The Bookshelf

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.

View all my reviews

spacer

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…

spacer

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.

View all my reviews

spacer

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…

View all my reviews

spacer

Review: Drums of Autumn

Drums of Autumn
Drums of Autumn by Diana Gabaldon

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

After taking a little break from the Outlander-verse, I’ve jumped back in with the fourth book of the series, which I believe is the longest one yet (and that’s saying something with these massive tomes!) Drums picks up a few months after the events of Voyager, the previous volume, with our time-crossed lovers Jamie and Claire, along with Jamie’s nephew Ian and adopted son Fergus, trying to start a new life for themselves in the colony of North Carolina in the years just prior to the American Revolution. They will face many dangers in this new world, including bears, Indians, disease, scheming family members, the ugly institution of slavery, a murderer, and even a ghost, but it is a chance encounter with a pirate named Stephen Bonnet that will have the greatest impact on their future… and that of their daughter, Brianna, who they think is safe and sound up in the 20th century, but has learned something terrible enough to convince her to risk traveling through time herself… for the sake of her mother and the father she’s never met…

By this point, the series has left its bodice-ripping origins far behind — Drums doesn’t even have much sex in it, compared to the earlier books — and settled into something resembling a cross between a cliffhanger serial and a soap opera. Basically, it’s “one damn thing after another” in a historical setting, and the book strongly reminded me of Michael Mann’s 1992 film version of Last of the Mohicans with its epic sweep and romanticized depiction of 18th century America. As ever, I am deeply impressed with the sense of authenticity and verisimilitude Gabaldon brings to her writing. The settings and the mundane details of life in this period are absolutely convincing, and the characters themselves live and breathe and are as real in my mind as my own relatives. Gabaldon even allows her hero Jamie to be somewhat unlikable for a good portion of the book, and even the dastardly Stephen Bonnet, in the end, reveals an unexpected depth.

Also, I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a series of books with such a strong female perspective. I don’t mean simply “the female gaze” that objectifies and admires the beauty of Jamie and the other male characters in the way that we’re accustomed to lingering over female beauty, although that’s definitely a noticeable motif in these stories. Rather, I’m talking about the way Gabaldon revels in the earthy, visceral, sometimes unsettling, often mysterious, but always very human flesh-and-blood reality of women’s bodies and women’s lives. I’ve read books by women authors, of course, and about female protagonists, but can’t recall any before that go into the places that Gabaldon deftly journeys. And I have to say, as a man, I wasn’t at all alienated by that perspective, as one might expect; rather, I’m fascinated and at times moved by it. Without making too much out of it, I think these books are giving me a better understanding of what it is to be a woman, and that’s exciting and makes for really damn good reading.

Unfortunately, though, Drums does have a couple of problems. For one thing, it’s difficult to really describe the plot of this one because, frankly, it doesn’t have much of one. Things happen, a lot of things, and the story moves forward, but there’s no clear throughline as in the previous books. It really is just one damn thing after another, and it’s more the reader’s affection for the characters and the world that keep you reading than a tight story. That‘s where I’m getting the soap opera feeling I mentioned.

In addition, Gabaldon allows some of her vivid characters to vanish from the action for long periods. Poor Fergus and his wife Marsali are especially ill treated by Drums; their appearances here are little more than cameos. Of course, Gabaldon’s cast has become sufficiently large that this is probably unavoidable, and one could make the argument that it’s true to life, especially under the primitive conditions of the 1760s when you wouldn’t have frequent contact with friends and relations. But as a modern-day reader who likes these people, it is… frustrating.

Ultimately, though, the story belongs to Jamie and Claire, and it is at its most interesting when the action is centered on them. By the end of Drums, some thirty years have passed since we first met them, and it is to Gabaldon’s great credit that she’s managed to let them age without losing whatever it was that made them seem real and compelling in the first place. Whatever else one may say about this series, it feels like a record of actual lives, and that’s a rare and commendable thing for a writer to have accomplished.

View all my reviews

spacer

A Little Reassurance

I recently finished reading Andy Weir‘s The Martian for a second time. Well, to be more precise, I finished it reading it aloud to my lovely Anne, who’d been listening to me rave about how good it is for weeks and finally asked me to read it to her as a bedtime story. (She just had PRK eye surgery, you see, and couldn’t read very well herself for the first little while, and… oh, hell, it’s a thing we do sometimes, okay? I read Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars to her last year… maybe one of these days, I’ll even do one that has nothing to do with Mars!)

Anyhow, the book is still effective even knowing what’s going to happen, and my thoughts on it remain mostly unchanged from my first experience with it. It’s a fantastic survival story and a real page-turner, populated by characters you genuinely like and care about, and I’m certain the movie version is going to kick all kinds of ass, too. But I realized on this go-round that there’s a broad steak of humanism flowing beneath all the surface-level technology and science and adventure, and I think that’s probably a big factor in why I like this novel so much. This is a book that likes people. There’s one passage in particular, from the very end (literally, it’s on the last page), that I found deeply moving and continue to think about even now, weeks after I last closed the cover. It’s especially been on my mind the past few days.

Last week wasn’t one of my better ones. I’ve entered another of those periodic cycles at work when it feels like I’m being ground into a very fine powder between two large, slow-moving stone wheels. One of those cycles when the workflow never slackens and my day ends up being nothing but proofreading and commuting. And then Friday morning, I found myself having one of those debates over minutiae that nobody seems to care about but me, debates that always end with me using words like “asinine” and making the Sideshow Bob mumblety-growl. (In other words, these are debates I lose, due to having very little actual authority in the scheme of things.) And if all that wasn’t bad enough, the Internet last week was thoroughly depressing as well. I came home Friday night feeling about as hollowed out and used up and fed up as I think anybody could. Between getting mowed down at work and the media’s obsession with that obnoxious blowhard Donald fracking Trump and his deliberately inflammatory bullshit statements, I was about ready to walk off into the woods and just forget the whole damn thing we laughingly call civilization because we’ve obviously hit peak asshole and there’s no where to go from here except into the recycle bin.

But then I remembered that passage from The Martian… and I’ll be darned if it didn’t actually lift my spirits. Because I believe those words, or at least I want to. And maybe that’s enough to hold a civilization — or even an individual —  together… that desire to believe in something good.

I can’t imagine anyone not knowing how this book ends, how it has to end, but just in case anyone is concerned about spoilers, I’m going to post the passage I’m discussing below the fold:

spacer

Review: The Martian

The Martian
The Martian by Andy Weir

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I don’t generally enjoy so-called “hard” science fiction, i.e., that subcategory of SF that insists upon scientific accuracy and devotes a lot of time to talking about it. Not that I’m not interested in science, of course. But when it comes to fiction, I’m more of a “warp-drive-and-ray-guns” kind of guy. So I consider it quite a noteworthy accomplishment that Andy Weir’s debut novel, The Martian, not only makes descriptions of chemical processes and engineering problems integral to the plot, but downright gripping as well. Weir accomplishes this by telling the story mostly through the first-person voice of Mark Watney, an astronaut who’s been left behind on Mars after an accident that results in his crew mistakenly believing him to be dead. Watney’s a smart guy, but he’s also an incredible smart-ass, and his frequent wisecracks, childish vulgarity, and gallows humor leavens the logical puzzles he needs to work out in order to survive in a place that is utterly inhospitable to life.

This is an incredible adventure tale that reads like a dramatization of real events. But it’s also a richly human story that evokes the fear, wonder, loneliness, courage, nobility, and above all the danger of manned space exploration. And it’s frequently a very funny book as well… I literally laughed out loud a number of times while reading it. (I was especially amused by the running gag involving disco music.) The time setting is somewhat indeterminate — the book never specifies what year it takes place in, but it must be sometime relatively soon, because an important plot point involves the expertise of people who were operating Mars probes in the 1990s, and of course there is the enduring appeal of 1970s pop culture. Also, none of the technology described is terribly futuristic, all of which contributes to a sense that it could be happening right now. Indeed, the descriptions of how a Mars mission could actually, logistically, take place are so convincing that I don’t know why NASA isn’t already doing it as I type this. (Okay, I do know; my point is, the book is eminently plausible.)

Beyond the “gee whiz” factor and old-fashioned NASA can-do spirit, however, the thing that keeps you turning the pages at a breathless pace is Mark Watney himself. His victories and setbacks and the final, last-ditch, edge-of-your-seat attempt at a rescue mission are the stuff of an instant classic. And no doubt this story is going to make a great movie, too; it’s already in the can and coming soon to a theater near you, starring Matt Damon as Watney… a perfect choice, in my opinion…

View all my reviews

spacer

Review: Star Trek: Harlan Ellison’s The City on the Edge of Forever: The Original Teleplay

Star Trek: Harlan Ellison's The City on the Edge of Forever: The Original Teleplay
Star Trek: Harlan Ellison’s The City on the Edge of Forever: The Original Teleplay by Harlan Ellison

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

“The City on the Edge of Forever” is widely regarded as one of the best — if not the best — episode of the original Star Trek series. But as every Trekkie worth his replicator credits knows, the version that got filmed was substantially different from the teleplay that science-fiction writer Harlan Ellison turned in. The notoriously prickly Ellison didn’t take too kindly to being rewritten, and he’s griped for years about how Gene Roddenberry screwed him and his story over, and how much better his version was than the one that viewers saw. Now his original teleplay has been brought to life in a form that gives us an idea of how it might have looked on the small screen if it’d been made the way Ellison wrote it. This graphic novel adaptation, with scripting by brothers Scott and David Tipton and artwork by J.K. Woodward, is an impressive piece of work. Woodward’s art is particularly noteworthy, a highly realistic painted style that captures the likenesses of actors William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, Joan Collins, and Grace Lee Whitney with eerie accuracy. And it’s fascinating to see both the parallels and departures from the more familiar television version of the story. There’s only one problem: I personally don’t think Ellison’s version of the story is better (or even as good as) the revised one.

Oh, his ideas were grander than the revision’s, to be certain. His Guardians of Forever would’ve been much cooler than the “stone donut” the TV producers came up with as a cost-saving substitute, and his story features some poignant moments and themes that arguably shouldn’t have been left out. But Ellison’s teleplay also includes some really hackneyed space pirates, a lot of unnecessary characters (which of course would’ve cost money in the form of additional actors who need to be paid), and some cringe-worthy “far-out” sci-fi jargon that sounds like it came straight out of the rocket-ship movies of the 1950s instead of the more naturalistic style Star Trek was going for in the 1960s.

Also, I was deeply troubled by Ellison’s misunderstanding of the familiar characters. While it was great to see Yeoman Rand do some butt-kicking instead of playing the helpless female she so often was in the TV series, Spock comes across as a condescending, peevish, frankly kind of bitchy antagonist to Kirk. To be fair, Ellison probably wrote this before the series had really nailed down Spock’s characterization, but with the benefit of hindsight, this version of Spock is just flat-out wrong… except in the final scene when he tries to console his heartbroken captain. That scene works beautifully. But in general, Ellison’s teleplay, while entertaining and emotionally effective, feels more like an episode of The Outer Limits (which Ellison also wrote for) than Star Trek. It’s not that it’s bad, because it’s not… it’s very good as a science-fiction story. It’s just not very good Star Trek, if that makes sense.

Still, this graphic novel is well worth checking out for the artwork and the glimpse of what might have been. It includes all the variant covers by Juan Ortiz and Paul Shipper from the single-issue comic run, as well as an afterword that reveals all the “Easter eggs” the writers and artist slipped in. (Watch for an appearance by Ellison himself as “Trooper,” a character I’m deeply ambivalent about, because I don’t think the story needed him — as Ellison has always claimed — but I do like him and his interactions with Kirk.)

View all my reviews

spacer

Review: Highlander, Volume 1: The Coldest War

[Ed. note: I recently joined Goodreads, the social media platform centered around books and reading, in hopes of… I don’t know… recapturing some of the literary mojo I’ve been feeling like I’ve lost, I guess. I’m also a member of a similar online community called LibraryThing, if you’ll recall, but I never could get the hang of the social aspects of that site; I’ve always used it purely as a catalog of my book collection. Goodreads, on the other hand, seems a lot better designed for the way I socialize online these days. (Basically, Goodreads is not a siloed community like LT; you can easily share your Goodreads activity on your Facebook page, if you’re exhibitionistic that way… which, apparently, I am.) I still haven’t quite decided if I like Goodreads, or how much I like it, but if nothing else, it’s providing more inspiration to write reviews than I’ve felt in some time. Goodreads makes it easy to export your reviews to other platforms, too, so as an experiment, I’m going to let it crosspost them here on Simple Tricks. (People who follow me on Facebook will also get links there; sorry, I don’t mean to spam you, I just know there are Loyal Readers here who aren’t on Facebook.) If you want to read my earlier reviews, there’s a link at the bottom of this post. And if you want to follow me on Goodreads, my profile is here. And feel free to let me know if this is interesting content to you, or if you’d rather I knock it off… ]

Highlander, Volume 1: The Coldest War
Highlander, Volume 1: The Coldest War by Brandon Jerwa

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Continuity in the Highlander franchise is a tricky thing to explain to any but the hardcore fan, so my apologies if the following is as clear as mud: This graphic novel (which collect issues 0-5 of the tie-in comic series by Dynamite Entertainment) takes place shortly after the events of the original Highlander film, but within the timeline of the Highlander TV series, in which the events of the movie were retconned a bit. Which means that Connor MacLeod has defeated the monstrous immortal known as The Kurgan, exactly as seen in the movie, only without winning The Prize… it was just another fight between immortals and not the final battle. Savvy?

Okay, now that’s out of the way… the story begins with Connor abruptly called away from his new bride, Brenda Wyatt, to reunite with two other immortals and an elderly human scientist for a secret mission into the heart of the Soviet Union. Through flashbacks, we learn that the four of them had confronted The Kurgan once before, 20 years earlier, along with an army of genetically engineered cultist warriors who were fanatically loyal to the villainous immortal. They thought they’d defeated the cultists then, but now that Kurgan is dead, they’re back and looking to avenge their old master. They’ve already caused the historic accident at the Chernobyl nuclear plant, and now they have bigger things in mind. They’ve got to be stopped…

Following the resolution of this storyline (comprising issues 0-4), we have a short interlude (issue 5) featuring Connor’s kinsman Duncan MacLeod. Brenda has been injured in a car accident and is in surgery while the two immortal cousins talk, argue, and console one another.

Both stories capture the general tone of the Highlander TV series and are enjoyable, if rather superficial. The villains of “The Coldest War” are never fleshed out in any meaningful way and are merely “the bad guys”; the same with Paul and Tasya, Connor’s immortal comrades. We learn nothing about either of them and have no real emotional connection to them. The elderly mortal in the story, Doctor Volkov, fares a bit better, but only just. Brenda is a virtual non-entity in both stories. On the positive side, however, the writers have a good grip on the voices of the two MacLeods, and it’s easy to imagine the dialogue being spoken by actors Christopher Lambert and Adrian Paul.

The artwork by Lee Moder in “The Coldest War” and Kevin Sharpe in “New Years Eve” is hit-and-miss, although I see a better resemblance to the actors in Sharpe’s work. The action is at least easy to follow, which I find is occasionally a problem in modern comics.

Overall, this is a pleasing but not spectacular return to the Highlander universe for fans of the franchise, but I can’t imagine it would make any new fans. I am willing to continue with Volume 2, though, so that’s something…

View all my reviews

spacer

Hell Has Frozen Over

If you’ve been online in the past 24 hours, you’ve no doubt seen the news: Author Harper Lee has a new book on the way, a sort-of sequel to her beloved classic To Kill a Mockingbird (which, you may recall, I just revisited for the first time since high school), and only the second novel she has ever published. The new book, titled Go Set a Watchman, is set in the 1950s, some 20 years after the events of Mockingbird, and concerns an adult Scout returning to her hometown of Maycomb, Alabama, to visit her father Atticus and “grapple with issues both personal and political.”

The Internet being what it is, the grumbling began immediately, with many people deciding in advance of reading one single word of the new book that it can’t possibly be as good as Mockingbird, or, indeed, any good at all. This morning, I saw that the initial skepticism had already congealed into something far more cynical with the suggestion that there’s something mysterious and unsavory behind this unexpected announcement, namely that an elderly and possibly ailing Lee is being exploited by forces that stand to make a lot of money from a Mockingbird sequel that she, herself, never wanted released. I honestly don’t know that much about Lee or her circumstances, and I sincerely hope the conspiracy theorists are wrong about what’s happening here. But let’s assume for the sake of argument that she is not being exploited and is completely onboard with Watchman being released. If that’s the case, then I find I’m rather enthused about it. Not in an overheated fanboy sort of way, but because (a) the timing of it coming now, just after I re-read the original, is pleasantly coincidental, and (b) I love the idea of lost treasures being rediscovered in metaphorical attics. Blame my romantic nature, I guess. In addition, I always like to see what the fictional characters I like get up to later in their lives — this is a big part of why I can’t condemn the fourth Indiana Jones movie, because I enjoyed seeing my old friends Indy and Marion again. And finally, as a would-be novelist myself, I am intrigued by Watchman‘s relationship to the other book. You see, Watchman was actually Lee’s first attempt — it was written before Mockingbird, and took place roughly in the same time period in which Lee was writing it (as opposed to Mockingbird, which takes place 20 years earlier). Her editor was taken with some flashbacks in the manuscript and suggested Lee write another story about the younger version of Watchman‘s protagonist. (That’s why I referred to this “new” novel as a “sort-of” sequel, because while it technically is a sequel in the sense that its story happens after the familiar one, this story was created first.)

In truth, I don’t expect the new book to be the equal of Mockingbird, for a number of reasons. It’s bound to have a different tone than the original, since it was intended to be a (then) contemporary story and probably lacks the nostalgic filter that overlays Mockingbird. It’s also possible the details of the two stories won’t entirely line up, since Lee might have changed her mind about things as she wrote the second book. And it’s the first novel by a young writer, so it’s possible — likely even — that it will have a lot of rough edges. (The article I read suggests there’s been no revision to smooth over inconsistencies between the two novels, or indeed, any revision at all. What’s being published is what Lee wrote 55 years ago.) But if nothing else, knowing this was the first attempt, I think it’s going to be a fascinating peek into the process that created the classic. In other words, my interest is based on geeky writer stuff…

Go Set a Watchman will be released on July 14, and is already available for preorder on Barnes and Noble’s website.

spacer