Oryx and Crake

Oryx and Crake (MaddAddam, #1)Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I found this intensely unsatisfying. I love dystopias, and I love post-apocalyptic worlds, and I found the worldbuilding in this to be wonderfully imaginative and intriguing, but somehow it managed to be incredibly dull and plodding at the same time.

I think the problem is that nothing happened in this entire book. I was fully halfway through it when Jimmy finally decided to leave his tree, and I thought “aha, finally there will be some plot”, and then his adventure simply served as the prelude to more flashbacks which still only served to build the world, not have anything happen within it. I would have much rather learned about the disaster from a present-day perspective than the hackneyed flashback structure used here. The characters weren’t likable, and they did nothing of note for me to care about, which made the entire thing fall flat on its face. Which is a shame, because the world is a fascinating backdrop.

I see it is a series, so I assume this serves as the introductory paragraph and there will be plot in the later books, but it’s already lost me. I might read a synopsis of the rest of them, I guess.

The Orenda

The OrendaThe Orenda by Joseph Boyden

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I was given this for a book club, and I am glad they chose it because I don’t think I would have read it otherwise. I’m not a big fan of historical fiction, and historical fiction based on Canadian history (the most boring type of history on the planet) just does not grab me. The Orenda turned out to be a gripping read, though, and lays out historical tribal life in brutal fashion, not sparing any details. If my history classes had been anything like this I might have actually been interested.

I was initially turned off by the first-person-present-tense and how difficult it was to tell which point of view we were following, but once I locked down on the fact that we were only following three different characters it wasn’t too burdensome. The ‘voices’ of the characters weren’t distinctive enough, and you had to wait until they observed something to orient you, or dropped a snippet like speaking to “my love” or “Lord” to figure out who the chapter was following, so I dislike the choice and I think it would have been easier to follow if it hadn’t been in first person. At many points the minor characters change names based on which viewpoint we’re following, the events that happen to name them, or even whether the person we’re following likes them right now or not. I was able to keep up, but I thought I would issue a warning that it’s going to require a bit more attention than usual.

I really liked how the story drew parallels between the three viewpoints we were following, but at no point did it seem to take a side. Each group had their beliefs and motivations which made sense to them and they acted appropriately within those beliefs and motivations, weaving a strong narrative as the cultures clashed. I think my only complaint would be that I wish the ‘magic’ had been more plausible, to draw a stronger compare/contrast between belief systems. It started losing me when they started having prophecies. Ambiguous visions and their interpretations of them is one thing, but literal visions of what is about to happen was kind of ehhhhhhh…

The book is nearly 500 pages and I don’t know that there is much else for me to elaborate on. I really enjoyed the journey through the story, but it might also be worth mentioning that it is not for the faint of heart or those who deal with depression.

Horizon Zero Dawn

I don’t know if I can say something about this game that would do it justice.  I didn’t even know it existed until I happened to see some comparisons between it and other games that were released around the same time (and the answer to ‘which should you buy’ is ‘why not all of them?’), but then I saw the main character was a female with a bow who primarily uses stealth and I was like “well… I guess it was made for me.”  I suppose we have Katniss Everdeen to thank for the “badass female with a bow” trope becoming more popular lately but as someone who always picks the archer when it’s available (even when it suuuuuccckkkksss), I’m pretty excited about this trend.

If someone were to take all of my favourite games and blend them together, the result would probably be something similar to Horizon Zero Dawn (HZD).  Post apocalyptic, stealth elements and tactical combat, collections and crafting, good dialogue and interesting characters, a plot that holds a lot of mystery and doesn’t let you down with the reveals… all it’s missing is terraformable terrain and economics systems to hit pretty much every one of my favourite games, so it’s probably not surprising that I loved it.

I had expressed some interest in it after reading a little bit about it, and I happened to be sick and confined to the couch, so my husband brought it home for me.  I spent the next 2.5 days piling tissues around the couch and binging through HZD until my wrists hurt from holding the controller.  My husband watched the first couple of quests and then decided he would play it after me, and it was brutal to not be able to talk about the plot points as I went through it (I had to settle for repeating “Oh my god it’s so good…” and he kept repeating “Well hurry up and finish it so I can play it, then.”).  He’s playing through it now, but he’s on very hard difficulty and dallying around doing all the side quests so it’s going to take forever *shake fist*.

For those who like a challenge, the combat offers plenty of ways to be creative.  I had it set to the easiest (“tell me a story”) mode, so I spent the majority of the game sneaking around being a backstabbing goddess of invulnerability… but even on the easiest setting I had to use tactics, set traps, duck into cover, and learn the weak spots of the enemies in order to expose their weaknesses and go in for a critical hit.  Being on easy mode meant I could be sloppy and just be like “fuck it” and flail away when things went wrong.  My husband is playing on very hard and when things go wrong it means he is swiftly dismembered and gets to start the sequence over againI expect a lot of cursing on some of the later bosses.

What did I like about HZD (besides everything?):  It’s got pretty standard open world gameplay (go to places, unlock travel points, collect plants, find quests, clean out the map of points of interest) but the world itself is interesting to explore.  You start out as an outcast, which is a well-done version of putting the player inside of a protagonist who doesn’t know much about the world, in order to learn along with them (not facepalm inducing like ‘amnesia’).  The main plot point is Aloy trying to figure out why she was outcast as an infant, so she works her butt off to earn a way back into the tribe and get some answers.  As a player, you’re just as invested in discovering those answers as she is, and the writers did a fantastic job.  The world feels real.

What really won me over was the writing, by far.  I loved the story and I’m still thinking about it a week later.  I went onto the wiki and re-read all the data points.  The plot zags when you expect a zig, and even though some elements may play out the way you expect, there are enough flourishes that it will still surprise you.  As the ending sequences played out I was watching it and trying to rank it against my favourite games of all time, and I was sitting there thinking “It’s REALLY REALLY good, but it hasn’t really made me cry yet, so I don’t know if I wou—… … … fffffffffffffffffffff okay I’m misting up now.”
I think my “story enjoyment” final ranking would be just above Mass Effect, but not quite to the level of Last Of Us.

So we’ve established that I love the game.  How about Criticisms?  I really only have one, but it’s kind of a big one.  The game spends a lot of time hyping up its strong female characters.  I have no problem with that—more games need to have badass, yet realistic females that have more depth to them than just their badassery.  When I think back across the characters you meet, though, I can’t think of a single male character who isn’t pathetic in some way.
The ironic thing is I can’t tell if it’s intentional or not.  The cast of characters includes (I presume quite deliberately) a hugely diverse cast of races and cultures, and yet every single accomplished character is female.  Every named male in the game is either a failure, or outright evil.  Many of the males who are failures need females to solve the messes they’ve made.  Many of the males who are outright evil are thwarted by females, and solely females.  Even among the scientists, the ones with the most screentime and the most showcased roles are females, except for the one who programs the questionable content, who is, of course, male.  Avad seems to be a strong male character on the surface, until you dig deeper into his story and find he’s actually obsessed with his (female) Military Captain.  That’s a pretty minor character point in the grand scheme, but if you were to apply some sort of reverse Bechdel test to the game, it would go back to a fail right there.  Meanwhile, there is precisely one female in the game I can think of off the top of my head who could be considered pathetic or evil… and it’s made abundantly clear that she’s just misguided and following her own values.  And even she comes around in the end.

I’m not sure if I would call it misandry, and I’m certainly not certain if I would call it intentional misandry, but it’s skirting a line that I think needs to be balanced a bit more.  It is ENTIRELY possible (if not preferred) to have a strong female protagonist without shitting all over males while you do it.  The whole “mother earth” theme is pretty strong throughout the game, so maybe it’s intentional, but if “males ruin earth, females save earth” is intentional subtext, that’s pretty lame, to be honest.  I’m hoping any sequels, should there happen to be some, will rectify the imbalance by continuing the trend of badass females but also mixing in badass males to balance them, along with some pathetic evil females to balance out the pathetic evil males.

That niggling detail aside… I love this game.  Once again I lament the existence of exclusivity contracts.  Everyone should have access to this game on whatever platform they choose, because it is a masterpiece of storytelling that needs to be experienced.

 

Above All Things

Above All ThingsAbove All Things by Tanis Rideout

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I was given this to read for a book club and was pretty interested in the premise as presented by the book jacket. The story of Mallory tackling Everest is pretty interesting in itself, but to see the homeward side of things adds a fascinating twist. Unfortunately, the book opened with a harlequin-esque erotica scene and went downhill from there.

The blurb makes you believe the story will be about Mallory’s wife. In practice, Ruth is a two-dimensional character that does absolutely nothing but pine over George. She has no other substance to her. The bulk of the story ends up being about George’s expedition, which is sort of interesting, but it’s not what you were probably expecting to read and it’s incredibly slow with occasional breaks to follow his companion for no apparent reason. There are jarring switches in POV between George and Ruth, swapping between third person and first person with one spanning weeks and the other spanning a day. Also there are occasional breaks where both George and Ruth consider times when they cheated on their partners (complete with cheesy erotica scenes, as if there weren’t enough opportunity for them already). I don’t even know.

Even ignoring the misleading blurb, on the surface the plot looks like it should be interesting: a deep investigation into George’s struggle between his obsession with Everest and his desire to be with his wife. Instead, it’s a hot mess with shoe-horned sex scenes and plodding filler.

If it helps, the other women in the book club seemed to enjoy it. Maybe you will like it if you are ovulating.

Homefront

Homefront (Phil Broker, #6)Homefront by Chuck Logan

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I queued this one up because the premise sounded interesting. As I work through my reading queue I often forget why I added books to it, and a chapter or two into this I had to stop and look it up to figure out why the hell I had added it. Then I was like “Oh, right. That DOES sound interesting.” I slogged away at it but… I just can’t do it. The writing is pretentious and overdone, littered with isolated sentences and choppy wording that’s designed to hype up the drama. There’s a complete lack of subtlety here. It feels like being bashed over the head with words. Watching the movie will be less painful.

Republic of Thieves

The Republic of Thieves (Gentleman Bastard, #3)The Republic of Thieves by Scott Lynch

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I started late on the Gentleman Bastard journey (thankfully? Since the fourth book has apparently been delayed, which is unfortunate) and it’s been a bit of a rollercoaster. The first book was so full of promise—a few novice mistakes, but with characters so loveable that I couldn’t wait to see where the series went. The second was a disappointment, still full of promise but rushed and unpolished to an unfortunate degree. When I saw what a gap there was between the second and the third I was eager to see how the writing had progressed, because the potential here simply NEEDS to be fulfilled.

I have very few complaints about the third book, and I’m picky as fuck. At worst, I’d say I saw a few places where the characters did some things, then immediately turned around and explained all those things in detail to another character who wasn’t present, which smacked of bad editing. The plot maybe had some contrivances you could bitch about if you wanted to, but I chose not to because I could see the purpose of them.

It actually felt more like two books in one, which I’m not sure I like all that much. It’s got the time-skip stuff again which I disliked in the first books, skipping back and forth from the past and the present, but in previous books that mechanism was used to show the characters acquiring an item or skill which was then presented in the present, and it felt a little contrived. In this book, the past story and the present story are running parallel, and I kept waiting for them to converge and it never really did. The two timelines merely exist to show the relationship of Locke and Sabetha developing side by side. I think it works, but I would have been equally satisfied with two distinct books, and less distracted besides.

I also noticed a couple exposition dumps that I felt could have been handled a little better because I started drifting off in the middle of them, but I feel that’s a victim of the two timelines. You get invested in one story and then blam, dropped into an exposition dump for the other and you’re all “I don’t give a shit about this, I want to know what happens next in the OTHER story” and you end up skimming, which is bad for the story as a whole. I also felt like I didn’t really need to sit through everyone rehearsing their lines for the play, but maybe I started skimming and missed the point.

I think that’s the extent of my bitching. The characters were fantastic, the banter was fantastic, and I burned through it until I had eyestrain. Be warned, though, if you’re not already invested in the characters, you might find it hard to get into. I loved it BECAUSE I love the characters. The fact that the plots took a backseat to character development became an asset BECAUSE I love the characters. If you haven’t reached that level of commitment to the characters, you might be a little annoyed.

I don’t normally like to draw comparisons to other works, but the plot actually really reminded me a lot of Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, in that it was a battle of wits between two forbidden(ish) lovers. In Night Circus, the “battles” were fantastic displays of magic which were very pretty to describe but ultimately made no fucking sense because they never opposed each other, and that was kind of dumb. Locke and Sabetha oppose the shit out of each other with non-stop displays of wit and connivery and it is awesome. I think the snake rebuttal was where I decided it would probably get a five even if it went off the rails at the end.

I’m a little surprised at the sheer hate I see for Sabetha in some of the other reviews.  I suppose that’s the risk of leaving a character shrouded in mystery for two books—people will make their own expectations, and you will never, ever, live up to them. She’s a character driven by pride, which can be a little hard to swallow for some, but all of her motivations seemed logical to me. A little more communication would certainly help matters, but there are pretty clear explanations for most of those difficulties too.  She’s essentially a femme fatale who is not entirely defined by the male protagonist, and I enjoyed that.

I was a little annoyed that
WARNING: SPOILERS:
Sabetha fucks off at the end, because I was hoping she would stick around and properly join the team and we could watch her and Locke bounce ideas off each other rather than maintaining the status-quo for the series, but I remain optimistic she’ll return for the next book and not just vanish safely out of plot’s way for awhile, because that would be lame, especially with the ambiguous nature of her departure, which I am hoping will be revealed as a little bit deeper than seeing a painting by someone who she in no way trusted and getting butthurt about imagined implications. She showed herself to be more mature than that in her older years (if not, perhaps, her younger ones…) and there are few things I dislike more than the “I am not telling you why I’m doing this because I need to PROTECT you but gosh if only we had communicated a bit we could have solved all this shit by now huh?” trope.

And now I join the ranks waiting for the next book, I suppose.

The Other Side of the Bridge

The Other Side of the BridgeThe Other Side of the Bridge by Mary Lawson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I was a bit surprised to see that this book is newer than Crow Lake, because the writing didn’t feel quite as polished. Much like Crow Lake, though, the author excels at writing emotions… and it almost hurts the book because they feel so similar that you can’t help but compare them and find The Other Side of the Bridge to be the lesser of the two. It failed to grab me in quite the same way as Crow Lake and that could be equal parts less sympathetic characters (I found many of them to be flat, which was a shame after the excellent characters in Crow Lake) and just me not being able to relate to them in quite the same way, but it was still an interesting read even if it didn’t grip me and keep me up. A solid 3.5 stars.

Red Seas Under Red Skies

Red Seas Under Red Skies (Gentleman Bastard, #2)Red Seas Under Red Skies by Scott Lynch

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book was desperately in need of a ruthless editor. The plot was bloated and aimless, and it was only the excellent characters and witty banter that kept me going. The first book had its fair share of bloat, but it wrapped up fairly tightly by the end, with only a few stray threads that you could argue served as obfuscation. This book has endless ramblings and descriptions that make your eyes glaze over, that ultimately serve no purpose other than to show off how much research the author put into the background. I think the sea training montage was a good 15 to 20% of the book on its own and served only the barest of purpose in terms of setting up later plot points, not to mention the 40% of the book you had to get through before being jarringly dropped into it. The plot threads didn’t tie together as well as in the first book, and it took me so long to slog through everything that I started forgetting who all these people are or why they’re important, so a lot of the impact was lost. It felt like it was trying to weave a super complicated twisty-turny plot but it really should have stuck to one or the other: deal with the casino con and pitting the two men against each other, or deal with the piracy plot. Mixing the two together just didn’t feel like it was working.

The book as a whole felt “immature”. Not in terms of banter, but in terms of polish. A lot of it felt like first pass writing that never got a proper second going-over. It needed to age a bit more, to let all the nuances seep in and flavour it throughout. And it needed all the useless crap strained out of it before it was bottled. In short: it needed an editor.

It does the same time-skipping bullshit as the first book, and I found it even more intolerable this time somehow, probably because we’re skipping between a short period of time instead of decades. Those interludes taper off midway which was a relief, but there’s a big one that the book opens with that isn’t resolved until the end, some 500 pages later. That resolution was so eyeroll-inducing that it could have knocked a whole star off the rating on its own. Seriously. Stop it. Along with that one, a couple of the big “twists” were so badly telegraphed (as well as being tacked onto plot threads that were basically ENTIRELY optional if not for the need to have this thing happen because it has been decreed that this should happen) that it was really cramping the book. One of my favourite parts of the first book was that their narrow escapes always seemed to have wit behind them, and some of their escapes in this one are blind luck or coincidence.  Unfortunate. If this one had been left in the polisher just a little bit longer it would have been a rock-solid romp with some powerful moments.

Having said all that, the characters were as fantastic as always, and the plot was reasonably entertaining even if it felt a bit rickety. The witty fast-paced banter is something I really enjoy, and I’ll probably venture into the third book just for the hell of it.

The Lies of Locke Lamora

The Lies of Locke Lamora (Gentleman Bastard, #1)The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I enjoyed this a lot more than I thought I would at first. The premise is that of a young orphan boy raised into the art of thievery, unfurling clever schemes and heists on a town in a medieval-style fantasy setting. My first impressions were that it was severely over-written, dripping with largely pointless descriptions and flowery language, even though the descriptions were certainly colourful. I… wasn’t really wrong. But the characters caught my interest quickly enough to keep me slogging through it.

In terms of flaws, the book has many. The author is definitely excited to show us the world they have created, and even though it’s described well it becomes almost tedious to realize you’re about to take an aside to wade into ANOTHER section where a dozen new settings and concepts will be introduced before we can get on with it. Too many times I was really into a sequence, and then it was like “And now, an interlude to introduce some backstory:” and I was like “Welp, I guess that’s enough reading for tonight.” It was irritating and made the book take much longer to read through.
Honestly though, I tried to think of better ways to do it and I can see why it was done this way. We take interludes to introduce Locke’s past and how he got to know the things he knows, right before stepping back into the present to watch him use that knowledge in the current scenario. Apart from creating a prequel series to introduce everything (which only your die-hard readers will probably read), or creating a Tolkein-esque encyclopedia of worldbuilding (which ONLY your die-hard readers will read, guaranteed. I don’t like it when a series requires a wiki to understand…), both of which then distance the link from the current plot… the back and forth time-skipping seems like a decent option, though I’m a ‘chronological’ sort of girl so I feel like I’d probably have preferred starting at Locke’s childhood and reading a book or two about that before getting to here.

There’s also the issue of a few ‘foreshadowy’ sort of pieces that annoyed me. There are a lot of different elements of the world that are introduced that end up having no bearing on the current plot whatsoever. That actually didn’t annoy me SO much, because it served as a sort of obfuscation that aided the plot in this case. There’s a little thing called Chekov’s gun that, when followed to the letter, ends up being a GREAT BIG REALLY OBVIOUS SIGNAL to the reader when something is introduced and you’re like “uh huh, well, that’s what’s going to happen.” and then oh look, guess what the big twist in the story is later! This book introduced so many little details that you have no idea what’s going to be important or not, and that WORKS for it because of the nature of the plot.
But then there are other little bits, like long-winded descriptions of things that don’t matter a goddamn bit when you’re busy trying to get things underway, or characters that are continually talked about and then never actually introduced, complete with vague lines like “She’s off doing whatever it is I told her to do.” That’s just a really obvious attempt at hand-waving. When things are getting lengthy and wordy and you find yourself flailing your hands around that much to avoid getting into details, just do us all a favour and don’t mention it at all.

The plot, though. “Clever” stories like this require a fair amount of plotting skill to pull off believably and boy did it impress me there. I thought I caught a continuity error or two but I actually wasn’t entirely sure, and I was so busy enjoying it that I didn’t even care. The details finally come together at the end and leave you satisfied. The characters, too, are all lively enough that you get attached to them, and they all have believable flaws. That’s the real trick with a plot like this: the protagonists aren’t infallible gods of perfection who have everything under control at all moments. These guys are getting themselves eyeballs-deep in shit at every turn through their own fuck-ups, and then using their wits to pull themselves back out of it. Sure there’s a few flashes of plot-armor, in that you ASSUME the title character will probably make it out of this alive even if it seems a bit dicey right now… but even then the body count is high enough that you’re never entirely sure what might happen.

I’m going to launch straight into the next book in the series and see what’s next. It’s a solid 4.5/5, and if it could stop being so goddamn long-winded it would be an easy 5.

Into the Forest

(Not to be confused with “Into the Woods” which is a very different sort of movie.)

This is a movie that really makes you think.  But not in a good way…

This review is going to contain a lot of spoilers but it’s okay because if you’re watching this movie, it’s for the acting and emotional impacts. Not the plot.

I picked this one up because I was in the mood for a post-apoc tale (preferably about a virus since we’re dealing with household illnesses right now and it would be thematic) but, alas, it would appear that I have seen literally every post-apocalyptic movie ever made.  Even the bad ones.  But then “Into the Forest” scrolled past and I went “close enough.”

“Into the Forest” is a post-apocalyptic (sort of) tale about two sisters who are staying at a remote forest cabin with their father when a severe power outage strikes the world. Instead of a chilling tale of virus contagion, I got a tale of two teenage girls whining about the internet not working. Which, honestly, was still pretty entertaining, simply because it was so god damn realistic.

We really did enjoy it—for the most part—but it suffers mightily from “stupid decision syndrome”.  Not quite to the degree where you are yelling at the TV like “NO YOU IDIOT DON’T GO IN THERE YOU WILL DIE.  SEE I FUCKING TOLD YOU YOU WOULD DIE YOU FUCKING DESERVE TO DIE YOU FUCKHEAD” but more along the lines of “ALL of these problems could have been solved if you had taken a tiny little precautionary action eight months ago you dipshits >:(“.  Again: it’s pretty realistic!

Except it’s not.  Stupid character decisions aside… it suffers from a fair amount of bad writing.  More specifically, the movie really suffers from scaling issues.  Supposedly the movie is set in Canada, and the girls spend a lot of time talking about surviving the winter.  The movie spans at least 15 months of time, and not one single snowflake is to be seen, and the greenery never goes away.  Instead there are lots of idyllic berry picking scenes.  The cedars and rain suggest it was located on the west coast, where sure there’s less winter than some places in Canada, but you’d definitely have a few more hardships and a lot more issues with cold than were depicted here.  Worse, they’re living in a modern upscale cabin (with all kinds of electronic gadgets that don’t work anymore!) with a few initial shots of a tarp on the roof to establish that there is some patching that needs to be done, and it goes from that to mold infested and literal beams rotting and collapsing in less than a year.  And it didn’t even have to deal with the weight of snow at all! Apparently it was built with paper mache, which was a bad decision for the west coast of Canada. (Meanwhile, they are still driving a 1995 Jeep Cherokee which is as bombproof as ever.  Oh but for the glory days of Jeep to return…)  If the movie had scaled the timeline up a bit this could have been a bit more believable, but it’s even more annoying that the girls take the time to research topics like in-depth nutrition and “DIY abortion” but not flip a few pages over to look under “Carpentry”.  It’s not like they didn’t have enough fucking wood, and even cedar for shingles!

And then there’s the ending.  So the house rots and collapses around them and they decide “let’s waste the last of our gas to burn it down” for… reasons.  Their logic is explained in the movie but I was still kind of like “…what?”  I mean sure don’t live in the mold infested pile of rot but the gas has a lot of value and you could still store the goddamn books and supplies and shit in… nevermind.  Then they move into a hollow tree stump with a shard of plastic for a roof annnnnnd fin.
I think the intent is to suggest they go back to their ancestral roots and live happily ever after, foraging off the land and enjoying each other’s company as they live out the rest of their lives in symbiosis with nature (hence: ‘into the forest’ see?  Get it??).  In reality, there probably should be a footnote after the credits saying “And then they died.”  Because, yeah.  You don’t just burn down your shelter then wander off into the forest and live in a stump at the onset of winter.  Not even the winter that exists in this world where it just rains and then you go pick some blueberries.  I don’t care how fucking resourceful you are.  If you can’t even be bothered to patch your goddamn roof, you’re not going to make it through a winter in a stump with a newborn baby.

Bitching aside, the REST of the movie was pretty decent.  The acting was great, and the two girls really hit off each other for some high emotional notes.  There aren’t many tense moments or suspense like might expect from most post-apoc stuff, and the worldbuilding is pathetic at best (nothing is explained, and seriously, if the entire world can be fucked for over a year if not permanently by a single power grid failure then the future is pretty dumb), but the emotional moments are A+.  So it’s kind of a girly post-apoc film, I guess.  If that appeals to you, by all means check it out, as long as you are wary of stepping in pits of dumb decisions, bad worldbuilding, and lengthy interpretive dance scenes.

Crow Lake

Crow LakeCrow Lake by Mary Lawson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I really loved this book. It did an excellent job of tackling themes of trauma and abuse, and I felt the characters were portrayed very realistically.

I did a quick browse through the negative reviews and the majority of them mentioned that it was too slow. It is certainly guilty of that, but I feel the short nature of it helps to make up for it. I never felt like it was slogging on. There were plenty of points where it sort of meandered through a side story and you were like “This is all very interesting, but what is the point?” and then you get to the end and go “Ah. I see.” I felt like it all tied up at the end, although maybe lacking the ‘punch’ a lot of readers might have expected after all the foreshadowing hints that were dropped.

I did get a little annoyed by all the breadcrumb hints about “events to come”. Those are always meant to hook the reader and keep them going with a promise of something big later, and to a degree they work, but it feels cheap and sets up a book to be underwhelming. This book could definitely be accused of that, but I enjoyed the characters enough that I didn’t penalize it.

The other major criticism of the book is that the main character is unlikable and dense. If you’re holding that against this book, I’m afraid you’ve missed the point. The problem is, I think, that these characters will appeal a GREAT DEAL to people who can relate to them – that is, those who have felt snippets of how that sort of trauma can affect your personality, your worldview, and how you react to others. Everyone else will be stumbling along wondering why the characters are acting so strangely, perhaps because they’ve never been unfortunate enough to experience those sorts of emotions and mental states themselves. There are so many powerful scenes in this book that spoke to me because I know exactly how those characters were feeling as they acted that way. I could feel what they felt. It was beautifully executed.

I suspect this sort of book will not be ‘for’ everyone. It was definitely ‘for’ me, and I loved it.

Infoquake

Infoquake (Jump 225 , #1)Infoquake by David Louis Edelman

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I’m going to abandon this one, which is unfortunate because I was excited about the premise. It’s a sci-fi setting with a corporate board room twist which is unique enough that I really wanted to see it play out.

It starts off feeling a lot like Neal Stephenson which was a very good sign. There isn’t a lot of over-explanation of concepts which was another very good sign. You’re dumped into the world and the characters react to the world and its unique concepts as if it’s completely normal, which is great, because for them it IS. None of the concepts are difficult to understand, you orient quickly, and it’s interesting to watch the subtleties of the world unfold.

Then you meet Natch, who spends his entire introduction being a prick to everyone. And you think to yourself “Aha, this is probably the villain of the story. A shades-of-grey nuanced antagonist, perhaps?” But then the book does its damnedest to make you sympathize with him, and completely fails on all counts. You also spend a fair amount of time with one of his female underlings who has thoughts like “I hate him so much. I wish I wasn’t so attracted to him!” And you think to yourself “………..”

To be fair, I bailed on it before the conclusion, but I couldn’t give a single solitary shit about any of the characters. I was interested in their world, but I didn’t care about them, I didn’t care what they were doing, and I finally went a couple weeks with the book sitting untouched in my bag and then went “Welp. I may as well read something else.” It wasn’t the setting at all—I was really interested in the corporate angle, even though it means it’s a slower pace than your typical sci-fi might be—but there was simply no one to root for and the characters felt forced.

It’s too bad because it’s a relatively unique approach to a plot and I’d like to see it thrive, but it really needs strong, relateable, characters to carry it. Instead, we have a jackass CEO that I’d like to see shot out of a cannon, while his underlings talk about how much they despise him but also how brilliant and amazing he is. Blurgh.

The 5th Wave

We watched The 5th Wave last night.  I recalled being mildly interested in it from the previews, but then when I saw the ratings it had garnered I quickly quashed any sort of optimism.  I was still curious though, and we were also mildly drunk, so it seemed like a good time to see what was up.

Rather than create a formal review of this movie, I think it will be more appropriate to transcribe the intoxicated messages I sent to my friend while watching it.  Enjoy.

[Warning: Spoilers.  But you shouldn’t care because this will be more entertaining than the movie.]

————————————-

We are watching the fifth wave which has a whopping 5.2 on IMDb.
So far not bad but she just used her cell phone and typed y o u and it autocorrected to “u”

>:( One star.

Husband asked for a space marine movie before we picked this.
Me: “They’re basically space marines but they’re children is all.”
Him: “Not very good space marines. Also they’re not in space.”
Me: “But they’re fighting aliens!”
Him: “It’s really not the same.”

Female protagonist has been helped/captured by hunky male now. She just did the lip thing that suggests she wants to fuck him. Odds of hunky male being an alien??!?

Husband and I are laying bets on his alienness now

He’s is totes an alien and she’s going to fall in love with him and be horrified by herself and then come around. Book it
(AFTERMATH SPOILERS: I was wrong.  It actually kinda happens the other way around which makes even less goddamn sense)

Husband doesn’t think he’s an alien because he hid her from alien drones. That was the whole point to make her trust him YOU FOOL

Female protagonist shows loving nurturing side while proclaiming “I’m not TOUGH, okay??!?”.  Meanwhile second female character (only other one in movie) is being super badass and beating up all the males and training them to use weapons because she’s a girl but also super badass you see

He is lovingly tending to her wounds. Boning imminent.

Oh man I didn’t even get to hit send before they started shoving tongue down each other’s throats

He’s gonna be an alien he totally is

Husband: “I’m giving this movie a lot more credit than you are. He’s not an alien. They just want you to THINK he’s an alien.”
Me: “There’s a reason this movie has such low ratings.”

“I guess you were right. He’s an alien.”

I WIN.

It was pretty obvious because this is LITERALLY Twilight with aliens now

Female protagonist: “Did you really believe that??!?”
Alien love interest: “I did. But then I saw you.”

*Hurk*

Holy shit this has lost so many stars in like the last 20 seconds

Badass girl is now saving “still badass but deliberately not as badass to still show her feminine side” girl

Yeah.  That was awful.

Drifter’s Alliance (Book 3)

Drifters' Alliance, Book 3Drifters’ Alliance, Book 3 by Elle Casey

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’m a little disappointed in Book 3. The ideas are still really solid and very engaging, but the book feels rushed and lacking polish. It needed to mature and develop a bit more to really hit the sweet spot.

We’re still following the ‘episodic’ formula, but this time it barely even felt like an episode. A few more ideas were introduced, nothing new was really resolved, and it ends on an unsatisfying cliffhanger. The action is fantastic, and the characters are amusing, but the ‘rushed’ feeling persists through everything from the lack of resolution to the slapstick comedy sequences. Chapters end in bizarre places, cutting sequences in half sometimes. The jokes even sometimes trip over themselves by repeating themselves or explaining themselves to you, almost as if it got a quick editing brush-over and something was left behind that was meant to be excised. It all could have benefitted from a bit more care and attention.

I still love the story, and the characters, and the universe, and I would like to know what happens… but at 5 bucks a pop, I’d be tempted to sit back and wait to see if an anthologized version is released that combines them all once they’re done. It’s almost a shame to read them now if they might get polished into a real blockbuster later.

Drifter’s Alliance (Book 2)

Drifters' Alliance, Book 2Drifters’ Alliance, Book 2 by Elle Casey

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Still enjoyable, but definitely not quite as solid as the first one. One of the things that really appealed to me about Cass was her balance. She was winging it and doing a good job of hiding how terrified she was inside. When shit went sideways your asshole clenched right along with her and you breathed a sigh of relief as she pulled it off and got out. In Book 2, she’s becoming a bit too in-control. We’re learning more about her training and now every time we need to know something, she’s studied it. When we need to do something, she’s been trained in it. Everything that happens to them seems to revolve around her past. It’s too convenient. The characters are a bit too slapstick, too. The humour is starting to feel forced, and I get the sense that the book was written fairly quickly and not polished as much as it should have been to tone down those burrs.

Still enjoying the series, but at 5 bucks a pop I really want them to have a BIT more meat to them.

Drifter’s Alliance (Book 1)

Drifters' Alliance (Book 1)Drifters’ Alliance by Elle Casey

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A quick, light read that I binged in a couple of hours. It’s far too short, feeling more like a pilot episode to a TV series, which is somewhat appropriate as fans of shows like Firefly will feel right at home with a cast of misfit ship crewmembers who have been thrust together and bumble their way through misadventures. It does leave you feeling like the story is just beginning, though, which is a little unsatisfying.

Despite the brevity and lack of depth, I really enjoyed it. The writing is simple and crisp. I was a little worried in the first chapter when some of the descriptions were a little heavy-handed, but it quickly becomes primarily dialogue with lots of humour. There were tense moments with plenty of suspense that kept you hanging, and there was just enough exposition and worldbuilding to keep you intrigued and interested in the backstory of the universe without being either too much of an infodump or leaving things vague and confusing. Almost a perfect balance of information, actually. You get a sense of the world and the characters within it, and they all react in ways that feel genuine.

I’m impressed by the characters so far, but I tend to bias that direction. The main character is great. She’s a teenager, and she thinks like one. She’s constantly battling internal uncertainty and insecurity while putting on a show for everyone around her. It’s wonderfully insightful character building. The rest of the crew are animated and vivid characters with some real chemistry. I’m curious to see where the series will lead.

Nova War

Nova War (The Shoal Sequence, #2)Nova War by Gary Gibson

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I wrote about my distaste for the first book in the series, which had SO MUCH potential but was completely overpowered by sloppy writing and self-indulgent gratuitous eroticism. Dakota Merrick has all the parts in play to be a strong, intriguing character with a lot of depth… but she wastes it by spending the first book fucking everyone (including her ship). Other reviews suggest the series gets stronger as it goes, so I popped open the second one to see how the writing evolves.

It opens with the same problem the first one had: huge exposition dumps from characters I haven’t really been given much of a chance to give a single shit about. The underlying plot points really have some power to them, but it feels like such a slog to care about any of the characters.

We finally get back to Dakota, who finds herself in prison. She’s naked, of course, with plenty of mentions about her breasts, and she immediately notes how her pubic hair has been shaved. This does not look like a promising indication that the writing will be any less indulgent. Sure enough, when she is finally reunited with her boy toy (who, I noted, is also naked but he’s such a flat character that he isn’t even graced with a physical description) the first thing they do is fuck. Even though she’s been starving herself and is so weak she’s barely coherent. Priorities!

Let me be clear: I’m not prudish, and I will happily read explicit content in books, as long as there is a REASON for it. There is no reason for all of the gratuitous sexuality in these books. It’s self-indulgent and distracting, and the worst part is (as I said in my review of the first book) it could fairly easily have been modulated to actually have a point. Dakota Merrick could be a really interesting female protagonist, because she’s been ostracized and traumatized and has difficulty connecting to people. Building a trust relationship with Corso could be a REALLY powerful sequence. But, instead, she prances around naked and fucks everything with a cock at every opportunity (real cocks or artificial ones, it doesn’t matter to her!). It’s pretty clearly biased, too. We become intimately familiar with Dakota’s naked body, breasts, pubic region, anus… but there is barely any time wasted describing Lucas Corso. Who wants to read about him anyway, right? It’s all about the boobies and pubic hair! And, naturally, the males she fucks think it’s the best sex they’ve ever had. Even the main enemy is like “You know what, I kind of like her, despite trying to kill her.” I wonder how long it will take before she fucks him too, despite the fact that he’s a fish in a floating bubble. (He does have tentacles that extend outside of it! Hmmmmm…)

I skimmed through roughly 30% of the book and found the characters were still acting inconsistently (one moment they’re badass, the next they’re weeping and cowering) and just gave up before getting out of the prison sequences. It’s really a shame because the plot is interesting and the action is fast paced, but the characters ruin it for me. As I said with the first book, though: give it to an editor who will slash all the bullshit out of it and an effects team who will bring the action to life and we’ll have a decent (possibly cheesy) movie that I will happily watch.

Stealing Light

Stealing Light (The Shoal Sequence, #1)Stealing Light by Gary Gibson

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I feel like I should really like this book. It’s a space opera with daring smugglers and firefights and alien species and mysterious technology and plenty of action, and the main character is a no-nonsense female pilot. Or… at least she should be no-nonsense but somehow a lot of nonsense keeps getting mixed in. I really try not to be feminist about these things, but I’m really put off by how frequently she’s described naked, or how often her anus is mentioned. I mean… we really needed that much detail to get the point across? In chapter three I wrote a note in my book saying “Wait… is she fucking her ship now?” and a few paragraphs later it was like “Yup. She’s fucking her ship.” Literally fucking it. It takes human form and fucks her. Yeah.

There’s a LOT of potential here, actually. The character is a “machine head” with implants in her brain that give her all sorts of (overly described and leaned upon for plot devices) tech abilities and information, but the implants are sufficiently balanced by having some significant downsides: they’ve previously allowed the bearers to become controlled and commit heinous crimes. The implants are actually illegal now because of the exploitation potential, but they offer huge benefits, especially to a pilot like our main character. So there are huge benefits, but not to the Mary Sue level because there are also huge risks. No one really trusts a machine head, so she’s a loner who’s also dealing with the traumas and consequences of the implants, and suddenly it makes a bit of sense that she might become ‘involved’ with her ship since that’s her only companion. Right? Right??

… except every other male she encounters seems to end up fucking her too. Sigh. And, now that I think about it, I’m not sure there are any other female characters of note for her to encounter.

Yeah, I dunno.

I found the first few chapters of the book were far too heavy on exposition (laying out every detail of the technology and world without really giving me any reason to give a single shit about the characters who had all clustered together to talk about it), but the action scenes have been decent enough and I am reasonably interested enough to see what happens. I keep going despite the vague distaste I keep feeling as I plow through descriptions. I feel like this would be way up there on my list of must-reads if it weren’t for this greasy feeling that the book is more self-indulgent than it needs to be for plot purposes.

The characters spend the entire book flip flopping between emotions with no logical transitions. They’re badass in one paragraph, weeping and cowering in the next. Then they’re yelling and screaming at each other, and fucking in the next. It’s disjointed and the poor writing doesn’t do it any favours, with lots of perspective shifts and occasional lapses in tense. But despite all that, the second half of the book was decent, despite a very awkward sex scene that is initiated by the dialogue “I can tell by the way you have your hand on my dick.” They were almost in the midst of growing as characters before they did that, too. Alas.

Give this to a ruthless editor who can cut all the bullshit out of it, and hand it off to an effects team, and I bet it would make a really decent (but probably cheesy) movie. As a book, it’s pretty meh, although I am sufficiently curious to see how the plot wraps up across sequels. Curious enough to put up with more random sex and forced descriptions of nudity? Eeeehhh, maybe later.

Handbook for Lightning Survivors

The Handbook for Lightning Strike SurvivorsThe Handbook for Lightning Strike Survivors by Michele Young-Stone

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I had trouble with this one. It had an interesting premise that I wanted to know more about (A girl who is struck by lightning repeatedly, with some mysterious events such as watches that tick backwards in her presence, or halos around her in photographs), and it had some really powerful, raw emotion to it, but I found it disjointed and difficult to keep track of.

The author clearly loved the characters (as evidenced by the somewhat unnecessarily detailed summary of everyone’s lives at the end…), but the book failed to get me invested in them. Many of the side characters were introduced haphazardly, and it made it difficult for me to connect with them or care about their stories. I was interested in Becca’s story, kind of neutral on finding out what happened to Buckley, and couldn’t give a shit and had to resist the urge to skim when it started going off on tangents about anyone else, even when those threads eventually tied back in. I feel like it would have been stronger overall if it stuck to following one character (either Becca, or Buckley who learns Becca’s story through his book research) instead of jumping around like that.

POV tended to change mid-page. I suppose it was an attempt at third person omniscient, but instead of offering insight into all the characters it was just disorienting. More disconcertingly, the tense would sometimes swap mid-page, which was jarring. Maybe it was deliberate because of how the story skips around in time, but I disliked it.

Worst was that it just felt sort of aimless and pointless. I kept at it thinking the story was interesting enough that I wanted to see how it wrapped up, but even that was anticlimactic.

The characters have some interesting depth and the emotional moments are on point, but it was a struggle to slog through to the end.

The Half Life of Stars

The Half Life of StarsThe Half Life of Stars by Louise Wener

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This was a tough one to rate, made ironic by the fact that I almost didn’t read this. I selected it, looked at the cover, hesitated, read the synopsis, and thought to myself “ehhhh I don’t think I’m in the mood for this right now” and then tried reading a different book which turned out to be god awful, so I came back to this and I went “Well, at least it can’t be THAT bad” and dove in. Silly me. This is why I shouldn’t break my rule of just diving into books and seeing what happens, judging them on their own merits instead of pre-judging them by their covers and synopsis and previous reviews!

I really enjoyed it, and I kept waffling back and forth between 4 and 5 stars. The plot was well done, the characters had real life to them, and the language was wonderful. And every now and then there’d be a big twist that made perfect sense but I didn’t see it coming and I’d think “okay this is definitely 5 stars”. Then there would be a badly edited sequence where words were misused (“I couldn’t bare to do it” came up a few times and I’m pretty sure this isn’t just a UK language thing, because it doesn’t make sense that you simply cannot get naked in order to accomplish this thing right now, does it? Or… does it…). I love heavy dialogue, especially when the characters are as vivid as this, but sometimes the dialogue was so poorly edited that you couldn’t tell who was saying what and I’d start to get distracted and lose the flow. Unfortunate. I’d give it a solid 4.5 stars and I’m still really torn on whether to round up or down.

You know what… it’s been sitting on 4 stars the whole time I typed this but, fuck it, I’ll round it up to 5. The writing and characters just had a brutal honesty that I could relate to. I hated her family, because they were too real. That’s worth 5 stars. The surprising plot that didn’t leave any threads was just icing.

Graceling

This is worthy of flak but I just quit at 3%.  This… just… augh no I can’t do it.  I can’t take this right now. I’m not going to officially rate it yet though, and I am dutifully keeping it loaded on my Kindle under the pretense of giving it a proper rating later, but I feel like I should record my attempt, especially since I rarely give up on books.

I picked up Graceling because it was recommended alongside a lot of books I’ve enjoyed, and it features a ‘strong female protagonist’ which I usually enjoy a lot.  It was also touted as being highly original with lots of interesting ideas.  I was looking forward to cracking into this one.

The writing jumped out at me immediately as kind of pretentious and annoying.  Everything just smacked of ‘trying too hard’, and maybe a bit arrogant too.  But hey maybe I’m just grumpy today, so I trundled on and tried to ignore all the choppy sentences that are just begging you to notice how important they are.

The story opens with the main character basically beating the shit out of a buttload of guards.  Great care and attention is given to describing how great she is at beating the shit out of these guys, with precision strikes that fell everyone with a minimum of effort or notice. But then we are quickly reminded that she doesn’t want to do any killing because she’s done enough killing in her life (which, by the way, reminds us she’s really good at killing.  Like so good at it, guys).  So that’s good, at least she’s overwhelmingly good and kind and conscientious on top of being an unstoppable killing machine.  Which is good because her ability to kill like this is due to a special ability that only special snowflakes have, which is why she’s so special.  There’s no way this could turn into a Mary Sue character, right?  Oh wait we’re not done yet, we better lay on the heavy handed references to how she’s the only female who is this good at absolutely everything and no one suspects she’s as good at everything as she is because she’s female.

My eyes were already rolling when I paused to glance at some reviews, hoping this was just an awkward segue and it would settle the fuck down once it got rolling, but it really sounds like it’s not going to.  I just… I don’t have the energy right now.  I can’t do it.  I cannot put several hours into awkward choppy writing that’s pushing agendas about a surly and unlikable Mary Sue, even if the worldbuilding and ideas surrounding it are fantastic and unique.

Maybe when I am on summer vacation, and am suitably drunk.

[edit] Geeze, I just read more reviews that got into the feminist debate surrounding the book and now I’m terrified to even go near it anymore.  I didn’t even have a chance to be outraged by that before I got fed up!  The book has many gifts to give, it seems…

Good Graces

Good GracesGood Graces by Lesley Kagen

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This book left me feeling confused. It was a rollercoaster, but for the wrong reasons.

I didn’t pay too much attention to it when I started it, and I was 30% of the way into it before I discovered it was actually a sequel to a book I haven’t read. It set itself up well enough, but a lot of things were half-explained and I expected them to be important when they were actually just callbacks to the first book. No big deal, I was able to follow along easily enough.

The first 50% of the book was quite good. The narrative voice is really well done, and the time period is described very well. If you lived during this time period I could see it quickly becoming a favourite. I, however, did not live in that time period, and it started to get pretty old. It was laying on layers of nostalgia that simply didn’t resonate with me, although I appreciated the detail of it.
The next 30% or so of the book dragged on to the point where I almost quit, except that some of the reviews said the ending was really surprising, so I decided to tough it out. It was a real slog, let me tell you. I skimmed a lot and I kept seeing the same shit repeated over and over again. There were parts where the main character would experience something, and then on the literal next page she would repeat it all back to herself. It was a struggle not to just skip right to the end.
Then, in the last 20% or so, things picked up. It was almost as engaging as the first half, except that the voice had lost all of its charm and was merely becoming grating.

And then the ending happened. I don’t even know how to feel about this. I made a prediction somewhere near the beginning and I fully expected it to be how the plot would play out—the fairly obvious main villain would turn out to be a red herring and it would end in a predictable cliche fashion full of shades of grey and moral lessons. Instead, the ‘shades of grey’ prediction turned out to be the red herring, and the big bad guy was the obvious cardboard cutout evil villain the whole time, and by the way, he’s even more comically evil than you thought! I suppose that’s one way to write a twist.

But mostly, I’m confused about the ending. Spoiler time:
They murder the main villain (I suppose it’s technically homicide if they didn’t INTEND to do it but… they did set out to take him down and it just went extra sideways), destroy all the evidence and bury his body, then go to a block party where everyone is like “I wonder where he got to? Oh well”. There are no further repercussions and they sleep soundly because hey, that guy was bad, remember? He deserved it.
These protagonists are 10 year old girls. The ending had a lighthearted tone. I don’t even know. I’m all for a morally grey or even a morally reprehensible character/ending, but I feel like that wasn’t intentionally the aim here. It feels like a “yay we win!” sort of ending and it felt really out of place.

But I suppose it wasn’t entirely out of place, since Sally clearly has an abusive relationship with Troo. I found it kind of off-putting, to be honest, and if that was the intention then well done… but it doesn’t necessarily feel like that was the intention.  Compare with Cruddy, which I just finished reading (funny these two ended up back to back… must have grabbed them from the same genre bin or something).  In Cruddy everything is morally reprehensible and bleak and shitty (well, cruddy) and it’s really super obviously supposed to be that way so it makes sense and it makes a point.  In Good Graces, it’s just confusing.

The slog in the middle lost it two stars, and one more for the confusing message at the end. I don’t really know how to feel.

Cruddy

CruddyCruddy by Lynda Barry

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book is disgusting, disturbing, and fucked up… and I loved every minute of it. I had no idea what I was getting into when I picked it up. I read Lynda Barry’s illustrated syllabus and really liked it, so when I saw Cruddy I thought “Oh hey she writes books too?” Turns out she doesn’t write many books but what a book she wrote.

You often find a lot of authors are masters of one thing and then everything else is sort of propped up on that thing. Since she’s primarily a cartoonist, I thought maybe these books would be an experimental foray into something different, maybe a little threadbare or grasping. The imagery is incredible, and you might think “well yeah but she’s used to portraying things in a visual medium” but it wasn’t just that. I enjoyed every facet of her writing. Some of the word choices are things I would never think to make, but they were so effective. I was continually impressed by how vivid everything was. Vividly disturbing, with a whole extra layer of fucked up on top. It was really something to experience.

But it’s also bleak. Even though it has its share of black comedy, this is probably not a book to read if you’re feeling down. It’s a snapshot of a miserable world full of miserable people who are fucked up because of the shit they’ve gone through and they’re getting by as best they can because there’s really nothing more they can do—this is it. Addiction, alcohol abuse, drug abuse, child abuse… everything is laid out bare and unflinching in Cruddy, and the vivid descriptions bring it home in full colour.

I can’t give this book enough stars. It needs to be experienced.

About Time

My husband wanted to watch a Sci-Fi movie, so I went to all my usual recommendation places and stared at the usual list of movies we’ve already seen, interspersed with the occasional new arrival of an incredibly shitty looking movie with a rating of less than 2.  Of course there won’t be any (good) sci-fi movies that we haven’t already seen!  If there had been, we would have seen it in the theater.  But then, ranked pretty highly on the rating predictions (on TWO sites, no less.  TWO SEPARATE SITES thought I would like it), was “About Time”.

“I found a sci-fi movie we haven’t seen!” I called.
“Great, let’s watch it.”
“But you won’t like it!”
“…”
“Not only is it a rom-com, it’s a british rom-com!”
“I wanted a space movie.”
“You said sci-fi!  Look, it says sci-fi right there.  There’s time travel!”
“…….”

The premise of the movie is that a man discovers he has the ability to go back in time, and he uses it to try to make his life better.  The blurb says that he uses his time travel powers to make a girl love him, and it makes it sound like a comedy of errors where he fucks it up over and over again until he finally hits the right combination of actions to really hit it off romantically.  Which, to start with, is kind of creepy but it has some comedic potential, right??  In reality, that takes like 20 minutes and then the rest of the movie is about his relationship with his father.  So… that was kind of odd and unexpected, but at least it didn’t make the movie bad.

Lemme tell you.  Do not watch this movie if you have no tolerance for plot holes.  That’s sort of a standing rule with time travel movies, I suppose, but damn.  The very first thing his father says to him is “You can’t go forward in time, only back.”  So, not even five minutes later, he goes back in time, tries it out, and then immediately pops back to the moment he was at before.  Dude.  That is TOTALLY GOING FORWARD IN TIME.  You broke the rules ALREADY!  What they meant to say was that you can only travel to a moment you’ve already lived through, up to and including just a few moments ago, I guess.  But it still annoyed me >:(

The one that actually annoyed me, though, was when he tries to go back in time to stop a major event, only to discover that travelling past the birth of his child changes the exact sperm that was used to create the child, therefore changing his baby (unacceptable, after you’ve spent three years bonding with it already, I suppose).  This is the artificial limiter the movie uses to impose some sort of price on time travel.  If you have a baby, you can’t go back anymore because you’ll change it.  But, only that one sperm.  No butterfly effect on all the other shit going on, just the sperm is random.  So, horrified to learn that his child might not be the same child, he undoes what he did and sets everything back to normal.

Wait wait wait wait wait wait wait.  How did you set it back so that the exact sperm to make that exact child happened all over again?  God dammit, movie.  We’re not delving into parallel universes or some shit now, are we?  Don’t make me think about this shit >:(.  *shake fist*

I did actually enjoy the movie, but I feel like I was lied to by the description, which only actually described the exposition for the plot.  The movie didn’t really know what it was or where it was going until about halfway through, and it suffered a bit for it.  And then it lost a few points by going off the rails of preachiness at the end.  Yes, we get it, you don’t need time travel to have a wonderful life and you should enjoy every moment and blah de blah blah, let me go wipe all this sap off.  Like, it wasn’t sappy the whole way through, but it took a big huge cannonball dive into the tank at the end, jesus.

Apart from ALL of that bitching, though, it was pretty okay.  Maybe three stars, right smack in the middle of “okay”.  Which is less than both of those sites seemed to think I would like it.  Hopefully those sites have learned a little more about me, this day.

The Night Circus

The Night CircusThe Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It was almost good. I kept saying that the whole time I was reading it. “This is almost good.”

I was feeling in the mood for a good ‘curl up and read’ book, and I was about to start ovulating so I figured it would be a good time to tackle a romance (usually not my favourite), so I skimmed through various book club lists until I found The Night Circus. Ovulation is probably the only reason it got the third star.

The premise is that two magicians set up a challenge where they each enter a student and see who wins. The challenge is never fully explained, but it’s heavily hinted that they disagree about the best forms of training methods and seek to prove that their own methods are superior by producing the victorious pupil. But it’s also suggested that they’ve been doing these sorts of challenges for centuries and yet they still feel the need to keep digging up hapless children and abusing them into playing pieces for their satisfaction. They train their students and inform them that they will be challenging an opponent at some point in their life and ‘you’ll know it when you see it guys’ and that’s about it.

So at this point you might be thinking “Okay, so we’ll learn about the challenge along with the protagonists!” but yeah, you’d be wrong.

The venue for this duel is a circus. The girl, Celia, gets a job there as The Illusionist, performing magic passed off as clever tricks except it’s actual magic, of course. The boy, Marco, works from outside the circus, getting a position as the assistant to the owner of the circus. Marco works from outside the circus, Celia works from within. Each of them use their magical powers to create fantastical attractions, and eventually come to realize that this is the challenge. They must out-do their opponent and prove that they are the best.

I mean… I think so, anyway. It wasn’t really explained, and also it made no god damn sense. They spend the entire book creating fantastic things (which are all very interesting to read about) and then they wander around the circus and go “Ooh this is new! My opponent must have made this! How wonderful!” and then every so often they meet up and complement each other on their creations, or collaborate on something, and then occasionally have some forbidden sex.

And then every so often they press the back of their hand to their brow and lament “This challenge is such a strain I don’t know how much longer I can take it!” even though it makes NO sense to the reader why this should be a strain on them at all. It’s not even a challenge. They never challenge each other. They WORK TOGETHER on half of it and it’s constantly described how it’s such a pleasure to wander around through the circus attractions. If it’s supposed to be some sort of battle it certainly didn’t translate well into the text. The ‘scoring’ is never explained, to them or to the reader, and the purpose is never explained. Why would these two ancient magicians constantly play out ‘challenges’ where they enter two students who dally around with magic for decades (the challenges last ~40 years) where the only win condition is the death of your opponent? But they seem to rather enjoy collaborating together on things. It’s not like they’re chucking fireballs at each other, so there is no (reasonably explained) reason why they can’t just carry on forever until one of them dies of natural causes. Why is creating pretty circus attractions so stressful that one of them will eventually want to kill themselves?

Oh, right. Because it provides a tragic backdrop for a forbidden romance.

Plot qualms aside, I had some problems with the actual writing, too. The whole first half of the book felt… listless. I kept reading the descriptions of the circus and thinking “This is a really cool and wondrous location that is being described to me. So why is it so flat and boring?” It wasn’t until after the romance got rolling that the descriptions really started to pick up, and I really enjoyed the imaginative imagery after that, but the first half felt as limp as a warm lettuce leaf.

I had a similar issue with the characters. There are a lot of characters and they all feel flat and unremarkable, other than the main protagonists/antagonists. A lot of the punch in the plot lost its steam because I had some difficulty keeping the side characters straight. The protagonists aren’t necessarily all that remarkable either, if you want to be picky, but at least they have a bit of life to them.

I think a lot of the trouble is the choice to write it in present tense. Now, I’m biased because I hate present tense, but I’ve run across a couple books that used it well so I know it’s not impossible to impress me with it. This case is absolutely not a case where I think present tense is a good choice. If you think about it enough and really convince yourself, it kinda makes sense for this story. We have a circus that we’re clearly meant to be experiencing in the moment (there are several ‘second person’ scenes where the reader themselves are supposed to be investigating the circus. I hated all of them, by the way. Somehow they had the opposite effect of totally taking me out of the story… and they also tended to describe things that had already been described so it felt like a waste of time), and we have this supposedly deadly duel where we don’t know who will survive so present tense, in theory, should make that more exciting because it’s happening now. But the duel itself takes place over three decades and there’s not a single solitary direct attack in the whole thing. Also the setting is over a century ago so by default we know it happened in the past, even though the intent is probably to take us back there. But then the timeline jumps around! It just doesn’t work and it makes the whole narrative awkward and flat. If it hadn’t been written in present tense I feel like it would flow better, the characters would be more memorable, and the reveals would pack more punch.

Then we have the romance. The romance was okay. I deliberately read it while ovulating, and I definitely enjoyed some of the sequences, but by the end it was too sappy even for my ovaries. Once again: it just didn’t make enough sense. They’re bound together, so there’s some leeway there—they’re probably going to be drawn to each other in a special way, and we can forgive the explosions of magic every time their skin touches. It’s magic, after all. The problem is he is very clearly in love with her at first sight but she doesn’t even know who he is for half the book, and then doesn’t fall in love with him until a little ways after that. When she does it feels like it comes out of nowhere. And then, even after they get things rolling, he’s got a girl on the side that he keeps around for years? /facepalm. But, naturally, by the end they’re both falling over each other to sacrifice themselves for the greater good. “I’m gonna kill myself to save you!” “No I’m gonna kill myself to save you!” even though it makes no god damn sense that either of them have to die at all.

But the ending wrapped everything up in a fairly satisfying little bow, even if it dragged on a bit too much. Three stars.

Apparently the movie rights have been purchased already. I can’t decide if it will be good or not. It has the potential to be good, but odds are it will not be good. The imagery is just crying out to be brought to life on a screen but it will be difficult to do it justice, and they’ll Hollywood the shit out of the romance and make it unbearable. I’d probably still watch it but only on Netflix.

View all my reviews

Late Nights on Air

Late Nights on AirLate Nights on Air by Elizabeth Hay

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I greatly disliked this book at first, but it ended strong enough that I tacked an extra star onto it, almost out of pity. I ENJOYED reading it (mostly), but it annoyed me enough that it really should only have 3 stars. But then a sentence would float past and I would think “That was a really good sentence. I enjoyed that.” and then I would lament not having it on my kindle to highlight in order to go back and look at those sentences again later. There were enough of those moments that I do not regret offering the 4th star.

This book was far too in love with its setting. I’ve been to Yellowknife and hiked around a bit in the summer, so I enjoyed reading the descriptions, but I’ve always had this stubborn notion that books should have a setting and a plot, and it kept letting me down on the second part.

There was no plot for the first half of the book. It was all setting. Setting that characters talked to each other in, but each of the characters had the exact same voice (the voice of the author, I imagine), and I had to keep checking the names in the sentences to figure out who was saying what. The characters have backstories that are all painstakingly laid out for you in the first 100 pages of the novel in an awful display of telling instead of showing, but their personalities fail to come through until the very end. I could tell them apart by name, but they did not convey any of their personality through dialogue. I hated every single one of them except Gwen for a full 2/3s of the novel, and never really did warm up to anyone else by the end.

I did not care for the writing at all for most of the book. It was fragmented and rambling, constantly bringing up little threads of plot that abruptly end or just get dropped into nothing. I was continually annoyed by flowery descriptive moments where the writing dropped into an almost pretentious tone. I’ve never been a big poetry fan, and a lot of the descriptive passages twigged the same dislike in me that poetry does. And then the incredibly annoying habit of ending a section with something like “They didn’t know it yet, but this would be important later.” Stop telling me things. ESPECIALLY stop telling me things you haven’t even gotten around to writing yet. SHOW me things.

But then there were the good moments. A turn of phrase that strikes you as particularly beautiful or apt, or a character moment that makes you nod. The characters, for all their flat dialogue, were REAL. I loved that they all had flaws and behaved realistically. Some of the interactions were things I could really identify with, such as when Gwen is flabbergasted at being accused of being too proud or arrogant about her skills, when (to her own perception) she was barely stumbling along and hanging in there. It’s so true.

But at its heart, the book feels like a sappy romance, because that’s all there is for plot. This character is in love with that character but shouldn’t be. That character is in love with this character but doesn’t know it yet (but hey at least they will in the future! Look the author says so right here at the end of this paragraph.) Those characters are in love but it was never meant to be. Or was it? That’s really the entire plot. I was intrigued by the jacket cover description of a trek through the barrens, but it takes you 200 pages to even start talking about that trek, and then it’s over long before the book ends. I feel like the jacket should be sued for false advertising, but to be fair, what else would you advertise as a plot?

The barrens trek was by far my favourite part of the book because the characters finally had a purpose and a goal beyond just interacting with each other, and suddenly all the descriptions and character interactions held so much more meaning. That’s when the extra star got tacked on. If only the first 2/3rds of the book had been edited down a bit to have more direction, I might have enjoyed it that much more.

Dark Souls I and II

We spent probably close to 200 hours obsessively playing the first two Dark Souls games this month, and now I feel like I should tell you about it.  Normally I try not to bother writing about mainstream games (unless there’s something to bitch about), but I misunderstood the Dark Souls games and now I feel like I should try to ensure no one else makes the same mistakes.

I bought Dark Souls I a looooong time ago, when it first came out on Steam.  I spent a fair amount of time fighting what I called ‘the first boss’, which was getting GFWL to fucking work.  Once I got past that ‘boss’, I spent a fair amount of time on ‘the second boss’, which was getting the actual game to work by installing player made patches to fix all the bits and pieces that the people who ported the game over from console didn’t bother to do.  (The second ‘boss’ was much easier than the first ‘boss’.  Fuck GFWL.)  Then I ultimately died to ‘the third boss’, which was getting the controls to work.  There were TOO MANY BUTTONS and I kept swapping shit when I didn’t need to and jumping backward when I didn’t want to and… it was hard :(.  I was so exhausted from fighting the first and second ‘bosses’ that I didn’t get very far with the third ‘boss’, and I didn’t get very far into the game before wandering off.

My second attempt at Dark Souls went much better.  I made it all the way to the actual second boss of the game and spent some time dicking around trying to farm up souls and get some items before trying to actually fight it.  Which is about when GFWL took a big steaming shit and the game stopped working entirely.  Frustrated, I uninstalled the game and put it in a Steam category labelled “Broken because of GFWL >:(“.  It remained there for years.

Then they talked about GFWL shutting down and removing it from games that were fucked by it and my ears perked up.  And then they decided not to do that and I sighed dramatically and closed the “Broken because of GFWL >:(” category again (which was starting to collect more and more titles…).

Then I discovered that they had FINALLY.  FINALLY. actually properly removed GFWL from the game and I reinstalled it.  My husband reinstalled it at the same time (he had gotten much further than I did, but didn’t actually finish it).  THIS time the game worked beautifully, all the online integration was smooth, I still had to install the fan patches to make the graphics pretty but that was all smooth sailing as well, and because I didn’t waste 20 hours getting the fucking thing working, I was able to finally commit the controls to muscle memory.

And then we binged.  We binged so much that my forearms got sore from holding my shield block button.  And then the Christmas sale happened and we bought Dark Souls II, which my husband had actually already bought, but now it had the Scholar of the First Sin version which was all updated and shit so he upgraded to that too.  We completed Dark Souls and jumped straight into Dark Souls II.  And we binged.  Like seriously, my wrists are probably fucked from holding this controller, now.  But we “finished” the game, in that we completed the main story but there’s probably another 30 hours of DLC for us to go through still.  We are now very much looking forward to Dark Souls III, and we’re super pissed that Bloodborne is not coming to PC.  We cannot co-op when it’s on a console (unless we buy two PS4’s, I guess, buuuuuuut…), and the co-op together is what launched the games from “really good” to “fucking amazing”, so there’s not even any real point for us to buy it.  Shitty.

We had a really good combo going, for both games.  I went super-knight, with high melee and armor, and my husband went super-caster.  I was all “fuck magic” (mostly because I didn’t want to have to swap another button around…) and he was all casty explody.  So we’d team up for bosses, I’d piss them off, and he’d blow them up.  It was very effective.  On bosses that were difficult to melee, I’d just dodge the entire fight and try to keep it distracted away from him.  On bosses that were resistant to magic, I’d beat the shit out of them while he mostly tried to stay alive.  Good times.  Without the co-op I’m not sure how far I would have made it into the game.  The boss fights were challenging, but knowing you could team up and make it easier made even a hopeless fight seem worth tackling.  We only really stalled out on a couple of the bosses, and mostly optional ones that we tackled before we were really ready (we abandoned one of the DLC bosses in Scholar, which we DEFINITELY were not ready for.  But at least now that we’re at the end of the game we can just port straight to it and give it another whirl).

Dark Souls has a reputation of being incredibly difficult and frustrating, and I think it’s been misconstrued.  It’s challenging for sure, and the co-op helped a lot with that, but I was MUCH more frustrated with Diablo 3 than I was with Dark Souls at any point.  In Diablo 3 I was continually getting fucked by randomness that I had absolutely no control over (wrong kind of rift that you have no chance of winning?  Welp lose that keystone I guess).  Nothing felt random in Dark Souls, and I was far less frustrated as a result.  I died a lot, but I could always see exactly why, and learn from it, and then come back and try again.  It was kind of interesting because I am far more patient than my husband, so I was willing to creep forward and scout, and wait out the enemies to attack them, and I ended up doing far better in combat than he did.  But he was far better at memorizing the layouts of the levels, so I’d focus on the monsters and traps and whatnot I was dealing with and then get turned around and be annoyed because I couldn’t figure out where to go next, and he’d zip through the level and forget that there’s a monster around that cor—oops you died.  In some of the particularly terrible twisty layouts (Sen’s fortress, or Blighttown with the god awful toxic shit) we’d just co-op to make the exploration smoother.  I’d deal with the monsters and he’d guide me through the place so I didn’t get lost.

At first it seems super punishing because you lose all your collected souls (which are used as experience and currency) when you die, but you only lose them if you cannot collect them again.  In reality, you really only truly lost the souls if you were reckless.  I found it very easy to position myself so that if something went wrong, retrieval would be easy.  And often I didn’t even care.  You quickly progress to a point where the majority of your souls will come from boss fights and victories, and any you manage to preserve on the route there are just a bonus.  My husband referred to it as “exploration mode” and “farming mode”.  When you first bust into a new area and you have no bonfires lit, you’re in exploration mode and don’t even bother worrying about the soul counter.  Once you have them all lit, you can clear it out a few times and build some levels if you want.

One of the things I was really hesitant about when I started the game was the PvP aspect.  Other players can invade you and kill you.  But they can only do that if you are human.  The only time this was an issue was in a certain area we were trying to co-op in (you must be human to summon your buddy, which leaves you open to attack).  Also, it’s not even such a big deal if you die in pvp.  You don’t lose anything except a few minutes of time to run back to retrieve your corpse, and once they hit you once you’re no longer human, so you can’t be hit repeatedly.  Unless you’re trying to summon your friend in a high pvp area… then it’s pretty irritating.

The summoning your friend aspect could really have been smoothed out, though.  We had a LOT of issues with it in Dark Souls I.  We’d sometimes have to reboot the game a few times to try to end up in the same invisible ‘lobby’ to be able to see each other’s summon signs, and sometimes it was frustrating to get it working at all (ok I was wrong, Dark Souls did frustrate me quite a bit… but it wasn’t the god damn gameplay that did it :P).  Also, once you kill a boss, you cannot summon each other anymore, which meant we screwed ourselves out of co-op on a couple of exploration areas by doing things out of order, which sucked.  I really wish they had made it smoother and let you summon your friends preferentially, especially now that it’s integrated into Steam.

Dark Souls II DID improve the summoning aspect.  I was worried at first because they tightened the summoning restrictions.  In the first game you must be within a certain percentage of each other level-wise (usually ~15 levels worth).  In the second, you must be within 10 levels and a certain ‘soul memory’, AND they added restrictions for how long another player can be in your game, solidifying the “I’m just here to help with the boss” aspect and making it less of a co-op exploration experience (although you can now summon each other at any time, even if the boss is dead… so they both tightened and loosened that restriction).  But then they added a nifty little ring that lets you choose a god, and then you can summon anyone nearby who has chosen that god regardless of requirements (and also prevent people who have not chosen them from picking you up randomly, which was far more of an issue in II than it was in I, due to much higher player counts I suppose).  The ring made coordination MUCH easier, and the lobby problem seemed to be resolved in II as well.  The only issue we ever had summoning each other in II was the day the servers crapped out, which we finally figured out when we realized we weren’t seeing messages anymore either.  It could still be done a lot nicer, but at least they made it less horrible to summon each other.

The other thing I really disliked when I first went into II was that it seemed to punish you for dying.  This is DARK SOULS dammit.  Why the fuck would you punish the player for DYING??  In II, when you die you lose a % of your health pool permanently, and on top of that, the monsters can be permanently killed.  In the first game you always had the option of just going back and farming an area to regain the souls you lost.  In II, you could kill monsters, take their souls, and then die and lose them with no way to get those souls back.  They would leave your game forever if you failed to retrieve them.  This was stressful to me.

BUT.  As before, it ended up being not nearly as bad as I imagined.  Just like in the first game, the majority of your souls come from bosses, not farming.  Being able to perma-clear an area actually ended up being a really NICE feature because you could spend 10 minutes clearing out that annoying asshole monster that fucks you every time, and then never have to deal with it again for the rest of your playthrough, which could be a strategy for clearing out a tough combo in an area.  And the health thing was a non-issue, because we were playing co-op.  Going human or helping another player restores your health pool completely.  It was less of a punishment for dying, and more of an encouragement to step out of a solo game and help other players.  Even if you hate playing with others, the humanity restoring items were everywhere, and you can burn them to prevent people from invading you if you were super worried about that.

The Dark Souls games are unique, which is a difficult thing to claim nowadays.  There have been a few attempts at copying it (all of which my husband has jumped upon, and then quickly abandoned), but they utterly fail at capturing the magic.  Also the games are GORGEOUS.  Even in the first game which has kind of shoddy graphics, there are plenty of places you just look around and go “Wow.”  The second is even better.  And what I’ve seen of Bloodborne is incredible (too bad I can’t play it >:(.  Fuckers.)  They really accomplish something with their graphics and I am impressed.

Very excited to require wrist surgery once Dark Souls III comes out.

Xenoblade Chronicles X (First Impressions)

It seems a little silly to say “First Impressions” when I’m 50 hours and 10 chapters in, but this is Xenoblade so all my work thus far means I am finally allowed to start the story.

You may remember, or you may bother to scroll back far enough through my blog entries to notice, that I really really really fucking loved Xenoblade for the Wii.  One of my top games of all time, primarily because the story blew my mind.  I loved the characters, I loved the world, and the gameplay was merely okay but it was still cool.  The ending.  So good.  So naturally Xenoblade Chronicles X was a day 1 purchase.  I bought a Wii U almost solely for this game (also Mario but that’s a given).

Xenoblade X is… disappointing so far.  It’s still got a lot of potential and I’m eager to actually get this story rolling because they have me intrigued, but god damn can we get on with this already?  I’ve been playing for 50 hours and I’ve only really advanced the story once.  The rest has been what is essentially a tutorial.  That said, there are SO MANY FUCKING MECHANICS in this game that you NEED 50 hours of tutorial to get acquainted with all of them.  Is that a good thing?  … depends.  If you’re super into customization and tinkering with optimizations then you’ll like the systems at play here.  My husband finally gave in and abandoned Fallout 4 to start playing after watching me upgrading a million billion different things to optimize my team.  He loves that sort of shit.  If you’re just in it for the story, then I hope you’re patient.  I’m patient but this is really starting to test my limits.

The game feels like it is trying VERY VERY HARD to be a single player MMO.  If you enjoy MMO style gameplay and exploration, that might even be a good thing, but if you don’t enjoy MMO style dragging out of story and objectives… weelllll…

It’s even got online components.  Sort of.  You join a division and then certain tasks contribute toward your division getting points, and then everyone in that division gets goodies.  Not exciting goodies, but goodies.  And you feel kind of like you’re part of something, I guess.  You can also hire other player’s characters to join your party and come help you with stuff, and next time they log in they’ll have goodies waiting for them from that, too.  There’s also chat and achievement announcements and stuff but the very instant it popped up on my screen I fled to the settings panel and shut all of that shit down because fuck that.  Who the hell thought that was a good idea.

The problem is, almost nothing happens for 50 hours.  The game starts, the story is literally nothing but “Earth was destroyed and we’re on Mira now.  Go learn about Mira.”  You run around and explore shit (and the world is FANTASTIC to explore, with big epic creatures wandering around and cool formations and stuff), you learn about the factions within what remains of humanity, you find some cool stuff on the planet… annnnd nothing really groundbreaking happens. There’s a little blip of coolness in Chapter 5 that ups the ante a bit, but you need to get to Chapter 8 before shit starts happening, which is somewhere around 30 hours in.  I burned myself out on side quests in the first Xenoblade so in this one I skipped them all and rushed to unlock the story quests, wanting to dig into the story before I exhausted myself this time.  Turns out if you’re not level ~35 by Chapter 9 you get your ass handed to you repeatedly for an hour before you go hire a max level player to clear it for you (*ahem*.  Not that I speak from experience or anything.)  Now I’m kind of stuck.  I’ve almost unlocked the next chapter, but… maybe I should level a bit more first?  But… ugh.

See, the problem is, and this is fucking stupid: Once you take an affinity or story mission, you cannot take another one.  You’re stuck on that quest until it’s done.  And you cannot drop it.  I learned this the hard way early on when I took an affinity mission that led to a continent I had not explored yet (and therefore did not have a travel point to).  At a certain point in the game you get flying which would make travel there simple, but I was pretty far from that, so I looked up how to get there the old fashioned way.  Turned out the answer was to spend 40 minutes swimming across the ocean, and then run past a whole bunch of level 50 monsters until I got to my level 20 quest zone.  It was pretty awful.  But hey at least the game has auto-run?  :/

There are many questionable design decisions like that in this game.  Things that unlock before you’re ready for them are somewhat forgivable, but locking you into them is kind of shitty.  Even more shitty is the lack of options for sound and music volume.  If you read any review on the internet they’ll have mentioned this already, but, the music volume is really loud, and the music often contains spoken lyrics that are sung at the same volume as the characters who are speaking in a cutscene.  Fuck off.  NO music volume slider?  Really?  And then some of the music tracks are simply unbearable.  I will tolerate pretty much every kind of music except rap, and there are (at least) two rap-like tracks in the game.  One is the track that plays the entire time you’re in the main city which is a significant chunk of the game.  The other is the ground-combat track.  Which is a significant chunk of the game.  And they wouldn’t even be bad tracks if it weren’t for the inclusion of lyrics for god knows what reason.  WHY would you include lyrics.  You can listen to instrumental music for hours on end and barely notice anything but atmosphere, but if I hear that fucker singing “ON A WHOOOOLLE DIF-RENT PLAN-ET” during combat one more fucking time… at least the city track is just an irritating series of grunts and moans that you can largely ignore, even though you may be doing it with your face in your palm.  “YEAH YEAH.  HONH HONH.” I’ve turned the volume on my TV down to almost nothing, which really sucks because the REST of the music is absolutely phenomenal.  Although, there is also a different track when your Skell takes flight, which overrides whatever music is playing in your current zone (so needless to say, once I unlocked flying I started flying everywhere in town – but I probably would have done that anyway because flying), BUT, when you land on the ground it goes back to the zone track.  So if you do a lot of hopping around it’s actually really fucking annoying.

In summary: the sound designers for Monolith need to be fired for their monumentally bad decision making.

But ALSO.  I HATE the party management in this game.  HATE it.  You can have 4 peoples in your party at a time.  Certain quests require you to have certain people with you.  Certain quests require certain people to be with you and like you.  You can boot people out of your party at any time, that’s not an issue.  The issue is getting the fuckers back into your party.  As soon as they leave your party they fuck off to their preferred locations in town and you can go there to ask them to join you again.  The little tablet screen gives you a checkmark to let you know where they hang out, BUT there are plenty of other things putting checkmarks around which mean you have to click on the checks to see which are for characters.  AND, completing segments in town can trump the checkmarks and you’ll no longer know which symbols hide character locations.  AND.  Even when you can see the checkmark, the character location changes based on time of day.  AND if you’ve unlocked certain events, they’ll fuck off to somewhere new and wait for you there.  Will you know that until you hunt around for them and waste 15 minutes of your life?  Probably not.  I know it’s great to have characters out there using the world and things changing based on time of day is cool and MY IMMERSION and whatnot, but would it really be so awful to give me a selection screen to add them back in from wherever the fuck I want?  Make it from the barracks console only or something, I don’t care.  Or at least a menu where you’re like “I want this person” and it goes “Okay, they are currently located at…”  This system is irritating as fuck and it makes me skip affinity quests that require me to shuffle my party.  That is not good design.

And speaking of the party system… I have almost no justification to even use the rest of the characters so far because they are all gigantic assholes who have invited themselves to my party without my permission – in fact sometimes expressly against my wishes as laid out by my dialogue choices.  FYI dialogue writers: Illusion of choice in dialogue only really works if it’s ACTUALLY an illusion, and not a thin smokescreen.  Now, the thing I loved about the original Xenoblade was the character development, so I know these characters will all have deep and interesting backstories and they’re all being set up as superficial assholes to make those discoveries even more rewarding… BUT… you’re laying it on too thick, guys.  Seriously.  If one more fuckface walks up to me and is all “hey you, you seem like a pushover and I agreed to do this thing but I don’t wanna do it because I’m a dickhead so now you’re going to do it for me” and then I respond with “no, fuck you” (or the closest Nintendo equivalent which is not nearly as satisfying) and then they go “ha ha you’re funny let’s go get my shit” and then I just get the quest with no further complaint… fuck off.  Or worse, the character who literally betrays you as an introduction and then *bing* they’re in your party whether you like it or not.  What the fuck.  At least have a little more of a transition there…

But secretly I am worried that the characters will not actually have deep and interesting backstories at all.  Because the writing in this game does not seem very solid at all so far, and I am not nearly as confident as I was in the writing of the first game.  Very worrisome.

But anyway, I’ve bitched enough.  How about GOOD design!  I really love how the Wii tablet is used for the game.  The touchscreen on it isn’t quite sensitive enough, but it gets the job done and in a cool way.  Bonus marks for being able to play the game like a handheld if someone steals your TV away from you (but that’s just a cool Wii U feature in general).

I already mentioned I LOVE the world.  The creatures wandering around are epic and it’s great to explore.  I like that the monsters aren’t sequestered in handy level-appropriate chunks and you can wander through a kaleidoscope of creatures and difficulties to get where you’re going. It would be less cool if A) you couldn’t port anywhere you’ve been instantly and B) getting randomly stomped by a level 90 actually had any consequences, but since you can and it doesn’t, the world is awesome.

I also actually like the combat this time around.  In the first game the textures were muddy and strategy was difficult because you couldn’t really tell what’s going on.  In this one it’s much easier to see what’s going on (with the exception of the camera being ass.  The camera is slow and floaty and made of ass.  But I said I would stop bitching…), AND they added the incredibly handy feature of a little readout telling you where you actually are located around the creature.  So when you’re trying to get off a side or back combo, you don’t have to look at the alien blob on your screen and go “is THAT its back?  No wait this looks like a tail so… no, maybe not…”.  It’s so simple it really makes you wonder why the fuck the original didn’t have one.  Also combat combos are really interesting with a ton of variety, not just with your character but with everyone else.  The combos are complex, but not difficult to understand, so it’s not hard to set everyone up with complementary skills and make sure you focus on the right sorts of power-ups.  At least… so far.

I’m really hanging in there because it feels like the story is about to take off soon, but… it’s getting to be a bit of a slog.  And even worse, I know I’m only half-way to the level cap.  So there might be some exp grinding in my future before I can even tackle the story quests.  I dislike that… but I’m trusting it will be worth it.  I also like that it doesn’t hand-hold, even though it makes things seem super obtuse.  It may have 30 hours of tutorial, but at least you need them.  It also kinda has that “old school EQ” charm of “This took a lot of effort therefore it was worth my time to do it”.  Effort Justification, bitches.  Please stop designing gameplay around Psychology biases :(

Wild Tales

I picked “Wild Tales” out of the Netflix lineup mostly at random, by virtue of being the first thing to scroll past that didn’t look awful.  Predicted 5 stars (not that the Netflix rating prediction system ever seems to have any correlation with reality), Oscar nomination, tales of revenge… sounds pretty good!

Now that I’ve watched it I am reading some internet reviews of it and wondering what I missed.  It was certainly entertaining, but I feel like if that was getting award nominations the competition must have been pretty slim.  I ended up awarding it 3 Netflix stars but the heaps of praise it’s getting are leaving me head-scratching.  Maybe it’s an ‘art’ thing.  I’m terrible at ‘art’.

The movie is a foreign anthology of short stories, each revealing a story of revenge.  It’s labelled a dark comedy, and most reviews seem to label it with words like ‘hilarious’ and ‘uproarious’.  I chuckled a few times, but, uh… ‘uproarious’ seems like a bit of hyperbole.  There were some funnier ones for sure, but there were also several stories that, in my opinion, didn’t even really attempt to be funny.

In fact, I wasn’t really sure what the aim was with most of them… which was sort of the problem.  They were each interesting, and they entertained well enough, but when they got to the end it was more like “Oh.  Is that it?” There were no twists (well, the first one was a little clever I guess, though it pops that early) and most of the time you figured out what was going on twenty seconds into the skit and then it would play out predictably.  Like, not even in a “I bet this is the twist” sort of way – there were no twists.  It was like “This guy here is going to get revenge” and then he does.  The end.  I was entertained and also bewildered at the same time.

The “Is that it” problem was compounded by the lack of transitions between stories.  There isn’t even a really noticeably longer pause between the end of one story and the beginning of the next, it’s just like “REVENGE annnnnd who is this guy now?  Oh ohhh new story.  Got it.”  It’s a good thing the description specifically mentions that it’s multiple tales, or you might be very confused.  A little black screen with a title indicating a new story would be nice.

I’m going to attempt a spoiler free overview of the six stories (titles taken from IMDB):
1) “Pasternak”: Great way to open things, setting you up with expectations for the rest of the movie, which are ultimately not fulfilled.
2) “The Rats”: I’m so confused.  When I said the transitions are rough this is a really good example.  I feel like someone badly edited the ending and forgot to include a few closure scenes somewhere…
3) “The Strongest”: Finally something that lives up to the black comedy label!  I chuckled several times during this sequence, although I wasn’t precisely sure who to root for because jesus christ you’re both assholes, and stupid ones to boot.  It all works in the end, though!
4) “Little Bomb”: So incredibly predictable but somewhat satisfying nonetheless.  Kind of an odd message to send to society, though…
5) “The Proposal”: By this point I was just about ready for the movie to end.  I didn’t get much out of this story, I’m afraid.  And then it was another “Is it over?” victim and it left the story feeling flat and lifeless.  There was only like 5 seconds of revenge in this, punctuated by 15 minutes of whining.
6) “Until Death Do Us Part”: The movie ended on a strong note at least, with more black comedy (if anything even remotely resembles “uproarious” it’s probably this one, but it’s still extreme hyperbole), but damn.  wtf.

 

Harbinger Down

Harbinger Down appeared on Netflix and twigged something in my memory.  ‘Wasn’t I really looking forward to that for some reason?’ I thought to myself, and spent a few minutes googling it while the opening screens played through.  I had definitely clicked on the IMDB link at some point in the past!

It took a bit of hunting but I finally discovered that I had been interested in it because it promised full practical effects – a throwback to the horror/suspense movies of our childhood.  One of the very first lines says something like “In the style of classics like Alien and The Thing…” and my husband said “I was just going to say it really has an Alien vibe so far.  Those are both very good movies.  I’m looking forward to this.”

If you grew up watching 80’s suspense/horror movies with 80’s special effects, you might even be tempted to say that the writing isn’t as important as the visuals.  I mean, all those movies have the same damn plot anyway, right?  As long as it looks cool, who cares!  Well, Harbinger Down is here to show you that you are wrong.  It turns out the writing is, in fact, pretty important.  Because hoo boy does this movie have some bad writing.  I mean, it does hit a lot of the same ol’ tropes you’d expect to see, but it also does some about-faces in its plot that make no god damn sense whatsoever, which just reveal how threadbare the writing actually is.  They slapped together the template and filled it with special effects and didn’t put much more thought into it.  “Oh no there are explosives on the ship!  We need to save the ship!  Whew thank goodness we saved it; now we can get down to the business of properly destroying this ship…”  /facepalm.  And the ending… sigh.

Though I will say the steps leading up to biological contamination at least made more sense than the whole “Hey let’s just turn off this sterile forcefield and expose this alien head to our air supply just for shits and giggles!” plot point in Prometheus.

The effects were great though.  It really felt like an Aliens era movie, and that’s something you just don’t feel that much nowadays.  I’m not a big fan of the heavy handed leaning on CGI nowadays, although I’m not sure that 100% practical is the best way to go either.  I feel like CGI enhanced practical effects lead to the best results, but you just have to appreciate the awesomeness of a well executed practical effect and I hope movies like this keep the art alive.

October 31st Movie Reviews

I didn’t want to say ‘Halloween movies’ since none of them were even remotely halloween themed aside from being some sort of attempt at scary, but it’s a halloween tradition here to plunk on the couch and watch ‘scary’ movies after dark, and we made it through three of them last night.  Here’s the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Last Shift
Rookie cop spends the night alone at an old police station guarding some evidence that still needs to be transported to the new one.

See, the description for this movie was all “She meets the KING OF HELL” and I was like “this is going to be a laugh riot of a movie”, but it ended up being the best one we watched.  It does absolutely nothing new or unique; it’s all standard haunted house tricks.  The protagonist is so god damn stupid that you spend the entire movie yelling at her not to do things (but, y’know, horror movie.)  But the movie itself sets up a good amount of tension and uses sound and visuals well to set the tone.  The King Of Hell thing is not nearly as cheesy as the stupid description might have you believe.

We Are Still Here
An older couple lose their college-age son to a car accident and buy a new house to start a new life as they pick up the pieces.  Once they move in, they start to suspect the ghost of their son is still with them.

Not bad but it suffered a bit because it came after watching the much better first movie, so it paled in comparison.  Another pretty standard haunted house story, but with a few twists to keep it interesting.  I found it a little confusing though, too.  The ghosts really needed to make up their god damn mind about who’s side they were on.

Storage 24
A plane crash nearby traps several people inside a storage facility, and soon they discover the plane was carrying some deadly alien cargo that is now stalking them.

Okay, THIS is the movie I wanted to write bitch about because I spent the whole movie sending snarky texts to my friend, and it’s absolutely not because we watched some better movies first.  Needed MUCH LESS relationship drama and MUCH MORE aliens eating people.  Could you possibly write less sympathetic protagonists?  I was rooting for the alien really early on and it just kept disappointing me.

Here’s an ending spoiler, which you can avoid if you care (you shouldn’t care.  Don’t watch this movie.):
The whiniest fucker takes on a Gary-Stu style survival skills and ends up escaping the alien on, like, three different occasions for no god damn acceptable reason (camera cut!  Oh no he must be dead boo hoo ooohhhh look he lived how could this be!  Fuck off) and then slays the alien with his bare hands and escapes with all of the females.

At this point I sent a message to my friend saying “This movie will get two stars instead of one if the alien resurrects and pops out and kills them all right fucking now and that’s how the movie ends.”  Instead of that, though, he makes some flippant remarks to show how cool he is, and then they pan out to show alien ships landing all around the city.  Which is ALMOST, but not quite, what I asked for.  Okay sure the aliens are probably going to kill everyone but you didn’t show one blowing up this whiny fucker as it buzzed past, so now we can only assume he will run out there and melee all of them to death like the whiny badass he obviously is.  *BZZZT* you fail, collect 0 stars.

So, to summarize:
Last Shift was great and I recommend it, even if the protagonist is as smart as a bag of bricks.
We Are Still Here was passable and worth a look.
Storage 24 is a horror movie for an entirely different reason and thank god Netflix subscriptions essentially mean I watched it for ‘free’.  Bitching about it was highly entertaining, at least!

SOMA

Amnesia: The Dark Descent is my favourite game that I am too scared to play, so I was pretty excited when I discovered they were releasing SOMA, a similar style of game in a more sci-fi horror setting.  And it released just in time for us to be in a Halloween sort of mood, too!

The majority of the game takes place on a deep sea research station where you stumble from station to station trying to piece together what’s gone wrong and where everyone went.  It has a very Doom 3 sort of feel, actually, except you have no weapons to protect you.  In typical Amnesia fashion, the game has absolutely no combat, and you have to rely on careful movement to avoid notice, and occasionally running for your god damn life when you don’t.

Sadly it does not include hidey holes like the Amnesia cupboards, which were some of my favourite mechanics.  Sitting in a dark cupboard listening to footsteps and groaning outside and sllloooooowwwllllly opening the door to peek through a crack to see if it was safe yet was one of the things that really made Amnesia stand out, to me.  SOMA feels less interactive in that way.  Instead of being able to choose how fast or slow you want to open a door, most things are binary.  It makes sense since most of them are powered so it’s like connect power, open door, *whoosh* as opposed to turn handle, pull/push door in direction, but I feel like that was a loss.  A lot of the tension I gained from Amnesia (the brief amount I actually played it for myself as opposed to watching someone else, anyway) was from moments like peeking, or from dashing to a door in a panic and flailing away at it before realizing I had to pull it instead of push it and oh god I just wasted 5 seconds and it’s coming for meeee nooooooo pull pull open faster god damn you door nooooooo!  And not because of a struggle with controls, either. It just felt like I was fumbling with opening a real actual door because I was too panicked to think straight.

We chose to play SOMA (I say “we” but I suppose for the sake of accuracy I should say: I forced my husband to play SOMA because I was too chicken to do it myself…) on the big screen in the front room, for ease of spectatorship (and also fancier sound system), so he chose to use a controller from the couch.  I was pretty distracted the whole time by just how annoying the controller was to use, and I wasn’t even the one using it!  Every time he tried to interact with things I was thinking “This would be so much easier with a mouse”.  One of the most tense moments we experienced was entirely because the controller fucked us over.  We were repairing an elevator which was a fiddly bit of business, requiring you to put a piece here and then flip a bunch of switches in order, then close the button and activate it.  We figured out the sequence, but as he was putting the pieces together he was discovered by a monster.  The next few seconds consisted of us yelling things like “THAT ONE GOES THERE! FLIP THAT! QUICK CLOSE IT!” and then the elevator opened and he scurried in, only to discover he now had to push ANOTHER button to tell it where he would like to go.  He wrestled with the controller, with the damnable cursor drifting too high to click on it, now too low, and oops too high again, all while I’m yelling “CLICK IT CLICK IT CLICK IT!!!” and him yelling “AAAAAAAH AAAAAAAAAAHH!!!” each time the cursor drifted, and just as he got the cursor into the middle and clicked, the monster charged and we died and had to start the sequence all over again.  Had he been using a mouse we probably would have survived.  Moral of the story: controllers kill.

The game takes about 10 hours to play and has a lot of really good moments.  Some of the levels were really well designed, I thought. And some were… less well designed.  A lot of them are twisty and confusing, which is good if you’re thinking about it in a ‘oh no I am trapped in this horrible place’ sort of way, but it’s kinda bad when it causes you to lose momentum because it results in you wandering back and forth after you missed your turn and you’re not entirely sure where you need to go next.  But they absolutely nailed the atmosphere of most of the areas, particularly the underwater storm.  I just had an overwhelming sense of “oh fuck” the whole time we walked through that.  Atmosphere and dread is what these guys are good at, after all.

What they are maybe not so good at is story.  I enjoyed the story in SOMA, but I felt a few parts of it dropped the ball.  The protagonist comes across as pretty whiny, and there were a few philosophical discussions where I felt like the writers were imposing a viewpoint on the player that perhaps might not be true for everyone.  It still serves its purpose, though, and gives you some interesting things to think about whether you agree with the protagonist or not.  The game also serves up a number of choices along the way that do a good job of making you reconsider your actions.  The choices aren’t hardcoded into the story – in fact you may get tripped up by videogame logic at first and not realize they are optional actions.  Even though the choices ultimately mean nothing for the overall story arc of the game, I felt like they did a really good job of presenting them, making you think about them, and not beating you over the head with their presence.  Bravo on that one.

So in conclusion, SOMA is pretty good and you should buy it.  It’s a great atmospheric experience that sometimes also makes you think about yourself.  And who doesn’t love a game where you heal yourself by sticking your fist into an alien butthole?

Terminator Genisys

Dr. Who is Skynet!  It all makes sense now.

When I first saw the previews for Terminator Genisys, I didn’t know what to think.  Another fucking Hollywood remake of a classic favourite because they’re out of ideas, great.  And Arnold will be in it despite being a thousand years old now, great, that will make sense.  And Emilia Clarke is going to try to step into Linda Hamilton’s shoes.  And it’s named Genisys what the fuck.  It’s not happening guys, what the hell are you thinking.

Then we watched it.  You know what?  It was really good.  A few minutes into it my husband said “Isn’t this just the first movie??” and I said “Yes, it’s a remake” and he said “That’s stupid.”  Then I said “It’s a remake, but since there’s time travel the first movie still happened and now they’re going back in time and it’s happening again after the first one happened.  See???” and he said “Oh.  Okay that’s not nearly as bad.”

The explanation for Arnold being old was kind of silly, but it made enough sense to swallow, and the CGI to make him appear different ages was really good I thought.  And Emilia Clarke totally sold herself as Sarah Connor.  And things exploded and there was the same brutal “This heavy metal thing is smacking into that heavy metal thing” feel through all the fight scenes.  It was just all around really good and I enjoyed it.

I can’t be bothered to go get a picture so just imagine there is a picture of Arnold giving a thumbs-up here.

October Gale

I was in the mood for a thriller and the blurb for “October Gale” says something about being stranded on an island with killers.  Sounds like a pretty standard slasher/thriller style movie, right?  I did think it was a little odd that it was classified as “Thriller/Drama” but hey let’s check it out!

The movie starts out slooooooowwwwwwwlllllllllllly going over the loss of her husband and cutting to scenes of her together with her husband, and talking about grief and loss and moving on and… I think somewhere around 40 minutes in I said something like “I hope someone tries to kill her soon.”

Then someone covered in blood shows up!  This is promising!  But then she falls in love with him, which seems a little out of place and maybe a bit odd since he’s roughly half her age.

Oh yeah and then suddenly some guys show up and try to kill them but they win and then fall in love for realsies.

What the fuck…

Apparently on some sites it is classified as “Thriller/Drama/Romance” and I really wish I had spotted that beforehand. It’s just not a good combination.  This movie does not know what it is.  I wouldn’t be surprised if the writers started out with a crap romance and couldn’t sell it so they tacked on a crap ‘thriller’ plot to try to make it stand out.  In the end, both halves are just lacklustre and half developed.  It’s a shame that good acting was wasted on such a hackneyed plot…

It Follows

And as part two of our “It’s not October yet but it feels like October so bring on the scary movies” a-thon, we watched It Follows.

I found this one pretty interesting.  It’s almost like a take on an old-school zombie movie, with the monster following slowly and relentlessly behind, easy to run away from but never ceasing.  Unlike zombies, though, you can shake it off onto another person by… uh… having sex with someone.  Which is interesting because that’s certainly something that horror protagonists tend to have issues with!  It’s the worst kind of sexually transmitted disease.  Well… maybe not, since most STDs are still with you after you pass them along.  But they also don’t usually eat you, so… hmm.

I really enjoyed this one.  Tons of tension, nothing too over the top, and a lot of really creepy atmospheric hints for you to spot in the backgrounds.  It’s a simple formula and it really works.

Things that detracted from it included: my husband arguing that the monster should be really easy to deal with because all you have to do is create a mathematical formula to calculate how fast it’s walking and then move every 200 days as it starts to catch up to you /facepalm, arguments over whether sexual promiscuity and infidelity is acceptable if it gets rid of ghosts, and that god damn shell e-book reader thing that contrasted with the ’80s electronics and left us arguing for an hour over what time period the movie was taking place in, until I finally googled the damn thing and discovered that literally everyone else was arguing about it because it was deliberately left ambiguous and confusing.  *shake fist*

Honestly the ebook reader was the worst part.  The rest of it was just thoughtful discussion!  Fuck the ebook reader >:( get out of my movie.  Maybe if there were more modern tidbits scattered around it would have been okay but almost everything else was old (and royalty free, I noticed!) so it was just glaringly out of place and distracted from the tension.

Other than the ebook reader though, thumbs up!

Unfriended

Normally we don’t break into the crappy horror movies until October, but it’s been so cold and miserable outside that it feels like October and my husband started craving some cheesy Halloween style movies.  I picked up a few promising looking titles, and Unfriended was on top of the pack.

I was not expecting much from this movie.  A girl dies and then haunts people through Facebook?  What?  But it was surprisingly well done.

The entirety of the movie takes place on a computer screen, which is certainly a novel (and probably very cheap) way to film something, and I hope it doesn’t become the next ‘thing’ and get run down into a trench that’s the size of the Grand Canyon.  It was clearly done by someone who uses computers a lot, and it feels authentic, though there are certainly things that will annoy people who use computers a lot themselves.  For one: why is your internet connection so awful, auuuugghhh.  The video on the Skype connections is constantly blipping out, which is probably supposed to replicate the feel of a found footage shaky cam, but instead of increasing the tension I just found it fucking annoying.  Buy a new wireless card for fuck’s sake.  Also bonus marks for taking like 5 fucking minutes to download a 900kb file and then 2 seconds to download a 1.6MB file immediately afterward [/nerd rage]. There were also some minor errors here and there, which I at least found easy to ignore because there is a ghost in the computer!  But I did find it a little annoying when she shared her screen with everyone to show them that it wasn’t working, then immediately tabbed out and started typing private messages and no one seemed to remember that the screen was shared and they should be able to see it.

The story itself was well done, I thought.  A decent amount of tension and interesting outcomes.  The beginning was a little rough, since it’s basically just teenagers whining to each other and in general being annoying, but once it starts rolling it’s a fun ride.  I’m not sure if it’s a problem or not, since it is a horror movie and it’s basically par for the course, but there are no sympathetic protagonists here.  You will hate everyone and want them all to die.  Fortunately, it’s a horror movie!  So they do.  Oops, spoilers.

Darwin’s Children

Darwin's Children (Darwin's Radio #2)Darwin’s Children by Greg Bear
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is pure emotion.

I don’t actually know how I feel about it. There are parts of it that are probably some of my most favourite scenes I have ever read, and I highlighted a whole bunch of shit just because I really really liked the way it was written. And there are a bunch of parts that made me squint my eyes and scratch disapprovingly at my chin. I spent a whole day reading this book practically non-stop and felt like I was loving every minute of it, until I got to the end, where I stepped back and looked at it as a whole and thought to myself “……. I’m not sure that I liked that.”

But that’s a Greg Bear novel for me, I suppose. It happens every time.

The first book was exhaustively researched and it was a comfortable stretch to believe that the things proposed could happen. This book does not feel quite as tight. The first book spent a lot of time etching out every minute detail, and this one seems to spend a lot of time skimming over those. I’m quite willing to suspend belief for the sake of plot, especially when creating a new species, but learning and behaviour is my pet field of study and I feel like there are some huge holes in the development of the society of the children. Not to mention the religious element that was introduced. It almost feels like the first book was meant to be hard scientific fact and then he wanted the second book to come at it from the other angle to provide contrast, which is a nice idea in theory, but the way it is presented just doesn’t jive with me. I put comments in several places saying “I hope this is explained a little bit better later…” and then I had a moment of hope when Kaye gets all the scans done, but nope, that was just a distraction too, as if it’s trying to explain that there is no explanation so just get over it. It’s like we go from hard facts and figures to watching the book wave its hands spookily and then conclude with “A God did it.” (Well. Maybe. Because that’s not confirmed either.) Unsatisfying.

The time skips are especially bad. I’d be reading almost breathlessly, racing ahead to get to an anticipated point where two plotlines would collide and I could see the result, annnnnnnnddd *poof* 3 years later. That thing happened during those three years and it was cool but we’re past that now and won’t waste any time describing it, thanks. It happened every time and it made me so mad every time.

I have to say, I love the way the characters interact in this book. The characters feel so robustly human to me, full of emotions and flaws and character traits, and I loved them. But they spent a lot of time on superficial interactions and leave the bulk of the plot development behind the scenes to be discussed in hindsight while they go about their superficial interactions. I’m not sure how I feel about that. And apart from the main family (Kaye, Mitch, Stella), no one else gets a lot of development.  They have their template personality and that’s about it.  At times there are characters used from previous books that might have been thrown in purely so that there would be a backstory already in place and there would be no need to add further development.  It led to a lot of cardboard supporting cast.  There are even some characters who felt abandoned. Where are the rest of their stories? Such as:
Minor spoiler:
We skipped entirely over the bit with Stella and Will. Will exists in like, four scenes in this entire book? We start to get to know him and then *poof* 3 years later. Welp, nevermind that now.

I am so exquisitely torn about the main character too. I loved Kaye. I loved the interactions between Mitch and Kaye. I must have been in the right emotional (hormonal??) state of mind for it because I was more invested in their relationship than I was in the fate of the children, most of the time. I highlighted so many of their scenes together because they felt so real. The scene where Mitch finally snaps and Kaye recognizes how unfair she’s been:

“Kaye stood beside the bed and watched Mitch, eyes wide. Her chest felt wrapped in steel bands. She was as frightened as if she had just missed driving them all off a cliff.”

That moment when you emerge from your own misery and realize with a shock that it affects other people too and you’ve been a huge selfish ass about it. That is real.

But then, I don’t know. She struck me as a near Mary-Sue at first. It’s almost textbook – gifted genius girl who doesn’t recognize how good she is and everyone is in awe of her and everyone wants to fall in love with her oh my. But then she displays real, palpable flaws and it dispels the Mary-Sue threat. I found her to be a realistic depiction of an emotional (and at times irrational) female, but at other times she would drop down into a sort of “This is a female being written by a man” template and I’d find it disappointing purely because it was such a contrast to some of her other scenes.  It’s like she has transitions where she grows as a character and changes her behaviour, and then transitions where suddenly she’s just acting sort of different and it seems odd. And then she finds God or something, I don’t fucking know. It felt like a character departure at several points, in this book and the last.
Ending spoiler:
And then I was pissed at the ending. Seriously pissed. I think that means that my ultimate judgement of her is that I like her? I got the impression that the ending was supposed to be hopeful but I guess I’m just not religious enough for that because no, fuck you, give her more time with her family, you fuck. They’ve been through enough!  I think I’m angry at how unnecessary that was.  The injustice of it.  If that was the goal then bra-fucking-vo.

I don’t think I could read this again, but I think I’m going to be thinking of the characters over the next few days.

Darwin’s Radio

Darwin's Radio (Darwin's Radio #1)Darwin’s Radio by Greg Bear

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I am thoroughly impressed with the depth of research displayed in this book. I’ve got an undergrad biology degree, and I got an A in the genetics parts of things, but I ultimately spent more time studying other things and went in different directions after graduation and got pretty rusty on the viruses and chromosomes front. I’m pretty sure the author knows more about it than I do right now. That is a lot of god damn research for something that is dangerously susceptible to making you look silly within a decade (or, fuck, a year if you’re unlucky). And it’s holding its own.

That said, I’m sure if I actually studied viruses and chromosomes this book would have a lot of bits that would annoy the fuck out of me. And since I did study viruses and chromosomes at one point, I didn’t mind slogging through the absolute tons of detail provided about how they work and the proposed systems at play. Someone else might not.

I really like Greg Bear’s books, but I always seem to have this issue where I start reading them, get absolutely fucking hooked and can’t put them down, and then the ending leaves me with a slightly disgusted look on my face and I feel let down and don’t want to bother reading any more of his books. Until next time I’m craving a very good book and then I’ll pick one up, get absolutely fucking hooked, and…

Darwin’s Radio did not have the same effect on me. It was less extreme on both fronts, actually. I was less hooked than usual, and the ending didn’t annoy me as much. But, perhaps that is because this book has no ending. This book has a sequel. Presumably THAT book contains the ending because this one certainly did not. I remain interested enough to pick up the sequel, quite possibly even start it right now! But there was a shift somewhere in the middle of the book that made me think to myself “Oh, here we go again.” It got away from the facts and figures and started moving into the ‘what happens now’ which might account for that, and there were a lot of really good emotional scenes that I enjoyed, but it felt like reading a different book at times. Suddenly characters that I really admired started acting a bit differently and I started to like them less. I got more ambivalent about what would happen to them. I did not like that change and it makes me apprehensive about the sequel. I want to read about the characters I liked in the beginning, not these new ones they are turning into. I don’t just mean the speciation events, either.

The Kings of Eternity

The Kings of EternityThe Kings of Eternity by Eric Brown

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I almost gave up on this book several times.  It’s fairly short, but I was a full 25% of the way into it before anything happened.  I was just done with it.  I didn’t particularly like the character, it kept jumping back and forth between two time periods and my lack of interest in the character made it difficult to follow (in one time period there is a girlfriend named Carla and in the other there is one named Caroline, and I’m bad with names so I kept getting them crossed with each other which made his seeming 180 degree reactions toward them very confusing), but worst of all the language in the book was almost pretentious to read.  I had heard the term ‘purple prose’ before and I even remember looking it up once and thinking “aha, that is the name for that” but then forgetting again.  This book is purple prose.  I don’t think I will forget the meaning of it again, after this.  There is even a section in the book that I highlighted where a character reads out a section of writing from the main character’s books (who is also an author, naturally) and criticizes it for being “Interesting, if a little overwritten.”  That is this book.  I was about to give up on it and went back to the blurb on it to remember why I had even loaded it on my kindle in the first place, and went “Oh.  Hmm.  That does sound interesting.  Maybe I’ll keep going for a little more…”

Then I got to 25% and things happened and I was like “ahh, finally, the reason I loaded this.” and once I was into it even the over-writing started to feel more like Jules Verne than simply trying too hard, which may have been what they were going for.  And then at 40% I was like “holy shit this is pretty good actually.”  And by the end I was like “Eeeh, that was flawed, but these characters are cropping up in random thoughts throughout the day so I guess it’s pretty good.”  3.5 stars.

The premise, in case you’re reading this because you haven’t gotten 25% of the way into it yet and want to know if there’s a point to continuing, is that a reclusive author and his three friends stumble upon an anomaly in the woods which turns out to be a gate to an alien planet.  They have an encounter with an alien creature, save him, and are rewarded with some gifts in return.  One of those gifts is the gift of immortality (more or less) via what is not explained as but is almost certainly some form of nano-medical-technology.  Now they must deal with the fact that they will outlive everyone else.  But there’s more… they can give one dose to one other person each.  Who do they give it to?  How will they conceal their non-aging properties?  Use of the technology is forbidden… what will they do when the aliens come looking for them as lawbreakers?

There were a lot of things that I picked up on and I wasn’t sure if they were intentional or not.  A lot of things are repeated.  In a lot of cases it seems like it could be an attempt to signal something significant, but in other cases I was genuinely not sure if the author just forgot they had done that already.  For example, the author in the book writes a story about a reclusive author living in Greece who is finally charmed by a woman and brought out of his solitude.  Guess what happens to the character!  In exactly the same town as the book he wrote!  That can’t just be a coincidence.  But then certain descriptive phrases were used repetitively, like the one about heat hitting their skin like a physical blow.  It’s actually a plot point in the book that the author is accused of plagiarism because he accidentally re-uses phrases from books he penned under different names.  Are these repetitive phrases some sort of nod to that or just a mistake of editing?  Would there be a point to adding a nod to that??  I’m not sure.  It went over my head if there is one.

And I noticed an odd tendency to over-explain things, but only the things that really didn’t need any explanation whatsoever.  To make it even more irritating, when something actually needed explaining, it would be glossed over.  But if you ever wondered how an object got from one end of the room to the other, hoo boy nothing was left to imagination!  Except then sometimes it wouldn’t be explained and suddenly it was glaringly obvious that an object that had previously been described as on that side of the room was being picked up by a character on this side of it.  Ironically, the breaks in continuity wouldn’t have been an issue at all if it weren’t for the anal over-description of everything else.  There were times when I was absolutely positive I could see the author re-reading the scene and then going “Crap, what if someone asks about this,” and adding a bunch of extraneous descriptive text to head off any pedantic questions, then forgetting that it impacted a scene later on.

Minor ending spoilers:
I was actually surprised it worked out the way it did because it spent so much time building up to the ending that I was expecting it to be a twist, because it was just too obvious and the character had everything worked out and naturally life would throw him one last curveball and punch him in the gut or something because that’s how these things work.  But then… nope just the obvious happy ending.  Disney-esque, even.  Satisfying, though.

Much bigger ending spoilers: Read more of this post

Home

I am an unabashed fan of animated movies.  Yes, they are made for children, but I maintain that the best animated movies are the ones that are clever and which give the adults just as much enjoyment as the children when they’re thrust upon the television screen 20 out of 24 hours of the day.

I was perusing for something to watch and came across Dreamworks’ “Home” and decided to give it a try.  Two things immediately came to mind:
I have not heard of this movie before, so it is probably not good.
and, once we got started: The animation on this isn’t precisely up to the “How to Train Your Dragon” level, so this is probably the B team.  Which means it is probably not good.

Boy was it ever not good. We were interrupted by a late night phone call for my husband and I left the movie running as he answered it, then decided to be courteous and asked “Do you want me to pause it?”  He surprised me by saying yes but I thought ‘well maybe he is enjoying this more than I am, then!’.  After his call was done I unpaused it, then said “If you hadn’t asked me to pause it this could be done by now!” and he was like “Yeah.  I don’t know what I was thinking.”

It was hollow.  Soul-less.  It teaches children that bad grammar is good, that little girls should be named ‘Gratuity’, and it was like 1 hour and 20 minutes of music commercials for Rihanna.  It was awful.

After it was done it was midnight and I was like “Fuck this movie.  I am going to watch a REAL movie about interaction between an alien and a little girl.” and I dug deep and found a copy of Lilo and Stitch and put it on right then and there.  I fully expected to fall asleep, but now I am writing this review at 2:20 AM because Lilo and Stitch is a really fucking good movie and ‘Home’ is a really terrible movie and you need to know about it, dammit.  THIS IS IMPORTANT.

Lilo and Stitch made me laugh almost non-stop until the parts where I welled up with tears and pretended to have allergies.  Yes, it did have the disgustingly improbable ‘Disney’ happy ending.  But ‘Home’ elicited none of those emotions in me.  You may have seen Lilo and Stitch before, but did you realize that in the beginning of the movie she is upset because she wants the proper offering to feed the fish that controls the weather, and then later we discover that her parents died in a car crash due to bad weather?  That is why she wants to control the weather!  This has no bearing on the plot whatsoever but it adds depth and it adds soul.  It is good writing. That scene that seemed like a typical illogical childish whim that you may or may not be familiar with has a bearing on the inner workings of this character.  In Home, they dance involuntarily because Rihanna paid a lot of money to have all of her music showcased in this movie.  It was insulting.

Do not let your children watch ‘Home’.  Make them watch Lilo and Stitch instead.

Whiplash

The fairly simple premise of this movie is that a young man wants to become the best drummer in the world, and he is paired up with a music teacher who wants to produce the best drummer in the world.  The match is not quite as made in heaven as you might expect, and the movie does a good job of drawing out the mental flaws in both characters.

I enjoyed the way the characters were written and fleshed out, but they often made some truly bizarre decisions that leave you scratching your head because of the lack of logic.  These are not exactly logical characters, so it still works, but there is an underlying suspicion that they are behaving illogically because the writers want to subvert tropes and make it surprising.  Their behaviour toes the line of being unrealistically random, but they manage to keep it within the realms of believability.  A few spots could have used more polish to make it easier to swallow, though.

And I’m not really sure what’s going on with the ending.  Was it intentionally ambiguous or just poorly indicated?  It feels like they weren’t sure how to end it, so they just ended it, which is only a good way to end if it no one tries to think about it, which is perhaps not the best strategy for a thought-provoking movie.

I don’t follow the Oscars so I had no idea this movie was so popular, but it makes sense that it was nominated for a bunch of awards since it’s the same movie as Black Swan, but without the lesbian sex.

Take Shelter

I’m not sure how I feel about the movie Take Shelter.  It was entertaining, but I kept watching mostly because I was curious about the way it would go (and I mean, if you boil it down, isn’t that what ALL movies are?).

The premise is that a young man starts having terrifying dreams about a horrible storm and becomes paranoid, building a shelter to protect his family.  Along the way we discover that his family has a history of paranoid schizophrenia, and it’s constantly throwing questions in your face: Is it real?  Are his actions justified?  Is he potentially endangering his family for no reason because of mental illness?  Should they listen to him or should they force him to get help?

Unfortunately I just summed up all the best parts of the movie in a paragraph, and it drags on for two hours.  I liked it, because I like psychology and I wanted to see what they would go with in the end, but it was way longer than it needed to be.  It had tension and it kept your attention, but it didn’t need to be that long when it essentially didn’t really do anything new for about a whole hour in the middle.

Spoilers begin here. Seriously, don’t read this unless you’ve seen it or don’t give a shit.

Read more of this post

Survivor

Survivor is a movie where Pierce Brosnan plays the most notorious and feared assassin the world has ever seen.  He summarily spends the entire film utterly failing to assassinate Milla Jovovich as she bumbles around yelling “What is going on??!??” and wonders why people are trying to kill her.  If this is the best and most effective of all the assassins, assassination is suddenly a much less menacing prospect.

Windward

This might be a bit confusing, but I am going to start this review by talking about a completely different game.  It makes sense – trust me.

Patrician is a game where you sail ships around and buy low, sell high, eventually raising your rank and amassing a massive merchant army that rakes in tons of income per trip, making you a magnate of the seas. It is often described by haters as a spreadsheet with graphics, but I apparently really love that sort of game.  I even have a whole “Trade” section in my Steam organization list that is dedicated to merchant style games. Eventually you can buy up land within the towns, corner the market on factories, depose all the mayors, drive all your competitors out of business, and start price fixing once you control 100% of a commodity. It’s slow, but it is oh so very rewarding to get angry messages from NPC mayors as you slowly boot them out of their towns and build your mercantile empire.

Windward is like Patrician, except with all the content removed from it.

I really would like to like Windward – I’ve already sunk 4 hours into it – but I just feel like there’s no point.  You can level up the towns by doing quests for them, or make cash with the typical buy-low-sell-high formula (which it conveniently(?) indicates right where to sell it on the commodity so no thinking will get in your way at all.)  You sail your little ship from place to place (100% procedurally generated which is nice) and buy low sell high, or run quests like deliver passengers from here to there… and then you amass some gold and buy a ship that has more cargo slots.  Cargo slots are the be-all-end-all because no matter what your cargo is, it takes up one slot.  You can’t adjust for the amount of, say, rice you can carry vs big ass bolts of silk or whatever, because they all take 1 slot and 1 slot only, so the bottom line per slot is everything.

It’s also difficult to trade across regions, I found.  These guys are willing to buy stuff at way higher prices than the guys in my starting area, but there is literally nothing for me to take back (yet, anyway).  It’s all the same goods, but more expensive.  I found myself abusing fast travel just to insta-port to a dock, buy goods, then insta-port back to the other zone to sell them all.  But once you’ve sold one or two to them, they don’t want it any more.  So you’re stuck with goods you can’t even sell at a loss.  Unless you create an instanced trading zone to unload it all, which feels kind of like cheating.

I can’t even go to the next region until I’m level 12, and just trading for profit is apparently more lucrative but less exp-generating than running quests all day, so it ends up feeling like a bit of a grind.  I was initially pretty excited about taking over the world in the name of the Exchange, but the level restrictions on areas are so cumbersome that I find myself losing interest.

I am worried that I will be forced into combat soon.  I keep avoiding the pirate-focused quests because I tried a couple fights and it just wasn’t for me.  I didn’t pick a combat faction, and the controls are kind of clunky (must keep a certain side of your ship pointed at the enemy, have to hit certain buttons to make things fire, etc.).  My worst experience came when I tried my hand at a smuggling mission and every single fucking ship in the zone apparently picked up immediately that I was carrying illegal goods, and they all chased me down in a gigantic pack and slaughtered me instantly.  Maybe there is a skill to not display a big blinking “HEY GAIZ I AM CARRYNG ILLEGAL SHIT OVR HERE” sign or something.  It was a little discouraging.  But the next zone is not at all controlled by my faction so I wanted to see how bad it was to capture towns and expand our influence.  I am worried it will be 100% killing pirates and not at all about trading.

I would like to like this game, but so far it feels pretty shallow, and mostly makes me want to play Patrician or Anno again, both of which at least have a “speed up time” button so that trundling from town to town doesn’t become tedious :/

Parallels

We clicked on “Parallels” almost entirely at random, with only Netflix’s flawed prediction algorithm to guide us. Our decision process went something like: “It’s sci-fi, it involves parallel Earths, eh why not.”

The description for the movie literally says “follows a band of people across parallel Earths” and it is named “Parallels”  so imagine my confusion when the movie seemed to spend the first third of its run-time bringing the characters to the realization that, hey, this might be a parallel earth, guys.  Like, fuck the exposition was so fucking slow my god.  This is one of those movies where you’re yelling at the TV because it’s not well written. First we have the obligatory scene where all the characters meet up, but they all know each other, but oops the audience doesn’t know them so let’s throw in some bullshit reason that they all need to explain to each other who they are, just to bring the audience into the loop.  *dust hands* problem solved!  Okay now we know who the characters are, even if that was awkward as fuck.  NOW let’s spend 45 minutes having them figure out the basic plot of the movie.  Good job team!  We only need to fill like, 20 more minutes and we’re done!

I often find the emails I send while in a drunken rage while watching a movie are the best indication of how much I enjoyed the movie. This is literally the email I sent to my friend while watching it:
“The premise of the movie is that they are travelling to other versions of Earth, and then they encounter some graffiti describing alternate earths. Then they accidentally travel to an alternate earth and THEN.  THEN they spend 15 minutes figuring out amongst themselves that this might be an alternate earth.  GOOD JOB GUYS.”

Then I sent this one:
“The rebel loner guy is named “Ronin”.  At least it’s not “Cypher Raige” I guess.”

Then we ran into “obligatory hot Asian chick” and it was facepalms all around.  But, ironically, the plot started getting better after that.

BUT not better enough.  JUST as we got to the part where it was actually getting interesting and telling us something we didn’t know from the god damn movie description, it…………………… ended.

My husband said “That wasn’t a movie, that was a TV series.  You read it wrong when you clicked on it.”  and I said “No, it was DEFINITELY a movie.”  “No, that was DEFINITELY a TV series and you should find the next episode.”

So I did what any reasonable person would do, and I Googled it.  He wasn’t wrong!

Parallels was created as a television pilot, but Fox Digital Studios morphed it into a stand-alone movie”

Mother. Fucking. Fox. Studios.

And then I found this one:
Parallels is a 2015 American science-fiction adventure film and possible pilot”
Which is like… hahahahaha ‘possible pilot’ INDEED.

Anyway.  Long story short: do not waste your time.  It’s only barely interesting as a premise, and you can learn everything you need to know from the description.  If it does make it to full blown TV status it’s probably going to suck anyway.  There are a large number of bad movies on Netflix that I endorse because the monthly fee removes all of the guilt you may incur from having watched it… but they should excise this shit from it immediately.

The Talos Principle

I’ve been holding off on writing about Talos Principle because I wanted to get further in it and reveal a bit more of the story, because it’s one of those super mysterious “something reaaaallllly interesting is here and if you just get a little bit further you might get to reveal some of it!” sorts of stories, and it seems like a disturbingly large percentage of the time the reveals turn out to be complete balls.  But I am just loving this game so much that I am going to talk about it anyway.

The Talos Principle is a puzzle game, but it is also a journey into philosophy.  It wins my “Best Game Ever” award for two simple reasons:
1: The options screen has a “Motion Sickness” section where you can adjust things like FoV and turn head bobbing off.  These developers get it and I love them for it.  Game of the Year for that alone.
2: In one of the story snippets there is a burn on Twilight.  Excellent.

The premise is that you are a robot who has been dropped into a series of tests, which is all very Portal-esque, but instead of a sarcastic murderous robot you have a somewhat self-righteous god-voice by the name of Elohim (definitely not an improvement over GlaDOS, I have to say.)  As you venture through your trials you also uncover snippets of story that hint at the goings on outside of your own little personal rat-maze, as well as philosophical musings for you to think about as you go along.  Things like “How does someone know they are a person” or “How do you know you really exist”, alongside things like “Could a robot solve these sorts of puzzles or would it take a human mind to do it?”, where it all becomes very meta because in the game you are a robot and you are solving those puzzles but REALLY you are a human solving those puzzles right?? right?? so if you solve that puzzle that only a human could solve it does that mean a robot solved it or does it mean a human was still needed to solve it??? Or is it even talking about you at all????? Don’t play it while high or you might feel entirely too clever for yourself.

But actually mostly it makes me feel dumb.  But then I solve something and feel like a genius.  And then the next one makes me feel dumb again.  I was incredibly disappointed with how easy the puzzles were at first.  I was just going from puzzle to puzzle feeling like “…is this it?  Really?”  Sometimes a puzzle would be SO easy that I’d pick up the prize and then run back and forth for a bit wondering if I had missed something.  A lot of them take the same sort of logic too, so they almost get repetitive at times. The most disappointing part is when you get stuck on something for ages and ages and then finally you come across the solution and it is so god damn fucking easy and then you hate yourself for not figuring it out right away.

But then I ran into some of the hidden puzzles and my brain broke and I lay awake at night thinking about them.  Most of the puzzles are self contained, but the hidden ones require “outside of the box” thinking, and a lot of “outside of the level” thinking.  Most of them span levels, requiring you to break the fourth wall and figure out how to get bits from here to there, or how to cheat the system to get what you need to the area you need it.  In some cases it almost seems unfair, like, you can’t take items through the barrier so who would guess that you can shoot the fucking laser through it?!?!? (but then again, fair enough to catch me out on assuming that something would not be possible without trying it.  Fuckers.) There was one where I sort of figured it would be something pretty skookum, and I had an idea of what I would need to do, but I decided that I would be a horrible person and be lazy and not do it and just look up the solution.  I was reaffirmed in that choice when the description said “Hardest star in the game” and I was like “yep going to ruin this one for myself”, and I am kind of sad that I cheated but also I don’t think I would have figured it out otherwise.  It’s pretty epic.

And as I advance into the later worlds, the “easy” puzzles are less and less easy.  Every now and then I’ll bumble around in a level for so long that Elohim comes along and gently suggests I go to a different level.  Fuck you, God.  What kind of God is all like “Well if you haven’t figured this out by NOW you may as well just give up.”

You should buy this game.  It is excellent mysterious storytelling that almost makes me nostalgic for Myst, with a mix of puzzles that will make your brain hurt, but are not so tough that you need a walkthrough to get anywhere.  And also some philosophy crap that you may or may not enjoy. The world is beautiful and fun to explore, especially since there could be hidden mysteries or easter eggs around any corner or under any bush.  It’s just good old fashioned “I’m going to try this and see what happens” exploration fun, and it is highly rewarding.

Ice Breaker Winter Ale

We picked up a party pack of Stanley Park Brewery brews.  The very next day, I went and bought a 6 pack of the Ice Breaker winter ale, because oh my god it is so good.  I might have a new favourite…

I really love the rich malty not at all hoppy styles of beers, so I typically gravitate toward the porters and stouts and then get disappointed when I get hit in the face with a mouthful of bitter hops. This one, though, is right up my alley.  Very rich and silky malt, and not at all bitter.  But not only that… on the label it says “Cherry and Dark Chocolate Specialty Ale”.  Normally when a beer review says things like “notes of cherry and dark chocolate” or something about noses I will scoff and be like “yep, tastes like beer”, but this one… I can taste the chocolate!  I TASTE IT!

I don’t taste any cherry yet though.  Maybe I just need to drink more of them!  Experiment commenced…

Super Mario 3D World

We had a hankering for some Mario action so we bit the bullet and bought a Wii-U.  At least this way I will be prepared when the Xenoblade sequel arrives… plus it’s got delicious unique co-op options going on.  Mario 3D Word is one of them.

Mario 3D World is pretty typical Nintendo.  It’s essentially Mario 3 (the best Mario), mixed with some Mario World (probably the second best Mario), and then named after both of them with some stupid gimmicks thrown in so they can pretend it’s new.  Despite the recycled and snipped together name, the gameplay is really good.

Normally we’d “co-op” a Mario game by passing the controller back and forth once one of us landed in a pit, but 3D World has fully functional drop-in co-op where you’re both running around on the screen jumping on koopa shells and occasionally accidentally (“accidentally”) picking up your partner and throwing them into lava.  There are decent cooperation sections where you can both work together toward a goal – like when there’s a movable platform that requires more than one body to activate – but the game remains fully soloable as well (those same platforms can be activated with an item that creates clones of you.  It’s just easier with other humans to communicate with.  Until they pick you up and throw you off it, anyway…).  In most cases having a partner to work with to have someone’s head to bounce off of or have someone pick you up to chuck you to a goal simply makes things easier, but doesn’t change the dynamics immensely.  There are multiple characters to choose from, and they each have mild differences that make them distinct in ways beyond character models.  And yet they’re all balanced well enough that you can pick your favourite and not worry about the impact the changes will have on your game.  There’s also a small element of competition because it shows you a head to head score after every stage, but it’s 100% meaningless other than for bragging rights, which has the side effect of being not frustrating, either.

My biggest complaint with a 3D platformer is always going to be the camera, because fuck cameras that wander off or randomly adjust themselves in such a way that it changes the direction your controller thinks is “that way” and suddenly changes your perfect jump from “that way, onto the platform” to “that way, into that pit there.”  I did not have any problems whatsoever with the camera in 3D World, and that’s WITH a human companion running in the opposite direction and causing the screen to stretch and zoom out in order to accommodate both of us at once.  Nintendo may finally have this shit figured out, at least to the point where the camera is such a mild annoyance that you can forgive its small transgressions when they occur.

One of the amusing (yet pointless) features they’ve tried to add is the “Dark Souls” style communication system, where people can post pre-made stamps (which are one of the many collectables in the stages) for others to enjoy on their travels.  The game also lets you sketch or type small notes in there, so you may come across someone’s Mii standing on the map, or see a string of notes after you complete a level, which will give you an idea of what people think of things, or just admire whatever amusing stamp combinations they’ve come up with.  Most of them are something along the lines of “this is fun!” or “That level was really easy this is my score”, or “This game is lovely!” (I highly suspect that one came from someone’s mom), and sometimes it will be some really cool original art that relates to the stage you just went through… but every now and then some clever child realizes they can use the sketch feature to write swear words that won’t get caught by the filter, and you’ll see “BUTTHOLE” scroll past.  Heh henh hnhnheh butthole.  So edgy.  They must be moderating it pretty heavily though because “butthole” was the most egregious thing that wandered past in our travels, and that’s just statistically improbable.  I am suspicious about the extremely high positive comment ratio, as well… hmmmmmmmmmmmmm.

The other problem is that the game seems really short.  Really short.  We’re on what appears to be the last stage after roughly 6 hours of messing around with it.  Granted that’s not getting 100% of the stars, but still.  We fucked around and died a lot, too.

I suppose the only thing wrong with Mario 3D World is that it is on the Wii U, where no one will get to play it.  Things seem to be picking up over in Wii land though, and I’m excited to check out some of the other unique co-op options available.  Hopefully I’ll wring some blog entries out of it yet…

Upside Down

We’ve been doing nothing but binge-watching all 20 something seasons of Top Gear for the past month or two, and I didn’t feel compelled to write any blog entries about it (it’s good, FYI), but we finally wandered over and clicked on a movie on Netflix.  That movie happened to be “Upside Down”.  And what an odd movie it was.

The movie opens with a long winded intro that explains the situation, and it proceeds to drop scientific inaccuracies all over you before they’ve even gotten a few sentences in, but it’s probably good to get the suspension of disbelief over with early for this one.  He explains how they are the only planetary system with “double gravity”, with two planets so close together that they’re within reach of one another, but the people and objects from each world are only affected by the gravity from their origin planet, which makes traversing to the opposite planet quite difficult, you could imagine.   It also makes life difficult for the writers, because the number of times they screw up what should be affected by which gravity is pretty noticeable… poor writers.

The intro ended with the line “What if love is stronger than gravity?”, which caused both of us to burst into scornful laughter.  I’m still laughing at it, actually.

The world they built for this is pretty cool.  It feels fairly unique, and they do an awesome job creating visuals for it (except everything seems to be cast in blue and I don’t know what’s up with that).  I found myself enjoying the sets a lot while watching the movie.  Which is good because it didn’t have much else going for it…

The story is incredibly generic.  A guy falls in love with a girl from the other planet and spends the entire movie trying to figure out how to be with her.  No one expected that!  Also they are named Adam and Eve.  Errr… sorry, Eden.  Well my mistake, that’s completely original after all.  Also one planet is incredibly poor and one is incredibly rich (for no apparent reason.  It’s not like the rich planet can exploit riches from the poor one… oh wait they can because gravity barriers suddenly don’t matter when it’s important for the plot) and the rich planet hates the poor planet which sets up a cultural/social economic status barrier for the two lovebirds as well, because every time they try to talk to each other the police descend upon them like it’s some sort of fascist police state where you are not free to have a friendly conversation with people from the other side despite the already prohibiting circumstances surrounding it (and despite having actual office buildings designed for both sides to work together…).  And then, because there aren’t enough tropes shoehorned into this, she hits her head and gets Generic-MovieStyle-Improbable-Amnesia and he has to remind her who he is before they can get on with the sexing.  So he devises a way to go to the other planet, involving shoving material from the other world into his clothing so that it weighs him down enough to walk around down there.  Which is problematic because if the material stays in contact with material from the other planet for too long it will burst into flames, giving him a time limit per visit, and opening up a WHOLE NEW BARREL of plot problems (if material from the two worlds are incompatible, how is he wearing clothes from it without being set on fire?  How do they drink/eat things from the other world without their insides exploding?  And most importantly, how are they going to have sex??!??!?)

And then everyone wins.  The end.  Yay.  It was probably the most dissatisfying ending I’ve seen in the past couple of years.  I think the writers literally just ran out of ideas and went “Welp.  I’m done.  Let’s get a beer.”  It left a couple of threads barely tied at the end, in a big rush of “now lets conclude everything annnnnndddd done.” and I feel like a lot of time that was spent on unoriginal bullshit like amnesia subplots could have been spent developing more information about magical anti-gravity bee pollen and the aftermath of events.

I enjoyed it I suppose but I’m glad I found it on Netflix and didn’t waste any sort of effort hunting it down or paying money for it.  Movies like this are why Netflix needs to exist.

Eidolon

I should really play Eidolon more before I try to review it but I bought the Hexcells pack in the Steam sale and every time I start playing that it magically becomes 2AM… so I should probably bang out some semblance of a review before I get distracted and forget everything about it.

An eidolon is an apparition, a ghost, a remnant of something that used to exist but now does not.  The game Eidolon has you exploring a “post-human Western Washington”, uncovering all the ghosts of what used to be Seattle.

The game has a sort of “walking simulator” feel to it, where you wander around (mostly aimlessly) trying to uncover the threads of the stories to figure out everything that happened.  This part of the game is actually pretty interesting, I felt.  You have a journal where you collect all your little scraps and you can choose which thread of the story to pursue next, or just see what crops up.

I’m going to go ahead and get this out of the way:  The graphics are not good.  You are not playing this game for graphics.  It’s actually a bit unfortunate because I’m usually in it for gameplay so I’m pretty tolerant of low graphics (especially in games that cost 5 bucks or so)… but these graphics often left me wondering if I was having some sort of rendering problem that was preventing textures from loading.

This is a wall, I think?  A green wall?

I think this is supposed to be a crumbled wall, but why is it green?  Moss?  Let’s say moss.

That wasn’t even so bad until I wandered back and forth around a “rock” only to discover it was supposed to be a car.  I think.

This is a car, right?

This is a car, right?  Or a rock with a windshield?

Yeah… low poly trees are one thing but that car, man.  But the graphics are not without their own sort of “paper cut-out” kind of charm, either.

But anyway.  Gameplay!  As I said, you wander aimlessly trying to uncover the stories of the past, which largely include the individual stories of people who existed around the time the city was destroyed.  How was the city destroyed?  What happened to the people?  Well, that’s the game!

The game does not hold your hand at all.  You’re quite literally dropped into a forest with no explanation whatsoever.  Your journal says something about being too far from the beacon so you’ll die if you get injured or starve, but it doesn’t do much to explain to you what any of that means.  Where’s the beacon?  Are you visiting the planet from a space ship?  Time travel?  A different part of Earth?  Do you need to find that beacon?? Things do get explained to you (and there are lots of really weird and interesting things to dig up) but you have to work for them.  It’s refreshing, really.  It’s nice to just sort of pop into a world and get your bearings the old fashioned way instead of having a tutorial spoon-fed to you for the first 20 minutes.  My biggest complaint in the beginning was that it was a bit TOO aimless… the world is huge and there you are wandering in circles in a forest with no idea what to do or where to go.  I finally tripped over a story chunk and it gave me some direction, but I felt like the game should have started me with something to follow at first since the map is pretty much literally the size of western Washington.  Then I discovered there’s apparently a bird showing you the way to the first bits of story, and also I am an idiot.

What you’re looking for are little blinky cubes scattered around the world.  White cubes represent new tools, and green ones represent story chunks to add to your journal.  Once you’ve got a story chunk there’s a selection of related terms listed below it, and clicking one will give you a light to follow in the general direction of the next story chunk related to that story thread.  Or, you can follow birds.  Apparently.  The blinkies can be really easy to miss, as I discovered while I was attempting to warm up to make an attempt to swim across a channel to one in the distance, only to turn around and discover one right beside me /facepalm.  I did notice that sometimes they’re easier to spot at night, because they pulse.  But then it’s night and also really dark…

There's a green blinkie on the left, surrounded by haunting skyscraper skeletons.

There’s a green blinkie on the left, surrounded by haunting skyscraper skeletons.  Also it is coastal Washington so it’s raining ALL THE FUCKING TIME in this game.  Realism!

One of the first things I discovered was a fishing pole, which I promptly used to catch some fish, which I cooked on a fire.  Which leads us to the next part of the gameplay: survival.  Eidolon joins the ranks of the open world “don’t die” simulators, where you must feed and warm yourself or suffer the consequences.  These are some of my favourite types of games, and the addition of a super creepy post-apocalyptic world with stories to uncover just makes it better.  But I find the survival gameplay in Eidolon is somewhat lacking.  Food is everywhere, and you’re really in no danger of starving at any point (at least so far as I’ve gotten in the game.)  The only thing that has killed me so far is attempting to swim across a freezing ocean just to see how far I could make it.  (The answer was: really far).  Fortunately (?) dying has absolutely no consequences whatsoever in this game, so after dying in the ocean I merely popped up somewhere else at 100% and carried on my merry way.  I climbed a mountain (possibly Mt. Rainier??) and fell off a cliff and broke a leg (I assume.  It just said ‘wounded’) which later became infected and made me sick.  Being sick meant I would vomit periodically, which would drop my hunger levels, but I couldn’t eat to stop starving because I would immediately vomit and waste the food.  Because I was wounded and exhausted I moved very slowly, which was really pretty annoying because it’s not like you’re particularly zippy in the first place and those blinkies are really far apart, man.  I couldn’t seem to heal my infection, which meant I couldn’t stop vomiting, and I couldn’t heal my leg to move faster again.  I finally came to the conclusion that it would be best to just fucking die and start fresh (and move at a normal speed again), but dying turned out to be really god damn hard to do.  I needed to find another cold body of water to freeze to death in again because I was just too stubborn to starve to death, apparently.

So let’s see.  This game has really interesting stories to hunt down and creepy/fascinating sights to see, but you’re constantly hounded by a largely pointless survival system that will force you to abandon your story hunting to pick mushrooms (and discard them if you’ve had them for too long.  And may I just say I GREATLY DISAGREE that blackberries become “old” after one day, and furthermore that “old” blackberries are no longer safe to eat.  *shake fist*  Now, had you said mouldy I could perhaps see your point.), and periodically you will be arbitrarily slowed down with some sort of infection or wound that will prevent you from reaching your goal of finding more stories or interesting sights to see.  At which point the best solution is probably to just kill yourself and start fresh because there is no penalty for doing so.  This does not sound like a well implemented survival system… it sounds like a nuisance system that was included because they felt the game would get too much of a bad rep for “lack of gameplay” if all you did was collect story bits.  But on the other hand, it’s nice that it’s not such a strict survival simulator that you’re constantly losing any progress you made toward finding story bits because you starved to death or were eaten by wolves like in Long Dark (grr, fucking wolves).  May I suggest a toggle for “story only” vs “survival” mode?

Eidolon is certainly not without its flaws, but the world is interesting to explore and presents a unique setting that I’m glad to see they did some intriguing things with.  The map is apparently accurate enough that you can recognize landscape features, and there are lots of sci-fi and post-apocalyptic story surprises waiting to be discovered.  I recommend checking it out if you’ve been interested enough to reach the end of this review…