Friday 29 June 2012

Book review: The Game is Altered...

By Mez Packer.

Since Lionel’s accident he has always felt somewhat disconnected from his life, with his family being one of the main elements of that. His sister Lilith still loves him, but his adopted parents and siblings have little to do with mixed-race Lionel, and he lives a lonely life. He still visits his childhood barber and clings onto what few happy memories he has left. His life has become static, at least that is until he sees the ‘anime girl’ standing across the street, and for a few moments they are connected. Little does Lionel know what kind of world she will expose him to.

Set in a near future to our own present, technology has developed and gaming plays a large part of that for Lionel. He lives a second life online through CoreQuest, a virtual environment that allows him to play out those aspects of real life – sex, love, adventure and bravery – that he is too reserved and timid to do so in his real life. From his shabby flat, with just a dying cat for company, Lionel can hack in, upload his customised character, the heroic warrior Ludi, and live a second reality that shelters him from the truth of reality.

The Game Is Altered brings us alternating chapters of Lionel’s real life struggle with his family, work, morals and relationships, and of his successful gaming adventure as Ludi. As the story progresses the link between his real life and his virtual life becomes clear and the storylines that feel so adrift from one another to begin with eventually start to converge. The themes covered in the book, particularly with regard to identity, are relevant to our own society, and Packer explores these in all their gritty detail to great effect.

The chapters of the CoreQuest action were written in a futuristic dialogue that was very reminiscent to me of Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, and so there were elements throughout the story that felt familiar and clever, if not unique. This sense of repetition or echo is only heightened by the frequent use of the world ‘replicant’ and Lionel’s reflections on playing Bladerunner with his brothers when they were younger.

These references to other futuristic stories and interpretations of our world did help to remind the reader, along with the relevance of the action, that the story is set only slightly ahead of present time, and the danger of that possible future gave real strength to a tale that otherwise would have been reminiscent of any number of familiar crime stories or television episodes.

The book flows well and on the whole I very much enjoyed reading it. It is different to my usual reading choices and ordinarily I would steer clear of genre crossing. In here we have fantasy, science fiction, thriller and crime, but they all work together successfully and somehow Packer has pulled it off. I came across this book whilst speaking with the publishers at London Book Fair and, without their bringing it to my attention, I would probably never had read it, so for that I am grateful.

The power of the story is very much in the revealing truths that become clear towards the end of the book. My major niggle is that unfortunately I had already worked out one of the main elements very early on in the story, so the shock and awe was lost on me in that respect. This is one place where it does not do to think so deeply about what you are reading and to just let the story play out in its own time.

Elloise Hopkins.

Sunday 24 June 2012

The Voyage 2012…

An enormous ship sails into the centre of Victoria Square, Birmingham, docking itself beside the city’s Town Hall. High above, dancers and aerialists appear in the ship’s rigging…

Birmingham Hippodrome in collaboration with Legs on the Wall and Motionhouse are this weekend staging a free live production in Birmingham’s Victoria Square. Professional dancers, aerialists, an amateur choir, live band, projections, lighting and community performers come together to bring the huge ship and its journey to life on a backdrop of one of the city’s most prominent squares.

Thursday night, the opening night, was cancelled due to bad weather so on sunny, dry Friday I went to watch what then became the opening night show, along with something like 4,500 fellow spectators. Unfortunately my late arrival on the Friday owing to some rather good real ale in a local pub meant I was standing quite near to the back with the famous Floozie in the Jacuzzi sculpture obscuring part of the ship from my view.

Nonetheless the parts of the performance I did see were enough to entice me to make a more concerted effort the next night and so on Saturday I arrived early (the benefits of living in the city centre in full force) and took my place near the front to wait for the show to begin again. And begin again it did.

The build up atmosphere in the crowd was exciting and I discovered I was not alone amongst the people who had returned to watch the performance for a second time. From my closer vantage point, everything was in far better clarity and I saw the spectacular acrobatics and aerial work that I had missed the night before.

The Voyage truly felt like a once in a lifetime kind of performance. Whilst the story was perhaps obscure in places it was for the spectacle that one was in awe and not the details of the journey itself. From the opening tightrope walker to the in-crowd action, and from the choreographed dancing and tight parcours-inspired movement, the town hall, with its pillars and atmospheric aesthetic, was made part of something larger, something undeniably unique.

The Voyage was a journey of beginnings and fresh starts, of survival and teamwork. I am sure the themes in the production were carefully considered and they did indeed very much reflect Birmingham’s current state of redevelopment and re-birth as we watch another phase of the city being given a new face and embracing culture all the more – Birmingham New Street’s redevelopment and the new Birmingham Library of course at the forefront of my thoughts.

The performers themselves were as culturally diverse as reflects the city also. I was pleased to see all elements of our city represented and all prejudices cast aside in the production. Men were dancing with men, women with women, the captain was mixing with the crew, the crew with the passengers and there was something very open and accepting about it all; barriers were lowered. The production cleverly managed to blend the old stylised appearance of the Titanic-esque ship, costumes, architecture and imagery, with a performance that was appropriately modern in its delivery.

I am so pleased that I returned to watch the Voyage a second time as now I do not feel there is any more I could have taken from it. Finding myself in the very midst of the action as the suitcase-bearing dancers worked through the crowd, and then at the very front of the passageway as the dancing girls in their air bubbles performed in lit costumes, was an exciting experience, and being able to feel the energy the performers were putting in and the buzz and awe of the crowd around me was something truly special.

It may have been raining throughout the performance on Saturday but this became barely noticeable as we the crowd sheltered under umbrellas and hoods, a collective sea of support and enthusiasm, spurred on by the performers and vice versa. Never before have I watched a production that has been so accepted and so praised even before the performers have taken their final bows.

I cannot recommend this show highly enough. From the moment the tightrope walker reaches the end of the high wire, the crowd collectively bursting into cheering and applause, you know you are witnessing something fantastic. The ship sets sail at 10pm again tonight so if you can be there it is worth the visit.

Elloise Hopkins.

Thursday 14 June 2012

Book review: Suited.

By Jo Anderton.
Angry Robot Books.

Tanyana is resigned to her status as a collector now. Slowly but surely she is learning how to live with her suit and communicate with the Keeper. She knows the Puppet Men are watching her now; she just doesn’t know why. What do they want from her? Evidently it wasn’t enough to strip her of her status, and the rich life she once knew, for the trials continue and Tanyana has no choice but to openly oppose the powers that be, no matter the cost.

Betrayed by her once-lover Devich, forced into poverty and mistrusted by some of those closest to her, Tanyana now has another concern. It seems her suit, the liquid metal that was forced deep into her body to allow her to handle debris, is turning against her. This struggle between her mind and body leads her to a decision that seems harder than anything she has come up against so far.

Her allies are becoming few and far between. Lad, the Half, is ever at her side and provides the link with the Keeper that will be so key to Tanyana’s success. Kichlan, Lad’s brother and protector, has feelings for Tanyana that are obvious to the whole collecting team, but it seems Devich may have had a bigger impact on Tanyana’s life than everyone noticed. The settled, if not comfortable, existence Tanyana has forged amongst the Unbound is slowly coming unravelled around her.

Suited is the second book in the Veiled Worlds series and I had wondered where the story was headed after Debris. I was a little unsure whether the complexity of this world and Tanyana’s story would be enough to sustain the action beyond the point where we left our unlikely heroine, seemingly triumphant over the veche and their strange puppet men. I am pleased to report that Suited managed to exceed my expectations and delivered another unique and captivating tale.

The visual complexity of the world Anderton has created is occasionally a little hard to imagine, but the plot keeps us hooked in regardless and the reader’s imagination manages to sketch in the additional details of the two worlds: that of Tanyana’s reality and that of the Keeper’s. Betrayal and conflict take centre stage in the plot again and there is no lack of moral dilemma to keep Tanyana on her toes.

With a surprisingly realistic heroine, flawed to the hilt as we are in real life, this is an intriguing story with a protagonist that is as compelling as she is frustrating, and a world that is as rife with danger as it is with misunderstanding. The poverty line is evident and repression is a main theme of the book. Beauty clashes with horrors and Suited is a strong follow up in a series that is still unlike anything I have ever read before.

Elloise Hopkins.

Saturday 9 June 2012

Crayola colour mood of the day...

It is a Saturday afternoon after a very long week of mixed feelings. Some good news, some not so good news, some illness, some frustration and some elation have all muddled together to create my Crayola colour mood today. And it is...

Blue Violet.

This colour perhaps best sums up that mix of emotions that are vying for my attention today. Purple is my favourite colour, in as much as I can choose a favourite colour when I am by nature so changeable, and the blue in this hue just illustrates that tired, suffering from a bad cough, frustrated side of my personality today. A few long days struggling through work feeling ill, a few nights of interrupted sleep and a seemingly permanent headache – yes I think that qualifies as having the blues.

But there have also been some happy things this week, which is why that joyous violet is battering the blue tones into submission. I passed the research module of my MA, which means only the major project is left before I am finished. I have been studying pretty much non stop, as well as working full time, since I returned to the UK in 2009.

What this means is that the more academic and experimental parts of my MA are over. Now I can really concentrate on my creative writing and getting the first book in my trilogy ready for publishing. There is an exciting new narrator in my head at the moment begging for a role in the series and today I have set aside some time to re-visit my novel after having to take a break over the last couple of months or so. It feels good, but also terrifying. I hope it will feel like a release now I am once again able to remove the pause button in my mind and let the story begin again.

So there it it. My latest Crayola colour mood. I do find it the perfect way to analyse how I feel and why. Blue violet. What an expression.

You should give it a try. What’s your Crayola colour mood?

Elloise Hopkins.

Monday 4 June 2012

Log Cabin Diner vs. 11 The Quay…

I was on holiday last week and had two experiences of eateries that were so quirky that I feel the need to blog about them. Now the two places are so markedly different that you would never naturally compare the two, but because of the surprising success of one, and the disappointing downfall of the other, I feel it necessary to discuss them and take away a lesson.

First up was the Log Cabin Diner – an alternative to the standard motorway service station. A chance find on the M5, we stopped at the Log Cabin Diner to grab lunch on the way to Devon. It looked like something out of the past – a log cabin, large print menus, plastic signboard and a separate outdoor toilet block.

The diner offered jacket potatoes, full English breakfasts, pasties and a ploughman’s lunch, which is what I opted for. Not expecting much at all, I was utterly impressed with the standard of the food, and the friendliness and speed of the service. The bread was warm, the salad fresh, and the atmosphere was relaxed and had an air of rustic pleasantness about it. Even though I knew I was yards from a motorway I felt like I was in the countryside.

This is a contrast to my second eatery, 11 The Quay in Ilfracombe. Damien Hurst’s restaurant does indeed have his stamp all over it and, bizarre cushions sporting small dogs aside, I loved the d├ęcor. Everything about it felt high class and inviting. The wallpaper was beautiful and all together the aesthetic elements of the place worked perfectly. We popped in for an afternoon coffee stop and decided to treat ourselves to a bit of luxury.

Sadly the luxury did not spread to the food. The coffee was good, but was served simply in the coffee brand’s crockery and not a stylish set. Ok I can live with that. But the food was not good. The olives were not drained but served in a dish full of brine, so every mouthful was far too salty. The chocolate and walnut cake, which the waitress described as “amazing”, was dry and lacking in flavour. All in all it did not live up to expectations.

 So here is the reason the blog topic sprang to mind. Here you have two eating establishments, both highly stylised in their own way; one with a budget at the bottom end of the scale and one at the top. And surprisingly it was the one at the bottom end of the scale that succeeded in serving good food and thus achieved its aim.

The contrast of the two was notable and the lesson I took away is that simplicity is key; getting the basics right should be the fundamental goal for all of us. It is the little details that matter and if you can’t get those right then it doesn’t matter how great the overall package, there will always be something missing.

Elloise Hopkins.