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Captain America: Civil War

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Captain America: Civil War was probably my most anticipated Marvel movie ever.

I mean, that’s not a particularly difficult title to achieve. I only finally saw Guardians of the Galaxy about six months ago, enjoyed Ant Man more than most of their movies, and still haven’t seen the first Captain America, despite watching Agent Carter. But The Winter Soldier was fantastic — when I finally watched it, a year after everyone else — and I couldn’t wait for the clever plotting and high emotional stakes that Civil War promised to provide.

So, does it live up to all that hype and potential? The rest of the world seemed to think so, judging from its score on Rotten Tomatoes, but my response was far more muted. Not “omg best movie ever,” but that solid, “yeah, it was good” feeling you get when you don’t regret seeing a movie, but aren’t exactly going to be thinking about it much once you leave the theatre.

Which is a solid result for a superhero movie, but perhaps not what the movie wanted to be. Unfortunately, Civil War is never quite as philosophically interesting as it aspires to be.

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Wild Swans by Jessica Spotswood

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loved Jessica Spotswood’s historical fantasy series, the Cahill Witch Chronicles, so when I heard that she was releasing her first contemporary, I was desperate to read it, even before I had any idea what it was about.

In Wild Swans, Ivy Milbourne struggles with a family legacy of great talent and great tragedy. Her great great grandmother was a famous portrait painter, but killed herself and two of her daughters when she drove her car in front of a train. Her great grandmother was a Pulitzer prize winning poet, until she was murdered. Her grandmother was a famous artist, until she drowned herself in the bay. Her mother was a talented singer, at least until she ran away when Ivy was a baby. And Ivy… Ivy doesn’t know what she is. She wants to live up to her family legacy, but she’s never discovered any particular talent, and she has no idea what she wants to do with her life.

Wild Swans is a quick read (I devoured it in less than a day), but it’s not a beach read. Two big story threads intersect in the novel. The first is Ivy’s struggle to live up to her grandfather’s expectations, the promise of her family’s legacy, and her struggles with being, as she claims, mediocre. The other involves her mother, who returns to live with Ivy and her grandfather after being out of contact for fifteen years, bringing two younger daughters with her.

Despite that second dramatic set-up, this is mostly a low-key book: family drama in a small town where everyone knows your business, and a rising high-school senior who feels she’ll never live up to expectations. And it’s beautifully written. Sweet and compelling, with emotion that feels real. I noticed sentences because they hit me in the heart, not because I was thinking, “wow, the author really worked hard on that sentence.” After reading a whole bunch of artsy, overwritten YA novels, more concerned with authorial voice than engaging the reader, Wild Swans is like a breath of fresh air. Effortlessly magical.

If I had one complaint about the book, it would be that the mother character felt a little one-dimensional until near the end. She’s incredibly unlikeable, cruel and destructive, and although that’s a valid character choice, there was part of me wanting to see a sympathetic side to her. It shows up eventually, but it’s complicated, and I never felt like I fully understood her perspective.

Another element that might be good or bad, depending on your taste, is that Wild Swans feels like a slice from the character’s lives over a set period of time. They lived their lives before the book began, and they continue afterward. I found the ending satisfying, but it’s not a neat ending, where everything feels tied up or resolved. The characters’ lives continue after the book closes, and many elements of that future remain uncertain. Personally, I liked this about the novel, but I can imagine that others might find it unsatisfying.

But either way, Wild Swans is a fantastic book. Great characters, great writing, and incredibly readable. It’s lowkey, and it’s wonderful. Definitely recommended!

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Entertainment Recs for Anxiety and Depression

One of my biggest struggles is how difficult I sometimes find it to concentrate on stories. When anxiety and depression are bad, we really need the distraction of some good entertainment, but concentrating can just seem to take too much energy and effort, even if it’s just casually watching a TV show.

So, with that in mind, here are some of my recommendations for low-concentration entertainment for low and anxious days.

Reading

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Graphic Novels. I only got into graphic novels last year, but they’re perfect for flying through a story. They’re easy to read, visually appealing, and you can read a whole trade paperback in less than an hour, so they don’t feel intimidating. Rat Queens is a good bet, as it has a fairly simple plot, great characters, and is lots of fun. I also recommend The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, because it is hilarious. (My full review for Rat Queens is here, and Unbeatable Squirrel Girl here)

Novels are tougher, but I recommend some light and breezy contemporary fiction — something that’s easy to pick up and get invested in. I particularly love Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins, and Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell.

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The Hugos Turn Rabid

Well, here we go again.

This year’s Hugo nominations were released yesterday. And Vox Day’s Rabid Puppies totally dominated.

A quick recap, for those who missed it, or who have joyfully repressed it since last August. Last year, two groups decided that the Hugos had become too much about “diversity” and not enough about good science fiction, and organized voting slates to get works that they deemed more worthy on the Hugo ballot. The Sad Puppies were conservatives, but sane. The Rabid Puppies called themselves “rabid” for a reason, and were led by extremist Vox Day (who is, coincidentally, editor of his own publishing house, Castalia House. Unsurprisingly, it shows up on his slate a lot).

After last year’s backlash, the Sad Puppies didn’t run a slate for 2016, but a kind of recommendation system instead. The Rabid Puppies ran a slate, same as before. And 64 of its 81 slate items appeared on the final ballot. File770 has a good analysis, making it really clear which (few) works were non-Rabid nominees.

But the Rabid Puppies are playing a clever game this year. In the bigger categories, their slate nominees are less visible, because many of them are completely obvious finalists. Like Seveneves. Brandon Sanderson. The new Sandman from Neil Gaiman. After last year’s more obscure “mostly things published by Vox Day” offering, it seems they’ve decided to take everyone down screaming with them, by nominating things that were bound to get nominated anyway and then taking the credit for their appearance. It’s kind of the equivalent to me telling you guys to go and see The Force Awakens because it’s completely awesome, and then claiming that it became such a big hit because of my recommendation.

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Game of Thrones: When “Shock” Stops Being Shocking

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Game of Thrones is in a bit of a bind.

It’s one of the most successful, talked about shows on TV, but it isn’t known for its intricate plot arcs or compelling characters. It’s famous for being shocking. And although this reputation gets people talking, it’s also destroying any integrity the show ever had.

Shock has to, by definition, be unexpected. If we expect a show to be shocking, we’re not shocked by it any more. So the series has to raise the stakes again and again, to be more and more extreme in order to keep shocking an audience that is anticipating that next big twist.

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The Two “Game of Thrones”

I have a problem: I kind of want to watch Game of Thrones again.

Not the actual show Game of Thrones, of course. I hate that show. But the imaginary Game of Thrones that I conjure up in my head, which is fun and dramatic and has these wonderful female characters that I love from the books. I really want to watch that show, especially since it now has new plotlines to offer.

This happens every year. The hiatus between seasons is long enough for me to forget how much I dislike the show, and instead imagine that it’s all the things I wanted it to be. It fades into pretty gif-sets on Tumblr, with book-related excitement filling in the gaps. And even though the show has beaten any optimism out of me at this point, I’m still curious. Maybe this time will be different. Maybe this time will be all Awesome Badass Moments, and not horrible misogyny and nonsensical plots.

It won’t be. Of course it won’t be. The show has almost free rein this year, and we’ve seen what happens when it invents its own plotlines. It’s the nonsensical story chaos in Dorne. It’s shock over substance. The show is capable of developing interesting characters and stories — Shae in seasons two and three, for example — but it doesn’t seem to want to make the effort these days, when pointless shock-value misogyny comes so easily.

And it seems that I’m not the only one who has a huge disconnect between my idea of Game of Thrones and the actual show. People involved in making the series seem to have a similar problem.

Take Sansa, for example. Sophie Turner has said that this season is “probably Sansa’s best yet. It’s her really coming into her own…. Viewers will finally get that storyline you’ve been craving for the past five seasons.” Which sounds great, except that we’ve heard it before. Before season five, Sophie Turner said that Sansa “tries to take command and begins to manipulate the people who are keeping her prisoner,” while the showrunners said that “she’s either going to die or survive and become stronger. She’s chosen the latter option and she’s learned from an incredibly devious teacher.”

We all know how that turned out. In fact, that quote from the showrunners was from an interview after the horrific Sansa plotline aired last year. And that same interview tells us what the writers’ priorities will be now that they can truly do whatever they like. “Sansa is a character we care about almost more than any other,” they said, as they explained why they added a plotline where Ramsay Bolton repeatedly raped her. “There was a subplot we loved from the books, but it used a character that’s not in the show.” So instead of removing it, as they did with stories like Arianne Martell’s or the Iron Islands Kingsmoot, they decided to bring in one of their “leading ladies.”

And I just want to underline that statement again: they loved this subplot from the books. Let’s be generous and say that they loved Theon’s plotline in Book 5, how he struggles to refind himself and escape from Winterfell. But if that was the case, they didn’t need to keep the Jeyne Poole plotline. They could have had almost anything else happen in Winterfell. But they loved that plotline, so it became Sansa’s big moment for the season. Her chance to “grow” into a heroism role. Because don’t doubt, even if by some miracle she doesn’t have a horrific and violent plotline this season, she’s only “earned” it by undergoing that trauma and surviving it first.

The exciting, thoughtful, well-written Game of Thrones that most of us like to hope for doesn’t really exist. It’s a wonderful lie that has somehow taken hold. The show isn’t magically going to reach its potential, because the writers don’t want it to take that direction. The shock and misogyny is what they want to sell, and so they’ll continue to do so, no matter how many times we imagine that this time will be different.

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Bigger Teeth: Jurassic World and Consumerism

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For a fairly mindless big summer blockbuster, Jurassic World gets pretty darn meta.

If the true protagonists of the movie are the dinosaurs, as I talked about last week, then the true villain is consumerism, and how it warps people’s approach to these creatures — wanting them to be bigger, scarier, with “more teeth,” without any thought for the consequences.

Thematically, this is a pretty clever approach. The original Jurassic Park existed in this movie universe, so no-one can be ignorant about what can happen if you make dinosaurs into a theme park. Only blind, greedy consumerism could allow for the creation of another park on the same island, and so that greed is woven into the plot of the movie.

But there is a strange dualism here. The consumerism in the movie reflects the desires of the audience as well — the need to see bigger, more dangerous dinosaurs, the sense that the T-Rex and velociraptors are old, that we want the iconic monsters but something newer and scarier too. And if they can fight each other? All the better. As the movie critiques the consumerism within its world, it feeds into our consumerism, giving us the dinosaurs we want to see, letting them fight, even unleashing that iconic T-Rex while handwaving that it isn’t actually any safer for the cowering guests than the Indomitus Rex was.

And Jurassic World is very aware of this contradiction. It might fail on a feminist measuring scale, but it knows what it’s doing as a big summer blockbuster, fourth in a franchise, trying to comment on consumerism. The movie has a lot of product placement, and it’s not even vaguely subtle, as we see Starbucks and Pandora stores placed prominently in the background of theme park shots. The director claims this was a deliberate plan, and I believe that, as an ironic reminder for the viewer of how commercial this all is. They’re obvious because they’re reminding us that we’re being sold to as well, that we’re guests at the park too, responsible for the”gimme more” attitude that allowed this rampage to happen.

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Why you should watch Critical Role

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Critical Role is a web show from Geek and Sundry, where a bunch of nerdy voice actors play Dungeons and Dragons. And it is, surprisingly, absolute genius. It feels like a unique mix of a radio play, an improv show, and a fantasy adventure, with the weirdness and randomness of D&D thrown in. The show follows the story of Vox Machina, a group of eight adventurers in the world of Tal’Dorei, a setting entirely invented by the brilliant dungeon master, Matt Mercer, and the ridiculous and exciting things that happen along the way.

I have to admit, the show only sounded minimally interesting to me, even as a D&D fan, but it has so many great things working for it. The main one, of course, being the actors involved. They’re all very talented, and great at improv. Matt Mercer has created a rich world for the characters to play in, and the players dive straight into it, roleplaying their hearts out, getting deeply emotionally involved in the story, and taking things in some ridiculous and inventive directions. Mercer performs every one of the other characters they come across, bringing them to life. I’m particularly fond of his performance of Trinket, the party’s pet bear, but this spontaneous moment as Viktor the black powder merchant is one of the most loved:

Dungeons and Dragons is collaborative storytelling, which means that the show can be weird and wonderful in ways that you wouldn’t see in a more controlled storytelling environment. The players can attempt to do pretty much whatever they like, as long as it’s in character, and their success is down to the roll of the dice, meaning no one in the room knows exactly what’s going to happen, including Matt Mercer himself. So when a character is in danger, there’s not a single person who knows whether or not they’ll survive it until the danger has passed. And although Mercer doesn’t go out of his way to kill characters, he’s not averse to letting them die if that’s where their actions and their dice rolls lead.

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Forgetting the Plot: Amnesia and Romantic Fiction

Amnesia really sucks as a plot device.

Occasionally, it can create interesting, although not dazzling, dilemmas. IZombie’s current “the zombie cure might give you amnesia” plotline isn’t the best thing it’s ever done, but as it affects one of the villains and not the protagonist, it does create new dilemmas in the story without sending it off the rails.

But when the protagonist of the story gets amnesia, and especially when the amnesia crops up in a romantic plotline… then, things get a little more frustrating.

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Woman vs Dinosaur in Jurassic World

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Three questions really stood out to me while I watching Jurassic World for the first time:

  • How did this place ever pass health and safety tests? They have open walkways over velociraptors, for goodness sake.
  • Why isn’t anyone concerned that those killer pteradons escaped the island and are flying to the mainland?
  • Why does the first two-thirds of the movie treat Claire like it treats its villain characters because she doesn’t know how old her nephews are?

The stars of Jurassic World are the dinosaurs. Yeah, training velociraptors is cool, yeah, we want the heroes to live, but when we see the word “Jurassic” in the title, we’re really here to see velociraptors and Tyrannosaurus Rex on the rampage.

And because dinosaurs are the key to the story, it makes sense that the plot itself is also, in part, about respecting, appreciating and fearing dinosaurs. Don’t mess with them, the movie says, or they’ll mess you up. Don’t see them as “assets,” because they’re living creatures too. If you respect them, they might just respect you, or even save you. If you don’t… well. Get ready to join the body count. We think Chris Pratt’s character Owen is cool because he understands velociraptors. We know the villain is villainous from the beginning because he wants to use velociraptors for his own ends. And we know the protagonist Claire needs to change because she doesn’t understand or respect velociraptors at all.

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