Monday, February 16, 2015




















Reviewed by James L. Thane
Five out of five stars

This is a classic hard-boiled novel, the first book in a series that would ultimately run to twenty-four books published between 1962 and 2008. The series featured a brutal, smart, amoral professional criminal known only as Parker who worked with crews of other professional criminals and usually focused on robbing banks, armored cars or other such targets. Parker was not a professional killer, although he never balked at killing anyone who got in the way of the job at hand.

He also never hesitated to kill anyone who double-crossed him, and as the book and the series open, Parker has been double-crossed in the worst possible way, shot by his wife at the end of a job and left for dead. The wife then ran off with one of Parker's partners from the job, along with Parker's share of the loot. Needless to say, Parker, who luckily survived the attempt on his life, is not in a good mood when we first meet him, and Stark's introduction of his protagonist ranks as one of the best in crime fiction.

Pissed at the world and determined to get revenge, Parker is stalking across the George Washington Bridge into New York City, a "big and shaggy" man, with "flat square shoulders and arms too long in sleeves too short....His face was a chipped chunk of concrete, with eyes of flawed onyx. His mouth was a quick stroke, bloodless."

"Office women in passing cars looked at him and felt vibrations above their nylons....They knew he was a bastard, they knew his big hands were born to slap with, they knew his face would never break into a smile when he looked at a woman. They knew what he was, they thanked God for their husbands, and still they shivered. Because they knew how he would fall on a woman in the night. Like a tree."

Parker has traced his wife to New York and arrived there virtually penniless. He's determined to deal with her and, through her, to find the partner who betrayed him and stole the money that was Parker's share of the job they had pulled.

It won't be easy, and complications ensue, one after the other. But Parker will not be deterred, even when he learns that the man who betrayed him has used his money to repay a debt to the Outfit and is now protected by them. To get his revenge, Parker will have to take on the Outfit all by himself. But what the hell does he care; he won't rest until he gets what he's owed.

Richard Stark is the pen name of Donald Westlake, a prolific writer who is otherwise best known for the comedic Dortmunder crime novels that he wrote under his own name. But the Parker novels are really his crowing achievement. They are taut, spare stories cut close to the bone and without a wasted word. And there's absolutely nothing funny or redemptive about them. Parker's is a tough, brutal and dangerous world; there's no room for any sentimental nonsense and watching him make his way through that world is one of the most enjoyable experiences in the world of crime fiction.

As a side note, this book was ultimately filmed twice, once as "Point Blank," in 1967, starring Lee Marvin as Parker, and again in 1999, as "The Hunter," with Mel Gibson in the role. The Lee Marvin Version is much the better of the two, and Marvin captures the character about as well as anyone could.
  

Going Back To The Old School

Players Handbook (Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Core Rulebook)Players Handbook by Gary Gygax
Reviewed by Jason Koivu
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Tired of being a boring accountant or a lowly sales rep at a big box chain store? The cube farm got ya down? Well, open up the Players Handbook and turn yourself into a wizard or assassin! Come on, grow a pair!...A pair of pointy ears and become an elf! Sick of being 7' tall? Try a dwarf's skin on for size! The sky's the limit when you jump into the world of Dungeons & Dragons!

Okay, let's be honest, your own imagination is the real limit. TSR, the company that made D&D, put out this game and created books like this one, which gave gamers pretty much all they'd need to create worlds of fantastical fun. How far you took that fun and ran with it was entirely up to you.

The Players Handbook was the book the players used to create their characters in preparation for the game. Honestly, I had just as much fun creating characters as I did in playing the actual game. You were giving birth to potential, creating an alternate you! How exciting is that?!

Character creation usually started with the player picking what class (profession) and race they wanted to be. Let's start with race...

At this point in the game's history, round about 1980, D&D had on offer humans, elves, dwarves, halflings, gnomes, half-elves (a human/elf mix) and half-orcs (a human/orc mix).

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Because orcs are generally evil beings, it was assumed that the half-orc was the result of orc-on-human rape, to put it bluntly. So, you can see why years later - especially after the game was attacked in the early '80s as Satanic by Bible thumpers - D&D removed the half-orc race from the game as a character option.

Some people really cared about race. By which I mean, they REALLY wanted to be elves. I wasn't very particular about what race I was. Lord of the Rings was my first intro into fantasy, so I was a big fan of hobbits, which were called halflings in D&D to avoid a lawsuit from the Tolkien family one assumes. The problem with halflings and most non-human races was that there was a limit to how far they could advance in level, which was the measuring stick for the experience, knowledge and skill you obtained while adventuring. These ethnic limitations could be seen as racist, quite frankly. That's right, I just called D&D racist. Seriously though, I never really did understand why they put a cap on it. If any players know, please fill me in.

The other main character factor, and usually more important to players than race, was what class you wanted to be. Class was the term used in D&D for what adventuring profession you chose. It didn't matter if you flunked out of high school. You didn't need a degree to become a cleric, druid, fighter, paladin, ranger, magic-user, illusionist, thief, assassin, or monk.

I'd be embarrassed to know how much of my young life I spent in wonderful agony trying to decide which class to choose, as well as creating characters that I knew damn well would never be used in a game. Holy hell did I love this part of the game!

I was quite young when I first started playing D&D, 9 years old, I believe. I played with older kids, who knew what they were doing. They got to play the difficult (and fun) classes, like the wizards and thieves. I played the simple ones, the warriors and priests. The warriors hacked and slashed the monsters with weapons. The priests generally sat back and healed the wounded. There wasn't a lot of intricacies going on there for me in the early going. Later I got to play a paladin, a noble knight with the power to heal. This character is the ultimate in angelic goodness. To be a paladin you really have to want to stand high on that pedestal of moral incorruptibility. It was a full-time crusade against the demons and devils of the underworld as well as the evil-doers blighting the earth.

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The assassin and monk classes were late-comers to the game. They were also early-exiters. When Dungeon's and Dragons popularity soared, so did the flack TSR caught for its more evil and violent nature. Assassins being people who exist solely to terminate life, didn't set well with some gamers' moms. I guess TSR figured the thief class was besmirching their good name enough already.

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Look at that happy, shirtless thief! If it said "7-11" above that door it would totally remind me of my days living in LA!

I think the monk got the can, because his skills unbalanced the game. He was not a holy man, but rather styled more like the fighting Shaolin monks. It was all about the martial arts with these monks. They could mess monsters up six ways to Sunday.

OH! One more class before we move on! The bard. This musician-adventurer was such a late-comer to this edition of D&D that he was included in the appendixes at the back of the book. The bard was a combination of fighter, thief, and druid (nature-based spell caster) who played an instrument with magical affect. Oh yes, and he/she also automatically acquired new languages when advancing every few levels. This jack-of-all-trades-master-of-none was such a ridiculous hodge-podge of a character that some dungeon masters (the game referee) refused to allow it in the game. The less said about the bard, the better.

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Most people chose a class suitable to their skill scores, aka ability scores. What the hell am I talking about? Well now, this is the really fun...and the really frustrating part of character creation. Each character has a set of abilities: Strength, Intelligence, Wisdom, Dexterity, Constitution, Charisma. These were the physical and mental make up of your character. Your score on each determined your skill level in that area and usually determined what class you'd pick. The ability score was determined by a random roll of dice. That's where the frustration part comes in. With six categories to roll for, seldom did you end up with an across-the-board killer character. Usually you'd get one or two good scores but get stuck with a couple really low scores, or worse, all your scores were average, meaning you weren't really good for anything.

A lot of ability score fudging went on. I played with one kid who flat out gave his character maximum scores in all categories and told me with a straight face that he'd rolled it up that way. There's "dumb" luck and then there's "What, do you think I'm an idiot?" luck. We only played together the one time. I mean come on, I understand getting a little creative or allowing the occasional do-over, but this kid had basically plugged in his NES Game Genie, beat the game on invincibility mode and tried to pass it off as pure skill.

Okay, now that you had the basics of who and what your character was, it was time to kit him/her out with weapons, armor and provisions. The Players Handbook had all that covered with prices included. Oh yeah, you had to pay for this shit, my friend.

Here's an instance where the game got a little more complicated than necessary, in my opinion. Honestly, who needs to know the speed factor of a club or how much space is needed to wield a fauchard-fork…and what the hell is a fauchard-fork anyway? Some players gobbled up such roleplaying minutia. Not me. Incorporating that crap slowed the game down considerably. Sure, when I got older and became the dungeon master, I tried to keep things realistic and used common sense for plausibility's sake ("No, you may not light that on fire, it's under water."), but I seldom referred to the rules. I knew them pretty well, but for things that really didn't matter that much in the grand scheme of things, I'd just wing it.

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One of the best parts of playing Dungeons & Dragons was casting some of the wicked awesome spells the game makers came up with. Half of this book is just about spells. Pages and pages are filled with full and fun descriptions on the different kinds, what they do, how to cast them, and sometimes what you needed to cast them.

Firing off fireballs was always everyone's favorite and often first choice, but lordy, D&D gave you so many other options with spells like Invisibility, Lightning Bolt, Mirror Image, Shocking Grasp, Charm, Web, Conjure Animals, Wall of Fire/Ice/Stone/Iron, Hypnotize, Exorcise, Polymorph, Regeneration, Fly, Wish, Monster Summoning, Disintegrate, Speak with Dead and Raise the Dead. That last one might seem a little sinister, but boy did it come in handy when your pals went down.

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My favorite instance of creative spell use came from my cousin Jeremiah, who was quite young at the time. He was playing a druid and the group he was with was getting their butts handed to them by an evil giant who'd already pounded one character into the ground. Miah told me he wanted to turn himself into a hummingbird and fly into the giant's ear to peck at its eardrum. You're not going to find that one in the rulebook! I had to allow it, I mean, the kid came up with a such great and fun idea, of course I was going to make it work. I rolled dice to fake that I was checking to see if his plan worked and let him know that he'd successfully flown in and distracted the giant, which gave his group the opportunity to recover and take it down. Miah was playing with his older cousins (just like me back in my early days) and was often ignored, making his input minimal, so this was probably his most proud moment.

The Players Handbook was absolutely indispensable if you wanted to play the game. All the same, it could sometimes be more practical than engrossing. For instance, it seemed to have endless lists, tables and charts. Hell, if you needed to know how much a chicken cost, there's a list of livestock with prices. Btw, the going rate was three copper coins. Granted, the game might not hinge on the rise and fall of the fowl market, but such details definitely added more depth to the layers of imagination Dungeons and Dragons could potentially suck you into...while providing more information than any player would ever really need.

Oh, before I go, I would be remiss if I didn't mention the book's iconic cover, which caused me to add gem-eyed statues to more than a few of my own adventures. The artwork within varied in quality, but that Caravaggio-esque cover - with one of the most realistic depictions of the dungeon crawl in action - kicked many kinds of ass! The image is so well known, it's spawned more than a few mock-ups...

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Sugar Ray And The Sweet Science

The Big Fight: My Life In and Out of the RingThe Big Fight: My Life In and Out of the Ring by Sugar Ray Leonard
Reviewed by Jason Koivu
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Boxing champ Sugar Ray Leonard KOs the squeaky-clean image that made him famous in his revealing autobiography The Big Fight: My Life In and Out of the Ring.

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Beginning with his tough childhood in a rough city suburb, the book moves through his triumphant gold medal Olympic performance and into an unintended pro career peppered with the pitfalls of fame, which constantly threatened his personal and professional life.

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Some passages could be longer and segues occasionally misfire; however, even those scenes that fail to deliver the expected punch at least provide interesting anecdotes from a life filled with high contrasts. Boxing fans will enjoy the many colorful reminiscences of his former bouts against such luminaries as...

Roberto Dur√°n
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Tommy "The Hitman" Hearns
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"Marvelous" Marvin Hagler
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Leonard details the strategies he used to defeat his opponents in the ring, but by the end of the book you realize his biggest opponent was always himself.

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