books | reviews

REVIEW: Caraval by Stephanie Garber

October 24, 2017

Dear Caraval Master Legend,

I’m sorry I got your name wrong in those other letters. I hope that’s not why you haven’t come to Trisda. My little sister’s birthday wasn’t the only reason I’ve wanted you to bring your amazing Caraval players here, I’d love to see them too.

Most Hopefully, Scarlett, from the Conquered Isle of Trisda

Caraval is the story of two sisters, lost in the mysterious world of Caraval, a once-in-a-lifetime magical event where one lucky participant will walk away with a precious Wish. Scarlett, the elder sister, has been writing to the Caraval players for seven years, and only receives an invitation after she writes that she is getting married, and therefore cannot go. Her sister, Donatella (or Tella, for short) is a rebel, who will stop at nothing to escape the little island where the sisters live and their abusive father, who is the governor.

But when the pair arrive at Caraval, they soon find themselves separated, and what seemed like the experience of a lifetime soon begins to feel like a twisted game of life and death.


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books | reviews

Dark Cities: How NOT to arrange an anthology

August 6, 2017

(Full disclosure: I received this book for free.)

(Also, content warning.)

You know when you pick something up, read a couple of pages and just think ‘yikes’? Well, that’s what happened when I picked up Dark Cities.

Don’t get me wrong – Dark Cities is on the whole a really good collection of stories. Tananarive Due’s ‘Field Trip’ was the highlight for me. ‘Field Trip’, in my mind, was exactly what the anthology was about – the horror, both supernatural and mundane, that lurks beneath the comforting hum of the cities we live in.

Before I talk about my other favourites, though, I’ve got to ask one big question.

What were they thinking when they made Scott Smith’s ‘The Dogs’ the first story?

‘The Dogs’ is a 44 page story about a promiscuous young woman who becomes embroiled in a supernatural tale of murder, dark magic, and bestiality. Yep. You read that right.

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movies | reviews | Uncategorized

Review: The Neon Demon (SPOILER FREE)

July 22, 2016

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Nicholas Winding Refn’s newest film is a polarising one. The critics love it for its gorgeous cinematography and its astute commentary on the world of fashion modelling, but the public hates it for Refn’s characteristic lack of character development and, well, plot.

Me? I feel sort of in-between.

I’ll start with the obvious – The Neon Demon is, for the most part, very beautiful. Even its gorier scenes are made gorgeous with excellent use of colour and negative space. Beauty is central to the nature of the film, and typically, Refn reflects this in his cinematography. One minor criticism I have is that there’s a very sudden visual shift in the second half, and I feel as though this jolted me out of what would otherwise have been an uninterrupted visual experience.

Mirrors are used to great effect – almost every scene features a mirror somewhere, and the images in the glass are often all we see of a character –  a clear extension of the ‘beauty is truth’ metaphors evident throughout the film. Light is also used symbolically – one of the pivotal scenes features a shift from innocent, frigid blues to aggressively sexual reds.


That particular scene also features one of the best uses of music I’ve ever heard. In fact, scratch that, this whole movie features the best use of music I’ve ever heard. Cliff Martinez’ score is a veritable presence throughout the movie, creating edge-of-your-seat tension in even the most innocent of scenes and punctuating the scary moments like a knife to the gut.

Which brings me on to my first semi-negative point: This is not a horror movie. I feel as though this is a source of disappointment for many viewers, so I’m uneasily sorting this point into criticism for now. It seems as though the trailer and early marketing materials presented the film as more of a gory torture porn movie than it actually turned out to be, and this has left many viewers confused and disappointed (because it’s not like they can just go and see one of the other millions of generic slasher movies out there, right?). Personally, I feel like The Neon Demon had plenty of tension and sinister moments right from the start of the movie, but I’ve heard plenty of audience members complaining that there wasn’t enough action and that what little action there was took too long to get started.

What action there is, though, is abrupt and visceral. I’m reminded somewhat of It Follows in that the majority of the film is simply there to ramp up the tension until the inevitable violent climax, and this is done brilliantly. There is no single moment in the film which feels ‘safe’ – the fear just builds and builds, and then explodes. The film as a whole is more ‘weird’ than ‘scary’. That’s my favourite kind of horror – but it’s not for everybody, and it’s certainly not  what a lot of the Neon Demon’s viewership seems to have signed on for.

Another turn-off for some viewers could be the sheer visceral nature of some scenes, and the undercurrent of fear that permeates every scene in the movie. The Neon Demon makes for some uncomfortable watching, and though a lot of that uneasiness comes from Refn’s characteristically minimalist dialogue, a great deal of it comes from the incredible performances of the cast. I’ve heard Elle Fanning’s performance of the protagonist Jessie called ‘dull’, but I prefer the term ‘naturalistic’. She does an excellent job of playing a believably naive character, and as that character develops, so do her mannerisms, her manner of speaking, and her poise.


It’s difficult to pick out my favourite performances from a film that was full of incredible performances, but I particularly enjoyed Jena Malone’s performance as the darkly charismatic Ruby, a makeup artist who quickly befriends the ingenue Jessie. Since this is a spoiler free review I’ll keep my comments brief, but Jena Malone embodied her character, even in scenes where it must have been difficult to find something to relate to. From her very first line we get an immediate sense of who Ruby is and the faintest hint of her goals, and Malone’s performance only gets better from there.

My second stand-out performance has to be Abbey Lee as Sarah, a rival model. Her character is at turns pitiable and ruthless, and Abbey Lee handles these abrupt changes very well. Lee is a model herself, and one wonders whether her own experiences have informed her interpretation of Sarah’s character, because her performance is just so believable, despite, again, the unbelievable scenes she is required to perform. Plus, her character’s unflappability brings a touch of dark comedy to the most horrible scene in the movie, and provides low-key humour throughout.


One last point which I found particularly striking – the female characters drive this film, not just in the sense that one of them is the protagonist, but in the sense that it is their stories, although shadily outlined, that are the most compelling, and their actions that bring the film to its climax. At its heart, The Neon Demon is a horror story about women, and some of the most frightening scenes in the movie are built on the kind of horrors that lurk in the back of every woman’s mind: ‘Can I trust this man?’ ‘Is someone watching me?’ ‘Are my friends really my friends?’

The male characters might as well be a footnote, and I say that despite the wonderful performances of creepy motel-owner Keanu Reeves and all-around nice guy Karl Glusman. The importance of the female characters and the comparative immateriality of the male characters was a refreshing reversal of the usual hollywood paradigm. It’s a reversal that I could stand to see more of, especially in horror. To quote Ruby: ‘It’s good to have good girls around.’



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board games | reviews | Uncategorized

Review: Tragedy Looper

June 16, 2016

I love a good time travel anime. From the gritty ‘oh my god I want to rip my own heart out and eat it’ twists of Umineko No Naku Koro Ni to the slightly less visceral but no less heartbreaking turns of Stein;s Gate, I love them all. I love the kooky sceptics, the lovable best friends, and the crazed yandere killers.

But most of all, I love the masterminds that always turn out to be behind it all.

Tragedy Looper is a board game that lets you be that mastermind.

Just as planned.


Actually, only one player gets to be the mastermind. The other three players get to be the colourfully-haired protagonists in this tale of time-loop tragedy, which I’m assured is just as fun. I say assured, because right off the bat the game limits itself somewhat by insisting that only one player can ever play as the mastermind, for much the same reasons that only one player can ever be the dungeon-master – because they know the plot.

Fair enough, for those of us with perfect eidetic memories that would be a problem, but for the rest of us one quick glance at the mastermind’s handbook is enough to say for certain that ‘nobody could possibly remember all of this!’ I know that, because that’s the exact reaction I get whenever I say ‘hey, does anyone else want to play the mastermind this round? I swear I haven’t just memorised everything that happens.’

A mastermind’s handbook contains everything they need to set up their dastardly plot, and believe it or not, that is quite a lot. First you have a selection of terrible events – a murder, a suicide, a suspicious aura about the hospital, a strange occurrence at the shrine. Then, the game provides you with a selection of colourful characters to puppetmaster your way through the game with. You have the standard selection of schoolchildren with a terrible destiny, plus a host of characters who fit into the respective sections of the game board – a shrine maiden for the shrine, a pervy office worker for the city, and a doctor and patient for the hospital.

Each character has their own motivations and hang-ups outside of their description. This is the ‘role’ that they play in the plot. For example, that innocent looking shrine maiden? Yeah, she’s a serial killer, and every time she’s alone with someone on her square, they’ll wind up dead by the next morning. That hapless patient? He’s your best friend, and if you don’t prevent that horrible incident at the hospital, it’s back to the beginning of the time loop for you.

The protagonists’ role in the game is to figure out which character has which role, and use it to their advantage. They can gain goodwill with characters to get special information that might tip the scales in their favour, but the canny player will quickly realise that there’s as much to gain from sacrificing everyone they meet to the serial killer as there is from dutifully protecting a police officer until they’re able to reveal the culprit of a tragedy.

Plays are conducted by placing cards upon characters, which are then flipped to reveal what that character does or which tokens are added to the character. Paranoia makes a character more likely to be the culprit of a tragedy. Intrigue makes them more likely to be a victim. Goodwill makes them more likely to help the players down the line – if they survive that long. Finally, movement cards allow the players and the mastermind to move characters from one section of the board to another.

This leads to what I think is the most interesting mechanics in the game – players are not allowed to confer about what cards they’re going to put down, and movement cards can cancel one another out. This means that it’s totally possible for the mastermind to set up a situation in which two players will completely screw each other over and basically murder the character they were trying to protect.

However, there are some downsides. For one thing, the rules state that the mastermind’s cards must always be resolved before the protagonists’. But sometimes a protagonist’s card directly conflicts with the mastermind’s card, and must be revealed right away. That’s me being incredibly nitpicky, though. A far bigger problem is that with all this moving around and placing tokens, there’s the potential for things to get very fiddly, very quickly. The game has some bigger +3 tokens to prevent this, but I’ve had multiple games where cards have been so covered in paranoia, intrigue, and goodwill that they’re impossible to read, let alone move around the board.

[muffled voice from within token pile] just as planned!
Another aspect of the game that might turn new players off is its apparent complexity. The mastermind has a million things to remember, and although the handbook provides some handy tips to get the ball rolling on this horrorfest, there’s a lot of pressure to balance the game so that the protagonists neither win too easily nor fail too hard.

On the protagonists’ side, there’s the potential for the game to become very frustrating if the mastermind is more about winning than the thrill of the game. There’s even a paragraph on the back of the mastermind handbook that warns masterminds to sacrifice their opportunities to win to create a more satisfying game for the players. If that screams ‘BABBY MODE HAND HOLDING’ to you, I suggest not picking up the mastermind role, because basically all of it is walking players through the game and trying to ensure that they have a fair chance of winning despite the odds being overwhelmingly tipped in your favour. Personally, I find that really fun, but I can imagine that it’s not so great for everyone.

At the end of the day though, Tragedy Looper is a really amazing game. There’s a lot of room for creativity, and even a little bit of storytelling if that’s what you’re into. Depending on the temperament of the players and the level of complexity of the plot, games can last anywhere from half an hour to three hours, and every minute is incredibly fun. You can play the game co-operatively, giving your fellow players hints about what you might do without tipping off the mastermind, or you can be a lone wolf, throwing caution to the wayside to get to the heart of a mystery no matter what it takes.

And if you mess up?

You can always turn back time.




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books | reviews

Review: Sister Noon

December 16, 2015

Sister Noon is one of several books I’ve read recently that have promised adventure, magic, and mystery, and yet have delivered nothing but the drabness of the everyday. In some ways, I think that was the point. Minor spoilers below.

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reviews | video games

REVIEW : Sometimes Always Monsters

August 5, 2014

I have to admit, when I picked up a copy of the indie game Always Sometimes Monsters in my latest Steam shopping spree, I wasn’t expecting much. For 6.99, I was expecting a short, fun, indie game to waste a few hours of my day playing. From the title and a quick skim through a few of the trailers, I was expecting a Scott Pilgrim-esque philosophic rant about how life is terrible.

What I wasn’t expecting was for  Always Sometimes Monsters to be one of the best games I’ve played all year.

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