The winning margin

princes-of-florence

After an enforced break due to renovations, it was oh so good to get back to some gaming, especially as I had been locked out of my games while the works were ongoing. So, there was added joy in welcoming Azriel, Nechamiah, Peleg, and Roslynn.

The main game of the night was Princes of Florence, which only Peleg and I had played before. It is a classic game of resource management, with the players competing to build works of art to merit fame, fortune, and the all important victory points! The game has a neat combination of auctions, and actions. Auctions allow you a chance to buy what you need, but nothing is guaranteed. Actions allow you a lot of leeway, but if the auction has gone badly that may not matter.

Because we had played it before, Peleg and I had a fairly stead progression through the first two (out of seven) rounds. After that, Azriel, Roslynn, and Nechamiah started to become more assertive and things got a bit more competitive.

Going into the last round, Peleg was out in front, with me in second place, and the others close enough to be threatening. Peleg had a good last round, and must have been surprised to see Roslynn’s bonus scoring which was outstanding, and put her in the lead, just. Even more surprising was Azriel’s final scoring, which put him on the same score as Roslynn. Unfortunately, my last round fell short, and Nechamiah wasn’t able to muster a serious challenge.

Azriel then claimed the win on the tie break, having a measly 100 florins more than Roslynn. Well done Azriel, and commiserations to Roslynn.

For some light entertainment to finish off, I ran a quick game of Hey that’s my fish. Nechamiah proved the best penguin fish fetcher.

Thanks to all who came for getting the gaming back in the groove.

Dark Winter – David Mark

dark-winter

This is the first in a now established crime series featuring Detective Sergeant Aector (Hector) McAvoy, the Scotsman doing his bit for law and order in Hull.

The book starts with the killing of an old sea dog, the only survivor of a shipping disaster from forty years ago. Then, the only survivor of a massacre in Africa is brutally murdered with a machete in broad daylight in a city church. McAvoy is on the edge of proceedings, having a somewhat difficult recent history with the local police, because he ended the career of a popular (but bad) detective. However, by one of those quirks of fate that drives so much of our lives, and even more of our fiction, McAvoy is drawn into the central investigation, and the hunt is on to find the killer.

Good stuff

McAvoy is an interesting, well drawn character, though at times his behavior stretches the suspension of disbelief too far. The Hull backdrop is also well done, and takes up just the right amount of space in the telling of the tale. The plot is delivered with surprising panache for a first novel, and the sense of danger, action, and excitement are all pretty damn good.

Not so good stuff

The plot itself is a stinker. The motivation and explanation for these crimes does not hang together, and doe snot convince. That may be because it is not well written, or it may be that it is simply unbelievable. Regardless, it stank.

Similarly, most readers are going to work out what is going on well ahead of McAvoy and his police colleagues. I often wonder why the characters cannot see the bleeding obvious.

The supporting characters are the proverbial cardboard city, apart perhaps from his superior, Trish Pharaoh. She is a strange one: trying too hard to make her way in a man’s world, her behavior swings from extreme to extreme. Sometimes dictatorial, sometimes sympathetic, sometimes flirty, sometimes caring, sometimes just offering up some bland dialogue. She did not convince me.

Overall

Books like this face a challenge in a crowded market. They have to stand out from similar fare. This one just about does it, but not without a struggle. I’m intrigued enough to want to read more, because the author may better develop his characters and his story telling. In short, not bad, with some potential.

Finally, check out the quote from Val McDermid on the book cover at the top of this post. It will have been worth a few bob to David Mark, but I have to vehemently disagree with her, and don’t understand on what basis she can have made it. I’ve made a note to ignore recommendations by Val McDermid.

The Hunting Dogs – Jorn Lier Horst

This is a book in the series about policeman William Wisting, which starts in English with Dregs, and continues with Closed for Winter. So far, it’s my favorite.

Seventeen years ago, Wisting solved one of the country’s most famous crimes: the kidnap and murder of Cecilia Linde. Now released, the convicted killer claims he was framed, and starts a court action to put things right. From the claim, it appears that key evidence was fabricated, and Wisting is suspended pending an investigation. Meantime, in an apparently unrelated incident, a man out walking his dog is murdered, and when Wisting’s daugther turn’s up at the dead man’s house, chasing the story, she is assaulted by a masked man, presumed to be the killer. Then another young woman goes missing, and things are going from bad to worse.

Wisting, inevitably, decides to investigate the case of the fabricated evidence on his own, despite the suspension. His daughter – somewhat embarrassed because her newspaper heavily promoted the claim by the convicted killer, and suggested her dad was to blame – follows her own trail to see what she can find out about the dead dog walker. She has tenacity, and smarts, and focus, and her dad’s counsel, so it is no surprise that she makes some headway. And the police are somewhat focused on the missing girl.

I felt that the writing in this book had improved over the previous ones, though it may also be the case that I was so rushed along by the page turning plot I didn’t pay enough attention. Or, maybe it was because the three books about Wisting had built up a more comprehensive and interesting character than previously I had encountered. Whatever, I really quite enjoyed this one, and would recommend it. I don’t think there’s as much merit in reading the first two, so this would be a better place to start the series for most people in my view.

The Three-Body Problem – Cixin Liu

three-body-problem
This highly lauded science fiction book starts with a horrific peak behind the curtain of the Cultural Revolution in China, with the public beating to death of Ye Wenjie’s father. As the blurb puts it, this “singular event will shape not only the rest of her life but also the future of mankind.” A fair summary.

What happens next, according to the flow of the book, is that four decades later, nanotech engineer Wang Miao becomes involved with a group of scientists (some of whom have committed suicide) and an online virtual game world that hints at some galactic happenings. That world is the location of the three body problem, a world constantly at risk from the chaotic and unpredictable behavior of its three suns.

The author ties these threads together, writing beautifully at times, with panache and vigor. The translator – Ken Liu – does a great job, supplementing the narrative with suitable explanations of some of the terms, historical references, and other matters alien to a western reader. The book is part of a trilogy, and the general perception is that this is the weakest of the three, but still a fine book. It’s got some interesting ideas, and thoughtful scenarios.

All of that having been said, for me it fell flat. I could not build up any sympathy for the characters, and cared not for their fate. The story unfolded too slowly for me, and was often boring. The scientific narratives were OK, and often turned out to be more enthralling than the plot. The writing may be of the highest quality, but at times it did not go anywhere – at least for me. It was a real struggle to finish.

In short, not my cup of tea, and not one I could recommend.

Veiled Empire – Nathan Garrison

veiled empire

This may be the shortest book review I have ever done: don’t bother.

Here’s the expanded version:

I found this book to be uninspiring, dull, and boring, populated by characters lacking in depth, and spiced up – and not in a good way – by comic book action sequences. Instead of sword and sorcery, for me it was slash and snooze. Awful.

The Various Haunts of Men – Susan Hill

various-haunts
Sleepy little Lafferton is rudely awoken when it’s discovered that too many people are disappearing. First, a woman vanishes in the fog up on the Hill, then a young girl, an old man, and a dog, all in the same place. Former Londoner, policewoman Freya Graffham, is the one who spots the trend. She eventually persuades Chief Inspector Simon Serrailler that the disappearances are not the usual bill of fare, and throws herself into the investigation. Meantime, there’s lots of other stuff going on in Lafferton. There’s an active community of New Age healers and spirit worshipers nearby, and the novel takes time out to describe some of the encounters Lafferton folk have there.

This was a strange book. My overall impression was that it was bloated with unnecessary stuff, and should have been sharply edited down. Also, although billed as the first of the Simon Serrailler series, he is very much overshadowed by Freya Graffham. Indeed, we probably get more sight of his sister, a local, hard working, and conscientious GP. Given Freya’s attraction to Simon, the focus seems somewhat off to me. Further, this P. D. James or Ruth Rendell type story comes across as being very dated, describing a very white environment; I did not spot a single ethnic based character.

One explanation for the approach the author takes, is that the intent was to write about the place, and not the the crime. If that were the case, I would not have expected to see so much of the killer’s perspective; for example, there are several short chapters of the killer’s rants.

It may be a question of style, but I did not find the book, enjoyable. It was OK, but could have been much better had it had a sharper focus. I would have gladly done without some of the wasted narrative.  I cannot resist pointing out that for me, this was not only the first of the Simon Serrailler series, but also likely to be the last!

Avoid, unless you have a great desire to read about Lafferton.

Closed for Winter – Jorn Lier Horst

closed-for-winter

This is the follow on to Dregs, being a Norwegian set crime novel featuring William Wisting, a wise and experienced detective. This time around, he is asked to look into the strange case of multiple break ins to some holiday cottages in Vestfold, complicated by the unwelcome addition of a murdered, balaclava masked man. Who is he, and what is his connection to the break ins? The discovery starts Wisting’s adventures, as he endeavors to unravel the mystery. At the same time, his journalist daughter Line is experiencing some relationship problems. She decides to take a break in a cottage near the crime scene – against Wisting’s advice – and finds herself on the edge of events.

There’s a decent plot here, and the characterization is not bad at all. However, as with Dregs, the author seems to often break the show don’t tell guideline, and chucks a lot of descriptive information in to the mix in a very direct and unsubtle fashion. I prefer more of the tale to come from dialogue or action or both. Also, the translation went a bit off trail a couple of times; nothing serious, but enough to know that this was not written in English.

The setting is well done, but does not overpower the story telling. Similarly, the Wisting character is no superman, but a believable human being, who does not deflect too much attention from the flow of the tale. The daughter, Line, was an interesting character, and I would liked to have learned more about her. Perhaps she will get her own series in the future.

Not bad, but not great.

Five for Friday

Ra'anana sunset - August 2012

Ra’anana sunset – August 2012

This has been another week suffering disruption in the house, as the painters continue their mission. Nearly there, and we’ll be glad when it’s all over. Meantime, the plan is to have another especially restful Shabbat. But before we get there, here are the regular offering of links:

Bonus!

I am late to this, but having heard it for the first time (on the radio, on the way to work) I just had to track it down and hear it again. One of my favorite songs, covered brilliantly by Disturbed. David Draiman‘s vocals are superb: powerful, emotional, and haunting.

The original, of course, remains as beautiful as ever.

Shabbat Shalom!