Things We Like: Star Wars Episode VII The Force Awakens

Was there ever any doubt?


Well, sure, OK, a little. We didn’t know for certain that JJ Abrams was going to deliver an extraordinary and beautiful cinematic experience. We thought he would. We hoped.


[insert Poe Dameron whoop of SHEER UNSTOPPABLE JOY]

… JJ gave us the Star Wars movie we wanted and needed. The Star Wars movie we dreamed of. The Star Wars movie that we deserved.

Yeah, JJ nailed it.

From the glistening Lucasfilm logo, to that gorgeous blue “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…” to the BLAST of John Williams’ iconic theme as the crawl begins… JJ nailed it and then some.


Along with writers Michael Arndt (Little Miss Sunshine, Toy Story 3) and Lawrence Kasdan (the grand master behind The Empire Strikes Back and Return Of The Jedi), Abrams has crafted something wonderful and exhilarating, moving and hilarious, devastating and thrilling, all in equal measure.

This will be spoiler free, but it’s not spoiling anything to let you know that BB-8 is a more-than-worthy addition to the droid-you’re-looking-for crew. Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren is an extraordinary bad guy, full of resonance, hurt and rage. John Boyega’s Finn is a joy to watch and the source of much of the movie’s off-kilter but brilliant humor. And, in Daisy Ridley’s Rey, we have one of the greatest characters in the Star Wars universe.


Ridley, who only had a handful of TV screen credits prior to this, plays Rey with heart and nuance, giving us loss, hope, bad-assery, ass-kicking, wise-cracking… and many more things we can’t share with you (spoilers!). Ridley’s story mirrors Rey’s in a lot of ways, and Ridley uses her natural energy to really bring Rey to crackling life.

Adam Driver, so volatile and uncontrollable on HBO’s Girls, dials that up even more here. He’s the only person who could have played Ren, and he brings a tremendous energy to it all. Boyega, who was SO GOOD in Attack The Block, kills it as Finn — he’s hilarious and heartbreaking —  while Oscar Isaac is in the ZONE as the chilled-out greatest pilot in the galaxy. Bodega and Isaac make you root for them immediately, as does Ridley.

And that’s what’s at the heart of this extraordinary journey — you are invested emotionally from the very beginning, and even more intensely as the movie goes on. The story is powerful, and the movie is shot beautifully, unafraid to linger on stunning vistas and bustling scenes of alien life. But it never feels slow. This thing reaches hyperspace right out of the gate, and drops out of it only at the dizzying, thrilling end.

Throughout, this is great storytelling, with wonderful, fully-realized characters, shot in a gritty, intense way, that gives you the feels. All of them. All the feels. #feels

Finn and Rey

It’s exhilarating, mind-blowing, full of danger and threat, and, gloriously, joyously, wonderfully… it just feels like Star Wars.

Because, also: John Williams.

We have new John Williams Star Wars music on a Star Wars movie. And it gives you chills to hear it. As the story flows, so does his music.

The story ends where it needs to, and opens up the door to the next two movies. The blend of the old and the new is seamless, naturalistic, and provides the perfect hand-off to what is to come. We get all our Original Trilogy feels, and plenty of new trilogy feels alongside.

In short, The Force Awakens is nothing less than the reawakening of something powerful, a new force in the universe. It’s everything you want it to be. 


Random awakenings:

  • The sound of Kylo Ren’s lightsaber is basically the most bad-ass thing in cinema history
  • Han and Leia’s theme will MAKE YOU CRY SON
  • Captain Phasma is cool
  • “Chewie, we’re home…” 
  • When the credits roll, this is how you’re going to feel:

Ridley Abrams Boyega


Things We Like: Illuminae (The Illuminae Files 01) by Amie Kaufman & Jay Kristoff

Every so often, a book comes along that makes you want to retroactively drop the ratings of pretty much all your books on Goodreads by a star, because now you know what five stars really looks like (pretty much all; not actually all… *cough* JK Rowling and Patrick Ness and Laini Taylor are exempt *cough*).

ILLUMINAE is that book.

Illuminae Ray V6FrontOnlyA2A_V3.indd

It’s a five star book. Really, it’s six stars. All the stars, in fact, and appropriately enough, because this is, simply put, a rollicking, gripping, adrenalin-rushing, heartrending and emotionally bad-ass space novel. It’s YA sci-fi, in space, and then some. No spoilers here, but the novel opens with an attack on a remote mining outpost, deep in space. The occupants scramble to escape as space fights erupt in the skies above.

Space fights, people. Space fights.

The survivors make their escape on three different spacecraft, but the attackers won’t give up so easy. The rest of the novel unfolds from there in a relentless and thrilling story that Never. Lets. Up. It keeps evolving, spinning, reversing, tricking you, lulling you, surprising you, breaking your heart, and you JUST CANNOT PUT IT DOWN.

Seriously, when a book contains awesome space stuff and what scientists are describing as ALL THE FEELS, how can you be expected to live your life and go about your normal business?! You can’t — you can only keep reading as the authors build and build their tension to unbearable levels… and then keep building it some more.

And then some more.

Essentially, this book checks every box you could think of, and plenty that you would never imagine. It goes way beyond what you’d expect: it has pictures, diagrams, beautifully creative layout and typography. Its form often reflects its content in a poetic, mesmerizing way; it’s endlessly creative in the way it presents its story. And it’s not a gimmick that it does this, or that it’s composed of emails, surveillance reports, IM chat transcriptions, etc — it’s entirely necessary, and with a story as unstoppable as this one,  you barely notice that this isn’t a traditional narrative.

ILLUMINAE is something we’ve never seen before, and Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff need all the praise for that. They are amazing writers who know how to tell stunning, emotional and epic stories. They’ve made something extraordinary here.

Here are some awards that this book wins:

  1. Best space scenes in YA sci-fi (intergalactic travel, awesome spaceships, insane battles, the majesty of the universe, etc)
  2. Best use of nonstop, brutal sarcasm in stressful situations
  3. Most thrilling novel of 2015
  4. Coolest novel of 2015
  5. Most “when you’ve finished, turn back to page 1 and read it again” novel of 2015
  6. Best Artificial Intelligence in popular culture since HAL in 2001 (that NEEDS to be voiced by David Tennant in the Brad Pitt-poduced movie adaption)(seriously, Brad Pitt is producing the movie adaptation)
  7. Best Brad Pitt movie adaption of all time (to be awarded at some point in the future)


Six out of five space battles

Things We Like: Supernatural

Get this:

According to the lore, it’s really tough for a TV show to last more than a few seasons. It’s even tougher for it to stay good. And it’s basically impossible for it to stay at the very top of its game (and the top of everyone else’s game too).

But Supernatural doesn’t follow those rules. It’s like nothing we’ve seen before, Bobby.

Much like great rock’n’roll is based around “three chords and the truth,”, Supernatural has a similar stripped-back but insanely high-yielding premise and story engine: two brothers, a ’67 Impala, and an unending supply of monsters.

Unending supply of monsters not pictured

From that simplest of foundations, the various show runners, from Eric Kripke through Sera Gamble to Carver/Edlund, have forged eleven unstoppable, powerhouse seasons. We have to say it again: It’s seriously rare for a TV drama to be punching with the same weight after eleven seasons.

Yet Supernatural is hitting harder than ever.

How do they do that? How do they deal with the apocalypse in season 5, and still keep raising the stakes in season 11? They find a way. They work it out. They always do. Here’s how —

They take the key ingredients for good drama: dynamic character dynamics (yeah, we went there), reversals, setups, payoffs and callbacks, developing motifs, and a constant evolving of the stakes, and the format. And they use a few key, powerful questions to power it: What does family mean? Where is home? What does that even mean when you’re constantly on the run, on the move, on the hunt?

Dean and Scarecrow

Dean. And a scarecrow (spoiler: not one of the good guys).

And then they execute that with extremely smart, clever, self-aware writing, inventive but grounded directing, and some truly great acting.

Bloody Sam

Sam, covered in blood. Pretty regular occurrence.

In this show, drama, plot, character, emotion and humor are all intertwined. They’re all one thing. There are heavy moments, terrifying moments, light moments, all bound by a roughhouse humor, the kind of humor that helps you cope with the uncopable, that helps you deal with stuff that’s way above your pay grade. It’s humor like a bar brawl; the Winchesters trade quips like punches, sometimes alongside actual punches (they are brothers, after all).

A show can’t last for 11 seasons without rock-solid emotional and psychological underpinnings, and an engine that can yield constant and evolving conflict. Supernatural is a masterclass in show construction, character development, and the art of the 22-episode arc (and the art of the 229 episode arc as of the time of writing!).

Supernatural always evolves in ways you never expect

Supernatural always evolves in ways you never expect

Watch the pilot again, and see how show creator Eric Kripke did it. It’s deceptively simple. We see the two boys at a very young age as the defining incident of their lives takes place, then we cut to 22 years later when Sam is at college, and the same incident repeats, just as Dean comes back into Sam’s life. The gears of life grind on, and Sam has no choice but to follow Dean into the wilderness.

We've got work to do

And THAT’s how you set up a series in your pilot.

Sam was supposed to be the lead character, the Luke Skywalker, while Dean was positioned as the Han Solo type, essential, but secondary to the lead. That soon changed as both brothers took and held center stage. The writers gave Dean more to do alongside Sam, and that’s one of the key strengths of the show: if you want your show to last, give your actors something to do. Both Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles get intense emotional scenes, awkward and hilarious physical comedy, subtle snark, action, confusion, heartbreak, fear, hope, cynicism, soul-less fury, and much more besides. The showrunners keep throwing stuff at them, and they keep hitting acting home runs.

Supernatural keeps things fresh and relevant in other ways too. It’s important to nourish your fanbase, to be self-aware, to be able to poke fun at your own show, and not be scared to evolve your format and characters. The show gradually introduced two essential characters, the angel Castiel, and the demon Crowley, firstly as small roles for a few episodes, but, as the brilliant Misha Collins (proving that “acting on camera” really is one of his “special skills”) and genius Mark Sheppard worked hard, crushing it on a regular basis, they proved how capable they were with the show’s tone (and how popular they were with the fans), and they became series regulars alongside the brothers. With four leads, the emotional and plot possibilities increased exponentially, allowing for season-long arcs based on Castiel/Heaven, and Crowley/Hell.

Castiel, Crowley, Dean and Sam

Castiel, Crowley, Dean and Sam.

Nourishing the fanbase and having the skill to be meta without sacrificing the integrity of the show (going beyond postmodern to a post-postmodern state, a kind of genuine and sincere postmodernism) has also helped the show stay as damn good as it’s ever been. The 200th episode was a beautiful example of how a show can deconstruct itself and still move you to tears. Once a show proves it can do that… it can do any damn thing it wants.

So, 11 seasons in, Supernatural shows no signs of slowing down, and there’s no reason it should. It’s the show that has everything.

Making It Big In Shorts (and other books to read)

While you’re thinking about making a short, or as you’re writing one, but definitely before you get into postproduction, it’s a good idea to get to know the world of short films. While you can find a ton of info online, there are some books out there that provide very useful looks at the short film industry and ecosystem.

Two we’d particularly recommend are —

Making It Big In Shorts, by Kim Adelman (2009):

Making It Big In Shorts, by Kim Adelman

Making It Big In Shorts

And Short Films 101, by Frederick Levy (2004):

Short Films 101

Short Films 101

Some of the practical info they discuss is out of date, sure — some of the websites they mention no longer exist, and technology is already WAY ahead of when the books were written. Like, so far ahead. Like Star Trek level. There are chapters on negative cutting and film processing, for example, which likely just won’t apply to you anymore, with your digital camera or iPhone and Final Cut. (Somewhere, Quentin Tarantino and Christopher Nolan are weeping)

However, both books are JAMMED with fascinating, insightful stories into how many different directors made their first few shorts, and translated them into movie careers. Inspirational!

Both books also contain immensely practical guides to writing, casting, preproduction and shooting short films, as well as ways to budget effectively, editing, and, of course, submitting to festivals. Well worth checking out.

More generally, we’d also recommend a couple of other books just for sheer getting-it-done inspiration. First up, Robert Rodriguez’s brilliant classic, Rebel Without A Crew. It’s the story of how the filmmaker, now known for Sin City, From Dusk Til Dawn, and the Spy Kids movies,  went out and made his first movie, El Mariachi, pretty much on his own, for $7000 (worth noting: that’s a lot less than some of the shorts mentioned in the other two books!). It took Sundance by storm, and made his career.

Rebel Without A Crew

Rebel Without A Crew

The book really gets into the nitty-gritty details of how Rodriguez took matters into his own hands, worked out what he could film that was around him, who he knew that he could cast, and what equipment he realistically had access to. Pretty much everything he says can apply to you as you work out what your short will be, who will be in it, and how you’ll shoot it. It’s a great example of how to think practically, and make something for you. For more on Rodriguez and his super-practical approach to just getting out there and making movies his own way, check out his interview on the always inspiring Nerdist Podcast right here. It’ll get you fired up!

Lastly, we must recommend Felicia Day’s WONDERFUL book, You’re Never Weird On The Internet (Almost):

You're Never Weird On The Internet (Almost)

You’re Never Weird On The Internet (Almost)

Did we mention it’s WONDERFUL? Not only do you find out how she became the awesome nerd/geek/gamer legend that she is today (it’s basically her origin story), but there is also a huge amount of detail about how she motivated herself to write and shoot The Guild, the epically brilliant online series that truly set her career in motion (it’s had 300 million online views to date!). She made her own destiny by writing the perfect script for her strengths as an actress, but also one that could easily be shot on an almost nonexistent budget in her own house. The story of how she wrote and made 70 episodes across six seasons of The Guild alone makes this worth buying. Luckily, there’s a whole lot more inspiration where that came from, making this book indispensable for any kind of creative person. Buy it! And then watch The Guild if you haven’t already!

Outside of these books, of course you need to hit Google. Look for interviews with filmmakers about their early experiences, look for blogs from people who have made shorts (oh wait, like this one — go you!), and do your research. Even though most of what you’re going to learn will happen during the process of making and editing your short, the more you know going in, the better.


The Maze Runner: Escaping the maze of YA movie adaptations

Let’s cut to the chase: The Maze Runner is one of the very best YA movie adaptations to date.

First-time feature director Wes Ball has done a fantastic job taking the best elements of James Dashner’s excellent novel and transforming them into a tense, gritty and emotional cinematic ride. It’s everything you’d want it to be. The maze looks incredible, and the grievers are even more horrifying on screen than they are on the page. Ball has done a tremendous job both serving the source material, as well as bringing new scenes and beats to help it translate fully to screen.

Maze Runner Movie

Kaya Scodelario and Dylan O’Brien

From the very first frame, the movie dives in relentlessly and does a great job in capturing the unnerving unpredictability of what it must feel like to be sent into the maze. The sound design plays a huge role in this movie, and creates a deep, rich, terrifying atmosphere, complimented by the great soundtrack.

It’s extremely well-cast too, with Will Poulter, Thomas Sangster, Dylan O’Brien and Kaya Scodelario as standouts. Scodelario is a brilliant actress; in fact, one of the film’s few flaws is that she is not given nearly enough to do. Hopefully, that will be remedied in the next installment.

It’s already done hugely well at the box office, and the sequel goes into production in a few weeks. Thank goodness, because even a year seems like too long to wait for The Scorch Trials!

All in all, it’s a big, fun, dark and fulfilling experience, one that does YA proud.

Rating: four out of five shuckfaces.

When YA zombies attack: Jonathan Maberry’s ROT & RUIN

With ROT & RUIN, Jonathan Maberry kicks off a huge, intense YA zombie series in impressive style.


Benny Imura has just turned fifteen, and is looking for a job. Preferably one that lets him kill zombies. He lives in the fenced-in town of Mountainside, somewhere in California. On the other side of that fence lies the great Rot and Ruin, the vast wasteland that used to be America, which is now infested with zombies. Orphaned as a baby by a zombie attack on his parents, Benny is full of rage at the undead, and most other people. But there is no one he hates more than his brother Tom, who Benny believes abandoned their parents to die.

As Benny and Tom’s tense, explosive story unfolds, details about First Night — the dreadful night that the zombie plague began — emerge. Right from the beginning, you’re immersed in epic world-building that feels terrifyingly convincing, and thrown into the deep end with complex characters consumed by their secrets and agendas. It’s grim, it’s dark, it’s violent, and it’s full of unflinching truths about humanity. The seamlessly interwoven past and present creates a relentlessly suspenseful and emotionally charged narrative that races to a thrilling and horrifying finale.

ROT & RUIN is a breathless, brilliant thriller, an exhilarating Robert Cormier-Stephen King level teen-horror hybrid. Maberry has gifted us with a deep and excellent introduction to a vast world that fascinatingly, even with its engrossing, gripping main story, has so much more to explore. Throughout this novel, people are faced with losing their souls; some are strong enough to survive, others are not. It’s powerful, heady stuff that a lesser author could not handle. Maberry’s grasp is rock-steady. He drives his story through character, which makes it all the more fulfilling.

With its highly charged emotions and complex relationships, ROT & RUIN is an extraordinary novel, one that demands that you consume the rest of the series like a hungry zombie immediately.

Rating: five out of five regrettable but necessary zombie kills


A dystopian thriller that crackles with tension, THE COMPOUND is a stunning debut for YA author S.A Bodeen. In its content, as well as its very existence, this novel is a testament to the power of perseverance: the author wrote nine novels before this one was accepted for publication. Writers: never, ever stop. A similar truth faces Eli, the 15-year old narrator of THE COMPOUND.

The Compound

Six years ago, Eli’s family entered the Compound as nuclear war broke out across the world. Most of his family, that is. Even in the very opening pages, Bodeen delivers heartbreak and pain as not all the members of Eli’s family make it to the underground lair before the doors are sealed shut.

We jump from that first night to six years later. His family have fallen into their sanity-preserving routines, but the cracks are beginning to show, and there are dark, terrible secrets lurking in the shadows, behind closed doors and in mysterious labs. The Compound was constructed by Eli’s billionaire father, Rex. The family have accepted everything he’s told them thus far. But increasingly, things are not as they seem, and truth always has a way of making itself known.

From these few initial hints and clues, Bodeen spins a tense thriller, keeping the pace pounding and the atmosphere electrifying as Eli digs deeper into the real nature of the Compound, and why they are there. This novel races along, the characters are sharp and authentically awkward, the emotions are shocking, and Bodeen choreographs all the elements into a thrilling finale. It’s hard to stop reading, and impossible to resist immediately picking up the sequel, THE FALLOUT. If you’re looking for a great piece of YA sci-fi that thrums with the power of believing in yourself and your possible future, as well as delivering that page-turning, “what’s going to happen next?” urgency of all great YA, this is the book for you. A fantastic debut indeed. We’re lucky that Bodeen believed in herself and this tenth book enough to write it. You should believe in it too.


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.

MORE THAN THIS: Patrick Ness, YA sci-fi and the Carnegie Prize

Here is the boy, drowning.

Thus begins MORE THAN THIS, Patrick Ness’s third novel this year, a dazzlingly brilliant piece of YA sci-fi that must surely win him his third Carnegie.

More Than This, by Patrick Ness. Inevitable Carnegie not pictured.

More Than This, by Patrick Ness. Inevitable Carnegie not pictured.

Ness broke onto the YA scene with his CHAOS WALKING trilogy (the conclusion of which bagged him his first Carnegie), a series of books so incredible in stature and impact that he almost single-handedly destabilized the publishing industry in favor of YA. Literary fiction had nothing to offer that could compare to YA at this level. It fought back, sure, swinging the occasional dizzying heavyweight punch: Hilary Mantel’s WOLF HALL and BRING UP THE BODIES, Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84. No problem, thought Ness, as his devastating follow-up to CHAOS WALKING, A MONSTER CALLS, put a second Carnegie on his mantelpiece.

However, possibly sensing the unfairness of his actions, he returned to his literary roots earlier this year with THE CRANE WIFE, an impossibly beautiful and haunting fable that righted the imbalance that he himself had created. It belonged with the Mantels and the Murakamis, joining them to form a group of books that, much like the Avengers, came together in unlikely fashion to save the world (of literary fiction).

The beautiful full UK cover of The Crane Wife

The beautiful full UK cover of The Crane Wife

With balance restored, Ness took a quick detour into the world of Doctor Who, publishing a novella featuring the sixth doctor as part of the show’s 50th anniversary year. It was a humorously inventive and pleasant read, and felt just like a lost Peter Davison episode.

All seemed well.

Until now.

Because MORE THAN THIS is something extraordinary.

On its surface, it’s a smooth, propulsive read, elegantly written, with a narrative that flows. Below that beautifully-crafted surface, it has terrifying conceptual and emotional undercurrents that could pull you under, were it not for the fact that this novel overflows with compassion and hope. Those contradictions create a beautiful paradox, a knife edge of possible realities, a thrilling state of flux that Ness keeps us in throughout this novel.

The novel opens in chilling style, with the brutal and shocking description of the violent, irrevocable death by drowning of the lead character. It’s a bold, stunning opening, made even more so by the fact that, one page later, Seth seemingly wakes up, somewhere far removed from where he died.

As Seth explores his surroundings, Ness plays with the possibilities; is this purgatory? hell? another chance at life? something else entirely? This deceptively simple story engine – where is Seth and what has happened to him? – creates a powerful momentum that never lets up. Seth’s journey and memories give Ness the perfect opportunity to weave in his themes of hope and redemption. Bad things have happened to Seth and his family in the past, some of them because Seth happens to be gay. His sexuality, and the less than welcome reception it provokes in the outside world, is treated in a heartfelt and heartbreaking way by Ness. Seth carries a crushing amount of guilt; he’s destroyed by it. This novel is, in part, the story of how he comes to understand the nature of the guilt, and see the possibility of putting it aside.

The more Seth learns about himself, his past, and his present, the more we come to realize that the apparently dystopian landscape that he wakes up in is not as deserted or lifeless as he thought.

Ness is willing and able to fully embrace the potentially science fiction elements of his story (as he said in a recent BBC interview, he’s not snobbish about any element that a story might need). The book deals with ideas that bring to mind elements of THE MATRIX, TOTAL RECALL, even INCEPTION, but the key thing is that Ness absolutely knows it. He plays with it, dances with it, even has the characters comment on the movie-like story beats. It’s meta, but it also goes way beyond meta. Which is totally Ness’s point – what is reality? Yes, Patrick Ness isn’t afraid to totally get ontological up in here.

MORE THAN THIS is, in a way, old-school, well-crafted, classic YA sci-fi, that brings to mind Melvin Burgess and David Almond with its strong simplicity and its other worlds. But it’s also all new, all now, all just ahead of us; a hugely original piece of writing that uniquely elides past, present and future with its knowingness, its playfulness, its lacing of potential bleakness with light and heart and warmth, its colliding of sci-fi and contemporary, and its witty characterizations.

It is an intriguing, moving and ultimately hopeful experience. There is sadness, there are tears, but there is also warmth, laughter, companionship and compassion. The sci-fi is seamlessly woven into the emotional narrative, making it even more compelling. It’s such a human book; full of what it means to be human. To feel. To love. To lose. To die. To live.

Ness had better make sure there’s room on his mantelpiece for that third Carnegie, because this is surely the YA book of the year.

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?