Get thee a community

Photo taken by Carla Schooler at the 2015 SCBWI Midsouth Fall Conference

I just returned home from the 2015 SCBWI Midsouth Fall Conference, and whew. I am tired. Not only physically tired from days jam-packed with amazing panels and breakout sessions, followed by nights spent laughing with friends until we couldn’t hold our heads up or our eyes open. But also mentally tired from all the wisdom that was shared, and creatively tired from untangling the knots that had been littering my latest WIP.

I could sleep for a solid day, no problem.

But first, if you’re a writer, I’m going to tell you something important. Something that I’ve known for a while, but that attending this conference reinforced in an undeniable way. Are you listening? Good.

Whether you are a NYT Bestselling Author or a dreamer still plugging away at your first novel, community is vitally important. Maybe it doesn’t seem like that should be true — writing is most often a solitary pursuit, after all — but trust me on this. Without community, most of the authors I know would not be authors. Yes, even the naturally talented ones. Yes, even the ridiculously successful ones.

Without community, the voices of doubt can be deafening. Without community, rejection can be crippling. Without community, giving up may seem like not only the easy choice, but the obvious choice. The smart choice.

I’m lucky. I know this. I live in a city that has one of the most vibrant and supportive writing communities in the country. Most of my best friends are writers, and several of them are successfully published and willing to double as mentors.

These are the people who have slogged through all my various manuscripts when they were rougher than sandpaper, and helped me hone and revise them into something worth reading. They’re the ones who helped me craft a query letter and put together a list of agents. They’re the ones who clinked glasses with me when I signed with my agent. They’re the numbers I text when I get good news, and the ones who respond with a flurry of raging emojis when I get a pass.

They’re also the people who cried with me when I got my diagnosis, who have made me dinner and taken my children to gymnastics. We have celebrated birthdays and marriages and holidays together, road tripped together, run races together, and moved more boxes from Old House to New House than I can count. We have had the same conversations so many times we can rant each other’s rants.

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The Nashville writing community, New Years 2014

This is my writing community. This is my family.

Right now, you’re probably doing one of two things. You’re nodding along knowingly, because you have a community, too, and you relate to everything I’ve just said.

Or you’re despairing, because you feel like an island, and have no idea how to change that.

To that I have two things to say. One, you’re not an island. I promise, there are those out there in the same stage you’re in, suffering from the same doubts and insecurities, working toward the same goals. Somewhere out there is a friend you can lean on, confide in, celebrate with. You just haven’t met them yet.

Two, you are capable of finding them. No matter how shy, how insecure, how introverted, how geographically isolated, how young or old, how experienced or raw. You can do this. It will involve stepping outside your comfort zone, doing something that scares you. But you can do this. I believe it with my whole heart.

Maybe you can muster enough strength for a Big Action, by joining an organization or going to a conference or a retreat or book launch and introducing yourself to strangers. I’ve done this, and trust me, I know it is terrifying. I’ve gone to book launches and hovered in the back, pretending to read the spines of the books on the shelves just so I wouldn’t look out of place. I’ve signed up for a retreat where I only knew one person, and felt the urge to run and hide in a corner with my laptop instead of talking to people. The fear can be paralyzing. But if you can push through it — even if it’s just to introduce yourself to one person, the least-scary-looking person at the event — maybe that’s all you need to do. Sometimes one person is all it takes.

And if that person doesn’t end up being Your Kind of People? Try again. And again and again. It’s daunting, but remember, a person is only a stranger once.

Maybe that’s just too much, and no amount of pep talks will make you physically walk into a place where you don’t know anyone. That’s totally fine. Maybe, for you, stepping outside your comfort zone involves becoming active in an online forum like Absolute Write, or following the #amwriting tag on Twitter and engaging in those conversations, or emailing another writer you know vaguely through social media and asking if they’d be interested in exchanging work.

That’s what I did. Three years ago, when I was considering writing a book and didn’t know any other writers, I emailed another blogger I’d interacted with on Twitter and asked if she’d ever considered writing, and if she’d be interested in having a critique partner. I have no idea what possessed me to do this — I am Introverted with a Capital I, and do not voluntarily reach out to strangers — but that tiny step turned out to be life-changing. Today, that blogger is not only still my primary critique partner, but also one of my best friends. Because of that email, I wrote a book, and then another and another. I found my local writing community. I discovered a sense of belonging I’d never felt before.

Photo taken by Carla Schooler

Photo taken by Carla Schooler at the 2015 SCBWI Midsouth Fall Conference

And before you say, well, you’re an anomaly, let me tell you, it happens more often than you think. At the SCBWI conference I attended this weekend, one of our keynotes was given by the writing team of Gail Nall and Jen Malone, who met online when they entered the same writing contest. Now they’ve published multiple books together. Since they live halfway across the country from each other, they’ve only met in person a few times, but that doesn’t make their friendship or their writing camaraderie any less true.

During their keynote, Jen asked all the published writers in the room to stand, then told them to sit if they thought they could’ve gotten to where they are without the support of other writers. Want to take a guess at how many sat down?

No one is surprised when I say zero, right?

At the same conference, a pair of men — obviously good friends — was introduced to me, and then the mutual friend doing the introduction said, “Guess how they met,” in a voice that told me I’d be surprised by the answer.

Yup, you guessed it. Twitter. It was only their first or second time meeting in person. Not that you’d ever know it to see them interact.

I hear stories like this all the time. Even in my own life, I have multiple good friends where our first interaction was online. Forget what Buzzfeed or HuffPo tells you — you can make friends and find community anywhere. It just takes some effort.

Murfreesboro Half Marathon, 2013 Betcha can't tell which two friends I met on Twitter first.

Murfreesboro Half Marathon, 2013
Betcha can’t tell which two friends I met on Twitter first.

Bottom line is, wherever you are in your writing and your friendships, don’t discount the importance of finding other writers to commiserate with, to cheer on, to ask for feedback and wisdom, to celebrate in times of accomplishment and grieve with in times of disappointment (and not just yours — one of my favorite things about having talented writer friends is being able to celebrate their successes, even if I’ve just suffered a failure. It’s a much better mental place to be in when you can always find something to be happy about).

Not every writer I know has a critique group, or lots of local events to attend, or a love of social media. That’s fine. But every writer I know, published or pre-published, without exception, will tell you that they would not be able to keep making books without their writing community, whether it is vast or intimate, local or online, public or private.

Community comes in all shapes and sizes and locations. Yours doesn’t have to look like mine, or anyone else’s. It can be entirely unique to you and Your People. But please, don’t try to do this alone. Don’t let fear or pride make you an island. Find the people that give you the fortitude to keep walking this road. Putting words onto paper may be a solitary activity, but Writing — as a career, as a dream, as a life — is better with a team.

 

Review: FOOL’S QUEST by Robin Hobb

Oh, FitzChivalry Farseer and my Beloved Fool, how do I love thee, let me count the ways.

*looks at bookshelves*

*counts*

Apparently at least eleven books’ worth.

Wait, don’t run away! This is my favorite fantasy series — and one of my favorite series, period — of all time. Of all time. Yes, it’s hefty, but don’t worry, I’ll help you through it. And if you love richly built fantasy worlds, complex characters, strong friendships, magic, and dragons, I promise you, it’s worth the time commitment.

First, some basic orientation. Robin Hobb’s FOOL’S QUEST is clearly not a standalone, but the second installment in a new trilogy (beginning with FOOL’S ASSASSIN) that follows two other trilogies, starting with ASSASSIN’S APPRENTICE, where we meet main protagonist Fitz as a young child, and ending with FOOL’S FATE, where we leave him as a grown man. Plus there are two other companion series set in the same world — the brilliant Liveship Traders trilogy (starting with SHIP OF MAGIC), and then the Rain Wilds Chronicles (which I have to admit I haven’t finished yet — I’m working on it!). The companion series are not necessary to read and understand the Fitz books, but they very much enhance the experience.

That’s fifteen books thus far set in this world. And counting.

If you’ve never read any of the books set in Robin Hobb’s Six Duchies and its surrounding lands, fifteen books is a pretty daunting number. As this is my favorite fantasy series of all time (I may have mentioned this), I personally think it’s worth the effort to read all of them (Rain Wilds Chronicles, I will conquer you), but if that’s just way too big an undertaking for you, then you *only* (heh) need to read seven books to understand the events in FOOL’S QUEST. They are:

The Assassin trilogy: ASSASSIN’S APPRENTICE, ROYAL ASSASSIN, ASSASSIN’S QUEST.

The Tawny Man trilogy: FOOL’S ERRAND, GOLDEN FOOL, FOOL’S FATE.

And then the first book in the new Fitz and the Fool trilogy: FOOL’S ASSASSIN.

These books all share a protagonist — FitzChivalry Farseer — and proceed chronologically throughout his life, each book building off the events of the last. There’s really no skipping around if you want to read about Fitz — sorry — but at the same time, I cannot overemphasize how much I enjoy reading about Fitz. Like many high fantasy series-starters, the first book in each series takes a little while to really get going, but once it does, hoo boy.

(If you wanted to read the two companion series, they each stand alone, but Liveship Traders falls between the Assassin and Tawny Man trilogies, and Rain Wilds falls between Tawny Man and Fitz and the Fool.)

Try as I might, there’s really no way for me to review the fifteenth book in an ongoing series without spoilers for the preceding books, so if you haven’t read them, proceed with caution. I’ll try my best not to be too spoilery, but even the broad strokes give away some major developments of the other books in the series. So. Continue at your own risk.

With all that out of the way, let’s get to my thoughts on Fitz’s latest adventures in FOOL’S QUEST (Fitz and the Fool #2).

The Plot (from Goodreads):

Acclaimed and bestselling author Robin Hobb continues her Fitz and the Fool trilogy with this second entry, following Fool’s Assassin, ramping up the tension and the intrigue as disaster continues to strike at Fitz’s life and heart.

After nearly killing his oldest friend, the Fool, and finding his daughter stolen away by those who were once targeting the Fool, FitzChivarly Farseer is out for blood. And who better to wreak havoc than a highly trained and deadly former royal assassin? Fitz might have let his skills go fallow over his years of peace, but such things, once learned, are not so easily forgotten. And nothing is more dangerous than a man who has nothing left to lose…

My Thoughts:

I can’t tell you how excited I was when I found out Robin Hobb was writing a new series about Fitz and the Fool. While we left both characters in a pretty satisfying place at the end of FOOL’S FATE, I’d come to love these characters like family. I missed not being able to journey alongside them on their adventures. So although I had no idea what to expect as far as a conflict for a new series — the main conflict in both the Assassin and Tawny Man series is pretty handily wrapped up at the end of FOOL’S FATE — I was eager to return to the world of the Six Duchies.

Like the first books in most of Hobb’s preceding series, the initial installment in the Fitz and the Fool trilogy, FOOL’S ASSASSIN, takes its time ramping up. I very much enjoyed it — by this point in the series, my overwhelming fondness for FitzChivalry Farseer means that I’m totally cool following him through a series of quiet and mundane tasks, whether it’s managing his estate or dealing with his children (mostly because Fitz has gone through so many dark times that I’m beyond pleased that he has an estate, or children) — and this sort of slow grounding process is necessary to re-establish the reader in Fitz’s world and remind us of the events that led here — but as far as action goes, it’s not until the final act of FOOL’S ASSASSIN that we really see things take off.

Not so with FOOL’S QUEST. Again, this is pretty well expected for each of Hobb’s series: Book 1 spends its time meticulously setting up an intricate pattern of dominoes, then Book 2 blazes in and knocks them all down, leaving the reader in a mess of perfectly executed chaos. FOOL’S QUEST was no exception to this. It hits the ground running, picking up right where FOOL’S ASSASSIN leaves off, and pushes the plot forward at a determined pace, never feeling rushed, but never letting up, either. High fantasy tends to run long in pages, but while reading FOOL’S QUEST, I found myself lamenting that there were *only* 500, 400, 300 pages left to go.

You know that feeling when watching the extended edition of The Two Towers, and it ends and you simultaneously realize, “wow, that movie was three and a half hours long,” but also wish it didn’t have to end? That’s the feeling I had reading this book. Though I was aware of its heft, when I turned the last page, I wasn’t anywhere near ready for it to be over.

Unlike FOOL’S ASSASSIN, which focuses almost entirely on Fitz and his life far away from Buckkeep Castle, FOOL’S QUEST returns him to his old stomping grounds, where we finally get to catch up with beloved (and Beloved) characters of the past. The Fool is there, of course (I was surprised at how little The Fool was in the first book, given its name), just as mysterious and tragic as ever, along with Chade, Kettricken, Dutiful, Elliania, Nettle, and a host of minor characters whose inclusion made it feel like a true homecoming not just for Fitz, but for the reader. There are even some cameos from characters from the Liveships and Rain Wilds books, whom I hope we see more of as the story progresses.

Although this series of series has always tied together beautifully, to me it’s always felt kind of like a quilt, with clearly distinct pieces coming together at the edges and making up a whole. The Fitz books overlapped with Liveships, which overlapped with Rain Wilds, but they were all still their own separate entities. But in FOOL’S QUEST, for the first time, it began to feel more like a tapestry, with the threads beginning to weave over and under and through one another. It’s possible this won’t come to fruition, and that this Fitz series, like the other (brilliant) books before it, will end up more or less self-contained. But I kind of doubt it, and look forward to seeing how Hobb continues to tie this massive world and cast together.

As with every one of Hobb’s preceding books, in FOOL’S QUEST you can expect a host of fully realized, complicated characters, lush worldbuilding, achingly gorgeous prose, vivid emotion, catastrophic stakes, and thrilling action. But for me, the relationships between the characters are what shine the brightest. Fitz’s friendship with The Fool is, of course, the Catalyst on which the whole story pivots, and always has been. Watching these two characters who have been through so much together interact and trust and plead and betray and forgive is a truly beautiful, frustrating, heartbreaking, uplifting experience.

Contrasting that is Fitz’s relationships with his daughters, where he is not a Catalyst, but simply a father, with all the expectation and disappointment and responsibility that brings. Watching Fitz try to navigate fatherhood, after watching him grow up and struggle and fail and triumph, is both rewarding and agonizing. I want nothing but the best for Fitz, but both fate and his own shortcomings are constantly getting in his way. I want to take him by the shoulders and shake him and hug him, maybe at the same time, which for my money is one of the hallmarks of a truly excellent protagonist.

I could go on for ages, but suffice it to say, all of Fitz’s other relationships are similarly complex and well-drawn. Each feels like fully realized person, and the way Fitz interacts with each person he encounters is wholly authentic and honest, whether he’s fighting to the death or gently caring for a traumatized stable hand. Though the sweeping plot of FOOL’S QUEST is every bit as intriguing and suspenseful as Fitz’s quest to aid King Verity against the Red Ships Raiders, or traveling to Aslevjal island to slay a dragon, it’s these relationships and interactions that are the true meat of this series.

Ultimately, this isn’t a recommendation for this one book — if you’ve already read the preceding 7-14 books, you probably already have a pretty good idea if you want to read this one — but for this series, and every series about FitzChivalry Farseer. If you’re not sure if fantasy is your thing, or you’re hesitant about picking up the first book in a series that is so sprawling, let this be your assurance that this is a series that only gets better as it continues. It’s worth the time, it’s worth the investment. Fitz and The Fool are two of the greatest characters I’ve ever read, and as long as Robin Hobb sees fit to keep writing books about them, I’ll be the first in line to read them.

Review: THE MARTIAN by Andy Weir

A few weeks ago, the trailer for the upcoming sci-fi film The Martian released online. Look, here it is. Watch it. I’ll wait.

Looks pretty great, right? I saw it was based on a book. “Should I read the book?” I wondered aloud on social media.

Then social media nearly peed itself with enthusiasm. “YES,” everyone said, “READ THE MARTIAN.”

Okay, I thought. It had been a while since I’d read any adult sci-fi that really engaged me as a reader, and I was way overdue for something good. So I ordered the book, and waited eagerly for its arrival.

And dude.

Dude.

The Plot (from Goodreads):

Six days ago, astronaut Mark Watney became one of the first people to walk on Mars. Now, he’s sure he’ll be the first person to die there. After a dust storm nearly kills him & forces his crew to evacuate while thinking him dead, Mark finds himself stranded & completely alone with no way to even signal Earth that he’s alive—& even if he could get word out, his supplies would be gone long before a rescue could arrive. Chances are, though, he won’t have time to starve to death. The damaged machinery, unforgiving environment or plain-old “human error” are much more likely to kill him first. But Mark isn’t ready to give up yet. Drawing on his ingenuity, his engineering skills—& a relentless, dogged refusal to quit—he steadfastly confronts one seemingly insurmountable obstacle after the next. Will his resourcefulness be enough to overcome the impossible odds against him?

My Thoughts:

THE MARTIAN is, hands-down, one of the best books I’ve ever read. I don’t mean “best” in a technical sense — although I don’t think it has many faults in that arena either — but in a couldn’t-put-it-down, laughed-out-loud, recommended-it-to-everyone-I-knew, still-thinking-about-it-weeks-later sense. I loved it so much it’s hard to write a review without devolving into incoherent squealing noises, but I shall try.

The appeal of THE MARTIAN hinges almost entirely on its main character, Mark Watney. The vast majority of the book is his first-person journal entries, where he describes his efforts to survive alone on a hostile planet, for years, using accommodations and supplies meant to last a month. This is a dangerous device, because if the reader doesn’t like the main character, there’s literally nothing else to focus on. Mark is it, at least for the first significant chunk of the book. Take him or leave him.

Fortunately, Mark Watney is the kind of character I could read forever. Though most of his narration is spent breaking down the science of survival (soil cultivation! structural engineering! making water out of rocket fuel!), which sounds like it should be the most tedious of subjects, I was riveted from the first page to the last. He had a way of describing even the most complex processes in ways that were not only easy to follow, but exciting and, against all odds, funny. Never in my life would I have thought I could be so invested in potato farming, or laugh so hard at the woes of a man caught in such dire circumstances.

There are no bad guys in THE MARTIAN, and it doesn’t need any. There is only Mark (and, eventually, NASA) versus Mars. Since Mars is always present, and always deadly, the tension stays ratcheted up throughout. Life on Mars may be monotonous for Mark, but for the reader, there are no dull points. Everything Mark does is a matter of life and death, all told through a lens of determination, scrappiness, and wry (occasionally profane) humor.

Science is practically a main character in THE MARTIAN, but author Andy Weir — through Mark — breaks it down into language that was completely accessible to me, a total layman. Even though practically every page contains Mark working through calculations, conducting chemistry experiments, or engineering unorthodox solutions to his problems, the narrative never felt bogged down by it, nor was I ever confused. Everything from the technology to Mark’s methods to NASA’s reactions were all presented in such a compelling and believable way that I occasionally had to remind myself that this was science fiction, not a true story.

THE MARTIAN is everything I want in science fiction. High stakes, excellent pacing, unexpected humor, an amazing premise, smart yet accessible science, and fully realized characters that I miss once the last page is turned. It easily launched itself to the top of my list of favorite books, and is a story I look forward to re-reading many, many times. 100 out of 5 stars.

Jurassic World: Trying yet again to recapture the magic of Jurassic Park

I’m beginning to think that Jurassic Park was lightning in a bottle.

This weekend, Jurassic World will stomp into theaters like a rampaging T-Rex, the third in a series of heretofore disastrous sequels attempting to recapture the magic of Spielberg’s original dino-masterpiece. But while it comes closer than either of its predecessors to giving me what I wanted in a Jurassic follow-up, it still fell far short of the jaw-dropping wonder of the first film. And after two cringe-worthy sequels and one lukewarm one, I’m starting to wonder if Hollywood should just stop trying.

Lots of Jurassic World winds up feeling like a dull shadow of Jurassic Park, like someone studied the original film, making notes of random plot and character points, and then tweaked them for this movie without considering what purpose they served in the original.

Oil-and-water child siblings shuttled off to spend time with a detached non-parent relative (dressed, inexplicably, all in white) on a remote island filled with dinosaurs? Check.

A rugged, outdoorsy type cautioning the park-runners that they don’t have enough respect for what they’ve created? Check.

A starry-eyed park owner with deep pockets, little sense, and fluffy, sugar-coated idealism? Check.

A dude intent on stealing the dino-technology for his own nefarious and greedy purposes? Check.

A giant, carnivorous dinosaur attacking kids trapped in a vehicle? Check.

A character running from a T-Rex while holding a flare, an oh-crap moment of we’ve-underestimated-the-dinosaurs’-intelligence, a quiet moment with a long-necked herbivore, scientists failing to consider the implications of splicing dinosaur DNA with not-dinosaur DNA, trapped kids being menaced by raptors, an 11th hour out-of-nowhere dino hero moment — check check check check.

And yet, while the Jurassic World filmmakers did not make a bad movie by recycling so much of the original, they really missed the mark on what made it special. Jurassic Park was groundbreaking in its effects, sure, but it was also smart in its storytelling. There were far more forces at work than just Dinos Gone Wild, though that seems to be all the sequels remember.

It had the hubris of man, embodied in John Hammond and Dennis Nedry, trying to force the narrative along according to their will.

It had the pitting of science versus nature, as a paleontologist, a paleobotanist, and a mathematician (chaotician, chaotician) are forced to come face to face with things that, until now, they’ve only been able to study in the abstract.

And underneath it all, chaos. This was the entire point of the Ian Malcolm character — to give voice to the chaos undercutting everything they tried to do. Malcolm was there to point out that no matter how much control humans may think they have, there will always be something they haven’t accounted for, because they can’t. It’s easy to overlook in all the black-leather-Jeff-Goldblum-stuttering-and-swaggering amazingness, but over and over, Malcolm warns the group that the very idea of the park is, in its essence, flawed.

“The kind of control you’re attempting simply is…it’s not possible. If there is one thing the history of evolution has taught us it’s that life will not be contained.”

“The lack of humility before nature that’s being displayed here staggers me.”

“Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.”

Interestingly, it’s Ellie Sattler, not Ian Malcolm, who sums up the main conflict of the first film toward the end, in a conversation with John Hammond. “When we have control,” Hammond begins emphatically, envisioning how next time, he’ll be able to open the park without problems — then Ellie interrupts, “You never had control, that’s the illusion!”

And it was this thread — this smart, scientific approach to chaos, to humans being forced to admit they could do nothing but watch as things spiraled out of control, and how each time the humans desperately grasped at a way to pull things back together, something else went wrong, to the point where they ultimately had no choice but to admit defeat and flee the island — that made the first movie so thrilling to watch.

In a film that is universally praised for its groundbreaking effects, it’s easy to assume that the spectacle is what made it great — and three times now, sequels have tried to capitalize on bigger spectacle — but without that slow crumbling of control; without the gradual realization of the humans that, no, there is no mastering what’s gone wrong here, there is only, at best, surviving it; without that underlying, razor-edged tension of  watching characters struggle for better circumstances while knowing, deep down, that things will only get worse, you’re left only with special effects and screams. Which may be visually cool, but it isn’t interesting.

This is Jurassic World‘s main misstep. All throughout, despite the glossy effects and big-budget action, it feels too controlled. Both the park itself, and the structure of the film surrounding it. Even though you have Chris Pratt’s character, Owen, darkly warning Bryce Dallas Howard that they shouldn’t be cooking up their own dinosaurs, it turns out to be a bad idea not because the dinosaur is a dinosaur, and thus unpredictable, but because the dinosaur is smart. And while yes, the raptors in the first film proved to be smarter than the humans thought, it wasn’t their intelligence that made the first film terrifying; it was the idea that the humans have no idea what they’ll do next.

All throughout Jurassic World, the dinosaurs are predictable and controllable. Yes, their Frankensteinian creation winds up getting loose and chomping up people and other dinosaurs left and right, but they can see where it’s going, they can shuttle park attendees around to keep them (mostly) out of harm’s way, and throughout the film they never doubt that if they can just subdue that one dinosaur, everything will be fine again.

As for the other dinosaurs — the ones whose survival instincts trumped every effort of man to control them in the first movie, and became exaggerated monstrous versions of themselves in the second and third — they remained either docile in their cages, or were let out only to do exactly what humans wanted them to do. Sometimes they get a bit out of line (the scamps), but even then, they were really only a threat to people who didn’t take the effort to truly understand them.

If Ian Malcolm had died in the first movie the way he did in the book, Jurassic World would have him rolling over in his grave.

Chris Pratt’s Raptor Gang, while a cool action sequence, totally undercut the entire point of the first movie, which was that no matter how much humans might think they’ve mastered nature, they haven’t. Instead of being unwieldy instruments of chaos, the Jurassic World dinosaurs are tools: pets and weapons and rides and blunt objects. The humans are caricatures of the characters in the first film, and as such, it was hard to invest in any of them outside the main quartet, who — though they spent much of the movie’s 2-hour run time cowering and running and screaming — never felt like they were in any real peril.

Jurassic World is not without its good points. Unlike the last two sequels, there are no cringe-worthy, eye-rolling moments of pure inanity. There are snippets of humor, mostly courtesy of Chris Pratt, who can’t help but have great comedic timing even with a mostly wooden script. There are some amazing effects, and as far as shot-for-shot beauty goes, this is probably the most visually stunning of the bunch. There are some sweet moments between the two kid brothers, and Bryce Dallas Howard’s Claire goes from being stiff and distant to genuinely root-worthy. And though the movie’s spectacular, dino-violence-filled climax is not necessarily shocking, it is still pretty darn fun to watch.

But while the original Jurassic Park felt like intelligent, taut, truly frightening science fiction, Jurassic World is simply a summer popcorn flick, with dinosaurs. It won’t make you think, it won’t scare you, it probably won’t even get your pulse up, aside from a few jump scares. It won’t give you any great one-liners to quote over and over for the next two decades, or any characters who will stick with you like friends. But it will entertain, and make you smile, and give you ample amounts of gorgeous CGI and thrilling action sequences.

And maybe, if the original is lightning in a bottle, that’s the most we can ask of a sequel.

Here’s my Drive Through Movie Review of Jurassic World that we filmed right after seeing the movie, in which I couldn’t quite pull all my thoughts into coherent words yet, but I did try to imagine what a Goldblum-T-Rex hybrid might look like.

Book to Film: The Five Best (And Worst) Changes in Jurassic Park

Remember a million years ago when I was going to talk about movie adaptations of books and the changes made to the source material and whether or not it worked and it was going to be great — and then I never did it again? I’m sure you were real broken up about that.

But this week, before Jurassic World hits theaters, I wanted to talk about the movie (and book) that started it all, Jurassic Park.

Jurassic Park is one of my favorite books of all time. Of. All. Time. It was my gateway into the world of science fiction. I’ve read it so many times my old mass-market paperback is falling apart.

I love the movie too. But it’s totally different. Totally. Different. It’s one of those rare instances where completely altering the plot and characters from the original actually worked to the adaptation’s favor. And today, because I am seeing an advance screening of Jurassic World tonight and can think of little else, I want to talk about some of those differences, for better or for worse.

Top Five Best Changes for the Movie:

5. Gennaro dies on a toilet

No-one’s-favorite-character Donald Gennaro, the “blood-sucking lawyer” who panics and hides from a T-Rex in a rickety bathroom stall, actually makes it all the way through the book. Yes, Ian Malcolm dies and Gennaro lives, because in the book, life is unfair and chaos theory reigns supreme. In the book, Gennaro isn’t even present during the T-Rex attack, and another character (Ed Regis, who is not in the movie) runs off and dies instead. But for the purposes of film, having a T-Rex eat Gennaro by plucking him off a toilet established what the characters were up against in one massive chomp, and we didn’t even have to lose a character we liked to accomplish it.

4. John Hammond is Santa, so of course he lives.

In the book, Hammond is not the kind, gentle, every-grandpa of the movie, but a greedy, manipulative old miser who learns absolutely nothing during the meltdown of the park, blames other people for everything that goes wrong, and in the end gets slowly nibbled to death by compys on a beach. Good riddance, book readers think when he dies.

In the movie, John Hammond is misguided, sure, but we still love him.

“Mr. Hammond,” Grant says at the end, “After careful consideration, I’ve decided not to endorse your park.”

“So have I,” Hammond replies, jaw set as he drives the escape vehicle to the helicopter.

Book!Hammond would never do this. He’d never admit he was wrong. It works in the book — which is about chaos and the hubris of man and the vast power of nature and the resiliency and resourcefulness of humans in desperate circumstances — but in the movie, which is about rampaging dinosaurs, there’s really no need for a human villain.

3. Lex is not entirely insufferable 

In the book, Tim is both the older sibling and the computer nerd. Lex is his younger tomboy sister, and basically does nothing helpful the entire book. In the movie, they made her the older, tech-savvy sibling. She’s the one who gets the Park’s electrical systems back on line toward the end, she distracts a velociraptor from eating her little brother in the kitchen scene, and though Lex is probably not anyone’s favorite character, without her involvement, a few more beloved characters probably would have gotten eaten.

2. T-Rex gets the hero save

The movie is not at all concerned about all the pesky science in the book; it just wants to give us cool dino action. And it delivers. The T-Rex in the book is only ever a gigantic, menacing animal, but the T-Rex in the movie swoops in like Batman at the end to save our main quartet from raptors, and then roars triumphantly as the Jurassic Park banner flutters dramatically to the ground, and oh dear readers, it is glorious.

1. Ian Malcolm lives

“I don’t always get bitten by a T-Rex, but when I do, I sit like this.”

Ian Malcolm’s injuries from the T-Rex bite are far worse in the book than in the movie, and just before the end, he succumbs to them and dies. This is then retconned in the opening pages of The Lost World, in one of the least-believable passages I have ever read in a Crichton novel — and Crichton books are about dinosaurs and aliens and time travel and homicidal gorillas — probably because Jeff Goldblum was popular and Hollywood wanted a sequel starring him. Which was…terrible. But, horrible sequels aside, for the sake of the movie, keeping Malcolm alive was a smart choice. It would’ve been a lot harder for the movie to have the optimistic ending it did if Jeff Goldblum had not been grinning on that helicopter.

Top Five Worst Changes for the Movie:

5. Grant and Ellie never sneak into a velociraptor den with a bunch of nerve-gas grenades

A big subplot from the book which the movie pretty much ignores is Alan Grant’s obsession with understanding how the raptors are reproducing and how far they’ve spread so that they can be sure they eradicate them all. Gennaro wants to blow the whole island up with a bomb, but Grant insists that first they must infiltrate a raptor nest and count eggs so they know how many raptors they’re dealing with. So Grant, Ellie, and Gennaro squeeze their way into an underground raptor den armed with a bunch of nerve-gas grenades, intending to do the count, then kill all the raptors. Before they can, all the raptors run away and they don’t wind up gassing them, but watching our main characters crawl into a nest and hide right under the noses of a den of raptors would have been pretty great.

4. Henry Wu is only a cameo appearance, not a main character

Having one of the park’s chief scientists along for the ride adds a ton of insight into the dinosaurs (in the movie, Grant picks up some of that slack, but a lot of Wu’s contributions are just omitted entirely), and really plays up the science aspect of this science-fiction story. However, keeping him out of harm’s way in the first movie — in the book, Wu is eaten by a raptor toward the end — has left the door open for him to be alive and kicking and still cloning dinosaurs twenty-two years later in Jurassic World.

Huh. Maybe it’s not good that Wu survived, since he apparently learned nothing.

3. Grant never bowls poisoned dinosaur eggs down a deserted hallway

At one point toward the end of the book, the kids and Gennaro get cornered by raptors, and Grant lures them away to the hatchery, where the dinosaur eggs are kept. He then injects the eggs with a lethal poison and rolls them down the hall to the raptors, where they eat them and then drop dead. It sounds dumb when I explain it like this, but in the book it’s extremely tense. Much like the kitchen scene in the movie (which I love and would like to keep — I just also want the egg-bowling scene).

2. Grant and the kids never take a hazardous boat ride down the river

I think we’re learning by now that I really liked a lot of Grant scenes in the book that never made it into the movie. In the book, Grant, Tim, and Lex take a raft down the river (because Jurassic Park has a river) that takes them through the aviary, to the lodge. They are attacked by pterodactyls. They dodge the T-Rex again. They go over a waterfall. Alas, none of this is in the movie. And when we finally do get boats and pterodactyls in Jurassic movies, it’s awful.

Oh well. At least we’ll always have The River Wild.

1. Robert Muldoon dies

Robert Muldoon is the only character who actually deserved to make it through this story. He is knowledgeable about dinosaurs, he respects them, he warns everyone time and time again about how dangerous they are, he understands how they hunt — and in the book, all this knowledge and respect and cunning is rewarded by him making it off the island. And while allowing for his death in the movie gives us one of its best lines, I will always wish that he had then promptly escaped by crawling through a pipe, as he does in the book.

Also, my personal theory is that Jurassic World is the result of Hollywood realizing this, and deciding that not only should Muldoon have lived, but he should have been the main character, and then building a movie around it. No one can convince me that Chris Pratt is not just playing Robert Muldoon 2.0.

I could keep going — there are a million and five changes between the book and the movie — but I think you get my point. Normally part of me cringes when a movie deviates significantly from its source material, but I’m still able to love Jurassic Park for what it is. It’s awe-inspiring and suspenseful, full of adventure and heroism and moments of humor and wonderfulness.

Still, part of me is glad that Jurassic World is not based on a book, so that I won’t have anything in my head to compare it to (then I remember that Jurassic Park 3 was not based on a book and it was terrible, but shhhhhh I’m trying to block that out).

How about you? If you’ve read the book and seen the movie, what were some changes that you liked? Or parts from the book that you wish they’d kept? Or you can just talk about how excited we all are to see Jurassic World and the Chris Pratt Raptor Motorcycle Gang, because let’s be real —

— This is awesome.