Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Book Review - Artemis Fowl, by Eoin Colfer

It’s been kind of amazing seeing the scramble to find the next Harry Potter. The Artemis Fowl series is one of the contenders I’ve heard bandied about, especially since there’s been talk of a movie being made. I was hesitant to pick up another pretender to the throne, especially considering the bile that rises in my throat every time someone compares Twilight to Harry Potter, or the fun-but-not-quite-my-speed experience that was the first Septimus Heap book. I finally read Artemis Fowl after snapping up an electronic version for free, and while I definitely liked it, I don’t know if I loved it.

The premise of the book, generally speaking, is fantastic. Artemis Fowl is the archetypical precocious boy genius, yes. But he also happens to be a criminal mastermind. With his father missing and his mother caught in a rapidly degenerating mental fugue, Fowl is in a state of desperation. He hatches an outlandish plan to return his fallen family to their former glory, and it involves the People (who humans have always known as fairies, trolls, leprechauns, and other figments of tall tales and dreams). Through trickery and bribery, Fowl manages to get his hands on a copy of The Book, which outlines the rules of fairy magic down to the smallest detail. Armed with forbidden knowledge, Fowl sets upon achieving something that no human has ever done before: to kidnap a fairy, and successfully walk away with a fortune in fairy gold as ransom.

The fact that the story’s protagonist is also the villain excites me to levels that I can’t quite put words to, as I’ve always been partial to villains. A good villain is good because they have motives and rationales that justify their heinous acts, and Fowl is no exception. Ostensibly, Fowl is attempting to replenish his family’s fortune, and re-establish the notoriety of its name. However, he is also a 12-year-old boy who misses his dad and wants his mom to be well, and that lies at the heart of everything he does. It makes for a great character, especially for teen lit. The fact that Fowl is the antagonist splits up the narrative in a strange way, but the multiple “heroes” in the book complement each other quite nicely. In fact, the characters are the best thing about this book, with each being distinct and likeable in their own way, even when they occasionally seem somewhat two-dimensional.

And that’s the crux of the book’s weak point: everything feels a little gimmicky. From the improbable grandiosity of the power and history of Artemis Fowl’s family to the complex dei ex machina of fairy magic/technology, everything in the book veers a little too much towards the witty and clever to be taken very seriously. Consistency takes a back seat to “isn’t that cool,” for the most part. Which is not to say that anything egregiously bad is going on; Artemis Fowl is highly readable, and I was especially taken by the first half of the book. But the story and its mythology, for all of the loving detail, is not very deep.

In fact, this is very much a book for teens and older kids, and is likely to lose older readers that are hunting for that magic YA Crossover effect. Poop humor abounds. Between that, the melodramatic dialogue, and a liberal sprinkling of James Bond-style action and gadgetry, I began to sense a very definite audience that I think might not include me. The last half of the story is much slower than the first half, too; the fairies use a “time-stop” at the beginning of the book’s third act, and I think it might have worked on me, too, because the pace seemed to slow to a crawl as I approached the book’s climax.

As a quick aside, I’ve seen more than one reader review that lambastes the book (in all seriousness!) for its “anti-human agenda” and its “environmentalist propaganda.” Really? I mean... honestly? Huh. Well, I don’t know if those reviewers intended to give such a revealing peek into their own psyches, but it sure goes a long way to explain why trying to discuss politics with anybody these days feels to me like repeatedly punching myself in the eye socket. Suffice it to say that, as with any story that involves nature-attuned spirits who live in the earth, Artemis Fowl has an undercurrent of environmentalism. However, Colfer handles this deftly, with no unnecessary moralizing other than the expressed prejudices of the fairies, and no hint of “teaching a lesson” to be found anywhere. Action is the name of the game in this book, and some of the characters (Holly Short and Butler, specifically) are quite fun to read in this regard.

So, no, not the next Harry Potter. In a rare reversal of how things usually go for me, I loved this one in the beginning, and then the magic started to wear off a little as I approached the end. But I’d still give this one a solid recommendation for fantasy fans who aren't picky about reading something meant for younger readers, and it’s a definite must-read for teens who like action, magic, and series books. It has its problems, but Artemis Fowl is definitely a fun read, and I liked it just enough to try out the next book when I get a chance.

Verdict: 3 / 5

Friday, May 20, 2011

Graphic Novel Review: The Guild, by Felicia Day and Jim Rugg

After a protracted spell of buying any and all graphic novels I could get my hands on for the past seven months, I’ve finally come to my senses a little bit. I now try to stick to large collections and long one-off stories, and refrain from investing in graphic novels that are under 150 pages or so unless I know I want to own it. This one falls into that latter category. I’m enough of a fan of the web series that I ordered this graphic novel simply out of loyalty. I figured it would be an extra goodie for existing fans of the Guild (and it definitely is), but this svelte three-chapter story has a fair amount of mainstream appeal, as well.

This is essentially a prequel to the first season of The Guild. It’s Cyd Sherman’s backstory; the few throwaway lines that hint at her pre-Codex days in the show are explored in full detail, here. The first chapter covers her somewhat labored relationship with her then-boyfriend and her job as a professional symphonic musician. When she discovers “The Game,” the story veers towards a surprisingly deep exploration of the balance between confronting your problems and using escapism to hide from them. Finally, the third chapter sets the stage for the characters we know and love from the web series.

Felicia Day, the creator and star of the series, also wrote this book, and it definitely shows. The graphic novel has all of the humor and charm of the series, and I could practically hear the familiar voices of the characters. In fact, I’d argue that the graphic novel is the perfect introduction to the series, and not just because it is a chronological prequel. There is plenty of video game stuff in the story, but it’s all rudimentary; the reader is learning about The Game at the same time Cyd is. Thus, the story offers a gentle learning curve into the lingo-heavy world of playing MMORPGs, and since the jokes are more centered on the real world than the game world, the less-nerdy readers have a chance to develop an appreciation for Codex and The Guild without getting buried by inside jokes.

The only problem I have with the book is with the art. The art isn’t bad, but it isn’t particularly consistent. This is especially apparent due to the different art styles for in-game and real life. When Syd takes on her Codex persona, the story switches to a slick, soft-lit fantasy look, and then returns to hand-drawn normalcy when the computer is off. The game art is actually fantastic, which calls attention to the occasional weird panel in the real-life scenes, usually due to oddly-proportioned bodies or faces. To be fair to Jim Rugg, I’d imagine that doing comic versions of real-life actors contributes to the problem. I’m normally somewhat forgiving of characters looking a little different from panel to panel, but I have a certain expectation of what Felicia Day looks like, so I can’t help but have a split-second “WHAT HAPPENED TO HER FACE?!” reaction if something is a little off on any given page.

Like I said, though, inconsistent doesn’t necessarily mean bad, especially considering that most of the art is great. In any event, the excellent writing makes it easy to forgive and forget. Overall, this is a great graphic novel, and not just for people who are already fans of the show. Comic readers who like video games and/or quirky, realistic characters should give this one a try.

Verdict: 4 / 5

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Book Review - Reality is Broken, by Jane McGonigal

This book floated at the periphery of my awareness for a while, before a television interview finally motivated me to seek it out. McGonigal has an impressive resume: game design lead, TED presenter, admitted gamer, and inexhaustible optimist. It honestly wouldn’t take much to get me to read a book about video games, but McGonigal’s mission to make gaming a socially meaningful exercise (or, at least, to achieve more recognition for its inherent social impact) made me intensely curious. While I’m not quite sure what to think about it now that I’ve finished it, I’m glad I took the time to read it.

McGonigal begins this book on familiar ground: the staggering numbers of hours that a typical gamer spends planted in front of a screen, and the usual wailing and gnashing of teeth that accompanies such figures. Rather than play the same sensationalistic game that many play with that information, though, she springboards into some rather bold assertions. First, she claims that these numbers exist because games are ultimately more rewarding than real life. Further, she insists that the mental energy being expended in game worlds is ripe and waiting to be harnessed to improve society as a whole. At this point, gaming Luddites are cued to scoff, unbelieving. Meanwhile, I and other gamers immediately shudder at the thought of engaging the sociopathic mutants that comprise a wide swath of our fellow players any more than we must. McGonigal’s hypothesis is carefully crafted, though; what follows is an illuminating look into the psychological mechanisms of contentment and happiness, and how close we already are to merging games and social action.

I found the first third of the book to be particularly fascinating, and ironically enough, it only tangentially involved video games. McGonigal cites numerous studies that point to a profound fallacy perpetrated upon us: the notion that we are wired to work only in order to amass the things we need to survive, and that “happiness” as we understand it is found in the rewards we accrue from our work. These studies suggest that it’s the work itself which actually defines our happiness, but with some very specific caveats; namely, the work must be entirely voluntary, the obstacle must be unnecessary to some degree, and the reward must be both explicitly apparent and customized to our particular needs. In short, we are wired to be the most energized and content when we work hard at a task we choose to undertake of our own volition, and can see the direct results of that work. This idea is the backbone of the book's thesis, which is that we spend so much time playing video games because the games are magnitudes better at delivering this kind of happiness than our real lives. Life is too often filled with work we are compelled to do in order to fulfill someone else’s goals, with no appreciable reward or positive impact other than the ability to pay our bills (and, of course, buy a new video game).

That’s a weighty and interesting notion, and it carries the whole book through some rather high-minded suggestions and improbable scenarios. McGonigal is an avowed futurist who works in the business of alternate reality games, and thus has a lot to say about how games can be leveraged to do things like promote happiness, collaboration, and social action. She gives plenty of concrete examples, many of which are interesting in their own right, and is careful to acknowledge that games like these are still on the fringe of gaming consciousness and highly experimental in nature. But she uses their various successes to weave together a path to what she believes to be the destiny of gaming: the application of the contentment and flow of gaming to fixing problems in the real world.

Thankfully, she has no illusions about how improbable such a thing is; in fact, it’s quite clear that the skepticism she gets in response to her goal of a game designer winning a Nobel Prize only goads her on further. McGonigal is endlessly upbeat about the positive power of gaming, which is initially compelling, and makes it hard to dismiss the optimistic visions she describes (especially considering the evidence she provides along with them). But I have to say, all of that optimism started to grate on me after a while. Part of that may be that I am a longtime gamer and this book is geared towards those who aren’t gamers at all, necessarily, so I got fed up with the novelty of gaming terms like “epic win” rather quickly.

But a larger problem I had was that the optimism wasn’t balanced out by the healthy dose of realism it needs. I have no doubt that McGonigal is realistic about the work she does, considering that she is a gamer herself and is immersed in it within her professional life, so I’m forced to wonder at the odd omissions in this book. No mention of gaming addiction, for instance, or of professional gaming. There's a cursory mention of how "playing games" is typically used as a derogatory phrase, but no acknowledgement of how game theory is behind zero-sum mayhem in everything from relationships to international politics. She mentions Xbox Live in passing and I assume she’s used the service before, but I wonder at how her experience can differ so radically with mine. I have my online friends, and enjoy myself online, but the shining moments of collaboration, bridging the geographical gap between me and my erstwhile companions, applying our natural talents to overcome obstacles in a brilliant starburst of pride and goodwill? That is not my normal experience. My normal experience is having someone go on a headset tirade and/or send me a message that consists largely of the word “fag,” followed by a ragequit if I happen to be winning. I’m willing to bet that is the normal experience for most other players, too.

But again, this is probably due to the book being meant for an audience that is as inclusive as possible, and focusing on the stereotype that many people have about gamers (which is not entirely without merit) would only get in the way of McGonigal’s message. I was initially confused about the lack of any mention of I Love Bees, an alternate reality game that McGonigal helped design for the release of Halo 2, since it is arguably the most mainstream example of a collaborative ARG. There is an entire chapter on the gargantuan reach and mighty gaming achievements of the Halo community; was it not socially conscious enough, I wondered, to mention the vast storytelling effort that was related to that community but was first and foremost a marketing tool? Then I did some research and found that she had written an academic paper solely on I Love Bees, at a level far beyond what the casual reader or nongamer would have any interest in absorbing. Meanwhile, the Olympics ARG makes the cut for the book, since everyone knows about the Olympics.

There were moments when I started to tune out a little, but the overarching idea of this book is fascinating. Like many, I can’t help but be somewhat skeptical, especially at the end when we start looking at global “games” and the line between game-playing and scenario analysis becomes so blurred as to be nonexistent. But the force of McGonigal’s enthusiasm is hard to ignore, and I can’t help but be a little excited at the prospect of her best-case scenario. I would recommend this book to anyone who wants a fresh perspective on gaming, or anyone who wants to get to the root of “gamer guilt” and reconcile their hobby with their desire to do something meaningful with their time. Video games aside, though, this is worth reading just for the interesting stuff at the beginning about how we react to immediate feedback and the difference between working for external and intrinsic rewards. There’s some stuff to nitpick at, and I actually didn’t love it as much as I thought I would, but this is an interesting read by a smart, dedicated author.

Verdict: 3 / 5

Friday, May 6, 2011

Teen Booklist - Music in the Pages

Teen Read Week takes place in October, and last year's theme was "Books with Beat." Being a musician myself, I love the idea of creating a list of books that feature music as the main element and unifying theme. I found myself unable to participate, however; it turned out that my son was born on the first day of that week, so I was understandably doing other things at the time.

I resurrected the idea for April, which is National Poetry Month. I firmly believe that music, be it melodic or lyrical, perfectly fits the criteria of poetry, despite whatever a pedantic literature major might tell you. Due to the eclectic nature of teen lit and musical tastes, this list has a little bit of everything.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Graphic Novel Review - Batman: The Killing Joke, by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland

Despite the long years of my misspent youth lined with comic books, I've never been a Batman reader. I was an avowed Marvel kid, so the Tim Burton movie was, sadly, my first introduction to the Dark Knight. I wish I had discovered The Killing Joke back then, because after reading the recently released hardcover edition of this graphic novel, I kind of want to get into the series.

This is the quintessential Joker tale; in fact, I had read that Heath Ledger was given a copy of this story to prepare for his brilliant turn as the Joker in "The Dark Knight," and that movie has this story's "One Bad Day" theme written all over it as a result. The story opens with Batman paying the Joker a call at Arkham, intent on talking things through with him and ending their rivalry once and for all, before one of them is forced to kill the other. Too late, he realizes that Joker has already escaped. Meanwhile, Joker unexpectedly shows up at the home of Commissioner Gordon, abducting him and critically wounding his daughter in the process. Joker then sets his plan into motion: he attempts to drive Gordon insane, for no discernible reason other than that he can. He's also sent Batman an invitation to his impromptu carnival, intent on having a talk of his own.

In the deluxe version, the story has been recolored with artist Brian Bolland's original intended colors, and the effect is striking. The muted colors are perfect for the tone of the story. The black-and-white flashbacks are particularly good, especially considering the deepening notes of crimson that thread through them and lead towards the Joker's destiny (or one version of it, anyway). Colors aside, the artwork is spectacular. The two panels of the Joker with a gun (particularly the second) will stay with me for a while.

The story is as dark and brilliant as you would expect something of Alan Moore's to be. This is a fantastically creepy Joker: sadistic, dangerously insane, and weirdly tragic. The ending is deliciously ambiguous, and haunting on a number of levels, including the various interpretations of the actual joke itself. The only weakness I can see springs from Moore's strength as a storyteller. The Killing Joke could easily be twice as long. We could get so much deeper into this story, and still not lose any of its power. It felt too short. Thankfully, the deluxe edition includes an interesting but somewhat disturbing original story by Bolland that doesn't really stand on its own, but does offer a nice coda to Moore's story.

This is comic book canon. Anybody interested in comics or graphic novels should read this, and it's a shame I waited so long to do it. Also, anybody who likes the new Batman movies, particularly Ledger's Joker, should read this and see where that character came from.

Verdict: 4 / 5