Wednesday, 20 July 2016

Book Review - Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

Book Review

Title: Ready Player One

Author: Ernest "Ernie" Cline

Published: 2011

Rating: 90/100

Ready Player One


(Adapted From Goodreads)

Ready Player One (RPO) is an action adventure that explores the scary prospect of a dystopian future where everyone is obsessively connected to one giant virtual reality world called the OASIS. It centers on a young and geeky protagonist named Wade Watts who enters the world to solve a complex treasure hunt based on pop culture references.

To kick this review off, I have to say that RPO is one of best books I've read in years.

As a hardcore gamer and movie buff who was born in '84, it felt almost as if Cline wrote this book just for me. I finished RPO in less than a week and could literally not stop thinking about it the entire time I was reading it. Everything else in my life became secondary to reaching RPO's epic final chapter. Upon it's completion, I found myself telling everyone I knew about it and pestering them to start reading it. It's just that damn good!

While I usually offer up a bit of critical analysis about the author's writing, I cannot fault Cline's work in any way. Other critics might tell you that Cline over-explains everything, relies too heavily on pop culture references and, in doing so, lacks original thought... but to those critics I say "Have you forgotten how to have fun?" At it's core, RPO is supposed to be fun; the kind of fun you have as an adult when you rifle through your box of childhood toys and reminisce about the good times. It's the literary equivalent of jumping in Doc Brown's Delorean and heading back to the 80s. Cline HAS to over-explain the references for the sake of readers who were either not from that era or, quite simply, aren't geeks like me. He HAS to rely on references because that's what RPO is - it's a narrative that is held up by pop culture references like pegs. The way Cline weaves the references into the narrative is the main reason why I love this book and it's probably the reason why Spielberg fell in love with it and decided to make it into a movie.

Many of Cline's pop culture references are ones that only a a true 'gamer geek' will understand. To me, these felt like inside jokes and every time Cline cracked one, a smile spread across my face and I'd nod like "I see what you did there". To illustrate this, my favourite reference was: 'MTFBWYA'. If you can't work that acronym out by yourself in less than a few seconds without using Google, you probably won't enjoy RPO as much as I did.

Overall, it's no wonder Spielberg has picked this up as his next blockbuster movie. RPO is a ridiculous amount of fun and, if you're an adult, it'll make you feel like a kid again.

Who should read this book?
Anyone born in the 80s, freaks, geeks and gamers.

- Chris Gander

Tuesday, 12 July 2016

Book Review - Darknet by Matthew Mather

Book Review

Title: Darknet

Author: Matthew Mather

Published: 2015

Rating: 55/100


(Adapted From Goodreads)

I'm a huge fan of Mather's work and find him to be a brilliant science fiction writer. His science and knowledge on key topics is spot on, interesting and really drives the story. CyberStorm is one of the best books I've read over the last few years, so I had really high expectations coming into Darknet. Sadly, Darknet didn't exactly live up to those expectations.

Darknet's major flaw is its pacing. I struggled to get through the first 100 pages. It took me over 3 weeks to slug through - compared to me finishing 'Ready Player One' within 7 days. Darknet only seems to pick up and grab your attention when the protagonist ventures outwards and embarks on an "adventure".

Once the pace kicks in, the middle of Darknet is fantastic. I found myself feverishly turning pages and actually caring about the characters. I couldn't wait to see what happens next. I also began paying closer attention to the science behind the story. At this point, the science had me so intrigued I was searching Google to learn more.

Then, sadly, the end of Darknet falls flat, with a climax that fizzles out with a weak sputter, as opposed to going out with a loud bang. It's very hard to write a book where the major "villain" is a computer system with no human attributes, making it almost impossible to care about.

Overall, I can still say I enjoyed the book and would highly recommend it to any fan of true reality-based science fiction. Just don't expect a high octane roller coaster.

Who should read this book?
Anyone interested in artificial intelligence and the stock market.

- Chris Gander

Sunday, 3 July 2016

Book Review - The Circle by Dave Eggers

Book Review

Title: The Circle

Author: Dave Eggers

Published: 2013

Rating: 65/100


(Adapted From Goodreads)

The Circle is a thought-provoking and cautionary tale about privacy issues that reads like it was written by my father, a man who is constantly saying that companies like Facebook and Google are ruining the very fabric of society.

As someone who lives on social media, wears a FitBit 24/7 and is obsessed with tracking everything, The Circle (TC) made me momentarily feel like an idiot... and I think that was Dave's goal when he wrote TC. While reading I found myself questioning my usage of social media on a daily basis. I found myself asking 'What's the point of all this?', 'Does anyone really give a crap about what I ate for lunch?' and 'Should I be doing something else with my time?'.

Did Eggers hit home enough to make me delete my Facebook account? No. Was TC powerful enough to make me tear off my FitBit and smash it against a wall? No. Will I stop being so "transparent"? No. However, Eggers definitely planted a seed in my mind that might grow and fester into something months, maybe years, from now.

I really wanted to love TC and I appreciate what Eggers was trying to do, i.e. take 1984 and make it digestible for a new audience of millennials who take selfies and are obsessed with numbers...
 but it's hard to love a book when it's protagonist is a naive, boring, cowardly, empty and mindless shell of a person who appears to just nod and agree to everything.

Mae Holland is a drone, and not the cool kind either. She is so frustrating you wish you could reach through the pages and choke the life out of her. Eggers spends way too much time in her head and it's a head that nobody wants to be in. Eggers should have given us insight into his more interesting characters: Annie, Kalden and Mercer. I just hope that when the movie comes out Emma Watson is able to do more with the Mae character and give her a few extra layers.

Overall, TC was a good read and it did make me briefly reassess my life, but it's also instantly forgettable and you won't remember any of the character's names a week after reading it.

Don't get me wrong, TC is an important book because of the crazy world we live in today, and I'm positive it'll make for a very interesting movie when James Ponsoldt finally finishes it, but it also felt very light. Eggers could have taken this incredible basis for a novel and dived way deeper with it. He could have taken it to depths so dark that it may have been successful in motivating me to start avoiding social media like the plague and actually caring more about my privacy settings.

Who should read this book?
Anyone who thinks they might be a bit too dependent on social media and technology.

- Chris Gander

Wednesday, 29 June 2016

Book Review - A Calculated Life by Anne Charnock

Book Review

Title: A Calculated Life

Author: Anne Charnock

Published: 2013

Rating: 60/100


There's a lot to love about A Calculated Life (ACL)... but there's also a lot to hate. As a big fan of sci-fi, I absolutely loved the futuristic dystopian world in which the book is set. I found the way in which the "simulants" had integrated into regular life to be a very interesting concept and when Charnock is elaborating on this, ACL really grabs you. As I was reading I began picturing a more picturesque version of the city in Blade Runner- one of my favourite books/movies of all time.

I loved reading the interactions between Jayna and human characters and enjoyed the internal conflict these interactions created within "her". My favourite chapter was the one in which Jayna visits with her boss's family and interacts with his wife and the kids. I found myself picturing the scene and smiling, as if I was 'The Constructor' watching my greatest accomplishment blend in so effortlessly with humans. This chapter had the perfect blend of dialogue and actions, without so much unnecessary explanation.

With that said, I wasn't a big fan of the novel's pacing. I found it to be quite draining to read in parts and, as a result, had to read it in small chunks (30 mins max). The novel took me over 3 weeks to finish and there were numerous times when I almost gave up. ACL is definitely not a sci-fi page turner and if you're looking for a novel that will leave you on the edge of your seat, this is certainly not it. I also found the book ended rather abruptly. In the final few chapters I was finally starting to really get into it and I found myself really wanting to know if Jayna's plan would succeed or fail. Then, without much warning, the book unexpectedly finishes with an absolute fizzer ending, leaving me feeling like I had just wasted my time.

However, with that said, I do think Charnock achieved her goal - which was to write a novel that explored the relationship between "bionics" and "organics" (humans), i.e. the struggle that would exist if both had to co-exist in society. In doing so, she made me (the reader and a human) actually care about the fate of Jayna's character (a bionic). Charnock succeeds here because, as a reader, there were moments when I actually forgot Jayna was a bionic and I found myself caring about her as if she was a human character. As a writer, I take my hat off to Charnock for pulling this off.

Who should read this book?
Anyone who loves real sci-fi movies like Blade Runner and Ex Machina.

- Chris Gander

Friday, 20 November 2015

Recipe: Hummus Mediterranean Summer Pizza (Clean Eating, Sugar Free)

Easy & Healthy Pizza Recipe

Hummus Mediterranean Summer Pizza

Suitable for those doing clean eating or sugar free diets!

Ingredients (SERVES 2 ADULTS)

  • 1 x Large Sugar Free Thin Pizza Base - Either buy one from the store (or the base with the least amount of sugar) or make this whole wheat pizza base.
  • 3 x Tbsp Hummus - Either buy some from the store or make this sugar free hummus from scratch.
  • 1 x Baby Cucumber - Wash & cut into thin slivers. If you can't find baby cucumber, just use half a regular sized Lebanese cucumber.
  • 1 x Cup of Spinach Leaves - Washed.
  • ½ x Avocado - Cut into thin slivers or just very small portions.
  • 8 x Cherry Tomatoes - Wash & cut into 4 quarters each.
  • ½ x Lemon - Cut into 2 pieces.
  • 1 x Small Block of Feta Cheese - Crumbled.
  • Salt & Pepper - To taste.
  • Chili Flakes - Optional.

Method (10 mins prep, 10 mins cook)

  1. Cover the pizza base in hummus and put it in the oven on 180° for around 8 minutes.
  2. While the pizza is baking, prepare all of the other ingredients and have them ready.
  3. Pull the pizza base out of the oven and sprinkle a pinch of chili flakes across it.
  4. Toppings - Cover the pizza base in a layer of spinach leaves. Then add the cherry tomatoes, cucumber and avocado. Crumble the feta over the top generously. Add salt and pepper to your taste.
  5. Serve - Serve the pizza with a quarter of lemon for each person to squeeze on themselves.

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Recipe: Salt & Pepper Calamari + Mango Summer Salad (Clean Eating, Sugar Free)

Easy & Healthy Salad Recipe

Salt & Pepper Calamari + Mango Summer Salad

Suitable for those doing clean eating or sugar free diets!

Ingredients (SERVES 2 ADULTS)

  • Salt & Pepper Calamari (about 10-12 pieces) - Either buy a packet from the store already made or make your own. If making your own, follow this easy and healthy recipe.
  • 1 Large Mango - Cut into small pieces.
  • Mixed Salad Leaves (about 80g worth) - Swap this out for spinach or rocket if you so please.
  • 1 Lebanese Cucumber - Wash & cut into small pieces.
  • 1 Celery Stick - Wash & cut into small pieces.
  • 1 Small Birds-Eye Chili - Optional. Wash & dice up finely.
  • 1 Small Green Capsicum - Wash & cut into small pieces.
  • 8 Cherry Tomatoes - Wash & cut into 4 quarters each.
  • 1 Lemon - Cut into 4 large wedges.
  • Olive Oil - Optional. Ideally use lemon-infused olive oil.

Method (10 mins prep, 10 mins cook)

  1. Prepare all of the ingredients.
  2. Grab a large salad bowl and add the salad leaves, mango, cucumber, celery, chili, capsicum and cherry tomatoes. Don't mix it yet.
  3. Pan fry the calamari until it's a light golden brown colour on both sides (ideally use a stone pan that doesn't require oil or add a bit of olive oil to a regular pan before frying). Then turn the pan off and let the calamari cool for 2 minutes. Finally, tip the calamari into the salad bowl.
  4. Dressing - Drizzle a small amount of lemon-infused olive oil over the top of the salad. Top it off by squeezing 2 of the lemon wedges over the salad.
  5. Serve - Mix all of the ingredients together using salad spoons. Serve with 1 lemon wedge on the side. Enjoy!

Thursday, 4 July 2013

5 Games That Define My Childhood

I've been a gamer all my life. My earliest childhood gaming memory involves me deftly leaping over crocodile infested waters in the first true 2D platformer 'Pitfall', which went on to be the 2nd biggest selling game on the Atari console (4 million); second only to the legendary Pac-Man. Other memories involve me standing behind my cousin and watching in awe as he commanded an army of 'Lemmings' on his PC, spending all my pocket money playing the 'Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles' arcade machine with friends and spending countless hours bonding with my father as we played 'A Boy and his Blob' together on NES. It's these memories and more that make me smile when I reflect back on my younger years.

Games have always been a big part of my life and now the simple mention of a specific title can instantly evoke a number of nostalgic memories, all hinged on strong emotions. It's powerful stuff, even more powerful than other forms of media. Sure I remember dancing on my bed and trying to imitate Michael Jackson whilst watching him tear up the screen in the 'Black or White' music video and I will never forget the time I saw 'Jurassic Park' with my Dad at the movies.... but games... I hold them high, higher than everything else. You form a bond with games... a bond that is personal and unique. This is because everyone plays games their own way. You choose a path, go on a journey and come out with your own story to tell.

With that said, inspired by Mark Serrels from Kotaku, here is a list of 5 games that define my childhood...

1. Resident Evil 2 (Playstation)

I like to think of myself as a daredevil. As a child, I wasn't scared of anything. I grew up as a seemingly invincible kid. I would get injured every second week and my hospital file is now referred to by my parents as a tome. The first time I can legitimately say I felt true fear was when I played Resident Evil 2 in Big W. I remember gripping the controller with sweaty palms and looking around the store nervously, hoping nobody could tell that I was freaking out (and hoping staff wouldn't kick me off for breaking the 15 min time limit). From that point on, I was hooked. The adrenalin rush of opening a door and fearing the next room would contain flesh-eating zombies was addictive as hell. No game had ever made me feel like that before. 'Survival Horror' has been my favourite gaming genre ever since and I can honestly say that no game has ever even come close to toppling it from the pedestal I've put it on. I hope blood and gore splatters across my screen until I'm old and senile enough to resemble one of the zombies I so love to kill... with deadly accurate head shots.

2. All  4 Wrestling Games (Nintendo 64)

World Tour, Revenge, Wrestlemania 2000 & No Mercy

I have to group them because in my mind they all blend together to form a huge chunk of my childhood. Collectively, they were the games that inspired a young Goose to perform many stupid backyard maneuvers, like leaping off the fence into a pool whilst doing Eddie Guerrero's Frog Splash and trying to Rock Bottom a friend through a folding table. I would spend countless hours button mashing with my best mate in what can only be described as some of the most epic and brutal multiplayer encounters I've ever had the pleasure of experiencing. Winning one of these matches was like winning the Heavyweight Championship. I'd get up and prance around the room, taunting an invisible crowd and elevating myself to greatness. To do this day I've never had a more satisfying gaming "win". While I'm admittedly no longer a massive fan of wrestling, there are still remnants of a boy who once dreamed of being a wrestler residing somewhere deep in my psyche. One day, when someone really tests my patience, there's a Stone Cold Stunner just waiting to happen.

3. NBA Jam (Arcade & Sega Genesis)

Young Goose could never play basketball. He was too short and uncoordinated... and nothing has changed. What he could do (and still can do) was annihilate anyone and everyone in NBA Jam. That may sound cocky and arrogant, and it is, but I wouldn't make such a bold statement if it wasn't true. You see, I'm the first person to admit when I suck at a game. I will forever be a certifiable noob when it comes to hardcore shooters like COD and football games like FIFA. However, give me some Jam and I'll spread your remains all over the shiny court. NBA Jam was the first game that made me legitimately feel like a gaming God, and that felt bloody good. I loved this game so much my parents went out and bought me a real basketball ring, not knowing that I absolutely sucked at the real thing and felt like a complete loser when I tried to play. Somewhere along the line I was given a mini-basketball ring that I put up outside, near my dog's kennel. I would shoot hoops and jam that thing to oblivion; all to the delight of my dog Snowy, who would look at me strangely whenever I'd shout 'Boomshakalaka' at the top of my lungs...."Is it the shoes?"

4. Diablo & Diablo 2 (PC)

That frustratingly hard-to-kill, red-skinned and horned abomination of gaming has taken up more hours of my life than any other game. Who ever thought clicking a mouse over and over again like a drone would be so much fun? Diablo holds a special place in my heart. It made me fall in love with how games are crafted. It made me realise that games are an art form. Diablo also used to make my old high-school IT teacher (Mr. Ellis) scream out in uncontrollable fits of rage... which, in my mind, made him look like a real-life "end-of-level boss". For a couple of years at least, our IT class consisted solely of playing Diablo and Quake. Which is why it still baffles me that I managed to come 1st in the class every year! We would play secret LAN games behind the teacher's back, giggling every time he nearly caught us and softly swearing every time we got killed (remember the ears?). Diablo was also the first game that hooked me like a drug. Prior to Diablo, games were just mindless fun you played here and there. Diablo consumed me and haunted every waking moment of my life. Parents, school and friends were just obstacles in the way of me finding more loot in Diablo's many realms (long live the cows). Yes... Diablo basically ruined my life. Thank you Blizzard.

 5. Battletoads (NES)

There are two words that strike fear in the heart of every true gamer... "Turbo Tunnel". Battletoads is, without a doubt, one of the toughest games of all time and represents the relentless grind that all gamers go through when finishing a level becomes your only goal... when the primal human needs for eating food and going to the bathroom evaporate and the only thing you can focus on is getting to that next level or reaching that elusive checkpoint. I don't think I ever even finished Battletoads. Has anyone? Seriously. I remember spending countless afternoons after school hiking up to my friend's house to play Battletoads with him and his brother. All 3 of us would sit in front of his TV for hours, while his Mum delivered us a constant stream of nourishment. It was like going to work. It was like a job. This could have been the end of my gaming days. Battletoads could have left a sour taste in my mouth for gaming... but it didn't. Like sucking on a sour warhead, getting past the game's brutal exterior was all part of the fun. Battletoads taught me that games are better when they are equal parts fun and challenging, which is why I only ever play games on 'Hard' these days.