Monday, June 18, 2012

Book of Choice: Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns

For all its fame, Kite Runner never made much of a blip on my radar until I did some research on Bacha bazi (a form of child prostitution) and saw it mentioned there. Since I'm on a Middle East binge at the moment anyway, I decided to read it.

I was captivated right from the start and read the whole book in a few hours. It's the story of two boys who grow up together in Afghanistan in the 70s. They are best friends, but their relationship is marred by the fact that they belong to different ethnic groups. Eventually the narrator of the story betrays his friend and keeps this a secret for years. He has the chance to make up for it decades later.

The story unfolds with many twists and turns, some unexpected, some not. I was fairly sure how the book would end by the time I had gotten to the middle of it, but that didn't really stop me from enjoying it. The characters are the great strength of this book, with all their faults and their wishes and secrets.

You can read the first few pages here

I picked up A Thousand Splendid Suns, Khaled Hosseini's second novel, directly after I finished The Kite Runner and I enjoyed it just as much. The fate of Afghanistan's women has long been something that interests me. The novel manages to tell a captivating story of two women who live through arranged marriages, social stigmatisation, the Taliban regime and exile from their home, but Hosseini does it all without painting just a black and white picture. And while the characters do suffer (it's a book that's hard to read at times), there's hope for them.

Both books felt like a love letter to Kabul, Afghanistan and to the Afghan people to me and they made the country feel like a place that deserves such a letter.

Reviews 2012

Sunday, June 17, 2012

7th Sea: Storm the Castle

characters are here

last time...

Dear Isabel,

again: I am safe and sound while I am writing this letter, so don't worry yourself. It may be a while before I can write again because we will be travelling, with Charouse as our eventual goal.

We decided on a twofold attack on the chateau: de Chevalier, de Vestini and I were to climb over the wall into the chambers of de Chevaliers mother. We would take an Eisen soldier to protect her while we would defend the doors from the outside. At the same time, Don Ramon, Logan and Lucia would try to gain entry with a fake wine delivery, Lucia disguised as the inkeeper's daughter and the men hidden in empty barrels.

The first part of the plan worked quite well. We dispatched the guards on the wall quickly and quietly and took up our place without being detected. Lucia managed to sweet-talk the guards into letting the cart into the chateau, but the captain of the guard was much more suspicious and tried to stop them halfway through the second gate.

When he called Lucia a slattern, Don Ramon took this as his personal signal to begin the fight and aimed a shot at the captain, but missed. The captain ordered the gates to be dropped and the inner gate narrowly missed both Ramon and Logan, but killed the two Eisen soldiers hidden in the second row of barrels. So now they were trapped in the courtyard with just one more Eisen soldier for support and about twenty guards armed with muskets coming for them.

The Eisen soldier took on the guards, armed only with a claymore, while Logan and Ramon saw to it that the gates were raised again. Lucia jumped off the cart only to come face to face with the captain. A quick knee-jerk reaction gave her enough time to flee into the tower where Logan had by now raised the inner gate and could give her assistance in fending off the captain.

Inside the chateau, the first shot from Ramon's musket had not only told us that the fight had started but the noblemen as well, who were busy getting drunk as every evening until then. De Vestini vanished below stairs and de Chevalier challenged Crieux to a duell. One of the other noblemen tried to shoot de Chevalier, but was stabbed from behind by the woman we had already seen pushing one of them over the cliff's edge the first time we were here.

At the same time, a few guards came down the back stairs, chasing a couple of maids. I attacked and brought two of the guards down, the third one lost all will to fight with my rapier at his throat. While I was busy taking his weapons from him, an explosion shook the chateau. I was showered with shards from the window and nearly thrown off my feet. It seems that one of the guards lit a whole powder-keg and threw it down the stairs of the tower to get rid of Logan. A bit of an extreme measure that laid ruin to half the tower without seriously hurting Logan, who was quick on his feet as usual and got away in time.

Ramon and the Eisen soldier had by then overpowered the guards with the help of the rest of our Eisen troops and de Vestini had bested the last nobleman in a duell. As for Crieux, he managed to take de Chevaliers weapons from him and seemed already sure of his victory. However, de Chevalier can always be relied upon to do the unexpected. He defeated Crieux in the most humiliating way possible with a candlestick and a long skewer, declaring Crieux not worthy of being fought with real weapons.

So now we hold the castle. This gives us a safe place to plan our next steps, we have to proof that de Chevalier's brother gained his title unlawfully. All this will eventually lead us to Charouse and I will write to you again when we have arrived, but I cannot say how long it will be.

Take care of yourself and give my love to Alba.
Marcello

---------------------------------------------



The GM offered to play out the fight largely by roleplaying and storytelling and we took him up on that offer. That way is much quicker than rolling every single fight and much more entertaining. At crucial moments, we had the choice to roll the dice for the outcome of a fight or to spent a drama die to let the fight go our way, describing it as vividly and dramatically as possible. I think that worked out very well for us, I just would have liked to see more of the duel between Crieux and de Chevalier.

Alba, by the way, is Marcello's youngest daughter and the only one of his three children who wants anything to do with him.

I won't be there for the next two evenings unfortunately. Expect to hear more from Marcello by the end of July when I'm back in town.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Shadowrun Rat's Nest: Warsaw

Another instalment of the Rat's Nest chronicles. Our characters have been pulled into a simulation of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. The whole thing is a metaphor for scientists and metahumans being enslaved and killed by MCT and one of the challenges has been to find out exactly what is happening without being too obvious about it. We had to stay inside the reality created by the simulation and find ways to ask our questions so that they would fit, speak in code more or less.

There's no question that our characters may well die there. When we had crossed the bridge and were trapped inside the house, I could feel myself starting to panic. Before Splash's player declared that she would create an exit for us, the GM described the house filled with scared people and the German troops everywhere outside and said "You've been caught". He meant it, too. The house was a trap and we walked right into it, the chances of us escaping were very slim. And we're not out yet, not for a long time.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Cthulhu Gaslight: To Egypt

Cast of Characters:
Thomas Roquefort, American, archaeologist and adventurer, recently arrived in London after an expedition to Egypt
Richard George Thomas Lumley, second son of the Earl of Scarbrough
Jasper Burnside, physician and in the last two years something of a hermit. It's common knowledge that he has lost someone close and there are rumours aplenty for those willing to listen (he's my character)

last time

The group meets with Sir Jeffrey at the imposing headquarters of the Egyptian League. When asked, they all state that they do believe that a cult is responsible for the murders and that they at the very least think that the Fire of Re may exist - and if it does, it is too dangerous to let it fall into the hands of a cult.

Sir Jeffrey tells them that the Egyptian League will mount an expedition to Hermopolis Magna, supposedly for some excavations, but in reality to look for the Fire of Re and for the cult. Thomas is to lead the expedition and both Jasper and Richard agree to come as well. Since the situation in Egypt is a bit shaky at the moment, they will be accompanied by Captain Stuart Hayden of the 19th Royal Hussars and twenty of his men.

click for Cthulhu



When they leave the building, Thomas notices an open door and takes a look inside to find an excellent replica of Cleopatra's Needle (the emblem of the League). He is troubled to say the least because he has had bad  dreams of this exact place before, but he finds nothing to substantiate his worries.

A week later (Thursday, 20th November 1890) the SS Rule Britannia leaves for Egypt. The crossing is rough and two crewmen die during the storm. Their deaths are accidents, but it's hard not to remember what the Duke of Clarence said about the voyage of Cleopatra's Needle to London and how it cost the life of several sailors as well.

The ship stays at Gibraltar for two days for repairs. Richard uses the time to ask Jasper about the rumours he has heard. Jasper has no intention of telling this story twice, so they go to find Thomas and Jasper tells them both. Two years ago, his wife Clara was pregnant with their first child and what seemed to be a normal pregnancy turned into a nightmare when Clara one day collapsed with severe bleeding. By the time Jasper arrived, it was already clear that she had lost too much blood to survive and she asked him to try and save the child. Jasper performed a Cesarean section and his daughter lived for a short hour, but she was not strong enough to survive.

Richard and Thomas listen to all this quietly and uncomfortably, Thomas in particular since he remembers his first conversation with Jasper (scroll down to the end). Jasper excuses himself and no-one sees him until the ship leaves again, but he does seems almost relieved and he appreciates that Richard asked him instead of simply believing the rumours, like so many other people do.

Monday. the 1st of December, sees their arrival in Alexandria. Inspector Fox, who accompanies them, has suffered from sea sickness the whole journey and he's more than glad to see land again, but Jasper suspects that there's more to his frankly deadful condition. After beating around the bush a bit, Fox asks him for something to help him sleep. Jasper gives him laudanum and continues to gently prod the Inspector until he finally admits that he has been dreaming the same dream every night since they have set out from London. In his dream, he sees an Egyptian temple, with a human figure lying bound on the altar. Lead by a priest, a procession enters the temple and when the priest is close enough, Fox realises that he has the head of an Ibis. He tries to tell himself and Jasper that it's all just dreams and doesn't mean anything, but Jasper is less than convinced. But at least the Inspector gets a good night's sleep with the help of the Laudanum.

In the morning, they arrive in Cairo and make their way to the Shepheard's Hotel. Captain Hayden clearly enjoys being in Egypt again and leaves a unpleasant impression with the group with his arrogant and downright rude behaviour towards anyone who isn't British. After breakfast, Fox tells Thomas about his dreams at Jasper's insistance. Thomas says that he has had similar dreams and he agrees with Jasper that it may well be more than just dreams. They ask Fox to stop taking the laudanum, at least for one more night, because they want to get more details from his dreams. Fox is not happy about this and says he'll think about it.

Thomas goes to see an old friend and finds that the adress he has for her is the old observatory. No-one answers the door (which has a doorknocker in the shape of a cat's head) and after a while Thomas prepares to leave. He's called over by a man who tells him to come back in the evening.

In the meantime, the group goes to a small cafe Thomas knows and there they swap conspiracy theories. They are all more than doubtful about Captain Hayden and find it absolutely possible that he and his troops are there to get their hands on the Fire of Re. None of them trust him and they don't trust Sir Jeffrey all that much either. But there's not much they can do right now.

While they are speaking, a small boy comes up to their table and places a small brass statue of a cat there, an invitation by Thomas' friend. Jasper decides not to accompany them because Thomas cannot say how long the visit may take and Jasper has no intentions of leaving Inspector Fox alone during the night.

So Richard and Thomas go to the observatory alone where they are let in by a huge Arab who takes them up to the top of the tower. There they meet Emily Eggerstett, who may be blind and quite old, but who gives the impression of seeing and knowing a lot more than most people. Richard notices several cats in the room, including the one on Emily's lap.

Thomas tells Emily the whole story and the more she hears, the more grave she appears. She warns that they have gotten involved in very dangerous things. The dagger with the ibis-headed handle is a very powerful weapon, but if used by someone who doesn't know what he's doing, it's more likely to kill the wielder. She also tells them that the Fire of Re is indeed deadly, but she cannot say what exactly it is.

The Book of Toth has been taken out of Egypt by the Cult almost three thousand years ago and hidden in a secret place. That place is a ride of five days and nights from the House of Toth, but so far no-one has found it. Uno is the place to start the search for the book, but Emily warns them that they better be sure of their intentions and that there may be traitors, even from their own ranks.

They take their leave from her. At the foot of the stairs, they find the Arab who has been killed and they hear the sound of wings from above. Thomas runs back and is just in time to attack two men in black burnouses who have climbed into the room from the roof. He misses the attacker closest to Emily, but at least stops him from killing her, and he is wounded by the second man. By now, Richard has followed him up the stairs and he shoots and kills the man who is standing in front of Emily. The second assassin comes towards Thomas, but stumbles and Thomas can easily evade the attack and incapacitates him.

Emily has been very calm all the time and has not made any move or tried to protect herself.  She tells Richard and Thomas to leave and refuses to come with them when Thomas asks her to. They finally obey her and when they turn to leave, they see a pounce of cats who descend on the assassins and tear them apart.

-----------------------------------------------------------


Cats of Ulthar, anyone?

I'm enjoying Egypt. It's Jasper's first time abroad and despite the fact that he feels like a pawn in this game, he relishes the new experiences.

Player paranoia is starting to show. Our characters all suspect that they are being used and fear that they may be expendable. The presence of Captain Hayden does nothing to calm their suspicions. I'm fairly sure that the real problems will start once we have found what we're seeking (if we find it) because none of us is eager to hand the Empire such a powerful weapon, patriotism or not.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Ray Bradbury

On Wednesday, Ray Bradbury died. Others have said wonderful things in his memory, much better than I could.

Fahrenheit 451 is one of my favourite books. I can quote it by heart, almost, and it's one of those books that speak to my soul, as a lifelong avid reader and librarian. It was written in a library.

So which book would you be, if you ever made it out of the mindnumbing city into the wilderness? I would be Carl Sagan's The Demon-Haunted World, or if I had to be a fiction book, I would be Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Jerusalem

Jerusalem - The Biography is Simon Sebag Monefiore's latest book and I enjoyed it immensely. I already liked his biographies of Stalin and Potemkin, so a biography of one of the most amaznig cities in the world promised to be interesting.

One warning, though: if you have a bad memory for names, this book will kill you. It's almost 900 pages long, but there are 4000 years of history to cover after all and especially in the early years, there's a new ruler as soon as you got used to the old one.

But even the ones who only appear for a short paragraph or page make an impression thanks to Montefiore's vivid writing.  They're not just names, they're persons and you get a glimpse into a whole lot of intriguing, passion, envy and lust for power. In the later centuries, the scene is dominated by intolerance. There's liberality as well, but more often than not it's blacked out by religious zealousness soon enough.

This was one of those books that gave me a list of books I want to read and people I want to learn more about. Montefiore has a few people he clearly has a special liking for, like Usama ibn Muniqdh or Wasif Jawhariyyeh, and his admiration is infectious. Jawhariyyeh lived in Jerusalem for sixty years and his diaries would be a fascinating read, I'm sure...unfortunately, there's no translated edition. He describes his childhood here

For anyone interested in religion and history, I can recommend this book.By the way, if you fancy a glimpse of Jerusalem today, I can highly recommend Dina's blog Jerusalem Hills Daily Photo

Book four for the Non-Fiction Challenge.

Reviews 2012

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Cowboys and Aliens

I saw Cowboys and Aliens a few days ago and I'm sad to say it was a whole lot of meh. It could have been so awesome, but there wasn't anything really new there.

The people adapted much too quickly when aliens suddenly appeared. I mean, there's this spaceship crashed right in the middle of their town and no-one really investigates it? They come across an upside-down paddle steamer in the middle of nowhere and basically all the comment it gets is: "wow, that's far from where it's supposed to be. But it's raining, so let's use it as shelter." They don't interact with any alien technology at all, even the wristweapon worn by Jake Lonergan, Daniel Craig's character, pretty much functions on its own. They never really wonder about anything, there's no sense that they are truly seeing something impossible. There's one nice moment after Jake has jumped on one of the alien ships to save Ella. They bring the machine crashing down into a lake and when they have made it to the shore, Jake takes a deep breath and says with a tone of wonder in his voice: "We were flying." I loved that.

I mean, I didn't expect a deep story. It obviously wasn't that kind of movie. But something - anything would have been nice apart from a lot of tropes and things we've seen before (and better). Kudos to the director for not shooting in 3D, though.

One scene stood out to me, but not because it was meant to be. The aliens are very tough and guns are not all that much use against them - until Harrison Ford kills one with a well-aimed shot. After that, the humans really kick ass and ever the spears of the Indians turn into very deadly weapons. It's like the group of adventurers got a ton of XP for that one kill and everybody levelled up right in the middle of the fight. As a gamer, that was enough to make me giggle my way through the rest of the battle.

On the whole, I'd rather play a game of Deadlands myself.