The Bookshelf

Nice Bit of Writing

Nothing much to say here, I just liked something I read during my morning commute. One of the most common scenes in any Star Wars-related novel is, of course, an enemy fighter getting pasted by the Millennium Falcon‘s mighty quad-mounted laser turrets. I’ve read countless variations on that theme over the years, and I imagine it’s an immense challenge for a writer to find some way of making it fresh and interesting. But I thought this particular instance was done with a lot of panache:

The enemy wriggled off the hook once more, but this one made an error, too: he got sore. Veering in a wide, angry, predictable loop, he came back to have his vengeance. Instead, he got four parallel pulsed beams of raw fusion-reactor output straight in the helmet visor.

And exploded, showering space with incandescent atoms.

That’s from Lando Calrissian and the Flamewind of Oseon by L. Neil Smith… kudos, sir!

 

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Ow, Quit It…

My recent joyful reaction to the movie Solo: A Star Wars Story not only reinvigorated my attitude about the whole damn Star Wars franchise, it also inspired me to revisit the original early adventures of Han and Lando: the Han Solo novels by Brian Daley, and the Lando Calrissian adventures by L. Neil Smith.

The Daley books are old favorites of mine, as I’ve surely mentioned before. I’ve read them many, many times, especially the first two — Han Solo at Star’s End and Han Solo’s Revenge. The Lando books, on the other hand… I’m not sure I even got around to reading all three of them back in the day. I want to say I only got through the first two in the trilogy, and I’m certain I’ve never gone back to them in all the decades since. And looking back now, I can’t really say why. I have a vague memory of thinking they didn’t feel very much like Star Wars to me, as if they were pre-existing works that the author had simply retrofitted with new character names. But I think it’s far more likely that it was simply bad timing. They were published the same summer that Return of the Jedi was first released in theaters, 1983, and it really felt back then as if the whole thing was just… over. Factor in my age at the time — I was thirteen going on fourteen — and I think there’s  a good chance I was simply ready to turn my attention to, shall we say, other things. (I’m talking about girls, if that’s not obvious.)

It’s a bit of a shame, really, as I find I’m enjoying the Lando books perfectly well this time around. They’re as “Star Wars-y” as any of the other tie-in novels I’ve read, and I can easily visualize Donald Glover — the young Lando we see in the Solo movie — having these adventures a couple years prior to the events of that film. (It probably helps that Glover’s Lando explicitly references a couple things from these books during the movie, a deliberate Easter egg for old-school fans like myself.) There is, however, one aspect of these books that’s bringing me down a bit, and that’s L. Neil Smith’s tendency to insert really awful jokes based on 20th century Earthly consumer goods. In the first volume, Lando Calrissian and the Mindharp of Sharu, there’s a throwaway line about “Lyme’s rose juice,” which would’ve gone right over my head when I was 13 but now instantly clicks as a play on the Rose’s lime juice I use to make cocktails with. I know, right? As bad as that is, though, Smith tops it in the second book, Lando Calrissian and the Flamewind of Oseon.

The Flamewind is a natural phenomenon in the star system Lando is visiting in this book, an effect caused by the local solar wind interacting with magnetic fields to fill the space between the system’s worlds with brilliant colors, something like the aurora borealis here on Earth. Neat idea… but tell me this doesn’t make you want to groan:

Outside, a braid of raspberry red, lemon yellow, and orange orange twisted through the heavens, across a constellation locals called the Silly Rabbit.

Now, maybe that doesn’t mean anything to Millennials and Gen-Zs, but for we Xers who grew up on Saturday morning cartoons and all the junk food that was advertised in between them…

Silly Rabbit indeed. Sigh.

 

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A Couple of Sunday Afternoon Book Reviews

The Earhart BetrayalThe Earhart Betrayal by James Stewart Thayer
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

One of the enduring ideas about the disappearance of Amelia Earhart is the notion that her attempted around-the-world flight was a cover for some sort of covert activity… that she was a spy, essentially, and that she did not die in the ocean or on some lonely speck of land somewhere, but was in fact captured by the Japanese. That idea forms the basis for this novel, a nifty thriller set in post-war Singapore. An American intelligence operative and his wife arrive to investigate evidence that Earhart died in a nearby POW camp. But what ought to be a simple milk run turns out to be the entry into something much bigger and more dangerous. The couple quickly find themselves mired in the intrigue surrounding a priceless jade elephant stolen during the war and now sought by several powerful individuals, while long-simmering ethnic tensions threaten to boil over. The sense of place is particularly well done; the sweaty, oppressive environment is practically a character on it own. In addition, the human characters are all colorful, the action brutal, and the revelations unexpected, and underlying all of it is a plausible explanation for one of the greatest mysteries of the 20th century… what really happened to Amelia Earhart? An excellent summertime hammock read.

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The Girl, the Gold Watch & EverythingThe Girl, the Gold Watch & Everything by John D. MacDonald
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A recent conversation about TV movies of the ’70s reminded me of this story, which I recall as a pleasantly cute film starring Robert Hays and Pam Dawber of Mork & Mindy fame. That conversation sent me questing for the original novel. Like the movie, the book is pleasantly cute: the story of a nebbishy young man named Kirby whose eccentric uncle dies and leaves him a mysterious gold watch and a big mess of trouble. It seems this watch has the ability to stop time for whoever is holding it, which was the secret behind the uncle’s unlikely success in life, and now there are unscrupulous people who want that power for themselves. In the wrong hands, the watch could unleash chaos on the world. Can Kirby uncover the secrets of the watch, outsmart the bad guys, and discover the self-confidence his uncle believed he has within him?

Written in 1962, the book is unquestionably a product of the Mad Men era, with all the pros and cons you might imagine. The recurring theme of Kirby’s sexual inadequacy, his inability to get laid and the suggestion that he’s not a real man because he doesn’t know how to score, is rather jarring to modern sensibilities, while his love interest Bonnie wouldn’t feel out of place in an Austin Powers movie. (She’s a groovy babe, you see.) Yes, this is a sexist book, but it’s made palatable by the fact that Kirby is more hapless than predatory, and the female characters are in fact the competent ones, the ones with the power to make things happen. It’s also presented in a lighthearted, broadly humorous style that’s difficult to dislike. Ultimately, if you can look past its dated elements, it’s a harmless bit of fun from another time.

And now I want to see that TV movie again…

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Book Review: The Poseidon Adventure

The Poseidon AdventureThe Poseidon Adventure by Paul Gallico
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I suspect this potboiler would’ve been entirely forgotten by now if not for the classic 1972 disaster movie it inspired.

While the film followed the book’s plot fairly closely — the screenplay shuffles around a few major events and pares away some characters — the two properties are very different in tone. Gallico presents us with a group of unlikable characters who are all, to one degree or another, the last person with whom you’d want to be trapped in a life-and-death struggle. It isn’t merely a case of these people being flawed and having to find their individual strengths or rise above their weaknesses, which is how the movie presented them. These people are genuine jerks, in particular the vacationing police detective Rogo (played by Ernest Borgnine in the movie) and even the ostensible hero, the Reverend Frank Scott (Gene Hackman in the movie). Scott is an especially frustrating character because the reader never fully learns what it is that’s driving him. There are some hints, things that the movie expanded upon, but on the page he remains a cypher. As for Rogo, he has some redeeming, humanizing moments toward the end, but it comes across as too little, too late, especially as those moments are counteracted by one sneering comment he makes in the final pages.

In addition to the obnoxiousness of the characters, the book fairly drips with anti-Semitism, misogyny (lots of “don’t worry your pretty little head” types of attitudes), and homophobia. Possibly this simply reflects the attitudes of the time — it was first published in 1969, the year I was born — but it’s difficult going for the modern reader.

As for the writing, well, Gallico’s style is serviceable at best. There are occasional glimmers of poetry, nice images here and there, but there’s also a whole lot of clunky prose and info-dumps in between them. And the dialog is incredibly stilted.

And yet, I have to confess that the book held my interest. It was a genuine pageturner infused throughout with an authentic tension and claustrophobic feeling, as well as a sense of relief when our survivors are rescued at the end, followed by a sadness at their realization that they’ll likely never see each other again. For that emotional response alone, I’m giving the book a positive rating. If you’re a fan of the movie, it’s worth a look to see where the film came from.

But believe me, this is the rare case where the movie was better than the book.

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Book Review: Ghost Story

Ghost StoryGhost Story by Peter Straub
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I was inspired to track this down after seeing the 1981 film adaptation last year. I’d heard the film left out a lot of material and was generally inferior. While it’s true that the movie does pare down the story quite a bit, as well as substantially changing the nature of the monster, I’m undecided as to whether I’d call it inferior or not, because the book really didn’t do much for me.

Which isn’t to say I didn’t like the book. I did. But I didn’t love the book. I thought it had a really interesting idea at its core, namely that the vampires, werewolves, and ghosts that have been talked about throughout human history are all in fact the same kind of creature, a very long-lived creature that preys on humanity and genuinely enjoys screwing with its prey. There were a few moments of genuine dread. And I thought the story was interesting on a metatextual level, as it was a ghost story in which many people tell ghost stories, and those stories both influence and explain the events the characters experience. But I’m sorry to say none of the characters, out of an entire townful of characters, ever really came alive for me. I’m afraid Stephen King has the corner on that market. And the author’s prose style kept me at arm’s length for reasons I haven’t quite been able to work out.

Bottom line, I respected it intellectually, but I just didn’t have much of an emotional response to it. A disappointment, but not a complete misfire.

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Book Review: Close Encounters of the Third Kind Diary

Close Encounters of the Third Kind Diary. Behind-the-scenes Diary of How They Made the Decade's Greatest Movie!Close Encounters of the Third Kind Diary. Behind-the-scenes Diary of How They Made the Decade’s Greatest Movie! by Bob Balaban
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If you’re looking for an in-depth history of the production of the classic Spielberg film, this isn’t it.

Instead, it is exactly what the title promises, a transcription of the diary kept by actor Bob Balaban during the time he spent working on CE3K. While there are some behind-the-scenes tidbits of movie magic — for example, I never knew that the curving mountaintop road where Richard Dreyfuss’ character Roy Neary nearly runs over a young boy in his truck, and then moments later gets his first good look at several UFOs, was in fact built on a soundstage — the book really is just Balaban’s personal experiences on location and on set. Fortunately, he’s an engaging writer, and there is a certain wistful innocence about the the time he’s describing, when it was still very unusual for actors to have to react to objects that wouldn’t exist until the visual-effects teams constructed them months later.

The most charming aspect of the book, however, is the growing friendship between Balaban and his costar, the famed French director and actor Francois Truffaut. Balaban plays Truffaut’s interpreter in the film, and he filled a similar role in real life, helping Truffaut learn his English lines and generally navigate an American film production that was shooting in very American locations. I’ve always had the sense that Truffaut was fundamentally a kind man, and I was pleased that Balaban’s descriptions of him support that impression. One moment in particular stands out to me, when Truffaut befriends some young boys on a Wyoming street corner and passes the time with them tossing pebbles at an old candy bar wrapper, the language barrier between them completely negated by Truffaut’s inherent warmth and openness.

Highly recommended if you’re a fan of the film, or of Truffaut.

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Review: Runnin’ with the Devil

Running with the Devil: Managing Van Halen Straight to the TopRunning with the Devil: Managing Van Halen Straight to the Top by Noel Monk
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Noel E. Monk managed the rock band Van Halen from its breakthrough in 1978 to the end of its first incarnation in 1985, when lead singer David Lee Roth left for a solo career and Monk himself was fired. Prohibited from publicly telling his side of things for many years, Monk is finally free to dish the gossip, and the result is this quick-reading memoir with the apropos subtitle “A Backstage Pass to the Wild Times, Loud Rock, and the Down and Dirty Truth Behind the Making of Van Halen.” (I don’t know why Goodreads claims the subtitle is something else. )

There are enough gossipy tidbits here to appeal to prurient interest, but if you’re a VH fan (or even just a fan of rock music in general), none of that will surprise you. Promiscuous sex, drugs and booze, trashed hotel rooms, and dickish behavior are hardly unique to this particular band. The basic outline of their rise and fall will seem familiar too: hard-working and talented young musicians break through, rise to immense heights, and then are undone by substance abuse and clashing egos. The thing that really distinguishes this book, however, is Monk himself. He’s led quite a swashbuckling life, before and after Van Halen, and he’s by turns funny, opinionated, and brutally honest. He doesn’t shy away from the really nasty aspects of the Van Halen story — Alex Van Halen comes off looking especially bad, in my opinion — but this isn’t a hit piece, and Monk never sounds like a guy with an ax to grind. He very obviously loved this band and loved the time he spent with them. But they weren’t always easy to deal with and the way things ultimately end up between the members of Van Halen and Noel Monk are downright heartbreaking.

My one complaint with Runnin’ with the Devil is that it leaves the reader hanging on certain matters. It is to Monk’s credit that he stops talking about Van Halen at the moment his involvement ended, rather than speculating on events he didn’t directly witness. But of course the band did continue in a new form, with Sammy Hagar as lead singer (Monk doesn’t think too highly of that era, or of David Lee Roth’s solo efforts), and there were a lot of unresolved personal matters at the time of Monk’s departure as well. What happened with Eddie and Alex’s alcoholism? And Michael Anthony’s as well? If you’re curious about those subjects, you’ll have to find another book. But if you want a powerful evocation of life on the road for a young band just arriving on the scene, as well as a behind-the-scenes glimpse of how things went wrong in only a few short years, this one is highly recommended.

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Review: The Questor Tapes

The Questor Tapes
The Questor Tapes by D.C. Fontana
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

In the years between the cancellation of the original Star Trek television series and the franchise-reviving feature Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Trek‘s creator Gene Roddenberry wrote and produced a number of made-for-TV pilot films that he hoped would lead to a new series and a regular gig for him. None of them sold, but they all at least made it to the airwaves and many are fondly remembered today. Probably the best of them (and the one I personally think would’ve been most interesting as an ongoing series) was The Questor Tapes, the story of a highly sophisticated android searching for its creator, a mysterious genius who’s gone missing. Along for the ride is a young engineer who was a protege of Questor’s creator and helped to assemble the android, and whose assistance Questor now requires to successfully navigate through society and those ever-confusing human emotions.

This novelization of the Questor film skillfully adapts an open-ended pilot into a satisfying stand-alone story. Some of the ideas in the story are overly familiar today, if not outright cliche’d, and Roddenberry’s, shall we say, outdated attitudes about sex and the human female are occasionally a bit jarring to modern eyes. (Every woman in the story has a smokin’ body and gets her wardrobe described in great detail, and the female character with the most prominent role is possibly a prostitute.) But if you keep in mind when this was written — 1974 — it’s a short and brisk read that’s perfect as disposable entertainment for a summer afternoon. Star Trek fans will find it particularly interesting because Questor is so clearly a forerunner of the Commander Data character from Star Trek: The Next Generation, which made its debut over a decade after Questor. Roddenberry wasn’t one to let go of a good idea…

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Review: Billy Connolly’s Route 66

Billy Connolly's Route 66
Billy Connolly’s Route 66 by Billy Connolly
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Billy Connelly is a Scottish musician, comic and actor who, in 2011, rode a three-wheeled motorcycle from Chicago to Los Angeles, following the fragmented remains of the legendary Route 66. Naturally, the whole adventure was filmed for a British television series, and this book reads like what it basically is, i.e., a transcription of that series, complete with lengthy dialog between Connolly and the more interesting people he encounters.

As someone who has long dreamed of making a similar journey, this book was a bit sobering. Connolly makes it sound as if there are more ghost towns along the Mother Road than thriving tourist traps, a stark contrast to most of the literature on the subject. He’s also pretty harsh in his opinions of the greasy-spoon-style “road food” that I tend to enjoy. And yet the things he does enjoy along the way are enticing, from his encounter with an Amish furniture maker to his wonder at the Grand Canyon, and these make the moodier passages worth enduring.

One thing to note: Connolly has lived in America for many years and loves this country, but he is not American. Nor is he Christian. But he is opinionated, and he’s not the sort of person to soft-pedal his opinions, which some readers may find a bit off-putting. Personally I found his outsider’s perspective and blunt revulsion at some of the more excessive, fanatical, or just plain weird aspects of American culture rather refreshing. His writing style — assisted by cowriter Robert Uhlig — is more serviceable than poetic, but he can get philosophical from time to time. The overall impression is something akin to spending a couple hours hearing your colorful uncle tell you all about his vacation over a pint.

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Contribute to a Great Cause, Get Yourself a Great Comic

My long-time Loyal Readers may remember me blogging a couple years back about the writer Bill Mantlo, who single-handedly scripted the entire run of one of my favorite childhood comics, The Micronauts, as well as creating Rocket Raccoon, the crowd-favorite character from Guardians of the Galaxy. Briefly, Mantlo was an immense talent who was struck by a hit-and-run driver in 1992 and left in a tragically sad situation that continues to this day.

Well, my pal Jaquandor remembered, and yesterday he directed me to a Kickstarter campaign he’d somehow run across. Dynamite Entertainment and Mantlo’s collaborator Butch Guice are raising funds to reprint another one of Mantlo’s projects, as well as contribute to his ongoing medical care. Here’s the promo video for it; take a look and consider giving what you can. I know I will…

 

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