Monday, July 9, 2018

Westmark

Westmark
by Lloyd Alexander
Recommended Ages: 12+

The Kingdom of Westmark is primed to explode. King Augustine, rendered senseless by grief since his daughter's mysterious demise six years ago, spends all his time searching for a spiritualist able to put him in touch with the late Princess Augusta. Effectively ruling the kingdom as his chief counselor is the villainous Cabbarus, who disposes of anyone who threatens his power without the inconvenience of a trial. The king's only faithful adviser, his personal physician, has been banished and, for good measure, followed to the docks by one of Cabbarus's hand-picked assassins. Cabbarus wants to be king in name as well as in effect, but a few persistent obstacles remain in his way. Meanwhile, a rebellion is stirring, led by a charismatic nobleman's son named Florian.

Unwillingly caught up in it all is a virtuous young printer's devil named Theo, who flees from an arrest warrant and takes refuge in the coach of a traveling mountebank named Count Las Bombas, his dwarf servant Musket, and a half-starved, sexless urchin named Mickle, who has a particular talent for throwing her voice. Together, in spite of the urgings of Theo's conscience, they set up a phony medium show where townspeople pay hand over fist to hear from their late loved ones. Inevitably, their success reaches the ears of Cabbarus, who forms a new plan to seize power around them. Hedged in on the other side by rebels who want to put to the test Theo's vow not to kill people, the gentle friends may have no choice but to take part in a brutal struggle for power.

This is a thin, quick-paced, warm-hearted example of a story shape Lloyd Alexander has written before: a road trip with tender romance, danger, intrigue, secret identities, and friendships unexpectedly growing up between straight-arrow types and people of questionable character. It features tests of courage, ethical conflicts, warring political philosophies, issues of civil rights and social justice, clear-cut villains and ambiguous heroes. It's an enjoyable book, maybe even a spiritually moving one. If it isn't, after all, much different from places Alexander has taken you before, take note: this book has a sequel. Two sequels, in fact: The Kestrel and The Beggar Queen. I'm reading the former already, and I can categorically say that Westmark is worth the reading, at least to introduce you to an even bigger adventure to follow.

Saturday, July 7, 2018

Alcatraz Versus the Shattered Lens

Alcatraz Versus the Shattered Lens
by Brandon Sanderson
Recommended Ages: 10+

In the fourth installment of "Alcatraz Versus," a boy who only recently traveled for the first time to the Free Kingdoms (the part of the world that isn't secretly ruled by Evil Librarians) unexpectedly becomes king, for a day or so, of an entire kingdom. Unfortunately, that kingdom is about to fall, and fall hard, unless Alcatraz Smedry can figure out a way to use the powers he is still struggling to understand, while also leading the defending forces of a city under siege.

Now, the first thing you have to understand is that the city's primary defense is a great big glass dome. All right? Next, wrap your brain around the fact that the army includes a bunch of giant, rock-throwing robot librarians. Here's a third thing: Alcatraz's mother, a devious Librarian herself, shows up just when the conflict is at its hottest. At a certain point, everyone tells Alcatraz that the Mokians must give up to survive. Only he knows a way to turn giving up into winning.

It's all part of the Smedry magic, which includes such goofy magical powers as breaking things, arriving late, getting lost and being bad at math. After only a few short months in command of his powers, Alcatraz has learned things about the Smedry talents that nobody has ever thought about before. But does he have time to learn things that his mom and dad know, either one of which could destroy the world he loves? That's the poser that keeps the pages turning, leading to what I reckon to be the most spectacular climax in the series so far. Meantime, as the fourth-wall-breaking narrator of his own story, Alcatraz continues to tease, play around, torture the reader, and guide him or her across new horizons of thought. Bonus credit goes to the reader who figures out what's up with the numbering of the chapters in this book.

Don't let the cornball comedy and light touch of youthful romance throw you off. Beneath the layers of mockery and unadulterated silliness, this book and the series it belongs to teem with legitimately brilliant fantasy conceits. I almost want to blurt out the phrase "world-building," although in a way, it takes place in part of our world. It just happens to be a previously unknown, secret, and stupendously weird part of our world. There are moments of truth and honesty in it that pop like a subcutaneous thermometer out of a store-bought turkey. (Practice food safety, folks.) For example, there's the scene in which the king of Mokia admits that grass huts aren't really more advanced than houses of wood, steel or brick. There's also a hint that, in spite of Alcatraz's continued development as a hero, there's a real chance that all will end in tragedy. Maybe that will happen in Book 5, The Dark Talent.

Do the Movies Have a Future?

Do the Movies Have a Future?
by David Denby
Recommended Ages: 13+

It seems weird to criticize a book of criticism, or review the work of a reviewer, but here goes. This slightly dated book (based on material written between the 1990s and about 2011) brings together some critical essays by a veteran New Yorker film critic who has seen a lot of movie history during his career, which (like my life) started in the early 1970s. He also studied film at a university level, which adds even more credibility to his opinion. And though there are some details on which, nevertheless, I am convinced he is full of it, his major argument comes across pretty solidly: the film business, as it has been operating during the last couple decades, is killing the movies.

That is to say, it is killing their ability to bring audiences together as a community, to communicate with them meaningfully, to create emotional experiences for them, to leave an impression on them that they will think about and talk about later, to tell stories and depict images that come to life in their imagination. The film business is doing this, he argues, by devoting all its large-scale investments to crappily made blockbuster franchise/genre flicks full of meaningless fantasy spectacle, investing only meager crumbs in a few "art-house" movies, and omitting the whole middle range of quality entertainment - including whole genres that are sadly fading away. The blockbusters bemuse the eye with movement and the ear with noise, while seldom showing anything real.

Denby reminds the reader that there are alternatives, selecting examples of his own previously published (and some unpublished) articles organized by director, genre, critics, and other issues. Yes, they're just movie reviews, and I've read a lot of them by other writers; but they're very thoughtful and thought-provoking ones. His appreciation of the film critic Pauline Kael was very personal and touching. His ditto of James Agee includes samples of super-intelligent prose, as well as a few tid-bits of awe-inspiring bitchiness. His review of a movie that I have never seen, and still may never see (I'm not sure I have the strength for it), actually made me cry. I kid you not. Also, I laughed out loud several times during this book. Did I mention it's a book of film criticism? Either there's something wrong with me, or David Denby has the stuff.

I thought he was wrong about a couple of movies. I agreed with his opinion about at least one film, but not with his reason for arriving at it. I thought his views about the work of at least one director, one film, and one whole school of film-making were half-baked. Criticism is, after all, opinion; everyone has one and is welcome to it. But in this book I also learned a lot about the history of film and how to watch them and evaluate them. Will I tell you which bits I most enjoyed learning about? No. You go ahead and read this book, or don't read it, and learn what you like. What I will say is that a writer who can express himself as well as Denby deserves some credit, a reasonable doubt at least, for having the ability to think clearly and, when he applies that ability to something worth thinking about, his opinion is worth reading. This book, for what its moment in film history is worth (and it's still recent enough to apply today, for the most part), is still out there, searching for readers who have the clarity of mind to consider Denby's opinion about the movie business - its past, present, and future. Perhaps by helping train those minds to see and understand what is and isn't happening on the silver screen, this book will affect the answer to the question opened by its title.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Alcatraz Versus the Knights of Crystallia

Alcatraz Versus the Knights of Crystallia
by Brandon Sanderson
Recommended Ages: 10+

In this third "Alcatraz vs." book, fantasy powerhouse Brandon Sanderson continues his conquest of children's literature by poking fourth-wall-breaking fun at even more writing cliches, while at the same time developing the strange fantasy world to which young Alcatraz Smedry belongs in more detail than ever. His arrival at Nalhalla, the capital of the Free Kingdoms, is heralded by an explosion that almost kills him. He finds the high king, who happens to be the father of his best friend Bastille, on the verge of signing a treaty with the nefarious Librarians and handing over the besieged, Pacific island kingdom of Mokia. To stop this disaster, he must avoid letting his first taste of being a celebrity swell his head too much. Then he has to find out what book in the Royal Archives (not a library!) the Librarians are after, and get it before they do.

He must do this in spite of the distraction of being in the same city as both his evil, Librarian mother and the father whom he just rescued from being a soulless wraith forever - and neither of them is a more affectionate parent than the other. Luckily, Alcatraz has some friends on his side, with such amazing magical powers as "being a really bad dancer." Also, he's in a city where glass-based technology allows people to disappear from one place and instantly appear on the other side of town, and where other forms of transportation include riding on a dragon who has been sentenced to community service and traveling via a giant glass pig which, embarrassingly enough, opens at the butt. This weird, hilarious adventure will end up hinging on one of the Smedry clan's prerogatives as the heirs of an abdicated royal house: you just try to guess which one. It'll make you laugh, though.

In spite of his credentials as the author of thick, serious fantasy novels, Sanderson has also proven himself many times to have a handle on all the things that make for a quirky, funny, exciting adventure for kids, laced with smart in-jokes and sass. For more examples of this side of his work, please see The Rithmatist, the Steelheart trilogy, and the series of books starting with The Alloy of Law that feature an unforgettable character named Wayne. Then grow to realize that his Alcatraz side is even present in such fantasy powerhouse novels as Elantris and Mistborn.

Supergirl, Season 2

The second season of the CW's Supergirl series stumbles almost immediately by getting rid of Cat Grant (Calista Flockhart) as a regular character. It goes part of the way toward redeeming this questionable decision by introducing two entertaining new characters: hard-bitten but honorable Catco Media editor Snapper Carr (played by Ian Gomez, the real-life bridegroom of the bride in My Big Fat Greek Wedding), and galactic ne'er-do-well Mon-El of Daxam (played by Chris Wood, a veteran of three previous CW series). The former guides Kara Zor-El a.k.a. Danvers firmly onto the path of a journalist - and it's about time she decided what she was going to be when she grew up. The latter provides the romantic foil the superheroine has needed since the beginning of the series, and succeeds so well that his departure at the end of the season-long serialized plotline is really emotionally devastating. I don't mean to sound breathless about it, but Wood's portrayal of Mon-El fills in a lot of voids in the series that one felt during Season 1, and went beyond that to be perhaps the most entertaining single character in any of the three DC/CW series I have binged on recently. He brings such a delightful sense of mischief, fun, and the joy of living to a show that unfortunately, at times, seems too serious to be taken seriously.

On the downside, this season also expends a phenomenal amount of playing time on the frankly boring lesbian romance/coming out drama of Kara's human foster-sister Alex, who by very tentative degrees hooks up with a gay cop who - forgive me if I sound like Alex's dad here - doesn't seem good enough for her. Apparently this was a very big socio-political moment, with everyone in Alex's life being so gosh-darn happy for her/proud of her, as though deciding to date a chick was a big accomplishment. As the season progressed, I became increasingly convinced that the writers and producers were out of touch with the quality of the work they were producing. One tunes into a series about the adventures of a superhero, or team of superheroes, to see adventures of a superhero or team of superheroes. One therefore feels a bit cheated when 15 minutes on the hour is levied for installments in an after-school special about female gay relationships among non-superpowered people who aren't really doing anything interesting. Every time one of these scenes started up, I groaned and said aloud something like, "Aw, not this boring crap again!"

Did I complain that there wasn't enough romance in Season 1? Yes. But it was Kara who wasn't getting any. That situation did improve in Season 2; in fact, her romance with Mon-El was very romantic. But all the superpowered fun, this season, had a tendency to come to a standstill and yield the screen for minute after tedious minute to the practically irrelevant (for main plot-line purposes) family melodrama/sexual intrigue between a second-string character and a minor recurring guest, each of whom was more interesting to watch when they were participating in the main action of the series. It was like watching canonical characters playing out snippets of slash fan-fiction, only with the additional discouragement of knowing that it was apparently being forced on us for our edification. Well, I for one think the importance of these scenes' message has been vastly over-inflated and that TV history will remember them as scenes that could have been left on the cutting-room floor without detriment to the episodes they are in.

This season also gives Kara a new best friend, Lena Luthor - yes, that's Lex's sister - replacing tech magnate Maxwell Lord, who mysteriously vanished between Seasons 1 and 2. Lena's mother (played by Brenda Strong of Starship Troopers) turns out to be the leader of an anti-alien terrorist group called Cadmus, which becomes one of the two main threats to Kara, her "super-friends" and the DEO this year. The other threat is Mon-El's parents, played by Kevin Sorbo (star of TV's Hercules and Andromeda) and Teri Hatcher (the better half of Lois and Clark) - particularly mom Rhea, who refuses to take "buzz off" for an answer, tries to force Mon-El to marry Lena Luthor, and just about conquers Earth to replace their home planet, which was also wiped out when Krypton exploded. Luckily, Daxamites - though almost as super as Kryptonians - have a weakness that is cheaper to come by than kryptonite. Unluckily, it means that the season ends (sorry about the spoiler) with Kara and Mon-El no longer able to be together. Still, the closing scenes of the season finale suggest something interesting remains in store for the entertaining Mon-El.

In terms of stunt casting, this season isn't far behind Season 1. Besides the guest stars I've already mentioned are Lynda Carter (the late 1970s' Wonder Woman) as the president of the U.S., Tyler Hoechlin of TV's Teen Wolf as Kal-El/Superman, Peter Gadiot of Once Upon a Time in Wonderland as the impish Mxyzptlk, and William Mapother of Lost as the environmentalist wacko who gets taken over by a prehistoric parasite. Also fun to watch is the developing relationship between J'onn J'onzz, the last "green Martian," and a female Martian named M'gann M'orzz.

Three Things That Made It For Me: (1) Battle Superman vs. Supergirl (toward the end of the season), (2) James Olsen and Winn Schott's tandem transformation into technology-assisted crime-fighters "Guardian" and "Man in the Van," and (3) the return of Cat Grant (also toward the end of the season). If I can expand my list to five things, I would add (4) Mon-El's fun-loving outlook on life, and the fun his attitude brings to the central circle of characters; and (5) the whole conflict with Rhea of Daxam, which brings the season to its climax. But I don't think this season deserves a special dispensation to receive bonus Things That Made It For Me, because of the things that un-made it for me - most notably, the boring soap-opera scenes, relevant to second- or third-string characters with no superpowers, without which this volume of Supergirl would have been just as super, perhaps more so.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Supergirl, Season 1

My season-by-season DVD binge of CW series based on DC Comics characters continues with this part of a box-set of Seasons 1 and 2 of Supergirl that I came across recently. The show features Kara Zor-El, a.k.a. Kara Danvers, a cousin of Kal-El/Clark Kent who also escaped the planet Krypton moments before it blew up. Kara, then 12 or 13 years old, was supposed to look out for baby Kal, but her pod got stuck in the Phantom Zone (where time is meaningless) and didn't make it to earth until 24 years later, by which time Kal was already Superman. So, she had to finish growing up in the care of the Danvers family, and as a young 20-something finds her way to National City (somewhere around Houston, I think) and becomes the perky, bespectacled executive assistant to "media queen" Cat Grant.

All this, so far, is explained in about the first five minutes of the pilot episode, with Kara providing a narrative voice-over supported by flashback imagery. As far as superhero origins/exposition goes, it feels pretty rushed. But this leaves us the rest of the first hour of the series to build up to the moment when Kara "comes out" as Supergirl – saving a plummeting airplane on which her foster-sister Alex is a passenger. Alex is soon revealed to be an agent of the DEO, the Department of Extranormal Operations, a covert government agency devoted to protecting the country from aliens. It turns out that Kara wasn't the only one who found a way out of the Phantom Zone 12 years ago; an alien prison named Fort Rozz came with her, crash-landing in the Nevada desert and spilling out a load of super-powered bad guys and gals. Among them are Kara's own Aunt Astra, twin sister to the Kara's mother, who put her and many of the other inmates away; Uncle Non, a next-level-up villain as evidenced by his British accent; and quite a few other weirdos who soon put Kara's developing powers to the test. By day, she runs to fetch Cat Grant's coffee; after hours, and increasingly often during unscheduled breaks during the work day, she hunts alien baddies as a DEO operative.

The cast is pretty good. Melissa Benoist is becoming a star, playing the beautiful and vivacious Kara/Supergirl. Calista Flockhart, who made the big time as "Ally McBeal," plays Cat Grant with a delicious touch of The Devil Wears Prada. There's also a tall, strapping, black Jimmy (I mean James) Olsen, moving over from Metropolis to watch over his super-bud's cousin – though, I'm sorry to say, the ongoing tease of a romance between him and Kara never comes to anything; a short, funny-looking, techie sidekick named Winn Schott, who immediately struck me as the Supergirl universe's answer to The Flash's Cisco Ramon (only with Anglo-Saxon roots and a serial killer for a dad); a certain Lucy Lane, kid sister to Lois, who at different times serves as Cat's legal counsel, as a stooge to her xenophobic general father, and as the director of the DEO; while the guy who normally plays that role is revealed to be a shape-changing, mind-reading Martian Manhunter named J'onn J'onzz (John Jones?).

One of the "Three Things That Make It For Me" in this season is the stunt casting of various guest roles, including living references to other fantasy/comic book classics. Playing the earthling couple who raised Kara after her crash-landing are Helen Slater, who played Supergirl in a 1984 movie, and Dean Cain, who played Superman in Lois and Clark. Playing semi-villainous tech mogul Maxwell Lord is Peter Facinelli, who led the Cullen clan of vampires in the Twilight movies. Jenna Dewan-Tatum, here playing Lucy Lane, has starred on American Horror Story and Witches of East End. Glenn Morshower, who plays General Lane, has made lots of guest appearances on Star Trek, appeared in X-men and Transformers movies, and is best known as the sheriff on the original CSI. There's a colonel in a few episodes played by Eddie McClintock of Warehouse 13. Playing one of Cat Grant's two sons is Levi Miller, who was Calvin in the recent A Wrinkle in Time movie. And Laura Vandervoort, who plays the villainess Indigo/Brainiac 8, played Kara Zor-El/Supergirl herself on Smallville.

The second Thing etc. is practically every line that comes out of Calista Flockhart's mouth, including (roughly quoted): "I'm a writer. It's like riding a bicycle and severe childhood trauma; you never really lose it." And then there's the time she tells a group of young adults that they look like the attractive but unthreatening, racially diverse cast of a CW series. If I didn't spew a mouthful of soda when I heard this line, it was only because I was between sips. Thing No. 3: The crossover episode with The Flash, which not only filled in something I was missing from watching the corresponding season of that show, but was also pretty darn fun.

Overall, maybe it's a sad reflection on the season's quality that a crossover episode was one of its high points. Themes of distrust vs. acceptance of aliens, saving the planet from human-driven climate change, and girl power were handled with an obviousness that sometimes crossed the boundary into shrillness. With a wealth of opportunities for superhero-vs.-supervillain action, it's a telling fact that the most dynamic character was a non-powered media executive, followed in descending order by a recurring (not regular) inventor/tech magnate, a shock jock who becomes electricity personified, a blue-skinned cyber-villain, a crazy auntie with a skunk stripe in her hair, and either of Cat Grant's sons, each of whom in his own way (depending on his age) crushes on either Supergirl or Kara.

It's a pity most of those characters weren't developed further, and that any hint of romance involving Kara didn't get past being lightly teased before she killed it for totally implausible reasons. Maybe I didn't notice it when the same thing happened in Arrow or The Flash, but this series devotes an awful lot of screen time to talky hand-wringing about whether the superhero(ine) should or shouldn't. And other than Supergirl's skirted costume looking rather fetching on Melissa Benoist, the sex-appeal quotient seems to be a bit lower than in the other ongoing DC series. I'm not saying it wasn't fun; for the reasons I mentioned above, and more, it was a gas. But what I'm saying is, it could have been a much more volatile gas.

Monday, June 25, 2018

Meeting Hat Trick

Brought to you by the Robbie Stories Department:

When you're a journalist covering a fairly brief, uneventful meeting by, say, a city planning commission, you don't expect more than one or two things to go wrong. I, however, having an accredited degree as a Master of Disaster (available on request), have a proven ability to score a hat trick of facepalm-worthy mishaps.

Tonight's planning commission meeting took place in the windowless, non-air-conditioned basement of the public library. Providing relief from the sticky warmth was an oscillating fan that was thoughtfully placed between the press table and the speakers who were to address the commission. The city planner had a nice carrying voice, so this wasn't too much of a problem. But the guy applying for a conditional use permit, about which the commission was having a public hearing, spoke in a very low, indistinct manner. I could only hear about one word in three that he said. I could tell, by experience, that my voice recorder wasn't going to do much better; I could look forward to straining my ears to make out anything audible over the noise of the fan. Mishap #1.

I couldn't just let this stand, and miss everything I was supposed to write about. So, verifying that my voice recorder was recording, I put it on a table in front of the commission, facing the applicant, without the fan in between. It seemed like a good spot for it, since the commission's clerk had put her omni-directional microphone there as well. Then I went back to my seat and waited for the testimony to be over. When the testimony was over, I got up again and fetched my voice recorder. Then I realized that it had stopped recording. When I tried starting it again, the device informed me that I had maxed out its internal memory. This had never happened before in the five months I've been using this recorder. What a time to find out how long I could go without erasing all my previous audio notes. Mishap #2.

Unfortunately, I couldn't record any more of the meeting without deleting something off the recorder. Even more unfortunately, I wasted several precious minutes of the meeting, during which no notes of any kind were being taken, trying to figure out how to erase some of the audio files on it. Eventually I was forced to accept that I would have to reformat the entire file directory and start from a blank slate - thereby losing any record of the part of the meeting that got in under the gate. So, resigning myself to having to reconstruct everything up to that point from memory and a few scribbled lines in my notepad, I reformatted it. I set the recorder, which weighs about 6 ounces, on the folding table in front of me, next to my Canon Rebel camera, my reporter's notebook and the agenda packet I had been issued at the start of the meeting. This, apparently, maxed out the table's weight limit, because the legs at one end proceeded to fold under the table. Before I realized what was happening, my camera, voice recorder, and all went tumbling down the slope of the half-collapsed table and onto the floor.

The recorder rolled all the way against the wall at the end of the room. Just to add to my awkwardness, the other end of the table tried to pull a similar collapsing trick when I set up the end that had folded under. Apparently, the table I was issued tonight didn't have the ability to lock its legs in place. Mishap #3. Hat trick achieved.

If I add that the office computer network on which I need to do all my work was off-line half of the day (but I still had to get a day's work done), and that the very first person I encountered while covering the front desk during the office clerk's lunch had a request I wasn't trained to handle, and that every single traffic light that I passed during my triumphant return to the office from hat-trick glory was turning red as I approached, I will only be putting a few decorative accents on an already complete picture of One of Those Days. You know what I mean.

Ysabel

Ysabel
by Guy Gavriel Kay
Recommended Ages: 14+

In this companion novel to the "Fionavar Tapestry" trilogy, a 15-year-old Canadian boy named Ned Marriner is visiting the south of France with his famous photographer father when he gets swept up in a 2,600-year-old tale of Celtic magic, passion, jealousy, warfare and death that has played out over and over, down the centuries, costing hundreds of thousands of lives. One moment, he is sitting in the empty cathedral at Aix en Provence, waiting for his dad to finish photographing the facade. The next, he discovers a psychic connection to something ancient, eldritch and dangerous. On one side is a small, scarred man in a leather jacket who admits to having done terrible things. On the other is a tall, powerful, golden-haired man who sometimes, when the fancy takes him, sports a set of antlers, and at other times takes flight as an owl.

Connecting them is a woman of terrible beauty who can only return to the world by way of a Druidic sacrifice on the last night of April, at an mysterious ruin near which Ned and a cute girl from New York happen to be hiding at that time. This time around, she decides to call herself Ysabel, and instead of choosing one of the two men to be her lover (and thereby provoking a blood duel between them), she tells them to search for her. Whichever of them finds her within three days will have her; the other will be sacrificed. Oh, and the catch is - for Ysabel to take shape, she has to absorb a living woman into her. At first, it looks like the girl designated to lose herself in Ysabel will be Kate, the cute New Yorker. At the last moment, that honor falls to Melanie, the assistant to Ned's father, who showed up in the wrong place at the wrong time in response to Ned's call for help. Now, with no one to guide him but a magically experienced aunt who has been estranged from his mother since before he was born, he has to learn a lot about his own powers and try to find Ysabel before either of her two suitors. If he fails, Melanie will be lost forever.

Fans of Fionavar will be thrilled to find out what happens to Kim Ford and Dave Martyniuk 25 years after their exploits in The Summer Tree, The Wandering Fire and The Darkest Road. In a way, I think this stand-alone adventure may have an edge over those three books, because it has a single protagonist and a single plot line that, if not exactly simple and straightforward, is at least easier to follow for not being painted into a too large and cluttered canvas. It also reaps rewards from following up on the long-term consequences of having an adventure that spanned multiple worlds. It probes eerie mysteries of early French history, before the Roman Empire was even an empire. It explores a single kernel of ancient legend in all its variegated growth. It packs a powerful emotional impact with fiery romance, anguish, horror, fear and courage all richly on display. It also has some laugh-aloud funny moments. Parental advisories for adult and occult content are very much in order.

This review is based on a CD audiobook performed by Kate Reading, on whom I have a long-standing audio crush. I still associate her voice with my discovery of the best novel ever written (as far as I know), George Eliot's Middlemarch. She also kicked audio butt while reading all of Jim Butcher's Codex Alera series. It has been a while since I've heard her read aloud, but my admiration for her ability to portray a whole cast of characters, male and female, came back quickly and sustained until the end. I think that would be a cool job to have, if I could do it as well as Kate - whose name, by the way, doesn't seem ironic at all, once you hear it pronounced.

Arrow, Season 3

The general theme, which I have mentioned elsewhere, of comic-book-based TV-series heroes departing from their best selves after their first season, gets more play in Season 3. What really made Oliver Queen/Arrow who or what he essentially is, he was in Season 1 of this series. Remember, back when he had spent the previous five years stranded on the "purgatory" island of Lian Yu in the North China Sea, forced to think only of surviving and one day making it home? Gradually, even during Season 1, that original concept of Oliver struggling to survive alone in conditions he would, later in life, refuse to discuss even with those closest to him, gradually gave way to a picture involving a harsh environment where China exiled its most dangerous political prisoners, and where mercenaries are up to no good, and where Oliver had to learn to endure torture, to fight, to kill, to live with betrayal, and generally to sneak around trying to foil dastardly plans. During Season 2, we see flashbacks of a segment of his Lian Yu ordeal in which he was joined by even more companions and enemies, participated in an adventure involving a super-power serum, and witnessed the resurrection of somebody who supposedly died in the shipwreck that started it all. By Season 3, if you're not fully aware that the writers had no idea where the "what Oliver endured during his five-year exile" subplot was going, you can't help but notice that not only did he not, after all, spend the whole five years on Lian Yu, but he was recruited by a cloak-and-dagger organization, cut his teeth as an assassin and interrogator (read: torturer) in Hong Kong, foiled a bio-terror plot, and even came within shouting distance of people he knew back home. In fact, he actually visits Starling City, briefly, during that interlude. Yes, nerds (a term which here means "fans who care about series continuity"), this show, though based on a well-established series of graphic novels, is pretty much being improvised.

A side-effect of that improvisation is that the roles and relationships of all the established characters continue to fluctuate, so that you can't watch an episode out of production order without spending at least part of it struggling to re-orient yourself to who is doing what to whom. For example, Quentin Lance starts the series as a police detective who hates Oliver Queen and is out to get the Arrow. After he gradually warms to the former and acknowledges the usefulness of working with the latter, he gets demoted to a uniform officer and sometimes, during the height of his alliance with the Arrow, risks being thrown off the force altogether. By Season 3 he's a captain, and by and by he becomes the Arrow's enemy again. Meantime, attorney Laurel Lance has evolved from a legal-aid lawyer (Season 1) to an assistant district attorney (Season 2), from being a fan of the Arrow to an antagonist of him, to finally becoming part of Team Arrow and risking her relationship with dad. All this is part and parcel with Quentin's daughter and Laurel's sister Sara Lance, who drowned when the Queen's Gambit went down, re-emerging in Season 2 as an international assassin nicknamed the Canary, and all the melodrama that surrounds that. Right away in this season, the Canary takes it on the chin and family and personal crises ensue that just keep building all the way through the season. Meantime Malcolm Merlyn has spent a year dead, more or less for tax purposes, but has now come back and revealed himself to Thea Queen as her real father and takes her under his wing. Who is or isn't aligned with Malcolm shifts from episode to episode. Whether Thea or Oliver are on speaking terms does likewise. What's up with Roy Harper/Arsenal ditto. Eventually, the focus of the serialized plot narrows down to whether or not Oliver will become the head of the League of Assassins, who or what he won't betray along the way, and whether or not he'll cross some unforgivable line.

There's a lot more going in in there, of course. It's a stupidly complicated serialized plot. Yet the second half of the season somehow seems to flip-flop back and forth between a couple of possibilities with regard to the Merlyn question, the Ra's al Ghul question, Thea, Roy, etc. until it starts to seem downright repetitive. Like, you hear yourself thinking, "How many times has the Arrow quit Team Arrow now? When are the other members going to stop believing that he actually means it?" Or, "If he's gone forever (again), why isn't this the last one they ever made?" Or, "Will Oliver and Felicity make up their minds already, and either break up for good or kiss?" Or, "Will Oliver and Dig make up their minds already, and either break up for good or kiss?" (Slow, icky wink.) Seriously, you know the show is starting to warp your brain when you actually start rooting for Laurel Lance and Nyssa al Ghul to have a girl-on-girl kiss. And I haven't even mentioned Ray Palmer/Atom yet. I hope I'm not spoiling anything for you, but really?! Did they actually kill him off like that? (OK, I guess not. Thanks, Wiki.)

Also, it needs to be said: Please, be safe. Don't ever, ever run for alderman or mayor of Starling City. It isn't worth your life. How many mayors, aldermen or city attorneys have bitten the dust now? They need to address job security. Also, how many disasters can a city take, head-on, year after year after year, before people take the hint and move away? I'm not talking about you, New Orleans. Calm down. Really, though, Starling City, what the heck? First it's an earth quake, then it's an invasion of human weapons, now it's a bio-attack, and every time Oliver Queen/Arrow falls behind on his villain-nabbing quota, a disaster-level crime wave comes up that the occasional interlude of "Iron Heights Prison is running out of cells" can never make up for - especially when those cells keep breaking open and popping previous villains back out on the street. The city's law enforcement institutions have a systemic tendency to expend more effort covering their own behinds than stopping crime, and going after vigilantes like the Arrow is intermittently a higher priority as well. At times I sympathize with the villains who keep trying to nuke it right off the map. Starling City would really be better off dead.

I've already noted (regarding The Flash Season 1) that former "Superman" Brandon Routh plays Palmer. I think this season overlaps with the actual beginning of The Flash, though in typical crossover style, I don't find Barry Allen to be like himself, much less at his best, when he shows up in this series. Additional guest stars include Marc Singer, who starred in the original V miniseries and series in the 1980s and as the title character in the original Beastmaster feature film; here he plays an evil general who ends up getting tortured and executed by Oliver & Friends (flashback era). Playing a club DJ/assassin who sexes up Thea, then tries to kill her before suiciding himself, is Austin Butler, star of the down-under TV series The Shannara Chronicles. Charlotte Ross, late of NYPD Blue, appears a couple of times as Felicity's mother, a bimbo with a heart of gold. Peter Stormare takes a couple flamboyant terms as the new Vertigo, a drug-pushing villain. Nolan Funk of Glee makes his first appearance as Felicity Smoak's college boyfriend, who becomes a computer-hacking villain. Stephen Culp, who had a recurring Star Trek: Enterprise role and also once, I think memorably, played RFK opposite Bruce Greenwood as JFK, appears as a villainous senator with presidential ambitions.

So, before I forget or just get too tired and quit, here are the Three Scenes That Made It For Me: (1) Oliver's mountaintop duel with Ra's al Ghul, which packs a tremendous dramatic punch and leads to what may be one of the Arrowverse's best cliffhangers ever. (2) The heroic exit of previous villain Floyd Lawton/Deadshot in a Suicide Squad exploit that tops them all so far. (3) How the identical twin of the late Shado recognizes Oliver as someone who ought to have information about the fate of her sister. I suppose you could say that's a highlight just because it raises an opportunity to see Stephen Amell with his shirt off to a legitimate plot point. But Season 3 doesn't, as a rule, stint on its opportunities to appreciate the aesthetic merits of its leading man. What would improve my opinion of it, however, would be more opportunities - like, for example, when he was on his no-murdering-people diet in Season 2 - to appreciate his character's moral development. The overall arc of at least the second half of this season shows Oliver Queen growing in a direction that gives me concern. If he loses his soul, what is his body worth?

Jurassic World 2

This past weekend's Movie That Everyone Is Going to See was Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, the sequel to the spinoff to the trilogy that started with a book by Michael Crichton and a movie by Steven Spielberg. Though philosopher Dr. Ian Malcolm (played by Jeff Goldblum) makes a couple brief appearances unconnected to any of the other principal characters, the franchise continues to move on pretty much without the original cast. The exception is the mad scientist played by B.D. Wong, who has been part of the series since Movie 1. Notable additions to the cast include James Cromwell as the terminally-ill ex-partner of the original tycoon behind Jurassic Park (played in the original movie by Richard Attenborough); Geraldine Chaplin as his housekeeper; Rafe Spall as his secretly wicked man of business; Toby Jones as the evil auctioneer who plans a sale of dinosaurs as weapons; and Ted Levine as the leader of the mercenaries sent to "rescue" the dinos from an island that is about to blow up. Returning as the sexy hero couple are Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard.

Synopsis-wise, the film is pretty simple. Pratt and Howard, along with a couple of younger characters, get hoodwinked into helping the bad guys save selected dinosaur species from a volcanic cataclysm. Unfortunately, the real motive for the rescue is not to create a dino sanctuary, but to sell one-of-a-kind monsters to whoever is willing to put up enough millions to buy them. The four good guys, joined by a little girl, fight back. All hell breaks loose in a castle-like mansion somewhere in the U.S. People get stomped and chomped. Other people get chased for all that they're worth, then have to face the ethical dilemma whether to let the surviving dinos live or die. And the nicest velociraptor fights that indominus rex thingy, which makes the tyrannosaurus look like a lap pet. A good time is had by all.

In scenic grandeur, tooth-and-claw action, and good guys vs. bad guys drama, this movie is not at all left behind by the four that went before it. Moreover, it leaves the world more Jurassic than ever. Three Scenes That Made It For Me: (1) After spending a night caged with a sedated velociraptor, Pratt wakes up and finds Howard sleeping with her cheek on his shoulder and her hand tucked inside his shirt. He slowly grins, then immediately fakes being asleep as she wakes up. (2) Everything that happens after the head-butting dinosaur gets loose at the auction. It's scary, thrilling and darkly funny all at the same time. (3) The little girl hides in her bedroom while something with huge claws stalks her: classic suspense.

The dinosaur effects in this series keep getting better. The chemistry between Pratt and Howard is priceless. And now they've got a cute little girl trailing after them. This series could become dangerous.

Friday, June 22, 2018

Arrow, Season 2

The binge continues with the DVD set of Season 2 of the CW's Arrowverse anchor. Worth noting in this review, although it isn't specifically relevant to Arrow: I am starting to amass some evidence, from personal experience, that binge-watching a TV series does different things to you than my usual drug of choice, which is spending hours and hours of my free time reading books. How shall I contrast them? When I read, I tend to take a break now and then to do something else, like playing a piece or two on the piano, washing dishes or taking out the trash. Also, at a relatively reasonable hour for bedtime, my eyes start to get heavy or my ability to concentrate on what I'm reading slips, so that I'm either snoozing with the book or re-reading the same paragraph over and over. Sometimes this starts happening earlier than I would like, and I fight against it by having a snack or something to drink, a short-term pick-me-up. Eventually, the small but real amount of effort required to read a book becomes unsustainable, and I just have to go to bed. It's a good mechanism for keeping my life in balance.

Binge-viewing, on the other hand, requires only enough effort to keep my eyeballs aimed in the direction of the TV screen, which does most of the work beaming its images into my brain. Even with the "English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing" turned on, which they always are when I'm watching a DVD, the final crisis of not being able to focus my eyes on the words or make sense of what I'm seeing tends to happen hours later than it would with a book. So I get to the end of the night's binge-watching and find that it's past midnight, maybe even 1 or 2 in the morning. I also don't tend to sleep as well after I've been watching TV for hours. And though I loathe commercial breaks so much that I don't care if I ever see a TV show again, other than via a video box set, I kind of miss those natural breaks to get up and do something else - other than to pause the program when I feel hungry or thirsty or need a trip to the bathroom. I realized yesterday, for example, that it had been several days since I touched my piano - a dry spell almost unheard of in the 18 years I have owned it. A creeping horror came over me that wouldn't go away until I had played two of Bach's three-part Sinfonias. I'm equally ashamed to acknowledge that when I'm on a video binge, I tend to let dirty dishes collect in the sink and trash receptacles come close to overflowing. Putting the clues together - losing sleep, falling out of touch with my music, letting my housework routine deteriorate into an indoor eco-disaster, etc. - I'm forced to conclude that, at least in my case, the TV series binge-watching behavior seems to trigger signs of something like depression, or perhaps an addiction. It definitely isn't healthy. It wouldn't have to get much worse to interfere with my ability to carry out daily living activities, which (along with being a danger to oneself or others) is one of the definitive criteria for mental illness.

At least it's nice to recognize that reading doesn't do this to me. It is, compared to this TV binge thing, apparently a much healthier way to blow a quiet evening at home. Every evening. World without end. I guess I should go back to that soon. You know, like, right after I watch Arrow, Season 3.

But let's not get ahead of ourselves. The topic of today's review is Season 2 of Arrow, which picks up sometime after the climactic carnage at the end of Season 1. Another thing I've observed, as I do the binge-of-several-seasons-at-once thing with regard to both this series and The Flash (whose first season I have now watched twice), is that Season 1s tend to work through the entire story arc in which the hero is most perfectly himself, and whatever happens is most essentially his story. So, Season 1 of The Flash is the epitome of all things Barry Allen/Flash, when he is most adorably who he is, when he is discovering what he can do, and when he is dealing with the conflict that his life is all about. Seasons 2 and 3 are more or less effective, but they're a bit of a come-down after that; on a certain level, they succeed best when they're recapturing (or, more cynically put, copying) Season 1. Likewise, I think Season 1 of Arrow is the epitome of Oliver Queen/Green Arrow, although the name "Green Arrow" only appears in the DHH subtitles except for one audible mention in Season 1. Season 2 introduces a somewhat different Arrow, who has softened regarding his tendency to kill the bad guy on first provocation, due in part to the effects of the climax of Season 1 on him. It sustains a high level of entertainment, and carries this altered Arrow forward through a compelling new serialized story-line, but some of what really made the series work has gone out of it.

Also, some of the new things that start to work for this season, on its own terms, don't entirely pay off in my opinion. Maybe it was trying to squeeze too much stuff into it (though some of the plot threads seemed to move forward with agonizing slowness). But somewhere between Oliver being menaced by a fellow survivor of that "purgatory" island off the coast of China, and being romanced by another who complicates his already tangled relationships with Laurel Lance and her father, and seeing his mother tried for 503 counts of murder, and then seeing his mother running for mayor, and finding out who his sister's real father is, and all the stuff about A.R.G.U.S. and the Suicide Squad and the League of Assassins and the Mirakuru serum and his unlikely friendship with a shady alderman and Queen Consolidated being targeted for a hostile takeover and Detective Lance losing his detective badge and Laurel Lance struggling with addiction and Dig suddenly having an ex-wife for whom he still has feelings (which almost covers the sudden disappearance of his ex-sister-in-law off the show), it would be preposterous to expect nothing to get short shrift. One of the things that does, however, was unfortunately something I was really looking forward to - the development of Thea Queen's boyfriend Roy as a junior hero, hero-worshiping and eventually apprenticing himself to the Arrow. The connection between Roy and Oliver never clicked, nor did the chemistry between Roy and Thea really work. Before the "Roy as a Junior Arrow" subplot could really be firmly established, it blew apart along with practically all of Starling City in the climactic season-ending arc.

Fear not, there is a Season 3. And at least another three seasons after that. As for Season 2, however, the Three Scenes That Made It For Me were:

(1) What were apparently Grant Gustin's first scenes as Barry Allen, in a Flash crossover that actually seems to have anticipated that series' debut by several months. There are later some pre-Flash crossover appearances by Caitlin and Cisco, and if you pay attention to the TVs playing in the background of numerous scenes, you hear some bulletins relating to S.T.A.R. Labs. A couple of the episodes even feature capers set in a S.T.A.R. Labs facility in Starling City. Felicity Smoak develops a bit of a romantic attachment to Barry on their first meeting, and is depicted caring about him during his months-long coma following the technobabble thingummy that was actually first depicted on this series, before being re-played in the Flash pilot episode. Almost making this list is a quip that Felicity makes, after finding out that Barry has a "something" named Iris who is also visiting his bedside: "He's in a coma and he's already moving on."

(2) Thea's priceless reaction when she realizes that, when she tried to kiss Tommy Merlyn during Season 1, she was actually making a move on her half-brother. (Oops. Spoiler!) Receiving an honorable mention is how evidently pleased her biological father is when Thea shoots him.

(3) When a man volunteers to get inside a 60-year-old Japanese torpedo and manually steer it, a task that means certain death, demonstrating a courage that will later inspire young Oliver Queen to grow a backbone and become a true hero.

Casting of guest and recurring roles this season was a bonanza for fans of sci-fi shows. Of course, you see John Barrowman (Dr. Who, Torchwood) again as the nefarious Malcolm Merlyn; fellow Dr. Who alum Alex Kingston plays Laurel Lance's mom. Two cast members from Firefly show up as villains - Summer Glau as the ruthless businesswoman who eventually becomes CEO of Queen Consolidated, and Sean Maher as a mad bomber who comes to a poetically appropriate end. Detective Lance's partner, who gets killed this season, is played by Roger Cross of the Canadian sci-fi series Continuum. One of the bad guys in the island flashback scenes is played by Jimmy Jean-Louis of Heroes. Nicolas Lea of The X-Files plays Moira Queen's campaign manager. Teryl Rothery, playing Moira's defense attorney, had a long-running role as a doctor on Stargate SG-1. Ben Browder, who led the cast of Farscape and the last couple of seasons of Stargate, plays a villainous security contractor. Audrey Marie Anderson, who plays Dig's love interest this season, also played a recurring character on The Walking Dead. Michael Jai White of Spawn has a recurring role as the Bronze Tiger, who eventually becomes part of the Suicide Squad. Dylan Bruce of Midnight, Texas plays a recurring assistant district attorney during the early part of this season. Dylan Neal of Blood Ties and Sabrina the Teenage Witch fires the shot that turns Oliver Queen and Slade Wilson from brothers in arms to deadly enemies. I could go on and on, but I believe my point is made. If you love sci-fi shows, this season of Arrow is a nifty showcase for familiar faces.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Incredibles 2

I saw this movie last night and, other than a long wait in a stuffy theater lobby, the experience was altogether enjoyable. Reprising their roles from the 2004 Pixar film The Incredibles are Craig T. Nelson (Mr. Incredible), Holly Hunter (ElastiGirl), Samuel L. Jackson (Frozone), and writer/director Brad Bird (also playing superhero costume designer Edna Mode). It also features Bob "Better Call Saul" Odenkirk, Catherine Keener, Isabella Rossellini and Pixar staple John Ratzenberger. In addition to the family core, which includes a speedster son and a daughter who can go invisible and throw force fields around, there is now a baby (Jack-Jack) who has a dizzying variety of super-powers, and a bunch of other supers - including, my favorite, a guy named Reflux who can vomit fire, as well as a girl who can open dimensional portals, a guy who can shoot electricity, a human/screech owl cross, and a guy who specializes in crushing things with the power of his mind. They're all good guys, but any or all of them could become villains at any moment, thanks to a mysterious nemesis of all things "super" who uses the power of hypnotism to control people's behavior.

So, that's enough synopsis already. I'll repeat that I had an enjoyable time watching this movie. It wasn't as much fun as the first one, though. I thought the balance tilted a little too much in favor of the domestic scenes and not enough toward superhero action. Still, Jack-Jack's antics were hilarious, and Edna Mode's scenes were adorable as always, and I liked the brother and sister characters who offered to help the Incredibles reclaim their legal status as superheroes. The animation was good. The action was fun. The movie has a cool, vintage look about it - kind of retro-futuristic. There was good comedy in it, and a good heart. It just wasn't as moving as the first movie, and the main characters didn't seem to get as much time to do their super-thing.

Three scenes that made it for me: (1) Jack-Jack's battle with a raccoon; (2) Violet's fury when she deduces that the Men in Black guy erased her almost-boyfriend's memory of her; and (3) the Krusher guy's perplexed reaction when Mr. Incredible asks him to uncrush something. If I am legally obligated to include an action scene on this list, then I'll make 3.5 the fight between ElastiGirl and the apparent culprit in the rash of hypnosis-related crimes. "Good for a sequel" seems to be about the size of it. We wanted a sequel. We got a sequel. It is, alas, a sequel. There can be nothing like the amazing original movie.

Arrow, Season 1

This series has been in progress for six seasons, and I finally started watching it because I was interested in The Flash, a spinoff series in a CW-network super-franchise known (thanks, I guess, to this series being the first) as "The Arrowverse." I didn't really want to invest in the DVD set without seeing at least some of it first, especially after the "meh" impression of it that I gleaned from crossover episodes on The Flash. But then I noticed that my local public library had this season (and several others) on DVD, so I borrowed it and was pleasantly surprised. I guess I shouldn't really need this lesson to know that crossover episodes don't, as a rule, convey a fair impression of the tone or quality of the series at the other end of the cross. In this case, the contrast was absolutely staggering. It just adds a whole new dimension to my growing aversion to crossovers between different TV series. It isn't just that they don't do justice to their special guests; they absolutely take a crap on them, with writing that resembles the work of internet slash-fanfic writers, only less in touch with the personality of the characters they portray.

What I'm trying to say is, I was really surprised, I mean surprisingly surprised, by the emotional life of the characters on this show, the quality of the writing and acting in what is, frankly, a comic-book-based series without superheroes. Main character is billionaire's son/college-age bad boy Oliver Queen, played by the undeniably hunky dude shown above, who gets stranded by a shipwreck on an inhospitable island off the coast of China for five years, then returns to his former digs in Starling City, where his family and friends have already written him off as dead and moved on with their lives. Complications ensue. Making sure they ensue is Oliver's vendetta against a whole notebook full of names that his father gave him before dying in the same shipwreck. Using skills he learned on the island (it wasn't deserted, but it was VERY inhospitable), he becomes a hooded vigilante, firing arrows with deadly accuracy at mostly rich and powerful people who, he declares, have "failed this city." Adding layers of complexity to the drama are the romance between his lifelong best friend and his ex-girlfriend, whose sister died in the same shipwreck after running away with him. The ex-girlfriend's dad is a police detective who about equally hates Oliver and his alter-ego, eventually to become known as the Green Arrow (though that nickname is only mentioned once in this whole season). The best friend's dad is another archer/assassin type who is plotting an evil undertaking toward which the entire season builds. His dead father was part of the undertaking, as is his manipulative mom. Joining the ensemble is an Afghanistan-veteran security consultant, a geeky female computer expert, a bratty younger sister and her boyfriend, an ex-street thug turned Arrow wannabe. Meantime, the viewer is treated to a slow drip of memories relating to the psychological baggage Oliver/the Arrow picked up on that awful island, where he was tortured and subjected to a variety of other deadly intrigues.

This is where I usually mention the cast of the show, but I don't really know the cast of this show from anywhere except this show and, in some cases, crossovers to The Flash. I do remember seeing Paul Blackthorne (Detective Lance) playing wizard detective Harry Dresden in a too-brief TV adaptation of The Dresden Files. Susanna Thompson, who plays Oliver's mother, played a recurring Borg Queen on Star Trek: Voyager and was also, on Deep Space Nine, noteworthy for sharing a lesbian kiss with Jadzia Dax. Playing Malcolm Merlyn, the season's main villain, is John Barrowman, best known (to me, at least) as Capt. Jack Harkness on Dr. Who and Torchwood - though I have to admit I've never seen either of these series. I mean, ever.

Three scenes that made Season 1 for me: (1) Oliver reveals his secret identity to his best friend at a moment of urgent, life-or-death crisis. It's an "OMG" moment of realization, on Tommy Merlyn's part, that bears a lot fruit in the drama between the two. (2) An assassin breaks into the Queen mansion and is about to finish Oliver off when, of all people, Detective Lance bursts into the room, firing his gun. It's so much fun seeing both men suffering as Oliver thanks Lance for saving his life. (3) Another assassin, who also later ends up infiltrating the mansion, poses as a lawyer and silences his "client" in a quiet, offhand way that just chilled me to the core. This is, as I anticipated, a very dark world of adventure featuring a main character who hews toward the "antihero" end of the hero/antihero continuum, but with enough ethical distinctions to pit him plausibly against real villains. I have to admit, I'm curious to see what happens in Season 2.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Two 'Robbie Stories'

Two more of what my mom calls "Robbie stories" took place last week: the kind of things that I confess to her for the pleasure of hearing her laugh. Sometimes she starts giggling before I get to the good part, and it becomes hard to finish the story. Usually she ends up telling me that I remind her of Mr. Bean. It often feels as if these petty disasters can only happen to me.

Refreshing when taken orally
One night, I decided the time was right to take a couple of those chewable vitamin tablets whose packaging invites you to take up to three doses a day of four tablets each. I rummaged in the cupboard above my kitchen sink and popped open a pill bottle that looked like the right one, at least when viewed from the wrong side of the label. The pills looked about the right size and shape, too. But when I started chewing them up, I realized they were actually my Mucous Cough tablets, which smell like something a dog sicked up and taste worse.

Interesting fact: partially chewed Mucous Cough tablets are difficult to spit out into the sink. It took a lot of spluttering and rinsing with tap water to get that awful stuff out of my mouth. Fortunately, the chewable vitamins (next bottle over) have a strong enough flavor that, when I was able to get them in my mouth, they mostly masked the nastiness.

During my lunch break the other day, I went to a local supermarket and bought three cardboard trays of 24 cans of my favorite zero-calorie, flavored sparkling water, which were on sale for 99 cents per four-pack. Past experience has taught me that the cashier always wants to scan every single four-pack, so I put them on the checkout conveyor belt and pushed the cart ahead of me at the till.

When I got the trays back, I had to lower them over the folding child seat to get them back in the cart. This proved to be trickier than it looked. The cans bumped the child seat; it started to unfold while I was trying to get the tray over it. Somehow, I managed to nick one of the cans on a jagged piece of metal sticking out of the child seat. Pressurized fizz immediately started spraying out of the can, and I started to feel a cool sensation in my groin region. In seconds, it looked as if I had wet my pants. Aaaand that's how I looked when I went back to work after my lunch break.

Only me. Always me. And yet after all these years, I keep racking up personal firsts.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Rewriting You 2: Unquote

There are two epochs in my career as a writer of newspaper stories: before I was provided a voice recorder and after. In the earlier era, which coincides with my newspaper career in Missouri, when I interviewed someone or attended a meeting, I had to write down as much of what they said as possible, as fast as possible. I tended to skip anything that wasn't interesting or to the point. I only wrote down "word for word" things that sounded really quotable; everything else was bullet points. Sometimes I asked the subject to repeat themselves or to wait while I caught up. Quotes based on my notes tended to be the best version of what the speaker said.

Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera
In these latter (Minnesota based) days, I often go back to the recording and type up a transcript before writing a story based on my notes, which now increasingly consist of time indexes for the juicy bits. The difference is huge. Part of the difference is the amount of verbal packing material I have to throw away. It took hearing the recording again, and having to type and re-read a transcript of it, to bring home to me just how much of the average person's speech is made up of unnecessary vocalization. I'm not pointing fingers at others; this applies to me, too. If anything, I find my voice more tedious to listen to on tape than most people's, full of hesitations, unfortunate interruptions and badly scripted dialogue. On the upside, I don't usually have to rewrite my painfully awkward remarks; instead, I get to edit myself out of the story entirely.

I am blessed to be under the supervision of a newspaper editor who is OK with verbal crud being edited out of quotes. She disapproves of ellipses (when snipping surplus verbiage) and parentheses inside of quotes (when replacing verbal mistakes and unclear references with what the speaker obviously meant), preferring to quote the speaker in the most on-point manner possible. Meantime, I am becoming adept at seeking out and destroying words and phrases that add nothing to a quotable quote. Some examples follow; it's not an exhaustive list.

Just: I had a 10th-grade social studies teacher who banned this word from his classroom, reasoning that its use implied an attempt to make excuses instead of taking responsibility. It's also a word that many people have noticed being overused and abused in public prayers and invocations, to the effect, "Gee, God, we're JUST asking for one thing, and then another thing, and then another..." Maybe I shouldn't be surprised to find that a lot of people just pepper their talk with the word "just" for no particular reason. It's just a verbal space-holder. It just doesn't mean anything. After a while, it just starts to just drive me crazy.

Kind of/kinda: This is another verbal spacer that kinda drives the grammar freak in me kind of crazy. My conscience kind of pricks me about letting a two-word phrase, ending in a preposition, kinda stand in place of an adverb. My spellchecker goes kinda nuts when I try to replace it with a one-word coinage, or a kind of contraction, that isn't recognized by the dictionary. But it's kinda deletable, because after you hear or read it repeated in sentence after sentence, you kind of realize it adds zero meaning to what the speaker is saying.

Uh-huh.
You know: I think this was the phrase that sank Caroline Kennedy's hopes for a big-time political career, when her side of a televised interview was embarrassingly bogged down in repetitions of what seemed, in the last analysis, to mean "duuhhhhh..." Similar substitutes for "um" or "er" include like, OK, yeah, so, and so, now and I mean. Even very bright people can provoke snickering or eye-rolling when you notice that their every statement begins with "So,..." I once had to advise a preacher, by way of a confession of sin, that I couldn't help counting the number of times he said "And so" in each sermon and that the game was distracting me from his message. As for the conversational gambit of opening with "Yeah," whether the statement that follows is agreeing or disagreeing with what was said before? Please! Stop trying to remind me of Phoebe on Friends!

Well: This sentence-starter sometimes stays in the story for rhetorical effect, or because it conveys a sense of attitude. But some people salt and pepper their speech with it so liberally that you could search for it and replace it with nothing, without any net loss. Interestingly, but not very interestingly, a lot of instances of this sweet nothing introduce "inside quotes" citing the thoughts of a hypothetical person. For example, "Someone will probably read this and go, 'Well, that's completely pointless.'"

Needless amplification: There are several different words and phrases that fall into this category, and each individual picks one or a few and repeats it (them) a lot. Some examples are really, pretty much, actually, basically, essentially, probably and all of a sudden. Taken one occurrence at a time, they seem to function as adverbs and even seem to add pizzazz to the quote. In a voice-recording transcript where they are repeated again and again, they are revealed all of a sudden as really, pretty much basically meaningless.

Etc., etc., etc.: Yul Brynner, in The King and I, raised the noncomittal sentence ender to an art form. Many people today practice this art on an instinctive level, but with a less culturally enriching effect. Frequently heard substitutes for "and so on, and so forth" that I have heard people tack on the end of sentences, repeatedly and without any real meaning, include and all that, and stuff like that and, in the case of an elderly Missouri farmer I interviewed last year, something like as far as that as may be - which he repeated compulsively at the end of every thought, sometimes multiple times in a single sentence. My conscience troubled me not at all when I ignored this polysyllabic tic when I quoted him in my story.

Unnecessary time markers: Some people's vocal tic is to stick words and phrases like "Then" or "After that" into two out of five sentences. I'm guessing they don't notice they're doing this, and if that's the case, they also won't notice if I skip those words except where a precise sequence of events is crucial to the story.

Yep, yeah, uh-huh: When the response to a question is a simple affirmative, I tend to recast the question as a declarative sentence and make it an indirect quote, like "The mama bear confirmed someone had been eating her porridge." This saves me having to introduce her answer with something like, "Asked whether..." Sometimes the affirmative is more specific or personally engaging, like exactly, precisely, correct or absolutely; but after the speaker gives the same response seven or eight times in one interview, the sense of originality fades.

I recently had an opportunity to read the full mansucript of a recorded police interview with a murder suspect. It was an excruciating ordeal, full of apparent interruptions and tragically placed instances of the tag [inaudible]. Compared to a brief extract of another interview that had to be based on handwritten notes, because the entire sound recording turned out to be unusable, it left a poor impression of the average person's ability to improvise snappy, plot-forward dialogue. It was due to this assignment (which ultimately didn't result in a newspaper story) that I posted the following status on Facebook: "Reading transcript of a police interrogation. Urk. THIS is why script writers make the bucks." And then I commented on my own status: "A thousand times, Urk."

Monday, June 4, 2018

Alcatraz Versus the Scrivener's Bones

Alcatraz Versus the Scrivener's Bones
by Brandon Sanderson
Recommended Ages: 10+

What you think is history is actually fantasy. What you think is fantasy is reality. Behind it all is a conspiracy of evil, soul-devouring librarians. Resisting them are a band of heroes from a continent you don't even know exists. And leading a mission to stop the librarians from getting their hands on ancient technology that could tilt the balance in their favor forever is a kid named Alcatraz Smedry, who can do seemingly magical things by looking through special lenses, and who has the super-power of breaking things. That doesn't sound like a superpower to you? It comes in handy when someone aims a gun at him, and that seems to happen a lot.

In this adventure, Alcatraz gets swept up into an aerial battle on board a glass dragon. He meets an uncle whose super-power is getting lost and a cousin whose special ability is looking ugly when she wakes up. You can't pick your super-powers, but you can do nifty things with them if you use them right. Joined by a mother-daughter pair of warriors, they travel to one of the most dangerous Librarian strongholds: the Library of Alexandria, where to borrow a book, you have to surrender your soul and become one of the horrible, wraith-like curators, forever. Alcatraz hopes to find his long-lost father (who specializes in losing things) and his grandpa, who is always late. But along the way, he must face an enemy who is part human and part machine, survive traps, outwit a bunch of soulless spirits and process unexpected discoveries about his own powers.

Like the previous book Alcatraz Versus the Evil Librarians, this book supplies a steady stream of excitement, intrigue and bizarre imagery, building a unique fantasy world within our present-day world. At the same time, it relentlessly pokes fun at the reader, inviting laughs and provoking intelligent thoughts at the same time.

This is the second of currently five books in Brandon Sanderson's kid-friendly "Alcatraz vs. the Evil Librarians" series. After this come Alcatraz Versus the Knights of Crystallia, Alcatraz Versus the Shattered Lens and The Dark Talent. Sanderson's works for older teens include the "Reckoners" trilogy, The Rithmatist and, coming out in November 2018, Skyward. His adult fiction includes Elantris, Warbreaker, six "Mistborn" novels, two "Infinity Blade" novels, two "Legion" novels, the "Stormlight Archive" trilogy, and the concluding three books of Robert Jordan's "Wheel of Time" series.

The Empty Grave

The Empty Grave
by Jonathan Stroud
Recommended Ages: 12+

In this fifth and, for now, last book of "Lockwood & Co." a small, independent psychic detective agency faces off against the most powerful woman in the U.K. Penelope Fittes, according to the skull/trapped ghost that talks to agent Lucy Carlyle, is somehow one and the same with her grandmother Marissa, one of the first agents ever to combat the Problem of the unquiet dead. Also, Team Lockwood learns, Ms. Fittes may have something to do with how the Problem started.

To find out what that something was and put a stop to it, they have to dig into secrets that are dangerous to know. How dangerous? Ask research maven George, who gets the stuffing beaten out of him for his efforts. Ask Lockwood, who nearly has his soul sucked out by a vampiric vamp. Ask newest associate Kipps, who shows signs of going the way no one can return. After infiltrating a tomb stuffed with deadly revenants, ridding a theater of a glamour queen who can steal a man's will to live with a single look, breaking into a spooky London club full of psychic weapons and gadgets, and finding a rare pamphlet that reveals a chilling motive behind everything that has befallen the country during the past 50 years, the team learns enough to become too dangerous for Penelope/Marissa to let them live.

What a time, then, for Anthony Lockwood, leader of the agency, to discover that his life, as well as the deaths of his folklorist parents, has more meaning than he ever realized. What a time for Lucy to begin to admit to herself that the possibility of being in love with Lockwood makes her life precious, too. What a time, indeed, for the Lockwood Five to find themselves barricaded inside 35 Portland Row with the sinister black marketeer Jacob Winkman, the nefarious Sir Rupert Gale, and a gang of plug-uglies outside, armed for bloody murder. What a time for their best shot at life to be crossing over into the underworld, from which their only route of escape is through the city of the dead, all the way to the headquarters of their enemy.

During this perilous, physically and spiritually chilling journey, they make fresh discoveries that will raise gooseflesh. They experience thrilling chases, narrow escapes, death-defying battles, and confrontations with terrifying monsters. When they're in the tightest spot of all, and an explosive ending seems inevitable, there comes an unexpected twist on a long-dreaded prophecy. What happens then will be one for the history books, at least in the alternate-history England that exists in this series of books.

If this is really the end of the series, I'm sorry. Even though everything so far seems to build up to this book, the characters, relationships, and magical dynamics of this whole world would be fun to visit again. The fact that I've learned to trust their author to craft an enveloping worldscape and a tightly-paced, well-structured storyline doesn't hurt. Mind you, I'm using the word "fun" in a sense that includes a considerable amount of gibbering horror. But what are a few night terrors between friends?

Jonathan Stroud is the author of a number of books that I have already named in multiple reviews. I think with this book I have actually caught up with him and read them all. Get busy, Stroud! I'm not done with you.

Scowler

Scowler
by Daniel Kraus
Recommended Ages: 14+

Boy, is this book dark. I'm not saying I don't like it. Nor should I really be surprised. I have two previous experiences of reading books by Daniel Kraus that should have forewarned me. The first was Rotters, featuring a terrifying father who forces his son to follow in his footsteps as a graverobber, not to mention a monster in human form who makes you sympathize with the dad by comparison. Then there's Trollhunters (co-authored with Guillermo del Toro), the book on which the dark fantasy animated TV series was based; only after you read it the TV version won't seem so dark.

Then there's this story, featuring a young man named Ry Burke who barely survived a rampage by his abusive father nine years ago, thanks in part to a psychotic break in which the voices of three toys coached him through the ordeal. Now age 19, he still lives with his mom, struggles to cultivate the family's dying farm, and seems to be going nowhere in life - until a meteorite busts his pop out of prison. Just when dear old dad is about to shoot Ry dead for his boyhood betrayal, another meteorite lands on the farm and the voices return. This time, Ry isn't so inclined to listen to the kindly bear or the serene figurine of Jesus Christ. This time, he may not be able to hold back the terrible personality known as Scowler, even if it takes him too far. This time, Ry's father won't be the only monster threatening his family's survival.

Don't mistake me, it's a heartbreaking book. Even so, I didn't always find Ry a sympathetic character. I'm not sure I really want to explore the genre, whose existence I glimpsed in Amazon's list of books customers bought along with this one, of stories about hero kids whose parents brought them up to be killers. I mean, that is sooo dark. For the same reason I like The Flash but have no interest in Arrow, I found this book almost as much distressing as entertaining. Let the fact that I found it, after all, mostly satisfying suffice to tell you whether the hero proves to be good or evil in the end.

Daniel Kraus is also the author of The Monster Variations, which I'm not going to read; the "Death and Life of Zebulon Finch" duad of At the Edge of Empire and Empire Decayed; and The Shape of Water, also co-written with del Toro as a companion to his award-winning movie by the same name. It is also rumored that Kraus is going to complete George A. Romero's unfinished book The Living Dead.

Time to Laugh

Time to Laugh: Funny Tales from Here and There
by Phyllis R. Fenner
Recommended Ages: 8+

I bought a used copy of this book online because I found out that it contained a story that I read as a child, probably in an entirely different book. I had been searching for that story for many years, and the artificial intelligence of Google Books finally came through for me. Thanks to the bibliography at the end of this book (really more of a confession that all of the stories in it were taken from copyrighted works by other authors), I now have more information to work with, and can continue my search for stories that I either loved once, or expect to love in the future.

This is a nice, old collection of humorous stories, mainly of the "no-good urchin outwits everybody" type of folk-tale. Now that I've read all of them, and not just the one I was interested in when I placed my online order, I can verify that most of them are very amusing. My favorites will have to be "The Devil's Hide," in which a little Finnish boy outwits the prince of darkness, and "The Three Innkeepers, or the King's Legs," which still tickles me some 35 years after I first read it. Not all of them, perhaps including that story, will meet the standards of today's parental or pedagogical censors. For example, the punchline about two of the three innkeepers, plus the village witch/district nurse, running down the hill and drowning themselves in the harbor might not play today. The fairy tales in this book haven't had the gruesome violence bowdlerized out of them.

Unfortunately, it's the stories that don't ask to be sanitized for today's school-room that don't quite work for me. "The Ghost's Ghost," set on the island of Tobago, seemed like a nice chapter from a book I might want to read, but it didn't exactly cause me to throw my head back in a spasm of laughter. A couple stories in this book left me cold, or were at best charming but not particularly funny. The weakest ones, somehow, were the ones set in a modern period, rather than the fairy tales and tall tales of yesteryear - including a Paul Bunyan yarn, the Chinese story of how printing was invented, some Irish and Nordic tales, and the romance of "The Laughing Prince."

So, in spite of a few duds, this book has some great stories in it. These include some you may not know, as well as some (like Hans Christian Andersen's "The Emperor's New Clothes") that everyone knows these days. Authors who contributed to it include Lucretia P. Hale, Ruth Sawyer, Parker Fillmore, Seumas MacManus, G.W. Dasent, Howard Pyle, Richard Hughes, J.B.S. Haldane, Margery Bianco, Lesley Frost, Glen Rounds, Arthur Bowie Chrisman, William C. White, Gilbert S. Pattillo and Charles J. Finger. Some of them are authors I already value; some I have just started to appreciate. Finding this book enabled me to refresh my memory of not one but several beloved tales. But more importantly, it provides clues for my ongoing search for stories that bring joy.

Trollhunters

Trollhunters
by Guillermo del Toro & Daniel Kraus
Recommended Ages: 12+

I had already binge-watched Season 1 of the animated series Trollhunters, created by Guillermo del Toro and inspired by this book, before it even occurred to me to read this book. Then it totally occurred to me, yes siree. It occurred to me so hard that I ordered the book online, along with another by co-author Daniel Kraus, and binge-read both of them over the weekend. It was a (no pun intended) novel experience to experience the book after the film (or, in this case, animated series). I'm not sure how the comparison would have gone if I had been a fan of the book before I saw the TV show. But the way it worked out, I approve of both of them most highly. I think I would even go so far as to call myself a fan of them. And though they are very, very different from each other, I think they complement each other nicely.

In the TV show, the hero boy is an Arcadia (Calif.) high school kid named Jim Lake, Jr. who lives with his single mom, has a tubby best friend named Tobey D. (as in Domzalski) and a crush on a Mexican-American girl named Claire Nuñez. In the book, Jim Jr.'s last name is Sturges; he lives in San Bernardino, Calif.; his single parent is his dad; and best friend Tobias Dershowitz (only once called "Tobey D.") is actually nicknamed Tub. Also, Claire is a warrior babe from Scotland. There are tons of other differences, too, but that's just to give you a feel for how much the story changed between book and TV. In the book, the friendly warrior troll ARRRGH!!! is a girl - but otherwise pretty much the same as on TV, her impaired speech explained by the rock embedded in her skull; know-it-all troll Blinky has eight eyes, not six, and hundreds of suckered tentacles, and the eyes are on stalks, so that's quite a different look for him. There's still a history museum and a Killaheed Bridge (not Killahead, but all right), and the reassembly of the bridge does indeed augur the return of the villainous Gunmar the Black, lord of the Gumm-Gumms; and Jim has to learn swordplay in a big hurry in order to save his town from a horde of people-eating trolls. Also, there's an important medallion with runes on it, and a school bully named Steve, and an impending performance of Romeo and Juliet (at least, an abridged version), and an attempt by some horrid creatures to replace a baby with a changeling, and a troll city that one enters via a magical doorway under a bridge; but that about does it for the similarities between the stories. Considering all these superficial similarities, and the fact that this is unmistakably the source material for the animated show, it's really most amazing how entirely different the two stories are.

In this original version, Jim Sturges, Jr. is not the first human boy to become a trollhunter. He is, in fact, recruited by his Uncle Jack, who disappeared 45 years ago at age 13 and is still 13. Meanwhile, Jack's kid brother Jim Sr. has never gotten over seeing his brother abducted by trolls, apparently the last victim of an epidemic of children who disappeared never to be seen again. He has raised Jim Jr. in a suburban fortress with steel shutters on the windows, 10 locks on the front door, and multiple alarm systems. Nevertheless, Jim evades his overprotective dad enough to get the role of Romeo in the halftime play during his high school's big football game. He also struggles to keep up with an eternally-13 uncle whose heroics are fueled by anger about being denied a normal life. Together, with a little help from Blinky, ARRRGH!!! and Tub, they take on an increasingly terrifying series of Gumm-Gumm clans, including trolls that can literally puke up their guts, rust trolls, and a gigantic red scaly monster whose planned takeover of the San Bernardino Valley is fueled by a diet of ground children. Ick.

It's an exciting book that compels you to turn pages from its opening challenge ("You are food") to the climactic battle on the football field. It bears less resemblance to the TV spinoff with each page turn, but you don't mind because it's that thrilling, chilling, funny, just a little romantic, and downright well-written. That's another thing it has in common with the TV version, actually. The characterization is superb. Their dialogue is lively. The emotions motivating the hero ring true, even when the canvas is filled with bizarre and preposterous creatures. While I have no interest whatsoever in the series of novelizations based on the TV episodes, I hereby declare this original book to be legit.

Guillermo del Toro, in case your head has been under a rock for some time, is the co-author (with Chuck Hogan) of the "Strain" trilogy, comprising The Strain, the Fall and The Night Eternal, and the co-author (with Christopher Golden and Troy Nixey) of Don't Be Afraid of the Dark. He is also the director of, among other movies, Blade II, Hellboy and its sequel, Pan's Labyrinth and Pacific Rim. Kraus, whose novel Rotters I vividly recall reading in audio-book form, also wrote the two-book "Death and Life of Zebulon Finch" series (At the Edge of Empire, Empire Decayed), The Monster Variations, Scowler (the other book that I binge-read this past weekend) and, again with del Toro, The Shape of Water - a novel written alongside the film of the same title, which del Toro directed and for which he won last year's Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Director. I'm kicking myself for not buying that book, but maybe I should watch the movie first.