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 ( 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 ( 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.


Furnace 2017 (Furnace XII)


The twelfth Furnace has been and gone, and I enjoyed it for its relaxed atmosphere and the catching up with friends. The run up had been more fraught than planned as I didn’t make the progress I’d hoped for on my scenarios, but I managed to complete the badges on the Tuesday night (the main delay being the fact that I’d run out of them!) so had a few nights to tidy things up.

I arrived on Friday night, early on compared to usual, checked in and caught up with a few people in the bar before I nipped out to see Blade Runner 2049 on the IMAX in Sheffield. I don’t have an IMAX close to home so this was a great opportunity. I enjoyed the film, but no spoiler’s here. Got back before last orders and had a few pints and enjoyed the discussion about whether Graham had arranged the Furnace themed beer[1] and had some reminiscences with Ragr about Esoterrorists. It was also great to catch up with the Guv’nor (Satbunny) and his better half, even if he did try to talk me down from my post-film buzz. Went to bed later than planned and it seemed far to early when I met Graham and Elaine for breakfast.

Set up went smoothly except for the lack of an uplighter, and then a quick dash to Morrisons for tape for the Tsarina to put the game rooms up. We had a panic over the tables for the jailhouse but sorted it. Graham did an updated speech (v12); for a bit we had thought we’d have to run a repeat from the one’s on YouTube or even have Elaine or I do it, but fortunately he got away from packing before he moves house for a good part of the con.

Slot 1, I mainly mooched as for once there weren’t many latecomers and so I wasn’t needed to do anything. Had a good natter with George on the Patriot Games stand and time to pick up some goodies. I then did lunch with John Ossoway and Steven Elves, and we caught up.

Slot 2 brought my first game; ‘Ice Cold in Arrendale’. It was a sandbox riff on Frozen, set a year after the film, using the Black Hack derived Spearing authored Heroic Fantasy. Two parties - one from Britannia and one from the Southern Isles - tried to establish why an unnatural winter had swept out across Europe and also to build diplomatic and trading ties, and find an errant younger noble sibling. What they found was a dictatorship, lycanthropes and a hint of cannibalism, all set against a backdrop of foul sorcery. The scenario was a sandbox, and they never left Arrendale town proper, probably wisely avoiding a confrontation with the Snow Queen, Ice Witch, Elsa. It seemed to go down well and I was asked how they could get the book and if I’d share the scenario by some of the players.

Slot 3, I played Julian H’s DCC engined play-test of Dark Trails. This is a Weird Western hack of DCC, moving to much the same territory as Deadlands. We had fun; Jules worked hard, bringing Tequila, a scary tomato and orange brew and lots of bling, and also dealing with a group happy to chew the scenery and relish the interaction. Guy Milner’s “La Pantera” Mexican Luchador was the memory I will work away from. Not to mention, Violet from Chorley, the half-breed Navajo speaker with the dead. The character interactions made the game for me as the scenario was limited in options other than fighting. A great evening.

Caught up with Mr Newt of d101 fame and channelled my inner Han Solo (you’ll need to see the Facebook picture for that to make sense) and also gave Tim Gray a sanity check on print quality for the proof he had to show me. The bar beckoned, but I didn’t want a really late night.

Woke up nice and fresh for Sunday. Had to deal with an issue that Elina kindly helped us with but Elaine found a solution so hopefully it ended well. Arrived feeling a bit rushed into Evil Gaz’s Tales from the Loop Slot 4 game. Set in Sweden in the 1980s, this was great. I loved the co-creation with characters and it really nails that Super-8 and 80s kids movie vibe[2]. The system mechanic is very swingy, but the various rules to re-roll, push or use your pride make it feel great. It encouraged us to do all the crazy things kids do in films from that genre. This was a lighter touch Gaz than I’ve seen before and he absolutely nailed it. Great scenario, great ref and great players. I went away from this with a smile and a feel-good factor.

I also went away understanding the engine used in the game better, which was good because next up was my Slot 5 Coriolis game, which is from the same family. But before that I had raffle tickets to fold, and my back-room status on the committee to be confirmed. I spent thirty minutes trying to keep Coriolis in the front of my head by re-reading my notes.

I was fully pre-booked, and a little nervous. I broke one of my cardinal rules here and took out a system that I have never run before with a home-brew scenario. If you’re in the know, you’ll be aware that Coriolis is an Arabian themed SF game, full of competing factions, missions, mysteries and more. Typically, characters are like a Traveller crew, or the Firefly crew, a mixture of backgrounds and beliefs. Unlike Tales from the Loop, there is far less co-creation. I cheated and used the pre-generated characters from the QuickStart.

We departed for Coriolis Station where the characters worked as cut outs in a negotiation, discovered an important artefact and then tried to find out where it came from. This involved a trip with two portal jumps to a system under interdiction by the Zenithian forces. The players found the source of the artefact, and showed great caution in their approach. We had no combat, lots of sneaking and manipulation, and I was amused (rather than horrified) when Declan F spotted part of the denouement just before it happened. Those early episodes of Blakes 7 obviously stuck with my subconscious. Hat tip to Remy for the support while GMing, and I hope I met Matt N’s challenge to entertain him for his birthday. I like Coriolis, I just wish that it was better presented to quickly reference.

And then it was over. People had drifted away over the last few hours, and I was the last of the committee to leave. A few people lingered on; I had a quick natter with the Patriot crew, but the M1/A1 beckoned with the road home to the North.

On reflection, both scenarios I wrote had far more material than the time we had allowed for, so needed some tweaks to ensure a climax. I hope that worked. I was impressed by the willingness of the players to go for it with the characters they were presented with. I was, once again, blown away by the effort put in by the GMs and others who helped out. Thank you.

Onwards towards Revelation and the North Star.

Furnace will return.[3]


[1] The answer is ‘kind of’.
[2] I’m not going to say Stranger Things, The Goonies, or ET here as I’m only part way through the former and have only watched bits of the latter two! Yeah, that’s my geek cred gone.
[3] And we will announce the new date soon.


Stepping off the Upgrade Cycle

Stepping off the upgrade cycle

I love technology, and I’ve had a long love of Apple products. My computer through university (and this was bought at the time that 286 Intel processors were state of the art) was an Atari ST, whose entire operating system (TOS) mimicked the graphic user interface of Apple’s System 7. I only had an ST because the price of Apple devices was somewhat eye-wincing.

When I graduated, I managed to convince the financial director in the first company I worked for to include Apple computers in the company interest-free computer loan scheme and soon after I had my very first computer, an Apple PowerBook 190cs, rocking a 68040 processor and a gorgeous keyboard and style. 3 years later, I had a desktop to match it - a Performa 6400 mini-tower. I’ve loved these devices and carried out up the cycle, upgrading every 3 to 4 years.

iOS came along, and initially I ignored it as there was no way that I was going to get a contract with O2, and my first device was an iPhone 3GS. From then on, I was on the two year cycle; 4S, 5S, 6S.

Today I stepped off that cycle. Unlike the older iPhones, the 6S doesn’t feel sluggish. This reflects on Apple’s superb silicon chip design. I looked at the iPhone 8 (which arguably could have been the 7S) but decided that I couldn’t justify the contract costs (nearly £60 per month if you pay through the contract for the device). I could get an iPhone 7 for around the price of my existing contract, but that isn’t that different to my 6S. Or I could go SIM only and triple my data allowance for £14. I took the 12 month SIM-only.

The money saved will go towards replacing the iMac that died last year, or perhaps the iPad update I’m hankering after. I’m not leaving Apple or losing my passion, but the 20% hit on the pound to dollar thanks to the Brexit vote hurts and affects these decisions…


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.

Books in April, May & June 2017


The Enclave (Ann Charnock)

This was incredibly hard work to read for me. The story is well written, but the plot and the characters just didn't engage with me. Set in a future were refugees live in enclaves out side cities in Britain, the story focuses upon a young boy - Caleb - and his employer in alternating point of view chapters. He works in the rag trade, fed food and board for his work, and is promoted to become the supervisor in a world he doesn’t really understand.

Snowblind (Ragnar Jónasson)

Set in the north of Iceland in an isolated former fishing town, the story tells the tale of a just graduated police officer as he takes up his post four hundred miles away from his girlfriend back in Reykjavik. As the snows of winter close in, a woman is found bleeding and half naked in the snow, and an elderly famous writer falls to his death. I liked this - it was quite terse and claustrophobic in parts, but a good whodunnit.

The Memoirist (Neil Williamson)

Fourth of the NewCon Press Novella sequence, I approached this with trepidation after the difficulties that I had with The Enclave. Fortunately, this one engaged me very quickly. It’s set in the near future, in a world with near pervasive surveillance. It explores the idea of the Panopticon[1] through the impact of the complete loss of privacy by the lead character. I found it interesting and engaging.

Jesus Christ, Reanimator (Ken MacLeod)

A couple of short stories by Ken MacLeod, including speculation on what would happen if Christ returned in our modern world. A short read, but excellent as ever.

The Last Wish (Andrzej Sapkowski)

I’d been vaguely aware of the video game The Witcher, but didn’t realise that it was based upon a series of novels. Someone posted the cinematic trailers for the next instalment of the video game, and I was intrigued enough to follow it up on Wikipedia, which led me to the book. Set in a mid-late middle ages type world, Gerald is a Witcher, a hunter of Monsters. Taken as a child and genetically modified, he travels across the lands taking payment for ridding the countryside of evil through a combination of combat prowess, magic and wits. The author is Polish, so the feel of the book has that Mittel-European vibe that I associate with the Warhammer Fantasy Roleplaying game, and a distant flavour that is recognisable and different. The book is really a collection of short stories with a carefully constructed narrative link, and it manages to avoid repetition and predictability. I look forward to reading the other books.

The Man from Berlin (Luke McCain)

This was an impulse buy; I suspect Amazon showed it to me following the various ‘Station’ novels that I read last year. The novel is set during the Second World  War, and the protagonist is a German officer serving in the Balkans as an investigator. He is a former police officer, and is conflicted with the abuse of due process. He has also lost his wife, and most likely his sone. He’s assigned to investigate the murder of a Serbian fascist film star, partly as one of his unit was also a victim. The plot twists and turns with the tensions between the Germans and the local authorities and the ongoing in-fighting for position between the German forces. In the background, there are hints of the German resistance and a growing conflict with the partizans. I enjoyed this and will return to read the next of the sequence.

Troll Bridge (Neil Gaiman)

I can be a sucker for Neil Gaiman stories; this one looked intriguing, and nicely illustrated. A young boy meets a troll, who is going to eat him. Instead, he strikes a bargain that he has no intention of keeping.

The Travelling Bag: And Other Ghostly Stories (Susan Hill)

A collection of Susan Hill ghost stories; enjoyed this, but none of them have stuck in my mind as well as collection with the Woman in Black did. Would happily read it again though as they are well written and darkly evocative.

Forbidden Brides of the Faceless Slaves in the Secret House of the Night of Dread Desire (Neil Gaiman)

Amusing story about genre writing from Neil Gaiman. Very different illustrative style to the first book.

Veins of the Earth (Patrick Stuart & Scrap Princess)

This one is a gaming book; nominally for Lamentations of the Flame Princess, it is usable with pretty much any D&D clone. It’s all about underground adventures, fitting into the same niche as the old AD&D Dungeoneer’s Survival Guide but it’s so much more. It feels more like an art project the way that the writing and the illustrations come together. There are huge numbers of ideas here that could easily enrich a gaming campaign.

Prisoners of Geography (Tim Marshall)

I bought this on a whim from WH Smiths on the last train journey that I did before I left Unilever, and I’m glad that I did. The book takes and runs with the impact that geography has upon the growth of states and that there is a certain inevitability to how the various continents have developed. I found the European, North American and Asian parts the most interesting, probably as there is much more recorded history in Europe and Asia, while the North American entry documents the growth of the USA. Overall, there are parts where I think the author tries too hard to make the connection but it’s an interesting and coherent read that gives great hints into geopolitics.

Saga Vol 2 (Brian K Vaughan)

The second part of the future SF story of two soldiers from opposing sides falling in love. This one deals with a visit from the in-laws. This is clever and strangely enticing work.

The Coldest Winter (Antony Johnston)

Prequel to The Coldest City, which I read some years ago and has now been filmed as Atomic Blonde. An operation goes wrong in Cold War Berlin and SIS tries to resolve it. This is the backstory for one of the key characters in the later book. The book is illustrated in stark black and white style which is very  thematic. I enjoyed the story but I’m not certain that the graphic novel format adds a lot extra over text.

Ghost in the Shell Vol 1 (Masamune Shirow)

I stumbled on this at Destination Venus in Harrogate. It is a reissue of Shirow’s classic manga. Hardcover, with some extra colour, this one runs right-to-left back-to-front as it was originally published. Reading it made me realise just how unfair some of the criticism for the live action movie was.

Ghost in the Shell Vol 1.5 (Masamune Shirow)

This one wasn’t from Destination Venus as they didn’t have it. I bought it from Amazon, and enjoyed a selection of tales about Section 9 after the Major leaves.

Ghost in the Shell Vol 2 (Masamune Shirow)

The other book I picked up at Destination Venus; it has to be said that the gentleman selling the books to me was relieved i bought them as it kept him out of being in trouble with his wife. Enjoyable, but very mixed up, complex and at time nearly impenetrable.

The Coldest City (Antony Johnston)

The follow up to The Coldest Winter chronologically, but the first book published. A female British SIS agent is sent to recover a list with critical information that could be lost if the Soviets or East Germans obtain it, after the agent who had it was killed. Events ensue over a backdrop of late Cold War Berlin. Once again, it is beautifully illustrated.

Beacon 23: The Complete Novel (Hugh Howey)

I’ve had a soft spot for Hugh Howey since I read Wool but this one failed to hit the mark. An injured soldier who was part of a key battle against aliens retires to man a lighthouse, a remote station that generates gravity waves to warn off and manage shipping around dangerous locations in space. The story is interesting but it never really hit the mark for me and it felt like Howey was trying too hard to get a message across.

Lyonnesse: The Green Pearl (Jack Vance)

The second of the Lyonesse books. I can’t read these quickly due to the beautiful richness of the prose. These books are superb, and the style is still recognisably that of the author of the Dying Earth. I still can’t believe that I missed these when they came out. Anyway, I recommend this wholeheartedly.

The Watcher in the Shadows (Carlos Ruiz Záfon)

One of Záfon’s young adult stories, but none-the-worse for that. Some years before the Second World War, a family moves from Paris to the Atlantic Coast to so the mother can take up a role as a housekeeper after her husband passes away with debts. The family settle into the seaside village, and encounter the fascinating automata that Lazarus Jann, the mother’s employer, has created once he retired from toy manufacturing. But there is a darkness to this place that soon becomes apparent against the blossoming of new love. I really enjoyed this; it’s not quite at the same level as the three Barcelona books but it’s very good.

Elidor (Alan Garner)

As I’d just finished one young adult novel, I decided to try another that I originally read at school. I guess that the would be classified as ‘urban fantasy’ now, but at the time it really felt far more unique than that. Set in Manchester, a group of siblings stumble upon a fantastic world. Less overt than stories like CS Lewis’ Narnia books, the children fleetingly become involved in a conflict against evil, then return home and try to forget that Elidor ever existed until it forces itself back into their lives. I’ve read better, but the wistful, light and deft touch that Garner brings to his stories remains a favourite of mine.



War, Inc - some thoughts


Last night, I watched War, Inc, a film with John Cusack, Joan Cusack, Dan Ackroyd, Ben Kingsley and more. I was disappointed. I’d stumbled upon it following someone mentioning that it was 20 years since Gross Point Blank had come out and that this was the closest to a sequel.

I went into this deliberately suppressing my expectations. The story is a condemnation and extrapolation of American power politics. The set up is that Cusack is a hit man (shades of GPB, The Numbers Station and more) who is hired   to take a position in a country that has recently been overthrown by Tamerlane, a company that has had US military activity sub-contracted to it. Joan Cusack reprises to role of his assistant from GPB, and Dan Ackroyd plays the head of Tamerlane (and former US Vice-President).

He is nominally in charge of the Expo that is meant to show that the country is open for business, but he’s really there to kill businessman that is making things awkward for Tamerlane and the US. His work is complicated by the fact that there is an attractive and inquisitive reporter, and a central-asian pop-star (whose wedding is the final part of the Expo) who need to be managed. Add to that the fact that the country is not really pacified and resistance is active.

For me, the film was clumsy; it wasn’t clear if it was satire or farce and the plot became incredibly messy which meant that it didn’t deliver its message. It misfires all the way through. There are some really clever elements, but overall it feels like the script didn’t have a focus. It’s more like an unfocussed scream of anger about US policy, but the lack of focus means it doesn’t land well. Disappointing.

14 April 2017