Reviews 9

Previously: One / Two / Three / Four / Five / Six / Seven / Eight

Solo Leveling

Another webtoon, somewhat similar Skeleton Soldier, albeit more popular (given it's the only webtoon anyone's ever told me about besides the even more popular Tower of God).

In this universe there are "gates" that appear regularly, which lead to dungeons full of monsters. These dungeons must be cleared under a certain number of days, lest the monsters pour out in the real world. However, at the same time these gates appeared, some people started developing powers, basically turning them into RPG characters with superior physical abilities and/or magical powers.

The main character is not very strong, but through the vicissitudes of narrative facility fate, he gets to power up pretty quickly (I'm sure you were able to guess that from the title).

The story is a massive power trip, but somehow it works.

I mean, I don't really know why, but I'm a bit of a fan of the aesthetics and the genre (just like Isekai). I guess I wasted too much time grinding in World of Warcraft and now my brain is permanently damaged. Expect to see many more review of very similar anime (as it turns out, there are a ton).

I don't know whether to recommend it, I obviously enjoyed it very much, but at the same time I have no specific glowing praise for it. It's not clever in any particularly unique way. Give it a few chapters and drop it if it doesn't speak to you!

Somewhat more interestingly, I think this webtoon doesn't compare super favorably to Skeleton Soldier. The fact that the main character can die (albeit temporarily) in Skeleton Soldier does tend to make the stakes higher. The story is also more involved, with characters coming in and out of the story. In general, I'm also intrigued in Skeleton's universe. The mystery in Solo Leveling is rather singular for my taste.

Jujutsu Kaisen

I watched 5 episodes of this, but it just didn't click for me. It's a very generic shonen that punches under its weight.

Being generic is not a death sentence. Nobody will accuse [My Hero Academia] of being incredibly original, yet it's the best thing since sliced bread.

Jujutsu Kaisen completely failed to pull me into its universe. I found the moments of tension completely unbelievable. For instance, at some point early in the series, the main character loses a hand, and I didn't believe it for even a second. A bit later in the same episode, something even more egregious happens, and same thing, didn't believe it one bit. It's not like there are amazing fights, or really interesting character designs / personalities either.

Again, the contrast with Hero Academia is stark: some of the key fights in the anime so far really got me invested.

I did like the ending theme however, it's quite funky.

Zenkyou no Terror (Terror in Resonance)

This has been on my list for quite a while, and I'm happy I finally got around to watching it.

The story follows two teenagers committing various acts of terrorism in Tokyo. The big question: what's their purpose?

I think it works on two plans. First, it's a "planned crime" show. Early Death Note comes to mind (sorry, I'm lacking better references here).

Second there is the mystery of purpose. You can kind of infer it as the story unfolds, but I still found it very interesting.

I'd classify alongside Parasyte and Erased in the list of seinens that are worth your time.

The show is short (only 11 episodes). This is good, as no time is wasted. But on the other hand, some aspects feel neglected. In particular the character of Lisa Mishima, a girl that finds herself entangled with the terrorists, lacks in depth. I understand why she's in the story, but it feels like a bit more attention could have made her into more than simply a plot device.

A Returner's Magic Should Be Special

And here we are again, with a webtoon that has an RPG-like setting.

The setting is surprisingly similar to Solo Leveling: dungeons appear in the world. If they are not cleared, they absorb the surrounding land in some kind of void. Clearing the dungeons is not just about killing monsters, but also fulfilling various quests.

This time, the main character is part of an elite group that defeated the final boss of the worst dungeon to ever appear - only to be killed by the blowback. Consequently, he wakes up a student in an academy for dungeon-fighters, 10 years before the appearance of the disastrous dungeon.

Besides the quests inside the dungeons, the RPG element is toned out here: there is no XP and attributes here, only good old training.

There's also a political dimension as the hero tries to fix what's wrong with the continent (namely literal class warfare) to unite people against the coming threat. Enjoyable, but a bit too much on the nose for my taste.

Just like before: I'm susceptible to this genre, and I liked it.

Barakamon

Another anime recommended by my girlfriend Sasha, and another very pleasant surprise.

This one is about a professional calligrapher in lack of inspiration and professional turmoil. His father ships him out a tiny island to shore up his inspiration.

There he befriends the local townspeople and in particularly the kids. He falls for the pastoral charm of the country life and learns from the folksy wisdom of the people. etc. etc. The pitch is not very original — but it works.

In addition to the cute story, the show is pretty hilarious. It's honestly one of the funniest showsI've seen so far. Probably in my top 2, up there with Love is War.

It's also a short one (12 episodes), so don't hold back.

Gateless, by Sebastian Marshall & Kai Zau

Sebastian Marshall is a "productivity expert". That sounds pretty corny, but I don't know how else to describe him. It might be better to say he's someone obsessed with peak performance, who built a whole business around that obsession.

He's also one I respect immensely, despite not always agreeing with him. That doesn't preclude me from mining for useful insights, of which there are many.

I've been following Sebastian for a while, in particular The Strategic Review (I've posted a summary of one of the series back in 2017), his podcast, and his blog.

It's also not the first book by Sebastian I'm reading. Besides Gateless - I've previously read Roguelike which extracts lessons and analogies from classical roguelikes with application towards real-life endeavours. (I guess you'd see how that would talk to me!)

Note that Gateless was co-authored by Sebastian's co-founder and friend Kai Zau. Unfortunately, I have much fewer interesting things to tell you about Kai.

So, about this book himself. Well, I didn't learn much. But that's also because I'm well acquainted with Sebastian's idea, as I think I've established.

The book is basically a manual in how to improve in your endeavours. It's probably most directly useful if that endeavour is something that resembles "a career", but it is general enough to be useful in other areas too.

The book is short enough, but I worry that if you're at the level where most of these basics are news to you, then it might actually be a bit much to take in. It's also not the funniest read, and it's notably less fun to read than most of the Marshall stuff I've read before.

So, recommended if you're a dutiful person looking to fill the gaps in your strategy. But I'd advise to start with the Marshall productions linked in this summary.

Finally, I find myself concurring with this (4/5 stars!) review from GoodReads, which will also give you a bit more details about the book itself:

A collection of blog-like essays on thinking about and developing personal ("Capacity" and "Meaning" sections), social ("Signal" and "Network") and financial capital ("Assets").

There is nothing terribly new here and large chunks of the book are verbatim quotes taken from other sources. Meaning and Assets sections are largely cursory.

Despite this, I quite enjoyed it - though nothing particularly new, their particular formulation of the ideas resonated with me.

Generally, recommendable - especially for fresh graduates just entering the world.

Tactical Barbell

And now for something completely different, a book about weightlifting.

I must say this one disappointed me. First, because I heard the Tactical Barbell approach integrated conditioning (i.e. cardio & high intensity endurance work), but it turns out that part is outlined in the second book.

Second, because the book says very little about lifting, and does so in too many words.

The core approach is to train only big compound lifts (squat, bench press, deadlift, pullups, ...) at submaximal intensities (i.e. maybe a 7-8 RPE) with plenty of rest (up to 5 minutes) between sets.

That's pretty boring, though I have no doubts that it works, at least up to a certain point (but far enough for most people, including me currently).

An important point is that the book is targeted to an "operational" audience: police, army, SWAT, firefighters, ... (hence the "tactical" in the title). A big point is that these people may already have some fairly intense physical workloads (in the course of work, or because of work-mandated training), so the strength work should be as efficient as possible and not leave them too tired to perform well.

That being said, the book goes so much out of its way to evoke out this "operational" image that it had me wonder if it wasn't really marketed at people who have a tactical fetish.

A few parts of the book also inspire distrust. The author claims to have reached 4% body fat at some point, for instance. The section on supplements is as best a N=1 field report, and contains no actual scientific facts.

We'll see if book 2 is better!

Tactical Barbell 2: Conditioning

I liked the second book much better. One reason is that it actually contained things I wasn't really much informed about. It also contains an actionable plan (a program, really). It's easy to find good quality strength programs online (e.g. one, two), but I haven't stumbled on a program aiming to develop and maintain conditioning before.

The book is also better organized, with the principles outlined in the first part (+ still quite a bit of fluff) and the extensive exercise plan in the second part.

Ultimately, reviewing the book is not that useful — I ought to try this and review the program. I'm thinking I might do the "base-building" 8-week block after I redo a strength block when the gym re-opens.

From Dusk Till Dawn

This was the last "Tarantino movie" that I hadn't seen. It isn't really a Tarantino movie, as Tarantino only wrote the script (and plays a major acting role in the movie), but the movie was directed by Robert Rodriguez.

The flick is fast-paced and pretty fun. At first glance, it looks like it's going to be classical rough-n-dirty Tarantino flick, but the genre of this movie is actually action horror.

And so things take a turn for the weird at some point. And it's great.

It's a bit hard to say if it's a B-movie or an homage to B-movies. It's certainly a bit of parody, albeit of nothing in particular.

A good time that happens to involve a lot of gore.

Gone Girl

This movie is tricky to describe. Wikipedia says it's a "psychological thriller" and I think that does fit the bill. To me, it's one of those "guess movies", where I can't prevent myself from annoying the hell of whoever I'm watching it with (in this case, Sasha) by interjecting all my hypothesis about what the hell could be going on.

Anyhow, the pitch: writer Nick Dunne finds his wife missing and contacts the police. A search is organized, and troublesome truths about the relationship come to light.

That does sound a bit dull, but there is a mystery, and the twist and turns are quite satisfying. This movie will have you wondering.

There's only really one thing I disliked about it: the very ending. Not that I objected to it, I just thought it was poorly justified and didn't make a lot of sense.

In making this review, I realized that (a) this is a David Fincher, and (b) I've actually consumed most of Fincher's cinematographic output: Seven, The Game, Fight Club, Benjamin Button, The Social Network, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, Zodiac, and now Gone Girl - as well as House of Cards. Most of those are pretty good. If you haven't seen them, I'd particularly recommend Gone Girl, The Game, Fight Club, and the first season of House of Cards.

Zero to One

The book outlines Peter Thiel's (a founder of PayPal and Palantir) business philosophy - especially regarding startups.

I think it's well worth reading for anyone interested in eventually starting a business (especially an ambitious one), or just interesting in business in general.

To give you an idea, here's my very short summary of a few ideas I took away from the book.

Solo Bug Leveling

Veteran MMO player dies, gets reincarnated in the game. Can't be more classic than that.

Here though, the hero gets reincarnated as an (adult) lord of some small province. Armed with his encyclopedic knowledge of the game (and, as the title implies, of its bugs), he sets out to make right everything that is wrong, and to prepare adequately for future turmoil.

I'm not sure I have too much to say about this one. The setting and the execution are both solid. An enjoyable read.

Slave B

So this one departs a little bit from the leveling webtoons I've been reading, but it's not too far away.

It's the story of slave kid who, after some mishap, finds the opportunity to attend a prestigious caster/fighter military academy.

The focus is not too much on leveling or skill acquisition (although there is a bit of that), but more on inter-personal relationships and in particular the ostracism towards the slaves. In that it's a bit similar to Returner and its commoner/noble distinction — except way worse.

This one is also different in that it's not a clean nice power trip drive. The hero does experience quite a few setbacks, and a lot of suffering. The story is also interested in dealing with the resulting anger (instead of featuring a noble hero that would brush it off instantly).

I'd say this story has more ambition than what I'd read so far. Or if not that, at least it takes more risk by dealing with emotions and more complex relationship dynamics. It's not quite as masterful as some of these others (like Skeleton or Solo Leveling), perhaps precisely because of these dimensions.

But all in all, quite interesting, and might appeal to a more mainstream audience that doesn't have some kind of leveling fetish.

The Beginning After The End

Yet another webtoon in the same vein.

In this one, our hero is nothing less than a conqueror king, reincarnated. His original lifetime seemingly had magic but also a futuristic setting, while his reincarnated life happens in a more medieval type of settings, complete with elves and dwarves.

I felt like this webtoon did itself a service by taking some breathing room. Over 85 chapters, the plot advances much less than some other webtoons in the same genre. Amusingly, we see the reincarnated hero age from 0 to 13 years old - and he is just now about to join some kind of magic school.

This space is mostly potentiality - it means the webtoon does not commit faults by rushing the plot and the relationships between the characters, but it also means that the number of plot points has been limited so far. If done correctly though, the greater familiarity we have acquired with the characters will lead to a much more satisfying punch down the line, and the character development will feel meaningful. We can only hope.

That's not to say that nothing happened, and it's been a very enjoyable read so far, it's not exactly a tapestry of intrigue, but I have nothing critical to say about it either.

Just like Slave B, this one is also much less leveling oriented (though the theme is present as skill acquisition and mana mastery).

Interestingly, I got a very cozy vibe from this toon. The hero's original (and still mysterious) life was lonely, as an orphan that somehow made it to the top. The webtoon emphasizes, on the other hand, how precious his family and friends are to him in his new life. And you know what, I'm all for that.

All in all, very recommended.

The Mandalorian Season 2

Previously: Season 1

The second season does not disappoint — it's still great. It does tell us more about the character of the show, however. Sasha sent me this comic:

And so it is - it's an episodic show. The second season doesn't launch in grand intrigues any more than the first one does. With only 8 episodes and a flair for showing great action sequences, maybe that's preferable (the counterexample here would be John Wick - great first movie, terrible franchise).

I did get a bit frustrated by the 6th episode, however. There were too many frustrations of the type where I go like "why didn't you do this? you literally did it 5 minutes ago! but now it's useful!" and "of course that's precisely the moment where X would happen!!". Probably this is actually a weakness of the show and this happens more than I realize — I'm typically an easy audience. But in that episode, it was really hard to overlook. Fortunately, the show made up for it with an excellent 7th episode and an adequate, if not-quite-as-good-as-first-season's, finale.

Disney is apparently very intent on milking the Star Wars cow, and in particular the Mandalorian cow (probably especially so after they drove the main series into the ground). Next year we can expect, in addition to season 3, a show on Bobba Fett. But there's more! Disney is working on two more Mandalorian spinoffs, one on Jedi Ahsoka Tano (from the animated movies and appearing in this season of Mando), one on the New Republic Rangers. And there's also one on Lando Calrissian. I expect a mixed bag, but let's hope for one or two gems in there. This is the way.