Accidental Intertexuality

As the old saying goes: “When in Greece, read lot of books.” (It might not be an actual saying, but I still think it’s the way to go.)

On our two-week holiday I managed to read a staggering seven books. Which really isn’t too shabby, if you ask me. Also something rather amusing happened while I was reading, which is the main reason why I’ll give you five of them in one single humongous monster review.

The one I started off with was Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, by John Berendt. I assume many of you know the movie that was based on this book, but Iet me say a few words about the content anyway. For one thing, this is a narrative non-fiction book, not a crime novel, as many of you might think. While it somewhat centers around the murder of Danny Hansford by eccentric antiques dealer/millionaire Jim Williams and the subsequent trial, it is just as much about the city of Savannah and many of its more peculiar inhabitants. While I enjoyed the story of Williams, who is sad and inscrutable in equal measure, I was looking forward to the other characters just as much. The citizens of Savannah, at least those that Berendt chooses to write about, are one and all fantastically peculiar. It is mesmerizing, though admittedly in some cases more like watching a train wreck than like anything else. There’s the guy who supposedly possesses enough poison to kill the entire city, the society lady that hasn’t left her bed in years… and the Lady Chablis. Oh, and what a character the Lady Chablis is. She is easily the best thing about the book, and while I am willing to believe that some of the anecdotes in the book might have been altered to suit the author’s needs, I believe every word that is written about her. If you’ve seen the movie, you know what I mean, for Chablis plays herself and she is, as Chablis would say, fabulous. All in all I highly recommend the book. It paints a vivid and lively picture of Savannah and all the strange creatures that reside within, and it manages the all-too-rare feat of being suddenly, genuinely touching when you least expect it.

Next up was The Fear Index, by Robert Harris. Let me say, on an unrelated note, that I love Robert Harris. The man has written three wonderful novels set in Ancient Rome, books which I wholeheartedly recommend both for their engaging stories and their factual accuracy (Ancient Rome being a subject about which I know a thing or two). He’s also a delight to listen to, as we found out the other month, when we accidentally stumbled upon a reading of his at our local bookstore. Now, if you think that this gushing praise of Harris is the lead-up to tearing his latest book into shreds, I’ll have to disappoint you. The Fear Index is a book about the current economic crisis. It is a book about capitlism, and not a positive one at that. (Most chapters open up with quotes from Darwin’s Origin of Species, which I found extra creepy as I was once forced to sit through an exceptionally misguided student presentation that tried to link the one to the other.) It is also the story of a physicist, Dr. Alex Hoffman, and of the hedge fund that he has created. The novel opens up with a quote from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: “Learn from me, if not by my precepts, at least by my example, how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge.” The quote is fitting and not accidental, because The Fear Index explores themes of creation and responsibility. I forgive you if you now think that this is a book about an evil AI gone rogue, I had similar misgivings at one point or another, but let me assure you that it isn’t that simple at all. And I think this is where I should stop, lest I give away too much about the plot.

Thirdly (and this is where the funny bit starts) I read Solar, by Ian McEwan. Now, in all fairness this one should get a proper review of its own, because it was maybe not the most stupid, but the most intellectually offensive book that I read on this holiday. I’ll try to be brief. Solar is the story of Michael Beard, a Nobel-Prize-winning scientist past his prime (both physically and in the field of physics). Beard is, easily, the most dislikable character I’ve ever read about. He’s a womanizer, an egoist, lazy, arrogant and delusional. I could go on for a while, but I fear that all you will say is “duh, it’s a satire, of course he’s dislikable.” And yes, of course this is a work of fiction, and of comic fiction at that. Who’s to say that the dislikable prick can’t be the one who saves the world from global warming? And yet, and yet… it leaves a sour aftertaste. McEwan makes Beard so incompetent, so gross, that it seems like anything he touches is, by association, vile. Our protagonist treats his science like he treats his women: with studied, opportunistic contempt. I would have to re-read the book and write a far more detailed analysis to bring forth more satisfactory arguments than these, but all in all Solar seemed to ridicule climate change more than it warned of its dangers. That, on top of the unfair (and not to mention highly ironic) jabs at the futility of art in the face of such a calamity and the ham-handed attempts at taking on feminism (which backfire mightily and for all the wrong reasons in my opinion), makes for an unsatisfactory reading adventure. Or maybe I just don’t enjoy grossness as much as I should.

Oh yes, the funny, I almost forgot. At one point in Solar the protagonist, Michael Beard, is at a party. And, while sipping a glass of Chablis, he idly quotes Darwin’s Origin of the Species to impress some poor female or other. And I thought, what a funny coincidence… and the protagonist is a physicist too… weirder and weirder.

Book the fourth: Blonde Bombshell, by Tom Holt. I have some authors, Tom Holt among them, that I read primarily out of some sense of obligation to my younger self. Piers Anthony, Anne McCaffrey, Terry Goodkind, all these I am still reading because I stumbled upon them when I was fourteen and had no critical faculties whatsoever and I feel that I somehow owe it to myself to finish what I started (and in the case of Mr. Goodkind out of some sort of political/sadomasochistic/scientific interest.) Now, of all of the above I still find Tom Holt the most entertaining to read. True, the books are, as The Independent mildly put it, “undemanding”, and if you’ve read more than five you’ll find that there are more recurring themes than is good for them, but Holt also still manages to hit home with a lot of his jokes. And if I get a few good chuckles out of what is essentially an afternoon’s worth of reading, then I’m sort of happy. Blonde Bombshell isn’t overly complicated in terms of its plot, but still not easily summarized. Let me try: A race of canine aliens send a sentient bomb to planet Earth to destroy humanity, because we’ve been driving them insane by unwittingly sending radio waves to their planet. The bomb was preceded by another bomb, which vanished without achieving its mission objective. So the Mark II, being sentient, reasons that it should maybe figure out what happened to the Mark I before it does anything rash. Meanwhile on Earth, tech genius and multimillionaire Lucy Pavlov tries to figure out why she can’t remember anything prior to two years ago… and why she’s seeing unicorns. And then there’s George Stetchkin, an alcoholic physicist (another one!) who’s recruited by Lucy to figure it all out. And yes, he drinks Chablis in one scene, but he doesn’t like it. And then there are the two weird fellows, who might or might not be secret agents, or dogs, or maybe both. And… as I said, it’s not easily summarized. If you’re looking for an easy read with a few laughs I’d recommend Blonde Bombshell. It’s no Douglas Adams (by far) and those allergic to pop culture references might find an untimely end while reading it, but it’s far from the worst book I’ve ever read. It’s not even the worst Tom Holt I’ve ever read (that dubious honour goes to A Song for Nero). It’s inoffensive and brief and not even quite as predictable as expected. And I likes me a good pop culture reference now and then, so there.

And then, after three counts of Chablis and three counts of protagonist physicists, I thought that that might be the end of weird coincidences. That’s when I realized that the last book I had picked was Matter, by Iain Banks. Which was bound to contain lots of AIs and bombs, and even bomb AIs. And it did.

The book is part of the ongoing Culture series, which is not so much a continous story as a setting. I won’t say that this is the best Culture book that I’ve read so far. I won’t even say that I particularly liked Matter. My opinion about the book is a bit of a wibbly-wobbly grey area, I’m afraid. I like the story. I adore the scientific concepts it introduces and the science-is-our-friend-attitude which permeates the Culture books in general. I like the bits that are about people from a low-tech background entering a high-tech environment. I love the drones. If you’ve read any of the other culture books you’ll now have a vague idea of what I’m talking about. If you haven’t: do. Iain Banks’ Culture is sci-fi at its best. Whenever someone tells me that the genre contains nothing more than adolescent crap, this is what I use as a counterargument. The books are mature, philosophical, pro-science and all the while still fun. So now you’re wondering why I’m wibbly-wobbly about the book, yes? It’s because of the ending. I don’t want to spoil anything, the book is still worth reading, but the ending does a few things that, in a way, seem to negate a lot of what the books says and does. And that is a shame.

So, here we are. Five books, a lot of funny coincidences. I know that if you just try hard enough you can find a pattern in just about anything, but still… creepy, no? And if nothing else, this might give you some nice ideas about what to read next.

The Last Dragonslayer

I’ve just finished the first book of this holiday. Not written it, dear Lord, but read. Why do we need to stop the press for that? Surely people finish reading books all the time, everywhere. Yes, they do, but ever since we got a new bed and changed the bedroom layout a few months back we haven’t had a light at the bed and thus no reading in the evening for me. Which was the only time I had time for such things. And reading is ever so important to me…

To get back into the game I chose something easy: The Last Dragonslayer by Jasper Fforde. I love Fforde’s work, but only conditionally. The Thursday Next series is mostly great, although the energy seems to have gone out of it a little as it progressed. I’ve not even picked up the new instalment, which came out in the beginning of the year. The Nursery Crime novels on the other hand aren’t quite as successful. Maybe the noir meets fairy-tale approach just doesn’t work for me, I’ve had the same reaction to some of Robert Rankin’s work. As for Shades of Grey… it seems to be well-meaning and has some nice concepts, but is somehow powerless and badly paced.

But I was going to write about The Last Dragonslayer. The book tells the story of Jennifer Strange – foundling, acting manager of the Kazam Magic Management Company and soon to be the last of the Dragonslayers. She is to be the one who decides the fate of the last Dragon on earth and who of the many players in the game for his lands and power is in the right. Of course everything isn’t quite as simple as it appears to be.

The world is obviously based on modern Britain, but weird enough to be alien and never quite understood. It doesn’t reach the level of the true greats, such as Tolkien or McKillip, but one gets the sense of a vast volume of strange conventions and stranger history that lurks just beneath the pages. I like stories like that. Jennifer, who seems to have an awfully marketable name in a world where everyone else seems to be called after members of the crustacean family, is a funny and clever character. The kind of girl I would have liked to be… had I grown up in a weird alternate Britain where dragons exists, mages are primarily employed as plumbers and marzipan is the new crack.

The book’s biggest fault is its brevity, which might be connected to the age group for which it was written. Maybe I just have a lot more reading stamina than your average fourteen-year-old. I hope not. Then there is also Fforde’s tendency to include rather random pop-culture references in his works. A company called Industrial Magic comes to mind. There are others that did not bother me, although I can’t remember any of them at the moment (which is most likely because they didn’t bother me).

I recommend The Last Dragonslayer to any young, fantasy-loving readers out there. Hell, I recommend it to any old fantasy-loving readers. The book is funny and solidly written. The world is interesting and has a wealth of interesting characters (and the quarkbeast!). And the ending is genuinely touching, although I wonder how this is ever going to lead to the promised sequels. Still… the book is worth a read. Give it a go.

The Twilight Experiment: Day 11

Once more with feeling. Once more I shall be brave and take a trip deep, deep down into Stephenie Meyer’s dark mind. (Okay, dim might be a better word.) At the bottom, underneath layers of sparkly skin and perfect golden eyes, lies another horror. Do not go there, dear reader, for few return with their sanity intact. What lurks there may be short, only 178 pages, but it is far more horrible than anything you’ve encountered before. You thought Jake’s narration in Breaking Dawn was bad? Think again. Think again and see… The Short Second Life Of Bree Tanner.

As some of you may already have guessed, I wasn’t very pleased with this one. The term “companion novella” should have made me cautious. Then again, were I the cautious type I probably wouldn’t have started this sorry experiment in the first place. What I am trying to say is that I believe I have, over the course of the last year, become inured to the level of writing contained within the pages of a Stephenie Meyer book – and yet it wasn’t quite enough to prepare me for what TSSLOBT had in store for me. (Also: mistrust any book where reading the title takes longer than reading the actual book.)

I don’t know if the problem was that the deadline was too tight, or that Stephenie is done writing Twilight; maybe she thought “this one’s just for fun,” or maybe it was oxygen deprivation at birth, but this book is seriously bad. Bad as in this opens up a whole new category of bad. Super-Bad, so to speak. Bad². Essence de Bad… oh, you get my drift. TSSLOBT feels unfinished, and in combination with Stephenie’s overall writing talent and style, this doesn’t make for a very good result.

The story: Bree Tanner is a three-month-old vampire, formerly a fifteen-year-old human. She’s part of Victoria’s newborn army from Eclipse (as in: the army that gets systematically dismantled and charcoaled by the Cullens at the end of the novel), so there is little doubt as to why her second life will be very short. The newborn army is currently hiding out in Seattle under the supervision of a vampire called Riley, because Victoria wants to keep her sparkly fingers clean for now. We meet Bree while she is out hunting with three other vampires, one of whom is named Diego. While the other two try to decide which comic book hero is cooler, Spider-Man or the Hulk, because Stephenie feels the need to show us that they both are really really really immature, Bree and Diego go off to hunt on their own. When they later return to the army’s hideout, they find the house burned down and abandoned. This is cause for concern, since Bree and Diego seem to believe that the whole sunlight-turns-vampires-to-crisps deal applies to their breed as well. Ditto goes for stakes and garlic. They hide in a cave and get to know each other. If you thought that sentence smelled of innuendo, you were right.

Sigh… so yes, nothing actually happens, but after two hours in a cave with Diego, Bree certainly hopes that something would happen. In the Stephenieverse girls take an average of 3.2 seconds to fall in love. In the brief moments in which they are not busy gazing dreamily at each other, our heroes also figure out that the whole sunlight/garlic/stake thing is a load of horse dung. Bravo, Diego, only took you eleven months to figure that out. That’s how old he is, by the way, in vampire terms. And before that he was a human for about eighteen years. Which would make bonking Bree illegal in a number of places. Diego’s luck holds, though, because he dies before he can do anything unlawful other than killing loads of people.

Sorry, I’ve jumped ahead a little. After Bree and Diego discover that they can go outside during the day without turning into sparkly lumps of coal, they go in search of the rest of the army. They find them and discuss whether or not they should tell anyone about their amazing discovery. Yes, is their conclusion, but we’ll only tell Riley for now. Maybe it’s an honest misunderstanding. Hell, the poor man might not even know. Bree is not so certain that Riley is such a good guy, but Diego insists and continues to insist on that even after he and Bree overhear a conversation between Riley and Victoria in which they blatantly describe the army as a collection of idiots designated to be cannon fodder very soon. (That conversation gives me a headache when I try to think about the logic of it all… but more later).

They hear and they ponder and think, but hey, he’s the good guy, right? So Diego tells Riley about the sunlight, alone, and as a result suffers a slight case of death. Bree, for reasons known only to Stephenie herself, doesn’t think much of it when Diego doesn’t return, and happily goes along with her orders. The army gets trained a little, they kill enough humans to depopulate as small country, and off they go to get slaughtered by the Cullens, Bree among them. She survives, or rather surrenders to our favourite veggie-vamps, only to get killed by the Volturi a few pages later. But that’s okay, really, because Diego is dead too and now they can be together… in hell.

So, now for the fun part. The three principal characters in this book are Bree, Diego and a vampire named Freaky Fred.

Diego is easy. He’s your typical Adonis look-alike vampire. Not too bright, except where his sparkly skin is concerned, but who’s counting brain cells when a pretty face is involved? My favourite Diego scene is the one in which he tests out his theory about stakes not being quite as lethal as they are made out to be by ramming one into his chest. I applaud his application of the scientific method… but his survival instinct seems to be on holiday throughout the book.

Then there’s Bree, our narrator. One thing that I forgot to stress when I was writing my review of Jacob’s narration in Breaking Dawn is that Stephenie seems to be intent on making a character’s age apparent through his inner voice. Jake is a kid to her and so is Bree, and I get the idea that she thinks teenagers cannot or shouldn’t be clever or eloquent. This doesn’t make the book any easier to read.

Bree is also really thick. I guess that is why she falls for Diego in the first place: perfect match and all that. This way their singular brain cells will be less lonely (they just need to hold their heads really close together). Bree has several good hunches about just how nice Riley really is and just how true all the things are that he is telling them about the Cullens and their place in the world. And what does she do about it? Diddly-squat, that’s what. The whole thing finds its culmination when Diego doesn’t return from his heart-to-heart with Riley. She, already suspecting Riley of being a bad bad vampire, ask him what happened to Diego. Diego? says Riley. Ah… yes. Diego. He’s… over there somewhere. Scouting… yes, that’s it. He’s scouting. He’ll be back, honest. And he’s fine, not dead at all. And Bree is happy and content and marches off to meet the Cullens. Cause there’s nothing suspicious going on here at all, right?

Then there’s Freaky Fred. I haven’t mentioned him so far because he doesn’t really play much of a part in the novel. He’s one of them special vampires, the ones that can do fancy magic and stuff. His magic is to make people feel sick when they look at him. He’s got a weak spot for Bree, so he makes people feel sick looking at her once or twice too when she needs it. He’s also the only one of the sorry lot that gets away in the end. As Bree notes in one instance, Fred is a real clever one, must have been to university or somethin’ like that. So he sees right through Riley’s clever subterfuge and in the end slips away before the big slaughterfest. He also, apparently, thinks about telling Bree about his theories. Bree, who is already suspecting things, only to always discard her worries as silly suspicions. One would think that some extra input from someone educated might be of help. The only trouble is that Fred is apparently content to look at her as if he wanted to tell her something important and then never opens his bloody educated gob. I didn’t notice at first, but that’s really what happens. He just looks like he’s got oral constipation and then never says anything. This happens at least a dozen times in the book. That’s once every fourteen pages. Stephenie’s version of “being subtle,” I assume.

Victoria, the uber-evil uber-villain of Twilight, sadly appears in only one scene. I say sadly, because this scene alone has enough laughs to keep a good stand-up comedian busy for years. First there’s the whole shtick about the newborn army being basically the Twilight equivalent of your average Star Trek redshirt. A discussion which Bree and Diego listen to without any real consternation. Maybe fear isn’t a vampire thing, like thinking.

The Volturi, as I never get tired of reminding people, are this super ancient vampire clan from Italy. They’re from Volterra, which makes me wonder a) why they’re not called Volturri and b) if Steph maybe didn’t just pick the name because it sounds a tiny-winey little bit like vulture. Also they’re some sort of vampire aristocracy/world police/super badass coven all wrapped up in one, and they are out to get the Cullens. Because everyone is always after the good guys. In TSSLOBT they visit Victoria to make sure that she’s really out to kill Eddie and Bells and the rest of the clan and not just trying to achieve world dominion through outstanding idiocy. And they wonder… if Alice can see the future, how come she hasn’t seen the newborn army come for her family yet?

Stephenie Meyer has already tried to answer that question with some limited success in Eclipse. There Alice’s explanation sounded a lot like it’s because she hasn’t decided yet and if she’s not decided then I can’t see and… look, a unicorn! Victoria gives much the same answer, only in the face of 22 vampires that are camped a stone’s throw away, the answer seems even less convincing. I haven’t decided what I will do with them, she says. So in other words she has created 22 vampires all on her own, appointed someone to herd them and gets regular updates on how they are doing and she hasn’t thought “and then they’ll kill the Cullens for me” even once. Really? I mean… really?!? That’s as if a man was heating up a large glob of glass on a hollow stick without ever thinking “I’ll make a vase”. Try not to think of an elephant, I dare you.

Almost done.

I was very amused by the scene in which Bree and Diego discover exactly what their skin does when it comes into contact with sunlight. We all know the answer… it sparkles. Bree is a little surprised, kind of pleased, but also a little amused. I look like a disco ball, she thinks. And once again I can sort of see Stephenie shuffling her feet in the far distance. She twiddles her thumbs, smiles a little sheepishly and says: Okay, I get it, it is silly. If I admit it is silly will you please stop making fun of me? No, we won’t, Steph. Sorry. But it is nice that you admitted it. Now go look at something shiny.

And then there’s my favourite item. It’s about math again. Vampire feeding math. 22 still alive, Victoria says at one point. She means the newborn army and seems to imply that there were more than 22 at some point. Okay. Eleven months, Diego says when asked when he was created. Also noted. I’ll be hungry again in a few hours and in three days I’ll have to hunt again, Bree thinks to herself (after just having snacked on two hookers and a pimp). A lot of pretty, sparkly numbers. If you add them up they worry me a little.

Say Diego was the first vampire created by Victoria. We don’t know that, but to be fair that’s what we shall assume. Let’s also say that there might have been more than 22 newborns at some point, but if you take into account that Victoria needed some time to bring her army to full strength the eleven-month average is probably lower than 22. Say… fifteen?

Fifteen vampires need to feed once every three days over an eleven-month period consuming between two and three humans with each feeding. Eleven months have 336 days. That’s 112 feedings. 122 x 2.5 = 280. 280 x 15 = 4200. That’s me going with reasonable, low numbers. And I’m not counting Riley or Victoria here. Seattle has 617,334 people living in it according to a 2009 census. So, roughly speaking, Bree and her friends eat 1 in 125 people in the Emerald City. That’s a lot. The sudden increase in missing persons and unsolved homicides is mentioned in Eclipse, sure, but this… ? Shouldn’t Obama be sending in the National Guard or something?

And thus, in the wake of this amusing little mathematical conundrum, I leave you and Twilight be. It’s been a fun ride. OK, who am I kidding? Actually it hasn’t been. I’m very tolerant when it comes to reading trash. Bring it on, baby. But with these books it got harder and harder to forge on with each page that I turned. And yes, it is easy reading. The sentences seemed to fly beneath my eyes. Maybe they wanted to get out of the book really badly. But no matter how fast I was reading, the sheer stupidity of the characters… Bella’s submissiveness… Edward’s suffering masculinity…. Jacob’s biceps… it all got a little too much to bear after almost 3000 pages of incessant, self-absorbed blathering.

But I’ve also learned things. I’ve finally understood why people are so fascinated with Twilight. I have learned to look deeply into the twists and turns of Stephenie Meyer’s mind (or Steph, as I call her), and it is a scary place. I’ve learned about grizzly bears and mountain lions, about Seattle, about the Olympic Peninsula and about domestic violence. It has been an experience. It was gruelling, but it has also made me stronger.

Do not follow me, if you are faint of heart.

Seriously. Don’t.

My Name Is Bob, Sire.

I haven’t written about a computer game in a while… mostly because I haven’t played any in a while (unless you count Spider Solitaire and First Person Tetris). That will change soon as the next month is packed full with releases that I’m really looking forward to. Gothic 4, Two Worlds 2 (the release has been pushed back) and Fallout: New Vegas. The scent of add-ons and sequels lies heavily in the air this fall. (And then there’s also the Borderlands Game of the Year Edition, which I suspect to be the cheaper way to get all those juicy DLCs.)

But for now let’s talk about a game that’s not a sequel or a prequel or any other kind of let’s-wring-more-money-out-of-this-dried-out-lifeless-franchise-quel: Dragon Age: Origins. Not that there isn’t a lot of greed involved in this one. The game has been out for less than a year and already there’s an add-on, a whole slew of DLC’s, two novels and a board game. Soon there will be a trilogy of flash games, an anime movie and for all I know a squeaky chew toy for all your geek-dog needs. I find this a little disconcerting, but on the other hand both the publishing industry and Hollywood have stepped up the pace a little when it comes to release dates and sequels and such and it is really too  much to expect the games industry to miss out on all that fun (and money).

Yes. Dragon Age… First a little something to keep the confusion at bay: for all of you who wonder about the fequent use of “we” in a single player RPG: I played the game together with Jonas, which means that he did most of the clicking and I did a lot of “go over there… no over there… there!… stop turning, will you?… you missed a bit of loot… oh, it’s just a dagger.” It’s fun, trust me.

We played a Dalish Elf named (slightly embarrassed pause) Bob. Which isn’t really anyone’s fault, at first we just wanted to try out the game and then we kind of got sucked in… with the wrong name. There is an argument to be made, however, for either not dealing with the name issue at all (like in Gothic) or having a preset name. I’m not going to make that argument, at least not at length, because I don’t write articles about game design theory. In brief, that other approach has two main advantages: a) you can record dialogue for the player-character, which will do wonders for the immersion and b) you don’t end up with names like Gandalf the Awesome or, well, Bob, which really doesn’t do much for the suspension of disbelief. Dragon Age went the other way there. It’s not the end of the world, but I thought I’d mention it.

Dragon Age: Origins puts you in a quasi-medieval fantasy world called Ferelden. Depending on your choice of character and class you will play through one of nine individual intro-adventures that will take you at least ten minutes to play through. Okay, I’m being sarcastic again. The Dalish Elf intro isn’t that bad. Predictable, but not a total loss. And you meet some of the characters from your intro again later in the game, at least with most scenarios, which is a nice touch. But even at the very beginning of Dragon Age I couldn’t help but notice how incredibly linear the game is. I hadn’t played a BioWare game before and I have to admit that I had trouble believing Jonas when he told me just how bad it would be. Sure, in the first dungeon you can choose between going right or left at one point, but both options will end you up at the same cut scene, so where’s the difference? If you’ve played BioWare games before I trust you’ll know what I mean when I say that every area might just as well be a single straight path. If you didn’t… just imagine visiting a very strange nature reserve with a nervous guide who keeps reminding you to never go off the path since otherwise the invisible walls will come and get you.

Once you’re done with the intro you’ll inevitably find yourself in the camp of the Grey Wardens. They’re nice chaps, actually, who enjoy drinking the blood of super-evil demon-spawn and long, romantic evenings by the campfire. And soon you’ll be one of them, rejoice! Dark and gritty games being what they are, things don’t quite go according to plan. You manage to join the Grey Wardens, but unfortunately not much later your king as well as the majority or your new brothers-in-arms get slaughtered by the darkspawn and you kind of get blamed for the whole mess. Treason is involved, naturally, but try telling that to the soldiers that are coming to kill you.

The rest of the plot is essentially all about stopping the Blight, an invasion of darkspawn led by the Arch-Demon, by bringing the different races and factions of Ferelden out of their respective holes and onto the field of battle, and about getting a new king onto the throne. Not necessarily in that order.

Dragon Age has good and bad in it. The good is very good and the bad is… a lot.

What is good is mostly the voice acting and writing on the various NPCs that you can pick up as companions during the course of the game. Dragon Age has a list of characters (and actors) that would put many a Hollywood movie to shame. The cast list on the IMDb has well over a hundred actors, amongst them such august names as Tim Curry, Kate Mulgrew, Dwight Schulz, Tim Russ, Dominic Keating (did they get their hands on an old Star Trek contact sheet?), Claudia Black and Robin Sachs. And while I’m here to praise the voice acting and not fault it, I must say that unfortunately most of the actors named above are wasted on tiny bit-parts. Way to go, BioWare.

Where was I? Voice acting… good. There are a few characters in the game that are just brilliant. Morrigan, for one, although the writers seem to be oddly unsure if she’s really one of the good guys or not. Claudia Black voices her with such a wealth of sarcasm and irony that one cannot fail but love that character (we did, she’s one of the available love interests). Kate Mulgrew lends her scratchy voice to Flemeth, a minor character, but a memorable one. Tim Curry, the biggest name in the cast, is sadly a little colourless as Arl Eamon; I for one wouldn’t have suspected him behind that character. The real gem of the game, however, is the to me totally unknown Steve Valentine as Alistair. There were times in the game, when the combat system was being particularly obnoxious and the plot more transparent than usual, when all that kept us playing was innocent, cute, funny Alastair. The writing on the character, who also happens to be the by far most important NPC, is superb, and you really learn to adore him. By the end of the game we were making a lot of our plot decisions on the basis of the will-Alistair-approve principle (okay, also on the we-don’t-really-care-because-this-is-too-obvious principle, so what?). BioWare games often have, or so I hear, great voice acting and decent writing, but when it came to Alistair and a handful of other characters it really impressed us… and we played Gothic, so we’ve got high standards. (Oh, and then there’s the Leliana issue… the half-Russian, half-French, half-British character that is 150% badly voice acted. Yeah, she wasn’t very good.)

Unfortunately there is a lot of bad to balance out poor little Alistair. I’ve already mentioned the linearity of the game in terms of the terrain. The plot itself is not dissimilar in that respect, just like on the maps you can sometimes choose if you would like to go left or right first, but you always end up with the boss-level enemy at the end of the dungeon.

And the game is small. Again, both in terms of plot and terrain. Sure, there are fourteen or fifteen main locations, each with half a dozen maps attached, but since all you can take is the scenic route along the carefully designed walkway of inevitability, most of these are quickly explored. Denerim, the capital of Ferelden, is particularly disappointing, since it basically only has the marketplace and a few other, tiny locations that don’t give you very much to do.

Speaking of markets: the game has a big problem there. The merchants restock for the last time about halfway through the game. After that there nothing more to look forward too, a severe problem for me (seeing that I am a girl it is only right and proper that I prefer the shopping to the chopping). The unique items are few and far between and often neither really cool nor fairly priced. They did some good with the runes, but then again you can only find a handful of the good ones in the entire game.

Another big problem is the entire messy mess that calls itself a combat system. Okay, so we’ve seen worse, but the developers of Gothic 3 should be hung, shot, quartered and poisoned, preferably at the same time, so that does hardly count. (On second thought… Risen was good, so why don’t we hang, shoot, quarter and poison the bloody release-date-rushing publisher JoWood instead?)

You will play most combat situations with a group of four characters at your disposal. Four characters who can be set either to “be big boys” or “won’t be able to tie their own shoelaces”. In one setting they will merrily run after anything that wags its tail at them, regardless of their own mortality, in the other setting they will stand still, idly picking their noses, while an ogre is biting chunks out of their thighs. Neither are ideal, as you can surely see. The maps are all basically two-dimensional and (again) linear, which pretty much takes the fun out of strategy, and even if that weren’t the case, strategy is only possible at the no-shoelaces setting, which complicates things a little. Oh… and then there’s the camera, which hasn’t been told that we are playing a real-time RPG (as oposed to a turn-based strategy-game) and thus is determined to be stuck on top of your characters at all times. No, I didn’t want to see that dragon halfway down the corridor, why do you ask?

Yes, of course, there’s good too, like the wide range of attack spells that are available to the magic users, but in the end that always led to the fighters picking their noses while the Two Mage-ettes, Morrigan and Wynne, picked off the enemies at their leisure. Not ideal, dear BioWare, not ideal at all.

In the end, after all the fighting and selling and questing and what little exploration there is, the most disappointing thing of all was the plot. The game has a built-in progress indicator somewhere on the character screen and don’t let that sneaky little bastard fool you. Dragon Age: Origins stops at the 50% mark, for whatever damn reason. This was, needless to say, a little bit of a disappointment to us, because… how to put it… WHICH OF YOU CLOWNS CAME UP WITH THAT F***ING IDEA?

That’s not the only problem though. Somewhere around the halfway point (25% in Dragon-Age-speak), the game managed to make us really care about Alistair and the future of Ferelden. Alistair, as I should maybe mention at this point, is one of the possible options for replacing the recently-deceased monarch. And at some point you get to make that decision. Who shall rule Ferelden? We, naturally, decided on Alistair and after that the character kind of vanishes from the game. Oh, sure, he’s still there and you still get to talk to him, he even fights with you provided that you made certain choices earlier on, but somehow the spark is lost. And the same goes for the rest of the characters, really. Writing-wise the air goes out of the game like out of the balloon that snogged a hedgehog. They tried to do all these epic, giant speeches and battles and all that it amounts to is a long succession of cut scenes with battles inbetween that don’t allow you to save for hours on end and that you’re too afraid to skip because there might be a good bit hidden somewhere in all that muddle. (There isn’t… go ahead and skip like your life depended on it.)

It’s a shame really, because without the disappointing ending Dragon Age might have been a good game. Not great, but decent. As it is it barely beats Divinity 2, which isn’t saying much since I’m less and less impressed with that one the more I think about it. I don’t think we will be buying the add-on (Dragon Age: Origins – Awakening), not after that ending. The sequel maybe, but only because it looks like they’re trying to fix a few of the problems that the first one had. Not sure Hawke beats Bob as a name though.

The Twilight Experiment: Day 5

It’s been a good long time since I read Eclipse. Well, okay, it’s been maybe three months since I read it, but thankfully the quality of the novel is such that the psychological scarring quickly fades. Literary junk-food, much like its culinary namesake, passes through the system rather quickly, if unpleasantly. On the other hand, maybe I shouldn’t be so happy about Eclipse’s perishable nature, because as I sit down to write this, the fifth part of the Twilight Experiment, I find that I’ll have to re-read most of the book if this review is to make any kind of sense. Urgh!

First page: Another one of Stephenie’s beloved Prefaces. (Which is a curious word to use, since it originally meant author’s foreword, even if the distinction between preface and prologue seems to have become a little blurred in recent years.) Anyway, the preface, in all its horrendous glory.

Black eyes, wild with their fierce craving for my death, watched for the moment when my protector’s attention would be diverted.

A real beauty, that one. Even if we ignore Stephenie’s feeble attempt to make us wonder if it’s really Edward of the Sparkle that’s defending Bella here. Even if we suspend disbelief and stop wondering why anyone would ever put his sparkly skin on the line to protect Bella Swan of all the people in the world. Even then we have to marvel at wild with their fierce craving. It’s almost as good as his intense concentration betrayed no hint of doubt just a little further up on the same page. Because concentration usually is, like, relaxed. Right?

First chapter: In a sense we are blessed, for the two real bummers in the first half of Eclipse are served to us on a platter right on the first two pages. After we have struggled out of the pit of filth that is the prolo preface, barely clinging on to life, sanity and literary taste buds, we are assailed by the first chapter. Assailed by Jacob’s letter, to be more precise.

Now, to be fair, I know the boy is dense. Granted: brighter cookies have been sighted in the Quileute jar of crumbly, chunky, chocolate-filled werewolves. (Yuck!)  But would you, or anyone of slightly higher intelligence than a dead hamster, write a note to a friend/lover/strange thing, re-think what you want to write seven times and then send your entire creative effort, including the still quite legible crossed-out bits? Really? Or are we supposed to believe that the Quileute reservation is undergoing some sort of tragic, cataclysmic paper shortage? Or maybe, just maybe, Stephenie liked them all and couldn’t quite decide which one to keep in the book. And the decision is hard, really. One could go for tacky: it just makes it worse when I think about you. Or maybe a more stern tone is called for with: you made a choice here, okay? Or, finally, there’s the timeless let’s-steal-a-line-that-I-heard-somewhere-approach: which part of “mortal enemies” did you not understand? Real classy Stephenie. That jokey, throwaway line in there somehow manages to rob the entire note of what little credibility it might have held before. Assuming we believed the Quileute paper shortage excuse in the first place, that is.

Moving on, quicker now, for the first half of the book proceeds to slowly drown in a slimy quagmire of stalling, needless jealousy and literary name dropping. Yes, Mrs. Meyer, we’re very proud that you have managed to read Wuthering Heights, all 260 pages of it, please stop mentioning it all the time.

I (re)read, skimming the pages in parts – if you cut straight to the dialogue the pain lessens, I find. The middle bits are anyway bound to be either about Jacob’s biceps or about Edward’s, well, sparkly bits. Then, just eight pages in, my skimming grinds to a halt. I’m nitpicking and I know it, but I remember this bit from my first go at Ecplise. (And besides, without nitpicking, would there be joy in this world?) Bella speaks of Charlie’s surly attitude. Now, you remember Charlie, don’t you? He’s one of Stephenie’s charming one-personality-trait side characters. In his case that trait is non-verbose, which he has leveled up to an impressive +17. Now, I know Stephenie loves her adjectives, so maybe she just needed one in that sentence and this one was the first that came to mind. If that is the case, we’re lucky: it could also have been broccoliesque. If she actually meant surly, as in “inclined to anger or bad feelings with overtones of menace”, one has to wonder why it is placed in front of the most wordy conversation Bella has with her dad in the entirety of the four books. A conversation in which he laughs, lifts her house arrest and says that Edward might (might, mind you) not be the Antichrist. Well… just thinking out loud.

Fourteen pages in. Edward comes by to visit. I now notice what’s been wrong with the book so far. Why it didn’t really feel like a Twilight novel. No page-long descriptions of male anatomy. Yep, that’s it. But trust Bella to set right what was amiss.

I saved the eyes for last, knowing that when I looked into them I was likely to lose my train of thought.

I see. Might I point out that a) that is probably a good thing and that b) instead of train, a more fitting term might be draisine. Yes. Anyway.

Back to the quagmire. I had a conversation with a friend recently. Said friend, someone whose literary judgement and taste I trust to a certain degree, had just confessed to seeing the third Twilight movie. I took this in my stride – he has also read the books, he knew what he was in for. So, I ask him, how was it?

And he says, quite simply: short. Not in minutes, but in plot. I’ll be seeing same-said movie next Tuesday, then I’ll be able to confirm what he said, but for now I’m taking him by his word. The third book, Eclipse, is a good fifty pages longer than the previous one, New Moon. “So what?” I hear you say. Sequels tend to get longer in a lot of cases, just look at Harry Potter. Yes, I say in response, partly that may be because getting a 100.000+ words novel published is a nightmare (as I am currently discovering). So beginner novels may tend to be shorter because of that. Or because the plot thickens, broadens and thus requires more pages to be told. All possible reasons for books’ tendency to get longer as a series progresses.

But, and here’s the catch, most series actually have more story. Not so with Eclipse. I am not joking when I say that the actual plot of the book could easily and without any loss of quality (hah) be compressed into, say, 10 chapters. Eclipse has 27 chapters, 28 if you count the epilogue. (Shouldn’t that be epiface or something, btw?)

Bella gets ungrounded. Vampires want to kill her (again). Edward asks her to marry him. She refuses. He asks again. She says yes, but will you fuck me first? He says no. She says okay, but after, yes? Vampires come to kill her. Instead the Cullens and the werecuddles kill them. The End.

There, ten sentences, ten chapters. Easy as pie and far less dreary. So what’s the filler? It’s an endless, incredibly boring tug-of-war between Jacob and Edward. Bella’s the rope, just in case you’re wondering. And again I wish I was kidding. A good two-thirds of the book get eaten by this. Bella sneaks away to La Push and the Cullens stop her. Bella sneaks away to La Push and the Cullens don’t stop her, but she gets an earful from Edward later. Bella punches Jacob because he kissed her and breaks her hand, making us all wish that she had tried to headbutt him instead. Bella pleads with Edward to let her see the mutt and he says no, taking a page from the Big Book of Chauvinist Dominance and Oppression. And on it goes. It’s painful. The Long, Hurt Look count in this book is in the far thousands and that’s not even counting the Angry, Hurt Looks and the Short, Hurt Looks. In the end we all wish that either Jacob, Bella or Edward had been killed in infancy by a piano falling out of the sky. Preferably all three of them actually – it happens more often than you would think. Just ask Joe Abercrombie.

I’m almost done. Only Benito is left.

You, Stephenie, have got one single Hispanic character in your whole damn mostly-Causcasian-white-with-a-sprinkle-of-token-spiritual-natives-thrown-in-for-flavour 629-page book and you name him Benito?


I rest my case.

Thus ends part five of the Twilight Experiment. Expect more soon when I explain why exactly Bella should dump Edward quicker than you can say Jacob’s biceps.

The Twilight Experiment: Interlude

Sunday. I have nothing to read. Correction: I have stuff to read, some of it is even quite intelligent, but I don’t have Eclipse. And since I fear that starting another book at this point might endanger the experiment as a whole, I shall resist Iain Banks and Guy Gavriel Kay and Jasper Fforde (I didn’t say that all of it was intelligent).

Still bored, though. So what better way to pass the time until the bookstores open on Monday than to watch Twilight on YouTube?

Okay, yes, I see your point. But I’m not going to do that. Or that. Sorry.

Where was I? Yes. I had seen Twilight: New Moon in the cinema and my experiences can be summed up with “all that glitters is not gold” – sometimes it’s a vampire. The movie looked great in terms of production values, and some of the actors appear to be theoretically capable of acting, but all in all it was a large pile of horse dung.

On the other hand, I can say that now that I have read New Moon, the movie seems to be a marvel of consistency. So I wonder, what will the adaptation of Twilight be like? Can Kristen Steward be any less appealing? Vampires glitter and they are not gold… so what are they?

Armed with a cup of tea and some cookies I sit down in front of my computer and type “twilight movie” into the YouTube search thingummy. The top result is in good quality and seems to be subtitled in Norwegian, which no doubt would increase the entertainment value of what I’m about to do, but I somehow manage to resist. The next one looks better, so there I go.

Twilight, just like the other three books, is written from a first-person perspective. Usually that’s Bella, and when it isn’t it’s Jacob, which is possibly worse. While they have ignored the first-person style of the book in the adaptation of New Moon, Twilight is in parts narrated by Bella. This wouldn’t be a problem if someone hadn’t told Kristen Stewart to do the voiceovers in her “depressed” voice. Because that’s the only modus operandi that Bella knows. Or maybe that’s just what Kristen Stewart sounds like all the time. What do I know? One way or the other the result is so drab that the opening sequence of Twilight is enough to put you to sleep, despite the nice music.

Yeah, you heard me right: Nice music. As with New Moon, there is one thing that I can’t really fault this movie for, and that’s production values. The images are nice and crisp, the sets look good (too good you might say, but I’ll get to that in a minute), and the score by the shamelessly talented Carter Burwell is quite nice. That doesn’t save it, of course. You can make a movie that has a sterling story but mediocre visuals and it can still be good, but sadly that trick doesn’t work the other way round.

Back to the story. Bella has arrived in Forks. She is wearing a pretty trousers/vest/shirt combination in blue and brown which makes her look like she belongs. Yeah, sounds weird, doesn’t it? Looked weird, too. I didn’t notice at first; my only thought was that something looks strange about the image. But then I realized that she is dressed to match her room. I believe that’s called out-of-control-costume-design. Someone should be shot for that.

Next up: Jacob Black. The filmmakers have pulled a reverse Harry Potter on us and included our favourite werewolf in more scenes, in anticipation of the bigger part that his character will play in the other movies. Unfortunately I hate his guts, so I’m not happy about it. (It would have been nice to see some more Dobby, though.) So Jacob comes, delivers some exceedingly wooden dialogue, and leaves. And Bella goes to school.

Here we meet the Cullens. If one thing is clear from the very first moment that we see them, it is that Bella is destined to be part of this family, because they clearly shop at the same oufitters interior designers. Yes, you guessed right, they are dressed to match the school cafeteria. Which presents some problems in a school environment. Do they change clothes between classes? What to they do on day trips? Questions, questions, so few answers.

But at least the arrival of the Cullens takes some of the focus away from Bella’s new friends, who seem to be trying to rival Jacob in the disciplines of wooden acting and supreme idiocy. To make up for the lack of likability the producers have cast a black and an Asian dude, which is not a problem, technically speaking, but I can hear a tiny voice in the back of my head that whispers: they only did it to get a bigger target audience. Also the black dude is hardly in the movie and the Asian dude is… eh… strange.

Moving on. Biology: the first, tragic meeting where Edward will learn that Bella is the one. Robert Pattinson is supposed to look sick and appalled once he gets a whiff of Eau De Bella, but instead he just looks sick throughout the entire scene. Must be his face. I grudgingly have to admit that Mr. Pattinson is probably a good actor, but I still wonder why the hell they thought it would be a good idea to cast someone as the Adonis-like Edward Cullen who looks like he was run over by a steamroller when he was two and then again when he was five. Well… they also thought the rest of the male Cullens were attractive, so maybe they’ve got taste issues.

Twilight deviates from the story of the book in several instances, and the results are mixed at best. Jacob pops up four times instead of two, and that is definitely a Bad Thing. We also get to see a bit more of Victoria and her buddies, which I think was included a) to introduce the characters earlier and b) to make the movie more violent and thus more appealing to the male demographic (if I’ve ever seen a lost cause then this would be it). Since the book functions (for a given value of “function”) without them showing up every five minutes, I think those extra scenes are just wasted screen time. Just think of all those wasted minutes that we could have spent watching Bella mope a bit more. Victoria and the others also seem to be big fans of parkour.

More things were changed or added. The scene in the greenhouse, which starts out pleasantly enough and devolves into incoherent babble, is all new. We get so see Bella’s mother, a character that is not featured in the book at all except at the end. More wasted screen time and the actress annoys the fuck out of me. But again I can hear a studio executive whisper in my ear:

The audience is stupid, how will they know that that’s her mum at the end?

Gee, exec dude, I don’t know… maybe because Bella says so?

Well, Verena, as you can see Edward is visible in the background of that shot, that will mean that the brains of all the female audience members will be on the blink again and you know that no straight guy will ever go see this movie of his own volition, so they can’t clear the matter up later.

Oh, I’m sorry, exec dude. I guess you’re right.

Right. Sorry. There are two more scenes that were drastically altered from what happens in the book, and I think I need to point those out for reasons of weird. The bookstore scene, which is already plenty strange in the novel, gets another coating of bad in the movie. In the novel Bella doesn’t even get to the bookstore, because she can’t find one and instead decides to wander off into the more disreputable areas of town because that sounded like such a great idea when Stephenie suggested it. And then she almost gets raped, Edward shows and rescues her and we all live happily ever after. In the movie she googles a bookstore, which is run by a very mysterious Native American person, because only mysterious Native American people may sell books about mysterious Native American legends, goes there, almost gets raped on the way back, Edward shows, etc etc, and then she googles the entire vampire thing at home anyway after she’s bought a book on the matter. Maybe she can’t read and needs to find pretty pictures to understand.

Finally, there’s the meadow scene, which is one of the few scenes that I halfway enjoyed in the book. Okay… that’s stretching it. But what happens in the movie is that the scriptwriter realizes that she has already spent too much time on Victoria and Bella’s mum and that bloody greenhouse and now needs to wrap several badly-needed character moments between Bella and Edward into one very strange scene. And I don’t really see why Bella needs to see right now what Eddie looks like in the sunlight, it’s not like he suddenly turned pretty or something. At least in the book he sort of makes fun of the whole sparkly issue.

And the running. The running. Argh! It just doesn’t work. It’s like that dreadful motorcycle sequence in X-Men. It’s atrocious beyond description. It’s… really bad green screen. Stuff like that only works in slow motion or not at all, filmmakers should have learned that by now. It’s all the more horrible since the overall effects used in Twilight are well-done. Good production values, remember?

Okay… moving on. Bella visits Edward’s family, a scene which just for once has seriously good acting by Robert Pattinson in it. I guess, statistically speaking, they have to get it right at least some of the time. The filmmakers are very considerate, however: they think of all those poor people who might, theoretically, only tune into the movie in this scene and thus think that it might actually be good. To prevent permanent misunderstandings, Edward and Bella go to his room and play Crouching Tiger, Hidden Vampire. For any of you who haven’t seen the movie and think that I have just made a really dirty sex joke: I wish. What happens in reality is that Edward and Bella re-enact that tree jumping scene from the above-mentioned movie with shocking accuracy. It doesn’t in any way contribute to me taking this movie seriously, just in case any of you were wondering.

Next up is a bit of pointless drivel between Charlie and Bella, more Victoria, a music montage (music good, montage bad) and… the baseball scene. Now, this is difficult for me to say, especially seeing that the baseball scene in the book was one of the more painful literary experiences of my life, but this scene is actually fun. It doesn’t have much dialogue and even less Edward, which both help, I guess, and so does the score by Burwell. It’s two minutes of movie. Two minutes of a movie that otherwise feels like it’s several days long and you’re watching it while sitting on a bed of rusty nails, and maybe the contrast makes the scene feel better than it is, but it really impressed me. It also forms the beginning of the end, which is a good thing, because the appearance of James and his subsequent vow to have Bella over for dinner cause the plot to get tighter. The end is nigh, and it’s a good feeling. Soon the pain will be over.

Just twenty-odd minutes remain. The book offers a lot of unnecessary complications at this point, plus a speech by Alice which I presume they wanted to save for the third movie, and the screenwriter has made the right choice and cut all of that out. We are left with a vague sense of relief and Bella’s simple and utterly stupid decision to go off and face James alone. But at least in the movie Edward isn’t, like, ten steps away from her, and this makes her decision a little more coherent. Just a little, mind you, because she could still tell Alice, who can sort of see the future. (That might have come in handy.)

Bella goes to meet James. Almost gets killed. Edward to the rescue in the last possible second. She’s already bitten. Carlisle tells Eddie to suck the venom out if he really doesn’t want Bells to be a vamp (perfectly understandable, seeing that he’d have to put up with her for eternity in that case). Then the movie loses me again. Edward sucks out the venom, has trouble stopping, almost kills Bella… and Carlisle just sits there, right next to him, and lets him continue slurping. One would think that it wouldn’t be too much trouble to reach out and pull Eddie away, right? Or maybe Carlisle wants to get rid of Bella just as much as I do, always a possibility worth considering. But let’s say that’s not th case, so why doesn’t he do anything?

Nevermind. Try as Carlisle might, Bella survives the scene, which is really a shame, because that will mean more movies. She wakes up in the hospital and mum is there. Luckily we know who she is, so there is no confusion about that, but we do wonder why anyone still lets Edward anywhere close to Bella, given the story they have thought up to explain all her wounds. Either they believe him, in which case he’s responsible for a whole truckload of shit happening to their precious Bella, or they don’t, in which case he likely as not pushed her down the stairs himself. Nothing makes sense, unless you believe that they all want to get rid of her too.

Not an unreasonable assumption, if you ask me.

Final scene and the next-to-last paragraph of this XXL review. The prom. Bella and Edward look very cool in their interior-design-compatible outfits, but just for once I can’t really complain, because that seems to be the point of a themed prom. Our two lovebirds retreat to a pavilion to do some serious dancing, which wouldn’t be worth mentioning if the other three couples already occupying that space didn’t leave immediately after Bella and Edward get there. Either the director didn’t want to waste time on a slightly longer buildup to the romantic dénouement, or Bells has really bad B.O. issues. You decide.

And that’s it, really. Is this a bad movie? Yes. Is it worse than Twilight: New Moon? No, I don’t think so. This one may have more drastic ups and downs in terms of writing as well as special effects, but at least it only has four scenes with Taylor Lautner, and he even keeps his shirt on in all of them. That has to count for something, right? Also, I registered Bella’s mope factor at 8 on a scale from 1 to 10 as opposed to the 34,7 that the sequel manages to field. The movie may be further from the original book that Twilight: New Moon, and not all the alterations make as much sense (in New Moon they positively elevate the movie to a new level of coherency) but all in all, if faced with the choice of having to re-watch either Twilight or Twilight: New Moon, I would put a gun in my mouth and pull the trigger. Or maybe I would watch Twilight… yeah, I probably would. Gun still sounds tempting though.

The Twilight Experiment: Day 4

Four days. Four days and I am still alive. Still breathing. Battered, though.

My verbal apologies for what I am doing to myself have gotten even better-rehearsed. When we have visitors they don’t even make it through the door before I have told them that I’m doing this for science, for fame, for knowledge. For the love of little apples. How I will get millions of hits on my blog (still waiting, btw.). How the fans finally won’t have any arguments anymore. How I will sleep more soundly, having finally solved the last big puzzle of humanity.

Needless to say, it is a lonely life.

Okay. The morning of Day Four dawns. We haven’t got much in the way of plans, which is a perfect excuse for me to slouch off to the bathtub and read.

Someone very wise once said that spaceships travel at the speed of plot. I guess you have to add that he also was the creator of a sci-fi television show in order for that to make sense, so yeah: he also created a sci-fi television-show. My point is that Bella’s thoughts travel at the speed of what is convenient.

Here’s the thing. In the first book Bella’s pretty fast on the uptake when it comes to the whole vampire thing. Edward’s fast, strong, attractive and he skips school when the sun’s out. What’s missing from the picture is that he doesn’t happen to be the quarterback for the Forks High football team. Enough to make Bella’s devious little mind tick. So she gets suspicious, asks the local mysterious native gullible teen for some inside info on native legends. Bam! The Cullens don’t like to go on the reservation. And they’re cold. A lot. Bam again! They have to be vampires. Easy as pie.

Book two: Jacob Black has these friends. They hang out a lot. Slavishly follow their leader, almost like dogs. The wolf is the sacred animal of the local tribe, as a matter of fact they even have legends about being descended from them. (Sons of bitches, all of them. Let me tell you: cleverly disguised racial slurs lie underneath it all!) Suddenly there’s huge wolves in the woods and Jacob doesn’t want to talk to her anymore (finally an intelligent reaction). And then Jacob comes along and tells her that something pretty strange has happened to him, but he can’t tell her, because there’s some weird shit going down in his head. And Bella is like: “Oh… I guess he doesn’t like me anymore, just like all the other sane people. I mean, he couldn’t possibly be a werewolf, they’re, like, mythical.”

I see.

The only logical explanation is that Bella has the power of Selective Disbelief +3. No, wait, there’s another one: possibly this woman, Stephenie, appeared to her in a dream and said that werewolves don’t exist. Edward’s sparkly shoelaces were with her and since Bella was very ecstatic to see them she believed Stephenie. Yeah, that has to be it. It’s the shoelaces’ fault.

Anyway. Aside from Bella’s highly selective… uhm… mind, the story takes its utterly predictable course. She falls in love with Jacob. Slowly, dragging it out for as long as possible, because otherwise this book would have been 57 pages long instead of the joy-filled 497 that it ended up having. And even then she doesn’t even say it, or think it with that sorry little excuse of a brain that she has, because that wouldn’t make the third book be any fun. Hah! Excuse my brittle and mirthless laugh. So she kinda falls into liking with him. Or something. Loke, I think might be a good term. Because although she is all about how much like a brother he is to her, she also goes on about his russet skin and delectable smell and beautiful eyes. And his biceps, mustn’t forget the biceps. I know that Stephenie Myers has at least one brother and if this is how she thinks of him then yuck. But before Bella can commit mental incest, Alice shows up because Bells finally managed to near-kill herself convincingly enough for it to look really real.

I guess Alice was hoping too.

Alice is disappointed, however. Bella is still very much alive and kicking (unlike the logic centers of my brain) and so they have hot lesbian sex. Okay… not so much. Ninjas come in and kill them both. No. Zombies come… I give up. (Just trying to include more potential target audiences.)

What actually happens it that Alice arrives and points out quite rightly that Bella must be some sort of ultra-dense supernatural magnet. I’ll let you decide what she means by “dense”. Then Rosalie, Edward’s adopted sister (the intelligent one in the family, since she can’t stand Bella) snitches about Bella-baby’s apparent demise to Edward and he decides to off himself. But first he calls, just to make sure that he’s got an actual reason for the vampire-assisted-death that he is about to experience. Jacob picks up the phone, because he happens to be standing in the right place at the right time, and off goes Eddie to Italy to ask the Volturi, some sort of vampire aristocracy, to kill him. To make it more convenient for the reader this contingency plan of his has been mentioned earlier in the book, so no one is confused, not even Bella.

Of course Bella saves him, meets the Volturi and goes back with Edward and Alice to Forks, where she has a lot of explaining to do. Not least of all why she believed Edward’s asinine story about not loving her in the first place and why she continues to believe it for quite a while after they are back. Yes, you heard me right. Doing what only Bella can do, she wilfully misconstrues every. single. thing. Edward says to her after their reunion. If it weren’t so exasperating it would be quite funny, I believe. Funny in a sad, Stephenie-needs-a-higher-word-count way, granted – but funny.

I can see now why the scriptwriter of Twilight: New Moon did what she did. Only way to save the story, really. Because when Bella realizes that she has been seeing visions of Edward in situations of extreme danger because she subconsciously believed that he still loved her, all realism finally goes out of the window. Preposterous, really. The idea of Bella having a conscience, let alone a subconscious… yeah… almost funny, isn’t it?

So the story ends. Bella has finally worked out that Edward still is her very own cuddly vampire and all is sunshine and happiness. There are still questions, true, like for example why no one is cross with Rosalie for almost getting her brother killed. Or why Bella’s father doesn’t put a bullet through Edward’s attractive head. Or why Bella keeps on living without writing “remember to breathe” on her palm. Questions upon questions. Maybe Eclipse will hold the answers to them, although I doubt it. It’s probably all about shoelaces.

For now my brain is safe. I’m too lazy to go out and shop and I haven’t bought Eclipse yet. Maybe a day off will give me some time to recuperate. At least that’s what I think. Best laid plans… never happen.

The Twilight Experiment: Day 1

I slide the book over the counter, cover down, and look at the cashier. A middle-aged woman – very short red hair, glasses, and the distinct air of a book-snob about her – looks back at me. My ruse hasn’t worked. She knows immediately what I’m buying. My mind is racing, imagining that the only thing that’s keeping her from saying something is the fact that the copy of Twilight that I’m about to buy is in English while she is German. I want to blurt out that I’m buying this thing, this literary abomination, for the sake of an experiment. For the sake of science, so to speak. Really quite self-sacrificial of me. But in the end I don’t say anything, not even hello/thank you/goodbye. Better to let her think I don’t speak German.

Outside of the bookstore I don’t have much time to look at the slim paperback that I just bought. I need to meet someone and I’m in a hurry. Also I’m not that keen on actually starting this little experiment of mine. Someone could get hurt.

My brain, for example.

Rewind… I’d seen Twilight: New Moon a while ago and thought that it had possibly set a new record for storyline-atrocity. But only just possibly, there’s always Bloom. Looked good though, can’t deny that. And then there was the thing with the other readers, sane people one and all, people whose judgement I trust, people who seem to have taste (you know who you are). And they had read Twilight. And New Moon. And the rest. Not only had they survived the experience, they had also said things like “reads well” or “it’s sort of fun, in a guilty pleasure kind of way”. And that planted the seed of doubt. Twilight, scourge of high fantasy, read by millions upon millions of teenagers. Was it really that bad? Did I have a right to participate in the ongoing Twilight discussion trashing without having read a single word of it? Does Bella Swan have a single redeeming feature? I don’t believe in guilty pleasure, at least not very much. If someone says something is a guilty pleasure he or she usually means that it is good, but doesn’t want to admit to thinking that in the company of others. Here in Germany Harry Potter is a guilty pleasure, see?

We have a saying in Germany which roughly translates as “eat shit, millions of flies can’t be wrong”. It doesn’t translate very well, but still serves to illustrate what is at the core of this little experiment: What if millions of flies aren’t wrong?

Back to Day 1: I meet the person I was going to meet and get a very disapproving frown when I mention what I have just done. Twilight, well actually fantasy literature as a whole, has a bad standing in Germany. Escapism, nonsense, childishness, these words are spoken much quicker and with less kindness here in the country of sheep. Intellectual people read suspense novels, because when the gardener kills Lord Adolfstein by shoving him into the paper shredder that’s, like, real, you know.

I’ve heard all of it before and gotten inured to the attacks of the literary elite by now. Still I try to explain. “It’s because I finally want to have an informed opinion. I don’t want to be talking out of my arse all the time.” Only three days later I will be ready to launch into a well-rehearsed speech on the subject of why reading Twilight was such a spiffing idea.

In the train on the way home, I open the book for the first time. I keep it on my lap, bending over in order to still be able to read. The cover of the German edition is identical to the English one; if I hold the book up like I normally would, people might notice what I’m reading.

I only skim the acknowledgements. Usually not my style, I tend to assume that authors have put some thought into whom they thank, but Stephenie Meyers’ acknowledgements are longer than some books I’ve read. It takes Jonas to point out that she thanks her “online family” at That explains so much.

“I stared without breathing across the long room, into the dark eyes of the hunter, and he looked pleasantly back at me.”

It’s not the first sentence of the book, that honour goes to something bland and incredibly convoluted, but if it were it would easily win the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, probably for several years in a row. It’s just that kind of sentence. I can’t even begin to describe what is wrong with it, there’s just too much, although the part about “pleasantly looking back” certainly makes up a good deal of the overall horribleness.

Two paragraphs down, 434 pages to go. Suddenly I’m not sure if I can do this. Yet I turn the page and read on. Once I’m in the flow it isn’t too bad. The atrocities keep coming, but they somehow get drowned out by all the filler. And there’s a lot of that. Mostly descriptions of how Bella hates the world in general and human beings specifically. Such a charming, vivacious personality! I already want to adopt her. Still, the filler isn’t thick enough to submerge the very, very frequent descriptions of Edward’s attractive voice. And his attractive skin. And attractive hair. He probably also has attractive shoelaces, but before I get to that part I need to stop reading in order to get off the train. I’m glad to stop – this book is so full of attractiveness that it makes my brain ache.

I have done my scientific duty for today. It doesn’t make me feel great, but at least I don’t feel too dirty.

Juliet, Naked

Nick Hornby is one of my favourite authors. That’s mostly due to his 2005 novel A Long Way Down, which should be compulsory reading for everyone who’s ever considered suicide, even as the remotest of all possible possibilities. And his other books aren’t too shabby either. (With the exception of Fever Pitch, which is non-fiction anyway and of which I never managed to read more than two pages. Football… what more need I say?)

Now: Juliet, Naked.

The story revolves around three characters: Duncan, a teacher in his early forties obsessed with Tucker Crowe, an 80’s singer/songwriter; Annie, Duncan’s girlfriend of fifteen years; and finally Tucker Crowe himself, now no longer a musician but a recluse and father of five. Fairly in the beginning of the book we realize that Duncan knows more about Tucker than is good for him and that, mostly because of the Tucker issue, his relationship with Annie had a definite expiry date. I’m not spoiling much when I say that the two will break up fairly early in the book and that Annie will get to know Tucker Crowe. And that’s all I’ll say about the plot, for despite all the criticism that I’ll heap upon the book in just a minute, it’s still a very good book and you might do well to consider giving it a read.

Now. If Juliet, Naked is such a jolly good read, why do I speak of criticism?

For one thing, because of bad marketing. Just like Shyamalan’s The Village got sold as an all-out horror movie (which it isn’t), this book gets sold as … ehm… something that it is not. Okay, maybe I’m being a bit too hard on Hornby and the marketing department of Penguin/Viking here. I thought, from the jacket text, that the book would be about Tucker and Annie, not necessarily in a romantic sense, but in a talking-with-each-other sense. And it is, but only on the last hundred pages or so. Before that, it’s mostly either Annie or Duncan or Tucker sitting in a corner and being miserable. Erm… I’m being unfair again, they’re not miserable, which seems to me to imply postmodern yack about how incomprehensible and unfair the world is. The protagonists are sarcastic, doubtful, often witty as they wonder about their lives and where they would be today if things had gone a little differently for them.

This is not a bad thing, per se. If I could change only one thing about the book I would tone Annie’s incessant whining about her state of childlessness down a bit. That’s about it.

If I could change two things I’d have her meet Tucker sooner. Because Tucker is the most fun character in the book, but he needs a conversational counterpart to realise his true potential for awesomeness. The clashing of rock-star and museum curator, of British middle-class and American wash-out, that’s where the book gets really brilliant. And there’s not enough of that.

I read Juliet, Naked in two sittings and after finishing the first at page 154 I wasn’t sure if I liked the book. Then I read the second part and I loved it. That’s just a warning. Give it some time.

One review I read basically said that the book was okay, only Tucker wasn’t a very interesting character and why didn’t Nick Hornby try to be a bit more mysterious and twisty. I think that woman needs her head examined.

Lately I’m reading and hearing a lot of reviews that essentially demand that every book read like an episode of Lost. Now, twists are all good and fine in their right place. I’m sure crime fiction would be poorer if every novel told you who dunnit in the very first paragraph. (Some do, and are better for it. The attraction of rare things, I assume.) But the attraction in novels like Juliet, Naked doesn’t lie in the answer to the question of who will sleep with whom because of what. Novels like this one are beautiful because we get to examine the motivations behind what the characters do, in seeing their journey, their evolution. And that is made all the sweeter if you can see all the elements from the very start. This is not a flaw, Miss Myerson, it’s perfection.

The Blade Itself

Three days of being miserably sick – three books. The first of which was The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie.

The book follows three principal point of view characters, plus a slew of minor characters in the second half. Let’s get the important part out of the way first: None of them are likeable.

There’s Captain Jezal dan Luthar, an egocentric little prick whose only reason for falling in love seems to be that the lady in question is “damn fine looking” – it certainly isn’t her personality, take that from me. There’s Inquisitor Sand Glokta, a cripple who hates everybody and their mum and, judging by his name, seems to be the child of Portuguese and Dutch immigrants (kidding, but: the names in the book enraged me with their wanton inconsistency). And then there’s Logen Ninefingers, the only one of the sorry lot that seems to be even remotely likeable, although he is thick as a brick, which doesn’t go far towards endearing him to me.

Supporting characters include Ferro Maljin, an escaped slave woman whose only goal in life is killing and spitting in the face of every other living being on this planet, including her allies. Major Colleem West, who will trick you into thinking that he’s likeable until you find out that he is just as uncaring and egocentric as his buddy Jezal. And Dogman, who doesn’t seem to have a proper name and enjoys pissing himself…

In short, an endearing lot.

The book isn’t helped by being the first part of a trilogy, the part where everything gets rolling. It consists of long, detailed (I’m not using that as a compliment here) descriptions of how our characters become part of the team and what they have to endure to get to the eventual starting point of their mission. One very brief scene tells us a little bit about the larger picture, but since that scene is (no doubt deliberately) written as a conversation between two high mages that already know everything, it might as well be written in Swahili. The rest is mediocre jokes, unending fight scenes and a love story so horrible that you want to tear your eyes out.

Don’t. Read. Trust me.