vox lux
Ah, dear readers, I have not been entirely forthright with you. For I saw Vox Lux before A Star Is Born. But I had to see the latter to know how it stacked up against the former, because the two films, released almost simultaneously, have drawn many comparisons.

And indeed, there are some striking similarities: both films are about a young woman who meets someone who helps her achieve musical stardom. Both films feature a fan being attacked in a restaurant for asking for a picture with a famous person. And both concern a star who, despite all their professional success, has demons of their own to battle.

When it comes to critical reception, of course, there’s no comparison: the critics loved A Star Is Born; they were lukewarm on Vox Lux. Likewise, at the box office, Star demolished Vox, by a score of approximately $432 million to $874,597.

And despite the superficial resemblance, they are very different kinds of films about very different things. In fact, part of the reason for the success of A Star Is Born could be that it’s easy to describe and summarize. What kind of a film is it? A romantic musical drama. What’s it about? A couple of musicians who fall in love while their careers are headed in opposite directions.

Meanwhile, what kind of film is Vox Lux? What’s it about?

Eh, well… we’ll get to that later. If you’re a regular here at Ruined Chapel,  you know that I like to take my time in these reviews. I view them rather like legal cases in which I have to slowly build the evidence for my final argument. And if you’re new to Ruined Chapel, you’re about to get a quintessential demonstration of what I mean.

Vox Lux begins with a school shooting in the year 1999. A lone gunman walks into a music class and opens fire. A 13-year-old girl named Celeste (Raffey Cassidy) is shot in the neck, and many of her classmates are killed.

Right off the bat; I have to say this opening is effective and disturbing. It’s clearly modeled on the Columbine attack, but nowadays, when we have become all too familiar with mass shootings, it evokes the horrors of many different atrocities. The setting is powerful, too; the idea of a sleepy, rundown little town being shattered by an attack on its children is… unnerving. Unnerving and all too real.

In the aftermath, we see Celeste crying with her sister Ellie (Stacy Martin) in the hospital, learning, slowly, to move on her own. Finally, with Ellie’s help, she performs a song they have written together, at a church vigil. It opens with the lyrics:

Hey, turn the light on
‘Cause I’ve got no one to show me the way.
Please, I will follow
‘Cause you’re my last hope, I’ll do anything you say

This is the chorus:

So teach me. Show me all you’ve got
And in your words, I will be wrapped up.
Speak to me, you’re my last hope
And I will say nothing and listen to your love.

I’m honestly not sure what’s supposed to rhyme with what here. “Got” with “up”? Or “up” with “love”? Or is it an an A/B/B/A rhyme scheme, where “got” is supposed to rhyme with “love”, and “up” with “hope”?

At any rate, these lyrics seem generic, banal, and trite. Which, to be clear, is a compliment, since that is how most real-life pop lyrics are.

Celeste quickly catches the eye of producers, and goes off to New York City (complete with a shot of the pre-9/11 skyline) to begin recording and to meet with a publicist (Jennifer Ehle). While the publicist tries to keep the young singer from getting her hopes up too high, Celeste’s manager (Jude Law) encourages her, and reminds her, as a way to keep her confidence up during recording sessions: “Imagine you’re alone, dancing in your room.”

Celeste and Ellie travel to Stockholm, and, in a seizure-inducing sequence narrated by Willem Dafoe, begin sampling a sex, drugs, and rock-n’-roll lifestyle. (There is also an interesting aside in the narration about how Stockholm became a center for the recording industry. The economist in me loved that; though I have no idea if it’s true.)

Celeste and Ellie party too hard, earning a rebuke from the manager, who grumbles “You kids are all the same.” After that, they jet off to Los Angeles to shoot a music video, and I have to pause here to say just how much I loved the establishing shot of L.A. at night–it radiates a sinister glow while the ominous heavy metal concert growls on the soundtrack. The ensuing strobe-light sequence nearly made me sick, but it was worth it.

In spite of the manager’s earlier warnings, Celeste sleeps with a heavy metal star after attending his concert. Lying together in bed, she tells him that the gunman who shot her listened to music like her lover performs, and tells him about dream she’s had ever since the attack, about going through a tunnel and seeing lifeless bodies inside. She also says she likes performing pop music because “I don’t want people to think too hard, I just want them to feel good.”

Shortly afterward, she is seen bursting into the manager’s hotel room, to find him and Ellie sharing a bed. Celeste is horrified at this, on top of the panic she is already experiencing on hearing that a plane has hit the World Trade Center.

The narrator intones that Celeste’s loss of innocence mirrors our own. This seems like a pretty trite line–it’s the sort of cliché that gets used whenever people are writing about a period of upheaval. But keep it in mind for later. Meanwhile, Celeste films her music video, in which she and her accompanying dancers wear shiny golden masks. She soon becomes a sensation, much to her and Ellie’s delight, and exactly as the manager was so sure she would.

And so ends Act I. (Which was titled “Genesis”) Act II, “Regenesis,” begins with a title card informing us that it is now 2017, and then we see another shooting: terrorists in gold masks like those Celeste wore in her video attacking a beach resort.

The manager goes to see Celeste to tell her the news, and prepare her for a press conference to take place before the upcoming concert and debut of her new album, Vox Lux. Celeste is now 31, and is now played by Natalie Portman.

Let me pause here and address the question of why I watch and review so many Natalie Portman movies, which some readers may have been wondering about. It began simply enough when, as a Star Wars-loving 11-year-old, I saw Attack of the Clones in 2002 and developed a huge crush on Senator Amidala. That’s a pretty common story, I think; I’ve had a number of people tell me the only way to enjoy Episode II is to have a crush on a cast member.

As a result, I started to follow Portman’s career. And while the schoolboy crush may have faded after a while, I began noticing something about her choice of roles: they are wildly different from each other, and moreover, the movies she is in are wildly different from one another–and from most anything else.

Some actors are content to just play variations of the same basic role in the same basic film over and over again. Not Portman. She’s in westerns and dystopian thrillers and romantic road movies.

And here’s the key thing: her movies always give me something to chew on. Some of them are great, some of them are awful, some of them are a mixed bag, but all of them have something unusual. As I wrote recently about Jackie: the best thing for a reviewer is something that’s just freaking weird. And Portman seems to actively seek out the weird.

Vox Lux is a case in point: just when you think you’ve got Portman pegged as an elegant, restrained actress who brings fragility and delicacy to her roles, she goes and plays a hyperactive, drug-addled, alcoholic, narcissistic pop diva with a New York accent and a foul mouth. The manic is still there, but the pixie and the dream girl, not so much.

Celeste, decked out in a punk-y hairdo and heavy make-up that makes her look much older than 31, is something of a wreck, railing at restaurant employees and sniping with journalists. Ellie has been taking care of Celeste’s teenage daughter, Albertine (also played by Raffey Cassidy) and has brought her to the hotel to see her mother. Celeste  treats Ellie with total contempt, before marching past the paparazzi to take her daughter to lunch.

Over lunch–or rather, before lunch, since they ultimately get thrown out before they can eat–Celeste gives a rambling monologue touching on, among other things, her belief that Ellie is poisoning Albertine’s mind against her, her disgust that her daughter learned about her recent break-up from gossip magazines, and most incomprehensibly, this beauty, ostensibly about modern marketing:

“Their business model relies on their customer’s unshakable stupidity. And deep down we probably sense that–their intimate knowledge of our commitment to the lowest common denominator. It’s the official manifestation of the increasingly important urge to break with every living thing that has some connection to the past… the past reeks too much of ugly old people and death.”

In short, Celeste seems rather unhinged. This is confirmed by more background that the narrator helpfully provides, saying that she is recovering from a recent episode of heavy drinking, as well as a car accident in which she injured a pedestrian.

The narrator also informs us that Albertine has been planning to tell her mother that she has recently lost her virginity. This news causes Celeste to lash out at Ellie when she returns to the hotel, viciously berating her sister for not taking better care of Albertine. Ellie tearfully reminds Celeste that she writes her songs, and threatens to reveal that fact to the public, but as Celeste says, “In this day and age, no one will care.”

Celeste then gives a bizarre press conference, in which, after perfunctory condemnations of violence and expressions of support for the victims, she says that, like the terrorists wearing her masks, she used to believe in God, too–when she was a child. The narrator adds the gloss that she speaks like the political figures of her era.

Afterwards, she goes to her hotel room, where she finds the manager embracing Albertine. She tells him to get away from her daughter, and dispatches Albertine with a note of apology to Ellie. She seems on the edge of a breakdown, as evidenced by her comment when she turns back and is surprised to see the manager still in the room: “Jesus Christ, I almost forgot you were there!” He tells her that Albertine wanted to see her father (presumably the musician Celeste slept with back in L.A.) but that he thinks that’s a bad idea.

She and the manager then snort drugs, drink whiskey, and finally stagger out of the room in an almost comical sequence. Celeste manages to somehow find her way to the convoy of vehicles transporting her to the concert. En route, she orders her driver to stop, and pulls Albertine out to the side of the road to kneel with her, in silent prayer, for “Everyone who’s suffering right now.”

They then continue on to the concert venue, where Celeste has another meltdown over… I’m not even sure what, to be honest. The manager ends up holding her in her dressing room, telling her to ignore Ellie, who finally makes him go away, and then cradles Celeste as she sobs incoherently about being “ugly”.

This ends Act II, and now begins the Finale.

I should mention that up to this point, the film felt very low budget–lots of handheld camera shots, and dingy, grimy interiors. Not Hollywood grimy, either; but the real thing–or so it felt, anyway. It gave the film an almost documentary-like feel.

The concert at the end is clearly where they spent most of their production budget. It’s a high-tech show with elaborate special effects and lots of extras. It seemed to me like a very good representation of a pop concert–which is to say, almost unbearable, as one who has never attended such a concert, or wanted to. Dancers in sparkling catsuits, lasers and pyrotechnics, flashing words on a huge screen, all while a synthesized voice shouts unintelligible lyrics. It looked like every Super Bowl halftime show that I’ve ever had the misfortune to glimpse.

Celeste’s performance seems to be a mash-up of allusions to real-life pop stars–she calls her fans “little angels,” she performs a song called “Firecracker,” and another one called “Private Girl in a Public World.”

And then the film just ends in mid-concert, after about twenty minutes of singing and dancing. Nothing happens after. The credits roll (in total silence) and the movie’s over.

Ah… well, actually; not quite. I omitted something. But it’s a spoiler. A big one. I, unfortunately, knew this spoiler going in, and didn’t get to experience the surprise for myself. And that’s too bad, because I would have liked to have seen it without knowing everything.

Don’t make the same mistake I did. Think very carefully about whether you want to proceed beyond this point, because now we are going to get into the real meat of what Vox Lux is. If you want to skip that for now, just know that I think it’s an extremely dark film–especially the shocking violence at the beginning–and that it’s also a very, very interesting piece of social commentary, with great acting and writing. If you watch it, pay particular attention to the scene where Celeste has lunch with her daughter; it’s more important than it seems at first. Have fun!

==NOW ENTERING THE SPOILER ZONE==

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220px-A_Star_is_BornNote I had to say that this is about the 2018 version, as opposed to the 1937 version, the 1954 version, or the 1976 version. This concept of a young woman being plucked from obscurity by an older male star and rising to fame is an enduring one, apparently. In this edition, the young woman is named Ally, and portrayed by Lady Gaga, and the man is named Jackson Maine, and portrayed by Bradley Cooper, who also directs.

I’d give you the plot summary, but in truth, I pretty much just did: there’s not a lot to the story besides what I outlined above. The two meet, Jackson instantly sees Ally’s promise, and soon has her singing onstage at one of his concerts. Before long, the two are married, and Ally is skyrocketing to fame, while Jackson is plagued by alcoholism and lingering issues from his troubled family life. All seems poised to work out until…

Spoiler Warning!

…Jackson kills himself, apparently because of a combination of worsening tinnitus, and the fact that Ally’s manager, Rez, has taken a dislike to him. No, really; he has a brief confrontation with Rez, in which Rez tells Jackson to keep away from Ally–that’s right; from his own wife--and Jackson hangs himself afterward. I wasn’t buying that.

Look, I don’t want to be flip, but there wasn’t much more to the movie than that. I’m not saying it’s an awful movie–most of the performances are good, and I’ve always liked Lady Gaga, even though I’ve never listened to her music. She has a very nice voice, and most of the musical numbers are therefore pleasant to listen to.

It just felt… artificial. The story is not a complex one, apart from the sad ending, which seemed tacked-on to give the story weight. Though, in fairness, this seems to be an inherited trait from the original. I think that someone back in the ’30s (Dorothy Parker, probably) realized there was no interesting way to end the story unless somebody died.

Well, it showed. The quality of the plot seemed soap-opera-ish to me. Indeed, I get the idea that the writers must have felt that what they had was rather saccharine, and so they were looking for a way to make it edgier.

The answer the writers appear to have hit on was to use the F-bomb as much as they possibly could. It is used as an intensifier when people are angry. It is used when they are not angry. It is used repeatedly in casual conversation, and for no apparent reason. An occasional “goddam” is sprinkled here and there, but this is the exception that proves the rule.

To be clear, I have no problem with strong language. There are times when the scene and the character demand the strongest obscenities a writer can command. These words exist in our language for a reason, and when the situation arises should be unhesitatingly deployed.

But the word is used too liberally here; and by many different characters. It is used so much it grates on the ear. At a certain point, I found myself wishing they would use a different word, any word, even if it were one more hideously offensive than the obscenity du jour, just to break the monotony.

And I hate to make this accusation; I really do–but I have to believe this was done just to make this “PG” story a solid “R”. There’s some brief nudity that I suspect was included for this reason as well. But that was only for a second; if they had taken the same approach to nudity as they did to language, everyone would have gone around naked for half the film.

(If anyone’s wondering, the single best use of an obscenity I’ve ever seen in cinema occurs in the comedy The Brothers Bloom. That’s some effective swearing.)

Again, it was not a terrible film, but I didn’t feel like it was a must-see. A decent romantic drama; nothing more. It felt overlong to me, but then, the easiest scenes to cut would be the songs, and I think everyone would agree those are also the best parts.

I’ll be honest: I wish they’d written a new story. Something else with Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga singing, as opposed to just giving an old story a new coat of obscene paint. But I guess this theme is one that resonates with people, and has for a long time: the idea that a seemingly ordinary person can be elevated to the ranks of the wealthy and famous–it’s a quintessentially American rags-to-riches story, in the spirit of Horatio Alger, and therefore will probably always be popular.

51DGPn2xuTLI’ve seen the name Kevin Brennan praised for years by many authors I admire. Carrie Rubin, Audrey Driscoll, Phillip McCollum, and after this post by Mark Paxson, I realized I could postpone it no longer: I had to read one of his books. The testimony of the four listed above cannot be ignored.

Fascination lived up to the hype. 

Brennan’s prose is something to behold; I noticed it from page one. It’s witty, elegant, and incredibly easy to read. It has a rhythm to it; almost poetic in its way. Quite honestly, I felt a bit jealous reading it. I wish I could write like this.

The story Brennan tells in Fascination is a strange one, and I mean that in the best possible sense. Sally Speck, née Pavlou, is distraught when her husband Mason apparently commits suicide. She can’t quite bring herself to believe it and, it soon develops, with good reason: Mason hasn’t really committed suicide, but simply faked his death and run away. Sally hires the services of private investigator Clive Bridle to track Mason down, and from there, the two embark on a wild, funny, often sublimely weird road trip through the American southwest.

Along the journey of “self realization and vengeance”—to use a phrase that repeats like a leitmotif throughout—Sally and Clive meet a cast of oddballs with various perspectives on life. From a mystical shaman to more than one cult, their path brings them in contact with all kinds of colorful folks.

I could very easily imagine this being adapted into one of those quirky dramedy road trip movies. Brennan writes so well that I could picture the vignettes clearly, and it makes for a pleasing mind-movie. Granted, I don’t see a lot of quirky dramedies, but I kept thinking of the movie Garden State while reading this book. (In case it’s not clear, that’s a compliment. Garden State is like a cultural touchstone for my generation.)

It all ends up with a very satisfying conclusion. Brennan provides just the right amount of closure, while still leaving some things open-ended and up to the reader to decide. I really liked that. Too many books either leave too much unresolved, or else wrap things up too neatly. Fascination gets the balance just right. 

By the way, you might be asking: what is Fascination? Why is the book named that? The easy answer is that it’s an arcade game Sally likes to play. But I think it’s fair to say there’s more to it than that. “Fascination” is a state of mind, to use an old chestnut.

I don’t read a lot of literary fiction. The last book I read that could be said to be in the same vein as Fascination was Swimming with Bridgeport Girls by Anthony Tambakis. That book was also about a journey to find a former spouse (and also, like Fascination, involved quite a few gambling scenes). I enjoyed Bridgeport Girls a lot, but honestly, I think I liked Fascination more. The ending of the latter, in particular, was much stronger.

Did I have any problems at all with Fascination? Well, one. But it’s such a subjective thing I hesitate to bring it up. It’s also fairly late in the book, but I think I can describe it without spoilers. It’s a minor quibble in the scheme of things, so don’t let it deter you from getting this book, okay? You have to promise me now!

At one point, one of the cultish outfits that Clive and Sally encounter forces them into an uncomfortable situation—nothing violent or illegal, mind, just very awkward. And they do so by pressuring Clive into doing something I felt he wouldn’t do.

Now, as I said part of this is just my personality. I’ve played tons of video games where situations like this arise—a cult or other sinister group railroads the “player” character into doing something. In such games, I inevitably try to fight my way out. If I’m ever in such a situation in real life, I’m going to wind up like Sean Connery at the end of The Man Who Would Be King.

So, that’s probably why Clive’s behavior in that scene didn’t sit right with me. Purely a subjective thing. You should read the book and see whether you agree with me or not. 

One more thing before I wrap this up: Mark Paxson did a three-part interview with Kevin Brennan on his blog around the time Fascination was published. It’s a great, wide-ranging discussion that every indie author ought to check out, but one of the points that they raised was that indie literary fiction rarely gets much attention from readers. And that’s a real shame, because there are gems like Fascination out there. Even I, one who doesn’t read much literary fiction, whether from big names or indie, has read enough to know that Fascination can hold its own against the big name lit fic books that win awards and get talked about by fancy people. The fact that it only has nine reviews on Amazon is really a pity. It deserves to be read by all lovers of good writing.

I’ve reorganized this page. It was bothering me that you had to scroll through a huge list to see everything, so I added a linked table of contents, organized by genre.

Ultimately, I’d like to make it so users can just filter the page in a variety of different ways–genre, author, etc. But I’ll have to learn a lot more about HTML and CSS before that happens. This is just a quick fix in the meantime.

By the way, if you’re an author who doesn’t agree with the genre I’ve listed your book under, just let me know and I’ll change it. There are a few that I wasn’t sure how to categorize myself. (e.g Surreality could easily be under Crime instead of Science Fiction.)

5159vEi1J5LA couple weeks ago, my friend Mark Paxson (who is a fantastic writer himself, BTW) wrote a post recommending four indie authors. Tammy Robinson was one of them. Mark suggested I start off by reading this book to get a sense of her work.

I figured from the start this might be the furthest outside of my reading comfort zone I’ve ever gone with a book. It begins as a fairly straightforward romance between two young people in New Zealand. Charlie works assisting an old man at a bookshop, Pearl is coming to a beach house, apparently to recover from a painful break-up. The two meet, begin dating, and slowly become a couple. Most of the first half or more of the book is them doing fairly routine things—a well-written account of everyday life.

I want to stop here to say that this something I really admire in other authors, partly because I’m awful at it myself. If you asked me to write a story wholly devoid of any supernatural or science-fiction elements, I’m not sure I could do it. And I know that if I did, it wouldn’t be any good; certainly not in the first twenty drafts or so. So I respect authors who can manage to write about entirely realistic, slice-of-life people and events. (The fact that she uses a lot of interesting New Zealand slang words helps—it’s kind of fun to imagine the characters talking in that voice.)

That said, everyday things, no matter how well described, are, ultimately, everyday things. And just as Charlie and Pearl reach the point where you’re beginning to tire of the humdrum of events, trivial things, and petty little arguments that every couple seems to have, Robinson takes things in a very, very different direction.

I can’t spoil it here. Well, actually I am going to spoil a little, later on, because I feel it’s important to mention something, but i won’t do it yet. First, I want to applaud Robinson for crafting this so well that you become so buried in the minor points of daily life that you want something to happen, and then when it does, you say to yourself “God, if only I’d appreciated how things were before!” I hope that doesn’t spoil too much—but there’s a very powerful message in that, and I’m really impressed by how Robinson married the structure of her plot to its theme.

The book is, to be clear, quite tragic in the end. It’s not a light romance, as the cover might suggest, so be warned about that. I had a feeling going in this would be the case (Mark typically likes darker stuff), so I was to some extent braced for it. I feel bad saying this and risking giving away too much, but I also feel like I need to say something, lest readers go in with the wrong expectations.

I said at the outset that this book was the furthest outside my comfort zone I’d ever gone. And in many ways that’s true. It’s about the nuances of human relationships. My typical fare is sci-fi adventures and cosmic horror—human relationships are usually the last thing on anyone’s minds in those.

And yet… in a way the book ended up following the structure I adore most: the unreliable narrator concept is present here, to a degree, as is the twist that makes the reader reconsider everything that went before. I love the idea that a reader thinks they’re reading one sort of book when really they’re reading another, and they don’t even know it until late in the game. It’s one of the toughest tricks to pull off for an author—maybe the toughest—but Robinson did it. I went back and read parts of it again after finishing it, and the author never cheated, either. There are things in the first half that foreshadow what’s going to happen, but you don’t realize it the first time. It’s really impressive.

Okay, that’s about it. If you’re a tough reader, who can take a really tragic tale, you should go pick this up. If you only like happy endings… well, I do think you’re missing out. For perspective, I prefer happy endings too, or at least bittersweet-leaning-towards sweet ones. (I once wrote something with an ending so dark it shocked even me, and that pretty much cured me of grim endings.) But even I could appreciate the merits of Charlie and Pearl. 

Now… there’s one other thing.

It’s kind of a trigger warning. I feel–perhaps selfishly–like I have to warn sensitive readers about this, but it will spoil the plot. So think very carefully before proceeding.

For the record, the trigger isn’t anything to do with rape or murder or violence or anything like that. There is nothing about racism or cruelty to animals or anything of that sort either. So if you’re worried about those things, don’t. 

Okay, now… last chance to bail before I give some things away.

You asked for this.

Oh! Before we do that—the book does have some typos. Did I mention that? No? Well, there are a handful. But that’s a standard thing with indie books. “Better a diamond with a flaw than a pebble without”, as they say.

Anyway… for real now… unless you are very sensitive about one particular subject, don’t read on.

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bobI don’t often review widely-read books, as you may have noticed. I like seeking out hidden indie gems. This book has over 2000 reviews on Amazon, so it’s not really hidden. But it came recommended to me by not one, but two friends whose tastes run along the same lines as my own, so I had to give it a try. And am I ever glad I did.

The titular “Bob” is Bob Johansson, a software developer and science-fiction fan who signs up to have his brain preserved after his death, to be revived in some distant future. He little expects that a freak accident will cause that death shortly after he does so.

Bob wakes up in the distant future to find himself the subject of a study conducted under the auspices of a religious extremist government called FAITH. The ultimate objective of the operation is to place one of the revived minds aboard a deep-space probe, to be sent out to explore the galaxy. While Bob only gets limited information from the scientists conducting the operation, it soon becomes clear that political tensions on Earth—both within FAITH and elsewhere—are reaching a boiling point, and Bob is fortunate to have his mind sent off into the cosmos just as disaster strikes and full-scale nuclear war erupts.

From there, Bob begins creating a virtual reality interface for himself, just to feel more human, as well as countless “copies” of his mind, using the powerful autofactories at his disposal to deploy more “Bobs” to other parts of the galaxy.

The Bobs begin to develop their own names and personalities, and become different characters in their own right. Some return to Earth, to help what remains of humanity recover from the aftermath of the war, while others venture to new worlds, and encounter new forms of life, including one, the Deltans, who resemble primitive humans in ways that lead to some of the Bobs taking them under their care.

This book is a marvelous exercise in hard sci-fi—Mr. Taylor clearly did his research on every aspect, from space stations to interstellar travel to artificial intelligences. The Bobs make a few derisive references to “hand-waving about nanomachines” in sci-fi, which made me smile since I have been guilty of just that. While obviously any science-fiction work is bound to have some unexplained elements—it has to, otherwise it wouldn’t be fiction—the amount of research and scientific knowledge that went into We Are Legion is impressive.

But despite the technological elements, and the occasionally very abstract scenes where Bob exists as a consciousness with no apparent physical form, the book is written with a light, relatable touch. The tone is humorous, and all the Bobs share a sarcastic sense of humor, a penchant for references to classic sci-fi, and a fundamentally good nature.

I do have a few small criticisms. There is a brief period in the book, when Bob is first sent out into the universe, where things are so abstract it was hard for me to visualize what was happening. But this ends quickly when Bob creates the VR interface.

The religious fanatic government mentioned in the early chapters felt a bit over the top to me, but just as I was feeling this, Bob headed into space, and it became a relatively small part of the plot.

The lack of a large cast of characters might be a problem for some readers. Indeed, there’s really only one true “character”, albeit with multiple versions. For me, this worked–more on that shortly–but I can see that if you don’t like the basic Bob character, the whole book would be less appealing. It’s pretty much all Bob, all the time.

Finally, the ending felt a little abrupt–but then, it’s only the first installment in a series, so leaving the reader wanting more is really a good thing. There are certainly plenty of interesting themes here.

We Are Legion touches on a number of sensitive matters like politics, religion and philosophy. From the fundamentalist rulers of the former United States, to the struggles of humans in the post-war fight for resources, to the arguments among the Deltans on a distant world, the book explores both how political discord occurs and how it can be resolved. There are elements of satire here, but only rarely does it get too heavy-handed.

Religion too is handled in a very interesting way, quite apart from the FAITH government. By the end of the book, one of the Bobs is essentially playing God to an alien race. Again, Taylor is subtle about it, but the theological and philosophical ideas this raises are absolutely fascinating. It reminded me a little of Arthur C. Clarke’s classic, Childhood’s End.

But what I liked most of all is how the book plays with the concept of “self”—as I mentioned, most of the major characters are all copies of the original Bob, but they each evolve in distinct ways. The more senior “Bobs” liken this to having children, and that might be true. What it reminded me of was the experience of writing—as a writer, you create these characters who all have little facets of yourself in them. At least, that’s how it is for me. I can recognize aspects of me in every character I write, even the bad ones or the ones I consciously based on other people. 

This examination of multiple aspects of the same personality by spreading it across different characters is really interesting to me. It reminded me of the different incarnations of the Nameless One in Planescape: Torment. And I think you all know what high praise that is, coming from me.

I can’t say too much more without spoiling major plot points, but you get the idea by now: this is a really fun science-fiction novel, and I recommend it. It’s the first in a series, and I am looking forward to reading the next one. 

mini red hearts wallpaper
Photo by Ylanite Koppens on Pexels.com

[Thanks to Lydia Schoch for inspiring me to write this. Be sure to check out her post on fictional romances.]

You’ll notice I don’t often write romantic sub-plots in my stories. I was feeling pretty bold with 1NG4 and included one, but it’s largely implied and in the background of the larger story. 

Romance is hard to write. You need characters who work on their own, and also complement one another. It’s about balance. If you get unbalanced characters, it doesn’t work—or at best, it only works as wish-fulfillment for people who want to imagine their perfectly ordinary self being married to a demigod or goddess. 

And if you’re writing a story where the romance is the plot, then you also have to come up with some reason why two characters who clearly belong together aren’t. Usually social expectations are the best mechanism for doing this, to the point that it’s a cliché—A can’t marry B because it would violate all of their society’s most sacred traditions!

The problem with these sorts of stories is that too often, it becomes more about the pursuit, and in the process, one character gets reduced to nothing more than a McGuffin that the other character is trying to get. I hate that.

Here are some fictional romances I consider effective. You’ll notice that they are generally sub-plots, or at least not the sole focus of the story.

Evie Carnahan and Rick O’Connell (The Mummy) 

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Evie Carnahan (Rachel Weisz) and Rick O’Connell (Brendan Fraser) The Mummy. Universal Pictures. Re-used under Fair Use

This works because it’s pretty well-balanced—Evie’s brains and Rick’s adventuring skills make them a natural team. This is what I mean—if Evie were always a helpless damsel in distress, or Rick were always a big stupid lug, it would be dopey. But as it is, you can see why they would gravitate to one another, apart from “It’s a movie and we need a romance.”

Thomasin Yeobright and Diggory Venn (The Return of the Native, by Thomas Hardy)

When you read about Return of the Native, 90% of what you hear about is Eustacia Vye this, Damon Wildeve that. I love the book, but as far as I’m concerned, both of them can go soak their heads. Oh, wait—I guess they do. Sorry if I spoiled this 141-year-old book. Anyway, what I like about the book is Venn’s loyalty to Thomasin, and his (admittedly credulity-straining) adventures as the almost super-human “Reddleman” looking out for her.) 

Miranda Lawson and Commander Shepard (Mass Effect 2-3)

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Commander Shepard (voiced by Mark Meer) and Miranda Lawson (voiced and modeled on Yvonne Strahovski) Mass Effect 3. Electronic Arts. Re-used under Fair Use.

Am I the only person who doesn’t hate Miranda? I might well be. Most players find her stuck-up, but I like her. Maybe part of it is that because ME 2/3 built up Commander Shepard as this awesome hero, and Miranda seems like the nearest thing to his equal in a universe that otherwise regards him as something close to a God. She saved his life, and she’s genetically engineered to be perfect, so she  can meet him on even ground. I like that. I don’t see an equivalent romantic interest for female Shepard.

But maybe it’s just my fondness for Australian accents that’s making me biased here.

Honorable Mentions: Unrequited Romances

I started out to make a list of good requited romances, because those are harder for me to write than unrequited ones. But that’s not to say that an unrequited romance can’t make for a good story, because it absolutely can. In fact, the advantage of these stories is that they have conflict inherent in them, as opposed to having to be introduced externally. So, here are some good ones:

-The Carlo/Corelli sub-plot in Corelli’s Mandolin. One of the most interesting things about the disastrous movie adaptation was that this was the only romantic sub-plot that even remotely made sense. 

– The Atris/Jedi Exile relationship in Knights of the Old Republic II. I talk a little about that here. Actually, KotOR II is brimming with tons of unfulfilled or outright doomed romances. Chris Avellone is great at writing those.

-Elsie Maynard and Jack Point in The Yeomen of the Guard. Just listen to this.

And now, for my favorite fictional romance…

Jane Ballard and Dan Frost (Jane Got a Gun)

Jane and Dan
Jane Ballard (Natalie Portman) and Dan Frost (Joel Edgerton) Jane Got a Gun. The Weinstein Co. Re-used under Fair Use.

Come on, you all knew this would be here. I love this movie, and a big reason why is the relationship between the two leads. The way they gradually rekindle their relationship under brutal circumstances makes for a great story, and the carefree romance of their past contrasted with the grim present is very powerful. True, a lot of what makes it work is the acting as much as anything—the same lines with lesser actors wouldn’t work as well.

I suppose that writing romance for the screen or the stage is easier than writing it in a novel. In a visual medium, putting two attractive people with great chemistry together gets you at least halfway to making the audience to buy in. On the page, though, you have to do a lot more work.

51fFraKeUML._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_This is a light-hearted novel about two imaginary expansion NFL teams, the Los Angeles Leopards and the Portland Pioneers. The two teams enter the league simultaneously—the Leopards led by coach Bobby Russell, who takes a methodical, conservative approach to slowly building a team. 

After a few seasons, Leopards owner Cedric B. Medill (yes, he’s a movie producer) grows impatient, and fires Russell, replacing him with brash, loud-mouthed defensive coordinator Randy Dolbermeier. Russell gets picked up as defensive coordinator by the Pioneers and, after a car accident leaves Pioneers coach Denzel Jackson incapacitated, takes over as interim head coach. And—can you believe it?—finds himself coaching in the Super Bowl against his old team and Dolbermeier.

Interwoven with the on-field exploits of the Pioneers and the Leopards is a subplot with a sportswriter/poet and a few of his colorful friends, who have been gradually uncovering that Dolbermeier is more than just an arrogant jerk—he’s an outright cheater, using underhanded methods to gain an advantage over his opponents. There have been hints of this beginning with his time as defensive coordinator for the Leopards, and once he’s given full control of the team, it gets really out of hand. And of course, they finish building their case against Dolbermeier just as the Leopards/Pioneers Super Bowl is about to be played, setting up a denouement which I won’t give away here.

The book is written with a light touch—Levy tends to favor warm, sometimes downright corny humor over tension or drama. A good example is when the journalist and his friends are investigating the visitors’ locker room at the Leopards’ stadium, suspecting that Dolbermeier has bugged it. I figured it would be a thriller-like sequence, where they have to sneak in to Dolbermeier’s hidden room and avoid getting caught. But no, they just end one chapter by saying “let’s go check it out” and in the next chapter, they say, “Yep, sure enough, it’s bugged.”

Don’t get me wrong; Levy’s humor and good-nature are infectious. Some of the malapropisms uttered by the heavily-accented equipment manager made me chuckle. And then, of course, there are Levy’s countless references to the NFL’s heyday. 

For those who didn’t recognize the name, Levy isn’t just a football fan. He is a Hall of Fame NFL coach who guided the Buffalo Bills to four consecutive AFC titles. (Alas, they went 0-4 in their Super Bowls.) His novel is filled with references to the football stars of the ‘80s and ‘90s. In particular, characters like Kelly James, Thomas Thurber and Deuce Smithers, among others, are clearly modeled on Bills greats who played for Levy. (The names that aren’t clear references to famous players or coaches are usually groaner puns—e.g. the front-office secretaries, sisters Nina and Ada Klock.) 

Even if you don’t like football, it’s an amusing book. Football fans will get the most out of it though, with all the references to famous players, and the discussions of football philosophy—Russell’s conservative, defensive-minded approach versus the glitzy, high-scoring style is part of the conflict at the heart of the story.

It’s also interesting to speculate as to who Levy had in mind as the model for coach Dolbermeier. While most of the good characters are pretty thinly-veiled, Dolbermeier is a little harder to figure out. His “whatever it takes to win” philosophy and his contempt for rules will make most football fans think immediately of Bill Belichick, but his brash, loudmouth manner seems more Rex Ryan-ish.  He might also be based on Chuck Dickerson, a defensive line coach for the Bills whom Levy fired for publicly trash-talking an opponent.

It’s worth noting that many of the cheating methods Dolbermeier employs have been used in the real NFL. The New England Patriots’ videotaping scandal is the most obvious parallel—although they’ve never been found guilty of taping other teams at practice. It is said that Peyton Manning believed the locker room at Gillette Stadium was bugged, although again, no one ever proved this. And coaches’ headsets are notorious for malfunctioning in Foxboro, another tactic that Levy’s villain uses. Dolbermeier also implements a bounty system like the one the New Orleans Saints used during their Super Bowl season. (Levy’s book was published in 2011, before that scandal broke.) 

It’s remarkable to me that a Hall of Fame coach would write a book like this, with cheating in the Super Bowl as the heart of the plot. It almost makes me wonder if Levy was trying to hint that cheating really is occurring in the NFL. Or at least, suggesting that the league is employing too many dishonorable, Dolbermeier-like coaches, and not enough forthright, honest ones like Russell and Jackson.

In any case, Between the Lies is a fun read for anyone who enjoys football, and especially for Bills fans like me, who long for the glorious days when Coach Levy had us winning the AFC, and the Patriots were in the cellar.

As I warned in the preamble to my season-opening haiku, I haven’t watched much football this year. In fact, I wasn’t even going to do this post. But then I remembered how I met (well, virtually met) my friend Barb Knowles three years ago thanks to my title game predictions post. And through Barb, I met Carrie Rubin and a host of other wonderful people. So you never know what’s going to come from these things. And besides, I’m a big believer in maintaining traditions.

But if I haven’t watched football, you ask, how can I predict the games? Well, I have a colleague who keeps me informed about the season—every week we discuss our hatred of what the NFL has become, and he briefs me in detail on all the horrible, stupid things the players, coaches and organizations have done. It’s actually really helpful—saves me the time of watching. That, combined with checking a few stats, leaves me fully qualified to talk about this. Or at least, no less qualified than when I did watch football religiously.

NFC 

The NFC game is easy. I picked the Rams to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl in my preseason picks. I’m not changing it now; even though New Orleans has homefield advantage and beat the Rams earlier in the season.

…And have the better quarterback. And are generally a more balanced team.

Ugh, it’s a big hill for the lads from Los Angeles to climb isn’t it? Nevertheless, I am steadfast! The Rams wore their beautiful throwback blue and yellow uniforms against Dallas. They should bring out the road version of that for the title game—it’s a gorgeous uniform, and the one they wore in their lone Super Bowl victory as well. It’s time once again to “Ram It, LA!”:

I know. Words fail.

Anyway, I’m actually not feeling great about LA’s chances. But they are healthier on defense than when the Saints trounced them earlier this year. I predict they manage to get it done.

RAMS: 34

SAINTS: 30

AFC

Like death and taxes, the Patriots are. They were supposed to finally fall apart this season, and indeed they haven’t been as good as usual. But here they are, yet again. Honestly, I think the fact that they annihilated the Chargers tells you more about how hard it is to come from California to Massachusetts in January than about the quality of the Patriots. It was a chilly day in Foxboro, so much so that Tom Brady broke out the Napoleonic greatcoat he first wore as a rookie during the 1812 invasion of Russia:

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It’s even better with the hat:

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But enough fun! The Patriots hate fun. And no one embodies fun like the loose, energetic, youthful up-and-coming Patrick Mahomes and his high-flying, quick-scoring, no-look-passing, what-is-defense-anyway Kansas City Chiefs.

The Chiefs are the sort of team the NFL loves—a pro version of a Big 12 team. A team that scores a ton of points, and gives up almost as many. I’m sure the league office is lighting candles and praying they get a rematch of that absurd Rams/Chiefs Monday night game for the Super Bowl. The old defensive coaches of yore are spinning in their graves.

The problem is, these kinds of all-offense, no-defense teams have historically fallen apart in the playoffs. Look at the Bills in 1990. The Rams in 2001. The Patriots in 2011. The Broncos in 2013. The Chiefs are the sort of team that sets records in the regular season, and collapses in the playoffs. And Belichick built his reputation beating these kinds of teams—he was responsible for the defenses that shut down the ’90 Bills and the ’01 Rams. (And the ’11 Patriots, come to think on it…)

 Then you have Chiefs coach Andy Reid. There are two threads running through his career—one of them is going to be the storyline come Sunday night. 

The first thread is a story of failure. As coach of the Eagles, Reid lost the NFC title game to the Rams in 2001, to the Buccaneers in 2002, to the Panthers in 2003, and then finally got over that hump only to lose to Belichick’s Patriots in 2004. For good measure, he lost a final NFC championship to the Cardinals in 2008. A few more early-round losses and he was run out of Philadelphia, taking his knack for regular season success and post-season disaster to Kansas City, where he has added a real dramatic flair to the heartbreak, blowing huge leads to the Colts in 2013 and the Titans—the Titans, for God’s sake!—in 2017. And in 2015, he even did a sort of reenactment of his Super Bowl defeat, by mismanaging the clock in a loss to the Patriots.

Ah, the Patriots. That’s where the second thread of Reid’s career comes in. With Philadelphia, he generally struggled against them. (Join the club!) But with Kansas City, he has had the distinction of administering two of the most lopsided beatings the Patriots have suffered during Belichick and Brady’s time. First in 2014, a 41-14 drubbing that made some people wonder if The Terror was over, and then in 2017, a shocking 42-27 bloodbath that saw the Patriots give up 537 yards of offense. And imagine how bad it would have been if Belichick weren’t a defensive genius!

And let’s not forget that Doug Pederson, whose Eagles defeated the Patriots in last year’s Super Bowl while racking up 538 yards of offense, is a disciple of Reid who uses many of the same offensive concepts. In summary, it’s fair to say New England struggles against this offense.

It’s an interesting matchup: the Chiefs flying circus offense is exactly the kind that fails in the playoffs. On the other hand, the Patriots bend-and-then-break-and-then-hope-like-hell-Tom-Brady-bails-us-out defense also tends not to perform well in these games. It’s the very stoppable force vs. the eminently movable object.

As for that relying-on-Brady strategy? It’s not working like it used to in the past. And I think Belichick knows it—he’s calling more on the running game, because he knows old number 12 can’t make all the throws he used to. People keep waiting for Brady to decline, but I think he’s already started to—it’s just that the Patriots are great at hiding it. (And Brady, to his credit, is still a crafty veteran who knows lots of mind games to play with a defense to compensate for his declining arm strength.)

Yes, I know the Patriots managed to beat the Chiefs earlier this year—but it was in Foxboro, and the score was 43-40. Doesn’t sound to me like they really shut down the Chiefs offense like they did another team from Missouri, back in the old days. 

The Patriots struggle on the road, and this game is being played in notoriously loud Arrowhead stadium. I predict Reid and Mahomes will field enough offense to win in frigid conditions, and that Napoletom Bradyparte will, if not meet his Waterloo, at least get exiled to a remote island until next season.

CHIEFS: 23

PATRIOTS: 19 

 

Number Seven and the Life Left Behind by [Hirtzel, Mayumi]I love spy thrillers, especially the old Cold War ones, like the show Secret Agent with Patrick McGoohan. Those stories were a little different than modern high-tech thrillers, with lots of gadgets and gizmos–they relied on good old-fashioned intrigue, cleverness, and rising tension.

Number Seven is a book in that vein. The titular character is an ex-soldier now working as a government-assigned bodyguard for a star athlete. Number Seven and his charge find themselves caught up in political machinations that involve not only themselves, but also an old friend of Seven’s who brings a good deal of sex and romance to the story, in the fine spy thriller tradition.

The book has more romance than I was expecting, but that was also true of a lot of older spy/espionage stories–they tended to tell stories about people caught up in events, rather than merely using people as catalysts for exciting events. I appreciated that.

This is a short book, which in my opinion is not at all a problem, especially in a thriller. Better a short, tight novella with a good pace than a padded-out novel that drags when it doesn’t need to. It’s a good length for the story it has to tell, and never wears out its welcome. I enjoyed it.