What have the Romans ever done for us?

This was on my mind tonight.


North Sea Hijack (aka 'ffolkes')

aka "ffolkes"

I'm not sure why this film from 1980 sprang to mind last weekend, but it obviously made an impression on me when I saw it on TV in my early teens. I couldn't even remember the name, just that it was set in the North Sea and had Roger Moore in it. Google (or rather DuckDuckGo) was my friend. "North Sea Hijack" it was. Or "ffolkes", if you were in the US.

It's a reasonably simple thriller at heart; a North Sea supply ship is hijacked, and an oil production rig and drilling rig (whose majority shareholder is the UK government) are held to ransom. The Prime Minister - a Margaret Thatcher clone - and ministers decide that the only way forward is to engage ffolkes, a wealthy eccentric specialist retained by Lloyds of London to help defeat the hijackers. With less than 24 hours to go, the film is an enjoyable action romp as plans are made and changed as circumstances shift. Roger Moore is joined by James Mason and Anthony Perkins who seem to be enjoying themselves.

The one part of the film that hasn't aged well is Roger Moore's character's misogyny. This was a deliberate part of the plot in both the book and the film, and his character has a background story that explains why. The narrative for the film itself makes it clear that he's meant to be a dinosaur, and has some knowing looks between characters when he's at his worst, but it definitely jars. I don't think that it would have been written like this today but, to its credit, the film and character's responses to ffolkes are very clear that the attitude shown is wrong.

Nathan watched it and enjoyed it; the underwater sequences and the characters facing off were his favourites.

10 March 2019


Captain Marvel (Spoiler free)


We had a family outing yesterday to see Captain Marvel at the Vue in York, despite all the hate that certain sides of the internet have been spreading because it has a strong - and vocal - female lead. We all really enjoyed the film[1]. For me, it wasn't the best Marvel Cinematic Universe film, but it was right there at the top. I'd put Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.1, Black Panther and Captain America: The Winter Soldier above it, but it was really close.

The film has interesting character development, a diverse cast and a great action plot. It meshes the more traditional Earth-bound MCU movies with the films with the more space-bound films, and leaves a great set up for Avengers: Endgame later this year. I quite liked the way that we saw some of the Kree before they become villains in the earlier films. The digitally de-aged Samuel L Jackson is splendid and brings his best singing voice to the film! The second cut scene is funny too. I'll never look at our cats in quite the same way!

10 March 2019
[1] Captain Marvel[2] is 'cool in both ways' according to Nathan (12). I've not managed to get him to expand on that yet.
[2] And I believe it should be Captain Mar-Vel according to Carol Danvers (although Nicky Fury disagrees).

Books in January and February 2018

I’ve added in the roleplaying games now, as I share this entry on The Tavern forum as well and that place includes RPGs in the ‘books read’ section unlike the late lamented UK Roleplayers site. I won’t be including part read RPGs.

The Journal of Reginald Campbell Thompson (Cthulhu Britannica)

This is a prop for the Cthulhu Britannica: London setting’s Curse of Ninevah campaign. I’d owned the PDF version for a while, and decided to pick up a physical copy when Cubicle 7 sold off their stock when their licence from Chaosium ended. Of course, as I was ordering the book, it went out of stock so I ended up tracing a new copy down on eBay. Hardbound, it’s the same kind of size as a Moleskine and tells the tale of an ill-fated expedition to Nineveh by a team from the British Museum. It isn’t the full story, but it does a grand job of teasing what went wrong. It’s enjoyable, and I think that players will lap it up if they get the chance to find and read it in the game. It’s not essential, but it’s a lovely extra.

Tremulus (Sean Preston)

This was a re-read of a ‘Powered by the Apocalypse’ game which I backed on Kickstarter some time after I picked up Dungeon World. I’m planning to run it at Revelation, a roleplaying convention in Sheffield which will be over by the time that I post this. Tremulus is a game of Lovecraftian horror; it has a very bleak feel and the characters are very much expendable. I like the simplicity of the approach, which combines effectively with a structured playset approach where the scenario is built by asking questions.

The Journal of Neve Selcibuc (Cthulhu Britannica)

This is the second journal made as a prop for the Curse of Nineveh campaign. This time, it is the journal of Neve, a young American woman which has travelled to the UK to spend time with relatives. Along the way, she stumbles into dubious activities which are linked to the Campbell expedition. It’s a teaser; Neve is meant to tell the characters much of this, but it fleshes out the backstory. Again, you don’t get anything near the full story; it’s a hook into the adventure. It is an enjoyable read through.

Madouc (Jack Vance)

The third book in the Lyonesse trilogy, this tale picks up and weaves together happenings from the previous stories. Princess Madouc is one of the key protagonists in the tale, as she grows up and resists the King’s aim of marrying her off for a politically beneficial marriage. Along the way she discovers that her ‘pedigree’ is not what she expected, and that she has Faerie blood… I really enjoyed this trilogy. I wanted to pick it up and read it all again, straight away, which I may do quite soon.

The Sprawl (Hamish Cameron)

I had to re-read the Sprawl because I was running the game at Revelation 2018. I really like the way this one works; chrome slick adaptation of ‘powered by the apocalypse’ principles with the tools to let you run heists and general illegality so they have the feel of a good movie. You do the legwork, and the mission is affected by the outcome. Good stuff. I may have to get a print of the black on white version though as my eyes aren’t quite what they were.

Ironclads (Adrian Tchaikovsky)

Set in decades after Brexit, the UK has become a frontline state in the battle of corporate owned America with the Europeans. The protagonists are an American unit fighting in Scandinavia, normal infantry in a high tech war with robots, biological weapons and Scions. Scions are a form of mech armour, which is effectively invulnerable to infantry, and usually used by board members and owners of companies. The team are sent to find out what happened when a Scion goes missing deep in enemy territory. I really enjoyed this - a cyberpunk war story.

Witches of Lychford (Paul Cornell)

Lychford is a small market town in the south of the UK which also happens to be at a juncture between worlds. A supermarket plans to build a new store, rearranging the geometry of the town’s roads, a decision which will break the protections that have been in place for centuries. An elderly local witch seeks allies to protect reality including the local Vicar and the New Age shop owner. I enjoyed the pace of this, and will be looking at more in the series. Unfortunately, my play experience showed issues with the moves and the balance of the stats.


Books in December 2017

Quite unintentionally, December became a bit of a SF month for me.

Artemis (Andy Weir)

So, the sequel to The Martian, a book (and film) that I enjoyed immensely. I made the mistake of reading the Adam Roberts’ review in The Guardian (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/nov/15/artemis-andy-weir-review-the-martian) before I started this. My initial impression of that was that it felt like sour grapes about the success of the first, self-published novel. But was he right?

On reflection, I do think that some of the criticisms are justified; the novel - stylistically - is not sophisticated. It is more akin to the old juvenile SF that I loved growing up. The style is the same as The Martian, but this time the info-dumps tend to come in the form of letters between the protagonist and a pen-friend, something that actually meshes very tightly to the plot at the end of the novel. Like The Martian, it carries itself along with the energy that the main character has in overcoming the problems that they are faced with. That in itself harkens back to an older form of SF.

I really enjoyed this book, probably because of the nostalgia for a style that it engenders. Traveller is, after all, my favourite SF-RPG and that is grounded in the same roots. It isn’t as good as The Martian, but is definitely worth a look.

Ready Player One (Ernest Cline)

This one is so grounded in geek culture that sometimes it almost tries too hard. The concept is simple; with climate change and a thirty year recession that shows no sign of going away, the world is a much less pleasant place than it is today. The protagonist - Wade - is a student, growing up in trailer stacks (imagine a 3D trailer park) and attending school via OASIS, an interactive 3D virtual reality that much of the population retreats into to escape a world with far too few opportunities. Wade - or Parzifal, as his avatar is known, is hunting for a huge prize in his spare time; the chance to inherit the fortune of the founder of the company who created OASIS.

The prize is hidden in the form of a quest that brings in a mixture of 70s and 80s tropes; video games, D&D, music and pop culture. As Parsifal progresses, the pace and the risks step up, and he finds that there are those who will take action in the real world to enable them to succeed at the quest. Like video game, the tempo at the end made me read the last third of the book in a single sitting, not wanting to put it down. It isn’t the best book I’ve read recently – I only gave it four stars on Goodreads – but I really enjoyed it. I’m looking forward to seeing what the film version will make of it[1].

Fever Swamp (Luke Gearing)

A short sandbox hexcrawl setting compatible with most OSR rules, set in swampland that can only be realistically traversed by boat. Nicely presented (there is something that reminds me of the old Ladybird books in the small hard cover format) and clearly laid out, this is a setting that could be dropped into other fantasy campaigns quite easily. Even though there are some plot hooks that can be used to draw characters in (the search for a missing - and wanted - scholar, for example) the direct engagement to another campaign is less obvious than the previous Melsonian Arts Council book, the Crypts of Indormancy.

The other area that is a little lacking is on the environmental hazards of the journey through the swamp. I feel that there was an opportunity lost to present some none creature and combat based encounters; however, this may well have been influenced by the ongoing play I have had in a One Ring campaign where travel is much more significant. As it stands, the longer you travel in the swamp, the more likely you are to catch a disease. The drag of the environment itself - coldness, wetness, dirt - is left to the GM to improvise.

That said, this is a competent, well presented, well organised and useful setting. It just doesn't scream "run me" in the way that others like Crypts of Indormancy, Slumbering Ursine Dunes and Hot Springs Islands have.

Persepolis Rising (James S.A. Corey)

The seventh book in the Expanse series (so this would equate to something like series 8 and 9 on TV at the rate that they are converting the books). This book does something radically different; it advances the timeline of the story thirty years further into the future, allowing us to discover the long term consequences of the events in Babylon’s Ashes. Holden and the Rocinante are still around, but some of the old alliances and power structures have realigned, as might have been expected after the cataclysmic events in the preceding books. It’s interesting to see the shifts in motivation that have occurred; everyone is recognisable but they’ve also moved on. The story builds on elements from the previous books, things that have been left there hanging, and the ending, while satisfactory, leaves me wanting more. I enjoyed this a lot, but you don’t carry on reading up to the seventh book of a series if you don’t enjoy it.

[1]: Especially if the D&D module reference makes it into the plot.


Books in November 2017

Reading this month has suffered a little from the Stranger Things effect - catching up on two series of that excellent show has eaten into available time.

Provenance (Ann Leckie)

A new novel set in the same universe as her first trilogy[1], this story takes up the tale of a young woman from a politically influential family who has just spent her life’s savings breaking out someone sentenced to ‘Compassionate Removal’, a form of prison from which no-one every returns. She does this to try and secure her position in the future, but the plan does not go as expected.

I enjoyed the story[2], although it was a little slow to start with. It showcased different parts of the Imperial Radch universe to the Ancillary trilogy. I certainly would like to revisit the universe again.

Grandville: Force Maejure (Bryan Talbot)

This is the (sadly) final instalment of the lusciously illustrated set of graphic novels featuring Inspector LeBrock of the Yard. Set in a world of anthropomorphised animals that parallels our own, LeBrock, a working class detective, the best in the Police forces becomes embroiled in foiling a gangland war. I loved this and read it in one sitting; I heartily recommend the whole series.

Ashes of Berlin (Luke McCain)

Set in 1947, this is the third of the books featuring Reinhardt, a German Police Officer. This story sees him back in Berlin, working in in the Kripo when he gets involved in a double murder investigation which soon escalates to bring in the conflicts between the four powers. Unlike the previous novels (which were set in the Balkans during the war), this has a different feel. Sponsored by the Americans for his job, Reinhardt is seen as both a dinosaur and at odds with the Soviet influenced Police force. However, he’s one of the most experienced detectives and one of the few who follows due process. He has to face his own demons as the investigation starts to shine a light onto the scramble of the various Allies to gain control of personnel, technology and records developed by Nazi Germany[3]. The ending went a different way to I anticipated, and it was excellent. Sadly, just like the Grandville book, this is the last of the series.

Austral (Paul McAuley)

Dedicated to the memory of his wife, Georgina, who died unexpectedly earlier this year, this is Paul McAuley’s latest. Set in Australia once global warming has brought about sea level rise, it tells the story of Austral Morales Ferrado, a genetically edited human, adjusted to survive in low temperatures. Geo-engineering has failed to hold back climate change, suffering from the same short term political will that prevented the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. The ice is retreating, and the Antarctic Peninsula has become an independent Republic.

Austral is a child of the last generation of ecopoets[4], despised and discriminated against because of her ‘husky’ heritage. Orphaned at a young age, she fell into crime, served time but now works as a corrections officer in the labour camps that are used to drive development of the peninsula. An opportunity presents itself and she ends up kidnapping her teenage cousin, the child of a neoconservative politician who refused to acknowledge her side of the family, looking for a ransom and a way out of the Antarctic to somewhere that she won’t face the same discrimination.

I enjoyed this book; it blends an interesting thought exercise on the consequences of adapting to global warming with a kidnapping and deeper history of friction between two branches of a family. It’s not McAuley’s best, but it is different and interesting and held my attention all the way through for a late night finish.

[1]:  The ‘Ancillary’ books.

[2]: I think that the Adam Roberts review (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/oct/13/provenance-ann-leckie-review-ancillary-justice) of this in the Guardian is a touch unfair, perhaps because of the commercial success that the previous books had.

[3]: Like the ‘Station’ novels, this book is worth reading if you ever want to run the ’Cold City’ RPG.

[4]: Interestingly, my spellcheck tries to change that to ‘cop-outs’. The Ecopoets tried to address global warming by adapting species to build new ecosystems in the face of climate change. They became outlawed and exiled.


Books in October 2017

A fair bit of gaming reading[1] this month has eaten into the available time. That, along with Furnace and family weekends. That said, I’ve passed through the target of 52 books that I set myself on Goodreads this year.

Nightblind (Ragnar Jónasson)

The second of the Dark Iceland sequence. This continues the story of a young Police Officer, recently passed over for promotion in favour of one of his colleagues. All of a sudden, the colleague is shot, and the town comes under the spotlight from the media as firearm related crimes are rare. Against this backdrop, the investigation continues, set against a backdrop of the normalcy of life, and the challenge of relationships. I didn’t enjoy this as much as the first book, but I liked it enough that I will read the third.

The Furthest Station (Ben Aaronovitch)

The latest entry in the PC Grant series, this one is a novella rather than a comic book or a full length novel. Grant is drawn north, following up reports of hauntings on the Underground. His cousin tags along as Nightingale thinks that giving a nearly 16 year old with the potential for magic an internship is a good idea. This was fun, but it never really got going in the way that the novels do. In that respect it was a little disappointing. However, it was nice to touch base with all the familiar characters again.

Blackout (Ragnar Jónasson)

Set after the recent volcanic eruptions in Iceland, this is the third in the series, but second in the timeline. A construction worker building a tunnel to the town that the protagonist works as a police office in is killed, and the story follows the investigations of both the police and a journalist. Dark secrets from the past are revealed before the police have their murderer, but was the act really a cruel one? I will be reading the fourth in the series, but someday I need to find a book with happier stories about Iceland.

The Corporation Wars: Emergence (Ken MacLeod)

The final part of MacLeod’s latest trilogy; the conflict between the AI of the Direction, the AI of the Discorporates, the human minds stored and upload into combat mechanoids and the free Robots (those that have evolved AI naturally) escalates to a conclusion which while satisfying verges on confusing. There are multiple factions, and alliances shift, and the references change from the ‘real’ world to simulations. The story wraps up more quickly and simply than I expected, but it fits well with the preceding plot. I enjoyed this series, but find myself wanting to know more about the backstory.

[1]: The new Paranoia RPG, Swordfish Isles, November Metric, Coriolis and more.


Books in September 2017

Only two books this month but they were ace.

Rotherweird (Andrew Caldecott)

I think that this is best described as urban fantasy. The story revolves around the town of Rotherweird, isolated from the rest of the UK since the reign of Queen Elizabeth, Gloriana. The story starts with a teacher being hired to teach modern history to the children at the school, discovering that he is not allowed to delve into or explore or even talk about the past of the town due to the ‘History Regulations’, the breach of which caused the dismissal of his predecessor. The first half of the book is slow[1], but as the plot gets going it becomes more and more entertaining.

A Legacy of Spies (John le Carré)

My views on this are not unbiased. I have loved le Carré’s writing since my teenage years, and this story pulls together threads from the various novels which involve George Smiley. If you haven’t watched or read ‘The Spy who Came in from the Cold’, or ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’, don’t bother reading this book. Instead, settle back and watch Richard Burton’s masterful performance in the former (on Netflix at the moment) and Garry Oldman’s in the recent film of the latter. Or watch the Alec Guinness BBC TV series. Or listen to the BBC Radio Smiley Adaptations. Or even, as this is a thread on books read, read the books.

That said; the plot is a holding to account of the actions of the Circus from a modern day perspective. Peter Guillam is called back to the UK from retirement in France[2] to have his passport taken from him and find that SIS is facing legal action from relatives of two people killed on an operation at the Berlin Wall. Peter Guillam is the only person involved that they have tracked down; Smiley’s location is unknown.

The character elements of this story are excellent, but don’t expect a high octane plot. This is an exploration of past deeds and the morality of the actions taken and their consequences. Along the way other characters from the past emerge as the story moves towards George Smiley - once more - stepping out of the shadows. Loved this. Part of it is revisiting old ground and friends from a different perspective, and part of it is the joy of le Carré’s prose. He’s said that this is the last book that will include Smiley, but he’s working on the next. I wish him a long and health life so I can continue to be enthralled with his work.

[1]: Thankful not as hard going as Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell
[2]: Those gamers who played the Dracula Dossier with me will know why this make me smile.


Books in August 2017


Marina (Carlos Ruiz Záfon)

A bittersweet story of death, romance and hope set against a backdrop of lost parts of Barcelona and the darkness of the human spirit. Oscar Drain, the protagonist, leaves childhood behind as he falls in love with Marina. CRZ says that this - the last of his young adult novels - was a big influence on his Barcelona quartet and it shows. Sadly, that's the last of his back catalogue that is available and I've read the rest. I just need to wait patiently for the fourth book in the quartet to be translated into English.

The Book Thief (Marcus Zusak)

I found myself very conflicted about this book by the time I completed it. It tells the tale of a young German girl fostered just before the Second World War and her developing relationship with books, all through the eyes of the narrator, Death. At times ham-fisted in its approach and style, and with a protagonist who feels like a cypher, there was part of me which didn't like the book at all. At the same time, there was something about the story that drew me on, that made me want to know what happened next, and showed beautiful little vignettes of humanity. On reflection, I don't think that I'll be looking for more from this author.

The Delerium Brief (Charles Stross)

Now this was like a breath of fresh air having read The Book Thief. The plot grabs you, sits you in the car seat and then puts the pedal to the floor. Of course, it is the 8th book in an ongoing series so it does help that I've read its predecessors and know the characters and set up. I really enjoyed the twists and turns with this and I'm glad that the next part has been brought forward to next year.


Books in July 2017

July also included a considerable amount of time reading roleplaying games as part of preparation for the convention season as it creeps up on us.

The Complete Ballard of Halo Jones (Alan Moore and Ian Gibson)

A collection of the stories about Halo Jones that graced the pages of 2000AD alongside Judge Dredd and others. I enjoyed this, especially once I got my eye back into the 2000AD style. Halo Jones is growing up in a floating city off the coast of Manhattan, a place where the unemployed are deported to so that they can live on benefits outside normal society. Her story takes her off-world and eventually into the armed forces in a war between Earth and former colonies. Halo is a normal person, and her life can be pretty mundane; it’s only coincidence that puts her in significant places and in contact with significant people. The only thing that disappointed was that it felt a little rushed at the end. I realise it was a play for one of those great open endings with hooks for the future, but it was over all to quickly.

The Midnight Palace (Carlos Ruiz Zafón)

The second of the Neibla (shadow) sequence, this book is set in India in the heart of the Calcutta of the 1930s. A group of orphans come of age and are threatened with the darkness from the past of one of them. Part set in a burnt out railway station, part set in the streets of the city, the orphans must find out what happened and a way to escape. Again, this was well written and I enjoyed it a lot. I look forward to Marina, the next of the author’s books that I haven’t read.

The Pale House (Luke McCain)

Excellent second story about a German Military Police officer breaking corruption cases against the backdrop of a withdrawal from the Balkans. Set in 1945, the story has a streak of desperation, contrasted with acts of evil and bravery. Looking forward to the next book.

Valerian: The Complete Collection, Volume 1. (Christin, Mézières) 

This is a collection of the first few Valerian and Laureline stories, including the introductory story that has never been in a collection before. I read this partly because of the forthcoming Luc Breton film, and partly because of the recommendations of my friend John who has sworn by it for years. Valerian is a time agent, sent to deal with temporal anomalies, and along the way he picks up Laureline - from medieval France - who becomes his assistant and eventually the brains of the outfit. The stories are fun and although the style is of its time, it looks great too. The eldest lad (10) enjoyed this too. We have another two volumes to read this week to be read for the film’s release!

The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from my Life (John le Carré)

This is an interesting collection of vignettes from the author’s life which may or may not be the whole truth. I enjoyed it for the insight it gives into one of the authors who I have enjoyed since I was a teenager when I discovered ‘A Small Town in Germany’ in the school library and ‘A Perfect Spy’ on the BBC.

Dare I Weep? Dare I Mourn? (John le Carré)

A very short story (15 pages or so) that I picked up because Amazon showed it to me as I marked The Pigeon Tunnel as finished on my Kindle’s Goodreads interface. I rated it as three stars, but it’s a great short story. A German Grocer in a small town in West Germany is notified that his father has died, and he has to go and collect the body to fulfil his last wish of being buried in Lübeck with his son’s family. It’s cleverly done, and I may well revise the rating upwards after some reflection.

Strange Dogs (James SA Corey)

A new Expanse novella (about three times the length of le Carré’s) which tells the tale of an alien encounter from the perspective of a young girl who has only really known the world through one of the gates that her parents have become reluctant colonists on after their research station has been coopted by the military after trouble back in the solar system. I’m curious if this is foreshadowing where the next Expanse novel will take us. Worth a read, and will stand up even if you haven’t read any of the other books.