The Ice Child – Camilla Lackberg

ice-child
This is another in the author’s series of books featuring Detective Patrick Hedstrom, his wife Erica Falck, and the small Swedish seaside resort town of Fjällbacka. As with the previous books, the present baddie has a back story, and this is disclosed in alternating flashback chapters. In between, the bloody present has to be dealt with. And how bloody and terrible it is.

A girl who went missing four months ago, comes out of nowhere, walks into the middle of the road, and is knocked over and badly injured. And she has also suffered terrible injuries while being a captive. Who did such foul deeds? And is the case linked to that of other girls missing from nearby towns?

Hedstrom and his crew set out to find the culprit while his wife makes a bit of a nuisance of herself as she researches her book, and their paths inevitably cross.

What was missing here was a bit more meat on the motivation and psychological structure of the prime movers. Nothing quite seemed to be persuasive. The story is horrific, and it is reasonably well told – though the writing is often in danger of getting too tied up with distractions. For example, building up the characters of Hedstrom and Falck is one thing, but the family affairs of Falck’s sister’s family is boring, and seems unnecessary. It adds nothing. (It’s not as if the translator can be blamed.)

There are more loose ends than I might have expected, though some of these may be deliberate so as to link into another book. But I also got the feeling that at times this was the author going through the motions; her heart was not in it. The book did not seem to have the same sharp zest and freshness that earlier books did. So, this was good in places, but not the best I have read from this author.

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The panda, the gardener, and the bamboo

takenoko

This week I was joined at first by Sheer, and we returned to the Lord of the Rings: The Card Game, to see if we could do any better than last week’s struggle. We couldn’t. In a previous session, we had completed the first quest – given a difficulty rating of 1 (on the scale of 1-10, the higher the more difficult) – but this ‘4’ rated second quest was just slaughtering us. Since the third quest in the box is a ‘5’, we won;t be going anywhere near that for a time. Meantime, Sheer and I are off to research solutions for quest number two.

When Peleg turned up, we started a game of Takenoko, new to all of us. I read and explained the rules – it took about 15 minutes – and off we went.

The gardener

The gardener

The theme involves the Emperor’s garden and a panda. The players are competing to keep the panda happy, and have the best contribution to the garden, growing bamboo, and irrigating plots. Meantime, the panda is wandering around eating the bamboo.

The panda

The panda

The components are high quality: the plots are stiff board hexagons (in three colors), the bamboo are exquisite pieces that can stack (again in matching three colors), and the panda and gardener are lovely painted miniatures. The production standards are excellent. The only slight niggle was a poorly worded rule about game end, but we figured that out correctly.

The bamboo

The bamboo

Each player’s turn has two parts: weather die, and actions.

The weather die is a six sided thing with symbols, each representing a weather and game effect. For example, the sun gives you an extra action. The cloud allows you to take a development marker. So, there is a pretty chunky luck element here. I would think about taking this out and replacing it with a deck of six cards for each player, each card only usable once in each of six rounds. But that’s for another time.

As actions, you can add a new plot to the garden, take an irrigation channel, move the gardener (which increases the bamboo growth), move the bamboo (which reduces the bamboo by eating it!), or take a victory point card. You can always add an irrigation channel or a development marker, without costing you an action. The channels allow plots out from the center to be irrigated (and so grow bamboo) and the development markers do things like boost bamboo growth, protect from panda attacks, and automatically irrigate a plot.

The cards are how you win. Each has a goal – for example, four yellow plots in a particular pattern, or a yellow bamboo at a height of four, and so on. Once you have the matching requirement, you can claim the victory points and put the card down in front of you. The first to eight cards down triggers the last round.

I screwed up one major victory point card by not noticing the need for a development marker. That set me back, but I was already falling behind. Peleg got the game quickly, and he raced off to a decent score. Just over the last two rounds, Sheer managed to catch up and overtake him.

The game claims a playing time of 45 minutes. With repeated play that is possible, I guess, but an hour seems a more reasonable target if everyone plays quickly.

This is good fun, light, and a great bridge game for novice gamers. As stated above, for my own tastes I would reduce the luck element, and that would make it more of a gamer’s game. I would rate it now as a high quality filler.

Thanks to Sheer and Peleg for joining in.

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Home – Harlan Coben

home-hc
Apart from the somewhat fractured and frosty relationship between Myron Bolitar and Windsor Horne Lockwood III (Win), this is another rather formulaic, albeit high tension, adventure.

Ten years ago, two six year olds (Patrick Moore and Rhys Baldwin) were kidnapped, never to be seen again. Now, Win gets an email telling him where one of the kids is to be found. But Win’s encounter with the alleged victim is somewhat messy, and things spiral out of control. Soon Win and Myron are forced to go back to the very beginning and hope a fresh approach will yield clues to help them solve the puzzle.

On the plus side, the formula delivers plot twists aplenty, and the whole narrative is fast-paced. And the friction between Myron and Win is absorbing.

On the negative side, some of the motivation behind the behavior of certain characters is less than persuasive. And the involvement of Myron’s young nephew – a crossover character from other books – did not ring true to me. I understood the attraction of building a link between the characters. But here, it was a whole bridge, and it seemed to be suspended in midair. To put it another way, it didn’t work.

If you can put your critical faculties on hold, you will get a cracking read. Otherwise, sadly, this is an OK book, but not one of the author’s best.

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Continuing slaughter – on the roads

From a Ynet report dated yesterday:

Traffic fatalities rise in 2016

The number of fatalities in road accidents in Israel currently stands at 32,959, more than all the fatalities of Israel’s wars and terrorist attacks. Of that total, 5,038 were children.

For the fourth consecutive year, the amount of fatalities has increased. 2016 has thus far seen 328 Israelis die on the roads, 14 more than the same period last year. To put that into perspective, 100 more fatalities were recorded in 2016 than 2012.

2016 marks an increase of 15 percent in the amount of drivers killed and a 20 percent increase in the amount of train passengers killed. However, in contrast, 2016 registered a decrease of 16 percent in the amount of motorcyclists killed and a decrease of 10 percent in the amount of pedestrians killed.

Part of the explanation is provided:

In 2015, the state comptroller issued several reports detailing the failures of the government in dealing with the dangers of the road. The report was critical of the lack of effective speed cameras, Ministry of Transportation policies that paralyzed the National Road Safety Authority, the severe shortage of police officers in the traffic division and the lack of effective police enforcement of regulations for pedestrians.

The comptroller attacked the Ministry of Education for drastically scaling back traffic education in schools, particularly on motorcycles, scooters and electric bicycles.

There has been a new law put in place to try and cut down the number of accidents involving electric bicycles and youngsters. There is no sign of that having any effect in Ra’anana. Kids still ride these electric bikes dangerously; they often overload them, drive too fast on the pavement, swerve in and out of traffic lanes, wear no protection, and rarely have any lights. They might as well be wearing a sign saying “Accident waiting to happen.”

Therefore, so far as I am concerned, passing laws is not good enough. Without enforcement that law is a public relations pretense that action has been taken. Action? Yes. Effective? No. Waste of time? So far, yes.

But the real slaughter involves cars on the roads. As if to underline the statistics, this is from today:

Three killed, toddler seriously injured in car crash

Crash took place overnight Saturday after two vehicles collided on Highway 79 in lower Galilee; paramedics forced to pronounce death of a man and two women after being extricated from vehicles; toddler evacuated to hospital having sustained head injuries; another man and woman hospitalized in serious condition, two youths lightly wounded.

Tragic.

Something needs to be done.

The non functioning speed cameras are a disgrace. The undermanned traffic police situation is also a disgrace. The lack of a modern, efficient traffic court system is, you guessed it, a disgrace. There’s a gaping hole in the concern our lawmakers have for the people of this country.

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Deadline – Barbara Nadel

nadel-deadline
Inspector Ikmen is, reluctantly, taking part in a charity event. It is a murder mystery hosted at Istanbul’s famous Pera Palas Hotel, where once the legendary Agatha Christie stayed. In short order, Ikmen is forced to take part in a real life murder mystery. With the clock ticking towards a dreadful deadline, Ikmen has to work out who the killer is, and who is behind the deadly show.

Once again, this author delivers a fine character portrayal, backed up by the wonderful color of Istanbul, past and present. While this plot is more far fetched than I would have liked, veering dangerously towards Hollywood style excess, it just about keeps its feet on the ground. I couldn’t quite buy into the motivation some of the characters had for taking part in the real murder mystery, but the overall impression of the criminal enterprise was well constructed, and worked better than the individual parts.

In short, not the best Ikmen story, but well worth reading.

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Orcs, Trolls, and Other Nasties

lotr

Sheer and I took on the baddies in this week’s session, as we tried out The Lord of The Rings: The Card Game. This is a solitaire or cooperative game – you have to beat the system – where your heroic party is set a quest. On the quest, the constructed encounter deck throws up locations, nasty events, and even nastier monsters. Look out for that Hill Troll! The player or players (maximum of two) choose their starting heroes, and construct their own deck. The more powerful the hero, the higher your Threat score. When this rises to 50, you lose. The forces of evil inflict such damage if you do not handle them well.

In a previous session we had won the first quest, so tried out the second. I think the rules rate the first quest as being level 1 (on a rising scale from 1-10) and the second one as level 4. There is a third quest in the game rated as a 7…

In short, we tried this out twice and were beaten up both times. Given that it is a solitaire style game, that is probably right. It is no fun if it is too easy to win. And the challenge is designing the deck and combinations that can get you the win. There is, therefore, work to do.

The production standards are excellent. The cards are high quality, and the illustrations match that standard. The rules are quite good, with only a couple of minor issues. The system is fun, with some neat ideas. The Threat mechanic is especially cool, giving a real sense of the ticking clock and urgency. Sure, there’s an element of luck, but it is not overdone.

There’s a good amount of replayability in the box, and we will probably go back to the drawing board and try our luck again. I have the first set of expansions for added fun.

Thanks to Sheer for being my fellow traveler on the quest.

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Over the bridge and far away

yelnya

Recently, I had the chance to play the ASL scenario The Yelnya Bridge against Ran and Josh, as part of my continuing (and long suffering) learning experience with this amazing, challenging game system.

The scenario (set in October 1941) features a small Soviet force, defending a bridge crossing amidst rugged terrain – wooded, with a valley and hills on the Soviet side dominating much of the board. The Soviets have a bunker and a couple of trenches, a decent anti-tank gun, an MMG and 50mm mortar, a mixed bag of infantry, and badly needed reinforcements. The German attackers have to take the village (three building hexes) or exit units by passing through the defense line. They have a couple of armored cars, a couple of lightly armored tanks, and SS infantry support.

The key to the defense is the gun and bunker combination. In my first game against Ran, I set the bunker up with a limited arc that covered the bridge. That meant it did not cover a chunk of the board. So, Ran took his opportunity, got his tanks through the fire zone quickly and soon his combination of forces was too good to hold back – especially as I had no real anti-tank capability. As Ran put it:

“The rest of my advance went well against the thinly defended board. I moved as quickly as possible across the difficult terrain. Ellis did his best to reinforce the attacked area, but was one step behind the attackers. My much superior infantry, supported by armor, easily dealt with the few defenders that crossed its path, and killed a reinforcing Russian platoon that tried to block the exit. I lost one armored car to a Russian ATR, and managed to exit the other armored car, two tanks, and enough infantry to win on the last turn.”

Ran’s win.

In my second game against Josh, I learned a lot from the first encounter and, this time, set the bunker and gun up in a much better position. Josh brought his armored cars up the road to the bridge and used them to try and suppress my mortar and machine gun (who were in trenches around the bunker, on the dominating hills). As Josh put it:

“My elite (blue) SS began their assault through a valley. I should have expected it, but wasn’t really thinking when Ellis opens up from higher elevation with gun, mortar and MMG. The scariest being the mortar because of its 2-1 shots and high rate of fire. I thought this game got off to a bad start, and my troops were getting slaughtered in the valley. But those who survived found cover, and SS rally easy, so I was able to get a second wind, this time wiser.

My vehicles had trouble maneuvering and I didn’t even want to try moving my armored cars off-road with a stream in their path. They just stayed on the roads taking potshots until a two was rolled, which I got.

In the end I was able to exit off the board with the infantry requirements providing the minimum needed for the win.”

The main reason I lost here was of a stupid mistake. Josh dangled some infantry in front of my gun. I took the bait and fired. He promptly ran his armored cars up the road, across the bridge, and off the other end for a whopping ten out of the needed 16 exit points. My desperate intensive fire with the already fired gun, of course, failed. After that, it was just a matter of time.

“Ellis’s reinforcements could have saved the day. They moved in at the edge of the board where I was exiting. But half squads and significant dancing allowed me to get by them. Ellis advanced a huge concealment stack next to a unit at the edge of the board. If Ellis had advanced on the German unit instead, he would have likely killed it in close combat as he would have had 3:1 odds and been concealed. This would have denied me the exit points.”

My reinforcements could have gone for the close combat. However, that meant they were not able to defend the other part of the map edge, so Josh would have found it easier to get his other forces across the winning line.

Bottom line: two games, two defeats, and multiple lessons learned. Again!

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