Ray Bradbury: The Fog Horn and The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms

One way or another, it’s safe to say that Ray Bradbury’s stories shaped my childhood.

The first time it happened, I was four, and it was the stolen pleasure of sneaking downstairs late at night, unable to sleep, and creeping into the armchair in the living room while the grownups watched The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms on TV. They knew I was there; I knew they knew; but it was okay. A secret compact between us: just this once. The beast roared its way in 40s black-and-white Harryhausen stop-motion from the Arctic wastes to the towers of New York City, and the skeletal shapes of the Coney Island rollercoasters. Even as a kid, the creature’s terrible loneliness and confusion and terror were clear, and overwhelming.

That was Bradbury’s gift: the lonely heart that beats through all of us, human and monster.

The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms

The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms was the original title of Bradbury’s extraordinary short story, The Fog Horn. When Warner Bros., who were already developing a story about a sea monster rising from the depths, optioned the story and the 20,000 Fathoms title, Bradbury changed his title, keen to differentiate the story from the movie.

In the original story, a lonely sea monster is called up from the depths by the sound of a lighthouse fog horn, mistaking it for the cries of its own kind. It had lived for centuries alone, the only one. The sound of the fog horn gave it hope that it might no longer be lonely. When the creature discovers that it will in fact continue to be alone forever, it’s a haunting, crushing moment, one that consumed the seven-year-old me.

Loneliness of the long distance monster

Through the movie and the short story, Bradbury opened my mind to the raw emotional potential and power of story; the way an emotional moment can be  a devastating engine for storytelling. Brilliance of concept was not enough; every story must have a heart that beats through it, and through you, the reader. You need to feel its heart pounding in the race of your own pulse. Bradbury’s genius was in refracting these moments through awesomely pulpy genre material. These two works were key in my own evolution as a storyteller. My love of heart and of genre as a reader and a writer has its roots in Bradbury’s beautiful, lonely visions.

Powerful, heady stuff for a young mind; many years later, it still reverberates, hypnotizes, and inspires. Bradbury was unique, and I owe him a debt of gratitude for being a great teacher, and an incredible visionary and writer.

Breathless Reads Tour Recap

I was recently very fortunate to attend one of the dates on the Breathless Reads tour. This was Penguin Teens awesome lineup of YA sci-fi authors Marie Lu (LEGEND) and Beth Revis (ACROSS THE UNIVERSE), and YA fantasy authors Jessica Spotswood (BORN WICKED) and Andrea Cremer (NIGHTSHADE). I’m pretty sure you won’t find a smarter, more talented or more charming group of writers anywhere else. These ladies kept the crowd entertained and engaged as they talked about YA, writing, their inspirations, being writers, and their books. It was a great event for fans and aspiring writers alike.

It’s always interesting to hear what inspires great writers. Unsurprisingly, they all have great taste in TV — there’s a serious overlap between the breathless, fast-paced, what’s-going-to-happen-next qualities of the best YA, and the greatest TV dramas. Marie Lu singled out Game Of Thrones and Breaking Bad, while Andrea Cremer & Beth Revis both gave props to Doctor Who (Harley in ACROSS THE UNIVERSE is based on David Tennant), and Joss Whedon (Revis credits him with teaching her how to kill characters, while Cremer says he taught her how to write dialogue). Revis is a huge fan of Firefly and Serenity, and via Nathan Fillion, she loves Castle too. Cremer is a devotee of Buffy. Jessica Spotswood namechecked a pretty awesome mashup of Downton Abbey, Revenge, and The Vampire Diaries.

With their genre credentials firmly established, the writers talked about why they like writing in the YA sci-fi and fantasy genres. Lu and Spotswood made the great point that this kind of fiction really allows you to explore issues without coming across as preachy, while Revis and Cremer dig the fact that you can transcend the usual boundaries of “boy books” vs. “girl books”. As Revis put it, “there should be good books, and everyone should be able to read them.” Lu praised Penguin for marketing LEGEND based on its sci-fi content, rather than directing it at boys or girls.

They all take different approaches to writing:

Revis — “I laugh wickedly when I kill off my characters.”

Cremer — “I cry a lot when I write my books.”

And they all picked different “theme songs” for their books:

Lu — Europe, “The Final Countdown”

Revis — Chameleon Circuit (a Doctor Who fan band), “Everything Is Ending”

Cremer — Florence + The Machine, the entire “Lungs” album

But they all feel blessed to have the opportunity to be published:

Spotswood — “It’s amazing.”

Revis — “Even after two books it’s still shiny and new.”

Cremer — “It’s extraordinary to be able to do this… I’m still trying to keep close to how extraordinary this is.”

Revis in particular has cause to still feel enthralled about the process of being a published author: prior to writing ACROSS THE UNIVERSE, she’d written 10 novels over 10 years, and had nearly 1000 rejections. Her will to make this happen was a testament to believing and following your dreams. Marie Lu had a similarly long path, having received her first query rejection at the age of 15 (for “a book that was basically LORD OF THE RINGS, but not good”). Cremer was at the other end of the speed spectrum: she had her third novel published a year after she started writing her first. It seems traditional publishing has two speeds: geologically-paced slow motion, and warp factor 8. But there’s only one type of attitude for writers: unflinching dedication to the dream.

Cremer had great advice for aspiring writers: “stop chasing new ideas — pick one and finish it.” Revis’s advice was possibly more lighthearted, but no less practical: “you need a spinning chair.”

And it was Revis who gave the best description of how YA should be seen: “YA isn’t a recommended reading level, it’s a style of writing: interesting characters, interesting setting and a fast-paced plot.”

What came across from all these inspiring and talented women was the belief that good books are good books, regardless of genre or gender. Writing is about creating great stories that reach people and move them, take them to different worlds (sometimes literally), and change how they see our world.

Many thanks to Marie Lu, Beth Revis, Jessica Spotswood and Andrea Cremer for taking part in the Breathless Reads tour, and kudos to Penguin Teens for organizing it, and for bringing writers and readers together.

Marie Lu: LEGEND

Legend is one of those books. You know the kind I mean: you can’t turn the pages fast enough, but you just don’t want it to end.

Full of intrigue, thrills, darkness and high-voltage action, Legend is a great YA sci-fi debut for Marie Lu.

Set in a futuristic Los Angeles, the novel begins with Day, a 15 year old criminal on the run. No one knows who he is or what he looks like. He’s an exile, the most wanted person in the Republic. He steals to stay alive, and to help his family. He has skills, and they’ve kept him and his cousin Tess alive. But then one night, while trying to steal medical supplies for his sick brother, he gets chased down by Republic soldiers, and leaves one of them for dead.

That soldier is Metias, brother of June Iparis. June’s also 15 years old, but she’s the opposite of Day in every way: the only person in the Republic to attain a perfect score on their equivalent of SATs (with slightly higher stakes; a low score gets you banished to labor camps, or worse). She’s the prodigal daughter of the new world. Its shining star. And the most dangerous, notorious criminal in the Republic has just killed her brother. June swears revenge, and sets out to track him down.

What follows is a thrilling, shocking and adrenaline-filled ride through the darker side of the crumbling sectors of LA. The book is alternately narrated by Day & June, which makes for a fascinating back & forth as the story develops. Lu does a great job of keeping the story moving hard and fast, finding time along the way to bring us deeper into the characters’ inner worlds. She gives us two young people who are both on the edge in their own way, and getting pushed further over. Both Day & June are driven to make tougher and tougher choices, all the way to an incredibly tense, nail-biting finale.

Throughout, Lu brilliantly conveys character motivations, complex relationships, family lives, politics, and the grimy, gritty setting of her future world. She weaves all her threads into one high-velocity narrative that is gripping, raw and doesn’t let up until the very end.

And even then, it doesn’t let you go. As you finish the final page, you desperately want book two. Lu throws you into the ending at such high speed, with so much story tantalizingly ahead of you, that the idea of waiting to find out what happens next is almost impossible to handle. By all accounts, Legend 2 is finished, and Lu is already writing Legend 3. And in the meantime, it’s no surprise that CBS Films has snapped up the movie rights.

The movie and the sequels can’t get here soon enough.

 

 

 

 

Daughter Of Smoke And Bone: Love makes magical creatures of us all… AKA… love will f**k you up

To read Laini Taylor’s beautifully written Daughter Of Smoke And Bone is to be lost in a mesmerizing haze that bewitches your mind and your senses, your heart and your soul, with a visceral magic that is utterly rare.

It’s a YA novel of depth, complexity, violence, darkness, loss, lust and all-consuming love, told with a hypnotic but forceful poetry; it lulls, savages, rages and dreams, as it spins its rich, riveting tale of other worlds in collision with our own.

The narrative centers on a girl named Karou, who has bright blue hair, startling tattoos on her palms, and an extraordinary talent both for drawing, and for being mysterious. She lives in Prague, a city which lives and breathes mysteries and beauty in its light and its architecture even at its most ordinary of moments. In this novel, those moments are rare; for Karou, the city is charged with otherworldiness, things not quite as they might seem, a constant gothic murmur that speaks of ancient folklore.

But Karou is in high school, and the novel sets its “baroque contemporary” tone by opening with some priceless awkwardness as she realizes that the nude model in her life-drawing class is her irritating ex-boyfriend, who so recently broke her heart. In many ways, yes, she’s a teen, with teenage problems and anxieties (homework, boys). There’s just one slight difference; she has magical powers and lives with demons.

That is merely the most surface of details in a novel that steadily, unstoppably fills your head with a dizzying myriad of extraordinary details, like thousands upon thousands of beautifully rendered filigrees in a vast cathedral of stories and worlds. It’s a stunning, breathtaking, at times almost overwhelming experience. A love story is set against a centuries-old war between otherworldly beings; simply referring to them as angels and demons doesn’t do justice to the brutal psychological and emotional clarity of Taylor’s writing. She’s created more than just a world; she’s willed into existence a panoply of beings, religions, creation stories and battles for survival. It’s as though Taylor is channeling hardcore and profound myths from the deepest levels of the collective unconscious, in a manner that leaves the reader reeling. It has a similar impact to Michael Ende’s The Neverending Story, leaving you resonating with deeper truths about storytelling and being human; leaving you dreaming furiously.

It’s not just Taylor’s writing, which attains the unusual, hypnotic and stormy cadences and tones of poetry and myth; and not just her perfectly observed, wonderfully nuanced and entrancing characters; it’s her sheer storytelling skills and chops. It’s one thing coming up with a brilliant story; quite another to tell it brilliantly. Most writers are lucky if they can do one of those things. Taylor does both, effortlessly, seamlessly. This is fiction that makes you forget it’s fiction, a book that makes you forget pages are being turned. She knows how to unfold a story, when to deploy information and revelation, how to hook you and draw you in deep.

In short, this is magic of the highest order, spellbinding fiction that absolutely defies any surface categorization of angels, demons, “urban fantasy”, love story… it’s something else; a new magic.

Rating: five out of five spooky tattoos.

Welcome to the HOURGLASS

It’s an exciting time in YA fiction; in fact, it has been for a long time. Blockbuster series have been rolling in with beautiful regularity and increasing frequency, from the original powerhouses HARRY POTTER, TWILIGHT, and THE HUNGER GAMES, to a new wave of thrilling sequences, including THE MAZE RUNNER (James Dashner), MATCHED (Ally Condie), DIVERGENT (Veronica Roth), and DELIRIUM (Lauren Oliver).

To that illustrious list we can now add a new time-twisting teen series in the form of HOURGLASS, by Myra McEntire. This extraordinarily accomplished first novel is, wonderfully, a more-than-worthy addition to this new, conceptually thrilling, thrill-seeking school of YA.

Not only is the narrative powerful, sneaky and full of reversals & shocking twists, powered as it is by a mind-bending conceptual heartbeat, but the novel as a whole is beautifully, poetically rendered. Achingly so.

On its surface, HOURGLASS is a love story, a Southern romance. But this is a novel that is all about what lies beneath and beyond those beautiful, shimmering, flowing surfaces: broken lives, sadness, darkness, loss… and life-changing passion and desire.

Especially that.

Emerson is a struggling teen, still coming to terms with the deaths of her parents, and the fact that she’s pestered by persistent hallucinations of people from the distant past (Scarlett O’Hara types, this being the South and all). The visions are getting worse, and so her brother Thomas reaches out to the Hourglass, a mysterious organization who claim to be able to help with the strange experiences Emerson is enduring.

Which is where Michael comes in.

Just older than Emerson, he represents the Hourglass. As Michael gets Emerson to talk about her past, and the people that she sees, the novel shifts gears. The easy rhythm of small town life gives way to electrifying chemistry and stunning revelations. HOURGLASS becomes a full-blown time-travel mind-bender of a book. With all its lovely and elegantly timey-wimey stylings, it’s like McEntire has taken a sonic screwdriver to the Southern romance genre and juiced it up into a starkly emotional and reality-bending tale.

Fantastic!

As the book plunges deeper into layer after narrative layer, we get drawn into the maelstrom of Emerson’s world, which is gorgeously, unflinchingly drawn. As more characters are revealed, the plot deepens, and the scope and implication of the time-rips that Emerson experiences gets wider.

HOURGLASS is elegantly powerful and fearsomely page-turning. Fortunately, it’s just the beginning: McEntire announced today that the title of book two is TIMEPIECE. As if that wasn’t enough, McEntire also just unveiled a deleted scene (containing possible spoilers) on her blog. It’s an alternate take from a key character’s perspective, which is not only illuminating, but also reveals just how many awesome secrets and revelations are lurking for the rest of the series.

Making it even harder to wait for book two.

So, yeah; a time machine would be useful right about now!

Overall rating:

Five out of five TARDISes  

(TARDII?)

The Nine Lives Of Chloe King

From Alloy Entertainment, the illustrious YA book/TV packing behemoth behind massive pop culture hits like The Vampire Diaries, The Secret Circle, Gossip Girl & Pretty Little Liars amongst many others, comes The Nine Lives Of Chloe King, ABC Family’s contender for new genre show of the summer.

In truth, it’s much more than just a contender: it fully and skillfully owns its genre DNA, relishing it like few other shows on the air right now. Based on the trilogy written by Liz Braswell, both the show and the source material feel like YA Stephen King, with their rock-solid grasp of genre, and gleeful approach to story.

The show begins with a breathless chase sequence on the morning of the sixteenth birthday of Chloe King, a normal-seeming San Francisco teenager, who is being chased to the top of Coit Tower, from which she falls. And dies.

And then comes back to life.

As in all great YA stories featuring kids with extraordinary abilities, the supernatural changes that Chloe starts to experience dovetail smoothly with the turbulence of adolescence. This combination of the supernatural and everyday is one of the many things the show does brilliantly. Chloe’s relationships with her longtime best friends Amy and Paul, with her adopted mother, with her annoying boss in the store where she works, and with the mysterious guy Brian who shows up in the store one day — all these are given time, depth and convincing backstory. All those scenes have an easy, natural quality that grounds the more fantastic elements of the world.

But the show is about the fantastic. Aside from coming back from the dead, Chloe starts developing speed, agility… and claws. She discovers that she’s the key figure in a prophecy of the Mai, an ancient race of, as you may have guessed from the title, cat people. The Mai are engaged in a war with the Order of the Tenth Blade, a war in which Chloe is the unwilling focal point. The show follows her developing powers, her struggle to reconcile her human life with her new and extraordinary world, and, of course, a breathless and urgent love triangle.

Where this show succeeds (and others fail), is its ability to shift gears on the fly between episodic events, major story arcs, intense supernatural fight scenes, and small, intimate character moments. It has a great genre central story fueled by secrets, revelations and the many intense emotions that make up high school and complex family life. Its grasp of all these elements makes it a natural successor to Joss Whedon’s Buffy The Vampire Slayer.

The writing, directing and soundtrack are all strong, propulsive and highly entertaining, but shows like this also need a solid cast, and in this respect, The Nine Lives Of Chloe King kicks major ass. The show’s star, Skyler Samuels, channels her inner Kate Winslet to portray the simultaneous power and quirky vulnerability of Chloe in a consistently winning performance. As Chloe’s best friend Amy, Grace Phipps is also front and center in terms of performance, bringing an engagingly live-wire chaotic charm and emotional intelligence to the mix. And Amy Pietz brings a complex, deep sense of emotional truth to her portrayal of Chloe’s adoptive mother: their scenes together are often painfully real, and are one of the important grounding elements in the show.

The show is a charming, entertaining mystery with claws, teeth, raging hormones, and a series of engaging plotlines that, thanks to the instinctive understanding of genre and awesome writing of original author Liz Braswell and now Daniel Berendson & his team, all successfully intertwine with the central war between supernatural species.

ABC Family has consistently provided a complementary alternative to the CW’s darker programming slate, by carving out a great track history in teen drama and edgier fantastical fare, such as Kyle XY (exec produced by The Vampire Diaries‘ Julie Plec). The Nine Lives Of Chloe King is another excellent example of that trend.

It’s a perfect summer show that successfully takes the supernatural teen baton from The Vampire Diaries and runs with it. Let’s hope the show itself has more than one life, because there’s more than enough intrigue and story potential for many more seasons.

Blood Streams: The Vampire Diaries

Last week’s episode, Klaus, only confirmed what we already knew: watching The Vampire Diaries is an exhilarating, exhausting, extraordinary experience that leaves you drained in the best possible way.

Thanks to showrunners Kevin Williamson (Scream 1-4, Dawson’s Creek, I Know What You Did Last Summer) & Julie Plec (Kyle XY, Scream 2&3, Cursed), and their excellent writers’ room, this show consists of non-stop live-wire storytelling, barreling along and aggressively evolving and phasing on the fly with maximum speed and acceleration. The pace of storytelling is relentless: it’s like a killer act out every 60 seconds. It’s brutal but addictive; which is also how the writers handle the show’s main theme: love. Because for all its velocity of narrative, The Vampire Diaries has a beating heart when it comes to romantic love.

The lushly unabashed romanticism of the show is brutally intercut with swift chest-punching heart-grabbing (literally and metaphorically, because the show is that good). To quote another iconic Warner Bros TV show (SouthLAnd, of course): love’s a bitch. Love will lift you up and enrich your life and take you to beautiful emotional and physical places, but you’d better believe it will kick your ass along the way. That’s just the truth about love (and also about writing, as it happens), and in The Vampire Diaries that huge, resonating truth just happens to be filtered through the awesome genre lens of vampires, werewolves, witches and beautiful people in a contemporary setting. This is a hardcore genre show that is so much fun it’s accessible to everyone.

Kevin Williamson and Julie Plec have taken L.J. Smith’s rich source material, and created a monster, with all the enormous fun and kicking aside of responsibilities that comes with it. There’s a “hell, yeah!” quality to every episode, act, scene and beat in this show. It goes all the way from the season arc through-line, down to the granular level of shots and edits. There’s such a huge, wild enthusiasm for high-octane, wild-eyed with exhilaration storytelling. They build storylines over months to an unstoppable momentum, and then slam you with insanely thrilling reversals that take your goddamn breath away.

The writers take those awesome WTF moments and pile them one on the other, detonating story-bombs with abandon, because they can, thanks to the bench strength of the writing room talent on this show.

From the beginning, the showrunners declared their intention to have an absolute blast. The opening words of the pilot script teaser described the boyfriend driving the car as having that “cute-I’m-probably-gonna-die-soon look,” and his girlfriend as having that “I’ll-probably-live-longer-than-my-boyfriend look.” From there, it’s only gotten to be even more fun, with Damon’s chest-punching and Elijah’s multiple heart-grabbings (again, you know, on more than one level), and the many, many British accents on display (as a Brit, I gotta love that — of course the accent denotes worldly experience, intellectual brilliance and general bad-ass awesomeness. Of course. It just does.).

Throughout, Williamson & Plec and their outstanding team of writers demonstrate an intense sense of glee with their slice and dicing of typical monster tropes, and their manipulation and reconstruction of genre. They’ve taken the twin concepts of genre and love, and spliced them, allowing each to transform the other.

At its heart, this is a show all about transformations, both literal and metaphysical: human to vampire, human to werewolf, innocent to aware, comfortable to world-shattered. Everyone on the show at some point has had to deal with the reversal of everything they thought they knew. This is why The Vampire Diaries transcends genre and achieves vertical take-off into the realm of great drama — it grounds everything in character.

When someone’s world gets upended or destroyed, they feel it, and so do we. And as quickly as this show moves, it knows exactly when to hold a moment too, as we saw in this week’s mind-blowing episode Klaus, which not only seemed to pack in more plot than a season of 24, but also finally gave us Jenna’s reaction to finding out about the existence of vampires and werewolves, and to the fact that everyone had been lying to her all this time. Sara Canning played the scene with simple, heart-rending truth, breaking down inside and out. It was beautifully done.

Thanks to the fantastic writing which delivers kick-ass genre awesomeness and brutal character work week after week, the show continues to work its way into our bloodstreams and has shown no sign of slowing its momentum. The show was just renewed for a third season, and like an insane but thrilling rollercoaster, it’s impossible not to come back for more.