Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Robbie Awards 4

It's time for the fourth annual Robbie Awards (or 11th, if you count retroactive awards), recognizing the best of the books I read during 2019.

Not necessarily top-selling new releases – some of them came secondhand, many through the library – these mini-reviews represent my personal recommendations and were not, repeat not, sent to me for review by publishers, publicists or authors. (I wish.)

However, I did get the author’s autographs in a couple of them. Also, I got to interview author Peter de Jonge this year.

Why only 69 when I've been hitting around 100 pretty consistently? I blame it on TV-on-DVD binges. But I'm working on it and, with the blessing, I think 2020 will be a better-read year.

The nominees (imagine a drumroll):
  1. Pottymouth and Stoopid by James Patterson & Chris Grabenstein, ill. by Stephen Gilpin
  2. The Last Kids on Earth by Max Brallier, ill. by Douglas Holgate
  3. The Chaos King by Laura Ruby
  4. The Selling of the President 1968 by Joe McGinniss
  5. A Measure of Darkness by Jonathan Kellerman & Jesse Kellerman
  6. I'll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara
  7. Runemarks by Joanne M. Harris
  8. Gone to Dust by Matt Goldman
  9. Persuader by Lee Child
  10. The Glass Magician by Charlie N. Holmberg
  11. Guardians of the West by David Eddings
  12. The Boy Who Knew Everything by Victoria Forester
  13. The Forgotten Room by Lincoln Child
  14. Full Wolf Moon by Lincoln Child
  15. How to Catch a Bogle by Catherine Jinks
  16. Die Trying by Lee Child
  17. Possession by Kat Richardson
  18. Killing Floor by Lee Child
  19. Deep Storm by Lincoln Child
  20. Night Moves by Jonathan Kellerman
  21. Simon Bloom: The Octopus Effect by Michael Reisman
  22. As You Wish by Chelsea Sedoti
  23. The Ritual Bath by Faye Kellerman
  24. When the Bough Breaks by Jonathan Kellerman
  25. The Bone Collector by Jeffery Deaver
  26. Walking Shadows by Faye Kellerman
  27. The Third Gate by Lincoln Child
  28. Even by Andrew Grant
  29. Broken Ice by Matt Goldman
  30. Tripwire by Lee Child
  31. The Dragon Reborn by Robert Jordan
  32. Charlie Hernández & the League of Shadows by Ryan Calejo
  33. The Golem of Hollywood by Jonathan Kellerman & Jesse Kellerman
  34. The Coffin Dancer by Jeffery Deaver
  35. Blood Test by Jonathan Kellerman
  36. Into the Black Nowhere by Meg Gardiner
  37. Terminal Freeze by Lincoln Child
  38. Die Twice by Andrew Grant
  39. Buried on Avenue B by Peter de Jonge
  40. Marcelo in the Real World by Francisco X. Stork
  41. The Atrocity Archives by Charles Stross
  42. The Last Summer of the Death Warriors by Francisco X. Stork
  43. Sacred and Profane by Faye Kellerman
  44. Running Blind by Lee Child
  45. Over the Edge by Jonathan Kellerman
  46. Shadows Still Remain by Peter de Jonge
  47. The Jennifer Morgue by Charles Stross
  48. Reliquary by Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child
  49. The Portable Door by Tom Holt
  50. The Fuller Memorandum by Charles Stross
  51. The Empty Chair by Jeffery Deaver
  52. The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion
  53. Monstrous Devices by Damien Love
  54. The Doom Machine by Mark Teague
  55. The Golem of Paris by Jonathan Kellerman & Jesse Kellerman
  56. The Book of Lost Things by Cynthia Voigt
  57. The Hero Revealed by William Boniface
  58. The Candymakers by Wendy Mass
  59. Deadweather and Sunrise by Geoff Rodkey
  60. The Candymakers and the Great Chocolate Chase by Wendy Mass
  61. The Ghosts of Tupelo Landing by Sheila Turnage
  62. Holy Ghost by John Sandford
  63. Three Times Lucky by Sheila Turnage
  64. The Odds of Getting Even by Sheila Turnage
  65. The Rosie Effect by Graeme Simsion
  66. Messiah: The Greatest Sermon Ever Sung by Tony Pittenger, ill. by Jonathan Mayer
  67. I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen
  68. The Remember Balloons by Jessie Oliveros, ill. by Dana Wulfekotte
  69. The Wedding Guest by Jonathan Kellerman
And now the awards:

Critic’s Choice
I’m a critic, of sorts. I give my honest opinion when I review a book, and I recognize and appreciate quality in the art of writing. For beauty, power and mastery of literary techniques, I award this year’s Critic’s Choice to “As You Wish” by Chelsea Sedoti.

This young adult novel focuses on a boy named Eldon Wilkes as his 18th birthday approaches. On that day, Eldon, like everyone else brought up in his small town in the Mojave desert, is expected to enter a certain cave and make a wish that will certainly come true – then deal with the results for the rest of his life.

As he prepares for his wish day, Eldon researches what other townsfolk wished for and how it turned out for them. What he learns is horrifying enough, but he’s already spent his entire life living in a household poisoned by the unintended consequences of wishes. And although his parents, especially mom, expect Eldon to mend a family tragedy with his wish, he becomes increasingly certain that he doesn’t want to make any wish at all.

Carrying the consequences of “what you wish for” to the utmost, this strikingly original book takes the reader on a far-flung emotional journey, filled with ethical questions that will keep you thinking and feeling as you read. Meanwhile, you fall in love with the characters, squirm with their discomfort, forgive their flaws, struggle with their decisions, worry about their wellbeing and appreciate the slightly unexpected way everything turns out.

People’s Choice
I’m also a person, and like a lot of people, I value pieces of entertainment that take me out of my world and into theirs. For wowing me in 2019, my People’s Choice award goes to “The Doom Machine” by Mark Teague, which seems to be the only novel by a mostly children’s book author and illustrator.

It features a group of oddball characters caught up in the alien invasion of upstate New York in the mid-1950s. Including a boy who can fix any kind of engine (including a flying saucer’s) and a girl who can throw a baseball with deadly accuracy, the group is all that stands between earth and enslavement to the vicious, insectoid skreeps.

As period-piece science fiction goes, this book was a total gas. The aliens, even at their most loathsome, are kind of adorable. Touches of time travel and prophecy, details of an alien planet’s weird scenery and culture, smart dialogue with space pirates and a conflict over the fate of many worlds make it thrilling, touching, brainy fun from start to finish. I wish Teague would write more novels!

Kids' Choice
I’m still a kid at heart, younger inside than out. I’ve always read a lot of books designed for middle grades and young adults, but two that stood out this past year were actually aimed at small children. Of them, the winner is I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen.

Klassen’s perfectly structured book uses subtle variants of a few simple pictures, rearrangements of a few well-chosen words, and a clever bit that doesn’t actually have to be shown or stated, to pull laughter, irony and charm out of a silly tale of a bear searching the woods for his lost hat. It may also be just the thing to cheer up a child who is frustrated about losing a favorite hat, toy or whatever.

Best Comeback
This new year would be a great time to re-read The Selling of the President 1968 by Joe McGinniss. Alternately hilarious and horrifying, the book documents the innovative use of television to market Richard Nixon’s successful campaign for president.

Seemingly working from inside the campaign, McGinniss shows how carefully calibrated imagery and faux-spontaneous set-pieces snowed an entire country – or just enough of it to elect an obviously unsuitable candidate. It delivers laughs, chills and an important message for all media consumers.

If anything, its lessons are even more urgent today, when we have just-this-second journalism, targeted ads, machine learning and social media with few to no ethical filters. It’s proof that there’s a payoff for holding a long train of thought (like reading a piece of long-form reporting). If we don’t learn what this book can still teach us, I hate to think where we’re headed.

Best Newcomer
Everything I read this year was new to me, of course. As for the most promising debut novel by an author who shows signs of not being a one-hit wonder (cough Mark Teague cough), I feel this award belongs to Charlie Hernández & the League of Shadows by Ryan Calejo.

It's an exciting, spirited romp through the folklore of Spanish-speaking cultures. It features a street-wise Miami boy in search of his missing parents, helped by some strange allies and pursued by terrifying monsters. Along the way, his progress is hampered by outbreaks, not of zits (heaven forbid), but of feathers and horns.

You get all the fun of Rick Riordan's "Percy Jackson and the Olympians" series, plus you get to try out some Spanish phrases! Its sequel, Charlie Hernandez & the Castle of Bones, was released in October 2019 and will (I hope) find its way into my fist in 2020.

Best Documentary
In I'll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman's Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer, true crime maven Michelle McNamara does deep-dive journalism into a cold case about a creep known at the time as the “Original Night Stalker,” who raped some 50 women, murdered 10 people and terrorized a large swath of California, on and off, from 1976 to -86.

By the time the killer was caught in 2018, McNamara had died at age 46, leaving this book unfinished. Other writers, including her husband, comedian Patton Oswalt, filled in some missing pieces to complete the book, based largely on a series of magazine articles by McNamara and her unpublished notes.

The authorities deny that McNamara found any new facts that helped them capture Joseph DeAngelo. But it seems likely that her crusade, online and in print, spurred law enforcement to keep devoting resources to the case and re-examining the evidence.

Her deep sympathy for the crimes’ victims and their grieving survivors is evident, and it stirs similar feelings. It makes both her and them real on a personal level. I only know McNamara from reading this book, and yet somehow I miss her.

Best Audiobook
Out of a small list of candidates, I’m going to go with The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion, read by Dan O’Grady.

It’s the beginning of a series of books about an Australian geneticist whose personality is wired differently from most people’s – he seems to have something like Asperger’s syndrome – and who is about to give up on ever finding the love of his life when a psychologist friend suggests approaching it as a research project.

Don Tillman puts together a scientific study, including a questionnaire to filter out unsuitable applicants. Just when some promising data starts coming in, he encounters a random variable – a graduate student named Rosie. Even though everything about her goes against his notion of the ideal mate, he can’t stop thinking about her.

Cue an outrageous and romantic comedy of errors, in which the narrator himself misses the irony that permeates his point of view and everything builds to a sweet climax. O’Grady’s voice acting has just the right comic touch, enhanced by a down-under accent and a firm but not unkind grasp of the main character.

Best Graphic Novel
Taking the place of last year’s Short Subject award, this category represents only a small handful of books I read in 2019. Nevertheless, I think The Last Kids on Earth by Max Brallier, illustrated by Douglas Holgate, deserves a plug.

A funny, monster- and action-packed tale of teens surviving a zombie apocalypse, it alternates between comic panels and prose. The art and the writing share the same kind of youthful goofiness.

Jack, the hero kid, imagines himself as more heroic than he actually is, which adds laughs to the thrills. Joining him in a street-to-street battle against the walking dead and worse are his nerdy best friend, his ex-bully (who, Jack finds, is nice to have on his side) and the girl he dreams of saving, but who is pretty good at saving herself.

It’s part of a five-book series that I grew tired of seeing in a store’s book aisle and finally decided to try. I’d recommend it for kids who need encouragement in reading.

Best Art
For the most beautiful book art, my vote goes to Messiah: The Greatest Sermon Ever Sung by Tony Pittenger, illustrated by Jonathan Mayer.

I recently traveled to the Twin Cities to attend a two-day retreat in which Pittenger, a Lutheran pastor from the Seattle area, played a recording of the Messiah and paused every few tracks to discuss his book, along with Mayer’s spectacular artwork.

Pittenger’s words study of how George Frideric Handel and his librettist, Charles Jennens, used Bible selections and musical symbolism to bear powerful witness to Christ – laying out our world’s need, God’s promise and its fulfillment from the beginning of the world to the end.

It’s the book about Handel’s Messiah that I’ve been looking for all my adult life, even before Mayer’s art takes it to a new level. One image alone – a slaughtered lamb whose blood forms a map of the world – has become a permanent exhibit in my mind’s gallery; many others are just as excellent.

Till we read again, happy book hunting!

Monday, December 30, 2019

The Wedding Guest

The Wedding Guest
by Jonathan Kellerman
Recommended Ages: 14+

Child psychologist Dr. Alex Delaware hasn't heard much lately from his best friend, LAPD homicide lieutenant Milo Sturgis. Then he gets called in to look at a pretty weird murder scene – a beautiful young woman, dressed to kill, found strangled in the ladies' room at a wedding reception. Nobody on either the bride's side or the groom's admits to knowing her. But clearly, something twisted is up, and members of the wedding party are hiding something.

For one thing, the specific method of killing the young woman resembles a series of crimes that happened several years ago in Poland – and at the mention of Poland, the groom and other members of his family clam right up. For another thing, a drug used to subdue the dead girl is used in the father-of-the-groom's veterinary practice. Also, the sister-of-the-groom lives in the same college student apartment complex as at least one other girl who died under similar circumstances, and where a caretaker died a drug-related death within hours of this latest murder. Finally, there's the victim herself, whose real identity remains elusive more than a week after her death; all Milo and Alex know about her is that she dances (poorly) for a living, gives everybody she meets a slightly different name and used to date another caretaker at the same building, whose overdose death no longer seems like an accident.

Who all these clues point toward doesn't become clear until quite late in the book, when a young woman's life depends on catching the bad guy in the act with not a moment to spare. That much you could guess from the shelf where you'll find this book, and what experience tells you about the kind of book that lives there. There's always a last-minute race to confront evil, face to face, with someone's (or more than one's) life on the line – and the danger will be real for the investigators, too. Heigh-ho, ho-hum, yawn. What gets you in this mystery is the elusiveness of the identity of both the victim and the dark figure behind her death. Also, as murderers go, he has an unusual specialty – talking pretty, promising young women into killing themselves, or letting him kill them – that adds its own macabre dimension to the thriller.

As always, Milo and Alex make a fun crime-solving duo. Their patter is comfortable, experienced, and witty. Their familiar roles as partners in investigation continue to show room to stretch. Their relationships with the recurring characters around them – from Milo's homicide squad to Alex's longtime girlfriend Robin – establish a baseline against which their forays into danger and the unknown show up in all the sharper relief. Recent developments in the politics and science of crime detection keep that background up to date. And cameo appearances (at secondhand) by Robin's real-life clients in the music world, such as guitar virtuoso Sharon Isbin, help keep the whodunit grounded in the known. Clearly, author Kellerman knows something about the psyche of his readers, and he plays that (along with the psychological aspects of the crimes we're reading about) with a bravura touch.

This is the 34th of soon-to-be 35 Alex Delaware mysteries. The next installment, The Museum of Desire, is due to be released Feb. 4, 2020.

Sunday, December 22, 2019

The Remember Balloons

The Remember Balloons
by Jessie Oliveros
illustrated by Dana Wulfekotte
Recommended Ages: 4+

This children's picture book was a selection for my local public library's "Leaders are Readers" program. I read it as an exercise in cross-generational communication about one of my favorite subjects (books), and ended up being emotionally touched.

This story uses balloons as an analogy for memories, in hope of helping little ones understand what's happening when grandma or grandpa starts to show signs of dementia. With warmth and courage, it faces an issue that may cause confusion, sadness and anger for children while their loved ones become confused and forgetful. In a final touch that still gets me choked up, it suggests a use for the shared life experiences that younger family members still have in their grasp.

Jessie Oliveros is a former nurse who (according to Goodreads) lives in Texas with her husband and four kids. This seems to be her first book. Illustrator Dana Wulfekotte seems to have contributed art to at least eight children's books, including three "Cilla-Lee Jenkins" books by Susan Tan, as well as her own book, Rabbit & Possum.

I Want My Hat Back

I Want My Hat Back
by Jon Klassen
Recommended Ages: 4+

Here is a perfectly structured children's book that uses subtle variants of a few simple pictures, rearrangements of a few well-chosen words, and a clever hint of what isn't directly shown or stated, to pull laughter, irony and charm out of a silly tale of a bear searching the woods for his lost hat.

As it clues very little readers, perhaps for the first time, into the concept of incriminating yourself by protesting your innocence too much, it may also be just the thing to cheer up a child frustrated about losing a favorite hat, toy or whatever.

This picture book was one of the selections for my local public library's "Leaders are Readers" program. The debut book by a Canadian author, it was followed up by the Caldecott and Kate Greenaway medal-winning This Is Not My Hat and, later, We Found a Hat. Klassen is also the co-author with Mac Barnett of a children's picture book titled Square.

Monday, December 16, 2019

Messiah: The Greatest Sermon Ever Sung

Messiah: The Greatest Sermon Ever Sung
by Tony Pittenger
Illustrated by Jonathan Mayer
Recommended Ages: 10+

I couldn't find a decent-resolution picture of the front cover of this book online. It's just as well, because this excerpt is a fortuitously beautiful example of the kind of work you can expect from this book. Many years ago, I was horribly disappointed by a book titled Messiah: The Gospel According to Handel's Oratorio by Roger A. Bullard – a scholarly treatise that I picked up in a Lutheran college or seminary bookstore (I forget which) and that I hoped would go through the theology expressed by librettist Charles Jennens' choices (and adaptations) of Scripture for the lyrics of Handel's Messiah, and by Handel's musical treatment. Instead of that, the book took a great big, smelly, higher-critical dump on the Biblical texts used by Jennens and Handel – demythologizing this, documentary-hypothesizing that, and just generally making a case against the believing exegesis of Scripture in general and Messianic prophecy in particular.

The book I wanted to read at that time is now in my hands. As a bonus, it's written with incredible economy, at a layman's level (musically as well as theologically) by a faithful Lutheran pastor who happens to be nuts about Handel's Messiah. As another bonus, it's illustrated with breathtaking loveliness by an at-that-time starving artist who really got the theology the author was trying to get across. It's a Bible study wrapped in a music appreciation class, packaged in the dimensions of a children's illustrated board book – but like the oratorio it helps the reader understand, it's more than the sum of its parts. The Messiah is not, according to those in the know, Handel's best work; even Jennens thought so. But it's the piece that communicates with millions of people, generation after generation, on a profound level. It's the piece that hits you right there.

Read in alternation with musical examples (at a recent workshop on this book, Pastor Pittenger played his recommended recording (Christopher Hogwood conducting the Academy of Ancient Music and the Choir of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford – a truly beautiful performance), the book is a refreshing supplement to what you already think you know about Handel's Messiah, which may not really be all that much. It is beautifully done, and that's even before you take in Mayer's stunning visuals, several of which deserve to be printed on an embroidery machine and hung as tapestries in your church. Or screened onto canvas and worked into an altar triptych, or something. I am full of admiration for this book, and that's not even getting into the story I heard at the aforementioned conference about the book being translated and used for evan- I mean, music appreciation classes in a country where that sort of thing must be done with immense care.

I'd like to tell you all about my trip to hear Pastor Pittenger hold forth about the Messiah a couple weekends ago at a beautiful Lutheran campus chapel at the University of Minnesota and all the other interesting things I saw, did and blew money on. But that wouldn't be to the purpose of this book review. I don't get out as much as I used to, and above all I don't get to share cultural and spiritual experiences as rich as a performance of Handel's Messiah as often as I used to. The chance to discuss these things with Pastor P. and others was a wonderful bleeding of the release valve for me, more needed than I would have guessed. But it's not all about me, you know. This book, with or without the presentation Pastor Pittenger seems to be willing to travel long distances to make, would be a wonderful topic of discussion for a Bible study circle, a book club, an art or music lovers' group or a larger organization (like, say, a circuit or district church workers' conference, women's auxiliary rally or doctrinal retreat). I think you'd be surprised at the quality of the insight it offers, not only into a piece of music that has perhaps been overplayed to the point many of us can no longer hear it, but into the faith it proclaims and confesses.

Sci-fi DVD Binges

I used to have a commitment on this blog to review starship-based TV series on an episode-by-episode basis. Please forgive me, but I just don't have the time for that any more. In fact, the amount of time I spend looking at a computer screen at work, and the fact that I haven't budgeted for an internet connection at home for the past several years, has somewhat deterred me from reviewing everything I watch on DVD like I used to and has led to long delays between when I watched something and when I wrote about it.

Nevertheless, I don't want to let some fine pieces of starship-based entertainment go by unremarked on. So, with only a few brushstrokes, here are my reviews of a few of my TV on DVD binges during the past year.

Andromeda (Seasons 1-5) – I got hold of a boxed set of this complete series for a reasonable price, and watched it straight through in one of those "every waking hour except when you're at work" video binges that, when measured by the care one takes of oneself and one's living environment, are effectively indistinguishable from an episode of bipolar depression. I was mostly rewarded by good entertainment.

Developed by sometime Star Trek writer Robert Hewitt Wolfe from unproduced notes left behind by Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, Andromeda aired for five seasons (2000-05) and 110 episodes, mainly in first-run syndication but also (at least in part) on Canada's Global Television Network and cable's Sci-Fi Channel. It was produced by Majel Barrett Roddenberry, the Great Bird's widow and the actress who played Nurse Chapel and Lwaxana Troi.

Set thousands of years in the future, the storyline begins about 300 years after the fall of the Systems Commonwealth, a diverse planetary alliance that spans three galaxies and includes many species. Structured as a sort of constitutional monarchy, its royalty (if you will) are an advanced race called the Vedrans.

Kevin Sorbo plays Dylan Hunt, the captain of a self-aware starship called the Andromeda Ascendant, which gets stuck on the event horizon of a black hole with only him on board right at the moment when the Nietzscheans – a coalition of clans devoted to eugenics, racial purity and the practice of existentialist ideology – betray the Commonwealth, fracture civilization and usher in an era known as the Long Night.

Now Hunt and Andromeda are back, thanks to a crew of scavengers who tractor-beam them off the event horizon. For him, only moments have passed. But he finds the universe totally changed. The Commonwealth fleet has been destroyed. Earth has been devastated, first by a Nietzschean occupation, then by an invasion of the voracious Magog. Former Commonwealth worlds have not done so well on their own. And the Vedrans have totally disappeared.

With Andromeda's artificial intelligence still loyal to him, Hunt recruits (most) of the scavengers to help him rebuild the Commonwealth – an at first seemingly quixotic quest that they actually achieve, little by little, during the first three years of the series, in spite of constant push-back by the Nietzscheans and others.

In Season 4 or so, all their gains are clawed back, and another wave of Magog seems to be on a collision course with all other life in the known universe. Then there's Season 5, in which the climax is seemingly suspended and the main characters find themselves stranded in limbo, or rather a pocket universe, looking for a way out of a planetary system that was apparently designed as a colossal machine.

Co-starring with Sorbo are Lisa Ryder as Beka Valentine, the captain of a freighter/smuggling ship called the Eureka Maru, which for all its significant size fits comfortably inside the Andromeda Ascendant's shuttle bay; Gordon Michael Woolvett as Seamus Harper, a nerdy engineer; Laura Bertram as Trance Gemini, a mysterious alien who changes color partway through the series and turns out to be the avatar of a star; Lexa Doig as the ship's AI and its android avatar; Keith Hamilton Cobb as a Nietzschean named Tyr who grudgingly joins the crew for a few seasons before finally becoming their foe; Brent Stait as a reformed Magog named Rev Bem, who also flakes off after a couple of seasons; Steve Bacic as two different Nietzscheans named Rhade, one of whom takes over Tyr's position in the group in later seasons; and Brandy Ledford as another android named Doyle, who joins the group for Season 5.

Sorbo is at the height of his manly charisma in this role, and he does a lot with his catch-line, "It's never easy." Ryder and Woolvett get a lot of opportunities to show their characters wrestling between noble ideals and mercenary impulses; they also both excel at sarcasm and have bad luck in their love lives, though the scales tip toward Beka where sex appeal is concerned; Seamus is more of a comedic sad sack in that respect.

Cobb and Bacic's characters were seemingly designed to look sexy in revealing costumes or a lack thereof, thereby gratifying the male-attracted segment of the audience. However, it's impossible to like Tyr very much, since (unlike Telemachus Rhade) he never exhibits the faintest tint of loyalty and, except for sexual tension with Beka, has no chemistry with any of the other main characters. Tyr also has no apparent sense of humor; even when he laughs, there's no joy in it.

For the other characters, you have two sexy female androids who are, after all, androids with the mind of a warship; a cute girl who comes across like everybody's kid sister and whose character, toward the end of the series, develops in an incomprehensible direction; and that Magog guy, whose makeup must have been stifling and isn't very pleasant to look at, but who (up to a point) gave the crew a spiritual dimension.

Overall, I thought it was a terrific adventure for about three years, with ups and downs along the way. It seemed to be building toward a big climax throughout Season 4, but whatever big payoff one might expect going into Season 5 was dissipated by a whole season stuck on and around one planet (or a few variations on it), and that took back all of the main characters' positive development up to that time. I felt let down by the series finale, and I collected a sense that a change in personnel behind the scenes (like, RHW losing control of the show) might have contributed to the show's decline.

Three Episodes That Made It For Me: (1) Season One episode "The Banks of the Lethe," in which Dylan is offered an opportunity to reunite with his lost love and perhaps change history on the eve of the Nietzschean attack. (2) Season Three episode "Cui Bono," in which John de Lancie ("Q" on Star Trek) plays Beka's no-good Uncle Sid and his evil corporation takes out a hit on everybody who might be responsible for putting him in a coma.

(3) The two-part episode "Dissonant Interval" at the end of Season 4, after which the series is more or less one long anticlimax. In this episode, the Andromedas encounter a space habitat whose peaceful inhabitants believe (alas, wrongly) that they can make peace with the impending horde of Magog. Dylan learns that he's a Paradine (for more info, watch the show), T. Rhade falls in love, and everything comes to the ultimate cliffhanger – certain doom for all! – except for a cryptic ending in which it seems Dylan has somehow escaped the carnage. The only thing that could have made it better is a halfway decent Season 5. But in a TV series where the writing staff turned over almost completely from one season to the next, that's not something you should bet on.

Doctor Who (9th & 10th Doctors) – Only recently have I taken steps to correct a huge oversight in my sci-fi TV fandom: I had never watched an entire episode of Doctor Who. I was aware, from TV specials about it, fragments of episodes stumbled on now and then, and recreational reading on and off the Internet, that Doctor Who was a show going back to the 1960s and featuring a funny little man with no name traveling through time and space in a blue police box called TARDIS, or maybe Tardis, with a crew of tag-alongs that turned over frequently and was mostly there to say, "What's that, Doctor?" I was also aware that some of his enemies include these giant gliding pepper-pots called Daleks that like to scream "Exterminate!" in a hysterical manner, campy robot-like creatures called Cybermen, and more recently (thanks to their frequent appearance in Facebook memes) weeping angels that freeze into statues when you look at them, but close in quickly when your back is turned or your eyes blink.

I've read a lot of about Doctor Who, actually. I remember a story, a few years ago, about how it's reinvented itself as a different type of show every few years. Self-reinvention seems to be the secret to the show's longevity – weathering all those years between 1963 and 1989, coming back for a one-off TV movie in 1996, starting up again in 2005 and still going today. For the Doctor's sidekicks (I mean, companions) aren't the only things that turn over on a regular basis. The Doctor himself keeps changing, or rather, regenerating into a different guy – still the same Doctor, but (thanks to his alien biology) able to start over in a new body every now and then, if he gets hurt badly enough. You know, the sort of situation where a character would say, "It's still me, I'm just being played by a different actor now."

We're now, I think, on the 13th Doctor in first-run, canonical broadcast. Let me make short work of them before I go on to talk about Doctors IX and X. Though, to be sure, my ignorance will show itself.

Doctor I (1963-66) was played by a guy named William Hartnell as sort of a crusty old professor type. I think I've heard he was starting to lose his ability to memorize his lines by the end of his turn in the role, with some whimsically improvised results. Then there was Patrick Troughton as Doctor II (1966-69), a recorder-playing, Charlie-Chaplinesque hobo type of Doctor, who mindfully set a precedent for only hanging onto the part for three or four years in order not to get into a rut. Doctor III (1970-74) was a certain Jon Pertwee, who had silver hair and made up the technobabble catchphrase "reverse the polarity of the neutron flow." Doctor IV (1974-81) was Tom Baker, the curly dark-haired guy with the incredible scarf who was in the role when U.S. viewers started taking notice of him. Doctor V (1982-84) was Peter Davison, a young blond dude who affected a Panama hat and a cricketer's getup with a celery stalk stuck to his lapel. Doctor VI (1984-86) was Colin Baker, a flamboyant type with blond curls and a multi-colored costume. Doctor VII (1987-89) was Sylvester McCoy, an umbrella-carrying little guy who saw the series canceled from under him. Doctor VIII, for just one TV movie in 1996, was Paul McGann.

And now, for one year only (2005), Doctor IX is Christopher Eccleston, a leather-jacket-wearing adventurer with big ears, a goofy grin and a disarming habit of saying "Fantastic!" like he really means it whenever a weird and dangerous situation arises. His companion, overlapping into Doctor X's era, is Rose Tyler (played by Billie Piper), an (at first) 19-year-old shop girl raised by a single mum in a somewhat low-rent part of London. She develops romantic feelings for Doctor X (2005-10), played by David Tennant, a.k.a. Barty Crouch Jr. from the Harry Potter films. I might as well mention that as far as my dad is concerned, he's the best Doctor of them all. I think he's pretty good, too. After these guys there's Doctor XI (2010-13) played by a younger, frequently fez-wearing Matt Smith, Doctor XII (2014-17) played by an older guy named Peter Capaldi (who actually appears in a guest role during Tennant's tenure) and most recently, the first-ever female Doctor (XIII) played by Jodie Whittaker. So, that's that.

Tennant's Doctor goes through a few companions. After a spell with Rose Tyler, he leaves her in an alternate dimension and moves on to a pretty young medical student named Martha Jones (played by Freema Agyeman, who had also guest-starred as somebody else a few episodes earlier). Then, for a while, it's the bossy, brassy Donna Noble (played by Catherine Tate), who actually accompanied the Doctor on one of his Christmas Specials before he met Martha, and was eventually fated to forget all about him, for her own safety. All three of these companions brought family complications into the TARDIS, which meant additional, recurring cast members such as Rose's mum Jackie and boyfriend Mickey, Martha's parents and siblings and Donna's mum and granddad.

Then there's Capt. Jack Harkness, the flamboyantly omnisexual, time-traveling ne'er-do-well played by John Barrowman, lately of "Arrow," as a recurring character throughout the Eccleston/Tennant years and also, I gather, as a leading role in the spinoff series "Torchwood," which I have yet to see. Also, Elisabeth Sladen reprises her role as the Third & Fourth Doctors' companion Sarah Jane Smith, in appearances that overlap with her own spinoff series ("The Sarah Jane Adventures") which ended in 2011 with the actress' death. Some other Time Lords put in their appearances, including the villainous Master, played by Derek Jacobi and later John Simm, as well as the Lord High President of Gallifrey (the Time Lords' planet), played by Timothy Dalton of 007 fame.

But anyway, I'm ready to commit to my Three Episodes That Made It For Me. I'll give you one for each doctor, though there are only 13 episodes to choose from for Doc 9. Here they are, though: (1) "Boom Town," where a devious creature from the planet Rexicoricofallapatorius (I love saying that) – her full name, Blon Fel Foch Passemer-Day Slitheen (which I also love saying) – dons a human woman's skin and tries to blow up Cardiff. The specific scene that makes it for me is when Blon, while dining out with the Doctor on the pretext of having her last meal before being turned over to her homeworld for capital punishment, begs for her life. As part of her argument, she makes three unsuccessful attempts to poison the Doctor in quick succession, one of the most perfect comic scenes in the series so far as I have seen it.

(2) "The End of the World," in which the Doctor and Rose encounter the last "pure" human being, voiced by Madam Hooch from Harry Potter. Obsessed with being as thin and white as possible, Lady Cassandra has been surgically reduced to a rectangle of skin stretched across a metal-tube frame with two eyes and a mouth, constantly needing to be spritzed with moisturizer by her attendants. Her character, hateful as she is, is an absolute gas.

(3) "Bad Wolf," in which the Doctor, Captain Jack and Rose find themselves in a nightmarish, mechanized version of Reality TV, about which I'll say no more for now. An honorable mention has to go to "Dalek," in which the apparent last Dalek in existence taunts the Doctor with the awful assessment, "You would make an excellent Dalek."

As for Doc 10, my Three Episodes should be so much harder to choose, because there are ever so many more of them and quite a few of them are of the highest quality. However, it really isn't that hard, because three just stand up head and shoulders above all: (1) "Blink," featuring those terrifying Weeping Angels and the Doc's famous speech about "wibbly wobbly, timey wimey stuff." Surprisingly, it's one of those stories told from the perspective of a non-recurring character who just brushes up against the Doctor in a weird but wonderful way.

(2) "Midnight," an episode in which the Doctor and a group of strangers become trapped together when their ground transport breaks down in the middle of a trip across a planetscape completely hostile to life. An impossible life-form infiltrates the cabin and takes over one of the passengers, setting everyone against each other and especially against the Doctor. It's an hour or so of the most exquisite terrors – paranoia, claustrophobia and xenophobia to start with, topped off by the fear of fear itself.

(3) The two-part episode "Silence in the Library" / "Forest of the Dead," introducing a time-traveling character named River Song (played by Alex Kingston) who seems to know the Doctor intimately from their shared future, but whom he has never met before. It's their last meeting for her and their first for him, apparently. The mystery, strangeness and emotional power of this two-parter makes it a standout all around.

Space does not permit me to list all of the honorable mentions that I would like – for just a couple of examples, there's the 2007 Christmas Special "Voyage of the Damned," in which Kylie Minogue plays a one-off companion who joins the doctor on an adventure on the the Starliner Titanic and comes to an end brimming with pathos; "Gridlock," featuring a worldwide traffic jam set to go on forever; "Smith and Jones," in which Doc 10 and Martha Jones are transported along with an entire hospital to the moon; "The Girl in the Fireplace" (oh, my goodness! That should have been one of my top 3!) featuring Madame Pompadour (played by the beautiful Sophia Myles) in a most unusual and emotionally devastating twist on the "Doctor Does History" type of episode.

The Orville, Season 2 – I already introduced the premise of this show in my review of Season 1 (in the same post as my review of Season 1 of Star Trek: Discovery). So what else is there to say except that it continues to be the closest thing to Star Trek that isn't Star Trek, with a comedic twist based largely on the idea of how lame the 25th Century would be if it was full of 21st Century us.

I'll get right on to Three Episodes That Made It For Me: (1) "The Happy Refrain," in which Dr. Claire Finn and super-intelligent android Isaac explore the possibility of a romantic relationship – a concept that miraculously stays just this side of ridiculous and is actually kind of touching at times. My favorite moment is when Isaac decides he wants to break it off without hurting Claire's feelings, so (on the advice of the ship's designated ladies' man) he tries to provoke her into dumping him. Robot in tighty-whities, nursing a bottle of beer? Hysterical! (2) "Identity," the two-parter in which Isaac's people lure the Orville into becoming part of their bid to conquer all organic life in the universe. This episode has lots going for it, including (at last) some common ground between the Union and their whilom worst enemy, the Krill. But the icing on the cake is the way Dr. Finn's adorable younger son saves the day, simply by making Isaac choose to love him. (3) "All the World Is Birthday Cake," in which Kelly and Bortus are chucked into a concentration camp on a first-contact planet simply because their birth month puts them under an unfavorable horoscope. Again, it's a belly-laugh funny, preposterous concept that somehow comes across as deadly serious, could-have-been-an-episode-of-classic-Trek stuff, without losing touch with the humorous side. Guest cast members include John Rubinstein and Ted Danson.

Honorable Mention could go to practically all of the season's other episodes – which isn't hard, considering that the show is excellently put together and had, after all, only 14 hours of material last year. Among the issues it explored were more reasons Bortus' Moclan race is a strange bedfellow with the Union (there are multiple episodes in which their alliance is tested by an explosive issue, mostly revolving around gender politics), the devastating butterfly-effect results of tampering with the timeline, the captain's loneliness and trouble moving on after his failed marriage with Kelly, porn addiction, cyberstalking, making peace with the enemy, the fine line sometimes between asylum seekers and terrorists, and (for my top Honorable Mention) "Home," the last episode for original security chief Alara, which features the actors who played the ship's doctor on two different Star Trek series (Robert Picardo of "Voyager" as Alara's father and John Billingsley of "Enterprise" as a guy who terrorizes their family). Other Trek alumni turn up this season, too, with former cast members Jonathan Frakes (Will Riker) and Robert Duncan McNeill (Tom Paris) both directing episodes, episodes written by former Trek writers Andre Bormanis, Brannon Braga and Joe Menosky, and a couple appearances by Marina Sirtis (Deanna Troi) as the ship's schoolteacher.

Star Trek: Discovery, Season 2 – Again, I'm going to save myself the trouble of re-introducing this entire series by referring you back to the above-linked post in which I reviewed Season 1. Additions to the regular cast this season include comedian Tig Notaro as Jet Reno, an engineer rescued early in the season from a wrecked medical ship, whose dry, sarcastic wit makes her a welcome addition to the cast; Alan van Sprang as Leland, an intelligence operative with Starfleet's Section 31, who develops into the season's main heavy; Anson Mount as original-pilot Capt. Christopher Pike (played in previous appearances by Jeffrey Hunter and Bruce Greenwood); Rebecca Romijn as Pike's "Number One"; Rachael Ancheril as security officer Nhan, an alien of the "needs an implant to puff air from her planet into her nostrils to survive in our atmosphere" persuasion; and Ethan Peck, grandson of Gregory Peck, as a pre-Kirk era version of Spock, who (you may remember) is main character Michael Burnham's foster brother.

Long story short, this season's serialized format sends Pike, Spock and the Discoveries in search of the source of a series of mysterious signals that, they gradually learn, has something to do with a time traveler from the distant future (often described as a "Red Angel"), something to do with a threat to all sentient life in the universe, and something to do with an artificial intelligence that is close to reaching the tipping point to achieve full sentience. Meantime, Michael and Spock have some serious sibling issues to work out; the ship's astromycologist (!) Paul Stamets gets his boyfriend, Dr. Hugh Culber, back from the dead; Michael rekindles her romantic flame with ex-Klingon sleeper agent Ash Tyler, now an agent for Section 31; and everything ties up nicely so that, from Season 3 onward, diehard Trekkers need not worry about this series effing up Original Series continuity. (That hint is big enough to almost be a spoiler. Sorry.)

I liked a lot about this season, which I felt was a distinct improvement on Season 1. It started to feel more like classic Trek. The look of it was increasingly there, too – including a beautiful redesign of the original Enterprise bridge. There was a more episodic feel to it, which I thought was also a plus, given the way Season 1 was so heavily serialized that, with only a couple of exceptions, it became hard to distinguish one episode from another. And so I found it easier to choose the Three Episodes That Made It For Me: (1) "The Sound of Thunder," in which Saru undergoes the Kelpien death process, only to discover that it isn't what his planet's dominant race, the Ba'ul, have sold it as to his subservient people. We get to see his planet; we meet the super-creepy Ba'ul for just a moment; and we see this important character undergo a huge change that will have far-reaching consequences. Already a cool and original guy, Saru becomes even more so in the episodes following this one. Also, might I mention, he has the coolest on-board quarters I've ever seen in a starship-based TV series. (2) "Through the Valley of Shadows," in which Pike visits a Klingon shrine, meets Ash Tyler's love-child by the female Klingon chancellor (a victim of an extreme case of Soap Opera Rapid Aging Syndrome), and confronts his own disturbing future before making a movingly courageous choice. (3) "Project Deadalus," in which a recurring bridge officer named Airiam meets her demise. It's a terrific installment loaded with suspense, pathos, chills and action.

In this instance, I'd also like to mention Three Scenes That Made It For Me: (1) A fight between Ash Tyler (who is still working out what species he is) and Hugh Culber (who hasn't quite come to terms with his death and resurrection), which ends with an arm-lock. Culber: "I don't know who I am anymore!" Tyler: "Who do you think you're talking to?" (2) The 3D chess game between Michael and Spock, which ends with him upending the board and declaring that he enjoys feeling anger. Peck does a great job depicting Spock in the throes of crisis between emotion and logic, lashing out at his foster-sister with breathtaking hurtfulness. It's delicious. (3) Ensign Tilly's hallucination of a girl she knew in junior high school comes to a head when she's sitting in the captain's chair on the bridge as part of a command-training exercise. Unable to cope any longer with what she thinks is evidence that she's losing her mind, Tilly explodes at the captain, says "I quit" and storms off the bridge in front of all her shocked crewmates. It's a tipping point for a really offbeat, mysterious storyline.

Again, Honorable Mentions are due – including a segment in which the ship's universal translators go on the fritz, Michael's discovery of who's wearing the Red Angel timesuit (after she was set up to believe it was her future self), and practically any scene featuring the Machiavellian character of Bizarro Capt. Philippa Georgiou (actually the deposed emperor of the Terran universe), played with fiendish zest by Michelle Yeoh. I particularly enjoyed her attempt to pick up Stamets and Culber (with whose mirror-universe doppelgangers she had shared some unlawful carnal knowledge). Visiting Talos IV again was also quite the trip.

Ford v. Ferrari

I broke a recent at-the-movies dry spell last night and went to see this movie. It's about how Henry Ford III struck back at a certain Modena, Italy based auto manufacturer you may know of, who turned down an offer to buy his company in an insulting manner. Ford, the CEO of his granddaddy's car manufacturing giant, listened to the advice of a bright young executive named Lee Iacocca and started a racing program in partnership with race car designer Carroll Shelby, who in 1959 had been the first American to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans before having to quit racing due to a heart condition. Shelby designed the Ford GT40 (which would go on to collect all four Le Mans wins by any American car) with input from a rough-around-the-edges British driver named Ken Miles, whose dominating performance in the 1966 Le Mans the movie goes on to dramatize.

The movie makes excellent use of its cast, including Matt Damon as Shelby, Christian Bale as Miles, Jon Bernthal as Iacocca, Josh Lucas as a Ford exec whose face you want to punch, Caitriona Balfe (of TV's Outlander) as Mrs. Miles, and more faces that may be more or less familiar to constant TV and movie watchers. The film depicts Lucas' character as the one who sticks it to Miles in the end, but let's not spoil it more than that.

I thought this movie does a great job depicting the excitement of auto racing – as well as the frustration, the danger, the heartbreak and a whole complex tangle of other feelings. Besides the engineering breakthroughs that put the GT40 over the top, it also shows an intergenerational struggle for the soul of American car manufacturing, personality conflicts between grown men, the struggles and triumphs of a working-class family and the levels of gamesmanship that go way, way up above the race track.

Three Scenes That Made It For Me: (1) Shelby's staff traps Lucas in the office, giving Shelby an opportunity to take Henry III in a spin in their race car. After experiencing land speeds he has never dreamt of, as well as sharp corners and a screeching halt, Ford bursts into tears. At first you're laughing, because you think he's crying from being scared half to death, and Shelby has kind of put him in his place. Then he says something to the effect, "I wish my grandfather could have experienced this. The exiliration!" And suddenly he's totally on board with Shelby's program (which is, simply put, to have Miles anchor their driving team). (2) Shelby and Miles get into a fist fight on the street, and Mrs. Miles sits down on the stoop to watch with apparent enjoyment. (3) Miles' happiness when he realizes that he has the race clinched – a moment of joy so fragile that you already know it's going to be taken away from him before you understand how the trick is done.