The Baltimore Boys – Joël Dicker

I was a bit disappointed by the heavily promoted first book from Joel Dicker (see my review of The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair here), but this time around I was more than pleasantly surprised.

Once again it’s a novel about an author writing a book, this time featuring the (fictional) author’s earlier life story of growing up with his two cousins. The life journey of the kids – the Baltimore Boys – is told with love, care, and just the right amount of detail. The book is full of different perspectives on family and success, love and disenchantment, though packaged and delivered with an over abiding sense of compassion. The author gets his characters and makes them come alive on the page.

The plot unfolds smoothly, and the various story threads come together in a near perfect weave as we are brought up to date.

Whereas the first book was too long and self indulgently involved, I did not find the Baltimore Boys to be that way at all. If anything, there were occasions when I wanted to know a tad more.

The story of these kids growing up in America is really a story that also features their families. The respective parents and one set of grandparents feature extensively, and their characterizations seemed authentic, and nuanced. There is one part of this accuracy about the family, however, that concerns me, to which I will return later.

I read and reread one outstanding scene where a movie executive lectures the author about how books are dying and moves are the only thing worth having – apart from money, of course! Brilliant. It’s where naivety meets the gold standard of the free market, and damn the consequences.

This novel is highly entertaining, and well worth your time. Don’t bother with the other book. Just read this.

Before I forget, some praise for the translator: Alison Anderson. If it din’t say on the book that it had been translated from French, I would not have known. The text flowed fluently. Great job Alison!

Now, the part of the story that troubles me most is to do with Judaism. The main characters are Jewish. How do we know that? It says so – once I think – but apart from that, there are only two outward signs of this, and minor ones at that.

Warning: Plot spoilers ahead!

When there is a funeral, there’s a reference to putting stones on the grave, which is a Jewish tradition. Similarly, the phraseology used to remember the deceased is straight out of Jewish mourning rituals. But that’s it. There’s no mention of the festivals, barmitzvah, or even any passing reference to anything Jewish. To put it another way, the Jewishness of the characters brought absolutely nothing to the story. (So why include it?) I found this to be terribly sad. If it is an accurate representation, then it’s a disaster for American Jewry to have so completely lost their religious identity. What troubles me most, is that this may come from the author’s own world. In other words, it may be autobiographical.

The situation does not detract from the quality of the book. So, if you are still reading, note my recommendation remains that this is indeed a novel worthy of your time.

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The Lizard’s Bite – David Hewson

After a long break, this is me returning to the Nic Costa series from David Hewson. This is the fourth book featuring the art-loving detective and his colleagues.

The story here revolves around Venice and a glass making family thrown into chaos when two of their number die in a strange incident. Being the cops from Rome who have been sent away as a punishment for past misdeeds, the locals give Nic Costa and Gianni Peroni all the crap jobs. This time around, they are told to wrap up the case quickly, or else.

As the investigation proceeds – into the Arcangeli family and their possible savior Hugo Massiter – the easy resolution becomes more and more beyond their reach. And then things get worse.

This is a story told at a measured pace, with a good range of interesting characters, and some finely drawn backdrop. There is action and violence, but in between there is an opportunity to enjoy some good writing, and a plot that keeps on delivering up to the final surprise.

This is a good read. You don’t have to have read all the stories in the series before this, but it would probably increase your enjoyment.

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Wargame Catchup

Since finishing my game of Zama, here’s what’s been on my game table.

Continuing my play of the Simple Great Battles of History system, I had a run through of The Catalaunian Fields. This is battle that came with the Attila module for Cataphract, a GMT published game designed by Richard Berg and Mark Herman. The battle pits a Roman/Visigoth force with a suspect bunch of Alans against Attila, his Huns, the Ostrogoths, and other allies.

In this era, the overwhelming combat encounter was bow and arrow armed light cavalry engaging in hit and run fire. Close combat was to be avoided by these light troops. The system does a good job of replicating this, but it can be tricky working out how to bring enough force to bear so as to be able to inflict high enough casualties. Games with such forces seem to take a bit longer. I wrapped this one up when the writing was on the wall for the Huns. Their repeated attacks against the suspect Alans had been for naught, and the combination of Visigothic heavy and light cavalry, had been much more effective.

I really like the system, but probably prefer the battles of an earlier era. There’s something about the light cavalry archers that doesn’t appeal to me.

That having been said, next up was a later battle, albeit a different system.

Another Richard Berg design, again from GMT,  Infidel is the third in a series of four games called Men of Iron. The system is a cousin of Simple Great Battles of History, with a combat system that does not involve tracking hits, and a lean command and control system.

The game has six scenarios in the box, and I chose to play Dorylaeum, the 11th century battle in northwest Anatolia between a Crusader army and a Seljuk army. The Crusader forces have fallen into a trap, and are doomed unless their reinforcements – the part of the Crusader army that the Seljuks appear to have forgotten about – can heed the call and arrive before it’s too late.

The scenario features lots of chivalrous knights against lots of less than chivalrous light infantry archers who, like in the Attila scenario, will hit and run. So, it was interesting to compare the systems and the playing experience.

In my replay, the Crusaders made too many bad reinforcement rolls, and were carved up before help arrived.

The command and control system is easy, and while it is very solitaire friendly, you do have to keep track of who went last with what. I would prefer to avoid that bookkeeping, though it is fair to say you probably don’t need it for face to face play as each player will surely remember what’s going on!

On balance, I prefer SGBOH, but now having properly dipped my toe into the system’s waters, I will probably have a go at others in the series.

Time for a complete change.

Skies Above the Reich is a solitaire game designed by Mark Aasted and Jerry Smith (again from GMT) which puts you in command of a group of Luftwaffe pilots trying to bring down the bombers that are pulverizing the Nazi empire.

The game is played in seasons, each comprising several missions. In each mission, your pilots encounter bombers and escorts, and have to get in, do some damage, get out, and survive well enough to take part in the next mission. Pilots can acquire expert skills, and green replacements can try and lose their rookie disadvantages. (Rookie pilot losses are horrendous.)

The rulebook presentation is extensive, and shies away from traditional structure. It leads you through a turn, and does a great job of getting you into the game without having to read the rules first.

It’s a challenge for you to win – which is how it should be – and gets harder as you progress through later chronological seasons. I found it tough enough in 1942, so dread to think how hard the 1944 or 1945 seasons would be to play.

I was very impressed by the design, the physical production, and how easy it was to get into the system and understand it. I’m not that big a fan of air warfare, and in the end that is probably why I put it away. The game just wasn’t holding my attention enough. There’s nothing wrong with the game; it just doesn’t seem to fit my personal tastes well enough.

That’s better. Now I have caught up in my wargame blogging.

What is next, I wonder. I’m off to find a game to play.

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The Steel Remains – Richard Morgan

The first of a trilogy, this is a fantasy novel by the author of the excellent science fiction book Altered Carbon (worth watching on Netflix). Unfortunately, it does not quite rise to the giddy heights of the latter, though it’s not a bad read, and many will find much to enjoy among its violence, sex, and magic seeped pages.

The book seems to be an attempt to tell three strands of a tale, and then bind them together.

The first is about Ringil, a war hero living his life as a storyteller in a local tavern. He’s a typical sword and sorcery swashbuckler, except that he’s gay.

Then there is Archeth, the Emperor’s pet investigator. She is the last of her race, and offers some kind of link between Ringil and the forces of evil led by the powerful Dwenda.

Finally, Egar Dragonbane, another war hero, stuck in charge of his tribe, and caught in a religious battle he cannot win.

The world building is OK, but a bit disjointed. This is probably because all has not yet been revealed. The pacing of the book is good, with the tension building, and parts of the story really suck you in. Parts. Other parts are not so good, or at least did not draw me in.

Also, I didn’t quite see the melding of the three story lines as being smooth. They are not even strands, and they make for a less than smooth whole. To put it another way, the plot is all over the place.

As for the characters, Ringil is the most rounded, with Archeth and Egar getting the raw end of the deal. I would have preferred to know more about Archeth. Such an imbalance works if the composite effect is of real people – do you get real people in a fantasy novel? – but, to be real, they need to fit in to their world. Here, the characterization structure crumbles, because all around the trio are a veritable forest of cardboard cutouts. Thin ones at that. The effect was like being in a first person shootout; alright, a good one, but that is leagues away from a good story.

Then there’s the sex. There’s a lot of it. I am no prude, but most of it seemed to be gratuitous and do nothing for the advancement of the plot, nor the enrichment of the tale.

On the plus side, there’s enough gutsy action to entertain. The combat scenes were the best written.

Overall, I felt there were some good ideas and interesting hints of characters that needed better kicking into shape before the book could threaten to rise above the average fantasy novel. This is one trilogy, I won’t be persevering with.

 

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Bibi, Bennett, Liberman, and Gaza

The West’s warmonger is not waging war. What fools they are. Source: WikiMedia

Be warned: I have no answers. I do have questions, and I do have thoughts. Consider this a stream of consciousness post, with a dash of analysis.

First off, the mission in Gaza that went wrong. Was it a mission of the highest priority that absolutely had to be carried out, regardless of the risk to the potential truce? Or was it less than that, but the army went for it, anyway? My gut tells me it’s the latter, but Bibi and co say it’s the former. I am skeptical. However, there might be a third possibility. It has been suggested to me that Israel regularly penetrates into Gaza, entirely unknown to Hamas. So successful have these penetrations been that they are not seen as risky, but routine. Then Murphy’s Law (or Moshe’s Law?) struck this one time, and all hell broke loose. For sure, I don’t think anyone in the IDF wanted to put a potential truce at risk, but they did. Continue reading

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22 Dead Little Bodies – Stuart MacBride

This is a contemporary crime collection including:

  • 22 Dead Little Bodies – a short novel
  • Stramash – short story
  • Bad Heir Day – short story
  • The 45% Hangover – novella

All feature the author’s creations, DS Logan McRae and DCI Roberta Steel.

If it’s not a contradiction too far, although there is not much to them – by comparison with the full length novels – they are well put together, and feature some of the trademark snappy dialog, shocking violence, and stories of suburban murder and mayhem. There are also moments of high comedy, though you my wonder if it is appropriate to laugh given the whole circumstances.

I enjoyed all the stories. Bad Heir Day was the most poignant, and 22 Dead Little Bodies the most complete.

If you are a McRae fan, you must read them. If you haven’t encountered McRae, I would recommend starting with one of the novels, because these don’t quite have the same punch and pacing that the novels do.

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Rhapsody

At the end of a movie, when the audience gives a round of applause, that’s as good a short review as you are likely to get. That’s what happened last night, when Susan and I went to see the Freddie Mercury biopic Bohemian Rhapsody.

Good Stuff

  • The music. Just great.
  • Rami Malek’s performance. Spookily close at times. And his portrayal of Freddie as someone who could have it all, except for happiness, rang true.
  • Mike Myers’ cameo appearance. He can act.
  • The music. Yes, it’s that good, it’s worth mentioning twice.

The Not So Good Stuff

  • The script. It’s a ‘color by numbers’ job, with only a few sparks of originality or insight.
  • The screwed up timelines – in short, the film plays fast and loose with certain key events (such as the timing of Freddie’s AIDS diagnosis) – to create a contrived Disney type package.
  • The film’s treatment of Freddie’s sexuality doesn’t seem right. There is something missing.
  • The rest of the band are cardboard characters. What a wasted opportunity. Of course, the focus should be on Mercury, but the band members deserved better.
  • The cinematography was bland. Visually, what caught the eye was Malek playing the lead role. Nothing else came close.

It’s a testament to Queen’s music that the good stuff drowns out the rest. It’s a feel good movie that tells a tragic story, but at the same time makes you feel positive about the big, bad world outside – especially if you were around to experienced the real life events of Queen, Mercury, and that amazing Live Aid performance.

One ironic point worth mentioning. The film accurately records the bad reviews the critics gave of the single release Bohemian Rhapsody. That echoes the bad reviews the film got! In both cases, the public ignored the critics. (And, boy, were the critics upset.)

Overall, I’d definitely recommend going to see the movie. It’s good entertainment. Not perfect, but good. As for the real Freddie Mercury and Queen story, you’ll have to look elsewhere.

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Bloody Bois Jacques

I continued my ASL education this week, with a game against Ran of the scenario Bloody Bois Jacques. Set in Bastogne, December 1944, the battlefield is a heavily wooded area which an attacking force of 9 USA squads (plus leaders, two heroes, and some machine guns) must make their way through, against a defending force of 8 German squads (plus leaders, machine guns, and artillery support).

There are a couple of scenario special rules which are a bit quirky, but do mostly work, representing fire lanes for the defenders. Basically, units in foxholes can see through woods hexes that would otherwise block line of sight. But the enemy cannot see the foxholes (or the units in them) until the fire lane is used.

I was the attacker, and Ran was the defender.

I should have known it would not be my lucky night when I failed two out of three deployment rolls in the first Rally Phase. Not a good omen.

Anyway, I split my force across the board, in two rough groups, seeking to drive on and get to the exit area that would give me victory points.

On my left flank, I put about half the squads plus both heroes. I led with a half-squad to scout ahead, and he made good progress, so the rest followed. I bumped into his hidden force and actually did a good job of forcing them back, as the Germans traded space for time.

On the right, the rest of the squads plus the machine gun, had a reasonable first turn. But then the artillery arrived. My troops on the right got clobbered by the artillery, and although many rallied and recovered, they were not able to get to the exit area in enough numbers, in time.

The key, therefore, was the deadly effectiveness of the German artillery which switched back to my other force and then harassed it to death. My two heroes who were the point men on my left flank, were wiped out by the artillery, along with supporting squads.

Although I had a chance of winning in the last turn of the game, Ran’s continued success with his artillery put an end to that, so he was able to claim another victory. (Exasperating.)

Ran did not fail a single battery access roll. He would have needed to roll a 12, but didn’t. Indeed, he did not roll a 12 the whole game. I only rolled one, but it was for a pin task check. Ran always drew a black chit for artillery availability. Although the odds of him drawing a red chit – meaning the artillery would have been unavailable – increase with each black chit draw, it never occurred.

Although I lost, I don’t think my play was bad. (Even more exasperating.) For example, I believe I got the fire/move balance about right which may be an improvement. However, I might have made the wrong call about committing to a couple of close combats. I find that if the right thing is to commit to a close combat, and I do the right thing, I am rarely successful in the close combat. So, maybe I should not have been surprised the close combats did not go well. If they had, I might still have sneaked a win, despite the awesome German artillery. (Double plus exasperating!)

Anyway, despite the loss, the game itself was the usual intense and enjoyable experience with time flying by, and there’s always a chance the next game will turn out better. Thanks to Ran for his patience and hospitality.

 

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Artificial Condition – Martha Wells

After reading the first Murderbot book, I said I would keep a watching brief. That didn’t last long. I was looking for something short and easy to read that would be guaranteed to be entertaining. Overall, I wasn’t disappointed with this, the second in the series of novellas about a security specialist robot that has achieved some form of sentience and independence. But Murderbot has a bloody past, and his – OK, this is an assumption of male identity by me – ongoing, self imposed mission, is to find out what actually happened.

This time around, another party enters the fray. Without spoiling the plot, let’s just say Murderbot is not sure if the new party is friend or foe, and part of the edge of tension in this story is not knowing, as Murderbot attempts to travel to the mining facility where the old massacre occurred.

On the plus side, the story rattles along, with a good side plot involving some clueless humans, and another robot character complicating matters. The Murderbot character continues to develop, and there’s more to find out for sure.

However, once or twice in the action, I felt that Murderer’s capacity to overcome security systems was too much of a super power like ‘get out of jail free’ card, and suggested a certain laziness in the author’s approach. That is not to say I could instantly think of other ways around these systems, but it did mean that I was starting to think Murderbot was becoming invulnerable, and the sense of danger was substantially diminished.

After reading two books in the series, I am not convinced that the overall plotting is any good. The general level of writing is interesting enough, with some nice observations and touches of comedy. And it was a fast, easy read, that did exactly what I was looking for, and no more. But is the whole package worthy? Is this a series of cut down novels, or over-inflated short stories that should not be stitched together? The jury’s out. Maybe I am going back to my watching brief.

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