'Tis the season to find a special gift for friends, family members and loved ones. As a young culture connoisseur I am frequently asked for recommendations on the latest and greatest things. So for the next month my column will be devoted to giving you my picks on what 2016 has to offer.
"The Walking Dead: Compendium Three"—I don't like being that guy who says the book is always better, but the book is always better. After last year's terrible season finale and this year's gruesome premier, many are tempted to stop watching the show altogether. AMC is reporting some of the lowest ratings for this season. So why not read the original source material? After finishing the compendium you'll be further along in the storyline than the show. Now you won't be surprised when someone bites the dust on the small screen and you can be angry when the plot is different. Technically this came out last year, and it is the only year-old item in this list, but since it collects 48 issues it's the best way to do a marathon reading session.
"The Wicked + The Divine: Volume Four"—With the deaths of Prince and David Bowie, this year has not been kind to pop stars. Thankfully there's Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie's fantasy series to provide us some solace. The series' main conceit is that there are deities who are perpetually reincarnated into pop idols. Famous musicians such as Prince and Bowie directly influenced the writing and characterization of the idols. Pop in your favorite tape and listen while reading a book that smartly blends the classic and modern.
"The Fade Out"—Set during the Hollywood blacklist of 1948, Ed Brubaker's graphic novel breathes new life in the noire genre. Brubaker, one of the writers for HBO's "Westworld," spins a yarn about a screenwriter suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder who wakes up in the same room as a dead actress. Be prepared for lots of drinking, smoking and internal monologues as the case twists and turns.
"Angel Catbird: Volume One"—Science fiction author Margaret Atwood, best known for novels such as "The Handmaid's Tale" and "The Blind Assassin," decided to try her hand at penning a graphic novel. After a science experiment gone wrong, Strig Feleedus becomes a man that's part bird and cat. Yet what looks like an average superhero story is something quite different under the surface. Pages frequently are filled with scientific facts since it's being co-published by a conservation charity, making it an educating read for children. You only have to wait until February for the next installment if you enjoy the first novel.
"Ms. Marvel Omnibus: Volume One"—Superheroes aren't always the same person under the mask. It's common for the crime-fighting name to be handed down once the predecessor gets too old to adequately provide protection or if they befall a tragic fate. When a Pakistani American teenager named Kamala Khan discovers she has shape-shifting super powers, she takes up the mantle out of respect to the first Ms. Marvel Carol Danvers. Sana Amanat, the director of content and character development at Marvel, made Khan share many aspects of her own life such as growing up Muslim in New Jersey. Marvel is having some diversity issues on the big screen by focusing mainly on white males, but it's refreshing to see that isn't the case in print.
"Saga: Volume Six"—This award-winning space opera series has been in almost every "Best Of" list since it first hit the shelves in 2012. Inspired by epic tales like "Star Wars," writer Brian K. Vaughn tells the tale of a couple from warring alien races trying to find a peaceful life for their daughter. Television fans will recognize Vaughn's name from the credits of "Lost" and "Under the Dome." Joining him is Fiona Staples, whose iconic style has won her multiple Eisner awards. Many times I'll stare at the beautiful artwork not wanting to turn the page. If there's one series you read, make it "Saga."
The Penguin Galaxy Series Six-Book Deluxe Boxed Set by various authors—The books may not have come out this year, but these beautiful editions did. Science fiction and fantasy classics "2001: A Space Odyssey," "Dune," "Neuromancer," "The Once and Future King," "The Left Hand of Darkness," and "Stranger in a Stranger Land" are now bound in a wonderful minimalistic hardcover that'll make your other novels jealous. If that wasn't enough, each one has a new introduction by author Neil Gaiman giving a budding genre fan more than one reason to delve into the groundbreaking works.
"The Underground Railroad" by Colson Whitehead—Part historical fiction, part speculative fiction, the winner of the National Book Award makes its namesake metaphor real. That’s right, here there is actually a railroad underground to transport fleeing slaves. Cora runs away from her life on a plantation in Georgia and hops on the train. Each stop in a different state presents new realities with new challenges. Like any good writer, Coulson crafted a mirror to show us both our horrifying past and future.
"Death's End" by Liu Cixin and translated by Ken Liu—It is rare for a foreign novel to succeed in America. Usually the nuances get lost in translation and words don’t pack the same punch. However, that’s not the case with Liu’s “Remembrance of Earth’s Past” trilogy. When the first installment, “The Three-Body Problem,” came stateside last year it won the Hugo Award for Best Novel. That’s the science fiction world’s version of winning Best Picture for the Oscar’s. Now the final novel in trilogy puts a cap on the saga. Liu’s tale is unique in that each novel has a different protagonist but continues the wild, intergalactic story.
"A Game of Thrones" 20th Anniversary Box by George R.R. Martin—To commemorate the release of Martin's "A Game Of Thrones" 20 years ago, the book has been rereleased in a classy illustrated edition. Yet Martin, publisher Random House and HBO decided more needed to be done to celebrate. Now readers have a choice between a special edition or limited edition box set that include the book along with maps, a shirt, coins, miniatures and other trinkets. Only 200 copies of the ultra limited edition were made and are already sold out.
"The Vegetarian" by Han Kang and translated by Deborah Smith—Another book that finally made it to the U.S., this is Kang's second novel to be translated into English. Winner of this year's Man Booker International Prize, the novel focuses on a housewife who decides to stop eating meat after a nightmare. Her family looks down on her decision and the plot gets darker and more disturbing with each page. The book is split into three parts with the woman's husband, brother-in-law and sister narrating a different portion.
"Appetites" by Anthony Bourdain and Laurie Woolever—Who said every book in this list has to be a novel? The chef and host of CNN's captivating "Parts Unknown" has released his first cookbook in over a decade. The cover, designed by Ralph Steadman of Hunter S. Thompson fame, tells you right away that this isn't a traditional cookbook. Bourdain shares with us his take on traditional dishes for the home like scrambled eggs and macaroni and cheese and also his favorite international dishes like budae jjigae, a ramen stew made with a little bit of everything.
"Hamilton: The Revolution" by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jeremy McCarter—Whether you know every lyric in "Hamilton: An American Musical" by heart or you have yet to even listen to the soundtrack, this book has something for everyone. Affectionately called the "Hamiltome," the almost 300 pages tells the story of most-talked about musical that won a Grammy Award, Pulitzer Prize and 11 Tony Awards. Starting from before Miranda performed the titular song at The White House in 2009 and going past opening night on Broadway, it includes interviews, profiles, photos of the cast and historical artifacts along with annotated lyrics. Through in the original cast recording, the recently released "The Hamilton Mixtape" and Ron Chernow's 2004 biography to make a really special gift.
Middle-Earth Limited Collector's Edition—Finally, the one box set to rule them all has been released. This set includes the original "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy and “The Hobbit” trilogy in their full, extended edition formats together for the first time. There’s so much extra content, like deleted scenes and behind-the-scenes documentaries, that it takes 30 Blu-ray Discs to hold it all. Each movie looks like a leather-bound book and sits on a solid wood bookshelf. The collection also comes with a book of concept art made to look like the “Red Book of Westmarch,” the book in which Bilbo and Frodo write the events of the films.
Mad Max: Fury Road-Black and Chrome Edition—The best movie of 2015 can now be seen the way director George Miller wanted it to be seen: in black and white. While the vivid saturation of the film set it apart, Miller’s magnificent composition begged to be viewed in the monochromatic style. He knew that only independent art movies are released he black and white so he decided on color for his blockbuster, but with a home version it doesn’t matter. Somehow the greatest just got greater. See you all in Valhalla!
"Kubo and the Two Strings"—Laika is the stop-motion production company behind enchanting movies like “Corpse Bride,” “Coraline,” and “The Boxtrolls.” The studio has worked its magic again with their latest. The absolutely gorgeous “Kubo and the Two Strings” tells a mythical Japanese tale about a boy who must find his father’s armor. Along the way he befriends a monkey, voiced by Charlize Theron, and a beetle, voiced by Matthew McConaughey. Along with the handcrafted eye candy, Dario Marianelli’s score is epic when it needs to be but also reserved when Kubo plays on his shamisen. The story focuses on family and parents, fitting for a holiday where we spend time with our loved ones.
"The Lobster"—The most bizarre and romantic dark comedy of recent memory, Yorgos Lanthimos's film is a dystopian view on finding love in the modern era. Colin Farrell plays the protagonist who must find a partner in 45 days after checking into a hotel. If he doesn't, he'll be transformed into a lobster. Like Spike Jonze's "Her," it's an extremely original lens that examines the meaning of love.
"Midnight Special"—Nostalgia is the gift that keeps on giving. Every new property seems to either be a remake of something from my childhood or heavily influenced by the creator's childhood. The 80s vibe that stole hearts with the show "Stranger Things," and the movie "Super 8," returns in this homage to Steven Spielberg's "Close Encounters of the Third Kind." In it a young boy develops powers and goes on the run from the government and a cult.
"Hail, Caesar!"—The masterful Coen brothers, makers of classics like "The Big Lebowski," "No Country for Old Men," and "Fargo," have done it again. Set in the golden age of Hollywood, the comedy-drama has a Josh Brolin trying to find out what happened to his studio's star while keeping it out of the press. Of course, a film about Hollywood needs an all-star cast. With George Clooney, Ralph Fiennes, Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton and others, the movie delivers both the hilarity and gravity needed.
"Don't Think Twice"—Comedian Mike Birbiglia, known for his semi-autobiographical film “Sleepwalk with Me” and his work on the radio show “This American Life,” has come out with his second hilarious comedy-drama. Along with Birbiglia, it stars Keegan-Michael Key, Gillian Jacobs, Kate Micucci, Chris Gethard and Tami Sagher as an improve troupe in New York. The film only had a small theatrical release, making it the perfect gift now that it’s in physical form.
FilmStruck subscription—This year the Criterion Collection disappeared from Hulu, angering some fans due to the unexpected change. However, it left because they teamed up with Turner Classic Movies to form a new streaming service called FilmStruck. Unlike Netflix or Amazon, FilmStruck is an extremely niche platform made to provide cinephiles with classics, hard-to-find flicks and indie gems. Now you can watch movies by Akira Kurosawa like "Seven Samurai," the basis of "The Magnificent Seven," or Ingmar Bergman's "The Seventh Seal" on any device, any time. It's the perfect gift for one with picky tastes.
“Firewatch”—The most beautiful game of the year comes from Campo Santo, a new studio out of San Francisco. The year is 1989 and you play as Henry, a Boulder native who decides to spend a summer working as a fire lookout in Wyoming’s Shoshone National Forest after experiencing some difficulties back in Colorado. Equipped with nothing but a walkie-talkie, Henry explores the lush wilderness keeping tabs on tourists. On the other end of the walkie-talkie is Delilah, the only other lookout and companion for when things start to go wrong. The short narrative is gripping, emotional and has a fabulous soundtrack.
“Titanfall 2”—Surprises are rare in the world of video games. With trailers, previews and reviews, along with general deduction skills, people usually know what they’re going to get when they play a game. The first “Titanfall” didn’t have a single-player campaign mode yet the developers chose to implement one this time around. Their decision gave us one of the greatest campaigns on the year, with each level playing like an entirely different game. Made by some of the same folks who created “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare,” the game simultaneously plays like a classic first-person shooter yet has well-designed surprises around every corner. Oh, yea, and I guess the multiplayer is tons of fun too.
“Overwatch”—Speaking of multiplayer games, Blizzard Entertainment decided to take a break from their strategy and role-playing games and step into the world of shooters. While the name looks and sounds similar, this game has nothing to do with “Firewatch.” The title instead refers to a global group of heroes similar to The Avengers or G.I. Joe. Players select one of 23(?) characters and face off against another team of six at a variety of international locales. Rather than picking up weapons scattered about, each hero has their own set of powers and gadgets. The offensive Genji has a sword and throwing stars while the defensive Mei has an ice gun. I’ve played the game almost every day since it came out in March and it’s tied with “Firewatch” for my best game of the year.
“Betrayal at House on the Hill: Widow’s Walk”—Now for a change of pace from digital games to analog. Avalon Hill’s board game is a cooperative experience where players explore a haunted house. Like in horror films the object is to survive; however, midway through the game one player is revealed to be a traitor. When that happens, a special scenario called a haunt goes into effect. These scenarios usually include classic monsters like zombies, vampires and werewolves. This expansion adds 20 new room tiles, 30 new cards and 50 new haunts. That brings the total number up to 100 haunts, which means this game can be played over and over without fear of getting old. The most enticing part is that an ensemble of designers and creators wrote these new haunts. Pendleton Ward of “Adventure Time,” Jerry Holkins of “Penny Arcade,” Zoe Quinn of “Depression Quest,” Max Temkin of “Cards Against Humanity” and others appear in the credits.
“Secret Hitler”—Speaking of Max Temkin, he and his friends Mike Boxleiter and Tommy Maranges have created a new hidden identity bluffing game. Players are assigned a political party, either liberal or fascist, at the start of the game. The goal is to pass policies that correspond to one’s party; however, aide of the other players is needed to do so and knowledge of their affiliation is limited. If you’ve ever played “Mafia” or “The Resistance” then you’re already familiar with the general idea. The game also ends if Hitler is assassinated or if he is elected chancellor. If you’re put off by the name, don’t worry. The designers and illustrator made sure that there’s no swastikas or Nazi imagery to be found and the fascists are anthropomorphized lizard people. The game was funded on Kickstarter last year and I’ve been playing it since October. Now it’s available for everyone, not just backers, to play.
“Volo’s Guide to Monsters”—The fifth edition of the classic pen-and-paper role-playing game “Dungeons and Dragons” finally has a new sourcebook. The 244-page volume includes new races to play as, new monsters to fight and so much lore on those monsters that you’ll believe you took a portal to the Forgotten Realms. “D&D” has seen a resurgence of late with the show “Stranger Things,” actors talking about the game and the numerous podcasts about it so now is the perfect time to join in on the fun. The fifth-edition, which came out in 2014, stripped away many complex rules of the older versions and made it much more accessible to beginners. All you need is some dice, a pencil and paper and your imagination.
These columns were originally published each week through the November 23, 2016 and December 21, 2016 editions of the Valley Courier.