Books in June 2019


Vienna Spies (Alex Gerlis)
An interesting story set towards the end of the Second World War in Europe, mainly in Vienna. The British attempt to establish a network in the city to make contact with an influential opposition politician who has been in hiding for many years to prepare for the power struggle after the war is won. The Soviets attempt to do the same thing and the agents from both sides have come into contact before. It's a story of rival intelligence operations from allies who know that they will be enemies in the future against the collapsing Nazi regime in a country which wholeheartedly embraced the Third Reich.

Enjoyable, and there were points when I was anxious for some of the characters I liked, but I think I prefer the way that Luke McCallin's 'Man from Berlin' books covered this same theme. If I could give a half mark, this would be 3.5 out of 5. However, I will read his new book set in 1970s Berlin at some point to see how that goes.

Scattered Among Strange Worlds (Aliette de Bodard)
Interesting short stories. The first deals with dislocation and disengagement, as a younger woman returns from exile to honour her grandmother. The second deals with Mer People exiles from a polluted ocean and the call to return to the sea. Enjoyable.

Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master (Michael Shea)
D&D focused but a good collection of tips for building and running a role playing campaign. Some ideas are quite thought-provoking.

In Morningstar's Shadow: Dominion of the Fallen Stories (Aliette de Bodard)
Vignettes from the universe of “The House of Shattered Wings”, which I’ve yet to read. Angels have fallen from the heavens and magic is real. Warring Houses have shattered Paris. This is a collection a fragments of tales. I liked the setting and stories and will read the novel as a result.

The Art and Soul of Blade Runner 2049 (Tanya Lapointe)
Absolutely gorgeous art book full of concepts, art work and photos that shine a light on the development of the movie.


Notes on my Workflow for Lyonesse

From the press release

I was fortunate enough to be asked to contribute to the Lyonesse RPG being issued by the Design Mechanism. I was a latecomer to the trilogy but really enjoyed it when I first read it so I was delighted by the opportunity. 

Once I knew I was working on the RPG, I started by re-reading the trilogy. I then listened to the audiobook version (which I wholeheartedly recommend) whilst driving to work. Then I stripped the eBook to a text file and loaded it into a (free) sophisticated web-based text analysis tool called CATMA. This allows you to highlight blocks of text and assign them to a keyword. You can then run an analysis on that keyword set and export the outcome.

CATMA front screen showing the core books

I used two sets of keywords; the character names and the countries for the sections that I was writing. At the end of reviewing the text (which was in effect a third time of reading), I dumped each book's output for each character to an Excel file which I numbered sequentially for the book being analysed. So Dahaut-1 was the references to the country of Dahaut in Suldrun's Garden and Tatsel-2 was the reference to the character Tatsel in The Green Pearl.

Example of the tagging process in CATMA

Next, I set up some templates in Google Docs that matched the frameworks passed on for the Gazeteer sections. I used Google Docs because I wanted to be able to work on this anywhere, and I wanted to be able to use my Chromebook (as my MacBook was serving as the main family computer due to the iMac GPU dying). I took each Excel file from CATMA, and cut and pasted it into the relevant sections. Once I did that, I planned the outline for each part.

Whilst writing, I had all three books open in a text editor to allow me to check and find references quickly. On the Mac, this was in a different 'Space' so I could just swipe between them. I also printed and comb-bound the CATMA output, the map of the Elder Isles prepared for the game, and things like the family trees scanned from past editions. I found the map and the three books the most useful references.

Whilst writing up the locations, I tended to try and paraphrase and build on Vance's original text where possible to give as much of a flavour of his world as I could. I discovered just how inconsistent he is on locations and genealogy as the story developed (much more than I had realised). This was a challenge to overcome; finding the most sensible answer and making that the way things are. Characters required much more concise writing; I'd read the Vancian text, then write the entry, drawing upon key phrases in descriptions where I could.

The hardest section I found to write was Dahaut; when you analyse the text, a huge amount of the story takes place in that country, even if you exclude the magical Forest of Tantrevalles. The initial cut and paste of the CATMA data spanned fifty pages! Once written, I exported to Word format (using Word on my Mac) and loaded the output to the shared Dropbox folder for review.

Challenges I have had along the way; several serious work incidents that just sucked time away; the loss of my Chromebook for three weeks while Lenovo fixed it; the changes in the youngest child which led to a later bedtime and challenges on getting the time to write with space to think. I find I need to be able to absorb and reflect on the books when I write to get the best out of myself.

Google Keep (on the right) in use for top level references

Later changes to the workflow have involved using Google Keep in parallel while writing for references related to that specific document. I use Evernote for my main archive, so this was quite simple as my Keep references are pretty short.

The writing has been done across a number of Chromebooks, Macs and a Windows laptop. On the whole, I preferred the Macs, but the Chromebook was great when I went on holiday.

I'd definitely use this workflow again. CATMA is very powerful; it focuses down really well on the key elements of the text. However, having fully searchable text was almost as useful, as it meant that I could check references really quickly. Once I'd worked out what I was doing with the application, it was quite a swift process to be marking up across all the keywords as I read through Lyonesse's text. It was certainly more practical than using highlighters and post-it notes combined with lists of references, and much more useable once I got to the stage of drawing it all together.

I'm still finishing the last few sections, but what I have seen of my fellow author's work-in-progress makes me very excited for the final product and the gorgeous map is an inspiration.

6 July 2019


Marvel Musings - Here be spoilers....

Note: I wrote this a couple of months ago, and forgot to bring it live... as I've just started on Jessica Jones Season 3 it seems appropriate to post it.

Musing on the last few weeks worth of binges to catch up on Marvel Netflix...  I've watched Iron Fist Season 2, Daredevil Season 3 and The Punisher Season 2 in short succession, and it left a number of questions flying around in my head. There be spoilers blow the cut, obviously.

I'm going to miss these shows...

Why in Iron Fist Season 2 does Danny step away from the power when he is probably in the best place he ever has been to handle it? And how did his journey around the world make him decide to take the power back in a different way?

I like Karen Page more having seen Daredevil S3; her haunted past was touching and it was great to see one of the key supporting actors having her background come to the foreground. The Matt/Foggy/Karen relationship reforming was one of the highs from the series.

I find myself liking The Punisher far more than I think I should. Frank Castle is almost too simple; he tears himself apart when he thinks he's killed three innocents but as soon as people he trusts say 'it's okay Frank, you didn't kill them' - without explaining why this was the case - he's up and at 'em, ready to carry on the same way that he has before. Or is he? Does the fact that he doesn't kill the Senator mean that he has changed?

I loved the switch when Madani managed to detach her emotions enough to realise that Dumont was playing her and allied with Russo. The conversation when they both know the other knows was delightful. I was thinking that we'd find out the Dumont's past was darker than it was shown; I wondered if she had actually pushed her father out of the window.

I kind of feel sorry for John Pilgrim; his character is far more complicated than it originally seemed, and I kind of feel that he was manipulated and used. I do wonder about whether his wife was in a similar place?

I've got to admit I'm gutted that they're closing these series down now. At least I have Jessica Jones Season 3 to look forward to. Of course, a Season 2 of The Defenders would have been the perfect way to close it out.

Books from February to May 2019

I’ve got a fair bit behind on this log so the update’s taken a while to do.

Legacy: Life Amongst the Ruins (2nd Edition)
This is a Powered-by-the-Apocalypse game which operates at two levels; there is a family level, and a character level. It is designed to cover long periods of time as families rise and fall in a post-apocalyptic setting. Overall, it seems to work well but the GM needs to spend some time getting their head around when to jump from character to family level.

Legacy: Generation Ship (Aaron Griffin)
On reading this setting for Legacy I got very excited and decided to roll it out at Revelation in early 2019. I ran it for a group of experienced roleplayers, and overall we had a good time in the 9 hours or so we had with it. 'Generation Ship' is a plug-in that deals with multi-generational star travel with limited resources and knowledge. There are some issues we found in play with the playbooks and reference material not aligning with those in the book.

Shadow Captain (Alastair Reynolds)
The second instalment in the young adult series that started with Revenger. I enjoyed the developments in this, although at one point in the middle I was concerned that the story was losing itself, but I was wrong. Enjoyable. Looking forward to the next book and I really must hack this into a game.

The Tea Master and the Detective (Aliette de Bodard)
Set in the Universe of Xuya, this is an SF story set in an alternative history where China discovered the Americas before the West and as a result did not turn inwardly focused. There is a Chinese/Vietnamese flavour to this which makes it quite unique. In this story, a starship mind’s avatar works with a scholar to investigate a death because it pays better than eking out an existence making drugs. Different, and I enjoyed this.

The Citadel of Weeping Pearls (Aliette de Bodard)
The Empress of the Dai Viet Empire ordered the assault on the Citadel of Weeping Pearls, and it disappeared. Thirty years later, she is desperate to obtain the weapon technologies the Citadel had to defend the Empire. The repercussions of this ripple through the court. Good book.

On a Red Station, Drifting (Aliette de Bodard)
Prosper Station has thrived for years under the guidance of its Honoured Ancestress, an AI born of a human womb. As war rages through the Dai Viet Empire, the station begins to struggle as refugees arrive and trade is disrupted. A high profile refugee arrives, seeking sanctuary with her relatives, and tensions rise. Again, a good book.

Gnomon (Nick Harkaway)
I found this a hard book to read. There are a set of nested stories, and just as you start to get drawn into them it jumps. Several times I nearly put it down. My rating for Goodreads was jumping around from 2 to 5 stars, depending on what I was reading. Hard work, but ultimately I'm glad that I didn't abandon it.

Blue Planet: Player’s Guide (Jeffrey Barber)
Re-read in preparation for North Star. Synergy was more fiddly than I recalled, but the re-write for Blue Planet: Recontact seems to have solved that. Background material fantastic as ever.

Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fate of Human Societies (Jared Diamond)
Jared Diamond’s award winning analysis of the development of societies was an audiobook I listened to on the commute. Definitely worth the time, and quite plausibly argued.

Permafrost (Alastair Reynolds)
Time travel story of a desperate attempt to stop ecological collapse by one of my favourite authors. I enjoyed this.

Tiamat’s Wrath (The Expanse Book 8) (James SA Corey)
The eighth part of The Expanse has the story continuing to move to an increasingly epic scale as the crew age. People die, shifting the balance of power, and the story moves on as Laconia tries to understand who and what built the network of gates. At the same time, the underground tries to break free of Laconian domination. Some of the events in this book are huge in their implications, yet dealt with in such a matter of fact way that it creeps up on you. I’m still enjoying the series, so look forward to the next one.

Cage of Souls (Adrian Tchaikovsky)
One of the best books that I’ve read recently. Set in the future where humanity has failed to leave the solar system and the sun is bloating towards it’s death, Shadrapur, last of all cities, remains. Built on the ruins of previous civilisations, the elite and rich retain power through ruthlessness, exiling political and criminal enemies to a prison in the swamp from which no-one returns. The story is meant to be the last testament of Stefan Advani, a graduate who becomes a political enemy of the state for proposing change and ends up exiled.

This is a fully realised world with shades of Perdido Street Station, the Dying Earth and Blades in the Dark. Shadrapur is begging to be a science fantasy D&D setting. I really enjoyed this book.

The Cthulhu Hack: Valkyrie Nine (Paul Baldowski)
An SF module for the Cthulhu Hack which has deservedly won awards at UK Games Expo 2019. I enjoyed playing this at North Star and I enjoyed finding out the backstory that we completely missed in play when I read it. I understand why Paul was looking on despairingly at us as a group of players. Definitely worth looking at.

The Cthulhu Hack: Mother’s Love (Buckley et al.)
A collection of three adventures based around the Shub Niggurath mythos. The first scenario is the one that is perhaps most easily dropped into another campaign (even a Delta Green one). The other two feel far more like one-shot con games. The adventure in Malta was my favourite of the whole book. Production values are extremely high on this with a lovely hardcover and good artwork.

The Mask Collectors (Ruvanee Pietersz Vilhauer)
I didn't really click with this. It went down the Big Pharma is evil route and the resources and ways that the company worked didn't feel believable. The whole line on Anthropology is not a real science was annoying, and the marketing plot line poor. The plot felt contrived and messy. There was a certain energy to it that kept me going but overall this was a missed opportunity.

The Sleeper and the Spindle (Neil Gaiman)
Neil Gaiman does what he does best and twists the fairy tale of Sleeping Beauty. Very nicely illustrated.

Where Eagles Dare (Alastair MacLean)
Great book from one of the better thriller writers of the 20th Century. It's all action adventure Boy's Own stuff, and doesn't quite reach the thrills of the film (but with Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood that was a hard challenge to match).

A British/American commando team parachutes into the south of German to raid the Schloss Adler, the regional Gestapo headquarters hi to rescue an American General who has been captured and knows the plans for the Second Front. There's a reason they don't call in a squadron of Pathfinder Mosquitos and Lancasters with Tall Boy and Grandslam bombs to level the place, but you'll need to read it to find out why.

This was a bit of a guilty pleasure, but it was lovely to revisit it after a gap of many years. Film is highly recommended too.

London’s Overthrow (China Miéville)
Pretty much a rant about the inequities of society today.

Exit West (Mohsin Hamid)
I picked this up as I liked 'The Reluctant Fundamentalist'. Exit West is a blend of bittersweet love story which also explores the impact of migration and change on society and the protagonists through the SF Maguffin of doors changing so that they suddenly open in other countries. There's a feeling of claustrophobia as society collapses in the face of radicals in the unnamed Middle-Eastern country where the story begins.

Nightfall Berlin (Jack Grimwood)
It's not a le Carré by any means of the imagination (it's too far towards the thriller end of the spy genre), but this was an enjoyable 1980s story set mainly in Berlin (as you may guess from the title). The underpinning theme is pretty hard, as it involves abhorrent acts in the post-War period. I can't say much more without spoilers.

I liked Jack Grimwood's SF (writing as Jon Courtney Grimwood) and I like this enough that I'll pick up Moskva at some point. If I wanted a le Carré substitute then I'd go for Charles Cumming ahead of this.

One ahead...

I knew I'd been reading a fair bit this month, but it surprised me when I had a look at Goodreads and realised that I'd gone a book ahead (which is much better than 4 or 5 behind). Now just to keep it up. Summary coming soon.

Somehow I've caught up!

31 May 2019

A selection of Thrillers

The last month I've not been at my best from a combination of tiredness and then a horrible chest infection which took about three weeks to shift properly. As a result, I've not found myself able to focus brilliantly; work and then the North Star preparation dominated.

I've watched a few thrillers recently as mind-candy when I couldn't face doing something more constructive like writing. They're all old ones that I missed when they came out because of the lack of cinema nights once the kids arrived.

The films included Safe House, Spy Game and Hanna. I'll add some thoughts after the break below.

Safe House
A vehicle for Ryan Gosling and Denzil Washington, Safe House is set pretty much entirely in Cape Town in South Africa. Gosling is a low ranking - but ambitious - CIA operative who is frustrated at his position as the caretaker for a safe house. Washington is a rogue agent who emerges in Cape Town as he obtains a file with vital information in it. Their paths cross and the adventure is on.

What I liked about this was the reasonably low-fi spy routines, the sideline exploring the impact of dishonesty on relationships and the lack of any completely ridiculous 007 style escalations. By having a naive young agent, you get to see his experience as he discovers the implications of 'the ends justifies the means' and realises that he doesn't entirely like them. Both actors did really well.

What I didn't like was the predictable twist at the end and the way that the dark-side of the operations was almost ham-fistedly rammed down your throat. 

Spy Game
A Tony Scott thriller, Spy Games delivers well. It explores the relationship over 30 years between two CIA agents. We start with Robert Redford's character Nathan Muir on his last day working for the Agency before he retires to the Bahamas. He's drawn into a meeting about his former protege, Tom Bishop (Brad Pitt) and soon discovers that Bishop has carried out a failed rogue operation in China, and is held awaiting execution unless the US acknowledges he is one of their agents. Of course, this will be politically embarrassing as the President has trade talks with China the next week.

What I liked about this film was the way that it slowly revealed the relationship arc with the two characters across three decades starting in Vietnam, and also the clever and simple tradecraft that Muir uses to outwit the more political new guard at the Agency. I also like the way that this explored the toll that the duplicity of cover identities and secrets has on relationships. Ultimately, the retiring Muir's strongest two relationships are with his secretary and with Bishop (with whom he has fallen out). Both actors give great performances and I will watch this again at some point. 

What I didn't like was the over-complicated plan that gets Bishop caught at the start. It didn't ring true to the rest of the narrative. Operation Dinner Out also stretched credibility, but I was invested enough in the ending at that point that it didn't disappoint.

Hanna has been on my 'to-watch' list for what seems like forever, and I'm glad I finally caught up with it. Hanna is a teenage girl who has lived most of her life in the snow-covered forests of Scandinavia, where her father has trained her in survival, combat and homeschooled her using encyclopedias. He is an ex-CIA asset who went off the grid at least ten years before, just after Hanna's mother was murdered by the CIA case-officer in charge of Hanna's father Erik. Naive to the modern world, having only read about it, Hanna is given a choice to re-enter it by her father. However, if she takes it, it means that Marissa Wiegler (played by Cate Blanchett) will try and kill her and her father. She takes the choice, and events ensue. There are good performances all around by Eric Bana, Blanchett and Saoirse Ronan as Hanna.

What I liked about this was the slight quirkiness, especially the British family. I also loved the way Ronan nailed the slightly detached and disconnected but closely focused nature of Hanna. The music and style of the movie were very well done.

I didn't have anything that I particularly disliked; the closest would be the way that Wiegler becomes almost a pantomime villain at some points.

19 May 2019


2019 Reading Challenge: A bit behind

A little behind

The last few years I've been using Goodreads to track my reading, which beats the spreadsheets that I used to use. Pre-kids, I used to read somewhere between 80 and 110 books a year, but now I'm just striving to manage one a week on average.

The last three years, I've made the target easily, but this year it's been a struggle and I've been close on two months behind. I've pulled it back a little over the last few weeks with a series of roleplaying books, and I suspect I'll be fine for the year[1], but I've never been behind before. I'm kind of dreading doing the mini-reviews for the Tavern.

It's been a pretty busy year, with some of my spare time diverted to writing and organising a variety of projects, plus I've hit at least one book that has been hard work[2]. It'll be interesting to see how things go along.

17 May 2019
[1] If I'm stuck, I can always start to re-read the Sandman or League of Extraordinary Gentlemen collected editions!
[2] Gnomon, I'm looking at you!

A Brightness Long Ago

'A Brightness Long Ago''s cover

I'm pretty excited to see that one of my favourite fantasy authors Guy Gavriel Kay, has a new book coming out in March. A Brightness Long Ago is set in the same alternative history universe as Children of Earth and Sky. I really enjoyed the former book and probably have a review of it somewhere here or on the old blog. The setting is a riff on Renaissance Italy and the Balkans.

I love GGK's books as they are set, in the main, in alternative histories; parallel worlds that draw on our history for inspiration. I've pre-ordered this sight-unseen as I have never seen a bad book from him.

2 April 2018


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