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Legacy of Kings (Blood of Gods and Royals)
Legacy of Kings (Blood of Gods and Royals)
by Eleanor Herman
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $11.21
44 used & new from $7.12

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The youth of a king, August 31, 2015
Eleanor Herman has been writing about royal drama, conspiracies and romance for many years... so it only seems natural that she would channel that into a novel involving those same topics.

Specifically, a historically-derived fantasy about the youth of the legendary Alexander the Great, mingling ancient Macedonian history with a heavy dose of magic, conspiracy and bloody battles. Think a Greek-derived "Game of Thrones" for a slightly younger audience. Some of the scenes sweep by a little too fast, but the complicated cast of characters and their twisting, silvery web of secrets, lies and ambitions make it a powerful, gripping read, right to the cliffhangery end.

Despite being the crown prince of Macedon, Alexander is often treated like a child by his powerful father Phillip. He and his best friend Hephaestion want to go on a quest to find a healing spring that can fix his leg, but they need some money -- and their scheme to win some goes awry when a powerful rural fighter, Jacob, manages to triumph in the Blood Tournament. Alex encounters Jacob's foster sister Kat, and immediately feels a strange connection to her that neither of them can identify or understand.

But unbeknownst to Alex, devious plots are winding around the palace. Kat is there to assassinate the cruel queen Olympias, who murdered her own mother years before. His devious half-sister Cynene is determined to turn Heph against his best friend, since a "true betrayal" can give her access to a forgotten dark magic. A Lydian princess named Zofia is told that she will marry Alex... which is a problem since she is already in love with a brave young soldier. And Jacob is determined to prove himself to win his beloved Kat... but the only way for a lowly potter's son to reach exalted heights is to join the Aesarian Lords, a militaristic group who are determined to stamp out all magic. Even worse, they are determined to topple the royal family -- and Alex may be the city's only hope.

The world of "Legacy of Kings" is essentially that of 350 B.C., but with a sheen of fantasy placed over the reality -- from animals (like the hellion, a sort of winged panther) to a system of magic based on divine blood (Kat's ability to communicate with animals). And these two halves of the story complement each other beautifully: the weight of reality gives an added richness to the story, since it's rooted in actual history, myth and culture, but the fantastical elements add an otherworldly quality, and a freedom to tell a new story rather than simply regurgitating Alexander's real youth.

And Herman drapes her world in the ambience of that time -- olives, cool breezy nights, linens and the dust of arenas -- with lots of rich details and descriptions, but without bogging it down with too much explanation. The many intertwined storylines keep things moving at a brisk pace, as Herman can slip easily from one story to another, one character to another. And she writes it all in a robust, sensuous, ornate style that sweeps the reader into the experience, with a fair portion of nimble violence, some offscreen sex, and some rather dusty, bloody death scenes.

If there's a problem, it's that some important events -- journeys, small-scale battles and fights -- sometimes whip by too fast, and could have used another page or so. For instance, the excellent moment where Alex finally holds his own as a regent could have used more back-and-forth dialogue, and Kat's journey to Ada seems pretty short.

But her characters are all well-rounded and likable. It must be difficult to write one of the greatest military leaders in history as a teen, but in Herman's hands, Alex has the budding charisma and spirit of a future king and conqueror. Fierce, magically-adept Kat is the other side of the coin, less naive and more ruthless, unwinding the secrets of her past and why Olympias wanted her and her mother dead. The other characters -- handsome Heph, romantic Zofia and the struggling Jacob -- all have flaws and strengths, such as Heph's pride and insecurity, or Zofia's naive belief that she could just scamper out to a military outpost without encountering trouble.

On the more villainous end of the scale, Cynene is given development as well -- she's a cold, cruel murderer who is trying to turn Heph against his closest friend, but we also see her desperate hatred of Olympias that has driven her to seek forgotten magics. Even Olympias is studied in depth, showing the obsession and ambition that has ruled her life in every way, causing pain to everyone around her.

"Legacy of Kings" is a rich, ambitious fantasy story that rings with the echoes of history -- and it's very clear at its end that Eleanor Herman's saga of pain, love and ambition is not even close to being over. A powerful read for fans of both fantasy and history.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Aug 31, 2015 9:16 PM PDT


Peter Pan (Word Cloud Classics)
Peter Pan (Word Cloud Classics)
by J. M. Barrie
Edition: Flexibound
Price: $12.13
46 used & new from $7.63

4.0 out of 5 stars "It is only the gay and innocent and heartless who can fly.", August 31, 2015
Everybody knows and loves Peter Pan -- the immortal, flying imp who lives in a floating otherworld, battles pirates, and never has to grow up.

And J.M. Barrie's classic tale "Peter Pan" really hasn't lost any of its charm, although those who have only seen the Disney movie may be shocked at how dark it can be at times. It's a strange, whimsical little story with a bittersweet edge, but it also reminds you about the allure of never growing up... even if it is necessary.

Young Wendy Darling is woken by a strange boy in her room, who has lost his shadow. That boy is Peter Pan, a flying boy from Neverland who regularly eavesdrops at her house because he likes the bedtime stories her mother tells. Since Wendy ALSO knows bedtime stories (and can potentially "make pockets"), Peter whisks Wendy and her brothers Michael and John off to Neverland.

However, Neverland is not a place devoid of dangers -- there is a pirate ship there (don't as me how; if it's explained, I don't remember), led by the villainous Captain Hook. Hook is constantly trying to kill Peter and his Lost Boys, and it doesn't take long for Wendy and the other boys to be captured. Can Peter save them from his archnemesis?

Children are "innocent and heartless" by nature, and it feels like "Peter Pan" was a homage to that -- it's a childish romp in a fantasyland, where kids can fly, fight pirates and have strange little adventures. Nobody really thinks about the families that are undoubtedly freaking out, or the lives they'll miss out on.

And really, that's part of its charm. It's a fluffy little fantasy story that could have been transcribed out of any child's imagination, with a colorful array of characters who could have been taken out of a Victorian kid's imaginary games (mermaids I understand, but why are there American Indians here? HOW did they get there?).

And Barrie spins out this story in the slightly twee style of Victorian kids' fiction, with lots of details and some charming scenes (the Lost Boys actually build a house AROUND WENDY). It gets a little cutesy at times (fairies are generated by.... baby laughter?) and the handling of the Indians is just horrible, but otherwise it's a fairly charming book.

But it's also darker than you would expect -- Tinkerbell tricks the Lost Boys into trying to kill Wendy, and at first it looks like she's managed. And Peter almost DIES. For real. Not to mention the final chapter, which is a giant lump of bittersweet.

Peter himself is a strangely enchanting figure -- he's almost like a lost Greek god, with a capricious ever-changing nature. And no matter what, you can never catch him or pin him down. As such, most of the other characters don't quite stand out as much, but they're all pleasantly handled -- particularly the three "normal" kids who are all too happy to go to Neverland, until they feel like going home again.

"Peter Pan" takes you briefly back into the experience of being a small child, when you can easily imagine yourself going anywhere at all while still staying "innocent and heartless." It has some flaws, but is charming nonetheless


Silas Marner
Silas Marner
by George Eliot
Edition: Paperback
Price: $2.11

5.0 out of 5 stars Gold and golden hair, August 31, 2015
This review is from: Silas Marner (Paperback)
In the nineteenth century, men didn't typically adopt children by themselves. Even today, it's a relative rarity -- when a single person adopts a baby, it's usually a woman.

But the exception proves the rule in "Silas Marner," George Eliot's novel about a hermit-like weaver whose life is changed forever when a child wanders into his house. While Eliot explores the pliancy of gender roles and qualities, at heart this is just a heartwarming story about love and family. The ending is rather predictable and a little sappy, but it's a pleasant glimpse of English village life in the 1800s.

Weaver Silas Marner moves to the town of Raveloe, and takes up residence far from other people. Nobody knows why, except for the readers -- he was betrayed by his best friend, dumped by his girlfriend, framed for a robbery and expelled from his church. He also suffers from cataleptic seizures, as if life for him didn't suck enough. Now he wants just to be alone in his remote house, and hoard the gold that he earns over fifteen years of weaving cloth.

Then one night, the squire's dissolute younger son Dunsey Cass steals his gold and vanishes from the town, leaving Silas without the one thing he has come to love. Meanwhile, Dinsey's older brother Godfrey is freaking out because of an ill-advised marriage to a poor drug addict, which would probably get him disinherited if his strict father knew.

But then the wife is found frozen to death in a blizzard, and her toddler child -- Godfrey's daughter -- wanders into Silas' house. And to the surprise of all Raveloe, Silas declares that since "it's a lone thing—and I'm a lone thing," and that he's going to care for the child from now on. This adoption will not only change Silas' life, but Godfrey's as well -- and as the child Eppie grows to adulthood, will finally bring about the admission of long-hidden secrets.

As a woman who wrote serious literature in a time when women's literary skills were scoffed at, George Eliot knew something about the bendability of gender roles. Even though the main character is a heterosexual male, she subtly positions him as having a strong feminine side -- he has a job associated with femininity ("you're partly as handy as a woman, for weaving comes next to spinning"), he's the perceived successor of the local hedgewitch, and he has nothing to do with the "manly man" pursuits of boozing it up in the local pub every night, as literally all the local men do.

And, of course, he cares for a young child with the tenderness and soft-heartedness that was usually attributed to women, not men. And yet, Eliot never treats this character with anything but respect -- he is not seen as less than other men because he has traditionally feminine traits, but as MORE. And these traits are ultimately what brings him happiness, love and friendship from everyone in the community.

But while Silas is the center of the story, Eliot fleshes out the village of Raveloe with deft strokes, from the wealthy (Godfrey and his insufferable girlfriend/wife Nancy) to the ordinary working-class folks whose lives intersect with Silas'. And she knows both the good and bad of these communities -- they have good hearts and kindness, but they also tend to be kind of judgmental and ignorant of people different from themselves. The best example of this is Dolly, a smart, take-charge woman who becomes Silas' best friend and advisor.

And twined together with Silas's story is the story of Godfrey, whose life withers as Silas' blooms. He's essentially a very weak man who shies away from telling the unpleasant truth to anyone, and misses out on fatherhood because of it. It's hard to see why he is so enamored of Nancy, though -- she's a rigid, moralistic priss who holds everyone to her impossibly high standards (for instance, she's opposed to adoption because she's decided, based on nothing at all, that it's against God's will).

The story's biggest problem? Well, in some regards the story is rather predictable, with a heartwarming ending that borders on sappy. More subtle handling is given to Silas revisiting his old home, and discovering what has come of the betrayals he's suffered.

"Silas Marner" is a fascinating little novella, twining together a story about love and family with a subtle message on gender roles. Not bad for such a simple little story.


Tabula Rasa
Tabula Rasa
by Kristen Lippert-Martin
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $11.42
71 used & new from $2.87

3.0 out of 5 stars The green-eyed angel, August 30, 2015
This review is from: Tabula Rasa (Hardcover)
Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
Who doesn't love a good amnesia story, especially when the person with the amnesia is an incredibly interesting and potentially dangerous person? Yes, it's a slightly cheap tactic to introduce the audience to the character's life, but it's also very effective in building suspense.

And Kristen Lippert-Martin puts it to good use in "Tabula Rasa," where the heroine lives up to that description -- she's a blank slate who has to discover who she is, what has happened in her pastand why some very nasty people are hunting her. Think "The Bourne Identity" crossed with "The Hunger Games." Kristen Lippert-Martin excels at writing in in a breakneck style crammed with action and fighting... but she seems less comfortable writing the quieter scenes of buildup.

Sara is one of a few kids who are blank slates -- they live in a remote sealed-off facility, guarded by staff round the clock. An experimental brain surgery has left them with no memories of their pasts; Sara doesn't even know what she looks like unless another kid tells her. But everything changes when she's left a pass-card and a bag of pills that begin to restore fragments of memory, allowing her to plot an escape... just in time for a bunch of armed thugs to storm the facility and kill everyone inside.

Her only ally is a mysterious young man, Thomas, who works for a legendary hacker known as 8-Bit -- and after seeing a tattoo on Sara's back, he identifies her as the wall-climbing rebel known as "Angel." And as Sara slowly gets memories of her life back, she begins to suspect she was more than just an ordinary urban Robin Hood. After all, why would a simple troublemaker be sent to such a place?

Unfortunately, in the present she and Thomas are struggling to remain undiscovered in the unforgiving, icy-cold wasteland of the US/Canadian border, with murderous shock troops, teen psychopaths and hallucinating soldiers roaming around. And to keep her mind intact, Sara must break back into the facility that was once her prison -- and rediscover the reason the malevolent Hodges and her billionaire boss Erskine Claymore have been trying to silence her.

"Tabula Rasa" is effectively a mystery -- but instead of properly solving a mysterious crime, the protagonist has to uncover the secrets she already knows, and the answers that are locked away in her own skull. It's also in the perfect setting for a gritty action thriller (a snowy northern wasteland a hundred miles from civilization), and Lippert-Martin weaves a tightly-plotted, gritty story full of explosive violence (including lots of guns and the occasional overturned trailer) and a sensation of creeping unease that never lets up.

And it doesn't hurt that Sara is a genuinely awesome heroine -- despite her helpless state at the beginning, she quickly shifts into a swift, ruthless tiger who is a completely plausible rebel figure. She's quick-thinking, smart, and able to adapt quickly whenever she's seemingly cornered ("I have the home-field advantage now. These soldiers—they’re on my turf"). She's something of a contrast to Thomas, a hacker with a wealthy background and a rather surprising connection to one of the other characters -- he's a softer, less wild presence, despite his own tragedies and extralegal activities.

The biggest problem is that Lippert-Martin is still rather clumsy at writing strong emotions and quieter scenes. For instance, the early scenes where Sara is a prisoner in the facility should be murkier and more confused, yet she comes across as very clear-headed and observant despite her missing memories. Her terse, lean writing style also comes across as awkward and curt during these scenes, when they could have used a bit more passion and depth.

No, where she excels is the action and hard-nosed thriller parts of the story, delving into the grimier, grittier parts of Sara's journey. Playing dead, hiding in a long-abandoned trailer with rotted food, grappling with a psychopathic street tough -- these are all handled far better. And her prose style excels here as well, giving the speed and nimbleness that action scenes and sharp dialogue require.

"Tabula Rasa" is anything but a blank slate -- it's a pretty good thriller wrapped in threads of mystery, hampered only by the more contemplative scenes. Lean, exciting and pretty well-written.


The Legacy
The Legacy
DVD ~ Katharine Ross
Price: $9.16
31 used & new from $6.42

2.0 out of 5 stars Inherited evil (some spoilers), August 30, 2015
This review is from: The Legacy (DVD)
An old English country house. Black magic. Shapeshifting cats. And of course, a sinister force that creates Faustian pacts with six special individuals.

By rights, "The Legacy" should be a far more interesting movie than it actually is, especially since it has all the trappings of great atmosphere and tension. But instead, it feels half-finished and strangely limp for long stretches of its running time -- despite the best efforts of Katharine Ross and Sam Elliott, the intermittent music and soggy pacing make it feel more dull than devilishly creepy. Seriously, Faustian pacts have never sounded so tedious.

A young American couple, Maggie (Ross) and Pete (Elliott) are touring the English countryside when their motorcycle wipes out, and they are rescued by the mysterious Jason Mountolive, who takes them to his luxurious manorhouse. Five of his friends soon come to the place as well, each bearing a strange crested ring -- including a prostitute, a rock star, a destroyer of nations -- all of them powerful and wealthy, allegedly there to bury Jason. Also, there's a creepy nurse who can shapeshift into a cat.

Oh yes, Jason has become a withered, deformed old man on life support, despite having been middle-aged and very normal-looing that afternoon. And when Maggie is brought to see him, he jams a ring on her finger that she is unable to remove.

And THEN, strange things start happening -- the American couple find themselves literally unable to escape the manorhouse, even when they get horses and run to the nearest village. Nobody will answer their questions about Jason or why they are being kept here. The guests are suddenly murdered in bizarre and magical ways. And as Maggie discovers her own connection to Jason, she discovers the terrible fate that is awaiting her.

"The Legacy" is almost scary. Key word: almost. All the parts necessary to make a scary story are here -- satanic magic, occult gatherings, brutal murders, a place the protagonists can't escape -- but they're put together in a way that is subtly wrong. Rather than a slow build to a horrifying finale, "The Legacy" just kind of putters along, dropping hints about what's going on at regular intervals without really being scary about it.

Admittedly there are some fairly suspenseful moments, such as when the couple's car keeps somehow circling back to the manor, or when a young woman is drowned in the swimming pool via a spell that leaves her unable to surface. But these moments are usually bookended by long stretches of people lurking around, casting significant looks at one another and saying vague things about sinister goings-on. There's no sense of urgency, which is made even worse by the lassez-faire attitude of the main characters towards satanic magic. Most people would react at least a little to finding out their host is a minion of the devil, but Pete and Maggie just sort of accept it.

Then again, there's no real sense that Maggie is being lured towards darkness and evil. Obviously the ring being placed on her hand was supposed to indicate that, but she never gives any hints that she's actually changing her way of thinking, and Pete never shows any signs of being worried. And then at the end... that total lack of development suddenly causes the characters to make a complete U-turn.

It also has very little music. Very intense scenes occur -- one climactic one involving a shotgun and crossbow -- but they often either have no music (unless you count birdsong or the swish of fabric), or very cheery funky music. As a result, scenes of murder, death and mayhem end up as suspenseful as a crocheting competition.

Elliott and Ross give decent performances -- Ross does little but run around looking scared, while Elliott gets a few action scenes (involving vicious dogs, crossbows, and lots of medical equipment) but has little dimension beyond being "the boyfriend." Neither character has much dimension, which makes it difficult to even tell when and if they're being influenced. Roger Daltrey is really the only actor who stands out -- he injects some gloriously chaotic energy into every scene he's in, and adds some wickedly puckish humour to an otherwise dour story. He's not there for long, but it is fun when he's there.

"The Legacy" isn't good enough to be entertaining, but not really bad enough to be worth riffing. Between the weirdly upbeat soundtrack and the glacial pace, it's a giant overgrown garden of missed opportunities. Only for Daltrey fans.


The Mystery of the Blue Train: A Hercule Poirot Mystery (Hercule Poirot Mysteries)
The Mystery of the Blue Train: A Hercule Poirot Mystery (Hercule Poirot Mysteries)
by Agatha Christie
Edition: Paperback
Price: $10.33
76 used & new from $2.67

4.0 out of 5 stars "Such an affair to happen on the Blue Train!", August 28, 2015
It would be hard to create a concept more dramatic than this one -- illicit affairs, murder and a cursed ruby stolen from a dead millionaire's glamorous daughter.

And that almost soap-opera glamour permeates all of Agatha Christie's "The Mystery of the Blue Train," where Hercule Poirot finds himself (once again) on a train where a murder has been committed. As the little Belgian sleuth slowly unwinds the crime, Christie darts among the intertwining stories of the various suspects -- from a philandering playboy to a serene small-town girl -- although she sometimes stretches the logical deductive process a little thin and lingers too long on the superfluous layers of the story.

American millionaire Rufus van Aldin gives his daughter Ruth Kettering a necklace of supposedly-cursed rubies, including the legendary Heart of Fire... right before he discovers that Ruth is planning to divorce her unfaithful husband Derek, and is secretly having her own affair with her old lover, the Comte de la Roche. When detective Hercule Poirot stays aboard the Blue Train headed for the French Riviera, a murder inevitably follows -- Ruth is found strangled, with her famous ruby missing.

With a little nudging from van Aldin, Poirot begins investigating the case. And he has no shortage of suspects -- Derek, the Comte, Derek's lover Mirelle, and even the quiet and pleasant Katherine -- who might have killed Ruth for the stolen jewels, or for love, or both. And though the debt-ridden Derek seems like the obvious suspect, since he inherits all of his wife's wealth, Poirot soon comes to believe that a more complicated and sinister crime has taken place.

"The Mystery of the Blue Train" was written during a period when Christie was suffering from a plethora of personal problems, including her mother's death, psychological problems and her crumbling marriage. The book was effectively written for money rather than out of inspiration, and in some ways it shows -- the glitzy, melodramatic focus of the story (cursed gems, an ostentatious jewel thief, a sultry dancer, gender-bending disguises, lots of infidelity) feels like a different person plotted it out. Perhaps she was trying something flashier to appeal to the masses.

Under the gloss and glitz, Christie's plot is a pretty decent mystery, with some unexpected twists and inverted tropes, and some quirky characters to leaven the murder story (the much-widowed Lady Tamplin and her bimbo husband). Her dialogue tends to be a little awkward at times ("Katherine's got all the makings of a beauty in her. All she wants is clothes!"), with some sharp-edged descriptions filled with nuance and little details that explain more than obvious descriptions of feelings or thoughts possibly could. A gesture of the hand, a trailed-off sentence, or a sudden laugh.

Furthermore, she balances out the mystery with the personal stories, mostly the rapidly intertwining stories of Katherine and Derek; her pleasant, unjudgemental nature seems to inspire him to leave his old ways behind, but without the disillusions of his first marriage. The only problem is perhaps that Poirot seems to generate the correct theories with too little basis, conveying some of the strain that the usually-airtight Christie was probably under at the time.

The most comfortable aspect of the story is perhaps the subplot about Katherine, a kind, simple girl from Miss Marple's town of St. Mary Mead who suddenly finds herself in a more moneyed, glamorous lifestyle. In a way she feels like an anchor to the more romantic, soap-operaish parts of the story, as she is for the flighty playboy Derek Kettering and even at times for Poirot himself. Poirot navigates the complicated waters of the mystery with his usual deftness, occasionally with the help of a young lady or even a clever, awkward teenager.

Despite the odd sensation of being generated by someone other than Christie, "The Mystery of the Blue Train" has her deft writing and intricate knowledge of human nature. If nothing else, enjoy it for the jewels, drama and infidelity.


Star Trek: The Original Series - The Complete Series
Star Trek: The Original Series - The Complete Series
DVD ~ Leonard Nimoy
Price: $55.99

4 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars To boldly go, August 24, 2015
"Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations... to boldly go where no man has gone before!"

It would be hard to find many TV shows as wildly influential as the original series of "Star Trek," which inspired a devoted fandom, several spinoffs of varying quality, a string of films, and most recently an alternate-timeline reboot directed by J. J. Abrams. And despite the late-sixties bright colors and miniskirts, there's a bright-eyed yet intense quality to the series -- it's a smart, well-written series with a few duds, headed by a trio of memorable and lovable characters.

In the twenty-third century, mankind has spread out among the stars, and established a Federation of like-minded worlds. The starship Enterprise is part of their Starfleet division -- and it does pretty much everything, from fighting hostile aliens like the Klingons and the Romulans, ferrying diplomats and alien dignitaries, and exploring planets with weird and freakish creatures on them (including a furry creature that sucks salt out of its victims).

The captain is James T. Kirk (William Shatner), who is assisted and guided by his two trusted friends, the logic-driven, half-Vulcan science officer Spock (Leonard Nimoy) and the crusty, blunt-spoken doctor Leonard "Bones" McCoy (Deforest Kelley). With the faithful crew of the Enterprise behind them, they travel through time, encounter godlike aliens, fall prey to some weird diseases (including one that makes you drunk!), get caught in countless planetary wars, deal with a suspiciously large number of crazy/evil computers, and encounter countless strange creatures (a rock monster, brains in jars, a hostile lizard-man, flying brain cells, Jack the ripper, tribbles...).

Yes, it has those bright colors, beehives and chintzy sets that you expect from a late sixties show, especially a science fiction one. But what made "Star Trek: The Original Series" such an enduring show was that it was a depiction of a brighter future, full of exploration and wonder, without becoming too starry-eyed to take seriously. And it had a good balance of "Big Moral Message" stories ("racism is stupid," "war is bad," "don't trust computers blindly") and solid sci-fi stories that featured some truly weird, out-there alien life forms.

Simply put, "Star Trek: The Original Series" tended to have very well-written, intense stories that relied on a mix of action (usually involving Kirk losing part of his shirt), well-written dialogue and plenty of powerful emotion (a guilt-ridden starship captain becomes obsessed with destroying a machine that killed his crew). This allowed some of the stories that would otherwise seem rather silly (Spock getting a pancake-sized alien cell embedded in his back) to have some serious tension, but not in a way that precluded some actual humor (the entire episode about tribbles -- chirping little furry balls that reproduce exponentially -- is side-splittingly funny, especially when poor Kirk gets buried alive in them).

It also has one of the most cohesive casts ever to be seen on TV, even though actors like Nichelle Nichols, George Takei and Walter Koenig were underused. For all the gags about Shatner's acting, he plays Kirk as a man of both brains and passion -- he's driven and emotion, with a love for his ship, his crew and the unexplored crannies of the galaxy that rules his life. But he's also intelligent and canny, and more than once we see him outwitting a foe, whether it's making a primitive gun by hand or playing the ultimate bluff against a vast alien ship.

And he has uniquely solid chemistry with Nimoy and Kelley, so that you can really believe that these three characters are fast friends who bicker, joke and advise each other... well, mostly Bones and Spock snipe at each other, while Kirk sits there smiling. Nimoy gives a brilliant performance as the half-Vulcan, half-human Spock, struggling with the emotions that his Vulcan nature doesn't allow him to express, even though his relationship with his people is rather tempestuous. Kelley plays McCoy as the exact opposite -- a fiery Southern doctor whose determination to do the right thing sometimes clashes with his duty. Yes, he boozes it up while on duty, but who doesn't want a doctor like McCoy?

Flaws? Well, like any TV show, "Star Trek: The Original Series" had some dud episodes, often involving space hippies, Abraham Lincoln and brain theft. And some of the attitudes towards women are... seriously problematic, especially in the final episode. The series briefly dabbled in the idea of a female first officer, and Nichelle Nichols' Uhura is depicted as strong, gutsy and smart when she gets to do something (which is admittedly rare), but it's still heavily weighed towards the men.

Few TV shows have had the impact on nerd culture that "Star Trek: The Original Series" has had, whether it's transporting to a parallel reality or catchphrases that everyone misquotes. Despite some episodes that veer off into the silly and/or stupid, it's still an excellent, enjoyable series with a bright, idealistic view of the future.


Hotwives of Orlando Season 1
Hotwives of Orlando Season 1
Price: $9.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Calm DOWN!, August 15, 2015
One of the worst reality franchises to infect television is the "Real Housewives" series, in which not-as-rich-as-they-pretend-to-be women have contrived drama while fulfilling a lot of ugly, sexist stereotypes. So it's kind of amazing that it took this many years for a full-blown parody to be produced. That would be the "Hotwives of Orlando," which follows the lives of six women (not all wives) who are wrapped up in scandal, sex, drugs and the occasional crazed brawl in designer gowns.

Every episode opens with the Hotwives posing (sometimes getting hair blown in their mouths) in front of a glittery CGI background, and dropping sassy catchphrases like, "You don't have to be Mr. Right to end up with me. You just need to not have chlamydia!"

The Hotwives include:
- Tawny St. John (Casey Wilson), a gold-digging "small town girl who dreamed of the big life" with a dying husband (except he's not dying, just allergy-riddled) and a personal trainer lover.
- Money-squandering, rage-filled Italian-American Shauna Maducci (Danielle Schneider) who believes everyone (the plumber, the cops, the foreclosure rep) is trying to sleep with her husband.
- Lawyer/foot model/minister/taxidermist Phe Phe Reed (Tymberlee Hill), who uses "I'm just being Phe Phe!" to compensate for her rudeness.
- Seemingly-British Veronica Von Vandervon (Andrea Savage) who constantly explains her vulgar sex jokes and is sleeping with her teen pool boy.
- The holier-than-thou Crystal Simmons (Angela Kinsey) who hasn't read the Bible because it's "written in Jewish" and only her controlling husband can interpret it properly.
- Amanda Simmons (Kristen Schaal), Crystal's sister, who peaked in a prune juice commercial ("As easy going in as it is going out!") as a child and is now perpetually high and drunk.

There is also Crystal's gossipy friend Alli (Dannah Phirman) who desperately wants to be a Hotwife; the ghastly producer (Paul Scheer); and a large number of husbands from the controlling jerk T.J. (Seth Morris) who declares that "Prostitution is a sin, like murder and adultery and female orgasms," the oblivious Phil (Stephen Tobolowsky), who doesn't realize that Tawny is cheating on him, and the perpetually unfaithful Rodney (Jerry Minor).

The series rests on a long string of parties, beginning with Tawny's charity (which supplies high heels for dogs) and including an intervention party, a child's birthday party, a "pimps and hoes" party, a seance party with a "ghost shouter," and a vow renewal at a mini-golf course that is busted by the cops.

And among the dramatic problems they have are a vicious feud between Shauna and Tawny ("She was my best friend, but she told me to CALM DOWN!"); Amanda's ongoing sobriety issues; friendship breakups ("We'll still hang out all the time! We're just not FRIENDS!"); Phe Phe's divorce; grotesquely autotuned pop songs; Shauna losing her house to foreclosure and having to move into a tent; the death of Veronica's "Lover" (her dog); and finally the reunion special, with more squabbling, crying and claims of illness.

It's actually a little sad that "Hotwives of Orlando" doesn't even need to exaggerate the Real Housewives that much -- lots of narcissistic, selfish women being shallow and snippy and easily offended. Also, cosmetic procedures and spending too much money. So it's rife with comedy when exaggerated just a little, usually based on actual Real Housewives' foibles (substance abuse, bad temper, faux-Christianity, blaming things on editing, and so on).

Most of the wickedly funny writing is in the dialogue ("I miss being married. Sex with other women is SO much more exciting that way!"), but also in the character descriptions (Veronica is described as "Sad Rich White Woman"). Some of the running gags aren't fully exploited (Crystal's disdain for her sister) but they do tend to be rather funny, especially when the characters massively overreact to absolutely nothing at all (Tawny and Shawna trying to determine who's the better prostitute). And there are subtle hints that it's all staged (they painstakingly move a coffee table before having a brawl).

And all the actresses are pretty awesome -- Schneider and Hill chew the scenery with roaring delight, Savage feels like she's about to burst out into gleeful giggles at all times ("He was a sexy dog! You didn't have to make out with him!"), and Wilson is pretty good as a vacuous blonde who constantly crawls all over her trainer. Kinsey feels like she's playing a dimmer, richer version of her "Office" character (which she does quite well), and Schaal plays a pitiful but hilarious ex-child star.

For anyone who thinks reality TV needs to just calm down, "Hotwives of Orlando" is a welcome parody that only seems... SLIGHTLY exaggerated. Fun, wickedly barbed little comedy show.


Stargate SG-1 Complete Series Seasons 1-10 Collection
Stargate SG-1 Complete Series Seasons 1-10 Collection
DVD ~ Richard Dean Anderson
Offered by BTS Bargains
Price: $149.99

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Through the Stargate, August 12, 2015
Most TV shows spun off from movies are uninvolving and uninteresting ("Blade," anyone?), and utterly fail to embody whatever made the original story interesting.

But such wasn't the case with "Stargate SG-1," spun off from one of the few good movies Roland Emmerich ever made, about a massive alien ring that allowed instant interstellar travel. Starting as a simple exploration series, the series expanded into a brilliant tangle of politics, aliens, and Earth's spirit and guts -- excellent writing, acting, and a sense of humor about itself and its characters.

The Stargate has been inactive for a year... until a bunch of Egyptian-styled warriors come through and kidnap an officer. General Hammond (Don S. Davis) pulls Jack O'Neill (Richard Dean Anderson) out of retirement, and sends him to Abydos to find out what happened. O'Neill is reunited with Daniel Jackson (Michael Shanks) -- only to have Daniel's wife and brother-in-law abducted by the evil Apophis. A rescue attempt sparks off a war with the Goa'uld -- aliens who have been impersonating human gods for many centuries.

So the team SG-1 -- made up of O'Neill, Jackson, scientist/pilot Sam Carter (Amanda Tapping) and Apophis' ex-slave Teal'c (Christopher Judge) -- explore through the Stargate, finding plenty of hostile aliens, strange allies (the Unas, the Asgard), and humans scattered all over. Not to mention the gate-builders, who have ascended to another plane. Frst they battle the arrogant Apophis, then the devil-imitating So'kar, and the malignant half-energy Anubis and his army of undead warriors. The Goa'uld power structure starts to splinter, and new secret organizations make power plays on Earth, as SG-1 uncovers the hidden legacies of humanity's ancestors.

Even after the Goa'uld storyline ends, things haven't ended for SG-1. Cameron Mitchell (Ben Browder) is given command of SG-1, and manages to gather the disbanded team back together, with the help of a quirky alien mercenary, Vala Mal Doran (Claudia Black). Together, they find that the Milky Way faces its most deadly threat ever -- the Ori, evil ascended beings who demand that everyone worship them... or else.

Previously all "exploration" sci-fi focused on people on ships. "Stargate" avoids the usual space opera approach -- even when ships are introduced, the main focus is on walking through a big stone ring that instantly zaps a person to another planet. It's also full of real military, political battles (both on and off Earth), and a very plausible reason why everybody in the galaxy (more or less) looks just like us.

It's graced with elaborate, opulant sets, solid special effects, shoot-'em-up action from Marines and Air Force, and some truly kinetic space battles (including one that resembles the climax of "Star Wars IV"). The storyline stumbles somewhat in the last two seasons, with the sudden switch in villains and cast. But all ten seasons are sprinkled with very warm human moments -- Daniel's farewell to his wife, Sam bonding with a doomed little girl, and Teal'c's struggle for freedom.

Best of all is the snappy script. Some of it comes from Teal'c ("Undomesticated equines could not remove me"), but mostly from the tart-tongued O'Neill ("Well, I guess we all start shooting. There's blood, death, hard feelings... it'd suck"). Other characters get great lines too (" I think the circle means 'the place of our legacy'...or it could be 'a piece of our leg', but the first seems to make more sense").

The cast is nothing short of brilliant -- Anderson does a quirky, disrespectful, pop culture-lovin' guy with a hidden tragic past, while Tapping and Shanks are great as an enthusiastic geek and a smart, capable military woman. And Judge is absolutely astounding as Teal'c, who slowly turns from a stoic, tragic warrior to a warm legendary hero. Corin Nemec had a one-season stint as Daniel's "replacement," and he makes a nice, eager young newbie, while Ben Browder channels much of O'Neill's quirkiness when Anderson left. Black is kind of annoying at times, but she's admittedly quite funny and quirky, with a tragic past of her own.

"Stargate SG-1" is undeniably the best TV spinoff, and one of the best "exploration" shows to make it onto the air... and stay there for a whole decade. Definitely worth seeing, from beginning to end.


The Dark Is Rising (5 Book Series)
The Dark Is Rising (5 Book Series)

5.0 out of 5 stars Now the dark is rising, August 10, 2015
Susan Cooper's books are the sort that immediately cause people to say "But aren't those for kids?"

Technically, yes. So is "The Hobbit," for that matter. And Susan Cooper's "Dark is Rising Sequence" has joined the elite shelf of timeless books that are technically for kids, but not necessarily JUST for kids. With her use of myth and folklore, rich language, and a time-spanning battle between good and evil, Cooper spins up a rare tale in her majestic prose.

"Over Sea Under Stone" features the three Drew children coming to stay with Merriman Lyon. In his attic, they find an ancient treasure map that leads to a hidden grail -- if they can only figure out what the map's writing and symbols mean. But they are not the only ones who are looking for the grail -- three sinister people are in pursuit.

"The Dark is Rising" shifts its focus elsewhere. On his eleventh birthday, young Will Stanton encounters the mysterious Merriman, and is told that he is the last of the immortal "Old Ones" who are fighting the forces of evil (known as the Dark). As the power of the Dark grows, Will must gather the six Signs that can help stop them -- and protect his friends and family from the Dark.

"Greenwitch" brings the four young heroes together. Will and the three Drew kids are brought to Cornwall, where the grail has been stolen. Jane is haunted by nightmares about the Greenwitch, a symbolic weaving of branches and leaves cast into the sea, and a sinister artist captures Barney. But the Greenwitch is not just a tangle of sticks -- it's alive with wild magic that neither Old Ones nor the Dark can control.

"Grey King" is the threat of the Dark. Will is recovering from an illness in Wales, where he meets a "raven boy" (an albino Welsh boy, Bran) and a dog with "eyes that see the wind" -- part of an old legend. Will must lead Bran into a closer connection with the Old Ones. But when an accident befalls the dog, Bran is angry with the Old Ones -- until the truth of his past comes to light.

"Silver on the Tree" brings the series to a climax. Will receives visions of the past, and a message from Merriman that the final battle between the Dark and the Light is about to come. Evil creatures (minks, specifically) are swarming near his house -- and the Old Ones, while almost ready, don't have the power of the Lady. He teams up with the Drews and with Bran to find the Lost Land.

Sure, fantasy incorporating old myth and legend is nothing new. People have been doing it for as long as the genre has existed. But Susan Cooper brings the idea of time-travelling immortals and ancient magic to life in this, and avoids the usual syrup and dumbing-down that most authors feel compelled to include.

Cooper's writing is detailed and atmospheric, although the first book is much more plainly written than the following four. She can switch instantly from lighthearted to mystical and back again, and her writing is heavy with description. Moreover, she takes the folklore and legends of Britain and interweaves them with Arthurian legend, giving the whole Arthurian story a new spin.

While some may not like the portrayal of good and evil as evenly matched, the strength of the Old Ones' determination is extremely invigorating. They're powerful, but still very human, able to make errors and feel sorrow. And there are lessons carefully interwoven about good and evil, about loyalty, compassion, redemption, and friendship. These sentiments are never gooey, just powerful.

As for the kids, Jane, Barney and Simon Drew are a little less endearing because they seem a little dated -- think E. Nesbit characters out of time. Will Stanton and Bran, however, have the qualities of timeless characters, both wise and ancient and yet still very young. And Merriman looms over it all as the all-seeing guardian, alternately forbidding and dignified or kindly and grandfatherly.

With its majestic prose and entrancing, otherworldly characters, the "Dark is Rising Sequence" is a remarkable piece of work, and one that deserves many rereadings. Outstanding.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Aug 17, 2015 7:30 PM PDT


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