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Monday, November 30, 2015

Responsibility as an Author

The last of my panels in NerdCon: Stories was "But It's Just a Story: The Moral Responsibility of the Storyteller". As aforementioned, I didn't intend to attend, but I'm glad I did. It brought up a lot of issues that I hadn't considered.
Patrick Rothfuss started the panel with an anecdote about reading The Hobbit to his son. It starts quite dully with Gandalf and Bilbo having a conversation.  Then the dwarves arrive, one by one, and more discussions and negotiations ensue. Nothing magical happens -- except for one thing, Bilbo and Gandalf sit outside blowing smoke rings, competing with each other. And so, as impressionable young ones are want to do, Rothfuss's little one starts walking around the house with a stick in his mouth. And he says "it's my smoker".

Now, IMHO, I think this is a bad case study. First, I think five is too young to read The Hobbit. Frankly, I'm not even sure I could get through it now. But this was written in 1937. Smoking was considered healthy back then. Doctors recommended smoking for your "T-zone" -- that's T for taste and T for throat. Fred and Barney smoked, Joe Camel -- coolest guy in the room -- smoked. So you can hardly blame Tolkien -- he was a product of his time.

Surely, like me, you've noticed more kerfuffles on the Internet related to representation or anti-SJWs -- cyberbullying, Go Set a Watchman racism, "Stargate: Universe" disability/sexuality switching, Sad Puppies, various RaceFails, GamerGate, and so on. This is because we are in a state of change. The generation that grew up with women in the kitchen are dying off and scared (hence the big political polarization as well) and kids whose best friends growing up became gay are gaining power.

But that doesn't mean we aren't out of the woods. Rothfuss mentioned a book he'd read that involved a setting where women were criminalized for practicing magic. If this was a plot point it wouldn't be so bad. But it wasn't -- it was just part of the environment. And the obvious implication is that women are second-class citizens. They are disallowed from something purely because of their sex. And this was a current book, which surprised me. How did this sort of antiquated idea get past the editors? Why would they think this would fly?

So based on the impressionability of kids and the fact that there's still a big chunk of evil out there, do authors have a moral responsibility to their audience? Well, I'd be the last person to prevent someone from writing what they want. If you want to write a story where KKK members rule the world and it's five hundred pages of beating black men, fine. Write your wish fulfillment. But good luck selling it. 

And then there's the self-published erotica writing. Everyone has a fetish and these new avenues are allowing people to find outlets for them.  I think that's a good thing. Anything that makes people feel less alone is good. Now these works contain very objectionable material -- lots of rape, incest, bestiality, and other things medieval and Roman people did. But it's the "Fade to Black" effect. When Metallica released "Fade to Black" as a single, radio stations didn't want to play it, afraid it would drive kids to suicide. But it had the opposite effect. People contemplating suicide said how the song made them feel better, like it expressed the feelings they couldn't.

But there are also those works that are "culturally poisonous", like the aforementioned "women can't do magic because they're women" book. Not even Troma films are that bad. I think it comes from standards and norms that are in the midst of change, like feminism. Not everyone agrees what is "culturally poisonous" (obviously). Perhaps that's why things get past the radar. And no one is invulnerable either, even minorities. Nalo Hopkinson, a Jamaican, said she had written most of a novel before she realized her setting was an island of "magical negroes".

It's inevitable that we're going to write about fringe people or horrific events or triggers. For one, it makes for damn exciting stuff. For another, it's the suffering that makes characters. But I think, if you're going to write about that stuff, you better make damn sure it fits the characters. That they act plausibly both before and after. That it's not for titillation or shock. Too often characters rise from one-dimensional backstories like abusive parents, attempted rape/rape as drama, boarding school of horrors, domestic abuse, dysfunctional families, alcoholism, bullies, police oppression... basically anything you see in a soap opera or teen drama.

But someone in the panel said "An author's responsibility is how many types of experience I can show, not which ones I shouldn't." John Green says the purpose of books is to help us "imagine people complexly". Because, true as some stereotypes may be, there is always more than that. And damn if books haven't shown me that truth. Especially YA books.

I know this is one of my concerns when writing, especially regarding women and gender. They typically get the short end of the stick in representation (see The Bechdel Test) and the three most important people in my life are them. I've been guilty of giving them the short shrift in my own early writing, used them as rewards or the goal to be obtained.

Of course, I think in some stories, representation is just not on the table. I'm writing a Disney-esque fairy tale in a Germany/Norway/Denmark setting in the 18th century. That is the whitest place on Earth. Transgender has no place there. You got executed for that kind of thing. If you're writing historical, you can misrepresent the setting if you include races and genders that simply weren't there. Otherwise you get Black Vikings.

The final word: It's the job of the story to create empathy. Stories are our building blocks. We are made of stories and culture is made of us.  Use bombs wisely.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Explaining the Holocaust to My Daughter

So I'd like to thank my wife for cleaning out all her history teaching stuff today, which prompted this question at dinner.

"Dad, what is the Holocaust?"

If there ever was an example of passing the buck. But far be it from me to deny my children knowledge. I am a story-teller. I should be able to compose for an audience. Obscuring complex, tragic events from history just does a disservice.

Okay, so do you know what World War II is?


Okay, do you know who Hitler was?

Not really.

Okay. Hitler was the "president" of Germany. And he was an evil president. And he wanted to get rid of all the Jews in his country and surrounding countries.

What are Jews?

Jews are... Jewish people. Like you guys are Catholic, there are other people who are Jewish. Do you know any Jewish people? (frantically searches on phone for Jewish characters in media they'd know. Find NO ONE. Realize how important diversity is in stories. The best I get is Krusty the Clown and Magneto, neither of which work.) Anyway, he wanted to get rid of all the Jews, so he gathered them all up and sent them to places called concentration camps and many of them died and that was the Holocaust.

P.S. Additional tidbit brought on this teaching material purge. I will be playing the part of Dad here.

Seven-year-old daughter: "And we got Mom gave us a Civil War Trivia Book."
Me: (with a smile) "Have you gotten any of the answers right?"
Seven-year-old daughter: (also with a smile) "No."
Me: "Do you know what the Civil War even is?"
Seven-year-old daughter: "Yeah, it's when America fought South America."

Monday, November 09, 2015

Analyzing the Disney Villains: Yzma (The Emperor's New Groove)

Origin: The Emperor's New Groove (2000)

I really don't want to do this one. The whole movie is a radical departure from the golden fairy tale or epic quest of derring-do. This feels more like a long Saturday Morning cartoon. Even the art style feels cheaper. I'll give Disney props for taking risks, but this one just doesn't click. Given all the production issues present, I'm not surprised.

Motivation: Well, at least I can give credit for providing the main character motivation within the piece. Usually, the villain's instantiating incident happens before the movie. But the story is short enough as it is -- maybe it was just filler. Kuzco fires Yzma as his royal advisor for attempting to usurp his throne. So Yzma immediately carries out her plan to usurp his throne.

Character Strengths: So we've learned that boys make good hunters and girls make good witches. Yzma's magic comes in the form of nondescript bottles that cause transfiguration. Personality-wise, she's more witty than other queenly counterparts and her Eartha Kitt voice rounds out her affable craziness. Kinda like the Joker or Deadpool. Someone who's not sympathetic, but you still enjoy anyway.

Evilness: The above-mentioned plan consists of assassinating Kuzco with some poison. We see the whole "feeding the poison, waiting for him to die" scene too, which seems a little dark for a Disney buddy comedy. But her flunky mixes up the bottles and Kuzco transforms into a llama. So immediately her claim to cruelty is flushed. All we've got here is ambition. Although making those sultry supermodel poses while being "scary beyond all reason" might be grounds for evil.

Tools: Let's face it: all the charm of Yzma comes from Kronk. Without him, there's no movie. He even got his own Direct-To-DVD so you know I'm right. The problem is he's largely incompetent. Slower than sloths swimming through a swamp. He pulls the wrong lever, he fails to procure the correct potion, he doesn't kill the Kuzco-llama when he's supposed to. How long does it take for Yzma to realize how poorly she's hired? And her sorcery is more like alchemy. You never see her do any actual magic, which makes her closer to Jafar (actually, they do look a little alike).

Complement to the Hero: Yzma says that "she practically raised" Kuzco, so we can give a few points for the villain creating the hero and then vice versa. But a throwaway line does not a duo make. And her big move -- turning the hero into a llama because she didn't properly label her bottles -- reeks of amateur hour. The whole plot sounds like a kid's stage play.

Fatal Flaw: She should have taken a lesson from other evil queens and witches -- never delegate your work. Because Kronk's conscience got the better of him, Kuzco can get away. And the chase scene leads to some comedy setpieces, but no serious threat from the queen witch. The hero easily shortcuts to Yzma's "secret lab" (big air-quotes around that one for bad storytelling shortcuts) where she uses her lack of proper labeling to her own advantage. Just bad luck in the end. Her desire for complicated plans doesn't count, because she always realizes easier solutions beforehand. There's nothing wrong with brainstorming.

Method of Defeat/Death: Before Kuzco has a chance to take the anti-llama potion, Yzma topples her cabinet, mixing it among other transfigurationals. Comedy ensues as they keep trying drink after drink, each time with different results, as Yzma and Kronk chase them out the side of the palace. Yzma accidentally turns herself into a cat, but manages to capture the last vial. But she can't open it, and falls 50,000 feet to not-death. Her fate is that she eventually becomes one of the squirrel scouts (still a kitten).

Final Rating: Three stars

Percival C. McLeach (The Rescuers Down Under)
Ichabod Crane (The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad)
Lady Tremaine (Cinderella)
Governor Ratcliffe (Pocahontas)
Pinocchio's Villains (Pinocchio)
Sykes (Oliver and Company)
Alameda Slim (Home on the Range)
Rourke (Atlantis: The Lost Empire)
The Evil Queen (Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs)
Ursula (The Little Mermaid)
Dr. Facilier (The Princess and the Frog)
Gaston (Beauty and the Beast)
Willie the Giant (Mickey and the Beanstalk)
Hades (Hercules)
The Queen of Hearts (Alice in Wonderland)
Jafar (Aladdin)
Shan Yu (Mulan)
Man (Bambi)
Clayton (Tarzan)
The Horned King (The Black Cauldron)
Mother Gothel (Tangled)
Cobra Bubbles (Lilo and Stitch)
Cruella De Vil (101 Dalmatians)
Madame Medusa (The Rescuers)
Captain Hook (Peter Pan)
Amos Slade (The Fox and the Hound)
Madam Mim (The Sword in the Stone)
Claude Frollo (The Hunchback of Notre Dame)
Scar (The Lion King)
Prince John (Robin Hood)
Edgar (The Aristocats)
Ratigan (The Great Mouse Detective)
Maleficent (Sleeping Beauty)

Friday, November 06, 2015

What You Never Knew About Peanuts

To celebrate the premiere of the Peanuts movie, let's take a look at some of the lesser known facts of this fantastic piece of Americana.

Charlie Brown Is Not Bald

All the color productions of Peanuts comic depict Charlie Brown with no hair. The top of his head is the same color as his face. All he's got is that weird squiggle on his forehead that becomes a fish hook if he turns to his side.

But in actuality, Charlie Brown is "tow-headed" which means he has very light, very fine, short-cropped hair. (His dad is a barber after all.) There's a strip somewhere where Charlie Brown wins something (for, like, the first time), but it's a certificate for a free haircut. He says "But my dad is a barber! And I don't have much hair to cut!" Note, he doesn't say "I don't have any hair to cut".

There Are Two Patties

I remember having a big argument on the bus in high school about this, and had to bring in my big ol' Peanuts Treasury book to prove to them. Self-satisfaction: 1 Friends: 0.

Before Peppermint Patty, there was just Patty. She's the girl with the orange dress, short brown hair, and orange butterfly clip. Often seen with Violet, she's one of Charlie Brown's biggest adversaries and token extra girl for when they need someone bitchy, but not Lucy-bitchy.

I guess that's why Peppermint Patty has the clarifying adjective, even though she's more distinguished. My question is -- why not just call her something else? Plus, her "peppermint" nature is never explained as part of her character.

Lucy Started As a Baby

Lucy's premieres as a baby in a crib. Schulz based her on his own daughter at the time, who was the real-life "fuss-budget". However, at this time, Charlie Brown is his normal age. So somehow, Lucy grows to become everyone's peer, maybe even older, while Shermy and Snoopy remain unchanged. Does everyone stop growing at a certain age, like in that Star Trek episode? Is there something in the water there?

Moreover, Linus and Sally both start out as babies too. I particularly remember that Charlie Brown resents Sally because he has to take care of his baby sister while his team plays baseball without him (and inevitably wins). Then weirdly, Sally grows and becomes Linus's peer. Some serious cradle-robbing in this comic. I wonder if they'll ever make a Peanuts: All Grown Up, like with Rugrats.

The Fourth Panel Formula

Not sure if this is so much a feature as a criticism. Peanuts is a simplistic strip that rarely deviates from the four panel format: three panels of setup, then the punchline. But some have discovered that reading just the first three panels showcases a the existential ennui of Charles Schulz. I mean, yeah, a lot of Peanuts' themes have to do with failure, anxiety, unrequited love, and the nature of the universe. But it's a fun parlor game, kinda like "Garfield Minus Garfield".

Snoopy's Other Personas

I knew of the World War I Flying Ace before I knew what World War I was (and I kept getting it confused with World War II, the more popular war). And everyone knows Joe Cool. But some of Snoopy's less famous personas include:
  • the vulture, who would perch on trees and posts, then glower at the various kids (often before falling on them)
  • the Masked Marvel - an arm-wrestling champion, and Snoopy's pro-wrestling inspired sports persona
  • various "world famous" occupations, including: hockey goalie, astronaut, quarterback, skier, surveyor, disco dancer, grocery clerk, and attorney (one of my favorites)
  • Easter Bunny
  • Easter Beagle
  • author
  • the "Head Beagle" (leader of all the beagles)
  • "Blackjack Snoopy", the world famous river boat gambler
  • Flashbeagle, a breakdancer
The Twins in "A Charlie Brown Christmas" Have Identities

One of the most iconic images is the kids dancing when they should be rehearsing.  Maybe because the dances are so weird.  Shermy is doing the Frankenstein, Violet is checking her deodorant, and the Snoopy dance is nigh immortal.  But who are those two girls with the stringy hair bopping their heads hard enough to cause whiplash?  I can't recollect any instance where you ever see these two again.  They've disappeared into the eternal abyss of Charlie Brown's depression.

Unless you do a little research.  Our mystery twins are identified as... 3 and 4.

Wait, what?

Yes, 3 and 4.  Sisters of 5.  Who is 5?  5 is a character you've already seen, but probably don't remember.  His full name is 555 95472, first and last.  His family changed their name into numbers as a response to the "preponderance of numbers in people's lives".  It's all in the comics.  He was a prominent background character throughout Peanuts' prime, but never achieved recognition.  He's a little below Franklin on the totem pole.

In A Charlie Brown Christmas, the kid with the orange shirt doing the "shoulder shrug shuffle" is supposed to be 5, but it looks very little like his comic incarnation.  According to Peanuts Wiki, he's only had three appearances with lines.  He's kinda like Butters in the early seasons of South Park, a utility character.  It's a shame he never got more screen time, he was one of the more likable characters in the strip, as long as he lasted.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Let's Laugh at the Guy Who Doesn't Know Marvel Comics (Part 5)

Ghost Rider

Undead guy. With a chain-whip. Who drives a motorcycle. And his head is a skull. On fire. You'd think this guy would be more popular, but maybe it's just one cool thing too much. He shares some anti-hero elements with the Punisher, but he made a deal with the devil to harvest nasty souls and escaped demons in exchange for... his power, I guess? I've never been all that clear on it. But I do like the idea of being a bounty hunter for Satan.

Green Goblin

I'm sorry, this guy is just too silly to be a main villain/antagonist. I mean, you talk about Batman and Joker, Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader, Gandalf and Sauron. Someone named Green Goblin doesn't sound that much worthy of a rivalry. Between the pumpkin bombs and the elf mask, he's more like a discount Halloween costume. Not Spider-Man's chief rival. Sounds like a cheap Chinese action figure. "Green Goblin - for punch of justice with great congratulations!"


He is Groot.

Gwen Stacy

I like the idea of having more than one strong love interest in a superhero's life. Makes better drama. And it's all the better when there's strong followings for both. Not like Lois Lane or some other cheap throw-in just to add conflict. I don't remember where Gwen Stacy originated in the comics -- in the movies she's either a vehicle for Black Spider-man to make Mary Jane jealous or a high school kid who also works at the world's leading science building. That's like Kevin from Wonder Years working at Boeing.


WTF is this thing? A merchandising attempt? Did the guy who built a space station, flying car, and a prison for superheroes in the Marvel Phantom Zone build... a robosapien. I shudder to think how long it took someone to engineer what technobabble the acronym stands for. Anyway, the cute little robot is useless and I've never heard of him, so let's move on.


Some kind of early X-Man. I'm not sure if he died during the silver age or what. Has the ability to throw telekinetic rings, which means he can punch things from far away. Like a lot of other "B Team" X-Men.


Could be cooler, if better characters didn't have the same powers. I like his look and triple-arrow shot and exploding shot. You can just stand all day and fire arrows. If Age of Ultron brought us anything, at least it gave us acknowledgment of Hawkeye's role, and gave nobility to it. He's the Alfred. He's the reason that the Avengers keep fighting. In this world of scummy weapons traders and hateful politiicans and secret spy societies, there's still something worth fighting for. Before that movie, I would have said Fuck Hawkeye. Now... well, he's still the Ma-Ti ("Heart!") but at least he has a personality.


The bouncer for Midgard, where Thor lives. Has a big axe and big gold armor. Guards the Rainbow Bridge and can see very far. However, given how many times his bridge has gone under invasion, I think Odin's marked two strikes on his personnel record.

Howard the Duck

You know what, I don't care what you think, I liked this movie. At least when I was little (I had the "edited for television" version, so no duck boobs). Watching it now, I can see the pacing is off. But I think the effects were fairly good (for that time), and the live action sold it. I had no idea of Howard the Duck's role in the Marvel universe, so it took some head wrapping to understand his true origins. Nonetheless, I think the idea has a lot of potential, but it needs to distance itself from the other superheroes. Maybe he can partner up with H.E.R.B.I.E.


Big green guy who can transform into a useless guy in a purple shirt when he gets scared and calm. He can throw things, like rocks and doors, and is the only hero who can destroy all life on the planet.  Best pants in the world.

Monday, October 26, 2015

My Daughters and Star Wars

My daughters are 5 and 7. My wife loves Star Wars so they've seen the movie before. They kinda know what happens in it, they know who the characters are, but they don't quite know how they glue together. Now imagine that you're the Dad, who can't open one web page without stepping into a full analysis of why Wicket is the best/worst Ewok.

The result is the five-year-old can't stop asking questions and the seven-year-old gets emotionally distraught because Darth Vader (who is her favorite character for reasons I can't fathom) dies at the end.

You get a frustrated daddy. That's what.

I've got to read all of Jabba the Hutt's subtitles, and then explain why some of his dialogue is subtitled and some of it isn't. How do you clarify director's decisions like that? I don't know, kid -- some of it was self-explanatory, some of it wasn't. Except to you, where EVERYTHING needs explanation.  No, I don't know why he didn't make it consistent. I can't read George Lucas's mind. I wouldn't want to.

And then there's the stupid stuff, like what a trap door is. Or what's in the Sarlaac Pit. And who Jabba the Hutt is ("is he a king?") Explain organized crime to a five-year-old, I dare you.

But while it's a frustrated daddy, it's also a happy daddy. Because while they might not know why they're asking the questions, I know all the answers. I know why the guy is crying over the rancor. I know why Yoda and Obi-Wan disappear instead of leaving a corpse. I know why all the stormtroopers are the same.

And they are INVESTED. I laugh at the melodramatic way that "many Bothans died to bring us this information". They want to raise a flag at half-mast.

The hardest part is character motivations. Thankfully, they've had this question before in the context of Frozen, and I could use that as an example. It's even in the song. People make bad decisions when they're hurt or scared or angry. I never thought I'd be thankful for the prequels and all the crap they pulled. But at least they gave tangibility to Anakin's motivations. It's hard for kids to understand the complicated human experience. I tried to explain Luke's actions by "what if Daddy left and decided to take over the world because he was afraid of you dying?" They didn't get it.

Listen, I've got to confess, I haven't seen Return of the Jedi in years. Maybe the last time I watched it was before college. But it's my favorite of the movies. Maybe because it concludes. Maybe because it's got the most muppets and dynamic set pieces. Maybe I like the Ewoks (my five-year-old certainly does. And why wouldn't she? They're big walking teddy bears.) These are all just ways to introduce young children to Star Wars, but they work. It's got something for everyone.

Watching it again, I get excited about Star Wars. What makes it magical are all the little touches. The cut-aways to Jabba's cackling gremlin pet. The fact that that gremlin has a name, and that name sounds like an Esperanto door-to-door salesman. Or taking just a few seconds from the Battle of Endor to focus on this Ewok mourning his dead friend. How the Ewok's conquer with their low tech versus high tech, the lessons we didn't learn from Vietnam. These days, that wouldn't fly -- in what world can a trunk of oak hold against a laser rifle?

The best part is, I get to tell them that there is a next movie. Maybe we'll even get to take them to it. When I was a kid, the idea of another movie was unthinkable. Seventeen years passed with nothing but crappy Ewok specials -- who would have thought they'd make a sequel after that. Then when I was a teen, the prequels were unexpected and unwanted. They diluted the brand, glorifying the flaws of the old movies. And, like all prequels, were pointless because we already knew what happens. 

Now it is an honor that I can share Star Wars with my kids. I'm not sure about the five-year-old, but the seven-year-old, I hope Episode VII answers her question: "What happens next?" And these are the greatest words a writer can hear.

Of course, now I have a conundrum of how long I can go with the original trilogy. How long I can keep the prequels hidden?

Monday, October 19, 2015

The Books I Read: July - August 2015

The Complete Calvin & Hobbes by Bill Watterson

Every Calvin and Hobbes strip, beginning to end. It's the likability of Peanuts with the humor of Dennis the Menace. I'll never know how Bill Watterson came up with so many unique strips using only four characters -- one of which is imaginary (or is he?). Peanuts added and dropped new faces all the time and Dennis the Menace was only one panel. When I was younger, I got my fix of C & H collections in the library, but reading them in chronological order, you can see the scatters and misfires in the beginning, the peaks in the middle, and the shopworn gags in the end.

At this point in time, you either know Calvin and Hobbes or you don't, so I shouldn't need to provide a recommendation. It's expensive, but a piece of Americana is worth it. Just don't let your kid take the crayons to it.

Girl Walks into a Bar...: Comedy Calamities, Dating Disasters, and a Midlife Miracle by Rachel Dratch

Cute little memoir, in the same vein as Yes, Please by Amy Poehler. Many of my complaints are the same -- not enough of the personal life, not enough of the SNL life. Some of the writing style is the same, when it morphs into a fake interview or letter to herself. Don't get me wrong, I love Rachel Dratch. I loved her on SNL and was very sad when she left.

It covers material much like Amy Poehler's book does -- the years on SNL, how certain sketches came to light, early years in improv, gushing over fellow actors. But it divides when she leaves SNL and talks about why she doesn't act anymore. But now we have the unique experience of the NY dating scene mid-career, finding a relationship, and then the anxiety of having a baby when older and unmarried. The subtitle is definitely there for a purpose -- clarifying what the book is about. If you liked Yes, Please, you'll like this.

We Were Liars by E. Lockhart

At first I thought I wouldn't make it through this book. Right off the bat, we start with entitled rich people. I mean really rich. Like, they own their own island off the coast of New England. The grandparents and their three daughters' families (including grandchildren, whom the story's about) all own houses on the island and spend their summers there. That alone might have caused me to put the book down.

Because rich people aren't like real people. There is no problem they have that they can't throw money at and solve. It's the same reason I can't get into The Great Gatsby or Jane Austen. Problems like "my family is deep in debt so I gotta marry someone with money, but they're all jerks or my aunts are jerks or trying to get the family fortune" and so on. Hard to care when you you know people whose kids can't breathe. These people don't even know the names of their "help". Jeez, even Billy Madison wasn't that much of a jerk.

My point is, don't let the setting turn you off, because for some reason I got deep into it. I wasn't that impressed with Lockhart's Fly on the Wall, but this one has such a strong voice of the main character. For some reason you care about her well-being even if she goes to Europe for the summer with her Dad. I got 45% through within 12 hours. I don't know why, maybe it's the easy reading -- the short "Dan Brown" chapters keep the book a long summary of events than a novel. There are no real scenes, and it's full of simple sentences but with good word choice. A little teen angsty, but poetic. Super poetic.

The title "We Were Liars" makes it sound like some drama/mystery/thriller full of scandals and betrayal like "Pretty Little Liars". And the size gives it earmarks of a beach read. But it's not. It's about growing up, becoming mature, and seeing your family for what it really is. It's months later and I'm still trying to put my finger on why I like it so much. Maybe the fairy tale elements? (A princess, a castle, a king, the rule of three.) Little people against the world? Kids with hearts in the right place versus adults with money and "pure-bloodedness" on their mind? All I know is there's a reason this book is a "best of year".

Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances by Neil Gaiman

Better than Fragile Things and approaching Smoke and Mirrors in terms of quality/likability. Most of the short stories are high fantasy, and I was surprised how many I'd already read (like Samsung's A Calendar of Tales that appeared on Twitter and Click-Clack the Rattlebag). I always find it hard to review anthologies because it's never a single vision over a long term. Either it's many visions from one imagineer, or many visions under one theme. It's too divisive to give a yay or nay. Like all anthologies, there are hits and misses.  It's worth reading if you're a Neil Gaiman fan. But not if you don't like short stories.

Holes by Louis Sachar

You know one thing you never see in YA -- kids in prison. Well, he's not really in juvey, but an "camp for troubled teens". Which is not so much a camp as slave labor -- also not often seen in YA.  How he gets sent to this obviously corrupt and unaccredited alternative to jail, I don't know. That's the biggest implausibility, but if you get past that, it's a compelling story. And that's because the author is doing things you don't see in YA -- living among criminals, manipulation by adults, ambiguity on who to trust, sins of the father -- along with humor like stinky shoes and onion eating. Heavy stuff for a kid's book.

But I know kids can take that stuff, so I like it. It's not just one story, it's a couple stories, but they all come together. All the set pieces, motifs, characters meet each other in a dynamic way -- part Western, part prison story, part funny YA book -- so you're getting a meal with flavorful and different side dishes. Each is different but they all complement each other in ways you didn't expect. Like Orange is the New Black for kids.

Armada by Ernest Cline

A dull and disappointing follow-up to Ready Player One. I realize the biggest draw-in for his first novel was pure nostalgia. It was a giant mish-mash of things from the eighties. The author plays with elements the way a kid plays with toys (you play arcade games against a D & D lich). But it was essential to the plot. The pieces of the puzzle. Man questing, gaining friends and enemies on the way, while the stakes raise.

Again, this one involves the eighties, but as a crutch. The nostalgia plays no part in the story, it just becomes a "hey, I remember that" and goes nowhere (like "Pixels"). The main character's supposed to be obsessed with the eighties because his dad disappeared then.  Even with that, there is no reason for a teenager from 2015 to drive a 1989 Dodge Omni while listening to Rush and ZZ Top cassettes.

The plot is ridiculous too. This kid is obsessed with a "Wing Commander"-like space shooter MMO game, and then it turns out the game is real. Just like The Last Starfighter.  The game was a way to train fighters. Just like The Last Starfighter. I was hoping it would take a different turn plot-wise, but it really doesn't. The spaceship whisks him off from all his problems.  He's an ace pilot. He finds his missing dad, who turns out to be the flight commander and was right about everything. They fight back the aliens, and he becomes a hero, playing video games the rest of his life.

The obstacles are easily overcome and there's little tension. I half-expected the story to be a psychotic break, and he was in a mental hospital the whole time, imagining this. He was about to take a tire iron to a guy in the school parking lot before this recruiting spaceship appears, so it would make sense. And it would explain why everything happens so easy for him. It's whizbang action and little characterization and a one-dimensional plot. I do not recommend it.

The Annotated Alice by Lewis Carroll, annotations by Martin Gardner & Mark Burstein

Well, the annotations aren't as comprehensive as I would have liked. But I guess it's better to leave analysis to the professors and just give facts. Most of the annotations explain the poetry that Carroll's parodying, which is nice. They're all verse that would be common in Carroll's day, but have become antiquated since (except for one or two). Others illustrate the history (like relations to the real Alice) and the logic jokes he probably thought were hilarious (like how Through the Looking-Glass follows real chess moves). Otherwise, all the illustrations and text are here. So it's nice to read it again, this time with a better understanding. It even includes the official definitions for the words in Jabberwocky.

You're Never Weird on the Internet (Almost): A Memoir by Felicia Day

Wondrous! Magnificent! Funny! Hilarious! Stupendous! After reading this, I wanted to write a fan letter to Felicia Day, thanking her for writing the book. I wanted to give this book to my wife, even though she wouldn't understand any of it, just because I wanted to show her how strong and delightful and personable she is. This is a role model for my kids.

You never realized how amazing she is as a person. Going from a lazy homeschool life to prodigy violinist to college degree. And then a Hollywood actress for no damn reason whatsoever. But it's not without drama. She's had to fight Internet addiction, low budget film-making, and the Gamergaters. 

She's pretty much the pioneer for the message she's spreading -- embrace your weird. After reading it, I felt motivated to create things like her. To not listen to the humilitous voice that says "aw, gee, that's not good, I'm not a professional." I want to be her and not her at the same time. This is a MUST READ.

The End of All Things by John Scalzi

I've been thinking about how to judge this book. It has a concrete narrative storyline from beginning to end, but it's presented as "Four Tales of the Colonial Union". Each has a different main character and a different story-telling style. The lack of a single main character, the disconnections between novellas, mean it's hard to establish empathy to anyone. It reminded me of Fuzzy Nation. But where that had scads of humor, a single main character hero, and whiz-bang courtroom drama, this is just space politics. And everyone who knows me knows I DON'T like me some politicians. It felt like Scalzi was continuing the story out of contractual obligation. Not my favorite of his. In fact, it's on the lower fiftieth percentile of his works.

Kissing Snowflakes by Abby Sher

A cute little YA book. Thankfully, it's the last of the skiing romances I downloaded (others included Heartbreak Hotel, Crave: New Adult Sports Romance (The Boys of Winter #1)) And I was actually able to finish this one. But it's still terribly predictable and cheesy. Yeah, I'm not the target demographic, but surely you can do better than this. The characters are stereotypes with questionable motivations and plausibility. There isn't a sense of setting -- no one does much skiing. And the end romance seems doomed anyway. There are better selections out there.