Monday, July 31, 2023

Fart Quest

Fart Quest
by Aaron Reynolds
illust. by Cam Kendell
Recommended Ages: 8+

This kids' chapter book, lightly illustrated in a graphic novel style, features a trio of apprentice heroes who, just as they're training for a career in monster slaying and tomb raiding, witness their masters and mistresses being wiped out. Instead of going back to hero school, they decided to go on their own quest and prove themselves. Pan the elf, Moxie the warrior, and Fart the mage don't have much experience, but they figure it's all in the presentation.

That theory is immediately put to the test when a wizard challenges them to collect a rare potion ingredient – the flatulence of a golden llama. It seems to be right up Fart's alley, given that the young mage got his nickname by choosing as his first spell one that can change anyone (including himself) into a puff of foul-smelling gas. But the sense that the three kids are in for more than they bargained isn't just a case of the vapors. Their quest leads straight to the lair of a horde of ogres, a two-headed ettin and something even nastier. Not to mention giant bees, ew!

This is a funny, action-filled story affirming the values of friendship, courage and appreciation of potty humor. Its recurring gimmick of awarding experience points to the main character are evidence that both the author and the illustrator are into Dungeons & Dragons. Further installments in the "Fart Quest" series include The Barf of the Bedazzler, The Dragon's Dookie and The Troll's Toe Cheese, if you're into that sort of thing. Am I? You judge from the fact that I chose to read this book, and actually had fun along the way.

Reynolds is also the author of two "Joey Fly, Private Eye" books, three "Creepy Tales!" books, two "Caveboy Dave" books, and three "Incredibly Dead Pets of Rex Dexter" books. Kendell's art may also be found on such board games as "Rocket Ranchers," "D&D Dungeon Mayhem: Monster Madness" and "My First Castle Panic," and in comics including Choose Your Gnome Adventure, Mortimer B. Radley: The Case of the Missing Muunkey Skull and Flopnar the Bunbarian.

Thursday, July 27, 2023

Three Movies

I've fallen so far behind on writing my movie reviews that I'm scrambling here to post about the last three features I've seen at the local movie house.

First, there was Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, the sequel to the magnificent Into the Spider-Verse, which I still consider the best Spider-Man movie. Box office-wise, this second movie in what will surely be a trilogy also seems to have knocked this year's crop of comic book-based films into a cocked hat. Miles Morales is back as his (our?) universe's Spider-Man, and his new adventure explores the implications of the fact that there's a multiverse full of Spider-Persons of all shapes, sizes, ethnicities, species, art styles, etc. Not to mention the implications of how he picked up the web-slinger's mantle in a universe that already had a Peter Parker Spider-Man, when (as Highlander teaches us) There Can Be Only One.

In this installment, our Miles finds himself on the run from all the other Spideys in the multiverse, instigated by one in particular who refuses to accept him. He tries to find his way back to the Mom who told him not to let anyone tell him he doesn't belong, only to realize in one of those "blood runs cold" moments that he hasn't made it home after all. The whole movie has a brilliant, comic-bookish look to it with swooping movement, breathlessly paced action and reality-shattering flights of fantasy.

Shameik Moore is back as Miles, Hailee Steinfeld (True Grit) as another universe's Spider-Woman, Jake Johnson as an older variant of Peter Parker, Brian Tyrree Henry and Luna Lauren VĂ©lez as Miles's parents, and (spoiler warning) Mahershala Ali as an alternate version of the uncle Miles lost in the first movie. Joining the cast as various Spideys and/or villains are Oscar Isaac, Jason Schwartzman, Andy Samberg, Elizabeth Perkins, Rachel Dratch, as well as callbacks to live-action Spider-film characters played by Tobey Maguire, Andrew Garfield, Cliff Robertson, Martin Sheen, Denis Leary, Alfred Molina and Donald Glover.

Only the fact that it comes to a "To Be Continued" cliffhanger, rather than completing its story in one go, detracts from this being as good as, if not better than, Into the Spider-Verse. The art is fantastic. The animation, writing and sheer creative energy of this movie run circles around anything coming out of Disney and Pixar these days, not to mention all the other superhero movies right about now. At a moment when popcorn movies seem to be on the ropes, and when anticipated box office cash cows are turning up as road kill instead, this movie is the one that's keeping fanboys/girls' hopes alive.

Three Scenes That Made It For Me: (1) The madcap chase/melee across the reality that serves as headquarters for the Spider-Verse, with our Miles holding his own against a multitude of alternate Spideys each with his, her or its own unique powers – notably including one with a baby on board! (2) Miles's attempts to fight The Spot, the bizarre, interdimensional-portal-slinging villain who at first reminds you of Rorshach from Watchmen but who turns out to be infinitely zanier. (3) The last, dreadful sequence when Miles finds himself in the universe that never had a Spider-Man, in the clutches of a villain whose identity will leave you chilled. Expect a third movie, Spider-Man: Beyond the Spider-Verse, approximately next spring.

Next, I went to see the movie everyone was talking about at the time: Sound of Freedom, featuring Jim Caviezel as a Homeland Security agent who specializes in busting child sex traffickers until a former partner hits him with the question, "How many kids have you saved?" Turning on a dime, Caviezel's character risks (and eventually quits) his career to save children being trafficked in Latin America, including a pair of Honduran siblings who went to a talent audition and ended up in a shipping container bound for Colombia.

The publicity around this movie has already said all that needs to be said – about, for instance, this movie killing it while the fifth Indiana Jones flick fizzled; like the political left sneering at it and smearing it as a piece of coded alt-rightism to be disregarded out of hand while the right continues to chant, "yeah but what about child sex trafficking?" The movie did pretty well for a relatively low-budget movie whose soft-spoken star emotes on a level that can only be detected in extreme close-up. It is, after all, a moving story depicting a man who faces incredible danger to pluck one little girl out of her personal hell. And it has, I think, an Oscar-worthy supporting performance by Bill Camp as a former cartel strongman who rededicates his life to saving trafficked kids. The scene in which Camp's character, "Vampiro," confides to Caviezel what led him to turn his life around is worth seeing the whole movie.

Obviously, that's going to be one of the Three Scenes That Made It For Me. The others are: (2) The little boy that Caviezel saves early in the movie recognizes "Timoteo" as the saint who protects children, and gives him the St. Timothy medallion that his sister gave him when they were separated, along with a plea to find her. (3) The whole nail-biting sequence when Caviezel travels into rebel-held territory, where even the Colombian military and law enforcement are afraid to go. It seems so improbable that he will make it out alive, with or without the girl he seeks. Truly a powerful, emotionally hard-hitting movie, with a good cast that also includes Mira Sorvino, José Zúñiga, Kurt Fuller (TV's Psych) and lots of Latin American talent.

Finally, this past weekend I chose Oppenheimer over Barbie, and I take serious issue with the New Yorker review that calls it "a History Channel movie with fancy editing." The star of the film is, of course, director Christopher Nolan, who uses brilliant visual and sound effects to depict the disturbing psyche of the man who gave the world the atomic bomb. As Robert Oppenheimer, Cillian Murphy (with a hard C) delivers a performance that should finally pull him out of the talent bracket in which you struggle to describe him other than as the lead actor in 28 Days Later – a Zombie apocalypse movie I walked out of midway through because it was too intense, and which I have yet to mention in person to anyone who saw it – or as the villain with bees all over his face in Batman Begins – which, again in my circle of acquaintance, I seem to be the only person who remembers. (I also remember his villainous turn in Red Eye and somehow didn't remember him being in Inception.) I'm not making award predictions or anything, because if I did I'd say this year is Murphy's the way last year was Austin Butler's and you know how that turned out, eh?

Also in the movie's oustanding cast are Emily Blunt as the wife who defended Oppie during his witch trial more passionately than the man himself, Matt Damon as the general in charge of the Manhattan Project, Robert Downey Jr. as an Atomic Energy Commission official who stabbed Oppie in the back, Tom Conti as Einstein, Kenneth Branagh as Niels Bohr, Gary Oldman as Harry S. Truman, Casey Affleck as a terrifying security officer, and in other more-or-less recognizable roles Josh Hartnett, David Krumholtz (Numb3rs), Tony Goldwin (Ghost), Alden Ehrenreich (Hail, Caesar), Rami Malek (Bohemian Rhapsody), James D'Arcy (Agent Carter), Jack Quaid (Star Trek: Lower Decks), Matthew Modine, Scott Grimes (The Orville), Florence Pugh, David Dastmalchian (a recurring villain on both Flash and the MacGyver reboot), Louise Lobard (CSI), Harry Groener, James Remar and Gregory Jbara (Blue Bloods). I'm sure I've omitted names that many people will recognize.

So, yeah, this movie does show how the bombs that the U.S. dropped on Japan to end World War II were developed, but the movie is really more about the political imbroglio surrounding Oppie's application to renew his Top Secret clearance and the confirmation hearings of a U.S. cabinet secretary (Lewis Strauss) who saw to it that Oppie's clearance was denied. To be sure, Oppie had made some questionable decisions, and his left-wing political associations hurt him. But seriously, the guy gave us the bomb. The movie dramatizes the situation as though destroying him was really about silencing his opposition to the nuclear arms race – and it also gives us some viscerally powerful insights into what lay behind that opposition. Which leads me to:

Three Scenes That Made It For Me: (1) While giving a "Hooray, we really gave it to those Japs" speech, reality seems to warp around Oppenheimer and he ends up hallucinating that the audience in front of him is being burned by radiation. The gruesome climax is when he seems to put his foot through the ribcage of a charred, human corpse while stepping down from the podium. (2) When you finally find out what Oppie and Einstein said to each other that day at the pond, and how it ties up the question of nuclear proliferation in his mind. (3) The suspenseful countdown to the test detonation at the Trinity site in New Mexico.

All in all, it's a beautifully made movie, with gorgeous artistic design and cinematography, a great cast doing their best work, a dramatic conflict that will stir almost anybody's feelings and force them to reconsider politicial and historical beliefs, and surrounding it all, the directing work of Christopher Nolan (Following, Memento, Insomnia, Batman Begins, The Prestige, The Dark Knight, Inception, The Dark Knight Rises, Interstellar, Dunkirk, Tenet) who, as always, creates a look and uses special effects that challenge reality, or the perception thereof. His movie carries its argument forward despite mixing up the story's chronology, paying out each particle of information at just the moment that generates the most power. It wrestles with difficult emotions in and around a difficult subject. It depicts epic heroes and villains across a huge canvas while acknowledging gray areas and keeping the audience guessing. That jackass with the "History Channel" quip shouldn't be able to spew his ignorance on a platform like The New Yorker.

Sunday, July 16, 2023


by Georgette Heyer
Recommended Ages: 14+

I've often described Georgette Heyer (rhymes with "mayor") as a 20th century author who channeled Jane Austen to the tune of 26 Regency romances (besides about as many other books). But in fairness to both Jane and Georgette, the latter-day author's female protagonists had sensibilities that would never have entered the pretty little heads of even Austen's most audacious heroines. This book's title character is a case in point, if not the case: a young gentlewoman whose original ideas and independent character, more in line with the values of Heyer's time and of ours than of Austen's, make them highly unusual – eccentric to the point of iconoclasm. Originals in every sense.

Yes, that especially applies to Miss Venetia Lanyon, a 25-year-old lady who has grown used to managing her own affairs, and violently chafes against the expectation that she must either marry a "worthy" (read: unbearably dull) country gentleman, or get a dowdy widow to chaperone her around town until some society dandy makes an offer for her. Frankly, she would rather set up a little place in London, with perhaps room for her bookish younger brother Aubrey when he's not at university, and live the life of an unconventional spinster, in disregard of social norms. But everyone around her, from the busybodies neighboring her family's country estate to her uncle and aunt in the city, are desperate to prevent her from making a scandal of herself.

Everybody, that is, except a no longer young and handsome rake who owns the next estate down the road. Lord Damerel has seldom spent time at his country house, except for an infamous orgy of some kind a few years ago. He has been a hiss and a byword since he ran away with another man's wife, long years ago, and is now well known to have wasted nearly all of his family's fortune. He's the type of character Austen heroines are meant to recoil from. But when Damerel and Venetia become acquainted, sparks begin to fly. They are each other's match in intelligent banter, frankness and strength of character.

Venetia's two suitors are soon stirred to take shocking steps. (I forgot to mention the other one, besides the "worthy" fellow – a romantic lunatic who has been making calf-eyes at Venetia despite her attempts to discourage him.) Venetia finds herself hemmed in by people doing their best to keep her from soiling her reputation, when she would enjoy nothing more than to live in disgrace with a fascinating character like Damerel. Meanwhile, he starts out with the idea of toying with her, as he has done with so many fetching girls, only to realize that he wants to become a better man for her. Social propriety and the gravitational pull of the London ton seem destined to pull them apart, and keep them apart. Even Damerel seems ready to accept it. It's only when Venetia learns a shocking secret that's been kept from her, and her alone, all her life that she hits on a scheme to save their romance.

Perhaps Austen's heroines, spirited though they are in their way, sometimes annoy you with their devotion to the appearances of propriety. If so, Venetia may be the romantic heroine for you, unconcerned as she is about all that – even to a fault. She's her own woman in the same either-anachronistic-or-Wollstonecraftian way as Enola Holmes, if you know who I mean. She means to stay that way, and she stakes her chances of doing so on the devoted love of a cad who has never felt such an emotion before. You come away unsure how it's really going to turn out or whether you quite sympathize with her, but she doesn't want your sympathy so I guess that's all right. And neither does Aubrey, by the way, who hates it when people take notice of his lameness – a character I think people with disabilities will understand better than most of the people he meets.

I haven't even mentioned the other brother, who in a low-key way is the villain of the piece without even appearing in person; his actions from afar bear a lot of blame for the unbearable position Venetia finds herself in, along with the behavior of ... well, let's not spoil that for you. Let's just say the novel could have been a tragedy, considering the constraints Venetia was forced to bear – and that it turns out to be a lighthearted, romantic comedy testifies to the keenness of her character.

Anyway, I'm now reading Regency Buck, Heyer's very first Regency romance. Other titles in that series, written from 1935 to 1972, include An Infamous Army, Cotillion, The Toll-Gate, Sprig Muslin and Charity Girl.

Prodigy, Season 1

At this point, I don't know whether the words "Season 1" are necessary. The latest news is that Paramount+ canceled this series after its first season, and actually removed the show from its streaming platform, although there's also scuttlebutt that the second season was already in postproduction and will certainly be completed – so it's only a matter of where it will air and when. Paramount has seriously mishandled this series, an animated Trek show made in conjunction with Nickolodeon. When I watched it (on demand at my mom's place while dogsitting for her last month) I noticed that the Nick branding and the ads that went with it suggested that the show was being marketed to tiny tots, when it's really more appropriate for teens and young adults. Also, the network/distributor made the bizarre decision to insert a nine-month-long hiatus in the middle of Season 1, which no doubt cooled the enthusiasm of whatever fan base it was developing. And finally, when they did offer a DVD of the show in stores, it was only the first half of Season 1. Badly managed all around, and I don't think the show is to blame for Paramount not seeing the results it hoped for. It's another case, I believe, of the issue that has stymied Star Trek since its first inception in the 1960s: Either the studio or the network (in this case, kind of both) didn't understand what they had on their hands or what to do with it. And the casualty is a very fine TV series and the people who deservedly love it.

Star Trek: Prodigy is a kid-friendly animated series (as opposed to Star Trek: Lower Decks, which is emphatically adult), but don't let that mislead you. The art and animation are first rate, on a whole level apart from the "prime time animated sitcom" stylings of STLD. Its cast of juvenile characters find themselves enslaved on a nasty asteroid in the Delta Quadrant, run by a strangely frail yet terrifying alien known as the Diviner and his coterie of robotic goons, led by the menacing Drednok. One of the enslaved kids, a purple boy named Dal R'El (pronounced like the letters R.L.), doesn't even remember where he came from or what species he is, and no one can seem to tell him. He has developed an unlikely friendship with the Diviner's daughter, the linguistically gifted Gwyndala (usually called just Gwyn). When chance meetings with a handful of other inmates leads the kids to discover a Federation starship, the U.S.S. Protostar, hidden in a cave, Dal and the others kidnap Gwyn and take her on a joyride where they are soon joined by a training hologram based on Capt. Kathryn Janeway (cf. Star Trek: Voyager), who gradually pats them into shape as a crew of wanna-be Starfleet cadets. But meanwhile the Diviner is after them, and he has implanted a weapon on the Protostar that none of the kids know about but that threatens the entire future of the United Federation of Planets.

So, that's pretty much Season 1 at a glance. Here's the main cast for you:

At left, there's Zero: a Medusan (cf. Original Trek's episode "Is There In Truth No Beauty?") – a telepathic entity whose very appearance is enough to drive humanoids insane, and who therefore conceals himself inside a mechanical body – voiced by Angus Imrie, who played young Merlin in The Kid Who Would Be King. Then there's Jankom Pog, a self-taught engineer, belongs to founding Federation race the Tellarites, who are known for being argumentative; his voice actor, Jason Mantzoukas, also plays Mr. Mucus in the Mucinex commercials. Next is Gwyn, played by Ella Purnell, whose character in Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children was lighter than air. Of course that's Hologram Janeway (Kate Mulgrew) in the middle, right next to Dal, played by relative newcomer Brett Gray. The little blue blob by him is Murph, a seemingly indestructable pet/mascot that'll eat just about anything and whose chirps and whistles are performed by prolific voice actor Dee Bradley Baker, who has also done some work on Star Wars TV series. Finally, the big, rocky looking character is Rok-Tahk, actually a little girl by her species' standards, played by Rylee Alazraqui. Other cast members include John Noble (Denethor in The Lord of the Rings, Walter in Fringe) as the Diviner, and Jimmi Simpson (House of Cards, Westworld) as Drednok.

As I said, it's a visually magnificent series, with spectacular scenery. It also has well-drawn characters who grow from one episode to the next (except the baddies, of course), becoming more sympathetic as their experiences in a series of Trekish adventures rub the rough edges off them and their adventures shake them down to form a cohesive unit. The deft combination of serialized storytelling with stand-alone, planet-of-the-week adventures hits that tricky balance between feeling like classic Star Trek and pushing for the resolution of an increasingly urgent plot arc. It hits emotional spots ranging from laugh-out-loud fun to suspense, thrills, chills and touchy-feelies. It models themes for the young heroes of tomorrow, like selflessness, courage, leadership, team work, loyalty and determination. And it also features, either as older versions or as holograms of their previous Trek characters, Robert Beltran (Chakotay from Voyager), Gates McFadden (Dr. Crusher from TNG), Billy Campbell (Okona from TNG's "The Outrageous Okona"), Ronnie Cox (Jellico from TNG's "Chain of Command"), and archival voice recordings of René Auberjonois (Odo from DS9), James Doohan (Scotty from TOS), Nichelle Nichols (Uhura from TOS), Leonard Nimoy (the original Spock). Also, Jason Alexander (George from Seinfeld) voices a recurring character, and Fred Tatasciore (STLD's Shaxs) plays a lieutenant from the Original Series episode "Obsession" whose original actor is no longer living. So on top of everything else (and making allowances for inferior sound quality in some of those archival recordings) the acting in this series is, obviously, top-notch.

How quickly can I run through the show's 20 episodes? The first two were initially aired as a single, one-hour special, titled "Lost and Found," and they pretty much cover my synopsis above, up to the point where Holo-Janeway first appears to them. In "Starstruck," self-appointed captain Dal almost destroys the ship before he bends his pride enough to accept guidance from the hologram. "Dream Catcher" brings the kids to a planet that plays mental tricks on them, slowing them down enough for the Diviner and Drednok to catch up with them in "Terror Firma." Luckily, the kids are able to activate the Protostar's experimental engine, which I don't want to spoil for you, but it's pretty cool. In "Kobayashi," Dal uses the holodeck to try his luck (and leadership skills) at the classic, no-win scenario (cf. "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan"). In "First Con-tact" (that hyphen is not a typo), the Protostars learn about the Prime Directive and the risks of dealing with Ferengi. "Time Amok" is the one where where the ship goes through an anomaly in which each member of the crew finds him- or herself experiencing time at a different speed, yet somehow they have to pitch in together to save the ship. "A Moral Star" is the two-parter that concludes the first half of the season, in which the crew goes back to their slave asteroid and has a climactic confrontation with the Diviner. And it's around this point in the series where the Protostars set a course for Starfleet, blissfully unaware that they carry a (computer) virus that could destroy the Federation.

As Part 2 begins, "Asylum" is the one where the Protostars encounter a Starfleet outpost, but the ensuing disaster sets the real Janeway (now a Vice Admiral) on their trail. And worse, she finds and rescues the Diviner, who for the moment has lost his memory. In "Let Sleeping Borg Lie," the Protostars risk being assimilated to find out whether the Borg can cure their ship of its fatal virus. In "All the World's a Stage," they encounter a planet whose civilization has been shaped – and threatened – by the crash landing of a Starfleet shuttle. In "Crossroads," they meet that rascally Okona at a starport, and he stows away with them during a narrow escape from Janeway. Dal learns what he truly is in "Masquerade," thanks to a sketchy geneticist who, unfortunately, injects him with something that causes him to mutate rapidly. "Preludes" reveals the backstory of all the main characters. "Ghost in the Machine" traps the crew insidea mash-up of their personal holodeck programs, as they struggle to maintain control of a ship that is increasingly motivated to force them into disastrous contact with Starfleet. In "Mindwalk," Zero tries to use his telepathic abilities to open mental communication between Dal and Janeway, but instead the two swap bodies – just as a traitor in Janeway's crew and the Diviner, with his memories restored, make their move. The season concludes with a two-parter, "Supernova," where the conflict between the Diviner and the Protostars comes to a final climax, and now that the virus has gotten loose, a great sacrifice is needed to stop Starfleet from blowing itself to pieces.

Three Things That Made It For Me: (1) The ordeal poor Rok-Tahk goes through in "Time Amok," when she has to spend a vast amount of time all alone with vast responsibility on her young, albeit massive, shoulders. (2) The whole Janeway-Dal body-swap wheeze. (3) The seemingly unavoidable tragedy to which the whole second part builds, and the emotionally hard-hitting solution holo-Janeway comes up with. But of course, there are so many more than three things that made this season for me. Paramount is a big fat stupid jerk; I resign the title in their favor. They don't know what they had. I just hope somebody else has it soon and takes it where it deserves to go.

Friday, July 7, 2023

Lower Decks, Season 3

This year, I didn't have to wait for the latest season of STLD to come out on DVD. I took advantage of a week spent dogsitting for my mom and stepdad to tune into Paramount+ on their TV and find out what the Cerritos have been up to. Here is an episode-by-episode synposis for you:

"Grounded" – Further to the second season's cliffhanger in which Capt. Carol Freeman has been arrested for allegedly blowing up the Pakled Planet, Mariner and her friends sneak aboard the impounded Cerritos in search of evidence that can clear her name. This outrageous episode features the mating drive of a swarm of glowing, space-dwelling creatures, the hijacking of a theme park ride based on Zefram Cochrane's historic first warp flight (complete with James Cromwell's return to the role he played in Star Trek: First Contact), and Mariner's most severe punishment yet: having to report to Jack Ransom if she wants to stay in Starfleet.

"The Least Dangerous Game" – Sensing that he needs to take more risks if he's going to get ahead in Starfleet, Boimler takes a vow to say yes to any new experience on offer. So, he blithely agrees to be the prey for a terrifying, visiting alien whose idea of fun is hunting people down. Meanwhile, Ransom decides to let engineers Rutherford and Billups handle the diplomatic part of a planetary mission while he and Mariner try to repair a busted orbital lift. Close scrapes with death all around. Recurring DS9 cast member J.G. Hertzler makes a voice appearance as the emcee of a role-play game called "Bat'leths and BiHnuchs."

"Mining the Mind's Mines" – The lower deckers battle feelings of inferiority when they team with a group of low-ranking crewman from another California-class ship. Their assignment is to dispose of a minefield that fashions its victims' destruction from their own thoughts and desires. But when stuff starts to go wrong, the two crews have to pull together and solve a puzzle that threatens Starfleet. Sometime TNG guest Susan Gibney returns as a mirage of warp engineer Leah Brahms.

"Room for Growth" – Capt. Freeman orders the stressed-out engineering dept. to do a spa, but relaxation just isn't in their makeup. The result brings Freeman's stress levels into the red. Meanwhile, the lower deckers compete against another shift to crawl through the bowels of the ship and cheat in a lottery for upper-deck quarters.

"Reflections" – As an evil personality takes over his implants, Rutherford finds himself relegated to a helpless reflection in shiny surfaces. He challenges his alter ego to a contest of building and racing a hotrod spacecraft. Meanwhile, Boimler and Mariner are forced to represent Starfleet at a job fair where they take a lot of flak from other participants.

"Hear All, Trust Nothing" – During a visit to DS9, trade negotiations with a Gamma quadrant race hit a snag and Quark is right in the middle of it. Meanwhile, an Orion officer tags along with Tendi and Rutherford, creating awkwardness with his ideas of their piratical culture's values, while Mariner suffers through a girls' night with her girlfriend, Jen. Reprising their DS9 roles are Armin Shimerman as Quark and Nana Visitor as Kira.

"A Mathematically Perfect Redemption" – Exocomp deserter Peanut Hamper returns, finding love and acceptance on a planet of winged people. But her rehabilitation can't last, what with the nasty Drookmani looking for the bird people's ancient, abandoned technology and Peanut Hamper herself proving to have as yet unsuspected character flaws. Frequent Trek guests J.G. Hertzler and Jeffrey Combs both put in voice appearances.

"Crisis Point 2: Paradoxus" – Boimler creates an interactive holodeck movie, but after he learns about a personal loss, he goes off the script. Meanwhile, Tendi has a great time sticking to the original plot of the movie, possibly setting her up for a new career direction. George Takei guest-stars as a dream-sequence version of Sulu.

"Trusted Sources" – During a follow-up visit to a pair of planets last visited in Season 1 of TNG, Freeman faces embarrassment in the media and takes it out on Mariner. Meanwhile, the Cerritos get into a bind on one of the planets and have to be saved by an experimental, unmanned starship.

The Stars at Night – The previous episode's fallout threatens the future of the California Class (Cerritos & Co.), while Mariner quits Starfleet and goes on a tomb raider adventure with an ex-officer turned archaeological adventurer whom she met back in "Reflections." The assumption that a starship controlled by an A.I. can never turn evil turns out about how anyone would expect after seeing, say, The Mitchells vs. the Machines.

This season is loaded with laughs, eye candy and cameos by characters Star Trek fans will remember fondly from bygone generations of Trek. It teases a new addition to the Cerritos crew and a new threat in the season to come, all while maintaining continuity with previous seasons through recurring characters and continuing story arcs. And it provides the perfect blend of sci-fi and comedy, focusing its point of view on where many fans are coming from – always dreaming of being part of a Star Trek crew but conscious of their own inadequacy; venerating the Trek canon while honest enough to laugh at its most ridiculous aspects. (It also adds its own share of ridiculousness to the franchise, such as a winged, humanoid-avian race that can, somehow, have abs.) In the end, I relish knowing a fourth season is in the making.

Shall I give this season Three Scenes That Made It For Me? All right, then: (1) The pleasure Mariner takes in phaser-stunning all of Jen's friends. (2) When a nervous flyer gets his first taste of warp speed, and decides to take a replica of Zefram Cochrane's Phoenix on a joy ride around the solar system. (3) Peanut Hamper realizes what she's in for after arriving at the Self-Aware Megalomaniacal Computer Storage unit.

Tuesday, July 4, 2023

Legends & Lattes

Legends & Lattes
by Travis Baldree
Recommended Ages: 14+

Viv is an orc who has decided to hang up her sword, retire from slaying monsters and plundering crypts, and settle down for a change. It turns out that starting the first coffeeshop ever in the city of Thune might be fraught with danger and adventure. For one thing, a local gang known as the Madrigal has their hearts set on enlisting Viv as a client in their protection racket, but she hates the idea even though everyone says they'll make her pay one way or another. For another thing, one of her former questing partners is miffed about her sudden resignation, and has a suspicion about the secret Viv has buried under a flagstone in the middle of the painstakingly remodeled stable where she plans to set up shop. And then, of course, there's the whole question of whether she can cultivate a taste for coffee in the people of Thune before she runs out of money.

The real threat that keeps Viv, and the reader, in suspense is that she might have to take that sword down off the wall after all, when she knows, her friends know and you know darn well that if she does, the happy ending she has allowed herself to dream of and hope for has failed. Short of that, it's hard to see a way through without busting some heads. But lucky for Viv, she has some friends, including other members of her former crew as well as a diverse group of creatures she has gathered around her in Thune, like a found family. There's a succubus who is willing to try being a barista without even knowing what one is. There's a hobgoblin with a knack for using tools. There's a gnome who makes delicious baked treats. And there's a mild Adult Content Advisory for those of you who don't particularly care for same-sex romantic subplots.

This is emphatically not the sort of fantasy-world adventure that majors in cleaving skulls, hewing limbs and opening up gushers of arterial blood – though it has a tiny bit of that sort of thing – so if that's what you're looking for in a book focusing on orcs, goblins and whatnot, you may want to shop elsewhere. If you are intrigued by the question of what happens when a battle-scarred orc decides to retire and open a cafe, you'll be charmed. All the hard work of Viv and friends creates a sense of comfort, of home, and of being invested in the enterprise's success that you, as a reader, share. And a crisis does come that will shake you up. It's not about vast hoards of gold and jewels, or spooky dungeons, or thrilling combats, or calamities poised to undo the world and the heroic deeds needed to prevent them. It's just a little tale about a coffeeshop opening in a neighborhood that's no sketchier than it needs to be, with some sociocultural challenges to work through and, you know, a maguffin believed (perhaps inaccurately) to bestow on you the fortune that you desire.

This seems to be the kind of book that an AD&D dungeon master might create in the aftermath of an epic roleplay campaign, not so much based on the quest itself but a clever idea of what might happen to some of the adventurers afterward. Washington state-based author Travis Baldree is a sometime game developer (Torchlight, etc.) and audiobook narrator who describes this book as a "low-stakes cozy fantasy novel." It's actually his debut novel, and it has a sequel, Bookshops & Bonedust, coming out in November 2023. This book also features a bonus short story, "Pages to Fill," as sort of a prequel to the main event.

Monday, July 3, 2023

One graphic novel and two (cough) graphic novels

by Neil Gaiman
illust. by Colleen Doran
Recommended Ages: 12+

Winner of the 2023 Locus Award for Best Illustrated and Art Book is this tall board book/graphic novel by the author of Good Omens, American Gods, Stardust, Neverwhere, The Graveyard Book, etc., etc. – in short, He Who Can Do No Wrong – with soft, watercolorish pictures in a Howard Pylesque strain of Arthurian romance. Doran also illusrated two other books by Gaiman: Troll Bridge and Snow, Glass, Apples.

This is such a short, quirky romance that it's almost a pity to summarize it, for fear of giving away too much. One of its quirks is its rather unromantic approach to romance (in the sense of tales of chivalry). When elderly widow Mrs. Whitaker peels back a fur coat at the village thrift shop, she immediately and matter-of-factly recognizes the Holy Grail and buys it for 50 pence, then stops at the butcher's to buy a piece of liver for her dinner. She gives it a polish and sets it on the mantel, next to a shirtless photograph of her long-dead husband in his prime. If memory serves, there was a ceramic dog on the other side of it. Modern-day visitors aren't very impressed. But then a man out of time shows up on her doorstep – Sir Galahad himself, pursuing his quest across centuries.

The effect Mrs. Whitaker has on this gallant knight, and that he has on her neighborhood, are low-key hilarious. As adventures go, it's very mild and gentle, with a sensible and strong-willed old lady making one of the heroes of British legend seem like an over-excited child who needs but a plate of cookies and a glass of milk to calm him down. There's a wry touch of the other type of romance (with the lovely local girl riding off into the sunset with the comely knight), and a softly ironic twist at the end, and a general sense that the story is really about how lonely it is to be a widow of modest means who has outlived her husband by decades.

It's built like a children's picture-book, but the art is really too good to be kept for children. Everybody should look at it and have pictures like these in their imagination, even if their life is as matter-of-fact and prosaic as Mrs. Whitaker's. This is artwork so beautiful that it must put some who look at it, at least, in a frame of mind to look for miracles in everyday places, like Oxfam or Goodwill.

Gathering the Sun by Kelly Moore
Taste by Melanie Harlow
Recommended Ages: 18+

In contrast to the above-reviewed high-quality work of subversively chaste fantasy, I also recently picked up a couple of naughty titles. One was a western romance that I halfway expected to be kind of like the "Harlequin Intrigue" title I read a few months ago – more mystery/adventure than anything else, with an everybody-keeps-their-hands-to-themselves romance. The other, I thought might be similar Hallmark movie stuff, with a couple of hot chefs cooking up sensually delicious food while losing their hearts to each other. Well, they weren't like that after all, which I should have guessed upon seeing the sexy cover art. And I'm humble enough to admit that when under-the-clothes body parts started having conversations, I didn't set the book aside.

The western one is by Kelly Moore, whose Fantastic Fiction page (see link on her name, above) is loaded with thumbnail images of book covers dominated by buff, bare torsos. Unsurprisingly, the male protagonist in this book has trouble keeping his clothes on around the female lead, despite the fact that her family is threatening to drive him off the Wyoming ranch land he recently bought. He should also be concerned, above all, for the little kid he has adopted as his own son, after the boy's father murdered his mother, for whom the would-be rancher carried an unrequited torch. The female romantic lead is a teacher who is trying to break free of the toxic control of her father, who corrupts everything he touches. I'm sure there will be blood if ever this storyline comes to a conclusion. This installment doesn't hold back from spilling other bodily fluids, however. The sexy main couple moves fast in their relationship, for sure.

Unfortunately, the writing isn't great. Some of the not-greatness could have been cleaned up by a good, on-their-toes proofreader. Some of it could simply be the artifact of a writing career that emphasizes quantity over quality. I mean, this Kelly Moore has written something like 56 romance novels. There's a certain quality of being rushed to it. Guilty pleasure that it was, it really didn't have the lyricism to go with it. And it isn't a complete story; it peters out in a "to be continued" kind of thing. I'm not going to pursue this series further, thanks.

As for the Hallmark movie type book, well, it was smut, too. But it was much better smut, from a literary standpoint. Well, "literary" may be too strong a word. It was comparatively well-written, though I really would have been more turned on if it had made more of the sensual possibilities of a chef and a sommelier together in the kitchen, exploring food and drink that look and taste so good that the hero and heroine kind of make love without even taking their clothes off. It's what the concept cries out for. But the food gets disappointingly short shrift and once the hero couple finds themselves stranded together in a single-bed motel room during a blizzard, the pent-up sexual tension that has existed between them since they were, like, five years old goes "twang" like a rubber band and the ensuing shtupfest seems to absorb all of the author's considerable powers.

Eventually, things do start to get genuinely romantic between these two, particularly after the girl realizes that she has fallen pregnant and the guy starts to rethink his love-em-and-leave-em ways. Since I suspended my morality so far as to read it to the end, I won't scruple to spoil the ending: they end up getting married and starting a family together. So it turns out to be a Hallmark movie, after all – only with a handful of scenes that you'd only see on the "unrated, mature audiences only" DVD.

I shouldn't have to say it, but Adult Content Advisories are in effect for both of these books. Melanie Harlow, whose oeuvre is slightly smaller (around 33 novels) and less prone to featuring beefcake on their covers than Kelly Moore's, could probably write something really worth reading, on the strength of good prose, if she could only think up a story structure whose main points weren't pegged to steamy bedroom scenes. Maybe she could start by rewriting this book so that, instead of boobs and buttocks, the main attractions were mouthwatering wine and food and no-holds-barred repartee between the romantic leads. Heck, that story might even make it onto the Hallmark Channel.

The Reluctant Widow

The Reluctant Widow
by Georgette Heyer
Recommended Ages: 14+

Every now and then, I spot a book by Georgette Heyer in a bookshop and if it's not one that I've already read, I have to grab it. You see, the pity about Jane Austen is that she only wrote about half a dozen Regency romances, while Heyer more or less channeled her, two centuries later, to the tune of some 50 novels. OK, some of them are historical novels and then there are some "Country House Mysteries," but the bulk of Heyer's output was the stuff Austen fans live for, only with perhaps even more vibrant heroines and the occasional scene in which no female characters are present (a thing that, famously, Austen never attempted). These are period novels written in a sparkling style, with wit, zest and convincing historical detail.

In this adventure, we meet Elinor Rochdale: an unmarried gentlewoman, on the cusp of old maiddom, whose fortunes were dashed when her father went bankrupt and suicided. For the past six years, she has avoided being a burden on her relatives (who, for their part, made sure she was aware what a burden she was indeed) by taking a series of jobs as a governess. She has just stepped off a stagecoach, expecting to be picked up for her next gig, when a misunderstanding puts her in the wrong carriage. Instead of being met by the mother of a spoiled brat, she is greeted by one Lord Carlyon, who is expecting a female arriving in response to an entirely different advertisement. Their first confused conversation, full of farcical misunderstanding, sets the pair on a bizarre course together, in which Elinor must marry Carlyon's vile cousin Eustace, who is at death's door.

Before she fully grasps what's happening, Elinor is the widowed Mrs. Cheviot and the mistress of a decaying mansion called Highnoons, which (for some reason) Carlyon is determined not to inherit. Suddenly she has to fend off ruthless relatives, restore order to a house and garden that have fallen nearly to ruin, and protect a top-secret government memo that has somehow strayed into her late, unlamented husband's possession and must be hidden somewhere in the house. Meanwhile, all unasked-for, she is visited by a threat of violent intruders, patience-trying house guests, and the possibility that a traitor, a spy and a murderer are among them. Through it all, she trades sarcastic barbs with the seemingly unflappale Lord Carlyon, with whom she shares such a bond of mutual exasperation that it must be love, right?

Well, the last bit, about it being love, is only vaguely hinted at until just before the rapid wrap-up to this story. The government intrigue plot, to say nothing of cold murder, are handled in an uexpected way – so unexpected that I make no promises whether it will feel satisfying. The romantic bit might also strike you as something of a formality. The fun of the novel is in the characters, the sparks that fly between them and the delicious words they say to each other. Each of the characters has a unique flavor, and by being themselves, they'll make you squirm with delight – and giggle and growl – from the mischievous youth who got suspended from Oxford for siccing a trained bear on one of his masters to the insufferable dandy who has been known to spend hours tying his neckcloth.

Other novels by Heyer (pronounced "HAY-er") that I have read include Frederica, Friday's Child and The Grand Sophy. I think all three of them are better than this book, but that's saying a lot because I really enjoyed reading it. I'm already in the process of reading a fifth Heyer novel, Venetia. Other titles to look for, and this is not nearly a complete list, include The Convenient Marriage, Regency Buck, The Spanish Bride, The Corinthian, The Quiet Gentleman, Bath Tangle, False Colours, Black Sheep and Sylvester, or the Wicked Uncle. A couple of her detective novels are Behold, Here's Poison and Duplicate Death.