Books wot I red: How to be an Alien, Rivers of London & Dark Cargo

Welcome to one of my rare book review posts. Once again (rather pitifully) I have just about managed to read three books in a year, but I wanted to write a few things about them as they’re all good reads.

In 2016 I became friends with Anita, writer of the Books and Soul blog and a Hungarian trying to start a more permanent future in the UK. While we’ve lost contact a little in recent times, I remembered her recommendation of How to be an Alien by George Mikes (which I’d enjoyed reading a few pages of) – and was recently given it for my birthday.

This is a very short read (less than 100 pages with a lot of illustrations) but it’s a wonderfully humorous historical document of how a Hungarian found the British when he moved to England in. It was first published in 1946, but the comparisons to the modern day are frighteningly accurate and relevant.

You know you’re on solid ground in the preface: “Some years ago, I spent a lot of time with a young lady who was very proud and conscious of being English. Once she asked me – to my great surprise – whether I would marry her. “No,” I replied, “I will not. My mother would never agree to my marrying a foreigner.” She looked at me a little surprised and irritated, and retorted: “I, a foreigner? What a silly thing to say. I am English. You are the foreigner. And your mother, too.””

You’ll find out all about tea, the weather, the art of understatement and of course the joys of compromise: “Bargaining is a repulsive habit; compromise is one of the highest human virtues – the difference between the two being that the first is practised on the Continent, the latter in Great Britain.” I’m not sure how many of these stereotypes this book started, if any, but it is a wonderful exploration of the British ‘condition’.

After four weeks at No.1 on the ‘What’s next on the list?’ hit parade (see below), I finally got to Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch. It was big on my radar as it ticked so many of my top book boxes: a slightly comedic police drama, set in the present day, based in London and with a bit of an other-wordly twist.

I very much enjoyed the premise here: a London bobby who thinks he’s normal, but that can see ghosts – which sees him enlisted as the police’s first apprentice wizard in years. Yup, magic is returning to London and it’s up to our hero, PC Peter Grant, to step up and put a stop to it.

Much like the first of the Bryant and May novels, ‘Rivers of London’ has the problem many first-in-series books has: trying to balance the story with giving you a solid backstory and introducing you to both long-term and short-term characters. Aaronovitch just about gets away with it, with the yarn ripping along at a fair old pace. That said, the characters themselves seemed a little predictable and cliched, while the ‘set piece to set piece’ flow jarred with me a little more than I’d expect for what is a very solid and standard way of storytelling.

That said, I’ll definitely look out for the next book in the series (‘Moon Over Soho’) as I read enough good stuff here to make me want to give the series at least one more chance to become a favourite. Having read a lot of books in this vein (police, London, mystical), I think it’s simply becoming harder to impress me and stand out.

Not content with knocking off my number one read, I followed that with reading the novel that had been in second spot: Dark Cargo by Andrew Rice. I should preface this by saying Andy is a mate, but if I hadn’t enjoyed it I simply wouldn’t have written about it here. The novel is self-published through Amazon and available both in paperback and Kindle form.

I’m not sure if mystical pirate fantasy is a big genre, but that’s what we have here: a 17th Century pirate crew gets in above their heads with a powerful Caribbean spirit who makes it his business to take revenge on them for capturing him.

If you like historical nautical novels there’s an admirable level of detail here, which draws deeply from the rich history of the region. But (unsurprisingly) it was the mysticism and voodoo elements that really drew me in. It’s something I know nothing about, but found fascinating – but it never bogs the story down. Behind the ships and sorcery there’s a fast evolving plot with all the twists and turns you’ll need from an action adventure story.

Much as in George RR Martin’s Game of Thrones series, Rice has no problem dispensing with leading characters when you least expect it – so don’t get too attached! But its certainly not a problem, as life was short and brutal in piracy’s golden age. My only complaint was the prose were a little overwrought for my taste, but that’s a ‘me’ thing – and I have no experience of reading historical nautical novels. Overall, I’d definitely recommend it if it sounds like your kind of thing – or if you fancy something a bit out of the ordinary: a great yarn with some genuinely original ideas.

What’s next on the list?

Having knocked off numbers one and two of the list this time around, I can see the new number one disappearing off the list fast too, but what will be joining it? Very possibly a few of this lot – and even more possibly a whole bunch of Fowler’s Bryant & May books (as I’m falling behind!). It’s embarrassing he is writing them faster than I read them…

  1. London’s Glory by Christopher Fowler. New entry! Bryant and May are back for another instalment – so of course go straight into the number one ‘must read’ spot. It’ll be interesting to see where they can go after the somewhat doom-laden conclusion of the last book – but as three more books have already followed this one, something must be happening! Time to catch up…
  2. The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams. Second time on the list. Over the past six months or so, Douglas Adams and this wonderful book have kept cropping up. Clearly no coincidence – it must be time to re-read this classic.
  3. Rules of Prey by John Sandford. Second time on the list. A New York Times bestselling author; a thriller said to be packed full of suspense; and a lead character who is cop as well as a game designer? Take my money! Bound to be a disappointment.
  4. Dice Games Properly Explained by Reiner Knizia. Second time on the list. Having recently been reading about the Cold War, I thought I should keep a non-fiction title on the list. I bought this some time ago on recommendation so it’s about time I got around to reading it.
  5. The Communist Manifesto by Marx & Engels. New entry! Hard to believe I’ve never actually read this, despite it sitting on my shelves for years – and me having done a degree covering sociology! While I understand what Marxism and communism are, it’s time I read the true source material.

Books wot I red: The Burning Man, The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency & Teach Yourself: The Cold War

It’s time for a week off from board games as I return to my (very) occasional mini book reviews section. Normal service will be resumed next week.

It’s been less than a year (Sept ’16) since my last three-book review post, which is good going for me! This time out I’ve taken in an old favourite from my two favourite ageing detectives, a non-fiction history book and something totally outside my comfort zone suggested by my better half – and all off the previous ‘what’s next’ list to boot.

So I’ve added three new books to the what’s next top five, including a first for me – a book I’m planning on rereading that I first read 20-plus years ago. And having already started my next book, I can already reveal it’s not on the list at all. Oh, the drama…

I’m reading so slowly nowadays that every second book I pick up seems to be the new one by my favourite author – which suits me just fine. And this time it was no exception, as I turned back to my old detective friends Bryant and May in The Burning Man by Christopher Fowler.

Reading about these ageing London coppers bickering away is much like the comfort you get from hearing old friends or relatives chatting away in the next room, but as the story started to develop a worrying illness for one of the lead characters started to give me the fear: was this the end of the line for my old chums?

The yarn was as gripping and well told as ever, but the last few pages had be blubbing like a baby. I don’t want to give anything away to fans of the series, and feel I’ve already hinted too much, so I’ll just note that the final page of the novel proclaims ‘Bryant and May will return’ – so don’t panic!

I talk about this series too much in these occasional book posts, but just to briefly recap: if you like genuinely well written books, fantastic characters you can fully invest in, a good detective/mystery novel, and are in any way interested in the ever so seedy underground history of London, this series is as an absolute must-read.

Having still been in the mood for light mystery novels at the end of The Burning Man, I turned to a book recommended to me by my new lady friend (hello Sarah!) – The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith. She feared it might be a bit gentle and girly for me, but I liked the sound of her description so gave it a go.

I like a good detective yarn and that sold it to me – but  isn’t what you get with our lady detective from Botswana, Ma Ramotswe. Sure she solves cases, and one by taking on some dangerous characters, but this it is more about what it is like to live in Botswana, the character of its people, and how it is possible to take joy, and lessons, from everyday life.

In language and length it is a very easy read, while its bite-sized chapters make it an ideal airport holiday read. But I don’t say that in a derogatory way, because when I’ve read a few pages of books often classed in this way I’ve put them straight back down: this is a series I’d be happy to read on holiday – I’m not saying it is typical of books classified in that way. Easy read doesn’t mean poorly written; this is a good book.

It is also the first in a long series (17 and counting) and if I’m honest I won’t be rushing back to them; there are plenty of other books calling to me from my book shelves. But I’m pretty sure that, somewhere down the line, I’ll be in the mood for another visit to Botswana, if only to revisit the wonderful character McCall Smith has created for a cup of bush tea.

After a nice easy read, and three successive appearances on the list, I finally got to Teach Yourself: The Cold War by CB Jones. One of my favourite two-player board games, Twilight Struggle, is set during this period and reading the cards in the game made me realise how little I knew of the conflict – embarrassing, as I lived through much of it.

From the breaking up of Europe at the end of the Second World War, through to the demolition of the Berlin Wall, it’s a terrifying tale of greed, corruption and intolerance; or in a word, politics. It starts out depressing and gets more so, but at the same time is a morbidly fascinating series of events.

While the book does a relatively good job of sitting on the fence rather than taking sides; and getting all the important events covered in just the right amount of detail for the likes of me; the layout felt like a big misstep. they’ve chosen to go region by region rather than in chronological order, which in theory makes sense – but for a ‘teach yourself’ book presumably aimed at novices it makes for scrappy reading.

I frequently found myself having to head to the index to cross reference incidents being mentioned that hadn’t yet been discussed, because they were in a different chapter (so while reading about the arms race, for example, I’d have to be looking up things about South America or The middle East that were coming in later sections). This may make it great as a reference tool, but as a book to learn about the Cold War it made for very tough going. I have another book – Robert J McMahon’s The Cold War: A very Short Introduction – awaiting me on the shelf which will hopefully do a better job.

What’s next on the list?

So there were three new entries to the list this time – and I’ve gone as far as putting No.1 in a REALLY prominent place so that hopefully I won’t forget to start it at some point this year…:

  1. Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch. Its fourth time at number 1, having been on six of these lists (a record). I still really want to read it; what the hell is going on?
  2. Dark Cargo by Andrew Rice. A book written by a friend that I started proof reading for him, but stopped after three chapters (it’s fair to say I’m no proof reader). I got a physical copy from Amazon so I could finish it (but this is its second time on the list).
  3. Dice Games Properly Explained by Reiner Knizia. New entry! With the Cold War finally behind me, I thought I should keep a non-fiction title on the list. I bought this some time ago on recommendation so it’s about time I got around to reading it.
  4. The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams. New Entry! Over the past six months or so, Douglas Adams and this wonderful book have kept cropping up. Clearly no coincidence – it must be time to re-read this classic.
  5. Rules of Prey by John Sandford. New entry! A New York Times bestselling author; a thriller said to be packed full of suspense; and a lead character who is cop as well as a board game designer? Take my money! Bound to be a disappointment.

Post release comedown: dealing with bad press

Statler and waldorfSo you’ve made something – a song, a poem, a short story, a board game, whatever. You’ve spent blood, sweat and tears (OK, time and effort) making it the best you could and you’re proud of it. So much so, you put it out there for others to look at.

Then someone, somewhere, agreed – they thought it was good enough to publish. Maybe on their website, in a magazine or anthology, through their publishing company. That thing you made in your bedroom, that your friends and now this company like, will be exposed to the world. Which will be AWESOME… right up until the world gets its hands on it.

A few home truths. Some…

  1. People are mean: It’s true. Trust me, I’m one of them. I was a music reviewer for years and had some truly hilarious emails/letters from friends/relatives of bands I thought were awful – doing everything from threatening me, to questioning everything from my brain power to my birth right. I know, I was part of the problem – but at least it helps me brush it off today now the shoe is on the other foot.
  2. People are invisible: In my defence, while I was sometimes critical of albums, gigs etc, I always did it with my real name and so with a right to reply. Now it is easier than ever to criticise anonymously and, so, with no fear of reprisals. This lack of responsibility can inevitably lead to all kinds of unfounded and false statements that, however ridiculous, can still lead to lasting opinions from others.
  3. People are hasty: The advent of the internet – and even more so social media – has given the world a way to spout drivel at an unprecedented rate and to an ever-growing audience. It has practically no checks and balances, often has no takey-backsies, and it’s FREE. You can post things on the bus on the way home from the pub and not even remember the next day – or ever – that you’ve done it.
  4. People are stupid: They don’t do any research. They make moronic comparisons. They claim rumours, guesses and opinions as ‘facts’. They quote a single source as gospel truth without looking into it further (if they did they’d probably find it was posted by a mean, invisible, hasty or other stupid person). And often they haven’t fully (or sometimes even partially) read, listened, played whatever they’re criticising.
  5. People don’t start every critical sentence with ‘in my opinion’: Although that’s probably what they mean a lot of the time. Well, at least some of the time. Probably.

So what are you going to do about it?

Nothing. For several reasons.

  1. It won’t help: In the words of Shakespeare, haters gonna hate – and trollers gonna troll. You have no idea why they said what they said, and if it’s really dumb – or just plain wrong – why do you think the truth will out? Unless something is written in a very well-reasoned way, it’s probably best to leave it be – and even then, you may want to hold off, largely because…
  2. The cavalry is probably on its way: The fact there are several people on the internet will, inevitably, work in your favour – because every bad penny has a flip side to the coin. They may equally bad, mean, stupid, hasty and uncritical but more importantly than any of that they can be forgiven because they’re ON YOUR SIDE. If you let someone else fight your battles for you, you get to keep your dignity – and your sanity – intact.
  3. Because even if you the cavalry doesn’t arrive, getting involved will very rarely make you feel better: Most likely, one of two things will happen. One, you’ll feed the troll and start a childish spat you’re probably not going to ‘win’. Or two, your reply will be met with silence and you’ll never, ever know if the original poster even read it. Think about how much that might eat you up. And while you’re thinking about that, imagine what the percentage is of cases that end in the original poster replying, “Wow, you’re totally right! I didn’t see it like that. Thanks for correcting me”.

Sure it’s hard. But think back to the opening points – the people posting those comments are probably mean, stupid, unresearched and lazy when it comes to sentence construction. There’s no need to fuel a fire and hey, be pragmatic – they didn’t like it. No biggy. You always knew there would be people who didn’t (although of course you’d hope they’d keep their mouths shut). Nothing is for everyone – and at least it’s out there, right? You’ve made your mark on the world and you should revel in that.

But what if they had a point…

The best thing about anything creative is that there’s always a lesson to be learnt, always a way to improve and always another mountain to climb. If they were right, learn from it and move on. Because that next creative project is going to be even better – which means the cavalry charge against the stoopids will be even more vociferous and unstoppable…

Books wot I red: Paperboy, The Bleeding Heart & The Dwarves

Well I’ve managed to get this latest three-book post out in less than a year, which is pretty good going by my standards – especially as one of them was a 700-page behemoth. And two of them are even by the same author – although I’ve again managed to get a non-novel in (an autobiography counts, right?).

Once again it looks as if I’ll have a four-book year in terms of reading. Maybe I should just accept that’s the way it will always be – at least while my job involves so much reading. But I’m increasingly enjoying time away from the computer screen, while finding less people to play board games with, so maybe things will change.

PaperboyI don’t ordinarily read autobiographies or memoirs, but when it’s your favourite author the idea seems a little more compelling; even if his life was boring at least I know he can write! So with some apprehension I jumped into Paperboy by Christopher Fowler.

Any fears I had melted away immediately. His story feels both honest and compelling, describing post post-war era London (from the 1960s onwards) from within a typically dysfunctional suburban family.

Hi love of books, and perhaps more importantly words, springs from every page; as well as film and television. But the honest portrayal of his family’s problems adds another, more sensitive dimension and stops it becoming something of a pop culture love-in. But whichever tale he’s telling at the time, he conveys with his usual skill; being able to make the reader laugh or cry at will.

You certainly don’t need to be a fan of Fowler’s writing to enjoy this, although it does help explain his fascination with both London and the supernatural. And if you’re an only child, a bookworm, someone who grew up in an ever-expanding London or just a lover of books that are beautifully written, I’d highly recommend Paperboy.

The Bleeding HeartHaving just read his autobiography, it seemed sensible to move onto the latest Bryant & May paperback, The Bleeding Heart by Christopher Fowler. As ever it was worth the wait – although I was nervous early on.

Bryant begins the book in uncharacteristically dour fashion, while the new managerial foil to the Peculiar Crimes Unit seemed to be following the same plot line as their previous nemesis. But as the various plots unfolded by fears faded away and by the end I was, as ever, left eagerly awaiting more.

for the uninitiated, the Bryant & May novels are like The X-Files meeting Last of the Summer Wine in London for a few pints of ale: two elderly detectives solving the most peculiar crimes, with inevitable links to the fascinating and macabre history of England’s capital city.

This is the 11th outing for the duo, with numbers 12 and 13 already on the shelves and more to come. It’s the best series of books I’ve ever read and unfortunately the first one, Full Dark House, can be a little difficult to get into as it skips between two time zones (present day London and the Blitz, in the detectives’ early career). But the rewards are a wonderfully fluid writing style and a memorable cast of characters, alongside some great plots and fascinating facts about London’s underbelly.

The DwarvesNext I immersed myself in the fantasy world of The Dwarves by Markus Heitz. I’d heard slightly dodgy things about it, but having thoroughly enjoyed the co-operative board game based on the series I was determined to flesh out the characters.

First things first: haters of bog-standard fantasy books should walk away now. This isn’t big and it isn’t clever – in fact it follows the typical fantasy tropes quite frighteningly close to the letter.

Good vs Evil? Check. Bunch of good guys up against unspeakable odds? Check. Dwarves, elves, spells etc? Check. Off on an ‘incredible journey’? Check.

But if you do like that sort of thing, it’s hard not to recommend The Dwarves to you. The writing level is OK (standard for fantasy novels), it’s the obligatory trumpetybillion pages long (about 700) and there are several more books in the series. But more importantly it does a good job of scene setting, character interaction/progression and storytelling.

This really isn’t my kind of thing anymore, but I didn’t find myself skipping pages and was never bored: it moves things on at a fair click and while the over-explanation did at times wear my patience thin (why do these people feel the need to telegraph the characters’ emotions to the point a two-year-old would understand?) I was never close to quitting.

Will I read on past this book? It’s unlikely. But then I’d pick the second one of these up before any other fantasy novel, which has to say something. My one gripe would be that, while several string female characters do emerge at certain points, their coverage (in pages) is way lower than it should be – but then if you didn’t mind that in The Lord of the Rings et al, I’m sure you’ll be OK with it here too.

What’s next on the list?

This time I managed to knock numbers three, four and five off the list, but two of those were new entries – surely I can hit numbers one and two this time. And this has, of course, left room for three new entries:

  1. Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch. Its fourth time at number 1, having been on six of these lists (a record). I still really want to read it; what the hell is going on?
  2. Teach Yourself: The Cold War by CB Jones. I got a copy of Cold War board game Twilight Struggle and wanted to put it in proper context. I really should know more about this history I lived through, so this is on the list – three times so far.
  3. Dark Cargo by Andrew Rice. New entry! This is a book written by a friend hat I started proof reading for him, but stopped after three chapters (I think it’s fair to say I’m no proof reader). I got a physical copy from Amazon so I could finish it.
  4. The Burning Man by Christopher Fowler. New entry! The next Bryant and May novel. Nuf said.
  5. The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat by Oliver Sacks. New entry! Lent to me by a friend (hello Candice!) who was very enthusiastic about it. Not my usual fayre though: a book about cases of people with extreme, bizarre neurological disorders.

Guide to board game reviewing, part 1: Getting started

Statler and waldorfWith 60 board and card game reviews under my belt, I thought it was time to write some articles about following this particular path of writing.

If nothing else I’m still at it, so that has to count for something. And I find it incredibly rewarding, so any chance to give something back feels good.

This isn’t about how I do my own reviews, or about my own particular style and layout: these are things I think anyone should get a handle on before they undertake reviewing of any kind (not just games). Please feel free to correct me where I’m wrong, or point out things I should add, in the comments below.

1. Want nothing

Seriously: don’t go into this with any expectations beyond knowing you’ll be able to read your own reviews on the internet. No one may read them, no one may comment, no one may care; you may never get a thank you or acknowledgement, a free game, or a free anything, and you will likely never make a dime. Still here? Excellent.

2. Is writing for you?

Not everyone is gifted with writing skills – or proofreading, laying out posts, taking photos etc. Today we have simple access to a host of audio and video mediums, which in truth can get you a lot more visits and followers too. I have been blessed with a face and a voice for the written word, but you may find your skills are in other areas. Give them a try.

3. Read what’s out there

Whichever medium you choose, study the form. What are others doing? Who stands out, and more importantly why? Or even better – what isn’t being done, or being done well? Think about what you’ll add to the many voices that are already fighting to be heard. Constraints can be a powerful shaping tool, but certainly aren’t for everyone.

4. Find your voice

Your individual voice, layout and style will make you, so be sure you’ve found them before you begin. And if you have, will it suit the audience you want to be speaking to? For some 100 pithy words will do; while others will prefer sprawling rants bereft of punctuation. If you find your style, and stick to it, people who like it will come back – and keep coming back.

5. Set yourself standards

It doesn’t matter what they are, but it can really help to discipline yourself. I will write 400-600 words. I will do a review each month. I won’t swear. I will not rest until no word is underlined in red (or blue). I will compare it to at least three other games. I will play every game I review 10 times. You’ll be proud of your reviews if you have something to aim at.

6. Start with what you know

While being the first person to review the hottest new releases may help you get followers or views, when you start out is is probably unrealistic to think you can achieve this – and it’s probably not even advisable to try. While finding your voice, review games you know really well: you’ll be – and sound – comfortable, confident and knowledgeable.

7. See both sides

I don’t care how much you love – or hate – said game: someone has the opposite opinion. I’m still amazed at the love some games get that I openly despise, but hey – get used to it. And more importantly, cover it. Look for criticisms or love, consider them, and work them into your review. Try and say good and bad things about every game.

8. Don’t mistake opinions for facts

On rare occasions, games are broken or unplayable; but the rest of the time they fall into the 3-9 out of 10 category. Phrases such as “I think” and “in my opinion” are your friends – sweeping statements (“this is crap”, “this is the best game evs”) make you look stupid. You don’t have to be arrogant to show you have an opinion – it’s just lazy grandstanding.

9. Check your facts

Check EVERYTHING before you publish – or better still, also get it proofread by a friend. Proper nouns are most important, but also check everything from component numbers to age ranges to turn and round names. Gamers can be a pernickety bunch, but more importantly you should have a sense of pride in your work – else why do it?

10. Be truthful

And one final thing, be honest. This is more likely to come later when you’ve been sent something for free – or something from a friend. The worst thing you can do in this case is be dishonest: you are doing your readers a disservice if you don’t give a stinker both barrels. If it’s that bad, and you don’t want to say so, simply don’t review it.

Books wot I red: Cloud Atlas, Grave Peril & Cognitive Surplus

It was a cold winter’s eve back in November 2014 when the last ‘Books Wot I Red’ post winged its way onto the tinterwebs… and it’s a cold November night a year on now. Much has changed since then, but my reading habits – and pace – haven’t.

In fact I’ve even managed to slow down: four books in a year is pretty pathetic going. Reading is still a luxury I rarely afford myself, with TV, gaming and writing still being my drugs of choice. But the books I have been reading I’ve thoroughly enjoyed.

Cloud Atlas David MitchellAfter the easy humour of Dave Gorman I set myself something slightly more challenging: Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. It was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, after all – news only slightly tempered by its ‘Richard and Judy Best Read of the Year’ award.

I loved the film and I’d heard the book was incredible; but the 500+ pages of tiny font were pretty daunting – but thankfully thoroughly worthwhile. This is a book I’d recommend to anyone with even a fleeting acceptance of sci-fi and fantasy fiction.

While fantastical in places Cloud Atlas is, more than anything else, a celebration of language and storytelling. It effortlessly shifts gears through the ages, glorying in the language of each era as it goes. From Victorian pomp right through to an experimental pidgin English of a dystopian future, it’s quite the writing master class.

My only real complaint was that most sections seemed to drag a little towards the end, labouring a little as the author was clearly having fun writing it. I don’t think we would’ve lost anything of the style or story if it had been 100 pages shorter, but it’s a minor quibble.

Also, I’m glad I read the book after seeing the film as many have moaned about the movie having done so the other way around. I guess many of those people are the type who can’t see these two very different artistic mediums apart and feel one has to be the mirror of the other (get over yourselves – you;re wrong).

Personally I thought the film was great. It looked beautiful and the way they made the actors up through the different ages was really well done. But it does follow a different structure (as it had too, being just a single movie for such a long book), so take that with you going in.

Jim Butcher - Grave PerilAs Cloud Atlas had taken me six months to read it seemed a page turner (well, for me) might be in order, so I turned to book three of The Dresden Files, Grave Peril by Jim Butcher. Two months later and it was done – the last chunk, aptly, being read on holiday.

I spoke about book two of the Dresden Files back in October 2013, so won’t dwell long here – you don’t want to read these out of sequence and I’m not about to start talking about characters/plots as I can’t remember what relates back to who in the old ones.

In short, think classic noire detective stories with added magic. And vampires and werewolves. And the ‘never never’ – and this time holy swords and nightmares. And don’t expect it to be the best written book ever, but don’t let it worry you either – thankfully the rapid-fire story does enough talking to drown out (m)any faults in the prose.

I found out recently that they’d made this series into a TV show, which it was clearly written to be – but it got panned after one season. If anyone saw it I’d love to get opinions on it as I’m truly tempted to grab the DVD.

As for Grave Peril, the best praise I can give it is that I’m fully intending to continue with the series – although I don’t think I can read them as fast as he can write them (he’s up to number 15 now, apparently). But it’s nice to have something to look forward to in a series you know will probably literally outlive you – because it has (I expect) no end game, so there’s no fear of missing any big reveal by my untimely death getting in the way.

Cognitive Surplus by Clay ShirkyAfter two fantastical novels in a row I felt duty bound to read something less fictional – so turned to Cognitive Surplus by Clay Shirky. It has been on my ‘list’ here since the first one back in March 2013, so not before time!

The book can very much be seen as a potted history of how we interact with the internet; and how that has changed the way we interact with ‘media’ in general since the turn of the century.

Where TV, print etc tend to spoon feed us entertainment and knowledge, the internet has made it much easier for us to participate in the creative process ourselves – and many of us that do so do it out of the love of it (see: this blog), rather than having financial gain as the key motivation.

Shirky does a great job of describing some complex theories in layman’s terms – but can’t do it without making it very clear that he is not one of us stupid people. When talking academically he is all about the ‘us’; when talking about the plebs, it’s very much ‘you lot’, which is a shame. But having spent some considerable time with academics over the years, it’s also pretty much par for the course.

But you shouldn’t let that put you off taking a look at. what the internet has really done has shrunk the world; while changing the way many communities work from being largely geographical to more about our own specific interests. It’s fascinating stuff and a book I’d highly recommend, especially as it’s an easy and relatively short read.

What’s next on the list?

I managed to knock numbers two and three off the list this time, both of which had been around for four lists in a row – leaving space for two new entries:

  1. Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch. Its third time at number 1, having been on five of these lists (a record). I STILL really want to read it; what the hell is going on?
  2. Teach Yourself: The Cold War by CB Jones. I got a copy of Cold War board game Twilight Struggle and wanted to put it in proper context. I really should know more about this history I lived through, so this is on the list – twice so far.
  3. The Dwarves by Markus Heitz. New entry! Having loved the co-op board game based on this book I feel duty bound to read it. I rarely read fantasy books, as they tend to be dreadfully written – and this is a translation too. The story had better sing…
  4. The Bleeding Heart by Christopher Fowler. New entry! The latest Bryant & May detective novel. Nuff said.
  5. Paperboy by Christopher Fowler. I wouldn’t normally consider a ‘memoir’, but this is by the author of the Bryant & May novels – my all time favourites. Has to be worth a try – but will I get around to it? On the list twice and counting…

Choosing creativity over money: One small step…

creativitySo today I got confirmation that my adequate five-day-per-week salary is going to be reduced to a squeeky-bum-time four-day-a-week salary, starting on April 1.

Its going to mean cutting back on luxuries, but you know what? I think it’s for the best. Well, I certainly hope it is – as it was my stupid decision to ask for it in the fist place.

Truth be told, I’m not the well-est person on the planet. Its all my own fault I’m sure, but the net result is I don’t have the energy I once had – and I don’t sleep well (my brain simply doesn’t switch off). The net result is evenings tend to be short-lived things in terms of productivity much of the time, which isn’t much use when you have a hobby such as game design.

So, being the genius I am, I figured one solution would be to give myself an extra day a week: use it to be creative and try to make back a bit of money in the process because you know what? I’d rather have less on the table than think about what might have been.

I recently received an invoice for a payment for Empire Engine (hopefully some actual money will follow reasonably closely behind). It’s not much, but it’s proof I can make a little something out of this. But I feel I need to dedicate some proper ‘9-5’ time to it, so that’s what I’m going to do. Oh my.

Coincidentally, it was great to listen to ‘Mice and Mystics’ designer Jerry Hawthorne on the Plaid Hat Podcast today. That man oozes enthusiasm and I wish I had his drive and dedication – but not at the cost. There he is on the show saying he works two jobs and the only game he’s played in weeks is his own new prototype.

When I get home I usually want to play a good game (or watch TV. Or crash out. Or have a beer and a chin wag. Or play computer games. But then there’s the washing, and the washing up…). I mean I’d back a few of my prototypes to be good games one day, but not tonight! I LOVE playing games, as well as designing them – I want to do both.

Then there’s this website, which I could probably monetise a little. And I should be able to chase down some leads to get some free games to review. And I’ve seriously contemplated writing a book for years now. But when do you have the time? Well, now I have the time. No more excuses.

Something had to give – and frankly, disposable income is the thing I’ll miss least. Thankfully I’m a man of inexpensive tastes and my better half is much the same – time is more important than new this or new that. We’re lucky to be in good jobs in a first world country and I don’t want to take that for granted by wasting it – so I’m taking a little gamble.

Wish me luck, eh? I’ll just pass this hat around.

Books wot I red: Chang, Collins, Gorman

I finished the last ‘Books wot I red‘ post back in January… which means it has taken me a frankly ridiculous nine months to do the next post. In fairness I’ve actually read four since then, one of which was essentially a textbook.

The next book I read was actually ‘The Little Prince’ by Antoine De Saint-Exupery, but as I covered that in my book/game review I won’t retread that ground here – except to say you should read it, if you haven’t, no matter what age you are; a truly magical little tale with an equally amazing historic story behind it being written.

Cant Stop Wont StopI followed a children’s classic with what is essentially a textbook; Can’t Stop Won’t Stop by Jeff Chang. It’s a fantastic achievement, covering the history of everything associated with hip hop (music, style, dancing, graffiti and gang culture).

It’s a book that could only have been written by a fan, but that has pluses and minuses. On the plus side he gets the tone right. He drops in slang to ‘keep it real’ which could’ve gone horribly wrong, but works. And more importantly the level of detail is truly remarkable.

On the downside this reverence often clouds his judgement on issue such as gangs, to the point where he’s essentially making excuses for the terrible violence and mayhem many of the participants caused in these communities. It’s fine to champion something you love, but to be taken seriously you have to be realistic.

While no one is going to claim these were anything other than horrendous living conditions imposed by corrupt and/or misguided officials and politicians, it’s not as if this is an excuse for turning the neighbourhood you live in into a war zone; plenty of people lived through these conditions without turning to crime and violence.

While I found the music side fascinating, from the roots of hip-hop in Jamaican reggae culture through Grandmaster Flash and Bambaataa, to NWA and Wu Tang, I did find myself skipping sections on graffiti and break-dancing as they simply don’t interest me.

But this was no fault of the writing, which was consistently high quality throughout. If you have any interest in the roots of hip hop and rap culture, this is a must-read.

MockingjayFor a while I did dip out of ‘Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop’ for a light break, reading the concluding book of the Hunger Games trilogy; Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins. I’d heard consistent reports it was the worst of the three, but that wasn’t about to stop me completing what had been a very enjoyable series.

Unlike the first two books it starts at a gallop, getting straight to the action. This final book has a completely different scope outside of the games themselves, which initially filled me with optimism. But as the pages dragged (and dragged) on it became clear why this instalment is considered a little below par.

What Collins does well in the first two books is portray emotions it’s hard to conceive, due to the horrific nature of what’s going on. But here the plot turns to media and psychological manipulation, as well as more militaristic elements; areas she seems less confident with and which the reader is more familiar.

It must be reminiscent of the situation CS Lewis found himself in with Narnia’s; ‘The Last Battle’, or the end of ‘Harry Potter’. Things need to grow up, get dark and get BIG; but how do you do that and keep the character of the series? It’s also something Pullman struggled with in ‘His Dark Materials’, but where I think all of them got away with it with varying degrees of success, unfortunately Collins really drops the ball here.

What we end up with is a soggy middle which drags inexorably towards the largely telegraphed conclusion, via needless par after needless par of increasingly unlikely emotional Katniss breakdowns. That said, I bet this will work well in the film versions.

Dave Gorman vsI felt the need to go to a banker next, so grabbed the copy of Dave Gorman vs The Rest of the World I’d picked up for a quid in a charity shop – sorry Dave (I’m sure he’s reading). A very funny man talking about playing games – what could go wrong?

Nothing, as it happened. I was relaxed into it from the first few paragraphs and kept a pleasant smile on my big, fat, entertained face throughout.

The book is a nice mix of travel writing and examination of the (peculiar English) human condition, brought together with our Gorman’s rather lovely idea of going around the UK playing games with strangers. Ranging from darts to Frisbee to ‘proper’ board games (such as Catan and Agricola), it’s charming and amusing in equal measure – and more importantly very well written. There’s even a twist at the end…

While games are the driving force behind the idea this is definitely a book about people, so don’t be put off if you don’t like games in any form (it’s just that if you do like games, you’ll probably get a bit more out of it).

Mostly the ‘action’ centres around travelling to interesting places and meeting interesting strangers; and he stumbles on more than his fair share of characters. Sadly he’s not taking requests from gamers to meet up any more. I can hardly blame him, but I would’ve loved to share a pint and a game with the man. If you’re reading Dave (and I’m sure you are), drop me a line eh?

What’s next on the list?

Managed to read two of the previous Top 5 this time, but they were the books in fourth in fifth – hence the two new entries. If I don’t do at least one of the top three this time, you have permission to tell me off and be very cross:

  1. Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch. Its second time at number 1, having now been on four of these lists. And I really want to read it too; what the hell is going on?
  2. Cognitive Surplus by Clay Shirky. Still at 2 after also being on four of these lists – and still here for the same reasons: “How to make a better world. I think it’s probably important to get up to speed on this.”
  3. Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. Second list at number 3. Was blown away by the film and told the book was even more remarkable, but in a different enough way to be a separate entity. Still waiting on the shelf.
  4. Paperboy by Christopher Fowler. New entry! I wouldn’t normally consider a ‘memoir’, but this one is written by the author of my favourite ever series of books – the Bryant & May crime novels. Has to be worth a try.
  5. Teach Yourself: The Cold War by CB Jones. New entry! I’ve just got a copy of the amazing board game Twilight Struggle, set in the cold war, and want to put it in proper context. I really should know more about this history I lived through.

The Little Prince: Make me a Planet: A four-sided game (and book) review

“Grown-ups love figures. When you talk to them about a new friend, they never ask questions about essential matters. They never say to you: What does his voice sound like? What games does he play? Does he collect butterflies?”

The Little Prince boxThe Little Prince: Make Me a Planet is a quick playing (20-30 minutes) tile placement game for two to five players that retails for less than £20.

The whimsical artwork on the 80 sturdy cardboard tiles will be familiar to anyone who has read The Little Prince; beyond that you just get five player markers (the scoreboard is on the bottom of the box) and a short rules sheet.

If you strip the theme away, players are drafting their own four-by-four grid of tiles over 16 short playing rounds (more on the drafting later).

Four of these tiles will determine what symbols you will need on your tiles to score points; whoever scores best from these tiles at the end of the game wins.

But to strip the theme away would be to do one of the world’s finest children’s books a terrible injustice. It would reduce the game to figures – that’s what an adult would do! No. To truly understand the charms of Make me a Planet, you need to first understand and have met The Little Prince.

The book

The Little Prince bookThe Little Prince is a novella written by French writer and aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and first published in 1943. While many in the UK haven’t even heard of it, it’s one of the best selling books ever published with well over 100 million sales worldwide.

Saint-Exupéry wrote the book while exiled in the US after the fall of France during World War Two (he flew in a recon squadron until 1940), where he had travelled to try and persuade them to join the war.

Shortly after the book’s publication and against the will of friends and family, he rejoined the Free French Forces. He was lost in action in 1944 on a spy mission, three weeks before the Liberation of Paris.

Rather than being a children’s book, The Little Prince is a book written for a child; there’s something personal about it’s style that reads like a letter and a tone that doesn’t talk down to the reader. And more importantly, as with all good children’s tales, the older you get the more levels of meaning you begin to uncover.

On the most basic level,we find an airman fixing his crashed plane in the desert – where he meets the little prince, a visitor from a tiny planet. The little prince tells the airmen of his travels and all the strange adults he has met on other planets (from the king to the lamplighter, the drunk to the geographer) and the two become firm friends. But the more the prince tells of his tale, the more he realises he misses his own planet.

Beneath this, as hinted at in the quote at the top of this page, is a study of the human condition; a desire by the author for people to take a fresh look at the absurdity of the adult world from a child’s eyes – to see the beauty of the simple things and relish them, rather than tearing each other apart over meaningless boundaries and beliefs. Most of us can now only imagine what it must’ve been like to live through such turbulent times.

Teaching

What's wrong with this finished planet?

What’s wrong with this finished planet?

The game itself is very simple; where it comes to life is in the drafting.

There are four different styles of card that will make up each player’s planet: 4 character corners and 12 planet tiles (four middles, four left curves and four right).

With three to five players, the start player draws enough tiles for each player to get one, all from the same stack, and lays them out face up on the table.

The start player chooses one  tile for their planet, then chooses who gets to pick next. Whoever has to take the last tile (so has no choice) becomes start player – so decides which stack to draw the tiles from, and which tile they want to keep etc. At the start of the game, there will be exactly enough tiles put into play for everyone to build their planets.

If you answered above that three of the baobab trees should've been flipped over, well done! Have a biscuit

If you answered above that three of the baobab trees should’ve been flipped over, well done! Have a biscuit

Two-player is a little different. There’s enough tiles used for three players, while start player simply alternates between the two of you. However, you draw three tiles, look at them, and place two face up and one face down. The other player chooses first, then you get your pick of one that’s left – the other is discarded.

Scoring tiles are clearly explained in the rules; you’ll either score for having one of each of several things (so the Hunter will score three points for each different type of creature he has – snake, fox, sheep, elephant), or for multiples of the same thing (The Little Prince scores one point for each box on his planet, for example).

But there’s a little more game to it than simple addition. The player who finishes with the most volcanoes will score negative points for each one, while if you ever have to take a third baobab tree tile you’re forced to flip all of those tiles over to their blank side – they won’t score for any items on them. But maybe you can turn this into a positive…

The four sides

These are me, plus three fictitious amalgams drawn from observing my friends, and their respective quirks and play styles.

  • The writer: Don’t be fooled by the children’s book theme and cutesy art; The Little Prince: Make me a Planet is both a nasty and thinky little game. It’s a shame that, as a fan of the book, the game has to end with adding up points – but overall during the game it does a lovely job of evoking the imagery of the novel, as does its mix of very simple mechanisms with some deeper play beneath.
  • The thinker: I very much enjoy this one as a filler, but for me its definitely at its best with three. Here you can both see and effect the whole picture the most often, while with more it just seems a little out of control. There’s so much to consider; foremost, when is it a good time to draw those all important scoring tiles? And like any good filler game, the answer is totally circumstantial.  
  • The trasher: I have to agree with the thinker; this one is best with three for maximum screwage, although it’s also fun with two – mano a mano. Timing is everything; reacting to each round’s situation, weighing up the odds, making your move stick. Sometimes it’s best to take a hit, just because you know someone else is going to take an even greater one – just what the doctor ordered.
  • The dabbler: The Little Prince is a beautiful looking game that I really enjoy. Everyone seems to get something from it when we play, which makes it great for almost any situation. Even must-winners relax a little as they can just play again if they lose, while there’s silly stories to be told and laughter to be had on each little planet. Plus it packs up and down in just a few seconds.

Key observations

The Little Prince rulesI’m not going to turn literary critic here; people have studied The Little Prince within an inch of the poor little chap’s life and I feel no need to wade in.

The game’s real discussion point for me is how the tone of the game fits – or fails to fit – that of the book. Does a short and highly random take-that game really portray the themes of friendship and understanding the book seems to reach towards? In a word, no.

But I don’t see this as a problem. What the game does instead is bring to life The Little Prince’s universe; its crazy adult characters and the ways in which all the things in the book work for, or against, each other. It’s a celebration of the whole zany, flamboyant Frenchness of it all, rather than the well trodden if charming sentiment beneath.

Or a different take on tone; while The Little Prince can be seen as a children’s book it isn’t really – and it certainly isn’t a young children’s book. At its best, as explained above, it is seen in context – and that is as a call for calm and reflection in a 1940s world gone mad. If anything, a crazy take-that game where you’re desperately trying to keep your planet in order while everyone else plots against you seems highly appropriate!

Conclusion

The Little Prince scoring tilesI came upon The Little Prince: Make me a Planet totally by accident. I have no recollection of reading the book as a child, or of being aware of it as an adult. Equally I had no preconceptions about the game; I’d heard a few mentions of it as a fun, short tile laying game (which I had a dearth of) and picked it up purely because it was a bargain at Essen.

And yes, I was drawn in by the art – and then pleasantly surprised by the gameplay. But while I enjoyed the cut and thrust a great deal, I was equally enthralled by what stories must be behind all the crazy characters – so I picked the book up too.

A quick read of the back of the jacket, plus the dedication in the front, led me online to look into the author’s background – and so to the real tale behind this little legacy. And I can honestly say my life is richer for it – children’s book or not. Will it make the game more enjoyable? I don’t really think so. But I might be a fractionally better person for reading it.

And there I go again, having to try and explain everything in mathematical terms – so in honour of the Little Prince, I won’t give any rating this time. Let’s just say the book is as enjoyable as a sunset, while the game is much more fun than proper geography.

Books wot I red: Fowler, Collins, Fitzgerald

I managed to stick to my guns and read three of the ‘top five’ from my previous list – and in much quicker time. It was about a book per month since my last ‘Books wot I red‘ post in October, although I pretty much knew I’d devour two of those as they were in series’ I love. But the third was a US classic from 1925; would it send me rushing back to find more gems from yesteryear?

I’m sure this change of speed is a direct response to the fact I’ve been doing less reading and writing for work in recent months, concentrating more on planning, organisation and other projects (such as ad writing and infographics). Interestingly this has coincided with a big drop in computer gaming; I hadn’t played a thing since before Christmas until putting a little time into Avadon: The Black Fortress this week. But back to the plot…

invisible-codeThe ‘Bryant & May’ series has the dubious honour of being the only one I actively follow and immediately buy any addition to. So when The Invisible Code by Christopher Fowler was released on paperback earlier this year, it was an instant purchase (hey, I like them – but I don’t hardback like them).

The Bryant and May novels are the perfect storm of writing for me. I love a good detective yarn, and even more so if it has an element of the supernatural about it (yes, I still mourn the X-Files and love Warehouse 13, Haven etc – despite them not really being very good).

And I’m fascinated by the more offbeat and often off-colour history of London, where I was born and brought up. These books have both, in spades, but more importantly they’re beautifully written and have one of the most endearing and colourful casts of characters I’ve ever come across.

Bryant and May are two detectives long past standard retirement age, working for the Peculiar Crimes Unit (PCU); a fictional arm of the Home Office working outside of (and being loathed by) the capital’s Metropolitan Police. Only the strangest cases come their way, and even then only if they threaten the morale of the general public (a throwback to Second World War politics).

The banter between them is priceless, with Bryant taking on the Mulder roll (with added boiled sweets) and May that of (a male) Scully – except rather than looking to the sky’s for the truth (this isn’t sci-fi), Bryant looks to the history books for anything from secret societies to witchcraft. And they’re not like those overly silly X-Files episodes; these are wonderfully plotted and edgy stories brimming with intrigue.

Unlike many of these kinds of detective series, the supporting cast get almost as many pages as the stars. The whole of the PCU is vividly drawn, from their chinless superior right down to the office cat (and including several strong female characters). And don’t get me started on their Home Office nemesis…

If this sounds like your sort of thing, you’re probably advised to start at the beginning with Full Dark House. Its not the best in the series, chopping and changing between the present day and the Blitz, but its the only one that does so and really fills in the back story well (much like the first ever episode of Firefly).

As for The Invisible Code itself, its another great addition to the series. We learn a little of some of London’s lesser known yet fascinating churches – but also of gentlemen’s’ clubs whose ancient practises are as fascinating as they are horrific. But more importantly, Bryant and May find themselves having to try and help their nemesis save his wife from a terrible fate…

Catching FireWith the new film in the cinemas and getting rave reviews, it was clearly time to read Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins, book two of The Hunger Games (just in case you didn’t know…).

I’d loved the first book (and the film, as it happens) and had heard book two was every bit as good as the original. No pressure then. But the rumours were true.

I don’t have much to add to my feeling on the first book of The Hunger Games. The story moves on nicely, building on the original to take in a broader world view while adding meat to the main characters. The first half sets the scene nicely, before really cranking up the tension in the latter stages.

Again we have a strong exploration of the human condition, which is again very hand-holdy to help the younger audience the book is primarily aimed at. But again it doesn’t bother me; if it lets young teens tackle these difficult topics then more’s the better – and it just means I can skip about two pages in three and get to the meat on the bones!

I won’t discuss plot spoilers here as lets face it: this is a sequel – if you enjoyed The Hunger Games, you’re 99% likely to enjoy Catching Fire for most of the same reasons. When the action kicks off, it’s every bit as goose-bump inducing as it was the first time around. And if you haven’t read the first one, you should! As for the ending, it sets the final volume up beautifully. But despite this, I moved on to…

The Great GatsbyThe Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. I’d actually bought this as part of a gift set the previous Christmas for Zoe, as she’d expressed an interest in reading his work. She’d left it on the shelf, but I’d heard several people whose opinions I respect say good things about it, so gave it a go for a change if pace.

I thought it might be a good palate cleanser, a ‘classic’ of just 150 pages after reading various tales of mystery and fantasy. Unfortunately this page count was a lie; the truth being it was a normal length book but in teeny tiny font (it was the pictured Collins Classics version – try before you buy kids!). But I persevered.

It has that overly descriptive and wordy style you expect from books of the era; a pompous overuse of language thankfully largely behind us now. I struggle with it, to be honest, but have found in the past (reading Charles Dickens and Oscar Wilde, for example) that if the story is compelling enough I find it easy to wade on.

I struggled through the first half of the book, but around half way through things start to get interesting as the one thing the main protagonists can’t buy off – their deepest emotions – start to get the better of them.

The entire plot is built around the middle 20 pages of the book, in which Fitzgerald moves at pace from an unlikely love triangle set piece to an even less likely double tragedy. Everything before and after is either character development or nose-flicking at the unpalatable and pointless behaviour of those born into money and that don’t need to work (much like reading Made in Chelsea or The Karcrashians, but from 100 years ago).

I can see why it’s popular as a period piece, largely due to its attitude towards the rich and lazy, while parts of it I genuinely enjoyed (there is some fantastic uses of the word ‘shrubbery’, for example). But I think its fair to say I won’t be rushing off to discover the rest of his canon.

What’s next on the list?

I somehow managed to read my first, second and fourth choices (in that order) from last time; a rare feat of planning and execution! So nothing can go wrong this time, right?

  1. Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch. Number 1 at last, having been second and third on previous lists. Not only have I found my copy now after the move, but I’ve had more recommendations to read it – so read it I shall.
  2. Cognitive Surplus by Clay Shirky. Up to 2 after two lists at 3 and still here for the same reasons: “How to make a better world. I think it’s probably important to get up to speed on this.”
  3. Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. New entry! Having been blown away by the film, I was told the book was even more remarkable but in a different enough way to be a separate entity. Zoe’s folks had a copy, so it’s now waiting on the shelf.
  4. Dave Gorman vs The Rest of the World. New entry! A very funny and clever man talking about going around the world and playing strangers at games, from Monopoly to Tikal to darts. What’s not to like?
  5. Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop by Jeff Chang. Described as ‘the definitive history of rap music’, or ‘a history of of the hip-hop generation’, its a book I got several years ago as a gift and have been meaning to get to.