Saturday, 24 January 2015

Hunter S. Thompson- The Rum Diary

The Rum Diary

Hunter S. Thompson
Written from 1960-1961, Published in 1998

“It was the kind of town that made you feel like Humphrey Bogart: you came in on a bumpy little plane, and, for some mysterious reason, got a private room with balcony overlooking the town and the harbor; then you sat there and drank until something happened.” 

The key detail that most book fans know about The Rum Diary is that it went unpublished for almost forty years, until professional Hunter S. Thompson fan Johnny Depp discovered the manuscript and convinced him to finally publish it. For Thompson's legion of fans this was great news, since though Thompson was a very prolific essay writer, with numerous collections available, his long-form work has always been somewhat thin on the ground; especially considering the longevity and popularity of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. The question then became as to whether Rum Diary would actually be any good or not; since its original vanishing act occurred after numerous rejections from publishers- not a good sign- and it wasn't for another five years with the publication of Hell's Angels in Rolling Stone that Thompson's name was really made. With that in mind, I was a little paranoid that Rum Diary would be no better than an early curio.

Thankfully it seems like Johnny Depp knows a good manuscript when he reads it, because I found Rum Diary to be much more entertaining and polished than I expected- to the point where I'm scratching my head as to why it was originally rejected (with my only real theory being that publishers may have felt it to seem derivative of recent counter-cultural classics). Reading it over fifty-years later the tone of the narrative is pure (albeit-early) Hunter S, like his later work, built upon the close foundation of the author's own experiences. Thompson adapts his time spent in San Juan, Puerto Rico, turning himself into the character Paul Kemp; new employee at The Daily News, the only English language newspaper in the territory.

While struggling to adapt and survive in the tense Hispanic atmosphere, Kemp and his fellow outrageous American journalists get drunk and cause trouble throughout, constantly at odds with the locals in the aggressive post-colonial atmosphere. While Kemp struggles to establish himself and stay sane, he finds himself drawn to fellow journalist and drinker Yeamon, and his free-spirited girlfriend Chenault. Together the three of them delve further into the volatile nightlife, leading to dramatic and shocking events that finally drive them off the island. From a thematic viewpoint, the events of The Rum Diary fit perfectly within the range of past and future beatnik literature, to such a strong extent that it surprised me to contrast just how early this book was written compared to more famous and well-regarded examples. Primarily it's easy to compare it to Kerouac's On the Road, at least up to a certain extent when considering the activities that the characters get up to, but knowing Thompson's contempt for Kerouac it's easy to see how the two eventually differ, as The Rum Diary seems to me to have a far heavier focus on the inner moral turmoil of its central character.

It also puts Thompson's position with Charles Bukowski in a new light; Fear and Loathing was published the same year as Post Office, making them both icons of the 70's, but Rum Diary has ten years on that, as an example of the down and out thematic direction that newer authors had taken the examples of Fitzgerald. Thompson was well-known as an admirer of The Great Gatsby, and aspects of the character relationships and plot structure (the climactic revalations of helplessness in the face of the order of things) provide a template for Thompson's novel. The Rum Diary is not as impressive a stand-alone novel as these other examples; the fate of the newspaper is uninteresting, and the non-central characters interchangeable.

In conclusion, it was better late than never for The Rum Diary. Compelling, evocative and thoughtful, it would've been a massive shame had this remained in limbo. There are a number of other Thompson books that went unpublished due to his dissatisfaction with them, and I can only hope that they eventually see the light of day. Without Rum Diary, Thompson's career as a fiction writer is disappointingly thin, so the critical success of it suggests that fans have a lot to look forward to if a events conspire to expand his range of published novels.

Monday, 19 January 2015

Paul Auster- The Brooklyn Follies

The Brooklyn Follies

Paul Auster

Other Paul Auster Reviews- The Invention of Solitude - In The Country of Last Things - Moon Palace - Auggie Wren's Christmas Story - The Art of Hunger - Mr. Vertigo - Hand To Mouth - Timbuktu - The Book of Illusions - Oracle Night - Travels in the Scriptorium - Man in the Dark - Invisible

“As long as a man had the courage to reject what society told him to do, he could live life on his own terms. To what end? To be free. But free to what end? To read books, to write books, to think.”

In 2005, Paul Auster was coming off a six-year run consisting of three phenomenal novels. Seemingly determined to shed his reputation as a promising novelist to be recognised as the real deal, Auster did so in  style with three distinct, powerful novels that showcased his range and imagination as a talented postmodernist with a continually improving grasp on realistic human emotion; in 1999's Timbuktu he toyed with readers' emotions through writing from the perspective of homeless dog Mr. Bones. He followed with 2002's The Book of Illusions, a more complex story about the legacy of fictional silent film star genius Hector Mann, and continued with dark novel Oracle Night, refocusing on Auster's primary concerns of the meaning of identity and coincidence. The Brooklyn Follies, released just two years later, was under the pressure of matching-up to the collective twisted penmanship of that period while offering something new.

Auster's new approach, then, was in hindsight the obvious thing to do in order to create a new challenge for a man who, over the last twenty years, had mastered the art of alternative contemporary literature; he went completely back to basics, and wrote a novel without the aid of his once-impressive box of post-modernist tricks. Though Auster was lauded for the intelligence of the timing of his various unexpected techniques, perhaps by this point he simply tired of the pressure of coming up with another ingenious concept The Brooklyn Follies, then, is Auster's response; his most realistic novel yet, focusing on a busy period in the life of his central character Nathan Glass, where the remnants of his fractured family are brought back together following a series of dramatic events.

60-year-old Glass is at a pivotal point in his life, after having narrowly survived a battle with lung cancer and divorced his wife. This 320-page novel tells Glass' story upon his return to his native Brooklyn, where he meets the cast of characters set to change the rest of his life. At first he befriends his estranged nephew Tom and learns of the misfortunes of the separated side of his family, then Tom's charismatic and flamboyant boss Harry, and three three plot together to find a way of alleviating the financial difficulties of every day life. It's from this point that the novel begins to seriously differ from Auster's typical direction; though I was expecting the beginnings of a certain labyrinthine direction and perhaps a tinge of magical realism, in The Brookyln Follies Auster goes against these expectations to swing in the direction of a much more realistic human interest story.

I found it to be an easy, enjoyable read. Auster's central characters are likable and sympathetic, particularly the narrating Glass whose aged introspection and growth in confidence through the novel give it real direction. It's well-plotted and paced, with the shifts in tempo well-timed to prevent any dullness and emphasis the tempestuousness of this period in Glass' life. The central thread is revealed when, out of nowhere, Glass' nine-year--old great niece arrives on his doorstep, determined to stay while observing an apparent vow of silence, and as the protagonist moves to protect her he learns to reconnect and be there for other lost family members. 

Of all of Auster's novels it's relatively feel-good stuff, perhaps from an author at this point tired of the intense mystery and character misery of his earlier work. The catch to making this novel more accessible than most of his other work, though, is that it still has to be compared to it, and in comparison to Auster's best this falls short. The removal of all postmodernism or magical realism may be refreshing for Auster, but removes one of his most potent weapons. I'm not saying that every Auster book requires rampant postmodernism to be worth looking at, but his past novels decisively proved that he is at his best when incorporating certain aspects of the surreal. Moon Palace is the perfect example in a novel that doesn't break any storytelling rules but relies upon hints of surrealism through atmospheric depictions of larger than life, but technically possible situations. The Brooklyn Follies strictly keeps to real-life, and while it was engaging to read at the time, upon completion just didn't leave a particularly large impact. Overall an enjoyable, interesting read, but not up to the top standards of such a talented author.

Saturday, 17 January 2015

Terry Pratchett's Discworld 24- The Fifth Elephant

The Fifth Elephant
Corgi Press

Terry Pratchett

 “Vimes had once discussed the Ephebian idea of ‘democracy’ with Carrot, and had been rather interested in the idea that everyone had a vote until he found out that while he, Vimes, would have a vote, there was no way in the rules that anyone could prevent Nobby Nobbs from having one as well. Vimes could see the flaw there straight away.”

The Last Continent and Carpe Jugulum, books twenty-two and twenty-three of the Discworld series, were landmark Pratchett novels in the sense that they contained the final headline appearances of Rincewind and The Witches; a group of characters whose popularity played no small part in the success of the entire franchise, and thus Pratchett's entire career. With book twenty-four, the author moved on to his next most-successful creations (though DEATH might have something to say about that), Sam Vimes' continually-expanding Ankh-Morpork City Watch. In hindsight, over fifteen years later, I consider The Fifth Elephant to be another landmark in the continual development of the Discworld, this time for very different reasons- and not entirely positive ones.

Looking back across the series at this point, I think it's fairly obvious that the basis for Pratchett's greatest successes have been with characters and stories that focus most on the cornerstone of his satire; the fantasy genre. Obviously every Discworld book is built around a fantastical base, full of fantastical characters and threats taken and re-appropriated from a million different sources, and that's never going to change, but what has changed over time and continually does so is Pratchett's focus on the importance of that fantasy in the grand scheme of things.

The development of the Discworld's biggest city, grande old Ankh-Morpork, illuminates Pratchett's overall direction and increasingly tight control over the minutia of his creation; the Ankh-Morpork the reader was introduced to in The Colour of Magic was wild, dangerous and seemingly unmapped, where Pratchett threw out funny idea after funny idea, caring less about the logical structure of his fictional city than he did stamping his mark as a young satirist. As a result, the city he was left with when he realised his series was popular enough for sequels contained a selection of elements that didn't really make sense as part of the base of a functioning city, such as the thieves guild, for example.

Across the next twenty books Pratchett embraced some of these ideas and made them workable, while quietly pushing others to the wayside. He also began to carve out his city as a more sensible, controllable entity with an active political scene, mostly shown through the expansion and development of the Watch, and of Sam Vimes personally. In the meantime though, Pratchett had a variety of series-within-series to dip in and out of, helping him explore every corner of the Disc, thanks to the Rincewind, Witches and Death series. For better or for worse, The Fifth Elephant marks the moment where, in my opinion, the balance of the series shifts heavily away from this variety, towards the more directly-progressive and narrowly-focused goal of developing Ankh-Morpork as a more realistic city, and moving it out of its strange mixture of renaissance and medieval influences into Pratchett's facsimile of the Victorian age.

On the surface of it, the plot seems more exciting than that; following on from the macabre events of Carpe Jugulum Pratchett again brings the vast, unknown country of Ubervald into the mix, and delves into the family history of one of the Watches most mysterious employees and also it's best sniffer dog, Sergeant Angua, who debuted in Men At Arms where readers also discovered that she happens to be a werewolf. Events kick off when the Patrician of Ankh-Morpork (who Pratchett has spent more and more time with in recent years, while frustratingly never writing an origin for him) sends Sam Vimes to Ubervald under the guise of diplomacy, to negotiate terms with the Low King of the Dwarves. Since this is still, after all, a Watch book, this quickly turns into a crime investigation where Vimes must retrieve the Dwarves stolen thing for the sake of the dwarf ritual thing, etcetera etecetera.

One of the two key problems with this book that has, for years, made it quite possibly my least favourite Discworld novel of them all (though it has competition from a couple of more recent, similar numbers) are that the dwarves are really, really, really really boring. I'm not even blaming Pratchett for this; Dwarves are amazingly boring in all realms of fantasy, having had their moment in the sun in The Hobbit. If you think about it for more than a few moments the concept of dwarf warriors is ridiculous, particularly in conjunction with them being at war with trolls. On the one hand you have a race of huge, unfeeling creatures made entirely out of rock, and on the other you have a race of midgets wearing excessive amounts of leather.

Back in the early days of the Discworld, when Pratchett was simply plucking whichever respected fantasy genre idioms he fancied, dwarves were fine as they were in the background, but now, more than ten years on, in The Fifth Elephant Pratchett tries harder than ever to carve them a more detailed existence. The Low King is the biggest beneficiary of this, receiving extensive back and forth dialogue with Vimes that never fully clicks, since it's an early example of Pratchett creating a character with buckets of pseudo-wisdom that never really says anything (more of that later in the Discworld series, with a huge amount in Raising Steam). It's also another example of Pratchett raising the stakes for Vimes, who is basically the Discworld's main character at this point (and, I think, Pratchett's own personal avatar), promoting him from chief of police to international politician following the events of Jingo.

Still, all this talk of dwarves ignores the genuine highlight of the book; the comedy of Sgt. Colon trying to run the Watch back in Ankh-Morpork and going completely insane under the pressure. Those segments are short, but awesome and hilarious, almost making the whole novel worthwhile. I should also mention that things pick up in the dramatic action department when Vimes eventually encounters the werewolves, but by no means is this interesting enough to make up for the drudgery that comes before this. Not even a long-awaited conversation between Vimes and DEATH manages that.

So, in an attempt to try and bring this rambling review to some sort of conclusion, my final thoughts; released at a point in the series where Pratchett seemed focused on writing metaphorically widescreen big-budget action epics, to great critical and commercial success (this was the first and only Pratchett book I saw being shown off at high school just after release), The Fifth Elephant suffered from being a muddled disappointment in comparison. While Pratchett is obviously the god of this world and can do as he pleases, from a critical standpoint this book (and other aspects of the series in the future) suffers from his insistence on focusing on corners of the Disc that just aren't very interesting, rather than fully exploring any of the set-up angles he'd created in the past.

His attempts to create a realistic political scene, complete with important diplomatic players and racial tensions probably works well if you're interested in that sort of thing, but it is a marked departure from the wild freedom of past Discworld books. It is, in a sense, the opposite of a book like Moving Pictures, where Pratchett uses the built-in excuse of magic to satirise something immediately recogisable in the moving picture industry, since instead The Fifth Elephant relies on a series of set-universal rules and tones. This might have been fine if they weren't sadly very boring, and if so much of the future of the Disc didn't depend on it.

Sunday, 11 January 2015

Haruki Murakami- The Strange Library

The Strange Library
Penguin Random House

Haruki Murakami
2008 (Japan)/ 2014 (English)

Translated by Ted Goossen

"Mr. Sheep Man," I asked, "why would that old man want to eat my brains?"
"Because brains packed with knowledge are yummy, that's why.They're nice and creamy. And sort of grainy at the same time."

It came as a nice surprise to fans of Haruki Murakami when Harper Penguin imprint Harvill Sacker revealed that they would fill the post-Colourless Tsukuru Tsukuru depression caused by a Murakami void just in time for Christmas, with a new illustrated edition of short story The Strange Library. On the surface, this 77-page compact hardback admittedly doesn't look like much at first glance, designed as it is to replicate a generic library book, with an academic maroon cover and a replica old school ticket template fixed to the front. As an aside, the size and colour closely resemble that of Paul Auster's similarly-illustrated short story Auggie Wren's Christmas Story, so much that I had to check that they didn't have the same publisher. Upon opening the book, the first thing that jumps out is the immaculate artistic design; the illustrations were mostly taken from unspecified old books found in The London Library, and the sadly-uncredited graphic designers at Harvill Sacker have re-appropriated them into an immersive backdrop for Murakami's story. 

The Strange Library tells the story of a boy who one day innocently visits the library for research, and is shown by an old clerk through an impossible basement labyrinth into a single room with the books he needs, and a strange figure known only as the sheep man (whom Murakami fans will recognise from his appearances in early novels A Wild Sheep Chase and Dance Dance Dance). The old man tells the boy if he will return in a month. If the boy has memorised the contents of the books, he may leave. The Sheep Man tells the boy the truth; the old man wants him to learn because it will make his brain taste better when he eats it. The boy must rely on the help of the sheep man and the ghostly spirit of a beautiful girl who talks with her hands, if he ever hopes to escape. Haruki Murakami at his most fantastically surreal.

The art and text flow within each other, entwined so neatly that the evocative Victorian Gothic feel to the varied images seeps into the story, combining wonderfully with Murakami's deceptively-plain narration. It has the same power as a dark fairytale, flowing with the same ethereal dream quality of a Neil Gaiman story (it felt like it could've been an issue of The Sandman), given more power through the help of the design and pictures. It's one of the most memorable of all of Murakami short stories (though not my favourite, that will always be Superfrog Saves Tokyo), a creepy little tale that also distintly reminded me of Benecio Del Toro's film Pan's Labyrinth in its heavy use of magical realism. I'm struggling to find any reason to be critical of it really, the only thing that might bug someone is that it's quite expensive for a short story- but even then the craft in the art and designwork makes it much more than that. I wouldn't ever want to encourage Murakami (or any author I like) to make a habit of releasing full-price short stories, but if they're as engaging as this then it'll be easy to forgive.

Thursday, 8 January 2015

Keith Roberts- Pavane

Orion Publishing

Keith Roberts

“Becky walked to the sea late in the day, trod barefoot among the tumbled blocks of stone that lined the foreshore, smelling the old harsh smell of salt, hearing the water slap and chuckle while from high above came the endless sinister trickling of the cliffs. Into her consciousness stole, maybe for the first time, the sense of loneliness; an oppression born of the gentle miles of summer water, the tall blackness of the headlands, the fingers of the stone ledges pushing out into the sea.” 

A short review today for a novel that didn't leave much of an impression, bar a list of complaints that's going to comprise this post. I was led to Pavane by its cover; the edition I bought is part of Orion Publishing's SF Masterworks imprint, and while I'm a fan of science fiction I'm not a big enough fan to have a wide knowledge of the classics, making me more than happy to trust the good list-compilers at Orion. There were a couple of signs that, and I say this in hindsight, should have tipped me off, not least a back-cover quote full of praise from George R.R. Martin. Nothing personal, I just don't trust Martin's comprehension of good writing, and should've realised the likelihood that Pavane would be of a similar style, which it absolutely was, meaning it was absolutely dull from beginning to end.

Though Roberts was a well-known figure in the then-contemporary world of science fiction, Pavane barely counts as science fiction. It's an alternate history book with an interesting concept that also played a part in me purchasing it; in a short prologue, Roberts travels back to the year 1588 and the assassaination of Queen Elizabeth (the first one, of course) by the Spanish, leading to the eventual conquoring of Britain and its assimilaition into the Catholic church. Roberts' narration then jumps forward four-hundred years to the then-present. Still under the control of the Church, Britain is now a technologically-barren agricultural wasteland that has barely advanced whatsoever under the oppressive Catholic rule.

Lots of covers for this book.
Rather than simply writing one cohesive narrative in this interesting setting, Roberts instead chooses to split his book into six short roughly-connected stories that sort-of tell the story of England's rebellion. Each story focuses on a different character hopelessly slaving away in some muddy field before a grain of hope lights up their pathetic lives. In each tale the author spends plenty of time trying to create an evocative, meaningful psuedo-medieval impression of simple innocent down-trodden farmer folk. None of his characters were even the slightest bit interesting, to me anyway, and his depiction of the repressed societies, attempting to evoke some sort of communal spirit of agricultural county England honestly seemed patronising to me.

My dissatisfaction came almost entirely from Roberts' prose style, which was so drearily boring from beginning to end that the only reason I finished this book was so I can be a snob and tell people I've read it, if need be. I'm definitely a prose snob at this point, having been spoiled by the amazing natural ability of authors like Somerset Maugham, for example, but I like to think I can ignore some failings for the sake of an interesting idea. Roberts' seemed like he had one of those, but it was for naught, because nothing really happens anyway. I can absolutely see the resemblance between this and George R.R. Martin's work, where interesting ideas are suffocated in a mass of dreary, irrelevant boredom by a writer who simply seems to lack any form of natural ability. What he and Martin share is simply an unearned sense of gravitas powered by originally evocative concepts that soon turn out to have very little substance behind them. That's what I get, I suppose, for judging it by its cover.

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Charles Bukowski- Hot Water Music

Hot Water Music
Ecco Publishing

Charles Bukowski

Other Bukowski Reviews; Post Office - South of No North - Factotum - Women - Ham on Rye - Hollywood - Pulp - Tales of Ordinary Madness - Notes of a Dirty Old Man

“Love is a form of prejudice. You love what you need, you love what makes you feel good, you love what is convenient. How can you say you love one person when there are ten thousand people in the world that you would love more if you ever met them? But you'll never meet them.”

I couldn't help but constantly compare Charles Bukowski's early 80's short story collection Hot Water Music to another collection I read prior, South of No North (both published in similar pulp-like editions by Ecco Press- an imprint of HarperCollins seemingly looking to replicate the original underground press feel of original publishers Black Sparrow Press), to look at how the author continued to refine his unique style of writing over the ten year difference in publication dates. The key overall impression I got from the 1973 collection from an as-then relatively unknown author was a raw, unrefined and barely-controllable anger, wallowing in the mire of a down-and-out alcoholic beatnik lifestyle. Mixing autobiographical works (starring Bukowski's alter-ego of his novels, Henry Chinaski) with some more original story ideas (though we're still talking about Bukowski here, his settings are still very familiar) Hot Water Music was a very easy, enjoyable read. 

The first story is a simply outrageous and incredibly black concept that would surely come across like a punch in the face to anyone experiencing his writing for the first time. You Kissed Lily is a short domestic horror story about a wife violently obsessing over her husbands infidelity from five years ago, until she snaps and shoots him in a fit of rage. Bukowski's minimalistic narration gives the feeling of brutal inevitability, of unsympathetic lowlife culture, but with a tongue-in-cheek undertone punctuated by a finalising punchline that confirms the whole thing as a disguised comedy all along. Later on the story Decline and Fall left a similar feeling of urban horror, in a second-hand story told to a barman about a meeting with voyeuristic couple who make him question his understanding of good and evil relating to hedonism. The masterful balance of violence with apathy; Bukowski's ability to control the tempo of his prose and the attention of his audience, go along with the chronology of his work to suggest that this was critically his best period.

The forth Henry Chinaski novel Ham on Rye is, to me, the best of all Bukowski's novels in offering his most meaningful, most desolate writing, and the form he showed there carries on into this collection released one year later. There may be those who find less enjoyment in Bukowski's most personal, self analytical and critical work because it is noticeably bleaker than his earlier, almost jaunty novels like Post Office and Factotum, but the fact remains to me that the amusing character of Chinaski who rolled through those novels with a harem of strange women and angry bosses always had a much darker side to his nature. To that end Bukowski includes within Hot Water Music the story The Death of the Father, which I read as an epilogue to Ham on Rye. The title gives the topic away with that one, as Chinaski attends his father's funeral without remorse, then takes the old man's last girlfriend afterwards, for good measure.

Most of the other stories have momentary plots that wouldn't sound interesting here, but rely on Bukowski's poetic mastery of one-liners and love of the down and outs. Some of them, like Home Run, have an unpleasantness to them. Bukowski made it very clear many times about his disdain for the human race, and that hatred flows from the page through the acts of morally repugnant characters in desperate situations. This was my favourite of all the Bukowski collections (I've so far read, only three left by my count), fiction or non, displaying Bukowski at his creative peak.

Monday, 5 January 2015

Not Books X

Video Games-

 The Walking Dead: Season Two (2013)
Telltale Games- X-Box 360

Telltale Games' first 'season' of The Walking Dead from 2012 felt to me like a landmark in games design in revamping the point and click adventure game genre to more than ever resemble a form of interactive movie. That's not to everyone's taste, but for me it was pretty much all I could've dreamed of, as a long time fan of adventure games. It wouldn't have worked without a good story though, and season one delivered an amazing one, in my opinion a near-perfect encapsulation of zombie horror, making me really care about the central characters to the extent that a simple quick-time event caused untold panic. On top of that, the ending was magnificent.

Season Two catches up with Clementine, the little girl who survived the madness of the initial virus outbreak thanks to player character Lee Everett. It's a bold move to make the player control an eleven year old girl, but it definitively changes the dynamics of the moral aspects of the game, where players are made to make hard choices at critical points in the story. It amplifies the danger of the zombies, necessary to protect the player's suspense of disbelief from the fact that the game is really quite easy. I completed it in a couple of sessions, with each episode taking maybe an hour to complete. That's short for a game, but this is far too cinematic to be classified alongside most console titles in that respect. It felt shorter than season one, and overall I don't think it hit the same heights, but the shift in characters enabled the writers to turn the established themes of zombie horror in a different direction, letting season two stand out from the original in its own way. Roll on season three.


 The Dig (1995)
LucasArts- PC

Although The Dig is from the golden era of LucasArts' 2-D point and click adventure games, it's probably the most forgotten game of an otherwise beloved series. I first played it when I borrowed it from a friend many, many years ago, unable as I was to find my own copy in the pre-Amazon era, and gave up fairly early in because it was boring. Having finally gotten around to exploring the possibilities of the SCUMMVM emulator, I decided to scratch the long-standing itch in the back of my brain somewhere, and completing the game. I went in with good intentions, then after about ten minutes searched for a walkthrough, because otherwise I'd never get around to finishing it since life's too short

The Dig has a markedly different tone to other popular LucasArts games like Monkey Island or Full Throttle, since it lacks much in the way of humour barring a bunch of sarcastic characters, and there's not many of them. Apparently co-created in some way by Steven Spielberg, the plot is a familiar one to fans of Aerosmith everywhere, as a giant meteorite comet thing is hurling through space towards the Earth. A team of three astronauts (of which bizarrly none seem to be proper astronauts- there's an army guy, a generic scientist man, and a journalist) fly up to it and discover a mysterious extraterrestrial shapes puzzle, which upon completion hurls them across the universe to a planet far away. Upon exploring, the player discovers the seemingly-abandoned ruins of an alien civilisation to find that their only chance of getting home relies upon them understanding the alien technology.

As a plot, it's unoriginal and doesn't stretch very far. The writers include a good variety of mysterious alien McGuffins, and the graphical design nicely evokes the unfamiliar, but there's not enough cohesion to the whole thing, plus the technobabble designed to explain the technology is seriously weak. Adding to these scripting problems are the cast limitations. It seems like hiring former T-1000 and X-Files star Robert Patrick to voice the lead character used the whole budget, and so as a result there are five (and I'm being slightly generous) characters in the whole game. It makes sense for the plot, but it goes against the usual expectations of the genre to do so, making the game that much more unmemorable.

The lack of characters means the game relies mostly on logic-based puzzles rather than conversation ones. It's not as bad as some cheap adventure games full of rubix cube-style puzzlers, but they're still quite irritating and dull, as opposed to the LucasArts norm. Had I refused to use a walkthrough I would've given up pretty soon once again, because The Dig is just a dull game all around. It's way below the usual standard, and though some of the visuals are imaginative, there's nothing else to praise about it.



 Street Fighter (1994)

Okay, first of all, I only watched this because it was on television in the background while my girlfriend and I played Pokemon Monopoly (yes). Prior to that I hadn't seen this movie in easily fifteen years, with that first viewing being enough to convince me that I really didn't need to see it again. In the meantime Street Fighter has gained legendary status on the Internet for being absolutely awful, so it was nice to be able to update my geek credentials by watching and hating every second of it. And hate it I did, with the casual fury of a thousand suns. I, like millions of others, used to be a big Street Fighter geek in my youth. My fondest memories are of playing Alpha II on the unappreciated Sega Saturn. Now, I'm not naive enough to complain about a fighting game with barely any story not getting an accurate onscreen translation, but I am self-righteous enough to moan about how all of the best characters were made to look like pathetic idiots.

I suppose the fact that heavily-accented famous Belgian Jean Claude Van Dam plays Guile, the American hero gives the game away from the start, but I could ignore that if Ryu and Ken (the game series two main characters) hadn't been turned from bad ass world warriors into a pair of pathetic street criminals. Then there's Sagat; muay-thai giant of the game turned into a scowling midget. And let's just not mention Blanca. The characters, acting, dialogue and plot are all awful; a complete abomination of a film. Writing about it is actually annoying me so I'm going to stop.


Dragon Ball Z- Battle of the Gods (2013)

Boy, this Not Books thing really exposes me as a nerd, doesn't it? Like most nerds, I got into the three Dragon Ball anime series when I was in secondary school, and got so attached to the characters and mythos that I carried my interest into (alleged) adulthood. Battle of the Gods caught the attention of every DBZ fan upon its announcement due to the involvement of original Dragon Ball creator Akira Toriyama, as well as being the first new Dragon Ball story in about fifteen years. It's also the eighteenth Dragon Ball movie, and I think the first one to exist within the continuity of the television series- being set before the controversial Dragon Ball GT show. On top of that, it's only the second Dragon Ball movie to be anything other than total nonsense.

Not that I'm recommending this to non-DB fans; Battle of the Gods is feature-length fan service. To that end, the plot is totally appropriate; Goku, long-standing Superman-esque lead character of the franchise learns of the existence of a god of fighting, and immediately challenges him to a battle. Goku is defeated easily (as he always is when facing a new lead villian opponent for the firs time), and it's up to the rest of the DBZ heroes to somehow prevent Beerus, said god, from destroying the Earth while Goku tries to find a way to power up enough to fight him. If that sounds stupid and immature to you, then you are correct, but to the legions of fans like myself, it's pretty much all we need from DBZ. Thankfully for us, Battle of the Gods is mostly rather good in terms of what it is. There are some continuity things that bugged me, but everything else was entertaining enough, with a plot that seemed to send the story on a new tangent to be explored in the next film.


Aladdin (1992)

It occurs to me I watch the most random selection of films. Hadn't seen Aladdin in years, and I was surprised at how entertaining it was. Robin Williams as the genie makes the film come alive, but there's also a lot of fantastic animation; not just technically, but incredibly imaginative. It made me chuckle in places, and never got too mawkish with the Aladdin/Prince Jasmin coupling. Not much else to say really, I never need to see it ever again. 


TV Shows-

Red Dwarf I (1988)

I haven't written much in Not Books for tv shows I've watched recently, and I think that's because I find them so disposable that I put them out of my mind quickly afterwards. It's not that I don't like them; these past few months have seen me whizz through eleven seasons of The Simpsons, three Futurama and most recently almost all of Angel (for the upteenth time). But I'm obsessive compulsive, so each time I skip writing about something like that it puts a dagger through my heart, so I'm going to try to do better, starting with a rewatch of one of my favourite shows of all time. Red Dwarf began as a very modest, cheaply-made Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy-influenced sci-fi comedy on BBC2 back in the late eighties, and though it's success has earned it international fandom and ten (so far) other series, going back to Red Dwarf I was a great reminder of how it was all built.

Compared to the later series, I think the first is generally recognised amongst fans as noticably different in tone and style. Not that this is a case of The Black Adder; the six episodes here are still very funny, but in a  more low key way. Without much of any kind of budget, the action is entirely set on the ship, based around the relationship between Dave Lister and Arnold Rimmer. Though the show arguably peaked a few years later when focusing more heavily on the sci-fi aspect, I think the basis for all of that was built in these quieter earlier episodes, thanks to the huge effort put in to characterisation. It's also obvious that the cast are still growing into things, with the odd bad line reading standing out here and there. Still, I've seen it at least a dozen times, and it's still endearingly funny to me, as though there's something homely about this bunch of ragtag losers stuck on a rust-bucket three million years into deep space.