Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Cthulhu Gaslight

One of the players in my Cthulhu round is moving away and we decided to split up the round: we'll continue the old round when that player is visiting and the rest of us (two players and the GM) will play another chronicle with new characters.
Both of us immediately and in unison said "Victorian Age!" and we sort of steamrollered the GM. But since he didn't protest too much, Victorian Age it is.

I'm super excited about this because I love the Victorian Era in general, the literature, the fashion (corsets! (for both sexes!) waistcoats!) the art, the society that is on a turning point in so many respects. We're also playing in London, my favourite city, which makes this even better.

I'm going to play a retired Welsh soldier and in the last few days I have learned an amazing amount of stuff about the British Army, its involvement in India and the weapons used at that time. This is my favourite part of character creation, doing the research to be able to write a convincing background. I like to get all the details right, even if no one will ever know but me. I'll stop short of learning Welsh, although I'm tempted to look up a few handy phrases and cusswords.

Book of Choice: The Black Spider

The Black Spider by Jeremias Gotthelf is one of the finest books of German literature I know. It's a simple enough story, told by an old man at a feast after the christening of a child: when the peasants in a Swiss valley are confronted with an impossible task by their cruel liege lord, they make a pact with the devil, with no intention of paying the price - a newborn child. The devil fulfils his part of the bargain and once it becomes clear that the peasants have cheated him, a plague comes over the animals and people in the valley in the form of black spiders, killing everyone who comes into contact with them. The plague continues until one woman is brave enough to trap the spider in a beam in her house to save her newborn child. The spider remains trapped in the beam to this day and the people at the feast are sitting around that very beam.

The book begins with the idyllic description of the valley and the people at the feast, it's very engaging and it makes you want to join the celebrations, especially when Gotthelf describes the food. It takes only a few sentences to create a setting that is as vivid as any movie.

What I like most is the idea of the spider that is causing the plagues. It comes from a mark the devil planted with a kiss on a woman's cheek and it slowly grows into a spider that gives birth to many small spiders. They swarm all over the land, killing the livestock in the stables and on the pastures, there's no way to escape from them. The big spider only has to touch people to infect them - there's an absolutely chilling scene where the liege lord and his knights have a feast and the spider is sitting on the lord's head without him noticing, staring at the knights until they are paralysed with fear. It then kills the lord and quickly runs over the table, touching everyone present and killing them.

The tale has a strong morale: as long as the people living in the valley believe in God and live their lives accordingly, the spider will be kept trapped. It's set free once by godless people living in the house and the plague begins all over again, but again it can be imprisoned by someone who has faith. Often, those kind of tales get on my nerves because they are told heavy-handed. Here, the message is very clear, but it's told with such skill that the morale doesn't suffocate the story.

There's one thing that I find pretty typical of such a community that really bothers me every time I read the book. Both times the spider appears, it is set free by women who are not originally from the valley. There's an element of xenophobia there. It's not like the people of the valley are depicted as innocent, they certainly have their faults, but those two women are the catalyst for the catastrophe.

It's often said that The Black Spider is a tale of the Black Plague. I read the theory in this book that the disease Gotthelf describes is ni fact anthrax. Of course the whole thing is an allegory, but there are many things that just fit an anthrax epidemic. The black spot the devil leaves for example or the way the animals die when they set foot on their pastures, with the spiders coming up out of the ground. Pastures often became infested with anthrax spores after getting flooded if a tannery was dumping its waste into the river and the spores survived there for a very long time. Gotthelf was a skilled observer, so why shouldn't he have described a disease much feared by peasants at the time?

Monday, May 30, 2011

Talk Talk

Dana Halter, a deaf teacher, gets arrested and thrown in jail for crimes she didn't commit. She's the victim of an identity thief and she goes on a road trip with her boyfriend Bridger Martin to track down the thief.

I've had a fascination with sign language and deaf culture for years, due to several friends who studied sign language among other things. So I was delighted to find out that Talk Talk by T.C. Boyle has a deaf character and explores deaf culture and I think the book does it quite well. It's not the main focus, but Dana's deafness certainly plays a part in the story.

The parts of the book told from the identity thief's point of view were the most gripping parts for me. He's a man who wants to appear suave, successful and well-educated and he does manage it most of the time, but there's always the feeling that he can turn incredibly violent. Once Dana and Bridger are on his trail, he manages to hold on for a while, but eventually he breaks down. He can't face his own life, he hides behind other personalities and when he can't do that anymore, he doesn't know what to do.

His relationship with his girlfriend Natasha is decidedly weird. There's no love there, she just wants to have money to buy things and he needs a beautiful woman because that's what a man has to have, in his opinion. Over the course of the book, there's pretty much only one occasion where they joke together, all their other conversations are tense and bordering on a fight. They are two egoists who have comer to an agreement, but it's a fragile one.

I was a bit amused at myself when I noticed that Dana became my least favourite character in the book because she's constantly late. That is such a pet peeve of mine and it actually influenced my opinion of this character (just like it does with real people - keeping me waiting is a really great way to get on my bad side quickly).

Two little things: the true name of the identity thief is William Wilson, like Poe's famous doppelgänger story, and the book Dana writes is Wild Child

Talk, Talk is the 28th book for the Library challenge

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Deadlands Meltdown

Last week, one of the players at my weekly roleplaying group threw a tantrum. We're playing Deadlands at the moment and the group's in Dodge City. Among the group are a nun and a gunman/huckster. There are hints that the local brothel is run and staffed by some sort of vampires. Unfortunately, it's nun who discovered it and all she can tell the other characters is: the men look really very dazed and strangely happy when they leave. Of course, we all go: Yeah, sister, sure. That's how it's supposed to go.
So on the next day, the nun goes off alone to fight the vampires. She's followed by the gunman, who does suspect something is wrong, and they fail spectacularly, escaping barely with their lives. The gunman is seen shooting at the hookers, so he's overpowered and almost lynched by the good people of Dodge City.

The player of the gunman had awful luck with his dice, not one roll worked out, all his spells failed. I can absolutely understand being frustrated about that. But he was seriously pissed because the rest of the group hadn't joined the vampire killing expedition. He packed his stuff and announced that he wouldn't be playing Deadlands any more before leaving.

We all made it clear that our characters were not interested in investigating this further because we all pretty much thought that the nun just had a bee in her bonnet about the hookers. The way I see it, if a players decides to go on a solo mission, then he can't expect the rest of the group to follow if there is no motivation and he certainly doesn't get to call the characters/players cowards.
This player has a habit of going off on these rampages when he gets impatient with the group and I have to say that I have been waiting for something like this to happen – he usually plays powerful characters, but if you're all alone and the dice are not your friends, then nothing can help you. Deal with it. You chose this path of action, now accept the consequences. And for goth's sakes, keep play and real life separated.

Which the player of the nun did, by the way. He wasn't overly happy about his character getting almost killed, but he knew what he was getting himself into. And he managed to get some great roleplaying moments from it.

Friday, May 27, 2011

*clunk*

You've been working in a library too long when you can identify patrons with your back turned from the sound of how they put down their bags on the counter.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Boathulhu

We played Fiasco again and this time, we chose the Objective Zebra playset. A submarine. WWII. A diary in a dead language. What can go wrong?
Let me tell you.

We played as the captain of the boat, a scientist, the chief engineer and a crewman/German spy. The playset states that the submarine has run aground way below its safe diving depth after visiting some mysterious island off the German coast and getting bombed by the Germans.

The first act took place almost exclusively on the island where the submarine had been sent to because we decided that the purpose of Objective Zebra was to raise some demon/Old God with the help of the aforementioned diary. A small flaw in the occult symbols copied onto the floor from the diary causes the whole ritual to end in chaos and panic. The German spy, brought along as a guard, uses the confusion and his machine pistol to shoot the captain, who clearly is the leader of the cult, in the back, leaving him for dead.

You can imagine his surprise when the captain turns up, not only alive but totally unhurt. The situation is not improved by depth charges and the boat is pretty much dead at a depth of 200 metres. The spy goes into hiding, as much as that is possible on a submarine, and turns up the diary of the cook stating that the crew has been poisoned. Awesome. Just what we need.

The Tilt gave us "someone panics" and "Death, after an unpleasant struggle"

The captain find the spy, who is pretty much dead at that point and bring him back to life. That is too much for the spy who panics and runs, feeling just a leeetle overwhelmed. He shoots the captain again, only to see him get up without a scratch (the bullet killed one of the helmsmen, sorry about that) and that is the moment when the spy decides to take his chances outside the boat with a Momsen lung.

Meanwhile, both the scientist and the chief engineer are busy with rituals of their own, with the help of the diary and a strange compass that turned up on the island. The rituals work, but instead of helping to win the war, the whole submarine is turned into a sort of Flying Dutchman, subject of many legends told in dark and stormy nights by the inhabitants of the area.

Since the spy was the only one to survive, we decided that he makes it back to the surface and even is picked up by the Germans. But his tale isn't believed of course, until it reaches the ears of some very special people who are only too happy to believe it. So the spy finds himself back on the island and has to help with yet another ritual, which results in the complete destruction of the island. Guess what comes along to fish him out of the water this time?

We love the movie Das Boot and submarines in general, so Objective Zebra was the obvious choice for us. I have visited both German and US WWII submarines, so I already knew how much bigger the US subs were, but it still surprised me to learn exactly how much more comfortable they were. I mean, air conditioning and bunks for (almost) everyone on board. Wow. The class of the sub is not stated in the playset and it doesn't really matter, but I thought that having a diagram of the boat would be fun and I turned up a great one of a Gato class sub.

Some of us mentioned that they were at first a bit at a loss about what exactly to do on the submarine, which is probably one of the reasons why pretty much the comlpete first act took place on the island. But I don't think that this was much of a problem and the flashbacks were great and rather creepy.
And speaking of creepy: we listened to the soundtrack of John Carpenter's The Fog (the original) and it was absolutely perfect for this. There were several moments when the music seemed to have been written just for what we were doing.

Oh, and Mr Bookscorpion and me finally did something we have been meaning to do for ages: drink a U-Boot Spezial-Cocktail. Lemon juice and condensed milk. Martin Semmelrogge drinks that in Das Boot, to the incredulous stares of his shipmates, it's one of my favourite scenes and absolutely hilarious (and slightly gross). To my surprise, it tasted not at all bad, kind of lemon iceish.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Sumerki

Dmitrij Alexejewitsch gets a job translating an old Spanish text. He's immediately fascinated by the account of a journey of a group of soldiers and monks to confiscate Mayan books and idols. The more he reads, the more he is pulled into the world of Conquistadores, Maya and Inca rituals and mysteries. He also discovers that other people are interested in the text as well and will even kill to get it.

Sumerki is Dmitry Glukhovsky's third book and people who expect another Metro book will be disappointed. I never understood how readers can demand that their favourite author writes only one genre or the same story over and over, though. I like to discover new things and if I can do that by reading a book by one of my favourite authors, that's awesome.

The diary that Dmitrij Alexejewitsch translates has its roots in history, there really was an autodafe where the vast majority of Maya culture in form of books was destroyed. Diego de Landa, the man responsible for it later wrote a book on Maya culture that contains much of what we know about it today. He's a fascinating figure.

The book addresses the myth that the Maya have predicted the end of the world and the way catastrophes happen in the world (tsunamis, earthquakes) while Dmitrij sits at home and translates, the reader begins to suspect they may have had a point. I loved the description of the Maya ritual at the end of the every 56 year period, when the sun may or may not come up again. That's something that is very common in many myths worldwide and I think it's a fear all humans share(d) at some level. It sounds ridiculous to us today, but it's a powerful thought: do this and the sun will not come up tomorrow or there will be no more spring.

The further I read, the more it seemed like the past was connected to the world Dmitrij lives in and at one point of the story that I found absolutely chilling, it becomes perfectly clear that there is a connection.

It's a book with a very unusual theme and once again, it's thought-provoking and will make you wonder about many things after having read it. It's worth following up on the topics discussed or hinted at, I learned a lot about both Russian and Maya culture.
Sumerki means Twilight, by the way.

27th book for the Library Challenge

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Book of Choice: Metro 2033 by Dmitry Glukhovsky

After a nuclear war, the surface of the earth of blighted and deadly for anyone who goes there. Survivors have gathered in the Moscow metro system. The stations are defended against the mutants that live in the surface, against animals and against other survivors – humans are just as ready to fight each other as they always were. There are alliances between stations and each alliance tries to keep control of their territory – travelling between the stations of different alliances is difficult at best. It's made even harder by the fact that the tunnels are unsafe, not just because of the mutants and bandits, but also because very strange things happen in the tunnels once the light from the station is left behind. Not everyone who goes in will come back.

I loved this book right from the start. I like subways, urban exploration and post-apocalyptic stories and Metro 2033 combines everything, with a good measure of philosophy thrown in. The edition I have contains a map of the metro where you can look up the different stations and follow the characters on their way, which makes the whole thing even more real. Just seeing the warning signs on that map (mutants, radiation, mental danger ect.) is enough to creep me out. And speaking of creeped out: I won't be able to look at the ruby stars in the Kremlin towers ever again without a shudder. I didn't see the ending coming at all and it adds a whole new dimension to the story, it makes you realize that much of what you assumed over the course of the story was wrong.

Some people dare to climb up to the surface and they are called Stalker. That's a detail I like because I'm a huge fan of the movie Stalker and it's a nod to acknowledge the influence the movie had on the book, I'd say. Metro 2033 would make an awesome setting for an RPG. It's been turned into a computer game (like Stalker was, with the same engine I think), a very impressive one from what I have seen. But I would recommend reading the book before you play the game.

Oh, and something I thought about only the second time I read the book: people tell each other all kinds of wild stories about what happened before the nuclear war, including stories of a demon-summoning Lenin - maybe those are not wild stories. Maybe it's all true. It certainly seems possible in the darkness of the tunnels, walking from one station to the next.

I would recommend looking up the stations mentioned in the book online to see how they look now. Moscow has a beautiful metro system (I haven't been there unfortunately) and it's fun to see the places as they look now and imagining them as they are described in the book then.

Russian fantasy/science fiction is popular in Germany right now, thanks to Night Watch and I'm enjoying the chance to take a look at this very different take on the genres. I hope it lasts for a while and I hope there will be translations of more authors. So far, all the books I got my hands on were not only very readable, but also suggested very interesting concepts and philosophical questions that I found myself wondering about even when the book was over. I love that extra dimension in scifi and fantasy (which is why I like Stanislav Lem, among other things) and it's all too often missing from all those trilogies cranked out by authors these days.

26th book for the Library Challenge and 5th book for the Science Fiction challenge

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Numbers

Jem always reacts the same when people get close to her: she pushes them away. She doesn't want to get to know people, to come to like them because she believes that they will leave her anyway. Spider, a boy from her school, manages to get past her defences and they become friends. There's just one problem: Spider will die in two weeks. Jem knows – she knows when everyone is going to die because she can see the date in peoples' eyes, their numbers. When the two are at the wrong place at the wrong time during a terrorist attack on London, the become fugitives together, but even they know that things won't end well.

I loved Jem and Spider right from the start, both are very vivid characters, very strong and angry and they feel that they have to fight alone against the whole world. It's not a very optimistic picture Rachel Ward paints of society and the chances people have when they have fallen through the cracks of the system. The book probably would have worked well without the supernatural touch, but it does give the story another twist. I found myself hoping against hope that there would be a way to change Spider's number. The question is: are things really predetermined or do we have free will, can we change our future?

I tend to go with the Trousers of Time school of thought Terry Pratchett suggests. Every decision we make spawns a new universe where things are just that tiny bit different – or maybe very different. I just like that idea and I refuse to believe that our lives are laid out right from the start. We certainly are influenced in our decisions by education, peer groups and and the sum of our experiences, sometimes so strongly that only one outcome seems possible. Nonetheless, we have it in us to surprise the universe.

Soundtrack: New Model Army, Green and Grey in particular. I listened to NMA the whole time I was reading the book and the music fits it very well, it's just as angry, disappointed and ready to fight as Jem and Spider are.

25th book in the Library challenge

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Sea Devils

Once again, the Doctor encounters the Silurians. I liked the first episode, but the Silurians got on my nerve, especially that noise they made – the whole serial was just way too loud. The aquatic version looks a bit like a cross between a dog, a pig and a bat and they are not very comfortable in the water (well, I wouldn't be either in that kind of costume). They don't intend to share the planet with humanity, with the Master reinforcing that decision and frankly, humanity isn't that keen on sharing either.

The production team got a lot of help from the Royal Navy in this serial and it shows. I also loved the sequences with the submarine model, those are very well done and still look great. Apparently, I wasn't the only one who thinks so. I seriously doubt that British submarines were that roomy inside, though.

Roger Delgado is easily my favourite Master (I haven't seen Eric Roberts yet, but I don't think that it will change anything). He's very charming and even without his hypnotic skills, he's perfectly capable of fooling people and using them for his purpose. Delgado's Master is so very sure of himself, even when things go wrong for him. He believes that he will win in the end because how couldn't he – he's the Master after all and he's destined to rule the universe.

It's hard to make a character likeable who is as selfish as the Master, who will run in the face of danger unless he has something to gain (in which case he is just as brilliant and brave as the Doctor). Delgado manages just that and I thoroughly enjoyed the 8th season, with the Master pulling the strings in every episode.
Finally, I could go all fangirl over him in that black suit he always wears, but it's probably better to just enjoy that quietly.


I love that look of frustration/exasperation when he's once again confronted with another dim human.

And just as an aside: the latest DW episode contained the most useless CPR I have ever seen. I like Amy, but if I travelled with her, I would hope like hell that there was someone else to bring me back from the dead. Less crying and kissing and more chest compression, damn it.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Coraline

I love Neil Gaiman's books, but for some reason I hadn't read Coraline. I did watch the movie, which I loved. When I started to read the book, I had a hard time getting the movie out of my mind for the first 20 pages or so, but then it took a life of its own. That's a sign of a great book, when the narrative has enough strength to make you forget the film.

Open a little door and walk through it into another world - that premise has been used a lot of times, but rarely to a more creepy effect that in Coraline. The world she discovers seems perfect, except for maybe the little detail that the people have buttons for eyes. Soon more cracks in that perfect surface appear and it doesn't take long for Coraline to find out that she has stepped into a nightmare and cannot just walk away.

major spoilers here

The scene where Coraline discovers the shapeless, pathetic thing that used to be her Other Father is scary and sad at the same time and I totally fell for the trick she uses to get her Other Mother to open the door again. I was shouting (in my head, but shouting): "No! They're in the snowglobe!"

It's a wonderful book and it's great for reading aloud - like much of Gaiman's stuff actually.

24th book for the Library Challenge

Saturday, May 7, 2011

It's official

It's official: summer has begun. Yesterday, the first swifts arrived and were busy hunting insects all evening. I love watching them and hearing their screams means summer to me.

Friday, May 6, 2011

The Curse of Peladon / The Mutants

The Curse of Peladon
The story has several twists and the Doctor is wrong for a change – he has some history with the Ice Warriors, but their race has changed since the Doctor has last met them. I enjoyed all the alien delegates, with not only strange costumes and make-up, but also their own personalities. Alpha Centauri is quite adorable, despite the occasional bout of hysteria.

King Peladon says at one point that he doesn't meet many young people and not many young women in particular and boy, he's not kidding. Whenever he talks to Jo, he says precisely the wrong thing. Despite that, she does like him and she is tempted to stay when he asks her (and says the right thing for once). But I would suspect that the appeal is more that of a puppy blundering about and being adorable than of the “oh my gosh, I want to spend my life with that man”-variety.

The Mutants
Paul Whitsun-Jones as the Marshal - I felt like I was watching Hermann Göring, right down to the over the top uniform and the marshal's baton-like communicator (did they use a bicycle pump???). There is a strong Nazi undertone to the whole Skybase, including the euphemisms for genocide - "population control" or a "side effect", as I'm just following orders-scientist Jaeger puts it.

The mutants are cool. They move a bit slowly and shambling to appear really threatening, but I quite like this version of insect-monster, the costumes are very detailed and show that someone took the time to study insects up close.

The final mutation of Ky was a bit meh, but on the whole the idea of a species that mutates to adapt to the changing seasons of their home planet is an interesting idea.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Kafka on the Shore

Kafka on the Shore starts real enough, with a 15 year old boy running away from home, but it soon acquires a dream-like quality. People talk to cats, meet Jonnie Walker or fall in love with the ghost of a girl that suddenly appears in their bedroom.

The further you read, the clearer it becomes that everything is part of one big puzzle. You shouldn't expect a final solution, though, Murakami's books never work like that. Some questions are answered, others are not - or maybe they are? Time to re-read the book.

I have a weakness for authors who can write about music in a way that makes you want to listen to the piece that's described right now and Murakami is one of those authors. Music plays a big part in Kafka on the Shore and I can only recommend listening to the music that's mentioned. I wish I could listen to the fictional song that plays such a big part in the story.

A privately owned library is an important location and I wish I could go there as well. It's vividly described and the main character even gets to live there for a while. As a child, I've always wanted to be locked into a library for a night. Let's be honest, I still want to - I actually have a list of libraries that I want to be all alone in to explore them at peace. So the library in this book had a huge appeal for me.

The forest one of the characters explores and the small town he discovers reminded me very much of Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, as did the references to loosing one's shadow (or having a weak shadow). There are more references to books by Murakami, to Picnic at Hanging Rock, to Kafka's stories and other books. All that gave me the feeling of being familiar with the world I was exploring, only to come across other things that made it look completely alien once again. It's a slightly disturbing effect, but I like it, it makes me rethink my opinion of what I'm reading constantly.

There was one thing that bothered me: some phrases sounded awkward and I'm willing to bet that they were translated literally from English, not Japanese, or maybe they were English in the original. Cool as a cucumber for example was translated literally and that's not something Germans say and I doubt it's a proverb in Japan. It's a perfect example of why I only read translations when I have to.

23rd book for the Library Challenge