Tuesday, January 31, 2012


Bloodlands by Timothy Snyder investigates the fate of the people who were caught between the regimes of Hitler and Stalin, in the area of Poland, the Ukraine, Belarus and the Baltic States. This area was the location of the majority of the killings and deportations done by both regimes, before, during and after WWII.

I would recommend having a solid knowledge of the history of both German and the Soviet Union at the time in order to read this book, that makes it much easier to follow. Snyder gives a extensive account of the mass murders that happened in the Bloodlands and investigates the reasons for them. Hitler and Stalin cooperated, used mass killings done by the other for their own purposes or used them as propaganda for their own agenda.

Just as often, the killings done by their own regime were used to support it, like the famine in Ukraine. This was very much man-made and planned and could have easily been avoided. Instead, the farmers were accused of refusing to support socialism, hiding food and starving on purpose. When people resorted to cannibalism, the propaganda cited that as proof of their barbarism.

It's not an easy book to read. I found the chapter on the Ukraine famine particularly heartbreaking, maybe because I never read such a detailed account of it. Like the Holocaust, it was a case of people believing so much in a regime's propaganda that they were willing to deny other people their status as fellow human beings. It makes me wonder if I could fall for any idea so much that I would be willing to do that. I hope not, but I'm by no means sure. Snyder discusses this question as well in the last chapter of his book, suggesting that putting oneself in the place of the perpetrators of such crimes, although rarely done, is important and useful for exploring moral questions and understanding of history.

Bloodlands offers a new perspective of the Holocaust as well by not focusing on the concentration camps, where actually only a minority of the victims died (but still a vast number). He explores often neglected facets of the history of the region, like the Warsaw Uprising and the Polish (often Jewish) partisans who were caught between the Nazi and Soviet armies and who had much to fear from both of them. He mentions Tuvia Bielski and I can recommend the movie Defiance for a closer look at this group of Jewish partisans - fictionalised, of course, but still very much worth your time.

I would definitely put Bloodlands on the reading list for anyone interested in the history of the countries involved.

1st book for the Non-Fiction Challenge
2012 reviews

Monday, January 30, 2012

20th Century Ghosts

20th Century Ghosts by Joe Hill is a collection of short stories. I've been meaning to read Heart Shaped Box, but short stories are my passion, so I picked this book up instead.

Good decision. There were two stories that didn't work for me, but the rest was brilliant - scary, unsettling and sometimes just really, really weird. Stories about a cape that can really make you fly (I didn't see the end coming at all), about a haunted movie theatre, a man who collects last breaths or about a vampire hunter's children.

I loved Pop Art, the story about a boy who is inflatable. The concept is hilarious and freaky at the same time, especially since being inflatable is treated as a hereditary disease in the story - strange, but not utterly impossible.

My favourite is Voluntary Committal, about a boy who builds strange structures from cardboard boxes in his parents' basement, like the forts all children build. Only usually, those forts are not bigger on the inside and don't lead to strange places. I've always liked the concept of doors that open to different places at exactly the right time - or the wrong time, depending on where going through will get you. Such a gateway as a child's toy, with a hint of the Cthulhu mythos thrown into the mix, made this the one story that followed me around for quite a while after I had read it.

Reviews 2012

Friday, January 27, 2012

Shadowrun Rat's Nest: Retreat

Setting and characters are here
Last time, the characters found themselves trapped by the Picas in an urban wasteland.

We retreat into one of the houses for cover and to give us some time to deal with Slicer's injuries. It becomes fairly obvious that the ganger girl we have captured was no run of the mill street brat, she has clearly had some education and her possessions were just a bit too high class, starting with her commlink and ending with her trode net. Her manners are pure street, however. Oh, and she has a terrier-ish mongrel that follows her around, but he keeps his distance after I aimed a kick at him.

*click for burning ork*

We still cannot raise any of the other groups, but things are getting in motion there. Twitch and Splash leave their rooftop and manage to escape the Picas before they can ambush them. Rivet's and Liz's group are still holed up in an apartment, with Liz trying to get Gilette stable enough to move him.

Rivet decides to check on the Picas and meets a couple of them downstairs. Here's a tip: if you spray an ork with gasoline and set him on fire, you better be damn sure that you run faster than a burning ork. The sight of Rivet, stampeding down the street on fire with one of the Picas held by the scruff of the neck is certainly impressive enough to clear the coast for a few minutes. Particularly since he survives surprisingly unscathed.

The group uses their chance to get on their bikes and drive towards the Rat's Nest, but not without another shoot out. With Picas on both sides of the narrow street, Rivet takes a few of them out by spinning his bike and a few more are taken out by friendly fire. They make it through and head for the Rat's Nest. Gargle had been hit and passes out on the way, so Rivet drives back and simply scoops him up, without even slowing down.

Twitch and Splash have arrived at our hiding place in the meantime and we decide to make a break for it as well. With Slicer taped securely to the bike (not my favourite method of transporting patients, let me tell you), we drive out into the alley. The Picas have taken a few squatters as hostages and are forcing them to walk towards us, hiding behind the adults. That keeps us from firing at them, but it's an obstacle for them as well and we manage to get to the main street, if you can call it that. We're ambushed by the same Picas as Rivet's group, unfortunately for them Kerry is still in possession of her automatic weapon and makes quick work of them.

Back at the Rat's Nest, the alarm goes up – there's a good chance the Picas will come for us. With the clinic's equipment, it takes a few hours, but Slicer and Gargle will be able to walk out of here tomorrow. Maggie, the ganger girl, is unconscious after coming down from whatever high she was on. I make sure the baby is healthy. Well, as healthy as any baby can be under these circumstances. We'll deal with her tomorrow, her commlink and her stuff goes to Splash. The terrier actually kept up with us, he's now outside, snarfing down Jasper's food. Jasper seems more puzzled than anything else by the yipping ball of fur, so I'm fairly confident that he won't eat him while I sleep.

December 1st 2071
Weeelll, more than two hours sleep would have been nice. But we don't do nice here and Splash came by with Maggie's cracked commlink. The data on it is something the Picas will want back for sure, their complete finances and business transactions. They make a surprising amount of money, dealing with drugs, weapons and apparently bioware as well.
That doesn't bode well for Whistler. We know that the Picas have at least his bike and I still haven't been able to reach him, so I tend to believe Maggie who told me that he has been captured.

Not like she was all that eager to talk, but in exchange for her dog, with her diary cracked and with Blaster and Rivet playing very effective bad cops to my good one, she got a lot more talk-active. The last straw was the baby. It's not the first baby I delivered here, but the one I worry most about. He seems healthy, but I'm sure that Maggie's drug use will have at least some effect on him later. At least he won't be sold for spare parts, which is what would have happened to him if Maggie had stayed with the Picas. She had clearly hoped that we would take the baby from her but once she held him, there was no going back for her. Not to mention that the Picas would probably just kill her now that she has been staying with us, however involuntarily.

The burning ork scene was truly epic. The Picas used Super Soakers to spray Rivet with gas, true to the fact that they are after all just kids, most of them no older than 13 or so.

Here's a closer look at the area where the whole thing took place. Well, not the exact place, but close enough to give you a good idea and we did use that map. Just imagine a few more collapsed buildings.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Fiasco: Small Town Life

Using the Reconstruction-playset, we played Fiasco again.

We came up with:
Samuel Sommerville, rich wartime profiteer and married to
Rachel Sommerville, even richer than her husband - she owns a percentage and works part-time at the Circus, the brothel managed by
Robert Montgomery, ex-soldier who lost everything during the war and who has an affair with Rachel and unfortunately with
Black Maddy as well, probably his best earner due to her, ahem, area of expertise

Robert's busy balancing the books when Maddy bursts into the room and adds to his worries by complaining that the Judge can't take what he asked for. Considering Maddy's speciality and her enthusiasm for her work, Roberts feels forced to ask if the Judge is alright and she says that he will be, once he comes round again.
And by the way, would he mind getting rid of that bitch? Robert tries to ensure Maddy that he has no idea who she is talking about, but Maddy is having none of that. His slim chances of convincing her crumble when Rachel chooses this exact moment for a visit. Some namecalling and bitching later, Rachel threatens to bankrupt the brothel unless Roberts fires Maddy and he does, reluctantly and against better knowledge.

Rachel promptly drops the the next bomb by telling Robert that she is pregnant and that the child is his. Robert has no intention of marrying her and even less intention of being part of a plan to kill her husband. Rachel loses it and threatens to blackmail him. They have a shouting match that ends with Rachel storming out.

Samuel and Rachel notice people whispering and gossiping about them in church. Samuel knows about his wife's part-time job and he tolerates it because it gets her out of the house and leaves him free for his own dubious activities, but when the whole town knows, that goes too far. When Rachel asks for the key to the weapon cabinet, that raises some extra red flags.

He goes into full panic mode when he finds out at home that a couple of very compromising photographs showing him and Black Maddy are missing. He goes to see Black Maddy at her day job - she's working at a chapter of the Salvation Army. They talk things over and agree that it's best for all concerned when Samuel has Rachel committed to an asylum or at least confined to her room.

He finds that Rachel has already put her own plans in motion: she has spoken to the Judge about the Circus and tries to get it closed down, showing him the photos she stole. She threatens Samuel with his own gun and her knowledge of his dodgy business activities. In a rage, he beats her and locks her in her room. He then returns to Black Maddy.

Meanwhile, Robert has also been to see Black Maddy, asking her to forgive him and offering to dispose of Rachel. They are just done with their makeup sex when Samuel arrives, bearing the bad news that it won't be so easy to get rid of Rachel.

Robert has had it and he offers again to kill Rachel, which would after all neatly solve all their problems. They agree and Maddy suggests that she meets with the Judge who is slavishly devoted to her, she surely can convince him to turn a blind eye.

Rachel has made it out of the bedroom, a simple lock has never been much of an obstacle for her. She receives an invitation from Robert, who wishes to reconcile with her and suggests that they meet in a small clearing somewhere out of town, far away from nosy neighbours. Before she goes there, she tries to alert the local Pinkertons to her husband's dodgy business transactions, but without much success.

So when she meets with Robert, she's on the verge of hysteria and obviously desperate to make up...he thinks. The huge bunch of flowers she's carrying are certainly a nice touch. When she gets close enough, Robert shoots her with his revolver, but she's not dead immediately - she has enough time to detonate the Ketchum grenade she had hidden in those flowers. The blast kills them both.

Meanwhile, Maddy has found that the Judge has his own plans. Apparently, the discovery that he's not the sole customer of Maddy has come as quite a shock. Using all her charm, Maddy can convince him that the Circus would be a much better place with her in charge. To make that happen, Rachel and Robert have to die and the Judge orders her to get him Robert's revolver by sundown.

The Pinkertons have taken an interest in Samuel after all and arrest him, while he's still trying to understand what happened to Rachel. They do find all sorts of weapons in his barn. Maddy is arrested as well since her name has come up. She manages to escape, Samuel is not so lucky and is put on trial.

The expected death sentence for Samuel is turned into life in prison after he rats on his business partners. Unfortunately, that also means that his life is made a living hell by those men and their associates. When he finally is killed in one of those unfortunate accidents that happen to people who talk too much, it's a relieve.
Maddy has left the area and has settled in Washington D.C. where she establishes herself as a very high end madam with considerable influence, all very discreet of course.


Minor anachronism here with the Salvation Army, but it was such a nice touch. The Ketchum grenade was a souvenir from a satisfied customer.

Fiasco at it's backstabbing best. When things started to get moving, we all ganged up on Rachel's player, but he was very effective at wreaking havoc among us. This is not a game you can play with people who hold a grudge.

We played loose and fast with the things we picked during the set up. Originally, we had "find out about the baby" as a need and the blackmail was tied to Maddy and Samuel. But it didn't quite work out that way, so instead of forcing those elements into the story that was developing, we went where it took us. And it was quite a ride.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012


The diary of Samuel Pepys is online here. It' being posted one day at a time and unfortunately, it's are almost done, only a year or so to go. But it's a great opportunity for anyone who has been meaning to read those diaries and if you have an interest in history, it well worth your time.

Pepys chronicled daily life and his diary is a valuable resource for historians. It covers the years 1660-1669, with such events as the Great Plague and the Great Fire of London. The blog has plenty of annotations that will make understanding it much easier, explaining such things as games played at the time, money, food and there are biographies of the people he mentions.

Pepys is on Twitter as well

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Bad Monkeys

Jane Charlotte works for a secret organisation that kills bad people - bad monkeys. At least she thinks so and that's what she tells her psychiatrist. Is she making things up or could it all be true?

I've loved Matt Ruff ever since I read Fool on a Hill and Set This House in Order is one of my favourite books, so I was looking forward to reading Bad Monkeys. I finally got my hands on it in the library and it was every bit as enjoyable as I expected.

The story goes through many twists and turns and you are always left to wonder what exactly is real and what's not. Even the most outrageous moments could have happened as Jane describes them, if you accept her version of the world.

Bad Monkeys can be read just as a thrilling story, but there are more serious things it deals with beneath all that. Like in Set This House in Order, abuse is a major theme here, whether it's the bad monkeys Jane punishes for their crimes or Jane herself as the perpetrator.

I liked the offbeat humour and the way the story takes you captive - it's fast-paced and I found myself reading it almost all in one go. I had to find out if Jane was making it all up or if even stranger things were afoot.
Oh, and the idea of putting cameras/eyes into things with eyes (teddy bears, paintings, banknotes): priceless. I'm so stealing this if I ever going to create a seriously paranoid RPG character.

Reviews 2012

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

I know that feeling...

via Geek-Related

I've had pizza boy-moments. Not while talking to strangers, but when being overheard talking to my friends about our RPGs. Particularly because I tend to say I and me when I speak of my character. There's nothing quite like talking about murder and mayhem in the first person while commuting to work. Extra points if you do it dressed as a Goth.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Duel, anyone?

Look what I've got:


So, anyone up for a duel?

I kid. The only way I can win a duel with this is by hitting my opponent over the head with it. And I'm already too much in love with it to do that.

Monday, January 16, 2012

A Farewell to Arms

A Farewell to Arms is the first book by Ernest Hemingway I have ever read and I'm in two minds about it. I had a hard time staying involved in this book. The parts that I enjoyed most were the chapters taking place in the actual war, during a retreat and an attack. It's not because there's the most action in those sequences, but they felt most vivid for me. Bleak and depressing, but vivid.

None of the characters really grew on me, except maybe the priest, who struggles to keep his faith in times of war. The women in the novel set my teeth on edge. They are all fairly passive and when they do have outbreaks of emotion, they hurry to deny themselves, saying "don't mind me" or "I'm being unreasonable".

The book fell flat for me, on the whole. I'm going to give Hemingway another try, though, probably with The Old Man and the Sea.

Ernest Hemingway in 1918, as an American Red Cross volunteer.

Hemingway was born in Illinois and travelled quite a lot, to Italy during WWI, to Spain during the Civil War there and he was in France during the last phase of WWII. He also lived in Africa for a time and in later life, maintained homes in Cuba and Florida. He commited sucicide with a shotgun in Idaho.
His other novels include For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Old Man and the Sea.

Here's a first draft of Farewell to Arms and you can listen to Hemingway's voice here.

Although I didn't like the book, I cannot deny that Hemingway's style is powerful. It reads simple, but I think that is because he worked on it until all unnecessary words and phrases were gone, leaving just the bare bones of language.
Here's a well-known quote from A Farewell to Arms that really stood out for me:
The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong in the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.

The book is semi-autobiographical, Hemingway drove an ambulance for the Red Cross for two months until he was seriously injured. It was so successful that he could comfortably live off the money he earned with it. It has been made into several movies as well.

Sources and further reading:
Ernest Hemingway Collection of the JFK Library - the photos alone are worth a visit
Michael Palin's Hemingway Adventure

Third book for the Classics Challenge, first book for both the World War I Challenge and the Library Challenge 2012

Reviews 2012

Fiasco: Deutscher Herbst

We played another game of Fiasco, with three players and introducing one player to the game. Our playset was Red Front, set in 70s Germany around the German Autumn.

We rolled up characters and ended up with a Stasi officer, an ex-con, who was an informant for the Verfassungsschutz and a (female) hired assassin. The assassin and the ex-con were lovers, the ex-con and the Stasi officer has been in the joint together.

At first we wanted to set the game in Berlin, especially since we decided that 100.000 Ostmark would come into play somewhere, but who would we want to kill there? A brainstorm later we came up with Horst Herold, who was chief of the Bundeskriminalamt at the time and a leading figure in the search for RAF terrorists. And someone who came up with such ingenious methods for locating terrorists is a danger for the Stasi as well, so the assassin had been hired to remove that danger. The game was relocated to Bonn, where Herold was fairly often during that time.

100.000 Ostmark is a pittance, it amounts to between 1000 and 2000 Deutsche Mark - unfortunately, the assassin only heard Mark and was happy to accept, being hard-pressed for money at the time. Shit. So she recruits her lover for this incredibly important political mission, selling it to him as "sending a message to the establishment" and all that jazz. They buy a VW Bus and spend some time observing and trying to come up with a plan, which is not made easier by the fact that their target doesn't have a routine to speak of.

When the Stasi officer wants to have a progress report, he meets up with the assassin at an Aldi market (an ubiquitous discount supermarket chain). They get into it in front of the dairy products, quarrelling about money, involving amateurs and the difficulties of the job. Unfortunately, they are overheard by a police officer who tries to arrest them and is shot by the assassin, who then runs. The Stasi officer stays behind and gives a completely false description of the shooter.

Since she was given a deadline to the end of the week (and was ordered to remove her lover, an inconvenient witness), the assassin makes a spur of the moment decision to use any opportunity the next day. The ex-con tried desperately to contact the Verfassungsschutz and after several tries, finally reaches someone.

The next day, an opportunity presents itself, the assassin manages to get into the car and shoot her target, but unfortunately it's the wrong man. In a hail of bullets, she jumps into the VW bus and shouts at the ex-con to drive, which he does. Once they are a few blocks away, she tells him to stop, they need to change cars. When he gets out, she shoots him, hitting his leg and then shoots him in the head, telling him it's nothing personal. To which he replies "no, it wasn't for me either", so she knows she's been set up.

With what's left of the Ostmark, she leaves the country to France, where work can be found just as well. The Stasi officer has to tell his boss that the whole thing failed and that the assassin has vanished. He's ordered back to the GDR, but he knows what's waiting for him if he returns and he also knows that there will be killers sent after him if he doesn't. He decides to turn traitor and sells all he knows to the Verfassungsschutz in exchange for a new identity.

The survivors came out of this game fairly well. The Stasi officer rolled up the best possible result, so he has a nice new identity and isn't found out. The assassin may have messed up the job, but she's alive and her reputation is not damaged beyond repair. The ex-con survived the shooting, but when he saw the headlines written about him in the tabloids, it was too much for him.

I noticed that it was incredibly easy to fall into that awful language apparently favoured by students and terrorists alike at the time. Or maybe I've just read too much about the RAF. We all had a fairly good knowledge of the German Autumn, I'm not sure if this playset works as well if you know nothing about Germany during that time.

The new player is hooked, I think, We are going to play again.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

January Classic Challenge: Steppenwolf

photo via Wikipedia
Hermann Hesse in 1927, when he wrote Steppenwolf

Hesse was born in 1877 in Calw in the Black Forest. He travelled a lot and lived in a lot of different places, in Italy, India, Germany, Switzerland. He finally settled in Italy in the small village of Montangnola where he lived until his death in 1962.

Here's a handwritten page of Steppenwolf:
from Hermann Hesse by Klaus Walther
He writes a form of Kurrent, old German handwriting. I can read that, but I often have to take a guess at the exact word.

Steppenwolf is probably his best known novel. My favourite Hesse novel is Narcissus and Goldmund
and Siddharta is also popular.
Hesse was also a watercolour artist.
from Hermann Hesse by Klaus Walther

Hesse has a much less elaborate style than Thomas Mann for example, so it's far easier to follow him, but that doesn't make his writing simple or undemanding, far from it. I read Steppenwolf once before and I hated it, I was just plain bored by it. This time around I found that I had much more understanding for Harry Haller, who feels like he doesn't belong in this world. He calls himself Steppenwolf, an animal who has just scorn for civilisation and all the things it brings, but he feels drawn to it at the same time, taking residence in a nice middle-class house for example.

The book is very much about Hermann Hesse himself, who was having a serious mid-life crisis when he wrote it. There are many parallels between Hesse and Harry Haller, like the restless life they lead and the love-hate for anything bourgeois. It's probably Hesse's most controversial book because it features quite a lot of sex and drugs - the reason for it's success in the 70s in particular and also the reason for it being banned from libraries for example (and shame on any librarians who did it!).

The Steppenwolf needs to find a balance between his two souls and the first step is to recognise that there are many more than just two - here's the influence of Sigmund Freud's theories. Another influence is that of Buddhism, a topic that Hesse already explored in Siddharta. The book was written between the two great wars, when a whole generation was feeling out of place, but I think that each generation can find itself here, which is why the book is still so popular.

My second book for the Classics Challenge

Reviews 2012

Friday, January 13, 2012

Artworks I'd Steal: Hunters in the Snow

Photo via Wikipedia

The Hunters in the Snow by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. This one has been used over and over again for Christmas cards and such, but if you take a closer look it's far from festive or happy.

The painting was created during the Little Ice Age when winters were very severe and a threat to survival. The hunters are weary and the only thing they caught is a fox. I'm not sure if it will be eaten, but I do know that it was one of three animals peasants were allowed to hunt (along with hares and birds).

The sign of the inn is related to hunting as well, the inn is called The Stag and the sign shows St. Eustache, the patron of hunters. But it's crooked, another hint toward the unsuccessful hunt.

The people in front of the inn pursue another winter activity: the have butchered a pig and the fire will be used to burn off the bristles. Fire is a necessity in winter, but it's also a danger. Follow the gaze of the hunter towards the centre of the painting: a chimney has caught fire. Artchive has a fairly big version where you can see that better.

The people on the ice at least enjoy themselves, they skate and play icestock/curling and another game similar to golf/hockey called Colf. This painting may be the first known depiction of icestock.

The whole thing is not so obviously full of details as some of Bruegel's other paintings, like the Netherlandish Proverbs, but if you know what to look for, it tells a complex story.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Cthulhu: Bitter End

Part 1, Part 2, Part 3

Inside the temple, a stairwell leads down into the ground, into the dark and towards screams of pain and fear. At the bottom, everything is bathed in a strange blue light and they find huge empty cages - at least the cages contain nothing they can see. However, there are humans chained to one of the cages and something seems to be feeding on them, judging by the sounds. For the blink of an eye, a white liquid runs out of the bodies.

*down the tunnel*

The group is ignored by the frog monsters and make their way deeper into the temple until a gaunt figure steps into their path. Shane in particular has a moment of fear when the figure pushes back his hood, revealing a face that looks very much like the proverbial devil, horns and all. He says that he is a guard in the temple, but that he admires their courage and is willing to help them. They make a deal: for telling them where the poison is produced, they bring back a vial of it before destroying it with the flower. None of them are comfortable with this, but they don't have much of a choice. Shane wants to know who the guard is: Seamus' brother, who went too far when exploring the occult. Liam shivers, fighting another attack on his mind and Ian starts to hallucinate as well, he sees Seamus gouging Shane's eyes out with a knife.

Their sanity even closer to shattering, they continue on their way. Shane has been given a spearhead by the guard that will hide them from the frog monsters. They have twenty minutes to reach their goal, then the guard needs to let one of the spiders out of the cage. After a few minutes' walk, the light changes to yellow and they see a flight of stairs leading down to a huge cauldron. The cauldron is guarded by frog monsters and Yao Tien is sitting at the far end, filling liquid into vials that are carried off by servants.

A hasty debate later, they decide on a frontal attack and run down the stairs towards the cauldron. The surprise gives Liam the time he needs to fill a vial and to drop the flower into the liquid. Ian attacks Yao Tien with his whip and pulls him into the cauldron. Hunted by the frog monsters, they run for their lives.

Shane is hit by a spear and collapses, mortally wounded. Liam turns to fight, trying to give Ian at least a chance to escape. He is lucky enough to dodge a spear aimed at him and his bullets hit and kill all the monsters. Yao Tien doesn't seem to have died unfortunately, he's climbing out of the cauldron, shouting orders.

Liam has caught up with Ian and they face more frog monsters as well as one of the spiders - only a leg is visible, but it's taller than both of them. Now Liam's desperate enough to use the Elder Sign he's been given by Seamus. He throws it down the tunnel and with a flash of light, their enemies disappear, leaving only an eerie silence.

That silence is broken by the thud of a dagger hitting Liam in the shoulder. He spins around and shoots blindly, hitting Yao Tien, who followed them, badly enough to drop him. When they are halfway out of the temple, Seamus' brother stops them and Liam given him the vial with the poison. For a moment, Liam thinks about asking him what he's going to do with it, he has a thousand questions actually, but he doesn't ask one of them. They find their way to the nearest portal back to the waking world with the help of the fob watch and return.

Ian has kept a hold on his sanity, but it's clear that he's very close to snapping, especially when he sees Shane's body next to him. Liam may be only slightly hurt, but his mind is no longer able to cope, he doesn't react when Seamus tries to speak to him and just curls up, shuddering and moaning. Ian takes Shane's body to the church where he lays him out on the altar and then sits in the front pew, trying to come to terms with what has happened.

Shane has a last moment of consciousness, finding himself in a featureless white room where he is told that he has reach the end of his way and that he's given one last wish. He asks that Ian is told that he's fine and the wish is granted. Things grow dark around him then.

Ian prepares to leave town. When he visits Shane's memorial service, he notices a locket that Shane has never worn before. He picks it up, open it and finds a photo of Shane, with the dedication "To Ian, a brave man"

Liam knew very well that he didn't have a real chance of making it out of the Dreamlands sane and he made preparations. In the afternoon, Seamus receives a letter written by Liam before he left. In the letter, Liam asks Seamus to kill him. He doesn't want to live out the rest of his days in an asylum. Even if there was a chance that he could be sane again, he has seen too much of what is hiding beneath the so-called real world. Liam's just too tired of fighting. Seamus does what Liams asks of him and kills him with a drug overdose.


I cannot believe I actually made it back from the Dreamlands in one piece. I mean, I did my best to die there without actually committing suicide...not that Liam didn't think about that. The last sanity roll after we came back was a d20 roll and I came up with a 16, reducing Liam's sanity to a total of 16. That was not an unexpected outcome and I had a letter prepared that Liam had written for Seamus because Liam and I agreed that it would suck if he had to spend the rest of his life in an asylum. Especially considering the state of the asylums around here - Liam had had a very close look during his first adventure and he didn't want any part of that, thank you very much.

I miss Liam already. He was incredibly long-lived for a Cthulhu character (two years real time, six months game time) and I grew very fond of him, he's one of my favourite characters ever. I loved every minute of playing him, right down to the very end.

Cthulhu: Flower Mantis

Part 1, Part 2

Before they can enter the temple, they notice that the human the frog monster just skinned is still alive. They hesitate for a moment and Liam makes a move to go back, but stops when Shane votes for continuing on their way. The choice is taken from them when a second human, dressed only in a waist cloth, appears and stabs the skinned man, killing him. He has seen the group and slowly comes towards them, showing neither fear nor aggression. That encourages Ian to call out to the man and to ask him about the Plains of Leng. The man tells them that they have found the Plains and also says that there are living stones here, but not many. The Master doesn't like them and is trying to destroy them. When Ian tells him that they just want to look at the stones because they have never seen living stones, the man becomes suspicious and suggests that they wait here while he goes and asks the Master for permission.

*Wait? Attack?*

Liam agrees, to the surprise of Ian and Shane, only to knock the man out when he turns his back. He's not dead, but Liam has no intention of leaving him merely unconscious. There's no way to hide a body here and they decide to go back to the statues.
Liam asks for Shane's knife and already has it at the man's throat when Shane calls out and warns them that one of the statues has opened an eye. After a moment's wait nothing further happens and Liam cuts the man's throat. Liam drops the knife and stumbles, almost dropping to his knees. He has killed before, but never murdered anyone in cold blood and he can feel his grip on saity slipping.

When they all feel a bit more steady, they continue in the direction of the living stones and find them without problems. The stones stand together, creating corners and forms that are painful to look at, like nothing they have ever seen before. Every stone carries a black flower that seems to move slightly in the breeze, only there is no wind. Ian grabs one of the flowers, but cannot pull it out, not even when he uses his knife. The flower writhes in his grip and suddenly the whole stone moves, turning into an enormous mantis, about as long as Ian's arm. This is the signal for all the other mantises to attack as well, hundreds of them, and for the group to run as fast as they can.

Ian and Liam make it, but Shane is too slow and is attacked by the insects. He fights back with his sword, which is far more effective than a sword has any reason to be against such enemies. The weapon leaves a bright trail of light in the air when he swings it and the insects seem to shy away from it. Liam has stopped to help Shane, picks up a fallen mantis and lights it on fire after ripping off the flower attached to it. With his insect torch, he sets fire to a couple of mantises and the fire spreads through the swarm, but it's not enough to stop them. After several more attacks, the mantises bring Shane down, ripping clothes, skin and flesh to shreds with their sharp arms and mandibles. Liam uses fire again and this time, he manages to destroy the majority of the swarm, the rest moves back towards the stones and settles down again.

Shane is badly hurt and Liam does his best to help him, but at the same time he seriously thinks about killing him because what's the point, really? Even if they can win this battle, there's no way they can ever hope to win the war, to find peace. Better to end it now, quickly.

Ian has run into one of the frog monsters and has killed it with his colt, making the whole thing explode. After finally noticing that he's alone, he runs back towards the stones and finds Shane writhing in pain on the ground, with Liam just watching. He tries to help Shane and stops the worst of the bleeding, but the priest is barely able to stand up, let alone fight. Not that they have a choice.

Liam has walked away a few steps, fighting his own mind and for now, he wins. He drops to his hands and knees, shivering and gasping for breath. When Ian touches him, he blindly lashes out, but regains his composure quickly. It's obvious that he's in trouble, but he refuses to speak about it and just leads the way back towards the temple. Not only because he wants to end this as quickly as possible, but also because he doesn't want the others to have to turn their backs on him.

Cthulhu: Bad Dreams

Here's Part One, which has the characters preparing to enter the Dreamlands in order to save Arkham.

They meet up at Seamus' place and are told that they need to neutralise the poison in the Dreamlands, where it is produced and then brought here into the waking world. In order to do that, they need to find a black flower, a single one is enough, that grows on living stones.

Seamus supplies them with a fob watch each that will works as a compass in the Dreamlands, leading them to the nearest portal, and with a coin bearing the Elder Sign that can be used as a weapon. He warns them that if they die in the Dreamlands, they will die for real and that they only have twelve hours. If they are not back by then, their bodies will die and their souls be lost. They agree to meet again in the evening and use the time to bring their affairs in order. Shane writes a few letters and decides to take his sword with him. Ian brings a bull whip and an old Colt 45, along with an authentic cowboy outfit that clearly is of value to him. Liam goes to see Danny Baker and asks him to postpone the raid on the waterworks until the morning.

*Enter the Dreamlands*

Back at Seamus', he gives them an opium pipe to smoke and a mixture of alcohol with some drug. They fall asleep and wake up in the Dreamlands under a violet sky. There's nothing but black basalt rock and they are on a plateau among sharp cliffs, with a path leading higher up. Ian is in a state of shock and Shane tries to talk him down, while Liam goes exploring. He soon wishes he hadn't when he comes upon a bush that grows flowers in the shape of infant's heads that move and cry until they are ripped off and carried away by giant flies.

Meanwhile, Ian has come to the conclusion that everything he sees is real, which helps him cope and they decide to follow the path. After a few steps, Shane feels someone tap him on the shoulder, turns around and comes face to face with himself. His doppelgänger cuts his own throat with the sword, only to regrow his head, but this time with the face of Shane's housekeeper, who again cuts her throat. This repeats itself with changing faces, with Shane watching in horror until he's pulled away by Liam. Their way is blocked by a dwarf playing with a puppet on a string, a little child holding a scalpel. When the dwarf doesn't move, Ian uses his bull whip to knock the puppet out of his hand. The dwarf turns into something that looks like a skinned frog with Doberman teeth and attacks. They fight and finally, Shane can behead the monster.

Further up the path the group reaches a group of statues, uniformed men with their right arm outstretched and a strange sign engraved into the base of each statue. They have to walk right through the statues and do it with reluctance, but nothing happens. Now they look down into a valley, with a fork in the path: one way lead to a temple, vaguely Asian looking, and the other way leads further upwards. From there approaches a group of humans, chained together and guarded by frog-like creatures. When one of the humans stumbles and cannot get up, he's skinned by one of the frogs and left there. The humans and their guards disappear in the temple and the group decides to follow them.

Part 2

Friday, January 6, 2012

Book of Choice: A Long Way Down

When Martin decides to commit suicide on New Year's Eve, the last thing he expected was that he would have to stand in line to do it.

Four very different people choose the same spot and the same night to commit suicide. They don't go through with it, but instead get talking, spend the night together. Although they don't have much in common or even like each other very much, they keep meeting and try to piece their lives back together, with disastrous and often hilarious (for the reader at least) results.

It's quite an accomplishment to write a book about suicide that's funny, but doesn't make fun of the characters. Nick Hornby has managed to pull it off, with characters you feel you've known after a few pages. None of them are all that likeable, but they grow on you, just as they grow on each other. Sometimes you want to smack them around the head for being so stupid, sometimes you want to hug them and sometimes you want to yell at them to grow up. Things don't really turn out alright in the end, but good enough-ish. Anything else would have spoiled the whole novel.

Reviews 2012

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Old Barbed Wire

Chumbawamba singing a WWI song.. To quote Wikipedia This troop song was not popular with the officer class...

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

January Classic Challenge: Thomas Mann

For the January Classics Challenge: Thomas Mann, Death in Venice

Who is the author?
Thomas Mann, considered to be one of the greatest German authors.

What do they look like?
Here's a short film showing Mann and his family, already in exile. You can listen to him speak about Richard Wagner here (with English subtitles). I tend to imagine Armin Müller-Stahl, though, who played Thomas Mann a few years ago in an excellent movie.

When were they born?

Where did they live?
That's a long story with Thomas Mann. He was born in Lübeck in northern Germany, moved to Munich after the death of his father, lived in Italy for a while with his brother and moved back to Munich, where he married Katja Pringsheim in 1905.

They lived in Munich until 1933 when they did not return from a holiday/lecture tour and settled for a time in France. In 1938 the family moved to the United States, first to Princetown and then to Pacific Palisades, Los Angeles. Thomas Mann did not intend to return to Europe even after the Nazi regime had ended, but the threats of the McCarthy-Era were serious enough to convince him to leave in 1952. Anyone who had been outspoken against the Nazis was now under suspicion and Mann had certainly done that.
He settled in Switzerland, in Zurich, but visited Germany many times until his death.

What does their handwriting look like?
Here's his signature and here's a handwritten page from Tristan

What are some of the other novels they've written?
Buddenbrooks, The Magic Mountain, Doctor Faustus

What is an interesting and random fact about their life?
Thomas Mann had six children, all of them gifted, and almost none of them could (or would) escape the shadow of their father.

What do you think of their writing style?
There are not many other authors who have such a command of German as Thomas Mann had. His style is very refined and it's the result of hours and hours of painstaking work. That doesn't make his books easy to read, but it's certainly elegant.

My problem with Thomas Mann is that there's just too much introspection and reflection. In the case of Death in Venice, that was fine, but The Magic Mountain has about 1000 pages of this. I'm not afraid of long books, but after nothing much had happened after 400 pages, I gave up. I may try again now, though.

Is there are particular quote that has stood out to you?
In Death in Venice, the author Aschenbach writes an essay on beauty, inspired by the beautiful boy he has discovered, which is very much admired when it's published. Mann goes on to say that it's probably better that the admirers know nothing of how and why the essay was written because that knowledge would only confuse or frighten them. Thomas Mann's books were always inspired by people he encountered and things he experienced, but here it's very obvious that Aschenbach is a stand-in for himself. It was certainly obvious to Katja Mann.

Why do you think they wrote this novel?
Like I said, Mann took his inspiration from his own life and he did encounter a very beautiful boy in Venice a few years before writing Death in Venice. It's a meditation on beauty and on self-denial, something Thomas Mann did know a lot about. It's also the most fascinating book about obsession, with the possible exception of Lolita, that I know and while Mann was too disciplined to become such a victim of obsession as Aschenbach, it's definitely a popular theme in his books.

How did their contemporaries view both the author and their novel?
Thomas Mann was pretty much a legend in his own lifetime, much admired and winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature. In Germany, he went from bestselling author to persona non grata, as far as the Nazis were concerned - although his books were not burned, unlike those of his brother Heinrich and his son Klaus. After the war, the Germans was at first suspicious and sometimes downright hostile, especially since Mann was not about to feel very sorry for the suffering the Germans had brought upon themselves with Hitler. But soon he was accepted again and celebrated.
There were (and are) of course critics, especially more political authors like Bert Brecht and Kurt Tucholsky and, at the outbreak of WWI, his brother Heinrich, who was much more clear-sighted politically and did not share Thomas' patriotism.

As far as I know, the novella was received just as well as any of his books. Which amazes me to no end, I have to admit, considering the topic.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Books reviewed in 2012

Just to keep track of things...

1. Death in Venice by Thomas Mann
2. A Long Way Down by Nick Hornby
3. Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse
4. A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway
5. Bad Monkeys by Matt Ruff
6. 20th Century Ghosts by Joe Hill
7. Oppenheimer and the Bomb by Paul Strathern
8. Bloodlands by Timothy Snyder
9. 11/22/63 by Stephen King
10. The Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael Chabon
11. Antigone by Sophokles
12. The Devil in the Flesh by Raymond Radiguet
13. Jerusalem by Simon Sebag Montefiore
14. The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
15. A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini
16. Moon and Sixpence by William Somerset Maugham
17. Jewel of the Seven Stars by Bram Stoker
18. The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells
19. Of Human Bondage by W.S. Maugham
20. Pirate Cinema by Cory Doctorow
21. Old Man's War by John Scalzi
22. Zoo City by Lauren Beukes
23. Schöne Zeiten by Ernst Klee

Death In Venice

I've tried to read Thomas Mann a few times and I always failed. While I love to read about him and his family, his own works were not to my taste. I chose Death in Venice for yet another attempt because the story appealed to me and I found myself enjoying the book a lot more than I anticipated.

The writer Gustav von Aschenbach comes to Venice where an extremely beautiful boy catches his eye. Aschenbach starts to watch the boy as discreetly as possible, eventually following him around, but is content with imagining getting to know him. When cholera breaks out in Venice, Aschenbach chooses to stay, risking his life, rather than giving up seeing the boy.

Death in Venice is a novella, only a little more than 100 pages long and a good choice if you find the sheer length of Mann's other works intimidating. I don't know how well this shines through in translations, but Mann certainly was a master of language and wrote an extremely refined German. It's not something you can read between things, although I did read it on my commute to and from work. A knowledge of Greek myths helps with understanding this book as well, there are numerous allusions.

But never fear, the basic story can be understand perfectly well even when you know zilch about Greek gods. I guess we all can relate to developing an obsession about something or someone. Aschenbach ultimately sacrifices his own life for the sake of his obsession, while never really acting upon it, preferring daydreams and fantasy. I can certainly identify with the latter part.

Even though I have never seen Visconti's film, I kept imagining Dirk Borgade as Aschenbach. The book is actually very much about Thomas Mann himself, who had in fact discovered a very attractive boy during a stay in Venice a few years before writing the novella. It's a revealing story and it played its part in the development of the strange, but strong marriage of Katja and Thomas Mann. If you have never read a biography of Thomas Mann, you really should, he and his family are fascinating. I don't know if there's an English version, but the documentary Die Manns is both highly entertaining and educating.

Reviews 2012


...because I just watched The Best of Both Worlds and now I have this song stuck in my head.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

The End of the World

How do you know that a. you read to much apocalyptic fiction and b. that you're a librarian to the bones?

You dream that humanity has been reduced to a handful of survivors by huge worms. The survivors have taken refuge in a library. The problem is that every damn book that could be useful is checked out.

Seriously, every book I wanted to consult in that dream wasn't there. I think if the dream had gone on longer, I would have resorted to reading dreadful historic fiction (Pope Joan) and bodice busters to the worms to make their heads explode.

Library Challenge 2012

I signed up for the Library Challenge 2012 hosted by Jessica

The January challenge was to read a book by an author you have never read before. I chose Ernest Hemingway and A Farewell to Arms

The February challenge was to read a crime novel you have never read before. Mine was The Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael Chabon.