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]

Crowdfunding Arrivals: Mewshrooms and Vampires

I have been known to support crowdfunding campaigns, which means I sometimes get shiny things. Or very fungusy things. Here are my crowdfunding rewards crops for the season.

First is the mewshroom by Stitchmind (Andrew E. Yang). The mewshroom is a mushroom cat toy, who quickly settled in helping with the decorations.

Mushroom cat toy with tinsel

Image Caption: A cuddly toy mushroom cat. The cat has a large red head with embroidered white spots, a white body, frill just under the cap, and a fluffy ball on the end of its tail. The mewshroom is playing with tinsel on a festive plaid backdrop (red and green with gold strands).

Mushroom cat toy with snowflake ornament

Image Caption: Mewshroom faces forwards, showing two dark eyes and an embroidered nose. It stands on a sparkly snowflake ornament.

I backed the campaign at the level for just the toy, though also got a sticker and badge thrown in. The fur is soft and it does stand up despite the huge cap. They come in other colours, but I went with traditional red. Stitchmind has a website where the toys are on sale, and a Zazzle store with related merchandise.

Second is an ebook of Certain Dark Things by Silvia Moreno-Garcia. This is a vampire novel set in Mexico City. I haven’t read it yet, but I’ll review it when I do. Tinsel probably doesn’t say horror and vampires, but it has some black in it so I’m sure that counts. I own a lot of tinsel.

Silvia has a website with more about her writing, and the book is for sale on Amazon.

Book cover on an iPad with tinsel around it

Image Caption: An iPad on a background of silver/black tinsel and cloth. The screen shows the cover of Certain Dark Things: a face in black and white, with fire and red patterns overlaid. The iPad camera is covered by a sparkly mushroom sticker.

Camp Midnight – Steven T. Seagle (writer), Jason Adam Katzenstein (artist)

Camp Midnight CoverFirst Published: 3rd May, 2016
Genre: Middle Grade Horror / Graphic Novel
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Skye doesn’t want to spend the summer with her dad and step-mother. It turns out they don’t want her around either, and send her to summer camp. A confusion means she ends up at Camp Midnight, where everyone is a monster. Except for Skye and possibly her new friend Mia.

This is a fun graphic novel, dealing with some difficult issues in an accessible way. Skye has been hurt by her parent’s divorce. She reacts by lashing out at everyone, without considering how her rudeness and sarcastic responses might hurt people. Something she has to face at the camp is how throw-away comments can end up hurting people, no matter what the intent.

The story runs through the whole time at the camp, from getting her choice of bunk on arrival to taking part in special events. The main focus is her friendship with Mia, though she also has to deal with the popular girls and a crush on a cute boy. The latter two aspects are nothing new, but the friendship with Mia is great. I was rooting for them both to find their place at the camp and beyond.

I liked the handling of consent issues. Mia doesn’t like being touched. Though she might sometimes be okay with it, sometimes she doesn’t want to. Skye accepts this and finds a touchless alternative to shaking hands. It’s nice to see a clear statement that if someone says no to something, you respect that, no matter how snarky you are.

I’m rather lukewarm on depictions of witches as fantasy monsters, but I don’t have any specific criticism here. The witch in charge of the camp is shown as a person and obviously cares about the campers. It’s not bad as such depictions go.

Each page has a limited colour palette, apart from an occasional frame intended to stand out. For example, one page may be greens and blues, and another page may be in oranges. This adds to the spooky atmosphere. The composition hints at monsters, with backgrounds forming faces and monstrous shadows. It’s well spaced, with a few panels on each page, and writing at a comfortable reading size. The art is a perfect match for the story.

This book is on the borderline between upper middle grade and lower young adult. The main themes are friendship and dealing with family issues, but there is some early teen stuff like her crush. It’s ideal for readers in that middling area.

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

Book Launch: Sunstruck – Bigfoot Urban Fantasy

I had the cunning plan to launch the book on my birthday. This might have worked, if I hadn’t also got a helping of viral friends for my birthday. But a few days later than intended, it’s go time. Sunstruck is an urban fantasy novel with Bigfoot. More about the book and the launch is below.

Sunstruck Cover

 

Book Description

The Spokane Ecology Board covers up supernatural incidents, under the pretence of enforcing environmental laws. It’s a dull job of sightseeing thunderbirds and pixie outbreaks. Until the team gets murdered.

Ari is the replacement team’s Bigfoot liaison. Armed with everything she’s learned from detective shows, she’s ready to find the murderer. The downside is the job comes with a human partner, who smells of air freshener and lines up his desk like a math project. He’s only a scientist, so it’s not like he knows anything about magical crimes.

Ben Cabot grew up hearing stories about Bigfoot, but they failed to mention a love of the internet or an aversion to throwing wrappers away. But there’s more out of place than an untidy work partner. Someone’s messed with the case files, and that means the killer might be closer than they think.

I have a three chapter sample on my website. Some vendors also have their own samples. I always recommend reading the sample before buying. The book is currently available on Amazon US, Amazon UK and Smashwords. A comprehensive (and regularly updated) list of sellers is found on the book’s official page.

 

About the Series

The books are set in an alternate version of Spokane, Washington. They’re told from two points-of-view – Ari and Ben. The balance between the two narrators will depend on the book. Sunstruck has more from Ari. The next book (Conduit) will have more from Ben. After that, it’ll vary.

It’s an open-ended series, where each book has a stand-alone mystery (though it’ll help to read them in the right order).

 

Cupcakes

In the tradition of launch cupcakes, I made Bigfoot faces. These aren’t my most technically skilled decorating jobs, but they are very chocolatey. So, here’s to Bigfoot and launches. I hope you enjoy the book!

Bigfoot Cupcakes

# If you want to note it for later elsewhere, I’ve tweeted about it and have a post on Tumblr. The book also has a page on Goodreads.

Secret World – Act One Roundup

Dead on a bridge
I reviewed urban fantasy/horror MMO The Secret World shortly after it came out. Since then, I’ve played through the main storyline available at launch and tried out a number of the other activities in the game. The first special event (Hallowe’en) has also happened.

These are my updated thoughts on issues of gameplay and representation.

 

Gameplay

Storyline – Act One

The main story remains strong throughout. A story mission guides the player through each region. Mini stories link each of the areas, and these mini stories vary depending on the character’s faction. The story themes are as follows:

  • Solomon Islands – Zombie invasion, Wabanaki (Native American), Norse.
  • Egypt – Biblical plagues, Aten (Sun Cult), Ancient Egyptian Gods.
  • Transylvania – Forest folklore, vampires, Soviet era, Roma.

Recurring themes are sun cults (including a modern New Age cult, which runs through several of the zones), the Filth (dark stuff that corrupts people) and the Orochi group (a Japanese mega-corporation). Along the way, you learn more about Gaia and your own place in things.

There are several points where you have to make a choice. It could broadly be defined as a choice between good and evil, but it’s a little more complicated than that. You’re never really sure which is which, or whether evil has a point. Good has its own agenda and it may be evil is the one telling the truth. It’s been implied the choices will impact later on the game world or characters, but so far, it’s uncertain in what way.

New quests are released in small batches at regular intervals. There were two general updates, and then the Hallowe’en quest line. My main complaint is about Hallowe’en, as they said the event would run until the first week of November in one announcement… but they ended it on the morning of November 1st. This didn’t give enough time, as many people would have used the weekend after Hallowe’en to finish it (especially those hit by the hurricane). I hope next year they take on board the feedback, and reactivate the quests from this year (as well as any new quests they design for that year).

End Game

The end game does have issues. The main repeatable things are group dungeons (separate areas with a mini-story running through them) and lairs (where players spawn rare bosses to fight). The dungeons come in various difficulty levels, from normal to nightmare. Unfortunately, it’s very hard to get a group for anything above normal, unless you have gear from PvP. This is a player-created issue, but would be alleviated by having a better chance of decent gear in solo PvE play.

Accessibility

Right from the start, there was dialogue without subtitles. This has been improved. A lot more of the background comments have subtitles, but there will still be areas where it’s an issue. The community has taken this on board though, and walkthroughs will turn sound information into pictures.

My biggest accessibility problem has been player created, as it’s become very hard to find a cabal (guild) who doesn’t organise everything over voice chat. Text-only cabals are rare. This is likely to be an issue in any game, so I’m not blaming that on the developers. It’s just a pity it’s gone that way.

Factions

Now I’ve tried out factions, the Templars still remain the most interesting. They are utterly colonial, yet at the same time, they have a whole lot more diversity than the other factions. They’re also the only one your character chooses to join (the others practise forced recruitment). The (faction-specific) story mission between Egypt and Transylvania was one of the most atmospheric in the game, in a creepy horror way.

The Illuminati are rather mad science, and though that can appeal to me, it didn’t quite hit it here.

The Dragon were the least my thing. There are some good aspects. I like the work they did on Seoul. They used Korean voice actors for the parts of dialogue in Korean, which avoids the Firefly effect of people who don’t speak the language botching the words. Working in chaos theory gave a modern mathematical edge to dragon legends.

But overall, the Dragon intro is full of East Asian stereotypes. Silent tattooed men stand ominously. No one says what they mean. And all round, the mysteriousness is so thick there isn’t really a chance to get attached to your handlers. Less yellow peril would have gone a long way to making me like the Dragon.

 

Portrayals

Gender/Sex Neutrality

The game has an interesting design choice, in that it does not differentiate between male or female characters. Everyone takes the role of Sarah (a woman) in the tutorial flashback. The Templar guards (mixed male and female) will flirt with anyone. NPCs who make suggestive comments in their cutscenes do so to all player characters.

However, it is a little imbalanced. Though a few male NPCs do make suggestive remarks, it’s a blink-and-miss-it moment. This is in contrast to some female NPCs, where it’s very obvious. This could easily be balanced though, but having a few more male flirts.

Sexuality

The game normalises gay and bisexual behaviour. In some ways, it has to, due to having no male/female differentiation with player characters. But it’s shown directly in dialogue with characters too. In the first zone (Kingsmouth) Moose tells you he has feelings for Andy. It’s not immediately obvious if this is mutual, but Andy does talk about Moose a lot and the Hallowe’en cutscenes suggest Andy is considering a relationship. It’s not uncommon to have a gay man pining after a straight man, and calling it representation. It’s a way of avoiding having to actually show a relationship. But it looks like it’s not the road they’re heading down, based on Andy’s current reactions…

…though this may not be a surprise considering Egypt has a gay couple who appear in cut scenes together.

There’s apparently a lesbian character, but this is known because of what some of the other NPCs say about her. I haven’t found that dialogue yet.

Women

Women and girls continue to have varied roles in the story, including positions of power. The Roma storyline especially has some direct criticisms of sexism, both from the woman who acts as their lookout and the daughter of the leader. The latter directly confronts her father when he suggests the only reason an older man enjoys her company is her looks, telling him it’s messed up to think being pretty is her only worth.

There are points that made me wince, like the French women at the windmill where one uses gendered insults against the other, but overall, it’s pretty female-positive.

However, women are underrepresented in marginalised groups. Kingsmouth has two black men as NPCs, complete with missions and dialogue. It has one black woman, who is the voice of the zombie announcements, and who can’t be spoken to and has no missions. There are several gay men, but only one lesbian who you wouldn’t realise is unless you hear the right background dialogue.

Disability and Non-Neurotypical People

One NPC in Transylvania has facial scaring and is blinded in one eye. There’s also a woman in a wheelchair in London (who currently has no dialogue, but is set up as though she will have in the future).

A recurring trope is seeing unknowable things and going insane (something common in Lovecraftian horror). What interested me more is how people with pre-existing conditions or who were non-neurotypical were handled. That’s a bit mixed. I loved the sociopath headmaster, as it showed a positive side to it. By not being concerned about the people around him, he’s able to cope with everything that’s happened. It gives him an impartiality that lets him organise the school, without getting caught up in feelings of guilt or grief.

Not so hot was the man with a low mental age in Transylvania. He enjoys killing things, and about the only thing keeping him from killing humans is his mother. Though it’s clear she encouraged this behaviour in him, it’s a common trope to show low mental age people as violent, and it isn’t countered by any other more positive representations.

Belief Systems of Marginalised Groups

There are a number of marginalised groups, include a Roma group, a Native American Tribe, Egyptians and some references to voodoo in the Hallowe’en event. Some are better handled than others.

The Wabanaki – the Native American tribe (or more accurately, a confederacy of nations) – came across as reasonably well researched. They were shown as modern people, and the events in the game touch on the issue of lost cultural knowledge. The tribe remembers they shouldn’t dig somewhere, but their last medicine man is shot and no one left knows why they can’t dig and why it’s important.

I wasn’t as comfortable with the handling of the Roma (who appeared to be an entirely invented sub-group, with invented beliefs), though it does avoid things like the gypsy fortune-teller stereotype.

The voodoo references were too brief to really say, and in itself, I don’t think that’s a good thing… they have a Haitian market and a voodoo supply shop, so they could have NPCs and related missions. Voodoo should be a year-round religion, not kept as ‘black magic’ for Hallowe’en.

But the biggest area of discomfort are the sun cults. In the game story, the sun cults aren’t really worshipping the sun, but are being corrupted. This works fine for the invented New Age cult. It’s getting a little dubious at Aten. I couldn’t see any signs of a continuing tradition of Aten worship from an internet search, but it may exist. However, once we hit the Mayans, I wasn’t happy… it strayed too far into the North Native Americans being good and South Native Americans being bad (as the context is a battle between the Mayans and the Wabanaki). Unlike Egypt (where a village of everyday people is shown), this example had no ordinary Mayans to act as a counter to the corrupted Mayans.

 

Final Thoughts

The game still has aspects that need improvement and areas where the portrayals could be better. However, I’m still enjoying the storytelling and they’ve got me interested in how it’s going to end. I like the prominent women, non-white and gay characters, and would like to see this extended to other groups.

I have some cautions, in that it’s a horror game and some characters will die. I hope they focus on killing off non-marginalised characters, because it’s far too common to kill off the black and gay characters first. And there are a lot more non-marginalised characters to kill, so it’s not like there’s a lack of other choices.

A Wabanaki gathering

The Wabanaki (…with two exceptions. I’m the centre character with the cross on my back. To the far left is Boone, a white man, who is there with his partner Jack.)