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.

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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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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)

Rating: 

Six out of five space battles

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

Influence Is Bliss, episode three: Laini Taylor

It’s sometimes said that people look like their scripts/resemble their writing. It’s often true. In Laini Taylor’s case, with her awesome bright pink hair, she could be the long lost sister of the blue-coiffeured Karou, hero of DAUGHTER OF SMOKE AND BONE and DAYS OF BLOOD AND STARLIGHT, two of the most stunning YA genre novels ever published.

Laini Taylor. Pink Hair.

Laini Taylor. Awesome Hair.

Taylor is a HUGE inspiration to us. And not just because we admire her hair (although, A really does). She is one of the most extraordinary storytellers out there, not just in YA, but in fiction, and even beyond. If you put together an elite band of the greatest storytellers from the realms of novels, TV and movies, like a superhero team up (Marvel’s Writers Assemble?), Taylor would be one of the first writers you would choose.

Her storytelling is a thing of wonder. It’s robust, muscular, epic, capable of soaring into light and diving into darkness; it’s visceral in the most emotional of ways, which are the ways that really count. But plot counts too. Her books are not just character studies. They are deeply, thrillingly plot-driven. They achieve the perfect harmony whereby character and plot are the same thing. That’s the holy grail of great writing. Karou’s emotional journey in book one is the driver of everything that happens. In book two, Taylor expands to include much more of Akiva’s story — action and character are simultaneous in his chapters too.

Her situations challenge the characters in deep, testing ways, driving them beyond their ability to cope and into that exciting, edge of your seat realm of not knowing what the hell they are going to do, or what the hell is about to happen. That’s the essence of the greatest drama, in any format: testing your characters beyond their endurance. Taylor puts her characters through unimaginable stresses and horrors, situations that are emotionally intense, and emotionally devastating. They are also situations that do not allow the characters to dwell or wallow, even for a second. They are situations that demand further action. Taylor’s worlds are kinetic on every level — there is always forward motion, which is the first law of awesome writing. Motion can be emotional, physical, plot-related, atmospheric; however it manifests, it needs to be there. And boy, is it there in Taylor’s writing. She has a beautiful understanding and grasp of advanced narrative mechanics, and she wields her characters and stories like blades in the hands of an angel.

It’s as though she’s in a simultaneous state of nithilam and sirithar.

Daughter Of Smoke And Bone

Daughter Of Smoke And Bone

Any writer of any kind would learn much from these two books. SMOKE AND BONE is a masterclass of character-grounding, scope-expanding narrative flights. Taylor sets up a complex array of characters, both human and otherwise, and also complex worlds and societies. Read this book closely; it’s impossible to see her doing it. Her lightness of touch is remarkable; the worlds illuminate the characters, and the characters illuminate the worlds.

BLOOD AND STARLIGHT rapidly expands its core cast and develops an array of new characters, all while driving forward a terrifyingly inexorable storyline that, somewhat amazingly, makes the events of book one seem small in comparison.

It’s a masterclass in how to write a sequel.

Days Of Blood And Starlight

Days Of Blood And Starlight

Sequels are notoriously tricky. It’s genuinely rare to find a sequel that is even as good as the original. They exist. But sequels that dwarf the preceding book, eclipse it, go supernova on it… those are like goddamn unicorns. BLOOD AND STARLIGHT is one of those unicorns.

It happens in movies slightly more frequently; a subsequent installment that goes harder, does it differently, expands its universe while still retaining the spirit of the original — ALIENS, THE DARK KNIGHT, TERMINATOR 2, J.J. Abrams’ STAR TREK (technically it’s STAR TREK 11), THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. Just a few examples at the highest end of the quality spectrum.

DAYS OF BLOOD AND STARLIGHT is in that company.

SMOKE AND BONE got progressively bigger emotionally and plot-wise, then exploded in a mind-blowing, stunning revelation that took us literally up to the skies at the end. BLOOD AND STARLIGHT made that ending look like a grainy YouTube video on a flip phone compared to its VAST, gorgeous, perception-altering, universe-expanding IMAX scope of emotion and action. That’s how you do it.

With just these two books, Taylor has made her way to the very top of our inspiration list. We devoured both books; and they consumed us. That’s the most beautiful kind of reading experience. And as writers, we bow down to her. She’s the standard we want to reach, the stars we aim for; even if we don’t always get there, we’ll be much further along that we would have been otherwise. This inspiration really is bliss; her writing is incredibly gorgeous, wild and dangerous, entrancing, stunning, exhilarating.

It’s writing you lose your head to; writing to lose your soul in.

Not only that, she writes more perceptively, intelligently and inspiringly about the act of writing than almost anybody. Just spend some time on her site at www.lainitaylor.com and you’ll see what we mean. She’s so open and honest about the whole messy, thrilling, terrifying and wonderful process of writing. Her words are always encouraging, like beacons of light in the dark night of the soul that all writers face at some point.

Thank you, Laini. For all the above.

We can’t wait for book three.

Olympic writing

Hello, and welcome to our obligatory Olympic-themed post about writing!

We’re loving the Olympics so far, and seeing all that excellence on display got us thinking about writing. Of course, there are a number of metaphors you could use here: the importance of sticking the landing, having a great anchor routine/fast finish, being driven by passion, staying hungry for the prize… And so many sports to choose from for analogies: the precision of archery, the endurance of the 10,000m, the relentlessness of swimming race after race.

But in the end, what really resonated for us was this: degree of difficulty vs. execution.

Yep, we’ve been watching a lot of gymnastics!

And that’s how gymnastic routines are scored. Each competitor has a maximum potential score based upon the difficulty of their routine, while their actual score depends on how flawlessly they execute it. And it struck us: this is exactly how writing works. Readers, consciously or subliminally, tend to respond to books based on brilliant ideas, brilliantly executed.

What does that mean for writers? True, this is an analytical approach: it’s the layer beneath the layer of how people react to books, and why they fall in love with some and not others. But generally speaking, the more thrilling the narrative (and the thrills can be conceptual, emotional, action-based or humor-related), and the more momentum it has, the more you feel engaged with it. You’re much more likely to keep turning those pages.

We all want novels to sweep us up, take us away, make us dream, lose us deep within their worlds.

That can only happen if the author has a high degree of difficulty in their routine, and carries it out flawlessly. Readers are of course judges, issuing deductions based on each error: typos, character inconsistencies, breaking the flow… they all add up, detracting from the overall experience. Too many, and it can all be over. If the author ends up on their butt, the readers will get up off of theirs and go find something else to do.

Degree of difficulty doesn’t just mean twisty plots, or groundbreaking narrative techniques — it can mean those things, but it can also mean creating deeply atmospheric alternate worlds, making us feel, breaking our hearts, changing the way we see the world, and ourselves. Those things are not easy. But when an author makes them happen, we don’t even see them at work — we just get utterly drawn in, hypnotized, “book-whispered.”

YA authors Patrick Ness and Laini Taylor are the reigning champions. They’re at the top of the podium. The degrees of difficulty of their novels are immense: Ness has to take us to another world and make us experience hearing a multitude of other people’s and creatures’ thoughts, while Taylor has to create new magic and make us fall in love with angels while we feel terror and rage and desire in our blood.

Their execution is utterly flawless. Ness’s brilliance in conveying exactly what it feels like to hear the ‘noise’, while also feeling all of Todd’s extreme emotions, is just staggering. He uses the page in extraordinary ways, and creates something entirely, thrillingly new that is also deeply grounded in overwhelming heart and soul. Taylor is bewitching with her richly mystical narrative scorcery. She fills your head and your dreams with magic and desire. It’s spooky, and wonderful.

The behavior of our hearts is a complex and beautiful thing. When writers impact us on this level, it can change our lives. Just like watching someone win an Olympic gold can be deeply inspiring, and can let us know that dreams can be achieved — with dedication and passion.

What does this mean for writers? You have to constantly practice your craft, hone it, obsess over it like those athletes who get up at 4am and train all day, every day, every week, every month, every year. You have to inhabit your writing. Utterly. You have to keep reading, revising… and writing. Always be writing. It takes an extraordinarily high level of obsession to do this.

So while the Olympians keep winning their medals, as writers we take heart and inspiration. Dreams are wonderful things, but they’re made from sweat and tears, from giving yourself entirely to winning that gold.