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Review: ‘Experimental Film’ by Gemma Files

Experimental Film by Gemma FilesExperimental Film shows first-hand how a first-class concept isn’t enough to carry a novel.  Gemma Files is incredibly knowledgeable about film, and it certainly shows.  I was not at all surprised to find out she was a film critic and screen-writer in Canada.  But it does mean that she falls into the trap of writers with specialisations like this; going into far too much unnecessary, incidental and boring detail about the way the industry works, that they lose sight of the plot, or what makes a story engaging.

The story follows protagonist Lois Cairns as she tries to uncover the mystery behind a woman who may have been Canada’s first female filmmaker.  Lois is an out of work film critic, ex-teacher, and mother to an autistic son.  While reviewing freelance in Toronto’s underground film scene she embarks on a journey that takes her to derelict mansions, will make her delve deep into Eastern European folklore and come face to face with her own inner demons, as well as outside forces.

The concept for Experimental Film is a strong one.  The medium of film has so much potential to create a stirring atmosphere.  Film can convey so much within a very short space of time, and if a picture can paint 1000 words, a moving picture can do even more.  The disappointment is that the supernatural elements of the novel simply don’t really seem to hold any relevance to the art of film making, other than it being a convenient plot device that the author just happens to know something about.  The antagonist as well seems incredibly out of place.  Essentially, we have a sun worshiping demi-god who for some reason chooses to manifest in Toronto, a city that never seems to rise about 24 – 27 degrees Celsius, even in the height of summer.  The setting, the premise, the antagonist; everything had potential, but the narrative simply didn’t make use of any of them.  Files seemed to stick with familiar, rather than appropriate.

Lois Cairns herself was a well-developed character. She was interesting, flawed, relatable with the kinds of insecurities that we can all relate to. Unfortunately, most of her development happened within the first quarter of the novel, meaning that the plot didn’t really get going until half way through the book.  Lois’ insecurities, while interesting, weren’t enough to carry the novel’s interest for so long.   For a character with clear and obvious mental health issues (dealt in a way that should have been refreshing) who was clearly on the verge of a breakdown when the book started, the characters that surrounded her really seemed to just blindly accept her supernatural experiences.  No one seemed to question her in any real depth, which really stopped my suspension of disbelief as there was never any compelling evidence that anything supernatural was occurring, rather than Lois just having a breakdown.

The side characters of Experimental Film fared much worse in their development.  Lois’ husband Simon existed to be the perfect supportive partner, her research assistant Safie was just a glorified sounding board, her son Clark (Lois and Clark…believe me, I groaned inwardly at that one) was autistic, which of course was used to create creepy-kid-communing-with-the-supernatural syndrome, which I found equal parts offensive and overdone within the genre, and the minor antagonist Wrob Barney was such an over-the-top caricature of narcissistic unprofessionalism that I simply couldn’t take him seriously.  The minor characters were at best, archetypes, at worst, caricatures.  They really took away from everything I feel Experimental Film was trying to be.

With poor pacing, far too much unnecessary exposition, a premise that didn’t deliver and a narrative that failed to scare, I must say that Experimental Film was a bit of a disappointment.  All the parts were there, but nothing was followed through in a way that could satisfy.  Bits and pieces read like poor imitations of other works, like Neil Gaiman’s American Gods mixed with Night Film by Marisha Pessl (another book about film that failed to deliver a satisfying conclusion).  If you’d like to know a lot about the Canadian underground film scene, old film stock, and how to get a Canadian Arts grant, then this is for you.  Otherwise, there are more satisfying horror novels out there.

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The Mass Effect Franchise in Review

I’ve come quite late to the Mass Effect franchise.  Despite it being my most recommended game series to date, I just never really felt the urge to pick it up.  With such an extensive Steam back catalogue, and being primarily an MMO player there have always been other calls for my time.  Being an adult sucks like that.  But when I saw the launch trailer for Mass Effect Andromeda (the music supervisor for that trailer deserves a huge raise by the way) I was blown away and decided that I just had to play the series in preparation.

I’d tried Mass Effect 1 before, and while I enjoyed it, I found the Citadel quests a little monotonous, so when I stopped playing for a few days I just didn’t start it up again and promptly forgot about it.  But with all the constant recommendations I decided that this time I was going to stick with it.  And I was not sorry!

The overarching story is deep and immersive.  The attention to detail is second to none.  Walking past characters you can’t even interact with and listening to their conversations made the world seem real.  It’s the joy and danger of truly immersive, interactive, player-driven storytelling.  Commander Shepard wasn’t just a character I was playing.  I was her.  She was an extension of me.  Her choices were my choices.  I didn’t treat her as an object to move through the game. I treated her as an extension of myself.  I refused to let myself restart missions for different outcomes.  I committed to my choices having a lasting effect.  Which is why the ending let me down so much.

Mass Effect 1 was a good game, but not a great one.  The story was brilliant, and the way my Shepard created her own little family on the Normandy was exceptional, but the side quests and planet exploration were repetitive and clunky.  The combat was enjoyable, and I liked speccing my character to suit my play style, but overall the game experience of ME1 didn’t blow me away.  Still, the story kept me going for Mass Effect 2, which is where the series really started to come into its own.

Mass Effect 3 Kaidan AlenkoMy female Shepard had romanced Kaidan in ME1.  The romance was a cute distraction at the time, but I didn’t feel any deep connection. It was masterful in ME2 that, despite Kaidan being only in a few minutes of the game it actually made me care about him in a way that the first game hadn’t.  The storytelling and interactive dialogue really improved in ME2, and for the first time, I was invested in all the characters.  Building a new team and creating a sense of loyalty in my crew gave them all depth.  I’d briefly considered setting up a new romance in ME2, but when I met Kaidan on Horizon, his reaction to seeing me with Cerberus was so real and believable that I was pretty shocked.

That moment in ME2 on Horizon seemed to get a pretty negative reaction for Kaidan, but for me, it appeared to be a very real way to react.  I was a little disappointed when he walked away from me in anger, but I understood, so I let my reaction to that filter into my conversations with other characters.  I thought then that I could probably move on and try to romance someone else to get the full game experience, but every time I went into the Commander’s quarters I saw his picture there, the truth was that I as a person just couldn’t do that to Kaidan, especially after his apology message, so ultimately my Shepard just couldn’t either.

While the romance seemed a little gimmicky on paper, by Mass Effect 3 it had me completely immersed.  It made me personally invested in the characters.  They weren’t pixels on a screen.  They were my friends and family.  Everything my Shepard was doing wasn’t just to save the earth and a bunch of strange NPCs I’d never meet; they were to protect these people who had been with me from the beginning.  That is why, when the ending came, at first I wasn’t too disappointed.  Part of that reason for me was the fact that I was so hooked that I’d played all three games non-stop in less than a week.  I played for full days, sometimes until 4 or 5 in the morning.  I just couldn’t stop!  I had to know what happened to these characters, and having my Shepard sacrifice herself for those who she loved made sense.  It hit me right in the feels, but it didn’t feel wrong.

But, after the buzz of non-stop play and immersive story came to an end, and I had a chance to sit back and think about it, I found myself getting a little angry.  The story up until that point had been masterful.  It had an internal logic, but on closer inspection, the end just didn’t.  It would have made sense to have all the existing options there as other players had made other decisions up until this point, but there was a fourth option that was what my Shepard had been building toward that the game simply didn’t address.

Every decision I’d made up until that point would have brought my Shepard to one, logical conclusion.  Convincing the Crucible of the fallacy of his argument.  The narrative and my decisions had proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that the cycle could be broken.  I’d negotiated peace between the Quarians and the Geth, and the Geth were helping rebuild Rannock, the Quarian homeworld.  EDI was free to self-actualise and discover her individuality and was a valued member of my team.  The inevitable ending that the Crucible had foreseen was not inevitable in my world.  That should have been my ending. But instead, my Shepard’s decisions and choices were bastardised for shock value.  And that’s what it felt like.  So many hours that players spent investing in the character and their future ripped from them in a moment, thanks to a blatant plot twist for the sake of it.

I’m not going to lie, the franchise is still probably the best video game series I’ve played to date, and despite my disappointment at the ending, I can’t recommend it highly enough.  The suicide mission of ME2 is probably the most immersive well developed final mission of any game I’ve ever played.  Ever.

Mass Effect Andromeda has some pretty big shoes to fill, but I’m definitely excited to play it.

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Review: ‘Rattle’ by Fiona Cummins

Rattle by Fiona CumminsRattle won’t deliver anything new or provide any unexpected twists and turns, but what it does provide is a pretty gripping read that I devoured in only a few sittings.  Fiona Cummins gives us a strong, albeit formulaic, addition to the crime thriller genre that seethes with menace and tension.

I don’t want to give a plot outline because I honestly think that it will detract from the reading experience.  But what this book does have is a pretty unique psychopath and a bevvy of damaged characters who are just trying to get through life the best they can.  We see the abduction of their children affect two families in very different ways, and best of all, Fiona Cummins has included some interesting details about dealing with Natural History collections and biological specimens.  As a former museum curator, I loved reading about that part of her story.

Rattle is full of rich descriptions.  There is one passage that I thought was so beautiful I just have to share it:

Ribbons and sheets of ossified matter.  Stalagmites and bridges.  Twisted plates and bony nubs… He stands alone in the hallway, and drinks in the glory of the skeleton in its glass case, mesmerised by its distortions, the incursion of bone into thoracic cavity, the calcified trimmings decorating his spine.  A young boy trapped in a prison of stone.

It makes the human body sound like a work of art.  I’d heard of Fibrodysplasia ossificans progressive before under its more commonly used name, ‘Stone Man Syndrome’ but I didn’t know a lot about it.  Rattle managed to give it a human face as I realised how difficult it must be not just for the sufferer, but for the families who have to see their children become trapped in their own bodies.  The Frith family were strong, but damaged, and had very real reactions to the reality of living with a sick child.  The Frith’s grew as characters as the novel progressed, and I was impressed with the reality of their emotions and the way Fiona Cummins wrote them in a way that ensures empathy rather than pity.

DS Etta Fitzroy was an interesting character herself, although not entirely original.  Every crime novel these days needs a disgraced detective with a tragic backstory, so she seemed more like an archetype than a real, fleshed out character.  She also made stupid mistakes unbecoming of a detective that felt contrived to bring a bit more tension to the narrative rather than for any reason that made sense to the story.  It was moments like these that brought the quality of Rattle down for me.

For me, my biggest disappointment with Rattle was its lack of any real resolution.  I’m not sure if Fiona Cummins was setting it up for a sequel or to become a series, but because of this, the whole novel felt somehow, unfinished.  Instead of making me want to desperately pick up the next book when it’s written, it made the preceding parts of the story feel somewhat lacking.  I just needed more from it.  I needed more explanation, more detail, more motivation and more resolution.  The ending betrayed what had, up to that point, been a stellar novel.

All in all, Rattle was a gripping, enjoyable read.  But if you’re looking for something groundbreaking that will reinvent the genre, then you’ll have to keep looking.  While the villain was interesting and unique, the plot, in general, was on crime thriller rails.  If you’re a fan of the genre, you’ll know where it’s going.  But at least you’ll enjoy the journey.

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Review: ‘Harry Potter and the Cursed Child’ by J. K. Rowling

Harry Potter and the Cursed ChildThere are no words to express how tragically disappointed I was by Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. This is not a story or a play that can stand on it’s own feet. It relied completely and utterly on an audience already engaged in the Harry Potter novels and did nothing but rehash the stories already told. It felt…lazy. There was nothing new, nothing interesting. Even the ‘new’ characters were just re-skins of the characters that we already knew and loved, even the villain was simply a repetition of the ones we’d already put to bed long ago.

I realise that using a play as a medium already puts limitations on the in depth story telling that so many Harry Potter fans have come to expect, but conveying that depth is part of the talent in writing a script. From the stage directions Harry Potter and the Cursed Child already relies far too heavily on a huge budget and special effects. This is why it feels lazy. Rather than using a limited medium to be truly special and unique it feels like it’s trying to be a novel, spliced with a film and getting neither right. I don’t doubt for a moment that the play will be spectacular. I’ve heard great things about the actors, and even better things about the direction, but that’s the problem for me. It will be good because it had a budget and not because it’s actually good!

The story is exactly what you might expect. Adults with parenting problems, children under the shadows of their parents legacies. My main issue was that there was no uniqueness to the characters. Albus and Scorpio felt like mixtures of James/Harry Potter and Severus Snape/Draco Malfoy. The entire plot revolved around revisiting events from the previous Harry Potter novels. There was scope to give the new generation and indeed the old generation a new villain to fight, but instead we just repeated the same old moments and movements with the same old characters. It was all just more of the same!

I don’t want to spoil anything, indeed I don’t even think I could. The time travel angle has been discussed to death in countless films, books and video games that what you think might happen does happen. It held no surprises or unique points of interest. Everything had been done. This wasn’t simply a play set in the Harry Potter universe. It was a slight retelling of stories already set in the Harry Potter universe!

Do I want to see Harry Potter and the Cursed Child in the theatre? Sure I do! I’m sure it will be a feast for the senses in every way possible. But the truth is that I, like many people, might never get that chance. I’ve read countless plays that manage to be deep, dark and atmospheric without all the extra trappings which were such a joy to read. This was not one of them.

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Review: ‘Eight Rivers of Shadow’ by Leo Hunt

Eight Rivers of Shadow book coverEight Rivers of Shadow, while an improvement on Leo Hunt’s first book in the series Thirteen Days of Midnight, still proved itself to be an overwhelmingly shallow novel with little characterisation or originality.  Most of the novel felt like a rehash of Thirteen Days  mixed with some Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Orpheus and the Underworld with our protagonist, Luke Manchett, growing as a character on a scale of ‘very little’ to ‘none at all’.

After the events of Thirteen Days, Leo Hunt was in the perfect position to develop Luke Manchett’s character in a way that would help him discover his power in a world where magic and Necromancy exist.  Instead, Luke bumbles his way through his new found powers relying on everyone around him who appears to be more capable than him on almost every single level.  The idea of Necromancy is such a great premise and one that’s been pretty under-utilised in genre fiction that this could have made the book about a thousand times more interesting!  Luke has these powers, but what do they mean, how do they develop, how can he harness them for good, evil, anything?  These questions weren’t asked in the first book, and while Eight Rivers does raise some interesting moral questions, they are outside of the bounds of Luke’s newfound skills.

My main issue with Eight Rivers of Shadow is that we are given characters that we already know from the first book in the series, and yet they are simply not developed any further.  The lives of Hunt’s characters remain largely static and most of the plot’s development seems to rely wholly on Luke being completely inept and slightly stupid.  This issue is exemplified once more in one of the biggest criticisms I had about Thirteen Days and that is the complete lack of adult supervision in these novels.  Parents are either just rubbish at parenting or completely absent during the whole series creating a world where it essentially feels there are no adults around.  While this can be an interesting plot device as we’ve seen in books like Michael Grant’s Gone series, it is painfully clear that Leo Hunt has not put this in to his narrative intentionally.  Instead he’s tried so hard to create a realistic teenaged boy who his readers can relate to, but instead created a limbo world that neither adults nor young adults will feel any kinship.

From a pacing perspective the bland and lifeless characters make it pretty difficult to invest in the plot in any kind of meaningful way.  This book should have been an easy read, but I felt myself so poorly invested in its narrative that three weeks later and I’d barely grazed 75%.  It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy myself when I was reading it in at least a superficial way, I just didn’t feel motivated to make the time to pick it up.

Ultimately I think Eight Rivers of Shadow didn’t differentiate itself in plot and scope enough from the first book in the series.  It felt pretty same, only without developing anything.  As far as YA literature goes there are numerous better books out there.  This one wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t good enough for me to want to recommend it to anybody.  Reading it was an entirely ambivalent experience, as is its memory.

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