Books and Reading, Reviews

‘The Loney’ by Andrew Michael Hurley

“…the emerging springtime that, when it came, was hardly a spring at all; nothing so vibrant and effusive. It was more the soggy afterbirth of winter.”

I’ve just finished reading ‘The Loney’ by Andrew Michael Hurley and, despite really enjoying the read, am not yet entirely sure how I feel about it. This brooding, menacing work of literary English folk horror tells the story of 2 brothers on an annual family pilgrimage in Easter 1975. It is the sort of novel that you dwell on long after reading the last page, and I will certainly be thinking about it for some time yet.

The events mainly take place in 1975, later moving ahead by 30 years as we catch up with the consequences of what occurred during that Easter. The story is told through the eyes of Smith (affectionately referred to as Tonto by Father Bernard, the parish priest), who is 15 in 1975 as he approaches the end of the school year. At the start of the novel the body of a child is found in the Loney, a stretch of wild English coastline in northwest England, and the location for the Smith family’s annual pilgrimage. The Loney is one of the best characters in the book and for me was as well constructed as Manderley was in Rebecca. It is dark, dank, wild and terrifying and, depending on your interpretation of events, populated with pagans or witches which only adds to the Gothic atmosphere. But the oppressive mood in the novel is not purely due to the Loney itself, it is also present in its depiction of strict adherence to Catholicism and in the way that Smith and Hanny, Smith’s mute brother, are brought up by their mother.

All of the characters in the book go through some sort of transformation as a result of their pilgrimage, but not necessarily because of any religious experience. The obvious transformation is Hanny’s, but Smith is affected even more by the events that transpire, as well as by the revelation of what happened to the previous parish priest who died suddenly before the start of the novel. In many respects the novel is about faith, but not of the religious variety.

The horror works on more than one level and is a delight to experience. What Andrew Michael Hurley has achieved is remarkable; none of what occurs can be taken at face value as we are seeing it all through the eyes of Smith, and even then after 30 years have passed. There is ambiguity in all of the events and they can be read in several different ways. Nothing is explained fully and you are left to interpret it how you wish. For some this may be an annoyance but for me it simply added to the wonderful mystery.

Hurley’s writing is beautiful, particularly his imagery, and the characters are fully realised with each developing and growing further as the novel moves on. That this is a first novel is an astonishing fact and it is easy to see why it won the Costa First Novel Award for 2015. I would certainly recommend it. In fact, even as I’ve been writing this, my appreciation for the book has grown. Buy or borrow a copy and read it – if you can on a wet and windy day – it will be all the better for it.

Movies

Too many teasers…

NO SPOILERS FOLLOW

I’m the sort of person that actively avoids movie trailers and I have done for a few years now.  When was the last time you went into a movie with no idea of what was about to happen?  For me it was ‘From Dusk Till Dawn’ in 1996.  I went into the cinema that day with no idea what I was going to watch and just picked the very next film that was about to start.  I’m not going to spoil anything here for anyone who hasn’t seen the film before, but believe me when I say that the change of pace from around the half way mark came as real surprise!  It is still one of my favourite ever cinema going experiences.

Back in 2012 Adweek revealed something that shocked me.  A grand total of 25 minutes of footage from ‘The Amazing Spider-Man’ was revealed ahead of the film’s release through trailers, features and TV spots.  That equates to around 18% of the film’s 136 minute length.  If you had watched every trailer and teaser that was available you pretty much knew the entire story before you stepped foot inside the cinema.  Now, alright, in this case you might argue that the film was a soft re-boot anyway, so we already knew the story, but this is just one example of many, many others.

Trailers and features are designed to build momentum for a film, to hype us up so that we’re itching to hand over our money and watch the movie on opening weekend.  But do they really need to give so much away?  I understand that the trailer is the principal means that studios have to drive interest in an upcoming movie, and that if they’ve spent millions making a film then they want to get as many people as they can to see it on the opening weekend.  My problem is, and it may well be just me that suffers from this, but if the trailer gives too much away then I don’t want to see the film – certainly not in the cinema anyway.  ‘Prometheus’ suffered from overexposure ahead of its release; it didn’t particularly suffer in terms of the box office, but it did critically because the hype reached such frenzied levels that the movie just couldn’t match everyone’s expectations.  I tried really hard to not see anything ahead of its release but was eventually caught out by a mistake in my local cinema (they showed the same trailer for ‘Prometheus’ twice in succession ahead of another film I was seeing – so after keeping my eyes shut for the first showing of the trailer I saw it all immediately afterwards).

There are a number of films coming up this summer that I’m really looking forward to seeing, and so far I’ve not seen a single trailer for any of them.  That’s becoming more and more difficult in this day and age but hopefully I’m up to the challenge.  I’d be interested to find out what anyone else thinks though.  Do you consume everything you can ahead of a big release, do you mind potential spoilers, or do you prefer to avoid the trailers and go into a cinema knowing as little as possible?

Movies

Looking back at ‘Outland’

Outland, written and directed by Peter Hyams in 1981, was originally conceived as a western, but the success of various science fiction movies at the time led Peter Hyams to re-write the film in a space setting.  Despite this, Outland is still very much a western in spirit, showing remarkable similarities to the 1952 film High Noon.  Sean Connery plays William O’Niel, a veteran police marshal newly assigned to a remote mining colony on Io, one of Jupiter’s moons.  Not long after he arrives he discovers that some of the miners are suffering from a sickness that sees them intermittently suffer psychotic breakdowns.  As O’Niel investigates he uncovers sinister activity being carried out by the mining corporation and decides to stand up to them.

Like it or not, the setting really stands out; it is dark, dank and industrial, and a great example of Lo-Fi Sci-Fi.  I use the term here in what I consider to be its purest sense; Lo-Fi Sci-Fi is analogue and clunky, a world of CRT monitors and tactile buttons and switches.  (As an aside, a new definition of Lo-Fi Sci-Fi is emerging where it applies to science fiction films that are more concerned with speculation and ideas than big budgets and special effects.  If this interests you then a great place to start would be lofiscifi.com.)  Much like the fabulous movie Alien though, you won’t find any laser guns or touch screens here.  The mining colony is a functional and gritty place, and not the sort of environment you would want to bring a family to.  Certainly this is a contributing factor when O’Niel’s wife decides that she’s had enough and leaves him.  Her decision is also exacerbated by the fact that O’Niel refuses to look the other way when he discovers what the corporation are up to.

The film is a thriller for the most part, steadily building tension through great use of a count down clock showing when the next shuttle (and serious trouble for the marshal) will arrive.  This all leads to a finale that sees O’Niel fighting for his life with barely anyone willing to lift a finger to help. 

I really enjoyed Sean Connery’s portrayal of a decent man under a huge amount of pressure, unwilling to compromise his integrity.  Peter Boyle was also a very good choice as head of the mining facility.  But it is the fantastic Frances Sternhagen who stands out, portraying a doctor who is the one person with the courage to stand shoulder to shoulder with O’Niel.

On release Outland received mixed reviews, but it certainly wasn’t a box office bomb.  It was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Sound in 1982, and Frances Sternhagen won a Saturn Award for Best supporting Actress.

Warner Brothers announced in 2009 that Michael Davis had been hired to direct a remake of the film.  There’s been very little news since then, and I for one am hoping that it’s not going to happen.  Yes, with modern technology and special effects a remake would certainly be prettier, but unless it has an exceptional cast and script I’m not sure if it can improve on the original, which remains one of my personal favourite movies.

Games and Gaming, Reviews

Life is Strange, Episode 1 (PS4)

On first starting Life is Strange I was immediately stuck by similarities with one of my favourite games of all time, Alan Wake; it opens on a dark and stormy night and you’re told to run to a nearby lighthouse for safety.  This all turns out to be a vision or dream, but it does a great job of setting the tone.  Once you get into the meat of things though it’s not Alan Wake that springs to mind, but more a hybrid of 1980s Choose Your Own Adventure books and any recent Telltale game.

Life is Strange is a third-person, episodic adventure game centred around Max Caulfield, a new student at the prestigious Blackwell Academy in Oregon.  She moved there from Seattle to study photography a couple of months before the beginning of the game, and you jump right into the middle of one of her lessons once you come around from the lighthouse vision.  It doesn’t take long for Max to find out that she has a bizarre new ability; she witnesses a murder and manages to rewind time and change the outcome.  This is the central mechanic of the game and it is great fun.  It definitely brought to mind a childhood of playing Choose Your Own Adventure and Fighting Fantasy books; hours sat with fingers stuffed into different paragraph numbers, trying to cheat my way to the end of the book and the magic paragraph ‘400’.  In Life is Strange though this isn’t cheating, it’s actively encouraged.  You can rewind any conversation or encounter to see how each pathway plays out, armed with the knowledge from all of your previous attempts.  It’s only once you leave and move on to the next conversation that your decision is then set in stone.  For key moments and moral decisions I kept rewinding over and over again, trying to figure out which would be the better outcome for Max in the end.

There’s so much to explore, with a large part of the back story hidden in innocuous conversations with teachers and fellow students.  If you take the time to chat with everyone and check notice boards and computers (doesn’t anyone secure their terminal or iPad with a password here?) there are sub-plots involving murder, elitism and deep questions about surveillance versus human rights.  I appreciated this; there is freedom to just play through the main plot or to go off and explore and discover more about Max and her world.

Max is a believable protagonist with an honesty and innocence that felt natural.  It’s a shame that not all of the other characters are as well written or acted, but this didn’t detract too much from the experience – and some of the more jarring teenage dialogue possibly seemed so because of my age rather than it being out of character or unrealistic.  Yes, there are all the usual school stereotypes on offer, but given that these generically exist in any form of media I can forgive them this.

Ultimately, I was left wanting to know much more about Max and the missing girl that no one else seems to care about; I’ll definitely be making a return trip to Blackwell Academy.

Games and Gaming

Everything You Know About Gamers is Wrong

I shared this link for a couple of reasons.  Firstly, the gentlemen who write for A Most Agreeable Pastime are great and they put up some really interesting and insightful posts (so go take a look).  Secondly, I would love to speak to EEDAR (Electronic Entertainment Design and Research) to ask a few questions about their research methodology.

A question that immediately jumps out at me, but that doesn’t seem to have been asked by the researchers, is how many of those questioned identified themselves as ‘gamers’?  Mentioned throughout are gamers and game-players but there is a world of difference between the 2.  My parents for instance both play Words With Friends on their phones, but neither would identify as being a gamer – yet I get the impression that EEDAR would categorise them as such.  I’m not arguing that people should label themselves as gamers, or that we even need to have a label for someone who enjoys playing games, but I’m dubious about the headline statement that “59% of the American population is some kind of gamer”.

What is heartening is that the gender divide would appear to be closing.  This isn’t scientific, but even a cursory glance at Twitch will reveal that there are all sorts of women playing and streaming games there – and often making a living from it too.

As mentioned in the article, I’ve also never heard a female voice while playing online, but to be honest I’m not surprised; it’s not a nice place to hang out.  I used to be regularly subjected to all manner of verbal abuse in multiplayer games, mostly from what sounded like pre-pubescent teenagers, so have started to avoid those situations.  I now always start a private chat party, even if I’m playing alone, so that I don’t have to listen to anyone else ranting at me.

A Most Agreeable Pastime

We’ve known for a long time that gaming is no longer the preserve of sweaty, bedroom-bound teenage males (if indeed it ever was). But I was intrigued to read this article on Kotaku UK about just how much the gaming demographic has changed over the years.

This was probably the most interesting part for me:

The gender split is pretty equal no matter where you look. On handheld consoles, the split is male 55%, female 45%. On console, it’s 60% male and 40% female. On mobile it’s 55% female 45% male. Even when you split gamers out into “core” and “casual” based on money and time spent on games, whether on console or mobile, the gender split remains pretty close – a slightly greater percentage of the most casual players are women, and a slightly greater percentage of the most “core” players are men.

Although it’s been common knowledge for quite some time that…

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Games and Gaming, Reviews

White Night (PS4) Review

I bought this last week on a whim, my decision to purchase based purely on the stunning visual design of the game.  White Night takes place almost entirely in very striking black and white, with only the odd flash of yellow or orange from a match to light your way, and it didn’t disappoint me.  This is a beautiful game.  It’s also quite hard. 



White Night is an old school, survival horror game that brings to mind my first experiences of playing Resident Evil on the PS1 in 1996.  The first comparison here is the fixed camera, a brave decision in this day and age, but one that the game pulls off.  Very rarely did I get annoyed by the camera not giving me enough information, or for hiding something important (the monochrome aesthetic manages to do that well enough on its own – more in a moment).  Equally, I didn’t find it too disorientating when navigating around the mansion in the dark.  The second comparison with Resident Evil is the save system; here you can only save your progress when you sit and take a rest in an arm chair.  These are few and far between, so you’ll often find yourself back tracking to save important progress.  The final comparison is with your limited amount of ammunition, or in this case matches.  You can only hold a maximum of 12 and they break on a regular basis, so managing your supply is key to success.

The game plays like an old film noir – your character is even dressed in a raincoat and fedora – and the story begins on a rainy night, seeing you crashing your car to avoid hitting something in the road.  Luckily you crash outside a mansion, so you venture inside to look for a phone or help; unluckily the mansion isn’t as deserted as you might think.  Along the way there is an awful lot of information to collect about the family who lives there; newspaper cuttings, photographs, letters, etc.  I found this a bit overwhelming as there are so many collectibles – but the story they tell is fascinating and I wanted to look for more.  One of the PlayStation Trophies on offer is to complete the game in one sitting on a day with a full moon, and to read every single book and newspaper article while you’re at it; I’ll take my hat off to anyone who achieves this.  One issue here is that the objects you are looking for are all in black and white, just like everything else, and consequently they can be very well hidden indeed.  Lots of the puzzles require you to manage light sources in order to reveal the solution, which at times is a stunning concept, at others just annoying.

Despite some niggles I’m really enjoying my time with this game.  It should take 6-7 hours to complete, which for a game that only costs £11.99/€14.99 is not bad value at all. One final mention goes to the soundtrack, which is the perfect accompaniment to this game. This is a really well thought and and produced game; I’d recommend that anyone gives it a go, but especially fans of survival horror and the early Resident Evil games.

Books and Reading, Reviews

‘Ready Player One’ by Ernest Cline

Okay, I’ll admit right from the start that I am late to the party with this one, and I can’t begin to describe how much I regret that.  Ready Player One was published by Random House in August 2011, and in 2012 the book received an Alex Award and won the Prometheus Award.  

Ready Player One is a science fiction novel set in a very dystopian 2044 and is about a young man, Wade Watts, who spends every waking moment jacked into a computer game, virtual reality simulator called the OASIS (Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation).  The OASIS has pervaded every layer of society in the future.  What started as a game has evolved into a virtual ecosystem in which everyone, literally everyone, takes part; children go to school in the OASIS, adults go to work there, people spend their leisure time there.  If you can imagine it, then you can do it in the OASIS.  The OASIS contains replicas of every science fiction and fantasy novel, film or videogame world that has ever been created, as well as countless others that have been imagined by users of the OASIS since it went online.  But regardless of what it’s become, the OASIS was first envisaged as a game and the creator, James Halliday, hid a series of Easter Eggs and puzzles within it that lead to an incredible fortune and inheritance for whoever unlocks them first.  What follows is the mother of all treasure hunts.

Ready Player One has been described as ‘nostalgia porn’.  I can’t claim credit for that but it does describe the book perfectly.  If, like me, you were born in the 70s and remember growing up in the 80s, then this book is for you.  Every page is a veritable cornucopia of 80s pop culture.  It will cover pretty much every video game and console you ever played, every TV programme you ever watched, every music single you ever bought and every film you ever geeked out about (Star Wars, Back to the Future, Ghostbusters, Blade Runner, War Games, The Goonies, and the list goes on).  This is a book written by a geek for geeks.  And even if you don’t remember the 80s like Ernest Cline does, if you’ve ever been a geek about anything then you’ll get the attraction of this book.  It’s infectious. 

The book’s structure is a simple one, and you can take a good guess at the outcome within a few pages of the start, but that’s not what the book is about.  It represents escapism and nostalgia and is incredible fun to read; I read the whole thing from start to finish with a grin on my face and aching jaw muscles as a result.  Ernest Cline has done a great job in making a book about video games entertaining.  His universe and characters are so well thought out and put together, so original, so believable, that it’s impossible to put down.  Since finishing it I’ve not been able to shut up about it either.  I’ve been telling all of my family and friends to read Ready Player One, and will probably buy them all copies for Christmas.  

It is also worth talking about the unabridged audio book version of Ready Player One – and I don’t often do that.  It’s narrated by the actor/writer/geek Wil Wheaton (of ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’ and ‘Stand By Me’ fame) and he is perfect for the role.  

I’ve got the paperback and audio book, and will be purchasing an eBook version too so that I will always have a copy close to hand.  I cannot recommend Ready Player One highly enough.  Go out and buy a copy, then geek out about it to everyone you know.