The Bookshelf

Nearing Midnight…

Those of you who may still be out on this All Hallow’s Eve, still flitting from shadow to shadow in search of candy or mischief, or maybe just a tingle down the spine to break up the monotony of your tame and fenced-in little suburban lives, so modern, so clean and above all, so predictable, had best be making for home soon. But be wary… even in this modern 21st century, you may encounter something you do not understand… out there… in the dark…

“If I can but reach that bridge,” thought Ichabod, “I am safe.” Just then he heard the black steed panting and blowing close behind him; he even fancied that he felt his hot breath. Another convulsive kick in the ribs, and old Gunpowder sprang upon the bridge; he thundered over the resounding planks; he gained the opposite side; and now Ichabod cast a look behind to see if his pursuer should vanish, according to rule, in a flash of fire and brimstone. Just then he saw the goblin rising in his stirrups, and in the very act of hurling his head at him. Ichabod endeavored to dodge the horrible missile, but too late. It encountered his cranium with a tremendous crash—he was tumbled headlong into the dust, and Gunpowder, the black steed, and the goblin rider, passed by like a whirlwind.

 

The next morning the old horse was found without his saddle, and with the bridle under his feet, soberly cropping the grass at his master’s gate. Ichabod did not make his appearance at breakfast—dinner-hour came, but no Ichabod. The boys assembled at the schoolhouse, and strolled idly about the banks of the brook; but no school-master. Hans Van Ripper now began to feel some uneasiness about the fate of poor Ichabod, and his saddle. An inquiry was set on foot, and after diligent investigation they came upon his traces. In one part of the road leading to the church was found the saddle trampled in the dirt; the tracks of horses’ hoofs deeply dented in the road, and evidently at furious speed, were traced to the bridge, beyond which, on the bank of a broad part of the brook, where the water ran deep and black, was found the hat of the unfortunate Ichabod, and close beside it a shattered pumpkin.

Happy Halloween, kids…

"The Headless Horseman" by Chris Beatrice

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A New Book That Is Relevant to My Interests

Confession time: I’ve long had this odd little fascination for… brothels.

Oh, stop! I don’t mean it like that. My interest is purely academic. Well… mostly academic. When you grow up in strait-laced Utah, you can’t help but feel some attraction to the seedier side of things, especially when the notorious flesh-pots of Nevada are only a few hours away. (The Mustang Ranch outside of Reno had a near-legendary quality among my peers when I was in my early twenties; I remember much discussion of taking a little road trip… of course, it never happened, but the idea occupied a large patch of real-estate in our imaginations for a time.)

Seriously, though, youthful rebelliousness and licentiousness aside, I really am interested in the history and sociology of the whole phenomenon, especially in the context of how puritanical American culture tends to be, generally speaking. Basically, there are certain underground economies that flaunt traditional morality and that flourish in spite of — or maybe because of? — the country’s surface-level propriety, and these never really go away despite periodic attempts to stamp them out. I’m intrigued by that dichotomy, and by the hypocrisy of a society that’s unwilling to legitimize these economies even while so many individual Americans privately embrace them. So naturally a new book by Jayme Lynn Blaschke called Inside the Texas Chicken Ranch, which is just out today, has been on my radar for some time.

The Chicken Ranch (I don’t know why these places are always “ranches,” but that’s the way of things) is probably the best-known brothel in America, thanks to its being immortalized in the stage musical and Dolly Parton/Burt Reynolds film The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, as well as that staple of classic-rock radio, ZZ Top’s “La Grange.” Jayme himself is a native of the La Grange area who grew up hearing tales of the infamous “home on the range,” and spent years researching the real story behind the legend, followed by further years trying to find a publisher for his book. I’m really delighted for him that he’s finally succeeded. Here’s the book’s official promo:

As I said, Inside the Chicken Ranch is on the market as of today, available from all the usual outlets, including Amazon and direct from the publisher. Congratulations, Jayme, I can’t wait to read it!

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The Dark Came Down on All Hallow’s Eve…

From A Breath of Snow and Ashes, the sixth volume in Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series:

The dark came down on All Hallows’ Eve. We went to sleep to the sound of howling wind and pelting rain, and woke on the Feast of All Saints to whiteness and large soft flakes falling down in absolute stillness. There is no more perfect stillness than the solitude in the heart of a snow storm.

 

This is the thing time, when the beloved dead draw near. The world turns inward, and the chilling air grows thick with dreams and mysterry. The sky goes from a sharp clear cold where a million stars burn bright and close, to the gray-pink cloud that enfolds the earth with the promise of snow.

 

I took one of Bree’s matches from its box and lit it, thrilling to the tiny leap of instant flame, and bent to put it to the kindling. Snow was falling, and winter had come; the season of fire. Candles and hearth fire, that lovely, leaping paradox, that destruction contained but never tamed, held at a safe distance to warm and enchant, but always, still, with that small sense of danger.

 

The smell of roasting pumpkins was thick and sweet in the air. Having ruled the night with fire, the jack-o’-lanterns went now to a more peaceful fate as pies and compost, to join the gentle rest of the earth before renewal. I had turned the earth in my garden the day before, planting the winter seeds to sleep and swell, to dream their buried birth.

 

Now is the time when we reenter the womb of the world, dreaming the dreams of snow and silence. Waking to the shock of frozen lakes under waning moonlight and the cold sun burning low and blue in the branches of the ice-cased trees, returning from our brief and necessary labors to food and story, to the warmth of firelight in the dark.

 

Around a fire, in the dark, all truths can be told, and heard, in safety.

 

I pulled on my woolen stockings, thick petticoats, my warmest shawl, and went down to poke up the kitchen fire. I stood watching wisps of steam rise from the fragrant cauldron, and felt myself turn inward. The world could go away, and we would heal.

 

No point here, nothing much to say, just a piece of writing that I found especially lovely and evocative. And enviable…

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Review: Razor’s Edge

Razor's Edge
Razor’s Edge by Martha Wells

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Razor’s Edge is the second of the two books in the aborted Empire and Rebellion trilogy that made it to press before Disney’s acquisition of all things Star Wars and subsequent termination of the existing “Expanded Universe” of tie-in materials. (Well, technically, Razor’s Edge was the first of that trilogy, but I read it second; there isn’t a unified story arc connecting the two, so it doesn’t matter what order you read them in.) Remember, the idea behind Empire and Rebellion was to give each of “the big three” characters — Luke Skywalker, Leia Organa, and Han Solo — a book focusing on them during the little-covered period between the Battle of Yavin and the Battle of Hoth, i.e., between Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back. Razor’s Edge is Leia’s entry… and I’m sorry to say that it was pretty disappointing after the rollicking good time I had with the Han Solo book Honor Among Thieves. Also, I’m at a bit of a loss to explain exactly why.

The plot isn’t bad. It begins with Leia and Han on a secret mission to meet with merchants who can provide supplies for the construction of the new rebel base on Hoth, but their ship is attacked by Imperials shortly after arriving at the rendezvous point, suggesting they’ve got a leak somewhere in the Alliance. Fleeing their attacker, they come upon a pirate vessel attacking a freighter… and to Leia’s shock, the pirate is a former Alderaanian ship that survived the destruction of their homeworld and turned rogue to survive. One thing leads to another, and Han, Leia, and the Alderaanians find themselves at a pirate armada’s “clearinghouse,” surrounded by cutthroats, trying to figure out how to save a group of innocent captives as well as themselves, and uncover the identity of the spy in their midst, as before the Empire catches up to them.

That all sounds good, and I liked the primary setting — an abandoned asteroid mine filled with broken-down machines and senile droids, now taken over by the pirates — but I found I just didn’t engage with the story in any significant way. The secondary characters were largely indistinguishable from each other, the Imperial pursuit never seemed all that threatening, and I wanted something… more from Leia. Her lingering feelings of guilt and trauma over what happened to Alderaan are mentioned, and supposedly play a big role in why she’s so interested in these hometown pirates, but the feelings don’t have any palpable presence, and I kept thinking they ought to. Not that I wanted the book to become too dark and heavy — remember, that’s my complaint with so much of current popular culture and a place I definitely don’t want Star Wars to go — but a little more exploration of the princess’ mindscape would’ve been appropriate in this story.

On the positive side, Leia is convincingly portrayed as capable of independent action, Han gets in one of his trademark insanely reckless rescue stunts, and some of the banter between them is nice.

In the final analysis, I’d give Razor’s Edge a lukewarm recommendation. It’s mediocre and disposable, but it’s an adequate diversion, and it is better than some of the Star Wars tie-ins I’ve read. But I wanted it to be so much better than it was…

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Review: Star Trek: Captain’s Log

Star Trek: Captain's Log
Star Trek: Captain’s Log by David Tipton

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This graphic novel, which I suspect will be of interest only to hardcore Trekkies, collects four stories about starship captains whose names aren’t Kirk or Picard: Pike (from the original series’ first pilot episode “The Cage”), Sulu, Harriman (briefly seen in the feature film Star Trek: Generations), and Jellico, a character who appeared in the two-part Next Generation episode “Chain of Command.” While it’s an interesting idea to more fully flesh out some of the background characters of the Star Trek universe, the results are decidedly mediocre, in part because three of the four stories follow essentially the same formula: the starring captain experiences (or is told about) a specific incident, then finds himself in similar circumstances and uses the trick that worked years ago to save the day again. Only the Jellico story breaks the mold… as does the Jellico character himself, perhaps the only truly abrasive Starfleet captain we’ve seen in all the many, many years of Star Trek stories.

My favorite of the four stories involves Harriman, captain of the Enterprise-B, and his struggle to come to terms with his role in the incident seen in Generations, in which the legendary Captain Kirk was (apparently) killed saving Harriman’s ship. Harriman is widely believed to be “responsible for the death of a monument” because he froze when the crisis began, and his confidence isn’t helped when an angry Doctor McCoy dresses him down. Overall, the story is somewhat banal — McCoy apologizes and shares some wisdom, the Klingons attack, Harriman outwits them and regains his mojo — but there are some really nicely written exchanges between Bones and Harriman, and the dialog is all in-character and authentic. (My favorite: “You’re a wise man, Doctor.” “Nah, I’m an old man. People just mistake the one for the other.” That’s Bones McCoy, at least in his later years; I even “heard” the words in De Kelley’s voice.) It helps that this segment has the best artwork of the four, too; Andrew Currie really captures Kelley’s and William Shatner’s expressions.

The Pike story has some nice emotional moments as well, expanding on a relationship only hinted at in “The Cage” between the captain and his attractive young Yeoman, but overall it’s just a generic shoot-’em-up tale. The Sulu story was completely forgettable (seriously, I can’t even recall what it was about). As for the final story about Jellico… it’s a nice change from the others, in that it’s told from the perspective of a newly transferred officer who’s trying to get used to her new captain, but I find Jellico such an obnoxious bully that I can’t believe he’d be an effective leader, and I can’t bring myself to care too much about him. He’s a jerk at the beginning of the story, he’s a jerk at the end of the story, and the protagonist has simply learned to live with it.

Ultimately, this is a fast, but disposable read aimed at a niche audience. But it does have its moments…

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Review: Space: 1999 – Aftershock and Awe

Space: 1999 - Aftershock and Awe
Space: 1999 – Aftershock and Awe by Andrew E.C. Gaska

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Last year, I spent some time revisiting a TV series I dimly remembered watching as a young boy, Space: 1999. If you’ve not familiar with it, the premise is this: by the year 1999 (as imagined in the early 1970s), humankind is busily exploring the solar system and has established a permanent lunar outpost, Moonbase Alpha. It’s also started dumping its dangerous nuclear waste on the far side of the moon, which is a swell idea until a freak mishap detonates all that waste material, blowing the moon out of orbit and sending it hurtling out into the universe, along with Moonbase Alpha and everyone living there. Far-fetched, yes, even ridiculous, but also weirdly compelling… compelling enough that the show still enjoys a healthy cult following some 40 years after it originally aired. For proof of that, you need look no further than the 2012 publication date of the (mostly) original graphic novel Aftershock and Awe.

Aftershock and Awe comprises two parts. The first retells the events seen in the TV show’s pilot episode, climaxing in the nuclear detonation and the so-called “breakaway.” I understand this segment was adapted from a vintage comic book as well as one of those children’s storybook records that were common at the time; accordingly, the artwork has a pleasing (to me at least) retro appearance. Having just seen the television series before reading this, I also appreciated certain story tweaks to reconcile discrepancies that were created when the show was retooled in its second season, such as giving us a glimpse of characters that didn’t appear in season one.

However, the real meat of the book is the second part, which tells the story of what happened back on Earth after the moon’s departure, something the series only hinted at. The action follows several different characters scattered around (and above) the world: two men in an orbital station; the father of a young girl who is touring Moonbase Alpha with her mother at the time of breakaway; the brother, daughter, and ex-fiance, respectively, of three of the series’ most loved regular characters; and a number of powerful politicians and military men. The narrative builds a convincing alternate history in which President Kennedy was not assassinated and the past several decades proceeded very differently than we remember them — thus explaining the discrepancy between the imagined 1999 of the TV series and the real one we experienced — then interweaves all the individual characters’ storylines against the backdrop of an almost unimaginable global disaster. The plot includes dramatic rescues, failed conspiracies, and the question of how best to rebuild on an Earth radically changed, finally ending on a surprisingly optimistic note ten years after “the last moonrise.” My only complaint with this half of the book, honestly, is with the artwork. While it’s fine on its own terms, I found the modern painted realism rather jarring after the old-fashioned look of the first part. I would’ve liked to see a bit more uniformity between the two segments. But that’s my own preference; as I noted, there’s nothing really wrong with it.

As presented, the story is perfectly accessible to people who aren’t familiar with Space: 1999, but I suspect it will be of more interest to established fans, for whom Aftershock and Awe will make a nice companion to the beloved old series.

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Review: Honor Among Thieves

Honor Among Thieves
Honor Among Thieves by James S.A. Corey

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Since the release of The Force Awakens, I’ve thought a lot about that movie and about Star Wars in general, and I’ve come to the conclusion that my favorite era, both in terms of storytelling as well as the real-world Star Wars phenomenon, was that scant handful of years between the first two movies, i.e., Episodes IV and V… or, as we old farts who’ve been there since the dawn of time like to call ’em, Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back. That period was the most fun, in my opinion, when this whole crazy juggernaut of a franchise was still a swashbuckling adventure untainted by the tragic undertones that crept into it later, when anything was possible and Luke Skywalker was just, to borrow a memorable phrase from James S. A. Corey’s Honor Among Thieves, “a farm boy who love[d] flying his fast ship.”

Honor Among Thieves was one of the last Star Wars novels published in the so-called “Expanded Universe” of tie-in materials (books, comics, and games) produced before Disney acquired the Star Wars brand in 2014. The book was originally intended as part of a projected trilogy titled Empire and Rebellion, set in that sweet spot between the Battle of Yavin and the Battle of Hoth, and with each book focusing on one of the “Big Three” heroes: Han Solo, Princess Leia, and Luke Skywalker. Only two of the three novels in that trilogy were published, however, before Disney’s controversial decision to decanonize the EU and recategorize all those stories as mere “legends.” So technically speaking, Honor Among Thieves and its companion piece, Razor’s Edge, never happened. Which is a shame, because it’s one of the more entertaining SW tie-ins I’ve encountered.

The time is shortly after the destruction of the first Death Star. The Rebels have abandoned their now-compromised base on Yavin IV and are searching for a new world on which to settle. Han Solo still has not committed to formally joining the Rebel Alliance and considers himself an outsider to their cause, an independent contractor who’s willing to do jobs for them but expects to be paid in return. So when Leia asks him and Chewbacca to fly into Imperial space to pick up a Rebel spy who’s called for extraction, it’s just another paycheck. Naturally, though, he gets more than he bargained for when the spy reveals why she called for help: an Imperial agent has discovered the path to an ancient alien artifact of immense power, but a third party has accidentally acquired the information as well and intends to sell it to the highest bidder. And now the race is on to intercept the data and recover the artifact, which will bring its possessor ultimate control over the Galaxy. Matters are complicated by an old friend turned bounty hunter who’s picked up Han’s trail and intends to capture him for Jabba the Hutt, as well as by an unexpected side trip to rescue Leia from an approaching Imperial fleet…

Refreshingly free of the usual mystical light-side/dark-side concerns involving the Jedi and the Force, Honor Among Thieves is more reminiscent of the old Han Solo novels by Brian Daley that I loved as a kid, or perhaps the original Marvel Comics Star Wars series (as opposed to the current Marvel series), just a fast-paced space opera adventure about a scoundrel with a fast ship and a sharp tongue. There’s even a bit of an Indiana Jones vibe in the final act as our heroes trek across a jungle world toward an ancient ruin that houses the story’s MacGuffin.

The tone never gets too heavy, but the book does offer some interesting ethical questions — voiced by the most unlikely of philosophers, Han Solo himself –about whether a New Republic founded by a victorious Rebel Alliance would be much different from the Empire for people who live on the margins, like himself — meet the new boss, same as the old boss — as well as whether anybody can be trusted with the kind of power promised by the object everyone is trying to obtain. And while I personally have grown very weary of all the superweapons in the Star Wars universe — including Starkiller Base in the new movie — the artifact in this story has the novelty of being alien in origin and non-destructive in nature, an idea that I found far more intriguing than just another variant on a giant laser.

Bottom line: official canon or not, Honor Among Thieves is a fun read that’s perfect for a lazy Saturday afternoon. If you love and miss a certain kind of Star Wars story the way I do, it’s highly recommended.

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2015 Media Wrap-up

Yes, kids, it’s that time again (actually it’s nearly a month past that time, but I’ve been busy) when I share with you my obsessive tendency for record-keeping by recounting all the films, recorded TV content, books, and live performances I’ve experienced in the past year.

As usual, an asterisk [*] before the title indicates something I’ve seen or read before. And also as usual, we’ll start with…

Movies Seen in a Theater

  1. The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
  2. *The Wizard of Oz [Cinemark Classic Series]
  3. All About Eve [Cinemark Classic Series]
  4. How the West Was Won [Cinemark Classic Series]
  5. Funny Girl [Cinemark Classic Series]
  6. Breakfast at Tiffany’s [Cinemark Classic Series]
  7. *Giant [Cinemark Classic Series]
  8. Jupiter Ascending
  9. Evil Angel [special engagement]
  10. Avengers: Age of Ultron
  11. Mad Max Fury Road
  12. *Goldfinger [Cinemark Classic Series]
  13. Jurassic World
  14. *John Carpenter’s The Thing [Summer Late Nights at the Tower]
  15. *Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home [Summer Late Nights at the Tower]
  16. The Martian
  17. Highway to Dhampus [special engagement]
  18. Spectre
  19. Star Wars: The Force Awakens
  20. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 2

 

My theater-going was way down this year, from 35 titles seen in a public venue in 2014 to a mere 20 this year, and most of what I did see was older classics. Partly that was just a matter of scheduling; Anne and I had a lot going on in 2015 that made it difficult to get to a theater very often, and we chose to prioritize the classics because who knows when you might get another chance to see, for example, The Thing on the big screen? But there was also the problem of very few new releases appealing to either of us. This has been a growing issue for me for several years, and one that causes me genuine distress because movies and going to the movies have been such a central part of my identity for such a very long time. I used to struggle to keep up with all the new releases; now I have a hard time finding new releases that even look interesting to me. And even when I do manage to find something I want to see, it not much fun for me because my tastes seem to have become thoroughly disconnected from the current zeitgeist. I mean, sure, I always had some disagreements with the crowd (my old theater buds will remember our infamous Darkman argument), but these days, I find myself consistently enjoying stuff that everyone says is crap (Jupiter Ascending, Jurassic World, even, surprisingly to me, Age of Ultron), and I’m frankly baffled by the hoopla over films that just don’t do much for me (Fury Road and, much as it pains me to say this, The Force Awakens). It’s like that Joe Walsh song: everything’s so different, but I haven’t changed. And yes, that bothers me. More than it ought to probably… but it does bother me. Feeling like I’m constantly on the defensive has sapped a lot of the joy out of my primary hobby, and that makes me feel, frankly, like I’ve come unmoored from something important.

But I’m running off on a tangent. Briefly, my favorite new release of 2015 was The Martian, hands down. Most forgettable films were The Hobbit and Spectre, both of which I remember enjoying at the time but are now just hazy impressions in my memory. Evil Angel and Highway to Dhampus — small films made by friends of mine — were both great and deserve a DVD release. Of the classics I hadn’t previously seen, All About Eve was a real revelation, one of those flicks I’ve heard so much about over the years but  somehow never gotten around to. Turns out, it was funny, sexy, weirdly modern in feel, and simply magnificent to see in a theater. Highly recommended if you’ve never seen it, especially if you have a chance to see it on the big screen. And of course The Thing and Star Trek IV are old friends that were good to re-visit.

Movies Seen on Home Video

Bolded items are titles I own on either DVD or BluRay, or in a few cases, VHS tape, and again, an asterisk means I’ve seen it before…

  1. Fat Man and Little Boy
  2. The Station Agent
  3. Scanners
  4. *1941
  5. Zodiac
  6. Dredd
  7. The Last Days on Mars
  8. Solomon Kane
  9. *E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
  10. *Despicable Me
  11. *The Black Hole
  12. The Bad News Bears (1976)
  13. Despicable Me 2
  14. *St. Elmo’s Fire [VHS]
  15. *Tootsie
  16. Le Mans
  17. *Space Battleship Yamato
  18. Mystic Pizza
  19. Dr. Strange (2007 animated film)
  20. Kon-Tiki (2012 dramatization, not the documentary)
  21. *The Avengers
  22. Beginnings
  23. Jimi Hendrix: Hear My Train A Comin’
  24. *All the Right Movies
  25. Jodorowsky’s Dune
  26. Singles
  27. Adventureland
  28. *Harold and Maude
  29. Urban Cowboy
  30. *Mad Max
  31. *The Road Warrior
  32. *Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome
  33. The Color Purple
  34. The Paper Chase
  35. *Highlander
  36. World War Z
  37. Magic Mike
  38. Nightbreed: The Director’s Cut
  39. John Carpenter’s The Ward
  40. The Omen
  41. *The Fog (1980)
  42. Tales of Terror
  43. *Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
  44. Russell Mulcahy’s Tale of the Mummy
  45. Roadracers
  46. Radio Bikini
  47. Mr. Holmes
  48. Lincoln
  49. The Watcher in the Woods
  50. *It Happened One Night
  51. Something Wicked This Way Comes
  52. *Star Wars Despecialized
  53. *Return of the Jedi Despecialized
  54. The Lincoln Lawyer
  55. *Bad(der) Santa
  56. *Planes, Trains and Automobiles
  57. *Westworld
  58. Big House USA
  59. *Alien: The Director’s Cut

 

I saw 64 feature films on home video in 2014, so my viewing in this category was down slightly as well. I struck a pretty good balance between the new and the familiar, I thought. Of the titles I hadn’t seen before, I particularly enjoyed The Station Agent, Mystic Pizza, Adventureland, Mr. Holmes, Lincoln, The Lincoln Lawyer, and, unexpectedly given its reputation as a ladies-only kind of flick, Magic Mike. Jodorowsky’s Dune was a fascinating glimpse at what might have been, and Radio Bikini and the Hendrix doc were both enlightening. A number of films I’ve wanted to see for years turned out to be disappointing: Scanners, Singles, The Paper Chase, and The Omen weren’t nearly as great as I expected them to be. The Watcher in the Woods and Something Wicked This Way Comes were interesting misfires that I know I saw as a child, but didn’t really remember. I still didn’t care for Nightbreed, 20-some years after the first time I saw it, although I think I “got it” a lot more this time (seeing Clive Barker’s director’s cut might have helped with that). And one very pleasant surprise was John Carpenter’s The Ward. It’s not up to the standards of Carpenter’s early work, but I thought it was a tight and spooky little thriller that I didn’t figure out until the end.

 

TV Content Seen on Home Video

  1. China Beach Season 2
  2. WKRP in Cincinnati Season 2
  3. WKRP in Cincinnati Season 3
  4. WKRP in Cincinnati Season 4
  5. Babylon 5: The Legend of the Rangers (TV movie)
  6. Babylon 5: The Lost Tales (TV movie)
  7. Outlander Season 1
  8. Marvel’s Daredevil Season 1
  9. First Light (BBC TV movie)
  10. Space: 1999 (complete series, i.e., two seasons)
  11. The Wonder Years Season 1
  12. Michael Wood’s Story of England (complete series)
  13. Jim Jeffries: Bare (stand-up comedy performance)
  14. Craig Ferguson: I’m Here to Help (stand-up comedy performance)
  15. A History of Scotland (complete series)
  16. Last Days in Vietnam (American Experience documentary)
  17. A Very Murray Christmas (holiday special made for Netflix)
  18. The Seven Dwarfs of Auschwitz (documentary)
Books Completed (Fiction)
  1. To Kill a Mockingbird — Harper Lee
  2. A Separate Peace — John Knowles
  3. The Outsiders — S.E. Hinton
  4. Outlander — Diana Gabaldon
  5. Dragonfly in Amber — Diana Gabaldon
  6. Voyager — Diana Gabaldon
  7. Highlander, Vol. One: The Coldest War (graphic novel) — Brandon Jerwa and Michael Avon Oeming (writers), Lee Moder and Kevin Sharpe (artists)
  8. Star Trek: Harlan Ellison’s “The City on the Edge of Forever”: The Original Teleplay (graphic novel) — adaptation by Scott and David Tipton (writers), J.K. Woodward (artist)
  9. The Martian — Andy Weir
  10. Drums of Autumn — Diana Gabaldon
  11. Space: 1999 — Aftershock and Awe (graphic novel) — Andrew E.C. Gaska (writer), Gray Morrow, Miki, David Hueso (artists)

 

Another slight decline this year, a mere 11 titles instead of last year’s 13. (Actually, a decline in reading overall, since I only read one non-fiction title this year, down from three last year.) However, I don’t feel so bad when I consider the size of those Gabaldon novels, each of which is in the neighborhood of 1,000 pages or so. Given that the only time I really get for recreational reading these days is a half-hour train ride to and from work five days a week, I don’t think that’s too bad.

One book-related thing that happened in 2015: I opened a Goodreads account and started writing some reviews to help me better recall what I’ve read, instead of letting it all subside into a mushy haze of half-remembered impressions. Click the hyperlinks to see my reviews.

Books Completed (Non-Fiction)

  1. No Tourists Allowed: Seeking Inner Peace and Sobriety in War-Torn Sudan — Shannon Egan

Concerts and Live Theater Events

  1. Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band [Energy Solutions Arena, 3/13/15]
  2. Allison Krauss & Union Station and Willie Nelson [USANA Amphitheater, 6/20/15]
  3. Kenny Wayne Shepherd Band and Van Halen [USANA Amphitheater, 7/18/15]
  4. Chris Isaak [Sandy Amphitheater, 8/26/15]

And finally, the concerts. It was really an excellent year for me in that regard, as I finally got to check off not just one but three wishlist artists I honestly thought I’d never get an opportunity to see: Bob Seger, Willie Nelson, and Van Halen (with David Lee Roth). And to my great pleasure, they were all good shows, especially Seger’s. Willie Nelson played for a good 90 minutes without a break, impressive for a man who’d just turned 82 a couple months earlier. And Van Halen… what can I say? Maybe not the best-sounding show, but good lord, what a fun night!

Chris Isaak, meanwhile, is becoming something of a tradition for Anne and I and our friends, Geoff and Anastasia. He’s one of the most entertaining live artists I’ve ever seen, and consistently turns in a good show. We’ve seen him twice now; looking forward the the next one.

***

And there we are for another misspent year…

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Review: The Fiery Cross

The Fiery Cross
The Fiery Cross by Diana Gabaldon

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I was warned ahead of time that The Fiery Cross, the fifth book in Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series, would be a bit of a slog, and indeed it was. All of Gabaldon’s books are long, but this one is a real whopper, coming in at 1,443 pages in the mass-market paperback edition; for all that bulk, however, it feels as if very little actually happens to advance the story of Jamie Fraser, his time-traveling wife Claire, and their increasingly extended family.

Oh, things do happen in the book. Over the two-year span covered by The Fiery Cross, 1770-72, there are a couple weddings; new settlers are welcomed to the fledgling community of Fraser’s Ridge; there’s a murder mystery to solve, and bigger mysteries appear involving a treasure (the so-called “Frenchman’s Gold,” dating back to the failed Jacobite Revolution in Scotland) and an unknown time traveler (recall that Claire, her daughter Briana, and Bree’s husband Roger are all from the 20th century, not the 18th). Jamie and his son-in-law Roger bond through adversity, and Roger’s life and character take a major, traumatic turn. Jamie and Claire encounter a very twisted couple deep in the wilderness who could be characters from an entirely separate, far more Gothic novel. There’s a bear hunt, a near-fatal snake bite, and a hanging. Characters thought lost for good return. And Jamie, as de facto laird of the people living on Fraser’s Ridge, is pressed into forming a militia and marching off to battle against self-styled vigilantes called “the Regulators,” as the first stirrings of the American Revolution make themselves felt. But somehow none of it feels very consequential. It’s almost as if Gabaldon’s fascination with the details of everyday life in this milieu — which had been one of the great strengths of the earlier books — has become a distraction for her. She disappears down rabbit holes and then occasionally thinks, “Oh, I really should throw in some action here.” But my impression is that her heart really wasn’t with the action in this one, and it’s always perfunctory at best. Even the long-awaited confrontation with recurring villain Stephen Bonnet, when it finally arrives, is something of an anti-climax, over and done with quickly so we can get back to domestic matters.

I’ve heard it said that the reason most stories about couples take place either at the beginning or the end of the relationship is because all the stuff in between, when people are just raising kids and building a life together, makes for pretty poor drama. This book is perfect evidence of that, as all the talk of dirty clouts and breastfeeding gets pretty tedious. If I didn’t already have a sizable emotional investment in these characters — if this were my first exposure to the series — I’d be wondering what the hell the big deal is and why these books are so popular. As it is, I’m hanging in there with the series because I do care about Jamie and Claire and Roger and Bree, and because I know the Revolution is coming and things will be getting interesting again. But this book, The Fiery Cross is essentially just filler between points A and B. Recommended for confirmed fans only.

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Review: No Tourists Allowed: Seeking Inner Peace and Sobriety in War-Torn Sudan

No Tourists Allowed: Seeking Inner Peace and Sobriety in War-Torn Sudan
No Tourists Allowed: Seeking Inner Peace and Sobriety in War-Torn Sudan by Shannon Egan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Growing up in Utah is hard enough when you’re not a member of the culturally predominant Mormon Church. It becomes an order of magnitude more difficult when you are a member but harbor doubts or long for something other than the officially sanctioned LDS lifestyle. In that respect, Shannon Egan’s story is a familiar one. I’ve known many people who experienced similar struggles to find themselves in the face of parental disapproval and an almost overwhelming institutional pressure to conform. Often, as in Shannon’s case, these struggles lead to self-destructive behavior and problems with drugs and/or alcohol. But what makes Shannon’s story unique is what she did to try and escape both her upbringing and her addiction: she took a teaching job in Sudan, a war-torn country about which she knew virtually nothing. As the situation in Sudan deteriorated, a chance encounter led her to a position as a fledgling journalist, and that, in turn, led her to witnessing the horrors of Darfur and a confrontation with her own demons. Even in a land ruled by strict Islamic law, a determined addict can find what she needs…

Shannon Egan is a fine storyteller who reveals herself with vivid imagery and a sometimes painful degree of honesty. Her account of getting lit up on the Sudanese version of bathtub gin — a noxious homebrewed spirit called aragy — and the events that led to the relapse is one of the most harrowing things I’ve ever read. But there are moments of real beauty in this story, too, as she describes the history, culture, and especially the people of a place few Americans really know anything about. No Tourists Allowed is as much a travelogue and an ethnography as it is a work of memoir, and I found the wide-angle story as fascinating as Shannon’s personal one.

If the book has any flaws, it is in the author’s habit of occasionally slipping into asides filled with the jargon of recovery and advocacy. I understand that’s where Shannon’s mind is these days, as she’s parlayed her own experiences into both a career and a noble cause, but these passages tend to feel like parentheticals that distract from the action of the story she’s telling. The book is powerful enough on its own terms, don’t misunderstand, but I think it could’ve been moreso if she’d stuck to the facts and saved some of the commentary.

Nevertheless, this is an engrossing and fast-moving read that plumbs the worst depths of human behavior to come up with a message of hope and resilience. I understand a sequel is in the works, and I look forward to reading it…

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