Book review: The Nostalgia Nerd’s Retro Tech

The Nostalgia Nerd’s Retro Tech: Computer, Consoles & Games by Peter Leigh

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Retro Tech provides just what it says on the tin. Starting with systems in the early 1970s, it provides a summary of virtually every video game console and personal computer released up until the debut of the original Xbox in October 2001.

Each summary includes a generous number of photos, sometimes including controllers or oddball accessories, or more mundane things like the power supplies. Leigh offers both an historical overview and also his own personal assessment on each device, which at times stands in contrast to how I saw some of the systems, accounting for the differences in reception between the UK and North American (and in particular U.S.) audiences.

Each summary concludes with a look at three games from each system: The Must-See, the Must-Play, and the Must-Avoid. A lot of the Must-Avoids are typically obscure fare (no, E.T. did not make the list for the Atari 2600–though it does get mentioned alongside the “winner”).

Leigh keeps the writing light and at times droll, never being afraid to call out lemons and questionable marketing of years gone by.

I was struck by the sheer number of systems that came out in the 70s and early 80s. It seemed that nearly everyone tried to get a slice of the video game pie before the famous crash of 1983. While there are systems that never sold well here in Canada that I was aware of–like the MSX computers, there are many listed here that I was utterly unfamiliar with, even leaving aside the UK-specific machines that never made it over here.

For anyone who grew up when these machines were coming out (as I did), this is indeed a heady dose of nostalgia. For others, it serves as a brief and well-illustrated history of the early days of video games and personal computers. In fact, my only real knock on the book is that each write-up only amounts to a page or so. I would love to see a more in-depth look at the same topic. As it is, I was able to tear through the book all too quickly.

Still, this was an enjoyable look back and an easy recommendation for those who would enjoy seeing the sometimes wacky products that came out in the quest for the early gamer’s dollars (or pounds).

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Book review: How to Sketch

How to Sketch: A Beginner’s Guide to Sketching Techniques, Including Step By Step Exercises, Tips and Tricks by Liron Yanconsky

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Book review: How to Sketch

This book does a good job in covering all the basics when it comes to learning how to sketch. Author Liron Yanconsky brings an amiable style to the subject as he introduces everything a new artist will need to know and need to have. Starting with the correct mindset, he covers some core concerns and requirements, such as accepting and embracing imperfection (you’re learning to sketch, after all), and the essential quality of being curious and seeking variety in what you sketch. He moves on to suggested materials, some basic techniques on how to use your eyes and even how to hold a pencil.

From there, he covers more specific aspects of sketching, including:

  • Perspective
  • Light and shadow
  • Tones and Textures

The final part of the book consists of working from included photos to produce full sketches of people, landscapes and more.

I suspect that at least some may become discouraged as they try to replicate the excellent results Yanconsky shows for each exercise. At times the sophistication required to accurately capture the scenes feels a bit like those old “Learn to Draw” ads that went from a few scrawled lines in the first panel to lavishly illustrated drawings in the fourth panel. Yanconsky addresses this in a way, urging the new artist to focus on sections, to build a sketch piece by piece when there is a lot to draw. His enthusiasm for the topic certainly helps.

As someone who can draw but not really draw well, I found the first half of the book, with its straightforward lessons on the aspects of sketching, to be quite helpful. While I may never been a sketching whiz, this book has helped me in ways that my own bumbling around wouldn’t have.

Recommended.

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Book review: The Dream Interpretation Handbook

The Dream Interpretation Handbook: A Guide and Dictionary to Unlock the Meanings of Your Dreams by Karen Frazier

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This was a bargain purchase, using my two criteria for such:

1. Is the book on sale?
2. Is the subject interesting to me?

If the answer is yes, I buy and take my chances if I am not familiar with the author.

I came away disappointed here, for a few reasons. While the book is competently written and is logically divided into two parts, the first being some background and historical analysis of dreams, and the second being a dictionary that defines possible meanings to specific dream events/objects, it ends up having a little too much woo in it and also comes across as a bit facile.

As an example, it’s stated that if you dream about aliens, you may be feeling alienated. I mean, really? Many of the scenarios fit into this kind of literal interpretation, which may make “sense” but also doesn’t require an entire book to illustrate.

In the end I just wanted more and maybe that’s not realistic when it comes to dream interpretation. The author emphasizes repeatedly that you may want to check your personal frame of reference before seeking more universal symbols/meanings to your dreams. This makes sense, but it even further diminishes the value of offering dream interpretation. And a lot of it just comes down to “you may be anxious about [thing]”, unless it’s a dream in which you are flying, one of the apparently few positive dream experiences anyone has.

I have not read other books on dreaming, so I don’t know if this work is representative of the overall body of dream interpretation, and to give author Karen Frazier credit, she provides a decent list of other sources to check out.

Still, I didn’t feel like I got much out of this and can’t really recommend it.

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Book review: Ruined By Design

Ruined by Design: How Designers Destroyed the World, and What We Can Do to Fix It by Mike Monteiro

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Mike Monteiro is angry, angry at design, angry at designers he feels are complicit in the design that has ruined things, but he is especially angry at Jack Dorsey and Mark Zuckerberg for their leadership at Twitter and Facebook, respectively.

In recent months (July 2020 as I write this; the book was published in 2019) both social media platforms have taken a few steps to enforce what rules or standards they may have, notably when it comes to the content that Trump posts, but I suspect these minor actions would do nothing to curb Monteiro’s ire—and it really shouldn’t, if you buy in even a little to his central premise.

That premise, presented with enthusiastically crude language, is pretty straightforward: Designers have aided and abetted social media platforms into becoming wretched hives of scum and villainy, by simply doing the work asked of them without questioning it, by never objecting, by never “becoming the change.”

In the introduction, Monteiro lays out his take on the world in general and social media in particular:

“We designed the combustion engine that led to global warming (climate change deniers can just stop reading right now). We designed the guns that kill school children. We designed shitty interfaces to protect our private information. We designed the religions that pitted us against one another. We designed social networks without any way of dealing with abuse or harassment. We designed a financial incentives system that would lead Mark Zuckerberg to assert what’s good for the world isn’t necessarily good for Facebook; and lead Jack Dorsey to believe engagement was a more important metric than safety. Either by action or inaction, through fault or ignorance, we have designed the world to behave exactly as it’s behaving right now. These are our chickens coming home to roost.

The world is on its way to ruin and it’s happening by design.”

From here, Monteiro splits his effort between listing the many crimes committed by design (both literal and figurative—a go to example is the engineer at Volkswagen who was “just doing his job” when he programmed the software that would fake diesel emission test results—and went to prison for his efforts after the scandal broke) and offering possible solutions, with a mix of hope and humility. He doesn’t claim to have all of the answers, but he’s willing to put stuff out there, if only to get conversations started.

Framing design as a political act, Monteiro agitates for change from within (unless you work at Twitter or Uber, he advocates outright quitting those two companies), for designers to question decisions that will lead to bad design or worse, deliberately deceitful or malicious design, to find and work on diverse teams, to use the role of designer to stand up against dark patterns, ethically questionable decisions on handling data and so on.

Monteiro is a UX designer with over 20 years of experience and beings immense passion to Ruined By Design. It’s obvious he deeply cares about design and how it has changed the world for the worse. He admits he may lack precision in language—citing his use of “nickel words”—but his ideas are clearly presented, and argued in extensive detail. It’s hard not to root for what he calls for.

The book is aimed directly at designers and though Monteiro uses a broad brush to indicate just who might qualify as a designer, I am not part of this audience. The closest I get to design is choosing a font for the body text on my blog and I am assuming that I am not making the world an actively worse place by choosing Roboto Slab over Helvetica. But even though this book is not aimed at me, the arguments are so compelling and accessible, and apply to so much of what I interact with on a daily basis—that so many of us interact with on a daily basis—that I find myself recommending it unreservedly.

There is a lot to chew on here, and Mike Monteiro does an excellent job in both illustrating the problems design has caused, and the possible solutions that may mediate the damage done.

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Book review: The Amityville Horror

The Amityville Horror by Jay Anson

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Book review: The Amityville Horror

This was actually a re-read, though I should note that I originally read this book in 1979, when I was 13 years old. My perspective has shifted a wee bit in the intervening 42 years, though my love for schlocky horror remains unchanged.

I have been in a reading funk these past few months because my usual reading time–an hour-long commute to work–was suddenly gone, thanks to the global pandemic. I found it hard to work reading back into my new routine, though on the plus side I am finally getting more sleep.

As I cast about for the book that would get me going again, I looked over a few ancient paperbacks I’d kept and among them was a yellowing copy of The Amityville Horror, its now wrinkled cover still asserting “A True Story.”

When the paperback first came out, I immediately snapped it up and read it in a blur, drawn in even more than normal due to the alleged authenticity of the story being told. As I re-read I began recalling the details, but what was once a scary read now seemed tame, and my mind turned to the gaps, disputes and lawsuits that followed in the wake of the book’s original publication.

The story is simple: A young family moves into a huge old Dutch Colonial on Long Island in December 1975 and 28 days later flee in terror, convinced the house is possessed by evil spirits or demons. But what seems like an improbable series of increasingly weird and menacing events is really more the story of a young family in trouble and how they may have enhanced what happened at 112 Ocean Avenue (and yes, you can easily recognize the house on Google Maps even today) in order to extricate themselves from a series of bad decisions.

The real horror here is bad finances. While author Jay Anson (who died only a few years after publication) may not have done so intentionally, he sprinkles thee story with enough clues to suggest a non-occult origin at the root of the Lutz family’s problems: a combination of over-extending themselves financially, moving into a new home and neighborhood just a few days before Christmas, and integrating a new family, as Kathy brings three children from a previous marriage.

On the one hand, you get a priest coming to bless the house and alleging that he heard a male voice tell him to “Get out!” On the other, George’s surveying business struggles with finances, and is due a visit from an IRS agent. The five year old daughter Missy reports an invisible friend named Jody, who she describes as a pig and cloven hoof prints are found in the snow outside a window–but records show no snow on the ground of the day reported.

The main thrust of the story revolves around perfectly mundane tensions–the two boys fight, George becomes obsessed with keeping the rattling old house warm by constantly stoking the fire, and Kathy play referees, keeping the factions together as best she can.

The demonic manifestations are, for the most part, also mundane–odd noises, doors and windows opening or closing on their own, the persistent chill in some rooms. Others seem odder–a large ceramic lion in the living room seems to shift position on its own–but could be easily explained without invoking a catalog of demonic influences.

The weirdest stuff–seeing the red eyes of the pig Jody in a window, or a white hooded figure standing menacingly at the top of the stairs–defy logical explanation, but also present themselves with no evidence at all, just “this is what happened, yep!”

Did the Lutzes leave after 28 days because they feared for their family’s safety? Maybe. Or did they leave because they had gotten in over their head and needed to hang their sudden decision to cut and run on some sort of story and the more sensational the better? I know which seems more plausible to me and it has nothing to do with psychic manifestations.

Putting aside the veracity of the events, is this an entertaining story? Well, not really. Because Anson is working with real people and some actual verifiable happenings he is constrained a bit. The story is told in straightforward fashion, which may make it seem more authentic, but also results in a somewhat bland presentation. How can the sudden sound of a marching band in the living room in the middle of the night come across as unremarkable? You will find out here. On the plus side, it’s a quick read at only 300 pages for the paperback version (at least the one I have from 1978).

What I may have most enjoyed from re-reading this book in 2020 is how it now serves as a chronicle of life in the mid-70s. Some of the most fascinating details are the smallest–people having to phone from their homes to reach others, and needing the other person to pick up right away, as even answering machines are not to be found. Cash is used to pay for most things. Everyone smokes. George has to drive to another city early on a Monday to get to a bank, so he can transfer funds to cover a check. Now imagine all of these people dressed in typical fashions of the time. Yes, amazing.

Overall, The Amityville Horror is not something I recommend, except as a kind of historical piece of horror from the 70s.

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Review: Save the Cat! Writes a Novel

Save the Cat! Writes a Novel

Save the Cat! Writes a Novel by Jessica Brody

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Save the Cat series of books is aimed primarily at screenwriters, but in this case Jessica Brody has reworked the formula for novel writing.

The book, as befits one concerned about plot, is well-structured, with sections designed for easy reference after the initial read-through. At its core, Brody puts forward that there are 10 core plots that are used in pretty much all successful stories (note that this success is oriented toward readers more than critics, hence the inclusion of novels that have received what some might call unkind reviews, such as Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code.

In the first chapter Brody describes how we are wired to respond to certain types of stories and covers the usual concerns over “How can I be daring and original if I’m following a strict plot outline?” by saying nothing is really original, but all authors have their own voices and style that separate them from other writers.

The next ten chapters are devoted to an explanation of the specific plot type, covering three essential requirements for each, followed by a “beat sheet” (beats are a big thing in the Save the Cat world) for a specific novel, explaining how it conforms to the particular plot type in question. This is followed by an even more precise summary of the beat sheet, handy for quick reference.

The final chapter is a general set of common questions Brody has addressed in related workshops, along with answers, ranging from the basics of “Where do I start?” to handling multiple narratives. Brody also provides templates on a website that serve as virtual corkboards for plotting (for those who don’t want to use actual corkboards). In all, the information is detailed, but presented in a light, informal style that will be easily accessible to young or new writers, as well as those who have yet to plot their way out of the proverbial wet paper bag.

You can get an idea of the tone of the book by observing some of the plot types discussed:

  • Whydunnit
  • Dude with a Problem
  • Buddy Love
  • Monster in the House

All of this may sound very rigid–and it is. Brody does allow that some bending of the rules may be allowed, but that overall these plots, their associated acts, scenes, and overall beats, must be followed to achieve the effect they are meant to have on that primitive part of our brain that responds so well to structured tales.

If you believe in the power of plotting, this is an excellent primer on how to write a novel using any of the ten specific plots discussed. As Brody mentions, it also works well for those trying to fix a work in progress.

For new writers or those who have a tendency to send their initially sound novels upon the rocky shoals of “I don’t know what happens next”, this is recommended.

P.S. “Save the cat” is a reference to how an unlikable main character should do something to show they have a good side or some merit, such as…saving a cat.

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Book review: The Happiness Equation

The Happiness Equation: Want Nothing + Do Anything = Have Everything

The Happiness Equation: Want Nothing + Do Anything = Have Everything by Neil Pasricha

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I saw Neil Pasricha at The Art of Leadership in Vancouver in December 2019, and he is a passionate, funny speaker, one of those compelling personalities that will compel you to buy-in what they’re saying just through their sheer enthusiasm and exuberant delivery.

In book form the effect is muted, so it’s easier to sit back and ask yourself, “Is this really god advice?”
Of course, one of the things Pasricha writes about in the quest for happiness is to ignore advice. Except sometimes you can listen to it.

A lot of the book trades on this line of thinking—take what you need for you, discard the rest. Be true to yourself, above everything else, and a lot of the happiness that eludes you will fall into place on its own, or at least more readily than it would otherwise.

One of the things Paricha mentioned in his talk that he doesn’t really address in The Happiness Equation, is his view of smartphones. He describes them as “poison”, strongly urging everyone to drastically scale back how much—and for what reasons—they use them. This does tie in with one of the broad philosophies of the book—to be authentic, to not do things to curry favor or approval of others (“This post is sure to get lots of likes!”) but to just be yourself, flaws and all, because this is the foundation of being happy.

It makes sense, really. If you can’t accept who you are, how likely are you to be happy? Pasricha’s advice (which you can accept or reject as appropriate, of course) ranges from the simple (put your gym clothes within easy reach to make it more likely you’ll actually change and go to the gym) to things people would want to consider very carefully—like, how happy is your significant other? Are they dragging you down? Are you better off leaving them?

A lot of the rest of the tips are basically about shutting off access and focusing. He rightly points out that people are easily distracted and tend to multitask poorly. He encourages people to apportion the time to check things like email to a minimum, to “unplug” as much as possible, what some might see as a kind of digital detox. It’s actually pretty appealing, but I say this as someone who works in IT and has started to have had my fill of the same.

At times funny and sometimes a little awkward, there’s a lot to recommend in Pasricha’s approach to achieving happiness, even if some of his declarations are bound to surprise or even shock. He believes retirement is a bad thing and points out that it’s mostly a modern invention, and the argument is compelling. He isn’t suggesting 85 year olds should be working 40 hour weeks, but more that to stay happy, people need to keep doing things and feeling productive, no matter what this things may be.
I’ll revisit this book over time to see how some of its advice plays out. It’s not perfect and Pasricha openly encourages the reader to discard the things that won’t work for them, but there is enough here to at least shake things up a bit and see what happens.

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Book review: Terrifying Tales to Tell at Night

Terrifying Tales to Tell at Night: 10 Scary Stories to Give You Nightmares!

Terrifying Tales to Tell at Night: 10 Scary Stories to Give You Nightmares! by Stephen Jones

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Another uneven horror collection, but this is pretty much the standard, so overall I found it perfectly fine and would recommend it as a quick read if you can grab it at a lower price.

Ostensibly aimed at kids (the acknowledgements section notes that some stories have been edited for content), some of these tales are pretty dark, so Stephen Jones’ warning about these causing nightmares may be apt for younger readers.

A brief take on each of the ten stories:

Click-Clack the Rattlebag (Neil Gaiman) is a typical Gaiman story, with a droll sort of delivery, the promise of spooky shenanigans, then it abruptly ends, so it certainly fits the “short” part of “short story.” It was fine.

Homemade Monster (R. Chetwynd-Hayes) is a light, modern take on the Frankenstein monster, featuring an easily distracted mad scientist, a yearning-to-be-sophisticated helper and exploding parts. It’s fun, if slight.

The Sideways Lady (Lynda E. Rucker) features a sister and brother out ghost-hunting in an abandoned house across town said to be haunted by an entity called The Sideways Lady. On Halloween they wrap up their trick or treating then go explore the house, joining up with a few older, skeptical kids along the way. The allegedly empty house has a strange occupant–and maybe others, as well. The kids felt authentic, but the actual haunting part seemed a bit confused, as if the author went in several directions, couldn’t decide, and tried to make both work.

Here There Be Tygers (Stephen King). Taken from King’s first collection, Night Shift, this is a curiously delightful tale about a boy at school who needs to use the washroom very badly, the possible presence of tigers in said washroom and what might happen to the frumpy, rude old teacher he has to endure when all elements are combined. The light, almost absurdist tone here stands out from the bulk of King’s work.

The Chimney (Ramsey Campbell) starts out as a simple story about a boy who is frightened of Santa and of the huge fireplace in the bedroom of the very old house he lives in. It gets progressively darker, turning from a child’s tale to something downright grim. I liked it, but this is one of those that could very well give younger kids bad dreams.

School for the Unspeakable (Manly Wade Wellman). First, Manly Wade Wellman is a great author name. This story, about a boy sent to a private school, is terrifically weird and unsettling. When Bart Setwick arrives at the school–at night, of course,–it’s strangely dark and the boys he meets are just strange. Things escalate quickly from there before the (mild) twist is revealed. This reads like a classic spooky story told ’round the campfire.

Granny’s Grinning (Robert Shearman). Told in a deliberately twee style, with giant paragraphs stuffed with dialogue from multiple characters, this is the one story I didn’t finish. I just didn’t care enough about the story or characters to push past the writing style. Grandma was probably a zombie or something.

The Chemistry of Ghosts (Lisa Morton). This feels like a YA story, in which a brother and sister attempt to find the brother’s missing friend, who the brother fears has disappeared in the closed wing of a college said to be haunted by a former chemistry professor. It is not a spoiler to say this is correct and the ghostly instructor challenges the kids to a series of puzzles to get their friend back–and avoid being trapped in the wing forever with him. Light, almost breezy, with plenty of opportunity for kids to try to figure things out and brag about how smart they are.

The Man Who Drew Cats (Michael Marshall Smith). A quiet stranger moves into a small town and begins to paint and draw in the town square, sharing (some) small talk with the locals at a nearby pub in the evenings. This is one of those stories that telegraphs what will happen in huge neon letters, but knows it, and makes the journey to its inevitable destination as entertaining as possible. In this case, an abusive husband gets his comeuppance when the stranger turns his drawing skills to certain beasts. In a way, this is a great companion to “Here There Be Tygers.”

Are You Afraid of the Dark? (Charles L. Grant). Basically, a story about a very bad babysitter. It’s weird, a bit gruesome and maybe should have been the second-to-last story in the collection.

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Movie review: Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

This was a bad movie and a bad Star Wars movie.

I was excited when it was announced that Lucas had sold the rights to Star Wars to Disney. Disney has been making extremely competent pop movies for awhile now, so I was confident they would do a good job here–and better than Lucas had with the prequel trilogy.

(To give Lucas credit, for all the problems the prequels had, there is a defining vision that underlies all three movies, and each builds on the other. This leaves aside the quality of execution and a lot of curious design choices, but the vision was there.)

So in 2015 we get The Force Awakens. J.J. Abrams is the director and I actually felt at the time that he was a good choice–Star Wars is big, kid-friendly fluff and with a good script and cast, it’s the kind of thing Abrams can do well. The Force Awakens borrows copiously from the original Star Wars and sometimes it works and sometimes it’s a little eye-rolling (please please please no more Death Stars or Death Star substitutes), but the new characters are engaging and fun to watch and it feels like Star Wars. Everything you want is there.

The Last Jedi is more like a modern Star Wars–less fluffy, more gritty, with more consequences. It deliberately plays against some of the established tropes, even as it copies beats from The Empire Strikes Back. By the end I was wondering how the rebellion would come back in the third movie after being reduced to what seemed like a room full of people by the end. Ho ho, if I had only known.

And then we have The Rise of Skywalker, or Star Wars as Written By a 15 Year Old Star Wars Nerd.

There are things I liked. The effects were nice. The cast, although let down by a generally awful script, remain fun to watch. Ian McDiarmid still chews scenery with unbridled glee. Some of the light saber fights were entertaining (I especially liked the one on the wreck of the Death Star, with Rey clearly fatigued).

But everything else ranged from okay to just bad. Oh, so bad.

The scenes with Leia felt awkward, because all of her dialog was generic (for obvious reasons). I would have preferred they recast her role for the final movie or just not featured her character at all (have her join with the force in an early scene or something).

Rey turns out to be the granddaughter of Palpatine instead of a scrappy scavenger who just happens to turn out awesome. Bleah.

And the lineage of Rey underlines my central complaint with the film (apart from its relentless pacing, which was more exhausting than thrilling): The Rise of Skywalker is stuffed full of plot devices that are made just for this film, that have not been built on or even mentioned in previous movies. The stakes feel non-existent because everything is just thrown at the viewer out of nowhere.

  • The Emperor somehow survives or gets cloned, despite last seen falling down some giant shaft in a Death Star that exploded seemingly minutes later. But this is actually not the dumbest thing in the movie. Palpatine’s resurrection would have worked a lot better–along with the whole “I’m stuffed full of Sith, haha!” thing–if it had been set up from the first movie and played out over all three.
  • Hyperspace skipping or whatever it was called. Why? So dumb. The last jump should have had them slam into the wall of a canyon and die, ending the movie early and saving everyone a lot of time.
  • If General Redhead had held up a sign, Wile E. Coyote-style, that said “I’m the spy!” it would not have been any more dumb than him blurting it out the way he did. It would have been better, really. Also, why did he believe Kylo Ren had to be stopped? Why did he say he didn’t care who won? Why was his character sacrificed for this dubious plot? And who was the grumpy old man who shot him? Like so many things in this movie, grumpy old man is just there with no explanation.
  • Abrams, never a master of subtlety, decides to give every Star Destroyer the ability to literally destroy stars. Or planets. Why? As Poe says, “Sure, why not?” Because it’s so cool (if you are a 15 year old Star Wars nerd).
  • Speaking of, I literally rolled my eyes when the surprise fleet of ten million ships magically shows up at the final battle. Very good timing there. Good thing it was telegraphed heavily multiple times beforehand, so it wouldn’t seem at all like an actual surprise. I’ll pretend the boy sweeping at the end of The Last Jedi was on one of those ten million ships.
  • Finn keeps saying he wants to say something, then he never says it. WHY?! It’s the last movie, have him say it! There is not going to be a Finn spinoff series, sorry.
  • Rey kissing Kylo at the end was sort of grossbuckets.
  • Rey proclaiming herself Rey Skywalker at the end also made me roll my eyes.
  • Space horses.
  • The new droid should have had a price tag on it, since its only purpose was to enhance merchandising.
  • Did I mention the pacing? The movie never slowed down and ended up feeling shapeless, just careening from one action scene to another, with tiny bits of character moments squeezed in-between.
  • Rose is reduced to almost a cameo for no apparent (or good) reason.

On the plus side, they couldn’t think of a way to bring back Jabba the Hutt or have someone frozen in carbonite. If only J.J. Abrams had been frozen in carbonite.

Anyway, this was a disappointing end to what could have been a great trilogy. I’ll conclude by damning it with faint praise: for all its excesses, missed opportunities and general level of dumb-even by Star Wars standards–it was still better than Solo.

BUT NOT BY MUCH.

Book review: Dear Writer, You Need to Quit

Dear Writer, You Need to Quit

Dear Writer, You Need to Quit by Becca Syme

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I have read so many books on writing without writing that I feel it’s become my official career to write about books about writing.

Dear Writer, You Need to Quit is a good book about writing and manages to put a bit of a unique spin on the usual advice. Instead of addressing story structure, plot, characters and other mechanics, or providing the nitty gritty about finding a good agent or other specifics of the business of writing, Becca Syme instead tackles the things a new or indie writer needs to quit doing–including up to the possibility of not writing anymore.

It’s a light read and the tone is conversational–perhaps a bit too much at times–and the way Syme repeats key phrases, like “QTP” (Question The Premise) makes sections of the book feel more like a transcription of a class or talk (which it is, more or less, based on material she uses in coaching sessions and classes). On the plus side, this lends a kind of authenticity to the topics, as Syme isn’t just writing what sounds good, she’s providing advice based on her own experiences with authors. As a bonus, she is not afraid to point out where she has plainly blown it herself.

A lot of the book is built around tempering expectations and looking after yourself while pursuing the dream of making a living as a writer. Syme flatly states that for most people that this will not happen. Don’t quit your job is not a cliché here, it is a repeated mantra. Chapters are spent framing writing as a hobby you might make a little money from, but that’s all. Do it because you love it, but work it into your existing routines, don’t forfeit your job, time and money pursuing a dream that is unlikely to come true.

That sounds like a downer, and Syme admits as much–that if you don’t have the drive, it’s perfectly fine to just quit writing altogether.

She does address more specific topics, too, taking on the idea that you must plot out your story first (or just improvise and never plot), pulling back to essentially say what works for one writer may not work for you. Do what works for you.

In all, this is a breezy and eminently sensible set of tips on how to tackle the writing life. While it seems aimed at indie writers who have a few published novels already, new writers will benefit from at least considering the advice on offer.

Recommended.

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Book review: Recursion

Recursion

Recursion by Blake Crouch

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This type of story is catnip to me: high concept present-day science fiction wrapped around a slick, fast-paced action-adventure.

The story asks a simple question: Do our memories determine our reality? What if we could not just revisit memories, but control them, effectively making the past, present and future exist simultaneously? Could our minds cope with multiple timelines occupying them?

This is a story best read without too much knowledge of the specifics before hand, so I’ll simply say I enjoyed watching the main characters of police detective Barry Sutton and neuroscientist Helena Smith interact as they grappled with the very nature of reality. While the nuts and bolts of the depicted science are kind of hand-wavey, it’s perfectly acceptable for the type of story Crouch is telling, which is less about how we might be able to manipulate memory, but whether we should, and what the effects could be.

As with any story that dabbles in time travel, you can pull apart the plot and argue about how things wouldn’t really work this way or that—the characters themselves even have these kinds of conversations—but this is a romp, full of both spectacular disaster and quiet moments that show what it means to be human.

If you like this kind of story, Recursion comes highly recommended.

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Book review: A New World

A New World

A New World by Whitley Strieber

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Much like The Afterlife Revolution, this book is pretty bonkers when viewed through the lens of the world most of us see and know. There is always the chance that Strieber, for reasons unknown, is pulling a very long con (dating back to Communion, published in 1986) or is merely delusional. But while it might make one feel smug to dismiss this as nothing more than crackpot theorizing, there is enough evidence to suggest something is going on.

I’ve long felt that there is a lot in the world and the universe that we don’t understand, that for all our advances and (alleged) intelligence, humans are still pretty primitive. As explorers, we don’t know what is in most of our own oceans. We have only seen our solar system on a limited scale (albeit with some fantastic results) and have ventured no further than the moon when travelling off the planet. We have exploited said planet to the point where we may be accelerating drastic climate change–global warming–and when we need them most, it seems more of us are turning away from science, rational thought and logic, especially those in positions of power, both in business and government.

It’s kind of depressing.

Against this backdrop, A New World is both a summary of Strieber’s previous books recounting his experiences with what he calls the visitors, and a call to action for the visitors–and the reader. For the first time Strieber puts emphasis on having as many people as possible seek out the visitor experience, believing that open communication between us and them may be the only thing that will prevent humanity from being all but wiped out as climate change accelerates (because the visitors will share knowledge that can help us, but won’t do so until we are “ready.”)

In presenting his case, Strieber recalls past experiences, putting them into new perspective, then builds on them by detailing a new chapter with the visitors that began in 2015 and continues now (the most recent events are from a scant month ago as I write this, in November 2019). What it basically comes down to is time is running out and Strieber believes that the more people that join in the communion (sharing) with the Visitors, the better our odds of achieving a communication breakthrough and getting help in literally saving the world.

Again, this sounds bonkers, but Strieber builds his case piece by piece, drawing from experiences he had that feature credible witnesses, to citing other incidents and examples–such as the recent admission from the U.S. Navy that objects captured on video by Navy fighters are actual unknowns. He makes connections that may surprise those who are only familiar with movie aliens. While never stating firmly–as he claims he doesn’t truly know–Strieber posits that the visitors may actually be some form of human from a parallel or mirror universe that is overlapping ours, that they experience time differently, able to see the past and the future, and are attracted to us because we get to experience things in the moment, with a spontaneity they lack.

Also, the dead may also be in this mirror universe as energy beings, and are only able to manifest in the physical realm in very limited ways. While noting that some of the visitors may have ill intent, Strieber says it is only in the same way that some humans are criminals or otherwise operate outside of society’s norms.

As for why they have been so reticent to present themselves openly to us (by landing on, say, the lawn of the White House–and hoo boy, would that be interesting right now), despite possibly having been around for thousands of years (picture Georgio Soukalos leaning forward and saying, “Aliens!”), it’s that they experience reality so differently than we do that just trying to wrap our minds around it can overwhelm us. The visitors can’t chat casually with us because they are fundamentally non-physical beings, so they use imagery and symbols and it all comes out cryptic and weird. We just want to sit down at a table with them, have some tea and get to know each other. They can control things–including themselves, perhaps, at a sub-atomic level. Idle conversation isn’t really possible.

There is a chapter that actually goes into the possible science behind this, referencing everything from Schrodinger’s cat to decoherence and the fine-structure constant. The very nature of reality is brought into question, that the information our senses provide may not be exactly reflective of what reality really is. Strangely, the tone in this chapter is a lot less serious than the others, possibly because the entire thing is framed as trying to prove how something so bizarre can be real.

The book ends on an urgent note, calling on the visitors to more openly present themselves, to “open the doors of their school wide, to us all. We have a planet to lose and our lives along with it, or we have a journey to take.”

As always, Strieber writes clearly and with a sober tone. More than usual he confesses to how strange everything sounds, imploring the reader to make a leap of faith (not necessarily a religious one, but with a spiritual component). He also provides good news to lazy, but generally decent people–you don’t need to believe the visitors are real or that the soul is a thing to contribute positively to the communion process, you just need to be a fundamentally good person.

Any book that ends with that kind of promise can’t be so bad.

As I’ve said, it is difficult to buy into what Strieber talks about, especially if you’ve never experienced anything even tangential to what he talks about, unless you have a very open mind and are willing to think way outside the proverbial box. I keep an open mind (some might say downright vacant) and I find the theories and ideas presented in A New World to be interesting and intriguing. This is in a way a hopeful book, and in these dark times, that goes a long way.

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