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.

 

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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: Read more of this post

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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…

The Wolf Among Us/Walking Dead (TellTale)

I just finished The Wolf Among Us, so ostensibly this post is about that… but in order to talk about it I must talk about TellTale’s Walking Dead game.  Both of the games are episodic “graphic novel” style games where your dialog choices can affect the outcome.  By “affect the outcome”, I more or less mean “affect how other characters view your character while the outcome takes place”, because there are very few “big” changes you can make in the storylines, but your demeanour can have a big impact on how each of the supporting cast react to things.  Some of the biggest impacts you’ll have revolve around who will make it to the end of the story with you, and whether they hate you or not.

Telltale’s TWD is pretty popular now so it probably doesn’t need a lot of plugging, but I would like to reiterate how good it is.  It’s pretty good.  I never read the comics that it is based on.  I almost didn’t buy the game at all because I loathe the TV show and all of its misogynistic bullshit convenience writing, so I like to pretend the show ended quickly when all of those characters were eaten by zombies and that no one is giving the show writers any more money by watching it.  la la la la la I’m not listeniiinnnggg.  In contrast, the writing in the game is really good.  Well, okay it’s just sort of good, but the interaction of the game makes it feel really good.

Except for the batteries puzzle.  I hope the asshole who wrote that was fired immediately.  It happens really early in Season 1 so I can only assume they made a misguided attempt to match the airheaded misogyny of the show, but were swiftly correctly by someone smarter.

Both Wolf Among Us and TWD are based on existing franchises, but I think TWD works because it’s given the world of the franchise and then set loose to frolic in it. There may be a cameo here and there of someone from one of their other eleventy-billion sanctioned comics or TV shows or games or whatever the fuck else they have now, but it’s not hard to take a zombie world and slap some random new people in it, then begin writing.  Those characters are fresh and the writers are free to work with them.

On the other hand, WAU is pretty constrained.  I didn’t read these comics either, but the characters in the game are (by necessity…) the main characters from the comics.  Right away the writers are restricted, because the characters have to match the personalities they have in the comics.  There’s little room to give the player a character with a personality they can mold and feel at home in.  They do a great job with Bigby Wolf and you get a sense of who he is even without any knowledge of the character beforehand, but it never really feels like your character the way the player characters in TWD do.

The game also has a deliberate time-period in relation to the comic: 20 years earlier.  Which is a huge problem right out of the gate because now we know all of these characters are still around 20 years later.  I did not know this when I started the game and the ending of chapter 1 was like “ohhhh shiiiittt this is going to be awesome”, but then I discovered it is essentially a prequel which sort of nullified all of those events.  It left it a bit bleh, to be honest.  TWD is great because anyone can die.  Anyone.  Those guys are fucked.  In WAU it’s like “This person could die here, if they weren’t in the comics 20 years later.  So.  Nope not gonna die.”  There are side characters who are free to die, but you don’t really care about them, and it just doesn’t have the same impact.  In TWD, your best buddy that you’ve helped through countless harrowing adventures could get snuffed at any moment, because that’s just how it fucking is in the apocalypse, man. (That said, I think they’re trying a bit too hard to manipulate emotions in TWD Season 2.  Tread lightly, guys.)

Then there is the additional problem of characters that seem kind of superfluous in WAU… probably because they exist in the comics so they should probably be in the game, even if there’s not much for them to actually do.  Fanservice doesn’t really do much if you’re not already a fan.

Also I feel like sifting through the clues of a “whodunnit” is kind of silly when anyone can look like anyone else using magic.  Literally anyone could be framed, which leaves a bit too much leeway for “gotcha” twists.  The actual story of WAU was pretty weak as a result, although the experience was still good…

Those things aside, the two games are fairly similar in terms of mechanics, if not setting.  You progress through the story, make some big reveals, make friends/enemies, and choose your story branches.  Action sequences take place through quicktime events, and they’re often quite scripted to match the story.  Some people probably hate this but I find it immersive.  Sure it’s annoying to mash Q as hard as you can and watch the other character begin to overpower you at a certain point anyway, but doesn’t it feel like you’re pushing back as hard as you can and still losing ground?  You can feel his muscles straining as he struggles, but you can also feel the futility…
My only complaint is that watching for the key prompts tends to take my eyes off the scene, which is too bad.  Fortunately failing them doesn’t cause too much hassle, either.  Often it’s written right into the sequence like a dialog choice, which is a nice change from “oh you missed that one.  Welp time to move you back 30 seconds and start ALL OVER AGAIN.”

If I had to pick I would definitely say that TWD is the winner of these two, simply for the reasons listed above.  The freedom the writers have to set events in motion (and break your heart…) is simply not possible with WAU.  But will I buy season 2 of WAU?  Certainly. (when it’s on sale…)

Monsters of Men (Chaos Walking Finale)

Monsters of Men (Chaos Walking, #3)Monsters of Men by Patrick Ness

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

These are good books and you should read them. The final book in the series holds up its end of the bargain and keeps you reading. It has its flaws (and a fair amount of cheesiness…) but it still deserves a five.

I still hate the random misspellings in Todd’s sections. They add nothing. Stop it. I don’t mean during dialogue where it dictates an obvious speech pattern, I mean in his thoughts where any word that ends in “-tion” is butchered into “-shun” for no reason. I got over it but it’s pointless. I still appreciate that every character sounds distinct, though.

Speaking of which, I absolutely loved the way the alien voice is written. It’s a challenging task to take on a language that is intended to be mostly pictorial and then change it into text, but it was effectively done (even if there were some shortcuts here and there). It felt alien. The worst thing about it is that I don’t think it can ever effectively be translated into a movie format. I almost hope no one tries to make this series into a movie because so much of it will likely be lost in translation.

Many of the complaints I had about the characterization of the villains were completely eradicated in the final book – which brings me to a whole new complaint (no, you can’t win). This series should not have been a trilogy. It doesn’t really feel like a cheap cash-in attempt (selling three books is better than selling one after all) but the books feel decidedly unfinished when you hit the break points between them. You need to read all three to get the whole picture and really appreciate it. It was amazing, but I wonder how polished it could have been if it were constructed as a cohesive whole…

The Ask and the Answer

The Ask and the Answer (Chaos Walking, #2)The Ask and the Answer by Patrick Ness

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Augh this book. It’s so good, and then it grabs the ball and just drops it all over itself and leaves me going “…” because why. Why did you drop that ball. You did everything else so well. Why.

It has so many flaws and yet I must rate it 5.

The Chaos Walking series continues its excellent character development, and even the villains are interesting this time. The story picks up where the first book left off, and the entirety of it is set in the capital city of the planet. A number of heavy issues are broached (racism, slavery, torture, approaches to morality, self esteem and identity…) and it never once became preachy or uninteresting to me.  It also managed to stop doing that thing I hated in the first book where Todd would discover something and react appropriately and not tell anything to the reader grrrr.  So kudos for stopping that bullshit.

It did, however, become a bit baffling at points. What the book (and series so far, really) seems to lack is motivations. Amidst all of these excellent character depictions and believable responses to things, there is a complete lack of a sense for why they are doing what they are doing. The real strengths of these characters are how believable they are, but the lack of clear motivations is starting to make even that a bit muddy in this book. Before reading these books I probably would have said it wouldn’t be possible to write characters this well and somehow miss their motivations, but, well, here it is, and it’s probably the worst thing about this book given how well the first one developed the characters.

In the first book we had comically evil mustache twirling villains who seemed to be evil for the sake of being evil, because there wasn’t really a decent motivation behind their actions. We still have that here, but the villains are fleshed out a bit more and it’s easy to forget that the bottom line is they’re being evil pretty much for the sake of being evil. Okay fine the motivation is “I will rule the world” but that’s synonymous with “comically evil”.

[Vague plot discussion follows – I try to avoid major spoilers but it’s worth a warning:]

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The Knife of Never Letting Go

The Knife of Never Letting Go (Chaos Walking, #1)The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

So difficult to rate. I really really enjoyed this book, but there were some flaws that marred the experience. If partial marks were allowed I’d probably end up dipping into 1/2s and maybe 3/4s, but as it is I will just start at 5 stars for being amazing, and drop it to 4 for having unfortunate flaws.

The language was not one of those flaws, although it could have been. The book uses “cleetus speak” to show that the characters are uneducated. The dialects aren’t slathered all over everything and, unlike the Dust Lands books, characters had unique “accents” as the characters moved from place to place. I could actually tell characters apart as they spoke. I enjoyed it, even. (And they use quotation marks! How novel!) It did still annoy me when words were misspelled when it made no sense to do so. e.g. words ending in -tion would be spelled “-shun”. Why. It is pronounced the same, so it doesn’t even contribute to an accent. It’s a minor annoyance and I got over it, though.

It’s such an interesting premise. Todd was born on this planet, but he’s actually part of a colony who landed here and soon discovered that something on the planet is causing them to hear each other’s thoughts. The plot is a bit sparse to begin with – Todd is going about his life, and then shit goes down and he needs to flee his hometown. He’s just as confused about it as we are, and the readers learn about the story while he figures it out. It’s like a blend of old time farmland settings and sci-fi genres, and it works. The worldbuilding is good and keeps you wanting to know more.

I have some issues with the second part of that, though. It relies heavily on a “hook” that I dislike – not telling the reader anything, even if the protagonist learns something. It’s mostly handled well, but then there are parts of the book where it cuts to Todd’s reaction as someone explains something really really important to him. No one explains any of it to us, the readers, and it’s such a transparent hook to make you keep reading. It works, mind you, but I resent every moment of it. You can handle it more gracefully than that guys, come on. It’s jarring and transparent. ESPECIALLY when you’re trying to pull off first person present tense. It was shockingly sloppy compared to a lot of the rest of the writing.

There’s a bit of really obvious telling instead of showing, too, which was also really odd given how well most of the book was constructed. In pretty much the first chapter Todd is thinking about how the year has 13 months in it, and I was all “aha, these are not typical Earth years.” Many many many chapters later Viola painstakingly lays out how the years are a different length here. Seriously? Did you forget that shit was in chapter one or did you think “omg the years are a different length why” would be a mystery for the whole book and it better be cleared up?

The characters were fantastic. They were real. They had human thoughts and made human mistakes. They reacted to each other in human ways. Each character was distinct. Even the dog had an appropriately dog-styled personality. Most of the writing was sort of stream-of-consciousness choppy style, which made a lot of sense in the context of all thoughts being audible, and it was used effectively to bring the character’s reactions to life. I enjoyed it, although it was a bit overdone in areas.

I loved almost every interaction between characters in this book, except for the villains. All this effort was poured into the main characters to make them believable and human, and then it came time to write the villains and they slapped some comically evil paint onto some cardboard and propped it up. Their motivations are weak and cliche (“I will ruulllleee the wooorrrlllddd” yeah yeah we’ve heard it before). The protagonists “kill” the main antagonist like 4 or 5 times and oops he just keeps popping back up! No explanation as to how he didn’t die, just vivid descriptions of the visible damage from the wounds they inflicted last time (and a conspicuous lack of descriptions of a terminator-style endoskeleton, because I was getting pretty certain that’s the only way to survive all this shit by the end).  And then the reveal of how Todd is supposed to transition to manhood.

I just don’t buy it. It’s too flimsy. Enjoyable I suppose, but flimsy.

A bit of an aside, I suppose… one thing I noticed in this book is that it used the word “effing” copiously. It was amusing in a number of ways, mirroring a teenager trying to toe the line and test their boundaries. But then it would say something like “(but I don’t say “effing” I say the real word this time)”. Just fucking say fucking. I thought it was so the book could be properly marketed to a younger audience without having to worry about any scary words being included that would make parents angry or saddle it with a profanity warning, but then Viola lets a proper “fucking” slip and Todd reacts to it. … we have no need to self-censor then, do we? So why so much self-censorship? Baffling.

Bitching completed. I really liked this book. Flaws aside, the writing was powerful and well crafted, the characters were fantastic and believable, and the world is interesting and unique. The villains kinda suck but maybe it will come into its own later on and flesh out the plot a bit. I can kinda relate even if it doesn’t… I often come up with characters I really like and then have no ideas for good situations to get them into.

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The Reapers are the Angels

The Reapers Are the Angels (Reapers, #1)The Reapers Are the Angels by Alden Bell

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I have been reading a lot of what can probably quite accurately be referred to as “crap”. As a result, some of the automated recommendations that pop up have been… interesting.

If were asked, I would probably say I am not a fan of zombie fiction, so I kind of scoffed when this book cropped up. But I love post apocalyptic wastescapes and isolation/survival fiction… so it actually seems like something I should really enjoy. The first half of 28 Days Later is one of my favourite movie experiences, where we wander around in an abandoned London trying to piece together where all the people went. And I rather enjoy The Walking Dead video game series from Telltale (not the TV show. I loathe the TV show and all its misogynistic melodrama), where you follow the heart-rending exploits of a little girl trying to survive post-zombies.

The Reapers are the Angels started out as a mix of the best parts of both of them – following a little girl (okay fine she’s 15) trying to survive in an abandoned wasteland.

I was riveted and finished it in one sitting.

It’s actually really well written. Miracle upon miracles – it uses present tense, and I think it is effective and not annoying as shit. It had to happen one day, I suppose. It helps that it is third person present tense, not first. First person present tense is just too awkward. It’s like standing beside someone who is narrating their every thought, and that’s just bizarre. Third person is like standing beside someone as they experience things, which ramps up the tension, and also allows the protagonist to die with a seamless handing of the storytelling to a secondary character, meaning anything could happen. There are also a lot of very vivid descriptions of wastelands and zombie decay which really put you there and bring it to life around you.

What it doesn’t have is quotation marks. And for the life of me I cannot understand this decision. It adds nothing but annoyance. I also noted some other writing weirdness and mistakes, like poor comma usage. It’s nitpicky, but it’s something that really jumped out at me when the rest of it seemed so well done.

Also unfortunately, the vivid descriptions are a bit lost behind tired zombie cliches. There wasn’t much of a plot to begin with: “Temple” is just living her life, surviving, catching fish and smashing zombie skulls. She happens onto a colony of people living in a city and immediately there are shifty looks from the men and warnings from the women to avoid the area where all the single men hang out, because it can be “rough”. “Oh good, we’re going to get to the obligatory zombie-fiction rape scene really early in this one”, I thought to myself. Sure enough, one of them wakes her up and shoves his cock in her face. She obliges by punching it, which made me happy, but the ensuing knife-fight results in her losing a finger and he losing his life. She goes on the run as his brother attempts to hunt her down, presumably to exact revenge. Ta-dah: plot.

The next place she runs to is a little oasis of normal life surrounded by electric fences. Within the barricades, everyone lives life as if nothing untoward has ever occurred in the world. They wear nice clothing, they have a butler, they play the piano, they have proper meals and sit at the table. Oh but father will not be joining us – he’s been sick. I wrote a note saying “There is no way he is not a zombie who they sealed up in the basement out of denial.” Spoiler alert: You’ll never guess what happens next! Can’t we do anything new in this genre?

We can, actually. Those were the only two major blights on the unravelling story of the book. We follow Temple as she travels across the country, and along the way we meet novel dangers and reveal snippets of past events that really enrich the characters and world. You could get out a microscope and pick some holes in the timing and factuality of things, but I felt it was not distracting and thoroughly enjoyed all of it. I was a little worried that the religious undertones might ramp into high gear and get preachy (it says angels right in the title and there are plenty of allusions to whether mankind brought the zombie plague down via sin). They stayed sufficiently out of my way, however.  The actual zombie plague is never really explained, which was both annoying and refreshing.  It’s annoying because I like those sorts of worldbuilding aspects… but it was also refreshing because the zombies are in no way the actual threat or focus of this book, so it was good not to waste a lot of time on them.  They’re proper slow, uncoordinated, largely harmless, indefatigable zombies that must be dealt with but are only an issue if you’re careless.  It’s a nice venture back to the roots of zombie-ism.

That was a really excellent little book, and I’m sure whatever drek I will pull out of my recommended pile next will probably be a little bit worse for being compared to it.

[edit] Hrm it’s a series. I don’t know if I dare look for a sequel… it might suck and ruin everything.

Blood Red Road

Blood Red Road (Dust Lands, #1)Blood Red Road by Moira Young

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I gave this book four stars. It does not deserve four stars, but I still gave it four stars. That might be confusing to you because I am going to spend most of this review bitching about it.

Blood Red Road is yet another dystopian fiction that popped up in the wake of Hunger Games, with yet another female protagonist wielding ranged weapons and going head to head with others to survive. Saba’s tiny little family is torn apart when a group of men show up, murder her father, and kidnap her twin brother. She sets out on an action-packed quest to brave harsh elements and rescue him, all while saddled with her 9 year old little sister.
I actually really enjoyed it and didn’t feel like it was trying too hard to cash in on “genre of the week”, although there was one kind of “plunked” section that felt an awful lot like it was trying to force Saba to mimic Katniss’s PTSD character arc (especially since it conveniently never really seems to crop up again for the rest of the book, where it ends up being a huge part of Katniss’s character development throughout the entire trilogy. Hrmmm…)

The first thing you will notice, even if all you do is read reviews about the book, is that it’s written in a “dialect” to reflect the idea that the characters are uneducated (ie: they say things like “ezzackly” instead of “exactly”).
I hated it. Hate hate hate hate.
I actually had no problem with the dialect itself – it’s perfectly acceptable to have a sort of grammar-less drawl be the ‘voice’ of your character if that’s how you want it. Why are the god damn descriptions written in it too? It’s a description of the character’s actions from the author of the book not a written description by the uneducated characters, so it makes no sense to mangle it. It just adds difficulty to reading without adding any depth to the book.

There are no quotation marks throughout the entire book. They don’t know what quotation marks are, because they are uneducated and don’t know how to write, you see. Which makes no sense because they are speaking to each other. This is not someone’s uneducatedly-written account of who was speaking. What’s more, every single character has the exact same ‘dialect’ which just made them all sound like they had the same voice, to me. Even characters who seemed to be quite well educated would speak in exactly the same grammatical patterns, and it was just bizarre. I had to keep stopping and going to back to weed out who said something vs who thought something vs who described something, and it was tedious and stupid. I actually think I would recommend waiting for the inevitable movie to be made, just to avoid wading through this bullshit.

I felt like the story was simultaneously strong and unique, and also shallow and cliche. Figure that one out. I don’t even know if I can adequately describe it… it felt unique enough that I really enjoyed it, but there were a lot of really obvious cliches at work and I rolled my eyes at each and every one.

One of the biggest flaws that kept jumping out at me was the complete lack of a grasp of scale. Time jumps were very hard to get a hold on. Things would progress at a rate that seemed like it must have been a year, and yet it’s like “one month later”. And then at other times it would be all “she got a tiny scratch that was nowhere near as bad as some of the other shit she’s gone through, but despite that she was knocked out and unconscious for two days, but despite it being two whole days we’re just going to get around to stitching it up now…”. It felt like “seat of the pants” convenience writing which probably reflects a lack of experience more than anything.

The most glaring example is the whole sequence with the cage fighting. She’s captured, they spend a few days travelling (though the way it’s described certainly seems like longer), she’s sold to the fighting ring, and in less than a month she’s got her own private cell and special treatment and has never lost a match, and is even asked by one of the other characters to lead the way because “You know this place better than anyone.” This needed so much more setup. Did she do a lot of fighting in her tiny isolated farm that had no livestock to wrestle or anything? Was she secretly a blacksmith to build up all this strength? If the story had spent a little more time developing her at the rink it would have been best, but you couldn’t do that because of the three-losses rule. And of course, the whole pressing overall time limit for the rescue of Lugh. It’s quite a dilemma – too long and it’s unrealistic for her to still be alive, but too short and it’s unrealistic for her to be the champion, so instead it has to skip out into Mary Sue territory to get through it. A bit more planning (and maybe a bit more hanging on by the skin of her teeth instead of winning everything effortlessly) and it would have been much smoother.

Not to mention how, later, miss “undefeated angel of death” screams at the sight of a skeleton. /facepalm.
Oh I’m sorry. It was a “skelenton”. Ugh.

Having said that and done all this bitching, I’ve seen a lot of bitching about the character and how she does not develop and she’s all mean to her little sister all the time so she’s unsympathetic and people hate her. You know what, the flaws of the character are the part I actually enjoyed the most, and I think those people completely missed the awesome character development that did happen with regards to her relationship with Emmi. No, the book does not end with everything being all rainbows and butterflies between them, and thank god because they’re on an actually believable arc that I’m hoping will continue to develop with the series. Yes, you want to smack her at times. That’s who her character is, and it makes sense.

I enjoy dystopias for the worldbuilding, and I enjoyed the worldbuilding in Blood Red Road… which, again, might be pretty confusing because there wasn’t actually a whole lot of worldbuilding. What was there was very subtle, and (this is the important part) it made SENSE for it to be subtle, because this is Saba’s world. She does not need things explained. That’s just how things are for her. She takes note of things, and occasionally wonders about things, and in that way the world is revealed to the reader. I enjoyed it, but I also hope the series goes on to meet a literate historian and reveal a bit more backstory about how things got to be this way.

I also hope they spend a little time explaining the “magic” that seems to exist in the world. Pa’s seeming divination skills, the strange properties of the “heartstone”, Nero having a unique amount of intelligence (to the degree that it’s even commented on in-book… Chekov’s gun?), the king’s immortality? Are there scientific explanations for some of these things, are there magical explanations for these things, or are we just going to smile and nod? There was a vague attempt at explaining the giant worms (though the hind leg reveal was pretty eye-roll inducing…), so there might be some ideas behind things, but then it becomes a question of whether saying more will help, or if it will just make us go “… well that’s just fucking stupid“.

There were plenty of things that already made me raise an eyebrow. They’re constantly travelling somewhere and going “Oh no we can’t stop we have to make it before dark!!!” while also bitching about the heat and their water supplies. It. is. a. desert. Travel at night, dummies! At least the worm explanation made some sense for the one part, but every single other desert-travel section? And speaking of the worms… they let their horses go because they hope the horses will make it to the other side before dark. Why weren’t you riding the god damn horses to go faster in the first place.

And there were just some weird decisions in the plot, too. Rooster showed some interesting character potential playing the part of the abused husband, and then, well… so much for that I guess? Massive armies using stealth when they quite clearly overwhelm the other side? Except… I guess they didn’t because when the dust clears only two people are injured? … More seat of the pants writing. But I really only noticed these things as oddities, rather than being annoyed by them.

Even the inevitable romance bits were tolerable, primarily because they were part of the story and not constantly tromping all over the plot just to be seen. I am worried about the next books though. Naturally the only not-ugly bad guy is going to turn out to be actually a good guy and spark a love triangle, isn’t he. Ugh. Ugh.

So there it is. That is my review. I enjoyed this book despite its massive flaws and I hope they don’t do a cheap cash-in for the movie, because I think it will make for a decent action adventure where lack of quotation marks won’t make me fly into a rage.

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The Cuckoo’s Calling

The Cuckoo's Calling (Cormoran Strike, #1)The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I read this book because I discovered it was written by JK Rowling. That’s the only reason. I don’t even really like detective mysteries, and I sought out and read this book solely because I discovered it was written by JK Rowling. And I feel like that was kind of her point.

The book itself was pretty good. Much like Casual Vacancy, it was a fairly solid 3.5, but since Goodreads doesn’t allow for .5s I was once again stuck with the decision to either round up or down. I rounded Casual Vacancy up because I felt like I wanted to reward the risks taken, because it was experimental and I enjoyed the attempt even if the result fell a little flat. This book was not experimental in the slightest, aside from the whole pseudonym thing maybe. It’s a whodunnit from start to finish, and I enjoyed it, but it didn’t really strike me as anything special, so I rounded down this time.

Here’s the premise: Robin is assigned to be a secretary at a private eye office through her temp agency, and from there we meet Cormoran Strike and follow along as he solves a murder mystery. That’s pretty much it – the mystery itself is unravelling whether a “suicide” of a famous lady was actually suicide or if it was actually a murder, and Rowling displays much of the same aptitude for laying down hints and false trails as she did in Harry Potter. The writing itself is excellent as always, although I felt it often drifted into overly flowery descriptions, which never bothered me with any of her other writing. Either I am getting grumpier and pickier (entirely plausible), or she tried just a bit too hard in some places.

The book is set up to introduce the characters and set the stage for future sequels, which I feel is probably a good thing, because I feel like Rowling is writing to her strengths and things will only get better once we get out of the whole “this is who this character is” stage. I’m going to make a lot of presumptions here and they may not be correct at all, but I got the sense that these characters were bouncing around in Rowling’s head for a good long while. There is a lot of character exposition and it felt like she was just boiling over with the need to share it all with us, even when it wasn’t necessarily very appropriate or timely. Strike’s amputated leg is practically a character in the story for the amount of time we hear about it, and it could be safely deleted without affecting the actual plot whatsoever. There’s absolutely no purpose to it other than to add a bit of depth to him. The story almost starts to spin its wheels when it gets into establishing the characters, but it’s really the characters that make the story worth reading. An interesting dilemma.

Here’s some more presumptions: This book spends a lot of time making points about the lives of celebrities, and I couldn’t help but feel Rowling was adding in a little bit of side commentary based on personal experiences. There’s a bit of meta-story going on which seems to parallel how the book was relatively ignored until it was connected to Rowling, and then *poof* suddenly it’s a best seller. I have to wonder if that was entirely intentional, much like how Casual Vacancy seemed to attempt to manipulate the readers judgements of the characters behind the scenes.
As a bonus, there are also side commentaries about the lives of those living in poverty. They say you should write what you know, and Rowling is in a position to write from personal experiences with both.

I have a note about the plot too which might be a tiny bit spoilery – I felt like the ending was a bit too contrived. It was one of those plots where you think to yourself “Okay, the most unlikely culprit would be…” and then oh look, it’s them. Rowling is usually so good at laying clues down earlier (in the case of Harry Potter, literal books earlier) and you can look back and go “ohhhhhhh…”, but in this book you look back and go “… so WHY did they do that, again? They gained absolutely nothing from it, and it led to their downfall.” The only semblance of explanation seems to be “They’re kind of a narcissistic psychopath and thought they were invincible, you see”. Unsatisfying.

Not a waste of time, though (how’s that for a glowing recommendation…) and I’m interested in seeing future installments of this series with a bit less character exposition and a bit more intuitiveness in the plot twists, next time.

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Sling Blade

I went through IMDB looking for movies rated above 7 which we had not seen before.  There were surprisingly few.

We tend to avoid watching romances, so I ended up with a pile of those. Two bonus reviews!: We watched 500 Days of Summer, which felt incredibly generic to me, but it was somewhat redeemed by the creative structuring – I guess the animated transitions really appealed to me.  Husband hated it.  Then we watched Before Midnight which is apparently the third movie in a trilogy that we have not seen the other two movies in!  We got 45 minutes into that before I burst out with “What the fuck is the point of this movie?!?” and read the synopsis on Wikipedia, only to discover there is no point.  I turned it off.  I haven’t seen the first one so I guess it’s probably better if you’re already invested in the characters and just want to spend more time with them, but it was a colossal waste of 45 minutes as far as I’m concerned.  I want movies to have a god damn plot.

Going through the list went something like this:  “ugh, romance… ugh, romance… ugh, romance… ooh not a romance! … ugh, romance…” so when we unburied Sling Blade I recalled that it was one of the non-romance findings, but I didn’t know much else about it.  I assumed that since it had “blade” in the title that it was some kind of action movie.  It turns out it’s actually a drama, which really makes a lot of sense because if it had been an action movie we would have seen it already.  I don’t know what I was thinking.

I really enjoyed Sling Blade.  It had a plot, which was a good start (seriously, what the fuck why is that movie so highly rated), although I was pretty worried when it opened with 15 minutes of some random guy in a mental hospital rambling about almost having sex with a transvestite.  The movie is the story of Karl, who is a mentally challenged man who has spent the majority of his life in a hospital after killing someone with a “Sling Blade” at the age of 12. He is now “cured” of murderous tendencies, but is completely and obviously not prepared to be turned loose on his own.  They pat him on the head and drive off, leaving him on the curb of the town he was a child in.

The plot itself didn’t really hold any surprises.  The foreshadowing is less of a shadow and more of a neon sign, and I turned to my husband at one point and said “Well, now we know how it ends.”  That’s exactly how it ended. (Although when the guy at the shop tells Karl that once the shop is locked you can’t get out and he’ll get him a key, my husband did predict it would end with him burning to death in a sombre lesson about fire safety regulations.  Now you know that it does not, in fact, end that way.  Sorry for the spoilers.)  Despite knowing what’s going to happen, it’s still gripping somehow, probably because the acting is fantastic.  The characters are all very real (sometimes regrettably so) and they all behave exactly like you expect – which is what makes it both predictable and believable.  That’s good writing and acting.  I recommend checking it out.

Frozen River

We’ve both been really sick, so watching movies has been a popular pass-time this week.  We burned through all the mindless comedies pretty quickly.  Tonight my husband was like “I don’t care, I’ll watch anything” so I wandered around in the drama section for a change.  I came out with Frozen River, partly because it had been nominated for a bunch of awards, and partly because I didn’t want to expend any more energy looking.

The movie was… good.  I think.  It was very realistic with really excellent acting, which I think is what impressed most people and won it awards.  The characters were so believable that I checked to make sure it wasn’t based on a true story… because if it had been based on a true story, it would explain why nothing happens.  I mean, stuff happens, but I don’t see the point.  Why would you write a story that feels this, I dunno… generic?, if not to immortalize something that actually happened?  It feels like the movie should have been a lot more poignant than it was.  Instead, it just felt like “Bad Decisions and Their Consequences: The Movie”, where the characters make bad decisions and then exactly what you would expect to happen goes on to happen.  I gather from some other reviews I peeked at that there was a racial/cultural element that they were going for, so maybe it went right over my head because I live in an area where all of those cultures aren’t nearly as stigmatized as they were maybe expected to be for this movie.

The premise of the movie is that a woman (Ray) is trying to raise her two sons (15 and 5) off of what she earns at her part-time retail job, after her husband runs off with all of their savings in order to feed his gambling addiction – just a few weeks before Christmas, no less.  You know things are rough when all you have to eat is popcorn and orange tang.  To make it worse, they had put money down on a new double-wide trailer which was to be delivered shortly after her husband split with the cash.  Without the savings, the delivery cannot be completed and now she will not have a new home to replace their decaying trailer, AND she’s out the $1500 down payment if she can’t come up with the rest of it before the deadline.

She spots her husband’s car in a parking lot, but it’s being driven by a woman (Lila) from the local Mohawk tribe who claims she found it abandoned at the bus station.  They have some somewhat unfriendly exchanges where they establish that no police are called because apparently it’s legal to steal cars as long as it’s on a reservation where the police have no jurisdiction (wouldn’t the license plate and registration be enough proof of ownership??). Then a hole is casually shot through the door of Lila’s home, to which her reaction is to bitch that she’ll need to have that fixed now.  I know America has a bizarre tolerance to guns but I can’t decide if that was realistic or not.  Lila finally relinquishes the keys, but as Ray is attempting to rig up an incredibly unsafe-looking towing solution to get her two cars home, Lila suggests that she knows someone who will buy the car from her for $2000, which is far more than it’s worth.  Ray agrees to go, and they bounce off down the road with Ray displaying incredibly undisciplined-trigger-discipline as she waves her pistol around to assert her authority while also driving.

Turns out Lila wasn’t actually going to sell the car, she was using the trunk in a smuggling operation to transport illegal immigrants across the border from Canada into the USA.  Since the Mohawk tribe extends across the border, they can cross the frozen river to cross the border and be out of the jurisdiction of the police while doing so.  Each trip nets them $2400.  Lila originally promises to give Ray half, then inexplicably tries to steal the car again (what part of this is going to work out for her, exactly?  Ray knows where she lives, what she does, has a gun, has legal ownership of the vehicle… wtf) before just running off with the cash.  Ray goes home (without picking up her other car…), begs for a promotion to full time at her shitty job and is denied, discovers her TV is about to be repossessed by the Rent-To-Own people (more evidence of bad decision making.  Do not rent-to-own shit, especially not gigantic TVs you can’t afford), then decides to go back to Lila’s house and demand her half of the profits.  Somehow, despite all the backstabbing and shooting, they partner up to do more smuggling runs.

Bad decisions lead to consequences lead to bad decisions lead to consequences, and then the movie ends.  I would not claim the characters learn much of anything through their actions in the movie, which is what made me question why the movie was written.  All I can really find is that there is a theme of “mothers love their children”.  Ray is trying to provide a nice house (and food…) for her children.  Lila is trying to provide money for her son which was taken from her because of a perception that she would be unable to provide for it.  There is a sequence involving an immigrant woman and her baby.  I gather from commentary that the message is that all these women are from different cultures and situations, but they all love and provide for their children… do we really need a movie to tell us that?

It’s not like it wasn’t interesting to watch – it’s incredibly realistic (the bad decisions they make are exactly the kinds of bad decisions you would expect, rather than feeling like an artifact of lazy writing) and the acting is worth a look-see – but it really did feel largely pointless in the end.  I was expecting more from something that won so many awards, but I suppose I just didn’t “get” it.

Mary and Max

I can’t remember how I found this movie.  I think it was when I was picking up random foreign films, since it came from Australia, but somehow we didn’t get around to watching it.  Last night we watched it and I went on a real rollercoaster, from “Wow this is awesome and unique” to “Woah, unexpected” to “I’m not even sure I want to write a review about this because I’m not sure what I think…”.  It was a GOOD MOVIE, don’t get me wrong, but much like “UP” you probably shouldn’t watch it if you’re looking for something to cheer you up, jesus.

The movie is claymation animation, which, according to evidence from some reviews I saw, probably fools some people into thinking it is for children.  It is not for children.  Good god no.  It almost needs its own genre… it’s a black comedy but also a drama and a bit of a social statement at the same time.  There’s a lot of very crude (non-North-American style of crude) humour (all well executed, I might add) layered overtop of a lot of very sombre issues.  The basic premise is that Mary is a lonely little girl who picks a name at random to write to because she wants friends.  She ends up writing to a reclusive man with aspergers, who also has no real friends.  They chat back and forth about the various issues in their lives, spanning many years of time.  Almost nothing good happens to either of them. Maybe that’s a spoiler but I almost feel like you should be prepared before you go into this thing because I sure wasn’t.  The ending was one of those bittersweet “I almost feel like this is a good ending and I’m kind of happy, but at the same time, fuck everything” endings.  I think that means it was a success… I’m not sure.

Probably the only thing I am going to actually bitch about is that the movie starts off saying “This is based on a true story”.  The events near the end of the movie were starting to make me a little skeptical (but then again, truth is almost always stranger than fiction) but it was convincing enough that I scampered over to Wikipedia to discover the origins of the movie.  I had to do a ctrl-f to even find the reference, and it pointed back to an interview where the writer said he had a pen pal once, and that’s pretty much the only thing not fabricated.  Disappointing, and downright false advertising, I say.  If I were giving it stars I would subtract one just for lying to me.

If you can handle the deceit and depression, I definitely recommend trying to find this movie.  It was unique and well orchestrated, and even though it was depressing I wouldn’t say it was trying to be emotionally manipulative, just blunt and raw.

Xenoblade (Final)

It’s so good.

IT’S SO GOOD.

I could probably just leave it there, but no, I’m fucking serious.  Xenoblade is one of the best games I’ve seen in ages.  At first I was thinking “This is pretty much as good as FFX” since that was the last time I remembered being heavily invested in characters, but then it got better.  And then it got better.  And then it GOT FUCKING BETTER.  I kept thinking “This is so fucking amazing it cannot possibly get any better” and then it kept doing it.  And I was thinking to myself “This is super amazing but I’m sure the ending will be pretty cliche, but that’s okay because it’s really fucking good”, and then the ending surprised me.  Oh my fucking god.  It’s so good.  Game of the decade, sitting on the top shelf right beside FF6 and Chrono Trigger and Earthbound and all the other RPGs I have enjoyed more than anything else.  This game is already somewhat hard to find, so I am going to enshrine my disc for the inevitable day that it becomes a priceless rare collector’s item because it’s so fucking good.  I can’t believe how good it was!  I keep repeating myself but that’s because it was really good, guys!

Now for confession time – I didn’t finish playing it.  I put many many many many many hours into it and started feeling really burned out (I really dislike the real-time combat, which is the huge glaring flaw in the midst of everything), and then discovered that after all of those hours I was only just under half done.  But I really wanted to know what happened!!  But then I’d play more and be like “nnngh.”  But I REALLY wanted to know what happened!!  So I totally cheated and looked up a youtube channel that would show me all the cutscenes.  Watching the cutscenes loses a bit from the game, because a lot of the inter-character development occurs while running around or through cheesy heart-to-heart events, but I was already sufficiently attached to all of them that I was happy just seeing how the story ended.

The cutscenes alone?  ELEVEN HOURS.  ELEVEN FUCKING HOURS WITHOUT ANY GAMEPLAY OR SIDE QUESTS OR WALKING AROUND OR TALKING TO RANDOM NPCS.  ELEVEN. HOURS. OF STORY.

I watched all of it and it was the most epic movie I have seen since the Lord of the Rings trilogy (and at a comparable length too, huh).

Oh my god it was so good.

The worldbuilding.  The character development was good, but there were a lot of flaws with the characters that popped out at me.  They’re all so self-sacrificing and then everyone else in the group gets mad at them for being self-sacrificing and then they go “I’m sorry guys I didn’t want to worry you” and then they all go “TELL us next time – we’re a team!” and then next time they don’t tell them and it happens all over again.  There were plenty of character cliches at work under the surface too, but they were sufficiently buried that I felt it didn’t detract.  Also the romance got a little sappy.  But the worldbuilding.  This is a case study for excellent worldbuilding.  What an amazing world they built.

It really makes me sad that it was lost on the Wii, where the majority of people will not play it because they don’t own it, and the majority of those who remain will not play it because they think the graphics suck.  The graphics did kinda suck, but that’s because it’s a Wii.  I got over it.  It makes me even sadder that they’re supposedly developing the sequel as a Wii-U exclusive.  The console is already considered an abandoned husk :/.  I have no idea how they’re going to top this game, but if they DO, lost in the wasteland of the Wii-U library… noooooo… tragedy of the decade in the making.

This bears repeating: It’s really fucking good.  If you see a Xenoblade Chronicles disc, buy it.  If you don’t own a Wii, buy a Wii after buying the disc, solely so you can play it.  Or just put the disc somewhere for when it becomes a collector’s item because I am totally calling that right now.  Buy the disc to support the game and at the very least cheat and watch the cutscenes like I did, because you cannot miss this.

The Last of Us

I’ve been trying to decide how to review The Last of Us.  It’s difficult to talk about without talking about the story, but I don’t want to talk about the story because I feel that you should see it for yourself.

TL;DR you should buy it.  At full price, even!  The Last of Us is absolutely worth it.  It’s somewhat short… it has about 6 to 6.5 hours of story in it, but the time you spend exploring and picking up collectibles with backstory will pad that out a bit without making it feel like it’s been padded.  It took my husband 12 – 13 hours to finish it, I think.  It was a marathon over two days so maybe more.  NORMALLY I would say that is too short for 60 dollars, but the thing is it’s really good.

In case you’ve been under a rock and have not heard of it, The Last of Us is yet another post apocalyptic “zombie-like” apocalypse game.  In this one, a fungus (based on a real one!  Cordyceps.  Which, incidentally, helps to thin out populations of ants when they become too numerous.  HMMMMmmmm) starts infecting people’s brains, which causes them to lose control of their actions and… start attacking everything (as opposed to climbing up a blade of grass and freezing to death like the real Cordyceps does, but y’know).  Infection spread through bites, yadda yadda, fungal spores mixed in for flavour… the military tries to take control and welcome to the zombie apocalypse.  When my husband was playing through it I wasn’t paying full attention, and I thought it was a pretty generic setting.  I was wrong.  So if at first glance it seems generic to you, take a deeper look.  There are definitely some cliches at play, but the writing and worldbuilding more than compensate for them.  The writing.  I cannot say enough about the writing.  Yes, the base plot has nothing terribly original going on in it, but the characters and the world they’re in.  Everything is lovingly crafted with high levels of detail.  I wouldn’t call it “scary”, but if you like atmospheric post-apocalyptic games, you must get this game.  Right now.

They did a masterful job with the characters – you relate to them immediately and they feel genuine, and at no point did I feel that they were shoehorning character traits in my face to emphasize them.  The character’s motivations are natural and understandable, even if you don’t agree with them, which makes every character strong and believable.  Ellie is one of the best crafted teenage characters I think I have ever seen in a game.  She’s vulnerable and terrified, desperate for someone with some permanence to latch onto, but at the same time teenage defiance keeps flashing out as she struggles to find some independence.  The voice actors do an amazing job of bringing the characters to life, too.  It’s one thing to have incredible writing but a wooden performance will sink it just as quickly.  I am so happy with the voice actors in this game – thanks for doing a good job, guys.  And the graphics don’t hurt, either – cutscenes are incredible, but I did notice a bit of stiffness in the animations when the characters were speaking while moving around the world.  One day we will be unable to distinguish CGI from live action, but it is not this day.  That’s an incredibly petty thing to nitpick on, but I just don’t have anything else to bitch about, dammit.

Speaking of bitching… I hate bringing it up because I feel like a feminist when I do, but the female characters in this game are also fantastic and believable.  I really appreciate it when games go out of their way to flesh out female characters (and also clothe them…) so I feel I must give them another gold star for that.  I don’t usually put a lot of stock into the “Bechdel test” (in order to pass, the media must show two females speaking to each other about something other than a man), but I do find it interesting sometimes to see if whatever I am entertaining myself with at the time does pass it.  Not only do Ellie and Tess talk to each other, but Ellie and Marlene talk, and Marlene and Tess talk, and I don’t think any of them talk about men (unless discussing how to slay male zombies counts, I guess), so it passes multiple times.  Tess is just awesome and badass and I kind of want them to do a “prequel” DLC where we can watch her set up her smuggling ring or something.  Because I want more time with her :(

The only bad thing about this game is that it’s a playstation exclusive.  Not because I don’t like playstation, but more because it limits the audience.  Everyone should be able to play this game.  Everyone should be able to buy this game and encourage the creation of incredible games like this.  It should be on PC so that it can be on Steam and be in the summer sale that is about to start and then millions of people will buy it (and then never play it because that’s how Steam works) and then they can go create more awesome games with that revenue.  Also it should be on PC because fuck shooting things with a controller, grr.

I don’t think I’m even going to say anything more.  I don’t even care if you don’t have a PS3, go buy this game :P

 

The Casual Vacancy

The Casual VacancyThe Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read this book solely because I was curious what Rowling would do. I also promised when I started that I would not compare it to Harry Potter. I generally leave authors out of mind while reading and try to judge books on their own merit, but since literally the only reason I read this book was because of the author, it was a bit difficult to separate them.

It’s a solid 3.5. Since Goodreads doesn’t let you vote for .5s, I debated endlessly over whether to round up or round down. I finally decided to round up, partially because I simply love the way Rowling writes (I could nitpick some passive and convoluted sentence construction, but everything is so vibrantly described that I let it pass), and partly because I think she tried to do something clever, and even if it didn’t work out, I still kind of appreciated it because I like it when authors try to do interesting things.

The book is set in a fictional town which is probably fairly typical… it has good upscale areas and seedy poor areas, and a local political body that squabbles over what to do about everything. One of the councillors drops dead, and while half the town mourns in shock, the other half scrambles to nominate themselves to fill the seat and further their own agendas.

That’s it. That’s the book. The story follows the reactions and day to day doings of several key players in the town (and their teenage children…). It wasn’t un-interesting… and it’s beautifully described with brutal honesty, going through topics like drug abuse and child protective services, high school drama, prejudice, attempted murder, theft, self mutilation, abusive husbands, mental illness, hateful gossip, pedophilia, sex of both the consensual and nonconsensual varieties… if you can think of a horrible thing, it’s probably described in vivid detail in this book. (Hmm, there was no cannibalism though! So that’s something.)
There’s pretty much no other plot devices than “this is what this character is doing now”, which was my main complaint… there was nothing driving the story. but there was nothing “hooking” me to come back and find out what happens next.

It is 100% character driven, and one of my other complaints was that the first 25% of the book is spent introducing you to all of the characters. One after the other after the other until everyone blurred together in a giant amalgamated mass. I’m already breaking my rule and comparing it to Harry Potter – in HP, we had a ton of characters who were all fleshed out, but the reader was introduced to them gradually as Harry met them. That’s a decent means of exposition. The protagonist is just as clueless as the reader, so we learn together. In Casual Vacancy, everyone in the town knows everyone else and we’re dumped into the middle of it. I’m a fan of showing not telling, but a bit more orientation would have helped the book get rolling I think.

The second problem with the characters was that I hated all of them. Well… not hated I guess. I hated some of them (probably because I was supposed to), and didn’t give a shit about the rest (and I’m not sure if I was supposed to…). It wasn’t until the very end of the book that I realized this was probably on purpose, because the beginning of the book shows you the shallow petty sides of everyone, and it’s not until later that their more intimate secrets are revealed and you understand their history and motivations. I suspect you’re supposed to do an about-face on many of the characters later on and gain some sympathy for them THEN, which honestly I think is kind of a neat thing to attempt in this book. Taking abhorrent characters and turning them into everyone’s favourite is something George RR Martin manages to do in A Song of Ice and Fire, and it’s one of the things I was most impressed with. Unfortunately, with no sympathetic characters to latch on to early in the story, it falls a bit flat. The reader needs a reason to keep reading, and I really only kept reading because I wanted to give it a fair review…

Another thing that might be kind of clever, is that by introducing the characters with only their shallow petty sides visible, the reader is tempted to make shallow judgements of the characters. Which is exactly what the characters are doing to each other throughout the book. At the end, when the reader gets to see “behind the curtain” and see their motivations, it’s a revelation into how those types of judgements are flawed, and simultaneously a revelation into the flawed motivations of the town as a whole.
I’m probably reading too much into it, but the point still stands – the reader has to actually make it to the end before the story becomes anything other than shallow and unfocused.

And one final, sort of minor complaint. I mentioned how every sort of horrible thing is vividly described – The book is very sexually explicit. You can hardly turn 10 pages before tripping over a penis in this book. In MOST of the cases it makes sense, but in a number of them I felt like it was being sexually explicit simply to throw some shock factor in there. Here we go with the HP comparison again – I felt like it was artificially explicit simply because Rowling wanted to distance herself from the “children’s author” typecasting. It felt like she wrote a brutally explicit book simply to say “See? Look, this isn’t a children’s book, is it?” and she tried just a teeny bit too hard in places.

Once you make it to the end, the last 25% or so is a page turner and I enjoyed it very much. The whole “denouement” is full of action and you *finally* want to keep going to see what happens next. It’s just getting there that’s the issue.
And once you’re done… the ending might leave some readers a bit unsatisfied, too. I would suggest avoiding this book if you are prone to clinical depression.

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