trade or consume function will be highlighted, and you must click the card you wish to use, then drag the good(s) you wish to trade/consume off into the blank area next to your tableau.

I did mention above a few times that the produce/consume x2 strategy, where you alternate turns producing goods and selling them for victory points with bonuses, tends to be the optimal strategy, but the first time I beat two AI players in the app came via a military strategy. I started with New Sparta and blitzed my way through to twelve cards before either AI player could really get rolling with production and consumption:

You’re damn right I’m proud of that one. So it can be done, but it requires a bit of luck and leaves you no margin for error – which I think is more evidence that the hard AI players are up to snuff.

The app comes with the New Worlds mini-expansion, and the Rebel vs. Imperium and Gathering Storms are available as in-app purchases.

Top 17 albums of 2017.

Better late than never, I hope: here’s my somewhat delayed ranking of my top albums of 2017. I thought it was a good year on the album front, better than 2016, including a lot of albums that I’d say I liked halfway – records with maybe two to four really good songs on them but that couldn’t sustain it through the deeper tracks – and twenty-odd records good enough for me to consider here. You can also see my ranking of the top 100 songs of 2017 for reference.

Other albums I liked but didn’t rank: White Reaper, Wavves, Ride, Queens of the Stone Age, Japandroids.

Previous years’ album rankings: 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013.

17. Afghan Whigs – In Spades. I had missed the Whigs’ comeback album in 2014, but this year’s release delivered in the same way, a more mature, refined sound without losing that essential energy that made them indie darlings in the 1990s.

16. Phoenix – Ti Amo. I thought 2013’s Bankrupt! was a huge letdown after their Grammy-winning Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, but this year’s album, the band’s tribute to Italian disco music, was a bit of a bounceback, not quite up to their magnum opus’s heights but a stronger record throughout with more memorable singles, including the title track and “J-Boy.”

15. Akercocke – Renaissance in Extremis. I’d long thought of this British extreme metal act as something of a joke, as they seemed more interested in causing controversy with their black-metal lyrics and album covers than in writing great music … but this album, released after a decade-long breakup, is a masterpiece of highly technical death metal. I could do with fewer blast beats, but that’s just the price of entry for the genre. Other metal albums I liked in 2017 that didn’t make the list included Pallbearer’s Heartless and Satyricon’s Deep Calleth Upon Deep.

14. WATERS – Something More!. Van Pierszalowski’s group returns with a record full of concise power-pop tunes, putting two songs on my top 100 along with several other great tracks like “Molly is a Babe” and “Modern Dilemma.”

13. Washed Out – Mister Mellow. Ernest Greene’s third record is my favorite of his so far, still a bit uneven, but that’s because there are almost too many ideas on the album. This also landed two songs on my top 100, and I’d also recommend “Floating By” and “Burn Out Blues.”

12. Hundred Waters – Communicating. Not quite up to the level of their debut The Moon Rang Like a Bell, Communicating works more as an expansion of the band’s unusual sound than as a collection of singles. “Particle,” “Wave to Anchor,” “Prison Guard,” “Blanket Me,” and the title track are all highlights, but I think this record is best enjoyed as a listen straight through.

11. Quicksand – Interiors. There were some great comeback albums this year from bands that hadn’t released records in over twenty years, including releases from Ride and Slowdive, but none surprised me more than Quicksand’s Interiors, which put two songs on my top 100 in “Fire This Time” and “Illuminant” and is a tremendous document of a band that hasn’t lost its signature sound yet has also matured, at least on record, during its 22-year absence.

10. Ten Fe – Hit the Light. This album is almost too anachronistic to find an audience in 2017, as the band’s indie-pop sound has a soft-rock vibe that would have been right at home in the 1970s or early 1980s. They had one song on my 2016 list, “Overflow,” that’s on this album, plus two more on this year’s list, “Twist Your Arm” and “In the Air,” with “Elodie” and “Turn” also highlights.

9. Death from Above – Outrage! Is Now. A bit like Royal Blood with a little more dance/rhythm sensibility … or maybe Sleigh Bells with some actual sense of melody … but man does it work, a huge step forward from their previous record. Pitchfork describes them as “dance-punk,” but I don’t hear that at all; they’re too polished to be punk, too hard-edged to be dance, but live somewhere in the grey areas between multiple genres. DfA had two songs on my top 100 this year, “Freeze Me” and “Never Swim Alone,” while “Nomad” and “Statues” are also strong.

8. Mastodon – Emperor of Sand. My favorite Mastodon album to date, with some more accessible tracks that don’t sacrifice any of the group’s trademark progressive-metal sound. “Show Yourself” is their most radio-friendly single ever, but “Steambreather,” “Sultan’s Curse,” and “Andromeda” are high points. Lest you think they’ve gone straight commercial, the album ends with an eight-minute epic track for the diehards.

7. Royal Blood – How Did We Get So Dark? “Lights Out” made my top ten, but unlike their debut record, this album has more good ideas than just the one that powers the lead single; “Hook, Line & Sinker” made my top 100, and I also keep going back to “Hole in Your Heart” and “Where Are You Now?” I did think the second single, “I Only Lie When I Love You,” was below the media on the album, but no one consults me on these decisions.

6. Daughter – Music from Before the Storm. I don’t think I’ve ever included a soundtrack on any of my year-end lists, but this record, recorded for a video game that was released in September, works extremely well on its own, a dense, atmospheric listen that molds Daughter’s dream-pop sound around a core idea to produce a compelling listen straight through. “Burn It Down” was my favorite track, but this record is much better enjoyed as a whole than in pieces.

5. INHEAVEN – INHEAVEN. The second-best debut album of the year for me, a record full of bombastic, old-fashioned heavy rock tracks that harken back to ’90s grunge, ’70s hard rock, and even earlier, led by “World on Fire” and “Bitter Town.”

4. New Pornographers – Whiteout Conditions. Do we just take A.C. Newman & Co. for granted at this point? This album sank with nary a trace, but it carried forward the tremendous pop sensibility of its predecessor, 2014’s Brill Bruisers, and I thought was a little better off for the absence of Dan Bejar, whose sound never quite melded with the rest of the group’s. The title track, “High Ticket Attractions,” and “Darling Shade” all made my top 100.

3. Sløtface – Try Not to Freak Out. These Norwegian punk-popsters first appeared on my radar with their 2016 EP Empire Records, and from there released a steady stream of great singles with witty, clever lyrics beyond their years. “Backyard,” “Pitted,” and “Nancy Drew” made my top 100, with “Magazine” a near miss, and there really aren’t any duds on the record at all.

2. Portugal. the Man – Woodstock. “Feel It Still” was my #1 song of the year, with two more songs on my top 100 and three more that I strongly considered (“Live in the Moment,” “Rich Friends,” “Tidal Wave”). I liked the sheer ambition of 2011’s In the Mountain In the Cloud, but it wasn’t until this record that Portugal. the Man converted their big ideas into a set of accessible pop gems that could give them mainstream success.

1. Beck – Colors. Featuring my #1 song of 2015, “Dreams,” plus three songs from this year’s list, and really just one song I would say I don’t like (“Wow” doesn’t really fit this record’s exuberance), this was an easy call for my top album of 2017. Beck is such a musical genius that he can go from 2014’s maudlin Morning Phase to this record’s enormously textured, uptempo, worldly sound and still maintain his essential … um, Beck-ness. Even when he produces something I don’t care for, I can still appreciate the brilliance behind it. Colors, however, is a masterpiece, probably my favorite album of his thirteen to date, the best representation of his complex, imaginative sound so far.

The Obelisk Gate.

N.K. Jemisin won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards for Best Novel for her 2015 book The Fifth Season, the first novel in the Broken Earth trilogy, set well into the future, on an Earth that is plagued by massive tectonic shifts that result in lengthy Seasons where nearly all life on the surface is extinguished and humans must huddle underground to wait the Season out. (You might call this “cli-fi,” although it’s not clear that this kind of climate change is caused by humans … at least, not through two books.) The sequel, The Obelisk Gate, won the Hugo Award again this year, but while it follows the first in chronology and setting, it has a thoroughly different tenor than the first book did.

Where The Fifth Season followed three distinct storylines set apart in time, The Obelisk Gate focuses on just two simultaneous threads: Essen’s life in the underground commune (“comm”) Tarima, which finds itself under threat from within and without; and her daughter Nassun’s journey with Essun’s husband south toward a comm where the father, Jija, hopes his daughter will be “cured” of her gift of orogeny – a sort of magical, innate ability to alter the very molecules of one’s environment, including starting tectonic shifts and communicating with the orbiting obelisks of unknown origin. A massive Season is imminent, likely caused by Essun’s former lover Alabaster, who created the Rift that provoked this season but is now himself turning to stone as a result. Essun wants to find her daughter, but as an orogene in a world where such people are often killed (even by their Guardians) when a Season approaches, she’s also driven toward self-preservation. Nassun, meanwhile, is barely scratching the surface of her own powers, but when she and Jija arrive at the southern comm, she meets the former Guardian Schaffa, who recognizes her limitless potential and begins to train her even as Jija believes she’s going to be made ‘normal.’

The twin but parallel plot strands make The Obelisk Gate a much more straightforward read than its predecessor, in which time seemed deliberately obscured from the reader and the relationship between the three subplots far from clear. That conceit ended up working in the book’s favor, increasing the tension (and perhaps baiting the reader’s impatience), so that The Obelisk Gate feels like a book in the same universe by a different author – not better or worse, just different, more conventional, and thus more dependent on the nature of the two primary characters.

So where Jemisin has created a grim, realistic, almost tangible setting for these books that elevated The Fifth Season, here in the middle book of the series, her weaker characterization becomes more of a problem. Essun and Nassun are both good people, with credible emotional reactions to setbacks and obstacles, but neither is particularly interesting or compelling; you root for these characters because they represent hope, for themselves and humanity, not out of any direct empathy for or interest in either of them. Some of the secondary characters have that interest, such as the complex motivations that drive Schaffa or the bizarre nature of the stone-eaters Alabaster and Hoa, but the two main women lack the texture or depth to carry the book.

Instead, the story itself has to do all of the lifting, and it’s mostly up to the task, although there’s still some Middle Book Syndrome as Jemisin gets further into her world-building and explains more of what’s happening in the book’s present. The nature of the Obelisks is at least partly explained, and she sets up what I assume will be the narrative of the third book, The Stone Sky, how Essun and Nassun will interact with the Obelisks to save the world (or at least parts of it). It’s compelling enough to keep me reading, but I thought this was a step down in ambition and in characterization from the first book.

Next up: I’ve finally begun MacKinlay Cantor’s Andersonville, winner of the 1956 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

Hi, Anxiety.

Kat Kinsman is a food writer who used to run CNN’s Eatocracy site and now is the senior food and drinks editor at Extra Crispy, a site (also owned by Time, Inc.) dedicated solely to breakfast. She’s also lived with anxiety, panic, and depression for just about her entire life, and since 2014 has been very public about these conditions and the steps she has to take to manage them. Her first book, Hi, Anxiety: Life with a Bad Case of Nerves, is a memoir of a disordered life that is, by turns, funny, sad, aggravating, and most of all, hopeful, as Kinsman has had to overcome mental health challenges beyond what I would call the ‘average’ sufferer has to face – and has done so enough to write this very witty, big-hearted book about it all.

Kinsman’s book is not a how-to, or a self-help book, but is more of a confessional, as she details events or periods of her life, often exposing herself in ways that I imagine were painful for someone with an anxious mind, that were ultimately dictated by her mental health issues. Her mother also had serious depression and anxiety, as well as mini-strokes that appear to have presaged dementia and Parkinson’s, and living with her mom taught Kinsman how to be anxious – how to worry about everything, to blame herself for things beyond her control, and to expect the worst even in harmless situations. Because anxiety tends to feed itself, growing up anxious put Kinsman into more situations that exacerbated the problem, and the medications pushed on her while she was young did not particularly help her and often made things worse.

I’ve written a few times about my own anxiety, including growing up anxious, so the emotional ground Kinsman covers in Hi, Anxiety is familiar to me … but her case is or was certainly more severe than mine. I’ve had lifelong stomach issues, largely related to anxiety, but Kinsman has had to put up with stronger physical manifestations of her anxiety and panic than I ever have, and she’s also had to work harder to maintain control of her environment than I have. She expands on these points in amusing interludes delineating her “irrational fears,” like driving, being driven, or getting her hair cut (in which she also discusses the anxiety around tipping, which I fully appreciate), mundane events that, to most people, pose no problem at all. If you’re anxious, even the simplest tasks become fraught with peril – getting the mail or answering the phone, because you’re afraid it will bring some terrible news or a huge bill; driving to the store, because you might hit someone, or get hit, or just do the wrong thing and make all the other drivers laugh at or scorn your incompetence.

That’s where Hi, Anxiety succeeds most – Kinsman humanizes an anxious life by giving so much detail on episodes from childhood through her marriage where anxiety (and/or depression) prevented her from doing ordinary things, or altered outcomes when she did do something. Many of these events weren’t Kinsman’s fault – she had a few bad boyfriends, one of whom really did a number on her in a way that I won’t spoil because it’s such a “holy shit” moment in the book – but when you’re anxious, you kind of believe the universe is operating against you, or at least that your account with the universe is permanently in arrears, so of course it was your fault, or you had it coming, and why didn’t you prepare better for it?

Kinsman also gets into the techniques that have helped her live with her condition – and those that haven’t, like medications – but is careful not to prescribe for the reader, making it clear in the concluding essay that she doesn’t have the answer and that every anxious person will have to find his/her own solution. For her, it’s talk therapy, some supplements, occasional hypnosis, and avoiding certain known triggers. For me, with a milder case, it’s medication, occasional therapy, some mindfulness techniques, and exercise. Each person’s case is different; there is no single etiology of anxiety or panic disorder and thus no single trick to help you. Hi, Anxiety is the book to help someone understand more about what it’s like to live with a serious mental illness, whether the reader is suffering from it or knows someone who is, and perhaps the spur to go seek treatment. It’s such a quick, compulsive read – I crushed it inside of 24 hours – that you could really recommend it to anyone, even someone with no concept of mental illness, to help them understand something of what it’s like to live with a brain that spends much of its time working against you.

Stick to baseball, 12/30/17.

Since my last links post, I’ve written three Insider pieces, on Colorado signing Wade Davis, Cleveland signing Yonder Alonso, and San Francisco trading for Evan Longoria.

On the board game front, I reviewed Photosynthesis for Paste, and ranked my top ten board games of 2017 for them too. Over at Vulture I did another Best of 2017 list, looking at the best light game, heavy game, board game app, expansion, and more.

The Wall Street Journal asked me to contribute to their annual “Who Read What” series, where 50 avid readers provide one or two books that really stood out for them in the preceding year. I was specifically asked to name one work of fiction and one of non-fiction, and chose The Erstwhile and Betaball.

As always, feel free to sign up for my email newsletter, which costs you nothing and won’t clog your inbox; I’ve only sent three total in the last two months, so if anything, I should probably be sending more. And, of course, thanks to everyone who bought Smart Baseball for themselves or as a Christmas gift.

And now, the links…

Haroun and the Sea of Stories.

I’d only read one Salman Rushdie novel prior to this month, tackling Midnight’s Children back in 2010; I found it a somewhat difficult read, but brimming with imagination, big themes, and incredible prose and wordplay. What I didn’t know until very recently was that he wrote a children’s novel called Haroun and the Sea of Stories, which appeared on the Guardian‘s list of the 100 greatest novels ever written. It’s quite wonderful, featuring more of the wordplay and creativity that marked Midnight’s Children, reminding me in many ways of The Phantom Tollbooth, one of the best children’s novels I’ve ever read (twice, in fact, once on my own and again to my daughter), and the works of Roald Dahl.

Haroun Khalifa is the young son of Rashid, a storyteller who suddenly loses his gift of narration when his wife leaves him, leaving the two of them without any means of support and Rashid without his identity. When Rashid fails to deliver at a speaking engagement, he and Haroun are whisked off to the Valley of K for his next assignment, speaking for the politician Snooty Buttoo – there are a lot of Butts in this book – only for Haroun to discover that his father has lost his ability to weave stories because Iff the Water Genie is trying to sever Rashid’s imagination. This leads Haroun to learn about the Sea of Stories, the plot by the evil Khattam-Shud to poison it and block its source, and the impending war between the Kingdoms of Chup and Gup that will determine the fate of the Sea.

Rushdie makes Haroun the hero of his own story in the tradition of children in literature who have to do something to save one or both of their parents. Haroun faces difficult choices and shows courage in the face of great odds, standing up to the various otherworldly creatures trying to steal his father’s gift or kill Haroun’s new friends from Gup or sew the lips of the Princess Batcheat shut. (He gets no help from the vacuous Prince Bolo, the antithesis of the typical prince-hero character, generally saying and doing the wrong thing or just showing no awareness of what’s happening around him.)

The text itself is replete with puns, references to Hindustani words or Indian historical figures, and even pop culture references. Iff and the Butts work for the Walrus, who employs technicians named the Eggheads, a reference I trust I don’t have to explain. Butt the Hoopoe certainly sounds like a nod to the British glam-rockers Mott the Hoople. Many names allude to characters in the stories of One Thousand and One Nights, including Haroun al-Rashid, a real-life Caliph of Baghdad who appears in many of those tales. General Kitab’s name means “book” in Arabic and Hindustani, and his army comprises numerous Pages. And the fish with multiple mouths, or maws, are referred to as Plentimaws … and there are Plentimaw fish in the Sea. (The book also has a brief appendix where Rushdie explains many of the character and place names.)

It’s also hard to avoid the likelihood that Rushdie wrote this as a reaction to the fatwa issued against him by Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran after the publication of Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses and the general controversy over a portion of the book that some Muslims deemed blasphemous. In the wake of its release, at least ten countries banned the book in some form, including his native India, while many U.S. bookstores declined to sell it. There were also multiple bombings of bookstores and newspapers in the U.S. and in the United Kingdom related to the book’s sale, while the Archbishop of Canterbury called for an expansion of England’s Blasphemy Act to cover offenses against Islam. (That law was repealed entirely in 2008.) Haroun may be just a children’s novel, but it’s probably also a parable about censorship and the threat to the marketplace of ideas, showing how a society might suffer in a world without stories.

Haroun is better for slightly older kids, because the vocabulary would likely be too demanding for children below fifth grade or so, although the story itself would mostly be appropriate – Haroun’s mother runs off with another man near the beginning, but eventually returns without any real comment – and easy for any child to follow. I could see younger kids being disturbed by the threats to sew the Princess’ mouth shut, although Rushdie softens that possibility by having other characters complain about how awful her singing voice is. It’s a book for younger readers, though, so Haroun saves the day, no mouths are sewn shut, and Rashid eventually regains his talent for weaving stories. The beauty of this book is the journey, the literal one Haroun takes to this other world – I haven’t even mentioned the earth’s second moon, Kahani, which you might not have noticed because it moves by a Process Too Complicated to Explain – and the one on which Rushdie takes the reader, with puns and gags flying so fast that you might miss them on your first read. It’s a delight and a testament to Rushdie’s boundless imagination.

Next up: I’m many books behind in my reviews, but right now I’m reading Kat Kinsman’s memoir Hi, Anxiety: Life with a Bad Case of Nerves.