Friday, 13 October 2017

what the heck, lego star wars: the force awakens?

Our youngest is five years old and his favourite things are Lego, Star Wars, and video games. So obviously the first thing we introduced him to was the Lego Star Wars games, which we used to have on the PS2 but have recently repurchased for the PS3. And, I have to tell you, those games have held up well. They're still funny and clever and simple enough for an uncoordinated five-year-old (and his thirty-seven-year-old uncoordinated mother) to get the hang of relatively quickly.

They've also toned down the difficulty since the PS2 version, although opinion is currently divided on whether that's a good thing or not. Personally, I like a game I can play. Others like a game that challenges them. Everyone in this house likes a game our youngest can play without constantly asking us to assist him through the tricky bits.

(As a side note, I once again stand by our decision to let our kids play video games from a young age, but that's perhaps an argument for another day.)

So we bought LEGO STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS for our shiny PS4, expecting great things. Or at least more of the same things.

And immediately we found problems. For starters, they've complicated the crap out of the controls. It used to be jump-hit-interact-force. Now we've got jump, hit, interact, force, climb, blow up, throw sabre, shoot, and a bunch of other stuff. Some of them, for example the throw-sabre move, gets used once during the training level then never explicitly used again (that I've seen). You've got grappling hooks to drag stuff around. You've got specific objects that can only be shot by certain characters. You have special binoculars that can highlight special areas.

None of this is necessarily a bad thing. Variety is good. But the Lego games thrived on simplicity. There were only rare moments when you got stuck because (for example) you were trying to force an item that could only be shot. The puzzles were clear enough to be solved but still involved enough to give you a sense of achievement when you completed them.

And then FORCE AWAKENS throws in some cover based shooting.

Seriously now, what's the point of this? If I wanted to crouch behind a chest high wall and pop out to shoot baddies, there are literally a hundred other titles I could play. Why bung it in here? Is it just that the designers wanted "variety" and cover based shooting was the first thing that appeared when they googled "stuff that goes in video games"?

Ditto the quick-time events. QTE always feels like lazy button pushing to me. It's not vastly challenging and it breaks the flow of the gameplay. And, going back to our uncoordinated five year old, it's tricky enough that I inevitably get the controller shoved into my hands to get past these sections.

Oh yeah, and one other change that FORCE AWAKENS has introduced - they've added voices.

This won't sound like a big deal to anyone who hasn't played the originals. But the originals were hilarious, and so much of that humour came from the lego dudes being silent and conveying everything with exasperated expressions and visual gags. So now we've got a bunch of dialogue from the movie, which makes everything more dramatic and less funny. Even the amusing lines aren't so amusing when being fed through little plastic people.

In fairness, this only really hampers the main missions of the game. For the first week I played it, the voices grated horribly, and all I could think was how much more fun it'd be without them. Now that I've got into the side-missions and bonus sections, where they've either recorded new dialogue snips or just ditched dialogue entirely, it's noticeably more enjoyable, and I've laughed out loud at a good few bits.

So my capsule review is: man, it's difficult to make a new game in a beloved franchise. If you leave it exactly the same, people will be all like, but we've paid for this game already wtf?, and if you make alterations they're like, why have you dicked about with a winning formula ffs?

Although, bonus points for having JJ Abrams as an unlockable character.

Tuesday, 12 September 2017

this was all foretold

My current to-read list has steadily increased to the point where it's not so much a list as a teetering pile, threatening to topple and crush me at any moment. But having a physical, obvious pile is important (even if I trip over it at least once a day) because it lets me work my way steadily through it, from top to bottom. New stuff gets added at the top, natch, and if something's been in it for more than, say, a year, it's clear it's less of a must-read and more a vital piece of structure holding up the rest of the load.

Occasionally things get shuffled to the top and I remember why I put them in the pile to begin with.

Other things guilt me into reading them simply because they've been sitting there so damn long.

One book that's found itself nearing the top has reminded me of a trope I've seen once too often (and which, in fact, I'm guilty of using myself, more than once, because it's really convenient). Essentially, everything that happens - everything, from running a red light to being menaced by Bigfoot - happens because it's part of some huge, overarching purpose which the characters can only begin to fathom. Greater powers are controlling their fates. They are being guided for a reason.

I've a few problems with this. For starters, it allows all sorts of randomness and coincidence to be hand-waved through. The main character stumbles across a perfect weapon? She was meant to find it. The person she's just met knows the one path through the deadly, deadly swamp ahead? That person was destined to be at this place at this time, specifically to help our hero.

Not that I'm adverse to blatant coincidence, of course. Like I say, I've used it myself more times than I can conveniently count, as a way to dig myself out of a big stupid plot-hole. Or when I wanted aliens to suddenly appear. But:

It also allows the characters to make really bloody stupid decisions, and again it's hand-waved past because they're not responsible for their own choices. Ms Main Character has the option of either walking into the obvious spikey-death trap or carrying on blithely on her way, and decides on the spikey-death route because she senses there's something important hidden in there. And, turns out, there is indeed some unique artefact within, which she'll definitely need later on in her quest (although of course she doesn't know how or why it'll be useful) so it's a good thing she listened to that internal guiding voice of fate.

This is so, so handy as a writer, because it lets us excuse our characters when they're doing anything stupid or irrational. We need them to get hold of that artefact but there's no obvious or compelling reason why they would walk into almost certain doom to retrieve it. To be honest, there's no good reason why our character would be on this quest at all. She's got better things to do; things that don't involve doom and decapitation and so much angst. But if she stays at home and drinks wine, we've got no story, so we wheel out the hand of fate, the forces beyond our ken, and hope our character doesn't suddenly get wise and dig her heels in.

And then there's the question of motivations. Someone who wants to scale Mount Dreadful and defeat the Evil Lord Bumscratch will always be more interesting that someone who is led inescapably for some nebulous reason to do the same. There are always exceptions, of course, of course. Bilbo Baggins wasn't exactly a willing participant. But in general, people like a hero who does things for definite tangible reasons - it doesn't have to be a particularly noble reason (money, honour, revenge, boredom etc. are all understandable excuses) so long as it's more substantial than "there was a reason why I was doing these things, in this order, to this end, while these random occurrences randomly occurred, but I couldn't yet decipher the hidden meaning that fate blah blah blah."

It is, of course, an acceptable way of looking at life, since life is a horrid confusing tangle of events and interactions, and it's no wonder we try to impose some meaning over the top of it. But if it's in a story, the hand of fate better have a flipping good reason for acting like this, or we'll all find a reason to stop reading.

Friday, 21 July 2017

friday doodle - impractical hat

This week I picked up Spirals in Time: The Secret Life and Curious Afterlife of Seashells by Helen Scales, because... well, mainly because it caught my eye at the library, and because I don't know anything about molluscs (turns out, they're way more interesting than you probably thought).

Also the illustrations are gorgeous. This is my attempt at copying one:

Friday doodle: A mollusc in an impractical hat (part one of a series of impractical hats)

Wednesday, 31 May 2017

say bye-bye hair, not bye-bye library

Libraries are great; I think we can all agree on that (I hope we can, otherwise you and me may need to rethink our friendship).

The Family Library in Douglas is particularly great. It's got a wonderful selection of children's and YA books, it's super-friendly, the people there are delightful, and they're always running events for kids (and kid-like adults). For example, during half-term, they brought in visitors from the local wildlife park, and my mum-in-law met a snake:

They also run the mobile library, which provides books to people all across the Island who might otherwise not have easy access to library facilities.

(As a side-note, when I grow up I want to drive a mobile library. It's a truck full of books. I can't imagine anything better.)

Unfortunately, like so many libraries across the country in this bleak and unenlightened time, the Family Library is currently at risk of closure due to funding cuts.

So, last week, I got rid of my (rather substantial) mop of hair and we raised £125 for the library:

If you like libraries (and again, I hope you do, really I'd hate for us to fall out over this) and have a few extra pennies in your pocket, please consider flinging them at this very worthy cause, either here or via my Just Giving page.

Also, until the end of July, I'll be sending all profits on my ebooks to the Family Library, so if you fancy owning a copy of TERROR ISLAND or HOME GROUND and also contributing to a good cause, please click on through.

Wednesday, 29 March 2017

being bold for change

A few weeks ago I was kindly invited by Stacy Astill to speak at Henry Bloom Noble Library for International Women's Day, along with a fabulous collection of local authors, poets, and musicians that highlighted the huge variety of talent we've got on this island.

This year's International Women's Day was about being bold for change. So I said a few things on the subject of change, and I talked about it in terms of writing, because really I don't know much about anything else. But when I say 'writing', feel free to substitute any activity you care passionately about.

So, in terms of writing, a lot of stuff has changed over the years. The way we write, the physical process of it, has changed from pen and ink to keyboards, to mobile phones and writing software. It's never been easier, technologically speaking, for us to physically put words onto the screen.

How we're published has changed. There are more ways than ever before to get your work out there. Publishing is no longer a closed industry reliant on paper copies of books - now everyone has the option to publish their work in hardcopy, or print on demand, or ebook. You can post serialised novels on blogs. You can write interactive stories via Twitter polls. You can send your work around the world in an instant. You can ask for and receive immediate feedback from people throughout the globe. Never before have we had the chance to be read so widely.

What we write has changed. With the ability of everyone to self-publish, many old barriers have been taken down. You can write whatever you want and put it out there in the world. If you want to write a period romance with added dinosaurs - no one can tell you not to.

Who we write about is changing. Old stereotypes are being ditched (and some new ones are being created). With the upsurge in self-publishing, we've never had a better chance to create diverse characters - in terms of race, background, goals, motivations, lives, ability, everything. The world is changing and I want to believe literature is changing to reflect that.

How we read is changing. The electronic age has given us quick, immediate access to almost every book under the sun. You can buy and read the latest novels without having to leave your bed.

How we share our love of books has changed. Online sites like Amazon and Goodreads let us review our favourite books with a few simple clicks. Social media lets us connect with people who love the same novels as us - and gives us access to communicate directly with the authors we love.

But none of these are entirely positive things. There is greater diversity in books, yes, but we still have a long way to go. Look at your bookshelf and make a mental note how many main characters are non-white, or female, or differently able. Even if you believe you read diversely, you're likely to be surprised.

We may have immediate access to books via internet, but this is causing problems with piracy and the decline of the high-street bookshop. We are able to voice our opinions, but so can the vocal minority who will shout us down and tell us we're wrong to love the books we love, to defend the authors we care about, to want to see greater diversity and equality and change in what we read.

And while it might be easier to put words onto screen, the process of writing is as difficult as it's ever been. We are, and always will be, plagued with self-doubt and negativity. We question why we write, what we should write, whether we're any good, whether what we're doing will change anything. The obstacles are still the same - we all have other commitments, jobs and kids and families, and we never have enough time for the things we love doing. Some attitudes have changed, but some sadly have not, and there will always be those who'll ask, why are you writing? What's the point?

Here's what I think:

We write because we have a passion. Because we must. Because we persist.

We write to change things.

Maybe not to change the world, or opinions, or attitudes, or to make grand sweeping gestures that will benefit mankind, but because the smallest change is still a change. We can read and share diverse books. We can post reviews online. We can support our libraries and independent bookshops. Every time you buy a book, you're voting. You're telling the industry, this is what we want to read and how we want to buy. This is what we want more of. Every time you use your library card, you're telling the government, we need this resource.

Best and most of all, we can change ourselves through the positive act of creating something, or sharing something we love, or telling people about the things we care about. We can change our own opinions - the internal critic that says, how can I write when the world's such a mess? How can I write when no one will care what I say? How will this make a difference?

Change is difficult, we all know that. We're only one person. But everyone is just one person. Everyone can be bold and change something.

That's it, lecture over, please buy my books. :)

Friday, 27 January 2017

more books what I read in 2016

Thanks to the wonder of my reading spreadsheet, I can bring you further details of what I read last year. I know, you're spoilt.

In total I read 91 books. Breaking that down into genre first:

Almost exactly half (44) were Young Adult, which is no surprise because a) I'm trying to write YA books at present so need to keep up to date, and b) because OMG it's the best genre. It bears repeating that in the broad category of YA, you've got the whole spectrum of genres - crime, horror, thriller, literary, sci-fi, fantasy, everything. I tried to read as variously as possible, aided by my random-selection process (see below).
I also read 9 Middle Grade books (as categorised by my local library), 7 sci-fi, 6 "literary" (judged by me as such, usually because they didn't fit into another convenient category), 4 thrillers, 3 women's fiction, 2 crime, 2 horror, 2 fantasy, 2 poetry compilations, and 1 historical romp. Also 4 non-fiction books and 5 graphic novels.

(This isn't including all the children's books I read with my Youngest, although to be honest a few of those were for me more than him.)

By author gender, it's pretty much a 60-40% split female-male.

Despite the hundreds of ebooks I'd acquiring on my Kindle, I only read 5 ebooks and listened to 2 audiobooks

I also kept track of the reasons why I picked up a particular book, mostly for my own curiosity. 30 of the books were by authors I'd previously read. Which means a solid two-thirds were by authors I'd never read anything by before. And it paid off, because I discovered some of my new favourite authors this year.
Of the rest, 14 books were random selections from the library. I absolutely judge a book by its cover - it's the only way, since I hate reading blurbs (I've had to stop reading tag lines on the cover as well, due to the number of books that think "you'll never guess the surprise twist at the end" is a) not a spoiler, and b) likely to make me do anything but put the bloody thing straight back on the shelf). For a few months I choose books based on cover colour (there're a lot of blue books right now, I noticed). I tried not to limit myself by genre, although obviously there's a YA bias.
13 books were directly recommended to me, either online or in person.
21 were books I'd heard mentioned on Twitter or in the Bookseller or somewhere else.
7 were for authors who attended Manx Litfest 2016, where I wanted to effectively fan-girl at them.

So looking towards 2017... I should read more non-fiction. And I've seriously neglected the crime and horror genres. Oh, and I should read more ebooks. Apart from that, I think I'll just read everything.

Thursday, 19 January 2017

books I really liked in 2016

It was rather a good year for books, don't you think? For starters, three of my top five favourite authors had new books out in 2016 (apparently in an effort to make me spend more money I haven't got), and I also discovered two new authors to add to my top ten. So here, in no particular order, are the best books I read last year:

This came out in 2015, but I didn't read it till after new year, so it counts as 2016 for me. Anyway, it's brilliant - everything you'd expect from the fella who brought you JOHN DIES AT THE END and THIS BOOK IS FULL OF SPIDERS, and features my favourite female protagonist in ages.

MISTLETOE AND MURDER (and its prequels) - Robin Stevens
The fifth in a series of very English, cosy murder mysteries, which have earned a place on my best-of list because I read all five in quick succession. They're like being wrapped in a huge softy blanket with a mug of hot chocolate - comforting and delicious.

FANGIRL / CARRY ON - Rainbow Rowell
FANGIRL is an absolute delight. It's the story of a college girl who writes fanfiction about Simon Snow, who is definitely not Harry Potter. It gets right everything I love about fanfiction and the community that surrounds it. And CARRY ON is the logical conclusion - a novel-length Simon Snow fic, which I didn't enjoy as much as FANGIRL, but which does have Baz in it. *swoons a bit*

THE LIE TREE - Frances Hardinge
Oh my gosh, this was good, wasn't it? Thoroughly deserves every superlative thing everyone's said about it.

I don't think I've lost my shit so badly over a fictional work since Firefly. This duology is legitimately beautiful, with its world-building (familiar to anyone who's read Ms Bardugo's Grisha books), its cunning twisty-turny plotting, its characters... oh man, the characters. I have a girl-crush on at least three of them. It made me laugh out loud and cry like a baby. I honestly thought I was too old to have a new favourite book, but this has proven me wrong.

No one will be surprised by the inclusion of Chris Ewan on this list. That man could write a shopping itinerary that'd have you biting your nails in suspense. LONG TIME LOST is a great story about what can go awry with the witness protection programme. Tense, smart, super-well-paced, and set partially on the Isle of Man, wonderful.

Oh, this was great too. I've not read any of Mr Hill's other books (I'm such a slacker), but this has really turned me into a fan. It managed to be full-on apocalyptic fiction without falling into the constant doom-cycle that afflicts so many similar books.

ZEROES - Chuck Wendig
This year I discovered audiobooks. I'm still not wholly convinced, but I'll admit they are useful - I spent a long weekend painting and decorating while listening to ZEROES, which made the task a lot less horrendous. Also, I thoroughly enjoyed this smart tech-thriller. Mr Wendig looks likely to become one of my favourite authors.

EX-ISLE - Peter Clines
Speaking of favourite authors (and audiobooks). EX-ISLE is the fifth addition to the EX-HEROES saga, and Mr Clines is still on top form. Zombies and superheroes AND characters you care about so much you draft angry emails to the author when he inevitably does something unforgivable to them, hashtag angryface.

BCN is quite possibly the most beautiful comic strip available on the internet at present time. It's funny, it's smart, it's so true to life, and the artwork is gorgeous. I'm in awe of this lady's talents. And now it's available as a book!

Woo, new girl-crush alert! Ms Ellison writes games and writes about games and is generally everything I aspire to in life. For this book she travelled around the world, visiting independent game developers and crashing on their sofas. A wonderful blend of travel writing and game theory.

I picked this up because Dr Blackie was a visiting author at Manx Litfest this year, and I'm very glad I did. A fascinating account of Celtic myths and stories, told from a feminist perspective. I'd recommend this to everyone.

Annnnd last but most definitely not least, David Wellington is back yet again with a new pseudonym and a new genre, proving (again) that he's a terribly talented bastard who can spin story-gold out of everything he turns his hand to. I loved this epic sci-fi space-battle tale and can't wait for the next instalment.

I think that covers most of the very best books I read last year, although I'm sure I missed a couple. Next time you're in your favourite independent bookshop, please do check out some of these recommendations. At best you'll discover something wonderful; at worst... well, you can always shout at me, I suppose.