Fun sci-fi social satire: The world is a mess, but we can find the sublime in chaos.

Absurdity, social satire, lots of music references, and a fast read that still feels like a wall of words at times. In the same vein as Hitchhiker’s Guide & Year Zero (though in this case humans are the *worst* musicians in the galaxy). Fun, though it’s got some dark moments. The world isn’t totally awesome or totally awful, it’s both: Everything is *messy*, and you can find the sublime in chaos.

A fascinating look at a side of Instagram that I’ve mostly ignored.

I’ve known the high-rolling “influencer” side of Instagram is out there, but for the most part, I’ve tuned it out by following only friends and people whose photos I find interesting (including the author, which was how I found out about this book), rather than following personalities.

The book covers three main topics:

  1. How and why people game the system on attention-based social networks, using Instagram as a case study.
  2. How attention-based social media games your brain.
  3. Ways to keep yourself in control of your social media experience.

I’ve read a lot about the second and third topics, so that part was mostly familiar to me, though I expect it will be more interesting (and helpful) to other readers.

The first topic – which is basically the hook to get people looking at the rest of it – proved to be very eye-opening as it describes the sheer amount of product placement and sponsorship going on, the lengths people will go to in order to make it look like they have a bigger audience than they do so they can get the deals, and the various techniques used to get around fraud detection.

Last summer I saw the 25th Anniversary production of Les Misérables on stage. I started reviewing it, but never finished. Now that I’ve seen the movie, I figured it was time to rescue this from the draft folder before writing my thoughts on the film.

For the 25th anniversary of the show, the staging has been completely redone (in part to get rid of the rotating stage). The songs have been adjusted again, and long-standing direction, costume design and characterization has been allowed to change.

Overall I like the new staging. It’s not a stripped-down production at all – in fact, most of the sets are more elaborate than the original, which basically relied on the rotating floor, lighting, two jumbles of boxes, and a bridge. Fortunately they didn’t go overboard: they let the songs carry the show, which leads to an interesting mix of elaborate sets for ensemble numbers and empty stages for the solos.

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This Is True vol.8Randy Cassingham has been collecting and sharing strange news stories for almost 20 years now on his newsletter, This Is True. Often funny and always thought-provoking, this e-book collection features weird-but-true stories ranging from outrageously funny to just plain outrageous.

The format — all single-paragraph stories, each with a headline and tagline — makes this a good book to keep on your phone to pick up whenever you have a few minutes. Watch out, though: it’s way too easy to read “just one more story”…over and over and over!

Some stories feature follow-ups, such as a couple who marketed a bizarre invention who later brought it to “Shark Tank,” or how politicians’ careers fared after some embarrassing incident. Others feature links to expanded stories on the author’s blog, opening the story up to additional related thoughts or discussion.

One of the interesting things about this book is that it spans 2001-2002, so it offers a look back at the post-9/11 days, the paranoia of the anthrax scare, and the early spread of “zero tolerance” school policies. It’s an interesting view of some of the events that have shaped today’s political climate.

Invisible Man Disappears from View is currently only available for Kindle, though Cassingham plans to expand to other e-book platforms in the near future.

Today, a group of comics bloggers have gotten together to recommend lesser-known gems of the comics world. Comics are more than Brightest Day and Heroic Age, and you just might want to…read this too!

The Unwritten, by Mike Carey and Peter Gross. Recommended for mature readers. Published by Vertigo Comics.

The Unwritten is a story about stories, and the impact fiction has on reality. It’s told as an adventure, filtered through today’s media-crazed society, modern fantasy (especially the Harry Potter phenomenon), occasional moments of horror, and centuries of popular literature.

It was also my favorite new comic book of 2009.

The Plot

Years ago, author Wilson Taylor vanished after writing 13 immensely popular children’s fantasy novels, leaving his son Tom — the real-life inspiration for “Tommy Taylor” — to grow up as a Z-list celebrity. A question at a fan convention sets the adult Tom onto a path of adventure and danger that has him doubting even his own past, as the world begins to wonder: Did Tom Taylor inspire Tommy Taylor? Or is he Tommy Taylor made real?

By the time of the third major arc, Tom has been proclaimed a messiah, framed for murder, and declared dead. He’s acquired a power trio much like the heroes in his father’s novels (naturally, in the Harry/Hermione/Ron mold), with one ally who may be a fictional character brought to life, and one who plays the sleazy reporter but has his own connections. They’re on the run from a secret cabal, its hit man who can transform objects (and people) into their component ideas…and the surprisingly real vampire nemesis from the Tommy Taylor books, Count Ambrosio.

Stories

Although Tom is just now figuring out his role in events, the villains have been pulling strings for centuries. They’ve shaped the world through stories: by controlling how history was recorded, and by ensuring that stories were written that promoted their goals. One early issue flashed back from the present to Rudyard Kipling, who was quite happy to write stories for them promoting the British Empire…until they asked him to change his tune, and he lost everything.

Of course, since this is a fantasy series, stories can also impact reality directly. Magical objects cross into reality, people travel into stories, and in one case, a particularly tormented story actively threatens the heroes.

Every few issues, the focus moves away from Tom Taylor to reveal another piece of the puzzle. One focuses on two children caught up in Tommy Taylor fandom to the point where they aren’t quite sure where playing ends and believing begins. Another focuses on a servant of the cabal trapped inside a Winnie the Pooh–like setting by a writer who was prepared to stop him.

The Unwritten frequently mixes in excerpts from media commenting on the events of the story: television news, magazine articles, blogs, even Twitter conversations. In one issue, Tom is kidnapped by a deranged fan and threatened on a live webcam feed, while viewers debate whether it’s real or just a publicity stunt. In another, a TV news network focuses on the launch of the latest Tommy Taylor novel, while the ticker at the bottom of the screen runs through a series of dire headlines which would normally be the top stories of the day

The latest issue reveals the past of Tom’s ally and guide, Lizzie Hexam…in a choose-your-own-adventure format. She always ends up in the same place, but the path she takes varies…along with the most important parts of her back story. They’re all equally canonical, and you as the reader get to choose which version is “real.” In a sense, we do that with everything we read or watch. We have our favorite versions of stories, TV episodes and comic book issues that “don’t count,” and our own ideas of what’s going on off-screen or between panels.

The Unwritten is up to 17 issues so far, collected in two trade paperbacks with a third on the way. Carey and Gross have a complete story in mind, one that they hope to tell over 60 or 70 issues. Update 2015: The series is complete now, collected in 11 volumes of the main story and a related graphic novel, Tommy Taylor and the Ship that Sank Twice.

Interested in reading more? Good! I’ve written about a more traditional super-hero comic, Astro City, at Speed Force. And there are more bloggers out there. Check out the lesser-known titles reviewed in these other blogs and read these, too!