Review – Hell Holes: What Lurks Below

As part of my never ending search for stuff to blog about and new ways to insult Dan Brown I have decided to start posting more book reviews. The first one of the year is right here.

I have a fondness for stories in which it is revealed that the world is not as it seems. This is one of those. If you also like those kinds of stories then you will probably like this one.

There’s a touch of Matthew Reilly about it but with a Dan Brown style hero/narrator and a Michael Crichton level of research. People who know me might think that the mention of Dan Brown is a thinly veiled insult but it really isn’t. Dan Brown is very good at some of the things he does and Donald G Firesmith manages to emulate those while avoiding the inept pop culture references, laughable research and lazy sentence structure that make me want to smack Dan Brown upside the head.

You might want to have book 2 handy because the cliffhanger ending is likely to have you hurling you e-reader across the room and cursing the author’s name. But, you know, in the good way.

Oh look, a handy link.



Game Review – InFAMOUS: Second Son

For lack of anything else to write about it’s time again to talk about the games I play when I’m not writing.

The PlayStation Plus free game of the month on the PS4 is InFAMOUS: Second Son. I was not expecting much but it looked pretty in the trailer so I downloaded it for something to play while I save up for the Dishonored 2 and Just Cause 3 DLCs. I have been pleasantly surprised.

This game has a lot of the stuff I like. There’s genuinely funny and warm dialogue that mostly doesn’t creep into maudlin, overly sentimental or cringeworthy. The voice acting is spot on and features the always entertaining Troy Baker as the player character, Delsin Rowe. Delsin talks to himself a lot so it’s good that they got the casting right. The gameplay is intuitive and the powers are varied enough to keep the grind from getting too repetitive. There’s a large map with quite a lot of freedom in how you deal with missions and when to tackle stuff. Your actions have consequences with a Karma mechanic that unlocks different abilities depending on how you play.

I like the range of characters. Delsin might at first seem like yet another tanned, dark haired, lone wolf male protagonist (and an angsty teenaged one at that) but he’s Native American and he has his big brother tailing along behind him. The women in the game are so far all well rounded people in their own right. The main villain is a mature woman who manages to be an evil, selfish, fascistic arsehole without getting her kit off. The teenaged girl with the purple hair at first appears to be a typical manic pixie dream girl but then turns out to be a deeply troubled person on her own mission of vengeance following the death of the only person who ever loved her (and he wasn’t her boyfriend).

If you have a PS Plus subscription then I recommend it. It’s worth the space on your hard drive and is good enough on it’s own to justify a month’s worth of the subscription. If you don’t have PS Plus and you see it somewhere cheap I still recommend it.

However it is not without it’s flaws. The Karma mechanic seems a bit heavy handed and doesn’t allow for nuanced choices. Your choices are clearly labeled as heroic or villainous and once you pick a path you can’t really veer off it without weakening Delsin. The boss fights feel a bit cheaty – there’s usually a trick to them and the trick isn’t always easy to spot while you’re trying not to get Delsin killed. I’m not enjoying it as much as Dishonored or Just Cause 3 and I’m not as driven to play it as I was with Wolfenstein: The New Order. So keep your expectations low and you’ll enjoy it more.

Review: The Equaliser

I don’t often do reviews because there’s no shortage of people reviewing stuff on the internet and many of them do it far better than I could. When I do review things it’s either because I’m really excited by the thing or I hadn’t heard much about the thing before trying it. It’s both in this case.

This is the film of The Equaliser from 2014 not the TV series of the same name from the 80s. And yes it is a reboot of the TV series. The protagonist, played by Denzel Washington, is called Robert McCall just like the character played by Edward Woodward. What little backstory we get about the character is very similar.

It’s a welcome addition to the growing genre of ‘Action Grandpa’ films. Mr Washington is a more convincing righteous force of nature than Mr Woodward was and he was pretty convincing if you’d seen any of the British TV series Callan.

Some of the ‘Action Grandpa’ films feel a bit forced but this isn’t one of them. There’s no feeling that this is a vehicle for the ego of a fading action star. It also doesn’t feel like an aging director or writer’s fantasy of relevance in a changing age. None of the action feels like it’s been shot round the infirmities of the lead.

It’s beautiful to look at. It’s not just in the camera work but in the lighting. Mr Washington is often shown emerging out of the darkness like a figure in a Rembrandt portrait. A trick that reminded me of the way Jean Reno was shot in Leon.

The fights are inventive and very, very violent. We are repeatedly shown that Robert McCall is a very bad man. Or at least a man capable of very bad things. it’s not just that violence comes easy to him. It seems to be easier than solving problems in any other way. You can tell it’s an effort to try the non-violent solution first.

It creates a tension with everything else we know about him. Right from the start we’re shown a man who can’t help but help people. He’s charming and engaging and concerned with the welfare of others but we also get the sense that this charm is deliberate. Connecting with people is something he is choosing to do. Friendship doesn’t come naturally to him so he’s reaching out to people by helping them to improve their lives in small practical ways.

The supporting cast is excellent. They don’t get a lot of screen time because the camera spends so much time focussing on Mr Washington (and who can blame it) but any cast that features Chloe Moretz, David Harbour and Bill Pullman is worth a look. Even with very little screen time some of the supporting players do get interesting character arcs that mostly avoid the cliches of the genre.

My only criticisms of the film are that some of the dialogue is a bit stilted, there’s a couple of small plot holes and there are some very heavy handed literary references.

Recommended if you’re in the mood for an action film with a bit more depth and a less frantic opening than the usual fare.

I have not been well

For the first time in months I haven’t hit my preferred posting schedule. It’s because I have not been well. Or in the vernacular of my homeland, “Ah’ve been nae weel”.

I’ve had an infected cyst and it’s been super painful. I’m now on antibiotics and almost back to my normal levels of nae weelness.

I’ve been dealing with the pain with a combination of regular painkillers, vaping CBD and playing Just Cause 3 on the PS4. It’s free this month to anyone with a Playstation Plus subscription. This is not exactly a review because I am not a reviewer. It’s just information for anyone else who might need distracting from pain or from the existential horror of life in 2017.

I’m not sure that Just Cause 3 is a good game but it’s certainly a fun one. There’s a lot of violence but so far not much gore. It’s funny but only if your sense of humour is like mine: as black as the earl of Hell’s waistcoat. You do have to hang up some of your critical faculties to enjoy it properly because the protagonist has to be mildly superhuman to pull off most of the stuff he does but his abilities have so far not been adequately explained.

If it’s distraction you’re looking for then this game does it well. It’s pretty to look at, the voice acting is excellent, the in game music is subtle but compelling, and the plot is interesting enough to drive the action but not so much that you don’t want to stop and do the challenges and side quests. There’s a variety of gameplay though there’s not much of a stealth option and I personally find the vehicle controls on the PS4 controller a bit shonky. This is a game that kept me entertained when the pain wouldn’t let me sleep and I had to wait for the antibiotics to work.

Also there’s a David Tennant voice cameo as the person kidnapped by the regime to do the radio announcements.

As I say it’s currently free on Playstation Plus and available cheap in any second hand games emporium. Or on Amazon it’s available for XBox One, PC and PS4. The XBox and PC versions are less than £15 but the the PS4 one is the gold edition and is more than £30.

Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2 – How to have your cake and eat it

As promised I’m back to talk about GotGV2. This post is rated Spoiler Medium for Volume 2 and Spoiler Heavy for Volume 1. Most of the spoilers for Volume 2 are about stuff that could be extrapolated from the trailer and the clips posted everywhere but proceed with caution if you haven’t seen it yet.

Today I’m going to talk about Groot, Baby Groot, and how to kill off your most popular character, and keep them, and still honor their sacrifice.

Writer-Director James Gunn was clearly owed a favour by some dark God of narrative or demon of film making. That’s the only way he could have pulled this off.

Near the end of Volume 1 Groot, the ambulatory tree voiced by Vin Diesel, sacrificed himself to save his friends in an act that paved the way for the rest of the Guardians to redeem themselves for their lives of crime, violence and selfishness by saving the Galaxy. It’s a poignant moment. However it was almost immediately undercut because Superheroes don’t die and because by the end of the film Rocket (genius talking racoon voiced by Bradley Cooper) had planted up one of the late Groot’s twigs and then we saw the twig dancing through the closing credits. One of the few criticisms leveled at the film was that this cheapened Groot’s sacrifice.

I’m here to say that bringing Groot back for the sequel only demonstrates the value of his sacrifice.

Many people have pointed out that while Groot was the sweetest character in Volume 1 Baby Groot is easily the biggest arsehole in Volume 2. Well of course he is. He’s a toddler. All toddlers are arseholes most of the time. They’re like that one friend you have where you’re not sure why you’re still friends. They are self obsessed drama queens, they get into everything, they’re simultaneously fragile and apparently made of rubber, they have no sense of danger or proprietary, they’re capricious, they don’t listen, and just when you are at breaking point they pat you on the hand, or give you an unprompted hug, or say something incredibly profound or tell you that you’re beautiful and you just melt. And then they fart in your face while trying to eat a crayon.

Groot in Volume 2 is a toddler. Not only is he tiny but he’s clearly lacking the intellectual capacity he had in Volume 1. It’s not even clear that he remembers anything from before. This isn’t a continuation of Groot in the same way that the Doctor from Doctor Who continues when he regenerates. The Doctor changes but remains essentially the same. He remembers everything from before and after a brief period of ‘post regeneration brain crazies’ he’s fine. This is more like original Groot’s clone or child.

Even if Groot eventually recovers memories from before it will only be after a lengthy period of dependence on a bunch of people I wouldn’t trust to watch my pet rock. And that’s the other part of Groot’s sacrifice. It’s clear that caring for Groot is forcing the other Guardians to grow up. They now all have someone that they have chosen to protect and care for. Being around toddlers forces adults to be adult, to be parental. So we get to see the others being parental figures. Which allows us to compare them to the plethora of failed parental figures littering their own backstories.

What can we as writers learn from all this? For one thing I think we can learn that honoring a character’s sacrifice can be a lot more complicated and interesting than we usually think. I think we’ve learned that you can bring a character back from the dead but it needs to be earned and they need to have lost something. We’ve learned that when a character goes through a major change it should change how every other character interacts with them.

We might also have learned that we should add a little picture of James Gunn to our shrines next to Terry Pratchett, Douglas Adams, Stephen King and JK Rowling.

Next week I’ll be back talking about the themes of parenting in Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2. Truly a family film.

Tell me in the comments what lessons you took from Baby Groot and whose pictures are on your shrine to creativity.

Thoughts on Guardians of the Galaxy V2

More than a week ago now I took my son into see Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2. I’ve already said that I recommend it to anyone who likes action, sci fi, superhero or family movies and anyone who aspires to be a writer. Now I’m going to talk about why I recommend it so highly. There will be mild spoilers.

GotG V2 is a fantastic example of how you tell a compelling story with a large cast of characters that has a strong central narrative but takes time to give most of the supporting casts their own story arc. You never get the feeling that the secondary characters exist only to further the hero’s quest. Even though Starlord/Peter Quill is clearly the primary character every other character is the protagonist of their own story.

If you want a masterclass in info-dumps that don’t feel like info-dumps, exposition that reveals character, and backstory that informs the action then you need to see this film.  There’s a massive amount of narrative stuff that has to be shoehorned into the film without slowing it down and somehow it works.

GotG V2 is a film that does not compromise. Just as Volume 1 was unashamed of the ambulatory tree, the talking racoon and the dance off Volume 2 is unafraid to set a massive fight scene in the background of baby groot putting on Peter’s tunes and dancing and reveal Peter’s father to be a planet.

There’s a lot of lazy storytelling in the world and action films are usually rife with it but not this one. No-one ever does anything for reasons of plot. Every action taken by every character is driven by that character’s internal logic. Yes they do stupid and illogical things but they do them because they are frail and flawed in entirely believable ways. And those flaws are revealed to stem from their personal traumas and struggles.

Throughout the film people make terrible decisions because of the terrible decisions of the past but one of the film’s themes is moving past that to make better decisions in the future. Some characters double down on their previous poor decision making and some learn from their mistakes. Guess which ones have the more positive arcs.

I really have to stop talking about it now or I will drop some serious spoilers. This is not the last you’re going to hear from me on this subject. In the coming weeks I’m going to take some of the themes of the film apart and show you why I think they’re remarkably good.

Review: Killing Floor by Lee Child

This is the first of the Jack Reacher books. If you recognise that name it might be because Tom Cruise has been making films of some of them. I haven’t seen the films but I feel that I should point out that in the books Jack Reacher is 6’5″ and 210 pounds (15 stone or 95.25kg) so maybe some of the lines from the books wont work so well if Tom Cruise is saying them.

Sometimes I read books because they call to me and sometimes I read them because I’m trying to learn how to write better. This book had been calling to me for a while but I decided to spend the money on it because I’d heard that Lee Child writes good combat and excellent badassery.

That turned out to be an understatement. He also knows how to make you care about the characters. I actually put the book down several times because I was scared for some of them and I didn’t want bad things to happen to them. But I picked it back up because I had to know.

The action is grim and bloody and perhaps not for everyone. Really horrible things happen to people and not all of them deserve it. Some of those things are done by Jack Reacher and he doesn’t spare us the details. He may be a good man but I’m not sure he’s a nice man.

The prose is spare and powerful. If you like Stephen King’s prose and you find Dan Brown’s irritating then you’ll probably love Lee Child’s. It’s also surprisingly lyrical in places.

So what did I learn from it?

  1. Badass characters can have hobbies and interests and it makes them more rounded and interesting.
  2. Badass characters care about stuff but they tend to do it quietly.
  3. If your badass is the strong silent type it helps if they shut up and listen occasionally.
  4. Badass characters are much more convincing if they (or you if you’re writing third person PoV) acknowledge those times they could have/should have/nearly did die.
  5. Badasses don’t scare easily so peril is more compelling if you surround them with people who are scared and have good reason to be.
  6. Badasses can’t do everything alone. They need a supporting cast. Those cast members need their own arcs, they need to change and grow and have their own moments of badassery.
  7. If your badass character is never scared and has no understanding of consequences then you have accidentally written a psychopath.
  8. Badass characters are allowed to feel things deeply, they’re allowed to experience trauma, they’re allowed to cry. It doesn’t make them weak. It makes them more of a badass.
  9. Point 8 is not the same thing as brooding. Brooding is unnecessary, boring and overdone.

The Girl With All The Gifts: Review

As I’ve posted on here before one of my brothers runs a fantastic Facebook page called Ninja-Bob’s Zombie Extermination ServiceNinja-Bob’s Zombie Extermination Service. Should you require any zombies be exterminated in Aberdeen or the north east of Scotland he’ll be there. However, since there hasn’t been a Zombie attack in the Aberdeen area since he began the service (he says you’re welcome, by the way) he usually just posts about Zombies in popular culture. Occasionally I’m going to cross post things to here from there.

The Girl With All The Gifts is a film that’s coming out soon. You can view the trailer here. I read the book earlier this year. He’s a review of the book that I wrote for Ninja-Bob’s Zombie Extermination Service.

Since the film of “The Girl With All the Gifts” is coming out here’s my thoughts on the book.

The book has one of the most electrifying openings I’ve read in years. By the bottom of the first page my mind was swimming with about a million questions all of which boiled down to some version of “What the hell is going on?” and it’s a credit to M.R. Carey that this question isn’t fully answered till the dying moments.

The story is very character driven. While the dominant arc is the story of Melanie different chapters have different point of view characters. Some of those characters are not nice people and spending time able to see into their minds is not always comfortable.

This isn’t the first end-of-the-world narrative to question who exactly are the monsters but it’s the first one I’ve read that puts so many different people in the position of having to decide where the line is and which side they’re on.

What is it that makes a monster? Is it an uncontrollable hunger for human flesh? Is it killing people? Even in self defense? Even children? Is it doing monstrous things in the name of science? Really? Even if that science could save humanity? Is it loving someone that your society considers monstrous?

It’s a really thoughtful book but it’s also really dark and gory. I recommend it to anyone with the stomach for it.