A photo gallery–as-app is light on features yet becomes a moving visual statement communicated through the faces of hundreds of kids from around the world.
The 230 photos—often-breathtaking, in-the-moment portraits—are accessed via pins on a world map, as a slide show or as a gallery with a simple horizontal bar as navigation. Each photo has a caption that can be accessed by tapping a word-balloon button. The one-line descriptions are light on detail, yet evocative. "Wearing his last meal as lipstick, a full child takes a break from dining and greets a visitor to his simple home in a riverside African village," reads a caption for a photo taken in Juffure, The Gambia. But it's the faces of the children themselves that are most compelling. Whether they appear to be bored or giddy, engaged in activity or posing for a foreigner's camera, their emotions are sometimes as clear as what the backdrops tell us about their living conditions. The cumulative effect gives readers (especially young ones) a small sense of the scale of the Earth and its many inhabitants. If there's anything missing, it's a cleverer way to browse the images than flipping through them one by one, pointing on a clunky map or rolling a too-tiny thumbnail bar. And, though the app is visually overstuffed, there's no sound at all. It's as if the kids all went eerily silent when even a few sound clips would have enhanced the app greatly.
A delightfully entertaining telling of the tale of brave Ulysses.
This slimmed, prose version of Homer’s epic can be read aloud by a lilting narrator, or it can be read silently. All of the characters Ulysses meets on his long journey home are here—the Lotus Eaters, Polyphemus the Cyclops, Aeolus and the spiteful winds, Circe, the Sirens, Calypso, a truly scary Scylla—with a suitable amount of smoothly written text material to flesh out their backgrounds and roles. Pop-up boxes can be activated to provide further interpretive access to the tale. The stained-glass quality of the artwork is enchanting, as are the atmospheric background music and sounds. The interactive features are many and clever. Little hints are given for activating them—jugs do a quick tip to the side, Ulysses’ helmet tinks when touched—but the true joy here is the act of discovering the interactive features, which are not gimmies by any stretch: dragging a storm cloud against the sky to bedevil Ulysses’ boat, figuring out how Penelope weaves and unweaves the shroud, activating Circe’s fireworks or an island volcano, helping Polyphemus hurl a boulder at Ulysses’ ship and watching Poseidon rise from the waves. Readers, in essence, are exploring, just like our man Ulysses. That’s engagement.
An inventive and entertaining introduction to the classic. And that kiss at the end: perfect.
(iPad epic app. 10 & up)
A centenarian who has just lost everything—nearly everything—reflects on his childhood and his chief regret in a poignant but wonder-filled memoir.
Seeing his mansion and possessions burned to ashes, Ari Allistair Arx-Sorenson offers "the ashes of my memory." There are many, starting with a childhood rich in wonders: an encounter with a wolf who becomes a lifelong companion, uproarious parties with animal dinner guests and a portrait painted by his mother that never dries because she changes it every day as he grows. But then he falls in love with a woman from the sky and loses her by allowing his love to become obsession. Appearing phrase by phrase in English or French versions when read by a narrator (who sounds properly introspective, if too young) but in full in silent mode, Ari's monologue is printed in an angular typeface that complements Fauché's shadowy, equally stylized cartoon illustrations. Though the art tends to gather at the edges on most screens, touching figures and smaller details activates gestures, sounds, slow zooms or entire changes of view, small, scurrying creatures and other unpredictable effects that never fail to add drama or delight to each scene. Multiple background tracks of flowing orchestral music underscore the reflective tone. "I pulled from the fire everything that I wanted to keep," Ari concludes. "I ask you to believe me."
An outstanding, seamless combination of evocative art, poetic writing and ingeniously designed digital enhancements that mature audiences in particular (but not exclusively) will find profoundly moving.
(iPad picture-book app. 8-10, adult)
Mary Shelley’s classic rewritten and retooled, with an appealing gothic-style interface and ingeniously immersive format.
Metaphorically speaking, Frankenstein is a perfect novel for an app treatment: Like the novel’s monster, Dave Morris’ rewrite is a brand-new creature assembled from vintage parts. The interface is anchored by archival illustrations of anatomical drawings (mostly from the 17th century); images of bone and exposed muscle rotate onto the screen as the story moves forward and the monster emerges. His maker, Dr. Frankenstein, travels from Paris to Geneva to England to the North Pole to hunt down his murderous creation, maps and black-and-white engravings giving a sense of place while adding to the disarming mood. The app assumes that readers don’t want to read for very long without doing something, and every few paragraphs end with a prompt that gives readers a chance to steer, by choosing a letter to read, deciding on a direction to go or registering an emotional response. The options are engaging enough to rarely feel interruptive or contrived, though all roads ultimately lead in one direction: Morris’ narrative frame closely resembles Shelley’s. However, Morris smartly takes advantage of the iPad’s interactivity to play with perspective. One section puts readers in the mind of the monster just after he’s escaped from his maker, observing the family from whom he learns to read and speak; directing the monster’s behavior literally puts them in the role of his rueful creator. The writing from Dr. Frankenstein’s perspective can be purple and dramatically mordant at times, but Morris pushes the story forward with pleasant efficiency, condensing Shelley’s prose without stripping it of its flavor. (The original novel is included in the app, though without the bells and whistles.)
Some narrative weakness aside, a brilliantly designed app; the current benchmark for high-quality storytelling via tablet.
The tale that scared America silly in 1938, courtesy of Orson Welles, returns in a well-made app that would do a Martian invader proud.
H.G. Wells published The War of the Worlds in 1898, long before world-destroying technologies were available to frighten us in real life. The humans in it, famously, are unprepared when an armada of ill-intending Martians reaches the third stone from the sun and begins to blow things up willy-nilly. Eventually, though, they begin to mount resistance, and if some of the fighting takes place in the unlikely confines of rural England, so much the better for Wells’ first generation of readers. The developers at E-mersiv do Wells’ book a service by having fun with it. When the Martians begin to deploy their extremely nasty heat ray, for instance, or what Wells calls “this flaming death, this invisible, inevitable sword of heat,” words on the page burn before readers’ eyes—a very neat bit of animation, that, matched with appropriately scarifying background noises that suggest sizzling and smoking. The score is not always the best; there are too many moments of tinkling piano and weird prog rock for comfort. But for its sonic lapses, the main body of the text is superb, giving new life to Wells’ words. This is nowhere more true than toward the end of app and novel, when the Martians have destroyed the center of the world: “London about me gazed at me spectrally,” Wells writes, a burned-up, bowled-over, blown-apart city of the dead, and the designer nicely reinforces the sense of doom and destruction by blackening the edges of the page as if a firestorm had passed over it. The text is easy to bookmark—so easy that it invites flagging favorite passages, in fact. The only poorly executed aspect of the package is a glossary pulled down by means of a readily accessible menu; it reads as if written by a non-native speaker of English—perhaps a Martian—and is uninformative (the opening gloss for “Narrator’s Wife,” for instance, is “Wife of the narrator”).
It’s as if Orson Welles had gotten hold of an iPad. Though some fixes remain to be done, a top-notch production.
An interactive ghost tale weaves together historical fiction and a supernatural love story with satisfying results.
Daisy’s mysterious ability to channel electricity has always been more curse than blessing, especially since it means no cellphone or computer use. However, when she and her friends Danielle and Vivi are unexpectedly faced with an evil spirit from Daisy’s distant past, the utility of Daisy’s gift slowly becomes clear. Woven into the mix is Kevin, a brooding love interest with a guitar who keeps Daisy grounded throughout their adventure. Interactive elements ranging from embedded YouTube videos to subtly animated black-and-white illustrations add to the overall experience and spooky atmosphere. The text concludes with a final section—“More Gift”— in which the three supporting characters present their own perspectives on the story. For example, Kevin’s section includes links to audio files of songs and lyrics, which will be familiar to readers as they are featured at the beginnings of selected chapters. Vivi’s story is told in a brief graphic-novel format in realistic watercolor illustrations, and Danielle presents her point of view as pages from her diary. While the alternative formatting and use of audio works well, the entire section feels tacked on. Nevertheless, the enhancements are sufficient to make going digital with this text (also published as an ordinary paperback) worthwhile.
A fantastical and historical ghost story that benefits from technology and the presence of young love. (Paranormal romance. 15-17)
Canadian photographer Burtynsky turns in a grand tour of the big, usually grimy world of petroleum.
In the foreword to this app, Burtynsky, known for epic-scale landscapes, recounts experiencing an epiphany of sorts 15-odd years ago, when it occurred to him that “all the vast man-altered landscapes I had pursued for over 20 years had been made possible by the discovery of oil and the progress occasioned by the internal combustion engine.” The impressive portfolio he assembles here chronicles that progress, if such it is, in various guises, from the tangles of spaghetti-strand highways that ring cities such as Houston, Las Vegas and, most especially, Los Angeles to the detritus of industrial civilization. It records both the celebration of oil culture (most poetically invoked in Burtynsky’s oddly unsettling photograph of a big rig circling the NASCAR track at Talladega) and the undeniably damaging effects oil is having on the world (including some harrowing images of the Deepwater Horizon explosion). Burtynsky’s work is worthy of study by budding photographers for many reasons: his mastery of light and of composition and particularly his pronounced penchant for getting up high and looking down on the world, affording views not often seen. This app well serves his intentions, and it does a good job of highlighting the best qualities of his work. On the demerit side, it’s not especially easy to navigate or bookmark, and sometimes a lot serves where a little might have done (one mountain of used tires gets the point across, so three images seem like overkill). Those quibbles aside, though, the app is a fertile blend of media, with film that takes readers on a guided tour of Burtynsky’s gallery, voice-overs that comment sagely on the technical and thematic aspects of individual photographs, well-made images that beg for retina-display view, and last—and perhaps least, since there’s not enough of it—text.
In all, a first-class photographic portfolio, intelligently aided by multimedia technology to provoke thought and discussion about the world around us.
A guy, a girl and a suitcase full of underworld money form the reliable backdrop of an innovative iPad app that tries to integrate the world of social media with the solitary act of reading. The plot of this serviceable crime caper stretches across the city of Berlin to a remote island off Germany's North Sea coast called Sylt. But all of the real action is supposed to take place online, where readers are encouraged to comment on the story they're experiencing through direct links to Facebook. Such detours may strike them as totally natural, or they could have the opposite effect, as they constantly wrench readers out of the story. The makers of this interactive "Frankbook," however, have a daring way of dealing with this potential problem by effectively extending the storybook world out into the digital realm. At this 21st-century nexus, it now becomes possible for readers to meet up with the author and discuss how things are progressing, as well as to connect with one of his characters living an alternate reality somewhere in cyberspace. In this case, the accessible character from the book is Kristina—the aforementioned "girl" in this action-oriented noirish drama filled with lots of tough talk and hard looks from the wrong end of a gun. Clickable photos and YouTube videos also help to knock down the traditional walls of storytelling and let the novel's gritty atmosphere bleed into the "real" world. The success of all of this, of course, largely depends on a compelling story. And this one, with its rough, angular narrative, does a good-enough job of keeping readers engaged. The app's true potential, however, is also contingent on the actual story’s popularity. If no one else is reading to find out if Kristina and her beau, Malik, escape their murderous pursuers, then there's little online conversation to be had and even less for the author to react to. An intriguing attempt to integrate digital technology with time-honored storytelling chops.
The lead of Stanley Kubrick's classic film about the Vietnam War blends sound, image and text to recall an often-exasperating experience.
Modine first put this diary between hard covers (metal ones, in fact) in 2005 for a limited-edition book; this app version was financed through a successful Kickstarter campaign. In 1985, when Modine was tapped by Kubrick to star in Full Metal Jacket, he had already starred in a Vietnam-themed film, Birdy. Any concerns about being typecast were erased by a chance to work with the storied director. Modine discusses some of the director’s eccentricities—endless retakes, gnomic pronouncements—but this book is more an intimate accounting than behind-the-scenes gossip. His wife, Cari, was pregnant during filming in England, and Modine foolishly thought the film would wrap in time for them to have the baby in the United States. Not only did filming stretch well beyond nine months, but the experience brought out Kubrick at his worst: He only grudgingly allowed Modine to leave the set to witness the birth of his son. The app’s trove of photos (each favorite-able and Tweet-able) fill most of the screen space, and they capture the author’s somber yet personable perspective via snapshots of his wife and co-stars, with occasional news clippings and artsy landscapes. The diary entries themselves are plainspoken and reveal a fame-struck actor in his mid-20s struggling to improve his craft. He’s never more self-flagellating than when he offends Kubrick by violating his brainstorming rules, and his efforts to get back in the auteur’s good graces add another layer of drama to an already tense story. Users can hear Modine read the diary in its entirety, though except for passages about line readings, the audio version is skippable.
The making of the film was infamously messy, but Modine’s presentation of his story is clean and smart.
An iPad-only app that displays networks of word associations in trees that unfold into branches and sub-branches of meaning.
Words have meanings—and sometimes subtle ones. Words also live in communities that a “fancy-pants” (“superior or high-class in a pretentious way”) would call a “semantic domain.” Playing within that domain is the strength of this well-made app, which leverages the power of the Oxford English Dictionary to provide definitions and pronunciations. It also leverages mind-mapping principles (as found in software such as iThoughts and PersonalBrain) to show where a word lives within its community: Type “eat” into the search box, for instance, and up floats a cloud of words that includes the phrases “eaten up,” “what’s eating you,” “eat like a horse” and “eat someone out of house and home,” among other possibilities. Tap on the boldface term “eat,” and up springs a diagram with paths to noun, verb, phrases and phrasal verbs; follow the verb to the general idea “consume,” and up spring “snack,” “graze” and “nosh” along one branch (the informal one, that is), with possibilities that include “scarf,” “snarf,” “ingurgitate” (rare, the app helpfully notes) and “stuff one’s face.” If readers need a record of this groaning board of synonymy, then with a tap, an 1100 x 1576 pixel poster can be generated for printing, emailing or even posting on Facebook. The relationships among synonyms, antonyms, parts of speech and the like offer endless avenues of exploration; add to that the ability to reorder trees by dragging and dropping, and the word lover who chomps into this treat may never emerge. The user interface is both beautiful and unobtrusive, and it is easy to add words to a list of favorites, as well as to keep track of one’s journey through the rabbit hole by way of a history function.
A welcome addition to a logophile’s arsenal—the last word, we learn, coming from an Arabic phrase meaning “house of industry,” though this is a lot more fun than all that.
The inimitable Attenborough conducts a fascinating interactive tour of the Kew Royal Botanic Gardens and its legendary collection of fantastic greenery from around the globe.
Plants, as surprising and remarkable as they may be, are not the most dynamic subjects of study. But this app changes all of that with exciting features like “Plant Time,” which grants users the godlike power to make a flower actually bloom—and reverse the process—right on their iPads. An animated tree on the attractive home page grows from the center of one of the garden's conservatories, inviting users to join Attenborough on a thoroughly engaging exploration of any one of 10 leaves devoted to a different section of the original three-hour documentary series, which originally ran in the U.K. Five other “clickable” leaves lead readers inside other areas of the Gardens, where users can explore much of the facility through self-controlled panoramic views. The video and still photography are vivid and look exceptionally lifelike on third-generation iPads. The app is light on text, but what there is of it nicely complements the presentation. The famed naturalist is in exceedingly fine form as the kindly, enthusiastic and authoritative guide. A generous behind-the-scenes option delves into the making of the 3-D documentary and gives a glimpse of some of the magic tricks—like a camera mounted to a remotely controlled Minicopter to mimic the view of flying insects—the filmmakers used in its making. The app does a remarkably good job of inculcating an appreciation of the plant world. Ultraviolet cinematography even exposes the astounding property many plants have to appear one way to humans and an entirely different way to pollinating insects. The open-ended presentation means that there is no particular starting or endpoint, so users can essentially meander around the grounds of the Kew Royal Botanic Gardens any way they like.
A captivating experience that encourages users to keep coming back for repeat visits.
A splendid bit of orchestration by everybody’s favorite alt-rock sextet, giving a view of performances in the City with Big Shoulders from backstage and the cheap seats alike.
The Rolling Stones are from London, but you wouldn’t necessarily know it to listen to their songs post-1966. Foo Fighters are global, from everywhere and nowhere. Gnarls Barkley live inside our heads. But Wilco, headed by a benevolent, latter-day Woody Guthrie–ish dictator named Jeff Tweedy (see the 2002 documentary I Am Trying to Break Your Heart for more on all that), is resolutely a Chicago band, at home in many of the city’s clubs—but also in places like the Civic Opera, where, in the opening tune in this package, “One Sunday Morning,” the walls ring in joy. (The song is subtitled “Song for Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend,” hinting at Tweedy’s bookishness.) It’s also the opening tune in that performance of December 12, as readers learn from the set list. A gallery of razor-sharp photographs of the band in action accompanies the show, with a professorial-looking Nick Lowe and Mavis Staples joining the proceedings for a revelatory reading of The Band’s song “The Weight.” The “incredible shrinking tour” moves from downtown only as far out as Lincoln Park’s Lincoln Hall, which just goes to show how rich in musical venues Chicago is. The app opens with a video sequence of the city as an El train zips along the Blue Line, with a convenient stop not far from that venue.
Chicagoans in exile will feel all the more homesick, while Wilco fans, already well-served with music, concert footage and photographs from various sources, will absolutely want to have this in their collections. The price is right, too.
Veteran novelist Gomez (Our Noise, 1995; Geniuses of Crack, 1997; etc) makes his iPad fiction debut with a canny study of split personalities, family and roads not taken.
Smart book apps blend immersion and interruption, breaking up linear narrative but emphasizing interactivity. Gomez’s clever novel does both well. Its three narrators are all named Jeff Gomez, but each is at a different station in early middle age: One lives in Hoboken, with a marriage on the rocks; a second is happily married in nearby Montclair and raising a son; and a third is recently divorced and starting over in Manhattan. The book’s three sections are static, but readers have the option of jumbling the three chapters within them, choosing which Jeff to read about first, second and third. (Readers can also choose to follow one narrator alone.) As each Gomez becomes aware of the others, they learn there’s a whole world of people with multiple doppelgangers and even a social media site to serve them (the app links to a mockup). The faux memoir style and mood of absurdity and coincidence come straight out of Paul Auster—as the happy-husband Jeff points out—but Gomez’s storytelling is more controlled than Auster’s willful ramblings. His narrative gives an entertainingly earthbound twist to the old sci-fi question of how much our early choices transform lives. (One of the Jeffs goes so far as to hunt down his teenage self in California.) Its closing pages feel cool and domesticated considering the audacity of the setup, but Gomez’s writing is engaging and watertight throughout. The presentation is similarly clean: Tapping a narrow, light blue strip, much like a sewn-in bookmark, takes readers from the book to the menu, and there’s an option to play unobtrusive electronic music in the background.
A savvy, thoughtful and well-made app both in its writing and its presentation.