Book Review: Jack Blank and the Imagine Nation

Now, here’s my story of how I found Jack Blank. My 10 year old son and I had just finished reading aloud a book and we panic (not really) when there is nothing in our Queue. (not really true … we have stacks of books but still …. ) Luckily, we have a public library (cheering now) and so, we ventured there on Saturday morning, and as he sat on the ground with a pile of graphic novels and comics, I perused the shelves.

I had no plan for choosing our next read aloud. You ever go into a library with no plan? Just let your eyes wander and see what they will see? Pull books out. Look them over. Put them back. Move a few feet. Pull. Back. Look. Move. I do it all the time, and I have come to mostly trust my instincts, even though I realize that cover design and titles of books play an important role in getting my attention in the stacks. So be it. I am sure there are folks in publishing companies whose entire jobs is to make sure their book hooks my attention. I am a happy fish most of the time.

That’s how I came to find Jack Blank and the Imagine Nation. (And later realized, with some confusion, that an earlier version was called The Accidental Hero.) Anyway, the title was intriguing. The cover was pretty cool looking, sort of echoes of Percy Jackson. We took the thick book home, dove in and got hooked pretty quickly. While my son is often the first to notice how writers steal (*cough* borrow) from each other, and while he has made many observations about writer Mike Myklusch’s tale of Jack Blank having similar characteristics to other stories we and he have read, that has not stopped either of us from devouring this story on a daily basis, and now we are on to the next book in the trilogy (The Secret War).

Maybe it has to with the superhero theme or how comic books inform the first part of the story. Whatever. We are locked in tight with 12 year old Jack Blank, whose past is sort of a mystery, and whose powers over machines and technology become a centerpiece in the fight against an alien invasion that uses viruses (human and cyber) in an attempt to destroy the Imagine Nation (where superheroes and others who believe in the unbelievable) and the Real World (where we all live .. most of us, anyway).

Myklusch is spinning a interesting story, full of action and the unknown, and I am surprised this one was never on our radar screen before. I had never heard of it. You want to hook adolescent boys into reading? Put Jack Blank in their heads and watch out. They will devour this book, and the second book is just as good (if not more layered than the first).

We’re in it until the end …

Peace (not blank),
Kevin

PS — Since I wrote this, and kept it in my draft folder, we finished The Secret War (thumbs up) and are now on the last book in the trilogy, The End of Infinity.

Book Review: The Moor’s Account

I love this line right near the end of The Moor’s Account by Laila Lalami, in which our protagonist — Estebanico — remarks about how those who tell the stories of history shape the history itself in the collective memories of those who come afterwards.

Moors Account

If only …

The Moor’s Account is a engrossing telling of the exploration of the Americas by the Spaniards, through the eyes of a Muslim slave — Mustafa al-Zamori, but whom the Spaniards named Estebanico. This hook by the talented Lalami gives the reader insights into the New World, in all of its wonders and all of its hardships. Lalimi notes in her acknowledgements that the story is fictional (thus, that quote I shared is sort of a meta-narrative anchor point), and that there is nothing known about the real Estevanico, who only gets mentioned in one line of one of the explorer’s own stories.

From that mention, Lalami spins a story of his life, and his travels, and finally, his freedom that comes from his wits and understanding of what freedom from enslavements — both physical as well as spiritual — means. Her story gives the Story of the America’s a new point from which to view history, and if that is not one of the purposes of writing, I don’t know what is.

Peace (in the explore),
Kevin

Book Review: The Peripheral

This book — The Peripheral — really requires the reader to dig in. You need to wrap your head around some pretty complex ideas about Time and Technology. William Gibson, whose books have supercharged our thinking (or at least, mine but probably yours, too … you just might not know it) around digital media, cyberspace and interactive media, does not write down to the reader.

What I am saying is that I am almost gave up on The Peripheral — and even had a post about reading frustration playing out in my head at one point — but I am now glad that I didn’t. But, yeah, I was angry at Gibson for the first few chapters because the story immerses you into something that you need to sort of figure out for yourself as you go along. Background knowledge? Not really activated. Gibson does not hand the story to you. Your brain will be firing on all cylinders here, trying to find some anchors to the world he has imagined.

I know I needed a quiet space (not easy in my household) for an extended stretch to allow this story to wash over me, to draw me in, and when that happened, I was hooked, line and sinker. Unfortunately, every time I put it down for a spell, I’d be lost for a bit when I got back into the story. Again … brain working.

I won’t give a full synopsis here, but the story centers on two characters — one from the future (or present) and another from the past (or present) whose time trajectory has been altered by the future (or present). Someone sees something they should not have seen while inside a game (or is it a game?), and someone else now wants that person dead. From this plotline, the story unfolds. Peripherals are live avatars of sorts that people use to interact in spaces in other times … oh heck … you’ll have to read it to understand it.

The upshot: Gibson is in fine form here as a writer whose visions of the possibility of technology create a fictional landscape where things are possible that you never thought were possible. It’s a wild ride in The Peripheral. And if you are lost and disoriented at times, blame Gibson, not me. It’s part of the story, I suspect.

Peace (in the peripheral),
Kevin

PS — here is an excerpt from the book.

Book Review: Gaming the System (Designing with Gamestar Mechanic)

This book – Gaming the System: Designing with Gamestar Mechanic — could not have arrived at a better time. I am knee-deep in our science-based video game design project right now, and while I have done gaming for a few years now and have a pretty solid handle on it, this look at game design through the lens of systems provides me with a fresh insight into the learning that is going on each day in my classroom.

The book is part of a series put out by MIT Press called INTERCONNECTIONS: Understanding Systems Through Digital Design.  There was a NWP Blogtalk radio show with the writers/editors that is worth checking out. I should note that I was an early reader of another book in this series, and received a free version of that book for my time and effort. But I did not read this one on gaming and bought for it myself. Also, the National Writing Project is one of the partners in the putting together the series, so I do know some of the folks involved.

This book, while somewhat pricey for a cash-strapped teacher, gives a powerful look at the potential of game design, connections to literacy and science standards, and plays out like a how-to guide for getting started and how to push kids further into complex thinking. It references Gamestar Mechanic as its base of game design (a site which I also use) and includes numerous screenshots, handouts, reference sheets and lesson plan ideas for implementing gaming in a constructivist approach.

And all of this is done through the lens of “systems,” which is a conceptual frame of thinking of the whole being a sum of its parts, and how changes in one part of the system change the whole. Think of weather patterns. Or political maps. Or airports. Or manufacturing. While those are pretty advanced systems to consider for young people, game design makes it real by bringing them into a system they understand, and showing how a designer’s intentional approach changes the system of the game. It’s a brilliant approach, really, and I realize now that I have been teaching Systems withou quite realizing it, and without using some of the domain specific vocabulary that I now have in my pocket for our work in the classroom.

Here is a quote that helps frame this concept:

A game can be considered a system because how the game is played and how the game play unfolds are the results of multiple interactions among different components … It’s important to be able to reflect not only on how a system might be functioning currently, but also on how a designer might have intended it to operate (or intended to change it). — page 200-201

I’ve bookmarked a fair number of pages in my copy of Gaming the System, and I intend to share it with my science colleague (whom is my partner in our game design project) and if my new principal walks in for an observation and wonders why everyone is playing video games in ELA class, I have some materials to help me make my case about the value of our science-based video game design project.

Peace (in the system),
Kevin

Book Review: Bad Unicorn

 

Bad Unicorn

I am not sure what to write about this one. I received Bad Unicorn as a donation from a parent at our annual book sale at our school and the title and the cover got my attention. As is usually the case, I took it home to read aloud with my youngest son.

Apparently, this is the first in a trilogy by Platte F. Clark. It tells the story of Max, who has found a magical book that can give him incredible powers. Meanwhile, the world itself has been “sundered” into three zones, with our Earth as we know it just one of those zones. Bad Unicorn, aka The Princess, comes from another zone, and she has been sent on a mission to kidnap Max and the book, and bring them back to a bad wizard.

Needless to say, the unicorn in question is not nice. She is a destroyer, full of powerful magic and a nasty attitude. Oh, and she likes how humans taste, so she is motivated on her mission because she is promised the state of Texas for lunch. Meanwhile, there are these dragons, disguised as humans … and the story gets way too convoluted to explain here. There are echoes of every adventure story you have read in Bad Unicorn. I can’t decide if that is good or bad, however.

What I can say is that the pace is quick, the humor flies fast and furious, and it was a rather enjoyable read-aloud. I just put the second book (Fluff Dragon) in my “to read” bin, as my son was wondering where the story continues. And we are all about keeping him reading …

Peace (in the magic),
Kevin

Where Arts and Science Intersect

I reviewed Walter Isaacson’s book, The Innovators, the other day. But his last few lines still resonate with me, particularly as I participate in the Digital Writing Month activities.

InnovatorsQuote

THIS is what I think about all the time as I write with technology. It is not the technology or the tool, or the subject area in which I am writing in or writing about, it is the ways in which the digital tools allow me to dance across all of those lines and make art.

You?

Peace (in the think),
Kevin

Book Review: The Innovators

Walter Isaacson covers familiar turf, for me anyway, on the history of the world of computing and technology, stretching back to the ground-breaking ideas of Charles Babbage and Lady Ada Byron Lovelace, to the present in his newest book, The Innovators. Knowing the stories here did not distract me from enjoying Isaacson’s book, however. His strong writing style and ability to put events and people into a perspective made for enlightening reading.

I particularly liked how Isaacson tried to draw out trends of the origins of innovation, building on recent ideas about how ideas often surface through collaboration, the “right cultural moment” and other factors more than individual genius and insights. Some innovations do get lost to the annals of time. Some get reborn. Some ideas are seeds to be planted and suddenly, bloom like crazy and change everything.

The thread of research and development investments by companies and the government run through the success stories here, as Isaacson notes it is often from these cauldrons of ideas that technology which transforms society emerge, although he does rightly point out that the modern start-up culture — with low overhead and quick adaptation to a changing market — is changing that paradigm of innovation, to some degree.

The Innovators is solid fast-moving tour guide of how we got to this moment, and Isaacson’s threads back to Lady Ada and her ideas on how machines might work in conjunction with people (and not to replace people)  is a masterful way of locating ideas on the timeline of history, even if ideas are not always ready for their own time.

Peace (compute),
Kevin

Comic Book Review: xkcd volume 0

Talk about context. There were many comics in this xkcd collection by Randall Munroe that were so over my head with the math and physics and programming ideas that my brain was spinning just to see if I could find a reference point. Sometimes, yes. Sometimes (often), no.

But that never stopped me from enjoying Monroe’s comedic flare for poking fun at things, and even when the scientific/mathematical concept was beyond my grasp, I still had fun reading his comics (which, he notes, are still freely available online if you don’t want to pony up for his book). His quirky takes on technology amuse me, and I like the simplicity of his drawings (although he can do more with a stick figure head to show emotion than anyone I know).

For example, all the notes and codes in the margins of the book? It’s beyond me, but I suspect some readers are having a blast deciphering the numbers and programming codes. I kept looking at them thinking, this is a whole other world that I know nothing about. It’s very humbling. Then I’d start laughing at a joke that I did get, and that was satisfying.

(One note for teachers: this ain’t a classroom-friendly book, although pieces of it would be fine to share with older students. There are plenty of funny sex and profanity references.)

Peace (in the frame),
Kevin

Book Review: The Penderwicks

You would think we would have read this book by now. The author is local, my wife knows the husband of the writer, and the book got pretty good publicity and reviews (and some awards) when it came out. But … a tale of four sisters in a summer cottage … not a big draw for my son. But his book club chose The Penderwicks and so, into the story we went … and ver glad for it, we are.

In fact, the book is a nice reprieve from so many of the action-orientated novels that we have been reading together lately. A tale that reminds one of the English manners books (whose genre my wife adores), The Penderwicks is centered on characters as much as plot, with the sisters coming to life on the page as they help a neighboring boy deal with his overbearing mother’s plans to send him to military school.

I won’t give the story away, but you will come to know the sisters well. The gentle adventures that take up these pages are lovingly told, with strong writing. You’ll care about the Penderwick sisters — Rosalind, the oldest with the burden of being the oldest on her shoulders; Skye, the quick-to-anger and quick-to-defend-the-family sister; Jane, the young writer with an imagination as large as the sky; and young Batty, whose friendship with the family dog, Hound, had my son and I giggling at times because her dog reminded us of our dog (Duke, also a hound).

I’m glad we found The Penderwicks and may seek the sisters out again in the sequels.

Peace (in the story),
Kevin

Envisioning a Transmedia Story

The Mouse Problem

The first week’s prompt at Digital Writing Month – to create a transmedia project of sorts — has me revisiting an old story. I started this back when I began teaching the book, Regarding the Fountain (by Kate Klise), as a way to talk about inference and different media to tell a story. Her book is told entirely in artifacts. It’s a hoot, too.

The Mouse Problem is my attempt to do the same, in hopes I might get my students to create their own artifact story, too. So, here I am, back with The Mouse Problem, trying to move it along by adding more media to it. (I have two classes reading Regarding the Fountain right now, so this is good timing for me). The story is a mystery story, with a play on words.

There is a page (it is written in Powerpoint) in which an anonymous caller rings up the newspaper reporter. This morning, I used Soundcloud to record the conversation. I’ll weave it into the book at some other time, in some way. (Although I feel as if I should add sound effects to the audio, too).  

I am thinking of other media that can be integrated to tell the story, too. For example, could I design a simple video game, for some sort of chase? How about a Vine video for a television reporter?

And how will I embed all this media in a meaningful way? Working on it …

Peace (in the think),
Kevin