The Book of Life

Book of Life CoverGenre: Children’s Fantasy / Film
Main Creative Team: Jorge R. Gutiérrez (director, writer); Doug Langdale (writer); Guillermo del Toro (producer)
Main Cast: Diego Luna; Zoe Saldana; Channing Tatum; Ice Cube; Ron Perlman; Kate del Castillo; Christina Applegate
First Shown: October, 2014
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

A group of school children are taken to see a special exhibit on Mexico, where they hear a story that took place many years ago.

The opening had promise. Once the frame story of the children settles in, the main action in the past gets going. It’s the Day of the Dead, and the rulers of the two lands of the dead are watching. La Muerte (Kate del Castillo) is made of sugar and rules the Land of the Remembered, and Xibalba (Ron Perlman) is made of tar and rules the Land of the Forgotten. They see three children playing and make a wager. This is the point where I got that sinking feeling, and it just kept sinking lower as the story continued. The problem comes down to the wager: which of the two boys will marry the girl when they grow up.

There are things I liked about the film. The visuals were great. The school children are being told the story with wooden models, so the characters in the main story also resemble those models. The Land of the Remembered is particularly beautiful, with vibrant colours and detail. It creates a distinctive animation style.

The two immortals were the highlight for me. Both had great character designs, again with a lot of nice detail. Though they’re introduced as though one is good and one bad, it becomes clear that they’re both rather more ambiguous. I enjoyed the interplay between the two of them.

I also liked the plotline of Manolo (Diego Luna), one of the potential suitors, trying to find his place. He comes from a line of bullfighters, but wants to pursue music. This addresses gender role issues and machoism. Manolo is sensitive and doesn’t want to kill the bulls, which is seen as weak and unmanly.

Joaquín (Channing Tatum), the other suitor, is the son of a famous hero. Joaquín is arrogant and self-centred, but it becomes apparent that it comes from insecurity. He gets to grow into a more caring person as he comes to terms with his own issues.

Then there’s the problem of María (Zoe Saldana). Though María says she’s not a prize to be won, this is wishful thinking on her part. The entire story is about her having to choose one of the men. She gets a choice of which one, but she doesn’t have a choice to do something else with her life or marry someone else. There’s potential for stories to look at how women have very restricted choices at times, but this one failed to go there, because it never acknowledged that she was restricted.

One of the glaring things is that María does not have a personal story outside of the main plot. Manolo is figuring out his place in the world. Joaquín is trying to live up to the legacy of his dead father. But María is just there for the main plot. She was sent away by her father as a child, yet she doesn’t get space to address her family relationships as the others do. She’s highly educated, yet doesn’t have plans on what she might do next. She has combat training, yet when the action scenes roll around, they’re mainly there so the men can reconcile their differences by fighting together. She doesn’t really develop in any way from the María introduced as a child. All the speaking up, knowing how to fight, and being educated, serves to make her a more valuable prize. It doesn’t mean she gets treated as an equal part of the story.

Even for viewers who don’t have the same issue I did, and think love triangles are amazing, there’s no tension to this one. It’s obvious who she’ll marry from the start. There are no surprises here.

The setting could have told any story. The wager could have been anything. It could have gone in a direction no one expected and still have a happy ending. Instead, the main plotline was this, which really didn’t do justice to the characters and setting.

Skeleton Man – Joseph Bruchac

Skeleton Man CoverSeries: Skeleton Man, #1
First Published: 1st August, 2001
Genre: Middle Grade Horror / Novel
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

When Molly’s parents disappear, she’s sent to live with an uncle she’s never seen before. He reminds her of the story of the Skeleton Man, but will anyone believe her?

The story starts after Molly’s parents have vanished, but it flashes back to previous events such as her parents not coming home and meeting her uncle. Her uncle reminds her of the old Mohawk story of the Skeleton Man. This is about a man who likes the taste of human flesh, so eats all of his own until he’s only a skeleton. Then he starts eating his family. Her uncle is pale, thin, and she’s never seen him eat. But more importantly, she’s sure he doesn’t have good intentions towards her, whatever those might be.

I liked the theme of using stories to understand the world. Thinking about the Skeleton Man gives Molly a framework for dealing with what’s happening around her. The stories in her dreams help her decide what she’s going to do. This is also reinforced with modern stories, as Molly feels comforted by the songs from musicals sung by her teacher, Ms. Shabbas.

Though what’s happening at her uncle’s house is creepy, there’s also horror in what happens outside. Molly has her concerns dismissed by the adults who should be protecting her. Her only ally is her teacher. Ms. Shabbas believes something is wrong, without expecting Molly to be use exactly the right words. It’s clear Molly is frightened and that’s enough. But the people with the real power to act are reluctant to listen. This will be relatable for many children, who’ve tried to go to adults only to have their concerns brushed aside.

Ms. Shabbas has her own obstacles when it comes to being heard. Her concerns about Molly are not taken particularly seriously, even though she’d know the children in her class and would be in the good position to realise something isn’t right. No one outright says she’s being too imaginative, as happens to Molly, but there is that polite attempt to not listen to what she’s saying if at all possible. This is subtle, as the only indicator given is that Ms. Shabbas has an afro, but I certainly took that as being a black woman making it harder to be heard.

Race and culture is touched on in other ways. One reason Molly is sure she won’t be believed is the Skeleton Man isn’t a shared story with the adults she’s approaching. Molly takes her own dreams very seriously, but is aware that talking about them won’t go down well. She’s also very critical of her own appearance, such as finding her dark hair ugly and wanting to dye it blonde. It reminded me of wanting to straighten my hair when I was a child, because I’d already picked up on my hair not being deemed acceptable. Children shouldn’t face these pressures telling them non-white features are ugly, but they do, so Molly’s criticism of herself was unfortunately very plausible.

There is a reference to the idea of being crazy as a potential cause of the uncle’s behaviour. The adults involved make a specific link between people who are non-neurotypical and survivors of trauma as being likely to act this way. Molly pushes this aside as unlikely. But the link is still being made between evil acts and craziness, in a way that some readers will take away as being the probable cause.

Outside of my concerns on the evil and crazy link, I enjoyed the story. It creates that unsettling feel right from the start. As well as the potential supernatural angles, it also touches on some rather more everyday (if not any less horrifying) issues.

The reading difficulty of the book is aimed at lower middle grade. It’s a very short novel with relatively easy words. The edition I read had pictures by Sally Wern Comport to break up the text. Note that it does have horror themes and cannibalism references.

When We Were Alone – David A. Robertson (author), Julie Flett (illustrator)

When We Were Alone CoverFirst Published: 1st March, 2017
Genre: Children’s Contemporary Fiction / Picture Book
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

A young girl helps her kókom (grandmother) in the garden. She asks her kókom questions, and the answers go back to the time when her kókom was sent away to school.

This book deals with the history of residential schools for Native American children. The focus is on the attempts to stop the children from practising their culture. They weren’t allowed to have long hair or speak Cree at the school. Everything they were not allowed to do was to make them like everyone else (in other words, like white people), but the children fought back in small ways by doing the forbidden things when they were alone.

The story of the school is told through the young girl asking questions, such as asking why her kókom has long hair, and being told about the school cutting the children’s hair. This makes it a generally positive book, as her kókom survived and is able to live as she wants. However, there are also hints that it’s not all in the past. The girl doesn’t face being taken away from her family and community, but she lives in a world where most people in the media will be white, and someone like her kókom is seen as different. There’s that unspoken implication to the questions of the pressure still being there, because those questions wouldn’t be raised if the girl’s family was considered to be like everybody else.

The pictures look like collages, with additional painting and drawing for detail and texture. It creates a bold and colourful feel, which works well with the theme of the girl’s kókom dressing brightly and not being afraid to show her culture. My favourite page is the flying bird with the Cree text around it (the words repeated from the main story), as it feels like a celebration. Despite all of the attempts, the girl and her kókom are free to speak as they want to speak.

I enjoyed this book. It’s a quiet and subtle handling of the topic. The art and story are a good match. It is perhaps a little too subtle for readers who don’t already know the history of the residential schools. For example, the text doesn’t make it clear who made the children go to the school. This could be something to discuss with readers after finishing the book.

[A copy of this book was received from the publisher for review purposes]

Ninefox Gambit – Yoon Ha Lee

Ninefox Gambit CoverSeries: Machineries of Empire, #1
First Published: 14th June, 2016
Genre: Military Science Fiction / Novel
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Cheris is a soldier who falls out of favour with the hexarchate, but she has a chance to redeem herself by winning back a fortress taken over by heretics. The catch is she has to work with Jedao, a general who slaughtered his own people for no apparent reason.

This is initially a difficult book. There are a lot of concepts introduced with no explanation. It’s worth persevering through the first chapters, as the terminology will fall into place. Until then, it can be a little confusing.

The worldbuilding centres on the idea of using calendars to control people. By making everyone follow the same calendar, with the same festivals and events, it manipulates reality. One result of this is battle formations can change how things work around the soldiers, rather than just providing the more traditional tactical advantages. This reality change also allows faster travel between planets, and helps maintain order across those distances.

Cheris gets in trouble because she calculates new formations based on the calendar of a group of heretics. This wins the battle, but it’s a little too close to heresy. Jedao also isn’t a stranger when it comes to unconventional tactics, given that he’s known for not losing battles, along with the one where he killed everyone on his own side. They make an interesting pair. Their different approaches sometimes clash, but they slowly come to appreciate each other’s strengths.

The siege of the fortress is a relatively slow affair. Cheris is constantly having to decide on acceptable losses, as no plan of action avoids all death. The focus is on tactics and managing resources, including gauging the reactions of the people under her command. As well as showing it from her perspective, there are parts from the viewpoints of other characters, including the troops sent to die. War is shown unflinchingly. There’s nothing glorious about victory. All it means is more bodies.

It’s a very political story. Outside of the task at hand, there’s more going on in the hexarchate as a whole. Issues from the past are impacting the present. The servitors, sentient robots used as servants, also have their own society and agenda. Everything feels very close to unravelling, with the situation at the fortress only being the start.

I have mixed feelings on how insanity is presented. I did like that it’s clearly a social construct. Insanity in the hexarchate means going against the brainwashing and the rigid social control. Jedao is considered mad simply because they don’t know why he acted as he did. However, it didn’t get away from associating violence with insanity.

Jedao is dyscalculic. This is revealed rather late on, so it’s handled very simplistically as dyscalculia meaning being bad at maths. It’s not actually possible to tell that someone is dyscalculic purely by looking at how well they do in exams, which is how it’s presented. It would have been good to mention it earlier, so it could be handled with a little more depth.

I liked the characters and the idea of mathematical manipulation of calendars. It’s a complex political story with some unique worldbuilding. But the ending got too dark for me. There’s a rape scene near the end, which I didn’t know about when I picked up the book. It’s also clear this is a setting where it’s a bad idea to get attached to characters and enjoy seeing their relationships develop, because ultimately, the chances of anyone surviving are slim. Which might be realistic, but I like to have that character connection in a series. Setting and story are not enough for me. For readers who like that darker edge, this may not be a problem.

[A copy of this book was received from the publisher for review purposes]

Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture

Game LogoDeveloper: The Chinese Room
First Release: 11th August, 2015
Version Played: PlayStation 4
Available: PS Store US | PS Store UK | Steam

Everyone has disappeared in a small village in Shropshire. All that remains are the things they left behind and a mysterious light.

This is an exploration game, where the story of the apocalypse is uncovered by searching around for scenes. These act out what went on before and during the event. The people are made from light, showing it’s a memory of what’s happened, not something happening in real time. Each area is named for a person, and finding all their important scenes unlocks the finale to their story.

Though it’s a story about strange events, it focuses much more on the human side. It’s about how people in the village cope with what’s going on. It’s about their relationships and history. Tying it all together is the story of Kate and Stephen, the scientists working at the local observatory. Kate is African American, a woman with a doctorate, and kept her last name after marriage. All things that don’t go down well in an insular village. Stephen, her husband, is a local lad. He doesn’t really understand the issues Kate is facing.

I enjoyed the way the story unfolded, from finding the first blood-stained tissues to the final revelations. There are some answers, but there’s also a lot left open to interpretation.

The village is a great setting for the game. The beautiful countryside is a strong contrast to the horrors. There’s a feeling of isolation from walking around the empty houses and streets. It’s also a little surreal due to the way time moves around the player. Each area is at a different time of day, so the sun swings around quickly at the transitions. Then it waits until the player moves on. I felt as though the light was trying to explain what happened, though why remains a mystery, as the character controlled by the player is never revealed.

A farm field in the game

Image Caption: An open gate leads into a field of golden wheat, ready for harvest. Trees surround the field. A barn and a windmill are in the distance.

Accessibility is a problem, due to the terrible save system. There’s no manual save. The autosave only happens at points where the player has to tilt the controller to see a scene. Nothing else makes the save happen, including story scenes that happen when close by (the majority of them), listening to radios, and finding collectibles. As there are a limited number of tilt scenes, this means it’s very easy to lose progress. My first two goes at the game, I didn’t get very far before I had to stop due to motion sickness. My next attempt, I avoided activating the tilt story scenes. Instead, I kept a list, and only backtracked to them when I needed to stop. Being able to save frequently is really important for people who need to keep playtimes short.

There is a decent density of things to find for the size of area. There are also quick routes to previous areas if required. However, the game does have collectibles and players may need to search for missed scenes. Which means the lack of a proper run to backtrack is an issue. There is sort of a run, as holding one button down will eventually increase the speed, but it doesn’t help much. Restricting players to walking speed only really works when there’s no need to go backwards. I probably felt this more because of the need to backtrack to saves all the time (often whilst feeling sick, so getting there quickly would have made it a lot more comfortable).

I realise developers do these things because they think it helps immersion and makes the experience more magical. So to be clear, this does not make me feel immersed and does not improve my gaming experience. Nothing kills the mood more than having to keep lists of where I can save and hoping I can get there before I vomit on my PlayStation.

In terms of story and setting, it’s an interesting game. It relies on creating a chilling atmosphere, rather than jump scares and the like. There’s some blood and dead animals, but it doesn’t go heavily into gore. It’s likely to appeal to anyone who likes that quiet horror feel. I only wish some of the technical aspects, such as running and the save system, had been as carefully done. It feels like the way someone who doesn’t play games might design those features, which isn’t very practical for actually playing.