“The Blackwell Epiphany”

"The Blackwell Epiphany" — Kimia Wood

The Blackwell games are point-and-click puzzle adventures in the paranormal detective genre.

The premise: Rosangela Blackwell (and her aunt Lauren Blackwell) and “mediums” who seek out troubled spirits, help them realize their death, and send them to “the light” of the next world. Joey Mallone is their snarky “spirit guide” who bridges the gap between spirit world and living world.

The first four games blended humor and creepy with some excellent writing, then ended on a little bit of a cliffhanger (especially if you knew there was a sequel).

Blackwell Epiphany is that sequel. While it’s not all I might wish it to be, it ends the series on a high note of emotional story-telling and professional game design. Continue reading

Magnum, PI, Another Again

Lots of people Magnum, PI, Another Again — Kimia Woodhave talked about the repetitive, unimaginative products Hollywood has been offering us lately…and with much more analysis and detail than I could.

I just want to make a brief comment about a recent reboot that high-lights just how desperate and irrational this phobia of original concepts is.

Magnum, PI

Dad introduced us to this show as part of “pop culture” class. I also watched some episodes on my own, and enjoyed the mystery, the adventure, the detective work, and the charm of Tom Selleck.

Here’s the premise, in my own words:

Thomas Magnum, a Vietnam veteran, now works as a private investigator in Hawaii. He ostensibly works for the reclusive author Robin Masters, whose estate he lives at, and has a strained relationship with Masters’ estate caretaker, Higgins.

Higgins is an older man, a veteran of the First World War, and a straight-laced counterpoint to Magnum’s Hawaiian-shirt-wearing energy.

There. Lots of room for plot, as episodes explored Magnum’s war experiences (his two best friends served alongside him), enjoyed the tropical setting, and pitted the mirthless, proper Higgins against Magnum’s fun-loving demeanor and eclectic working schedule.

The Reboot

CBS has brought the show back – well, as an updated, readjusted form of itself.

Thomas Magnum is now a Hispanic veteran of Afghanistan. This is great. Hispanics can be good-looking, there’s no reason a Hispanic veteran wouldn’t live in Hawaii (and decide to be a PI), and the casting openly acknowledges that you can’t re-create Tom Selleck, so why try?

Just do your own thing, and do it well.

The bigger problem is that “Jonathan” Higgins has been turned into “Juliet” Higgins. As Laura Finch in WORLD Magazine put it, “I think we all know how that story ends.”

And that’s the problem.

This is “supposed” to be Magnum, PI. Part of the whole dynamic there is the conflict between Higgins and Magnum…the old man and the young man…the Brit and the American…the class act and the bend-the-rules…the suit and the Hawaiian shirt…the straight-faced professional and the emotionally-invested professional.

The bickering of two men who didn’t see eye-to-eye, and the grudging respect they gain for each other through long seasons of working together (and saving each other’s lives) was a profound and unique dynamic.

Now…there’s Magnum and Juliet.

As soon as it’s a man and a woman, you have sexual tension. That’s just how it works. A male and female can’t have the same platonic working relationship that two people of the same gender can.

The writer in WORLD already spelled it out. We can all smell where this story is heading. Even if the writers decide to toy with our expectations, and these two don’t get together, the fact that there’s this possibility turns all their interactions on their heads.

Now, a “grudging respect” might be “flirty bickering”. Juliet complaining about Magnum’s methods might be a romantic rebuttal, or an emotionally confused statement (she’s attracted, but doesn’t want to be, so it taints her professional decision-making…or vice versa) – rather than a plain statement about their different working mentalities.

(The new writers also want her to be a “strong female”, with MI6 experience and the skills to defend herself, thank you very much. Whatever, people.)

Another, Again…Except Not

Could a story about a man and a woman in antagonistic professional circumstances be compelling? Could the tale of how they bond over shared adventures and intrigue (both pulling their weight – in a masculine sense – ala Mr. Incredible and the kick-butt ElastaGirl) be entertaining and meaningful?

Sure. But it’s not the story of the original Magnum, PI.

I enjoyed the original. I enjoyed how Higgins and Magnum didn’t really like each other, thought the other one was much too ____, but still had each other’s backs in every sticky situation. It was a uniquely male dynamic, and refreshingly so.

In private, Magnum would troll Higgins, and Higgins would scold Magnum. But when bad stuff hit the fan, they put their personal relationship in the back seat, and worked together to win.

Turning one of these characters into a woman automatically makes the personal relationship a key issue. Women are much more “personal relationship” oriented than men are…and men forming relationships with women have a much harder time not making those relationships “personal” (think of the deep, innate urge to save the princess – even if she’s a jerk).

Even if Magnum and Juliet are both mature, rational adults, you can’t put a man and a woman in a room and not have tension. Further, they’re going to approach whatever problems they face from a male or a female perspective – regardless of whatever cultural, demographic, religious, philosophical, and experiential differences they might have with each other.

To pretend this new show is Magnum, PI, but to change this foundational element, is both disappointing and confusing.

I probably wouldn’t watch the new show either way, because we don’t have a television. (And my brother got more exercised about the gender-swap than I did.) But I really wanted to connect this new show to the issue I started with…the regurgitation of media.

Just do your own thing, and do it well!

What if, once upon a time, a writer had a new premise idea for a great TV show:

Tomas Colt is a Hispanic former SEAL turned private investigator, using his combat skills in the private sector. He lives on the estate of a reclusive author, and has a tense relationship with the estate’s caretaker Juliet, who doesn’t approve of his professional methods and standards.

Little does he suspect she is former MI6, and critiques his detecting and problem-solving techniques because of her own experience in the field…

Well? Why didn’t they do that?

Why did they say, “This is that exact same show you used to love, except with younger actors and good graphics…and also diversity”?

Instead of, “If you loved Magnum, PI, you’ll also love this new show that has some similar elements, but is exploring its own themes for a modern audience! Please tune in to Colt, PI!”

Why? Right when writing coaches and analysts around the internet are bemoaning the lack of originality and risk-taking in modern media…why would they take an old show, change one of its foundational tenants, and try to feed us the same old thing only more diverse?

Just do your own thing, and do it well!

I just watched a YouTube video about how the live-action Beauty and the Beast did the same thing…”fixed” non-existent problems of sexism and bigotry, and created new problems of character motivation, plot inconsistency, irrational bigotry, and emotional impact. (language cautions)

And in case you think I’m a cynic who just hates all female characters, try this YouTube video that explains we just want good female characters…and to not have the writers’ virtue-signaling meta-agenda shoved down our throats.

Sure, let’s make new stories. But let’s make new stories. And let’s be intentional about the dynamics, character motivations and interactions, and thematic assumptions that go into our stories.

Do your own thing…just do it well.


Header picture is from WORLD Magazine.

Magnum, PI, Another Again — Kimia WoodKimia Wood currently lives somewhere in the American midwest, bracing for the collapse of society by knitting, baking, writing, hobby-farming, and reading as much Twitter as possible before the web goes dark.

Subscribe to the mailing list for a FREE e-copy of her post-apocalyptic adventure novella Soldier! You’ll also receive periodic updates of her latest reading and writing adventures.

“Myst IV: Revelation”

"Myst IV: Revelation" — Kimia Wood I fell in love with the Myst games a long time ago. The photo-realistic worlds and the tantalizing hints of deeper things always left me wanting more.

Until now. Myst IV: Revelation has…finished Myst for me. It is concluded…I am satisfied. And for once, I don’t need to weep at the parting. (Well, maybe just a little.)

The World

The central premise of Myst is that a civilization called the D’ni could create worlds by writing books, and then visit those worlds physically by linking through the books. (A person must bring a return Linking Book with him when he goes exploring, and any book you link through doesn’t come with you – it stays in the first world.)

From a first-person perspective, we point and click our way through these “Ages” to unlock doors, uncover passwords, power machines, and solve puzzles. And, of course, soak in breath-taking landscapes, vistas, and architecture."Myst IV: Revelation" — Kimia Wood

Whatever else I can say, the world is still incredible. Hydraulic locks, levers and buttons, rotating bridges and elevators…it’s like an engineer’s playground. These real-world mechanics mix, of course, with magic crystals, strange animals, bizarre cultures, and the Age-writing Art of the D’ni.

The Progress of Technology

Myst was released in the dark ages of computing, when graphics cards were limited, the in-game animations were tiny and limited, and the curser was a 2D hand (that changed shape for different interactions).

Revelation seeks to take full advantage of the progress of computer technology, and offers a 360º, 3D-rendered environment to explore.

This means that the world around you doesn’t always look as photo-realistic as it did in Myst, or Riven. The camera also has a tendency to focus in on the foreground, or the background, depending on where your cursor is. I think this is to mimic the variable focus of the human eye, but it’s distracting.

As for the cursor, it’s a 3D, CGI hand. It waves vaguely wherever you point it; extends the fingers to indicate a direction you can move; whips out a magnifying glass if something can be examined more closely; and stretches the fingers subtly if you can unroll a map, pull a lever, or other similar action. This final characteristic can be easy to miss, and if it’s not obvious something is there to manipulate, you can easily miss some interactions.

Atrus’s Family

If you haven’t yet played Myst or Riven, SPOILER ALERT! (Also, go do that.)

Way back in Myst, we met two characters trapped in books that they had thought were Ages: Sirrus and Achenar. Their dad is Atrus, and he is a descendent of the fallen D’ni civilization and a writer of Ages.

If you played through Myst, explored the Ages that link from it, solved Atrus’ pretty un-secure password manager, and uncovered the truth about what happened…you’ll know that Sirrus and Achenar trapped their father without a Linking Book home, distracted their mother, burned most of Atrus’ library of Books, and used the special Books he had warned them never to touch.

Blam! The books trapped them. And once you free Atrus, he burns those books to keep them from ever escaping.

Until now.

Revelation!

Fast forward twenty years. Atrus invites you (his nameless, faceless, gender-less “friend”) to his new home, where he is attempting to spy on the Prison Ages and decide if his sons have repented of murdering the inhabitants of the Ages and are ready to be released.

Yes…we can see this ending well, eh?

"Myst IV: Revelation" — Kimia Wood

Image from Pixabay

Turns out, he and his wife have already written visiting capsules into the Prison Ages. That way, they can link into the capsule, have a visit through bars, and link away – leaving the Linking Book for their own home out of the reach of the prisoners.

The prisoners can’t possibly escape! Why would you worry about that? Atrus only built complex machinery and houses and scientific equipment by hand in his various Ages…what makes you think his sons could do the same thing from scratch?

Yeesha

Did I mention? Atrus also has a ten-year-old daughter now.

Maybe it’s her dialogue, or maybe it’s the delivery of the actress, but Yeesha is clearly supposed to capture our sympathies and feel like a dear friend (even though we’ve actually only just met). Y’know, one of those annoyingly perfect child-characters.

Especially as the “mysterious circumstances” start piling up, you really start to feel that Atrus is a clueless dupe who should have stuck to books, and not attempted children.

Puzzles

I should say something about the puzzles.

We have our classic Myst fare here, with locked doors; passwords in journals; machines that need power; etc.

It made me wonder if Atrus has a constellation-based color-combination lock on the bathroom…and then I realized that his house has no bathroom.

Also contains one or two pixel-hunts, although that might be due to the mechanics of the cursor-hand (see above).

Messin’ with Memory

Added to those familiar hurdles is a new mechanic. Yeesha has a magic necklace that shows memories."Myst IV: Revelation" — Kimia Wood

This, along with the journals that every member of Atrus’ family conveniently keeps, lets you piece together the motives of the various actors, solve some of the puzzles, and generally be the worst thing to happen to Sirrus and Achenar!

M’whahaha! If you wanted to forge an evil plot, you shouldn’t have invited the Stranger-from-the-Starry-Void!

Seriously, though, this mechanic gives you hints for solving the puzzles, plus valuable information at unraveling the sinister plot being woven.

Who is plotting what? Who is evil? And who should I trust?

Being able to view people’s secret memories is very handy for that…

A note on story tension

My family mocked me for this, but I’ll bring it up anyway.

Whenever you linked to new Age in Myst, you had to solve the Age’s puzzles and get things working again to unlock the Linking Book and return to Myst.

In Riven and Exile, you plunged into an unknown world without a ticket out, and had to solve your way forward to find any way to escape. (And in Riven especially, Atrus’ wife’s fate hangs on your success.)

In Revelation…your first task is to “oh, get the power back on, will you?” Your second task is, “Feel free to check out my Linking Books if you like…oh, and make sure Yeesha does her homework.” Ha ha.

Beyond that, though, every single place you visit has a Linking Book back to Atrus’ home right there at the beginning. You don’t need to venture into predator-infested jungles, or brave bottomless shafts in wind-swept fortresses…you can say, “Forget this,” and hop back home.

Obviously, I bought this game in order to play through the puzzles, and feel smart, and uncover the story through journals and clues. And my family helpfully pointed out that this gives the game a less linear structure. You can solve this Age, or that Age, or stay and futz around the first Age…or jump to this new Age…

Solve puzzles in whatever order you want. Travel when and where you want. Stop and go back to a place you especially liked if you really want.

True, this gives the player much more freedom in how they play and the order they play puzzles in (and the sequence in which they unravel the story).

However, it also saps some of the urgency from the story. You are not trapped, and hunting for an escape. Later on, you’re kind of searching for Yeesha, and trying to uncover what happened…but it’s not like there’s a rush. There’s plenty of time to ransack the Ages for anything marked PRIVATE DIARY. And, well, there’s not the same level of narrative tension.

(Perhaps if I hadn’t thought Yeesha was an annoying Mary Sue who was also try to kill me via collapsing bridge, I would have felt more invested in the rescue mission. But again, when I could back out at any time and return to Atrus’ house… “Hey, I’ll make some tea or whatever your culture drinks…Hope it all works out, Atrus! Maybe you should spend more time supervising your children than leaving them in the care of your ‘friend’ and dashing off for machine parts.”)

Serenia…or, the 1960s New Age-y Age

Revelation gives you four Ages to explore. The final one is Serenia.

"Myst IV: Revelation" — Kimia Wood

As if the rest of it wasn’t weird enough…

The outside of Serenia is beautiful — full of twisty, hard-to-map paths; flowing, conjoining streams of water; butterflies that look like organza pixies; and trees that release dandelion-poofs on the wind.

The inhabitants’ culture is based around giant mushrooms that store people’s memories when they die, so their loved ones can travel to a mental space called “Dream” and “visit” the dead ancestors again.

(As one of the female tenders of the mushroom says: if you don’t heal the “Memory Chamber”, “we may never be able to visit our loved ones again!” I bleed for you says the gal from a world where people stay dead…and we don’t have memory spheres to help hallucinate a spirit visit.)

Back to the culture, the “Protectors” have somehow seen your arrival prophesied (y’know, you – the protagonist) and help you find a spirit guide (from the air, fire, or water spirits that play in the forest) so you can travel to Dream and find out who kidnapped Yeesha.

They also wear a stripe of face-paint down their noses (and have creepy, African-esque masks). And the puzzle in Dream is like musical color-matching on evil steroids!

Atrus was always an apologetic, kinda nerdy guy…but lately he seems to just assume you’ll help dig him out of whatever hole he’s gotten himself in. And these all-knowing chicks in Serenia are even more pompous and touchy-feely.

Even if I hadn’t heard such dismal things about Myst V: End of Ages…this “New Age” spiritualism is enough of a departure from the original heart of Myst (nuts and bolts, analog passwords, and the science-based “magic” of the D’ni Art) to make Revelation my last Myst game.

Climax Catharsis

Yet I said I was satisfied. Why am I satisfied?

Well, without laying bare the resolution…the climax of Revelation hinges on you choosing to believe one of Atrus’ children over another. This choice is based on what you have learned by reading their journals, listening to their memories, and piecing together the Evil Plot (and who is probably responsible for it).

Got the right answer the first time. (Thank you, thank you, no need to clap.) And the conclusion that is spun from that –logically, inexorably – brings the plot-line to a perfect and reasonable end.

While the writers did a bit of ret-conning to bring Sirrus and Achenar back into the story, the way they handled the two of them (and Yeesha) was believable, appropriate, and entirely conclusive.

In a way, they un-did the ending of Myst…and yet, in another way, they built onto it so naturally and understandably that Revelation is really a good end for Myst – the game and the series.

My Last Myst Game

When I played through Myst again several years ago (in the updated and expanded RealMyst version), I loved the Ages and the visuals as much as I always had…and left hungry to play Riven.

"Myst IV: Revelation" — Kimia Wood

A secret journal? Must read!

I re-played through Riven: The Sequel to Myst, and I loved it even more than Myst (not only is it longer and more complex, but it feels like less of the history is buried or off-screen). It also left me longing to play Myst III: Exile.

I have not yet played through Exile a second time, but I know it left me eager to try Revelation.

And now…

Part of it is the bad reviews my brother tells me about from Myst V, and part of it is…the story is complete.

I have scratched my first-person point-and-click itch. Myst created a game type never before seen…and now Revelation has brought the story and the world full-circle.

The ending is bittersweet, poignant, and appropriate. It is also, I think, The End.

(Though I already bought Obduction, which is by the same developers/writers, but set in a different universe. We’ll see how that one pans out…)

As always, I highly recommend the Universal Hints System to give you just the help you need…and no more.

In Myst IV: Revelation, the next chapter in the greatest adventure saga of all time, you’ll travel through environments pulsing with life to unearth a treacherous scheme involving two of Myst’s most sinister villains.

Find the game on GoG.com (DRM-free!), Steam (which includes DRM in their software), and on Amazon if you really need a disk (though paying over three times the price for digital download sounds ridiculous).

Wish-list it on GoG to be emailed when it goes on sale!

“Red Rabbit” by Tom Clancy

"Red Rabbit" by Tom Clancy — Kimia Wood A Soviet plot to assassinate the pope. A KGB communications officer trying to defect to the West. And star CIA analyst Jack Ryan, who…is there.

Tom Clancy builds his Cold War-era spy adventure slowly and deliberately…with detailed settings, in-depth character philosophizing, and realistic portraits of the mind-sets and world-views that create the situation.

Characters

Clancy’s recurring star, Jack Ryan, is a CIA analyst and teacher’s pet (and possibly the weakest character here). In fact, he does very little except agonize until the last chapter or so.

He does, however, act as a bridge. His ostensible role in the plot is as liaison between the British and American intelligence operations…and in this way, he also provides for Clancy to paint a clear and memorable picture of the differences between America and Great Britain.

A diverse cast

One of the things Clancy does with excellence is draw out the differences between different countries.

Ryan moves from America to a station in Britain, his homeland’s ally. Yet there are still so many things he must get used to: they drive on the “other” side of the road…everyone drinks tea, not coffee…words are pronounced differently (and some things are called by different names altogether)…the outlook on life is subtly shifted…even the TV shows are different (and Ryan doesn’t understand the sit-coms’ humor).

This underscores the culture shock of the Soviet “Rabbit” and his family when they flee a country of regulations, controls, and corruption to one of individual freedom. From assuming that the KGB watch and follow everyone at any and every time, to a place where you can walk onto a car dealer lot, pick out a car, pay for it, and drive away. From a nation where VHS players, bras, and nylons are luxuries snuck in through Hungary (and only affordable to the elite, like KGB officers) – to a place where they’re taken for granted, and every middle class family can afford them if they wish.

The ground-work for this change is laid with deliberate and poignant brushstrokes…perhaps slower than I would have chosen, but there’s no denying Clancy’s touch for choosing an exact turn of phrase to communicate his meaning, or for seeing to the heart of a mind-set he doesn’t hold himself and portraying it in believable philosophical prose.

This laying-bare of cultures holds the greatest value of the work.

Life Philosophies

A lot of time is spent in the different characters’ thoughts, dealing with their mental outlooks on life in minute detail.

Like the KGB chief…does he really believe in the Communist party’s rhetoric? Or does he rather believe in “power” – AKA himself?

When the communications analyst discovers that his government wants to kill the pope, what will he do? Should he blindly trust that his government knows best? Is he developing…a conscience?

What about Jack Ryan and his CIA overseers? Are they in this game for patriotism? To protect innocent people? Because the Soviets are inherently evil and must be stopped? When they hear that the pope is in danger, they debate whether they can protect him without revealing how they learned about it…because of course national security comes before the life of the head of the Catholic Church, right?

Some Complaining

Ryan’s loose Catholic faith adds an interesting dynamic, as he weighs his patriotism and religious feeling against the political concerns of his CIA bosses.

It also gives him something else to worry about, which seems to be most of what he does throughout the book.

When his bosses assign him to accompany some Brits on an operation as a CIA liaison, he freaks out and insists that he’s an analyst, not a field operative. He’s had some bad experiences with “hands-on” cases in the past…he has apparently stopped a terrorist attack in London before as a tourist (ex-Marine tourist, of course) and faced down a terrorist home invasion, but these experiences were only hinted at. Is there a different book I should have read first? Did Jack Ryan really need to be in this book at all?

His wife (an MD eye surgeon) is even more annoying – adding practically nothing to the narrative, nosing into Jack’s job even though she knows it’s secret, and nagging him for smoking/eating unhealthily. The only time her complaining seems well-founded, and actually lends sympathy to her character, is when her surgical colleagues leave a patient sedated on the operating table while they go for lunch and a pint. Remind me to never get medical care in Great Britain!

Cautions!

Clancy sometimes has trouble making it clear whose head we’re riding in, and you have to travel back through several paragraphs of mental narrative to get re-oriented.

There’s also sporadic language (including f-bombs and profanities) that seemed to get more intrusive as the book went on.

Also includes references to sex within married couples.

The Chess-man of Spy Thrillers

This book is about three-dimensional, conflicted people interacting with each other from different mental starting points. Mr. Clancy takes his time setting up all his dominoes, so that when they collide we say, “Oh, it was inevitable” as well as, “Oh, how is this going to turn out?”

If mental exercises, world-view exploration, and slow-cooking spy drama is your thing, you might enjoy Red Rabbit. I did enjoy it, but for my main spy-action reading, I prefer the bullets-and-fisticuffs of Robert Ludlum.


Red Rabbit is available on Amazon, Barnes&Noble, Kobo (as paperback or audiobook), and the Book Depository (free worldwide shipping).

Subscribe to Kimia Wood’s newsletter for a FREE e-copy of her post-apocalyptic adventure novella Soldier. You’ll also receive periodic updates on her latest reading and writing exploits!

“Never Leave Me” by Priscilla J. Krahn

"Never Leave Me" by Priscilla J. Krahn — Kimia Wood I hadn’t recently read the description blurb before I opened Never Leave Me, so I jumped into this Christian indie novella without many pre-conceived notions.

On Page 1, Amy’s dad (sole custodial parent) sweeps her from in front of the TV, across state lines, and dumps her on the doorstep of some cousins she’s never heard of, let alone met (while he flees the police).

Within the next chapter or two, the large, farm-living, “homeschooler” family has shared Jesus with her, and Amy is “born again.”

Within a chapter or two of that, we have a kidnapping, threats of violence, and hints at Amy’s dad’s dark secrets.

So…of all the “indie Christian” books I’ve read, this one probably does the best job at equally balancing raging evangelism with melodramatic adventure.

Amy

I did know this was a series before diving in (the “Adventures of Amy”, in fact). So I was perfectly ready to study Amy as a main character…and also anticipated her adventures taking longer than a single book. (Well, sort of. See below.)

However, I did struggle with the character of Amy from time to time.

What’s well done:"Never Leave Me" by Priscilla J. Krahn — Kimia Wood

Amy is just thirteen. She’s not a superhero, or a detective, or even emotionally mature. When her dad (ahem – the man she’s called Dad all her life!) snatches her away from her predictable life, and reveals on the drive that he’s a criminal, she’s realistically shocked and skeptical.

As traumatic events continue to pile on, she shows relatable signs of stress, anger, panic, and fear. At the same time, her rational side fights with her emotions as she tries to please her new Heavenly Father, and figure out what’s going on around her.

What challenged my disbelief:

Some things are foreshadowed so heavily I saw them coming several chapters before Amy finally tumbles to them.

She also exhibits fanatical devotion to her dad (except when she persuades herself to cooperate with the police).

I understand that family loyalty is complicated (which is one reason domestic abuse situations are so messy). But as a third-party, observing the situation from the outside, I saw plenty of evidence and red flags that left me sighing heavily at Amy. It was obvious to me that the man who had raised her wasn’t all he claimed to be…and while it was realistic for Amy to struggle with this, I think it needed something more.

For instance: later in the book, she reminisces about the good times they had together…piggy back rides, movies, all the things he did to demonstrate his love for her. I realize flash-backs are hard to do well, but if I were writing the story, I would have sprinkled some of those good memories into the narrative early on to remind the audience Amy is adding Dad’s current illegal behavior to his previous loving behavior…and isn’t just blinded by her own love for him.

Another niggle:

Speaking of planting things earlier…

Amy dashes out of her home with a single suitcase of clothes. But it never states what those clothes are.

About three-fourths through the book, the author drops that Amy’s wearing a skirt.

This may seem like a really weird thing to bring up, but here’s why. Amy’s seven-sibling cousin family has family meals together, does family devotions, lives on a farm…you can practically smell the Christian homeschooler on them. Thus, it is totally legit for her female cousin to wear skirts.

But worldly, “city girl” Amy?

See, when Amy is (SPOILER) being placed in foster care by a social worker, she thinks about how she’s a different girl now…after her adventures, and after coming to Jesus. She thinks she wouldn’t like the same music as she once did. She’s wearing a different clothing style now…because she doesn’t care about style and popularity anymore, but about pleasing Jesus.

Bringing these pieces together: if the author had made a bigger deal about how Amy dressed in the beginning (being careful to pack her favorite jeans; feeling weird that she’s wearing make-up, but her girl-cousin isn’t) then the change at the end (her cousin was much older than she was, but her old skirt fit Amy perfectly…) would make the character change clear to the audience from the evidence. It wouldn’t just be something the author pulls out of nowhere.

Christian Transformation

Speaking of character changes, though – Amy’s Christian transformation is pretty deep. Her dad is an atheist (and apparently her mom converted mere weeks before dying in an accident)…but after Amy “gets born again” in the early chapters, she jumps into evangelism with both feet. Within a month of her conversion, she’s led a man to the Lord, and has shared the gospel repeatedly with her relatives (and a few strangers).

Maybe…Maybe coming to Christ at four years old is a drawback. I don’t want to bare my soul too much here, but let’s say that has not been my experience. Not only was I not challenged with evangelism from Day 1 (or even Day 2), but over a year after “getting serious” about sharing my faith with others, I have yet to see a single fruit (in the form of unbelievers showing an interest).

It makes sense that someone who came to faith later in life would be more inspired with the part of Christian discipline that directly led to their conversion (AKA evangelism), and I also recognize that we have different testimonies.

This is just one of those things that’s really hard to balance. Just like real life.

Balance

I’ve read stories that were almost horrifying in the way they shoved the gospel to the forefront, at the expense of the tale they were supposed to be telling.

I’ve read stories that wore their evangelism on their sleeve – and carried it with varying degrees of success, but with no misconceptions about what kind of story they were presenting.

And then there’s this story. I don’t think it’d be overestimating to say a full half of the book is devoted to religious/Christian themes. The cousin family is deeply religious…and the need for Amy to “trust God” with her traumatic situation and let Him “keep her in perfect peace” (and perfect King James’ English) is heavily leaned on.

But there’s a lot of action layered in there, with constant kidnappings, evil uncles jumping out of cupboards, guns, child abuse, threats of violence or use of deadly force…it’s like an adrenalin junkie’s playground.

Even the ending, which is stuffed with more religious theme-izing than the rest of the book, has actual story conflict issues to keep the tension and pacing brisk.

For all the book’s missteps, the juggling act between gospel-mission and Impossible-Mission is pretty well-handled.

Cliffhanger!

(I could make you all wait until the next review to see where I was going with this…but that would be really dumb! :D)

I knew this was a series. I fully understood that further adventures were in the wings. And yet…

I mentioned briefly how Amy was such a bad deducer (or the clues were laid on so thick) that the plot twists could be seen a mile off.

Thus, I felt a certain story element was so heavily hinted as to be a foregone conclusion…but the book ends before I could see if I was right!

Not only does the book have a kind of unhappy ending, but if I really wanted to see the resolution of that plot-thread, I have to get the other book(s)!

Blah! Don’t the foolish mortals realize I never pay for anything if I can help it? Why should an author want to eat off their earnings? In vengeance, I shall wreck havoc with their review rating –!

Anyway.

I know about the pitfalls of balancing a series-wide story arc with stand-alone installments. I wrestled with the same thing in the White Mesa Chronicles. In this instance, though, I felt disappointed that something had been so built up, just to have it unresolved at the end.

While I’m complaining…

The professionalism of the book was pretty good. Only towards the end (call it the last fourth of the book) did the copy-editing slip, and petty things like typos and word choice crept into the text.

The author does note at the end that this is the first book she wrote — and it’s pretty good for a first book! My own first publication is not mentioned on my online presence…

Incidentally, for some weird reason, the PDF copy I had went cray-cray on my Nook…and used two different fonts (and size of fonts) on the same page – usually within the same paragraph or sentence! Reading it in the programs on my computer, though, had no issues.

TL;DR

If this really was too long, and you didn’t read it, how did you get all the way down here?

The balance of pulse-pounding action and shameless evangelism was one of the best I’ve ever seen. The characters (especially the main character) were a little clueless. Even the villains had one-track minds…but who expects villains to be rational?

Pick it up, support a young, independent, Christian author, and form your own opinion!


"Never Leave Me" by Priscilla J. Krahn — Kimia WoodDISCLAIMER: I received a FREE copy of Never Leave Me for participating in the November 2017 Indie Christian Book Sale. I was not required to write a review of any kind, and all opinions are my own personal opinions.

You can find out more about the author on her website – PriscillaJKrahn.com – or in my interview with her here on the blog!

Never Leave Me is available on Amazon.

Subscribe to Kimia Wood’s mailing list for a FREE e-copy of her post-apocalyptic adventure novella Soldier! You’ll also receive periodic updates on her latest reading and writing exploits.

“A Newbery Christmas”

"A Newbery Christmas" — Kimia Wood — Christmas story Christmas is…an interesting topic.

What do you think about when you hear the word? What does a “Christmas story” mean? It forms an entire genre of fiction…but defining that genre is in the eye of the beholder.

Besides which, for some of us Christmas has the deeper purpose of celebrating Christ – the Anointed One – the Eternal God taking on flesh and walking the earth in the form of a human.

This collection of “Christmas” stories, penned by fourteen different Newbery Award-winning authors, was interesting on a number of different levels. Not only did the tone and style change depending on the attitude of the author, but also their view of Christmas (and what it means) was remarkably varying.

So, what is a “Christmas story”?

The “Just So” Fable

Some of them recalled the roots of Christmas. Theses stories have the flavor of a “fairytale retelling” as they relate the basic story elements – Mary giving birth to a special baby in a stable – and sprinkle it with their own twists.

For instance: Mary giving birth without making a sound…animals being given the gift of speech so as to relate the events from a thousand years ago…and Catholic saints traveling through time and space to get a peek at the manger scene.

For some people, this is what makes a “Christmas story” — Saturday Evening Post-type nostalgia mixed with church traditions.

The “Santa” Paradigm

The Newbery Award is for children’s literature, so the stories in this anthology are naturally geared toward children.

Some children view Christmas solely in the context of the presents they get. Older children are usually concerned about the presents they give away, also.

A good author captures the attitudes and thoughts of her viewpoint character.

But there is a line between accurately portraying a child’s limited worldview, and structuring your narrative with only these materialistic elements that reenforce the limited worldview. Sometimes, that line is very hard to find.

Is a “Christmas story” about giving gifts? Is it about discovering that what you really, really want is not as important as what you need?

Perhaps. For some people, that’s what they mean by a “Christmas story”.

My Personal Favorite

My favorite story is the selection by Madeleine L’Engle (ironically enough).

While not an “orthodox” Christian, she does a good job giving readers a sense of the “true meaning of Christmas” (as the clichés call it). Not only does her story follow a family celebrating the holiday with church, food, and snow – it gives a realistic portrayal of Christians acting in a way consistent with the character of God: with love, grace, and peace in the face of unexpected stress.

What is a “Christmas Story”?

To borrow Andrew Klavan’s explanation, a “Christmas story” is the tale of a character exchanging their value set. As in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, when Ebenezer Scrooge exchanges his own value set (selfishness and money) for a more “heavenly” value set (generosity, legacy, and community) his motivation, actions, and lifestyle change.

He is transformed. He is a “man who learns better” because of the new values that descend on his life (and once he accepts them, his behavior changes).

This mirrors the original “Christmas” story, where our paradigms of self-centeredness, self-righteousness, and selfishness are confronted by God’s system.

That system being that we could do nothing to rescue ourselves, but God in His grace came down to earth (wearing human flesh and bone) and gave Himself to us…not only showing us the example for perfect love and kindness, but also making it possible for us to live in a way that pleases Him (through His Holy Spirit setting up shop without our own hearts and changing us from the inside out).

This strikes me as a good, understandable explanation of what makes a “Christmas story”.

Does something count as a “Christmas story” if it’s a peppermint-flavored romance set in December? According to this paradigm, only if they focus on the protagonist’s value set being exchanged for a “higher” one.

How about all the stories that wrap around a child getting exactly what they want for Christmas? Well…is the point that they don’t get what they want, but rather what they need? That focus on receiving a fresh values set would make it a Christmas story under this definition.

(For what it’s worth, Mr. Klavan says that Holly in Die Hard is in a Christmas movie, because the system she uses to evaluate and measure the world is challenged and replaced…but John from Die Hard is in an action movie, instead. Having never seen the movie, I can’t appraise his appraisal.)

But This is Actually a Review

What do you expect from a “Christmas anthology”? What are you looking to get out of it?

A couple of these stories are thought-provoking or emotionally resonant. A few of them are short and quippy, or more geared toward kids.

So…to resolve your itch for “Christmas genre” stories, or to give your kids something short and easy to read, it would work. Also works as a Christmas-themed coffee-table gift.

These stories probably won’t change your life. But it’s all a matter of expectations.

So, what does “Christmas” mean to you?


A Newberry Christmas features fourteen stories, by fourteen different Newberry-winning authors from Ruth Sawyer and Rachel Field to Lois Lenski, Eleanor Estes, and Madeleine L’Engle. It is edited/compiled by Martin H. Greenberg and Charles G. Waugh.

It is available on Amazon.

Subscribe to Kimia Wood’s mailing list for a FREE e-copy of her post-apocalyptic novella Soldier, plus periodic updates on her latest reading and writing adventures.

“Nomad of the Emirates” by E.B. Dawson

If we met aliens, could we relate to them?

This story is short, but still explores some fascinating concepts.

Earth has sent an emissary to the alien society called “the Emirates” – but a human is already living there. Is it possible the grass-roots free market has bested extensive government training at its own game?

The Opening

The narrator opens in the heart of an alien harvest, watching the new Earth emissary (the “Captain”) as she watches the harvesting operation.

However, we quickly jump into the narrator’s head, a cheerful, self-deprecating human who has forged a place for herself in this alien culture. Through her experienced eyes, we can plunge into this differently-colored world full of complex greeting ceremonies without losing our footing. Continue reading

“The Book of Were-Wolves” by Sabine Baring-Gould

It’s easy to “poo-poo” were-wolves as superstitious just-so stories, invented by our ignorant ancestors.

Baring-Gould, while not convinced human beings physically transform into wolf bodies, nevertheless has taken a scholarly, detailed, and anecdote-filled look at this phenomenon. Along with his scientific, 18th-century respect for facts, he brings the Christian insight into human nature to his subject (he’s more famous for writing Onward Christian Soldiers).

The resulting book is fascinating, profound, and sometimes disturbing…both by what it says about were-wolves, and by what it says about ourselves. Continue reading

The “Blackwell” Bundle

In an attempt to recapture the gaming experience of Gemini Rue, I hunted through its developer’s catalogue. The Blackwell series caught my eye, and I took advantage of a sale to snag the bundle (because who buys anything at full price?!).

TL;DR for the series? It’s not as amazing as most of the other puzzle games I’ve played, but it was definitely worth some #SiblingTime.

The premise: Rosangela Blackwell’s life turns upside-down when she discovers she’s a medium and inherits a spirit guide from her aunt. Her guide – the saucy ghost Joey – teaches her of her mission in life: helping spirits come to terms with their death and “move on”.


Not my usual genre at all…but half of “paranormal detective” is detective, right? Continue reading

“Ivanhoe” by Sir Walter Scott

"Ivanhoe" by Sir Walter Scott — Kimia Wood Published in 1819, if you’re looking for some honest-to-goodness, played-straight, exhaustively researched yet swashbuckling-fun story of medieval chivalry and derring-do, you could do worse than Ivanhoe.

Set in the 12th century – during that period of time made famous by every rendition of Robin Hood, when the head-strong and vivacious King Richard was out of the country, and the unpopular Prince John ruled in his stead – Ivanhoe explores racism, classism, male-female tensions, concepts of chivalry, and religion, all mixed with enough action and entertaining turns of phrase to keep the pace going. Continue reading