HollowCrownFans – The Interview

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I’m delighted to have done a blogerview (OK, that’s a really lousy neologism for blog interview) with HollowCrownFans. If you don’t know who they are yet, they are two people who are all about making the Bard more accessible. If you haven’t participated in their popular #ShakespeareSunday, it’s typically a themed event where you tweet a quote related to a theme for that Sunday (FAQ). People are quite creative and pull quotes from some of the more esoteric corners of the Shakespearean canon. For me, the best part is simply participating with others actively interested in and sharing about the Bard.

-”Word Crown” in banner from tallforesttowers.tumblr.com

Ways to connect with Hollow Crown Fans:

Twitter

Twitter

Tumblr

Tumblr

facebookF

Facebook

 

The Interview:

Hollow Crown Fans Poster

by Mariamante Nevada.

 

• When did you first form and who make up HollowCrownFans?

HollowCrownFans was formed in July of 2012, while The Hollow Crown was airing in the UK, though originally our twitter handle name was different. We consist of two admins who are both Shakespeare enthusiasts, one from the United Kingdom and the other from the United States. We met on Twitter during the infamous Wimbledon delay when Henry IV Part 1 was airing. If it hadn’t been for tennis, we may have never met! Our Brit admin was an extra in ‘Henry V’ so you could say we were very early adopters of the series.

• What was the impetus to form HollowCrownFans?

The original mission was to create a group big enough to petition the BBC to release on-set photos of the making of The Hollow Crown in a book format. So many beautiful photos were taken by Charlie Gray, Joss Barrett, and Nick Briggs that we felt a companion book to the series would be the perfect complement…and still do! [the petition]

• Is your reason for the group changing over time?

The scope of the group’s purpose has changed – obviously we’ve outgrown our original mission but our core values stay consistent through changes in focus or priorities: to make Shakespeare approachable and accessible to everyone. Shakespeare still has the stereotype of being incomprehensible and only accessible by a “cultural elite”. We believe, on the other hand, that Shakespeare is demonstrably a part of pop culture and can be enjoyed and appreciated by anyone – a point we try and prove every single day.

• HollowCrownFans seem to form a rallying point for people to share their interest in Shakespeare (and Tom). I know I’ve made connections through #ShakespeareSunday. What have you seen of this community forming around HollowCrownFans and shared interests? What role has #ShakespeareSunday had in building the community? How has it grown?

We are most proud of our community first and foremost! It has spawned “Twitter friends” meeting up for in various cities around the world to seeing Joss Whedon’s ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ or to London to see one of the many Shakespeare productions put on this year or traveling to filming locations as tourists. We’ve seen at least one romance come of a #ShakespeareSunday introduction. And very recently, we connected two actors in a prominent ITV series together on Twitter!

We are constantly amazed by how much the community grows. Every time we think we’ve plateaued something comes along to boost us up again. Our community is so diverse and we are tremendously proud of that. Followers include Shakespeare enthusiasts, students, academics, practitioners (i.e. actors and directors), and institutions. Networks, production companies, publicists, media outlets following as well. And we’d be terribly remiss if we didn’t say that we have the incredible support and passion of Tom Hiddleston’s fan base as one of the largest constituencies. All this diversity makes it exciting for us to create content that is of interest and relevant to that wildly diverse following.

Drawn Henry V

by Kate Petrova.

• Where do see HollowCrownFans going in the next year or so? Where do you think your focus will lie?

The news of a second series of The Hollow Crown has breathed new and exciting life into our mission. We will be very focused on keeping up to date with the cast and production of that series and keeping our followers up to date on its progress. That’s something we didn’t have access to for the first series so we are working hard to get news out as it happens. We both definitely have some homework to do to get up to speed on the Henry VI’s and that journey will be shared with our followers.

• Do you see Benedict Cumberbatch’s role as Richard III bringing a new wave of interest and people (although clearly there is already a lot of shared fandom)?

The announcement of his casting in the role of Richard III immediately brought us a new wave of followers and interest. When first series of The Hollow Crown was cast, the two biggest leads (Ben Whishaw and Tom Hiddleston) were virtually unknowns. So given Benedict Cumberbatch is very much the buzz of Hollywood right now we’re very interested to see how this underwrites series 2’s popularity and anticipation.

• What’s the best part about HollowCrownFans?

The community without question. We learn so much from everyone and hope we help others learn too. It’s also been personally life changing for both of us, for so many reasons but it brought us together as great friends and you can’t put a price on that. We couldn’t do this if we weren’t great friends and a great team.

• What’s the biggest pain?

We have never had a bad day at HollowCrownFans so there are no great pains. The worst we can say is you can’t please everyone all of the time. Occasionally people are disappointed if we don’t take their suggestions or retweet them on #ShakespeareSunday but we do try our very best to never let anyone down.

• What kind of time do you spend keeping HollowCrownFans on Facebook, Twitter & Tumblr?

Because we’re on two continents we can provide coverage for news and engage activities for about 20 hours of a day if we wanted to!Sundayis our busiest day by far. We’ve never done time accounting but some days we do virtually nothing, and another day could be 4 hours of work! We work great as a team and we have loads of fun so whatever time we spend flies by.

Hollow Crown Fans Header

by Lula Madison.

• What’s your most active channel?

Twitter is by far our most active channel, then Tumblr and then Facebook. We’ve found Twitter to be where our community lies, Tumblr is where we see the most interactions for photos or videos. Facebook is an area we are keen to be more active in but it seems our audience engages primarily on Twitter.

• Do you know anything about the demographics of your followers? What countries we come from? Age ranges?

We only know what Twitter bios tell us. We’ve never invested in any analytics. We do know that we have followers from every continent except Antarctica. The greatest concentration of followers are from the UK and the US by far. As for ages, we have young students following as well as grandparents. We couldn’t even hazard a guess at what age group is best represented!

Thanks to the folks at Hollow Crown Fans for taking time to do the interview but most especially for putting the effort into getting the word out that the Bard is approachable and relevant and for encouraging a community of those who love Shakespeare. Here’s to a shared love of the Bard and the craft of acting.

For a deeper dive into the series that started it all, here’s a look back at a king who grasped for power and handed his crown to the disenfranchised, a king grasping the crown to give it over to a wayward son and the son who became a warrior king par excellence:

- The Hollow Crown – Richard II – A Beautifully Quirky and Intentional Production http://wp.me/p2XCwQ-kj
- The Hollow Crown – Henry IV Part I – From Hal to Prince Henry, a delightful study of character http://wp.me/p2XCwQ-kY
- The Hollow Crown – Henry IV Part 2 – From Prince Henry to King Henry V http://wp.me/p2XCwQ-lK
- The Hollow Crown – Henry V – Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more http://wp.me/p2XCwQ-mb

 

…let us sit upon the ground And tell sad stories of the death of kings; How some have been deposed; some slain in war, Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed; Some poison’d by their wives: some sleeping kill’d; All murder’d: for within the hollow crown That rounds the mortal temples of a king. Richard II

 

The Mad Scientist’s Daughter Review: An Exquisite, Provocative Tale of Transforming Love and Personal Identity

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The Mad Scientist's Daughter -Large

There is an epic sweep to this book not only because it takes place over much of a lifetime, but it deals with core issues:

  • How do we find our identity and calling in a world where convention and societal pressure would have us choose a safe and deadening path?
  • How do we risk ourselves to truly abandon our self-focus to love another, not just love our image of another but love the person, in the midst of a world filled with pain and loss
  • Can we let go of our self-focus, our enlightened self-interest and ought we?
Cassandra Rose Clarke

Cassandra Rose Clarke

Cassandra Rose Clarke brilliantly explores these issues and more in The Mad Scientist’s Daughter. Science fiction has always been a great medium to explore issues since we’re pulled out of our culture, and its related blinders, into another world with less pre-built conceptions. Ms. Clarke takes a future earth, which is so much like our own, with all our current foibles, some additional challenges and capabilities. The story centers around Caterina Novak and Finn. Cat is the daughter in the title and Finn, an android unique in his understanding and consciousness.

The Novak family (initiated by Daniel Novak, Cat’s father, who had a hand in Finn’s creation) takes him in. Not knowing what else to do with him, he’s made Cat’s tutor. To Cat, Finn knows all things, is unflinchingly loyal and gives her his complete attention all of the time their together. There isn’t anything he won’t do for her. He is, in short, apparently perfect and what we seek in men but find only in God. Cat, it almost goes without saying, falls in love with Finn. Any intimate relationship between a human and an android is fraught with obstacles. Ms. Clarke deals with these issues in a poignant and authentic manner even while they occur in an alien and made up world. This world contains just enough geekery to keep the SciFi fan happy, but it is not hard science fiction.

There are no pat answers or story lines here; whenever I think I have a character or the narrative direction down, it zags. Hearts ache, people let one another down and, as in much of life, things don’t go according to plan. Everyone is a bit marred, some more than others. The thread of genuine care, of loving one another, is woven throughout the story, even in its darkest moments. I can say little more on the story without leaning perilously close to the spoiler line, so I’ll simply say that this is your story played out on a different canvas with alternate choice points. You will see yourself in this world. You will look to the time you’ve caved into peer pressure, doing what was expected of you. You will remember the times you stood firm and told the world to go fly a kite. You will find the characters engaging, multi-dimensional and yet not quite like anyone you’ve met. I will say more below the spoiler warning, but I highly recommend the book both for sheer entertainment of a well-written story but also for the challenges it lies at our feet.

Finn Alone

Much of the story is also about our identity: what is our place and purpose in the world. Who are we at our core. Both Finn and Cat take a long journey, often filled with pain, to find the answer to these questions. Of course, part of that answer is who they are together. Ms. Clarke obliquely deals with the question of Finn’s personhood and sentience. Mostly, it is simply a given that he is fully sentient.

Kate Rudd

Kate Rudd

I listened to much of the story on the Audible version (flipping between the Kindle and the Audible version with Whispersync for Voice). Kate Rudd narrates the story. I first heard Ms. Rudd perform John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars. She is fast becoming one of my favorite narrators and performs this book admirably. One of the brilliant choice points was to play Finn with a totally flat, neutral voice. This may seem obvious for an android but I’ve heard them done with very artificial robotic voices. This is done with flat, even timing and tone but it never feels artificial. Certainly her performance drew me in and allowed me to get lost in the novel.

***Spoiler Alert. There are MAJOR reveals past this point***
Cat, it seems, falls for Finn, in part, due to his unconditional love and nearly limitless attention. It becomes clear over time, however, that she begins to treat Finn as we so easily treat God; as if he is there for our needs when we want him the way we want him. He is remade in the image of a caretaker, not a person with whom to have a close relationship. After all, it is all about us. Cat could genuinely care for others, but her compass ultimately pointed to herself. This is in the context of some pretty strong isolation in a fairly provincially minded community. She also has to contend with worried parents who think she is too involved too young.  So, while we understand her stunted relationships, not only with Finn, but pretty much with everyone she encounters, she is nonetheless culpable for her limitations.

Cat has a roller coaster time of it, but ultimately settles into a life of art mixed with convention. She dates a guy partly because she believes he won’t want a long term commitment. Ultimately, they marry but essentially simply use each other until Richard becomes abusive. Cat literally lives in a glass house in a life she hates. She longs for Finn (they’ve even had a form of sex by this point) but stays within expected boundaries.

Lest we become unsympathetic to Cat, we must remember that the taboo against Finn and her together are unparalleled. Moreover, Finn ultimately is unable to show all that he feels, until the very end. Again, this is like us; we settle for this world and warped relationships when God calls to relationship with Him and a fuller relationship with one another. As with so many of us, it takes death and loss to finally break through the shell we have made for ourselves. Finn is finally able to fully feel, to have a full relationship with Cat (except she is married at the time). He instead leaves for the moon. It also takes hope to risk love. Cat’s son provides current joy and future hope for her. Finally, Cat realizes that she didn’t really treat Finn as a true person, despite protestations otherwise. She used Finn. She had a relationship with the Finn of her making. Finn confronts Cat with his own recognition of this and they reconcile. They find redemption, although not perfection, in true love.

There is so much here that resonates with our lives. We bind ourselves to worldly expectations and goals. We respond to all around us as if we are the center of the universe. It is good or bad in relation to how it is for us, directly or indirectly. Yet we are free and most truly ourselves when we let go of our desires and orient ourselves to others in ultimate orientation to our Beloved. It is indeed love that sets us free, but it is the freeing love of God that removes the scales off our eyes and the shackles of this world. It is that love which frees us to truly love and serve others.[Full disclosure: I am a Christian.]

This may not have been the intended conclusion from Ms. Clarke, but I could not help but see the parallel with our relationship with God and each other. We crave unconditional love and are always disappointed with the love we actually receive; even the best of us are merely human. We crave significance but often settle to match what is expected of us. We are, however, like Cat, a mixed bag. We are unfettered in some ways and enslaved in others. Like Cat, we are blind to our fetters until another can release them. Like Cat, we only enter into true relationship when we recognize that the reward isn’t what the person can do for us, but the person himself. God Himself is our great reward and treasure in Christ Jesus, not His ability to intervene in our lives to make them easier. He must enable us to move past ourselves and the limitations of having a relationship with an image we’ve conjured for ourselves. No, it is Him who loves us, not our construct of Him. It is both our joy and duty to enjoy Him, to revel in Him.

So while the story is delightful as a story of love and loss between people, it strikes me that there is another layer to it; a story of our being set free to truly love God by his extraordinary love and power.

Book Covers & Book Design – They matter more than ever in a digital age.

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MadScientistsDaughter-Large

OK, just feast your eyes. Take it all in. This is an ideal example of a nearly perfect book cover. The folks at ARGH! Oxford have done a beautiful job with Cassandra Rose Clarke’s The Mad Scientist’s Daughter. Not that I want to over-analyze beauty, but this particular cover accomplishes so much while being breathtakingly gorgeous. First, let’s look at the design. The font tells you this has a literary focus, not a science one. A lone man on a lone road. There’s some serious estrangement going on somewhere in this novel, with possibly some longing. (OK, I may be reading this in after the fact of, well, reading, but it fits). The moon plays a role and it’s not just a big, ole honkin’ cool moon; it has slight overlay of bits that aren’t showing like an architect’s blue print. There’s the slight fuzziness of it all. Somewhat like impressions that don’t quite come into sharp focus. Then there’s the line - A Tale of Love, Loss and Robots.  I’m all in. Right now, before I even open a page (virtual or otherwise).

Hey, it even looks good as many of us will see it:

Mad Scient

Mad Scientist’s Daughter Cover on Kindle

I first encountered this cover some time ago, even before publication I think. Knowing, at the time, pretty much nothing about it and the author, I still almost bought it (or pre-ordered) on the spot just for the cover and the brief publication blurb. However, my TBR list was already quite extensive, so I waited. I try not to buy books if I know I can’t get to them anytime soon. Since that time, I’ve read Ms. Clarke’s Assassin’s Curse (really good but very different novel; more here); I’ve also listened to Kate Rudd narrate The Fault in Our Stars; she performs The Mad Scientist’s Daughter as well.  I would encounter the book from time to time and, strangely enough, I kept on thinking I already bought it (wishful thinking). Well, I finally ended the charade and purchased the book, Kindle & Audible versions. (I’m a little over two-thirds done. It’s amazing. Every time I think I’ve got everything down, it surprises me. I’m absolutely loving it and Ms. Rudd’s performance.)

Here’s the kicker: the cover was so stark in its beauty that it stood out each time I saw it. Even as I moved on to other works I already planned to read, it stuck with me. I could not forget it. Resistance was futile; it was inevitable that I would buy the book. Now that’s visual power. I am a logophile. I thoroughly believe that content is king. Moreover, if Ms. Clarke’s writing didn’t live up to such a cover as this, the disappointment would likely have put me off her work forever. Nicely enough – it was a perfect fit. The salient point is this: great covers still sell books in a virtual world. To my indie author friends – seriously, if at all possible, pay for great graphics and design.

Covers of Angry Robot books

Some covers of Angry Robot books

Which brings me to the other part of this equation – fitness. The cover needs to be more than just beautiful. It needs to fit the work. All of it – from font to finish & tag line to tint – it all needs to work together. At the beginning of this post, I argued that this was a particularly apt cover since it seemed to resonate so well with elements of the story. I may have overstated my case, but I believe it’s true nonetheless. ARCH! Oxford seems to have a great sense of this, especially when they work in concert with Angry Robots. Some of their covers aren’t what I would call beautiful, e.g., Wesley Chu’s Lives of Tao, but they are a perfect fit. They convey a bit about the book in a memorable way. While this doesn’t solve the challenge of how you get your book to stand out in a world flooded with books, it certainly seems one way to help.

iDLarge

Lest you think I’m blinded to all other designers, another book that I initially decided to read almost completely based on the cover is Madeline Ashby’s iD, cover work done by Martin Bland. This is a sequel to vN and I still read it when I rarely read out of sequence (I still have to finish vN). That’s visual power. This brings up another point – Angry Robots gets the importance of good covers and, overall, good design. They almost always insure a great cover to fit the books they publish.

 

Finally, another set of perfect (non-Angry Robot) covers come from the collaboration of Victoria Maderna & Federico Piatti for Michael Martinez’s incredibly fun The Daedalus Incident which presumes a pure-play modern science fiction with a hint at old world, kind of like how the book starts:

Daedalus Incident Cover

and Lauren Saint-Onge for his The Enceladus Crisis which coveys old-world sailing and space.

EnceladusCrisisCoverLarge

 

I would also argue for the importance of font choices and design inside of Kindle books (and ebooks in general); that it’s worth the effort to embed your own font (even if the Paperwhite’s Palatino Linotype is awfully sweet) and yes Amazon publishing allows this as well as control over design elements and illustrations, but that’s another post.

 

The Word Exchange: An Excellent and Exacting Novel

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The Word Exchange

Alena Graedon’s The Word Exchange is a thought provoking and entertaining read about our relationship with smart things and each other. It is a dense work that requires effort to read, albeit a well rewarded effort. [Note: I did receive this from NetGalley as an advanced review copy in anticipation for an objective review.]

Alena Graedon

Alena Graedon

In Ms. Graedon’s world, people are ceding their memories and vocabularies to their Meme (AKA smartphone on steroids). Memes also predict needs; hail cabs when you want one, order groceries when you’re low and set up a doctor’s appointment when you’re feeling sick. As people become more dependent upon them, they become less capable and their Memes become smarter. In the midst of this dependency, a virus spreads effecting both men and machines. Our technological crutch (and its infrastructure) fails, as well as our own language. Some also become physically sick.

This isn’t necessarily new ground, however Ms. Graedon’s treatment brings the focus on language (without language, can we think?) and a realistic rendering of the potential impact of future devices given their current capabilities. These issues are brought up in the context of an excellent techo-thriller. It’s also brilliant timing. Whether you’re seeing Her or reading Cassandra Rose Clarke’s The Mad Scientists Daughter, or simply reading today’s headlines, this is a primary issue for our age. (Additional reflections on our use of smart things here.)

Now a few words about the effort involved in reading this work. Much of the milieu of Ms. Graedon’s world is among lexicographers and other literati; they have both a technical lexicographical and simply more varied vocabulary than most. Ms. Graedon breaks the “Mark Twain Rule”: “Don’t use a five-dollar word when a fifty-cent word will do.” In this context, it makes sense to do. There are lots of ten dollar words in this book; the story itself suggests they’re worth the effort to look up. It’s also clear, that The Word Exchange is an homage to words and Ms. Graedon’s love affair with them.  There is the additional challenge of the aforementioned “word flu”; we read from the perspective of an infected person on a number of occasions as well as simply engage with the afflicted whose speech is peppered with artificial neologisms. So, if you have my meager vocabulary, you’re already looking up a word every other page and now new terms are introduced that may be fake. As the “flu” spreads, less of the speech makes sense. This is sort of like have the camera’s point of view for someone under the influence. It distorts your perspective, but gives you a sense of what they’re experiencing. It also has a fairly complicated plot with many characters. Finally, there are even footnotes. This is rare and typically unwelcome in a novel. Again, in the context of these lexicographers, academics and other word-devotees, it actually works. Yet, the novel never has a dry, academic feel; it’s primarily about relationships and, to put it bluntly, saving the world.

My personal protection from the Word Flu - Compact OED

My personal protection from the Word Flu – Compact OED

I was keenly aware of the irony of reading The Word Exchange on my Kindle, using it’s built in dictionary with a touch and seeing definitions pop-up. An author and fellow blogger Mr. Scott Whitmore, had a similar sense and also pointed out that the big, bad Synchronic may be loosely based on the big, bad Amazon. I presume the dictionary on my Kindle to be accurate and the Kindle versions of books to accurately reflect the novels. I have automatic updates turned on for my Kindle account. This is great way to receive revisions and errata. It would also be a great way to infuse different meanings and phrases into a work. Yes, that’s a little conspiracy minded (I haven’t changed my account setting), but it’s still a little unsettling. Especially since, after disgorging many volumes following a number of moves during my lifetime, the majority of my library is virtual.

I hope I have conveyed why the effort of reading the novel is worth the bother. It’s not unlike the novel’s erstwhile spelunkers of New York’s underground: there’s a bit of effort to receive a whole new viewpoint. Finally, there have been a number of reviews that suggest the book could do with a bit of tightening. While a bit more editing may be in order, I’ll simply say that I enjoyed all of it. I even found heavily Word Flu influenced dialogue intriguing if not enjoyable to read.

***Some light spoilers***

It’s interesting to me that Ms. Graedon went exclusively as loosing words and not language structure. Our grammar seemed safe. This is interesting on a number of notes. If you look at Noam Chomsky’s arguments for our have innate language ability and later arguments that tie meaning to structure (ala Richard Montague and Barbara Partee). So, it seems a bit much that we would retain our language structure with simply fake words placed in it. Maybe that’s further deterioration into silence.

Another aspect of the book I really liked is that she didn’t overdo the thriller/chase aspect. It was just the right element of threat and fear without sliding into some world in which nefarious deeds weren’t inline with the perpetrator’s self-interest. I loved the fact that those who initiated what they hoped would be a controlled virus got out of hand and backfired on themselves. I hate all of the loss, of course. However, the very countries and hackers that appear to have been initiated the virus were similarly plagued by it should (but probably won’t) dissuade them from future similar. activity. It also provided the sheer satisfaction That they received their comeuppance.

Our Relationship with Smart Things: Dehumanizing or Singularity Embraced?

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The Mad- Sientist's Daughter

There are these times in our lives when certain themes come to the fore; for me, it’s the weird relationship we have with things. I’m in the midst of reading The Word Exchange which is partly about becoming less human and more dependent on machines through losing language and giving up our memories to machines. I’m also reading The Mad Scientist’s Daughter which is about a relationship with an Android and along comes Her, a movie about a relationship with an OS. We’re seeing our lives become more entangled with devices; I don’t remember phone numbers or addresses, I look them up or just tell my phone “call so-and-so” or “find the nearest Starbucks”. Facebook reminds me of people’s birthdays and sends me an email with whose birthday is coming up that week. FollowUpThen.com sends me reminders of my “todos”. Beats music curates a list of the music to which I wish to listen. Windows Phone Cortana (a Siri like product in the next OS update) that will whisper in my ear that today is the birthday of the person with whom I’m on the phone.  This list goes on.

word-exchange-by-alena-graedon

As devices seem to become more human, are we giving up our humanity? When I hand over a task such as a reminder for a dentist visit, am I on safe ground? What about using my Kindle to touch a word and have it look it up for me; am I losing language or, at least, not growing my vocabulary? I don’t know the answers but once again literary fiction leads the way in asking the questions. Of course, this has been going on for some time; whether it’s Philip K Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? or its related Blade Runner or Rosa Montero’s Tears in Rain to the movie Artificial Intelligence: AI, we have been dealing with this potential relationship between people and “things” that serve us ever since the potent for sentient artificial beings crossed our minds. I suspect that there is no right answer. Being utterly Luddite and dumping technology doesn’t seem to be the answer nor does unmitigated reliance on it. As usual, the answer lies somewhere in between. I think the adage “choose wisely” applies more aptly than “moderation in all things.” (Who would have thought that Indiana Jones would beat out Aristotle?)

We are more immersed in our technology than ever before. Whether it’s Pandora’s building on our musical tastes or smart phones augmenting our memories to wearable tech telling us when to get up and how our body is doing, we have become more dependent on these services. I suppose, if nothing else, we need to move forward carefully and reflectively.  Convenience has its price, whether it’s loss of privacy or loss of capability. We need to go in with eyes wide open and a willingness to forgo convenience when inconvenience is better. I guess it all comes down to being self-aware.

 

Divergent Movie Review: Compelling Drama, Cogent Acting and with a Consequential Point

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Divergent Poster by Blantonl13

Divergent Poster by Blantonl13

Divergent ably embodies the book within the medium of film; that is a non-trivial and rare accomplishment. Some have gone on to say that it’s better than the book; not so much. Although I do think the film better conveys the drive of Dauntless and the fighting, much of Tris’s development and building of her relationships don’t make it into the film. Nuances are missing as well. However, it is one of the best book-to-movie transitions I’ve witnessed (along with the Hunger Game series) in recent years. I think Veronica Roth’s involvement as well as using a really good but not ultra-famous cast helped. Also, there were the eyes: both Shailene Woodley and Theo James eyes were able to convey so much. (My 18 year old daughter made this point to me after she plunged into the Mr. James’ eyes; despite said swimming in the pools of his eyes, I have to concur). I believe the novel also lends itself to film. By that I do not mean it’s shallow; rather much of the struggle that occurs is within dialogue and response to the world around the characters rather than internal reflection. I also mean that it is a well written book (for more about the story itself, please see my Divergent book review).

Veronica Roth as an extra with the cast.

Veronica Roth as an extra with the cast.

Divergent is an engaging action film, love story and political commentary. It is about relationships and community while focusing on what we do as individuals within that community. There is no loss of self in Abgenation even whilst letting go of one’s agenda and ego. Some of the irony here is that the Erudite do suffer from the vice of arrogance due to their gift of intelligence, even as they accuse the Abgenation that they keep the government back through giving to the factionless and through their own greed. So we see in this film a government attempting to control people through factions and expectations to avoid a World War IV (since they’re trying to recover from WW III). So why do we love Divergent so much? Isn’t it just another movie with a teenage girl protagonist who is more capable than she realizes, more attractive than she hopes and in more danger than she than she fully fathoms? Haven’t we already seen this in the Twilight (Bella), Hunger Games (Katniss), Beautiful Creatures (Lena) or Immortal Instruments, City of Bones (Claire) series? While there are many similarities, only Tris and Katniss fight against repressive governments, have no special powers (although they do have various gifts) and only Tris is trained to fight. Divergent also more directly shows the benefit of family, fighting against this notion of “Faction over family.” Only Divergent has a 1-1 love relationship while the others are more entangled. I also like the Tris isn’t just fighting for “freedom’s” sake but for family and friends and in self-preservation. Too often we see freedom as the highest value rather than how we use that freedom; even the Hunger Games series suggests that today’s freedom fighters may, all too easily, become tomorrow’s oppressive government.

Tris & 4

Combining competition and rivalry juxtaposed with love and trust wrapped into action and intrigue are some of the reasons we love Divergent. As I indicated in my book review, my teenage boys thought this would be a copy-cat also-ran. It is not. It stands on it own and does so in surprisingly good ways.  It doesn’t hurt to have a good ensemble cast ably directed and great source material. It also doesn’t hurt to have an amazing soundtrack interspersed the dulcet tones of Ellie Goulding:

I encourage you to see the movie; you’ll come to love Tris and 4. Ashley Judd does an amazing job in relatively brief screen time of fleshing out care and compassion in Natalie (Tris’ mom). I also encourage you to read the book.

Divergent Movie Poster

 

The Fault in Our Stars Reviewed: An Authentic, Comedic Tragedy of Life and Loss

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The Fault In Our Stars Cover

This is a story of lives lived out in a compacted time due to cancer. I will not give the line that these two lived more in their brief time together than most live in longer lives, although that may be true. I will say that their time together is authentically loving. I think that is both the tragedy and the allure of the book. Well, the writing might be a bit of a draw as well, of course. I’m reminded of that famous Camus line: “Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth.”  If this were simply a tragedy, people would sense that they ought to read it, but never would. If this were simply a snarky take on an utterly rapacious disease, it would become a cult classic and treasured for one liners (which, surely, it is). This is a beautifully written tale of witty, bright teens dealing with life, love and cancer with care and humor. The tears flow as much from the sense of humor as from the pain and loss. It’s precisely because they’re willing to look at their lives head on and with humor and hate, with cleverness and crying that we are so moved.

In the midst of their struggle with cancer, Hazel Grace and Augustus Waters come to love one another and help each other look for meaning in their lot in life. They often do this by reflecting on people, games, books and ideas other than cancer. They would, as Lewis Carroll gave us:

 …talk of many things:
Of shoes–and ships–and sealing-wax–
Of cabbages–and kings–
And why the sea is boiling hot–
And whether pigs have wings.”

 Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, 1872

Their favorite thing, however, is the fictional work An Imperial Affliction authored by Peter Van Houten. This provides the fodder for their discussions and seems to provide the most comfort in being “understood.” It avoids the many platitudes and conventional wisdom through which they must navigate. A crucial point in this reflecting through fiction comes from Cassius’ conversation with Brutus prior to their attack on Caesar:

Men at some time are masters of their fates: The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, But in ourselves

Julius Caesar – Shakespeare

The point made by Van Houten is that there is plenty of fault in our stars; there is much in our circumstances for which we’re not responsible; for Augustus and Hazel Grace, this would be cancer. I would have to agree. There is much for which I may claim no credit: parents who loved me unconditionally, relatively good health, a bride who has loved and accepted me for over 20 years and children who care for one another (and mostly show it). Most of all, I am not responsible for a loving God who gave His only son to die and pay my deserved penalty for my sin. (Full disclosure: somewhat obviously, I am an orthodox Christian, not the Greek or Russian kind, but the Luther and Calvin sort.) You may be surprised that I so clearly love a book that is so irreverent. It appears to me that its irreverence is directed at a saccharine-coated, empty, sentimental, “Christianity”, not the one where the Son of God goes to a cross for those who trust in Him. I applaud the book’s rejection of tripe and its honest struggle for meaning ala:

Given the final futility of our struggle, is the fleeting jolt of meaning that art gives us valuable? Or is the only value in passing the time as comfortably as possible? What should a story seek to emulate, Augustus? A ringing alarm? A call to arms? A morphine drip? Of course, like all interrogation of the universe, this line of inquiry inevitably reduces us to asking what it means to be human and whether—to borrow a phrase from the angst-encumbered sixteen-year-olds you no doubt revile—there is a point to it all.

While I don’t believe our lives our futile and do believe there is hope in Christ, I also don’t pretend to have the answers to the horror and pain in the world. Surely much of it falls squarely on our fallen state, but why this one is so seemingly blessed and that one cut off short, I don’t know. I do know the gracious love of Christ and that is enough. Do not ever suggest, however, that knowing God’s grace makes anyone immune from “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune;” it does, however, enable us to weather it better. As Mr. Green points out on multiple occasions, “Pain demands to be felt.”

Just for the record – Cancer sucks. Diabetes sucks. Death sucks.

John Green TED Talks

John Green – TEDx Indianapolis

Now for the writing. First, any time you receive a missive from Peter Van Houten, you receive great writing; witness the reflection of our futile struggle above. Not only is the dialog crisp, devoid of cliché and abundant in snarkiness, it is some of the most quotable writing today. This is the epitome of sharp, witty and thoughtful YA literature. Some of the quotes you’ll see peppered across fan art on the internet are:

You realize that trying to keep your distance from me will not lessen my affection for you,” he said. “I guess?” I said. “All efforts to save me from you will fail,” he said

Why would you even like me? Haven’t you put yourself through enough of this?” I asked, thinking of Caroline Mather [former girlfriend who died from cancer] You are so busy being you that you have no idea how utterly unprecedented you are.

My thoughts are stars I can’t fathom into constellations.

I’m a grenade and at some point I’m going to blow up and I would like to minimize the casualties, okay?

Ad infinitum. Many more quotes abound. Witness Indy Taylor’s quotable construct:

Indy Taylor's fan art in-dy.tumblr.com

Indy Taylor’s fan art in-dy.tumblr.com

As is my habit, I jumped between the Kindle and Audible versions of the book using Whispersync for Voice. Kate Rudd had a challenge set before her in the narration of the book: breathless but snarky cancer-ridden teenage girl, confident but sensitive teenage boy and Dutch accents. She must cry and laugh but enunciate enough that we understand her. She does all of this and more. She refers to her work as performing a book, not narrating it. I think that’s an accurate assessment. I especially like how she portrays Augustus Waters’ confidence in his pacing as well as his tone. Admirably done Ms. Rudd.

Kate Rudd

Kate Rudd

If I haven’t been clear so far, let me be so now – I whole-heartedly encourage you to read the book; you might want to have a few tissues by your side both for tears of laughter and of pain.

In Defense of True Endings: A Reader’s Plea

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Often novels come as part of a series. Typically, this is good for everyone: writers can delve deeper since a back-story has been established, readers know what they’re getting into in later books and publishers have some predictability in a capricious industry. Lovely. It has, however, led to the pernicious habit of not fully completing a book, by which I mean no major issue raised in the book is brought to resolution. The book cannot stand on its own outside of the series.

Falling Book

Help!  Stand on your own!

Was it the evil influence of the otherwise benign publishers Allen and Unwin (now part of HarperCollins) who started this evil trend by deciding to break up Lord of the Rings into three books? Maybe we should lay this trend at the feet of Charles Dickens and his serial publishing. Whatever its origins, this is a plea to stop (not series, but incomplete books in a series). Even Fellowship of the Ring has some resolution despite its origins as part of a single book. There are authors whom I respect and whose work I love that have the “just stop, don’t end” disease. Two recent examples that come to mind are Patrick Rothfuss’s KingKiller Chronicles, Cassandra Rose Clarke’s Assassin’s Curse-related series. Delightful books except they have no end.

Randy Lyhus’s Unfinished Bridge

They lead us on the these incredibly great journeys overlooking beautiful worlds and leave us hanging. Now, this is not a request for no cliff-hangers or to avoid foreshadowing the future. I’m fine with pointing to more on future literary horizons, whetting our appetite with hints of further vistas in the next book and for the journey to be a partial one. I’m actually OK with leaving some ends untied even at the completion of a series. This is a plea to have some resolution in each book. We should move on to the next book because we love it, not simply to answer unresolved questions. There may be some thought that this is a good way to capture readers. First, we’ll only do it so long and second, we won’t fall into this trap again. That is, we’ll avoid future work in any new books, especially any new series, by authors who refuse to complete each book. Adopt the golden rule on this, my dear author friends. Would you like to listen to a symphony with unresolved themes or books with utterly unresolved plot components? Remember, it’s likely to be a year or two down the line until we’ll have access to that resolution. It is possible to wrap-up while leaving the next part of the story to be told. Hugh Howey’s Wool is a great example. It was essentially written as a series of novellas that became available in the Omnibus (single book) edition. Even with such relatively short pieces, Mr. Howey wrapped-up the sub-plot in each novella even while leaving room for the next part of the story. Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone was complete even with six more books to come. Yes, we want to hear about Hogwarts for next year, but year one is complete. Shoot, I would love to find out what’s going on with Harry and Ginny and their children, but all good tales must come to an end.

Woman Walking on Pages

Emma Newman handles this nicely in her Split Worlds series, building a bridge between each work. Each book in the trilogy is completed even whilst we look forward to the next one. One of the things she conveys is a recognition that a story is a point-in-time picture. She builds her world so that it’s quite clear that it was vibrant before the events in her books and it will go on long after all of the characters we’ve come to know and love are no longer part of the story. Mr. Tolkien is quite explicit regarding this notion:

And why , sir, I never thought of that before! We’ve got – you’ve got some of the light of it in that star-glass that the Lady gave you! Why , to think of it, we’re in the same tale still! It’s going on. Don’t the great tales never end?’ ‘No, they never end as tales,’ said Frodo. ‘But the people in them come, and go when their part’s ended. Our part will end later – or sooner.’

Tolkien, J.R.R. (2012-02-15). The Two Towers: Being the Second Part of The Lord of the Rings (p. 363). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.

We should have a sense that the tale is told but there’s more to come (if it’s in a series). Too often we come away with the notion that the tale is partially told and we’ll get the full tale later. We are abandoned for the year or two in between.

Dead_End_Road

Please don’t leave us stranded. Bring to conclusion your book so that part of the journey is done. Yet it is part of the never ending story and, nicely enough, you, dear author, are going to give us a glimpse of a part of that story in your next book in the series. Indeed, I would even recommend to all writers that they should do one book that is completely stand alone; not part of a series.

Thank you for your stories, but let the words ring true: “That’s a wrap.”

 

Assassin’s Curse Reviewed: Cassandra Rose Clarke’s Enthralling Tale

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The Assassin's Curse

While many of the ingredients in Ms. Clarke’s story aren’t particularly novel, such as a young lady fleeing from an arranged marriage, having to throw her lot in with an apparent bad guy and being chased across the globe by true evil, she weaves them together and binds them into a tale that is both original and enthralling.

CassandraRoseClarke

Cassandra Rose Clarke

Ms. Clarke has a stark and rich sense of place. There are disparate areas of her world, town, desert, sea and island, that stand in sharp relief due to her vivid detail and the seamless way they are incorporated into the narrative. Similarly, her characters are rooted to their place in the world so that travel, their responses within these other environs are understood through their contrast to “home”. One senses the smells, noise and people of the town, the burning sand and terrible thirst of the desert and the splash of spray on the sea in the midst of action. We see the awkwardness of the pirate in the dunes and the uselessness of the desert assassin on the sea. Even as the characters remain true to their form, they are not wooden. Their relationships seem to be on shifting ground and nothing is certain. Ms. Clarke nicely juxtaposes Ananna’s impulsive, in-the-moment personality with Naji’s careful, planning one. Overall, it’s a delightful adventure seen mainly through the eyes of our protagonist, Ananna, and her journey with her would-be assassin turned bodyguard. Let me put it this way: I stayed up later than I should reading it, lingered longer in the car listening to the Audible version and generally spent any spare moment in the book. Most telling of all, I’ve already bought and downloaded its sequel The Pirate’s Wish.

Ananna

Fan art of Ananna by Faith Erin Hicks (faitherinhicks.tumblr.com)

I have two quibbles with The Assassin’s Curse: Ananna’s dialect and the ending (don’t worry, no spoilers). Ananna has been raised as the daughter of a pirate captain, so she learns to read but is not formally educated. This is portrayed in her occasional bad grammar, as in: “I ain’t never been one to trust beautiful people”  or “I ain’t had no say in it”. The problem is that this is told from her perspective and that inner voice tends to use good grammar albeit bits of uneducated speech is peppered in. In other words, the use of the dialect is inconsistent enough to be unconvincing. This isn’t a huge problem but more of an occasional irritant that pulls me out of the moment.

ThePiratesWish

Ms. Clarke follows a current trend of breaking up a book into digestible parts. In The Assassin’s Curse, almost none of the issues raised during the book are resolved. So while the ending is not abrupt, it is unsatisfying. I’m OK with cliff hangers and whetting our appetite for the next book, but a book ought to be able to stand on its own; this book does not. It’s not just that I want more (that’s the good thing), but that I want some resolution. However, The Pirate’s Wish is available, so all is forgiven. I do hate this trend in series, however.

Tania Rodrigues

Tania Rodrigues

As I often do, I switched between the Kindle and the Audible version. Tania Rodrigues really nails the narration. She deftly jumps between Ananna and her erstwhile assassin, Naji. Pacing and enunciation are perfect even while she vocally portrays the drama of the various situations the characters inhabit. This is the first book Ms. Rodrigues narrates that I’ve heard; she’s first rate. (As of this post, Assassin’s Curse seems no longer available on Audible. I hope that’s rectified soon.)

So, set out on this journey with Ananna and Naji, brave the desert, slice through the seas and discover mysteries on an island; it’s a grand adventure.

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