Project Mc2 (Season One)

Project Mc2 LogoGenre: Children’s Spy / Television Series
Main Cast: Mika Abdalla; Ysa Penarejo; Victoria Vida; Genneya Walton; Danica McKellar; Melissa Mabie; Antonio Marziale
First Shown: 7th August, 2015
Available: Netflix

A space launch is threatened, so teenaged spy McKeyla McAlister (Mika Abdalla) is sent to investigate. When some of the girls at her new school figure out she’s a spy, McKeyla is forced to work with them.

Project Mc2 (Project Mc-Squared) aims to promote S.T.E.A.M. (science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics) among girls. The series is linked to its own toy range, including fashion dolls, science experiment kits, and fashion dolls that come with science experiments kits. I’m all for encouraging girls to blow things up (in totally safe ways) but my review focus will be on the programme side of it. However, I think it’s useful to know the full context of the series.

The characters are the core of the series, so I’ll start there. McKeyla is the lead spy. I liked that she was a generalist, rather than a specialist. Her focus is learning to be a leader, as she’s used to working alone. She’s the most serious of the girls. I’m pretty sure she’s intended to be read as white.

The two girls who initially notice something is odd about McKeyla are best friends. The first is Camryn Coyle (Ysa Penarejo). She’s into skater fashions and carries her skateboard around. She’s also the engineer of the group. Not a lot is discussed about her background, but the actress is Filipina-American. Her hair is dyed red (in an obviously dyed way), which I presume was to make each fashion doll have somewhat different hair.

Bryden Bandweth (Genneya Walton) is the computer expert and is very into social media. She talks in hashtags and posts everything to social media, even at times when she really shouldn’t. I did find this a little difficult at first, as she speaks very quickly. Bryden is black with wavy hair.

When the two girls realise they don’t have all the skills they need to figure out what McKeyla is up to, they approach Adrienne Attoms (Victoria Vida), a culinary chemist. Adrienne is very feminine, wearing skirts and heels, and carrying all her stuff around in a handbag. She’s the only character who has her background really expanded on in this season. She’s from Spain and speaks with a Spanish accent. I’m noting her as a Latina character as I’ve seen the actress say that’s the case (the actress is Latina herself). This is where I didn’t like the styling, as Adrienne has bleached blond hair. Though the initial thought may have been to have a doll range with different hair colours, much like Camryn’s hair dye, it also serves to make Adrienne look whiter. That didn’t sit well with me.

This is a short season, coming in at only three episodes. It tells one long story across the episodes. The space flight in question is a publicity thing for Prince Xander (Antonio Marziale), who is teenaged British royalty. I wasn’t too keen on this as the central plot. I never did the celebrity crush thing, so this has always been rather outside my experiences. Swooning over hot British royalty is more of an American thing, so I had a certain amount of eyerolling as a British person. It’s not that anything is wrong with this as such, but it wasn’t to my tastes. Fortunately, the plot focuses more on the girls learning to work together, so there is something there for people who aren’t interested in the celebrity crush angle.

The science ranges from things that are somewhat improbable to things that are rather simple. For example, Bryden’s hacking is mostly shown with her typing quickly without showing the screen. She is improbably fast at hacking things like this. Later, she hacks a security code with a simple number generator, which is a project most viewers could code with a little training. This may not be science realism, but it did work for the concept of the series. It means some of the science shown could be done by viewers, without being science geniuses. I also liked that The Quail (Danica McKellar), the woman who oversees the girls, is played by a real mathematician.

This season doesn’t push science at the expense of feminine girls. Adrienne is taken seriously from the start, as the other girls approach her for help. There’s a running joke of people not knowing what culinary chemistry is, but it’s more that this is a rarely represented field, rather than the practise of it being funny. I did enjoy the moment where she adds a dash of cinnamon to fingerprint powder, and no one else really knows enough about the subject to question it.

In general, this isn’t a “not like other girls” story. The leads are supposed to be the smartest, but there isn’t criticism of other girls and women. It’s adult men who are their main obstacle, as they don’t take the girls seriously. This is handled in a light way, but is unfortunately a very real thing that girls are likely to face if they go into science.

The girls are quite diverse when it comes to race. However, the show is weaker in other areas. Everyone is relatively thin, there are no disabled people, no QUILTBAG characters, and so forth. It wasn’t negative in those areas. There wasn’t fat-shaming or similar, and I’m glad they ate the baked goods Adrienne made without any comments on calories or diets. But I’m always pushing to see more representation in shows for this age group.

I think this series mostly hits its targets. It’s very colourful and bubbly. The central focus is on friendship and awesome science experiments. The girls don’t face more than some mild peril, so it’s not going to be scary for anyone but the youngest of viewers. It’s targeted very well at the tween and younger market, particularly for those looking for something fluffy and silly, rather than serious. My biggest issue is I’d like to see them broaden out who is included.

Fourth World – Lyssa Chiavari

Fourth World CoverSeries: The Iamos Trilogy, #1
First Published: 28th December, 2015
Genre: Young Adult Science Fiction / Novel
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Isaak lives on Mars and discovers something that hints at the history of the planet. Nadin lives on Iamos and her people are threatened with destruction.

The beginning of the book focuses on Isaak, with Nadin coming into it later on. It’s clear from the start that they’re both on Mars in different times. Isaak is literally digging up Nadin’s history, as he assists on a geology dig site.

I liked the worldbuilding of Iamos. Its culture has hints of ancient Earth civilisations, but it isn’t exactly like any one of those. There’s a strict caste system, eugenics, and other markings of a totalitarian regime presenting itself as being for the good of the people.

Mars is not so strong. It felt very present day, from pop culture references to technology. I shouldn’t be able to recognise everything in a book set in the future, because there should have been new things appearing during the passage of time. Even if that’s just a new band or book series that’s the current big thing.

I enjoyed the overall story, as it focuses on how corporations and governments keep things from people for the benefit of those at the top. It’s a slow build at first as Isaak and friends figure out what’s happening, then speeds up once Nadin’s part gets going. There are some resolutions at the end, but this isn’t really a standalone story.

The cast is generally diverse when it comes to race and sexuality. Isaak is Latino and Nadin is non-white. The supporting characters are various races, and one of Isaak’s friends has two mothers. There’s some bigotry, such as slurs aimed at one of Isaak’s friends, but mostly these things are accepted without much comment.

Isaak is demisexual, which is made clear later on as he says it directly. Given that, I did wonder at Isaak suddenly going off on love and sex being what makes people human. Nadin is asexual but is still figuring it out and thinks of herself as broken. There’s some forced intimate contact (hugs and kisses). It’s not that any of this is unrealistic, as asexual people can internalise the message that love/sex are required to be human and something is wrong with them. Sexual assault is a common risk, along with blaming the asexual person for viewing it as assault. But it’s not really a portrayal with happy endings, at least as far as this book goes. It’s possible it’ll come around in future books in the series. I hope it does, because this would be a bad place to leave things.

Disability isn’t touched on in a major way. Where it’s referenced, it isn’t positive. Words like lame, spaz and moron are used. Crazy and psycho are aimed at people who might be dangerous. Isaak’s mother has motion sickness, but it’s not described that way. Instead, “she always insisted VR gave her motion sickness.” The wording casts doubt on that, as it isn’t that she has motion sickness, it’s that she says she does. As someone who gets motion sick frequently, I can assure readers that the vomit googles really do cause issues, and motion sickness is really real.

This is an entertaining read. The plot interested me enough to want to know what happens next. However, I’m cautious about where the relationships are going. The asexual experiences weren’t unrealistic, but they were realistic in a rather sad way, so there’s a lot resting on how the series resolves that.

Dead Air – Michelle Schusterman

Dead Air CoverSeries: The Kat Sinclair Files, #1
First Published: 1st September, 2015
Genre: Middle Grade Urban Fantasy / Novel
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK | Penguin Random House

Kat Sinclair’s dad gets a new job presenting a ghost-hunting TV show. Kat goes with him and starts a behind-the-scenes blog, but there’s more going on than she ever imagined.

Kat is dealing with family issues. Her mother has left. This gives Kat the freedom to find her own style, such as finally being able to cut her hair and wear horror t-shirts. She also gets on a lot better with her dad and grandmother (from her mother’s side). But at the same time, she’s angry her mother left. The children Kat meets on the set also have their own family issues to face. The parents here aren’t shown as one-sided evil people or as always getting it right. They’re realistic families trying to figure things out.

The internet features prominently. Each chapter opens with things like emails, blog posts and forum comments. Kat writes her blog as well as staying in touch with friends and family. It covers the positive things, like people being able to share their interests. It also covers the darker sides, of death threats and obsessive fans. I liked that it handled those issues without making it sound like the internet was the start of them. Kat’s own grandmother had a stalker when she was younger. The tools change, but there will always be people who take it too far.

There is a dash of the supernatural here, but the heart of the story is really the people, rather than the ghosts. Kat has to deal with Oscar, who is about her age. They’re both being homeschooled by the show’s intern Mi Jin. And there’s the whole issue of why the show has such a high turnover of hosts. The mystery unfolds at a reasonable pace. It was obvious to me long before it was to Kat, but that does mean it’s something the reader can figure out.

One of the crew, Lidia, has a congenital heart condition. She has a pacemaker, takes medicine, and has seizures. I did have concerns that this might be written off as having a supernatural cause. Seizures often get shown as something mystical rather than actual seizures. That doesn’t happen here. Some things might aggravate her symptoms, but it isn’t suggested that her heart condition was due to anything other than natural causes. However, I wasn’t fond of the plot requiring the triggering of seizures, as in reality, there’s never a good reason to do this.

Kat is biracial, with a white mother and black father. Her father is the one who appears the most in the story. Mi Jin is presumably Korean American based on her name, though it isn’t stated. There’s a gay supporting character. Generally, these things are handled with a light touch. The plot isn’t focused on them, but they aren’t missable.

This is a fun ghostly adventure, with references to classic horror films, and some new creepy tales of its own. There is some discussion of death (the ghosts tend to have died in bad circumstances), death threats and related violence. It’s handled at an age-appropriate level.

[A copy of this book was received from the publisher for review purposes]

Pokémon Go: My First Adventure

Developer: Niantic
First Release: 6th July, 2016
Version Played: iPhone 5S (iOS)
Length: Endless
Available: Android and Apple iOS

Pokémon Go is an augmented reality (AR) game that runs on mobile devices. It’s based on the popular Pokémon series of games, with the general theme of catching, evolving and fighting cartoon animals. Game locations are in the real world, encouraging players to travel around. The basic game is free, though players can buy items to help them.

This is a journal of my first Pokémon Go adventure, as well as my overall thoughts on the game. I’ve played a few of the Nintendo DS Pokémon titles. This includes the one that came with a pedometer that let players earn things by walking. It turned out this was an issue, as I played those games in the USA, and I had a trainer account set to that region. I couldn’t change my region or my display name for the old account, which seems like really obvious things people might want to change. I had to start a new account. So the account side of it was not exactly at the cutting edge of account management systems, but at least I could get that set up in advance.

Something that’s an improvement on previous titles is it asks the player to choose a style, rather than asking if they’re a boy or a girl. I prefer it being framed as how I want my character to look, rather than my own gender (unless the game is going to actually let me enter my gender). In general though, there are very few options for the characters, which is an odd choice in a social game.

I caught my starter, a Bulbasaur, at home. The mechanism is to flick the ball on the screen with a finger. It’s a little tricky, but I got there in the end. Over the next few days, it became apparent there was a colony of bug Pokémon in the garden, as there were little flurries of leaves on the map and a few wandered inside. There were also quite a lot of bats over the road, in the house where someone was murdered, which was creepily accurate.

The game instructions are very sparse. I can understand why people think they have to walk towards Pokémon that appear on the map, because it seems logical. However, it isn’t required. As soon as they appear, they can be tapped and the catching process will begin. I could get those bats in the murder house without leaving my house.

starter

Image Caption: My hand holding a phone in my sitting room. On the screen, the image seen through the phone camera is shown. Bulbasaur (a green dinosaur with a plant bulb on the back) is sitting on a computer tower. A Poké Ball is on screen, with an arrow and hand icon showing how to throw it.

Finally, it was time, and the main adventure began. My fellow traveller was Spiritunicorn, because safe trainers go together, to deal with those really big Pokémon. We hadn’t gone far before a child shouted, “Excuse me. Are you playing Pokémon Go!?” I nodded, and they gave us a thumbs up. I’m apparently accidentally fashionable again. It happens sometimes.

There turned out to be quite a few PokéStops and Gyms nearby. The PokéStops let the player spin a coin for some rewards, such as more Poké Balls to catch Pokémon. The Gyms are where people can battle, but we were too low level for that at the start. All went well as we collected items and caught a few Pokémon on the way. We tried not to think too much about why we trusted this strange guy on the basis that he said he was a scientist. Why does he need all those Pokémon? What’s he doing with them? What’s actually in these pieces of candy we’re getting as rewards? I’m not saying this stranger was illegally harvesting animals, hiring children he could bribe with sweets without too many questions being asked, and liquidising the animals for his experiments. But it doesn’t exactly look like a proper catch and release programme to me.

Anyway, the choice of PokéStops was interesting. Quite a few are signs for things, rather than the things. An example is one sign that’s placed right next to the tower blocks. Unlike many towns, mine only has these few towers, so they’re a distinctive landmark. Other PokéStops were things like temporary artwork that was no longer there, so they’re lagged behind in history.

pokestop

Image Caption: On the right, a pale tower block with a sky blue stripe running down it. In front of the building is a sign with a map saying “Welcome to Greater Hollington”. The sign is the PokéStop. On the left, the image from the phone screen, showing a Spearow (bird Pokémon) sitting by the building, waiting to be caught.

We continued on towards the coast and the sea mist rolled in. I finally hit the level to join a team, which I did at the next Gym. It was a brick church with a tower. As the Gyms look like little towers on the map, this seemed rather apt. I went with Team Mystic because blue is a nice colour.

mapgym

Image Caption: On the right, a red brick church tower. On the left, the phone screen showing a character standing on a 3D map. Two gym towers are shown. The yellow one on the left is the church tower.

The available Pokémon should change based on the environment, which was clear on our outward route. Home had lots of bugs and a few birds. Asda had a bunch of rats around the back. And the coast had weird tentacle monsters and little lobsters with mushroom ears. The PokéStops also got a lot more historical as we moved into the older parts of town. One marked the house of Elsie Bowerman, a suffragette. Another marked the stone on the divide between the two towns, which is about the only sign it is two towns.

elsie

Image Caption: A blue history plaque on a wall, which is a PokéStop. The writing reads: Elsie Bowerman / 1889 – 1973 / Suffragette, Barrister and Survivor of the ‘Titanic’ disaster lived here / Hastings Borough Council.

Heading further into town, we stopped for lunch and to look around the shops. Pokémon Go players were everywhere. The town centre has a number of PokéStops, including the cricketer statue just outside the shopping centre. But other than Game promoting preorders of the next Pokémon DS title, the shops really weren’t getting in on it. If they’d had cuddly toys and other similar things, I’m sure people would have bought them.

Once we left town, we went through the park. The mist thinned, meaning it was a good time to recharge phones. Spiritunicorn has all the gadgets, so we plugged the phones into a solar panel. The game needs to be running in order to count the distance travelled, so it is hard on batteries.

solar

Image Caption: A portable solar panel on a wooden bench. Two phones are plugged in.

Across from our recharge point was another Gym, which I decided to try. It’s a war memorial with a figure on the top, because I have a thing about Gyms that look a bit like the Gym icons on the map.

It wasn’t an epic battle. I did manage to damage the Gym guardian a bit though. I bet that stung for a few seconds. It’s trickier than usual Pokémon games, as it isn’t turn based. Dodging and attacking are done in real time. It’s hard to say how good I was at that, as my Pokémon were so underpowered.

gym

Image Caption: On the right, a white pillar with a statue on top, viewed across the water. A flock of pigeons are between the pillar and the water. On the left, the phone screen showing a Paras (orange lobster with mushroom ears) fighting a Hypno (yellow biped).

Another unexpected thing about battles is the healing system. Potions are the only way of healing them up. I would have liked to see an alternative to this, like having Pokémon heal over time or by travelling a certain distance.

By the time we got to the end of the park, our phones were getting very low on batteries. We turned them off and headed home. All in all, we walked about 15km (9 miles). It only used 20MB of my phone’s data allowance, though this may be on the low side as the maps would have loaded through my home Wi-Fi. I caught many Pokémon and got a few nice shots through the game’s camera system.

pokemon

Image Caption: Three images taken with the game’s own camera system. Left is a Paras (orange lobster with mushroom ears) on a shingle beach, with the water and mist in the distance. Centre is a Pidgey (bird) on grey pavement stones, with people and scaffolding in the background. Right is a Zubat (blue bat) flying in a garden, next to a standing stone with a hole in it. All pictures have the username (PolenthBlake) placed in the lower right corner.

Our last adventure was close to home, where local players have taken to gathering in a church lych gate. It has a roof and is in range of two PokéStops. The police had evidently been called, though not for one of the players. The person of interest to the police was someone who just couldn’t stop talking. “I didn’t do that. Well, maybe that one time, but not today. Okay, maybe more than once, but not in the last ten minutes.” I do wonder if crime will go down in that area (it has a particular problem with people dumping rubbish) due to the number of people with mobile phones there at all hours.

Heading home meant collecting my thoughts about the game. An obvious one was accessibility. For someone who can leave the house, it isn’t required to actually walk. It uses distance rather than detecting walking gait, so wheelchairs and mobility scooters can also travel the distance. Players don’t have to visit certain PokéStops and Gyms, so can stick to those in accessible areas. This isn’t a game that would work very well for someone who can’t leave the house. It is possible to catch a few Pokémon at home, but it’d mean not getting new supplies at the PokéStops, not being able to hatch eggs, and all the rest.

Catching Pokémon could be tricky for some people, as it requires swiping the ball in the right direction. Some sort of automatic throw on tap would have been a good idea. It’s not like it’d harm the game if some people used the feature who didn’t need it, as catching the Pokémon is more about enjoying the AR.

My main criticism of accessibility in a nutshell: there aren’t alternative ways for doing things or options to customise the game controls.

I also think the instructions need work, as so little is explained. This is particularly true of how to catch Pokémon, as it’s not clear that the player doesn’t have to move towards them, and can keep going until they’re safe before they tap them. For example, one popped up while I was crossing a road. I had time to cross the road and step to the side of the path (out of anyone else’s way), before tapping the Pokémon and starting the catching sequence. Someone who doesn’t know that might think they have to stop in the road or cross back to get closer to the Pokémon.

Criticisms aside, it’s a very fun game. It’s not required to buy things to take part, outside of paying phone costs. Moving between free Wi-Fi areas would be an alternative, as town centres often have PokéStops and Gyms and places with free Wi-Fi. It was fun to see so many others playing the game, including adults, families with young children, and groups of teenagers. People who weren’t playing were still discussing Pokémon, such as reminiscing about the previous games. Everyone who spoke to us was friendly. This was a welcome change, particularly given the current political climate, where the “Go back where you came from!” brigade is out in force.

All I need now is some more Bulbasaurs, so I can feed candy made from their ground-up bones to my own Bulbasaur, and take over the world for Team Mystic. It’s a simple goal.

The Days of Tao – Wesley Chu

Days of Tao CoverSeries: Tao, #3.5
First Published: 30th April, 2016
Genre: Science Fiction / Novella
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK | Subterranean

Cameron Tan is studying in Greece when he’s called up for a secret mission. Another agent has important information, and needs help getting out of the country.

The concept of the story was interesting. There are two rival alien groups, who live inside human hosts. The alien brings knowledge to their host, but not amazing superpowers. This gives the whole thing more of a spy action vibe, as no one is a bullet sponge.

I also enjoyed the opening. It starts with Nazar, the agent who has to get out of Greece. He’s competent and has a complex past. But this is the only time he really gets development, as he doesn’t have any other sections from his perspective. I didn’t understand why he couldn’t escape on his own, as he’d have been much safer. Having a damaged arm (from an injury years back) was not a good reason. It made him distinctive, but it’s not like the escape plan was ever to walk through border control. This was a very weak reason for needing help.

I wasn’t particularly interested in Cameron Tan, the actual main character. He’s the classic inept slacker guy, who for some reason keeps getting important tasks to do. I got the impression I was supposed to find that hilarious, especially the repeated joke about low grades in art history. The first half of the story is mostly how funny it is that he’s terrible at stuff, and everything else is happening painfully slowly.

Then there’s a sudden shift when the group gets moving. There are too many characters, and everything’s going too fast, for them to get any development. It’s hard to really get inside the difficult choices Cameron has to make when the people around him are so flat. The tone also goes from laugh-at-the-funny-guy to death-and-angst. Which is the realistic outcome of choosing someone incompetent for a task. This did raise my interest in the book. But people who enjoyed the first part might find that change a downer.

All in all, this story didn’t work for me at novella length. Fewer characters and a tighter opening half would have done a lot. I’m sure readers who’ve been following the series will like it, and it does appear to set up some things for future stories. It’s probably not the best introduction to the world though.

[A copy of this book was received from the publisher for review purposes]