Julia at All Things Urban Fantasy has posted the first professional review of Geekomancy (as in not from a blurbing author, family, etc.)
I met Leanna this spring at a party during BEA, and was excited to read her YA debut Darker Still: A Tale of Magic Most Foul.
Here’s the setup (from the book’s page on goodreads.com):
New York City, 1882. Seventeen-year-old Natalie Stewart’s latest obsession is a painting of the handsome British Lord Denbury. Something in his striking blue eyes calls to her. As his incredibly life-like gaze seems to follow her, Natalie gets the uneasy feeling that details of the painting keep changing…
Jonathan Denbury’s soul is trapped in the gilded painting by dark magic while his possessed body commits unspeakable crimes in the city slums. He must lure Natalie into the painting, for only together can they reverse the curse and free his damaged soul.
Gothic literature is not really my wheelhouse in what I prefer for my reading, but I do appreciate a well-told moody tale. Darker Still bears the gothic legacy, but is, for me, brighter and more optimistic than many gothic horror stories I’ve known. I’d classify this as YA Historical Fantasy rather than horror, though there are some solidly spooky bits.
The story moves along at a good pace, and the main character, Natalie, is well-done for me, yearning for a way to connect more effectively with the world despite her psychosomatic mutism that developed after the death of her mother years ago when Natalie was only four. The romance plot develops fairly well, with the external threat providing intensity that fuels the rapid development of their relationship.
My main complaints with the novel come from characters other than Natalie. In my reading, I found the love interest Lord Denbury too perfect by half. He’s a Magic Shiny Perfect Gorgeous Rich Boyfriend. His only faults are external and situational, rather than being character defects. He’s stuck in a portrait, and that’s a big obstacle that he and Natalie spend the book fighting, but I find it hard to connect with a character who is only ever described as wonderful and awesome. He’s generous, compassionate, progressive, and courageous. Since the book is told in epistolary form through Natalie’s POV, I get that she focuses on his positive aspects, but I was waiting for him to show something less than perfection. He slips from Total Perfection only once, and it is explained away by the narrator very quickly, rather than lingered on with any doubt.
Natalie’s main donor figure/mentor in the book, Mrs. Northe, is shown with some hubris and flaw, but she is wholly supportive of Natalie at all points — this is a recurring feature I’ve seen in many YA novels — the presence of totally and unquestioningly supportive adults who enable the teen heroes to pursue their goals. If done well, I don’t tend to mind, but I’ve seen that archetype appear enough to be notable. The story is never theirs, it’s always the teen hero’s story, so they just play through being an Awesome Donor Figure. The only time it annoys me is if the Awesome Donor Figure seems to be unrealistically supportive and/or without fault or personal agenda. Everyone has their own goals, and if the character is always uncomplicatedly useful, I think it can detract from the hero’s journey (and Hero’s Journey, since I’m talking about Donor Figures). I think Mrs. Northe stays on the rounded side of annoying for me, but she is suspiciously Always Supportive of a girl she’s just met, which makes me hope there will be some complications in future books that show her agenda as not always lining up with Natalie’s own.
Overall, I found Darker Still to be well-paced, finely written, and satisfactory even while being not my usual cup of tea in fantasy. It’s well set up for sequels, and I hope to see more roundness of character from Lord Denbury in the sequels. I’d definitely recommend it to teen readers looking for something with cool historical bits, or for fans of Wilde’s A Portrait of Dorian Gray, which provides a fair bit of the conceptual DNA of the book’s magical portrait.
One of my recent reads was Noise, by Darin Bradley. This book got lots and lots of buzz when it came out (at least online), but it wasn’t until last month I picked it up, as my original response was ‘that sounds like I’d hate it.’
Turns out that response was correct, just not in the way I’d expected.
The book is all filtered through the perspective of one disaffected youth, with his life-long BFF at his side. These guys grew up playing D&D, playing boffer swordfighting, and learning survival skills in scouts. So when the digital changeover leaves a gap of frequencies that pirate broadcasters hijack to share their apocalyptic warnings, the boys listen. They start planning, preparing, assembling their own ‘how to survive the apocalypse’ manual, a manual that assumes violence. Not just violence to survive, but lots of violence, as a primary tool of obtaining what you want.
Noise is a book about the ways that personal mythology can be used to completely transform your thinking, and how cultural narratives and groupthink can be used to justify all sorts of horrible acts.
The book is far easier to understand just by reading it. I found that as much as I deplored what was going on in the book, it was compellingly told, and I could imagine that there would be no small number of people who, in the event of a collapse as described (sketchily, I’ll add — either viewable as a bug in the book or a feature if you think that the main character doesn’t really care about the collapse, just the response), would go off the deep end like that.
It’s not an easy book to read, and it is not a clear condemnation or valorization of geeks, boy scouts, or anarchists. It is, instead, a fascinating character study of how a pair of suburban boys try to transform themselves into the kind of people who can survive and thrive in an apocalypse and post-collapse world.
I think my life has just been changed by a book again. The last book that blew my mind this much was Henry Jenkins‘ Convergence Culture. I’m not counting novels right now, because fiction and non-fiction blow my mind in such different ways. This kind of mind-blowing is the one that is potentially career-changing (I want a career as a writer, but other careers along the way might be useful to pay the bills). More organized thoughts may come later, but right now I want to share my enthusiasm and talk briefly about some exciting things.
The author of Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better And How They Can Change The World is Jane McGonigal, whom you might know from her TED Talk:
Reality is Broken is a continuation of the thread of logic that McGonigal puts forward in the TED talk and in support of her biggest dream: she wants to see a game designer win the Nobel Prize for Peace by 2032.
The book is a concerted effort to take a reader through many of the corners of game design and to show off each area’s lessons, and presents a paradigm which enables every person on earth to participate in saving the planet and the human race: Games. Gamers, she says, are humanity’s secret weapon in our struggle to survive, thrive, and protect our planet.
Disclaimer: I’m a life-long gamer. Some of my earliest memories are playing computer games on my dad’s lap, as we pushed our Commodore Amiga to its limits with games like Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Land of the Rising Sun, and more. I started playing D&D when I was eight, Magic: the Gathering when I was 11, and so on. I was too young to be a part of the first video-gamer generation, but I am totally a representative of the 2nd-gen gamer. From what I can tell, this book is written in no small part to people like me, lifelong gamers, as an inspiration and challenge to go out in the world and turn our gaming experience to achieve Epic Social Win. And for this gamer, the inspiration has certainly been successful.
It’s actually somewhat difficult for me to talk about this book, for several reasons. For one, it’s got a crapton of material and ideas contained within. McGonigal puts forward fourteen ‘fixes’ for reality based on various ways that gaming is superior to reality in letting us be more optimistic, more connected, more engaged and so on.
Here’s Fix#1, from p.22:
“Fix #1: Unnecessary Obstacles
Compared with games, reality is too easy. Games challenge us with voluntary obstacles and help us put our personal strengths to better use”
The idea here is that adding an unnecessary obstacle to a chore or job lets you take it from a chore, a burden, and turn it into a game with a challenge. I have dirty dishes, and they should be cleaned. I hate washing dishes, unless I add something to the task. If I challenge myself to do the dishes while dancing to my favorite music, or to do the dishes using the least water possible, filling a bowl and cleaning everything out of that one bowl of soapy water, or something in that mode, I take control of the task again — I’m doing dishes, because they have to be done, but I’m doing more than just the dishes — I’m playing a game and the result of that game is both 1) clean dishes and 2) A happier Mike (having played a game, set myself a voluntary obstacle and met it).
McGonigal talks a lot about positive psychology/happiness psychology, looking at the ways that we think we can achieve happiness vs. the ways that current science thinks we actually achieve happiness. Unsurprisingly (since she mentions it), games, especially social games that involve touch, are great for happiness. I found this section one of the most illuminating, since it covered an area not of my expertise (My formal psychology experience begins and ends with Psych 101, a class on brain chemistry).
As a game designer, McGonigal seems to approach her world in terms of problems, and ways to make games to solve them. When she was recovering from a concussion in 2009 and unsatisfied with her rate of recovery, she designed a game called SuperBetter to help her take control of her own recovery and restore a sense of power. The game asks the recovering person to conceive of themselves as a superhero, their disease or injury as the supervillain, and to recruit allies to round out your team, identify power-ups which can help in recovery (taking a walk, doing things you love that aren’t effected by the injury/disease, etc) and making a superhero to-do list of things that will let you feel good about yourself, set goals to aspire to (gather enough energy to go out and do X).
SuperBetter let her ‘gamify’ the recovery process, taking control and empowering herself by applying an interpretive framework that cast herself as the heroine, possessed of the motive and means to get better.
There are countless games, designed for various objectives, but they teach us many lessons. These lessons, McGonigal argues, equip us to tackle the world’s largest problems — we can take big big issues like peak oil and gamify them, applying a framework that will inspire, challenge, and enable people to be creative, innovative, and collaborate to find solutions together (the peak oil example comes from the game World Without Oil).
Not just any old game will save the world. But everyday games can still do things like let us feel powerful and accomplished. They can give us a way to stay in touch with friends or family, give an icebreaker for meeting new people, and countless other things.
Games, McGonigal argues, are a central facet of humanity, and one of our greatest tools. Now we just need to take all of the time and energy we’ve put into games, evaluate and acknowledge what it’s taught us, and put those skills to use on social issues, political issues, environmental issues, and more.
If this sounds like your bag, read the book, then consider signing up with gameful.org, a social-network/collaboration tool for game designers working to make ‘gameful‘ games.
Having watched a number of the new shows that debut this fall, here are some thoughts:
My Generation: I was interested in this show in no small part due to the fact that the main characters, nine students from the class of 2000 at an Austin high school, are nearly my age-peers. I graduated in the class of 2001 (we did not play Space Odyssey, I’m sad to say), and am far away from where I thought I would be at that time.
This show takes the mocumentary style and applies it to a drama, where filmmakers followed nine students throughout their senior year, and is now checking in with them ten years later. The characters are introduced with their High School clique labels, such as “The Nerd,” “The Brains,” “The Jock,” etc. and then shown in their current lives, often very far away from where they’d expected to be. Circumstances in the characters’ lives bring many of them back to Austin, re-connecting with those who had never left or already returned.
The pilot clearly set the stakes, established the characters and their current trajectories vs. their self-professed worlds that they had imagined for themselves in 2000. It’s not fantastic, but it’s compelling so far and I’m likely to keep watching for a little while, if for no reason than the degree to which it makes me think about what has been happening in my own life vs. what I expected when I was a senior in HS.
The Event — This is the new The New LOST. The Event uses mosaic-style storytelling, jumping between characters and time frames in a fairly jarring manner, though over the episode, the rhythm became less distracting for me. The focus on Sean Walker (Jason Ritter) in the first episode brings the audience into the middle of The titular Event, balanced with POV sections from President Martinez (played by Blair Underwood — no relation) and others.
For me, much of my level of ongoing interest will depend on the truth of the Mt. Inostranka facility. Who are these people, and how are they connected to The Event? Once we know more about that, it’ll be easier to decide how much I care. There are several options that are yawn-worthy, and some others that could prove quite compelling.
Undercovers — The new sexy spy offering from Alias-creator J.J. Abrams is cute and fun. It’s not fantastic, but it does show a happily-married african-american couple as series leads, which is still noteworthy for network TV. It’s Sexy People Doing Sexy Spy Things, but it’s pretty well-done, and the leads are both gorgeous and likeable. I won’t stay home for this one, but I’ll probably catch up via Hulu every so often.
No Ordinary Family — The Pilot of this one hasn’t actually aired, but I got to watch a preview last month when they had it in limited availability. No Ordinary Family is very nearly a Live Action The Incredibles, with an origin closer to the Fantastic Four, who were an obvious inspiration for the Pixar film.
Michael Chiklis is Jim Powell, police sketch artist and under-appreciated dad. He feels fairly powerless and disconnected from his family, including his Bigwig Scientist Wife, Stephanie Powell (Julie Benz). Their children are Just-Trying-To-Fit-In Daphne (Kay Panabaker) and Undiagnosed Learning Disability Kid Brother JJ (Jimmy Bennett).
Jim convinces the family to take a vacation, which leads to their plane crashing into the Amazon — their trip is ruined, but shortly after their return, the members of the family begin manifesting super-powers. Jim gains incredible strength and toughness, Stephanie gets super-speed, Daphne becomes telepathic and JJ gets a massive intelligence boost.
The show’s formula seems like it will include Jim using his powers and police connections to fight crime while the rest of the family goes about their lives trying to deal with their powers — there are also hints of a larger super-world which will likely play a role as the show goes forward.
Of the new shows this season, I’m probably most excited about No Ordinary Family — it’s fun, doesn’t take itself to seriously, and seems to be respectful of its genre roots.
Hawaii Five-O — The joys of remakes. I didn’t really watch much of the original, as it was mostly before my time. However, the new show keeps what some say is the best part of the original show — the opening theme.
Alex O’Laughlin plays Steve McGarrett, who is brought out of the Middle East and offered a position heading a new state police unit in Hawaii, with no red tape and vast resources, tasked with bringing down TV-worthy criminals across the state.
He crosses paths with Danny “Danno” Williams, a divorced father who moved to Hawaii to be near his daughter (who primarily lives with her mother and step-dad), and also recruits Chin Ho (Daniel Dae Kim), a disgraced cop who worked with McGarrett’s father. Rounding out the cast is Grace Park, playing Chin Ho’s cousin Kona “Kono” Kalakaua, a hotshot rookie policewoman. McGarrett recruits her right out of the academy, as she’d have trouble getting respect in the normal force due to her familial connection to the disgraced Chin Ho.
The exotic locale, nostalgia, and charming cast are likely to be the show’s best assets, at least to begin with. I admit that if the show finds a way to highlight Grace “Boomer” Park’s gorgeousness on a regular basis, that will help by willingness to watch.
Behold, NBC’s intended successor to LOST. It’s tightly-paced, unfolds in a mosaic narrative style, with interlocking character arcs, mysteries abounding, and a plane.
The plane is important. It increases the LOST resonance, and is important in the plot.
Only one episode has premiered, but sofar, I’m intrigued. Go below for Spoiler-ed discussion.
This post will be in two parts — the first part will be a spoiler-free review, the second an essay of in-depth thoughts and reactions based on a complete, spoiler-laden perspective on the film. Be warned.
Previews and trailers for Christopher Nolan’s Inception have been atmospheric, vague, and beautiful. Marketing copy and later trailers give a vague sketch of the plot outline: DiCaprio is the leader of a group of corporate espionage experts who are tasked to implant an idea inside someone’s dreams.
From the preview materials, the formula seemed to be as such:
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind + The Matrix + Dark City. Which had me well-sold right there. The actual result is a science fiction heist movie and psychological thriller, which is even better. I’m a fan of Nolan’s work, especially Memento, The Prestige, and his Batman films.
DiCaprio plays Cobb, a world-class extractor (a thief who goes into people’s dreams and steals their secrets), is part of a crew of dream thieves that include Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, showing good action hero chops), Nash (Lukas Haas) and then later Ariadne (Ellen Page), Eames (Tom Hardy), and Yusef (Dileep Rao), assembling a dream-team (pun-tastic!) to pull off an Inception. Where extraction involves taking information from a dream, Inception is the process of putting an idea into someone’s dream in such a way that the subject thinks the notion is their own — the idea becomes a meme, replicating itself in their subconscious and then filtering back into their conscious thoughts — Inception, while difficult, can make a change substantial enough that it re-defines a person’s life. High stakes? Check.
The film is visually brilliant (the coolest thing for me was the spinning room, which I hear tell was a practical effect with a full rotating set — major awesome), with shifting and crumbling dreamscapes, unrelenting and powerful music from Hans Zimmer, and nuanced performances from the impressive cast.
This is the kind of movie that you need to see unspoiled, then go outside the theatre with your friends and discuss for two hours. And I love those kinds of movies. Inception is my vote for best movie of 2010 (so far).
And now, the spoiler-tastic bits:
China Mieville has been one of my favorite authors for a number of years now. As the figurehead/poster boy for the New Weird, many writers have rallied around Mieville and followed in his footsteps or taken jabs at him. The New Weird was a big deal in the literary end of the SF/F community for several years, and is less popular now, but continues with bits here and there. I’m invested in the New Weird personally, given that I’m about to start shopping a New Weird novel to agents/publishers.
Mieville’s immediate previous novel (The City & The City) was less loudly New Weird and more urban fantasy/crime, but with Kraken, Mieville’s uncontainable imagination and penchant for the grotesque returns in full force.
Kraken starts with unsupecting Billy Harrow, an employee at the Darwin Centre in London who worked extensively with a deceased giant squid. Which means that when the squid (giant container and all) disappears without a trace, people come knocking on his door, including the Cult-crimes-response squad of the police as well as a pair of assassins. In keeping with the well-trod Urban Fantasy structure, Harrow gets pulled into the world of secret London, with all the knackers and movers and shakers behind the scenes.
Mieville’s secondary ideas are better than most any writer in the business, from the Chaos Nazis to Londonmancers (ala Jack Hawksmoor of The Authority) and police-esque ghost constructs summoned up by using tapes of old police procedurals. Mieville has a great facility with these details, great to small, that make the setting breathe and feel endlessly and messily lived-in.
Billy Harrow spends most of the novel on the run as warring factions, including an Animate Tattoo gang-boss, the eternally-neutral Londonmancers, and a Kraken-worshiping cult (which venerated Harrow’s specimen as a God, or at least, a Demi-God) forces move and converge to bring about/avert the apocalypse. Of course, anyone who wants an apocalypse works to make sure that it’s their apocalypse that comes about. No one wants to sideline in another group’s End Times.
The novel shifts easily between perspectives, bringing in other POV characters to convey the story and weave the weird tapestry that is Kraken‘s London. Mieville’s familiarity with/love of London and all its (weird) reality comes through clearly, helping contextualize the incredible craziness that he layers throughout the rest of the book.
Mieville’s language is very advanced, and sometimes challenging. It’s more accessible than in Perdido Street Station, but more obscure than in The City & The City. The baroque language is consistent, however, and usually well-contextualized. It’s just not a novel to hand to an average 15-year-old (an exceptional reader of a 15-year-old may be just fine, however) and it’s not the book to go to for a casual read. The book demands your attention, but if you give it, the book rewards you with unparalleled imagination, strong pacing, and chilling creepiness. (Goss and Subby are, for my buck, one of the creepiest henchmen duos ever).
Disclaimer: this review was written based on my experience reading an ARC, so keep that in mind in case the final version displays any differences.