I know that as a writer I’m supposed to be a constant cheerleader for books and literacy and libraries, but there’s a part of me that always kicks against that sort of thing. I’m always quite self-conscious that there’s a great degree of self interest in these things, the pinch of salt that should be taken when someone advocates for the industry they work in. Of course we want you to buy and borrow our books, and those of our friends, who may notice the attention and reflect it back our way.
That might be a bit cynical. But that’s the other thing – the more time I spend writing and working with words, the more anything connected to them begins to feel like part of the work-grind. It can be hard to capture an upbeat readerly enthusiasm after staring blankly at a word processor all day.
Which isn’t terribly healthy unless you want to slide into a Marenghi-esque state of writing more books than you read, so I’ve been trying to find time to get away from screens and read more, including taking a month off to do some reading after my last big deadline.
These are the last seven books I read. You can probably guess the last one:
Metro 2033 by Dmitry Glukhovsky
Post-apocalyptic Russian SF, apparently originally written online by a young author. There’s a certain looseness indicative of the book’s origins as a rambling web-screed, oddities and dead ends in the plot, but for the most part, either through sheer talent or the work of editors and translators to bash the original text into shape, the end product really feels like a coherent novel. It’s the kind of world-building I’m a sucker for, a densely imagined world of warring factions in the tunnels beneath a devastated Moscow, and the weird mystical and philosophical elements push the book outside of the genre comfort zone of resource banditry and radiation counters.
Years ago when I reviewed the game of the same name, I said I’d probably prefer to read the book, so never let it be said that I don’t occasionally follow through on my intentions. I also picked up the sequel, Metro 2034, recently, which is an indication of how much I enjoyed this initial outing.
Don’t Point That Thing At Me by Kyril Bonfiglioli
Remember Mortdecai, the Jonny Depp movie that was last year’s first big Box Office disaster, and was promptly dumped on Netflix by the autumn? Well, it’s existence prompted me to pick up the first novel the film was based on, just out of sheer perverse fascination, and it’s actually a very entertaining read, with caveats.
(I actually liked the film too, but that’s another story.)
Charlie Mortdecai and Jock are essentially a corrupted Bertie Wooster and Jeeves bouncing from disaster to disaster in a world of thuggish cops and elaborate art world cons, and how you react to their exploits depends very much on how you react to the louche, seedy tone of Charlie’s narration. Bonfiglioli is clearly riffing on Wodehouse, and there’s a similar humour but also callousness, crudity, brutality and plenty to offend. They’re a product of their age, and while that means some of the words and sentiments within can be distasteful, it also means the book is blissfully short and well-paced, a welcome alternative to bloated modern thrillers. Nasty fun, and yet again another series where I’ve picked up the next instalment.
Tomorrow Never Knows by Eddie Robson
Eddie’s a good friend of mine and sent me a copy of his first novel, so don’t consider this a review because I’m completely biased. Suffice to say this is exactly in my wheelhouse, SF that’s strong on character and worldbuilding that builds everyday lives and environments rather than focusing on the military or other crusading outliers. There’s more than a touch of Douglas Coupland in the way Eddie’s mostly young, disaffected characters intersect and go about their business, and a similar lightness of touch to the prose. Tomorrow Never Knows is an easy read but an intelligent one, and as the plotlines come together towards the end it develops a real page-turning momentum.
But don’t trust me on that.
Goodbye Tsugumi by Banana Yoshimoto
Speaking of lightness, Banana Yoshimoto writes about heavy emotions with a lightness that I always enjoy and appreciate. Her stories are often about grief or loneliness but are never depressing, instead gracefully moving from one perfectly made observation to the next. As with the other books of Yoshimoto’s I’ve read, the plot here is a whole lot of domestic nothing, a young woman reaching towards adulthood, moving away from the seaside town in which she was raised then going back for one last summer. There’s a sick relative, some economic uncertainty, arrivals and departures. What matters here is the lead protagonist’s thoughtful inner life and observations on her family and friends, and the pleasant melancholy of time passing and being aware of it. Don’t worry about finding this novel in particular, just look for Yoshimoto’s work and pick up the first one you see. They’re all very good.
The Magicians by Lev Grossman
Now a TV series on SyFy, though it hasn’t turned up in the UK yet. In terms of high concept pitches, this is basically Harry Potter in the style of Donna Tartt’s ‘The Secret History’ with a big dose of Narnia and a dash of Alex Garland’s ‘The Beach’. Focus in on those first two and there’s a high concept to die for, a school for magicians in upstate New York inhabited by the kind of laidback aesthetes that made Tartt’s campus thriller such an infuriatingly compulsive read, although Grossman’s characters are nowhere near as vile or snobbish – there’s no central crime here, and outsider Quentin Coldwater is welcomed into the magical academic community without any need for pretending he’s higher born than he is. Threats come from within and without, and Grossman is strong on both the logic of the magical world, and the more epic and whimsical fantasy that kicks off later on in the book. Really entertaining stuff and I can see why it got picked up for TV. Someone tell me when it’s on.
The Man in the High Castle by Philip K Dick
Another TV related pick. I’ve only seen the pilot of the Amazon series, but I wanted to read the novel before embarking on the rest. I’ve never read Dick, only knowing him from the films of his work and his reputation. While this 1963 novel has some moments of disorienting trippiness as characters lose their grip – the kind of stuff I expected from the movies of ‘A Scanner Darkly’ etc – it wasn’t really these head-messing moments that impressed me so much as the detailed social interactions and internal responses of characters living in a world where, thanks to the Axis powers winning the second world war, racism in its various forms is the global, respectable norm and informs everything, corrupting every thought. It’s a brilliantly envisioned world, and one which has one of the best examples of Chekhov’s Gun I’ve read.
A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James
Finally, last year’s Booker winner, and a birthday present that I tore through in a month, its 700 pages passing by swiftly. The most serious and heaviest – in all senses – of the books I’ve listed here, James’ novel covers twenty five years of Jamaican crime at home and, later, abroad. Most of the characters are heavily fictionalised which allows James’ imagination to cut loose in their voices, with chapters of dense inner monologue and flowing dialogue from a large cast of characters. These voices are strong and diverse, and the differences between them and their changes over time are indicated by complex and subtle uses of slang and grammar.
Quotes on the cover compare the book to Tarantino but the 90s cult figure James reminded me more was Irvine Welsh – there’s a similar willingness to dive into the confused mindsets and precise diction of troubled, often addled characters, and James digs deep where Tarantino would show off. The exploration of poverty and crime reminded me of ‘City of God’, that sense of lightly skipping back and forth through history, the combination of wit and horror, with characters who can dole out both. Where James rises above all these comparisons is that, while he sympathises for all his characters, he doesn’t mythologise their crimes and vices above all else. Ultimately it’s the consequences and trauma caused by crime and violence that linger that live on in the reader’s thoughts rather than the acts themselves.
It’s a great novel, and a very novelistic novel, doing what novels do better than anything, digging into the psyches of its characters, turning thoughts to words in a way that creates the illusion of mental connection between characters and reader.
I wanted to re-enthuse myself about the medium. Job done.
I did a little Black Library story recently, for a Deathwatch project that turned out to be the tie-in story collection for the Deathwatch: Overkill boxed game. My story is ‘The Known Unknown’ and involves Jensus Natorian, a Blood Raven Librarian with serious mentor issues. I think it turned out really well.
You can buy either the story as a standalone ebook or the whole collection, Deathwatch: Ignition in either ebook form or hardback. I haven’t read any of the other stories (or seen the game – one of the interesting things about a job like this or the Fellguard stories is working from a brief that’s perhaps a page or two of notes), but there’s some good people in there like Braden Campbell (whose Dark Eldar story in Fear the Alien was great) and Doctor Who books alum Steve Lyons.
Not sure what the book’s distribution will be outside hobby shops but you can get it either from your local Games Workshop or via the website:
One more Black Library thing due from me, if the stars align. Later about that.
Off social media at the moment to get some work done, so instead I’ll link to HachiSnax’s review of Hollow Beginnings right here.
When writing for a big line with a lot of output it can sometimes feel like your work is getting lost in the deluge, so it’s always appreciated when someone pays attention.
I introduced Anvindr Godrichsson and his pack of Space Wolves in the short story In Hrondir’s Tomb three years ago, in Black Library’s emagazine Hammer and Bolter. As part of Black Library’s annual Summer of Reading campaign, where they release a new piece of fiction every weekday, that story has now been re-released as a standalone ebook. If you didn’t buy it in the original issue of H&B, or in the H&B Year Two e-compilation, or in the print Best of Hammer & Bolter volume 2… well, here’s another chance.
As part of the same campaign Anvindr and his pack return, some years later, in Hollow Beginnings. If the previous story hinted where I’ve been going with these characters, then this one outright states it. The title’s a bit of a giveaway.
I like writing Anvindr. As a Space Wolf he sees himself and his pack as legendary warriors engaged in a mythic battle, and being a Space Marine he’s pretty much right. But there are many ways to fight a war, especially a war for the survival of humanity, and Anvindr experiences a constant unease when dealing with branches of the Imperium with less honourable tactics than the Wolves. It’s the tension between his loyalty to the Emperor and his dislike of some of the Emperor’s other servants that makes him fun to write.
Speaking of which, I’ve been quiet for a while on here, and will probably be quiet for a while longer. We’ve had the Beginnings, now someone needs to finish the Rest Of.
New standalone eshort version of In Hrondir’s Tomb can be bought for £2.49 here.
Follow up eshort Hollow Beginnings can be bought for £2.49 here.
I’m getting a PS4 for Christmas. Lovely news, but it means one of the boxes under the TV needs to go away to make space. As it’s been threatening to red ring for most of the year, I decided to mothball the 360. While this is actually my third 360 – I’ve had one new one, an ancient second hand one given to me by Family Gamer TV maestro Andy, and another second hand one I got to replace THAT when it keeled over – the platform has been my main gaming format for well over half a decade. So it’s kind of a big deal to move on to all-Sony consoles.
First I had to wrap up some unplayed games. I played LA Noire, and fell through the bottom of the universe one time:
I also played Dishonored, tried Far Cry 2 but gave up after a bit, similarly played various review copies I’d given up on midway through until I got bored and gave up for good. Then I threw myself into Fallout New Vegas, where amongst many of the virulent bugs that survived countless patches, a corpse floated to the ceiling:
I enjoyed New Vegas, but it wasn’t Fallout 3. It lacked the devastated urban splendour of that game, even though it was technically bigger – seeing a desert turned into a wasteland isn’t as much of a transformation as Washington DC laid low. So before the 360 got boxed up for good, I decided to do a quick tour of the Mall and some other fondly remembered locations, meet some people and shoot some Super Mutants.
Oh, and I found a floating hammer:
Goodbye Capital Wasteland, you charmingly desolate hellhole, and goodbye buggy old 360.
Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, here are the badly formatted, uncropped and oversized pics.
I’ve read some comics so apparently that makes me an expert. The two corrections I’ve had to issue in the
comics comments *might* be considered to undermine that:
Oh, and let’s just stick the Infinity Spider-Man Playset one here too, rather than expend another post on this stuff:
Second of my Family Gamer TV videos. You can now find a playlist of these in the links bar to the right.
Should have embedded this days ago: the first of my Let’s Play videos for Family Gamer TV. Apologies for all the umming and ahhing, these should get better with practice:
I should like Proteus, and it took me a while to realise why I don’t. It’s not that it lacks violence, or is purely exploratory – the bit of Bioshock Infinite before any shooting was my favourite, and I’ve spent more time exploring Arkham City or the many historical locations of Assassin’s Creed than engaging in action. I love exploration, I’m comfortable with the wordless loneliness of Ico, with the solitude of the wasteland in Fallout 3.
So as an idea I find the pure exploration of Proteus appealing, and I’m not an anti-anti-game zealot bothered by the lack of gamey mechanics.
It took me towards my second session with Proteus, falling asleep on the sofa while, on screen, I stood inside a stone circle waiting for the magical flickering that transports the player between the seasons, to realise my problem with the game, and its this:
Proteus is heavily abstracted, an island of simple colours and two dimensional objects. It’s music and sounds are plinky ambient wibbles. It’s a game where you walk between tree shapes and watch a frog like shape bounce along, each bounce scored with a watery plink.
That level of abstraction is so severe that for me it leaves nothing to sink my inquisitive mind into. What I see is what I get out of it – tree shapes, castle shapes, water sky flowers and rain and frog type things.
There’s nothing that requires closer examination, nothing to read, no story to unfold. There’s just… stuff.
Blank stretches of sea and sky have their charms, but there’s a reason why people being books to the beach.
Sometimes, things don’t work out.
Game People, the site I used to write reviews about storytelling in games for, has over the last year or so moved more and more away from text and got into video reviews on the Family Gamer TV Youtube channel.
As part of that, I’ve been attempting to do videos for the channel, with the plan to stack a few up and perfect the format before launching them as a little sub-strand within the channel. The schtick was that I was reviewing grown-up games ‘after dark’, which simultaneously suggests something more urbane and sleazier than me rambling at a camera about Arkham Origins but there you go.
Unfortunately the plan didn’t work, out after months of tryouts and attempts. Light conditions in my house are incredibly poor in terms of recording the to-camera links, and setting up tripods etc meant I could only really film when I had the house to myself. Recording off-screen games footage was a mess, the camera never quite lining up with the TV. The whole thing created a massive editing job for Andy at Family Gamer and, in one final crisis, I found that two reviews worth of my to-camera footage had bad audio recording because of some mess up with either my phone or the mic or both.
At that point we cut our losses.
While we’re still working on me doing something for the Family Gamer TV Youtube channel, probably closer to a Let’s Play format with me talking over directly captured game footage, the reviews I’d been working on are effectively useless. Still, I got the review copies, so it would be nice to belatedly actually talk about the games somewhere, right?
For the last couple of reviews I worked off pretty detailed notes, complete with annotations as to where in-game footage should go, and Andy Robertson of Family Gamer has kindly allowed me to run them here.
So, very belatedly and scrappily, here are my thoughts on Resident Evil 6:
- Intro – Hello I’m Mark Clapham, I’m a writer and parent to a daughter, and I like to play games after she has gone to bed. Games that provide an alternative to an endless cycle of wholesome cartoons and stories in the day.
- These are my late night reviews of games that are definitely not for the whole family.
- With one exception that we won’t go into, you can’t get a more adult genre than horror, and probably the single biggest name in horror gaming is the Resident Evil series.
[CLIP: Resi menu]
- Resident Evil 6 is the most recent instalment, and has been out for a while for Xbox 360, PS3 and PC. Unfortunately I can’t really recommend it as a horror game, especially one for busy parents to fit into their evenings.
- If nothing else it’s a big game, trying to live up to the size and history of this long series with a globe-spanning plot that splits into three main storylines featuring characters from many past games in plots that echo those older games.
- There’s Leon Kennedy from 2 and 4, dealing with zombies in a spooky old buildings There’s Chris Redfield from 1 and 5, having the more trigger happy battles with funny-headed mutants we saw in 4 and 5.
[CLIPS: Leon, Chris.]
- More interesting are Jake and Sherry, children of different villains from the series, who provide something a bit newer to the series, including a more convincing romance than Leon’s bizarre infatuation with Ada Wong.
[CLIP: Jake and Sherry]
- Oh yeah, Ada Wong’s in it too. She mainly does that thing with the zipline she does.
- Unfortunately, these old school characters don’t bring old school Resident Evil horror with them.
- For the most part Resident Evil 6 tries to match current military action favourites like Call of Duty or Battlefield in terms of shooting, explosions, car chases, missile launches and sequences where helicopters crash into things
[CLIP: Opening action sequence.]
- If that doesn’t sound much like an atmospheric horror game, you would sadly be right. Resident Evil 6 is way too big, too open, to really build tension, and mainly consists of boxy areas where you spin around strafing baddies with funny heads. There’s very little tension, just a wearying pile-up of set pieces.
[CLIP: generic shooty bit.]
- It’s disappointing to sit down for some late night scares and instead encounter such generic action. In it’s attempt to be a blockbuster, Resident Evil 6 loses almost all the horror. If you have young teens who are accustomed to gore, you probably wouldn’t be too worried about letting them play this, as there are very few mature scares.
- The sheer bloat of the game, combined with a terrible save system that makes it hard to keep track of when you can safely put the controller down without losing progress, makes this a hard game for parents, or anyone else who doesn’t have spare five hour gaming sessions to hand, to play.
[CLIP: plodding about.]
- A lot of these design flaws are because the game is angled heavily towards online co-op, which is a bit tricky for those of us who don’t have the time to have long co-op sessions. Also, multiplayer doesn’t lend itself to slow burn tension, and prioritises fast action, if not fast game session.
- One casualty of the online friendly action is any of the background detail that used to make the worlds of previous Resident Evil games come to life. There are no documents to read in-game – though you can read some from a juke box in the extras menu – no audiologs, nothing to stop and look at. It makes the whole game disappointingly shallow, and fails to build any real atmosphere. There are also very few puzzles, as that would presumably slow the game down by requiring thinking.
- It’s a shame, as Resident Evil 6 is a really beautiful game, with gorgeous visuals and sound. then, but shallow, expecting nothing of the player but to run and shoot. There’s the odd genuinely good quiet bit, like a drive through a city shrouded in poisonous fog, but these are few and far between.
[CLIPS: blue fog?]
- Ultimately Resident Evil 6 is a long, repetitive game that feels even longer and more repetitive due to the way the plots intersect, meaning that if you play all three campaigns – and with a lot of unique settings and scenes in each you’ll want to – you’ll fight certain boss battles, which were dull first time around, again from a different angle, which is kind of structurally clever but also boring and annoying.
- In the end, while it has a lot of gloss and explosions, Resident Evil 6 is too unwieldy and bloated to recommend, to the extent it took me over a year to find time to complete the thing.
- Please follow the FamilyGamer TV Channel on Youtube for more of my reviews, as well as reviews of games for those difficult times when the children are awake.
- You can also follow me on twitter at @markclapham. Good night.