A Very Different Yom Kippur

The core idea behind Yom Kippur is that, in the orthodox Jewish tradition, we are to fast, pray, and repent for our sins. My personal experience of Yom Kippur since making aliyah, has been as part of the shul congregation, where I have had some truly spiritual experiences courtesy of some inspirational davening and a real feeling of community spirit. Not this year.

First, the shul is closed. Second, while there is an outdoor minyan within a stone’s throw of our building, outside congregations are supposedly limited to 20 people who should all be socially distancing. The acoustical challenge is substantial. The communal spirit will be absent. It simply won’t be the same.

(That having been said, I had a different sense of belonging when I was at the minyan on Friday night. There was something noteworthy, memorable, and good about being a part of 60+ people – in three ‘capsules’ of 20, more or less – standing outside in the playground, davening together as best they could.)

In addition, the lack of air conditioning – and the expected unusually high temperature tomorrow – make for another challenge or two. In this regard, I was impressed by our rabbi’s clear announcement that it was more important to fast than to pray with a minyan, and if you thought you wouldn’t be able to cope with the heat, you should stay at home and do your fasting, praying, contemplation, and repenting at home. That option makes sense to me.

Whatever you do for Yom Kippur, may you be blessed with a good sweet year.

In the air, above Dunkirk

On the table, a Wing Leader – Origins scenario about the 2 June 1940 contribution by the British 611 Squadron towards the protection of the forces attempting to evacuate from Dunkirk. Against their combination of Spitfires and Hurricanes the German raiders have a mix of bombers (Ju 87B-1, He 111H, and Ju 88) escorted by Bf 109E1s and Bf 110C2s. On the ground, there’s a heavy flak unit and the port as targets.

The bombing attacks in this system are a bit of a lottery, so even if the Germans can get through to hit the target, the amount of damage is variable. Playing competitively I can see this as being a bit of a sore point, but in my solitaire excursions it’s all part of the entertaining narrative.

This is a clever system which can take a bit of getting used to. (It’s very different from every other air game I’ve seen.) The detail and the inevitable exceptions to important rules mean that it can take time to be fully comfortable with the rules. However, you can readily see the internal consistency, and once you are – if you will pardon the pun – up to speed, the game flows smoothly.

This expansion pack includes an attractive looking campaign about the air battle over Malta. At first blush it doesn’t look solitaire friendly because there is hidden commitment of forces. Maybe a random allocation can be constructed. However, the other 26 scenarios are more than enough to give you your money’s worth.

Now, back to the air over Dunkirk…

Adventures in Venice

I am a long term reader of Donna Leon’s excellent Commissario Brunetti series, set in Venice, but fell behind a bit. This was my binge reading effort to catch up. Glad I did it. These are (from left to right) numbers 27, 28, and 29 in the series. You can read them on their own, but if you are at all interested in intelligent crime fiction, I recommend starting with the first – Death at la Fenice.

  • The Temptation of Forgiveness: Brunetti is asked to do something about the son of a friend of his wife’s who may be using drugs. Some time later, the boy’s father is found unconscious at the foot of a bridge. The investigation goes in various directions and our daring detective discovers – again – that crime is sometimes driven by the purest of intentions.
  • Unto Us a Son is Given: Brunetti’s father-in-law tells him about a mutual friend who may be about to make a terrible mistake all for the sake of love. Cue one of Brunetti’s best tales, with several outstanding passages of writing delivering finely honed observations on love, life, and death. Outstanding in a field of high quality.
  • Trace Elements: Brunetti is called to the hospice to hear a dying woman talk about ‘bad money’ and her deceased husband. Once Brunetti checks and finds out the husband was a field worker for a company responsible for checking the cleanliness of the city’s water supply and that he died in a hit-and-run incident, his investigative juices are flowing freely. In this particular case, the apparent difference between justice and the operation of the Italian legal system are all too clearly on show.

Fun fact: the books in the series are worldwide bestsellers, translated into many foreign languages, but not Italian! Why?

From this interview:

Q: Have you been asked by the Italians to get them translated?

Leon: Yes, all of the Italian publishers would kill to have them. I don’t want to be famous. I am spotted on the street by German, Austrian, French, Danish, everything… at least 3 or 4 time a day, and it’s always very nice and always very respectful; but I don’t like it. And the people in my neighborhood know that I am the American who lives opposite Nando and above Angelo Costantini and it would just change the tenor of my life. The unfortunate thing is that it has somehow percolated into the Italian Press that I am afraid to have my books published because the Italians may be offended by what I say about Italy. But, I am not afraid, if people don’t like the books, read another book, don’t read it, don’t finish it, give it somebody, throw it away.

Infinite Stars

This anthology of space opera and military SF left me distinctly disappointed.  Despite the heavyweight front line stars of the genre – Jack Campbell, Orson Scott Card, David Drake, and David Weber among them – there wasn’t a single memorable story in the book. Card’s story was OK, but the contributions of Campbell, Drake, and Weber were uninspiring. (And that’s me being polite.) The writing was flat, there was a lack of interesting ideas, and any interesting situations were inhibited by too much tell and not enough show. Much of the spirit of the material is lacking because quite a few are pieces set in existing and ongoing universes of the authors and these seem disconnected and incomplete, almost like literary afterthoughts.

It’s got a nice cover though…

 

IQ – Joe Ide

The IQ of the title is Isaiah Quintabe, a young man who still lives in a gang-controlled part of Los Angeles, but lives a very different life style, operating as a private detective for hire. The price? Whatever people can pay. Many of the reviews highlight the connection to Sherlock Holmes as IQ has no backup and bugger all resources; just his wits, his phenomenal observational skills, and his repartee. The bad guys don’t stand a chance…

In this debut adventure, the realities of needing to earn a crust force IQ to think about taking on a job from an unsavory character: a rap star who thinks someone is out to kill him. From there on, the action heats up.

There are, however, two narratives: one dealing with the present and one filling us in as to IQ’s history. This helps us better understand his motivation and the angst behind some of his choices.

It’s an entertaining read, primarily driven by the superb character at the center. The plot is reasonable enough, and the tension is both well crafted and credible. Hopefully the author can maintain the quality because there is a lot of potential in the character and the setting.

A fine piece of writing and well worthy of your time.

 

Darkness for Light – Emma Viskic

Third in the series featuring Caleb Zelic, the deaf private investigator.  In short, this maintains the quality of the first two (do read them in order) and gives a roller coaster ride, full of tension with occasional flashes of humor.

The story revolves around one of the hero’s clients being murdered. In the inevitable escalation, Caleb and his somewhat tricky ex-partner, Frankie, see the body count rise while they are racing to find a kidnapped little girl.

The writing is sharp, the story and the action flow smoothly, and the characters are more than interesting enough to make you want to know how things turn out.

Highly recommended.

Last Chance for Victory

Recently on the table, Last Chance for Victory, Dean Essig‘s regimental level game about the battle of Gettysburg, produced by MMP under The Gamers brand.

This is a big game – four standard sized maps, more than 2,000 (half-inch square) counters, system rule book, battle book, scenario book, two order of arrival booklets, and play aids – but much has been done to make it accessible to those who are space challenged. For example, in addition to the four maps, there is a separate 1st day map and a separate 2nd/3rd day map, allowing you to play the whole shooting match without needing the space for four maps. As another example, several of the (20+) scenarios are not particularly large and won’t need a week in a mountain retreat to finish.

The physical components are generally excellent with one notable exception. OK, maybe two.

First, I found it difficult to distinguish the shading in some parts of the maps so as to work out what level was higher and what level was lower.

Second, the rules have no index. Yes, they need one.

Of course, given how long it has taken me to get this to the table properly, the game’s physical charms may be moot as it is out of print. Shame.

The system – called Line of Battle – replaces the earlier Regimental Series and endeavors to speed up play while maintaining as much historicity as is reasonable. For example, defensive fire is replaced by an Opening Volley rule that still generates casualties for the attacker, but is way faster and much easier. As another example, the close combat elements are rolled up into the Charge rules which automate the defender’s initial casualties and let everything else be determined by a morale check. This is also fast and seamlessly gives you the type of battlefield chaos reminiscent of the real thing. A top-notch unit may flee from the field at first contact, and a unit of dubious value may imitate the veritable stone wall.

Command and control is a major part of the system. This has been refined (the rules are now version 2.0) so as to be less of a burden. I like the effect of the whole command and control section because it removes some of the effects arising from the player’s perfect knowledge of the game. For example, there’s a nifty wee rule about brigades with dud commanders which means that, on the attack, they may not do what you want. Cool! And it can be frustrating, but realistic, to see golden opportunities for attacks that you cannot take because the forces are obeying orders to do other things.

I played through the 1st day scenario to a conclusion and it was a blast. Be aware that there are a lot of special rules to recreate the historical environment. For example, the CSA forces start with a restricted reconnaissance to replicate that they did not know the real life situation. Without that, gamers simply charge at full steam against the enemy. Similarly, the Union forces cannot just fall back and hide until their reinforcements turn up. While these rules are a bit fiddly, they are worth it. You get a good sense of the struggle. And there’s still plenty of action.

I have heard some criticism of the system such as the absence of defensive fire making it too attacker oriented. However, as the design notes mentioned, I found that a well placed counter by the defending forces was required to maintain the line and was evocative of the period. That having been said, the Opening Volley seems a tad less lethal than it should be. I may tinker with that next time out.

If you want regimental level ACW action, this is a system you must try. Fast, fun, frenetic, and full of history. Just great.

(And, as usual, it set me off on a reading frenzy about the battle. Again.)

Storm Front – Jim Butcher

Harry Dresden is Chicago’s only resident private investigator who handles magical affairs. Think Sam Spade – complete with snappy dialog – combined with things that go bump in the night. Harry, ostensibly tracing a missing spouse, is caught up in a case involving a double murder. And, since he’s under suspicion from those in the higher echelons of the worlds of wizardry for doing nefarious deeds, some suspect him of being responsible. His relationship with the police is, er, complex.

Harry has to twist and turn, hoping to get the job done for his client, all the time managing with a one-liner that fairly puts him ahead in the smart-arse stakes.

The action goes along quite well and there’s plenty to admire in the writing. The plot, albeit a bit wobbly in places, holds where it needs to and just about makes sense. The characterization outside of Harry is not that great. However, some of the interactions are notable, not least Harry’s struggles with technology.

This is at least the second time I’ve read this book. The first time I was reasonably happy with it, but didn’t think the backdrop would hold my interest. This time – years later – I wanted to check it out as the series still gets favorable reviews. In short, it was cool going over the same ground, but neither the main character nor the book setting are enough to make me want to read more.

Worth looking at if you fancy something different. It’s just not my cup of tea.

Then We Take Berlin – John Lawton

Look at the cover quote from the New York Times:

“A stylish spy thriller”

Look at the cover quote from the Sun:

“Lawton’s up there with Philip Kerr and Alan Furst. Yes, he’s that good.”

That suggests a certain quality which, regrettably, the book fails to deliver. (Who wrote those reviews?) My short review: a spy thriller that doesn’t quite match the leaders in the field.

Let’s see. What do we have?

The anti-hero and central figure is John Holderness, commonly known as Wilderness. We see Wilderness as a young man, living with his grandfather and joining in the older man’s house breaking activities. Without giving too much away, this apprenticeship leads to Wilderness’ elevation – from within the armed forces – to a sort of spook. The irrepressible fellow that he is, shortly after he gets to post war Berlin, he is knee deep in spies and smuggling. He eventually returns to Britain, but is then recruited for another mission: to smuggle someone across from East Germany. It means a return to Berlin and some old familiar places and faces.

On the plus side, the Wilderness character has a ton of potential. Unfortunately, I did not find the portrayal engrossing or interesting. Something was missing.

The background – from wartime Britain to post war Berlin – is rendered with detail upon detail. My impression is that the research behind the novel was extensive and the author felt the need to cram in as much of it as possible. Possibly too much, because at times the story flags under the weight of too much description.

The plot is not bad at all. It operates within reasonable boundaries and drives the tension up. To balance the complaint about the descriptions sometimes being over long, there were times when this book did become a true page turner.

So, in short, a bit of a mixed bag. It doesn’t live up to the cover quote – in my opinion, it needed a heavy edit to make it much better – but it was enjoyable enough.