Fiction – April 2020

Despite the cover quotes, I didn’t like this. The central character did not interest me. Neither did the overlong passages of text where nothing happened other than the word count going up. In my opinion, over hyped and under-edited. First miss from this author.

Novella in the typical K. J. Parker style: a first person dialog from someone whose narrative – telling of his experiences as an exorcist – may not be the whole truth, in a fantasy world that reflects all of humanity’s failings. Easy to read, entertaining, and fun.

A youngster is kidnapped but escapes. The police are sure the victim knows who committed the crime, but the youngster is refusing to name anyone. Why? Though the writing is often a bit clunky, this is a great story, breathlessly told, and highly enjoyable.

Who is it who slaughtered the young man in the forest? And why? D.I. Helen Grace to the rescue! This is decent enough crime novel that doesn’t ever rise above that level. Not bad, but not the best.

Now you’re talking! Caleb Zelic, profoundly deaf, is an investigator who gets himself too deeply involved in a case involving the brutal murder of a friend. Circumstances force Caleb back to his home town of Resurrection Bay, meeting up with his ex-wife and her extended family. But this is no refuge. A taut tale that sharply exposes the racism the aboriginal community in Australia endures, as well as the outright injustices. Caleb is a great character, a detective with more than one challenge in his life. way. You do not want to miss this, the first in a well received series.

I’ll be brief: number two in the Caleb Zelic series. You want to read this.

Yes, that True Grit, the one that was made into a John Wayne film. It’s the tale of Mattie Ross, a fourteen year old girl of unusual maturity and focus, seeking justice for the slaying of her father. Rooster Coburn, ex-Confederate cavalryman, is no one dimensional hero or baddie, but he is the one recruited to do the job. The book is wider in its range than the film, and has many more comical moments. I get the impression reading this wonderful story that Charles Portis would have made an excellent dinner guest.

Whatever this was trying to be – psychological drama, horror, or fantasy – it didn’t work. It bored me to bits. Avoid.

This is the first Nils Shapiro story which I read out of sync, having already finished Broken Ice back in August 2019. Shapiro is a private detective, in this case investigating the death of a divorcee at the suggestion of a former police colleague. In addition to the challenges faced there, such as the involvement of the FBI (who want Shapiro well away) our hero is trying to get over his ex-wife and facing struggles in his private life. While a bit raw in places, overall this was pretty good. The character and backdrop are well done, and the dialog has its moments.

This is a Cold War spy novel, featuring grizzled espionage expert Harry Mackintosh in an operation that goes badly wrong. Seeking his revenge, Mackintosh recruits safe cracker Jimmy Walker. You can see where this is going. On the plus side, the story races along and the tension is well maintained. There are twists and turns and some veritable stretching of plausibility in some corners of the plot. On the down side, the writing is workmanlike rather than elegant. And there are chunks of cliche punctuating the portrayal of the characters. Overall, OK, but nothing more.

No other name for it

Let’s put Bibi’s narcissism, hunger for power, and hypocrisy to one side. I mean, this is the man who told Olmert he couldn’t be Prime Minister when charged with a crime. But, let’s put that to one side.

Let’s put Gantz’s treachery to one side. After all, this is the man who said:

“I am not able to sit [in government] with Netanyahu…[snip]…I am telling you, we are speaking about a corrupt man who is destroying the country, and I cannot sit with him.”

But let’s put that to one side too.

Let’s instead look at what Bibi and Gantz have delivered: a cabinet of 34 ministers. 34? That’s more than Britain, or the USA, or Germany, or France, or probably more than any other country. (If you know differently, tell me!) 34!

Don’t forget the 15 or 16 deputies.

Time to listen in on the conversation Israelis would be having, social distancing guidelines permitting:

Q: Why do we need 34?

A: We don’t.

Q: So, why do we have 34?

A: It’s the price of doing a deal.

Q: Excuse me?

A: All the parties in the coalition needed to be rewarded.All that support needs to be, er, paid for.

Q: You mean they need to be bribed?

A: You said it, not me.

Q: Whatever happened to being a politician to serve the public?

A: Oh, they serve all right. But they also serve themselves.

Q: And what’s this about two Prime Ministerial homes?

A: One for Bibi, and one for Gantz.

Q: And who pays for all of this?

A: Look in the mirror. The Israeli public.

Q: So, at a crisis period in world history, with economies buckling under pressure from the effects of the pandemic, mass unemployment, many businesses on the edge of collapse, the ruling parties have decided to lead by example by stealing from the public purse.

A: Oh, I wouldn’t go that far.

Q: What else would you call it?

A: Let me get back to you on that.

On the table catchup

Yes, the lockdown has meant I have done more gaming than usual. Here are some of the games I have had on the table over the last few weeks.

WW2 tactical – my favorite topic. This is Jim Day’s magnum opus with a core game plus four expansions to date. (Of course I have all the expansions.) Finally, I think I am getting to grips with the rules. I am also trying to work out alternatives to the command control and morale rules which I think are a bit clunky.

From Joe Balkoski’s wonderful modern naval conflict series, this is packed full of accessible one map scenarios. This is one of the top series I wish would be updated and republished. Meantime, the game packs a punch.

PanzerGrenadier tactical (platoon level) WW2 combat. I have tried, tried, and tried again to get into the system. This time, I almost made it. However, the leader and activation rules don’t do it for me. Besides, the War Storms series seems to do this so much better. If I get this game (or others in the series) out again, it will be to work on my own house rules. There’s got to be a better way.

Tactical WW3. Yes, I know it doesn’t have morale rules. Yes, I know it doesn’t have command and control rules. Yes, I know the open lines of sight at great distances are unreal. I know all of these things, but it was still fun to play – and a bloodbath. This game is one (of many) I have often thought of going back and fixing to my own requirements. It has an elegant combat system that cries out for use elsewhere.

Ancients battles on a square grid. I set up and played the Granicus scenario, but the setup didn’t match anything I had seen before about the battle. Inevitably, I was more interested in the system. The map graphics are awful, but the rest is of much greater value. There are multiple versions kicking about: the original, the original plus errata, and a BGG gamer’s variant with added bells, whistles, and complexity. This game is one (of many) I have often thought of going back and fixing to my own requirements. (Stop me if you’ve heard that before.)

Finally I got to play a COIN game (a series about counter insurgency conflicts). I managed to follow through the extensive example of play in the box and kept going. However, dealing fairly as a solitaire player with four factions was too much for me and the result too lopsided in favor of one faction. But it was fun. And it was great to understand more of what was going on. The game comes with a paper decision maker for non player factions. However, that really slows the game down, so I’m unlikely to go down that route. On the other hand, I have the COIN game set in the Vietnam War and that’s a subject I would like to dig into a bit more. Andean Abyss was good fun, though, and taught me a lot.

 

The case of the missing editor

The following headline is from an article published online by the Jerusalem Post on 27 April, 2020.

Click the headline to view the article

The charge against the Jerusalem Post is that it doesn’t edit articles properly before publication. You be the judge.

  • Excerpt one for the prosecution:

  • Excerpt two for the prosecution:

  • Excerpt three for the prosecution:

  • Excerpt four for the prosecution:

It’s a slam dunk, methinks. Absolutely shocking output from a supposedly professional news organization.

Fiction – March 2020

For some unknown reason, the switch to home working and being in lockdown mode has also resulted in me reading less fiction. My non-fiction reading has increased though I have resisted the urge to bone up on things related to coronavirus.

Second in the (excellent) Challis & Destry police procedural series set, largely, in the Mornington Peninsula area in Australia,

This outing for the police has them dealing with several weird incidents: there’s the dead body fished out of the ocean, sprees of stolen cars and burned letter boxes, someone attacking courting couples in their car, and the attempted ramming of  a plane by a car. Quite a handful.

The author does a great job of tying the strands together to bring the reader a believable picture of life in that part of the world, with interesting characters and their various brushes with danger.

Highly recommended.

 

This is a terrific crime caper with twist after twist featuring intrepid investigative journalist Jack Parlabane. He is asked by a dead man’s sister to look into his death in a car crash on a deserted road that occurred within months of his whirlwind romance with Diana Jager, a surgeon and blogger whose anonymity was ripped away from her, sending her in to medical Coventry.  Parlabane’s inquiries inevitably start a chain of events that will keep you on your toes and guessing till the very end.

Terrific.

 

Number three in the Challis and Destry series. Janine McQuarrie, a young wife and mother, is shot to death. and killed. Did the murder have anything to do with the wife swapping party she recently attended at the behest of her husband? And why does her father-in-law, Superintendent McQuarrie, seem to be so obstructive in Challis’s investigation? Again, the author delivers a well drawn scene and populates with interesting characters and intriguing interaction. This is in the top rank of police procedural novels.

 

Number four in the Challis and Destry series. Inspector Hal Challis returns to his hometown in the Australian Outback. His father is dying and his sister, whose husband disappeared years before, is doing her best to care for the man. Challis splits his time between helping with his father and looking into his brother-in-law’s disappearance. In the course of his investigation, he duly stirs up a hornet’s nest.

Meantime, Sergeant Ellen Destry, his potential love interest, is trying to prove she is good enough to run the Crime Investigation Unit on her own. Unfortunately, in a less than friendly environment, she also has the horrendous task of trying to find a little girl who has disappeared amidst all the consequent media attention and pressure.

The two strands mean there’s a bit of to and fro for the reader to cope with, but the inconvenience is modest and the payoff is another good read.

 

Quatre Bras

On the table, Quatre Bras 1815, one of the Eagles series games designed by Walter Vejdovsky and published by Hexasim. Turns are 1 hour, hexes are about 200m, and units are regiment sized with each strength point representing 100 combatants. This is the famous encounter between Ney and Wellington on the road to Waterloo, when the no show by the French forces of D’Erlon materially contributed to the French not winning the battle. Continue reading

Matzah Time!

Source: WikiMedia

This has to rank as the strangest Pesach ever. We are locked down and under curfew. Coronavirus is out and about, but we are not. We’ll still have our Seder night, albeit smaller, quieter, and probably shorter. Plenty of time for reflection and recharging the spiritual batteries in these challenging times.

Several online commentators have pointed out the connection between this festival – marking ten plagues and the liberation from Egypt – and our current plague ridden confinement. It strikes me that it would be good timing if the end of Pesach were to be the time when the people were let go and the lockdown removed. Unfortunately, that’s unlikely to happen. So, I’ll just hope and pray that everyone stays healthy and safe from the virus.

Yes, folks; be safe, be well.

(And enjoy your matzah!)

Typhoon on the Table

Now this is a little cracker. It’s about the Soviet winter offensive of 1942 with nine game turns to determine the winner by killing enemy units or grabbing victory point objectives. (There’s also a sudden death victory which seems unlikely for either side.) The German units are divisions, the Soviets are corps and divisions. The situation is that the Soviet steamroller is about to start, and the onus of attacking is on them. The Germans have to trade territory and try to avoid being encircled, focusing on delay, delay, and more delay.

First and foremost, this game is very easy to play. The eight page rulebook – yes, eight! – has only five pages of rules. Amazing! And yet in that content the designer and developer have manged to produce enough variety and tweaking to make this a breath of fresh air.

It’s “I go, you go” with a twist. Each turn, each side gets a number of Activation Points (AP). You have to use an AP to move a formation. You have to use an AP to fight with a formation. (German Panzer units get to fight for free. Whether they will is another matter!) And you never have enough AP!  Part of the challenge is deciding whether to spend AP in the current turn or save them. It’s a terrific mechanism, neatly showing the limited capabilities of real life campaigns: it’s not possible to keep every unit moving and fighting all the time.

Watch those flanks!

The system has sticky zones of control (ZOC) and a combat results table that means if you want to kill the enemy, you have to surround them with ZOCs and get them to retreat to their death. Old school, and effective.

The twist here is that the attacker does all the retreats. A nice touch. (And it makes for easier play using Vassal.)

Supply is straightforward and surprisingly of limited effect. If the defender is isolated from supply, the attacker gets a bonus. That’s it.

The dead pile at an early stage in the proceedings.

The Soviets have a Shock Army – a massive 20 combat strength unit – that they should withdraw at the end of turn four. They can put off that withdrawal at a cost in VPs.

The Soviets also have partisan units – that pop up in rear areas – and one parachute capable reinforcement.

I have played it solitaire several times. There are no real obstacles to solitaire play, though face to face games may well show other strategies.  So far, it’s been Soviet wins. That’s not to suggest the game is unbalanced. It’s probably that my defensive play and sense of timing is less than stellar. Knowing when to withdraw is crucial to success for the Germans. German play is likely to feature few attacks; it’s all about maintaining a coherent defense and avoiding being flanked. Oh, and trying to hold on to VP objectives.

The single (standard sized) map is gorgeous. Joe Youst does great work. The rules are great. There was only one clarification required and no errata so far as I know. (The clarification is that friendly units do not negate enemy ZOCs for the purpose of retreats.) The 200 half-inch sized counters are clear, crisp, and present no challenges to use. There is one cavalry unit with an infantry logo, but that’s scarcely noticeable and of no effect.

The game was originally published in Japan. It was designed by Shigeru Hirano and developed by Roger Miller for release by Revolution.

If you want an easy to play, fun, challenging wargame, this is it. Highly recommended.