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.

 

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.

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.

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.

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.

Remember Me

“Remember Me” was a game I mentally noted onto my wish list when it kept coming up in conversations about strong female protagonists, after the developers had trouble with publishers wanting them to change their game because their choice of protagonist was viewed as something that wouldn’t sell well.  Then it came out and got awful reviews and I was sad, and then proceeded to not buy it because fuck paying full price.  But then the occasional GOOD review kept cropping up, and then the game went on sale for 7 bucks and I bought it.  And I reallyreally liked it.

A brief premise is that the world has gained the ability to manipulate memories, primarily used to remove all those painful memories to promote happiness (much like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind).  Behind the scenes, it’s becoming a bit more nefarious as well.  You’re introduced to Nilin, the protagonist, just as she’s sprung from the memory wiping facility mere moments before her brain is finished being wiped clean.  You spend the game learning who Nilin actually is (as she herself regains her memories, since the brain wipe was partially successful) and unravelling the deepest secrets of the memory manipulation business.

First up: the game has flaws.  Biiiiiigggg gaping flaws.  It makes sense why it got bad reviews, and it’s not because the main character has boobs but is not naked.  It is also not because she kisses a guy at one point (seriously I read that the kiss was one of the biggest sticking points in the whole publishing kerfluffle and I kept waiting for it to come up, only to discover I had already passed that point in the story and didn’t even notice when it happened).

No, it is because the combat is awful.  I mean, it could have been worse. But it’s not good.  I had it on the easiest setting and all the enemies still took fucking forever to beat up and it was just so fucking tedious, especially when you spend 20 minutes clearing out a wave of enemies and then oops here’s another wave have fun!!  I finally went to my usual fall-back, which is to fire up Cheat Engine and make myself immortal (the cheat engine script for this game has “undead” mode which is my favouritest invulnerability cheating – where you still take damage and can see how terribly you’re doing and completely forget that you’re cheating at all until your health bar goes to 0 but you’re not starting over.  All the fun and tension of playing without the annoyance of losing!).  Around 2/3 into the game I also turned on unlimited ammo for my biggest attack so I could just mow down the damn waves and get on with the story.  It still took forever to clear them out while using my most powerful attacks repeatedly at a rate that is in no way intended, on the easiest possible setting.  It’s not good.

The combat has some interesting ideas which might appeal to a micromanager.  It’s sort of similar to the Batman combat where you have chaining combos and dodges to keep your chain intact (and the animation is pretty fluid and sweet too), but you actually craft your own custom attack combos.  You can build your chains with things that do damage, things that heal you, things that restore your focus/mana, and things that reduce the cooldowns on your super abilities.  The further into the chain it is, the more powerful it is.  But you have to get the chain to that point without breaking it.  The special abilities are super important (in most cases you have to activate a specific one to advance the fight) so you want to be resetting your cooldowns, but you also need focus to fire it off, and you also need to be doing damage, especially since the enemies take roughly 11 billion hits to finish.  Later you end up with enemies that fucking hurt you when you hit them, so you need to mix in the healing ones too.

OR you can fire up cheat engine and just kill everything.  Like I did.  It really helped my enjoyment of the game!

The other legit bitch I see in a lot of reviews is that the game is linear.  That sort of thing doesn’t bother me too much because I usually play games like this to enjoy the story, but oh boy is it ever linear.  It is really a shame because the world is beautifully crafted, but there’s no opportunity to explore any of it.  There’s even an arrow showing you exactly where to go next.  I don’t mind the arrow because it reduces the chance of wandering in circles for 20 minutes because the fucking camera rotates away from the wall showing the ledge I want to jump to, but I agree it should be an option to turn the damn thing off.  What is with developers not giving options?  Is it really that hard to add some lines of code that say “if setting = No, then hide arrow”?

Speaking of options:  The cut scenes are littered with film grain and it’s awful.  I hunted around the internet for a way to remove the grain, but the only ways of fixing it were too involved to bother with.  Why.  Why would you ruin your lovely CGI movies with this shit?  NO ONE thinks this looks good.  It’s awful.  Especially in a game this dark.  The black is all littered with noise and it was grating.  On the off chance someone out there thinks this looks good, put it on the fucking options screen so I can turn it off but they can leave it on.

One last bitch:  Every single boss ends with a quick time event.  I don’t mind QTEs as a rule, but I hated these and this is a perfect example of why people have come to hate them in general.  It’s usually a combination of your kick, punch, dodge, or “use” commands, but the prompts are pretty short, the icons all kind of look the same, and if you’re in the middle of button mashing something you’ll almost certainly hit the wrong key and end the sequence.  It usually required a bit of trial and error to learn the sequence before I could end a fight.  A failure results in the boss shaking you off and usually suplexing you into the ground and booting you across the arena or something, and then you start over and have to take their last chunk of health off again before you can attempt the QTE again to end it.  The only way it could be worse is if it literally ended the fight and made you start at the beginning (i.e.: what Resident Evil 6 does.  I also hate those QTEs…).

Anyway, enough bitching.  Here’s what I liked about it:

The writing.  Okay mostly that.  The world was crafted well and even though there weren’t a LOT of details, they laid out enough of it that it felt immersive.  The whole amnesia mechanic felt like it was going to invoke every single cliche in the book, and other than being kind of a lame way of unlocking new abilities, they managed to avoid most of them.  I liked the characters and felt like Nilin had enough depth that she made an interesting protagonist (though she’s pretty much the only character with any depth, which is kind of a flaw…), and I was feeling actual emotions at some of the pivotal moments.  I really enjoyed the plot as a story.

The memory remixing is a really interesting thing.  It seems to be the thing that everyone universally likes, and I liked it because it was unique and kind of cool, but I also didn’t like it.  It’s kind of funny… I didn’t like it because it ended up being kind of tedious in that you have to play with things in trial and error to see how they affect the outcome (not to mention first you have to watch the whole thing to see the original outcome, then rewind, then fast forward looking for the nodes to modify…) so sometimes you’re watching the same lines of dialogue over and over again (especially when the stupid memory glitch WILL NOT let you fucking click on it before it scrolls past so you have to rewind AGAIN.  GRRRrrrrrr) and then you discover that was actually a bonus ending and now you have to rewind and try something different!  So ironically it seems like my complaint is that the memory remixing was too non-linear.  But really my dislike was quite minor and I mostly enjoyed it.  I liked it a hell of a lot more than the combat!  But where most people are complaining that there were only 5 or so remixing sequences, I was kind of glad it wasn’t mandatory to have one or two every chapter.  Especially since the ones they had in there were quite detailed and they probably would have let the quality slip if they were trying to cram them into every available slot.

I also liked the variety of gameplay they had in there.  They had batman-style beat-em-up, splintercell/asscreed style wall climbing and acrobatics, occasional puzzles (not very challenging ones mind you but they threw a refreshing change of pace into things), and then standard old school boss battles and ability upgrades.  None of it felt cheap to me and I enjoyed that they didn’t just have one style of game from start to finish, while also not really sacrificing any of their story to cram in something bizarre and out of place (not like, say, a fucking tower defence game in the middle of AssCreed).

The last complaint I see is that it’s too short.  I spent about 8 hours playing it, so it was fairly short… but I paid 7 bucks for it.  Remember Me was basically a good Sci-Fi movie that was turned into a game with shitty combat (which I circumvented by being a dirty cheater).  At $7 it cost less than most books, I enjoyed it as much as a book, and at 8 hours I possibly spent more time with it than I would have with some sci-fi books :P (at least at the pace I read…) so it was money and time well spent!  I enjoyed it and I recommend checking it out, as long as you are aware of the terrible combat beforehand…