Practical Fun: Spelling Apps For New Spellers

Spelling Apps © Artgig Apps/KeyStageFun (Fair Use)
Spelling apps © Artgig Apps/KeyStageFun.

In the last few months, my 5-year-old son is now being taught spelling at school. As a result, I have been on the lookout for anything that will help him. One of the solutions I settled on quickly was using iPad apps.

Since we began using the iPad for spelling practice, his spelling has improved greatly, but much more importantly, his eagerness and enthusiasm about practicing spelling has improved too. Rather than battling to get a single practice in each night, not to mention the constant battle to find a scrap of paper and a single working pen despite the fact I had 50 of the darned things overflowing from a drawer last week, now I find him practicing spelling without even being asked—or choosing to go back over a few previous tests after completing his current one.

I wanted to share two great spelling apps with other parents who are in the same boat.

Continue reading Practical Fun: Spelling Apps For New Spellers

Between the Bookends: May 2015

Bookends © Sophie Brown
Bookends © Sophie Brown

This merry month of May the GeekMoms have been stuck on Mars, trapped in a strange town, debating the merits of STEM and creativity in our schools, and solving puzzles in a future dystopia. Check out our reading lists as we get ready for the summer.

Continue reading Between the Bookends: May 2015

Review: ‘The Fangirl’s Guide to The Galaxy’

The Fangirl's Guide to The Galaxy © Quirk Books (Fair Use)
The Fangirl’s Guide to The Galaxy © Quirk Books (Fair Use)

There are some books whose titles that don’t just grab your attention, they leap up and lock your attention in a choke hold until you start reading them. The Fangirl’s Guide to The Galaxy by Sam Maggs, released yesterday, is one of those titles. The second I spotted the book, and its amazing cover, I knew I had to read it right then and there.

Continue reading Review: ‘The Fangirl’s Guide to The Galaxy’

Interview: Sam Maggs’ Guide to the Fangirl Galaxy

The Fangirl's Guide to The Galaxy © Quirk Books (Fair Use)
The Fangirl’s Guide to The Galaxy © Quirk Books (Fair Use)

Tomorrow Quirk book releases The Fangirl’s Guide to The Galaxy: a “fun and feminist girl-power guide to the geek galaxy” written by The Mary Sue associate editor Sam Maggs. I spoke to Sam about her experiences growing up as a “fangirl”, learning to approach media critically, and her hopes for the next generation of geek girls.

GeekMom: At what age did you first realise you were a fangirl? Can you describe that moment?
Sam Maggs: My parents both saw the first Star Wars film over twenty times in theaters, so I was pretty much destined to be a fangirl from the start. But my first foray into fandom was my obsession with Stargate SG-1, which I discovered when I was about twelve years old. Seeing a woman like Sam Carter on-screen, someone who could kick ass but was also an astrophysicist, was huge to me.

Sam Maggs © Sam Maggs Website (Used With Permission)
Sam Maggs © Sam Maggs Website (Used With Permission)

GM: What are some of your earliest memories that you look back on and think “only a geeky kid would have done that”?
Sam: The hours upon hours I spent in my basement on my computer reading Stargate and West Wing fanfic instead of making friends, for sure. I was also the head of my elementary school’s Library Club.

GM: How has being a fangirl changed for you as you’ve grown up?
Sam: Fandom has become more and more inclusive for women, so I’ve been able to meet so many ladies online, through social media, that I admire and am now friends with. There’s also so much more merchandise for girls now, so I can express my fandom that way too!

GM: In the book you discuss many different fandoms; do you consider yourself a part of any in particular? If so which ones and are there any fandoms you have left behind?
Sam: I’m definitely a huge fan of Harry Potter, Tamora Pierce novels, Mass Effect, and Marvel comics. The Stargate fandom has died down over the years, but I would still consider myself a part of it. I had a Twilight phase for a while there, but who didn’t?

GM: You also share a great list of female role models from different kinds of geeky media. Who were your role models when you were growing up?
Sam: I mentioned Sam Carter earlier, but Hermione was also big in getting me to accept my nerdy side and realize that it could be an asset, and wasn’t something to be ashamed of. Tamora Pierce’s Song of the Lioness and The Immortals quartet featured Alanna and Daine, two kick-butt heroines I still adore.

Cover of The Fangirl's Guide to The Galaxy © Quirk (Fair Use)
Cover of The Fangirl’s Guide to The Galaxy © Quirk (Fair Use)

GM: Who do you hope is going to pick up this book and read it? What do you hope they get from it?
Sam: I hope that everyone can get something out of this book! For girls new to fandom, it might be a good primer; for veteran fangirls, you might find some new tips and tricks about cons or trolls or a new video game to pick up. I’d even recommend it for allies to see what it’s like to be a girl in fandom.

GM: What geeky events/moments would you like to share with the next generation of fangirls?
Sam: I can’t wait to see more ladies at conventions! They’re so much fun and I just want everyone to be able to go to one!

GM: Do you feel that being a critical consumer is a necessary part of being a fangirl today, or is it possible to just enjoy a fandom without engaging in those debates?
Sam: I think it’s important to remember that you can be a fan of something even if you realize that it’s problematic. But representation for women and minorities will never change unless we speak up about what we take issue with, so it’s definitely important to engage with media on a critical level to realize what you’re taking in and how it influences your views on gender and society.

But you can still like something even if it has issues!

GM: Do you feel that the convention scene has shifted in the last few years, especially for women? Where would you like it to go?
Sam: It definitely has – con attendees are now nearly 50% women across the board. I would love to see more booths and panels catered specifically towards women – ECCC and C2E2 in particular are already doing a great job of this.

GM: Turning the tables from the interviews you did in the book: what does the word “fangirl” mean to you?
Sam: It means loving something passionately and without embarrassment. It means the things you love have changed your life for the better.

GM: How has being a geek positively influenced your life?
Sam: It’s basically given me everything – my career, my friends, my partner. I’m so grateful that I’ve been able to make my fangirliness into a career, because I love sharing the things about which I’m passionate with other ladies. Plus, with the advent of social media, I was able to meet so many amazing people through our shared interests that I never would have met otherwise, including my partner! I’m very grateful.

GM: If you could give geek girls advice for their careers or personal lives, what would it be?
Sam: Be yourself. Don’t be afraid to love what you love and to be who you are. If the people around you don’t like it, there are a million other people out there who will.

Many thanks to Sam for her time. Look out for our review of The Fangirl’s Guide to the Galaxy later this week.

Between The Bookends: April 2015

Bookends © Sophie Brown
Bookends © Sophie Brown

The GeekMoms have taken advantage of Spring Breaks and Easter holidays to get some reading in. This month their selections include math in The Simpsons, a mysterious town in Idaho, YA science fiction, and a teenage girl from Japan determined to chronicle the life of her great gandmother.

Continue reading Between The Bookends: April 2015

GeekMom Approved Reads for Surviving a ‘Sleepy Hollow’ Hiatus

Sleepy Hollow © Boom Studios
Sleepy Hollow © Boom Studios

It’s been six weeks since the Sleepy Hollow hiatus began, and if you’re anything like me you’re really starting to miss the weekly adventures of Abbie, Ichabod, Jenny, Frank, and the other inhabitants of the little New York town. I’ve been reading my way through the various Sleepy Hollow publications on offer to see which are worth reading over the summer. Continue reading GeekMom Approved Reads for Surviving a ‘Sleepy Hollow’ Hiatus

‘The X-Files’ is Coming Back: Here’s What You Need to Know

What’s actually happened?
Rumors have been flying regarding a return for The X-Files for several months now. Here’s what’s official. Today Variety announced that a six episode “event series” has been greenlit by FOX with production set to begin this summer.

This is a revival of the show and not a reboot, meaning stars Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny are set to return, as is series creator Chris Carter.

Why bring it back?
It’s been 13 years since the show went off air with a feature film (I Want to Believe) released in 2008, so why bring it back now?

The original TV run left a lot of questions unanswered, specifically regarding the show’s overall alien invasion mytharc. The 2008 film was a standalone story that didn’t serve to answer those questions and fans have been clamouring ever since for a third film or return from the show to finally tie up all the loose ends.

I haven’t watched The X-Files in years. What do I need to watch to get ready?
The show is currently on both Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime (for those in the US), but with 202 episodes and two films to get through, that’s a big ask even without knowing when the show is returning to screens. For those looking to catch up reasonably quickly it’s best to stick to the mythology episodes.

My recommendation would be:

S1: “Pilot”, “E.B.E.”, “The Erlenmeyer Flask”
S2: “Duane Barry”/”Ascension”/”One Breath”, “Colony”/”End Game”, “Anasazi”
S3: “The Blessing Way”/”Paper Clip”, “Nisei”/”731”, “Piper Maru”/”Apocrypha”, “Talitha Cumi”
S4: “Herrenvolk”, “Tunguska”/”Terma”, “Memento Mori”, “Gethsemane”
S5: “Redux”/”Redux II”, “Christmas Carol”/”Emily”, “Patient X”/”The Red & The Black”, “The End”
Fight the Future
S6: “The Beginning”, “Two Fathers”/”One Son”, “Biogenesis”
S7: “The Sixth Extinction”/”Amor Fati”, “Sein Und Zeit”/”Closure”, “Requiem”
S8: “Within”/”Without”, “Per Manum”, “This Is Not Happening”/”Deadalive”, “Essence”/”Existence”
S9: “Nothing Important Happened Today” 1 and 2, “Trust No 1”, “Provenance”/”Providence”, “Jump the Shark”, “William”, “The Truth” 1 and 2

It’s still a huge list but it’s more manageable than all 200 plus!

Isn’t there a comic series?
Season 10 is an ongoing comic book series written by Joe Harris set several years after the events of the second movie, which places it in 2014/5. We’re not sure yet how the comic book stories will tie in with the new TV episodes or how canon those events will be, but with Chris Carter as Executive Producer on both the TV revival and the comics we’re sure all will be revealed.

IDW currently has the comics books on sale if you want to catch up.

We know Mulder and Scully are back, what about everyone else?
(SPOILERS) When the show ended in 2002 several major characters had been killed off, including the Cigarette Smoking Man and The Lone Gunmen. The Season 10 comics have revived the Gunmen completely while the status of the Smoking Man, Krycek, and several other shadowy characters in up for debate.

Rumor has it that Mitch Pileggi has been approached about reprising his role as Walter Skinner, and the Season 10 comics have included agents Doggett and Reyes, so there’s a chance both will return, assuming of course that shooting can be arranged around Robert Patrick and Annabeth Gish’s busy schedules.

Where can I find out more?
To keep up with the latest keep an eye on the new official website from Fox and on X-Files News.com.

Top Image © Fox

GeekMom Fashion Inspiration: Jemma Simmons

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

Jemma Simmons has a style that combines practical geek with feminine. Her wardrobe is full of cute pieces that emphasize her “nice girl” demeanor, especially when contrasted with the black and leather in the outfits worn by Skye and May.

Continue reading GeekMom Fashion Inspiration: Jemma Simmons

Between the Bookends: March 2015

Bookends © Sophie Brown
Bookends © Sophie Brown

As we sprung forward and lost a precious hour of sleep, the GeekMoms still found time to cram in plenty of reading. This month’s selection includes demonic advice, a future British dystopia, and dinosaur sex–just thankfully not all at once! Read on to delve deeper into what we’ve been reading.

Continue reading Between the Bookends: March 2015

GeekMom Fashion Inspiration: Abigail Mills

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

Lieutenant Abigail Mills from Fox Network’s Sleepy Hollow is one of the toughest cops on television; and her wardrobe reflects that. Abbie’s clothing is all about practicality and comfort, after all, you can’t go chasing down demons, witches, and monsters in stiletto heels and party dresses. Her simple style makes her easy to emulate and it’s a look that can be adapted to suit anyone.

Abigail Mills © Sophie Brown via Polyvore
Abigail Mills © Sophie Brown via Polyvore

Neutrals: Abbie sticks almost exclusively to neutral shades in her clothing which serves to compliment both her stunning skin tone and hair color. Neutrals are great because they can be worn by everyone and are nearly always flattering (there’s a reason why every woman owns a basic black dress). Stick with greys, blacks, browns, and perhaps a touch of navy blue and you’re halfway to achieving Abbie’s look.

V-Necks: Another staple of Abbie’s wardrobe is the v-neck t-shirt. Wear one with a plain vest top in a contrasting shade underneath for instant layers. This technique is also great for adding some extra warmth to your outfit without adding bulk if you’re in a cold climate.

Boots: I love Abbie’s choice of footwear. How many female law enforcement agents do you see on TV wearing ludicrously impractical heels (I’m looking at you Kate Beckett). Not so Abbie; she sticks with comfy, practical short boots that are just as great for running away from demons as they are for kicking some serious butt.

Promo Shot  of Abbie with Ichabod on Sleepy Hollow © Fox (Fair Use)
Promo Shot of Abbie with Ichabod on Sleepy Hollow © Fox (Fair Use)

Skinny Jeans: Nothing goes with boots quite like a good pair of skinny jeans. Try to find the time to shop around for your jeans (yeah I know, I hate clothes shopping too) but the range of cuts and styles that make it so damn annoying also increases the likelihood that at least some will look amazing on you. BuzzFeed recently ran a feature where one of its female contributors tried on 10 different pairs of jeans that all claimed to be the same size. The variety of results she came up with was mind-boggling; just keep that in mind when one store claims you are two sizes larger than what you thought.

Jackets: Abbie has a number of different jackets but she always sticks to shorter lengths that end around her hips. Most of her jackets are leather, usually in either brown or tan, however she does have a few more distinctive ones including some designs with contrasting sleeves in a different color and/or fabric. A leather jacket in a style that suits you is one of my basic wardrobe essentials because they go with so much and work through much of the year.

Accessories and Make Up: Abbie usually keeps the accessories to a minimum–she’s all about practicality–but one item we have seen her don is her military style cap. It’s a less common style than the broadly similar baseball cap (more hipster-y beret) but once again it’s a practical choice. Abbie’s makeup is always very natural, almost to the point of barely being able to tell she’s wearing any. She uses a soft pink lipstick and natural or nude shades of eye-shadow to keep with the neutral look.

BONUS: Jenny Mills
Abbie’s sister Jenny wears many of the same fashions as her sister (neutral tones, skinny jeans and boots). However, there is one thing that makes her unique: her shoulders. Nearly all Jenny’s outfits draw attention to her shoulders in some way. Examples include sleeveless tshirts that cut off across the shoulder line and military style vest tops. Jenny also favours hoodies over her sister’s short jackets.

My (Newly Updated) Most Tear-Jerking Moments in Geekdom

My Tear Jerkers © Sophie Brown
My tearjerkers © Sophie Brown.

Back in my early days at GeekMom in 2011, I wrote a post listing My Top Ten Tear-Jerking Moments in Science Fiction. Since then, I’ve watched lots of new TV shows and movies—some of it sci-fi, some of it not (my original list includes entries that are closer to fantasy than true sci-fi and so does this one)—and so I felt that my list was due for an update. Here then are nine new additions to my list. Some are rather old to the world, but they’ve been new to me in the past four years and they have all made me cry.

BEWARE: Spoilers abound from the beginning—and make sure you have tissues in hand.

Fringe – “Peter”
In the latest addition to my list (I only watched this episode for the first time this week), Walter recounts the events of his son’s death in 1985 and his subsequent actions to Olivia. This episode creates my own personal “perfect storm” of things guaranteed to reduce me to an emotional wreck: sick children, dying children, mothers losing their children, and the subject of these events being boys—I only have a son, so anything to do with boys seems to affect me disproportionately. By the end of those 42 minutes, I was effectively one giant ball of emotion and I’m still not quite fully recovered.

Coulson Avengers Poster © Marvel
Coulson Avengers poster © Marvel.

Marvel’s The Avengers
Do I even need to say it? It’s been three years, I’ve even had Coulson given back to me, and yet I still haven’t forgiven Joss Whedon for what I went through in that cinema. The worst part wasn’t seeing him stabbed (although that physically hurt), but watching the reactions of each Avenger as they learn about his death over the comm. A group of “extraordinary people” temporarily incapacitated by the death of one very ordinary man.

Supernatural – “The Man Who Would Be King”
I could very easily make an entire list of sad moments just from Supernatural—and it wouldn’t be a short list, either. The show is probably one of the most consistently heartbreaking things on TV that has nothing to do with Joss Whedon. Most lists I’ve seen out there focus on Sam and Dean moments, but my personal choice is all about Castiel. After an entire episode focused on the (frequently wrong) choices he has been making, Castiel pleads to his father (God, for those of you unaware that Castiel is an angel) to offer him guidance and give him a sign that he is “on the right path.” His face when he is met by nothing but silence is heartbreaking.

Guardians of The Galaxy
I’ve seen this film several times now and yet somehow, I always forget about its opening. I think perhaps it’s just so painful that I block it out. Actually, it seems to be some kind of collective block on the part of all geeks. Google “Guardians of The Galaxy Opening Scene,” and you’ll see almost nothing but references to the scene that comes after this one. You know, the funny one with the dancing and the “microphone” made from a space rat? However, we must all be forced to accept that the film actually opens on Earth in 1988, where a young Peter Quill visits his dying mother in hospital. The desperate way he clutches at her hand and realizes it’s too late breaks me every time.

Aaron Ashmore as Steve Jinks © SyFy
Aaron Ashmore as Steve Jinks © SyFy.

Warehouse 13 – “Emily Lake”
This entire episode is a roller-coaster, with the discovery that Jinks has been working undercover and was not the traitor we worried he was. That relief was, of course, short-lived. The worst part about the scene where his body was discovered wasn’t actually the moment we saw it, but normally laugh-a-minute Pete’s futile attempt to act like nothing is wrong as he asks, then begs Claudia not to go into the room. There’s a lot that could be said about how the show’s only canonically gay character (Helena is bi) was the one killed off. However, in this instance, I’m merely acknowledging those issues because Jinks was fully resurrected shortly afterwards. Somehow, however, even that knowledge doesn’t lessen the impact of that scene.

Zombieland
For the most part, Zombieland is a comedy about Twinkies, Bill Murray, and “The Rules,” but underneath that it’s really a story about family. We spend most of the film believing that tough-guy Tallahassee misses his dog, but over a game of Monopoly one word gives away to everyone, us included, that he has actually been talking about his young son. We see him break down and get a series of flashbacks to a younger, happier man with his adorable toddler. The scene gets some added emotional weight due to how unexpected it is, both in its placement within the story and that it shows the most “macho” tough character unashamedly crying in front of the others.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. – “The Magical Place”
Agent Coulson should probably get some sort of award for being the only character to make it onto my list twice. As for Whedon… *Ahem* After his untimely death, Coulson made his reappearance on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., bringing with him a whole lot of questions about, well, just how it was that he was even breathing. In this episode, we saw him undergo a procedure to help him remember his resurrection and the results are agonizing for both him and the viewer.

Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows Part Two © WB
Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows Part Two © WB.

Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows: Part Two
There are countless moments in this film that made me cry: Snape discovering Lily’s body, Hedwig’s death, the Weasley’s clinging to one another around Fred. But the one that really did me in was Harry speaking to his parents in the forest. Perhaps it’s because I lost a parent at a very young age, but the thought of his being able to speak with some version of them, even if they are little more than shadows, brings me to tears. Tears which peak when he asks that most childish question but one every adult still wants answered, “Does it hurt?”

Twin Peaks – “Arbitrary Law”
In this episode, Laura Palmer’s killer was revealed in the form of the entity BOB, who resided within her father. In this heartbreaking scene, BOB forces his host to violently slam his head into a door, resulting in fatal trauma. As Leland dies, BOB’s spirit leaves him and he finally realizes what he did, begging forgiveness from God, Laura, and the men around him. Knowing that Leland himself isn’t really to blame, Cooper talks him “into the light” and allows him to find peace.

What have you watched lately that’s brought you to tears?

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 © jimbutcher.net
Changes © jimbutcher.net

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 xkcd.com. 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=”http://www.playbuzz.com/geekmom11/geekmom-tabletop-quiz”]

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 Tor.com. 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.