The Monster in the Middle of the Road is Me, by J.P. Romney

monstermiddle

Aside from having a name long enough to make my post-title formatting sensibilities cringe, this was a pretty good book. I had some other thoughts about it too, which I’ll address after the break, but at first blush it’s good fun: a young adult paranormal mystery set in Japan. I’m glad my friend gave it to me when I asked for something new to read.

Continue reading

Miracle at St. Anna

miracle_at_st_anna31

They’re looking at the narrative, just offscreen.

When I first saw the title and plot summary for Miracle at St. Anna, I thought that I was going to see a refashioned telling of the battle of Sommocolonia (which I’d just read about shortly before watching the movie).  I was totally wrong.  This movie was never quite what I expected it to be.

Possibly valuable, probably confusing, Miracle at St. Anna is a composite of several different stories, all mashed together in a fascinating but bewildering mix of historical fiction that feels more like very subdued historical magical realism.  The narrative focus wanders back and forth, encompassing so many story lines that it never feels like it zeroes in on any one of them.  Nor does it ever focus enough to mold a sense of coherence out of the disparate pieces.  I like the story at its core, I think, but … I feel lost.  It’s almost too nebulous to really understand, in some ways, and it certainly leaves many questions entirely unanswered.  Or maybe it answers some questions, but in unsatisfying ways?  It’s a bit of a mess.

But why?  It seemed so promising, after all.

Continue reading

Gravity Falls: X-Files for kids, Comedy for adults

Gravity-Falls-Wallpapers-gravity-falls-27881924-640-480

I just spent much of Saturday evening blazing my way through Gravity Falls, Alex Hirsch‘s absolutely wonderful cartoon series.  Gravity Falls was first described to me as “like The X-files but with kids in rural Oregon,” which does a decent job of introducing it.  That also puts it dangerously (tantalizingly?) close to Twin Peaks territory, but fails to convey just how damn funny the show is; I was chortling the whole way through, and would happily watch many of the episodes again (a rare experience for me with most TV shows). There’re still many more episodes for me to watch, and I honestly can’t wait.  I might take a break from writing this just to watch the next one.

So yeah, Gravity Falls is what would happen if you mashed Twin Peaks and the X-Files together in a hilarious and intelligent kids show.  It chronicles the summer adventures of Dipper and Mabel, a pair of twins who’ve gone to spend the summer with their great-uncle (Grunkle) Stan.  They live with him in his house / Mystery Shack tourist attraction, and have the dubious pleasure of working for him while they try to enjoy their summer in the bizarre town and its even stranger environs.

They must face boredom:

series.828.IMAGEN4

Beasts:

S1e20_The_Gnomes!

And popcorn-machine math:

S1e9_dipper_doing_math

What’s not to like?  And yes, I did just watch another episode.  Honestly, if you’re at all interested in smart animated comedies, you should give Gravity Falls a look.  It’s definitely a kids’ show, but like the best kids’ programming it uses that as a vehicle to go deeper than you’d expect, instead of holding back.  Despite the innately fantastical nature of the show, it still feels like a very real depiction of the emotional lives of its protagonists, and it doesn’t shy away from the realities of social pressure for impressionable youngsters.  Now, if you’ll pardon me, I really want to watch another episode.

The Sorcerer’s House, by Gene Wolfe

sorcerershouse-strip1

 

I should probably re-read this book.  In fact, from what I understand I should probably read and then re-read a good deal of Gene Wolfe‘s work.  There’s a lot of it that I haven’t bothered to pick up at all, but the attention he pays to the construction of his novels is something from which I stand to learn a great deal.  It’s no surprise, then, that The Sorcerer’s House is a slowly unfolding marvel of consistent inconsistency, even on my first read-through.  And what the devil do I mean by that?

I’ll start with the narrator.  We are treated to the sometimes pleasing, sometimes grating prose of one Baxter “Bax” Dunn, as the entire story is told through the lens of his letters (with the addition of a few letters that were sent to him).  It is an epistolary, and as such we are entirely at the mercy of Bax’s representation of events as he begins to deal with moving into (squatting in, really) what appears to be a supernaturally expanding house.  But one of the few things that we know of Bax is that he was recently released from prison after being convicted for fraud.  There are other confounding factors at play as well, hinted at but generally sidelined as being of little relative importance, but I’ll leave those for you to discover when you read the book.  Suffice to say that the narrator is tremendously unreliable, to the extent that I’m not sure how much of the book actually happened (I’m certainly unsure how much happened as he represented it, and I think I’ve caught at least one lie).  As if that wasn’t enough, he often walks forward or back through the course of events until you’re working hard just to keep the timeline straight in your head.

On a similar note, I’m impressed by how palatable Wolfe manages to make a character I so grew to dislike.  Dislike might be the wrong word for it; there were so many things about Bax which I found so unlikeable or frustrating, but he exuded such amiable bonhomie that I found it difficult to hate him for very long, as he’s perhaps the very definition of sleazy but charming.  I can only imagine it was second nature to him.  The fact that I’m able to tell you all of this about Bax is part of what I so admire about Gene Wolfe.

There’s a great deal more to say about this, but as per usual I’m going to segregate the spoilers.  So for my pre-final closing thoughts, or whatever you call this bit, I just want to say that this is a fascinating read even if you don’t end up liking Bax very much.  And if you can deal with the several-decades-old gender relations.

Continue reading

When You Reach Me, by Rebecca Stead

whenyoureachme

 

This book came highly recommended, and it seems only appropriate to pass on the favor to you.  It’s not a long read, nor is it a difficult one, and I can’t say that the ending came as much of a surprise to me… but I simply loved reading it.  It felt both extremely real and wonderfully thought out; it contained a loving homage to another children’s novel which I adore, and yet was clearly its own story, laid out as a puzzle with all of the pieces lying there right before your eyes, waiting for you to put them together.

You know, usually I’m able to talk about a story without giving away any spoilers that I think will unduly influence your understanding of the book.  Or else I’m able to sequester all of the relevant spoilers in a place just for those who’ve already read it or are willing to spoil themselves.  But this time I think I have to leave it be.  I’ll even say that you shouldn’t bother reading the dust jacket’s inner flaps.  Just pick up the book.  I doubt you’ll take more than two days to read it, and you could probably go through it in an afternoon if you had the time.  There’s something too good to spoil about following the narrator’s journey as she slowly tells us how it is that she pieced together the puzzle, and I’m impressed with the narrator’s consistency as she reflects back on the events she describes in the book.  It’s a skillfully told story, and I hope that you’ll take my word for it and pick it up.  Find it here at Rebecca Stead‘s website, or find it at your local library!

Orphan Black

Deeply watchable.  That’s what I have to say about Orphan Black.

I should amend that: deeply watchable and a bit confusing.  You could easily argue that those are both understatements.

Please bear in mind that this is strictly from the point of view of having watched the first episode, but I’m very excited to watch the rest of the show now.  Let me tell you more.

Continue reading

Brotherhood of the Wolf and the Importance of Editing

Monday night I introduced two of my friends to the oddly enjoyable mystery-adventure movie The Brotherhood of the Wolf.  At least, that’s what I thought would happen.  Instead, we suffered through an interminable introduction, nonsensical pacing, a piss-poor mystery plot that was never explained well enough to make the reveal make any sense, and some CGI that has aged a little harder than I remembered.  It was a train-wreck of a film, and I’m not sure who exactly signed off on releasing it.  I was at a complete loss and repeatedly apologized to my friends, because the movie that we watched was not the movie that I remembered seeing years ago.

It turns out that it wasn’t the same film at all.  Oh, the actors were all the same, and the footage was clearly all collected at the same time.  I doubt that the CGI aged any more gracefully in the version that I do remember, but at least the rest of the movie would still be there to back it up.  The problem, you see, was that we watched what we could only guess was the edit intended for UK theatrical release.  It was atrocious.

The version of the film that I first saw, and the one which I would recommend to my friends, is a lovely action-mystery-thriller which features slowly building tension surrounding a series of wild animal attacks, culminating in a wonderful set of reveals and some good old ass-kicking.  The protagonists gradually piece together that the mysterious beast responsible for the local deaths is no natural creature, and recognize that there are connections between the beast’s killings and a secret society which appears to be trying to supplant the King’s authority in the land.  The film is still a trifle weird, but it has pretty costumes, fun action scenes, and a rewarding reveal of a conspiracy plot.  It has inspired several of my own RPGs, and I would consider it decent background material for anyone looking for adventure ideas.

And thus we come around to the importance of editing.  I was already aware of how much influence editing can have on others’ impressions of your work, but I’d never seen such a painfully clear example of it with something which titillated in one form and disappointed in another.  The experience reminded me of Alison J. McKenzie’s good article on drafts, an intimately related topic, and to be honest I’m quite glad that I have chosen an art form in which the overhead costs for creating and prototyping new drafts are so low.  The costs and scheduling associated with film make it far less forgiving.

Unfortunately for the version of Brotherhood of the Wolf that I just watched, I can’t really bring myself to forgive it.  The experience that I wanted to share with my friends, the one that I thought I was sharing right up until the film started to diverge from my memories of it, was effectively ended by the bizarre editing choices that went into that version of the movie.  It was bad enough that I can’t really blame my friends for not wanting to find and watch the version that I remember.

I would still recommend Brotherhood of the Wolf to you for all of the same reasons that I wanted to show it to my friends, but be sure that you’re watching the more standard US release.  Otherwise, you may be sorely disappointed.

Player Knowledge and the History of RPGs

First, two quotes to start us off:

“No plan survives contact with the enemy.” (paraphrased quote from Helmuth von Moltke the Elder, a man who was actually quite keen on extensive planning and who might be considered the great-grandfather of RPGs)

“The players are the enemy.” (the storyteller’s corollary to the first quote, promoted in old gaming literature and still embraced by some gamers today)

***

I’ve often heard these quoted, seriously or jokingly, by my RPG playing friends.  The first one I agree with: opposition is a chaotic force, and will often ruin your most carefully laid plans.  The second one I only agree with insofar as players are an inherently chaotic force.  They are other people, and will often do the unexpected.  Unfortunately, the second quote is often interpreted literally.  Players are seen as the opposition and their characters are therefore meant to be outwitted, led by the nose, and then set upon while at a disadvantage.

Worryingly enough, I most often hear these quotes spoken seriously by my friends who have not yet run many games.  With a literal interpretation, where the hell do those two quotes lead us?  If the players are the enemy, it stands to reason that everything the storyteller does is in opposition to the players.  More to the point, it sets up a clearly antagonistic relationship between the players and the storyteller in which the two sides have no reason to cooperate with each other.  It’s like they’re not actually playing a game together.

If they are playing a game together, it’s more like a strategy wargame in which all details are included solely to “get” the players.  This is, of course, where the genre originated: the first games that we would recognize as RPGs grew out of wargames, as the logical result of a progression towards smaller and smaller unit sizes.  Eventually, each player had control of only one individual instead of many units, laying the foundation for the RPG genre that we know today.  The influence of modern gaming’s military history is still visible: the habits of secrets and hostile surprises that we have come to see as part and parcel of the RPG experience come from this background of wargaming.

But even as someone who enjoys wargames, I don’t always want to play a wargame when I sit down to play an RPG.  There’s an opportunity here to explore gaming without those holdouts baked in, and some game designers have been pushing in that direction for years.  Yet if we aren’t following in the habits of our wargaming ancestors, what do we do?

Continue reading