Author: JC (Page 1 of 59)

Bandcamp find: Delmak-O

Browsing Bandcamp for new dungeon synth and ambient music, as I do quite often these days, I came across Delmak-O’s Cerulean Tomb. First off, if I’ve ever judged an album by a cover, this is perfect! It fits the music perfectly, lending to an atmosphere that is dark, vast, and solitary. Delmak-O has crafted an album that is easy to play in the background, even at a louder volume, as it envelopes the listener, each time discovering something new in the layers of sounds that will wash over you.

All Your Twisted Secrets

This is a book that came up in a recent search on Overdrive, and had been sitting in my wishlist since then. Recently, it came up in the Kindle Daily Deal, so I went ahead and took a chance on it. I’m certainly glad I did!

The debut novel from Diana Urban, All Your Twisted Secrets instantly reminded me of Christopher Pike’s novels, and I’m really impressed as this is Diana’s debut novel (at least from a major publisher)! Six teens meet at a restaurant where they had supposedly been invited for a scholarship dinner, only to find themselves trapped and a timer counting down to certain death? Who confined them, and why?

Copied here are some Q&As from Diana for FAQs she has received (copied with her permission):

How did you get the idea for All Your Twisted Secrets?

One day, my husband and I started speculating the shortest timespan you could set a book or movie to, throwing ideas back and forth. Could an entire book take place over just fifteen minutes? No way, that’s not enough time to accomplish anything. But what about an hour? What if you locked a group of people in a room for an hour? What if someone died at the end of the hour? What if the trapped people killed one of them? What if they had to choose someone to kill, or else they’d all die? We exchanged this look that was like, “Bingo,” and I raced to my desk and started scribbling down ideas for characters I could put into this crazy situation.

All Your Twisted Secrets takes place in one room over the course of an hour. What were some of the challenges of working with such a tight locale?

The challenge wasn’t so much with the locale, but the time constraints. Most of the action in the locked room spans one hour, such a limited time to get to know each character. I thought interspersing flashbacks in the locked-room narrative would kill the tension as they confront this impossible choice. So instead, I alternated real-time chapters with flashback chapters—all from Amber’s POV over the past year as she struggles to win over the intimidating queen bee (who’s drama club director) to score the school play and get into her dream music school. These flashback chapters get to the heart of the story: the characters’ relationships and how they deal with many of the pressures teens face today, from bullying to college admissions to losing a loved one—all while dropping clues about whodunit and who might die.

What were some of your techniques for building suspense?

Ending each chapter on a cliffhanger is one of my main strategies. And that’s harder to do than you’d think, without it seeming cheesy or like you’re intentionally withholding information to keep readers hooked. Also, you want a few overarching mysteries that span the full novel, and then mini-mysteries in individual chapters to create these little cliffhanger. And each chapter needs to build in tension until you cut it off. But, in my opinion, you have to have the payoff for each mini-mystery come fairly quickly in the next chapter or two, otherwise readers will get frustrated.

To learn more about Diana’s writings, as well as her informative blog, her website is https://dianaurban.com/

The Shape of Night

One of the first books I checked out on my library’s Overdrive service was The Shape of Night. I was looking through the mystery section for something to read, and Tess Gerritsen‘s name came up quite a few times. Rather than delving into one of her mystery series, I decided to go with her latest book.

A cookbook author who needs a break from everything in her life, Ava Collette drives from Boston to Tucker Cove and manages to rent a house with an amazing view: Brodie’s Watch. Shrugging off rumors that it’s haunted, Ava struggles to finish her cookbook amid guilt and alcohol abuse, until one night an apparition does appear. Is it real or sprung from her imagination?

The Shape of Night is a book that I enjoyed for the most part. I’m a sucker for a mystery, and of course the location and surroundings spoke to my Murder, She Wrote-laced heart. Ava is likeable, even if at times it’s almost cliche that her drinking seems to dominate everything. She’s rightfully curious about the apparition, the house, and its history in relation to the town.

Among the few faults I found with the book was how most of Ava’s work was left off-page. We read about her cooking fairly often, but except for testing a few recipes on the house carpenters near the beginning we don’t learn just how she actually managed to finish her cookbook, with as much drinking and amateur sleuthing as she was doing.

The ending of the novel was satisfying, with just the right amount of tension and suspense, followed by a short but needed resolution, especially with Ava’s sister Lucy coming back into the picture. There’s almost enough hinted at near the end of the book that it could almost warrant a sequel, perhaps Ava exploring another old house or other location for her next cookbook.

Conspiravision

I’ve been a big fan of Deus Ex for a long time, and probably the biggest reason for that is its soundtrack. Yes it has an amazing story, lots of fun weapons, level design, etc. but it was always the music that stuck with me after playing the game, and I still listen to the soundtrack on a regular basis.

Last month, original composers Alexander Brandon and Michiel Van Den Bos worked together to bring a re-imagined soundtrack: Conspiravision. At 17 tracks, this is a sizeable collection, taking familiar themes and combining with modern instruments and production techniques. For me it will never replace the original, but it is a fantastic addition to the family of great soundtracks this series of games has produced!

Stranger Things 2

In August 2016 Stranger Things debuted on Netflix, and I was quite pleased with it. The second season returned in the fall of 2017, and things have moved to a slightly grander scale. Most characters are back, and there are a couple of new additions as well. I’ll dig into things a bit more this time around, so beware of spoilers ahead!

The Boys Are Back (But Not Together)

When the first season ended, everyone was back in Mike’s basement, playing D&D and having a great time. When the second season starts, I expected at least something similar, if not nearly the same thing. But that’s not the case; the boys are each dealing with their own thing, concerning growing up and losing interest in childhood favorites, including D&D.

Dynamic Duos

Something I really noticed in this season is that the characters tended to break off in pairs for at least an episode. I think if it was a conscious decision it was smart, since there’s so many characters we needed to focus on just a few at a time to really get any development. Of course some had more plot involvement and focus than others, but at least a decent amount of time was spent on each character and how they interacted with at least one other key character.

Eleven and Hopper

At the end of the first season Hopper leaves food and waffles in a box out in the woods. Somehow he knew Eleven was still alive. But it did make me wonder how Hopper knew that as well, as waffles being her favorite food, considering they never met in the first season.

In the second season Hopper finds Eleven and brings her to his old family cabin, abandoned since his uncle died. As a substitute for his own deceased daughter, Eleven evokes a wide range of emotions from Hopper, among them anger and frustration as Eleven is not only dealing with her powers and experiences in the lab, but also as a teenage girl. There are some genuinely tense moments as they argue with each other, but no matter what you know they still care and worry about each other. This certainly builds the tension and increases the audience’s emotional investment in the final episode, as it’s these two that must enter the lab and descend into the hole to seal the gate.

Nancy and Jonathan

In the first season Nancy was dating Steve, and while he was first quite mean to Jonathan, Nancy regarded him in a gentler and curious manner. Jonathan was obviously different from Steve, and despite his misunderstood intentions with his camera he became a close confidant to Nancy, even though she was still enamored with Steve, especially at the end of the first season when all three of them battled the creature in Jonathan’s house. The last scene of them showed that together they gave a new camera to Jonathan. Later they snuggled on the couch while Jonathan spent time with Will and Joyce.

In the second episode of this season, Steve and Nancy attend a Halloween party; Nancy gets very drunk and expresses her true feelings about Steve, resulting in their break-up. After this is when Jonathan and Nancy begin to hang out and their relationship evolves into a romantic one.

Steve and Dustin

This has become the most popular duo of Stranger Things, and Steve might even be more popular than Eleven! Steve and Dustin are the outcasts of their groups, and as they reluctantly spend time together they bond over troubles with girls, school, family (although I’m pretty sure we never see anything of Steve’s family), and more. Dustin quickly becomes more of a younger brother to Steve, and Steve offers both protection and guidance. One great example is at the end the season when Steve drops Dustin off for his school’s winter dance, encouraging him to be cool and act naturally. While Steve himself is ultimately left without a romantic partner nor a same-age friend/confidant, he has become the father figure and leader of the group.

Mike and Will

They are the two underdogs of Stranger Things. Poor Will is the primary victim of the creature, and Mike is stuck between his friends and growing affection for Eleven. As Will’s experiences with the upside-down attract the attention of the monster and must ultimately be confined, constrained, and nearly tortured in order to be rescued yet again, it does give Noah Schnapp a chance to have more screen time and flex his acting muscles. When he finally abolishes the creature from within, it is nothing short of chilling; you absolutely believe he was possessed.

On the other hand, this season it is Mike’s turn to be the extraneous character. With Eleven away and his friends dealing with their own things and budding relationships, Mike is ultimately left twiddling his thumbs. Sure, he helps out when needed, but ultimately his character just doesn’t do anything vital.

Lucas and Max

I didn’t think the group would have a new member this season, but in hindsight it’s a great move, and not just because it’s another girl to play off of Eleven. As a nice contrast to the mean and increasingly-evil Billy, Max starts off as a natural outsider, save for at first unwanted attraction from both Lucas and Dustin. Spending more time at the arcade and of course at school, Max gets drawn in to the group and the town’s supernatural happenings.

Joyce and Bob

“Easy peasy.” Oh Bob, you are a beacon of light and hope in this dark and strange world (just like Sean was as Sam in The Lord of the Rings!). After the first season, Joyce apparently met Bob, who works at the Hawkins Radio Shack. A guru of electronics, computers, and puzzles, Bob brings a stability to Joyce, Jonathan, and Will that they’ve badly needed. While he and Joyce get along quite well, I felt that he was really trying to connect to Will, relating to getting bullied, recurring nightmares, etc. Throughout the season Bob remains a steadfast ally, even going so far as taking the most risk and sacrificing his life to allow the others to escape the lab.

Joyce, meanwhile, takes a bit of a back seat this season. She’s still present, of course, but her role isn’t quite as “critical” as Will is now back home, even though not out of danger. Most of her screentime is interacting with Bob or Hopper, especially in the final episodes when dealing with the aftermath of Will’s battles and Bob’s demise. There’s a long-standing friendship between Joyce and Hopper, and it’s left open that more might develop between them next season.

The New, Open Lab

One thing that immediately jumped out at me was the first time the lab was shown this season. In contrast to the dark secrecy in the first season, here the lab under the direction of Paul Reiser’s character Dr. Sam Owens is much more accessible, and no doubt he’s on a tighter leash with more proactive management from the government. Hopper, along with Joyce and Will, seem to be frequent visitors, trying to learn more about what happened along with Dr. Owens and the rest of the lab figuring things out themselves. In typical fashion the scientists are pretty much clueless to what’s happening, and it will end up being Hopper and Joyce, along with the kids, who will figure things out and save the day (again).

The New Villains

The mind flayer is the new big baddie this season. As another D&D-based monster, this one doesn’t seem quite as menacing, even through it’s physically much much larger. Unlike the demogorgon, which was actually in the Hawkins area and stalking its victims, the mind flayer is peering in from the upside-down, and always seemed to feel like the evil man twirling his mustache.

In contrast to the mind flayer, we have a very real and human villain in Billy, Max’s sister. A fellow student at Hawkins High, Billy impresses the girls and seems to dominate the basketball team. At home, it’s apparently nothing but metal music, working out, smoking, and drinking. Ah, youth. While he may be more bark than bite this season, it seems there’s more in store for Billy next season.

A Slight Detour

About three quarters of the way through the season we get an entire episode of Eleven in Pittsburgh, who has encountered other “lost children” with various powers. Many have criticized this episode as feeling like a “Marvel or Avengers wannabe”, and in some aspects I can agree with that. I do also get the feeling Netflix and/or the show creators used this episode to put out the feelers for a spin-off show. Either way, this episode fell flat, and since none of it has to do with Hawkins I felt it was entirely unneeded. While it does provide a little bit of development for Eleven, I feel that could have been done in another way while still being in or near Hawkins (and why Pittsburgh and not Indianapolis?). One way could have been for Kali to sense and come to Eleven in Hawkins, and demonstrate her powers as well as provide her own history/background while together.

Closing the Gate

In the last two episodes we come to the climax and aftermath of the second season. As mentioned above, part of the group converges on the lab, fighting the mass of demodogs and get Eleven to the gate in order to seal it. This is a bigger and grander climax than the first season’s, and the imagery of Eleven rising into the air, along with the converging shadow shape at the almost-opened gate, is simply stunning and hair-raising. It’s exactly what encapsulates the show the most, all of the nostalgia and teenage banter set aside.

The other part of the group is trying to help Will, going as far as to tie him up and almost literally cook him to death. Finally the mind flayer’s “essence” is driven from Will (uhhh but where does it go?), and it seems that once and for all he can begin to recover and go back to just being a kid.

Conclusion

The first season of Stranger Things came in swinging like a ton of bricks, combining excellent writing, acting, and prop/set design along with a huge dose of nostalgia (starting with that opening theme!), and ended on a pretty large cliffhanger and leaving lots of unanswered questions. The second season started off pretty well and didn’t take long to get going. There were some key moments, but overall I have to admit it just didn’t feel quite the same. I think it’s inevitable, with such a popular debut, and trying to keep that going. After we’ve had that glorious hit of nostalgia, it does slowly wear off, and we can’t help but take a deeper and more critical look at things. Our expectations were set so high, quite unrealistically, and starting with the second season it does bring them back down to a more reasonable level.

Luckily, the characters and story do hold up overall, despite a few negatives and nags. Now it’s on to the third season!

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