Back in February my friend Katie shared with me an already four-year-old piece of interactive fiction, Bus Station: Unbound, that I’d somehow managed to miss the first time around. In the five months since then I’ve periodically revisited and played through it and finally gotten around to writing a review:
All of the haunting majesty of its subject, and a must-read-thrice plot
Perhaps it helps to be as intimately familiar with Preston Bus Station – in many ways, the subject of the piece – as the protagonist. This work lovingly and faithfully depicts the space and the architecture in a way that’s hauntingly familiar to anybody who knows it personally: right down to the shape of the rubberised tiles near the phone booths, the forbidding shadows of the underpass, and the buildings that can be surveyed from its roof.
But even without such a deep recognition of the space… which, ultimately, soon comes to diverge from reality and take on a different – darker, otherworldly – feel… there’s a magic to the writing of this story. The reader is teased with just enough backstory to provide a compelling narrative without breaking the first-person illusion. No matter how many times you play (and I’ve played quite a few!), you’ll be left with a hole of unanswered questions, and you’ll need to be comfortable with that to get the most out of the story, but that in itself is an important part of the adventure. This is a story of a young person who doesn’t – who can’t – know everything that they need to bring them comfort in the (literally and figuratively) cold and disquieting world that surrounds them, and it’s a world that’s presented with a touching and tragic beauty.
Through multiple playthroughs – or rewinds, which it took me a while to notice were an option! – you’ll find yourself teased with more and more of the story. There are a few frankly-unfair moments where an unsatisfactory ending comes with little or no warning, and a handful of places where it feels like your choices are insignificant to the story, but these are few and far between. Altogether this is among the better pieces of hypertext fiction I’ve enjoyed, and I’d recommend that you give it a try (even if you don’t share the love-hate relationship with Preston Bus Station that is so common among those who spent much of their youth sitting in it).
It’s no secret that I spent a significant proportion of my youth waiting for or changing buses at (the remarkable) Preston Bus Station, and that doubtless biases my enjoyment of this game by tingeing it with nostalgia. But I maintain that it’s a well-written piece of hypertext interactive fiction with a rich, developed world. You can play it starting from here, and you should. It looks like the story’s accompanying images died somewhere along the way, but you can flick through them all here and get a feel for the shadowy, brutalist, imposing place.
GQ asked its favorite new authors to dunk on the classics.
We’ve been told all our lives that we can only call ourselves well-read once we’ve read the Great Books. We tried. We got halfway through Infinite Jest and halfway through the SparkNotes on Finnegans Wake. But a few pages into Bleak House, we realized that not all the Great Books have aged well. Some are racist and some are sexist, but most are just really, really boring. So we—and a group of un-boring writers—give you permission to strike these books from the canon. Here’s what you should read instead.
Personally, I quite enjoyed at least two of the books on the “books you don’t have to read” list… but this list has inspired me to look into some of the 21 “you should read instead”.
I recently finished reading a novel called Ice & Lemon, which was given to me by my mother for Christmas (my reading list is quite long at the moment; I’m only just getting close to catching up!). I could tell you about what I liked about the book – and I will, in a moment – but before that I’d like to mention what makes this book personally so spooky to me, as a reader.
My mother got it for me because the coincidences apparent on the front and back cover appealed to her:
The author’s name, Pete Hartley, is remarkably similar to my father’s name, Peter Huntley.
The strapline contains a date, and that date is my mother’s birthday.
The protagonist of the story is called Daniel, which is – prior to that point in the late 1990s when I started going by Dan among virtually everybody – my name.
The front cover shows a picture of a baby’s hand, and Ruth‘s expected delivery date of New Year’s Eve was thus a hot discussion topic for us all around Christmas-time.
Okay, so – that’s a handful of quirky coincidences, certainly, but I’m sure if you looked at every volume in a bookshop – in the right frame of mind – you’d find a dozen other novels that seemed similarly fortuitous. But as I began to read the story, I discovered that I shared a lot more in common with the story’s Daniel than I could have possibly predicted. It was almost as if I were reading an alternate-history version of my own life – it’s incredibly easy to see how believable choices made in the early 2000s could have lead to a reality that even-more closely paralleled with my own:
Daniel’s partner is called Claire. In 2005, when the story is set, I too had a partner called Claire.
Daniel grew up in, and lives in, Preston, near to the football stadium and his local supermarket, the Deepdale Road/Sir Tom Finney Way Sainsburys. I grew up in Preston, and my parents houses are both within sight of the football stadium. My father used to, and my mother still does, do their shopping at the Deepdale Road/Sir Tom Finney Way Sainsburys.
Some time after an apocalyptic event takes place, Daniel joins a group of survivors who call themselves “Camp Q” (no explanation is given for the choice of name). Some time after the date of the event as it appears in the story, I changed my surname to Q.
There are about a hundred smaller coincidences in Daniel’s story, too, but after a few of them you stop looking objectively and you can’t help but see them, so I’ll spare you the list. If I wanted to, I’m sure I could find plenty of things that definitely didn’t fit me: for example, Daniel’s significantly older than me. That sort of blows the alternate history idea out of the water. But nonetheless, it was a disturbing and eerie experience to be reading about a protagonist so much like myself, travelling around a post-disaster area that I personally know so very well. I feel like I ought to reach out to the author and check that he’s not just pranking me, somehow. His son features in the book, but somehow the coincidences that naturally occur as a result of this are less-impressive because they’re pre-informed.
The book itself is pretty good: a soft science fiction story full of a thorougly-explored post-apocalyptic grief. Very human, and very British, it exemplifies that curious sense of humour that we as a nation exhibit in the face of a disaster, while still being emotionally-scarring in the sheer scope of the tragedy it depicts. The science of the science-fiction is… questionable, but it’s not explored in detail (and it’s only treated as being speculative by the characters discussing it anyway, who aren’t scientists): this is a story about people, suffering, and survival, not about technology nor futurism. There are a handful of points at which it feels like it could have done with an additional pass by a proofreader; while occasionally distracting, these typos are not problematic. Plus: the book contains the most literal deus ex machina I’ve ever encountered (and thankfully, it doesn’t come across as lazy writing so much as general wasteland craziness).
It’sunder £3 in ebook format, and if I didn’t already own a paperback copy, I’d be happy to pay that for it. Even if it didn’t make me feel like I was looking at an alternate version of myself.
On account of having a busy life, I only just recently got around to playing Bee, Emily Short‘s interactive book on the Varytale platform. Varytale is one of a number of recent attempts to make a modern, computerised system for “choose your own adventure“-style fiction, alongside the likes of Undum, Choice Of Games, and my personal favourite, Twine/Twee. As a beta author for the platform, Emily was invited to put her book on the front page of the Varytale website, and it’s well worth a look.
Bee is the story of a young girl, home-schooled by her frugal and religious parents. After a few short and somewhat-linear opening chapters, options are opened up to the reader… and it doesn’t take long before you’re immersed in the protagonist’s life. Her relationships with her sister, her parents, and the children from the local homeschool co-operative and from her church can be explored and developed, while she tries to find time – and motivation – to study for the local, regional and national spelling bees that are her vocational focus.
The choices you make will affect her motivation, her spelling proficiency, and her relationships, and in doing so open up different choices towards one of the book’s four possible endings. But that’s not what makes this piece magical (and, in fact, “choose your own adventure”-style games can actually feel a little limiting to fans of conventional interactive fiction):
[spb_message color=”alert-warning” width=”1/1″ el_position=”first last”]Minor spoilers below: you might like to play Bee for yourself, first.[/spb_message]
What’s so inspirational about this story is the compelling realism from the characters. Initially, I found it somewhat difficult to relate to them: I know next to nothing about the US education system, don’t “get” spelling bees (apparently they’re a big thing over there), and certainly can’t put myself in the position of a home-schooled American girl with a super-religious family background! But before long, I was starting to really feel for the character and beginning to see how her life fit together.
To begin with, I saw the national spelling bee as a goal, and my “spelling” score as a goal. I read the book like I play The Sims: efficiently balancing the character’s time to keep her motivation up, so that I could get the best out of her cramming sessions with her flashcards. Under my guidance, the character became highly-academic and driven by achievement.
After I’d won the local spelling bee with flying colours, I came to understand how the game actually worked. Suddenly, I didn’t need to study so hard any more. Sure, it was important to get some flashcard-time in now and then, but there were bigger things going on: making sure that my little sister got the upbringing that she deserved; doing my bit to ease the strain on my family as financial pressures forced us into an even-more-frugal lifestyle; finding my place among the other children – and adults – in my life, and in the church.
By the time I made it to the national spelling bee, I didn’t even care that I didn’t win. It was almost a bigger deal to my mother than to me. I thought back to the blurb for the story:
Sooner or later, you’re going to lose. Only one person wins the National Spelling Bee each year, so an elementary understanding of the odds means it almost certainly won’t be you.
The only question is when you fail, and why.
Then, everything made a little more sense. This was never a story about a spelling bee. The spelling bee is a framing device. The story is about growing up, and about finding your place in the world, and about coming to an age where you can see that your parents are not all-knowing, not all-understanding, far from perfect and with limits and problems of their own. And it’s a story about what you do with that realisation.
I mentioned back in October that I’ve returned to education and am now studying counselling, part-time. I thought I’d share with you an update on how that’s going.
The short answer: it’s going well.
I’m finding myself challenged in fun and new ways, despite my volunteering experience, which has included no small amount of work on emotional support helplines of one kind of another. For example, we’ve on two occasions now done role-play sessions in which the “helper” (the person acting in the role of a counsellor) has been required to not ask any questions to the “helpee” (their client). Depending on your theoretical orientation and your background, that’s either a moderately challenging or a very challenging thing – sort of like the opposite of a game of Questions, but with the added challenge that you’re trying to pay attention to what the other participant is actually saying, rather than thinking “Don’t ask a question; don’t ask a question; don’t ask a question…” the whole damn time.
It’s an enjoyable exercise, and works really well to help focus on sometimes-underused skills like paraphrasing and summarising, as well as of course giving you plenty of opportunity to simply listen, attend to the helpee, and practice your empathic response. The first time I did it I was noticed (by my observer) to be visibly uncomfortable, almost “itching to ask something”, but by the second occasion, I’d cracked it. It’s like climbing with one arm tied behind your back! But as you’d expect of such an exercise, it leaves you with far more care, and control… and one enormous muscular arm!
Amidst all of the “fluffy” assessment, I was pleased this semester to be able to cut my teeth on some theoretical stuff, as a break. The practical side is good, but I do enjoy the chance to get deep into some theory once in a while, and my reading list has spiraled out of control as each thing I read leads me to find two other titles that I’d probably enjoy getting into next. I’ve recently been reading Living with ‘The Gloria Films’: A Daughter’s Memory, by Pamela J Burry, whose existence in itself takes a little explanation:
In 1964, three psychotherapists walked into a bar. They were Carl Rogers, Albert Ellis and Fritz Perls. They had a few drinks, and then they had an argument about whose approach to psychotherapy was the best.
“I respect you both deeply,” began Perls, “But surely it is clear to see that your rejection of Gestalt therapy is rooted in your attempts to pretend to be accepting of it. It is clearly the superior approach.”
“You don’t need to get emotional over this,” said Ellis, “Let’s just go back and find the event that first inspired your prejudice against my rational emotive therapy, and re-examine it: there should be no doubt that it is the best way to treat disorders.”
“It feels like you’re being quite cold to one another,” said Rogers, father of the humanistic approach, after a moment’s pause. “I wonder what we could do to explore this disagreement that we’re having… and perhaps come to an answer that feels right to us all?”
And so the three agreed to a test: they would find a subject who was willing to undergo a single therapy session from all three of them, and then it’d be clear who was the winner. They’d film the whole thing, to make sure that there could be no denying the relative successes of each approach. And the losers would each pay for all of the winner’s drinks the next time they went out to the Rat And Bang, their local pub.
Now that story is complete bullshit, but it’s far more-amusing than any true explanation as to why these three leading counsellors were filmed, each in turn, talking to a client by the name of Gloria – a 30-year-old divorced mother of three concerned with being a good parent and how she presents herself to men. I’ll leave you to find and watch the films for yourself if you want: they’re all available on video sharing sites around the web, and I’d particularly recommend Carl Rogers’ videos if you’re looking for something that almost everybody will find quite watchable.
Gloria died fifteen years later, but her daughter “Pammy” (whose question about sex, when she was nine years old, gave so much material to Gloria’s session with Carl Rogers) wrote a biography of their lives together, which was published in 2008. The focus of “The Gloria Films” was on the therapeutic methodologies of the practitioners, of course. But Gloria herself was intelligent and compelling, and I was genuinely interested to get “the rest of the story” after she left that film studio (made up to look like a psychotherapist’s office) and got on with her life.
Hence the book.
And so hence, my example of how I keep reading (or in this case watching) things, which lead me to find more things to read, which in turn give me yet more things to read.
A few years ago, I was lucky enough to hear a reading of a fantastic piece of erotic literature, Skinheads, by a friend of mine, Jacqueline Applebee. The story isn’t just wonderfully naughty, it’s also full of edge-of-your-seat apprehension on behalf of the protagonist as she explores a terrifying taboo. This week I was delighted to hear that this fantastic story will be appearing in next year’s Best Women’s Erotica (this annual volume, edited by Violet Blue, can always be relied upon for some fabulous bedtime reading: or listening, if you’ve got an erotica-reading buddy… or if Violet gets around to putting a reading into her podcast, Open Source Sex).
So there you go – a plug for Best Women’s Erotica, and in particular for next year’s edition in which you’ll find a great contribution by a particularly worthwhile writer.
So, what have I been up to this weekend, you ask. Well…
“Cover The Mirrors” Launch Party
On Friday I took the train up to Preston. The train I was on broke down at Machynlleth when they linked it up to the carriages that had come down the Pwllheli line, and the repairs set me back by almost an hour, but it turns out that the rest of the rail network was running behind schedule that day, too, and so I didn’t miss any important connections. I arrived in time for a quick “birthday tea” with my family (for my dad’s birthday) before rushing off to the Waterstones for the launch party for my friend Faye‘s first published novel, Cover The Mirrors.
I drank as much wine as the store were willing to give me and bought myself a signed copy of the book. I even managed to get the photo, above, under the proviso that it’s only allowed to appear on the internet thanks to the fact that I’m holding a carrier bag in front of Faye’s face (she’s more than a little camera-shy). I haven’t started reading Cover The Mirrors yet, because I’m virtually at the end of The Night Watch by Sergei Lukyanenko, and I’d like to finish that first, but little doubt you’ll hear about it here in due course.
After the book launch, my sisters and I took my dad out for a few drinks to celebrate his 51st birthday. It turns out that, in my absence, Preston’s nightclub scene has really taken off. We started out in an 80s-themed bar which is part of a chain called Reflex. It’s so 80s it’s unreal: all 80s hits playing, David Hasselhoff and Mr. T decorating every wall, glitter balls and spots and mirrors everywhere… deely-boppers available at the bar… and so on. Really quite a fantastic theme venue. Then, under my sister Sarah’s recommendation, we tootled up the street and into a cafe/club called Manyana, where my dad got hit on by somebody young enough to be his daughter.
I snatched this picture. I’ve no idea who she is – we didn’t get her name – but she seemed genuinely surprised to hear my dad’s age. So I had the DJ announce it, just to make sure there was no doubt in anybody’s mind that there was an old person on the dancefloor.
This influx of Preston nightclubs is making them all remarkably competitive with their drinks prices, too. I bought a few rounds for the four of us and none of them ever came to over a tenner, and one – thanks to the “buy one get one free” policy at Manyana – came to under £6, which is quite remarkable for a city nightclub on a Friday night for four people!
Back To Aberystwyth
On Saturday I had brunch with my sister Becky, my mum, and her boyfriend and then got back onto the trains to head back to Aberystwyth. Owing to line maintenance, the stretch of track between Crewe and Preston is unusable every weekend within sight, and so I was re-directed via Manchester Piccadilly. Yet again, my train ran late, and I found myself sprinting across Piccadilly station, trying to find a train that was heading Shrewsbury-way…
…meanwhile, my friend Katie, having slept through her stop, woke up in Manchester Piccadilly and, not quite awake, clambered off her train in an attempt to find a connection. I’d apparently featured in her dream, and so she was quite surprised (and not quite sure if she was seeing things) when I sprinted past her. She sent a text (which I chose to ignore: my pocket beeped but I was too busy looking for a train to take the time to get my phone out) and then phoned me before she was able to confirm that yes, it really was me.
As we were headed the same way, she joined me on my train for one stop, which was a nice surprise for what was a long and overcomplicated train journey. A few folks have suggested that this might not be a coincidence, and that she might be stalking me, but I’m yet to be convinced.
In any case, I don’t have a picture to go with this part of the story. Sorry.
Jimmy, Beth, and Troma Night
YATN. If you were there, you know how it went. Big thanks to Jimmy and Beth for coming along.
Lloyd Kaufman’s Visit
In case you’ve not been anywhere that I can pounce on you and go “squee!” recently, here’s what you missed out on. You’ll remember that last week I mentioned that Poultrygeist – Troma‘s new movie – was coming to Aberystwyth. Well, it did. And it rocked…
…and better yet, Ruth, Claire, JTA, Paul and I got to hang out with Lloyd Kaufman, president of Troma Studios and producer of The Toxic Avenger, for a couple of pints and to share a bowl of nachos. The guy’s fabulously chatty and friendly, and if it weren’t for the awestruck feeling of “wow, we’re just sat here chatting with Lloyd Kaufman in Lord Beechings” we’d have probably been more interesting company.
When he said goodbye, kissing the cheeks of each of the girls, I genuinely thought that they were in danger of exploding with excitement. Thankfully they didn’t, because I’d already bought them tickets to see Poultrygeist later on.
Which was, as I’ve said before, fantastic. It’s even better seen with a nice, energised audience, and better still when the director and several other people who worked on the film are hanging around afterwards to answer questions, chat, autograph things and so on. There are apparently 15 prints of Poultrygeist and the capacity to make more on demand, so if you want to see it and can’t wait for the DVD release, go speak to your local cinema now and ask if they’ll show Poultrygeist, even if only for a week (as Lloyd himself said, it’s better than showing Transformers on all 24 screens of some soulless megaplex). And hell, with Troma’s current financial situation, they could probably do with a helping hand with getting into as many projection booths as possible!
The title of this post – Quickly, Before They Turn The Glass Into Lesbians! – is a reference to one of my favourite lines in the film.
Paul might have bitten off more than he can chew, though, as he hinted on his blog. After some discussion with Lloyd, Paul is likely to be responsible for:
Re-establishing the UK division of the Troma fan club.
Acting as president of the above, for the forseeable future.
Investigating UK distribution of Troma films.
Oh, and making an official DVD subtitle track for Poultrygeist: Night Of The Chicken Dead, which describes the Troma Night drinking rules and reminds you when you should be drinking. He’s got a few ideas about things that should be in such a subtitle track, too, and if you’re familiar with the rules you’ll probably be able to guess what he’s thinking about.
I’ll leave it to him to go into detail, if he wishes.
Matt In Hospital
Between places, we also joined a growing crowd at the foot of Matt‘s bed in Bronglais Hospital. His operation was a success, but he’s reacted unusually to the general anaesthetic and they’re likely to keep him in for observation for another few days. If you haven’t had a chance to visit him already, he’d probably appreciate the company (although Sarah seems to have barely left his side): visiting hours are 3pm-5pm, 6pm-8pm: just ask if you need to know what ward he’s in and how to get there. If you’re feeling particularly cruel, mock him by talking about how well your bodily excretions are working, or swap his drip with his catheter bag while he’s not looking.
But seriously: I’m sure we all wish him well.
Finally – as if we weren’t full enough from a large Sunday lunch – after leaving the cinema, Gareth, Penny, Amy, Ruth, JTA, Claire and I slipped down for a late-night curry at the Spice of Bengal. Which was delicious, although there was a little much food for those of us who were already quite full.
Nonetheless, a fantastic end to a fantastic weekend! I’m sure everybody else will have a different story to tell (Paul spent longer with Lloyd and went to more films; Claire and Jimmy got horribly drunk together on Friday night after she, Ruth and JTA failed to see a Meatloaf concert; Matt’ll have his own morphine-fuelled tale to spin, and so on), because it’s been a rich, full couple of days for many of us abnibbers.