31Jan Reviews for January 2018

I haven't written a reviews post for a good few months, so let me start 2018 as I mean to continue it. Books first.

I'll take a brief look at three of the books I've read in 2018 so far. I've read a few others, but nothing either great or poor, so nothing of interest really to say. I'll start with the best which is Jack Vance's Dying Earth. Now, I thought this was a novel given that the blurb stated it so. It is however a series of somewhat connected short stories and novellas, even calling it a fix-up would be a stretch. The stories are however excellent, Ulan Dhor's story is the stand-out piece, with T'Sais's being the least impressive. The book describes a world rich with magic and folklore, characters are cliche, even for the 1950s, but it still provides a good tale. Second would be H.G. Wells's The Island of Dr Moreau, a book I hadn't read before. The book is amongst Wells's best, and from what I've read his most gruesome. The creatures on the island are horrific and I imagine readers from the turn of the previous century would've been quite shocked. Wells keeps the story tight and the pace is even. Finally, we have Ernest Cline's Ready Player One. I like to treat myself to recent SF as often as I do the classic titles. More often than not I find some immaturity in the writing, or, perhaps worse, pages of authors living vicariously through their characters. RP1 had a little of both, but I can accept that. Even the incessant 1980s references are passable as they can be pretty much ignored (there is some reference to 80s pop culture in pretty much every paragraph and it's tedious). What I can't abide though is suspension of disbelief. The author takes too many liberties with the plot and characters. Things barely passable in his virtual world and nigh on impossible in the real world. The protagonist is far too lucky, like an 80s action movie star getting missed by every bullet fired yet taking every one else out in a single shot. Maybe, thinking about it, the protagonist's super-human ability is just another 80s metaphor. But, it's not the 80's and that no longer works.

Only a couple of television shows so far this year being Stranger Things season two and Ozark. Neither of which were particularly interesting. Ozark follows a money launderer and his family and their move to a US backwater. The plot and characters are strong, though there's no real desire to see the family, or indeed anyone, succeed. Tension is never built and like too much TV, we aren't given a protagonist. Some shows, such as The Walking Dead give you clear heroes to get behind, others mess with your alignments like Game of Thrones, but too many give you characters that are neither hero nor anti-hero, instead simply existing somewhere in between. When that's coupled with antagonists that are existing in that same hinterland, you just have a really dull match. As to Stranger Things, season one was outstanding, one of the greatest shows we watched last year. Season two tried to do the same, missing the chemistry, tension and plot. Too many tangents and loose ends. I was ecstatic at the way they closed off season one, leaving just enough threads to provide closure for season one and anticipation for season two. Season two didn't deliver on that.

Films haven't figured too strongly yet in our free time though was did see both Coco and The Post at the cinema in a bid to get through as many Oscar nominees as possible. Coco was a colourful tale, with Pixar's usual but welcome sentimentality and superlative story-telling, marred only by forgettable songs. The Post was a welcome film examining America through a lens. The stand-out film though was The Greatest Showman. It wasn't particularly successful at the cinema, and the critics didn't rate it. Now, I'm usually one to be guided by reviews from trusted sources, this time though they let me down. Perhaps not an Oscar-worthy plot or a landmark in directing, the film is however a solid celebration of diversity and an excellent example of optimistic film-making. The soundtrack is one of the greatest of this century and the choreography that accompanied them was outstanding. I'm not one for musicals, but if they were all this charming and emotive I'd put my tap shoes on.

It's not possible to get through video games as quickly as films unless they're terrible, Wolfenstein: The New Colossus had a great story told through well-acted and well-voiced cutscenes and provided a wide variety of scenes, it was ultimately a flat game with limited combat variety and strategy. Titanfall II however is a classic. There's only a few hours in the single-player game but the action is incessant and the game makes you feel that you are a top-notch player. I'm sure a lot of the tropes have been covered before, but TF2 ties them together. The verticality of the game with it's wallrunning and bunny-hopping combined with the speed of motion creates such a dynamic playground that it doesn't matter when you die because you just get to do it again. The multiplayer provides more of this with a great balance to the point-scoring that gives even the poorest of players a chance to enjoy the game. On top of this, you get to spend a quarter of your time in a 30ft mech with a varied arsenal. Oh, and I must add, at one point in the game you get to flick between timelines - that was one of the most outstanding pieces of video gaming I've experience, and when time simply breaks it's sublime.

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