Genre fiction round-up, March 2018

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The ‘feel-good’ novel

Rosemary is eighty-six and has lived in Brixton all her life. One of her most beloved constants is the local lido, where she swims regularly: ‘She can see her fingers ahead of her wrinkling in the water. Her wrinkles always surprise her. Young girls don’t have wrinkles. She is a young girl swimming in the morning… before heading to her job in the library – she will have to get changed quickly if she is to make it on time. Her hair will drip behind her as she makes her way up and down the shelves of books.’ When the lido comes under threat from a property developer, Rosemary knows she’s not only defending a place that she likes to swim, but a place that contains both her younger self and the best memories she has of her dead husband, George. She teams up with twenty-six year old Kate, a reporter on the local paper who suffers from anxiety and panic attacks, but is determined to cover the story of the lido as best she can. Through her friendship with Rosemary, Kate is drawn back into the ambit of a life she thought she’d never be able to take part in again.

The feel-good nature of Libby Page’s debut, The Lidois very on-trend, and the concept is undeniably lovely. But it’s let down by its very poor writing. It’s not a plotty novel – it’s pretty predictable – so it needs to do more literary work to keep the reader engaged. There are good snippets on place and swimming – like the extract above – but Page’s prose is otherwise consistently clunky. In the first half of the novel, the narrative occasionally darts into the heads of other Brixton residents, presumably to give a sense of the intersecting lives that meet at the lido, but Page is nowhere near good enough a writer to pull off this If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things trick. Elsewhere, the novel simply seems rushed and unedited, like the line in the second person at the beginning (‘You push through the crowds’) that is never referred to again.

Rosemary and Kate’s friendship is at the heart of the novel, but I found both characters to be scrappy and cliched, as, indeed, is their battle with the local council. While I like the idea of a narrative that centres an older woman, Rosemary is a familiar archetype: devoted to home and family, unhappily childless, endlessly supportive of others. Much is made of the fact she’s had a job all her life, but given her cohort (coming of age in the 1950s) this is hardly surprising, especially as, with no children, she would have had no reason to leave work. While avoiding spoilers, the ending of her story simply confirms that her role in the book is to support and empower others, rather than herself; hardly groundbreaking. Similarly, Kate’s anxiety is an interesting twist that never goes anywhere, and in fact, I found it slightly worrying that all she seemingly needs to do is ‘pull herself together’ and get out more to overcome it. The negotiations with the local council become increasingly emotional and unrealistic, even though there’s good potential material here about gentrification and community. A missed opportunity.

I received a free copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on April 9th.

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The police procedural

The Ruin kicks off with Cormac McReilly, a young police officer, discovering the body of a woman watched over only by her two young children, Maude and Jack. Twenty years later, Cormac has just started a new job in Galway and is disturbed when this early case comes back to haunt him. Jack has recently been found dead in a river, and the police believe he has committed suicide. But Jack’s girlfriend, Aisling, isn’t so sure – and when she starts to investigate further, she uncovers more than she had bargained for.

I’m so tired of recurring male detective characters who are messed up by problems in their past and think this justifies mistreating everybody around them, especially their girlfriends or wives. I’m happy to report that Cormac certainly does not fall into this category. While there are tantalising hints of the difficult beginnings of his relationship with his current partner, Emma, he’s essentially a decent and likeable man who is totally supportive of Emma’s own high-flying scientific career. There’s a very minor thread about a colleague, Carrie, that’s handled especially well, and I was pleased to see, when reading the sample from McTiernan’s next novel that’s included at the end of this book, that Carrie narrates the first chapter, as I really wanted to know more about her. Aisling is also a very sympathetic protagonist, grieving her boyfriend, but defined by her intelligence and rationality, rather than doing stupid things because of her emotions. Finally, this book introduced me to Google Timeline, which I find simultaneously fascinating and horrific – so I have to give it kudos for that!

The Ruin has a complicated plot, but it’s never confusing, and while the novel reserves most of its physical action for the final scenes, it’s always gripping. This is an excellent debut police procedural, and I’m already looking forward to reading more from Dervla McTiernan.

I received a free copy of this novel from the publisher for review.

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Popular non-fiction

I know very little about computer games – I played Diablo, Diablo II and The Sims as a teenager, but haven’t played anything else since. However, I’m fascinated by the storytelling potential of all kinds of gaming, from in-person RPGs like Dungeons and Dragons to Choose Your Own Adventure books to paracosms. So when I saw that Jason Schreier’s Blood, Sweat and Pixels was on sale, I thought I’d give it a go. Blood, Sweat and Pixels is a fun, journalistic look at the making of ten significant games over the last few years, from Stardew Valley, designed entirely by one man, to behemoths like Blizzard’s error-ridden Diablo III. Its structure makes it a bit repetitive; most of the games go through similar cycles, and I wondered if Schreier would have done better to have focused more closely on a smaller number of titles.

Dividing the book up by game also stops Schreier digging deeper. One persistent theme in the development of the games covered by Blood, Sweat and Pixels is ‘the crunch’, when developers end up working eighty- to a hundred-hour weeks at a crucial stage of coding, and which seems to reoccur in game development whatever developers do to prevent it. Schreier skirts around this topic, suggesting in his epilogue that the answer to questions like ‘Is it possible to develop a game without putting in endless hours?… Will there ever be a reliable formula for making games that allows for more predictable schedules?’ is simply no. Yet Schreier’s own articles – even those published before Blood, Sweat and Pixels – present a different point of view: he wrote in greater detail about this problem in 2015 and argued in 2017 that ‘video games are destroying the people who make them’, arguing that ‘game developers must commit to stop facilitating a culture in which crunch is the norm.’ 

It’s a shame that some of this material didn’t make it into the book. However, even Schreier’s articles, while highlighting the mental and physical health problems caused by ‘crunch’, don’t address the impact this must have on diversity in the gaming industry. Schreier notes that computer game design is male-dominated at the beginning of Blood, Sweat and Pixels. He’s right: women make up half of all gamers in the US, but only 5% of video game programmers are female. However, he never stops to ask why, even though some of the material he presents makes the answer obvious. ‘Crunch’ itself would clearly  be impossible for women with caring responsibilities (and people with disabilities that prelude them from working unreasonable hours), but many of the particular games that Schreier highlights got made in ways that seem designed to exclude women, people of colour, and anybody else who doesn’t fit. Ensemble Studios, who made Halo Wars, were ‘made up mostly of young, single men who spent nights and weekends together… Every prospective employee had to go through a rigorous interview process that, for a while, included meetings with all twenty-something people at the studio. If just one person said no, the prospective employee was out.’ As one graphics engineer at the company said, it was ‘a little bit of a frat house.’ Meanwhile, Eric Barone, who made Stardew Valley on his own, was only able to spend so long designing the game because his girlfriend supported him by working two jobs alongside her undergraduate degree.

None of this is to say that I disliked Blood, Sweat and Pixels: in many ways, it’s a great introduction to the video games industry for somebody who’s a complete novice. But I’ll be looking out for something with a more critical lens.

7 thoughts on “Genre fiction round-up, March 2018

  1. Massive bummer about The Lido, though I can’t say I’m surprised. Ruin seems like a good start to a crime seris, though; as good as Tana French? (Well, obviously not. No one is. But close?)

    Liked by 1 person

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