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.

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.

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?

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.

Driving to Victory

automobiles

Azriel, Rosalynn, Peleg, and Sheer joined me for the last pre-Pesach playing session, and a good one it was.

We started with Automobiles, a game that combines deck-building with a racing boardgame. This was new to Azriel and Rosalynn, but they were quickly up to, er, speed with the game mechanics. Azriel loves combinations, and was happy to do as many of these as he could, even if they weren’t the best for his chances of victory. Rosalynn, Peleg, and I competed to be second to last, as Sheer had decided he wanted to win from the back and stay in last place as long as possible. Come the final lap, Sheer made his break for the front and we all chased him. But a bad draw meant that Sheer’s bold stroke fell at the last hurdle, and I was first pass the post.

We finished the night with a combination of Dominion: Adventures and Dominion: Intrigue. It was very definitely my night, as I built up a stack of gold cards, and nobody else’s combinations got anywhere near to my buying power often enough. (I think most of the other players were still in shock from me winning the last game, as my previous efforts at it have been awful.) So, I managed the rare event of winning the second consecutive game of the night. Hopefully everybody else still enjoyed it…

Thanks to all who came for making another great night of gaming.

Nice Touch

It is customary in Israeli hi-tech companies for employees to receive a bonus or a gift at chagim. At HPE, you were given a choice of gifts, or you could opt for the default option of a gift token worth several hundred shekels. Come the time, an email went round, and you collected your gift or token.

My new employers are a privately owned company, and they do things slightly differently.

Last week, a message went round that the owner would be coming to distribute the Pesach gift tokens. And so he did, taking his time to come round everyone, handing over the token, and offering Pesach greetings. (I had seen him around the office, but this was teh first time I had met and spoken to him.) It took him a while to complete the job, but he obviously thought it was worth doing. I thought it was a nice touch that he took that time and trouble. So, well done that man.

Oh, and in addition, we each received a Pesach gift box of wine and chocolates. Very nice, indeed. Two nice touches!

Finally, because I am unsure when I will get time to blog again, Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach! Pesach is on its way.

The Judas Goat – Robert B. Parker

judas-goat

Fifth in the Spenser series, this one sees the eponymous private eye recruited to track down the members of a terrorist group who maimed a business man, and killed his family. Spenser gets to go abroad, and brings in the mercurial Hawk as an aide. The Montreal Olympics feature as part of the back drop.

The story is straightforward enough, though there is less of the Spenser repartee than usual, and the plot demands a tad too much on convenient events. But it’s entertaining, and certainly flows fast enough.

Not the best of the bunch so far, but neither was it the worst. I’m up for more.

Build that wall!

alhambra2

No, not a political commentary, a game session report…

This week, while Sheer fought the traffic, Azriel, Peleg, Rosalynn and I warmed up with a game of Dominion: Intrigue and Alchemy. One of the cards – Masquerade? – generated curses, and these made for a slow middle game. Azriel kept plugging away at his Golem cards, and Rosalynn had a useful combination too, so both of them scored well. Peleg was put off his stride by Sheer arriving, and the pair of them combined to achieve the lowest score I have ever seen in such a game: eleven points. Considering they started with three, and I gave them three – it’s a long story- that’s bad. Real bad. I guess it shows that too many cooks do spoil the broth. Oh, and I won. (Tee hee.)

Sheer got his revenge when we switched to Alhambra, a game tasking you with building a palace, where the length of your palace wall is as important as the gardens and buildings within the palace. He won. I had a dreadful start, but recovered well enough to finish up second, the others just behind me. It was a first time outing for Azriel, and he usually wins, but not this time. Rosalynn seemed to have a good start, but then got caught with the wrong cards at the wrong time, and she was not able to buy enough. Peleg had also done well, but seemed to lose ground in the third phase, and the game definitely ended at the worst time for him.

Thanks to all who came. Great fun.

Dead Girl Walking – Chris Brookmyre

dead-girl-walking

Somehow or other, despite liking the author’s Jack Parlabane books, I missed out on a couple, and lost touch. I am now putting that right thanks to Amazon and the Book Depository.

Parlabane is (or was) an investigative journalist. Now out of work, and under investigation by the forces of law and order for possibly being involved in the theft of state secrets, he takes on a sort of private eye role for a pop band manageress. She, the younger sister of one of Parlabane’s now deceased friends, is just about to start a USA tour with her group. The problem is, the star of the group – Heike Gunn – has gone missing. Can Parlabane use his usual resourcefulness and disregard for the law to find the star before the public find out, and before Parlabane ends up inside?

The book gives us Parlabane’s perspective – told in the third person – and the first person perspective of Monica, a recent addition to the band who becomes close to Heike. The twin narratives are different in style, too, and you get very different experiences of the plot unfolding because of this. Although some of the twists were a bit obvious, Brookmyre still has more up his sleeve, and more than enough to satisfy this reader.

There’s a good mix of humor and tension, with atmospheric descriptions of the rock and roll touring world, a band in conflict, and the jealousies that success can cause. Throughout it all, regardless of perspective, the writing is slick, smooth, and confident.

A pretty damn good read.

Oh, and one thing’s for sure: the author hates Starbucks. If you read the book, you will know what I mean.

A Song for the Dying – Stuart MacBride

song-for-the-dying

This is very much a change of pace from the Spenser books, this time featuring an ex-policeman (Ash Henderson) who starts the book in prison. He is there because evil Mrs. Kerrigan framed him for his brother’s murder, and nobody will believe he has been stitched up. What’s worse, is that very time Henderson comes up for parole, Mrs Kerrigan ensures there is trouble, and skewers his chances of release.

However, at this point the Inside Man resurfaces. That’s the name given to a serial killer of women who cuts them up and sticks a baby doll inside them. Sick. (there’s a lot of sick stuff in this book. Be warned.). Henderson came closest to catching the killer years ago, and is taken on by a Detective Superintendent in charge of a special task force now trying to get their man.

Of course, Henderson has some other ideas about what to do with his freedom while hunting down the Inside Man.

This is violent, stark, and suspenseful. Occasionally you might get overwhelmed by the number of characters kicking about, but if you can hang in there, it’s worth it.