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Books in January 2019

This was a surprisingly slow month for me, except I guess I’ve been writing stuff for Lyonesse, and at the same time the book that I’d started over Christmas - Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin - is one that I love and really wanted time savour. Hence not much progress there.

The Silk Roads: A New History of the World (Peter Frankopan, narrator Laurence Kennedy)
A fascinatingly different take on world history; well worth the time. I listened to this over a month and a half as the audiobook runs to nearly 30 hours. I did find the narrator's use of accents when quoting sources somewhat irritating, but it didn't detract from the content.

What Ho, Frog Demons (Hydra Cooperative)
This is the fourth in the Hydra Cooperative Slumbering Ursine Dunes sequence. This is the one that covers the broader Marlinko Canton, rather than specific adventure sites. That said, there are also two specific sites for players to explore. The setting is Slavic-weird, with War Bears and demon cults. I quite like it and this made a pleasing conclusion to the sequence. It does get a bit odd and icky in places but overall it feels very different and I'd love to get some adventurer's loose in the Canton.

Witchburner (Hydra Cooperative)
A near systemless book but does have very basic stats for D&D clones. The characters arrive in the town of Bridge, an isolated settlement between two cities that have often been at war, and there is evidence of witchcraft. They are drawn into the search for those that cause the trouble. Will they find out who it is, or will the mob lose trust in them and perhaps assume that they are responsible. The scenario effectively gives them a month to solve the crime. Each key NPC (30 odd) has a backstory, and details of their household and secrets, and rivalries. The characters will likely tip the balance between factions, and tensions will escalate thanks to a ticking clock of events that the GM has. I'd like to get this one out at a con, but I'm not sure if it would need a double session to play it out. Impressive stuff.

Books in December 2018


Autonomous (Annalee Newitz)
This is cyberpunk, updated. The villains of the piece are Big Pharma and the agency that protects patent rights which is downright brutal in its methods of enforcement. The main character is a bio-tech hacker who moves drugs she’s reverse engineered in a submarine. She’s pursued by a self-aware and indentured robot and its master from the agency, who leave a bloody trial of destruction. She rescues an indentured human (once AI/robots were deemed to be sentient, some humans demanded the right to be indentured too, the only difference being that it’s assumed that humans always start free) who helps her along the way as she tries to correct a mistake she’s made. The robot working for the Agency gains limited autonomy at one point and also choses to identify as a different gender.

So we have freedom and rights for autonomous self-aware beings, gender issues, bio-tech, nasty corporations with aligned government agencies, brave hackers and resistance against the regime, all contributing to a modern take on cyberpunk. If William Gibson had written Neuromancer 30 years later, perhaps this is more what we would have had from him. However, I think that his skill as a writer exceeds that shown her by Newitz, and his broken characters were more real - and likeable - to me. I enjoyed this: I could imagine the RPG scenario or film of it, but it didn’t quite hit that five star rating. I’ll be interested to see where her work goes next.


Lies Sleeping (Ben Aaronovitch)
Book 7 of the Rivers of London series, so this was like an easy pair of slippers to get into. DC Peter Grant continues on his beat, and the simmering conflict with the Faceless Man starts to draw to a close. The book moves quickly (although there is a section which deliberately pauses) and comes to a satisfying ending. Not the best in the series, but a good book and one that leaves me wanting to read the next (a novella) which comes out in July 2019.


Forbidden Lands RPG (Fria Ligan)
The Forbidden Lands RPG comprises two hardbound leather-effect books; the Player’s Handbook (character generation, the game engine, combat, spells, journeys, strongholds) and the Gamesmaster’s Guide (principles of the game, history, gods, kin, a bestiary, artefacts, encounters, creating adventure sites and three sample locations). There’s also a large map of the Raven Lands and stickers to go with it, plus a more detailed handout guide to give characters a deeper background.

The game uses the Year Zero engine, as seen in Coriolis and Tales from the Loop. Like both those games, it has been tweaked to fit the setting. In this case, it has become significantly more lethal and dangerous. Characters are fragile, like those in early D&D. The dice pool rolls generate negative outcomes which can seriously mess your character up, making them ‘broken’ and vulnerable to critical. The game engine also moves away from just D6s. Although these are the standard dice, you can sometimes roll a D8, D10 or even D12, all of which can bring much more successes than the D6. You’ll need to be clever and alert to avoid injury.

The game engine also generates willpower points, which are a limited currency. They fuel spells and talents and can only be obtained by failing a roll in certain circumstances. If you don’t fail, you don’t refill your points pool.

There is a big focus on the exploration side of the game, and it is definitely influenced by The One Ring. Players take different roles, and you need to ensure enough food and - especially - water or treks across the wilderness can go horribly wrong. The map doesn’t assume the location of any of the adventure sites in much detail from those presented in the book or in Raven’s Purge. The GM can position them, and use the stickers to mark up the map. If you clear an old ruin or watchtower, you can turn it into a stronghold, creating a mini-game not unlike high level D&D or Pendragon. Of course, setting up a stronghold is only the start of the story; holding on to it is the challenge.

The rules have random tables for the creation of adventure sites, using a D66 in many cases, and wearing the OSR movement inspiration on its sleeve. The usage dice concept from The Black Hack is also adopted for consumables. The principles section would not seem out of place in a Powered by the Apocalypse Game

All in all, the game is a thoroughly modern take on a wilderness D&D style game, with hints of Stormbringer. It reminds me very much of many of the early Fighting Fantasy games, especially with the gorgeous B&W art (which is in a similar style to that which I grew up on). I would like to run this, and I hope to play in First Age’s game.


Forbidden Lands: Spire of Quetzel (Fria Ligan)

The Spire of Quetzel is another book for Fria Ligan's Forbidden Lands RPG. This is a homage to the OSR movement and presents four adventure locations. The title adventure, written by Patrick Stuart, has the characters entering a spire to face a Demon-Queen. The blurb claims that it is very Moorcockian, and I think that's right as I could easily imagine running this with Stormbringer. The second adventure, 'The Bright Vault', sees the characters entering a vault that imprisons demon-spawn that could threaten the world. The sibling spawn all have different needs and motivations which can be played against each other.

The third scenario, Hexenwald, has witches and necromancy, set in an area of forests and lakes not unlike the Black Forest or Russia. The NPCs all have interesting motivations and rivalries that leave plenty of opportunities for adventure. The final scenario, The Graveyard of Thunder, has the characters drawn to an adventure site where one of the last of the Thunder Lizards prepares for its death. They face orc rivals and the threats of a guardian.

I liked this collection, my favourites being 'Hexenwald' and 'The Spire of Quetzel', both of which I'd like to run. This is a short collection of good adventures that will certainly be remembered by the players.


Forbidden Lands: Raven’s Purge (Fria Ligan)
I read Raven's Purge, for Fria Ligan's new Forbidden Lands RPG, at the start of December. This is the default adventure campaign for the game, but don't think you are getting something like The Temple of Elemental Evil or one of the other epic TSR sets. Instead, expect a pretty well written group of adventure locations which mesh together in a unique way for every GM as they will have to place artefacts and use rumours and NPCs to draw the PCs into the heart of the plot. This has more in common with GDW's Twilight's Peak for Traveller than the old epic D&D scenarios.

There's a lot to draw on here, nicely presented. That said, I think the GM will have to put some work in getting this ready (or be ready to manipulate it on the fly). There are a lot of core NPCs which can have varying motivations at varying places. I think the key to this would be to bring it in as a slow burn; ultimately, the characters may end up leading an army to attach the evil Sorcerer that dominates the Forbidden Lands, but they need to grow into that.

The only concern I have is that the game is very lethal, so the chance of playing through with the same characters may be lower than you'd like. That said, this is good stuff.

Review of 2018 Books

65 books read including 4 re-reads and several on graphic novels

Best novel read

Winner: The Labyrinth Index (Stross)
Runner-up: Thin Air (Morgan)
Stross pips this one by keeping me up all night with an absolute page turner. Lyonesse is not on this as I read the first two books originally at the end of 2017

Best gaming book read

Winner: The Sword, the Crown and the Unspeakable Power
Runner-up: Delta Green Handler’s Guide
SCUP wins this by underpinning my best gaming experience this year.

Notable point - I’ve read hardly any graphic novels this year.

Science Fiction (14)
  1. Autonomous (Annalee Newitz)
  2. Thin Air (Richard K. Morgan)
  3. Runcible Tales (Neal Asher)
  4. Mason’s Rats (Neal Asher)
  5. The Parasite (Neal Asher)
  6. The Expert System’s Brother (Nicolas Tchaikovski)
  7. Owning the Future: Short Stories (Neal Asher)
  8. Dogs of War (Adrian Tchaikovsky)
  9. Bridging Infinity (Ed. Jonathan Strahan)
  10. Noumenon (Marina J. Lostetter)
  11. Noumenon Infinity (Marina J. Lostetter)
  12. Lifeboat (Marina J. Lostetter)
  13. Elysium Fire (Alastair Reynolds)
  14. Ironclads (Adrian Tchaikovsky)

Urban Fantasy/Horror (7)
  1. Lies Sleeping (Ben Aaronovitch)
  2. The Labyrinth Index (Charles Stross)
  3. Witches of Lychford (Paul Cornell)
  4. The Lost Child of Lychford (Paul Cornell)
  5. A Long Day in Lychford (Paul Cornell)
  6. Wyntertide (Andrew Caldecott)
  7. Delta Green - The Way it Went Down (Dennis Detwiller)

Fantasy (9, 1 graphic novel, and 4 re-reads of Lyonesse books so 13 total)
  1. Norse Mythology (Neil Gaiman)
  2. Through the Woods (Emily Carroll)
  3. Collected Folk Tales (Alan Garner)
  4. The Letter for the King (Tonke Dragt)
  5. Alice (Christina Henry)
  6. The Red Queen (Christina Henry)
  7. Lyonesse 1: Suldrun’s Garden (Jack Vance) x2
  8. Lyonesse 2: The Green Pearl) (Jack Vance) x2
  9. Lyonesse 3: Madouc (Jack Vance) x3

Spy Novels (3)

  1. The Trinity Six (Charles Cumming)
  2. The Man Between (Charles Cumming)
  3. The Swiss Spy (Alex Gerlis)

Noir/Detective/Crime (2)
  1. Rupture (Dark Iceland #4) (Ragnar Jónasson)
  2. Whiteout (Dark Iceland #5) (Ragnar Jónasson)

Biography (1)
  1. The Princess Diarist (Carrie Fisher)

Contemporary literature (2)
  1. The Reservoir Tapes (Jon McGregor)
  2. Reservoir 13 (Jon McGregor)

Gaming (15 but misses out re-read of SCUP and lots of short books = 16)
  1. Delta Green Agent’s Handbook (Dennis Detwiller)
  2. Delta Green Handler’s Guide (Dennis Detwiller)
  3. The Forbidden Lands Player’s Guide (Beta)
  4. Forbidden Lands RPG (Fria Ligan)
  5. Forbidden Lands: Spire of Quetzel (Fria Ligan)
  6. Forbidden Lands: Raven’s Purge (Fria Ligan)
  7. The Journal of Reginald Campbell Thompson (Cthulhu Britannica)
  8. The Journal of Neve Selcibuc (Cthulhu Britannica)
  9. Tremulus (Sean Preston)
  10. The Sprawl (Hamish Cameron)
  11. The Sword, The Crown and the Unspeakable Power (Todd N. & Tom J.) x2
  12. The Cthulhu Hack (Paul Baldowski)
  13. The Dark Brood (Paul Baldowski)
  14. Cthulhu City (Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan)
  15. Dark Albion: The Rose Wars

Non-Fiction (7)
  1. A Brief History of Time (Professor Stephen Hawking)
  2. The Storm before the Storm (Mike Duncan)
  3. Surviving AI: The promise & peril of artificial intelligence (Calum Chace)
  4. Dungeons & Dragons Art & Arcana: A Visual History (Michael Witwer, Kyle Newman, Jon Peterson, Sam Witwer)
  5. Stranger Things - The Companion (Nick Blake)
  6. Notes from the Upside Down (Guy Adams)
  7. Stranger Things - The Ultimate Guide (Stephen Smith)

7 January 2019

Books in August 2018

Quite a few books, boosted by a holiday for 10 days.

Suldrun’s Garden (Jack Vance)
The Green Pearl (Jack Vance)
Madouc (Jack Vance)
More of a skim read this time, but I went back through the whole of Lyonesse to tag out the elements I’m responsible for writing about using a textual analysis tool called CATMA. Every time I read this trilogy I love it more and more.

Cthulhu City (Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan)
I enjoyed this; the ideas are different and evocative but ultimately the book doesn’t deliver what I expected. It’s very much a gazetteer of Great Arkham and details the individuals that tie it together. Every individual has three options; victim, sinister or stalwart, and each location can be masked or unmasked. Cults are detailed with some motivations and frictions. It’s a toolkit to build a sandbox.

I’d have liked to have seen some more guidance on running a Cthulhu City campaign and how to make it distinctive, perhaps with some ideas for plot arcs and using the noir/pulp feel within the setting. The introductory adventure is good, but it doesn’t really feel tied to the themes within the text. I expected to see more that keys into the backstory and the characters arrival into the city.

The cover art is great but the internals less so.

All in all, I liked this book and will run something set in it, but it didn’t quite hit the mark for me.

Surviving AI: The promise and peril of artificial intelligence (Calum Chace)
A reasonable short overview of artificial intelligence including the work that has been done so far, current fields of study and then extrapolation on what the consequences could be. A good primer.

Runcible Tales (Neal Asher)
A collection of short stories set in Asher’s Polity Universe. Good fun. I read a paper copy four years back, Goodreads tells me.

Mason’s Rats (Neal Asher)
Three short stories about how a farmer deals with the situation when he encounters super-intelligent rats. This amused me.

The Parasite (Neal Asher)
A novella by Asher set in the future. A comet miner comes back with something in him, and the corporation he works for tries to dispose of the awkward and financially damaging evidence. This is classic Asher, black and white, Bond-flavoured action thriller full of technology, space, sex and violence. Hints of the Polity, even if it’s not part of that series. I enjoyed this a lot. Fast paced action thrills.

Collected Folk Tales (Alan Garner)
A pot-pouri of folk tales and poems brought together by an author I love. I enjoyed the collection, and all along the way was seeing the potential of some of the plots and creatures for roleplaying scenarios. It is a mixture - some of the stories evoked more of a response with my than others - but overall worth the time.

The Expert System’s Brother (Nicolas Tchaikovski)
I like Tchaikovski’s work, and this is a cleverly written and plotted story of humanity colonising another planet. However, it didn’t really land with me as I found myself very detached from the protagonist. That may have been deliberate, based on the plot, but it doesn’t draw me to read it again. I may reconsider the 3 stars I gave it on Goodreads though.

The Lost Child of Lychford (Paul Cornell)
I enjoyed the first in this series so have come back for more. This didn’t disappoint. A short/novella length piece, this has similar vibes to the Rivers of London series, with the supernatural touching the real world. It’s just before Christmas at Lychford and foul deeds are afoot. The three witches have to find a way to understand the threat, defend themselves and reality, and save the life of a young child. Good fun.

A Long Day in Lychford (Paul Cornell)
The third book has trouble caused by disagreements between the witches, threatening the threads that bind reality and Lychford together. This accelerates rapidly from one of the witches having a serious disagreement with a local over Brexit triggered by the colour of her skin. Enjoyable, if there are more, I’ll read them.

The Sword, the Crown and the Unspeakable Power (Wheel Tree Press)
A re-read in depth of the PbtA game that I’ll be running at Furnace this year. Good stuff.

Owning the Future: Short Stories (Neal Asher)
The last of the short story collections that I bought recently. I enjoyed this most of the selection we had, especially the expansions on the Owner universe.

Wyntertide (Andrew Caldecott)
This is the sequel to Rotherweird and it works very well. It could have done with a plot summary at the start for what has gone before but it came back to me as I plunged in. The story escalates nicely, but ends in a very Empire Strikes Back moment with the forces of good at a low point. And I need to wait until June 2019 to find how this ends. Great book.

Noumenon Infinity (Marina J. Lostetter)
This is the sequel to Noumenon which I read earlier in the year. It takes the story of the original Noumenon multi-generation mission forward with its return to the web, and adds in the story of another Convoy Mission. Three separate threads twist around each other and then finally meet in a slightly confused ending. It works, but it was a little complicated at the end (even though I’d guessed one of the reveals a while earlier. I’ll look for more by Lostetter in the future.

Book in July 2018

Dark Albion: The Rose Wars
This is RPGPundit’s take on the War of the Roses, effectively giving a Dark Fantasy Game of Thrones type setting for D&D. I’ve been impressed because it walks that line between too much and too little detail. It does need a good proof read and perhaps some light editing, but I could easily imagine playing or running this. There are some subtle jokes in the text as well, but they don’t harm the feel. It’s presented with a minimal of unique rules and could easily be run for any version of D&D.

A Brief History of Time (Professor Stephen Hawking)
I had never read Hawking’s book, having started with Kip Thorne’s Black Holes and Time Warps but decided that I need to correct that after the announcement of his death. I picked up a copy on my Kindle, and then the audiobook from Audible as a cheap upgrade, so I listened to the unabridged edition on the commute. It was fascinating; initially, I was let down by the delivery of the narrator but eventually started to appreciate his style which fitted the book. Definitely worth checking out if you haven’t dipped into it.

Bridging Infinity (Ed. Jonathan Strahan)
The fifth in the Infinity short story collection, this one presented views of the future for humanity. A number of them were climate change scenarios, but there was a good deal of variety. I only found one story that was a struggle but it was worth it once I pushed into the main thread. I’d definitely recommend this sequence of books.

The Storm before the Storm (Mike Duncan)
This was the unabridged audiobook version of the book covering the period of Roman history from the Gracchi Brothers through to the death of Sulla by the presenter of the History of Rome podcast12. It is read by the author, so feels like a more formal version of the podcast. This is a deep dive into the Roman politics and the conflicts that set the stage for Pompey, Crassus and Caesar’s wars and then the collapse of the Republic into an Empire. There are really scary parallels to some of the things happening in politics in the UK and USA right now. I enjoyed this book a lot. It would be a good period to set a historical RPG scenario in with chaos, conflict, confusion, greed and rivalries both individual and political.


Run, do not walk, to listen to the 170 odd episodes of this. It is truly excellent.
As is the Revolutions podcast series he has followed The History of Rome up with.

Book in April, May and June 2018

This has been a busy few months so here’s an amalgamated set of books that I’ve read. I’ve also included a couple of audiobooks which I’ve enjoyed.

Reservoir 13 (Jon McGregor)
This effectively picks up where The Reservoir Tapes – which I read last month – finishes. It’s a very different book; the former comprised fifteen different points of view about the disappearance of Becky Shaw, a 13 year old girl, with the conceit that they were all stories told to a reporter in the immediate aftermath of her disappearance. There is no denouement; instead, you have to piece together connections to try and work out what was going on. This book takes a different form; it is a tale of the years for the village that the girl was staying at when she disappears. We are voyeurs who see the changes and ripples of the event going forward as the seasons remorselessly change. The people of the village are transient compared to the reservoirs and hills of landscape.

Structurally, the book has no chapters as such. Text runs together over periods of time, like a series of notes. It’s not stream of consciousness, but rather a stream of events. We can pick up on an individual for a line, a number of sentences or even a page, but then the text - rejecting conventional paragraphs - just flows into the next event. When you reach a break, it’s always at some natural pause. The structure draws you through and I found it very effective. You also feel the rhythm of the seasons, with the repeated events and the changes that come through as people grow old, move away, fall in and out of love, or die. It’s all set in the context of Bex, or Becky or Rebecca Shaw’s disappearance and the impact that it has on the lives of everyone in the village.

I really enjoyed this book; you are drawn into the lives of the people in it, a passive voyeur, all the while hoping, just hoping, that some kind of conclusion will be found. But eventually, whether or not it is ceases to be a real concern as you find yourself caring more for the lives of the people left behind as they live on set against the slow time of landscape.

Delta Green Handler’s Guide (Dennis Detwiller)
I printed out a copy of the Handler’s Guide to read as part of my preparation for North Star. I’m really impressed with the quality of the book; it’s very usable, well written and beautifully laid out. This is in effect the setting book for Delta Green.

Stranger Things - The Ultimate Guide (Stephen Smith)
Reading in preparation for North Star. This was a very usable reference while I was preparing the game to run.

Delta Green - The Way it Went Down (Dennis Detwiller)
Flash fiction set in the Delta Green universe, much of it culled from mood pieces in the game material. Lots of flavour that leaves you wanting more.

Delta Green Agent’s Handbook (Dennis Detailer)
I re-read the player’s book (which contains much of the rules) for Delta Green just before North Star. Very well done.

The Trinity Six (Charles Cumming)
The story tells about an academic who has stumbled into evidence that there may well have been a sixth agent in the Cambridge Spy Ring, one who has been protected by the UK Government. The discover places him at risk as he searches to discover the truth. I found this an enjoyable read; Cumming definitely has a claim to be trying to be a successor to le Carré.

The Forbidden Lands Player’s Guide (Beta)
This is the retro-styled fantasy heartbreaker from Fria Ligan. I’m impressed with what I’ve read; it definitely lifts from other sources such as the resources dice in the Black Hack along with shades of Dungeon World’s play agendas. It may be a little on the lethal side; I need to explore this a bit more and maybe play it.

The Letter for the King (Tonke Dragt)
This is a Danish Young Adult classic. A young squire is called to adventure the night that he should be completing his vigil to become a knight. It’s a simple story, told well, one that I would have appreciated more when I was younger.

Dogs of War (Adrian Tchaikovsky)
Rex is a Good Dog, a bioengineered corporate soldier who leads a team with a bioengineered crocodile (‘Dragon&rsquoWinking, bear (‘Honey&rsquoWinking and Bee Swarm (‘Bees&rsquoWinking. Master is a corporate troubleshooter, deployed to fight a war in Mexico against insurgents. Atrocities have been committed and Rex and his team have to deal with the conflict between morality, feedback chips and the fact that although they are sentient yet property. I enjoyed this.

Rupture (Dark Iceland #4) (Ragnar Jónasson)
I had an urge for some more Icelandic noir for the minimalist difference so I decided to read the Ragnar Jónasson books that are sitting on my Kindle waiting for the right mood. The fourth of the books with Ari Thór in, this sees Siglufjördour isolated and quarantined because of a dangerous ‘flu case. Thór spends part of the time digging into a closed case from the 1950s when new evidence is brought to him. In the mean time, a reporter contact in Reykjavik helps him out by checking details, and also gets drawn into a separate, brutal investigation. Again, enjoyable, but perhaps failing to land the feel of the quarantine’s isolation and the fear of disease fully.

Whiteout (Dark Iceland #5) (Ragnar Jónasson)
There’s a shift in the style of the series with this book, as it spends more time at the start in the set up to the story without the protagonists. Ari Thór is called in to support his former boss investigating a suicide with suspicious circumstances just before Christmas. Set on an isolated headland with a lighthouse, a farm and a well-to-do family home, you can really feel the remoteness of the place. I really enjoyed this one; the atmosphere builds well.

Noumenon (Marina J. Lostetter)
A SF novel about the journey to another star which has shown anomalous readings to astronomers. Is it an unusual Oort Cloud, an alien mega-structure or something else? Earth is sending of multiple missions into space to explore the galaxy, and this is one of them. It starts with the pitch for a slot in the mission rosters and ends thousands of years later. This is a generation ship tale with a twist; it follows the mission from its inception to its arrival at the target star, but then goes further to explore the changes in society that two thousand observed years of travel brings to both on the ship and Earth itself. Another slight variation to the genre is that, although this is a generation ship, each new generation is born artificially from clones of the first generation. I really enjoyed this; it reminded me of some of the great thought experiments and extrapolations of early SF.

Lifeboat (Marina J. Lostetter)
A collection of three short stories from the author of Noumenon. I enjoyed them, but not as much as the main novel.

The Cthulhu Hack (Paul Baldowski)
Sixth revision printing of the Cthulhu Hack, which features a significantly improved layout with a new font that makes it far more readable with a cleaner look. I think that this is one of the cleverest evolutions of The Black Hack and well worth the time. I need to get this to the table.

The Dark Brood (Paul Baldowski)
A new supplement for the Cthulhu Hack, focussing around the mythos of Shub Niggurath. This gives plenty of interesting material, plot ideas and options for you game. It would be usable with other Cthulhu games and more Lovecraftian D&D. It does link back to an earlier book, From Unformed Realms.

Lyonesse 1: Suldrun’s Garden (Jack Vance)
Lyonesse 2: The Green Pearl) (Jack Vance)
Lyonesse 3: Madouc (Jack Vance)
I spent the best part of two months listening to the audiobook versions of the Lyonesse trilogy by Jack Vance as published by Audible. These are really well done (although the narrator does have some affectation in how he says a few of the words) and listening to the whole - unabridged - work in one fell swoop as definitely worth it. Recommended

Books in March 2018

The Sword, The Crown and the Unspeakable Power (Todd N. & Tom J.)
This was an RPG I backed indirectly last year on Kickstarter thanks to Steve Ellis pulling together a group order. It promised a ‘Powered by the Apocalypse’ engined game aimed to create the kind of power politicking seen in Game of Thrones, as endorsed by Niccolò Machiavelli. On an initial read through, it may well have achieved that aim. Of course, the proof of the pudding will be in the playing, and unfortunately this arrived too late for me to try at Revelation 2018.

The default setting is the traditional western world take on fantasy, but there are notes on using other settings and mythologies. Playbooks have a variety of archetypes who can be common or elite, and may be patrons or agents of others. You can be Crown in this game, but it does expose you nicely. The initial play defines mythology and also who controls what resource. Some moves are powered by spending your honor (effectively a stat that shows your reputation with the faction to whom you are aligned). Each character will have a faction (which may not entirely overlap with their core activities).The Unspeakable Power is magic, from whatever source it comes from.

The game is definitely PVP, across all areas (social and physical) and there is guidance for making sure that the players are all comfortable with this. The X-card gets a run out, as do lines and veils. As one of the playbooks is effectively the Palace Torturer, this is probably a good thing. In conclusion, on initial read this is one of those games that makes me want to get it to the table. I hope it delivers.

Alice (Christina Henry)
I’d seen this book on Amazon a while ago, and had dropped it on my wish list to pick up at some point. When I saw it on the daily deal for Kindle, I snagged a copy straight away. I’m really glad that I did. Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland is one of those books which I read, repeatedly, at a young age. Partly because it was one of the few books suitable for me at my grandparent’s house, but I enjoyed the story as well, especially the clever dark edges to it as reality turns out to be something different to what you expected.

Christina Henry’s take on this is delicious. Alice is locked up in an asylum after a terrifying experience with the Rabbit and more. Her next door cell-mate is Hatcher, an insane murderer who becomes her friend. Events ensue that leads to them escaping the asylum, and heading off to seek revenge on the Rabbit and find Hatcher’s family. They travel deep into the Old City, a dystopian urban nightmare of competing gangs, violence and abuse run by bosses like the Rabbit and the Caterpillar. Although the magicians were banished from both the Old and New City years ago, magic remains, and the Jabberwocky is stalking Hatcher.

I really enjoyed this book; there’s an energy to it, and a darkness that pulls you on. It’s not a nice book; violence and abuse are everyday events in the Old City and both of the protagonists are broken and quite brutal when provoked. If anything, this is partly a journey of them finding what remains of their humanity. I really enjoyed this book, and found it hard to put down.

The Red Queen (Christina Henry)
Having finished Alice, I immediately bought the sequel. Rather than being an urban dystopian nightmare of gang violence, this book is a quest. Hatcher and Alice travel beyond the City to try and find Hatch’s daughter, entering the lands of the White Queen and Black King.

This is not as strong a book as the first novel, as it is far more traditionally linear, more conforming to classical fairy tales. What happens is far less of a surprise and less twisted than the first book. That said, it was satisfying and enjoyable, and I’d love to see more in this setting.

Elysium Fire (Alastair Reynolds)

A new Alastair Reynolds story is always something to look forward to. A story set in the Revelation Space universe even more so. This tale is set in the Yellowstone system (featured in Chasm City, The Prefect (now Aurora) and more), at the height of the Glitter Band. The character Prefect Dreyfus is, once again, at the heart of the story (although it’s more of an ensemble piece with his team this time), and Panoply tries to prevent an existential threat to society whilst dealing with agitation from member communities to secede. I guessed part of the reveal towards the end but not the whole thing. I’m hoping that there are more books about Dreyfus and colleagues.

The Princess Diarist (Carrie Fisher)
I picked this up on impulse; it’s the late and sadly missed Carrie Fisher’s diaries from the filming of Star Wars. The more recent commentary has a lovely, relaxed, almost conversational tone. This is the book where she revealed the truth about ‘Carrison’ as she called the relationship between her and Harrison Ford.

Notes from the Upside Down (Guy Adams)
This was prep for running the Delta Green/Stranger Things mash-up I have planned for North Star in late April. Best reviewed of the various ‘Unofficial Guides’, this seems to be more focussed around the influences on the show rather than the show itself. It’s fair to say that I’ve learnt a lot about John Carpenter, Stephen King and media trivia from the Eighties, but I’m not convinced that I got out of this what I was looking for in terms of material to plumb. Certainly an interesting read.

The Reservoir Tapes (Jon McGregor)
I picked up the novel of the BBC Radio 4 series written by Jon McGregor. It’s an interesting concept. The author describes it as a ‘who dun-what’ rather than a ‘who dun nit’. There are 15 different points of view, supposedly from interviews by a reporter, all about the disappearance of a 13 year old girl while on holiday in a small village in Derbyshire. The book is quite literally the script for the BBC version (which can be downloaded as I write this), and each chapter is an episode. I was hooked from the first interview, which takes the form of an overheard conversation. I have picked up the linked novel Reservoir 13 to read later. It has to be said that I really enjoyed McGregor’s first novel – “If no-one speaks of remarkable things” – but somehow missed the work that he has done since. Something that I need to remedy.

Stranger Things - The Companion (Nick Blake)

A very concise and focused overview of both series of Stranger Things which was much more what I was looking for, yet still managed to cover many of cultural references that Notes from the Upside Down focussed on. Think of this as the gruff Northern version, not wasting its words yet providing more information in a more easily usable state. That said, it didn’t have the edge of dry humour and wit that its competitor had, but it also lacked the many digressions. I preferred this book.

The Fletcher Memorial Home revisited

With apologies to Pink Floyd...

Take all your overgrown infants away somewhere
And build them a home, a little place of their own.
The Fletcher Memorial
Home for Incurable Tyrants and Kings.

And they can appear to themselves every day
On closed circuit T.V.
To make sure they're still real.
It's the only connection they feel.
"Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome, Trump and Pence,
Mr. Farage and Boris, Mrs. May, and Gove,
"Hello Theresa!"
Mr. Putin and party.
"Who's the beardy chap?"
The ghost of McCarthy,
The memories of Nixon.
And now, adding colour, a group of anonymous Latin-American Meat packing glitterati.

Did they expect us to treat them with any respect?
They can polish their medals and sharpen their
Smiles, and amuse themselves playing games for awhile.
Boom boom, bang bang, lie down you're dead.

Safe in the permanent gaze of a cold glass eye
With their favourite toys
They'll be good girls and boys
In the Fletcher Memorial Home for colonial
Wasters of life and limb.

28 February 2017

Jason Bourne


Last night I had the chance for a 'Dad's Night Out' with one of my friends, Tom. We decided to go and see the latest film in the Bourne franchise, Jason Bourne, on a late showing as that allowed us to get most of the parental things out of the way before we went out.

The Vue Cinema in York was pretty deserted when we arrived around half past nine; perhaps the first week of the holidays or the fact that it was the later half of the showings affected the numbers there, or maybe it's just not what the cool kids do anymore. Popcorn and drinks purchased, we settled down to watch the film.

The Bourne films have always had a visceral, direct and gritty feel. Yes, the action scenes are extreme, but they never quite pushed past the limits of credibility the way that Bond films used to, before The Bourne Identity forced a change upon them. Watching them back recently, in preparation for playing the Dracula Dossier at LongCon, they didn't seem to have dated significantly. The fourth film, The Bourne Legacy, although very much a re-tread of the first film, still manages to have an energy and attitude that sets it apart. Of course, Paul Greengrass' direction and cinematic style seen in the second, third and now fifth film, give a really unique near documentary feel.

Jason Bourne delivers what you'd expect and want from a film in this franchise. From the start, the action and plot grips you, pushing you forward with little chance to catch your breath. Bourne is contacted by an old ally from the first film, who has information that may help him to piece together his back story. When we first see him, he's a lost man, with no purpose, no drive; a man moving along a path of self-destruction; a man who has become visibly worn and aged from the experiences he's been through.

The story snakes through Athens with anti-austerity riots, to Berlin, London and then to the USA. The backdrop is a post-Snowdon, Wikileaks and Facebook world, and the underlying story is about privacy in the modern world. It's also a story about Bourne discovering his past, finding the reasons why certain events occurred that put him on the path he travels. The knowledge brings understanding, pain, but not resolution.

One thing that is noticeable is how little dialogue Matt Damon has to speak as Jason Bourne. His tale is more told through action, expression and the words of others. It's a clever use of exposition rather than narrative.

The action sequences include some of the most spectacular car chases that you'll ever see in Athens and Las Vegas; Bourne certainly isn't low profile in this and the likely body count would have been huge.

The story ends, as ever, satisfyingly and ambiguously, with Bourne’s parting shot a reminder never to underestimate him. There's definitely scope for another film, a story yet untold.

31 July 2016

Farewell, Sir Terry, 66 years is too short

Terry Pratchett Books

It's strange how some things hit you. I've known that we will lose Sir Terry Pratchett prematurely since 2007, but wasn't expecting to hear the announcement today when I was driving home.

His books have always been a staple of my life since I started secondary school in 1983, when The Colour of Magic was first published. I can remember reading the adventures of Rincewind the Wizard with glee, and eagerly devouring the next book when it came out. A family tradition was born; every Christmas, my mother and father would always buy me the paperback of the latest Terry Pratchett, along with the annual Tolkien Calendar and probably a Satsuma and a Terry's Chocolate Orange.

At University, his books were my escape from examinations, and I tended to rip through the whole series (back when it was considerably shorter in the early nineties) as light relief and a touch of procrastination. His humour slowly shifted and became more subtle rather than slapstick, but I still found my sides splitting with laughter at unexpected moments.

Now I've children, my rate of reading has massively slowed, and I'm overdue a complete re-read of his books by several years. But the Christmas tradition continued, with a new book each year. Except now he's gone, and a little bit of my childhood with him.

Farewell, Sir Terry. You'll always be remembered through your books and the joy they have brought. But tonight, I will feel sad and raise a drink to you, as you pass into memory with a tall darkly hooded figure with a scythe, a horse, a strange twinkle of starlight in his eye sockets, and A LIKING FOR CAPITAL LETTERS.

Tolkien Cinematic Universe

Today I saw the final part of Peter Jackson's adaptation of JRR Tolkien's The Hobbit, a story that I love and have cherished since I was a child. All in all, I found it a satisfactory conclusion.

Yes, the battle sequences were long and drawn out - in many ways mirroring the approach in The Lord of the Rings’ third part, but they were offset by the moments of humanity in the film with the fall and redemption of Thorin Oakenshield from the dragon-sickness for gold and the conversations involving Bilbo Baggins.

The visuals seemed to be channeling Warhammer, especially with some of the creatures used for steeds and the looks of Dain Ironfoot. Looking at the references in Foster's Complete Guide to Middle Earth, and searching on "Dain”in The Hobbit and Unfinished Tales gives no really hint of Dain's character beyond the fact that he was a doughty and determined warrior who finally fell at the Battle of Dale during the War of the Ring next to his compatriot King Brand1. I guess that this means that this interpretation is as good as any, and in some ways, having Billy Connolly playing him as a Scottish Dwarven Hard-man was an act of inspired genius.

I started to watching the first part, An Unexpected Journey again tonight, and it showed much more of a consistency of characterisation than I recalled, especially around Thorin, the dragon-sickness, honour and bravery. I may revisit these notes after I have re-watched the whole sequence.

Fundamentally, film is a different medium to a book, and what makes a good book doesn't necessarily make a good film. Slavish adaptations often fail. At times, Peter Jackson does push it too far for my liking - the Goblin Town sequence in the first film, the barrel ride sequence in the second, Legolas the Super-Hero, but I suspect that these were aimed at a younger audience than me. They certainly delivered thrills and a counterpoint to the darker parts of the film. However, overall I loved the visuals and the exploration of a tale that I and my eldest love dearly.

I entitled this post Tolkien Cinematic Universe for a reason; the recent Marvel films are referred to as the Marvel Cinematic Universe as they have not followed the existing canon slavishly but have still had a recognisable validity and similarity to the original published works. I think that Jackson's films hit exactly the same spot; lovingly created, but only related to the original.

27 December 2014
1. I’m not ruling out further descriptions of Dain Ironfoot in the ephemera of Tolkien that followed Unfinished Tales from the Book of Lost Tales onwards, but in honesty I gave up on delving deeper into the Tolkien canon at that point. The depths nearly always end up with bad things happening, like Balrogs or Dragons.

Ten Books that have stayed with you.

Ten Books that have stayed with you.
Only missing “Rendezvous with Rama”, which is on Kindle as I foolishly lent out the original.

1. “The Hobbit" (JRR Tolkien)
I'm sure this book will feature in many people's top ten. "The Hobbit” was one of the first books that I read and reread regularly. Yes, its style is not as adult as "The Lord of the Rings", but it is full of joy and adventure, whereas the trilogy has always felt dark and doomed. I have to confess that "The Silmarillion" came very close to taking this spot as the shear epic feel of the sweep of history really hit the mark for me, despite it being difficult to read in some parts.

2. ”Downbelow Station" (CJ Cherryh)
CJ Cherryh writes character driven novels where the science fiction is almost incidental. "Downbelow Station" won the Hugo and the Nebula awards and is a book that I have returned to again and again, and is probably my favourite SF novel. Cherryh writes from the perspective of the character she is voicing, so you only ever know what they know. "Downbelow Station" is a story about the impact of war on people living at Pell's Station during the conclusion of a conflict between different human factions. Space battles, refugees, politics, and love are all in this, and I found the book nearly impossible to put down when I got it one Christmas. I can remember being at my grandparent's house and being unable to put it down. I can also recommend the audiobook, which - despite my having read the novel many times - revealed little details and nuances of the plot that I hadn't really dwelt on when I read it normally. Oh, and once you've read this, "Cyteen" is a must.

3. ”Rendezvous with Rama" (Sir Arthur C Clarke)
My Australian Second Cousin Kathy F gave me this book (along with another cracking tome on aircraft) when she left from staying with us, and it has stayed with me ever since. It's a story about humanity encountering an alien vessel and trying to work out what it is, what it does and whether the entry into the Solar System is just a coincidence. It's short compared to modern novels, and a great story of discovery. My only regret is that the original copy that I had was lost by someone who borrowed it. The BBC radio adaptation is also worth a listen if you can find it.

4. “Postmarked the Stars" (Andre Norton)
When I discovered Andre Norton at Holmes Chapel library as a young lad, I discovered science fiction and fantasy. The first novel in her free traders books "Sargasso of Space" had me hooked from the start with a tale of a young man joining a merchant trader and seeking his fortune in the stars. However, it's the third book in the series that stays with me and so I have named it here. This involved a colony world where all was not as it seemed. I still have the copy that I found at a bookshop in Cornwall or Devon on holiday, and I know that it has heavily influenced my love of the Traveller RPG. I have re-read this many times.

5. ”Winter's Tale (Mark Helprin)
Again, a book that I stumbled upon at the library, probably when I worked there as a Saturday assistant. Sadly, I've subsequently lost the glorious hardcover I had, but I have paperback and Kindle versions. This is a tale of love, of loss and of magic, set in a mythical version of New York. Peter Lake is a burglar who meets Beverly, a girl terminally ill, when he is breaking into her family's house and falls in love with her. Beautifully written, dreamy and evocative, it's not a book that I can read very often but it's one that I love very much. Recently filmed as 'A New York's Winter's Tale', which was a nice adaption.

6. “Neuromancer" (William Gibson)
I found this book - which I'd been looking for following reading a review in Dave Langford's column in White Dwarf - on a book stand while I was away at a Scout Camp. I think it may have been in Bala in Wales. It has stayed with me ever since (and got me into trouble with my father when I got it, as he didn't think it entirely appropriate for my age). It was the novel that crystalised a change in SF and I loved it. The vision it presents is bleak, but less technology obsessed than many of the roleplaying games in the same genre. The plot twists and Gibson's prose crackles with energy. I recently re-read this and had the chance to listen to the BBC Radio adaption which is fantastic.

7. "The Earthsea Sextet" (Ursula K Le Guin)
Le Guin's fantasy series is superb, and very different to many other fantasy series. I read this while at secondary school and loved it. I was even more excited when a further three books emerged over the years since I read it first, and one of my happiest book purchases was when I found the hardback edition so now I have a lovely set. It has meant that the original, well worn and loved, paperbacks can be passed onto Nathan when he is old enough.

8. "The Dark is Rising" Sequence (Susan Cooper)
I'm naming the whole sequence here, but if I had to choose one, it would be "The Dark is Rising". This is a darkly-lensed fantasy tale of a young boy who discovers that he isn't like the rest of his family and has special powers, and is drawn into an age-old conflict between the Light and the Dark. Starting in a family farmhouse, at the onset of winter, in our modern world, this novel was really evocative for me as it reminded me of the Cheshire countryside where I lived. This was an optional text for English at secondary school, but I went out and read all five books, and have done repeatedly. The film adaption, 'The Seeker', isn't brilliant. The film makers were a bit too influenced by Harry Potter.

9. The Merlin Trilogy (Mary Stewart)
This is the sequence "The Crystal Cave", "The Hollow Hills" and "The Last Enchantment". I was introduced to these by my paternal grandmother who was fascinated by the Arthurian legends, the Celts and history. The books very strongly influenced my view of the Pendragon RPG, which I always ran in a more gritty, less Mallory inspired mode. Mary Stewart weaves the Arthurian legend well, telling it from the perspective of Merlin. Her setting is in Greater and Lesser Britain as the Romans retreated, with the island threatened by the Saxons. It is epic, and - whilst told from the perspective of Merlin - the magic is mysterious and low key. It is almost believable. I have read this many times and will do again. There are two linked books; "The Wicked Day" which continues the story after "The Last Enchantment" with a somewhat sympathetic Mordred as a focus, and "The Prince and the Pilgrim", which I have yet to read, and is set within Arthur's reign.

10. "Mythago Wood" (Robert Holdstock)
A magical book, set just after the Second World War beside and inside a tract of primal woodland called Ryhope Wood in the south of England. The wood interacts and generate myth imagos representing the fears and hopes of the people who have lived in and around it. The world inside the wood is far bigger than it appears from the outside, stretching in space and time back thousands of years. The Huxley family get drawn into the world of the wood, full of conflicts and discoveries. The book is beautifully written, evocative and one I love to dip back into. There are a number of sequel/prequels which are also worth considering.

Ten Books... the shortlist
Missing the original Foundation Trilogy, which I am not sure where I’ve stored it!

This post grew from a meme on Facebook, which I found very difficult to finish as there are so many books that have meant so much to me over the years. There were several that - had I been in a different mood - would have made the cut, so I decided to give them an honourable mention.

The first was “Eagle of the Ninth” and its various sequels (“The Silver Branch”, “The Lantern Bearers”, “Frontier Wolf” ) written by Rosemary Sutcliff. Set in Roman Britain, these really fired my imagination (especially with the Legionnairy Fortress of Chester nearby) and impacted upon both my interpretation of Glorantha and the Pendragon game settings.

John le Carré didn't make the cut because although I love his work and will seek out and buy a new novel the moment it is released, I rarely re-read his books. However, his recent novels starting from “Absolute Friends” have been on fire, and he has been griped with a passion and anger that was absent post Cold War.

Isaac Azimov's Foundation Trilogy was a huge influence on me from an early age. My father had a copy of the Pan release with black covers and abstract shapes, and the epic scale of the tales resonated with me. Yes, the characters can be cutouts, but the overall scope is great. The expanded books are also good, but not in the same league for me.

Much as Chester influenced my love of Rosemary Sutcliff's Roman Britain books, another part of Cheshire is entwined in my love of some books. Alan Garner's wonderful, distinct “The Weirdstone of Brisingamen” and its sequel “The Moon of Gomrath” are long time favourites. I loved walking on the Edge at Alderley, and his books capture it and embue the place with even more magic than it naturally has.

Another author whose books have had a great influence on me is Guy Gavriel Kay. Kay is a true gem amongst authors, as most of his books eschew the traditional trilogy favoured in the fantasy genre. He writes well, and creates stand-alone stories in near historical analogues to our past history. One of my favourites is “A Song for Arbonne” but I could easily have picked any of his books.

Finally, how can I end this list without mentioning M. John Harrison's epic “In Viroconium” sequence. He writes beautifully; the sets of linked tales, gradually becoming more and more unfocussed from the dreamy, almost Moorcockian, technological fantasy they open with, shift and twist until they end up in a cafe in Yorkshire. The book is brilliant, and the audiobook even more so.

Actually, mentioning that, I have surprised myself that Michael Moorcock hasn't made this list with at least “Stormbringer”’s brightly paint, fast moving sorcerous war between law and chaos with the albino prince and his demon blade. Visual, probably drug-influenced, colourful and engaging text, worthy of a mention.
November 2014

True Detective


The holiday gave me a chance to catch up on some films and TV series that I’ve wanted to see for a while. One of these was the recent HBO series True Detective, which has had a good reputation amongst the gamers I know. The basic premise is an 8 hour show, split in one hour episodes, set in Louisiana in the USA. The core of it is told retrospectively in 2012 where two detectives are interviewing two of their predecessors (Cohle and Hart) about an investigation into an occult linked murder in 1995 which turned out to be the actions of a serial killer. The new generation of detectives believe that the case has not necessarily been solved as another killing with the same modus operandi has been found.

I really enjoyed the show, although Jill got bored with it after the first two episodes as they were too slow for her. This was actually intentional, as the action suddenly ramps up from episode 3 as they get a break in the case. The first two hours really get you to know the two flawed protagonists. The show mixes a number of occult horror memes together, with Cajun Voodoo, and hints at Robert Chambers’ King in Yellow and the dream reality of Carcosa. It also contrasts the seedy hypocritical dichotomy of US life between middle class values/religion and sex/drugs/prostitution. It builds nicely to a climax, with the story spread episodically over 17 years of the character’s lives.

It’s shot beautifully, even spectacularly in some ways and the director took a conscious decision to shoot on 35mm film rather than digital, accepting that it may be the last time that he does this. The music works really well, subtly enhancing the atmosphere. The interaction between two leads – Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey – is superb, with a tension where they rub each others characters up the wrong way yet work well together.

As a gamer, with a liking for both the Delta Green Lovecraftian modern day setting, and Pelgrane Press’ The Esoterrorists, I found this as great source material. It must be said that there is none of the quasi-military organised action against the occult found in the two roleplaying settings, but you can imagine that it relates a tale of those who are not initiated into the conspiracies stumbling upon the fact that the world is not how it seems. I found myself starting, in parts, to analyse the clues found in the way that the latter game builds its spine of clues. The ending left a beautiful hook to create a sequel to this for either setting. Good stuff.

I really recommend this if you want to try some intelligent TV. It’s the best thing that I’ve watched recently since Utopia (Series 1)1 on Channel 4. Very different to Person of Interest, which is much more traditional in format for US TV; this is far more British in feel. Watch it!

1. I’m currently watching Series 2 of Utopia which is in transmission as I write this, so can’t give a judgement against that yet!

Person of Interest

When I was converted from a Blackberry to a Nokia Windows Phone at the end of last year, I was fortunate that there was a promotion running at the time that gave you a free subscription to Netflix for six months. It’s proved useful, especially with the kids on rainy days! Lego Ninjago and Chima have been favourites.

I’ve mainly used it - so far for catching up on films that I missed when they came out originally, and also when I can’t be bothered to find the DVD. It’s on all the TVs in the house (one as a Smart TV, the others via AppleTV) and also works well on the iPads.

Anyway, I had been on a bit of a spy/thriller kick, and having watched
The Numbers Station and The Expatriate, I decided to try the recommendation from Netflix for Person of Interest. This was a TV series, with the first two seasons online already. I went with it on the theory that I could just bin it if I wasn’t bothered with it.

Anyway, I was more than pleasantly surprised by the serious. The basic plot is simple. Mr Reese (ex-CIA) works for Mr Finch (billionaire software engineer recluse) in New York. They are sent social security numbers by the Machine, an expert system, which represent people who will be either a victim or perpetrator of violence in the immediate future. This kicks off a variation on the Police Procedural Crime Thriller where first of all the ‘detectives’ need to work out who is the victim and why, before they stop it. The numbers are from the Machine’s ‘Non-relevant’ list which is deleted every night, the ‘Relevant List’ being related to Terrorism.

It’s very well written, with good characterisation. This shouldn’t surprise me really, as it is written by Jonathan Nolan, who was the writer behind the film
Memento, and others directed by Christopher Nolan.

It’s also very apt, especially post-Snowdon, and touches a lot of my interests - the spy drama, corruption, AI, surveillance state and so on. I’m pleased to know that there are another 2 series to watch after this one!

The overarching plot arcs are interesting - the corruption of the police through an organisation-known-as-HR set against the rising gangland control of the criminal Elias, and the interactions with the government owners of the machine and those that want to control or destroy it. There are two cop characters who support Reese and Finch - one a very straight laced detective, the other moving on from a corrupt past life.

I recommend this highly - you can get the first two series on Netflix, or on DVD right now.

Mini Review - Neal Asher's Zero Point

(Important - spoilers if you haven't read The Departure, but no worse than those in the blurb on the back of the book.)


Zero Point is the second book in Neal Asher's Owner Series, and continues with the strong - and somewhat unpalatable - themes that he developed in the first book, The Departure. The dedication at the start of the novel really sums it all up: "To all you steady researchers and developer of our technology, for recognising the optimistic road to the future, rather than seeing a slippery slope to doom."

Of course, the Owner Series is about a society that has been on the slippery slope to doom, both societally and ecologically. At the end of the first novel, the protagonist, an anti-hero called Alan Saul, was escaping from Earth on board the Argus Station having decapitated the global bureaucratic dictatorship of 'the Committee' whilst taking the station, and finishing off local controls by dropping their own satellite network on them. The 'zero asset' citizens are freed from Committee oversight, at the cost of the collapse of infrastructure, which potential could lead to their starvation.

This novel meshes three tales together - the emergence of Serene Galahad to reestablish the power of the Committee and the infrastructure of the Earth whilst pursuing a more radical path than her predecessors, the events at the Mars Colony which had effectively declared independence from Earth in the first book, and the events aboard the Argus Station. The plots are brutal, and don't show the nicer side of humanity.

Technology ramps forward without the control of the Committee, as Saul develops his abilities and others have the limits on what they can do released, and the plot twists and turns. Some of the characters - for example Galahad - feel quite two dimensional, but the energy and darkness of the plot drive you forward.

I found that it was quite hard to put down as it draws you in quite effectively, despite finding whole elements somewhat unpleasant. The story goes into areas that few other SF stories do except in the more literary side of the genre (such as The Handmaid's Tale or Nineteen Eighty-Four), with a dark dystopian vision and characters that match. It won't be everyone's cup of hot beverage, but I recommend it for its energy and dark flavour. It directly provides of vision that contrasts technology used for good and for ill, with the difference being the morals of those that wield it.

On Iain (M) Banks

I was sad to hear the news that Iain Banks is suffering from terminal cancer, as he is an author who has meant a lot to me since I first discovered him during a meal break whilst at the University of Southampton. It was when I was working at Silica Shop, unsuccessfully(*) selling PCs in the eyes of the manager, discovering the joys of the back passages and rooms frequented by the staff of the Debenhams in which Silica existed.

(*)I was 'unsuccessful' mainly because I tended to sell people a computer that met their needs and desires rather than a fully loaded and overpriced top end Compaq. Anyway, I digress.

I first encountered Banks through his SF epic
Consider Phlebas, which I found near impossible to put down after I discovered it on the shelf in WHSmiths. I can remember sitting outside on a bench in the cold, unwilling to move as I was gripped by the story, and getting annoyed that I had to go back in. It was glorious, enchanting and fast-paced space opera and so different to the norm of SF from the late seventies and eighties. Absolutely brilliant. I then went and bought everything that he had written at that point - The State of the Art, The Player of Games and then Use of Weapons. That book has the distinction of being one of the few that I've reached the end of and immediately re-read, as I never saw it coming. I moved onto his contemporary novels (published without the ‘m’ ), which are equally good and larger in number. The Wasp Factory was dark, macabre and I couldn't put it down despite intensely disliking it. Few books since have evoked that emotion, much like a film where you want to look away but can't. The Crow Road and Complicity are both great thrillers (and check out the TV series and the film respectively) and Espedair Street is a great rock novel (likewise the BBC Radio 4 version was excellent).

Banks quickly became one of the few authors I bought in hardcover (along with William Gibson and more recently Alastair Reynolds), and someone whose books I really looked forward to.
Excession is a personal favourite in his SF, and the surreal The Bridge in his 'literature'. Feersum Endjinn messed with my head when I read it, as the alternative phonetic and English chapters forced a meshing of gears.

I think his books went off the boil a bit about a decade ago, but even a weaker novel from him was worth a read, often surpassing other writer's best works. I think his work had been back on an upward improving trajectory over the last few years.

And now his next book is almost certainly his last unless there is some kind of reprieve or remission, which he states is unlikely. I'll miss his work, it has brought me great enjoyment. It also holds several unique places in my heart.

Thank you, Iain (M) Banks. You've thrilled me, inspired me and entertained me, not to mention set me on a journey in gaming that I hope I can complete this year.

Reflecting, what makes it even worse is that another of my favourite authors, John le Carré, is 82 this year, so I suspect there are a limited number of books left from him too.

Amazon - killing reading?

I own a Kindle, and it's a wonderful thing. It stores hundreds of books, displays them well, allows instant gratification if you want to read a novel you have heard of (mostly), has a good form factor and excellent battery life.

I fear that the Kindle – and its ilk – will kill reading.

Beyond my parent's love of books – reading with and to me, and the fantastic Children's Book Club my mother joined – two things drove my passion for reading .

The first was the fantastic public libraries that the UK has had for years. In my teenage years I consumed up to 8 books a week, and slightly less when younger. Sadly, this is a system under threat as the present austerity measures, and fall in usage of libraries, take a toll. I have some guilt here, as I don't really use the library these days as the backlog of books I own is too big. Nathan does, through school.

The second was discovering the books that rested on my parent's shelves. I explored, sneaked looks at, and devoured the contents avidly. It drove some of my tastes in literature, which is probably a fusion between my father's love of SF and my mother's love of more literary and historical novels.

The Kindle kills this. No browsing. No exploring. No discovery without purchase.

I worry.

Shattered Dreams

I hate the Jimmy Saville revelations, with a passion. In revealing how he behaved and shattered the lives of people who trusted him and looked up to him, he shatters memories and illusions of goodness to others that were part of my childhood, making the world a worse place. Part of me wishes that this had never come out, but then what justice would the victims have if it was forever buried? Every part of the good works that Saville was involved in is now tainted, and what legacy he left is turned to corruption and abuse.

Plus it allows the BBC to obsess about its favourite subject, the BBC.

The Thick of It

The brilliant Peter Capaldi as Malcolm Tucker - you really should buy the DVD of this series!
Image ©2012 BBC - all rights reserved

I was late in discovering the BBC’s The Thick of It, mainly as the few times that I had stumbled across it flicking channels I'd usually landed in the middle of one of Peter Capaldi's brilliant swear-word filled tirades as Malcolm Tucker, the government's Director of Communications. Landing in the middle of one of these is not something that really endears the programme to you, and I dismissed it as loud and swear-y rubbish passing as comedy.

However, I ended up catching the first episode of Series 4 on TV one night – from the start – when Jill and the boys were in bed. I was hooked, realising that this was one series that you couldn't just drop into mid-episode. I've watched each episode since, through a variety of means (time shifted on PVR, iPlayer and live), and they have been gloriously full of swearing, politics and – in far too many ways – believability. I'm really sad that last night saw the final ever episode, dealing with the aftermath of the Goolding Inquiry (think spoof of Leveson) on leaking, and the demise of Malcolm Tucker.

However, now I have the DVDs of the first three series and specials to enjoy as a guilty pleasure and to compensate for the loss of this brilliant show. Contrary to my original thoughts, this is a fantastic counterpoint to Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister.

Random Holiday Musings

Hope Cove, Early Evening
Hope Cove, South Hams, Devon

I always plan to write a blog entry after I've been on holiday, or even during the holiday. Well, this year I've decided to create a blog by capturing random thoughts and observations over the fortnight. There may be some jumps in continuity, and perhaps a lack of coherence, but I guess it's worth a go. The big challenge will be moving it from my iPad to the blog; I really need to look at Tumblr or Wordpress for my website's blog entries.

We took Aidan and Nathan to the beach in Inner Hope the second day that we arrived, which was popular. Two things stood out. Firstly, Aidan was absolutely fearless about the sea and not bothered that it was cold. He's a few months older than Nathan was the first time we came here, and its later in the year, but he went quite deep and two duckings from tripping didn't phase him. I can see that we're going to have to watch him.

Secondly, Nathan actually got stuck in digging when we started on a canal. In previous years I've had to do all the labouring, but he was big enough to use a large spade and that made quite a difference. I also found what would be better described as a mini-spade, or perhaps trenching tool. Metal bladed, wooden shafted but still only just bigger than a large child's spade, it promises to make things a little easier.


Truly Wonderful
I've just finished Jo Walton's superb book Among Others. Set in 1979/1980, it tells the tale of a fifteen year-old twin who has suffered a trauma, loves SF and Fantasy with a passion, and just might be able to do magic. By magic, I mean the old Celtic magics of subtle influence rather than Harry Potter or Dungeon & Dragons style *Magic Missiles*.

If you like SF and Fantasy, and can appreciate growing up in that period (which I guess puts you becoming a teenager somewhen between 1975 and 1985, or maybe more), then this book will bring back nostalgia for the first time that you discovered other authors or people who shared your passion for the genre. Brilliant stuff, and possibly my best read of the year so far.

Pennywell Farm

If you're ever looking for something to do with kids in easy reach of the A38, Pennywell Farm is worth considering. Entry isn't extortionate, nor the food prices (but bear in mind my last experience was Olympics London). It's a petting farm, and has a ride on a train, a tractor ride and a number of other things included in the price (the only extras we saw were pony rides and cash for powered go kart slots). There are lots of small slides, trampolines, picnic tables etc. scattered around, and a wide variety of animals and activities.

Aidan also learned a valuable lesson about why you don't stick fingers into hen cages, ignoring mummy and daddy. He still has all ten fingers and thumbs.

Best Laid Plans

Jill and the boys both in bed asleep by 9pm tonight (13/8). Perfect time to sort out the layout work that I'd wanted to resolve this holiday. Unfortunately, whilst the wireless is up, the internet connection is very much down. Best read a book then!

I was far too late to bed last night as I got hooked completely by Hugh Howey's *Wool* sequence, which has been released as an omnibus edition on Kindle. It's set in a silo where survivors of a forgotten apocalypse live on, a subtly dystopian society and right up my street after some of the writing that I've done for Wordplay recently. Criminals are sentenced to *cleaning*, made to go out into the toxic wasteland and clean the sensor sets. The title of the sequence is multilayered and not as odd as it may seem at first. I wholeheartedly recommend this, but you may find yourself suffering from the 'one more chapter' problem.

The Other Face
Devon is showing its other face today, with constant rain. Admittedly, it's warm rain, but the beach is out unless we break out the tent and the wetsuits. Jill and Nathan have popped out to Salcombe to look for a present and also do a recce on the swimming pool. Aidan and I just had fun.

Dungeon World
Enjoyed reading the pre-release (and pre-proofing) copy of Dungeon World which I received courtesy of backing the Kickstarter campaign. Loved what I read, but ended up proofing it as it was a PDF and on my iPad. Send it off to the authors, who were happy for the feedback. I'm really looking forward to this being released as it really catches the essence of old school D&D with a modern twist, in a far less crunchy way than Burning Wheel and the more direct D&D derivatives.

Proofing tools
Speaking of proofing, iAnnotate from Branchfire, combined with a Cosmonaut Stylus from Studio Neat, is a great way to proof PDFs on the iPad. The stylus feels like a highlighter and is very accurate, and iAnnotate handles basic PDF annotation really well. I recommend both.

On the Trains
We had our third visit to the South Devon Railway this week, and our second to the Rare Breeds Farm at Totnes (which is at the far end of the line from the start at Buckfastleigh). Both the boys enjoyed this, and Aidan started to show a very independent streak, wanting to walk and go and explore things himself. He was fascinated by ducks, saying "Oh look, duck!" and chasing one of the flocks around their enclosure giggling and going "qwak qwak" at them. He liked the train as well, maybe not quite as much as his brother.

The Farm also has a collection of rescued owls, which fascinated Nathan and gave me flashbacks to the owlet that fell the ground in the garden of the cottage that I stayed at in Devon when I was a child. Naturally, we called him "Plop" after the story The Owl that was Afraid of the Dark.

Tucker's Maltings
Rain was forecast again today, so we looked for another expedition. We wanted somewhere we could be under cover, so settled upon a visit to a working Maltings in Newton Abbot. Of course, when we arrived, the sun came out and was cracking the flags. The site was over a hundred years old, and catered really well for visitors, even 5 year olds like Nathan.

It was very much the industrial process of a century ago, still viable and working. And we got to sample the local brew at the end, which was nice. Nathan was most disappointed that he didn't get beer too! I even managed to put my safety professional head to one side during the visit, which was well organised and the hour passed very quickly. Aidan was less fascinated, but loved the museum at the end where he could run around and touch things.

Afterwards, we had a picnic in the park opposite - not a particularly attractive park, but fresh air and some much needed food to keep the boys quiet.

Are we nearly there yet?
The picnic didn't keep them quiet. Every car journey has been somewhat stressful, ranging from Nathan's question time ("What is there bad like black holes?", "What will happen when the sun dies?", "Mummy, is God dead?", and more) through to manic playing, giggles and squabbles on the back seat. That's the parenting experience, I guess. It's due to turn back to sunny tomorrow, so hopefully we'll be able to get them to burn off some energy on the beach!

My Kind of Traitor
I've started the latest John le Carré novel Our Kind of Traitor, which is deliciously sharp so far, continuing the return to form he has had since Absolute Friends. Something to thank the politics of George W Bush for, I guess, as he fired up le Carré's passion and anger again.

The only dark side I can see came from reading the bio, which made me realise the the author is now 80 and wonder how many more great novels are left for him to write. Many, I hope.

Updated - finished now, and I can recommend it. In common with most of le Carré's work, please don't ready if you expect a happy, Disney-fairy-tale ending.

Grand Day Out

Not quite all day, but most of the afternoon was spent on the beach at Inner Hope, building sandcastles, engineering the surface water outflow route on the sand to create moats and lakes, jumping waves and exploring rock pools. Back home with two exhausted boys, sun-kissed and happy. An incredibly cheap day too, compared to those when it rains!

It was Aidan's first proper day on a beach when he really knew what he was doing. He dug holes, threw sand, paddled in the pools and sea and ran around very excited. He was shattered at bed time!


Missing Opportunities
I think that major publishers don't get digital, and some small press publishers don't see the allure of print. Two examples from this evening follow:

1) Caught up with the Saturday edition of the Guardian, which has an interview with one of my favourite authors (from a young age), Alan Garner. Apparently, he has a new book coming out - always a great thing - called Boneland, which is an adult aimed sequel to his superb Weirdstone of Brisingamen and Moon of Gomrath. Those books have a special place in my heart as they lit up the Cheshire countryside of my youth, and made Alderley Edge an even more special place for me.

So, I go onto Amazon and pre-order the Kindle edition for release on 30 August. All excited, and knowing my Garner books are currently in storage while the extension goes on, I decide to buy Kindle versions of the first two books. These aren't available, and neither are any others in Garner's back catalogue. The publisher has just failed to make two or more novel sales that duplicate paper copies I already have. Isn't it foreseeable that people may want to buy the first two books electronically as well?!

I had a similar experience with M. John Harrison's Empty Space, the third and concluding book in his Kefahuchi Tract Trilogy). Third book is out electronically, but the first two? Again, this would have been duplicate sales for the publishers.

[Update 9/9/2012 - the second book in Harrison’s trilogy, Nova Swing, is now due out on Kindle at the end of September. Hopefully the first will follow.]

2) Smaller press. I'm reading Graham Walmsley's excellent Stealing Cthulhu, an inspiring revisitation of Lovecraft's Cthulhu mythos. Half-way through, I think "it'd be nice to get a copy of Ken Hite's excellent Tour de Lovecraft, which summarises and critiques the original HPL texts. Head to RPGNow, and discover there's no print edition (to complement the PDF I have) available via the Lightning Source POD link. Likewise, nothing on the publisher's site as it is now out of print. Disappointing, as it would be a nice compliment to Walmsley's book. I can get it Kindle… The thing is, it was produced in an age when not having the POD version is completely crazy.

Great day on the beach yesterday with oodles of sand engineering creating a plethora of castles, lakes and canals. Also had fun with Nathan 'wave jumping'; I hold his hand, he jumps, often with a helping hand from me, sometimes with waves bigger than his head. He gets very excited by this. I did have to take him back in though when he started shivering, no matter his denials that he was okay! He'd tried a body board the day before, even hough he was obviously scared by the idea, and loved it.

Aidan excelled himself by falling asleep, mid-lunch, on top of Jill for an hour and a half's nap!

Rain, rain come again

Loading the car to go was a somewhat damp experience as the heavens opened for the hour and a half that I was packing. As usual, we seem to have more for the return journey than the way here. Anyway, we're away and I'm writing this at the Beachcomber Café at Hope Cove (linked to the Hope and Anchor) where we are spoiling ourselves with a full English before we embark on the seven hour drive(*).

(*) Actually 10 hour in the end due to weather and traffic

Nathan's best bits
Nathan tells me that he "liked the beach because it was really nice and there was lots of shells and there was big waves that you could jump in. Sometimes I needed Daddy if the waves were too big. I liked it a lot because it was the best thing in the world".

A success, I think!

Jill's best bits
Jill's answer to the what was your best bit of the holiday was "The beach, Overbecks and the South Devon Railway, especially the salad at the Rare Breeds Farm".

Aidan's best bits
The beach, and sleeping in a grown up bed.

What happened to the Star Wars that I used to know?


Bedtime Reading

We've had a bit of a break from the usual bedtime stories that Nathan has over the last 3 weeks as we've been reading “the Hobbit” night by night. It was actually at his request but I guess that's really my fault. About 6 months ago he wouldn't sleep, so I was asked to read him a story to try and get him to settle. The only problem was that we didn't have any of the books he liked to hand. So I gave him an oral version of the Hobbit as he lay in bed and ever since then he's asked me to tell them about Smaug the Dragon and Bilbo Baggins.

It's been great fun, and he's only been scared once. He asked me to stop doing Smaug voice when Bilbo met the Dragon. Anyway we should have finished it tonight but he fell asleep 3 pages from the end, just before the hobbit returns to Bag End to find all his personal effects being auctioned off by his over-eager relatives!


Jill and I were struggling to decide what story to try next and we're now tempted by the classic "Swallows and Amazons" as he loves the Lake District.

Produced with Dragon Dictate 2.5

Kindling my Reading

I was very lucky for my 40th (more about this to follow) and was given a Kindle by my parents, and some lovely skins and covers by my sister, not to mention lots of Amazon vouchers by a wide variety of people. Whilst I still have a fetish for paper, it’s a great device to read on and reading on is what I have been doing. Here are nutshell reviews of the first five books that I’ve read:

The Reluctant Fundamentalist (Mohsin Hamid)
I heard parts of this and the interesting discussion on it on Radio 4's Book Club and it seemed intriguing. It's effectively a monologue, as you only have the words of the protagonist. It isn't necessarily the most realistic tale, but it sucks you in. Effectively, it's the tale of a Pakistani man who starts by embracing the American dream, but then is slowly repelled by it post 9/11. Well written and a page turner as the protagonist's life and background are unfolded during a meal and a walk with an American stranger.

The Coming Convergence (Stanley Schmidt)
Non-fiction looking how interaction between different rivers of technological development leads to huge changes. Part of background reading for

Rule 34 (Charles Stross)
Stross' latest near future police tale (effectively revisiting the same vibe as the earlier
Halting State) set in Edinburgh with a murder investigation. Good stuff - I'll say no more lest I ruin it. You can google 'rule 34' to get a hint at what underpins the plot. Or you can read the first three chapters on Stross' blog.

Zero History (Wiliiam Gibson)
Gibson wraps up the ideas he's played with in
Pattern Recognition and Spook Country in another really strong near future thriller. Great stuff as you can savour every word. It has forced me start to re-read Pattern Recognition as it's too long since I last read it.

Hull Zero Three (Greg Bear)
A tale set in deep space onboard a slower-than-light starship. The protagonist wakes to a world of cold and horror with limited memories. His journey is significant to the future of the ships as he rediscovers who and what the mission was and what has effected it. Very good stuff.

In case you were wondering...

Wikileaks just lost its link from this site because of this.

WikiLeaks has published its full archive of 251,000 secret US diplomatic cables, without redactions, potentially exposing thousands of individuals named in the documents to detention, harm or putting their lives in danger.

Source: Guardian.co.uk

Although I believe that there is definitely a space for putting things in the open, this steps over the principle of not causing harm where unnecessary. The original releases were redacted to protect individuals who could have been at risk; this release is more like the kind of stunt that Lulzsec or Anonymous pull. Hence no more linkage to the IP address.

Review: 'The Departure' by Neal Asher

The Departure
The Departure is the latest book from Neal Asher and the start of a new series, 'The Owner novels', which sees him move away from the Agent Cormac / Polity universe that will be familiar to his past readers.

Asher is one of the strongest and most prolific voices in SF at the moment. Along with Reynolds, Stross and MacLeod he has put a new vigour in the genre. His ability to write fast-paced, twisting and interesting stories reminds me of the late David Gemmell's novels in fantasy: maybe not the absolute best, but you can guarantee an enjoyable, well written story that will have you wanting more at the end.

The Departure opens with the protagonist, Alan Saul, waking up on a conveyor into the Calais Incinerator without any clear memories of who he was and why he was there, only knowledge of the fact that he had been tortured in an Inspectorate Cell and the memory of the face of his tormentor. He is accompanied by an voice in his head called Janus, that claims it is an artificial intelligence and that it was created at the same time that he wore up. Naturally, Saul sets off to find out who he is, why he was dumped at the incinerator and how he can have revenge on his torturer.

It's a bleak future, completely different to that shown in the Polity novels. Earth is controlled by the Committee, a bureaucratic totalitarian regime trying unsuccessfully to manage the limited resources of a hugely over-populated world. Life has lost its value and brutality and starvation are common. A resource crash is coming and the only likely way to prevent it is the same as the results that it would engender; the deaths of billions of people. The extrapolation is scary, as it could easily been seen as a logical extension of the ways that population, politics and technology have been going since the 9/11 attacks.

The story ranges from the slums of Earth to the orbital majesty of the Argus station and out as far as the small human colony on Mars. The pace rapidly picks up, and the back story is filled in nicely as the plot races on. It resolves well, but leaves the hooks hanging and the stage set for a sequel.

All in all, a enjoyable, above average read that leaves you wanting to find out what happens next, having set the scene for the further books. Truly the David Gemmell of SF.

PS Shout out to Neil Ford for the change to read this. Thanks!

Which Shade of Green?

Green or not Green

We were shopping in Sainsburys when I saw the sign above the soft fruit section which declared how green their green credentials because of the 333 tonnes of plastic that they'd saved by replacing plastic with film lids. That change would also reduce the CO2 generated in transport, as the film is significantly lighter than the plastic lids. It may also have allowed more punnets to the transported in a single lorry.

However, the new film isn't recyclable, which the old lids were. Straight to landfill or incineration as there aren't any other options. If most of the people who bought the strawberries were recycling the lids, then the 333 tonne saving may have little overall effect.

It demonstrates how being 'green' is not easy, as the different challenges and principles are in a dynamic tension. There's no easy way to address everything at once, and it's so easy to accuse people of greenwash when they genuinely think they're trying to achieve something.

The Adjustment Bureau

Jill and I just managed to watch the DVD of The Adjustment Bureau, which is an adaptation of a Philip K Dick short story, The Adjustment Squad. Actually getting the time to watch it was no mean feat in itself, as we have a ninety minute window between the boys all falling asleep and Aidan waking up wanting a milk top-up. We ended up watching in two sittings over consecutive nights, but it didn't ruin the effect.

It's a romantic SF thriller which revolves around free will. The two protagonists, a politician (Matt Damon) and a Dancer (Emily Blunt) seem to be made for each other, but a shadowy organisation called The Adjustment Bureau is trying to make sure they are kept apart because it will upset their plan. Although that should probably be Plan with a capital P.

It's a quiet, thoughtful movie with doses of the sinister and action and good chemistry between the leads. We enjoyed it and I will watch it again. Four out of Five.

The Fraud Police

"The Fraud Police" - AFP's Commencement Speech to NEIA's Class of 2011 from Amanda Palmer on Vimeo.

Video of Amanda Palmer giving a speech to recent graduates. Language may be NSFW.

I think everyone fears the Fraud Police, but if you fear them too much then you’ll never achieve what you set out to do.

RIP Sarah-Jane

Elisabeth Sladen, who played Sarah-Jane Smith in Doctor Who has died, aged 63, from cancer.

I think the Mitch Benn song above summarises what she brought to the role, both in the original series, the relaunch and the Sarah-Jane Adventures.


Prescott says 'Poisonous', I say 'Piffle'.

Prescott AV Poster
Original image is cc(BA) by Steve Punter - http://flic.kr/p/YwQyC

I don’t especially like John Prescott, and when I heard his ‘poisonous’ rant about AV I decided to do this for a bit of fun. He’s proud that he’s the reason that the 1997 collaborative approach with the LibDems was sunk. (“You're a ****ing Liberal. We've got a majority of 160 - what do we want you for?” )

I’ve used AV, and its simple. And it should remove situations where 60% of the local populace didn’t vote for their local MP. It may even encourage more people to vote who’ve become disillusioned that their voice doesn’t matter. And that can only be a good thing for the UK as a society

I may well do a few more posters like this of other big beasts for fun. Winking

Is it February already?

Nathan at the Swings, picture using Hipstamatic

The last week or so has been pretty busy to the extent that, although I managed to get the photos on Flickr reasonably up to date, I didn't manage to get the time to put anything meaningful together for the blog. The reason for this was my fourth week (out of six) on my NEBOSH Diploma. It's always been an intense week, as it involves getting to Leeds on the bus (an hour each way) and a raft of homework questions when I get home, but I've always been able to rely on Jill taking Nathan to and from nursery, something that hasn't been possible this time because of the after-effects of the c-section.

The only way around it was for me to drive and drop Nathan off at nursery (aiming to be there just after they open at 0730hrs) and then join the rat race of traffic into Leeds City Centre. This worked well most days, except the one where Nathan decided that a go-slow was the order of the day.

Week 3 #10
Cutie, posing.

Week 3 #9
In my DJ, bouncing. Thanks to Tom & Kat for the romper suit so he can be so stylish!

Jill and Aidan continue to do well, with Aidan continuing to grow faster than his older brother did. He's already heavier than Nathan was at seven weeks. The only dark cloud on the horizon is the fact that he has developed acid reflux like Nathan; however, we're fortunate in the fact that we could recognise the symptoms this time and the Baby Gaviscon he's been prescribed as a result seems to be doing the trick. I've even got to feed him a few times with milk that Jill's expressed with her new Medela Swing pump, which is much better than the manual one that she had last time. Doing that has definitely moved me from the category of 'not being likely to give me food' in Aidan's eyes, which makes him much more amenable to me holding him.

4Up Combined #2
Look, I can hold him without complaints that he has no food!

We've just completed the fourth week at the new Waterbabies sessions. Unfortunately, we missed the first block due to a combination of illness and the baby's arrival, but we've signed up for a final term, which will be Nathan's last due to his age. The new teacher has been superb, much better than the old one, and Nathan has come on in leaps and bounds (sometimes quite literally!) and has started to get much more comfortable again at jumping in, splashing and has also done a little free swimming between me and the wall. It's a shame that we have to change location again; I just hope that the next teacher is as good. I've been really enjoying being in the water with him; we used to love going for a swim when I was off on a Monday with him and this is just the same.

Nathan continues to be obsessed with 'Octonauts', a programme on CBeebies that a lot of the kids his age seem to love. It's quite fun with a group of different animals living underwater in the 'octopod' carrying out science and rescues. It certainly beats the annoying (and dubious) ZingZillas and the weird hippy Waybuloo. If Nathan gets unsure when we're swimming, I start to pretend that he's an octonaut, calling him by the name of his favourite character. You can see his chest puff up when that happens and he generally gets stuck into whatever he wasn't sure about.


I've also, slowly, been re-reading Ken MacLeod's Fall Revolution sequence of novels, finishing the penultimate one – The Cassini Division – tonight before I wrote this. The novel is pretty gritty SF but does a well executed jump to the epic towards the end without losing the character focus that made it so endearing. I'd recommend the books if you haven't encountered them before and mentioned them in an earlier post.

I also managed to finish the final changes post proofing for Wordplay Core Revised Edition (version 1.3 for those in the know) and it's now available for purchase. We're looking at the possibility of an .EPUB and a hardback edition as well, and I've just commissioned the cover for the first supplement which is 95% ready to go to layout. The second supplement is at the 75% stage, as the core text needs some completion which I may do jointly with Graham Spearing, the game's creator.

Digitally, if you use the Mac, and especially if you can use the Snow Leopard App Store, I recommend OmmWriter (a great text editor that is focussed on composition), Twitterrific 4 (a great Twitter interface) and Sparrow (an IMAP mail application, currently only Gmail but due to expand in coverage in it's next release (which is in private beta). All are pretty inexpensive and examples of focussed and strong programming to achieve a specific aim.

Ken MacLeod revisited


I've been revisiting one of my favourite authors, Ken MacLeod, by rereading his first set of novels (apparently now know as the ‘Fall Revolution Series’ ). I started with 'The Star Fraction' over Christmas, and have just finished 'The Stone Canal'. As well as being good SF, the novels are interesting in that each subsequent story changes to the perspective of another group or person in the previous novel. I was surprised to discover how much the themes has subconsciously influenced the writing of my forthcoming SF RPG, Singularities. I recommend these books - not your typical SF.

Speaking of which, I have had a proof for the cover of that book below, which should be ready later in 2011. It was produced by the very talented Steff Worthington (contact details on request).

Draft cover for Singularities RPG

The King's Speech & Beyond

It was almost like Jill & I were on a date last night, as we went out to the cinema again, but had a quick meal first. I can't remember when we last managed to do that! It was test #2 of the 'go to the cinema, have a baby' hypothesis which was once again unsubstantiated.

We nipped across a misty, foggy Vale of York to Clifton Moor and the cinema there, and arrived an hour or so before the feature, so we went to Frankie & Bennies for a quick pasta dish each. There wasn't really time for anything else, but it was really nice, and it left the chance to get some ice cream at the pictures.

We went and saw 'The King's Speech', with Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush, which was an excellent character driven story of how King George VI overcame his speech impediment. I really enjoyed it – it was very engaging and well written and ended on a high. Recommended.

Today, my mum and dad came back over with Nathan, who has been staying with them in preparation for the arrival of Baby #2. It's his fourth birthday tomorrow, and he's quite excited to say the least. The house is, once again, filled with noise and chaos and it's brilliant! He was in full chatty mode but was very well behaved and went to bed without complaint. We're taking him out for a mini-party tomorrow - just one of his friends and the family too at Crazy Tykes, which is the local children's play area. He'll have a proper 'official birthday' later in the year with more of his friends when things have calmed down a bit! I think my mum and dad have had a tiring, but fun, time with him!

TRON: Legacy

Although I never managed to see the original TRON at the cinema when it was released, I really wanted to and wasn't disappointed when I finally caught up with it. We've got the DVD too, and it still looks gorgeous. I found the plot harder to accept in terms of the technology and processing power around in the early Eighties, but it was a good, fun, romp.

Last night, Jill and I decided that perhaps the best way to encourage the baby to want to come out again was to go to the cinema (theorising that this was bound to bring on contractions perhaps 30 minutes from the end of the film). Also, it was our wedding anniversary (our eighth) and we wanted to do something, even if the pregnancy and my ongoing hacking cough were getting in the way. So we went to see TRON: Legacy.

It was much better than I expected, especially having seen and heard some of the reviews. The 3D was excellent, the soundtrack awesome, and whilst the plot would never set the world on fire, it's at least on a par with Avatar for complexity. There are some bits when the youngerCGI version of Jeff Bridges' character looks a bit flaky, but it is meant to be a digital avatar copy! All in all, good action and lots of fun to watch, and a film that I wouldn't mind seeing again.

So, we had a great time, and I'd recommend it, but the baby didn't decide to try and join us. So, we wait, with only the evening at the hospital two nights ago as a hint that the game may be afoot...

It certainly makes for interesting living!

(Reblog) I am Julian Assange

Something bad happened. Governments around the world, and the U.S. government in particular, decided freedom of speech was no longer allowed on the internet. WikiLeaks was the target. They put massive pressure on EasyDNS.net, Paypal, VISA, Mastercard, Amazon, Twitter, Facebook and PostFinance (Switzerland) to cease business with WikiLeaks. They all caved in, choosing to side with the elites rather than holding true to the principles of freedom. Governments launched DDoS attacks on the WikiLeaks website and forced it offline, while demanding the founder be tried for treason. Others called for him to be assassinated.

Something wonderful happened. The little people recognised that their freedom was being stamped on by the governments. They grew angry. The Governments had blocked every method of donating to WikiLeaks. WikiLeaks pleaded with them to clone its site, to reproduce it in the thousands so that the Government DDoS attacks would be futile. They responded. As of now there are over 1,300 clones up and running and growing every hour. The Government DDoS attack have failed. WikiLeaks is still accessible to anybody who wants - and they have a choice of over 1,300 places to access WikiLeaks.

Something wonderful happened again. The little people decided it was not fair that the commercial companies had betrayed them. They decided to act. Just like DDoS attacks had been launched against WikiLeaks, the little people launched DDoS attacks against PayPal. Mastercard was taken offline for a day. VISA was down for hours. EasyDNS.net enjoyed only sporadic access to the internet. The Swedish government website was taken down due to the attacks. Next in line are Twitter, who are currently suppressing the #wikileaks tag from appearing in its trending topics and who have banned the account of #anon_operation - the little people that were involved in keeping twitterers updated on 'Operation Payback.'

The government is stunned. What they thought as being smart - the taking down of WikiLeaks and finally grabbing control of the internet - has provoked a backlash from the ordinary punter who have taken the route of a Governments worst nightmare. They have self organised, loose collections of people that voluntary offer bandwidth and their computers in support of the 'payback operation.' The little people, instead of sitting down and being quiet, have given the proverbial middle finger to the Government and the companies that acted with gross unfairness.

What you are witnessing is the beginnings of a war. A war over the freedom of the internet. On the one hand you have the Government. They want to tell you what sites you can access, what you can read, they want to monitor you to make sure you are doing nothing that displeases them. You'll know you are on their side if you agree that WikiLeaks should have been taken down by the Government. On the other side, are the people that want to retain the privacy and freedom currently afforded by the internet, without the sinister big-brother eye glaring down upon their every typed word.

Today it's WikiLeaks. Tomorrow, it a complete record of everything you've done online stored for five years and anything the government deems against its interests, taken off-line.

So what can little old you do? You can spread the word. Make sure everybody knows about the undemocratic actions of the companies listed. Contact EasyDNS.net, Paypal, VISA, Mastercard, Amazon, Twitter, Facebook and let them know what you think of their actions. There is only one thing more they fear than the government - YOU. YOU are their business, their lifeblood. YOU are how they make money.

If you have a blog or website, repost this article. We're giving you permission right here, right now to repost it. Or write your own. Everyone needs to get involved in spreading the word. The little people don't expect to win this battle, but there is always the next one.

You can do more though. If you have a server, consider hosting a mirror of WikiLeaks. The more people do it, the more we've won. You can find instructions here.

Reblogged from: http://tzunder.livejournal.com/ who may have reblogged from elsewhere...

If you want to see what the fuss is about, follow the IP address link in the menu. Read the real material, not what the spin doctors want you to believe.

[21 February 2019: Reflecting on this, I do still believe in the principles of freedom of information, however Wikileaks and Assange have become something darker and not worthy of support since they embraced the populist politics of Trump and Putin. Not to mention Assange hiding from a court case for potential sexual abuse. Not good.]

Mitch Benn: Proud of the BBC

Mitch Benn is a fantastic satirical musician, probably most know for his BBC Radio 4 contributions for the Now Show. He’s released a single as a bit of a reaction for the knives that are out for the BBC in the Tory Party. It’s nothing to do with the corporation, but there’s a good chance that it may chart in the Top Ten. So have a listen to the YouTube clip above, and visit http://www.mitchbenn.com/ if you’re interested in getting a copy!

Asteroids and Rama

Two videos here that really interested me...

This is a Film School Project, a mock trailer for Sir Arthur C Clarke’s “Rendezvous with Rama”, which was one of the first serious SF novels that I read, a gift from my Australian Second Cousin, Kathy. It’s still a favourite. I’ve blogged about Clarke before.

The second shows the discoveries of Asteroids from 1980 on and is quite haunting, especially the music which ties beautifully to the visuals...

Musical Wanderings

For some reason or other, over the last few months, the amount of music that I've been listening to and the number of CD and download purchases has increased a fair bit. It may be because I'm not finding much on the video front, as there aren't really any films that I'm waiting for on DVD, or it may be a reaction to workload. When I was at University, I always used to find that my consumption of books and music ramped up somewhat when things were busy. Perhaps it's a form of escapism?

Anyway, one of the big differences has been that quite a few of the albums I've bought include new groups (to me at least) and thus completely new experiences.

Paul Gambochini has a fair bit to answer for, as I listened to part of his 'Class of 2009' which resulted in introductions to 'Owl City' and 'Delphic'. Of the two of them, I prefer Delphic. They have very strong shades of New Order, a band that I used to love and the album Acolyte has been played heavily on rotation, both in my computer, on my iPod and in the car. The album has grown on me more and more and I look forward to seeing more from this band. At the time of writing, iTunes is the cheapest place to get the download version, which includes several of the videos.

Owl City is a completely different kettle of fish. I say 'is' because in reality Owl City is a one man band. Very electronic, very poppy, but great fun. The single Fireflies has been number 1 in the UK – does this make me trendy? – and you'll probably recognise it if you hear it. I got into them with Maybe I'm Dreaming but you'll want Ocean Eyes if you're after the album with Fireflies. It's light, catchy and entertaining stuff.

You can try out either of these on
Spotify, if you have a membership. I was fortunate that someone pointed me at a sign-up link that was still in play for the ad-supported version rather than the full premium one, but it's great service for checking out new albums before you buy them.

I also picked up a copy of Muse's The Resistance, which is something I want to spend a while listening to. Several of the tracks have riffs that remind me of Queen at their best. If you're after this, the CD is cheaper than any of the download sites on Amazon. I liked the previous album Black Holes & Revelations, which lead me into checking this out on Spotify. It's quite a different take on prog rock to what I would usually listen to.

Speaking of prog rock, if you like Pink Floyd, Marillion or Porcupine Tree, you'll probably like Paul Cusick's Focal Point, which is a gorgeous and entertaining album that you can just escape with. You can listen to the whole thing on his website http://www.paulcusick.co.uk/ and also Spotify.

Finally, thanks to Angus Abranson for the pointer to The Eden House, an excellent female voiced band in the indie/goth style. They've got two albums out; the original Smoke & Mirrors (cheapest on Amazon) and the EP The Looking Glass, which is a covers collection (cheapest on iTunes). Great stuff, and I think that I'll be listening to it quite a bit over the next few weeks. Sadly, Smoke & Mirrors isn't on Spotify.

Finally, I have to mention the Johnny Cash cover of "Hurt" by NIN. It takes what was one of my favourite tracks and turns it into something even better; it drips pain and emotion and is absolutely fantastic.

Bubbling away in the background, I'm aware that Goldfrapp have a new album due this month, there's a new Faithless album due this year and that Massive Attack released
Heligoland earlier this month. I'm slowly working through the latter on Spotify, but so far it hasn't grabbed me!


Jill and I finished watching Apparitions, a TV drama series with Martin Shaw that was originally shown on the BBC. Aside from the fact that we had got it in our heads that there were 8 parts because of the number of DVDs in the package, rather than the actual 6 episodes, it was a great bit of TV drama.

It was a dark tale of an exorcist and Catholic Priest, Father Jacob, who had become the focus for demonic activity. Penned by Joe Ahearne, the writer of the excellent
Ultraviolet TV series broadcast on Channel 4 a decade before, the characters were strong, and the plot twisted nicely, with some subtle notes.

The last episode was 'Nathanised'; he woke up 5 minutes from the end from a nightmare, which kind of messed things up a bit, especially when we sat down the night after to try and watch the end and then the non-existent Episode 7. I have to admit that I did wonder when watching Episode 6 how they would fill another two episodes as the drama and action levels had been cranked up, and plot threads were coming together all over the place!

Having done a quick search on the net, it appears that there is little prospect for a sequel, but one can but hope. I'd recommend catching this on DVD if you get a chance.

Apparitions Amazon Ultraviolet Amazon

Gripping Reading

Linked to amazon.co.uk

I'm currently reading "The Road", by Cormac McCarthy, a post apocalyptic tale of a man and his son travelling to what they hope may be safety through an ashen wilderness with no life. As a novel, it pushes a number of buttons for me, especially the father/son relationship and the collapse of society post whatever event caused the apocalypse.

In a lot of ways, I really don't like the story, but there's something about it that just draws me onwards. The only other book I found like this was "The Wasp Factory”, by Iain Banks, which has to be one of the most unpleasant books I've ever read, but something about it just made me keep reading. A great novel, but I had no empathy for the protagonist.

I hope "The Road" ends well for the protagonists, but I fear it won't.

Facebook is Evil?

Facebook is evil. It’s killing blogging, and I watch the updates from my friends and colleagues which I used to love reading for their amusing content and detail, slowing in frequency and even dying out. I miss them.

Facebook is good. It aggregates a lot of short, quick, updates from my friends and colleagues together along with a mass of trivia and fun.

Facebook is a necessary evil?

...What does that make Twitter?

They Work for You!

In my heart, I believe deeply in the parliamentary processes that we have in the UK. So, whilst part of me feels a visceral thrill as MPs left, right and centre are outed as having lost their moral compasses, another part of me winces at the hurt that it is doing to the processes and the reputation of our representatives.

Trust is a difficult thing to recover once it is lost, and I have yet to see a proposal that gives a route to regain it anytime quickly. It’s clear the stables need a good clean, but the stench will last for a long time. Those that weren’t at the trough have been stained by those who were. As our society has increasingly moved to one which seeks divorce rather than reconciliation, I don’t think the reputation of our elected representatives will recover any time soon, as people will be hungry for them to go rather than make amends.

Anyway, if you are interested in what is actually happening in parliament, rather than what the media feels is important about what is happening, then I commend TheyWorkForYou.com to you. It is a website run by a charity – mysociety.org – which seeks to promote democracy. You may be aware of the petition system at the Number 10 website; this was one of their projects. Anyway, TheyWorkForYou.com allows you to find your local MP, examine their voting record, see the speeches that they’ve made, and generally be more informed about what they do against what they say they do.

As an example, I know that my local MP (Colin Burgon, to retire at next election) asked questions on Cuba and other topics most recently. I also know his voting record:

How Colin Burgon voted on key issues since 2001:
  • Voted moderately against a transparent Parliament. votes, speeches
  • Voted moderately for introducing a smoking ban. votes, speeches
  • Voted strongly for introducing ID cards. votes, speeches
  • Voted moderately against introducing foundation hospitals. votes, speeches
  • Voted moderately against introducing student top-up fees. votes, speeches
  • Voted strongly for Labour's anti-terrorism laws. votes, speeches
  • Voted very strongly for the Iraq war. votes, speeches
  • Voted very strongly against an investigation into the Iraq war. votes, speeches
  • Voted very strongly against replacing Trident. votes, speeches
  • Voted very strongly for the hunting ban. votes, speeches
  • Voted very strongly for qual gay rights. votes, speeches
  • Voted moderately for laws to stop climate change. votes, speeches
  • Sometimes rebels against their party in this parliament.

The actual figures are there as well. And the summary of their expenses, albeit not as detailed as the Telegraph has been presenting.

Visit this site and understand what your representative is doing!

A final note; earlier this week, I heard a government minister doing something that I feel is unforgivable on Today, Radio 4’s news programme. When challenged on whether the UK Parliament should dissolve itself and hold a general election as members across all sides of the house had been dishonourable, she replied that this wasn’t necessary, as there was an election at the start of June.

But that election has nothing to do with MP’s expenses; it is about our local services and about how we are represented in Europe. Nothing you do at that election will change Westminster or punish those who have their snouts in the trough. Bear that in mind when you chose who to vote for; what is the best for you and your family? This isn’t the time to punish the MPs who have erred; that will come sometime in the next 12 months. Don’t let them divert the blame!

"Our Small World"

I came across this via an astronomy website, and just can’t stop returning to it. I posted it on my Facebook account a while ago, but thought I’d link it here as well.

The sense of scale just leaves me in awe; and this is small! Once you start to consider the scale of the galaxy itself, and then the clusters of galaxies you realise just how small we are...

Not to mention the music from “The Black Hole” which is pretty much perfect for this.

The Devil in a Forest

The Devil in a Forest is a short (208 page) fantasy novel by Gene Wolfe, of Shadow of the Torturer and Book of the New Sun fame. It's also one of my favourite books, even though I have only read it a few times.

The reason that the book has always resonated with me is its almost claustrophobic focus. Set in an unnamed forest, it is a story with only a few characters, most of whom are close-to, but not-quite, archetypes or ciphers. It has few locations; the village in the forest (with an inn, a forge, a chapel and a few craftsmen), the charcoal burner's settlements, an ancient stone monument, the witch's house, the river, the road, St Agnes' Shrine, and later on, the city. Several of the locations are bit parts, with much of the story taking place in the village itself as the inhabitants come to terms with the decisions that they have taken.

The protagonist is a weaver's apprentice called Mark. Aged fourteen, this could almost be a coming-of-age tale for him, but it is far darker than that. Mostly, Mark is buffeted between the various other characters in the tale, and has to make choices that will determine hist future. He is often confused, unsure and reactive, and all the more human for it.

The decisions taken by the village drive the story, upsetting the equilibrium of this small and limited world. The village elders – the Abbé, the craftsmen, but not the Innkeeper – decide to do something about Watt the Outlaw as his robbery and murder of travellers and pilgrims threaten the income of the village as people have stopped visiting St Agnes' Fountain. (Yes, the more astute of you will have spotted that the story references the Christmas Carol Good King Wenceleslas). But some of the villagers are sympathetic with Watt, and treachery and mixed alliances are the order of the day. Mixing with this is the ambiguous Mother Cloot and a party of soldiers hunting for Watt.

It's a simple story where you never feel certain about what will happen next. Wolfe isn't afraid of killing characters, so you never feel safe. The story is very much driven from the protagonist's perspective, limiting your knowledge to that of the character. Altogether, it's a lovely book.

Happiness is the Road

Marillion LMUSU 13/11/2008 #2
Marillion at Leeds

Well, I went to see my favouritest band in the whole wide world on Thursday, and really enjoyed myself. Thanks to a scheduling snafu, and some confusion, Jill couldn't make it and my friend who I'd hoped could come couldn't either. So it was pretty strange, going out on my own for the first time in years. Even stranger going to a gig on my own for the first time ever!

However, it was great! Marillion always do a great show, and this was no exception. The core of the concert was the new double album, Happiness is the Road, which is only available from their website [if you're interested what they sound like, click the link and go there and they'll send you a free sampler CD or download], with strong elements of the awesome Marbles, and some older bits and pieces. Nothing Fish era, which may disappoint some people, but you can go and see Fish for that!

The album is starting to grow on me, more slowly than I'd have liked. However, that's more a reflection of the 110 minute length, which is much harder to assimilate than a single disc. The gig really showcased the new release, and I left with the anthem-like title-track Happiness is the Road ringing in my ears. If you want to hear the concert, it was recorded and you can get the MP3 download here.

I had a great night, only marred slightly by the fact I wasn't with friends. (How hard can it be to give away a ticket!?)

Currently feeling: Happy
Currently listening to: Woke Up (Happiness is the Road – Marillion (live at LMUSU))
Currently reading: The Second Book of Lankhmar (Fritz Leiber, still!)

"I Want to Believe" - The X Files Movie

On Monday night, Jill and I went to see the new X Files movie, "I Want to Believe" at the Multiplex in York. It was great, much better than the critics would have you believe. It was a low budget film, and really captured the feel of some of the best non-Alien Mythos episodes from the series. They'd carefully focussed away from the massive back-story of the series, making it really approachable.

I recommend getting to see this before The Dark Knight and Mamma Mia! completely swamp it from the cinema. We've been following it up by watching the DVD of the first series.

(We got to see this because Nathan had an extra day's holiday at my parents!)

Album 15: "Happiness is the Road"

Link to Marillion.com

My favouritest (and yes, I'm aware that isn't a real word, but there should be a campaign to make it one) rock band in the whole world,
Marillion, are moving steadily towards giving me a great birthday present. Their latest album, which will be a double album extravaganza, is due in September. It's recently stopping being called 'Album 15' and been called "Happiness in the Road". The disks are subtitled "Essence" and "The Hard Shoulder". They're approaching it in a similar way to Marbles, and self funding it via pre-orders. If you want to know more, here's a link.

The few snippets I've heard are excellent, as ever.

Currently feeling: Chilled
Currently listening to: Blackbird (Marillion, covering the Beatles on 'Unplugged at the Walls'.
Currently reading: Sufficiently Advanced & Mongoose Traveller Core Rules (RPGs).

CJ Cherryh's Russian novels

I've been revisiting a number of books which I originally read in 1992 (gosh, 16 years ago!) written by one of my favourite author's, CJ Cherryh. They are Rusalka, Chernevog and a recently acquired copy of Yvgenie. I've really enjoyed them, but they've been harder work that some of the other books which I've read recently. The books are Cherryh's exploration of her Russian heritage, and quite dark in subject, full of ghosts, magic and dark forests.

The first book,
Rusalka, tells the tale of Sasha, the unlucky pub stable lad, who ends up fleeing town with Pyetr, one of the local ne'er-do-wells, and getting lost in a very dark forest where they encounter a magician and a terrifying ghost. Sasha slowly comes to terms with the fact that he actually has magical abilities himself, and the truth about the ghost is established.

The second book,
Chernevog, was a harder book to read, as Cherryh takes her usual approach of telling the tale from the POV of the characters, who spend a lot of the novel confused as to what is actually going on. However it came to a satisfactory conclusion.

The final book,
Yvgenie, is the one I'm on now. This is a voyage of discovery, as I only found out it was published recently, and managed to get a second hand copy as it is long out of print. It's the reason that I re-read the first two books, as I wanted to remind myself what had gone on before. The story is some 16 years later than the previous book, and deals with a resurgent threat from the past which menaces Pyetr's daughter.

I love Cherryh's writing, and these books are no different. However, they are more difficult to get on with than her usual books (which normally take 50 pages to get me hooked), and have left me wanting to get a clear bit of time to dedicate to reading them. They definitely aren't novels you can just dip in and out of!

RIP Sir Arthur C. Clarke

Picture swiped from amazon.co.uk, where you can buy a copy!

The last week has seen a number of the great and good pass on, but the one that resonated with me was the news of Sir Arthur C. Clarke's death at the age of 90. Clarke was one of the great visionaries of the 20th Century, and many things that he envisaged have come to pass including geosynchronous satellites, sat-nav, a number of space transport maneuvers, and plenty more – such as the space elevator – sit there in development or as tremendous concepts. Clarke also popularised science, and gave the story that became one of the most acclaimed SF films of all time, 2001 A Space Odyssey. Personally, the latter bored me silly although I admired the imagery.

Anyway, Clarke has great significance to me, along with Andre Norton and Isaac Azimov, as his writings shaped my interest in Science Fiction (especially hard SF) at a young age. I was introduced to him by my Australian second cousin, Kathy Finlay, who bought me a copy of Rendezvous with Rama when I was still a young lad. I loved the tale of scientific exploration, adventure and technology, combined with the shear sense of wonder of first contact with an alien artifact. Sadly, the later sequels didn't match up to the first book, but – like the Highlander films – one can always pretend that the later versions don't exist! This sense of wonder had me reading more of his books, then moving on to other authors and genres. Over Christmas, I re-read a number of his older works and they're still valid today.

I got quite annoyed listening to some of the literary intelligentsia harping on about how he was important, but really 'not very good as a writer'. It seems you have to write turgidly like Atwood's (apparently non-SF) post-apocalyptic novel, Oryx and Crake, to be a good writer. I think that time will prove them wrong, and that his significance will be more recognised as the distance grows.

So, rest well, Sir Arthur, wherever you are.


The Whisperer in Darkness

This is the trailer for the latest of the HP Lovecraft Historical Society's films of Lovecraft's dark horror stories. It's shot in the style of a thirties 'talkie', from the era in which it is set. From the trailer here, it looks like it could be even better than the previous film, The Call of Cthulhu, which was shot in the style of a silent movie.

The Dark is Rising

The Dark is Rising Film site.

One of my favourite books of all time is coming to the silver screen. Susan Cooper's 'The Dark is Rising' is to be released in October of this year as 'The Seeker'. There are plot changes, but the trailer suggests that the imagery from the book is mostly intact. I'm really looking forward to this!

The following sites are worth a look if you're interested in the Dark is Rising Sequence:
1) thelostland.com, Susan Cooper's own site.
2) The Dark is Rising Wiki.
3) Wikipedia.
You can also look at my short review of the sequence here.

This was one of the books that really stuck with me when I grew up, and I so hope that they will do it well. The actors look good - Ian MacShane and Chris Ecclestone, so there's hope!


Cover from Legacies
Legacies is a SF novel by Alison Sinclair. I'd been introduced to her as an author through her later novel 'Blueheart', which was a great inspiration for me with two RPGs, Traveller and Blue Planet. Recently I picked up both of her other novels, Legacies and Cavalcade. I found Legacies to be an exercise in frustration. Sinclair can write well, and the story has shades of CJ Cherryh (the isolation of the main character), Arthur C Clarke (Rendezvous with Rama) and a number of the other classics. However, it took nearly three hundred pages of a four hundred and nineteen page novel for the plot to finally kick into gear, and the whole story was made disjointed by the style deployed, ruining any flow.

The tale is a simple one – the colonists, our protagonists, have been settled for five generations on a world which is not especially hospitable. They arrived at the colony having fled Burdania, their homeworld, using an experimental stardrive because the politicians had wanted to shut down space exploration. The stardrive may – or may not – have caused devastation and widespread ecological disaster on Burdania as it did not function as planned. The colony is also home to another post-technological race with which little contact is held. The tale starts with the arrival of a mission back to Burdania to find out the fate of the homeworld. It then intermeshes chapter by chapter with the story of how the colonists finally came to decide to return to their origins. All this is seen through the eyes of Lain, an outsider in the colony who has suffered severe brain trauma in an accident in his youth which limits his ability to communicate normally.

I can't help but wonder is Burdania is a play on the word 'Burden', related to the colonists concerns about the unknown situation on their homeworld.

I did enjoy the book, but the failure to sustain any pace, and the hard work to get anywhere with it means that I would only give it a 3 out of 5 rating. I'll pass it on to my dad to try and thence to the charity shop or Bookcrossing.com as it's not a keeper.

Thud! A Diskworld novel.

I've just finished a Terry Pratchett Diskworld book – Thud! – which I've had in the 'to-read' pile for far too long. Like many of his later books it relies on satire rather than one-liners and mirrors events in the real world as a starting point. This novel tells a tale of conflict between the Trolls and the Dwarfs of the Diskworld and how Commander Vimes of the City Watch is determined not to let it spill over into the city of Ankh-Morpork. Wrapped up in all this is the story of the Battle of Koom Valley, an event that the Dwarfs and Trolls both claim they won.

There is a hint at the sectarian violence in the Middle-East (and I guess Ireland too), with extreme deep-dwarfs who hide from the light under deep robes trying to incite the Ankh-Morpork dwarfs to rise up against the Trolls. And then there is Mr Shine ('Him Diamond!'), a mysterious Troll hero... Meanwhile the Watch tries to stand between it all and keep the peace.

This wasn't the best Pratchett I've read recently – Going Postal fills that niche – but I enjoyed it and wouldn't mind reading it again. The satire wasn't as sharp as usual but it was a fun tale. In summary, it was a humourous fantasy thriller that whiled some hours away...

Some New Books

I've recently managed to start reading again properly and have added a few book reviews in the media section. Enjoy.

I've also stripped out some of the old (non-Flickr) photo albums as they're getting on quite a bit now.

The Children of Hurin

Children of Hurin cover
'The Children of Húrin' sees me return to one of my favourite authors, JRR Tolkien, whom I haven't read since I last visited the Maldives on holiday (2004). Like 'The Silmarillion', this is another of the post-humous tales that Tolkien's son Christopher has pieced together. The story is set in the First Age of Middle Earth, well before the events of 'The Hobbit' and 'The Lord of the Rings'. It's an expansion of a story within 'The Silmarillion', a tale of men within the story of the Elven war of the Silmarils.

Just like Ronseal, it does what it says on the tin; the story tells of the human hero Húrin, and his children, especially his son Túrin. It has fantastic imagery (Túrin predates Moorcock's Elric, but has a black sword and a similar feel of doom), dragons, battles and an all powerful dark lord. The tale is very black and bleak, and reads like a saga. Stylistically, it's very similar to 'the Silmarillion' in form rather than 'The Lord of the Rings'.

This was a welcome return to Middle Earth for me, and I think that I shall read some more there soon. I'd love to find an RPG engine that does the setting justice so I could play some games there; I may find one in October when Graham Spearing runs a First Age game with Heroquest based around these events.

Collected Ghost Stories of MR James

MR James cover
I came very late to MR James, especially considering that I read Lovecraft and Poe back in my early teens. Somehow I missed one of the best English writers of ghost stories, but it's made finding James' work so much more enjoyable now. I became aware of his work from a review in a UK roleplaying magazine called 'The Black Seal', which is dedicated to modern-day Lovecraftian material for the Call of Cthulhu RPG. The review was of the BBC TV adaptation of 'Whistle and I'll come for you my Lad', and peaked my interest.

I bought the DVD (which the BFI had issued as part of its classic British Television series) and both Jill and I enjoyed it. This last Christmas, as we were waiting for the baby to arrive, I was fortunate enough to see another more modern adaptation on BBC 4, 'Number 13'. Both stories were extremely good at building a feeling of menace without the gore that you usually see in modern horror material. This made me decide that I had to read more of James' work, so I went into Wetherby and ordered the collection for the princely sum of £1.99! An absolute bargain.

All the stories are well written – although stylistically they are better if you read them out loud in your head as if you were telling them to an audience – and the plots of most are good at building tension and giving a subtle sense of horror. I think I may well recycle one or two into an RPG scenario in the future. The only issue I have with the collection is that the stories are best read (or should that be devoured?) in a single sitting, so it can take a while to work through the book if you're reading it late at night around a small child.

Since I read this, I've also been fortunate enough to watch 'A Warning to the Curious', another BBC adaptation of an MR James story. I whole-heartedly recommend that as well!

The Secret Pilgrim

A few weeks ago, Jill asked me if I was on some kind of spy obsession based on what I'd been watching. I guess I have been, in the main due to a slow burning fuse lit by reading John le Carré's novel Absolute Friends last May. Le Carré was one of the authors who really made an impression on me at a young age at the start of secondary school. Along with Tolkien, Cherryh and a few others he was a favourite for a long time, but somewhere along the way I lost the passion for his writing. I think it was around the time of 'the Night Manager' or 'Our Game' which really left me cold.

Anyway, I picked up a few of his books at the local Oxfam, when I had gained further enthusiasm from seeing 'The Constant Gardener' on DVD. 'The Secret Pilgrim' is the first of these books. It's fair to say that it has sat around for a while, but that is more due to Nathan's arrival more than anything else. I also had a slight detour in the BBC TV adaptation of 'Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy' and 'Smiley's People' and have the somewhat enticing 'A Perfect Spy' to watch sometime in the future.

Anyway, 'The Secret Pilgrim' is a novel, but in a very different style to the norm. It reads more like a selection of short stories than a full novel, but there is an over-arching plot in the form of the reminiscences of the main character, Ned. Ned will be familiar to readers of 'The Russia House', but I have to confess that I haven't read that book in perhaps 20 years. Ned works in the Circus (British Intelligence) and is approaching retirement. The cold war has ended and the winds of change are blowing through the intelligence community. Ned has been sidelined into running the Circus' training facility for new recruits. The story begins, and ends, at a special meal held at the end of an intake's course. Ned has asked George Smiley to come out of his reclusive retirement and give the after dinner speech. As he does, memories of triggered of Ned's life in the Circus from his first assignments to his last ever before retirement. We see the changes that years of duplicity and moral ambiguity impart to Ned, punctuated with gems of wisdom from Smiley. Along the way there are a number of what would best be described as rants, putting forward Smiley's and Ned's world view. The crux seems to be that the world has changed, but it doesn't diminish the need for spies. However, it does change how they need to operate, and who the friends and enemies are.

'The Secret Pigrim' is a quietly compelling book. It isn't le Carré's best, but it's a worthwhile read, and a telling assessment of how the world changes.

Eragon and At the Edge of Space

I've finally worked my way through the book that I was reading when Nathan was born, 'At the Edge of Space' by CJ Cherryh.

Cherryh has long been one of my favourite authors and this compilation was an opportunity to discover two of her earlier works which I'm not familiar with. She has never been an easy author to read, often taking up to fifty pages for the story to really take a grip. This is partly a result of the way that she tends to write novels from a very narrow viewpoint. They are written from the perspective of the principle character, and the read discovers what is happening as the character does. There is virtually no narrative exposition of the plot-line to expand and fill in; you get to live it as the person who you are reading about does. Both of the novels within the book explore a theme that Cherryh has returned to time and time again; the experience of being a stranger in a different culture.

In the first book, Brothers of Earth, two human survivors from opposing warring factions need to integrate into an alien culture more backward than their own to survive. In the second book, Hunter of Worlds, the principle character is an alien who has been kidnapped by the extremely powerful race which used to rule his world. He has to make sure a human in a similar position also integrates, because failure could result in the death of a human world. This is a clever set up with nested levels of isolation and difference from the dominant culture.

Both novels in the books are a very satisfying and enjoyable read, but demand that the reader becomes absorbed with the character's plight. Fortunately, that isn't too difficult. Lightweight, it isn't. This is hard SF with good characterisation and plotlines.

The next book I've read is very different to At the Edge of Space; I've had it for far too long and feel relieved that I've finally read it, if only so I can stop being sheepish about it every time I see my mother, who bought it for me perhaps 2 years ago.

It is, of course, Eragon by Christopher Paolini. The first thing to say about this is that it isn't literature! It's much more in the tradition of a pulp fantasy novel of the type that seems to fill thousands of turgid trilogies. However, it was a surprisingly fun, if lightweight read. The writing does – at some points – feel like it is an English Language writing assignment as there is a lack of a natural rhythm to it, but it is very fresh and energetic. However, as Paolini wrote this when he was 15, and has been successfully published (albeit initially by his parent's publishing house), I don't feel I can criticise this too heavily.

It held my interest, which is a big plus, and in parts it reminded me of David Eddings' early books in the Belgariad before his writing became bloated and repetitive. That is a compliment in my mind, as there are few people who have written as approachable fantasy as Eddings. However, it doesn't quite hit the same levels as the Belgariad, and it does feel very deriative in other parts. This isn't to the point of plaigarism, but rather to the point of feeling like it's a teenage Dungeons and Dragons Dungeon Master's first home-built game world made up of all his favourite fantasy stories stuck in a blender. The other authors that particularly called out to me in the text were Tolkien (with a resemblance to the city of Gondolin in The Silmarillion) and Anne McCaffrey (with her Pern books). For all the comments I make here, I would like to read the sequel to this – Eldest – sometime, if only to see if the plot signposts are as obvious as I think they are!

Dom 22/4/2007

At sixes and sevens...

Struggling with reading at the moment due to a number of things - misplaced books, and time being the main ones. I'm juggling between a CJ Cherryh collection...

...which I managed to lose for a fortnight by leaving it in a bag... Secrets of San Francisco....

...an RPG supplement for Call of Cthulhu.... and two others – The Collected Ghost Stories of MR James, and Eragon....

...which is a book I've had for far too long. The James is excellent, and I'm really looking forward to reading it, especially as I ordered it at Christmas. I'm more nervous about Eragon, because it's been so hyped, and I'm hoping that it isn't going to be as disappointing as Harry Potter was. The Cherryh novel is actually two of her earlier books, and both of them focus on people lost from their own culture. Reading the first one has reminded me just how well she does that style of novel, and the way her stories are always so character driven (unlike a lot of SF).

(No picture here for the MR James as there's none on Amazon).

Bombs (Radio Edit)

Album Cover
I think that this speaks for itself...
We think we're heroes, we think we're kings
We plan all kinds of fabulous things
Oh look how great we have become

Key in the door, the moment I've been longing for
Before my bag hit the floor
My adorable children rush up screaming for a kiss
And a story they're a gift to this world
My only claim to glory
I surely never knew sweeter days
Blows my mind like munitions
I'm amazed

So much heaven, so much hell
So much love, so much pain
So much more than I thought this world could ever contain
So much war, so much soul
One man's loss, another man's gold
So much more than I thought this world can ever hold

We're just children, we're just dust
We are small and we are lost
And we're nothing, nothing at all

One bomb, the whole block gone
Can't find my children and dust covers the sun
Everywhere is noise, panic and confusion
But to some another fun day in Babylon
I'm gonna bury my wife and dig up my gun
My life is done so now I got to kill someone

So much heaven, so much hell
So much love, so much pain
So much more than I thought this world could ever contain
So much war, so much soul
Moments lost, moments go
So much more than I thought this world could ever hold

So much more than I thought this world could ever hold
So much more than I thought this world could ever hold

So much heaven, so much hell
So much love, so much pain
So much more than I thought this world could ever contain
So much war, so much soul
Moments lost, moments go
So much more than I thought this world could ever hold
'Bombs' by Faithless from their recent album 'To All New Arrivals'.

If you want to see the video, it's here on YouTube
If you want to buy the album, it's here on Amazon

'Winning the Peace is harder than Winning the War'

The Year of Our War & Pushing Ice

Link to The Year of Our War on Amazon
I recent read a refreshingly different fantasy novel. It was 'The Year of Our War' by Steph Swainston. This could – very easily – have been traditional fantasy fodder. A multi-racial empire with an eternal emperor supported by 50 immortals of 'the circle', who are the best of the best, is threatened by the Insects. These are large, ant-like hive creatures that have appeared in the north and are trying to turn the world into a large paper hive. There is no communication, and no hope of a peace.

The story is written from the perspective of 'Comet, the Messenger', one of the Immortals who is also hooked on drugs. Something changes, that shifts the balance between the Insects and the Empire, and all hell breaks loose, compounded by politicking between the Immortals. There is also a hint of Lovecraft's 'Dreamlands'. Very different, very nice and I'l be looking for some more books by Swainston in the future.

This is definitely one of the best fantasy novels I've read in a while.

Link to Pushing Ice on Amazon
"Pushing Ice" is excellent - it was harder to put down than Alastair Reynold's previous book, "Century Rain", as the plot kept on jumping forward in time. It's a good read – I'm not sure if it is as good as "Chasm City" or "Revelation Space" but very enjoyable. It's also the third different world that he's set novels in.

The basic premise is that a corporate ice-comet mining ship (in 2057) is directed to enter a first contact situation when one of Saturn's moons (Janus) suddenly starts accelerating out, revealing that it is really an artifact. The ship (Rockhopper) pursues to try and find out more, co-opted as an agent of the equivalent to the UN. Trouble ensues!

It's good, hard SF space opera.

Woken Furies

Richard Morgan's Woken Furies is his fourth novel, and the third in the sequence with Takeshi Kovacs in. It's not a trilogy, so you could pick up any of them as a starting point.

It's very enjoyable and tautly paced with some interesting ideas. The ending is kind of a deux-ex-machina, but – unlike Peter 'I can't finish a full length novel well' Hamilton – there are sufficient hints and pointers along the way to make it a plausible surprise.

The big difference in technology from most modern cyberpunk is the use of 'stacks'. These are implants at the back of the skull that most people have which download their personality. So if you are killed, you can always be downloaded into a new body aka sleeve. And interstellar travel is mainly by needlecast - people are beamed and downloaded into new bodies. You don't die unless your stack is destroyed.

Kovacs is an ex-UN Envoy. Which means that he's a very nasty warrior who is now freelancing, as the Envoys are the UN Protectorate's enforcement arm. The UN is effectively the world government. In the novel, Kovacs has returned to the world of his birth (Harlan's World) which is a water world run by an oppressive regime. When the story starts he's carrying out a one man vendetta against a sect on the planet. Complications ensue, including the return of a 300 year dead terrorist... And then there are the orbitals that cordon of the skies of the world, built by the 'Martians', destroying any aircraft moving too high or fast with 'angelfire'...


Another review salvaged from my posts at The Tavern.

How things stay the same!

Yes Minister Box

I was fortunate enough to get a copy of 'Yes Minister', the 80s satire on UK politics from Jon for my birthday. Along with 'Blackadder' (which Jill has), this was my favourite comedy show from when I was growing up. We've watched two of the three series now, and it is scary how little things have changed. Similar issues are discussed and debated to those we see in the press today; for example, a national database and ID card scheme!

The Dark is Rising Sequence

Dark is Rising Cover
I've just had a fantastic trip down memory lane, and re-read the whole Dark is Rising sequence by Susan Cooper. I enjoyed it a lot the first time around (when I was eleven, just starting secondary school) and it was quite scary.

Reading it some 23 (!!) years later, it's not as scary, and but it's still very well written. The strongest two books of the five (which are now also available as a single volume) are the second – The Dark is Rising – and fourth – The Grey King. These have a harder, darker edge, probably because they are about a character (Will Stanton) who is far more initimately involved in the struggle between 'the Dark and the Light' than the characters in the first and third books. These two – Over Sea, Under Stone and the Greenwitch – deal with three other children who are also involved in opposing the Dark. I suspect the fact that there are three children – and the two books are set in Cornwall – triggers some memories of the Famous Five.

They are childrens books, with the characters initially around the same age as I was when I read them. I guess this sets them directly against Harry Potter, but to me they are far better.

Originally posted to The Tavern

A Mixture from my Holidays

Absolute Friends (by John Le Carre) was excellent. This was the first Le Carre novel that I'd read in a while, and I can see why certain establishment figures objected to it, claiming that it was a rant against the conflict in the Middle East. However, it is probably the closest that Le Carre has got to the style of his Cold War novels in a long while; like those books, it is a story of betrayals and relationships, a study of human frailty against a bigger backdrop. I think that it is worrying that the current geopolitical situation lends itself to one of the old masters of dark spy fiction returning to form!

I followed this with The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell. This is an interesting book on how ideas become epidemic. It tries to identify the factors that will make something – an idea, a product – wildly popular. It's certainly worth a read, although not necessarily applicable in any easy way. It was an impulse buy at the airport on the way to France.

I followed this with a book which I have meant to read for a long time, but never got around to: Diaries - Alan Clark. This charts the former Tory minister's rise in the party. He always entertained me by his refusal to be politically correct. Well worth a read. I'll be looking up the rest at some point.

I then read a splash of Horror - Chaosium's Lovecraftian compilation The Antarkos Cycle which has lingered on my shelf for the last two years. I bought it shortly after I got 'Beyond the Mountains of Madness' (a huge and detailed RPG adventure for Call of Cthulhu) and it certainly gives a good feel for setting games in the southern-most continent. The last true Antarctic part of the book is the original novel that inspired 'The Thing'. The final two stories are of lost cyclopean cities elsewhere in the world.

Cobweb by Neal Stephenson was one I missed when it came out originally. Indeed, it didn't even appear as one for me to buy until I saw it at the airport. It claims to be a wicked satire on US politics and conspiracies around the time of the first Gulf War. It has conspiracies, murders and shenanigins galore. I'm not certain it is a satire... It is co-written with the same gent who wrote 'Interface' with Stephenson. Good fun!

The final book was Star Hunter / Voodoo Planet by Andre Norton. The book has two short stories set in the SF universe that is very reminiscent of the game, Traveller. The second story is a Solar Queen one (read the others on the Solar Queen to understand Traveller Merchants)! Excellent fun. The problem is that it gets me itching to play the Traveller RPG again!

(I originally posted this at the Tavern. )

Oryx & Crake - Margaret Atwood

I recently read Margaret Atwood's 'Oryx and Crake'. Now, if you all remember the buzz at the time of its release, this was literature, not science-fiction, according to the critics.
Oryx & Crake
And that's probably a good thing... The first two hundred pages, I was wondering 'why?' I was reading the book. It didn't give the brief promise that Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell did. Fortunately, around two hundred to two fifty pages in it started to go somewhere, and the story of the world begins to be revealed by the protagonist's – Snowman – flashbacks and memories. It is a tale of how the world died. The ending is an attempt to leave it open in the mind of the reader as to how things will work out. I normally like these, but didn't really get on with the execution here.

It is well written, but it isn't compelling. I wasn't expecting taughtly plotted character driven narrative, but I did expect more than I got. The plot was, to say the least, feeble.

There are some interesting genetic engineering ideas and takes on the world, but off the top of my head, Greg Bear's Blood Music and Richard Morgan's Market Forces have each covered some of the ideas better.

(I originally posted this at the Tavern. )

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Susanna Clarke's "Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell"... how best to describe it?

I think that the best analogy would be a pedal-cycle ride. You start off in this pretty, but old fashioned, valley, and then start the hard work pedalling up hill. Steadily, but with some effort you slowly rise, wondering why people recommended the route until you reach this final rise, 300-400 pages up. All of a sudden, you crest the hill, Jonathan Strange has been overseas and you can suddenly see wider vistas. Hurtling over the edge, on the road down you can freewheel as you rapidly plunge into a fantastic, impressive but altogether darker valley below. You hit your top speed at the bottom, and gently begin to slow down...

Reading JS&MN was pretty much like that. I was nearly getting bored for the first 400 pages, and then it exploded into life. I wholeheartedly recommend this book! All 1000+ pages of it.

(I originally posted this at the Tavern. )

Music... my iPod's Top 20

I was an early-ish adopter for the iPod, getting my 30Gb unit July 2003 as a present from my wife Jill after my Chartered Engineering interview. I came across some software that allows you to look at the most played artists since the iPod has been collecting data. What was interesting was that the final list had some groups I didn't expect there... (this data was originally collected in March 2006, but took a while because of the ISP fun and games).

The stats list the number of plays for each artist so far.

1. Marillion - 1426
Marillion coming top didn't surprise me, as I already knew that their last album "Marbles" topped my most played song's list. When I got the album at the start of 2004 I found it hard to stop playing it. Even now, I still hear new things when I listen. At some point I should split this into Marillion with Fish as lead singer and with Steve Hogarth. I suspect that the later material will dominate.

2. Simple Minds - 1032
I am surprised that Simple Minds came second here – I'd actually expected them to come further down. They were my favourite group in secondary school before I discovered Marillion, and the mental soundtrack I had of "New Gold Dream 81-82-83-84" helped me through GCSEs and A Levels. However, my listening to them declined over time. I'm guessing that their second place came because of "The Silver Box", a collection of demos and live performances combined with their legendary missing album "Our Secrets are the Same" which I got Christmas 2004 and played heavily. The recent album "Black & White 050505" has also been a favourite!

3. U2 - 722
Similar to Simple Minds, U2 were favourites from school and University. "The Unforgettable Fire", "Achtung Baby" and "War" have always been albums I've loved. I did expect a lower place though.

4. Faithless - 546
I first consciously hear Faithless when I was on the first holiday away with my now-wife. We were on the Greek Island of Zante, and the local bar was playing "We Come 1" repeatedly. I bought the single after that. Last year, for some reason, I realised that tracks like 'Insomnia', 'Reverence' and 'Salve Mea' were also by the same group, and I ended up buying several of the albums off iTunes. They've been played a fair bit since!

5. R.E.M. - 483
R.E.M. have always been a favourite since I heard 'Losing my Religion' when I was away on my pre-University year out working up in Cumbria. I'd expected them to come higher in the chart, as I've played their last two albums quite heavily. "Around the Sun" was awesome!

6. Pink Floyd - 423
I became a fan of Pink Floyd while I was at University – it was one of the things my first wife and I shared as a passion. We had used to joke that here we were in the 1990s, 20 years after here parents had been at University and we (students generally) were still listening to the same stuff! My only regret here was that we didn't get to the Earls Court concerts supporting "The Division Bell", as it looks unlikely that they'll tour again.

7. Goldfrapp - 384
A more recent addition to the collection. I first heard Goldfrapp when the TV was on in the background one Sunday, with the very slinky track 'Tiptoe' on in the background. A scan of the preview tracks on amazon.co.uk showed that this was actually a little different, but the rest of them were excellent too. I ordered both the CDs they'd released on the spot! The first album, Felt Mountain, reminds me of some 50s and 60s films on an epic scale and is very very different to the usual run of the mill. 'Black Cherry' is much closer to the widely played 'Supernature' album which recently topped the charts. All are worth a good listen.

8. The Cure - 312
The Cure are a band I've always had a love/hate relationship with. I've the 'best of' album, and one that I loved at secondary school 'Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me'. I tend to play them a lot when I'm in the mood.

9. Keane - 273
The track 'Everybody's Changing' sold me on Keane very quickly. The piano and change from the usual dirge that a lot of British rock was really refreshing. I was a bit concerned that their second album wouldn't match up, but the first few listens that I've had have been excellent!

10. Depeche Mode - 245
A big surprise here. I like Depeche Mode, but can only attribute their tenth position to the recent album sending me on a nostalgia trip! It'll be interesting to see if they are still here next time I look at this.

Just bubbling under....

11. Massive Attack - 222
12. Lloyd Cole - 190
13. Nine Inch Nails - 180
14. The Killers - 175
15. Remy Zero - 170
16. Manic Street Preachers - 168
Spartan Fidelity - 162
18. Moby - 148
The Modern - 145
20. New Order - 144

The Modern being there is a particular achievement, as they only have about 5 tracks at the moment. I can't wait for their first album!

Fun Films

I've just watched a film that's well worth it for a bit of good old fashioned fun – "Wedding Crashers". The first half is a little cringe-worthy, but it's fun. The second half wraps it up just nicely. Jayne Seymour does just disappear though! I suspect that's just the cut though! Naturally, our two wedding crasher love-able rogues more than meet their matches!

Wedding Crashers

Of course, it doesn't match one of my all time favourites for this style of love romances, the exquisite "Down with Love". If you haven't seen it, you should check it out - Renee Zellwegger and Ewan McGregor are truly excellent! Bittersweet and funny, it always leaves me with a smile.

down with love

Okay, so it's a bit of a difference from the usual SF and art-house films I'm usually watching, but the change is worth it some times!

Reading Stats

I've added the reading stats under the Books section. It was 85 books at the end of the year!

Reading Retrospective

Nearly two years ago, I looked at my 'to read' pile and realised that it never seemed to go down any further in size. I became pretty curious to work out just how much I was reading so I decided to start to track the books that I was reading on an Excel spreadsheet. The first year saw me (just) break the hundred book barrier, but this year it's looking like the end count will be around the low-mid eighties. I'm guessing that the dropped numbers are a combination of the change in my job at work hitting free time, and the fact that I have read a fair few RPGs this year. For some reason, they always take longer!

I was lucky enough to be given a number of new books for Christmas, with quite a range. Current affairs (Robert Fisk's book on the Middle East) through to history (Atlas of the Year 1000, Persian Fire), Humour/Fantasy (Terry Pratchett and Lynne Truss' "Talk to the Hand") through to SF (Stross' Accelerando and Ken MacLeod's latest). So the reading stockpile is as high as every. On top of that, I've a few RPGs to read like the new Deryni Game, and the new edition of 'The Burning Wheel'.

The Call of Cthulhu

I've just spent an excellent weekend in London, spending Saturday at Dragonmeet, running Traveller for BITS. However, as we had an abundance of helpers, I got the chance to visit the various stands. The standout material at the show was that produced for Call of Cthulhu by the HPLHS (HP Lovecraft Historical Society). Amongst this was a Region 0 DVD, of their silent 1920s / 1930s style B&W silent film version of The Call of Cthulhu, Lovecraft's classic mythos tale.

CoC DVD cover

Having watched it, I wholeheartedly recommend it. It's never going to be your blockbuster style Hollywood movie, but it's a great way to pass an hour. If you're in the UK, Leisure Games took all the remaining stock.

To add icing to the cake, I also picked up their Props and Fonts CDs. The first one is a collection of PDF files of 1920s artifacts – such as passports, drivers licenses, library cards and newspapers – that can be modified at will. The second is a collection of fonts taken from a 1920s font book. They've been scanned and turned into True Types (which work in Mac OS X and Windows). As a bonus, one of the fonts is a script based on Lovecraft's own hand.

DVD selection

We've been catching up on films we missed at the cinema recently, and the last week saw us through three on the list – War of the Worlds, Kingdom of Heaven, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

We kicked off with H.G.Wells' classic, redone for the present-day by Spielberg. The effects were brilliant, and action steady, but somehow it just didn't do it for me. Now, part of the reason for that may be the legacy of Jeff Wayne's musical version, which was a big influence on me when I was barely into my teens. Morgan Freeman's introductory narrative jarred, because it just wasn't Richard Burton.

Into the film, and we see Tom Cruise playing a variation of the arseh*le character that he made his career with. A divorced father of two, he looks as if he is what the characters in Top Gun and Days of Thunder would have become when their arrogance finally led to a real fall. I found it hard to be sympathetic to him until later in the film when his impotence against the alien invaders became apparent, and his fear of loosing his family took over. One sensible change was that the aliens were no longer 'Martians' – it would have been hard to justify after the amount of exploration missions to Mars that as the setting is the current day.

The arrival of aliens was dramatic – not the capsules of the original book and films, but a very dramatic lightning storm and a personal capsule for the invader. It was pretty impressive, as was the CGI when the war machines emerged from the ground. But therein lies another issue for me. The claim was that the war machines had been there all along, buried, waiting for the invasion. This just didn't seem right to me, so I'd like to propose an alternative; the invading forces actually drop a penetrating device with a nano-tech programmed building device to create a war machine. The dramatic lightning was power to initiate the seed's growth. The humans assume that the war machines were buried because the technology is so far ahead of their current usage. Works for me!

So War of the Worlds is worth it for a wet and rainy night in, but it isn't on my list of DVDs to buy. Next up was Kingdom of Heaven, Ridley Scott's new epic film. I love Scott's direction and photographic style. The way he uses light and dark has always impressed me, and I own a fair few of his films so I really wanted to see this. In addition, my recent purchase of Crusader Rex re-ignited my love of the period.

I was pleasantly surprised by the film. As I expected, it looked gorgeous. It did have the whole epic film feel, but it didn't manage to achieve the same emotional engagement that Gladiator did. I think it suffered from two things; firstly, the theme of Balian (Orlando Bloom's character) seeking redemption never really comes out clearly enough in the story to make you feel bothered for the character. Secondly, the whole film feels very truncated. Watching the additional 'Pilgrim's Way' subtitles that link the decision behind the film to historical reality makes it clear how complicated the real-politick that was going on was. There are hints of this in the film, but it never seems to be developed properly, probably because it would need too much screen time. This leaves an enjoyable, but flawed film. I could see myself watching this again, but I may wait and see if a director's cut comes out that has some more of the politics in before I buy it.

The final film of the three was Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. This was Tim Burton's re-imagining of Roald Dahl's masterpiece. I never much liked the Gene Wilder version, and hoped that Burton's dark and weird approach would really reflect the book better. And, I think it did. The imagery, the whole attitude and style was brilliant. It was pretty faithful to the original and Johnny Depp was fantastic! I only surprised that Michael Jackson hasn't sued!

Wholeheartedly recommended. I will be buying it, but probably once it drops from the initial launch price. What's the point of paying £15 to £17 when you can get it for £7-8 four or five months later?

Two very different films

The last two weekends we've been to the cinema to see films with friends and family. The first of these was Working Title's new cinema adaptation of Jane Austin's Pride and Prejudice. This was always going to be a brave film to make, especially after the BBC TV version had become the definitive version for many people, even to the extent that Colin Firth almost reprised the role in Bridget Jones' Diary.

Now, I wasn't a big fan of the BBC version – possibly influenced by the many times that I had been forced to read it when doing my English Literature GCSE back at the end of the eighties – but Jill was, and we both had different reactions to the film. I really enjoyed it, especially Donald Sutherland's fantastic performance as Mr Bennett. The look of the film was far closer to how I imagined it when I read the novel than the more opulent BBC version was. Jill had two main objections; firstly, that Kiera Knightley was not as good at portraying a strong character with a passionate spirit as the actress in the TV series was, and secondly that Mr Darcy wasn't played by Colin Firth. Now, I could argue that the former didn't seem to be an issue to me, and the latter was a positive advantage, but I think that I'd lose!

The second film we went to see was Serenity, Joss Whedon's Sci-Fi film. Whedon is justifiably respected as a scriptwriter for his more recent TV shows - Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, which captured the hearts of a wide range of the teens to thirties market in a similar way that Chris Carter's X Files did at the start of the nineties. As the two shows wound down, Whedon was working with Fox on a new Sci-Fi show called Firefly. This was set out on the frontier, an ensemble piece about the crew of a free trading merchant ship 'Serenity'. The core of the crew are survivors from the losing side of the civil war between the frontier and core worlds. Much like Buffy, and the earlier SF series Babylon 5, the storyline had an ongoing plot arc and was character driven. There was a dark, but delicate, humour to the whole show. But it tanked in the US, and was pulled after only 11 episodes were made.

Now, Fox themselves demonstrated an ineptitude that is near unbelievable. They skipped the pilot, and showed the series at varying times and out of sequence. Is there any surprise that the show tanked? Anyway, Whedon – and Firefly's – fan based agitated hard and managed to get the whole show released on DVD. All of a sudden, it was a big seller, and Fox looked somewhat silly. Whedon still had the movie rights, and a deal was signed with Universal. The result is Serenity.

Serenity follows up the story from where the series ended, winding up some of the plots, but leaving others to resolve in the future. It's been very cleverly written to ensure that you don't have to have seen the series, as most of the key background facts are revealed without resort to a character driven info-dump. The background of the Tam twins (unjustly fugitive siblings from the core worlds) is probably the most complex part of the back-story, and that is carefully revealed along with one of the movies' villains. The whole story is action filled, but character driven, building to a satisfying end which I won't reveal here. We both really enjoyed this (and even my mum did!), so try and see this if you can!

Now that's what I call customer service.

When I was building up the Block game Crusader Rex, I noticed that there were some starting position details missing on two of the Kurdish pieces, and another one was misprinted. Because the rules for the game are pretty clear, I soon worked out where the starting position was (Damascus) and wasn't really worried about the glitch.

I was really surprised when yesterday the post arrived, along with a letter of apology and replacement labels from Columbia Games.

Now that is real customer service!