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Papers, Please

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Ever wondered what it's like to be a bureaucrat behind the Iron Curtain in 1982?  Well, now you can find out!  You get to man a border station and decide who gets let into the fictional country of Arstotzka.

The game is both mindnumbingly difficult and mindnumbingly tedious, but that's the whole point.  This is not a game that is out to wow you with gameplay, this is a game that is going to make you feel what it's like to be a border guard in a Communist wonderland.  You're part of a system that you have little control in, and beholden to superiors you almost never see, but who push increasingly arbitrary restrictions upon your work.  And of course, because it's you who interacts with everybody who is coming through your station, you have to make the hard decisions.  It's up to you to reject those seeking political asylum, who will be killed if they go back.  It's up to you to decide if you want to take a little bit of graft so that you can feed your family tonight.

This game is absolutely fascinating.  It's game as art, out to show you that games can be affecting, and can make you think hard about your political reality.  It's hard to say enough positive about this game.  Easily one of the most thought-provoking video games I've ever played.

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Look at Me

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This book is well-written. Egan's prose is simultaneously quick-reading and well-crafted. Descriptions leap out of the page, and it's always incredibly clear what is going on.

Beyond that, I'm not sure what the point of this book is. A bunch of things happen, then they fall apart in a nihilistic version of... what, exactly? The events and characters are a bit too glamorous to be real, and there's certainly no moral here. The book reads like it has a Point To Be Made, but I certainly can't find it.

This post was crossposted from Goodreads. You can find the original at http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/849033311

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India After Gandhi: The History of the World's Largest Democracy

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It's somewhat embarassing, for all of the United States' efforts to install democracy in other countries, how little attention we pay to the most populous, most diverse democracy. After all, this is our ideological sister, but popular conception doesn't go beyond seeing it as the place for call centers and cut-rate tech outsourcing.

The reality, of course, is much more complex. Looking at Indian democracy is like looking into a funhouse mirror. India isn't in the Western cultural orbit, but it's political issues are still recognizable. The solutions aren't identical, but they have a lot to teach us about what democracy means.

This is an incredible work of scholarly rigor, so incredibly thorough that a full third of the book is footnotes. Primary sources are used and quoted extensively. The writing is easy to follow, and is geared for a Western audience. This is a great way to learn a ton about a very complex political ally.

This post was crossposted from Goodreads. You can find the original at http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/270902330

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Blackfish

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SeaWorld does bad things.  They had an Orca, they didn't really want to have to give it up despite the fact that it was dangerous, and so they told themselves little white lies to make sure they could keep it, because it was worth mucho dinero.  It then ends in tragedy when it kills one of the handlers.

SeaWorld is a problematic place even aside from this story, and so I had a healthy dose of confirmation bias here.  I'm particularly not a fan of them cloaking their for-profit nature.  Almost every zoo and aquarium is either run by the government, or as a non-profit organization.  This has led Americans to take a few things for granted when seeing big animals: it's ingrained that this place is almost certainly a) transparent in their financial records and daily operations, and b) primarily designed as a cultural showpiece to educate the public and foster a sense of husbandry and environmentalism.  I'll grudgingly let them have the second point, but they completely fail on the first -- they are incredibly secretive.  Part of this is a longstanding feud between the save-the-whales faction and Seaworld, but a healthy dose of it comes from the fact that this is a for-profit institution, aimed at maximizing profit, and not particularly interested in letting public see anything that might make them look bad.  Transparency is fundamentally against the corporate model, and although SeaWorld wants you to have the warm fuzzies whenever you see a whale leap out of the water, they don't want you to think too hard about how they got a whale to leap in the first place.

It's not that the people in SeaWorld are evil.  Like most corporate mismanagement and sleazy behavior, the culture itself is corrupt.  People in the system believe that they are powerless, or that the ends justify the means, or that it's simply impossible for an organization like SeaWorld to do something bad.  The true corrosive nature of the establishment is the ability to get good people to do bad things collectively.

But I digress.  The movie is worth seeing.  It's an eye-opener if you don't know about the culture of SeaWorld.

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2013: Best of Games

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Best Innovative Wargame

Polis: Fight for the Hegemony (2010)

I'm not sure where Polis came from.  Well, it came from Spain, given that the designer, playtesters, and publisher are all Spanish.  But mechanically, I don't see the genesis at all, which is truly incredible.  Most of the mechanics here are very new, with the ability to trade goods overseas with an interesting market mechanic, a taxing system that I've never seen before, and a prestige/VP track that is completely interwoven into the gameplay so that it doesn't feel like empty VPs, but rather a resource and non-arbitrary way of determining a winner.  The end result is a true Euro-wargame blend, one that feels uncomplicated and clean like the best euros, but feels thematic and has important positional play and direct conflict like a war game.  There have been other Euro-wargames before, but nothing that feels like this.

The gameplay is ruthlessly tight.  The setup is the same every time, and the randomness is very low, which makes planning out turns more like an abstract than the "react to what happens" of your typical wargame.  One mistake tends to have a ripple effect, so that by the time you're four turns down the road, you finally realize that you should have made a different decision four turns back.  I have some worries about the game becoming scripted, but the Boardgamegeek community hasn't figured it out yet, which means that I'll probably have a whole lot of time before I find anything approaching the optimal strategy.  I'm three games in, and every time I've looked forward to the next play.  This game really has some staying power.

 

Best Multiplayer Wargame

Pax Britannica (1985)

Negotiation, and crisp history, and a very different set of objectives for all seven different nations?  What's not to love?  There's no closer simulation I've found for the colonial era.  Lots of games have a theme of exploration and exploitation set in this time period, but few have the chutzpah to simulate it over the whole world, or over this length of time.  The different nations also are significantly differentiated, making the whole of the game divided quite sharply into haves and have-nots, a hallmark of the era.  Historical gameplay is not only a possibility, but is likely to develop simply because of the geography of the board.  The prestige and self-identity of these nations was so crucial to the philosophy and justification of colonial policy, and it too is shown here, in the form of heavy negotiation.  There's even the ever-increasing likelihood that World War I will be triggered every time a nation refuses to cooperate.  The game does so, so well at showing how the colonial era began, progressed, and finally reached its explosive endpoint. 

I do have some qualms about the politics of this game.  The theme of this game is already rather problematic, what with the great European powers all going off and claiming the rest of the worldas if there wasn't anybody there already.  Nonetheless, it happened, and trying to pretend that it didn't isn't going to fix anything, so I don't have a problem with the game's realistic depiction of events.  However, the designer's notes are of an old-guard colonialist sticking to his guns, and insisting that colonialism really wasn't that bad.  Well, it was that bad.  Anytime you have a culture taking away the basic freedoms of another culture, there's a moral wrong being committed.  There's no question that it led to the worldwide economy we have now, and ushered in an era of prosperity for a certain section of the world, but it was hardly a global good.  Still, it's my belief that the game can be enjoyed while acknowledging the evils that happened.  There's nothing inherent in the rules that forces an antiquated viewpoint, and it's very possible to play the game while coming to a greater understanding of why this era was so problematic.

 

Best Reimplementation of a Popular Franchise

Axis & Allies Europe 1940 (2010)
Axis & Allies Pacific 1940 (2009)

This is an absolutely incredible addition to a series that is well-known.  With these two games combined into the global war, Axis and Allies has finally delivered on its promise to simulate the whole war.  Sure, there are still a few questionable historical choices.  It's still a good strategy for Japan to invade Russia through Siberia, and the Italian navy is actually useful, presumably to give the Italian player something to do.  These make as little sense as they did in the previous editions, but most of the rest of the cheesy ahistorical gaminess is gone.  A little bit of chrome has been laid over the top of the system in the form of National Objectives and air- and naval-bases.  These have swung the game to focusing on the geographical chokepoints that the war revolved around historically.  It's a great example of how a judicious amount of extra rules can lead to a historical feel without making the game feel ponderously slow.

Even better than the improved history, however, there's no one-size-fits-all strategy here as there is in the previous editions (hint: buy infantry).  Each nation has a fundamental choice of several different approaches.  The strategic goals remain the same -- Germany still needs to hold off the Allies until it can defeat Russia, for instance.  But the fashion in which you reach those goals has a plethora of options.  In our Germany case, she can build air units and sea units to sink the Allied transports, or land units to wage a back-and-forth land battle and keep throwing the Allies back into the ocean.

Grizzled wargamers may turn their noses up at this, but it's worth playing.  It's the best simulation of the whole war that I know of.

 

Honorable Mentions

7 Ages (2004) - Goes down the rabbit hole that History of the World eschews.  What if we actually gave each empire the chance to keep growing unchecked?  It's an amazing scope of history game that manages to weave technology and emergent empires into a game that naturally sends the old empires into decline.   

Clash of Cultures (2012) - May very well be deserving of the best-of-year award, but I only got one play in, and I don't feel qualified to judge it based only on that one play.  Hits all the high points of Civilization design, including exploration, growth, conflict, and a great tech tree.

Scripts and Scribes (later released as Biblios) (2007) - The first filler I've enjoyed this much in quite some time.  Very fast, and full of decisions throughout the game.  Perfect example of what ruthlessly tight design can be.

Terra Mystica (2012) - Token Euro for this list.  Timing and growth decisions are interesting, and the variable player powers feel actually relevant, unlike most Euros.  Theme is a bit generic, and I'm not sure I'll still love it four plays from now, but it shows promise.

 

Trend: Thematic, warty games

For a long time, I've been migrating away from mechanics-driven Euros to theme-driven wargames, but this year had an especially large number of new games that were theme-first, gameplay second.  The games that take this approach are a bit more fragile -- sometimes they are group-dependent and sometimes the decisions are not satisfying.  Nevertheless, when one of these games works well, it provides an experience that can never be matched by cube crunchers.  Aside from the aforementioned Pax Britannia and 7 Ages above, I played a lot of these games this year: MIL (1049)CO₂Greed IncorporatedDinosaurs of the Lost WorldGumshoe, and Age of Renaissance all fit into this mold, and although a few were stinkers, I'm really glad I played every single one.

 

Worst

Chaos Marauders (1987, I played 2007 rerelease) and Dungeon Roll (2013) - These are two generic fantasy themed, game-plays-you kind of games.  One has cards, and one has dice.  In both, the luckiest person is going to win, every time. 

Card Football: Premiere Edition (2006) - Draw poker where you try to outguess your opponent and save hands for the best time.  The football part is distracting and nonsensical.

Pizza Box Football Expansion (2005) - One of the worst expansions to a game ever, simply because it changes almost nothing.  The extra playcalls were already in the base box, and the team ratings both barely make a difference and are only in a scale of 1-3, meaning that most of the 32 teams in the box are duplicates of each other.

Risk: Transformers (2007) - All the problems of regular Risk, but with a cheap gimmicky board and no connection to the theme.

 

Complete List of All New-to-me Games Played in 2013

Cards Against Humanity: Third Expansion
Age of Industry
Gumshoe
MIL (1049)
10 Days in Asia
20th Century
7 Ages
Age of Industry Expansion #1: Japan and Minnesota
Bananagrams
Biblios
Burrows
Chaos Marauders
CO₂
Forbidden Island
Greed Incorporated
Leaping Lemmings
Ore: The Mining Game
Polis: Fight for the Hegemony
Ren Faire
Suspend
World at War: Blood and Bridges
World of Warcraft Trading Card Game
Ad Astra
Age of Mythology: The Boardgame
Age of Renaissance
Alcatraz: The Scapegoat
Australian Rails
Automobile
Axis & Allies Europe 1940
Axis & Allies Pacific 1940
Berserker Halflings from the Dungeon of Dragons
Black Gold
Blood Bowl (Third Edition)
Bushido: Der Weg des Kriegers
Card Football: Premiere Edition
Cards Against Humanity: Fourth Expansion
Cards Against Humanity: The Bigger, Blacker Box
The Castles of Burgundy
Clash of Cultures
Dinosaurs of the Lost World
Dominion: Dark Ages
Dungeon Dice
Dungeon Roll
Eminent Domain
España 1936
Fantastiqa
Gauntlet of Fools
Glenn Drover's Empires: The Age of Discovery - Builder Expansion
Joker Marbles
Keyflower
Kingdom Builder: Nomads
Kings & Things
Lost Cities: The Board Game
Magdar
Micro Mutants: Evolution
NFL Rush Zone
Pandemic: In the Lab
Pathfinder Adventure Card Game: Rise of the Runelords - Base Set
Pax Britannica
Penny Arcade: Paint The Line ECG: Red Tide
Perry Rhodan: The Cosmic League
Pizza Box Football Expansion
Risk: Transformers
Rum & Pirates
Runebound (Second Edition)
Runebound: Midnight
Sekigahara: The Unification of Japan
Sentinels of the Multiverse
Sewer Pirats
Sim City: The Card Game
Small World: Cursed!
Space Cadets
Strasbourg
Terra Mystica
To Court the King
The Trial of Socrates
Wealth of Nations

 

Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things That Happened

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Great example of a blog-to-book conversion. The print job is beautiful, with high-quality full-color pages throughout. The writing and drawing is of the same quality as the blog. Though much of the book is rehashed from the blog, it's nice to have it in book form, and it translates well to the format. The new pieces that are book exclusive are of the same high quality as the original posts.

If you haven't encountered Allie Brosh's work before, go read this. It's side-splittingly funny, tender, and earnest.

This post was crossposted from Goodreads. You can find the original at http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/846888514

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Slow Getting Up: A Story of NFL Survival from the Bottom of the Pile

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Nate Jackson pens an interesting twist on the sports biography. This isn't the star who gets a lucrative book deal on name recognition, this is the NFL grunt who toils in the league for a few years before getting cut.

The book is interesting mostly as a comparison to our preconceptions. Many of them are corroborated, like the high pay, rich lifestyle, and special privileges given to the professional athlete. Some preconceptions don't survive, though. The glamour of the actual games and of the daily life of an athlete is revealed as a tedious routine, alternating between practice and film study. The idea of our athletes as superhuman also takes a hit. Sure, they may be fast and strong and big, but they are also constantly hurt, whether it be the major, season-ending injuries, or the minor bruises and aches that keep them from being 100%.

All in all, this is a measured, non-glamorized account. It's an amazingly quick read, and it provides a useful context. Recommended for football fans.

This post was crossposted from Goodreads. You can find the original at http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/728800898

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2013: Best of Movies and TV

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As always, best of 2013 means best that I saw this year, no matter when they were released.

 

Best Movie

Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012) - Full review here

Here's the story of one poverty-stricken girl named Hushpuppy and her father, living on the edges of our society, told through the vehicle of magical realism.  The technique is a wonderful fit, capturing the imagination of childhood in a way that instantly pulls the viewer in to a different worldview.  We get the best that a movie can offer, seeing through the child's eyes, yet as viewers, we are able to stand just a bit aloof.

There's symbolism all over this movie as it reflects the girl's past, present, and future right back at her.  The most obvious one is the Beasts of the title, but there's also the island home that is dependent on the ocean and yet doomed to be swallowed by it, the father who is deathly afraid for Hushpuppy but too encumbered by circumstance to provide a future, and the woman who outright prophesies Hushpuppy's future.

The movie is profoundly affecting.  I cried as I haven't for quite a while.

 

Best Television Show

Breaking Bad Seasons 1-4 (2008-2011) - Season reviews 1, 2, 3, and 4

I haven't yet seen the finale, but seasons 1-4 are a doozy.  Season 4 has been my favorite so far, but every one has kept me glued to the set. It's set in Albuquerque, which is what drew us in, but it's definitely great apart from that angle.  The shots are some of the best I've ever seen in television, and it has such a strong sense of place and timing that it shows all the effort that's gone into direction and production.  TV has come a long way beyond being merely a vehicle for three-room apartment sitcoms.

The show is just so... Shakespearean.  You see the flaws in the characters, you know where the story is ultimately leading, and yet you want it to be somehow different.  This show, being about meth, throws a whole different moral perspective into the affair, as you know this is the bad guy, but you still want him to triumph.  It's a novel treatise on ends vs. means.

 

Honorable Mention

12 Years a Slave (2013) - This would be the best movie in a lot of years.  It's technically flawless, and even better, it tells a story that desperately needs to be told, one where the Antebellum South gets shattered for the myth that it is, and we Americans get to look hard in the mirror at what we were.  It's a nice companion piece to last year's Lincoln, which tells the story of the political reality of slavery, while this tells the very real, very brutal human cost of slavery.  (Review)

30 for 30: You Don't Know Bo (2012) - This does a great job of casting the sports star as hero.  This is the real-life version of The Natural.  Bo Jackson is amazingly articulate, and guest appearances by the like of Chuck Klosterman really make this sports documentary exceptional.  (Review)

30 for 30: 9.79* (2012) - Chalk this one up as another story that we needed to hear.  We like to flog our steroid-ridden athletes of the 1990s every time the MLB Hall of Fame vote happens or the pustulence that is Lance Armstrong skeezes his way into the news, but it's worth seeing just what happened to the biggest, earliest bust of the steroid era.  The systemic corruption that this documentary reveals in track and field was prophetic.  How long are we going to try to uphold an unsustainable and unenforceable moral purity standard for our athletes? (Review)

Captain Phillips (2013) - I thought it was part of the studio's contract that every action movie had to be as subtle as a porn mag.  This movie proves it wrong.  I desperately hope that this socially-conscious thriller starts a trend of smart action movies.  (Review)

In a World (2013) - A tightly-written, well-executed indie feminist comedy.  See?  Feminists DO have a sense of humor.  (Review)

 

Worst

Trail of the Pink Panther (1982) - The most transparent money grab by a studio that I've ever seen, and I say that without hyperbole.  There's no reason for this movie to exist, because you can see all the good parts in the movies that were made before Sellers died.  (Review)

Star Trek Into Darkness (2013) - Star Trek at its previous worst was preachy, but it was never this bombastically stupid.  (Review)

The Artist (2011) - Hollywood sure does love to heap adoration on films about films.  There was never a "why" to this movie other than pretension. (Review)

 

Complete list of movies and TV

Silver Linings Playbook
Trail of the Pink Panther
Star Trek: The Next Generation - Season 2
Two Days in April
Les Miserables
Breaking Bad: Season 1
30 for 30: The Marinovich Project
Argo
30 for 30: The Announcement
30 for 30: Unguarded
30 for 30: Roll Tide/War Eagle
30 for 30: The Dotted Line
Breaking Bad: Season 2
30 for 30: Ghosts of Ole Miss
30 for 30: 9.79*
Portlandia: Season 2
30 for 30: There's No Place Like Home
30 for 30: Catching Hell
30 for 30: Broke
Star Trek: The Next Generation - Season 3
30 for 30: You Don't Know Bo
Jurassic Park 3D
Breaking Bad: Season 3
Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby
Star Trek Into Darkness
Game of Thrones: Season 3
The Dust Bowl
Behind the Candelabra
Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work
30 for 30: The Fab Five
Ken Burns Presents: The West
Star Trek: The Next Generation: Season 4
Jiro Dreams of Sushi
In a World
John Adams
Breaking Bad Season 4
Gravity
30 for 30: Book of Manning
Bernie
30 for 30: Hawaiian: The Legend of Eddie Aikau
42
Captain Phillips
The Artist
30 for 30: Free Spirits
30 for 30: No Mas
30 for 30: Big Shot
30 for 30: This is What They Want
Bernie and Ernie
Eastbound and Down
Beasts of the Southern Wild
Crooked Arrows
Life of Pi
Going Big
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
Flight of the Conchords: Season 2
12 Years a Slave
Girls: Season 1
 

2013: Best of Books

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It's still close enough to the New Year that I can do these.  I am declaring it by fiat.

As usual, this is the best of the books I read in 2013 that are new to me, not the ones that came out in 2013.  As somebody who's not a new book hound, the cross-section of those two categories is not very large.

 

Best Fiction

A Memory of Light by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson (2013)

This was far and away my favorite book I read this year.  I read fewer books that normal this year (more on that further on in this post), but this book is still incredibly deserving.  This book could have failed.  It's been set up for so long.  14 books take a long time to write.  It's been so long since this series began that it predates the first Iraq War.  In the intervening time, we've been through nearly a quarter century, six presidential elections, and a complete revamp of the epic fantasy publishing landscape, largely promulgated by this series.

It wouldn't have been a surprise if the book fizzled.  Jordan, the original author, died without finishing the series, and though the work of Sanderson was admirable in the previous two volumes, good enough wasn't cutting it here.  There was so much riding on this last book as the final book in a series that explicitly drove toward it from its very beginning that anything less than perfect was going to feel like a letdown.  But this book delivers in spades.  The entire thing is a roller-coaster ride, and the Last Battle in this series absolutely lives up to its ultimate billing.  I read this in an absurdly short time, losing sleep and dodging responsibilities to finish this 900+ page beastie in about 24 hours.  This is everything I ever could have hoped for to end this series, and even further cements it as easily, easily the best fantasy series I've ever read.

(Full review)

 

Best Graphic Novel

The Cartoon History of the Modern World Part 1: From Columbus to the U.S. Constitution by Larry Gonick (2006)
The Cartoon History of the Modern World Part 2: From the Bastille to Baghdad by Larry Gonick (2009)

These are such a matched pair it's not fair to distinguish one from the other.  This is a continuation of Gonick's History of the World series, and they're some of the best way to get a really high-level sweep of history.  This is no flightly comic book, this is serious historical scholarship, with references and bibliography.  It just so happens that it's presented in an incredibly accessible fashion.

The historical bent is good as well.  There's a heavy emphasis on non-Western history, as well as a strong conviction.  Gonick will poke fun at historical figures and even at historians when it is warranted, and in a way that leaves little doubt where he stands on the issue.  This is no mealy-mouthed it's-not-for-history-to-make-judgements book, it takes legitimate (and prescient) stands on issues such as individual liberties, and the crushing missteps of the Iraq War.

As far as I'm concerned, if somebody seems interested in history and wants the big picture, this is the series they should check out.

(Full reviews: Part 1 and Part 2)

 

Honorable Mention

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925) - I reread this one before seeing the Baz Luhrmann film that came out this year.  I read it when I was in high school (though not for a class), but this read was much, much better.  I got a lot more of the longing perspective that this film brings with the passage of time, and I came to a much richer appreciation of the skill of the writing.  Absolutely deserves its status as a classic. (Full review)

A Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812 by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich (1990) - This was the best nonfiction book I read this year, though it's not worth of a full-blown best-of-the-year.  The scholarly work is impressive, but the book wasn't revolutionary for my worldview, or exceptionally written, and thus gets only an honorable mention.  (Full review)

The Mahabharata: A Modern Rendering Volume 1 by Ramesh Menon (2004) - This book wasn't especially mindblowing, but it deserves mention here for no other reason than the amount of time devoted to it.  Even though it's only volume 1, it's a huge book, and even though it's modernized into readable prose from its original Sanskritic verse, there's still a lot of concepts that are translated to Hindi instead of English, because the analog is much closer.  I spent six months primarily reading this book, which is why the list of other books I read this year is so short. (Full review)

 

Worst

Android: Strange Flesh by Matthew Farrer (2012) - The first Android novelization was good.  This one was not.  This deserves dismissal as pure genre trash, and not even good genre trash at that. (Full review)

 

Full List of Books I Read This Year

Android: Strange Flesh
One Hundred Fifty Years in Christ: The Sesquicentennial History of the Church of the Immaculate Conception, New Munich, Minnesota 1857 to 2007
The Cartoon History of the Modern World Part 1: From Columbus to the U.S. Constitution
The Cartoon History of the Modern World Part 2: From the Bastille to Baghdad
The Lies of Locke Lamora (Gentleman Bastard, #1)
Forts of Old San Juan: San Juan National Historic Site, Puerto Rico
A Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812
Red Seas Under Red Skies (Gentleman Bastard, #2)
A Memory of Light (Wheel of Time, #14; A Memory of Light, #3)
Slave Revolts in Puerto Rico: Conspiracies and Uprisings, 1795-1873
Flight from the Dark (Lone Wolf, #1)
The Great Gatsby
The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things
The Mahabharata: A Modern Rendering, Vol 1

Lord of the Rings

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Almost every year, we rewatch this trilogy when I go home for the holidays.  It was great.  It always is.

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