GeekMom Fashion Inspiration: Peggy Carter

GeekMom Fashion Inspiration  © Sophie Brown
GeekMom Fashion Inspiration © Sophie Brown

Agent Peggy Carter with her elegant 1940s chic and ball-busting attitude is the current darling of the Marvel Cinematic Universe with Marvel fans and feminists alike applauding Agent Carter‘s daring take on what it meant to be a woman at the end of the Second World War. Peggy’s wardrobe has become something of a character in and of itself with an entire section of the show’s official website given over to analysis of her costumes (and those of other characters on the show—especially Dottie and Angie) and discussions with costume designer Giovanna “Gigi” Ottobre-Melton. It only seems fair then that we should kick off our new GeekMom Fashion Inspiration feature with a look at how to recreate Peggy’s look for yourself.

Peggy Carter © Sophie Brown via Polyvore
Peggy Carter © Sophie Brown via Polyvore

Tailored: While most of us wouldn’t be able to afford to have our clothes personally tailored, well cut clothing is essential in emulating Peggy Carter’s style. Although not always formal, her clothes are always neat with clean lines and little fuss. Forget frills and lace, her outfits are minimalistic yet very feminine, partly as a result of fabric rationing after the war. Watch out for wide collars and lapels—these are a trademark of Peggy’s style and often have contrasting angles and shapes.

Military: Peggy is a patriot—she was Captain America’s sweetheart after all—and that is reflected in her clothing. Look out for pieces with military style including Naval (she rocks a stunning navy blue dress with white stripes in episode two) and use tones of red, white, and blue. The symbolism can be subtle, such as the Eagle Wing pin brooch above which resembles Air Force wings, but remember that wearing actual medals is a big no-no unless you earned them yourself.

Stripes: Possibly for another patriotic nod, Peggy is often seen wearing stripes, sometimes more subtly than others. Her suits often have a subtle pin stripe to them and we’ve seen bolder stripes on her hats and dresses too. Try to avoid wearing them alongside a starry item unless you want to emulate Uncle Sam instead.

Agent Carter Promo Poster © ABC
Agent Carter Promo Poster © ABC

Skirts: Agent Carter is set in the 1940s when most women wore skirts or dresses every day. In order to reflect Peggy’s style, keep skirts a modest knee-length and cleanly cut; pencils and A-lines work best. Anything too long will get tangled around your legs if you have to take down some Hydra agents on your way to the office.

Accessories: Peggy often wears low heels that aren’t too showy but maintain feminine details with thin straps. Her shoes always match the overall color of her outfit, unlike her purses which are frequently in a contrasting color as with her belts. Of course Peggy’s most iconic accessory is her red hat. In the 1940s hats were commonplace, whereas today you’ll probably attract some attention simply by wearing one. The fedora has garnered some bad press lately thanks to its association with GamerGate (even though it’s been frequently mixed up with the trilby) but hopefully the combined awesome of Peggy Carter and Indiana Jones can restore its once good name.

Hair and Make Up: Peggy’s hair is always flawless. Personally I am a strong advocate of the roll-out-of-bed-and-comb-my-fingers-through-it school of hair maintenance but that simply will not fly with a Peggy Carter outfit. Her hair is usually styled in soft wavy curls but is occasionally pinned up for more formal occasions. Peggy’s makeup is mostly subtle except for her lips which are always bright red. Actress Hayley Atwell has revealed on Twitter that the show uses Besame’s 1946 Red Velvet to get that glorious red shade. To cap off the look, use a bright red nail polish too.

Between the Bookends: February 2015

Bookends © Sophie Brown
Bookends © Sophie Brown

This month’s Between the Bookends sees the GeekMoms reading about talking cows, dystopian future entertainment, a steampunked wild west, a wall of Trudd, and some big changes for Harry Dresden.

Holy Cow © Headline
Holy Cow © Headline

Sophie‘s 2015 resolution to read more has started off well as she is currently on her seventh book of the year. She really enjoyed David Duchovny’s debut novel Holy Cow, a somewhat surreal book told in the first person by a cow named Elsie. Elsie learns about meat farms and decides to escape her home and fly to India where she will be worshiped as a goddess. Along for the ride are a Jewish pig named Shalom and Tom the turkey who is starving himself to avoid ending up on a plate come Thanksgiving. The book is highly irreverent but also includes a deeper moral message.

She has also been reading some non-fiction behind-the-scenes books about television. Wrapped in Plastic looks at the importance of Twin Peaks twenty-five years on from its initial broadcast. Whether you love the show or hate it, its impact on modern television cannot be understated. Showrunners examines the rise of the showrunner in the last two decades, the person with overall responsibility for a television show from writing to finance. It suffered from a lack of depth caused by trying to cover too many ideas with input from too many people but still managed to convey a sense of what the role is all about.

Sophie is currently reading Jasper Fforde’s Shades of Grey with her bookclub. The story is set in a dystopian future where social class is determined by which colors a person can perceive and how strongly. It’s a very strange book so far with a strong sense of Douglas Adams-style whimsy although she hopes the pace will pick up soon as she is finding it becoming a little repetitive.

Changes ©
Changes ©

Ariane finished reading Changes, book 12 of the Dresden Files series by Jim Butcher. She had been warned to expect big changes for wizard Harry Dresden in this book, made obvious with a title like Changes. In fact, Ariane had been told that there was going to be so many changes that she’d be left begging for the changes to stop. With a warning like that, she braced herself through the whole book for the imminent changes to blow her mind, and she found herself disappointed that said changes didn’t actually really happen until the last ten pages. At least in the end, the very, very end, changes did happen and did blow her mind. Thank goodness it’s not the last book available in the series, because Changes ended on quite the cliffhanger. Ariane had to go start the next book right away to find out what happened next.



Karen Memory © Tor Books
Karen Memory © Tor Books

Fran read Karen Memory again—the steampunk/wild west story about an gold-rush era “sewing club” (ahem) and the amazing women who run it was so much fun to read the first time, she gave in to temptation and read it again (you can read Fran’s interview with author Elizabeth Bear at SF Signal). She also read V.E. Schwab’s A Darker Shade of Magic—Multiple Londons! Amazing Sartorial Feats! MAGIC!—and the non-fiction The Poisoner’s Handbook by Deborah Blum. The latter is filled with the history of coroner’s science as well as poisons. Okay. A Darker Shade of Magic‘s got some poison and pointy sharp things too. She’s now reading Jodi Meadows’ YA The Orphan Queen, and Ken Liu’s upcoming Dandelion Dynasty book: The Grace of Kings.


Station 11 © Knopf
Station 11 © Knopf



Laura normally avoids dystopian novels but she loved Station Eleven. The author, Emily St. John Mandel, writes tenderly about the current world we take for granted. A world where small rectangles hold the power to connect us with people around the world, where metal cylinders transport passengers across the sky, where warm air flows at the touch of a button, and something magical called the Internet answers every question. In Station Eleven, this time has passed although it can be remembered through artifacts on display at the Museum of Civilization. This novel describes a future where 99% of the population has been killed by a horrific plaque. As expected, there are many dangers including the threat of survivalist gangs and cults. There’s also a troupe of artists who travel from settlement to settlement playing Beethoven and performing Shakespeare. Their motto is lifted from Star Trek: “Survival is insufficient.” Through storylines that stretch across decades, the reader comes to know all sorts of characters whose lives intersect in unexpectedly compelling ways.

Being a book nerd, Laura promptly read two earlier novels by Emily St. John Mandel. The Singer’s Gun centers on a man who was raised by a family of thieves but tries to live more conventionally, even though his job and his love life hinge on deceit. The story takes us from art theft to espionage to an island in Italy where secrets aren’t what they seem.

In The Lola Quartet, the author gives us another disgraced character, this time a promising journalist whose professional lapses force him to move back to his hometown. When he’s shown a picture of a child who may be his daughter, he’s caught up in a dangerous swirl of vengeance he didn’t anticipate. Emily St. John Mandel is an excellent writer. Her novels showcase her many fascinations, from weather to music to comic books to the nuances of personal responsibility. Any of her books are worthy reads. Station Eleven is a new pinnacle, don’t miss it!

Akiko & The Great Wall of Trudd © Yearling Books
Akiko & The Great Wall of Trudd © Yearling Books

Rebecca Angel has been reading the Mark Crilley Akiko series to her nieces. Currently they are on Akiko and the Great Wall of Trudd. Akiko is a human girl who is contacted by very nice aliens to come with them and help their king on the planet Smoo. Akiko decides to go, and sets off with the knowledgeable Mr. Beeba, brave Spuckler, helpful robot Gax, and the sweet but mysterious Poog. It’s a great series with humor, adventure, and learning about courage and leadership. Independent readers will enjoy it, but it makes a fantastic read-aloud!

GeekMom received some of these items for review purposes.

Review – Showrunners: The Art of Running a TV Show

Showrunners © Black Sheep Productions
Showrunners © Black Sheep Productions

Showrunners: The Art of Running a TV Show is a Kickstarter-funded documentary film and book that examines the role of the showrunner. Not all that long ago, nobody had ever heard of the term “showrunner” and only die hard fans knew the names of anybody involved in creating their favorite TV shows beyond the main cast. In the last decade or so, all that has changed. Showrunners like Joss Whedon, Bill Prady, and Damon Lindelof are now household names each with their own devoted fanbase who follow their careers between shows and across media.

Showrunners the Movie is a 90-minute exploration of just what it is a showrunner does, how and why they do it, the challenges they face, and more. In creating it, the producers interviewed dozens of showrunners including Jane Espenson (Caprica), Hart Hanson (Bones), Janet Tamaro (Rizzoli & Isles), and Joss Whedon (Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Firefly, Angel, Dollhouse) and quizzed them about every aspect of their work. What makes a good showrunner? What does your work day look like? What are the best (and worst) parts of the job? What results is a broad look at TV production in the teenage years of the new millennium. It’s an industry in flux as new distribution and funding mechanisms such as Netflix, Amazon Originals, webseries, and Kickstarter-funded productions such as Veronica Mars leave traditional networks scrambling to assert their place. That sense of mild confusion is palpable throughout both the film and the book.

Joss Whedon in Showrunners © Black Sheep Productions
Joss Whedon in Showrunners © Black Sheep Productions

Although the film is interesting in that it covers a lot of ground and thus allows a wide variety of thoughts, opinions, and stories to be voiced, it suffers in that that same breadth never allows for much depth to occur. The film asks a question then jumps from showrunner to showrunner seeking answers. As fascinating as it is to see that variety (every showrunner takes a different approach—after all, the production of a serialized show on HBO has to differ greatly to that of a mainstream network procedural), I would have loved to see some focus. Show me a day in a showrunner’s life in detail. Let me see the minutiae of their workday, the ups and the downs, the tough decisions and the great laughs. Of course that’s a difficult thing to capture on film. As the showrunners being interviewed explain themselves, no two days are the same and different problems are being thrown up every day, but at least is would have gone some way to prevent the slightly superficial feel that the film suffers from.

Showrunners Book Cover © Titan
Showrunners Book Cover © Titan

The book provides more of the same, broadly following the same path the documentary did but without the constraints of time. This allows it to include the full answers given by each showrunner to the many questions they were asked. If you read the book soon after watching the documentary (as I did) you will constantly find lines that you remember hearing spoken out loud. Chapters include “The Script is King” which looks at staffing a writers’ room, an explanation of pilot season, and a look at the basic TV act structure, “The Politics of Making Television,” and “Connecting to the Matrix,” which discusses the internet and its impact on showrunning. Between these chapters are “In Depth” features which look at subjects like “Women & Minority Showrunners” and “How Lost Changed Showrunning,” as well as longer, focused segments on specific points such as showrunner “burnout.” One of the most interesting sections is a piece from Joss Whedon on how he considers himself a “company man” and his surprise at finding himself labelled a “rebel.”

The accompanying book has many of the same problems as the documentary. The question/answer format seen on screen is translated onto the page, so you read the question, then a series of answers from each showrunner. There is no flow, just a series of loosely connected anecdotes, opinions, and stories which quickly serve to make the book feel monotonous even though the content is actually very interesting and insightful. I even spotted chunks of answers/dialogue being re-used in multiple chapters on more than one occasion. With better formatting Showrunners would have been a joy to read, as it is the book suffers from creating the sensation of reading dictated notes. However, if you’re the kind of person who has a real interest in TV production, Showrunners is a window into a world most of us will never experience.

GeekMom received this book for review purposes.

Wrapped in Plastic: A Revealing Look at Twin Peaks

Wrapped in Plastic © ECW Press
Wrapped in Plastic © ECW Press

Since the announcement from David Lynch that Twin Peaks will be returning in 2016 following a 25 year break, interest in the surreal little Washington town is, well, Peak-ing! Articles discussing the show are appearing all over, even the mainstream media and social media is abuzz with weird quotes about owls, coffee, and cherry pie. If it’s been a long time since your last visit to the place with fantastic trees, or you’d just like to explore the town in a little more depth, then Andy Burns’ new book Wrapped in Plastic might be perfect for you.

Wrapped in Plastic is the fourth book in the Pop Classics series from ECW Press, a series designed to “offer intelligent but accessible arguments about why a particular pop phenomenon matters.” The book explores the show from a variety of angles but never digs deep into technicalities that could make the book less accessible to casual fans, making it a perfect introduction to further reading on the series. It’s short, punchy, and perfect for dipping into in short bursts while waiting in the car or sitting on the bleachers. The book begins with a look at the way modern TV differs from that of the pre-Peaks era, examining how much more bold and cinematic the medium has become over the decades. “Twin Peaks didn’t immediately redefine the night-time soap opera,” it says, it just “modeled ‘the unexplored possibilities that the medium held.’”

Author Andy Burns at Fan Expo Canada with (L-R) Sheryl Lee, Ray Wise, & Sherilyn Fenn © Ray Wise
Author Andy Burns at Fan Expo Canada with (L-R) Sheryl Lee, Ray Wise, & Sherilyn Fenn © Ray Wise

We begin with an exploration of the people and the town of Twin Peaks itself. There are discussions not only of superficial aspects of life such as Audrey Horne’s now iconic outfits, but of the way these elements are used to mask a darkness under the surface of the entire community. It’s a concept that would go on to be explored in shows such as Chris Carter’s Millennium (1996) and arguably Breaking Bad (2008). There is a brief history of how the show came to be on air in the first place with a look at David Lynch’s work up to that point and the shows that inspired it including British sci-fi show The Prisoner. Lynch’s directing style is discussed in detail, as is how it was passed on to others who worked on the show. Peaks star Dana Ashbrook (Bobby Briggs) describes the style as, “ethereal” with Lynch sharing dreams or music he felt would explain the vibe of what he wanted to get across. Other directors were, “not obligated to use the house style,” but rather asked to study the vocabulary of the pilot and use it to maintain a consistent feel to the show. Twin Peaks was never weird for weird’s sake despite how it might seem to those who never got the show. Rather those behind it were simply open to whatever spirit moves the artist. Rather than forcing weirdness (as happened with one director who didn’t quite understand what was required) the show simply went with the flow, whatever strange directions that flow might lead.

Away from the obvious weirdness of show aspects like the Log Lady and The Man from Another Place, Wrapped in Plastic also considers the more serious subjects tackled on Twin Peaks. The show was one of the first to tackle the subject of incest on American television, and certainly the first to do so on a network show. Spirituality was also explored through concepts like the Red and White lodges, through the Judeo-Christian iconography of the white horse seen by Sarah Palmer, and a scene inspired by the Tibetan Book of the Dead. The show allowed all of its characters to have complexity–even those with little more than bit parts–and gave them opportunities to change and grow throughout its run. The antagonistic relationship between town bigwig Benjamin Horne and his daughter Audrey is a strong example of this. We watch Audrey support her father through a mental breakdown that results not only in the two of them developing a strong bond, but also in the redemption of a character who had previously been squarely lumped into the bad guy category.

A Twin Peaks parody on The Simpsons (Fair Use)
A Twin Peaks parody on The Simpsons (Fair Use)

The book ends with a look at the way Twin Peaks has itself gone on to inspire new television. Many shows have parodied Twin Peaks including The Simpsons, Darkwing Duck, and Psych. The Latter turned an entire episode into a Twin Peaks homage—even going so far as to name the episode “Duel Spires”. Other shows have taken less direct inspiration. Picket Fences, Northern Exposure and Gravity Falls all have aspects that can be traced back to that strange small town. Wrapped in Plastic does a great job of exploring just why Twin Peaks has become such an important stop in the history of television. It’s somewhat meandering, without well-defined chapters, and occasionally jumps from idea to idea without giving them the word count you hope it would (I often found myself pausing to consult Google and further explore a name or idea) but as an introduction to thinking deeper about the show, it’s exactly what you would want.

Interestingly, at the very end of the book, a quotation from David Lynch’s daughter Jennifer (author of The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer) is included that vehemently denies any possibility of a new series. “I’ve heard it from the horse’s mouth,” she states, “there’s nothing in the works. What on Earth do people think would happen now? Everybody’s different. You can’t go back there.” Whatever you may think, the truth is that since the manuscript for Wrapped in Plastic was completed, things have changed forever. We are indeed going back. As for what will happen, who’s to say? All I know is that gum I like has definitely come back in style.

GeekMom received this item for review purposes.

We Are All The Bad Mother

Recipe Rifle © Esther Walker
Recipe Rifle © Esther Walker

“I am a bad mother.”

It’s a thought that has gone through all of our heads at least once. Maybe you’re thinking it as you watch your child start their third consecutive episode of Peppa Pig, or as they stuff McDonald’s fries into their mouth sitting in their car seat, or (like me yesterday) as you watch them write out a note of apology to their teacher for being cheeky in class. It’s like a basic rule of parenting: Self-doubt and self-flagellation come with the territory. Everyone else always seems to be handling it all so much better than we are. Your sister’s children eat all their vegetables without complaint, your neighbor’s little girl is already taking her Grade Two piano at age three, another mom in the playground just proudly told you that her son is already on the second book band when yours hasn’t even been put on the first. How do all these women have it so together when you don’t? In the era of picture-perfect Pinterest parenting, the feelings of inadequacy come easily.

That’s why I’ve been subscribed to Esther Walker’s blog Recipe Rifle for the last few years. Esther is a writer and a journalist who I discovered through her husband, restaurant critic Giles Coran, whose show The Supersizers… was a favorite of mine. She’s also slightly neurotic and frequently anxious, which I think makes her my parenting soulmate or something. On her blog, Esther shares recipes along with stories about her life raising her two children Kitty (aged three) and Sam (aged one). The difference between her blog and many others is that she doesn’t hold back. About anything. With Esther you get the whole truth. It’s often uncomfortable, sometimes shocking, frequently gross, and always liberally sprinkled with the kind of language I wouldn’t dare repeat to my mother. When new posts appear in my inbox it’s like reading an email from your best friend. The honesty is more than just refreshing; sometimes it’s saved my sanity from simply knowing that at I’m not the only mother who has ever had these terrible thoughts toward my own family. Recipe Rifle got me through the toddler years—I just wish Esther would have had Kitty a bit earlier so she could have been there for the baby months too.

The Bad Mother © HarperCollins
The Bad Mother © HarperCollins

The Bad Mother is Esther’s second book (The Bad Cook came out in 2013) but this time the content is exclusively about being a mother with no recipes to be found. In it she covers almost every aspect of parenting: sleeping, eating, routines, holidays, sickness, poo. Now that I’m past the diaper phase I’d forgotten just how much the last five years of my life revolved around poo. This book reminded me and made me extra thankful that it’s all over. The whole thing reads like an extended, slightly categorized version of her blog posts, right down to the choice language (even one of the chapter titles could make a nun blush). She compares foreign holidays with very small children to being like a spy: “Having completed your training in your own country, you are then sent on a terrifying mission to a hot place, where you must complete your tasks in a totally unfamiliar environment.” I couldn’t comment myself—I wasn’t brave enough to take more than a weekend trip with my son until he had turned five.

The Bad Mother is not intended as a guide to raising children. In fact there are times where Esther points out that she got things entirely wrong and also that the things she relied on wholly for her family (such as strict routines from birth) might be totally wrong for you. Rather it is a personal story about being a mother, being hard on yourself, and realizing that you’re not a bad mother at all. That every choice is personal, that we are all doing our best and trying to make the right choices for our family. If someone else choose to call those choices “lazy” or “selfish” then, as Esther would probably say, “**** ‘em.”

GeekMom received this item for review purposes.

Between the Bookends: January 2015

Bookends © Sophie Brown
Bookends © Sophie Brown

As we begin a new year, the GeekMoms have been diving into their recent Christmas presents. This month’s books include a look at the power of introverts, a mystery from J.J. Abrams, some serious scientific answers to hypothetical questions, and a mysterious circus.

The Circle © Knopf
The Circle © Knopf

Laura is reading The Circle by Dave Eggers. This novel takes readers into the bright new world of a futuristic Google-ish company, where optimistic developers create products to improve society through complete transparency.

No lies, no crime, and perfect health are all via the wonders of a connected world. Laura thought it seemed like an overly long cautionary tale, but for days after finishing this novel, she kept noticing tech articles striking a similar tone. She may also have paid more attention to her own social media addiction…

She’s also reading Confessions of Madame Psyche by Dorothy Bryant. After reading Bryant’s brilliant sci-fi novel, The Kin of Ata Are Waiting for You, Laura is working her way through this author’s diverse oeuvre. This engaging novel, told like a memoir, follows the life of a motherless half-Chinese girl who’s forced to masquerade as a psychic to earn a living. She grows into an independent-minded woman, whose experiences are emblematic of Northern California history.

And Laura is a fan of cooking ahead, pretty much a necessity in a busy life. She’s having company this weekend and will be using several recipes from Ina Garten’s new book, Make It Ahead: A Barefoot Contessa Cookbook. You can’t go wrong with Roasted Vegetable Lasagna and Vanilla Semifreddo with Raspberry Sauce. Yum.

S. © Mulholland Books
S. © Mulholland Books

Lisa received, S., created by J.J. Abrams and written by Doug Dorst, as a Christmas gift, and it posed the question to her: “When is a book not a book?” The answer: When it’s an event! This hardback, interactive novel first appears as just a weathered library book called Ship of Theseus by V.M. Straka. In reality, it is an adventure filled with surprises… literally.

Like anything Abrams is involved with, this book demands the reader’s full attention. The story is really about the woman who finds this book (the final novel by a mysterious author) left behind by a stranger. The book is covered with comments in the margin, and soon she begins leaving her own comments. This soon turns into a conversation that draws both her and the stranger into an even bigger mystery. Not only that, but there are postcards, news clippings, discarded napkins, maps, and more that have been strategically inserted throughout to help events unfold.

Readers should note every scrap is vital and should be kept in its place. Be warned, this book will not allow readers to just be passive observers. They should get ready to make a space on the desk or table when experiencing this book, as they will become part of the adventure whether they want to or not.

She also received, What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions by Randall Munroe, creator of the science and tech nerd webcomic Munroe attempts to use scientific logic to answer some of the strangest, and often hilarious, questions asked to him by fans. One typical example: “If every person on Earth aimed a laser pointer at the Moon at the same time, would it change color?”

Munroe’s conclusion is six pages long, with several of his stick figure illustrations and photos. This is pretty much how every question in the book is handled. Whee, let the joy of science and silliness merge! This will join another favorite reference book of Lisa’s, An Underground Education: The Unauthorized and Outrageous Supplement to Everything You Thought You Knew out Art, Sex, Business, Crime, Science, Medicine, and Other Fields of Human by Richard Zacks. Learning is fun!

Quiet © Crown
Quiet © Crown

Rebecca Angel was chatting with a friend about her son’s introverted self… and her husband… and her daughter. The friend recommend she read Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain.

It’s a non-fiction adult read (though any high-schooler would find it interesting, too). So Rebecca read the book and realized many of the traits of introversion she has herself! Like most people, she is not all one or the other, though extroversion is stronger.

The book challenges the American assumptions that success can only be found through extroverted traits. Instead, the author provides countless examples and studies that show introverts can be highly successful in business, friendships, and self-fulfillment. However, our current society is set up against taking their needs into account. As someone who runs workshops for groups of people, this book is highly useful in giving tips to make sure the introverts in the crowd can feel comfortable. And yes, the book did help Rebecca appreciate her introverted family’s gifts.

She recommended it to her book club for their selection this month—should be a great discussion!

What If © Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
What If © Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Karen‘s favorite Christmas present was What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions by world famous xkcd author Randall Munroe.

Based on a web spinoff to his famous comic, the What If? blog has been an amazing source for science writing for a couple of years now. When answering silly questions (“What happens if a baseball is pitched at 90% of the speed of light?”), Munroe illuminates fascinating bits of real science (“The ball would be moving so fast that the air molecules couldn’t move out of the way, and it would rapidly cause an expanding fireball that engulfs the whole stadium”).

The book has a lot of great content from the blog as well as additional features, of which Karen’s favorites are the sections titled “Weird (and Worrying) Questions from the What If? Inbox,” with questions that—for very good reasons—never got answered on the blog. Also, the book has a section on questions about lightning. Karen has dealt extensively with lightning phenomena for protecting the spacecraft that she’s worked on in the aerospace industry, so she was really impressed when she noticed that Munroe had all of his facts right in that section. It gives her good confidence that he’s reached a similar level of fidelity for the other subject matter in the book. She can’t wait until her kids are old enough to pull this book down from the bookcase and start reading it themselves.

The Night Circus © Doubleday
The Night Circus © Doubleday

Sophie intends to use 2015 to really start reading again, after finding very little time over the last few months. She is participating in the PopSugar 2015 Reading Challenge and has already finished her first book toward it: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern.

This is one of those books that is very hard to describe without giving away too much. The plot centers on a strange, monochromatic circus that suddenly appears on the outskirts of cities the world over. It is filled with unique tents, the contents of which captivate their audiences and create a band of devoted followers who travel thousands of miles to follow the circus around. However, the circus itself is merely the stage for a secret battle between two magicians, forced since childhood to duel one another by creating ever-more amazing creations, but as the years pass, something has to give.

Sophie has also been slowly reading through the first volume of Millennium: The Unofficial Companion by N.E. Genge, while she co-runs a weekly Millennium Re-Watch on Twitter (Sundays 5:30 p.m. EST, #XFNMLM). Finally, she has made a start on one of her Christmas books, X Marks The Spot: On Location with The X-Files by Louisa Gradnitzer and Todd Pittson. Louisa and Todd were the location managers for the first five seasons of The X-Files and the book offers a unique look at this aspect of television production, from gathering permissions to film in all sorts of locations to the challenges faced once the cast and crew arrived.

Storytime Magazine

Storytime Magazine © Sophie Brown
Storytime Magazine © Sophie Brown

Have you ever walked down the magazine aisle of a supermarket with a child and been simultaneously amazed and horrified that every single magazine seems to come with a cheap, plastic “gift” stuck to the front and contains more advertising than content?

Storytime is a new magazine for children and parents to share that aims to encourage reading and interaction with stories, but without any advertising or free plastic clutter.

From the beginning it’s obvious that Storytime is a very different magazine. The pages are made with thick, high-quality matte paper instead of the usual cheap glossy stuff, and the pages contain not one single advertisement. Inside you will find seven fully illustrated stories, activities, and games related to each of them, and ideas for parents to help engage their children. Some of the tales included in the first issue are “The Hare and The Tortoise,” “Perseus and Medusa,” and “Aladdin & The Magic Lamp.”

The issue is divided into sections such as Famous Fables, Favourite Fairy Tales, and Brilliant Books, which will presumably repeat in each issue. Every story is fully illustrated in a variety of different styles, each one reminiscent of old children’s books (I was reminded of my old Ladybird books). The illustration styles are continued for the games and activities at the back of the magazine. My issue included a coloring sheet of the owl and the pussycat on their boat, a simple hare and tortoise race game, and space to draw in your own version of the Fairy King.

Storytime Cover © Sophie Brown
Storytime Cover © Sophie Brown

The ideas for parents section includes some information on the stories themselves and questions to ask in order to engage children and get them thinking more about what they have heard.

One question asked children to imagine how they think Alice in Wonderland will continue because the magazine only prints the first section, cutting off when she drinks from the little “drink me” bottle. How parents will feel about being given only the first section of a story which would then require them to go out and purchase a full copy, presumably once a month, remains to be seen.

Although I liked the magazine from an adult perspective, my five year old really wasn’t interested in these types of classic legends and fairy tales. It took a lot of persuading for him to sit down and listen to just one, even though he usually loves books.

It would be nice to see the magazine mix up the more classic literature (Alice in Wonderland, Goldilocks) with more modern styles too. Classic tales are great—they’re classics for a reason after all—but tastes have changed and there are a lot of other kinds of stories out there that will engage different kinds of kids. As it is now, by focusing exclusively on older classic literature children’s stories, the whole package does come across as rather “worthy,” even a little elitist.

I love the idea behind Storytime, but right now it’s just not a good fit for my family. Anything that encourages children to read more, and parents to read with them, can only be a good thing, but I would really have liked to see more variety. As it is, this appeals to a very specific type of parent—parents who aren’t me.

GeekMom received this item for review purposes. In the interest of full disclosure, the editor of Storytime is the partner of a writer at our brother site GeekDad.

DIY Mickey Mouse Wreath

Mickey Mouse Wreath © Sophie Brown
Mickey Mouse Wreath © Sophie Brown

On my recent family vacation to Walt Disney World, the park was beginning to get ready for the holiday season and decorations were everywhere you looked. I spotted some amazing wreaths, so once I got home I wanted to try to make one of my own. My wreath cost me under £5/$8 to create and looks beautiful hanging on my front door.

You will need:

  • Three flat-backed Styrofoam rings, one larger than the others. Mine measured 8″ across for the large and 4.5″ for each of the smaller ones.
  • Dark green paint (optional)
  • Green felt (I used about four 8″x11″ sheets)
  • Handful of red buttons

You will also need a hot glue gun or other strong adhesive.

Supplies © Sophie Brown
Supplies © Sophie Brown

Step one:
Position the three rings into a classic Mickey Mouse shape. I used a cutting board with guidelines to help place both small rings at the same height. Then use a hot glue gun to stick them in place. Make sure you do not allow the glue to dry with the wreath lying flat or it will end up glued to the surface (I know this from experience). The glue dries quickly, so I found it easiest to simply hold the wreath for a couple of minutes until it was no longer tacky.

Once the glue has fully dried, you can paint the whole thing green. It will eventually be entirely covered in the felt but I chose to paint mine just in case any small gaps showed through.

Cut out a LOT of felt leaves © Sophie Brown
Cut out a LOT of felt leaves © Sophie Brown

Step two:
Cut out the felt leaves. Each of mine measured approximately 1″x1.5″ and you will need several hundred. I used around four letter paper sized sheets of felt and the cutting out probably took about two hours in short sessions. I sat and caught up on Serial while I cut mine out. Don’t worry about making them all identical—have you ever seen a real holly bush with perfectly uniform leaves? However many you cut out though, you’ll probably need more. A lot more.

Cover the wreath in leaves © Sophie Brown
Cover the wreath in leaves © Sophie Brown

Step three:
Start gluing the leaves onto the wreath shape. I used a hot glue gun but any kind of strong adhesive should work just fine. Try to make sure to overlap the leaves so you don’t leave any gaps. To make the wreath look thicker, layer leaves on top of one another. I tried to avoid being TOO regular with placement but also kept some order so it didn’t look completely haphazard.

Stick on buttons and hang © Sophie Brown
Stick on buttons and hang © Sophie Brown

Step four:
Position the red buttons randomly around the wreath. I used a mixture of single heart shaped buttons, and circular buttons grouped in threes to create more Mickey Mouse shapes. Glue these in place on top of the felt leaves.

Step five:
Attach a hook or string for hanging; where to put this will depend on where and how you want to hang your wreath. I used hot glue to attach a Mickey-shaped paper clip to the back, then strung Christmas-colored twine through it for hanging before adding an extra bit of glue for good measure. The finished wreath is very lightweight so nothing too heavy duty is required.

You’re done! It’s probably worth noting that these wreaths are not at all weatherproof and thus need to be kept indoors. You could also use foam rings that are rounded rather than flat backed and continue the design all the way around to the back – this would work well if it was to be hung on a glass door; just increase the quantity of felt and buttons to suit.

If you make your own wreath then please share it on our Facebook page.

GeekMom TableTop Games Quiz

TableTop Games Quiz © Sophie Brown
TableTop Games Quiz © Sophie Brown

Christmas is rapidly approaching, and here at GeekMom we’re big fans of giving tabletop games as presents. There are tabletop games to suit everyone from preschoolers to grandma, and although many of them are expensive, there’s plenty available for under $20, too. To inspire you to think about giving games this holiday season, I’ve put together a quiz featuring some of the most popular games on the geek circuit. How many of them can you identify?

[playbuzz-game game=””]

Between the Bookends: November 2014

My Foreign Cities © Liveright
My Foreign Cities © Liveright

As we leave behind Halloween and head inextricably forwards towards turkey, trimmings, and tinsel, the GeekMoms are still finding time to read. If you dare to join them this month, you will find astronauts, dragonslayers, mysterious children, Plato, a platypus, and a rather curious dead dog.

GeekMom Samantha Cook just finished reading My Foreign Cities: A Memoir by Elizabeth Scarboro. She had held off reading it for some time, thinking that the love story with an inevitable end might be overwhelming and sad.

She couldn’t have been more wrong.

A touching tale of two lovers, one with cystic fibrosis, this memoir turned out to be one of the most uplifting and validating love stories she has ever read. Scarboro’s writing is descriptive and endearing, like she is sitting in front of you narrating. The reality of the situation is not lost nor glossed over, but adds to the complexity of a shining example in what love is and what love does. In the end, this is a story about being present, brave, and fiercely alive in whatever time we have with each other.

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children © Quirk
Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children © Quirk

As it often occurs, it took the threat of a movie for Lisa to finally dig into one of the many books she had been meaning to read. This was the case with Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs, a book that proved nearly impossible to put down.

The book became known for its weirdly clever use of vintage photos, but also has a wild story to tell. From Jacob’s first nostalgic and eerie introduction to his Grandpa Portman, to a tragic turn of events in the woods surrounding his grandpa’s home when Jacob was 15, to his travels to a remote Welsh island in search of his Miss Peregrine’s Home and the truth behind his grandpa’s life, the twists, turns, and surprises keep happening. They don’t stop until the end, leaving the reader wondering if they’d returned from a wild trip or woken from a dark and beautiful dream.

She also picked up Jasper Fforde’s mystery, The Fourth Bear, after her 12-year-old daughter brought home Fforde’s young reader’s novel, The Last Dragonslayer, the first book in Fforde’s Chronicles of Kazam series. Having only read his classic book-jumping adventures in the Thursday Next series, which have resulted in Lisa really wanting a dodo as a pet, departing into his dark and wickedly funny Nursery Crime series seemed strange at first. Despite the Mother Goose-based characters and material, these nursery crimes are not for kids. Them’s mean streets for Detective Jack Spratt and his partner Sergeant Mary Mary, especially when journalist Goldilocks has gone missing.

Vanishing Grace © Zondervan
Vanishing Grace © Zondervan

She did, however, end up reading the more ‘tween-friendly The Last Dragonslayer as well, when her daughter wasn’t looking. Like Fforde’s adult novels,The Last Dragonslayer has a strong female protagonist, over-the-top strange and fun character names, and more puns than any book should be allowed. It’s hard not to keep reading through, with Fforde’s brand of Monty Python-esque humor and his attention to literary details; it’s hard to stop after one book!

GeekMom Judy has been enjoying a new book by Philip Yancey called Vanishing Grace: What Ever Happened to the Good News? Having grown up a strict Baptist and finding a new path in her adult years, she has been fascinated by the discussions about how the church in general is perceived as being alienating in recent years. Judy found  herself pondering the suggestions Yancey offers on how to turn this attitude around for days afterward.

It was doubly touching for her to read the book No Man’s War: Irreverent Confessions of an Infantry Wife while she was riding in a car headed to greet her son, who was returning from his deployment in Afghanistan. The author, Angela Ricketts, writes candidly about what it’s like to be married to a man who is married to the Army. Judy learned a lot about what military life is like for the families of our service men and women and thought of the author and her family many times as she then drove around the military base in KY that was mentioned often in the book. Reading as the mom of a soldier, but also feeling empathy from being a wife herself, made this book one that was hard to put down, even at the cleanest rest stops along the way. She rates it as one of the top books she’s read this year.

The Martian © Crown
The Martian © Crown

Judy was also fascinated to read a book called Not Fade Away: A Memoir of Senses Lost and Found, about a woman who finds out in her late teens that instead of “just being the clumsy one” in the family, she actually has a rare disease that will eventually rob her of her sight. This memoir follows the author, Rebecca Alexander (with Sascha Alper), through her young adult years, as she tries to make peace with the diagnosis—then pretend it really isn’t happening to her, all at the same time. Stories like this one, about how people survive the perils life can throw your way, are what make memoirs Judy’s favorite genre in the library.

So far, GeekMom Karen‘s favorite science-fiction novel of the year is The Martian by Andy Weir. This is a hard SF engineering story about an astronaut who gets stranded on Mars after a near-future NASA mission goes wrong. He has to use the resources he has to survive until a rescue mission can get to him. As a former NASA engineer, the mission design, engineering, and science all seem spot on to Karen, although the tone of some of the NASA engineers doesn’t quite ring true. The novel takes the character through a series of setbacks and achievements all the way until the end. This would be a good book for any teenager interested in the current future of space exploration, as well as any fan of the magazine Analog.

The Curious Incident of The Dog in The Night-Time © Vintage
The Curious Incident of The Dog in The Night-Time © Vintage

GeekMom Sophie has had very little time to read this month, thanks to a much-needed vacation to Walt Disney World. She did, however, manage to finish off her book club’s current selection, The Curious Incident of The Dog in The Night-Time by Mark Haddon. She hadn’t been entirely sure what to expect from this book, but it certainly wasn’t what she ended up reading. Although she enjoyed the story, especially the inserted diagrams and maps, she was surprised to find herself at the end having expected the book to continue far longer—and she found the ending a bit of a let down.

Sophie hopes to find a bit more time for reading in the coming months, especially as she just received a collector’s edition copy of A Vision of Fire, the debut novel by Gillian Anderson and Jeff Rovin. Now that her jet lag has worn off, she intends to dive in and find out what all the fuss has been about.

Plato & a Platypus Walk Into a Bar... © Harry N. Abrams
Plato & a Platypus Walk Into a Bar… © Harry N. Abrams

GeekMom Rebecca Angel is having fun with philosophy by reading Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar… by Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein. They take deep questions about life, types of reasoning, and complex theories, and use jokes to explain them. It isn’t a gimmick: the jokes make it easier to understand complicated logic. Plus, they are actually funny!

Copies of some books were provided by their publishers for review purposes.

Baking Bad: Let’s Cook, B*tch!

Baking Bad © Sophie Brown
Baking Bad © Sophie Brown

Let’s be honest, it’s pretty easy to come up with a funny concept for a novelty recipe book, especially when a show as iconic as Breaking Bad is your inspiration—I mean the title practically writes itself. But with something like this, the proof is quite literally in the pudding. Do the recipes actually work? I’ve spent the last week finding out.

Baking Bad is a collection of 22 recipes, mostly for desserts, that draw inspiration from the hit TV show Breaking Bad. The book itself is a well-thought-out and loving homage. Everything from the graphic design to the instructions themselves cleverly makes you think of the show, for example the Ricin Krispie squares recipe reminds me to be careful not to “confuse this dish with ‘Lily of the Valley Krispy Treats’, though the effects can be similar.” In fact it’s so well linked to its inspiration that I was having to watch out for spoilers (I’m currently halfway through season five)—I think this may be the only time a show has been spoiled for me by a cook book. The recipes are divided into five seasons, based on which episode they reference, and they are often very funny. Some of my personal favorites include Jesse’s Jell-O Acid Tub, Ricin Krispie Squares, and Fring Pops. I tried five recipes in total with varying degrees of success.

Schraderbraunies © Sophie Brown
Schraderbraunies © Sophie Brown

The first recipe I tried was the Schraderbraunies, a pretty basic chocolate brownie recipe with the added ingredient of stout. Even after leaving them in the oven longer than the recipe called for, the middle never reached that gooey brownie consistency we all love. Instead they stayed unpleasantly wobbly. I handed some out among friends (to wildly mixed reception) and the word that stuck with me from their responses was “gelatinous”—not a word I generally want associated with my brownies. I also noticed my first problem with the book in this recipe: the pictures of the method didn’t match up at all to the text. Even some of the ingredients were wrong, one picture showed chocolate squares being melted when they are not included anywhere in the ingredients list or the method. Sorry Hank but these anything but silky perfection.

Blue Meth Crunch © Sophie Brown
Blue Meth Crunch © Sophie Brown

Next up was the signature Blue Meth Crunch, a peppermint flavored hard candy. It’s worth noting here that the corn syrup it called for is not widely available in the UK, and even after sending my husband to every major supermarket in our city I still couldn’t locate any. This meant that I had to substitute with a much darker-colored golden syrup instead, which of course meant in turn that my crystals turned out green! The recipe worked really well and the result tasted good, assuming of course that you enjoy food that cements itself to your teeth. However I did discover one issue the next morning. I had left the crystals in a bowl overnight and on returning I discovered that they had slowly lost their shape and had instead become a solid, bowl-shaped mass that had to be melted out of its container,resulting in the loss of nearly all the product. Gus would not have been pleased…

Meth Munches © Sophie Brown
Meth Munches © Sophie Brown

I used the Meth Crunch to decorate my third recipe, Meth Munches, known on the street as cupcakes. I have made hundreds, probably thousands of cupcakes in recent years but this batch were one of the worst I have ever baked. The recipe again used a method where you simply dumped everything into a bowl at once and mixed it together unlike the standard creaming method I always use. I ended up with a dense sponge that struggled to rise which in turn left me with small, heavy cakes. The concept was great, and apart from their size the cakes looked good, but I’ll be sticking to my regular method from now on.

Ricin Krispie Squares © Sophie Brown
Ricin Krispie Squares © Sophie Brown

One of my favorite recipes were the Ricin Krispie Squares. I had never made rice crispy squares before, in the UK we usually melt chocolate to make rice crispy cakes instead, but this recipe was very simple and effective. It was probably the quickest to make and one of the most obviously Breaking Bad inspired when served up. If I were hosting a viewing party then these would be top of my party food list. I couldn’t quite bring myself to offer them to my friend’s kids though!

Heisen(Batten)Burg Cake © Sophie Brown
Heisen(Batten)Burg Cake © Sophie Brown

My final and favorite recipe was the Heisen(Batten)Burg Cake. This creates a yellow and green checkered cake which is wrapped in a layer of marzipan. Rather than the traditional apricot, any green jam is used—in my case lime marmalade—to stick the cake to the coating. Sadly, even in this case I had problems with the recipe. The cakes came out undercooked once again, despite going well over the recommended cooking time. This caused them to sink in the middle and made it very difficult to achieve the checkered effect (I had to squish mine under a weighted chopping board to even them out). I believe this may have to do with another editorial issue regarding the quantities. The recipe calls for 1 lb/350 g each of butter and sugar, but as we all know 1 lb is equal to 450 g. Adding too much or too little of an ingredient, even by a small margin, can have disastrous effects on baking and this is a significant error. Without knowing which quantity was the correct one I had to guess. Even so, the cake tasted great, I just have way too much of it and that’s after using half amounts—I couldn’t bear to cook anything that called for a whole pound of sugar!

Overall I found the book to be very hit or miss. The ideas are consistently good, if not all practical, but the execution varies wildly and there are a lot of editorial mistakes. I consider myself an experienced baker and I often found myself falling back on my own knowledge because the instructions were vague. When I had my husband (a complete baking novice) read through a recipe, he said he wouldn’t even attempt it because the book wasn’t nearly clear enough on what he should do.

Despite these problems I really like the book. It’s incredibly fun and I found myself excitedly texting a fellow Breaking Bad fan for the whole time I flicked through its pages the night I received it, sending her quotes and descriptions of the recipes. If you are a confident cook who is able to let their instincts guide them when something feels amiss then you will enjoy it, but this isn’t a game for amateurs.

Wolfblood is Supernatural for The Whole Family

Wolfblood © Titan
Wolfblood © Titan

You may not have heard of it yet, but Wolfblood is the hottest thing on British TV for tweens and also for their parents.

With the show now in its third season, and popular enough to spawn an official glossy magazine that launches this week, I wanted to take a closer look.

At its heart Wolfblood follows the stories of Maddy and Rhydian, two teenage “wolfbloods” who can turn into wolves at will. The show initially followed their attempts to balance regular human lives with their secret identities. Maddy comes from a family of wolfbloods and was aware of her identity before she began transforming, while Rhydian grew up in foster care and was therefore unaware of his heritage. Later series examined the bonds between the human friendly “tame” packs like Maddy’s family, wild packs like Rhydian’s biological family, and lone wolves, along with uncovering a conspiracy and more.

There are naturally parallels to be drawn between Wolfblood and other supernatural series aimed at young teens—most obviously Twilight. The wolfbloods can transform at will making them closer to Twilight’s shapeshifting wolves than to true werewolves, and the different groups reminded me of the various vampires in that saga: the human-friendly Cullens, those who consider humans no more than food like the Volturi, and lone ranging individuals like Alistair.

Plus, like the Twilight Saga, Wolfblood appears to have found an audience further afield than just the tweens it is aimed at. The show airs on CBBC, a BBC channel aimed specifically at children aged 6 to 12, and both of my nieces (conveniently aged six and 12 themselves) are deeply into it, but then again, so is their mother which is something of a rarity for the channel. In fact when I asked them if they would like to look at the new magazine for me I’m not sure who was more excited!

Wolfblood Cover © Titan
Wolfblood Cover © Titan

Totally Wolfblood Magazine includes news about the show, behind the scenes information, quizzes, puzzles, and posters. I asked my eldest niece to give me her thoughts on it. She absolutely loved the magazine overall, most of all the behind the scenes features, but she also raised a few negative points. It unfortunately introduced her to spoilers for the first time thanks to its “sneak peak” section which included pictures from the show’s third season which is currently on air. The season doesn’t conclude until the end of the month but the pictures gave away some upcoming plot points.

She was also unimpressed that the posters were backed with parts of the magazine she would rather not remove and asked why they couldn’t have been printed on the inside of the cover & back page so they could be hung up without removing important sections. The six year old was particularly taken with the free stationery set, but their mother was somewhat unhappy with the number of adverts. Four full pages were completely taken over by them, that’s over 10% of the entire magazine.

When I asked if they would continue reading future issues, both girls said that they would like to but their mother, even as a fan herself, doubted that she would be willing to pay £3.99.

Wolfblood continues to grow steadily more popular, it is now the most watched children’s show in Britain, and the addition of an official magazine helps to build its fandom.

In the USA the show airs on the Disney Channel and is now available on both Netflix and iTunes. If you’re looking for something supernatural for the whole family this Halloween then definitely give it a try. If you already have a Wolfblood addict in your home then they will love the new magazine.

GeekMom received this item for review purposes.

Tsuro of the Seas: More Strategy for Experienced Players

Tsuro of The Seas © Sophie Brown
Tsuro of the Seas © Sophie Brown

Over summer we looked at the beautifully simple family board game Tsuro. The game is great to play with anyone, even non-gamers, but may be overly simple for more experienced gamers.

Today, we look at the sequel Tsuro of the Seas and the Veterans of the Seas expansion that build on the original premise while adding in extra complications that more experienced gamers will appreciate.

In the original Tsuro each player is a dragon and forges a path around the board by playing tiles from their hand. The goal is simple: Stay on the board. The last player to remain on the board having not forced themselves off the edge, or flown into an opponent, wins. In Tsuro of the Seas, you play a ship traveling around the ocean. The basic premise remains the same, to stay on the board as long as possible without crashing or falling off the edge, but beware: Here be dragons.

Tsuro of the Seas Board © Sophie Brown
Tsuro of the Seas Board © Sophie Brown

Between four and six sea dragons (or daikaiju as they are known in the game) move randomly around the board. Bump into one and you’re out. The daikaiju move first during every turn. Players roll two dice to determine if and how this happens: A roll totaling six, seven, or eight means that they are on the move. Each daikaiju tile includes five arrows, one for each direction of movement and a fifth for rotation on the spot. If a six is shown, then the tile remains stationary.

Just like the players, the daikaiju may also fall off the board or die by crashing into one another, however there must always be at least three on the board.

If movement results in the number dropping below three then a new tile is spawned. Once the daikaiju have finished moving, play continues just as in original Tsuro until the next player’s turn.

The inclusion of the daikaiju really changes the game. In the original Tsuro, players are only concerned with each other’s movements and often spend the game trying to stay as far away from one another as possible. The daikaiju move randomly, so their movements cannot be predicted. They also destroy the paths left behind by players making the board itself more open to evolution whilst simultaneously removing the ability to plan too far ahead. We found that the amount of concentration it took to play was more than doubled in this sequel—it is definitely a version for more experienced players.

Veterans of The Seas © Sophie Brown
Veterans of the Seas © Sophie Brown

The game also offers a small expansion pack called Veterans of the Seas. The pack adds in some additional tiles including the Mystic Portal, Tsunami, Uzushio (whirlpool), and Taihous (canons). Most of these tiles work against the players by adding in additional difficulties the ships may encounter, but the taihou tiles can be used to defend against daijaiku at any time during the game. These few tiles make a great addition for very little cost, however we did find the instructions for the Mystic Portal somewhat unclear.

As the holiday season approaches we are once again starting to think about which games to take with us to various family gatherings. By taking Tsuro and Tsuro of the Seas, we will be able to cater to every level of experience from small children through to regular gamers looking for a challenge. With the addition of the sequel, Tsuro is now truly for everyone.

GeekMom received this item for review purposes.

DIY Star-Lord Infinity Orb

Guardians of The Galaxy was one of the most popular films of last year, but considering how crazy we all went for the ragtag bunch of intergalactic misfits there’s shockingly little official merchandise available. I needed Star-Lord’s Orb for a cosplay and put together this tutorial for anyone who wants to have a go at making one themselves. They make excellent party bag favors and are incredibly fast and cheap to make.

What you need:

  • A Polystyrene Ball (the Orb should fit comfortably in your hand so consider whether you are making one for a child or an adult when choosing what diameter ball to purchase, mine was three inches in diameter)
  • A Hot Glue Gun and Glue Sticks (I used three sticks to cover my ball)
  • Black and Silver Paints (grey optional)—I used a mix of acrylic and enamel

Continue reading DIY Star-Lord Infinity Orb

Between the Bookends: October 2014

Bookends © Sophie Brown
Bookends © Sophie Brown

It’s Halloween season and the GeekMoms have been reading some surreal and spooky books to prepare, as well as our usual varied choices. Carry on reading for Floridian sci-fi, WWII France, a C. S. Lewis retelling of an ancient Roman myth, and a selection of classic children’s stories.

Acceptance © FSG Originals
Acceptance © FSG Originals

Karen recently finished up Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy with the concluding volume, Acceptance. This is a nice, tight trilogy of weird, surrealistic fiction that might be SF or might be fantasy depending on how you squint at it. In this trilogy, an area of the Florida coast has been… invaded? Appropriated? Incorporated? By some bizarre force. In the first book, Annihilation, we follow a quasi-scientific expedition that is investigating the now uncanny Area X. In Authority, we learn about the government bureaucracy that controls the expeditions, and in the concluding volume we return to the Area X with perspectives on its past, present, and future. That all sounds too simple—at every step this book subverts expectations an instills a feeling of abnormality. The characters are really the core of the book—how they are affected by, and in turn affect, Area X. None of them are uber-heroes; they’re folks (although not particularly “normal” themselves) trying to come to grips with the incomprehensible. An amazing piece of work from a World Fantasy Award-winning author.


All The Light We Cannot See © Scribner
All The Light We Cannot See © Scribner

Insomnia helps Laura get in plenty of reading time. Two novels stand out for her this month.

All the Light We Cannot See took author Anthony Doerr 10 years to write. His craftsmanship lifts this story into the realm of art. The two main characters, who don’t meet until late in the novel, are entirely memorable. Maurie-Laure is a blind girl raised by her father. He has built a perfect miniature replica of their neighborhood so she will never be lost. He takes her to work with him at the Museum of Natural History, where learning builds on her fascination. When the Nazis take over Paris, Marie-Laure and her father seek refuge a walled seaside city. The other main character, Werner, grows up in an orphanage. His intelligence is obvious as he teaches himself to fix radios and understand radio waves. His talent marks him for a privileged spot in an elite military academy. As the war builds, these children grow up in strikingly different ways yet both do their best to stay true to an inner light that leads them. There’s so much to discuss that this title is perfect to read with a book club or to share with an older teen.

Strange Bodies makes the reader question identity, immortality, and what it means to be human. Author Marcel Theroux introduces us to a man in a locked psychiatric unit who claims to be someone else, a professor known as an expert in the work of Samuel Johnson. The impostor doesn’t look or speak like the man but knows every possible detail of his life. That’s impossible, because the person he claims to be is dead. So begins a tale of speculative fiction that leads from Silicon Valley to Soviet-era experimentation, all the while echoed by new words allegedly written by the reknown Johnson who has been dead for 230 years.

What If? © Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
What If? © Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

GeekMom Judy stumbled upon the book What If? by Randall Munroe, on the new book shelf at the library. The subtitle, Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions, drew her in. Monroe has a degree in physics and left his job in robotics at NASA to draw science-oriented cartoons. Through his website, xkcd, he answers random questions from his followers, all related to the principles of science. This book is a compilation of some of his best questions and answers. Judy’s family was especially intrigued by the answer to the question “What would happen if you made a periodic table out of cube shaped bricks, where each brick was made of the corresponding element?” This is a great book for curious adults, and will encourage kids to see science in a whole new light.

The book Lost Cat: A True Story of Love, Desperation, and GPS Technology by Caroline Paul (drawings by Wendy MacNaughton) has so many beautiful watercolor paintings it could almost be considered a graphic novel. Instead, it’s a sweet story, that even school aged children would like, about a woman whose timid cat suddenly disappears for six weeks. When he comes back home he has suddenly sprouted a confident personality. When the curiosity of where he had been for those six weeks gets the best of her, the author goes to great lengths (clue, the subtitle’s mention of GPS) to figure out who is sharing the ownership of her feline. The pictures, paired with clever text, make this a fun read, for anyone who has ever loved a cat, even if he’s never cheated on you.

Finally Judy really enjoyed a book she heard about through a People Magazine review. Smoke Gets In Your Eyes by Caitlin Doughty is a book you might be surprised that you’ll love. The author falls into a job as an assistant at a crematory, helping to cremate people and body parts. Through her experiences she becomes much more aware of the concept of death and dying in our culture and eventually finds healing from a traumatic incident that happened in her childhood. Don’t be afraid of the subject matter. Sometimes facing the reality of death can actually make you further appreciate life.

A Wrinkle in Time © Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group
A Wrinkle in Time © Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group

Sophie hasn’t had much time to read over the last few weeks thanks to several trips and endless preparations for her family’s first big foreign vacation in, well, ever. She has been enjoying her book club’s current choice, Madeleine L’Engle’s classic A Wrinkle in Time. Although considered a classic in the USA, the book is much less well known in the UK. In fact she had never even heard of it until a few years ago when a librarian friend introduced her to the title. On a similarly surreal note, she has also been slowly making her way through the graphic novel adaptation of Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman. She has only read the first two chapters so far but is already fascinated by the ideas; London will never look quite the same again.

Finally, in advance of her son’s first trip to Universal Studios next week, Sophie has been getting her tongue in a twist by reading several classic stories by Dr. Seuss at bedtime. Her five year old enjoyed The Cat in The Hat and his crazy antics but was distinctly less impressed by Horton Hears a Who. Sophie on the other hand enjoyed the latter immensely, especially the somewhere political message that we could all stand to live by.


Till We Have Faces © Mariner Books
Till We Have Faces © Mariner Books

This month, Rebecca Angel read C. S. Lewis’ Till We Have Faces, the Cupid and Psyche myth retold by the ugly, older sister, Orual. Rebecca’s mother built a Little Free Library on their front lawn last year, and recently a neighbor left this book with a Post-It, “A more mature read from this author. Excellent!” So Rebecca gave it a try.

It was excellent. The original myth is about the destructive jealousy of woman, wives should trust their husbands blindly, and the gods really like a pretty face. This version is about the lies and truths we tell ourselves to create a world that fits our needs, and one woman’s moral journey to unmask herself. A thoughtful rendering; it takes a spin right at the end to make you rethink the whole tale…and your own life.


Copies of some books were provided by their publishers for review purposes.

16 Ways for Twin Peaks Fans to Fill Their Time Until 2016

Twin Peaks © ABC
Twin Peaks © ABC

“Every day, once a day, give yourself a present. Don’t plan it. Don’t wait for it. Just let it happen.” So said Agent Dale Cooper to Sheriff Harry Truman in Twin Peaks way back in 1990. Yesterday Twin Peaks fans got a long-awaited present in the announcement of nine new episodes scheduled for 2016. But 2016 is a long way away, so how can we while away the days until we finally get to revisit the place where the owls are not what they seem? Here are 16 things for fans to do while they wait, so grab some damn fine coffee and a slice of incredible cherry pie and start making your list.

Twin Peaks on Netflix © Sophie Brown
Twin Peaks on Netflix © Sophie Brown

1. Re-watch the Show
It might seem obvious but there’s no better way to rekindle your love of a TV show than by going back to the source material itself. Twin Peaks is currently available on Netflix as well as through Hulu, Vudu, Amazon Instant Video, and iTunes. The 1992 spin-off film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me is a little trickier to locate but it is available on iTunes and on DVD/Blu-ray, speaking of which…

2. Buy the Box Set
The show was finally released on Blu-ray earlier this year as Twin Peaks: The Entire Mystery. It has been upgraded to HD and the set includes a ton of special features including 90 minutes of “Missing Pieces,” the legendary lost scenes from Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. The $90/£50 price tag is pretty steep but if you want more than a basic re-watch of the episodes then it’s worth every penny.

The Salish Lodge & Spa Atop Snoqualmie Falls © Salish Lodge
The Salish Lodge & Spa Atop Snoqualmie Falls © Salish Lodge

3. Stay at the Great Northern
One of the most iconic images from Twin Peaks was the Great Northern Hotel and its beautiful location atop a waterfall. Today the hotel is known as the Salish Lodge and Spa, a luxury retreat in Snoqualmie, WA—the hotel even offers a “Romance Concierge” service. The hotel’s interior is not the same as seen on the show but if you want to take a trip to a Twin Peaks-themed location then there really is no better place to stay; you can even take your dog along too.

4. Attend a Twin Peaks Convention
Is there a better way to feel connected to other fans than to attend a convention? If you’re feeling inspired then the Twin Peaks UK Festival in London is just a few weeks away on November 15th and will be attended by Dana Ashbrook, James Marshall, and Sheryl Lee. If that’s a little too soon (or a little too far) then Twin Peaks Fest will be held July 24-27, 2015, in North Bend, Washington. The schedule already looks amazing so I suggest picking up your tickets ASAP. Something tells me that next year’s event is going to be much more popular than usual.

Gravity Falls © Disney
Gravity Falls © Disney

5. Discover Something New
Twin Peaks may have been off air for over twenty years, but many other shows have come along in its wake and built on its legacy. Most famously is The X-Files which expanded the concept of a central mythology and took the show’s strange, cinematic landscape to the masses; ideas that were built on once again in more recent offerings like Lost, Breaking Bad, and Mad Men. If you want something more family friendly, then Disney’s increasingly bizarre animated show Gravity Falls works well as an introduction to the “small town with something dark and mysterious to hide” genre—it’s as popular with adults as it is with kids. Finally, moving away from television, Welcome to Night Vale is about as close to Twin Peaks radio as you could wish for, drawing you into the small town lives of apparently normal folk who are never what they first appear to be.

6. Save the Owls
We all know that the owls are not what they seem, but one other thing we know is that many of them are in danger. If you want to use your Twin Peaks enthusiasm to do some good in the world, then why not consider making a donation to one of the countless owl conservation charities around the world? You could even combine your donation with your Christmas shopping by buying a Snowy Owl Adoption Kit from the WWF which includes a plush snowy owl—perfect for the Harry Potter fan in your life.

Fan Phenomena: Twin Peaks © Intellect
Fan Phenomena: Twin Peaks © Intellect

7. Read a Book (or Several)
As with any cult hit there are a number of books published on every aspect of Twin Peaks. From The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer—written by director David Lynch’s daughter Jennifer—to multiple volumes examining the show critically from every imaginable angle, thousands of pages are waiting out there to be turned. If you’re looking for an introduction to this sort on in-depth look then Fan Phenomena: Twin Peaks edited by Marisa C. Hayes and Franck Boulegue is a wonderful first step that will rekindle your passion as it takes a look at aspects of the show including dream logic, feminism, and Audrey’s sweater collection.

8. Buy Yourself a New Shirt
One of Coop’s suggestions to Harry for a present to himself is buying “a new shirt at the men’s store.” We might not want to buy precisely the kind of shirt our favorite FBI agent has in mind, but there are plenty of Twin Peaks-inspired shirts available on the internet these days. Etsy, Society6, and RedBubble are all good places to look and keep an eye on the t-shirt dailies websites over coming months as designs are bound to pop up there too.

Twin Peaks Soundtrack © Warner Bros.
Twin Peaks Soundtrack © Warner Bros.

9. Listen to the Soundtracks
One of the most memorable things about Twin Peaks was its score; unsettling soft jazz composed by Angelo Badalamenti that underscored everything that happened in the mysterious little town. The soundtrack and the Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me score are available from iTunes and at Amazon as both CD or digital downloads. You can find the music on YouTube as well if you’d like to have a listen through first. If you’ve already heard the soundtrack a thousand times and want something new with a similar feel, then check out Alex Baranowski’s soundtrack for the recent theatrical production of A Streetcar Named Desire in London which has a distinctly Twin Peaks feel. You can listen to the complete album for free on Soundcloud and on Bandcamp where it is available to download for £6/$9.50.

10. Cook a Meal
Food is vitally important in Twin Peaks and many of the series’ most iconic phrases and scenes revolve around it. Peaks-inspired foods include: black coffee, cherry pie, donuts, leg of lamb, baguettes with brie and butter (Rocky Mountain Woman has a recipe that will make your mouth water just from reading it), creamed corn, hard-boiled eggs, maraschino cherries, crispy bacon, and the taste sensation when maple syrup collides with ham. Just be sure there aren’t any fish in your percolator.

Twin Peaks iPhone Case © Mess via RedRubble
Twin Peaks iPhone Case © Mess via RedRubble

11. Chat to Your Very Own Diane
“Diane, I find myself confused by all the technology in Twin Peaks today. Whatever happened to a good, old fashioned tape recorder?” Who knows what Coop has been doing since we last saw him but chances are he might well have updated his personal tech since 1991, and I’m pretty certain you will have done so too. To keep some of Coop’s retro vibe going, why not convert your phone into Coop’s tape recorder using this case which is based on the original prop? The cases are available at Society6 and RedBubble and fit the iPhone and Samsung Galaxy. If you want to take it a step further, you can also take to starting every question you ask Siri with “Diane…”—she’ll still understand you!

12. Check out more Lynch Films
As I’m sure you’re aware, Twin Peaks’ creator and director David Lynch has a vast, if somewhat surreal, collection of films under his proverbial belt and 2015 seems like the perfect time to work through them. Classics include Eraserhead, The Elephant Man, Blue Velvet, and Mulholland Drive. Sadly most aren’t currently available on Netflix but check out Amazon for a good range of DVDs and instant downloads.

Black Lodge © Jak Locke
Black Lodge © Jak Locke

13. Play the Video Game
Yes, such a thing does indeed exist! Black Lodge 2600 was created in 2011 by Jak Locke in the classic Atari 2600 style and invites you to help Agent Cooper escape from The Black Lodge. It is available for free (although if you enjoy it, giving a donation to the designer would be highly appreciated) and includes a PDF also designed to look like a vintage manual. It’s also only 16Mb so you won’t need to wait hours for it to download, even if you live somewhere as disconnected as the Lodge itself.

14. Plan a Cosplay
Twin Peaks offers a huge variety of cosplay options for any gender preference and many would be easy to pull off with a small budget. The Log Lady is a fairly common choice (either with a real log or with a somewhat lighter one made from felt) as is the ever-so-stylish Audrey Horne. Some of the more creative ideas I’ve seen around include dead Laura Palmer wrapped in plastic, and Dr. Jacoby with his unforgettable sunglasses. If you need inspiration, a search for Twin Peaks cosplay on Tumblr wields some mind blowing results.

Twin Peaks Board Game © Chantal Patton
Twin Peaks Board Game © Chantal Patton

15. Play the Board Game
Not an easy thing to find, and be prepared to pay a hefty sum if you are lucky enough to do so, the Twin Peaks Murder Mystery Game was published in 1991 and features donuts as counters—what more could you want? The game also includes something called a Pentagon Deathtrap. I’m sold.

16. Visit a Cafe
As well as the filming locations around Snoqualmie and North Bend, there are a number of Twin Peaks-inspired locations all over the world. Earlier this year Flavorwire published a list of seven restaurants inspired by the show which included locations in Copenhagen, New York, and Atlanta, as well as many in the Pacific Northwest. Atlanta’s Bookhouse Pub even includes a themed cocktail menu with drinks inspired by the characters. I know where I’m stopping for a drink if I ever find myself close by.

Hopefully you’ve found a few things you’d like to do over the next year and a bit. Remember you can always make yourself a hot cup of coffee (black as midnight on a moonless night) and take a nap in your office chair and to transport yourself right back to the place pies go when they die.

Between the Bookends: September 2014

Bookends © Sophie Brown
Bookends © Sophie Brown

Wondering what the GeekMoms have been reading this month? As the new school year begins, our choices include time travel romance, astronaut biographies, kings’ messengers, Irish immigrants, killer cakes, and The Doctor. Phew! Best get stuck in then…

Mirror Sight © DAW Hardcover
Mirror Sight © DAW Hardcover

Rebecca and her teenage son waited months for Mirror Sight: Book Five of Green Rider by Kristen Britain to come in the library. After wondering what was taking so long, she found out there was only one copy. So Rebecca got them to order another copy and it came in! There were two bookmarks in the book for the week, because they could not possibly wait for the other to read it!

It was good. The epic fantasy series is not as well known, but it comes recommended by this family. The story follows Karigan G’ladheon and her adventures in the highly dangerous messenger service of the king. Britain does not rush the series, and the plot moves along at an even pace, getting more and more complex as the books continue. Although there is plenty of action, the author favors character development and relationships more.

She won’t say too much about this latest book because everything would be a spoiler if you haven’t read the series, but this one took a completely different spin by adding time travel into the 19th century-like future. Since the series is a typical medieval/renaissance world, she was quite unsure if the author could pull it off. Britain was splendid and at the end of the book, she needed big hugs from her son when she cried and cried. He understood, because he just read it as well. A good one! Start the series!

Melanie has been reading Incarnateby Anton Strout, the third and final installment of the Spellmason Chronicles (preceded by Alchemystic and Stonecast).

Incarnate © Ace
Incarnate © Ace

With this book, Strout definitely proves himself to be a strong player in the urban fantasy genre. Alexandra, one of the two narrating characters, has such a strong voice and is so well developed, it was easy to forget this book was written by a person outside of the story. Events in the book played out like a fast-paced movie, yet there was a lot of emotion at play here as well. There are lots of laugh-out-loud moments, yet the humor is very nicely balanced with suspense and mystery. Come for the geeky entertainment—there is plenty to go around, with nods to practically every corner of the geekiverse, from gaming to TV to books. But stay for the emotional kick, as the relationships between the characters grow and change. Melanie didn’t want to close this book when she was done and honestly, got a little teary at the thought of not being able to go on new adventures with Lexi, Stanis, Rory, Marshall, and Caleb.

Jeff VanderMeer’s Acceptance is one of those books—one of those series—that just haunts long after it’s done. It’s a psychological-nature thriller that packs an emotional punch and stays with the reader long after they close the book. Even at the end, one never quite knows what is real, what is going on. VanderMeer has a gorgeous style of writing, and with this third book, Area X especially came alive with so many rich elements. Each character had his/her own way of telling their piece of events and it really added to the world of the story. The nature geek in Melanie really appreciated the amount of research VanderMeer did to write the Southern Reach series. Area X is a character in its own right in this story. There is so much detail in here, but it makes the story organic, it doesn’t bog it down at all. This is a tough thing for a writer to accomplish, and VanderMeer proves himself a master at it. Beautiful imagery fills the pages of this book, making the world come to life in the reader’s imagination—so much so that there were parts that really made Melanie’s neck prickle. The book left her with a lot to ponder.

Doctor Who: The Shakespeare Notebooks  © BBC Books
Doctor Who: The Shakespeare Notebooks © BBC Books

Lisa recently purchased William Shakespeare’s The Jedi Doth Return, the final book of the bestselling William Shakespeare’s Star Wars Trilogy by Ian Doescher, and just by chance, ran across a similar concept tailor-made for Whovian Bard fans: Doctor Who: The Shakespeare Notebooks by Justin Richards (Harper Design).

These “rediscovered” long lost notebooks compiled by Shakespeare indicate that The Doctor had long been an influential role in his creative life. Some of the Bard-Meets-The Doctor crossovers include “original notes” from Hamlet and notes on the origin of the faeries in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This is an interesting and fun twist on both history and literature. The “lost works” of Shakespeare stay true enough to the original source to encourage readers to dig out the original Shakespeare works as basis for comparison. If anyone can bring a reluctant reader to Shakespeare, it’s The Doctor.

Also this month, she re-read the Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett comic fantasy, Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch. There’s nothing like a botched apocalyptic prophesy to make a person feel better about their lot in life. The armies of Good and Evil are getting ready for the final battle, but unfortunately, the Antichrist was the victim of a switched-at-birth scenario. Instead, the evil nuns who were supposed to raise and prep him for his coming are looking over the wrong child and the actual Antichrist is now a boy named Adam, who is happily living a perfectly normal life. The story is lively, thought-provoking, and very, very, funny. The interaction between the angel and demon, Arizaphale and Crowley, both contented long-time Earth residents, is especially hilarious. Lisa’s reason for picking up this book once more was that she finally convinced her husband to read it. Having a second person read it for the first time made the second time through even better, particularly with the conversations it produced. “What do you think about their take on the Four Horsemen?” “Who will play Arizaphale and Crowley in the movie version, should there ever be one?” (Lisa’s choice, by the way, is to get the BBC Sherlock stars Martin Freeman (Arizaphale) and Benedict Cumberbatch (Crowley) some off-season work.) Picking up a Gaiman book again after several years was like visiting an old, silly friend who may tell a story that’s been heard before, but it is still just as entertaining.

Across The Winds Of Time © Bess McBride
Across The Winds Of Time © Bess McBride

This month, Maryann is fascinated with time travel romance novels. Maryann really enjoys reading romances, and mixing romance with a science-fiction twist is a perfect blend for her. The two books that stood out this month are Across the Winds of Time by Bess McBride and Echoes of Tomorrow by Jenny Lykins. In both of these books, the main male characters travel forward in time from the 1800s to modern times, and with time travel comes lots of confusion and humor about their situation. At times, the authors had Maryann laughing out loud as the characters tried to learn about and adjust to all the conveniences of modern times that we take for granted. Often, the main female characters took great joy in stunning the guys with modern technology like fast cars, hot showers, and microwaved food. Just imagine going from using a privy to having hot running water in the house! No more horse-and-buggy day trips to go to the nearest town; now you drive there and back in an afternoon. At every turn, there was something new to take in and deal with.

Just when their situation in the future seems to be stabilizing, the guys find themselves back in the 1800s with their ladies. Turn about becomes fair play, as the ladies now have to get used to doing things the good old-fashioned way. They have to adjust to strange clothing like hoop skirts, dealing with no AC in the summer, and trying not to use unknown idioms. The ladies have to be very careful to keep from saying something out of time and character. Minding their place becomes difficult for the spirited women.

The stories also contain a lot of discussion about whether time travel is possible and if the characters out of time are sane. The characters worry about whether they can count on their trip through time not being reversed. At first, they want desperately to go back to their own time, but after falling in love, they worry just as much about leaving their lovers. The characters have to deal with the sadness of family and friends left behind mixed with the joy of starting a new life with love and fulfilled dreams. Do the lovers go back to their right time, or do they stay with their new loves? You’ll have to read to find out. These books were very entertaining, and Maryann is already searching for another time travel romance book!

The Other Half of The Sky © Candlemark and Gleam
The Other Half of The Sky © Candlemark and Gleam

Fran read and re-read a heap of science fiction and fantasy short stories over the past couple of months in preparation for the London World Science Fiction Convention. Several of her favorites include Aliette de Bodard’s Hugo-nominated The Waiting Stars from The Other Half of the Sky anthology and John Chu’s Hugo-winning The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere from When she wasn’t reading short stories, Fran finished Max Gladstone’s latest novel, Full Fathom Five, which features an excellent mix of economics, man-made gods, and magic; Beth Cato’s upcoming steampunk spectacular, The Clockwork Dagger, with gremlins, assassins, and airships … a perfect blend for trouble; and Nalo Hopkinson’s wonderful Andre-Norton-winning young adult novel Sister Mine, where the heroine, Maketa, sets out to live on her own, but must come to terms with her supernatural family first.

Next up? Everything has come to a full stop so that Fran can read Steven Gould’s latest Jumper novel, EXO. There’s an R&D designer at dirigible company Blimp Werks named Fran Wilde who GeekMom Fran Wilde is very interested in meeting. In addition, and more importantly, Jumper is an amazing series, and Fran is delighted to see the latest installment hit the streets!

Sally Ride © Simon & Schuster
Sally Ride © Simon & Schuster

Karen has been reading books about astronauts! This year, in response to two sad passings, two new biographies have arrived about two groundbreaking astronauts. Lynn Sherr’s biography of her friend, Sally Ride: America’s First Woman in Space, is particularly informative. Much less has been written about the Shuttle-era astronauts than the Apollo era, so the stories here are fresh and new. Dr. Ride makes one heck of a role model: an athletic tennis player, physicist with an interest in literature, pioneering astronaut, tough investigator of the Challenger and Columbia disasters, and science educator, as well as being (as only became widely known after her death) a lesbian. The kind of personality who could make all those things work together in a sadly too-short life makes for fascinating reading.

Jay Barbree’s biography of his friend and space pioneer in Neil Armstrong: A Life of Flight, makes for somewhat less enlightening reading. So much has been written about the Apollo space program (and Karen had read a big chunk of those books even before joining NASA herself) that the incidents Barbree chooses to include don’t shed much new light. And while there are incidents from Neil Armstrong’s pre-Moon landing life that make for a real humanization (he lost his daughter to brain cancer when she was 3-years-old and his house in El Lago, Texas, burned down, almost taking him and his whole family with it), there is almost no insight into his very private years after leaving NASA. Karen was hoping for at least a story or two about how the students at the college where he taught reacted to finding out that their professor was globally famous, but aside from some vignettes about returning for NASA functions and celebrations, that portion of his life is almost entirely elided. A good book for someone casually curious about the behind-the-scenes stories of the first Moon landing, but not much here for those already familiar with the history.

We Are Not Ourselves © Simon & Schuster
We Are Not Ourselves © Simon & Schuster

Sophie has been enjoying We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas, which she picked up on the glowing recommendation of Supernatural‘s Misha Collins. The book follows the story of an Irish immigrant family living in Queens through the 20th century. While not the fastest-paced book ever written, the level of character depth and nuance is astounding—every person feels utterly real, with realistic motivations and responses to every situation thrown their way. The “Salad Days” chapter left in a lump in Sophie’s throat and a tightness in her chest for days, after it perfectly encapsulated feelings she had never known how to articulate. Misha will be running a book club in late September/early October to encourage people to read it and Sophie will definitely be joining in.

Also on Sophie’s reading list have been several books on fandom, in preparation for attending the Fan Studies Network Conference in London later this month. She devoured one of the most recent additions to a favorite book series, Fan Phenomena: Supernatural. The book is edited by Lynn Zubernis and Katherine Larsen, the authors of Fangasm: Supernatural Fangirls, and is a compilation of essays about Supernatural and its fandom. Sophie found the insights from Misha Collins and Richard Speight Jr. fascinating, but one of her favorite parts was an interview with Supernatural fanvidder Ash48 (Sarah House), which also encouraged her to reopen Sony Vegas after several months of estrangement. Sophie is now slowly working her way through Digital Fandom: New Media Studies by Paul Booth, the conference’s keynote speaker. The book discusses the ways that media, consumption, interaction, and fandom have and continue to change as the digital era evolves.

Cuckoo Song © Macmillan Children's Books
Cuckoo Song © Macmillan Children’s Books

Helen has enjoyed catching up with a bit of reading over the summer months, in preparation for her move to teaching year 6 (10- and 11-year-olds) and a promotion to literacy coordinator this September. Although this is going to mean an increased workload, on the plus side Helen has been able to spend some of her holidays leisurely browsing in children’s bookshops and pretending that she’s actually working.

One book which Helen will definitely be using with her class this year is Cuckoo Song by Frances Hardinge. This spooky tale concerns Triss, who wakes up after an accident unsure of what happened. As the story progresses, strange things begin to happen to Triss and her family. There are leaves in her hair and she’s ravenously hungry, and suddenly her dolls start to move… Helen thinks that this is an extraordinarily well-written tale, with a great deal of rich description and wonderful, flawed characters. It’s probably most suitable for the 10- to 14-year-old age bracket, but older teenagers and robust younger children will also enjoy the story. They might put all of their dolls in the wardrobe though, just to be safe.

Another shoe-in for use with Helen’s class is a great new book in the mystery genre: Murder Most Unladylike (or Murder is Bad Manners in the U.S.) by Robin Stevens. Daisy and Hazel have their own detective agency at their boarding school, although they are only mainly called upon to locate missing ties. However, they are suddenly pulled into a real mystery when Hazel thinks she has witnessed a murder in the school gym. The girls have to work together to find clues and narrow down their suspect list, without letting the killer know that they are on to them. This is a great story which twists and unravels at a great pace. The boarding school setting is perfect for this, with its range of teachers and traditions, such as bun break. Hazel and Daisy are both wonderful characters, and Hazel particularly is drawn with a real warmth. Again, children of around 10 to 14 will probably enjoy this the most, although it really does have appeal to both older and confident younger readers. Helen is very much looking forward to reading the next volume over a bun break, and finding out what cases Daisy and Hazel solve next!

Doll Bones, a middle-grade novel by The Spiderwick Chronicles author Holly Black, is another spooky tale. This story centers on the friendship between Zach, Poppy, and Alice, as they grow up and their relationships change. The games that they play together are the platform for the story, and when one of dolls they use in their games turns out to perhaps be haunted, an adventure begins. Helen found the doll premise genuinely creepy, so would recommend this for readers aged around 8 to 11 who aren’t as easily frightened as she is!

Two books which would be great to use in school are The Mute Button by Ellie Irving and Smart by Kim Slater. Both books have the potential to not only be great reads, but also to help children who might be going through difficult times. Books are a powerful way to put the reader into someone else’s shoes, which can help children to find ways to deal with problems in their own lives. So, The Mute Button, suitable for children around 8 to 12, concerns a boy called Ant. He decides to stop talking and see how long anyone takes to notice, when a new older brother suddenly enters his already hectic life. The elective mutism is handled with real sensitivity but also humor, as Ant tries to deal with his problems without talking. Kieran in Smart also has problems. His home life includes poverty, drugs and abuse, and he is bullied in school for being different. Worst of all, he finds a homeless man dead in the river. He knows that the man was murdered, but no one believes him. Kieran decides to find the killer, using his drawing talent to help him solve the crime. Although it’s not mentioned overtly in the story, Keiran has some sort of learning difficulty or is on the autistic spectrum. This is handled extremely well in the story. It’s part of Keiran’s personality, but it doesn’t define who he is. Like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, it gives you a window into his world. Helen thought that this book was suitable for slightly older readers, due to the subject matter and Kieran’s home life.

On a completely different tack is Cakes in Space, the new book for younger independent readers from Philip Reeve and Sarah McIntyre. Like their previous book together, Oliver and the Seawigs, Reeve and McIntyre have crafted an epic adventure which is full of humor and daring escapades. Oh yes, and killer cakes. In this story, Astra has to overcome cakey fiends and spoon-obsessed aliens to rescue the ship carrying her cryogenically-frozen family to their new home on Nova Mundi. Astra is a great heroine, who bravely battles the sharp-toothed cakes along with her robot friend, Pilbeam. As always, McIntyre’s wonderful illustrations bring the story to life. Helen’s 4-year-old daughter loved hearing this as her bedtime story, and even asked for a Cakes in Space-themed cake for her birthday.

Finally, Helen has also been tackling a more grown-up tome: Hild by Nicola Griffith. This is a huge, complicated historical novel, detailing the life of Hild, a 7th century Northumbrian princess. Helen hasn’t quite finished the whole book, as she’s found that she can only cope with it in small pieces, to give her a chance to digest everything in between readings. The research which must have gone into this is mind-boggling, as the description and world-building is incredibly detailed and rich. Sometimes it feels like you can almost smell the woodsmoke or the dye vats, or hear the twang of the loom threads or quiet gossip of the ladies as they weave. The plot itself is fairly complex, with a number of warring factions and different religions and socio-economic groups to keep track of, as well as some very nuanced political machinations. Helen has even found herself having to reread some sections as she’s become confused. Hild herself is a very interesting character, who uses her intelligence as well as her station of birth to become an important member of the King’s household. Hild will certainly appeal to anyone who is interested in St. Hilda of Whitby or life in Britain in between the Romans and the Normans.

*Fran Wilde is a Tor author with a novel debuting in 2015. She has zipsquat experience designing dirigibles, though she’s planning on changing this. She’s been reading Tor books (and everything else) since long before she became a novelist.

Copies of some books were provided by their publishers for review purposes.

Con Recap: Buck 2014

Buck 2014 © Sophie Brown
Buck 2014 © Sophie Brown

It’s been over a week since the My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic convention Buck 2014 in Manchester drew to a close, and I think I’ve finally managed to get “Pink Fluffy Unicorns Dancing on Rainbows” out of my head. The con was two days and three nights of fun and included some of the most interesting panels I had ever watched.

Held at Manchester Central, the weekend opened on Friday night with the “Summer Sun Celebration,” a six-hour family-friendly party/rave/festival featuring 10 acts from across the MLP fandom. The area surrounding the main stage was an intense zone of jumping, moshing, and dancing, but for those less inclined to throw themselves into the melee, seating was available toward the back. The vendors’ hall was also open to allow some early browsing before Saturday’s rush.

Yami Bjork leads the Cosplay Panel © Sophie Brown
Yami Bjork leads the Cosplay Panel © Sophie Brown.

With Saturday came the true start of the con with panels, challenges, competitions, and more happening throughout the day. The main stage played host to a 90-minute talk from G.M. Berrow, author of the many spin-off books, who discussed how she came to work on them. Then, over in Workshop 1, professional cosplayer Yami Bjork led a panel on how to create your own cosplays, which covered everything from budgeting to what to bring with you on the day of the con. As always with cons, many of the panels overlapped, making it impossible to attend them all.

I particularly enjoyed the fan-fiction writing panel, which included some brilliant advice on writing, getting yourself noticed, finding good fic to read in the sea of mediocre, and building your own universes. The main thing I took away was a surprisingly simple concept: “Don’t write to be popular; write because you have something to say.”

Cosplayers as Princess Cadence and Shining Armor in the Cosplay Competition © Sophie Brown
Cosplayers as Princess Cadence and Shining Armor in the Cosplay Competition © Sophie Brown.

The charity auction was as insane as last year, with people paying incredible sums for one-of-a-kind merch. A custom Chrysalis plush sold for £1,100 ($1,800), while a printed hardback copy of the popular fanfic “Past Sins” by Pen Stroke sold for £700 ($1,150). By Sunday afternoon, the total raised for Buck’s chosen charity, JDRF Research for type one diabetes, was over £11,000 ($18,000) and still growing.

The cosplay competition attracted more entrants than I could count, with the line stretching almost to the back of the room and the quality of many entries was astonishing. A number of challenges were held over the day, such as cupcake decoration and speed art, along with gaming sessions for Pathfinder variant Age of Harmony and Buck: Legacy. The creative corner was open nearly all day to allow artists and writers to sit down and create, although some more space could have been justified as nearly every time I passed, all of the seats were taken.

Saturday ended with the Lunar Eclipse, a 3-hour long music event on the main stage with five acts playing during the night. Again, the vendor hall remained open and there was a relaxed atmosphere throughout with groups chatting, playing on the video games and dance stages, and singing Karaoke in the gallery.

Heather Breckle Demonstrates Coloring © Sophie Brown
Heather Breckel demonstrates coloring © Sophie Brown.

Sunday’s events began at 9:00 a.m., earlier than Saturday’s, which seemed odd given the more limited public transport for those of us travelling in from beyond the city center.

Sunday’s schedule was also decidedly busier, with around double the number of panels and other sessions than Saturday. There were demonstrations of community-created Pony video games like Legends of Equestria and Rise of The Clockwork Stallions, music improv, a crash course in animation, a demonstration of digital art, and even more challenges to take part in such as speed Monopoly, speed fic writing, and blind bag decoration.

On the main stage, IDW colorist Heather Breckel presented a 101 course on coloring for comic books, demonstrating live on stage how she colored Nightmarity in a recent issue of the MLP comics in a step-by-step process that made it all look far easier than it probably is! She also gave lots of advice for those interested in becoming illustrators and colorists on developing their own work and creating a portfolio.

Dave Polsky Talks About Screenwriting © Sophie Brown
Dave Polsky talks about screenwriting © Sophie Brown.

Later in the afternoon, screenwriter Dave Polsky gave what ended up being my favorite panel of the day as he discussed how the writing of MLP mixes fun with rebellion and ends up appealing to all. He referenced theories by Goethe, Camus, and Alfred North Whitehead on how to criticize media and why that is important, and he fended off negative comments from a fan with an insightful and reasoned answer.

He also discussed fan/producer relationships and how they have changed since the arrival of the internet, and talked about his own work and how it was changed by September 11th. “I realized that much of my comedy was about tearing things down [South ParkScary Movie 2],” he said. “I wanted to do something about building things up.”

Polsky was back on stage later on with Breckel and Berrow in a special VIP panel that discussed their own individual experiences of working on My Little Pony and with Hasbro, and that finished up the weekend’s events before the closing ceremony.

I found myself constantly impressed by the way the event was handled in terms of accessibility and equality. The first page of the con book handed out to attendees listed the convention rules and included a strict zero-tolerance policy on harassment with instructions on what to do if you found yourself subject to it.

The website FAQ included information on transgender bathroom access, and those with disabilities were very well catered for over the weekend with free carer tickets available, a raised platform for wheelchair users at the main stage, and front-of-room seating for wheelchairs and those with hearing aids. There were also free water dispensers located throughout the venue, which were regularly topped up—a godsend for cosplayers in hot, often furry, costumes.

Cosplayers Watch The Closing Ceremony © Sophie Brown
Cosplayers watch the closing ceremony © Sophie Brown.

Of course, there were some problems; every convention has them. During the fan-fiction writers’ panel, the panelists were seated on low sofas, making them nigh-on impossible to see from even a few rows back.

Seating was very limited in the Creative Corner and in Workshop Three, and the organizers ran out of free blind bags ponies to decorate just 30 minutes into a 2-hour session*.

On Sunday, a card game tournament was scheduled in the bar area at the back of the main room, and this occasionally interfered with the talks on the main stage. In the same vein, some panels in Workshop Two, such as the Improv and Music events, were loud enough to bleed through into quieter panels in Workshop One next door. However, for the most part, the event ran beautifully and even kept to time for the whole weekend; a problem even at the biggest cons.

Even as someone who doesn’t identify as a die-hard pony fan, Buck was once again my favorite con of the year. The variety and depth of events over the weekend are second-to-none and panels on writing, illustration, and fan creativity are relatable to almost any fandom.

Sadly, Buck will not take place in 2015, due to the organizers needing a rest from the onslaught of organization, but hopefully it, and I, will be back in 2016 for more FUNFUNFUN!

*Attendees were advised of low stock on joining the queue and blind bag ponies were available to purchase in the vendor’s hall.

GeekMom received entry to this event for review purposes.

Screening Twilight

Screening Twilight © I.B.Tauris
Screening Twilight © I.B.Tauris

Love it or loathe it, there’s simply no denying the cultural impact of Twilight. Since the publication of the first book in 2005, The Twilight Saga has helped fuel an explosion in young adult literature. It has become the basis of uncountable internet memes, produced four best-selling novels and five blockbuster movies, and launched three relatively unknown actors into global superstardom. Screening Twilight takes a critical look at the saga and its place in the wider cultural landscape through a collection of academic essays that touch on widely varied areas of interest.

It is often the case that popular culture texts that appeal to the masses are dismissed by academics in favor of more “worthy” subjects of study. For example, consider the reading list of a university English literature course. They are filled with Wordsworth, Homer, Milton, and Eliot, but rarely, if ever, with even a single example of the works which populate the NYT bestsellers list: Lee Child, James Patterson, or Jodi Picoult. Screening Twilight begins with this lament, opining that the study of The Twilight Saga as cultural phenomena has been dismissed as lightweight and frivolous, even within the field of fandom studies.

“Indeed,” the introduction goes, “the criticism of the saga and surrounding franchise often relies on the same sort of gendered lens that not only constructs females as rabid, hysterical consumers, but also as silly fangirls.” It states the important notion that “just because something is popular does not mean it is undeserving of critical, serious” attention, even pointing out that the “dismissive attitude towards the popular seems all the more likely when a cultural phenomena is coded as ‘feminine.’” The link between femininity and cultural dismissal is a topic that will be returned to frequently throughout the pages.

Screening Twilight © I.B. Tauris
Screening Twilight © I.B. Tauris

The book is divided into five sections that tackle genre and reception, myth, sexual dysfunction and sexuality, post-colonialism and racial whiteness, and deviating fandom. I found myself most interested in the chapters on genre, specifically those that dealt with the saga’s place within femininity and feminism. An especially eye-opening section of the book appeared in Mark Jancovich’s essay “‘Cue the Shrieking Virgins’?: The Critical Reception of The Twilight Saga.”  Jancovich discusses how many of the films’ reviews focused more on the behavior of its audience than on the relative merits of the films themselves, even to the level of criticizing the teenage girls watching for being “rapt with attention,” instead of gossiping and texting. It is pointed out that the way Twilight’s fans have been portrayed by the media causes them to be “othered,” seen as homogeneous and irrelevant to the more sophisticated and “rational” people reading the review. Considering how the media’s depiction of the Twilight demographic has gradually widened to include nearly all women, this then becomes a belittling of women in general and gives rise to the interesting situation in which predominantly male critics adopt the mantle of feminism in order to condemn women and their interests. SFX magazine bemoaned New Moon as “a century of feminism down the drain,” yet as Jancovich points out, the same magazines fails to take “the same stance against the anti-feminist politics of more male-centred films.”

“It does seem odd,” the author adds, “ that a man is the only figure who can be found to authorize feminism.”

The Twilight Saga has indeed faced untold amounts of criticism from all directions—often with good reason—giving rise to the anti-fans, a group whose primary love of the texts is in criticizing them. In fact, Twilight is a rare franchise in that loving criticism constitutes a principal interest for many of its fans. In Francesca Haig’s essay “Guilty Pleasures: Twilight, Snark and Critical Fandom,” a rather brilliant example of this “loving criticism” is given in an extract from Cleolinda Jones’ “Twilight in Fifteen Minutes” recaps. The essay discusses fan shame, something I have experienced myself and discussed at length when reviewing Fangasm: Supernatural Fangirls, and the understanding that fans can identify flaws and problems within the text (such as Edward’s controlling behavior towards Bella), but still enjoy the text as a whole. This is somewhat similar to the mantra of Feminist Frequency’s Anita Sarkeesian that “it’s entirely possible to be critical of some aspects of a piece of media while still finding other parts valuable and enjoyable.” Haig looks at the common comparison of Twilight to junk food as “mindless, sugary indulgence,” but also points out that this is flawed logic, unless of course, you regularly indulge in detailed, critical analysis of cake…

While I found myself utterly engaged with many of the essays and having my views of both Twilight and its surrounding media culture significantly widened, there were of course essays and points I disagreed with. Ruth O’Donnell’s “My Distaste for Forks: Twilight, Oral Gratification, and Self-Denial” brings a Freudian analysis to the saga, describing the saga as “an exploration of [Bella’s] experience of… abandonment and anger toward [her mother Renee].” The essay argues that the vampiric obsession with the oral through motifs of biting, sucking, and “insatiable oral craving” can be linked to Bella’s regression to the oral stage of babyhood. That her relationship with Edward is “a reflection of Bella’s… unresolved issues with her mother”—not a viewpoint I personally agree with. On an entirely different subject, the discussions of the ways race is portrayed within the saga make for often uncomfortable reading, especially the section on the ways white power and privilege is encoded throughout in both overt and frighteningly subtle ways.

As a Twilight fan myself, indeed one identifying close to an anti-fan, I was interested to see how the saga would be portrayed across these collected essays. I found my horizons significantly expanded and my understanding deepened by each one and by the end of the book, I was thinking hard over the significance of countless scenes and tropes that I had earlier paid little attention to. I also found my love of New Moon (often disregarded as a “failed” sequel) validated for the very reasons I love it; the way the film “[visualizes] absence through color palette and editing,” making it one of the most intriguing blockbuster films this millennium. Whatever your thoughts on The Twilight Saga and its impact, Screening Twilight will open your mind.

GeekMom received this item for review purposes.

Have A Wild Adventure at Chessington’s Azteca Hotel

Azteca Hotel, Chessington World of Adventures © Merlin Resorts
Azteca Hotel, Chessington World of Adventures © Merlin Resorts.

Since our first visit to Chessington World of Adventures, the resort has rapidly become one of our favorite places to visit. My family and I were invited along last weekend to preview the new Azteca Hotel before its official opening and we were interested to see how the new hotel would compare to the existing Safari Hotel, which we have stayed at before.

The Azteca Hotel sits beside the Safari Hotel and is connected to it via a (mostly) covered outdoor walkway or a bridge corridor two stories up. Each of the hotel’s three sleeping floors are themed differently to reflect the different height you are up in the jungle. Because they are connected, the Azteca Hotel shares its facilities with the Safari Hotel, including evening access to the Wanyama Reserve after the the theme park closes*, the Rangers Club for kids, and the Zafari Bar and Grill restaurant. However, a number of new facilities have also been added over in the Azteca building.

The Temple Restaurant Performs its Show © Sophie Brown
The Temple Restaurant performs its show. Photo: © Sophie Brown.

The Temple Restaurant is downstairs and offers buffet-style dining in an environment best described as being similar to the Rainforest Cafe. At the center of the restaurant is an Aztec-style pyramid and fountain whilst numerous TV screens are hung on the wall, each one showing close-up CGI animals who gradually rotate around the restaurant, giving the impression that you are peeking out through windows into the jungle beyond. Periodically, the lights dim, thunder rumbles, and these “windows” slide closed as the magic of the ancient temple builds up. The central pyramid performs a short show before animal drawings are revealed on the restaurant walls under blacklight. It’s an impressive performance, but one that many of the younger children found a little frightening.

Looking into Amazu © Sophie Brown
Looking into Amazu. Photo:© Sophie Brown.

The Savannah Splash Zone has been added to the existing 15-meter swimming pool and features fountains, a slide, and a bucket dump—all scaled to suit young adventurers. Outside the hotel is a patio area where you can relax with a drink from the Temple Bar and nearby, the Amazu Treetop Adventure attraction from the theme park is kept open for hotel guests after the park closes until dusk**. This attraction combines more animals including monkeys, marmosets, and capybaras, with a treetop climbing experience so your children can run off any excess energy they may have after a day in the theme park. We had a hard time dragging our 4-year-old down from it! His favorite part of the hotel, however, was the Temple Throne near the base of the Azteca elevators. This giant stone-effect seat supposedly tells you your spirit animal by playing a sound when you sit on it. My son loved jumping on and off to hear all the different animal noises.

The View from Our Hotel Room Window - Of Course All the Animals Hid © Sophie Brown
The view from our hotel room window. Of course, all of the animals hid. Photo: © Sophie Brown.

We were given a disabled room for our stay, which makes reviewing the room size a little tricky as it was laid out differently to the hotel’s standard. The room included a double bed and a bunk bed, along with two TVs (one aimed at each bed) and a view of the Wanyama Reserve. Our son loved waking up in the morning and being able to watch the giraffes and zebras having their breakfast while we packed up. While our disabled room had a kid’s bunk bed in the main room; the Azteca Hotel’s standard rooms will feature a separate sleeping area for children. This is something we have experienced at the Safari Hotel in the past and is vastly superior to having the kids sleeping in the room with you.

We did notice that the room had far less theming present than the example room we were shown on our tour, although whether that is representative of all of the disabled rooms or not is uncertain. Judging by promotional photographs, the level of theming seems consistent with other rooms on our floor, which is the least expensive of the three. What I can say with certainty though is that the resort is well laid out for those with strollers or in wheelchairs with nice, wide corridors and a ramp up to the Amazu area and into the theme park itself.

The Walkway to the Azteca Hotel © Sophie Brown
The walkway to the Azteca Hotel. Photo: © Sophie Brown.

Alongside evening access to the Wanyama Reserve and Amazu, there are a number of other exclusive benefits to guests staying at the resort. During weekends and school holidays, the Temple Restaurant hosts a character breakfast with a friend from the Madagascar film series, the Rangers Club provides evening shows and games for children and willing adults, and guests can also enjoy early access to the theme park. The hotels also provide a number of opportunities to get closer to the park’s animals, including meet-and-greets and giraffe feeding for those aged five and over.

We really enjoyed our stay at the Azteca Hotel, however, we struggled to find anything to justify the extra money the hotel costs over its sister resort next door; especially when all of the facilities are shared between the two. Even the cheapest room at Azteca costs a full £50*** ($83 U.S.) more than a basic room at the Safari Hotel, and is £25 ($42 U.S.) more expensive than a room in the Safari Hotel overlooking the animals. The Safari Hotel allows you to choose a Wanyama Reserve view (for an additional cost), whereas the Azteca Hotel does not allow guests to choose—all rooms have views of either Wanyama or Amazu, but you get no preference as to which you will stay in. It may be a small thing, but if I’m paying extra for this hotel then I’d at least like to be able to make that decision.

*/** Evening access to the Wanyama Reserve and Amazu is from April – mid-September and is subject to good weather and ground conditions.

*** Based on a family of three staying one night.

GeekMom was invited to experience the Azteca Hotel and Chessington Resort for review purposes.

MCM Expo Manchester Recap & Cosplay Gallery

MCM Expo Manchester, wait... is the The Doctor? © Sophie Brown
MCM Expo Manchester, wait… is the The Doctor? © Sophie Brown

I last attended Manchester MCM Expo two years ago and the changes since then have been so broad and staggering that it’s hard to recognize the event for what it was.

There are always improvements to be made, feedback to be absorbed, and problems to be corrected. What this year’s Expo has shown me is that the organizers have listened and are working to make their events even better. The improvements over 2012’s event are exponential, and if Manchester Expo continues to improve the way it has done so far, then it seems set to become a major event in the convention scene.

Back in 2012 the entire event was contained within one room of the Manchester Central Convention Centre leading to intense crowding. Even as a fit and healthy, able-bodied adult with little fear of confined spaces, I found myself made nervous by the crowds which often left me pinned in position and completely unable to move for minutes at at time. Looking at merchandise stalls required having to fight through masses of bodies, and late in the afternoon one aisle had to be closed off by security because there were too many people down it. Attending with children or with a disability would have been exceedingly difficult if not downright dangerous.

This year several major improvements have been made which have vastly improved the show.

  • The event has now spread over an even larger area of the Convention Centre. This year the main hall (which previously held the entire event) only held merchandise stalls, Comic Zone, the Robot Wars arena, and a seating area. Autographs, photo shoots, and the Cosplay Zone were moved into a second room while talks were held in the venue’s auditorium which holds over 800 people.
  • The event has now been spread over two days in hopes of easing crowds. This, combined with the extra space afforded by utilizing additional rooms, made the event much more manageable. Although it was always busy, the rooms never felt dangerously overcrowded as they have done in the past and I saw many attendees in wheelchairs or with pushchairs moving around with relative ease.
  • Food and drink were much more readily available with numerous small stands dotted around the seating areas. Many of these only sold cold drinks and snacks which kept queues to a minimum by removing the wait for hot drinks to be made. I never waited more than two minutes to buy a cold drink even at the height of Saturday’s crowds—an unimaginable blessing when wearing a hot costume. Staff were also wandering the venue wearing drink dispensers and ice cream carts were set up inside the main hall.
  • Enormous space was given over to seating areas in cooler parts of the building. There was always space to sit down and rest without feeling like you were blocking access or having to leave the building. This was especially important on Saturday when almost constant rain kept the vast majority of attendees indoors for the duration of the event. I attended two fandom meetups over the weekend and we had lots of space to sit and talk amongst ourselves without getting in the way.
Crowds in The Auditorium © Sophie Brown
Crowds in The Auditorium © Sophie Brown

All these factors combined to make the event one of the most pleasurable I have ever attended, and one I would feel comfortable bringing a child to.

Holding talks in the auditorium, naturally equipped with a full sound system, meant that those on stage could be heard clearly by everyone in attendance, and the event’s organizers kept attendees updated with regular tweets throughout the day.

When the auditorium was packed out for the cosplay masquerades, staff on the floor and on stage worked together to quickly organize the audience and make additional seating available which allowed those stuck outside the room to enter and be seated quickly.

Of course there are always issues at such a large events and this was no exception. The venue suffered from poor signposting which left some people confused about the location of the auditorium and signing areas. A Borderlands: The Pre Sequel play area attracted long lines which ended up wrapped around the room, limiting access in that section of the hall, and pricing was unclear for some of the celebrity attendees who were signing autographs.

I was also disappointed that despite massively increasing coverage of these issues, a clear anti-harassment policy was not in place either in the building itself, or within the printed show guides handed out to attendees on arrival. On the positive side, the anti-bullying campaign I Cosplay were in attendance.

The biggest issue, however, was around entry into the convention itself. Although those with advance purchase tickets managed to enter fairly quickly, the pay-on-the-day queue lasted many hours and was wrapped all the way around the building. Due to the rain, many attendees found their costumes destroyed or severely damaged before they were able to enter.

James Cosmo & Ross Mullan discuss Game of Thrones © Sophie Brown
James Cosmo & Ross Mullan discuss Game of Thrones © Sophie Brown

It is difficult to come up with a solution for the queuing problems. As the event continues to grow in popularity and in exposure, so the crowds wishing to attend will also grow resulting in consistently long queues even as the venue expands capacity and staffing to help people get inside faster.

This year’s weather was a major source of distress for many, however erecting marquees to completely surround a 23,000 meter square building in case of rain is rather impractical, and Expo has grown so much that all indoor space large enough to hold a queue is taken over by the event itself.

Next year I would love to see an increase in the number of talks, a clear anti-harassment policy in place, and some bigger names present. Whatever happens, I can be sure that I will be heading back in 2015, but before then be sure to take a look at our 2014 cosplay gallery, especially if you’re a fan of Hannibal, Welcome to Night Vale, Futurama, and Wicked!

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GeekMom received entry to this event for review purposes.

Why the Opening Scene of The X-Files #14 is Not OK (Hint: It’s Rape)

A Panel from The X-Files Season 10 #14 © IDW
A Panel from The X-Files Season 10 #14 © IDW

Ever since writer Joe Harris tweeted a rather risqué panel from an issue of The X-Files: Season 10 late last week, the X-Files fan community has been abuzz with excitement. The panel shows Scully, wearing seemingly nothing but one of Mulder’s shirts thrown haphazardly on, knelt over Mulder in bed and pointing a gun in his face while he in turn remarks on how he is “more of a cuddler post-coitus” and suggesting that “sexy gunplay” isn’t really something that suits them.

This then appears to be the fun, sexy X-Files bedroom scene I have dreamed of seeing for over 15 years; but then looks can be deceiving. What we are actually viewing is the aftermath of a rape.

The wider context of the panel, as you can see over at Bloody Disgusting’s free preview, is a three-page scene of Mulder and Scully in their bedroom post coitus. Only Scully is not happy. She’s pointing a gun at Mulder because at some point very recently, she has realized what we as readers have known since the ending of the last issue: The man in her bedroom isn’t really Mulder at all. Oh, it’s Mulder’s body alright, but he’s being possessed by a sentient alien who has taken control over his body and mind and is fully controlling him. That’s where the scene shifts from the adorable to the scary.

Rape-by-deception is notoriously hard to prove and controversial in American courts. Loosely, it can be defined as “a crime in which the perpetrator has the victim’s sexual consent and compliance, but gains it through deception or fraudulent statements or actions” or as “a crime in which the perpetrator presents him/herself as someone he/she is not through acts of deception and coercion culminating in non-consensual sex.” Considering how hard it is to define, applying it to less real-world situations and more science-fiction ones is even harder. However, on looking at this scene, I asked myself a few questions:

1. Would Dana Scully have willingly consented to sexual intercourse with Fox Mulder? Almost certainly, yes. Although the circumstances of that particular night are not known, it has been established that the two are in a healthy, loving, romantic relationship by this point and we can safely assume that sex is a part of it.

2. Would Dana Scully have willingly consented to sexual intercourse with the alien being later identified as Sheltem? Almost certainly not.

3. Would Dana Scully have willingly consented to sexual intercourse with Sheltem knowing that he was controlling Mulder’s body, mentally and physically? Again, almost certainly not.

Screenshots from Small Potatoes showing Mulder's interruption and Eddie just prior to shrugging dejectedly on being found out © Fox
Screenshots from “Small Potatoes” showing Mulder’s interruption and Eddie just prior to shrugging dejectedly on being found out. © Fox

After answering those questions, we can see that this is indeed a case of deception because Scully would almost certainly not have engaged in sex with “Mulder” if she had known the truth about his identity at the time.

It’s a disturbing case when applied to real life and sadly, not the first time the show has used a similar premise as part of a plot. Season four’s “Small Potatoes” featured a man (Eddie van Blundht) with the ability to shape-shift and appear as anyone else. He uses this power to engage in sexual intercourse with a number of women, appearing variously as their husbands and even as Luke Skywalker from Star Wars, before later attempting to seduce Scully by changing himself into Mulder and getting her slightly drunk.

The episode is played out as a comedy, but when viewed through the lens of “rape by deception,” it’s anything but funny. In fact, that episode contains one of the most disturbing lines ever uttered on mainstream network television as Eddie tries to explain away his actions:

“Look, I’m not saying anything one way or another. I’m just saying hypothetically, if some women wanted to have kids, their husbands weren’t… capable, and everybody was happy and no one got hurt, well hypothetically, where’s the crime?”

I find myself saddened that this same trope has been reeled out once again within the X-Files canon. However, what concerns me even more is that the situation doesn’t appear to have been recognized for what it is.

I’m going to give Mr. Harris the benefit of the doubt because I do not believe for one second that he is intentionally “playing the rape card” here. If you had just discovered that your partner/boyfriend had been possessed by an alien being that is now possibly about to kill you both, you probably have more pressing issues than confronting it on sexual assault charges.

There is every possibility that once the “real” Mulder is returned, presumably in the next issue, that Scully will open up on a long, emotional discussion about what has happened to them both; but realistically speaking, that feels unlikely. In fact, Scully seems completely unaware of what has happened to her, merely angry about what has been done to Mulder. The whole scene seems to serve no purpose other than to give Scully a means of recognizing that the man with her is not Mulder, possibly (and if so, even more disturbingly) as one panel suggests, because he has been overly rough with her in bed.

Once Scully recognizes the alien for what it is, the creature knocks the gun from her hand and pins her to the floor by her throat where the following lines are exchanged:

Sheltem: “You want to see then? Is this what you want?”
Scully: “Get – Hnnn – Off of me!”
Sheltem: “Surrender yourself to me, Dana Scully…”

"Mulder" pins Scully to their bedroom floor by her throat in an extremely provocative panel © IDW
“Mulder” pins Scully to their bedroom floor by her throat in an extremely provocative panel. © IDW

The pair are actually discussing Sheltem showing Scully information related to the alien/government conspiracy that underpins the entire franchise, but the very particular choice of phrasing combined with the image of a man pinning an almost naked woman to the floor by her throat paints a very different, far more sexually violent image. It’s deeply disturbing on its own and to anyone who has experienced sexual assault (and as the “Yes All Women” trend showed us, that’s an enormous percentage of the population), it’s terrifyingly familiar.

One final point that must be raised is the role of Mulder himself, or more accurately his consciousness, during all this. Later in the issue, Sheltem informs Scully as they drive that:

“I can assure you [Mulder]’s fighting this right now.”

This line strongly suggests that Mulder is awake and aware of his surroundings and actions whilst he’s being possessed. This, in turn, leads to the idea that Mulder too has been sexually assaulted in a way during the issue’s first scene as he almost certainly did not give permission for it to occur. If you struggle to see this, place yourself in Mulder’s shoes. Another consciousness is fully controlling your body, making you say and do what it wants without concern for your wishes. You then see yourself proposition your partner for sex, aware that he/she is unaware of the truth, but unable to warn them or stop the act from occurring. It may be a fantastic situation, but the emotions and later feelings of defilement are all too real.

There are only two ways a scene like this could be allowed into a published comic book:

1. The author was aware they were writing a rape scene and included it intentionally.
2. The author wrote the scene without recognizing it as a rape at all.

Both are equally worrying and point at the rape culture that is so prevalent in our society. I will be interested to see how many reviews of the issue even tackle this major point, and how many fans identify the opening scene for what it is.

Finally, I ask Joe Harris three questions and invite him to respond here on GeekMom:

1. Was it necessary to include the scene?
2. Was the scene identified as rape in advance of publication?
3. Will there be consequences?

GeekMom received this item for review purposes.

Looking Back at London’s First Young Adult Literature Convention

YALC Logo © Book Trust/The Children's Laureate
YALC Logo © Book Trust/The Children’s Laureate

Last weekend saw the UK’s very first Young Adult Literature Convention (YALC) take place as part of the London Film and Comic Con at Earl’s Court. Fifty YA authors covering every imaginable genre attended the event and spoke on a range of subjects from sex to fanfiction, graphic novels to dystopias.

There couldn’t really have been a better time for this convention to take place. Young Adult lit (and its new, somewhat misunderstood sibling New Adult) is all over the news these past few weeks, most likely thanks in part to the release of The Fault in Our Stars. Slate Magazine found themselves recently slated (see what I did there?) for publishing a post that vehemently argued against adults reading YA novels, announcing that adults “should feel embarrassed” for doing so. In fact if you google the phrase “adults shouldn’t read YA” you will find discussions on that exact same subject gracing the pages of The Guardian, NPR, CNN, and The New York Times. The latter has even referred to the issue as “The Great Y.A. Debate of 2014.”

Nick Lake & Anthony McGowan discuss adults reading YA books © Sophie Brown
Nick Lake & Anthony McGowan discuss adults reading YA books © Sophie Brown

The subject of adults reading YA was given a panel of its own on the Sunday afternoon. Given the audience, which I noticed consisted almost entirely of adults, and the panel which clearly had a vested interest in getting people to read, there really wasn’t much debate to be had. Most of the audience raised their hand when asked if they themselves read YA and the panel mostly agreed that people should simply read what they want to. Author Anthony McGowan had a slightly different viewpoint, arguing that he would have more respect for someone who had read broadly over someone who had read Twilight 15 times. Some of the others argued him down.

“What you’ve read doesn’t get put on your headstone. Read the books you want to read,” Meg Rosoff countered. There was however a general consensus that if YA became “for everyone” then a belief that adult books are too hard might become prevalent.

While all of the panels were deeply interesting and raised good questions, I found those on dystopian fiction, horror, and sex some of the most enjoyable. The panel on dystopia kicked off the weekend with Children’s Laureate Malorie Blackman joining in the discussion of why the subject is so appealing to so many of us. One key point that was raised was the power of the individual or very small group to affect global change in dystopian fiction. This is a trope we see repeated in many dystopian stories: The Hunger Games, panelist Sarah Crossan’s Breathe series, and even back to John Christopher’s series The Tripods which began in the 1960s. It is a reassuring trope in some ways because it suggests that all of us are capable of making a difference in a bad situation and this is probably why it has remained so popular, especially with teens who can often feel powerless and at the mercy of others. Another point that was raised is that dystopia is far from being popular only in YA. Malorie Blackman admitted that after reading Dante’s Divine Comedy she found Inferno (set in Hell) the most interesting part, and it was mentioned how many more stories are set in Hell as opposed to Heaven. Utopias, the panelists agreed, are boring.

James Dawson, Cat Clarke, Non Pratt & Beth Reekles talk sex in YA © Sophie Brown
James Dawson, Cat Clarke, Non Pratt & Beth Reekles talk sex in YA © Sophie Brown

The “Sex in YA” panel, chaired by the newly crowned Queen of Teen James Dawson, touched on the reasons why authors might choose to include “sexy times” in their books. The general consensus came down to the simple fact that this is a subject which teenagers are deeply interested in. Teens, it was agreed, will be finding out about sex from somewhere and the authors all wanted to include accurate information on the subject in their books. It was also pointed out that of all the “bad” things our children might be doing in their teen years—drugs, abusing alcohol, shoplifting etc—sex was the only one which we would want them to have and enjoy as adults, and that keeping knowledge of the subject hidden away and taboo may have a detrimental effect on their later experiences.

The “Heroes of Horror” panel also discussed taboos within YA novels with the panel discussed what they felt the limits were on what they could include in their own pages. Charlie Higson, author of The Enemy series which features a plague that turns everyone over the age of 14 into (effectively) zombies, commented that in order to get a feel for what was allowable in YA horror he read some of fellow panelist Darren Shan’s books, only to discover that almost anything goes. Shan added that the only time he had fallen foul of his editors was during a particularly gruesome scene where a young protagonist discovers the bodies of his family torn apart by demons. The body of the mother was on the ceiling, but by switching places and putting the father up there instead, the scene was allowed through! It was also discovered during the panel that at least half the audience have thought about and devised a plan in case of zombie apocalypse.

There were, of course, issues with the convention; for something of such a grand scale in its inaugural year, there simply had to be. One major concern had less to do with the YALC organization and more to do with the venue layout of the London Film and Comic Con (LFCC) as a whole. The stage for the YALC was small, open to the room with no walls or curtains surrounding it, and positioned right next door to the main photo shoot area which was hosting, amongst others, the Generalissimo Stan Lee. The lack of walls meant that sound travelled in from the rest of the room (including the nearby and very loud anime stage) while the sound from the speakers positioned right at the front escaped before reaching those sat toward the back. This made it difficult to hear the authors speak, even for someone with generally good hearing. The positioning of the stage also meant that the seats were often taken by friends of those waiting in the photo shoot queue. Although talks were ticketed, I attended nine over the weekend and no one ever checked my tickets. It was difficult to concentrate on the talks while many people sat in the back half of the seating area were talking on their phones or to each other. I arrived a few minutes late to a talk on Sunday and on taking a seat, had a lady next to me whisper “I don’t know what this lot are waffling on about but it’s nice just to find a seat!”

Rainbow Rowell discusses being a fan © Sophie Brown
Rainbow Rowell discusses being a fan © Sophie Brown

Another concern came from the signings area. Unlike the other guests at LFCC who were charging between £15 and £45 for an autograph, all the authors participating in the YALC were signing their books for free. Naturally this caused enormous queues, especially for the most popular authors such as Derek Landy (author of Skulduggery Pleasant) and Rainbow Rowell (author of Eleanor & Park, and Fangirl). The queues were badly organized with lines snaking around the compact area and blocking off access to other authors and sales areas. I joined a queue and was informed that the signing session would soon be over and thus I might not be seen, something I was aware of before joining. However I found it slightly bothersome that many people in front of me were carrying stacks of books to be signed, something I had witnessed in most of the author’s queues. As it turned out I was seen and had my single copy signed, however if I had not been then I would have found it more than a little unfair that someone further up had obtained six or seven signed books when someone at the back couldn’t get one. Perhaps the implementation of a signing limit would make for a fairer system and shorter queues, with anyone wishing to have large stacks signed being required to rejoin at the back?

My final problem was with the makeup of some of the panels themselves. The “Heroes of Horror” panel although chaired by a woman (Rosie Fletcher, Acting Editor of Total Film) featured only male authors, subtly reinforcing the idea that this is a male dominated sphere. Conversely the panel on female heroes was exclusively female despite many wonderful female characters having been written by men. The “Sex in YA” panel is another that could have really used some more diversity. The panel was chaired by openly-gay James Dawson but was otherwise entirely female; for such an important topic it would have been great to see a more varied panel comprised of different genders and orientations.

Malorie Blackman, Charlie Higson, Andrew Lane, Patrick Ness, Macus Sedgewick & Steve Cole discuss writing famous characters © Sophie Brown
Malorie Blackman, Charlie Higson, Andrew Lane, Patrick Ness, Macus Sedgewick & Steve Cole discuss writing famous characters © Sophie Brown

Malorie Blackman herself also noted a problem during the panel on “Reimagining Famous Characters”. This panel featured authors who had taken on famous characters such as The Doctor, James Bond, and Sherlock Holmes to write new material for them. Malorie noted how out of the six authors on stage, five were white men. Indeed four out of the six panelists were some of those asked to write in last year’s BBC collection of eleven short Doctor Who stories, with each Doctor so far receiving a new tale written by a different popular author. Out of those eleven stories, only two were written by women and only one by a person of color—Malorie taking spots in both of those minorities. Clearly the organizers of the panel were limited regarding their choices considering how few female and POC authors appear to write in this field, but seeing the panel in front of my eyes really brought it home how little representation there really is amongst those authors writing popular culture figures.

Despite the teething troubles, I really enjoyed every moment of this very first YALC and I hope it can continue for many more years. I do believe it needs to move to a separate venue, even if it remains a part of a larger convention, because the space restraints and sound issues were a constant problem but even these weren’t enough to dampen spirits. Over the weekend I saw parents, librarians, booksellers, and teachers attending panels and workshops. A grant had been provided allowing a number of high school students to attend and meet authors, and I saw countless teens queuing up to have their books signed. This convention really seems to have inspired people to talk about YA lit and to think about both the positives and negatives that currently exist within it. I can’t think of a better result.

GeekMom received entry to this event for review purposes.

Tsuro: The Game of the Path for All the Family

Tsuro © Calliope Games
Tsuro © Calliope Games

It’s rare to find a truly family-friendly board game, one that everyone from experienced gamers to little kids can get equal entertainment value from. Tsuro is one of those games, easy to explain, quick to play, and easy to adapt for different abilities.

The basic premise of Tsuro is one of the simplest in gaming. Each player is a dragon and by playing tiles from your hand you forge a path around the board. The goal is simple: Stay on the board. The last player to remain on the board having not forced themselves off the edge, or flown into an opponent, wins.

Tsuro Board © Sophie Brown
Tsuro Board © Sophie Brown

Although very simple to explain and play, the game is also deceptively strategic. At first everyone is off in their own parts of the board casually minding their own business. However after only a few turns you find yourself coming upon other players’ tiles and having to think several moves in advance to try to plan out where your tiles will take you in an effort to stay on the board and avoid others.

Although the game doesn’t allow for vindictive play (you must play tiles to move your own dragon, not putting them down in front of others to force them off instead), when players come close together tiles can affect multiple dragons at once allowing for absolute chaos to reign as dragons are sent flying all around.

My husband and I spent several evenings playing the game and I soon learned that my ability to plan ahead and consider where routes will take me is somewhat negligible as I consistently found new and elaborate ways to send my dragon careening off the edge of the board.

When he saw the game (which is technically rated for ages eight and up) my four year old desperately wanted to play with us. The strategic planning aspect of the game was far too advanced for him so I adjusted a few rules in order to create a version that he could play as well.

My Son After Playing Tsuro © Sophie Brown
My Son After Playing Tsuro © Sophie Brown

1. Rather than holding three tile in our hands at once as is standard, I changed to a “next tile from your pile” rule with each player having a stack of tiles in front of them.

This massively reduces the options available on each turn and makes the game easier to follow as you only have to think about the ways that one tile can be played rather than choosing the best option from up to 12 different routes.

2. Because the one tile only rule can result in more incidences of players being forced off the board (some tiles only present one movement option repeated on all four edges), when a player draws a tile which forces him or her off the board or into an opponent, they can swap that tile for the top tile from another player’s stack to give themselves a chance to save themselves for another turn.

My son still needs some help remembering to try out placing his tile in different orientations, and he sometimes thinks it’s funny to play with the intention of trying to crash into you rather than avoiding your dragon, but he absolutely loves playing and asks for “the dragon game” all the time.

It’s one I don’t mind playing too because rather than the often tedious and repetitive games we own that are designed for his age range, Tsuro allows me to actually play something with him that taxes me too.

GeekMom received this item for review purposes.

Sarah Daltry & Pete Clark Talk Backward Compatible, Gaming, and Monty Python

Backward Compatible © SDE Press
Backward Compatible Cover © SDE Press

A few months ago, many of the the other writers here at GeekMom and I fell in love with Backward Compatible, a Young Adult novel about gamers Katie and George forging a relationship with each other. The characters spoke to many of us and we all found ourselves quoting along with the Monty Python references and laughing at the multiple references to Firefly, Portal, and more.

It has been a difficult six months for author Sarah Daltry but both she and her Backward Compatible co-author Pete Clark agreed to talk to us about the book, future projects, and whether or not aliens exist…

Backward Compatible Cover © SDE Press
Backward Compatible Cover © SDE Press

GeekMom: Where did the concept of Backward Compatible first come from?

Sarah Daltry: So, basically, I had written a few books before it. One wasn’t out yet, because it was with the publisher, and the others were intense emotional realistic romance about characters with severe depression, anxiety, and trauma in their pasts.

The thing with that series is that it was eating away at me for two reasons. One, my own life was closely tied to a lot of the things in it, at least emotionally, and I was struggling to get through writing Blue Rose and Orange Blossom simultaneously. After finishing Lily of the Valley, I hadn’t really been able to stop being in that place where I needed to go to write about depression.

Secondly, because the series is, at heart, a love story about finding hope even in darkness, it was reaching a bigger romance audience. There’s a lot of sex and people were coming to me telling me that the sex scenes were really hot, including the ones that were traumatizing and were meant to highlight some of the darker parts of the characters. That bothered me and I put the series aside and went to Pete, my fellow gamer and Borderlands addict, and said, “Can we write something fun? About video games? I need a break.”

Pete Clark: Sarah came me to me and said, “Can we write something fun? About video games?” To which, I replied, “Yup.” And thus Backward Compatible was born.

How did you come to co-write the book with Pete Clark?

Sarah: Pete and I go way back. We game together all the time and he was a natural choice, because we don’t write at all in the same genres, but we’ve taken several writing classes together, been in writing groups together, and always read each other’s stuff. So I knew what I would be dealing with, as did he, and we were able to build off the other’s strengths.

Pete: As Sarah said, she asked me to write a book with her. I figured that, even though she’s sometimes a bit of a camper and not a very good shot, she’s “quick with a joke and she’ll light up your smoke,” even though neither of us smoke. I figured what the hell, and I love video games. I hadn’t yet written a book about them. It seemed like a good idea and then Lanyon showed up.

GeekMom: Did you set out specific characters or chapters that each of you would write in advance or did it grow more organically?

Sarah: It was a combination of both. We decided immediately it would be in alternating first person, mainly because I started it and that’s my POV of choice. I’m a huge YA addict, reader, advocate, etc. from my previous work in schools as a teacher and librarian and all my favorite classics are in first person. So I wrote the first chapter as Katie and then gave it to Pete to write George. We alternated throughout, with him sending me George’s most recent additions and I would add Katie’s and then send it back.

In that way, it was kind of like one of those writing exercises where everyone tells the story and it developed organically because we literally only knew it was about two gamers who met and had a relationship when we started. The secret boss appeared in a section Pete sent me and we went with it, as did most of the pieces.

Pete: She pretty much covered it. Basically, I knew she was writing the female POV and I was writing the male POV, we would alternate, and it would be about gaming. We just sort of moved forward based on the last section the other wrote, and because of the alternating, it felt more realistic. It was a lot of, “here’s what your characters are doing now,” rather than having to set it all up myself. Also, I’d set something up, then she’d smack it in a different direction, and I had to react. It was pretty fun.

GeekMom: Are there any other authors you would like the opportunity to work with?

Sarah: I really don’t think co-writing would naturally work for me, because I’m a bit of a control freak. When people ask why I self-publish, that’s really what it comes down to, since I don’t like trusting others with my ideas or my work. I like knowing what’s happening at all times, because my experiences have made me pretty self-sufficient. However, since Pete and I are close and we always talk about writing and gaming and life in general, it worked well and I would be happy to team up again.

Pete: Co-writing with most people would be an impossible pain in the ass. You sort of have to have similar philosophies, backgrounds, and ideas for the overall story. You also need to be really flexible and adaptable to what the person is going to do and, in most cases, that would involve a lot of outlining, plot development, and pre-writing, which is not something I enjoy.

GeekMom: What books have you been reading lately and which ones from the past have really made an impact in your life?

Sarah: Catcher in the Rye [J.D. Salinger] and The Sun Also Rises [Ernest Hemingway] had the most impact on me, because they were realistic and captured something people generally don’t talk about. Lately, I have a giant TBR pile, but nothing has been really sticking with me. I’m so excited for All the Rage by Courtney Summers, but that’s not coming until April [2015].

Pete: I’m working my way through Game of Thrones. I really like Douglas Adams, as far as impact, because his books show how much you can do when you throw out all the rules and write chaos.

Flowering Series © Sarah Daltry
Flowering Series © Sarah Daltry

GeekMom: The majority of Sarah’s other books are romance stories, even erotica; how different did you find working on Backward Compatible in comparison?

Sarah: I actually took down all my erotica (although my New Adult series has a great deal of sex in it) and what’s funny is I really don’t consider myself a romance writer.

I like relationships and how they evolve. My urban fantasy is romance, but it’s about a romance between a college girl and two immortals, and my New Adult series is more about breaking free from assumptions and judgements. The main girl is from a perfect world and she’s always been expected to be one way, but it gets shaken up when she meets a guy she would never have expected to matter to her. He, on the other hand, has given up on people. So, in that way, really, all my books tend to be about people who are a little on the edges trying to find their own “normal.” And I like to give them relationships, because I like to hope that everyone can find someone who makes them feel happy to be who or what they are, regardless of social expectations or social attitudes.

What I tend to find is that all of my books seem to get the same reactions—a lot of people hate the characters, especially the girls, and find them “whiny” or “slutty” or “rude.” I don’t get it, because they’re nothing alike. Katie is nothing like Nora from Bitter Fruits or Lily from Flowering, but I’ve finally begun to accept that the problem is that they’re all, in a way, pieces of me. And I’m not normal and I struggle to relate to people, so I guess all my books are about people who don’t make sense—and the ones who also don’t make sense seem to relate and everyone else misses the point. So Backward Compatible was really the epitome of all that. A story about two people who probably never get noticed or, when they do, it’s negative a lot of the time. But, together, they’re just fine. (It’s a little to do with the title, too, which is obviously a play on words for gaming, but also that they’re both considered socially “backward.”)

Pete: This question is obviously not for me, so please make up an answer for me while picturing me tap dancing in a giant bunny suit.

GeekMom: How closely (or not) do Katie and George’s lives reflect your own at their age? Did you grow up thinking of yourself as a geek?

Sarah: For the most part, their lives are exactly like mine at that age and not really that different from my life now. Except rather than college, I have a job. I worked sometimes during the school breaks, but in New England, our semester breaks were about three weeks and usually, between snow and holidays, work was reserved for on campus jobs during school and a summer job (Katie works at a day camp in the summers, which isn’t really addressed in the book). I was a teacher, too, so my breaks pretty recently were a lot like theirs—staying up and playing Xbox all night!

Growing up, I knew I was a nerd, because people made sure I knew it. When I was in school, it wasn’t really cool to be a geek or nerd. I’m really happy we’ve stopped that attitude, although sometimes I think it’s a little fake. It also bothers me to see divisiveness in geek and nerd culture, like “you’re not nerdy enough because you only saw the new Doctor Who” or “you haven’t read Silmarillion, so you aren’t a real Tolkien fan.” In my experience, being a nerd meant I had no friends and was always told I wasn’t the “right” kind of anything, so I guess I don’t get how people who’ve been there can then turn around and be so judgemental.

Pete: No specific events are from my own life, but I used my own experiences of winter break and gaming for a framework for the book. I don’t remember categorizing myself as a geek, although other people seemed to do it for me. I played a lot of sports and I had a lot of friends, but I was nerdy as hell and plenty of people told me so.

GeekMom: What Hogwarts house do you pledge allegiance to?

Sarah: Ravenclaw. I am 100% Ravenclaw, yet 99% of those online quizzes put me in Hufflepuff. But I’m all about learning for the sake of learning. I’m more of a nerd than a geek, I guess, because my pop culture knowledge is decent, but I’m not really the type who quotes things regularly, unless it’s classic poetry or some fact or trivia detail no one cares about.

Pete: Ignore her. She’s 100% Hufflepuff. I’m mostly Ravenclaw, because that’s the coolest name and they’re thinkers, which I like. However, I am also a little Slytherin, because I would love all-encompassing power and crushing my enemies with green colored spells that murder them.

GeekMom: What’s the geekiest thing you’ve ever done?

Sarah: Jeopardy is #1 on my DVR and I’ve been called in to audition twice. Is that geeky? I used to play Vampire: The Masquerade (it was actually inspiration for my urban fantasy novel), including LARP. I’m sort of terrified of people and leaving the house, though, so I guess most of my geeky stuff involves Xbox, like playing games multiple times to see all the endings or get all the collectibles. Or watching entire TV series on Netflix over a weekend. If I have to go out and talk to people, I tend to not do it.

Pete: At a comic book convention, I got into an argument with famed writer, Chris Claremont, about how much his character, Jubilee [X-Men], sucked.

GeekMom: Do you consider yourself a gamer? What video games have you enjoyed over the years?

Sarah: Hell yeah. I have enjoyed all of the games. 😀 Seriously, I play way more Xbox than any mature adult should admit to, but that’s okay. I really love it. I also have every other system, even going back to the old ones, because you never know when a game like Heavy Rain will come out and you need to have a PS3 handy. I haven’t gotten the new ones yet, but I will.

Pete: I am definitely a gamer. Get comfortable. There are a many games I have enjoyed. From my early days of loving Pac Man, Q-Bert, Dig Dug, Rolling Thunder, Gauntlet, Shinobi, Double Dragon, Demon Attack, Spider Fighter, Defender… okay I will stop there. Also, current games, such as all the Bioshock and Mass Effect and Assassin’s Creed games (although III was disappointing), anything with Arkham in the title, anything by Naughty Dog, and a whole bunch of others.

GeekMom: There are a lot of Monty Python references in the book, was that something you grew up with? What are your favorite sketches?

Sarah: I grew up watching it, but I didn’t have cable and I don’t even know if it was actually on, but in high school, all my friends seemed to have it somehow, so I learned all about it that way. Obviously, I’ve seen Holy Grail a million times, but I think it was Meaning of Life I actually saw first. But the parrot sketch was my introduction to Monty Python and I know I’m not going out on a limb with that one, but because it was my first, it’s probably that. You have to understand—I grew up in the 80s and early 90s with no cable, a Commodore 64, and parents who hated TV and still listened to 8-tracks. My pop culture exposure was delayed.

Pete: I’ve sort of always liked Monty Python, but I would never classify myself as a die-hard fan. I’ve seen it and enjoyed it, but wasn’t the kid coming in and talking about the Spanish Inquisition and what not. I do love Holy Grail and most of my references are very Grail-centric.

GeekMom: How do you imagine George & Katie’s story continuing? Do you think we might see a sequel on day?

Sarah: A sequel has been in discussion since shortly after finishing this one. I really do want to write it, because I like the idea. One thing that irritates me about movies, books, TV, etc., though, is when people take something that exists and just keep beating it over your head because it was good the first time, and that scares me a lot. I don’t want to write a sequel just because people liked the first one, but because there’s a plan that really speaks to us. However, we do have a solid plan. It’s just not solid enough to make it official at this point, because we haven’t gotten all that far in it. Pete’s really resistant to the idea of sharing until we know it’s written.

Pete: A sequel is tempting, because I really like the characters and the style of the story and I had a lot of fun tucking in the Easter eggs. However, you have to be careful, because it can hard to recreate what worked the first time, and no one wants to be The Matrix and ruin their own story.

Primordial Dust © Sarah Daltry
Primordial Dust © Sarah Daltry

GeekMom: You have a new YA Fantasy novel out called Primordial Dust, can you tell us a bit about it?

Sarah: What’s hard for me, I think, as a writer, is that I never intended to be locked into this idea as a smut writer. I wrote some erotica, while I was writing novels, because I already had it written and it wasn’t any good. But there was a market for it. However, as I tried to evolve my writing, I realized it was not what I wanted to be known for writing and I took it down. I still have this whole endless back and forth internal debate about my Flowering series—do I keep the sex or take it out? Really, I love YA. I want to write YA and I want people to take YA seriously. I also enjoy NA [New Adult], but I think that the label has become convoluted.

To me, NA was an extension of YA. It was a little more mature, probably with sex and maybe violence and drugs or more vulgarity (like Backward Compatible), but along the line, we have begun to call Fifty Shades of Grey New Adult. How? I have never met a college girl who ends up in a relationship with a billionaire sadist. All YA, even fantasy and dystopian YA, speaks to the key themes of growing up in some fashion, and I guess I expected NA to do the same.

Backward Compatible isn’t deep, but it’s still about connecting to someone and letting go of things that have clung to you from high school. (I know it’s a small part, but still).

Anyway, that’s not really about Primordial Dust, but I do think I struggle to find my audience because this book is PG. There is no swearing. The violence is there, but it’s certainly not graphic. And there is only a veiled hint at the relationships and the degree of the physical nature of them. So people who think my books are erotic are going to be confused and then I feel like others won’t give me much of a chance because they think I write smut.

This book took me three years to write. It’s a story of morality, of a princess growing up and watching her kingdom fall, mostly due to the lies that kept it running for her entire life. It’s both fantasy and realistic, in the way that it’s a fable for life. About how our choices define us, but we are often pawns for other people’s choices. It’s nothing like my other stuff, although it is also just like my other books, because it’s about defining yourself. It’s about accepting your own flaws and coming to terms with what you want rather than what you’re told to want. I tend to draw from this theme a lot, because it’s really the theme of my own life. Even still in my 30s. We all tend to define ourselves more by the words and actions of others than by our own words and actions and that’s really sad.

GeekMom: And to finish up: Best roller coaster you’ve ever ridden? 

Sarah: I can’t decide between all the roller coasters at Cedar Point (I used to love Disaster Transport!), although I think my favorites were DT, the Gemini, and Iron Dragon, because they’re fun without having excessively long lines and also you didn’t feel like they were made to be bigger or faster, but just to be awesome. Also, I was pleasantly surprised at Space Mountain in Disneyland Paris. It may have been because it was raining and there were no lines so we just rode it again and again. Actually, the Paris Disney has better roller coasters than the one in Florida, but they don’t have much else. Except signs in French, and when you’re a stupid American like me, that’s kind of cool.

Pete: I’m not a big fan of roller coasters. I get nauseous in cars and boats and sometimes the Subway. I mean the sandwich shop. That being said, I’ve tried a couple and although I will certainly be mocked as it’s far from the most badass coaster in the world, I do like the Rock n’ Roller Coaster in Disney. I rode that three times in a row and it was fun. In comparison, Space Mountain sucked.

GeekMom: Film that scared you the most?

Sarah: Okay, this makes no sense, because it wasn’t that scary, but for some reason, I was in tears watching Insidious in the theater. It’s creepy, yes, but apparently that day was just a day when I wanted to be terrified and I was scared to death during it. However, for long-lasting effect, I would say The Exorcist had the scariest plot. I thought the movie was dumb, but then couldn’t sleep for a few days because the idea bugged me. The Blair Witch Project still scares me every time I see it. But really, if you want to be scared… play Silent Hill instead.

Pete: The scariest movie I ever saw was The Blair Witch Project. We saw it opening weekend in a small theater and it was packed, but silent. Everyone was into it during the showing and it’s the kind of movie that you need that to get the most out of it. It’s one of the only movies when I remember thinking, “God, I wish it was daytime.” The most disturbing scene—although it may not be disturbing to most—is in Pet Semetary when Rachel’s mom, who’s dead, comes back to berate her. That scene is messed up, man.

GeekMom: Do you believe in aliens?

Sarah: Yes and no. I believe it’s a little arrogant to think that we are the only real “human” life in all of space, but I also don’t believe in any of the nonsense in science fiction. I just think the universe is really big.

Pete: Since there are more planets that the human mind can conceivably fathom, I think it’s safe to say that something is probably living on some of those. Do I think they’re getting all Jackson Pollack with our crops? No.

GeekMom: Dinosaurs or Dragons?

Sarah: Dragons. Need I say more?

Pete: They’re both pretty awesome. Dragons are dinosaurs, in a way, but cooler versions. T-Rexes are cool, but dragons would beat them down.

Backward Compatible is out now and was reviewed here on GeekMom in February. If you’re interested to find out more, the opening chapter is available for free on Sarah Daltry’s website.

Summer Science Fun: Nephology

Cirrus clouds over stratocumulus © Sophie Brown
Cirrus clouds over stratocumulus. Image: © Sophie Brown.

Nephology is a branch of science you may have never heard of, but that almost all of us will have casually participated in during our lives. It is a branch of meteorology that deals with the study of clouds, and who among us hasn’t stared up into the sky at least once to note an especially unusual formation? Learning about clouds is something we can all get involved in no matter where we live and requires no expensive equipment to get started.

One of the simplest things we can do with clouds is learn to identify the different types. The cloud types you might see vary depending on your location, but the three basic types—stratus, cumulus, and cirrus—should be visible across most of the planet. NASA has produced a free Cloud Identification Chart PDF that you can print off, or you could follow the instructions provided by the Measured in Moments blog and make your own portable field guide. All you need is a printer and possibly a laminator; where there are clouds, there is often rain, after all.

Sunset over England © Sophie Brown
Sunset over England. Image: © Sophie Brown.

The Cloud Appreciation Society has teamed up with NASA to produce the CloudSpotter app for iDevices. The app awards achievements for correctly identifying different types of clouds that the user photographs, but it also has a secondary and more scientific purpose. Data from the app is accessed by NASA and used to help calibrate their CERES satellite, using the geo-tagged ground truth observations to help determine if their instruments are identifying clouds correctly. For those without access to the app, NASA invites you to take part in their Rover Project. The Rover Project is an offshoot of NASA’s S’COOL Project for classrooms which records the same types of observations, but through permanent locations.

For budding photographers, clouds can be an ever-changing and interesting subject—and one that won’t require expensive trips to capture. Interesting cloud photos can be taken at any time, but sunsets and storms will often provide especially stunning results. Just be sure to take care standing outside during inclement weather. If you take a really great photo, you could submit it to the Cloud Appreciation Society’s gallery, which is filled with astounding photos from all over the world, or to one of the many cloud groups on Flickr.

Clouds are inextricably linked with the water cycle, a great topic for younger children curious about the world around them. The UK Met Office has produced a short film that explains how clouds are formed, including an explanation of the water cycle and a basic look at some main types of clouds you might see.

Finally, once you’ve spent some time learning all about clouds, why not round it all off with a classic movie about them—sort of—Twister. OK, so the science is more than a little dubious at times, but no one can deny the power of that soundtrack or the brilliance of Phillip Seymour Hoffman as Dustin. For more tornado-based films, there’s always The Wizard of Oz and Sharknado. Actually don’t bother with that last one…

Help Preschoolers Learn Math Skills in the Number Neighborhood

Drive About: Number Neighbourhood © Artgig Apps
Drive About: Number Neighborhood © Artgig Apps

A few years ago my son and I fell in love with the brilliantly designed Alien Buddies from Artgig Apps. Now the team has done it again with the beautiful and varied app Drive About: Number Neighborhood.

Number Neighborhood is a collection of mini games that teach different mathematical skills from simple number recognition and shape matching to counting and equal sums. The games are all linked together by their surrounding neighborhood. On loading the app your child selects the game they would like to begin with. Once they have finished with it, they exit into the neighborhood where they can use a variety of different vehicles to travel between the games. A car travels along the road, a boat on the water, a rocket up into space, etc. As they travel children can interact with the area: popping balloons, blowing away leaves by the roadside, and making flowers grow. The vehicle noises are made by people rather than sound effects so as the boat chugs along in the water we hear someone quietly chanting “blub blub blub” making the atmosphere distinctly cute and fun.

There are nine games located around the neighborhood:

  • Feed a whale a given number of green kelp by using a slingshot to fire pieces into his mouth
  • Decorate cookies by matching different shaped toppings to the spaces, then feed them to hungry animals
  • Help a yak snowboard down a hill and hit each number post in sequence
  • Paint by numbers
  • Balance numbered animals on a seesaw to make equal sums (for example two small mice on one side to a single large squirrel on the other)
  • Stack numbered blocks in order to build an apartment complex
  • Tap sea pickles labelled with a given number before they vanish back into their burrows
  • Trace numbers in the sky
  • Vacuum up trash in space, making sure to find the correct number of items

Each game is well thought out and easy to play. There are no ads, links out, or in-app purchases available making the game a safe environment for even the youngest players.

Place the numbered animals on the seesaw to make it balance © Artgig
Place the numbered animals on the seesaw to make it balance © Artgig

There are naturally a few issues, the biggest one for me being that the game has no difficulty setting. I would love to see a parent screen where I can individually tailor each game to my child’s abilities. The stacking game for example begins at number one and asks children to build from there in groups of five and only counts as high as 20, not much of a challenge to my 4-year-old. Being able to set that game to begin from a different number (say 20) would really increase its flexibility and help slightly older kids practice bigger numbers in preparation for starting school.

Another area that could be improved is language support. The game can currently run in English, Spanish, French, Russian, and Portuguese; however the language cannot be switched within the game. The game’s language is determined by the device’s language master setting alone. Being able to switch on different languages within the game would again increase its flexibility, allowing it to also be used to help children in the process of learning a new language. Even adults could use it to practice.

Right now this is a beautiful, elegantly designed game and one that my son has really been enjoying playing. He’s even been choosing it over watching Power Rangers: Samurai on Netflix, and that says a lot about just how fun these mini games are. With a few small tweaks and additions this could become an even more expansive and useful learning tool for children right up to Kindergarten, but for now if you have preschoolers Drive About: Number Neighborhood is a game that should absolutely join your home learning line-up.

GeekMom received this item for review purposes. 

Fangasm: The Curious Case of The Supernatural Fangirl

Fangasm: Supernatural Fangirls © University of Iowa Press
Fangasm: Supernatural Fangirls © University of Iowa Press

On November 18th 2013 I made a life changing decision: I pressed play on episode one of Supernatural. I didn’t recognize that it was a life changing moment at the time, it’s rare that you do, but it’s clear that I saw it for what it was fairly quickly. A look at my Twitter feed 45 minutes later shows me posting: “I think I’m in love already. #Supernatural.”

Six months down the line and it’s fair to say I’m already a dedicated, bordering on die-hard, fan. I’ve watched all nine seasons of the show so far, begun reading the spin-off books, have bookmarked folders filled with links to interesting articles and fanfiction, plus my Tumblr now resembles a shrine to Misha Collins, Jensen Ackles, and Jared Padalecki. I’ve even learned how to spell Padalecki. I’m subscribed to the Twitter, Instagram, and other social media feeds of every cast member. I am also finishing up cosplays of both Dean and Castiel for this summer’s convention season, and as I write this, models of Dean and Sam are sitting to my left watching curiously from their hallowed position atop an X-Files box set. It’s been a rapid descent but I’m now fully immersed in the Supernatural fandom and I don’t see a way out. Honestly, I don’t want to find one.

Nine Year Old Me Was *That* Kid © Sophie Brown
Nine Year Old Me Was *That* Kid © Sophie Brown

I found the whole process curious. I’ve been a “fan” my whole life. I remember collecting the official magazine series (complete with binders) for The Animals of Farthing Wood. Later I moved on to cult Sci-Fi shows like The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and Sapphire and Steel, devouring annuals and re-watching episodes until I wore out the VHS tapes. However it’s rare that a fandom consumes me entirely; in fact it has only happened twice. When The X-Files appeared in my life in the mid 90s it changed my world to the point where I never looked back. Since then that all consuming feeling has only happened once again, on the arrival of Supernatural. Why? What was it about these two shows that caused me to ditch my sanity so completely? Why has that not happened with other shows I love? I don’t know, but I do know that I’m not alone.

Fangasm: Supernatural Fangirls is the story of two university professors, Lynn S. Zubernis (associate professor of counselor education at West Chester University of Pennsylvania) and Katherine Larsen (literary scholar and teacher at George Washington University in Washington D.C.) who also happen to be devoted Supernatural fans. The book follows them as they attend multiple conventions across the US and Canada, indulging in their passion whilst researching the subject of fandom with the intention of writing a book. That book eventually became split in two. This title covers the personal story of their fandom and the other, Fandom at The Crossroads: Celebration, Shame, & Fan/Producer Relationships, the more academic side of their research.*

Far from being 245 pages of fangirl flailing and nonsensical squealing, Fangasm raises many serious issues surrounding fans; specifically those faced by females. There is often an unspoken (sometimes loudly spoken) judgement aimed at female fans, especially older female fans who are told they “should know better” at their age. Who out there hasn’t seen pictures of Twimoms (female fans of Twilight who are mothers and over the age of 25—usually much older) with offensive, or at least unpleasant, captions photo-shopped on top? In fact the entry for Twimom at Urban Dictionary sums up the issues very well.

“A group of ‘adults’ who have children and/or are married, who are overly obsessed fans of the overrated ‘Twilight’ book series. They usually spend their time, neglecting their children, ie. – forgetting to feed them…”

Compared to the entry for Trekkie-–a group generally stereotyped as male—and you’ll instantly see the difference in the presentation of the two terms:

“A devoted fan of the television series Star Trek or one of its spin-off series or films. Variant: Trekker”

The Trekkie entry reads like a regular dictionary entry with no emotive language used. The Twimom entry however is almost violently emotional, calling this group of fans “overly obsessed”, accusing them of neglecting their children and even placing the word adult within inverted commas, as if somehow by choosing to display their fandom, these women are not worthy of the status.

Jensen and Jared Take a Look at Fangasm © Chris Schmelke
Jensen and Jared Take a Look at Fangasm © Chris Schmelke

Fangasm begins by raising the point that all of us are most likely fans of something—“the local football team, model railroading, Elvis Presley, Anthony Bourdain”—and that the feeling of cheering together with other fans is a bonding experience we all gain satisfaction from. It also points out that certain fans are respected to a greater extent than others, something clearly illustrated by the Urban Dictionary entries above. Being a sports fan is seen as normal, “in fact, to be male and not a fan of some team somewhere is the more questionable position,” the authors point out. Dog enthusiasts have formed the Westminster Kennel Club, while opera, ballet, and theater fans “have the weight of cultural approval on their side”. Tell someone you’re a fan of Beethoven or Placido Domingo and you’ll no doubt receive a very different reaction than if you told them you love Doctor Who or My Chemical Romance despite the fact that the fandoms are equally passionate, albeit, in different ways. I once spent over an hour standing at the stage door of Covent Garden Opera House while my mother waited to get Domingo’s autograph, so I can speak with some authority on this matter.

The authors speak at length about the ways fans are ridiculed and humiliated online simply for showing their passions. The reaction to the death of a Twilight fan at SDCC 2012 is noted for the way online commenters joked about the event. It is noted how female fans are referred to as “creepy”, “ridiculous”, “unattractive” and “horrible parents” simply for daring to show their enthusiasm. This is not a new phenomenon. Back in the 1800s, fans of Lord Byron were described as being driven to a state of “hysterical excitement” and he was accused of producing in them a taste “for extreme sensation”. However despite the negativity fans may face by admitting their passions, for many the online communities fostered around television shows like Supernatural are hugely important: especially to women.

The book talks about studies that have shown the benefits gained by emotional investment in television shows and in relationships with other fans online. This is important to recall in discussions on fandom where shame is often a factor. Fans, women especially, often feel shame for “indulging in ‘frivolous’ pursuits’ like fandom”, feeling that they should instead be doing something of “value” with their time such as working to earn money or taking care of the family. It is considered entirely normal for a man to take an afternoon away from his family to attend a sports game, yet if a woman were to spend that same time visiting a filming location or attending a convention then this is often seen very differently. Guilt is a huge issue for many women. Mothers often find that they are neglecting themselves because of how guilty taking time out away from the family makes them feel. However, fandoms offer so much to those who participate: bonding experiences, relaxation, and (in the case of Supernatural but also many other TV shows) “an emotional framework upon which you can hang anything”.

Whilst this is primarily a book about Supernatural fans, it is of interest to anyone who considers themselves a “fan”— whether they admit to it in public or not. It is also a book that will interest those concerned with feminist issues. The frank discussions of sex, why for example male fans of Star Trek feel at ease discussing their appreciation of Seven of Nine’s costume while female fans are looked on as “disgusting” and “oversexed” for an equal appreciation of Jensen Ackles’ six pack, are valid and important conversations that need to be out in public. How is it that a TV network is clearly at ease casting with the intention of attracting the female gaze (Supernatural has used “Scary just got sexy” as an official tag line) yet equally uncomfortable with those same women discussing the subject?

Of course Supernatural fans will find more than others to enjoy here. The interviews with cast and crew, especially the long insights from actor Jim Beaver who plays Bobby Singer, are interesting and offer more than simple anecdotes while the stories about the conventions are of more relevance to fans of the show. However even if you have never watched an episode, (go and watch it now, it will change your life) then you will find a lot to think about and enjoy in here.

*Katherine and Lynn are also the editors of Fan Culture: Theory/Practice and the Supernatural edition of Intellect’s Fan Phenomena series.

A copy of Fangasm: Supernatural Fangirls was provided for this review by the publisher.

Between the Bookends at GeekMom

Bookends © Sophie Brown

This month the GeekMoms have run the gamut from new interpretations of Beowulf to a murder mystery in post-Revolutionary War New England. There are graphic novels filled with aliens and wizards, shadowy government organizations, teenage boys painting models in their bedrooms, and girls being discovered floating in cello cases.  If something there doesn’t pique your interest then I don’t know what will!

Tolkein Beowolf © Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Tolkein Beowolf © Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Lisa has taken on the summer reading challenge of poring over two new books featuring until-recently-unpublished writings by two classic writers: Thomas Bulfinch and J. R.R. Tolkien.  

She was particularly excited to pick up Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary by J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Christopher Tolkien (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). Tolkien actually wrote this translation of Beowulf in 1926, before The Hobbit was even published, and apparently never intended to publish this translation. His son Christopher has recently granted permission for the release of both this meticulous translation and accompanying lecture-style commentary, as well as Tolkien’s own accompanying work in a similar style, Sellic Spell. In addition, Christopher Tolkien’s comments and contributions to this volume are both helpful and welcome.

A perfect companion to it is the Tarcher Cornerstone Edition of Bulfinch’s Mythology: The Classic Introduction to Myth and Legend — Complete & Unbridged by Thomas Bulfinch (Tarcher/Penguin), Thomas Bulfinch’s comprehensive compilation of myths, from Greco-Roman to medieval and Arthurian times, has been an essential element to booklovers’ collections since 1881, more than ten years after the writer’s death. This new collection, set for release June 12, not only includes his three volumes of myth and history in its original text, it features never-before published text from Bulfinch’s journals, and interpretations of more modern works published after his time.

Neither of these books is a simple read, and both demand the reader’s attention. With these new doses of familiar authors, however, readers will want to give it.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves © Plume
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves © Plume

has been taking advantage of the late-night feedings that come with having a newborn, and catching up on eBooks. Two that stand out from the last month are Karen Joy Fowler’s Nebula-nominated and PEN/Faulkner award-winning We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. A fascinating character study of a young woman in college in California in the 90’s whose story looks back to the past (an unusual childhood driven by her father’s psychology experiments—to be any more specific would be spoilery) and ahead to her future. Fowler captures the person, the times, the environment, and the skewed weirdness of the premise just perfectly.

In addition, she picked up a much-talked about sf/fantasy novel from last year, Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson. A wonderful blend of fantasy (jinn and a more-or-less magic book) and sf (hackers and coders subverting the national security state) set in an imagined Middle Eastern emirate, this fast-paced book puts one in mind of a really great comic book. Alif, our young hacker protagonist, can be kind of obnoxious, but he does eventually learn the error of his ways, and the characters surrounding him more than make up for his obtuseness. A nuanced portrait of an environment that is too often stereotyped, Wilson does an amazing job of bringing her setting (both realistic and fantastic) to life along with her characters. If the plotting sometimes falls into slightly cliched ruts, that’s a small price to pay for this fabulous and well-rounded story.

Cherub #1: The Recruit © Simon Pulse
Cherub #1: The Recruit © Simon Pulse

This month Helen has tried a couple of middle grade books, suitable for children around 8-12 year olds. First up was CHERUB: The Recruit by prolific award-winning author Robert Muchamore and suitable for readers around 10+ years. Published a decade ago, the first book in the CHERUB series sees young scamp James, who seems destined for a life of crime, recruited to a shadowy government organization after he is orphaned. He is whisked off to a plush campus where he begins his training to become a spy, making friends with his fellow trainees. James ends up carrying out a dangerous mission, all while dealing with the normal early teenage issues. It’s a fast-paced and exciting ride, with James navigating relationships both inside and outside of his training and missions, as well as attempting to overcome his fear of water and swimming. The CHERUB series would appeal to fans of the Young Bond or Alex Rider books, and hopefully the reissues will gather a new set of fans.

Tethers by Jack Croxall is the first in a trilogy of books with an interesting mixture of genres. Set in Victorian times in the north of England, it also has a science fiction and fantasy edge, as well as adventure and mystery. The main characters are Karl and Esther, friends whose curiosity leads to them becoming embroiled in a strange and fantastic plot to control a magical artifact. It soon turns out that more people are also on the trail, and that they will stop at nothing to control the artifact and harness its powers. Karl and Esther are placed in mortal peril, and with the help of their companions they set out to find out the truth. Helen particularly liked that Karl and Esther weren’t content to wait around for the life that people expected them to have, and that they chose to break away and follow their instincts rather than stay on the expected path. Esther wasn’t limited by the politics of the day, and was able to use a new-found skill which she wouldn’t have been able to develop had she stayed at home. Helen hopes that the next book in the series will cover the expectations of women in the society at the time and how Esther deals with the limitations placed on her gender. Tethers is a great start to the story and she’ll certainly be checking up on Karl and Esther in the next volume.

Depression is the theme in Brilliant, a new children’s story by Roddy Doyle. Set in Dublin, it follows the nighttime adventure of two siblings, Gloria and Raymond, as they attempt to rid the city of a metaphor which has taken form: the Black Dog. It’s a modern fable or fairy tale, filled with talking animals, a friendly vampire, and a pair of children desperate to find a way to rid their uncle of the Black Dog who has settled on his back. It could be a good way to talk to children about mental illness, although I’m not sure how much of the subtleties children will be able to pick up, or whether they’ll see it in a more literal sense. Helen liked the story a great deal, especially that it hinged on the power of a spoken word. Also, she likes that Gloria is the hero and lynchpin, the child who won’t give up in her quest to rescue her uncle.

Malorie Blackman’s Noble Conflict explores morality in a future setting. In a world which has been destroyed by war and genocide, can young soldier and idealist Kaspar find his way to the truth about the past, and decide which side he should be fighting on? As with all Malorie Blackman’s novels, this one has great characterization and a meaty storyline, full of events that really make you think. There are twists and turns as Kaspar uncovers the truth, which will keep you guessing throughout. There is some description of torture in the book, so Helen recommends it for older readers.

The final book that Helen has read this month is Rooftoppers by Katherine Rundell. This book has been well publicized recently, being shortlisted for a plethora of awards, and winning the prestigious 2014 Waterstones Children’s Book Prize. When Helen visited her local bookshop to buy a copy, the sales assistant at the till enthused about it, saying that it was a brilliant book and that all of the staff loved it. So, this is the tale of Sophie, who is found floating in a cello case in the flotsam after a shipwreck. She is taken in by English eccentric Charles, as it is presumed that her parents had perished in the shipwreck. Sophie however, thinks differently, and knows that her mother is alive. Charles teaches Sophie the important things in life: music, books, and Shakespeare. However, he fails to teach her the skills to be ladylike, and when Sophie is threatened with being taken away from Charles, they go on the run to find Sophie’s mother across the rooftops of Paris. Sophie is a fantastic heroine: brave, focused, and tenacious. She explores the roofs of Paris on bare feet and tightrope, learning to trust her new friend Matteo and teaching him to trust her in return. Helen really loved this book. There’s a poetic feel to the prose, and the characters are really multifaceted. Charles is a great father, being supportive but also letting Sophie go when he knows that she must follow her belief that her mother is alive. There’s a great angle of following your instincts and also finding the solution to a problem by looking at it from a different angle, literally in Sophie’s case, as she surveys Paris from high above.

The Best of Connie Willis © Del Ray
The Best of Connie Willis © Del Ray

Fran devoured The Best of Connie Willis (Del Rey, 2013), enjoying the short stories that were old friends equally with ones she hadn’t read before. The biggest treats were Willis’ notes on each story, telling the how and why of their writing, and also the journey of this amazing author. Fran is also working her way through two anthologies, 21st Century Science Fiction, edited by David Hartwell and Patrick Nielsen Hayden (Tor, 2014), and Women Destroy Science Fiction (okay, this is a magazine issue with the size and heft of an anthology, brought to you by Lightspeed Magazine and all of us Kickstarter supporters!). Fran and her daughter are reading Ellen Klages’ The Green Glass Sea together, which is a WW2 story told from the perspective of 11-year-old Dewey Kagan, who likes science and math more than some feel a young lady should, and finds herself in a town that doesn’t exist, called Los Alamos, with her mathematician father. And, because Mount To Be Read is growing exponentially, she’s also started Jaime Lee Moyer’s wonderful sequel to her ghost-detective debut Delia’s Shadow, A Barricade in Hell (Tor, 2014). So gorgeously written.

Geekhood: Close Encounters of the Girl Kind © Stripes Publishing
Geekhood: Close Encounters of the Girl Kind © Stripes Publishing

With an official list now drawn up for this summer’s Young Adult Literature Festival in London, Sophie has begun attempting to read at least one book by as many of the attending authors as possible. Her journey has begun with Andy Robb’s Geekhood: Close Encounters of the Girl Kind, the story of 14-year-old D&D geek Archie and his attempts to change himself to try and win the affection of new girl Sarah. It’s an interesting story that shows the pitfalls of changing who you are to suit another, whilst also suggesting that sometimes changes should indeed be made in order to move on in life. Next up on the young adult challenge is Holly Smale’s Geek Girl.

Sophie has been filling the Supernatural summer hiatus by working through some books on the show. She found Fangasm: Supernatural Fangirls by Katherine Larsen and Lynn Zubernis a fascinating and resonating read (look for a fuller review soon here) and also enjoyed the first official graphic novel from the series, Supernatural Origins, which tells the story of the first weeks of John Winchester’s change from average guy mechanic to hunter. The story gave her a fuller appreciation for the tough decisions John had to make in those early days, however the latter half of the book turned into something more akin to a Sandman story and didn’t feel as in-keeping with the Supernatural verse.

Sophie has also been slowly making her way through Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go which is a slow going if beautifully rendered story with the ability to really make you feel a part of the world created within its pages. She has just begun Charles Soule’s graphic novel Letter 44 where a newly inaugurated U.S. president learns the truth about aliens and what we’re doing to defend ourselves from them, a common enough trope given a new twist here. She found it refreshing to see a female captain aboard the spaceship, especially one that is pregnant—an outcome of long term space missions she had yet to see covered in comics.

Finally Sophie has been somewhat taken aback by her four-year-old son’s interest in the David Chauvel and Enrique Fernandez graphic novel adaptation of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. The book has taken well over a week to read yet his interest has been maintained despite the strange and often distorted illustrations.

A Simple Murder © Minotaur Books
A Simple Murder © Minotaur Books

Rebecca Angel just finished A Simple Murder by Eleanor Kuhns. Set right after the Revolutionary War in New England, nothing is simple about this one, with bodies being found, people and horses going missing, unexpected romance, and a father trying to understand his son. Our hero/detective is William Rees, and he’s not an official detective, but very good at figuring these sorts of things out. This time, the murders take place on a Shaker community, bringing discord to the brethren of what is supposed to be a peaceful society. Good book!

Copies of some books provided for review purposes.

Late to the Game: Carcassonne

Carcassonne © Z-Man Games/Coding Monkeys
Carcassonne © Z-Man Games/Coding Monkeys

One of four games described by Tabletop host Wil Wheaton as the “pillars of classic European-style board games,” Carcassonne is a modern classic released back in 2000. The aim of the game is to collect points while building towns, monasteries, roads, and farms in the French countryside. It is a simple game to introduce with a wide and varied range of available expansions, the first of which (“The River”) is generally packaged with the base game. Carcassonne is now also available as an app for iOS and Android, so I took a look at both to compare their pros and cons.

Carcassonne © Z-Man Games/Coding Monkeys
Carcassonne © Z-Man Games/Coding Monkeys

The App Game

1. For those new to the game, a tutorial mode teaches you how to play. Newbies might also benefit from the ability to switch off fields/farming (Carcassonne‘s most complex scoring mechanic) at least for their first few games.

2. The app keeps track of the remaining tiles. This not only means that you get a handy countdown in the corner that lets you know just how many tiles are left in the virtual stack, but it also introduces another useful feature. Because the game knows exactly which tiles are remaining in the stack, when you place your current tile on the table, it automatically looks at the layout. If you have created a space in which no remaining tile can possibly be played, an X is scratched into the table surface. This happens before you commit to laying down your tile, so you can see if, for example, placing that tile will mean a city can never be completed and choose to place it elsewhere. If you’d rather play without this feature, it can be switched off.

3. The app also shows you all of your options for placing a tile by shading each available location. This makes it much faster to check your possibilities on a large map, rather than spending time figuring out where you can play on this turn.

4. When placing tiles, the app shows you the different options you have for placing meeples. This stops farmers accidentally being placed in occupied fields where boundaries are difficult to follow.

5. One of the biggest headaches of Carcassonne comes at the very end of the game, when farmers are being counted. Working out the boundaries of each farm can be very time-consuming, depending on the layout of the final “board.” The app automatically calculates the value of each farm, including splitting points when multiple farmers share fields.

6. The app has several modes to play. You can choose to play against computer opponents who vary in difficulty and tactics, or you can go online and play against friends or complete strangers. There’s always someone to play against, even if it’s only a bot.

7. The app also introduces a brand-new game-play mode: Solitaire. Unlike traditional Carcassonne, the Solitaire variant asks you to build a settlement on a budget of 1,000 victory points. The settlement must have cities and roads in every size, from two to six tiles, built in consecutive order. Placing tiles costs points based on their location.

8. One of the biggest bonuses to the app is its price. The basic game costs $9.99/£6.99, with expansions ranging from $0.99/69p to  $1.99/£1.49. Meanwhile, the physical base game stands at $25/£20, with expansions costing around $15/£13 each.

1. By the end of the game, Carcassonne can become a sprawling mass of tiles. Because of the limited screen size (and shape), this means it’s difficult to see the whole “board” at once, which can lead to either a lot of scrolling or reducing the tiles down to microscopic size. This is especially true when playing on an iPhone or iTouch.

2. There are significantly fewer expansions available than for the board game. However, the numbers are rapidly increasing (a new expansion—“The Phantom”—was launched just a few days ago), meaning this could soon become a moot point.

Carcassonne Board Game © Z-Man Games
Carcassonne board game © Z-Man Games

The Tabletop/Board Game

1. The board game generally comes with “The River” expansion as part of the standard base game (it is a paid expansion on the app), meaning instant variety is included for your first purchase.

2. The range of expansions is much wider: bridges, princesses and dragons, inns, abbeys, traders, and more are all available to turn your Carcassonne from a small settlement to a mighty civilization.

3. Playing on a tabletop makes it much easier to see entire board at once.

4. The big draw of a physical game is the ability to play with a group of friends; it’s kind of what the whole resurgence of tabletop gaming is about, after all. Taking the game along to play with friends and family or to public gaming days allows you to connect with people in a way an app never could.

1. The biggest issue with the tabletop game is simply its cost. At more than double the cost of the app for the base game and with some expansions costing over seven times more in physical form than as in-app purchases, it is difficult to justify the additional cost—especially for those of us on a budget. There is also the issue of storage, a pain known well to those of us with large board game collections and small houses.

2. As much as the nature of a tabletop game lends itself to community and playing with others, for those of us who live apart from friends and family, this can be a drawback, meaning we can only play on rare occasions.


As usual, there is no “best” option because different options will suit different people best. With a much cheaper price tag, a flexible range of options to change your game-play depending on how you want to play, and simplified game-play, the app is a robust addition to your app library.  Indeed Carcassonne is a rare case where the benefits of the app vastly outnumber those of the physical game. However, there will be many cases where the physical game is a better option, especially for those who play regularly in groups. Hopefully, this will help you decide which option is best for you.

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