Monday, June 25, 2012

Book Review: ADVENT

Author: James Treadwell
Publisher: Simon and Schuster
Pub Date: July 3, 2012

"A drowning, a magician's curse, and a centuries-old secret."

1537. A man hurries through city streets in a gathering snowstorm, clutching a box in one hand. He is Johann Faust, the greatest magician of his age. The box he carries contains a mirror safeguarding a portion of his soul and a small ring containing all the magic in the world. Together, they comprise something unimaginably dangerous.

London, the present day. Fifteen-year-old Gavin Stokes is boarding a train to the countryside to live with his aunt. His school and his parents can't cope with him and the things he sees, things they tell him don't really exist. At Pendurra, Gavin finds people who are like him, who see things too. They all make the same strange claim: magic exists, it's leaking back into our world, and it's bringing something terrible with it. (Synopsis from Goodreads.)

Advent was a book I looked forward to reading for its wonderfully strange world seeped in mythology. The world was intriguing and made me think odd creatures and magic really could be lying in wait at the far corners of the earth. As much as I wanted to love the story, however, I just couldn't get into it. It started extremely slow, with pages and pages about Gavin traveling to his aunt's house and then meeting the people in Pendurra. Although there was the mystery of why Gavin was seeing something that no one else could, I feel like the questions this brought up were dragged on for far to long without any answers.

I think this book could have been cut down to half its length and still hold the important points of the story. The mysteries were initially interesting and the prose beautiful, but my curiosity fizzled out as I had to slog through pages of unimportant events.

The chapters in Advent alternate between Gavin's perspective in the present and Johann Faust's perspective in the past. I found myself constantly skimming the sections on Faust, as they bored me. I just couldn't get into his story, and wanted to get back to solving the mysteries in Gavin's life. I did really enjoy Horace, and wish Treadwell would have fleshed out his character and his relationship with Gavin more.

Advent did pick up at the end, but that was too late for me. Do not write it off, though, for others have picked up this book and loved it. If you like mythology and lovely prose, you may very well enjoy this book where I didn't.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Top 10 VG Countdown - #2: PORTAL

Portal and Portal 2 are first-person puzzle solving games developed by Valve. Portal was released in 2007, and Portal 2 in 2011. In Portal, you find yourself in an enclosed room where an artificial intelligence named GLaDOS (Genetic Lifeform and Disk Operating System) tells you what to do. Your sole purpose is, apparently, to solve puzzles using a portal gun in the Aperture Laboratories. Left-click with the mouse and your portal gun will shoot a blue portal. Right-click and your gun will shoot an orange portal. Walk in the blue portal and you come out the orange, and vice versa. Solving puzzles using these portals is challenging and messes with your mind. My favourite trick is using momentum to get past the puzzles. In GLaDOS's words: "Momentum, a function of mass and velocity, is conserved between portals. In layman's terms, speedy thing goes in, speedy thing comes out." There's nothing like jumping down one portal on the floor and come flying out another to get over a chasm or other obstacle.

I love these games for two reasons: 1) the challenging and innovative puzzles. 2) the dark humour. GLaDOS is sarcastic and hilarious. Pretty early on you realize she is an evil liar out to torture you (that's not really spoiler. Come on... a robot making you do tests? She had to be evil.) If you don't burst out laughing for most of her lines, I don't know what's wrong with you.

Portal 2 continues the story from the first game, but it is longer and adds a few more elements including lasers, tractor beams, light bridges, bouncy sludge and zoom goo. Now aren't you intrigued just from that list of stuff? I mean, who can resist zoom goo?

Portal 2 also has a two player co-op mode. And it is awesome. I played it through twice. That's how awesome it is. You and a friend play as two robots who have to get through testing rooms together. Puzzles that require four portals to solve instead of two are that much more challenging and exciting. You really do have to work together to get through the levels, sometimes timing things just right or relying on your partner to get you through an area. You can also interact with each other by high-fiving, hugging, waving while you careen to your death off a chasm, or pulling the other's head off and smashing it on the ground; I'm not gonna lie, there's just something satisfying about that last one. This is another one of those games that you might enjoy even if you are not a gamer, and one of the funnest games I have ever played.

If you've played Portal or Portal 2, what did you think? If you haven't, what are you waiting for?

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Quantum Conundrum Preview

Quantum Conundrum is an upcoming video game to be released by Square Enix on June 21, 2012. I'm looking forward to trying it because it is designed by Kim Swift, who was the lead designer for Portal. It looks like it has a lot of fun puzzle-solving, like Portal does. And it looks a little crazy too, which I like. The story is about a boy visiting his scientist uncle when an explosion occurs and his uncle disappears, so he has to navigate a mansion of puzzles, experiments, and even more cool, dimensions, to find out what happened to him.

Check out the preview below:

Looks like some fun times, right? Though it's hard to tell what gameplay will be like from this trailer, so if you are interested in seeing the actual game being played, check out this one:

If it turns out to be good, the only thing I'll be disappointed about is that it does not have a co-op mode.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Top 10 VG Countdown - #3: OCARINA OF TIME

We have a guest poster with us today to tell us about the awesome Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. Welcome, Jamie Gibbs!

In my humble opinion, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time revolutionized the console RPG and enabled those with a joypad rather than a keyboard and mouse to enjoy an immersive experience in a rich and detailed world. Back in 1998, you had to be a PC gamer to have access to any RPG worth its salt, and then Ocarina of Time entered the scene and changed all that for the better.

Ocarina of Time is the fifth installment of The Legend of Zelda series, which was exclusively available on the N64 at the time. Nowadays you can get it on the collector’s edition of Wind Waker for the Gamecube, download it on the Wii store, and get the remake for the 3DS. In it our hero Link is summoned to protect the land of Hyrule from the evil Ganondorf, collect the relics that form the Triforce, and rescue the princess Zelda. Throw in some hefty dungeon crawling, side quests and an excellent system of in-game time travel, and you’ve got yourself a winner right there.

Ocarina of Time doesn’t exactly have the best graphics in the world, and they’ve not aged well. Granted, there is a definite nostalgic retro charm about it, but you can’t overlook the blocky characters and blurry textures. Nintendo had a more powerful console than its rivals, but were limited by the capacity of the cartridges. Given the massive, sprawling scale of Ocarina, something had to give, and the visuals ended up lacking somewhat.

However, just as a person with no sight is better able to use their other senses, Nintendo mastered the other aspects of gaming with Ocarina of Time. The music score, for one thing, is nothing short of a thing of beauty. I’ve got The Legend of Zelda official soundtrack, and the songs from Ocarina perfectly capture whatever area or dungeon Link is in. You’ve got the playful tunes of Kokiri Forest, the sweeping epic overture of Hyrule Field, and the downright haunting Song of Storms. You could play Ocarina with your eyes closed and know exactly where you were in the game. That’s storytelling.

Speaking of storytelling, Ocarina of Time was a game that got you involved with the story. The entire scene with the Great Deku Tree is pretty heavy for your standard adventure game (I know a fully grown man who openly admits to weeping when he played that scene). It’s a game that makes you emotionally invest in the characters, even if that emotion is a murderous rage (the words “Hey, listen!”still bring out the veins in my forehead to this day).

The gameplay managed to combine the action/adventure genre with elements of an RPG that hadn’t really been seen on a console before, at least in the West. Final Fantasy brought the 3D RPG to us a year before, but Ocarina’s real-time combat and in-depth story made it a favourite amongst non-gamers as well as the hardcore. On the surface, Ocarina of Time is your basic dungeon crawler - find three magical objects to save the world and blah blah blah. But look deeper and you find that the beauty of Ocarina was that the gameplay was to an extent non-linear. You could choose to go off the beaten path at any time and explore Hyrule if you wanted, or you could spend your time running errands for the Happy Mask Shop, or finding the gold skulltulas that are tucked away in the far flung corners of the world. It was this aspect that had you coming back to Ocarina time and time again, losing sleep, weight and friends in the process. For me, it was my Skyrim before I’d even heard of The Elder Scrolls, and it was beautiful.

If you still have the means to do so, dust off that old N64, give the underside of the cartridge a gentle gust of air to bring it back to life, and settle yourself in for a few hours of pure gaming bliss. Ocarina of Time defined a generation of gamers, and it’s no small wonder that it’s been given the title of ‘greatest video game of all time.’

Jamie Gibbs is the caffeine addled bibliophile from the fantasy blog Mithril Wisdom. When he’s not nose deep in a book, he’s usually rocking out to fantasy-inspired heavy metal and playing with Lego like all grown ups should.

Thanks for stopping by, Jamie, and putting to words what makes this game so wonderful! I have such great memories of Ocarina of Time. I've gotta get this for my Wii and play it again now.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Terry Brooks Winner

The random number generator has done its thing, and the winner is one of my wonderful blogging buddies...

Michael Pierce!

Congrats, Michael! Michael selected Running with the Demon, which is a fantastic choice (not that there is a right or wrong choice with Terry Brooks, of course). Just email me your address, Michael, and I will send it off to you straightaway.

And for interest's sake, here is a synopsis of Running with the Demon from from Goodreads:

Nest Freemark has always been able to see feeders, creatures that feed on the darker side of human emotions. As a result, she has been enlisted to help guard the Sinissippi National Forest in Hopewell, Illinois, a place where magical creatures such as Pick, a sylvan, and Wraith, a ghost-wolf, still live. 

John Ross, a Knight of the Word, has sworn to serve the Lady, the voice of the Word, in the eternal battle against the forces of the Void. Every night, he dreams of what will become of the world if he should fail. John carries a staff that has the power to destroy demons and their ilk, but he is growing weary; he has spent his entire life fighting demons and doesn't have much to show for it. John's dreams send him to Hopewell, where he meets Nest. 

Unbeknownst to Nest, a demon also appears in Hopewell. His goal is the release an evil creature trapped in the forest. As the lives of these three characters entertwine, the fate of the world hangs in the balance. 

This novel, the first in Terry Brooks's Word and Void trilogy, combines our world with a world of demons and magic, and thrusts ordinary people into a fight as old as time itself.
Thanks to everyone who entered the contest!

Top 10 VG Countdown - #4: WARCRAFT III

No, I do not mean World of Warcraft, I mean the lesser known and much more awesome Warcraft III. Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos is a real-time strategy game released by Blizzard in 2002. An expansion, Warcraft III: The Frozen Throne, was released in 2003. It is probably my favourite game for LANing with friends, and because it is older, most computers and slower internets can handle it without lagging.

The game has four playable races, and they are each unique with their own strengths. They are human, orc, undead, and night elf. In multiplayer, you set up a base and pump out troops with the objective of destroying your enemy's army and base. You collect three resources to build your base and buy troops: gold, lumber, and food. You also hire heroes to lead your troops into battle, and each race has four unique heroes to choose from.

The fun thing about Warcraft is learning your race and what it can do. You can develop strategies according to your troops or hero abilities. What happens with me and my friends is that one of us will come up with a new strategy that will destroy the other, and then the defeated party will figure out a way to combat that strategy (sometimes by cheating and googling the solution), and it all begins again.

The campaign is also very fun with an interesting story that continues in Frozen Throne. It is a good place to start if you are just learning the game, because it teaches you how to use all four of the races slowly, so you won't be overwhelmed. The first couple levels introduce you to your hero and units, the next level will show you how to build a few basic buildings, and so on.

If you like real-time strategy games similar to Age of Empires or Starcraft, try this one out.

There is also still time to enter my giveaway to win a book by Terry Brooks! I will be drawing the winner tonight. Enter by commenting on the post below.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Books on Writing

There are two types of writers who read books on writing: people who want to improve their work, and people who are procrastinating and want to do something, anything, associated with writing to make themselves feel better. I have read books on writing for both these reasons, and my advice is this: do not be the second type of person. Read books to improve your writing, to inspire you to write, to learn how professional authors write, but not in place of the act of writing. That being said, here is a list of five wonderful books that have inspired me and helped me to become a better writer.

On Writing by Stephen King

I am not a fan of Stephen King (I don't mean I dislike his writing; I mean I have never read any fiction by him), but this book is a fabulous compendium of writerly wisdom, tips, and life stories from an experienced author. Every writer I know who has read this book has loved it.

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

Lamott has a refreshing way of encouraging writers through her stories and humour. I especially appreciate her advice on "Shitty First Drafts," and now I don't feel guilty when my writing sucks at first. It is nice to know professional authors have these problems too.

 The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White

Don't argue, just read this book if you haven't already. At about 100 pages, it is short and won't take you long. You won't regret it. This is a handy resource that I keep on my desk at all times as it concisely describes the elementary rules of usage, composition, and form that every writer should know.

Fiction Writer's Workshop by Joseph Novakovich

This is an excellent guide for writing fiction that includes advice on setting, character, plot, point of view, dialogue, voice, revision, and more. It also has exercises at the end of each chapter to help you practice the techniques discussed.

Sometimes the Magic Works by Terry Brooks

I like this one simply because Terry Brooks is my favourite author, so I am interested in learning more about him and how he writes. He tells about the lessons he learned with specific references to books he's written, and highlights the importance of outlining, showing instead of telling, and developing believable characters.

This post is part of the Insecure Writer's Support Group hosted by Alex J. Cavanaugh. We post the first Wednesday of every month. Check the link for some of the other blogs participating in this event! 

There is also still time to enter my giveaway to win a book by Terry Brooks! Enter by commenting on the post below.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Terry Brooks Giveaway!

In honour of my blog reaching 100 followers and my placing third in Cherie Reich's Flash Fiction blogfest, I am hosting a giveaway! As Terry Brooks is one of my all time favourite authors, I have raved about him several times on this blog, so I thought it appropriate to give away a book written by him. So here's how it'll work: you can pick any book by Terry Brooks and I will send it to you right from Amazon. Leave a comment on this post telling me which book you would like to read, and I will randomly draw one winner on Friday, June 8. Open to US and Canada. One entry per person; no, you don't get extra entries if you blog or tweet about this giveaway or follow me, but I will consider you even more awesome if you do.

Check out my post on Terry Brooks to help you decide. Haven't read anything by Terry Brooks? You could start at the beginning with his first book, The Sword of Shannara, which is often compared to The Lord of the Rings because it is very similar. Or, you could start with my favourite of the original trilogy, The Elfstones of Shannara. Or, you could try my favourite series of all his Shannara books, The Voyage of Jerle Shannara, which starts with Ilse Witch. Not interested in epic fantasy? No problem--try Magic Kingdom for Sale--Sold!, which is a more lighthearted fantasy, or Running with the Demon, which is a darker urban fantasy. Wow, so many choices! What Terry Brooks book do you want to win?