Friday, October 30, 2015

Microreview [TV / Film ] : Fear Itself

The disturbingly-talented young director Charlie Lyne has followed up his hypnotic and dizzying collage meditation of a film 'Beyond Clueless' with a similar yet even more powerful film. Fear Itself is again a narrated psychological poem over caramel-smooth editing of clips from film after film, some famous, some obscure. His first feature explored teen movies and this time, appropriately for Halloween week, he takes on the subject of horror movies.

However, and frustratingly for those without the access to it, it is a BBC 'iPlayer' exclusive - part of a new wave of programming commissioned just to seen on their UK-only on-demand service. Do look into ways to see this though, as it is a treasure of art and of genre-love.

The director describes the idea best himself on the BBC site. He says: “I got about 20 minutes into the first feature-length commission from BBC iPlayer, Adam Curtis’s Bitter Lake, before I started fidgeting with excitement about what an incredible platform it had become for weird and wonderful art - art that wouldn’t quite fit anywhere else. About a month later I somehow found myself beginning work on Fear Itself, the second feature-length commission from BBC iPlayer. No pressure then. The last six months have been a whirlwind of experimentation, discovery and occasional terror, attempting to make a film that both evokes and scrutinises the effects of horror cinema at the same time. I’m thrilled (and more than a little anxious) to be releasing the film into the wilds of the internet, where it can finally be scrutinised in its own right.”

Narrated by Amy E. Watson, a Scottish-Canadian actor, she plays the voice of a young woman who from the start has clearly suffered an "accident" or mentally-scarring experience of some kind. She explains how she has taken to watching scary films, night after night, and begins to calmly criticise them for their ability and intention to push our psychic buttons. Even as she becomes used to the scare tactics, she never loses the realisation of feeling manipulated, and of still helplessly jumping in surprise, or feeling the cold chill of dread. While her own mystery is never really resolved, her dreamy, wandering, near-poetical ruminations on cinema and more so on fear itself (see what I did there...?) allow Lyne a wobbly, fractured template on which to bind an endless flow of mainly silent clips from horror cinema's greatest moments.

Some clips were familiar to me but a delightfully high percentage of the footage and the films it is from were new to my eyes, and like a more 'standard' documentary on film, it inspires you to seek out the films in question (although I often find the clips give a false impression of a better film than really exists, misleading like a slick trailer can also do). Don't Look Now, Peeping Tom, The Exorcist, Psycho, Ringu (probably still my all-time favourite), and other classics feature, but also more cult greats, like Tetsuo, Scanners, Altered States, Lost Highway, La Casa Dalle Finestre Che Ridono,  and films I have never heard of before, all merge into one long trip of a montage. Also included are films that one wouldn't label 'horror' at all, like Alive, Enduring Love (one of my favourite scenes in all literature, and then cinema, plus - Bond in glasses!) and Gravity (bloody spoiler alert in that case - thanks Lyne for ruining the ending for me!) but help serve the script's thoughts on human fear and terror.

After a while (the film is almost 90 minutes long), the script and Watson's childlike gentle voice begins to tire, and I found myself watching this over four separate sessions. Yet I'm sure with a free evening on the sofa and a box of Colorado special cigarettes, a full immersion would be far more powerful.  Another criticism is the occasionally too-literal moments of narration that caused the wrong kind of laughter from me ("The last time I felt that kind of fear, I was watching a film with Liv Tyler in it" - The Strangers is a pretty good film but, jeez that is a bit crap). Some of the clips, shorn of the deeper meaning of the film they are from, just amused and interested me, like when one is in a cool bar or club (well, I imagine - I haven't been to one for a while!) and there is some cult film on in the background. But freed perhaps of the restrictions of being broadcast on the main network, Lyne also includes some truly gruesome body horror, and some very unsettling sequences. Along with the overall hypnotic power of the quiet, clam narration, I found myself lost in its web, and thinking myself about fear and how true terror works in my own mind. As such, this manages to be one of the most bleakly disturbing pieces of TV I have seen in a long time, and can there be any higher praise in the days leading up to All Hallow's Eve...?

The Math:

Objective assessment : 8/10

Bonuses : +1 for making me want to seek out new films that I never knew existed
Penalties: -1 for the occasional mask-slip of the narration, which can never hope to keep its spell over 90 minutes

Nerd Coefficient : 8/10 "totally worth your time and attention"

posted by English Scribbler, scream queen and contributor since 2013

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Thursday Morning Superhero: Halloween ComicFest Edition

It is hard to believe that we are only 2 days away from Halloween and the fourth annual Halloween ComicFest!  I hope you are as excited as I am for this event that is filled with tricks and treats.  For the fourth straight year, comic book shops around the world will be handing out free comic books to fans.  In addition, you can participate in the greatest Halloween contest ever by clicking here and find a participating store by clicking here.  In what is becoming an annual tradition at Nerds of a Feather, I present to you my top five comics of Halloween ComicFest.

1. Boom Halloween Haunt - Featuring stories from Lumberjanes, Adventure Time, and Steven Universe, this is one book that will appeal to a wide variety of fans of all ages.  Lumberjanes is a phenomenal series well worth your time and I hear those other two titles have a few fans.

2. Stan Lee's Chakra The Invincible Halloween Special - Stan Lee's kids adventure that launched on Free Comic Book Day and is a featured animated short on Angry Birds ToonsTV, Chackra the Invincible has a Halloween special that is sure to delight your youngest comic book fan.  I love that Stan Lee is making all ages books to bring in a new generation of comic book fans.

3. Grimm Tales of Terror: Web of Deceit - From Zenescope, we are treated to a reprint of Grimm Tales of Terror #2, a classic horror tale in the style of Tales from the Crypt and Creedshow.  Definitely not an all-ages book, but a grizzley tale for the older readers that features a group of treasure hunters on the lookout for the priceless Spider King relic.

4. Birth of Kitaro - I don't know much about this series, but it is from the golden era of comics and is the origin story of Kitaro, a character created by Shigeru Mizuki.  It is an all-ages supernatural series that includes stories about Japanese ghosts and monsters.  Sounds very cool.

5. Batman Adventures #1 Special Edition - It is hard to make a list like this without a Batman comic.  This year we are treated to a reprint of the first issue of the comic book that was a spin-off of Batman: The Animated Series.  In this issue, Batman must square off against both the Joker and Penguin.  Another great all-ages book that adults will enjoy as much as kids.

POSTED BY MIKE N. aka Victor Domashev -- comic guy, proudly raising nerdy kids, and Nerds of a Feather contributor since 2012. 

Wednesday, October 28, 2015


Ah, fall, when thoughts turn to lists of scary movies on every single blog (including this one!). But, some of us, when scary movies come on, hide behind pillows, run from the room or change the channel (and/or are really sick of dimly lit jump scares and gore being passed off as horror, seriously, stop it). If you are one of those, Nerds of a Feather is happy to give you our picks for all you Halloweenies out there.


ParaNorman (dir. by Chris Butler and Sam Fell, 2012)

One of the most beautifully animated films ever made, ParaNorman is a tale about boy who can speak to ghosts and accidentally awakens the dead who begin to terrorize his town.  Norman, along with the help from his friends, most solve the secret of the town witch and why she is filled with so much hate.  Despite its PG rating, there are some genuine scary moments in this classic I watch with my family every Halloween. 



Hocus Pocus (dir. by Kenny Ortega, 1993)

Just because I don’t like anxiety and gore doesn’t mean I don’t love me a good Halloween movie. Hocus pocus is the story of the Sanderson sisters, three turn of the 17th century witches who were accidentally resurrected by mischievous teenagers in 1990’s Salem Massachusetts. It was made by Disney and features a singing Bette Midler. Need I say more?


Burn, Witch, Burn (aka Night of the Eagle) (dir. Sidney Hayers, 1962)

I reviewed this film a couple of years ago but want to single it out again because it's an excellent film that sits right on the tipping point between campy fun and genuinely a little creepy. A young, up-and-coming professor who teaches something along the lines of mythology and is a resolute skeptic discovers his wife has been secretly dabbling in the occult and casting protective spells over him, but when he makes her give it up, they soon discover that those charms were the only thing keeping him safe from another group that wants to see him destroyed. Co-written by Richard Matheson, it has a great dose of Halloween chills and tons of atmosphere, without anything that's going to keep you up at night.


The Haloween Tree (dir. Mario Piluso, 1993)
What's that, a cartoon based on my favorite Halloween book? Written and narrated by Ray Bradbury himself? With Leonard Nimoy as a creepy guy who is so totally Death? Sign me up! The premise is simple enough, a group of kids traveling through time to learn about the origins of Halloween and also hopefully save their dying friend's soul from its one-way trip to the afterlife. I loved this movie when it came out, and while age has not been the kindest to the animation, I think it holds up pretty well thanks to some delicious overacting on the part of Mr. Spock--I mean, Nimoy and the incredible descriptions courtesy of one of the formative voices in science fiction. A must watch every Halloween!


The Corpse Bride (dir. Mike Johnson & Tim Burton, 2005)

The Nightmare Before Christmas is probably the easy choice here, thanks to its themes and Hot Topic-driven popularity (also being a pretty good flick), but for my money The Corpse Bride is an even better movie. Without having to pour characters in Halloween/Christmas molds, there is more room for them to develop and have personalities. My main (only) complaint about Nightmare is that the Jack and Sally love story feels forced and shoehorned. In Corpse Bride, it is obviously center stage, but also feels organic and true, and the ultimate resolution is better than shoving the two leads together. The constant creepiness made (mostly) adorable is perfect, and it has a better soundtrack. There, I said it.

The G

Fright Night (dir. Tom Holland, 1985)

Technically this is a horror movie, but it isn't scary and it is super campy.  So Halloweenie it is! Anyhoo, Fright Night is the story of some kid who thinks his neighbor is a vampire, and so solicits the help of his idol, a TV host and ex-vampire hunter, to take care of business. Oh, and did I mention that the TV show said ex-vampire hunter hosts is also called Fright Night? Extra points for that. And for the fact that there's a character named "Evil Ed."


Monster High: Ghouls Rule (dir. Mike Fetterly and Steve Sacks, 2012)

Considering it’s a one-hour TV special based off of a line of toys, my expectations were low, to say the least. To my surprise, Ghouls Rule turned out to be a reasonably interesting (yet not particularly dark or scary) story of prejudice, with a strong anti-discrimination theme. Monsters and “normies” (that's us humans) have to learn to live in peace, but factions within each group find it more convenient to stir up animosity, and only our intrepid “ghoulfriend” heroines—Draculaura, Frankie, Clawdeen, and the rest—can save the day (or rather, the night, since the story is about Halloween). We are monsters, we are proud!

English Scribbler

Beetlejuice (1988, Tim Burton)

My true Halloweenie childhood love is actually the 7min PBS Danse Macabre cartoon which awoke me to classical music and All Hallows' Eve all at once at an American School in Switzerland in 1983... But for a true pumpkin fest film that is fun more than terrifying it has to be Burton's Beetlejuice. Genuinely creepy and (for a kid) scary at times, it is also hilarious and it never loses its impish, rebellious glee with wild model effects, superb music and a warm heart - and Keaton is just incredible. Yes, both my Halloween film choices have Winona Ryder in, but that in no way should cause inference re my teenage years...

Tuesday, October 27, 2015


Just in time for Halloween, we are celebrating the best scary/spooky films out there! Here are some of the films that scared, disturbed or unnerved us in the best possible way...

The G

Let the Right One In (dir. by Tomas Alfredson, 2008) 

I gravitate toward brooding horror, and Let the Right One In is exactly that. It's the story of a bullied kid, his coming-of-age romance with a vampire, and how the pressure-cooker of early teenagehood can lead otherwise good kids down dark paths (though, in this case, our horror is tempered by sympathy for the protagonists). It's beautifully shot, capturing the emotional desolation felt by Oskar and Eli through a bleak, snow-packed landscape poked with anonymous tower block apartments. 

English Scribbler

Bram Stoker's Dracula (dir. Francis Ford Coppola, 1992)

For me at least, Halloween has matured from being a vague childhood event of pumpkin carving and that thing in ET to a global festival of chocolate ghosts and movie marathons at indie cinemas. It certainly still feels more joyfully American, and more fun, than some of the Japanese/Euro horror films closer to my fearful heart. So to my choice, Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992) - a confection of 'boo!' moments and cool costumes that results in guilty giggles rather than any haunting dread or terror. It is a bag of high camp and decadent fright candy thrown at the big screen with glee and fanboy passion, yet with incredibly spooky visuals and sound and enough gothic gore and genuine menace from Oldman's Count to grant it horror status (and of course Keanu - never better). 


Event Horizon (dir. Paul W.S. Anderson, 1997)

Event Horizon combines two of my favorite things: space sci-fi, and space madness. The vessel Event Horizon mysteriously returns after being lost in space on its maiden voyage, and the search-and-rescue team that responds to it finds it's gone far beyond the reaches of space. It's got great performances from Laurence Fishburne and Sam Neill, as well as really classic gore horror imagery. Weak ending, but otherwise a fantastic sci-fi/horror film.


The Babadook (dir. Jennifer Kent, 2014) 

This is a movie that does a masterful job at evoking a sense of pervasive dread, so even when things aren't really happening, the tension continues to mount. The result is as effective an example of a contained, low-budget horror movie as I've seen in recent years. Not a lot of jump scares, not much gore, but this is a movie that can definitely tweak you. The plot concerns a single mother with a special needs son who is obsessed with monsters. So when he plucks a mysterious pop-up book called Mr. Babadook off the shelf at bedtime and he then begins seeing the frightening character from the book and going into convulsions, it's hard to know what's really happening and what's only in his head -- and it's impossible for his beleaguered, exhausted mother to know. The mother's fatigue, frustration, and helplessness feel deeply lived-in, and the core conflicts of the movie are visceral and primal. This, to me, is an excellent example of why we need more female writers and directors making films, because I don't think we ever would have seen this story from a male filmmaker, or if we had, I doubt it would've felt as emotionally on-point. 


Audition (dir. Takashi Miike, 1999)

When screened at a 2000 film festival, Audition made such a forceful and unsettling impact on the audience that many fled from the theater, and one viewer denounced Mr. Miike as “evil” for daring to make this film. Miike, after all, is the Lars von Trier of Asia, and he definitely lives up to his reputation for sadistic suffering in Audition. But the truly scary part comes after we’ve begun to identify with/root for the protagonist…and then he is totally and horrifically (if not, thankfully, literally) emasculated. The blood content is actually low, especially compared to the deep ocean of sadism into which the characters—and the viewers—must dive. We must watch in horror, unable to look away, as the ultimate femme fatale goes to work...

Monday, October 26, 2015

The 'Nerds of a Feather' Guide to Scary Video Games

Halloween is my favorite time of the year. I like to partake in seasonal activities by watching horror movies, and playing scary video games until I feel like I should be sleeping with the lights on. As the film industry has many subgenres of horror, so too do video games. Some types of horror are more effective than others. In an effort to spread terror equally, here are some of my favorite horror games in popular video game horror subgenres.

Japanese Horror - Think ghosts, dead people haunting the living, and unresolved conflict.  
  • Silent Hill 2 - Silent Hill 2 is one of the best horror games of all time. As James Sunderland, you search Silent Hill to find your dead wife, encountering other lost souls along the way. It’s combat is super simplistic, but combat isn’t the point of Silent Hill 2. It’s full of creepy undead nurses and mannequins, and a monster called Pyramid Head that has a giant knife and stalks you through the entire game.
  • Siren - Siren is another game where combat isn’t the point. A red river that turns people into zombies runs through a Japanese village. Ten survivors try to escape using the power of “sightjacking”, the ability to see from the eyes of the undead. Sightjacking is an interesting mechanic because you have to tune into the zombies around you using the analog sticks of the controller. Siren is almost a stealth game, but it’s really creepy because of the foggy village full of undead that you’re forced to see through to find a safe path out of each level.  
  • Fatal Frame 2: Crimson Butterfly - In Fatal Frame 2, you can actually fight back! However, your weapon is a camera, and the enemies are all ghosts. Twin sisters stumble across a lost Japanese village and are separated. As Mio, you try to find your twin sister in the haunted village, using a Camera Obscura to fight off vengeful ghosts by taking pictures of them. Like Siren, Fatal Frame 2 is particularly scary because you’re forced to look right at the ghosts to take pictures of them.

Action Horror - Not quite all jump scares, and most of the horror can be dispelled with bullets.
  • Dead Space - Dead Space was one of my favorite games of the last console generation. It revitalized the anemic survival horror genre after it spawned dozens of bad Resident Evil clones, and Resident Evil 4 knocked the wind out of everyone else’s sails. As Isaac Clark, you search a derelict mining spaceship for your lost girlfriend. The spaceship is full of Necromorphs, twisted undead monsters made of human remains. Your weaponry is designed to hack the limbs off of the Necromorphs, and it does a great job of it. Dead Space has some of the best sound design. It all sounds like different saw blades scraping against metal, but it’s extremely appropriate for the game.
  • F.E.A.R. - More an FPS with horror elements than an actual horror game, F.E.A.R. does draw on some Japanese horror elements. Your team is sent to apprehend Paxton Fettel, a psychic commander of an enormous clone army. However, you’re also haunted by visions of a small girl somehow connected to Fettel. The action is great, the enemies convincingly intelligent, and the excellent lighting all give F.E.A.R. an edge that most FPS games lack.

Jump Scares (Youtube Horror) - Some people think jump scares are cheap, but they have to be scary or surprising to work, and that’s not something that’s easy to pull off. I also classify these as Youtube Horror, because they’re super popular with people who like to watch people scream.
  • Five Nights at Freddy’s - Are you afraid of animatronics? It’s common fear! In Five Nights at Freddy’s, you’re the night watchman at a party restaurant full of animatronics, much like a Chuck E. Cheese. You use your security cameras to keep an eye on things, as you soon find out that the animatronics wander the facility at night. However, you have limited power to get through the night, and the animatronics are coming to kill you. It excellently combines resource management with Paranormal Activity type security cam horror.
  • Slender: The Arrival - Here’s some horror borne of the internet’s endless supply of creepypasta. The Slender Man is a tall man in a suit with no face that stalks people through wooded areas at night. In Slender: The Arrival, you are looking for your missing friend with little more than a flashlight and a camcorder while you wander around in the woods at night. It’s all the worst parts of being in the woods alone at night and wondering if you’re truly alone.

Hide and Seek - Hide and seek games are just that; you hide from the thing that’s trying to do you harm. A lot of the tension in these games is wondering whether or not you got away or if you’ll be ripped out of your hiding place and horribly murdered.
  • Outlast - Being an investigative journalist must be a tough job, especially when it means you have to look into what happened at an insane asylum. But why would you do it in the middle of the night? In Outlast, you’re Miles Upshur, and you’re investigating what occurs at Mount Massive Asylum. Here’s a hint: the patients are free, they’re violent, and you quickly get trapped inside the asylum with them. Since you’re investigating the site, you spend most of the game looking through a camcorder, and it perfectly uses that well-known green night vision to effect in making Mount Massive a terrifying place.
  • Alien: Isolation - The best Alien game yet. As Amanda Ripley, you’re part of the team looking for what happened to the Nostromo and its crew. Aboard the space station Sevastapol, you avoid and escape the humans who’ve become extremely territorial, androids, and the classic alien from the movies. They all seek you out in different ways, and the alien is unkillable, which makes avoiding and hiding from it all that much more important. You can read my full review here.

Creeping Horror - These are games that gradually build a tension. They’re not really hide and seek, but do contain some hide and seek, and some puzzle solving, and lots of darkness. It’s more like getting the pieces of a picture, and then realizing the whole is much worse than the pieces.
  • Amnesia: The Dark Descent - What happens when you wake up in a castle with no memory and a note to yourself to kill someone else? In Amnesia: The Dark Descent, you’re Daniel, and you’ve done just that. As you explore the castle, you learn more about yourself and why you’re there. Also, it’s full of monsters, and spending too much time in the dark or looking at the monsters drives you insane. It’s an incredibly creepy game that goes in some narratively dark places while you try to keep yourself in well-lit rooms and safe from monsters.
  • SOMA - I just reviewed this, much better than I could summarize. Underwater base, monsters, nothing good happens. It’s an instant classic. 


POSTED BY: brian, sci-fi/fantasy/video game dork and contributor since 2014

Friday, October 23, 2015

Microreview [book]: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, Illustrated Edition by JK Rowling and Jim Kay (illustrator)

Well worth the small price.

I'm kind of mad at JK. Not personally, but I'm a traditionalist in the sense that I really wish she would leave the cannon alone, or at least quit switching media. So, to preserve this mentality, I don't really keep up with the HP news. I don't care about Dumbledore's sexual orientation, or what house Harry's son was sorted into, and I'm super irritated that if I want to learn more about the world I have to subscribe to a (confusing) website, fly to London to see a play, or sit through a film trilogy. I prefer that if we add to the cannon, we do it as more books. 

Anyway, I attribute this apathy for HP news to the fact that I completely missed the pre-order for the illustrated edition of the Sorcerer's (Philosopher's) Stone and had to wait two weeks past release for my copy to arrive. Well, it was worth the wait. When I opened the box my heart fell from my chest and my eyes welled with tears. I'm not kidding, its that amazing. (P.S. This is the reaction I was expecting to have from A World of Ice and Fire, which fell short). The book itself is almost coffee-table book size, the construction is sturdy and the pages are heavy and glossed. Every page has some sort of illustration, at the least in the form of water marks, and most are lavishly decorated. This book is a must have for any Harry Potter fan. I recommend you grab your copy before they are gone. Amazon is already out of stock, but you can get the US edition from Scholastic and the UK edition from Bloomsbury, directly. I'll leave you with some teasers.

As of now, the plan is to release one illustrated book per year for the next six years so yea, thats flipping awesome! Although, I can only image how gigantic books 4 and on will be. 

The Math:

Baseline Assessment: 7/10 (aka. my expectation)

Bonuses: +2 for exceeding expectations with its sheer beauty, +1 for being reasonably priced

Negatives: none

Nerd Coefficient: 10/10 

Disclaimer -- I generated this score based on the Illustrated Edition of the first installment in the greatest, most heartwarming, and most beloved tale ever told.

Posted by: Tia

Reference: JK Rowling & Jim Kay. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone: Illustrated Edition [Scholastic, 2015]

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Thursday Morning Superhero

Mind blowing image courtesy of

Before we switch gears and talk comics, I hope you all had a wonderful Back to the Future Day.  It was amazing to see the entire world celebrate three brilliant movies that were a huge part of my childhood.  While Pepsi was getting grief over how quickly Pepsi Perfect sold out, Nike announced that it had actually created self-lacing shoes!  The Nike Mags, which will drop next year, are going to be auctioned off with all proceeds going to the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research.  In 2011 a similar auction of Mags, without the power laces, raised nearly $5 million so it will be exciting to see how much the new shoes will raise.  Now we just need self-drying jackets.

Pick of the Week:
Darth Vader #11 -  It might be the hype of The Force Awakens or the fact that my family recently watched all six Star Wars movies, but I tend to always have Star Wars on my mind.  Not sure if this bias impacts anything, but I have just really been enjoying the new comics.  In the current issue of Darth Vader, the Sith Lord might regret stealing Imperial credits in order to pay a crime lord for Skywalker's location.  Not only is he still making up for the Death Star fiasco, he is under investigation after some Imperial credits go missing.  He currently has to put up with Inspector Thanoth, who is quite skilled at what he does.  In this issue he leads a raid to catch Dr. Aphra, Vader's partner in crime.  Thanoth always seems one step ahead of Vader and will stop at nothing to pin the crime on him.  This continues to be one of my favorite new Star Wars books and is filled with twists at every turn.   There is something very entertaining about watching Vader sweat.

The Rest:
Back to the Future #1 - IDW has teamed up with Bob Gale for a four-part mini-series featuring untold tales and alternate timelines.  The first issue is composed of two short stories in which we learn how Marty and Doc first met and that Doc Brown worked on The Manhattan Project.  Gale does a nice job imparting classic Back to the Future humor and we even have a Needles sighting!  It was fun to return to Hill Valley and I think that Back to the Future fans will enjoy this series.

The Beauty #3 - This issue does not beat around the bush.  Foster and Vaughn are rescued by  anti-beauty extremists and get a first hand view of the size and scope of this well organized movement.  They claim to have a cure, but need to somehow convince the public how serious of a threat the beauty is.  Despite a solid plan, this group has no idea about the horror that is Mr. Calaveras, a Joker type character who has a vested interest in keeping the cure for the beauty down. 

Karnak #1 - One of the rules in regards to comics, is that if it is new and it is from Warren Ellis you should pick it up.  That was my mindset when I picked up Karnak, knowing little of the Magister of the Tower of Wisdom.  After reading this issue, I know that Karnak is not to be messed with and occasionally visits the human world to assist Agent Coulson with inhuman matters.  After joining Magister Karnak for the beginning of this investigation, I plan on sticking with him as he tried to uncover why an inhuman boy has been kidnapped.  Good stuff.

POSTED BY MIKE N. aka Victor Domashev -- comic guy, proudly raising nerdy kids, and Nerds of a Feather contributor since 2012. 

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Microreview [Book]: The Entropy of Bones by Ayize Jama-Everett

More like a finger to the eyeball than a fist to the face.

The Meat:

The Entropy of Bones is technically the third book in Jama-Everett's Liminal series, but one that stands on its own quite nicely. At least, this was my first experience with the series and I never felt lost, never felt in over my head. Like Chabi, the main character, the reader is expected to keep up and move with the flow, adapt and still manage to kick ass. Metaphorically, of course. The book is a wild ride, starting as a rather straightforward martial arts story that slowly shifts, that slowly draws out to be something different, something infinitely weirder and much more interesting, filled with superpowered people, time travel, and a large number of explosives. Basically, if you're looking for a book that hits and just keeps on hitting, The Entropy of Bones will do wonderfully.

The novel shines thanks in large part to Chabi, daughter of a Mongolian father who left her very young and a black mother who has slowly been stitching her life back together. Born mute, Chabi eventually found a voice, but not one of sound. This Voice, which speaks directly into people's minds, is part of Chabi's powers, part of whats her special. Of course, that she starts training with a rather unbalanced martial arts master and swimming thirty miles before lunch also helps to set her apart. She becomes a living weapon, a young woman in tune with her body, trained to take anyone attacking her apart. The fight scenes in the book are worth the price of admission alone, Chabi's body filled with a violent grace, and the prose of the battles is visceral and cinematic and fun. Chabi's voice throughout is wry and a bit damaged, is sarcastic, fun, and quite smart.

The novel also paces itself quite well, with the possible exception of rushing through the ending. But the story builds in a tantalizing spiral up, bringing Chabi first into a mundane world of drugs and thieves and then moving her laterally into things much, much darker. Along the way she explores her own past as she begins to figure out that something is going on in the world that her teacher never taught her about. By the time explanations are needed to catch readers up to what's happened in the setting because of the first two books, things already have a momentum that pushes right on, that keeps things immediate and compelling. Even when time travel and an epic war between groups of superpowered individuals are revealed, it doesn't' feel at odds with the story, and there's no time to doubt as the action keeps right on ratcheting up. 

If The Entropy of Bones was a sandwich, it would chip your tooth. If it was a drink, it would make you blind for a few panicked seconds before the world returned. The ending is relentless, breathless, and tragic. Chabi shines as she takes on an entire hotel filled with superpowered assholes, killing and maiming and generally badassing her way to save the day, even if it comes with a price that left me a bit numb. The novel does not pull its punches, and the ending offers the only ending possible, the only ending that would have made sense, even if it wasn't the ending that I wanted. Still, there is a feeling that the story, for all that it wraps up with lightning speed, is left open. A feeling that this isn't the real ending. And while it gives the conclusion a bit of an incomplete feeling, it also leaves things open to be picked up later, leaves Chabi with a chance of appearing again.

Mixing the sharp visuals and sound of broken bones of a Kung Fu movie with epic urban fantasy and a twist of contemporary music, The Entropy of Bones manages to be an incredibly fun read. The mythology of it is complex, and if I'm being honest I probably don't have a great idea of what's going on even after reading the book. But it does leave me hungry for more, curious to see where the story goes from here. As a standalone novel set in a series' universe, it manages to be mostly accessible and definitely entertaining, and well worth checking out.

The Math:

Baseline Assessment: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 for kinetic action and brutal fight scenes, +1 for mixing magic, music, and time travel in a way that I wasn't put off by

Negatives: -1 for leaving some unfinished business at the end, -1 for some unanswered questions in general that I'm guessing are answered in earlier books

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10 "A mostly enjoyable experience" (check out our rating system here)


POSTED BY: Charles, avid reader, reviewer, and sometimes writer of speculative fiction. Contributor to Nerds of a Feather since 2014.

REFERENCE:Jama-Everett, Ayize. The Entropy of Bones [Small Beer, 2015]

Monday, October 19, 2015

First Impressions: Steam Link and Steam Controller

Half-ready for Primetime

Streaming games from a PC with Steam on it is something Steam's been capable of for a while, but I've taken little advantage of. I don't have a PC connected to any of my TVs, so it's been limited to me playing Luftrausers on my little Linux Mint-running netbook. I was really impressed with the smoothness of the streaming, despite Luftrausers being a fast-paced arcade game and the whole ordeal running over my wireless network on my tiny, underpowered netbook. When Valve unveiled the Steam Link and Steam Controller, I jumped on it just for the chance to do some game streaming to my TV in a fashion much cheaper and more effective than building a whole media center PC. The results have been mixed at best.

Let's get something out of the way first: I am not a hardware reviewer. I'm not counting pixels or framerates. I rely on real reviewers to tell me what works and what doesn't on a technical level. Occasionally, I make a dumb first-adopter purchase because I can. It's fun to take a risk every now and then. All that to say take this as anecdotal information at best. I'm not trying to tell you what to buy, but give an earlier than retail look at something I was really interested in.

Steam Controller upper right, Steam Link (with Steam Controller dongle) lower right. Xbox 360 controller upper left for reference.

Setting up the Steam Link was really easy. I plugged it into the power, and HDMI, and walked through the process of selecting my language, signing into my wifi network, and choosing a PC to stream from. My partner and I are both running Steam, so I was given the option of which computer I wanted to stream from. The Steam Link gave me a code to enter into my PC to enable the streaming link, which was the first of many trips to my PC in support of the Steam Link. Then it downloaded an update or two, and rebooted a couple times. All expected behavior at this point.

You would think the Steam Controller would be more simple than that, but you would be wrong. The first thing it wanted was a firmware upgrade, and the Steam Link wasn't capable of providing it. Obviously, anyone with a Steam Link or Controller is going to have a PC running Steam on it, but it was real annoying to have to also take the controller to my PC to give it an upgrade. Valve mercifully provided a micro USB cable to enable these type of upgrades, but it seems a little annoying that the Steam Link itself couldn't provide this kind of update.

When I first set it up, I wanted to put the Steam Link to the test. I hooked it up to the TV that's furthest away from my wireless router. Finding my wireless networks was no problem. However, the performance of the stream left a lot to be desired. Graphical and audio hitching was frequent. To give some perspective, this same TV has a Roku 3 attached that has no problems streaming Netflix or Hulu in 1080P HD on the same wireless network. I moved it to a TV about half of the distance away from the wireless router and performance got a lot better. Don't expect TV or movie streaming performance out of the Steam Link. Also, no matter how close you are to your network, don't expect to get anything done while Steam is downloading a game. The Steam Link becomes incredibly unresponsive while any game was downloading. However, starting a game will pause downloads, which allows the Steam Link to stream as normal.

When I bought the Steam Link, I thought it'd be a great opportunity for my partner and I to play local multiplayer stuff, like Nidhogg and Gang Beasts. Nidhogg was the first game I started, and it worked flawlessly. Looked like it does on my PC, instant input response, lots of fun. However, that was probably the best experience I've had streaming. Some games work, but theyv'e got problems. Either they play far too slowly to be enjoyable (such as with Shadownrun: Dragonfall) or the streaming will crash Steam when you quit the game, necessitating a trip to the PC to kill the game and restart Steam. I also experienced some games that would dump to the Big Picture Mode interface while the game is still running. There was no obvious way to switch back to the game from the Steam Link, so I would have to go back to my PC to kill the game. Some games didn't work at all, either presenting nothing but a white screen when streaming, crashing when the game begins, or not accepting any Steam Controller input. There were also some little annoyances that accompanied a stream crash. One of those was that the stream will automatically mute your PC, but when it crashes, it doesn't unmute when you restart. Not a big deal, but annoying.

For the sake of perspective, I tested 20 games with Steam Link. Ten of those games I classified as "works great", meaning the game streams at an acceptable rate, controls work, and nothing bad happened. I classified five as "not working", meaning the game was wholly unplayable. The rest were some mixture of the two, either working fine but crashing somehow, or working in some less than perfect state. Here's the breakdown:

Working Great:
  • Nidhogg
  • Payday 2
  • Battleblock Theater
  • Bedlam
  • Divekick
  • Don't Starve Together
  • Dungeon of the Endless
  • Heavy Bullets
  • Pillars of Eternity
  • Skullgirls
Not Working:
  • Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel
  • Towerfall: Ascension
  • Dead Pixels
  • Kisima Ichiguna (Never Alone)
  • You Don't Know Jack
Kind of Jank:
  • Shadowrun: Dragonfall (runs slow)
  • Outlast (works fine, crashes stream on exit) 
  • Wasteland 2: Director's Cut (works fine, switched to Big Picture Mode mid-game)
  • Five Nights at Freddy's (works fine, crashes stream on exit)
  • Gone Home (poor performance)

Steam Controller
I don't have a whole lot to say about the Steam Controller. It has two trackpads with some haptic feedback. The ABXY buttons are a little too small, but the analog stick is fantastic, as is the shoulder triggers. Whether a game supports the typical Xbox style controller is mostly irrelevant; the Steam Controller can be configured to emulate any keyboard or mouse button press. This means games that don't natively support a controller, such as Dungeon of the Endless, can still be played with the trackpads acting as mouse movement, and buttons emulating keyboard and mouse. In nearly all games, the Steam Controller worked great. The one game it didn't work on was You Don't Know Jack. It wouldn't accept any Steam Controller input whatsoever.

My first night, I played five games, and three of the straight up didn't work. It put a real damper on my enthusiasm. After working with the Steam Link for a little while, and trying out different games, I'm a bit more optimistic. For the games it works on, it does everything you'd want it to. But when it breaks, get ready to walk back to your PC to fix things. It's got a lot of annoyances and feels more like a beta product than a final release. I'm absolutely not giving up on it, but I get the feeling us early adopters are the unwitting true beta testers of this thing before it gets a wider release in November. What it is really missing is an honest list or showcase of games that work great and show off the Steam Link and Controller. I would be less annoyed if I weren't testing these games myself to find out what works and what doesn't.

Since this isn't a review, I don't feel compelled to adhere to a review score. Therefore, here's an emoticon sequence describing my reaction to the Steam Link and Controller.

:D  :[  :|  :\


POSTED BY: brian, sci-fi/fantasy/video game dork and contributor since 2014

Friday, October 16, 2015

Microreview [book]: Towers Fall, by Karina Sumner-Smith

A stirring conclusion to an excellent trilogy

Sumner-Smith, Karina. Towers Fall. Talos, 2015.

You can buy it here in one month, starting Nov 17, 2015.

Xhea and Shai have already been through quite a lot by the point Towers Fall begins. They’ve experienced wild swings in fortune, like Xhea’s physical deterioration, especially her knee, which was more or less literally crippled during Defiant (book two), and yet they managed to overcome serious adversity and carve out a kind of improbable victory, a stability, and a stronger-than-ever friendship. Given how well, on balance, the second book ended, how was author Sumner-Smith going to up the ante for the concluding volume?

She hit upon a solid, if not totally satisfying, device to handle this: we get Xhea’s power re-bound, with she and the entire Lower City under the shadow of the Central Spire, which seems more and more sinister and even, ultimately, starkly evil. Oh no, I began to think, she’s turning the story into a morality tale with faultless heroes and irredeemable villains! But, without giving anything away, I can happily say that she neatly subverts this easy, melodramatic path and delivers a far more satisfying, because less typical, conclusion to the story.

I think this successful conclusion is partly due to the unique relational structure of the trilogy, which hangs emotionally on the obviously non-sexual (only one of them even has a body!), if not necessarily platonic, friendship and love between the amazing Xhea and the apparition Shai. Since there is no sexual conflict or love triangle driving the narrative, no one needs to be eliminated in order to ‘resolve’ the story in a melodramatically satisfactory way. Instead, they can chart a less absolutist, less violent path towards resolution. On the other hand, if we look at the story through Joseph Campbell’s eyes, taking an unconventional path towards triumph means the ‘boon’ is less cataclysmically impressive (i.e., not much stuff, on balance, gets blown up), yet the cost of this sideways victory, it is implied, is quite steep. I’m deliberately being circumspect here with my words, because it’s a book and a trilogy you should all read, and I don’t want to spoil it for you!

Sumner-Smith ramps up the relationship between the two principals, bringing them to realize that their main—their only!—reason for living (or in Shai’s case, not dying all the way) is the love and loyalty they feel for each other. They both decide they do indeed have something fighting and, if necessary, dying (for Shai, dying all the way) for: each other. It’s a wonderful bond they have, and handled well by the author, who hints at, or at least allows the possibility for a romantic dimension to their love without, of course, suggesting any actual romantic “yuri” pairing is possible (given Shai’s non-corporeal state). But then again, could there be any purer love then the kind they feel for each other? None of the messier eros side of love is even possible between them.

Perhaps I haven’t done a very good job of explaining how and why the story succeeds as well as it does, and if so, then just take it on faith: it’s good stuff!

The Math:

Objective assessment: 8/10

Bonuses: +1 for the continuing awesomeness of Xhea and an improved level of awesomeness from Shai (who finally starts to confront the vast inequalities between Tower dwellers and the hoi polloi of the Lower City)

Penalties: -1 for what I’ll cryptically call the unconventionally costly resolution (because who doesn’t want the two glorious protagonists to ride/float off into the sunset, secure in the promise of long years of happily ever after awaiting them? As readers, we desire at least the potential for stories with lots more of our beloved characters, so offering them a less expansive future stings)

Nerd coefficient: 8/10 “Totally worth your time and attention”

See details of our unusual scoring system (in which an 8 = very, very good indeed) here.

Zhaoyun, lover of love in all its forms, has been writing reviews and taking names at Nerds of a Feather since 2013.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Thursday Morning Superhero

Halloween isn't too far away and it is time to think about what you are handing out to trick-or-treaters on Halloween.  You could be boring and hand out candy, or you could rule your neighborhood and hand out mini comics.  You can find a participating store here, and place your order for 25 packs of the mini-comics that will spread the love of comics.  My family has done this for the past few years and it has been a huge success. 

 Pick of the Week:

Captain America: White #3 -  Dear Marvel.  Please give Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale an ongoing series in which they regale us with tales of Captain America during World War II.  I have been a good boy this year and feel that I should be rewarded with Captain America taking down Nazis, frustrating General Fury, and trying to impose his moral values on the world in his quest to stop Hitler.  Given this issue, we are going to be graced with the presence of Red Skull in the issue #4 and I would love to revisit Baron Zemo, Dr. Faustus, Master Man, and Armin Zola.  If you can make this happen I will be forever in your debt.  Sincerely, Mikey.  

The Rest:

Captain America #1 -  This is quite the transition from Captain America: White, but with Nick Spencer at the helm I know I am in for a treat.  Sam Wilson finds himself in an odd situation.  He was granted freedom from S.H.I.E.L.D. and the U.S. Government, but things aren't going as planned.  The political divide in this country has created a strong resistance to what he stands for.  Spencer does an effective job shifting gears from an external threat to an internal one and I love the uphill battle that Wilson is facing as he attempts to regain the confidence of the American people.  I have high hopes for this one.

The Walking Dead #147 - While this current arc has been slow on zombies, it has been high on drama.  You know things are hitting a boiling point at your home when people want to use a child as bait against her own mother.  Rick finds himself and knows that he needs to get Lydia to safety.  Despite this drama, this issue shines in the exchange between Michonne and Rick.   Michonne is still mourning the death of Ezekiel and has an emotional discussion with Rick, who has suffered endlessly throughout this series.  Moments like this will bring me back to this series as it approaches the 150 issue milestone. 

Batman #45 - Bloom continues to be one of the best Batman villains ever to grace the page of a comic.  He has caused quite the stir in Gotham, and the Jim Gordan Batman is at his wits end.  After causing a scene, he appears to be on the out as Batman, and we may actually see Bruce dawn the suit.  While I like that things remain mixed up, I am yearning for a return of the Batman that is in my comfort zone.

POSTED BY MIKE N. aka Victor Domashev -- comic guy, proudly raising nerdy kids, and Nerds of a Feather contributor since 2012. 

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

6 Books with Science Fiction and Fantasy Author Elizabeth Bear

Elizabeth Bear was born on the same day as Frodo and Bilbo Baggins, but in a different year. She is the Hugo, Sturgeon, Locus, and Campbell Award winning author of 27 novels (The most recent is Karen Memory , a Weird West adventure from Tor) and over a hundred short stories. Her dog lives in Massachusetts; her partner, writer Scott Lynch, lives in Wisconsin. She spends a lot of time on planes.

1. What book are you currently reading?

I'm reading Dolen Perkins-Valdez's Balm, which is a historical fantasy about several gifted black women trying to make their way in the world in the immediate aftermath of the American Civil War. Dolen's prose is lush and her characterization is extremely nuances.

2. What upcoming book you are really excited about?

I'm currently reading Yoon Ha Lee's Ninefox Gambit, which is coming out next summer from Solaris. (I was fortunate enough to get an advance manuscript.) It's a sharply inventive space opera that I think will appeal to Hannu Rajaniemi and Ian Banks fans.

Also, there's a Scott Lynch novel that's nearly finished that I'm, personally, dying to read. ;)

3. Is there a book you're currently itching to re-read?

I so rarely have time to reread these days, and it makes me sad. There's such a flood of new books and new writers that I feel that I'm not even keeping abreast of a tenth of the stories even in my own genres. That said, I will be rereading Caitlin R. Kiernan's The Drowning Girl soon, because I need to write a critical essay on it. And I have been wanting to go back and reread some Octavia Butler and some Roger Zelazny. Also, a whole pile of James White's Sector General stories, which are delightful and seem to have been largely forgotten.

The problem with trying to keep abreast of new developments is that sometimes I forget what it's like to relax into the hands of a master of the craft. I recently read Ursula Le Guin's Lavina, for example--and damn, she's good. The best writers make reading and enjoying their work deceptively easy.

4. How about a book you've changed your mind about over time--either positively or negatively?

I did reread The Forever War this past year, and one of the things that struck me about it this time was that, while I liked it fine the first time, I really enjoyed it more now. There's so much going on in that book that my younger self was still a little too didactically minded to pick up on. Forty-something me is a little less convinced, I think, that there are solutions that will be the best for everybody than twenty-something me was (a pretty common side effect of accruing life experience and bad joints, I suppose), and so the various iterations of society that our protagonist encounters and finds vaguely dissatisfying for various reasons really--the farce struck home in ways it didn't when I was younger and took myself Much More Seriously.

I also came back to T. H. White's Arthur books--The Sword in the Stone, et. al., as an adult. They'd been largely opaque to me when I tried to read them as a young teen, as I recall, and then I sat down and ripped right through the whole sequence a couple of years back. They're viciously funny social satire, which I wasn't equipped to handle when I first tackled them.

5. What's one book, which you read as a child or young adult, that has had a lasting influence on your writing?

I'm going to cheat and give you two. One is Peter Beagle's The Last Unicorn, which is my ideal book. Someday I want to write something that complicated, joyous, painful, sprightly, engaging, and just plain fun. It made me want to figure out how those tricks worked so I could do them myself. That thing where he can have you laughing at the top of a page and crying by the bottom... the language... the tangled escalation of tension... It's not just a great book; it's an unpretentious and fun book. And it's one that intentionally undermines one of the great tropes of fantasy--that a magical interlude must end. It allows its protagonists to change and be scarred, but nobody has to go home to a mundane existence afterward. It taught me about deconstructing the baseline assumptions of the genre.

The other is Richard Adams' Watership Down, which I have read the covers off two copies of. I am now on my third. It was the first "grownup" book that I read, and I basically memorized it. The writing, the characters, the setting, the mythology--it's a first-rate epic fantasy, which happens to be about rabbits. There are certainly a number of other fantasies with animal protagonists, but for me none of them even remotely come close to that one. And what Watership Down taught me was that in writing alien intelligences, it made sense to think of the world from their point of view, rather than trying to make them seem human. That a rabbit could act like a rabbit and still be an effective and engaging point of view character for a human reader.

6. And speaking of that, what's *your* latest book, and why is it awesome?

My latest book is a Weird West steampunk adventure called Karen Memory, which features heroic saloon girls versus disaster capitalists. I've been describing it as Leverage, if the protagonists were all hookers. It's got a political thriller plot and a murder mystery plot and a whole pile of super-competent and snarky characters!