The best of 2017

2017 was a pretty dizzyingly great year for pop culture, with some genuinely classic albums, movies, TV shows, books and moments. Here’s our take on some of the revelations of the year, as well as our attempt to identify the ULTIMATE THING OF THE YEAR.

REVELATIONS OF THE YEAR

Just how good Jason Bateman is at directing. Like, really, seriously good. OZARK was a revelation in many ways (across-the-board excellent performances being one of them), but in large part because of Bateman’s effortlessly expert and dynamic way with shooting scenes.

Ozark JB

How many of THE FORCE AWAKENS’ plot points Rian Johnson could casually toss over his shoulder in THE LAST JEDI and still craft such a richly extraordinary, franchise-redefining experience.

TLJ Leia 2

How DOCTOR WHO could make us fall in love with a new Doctor with just one word (“brilliant!”).

Dr Who first moment

How much more fun GAME OF THRONES is when characters don’t have to travel in real time anymore.

got7_0420_3980_layout_v553_.JPG

On a related note… ICE DRAGON!!!

ice dragon

Porgs tho.

TLJ porg

How STRANGER THINGS could so successfully shift gears right before the finale in the clearly brilliant episode seven where Eleven goes looking for her sister (much of which was down to the truly astonishing, visceral directing of Becca Lou Thomas – give her all the franchise immediately!).

ST ep 7

GLOW showed us that a TV show about a cheesy 80s ladies wrestling TV show could be revelatory, inspiring and addictive, and could give Alison Brie and Betty Gilpin beautiful and fantastic roles that they so wonderfully OWNED.

GLOW Ep 7 Transformers

That in the midst of the SUICIDE SQUAD and JUSTICE LEAGUE dust-ups, the DCEU managed to bring us one of the year’s defining and most inspiring movies in WONDER WOMAN.

WW no mans land

2017 in photo form

TOM HOLLAND IN SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING.

spider-man TH and RDJ

In fact, all of SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING

spider-man ship

Trying to keep it together in 2017

We all know M. Night Shyamalan is a genius director and James McAvoy is one of our greatest living actors, but that still didn’t prepare us for quite how flawless, atmospheric, terrifying, emotional and powerful SPLIT would be. And it definitely didn’t prepare us for THAT ENDING, nor the fact that GLASS will be released in a year’s time!

split JM

How dropping the X-Men movies’ increasingly complex timelines allowed James Mangold to create the elegiac yet emotionally bone-crunching LOGAN and deliver not only the greatest X-Men movie of all time, but also one of the greatest movies of all time.

logan comic book

Ryan Graudin showed us how utterly fresh and unexpected and moving and romantic a dazzlingly complex and breathlessly tense time travel story could be with her masterpiece INVICTUS.

Invictus cover

ULTIMATE THING OF THE YEAR

OK. Here goes. It’s tough. Really tough. You had Alison Brie in GLOW, Porgs, an ice dragon, STRANGER THINGS, the Spider-Man we’ve always needed, a hugely inspiring and moving female superhero movie courtesy of Gal Godot and Patty Jenkins, the greatest Wolverine movie ever (and one of the standout movies of the year) in LOGAN, one of the purest and most inspiring performances of one of the greatest superheroes ever from Melissa Benoist in the CW’s SUPERGIRL, Porgs, one of Patrick Ness’s most quietly stunning and ambitious novels yet (RELEASE), one of the most hypnotically beautiful novels ever written (Laini Taylor’s STRANGE THE DREAMER), Laura Dern’s purple-haired and unpredictable brilliance in THE LAST JEDI, which was also a STAR WARS movie that felt like nothing we’ve ever seen before while connecting so deeply to our love for the franchise, a knockout YA Princess Leia novel from the queen of five-star Star Wars novels Claudia Gray (LEIA, PRINCESS OF ALDERAAN not only showed us the future general in the making and the very beginnings of the Rebellion, but also beautifully depicted Leia’s childhood friendship with future Vice-Admiral Holdo), a dark, funny and emotional DOCTOR WHO spin-off show called CLASS that was absolutely—thanks to showrunner Patrick Ness and his wonderful cast—one of the great shows of this year (or any year), Porgs, and a time travel YA sci-fi that was maybe the most fun and brilliantly constructed piece of pop culture this year in Ryan Graudin’s INVICTUS… DAMN. That’s Kendrick’s masterpiece, not an exclamation, although, damn… What a pop culture year to celebrate!

However, if we have to choose one thing, somewhat inevitably, it’s gotta be… THE LAST JEDI.

TLJ Holdo

Vice-Admiral Holdo, one of The Last Jedi’s most original, awesome, inspired and inspiring new characters

Rian Johnson followed our heroes on their darkest journeys yet while inspiring us, making us laugh, tapping deep into the way Star Wars felt when we watched it as kids…

TLJ Luke Falcon

…yet still managing to reposition the entire franchise to point it to a new future, and somehow landing on the kind of note of poignant hope we really need this year.

TLJ Crait Walkers

Because 2017 often felt like we were standing in front of these guys

It was a joyous movie, an upsetting movie, a thrilling movie, a spooky movie, a movie that made you cry with deep nostalgia as well as fresh heartbreak, a movie that kept you on your toes, but above all, it was a movie about believing in the possibility of a beautiful future.

And who doesn’t want to believe in that?

On that note… Wishing you all a Happy Holidays, and a wonderful New Year!

 

 

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Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi

Writer-director Rian Johnson’s first foray into the Star Wars universe is an auspicious one, full of dazzlingly ambitious filmmaking and beautifully bold narrative twists and turns. While not without some minor flaws, this is a triumphant entry in the saga.

TLJ Battle

While internet scuttlebutt had us thinking the movie would open precisely where J.J. Abrams’ The Force Awakens left us (with Rey offering up Luke’s lightsaber), it turns out that every word they said was wrong. Johnson instead plunges us headlong into a brilliantly dizzying escape attempt by the Resistance which spirals into a thrilling battle sequence with the First Order that would be extraordinary if it was the Act III finale… here it’s the intro, which lets you know just how much of a thrill-ride this movie is going to be (a huge thrill ride, to be clear). It also charts a clear trajectory for Johnson’s take on the story and characters: everything is morally complex, situations are messy and complicated, and there few easy answers.

TLJ Luke Rey

Of course, we join Rey and Luke on Ahch-To Island soon enough, and, per Luke’s trailer line, this isn’t going to go the way you think. Johnson handles Rey and Luke’s journey in beautifully unexpected ways, which serves as a blueprint for how he handles everything else: there are at least five moments where you feel like the movie is ramping up to an ending when instead it ducks and dives and gives you a much deeper journey, and takes you to narrative places you never expect, which is such a Star Wars thing to do. Although Johnson has his own storytelling moves, including a dark and fresh sense of humor, some beautiful lighting and camerawork, and a willingness to jump around in time and space, he also has a reassuringly sure grasp of what makes Star Wars, Star Wars. The morality and positivity and hope of it all. And all of that is represented most purely in Kelly Marie Tran’s absolutely perfect debut.

TLJ Rose Finn 2

This is Tran’s first major movie role, and what a way to start. Playing Resistance engineer Rose, she owns the screen every second she’s on it, more than holding her own with the irrepressible John Boyega (their emotional journey is one of the best things about this movie), and fully centering the movie as its moral compass, as well as being a deeply endearing and fearlessly inspiring presence in the story. It’s a grounded performance that burns bright, and easily fuels the movie through the only section where it seems to lose altitude somewhat—there’s an extended sequence in a casino (this movie’s cantina) that possibly outstays its welcome, although it is critical to Rose’s arc, and also sets some other things in motion that are critical for the end of the movie (again, no spoilers). However, whenever Tran is on screen, narrative concerns fall by the wayside; she’s the movie’s secret weapon in many ways.

TLJ Rey

But ultimately, this isn’t Rose’s movie, it’s Rey’s, and boy does Daisy Ridley step up and lead this epic journey to a whole new place. There’s an extraordinary purity to the light and fire that Ridley brings to this role, and her quietly emotional and compellingly powerful performance anchors the Star Wars universe in a way we haven’t seen since it began, and Johnson is a smart enough director to allow the camera to just hold on her deeply nuanced emotions. That nuance is complemented by a supremely focused physicality as Rey discovers just what she’s capable of. Johnson serves up some exhilarating and devastating situations and interactions for her, as he does for all his leads, and there’s a huge amount of suspense in her growing connection to Kylo Ren, who is on a complicated journey of his own.

TLJ Ren

And Adam Driver knows how to play complicated. He builds on the emotionally tortured performance from Awakens and takes it so much further in an intensely physical manifestation of Ren’s rage and pain and fear. We truly don’t know where he’s going to end up by the finale, which is a testament to Johnson’s writing, and to Driver’s powerhouse acting chops. In Ridley and Driver, this universe has two white-hot talents at its forefront, which is tremendously exciting as we contemplate what Episode 9 might hold.

TLJ Leia

Terribly sadly, that won’t include the wonderful, devastatingly powerful force of nature that was Carrie Fisher. She’s simply fantastic in this movie, leaving us with a performance of grace and intelligence and charisma and humor and charm. She’s everything you expect and also nothing you expect; her Leia is a powerful leader, a woman who will never give up on herself or her people, an inspiring human being of the highest magnitude, and that’s Fisher’s gift to the character, and to us. The best way to honor her legacy is to live inspired by what Leia represents: hope, never backing down, owning your life to the fullest, having a sense of humor about it all, and being compassionate and kind. The world would be a better place if we could all be a little more like Leia, and like Fisher.

She’s a key part of the movie’s overwhelming belief in hope, in the spark that will light the fire that will keep hope alive and ultimately make everything better. Amongst the cute creatures (SO MANY PORGS! Beautiful twinkling crystal foxes!), and the droids (BB-8 is a BOSS in this movie — he gets some AMAZING action scenes!), the movie feels so relevant to what’s happening in the world right now it’s almost painful, but in an exhilarating kind of way. It ends on a note of hope that burns bright and lights the way, not only for the future of the Star Wars universe, but for the future of ours too.

And that’s what you really want from a Star War movie.

Also what we really want from a Star Wars movie? LUKE SKYWALKER F**KING SH*T UP.

TLJ Luke

Zero spoilers here, but this movie more than makes up for Luke’s lack of dialogue last time around. Mark Hamill gets some fantastic work to do, and he gives a wonderfully detailed performance as the haunted, embittered, lonely Jedi. Hamill truly connects us to that wide-eyed farmboy from A New Hope and really makes us feel the devastating journey he’s been on since he blasted off from Mos Eisley. Hamill is an outstanding actor, and has gravitas and charm to spare, qualities he deploys to an almost weaponized degree here. It’s Rey’s movie, but it’s Luke’s too, and Johnson does a fine job of finessing their arcs (and everyone else’s—Laura Dern and Oscar Isaac have many beautifully played moments) into one propulsive, highly entertaining story that barrels along relentlessly to the extraordinary finale (while still finding time for a fan favorite old friend to show up along the way in spine-tingling fashion).

TLJ BB8

BB-8 tho

In short, Rian Johnson wrote and directed an excellent Star Wars movie that is a huge amount of fun, tremendously moving, and that moves the whole franchise forward, setting the stage for J.J. Abrams to deliver something amazing to wrap it all up in Episode 9.

So go see it!

 

 

5 bite-sized writing insights from Patrick Ness

At a recent Barnes & Noble event for his beautiful and extraordinary new novel RELEASE, Patrick Ness shared some great writing insights:

  1. It’s always interesting hearing writers talk about writing… but ultimately, no two writers write the same way, so find the way and the process that works for you.
  2. Everything in writing is world-building, whether you’re writing sci-fi or contemporary YA. The things you’re writing about don’t have to be true, they just have to be convincing. You just have to create a world in which those things could logically happen.
  3. A book is not a song. A book is a performance of a song. It’s how you sing it that counts.
  4. You can write about anything in YA as long as you earn it. The only time things are harmful is if they’re cheaply handled.
  5. He doesn’t outline, but he usually knows the last line, and some general story beats. Everything else is discovery. (But see tip #1 above — he was very clear, that’s just what works for him! It may not work for you).

There you have it! 5 things to think about when you’re daydreaming or outlining or drafting or editing. Ness also shared on-set Chaos Walking photos of him with Tom Holland and Nick Jonas… by quickly holding up his phone so no one could really see them! Anticipation in the room was high for the movie, it’s fair to say! Ness was also super-focused on the audience — he grabbed a bunch of huge medical textbooks to put on his chair for him to sit on so that the folks at the back could see him. The man is a legend. So, absorb his insights, then make them your own—and kick some serious writing ass!—so that one day your thoughts on writing are the topic of a blog!

Release cover

Things We Like: The Smashing Pumpkins, MACHINA/the machines of God

16 years ago, on February 29, 2000, The Smashing Pumpkins released a thundering powerhouse of an album, the gargantuan and gonzo MACHINA/the machines of God.

Smashing Pumpkins Machina

It was the Mad Max: Fury Road of albums, a monumental epic that roared wildly along alt-rock’s highway, knocking everything out of its path. And when you listen to it, you half-suspect that guitarist James Iha’s guitar is genuinely shooting flames.

Doof Warrior

But we digress.

It’s a classic, although it wasn’t considered as such at the time, receiving mixed reviews and being one of their lowest selling albums at that point. Which is just wrong, because this is the ultimate Pumpkins album. It’s a massive, 15 song, 73 minute set… but oddly enough, this was the short, compromised version — band leader Billy Corgan initially intended it to be a double album, but was refused by the record company. Even in its “reduced” state, MACHINA is an extraordinary, genre-busting achievement, bursting at the seams with alternative concept rock cybermetal pop balladry. It’s a thrilling mix of delicacy and heavy distortion, driven by angst and emotion, and a whole lotta love.

Above all else, it has really great songs (all written by Corgan). MACHINA is overflowing with powerfully catchy hooks, skyscraping choruses, and deep, driving, relentless grooves that keep it all flowing. Opening track The Everlasting Gaze sets the tone, kicking things off with some gloriously fuzzed out guitars and bass and crushing drums, as Corgan tells us “you know I’m not dead”… and that’s the quiet part of the song. It soon lifts off, racing through stratospheric atmospherics as Jimmy Chamberlain’s drumming transforms into a godlike thundering, while Iha’s guitar becomes a roaring furnace in front of a 100 foot Marshall stack and the whole thing achieves lightspeed transcendence.

It’s not folk music.

Somehow, the album gets better from there, jammed with huge choruses, gleaming atmospheres, and a whole bunch of kick-ass rock songs. It’s the sound of a band giving it everything they’ve got, wringing every last drop of intensity from every note, every word, every moment. Which is what was happening: it was designed to be the Pumpkins’ last album, a goodbye, and thanks for all the fish. Corgan’s plan had been to reconvene the original line-up of the band one last time, and go out on a high with an album that was about a fictionalized version of the band. He re-recruited Jimmy Chamberlain, who had left the band a a few years before. Their previous album, Adore, did not feature Chamberlain: it’s a quiet, hushed affair that never unleashes itself. It’s a beautiful, slinky album, but when Chamberlain came back for MACHINA, his muscular drumming changed everything. If Adore was Black Widow, MACHINA is the Hulkbuster. The band wanted to throw everything they had at these songs. Iha would add effects pedal after effects pedal to his guitar set-up to create the monstrous roar that powers much of this album, while Chamberlain would wreak furious havoc on the drums. However, partway through recording, bassist D’Arcy Wretsky chose to leave, wrecking the band, and Corgan’s plans. The album had to be refocused and started over; former Hole bassist Melissa Auf der Maur was drafted in for the live shows.

Smashing Pumpkins

The official lineup for the album release and tour: Melissa Auf der Maur, James Iha, Billy Corgan and Jimmy Chamberlain

It’s a concept album — come back! — but one you can air guitar and air drum the shit out of. And, yes, it can be exhausting if listened to from start to finish — but exhausting in a good way, because the music really does consume you. Once you get past the event horizon of the pyrotechnics of the first few songs, you get pulled deeper into the intense gravitational pull and pressures of each successive track… by the end, as you fall through the glimmering soundscapes of With Every Light, the mesmerizing interstellar beauty of Blue Skies Bring Tears and the gleaming alternative pop of Age Of Innocence, you will almost certainly feel like you’re Matthew McConaughey in fifth-dimensional space. But that’s a good thing! Never has something so radio-friendly been so uncompromising in its vision. The CD booklet contains eerie, haunting artwork like the below, full of the dreams and nightmares of Corgan’s original vision of this as a “musical theater” piece based around a rock star called Zero (which had transformed by the time the album was done to Glass, and his band The Machines Of God).

MACHINA CD booklet

It’s certainly not lacking in ambition, and it refuses to yield in its vision. MACHINA is full of emotional storytelling through almost mythically outsized songs. It marked the end of the 90s; luckily, it did not mark the end of Corgan’s ever-revolving collective. It was a forward-looking record, gazing unflinchingly at a glaringly bright future horizon that it raced towards. 16 years on, it stands as a testament to believing in your creativity, and even more importantly, seeing your creativity through, no matter what.

If you have an idea, make it your own… and make sure you actually make it.

 

2016: The year of doing something

2016

Most New Year’s resolutions are about what you are not going to do: what you’re not going to eat or drink, who you’re not going to let upset you, how you’re not going to sit in front of the TV all night (thanks a lot, Netflix!).

In our eyes, starting the year with a negative isn’t the best way to embrace all the potential that 2016 could bring. So we humbly suggest resolving to DO something… to create something in 2016.

How many times have you listened to a song, watched a movie, read a book, looked at a painting or craft and thought, I could do that? Or at least… I want to do that. Well… stop thinking it and start doing it. Make 2016 all about making something.

You’ve got an idea for a novel that you constantly daydream about? Start taking notes. Write a story based on one of the characters. Or just jump in and start at Chapter One and don’t stop until you hit The End.

Just write. That’s all being a writer really is. It’s being someone who writes.

Pick up that guitar you haven’t touched in years and start laying some chords down. If you have to start at the beginning, take a few classes and go from there. It’s easy to find a teacher or class online or at your local music store. Sign up.

Play.

Turn on your video camera during your lunch break and start acting out scenes. Find your setting, your light, and most importantly, your muse. Seriously: if you’re an actor, don’t wait to get chosen anymore; choose yourself and write yourself a scene and put it online.

Pull out your paintbrushes or glue gun and start making something out of nothing.

The only thing we don’t endorse for 2016 is letting anything stop you. Keep at it. Let your work shift and change as it needs to; let it help you find your path to something that brings you joy and shows you what you are capable of.

It’s not about awards, money or recognition. It’s about feeding and nurturing that creative side of you that is unlike anyone else.

Resolve to make 2016 a year filled with taking creative risks, not being afraid to make mistakes, getting out of your comfort zone and embracing that creative genius you keep locked away (not literally; if you have an actual creative genius locked away, probably best to make them a nice cup of tea and then let them go).

To everyone’s creative genius, we wish you a very Happy New Year!

James Dashner and The Maze Runner at San Diego Comic-Con #SDCC

San Diego Comic-Con. One of the most extraordinary experiences you can wish for.

San diego Comic-Con

San Diego Comic-Con

Back in late July, we went past the nerd event horizon and deep into the heart of the geek universe.

We saw things, yo.

Gollum!

Gollum!

T-Rex heads, Transformers, elves, hundreds of tenth and eleventh Doctors, a fully functional Iron Man, a giant Smaug, Guillermo Del Toro walking around, John “Captain Jack” Barrowman, lots of Batmen, and many Spider-Men… one of whom was actually Daniel Radcliffe in disguise so he could walk the convention floor!

Basically, 130,000 amazing geeks pack the convention center for four glorious days that overflow with all things good and great from the worlds of comics, TV, movies, collectibles, gaming… and publishing. Oh yeah, Comic-Con is the secret book convention no one seems to talk about — all the big publishers were there, giving out ARCs and finished copies. We scored around 25 at final count! Plus, there were so many great panels. We went to a few YA-oriented sessions, and were lucky enough to get the chance to speak to Laini Taylor, Leigh Bardugo, Jonathan Mayberry and Rob Thomas (we asked him about a second Veronica Mars movie, he said nothing was decided yet, but more books are on the way), amongst others.

And then there was the man Dashner. Author of the hugely popular MAZE RUNNER trilogy (plus prequel), and also of EYE OF MINDS, book one of the new Mortality Doctrine series, James Dashner had the most excellent job of accompanying the MAZE RUNNER movie cast and crew to multiple panels, joining them to promote the movie.

So naturally, we were PSYCHED to get tickets to Zachary Levi’s Nerd HQ panel at Petco Park for THE MAZE RUNNER, featuring Chuck/Fandral himself as moderator, as well as three of the movie’s stars, Kaya Scodelario, Will Poulter, Dylan O’Brien, the director Wes Ball, and Dashner.

Will Poulter, Kaya Scodelario, Dylan O'Brien, Wes Ball, James Dashner and Zachary Levi

Will Poulter, Kaya Scodelario, Dylan O’Brien, Wes Ball, James Dashner and Zachary Levi

And it was good.

How good? Well, after the panel was done, Wes Ball came back and showed us a sneak peek sequence featuring an actual GRIEVER and it was EXTRAORDINARILY INTENSE. It was a breathtaking, nonstop scene… we all promised not to give too much away, but suffice it to say, it’s the real deal. Gritty, emotional, powerful…. Seriously, this movie looks poised to be HUGE, easily up there with the very best of the YA adaptations. It’s true that, sadly, YA adaptations have had mixed press of late, with praise being reserved more for the contemporary movies rather than the genre ones. But this looks seriously great. And even better, they’re already writing the script for THE SCORCH TRIALS, hoping to shoot in the Fall! Fingers crossed that THE MAZE RUNNER opens big.

But back to the panel.

The three leads have spent a long time promoting this movie already, and the banter flowed back and forth between them easily and good-naturedly. Dashner got in a few jabs of his own, with O’Brien giving it right back, while Mr. Ball mostly kept a low profile under his baseball cap. It’s cool — he knows he has an awesome movie on his hands.

Dashner talked about how he loves HAMLET, hates MADAME BOVARY, and mentioned that THE MAZE RUNNER was influenced by Lord Of The Flies, pointing out that the character of Chuck was inspired by Piggy… and also Chunk from The Goonies.

Halfway through the panel, D got to ask Kaya a question. Somehow he kept it together and spoke in sentences, asking her if her approach to playing Effy in the amazing SKINS was any different to the way she approached playing Teresa in THE MAZE RUNNER. Her answer was so inspiring that we’re going to just quote it here:

Kaya 1

Kaya Scodelario, with Poulter and O’Brien

“I genuinely believe that our, for want of a better word, ‘craft’… that makes it sound wanky and actor-y… but our job, what we do, should be the same in any context, so no matter what the budget is, no matter who the other actors are, or the director, you should always put every part of yourself into it, because it’s a beautiful experience to lose yourself in a character and to learn to respect them and understand them, and hate them sometimes. That’s to me what this job is, it’s what I love. With [the MAZE RUNNER], there was always a fear of is it going to be huge, and are people gonna hate me, are they gonna be angry that I’m not right for it, are they gonna be disappointed… but you have to just completely put that to the side and do the best that you can, as an actor and as a person, to just fulfill that role, no matter what it is.

And I like playing intense women, because as women we are not simple… as much as the world wants us to be, we aren’t, and there’s nothing wrong with that. We shouldn’t be ashamed of having emotions, and of messing up sometimes, and being upset, and angry, that’s all part of what makes us human, so I could never just be the girl next door. I need more than that.”

Needless to say, she got a huge round of applause for that.

Yeah!

Yeah!

Dashner said they should just stop the panel there, because there’s no way any of their answers could be as good as that! Scodelario is a brilliant actress, and is the only female presence in the film — the reason for which is a key part of the story. Her thoughtful, intelligent answer above bodes well for the integrity of this movie. In addition to her ability to dive deep into complex characters, Scodelario promises to bring a huge amount of heart and soul to the role of Teresa, as well a fearless sense of humor, which we can only endorse. In short, she’s as complex and inspiring as you would want the sole female character to be.

The panel in action

The panel in action

It was an excellent panel, and it made us even more excited for the movie that we were before, ESPECIALLY WHEN THEY SHOWED US GRIEVERS IN ACTION.

Afterwards, we totally stalked Mr. Dashner by the stage door.

James Dasher and fans

James Dasher and fans

He was kind enough to sign our copy of his new YA sci-fi virtual reality thriller, EYE OF MINDS, and told us that he really hoped this one would find an audience and that readers would latch onto it, because it’s a highly personal book for him. Readers, we’ve read it, and it’s really, really good. One of those can’t-put-it-down books, full of characters who grab you, ideas that shock you, and a great balance between dark, messed up twists, and the humor and warmth of three friends as they try to keep it together on a deadly mission. Highly recommended. Whether it’s the terrors of the VirtNet, or the horrors of the Maze (or the Scorch…), Dashner always has an extremely compelling, page-turning style of writing, taking you deep into a sense of place while also keeping the action and character conflicts crackling.

In case you couldn’t tell, we’re big fans.

And seriously, if you haven’t read THE MAZE RUNNER yet, please… go and remedy that now. It’s gritty, tightly plotted, thrillingly paced, and full of emotion and intensity. Everything you want in YA sci-fi! Then read THE SCORCH TRIALS and THE DEATH CURE. And then the prequel, THE KILL ORDER. You’ll be glad you did.

And with that, it was time to leave Nerd HQ and Petco Park, and disappear into the night to prepare for another day of geeking out.

Petco Park, looking all gorgeous at dusk

Petco Park, looking all gorgeous at dusk

FORGIVE ME, LEONARD PEACOCK

FORGIVE ME, LEONARD PEACOCK is the story of Leonard Peacock’s eighteenth birthday, on which he intends to shoot his high school nemesis, and then shoot himself.

Forgive Me Leonard Peacock

Heartbreaking and life-affirming in unexpected ways, this is an unflinching portrait of how a person can feel like their humanity has been steadily stripped away from them; in this case, a teen who hopes this will be the last day of his life. It holds nothing back, and tells the truth, weaving in a vivid cast of characters in Leonard’s life as it does so, in a beautifully authentic story. It also has some fresh, completely unexpected narrative tricks up its sleeve that rock you out of your expectations, and ultimately make you feel… all the feels, as they say.

In the manner of a more snarky, introspective Jack Bauer, we follow Leonard, 24-style, as the day unfolds, class by class, hour by hour, flashback by flashback, and the pressure and tension mount. His voice is acerbic, angry, hurt, lonely, yet also witty, humane, and understanding. He’s an amazing creation. The writing, the craft on display here, is fantastic. Quick is a brilliant writer, able to take his own humanity and understanding and turn it, incredibly skillfully, into a page-turner that is completely grounded in the narrator’s inner world, as well as the perfectly evoked Philly/NJ setting.

Quick has said that Leonard’s depressed, rage-filled voice came to him when he was relaxing in Paris on his first trip to the city with his wife; it was a voice that he could not ignore, despite the beautiful surroundings, and thank goodness, because this is one of the greatest YA contemporary novels ever written.

It also proves something essential about writers: we should never, ever ignore the voices in our heads. That’s what it feels like sometimes (all the time); our stories come to us unbidden, begging for our attention. If we don’t give it to them, they can just fade away again, like lonely ghosts. Having ideas is one thing; actually grabbing them and following through on them is a whole other thing. As Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour replied when he was asked if he thought he was getting better at playing as time went by: “I’m not getting better, but I think I’m better at capturing the good moments and hanging onto them.” Listening to the muse and doing what she says is critical, in life as well as in writing. Like J.K. Rowling, for whom Harry Potter and the seven-volume plotlines marched into her head during a train journey — if you don’t capture and explore it, you’ll never know where it could take you.

Quick certainly captured this story, and with Leonard’s unique and transformative perspective on his life, it makes you see everything differently in yours. In that sense, it’s a book that can change the world; a book that everyone should be shouting from the rooftops about. It’s also a massively compelling, terrifying, wild, emotion-shaking ride, which is what YA needs to be (and ideally, what all literature would be). It’s amazing when all those things are true of one book. So, please, do yourselves a favor: read this now, and then go tell everyone how brilliant it is.

We Bought A Zoo: Writing, zebras, and asking “why not?”

We Bought A Zoo is such a Cameron Crowe movie, in the most awesome of ways.

Quirky, self-aware yet beautiful dialogue? Check. Heartwarming scenes that stumble over themselves to move you (and always succeed)? Check. Naturalistic, charming performances? You know it. Eddie Vedder and Bob Dylan on a (killer) soundtrack? Of course. Heartbreaking/epic use of Sigur Ros music? Duh. Awkward relationships that blossom in the end? Yep. A seemingly insurmountable situation that… well, spoiler… gets surmounted in the best, most uplifting, “happy tears” and punch your fist in the air kind of way? Hell yeah.

Basically, there is a surplus of things to love about this movie, and that’s all down to Cameron Crowe’s singular and inspiring vision.

And, as a writer, there are two added bonuses: a perfectly constructed and naturalistic script, full of character revelations, callbacks, heart, humor and forward momentum; and this most true and undeniable fact:

We Bought A Zoo is one of the best analogies for being a writer that I’ve ever seen.

Think about it: when you write, you’re basically trying to do what Matt Damon does in the movie. You take a massive leap into the absolute unknown, risking everything, while trying to wrangle a zoo’s worth of wild animals (AKA plot points, act breaks, characters etc), while rebuilding the infrastructure, moving walls, extending boundaries, deciding what to keep and what to lose (and kill), all while you constantly readjust to this ever-changing new world. So many moving parts, all seemingly with a will of their own. It’s frustrating and rewarding, despairing and uplifting, with success dependent often on the whims of outsiders, with people frequently telling you that you’re crazy (“stop just before zebras get involved”) and that you should be an accountant or work in sales; and it all builds up to the opening date, when you have NO IDEA if anyone at all will even show up. It could be the most amazing thing you’ve ever done, something that touches the lives of others and moves them, inspires them; or, it could be nothing. A lion roaring in an empty zoo with no one around to hear it still makes a beautiful sound; but it’s a lonely one.

Writers: always include the zebras.

Scarlett Johansson, Matt Damon, zebras
Scarlett Johansson, Matt Damon, zebras

Crowe may not have intended this — his movie is more generally about taking that leap, choosing the thing that scares you, starting over, asking yourself “why not?” — but it mirrors the life of the writer in eerily accurate and joyous fashion. It resonates emotionally, like all his movies do, because his movies have spectacular heart. He’s sometimes/often on the receiving end of criticism that his movies are too sentimental. No. They are unashamedly sentimental, yes, but they mean it. They mean it so much and so hard and so intensely that it’s impossible not to feel it too. He writes about connections between people, the incredible joy in a certain smile at the exact right moment, the rush of taking twenty seconds of insane courage to do the thing you want to do  (for writers, that could be 20 months or 20 years of insane courage), and the extraordinary happiness when it all works out.

No cynics allowed, in Cameron Crowe movies or in writing. You just have to believe. When you inevitably ask yourself if you should continue because it seems crazy, there’s only one real response, one question to ask yourself.

Why not?