Review 21: Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee

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I read this a year ago, very nearly to the day. It seems so strange to try and look back on that time, because I was so different and my tastes weren’t what they are now, but I’m sure it gave me a ton of inspiration for my own novel, and really pushed me to keep going with it. Well, a year down the line, I’m a hundred pages in (to my own sci-fi, that is!) and still going strong, and the sequel to Ninefox Gambit, Raven Stratagem, has just been released. I’ve waited a long time for it, so I’m not about to just dive in without giving myself a refresher of the first in the trilogy beforehand. I make a point of the fact that I never read books twice, but Ninefox is among my all time favourites so, for once, it’s a pleasure to get lost in it once again. Because I may have changed a lot in the last year, but what certainly hasn’t changed is how much I love this book.

In a distant and hierarchical future of calendrical warfare and exotic technologies, the ruling Hexarchate loses one of its central fortresses to a heretic takeover. The Liozh, the abolished seventh faction of the old Heptarchate, seek to reinstate themselves, and are willing to kill thousands in the process by purging the fortress. When Captain Kel Cheris of Heron Company is selected to take down the heretics and is given full access to the Kel arsenal, she decides on the undead tactician General Shuos Jedao as her weapon of choice. She bonds with the ghost of the man who massacred two armies, one of them his own, and sets out to take back the Fortress of Scattered Needles. But will she succeed, or will Jedao drive her insane before she does and get them both killed?

The Good: 

I think this may have happened before with my reviews, but this is another book where the ‘Good’ section will be a lot shorter than the ‘To be Improved’ one, for one simple reason. When you have a book that is consistently amazing throughout, it’s very hard to narrow down your praises, so you’re sort of just left saying “It’s all great, simple as”, which is a lot less complicated than, for instance, describing a whole scene in depth because that was the only silver lining you could find in an otherwise mediocre novel. Consequently, any criticisms are super specific so, even though they warrant a lot more explanation, just because there are more words doesn’t mean there are more things wrong with the book. Capeesh? Case in point: All of the imagery, description, names of the ships and weapons, it’s superb, it really is. See? That sentence is a lot shorter than if there was only one example of gorgeous imagery and I went into it in greater detail, but I can’t say anything more! It’s just so well-written. I’m going to have to get specific here, so let’s just list some things. The imagination that has been required to come up with all the weapons, ships, factions and imagery throughout is just staggering. Boxmoth troop transports, Cindermoths equipped with Erasure Guns and Dire Cannons, Kel Ashhawks, Threshold Winnowers, it goes on and on. And they never start to get boring, that’s the main thing. So much new weaponry is introduced that drastically turns the tide of battle (and that’s really what this book is about on the whole, so it just adds to the gritty feel) but none of it done cheaply in dull ex machina fashion. Instead, there are genuine surprises which grip you and keep your fingers flicking the pages, moments of terror that make you hold your breath, conversational gambits (pun intended, as I’m sure it was intended in the book) that make you grin in satisfaction, laugh out loud or shudder, and, of course, a whole host of explosive space battles and infantry skirmishes complete with all the aforementioned cannons, guns and winnowers, along with many others. As well as all this, the lore behind the story is established incredibly cunningly. When I first read it, sure, I was incredibly confused by all the “calendar” stuff, as none of it is explicitly explained; but, and this is something many people cite as a reason to avoid sci-fi as it is too easy a genre to write to be awarded any credit, it doesn’t need to be explained, because it is shown not told. That’s the joy of reading Ninefox Gambit and unravelling the mystery for yourself. On top of that, many questions are left unanswered and I am very much looking forward to having them answered in the sequel, as well as having new ones raised to be reserved for, I hope, an eventual finale to a trilogy.

To be Improved:

Yoon Ha Lee has clearly chosen some things that very much resemble but not quite enough for copyright infringement multiple items and characters from Bungie’s Destiny and not even bothered to change the names. Servitors are enemies that look very similar to the small drones of the same name described in the book, and serve (pun intended) much the same function. Exotics, even though this is already an English word, I guess, are the powerful weapons you unlock at high levels in Destiny, and they’re the ones used in the book, too. The Kel are a race in Destiny, and a faction in the book. Look, I’m all for a bit of homage, but when you mention all three of these things in the first page and the reason I buy your book is because of how much it initially reminds me of one of my favourite video games, you’ve cheated a bit. But that’s not to say that’s the reason I carried on reading. Another slight issue is that as you go through the book there are perhaps a few too many characters to keep up with. When you also consider the fact they all start with the name of their faction (Kel Cheris, Kel Nerevor, Kel Diaia, etc) it becomes frustrating to try and keep track of them all, especially seeing as they all seem to be equally important at various points in the narrative. Although maybe that’s the point, as the main character herself finds herself unable to keep track of her subordinates due to her inexperience in her newly-brevetted rank, so I’ll overlook it. And on top all this, there are some VERY convoluted plot points that are never really followed up. If they are eventually explained, there’s too many to keep track of so whenever a “She dreaded to think what was going to happen” moment crops up, the reveal comes so much further on in the book and there are so many of these moments that it all gets a bit lost and muddled. But now we come to my biggest complaint, albeit one that will hopefully have been ironed out by the time there’s a second printing of this book. It’s now incredibly annoying when this happens, and yes, it’s an editing rather than an authorial problem, and yes, before I picked the book up this time around I’d forgotten about it which means it can’t have been too much of a problem the last time I read it, but Ninefox Gambit is one of if not the only book I’ve read where whole paragraphs (short ones, mind, but paragraphs all the same) are accidentally used twice, in completely different contexts. It’s immersion-shattering, it’s tedious, it’s just a mistake that shouldn’t even be made if you do any sort of proofreading before publication. Rather unfortunate, but there it is. No fault of the author, of course, as switching around paragraphs to places they work best is a must during one’s own editing sessions, but I try to give reviews of books as a whole rather than just the skill of the author. If a movie was amazingly done but they used a line of dialogue or a specific shot more than once (Michael Bay, take notes) you’d definitely notice, so I try and critique books in a similar vein. Other than that, I have no more criticisms to offer regarding the actual content of the novel, the description, the plot and the way it’s all done. I did mention that this was in my top five favourite books of all time, right?

Overall: 9/10

Ninefox Gambit is incredible. I love military science fiction (like Joe Haldeman’s Forever War), and this is a brilliant blend of rip-roaring battle sequences punctuated by intricate instances of political intrigue and backdoor influences. I say instances because all too often (in novels like Dune, for example) authors choose to focus drastically more attention on the politics of it all at the cost of anything exciting. Probably need to change that attitude if I’m planning on getting through Frank Herbert’s 400 or so pages at some point in the near future, but that’s just my opinion. Ha Lee does decidedly the opposite, and does it very well indeed, adding little pieces of what’s going on between the characters pulling the strings, adding some nice background and lore to the story, but mainly focusing on the hard realities of space warfare, the thing you can really bite on as you read, which is what catapults the narrative forward, keeps those pages turning, and, above all, is fundamentally, grin-inducingly fun. It makes for an awesome and compelling read, and one which, like I said, sits in my top five. Bring on the sequel.

 

Review 20: The Frogs by Aristophanes

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Well, well, well, what do we have here? This is a bit of a wildcard, isn’t it? In a reading career almost entirely comprised of sci-fi, peppered through with a few Westerns, what’s classical literature doing in the mix? Well, if you’ve read some of my other reviews you may know that I am a budding classicist, and as I’ve always wanted to read Greek Comedy (we only ever did epics and tragedy at A-Level), I knew it would be a good idea to buy this when I found out it was available in the form of the adorable one-to-two-pound-a-copy Penguin Classics series.

The Frogs follows Dionysus and his sidekick Xanthias as they travel to the underworld disguised as Heracles and his slave, in order to bring back Euripides from the dead and experience true poetry. Expertly translated by David Barrett, The Frogs is outrageous, hilarious and, beneath the surface, unexpectedly political. This review is a little shorter than usual because technically it’s a play rather than a book, and this copy is tiny in and of itself.

The Good:

  • Actually laugh out loud funny which even modern on-screen comedies don’t get right the majority of the time.
  • Plenty of intricate and carefully tailored characters who each have their own personalities from the moment they first speak.
  • Fantastical settings as are only appropriate for a work in the classical genre.
  • Some hilarious precursor-to-Deadpool fourth wall breaks, really including the audience (and, if you use your imagination a little, as we’re not seeing this on stage, after all, the reader) in the antics.

To be Improved:

  • Too much singing, always boring in literature (here’s looking at you, Tolkien) and would work much better if actually seen on stage. Doesn’t translate (no pun intended) well to written word. Obviously not the fault of the original author or translator but there it is, I suppose.

Overall: 8/10

Examining The Frogs for what it is, and being nowhere near as critical and exploratory as I’ll no doubt need to be when I inevitably come to read it again at university, the play does its job incredibly well. Aristophanes was never afraid to poke fun at his contemporaries, and The Frogs appears to one massive satire piece on that subject, a sheer stroke of riotously funny genius.

Movie Review 11: Baby Driver

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‘The moment you catch feelings is the moment you catch a bullet.’

Against the wishes of my friends that I attend a house party, I already had tickets booked to see a film I’d been looking forward to since I saw the trailer before Free Fire way back at the beginning of April, three months ago today. That film was Baby Driver, and I was not about to trek twenty stops on the central line when I could take a bus down the road to my local cinema and have a car chase- and rock music-fuelled evening of action.

Baby is a driver (seems simple enough, appropriate title choice) for Kevin Spacey’s Doc, a ruthless mobster who has our titular hero under his thumb for stealing a bunch of his stuff, presumably drugs, in the trunk of a car which he then proceeded to drive round Spaghetti Junction with no headlights or brake lights, managing to evade the police but (again presumably, and we’ll come to this in my biggest gripe with the film) crashing the car and (fucking presumably, because have I made it clear that we are never told) losing the drugs. We don’t see any of this, which is shame, and the film instead follows Baby’s last few jobs as he finally gets straight with Doc. But once your hands are this dirty, you’re probably going to end up curtains trying to get them clean, as we shall see.

The Good:

As with Free Fire and Full Metal Jacket, this is another one of the only good films I’ve reviewed on this blog. I’m not talking about enjoyability, because I gave Ghost in the Shell a 9.5/10 and that was a box office flop, but I’m talking about actual production value and lack of pandering to the rollercoaster-thrillride-loving common denominator. In that vein, the rating for this film should be taken with that in mind, and that a 9/10, for instance, is worth way more than a full 10/10 for a blockbuster. This is where the cracks in rating systems start to peek through, but I hope what I’m trying to sell makes sense. Right, let’s get into this thang.

This. Film. Rocks. Holy SHIT, does it rock. There aren’t many movies I come out of with the memory of turning to whoever I’m seeing it with and excitedly whispering “I think I’m gonna pee!” as I jiggle in place, but that was certainly the case with Baby Driver. There are around four different shootouts and chase scenes that time the gunshots and gear changes with the rumbling drumbeats and blaring electric guitars of such hits as Queen’s Brighton Rock and Tequila by The Champs. I could barely my contain squeals of pleasure as a pistol slide cracked with the hi-hat, or a clutch pedal was slammed down on the kick of the bass drum. God dayum was it a ride! This is so far removed from the bland, achingly over-the-top action and violence of Transformers or X-Men. It is true adrenalin, bursting at the seams, and it feels fucking great. This was a 15 so I’m allowing myself, much like the film, some ‘strong language’, I don’t even care. In terms of individual positives, a scene that stood out to me, above all others, was when Buddy goes crazy after the death of his bride and tracks Baby down in a multi-story car park. Seeing the beefy, glistening black police cruiser, swallowing all light save for the piercing red and blue of the lights, growling as it patrols the bays like a shark, especially when you overlay Mercury’s vocals and Brighton Rock’s guitar solo, was joy. Pure joy, simple as. Mum and I had to hold hands, we were just bouncing in our seats. The script isn’t bad, either. Mum thought it was a little too on the nose, and claimed it wasn’t very well written, but I thought many of the quips were laugh out loud funny, especially one pertaining to a certain line from Monsters Inc, although I will say that for obvious reasons Spacey is a standout. On top of the ridiculously satisfying action and soundtrack, there were also some lovely moments of symbolism. A shot from Baby’s point of view where his gaze flicks from Bats (Jamie Foxx), whose reckless personality not only he but also we the audience can’t pin down, to Buddy, a character who is somewhat of a friend to Baby, who we have just seen listening to music with him. Bats wears the privacy glasses (sunglasses framed with glaring pink LEDs to confuse cameras and shroud your identity, hint hint) that are about to be used in the heist, and Buddy does not. See what they did there? Also, whenever Baby is taking part in the heists or the planning of them, everything that happens around him goes with the beat of the music he is listening to, because it’s the life, or even the rhythm, one might say, that he’s gotten used to. But whenever he’s living his normal life, the life he wants, everything feels disjointed and it took me a moment to realise that it was because everything is out of time. Flat. What he wants, but not what he’s accustomed to anymore. Genius. Finally, and this leads nicely into one of my criticisms, just before Bats is killed, there is a shot of him (in true ‘The Departed’ fashion) through a car window, with the reflection of a lamppost or telegraph wire slashing straight through his image, crossing him off, subtly placing the imagery in the viewer’s brain and adding even more to the sense of unease that something is about to go down.

To be Improved:

As with books that I enjoy to a massive extent, this section is often a little longer when I find a film I love, but that’s because the criticisms are very specific. The biggest one I have with Baby Driver is the fact that the trailer featured many split second shots of nifty car stunts, and I remember saying to my girlfriend on the way to the cinema that I bet there would only be one chase scene at the beginning, then maybe another one a little later on that wouldn’t be as action-packed. How right I was, when, much to me and mum’s disappointment (yes, we saw it with my parents, but it was lovely, shush), the film opened on a car chase. It was the highlight of the film for my parents, who left feeling the rest of it was a bit flat in comparison. I don’t share this opinion, but I do agree that it was a high note which should have been saved for a little further into the narrative or at least matched by another later scene in terms of excitement, which, to be honest, it wasn’t. That’s really my only big issue with the film, so the rest of these are slight cracks which, for me, stuck out a smidgen to much. Firstly, a shot where a girl in a denim jacket and purple headphones goes into the back room of a diner singing ‘B-A-B-Y baby’, followed closely by the eyes of our eponymous protagonist. Then, a second later, a different girl in a waitress outfit appears from a different direction by the tableside, causing our hero to look up from the door his gaze was just fixed on. It’s just the case of a bad series of cuts that make it look like Debbie, who in reality is both women, just after a costume change, is two different people, but it took me at least fifteen minutes to suddenly hit that “OHHHH” moment, which was a little distracting. Second, contrary to my enjoyment of the symbolism before the fact, Jamie Foxx’s death was way too obviously set up. Hitting the audience over the head with not just one but several shots of an incredibly unsubtle stack of poles sticking out the back of a lorry parked in front of the getaway car directly in front of the passenger side was a little too indicative of Edgar Wright’s style, and something that should have stayed in Shaun of the Dead or the disgustingly gratuitous Hot Fuzz (just my opinion, shoot me). Finally, there were just some moments left painfully unexplained or fizzled out. Like a character referred to only as Soldier Boy who suddenly comes out of nowhere during the robbery of money truck, starts shooting at the getaway vehicle, and is then killed, never to be explained. Seems a bit random and unnecessary, is all. Then, Buddy discharging his pistol beside Baby’s ears, supposedly deafening him, although his hearing returns by the closing shot which seems strange. If it doesn’t return, and he stays deaf, a possibility me and dad discussed, it’s not obvious at all, and that’s a problem in itself, so it’s still a problem. But above all, the most disappointing aspect of the film was a lovely nighttime aerial shot of Spaghetti Junction just before the film’s climax, as this seemed to be setting up a repeat of the scene we heard about but never saw of Baby’s famous police chase, which in my opinion would have been an incredible way to end it, but turned out to only serve as a callback to the backstory. In fact, looking back on it after the rush of seeing the film has passed, a Spaghetti Junction chase should have been how the film ended, because the real ending was lacklustre and ambiguous to say the least. You can tell by the time Baby wakes up in the car beside Debbie, however long after Buddy’s death, that Edgar Wright was running out of ideas. It suffers from LotR syndrome, being that it doesn’t know when to end, meaning that instead of solidly ending, Baby Driver just sort of… peters out.

Overall: 8/10

Some truly great filmmaking has gone into Baby Driver. The soundtrack is insane, and I think I’ll be preordering the vinyl just after this review goes up because it’s certainly gotten me in the mood to listen to it all over again. “That’s some Oscar shit right there!” exclaims Jamie Foxx’s Bats as he applauds, breaking the tension during a sinister moment in the diner. Mmm… Perhaps I wouldn’t go that far, but that’s not to say that Baby Driver isn’t a glorious blend of pink neon, banging tracks, delicious carplay (too little of it, if you ask me) and dazzling firefights. A Drive-esque chase to finish the story where it started and really wrap everything up would have made this my film of the year, possibly my film of the decade, which just means it’s that much more of a letdown that it ended how it did. Sad face, but one that is trying hard to hide its childlike glee.

 

Movie Review 10: Transformers – The Last Knight

 

“For my world to live… Yours must die.”

I’ve got a Transformers tattoo. I saw the first two films in the series back in ’07 and ’09, both with a lifelong best friend. The memories of our super-nerdy childhood and the nostalgia which comes with the Transformers series meant that I just had to get Megatron inked in full colour across my torso, his arms going down mine. I’m totally kidding, of course. My tattoo is five little numbers in cybertronix (the language of the Transformers) on my wrist, representing Barricade’s interrogation of Sam with regards to the eBay item 21153 from the original movie. It’s basically dots and dashes, so no full body giant robots here! But my point is that I’m a massive fan of the series, and pretty dedicated to boot, hence ink, so I couldn’t contain my excitement when I found out about this, the fifth in the series.

Oh, Optimus, it’s been far too long. The Last Knight picks up where Age of Extinction left off way back in 2014. I say “way back” only because, in a time when Disney is successfully pumping out a billion-dollar-grossing Star Wars every year, a three year hiatus for a franchise is a pretty big deal. Either way, the events take place soon after the previous film, in a period where an evil corporation has taken to finishing the now deceased Lockdown’s mission to hunt what remains of the Cybertronian race. The timeline switches between this and the distant, medieval past, where Transformers shed precious metal with the blood of Arthurian knights against a vicious three-headed robodragon.

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“Giant robot? Uhm… Nope, not round these parts, I think I saw one go that way.”

The Good:

Lots of these are specific, I’ll be honest, so let’s just run through them in some semblance of the order in which they appear. Lots of the characters now have throwback designs, like Barricade’s arguably much more cartoony robot form, complete with a child-friendly (as far as evil, murderous robots go) blue paint job and ‘serve/protect’ knuckle dusters. This is a nice nod to the Generation One cartoons from the ’80s even if some of these characters are exclusive to the movie series. Speaking of nods, there are some insanely good callbacks to the original and proceeding cartoons, most of which I’ve seen at least half of, like Bumblebee’s famous “Sting like a bee”, Optimus becoming the evil Nemesis Prime (made me pee a little), Dragonstorm in all his glory, Megatron telling Prime that they were brothers once, Earth being Unicron, and so many more. On top of that, the return of Colonel Lennox is a very welcome one, although I stand with the majority of fans and wish Shia had been present, even in a cameo role (rather than just in a photo ripped straight from the first two films). And speaking of the army, the massive battle sequences complete with military jargon, huge explosions, fighter jets and the human race getting the living shit kicked out of it yet still firing just as much flaming ordinance right back at the ‘bots may not be anywhere near as incredible as the Strike Package Bravo and Operation Firestorm scenes from the first two movies, but there are plenty of epic moments and some gorgeous shots for sure. The climactic battle, though there are hardly any proper one on one fisticuffs, so none of the transformers get to show off their moves in all their glory, contains some amazing moments, like Optimus Prime asking six oncoming Insecticons “Did you forget who I am?” before launching into a sword swing which beheads each and every one of them in one go which he follows with “I… Am Optimus Prime”. Chills. Much.

And now, before we launch into my rather disappointing number of criticisms, let me just preface it with the fact that I really do think that the final half hour of this film did pull it back for me, and the fact that it ended on a cliffhanger means that Bay has one last chance (at least) to redeem himself, really hit home, and wrap this series up for good in a meaningful way. Which I hope he does, but am not in the least bit expecting him to. I’d much prefer if he stuck to his word and just effed off and let someone else take the reins. Hard reboot needed.

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Quintessa and Optimus proving that even Cybertronians have their kinks. Shame those chains aren’t pink and fluffy.

To be Improved:

Let me just start with my biggest complaint about this film, that being the fact that it is NOT ABOUT GIANT ROBOTS. This is a film about Mark Wahlberg hitting on a decidedly objectified Englishwoman, with the army following them around with a fleet of mini TIE Fighters (seriously, look it up), and a couple of thirty second robot fights in the background. In this vein, nigh on dozens of characters are completely wasted. Barricade gets one full body shot in the entire movie, complete with one of his amazing ‘Punish/Destroy” knuckle dusters, but is then barely seen and certainly never heard from again, before he disappears right after the main climax starts. Megatron is kicked out of an alien ship in what is once again a cataclysmically poor five-second-fight, much like the end of Dark of the Moon, and once again it is vague as to whether or not he is actually dead. Hot Rod and the gorgeous military green Allied Bumblebee fighting against Nazis is also a tragically underwhelming sequence, and one that my girlfriend was eagerly awaiting the entire time only to be left feeling utterly let down. Starscream’s head makes a nice cameo, but if I’m honest I’d prefer to have him back in his entirety if it meant he replaced one of the graffitied, racially insensitive Decepticons on Megatron’s team. And the twelve, count ’em, twelve guardian knights don’t even go into battle with the Arthurian ones other than in the form of Dragonstorm, whom they all combine to form and who is decidedly pretty interesting but, as with many robots in Age of Extinction manages to look very much like a pile of metal rather than the sleek, tyrannical lizard he could have been. All of the child actors are piss annoying, and I wish they would get squashed under a giant Cybertronian foot every time they’re on screen, but that’s not even the worst part. After a massive sequence involving the aforementioned TIE Fighters and no robots whatsoever (see above), there is a shot of the child heroine waking up in Wahlberg’s character’s scrapyard. I turned to my girlfriend and managed “Oh god, I fucking-” and didn’t even get the “forgot about her” out of my mouth before she held up a hand, nodded and agreed: “Me too.” Overall, The Last Knight really just doesn’t respect the series roots, and moves even further away from bringing back some of that spark (or should that be ‘allspark’?) from the first three films that was decidedly damaged, almost beyond repair, with the floating pixel transformations of the fourth film. Furthermore, much to my dismay, the film has adopted a very unfortunate trend that was started by the only piece of cinema I have ever given a 1/10 rating to: Guardians of the Galaxy 2. And it follows that trend in almost every way. Scenes that would otherwise be emotional and cool are shat on completely by Bay’s… well, nonexistent sense of humour, with a near-record-scratch moment of music cutting off in place of a quip just as it’s getting to the good bit, or a death scene interrupted by a joke attempting to get ‘down with the kids’ (a particular chase scene featuring a robot butler with an aristocratic English accent chanting “Move, bitch, get out of my way” made me feel particularly like I’d taken a big bite out of a lemon). One of the coolest action scenes is a game of polo in slow motion, for god’s sake, because it’s the only one that isn’t shattered by a poor joke. In my review of Guardians, I complained that the awesome opening scene was all blurry and shoved into the background, and it was instead decided that baby Groot dancing was the thing to focus on. Last Knight also achieves this, with a submarine (that is arguably just a big black cylinder) rolling through the water in the middle of the screen after it has been knocked off course, interrupted by split second shots of robots, tiny in comparison, beating each other up in the corner of the frame. As with Guardians’ opening, I was actually physically craning my neck to try and look around the massive obstruction blocking what I had actually come to see. However, not only does it follow in the footsteps of the absolute worst film I’ve ever seen in my entire life, but on top of that The Last Knight rips off some of the best. Okay, perhaps Suicide Squad isn’t among the best, but a greatly out of place sequence where Megatron chooses his crew is not only completely devoid of the tone set by the rest of the film and more like something out of a comic book movie, but is also so similar to Suicide Squad (especially considering the fact that in the following few scenes the army are using the Decepticons to track down the bigger bads, sound familiar?) that it’s outright insulting. On the subject of stealing ideas, what is most debilitating is that Bay seems to care about neither his own franchise nor in how shitty a direction he has taken it, openly having a character quote “What’s with the C3PO ripoff?” as if hitting the audience over the head with his outright assholery wasn’t enough and he also has to hammer it down our throats that he’s now become self-aware, as if that’s supposed to make it all forgiven.

Overall: 5.5/10

Five movies on and, in my humble, nerdy opinion, the Transformers series has absolutely lost its knack for creating awe-inspiring visuals in all their action-packed explosive glory, and is sticking well to the trend of including tamer and tamer storylines and acting as the series progresses. But come on, at the end of the day they’re based on children’s toys, for crying out loud, what did you expect? If you’re not willing to overlook that fact, then you really shouldn’t be spending money on a franchise you know you’re going to just hate and bash online later. Surprisingly, the child actors aren’t even the worst thing about the film, but instead it is the director himself. The humans are in the film far too much to not detract from the giant, metal T-Rexes and three-headed dragons, and sequences that could, nay, should have been five minutes long dragged on for half the movie, with none of the dry, actually funny humour of the first two films, and instead stuffed fuller with over-inflated sexual jokes than Vivian’s dress was stuffed with her over-inflated… Well, you get the idea. But did you hear me right? Giant. Robot. Tyrannosaurus. I can’t deny it: even if the Last Knight doesn’t make me all that proud to wear my ink, is barely hanging on to a positive rating and is honestly only doing so because of my love for the previous films… Shoot me, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy it.

Review 19: The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury

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Little disclaimer: Two reviews have gone up today as I finished On the Black Hill and decided to give up on this one. Because when it gets to the point where you’re forcing yourself to pick up a book, it’s probably a signal to put it down.

This is a little bit nostalgic for me, because I stopped writing reviews on this site and went on my depression- and manipulative relationship-fuelled hiatus way back in March 2016, when I was just about to finish Something Wicked This Way Comes, also by Bradbury. That was a really fantastical book, and one I enjoyed thoroughly. When I recently discovered he’d also written some science fiction, it was obvious to me that I had to at least check it out. I read the first two chapters online at work, as is customary if I’m considering buying a book and want to see if it’s my cup of tea, then bought it that same day (which also seems to be the trend at the moment).

Written in a time when landing on Mars and finding life there seemed the next big step in man’s journey away from Earth, The Martian Chronicles follow the colonisation of the red planet and the various trials that come with living life on strange new world. As Bradury’s stories are often heavily character-driven, I can’t say much more without including specific plot details, so let’s get right to it.

The Good:

Bradbury is a master of description. His imagination, though much more fantastical (which is a lot less my thing than, say, military science fiction) is awe-inspiring throughout. He comes up with things most of us can only dream of, like firebird chariots and metal books you run your hand over in order to hear them sing to you. As opposed to being technical and technology-driven in the aesthetic, for instance in books like Neuromancer, lots of it is very vaguely carnival-themed and magical, as per his preferred style of story, but this is no bad thing. Leaving things, plot-wise, to the reader’s imagination also helps with this imagery and the whole wonder of it all. It’s very cleverly done and it’s even nicer that it connects the chapters when you consider the fact that they were all originally individually-published short stories. The mystery which begins from the very first chapter is intriguing and really keeps you reading, hungry for the answers to the burning questions the red planet raises. The characters themselves are also enjoyable if a little archaic, but that’s simply because the book is pushing seventy years old.

To be Improved:

Lots, not only in terms of the story but also in terms of the way it is written. Namely, very juvenile mistakes and writing choices. Naming the Martians Mr and Mrs *insert three identical letters here*, for instance (Mr Ttt, Mrs Iii, Miss Lll and so on). This leads to so many problems. First, it makes you wonder: are there only twenty six couples on the whole planet? How the hell do I pronounce these names? I know they’re alien and that’s the point, but this is something that would only really work in a film where we can hear the, to us, unpronounceable sounds, but written down it’s just jarring because you actually have to look at the word and not be able to read it. And also, when we meet some main characters called Mr and Mrs K (obviously only given one letter to avoid association with the cult, which is also jarring because it doesn’t match the other aliens yet Bradbury has also been perfectly happy to include a Mr and Mrs Xxx despite the connotations), it begs the question of why Bradbury didn’t choose one of the other twenty six letters to focus on, or even scrub this naming system entirely as soon as he discovered these discrepancies. Another similar occurrence of this sort of thing is when the astronauts discover a settlement where they find every one of the relatives and friends they left back on Earth alive and well, mysteriously brought back to life. But what is odd about this is that it is inconceivable that every single acquaintance, family member or lover of the twelve astronauts each died in a separate tragic accident before their time. Again, Bradbury should have just realised that this didn’t really work and scrapped the idea. That’s what I’ve had to do time and time again with my own novel so it seems very lazy indeed that such an accomplished author hasn’t. On top of this, characters spout Bradbury’s own fantastical similes, making the same mistake Neal Stephenson made in Snow Crash by speaking through his characters instead of them actually having their own voices. Another childish aspect of the writing is the exposition, where in his plot Bradbury himself acknowledges that even he doesn’t know the full story of what’s happening. For example, a character who is eighty years old yet apparently still young for his age, talks vaguely of “a science” that is the explanation for his youth, without elaborating further, showing Bradbury’s own complete and utter lack of information on this so-called “science” that he has come up with. And again, when the Captain is later worried about a lack of firepower and a crew member tells him that they have a full arsenal on board. These people are already in this situation, and by that I mean they would already know all the details and workings of the setting, without the need to constantly explain it to each other. It’s as if they know as little as the reader and that Bradbury is just using them as vessels to exposit unnecessarily. A really simple fix could just have been “Might I remind you, Captain, that we have a full arsenal on board.” and the Captain replying “Ah, yes, how could I forget.” This immediately solves the problem, cleverly letting the reader know the stakes without actually having to entirely delete any aspects of the conversation, however Bradbury has failed to implement this obvious workaround and it really shows, not just at this point but throughout the novel. Furthermore, description is more often than not overly fancy for the sake of it and even contradicts itself regularly. The Martians wield guns that shoot bees which then drop dead once they’ve hit and killed their target, but when the gun is cracked open it reveals two spent bee ‘shells’ which fall to the floor. There are many little technical examples like this which just wouldn’t work in a proper sci fi but which Bradbury has for some reason been allowed to get away with, which is incredibly frustrating.

Overall: 4/10

Reading back this review after finishing the book, I feel like some people may think I’ve been a little harsh. But this is not a good book, I have to say, and I couldn’t finish it. It comes nowhere close to the standard Bradbury set with Something Wicked This Way Comes, making it even more disappointing. With some clever concepts, especially for the time, but ones that are not thought through in the slightest or tied together in any way shape or form, and description that bleeds into the characters’ speech and inner thoughts, Martian Chronicles proves that Ray really should have stayed away from sci-fi.

Review 18: On the Black Hill by Bruce Chatwin

My dad wrote and directed the screenplay of this! That’s about as simple as the backstory for my interest in this novel gets. But when it comes to how I got it, the record shop down the road from my workplace (the one where I got Tau Zero and A Fall of Moondust) has a surprisingly decent selection of books despite the fact it’s decidedly not a book shop and is only made better by the fact that they’re two for a fiver or three pounds each. I was in there with my girlfriend a few weeks ago, and they’ve got a new ‘Vintage Classics’ shelf. I managed “Wouldn’t it be funny if they had…” before my eyes rested on the lovely greens of the cover you see above. I decided it was high time I read it as I was probably developed enough up in the ol’ neural pathways to enjoy it.

Two twins (or would that make four people? A twins?), Lewis and Benjamin Jones, are brought up on their father Amos’ farm, the Vision, on the Black Hill. No idea what the title is referencing, *wink*. Either way, the book is just the story of the twins from birth (and a little bit before that, in fact) all the way up to their 80th Birthday as they live out their lives on the Welsh Border. The story isn’t my usual action-packed affair, but my goodness is it gorgeously written.

Little disclaimer, a few of my critiques are based on specific story elements rather than negatives in the way the novel is written, so it’s a bit of a spoiler minefield down there.

The Good:

There are only so many times I can look up synonyms for ‘gorgeous’ and ‘beautiful’ when it comes to praising nature-oriented description and imagery in novels, so it’s far easier just to come out and say I have no other words for how lovely it is when it comes to this one. Every chapter is filled with rich and powerful observations on the wildlife and flora in each setting, and hardly any two passages contain the same species of either. A few too many jackdaws alight from belfry rooftops, and the characters traipse past lines of hawthorn fairly regularly, but it’s just so fundamentally pleasantly written that I’ll overlook any slight repetition. Besides, there’s only so many animals in the UK, hardly any of them exotic, but each chapter is like an exquisitely painted picture, each new, exciting and entirely different from the last. Speaking of pictures, a theme running through the novel that I particularly enjoy is the paintings, mentioned in the very first chapter when the twins are in their eighties, as the author describes the contents of all the frames on the wall. The description is nice enough if a little disjointed a thing to focus on above all else, but as you read on you suddenly see why this has been focused on. Every so often, at various points throughout the book, one of the paintings will pop up, and it’s just a nice callback to the start every single time it happens. Be it the wedding photo that Mary, the twins’ mother, smashes during an argument, the postcard of a Red Indian received from a Canadian uncle, or a painting by a strange lady artist the boys go and stay with by the seaside, each one has an intricate tale behind it which just ties the whole narrative together so elegantly and almost serves as a backbone for the story on the whole. The story itself is so heartfelt, poignant and human that it just struck this previously dormant chord with me. I never knew that I’d be able to get so into a book like this straight after reading a string of explosive, rollercoaster science fiction, but it’s all just so personal that I can’t help but laugh and cry along with Chatwin’s superbly-crafted characters. Wound up in some rather dark over- and under-tones, there are so many innocent and light-hearted moments, too. When the runt and only piglet of a litter is adopted and cherished by the twins then tragically killed by their father, the twins vow to never speak to him again, offering only: “You killed our Hoggage.” Cue an attention-drawing fit of laughter in the middle of a packed tube carriage on my morning commute.

To be Improved:

Not a lot, honestly! The only thing I can think of is the fact that there are a few unsatisfying moments which have been specifically tailored by Chatwin to work out in his favour, like when the twins are separated as Benjamin is sent off to fight in the Great War but it then ever-so-conveniently ends before he can even complete his training. There are also lots of little scenes that seem a bit disjointed from the rest of the plot and are rather frustratingly never addressed again despite being left on what I take to be at least minor cliffhangers. These moments are few and far between but they’re painfully obvious when they do occur, and it just detracts a little from how watertight the rest of the narrative is. Other than that, it is just so refreshing to not have to criticise any errors in the techniques used by an author. Speaking through the characters in their own voice, for instance (on a completely unrelated note, review of Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles coming soon), or simply not knowing one’s own story so including massive contradictions that are plain unrealistic or otherwise damaging to the plot. Nothing of the sort appears in Chatwin’s work, and it makes for an incredibly satisfying read when you’re not constantly torn from your immersion by a glaring mistake every couple of chapters. You know a novel’s good when I have to criticise other authors’ works to show you how few problems this one has.

Overall: 9/10

In my Lego Lakeside Lodge review I mentioned my parents’ and my little cottage in Dorset, and to me the description in On The Black Hill is just so evocative throughout of the very same types of animals, plants and settings I grew up with on our fortnightly weekends away in the countryside that I can’t help but fall in love with it. On every page of Chatwin’s novel I can practically smell the country and sea air wafting from the paper, filled with wildflower fragrances and the sounds of a myriad garden birds, and it really is a beautiful feeling. The imagery alone really appeals to me and raises my opinion of this book, but a few cheeky authorial freedoms unfortunately let some small parts of the narrative down. Besides that, though, On the Black Hill is now among my favourites, and I very much look forward to finally watching the film.

Lego Review 17: 31048 Lakeside Lodge

31048.jpg

We have a little cottage in Dorset about five minutes from the beach, I may have mentioned it at some point on this blog but if I haven’t, I have now. I was never into these three in one sets, because I find it super cheeky that you can only build one at a time. My girlfriend urged me to buy the new Space Shuttle set because “look how many things it comes with”, but then turned her nose up when I informed her you can only build one at a time.

But with the Lakeside Lodge, I didn’t even take a second glance at the other two building options, as it was so similar to our little house. The main event, especially for the incredibly cheap £15.00, is absolutely gorgeous. The interior and exterior detail, the subtle but evocative suggestions of lake, beach and forest, that MOOSE. It’s all so lovely and intricate, and I love it. It comes with the Lodge itself, the darling brick-built moose, and a generic dude minifig. Lots of other accessories inside and out, of course, like letter, bed, lantern, shovel, deck chair, axe, logs, etc., but I count those as part of the build.

The Good:

  • Beautiful detail, especially on that gorgeous eggshell blue bed, and an inspired use of the flower piece for a cracked egg sizzling in the pan. That stove and in fact everything inside the house is just gorgeous.
  • Loving the ‘doll house’ build, where you open it instead of taking a roof off and fiddling about in there with yer big meaty AFOL hands.
  • The brick-built fine detail is especially good, like the glowing fire pit and the little cobbles leading up to the house (which my girlfriend maintains are mushrooms, another idea I like). It just pushes that evocative feel like the suggestions of an extended landscape which I mentioned earlier.
  • When I saw reviews, that moose… Sorry, pardon me. That MOOSE. Wasn’t really my thing. I wasn’t too keen on the brick-built design and prefer solid animal pieces. I think I still lean more towards them, But this big guy is just charming.
  • Roof is expertly built, and every time I put a piece down I was like “This isn’t going to line uuup come on… Oh wait, yes it does, oh wow!”
  • If the ‘comes with’ list in the intro didn’t do it for you, did I mention how many things it comes with?
  • Great colour variation without going too off-putting, which happens a lot with some Lego sets. The red really compliments the surrounding green and blue, with some nice splashes of yellow, light green and grey thrown in around it.

To be Improved:

  • Minifig is very generic indeed, and I think I can probably make him with parts I already own.
  • Not sure why the floor inside the house is green, unless this is a very basic log cabin with… grass tiling? Some sort of tiles over the baseplates would have just made the interior 100% good, and though not really noticeable as you’re just looking at the inside, once you realise, it cannot be unseen.
  • That tree really isn’t my favourite. The grey is just too visible beneath the top, and that ridiculous cone doesn’t carry the sleek look of the pine like it should. There isn’t an alternative piece which would have done better, of course, but maybe that’s the problem.
  • There IS a Lego fishing rod piece, so why did they feel the need to have an ugly brick built one with no string for the fish to hang on?! I understand that maybe it’s so that they can incorporate that black rod into the other two buildings somehow, but come on now.
  • They could have included even more fine detail seeing as they’re only doing it with studs, and there’s a lot left unused.
  • I like the variation on the windows, but unfortunately the nice ones with glass (plastic) in them are all on the back where you don’t get to see them unless it’s from the inside! It’s just a shame really.

Overall: 9/10

Even though it seems like I’ve said about as much bad as good stuff about this set, it’s just so charming and reminds me so much of being in the countryside myself that I really really love it. The intricate detail, the number of accessories included, that MOOSE. All of it, seriously, is super nice. This conclusion is pretty short but that’s only because, apart from a few minor nitpicks, I like everything about this set on the whole so much that it’s hard to sum it up any further than simply saying that it’s beautiful. And for fifteen quid? Bargain isn’t a strong enough word.