Blind Sight – Carol O’Connell

One word review: Beautiful.

Longer review: This is crime fiction with panache: written in honeyed prose dotted with little mines that explode in the middle of some previously routine observation about Mallory – the lead in this book – and the wacky world of crime in New York. It’s crime procedural entertainment where the procedure is irregular, the plot off-the-wall, and the mix all too realistic. Mallory is a wonderful character – I think this is her twelfth outing – but the real star is the prose. The writing is beautiful, different, haunting, and powerful. It’s the type of book you read over and over, indulging yourself in the crafted text.

Plot and Stuff: The story involves a dead nun, whose body – along with three others – is dumped on the mayor’s lawn. Then there’s this blind kid, with a familial tie to one of the victims, and the hit man. Where is the blind kid? Who is the hit man? Who is paying the hit man? And what is the purpose of the killings? It’s a plot that will stretch your imagination in a book that will give you hours of great fun, action, and no little tension and surprise.

You do not need to start with the first Mallory book – Mallory’s Oracle – but if you want my recommendation, to get the best out of the books, do read them in order.

The Shout – Stephen Leather

This is a nice twist on perspective for a crime novel, being a story putting a firefighter front and central in the proceedings, and a female firefighter to boot. Vicky Lewis is a strong character, and needs to be. This young crew manager in the London Fire Brigade becomes shunted sideways into the Fire Investigation Unit, working alongside a non PC male boss, Des Farmer, aka the Grouch. Cue misogynist chatter and all sorts of bruising encounters, but Vicky keeps going.

We know what is going on, because the parallel story thread is told from the perspective of a serial killer, who covers his tracks by setting fires that look like accidents, removing all forensic evidence of his dirty deeds.

Vicky finds about this killer from the Grouch’s private investigation – an investigation the authorities are very much against because, as far as they are concerned, accidents happen and there is no evidence of foul play at any of these scenes. Vicky joins in the Grouch’s off-the-books investigation, and sets off on an adventure dicing with death and destruction.

I enjoyed the story, and learned a lot about fires – at times it felt like I was in a fire safety training session. I am guessing the author thought this was important for context and scene setting, and the realistic detail did not intrude too much, even if it was close. It will be interesting to see if the character merits a series, as I thought Vicky was worthy of more development. Perhaps she will have to move on from the fire brigade?

Good stuff.

Thirteen – Steve Cavanagh

The biggest disappointment about this book was finding out after I had read it, that it was part of a series, and not the first. However, on its own merits, this was a cracking mix of courtroom drama and murder mystery, full of twists and action.

The central feature is that there is a killer who has framed an up and coming Hollywood star for murder. The killer – a serious nutter – wants on the jury to enjoy his kill that much more. Against this seriously dangerous foe is set Eddie Flynn, former con-artist now defense lawyer. The courtroom maneuvers and the investigation intermingle well, the story rattles along, and the end result is a highly entertaining read.

Highly recommended, but not for the squeamish.

Unfinished Business

Jaffa – and several parts of Tel Aviv – are undergoing gradual gentrification. I was surprised at the extent of this.

One block back from the somewhat rundown King George Street, for example, there are newly built, modern apartment blocks, with a price that partly explains why the city is supposedly one of the top ten most expensive in the world.

The old and the new. Near King George Street in Tel Aviv.

In Jaffa, just by the famous Gesher Theater, a tree lined shopping plaza with extensive underground parking, and a mix of boutiques and restaurants, is slowly building in popularity.

Jaffa mall, early morning, before the crowds

For all the challenges this young country has, there is plenty of good news.

There is also plenty of evidence that Israelis still haven’t figured out that asking a native English speaker’s advice is worth doing when it comes to signage.

Suits what exactly?

Do we really think Dor’s groom suits something or somebody? Himself? His bride? Being dressed up? Sold here?

Well, it made me laugh.

The Fallen – David Baldacci

This is a story featuring Amos Decker, the FBI man who has total recall, and sees emotions and events as colors. This particular tale is set in small-town America, namely Baronville, Pennsylvania, where dead bodies are turning up all too often. Along with his FBI partner, Alex Jamison, Decker works at solving matters.

Underpinning the mystery is a current American hot topic which I will not name for fear of spoiling your enjoyment. It’s enough for you to know that whatever criminal enterprise is going on, it seems all too realistic and likely.

Although the storytelling is great, I wasn’t convinced there was much more development of the characters. The backdrop is well done, and the plot revealed in Baldacci’s best style.

Overall, it’s a good read. Not Baldacci’s best, but worth reading.

The Word is Murder – Anthony Horowitz

One word review: brilliant.

More detail: this is a clever modern murder mystery novel with a unique perspective, savvy writing, interesting characters (including the author) in a package that has a beautifully engineered plot, plenty of twists, some laughs, and is just good fun.

Bit more detail: a woman goes in to organize her funeral. Several hours later she is dead. Former Detective Daniel Hawthorne is on the case, and he’s trying to convince a certain Anthony Horowitz to write the story of the hunt for the killer. Bizarre, but it works ever so well, and allows lots of unique touches to pop up. For example, the scene with Steven Spielberg is hilarious.

Don’t miss out.

Heaven and Hell

This month I was able to get together some of the ‘old’ gamers for a session. And quite a session it turned out to be, too.

Avri, Azriel, and Rosalynn were introduced by Efrat to Heaven & Ale, a tile placing game about monasteries and beer.

The rules explanation took a while, but the players seemed to agree that the game was not that complex once you started playing. Of course, there’s a difference between playing the game and being any good at it, as I know only too well.

“That’s a fine – hic! – brewery you have there.”

Rosalynn and Azriel were quite, patient, and dogged. But neither were able to break out of the build up stage and develop a meaningful set of tiles and interactions to seriously challenge the leaders until it was too late.

Efrat, who had played the game before, seemed to be knocked off her stride by doing the rules explanation. Avri seemed to ‘grok’ the game quickly, and he was soon in contention. Then, in the last few turns, he left everyone behind and ran up a massive score. I think it may have been more than everyone else’s score added together…

Although the game seemed a tad on the long side for me, the players were not troubled by that. All had a good time, with a very healthy post mortem taking place to figure out what went wrong and how they could improve things the next time.

While they were brewing their ale, Peleg and I played Commands and Colors: Napoleonics. This is a light wargame, played with blocks on a hex grid, and units being activated by cards drawn from a single deck. There are special cards with surprise effects, and dice to resolve combat. Nevertheless, there is a decent amount of skill in the game.

French still holding on

We played the first scenario, Rolica (17 August 1808). Wellington vsĀ General Henri Delaborde, with the Anglo Portuguese on the attack.

I took the outnumbered French defenders, and Peleg the Anglo attackers.

I rebuffed Peleg’s early attacks using my cavalry as a sort of fire brigade. First it won on the right, then it raced across and won on the left, then it raced back to the right.

I was 4-3 up (needing 1 Victory Point for the win) when Peleg’s artillery produced an amazing bombardment that got him the 2 VPs he needed, for a 5-4 win.

It was very exciting and a ton of fun. We will definitely do that again.

Thanks to all who came, and especially Efrat for bringing along that quite intriguing brewing game.


ASL Catchup

I have been remiss in blogging about gaming, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t been playing – and losing.

A summary of all my ASL games since the last blog post about it would be: I played, I lost. Pretty demoralizing, even though playing ASL remains the most enthralling, engaging, absorbing, and exciting wargame experience I have ever had. The essential conundrum is that the only way to improve is to play, and yet if every play is a loss, it somewhat saps the enthusiasm. I have tried one session as purely an observer, watching Ran and Josh playing a scenario I had already played with Josh. I did learn a lot. Putting the right lessons into practice at the right time is the main challenge.

Also, I doubt – despite protestations to the contrary – that it’s much fun for my opponents to keep on winning. I haven’t figured out a solution, and maybe I never will. But meantime, I am still playing.

Last time out, Ran, Josh, and I played Second City, a 1944 scenario featuring a Soviet assault force (Josh) trying to steamroller through a mixed infantry and tank group of Hungarian defenders (Ran) with a couple of Panthers and decent German infantry support coming on as third turn reinforcements (me). This allowed me to watch the initial turns, trying to take on board the lessons, occasionally asking questions.

Josh’s assault force almost, but not quite, wiped out the Hungarians. Unfortunately for him, Ran exacted a high price. When my force came on in, it was able to put paid to the bulk of the remaining Soviet armor threat, and take up good defensive positions. (I would have struggled to do this entirely unaided, but Ran’s guidance was excellent and he better deserves the credit.) That set of moves plus a flamethrower led attack that wiped out some forward Russian attackers ended the scenario.

ROAR records 17 German wins against 2 Soviet, so the outcome seems to follow the trend and suggests that the scenario is not well balanced.

Now, a pause for lessons learned.

Setup: as defender, do not setup somewhere that the attacker can use his firepower to too much effect. In this case, the Soviets start with a half-track toting 24 firepower, and that is to be avoided.

Gun crew: don’t forget final protective fire.

Tanks: don’t give the opponent a side (or rear) shot, even if it has a low chance of success.

Broken main armament: think about whether you need to repair the gun. Failure gets the tank recalled. Maybe the machine guns will do the job.

Smoke: think about the different ways this can be used, including placing smoke in an enemy occupied hex. Don’t forget vehicle smoke launchers.

Stacks: avoid, avoid, avoid.

I’m sure there were more lessons, and hopefully I have properly absorbed them. Thanks to Josh and Ran for the continuing education, and their patience.

The Red: First Light – Linda Nagata

Military sci-fi with a twist. In the near future, USA soldiers are out on patrol in Africa. Apparently the defense industry has manufactured this conflict – it is not explained how – and Lieutenant James Shelley and his high-tech soldiers are on the hunt for insurgents.

Shelley is not only a good soldier and leader, but he also has this uncanny knack for knowing when things are about to go wrong. Is it a sixth sense, luck, or something else? That last part is the twist, with suggestions that there is another major power working behind the scenes. But you do not get to look behind the veil in this first novel of a trilogy.

What you get here is a large dose of high adrenaline action with some corporate corruption background, and some paper thin and somewhat naive politicking making an appearance. The main character is OK, but there’s nowt else to supplement that, and at the end I was not sufficiently interested in the story line to think about buying the next book in the series.