A selection of Thrillers

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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
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




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2019 Reading Challenge: A bit behind

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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!
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A Brightness Long Ago

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'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


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What have the Romans ever done for us?

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This was on my mind tonight.



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North Sea Hijack (aka 'ffolkes')

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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


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Captain Marvel (Spoiler free)

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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
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[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).
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Books in January and February 2018

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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.

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Books in December 2017

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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.

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Books in November 2017

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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.

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Books in October 2017

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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.

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