Monday, December 31, 2018

Robbie Awards 3

Technically, these are the Third Annual Robbie Awards for books I have read and reviewed since this time last year. Thanks to last year's seven-year retrospective ("Retro Robbie Awards"), this is unofficially the 10th year for which these awards have been presented. It's funny how fast this kind of anniversary sneaks up. Another challenge this year is the fact that, due to really limited online time, I'm way behind on writing my reviews; so, I'm going to have to wing it a bit.

So, to start, here are the books that (according to my records) I have read since the start of 2018:
  1. Long Live the Queen by Kate Locke
  2. Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus by Dusti Bowling
  3. The Apprentice Witch by James Nicol
  4. Invasion by Luke Rhinehart
  5. The Darkest Road by Guy Gavriel Kay
  6. Canoes in Winter: Beneath the Surface by Bob Guelker
  7. The Hero of Ages by Brandon Sanderson
  8. Symphony for the City of the Dead by M.T. Anderson
  9. The Alloy of Law by Brandon Sanderson
  10. Goodbye, Mr. Chips by James Hilton
  11. Shadows of Self by Brandon Sanderson
  12. The Moon Is Down by John Steinbeck
  13. Lair of Dreams by Libba Bray
  14. Sputnik's Guide to Life on Earth by Frank Cottrell Boyce
  15. Bad Unicorn by Platte F. Clark
  16. Fluff Dragon by Platte F. Clark
  17. Good Ogre by Platte F. Clark
  18. The Countdown Conspiracy by Katie Slivensky
  19. Tumble and Blue by Cassie Beasley
  20. The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre by Gail Carson Levine
  21. Alcatraz Versus the Evil Librarians by Brandon Sanderson
  22. The Screaming Staircase by Jonathan Stroud
  23. The Bands of Mourning by Brandon Sanderson
  24. Changing Planes by Ursula K. Le Guin
  25. Smoke by Dan Vyleta
  26. The Accident Season by Moïra Fowley-Doyle
  27. The Gravedigger's Cottage by Chris Lynch
  28. Stronger by Jeff Bauman with Bret Witter
  29. Unsub by Meg Gardiner
  30. The Whispering Skull by Jonathan Stroud
  31. The Night Gardener by Jonathan Auxier
  32. The Hollow Boy by Jonathan Stroud
  33. Rain Reign by Ann M. Martin
  34. The Creeping Shadow by Jonathan Stroud
  35. Trollhunters by Guillermo del Toro & Daniel Kraus
  36. Time to Laugh: Funny Tales from Here and There ed. by Phyllis Fenner
  37. Scowler by Daniel Kraus
  38. The Empty Grave by Jonathan Stroud
  39. Alcatraz Versus the Scrivener's Bones by Brandon Sanderson
  40. Ysabel by Guy Gavriel Kay
  41. Alcatraz Versus the Knights of Crystallia by Brandon Sanderson
  42. Do the Movies Have a Future? by David Denby
  43. Alcatraz Versus the Shattered Lens by Brandon Sanderson
  44. Westmark by Lloyd Alexander
  45. The Kestrel by Lloyd Alexander
  46. Aliens in Disguise by Clete Barrett Smith
  47. All Creatures Great and Small by James Herriot
  48. Magic Delivery by Clete Barrett Smith
  49. Cold Blooded by Lisa Jackson
  50. Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann
  51. Crime Scene by Jonathan Kellerman and Jesse Kellerman
  52. Temptation Bangs Forever: The Worst Church Signs You've Ever Seen by Robert Kroese and Joel Bezaire
  53. The Spaceship Next Door by Gene Doucette
  54. Jane, Unlimited by Kristin Cashore
  55. Deep Freeze by John Sandford
  56. Legion by Brandon Sanderson
  57. The Dragon's Path by Daniel Abraham
  58. The King's Blood by Daniel Abraham
  59. The Power of Un by Nancy Etchemendy
  60. The Witch Boy by Molly Knox Ostertag
  61. It Takes One by Kate Kessler
  62. Two Can Play by Kate Kessler
  63. Practical Demonkeeping by Christopher Moore
  64. Smek for President! by Adam Rex
  65. The Cabinet of Earths by Anne Nesbet
Well, I didn't make my Goodreads goal of 100 books this year. Apparently, suddenly having a lot of TV-on-DVD to binge on has been detrimental to my literary life. (It has also contributed to the curtailment of my creative writing.) Anyway, here are either the third or the tenth annual Robbie Awards!

Critics' Choice
I'm a critic, kind of. In my critical opinion, the best book on the above list, in terms of overall literary merit, is The Moon Is Down by John Steinbeck.

People's Choice
I'm a person, too. My favorite book on the above list, for pure fun and popular appeal, is Changing Planes by Ursula K. Le Guin.

Kids' Choice
I'm a child inside. Of the books above aimed at younger readers, my favorite is Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus by Dusti Bowling. Honorable mentions: Bad Unicorn, The Power of Un, Rain Reign and Magic Delivery.

Best Comeback
Of the golden oldies I discovered this year, I consider the goldenest (apart from The Moon Is Down) to be Westmark by Lloyd Alexander.

Best Newcomer
I didn't do any pre-publication reviews this year, but of the relatively recent publications I read this year, my favorite is The Spaceship Next Door by Gene Doucette.

Best Documentary
I think the best nonfiction book I read this year is Symphony for the City of the Dead by M.T. Anderson. Honorable mention: Killers of the Flower Moon.

Best Audiobook
Of the books I read with my ears this year, my favorite is Ysabel by Guy Gavriel Kay, read by Kate Reading. Honorable mention: The Dragon's Path by Daniel Abraham, read by Pete Bradbury.

Best Foreign Adaptation
Strictly speaking, I didn't read anything translated from a foreign language. However, at least one book that I read seems to be a repackaging, probably with revisions to make it more digestible to an American audience, of multiple shorter books originally published in the U.K. So, I'll give this award to All Creatures Great and Small by James Herriot.

Best Short Subject
I could give this, by default, to Temptation Bangs Forever, though I'm almost ashamed even to include it on this list. I could also give it to a book made up of short stories, but it doesn't quite feel right to slice it that way. So, alas, no award.

Best Art
In a new category recognizing illustration, graphic novel art and beautiful book covers, I'd like to recognize Smek for President! by Adam Rex for its intermittent but entertaining use of comic book-style panels within a novel that otherwise leaves the imagery up to the reader.

Best Adapted Material
Here's another new category, though I'm going to start by stretching the point a bit and award it to a book that was adapted into another medium rather than the other way around. The winner: Trollhunters by Guillermo del Toro & Daniel Kraus. I especially like the fact that although the original book and the subsequent TV series are so very different, neither suffers in the comparison; they are both, in my opinion, winners.

The Cabinet of Earths

The Cabinet of Earths
by Anne Nesbet
Recommended Ages: 12+

I didn't realize, when I read it, that A Box of Gargoyles was the sequel to this book. So, I read them out of order, but I don't think it really mattered. In this book, an American girl named Maya moves to Paris for a year with her parents and her adorable little brother James, meets her best friend (a Bulgarian boy named Valko), and finds herself in the middle of a magical plot that has involved several generations of her family. Among the relatives she is surprised to meet in Paris are a distant cousin who is partly invisible and once survived having a church fall on her, a beautiful uncle-cousin named Henri who has violet eyes and peddles a mysterious, addictive substance called anbar, and an eccentric, elderly uncle-cousin named Henri-Pierre who has a cabinet full of bottled earths that calls out to Maya (the cabinet I mean), urging her to become its next keeper.

Something sinister is afoot in Maya's Paris. It has something to do with a group of beautiful kids at her school, led by the Dauphin (or, as Maya calls him, the Dolphin), whose parents look way younger than they are. It has something to do with a witch who, during World War II, gave up on life after one of her sons betrayed the other to the Nazis. It has something to do with a fountain commemorating a series of vanished children who, it turns out, didn't really vanish - not entirely, anyhow. Someone is sucking the charm and liveliness out of Paris' children, and someone is creating a race of immortals, and meantime, Maya is worried that her mother's cancer may have come back. It's a lot for a teenage girl to handle, but when pushed in just the right way, Maya exhibits a steely strength that surprises her as much as the reader.

There is a lot to love about this book. Maya, her parents, James, Valko, and other characters are crisply drawn and subtly developed. Maya's spirit goes right to your heart. The atmosphere teems with magic, mystery, a sense of danger, and a presentiment of horror that mesh well with the scenery of Paris. Pieces of art and architecture play a role in creating a fascinating scenic world. And almost invisibly, like Cousin Louise, author Nesbet establishes a compelling and original style that conveys striking impressions and complex emotions in a truly original, yet seemingly effortless way.

Also by this California-based author and educator are the novels The Wrinkled Crown, Cloud and Wallfish, and The Orphan Band of Springdale, all of which look interesting to me. This was her first novel.

Friday, December 28, 2018

Smek for President!

Smek for President!
by Adam Rex
Recommended Ages: 11+

In this sequel to The True Meaning of Smekday (which also spawned an animated film titled Home), Gratuity "Tip" Tucci and her extraterrestrial friend J.Lo run away from home by flying the family car to New Boovworld, the moon of Saturn formerly known as Titan. There, while exploring J.Lo's quirky alien culture, they become gamepieces in a political campaign between the Highboov (Smek) and a challenger, whose name I've already forgotten. Also joining the campaign, at different times, are a talking parrot and a human who claims to have saved both races (human and Boov) from a common, alien enemy, though it was actually J.Lo and Tip who did that.

Except for the parrot, none of the candidates for office particularly care to have the truth come out, so the two become fugitives. It doesn't help that J.Lo is widely blamed for sending the signal that led the previous book's bad guys to Earth. People on New Boovworld call him the Squealer, and it isn't safe for him to show his face. Nevertheless, J.Lo hungers for reconciliation with his people, and Tip has his back. Surviving the manhunt, or rather Boovhunt, that Smek and Dan Landry have put on him will mean getting involved in the presidential race, even though J.Lo wants to be Highboov about as much as he wants to go to jail. So, their adventure evolves into a madcap parody of a U.S. presidential election, combined with three-dimensional chases in low gravity, shootouts with disintegration rays, tours of the yucky underbelly of a city built on its own garbage, and occasional passages in which quirky, graphic-novel-style panels take up the burden of storytelling.

I really enjoyed this novel. I lost count of the number of times it made me laugh until my sides ached. I especially loved reading about the issues between Tip and her mother. In addition to politics, the story also pokes rather pointed fun at society's thoughtless treatment of the environment, takes a goofy side-trip into time travel, and displays its author's endless and fearless inventiveness in every detail of the Boov cityscape. After reading three books by him, I'm now pretty convinced that Adam Rex is a talent to watch. Besides this series, several picture books for little 'uns, and Fat Vampire, he is also the author of the trilogy Cold Cereal, Unlucky Charms and Champions of Breakfast.

Practical Demonkeeping

Practical Demonkeeping
by Christopher Moore
Recommended Ages: 15+

I got a kick out of this author's book The Lust Lizard of Melancholy Cove, not realizing at the time that it was the second book in a trilogy that started with this book and continues with The Stupidest Angel. Thanks to my mom's husband, who used my recent wish-list of "further books in series I've started to read" to shop for Christmas presents for me, I finally got the chance to go back to where it all started in the 1992 debut novel of the author of Bloodsucking Fiends, A Dirty Job and Island of the Sequined Love Nun, among other droll fantasies.

Where it all started is Pine Cove, Calif., whose claim to fame is being the city with the most divorced women per capita. One local female whose divorce is not yet final is a good-looking waitress named Jenny, who recently got the help she needed from a local coven of witches before kicking out her loser husband, when who should come into her life but a good-looking young insurance salesman who is actually a 90-year-old demonkeeper.

Travis stopped aging when, as a badly abused seminary student, he summoned Catch. Now he is condemned to travel the country with a scaly creature that only he can see except when it is about to eat someone - and that then grows all too horribly visible. Travis has been trying to find a way to get rid of Catch since World War I was on, but only now, in Pine Cove, does he seem to have found what he needs. Catch, meanwhile, thinks he has found his ticket to be free of Travis, whose insistence on not eating anyone who will be missed is as irritating to the demon as the demon's appetites are to his keeper. Unknown to both of them, a third player in the scenario - Gian Hen Gian, the King of the Djinn - has recruited a Zen alcoholic to help him send Catch back to hell.

Completing the ensemble are a vice detective desperate to catch one of the west coast's slimiest dealers, an elderly couple whose love story is intertwined with Travis' quest, and a woman whose determination to never let a man hurt her again may unleash an evil held in check since the time of King Solomon. Stir together and cook at the temperature of a California beach town, and it proves to be a recipe for hilarious, sexy, horrifying adventure, full of criss-crossing lines of character motivation and plot.

I know it's a weird thing to say about an author by whom I have already read several books, but I think this is a first novel that shows a lot of promise. Moore has followed up on it unevenly, in my opinion, but I have taken enough entertainment from these books - particularly of the laughs and chills persuasion - to be interested in reading more. Among his other titles are Secondhand Souls, You Suck, Fluke, Sacre Bleu and, most recently, Noir.

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

DVD Reviews: More TV Seasons

The Flash, Season 4: During a time-travel episode in a previous season, when Barry "The Flash" Allen travels to a possible future to learn what it will take to stop that season's recurring villain, there is a throwaway line about a gadget Team Flash would use (sometime between that future and then-present-Barry's then-present) - oh, I give up. Time travel gives me a headache. Let's just say, there's been a hint before that an upcoming villain would be named DeVoe. This is the season in which he comes up. As Season 3 ended, Barry sacrificed himself to the Speed Force to save the planet. Team Flash has been trying to get by without him, led by Iris West, who has found a new purpose in life while still hoping to get Barry back. They still have a speedster (Kid Flash, remember?) and a little help from such meta-human teammates as Vibe. But when a new meta-threat rolls into town, it becomes apparent that they can't do without Barry. So, they work out a way to bring him back, and bring him back they do. Unfortunately, something about the way he comes back sets off a new epidemic of meta-powers, focusing on the passengers of a certain bus that Barry buzzed during his re-entry.

One by one, these newly powered people emerge in Central City, and one by one, they disappear again, taken by the nefarious DeVoe - who, to the outside world, seems to be a really nice, wheelchair-bound professor. Barry/The Flash actually comes out looking pretty bad when he tries to fight DeVoe, but his conviction and imprisonment are all just a part of that criminal genius' plot to take over the world. First, however, he needs to absorb a bunch of heroes' superpowers - and the way he does that is fatal for each person he takes over. One of the people in his way - perhaps the key person, whose meta-powers will make DeVoe unstoppable - is a seedy ex-cop turned private detective who, during this season, becomes an unexpectedly beloved member of Team Flash. He grows from being a minor irritant to an indispensable member of the family, which just adds to the emotional stakes of the season's climactic battle with DeVoe. Meantime, there's also a subplot involving a meta-human woman named Amunet who is making her fortune in meta-human trafficking, and another involving Harry gradually losing his intelligence, and love and marriage and baby-making and so forth. All kinds of fun!

"Three Scenes That Made It For Me" here would usually include in-jokes and casting stunts, but I let this review "pend" for too long, so I don't remember the season in that kind of detail. In retrospect, I think some of my favorite moments were (1) any of the goofball scenes featuring the Council of Wells, doppelgangers of Harrison Wells from various parallel earths; (2) the episode in which Barry uses "Flashtime" to freeze a nuclear bomb at the moment of detonation, in hope of finding a way to neutralize it before it destroys Central City; (3) any time Danny Trejo appears as Breacher, the dimension-hopping bounty hunter father of Cisco's main squeeze.

Episodes that did nothing for me, however, include the inevitable crossover episode with other DC series (Supergirl, Arrow, Legends of Tomorrow), of which only the installment that aired on The Flash made it into the DVD box set – the kind of shenanigans that, in past seasons too, has allowed major developments in series continuity to take place outside the series, and forces anyone wanting to catch up on the storyline to invest in DVDs of the relevant seasons of four different TV series. In short, it's complete crap.

MacGyver, Season 1: After seeing some of the recent reboots of classic TV shows of the 1970s and -80s, I've noticed a recurring issue of which this series (2016 ff.) is a prime example. The original MacGyver, which aired from 1985 to 1992, featured comic tough-guy Richard Dean Anderson as a man of action who never touches a gun, but can "macgyver" his way out of anything through amazing feats of science and practical know-how. While there were several recurring characters, the show basically featured MacGyver going out on his own and getting stuff done, with only one regularly appearing co-worker, Pete Thornton of the Phoenix Foundation. In the new series, MacGyver (played by the absurdly handsome Lucas Till) is surrounded by an ensemble of regular characters, including some based on recurring characters from the past. In my opinion, the amount of time invested in developing all these characters, and allowing them to do hero stuff, takes away from the stories about MacGyver achieving feats of macgyverness. As a result, he only gets to macgyver something about once or twice per episode, and the time he spends making character-developing patter with the rest of the ensemble often leaves very little time for him to engage with the situation at hand. To be blunt, I like the solo MacGyver better than the ensemble one.

Nevertheless, in Season 1 of the reboot, the new, stupidly good-looking, ensemble-cast MacGyver delivers at least three things that made it for me: (1) the whole "protecting a witness from assassins on a runaway train" episode; (2) Team Mac competes with a family of bounty hunters to catch a dangerous bad-guy; and (3) the team gets burned during a covert trip to the Netherlands.

Star Trek: Discovery, Season 1: The first issue I have with this CBS prequel/spinoff of Star Trek is that you can't actually watch it on TV unless you have a subscription to CBS All Access – and, I mean to say, who does? – or Netflix, which, alas, I don't. But right now, I can't even afford to have cable TV or home internet, which is one of the reasons it takes me so long to catch up on my movie, TV and book reviews these days. So, I had to wait for this season to come out on DVD; after that, all was well. Second problem: The artistic redesign of the entire format of this series, with special emphasis on the Klingons (featured so heavily that they are, in fact, the first characters you see at the beginning of the first episode). Personally, I find the redesign to be so radical that it borders on effrontery. I mean, it's one thing to make respectful improvements, and another thing to send a visual message that you don't respect your source material or its fans. Third problem: The unrelenting darkness and pessimism that dominate the background of this entire season of television, to the extent of seeming to contradict the fundamentally optimistic spirit of Gene Roddenberry's creation. If your lips just parted to register a counter-argument, shut them. This series sins against the very root of what Star Trek is. Fourth problem: The fact that this series takes itself so damn seriously that it hardly ever cracks a smile, let alone laughs. When it does, or even when it inadvertently gives the viewer an opening to do so for himself, the release of pent-up tension is so great that it may lead one to realize what an almost abusive hold the dramatic arc has exerted on one. Sixth problem (Will I go on? Yes): The visual style of this season is dominated by unmotivated camera movement, with a heaping helping of gratuitous lens flares on the side. Both are symptomatic of a style over substance approach to filmmaking, and the former (at least) denies the actors the opportunity to use their talents to sell the drama. Flamboyance for its own sake – bad. Finally, because I want to get down to details and not because there are no eighth, ninth or umpteenth problem with this season – Seventh Problem: Serialized storytelling taken to such an extreme that one loses track of what happened in which episode. As the "episodes that made it for me" bit will show, the exceptions are where my favorite moments in the season take place. I think this shows that the discipline of having to fit a story into a single, hour-long episode is good for a TV writer. Also, there comes a certain point in a certain arc of episodes this season when a reasonable person, e.g. Yours Truly, is compelled to scream, "How long is this outfit going to be stuck in the Mirror Universe?!"

For those of you joining the Star Trek universe late, Discovery is an exciting development for Trekkers because it represents the first fresh direction the franchise has taken in, like, a dozen years. Its main cast is, if you count the failed original pilot back in the mid-1960s, the eighth crew to headline a Star Trek entertainment spectacle – what with original Trek, The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager, Enterprise and the alternate-timeline-original-series-reboot movie series. It follows not the captain of the ship, but a crew member – a human woman named Michael Burnham who was raised by Vulcans and made it to first officer of a Starfleet ship before being busted down to nobody after committing an unprecedented act of mutiny. For some reason, which gradually becomes a matter of considerable importance, Burnham attracts the interest of a starship captain named Gabriel Lorca (played by Jason Isaacs of "Lucius Malfoy" fame), who is considered to be something of a monster by some of his own officers, and he recruits her to serve as a science specialist on a top-secret mission to exploit a truly bizarre, new form of propulsion in a war against the Klingons. Their shipmates include Engineer Paul Stamets, who is really more of a specialist in a network of fungal spores that reaches across the cosmos; First Officer Saru, a Kelpien, whose species plays the role of prey in his homeworld's food chain; a security officer named Ash Tyler, whose first appearance as a regular character is timed in such a way that an alert viewer may suspect something about his true identity – only to be surprised to learn later that his secret isn't the only one of its kind on board. There's also a cadet named Tilly, who seems to be there mostly as comic relief but isn't; a ship's doctor named Culber, a gay love interest for Stamets whose not being listed in the main credits is surprising until it isn't; the captain from Burnham's previous ship (played by Michelle Yeoh), who doesn't let being killed in the second episode stop her from popping up later in the season; the irrepressible Harcourt Fenton Mudd, played by comic genius Rainn Wilson in two of this season's episodes; and Sarek, the father of Spock, who turns out also to be Burnham's faster father and is played by James Frain.

Three things that made it for me: (1) The episode in which Sarek is wounded by a terrorist's bomb and Burnham has to use her psychic link with him to help him help himself. (2) The one in which Mudd uses a time gizmo to make the same hour or so repeat over and over until he can figure out a way to take over the ship, and because of Stamets' connection with the mycelial network, babble babble babble, yadda yadda, etc., and Tyler ends up kissing Burnham, so everyone goes Awwww. (3) Tilly, impersonating her mirror-universe doppelganger "Killy," tries to act tough in a video call to an officer on a Terran Empire ship(!). That was one of those comic relief moments that made this season just bearable to watch. Overall, however, it wasn't so unbearable that I'm not willing to give Season 2 a chance to show me how much this series can improve. When it comes out on DVD, then!

S.W.A.T. (Season 1) is a reboot/remake of a TV series that lasted two seasons (1975-76) and starred Steve Forest as "Hondo" and Robert Urich as Jim Street. The pair were also played by Samuel L. Jackson and Colin Farrell in a 2003 movie. In the current series, they are played by Shemar Moore, late of "Criminal Minds," and Australian actor Alex Russell. It's a cool series, and even though I was about 3 years old when the original show aired, hearing that theme music was a neat blast from the past. Basically, your SWAT team ("special weapons and tactics") is the brute-force squad that goes out to control crowds before they become riots, to bust down doors, respond to hostage situations, take down dangerous suspects, etc. The original S.W.A.T. was apparently so violent that the Los Angeles Police Department complained about it. The current series hasn't softened it much, in spite of depicting to some degree the domestic side of the lives of supporting characters "Deacon" (the married guy), Alonso (the girl guy), Luca (the third-generation SWAT guy), Tan (the Asian guy) and their commanding officer, Capt. Jessica Cortez (all girl, this one). Against a background of family drama, personal tragedy, office politics and whatnot, they basically go out and kick ass without bothering to take names, because hey, they're not detectives. And yet sometimes, they also solve crimes. They're funny that way. But they also bust some heads, and when bombs go off, you sometimes see body parts flying in various directions (an image you definitely won't forget).

Three things that made it for me: (1) The episode in which Deacon's wife has a stroke while visiting SWAT headquarters, and it's actually the antagonistic boss (the guy above Cortez in the chain of command) who saves her life – one of the series' rare "shades of gray" moments. (2) The one where Hondo and Deacon rush out to the backwoods to protect Deac's former partner from a killer bike gang, only to find out he's gone over to their side and now he has to kill them. (3) The one where the team has to protect a Russian journalist from an assassination plot while she's meeting with a confidential source in L.A.

There are also some things that un-made it for me. I totally didn't care for the whole story arc in which Street runs around and lies to his team while taking care of his manipulative mother, both before and after she gets paroled from her prison sentence for murdering Street's father. Also, there's a city councilman played by Peter Facinelli, who also played a recurring character on Supergirl; in both roles, I felt his potential to be a truly obnoxious villain was not properly developed. I guess we'll see what happens in Season 2.

The Good Doctor (Season 1) is a remake of a Korean TV series about a high-functioning autistic who becomes a surgical resident. In the present series, he joins a team of residents at San Jose St. Bonaventure Hospital, supervised by a wunderkind of a more mainstream kind who doesn't believe the kid has any business operating on people, but who is slowly won over by Dr. Shaun Murphy's surgical brilliance. Less easily convinced is the Chief of Surgery, played by Hill Harper of CSI: NY, while the hospital's president, played by Richard Schiff of The West Wing, has staked his career on Shaun's success, having known him since he was 14 years old. However, Dr. Glassman also believes Shaun needs more help coping with tasks of daily living, which creates conflict between them – including one shocking scene in which Shaun strikes Glassman in the face during a hysterical fit. The series does an interesting job of balancing medical mysteries and stories about medical ethics with an attempt to portray the challenging ways in which Shaun's perceptions differ from everybody else's around him. There's an episode in which he has to treat an autistic patient, and finds it uncomfortable. There's one in which the patient is the spitting image of Shaun's brother, who died shortly after they ran away from home, around the time Glassman met him. There's an episode in which he plays hooky, trying to work his way up to asking the girl in the apartment next door on a date, though his love is destined to prove one-sided. There's one, maybe more than one, in which Shaun's behavior upsets the families of his patients, but they later learn to be grateful for his talents. And then, there are also side-adventures for his fellow residents, the studly Dr. Jared Kalu and the nice girl Dr. Claire Brown.

It's all very interesting, but the real reason I have watched this season all the way through, not once but twice, boils down to three things that made it for me: (1) The heartbreaking scene at the end of the episode featuring the late Steve Murphy's doomed doppelganger, in which Shaun asks the dying boy to listen to him read aloud the end of the book he had not quite finished reading with the real Steve when his brother died. At the end you know what the bemused kid in the hospital bed cannot possibly understand – that simply by lying there and listening, he helped Shaun let go of Steve. (2) The "flirting trifecta" plot line, in which Shaun attempts to understand other peoples' mating rituals. (3) The very last exchange of dialogue in the season, in which Shawn and Glassman are about to face the music for a mistake Shaun made. I don't want to blow it for you, but the emotional power of that scene was stupendous, all as a result of good preparation and top-quality writing.

The Orville, Season 1: I concur with a video that I recently watched on YouTube, which comments that the best Star Trek movie that isn't actually Star Trek is Galaxy Quest. In a similar vein, the best Star Trek series that isn't actually Star Trek is The Orville – which started the same year as Star Trek: Discovery and, one could argue, is the more faithful TV Trek reboot of the two. Created by and starring Seth MacFarlane, it's an awkward comedy that bases a lot of its humor on the general idea of ripping the average young adult of today off of the couch in his mother's downstairs game room and plopping him onto the bridge of a 25th-century starship. Multiply that by pretty much everybody on the ship, and squirm-inducing hilarity ensues. But also, some genuinely interesting science fiction happens, such as the one in which – well, let's not steal our own thunder. Joining MacFarlane's character, Capt. Ed Mercer, on the ship are First Officer Kelly Grayson, who happens to be his ex-wife; the ship's doctor, played by Penny Johnson Jerald who became the captain's wife at the end of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and who has two sons on board, neither of whom shows any signs of being likely to grow up into Wesley Crusher; a helmsman who only has the job because he's Mercer's best friend, a complete slob; a second officer who comes from a male-only race, cue all kinds of uncomfortable jokes; a girlish-looking security chief who comes from a heavy-gravity planet, with the result that she gets all the jobs for which the standard command phrase is "Open this jar of pickles for me"; a navigator, later chief engineer, who long concealed his genius-level intellect in order to get along socially; an android from a race of artificial life-forms who all consider themselves superior to organics; and a gelatinous blob who works in engineering (voiced by comedian Norm Macdonald).

It's worth noting that about half of the episodes this season were actually written by MacFarlane. Other writers included Star Trek alumni Brannon Braga and Andre Bormanis, and directors included Braga, sometime Trek director James L. Conway and Trek cast members Jonathan Frakes and Robert Duncan McNeill. The pilot episode was directed by feature film actor/director Jon Favreau (Rudy, Zathura, Iron Man, Cowboys & Aliens).

Three things that made it for me: Besides the comedy and the sense that this series depicts people as they actually are, not as Gene Roddenberry would like to dream of them becoming, and the many casting stunts, including guest appearances by Victor Garber, Jeffrey Tambor, Rob Lowe, Liam Neeson, Charlize Theron, and other familiar faces, I liked: (1) The episode in which LaMarr (the navigator) gets tried in the court of public opinion for making lewd gestures toward a revered monument. His bad luck: The planet where this happens, truth is determined by a real-time democratic process of "up" and "down" votes in a round-the-clock social media dog and pony show. (2) The episode in which the crew risks being squished to death by traveling through a tunnel in two-dimensional space. (3) The one in which Kelly inadvertently sparks a new religion on a world that periodically phases into another dimension, advancing 700 years in 11 days before reappearing for only a few hours. The crew gets to see the impact of one small mistake develop over long periods of time – and the solution to the problem is really nifty.

I've given most of these shows a fair chance. Some of them, I have watched through twice. Most of them, I would gladly see another season. I must add that, in general, watching TV shows on DVD is a wonderful alternative to the old-school method of waiting until next week (and sometimes longer) to find out what happens next, and being forced to sit through commercials as opposed to being able to take a break any time you want.

DVD Reviews: More Cheapo Bin Choices

Arrival - It's amazing what you can dig out of the cheapo DVD bin at Walmart. For example, I was very moved and impressed by this film, which I had previously only seen in small fragments while watching my folks channel-surf on their cable TV. It had a lovely cast, headlined by Amy Adams, Forest Whitaker and Jeremy "The Hurt Locker" Renner. (I know I'm showing my disconnectedness from pop culture by not leading with his Marvel Films character, whose name I can't think of at the moment. But "The Hurt Locker" was a great movie.) Also, it had a mind-bending plot, freighted with powerful emotions, rewarding multiple viewings. It's the kind of movie that makes you re-interpret what you've already seen as it goes along. To make a long movie adapted from a short story really, really short, it's about a linguist who discovers how to communicate with an alien race by embracing their non-linear perception of time. On a deeper level, it's basically about accepting an offer of love even with the knowledge that it will end in grief.

Three scenes that made it for me (at least, as far as memory serves): (1) Saboteurs have planted a bomb right where Amy Adams is interviewing aliens "Abbott" and "Costello." They keep trying, unsuccessfully, to warn her about it - then they take thrilling (and self-sacrificing) steps to save her. (2) The sequence in which Adams sends herself a message from the future (sorry, I don't want to spoil it by being more specific). (3) The gag about what the Sanskrit word for "war" literally means.

Fury - The main conceit of this World War II picture is revealed in an opening title that says, more or less, that because Germans had better tanks, American tank crews dropped like flies during the Allied invasion of Germany. The whole film illustrates that thesis in all its brutal, heartbreaking and morally challenging tragedy. The hero tank crew includes a leathery Brad Pitt, a zealously religious (but still irritating) Shia LaBeouf, a wide-eyed and innocent Logan Lerman (late of the "Percy Jackson and the Olympians" movies), and two or three more who are well cast and memorable. It's a movie that, for example, makes good use of Jason "Lucius Malfoy" Isaacs. There is a lot of blowing up of things and people in this movie. It really does put the viewer through a wringer, along with the cast of characters.

Three scenes that made it for me: (1) The sequence in which Lerman falls in love with a young German girl, and it takes all of Pitt's strength of command to keep the other tank guys from raping her during a very tense meal scene. (2) The battle in which one German tank and four or so American ones are pretty much evenly matched - edge of your seat, gripping and horrific stuff. (3) The final battle against a relentless and numerically superior enemy, with the hero tank crew knowing that retreat is not an option and survival pretty much isn't either.

Interstellar - Here is another sci-fi epic that I only saw in tiny snippets until I found it in the bargain bin. What a bargain it was, with Matthew McConaughey performing the almost unprecedented acting feat of not making me want to smack him in the face, supported by Jessica Chastain ("Zero Dark Thirty," "The Help," "Jurassic World"), Michael Caine, Timothée Chalamet, Casey Affleck, Anne Hathaway, Ellen Burstyn, John Lithgow, Topher Grace, David Oyelowo, Wes Bentley, William Devane, Josh Stewart (JJ's husband on "Criminal Minds"), Elyes Gabel (TV's "Scorpion") and Bill Irwin (Lou Lou Who in 2000's "How the Grinch Stole Christmas"), not to mention a secret surprise casting stunt that I don't want to spoil. If you already know about it, shut up.

The plot is dense and ranges over a long period of time, thanks in part to Einsteinian time dilation effects and whatnot. The survival of the human race depends, so the story goes, on finding a way to transport a significant part of the population to another planet that can support life. Failing figuring out how to do that, there is a Plan B - but you really don't want it to get to that. For McConaughey, a hotshot pilot in a near future when school books are being rewritten to paper over the era of space exploration, the opportunity to play a role in that chance of saving mankind becomes devastatingly personal. Whether he pulls it off, and how, is a thing of amazement.

Three scenes that made it for me: (1) McConaughey does four-dimensional space, tying everything in the movie together. (2) The entire segment surrounding that casting surprise I told you about, full of awe-inspiring tragedy, madness and violence. (3) Dad reunites with daughter at the end of an epic journey - and that's using the word "epic" in as proper a sense as anyone has ever applied it to a science fiction movie.

The Foreigner - Jackie Chan does some serious damage to some Irish terrorists in this movie, which is only to be expected. But how he does it, and the amount of legitimate acting he successfully pulls off, is unprecedented as far as I can recall. Mind you, I haven't seen every movie he ever made. But putting him opposite Pierce Brosnan is a really interesting choice, and the dark paths this film leads both of them down are gripping in a very different way from the typical Jackie Chan action comedy. It starts when a restaurant owner's daughter, the last surviving member of his family following their disastrous escape from China, is blown up by a bomb in the streets of London. Finding that the government ministers responsible for catching his daughter's killers aren't getting the job done, he goes rogue and gets it done himself, with both bad guys and good guys gunning for him. What he pulls off is really amazing. It's the odd movie in which you're not entirely sure whom to root for, because both of the main characters, who are not entirely on the same side, are both sympathetic and scary.

Three scenes that made it for me: (1) Brosnan sends his thug nephew into the woods to collect Chan dead or alive, and Chan not only turns the tables but actually brings said young thug onto his side. (2) The time Brosnan's goons track Chan to his flat and how he escapes. (3) The bombers' comeuppance, an exploit of fiendish cleverness, superbly choreographed and satisfying on a very simple, moral level.

Two More Movie Reviews

Instant Family - I had high hopes for this movie about a couple (Mark Wahlberg and Rose Byrne) suddenly becoming the foster-parents of three complicated kids. And it was all right, at times. But not as good, and certainly not all of the time, as I had hoped. In spite of a terrific supporting cast, including Octavia Spencer, Julie Hagerty, Margo Martindale and Joan Cusack, it came across as something between an after-school special and a well-meaning marketing stunt for fostering children. Mainly, it was the occasional burst of adult language or off-color humor that set it on the next level up. One nice thing I can say about having Mark Wahlberg in the lead is that his acting style, which regularly makes me squirm, was a good match for a series of comedy gags that were apparently intended to make one squirm. Ultimately, though, the couple's unfitness to be responsible for these kids is made so heartbreakingly apparent that the happy resolution of their case isn't quite convincing.

Looking back from way too long after watching this movie to do it justice, the three things that made it for me were: (1) The hero couple's hilariously awful attempt to protect their foster daughter from a sleazoid at their school. (2) The sad but funny awkwardness of Joan Cusack's role as the nosy lady across the street. (3) The patter between the mismatched co-facilitators of their foster parenting group, played by Octavia Spencer and Tig Notaro.

The Crimes of Grindelwald - Opinion was divided in the group I saw this movie with. One guy thought it was a terrible follow-up to Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Another thought it was OK but could have been better. I was pretty happy with it, though it is definitely darker and leaves a lot more unresolved at the end than the previous super-sized confection from the writer and filmmakers of the "Harry Potter" franchise. The plot has jumped ahead somewhat since the last movie; for example, the supposedly dead (but vaguely hinted to be still alive) Credence Barebone, played by Ezra Miller, has obviously survived, grown up and gotten a girlfriend who, somehow or other, is destined to turn into Lord Voldemort's pet snake. Some people have flipped from the good side to evil, including the previously nice Mr. Abernathy - that young bureaucrat at MACUSA who got flustered when Queenie Goldstein adjusted his tie, back in Movie 1 - who right at the start of this movie is revealed to have gone quite dark and plays a role in Grindelwald's (Johnny Depp) jailbreak. Queenie herself - well, that's part of why the ending of this movie leaves you wondering, "That can't really have happened, can it?" Meantime, multiple mysteries and spooky plots are unfolding all at once, leading to a tour of the wizarding world within Paris, an introduction to a much younger Dumbledore (played by Jude Law), a dashing brother for Newt Scamander, and an actual appearance by the very ancient Nicolas Flamel. It features a dark magical street circus, a sort of evil cult rally, a woman whose transformation into a beast is growing increasingly uncontrollable, a young man's search for his real mother, and a guy who is paying the ultimate price for making an unbreakable vow to avenge his mother's death. Layers within layers, many of them taking a tragic turn, including the romances between Newt and Tina Goldstein and between Queenie and Jacob the muggle.

Three scenes that made it for me: (1) The escapade in the French Ministry of Magic archives, during which the heroes are stalked by catlike security spells. (2) A bit of magical CSI on the scene of a previous night's fracas in the magical quarter of Paris. (3) What it takes for Newt to finally "take sides" in the conflict between Grindelwald's fanatics and the good guys.

I've picked up a negative vibe about this movie from a lot of people. I feel like I'm in the minority for liking it and hoping that the series continues. I've had that feeling before; for example, I enjoyed Valerian while someone I saw it with came out of the theater livid with rage. I take comfort in the fact that my warm reception of then-panned The Fifth Element turned out to be, so to speak, prophetic of the cult following that movie developed. None of these examples are perfect movies or even particularly great movies, but in the case of The Crimes of Grindelwald, a bit of middle-movie-itis might provide just the seasoning a movie series needs to make its concluding installment go off with a bang.

Two Can Play

Two Can Play
by Kate Kessler
Recommended Ages: 14+

In the second Audrey Harte novel, the child psychologist introduced in It Takes One has taken time off from her consulting job on the TV show "Kids Who Kill" to help the prosecution of a teenage serial killer close to her hometown in Maine. Specifically, Audrey is supposed to find out whether the victim who survived when Ian Monroe was caught red-handed will be able to testify against him. The complications thicken fast when a serial killer with an identical M.O. starts dropping victims, suggesting at the very least that Monroe has an accomplice. Pretty soon the new killer starts paying personal attention to Audrey and the people close to her, including steamy bar owner Jake and his niece. Meantime, Jake has a murderous secret of his own. Meantime meantime, the teenage perpetrator in the last murder Audrey solved needs some personal attention, meaning our heroine has to go back to the juvenile facility where she paid for the murder she herself committed as a teen.

Heavy stuff, right? Well, that's what you get for reading a book about serial killers. Luckily, Audrey Harte is a tough broad. Also, the chemistry between her and Jake is hard to resist. But I haven't even touched on some of the twisted stuff that happens in this book, such as a corpse turning up in Audrey's own hotel room, a serial killer groupie doing her main squeeze's evil bidding, a victim becoming a monster and a person Audrey cares about becoming a potential victim. The really off-the-hook part is that in spite of everything, Audrey's mission will always be to heal, to whatever extent is possible, the twisted and broken young person who is behind all these unspeakable crimes - or at least, to teach them how to cope with the life of extreme boredom in store for them after they get caught. Readers of the "get that creep" persuasion may be surprised to find themselves rooting for her to do just that. Maybe it's because "kids who kill" are not far from being victims themselves. Or maybe it's just solid writing.

Kate Kessler, a.k.a. Kate Locke, Kate Cross, Kady Cross, Kathryn Smith and Kate McLaughlin, is the author of such diverse titles as A Game of Scandal, When Seducing a Duke, When Marrying a Scoundrel, When Tempting a Rogue, Brotherhood of the Blood, Night of the Huntress, Taken by the Night, Let the Night Begin, Before I Wake, Dark Side of Dawn, The Girl in the Steel Corset, The Girl with the Windup Heart, Heart of Brass, and of course, the "Immortal Empire" trilogy of God Save the Queen, The Queen is Dead and Long Live the Queen. The next book in the "Audrey Harte" series, meanwhile, is Three Strikes.

It Takes One

It Takes One
by Kate Kessler
Recommended Ages: 14+

This book introduces Audrey Harte, an offbeat protagonist for an ongoing series of mysteries. Audrey is a psychologist who specializes in the study of children who commit violent crimes, consulting with the star of a West Coast-based TV series about "Kids Who Kill." How very appropriate, then, that during her first visit in years to her Maine hometown, Audrey becomes tangled in a crime involving her accomplice in the murder that got her (Audrey) sentenced to a facility for troubled teen girls. It's an awkward situation all around. The cop in charge of the investigation, who was a high school classmate of both Audrey and the victim, thinks Audrey may be a suspect - and her dad, the retired sheriff, is even more convinced of it. Jake, the boy who came between Audrey and Maggie after Audrey's release, still has the same dangerous smolder he had when his betrayal launched Audrey on a course bound far from home - plus, he is now the most powerful man in town. Audrey's drunk of a father is still, unfortunately, the same as ever, but an ominous change has come over her mom. And there are other people in town who carry various amount of baggage related to Audrey, and who are affected in various ways by her sudden return - including more than one person whose rage could cross the line into violence.

Murder, assault, domestic abuse, sexual abuse, and various other dark and guilty secrets rise to the surface during Audrey's visit home. Everybody in town has something to say about it and knows everybody else's business. Nevertheless, no one seems to know who is behind the death of Audrey's one-time best friend, who may have been messed up even worse than anyone suspected. It turns out that an expert on "Kids Who Kill" who once was one will be the perfect person to get the killer, if the killer doesn't get her first.

This is a sexy, disturbing, dark and violent thriller of the "you can never go home" persuasion, yet in the end, its heroine realizes that she really has come home. Audrey is not always a very sympathetic character, and a smart reader will soon realize that many of her problems are of her own making; yet her danger, and the danger to those she loves, grips the heart. Surrounding her is a cast of complex, lifelike characters, some of whom you will like and dislike at the same time, trust and distrust. And by the end, the possibilities of a series of novels featuring a child psychologist sleuth will hit you like a blue bolt of "Holy Alex Delaware!" OK, so maybe it's not that original. But still, it's a high-yield little piece of entertainment that I found most useful for clearing my mental cache, and I think I'll be reading more in the series. Other titles, up to last year, included Two Can Play, Three Strikes, Four of a Kind and Zero Hour.

Kessler's other novels are Dead Ringer and Seven Crows. Her real name is Kate Locke, and under it and several other pen-names (Kate Cross, Kady Cross, Kathryn Smith and Kate McLaughlin) she has written quite a few other novels in a variety of genres ranging from mystery-romance to steampunk, including the "Immortal Empire" novels that I enjoyed a few years ago.

The Witch Boy

The Witch Boy
by Molly Knox Ostertag
Recommended Ages: 12+

I had a fit of Amazon book ordering one day, and I bought this Scholastic title and another that looked vaguely like it. When the books arrived, I was dismayed to find out two things about them: first, that they are graphic novels, which is not my preferred format for reading material; and also, that I had somehow found my way into the LGBTQ+ Edification and Reeducation section of the Scholastic catalog. Since at least part of the target audience of my long-running series of book reviews is Christian families who read together, I'm mentioning that up front so they can decide how much farther to read. This book is definitely a candidate for an Occult Content Advisory, thanks to the Pagan/New Age/Wiccan outlook on magic that it espouses.

OK, now that we've settled that, to the book. Aster is part of an extended family that lives separate from society as we know it, practicing forms of magic passed down through generations of their family. Traditionally, the boys and men are all shape-changers, each male hewing toward the form of his personal spirit-animal, while the females are witches who deal in charms and potions. In defiance of his family's values, Aster feels drawn toward the feminine side of magic, as well as to a non-magical girl named Charlie who encourages him to practice the witchcraft forbidden him by his family. Meantime, an evil force is at loose in the woods, causing the disappearances of Aster's cis-male cousins (and by the way, part of me died just now). It's apparent that at the root of this bad magic is someone who didn't distinguish properly between the male and female principles of his family's gifts.

I'm sure it's all very encouraging for people who desire affirmation of their chosen gender, but I personally found it preachy and unappealing. I had a hard-time sympathizing with the whiny brat factor of the hero kids, perhaps because of the age range the author targeted. At the end of the book, the author throws in some panels from earlier drafts of the work which, in my opinion, would have gone over better - such as an older, more mature Asher. I also found many of the scene transitions awkward and in some cases confusing, and the thought inevitably crossed my mind that it might have been a more successful story written out in prose. But it is what it is, and unfortunately, I'm not made to find this book very entertaining. For those who are thus made, Ostertag has created some follow-up titles of a similar nature, with such titles as The Hidden Witch and The Midwinter Witch.

The Power of Un

The Power of Un
by Nancy Etchemendy
Recommended Ages: 10+

Gib is just like any ordinary middle-school kid with a cute little sister and a knack for saying the wrong thing to the girl he likes at school. Then one day a strangely dressed old man materializes in the park where Gib likes to take a shortcut, and gives him an apparently home-made device that he calls an Unner. As Gib learns, the Unner has the power to dial back time, giving him a chance to re-do things he got wrong. He'll sure need it, though, when the carnival comes to town and tragedy threatens either the sister he loves or the girl he likes.

At the outset, this book seems to be on track to become a goofy fantasy adventure. It quickly develops into much more, packing serious emotional power. In it, a kid is given the power to undo a situation that, in the real world, could not be undone; yet he must go on living with the memory of that grief. Ultimately, he pays a steep price to protect the people he cares about. It's high-yield emotional dynamite in a compact package.

This book, published in 2000, is Etchemendy's latest publication other than a book of short stories called Cat in Glass. She also wrote three fantasy books for younger readers in the 1980s, titled The Watchers of Space, Stranger from the Stars and The Crystal City.

The King's Blood

The King's Blood
by Daniel Abraham
Recommended Ages: 14+

The fantasy world introduced in The Dragon's Path continues to grow in depth and danger in this second book of "The Dagger and the Coin." Multiple story lines, depicted from alternating characters' points of view, include a young girl's struggle to be accepted as a woman of business, a military veteran's search for a cause to give his life meaning after he has lost everything he ever cared about, a noble couple's devastating sacrifices for the good of their country, a runaway priest's growing conviction that the god he used to serve is about to destroy the world, and an insecure weakling's so-awful-it-could-be-true rise to power in a world teetering on the brink of an all-consuming war.

I listened to the audiobook (read by Pete Bradbury) of both of the first two books in this quintet, one right after the other. This had two effects detrimental to my ability to write an accurate review. First, I can't clearly recall where one ended and the other began. Second, I have no idea how to spell any of the character or place names in this series. More research is definitely indicated, but for me, it will probably continue to be an affair of the ears, as these socio-political-economic-military novels are so rich in challenging ideas, and so loaded with thrills and chills, that they seem like the perfect thing to take on a long road trip. Also, my area's public library system seems to be carrying the series, so that's convenient.

Looking back after leaving this review in "pending" mode for a while, one thing that still sticks out is the character of Geder (OK, I looked that up). Just when you're starting to sympathize with him, he does something that tops all previous atrocities and fills you with bloodcurdling horror. Then, when you're sure that he's the chief monster in the tale, you find yourself starting to feel sorry for him again. Particularly under the influence of the company he keeps in this book, he has the potential to be worse than Hitler in proportion to the size of his world, and yet his vulnerability, inner conflict and occasional flashes of nobility are off-putting. The ambiguity of his portrayal is almost as disturbing as the magnitude of evil that he represents - and that at least one character recognizes, to his great cost.

Daniel Abraham has also released the five-book "Black Sun's Daughter" series under the pen-name M.L.N. Hanover, starting with the book Unclean Spirits; penned eight or so "Expanse" books (starting with Leviathan Wakes), co-written with Ty Franck under the shared pseudonym James S.A. Corey; co-created the related TV-series The Expanse, which is currently going into its fourth season; and wrote several other books under his own name, including the "Long Price" quartet. He has been nominated for the Hugo and World Fantasy Awards for his novelette "The Cambist and Lord Iron: a Fairytale of Economics," a Nebula for the novelette "Flat Diane" (which won an International Horror Guild Award), and another Hugo for Leviathan Wakes. He also seems to run in George R.R. Martin's crowd. This information leaves me ambivalent as to how deeply I want to commit to exploring Abraham's worlds; I don't, after all, get the appeal of Game of Thrones. But based on these intriguing books, I might give The Expanse a chance.

Thursday, November 22, 2018

Book Wish List (Abridged)

Someone recently asked me for a Christmas gift wish list. In response, I buried them under the following list of books - which is only an abridged list of titles I would be interested in reading. I limited myself to one book by each of the following authors or combinations of authors - mainly installments that I missed in series in which I have already read at least one book. Given more time, I could come up with a much bigger list. But the real question is whether I would ever have time to read them all!
  • William Alexander, "Ghoulish Song"
  • John David Anderson, "Insert Coin to Continue"
  • Jonathan Auxier, "Sweep"
  • Jennifer Lynn Barnes, "The Naturals"
  • Dale E. Basye, "Fibble: The Fourth Circle of Heck"
  • Ted Bell, "The Time Pirate"
  • John Bellairs, "The Curse of the Blue Figurine"
  • Jon Berkeley, "The Lightning Key"
  • Jeanne Birdsall, "The Penderwicks at Last"
  • Holly Black & Cassandra Clare, "The Bronze Key"
  • Sage Blackwood, "Jinx's Magic"
  • P.W. Catanese, "The End of Time"
  • Cinda Williams Chima, "The Sorcerer Heir"
  • Chris Colfer, "An Author's Odyssey"
  • Eoin Colfer, "The Time Paradox"
  • Chris Columbus & Ned Vizzini, "Battle of the Beasts"
  • Marianne Curley, "The Key"
  • Gitty Daneshvari, "Get Smart-ish"
  • James Dashner, "The Hunt for Dark Infinity"
  • Gene Doucette, "The Frequency of Aliens"
  • Diane Duane, "The Games Wizards Play"
  • David Eddings, "Guardians of the West"
  • Selden Edwards, "The Lost Prince"
  • Jasper Fforde, "The Song of the Quarkbeast"
  • Charlie Fletcher, "The Oversight"
  • Victoria Forester, "The Boy Who Knew Everything"
  • Neil Gaiman & Michael Reaves & Mallory Reaves, "Eternity's Wheel"
  • Robert Galbraith, "Lethal White"
  • Meg Gardiner, "Into the Black Nowhere"
  • Adam Gidwitz, "In a Glass Grimmly"
  • Adam Gopnik, "The Steps Across the Water"
  • Chris Grabenstein, "Mr. Lemoncello's Library Olympics"
  • Holly Grant, "The Dastardly Deed"
  • Clay Griffith & Susan Griffith, "The Rift Walker"
  • Lev Grossman, "The Magician's Land"
  • Michael Gruber, "The Book of Air and Shadows"
  • Shannon Hale, "Forest Born"
  • Michelle Harrison, "13 Secrets"
  • Joseph Helgerson, "Crows & Cards"
  • Michael Hiebert, "A Thorn Among the Lilies"
  • Tami Hoag, "Down the Darkest Road"
  • Charlie N. Holmberg, "The Glass Magician"
  • Tom Holt, "The Portable Door"
  • Anthony Horowitz, "Crocodile Tears"
  • Polly Horvath, "One Year in Coal Harbor"
  • Tonya Hurley, "Homecoming"
  • Catherine Jinks, "How to Catch a Bogle," also titled "A Very Unusual Pursuit"
  • Jane Johnson, "Dragon's Fire"
  • Jonathan Kellerman & Jesse Kellerman, "A Measure of Darkness"
  • P.B. Kerr, "One Small Step"
  • Kaza Kingsley, "The Search for Truth"
  • S.J. Kincaid, "The Empress"
  • Wesley King, "Enemy of the Realm"
  • Matthew J. Kirby, "Icefall"
  • J.A. Konrath, "Whiskey Sour"
  • Dean Koontz, "Saint Odd"
  • Daniel Kraus, "At the Edge of Empire" (Book 1 of "The Death and Life of Zebulon Finch")
  • Adrienne Kress, "Timothy and the Dragon's Gate"
  • Caleb Krisp, "Somebody Stop Ivy Pocket"
  • Rob Kroese, "Mercury Rises"
  • R.L. LaFevers, "Theodosia and the Eyes of Horus"
  • A.J. Lake, "The Circle of Stone"
  • Katherine Langrish, "Troll Blood"
  • M.A. Larson, "The Warrior Princess of Pennyroyal Academy"
  • Ingrid Law, "Switch"
  • Ursula K. Le Guin, "The Dispossessed"
  • Jason Lethcoe, "Wishful Thinking"
  • Josh Lieb, "Ratscalibur"
  • Robert Liparulo, "Watcher in the Woods"
  • Sam Llewellyn, "Desperado Darlings"
  • David Lubar, "My Rotten Life"
  • Jonathan Maberry, "Dust & Decay"
  • Marianne Malone, "Stealing Magic"
  • Ari Marmell, "Hallow Point"
  • Amanda Marrone, "The Shape Shifter's Curse"
  • Katherine Marsh, "The Twilight Prisoner"
  • Kelly McCullough, "Magic, Madness and Mischief"
  • Adrian McKinty, "The Lighthouse Keepers"
  • Scott Mebus, "The Sorcerer's Secret"
  • Colin Meloy, "Under Wildwood"
  • Maile Meloy, "The Apprentices"
  • Christopher Moore, "Practical Demonkeeping"
  • Brandon Mull, "Arcade Catastrophe"
  • Matt Myklusch, "The End of Infinity"
  • Henry H. Neff, "The Fiend and the Forge"
  • Anne Nesbet, "The Cabinet of Earths"
  • James Nicol, "A Witch Alone"
  • Garth Nix & Sean Williams, "The Missing" (also titled "Missing, Presumed Evil")
  • Naomi Novik, "Temeraire" (also titled "His Majesty's Dragon")
  • Kenneth Oppel, "Darkwing"
  • Gigi Pandian, "The Accidental Alchemist"
  • Edith Pattou, "West"
  • Dale Peck, "The Lost Cities"
  • Terry Pratchett & Stephen Baxter, "The Long War"
  • T.R. Ragan, "Abducted"
  • Michael Reisman, "The Octopus Effect"
  • Mike Resnick, "The Buntline Special"
  • Adam Rex, "Smek for President"
  • Kat Richardson, "Possession"
  • Ransom Riggs, "Library of Souls"
  • James Riley, "The Stolen Chapters"
  • Rick Riordan, "The Son of Neptune"
  • Laura Ruby, "The Chaos King"
  • E. Rose Sabin, "When the Beast Ravens"
  • Angie Sage, "Darke"
  • Brandon Sanderson, "The Dark Talent"
  • John Sandford, "Rules of Prey"
  • Kevin Sands, "Mark of the Plague"
  • J. Scott Savage, "Fires of Invention"
  • Liesel Schwarz, "A Clockwork Heart"
  • Michael Scott, "The Magician"
  • Darren Shan, "Allies of the Night"
  • Delia Sherman, "The Magic Mirror of the Mermaid Queen"
  • Mike Shevdon, "Strangeness and Charm"
  • Polly Shulman, "The Poe Estate"
  • Neal Shüsterman, "Ship out of Luck"
  • Matthew Skelton, "The Story of Cirrus Flux"
  • Obert Skye, "Ambush"
  • Katie Slivensky, "The Seismic Seven"
  • Roland Smith, "Chupacabra"
  • Alan Snow, "Worse Things Happen at Sea!"
  • Justin Somper, "Tide of Terror"
  • John Stephens, "The Fire Chronicle"
  • Caroline Stevermer, "Magic Below Stairs"
  • Caroline Stevermer & Patricia Wrede, "Sorcery and Cecelia"
  • Paul Stewart & Chris Riddell, "The Curse of the Gloamglozer"
  • Trenton Lee Stewart, "The Prisoner's Dilemma"
  • Jeff Strand, "Grave Robbers Wanted (No Experience Necessary)"
  • Shanna Swendson, "Damsel Under Stress"
  • G.P. Taylor, "The Ghost Diamonds"
  • Kim Thompson, "Eldritch Manor"
  • Guillermo del Toro & Daniel Kraus, "The Shape of Water"
  • Megan Whalen Turner, "Thick as Thieves"
  • Anne Ursu, "The Real Boy"
  • John Vornholt, "The Troll Queen"
  • Scott Westerfeld, "Goliath"
  • Ysabeau Wilce, "Flora's Fury"
  • Maiya Williams, "The Fizzy Whiz Kid"
  • F. Paul Wilson, "Gateways"
  • N.D. Wilson, "The Last of the Lost Boys"
  • P.G. Wodehouse, "The Inimitable Jeeves"
  • Patricia Wrede, "Mairelon the Magician"
  • Rick Yancey, "The Isle of Blood"
  • Jane Yolen & Adam Semple, "Pay the Piper"
EDIT: Here are the books from this list that my mom and her husband bought me for Christmas. I'm not sure how The Story Thieves got into this pile.

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

The Dragon's Path

The Dragon's Path
by Daniel Abraham
Recommended Ages: 14+

Disclaimer: I don't know how any of the proper names in this book are spelled. This is Book 1 of a series titled "The Dagger and the Coin." My review is based on an audiobook read by Pete Bradbury. It beguiled a number of road trips of middling length with a fantasy world, depicted in great detail across a broad canvas, in which humans were ruled for ages by dragons. But hundreds of years ago, the dragons fought each other to extinction, leaving a continent laced with artifacts of indestructible dragon jade and divided into countries that, in these latter days, seem to be headed onto the dragon's path. That is to say, a war is brewing that could threaten civilization itself. The question implied by the title of the series is whether the fate of nations will be influenced more by armed combat or by economics.

Author Abraham sets the game board with fascinating, complex characters who represent these forces in the highest degree. There's a nobleman whose commitment to his kingdom's traditional values is so absolute, his sense of rightness so intolerantly pure, that it impairs his performance in political gamesmanship. There's an upstart at court whose weak character and scholarly tendencies make him strangely sympathetic, even though he looks likely to become one of the great monsters of his world's history. There's a girl who was raised as the ward of the bank, who takes desperate steps to protect the local branch's assets when an invading army threatens the existence of everything she has known. There's a mercenary who, in his previous career as a soldier, slew the king he had helped put on a throne, due to a devastating betrayal from which he may never recover. There's the leader of a troupe of actors who carries a deadly secret in his blood - a power that has lain hidden from the world for long ages, but is now ready to show itself. There are creatures of several different roughly humanoid races, co-existing more or less harmoniously while people of the First Blood (humans) battle it out in a game of sieges, acts of genocide, insurrections, assassinations, betrayals, forgeries and frauds.

This book does a lot of world building and character developing, which, on the one hand, results in a pace that feels a bit slow, but on the other hand, fills the headspace with fabulous imagery. Besides, there are many passages of terrific suspense and thrilling action, to say nothing of mind-numbing shocks and horrors. My interest was so engaged that, immediately on finishing this book, I moved on to the sequel, The King's Blood. Further books in the series are The Tyrant's Law, The Widow's House and The Spider's War. Abraham is also the author of the "Long Price" quartet, starting with A Shadow in Summer; The Incident of the Harrowmoor Dogs; and some minor works in collaboration with George R.R. Martin. He also writes under the pen-name M.L.N. Hanover and, with co-author Ty Franck, as James S.A. Corey.

Friday, October 19, 2018

DVD Reviews: Cheapo Bin & Double Features

Goosebumps - I picked up a cheapo-bin DVD of this movie at Walmart sometime before I saw the sequel in the theater, and I have watched it several times. It's a hilarious, teen-romancey, spooky movie that approaches the task of adapting R.L. Stine's eponymous series of kiddie horror stories by proposing that the author's monstrous creations can escape from his original bound, typewritten manuscripts and come to life in the real world. In order to trap them, he has to write stories about them using a particular typewriter, ending with the hero(es) putting a stop to their ghoulish rampage. But now, thanks to a nosy neighbor boy who just moved in next door in the sleepy town of Madison, Delaware, the locks have been busted off the manuscripts and the town is being taken over by the Abominable Snowman of Pasadena, Slappy the ventriloquist's puppet (DON'T call him a dummy), a wolf man, a giant preying mantis, space aliens with freeze-ray guns, an undead mummy, a very naughty invisible boy, a gang of ceramic garden gnomes come to life, and many more like them.

Playing Stine with what sounds like an unfortunate attempt to fake a British accent is Jack Black, whose film career is pretty much a series of roles that make one squirm and laugh about equally. His cute teenage daughter, who secretly has a deep connection to the author's vibrant fantasy life, is played by the strikinig looking Odeya Rush, who starred in another adaptation of a significant kids' book, Lois Lowry's The Giver. The boy next door, whom I at first mistook for Logan Lerman (late of Fury and the Percy Jackson films), is actually Dylan Minnette, lately more well-known for his lead role in the series 13 Reasons Why. Like Lerman, he has a combination of all-American-boy appeal and the ability to sell the line "That's completely mental" with a look. However, his best asset in this film, in my opinion, is his odd-couple chemistry with Ryan Lee (previously the pyromaniac kid in Super 8), who plays an endearingly dorky kid named Champ. At least 72 percent of this movie's success derives from their from-total-strangers-to-best-buds-in-less-than-a-week patter and their scared-but-excited reactions to a hundred crazy situations that were mostly added in post production - I mean, this is actually billed as a "Sony Pictures Animation" film.

Three scenes that made it for me: (1) The opening credits. Have I ever said this before? In this case, it's because the credits rolled over footage of a car driving through the countryside that strangely made me think of the ghoulishly funny classic film Beetlejuice - and then I noticed that it was set to music by Danny Elfman, who also wrote music for that movie, which also started with footage of a car driving through the countryside. I doubt the visual and musical similarities were unintended. (2) The cameo appearance of the real R.L. Stine, who passes Jack Black in the high school hallway near the end of the movie, playing the new theater director. Basically, you could say that he swapped roles with the actor playing him; Black sells this idea with the Leslie Nielsen-esque thoughtful look that crosses his face at that moment. (3) Every scene featuring the hero boy's clueless, man-hungry Aunt Lorraine, played with comic genius by Jillian Bell. For these reasons and others that could mention, but won't in the interest of saving space, I would actually watch this movie again. And again. It's silly.

It relies too much, perhaps, on animated effects. But something about the fact that it is unapologetically an "animation" product makes me feel more kindly disposed toward it than, say, the latest DC "live action" film, in which there is so much CGI fantasy action that the actors must have spent most of the production standing in front of green screens. You can enjoy and respect a story in which animated fantasy characters share the screen with live actors, even while sniffing at CGI fakery designed around live-action characters. Maybe I'm not a good enough critic to explain it, but there it is. I would see this movie again and again, and still enjoy it, because I think it draws the line between animated fantasy and live-action reality where it belongs.

Man of Steel - Here, on the other hand, is one of those live-action films that suffers excruciatingly from CGI Out the Wazoo. Oh, its poor wazoo! There are long sequences in this movie that are so devoid of the stamp of reality that my eyes, optic nerves, and brain refuse to put together a coherent mental picture of what is going on. Many of the fight scenes are so over-the-top that they make me go "Tsk" and tap my foot impatiently until the next scene begins. Zack Snyder's style of direction makes me wonder about the guy. Given the opportunity to film a thrilling scene of flight or aerial battle with beautiful, crisp imagery that puts the viewer (as it were) inside the hero's tights, Snyder instead shoots it in a way that suggests a distant spectator struggling to focus a handheld camera on a subject that is moving faster than he can keep up. The whole "caught on video by somebody's smartphone" look seems just a bit out of pace with an effects sequence taking place on an alien planet or in an unpopulated region of Earth.

But blowing visual opportunities seems to be the theme that connects all the elements of Snyder's directorial style. Another example is the way he takes Henry Cavill - whose chiseled appearance is 83.7 percent of what made The Immortals watchable, a living opportunity to photograph a perfect physical specimen if there ever was one - and makes him look awkward, alien and at times even ugly. And this is the guy who is supposed to be Superman! I think there was exactly one sequence in the entire movie in which the camera did justice to Cavill's studliness. It was as if Snyder's lens was afraid to linger. Tsk!

The movie makes good use of some familiar cast members, such as Kevin Costner and Diane Lane as Clark Kent's human parents, Amy Adams as Lois Lane, and Russell Crowe as Jor-El. It also benefits from appearances by Herry Lennix (from the "Matrix" trilogy), Richard Schiff (late of "The West Wing" and "The Good Doctor") and Christopher Meloni (from "Law and Order: Special Victims Unit"). It also makes some lousy use of some, such as super-heavy Michael Shannon, who did not come across as a good actor (though I have previously listed one of his scenes as one of the "Three Scenes that Made 12 Strong for Me"), or Laurence Fishburne, who was wasted on the role of Perry White. The movie might bave been improved if they had swapped roles. It also, if I haven't already made it clear that I feel this way, wasted Henry Cavill on a version of "Superman" who, except right at the climax of the movie, mostly didn't come across as very super at all. Maybe I'm saying this under the influence of a video reviewer who pointed out that this movie's Clark constantly seems to be crying on some woman's shoulder, either Martha Kent's or Lois Lane's. But at some point, I realized that the only spine Clark showed was when, as a boy, he saved the other kids on the school bus, and when, as a man, he volunteered to surrender to General Zod for the good of the human race. Well, there is that bit where he beat up the machine that was turning Earth into Krypton. That was pretty good, too. OK, and that bit on the burning oil platform. All right, so pretty much the whole movie, when he wasn't crying or moping. However, his killing of General Zod at the end seemed more like a display of his frailty than an act of heroism.

Three Scenes that Made It for Me: (1) The flashback to Kevin Costner's death in a tornado, which Clark interpreted later as a sacrifice to protect his secret identity. (2) The line "A good death is its own reward," which a female Kryptonian uses to terrorize Meloni's character, and which Meloni later throws back in her face at a crucial moment. (3) Lois: "Welcome to the Planet." Clark: "Glad to be here."

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children: Here is a dark, magical, scary fantasy story aimed at audiences of ages teen and above, with the trademark weirdness of a Tim Burton movie. Based on the first book in a series by Ransom Riggs, which in turn was based on the author's collection of bizarre vintage photographs, the movie depicts a present-day American boy named Jake (Asa Butterfield, late of Hugo and Ender's Game) who begins to doubt his sanity when he witnesses his beloved grandfather's murder by a giant, eyeball-eating monster that nobody else can see. Then he guilts his self-absorbed father into taking him to the Welsh island where his grandpa stayed as a child, supposedly to help Jake say goodbye, but really to find out whether the spooky stories his grandpa used to tell him might have some grain of truth in them. Instead of an orphanage, however, he finds the ruins of a home that was hit by a German bomb during World War II. Nevertheless, he makes contact with some of the orphans, who are still the same age as when Jake's grandpa left them man years before. Are they ghosts? No. Are they immortal? Not exactly. They're a bunch of "peculiar" children - children with abilities that make them different, like the boy who has bees living in his stomach and the girl who is lighter than air - and they live in a time loop that repeats the same 24 hours over and over, right up to the moment the German shell hit the house. Protecting them is an eccentric woman who can turn into a bird, and who also has the power to control time.

Jake, however, isn't the only visitor to the island who has found his way to these special children. Also searching for them is a creepy man (Samuel L. Jackson) who travels with an invisible, eyeball-eating monster - the same one that got Grandpa. Mr. Barron, as this creep calls himself, is part of a group that means to destroy all the time loops protecting groups of peculiars, devour their eyeballs and absorb the powers of the "ymbrines" that protect them. If that happens, the kids from Miss Peregrine's loop will age rapidly to however many years old they would be in the present day - which would be a bummer for Jake's new friends, and especially the girl he kind of likes. To fight back, they must raise a sunken wreck off the ocean floor, sail it to Blackpool, and battle it out with the bad guys and their pet monsters against the real-world backdrop of the resort town's famous pier and circus. Thanks to their peculiar powers, they'll have on their side the ability to throw fire, bring dead things to life, grow plants at a rapid rate, turn people to stone with a look, and more. But a lot of their chances will finally come down to whether Jake can believe that he belongs with these kids, and finds the courage to fight alongside them.

The sets and locations in this movie are superb. The characters, imagery, and atmosphere are all thrilling, disturbing, and whimsical in unexpected proportions. The folks who cast the movie found some really interesting looking kids to play the peculiar children. Though his acting is a little wooden, Butterfield (who is really British) comes across as convincingly American, while Eva Green (who is French) conveys an equally convincing impression of being a vivacious, if somewhat mannish, Englishwoman with the charisma to keep a large group of kids in order. Other assets include Jackson, who gets some of the funniest lines ("You get a breath mint!"), Terence Stamp as the grandpa, Rupert Everett as the bird watcher whose presence on the island irritates Jake's bird-crazy dad, Judi Dench as the ymbrine who attempts to warn Miss Peregrine of coming trouble, Allison Janney as Jake's shrink, the boy who befriends Sherlock in Mr. Holmes (which I so want to see), and the underappreciated Chris O'Dowd (late of Juliet, Naked), whose achievement in convincingly playing a Polish-Jewish-American shlub (Jake's dad) while actually being Irish is actually some top-shelf comic acting, camouflaged in downmarket uselessness. It isn't a movie that is particularly faithful to the source book, but I think it may be one of the book-to-film adaptations that actually improves on the original. I have enjoyed watching it multiple times, and I think I'll be enjoying it again in the future.

Three Scenes that Made It for Me: (1) Jake answers the phone inside the time loop and finds himself talking to a 19-year-old version of his grandpa, whose call is part of Miss Peregrine's daily routine. Jake first pretends to be a new kid at Miss Peregrine's, then blurts out something like, "I'm sorry if I ever disappointed you, and I just want you to know that you were the best grandpa in the world." Young Abe is gobsmacked. Meanwhile, for 30 seconds, Asa Butterfield shines as an actor. It's a hard scene to watch without getting your cheeks wet. (2) The whole circus/pier boss battle, which was invented for the movie and includes Ray Harryhausen-esque animated skeletons, giant invisible monsters, carnival rides, weaponized cotton candy, a real-life aerialist who was cast as a character and did her own stunts, and some plot-heavy business about going back and forth through a time portal that is scheduled to close forever at dusk, and the classic shape-changer shtick where, at a crucial moment, two different people try to prove which one of them is the real Jake. (3) The skin-crawling scene in which the re-animator boy uses the dead body of one of the children (who was killed by a monster the day before the time loop started) as a ventriloquist's puppet. I can't think of many other filmmakers who share Tim Burton's willingness to infuse young adult films with a similar blend of whimsy and ghoulishness. It may not be for everyone, but I like it.

R.I.P.D.This movie, like the Bruce Willis movie Red, was based on a graphic novel and was directed by Robert Schwentke in a manner that frequently apes the look of comic-book panels. Both movies are full of dark humor, violence and action that fiddles with the line between fantasy and reality - although Red doesn't carry the supernatural baggage implied by the phrase "Rest In Peace Department." For some reason, Red was much more successful than this movie. Go figure. I like them both. I understand that my appreciation of this movie puts me at a disadvantage, considering how widely it was panned. I thought it was a gas.

The story involves a present-day Boston cop named Nick (Ryan Reynolds), who gets murdered by his crooked partner (Kevin Bacon) and, upon arriving in the afterlife, is recruited into the R.I.P.D. The department's job is to round up "deados" who are trying to pass as the living, thereby preventing their "soul stank" from corroding the world. Nick wants to go back to his wife, but the Powers That Be have so arranged things that the living see him as a middle-aged Chinese man, and anything he says to explain himself comes out as gibberish. Meantime, he finds himself saddled (all but literally) with a 19th-century lawman named Roy (Jeff Bridges) as his partner and mentor, a situation both of them feel is a punishment, at first. Don't worry, they eventually bond during an outrageous, laws-of-nature-bending race against a conspiracy of deados, who plan to rain hell on earth.

It's a sometimes gross, sometimes campy, dangerous, dizzying ride, with plunges off the sides of tall buildings, vertical chases up them, speeding cars dodging debris from a street lined with collapsing parking structures, gunfights using ammo that erases people's souls from existence, visual gags involving the R.I.P.D. officers' appearance to living people, unsettled issues between Roy and the buddies' superior (played by Red's Mary-Louise Parker), and some lines of dialogue that made me laugh so hard that I cried. While I have them in mind, here are the Three Scenes That Made It For Me: (1) Roy confesses the dark secret of what the coyotes did with his skull. (2) Upon seeing Nick's ex-partner go to visit Nick's widow, Roy gloats about the "pants-down spanking in the supermarket" level of humiliation he must be feeling. (3) Roy (who appears to mortals as a gorgeous blonde) to a guy who approaches him with an offer of a modeling job: "I'm not a piece of meat put on this earth for your gratification, I'm a woman. Respect me or I will castrate you like a three-year-old steer."

If I had room for a fourth scene, it would be the one in which Roy and Nick quiz a deado about Indian food (because, apparently, dead people don't like cumin). You might get the idea that the most entertaining character in this movie is Roycephus Pulsipher. You would be right. But he's in almost every scene, so it's a pretty entertaining movie, in my opinion. You may call me crazy now, but I was also (if memory serves) one of the few people who liked The Fifth Element when it first came out, and its stock has gone way up in the years since then. I think the same might happen with R.I.P.D. Remember I said so when it does.

One of my cheapo-bin purchases was a $5 double-feature set of Olympus Has Fallen and White House Down, neither of which I had previously seen. (I have since seen most of a sequel to the former, London Has Fallen, on my parents' cable.) Experiencing them both for the first time, back to back, was an interesting exercise in comparing two movies that go in quite different directions from the same basic premise, kind of like when my college buddies and I rented Wyatt Earp and Tombstone one weekend for a VHS movie marathon. What they have in common is, basically, that bad guys take over the White House with an agenda that, among other things, includes forcing the President to give them the power to launch the nation's nukes. The executive mansion gets shot all to hell. Lots of people get killed (more, however, in one movie than the other). A nefarious agenda nearly brings down the federal government. And the one super-capable dude who can stop it isn't even, officially, part of the president's protection detail. Now that I see it put that way, there really are a lot of things these flicks have in common. Both movies were very entertaining, and each had advantages over the other. But rather than keep you in suspense, I'll say right now that I had more fun watching White House Down. Before I get to the reason why - I guess you'll have to endure some suspense after all - let's say a bit about each movie, so you can remember which is which.

Olympus Has Fallen is the one in which lanky, square-jawed Aaron Eckhart, as the President of the U.S., gets taken hostage in his own subterranean bunker by a North Korean terrorist who somehow faked his way into the White House as part of the South Korean prime minister's security detail. His ex-bodyguard, played by Gerard Butler as a stone killer with a heart of gold - he particularly likes driving a knife into a bad guy's brain - runs flat-out from the Treasury Building to find the White House all but completely taken by hostile forces, but he gets in by a follicle and wages a one-man guerilla campaign against the boss villain's goons. Things start to look up when he safely extracts the president's young son from the mansion, but with nuclear launch only seconds away, he has to fight a martial-arts championship match over the president's bleeding but under-utilized torso. The film also stars Morgan Freeman as the Speaker of the House, who does an admirable job of running the government while the president is incapacitated; Dylan McDermott as a highly placed traitor within the Secret Service; Angela Bassett as the head of the Secret Service; Robert Forster as a military mucky-muck; Pitch Black co-stars Radha Mitchell and Cole Hauser as (respectively) Butler's wife and the ill-fated presidential bodyguard who (if memory serves) delivers the movie's title as his last words; Rick Yune (Die Another Day and The Fast and the Furious) as the boss bad guy; Ashley Judd, the first lady whose death in the opening scenes explains why Butler isn't in the White House when the bad guys throw down; and Oscar-winner Melissa Leo (The Fighter) as a scenery-chewing Secretary of Defense, whose survival is one of the nicer surprises in an otherwise bloodthirsty movie.

Three Scenes that Made It for Me: (1) Getting the kid out of danger. I don't care that it defused (diffused?) a lot of the suspense. I couldn't stand having him in there any longer. (2) Morgan Freeman tells off Robert Forster. I think if they costarred in a movie a year, on the condition that Morgan got to tell off Robert each time, audiences would pay money and applaud at that scene. It isn't just that Morgan Freeman is the coolest man on earth, but that Robert Forster has such a knack for playing SOBs that the combination just gels. (3) Butler: "Sorry about the house, sir." Eckhart: "It's OK. I believe it's insured."

White House Down is the one in which Obama-esque President Jamie Foxx is saved from Eckhart's trapped-in-the-presidential-bunker ordeal by a hunky civilian (actually, the House Speaker's bodyguard) played by Channing Tatum, who just happened to be taking the White House tour with his teenage daughter, after unsuccessfully interviewing for a job as a presidential bodyguard, when all hell broke loose. All hell, in this case, was unleashed with (spoiler alert!) the connivance of the head of the presidential detail, played with superb villainy by James Woods. Another member of the conspiracy is revealed much later, but I won't spoil that one for you. A cat-and-mouse game ensues, with Foxx and Tatum using dumbwaiters, tunnels, elevator shafts, and other little-traveled pathways to elude capture by Woods' goons. Most of the goons seem to think their objective is to steal a truckload of money, but Woods harbors a darker, deadlier plan that involves, you guessed it, the president's nuclear launch codes. Meantime Tatum's daughter teams up with a comically nerdy tour guide (Nicolas Wright of Independence Day: Resurgence) to do a little villain-foiling of their own. Also appearing in this film are familiar character actors Richard Jenkins as the Speaker and Michael Murphy as the Vice President; Maggie Gyllenhaal as the Secret Service babe who commands her agency's response to the situation from outside the White House; Jason Clarke, who played Ted Kennedy in Chappaquiddick, as the head bad guy under Woods; Lance Reddick (Fringe, the John Wick movies) as a high-ranking military guy; Matt Craven (Indian Summer, Resurrection) and Jake Weber (Medium) as a couple of Secret Service guys; Peter Jacobson (House) as the Veep's weaselly aide; Kevin Rankin (Breaking Bad, Justified) as the loud-mouth gunman tasked with watching the tourists; Patrick Sabongui (Barry Allen's police captain on The Flash) as the first heavy to die, and Falk Hentschel (Hawkman on The Flash and Legends of Tomorrow) as the one Woods kills after he raises a qualm of conscience; and Jimmi Simpson (Westworld) as the flamboyant computer hacker whose self-inflicted, accidental demise plays as black comedy.

Three Scenes that Made It For Me: (1) Tatum's daughter, meeting the president during the tour, tells him that her dad is going to be on his Secret Service detail, because Tatum wasn't quite honest with her about how his interview went. Foxx, who is quick to take a man's measure, leans close to Tatum while they shake hands and says, "You shouldn't lie to your kid." (2) The good guys try to get Woods' wife to talk him out of doing all kinds of evil stuff. Acting all confused and hurt, she gets on the phone, goes all cold and tells him, basically, "Screw them. Screw them all!" (3) The speed with which Tatum's character goes from zero to hero: After winning a fight with a bad guy while searching for his daughter, he is monitoring the bad guys' walkie-talkie chatter and recognizes a place they're mentioning as the door he is walking by. Tempted to keep walking, he hesitates a moment, says something like "I am so stupid for doing this!" and proceeds to rescue the president before Woods can trap him in the bunker.

So, here are some of the reasons I think White House Down is more fun to watch than Olympus Has Fallen. First, Tatum comes across as a bit more of an "everyman." His character isn't the stone killer Butler's is; he's just an underachieving ex-soldier who isn't quite meeting the needs of his ex-wife and their teen daughter - but when they are separated in a deadly crisis, he goes into Wreck-It Ralph mode and would tear the White House to pieces with his bare hands to get her back safely. People who encounter him early in the movie don't look at him with much respect; but the longer he keeps himself and Foxx alive, the more respect you see in their eyes and hear in their voices. In short, it's fun to see him grow into a hero, whereas Butler's problem, if he has one, is an excess of heroism that, under such circumstances as the movie depicts, comes in very handy - but usually doesn't. He doesn't have trouble relating with people because, like Tatum, he still needs to grow up a bit; his reason is that he is already so far above everyone else.

For another thing, or maybe a different side of the same thing, Tatum's character has a more marked sense of humor, which both keeps him relatable and provides a steady supply of comic relief. This needs to be tapped now and then to keep the tension from exhausting the audience. Also, the fact that he looks fetching in a filthy tank top is a nice counterbalance to all the ugly stuff depicted in the movie. Butler's flak vest is perhaps a more sensible look under the circumstances, but it's also that much more serious of a movie. It's all drama, which only occasionally opens a relief valve - which perhaps explains why I chose the Three Things that I did. Tatum's flick, on the other hand, is pure escape. And as far as I'm concerned, that's the biggest reason to go and see a movie about bad guys blowing up the White House.

Third, I think Woods and his goons, assembled by using America's Most Wanted as a shopping list, are a more entertaining bunch of villains than Yune's. Americans can watch Butler carve them up without remorse because they're, like, a bunch of foreigners whose actions are an act of war. Woods, Clarke, Hentschel, Rankin and Simpson - well, maybe not Simpson - are Americans whose motives the audience can understand, if not sympathize with. Even while we enjoy seeing them thwarted, their feelings register on more of a human level; we almost pity them as Tatum comes after them one by one; and that adds a layer of complexity to what might otherwise be pure popcorn movie.

On the other hand, the damage done to the U.S. government isn't taken as seriously in the Tatum flick as in the Butler one. Olympus Has Fallen is earnestly presented like a worst-case scenario, while White House Down comes across more like a Die Hard on Pennsylvania Avenue, with a touch of Scooby-Doo sleuthery at the end. Between the two movies, you see four nuclear helicopters getting blown up by surface-to-air missiles, a presidential limo trashed in a madcap chase across the White House Lawn, the Capitol rotunda blown up, the White House set on fire, the Vice President's airplane shot down minutes after the schmuck invokes the Presidential Succession Act, the demise of platoons of soldiers and security personnel, and the wanton destruction of a priceless German clock among other historical artifacts. But to its credit, the ending of Olympus Has Fallen responds to all this the way a real government would, looking back with somber respect for fallen heroes and moving forward with serious resolve. White House Down, in contrast, concludes with an energy-sapping wink of romantic comedy and the last-moment revelation (for little dramatic effect) of one more villain in the dastardly conspiracy. Judged by their endings and their overall realism, OHF is better than WHD; but for pure, popular entertainment, it's White House Down for the win.

The original Red is another violent, action-packed, funny Robert Schwentke film derived from, and retaining some of the stylings of, a graphic novel. Its sequel, which I found with it in one of those cheapo double-feature DVD sets, moves on with a different director and a less conspicuous comic-bookiness. I like them both, in spite of what everyone else says, although I admit that they're a little over-the-top and silly - knowingly, I think. They feature Bruce Willis as a retired CIA hit-man who is finding life after wet work to be rather dry. About the only fun in his life on the "Retired, Extremely Dangerous" list is pretending to have trouble getting his pension check so he can chat up the cute girl at the call center in Kansas City (played by Mary-Louise Parker). Then someone puts out a kill order on both of them, and they go on the run - as awkward a way to start a romance as there ever was. Joining them one by one in their mission to learn who wants them dead and why are fellow ex-spooks played by Morgan Freeman (first movie only), John Malkovich, Helen Mirren and a Russian-accented Brian Cox. Among the antagonists, sympathizers, psychos and "it's complicated" types that they meet, between the two movies, are characters played by Karl Urban, Rebecca Pidgeon, Ernest Borgnine, Richard Dreyfus, Julian McMahon, Anthony Hopkins, Catherine Zeta-Jones, David Thewlis, Neal McDonough, and Byung-Hun Lee.

To be sure, Movie 2 seems longer than necessary by about a quarter. Just when you think it's almost over, a new act opens in an entirely different country and you realize that you just have to cross your legs and try to hold it in; or, now that you have it on DVD, pause it and make a potty stop. Also, Mary-Louise Parker isn't everybody's cup of tea. I, personally, enjoy her "This is so cool!" reaction to everything going on around her, after she gets over her initial skepticism (which is to say, her attempts to escape from Willis after he apparently kidnaps her, even though she admits this isn't her worst first date). She carries the point of view of the ordinary person caught up in extraordinary doings, and adds a certain comic spark of her own - particularly in Movie 2, when she seems more gung-ho about their life of adventure than Willis is. Malkovich's paranoid character is another layer of fun on top of that, almost worth watching both movies on his own account. The sociopathic romance between Mirren and Cox is just one phony Russian accent short of Boris and Natasha; shamelessly silly, disturbing, and yet somehow endearing. Each new principal character the series adds brings memorable chemistry to the ensemble. Seeing some enemies brought around to become allies, and others get theirs in spectacular style, just put the last perfection on it. You never know, until almost the very end, who the real threat is and how the good guys will escape. So, yeah, it all comes at the cost of a long time seated. But, provided you have plenty of recreational food and drink, and a willingness to hit "pause" for a toilet break, you can do it.

For this "Three Scenes That Made It For Me," I'm going to combine both movies: (1) Byung-Hun Lee, after being strip-searched for weapons and issued a kimono, kills a man with a piece of folded paper that his victim unwisely handed to him, and walks away without anyone noticing that he did it. Things that can only happen in Korea or Japan, eh? (2) Morgan Freeman has two death scenes, both of which involve fakery or deception, but in opposite ways - first, you believe him to have been killed, when he hasn't; then, you think someone else was killed, but it was him. Did this filmic chiasm happen by design, or is it just an artifact of "keep the audience guessing" ethic that drives this series? Dunno. (3) Bruce Willis' fight with Karl Urban in the latter's office at CIA Headquarters. They both get badly hurt, but the way they hurt each other is super-entertaining.

Maybe the fact that I can say this, and I'm probably not alone at that, is a sign that movies like this are subtly turning viewers into the kind of sociopaths they depict. To be sure, McDonough's character took casual murder to lengths that made me squirm practically every time he appeared on screen. Urban's first scene involved a killing carried out so cold-bloodedly that it still chills me to think about it. The profession that all of these people are in is, no bones about it, reprehensible and to sympathize with one group of them against another seems superfluous. But still the film allows you to reason, at some level, that these are retired people who served their country honorably and have been put out to pasture, where (with the exception of Mirren) they represent a danger to no one until someone threatens to harm them. And by the end of each movie, you realize that a lot depends on them stopping whoever started the fight. Nevertheless, there is a certain romance in the last century's darkest shadows, and these cheesy (yes, knowingly!) movies invite viewers to indulge in it. I'm up for the invitation.