Fiction Review: The Stone Thrower – Adam Marek

Adam Marek paints some interesting portraits in his new set of short stories: ‘The Stone Thrower’. Each story thrusts a series of clear and concise images into your hands: each unique and sensual in their own right. The stories contain varied portrayals of slightly surreal worlds and cultures, such as Banau Batong in ‘An Industrial Evolution’ or the shark ritual in ‘Santa Carla Day’. They also give a new perspective, as the subtle surrealism becomes more striking when it affects their story-worlds that are mimetic of the real world.

Each story is cleverly written, but a few stand out. One such story is ‘Earthquakes’. It is written in letter format, addressed ‘Dear Mrs Sample’. It is written in the style of a charity letter, with the main character asking for donations. The ambiguousness of the receiver works wonderfully, as you feel as if it is you who is being addressed. In this way, the story interacts wonderfully with the reader, creating a strong emotive response. Another story that stands out is ‘The Stone Thrower’, of which the book is named. This narrative brings feelings of entrapment and fear of the mysterious stone-thrower. The fast-pacing helps capture the quickly diminishing hope and growing threat. As the stories don’t all follow the same genre, the book holds a range of different story types that keep you interested.

The blurb lets the book down, I feel. The subtle surrealist elements work well within the stories. The blurb however clumsily points out generic elements, in attempt to summarise, forming a false representation. It points out how the stories base around the absurd and mundane, yet it’s doing more than that. Marek takes surreal elements and places them into our world, which is a much more tactful act than simply including them.  Each story not only brings to you ‘the superhero dictator’ or the ‘intelligent clothing’ as an object, but as an essence. It brings these things to you and allows you to experience by seeing the effects in the story-world. However, with such intricate methods and events some of the stories can be confusing and not all of the concepts get through clearly.

Overall, ‘The Stone Thrower’ collection proves itself to be a world of experience. Marek crafts his stories well to deliver the essence of each of his story-worlds and characters. They are brilliant for lovers of all genres and those who enjoy to not just read, but feel every story.

Rating: 6/10

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Fiction Review: The City and the Stars – Arthur C Clarke

This book is beautiful. From its descriptions of the city, to the smoothness of the plot, every aspect just beams with elegance. Though perhaps lacking in the action you expect from a science fiction novel, the plot is well structured and keeps you reading, regardless. The story follows Alvin, a unique boy born to a world, eons in the future. And what a world it is. Clarke paints the scene vividly. The description is definitely one of the finer details of this novel.

The book focuses more on the human, rather than alien viewpoint. We do see some alien activity, but the descriptions for these are less focused and given little importance. It would have been nice to be able to explore these worlds more-so rather than stick so closely to earth. The human society we see, however, is well portrayed. You get a real sense for the characters– even with the vast differences between their and our worlds. Sometimes the detail lets Clarke down a little. Some description around characters thoughts are put in long-winded ways. This makes a book you have to focus all attention on to follow, but it’s worth it when you do.

The most interesting part of the book beside the vast descriptions was Clarke’s strong, if fairly sudden, expression of opinion. As part of a description of society late in the book, there is a quip of a paragraph that speaks an opinion of religion. This abrupt eruption of feeling shows itself clearly through reading and it is truly fascinating. I think authors make better statements writing with their opinions shortly integrated like this, than having whole novels to make a point, such as in George Orwell’s ‘1984’, for example. Religion isn’t the main focus of ‘City and the Stars’, but an opinion is quickly and ruthlessly addressed and moved on from: perfect.

Overall I believe this book is the best science fiction novel I’ve ever read and it’s definitely inspired me to delve into this genre. I love it dearly for its description, how Clarke makes statements and the characters’ personal journey.

Rating: 8/10

Comic Review: Batman, ‘The Killing Joke’ – by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland

Now that was a batman comic. Though it has its’ errors, that was a beautiful representation of what a comic should be like. Movement, action, speech and sound came together in a robust harmony that allows you to really look into the character of the Joker. The one question you end up asking yourself, however, is: ‘wasn’t that over the top’? I mean, sure he’s the Joker. Sure, he’s meant to have a level of insanity about him but it’s pushing the point a little too much. The way the Joker portrays himself doesn’t quite fit with the view of the Joker we’ve come to see, especially now after the Christopher Nolan portrayal, which causes an instant comparison.

The Joker in ‘The Killing Joke’ seems to be completely unhinged, self-proclaiming that he is insane and that everyone can become insane to escape their problems. He tries to prove tis by capturing a man and mentally torturing him in an abandoned theme park. While this is all well and good, it’s very small-scale stuff. It also doesn’t feel clever enough for the Joker. The Joker, for me, is an extremely clever villain who carries out series of delicately linked, twisted events. However, in this comic, while what he’s doing to the man he captures is pretty crazed and… well trippy, it’s not clever enough. It doesn’t make enough of an impact. However, even though the modern portrayal of the Joker was a little over the top, we did get some snippets of backstory which were really interesting.

The other characters in the comic were good. I liked the involvement of batman and how the scenes kept skipping back and forth between ‘Joker action’ and ‘batman action’, until the grand finale. There was also a clever little loop of repetition, with parts from the front of the book appearing again later. This was a nice little technique and added drama and suspense. The comic was also very fast-paced and there was always something going on, which made for a pleasant read.

The ending, while dramatic, was a little off for me. It’s a little bit of an anti-climax. The Joker makes his big speech in the front-off, batman replies and it’s looking really tense…and then laughter? Ok so both characters had made their statements, it linked in to the start of the comic and it was all wrapping itself up. But, really? It just… ended. Perhaps to add more drama, perhaps to have some sort of audience effect… but for me? I want that little bit more.

Overall, this was an enjoyable batman comic. It had the right levels of action and pacing and, while I’d have preferred a plot with a cleverer ‘Joker-plan’, it was quite a brilliant story. The art-work is beautiful and the movement has that edge to it that makes ‘The Killing Joke’ truly crazy.

Rating: 6/10

Event Review: Bodies Revealed, Liverpool, (Through the Ecco Arena)

Bodies Revealed takes you on a tour of the human body in ways you’ve never seen it before. It’s a showcase of fascinating preserved specimens: ranging from single organs to whole human bodies. Each exhibit is prepared to highlight a specific area of the body, including: the skeleton, the muscles, the nerves, veins and tendons, the respiratory system, the digestive system, the reproduction system and development of a foetus, and how disease effects the body.

Though not for the faint of heart, this exhibit is truly fascinating. It can be a little disconcerting to think that you’re looking at bodies that were once living and breathing, but your awes of wonder overcome the squeamishness. The most memorable parts of the exhibit include the development of the foetus at different stages of pregnancy and the final presentation of the whole human body showcased as a series of cross-sections. However, each section is captivating and gives a grand insight to the inner-workings of the body.

You’re at an advantage, however, if you already know a fair bit about biology. There is an audio tour to purchase, but it’s much more interesting to those with a good grounding in biology knowledge to put into practice spotting what they already know. It would be best suited for those studying medicine, biology or natural science, but it can be a learning experience for any age.

The one thing I was expecting more from the exhibit was a showcase of effects of disease. There were small sections showing examples of different diseases, but I expected a lot more. It might have been interesting, too, to have a little more science around the specimens, showing images of how the systems worked or how the disease caused issues. The space around the specimens just looked blank and empty, I think it would have greatly benefitted to have the walls be a biology picture book, full of interesting facts and discussions around science – though I suppose if they did that, they wouldn’t gain any money from the audio tour.

Overall, the exhibit is truly a spectacle to behold. The price is fairly low and there are plenty of things to see. It was a shame they didn’t have many ways to take the information home with you, as you weren’t allowed to photograph and there were no guidebooks being sold. However, the experience is surely worth it, as it’s something you’ll never see again.

Bodies Revealed is showing through the Ecco Arena (though the exhibet is on Paradise Street in Liverpool One) between the dates: 1st September 2012 – 02 January 2013
For more information about the exhibet:
http://www.bodiesrevealed.org.uk/#faq-page

To book tickets, click here

Rating: 9/10

Game Review: City of Horrors (Board Game) by Nicolas Normandon

City of Horror: a board game of tact, negotiation and a slowly growing swarm of terrifying zombies. Prepare for an epic battle and race for survival as you take up a team of 4-6 different characters to battle their way through crowds of the living dead. Team-work, negotiation and careful planning is the name of the game, as you have to handle the growing threat using action cards and character perks. The variety of teams, board-areas, action cards and different zombie movements also add a real dynamic to the game and greatly increase the re-play value.  However the general gameplay is active, even though would be significantly slower with only three players. The more interaction and debating you have during gameplay vastly increases playability, so the more bargaining prowess the better! The game naturally gets tougher, with two areas of the board being destroyed by certain player actions, while the number of zombies slowly increases over four rounds.

Beautifully illustrated by Miguel Coimbra, the images really add a new dimension to the game. Everything about it: the board, the cards, characters, box and even the rule books are flourished with intricate, crafted pictures. Such imagery makes the game very visual and helps bring the game-world to life. You do get quite confused at first with the amount of icons, however, which brings one of the main issues with the game. While the majority of it runs quite smoothly, some of the rules seem too complex and un-needed. It comes to a point during play where you begin to cut rules out or make your own, generalised versions, just because it makes it that little bit easier. Gameplay can become a little flawed with the number of characters verses the number of action cards you’re given too. There’s a fine balance between the gameplay being too easy and there being no chance of winning; staying perfectly on the balance-beam of the rules can be a little tricky.

Overall, however, this is a strong contender for my list of favourite games. It takes a while to get around the rules, but it’s beautifully designed and illustrated and is good fun to play. Little bags provided help you keep all of the small parts safe, too, so you can have a well organised world apocalypse to keep and treasure at home. Though on the pricey side, between £35 -£39, City of Horror is a unique, quirky game that is worth its’ money for replay-value.

To buy:  http://www.amazon.co.uk/City-of-Horror-Board-Game/dp/B009ROKVUE/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1353116031&sr=8-1

Rating: 9/10

Fiction Review: Anthropology by Dan Rhodes

Dan Rhodes’ Anthropology paints a series of little pictures; one hundred and one little pictures, each with one hundred and one words in them…little OCD maybe? Though the stories’ technically may be short and sweet, the content sure isn’t. Each vignette tells of a relationship where the girlfriend dies, secretly has kids, is a slut or is a ‘plain girl’. It’s a book full of depression that occasionally forms into a satirical, dark humour. Take one of the stories for an example of this humour, ‘Binding’. It begins by stating how the girlfriend was smashing her child’s toes with a rock. It then continues to mention the babies’ agonised wails. Then just to top it off, as part of the ‘punch-line’, Rhodes decides to add a stereotype about homosexuals. Oh the hilarity.

Ok, so they’re not all so bad, but most of the humour is so deep-seated that you have to almost work out what the joke would be. And, if you consider… that’s all these stories are, extended jokes; jokes where the humour is hidden. You may as well title it ‘the anthropology joke book and puzzle compendium’. Whilst they’re quite cleverly written, it just doesn’t work as a set of short stories. They don’t really link enough to create a ‘character you can be sure about’, yet you can’t feel anything for the characters if you take them as individuals. It’s stuck in a purgatory between potential humour and hidden messages.

Overall, some of the stories are enjoyable and there are some nice techniques scattered about. But I didn’t enjoy the dark humour.

Rating: 5/10

Comic Review: Batman, ‘Death by Design’ – by Chip Kidd and Dave Taylor

The inspiration for this comic came from a demolition of a building in Pennsylvania. The plot? It forms around the demolition of the Wayne Central Station, following the construction union representative who wants to use the land for his own enterprises, and Miss Syl who wants to preserve the building. So… to get this straight, this comic is about the building industry with a little bit of batman on the side. Is this a good comic? Not in my opinion.

This is the most mundane batman storyline I have experienced; surely Kidd could have come up with something a little better than that? You know it’s going to be bad when you could pretty much take Batman out of it, and it would be a business document. It follows the world of construction business and then, quite confusingly, we suddenly see the joker sticking his nose in. You start to even wonder why Batman or the joker is there. They could be off fighting each other in a much more interesting and twisted series of events, but instead they’re interfering in the business between the union and Miss Syll: who we have no reason at all to care about besides her feminine wiles.

The one good thing I can appreciate in this comic is the artwork. The drawings are beautiful and highly detailed. However, they could still do with a little bit more colour: though I guess grey fits the mood for the plot. And I’m unsure whether this is a general comic representation of the Joker, but he looks like he’s aged horrendously and been converted into an android. And his ‘twist’ entrance is completely confusing and unnecessary.

Overall, I’m disappointed that beside the drawings, there’s little good I can say about the comic. I was expecting great things from DC, but this just didn’t meet my expectations.

Rating: 3/10

Film Review: The Skin I Live In – directed by Pedro Almodóvar

Knowing the unique journeys of European cinema, I ventured into the world of Pedro Almodóvar’s ‘The Skin I Live In’, or ‘La piel que habito’ (original title). Though not strictly in the horror category, this film holds the amazing essence of Spanish horror and portrays a disturbing twist in a subtle, beautiful way. It shows the story of a plastic surgeon’s revenge on the man who raped his daughter, using a prosthetic skin he designed.

The surgeon is played by Antonio Banderas (Known from ‘The Mask of Zorro’ and ‘Shrek’). I don’t think Banderas is used to his full potential in this role. While he acts it well, he doesn’t really shine, as you’d expect such a big name to do and he is nothing ‘special’. However, the character is delicately portrayed and we can really see how he effected and torn by his past. We don’t see a lot of explanation or motive behind his actions, though. While his act of revenge is amazing, you don’t fully understand why someone would be that sick minded as his anger over his daughter’s rape still doesn’t seem enough of a motive. The plot also seems a little twisted and confused. While we’re pushed to focus on the act of revenge, it is all told in flash-backs, after an introduction following the creation of the prosthetic skin and its reaction in the scientific community. While flashbacks are a different way of structuring the timeline, it might have made more sense told in a more straightforward fashion, perhaps with flashbacks on the side. Due to its unusual timing, you end up having the shocking reveal and suspense climaxing in the middle of the film, then a slow decline to the end.

While oddly placed, the suspense built in the film was wonderful. You’re left slightly puzzled until you realise the twist that leaves you so shocked and staring at the screen in wonder of its brilliance. Once you’ve found this peak, it’s a journey being pulled along by Almodóvar’s story-telling to find out what happens and why the mysterious ‘client’ stays with the surgeon. The main characters shine through and the more you follow the storyline, the more you understand the depth of those relationships; like slowly revealing a painting. Overall, I find this a beautiful art-work of cinema. While disturbing, it’s very subtle and delicate and it just shines elegance you rarely find in darker films.

Rating: 9/10

TV Review: Dara O Briain’s Science Club (Episode 1) – Aired BBCTwo Tuesday 6th November

Available on BBC Iplayer until Friday the 16th November

How did the creation of bicycles enhance human genetic variety? Is sex the best way of moving the species along? Are we related to the Neanderthals? Just three of the selection of questions asked on the new BBC show: ‘Dara O Briain’s Science Club’. Though not extensive, the show gives a good amount of information that is presented in a user-friendly way. O Briain is joined by : Professor Steve Jones a well-known geneticist who self-proclaims to his students how he “makes sex boring”, Alok Jha who asks if the Human Genome Project was truly worthwhile, Tali Sharot who investigates the Epigenome as the future for genetics, Ed Byrne who investigates how Neanderthal he is, and Mark Miadownik who presents a DNA extraction experiment that people can do at home.

Although reading the content, it may look quite confusing or stuffy, Dara O Briain magically transforms and brings interest from what would normally be a generic science show. It’s like his face being on the front cover suddenly adds friendliness. It’s also quite refreshing to see him in a more serious setting, as while his witty nature does shine through; don’t expect the comedy chat show we usually see him in. However, Dara O Briain is a tool, here, to bring science welcomingly to the public eye: which can’t be a bad thing.

One quite confusing part of the show was the sudden reveal of the mechanics of a bicycle. Here I was expecting them to somehow link these inner workings either to sex or genetics, in some fascinating metaphor… but it proved to literally just be a tangent. Did the producers run out of things to include? I mean, sure it was interesting… if poorly linked-in to the rest of the show, but was it really worth a five minute slot? However, most of the content was interesting. It was displayed in a way for the general public to understand. While it deals with some less-known ‘biology’ terminology: such as genome, epigenome and chromosome, it made a point to explain them. You do get a sense of wondering who this show is aiming for, however. It seems a little too basic to be aiming for the scientific community, yet it also warrants a certain type of viewer. It’s not a show you’d watch after wandering home from the pub. It requires a slight interest in genetics, but it also works hard to capture interest by branching and linking genes to other areas (such as stating that the bicycle was the saviour of variety).  It was quite pleasing, for example, to see the inclusion of the do-it-yourself experiment where you could extract DNA. This helps make genetics interactive, which I think would do well: especially in younger audiences.

Overall, I think the show is a cleverly planned, interesting science show. The inclusion of Dara O Briain was genius, and shows like this are keys to attracting more people to the realms of science. I would have liked to see a little more interactivity, which might have been generated by a clearer target audience.  However, I’ll be sure to join in next week for the next captivating science lesson.

Rating: 6/10

Comic Review: The Walking Dead, V1 Days Gone Bye – by Robert Kirkman and Tony Moore

Robert Kirkman said he wanted to ‘explore how people deal with extreme situations and how these events change them’, in his introduction to volume 1 of ‘The Walking Dead’ series: ‘Days Gone Bye’. I think he achieves that aim quite nicely with this comic. Ignoring the fact it has an awful pun for a title, I think this volume is a beautiful example of the art of comic writing and I am proud for it to be my first branch into the genre.

The first striking thing about The Waking Dead is its lack of colour. Not only does this set the scene for the horror genre, it also gives a satisfying step away from the bright, bold KAPOW-type comic form of Marvel or DC. Whilst the comic could have potentially gained from some moody greens and browns, the black and white format sets a tone to match the dark storyline. The pictures themselves are intricately designed (by Tony Moore) and they show a lot of detail: especially in the mass-zombie images and the facial expressions. One negative that could be pointed out here, is how it’s fairly difficult to keep track on the passage of time in some scenes. There are some fantastic night-scenes that are drawn in a darker shade, but aside from this (unless mentioned in the storyline), it can be difficult to tell if something took an hour or six hours, or if events occur on different days or on the same day. This, however, may be intentional… but I think if intentionally used, it doesn’t work as well as it might have sounded in the board meeting.

The second most striking thing about this comic lies at the heart of Kirkman’s intentions: the characters. Character development and group relationships are the keys to this narrative and they’re effectively portrayed.  While we don’t get to find out much about the history of the people we meet, we are quickly thrust into the group and we feel their tensions. The jealous friend, the mother who feels her control is slipping, the mysteriously reserved one, the innocent children and the girl group: just some of the collection of characters that make up Kirkman’s social web. While the social interactions we see are effective, we don’t get to see much about the individuals’ lives before the crisis. If the focus was to see how people change, it might be nice if we knew who the people were to begin with. It must be difficult to portray so many characters individually in a short space of time, but some characters just don’t have enough conflict: making them one dimensional. Presumably they’re developed more in this way as the series continues.

The story itself is good, with variations between scenes of social interaction and scenes of action. There are enough lively scenes there to keep you entertained while the less action-packed details are span. The general ending is fairly simple, as the narrative is heavily pointing in that direction, but there is a pleasant twist which makes up for predictability. The overall horror doesn’t really bring a scare, its more centralised on the people and plot than the ‘horrific zombies’: and rightly so. To try and create a truly scary zombie would be a risky strategy as, on the whole, zombies aren’t all that terrifying. The most effective zombie films/comics either have adapted ‘the zombie’ to make it scary, or followed ‘The Walking Dead’s’ route of focusing on how people react under pressure. This decision was made well and has helped make an entertaining, woven tapestry that is highly recommended.

Rating: 10/10