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.

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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.

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More about Marwan

The row about the offensive and stupid decision of the New York Times to omit Marwan Barghouti’s bloody past (and present?) doesn’t go far enough in exposing what the true face of evil is. Try the following link for a deeply personal, yet restrained and factual commentary on the Marwan Barghouti background his supporters don’t want you to know about. Just click here.

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Looking for Rachel Wallace – Robert B. Parker

Book six of the Spenser series, this one sees our hero hired as a bodyguard for Rachel Wallace, the feminist radical author of an about to be published book. As she starts her promotional tour, there are threats made against her, and the publishers recommend Spenser as the man to keep her safe. Unfortunately, no matter how good Spenser is at his job, he is hopeless at holding back his fast talking smart alec personality, and he and Wallace are soon at loggerheads. Eventually, and unsurprisingly, Spenser is fired, even though it seems plain that there is some real danger. Then Wallace is kidnapped…

Despite the circumstances, Spenser sees it as his duty to rescue the lady. Cue action and adventure as he goes looking for Rachel Wallace.

Once again we see more of Spenser’s character – the strengths and weaknesses – alongside the development of the plot. Clearly it is his attitude towards women – and the other way round – that feature here, and there are some insightful and interesting exchanges and observations. You do not need to agree with Spenser’s viewpoint to enjoy the tale.

The end is a bit predictable, but standard for Spenser books; the plot is neither complex nor demanding, but arguably is therefore that much more believable.

Not bad at all.

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Country of the Blind – Chris Brookmyre

Classic Jack Parlabane material: a powerful media owner and his bodyguards are slaughtered, and public outrage leads to an angry manhunt for the crew allegedly responsible. But one young naive solicitor has an envelope in her possession, handed over by one of the accused before the event. What’s in the envelope, and why does she say it proves the men’s innocence? Whatever the questions were before, there are many more after the men are arrested and then escape custody. Parlabane can smell a conspiracy, and he is just the man to root it out.

This is a cracking story of crime and corruption, told with Brookmyre’s usual biting wit (he really doesn’t like the Tories) and action packed narrative. I’m glad I decided to fill in the gaps in the Parlabane series and this, so far , is one of the best.

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Clash of Dice

Clash of Giants: Civil War is Ted Raicer‘s new game about the battles of Second Bull Run and Gettysburg during the American Civil War. Published by GMT games, the system is an ACW adaptation of his Clash of Giants system which covered several World War One battles in a couple of much earlier GMT releases.

Inside the box you get one standard backprinted map with the two battlefields done by the excellent Charles Kibler. Second Bull Run is done at 500 yards per hex, and Gettysburg at 270 yards per hex. There are separate countersheets of larger, well printed counters, for each battle with different variations of Blue and Gray, making it less likely you will get the wrong units appearing in the wrong battle. I like that. Continue reading

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The Cold Cold Ground – Adrian McKinty

After enjoying Rain Dogs, I decided I had to read the rest of the series, this being the first Detective Sean Duffy book.

The setting is Northern Ireland, at the time of the Hunger Strikes. Bobby Sands has gone to meet his maker, and the Troubles are bubbling away with occasional nasty outbreaks of violence. Duffy is posted in the relative backwater of Carrickfergus, where he seems to be managing fine. But the peace is shattered by the discovery of a dead man who may have been the victim of a serial killer. Duffy and his colleagues interact with some of the historical personages manning the ramparts for their respective factions, as they try to work out what is going on.

McKinty’s Northern Ireland backdrop is spot on, while taking care not to detract too much from the story line. The writing is crisp and humorous in places, and yet that may be the one weakness: I thought Duffy’s humor in the face of some of the threats he faced were somewhat incredible. But that minor potential difference of opinion aside, the whole thing was a roller coaster cum page turner that I really enjoyed.

Having Duffy as a Catholic in the largely Protestant setting worked well, as it set up twin conflicts that highlighted his potentially precarious position, and added some heft to his observations. The character is strong, interesting, and thankfully the author avoids giving him any of the super-human qualities that other writers blight their creations with. Duffy is real, believable, and likable.

Highly recommended.

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Roseanna – Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö

This is a 1960’s vintage police procedural drama that some critics claim to have been groundbreaking and trendsetting. It might have set the heather on fire then, but I found it too slow in places, and it threatened to lose my interest too often.

The story is straightforward enough: a body turns up in a dredger. It’s a young woman who has been raped and killed. But who is she, where did she come from, and who was the perpetrator? Detective Martin Beck is the one tasked with getting to the truth, and the book charts the slow investigative work, discoveries, disclosure, and resolution.

The key plus point is the Beck character who is identifiable as a realistic creation, musing about life, the universe, and so on, while trying to track the victim and hunt down the killer. I suspect Beck is a character I would like to know more about, and that may mean I read more of the series. However, not much else would inspire me to do that. I found the pacing poor, and the character of the killer to be the polar opposite of Beck: lacking credibility and interest. In short, the baddie seemed fake.

The other part that I differ from the mass of reviewers in is about the quality of the writing. It may be that the translation did not match the original language, but it may also be that it did. The writing was not anything special, and rarely rose above the plodding nature of the investigation.

So, this was OK, but it fell well short of the hype.

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That was yesterday. Could it be today?

From the Times of Israel in an article (here) about the behavior of Channel Islands officials during World War 2, under German control:

In August 1945, a British intelligence report stated, “When the Germans proposed to put their anti-Jewish measures into force, no protest whatever was raised by any of the Guernsey officials and they hastened to give the Germans every assistance.” The author went on to note that, by contrast, there were considerable efforts made to protect the islands’ Freemasons.

So, prepare for the next wave of antisemitism, and become a Freemason now!

There are many who believe, with considerable justification, that the core of the British Establishment is riddled with antisemitism. It’s a quiet, ever present hate that every so often boils up to the surface. It can appear as a Nazi fancy dress, a Nazi gesture, or something more direct and abusive. (It is occasionally dressed up – lightly disguised – as political commentary attacking Israel.) You can well see how those harboring such hate would have no hesitation in administering the orders from their German conquerors.

It does appear that such hate has now broken out of the Establishment, and is widely settled among the hearths and homes of British Society. Or. do you think that is too pessimistic an observation? Does the press pick unfairly on the social media slurs of youth, or the temper tantrums of politicians in heat, that truly are of no substance? Or does what’s on show represent the tip of a deadly iceberg?

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1914 Serbien muß sterbien

I am miles behind in blogging about my wargames activity, but finally am getting round to at least posting something. 1914 Serbien muß sterbien is an operational game about the initial World War One campaign on the Balkan front. The designer is Michael Resch, and it is published by GMT Games. Essentially it’s an attempted smash and grab by the Austro-Hungarians that turns out to be more of a poke and twist against the dogged Serbian defenders.

The physical components are excellent: one standard sized map done at 8.8 km per hex, a couple of countersheets, rules booklet, scenario booklet, organization displays, and other play aids. The other scales are turns of 2-4 days, and units ranging from divisions down to regiments and smaller detachments.

The core mechanics are straightforward, but there are plenty of differences to catch you out, so careful reading of the rules is recommended. I wasn’t overwhelmed by the organization of the rulebook, but I did find 99% of what I was looking for, and on the whole the rules are tight, and the designer’s intent is clear.

The system is “I go, you go” but with a neat twist. After you move your units – with 9 movement points (MPs) plus whatever extra you want to force march – your opponent gets to counter move with 5 MPs plus whatever force march extras he risks. You can pin the enemy by declaring a prepared assault, but if you don’t he is free to spoil your plans by moving away, or bringing in reinforcements.

Force marching can degrade a unit’s combat effectiveness. This is something kept track of separately from combat strength, and well models the gradual wearing down of units in combat. It is an extra something you have to pay attention to, and is a little fiddly (only a little) but is well worth the rules cost.

After movement, you attack, then your opponent attacks. In the opponent’s phase, the roles are reversed. I thought it worked quite well. In this theater, the terrain is quite rugged and the armies are slow and ponderous. Supply is key, with an added burden on the Serbian player of having low artillery supply, and having to husband it carefully.

Combat is straight odds comparison, but the results are modifiers to a post combat effectiveness check. This is a 2d6 roll versus the unit’s current combat effectiveness. So, a typical ’10’ rated unit will stand up quite well. However, that check is where the combat result modifier impacts, meaning that if you have a +3 (for example) to your check from the Combat Results Table, it’s no longer so easy. on top of that, each side’s artillery resources can impact the check. Failing the check can degrade the unit’s combat effectiveness, or cause step reduction, or both. There are some detailed nuisances, like having to cross refer the artillery to the size of the opposing force to get the modifier. Also, step losses are not automatically imposed if the other force is small, and instead this is die roll dependent. Both these systems make sense, but they are finicky. Do they work? yes. Are they worth it? Well, that depends on what you are looking for, If you want the level of realism that the designer is trying to portray, you have to think they are worth it. I’m in the pro camp.

Austro Hungarians (blue) just about holding on against the Serbs (khaki)

I have now played the so called training scenario three times to completion, each time a draw. The first time around, the Austro Hungarians swept all before them in the initial offensive, but were sent reeling by the Serbian reinforcements from the east. The second and third tries saw a more cautious offensive which fared much better against the Serbian counter offensive.

The full scenario is too much for me to play solitaire. This is especially so as I repeatedly cocked up by attacking with units whose effectiveness level meant they should not have been able. I eventually solved this by putting the markers under the combat units, and not on the organizational displays. Further, the full scenario brings in the inevitable trenches,and I am unsure how I would enjoy that static element.

What it has given me is a taste for more of the same as part of a team game, maybe at a future Consimworld.

I enjoyed my time with this game. I liked the system, wasn’t too fussed by the finicky bits, and felt it gave a damn fine feel for the campaign. I particularly like the rules that imposed limitations based on the actual strategic plans of the Austro Hungarian forces.

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