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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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

One day can change everything: Patrick Ness’s RELEASE

Patrick Ness, the staggeringly talented YA deity behind the Chaos Walking trilogy, A Monster Calls, More Than This, and the heartbreakingly brilliant—and heartbreakingly canceled—TV show CLASS (which featured some of the greatest YA sci-fi writing we’ve ever seen), has a new book out. This is, of course, a very good thing. The book is called RELEASE and—spoiler—it’s wonderful. This is why you should read it.

Release cover

This brilliant ad extraordinary cover art is by Erin Fitzsimmons

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.

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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

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.

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.