The Sacred Cut – David Hewson

This is the third in the author’s Detective Nic Costa series (see here and here). Again set in Rome, the author branches out slightly by moving away from the lines of a traditional police procedural, and going more for the mystery conspiracy market.

It begins with Rome covered in snow, and the discovery of a dead, posed, body in the Pantheon. Before our hero and his colleagues can get the investigation started, along come a couple of FBI agents from the USA embassy who want the body for themselves, and the investigation to be run their way. Cue inter agency rivalry as the Italian secret service are also involved. Of course, Costa is not for letting things go, though the investigation is somewhat problematic as the only potential witness has gone on the run. From there, the action heats up, with the target of their sleuthing seemingly always one step ahead of them.

I confess to being disappointed in the book. The story was OK, but the writing felt somewhat heavy handed and oppressive compared to the previous books. Also, the characters didn’t seem to grow very much in this book. Even the Roman backdrop was described in dark, Gothic terms, so that the atmosphere was more of a ghost or horror story. Since I know the writer’s recent output has been excellent, I am hoping this was a minor bump in the development trail of his talent. So, I will be trying out the next one. But if it is more of the same, I will not be happy.

The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair – Joël Dicker

This is a book by a young author about a young author writing a book. As someone else has described it, there’s a kind of Russian doll feeling of stories within stories within stories. In essence, it’s a crime and mystery tale wrapped inside the narrative of a young author trying to follow up his first novel success with the help of his original inspiration, Harry Quebert.

The backstory is this: in 1975, in sleepy Somerset, New Hampshire, wannabe author Harry fell in love with Nola Kellergan. As in fifteen year old Nola Kellergan. Some 33 years later, Nola’s body turns up in Harry’s back garden, and Harry is accused of her murder. Quebert’s most talented student, the now successful author Marcus Goldman, walks away from his second novel project to prove Harry’s innocence. And from there on, things get more complicated. All is not what it seems.

There are plenty of funny and touching moments that writers will appreciate, and somehow the author does a more than creditable job of unraveling the murder mystery, with a fair amount of tension and plot twists. In addition, the main character is interesting, if not necessarily so likeable, and some of the supporting cast are noteworthy.

But…

You knew there was going to be a but, didn’t you?

This book is way too long for my tastes. The length adds nothing of substance to the plot, the atmosphere, or the impact. A heavier editorial touch would have been welcome. Because I am interested in writing, I kept going to the end. But readers with less stamina might give up; many are likely to complain. So, in summary, a fluffed opportunity – not that author will care, as the book has been highly rated by the critics and endlessly promoted as something wonderful. I beg to disagree.

BKOA Games Night

Saved for another occasion

With the help of Peleg and Sheer, I hosted a games night for Beit Knesset Ohel Ari. I had no idea what the response would be, and while I would always prefer more people to come along and play games, those who did come appeared to have a good time. (I am open to correction, folks…)

“This is a game of survival!”

We started things rolling with The Walking Dead to get everyone into the mood. After counting up the bullets we had one survivor: Helena. A fine win to start the session.

After that we split into smaller groups.

Splendid action with Splendor

Sheer hosted Shelley and Stuart and Rosalynn. He led them through one game of Splendor (won by Rosalynn) and then Reibach and Co (won by Sheer).

This was a well fought game

Peleg hosted Emma, Naomi, Azriel, and Nechamia. He led his merry crew through Ticket to Ride Europe. Although Peleg won on points, we awarded the win to Naomi because it felt right. Emma picked up a prize for – I think – trying to complete the longest route in a five player game of Ticket to Ride, a tough, tough challenge.

Decisions, decisions

Meantime, I hosted Richard, Laurie, and Helena. At this table we played Alhambra. We had a bonus because Richard was able to give us some of the secret Jewish history of the real Alhambra. Absolutely fascinating. Unfortunately, I won according to the rules of the game, but I awarded the prize to Laurie.

Some happy prizewinners

That was it. Good fun (I hope) and a chance to spread the word: playing games is great!

Guess who’s paying for Gaza’s electricity?

You cannot have failed to see the angst in the media about the poor Gazans due to have their electricity cut off because Hamas refused to pay for it, and the PA wasn’t going to either. You cannot have failed to notice that, with some honorable exceptions, Israel was blamed. If you ever wanted another fine example of how the West (in particular) treats the Palestinian people and their leadership as immature and unable to determine their own way in life, the electricity supply narrative is as good as any. Hamas isn’t responsible for the electricity supply. The PA isn’t responsible for the electricity supply. Neither of them has any obligation to look after their people, or pay for the electricity they consume. Or so they say. What nonsense. Would any other group of people be treated in such a manner? Of course not. It only works when you can blame the damn Jews Zionists.

Well, a funny thing happened on the way to the crisis. The electricity supply wasn’t turned off. Why? Because, as the Elder reports, Israel is paying for it.

Think about it for a moment: a people who hate us, who are incited daily to hate us more, and kill us at every opportunity, and yet we supply electricity to them when we have no obligation, moral or otherwise. And, since the situation does not fit the narrative, this is not reported. Arguably, that failure to report by bastions of anti-Israel hate like the Guardian, the BBC and – of course – Haaretz – is as much incitement against Israel as anything Hamas and the PA get up to. But it is a guilt and trouble free incitement with no downside. By their actions, these media outlets are complicit in stoking the fires of anti-Israel feeling. They are, indeed, the enemy.

Lee vs Grant

After Clash of Giants: Civil War, I continued on the ACW theme with Lee vs Grant. This is a Joe Balkoski game, originally published in 1988 by Victory Games, about the 1864 Wilderness Campaign. Game scales are turns of five days, hexes of two miles across, and each strength point representing 2,500 men.

The game uses an interactive initiative system where the active player chooses a leader and, shocking for its time, rolls one or two dice to determine movement allowance. Leaders have ratings that influence the movement result, so better units do actually move faster – most of the time! The actual fighting men can become disorganized if you push them too much – force march them, or suffer adverse results in battle – so part of the campaign challenge is managing your resources, knowing when to conserve them, and when to push them to their limit. The decision about whether to fight a battle is also key, and rarely straightforward.

This Lee also has an important mission

The game comes with a batch of basic game scenarios, all of which I played – they are all shortish, taking around an hour or two at most – before moving on to the advanced game and the campaign game. There is only one scenario really, but you can choose to try for the three, six or nine turn version, with the victory points suitable adjusted.

I very much enjoyed going back to this game. In short, it was fun. It also inspired me to do some reading about the topic, including a quick run through the material I have and a scout around to see what else might be worth buying.

This game is significant because it gave birth to Joe Balkoski’s Great Campaigns of the Civil War series. The series uses a heavily adapted set of rules – with a higher level of complexity – and a change in scale to turns of one day, hexes of one mile, and steps of 1,000 men per strength point. I recently played Battle above the Clouds, and it was interesting to look back at this core design and see how much simpler it was. Balkoski was involved in the GCACW series, but it is now I think in the hands of Ed Beach.

While I am going to try more of the GCACW series, one of the core design decisions that puzzles me is the switch away from leaders affecting movement allowances. In GCACW, all Union infantry leaders, for example, roll 1d6 for movement, and all CSA infantry leaders roll 1d6+1 for movement. So ‘bad’ CSA leaders become good movers, and ‘good’ Union leaders become bad movers, so to speak. Because the GCACW games are more complex anyway, that simplification seems strange to me.

Confusion in the Wilderness Campaign

Anyway, returning to Lee vs Grant, I finished up playing the short three turn Campaign game. I did that twice, trying out different strategies, and had one minor victory for each side. I shied away from the longer campaign games, not because of the length, but because of the rules load, as much of the advanced rules only really come into play with the longer campaign games.

Offline, a correspondent complained about a certain designer who removed any fun from his games. Balkoski could never be accused of that. No doubt enthusiasts will say the GCACW is wonderful, but there’s more than enough to digest, learn, and enjoy in Lee vs Grant. Great fun, indeed.

Six Four – Hideo Yokoyama


This is the strangest crime book I have read in a long, long time, not least because it fuses the standard parts of the genre with office politics on a grand scale, and reflects the unique culture of modern Japan.

At the core, there are two tragedies. First up is Yoshinobu Mikami, a detective now working in the Press Relations Department. He is trying to track down his runaway daughter. There have been some silent telephone calls since she left, and Mikami’s wife is not keen to leave the house in case it is their daughter and she might call again. Second up is the Amamiya family, whose young daughter was kidnapped fourteen years ago, and killed despite the ransom being paid. These come together because the statute of limitations is approaching, and the police authorities want to make a show of effort. Mikami needs to get Amamiya to agree to a visit by a member of the top brass from Tokyo. Meantime, he is fighting with the press because of the police’s refusal to name the driver in an auto accident.

Much of what is written is not high octane action; instead it is bureaucratic maneuvering, political wheeling and dealing, and a great deal of introspection by Mikami. I found much of it slow and overwritten. But, in fairness, the author is taking considerable care to give you the complete cultural baggage of the players, without which the aims and aspirations would seem strange. Also, if you can make your way through all 600+ pages, the finale is almost worth it.

Do not read this on the Kindle or other such device, as I believe only the actual physical books have a who’s who, an essential aid when dealing with so many similar sounding foreign names.

In short, I’m glad I read it, but I don’t rate it as highly as some do. Worth reading if you want a glimpse inside Japanese culture, or are interested in a crome novel that is unlike anything you will have read before. In other words, it’s unique. That may be enough for you.

Finally, a tip of the hat to translator Jonathan Lloyd-Davies for a job well done.

Gettysburg Again

Last weekend I finished up two games of the Gettysburg scenario in Ted Raicer and GMT GamesClash of Giants: Civil War. Both were a Union victory, with the CSA forces unable to seize the key defensive (and victory point) positions before the Union could grab them. Thereafter, these positions were too strong, and the CSA suffered huge losses in their assaults. The Union artillery – especially within the framework of the teleport ability such units have in the game system – was a significant barrier as well.

First, given the variable reinforcement timetable that the game uses, I am unsure how definite one can be about play balance. That having been said, there’s no way I was playing the game well enough to say I had tested it out to the limits, and I am sure others will do better as the CSA. For the avoidance of doubt, I am not complaining about the play balance; generally, I am more interested in the history.

Second, I was surprised by how well the game captured the ebb and flow of the battle. Presently, I still think it’s too easy to get round the flanks of enemy lines who simply stand still in the face of the obvious threat. This is partly related to the lack of simultaneous movement, and partly to the all seeing eye in the sky the players have. I wonder if any attempt at a fix – like a limited reaction ability – would be more trouble than it would be worth, or lead to other unwelcome consequences. Also, it’s fair to say that because you know that being outflanked and surrounded is a bad, bad, thing, there are certain defensive tactics that can reduce the potential for this happening.

Third, I used my house rule for artillery availability, and that saved a chunk of time each turn.The game is fast to play.

While this system is not going to be my ACW system of choice, it’s definitely got its place in my collection as a fast, playable, and enjoyable game package. This area of the market is too crowded already, but I have a sneaking suspicion that a turbocharged version of this system – switching to 1d10 or 2d6 resolution, more steps per unit, more variety in combat results, more command and control (like orders, for example), fog of war, the removal of the artillery teleporting ability, and maybe even adopting some of Michael Resch’s ideas from his 1914 system games –  would be well received. For now, this will have to do.

SOS for SOAS

Whatever they are doing at SOAS University of London (School of Oriental and African Studies), it doesn’t appear that they are doing any decent teaching. For example, free speech doesn’t seem to feature on the syllabus. As the Elder of Ziyon points out (here), according to the Guardian (here), the response to a proposed address by Mark Regev, the Israeli ambassador to the UK was as follows:

More than 150 academics from Soas and other UK universities, plus 40 student societies at the university, have written to the Soas director Valerie Amos urging her to intervene to stop the meeting on Thursday at which Regev is due to speak.

Why?

“The event could further cause serious tension on campus and result in a charged atmosphere that will be detrimental to the wellbeing of all faculty, staff and students.”

Regev was invited by the Soas Jewish and United Nations societies. He will be interviewed by Eric Heinze, professor of law and humanities at Queen Mary University of London, before taking questions.

The students’ union challenged the university authorities over the staging of the event, raising concerns about possible safety and security risks posed by the ambassador’s visit and “the inability of students and staff – in particular Palestinian students – to participate openly in the debate, because of possible repercussions on their ability to enter Israel/Palestine”.

It’s all nonsense, but that last piece about “repercussions on their ability to enter Israel/Palestine” is not only fiction, it’s a variation on the blood libel. But, hey, it’s the Guardian…

You can just see the poor, troubled SOAS students and staff stamping their feet as they complain loudly that they do not want the Israeli ambassador to speak. No, no, no free speech for him!

And while you are getting over the obscene stance being made by those students and staff, know that the Elder has put it succinctly thus:

Calling for the destruction of Israel isn’t a provocation. Holding a speech defending it is.

Finally, entirely in keeping with the Guardian’s mission of downplaying antisemitism, and hating everything Israeli, note this:

Soas, which is one of the world’s leading institutions for the study of the Middle East, Africa and Asia, has often been the focus of coverage of the sometimes fraught debate surrounding Israeli-Palestinian politics on university campuses. As a result, the small minority of Jewish students at Soas have complained of feeling uncomfortable on campus and unable to express themselves.

How’s that for a glorious understatement?

SOAS are in trouble. Surely there’s no place in the modern world for a university that is so infested with hate and little disguised antisemitism?

Note the role of some (apparently) Jewish persons siding with the forces of darkness. They have given up their birthright, squandered their heritage, and sold their souls to the devil.

In the Cold Dark Ground – Stuart MacBride

It is very interesting to compare this Logan McRae tale with the same author’s A Song for the Dying featuring ex policeman Ash Henderson. Henderson’s life was ruined by a gangster, and he did everything he could to kill that person. McRae is under threat from a gangster, too, no less dangerous, but he really struggles with the concept of taking the law into his own hands – though he often crosses the line in his dealings with some criminals – and does not seem to have the same hunger for survival at all costs.

That apart, this is a good piece of crime fiction, with lots of twists and turns alongside teh shocking violence, cracking dialogue and black, black humor.

It starts with a businessman going missing, then a male body (head wrapped in a bin bag) turns up. Is this the missing businessman? At the same time, the uncrowned king of crime in Aberdeen is dying, and the vultures are circling. McRae is caught up in the scenario, not least because he has been picked as the successor!

On the police front, matters are somewhat complicated because others want to take over his case, there’s a new officer in town who hates his guts, and Professional Standards are waiting in the wings. .

Life’s a bit complicated, for sure, and it is going to get worse before it gets better.

Overall, a good read, and highly recommended.

Be My Enemy – Chris Brookmyre

More Jack Parlabane cynicism and biting wit in action against the big, bad world of business, vested interests, and exclusion. This time around, our quirky hero is on an actual journalistic assignment: to participate in a corporate team building event, and report on his experiences. The beautiful setting and initial enthusiasm of actually enjoying the activity fade quickly as something deadly intrudes, and it becomes clear that this is no bland exercise, but a fight to the very death.

The supporting characters have some surprisingly good scene stealing appearances, although I did feel that some were a bit telegraphed. There are also some references to previous happenings, so if you have not read the other books you may be missing out. It does stand on its own, though, and the side details are not critical.

The story features some of the author’s trademark political posturing, with a wonderful balance between the downright hilarious, and the genuinely shocking. Brookmyre is very skillful at drawing the reader in, taking the reader to unexpected places, offering up some thrills, spills, and twists, and delivering first class entertainment. This book is very much of that ilk until about the last 10% where I rather felt the buzz had gone, and Brookmyre just wanted to finish up and get done with the book. So, not his best, but still terrific fun and well worth reading.