Review: False Hearts

False Hearts by Laura Lam

I really loved this book and I’m having a hard time knowing what to say without spoiling it. If you like noir and scifi you should probably just go and read it now without waiting to hear more.

The story follows formerly conjoined twins who escaped from the hippy cult of Mana’s Hearth to the high tech paradise of San Francisco. One twin may or may not have committed a murder and the other must take on her sister’s identity in order to find out.

There’s a lot of world building going on in order to create two drastically different false utopias. Ms Lam makes it seem effortless but I’ve done enough world building of my own to know the amount of spadework that goes into creating a single believable fictional society never mind two. Ms Lam constructs two beautiful facades before letting the plot drag it’s fingernails through and show us the rot beneath.

I particularly liked the way that the inhabitants of both Mana’s Hearth and San Francisco know that their societies aren’t perfect but they’re invested enough in the success of those societies that most of them pretend otherwise. That seems very real to me. Human history is full of people pretending to believe that their societies are better than they know them to be in the hope that the lie will become true.

I haven’t said much about the plot, not because the plot is weaker than the world building, but because I don’t want to spoil any of it. It’s a true noir so the less you know going in the better. It is deeply satisfying in all its twists and turns and I’d hate to lessen that satisfaction.

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Review: Hardened Hearts

Hardened Hearts, edited by Eddie Generous, foreword by James Newman

This is a short story anthology focused on the dark side of love. As an anthology it can’t avoid being a mixed bag. Not every story is what I would call horror but your mileage may vary. Not every story is going to appeal to every reader and I can’t claim that I loved every one of them. However there is a lot to love here and even those stories that I didn’t particularly like I could at least admire.

It’s a jewellery box of a book. Some of these stories are lockets containing detailed vignettes, some are gloriously baroque tiaras, and some are more like delicately jeweled cameos. You might not be willing to wear all of them in public but you can appreciate the skill of the makers. There’s nothing lazy or badly written here. Many of the stories are bold and experimental and that’s what a short story anthology is for.

I have my favourites. I particularly liked the first two stores, 40 Ways to Leave Your Monster Lover, and It Breaks My Heart To Watch You Rot. The second of those made me cry and and the first one means that if you don’t think that second person narration is acceptable (at least in a short story) I will now fight you. There are some sexy stories, some tragic ones and even some that are funny. I especially appreciated the placing of the final story, Matchmaker, as it’s just the perfect story to end on.

If you like horror, you’ll probably like this. If you like challenging love stories then you’ll probably like this too. I have no hesitation in recommending this to my friends.

Review: The Spot on the Wall

The Spot on the Wall by Rob Santana.

If, like me, you spent your teen years reading horror short stories then this book will probably fill you with a warm nostalgia while also chilling your blood. It reminded me of Edgar Allan Poe stories, particularly The Tell-tale Heart and The Cask of Amontillado. But it has a more grounded and everyday observational feel like a lot of Stephen King’s stories.

It is a horror story and there are some extremely distasteful things said, done and thought in the book. If you have specific triggers that you want to avoid then scroll to the end of the review where I’ve put in some slightly spoilerific warnings.

I do have a few criticisms but these are highly personal and may not affect your enjoyment of the book.

I would have enjoyed this book more if the characters in it weren’t so relentlessly dislikeable. It’s common in short form horror stories that terrible things are done to and by horrible people. In long form horror, when I’m spending a lot more time with the characters, I prefer to feel a little more sympathy with them.

The whole book has a very masculine gaze. Even the one female character who gets a strong point of view is completely immersed in patriarchal structures. She is strong only in the ways that women are allowed to be strong. She manipulates men with her beauty and her wits and uses sex as a weapon. It’s an old trope and the book is aware that she has bought into outdated ideas of a woman’s limits. Of course you could read it as a cautionary tale about the dangers of relying on benevolent sexism rather than just getting out there and doing stuff for yourself.

There is a sequence where we have a story inside a conversation that we’re hearing about second hand inside a flashback. I had to read it back to work out what was going on and maybe there’s a way to format it that would make it easier to tell what’s going on. However I am not suggesting that section should have been cut as it is one of the best bits.

I have a pretty big vocabulary. No, let me be honest with you. I have an embarrassingly huge vocabulary. In the top 0.2% of English speakers. So it’s rare for me to have to look up a word as I did with this book. I’d suggest that someone needs to take away Mr Santana’s thesaurus but I think it’s deliberate. I think he intends some of the language to be obscure partly because some of his characters are multilingual and partly because he wants the reader to be reminded of the stories of Poe or perhaps MR James.

If you’re in the mood for a bit of nostalgia with your horror while still reading a story that belongs in the modern day then this could be one for you.

SPOILERS BELOW THE LINE

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I said the characters were pretty unlikable and part of that is because between them they are homophobic, fatphobic and misogynistic. It’s hard to get away from that because the book spends a lot of time in their heads. There’s sexual harassment and mention of sexual assault. There’s a lot of sex in the book and it’s all really hetero.

Review – Plague

 

Plague by Lawrence Clayton Miller

Schtop, schtop… this biblically themed international thriller isn’t ready yet. It needs at least one more editor.*

Depending on how quickly you read this book it’s either flawed but interesting or hurl-it-across-the-room every second page frustrating.

Most people don’t read every single word in a sentence, one at a time, in order. We tend to scan the whole line and we skim over many common words like ‘the’ without consciously reading them at all. The faster you read the more of the page you’re reading in one go. Therefore the faster you read the more the layout of what you’re reading matters.

I’m no speed reader but I am pretty fast. My record for a whole novel is about two hours and if I don’t consciously slow myself down then I tend to consume even pretty big books in a single sitting. So when I read a book like this that changes location, focal character and point in time with just a paragraph break I tend to get confused.

I’m sure the author is going for a seamless transition from scene to scene. But if you read quickly it’s more like getting whiplash of the imagination. One minute I’m in Dominica and the next I’m in London. In one sequence we go from a woman contemplating a phone call when she gets to America, to in America making the actual phone call, to the reaction to that phone call from the point of view of the guy she’s phoning. This all happens with less break in the text than there is between the paragraphs of this post.

Perhaps the author intends the narrative to feel like it’s whipping around the world at breakneck speed but it doesn’t compensate for the other problem. The massive front loading of backstory. Maybe I’m over sensitive to this because as an aspiring writer I’ve read a lot of how to manuals that tell me that the opening chapter is no place to explore the tragic past of your central character. You’re supposed to show the reader why a character matters before you try to tell them anything about that character’s backstory.

The third problem is one of research and if you’re American this probably won’t affect you at all so you can stop reading. There is a character in this book who works for the SIS. That’s Britain’s intelligence agency the Secret Intelligence Service. The author gets almost everything wrong about the SIS. Probably because he assumes that the SIS runs like US intelligence agencies.

Just to give you a few examples: The people who work for the SIS are officers not agents. The SIS doesn’t get sent to foreign countries to investigate weird deaths unless there’s some suggestion that it’s linked to a direct threat to Britain or British intelligence interests. That’s true regardless of whether the country in question is part of the Commonwealth or not. SIS officers don’t go flashing their credentials to everyone on the ground. They don’t introduce themselves to all and sundry as SIS officers. Remember that the first S stands for SECRET.

This is not a bad book. But it’s not as good as it could have been were the promising narrative not drowning in poor formatting, premature backstory and flawed research.

*Imagine you read that in a terrible fake Dutch accent.

Review – Hell Holes: Demons on the Dalton

This is the second book in a series. I already reviewed the first one, Hell Holes: What Lurks Below. Like the first book this is a fast, exciting read and if you like books in which our world is not as it seems then you will probably like this.

The writer made the bold choice to use a different character as the first person narrator in this book. I think the choice worked to both extend the cliffhanger at the end of the first book and to give a slightly different perspective on the events of the first book.

I don’t like to hand out virtual cookies to male authors for being able to write convincing women. You’re an author. It’s your job.  However I think Donald Firesmith has done an excellent job of writing from a female point of view which is somewhat harder. This narrator has a different narrative voice than the narrator of the first book but the feel of the world of the story remains consistent which is not necessarily an easy feat to pull off.

My only real criticism is that there’s a lot of exposition. I think it’s a mostly unavoidable side effect of being the second book of a series that has a lot of world building going on. At least this exposition is well written and fits naturally into the dialogue scenes. The reader is learning stuff at the same time as the characters are.

All in all an excellent sequel that sets things up well for the third book.

And look at this. A wild link has appeared.

Hell Holes: Demons on the Dalton.

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.

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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.