Super Scratch Programming Adventure! is No Starch Press's excellent adventure to Scratch, the extremely popular (and absolutely wonderful) kids' programming environment from the MIT Media Lab's Lifelong Kindergarten Group.
Produced with the Hong Kong Federation of Youth Groups, Super Scratch Programming Adventure! is a graphic novel that walks readers through a series of extremely well-designed game-design projects, each of which introduces a new concept or two to young programmers, providing a gentle learning curve for mastering Scratch's many powerful features.
To get a sense of these projects, have a look at No Starch's project site for the book, which provides downloads of all the sprites, artwork and sound for each one (the book encourages you to use these as starting points, and to modify them or create your own from scratch).
I've been interested in the book since Mark reviewed it in September, and was delighted to get a chance to read it myself. My daughter is too young for this one as yet -- Scratch requires basic literacy in order to really work with it. But reading it, I got very excited about the possibility of working with her on it in a year or two (for example, once she's mastered numbers and letter recognition, I'm sure we could have a lot of fun just taking the existing projects and modifying them with her art and voice).
I fell in love with Logo and BASIC games programming when I was 9, and reading through these projects really brought back the excitement. What's more, it feels like Scratch has all the stuff I wished Logo had built in when started out -- for example, you can create if-then loops for sprites that evaluate whether a sprite is touching a certain color ("If I am touching orange, then..."), something that's used in a maze-navigation game where all the maze-walls are orange.
Scratch feels like the second coming of Hypercard, mixing graphics and drag-and-drop code-blobs, but Scratch is all free/open source software, so there's much less danger of a single vendor killing it off. There's even a nascent project to port Scratch to Android, which would be especially fun.
I've just finished Unnatural Habitats, the fifth collection of Jeff Lemire's apocalyptic Sweet Tooth comics, and I continue to be absolutely taken by it, on the grimmest of tenterhooks for the next volume.
Sweet Tooth's is set against a mysterious end-of-the-world, a horrific plague that kills most of humanity, and causes pregnant women to give birth to human/animal chimeras. The protagonist, Sweet Tooth, is a deer/boy, raised by his weirdly religious father in the woods, and then thrown into the brutal outside world when his father dies. He is captured by medical experimenters, escapes, and journeys across America with a shifting band of allies who may or may not have Sweet Tooth's best interests at heart.
Volume 5 proves that Lemire knows what he's doing with his storytelling. He whipsaws the pacing with a multi-part flashback to an early twentieth century Arctic expedition that hints at the plague's origin, then jumps back to the present day and a series of interlocking perils that raise the stakes for Sweet Tooth and his companions.
Lemire is a Dickensian master of the cliff hanger. Each monthly episode collected in the Sweet Tooth books leaves you eager for the next one, and each volume leaves you gutted at the thought of having to wait months for a new collection (I could read the singles, but I prefer to get my comics in concentrated, six-at-once doses). The story of Sweet Tooth is a great adventure, great science fiction, and great comics.
Once again, here's the first volume, in case you'd like to grab all five parts at once and consume a deep, deep draught of the story.
Philip Pullman — best know for his Dark Materials series — has written a new edition of the Brothers Grimm stories, called Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm: A New English Version. It’s the 200th anniversary of the Grimm collection, and Pullman’s edition includes author’s notes and Aarne–Thompson classifications.Read the rest
Hilda and the Bird Parade is every bit the triumph that the earlier volumes were, full of adventure and mystery.Read the rest
During my treatment for breast cancer this year, nutrition was a big challenge. Hell, getting any food down was a challenge during chemo and radiation. That’s where my interest in fresh juices began. I hunted around for a single, affordable device that could produce a diverse array of juice, and ended up with the Omega J8003. It rocks.Read the rest
After enthused hails from the crowd, the first of two loooooong tracks starts up, or seeps in, eerie and airy and understated, quite lovely really, not at all heavy, but nicely hypnotic…Read the rest
Terry Pratchett’s latest novel, Dodger, isn’t a Discworld book, except, well, it kind of is. Nominally, this is an historical novel, a fictionalized account of the fictionalized person who inspired Mr Charlie Dickens to create his much-beloved character The Artful Dodger. But as the story unfolds, the parallels between the early Victorian London of Dickens (and Mayhew) and the Ankh-Morpork of Pratchett’s Discworld novels become sharper and clearer, so that by the end, we’re reading a story that really could be set in either one of those fantastical places.Read the rest
DC’s Vertigo has published The New York Five, the sequel (and conclusion?) to the original Minx title. I’ve just finished it and it was worth the wait. The characters from the original story return seasoned by their first semester, wiser and more gunshy, but still filled with the wild, reckless energy that made them so engaging in the first volume.Read the rest
Daniel Pinkwater's Bushman Lives is another of Pinkwater's marvellous novels for young adults (and adults!) in which a misfit narrator embraces his inner weirdo and finds odd joy. Harold Knishke is a young man in late 1950s Chicago who finds himself with a lot of spare time thanks to weird political patronage at his high-school, which results in him serving as a corrupt hall monitor who can excuse himself from school grounds on his own recognizance. One day, he quits flute lessons, sells his flute to his relieved instructor, and uses the money to take up life-drawing classes at a beatnik art school across the street from a mysterious whitewashed house whose paint is constantly being replenished by mysterious, hissing humanoids all dressed in white wrapping.
Woven into this narrative is the story of Geets Hildebrand, Harold's best friend, who runs away to join the Navy. Geets and Harold share an obsession with Bushman, the Lincoln Park Zoo's storied gorilla, a tragic and dignified figure. Geets is discharged from the Navy and discovers a secret society of rural misfits in a state park who tell him about a hidden castle on a hidden island in the middle of a lake.
Harold's life is one odd thing after another. He meets a young woman training to be a wise-woman who hips him to Willem de Kooning and then gets him a mentor who is obsessed with mural-painting and baking potatoes. He is inducted into an artist's workshop in a mysterious transdimensional building. He learns that there is a folk song about him, but can't make out the lyrics.
But most of all, Harold learns about art -- about the techniques of visual art, about the weird phonies that haunt the art world, but most importantly (and movingly) about the drive to make art and the thing that art does for its audiences.
Daniel Pinkwater and his wife Jill are both visual artists, and Bushman Lives is, more than anything, a book about art, and a very good one. I'd read Pinkwater all day long even if his absurdist fairy tales were nothing more than odd little stories, but as Bushman Lives (and his other works) proves, Pinkwater's absurdism is a delivery system for profound and important insight that stay with you for years and decades.
Bushman Lives was serialized online prior to publication, and really rewards your attention.
As a big fan of horror, as well as the found-footage subgenre, I was really excited to see V/H/S, a found-footage horror anthology. After it screened at Sundance, it got a lot of buzz -- people were passing out, leaving the theater, men and women gnashing their teeth, etc. So you can imagine my disappointment when I realized I was glad I'd stayed home and paid about half the price of a theater ticket to get it on demand. Despite a few genuinely scary moments, it was hard to get past the fact that I wanted every single character in V/H/S to die a horrible death so I wouldn't have to watch them anymore.
If you have your heart absolutely set on seeing V/H/S, then by all means, see it. But if you're on the fence or having any doubts, let me share what I didn't like, and maybe you'll share my opinion. (If not, that's also cool.)
Read the rest
Warren Ellis and Garrie Gastonny's Supergod is a magnificently grim and horrifying superhero comic, in which a British government scientist narrates the sequence of events that killed the planet Earth, in whose rubble he sits. Supergod is the story of a secret arms-race, in which the major powers of the world all conspired to produce superhuman, godlike beings who were meant to act as their national saviors. Instead, each of these gods becomes a force of ineffable and unstoppable terror, killing and laying waste in unfathomable acts of horrific violence.
The story is pure Ellis. It's both cynical and charming, and pushes out a vision of end-times that goes further over the weirdness frontier than anyone has any right to go. The supergods here are grotesque monsters who are nevertheless lovely and even sometimes sweet (for example, the three British astronauts who are sent into space to be mutated into a godlike state return as a composite fungal hybrid being called Morrigan Lugas, whose spores cause the scientists around it to worship it like a god while masturbating uncontrollably).
Warren Ellis is a strong tonic, and he burns going down, and it's hard to get a good night's sleep if you consume too much before bed, but the burning is a good one, and even a necessary one.
I wrote about Sailor Twain, Mark Siegel's beautiful, haunting serialized graphic novel when it began. Since then, the story of a New York steamship captain who is haunted by his love for a mermaid has run its course, and today it has been published in a single, handsome hardcover volume from FirstSecond.
Sailor Twain tells the story of Captain Twain of the Lorelei, which plies its trade up and down the Hudson valley, while the ship's owner, a dissolute Frenchman, seduces the wives of the gentry in the owner's cabin. Captain Twain's own beloved wife is wasting with some unspecified disease on land, and he works to raise money to send her to specialists. He's a good man, beset with tragedy, and he has forgotten how to write the poetry he once loved.
And then comes the day when he spies a mermaid clinging to the deck of the Lorelei, gravely wounded. He pulls her from the sea and into his cabin, and everything changes for Sailor Twain. The poetry comes back, and at his request, she never sings for him, never puts him under her siren spell. But still, he is hers.
Out spills a mystery, a story about seduction and duty, mythology and gender, dreams lost and dreams forgotten, and the lure of magic and wonder. Siegel's illustrations are charcoal drawings that fearlessly mix highly detailed, realistic depictions with cartoons, impressionistic smears, and caricature, and they are moody and grey and dreamlike, the perfect match for the story.
This is a stupendous work, a beautiful and sad and lovely thing. If you don't believe me, go read it online for free and see for yourself.