Sunday, July 24, 2016

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) #reviews

Archaeologist and adventurer Indiana Jones is hired by the U.S. government to find the Ark of the Covenant before the Nazis.

The first time I encountered anything about this film was via my then best friend Evan, when we were both six. There were collectible sticker books and he had one for Raiders of the Lost Ark. I was very envious of him because he came from the US and had all the Star Wars figurines.

So, yes, my viewing of this film is very much mired in nostalgia for my childhood, and it formed part of my mission to watch all the Indiana Jones films in a set.

Raiders is the first of the Indiana Jones films and shows Indy going up against the best movie villains ever – the Nazis. The film draws on the Nazi fascination with the occult, and in this scenario the McGuffin is the fabled Ark of the Covenant that has been lost for millennia. That is, until the Nazis cotton on to the fact that it may have been buried in Egypt.

Indy does what Indy does best, and embarks on a treasure hunt that leads him to the rather fabulous Marion Ravenwood (the daughter of one his archaeologist buddies) and the two set off to Egypt to hunt for the treasure. Of course the ominous Nazi colonel is hot on their heels and Indy and co. enjoy a series of narrow squeaks in typical Indy fashion, aided and abetted by his somewhat eclectic friends.

There aren't many strong female characters in this film. There is Marion. But she's hardly the Damsel, which makes up for it. (But I can already hear the SJWs winding themselves up into a frothy.) But I like Marion. She punches hard. She's clever. She's tough. She's capable. From time to time she *does* need rescuing but then again, Indy's constantly getting into scrapes himself.

Everyone gets their just deserts, and typically, those who are greedy and overly ambitious in a selfish fashion come off second best. In the end. Cultural representations remain simplistic as per Hollywood but then again, don't forget the era within which this film was made, when being PC wasn't exactly high up on producers' agendas. We had quite a lively discussion about the problematic elements in the film – and whether shoehorning representation now would be forced or not – but in the end I agree to leave the film be for what it is. This is a swashbuckling, tongue-in-cheek action film and it's fun. (And it's most certainly inspired video games like Tomb Raider and Uncharted.) I watch films like this because I want to be entertained. Overthinking it ruins the enjoyment, and the devil alone knows there's enough BS in the world.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) #review

A skirmish in Shanghai puts archaeologist Indiana Jones, his partner Short Round and singer Willie Scott crossing paths with an Indian village desperate to reclaim a rock stolen by a secret cult beneath the catacombs of an ancient palace.

I was six when my sister dragged me off to the cinema to watch Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (directed by Steven Spielberg). I’m sorry to report that I spent nearly ¾ of the film with my back to the screen. I was petrified, and after that I had nightmares about evil priests in horned headdresses who tried to haul my heart out of my ribcage with their bare hands.

Yet over the years this has been one of those films that I have rewatched several times (I’ve lost count), and as I’ve grown older, I’ve enjoyed Temple of Doom, because the Indiana Jones films are somewhat silly yet incredible fun. And, of course, because Harrison Ford makes my heart beat a little faster now that I’m a big person.

Okay, I lie, I kinda never really grew up. I’m only pretending to be a big person.

But I digress.

The Indiana Jones films hark from that glorious, pulpy era of Hollywood action heroes. They don’t take themselves too seriously, and combine hair-raising stunts with equal doses of humour. And, of course, SFX that have dated horribly. But that’s okay, because I often feel that contemporary cinema relies too heavily on the CGI to make up for poor writing and cinematography.

Viewed through a contemporary, regressive left lens, the Indiana Jones films can probably be regarded as problematic with the portrayals of gender and race, but they inhabit such a fond, nostalgic place in my childhood, when such concerns weren’t even discussed, that I’m not going to waste my energy. I’m pretty sure there are plenty of SJWs who’re going to froth and have already done so at great length.

Indiana Jones is one of my favourite characters. He’s got the brawn where it counts, but he’s a professor – the ultimate in geeks – and a lady’s man. And he can crack a one-liner like he cracks his trademark whip. We meet him in Shanghai, where a deal goes wrong, and he and the singer Willie Scott and intrepid pint-sized sidekick Short Round end up in India. From there they get dragged into a quest to retrieve a village’s sacred stones where they run into an evil Kali cult complete with human sacrifice. In defeating an evil priest and retrieving the sacred stones, they also free the village’s children, and everyone goes merrily on their way. Oh, and let's not forget the grossest dinner party ever, that involves monkey brain soup with floating eyeballs, and a main dish that features baby snakes wriggling out of a steaming cooked momma snake. That's after the bugs for starters – this elicited a huge eewwwwwww from six-year-old Nerine.

This film is all about the action and adventure. The bad guys are really bad, greedy and ambitious. Indy is no less ambitious, but his motives are more altruistic – he seeks treasure for his university (how noble) so that they can be preserved for posterity.

Though this story is supposed to be a prequel to the events that transpire in the preceding Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, I found that it lacked some of the dynamics that made Raiders a much stronger film. I suspect it was because Willie and Short Round as characters, weren’t developed fully. Willie seems to exist to solely act as the Damsel and comic relief while Short Round adds to the general hilarity (which didn't really blow my hair back as an adult, if I'm quite honest). When I was six, I found the dynamics highly entertaining (what 6yo won’t laugh at slapstick?) but now I even found myself slightly annoyed. Write Willie and Short Stuff out, and it wouldn’t harm the plot in the least bit. If the writers had bothered to up the stakes with these two with a bit more development, it would have been another thing entirely and may have elevated the film somewhat.

But apart from this, the Temple of Doom is what it is – a silly, fun film to watch. The villains are Disney-esque in their badness, and yes, if you’re offended by everything under the sun, you’ll most likely make a long list of things that are problematic about the Temple of Doom. Maybe I’m viewing Indy through the rosy lenses of nostalgia, but I always did dream of one day being an explorer, and seeking lost mysteries, and Indy remains a character who inspires me to write the things I do.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Dealbreakers: head-hopping

I’ve got a number of deal-breakers for me when I’m reading slush or, when I’m writing my dreaded “dear author” letters for my clients – these issues seem to crop up the most often and make me sigh. A lot. This one’s affectionately called “head hopping”. First-pass edits that I do usually end up with loads of red ink or tabbed comments that state just that. And if you’re currently thinking of disembodied heads bouncing down the road then some of my work here is done.

Before we get into what head-hopping entails, we’re quickly going to look at a story’s point of view. There are some other fancy-pants literary terms for this, but I want to keep things as simple as possible because I don’t want your eyes to glaze over or your brain to implode.

When you write a story, one of the first things you need to decide is who the narrator is. This is the person telling the story.

Your first-person narrator uses the pronoun “I” and writing the story feels like a personal account.

I went down to the harbour, bought some chips, and fed the seagulls. 

What’s lovely about first-person point of view is that it lends the text a sense of immediacy. We’re reliving a series of events through the eyes of an unreliable narrator who a) might be lying to herself about what’s happening or b) simply doesn’t have all the information at hand to make informed decisions.

There’s a degree of uncertainty. Did events really transpire as the person suggests? Think about how you retell some of your misadventures as a teenager compared to how your mom would. Each narrator will add flavour to a story, based on their beliefs and personal biases. (Your mom might say you came home after your 18th birthday looking like the Wreck of the Hesperus, which says quite a bit about your mom – and you.)

Then there’s second-person point of view, where the narrator uses the pronoun “you”, and the story feels as if it addresses the reader.

You went down to the harbour, bought some chips, and fed the seagulls.

See what happens there? You’re the one who’s in the story. You’re the one who’s getting greasy fingers feeding a bunch of squawking birds. This style isn’t very common, and can be quite tricky to execute well. My own opinion is that I’d find reading a novel-length work in this style incredibly tiresome.

Lastly, we have third-person, which would see the point of view a bit more remote.

She went down to the harbour, bought some chips, and fed the seagulls.

Now, we’re reduced to voyeurs, viewing the events as one would watch a movie. Third-person point of view is, at present, the most prevalent style of writing. In fact, I’ve met quite a few readers who balk at reading any other style (missing out on all the lovely first-person narrations out there).

For more funzies, there are basically two ways of treating third-person point of view. One I’m going to tag as deep third-person point of view and the other is omniscient point of view.

Your bog-standard fiction tends to be a deep third-person point of view where you’ll have one character’s point of view in each scene or chapter. This means that although we’re learning why Susie went down to feed the seagulls (she was feeling sad because James left her), we don’t also know what Billy, her stalker, was thinking. In fact, Susie wasn’t even aware that Billy was watching her that day until we see a later chapter where we’re in Billy’s point of view and he’s looking at the photos he took that day.

If we were writing omniscient point of view, and doing it well, we would, perhaps halfway through the scene, swap points of view to Billy, who’s sitting on a boat nearby with his camera. Authors who shift smoothly, would give some sort of transition in their writing, clearly showing how they change in point of view. Think of it like watching a movie, where the camera pans from one face to another. If you have choppy camera work, hopping back and forth between points of view rapidly, the story’s going to suffer.

Now I’m going to be absolutely straight up. Every editor has his or her preferences, and as an editor I absolutely loathe third-person omniscient. [BIG DISCLAIMER: THIS IS MY OPINION – other editors may vary] This is where the author is writing from some sort of god-like perspective, showing readers what multiple characters are thinking in the same scene.

While there is nothing wrong with writing third-person omniscient, it’s also not a convention that is at present popular within the realms of commercial and genre fiction. That’s not to say that third-person omniscient, is wrong, per se, it’s just that there are few authors out there who manage to pull this off with any real flair. At this point, I’ll nod at Sir Terry Pratchett as possibly one of the best examples of this style of writing well done. Go read his Discworld novels to see how this is done.

In the majority of the cases I encounter, writers' attempts at multiple points of view in one scene, often result in a garbled, muddled mess. The actions, dialogue and thoughts of different characters get so hopelessly entangled in one paragraph, I sometimes have to resist the temptation of hurling my coffee mug at my very expensive computer screen – an action I will most certainly regret instantly.

If you’re absolutely dead set on writing omniscient point of view, my advice is to consider the idea of establishing the voice of your narrator. Who is telling the story? Develop the author’s character as the teller (think of what makes Roald Dahl so awesome – go read a few of his stories). Think about the fact that the author is presenting him or herself as the storyteller, providing a framework upon which the actions and words of the characters will hang.

The difficulty here is developing individual characters’ personalities to make them stand apart from each other. The other drawback is that because your narrator has godlike powers, you risk falling prey to the temptation of revealing all of the secrets too early, thereby robbing a story of much of its mystery and tension. Alternatively, you’ll withhold key information under the impression that you want to build this tension. (Think of a murder mystery where the murderer is a viewpoint character who conveniently neglects to consider that he or she has done the deed – yes, I’ve read traditionally published books that fall prey to this sin.)

Often, I feel that new new authors write a third-person omniscient point of view because they feel they need to show all the aspects of the story. To them, I say: RESIST THE TEMPTATION. Resist it. You can. I promise you, holding back on secrets is good. It makes giving the big reveal near the end an even better surprise. Readers don’t need to know everything all at once. Feed them morsels so that they’ll keep wanting more. If a character doesn’t know something DON’T mention it. If they do, and it's absolutely vital to the story at that point, find a way to foreshadow in a way that doesn't feel as if you're doing it for the benefit of readers.

I promise you, when there’s a fight scene, you don’t need to show what the hero and villain are thinking at the same time. Pick one. Show how they perceive the other party, how they analyse the situation then aim to survive.

Whatever point of view you write, seat yourself firmly in the head of your chosen character. Or, if you’re an author-narrator, think of the tone of how you show your world. Think of your story in terms of you holding the camera. The moment your camera work requires jagged shifts, realise that this may well disorientate your audience.

Lastly, there are no hard-and-fast rules. But there are conventions, and a savvy author will know when and how to play outside the bounds of these conventions. My advice is to colour inside the lines for a bit first before you’re comfortable to do something a bit more risqué. Like invoking my serious side-eye at your bouncing heads.

Bio: After surviving a decade in the trenches of newspaper publishing, where she fought against the abuse of the English language, Nerine Dorman is now a freelance editor and designer who is passionate about words that not only sound good, but look damned good too. She’s also written a few books. You can stalk her on Twitter or, even better, support her authorly aspirations via Patreon. If you’re feeling particularly brave, and would like to inquire about her editing rates, you can email her at nerinedorman@gmail.com

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Dealbreakers: Filtering

I’ve got a number of deal-breakers for me when I’m reading slush or, when I’m writing my dreaded “dear author” letters for my clients – these issues seem to crop up the most often and make me sigh. A lot. First up on my list is filtering. First-pass edits that I do usually end up with loads of red ink or tabbed comments that just state “filtering”. Some of my authors are so allergic to these comments they’ve gone to great lengths to correct their behaviour. This pleases me greatly.

Here’s an example.
She thought that the bird was cute. vs. The bird was cute.

See what happens here? (Okay, granted, this was an extremely simple example.) You’ve just gone and cut out a pile of words.

Your automatic red flag for when you’re busy with your first round of self-edits (and all awesome authors should learn to be awesome self-editors) is to look out for anything that has a personal pronoun or proper noun followed by a verb.

So, these include constructions such as she thought, he felt, I was thinking, Tom heard. Look out for “that” as well. My rule here is if you can read the sentence (and have it make sense) without “that” in it then you can lose the word.

[insert huge big disclaimer here]

That’s not to say that all sentences containing filtering are wrong, per se. But I advise always that less is more when it comes to words that don’t contribute in any meaningful way. Especially if it's a construction you're in the habit of using. We all have quirks. Learn what yours are.

Why is filtering bad? Besides the fact that you’re filling your sentences with words that don’t contribute to the story, the filtering also creates a sense of distance from the meat and bones of your narrative. Think of it as clutter. This is especially a problem if you’re writing a short story that has to conform to a strict word count. By cutting back on filtering, it is possible to give your text more drive and give it a greater sense of immediacy.

Another tip: look out for too many adjectives or adverbs that end with the suffix “-ly”. Chances are good that you don’t need them. Instead of saying that someone cried piteously or was gesticulating furiously, see where you can show a piteous state or the ferocity of their movements. Perhaps a person’s voice trembles when they speak, or their shoulders are hunched. Perhaps their eyes are shining with tears or their movements are sharp. While all pesky adjectives and adverbs ending in “-ly” aren’t necessarily wrong, they’re best described as salt to your text – to be used sparingly lest you spoil the soup.

* * * *

Bio: After surviving a decade in the trenches of newspaper publishing, where she fought against the abuse of the English language, Nerine Dorman is now a freelance editor and designer who is passionate about words that not only sound good, but look damned good too. She’s also written a few books. You can stalk her on Twitter or, even better, support her authorly aspirations via Patreon. If you’re feeling particularly brave, and would like to inquire about her editing rates, you can email her at nerinedorman@gmail.com 

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Journey #review

I’m not the world’s greatest gamer – just ask my husband creature. I’m a latecomer to console games, and spent the first few hours of playing Elder Scrolls V walking into walls, trees, bears... While (at time of writing) I’m still afflicted with Dragon Age Inquisition, I’ve also taken a little time out to play an indie game the nice young man at BT Games at our local mall said I’d enjoy.


According to Wikipedia, Journey is an indie video game developed by Thatgamecompany and published by Sony Computer Entertainment for the PlayStation 3. It was released on March 13, 2012, via the PlayStation Network.

Okay, that’s the nitty gritty. I bought my copy for PS4, and never before have I appreciated surround sound as much as I did with this one.

This is a pretty game, and if you’re not one for scenarios where you crawl up walls or engage in intricate button mashing to kill your many-tentacled opponent, this one might suit you. The nice young man said Journey is very restful, so yeah, there he’s spot on.

If you’re playing this as part of your PS Plus, you stand the chance of meeting other players in real time, which is kinda sweet, because the only way you can communicate is by prancing around with the little robed figure you play or pinging them with your special powers. You’ll recognise other gamers who’ve played this before, because their cloaks will have extra patterns on.

At its heart, Journey is a simple quest game. Your character travels through a ruined, desert landscape towards a mysterious mountain. Along the way you solve simple puzzles and, by moving the controller, you can control how your character moves. If you get it right you can even fly (a little). Unlike the first time I played Elder Scrolls V, I soon got the hang of this (and you can possibly even let your octogenarian mother try this at home).

The graphics are simple, yet achingly exquisite, but then again I’ve always had a soft spot for ruined landscapes. And, while I don’t think it’s possible for you to die in this game, there was a dark moment where I was genuinely afraid (you’ll know it when you see it) and my heart beat quite a bit faster. The only frustration I had was near the end, where I had to co-ordinate with the floaty jellyfish things in order to fly. Timing and aiming skills were useful. But then, as I’ve stated, I’m not the world’s greatest console player.

A word on the music – it’s by Austin Wintory and is beautiful, haunting and indescribably atmospheric. Go get it on Bandcamp.

All in all, this is a soft, mystical experience. There are no surprises – I had an inkling there’d be some sort of mystical resolution, and I was correct. But I finished with a soft sigh and smile. This game is deceptively simple, but it’s really, really special.

The Cape Town Book by Nechama Brodie #review

Title: The Cape Town Book
Author: Nechama Brodie
Publisher: Struik Travel & Heritage
Reviewer: Nerine Dorman

Though I’m a born-and-bred Capetonian, and reckoned I was au fait with everything I thought I knew about the Mother City, Nechama Brodie opened my eyes to quite a lot about my stomping ground that was fresh. This is a big book in more than one way – not only considering its physical dimensions but also the depth and breadth of its content. The Cape Town Book covers not only the city’s natural history and geography, but also tells the story of the many people who have lived around the slopes of Table Mountain.

Cape Town’s history stretches much further back than that of the refreshment station established by the Dutch back in the 1600s, and as such, the city has been shaped by the devastating effects of colonialism. Cape Town is thus a melting pot where Africa meets Asia and Europe, and though many of its people’s stories bear testimony to a legacy of inequalities, they are nonetheless fascinating and I feel enriched by having discovered them.

For me, in particular, this book filled many gaps that were omitted from my history lessons during my school days. In particular, I found the history of Islam in Cape Town fascinating – I really had no idea so many Muslim saints were buried here. The realisation of exactly how intrinsic the slave trade was to the city during its early days was also a revelation – much of this had been glossed over me. Brodie goes in depth with apartheid history, and the section about Robben Island in particular is both terrible and fascinating.

The Cape Town Book is jam packed with information and illustrated in full colour with plenty of visuals, including photos and reproductions of historical prints, as well as helpful suggestions for further reading. Scattered throughout is advice on places to visit and supplementary information panels. Not only is this a great book for visitors to the Mother City, but with its stunning layout and well-planned format, it’s exactly the kind of hefty tome that deserves a permanent place in my collection.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

A Discovery of Witches (All Souls Trilogy #1) by Deborah Harkness

Title: A Discovery of Witches (All Souls Trilogy #1)
Author: Deborah Harkness
Publisher: Viking Penguin, 2011

This is one of those books that I really, really wanted to love, because I have this thing for academics who stumble onto earth-shattering secrets. Also, I still hold out a hope that I'll find depictions of vampires in fiction that will fill me with happiness. I'd heard that this book was basically Twilight for academics and I'd hoped that the comparison would be a load of pigs' bollocks.

Unfortunately the comparison to Twilight is all too apt, and anyone who's read Meyer's books will see the similarities. And, possibly, love it for all the same reasons (if they're a fan). I'm not a fan of Twilight even if I have to grudgingly admit that I'm glad it's spurred people who wouldn't ordinarily read into picking up more books other than Meyer's.

I digress...

Deborah Harkness can write, and she does so well, but by gum, where the hell was her editor to rein her in? A large part of this book was food porn, as Diana Bishop pontificates over what to feed her vampiric consort. The story takes aaages to get off the ground, and, much like my suffering through Outlander, I kept reading in the hope of seeing the story take off.

It doesn't.

Essentially, Diana Bishop is the last scion of a long line of respected witches, who prefers logic and reason to employing her unpredictably strong magic. She prefers the life of quiet academia to the adventures that resulted in her parents' untimely sticky end. And then she meets pretty-boy vampire Matthew, and the two proceed to a tsundere-style relationship until they finally admit their love for one another.

Matthew dominates and bullies, and is the typical alpha male I'm sure scores of avid female readers of urban fantasy love and crave. Except he does absolutely nothing for me. We're introduced to a bunch of other species. We're introduced to a Chosen One trope, though Diana's hardly a Harry Potter. She manifests all sorts of super powers but doesn't seem to be too fazed.

And then there's the effing book. I call it the effing book because FFS if I were a bookworm. Actually, I lie, I'm a complete book freak, and if there was a supposedly magical manuscript that only I could find or call up in the stacks ... and I'd let it slip through my fingers, I'd be a lot more freaked out by the mystery and a lot more adamant to get to the bottom of it than Diana Bishop, who seems to be more concerned about yoga, rowing and the freaking SALAD she's feeding a vampire than she is about the effing book everyone's getting their knickers in a twist about.

Okay, that was a effing long sentence, but yeah, I spent half my time while reading wanting to throw my iPhone at the wall out of pure frustration.

The bottom line is there's stuff that's going down, but the characters spend most of their time waffling, even when there's clear and present danger ... and they have zero sense of urgency. There's talk about family planning FFS... The effing book that's mysteriously vanished... and they're swanning about in the French effing countryside. Eating ... and comparing notes on fine wines. ARGH.

I think Harkness is probably a very fine travel or foodie writer. If you like that sort of detail on nearly every page, you'll love this book, I suppose. I just got really tired of waiting for things to get off the ground ... and then even when they did (and by now these super-duper magical occurrences were happening as effortlessly as they would in that TV series Charmed) ... and there's a monster a minute, with whiffs of inter-species xenophobia to boot...

Mainly, I feel that the book got off to a promising start but was then bloated with unnecessary detail to the point where I suspect the author wasn't really sure *how* she was going to end the novel... But that's just my inner editor whispering thoughts into my head. Don't mind me. I'll just sit here in my corner whimpering on about how Twilight killed the vampire.