Words Of Dan

…we watched the Earth burning, and as it burnt we burnt you too.

Category: Fiction

How I learned everything I know from Final Fantasy VII

WARNING: THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS. IF YOU DON’T WANT TO KNOW IMPORTANT PLOT TWISTS AND VARIOUS OTHER IN-GAME SURPRISES LEAVE IMMEDIATELY!

Otherwise… Hi there! How’re you keepin’?

Well, Final Fantasy VII taught me everything I know. Yep, that’s right, a computer game. Whenever someone tries to run down the video game medium as an enriching source of entertainment I always pull this wee rant on them. I thought it might be worth while to explain how exactly this one game changed me for the better.

I first played this game when I was twelve. It was stocking filler one Christmas, and I imagine my mother’s aim was to give me something that would shut me up in the evening. Keep me quiet. Sedated, if you will.

Well, it fuckin’ worked. Maybe too well. I immediately fell into this wonderful world, head-first.

The Lifestream!

The first lesson I learned was to be wary of gigantic corporations. Initially, being part of a group of mercenaries, I worried that we were, in fact, the bad guys. It slowly came to light, however, that Shinra, the aforementioned gigantic corporation, were sucking dry the world’s precious Mako energy source. The Mako constituted what is known as the lifestream (ain’t it pretty?), which is essentially a river of floating souls that feed the planet. Without it the planet would die. What struck me most about Shinra and their policy of Mako extraction is their disregard for the effect it had on the men and women that peopled the world. They built their giant extraction plant right above the people, and it’s enormous energy needs decimated the nearby countryside. Without the Mako to thrive flora and fauna perished, and it became a wasteland. With no arable land the people below Shinra’s headquarters in Midgar fell into poverty. I learned from the first two hours of playing this game that profit-motivated super-corporations can have detrimental consequences if not held accountable for their actions. Luckily, I was on the anti-Shinra rebel team AVALANCHE… fuck yeah.

Nibelheim!

It’s a game that encourages exploration. Going from town to town and talking to different people with different cultures and ways of life was one of the most rewarding experiences in any video game I have ever played. One side of the world looked different to the other. What is so wonderful about it is how you learn far more about yourself by interacting with people than you do anything else. It’s always a journey of self-discovery as much as a task-oriented mission. It gave me the travel bug very early on, wanting to experience and see and taste and hear as much as possible in the real world!

Vincenzo the Great!

It taught me that we have to make an effort to meet the best people, sometimes going out of our way and making time for the less pressing, seemingly less important matters. If you don’t, then you miss out on Yuffie and Vincent, two great characters! Vincent immediately became a permanent fixture in my trio of favourites, just like a good friend can be found in the most unexpected of places. He’s a moody son-of-a-bitch, but he’s worth the occasional strop, like most best friends.

Red XIII!

The game also makes a strong case for our furry friends, and that dogs are the best companions! One of the most badass characters in the entire game is Red XIII. Awesome, isn’t he? We save Red XIII from a lab that was testing on him (yes, they taught me everything I know about animal welfare too). He completed my gaming triumvirate.

Barret/Marlene Fan Art!

The game showed me that mean-looking dudes with gun-arms could have huge hearts, and not to judge someone based on the size of their gun-arm. Barret Wallace is a cross between Mr. T and The Rock. But tougher than both. His soft-side only emerges whilst taking care of Marlene, his adopted daughter, who lost her parents, Barret’s friends Dyne and Eleanor. Some of the most heart-warming scenes in the game come from his sense of duty to his fallen friends, and the genuine love he has for Marlene.

Saddest moment of my childhood right here..

At twelve I hadn’t started pondering life’s great questions all that much, but Final Fantasy VII addressed some of them in a delicate way. The main character Cloud falls in love Aeris, a beautiful, gentle soul who seems to epitomise the very concept of nurture. Their late night conversations under moonlight, the soft music playing in the background… it really seemed to be a trajectory filled with happiness at last for our troubled hero. Her death half-way through the game is a crushing blow to Cloud. How could be rebuild himself from that point on without the person he loved? The rest of the game attempts to show how life continues, and how we are all part of a very precarious circle of life and death. It taught me that both love and loss are a part of life, better than any priest or preacher ever did.

The Dream Team

It taught me that no matter how strong your Braver or Omni-Slash (killer Limit Breaks, kinda’ like finishing moves) is, you always need the support of others at times.

It taught me that sometimes asking for help is the best policy. In the game asking for help takes the form of summoning Ifrit, or Shiva, or even Bahamut, or any of the other Summons you can find.

Always happy to see this guy turn up!

It also taught me that sometimes when the chips are down help can come from the most unexpected places. Like the randomly appearing Norse God Odin, who dishes out instant victory or massive damage.

Chocobo!

Sometimes we have a seemingly insurmountable challenge placed in front of us. In the game this challenge comes in the form of the Weapons, two of them, Emerald and Ruby, basically two giant bad-ass bosses. Now to say these guys are tough to beat is a fucking understatement. I remember sitting with my best friend watching him fighting Emerald Weapon, for two hours, taking a dinner break half-way through. He persevered. He overcame. He won. He then took down Ruby, and got a fucking Gold Chocobo! A Gold Chocobo! Wark! This taught me that not every challenge could be overcome easily, but persevere and the reward at the end was super-sweet.

The Gold Saucer.. the most fun place on The Planet!

However, most importantly of all it taught me that no matter how serious life seems, no matter how many bad guys are after you, or how many evil corporations you have to topple, or how many super-charged Mako-infused super-soldiers with mommy issues who want to destroy the world, there should always be room for fun! Down-time! Party! The Gold fucking Saucer!

I learned pretty much all I know about life from this game. It’s my fucking Bible. If you’ve played it, you know what I mean. If you haven’t, then play it! It really is that good.

Breakfast At Tiffany’s – Truman Capote Review

ImageI feel for my brother mercilessly caught in the friend-zone, doing his damnedest to paddle back up the rapids toward a different sort of relations with the enigmatic Holly Golightly. Breakfast At Tiffany’s is a masterful novelette, clocking in at what I approximate to be 27,000 words, a short read but an immensely satisfying one.

The characters that Capote bothered to develop well, namely the narrative voice main character and Holly Golightly, are steeped in what could only have been Capote’s own personal experiences. Most of us will have known a Holly Golightly ourselves, someone charismatic yet incredibly fragile, charming and impossible to pin down in one place for very long despite our best efforts.

It’s a love story, but it goes beyond a love of a mere romantic nature and dwells instead on our love of people and how other people enhance our own lives, broadening and challenging who we are before we even know who we are exactly, if we are ever anything in particular.

And that’s the great lesson of the novel: that people might not be who we think they are, and we are nothing at all what we thought we were and are susceptible to being ever-changing.

While Holly Golightly and her escapades dominate the novelette, it’s all the other characters that gravitate toward her, some strange and downright alien at times, that give the story it’s colour.

For those of you who haven’t ever read Truman Capote, here’s where to start. If you’ve ever been friend-zoned and you’ve watched helplessly as your Holly makes mistake after mistake then this story will resonate with you in a very humorous way. If not, then read it anyway. It’s fantastic.

Image

Foster – Claire Keegan Review

After devouring this in one sitting I reckon Claire Keegan’s Foster might be worth a little review. I’ll keep it short and sweet, exactly like the novelette itself.

Winner of the Davy Byrnes Award in 2009 this little-novelette-that-could is an astounding work of meticulously constructed prose and perspective, namely that of a preadolescent girl, that never says more than is necessary.

The overwhelming achievement of this work is its ability to allow the reader slip behind the shoulder of a young girl who gets uprooted and torn from the familiar and placed in the different and unfamiliar. While events unfold from the young girl’s perspective the narrative is constructed in such a way that the reader nods knowingly at the true reality of the situation which is usually beyond the grasp of the naive, young girleen at the centre of the tale

It is a remarkable story capturing much of the essence of the parochial, while still retaining a gilded edge that dissects efficiently (once again, no superfluous narrative here) the state of human relationships regardless of locality.

For someone like myself who grew up rurally there are many instances of descriptive narrative that ignite old memories of cattle-grids, pale buckets and religious observance.

It’s a good story. It’s concise. It’s well-written. It’s Ireland as we all know and remember it. And it’ll take you about two hours to read, and you’ll probably be the better for it afterward. 

Home After Dinner

Image taken from SciencePhotoLibrary.com (hope they don't mind!)

The clang of dirty dinner plates being neatly stacked on the draining board halted a conversation’s flow in the smoky kitchen for about as much time as it took Maggie to reach into her cardigan pocket, pull out her packet of Major extra-sized cigarettes, purse one in her lips and light it, inhaling the first deep breath of her twenty-fourth of the day. The first after dinner is always the best. She had been smoking since she was sixteen, and never more than now at sixty-five years old.

Her husband and her three grown up sons retired to the living room to digest their food as always, and she was left in the kitchen with her three daughters for their after-dinner chat. They would have anywhere between fifteen minutes to half an hour before the men would return to the kitchen to clean the delft (Maggie always insisted that the cook never cleaned). The length of time depended on how many servings the men had dished themselves. Today Maggie reckoned it would be the full half hour.

She took a few more lungfuls of her Major extra-sized, and extinguished it in her glass ashtray. The weather was not particularly pleasant; it was cool, and there was a constant drizzle that kept the windows wet with little rolling droplets. She looked outside while in the comforting warmth of her home, and smiled to herself.

‘What’re ya’ smilin’ at Mammy?’ Claire asked, who was filling a kettle with water from the tap to make them all tea.

Ah… nothin’ really, just smilin’ to me’self.’

Her children were all fully grown, and had warm homes of their own. All were married, most had children, yet they would all reconvene here in the homestead of their childhoods from time to time to spend an evening with their parents and catch up on each other’s lives.

Wishing the moment would sit still, and knowing nothing lasted forever, Maggie took a snapshot in her mind of the girls, or rather women, chatting busily, paying no heed to their words meaning yet finding them comforting, like a warm blanket or a glass of hot whiskey. Without knowing it they gave Maggie the rare gift of utter contentment. She had done a good job.

She reached into her cardigan pocket, pulled out her packet of Major extra-sized cigarettes, pursed one in her lips, and lit number twenty-five just in time for her cup of tea.

Ender’s Game – Review

            Being honest I expected Ender’s Game to be brainless. A lovely, completely trashy, space novel with nice, easily digestible themes and characters. I expected straight-forward-right-to-the-point dialogue, shallow characters, and laser guns going pew-pew. My expectation was completely accurate for the most part; everything except the completely trashy presumption, where I couldn’t have been more wrong. Published in 1985 it won both the Hugo and Nebula awards.

In brief, Ender is a prodigous child born into an America that is bracing itself for another battle deep in space with an alien invasion force, affectionately called buggers. Ender, however, is no ordinary child, and neither are his brother and sister. They are examples of children with outstanding talent who could one day lead an army against the bugger force.

The most widespread criticism of Ender’s Game is the advanced nature of conversation between the large cast of children. While I would usually agree with the basis of this argument in most cases, speculative fiction is an exception for me. Ender, along with many of the children in this story, are not the children we know but rather the children that could be. Orson Scott Card sells this very, very well. Despite their acute awareness of social and political superstructures as early as six, they still jostle with the old problems of peer pressure, bullying and finding a secure place within a family unit.

Battle School, the special school for gifted children, is also quite cool. Large battles with laser guns in a constantly-changing, ever-challenging virtual environment… every kid’s dream really.

Definitely worth the read. It’s far better than I thought it would be, and has made me think twice about writing off mid to late-80s speculative fiction without giving it fair time. Light, casual read with fun action sequences, likeable characters, and some impressive thematic undertones.

4/5

I Am Legend – Richard Matheson

I Am Legend is one of those books that everyone should devote a couple of days to reading. No man is an island, but Robert Neville sure as hell feels like one at times in Richard Matheson’s masterpiece.

It’s rare to find such a good book clocking in at the 40,000 words mark. I usually find stories that length too slow to begin, and too quick to finish. Matheson gauges the pace just right. There are sweet f*ck all other characters in the work, Neville’s wife, a dog and an odd person or two fill the entire cast, but those that are elaborated on are perfectly crafted. I have a particular softspot for a neighbour vampire who gives the story a nice sense of the familiar. Of homeliness. Despite being terrifying, he is a pillar of normalcy (yes, I just used that word).

Which is the overwhelming nature of the book. Despite being completely alone, surrounded by ravenously hungry neck biters, Neville adjusts to his new condition with aplomb. Not just surviving, but almost thriving. Ok, maybe thriving is an exaggeration. He deals with crippling loneliness and savage internal monologues aplenty, but his personal evolution to suit the needs of this new empty world speaks volumes for humanity. It also seems to suggest that we are our own worst enemy, and internal demons are far deadlier than the external.

Anyway, it’ll say different things to different folks. In short it’s a great read, good suspense, a nice bit of mystery, and a satisfying conclusion. It won’t change your life, but it’s good craic, which might not be what Matheson intended, but after three decades of sh*t vampire and zombie themed works they’re hard not to read lightly.

It’s one man’s struggle against a new world, and himself. And there’s vampire zombies.

4/5

His Dark Materials – Review

I finished up reading Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy during the Christmas holidays. It was a heavy tome, so I’m glad I’m not carrying it around anymore. I was essentially carrying a bag with me everywhere just to accommodate it. But I liked it, I really liked it… then I loved it.

Without doubt it’s one of the most stirring, imaginative and engaging series I have ever read. Its reputation, for the longest time, is what put me off reading it. Its reputation was so good that I had no interest in jumping on the bandwagon. I didn’t want to read it because it was so widely read. That and the abysmal film effort.

It’s a series that can be, and is, read by teens, as well as a more mature audience. After reading it I honestly don’t know how any teen would adequately absorb its many nuances, and many there certainly are. I have often heard the argument that you had to have read it/seen it/played it as a child, with an open imagination, to fully appreciate a work of art. That’s a load of b*llocks. It’s the authors job to make sure it’s as engaging to older readers as to the younger crew. Pullman does this very well. The only thing that anyone who hasn’t read it before could possibly be missing out on is a sense of nostalgia on a second perusal. I do, however, plan to read this again at some stage of my life, so I might be treated to a dose of nostalgia yet.

In short, it’s almost the perfect story. Childhood, growing up, relationships, love and death are all constant companions in this epic. It manages a perfect blend of new-age religion, spirituality and theoretical science, and the challenges that face each.

It might be unfair to discuss or criticise the series as a whole as it’s comprised of three separate titles: Northern Lights, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass.

And no, the books are not equally great. The Amber Spyglass is better than the others in many ways, but lacks a lot of the imaginative character of the previous two. Northern Lights is the most typically straight-forward, being the foundation of it all, with a feeling that Pullman hadn’t exactly decided where he was going with his story either when he started or finished it. The Subtle Knife, however, puts you on the deliberate course you wanted with a lot of “Ah! It all makes sense now!” moments, and The Amber Spyglass takes you home neatly. Pullman feeds you the right amount of these revelations at the right times throughout the series. And lots of action.

Now, after saying all that, yet not discussing any part of the story (intentionally; it’s so good you shouldn’t need a blurb) it must be said that the series directly speaks to a part of our condition, our mortality, yada yada yada, and the lonely burden of it all. It’s all very Robert Frost and his Mending Wall. If you aren’t up for feeling a little less impressed with your reality, then maybe give it a miss. If you do persevere, I can tell you when you close the covers you will feel infinite sadness, dejection and then slowly, but surely, transcendant optimism creeps in.

One last tip if you’re going to take the plunge, maybe buy one volume at a time so it’s easier to carry rather than getting the hefty compiled trilogy!

5/5

Coffee and Getting Shit Done

Right. I’ve locked myself in my room, and I’m going to get this fucking shit done. Ok. I’ll just make myself a coffee first. I leave my room, and walk out on the tiles, should have worn slippers, the tiles are freezing. In the kitchen I wash the mug I decide to use, the one that has a picture of Bugs Bunny on it, and a spoon. I always lose baby spoons. I don’t know where they go to, but for some reason I find myself buying baby spoons every other month. Forks last for years. And big spoons? Forget about it. At least two. There must be a baby spoon thief.

            The kettle boils up, shaking the counter-top as it approaches the boil. The steam rises and condenses, forming little waterdrops on my woodwork kitchen unit. Two spoons of coffee, or three? Three would keep me up all night, and possibly give me the shakes. But it’d be some craic. Nah, I’ll go for two, play it safe for tonight. Better safe than sorry. The aroma of coffee, goddamn. I’ve been cutting down on sugar lately, so the one spoon, not heaped, will do the trick.

            Ah, coffee. Right, so I’ll just clean up the desk so I can get this shit done, finally. Magazines over here. Wrappers, old receipts and stray pages in the bin over there. There’s I Am Legend! I’ve been meaning to read this. I really enjoyed the movie with Will Smith. I wonder if it’s similar, or completely different. Sure I’ll read a few pages, and then get my shit done.

            This is nothing like the movie! Ok, it’s sort of similar, but there are so many drastic differences! I drain the last of my coffee, it’s always cold and too sweet at the end.

            I boot up my laptop and lay back on my bed, quick check of the emails it is so. It makes the usual droning Apple sound that sounds a little out of kilter with the modern looking machine. Two hours later I am none the wiser what I have been doing all that time. I remember Facebook. And Twitter. And an episode of Peep Show. What a television show. They don’t make enough of it.

            I throw all my stray clothes into the washbasket, and throw on some music to psyche myself up for getting my shit done. I love this album. Definitely Alter Bridge’s best album to date. I decide, as it gets a little later, to throw on something a little more laid back. Beatle’s Revolver. Definitely their best album. I pick up my guitar and strum through a few of the chords. That string section on Eleanor Rigby, flawless.

            Christ, its one in the morning. I’ve got work at nine. Right, I’ve got everything set to get my shit done tomorrow night.

            Right. Ok. The following night I make myself a cup of coffee, where the fuck are all the baby spoons?

Shadow and City

Templebar by Roisin O'Farrell

Rubbing my hands off chalky old walls, the grit of yesterday comes off easy, leaving its fresher face gleaming on a cool Dublin evening. Winding down cobbled streets, bowing and nodding to familiar faces I meet, breathing the scene in deeply. In the air hangs the sweet smell of sawdust and tavern ale, mixed with fragrant perfumes and tobacco smoke. The chatter and bustle fills the street with merriment, accompaniment and solace.

My own face, wizened but pleasant, betrays my spirit, young and vibrant. The youthful rush past, sparing an odd glance, but ultimately I am a walking ghost. I had my chance. I danced and sung. And drank. I courted and loved.

In my youth I walked these old cobbled streets looking toward my uncertain, yet exciting, future. Now I look nowhere but to the past, because the future terrifies me. Then I see an old friend, stooped and creaky. “Not long now!”, he says. We laugh at the ridiculousness of it. We recount old days, pity the youth, and we part feeling better.

Walking in the shadows of ghosts fills me with hope, and pride. There is Kavanagh by the canal, Wilde overlooking the square, Burke’s and Goldsmith’s ruminations, and O’Connell’s firm gaze.

I inhale deeply, sucking as much of Dublin into me as I can. The cool night air refreshes me. If I could bottle some of this jovial old city and carry it with me through the out door I would never fear leaving. I would sup it eternally, and tell stories to make other souls green with envy.

Part of me I’ll leave here, in these living stones. I helped with this, I built that. I ate here, I studied there. My first job was over there, and I met my wife over here. We kissed for the first time over there, under the orange lamp glow.

Rubbing my hands off chalky old walls, the grit comes off easy. Renewal comes naturally to brick and mortar. I am not of a thousand layers; my layer is one, and it is now cracked and frail. But my soul remains whole, and unfettered. On it will glide towards its next destination, never forgetting home.

Solitude

Sitting on cold, damp earth, listening to leaves rustle, whispering wave sounds. Air smelling of fresh dirt and forest damp, and cold wind blowing past and through me, sending shivers up and down my body. Eyes closed. Inhaling. Exhaling. Place hands on top of crossed legs. Inhaling. Exhaling. And again. Slowly forget myself, and transient trifles. Forget body, free mind. Hear everything. Leaves’ rustle, rabbit’s sprint, wind crashing on the bark of oak trees. World peels back, only light in mind. Fall into it. Find warmth there. Forgotten memories. Faces. More. Spending time with them; they talk back, smiling. They never left.