Random Purchase: Mindreader

This piece marks the start of a new series I am dubbing "Random Purchase". This is where I give a review for a book I have purchased…well…randomly. Now, said criteria doesn’t necessarily mean that I walked into a book store, pulled a random book from the shelf, and bought it. You see, the way I typically go about purchasing a book is by planning ahead; I know what I want to purchase, mainly because I have a limited amount of money. Usually when I go to the book store, I plan on purchasing a book from a prominent author I’ve stumbled upon online, or I’m purchasing a book by an author or a series I’ve already read. I will usually do the same at conventions, but I also do a bit more strategizing at those as I can easily spend upwards of $200 on books at a single con. 

The criteria for a book worthy of one of these "Random Purchase" reviews is that I couldn’t have planned to purchase it going into my visit to the bookstore. This means it is more likely to be purchased in a brick-and-mortar independent book store than a big-box Barnes and Noble. The book could catch my attention from its cover, the summary on the back, or a faint recognition of the author who wrote it. I also could have seen it featured on a "bookstagram" account and thought "I oughta’ get that." Bottom line: a "Random Purchase" is considered on the fly. This not only creates a sense of mystery and surprise when I read the book itself, but I also get to tell the tale of how I found it. 

Today’s random purchase is Mindreader by C. Terry Cline, Jr. I purchased Mindreader from Foggy Pine Books in Boone, North Carolina, a charming store which I highly recommend you check out if you’re in Appalachia. There are no indy book shops in Huntsville, so I was high on the excitement of simply getting to be in one and, naturally, felt the need to buy something. Of all the books in the shop I picked up this little gem. That purchase was made in March of this year, and it sat on my shelf until last weekend. As it lay lingering in my stack of to-read books, I was beginning to regret my decision of purchasing it. It was on the fly, out of excitement for being in my first indy shop, and it was obviously a bit more expensive having been purchased from one. I also didn’t know why a "C. Terry Cline, Jr." had any place on my shelf, as I longed for a little consistency amongst my collection of authors. All in all, I was thinking I would just grind through Mindreader and then sell it or donate it once I was done. I am overjoyed to say that I immediately reversed that decision upon closing the book, as it’s among the finest pieces of modern literature I have read. It’s a fiction which contains a little bit of everything, and lessons we can all learn from.

That is why I was stunned to learn that there is little information available on Mindreader.  I wanted to research the book a bit before writing this review to see what its public response was like, and any societal impact it may have had. But I was surprised to find nothing of the kind. Here’s what little I could gather:

C. Terry Cline, Jr. was born in my native state of Alabama in 1935. He wrote multiple works of fiction starting 1975 until his death in May of 2013. There is very little information on the internet about him or his works outside of what Goodreads has to offer, and an obituary article written in honor of his passing. Mindreader has only had 2 editions: the first when it was initially released, and a paperback version with new cover art which released in 2016. Most of Cline’s books have received new covers since his death, as his wife, Judith Richards, has since been promoting his works. Mindreader has a handful of scores on Goodreads, but there are no written reviews to be found anywhere; not even on Amazon. 

Mindreader, at its core, is a work of fiction. One simply can’t shove it into a single genre. It’s a suburban mystery. It’s a sci-fi supernatural mystery, too. It’s a psychotic drama. It’s an action-thriller. It’s the Cold War meets Jason Bourne. I could put this book on too many shelves for me to count on my two hands. The narrowest I could place it is dystopian, but even then it doesn’t reach extremes like that of Bradbury or Orwell. 

Mindreader follows the life of David Morgan, a man gifted with the ability to read minds. How did he gain this ability? The story thankfully leaves his origins mostly a mystery to the reader, allowing us to ask those questions ourselves. The science behind his abilities are also just vague enough to incur a sense of awe, while providing just enough of an explanation to feel grounded. Not only can David read other’s minds, but he can influence them. In addition to controlling others’ thoughts, he can also literally bend peoples’ brainwaves, making him appear invisible or seize any noises he makes. David keeps his ability under wraps until he is introduced to a German psychologist named Rudolph Schmidt who has secretly been watching him his whole life. With the world ripping at the seams amidst the Cold War, David feels more and more of a need to use his ability to oust the conflict. He travels the world making speeches and influencing the masses, gaining a larger and larger following. When his cult grows too large, making him feel like a god among men, David must learn to keep his example restrained, or else risk the destruction of the entire world by what he sought to abolish. 

Mindreader’s premise should be campy, tasteless, and closer to that a of a science fiction novel. It instead yanks the reader out of reality and into a fictionalized Cold War America which lives and breathes simply by mental delusion. The first act wisely introduces readers to David through his family life, career, and his living out the American dream. This not only allows readers to know David on the most basic emotional level, but eases them into his supernatural mind reading powers. As the turmoil of the American and Soviet nuclear crisis reaches its boiling point, David feels called to aid humanity in its plight with his augmented brainpower. This allows the second act to gradually depict him traveling around, spreading his knowledge among the masses so that his reach is out of control by the third. David struggles in the third act to contain the mess he has created so that he might restore what he originally tried to achieve. Mixing in elements like David’s family conflict and Schmidt’s stalking of David’s secret make for great drama amongst great storytelling. It’s a plot which manages to come full circle in all it sets out to convey, with all character arcs receiving closure. 

What makes Mindreader such a convicting novel is the way it handles such convicting commentary. Mindreader and David himself have a lot to say on humanity, politics, leadership, religion, and most importantly, war. It explores what really leads man to go to war and how the effects of war are held in bitterness generations down the line. It focuses not so much on the physical consequences of the actions of people of power, but the mental, emotional motivations behind them. It gives an ideal example of how man should respond to such heinous acts of greedy government, but also owns up to the fact that greedy government isn’t likely to change its position. When those in power are truly put to the test under the greatest emotional duress is when they finally gain their humanity and consider what is best for the people. It’s a highly emotional payoff to a conflict which escalates for the entire book. The curt resolution to follow it made me drop the book to the floor. The manner in which Mindreader addresses the nuclear crisis of the late 20th century begs the question of what if everyone in the world had read this book at the time? How would it have changed people’s opinions? So many other books, films, and creative content of the Cold War quickly became products of their time and their messages simply lacked timelessness. While in many ways Mindreader’s commentary is a product of the early 1980's Cold War era, it equally applies to the world today. In times marked by political and ideological divisiveness, Mindreader shows what really leads to such bickering and how politicians can take advantage of us to lead to inevitable war. With such convicting commentary, Mindreader never gives too much, or feels too blatant. It manages to intertwine its commentary with its emotional swells in what is a rare combination of message and storytelling.

For all Mindreader has to offer, I must say it is now among my favorite books. While this review has mostly focused on the message it offers, there is so much more to it. Like I mentioned earlier, it has sci-fi, drama, dystopia, Jason-Bourne-esc action-thrills, and a blanket of Cold War culture. It’s a book which progressively treads new waters while appropriately tying it all into a great story. 

You can purchase Mindreader from Amazon here.

-David Brashier; Huntsville, Alabama; July 2017

Book Review: Thieve's Quarry

D.B. Jackson lands yet another marvelous historical fantasy in Thieve’s Quarry, the second installment of his Thieftaker series. Thieftaker is among the greatest historical fiction series out there, let alone historical fantasy. A story in a genre blend which is easily campy, leeching off of the mere presence of prominent historical figures, manages to not only tell its own story, but reverently live and breath its chosen setting. The dialogue and writing style of the Thieftaker books feel like they were pulled straight from revolutionary-era manuscripts, while also retaining readability. Like much of Jackson’s work, it’s a fantasy which manages to rise above the rest. 

Thieve’s Quarry opens with Ethan Kaille on a standard hunt for a stolen good. When his mission is intercepted by Sephira Pryce, a grim series of events force him to use magic in order to save an innocent man. This reveals his conjuring abilities to Pryce, causing her to hire her own conjurer to combat Kaille. When a mass grave is discovered on one of His Majesty’s ships at the dawn of the British occupation of Boston, Ethan is consulted to determine who committed the murder, as there are no physical signs of death among the bodies. As Ethan tracks down suspect conjurers, each culprit is murdered one by one before he can even reach them. Convinced that the killer is a greater threat than he anticipated, Kaille keeps his friends close and his enemies closer, going so far as to warn Sephira Pryce for her own safety. 

Quarry’s greatest feat is the development of Ethan Kaille. He shows a genuine concern for his arch nemesis, Pryce, and even works in junction with her to take down a more dangerous threat. It makes him the better man in what is otherwise a bickering conflict. Kaille also struggles with his convictions on the subject of the British occupation. In Theiftaker he was a loyalist, disgusted by the Sons of Liberty and their antics. Here, when the British enter Boston, Kaille sees nothing but injustice all around him as regulars quarter themselves in peoples’ homes. These changes in his motivations will likely lead to further character development in future books, and possibly turning him into a brash revolutionary.

Many old faces from Thieftaker return in Quarry, but with just enough face time to make way for plenty of new ones. Kaille seeks help from a variety of individuals from high-on-the-hog aristocrats, to bottom-feeding bar owners, to revolutionaries and crooks alike. Their presence breathes life into Jackson’s Boston, making the world all the more believable. Just as in Thieftaker, Boston feels like a place the reader can step into. Jackson’s understanding of the landscape of the town in its pre-revolution glory is on full display, as well as his knowledge of colonial customs. It creates a story whose characters are just as enjoyable to read about as its own world, not growing too detailed or monotonous. 

The series once again manages to hold its own in Quarry, despite its setting being among the most popular periods of history. Quarry could have so easily taken advantage of the plethora of historical figures involved with the Sons of Liberty, yet takes a more reserved approach by only making use minor figures and events. It proves that it can tell its story with its plot, characters, and spirit of its setting, rather than copping-out for the reputation of the Washingtons and Franklins of the time. I’m sure as the series nears the revolution, more familiar faces will begin to appear. But two books in a row with such minimal use of major historical figures proves that the series means business. 

Where Thieve’s Quarry ultimately shines and manages to surpass its predecessor is in its pacing. As great as Theiftaker was, it was a bit sluggish in the manner it handled its mystery, at least compared to its sequel. There is no wild goose chase to be had in Quarry, as Ethan Kaille makes a relentless chase for justice and for his own life. New developments lie around every corner, as Kaille races against the clock to take out a killer before even more innocent are murdered, and even his own friends. It is between this and the development of its characters that makes Thieve’s Quarry a great sequel, not simply a rehash of the first book or a "Season 2" of the series. 

As someone who has read a decent amount of fantasy, the Theiftaker series is among the most quality. D.B. Jackson is a truly talented writer. Theiftaker is a premise which should be silly as all get out, but the amount of history and fantasy it offers and the ethos in which the series is written gives me confidence to recommend it to both historians and fantasy fans alike. Yet its appeal reaches beyond those two groups, which is why I can’t help but recommend the series to anyone looking for some quality reads. 

You can purchase Thieve’s Quarry from Amazon here.

-David Brashier; Huntsville, Alabama; July 2017

Book Review: The Galactic Satori Chronicles, Book 2: Kron

My latest reading endeavor brought me to The Galactic Satori Chronicles, Book 2: Kron. I reviewed the first installment of the series, Earth, a over a month ago. Those of you who read my review of Earth know that my feelings toward it are mostly negative.  I felt the book had a lot of potential, but miserably failed to achieve that potential. The first act was solid, introducing great sci-fi concepts and what felt like genuine characters. The pace plummeted in the second act as the story grew increasingly more boring in what was essentially a wild goose chase with no destination. Because the story wasn’t going anywhere, the characters grew more and more obnoxious as their comical personalities were all the book had to work with. The third act presented an overblown climax which didn’t feel earned, and ended on a unfulfilling cliffhanger. 

I have since gone and read other opinions about Earth, both positive and negative. The positive reviews praise it as a page-turner, a outstanding sci-fi piece, and even "an achievement". The negative reviews exposed a number of issues with the book which completely went over my head in my initial review, but I couldn’t help but agree with them. 

One of those issues is that the characters take the stakes of the story too lightly.  They are essentially tasked with saving Earth, and they approach the conflict with all the youthful drama one could expect.  This youthful whim was acceptable in the first act because the the characters had no prior exposure to the alien technology they were forced to bear. As they learned of their destiny as Earth’s saviors, their lackadaisical attitude continued and ultimately came off as "high school drama", as one reviewer put it. It turned what would have otherwise been a high-stakes sci-fi action drama into a Disney Channel original comedy. One of the few characters who took their circumstances seriously (who I particularly enjoyed) was unfortunately killed off in the end. 

Another issue which was littered throughout Earth which I failed to elaborate on in my review was how nearly the entire ensemble is influenced by their sex drive. I mentioned that one of the characters was lusty, but it failed to dawn on me how almost the entire main group was like that. It’s like they fail to realize that the fate of the world is at stake because they are constantly (and I mean constantly) looking for the next opportunity to get busy. 

Braker and Hicks gave Earth a plot with very high stakes, but their own characters didn’t own up to those stakes out of their own ambition. I credit various reviews on making me realize these quite jarring aspects of the book which went overlooked. In case I already didn’t like the book enough, there was no question that I loathed it after reading said reviews.

…But that isn’t to say I wasn’t open to more.

Like I said before, I felt that Earth had a ton of potential going for it. Simply the fact that there was a second novel meant another opportunity for the story to reach that potential. And, in many ways, Kron does live up to that potential…for the most part. 

Fundamentally, Kron is lightyears better than Earth. For one, it is a significantly shorter novel, byover 100 pages, in fact. This not only makes it a less taxing read, but the book itself is much easier to hold in my hands (though after reading IT, I can’t complain about the physical size of any book). The book did a surprisingly good job reconnecting me with characters I felt skeptical revisiting. Overall, the book is more enjoyable and eventful than its predecessor. But where it really hits home is in one particular aspect:

The plot! Kron’s plot is so much better than Earth’s. Rather than a meandering, dull plot which has little occupy itself with, Kron manages to not only find a good story, but expound upon so many questions presented in the first book. The first act, much like Earth, is strong. It’s relentless, action packed, and reconnects the reader with the characters. The first act (and the book as a whole) keeps things fresh by executing a device which Earth didn’t utilize enough: switching perspectives. It understands that the kind of story it is telling, in order to keep the plot moving, must present itself from various perspectives. The most investing parts of Earth were when the perspective shifted to the enemy aliens on their planet, but it rarely did so. Kron’s first act shows us what occurs on the enemy planet frequently, as well as how it plays out with events on Earth. The perspective also shifts between three different human teams combatting the aliens and how their roles contribute to the main goal. 

While Kron’s first act and overall plot are far superior to Earth’s, it unfortunately suffers from two blemishing issues: execution and character development. 

First, the issue of character development. Kron's focus is once again on the main character from Earth, who hasn’t changed a bit since his last outing. He is still lusty, crass, and treats every issue lightheartedly. This didn’t excite me in the slightest, especially given that a good number of the tolerable characters from the first book are killed off in the opening chapters. In fact, a number of the most likable and interesting characters from the first book are seen little to none in this installment. Overall, most of the characters have learned to treat their circumstances a little more seriously, but the main character is still too lackadaisical toward the stakes, allowing his lust to get in the way of his decision making. There are also a number of relationships which failed to cross over in the sequel. Characters who I swear had nothing to do with each other in Earth are suddenly gushing over each other in Kron. Unless I missed something at the end of Earth, these romances came completely out of the blue (not that Earth made me care that much about character romances, anyway).

While the plot of Kron is near-perfect in my opinion, its execution and presentation are downright awful. As I stated before, the first act is flawless. The characters are still fighting the threat from the first book, and a group of them are transported to the enemy planet, which was already interesting enough. The second act, much like in Earth, takes a plummet in terms of the pacing, and its subject matter is much worse. Again, the plot itself is great, it’s the presentation that’s lousy. The beginning of the second act introduces the concept that humans and an alien race will have to breed in order to bring peace and produce a superior race to triumph in their plight. I have absolutely no problems with this concept, and I have no doubt that it’s been brought up in sci-fi before. The way in which this event is depicted is entirely too graphic, and it tainted the book for me. 

The entire first half of Kron’s second act is a massive, over-the-top, unneeded orgy. The amount of sexual detail the book dares to explore in executing this plot is some of the most perverted literature I have ever read. In case delving into the sexual fantasy they choose to explore isn’t disgusting enough, the simple fact that the human character finds pleasure in it completely pulled me out of the novel. There was a way to present this which didn’t have to be so explicit. It is one thing for a book to contain a brief sex scene which produces drama that echoes throughout the rest of the story. It is another thing to spend chapter after chapter devoted to describing the sexual experience. The former creates a more dramatic and emotional payoff. The latter gives into the mindlessness of human pleasure-seeking rather than trying to tell a good story aided by a dramatic moment.

As someone who takes the execution fiction literature seriously, I have always held to this philosophy: sex has its place in literature, but if the story is completely driven by it then I may as well be reading erotica. That’s exactly what this book is: space erotica. Illustrious use of sex, likejuvenile use of swearing, and mindless use of action, can easily be used in excess as a cop-out to make a work such as a book or film more appealing to an audience, rather than diligent effort to make a quality story. It just shows laziness on the creator’s part.

Now, those who object to my position will probably think "You shouldn’t be reviewing this as a sci-fi book, but an adult sci-fi book". "Just because it wasn’t what you expected doesn’t give you any right to be angry". Well, I have every right to be angry, for a number of reasons. For one, Amazon lists Kron as "Science Fiction", not "Erotic Science Fiction" (which is another category on Amazon; I checked). Another thing is that I personally met the authors of this book at a convention, and bought it from them there. They specifically gave me a disclaimer that one of their other books which I was about to buy was heavy in adult content, but said that the GSC series were pure sci-fi. What’s more peculiar is that Braker, in the author’s note, encourages readers to check out his other works for more erotic sci-fi. They gave me no disclaimer that GSC contained erotic content. I bought these books because I was told they were sci-fi and I wanted to read sci-fi. I didn’t want alien erotica.

The second act fails to recover from its little sex-trip. This act, much like in Earth, is intensely slow with little to nothing going on. The alien world, which I found so interesting in Earth and in the first act of Kron, miraculously manages to be even more boring than Earth. The second and third acts rarely switch perspective to the characters who remained on Earth. I couldn’t believe myself, but there were parts when I wanted to scream "Go back to Earth!" after the boredom that was the first book. The second act does manage to escalate toward the latter half and the entire third act is mostly solid, yet once again fails to hit the landing at the end. There are also dozens of events which are introduced but are never revisited. There was an entire chapter introducing an assassin character whom I thought was going to be really cool, but she is never even mentioned again. The book almost spreads itself too thin in all it tries to accomplish in building a universe, or trying establish plots to be executed later in the series.

Believe it or not, I do draw a healthy share of positives from Kron. Much like the last book, it continues to introduce astounding sci-fi concepts, and unlike the last book, actually explores them. Again, I had no problem with the idea of cross-species alien hybrids in a work of fiction. It was the way it was presented which ruined my experience. Admittedly, some of the consequences the characters face as a result of their cross-breeding are handled well from a dramatic standpoint. I was just always reminded of the dark places the second act dared to venture because of it. Also, the queen of the aliens, who ultimately executes the plot, is a really great character. She’s easily the most complex and well-thought out character in the book, and her backstory is the most enjoyable to learn about. It’s clear that the authors did a good job with making her genuinely care for her people, willing to go to great lengths in order to ensure their survival. Her goals and sympathy cause her to change her positions a bit, and it’s always great seeing characters get out of their comfort zones. 

But as many odd-job positives I can find about the book, there are still many negatives. The story as a whole lacks focus, and is really confused in terms of how it presents the characters’ goals. In one sense, it creates some indecisiveness in the reader as to who they should side with, but it confused me just as much as it confused the characters. I didn’t know who they should side with, who was on whose side, and why there was so much uninspired double-crossing and backstabbing around every corner. This, combined with the number of confused relationships, creates a divisiveness among the characters which fails to track, let alone produce drama. There are also a number of instances in which the writing style was downright jarring. Too many times Braker and Hicks were telling me what the characters felt, or the how the circumstances of the plot were playing out, rather than showing me through physical emotion and drama. I got tired of reading "he felt this", "she felt that", and "this had to happen in order to do this", as the characters mulled over circumstances and relationships I simply didn’t care about. 

So, what’s the verdict with Kron? Is it worse or better than Earth? Well, I would say both are equally flawed, but I’m indecisive as to which is worse. Earth, as long and boring as it is, is at least more focused. Kron is more exciting, more action packed, shorter, and more enjoyable to read. But it lacks focus, making it confused and difficult to follow as a whole. Plus, I don’t know if I’ll ever get past those scenes. It is more than evident that Braker and Hicks both have a real vision for these books. The effort shows in the overall plot of the two books and the dozens of inventive sci-fi concepts they explore. There are numerous tidbits which show this effort, such as how well the character of the queen was handled. It’s also clear that they have a genuine fanbase for their stories. But for me, I wouldn’t recommend these books in a heartbeat. They are simply too flawed in my opinion for me to consider them good books, let alone good sci-fi books. If you’re into raunchy sci-fi rather than focus and substance, certainly give these a shot. Other than that, I can only recommend that you give them a pass. 

-David Brashier; Huntsville, Alabama; July 2017

Book Review(s): Architects of Destiny and Veil of Reality

We are back to sci-fi with this review. As much sci-fi as I’ve been reading lately, I was afraid I’d be moaning "Here we go again" with these books. I was glad to be proven completely wrong. Word on the street is that Amy Duboff is on the rise to a high spot on the sci-fi literature totem pole. The first two installments of her currently seven-part series, Cadicle, are proof of this claim.  In two extremely short books, Duboff establishes a wildly original story with a scale spanning lightyears and generations which instantly earns the status of 'saga'. 

The first book, Architects of Destiny, had me hooked from the first page, and not because of what the bare story had to offer. The book’s greatest feat is that it is 100% character-driven. With this, good character interactions through dialogue and emotion are deeply important, and Duboff understands this perfectly. Through what is basically a mock-lightsaber fight in the opening scene, the interactions between the hero and his trainer present believable characters with believable relationships which echo throughout the rest of the novel. 

In case the fact that the book is character driven doesn’t immediately force me to recommend this book, the story itself is well orchestrated. Its initial premise is familiar. Cris Sietinen wants something more out of life, so he escapes to the stars, joins a smuggling crew, and tours the galaxy. In many ways, it is Luke Skywalker’s ambitions with a new coat of paint. If the characters and their interactions weren’t as good, I probably would have lost interest. Yet in time, the story fledges out to something much greater. 

We learn that Cris is heir to a wealthy dynasty obsessed with upholding its lineage, and willing to resort to any means of doing so. Cris also has a telekinetic ability which is virtually outlawed, and he is recruited by the only organization which will train him with his gift. Excitement takes a back seat as Cris trains in his telekinetic abilities, while behind the scenes his life is being secretly controlled. Turns out he plays a much larger role in the fate of the universe, a fate which involves a secret war against an alien race. It also turns out that he might not be the solution to the conflict, but someone further in his own bloodline. 

Architects of Destiny is very much a prequel. It is very short, only about 150 pages, and I managed to read it in a day. But what I got out of such a short read was truly remarkable. It is difficult to put to words how Duboff manages to establish such high stakes and such a massive universe in just one book with a story that isn’t world-driven. 

Veil of Reality, to my wondrous surprise, begins roughly twenty years after Architects of Destiny. Cris now fathers a son, Wil, who shows even greater achievement in telekinetic ability. Wil is kidnapped, and Cris flies to unknown reaches of space to find him. His pursuit leads him to discover the war which he was never meant to know about, and further, the role he plays in it. Cris learns that his entire existence has been engineered for generations, and that his own son is the savior to end the war, essentially wiping out an entire race. 

Veil of Reality spends a lot of time grinding through the technicals of the story. This allows for time to see Cris and his son react to their orchestrated destiny. Wil’s youthful whims of tackling a massive undertaking make him naive, despite his giftedness. Cris comes to grips with the fact that he has to take a back seat in this plot, while also being tortured by the notion that the reason for his family’s existence is a lie.

The supposed villains are given highly relatable arcs in Veil of Reality. The government officials residing over Cris hate to break the bad news to him, yet are steadfast in their goal. They know the consequences and the pure evil of their actions, yet are committed to a cause for the sake of humanity. It’s a believable position. The alien villain in the war is also willing to find a compromise with the humans, to which many of his subordinates passionately disagree. It makes for a lot of conflict, and thus, a lot of drama. 

The first books in the Cadicle series hit the mark in many aspects. I’ve already gushed over characters, but the story is also handled well. The more original take on the planet-bound youth who desires something more is a smart move. The simple fact that there is such a massive time gap between the two books allows for major shifts in character since they have changed over years. This keeps things interesting so that the original ensemble isn’t simply presented with a new conflict out of the blue. 

Though Cadicle is a character-driven saga, it isn’t a one-size-fits-all story. This is one instance where a series truly needed to be a massive sci-fi epic, and thus earns the title of 'space opera'. The scale and stakes of the story can only be fathomed in a massive world which spans galaxies. Yet despite such a massive world, like I mentioned earlier, the books aren’t world-driven. Cadicle could have easily relied on sci-fi tropes like space battles, blaster shoot-outs, or other material staples of the genre to be an enjoyable story. The series instead uses these tropes sparingly in order for the reader to appreciate such moments more. It reminds me of use of lightsabers in the original Star Wars trilogy. As much as lightsabers are a staple of Star Wars, they weren’t used that much in the original trilogy. Presence of a lightsaber typically implied a special moment, one which could be appreciated and not overused. Cadicle uses its exciting action scenes sparingly in order for the reader to appreciate them more. It instead relies on its characters and story to keep the momentum going. On the flip side, it isn’t a story completely driven by discussion of politics which become boring or impossible to understand. It’s a rare instance which manages to find the right balance of both the physical and emotional side of a story which blends so well together that makes for a great narrative. 

Duboff already has a great series going with just two books. She has crafted a saga with Cadicle which is littered with potential for prequels and obviously sequels, as there are five more books in the series. It’s an expansive universe with a surprisingly "down-to-earth" story. Rather than relying on the tangibles of its genre, it uses the scope of its own world to its full advantage for the sake of the narrative. It’s the makings of a timeless sci-fi series which is sure to rise above the rest. 

You can purchase Architects of Destiny from Amazon here.

You can purchase Veil of Reality from Amazon here

-David Brashier; Huntsville, Alabama; July 2017

Book Review: The Scholar, The Sphinx, and the Fang of Fenrir

What is the typical go-to means of describing a good sequel? You guessed it! Simply refer to it as "the 'Empire Strikes Back' of the series". I would say the same for The Scholar, The Sphinx, and The Fang of Fenrir, but I’d like to draw an analogy from another ’80’s film series: Back To The Future. Back To The Future is its own self contained story which hints at a continuation. Back To The Future Part II functions on its own as a sequel, but the ending drives on the fact that the over-arching story of Back To The Future needs to be concluded in a third installment. This is very much the backbone to the plot of the second novel of the Scholar and Sphinx series, even though the device somewhat works against it. 

Fang of Fenrir begins eighteen months after Shades of Nyx. David Sandoval is happily married living in Paris, and business is well. When a creature arrives on David’s doorstep which inflicts him with accelerated aging, David instantly knows something is up involving the Curtain. He is sent on a journey to find a means of curing his aging, only to discover that a dark creature is after him and something he owns. David is accompanied by a new ally, a witch named Baba Yaga, who begrudgingly agrees to assist him on his quest. With Baba's help, David scrambles up his former allies from the Curtain in order to discover the beast that’s after him and how to defeat it, all while being pursued by some familiar faces. 

Anyone who gushed over the whimsical and nonsensical fantasy world Cook presented in Shades of Nyx will love it all the same, if not more, here. After such a zany first installment with off-the-rails logic, I had no idea how such a world could be more imaginable, but it still manages to deliver through awe inspiring mythology and magic. The mythological elements in particular work to Fang of Fenrir’s advantage.  So much of the world and characters rest on a diverse range of humanity’s mythologies which seamlessly blend in a world where Thor may as well sun-bathe with Ra. 

The world of Scholar and Sphinx is also much darker this time. With more threatening villains poised against the characters, the darker tone feels appropriate. The first novel played it safe for the most part, and while the second is still clean and appropriate for children, it does deal with some darker, sometimes gorier themes. It’s still nothing younger readers won’t grow used to after reading the first book. 

The introduction of Baba Yaga was much needed, as she is an all-around lovable character. Her magical abilities feel appropriate to assist the characters when necessary. She is with David for a majority of the plot and her presence brings something new to the story. They have great chemistry together, almost better than David and Acacia in the first book, and they both console each other in their weaknesses and struggles.

The reason I feel so strongly for Baba’s character is because, aside from our hero, David, the returning ensemble from Shades of Nyx doesn’t bring much of anything new to the table. A. R. Cook’s ability to express genuine emotion and bonds between the characters is still present, no doubt. But the relationships between the returning characters don’t really evolve. This is especially jarring, given how well David and Acacia’s relationship was handled in the first book. I was without a doubt excited to see so many faces return, but most of them are the same people they were at the end of Shades of Nyx. After so much outstanding character and relational development seen in the first book, there was much to be desired from the sequel. 

Where Fang of Fenrir ultimately falls flat is in its plot. This book, for it's length, needed to be more jam-packed with some excitement.  I get the feeling that this and the third book should be one long arc, but are instead split into two shorter parts. The story opens strong, and the entire first act is very well orchestrated. The darker tone is on full display, and readers get a sense of the stakes threatening the characters. The second acts becomes sluggish after its opening, and mostly involves characters going to various parts of the world to find items with little to no action. With that, the climax, though well handled and grand in scale, doesn't feel earned.

The goals of the villains are also extremely confusing. Not only is there a new villain, but a villain from the first book returns, and a reincarnation of another villain from the first book appears as well. It's a great match-up, and all of them essentially have the same goal of defeating the hero characters, but they also seek control of the world in their own ways. It’s unclear who is manipulating who to achieve the other’s goals, and which of them has more power over the others. It not only creates a disconnect between the reader and the villains, but it gives the hero characters too much busy-work and exposition in order to defeat them which is why the second act can be so slow. I have no doubt that the villains will come full circle in the third novel, but there could have been some more clarity in this one. 

Don’t get me wrong, though I have my gripes with the plot and character development, Fang of Fenrir is far from a bad book. Much of what was good about Shades of Nyx is still there, and there is plenty of it to be enjoyed. The cliffhanger at the end has me curious and excited as to how the series will conclude. Perhaps I simply need to finish the series to appreciate the overall arc. But with a slow second act, minimal character development, and some confusing villain goals, it leaves much to be desired after such a strong predecessor. 

You can purchase The Scholar, The Sphinx, and the Fang of Fenrir from Amazon here.

-David Brashier; Huntsville, Alabama; July 2017

Stephen King's Generational Handicap

This year, my first endeavor in summer reading is Stephen King’s IT. Upon viewing the record-breaking trailer for the book’s 2017 film adaptation, I simply had to read it, despite it’s truly daunting length. As of the time of this writing, I have 250 pages to go.

So far, I hate it (no pun intended). For one, the length has every reason to be daunting because it is entirely too long for what it tries to accomplish. Second, it isn’t written very well, which is the catalyst for my third reason for hating it: it isn’t very scary. Stephen King, dubbed "The indisputable King of Horror" (TIME), "dark and sinister" (Washington Post), and "a possessed figure" (L.A Herald Examiner), isn’t so much scary as he is silly when it comes to IT. A book so well renowned as blood-curdling is too monotonous to inflict any real terror for me as a reader. It is safe to say that the work gained its popularity due to the overrated and corny 1990 miniseries of the same name starring Tim Curry. The popularity of said miniseries is likely what green-lit the remake in the first place. For now, I’m not going to judge the film for it’s quality based on its source material or my own speculation, as it has yet to release.

I will admit that I have a soft spot for King, which is another excuse for why I decided to read IT in the first place. His nonfiction work, On Writing, is without question the reason I aspired to take up penmanship. The book is, in a sense, both a humbling manual for writing and King’s autobiography, and is a book I have recommended to countless people. This was the first Stephen King book I ever read, so, naturally, I expected everything he’s put to paper to be a masterpiece; his critics would agree. The first fiction Stephen King work I read was The Shining. While I didn’t find it strikingly terrifying (as the review blurbs on the back cover indicated), I still found it to be a good read. I would later go on to read Carrie and 'Salem’s Lot, and I felt they were just as good if not better. My most dangerous takeaway from all three of these books is that I considered them to be top-tier literary quality due to the amount of credit I gave King with On Writing. I thankfully read plenty of much more scholarly works before reading IT

My reading of IT has made me realize just how bogus King’s reputation as both a writer and a horror writer can be (this doesn’t mean that all of his works are "bad", per-say, but I will address this later). A simple glance at his reviews by some of the most world-renowned journals of the late 20th century gives the impression that King will go down in history as the Charles Dickens of our time. He certainly is from the standpoint of financial success. But is this reception completely bogus, or is it just my opinion? Well, first and foremost, it is my just opinion, but more importantly, many agree with me on this matter. There is a growing number of people who are willing to admit that Stephen King isn’t all his fans or the press make him out to be. While this could mean that general opinion of his work is shifting, I believe it has more to do with the age of his readers. As of this writing, I am 18 years old, nearly 19. I was not alive when Carrie released in 1974, and I have been raised in an entirely different climate of horror. What needs to be considered isn’t as much the fact that Stephen King’s works are bad, but that they don’t age well. 

The reason I and many others don’t find King to be scary comes down to a simple statement: What was scary then isn’t scary now. It also certainly isn’t scary if the same formula used to inflict horror in 1974 is still being recycled to this day. In order to understand this, we must take a brief look into the history of horror.

The modern use of the word 'horror' in storytelling is often associated as a genre. But at the very heart of the word is an emotion. "Bobby is lost in the woods and no one is around to find him." Bobby may as well be in horror. Horror has always been a medium of storytelling ever since humans conceived the idea of ghost stories, and then conceived the even greater idea of sharing them around a campfire. The dawning of horror in literature and as a genre was seen in the late 18th century with gothic literature. This isn’t to say that horror wasn’t an element used in literature before then, but this was where the genre began to appear most frequently with the intent of creating a macabre, chilling atmosphere. At the time, this was exactly how authors of the genre terrified their readers, creating atmospheric horror rather than slashing murder and gore. Gothic writers of the 18th and 19th centuries included Bram Stoker, Mary Shelley, Edgar Allen Poe, and much later in the early 20th century, H.P. Lovecraft. 

The arrival of film in the 20th Century brought a whole new approach to horror as a genre. Though adaptations of gothic writers' stories were always adapted to film, horror movies weren’t popularized until the 1950’s. The post-World War II "Red Scare" saw an exodus of whimsical themes in film, to exploration of the unknown. Fear of the unknown, to be precise. Monsters both big and small were selling tickets at picture shows across the world, and horror films would continue to evolve throughout the decades. Monsters became more creative, and later the "monsters" we all feared became just as human as us, manifest as cold-blooded killers. Films became gorier as practical effects improved. By the ’70’s and ’80’s, horror became more psychological, though traditional monsters were no strangers to the big screen, even if they were on the decline.With changing culture, horror film continued to adapt with the 1999 release of The Blair Witch Project, the dawn of the "found footage" sub-genre. This style was executed in wildly popular films of the new millennium, most notably Paranormal Activity. In the modern age, quality horror is almost purely psychological, but also situational or practical. Sometimes, simply placing characters in a terrifying situation, such as survivinga savage post-apocalypse, or escaping a kidnapping, is all that is needed to rack one’s brain. 

The repeating theme in the account of horror is that the genre had to evolve. Horror couldn’t keep doing the same thing over and over again or it would no longer serve its purpose. It evolved physically, such as from literature to film, but it also evolved in its storytelling, getting more graphic and tangible. Tactics also die out. Many horror fans of today complain about the number of jump-scares Hollywood uses to write easy films. Sometimes films are nerve-racking based on their subject matter and the time they are released. The political climate of the current decade is largely why The Purge trilogy managed to be so frightening, and thus so popular. 

What doesn’t change is that works of horror almost always have to stay relevant to the times, and often fall victim to becoming products of their time. It’s a genre that isn’t easy to make timeless. Sure, there are countless stories and films which will always scare us, but works of this status are rare. We can always look back and gain some enjoyment from monster movies of the 1950’s; we can enjoy their effects, and admire a style of filmmaking from days gone by. But do they scare us? Only rarely. There aren’t many films from before the 1970’s mentioned in the 21st century which people are scared of, unless age or nostalgia factors in. The ones which still manage to frighten people are more rare the further in the past. 

This raises one big question: How did Stephen King’s horror stories manage to succeed long after the great gothic writers were in their graves, and amidst an ever-growing and adapting climate of horror films. King’s ability to exhume popular horror in literature, given the time, must have been quite the accomplishment. But again, what was scary then isn’t necessarily scary now. Though many of his works may be great books, they aren’t necessarily gut-wrenching for a reader of my age raised in the current horror climate. 

Firstly, horror has changed drastically since King’s debut in the ’70’s. I grew up in the age of jump-scares and the current horror climate is that of psychological and situational terror. Secondly, horror is much more democratized in this day and age. I’m not the biggest horror fan when it comes to film, but it’s easy for anyone to unintentionally view a horror film trailer in a movie theater which is miles more frightening than a Stephen King novel. This occurred numerous times before I even turned 10. Also, it’s easy for anyone to view horror films with the click of a button thanks to Netflix. Horror has also broken into TV with shows like The Walking Dead, American Horror Story, and countless others. Simply put, horror in this day and age is more available than it was at King’s debut. When King’s work first released, horror films were confined to the walls of the theater, and kept out of reach by over-protective parents. There was no Netflix, so they weren’t as easy to come across. I have no doubt that my generation is perfectly capable of experiencing fear from a book, and even enjoying King’s work. But so much horror is at our fingertips that King doesn’t come off as scary to us as an unsuspecting reader in 1974. 

Now, though it is certainly clear that horror adapts with changing times, it doesn’t mean that the genre, or Stephen King, can’t be timeless. 

As mentioned earlier, The Shining was the first of King’s fiction I ever read. Though I didn’t find it grippingly blood-curdling, I did find it atmospherically frightening, much like the style of many of the gothic writers. The Shining was chilling because its characters were isolated, far from civilization in a seemingly haunted place, and one of their own was unstable. Though there wasn’t a strikingly frightening scene like in Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation, I was on-edge the entire time. Unfortunately, I was on-edge for an underwhelming payoff. Carrie, my second King book, also kept me on-edge. While it is a well-known and aged story even for those who haven’t read the book, the way King presents it is clever. He alternates between traditional storytelling and written evidence of eye-witness accounts. It keeps the reader wondering how the characters got to the ending, even if eye-witness POV has been used in literature before. Though the only book of Stephen King’s original trio which I consider to be truly scary is 'Salem’s Lot, I still feel that all three of them are well-written books. This also brings up the question of whether King’s works need to be viewed as horror. He’s written great stories, just not all of them are scary, per say.

But this also makes me question how the gothic writers like Stoker, Poe, and Lovecraft managed to write such horrifying stories and be timeless, yet King’s age horribly. I haven’t met anyone who wasn’t at least slightly chilled by The Raven, The Tale-tell Heart, or The Fall of the House of Usher. I’ve read Dracula, and I found it unsettling despite having been written over a century ago and using such dated language of its time. I even have a Lovecraft Cthulhu anthology of which I’ve only read a six-page story and I found it eons more enjoyable, frightening, and interesting than the 908 pages I’ve read of IT

The works of these giants go to show that horror literature doesn’t have to be a product of the times. I’ve already examined how the subject matter of stories King writes don’t necessarily mix with readers of my generation. This leaves us with how his writing style has aged, or maybe how it’s just plain bad. 

The Shining, Carrie, and 'Salem’s Lot are all written well. IT isn’t. Where King’s writing flaws are at the forefront in IT, they are simply nuanced in his original trio. I, for one, can’t track how King’s writing style has adapted over the years (the works I’ve mentioned thus far are the only ones I've read as of the time of this writing). But it’s clear that King became obsessed with use of a plain flawed style of writing which basic high school English classes teach to avoid. 

He goes into entirely too much detail. IT has dozens upon dozens of moments which would be scary if King didn’t take so much time explaining events as they happen. This includes excessive sexual detail, which is not only awkward to read, but has me convinced he’d rather write erotica instead of horror. King also uses an unnecessary amount of swearing in his writing. Sex and swearing have their place, but just because they are used them doesn’t make the work edgier or more literary if they aren’t executed well. Oftentimes his de-facto means of chilling gore is use of blood, but just because blood is present doesn’t make me sick at my stomach. His supernatural entities are hard to understand and oftentimes just plain silly, his expression of internal thought is always awkward, and he has a knack for dated pop-culture references. 

I’m not saying that King’s original three works are devoid of these issues; they were most certainly present. It just seems that between The Shining and IT his writing style took favor with his flaws. Again, I can’t comment on anything else he’s written. I’m simply making an observation based on what I’ve read, and gathering observations of fellow readers. 

It all comes back to my original statement: What was scary then won’t always be scary now. I can’t say whether his seemingly poor and lengthy writing style was considered scary as hell in the ’80’s because I didn’t grow up in the horror climate of the ’80’s. King’s work may have been spine-tingling for his day, but my generation isn’t as likely to find his stories as much as a disturbing because we’ve been raised in such a different climate of horror, both in style and availability.

Even for a casual fan of horror like myself, I can already tell the genre is going in new, innovative directions. There is a new app on the market which tells gripping thrillers by allowing readers to scroll through text message threads. I’ve seen demos of the concept in ads, and I was honest-to-God shaken, yet interested in what they were doing. Given that filmmakers are having to try harder and harder with innovative ways to tell stories and get audiences to the box office, our obsession with technology could lead to a new form of storytelling. We are so familiar with something such as text threads that it could be the next shift in the medium as we know it. Even if not through this app, it is inevitable that horror and storytelling will manifest itself in a new medium sooner or later. Literature will have to find a way to compete. Stephen King, if he is still around, would likely go into further generational decline.

Though I have mostly criticized King for his writing style and subject matter of his stories, he is the first to admit some of his flaws. He understands that some of the supernatural elements in his works are far-fetched. Simply the fact that he acknowledges this makes him the better man, and, though I’m clearly no stranger to criticizing him, adds to my respect for him which I’ve already developed from On Writing. Again, he isn’t devoid of investing, and even scary stories. I love The Shining, Carrie, and 'Salem’s Lot. Any fan of sci-fi or fantasy won't deny his contribution of The Dark Tower series. Other smaller works like Needful Things, Pet Semetary, and his short stories get countless recommendations from fellow readers. I won’t go so far as to say that his reputation is conceived out of nothing, or lack or talent, or that it is subject to a history of good reviews from journals which have critiqued him since his debut as a writer; he will always have his moments of notability. But as a millennial born long after his heyday, I can’t deny the fact that I will always have a generational divide with readers who grew up with what are considered his best and most terrifying works. On top of this, his writing flaws can’t go unnoticed. Unfortunately, it seems that for King, though an icon in his own right, a great deal of his work will fall victim to the passage of time. For someone born too late to enjoy him for who his is (or was), let's just say we have a complicated relationship.

-David Brashier; Huntsville, Alabama; June 2017

Book Review: The Scholar, The Sphinx, And The Shades of Nyx

Not that I’m writing a serial here, but, the last couple of book reviews I have posted discussed what can make and break sci-fi and fantasy novels. I’ve pointed out similarities among books of the genre, how they can get too complex, sometimes require experience from a reader, or completely rip at the seams of what they try to create. The reason people enjoy fantasy novels is because they are written in universes which readers can immerse themselves in and escape reality; to create that which cannot be created, or see that which cannot be seen. Rarely, and I mean rarely, does a fantasy novel simply say "Shut up. It’s friggin’ fantasy. We can do whatever we want and have all the fun we want." The Scholar, The Sphinx, And The Shades of Nyx by A. R. Cook understands this statement perfectly. 

Scholar and Sphinx (as I will refer to it throughout the review), is one of the most enjoyable experiences I’ve had with a fantasy novel, period. It’s a story which throws reality out the door and fully embraces the fact that fiction can do whatever it wants.  Though it introduces some of the most bizarre concepts and imagery, it is grounded and can be grasped by a reader of any experience. Despite its zaniness, it isn’t a tripped-out story which only few will enjoy. It’s like it takes place in the mind of a child; it’s bizarre, yet it is passable because we understand how bizarre a child’s mind is. 

Scholar and Sphinx follows a teenage boy named David Sandoval who desires to work as an architect in France. On a journey to an internship, he encounters a traveling band of gypsies who, through a misunderstanding, take him captive. It is here when David discovers that the gypsies have something to hide; their leader is a sphinx from a mystical world known as the Curtain. David accompanies the gypsies into the Curtain where he discovers that the Sphinx (whom he names Acacia) has a secret weakness to her which could risk the balance of the Curtain, her family of gypsies, and everyone she loves. With his newfound, yet skeptic care for Acacia, David vows to find a means of curing her, on what will be the trippiest road trip of his life. 

The fact of the matter is that Scholar and Sphinx isn’t a "love letter" to fantasy. It doesn’t borrow elements from the likes of Tolkien, Lewis, and Jordan, or every other fantasy writer who came before, though it is no stranger to dragons and the like. Rather, it tells its own story by embracing the fact that fantasy can do whatever it pleases, and doesn’t back down. The Curtain is a truly undefined realm which can aid or curse its inhabitants at any given moment. Humans can be like animals and vice-versa.  There is no definition to the way things are because there doesn’t have to be. Yet, despite this boundless, imaginative world, the lore is grounded and down-to-earth. Anyone can understand it without having to memorize a laundry-list of terminology which can’t be pronounced. It’s a simple story which invites readers to embrace the absurd and escape reality. 

What makes this such a powerful book is its main duo. I know it’s cliche to say that characters are "well written" or whatever you may call them. But Scholar and Sphinx understands relationships so well that it can be extremely emotional without having to orchestrate dark, emotional scenes which stick out like a sore thumb. The genius is in the dynamic of its two main characters. David and Acacia are unique because one has a handicap, and the other is so affected by his new reality.  The emotion between them doesn’t need to be romance-driven because there is no real romance between them. It’s the right balance between two characters who are so awkward together that they can’t get along as a team, and two characters with a cliched, gushing romance between them. This struck many emotional swells throughout my reading, as I empathized with what such bizarre characters were going through. There’s a particularly emotional moment in the first act when David is coming to grips with what he has to overcome for his loved ones. Though the book never reached a similar emotional high, this scene stuck with me the most.

Ultimately, where Scholar and Sphinx succeeds is in it’s accessibility. Truly anyone can read this fantasy book and enjoy it. Even children. This would be a great book to introduce youngsters to fantasy outside the world of mass-marketing. Another reason which hi-lights this is the fact that Scholar and Sphinx is clean, which is very unconventional for the genre. Though it goes to dark places, it doesn’t have to be crass or "dirty" to be funny, dramatic, or emotional. I love stories like these which aren’t afraid to refrain from sex, swearing, or unnecessary violence to have an edge or be entertaining. It relies on its story, characters, and world, and that’s all it needs. 

It was difficult to come off my read of Scholar and Sphinx and then delve into a more complex sci-fi novel. It proves that fantasy can be simplified and accessible to those less familiar with the genre. It would be stellar if works in different fiction genres could take this route and embrace itself in an easy to read story which introduces novices, yet be thoroughly enjoyed by veterans. It’s a rare book which I can say I have no gripes with. Give it a read, and appreciate the accomplishment that is this book. 

You can purchase The Scholar, The Sphinx, And The Shades Of Nyx from Amazon here.

-David Brashier; Huntsville, Alabama; June 2017

Book Review: The Galactic Satori Chronicles, Book 1- Earth

It’s always a joy when a novel labels itself as one thing, yet manages to deliver something a little more than that. The first installment in The Galactic Satori Chronicles, Earth, manages to do just that. It’s a "space opera" which is a little more down-to-home in its story and characters. This should be expected, given that the title is 'Earth’, yet it simultaneously introduces an inventive, expansive universe for a space opera. Unfortunately, we don’t get to encounter much of that universe, which makes me question how this book can be a space opera. 

Earth follows the story of eight individuals on Earth who are predestined by an advanced alien race called the Aliri to save Earth from impending doom by a malevolent alien race called the Kron. It sounds confusing, but it’s easy to grasp. The Aliri enhance the humans with superhuman abilities in order for them to outrun and outwit the Kron. The story follows the group as they discover their newfound abilities, learn to use them, and learn to work as a team, all while discovering their destiny of saving the planet. It’s a gripping, awesome concept which had me hooked from the get-go. The execution of the concept was less than stellar. 

Firstly, allow me to elaborate on the positives of this book, because there are many. In terms of sci-fi, it explores a lot of interesting ideas about alien races and how they would seek to destroy or aid us. It explores the concept of aliens controlling us from lightyears away all while tackling our mental flaws. It also lends itself to the idea that aliens will destroy us from within, by hiding among us and influencing our leaders’ decision making. It also introduces the idea that aliens aiding us might have to harm us to ensure our survival. On top of this, everything about the alien species’ cultures is damn interesting.  Whenever the perspective shifts to them is when the book is at its best, and I was all ears. Unfortunately, we don’t stay with the aliens very long. 

The book spends the majority of its pages following the savior group, and these sections are mostly busywork. Don’t get me wrong, there are still positives to be drawn. First off, the entire first act is well handled. We get to know the characters as they interact with the mystery of the aliens, meet each other, and ultimately encounter the aliens. The entire second half of the first act is the main octet learning how to pilot a spaceship, and, though it drags some, it’s cool when executed. The characters work off of each other and their interactions feel genuine given their situation. Secondly, I care for each and every one of the characters. They are written as genuine people, and I sympathize with their backstories and circumstances. The biggest problem is that the story drives too much on these characters’ personality traits, and not enough on telling the story.

The book constantly reminds us who is who by giving each character an obnoxious quirk which the dialogue and/or narrative constantly rails on. One of the characters is lusty, and the reader is constantly reminded that he is lusty as he goes after every girl he lays eyes on. This character happens to be the main character, and his lust isn’t resolved by the end. Had there been some kind of resolution to this trait, it would have made his lustiness worthwhile; but there isn’t, so it’s just filler. The fact of the matter is that the reader doesn’t have to constantly be reminded that a character is smart, or a dweeb, or lusty, or heartbroken. It spends so much time leeching off these character traits that the story has very little momentum. Because of this, when the characters return to Earth and leave the spaceship, the second act goes downhill because it is almost completely character driven with little to no sci-fi elements present. The book explores destiny and self-discovery, which isn’t a bad thing, but when obnoxiously written personality types are all there is to be explored, it makes for a dull story.

This leads to what is without a doubt the biggest problem with this novel: It’s too damn long. Had Earth not spent so much time on the characters’ personalities, it could have easily been at least 100 pages shorter. This book is also victim of going into too much detail during action scenes. I don’t need to know everything a character is doing with a weapon as they are trying to use it. Just tell me what’s going on in the action scene. The book is inconsistent in this respect because I recall dozens of events which were described summarily because the writers knew it would go into too much detail. Why can’t that be exercised throughout the whole book? The length really becomes a sore when the resolution finally arrives, which is unfulfilling and leaves much to be desired. It also blatantly informs the reader that there will be a sequel, giving zero clues at to what it will be about, as well as undermining the fact that it failed to answer many questions posed throughout the story.  Also, for a book called Galactic Satori Chronicles, it fails to even address what the Galactic Satori is, or are. 

Where Earth ultimately falls flat on its face is its failure to pursue what would have been a great concept which was delivered upon a silver platter. Every time the aliens are at the forefront in the story, it is investing as hell. The problem is that we rarely, and I mean rarely, encounter these aliens. Instead we have to spend time with enjoyable, yet poorly handled characters as they slug through a poorly handled story. Had the aliens been more liberally used in the plot, I have no doubt this would have been a much better novel.

Earth, as an introduction to a series of books, failed to deliver and hook me as a reader. What concerns me is that Earth has a sequel, which I own and intend to read. My sliver of hope is that the title and cover indicate that the characters will be traveling to (and hopefully interacting with) the aliens and their planet. Also, this is Nick Braker and Paul Hicks’ first novel, and writers always gain experience from their first work to their second, so I am open no doubt.  Here’s to hoping the sequel will be a more worthwhile story. 

-David Brashier; Huntsville, Alabama; May 2017

Book Review: Fire With Fire

(Minor Spoilers Ahead)

Sci-Fi and Fantasy are two genres of literature which are, in many respects, one and the same. At least, they are capable of playing off each other. A sci-fi novel can be a massive space opera, but also use magic, an element of fantasy. Likewise, a fantasy novel could have dwarves and trolls battle each-other in submarines, an element of sci-fi. The two can also cross-genre with horror, noire, mystery; the possibilities are endless. Whereas horror or mystery describe the context of a plot device, sci-fi and fantasy describe a setting. 

With that, it’s no wonder that since I started attending sci-fi/fantasy literary conventions for writing advice, I’ve come across a healthy share of sci-fi and fantasy novels. As a novice to the genre, the more I read, the more similarities I notice. Don’t get me wrong, it should be expected that stories of these genres share certain elements like use of magic, or faster-than-light travel. But at the point these elements are so similarly used as plot devices from novel-to-novel is when both genres tend to get stale for me. This is why it is innovative for sci-fi and fantasy to cross-genre with horror, romance, or noire in order to spice up a good story. I’m always looking for how a sci-fi or fantasy novel can change the game in terms of telling a story, while appropriately retaining elements which distinguish the genre. If what I’m reading is a run-of-the-mill dungeon crawl or pew-pew space opera, I’m tempted to shelve the book. 

Fire With Fire by Charles E. Gannon is exactly the kind of story I am referring to; a sci-fi novel which tells a unique and engaging story, while pushing the boundaries of originality within the genre. Despite being among the longest novels I’ve ever read, its angle on already over-used sci-fi tropes brings a fresh and new experience to well-worn readers.

The story follows an investigative reporter who reanimates from 14 years of cryo-sleep. He is immediately recruited to train as a soldier to investigate shady business on a human-inhabited planet. What he discovers is that intelligent alien life exists on this planet in the form of small, animal-like creatures which inhibit human-like conscience. The reporter then relays his findings to a coalition of Earth’s governments, only to then be made a wanted fugitive for everything he knows. When he is recaptured by the government, he is asked to do the unthinkable: act as Earth’s ambassador in communicating with alien species. 

What makes Fire With Fire work is that it takes the typical trope of humans discovering life beyond Earth, approaches it from a diplomatic angle, and makes it interesting as hell. Though it is by all means a space opera, readers shouldn’t expect many pew-pew action scenes and massive space battles. It is a story which examines how humanity and other alien species would act to cooperate and ensure the survival and wellbeing of every race, despite their drastic differences. It’s a high-stakes Cold War in space which, surprisingly, puts readers on edge. 

Fire With Fire is not for the faint of heart, however. This novel requires some decent reading experience. Novice readers should be cautious, and certainly read some sci-fi novels before tackling it. The reason being is that it goes into excessive detail with technology, space diplomacy, alien mentality, sovereignty of Earth and space governments; the list goes on. What’s so peculiar about this novel is that it handles space politics so well. Most sci-fi stories which attempt to tackle politics are typically boring or poorly handled. Despite all of its detail, Fire With Fire’s space politics manage to feel fresh and suspenseful, without overhauling commentary of Earth’s historical and modern-day equivalents. The reason it works so well is that the team of human diplomats is chock-full of interesting and lovable characters who have charm. There’s even some playful banter among the team, given their dire circumstances, yet it knows to be serious when it is appropriate. It’s a massive slap in the face to the Star Wars prequels, a trilogy which was crippled by boring space diplomacy and even more stale space diplomats. Here, despite being exceedingly more detailed than that of the Star Wars prequels, Gannon manages to make intergalactic politics work. 

Despite containing a slew of space opera tropes, Fire With Fire manages to bring forth a plethora of originality in its more material elements. Certain aspects of technology, though a little wordy at times, feel fresh and new having been present in the genre for so long. The alien species, much like Arrival, aren’t little green men or humanoid; they have very original designs and even more original psyches. Gannon took time to consider how a truly alien species would interpret information, and react in certain situations. It gives the aliens a sense of predictability, but also leaves the reader guessing the more reclusive species next moves. 

Despite my praise, I do find FWF to have a few flaws. Firstly, sometimes the novel can be too detailed. There are certain scenes in which I was asking myself "Do I really need this process explained to me?". This is especially evident when characters are in an action scene which is meant to be quick and suspenseful, and Gannon takes time to give an overly detailed explanation of the technology the characters are using. It’s not needed, and kills the momentum of the scene. Also, the third act, though without a doubt the best, needs to be shorter. It could cut fifty pages if it had simply moved the story along a little faster and not been so repetitive and dragged out.

Though it contains a handful of bugs, I was ecstatic of my experience with Fire With Fire. I got to listen to Charles Gannon speak at JordanCon 9 in April of this year, and it was quiet the interesting session. I was skeptical at the length of his books, but I more than breezed through FWF because it is written so well. It makes my panel experience with Gannon all the more cherished. I definitely recommend this novel for experienced sci-fi readers, and I encourage you to explore Gannon’s intricate world. I am more than looking forward to its sequels.

You can purchase Fire With Fire from Amazon here.

-David Brashier; Huntsville, Alabama; May 2017

Book Review: Between Black and White

Upon reading Robert Bailey’s first novel, The Professor, I felt it was quite the thrilling tale, and it is a novel I highly recommend. I took some time before picking up the sequel, Between Black and White. Little did I know that I would finish it in four days, something I’ve never accomplished with a book of its size. 

Between Black and White picks up immediately following the events of The Professor, from the perspective of a side character from the first book. Bocephus Haynes is convicted of a murder he is convinced he didn’t commit, despite all evidence mounting against him as the culprit. With nowhere to turn, he summons The Professor to try his case.  The Professor isn’t convinced he can try a murder case, a field he’s completely inexperienced in, but he bites the bullet and takes it on. With the help of his new legal partner, Rick Drake, The Professor begins to uncover clues about the case which could provide an alternative to the evidence and the culprit.  However, much like the last novel, there are demons on the other side who don’t want The Professor to succeed, and are willing to take violent measures to do so.  It’s a race against the clock for The Professor and his team to keep their friends close and their enemies closer, as the life of their client is at stake.

The Professor was able to take a simple civil case and turn it into an adrenaline trip.  Right from the beginning, the novel pulled the reader into what would otherwise be a boring case. The story was backed by genuine characters and a real understanding of the law on Bailey’s part. The antagonists were absolutely ruthless, and the power of heroic characters was what ultimately allowed the good guys to succeed.  Between Black and White shaves away any flaws from The Professor, and amplifies the good stuff. Between is absolutely non-stop in its plot, character development, action, and suspense. It expands the premise from the first novel and introduces new characters, while capitalizing on what made the first novel great. 

What specifically makes Between better than The Professor is that it knows how to handle its story and characters with elements of law.  The Professor spent a lot of time investigating the case and on the trial itself.  In Black and White, the investigation takes up less time and is usually blended with some action to keep the pace going.  The trial, while even more high-stakes than its predecessor, doesn’t take up much time either.  The characters from the first novel are also greatly expanded upon. In addition, Black and White also has more villains, many of whom don’t reveal themselves until late. The Professor’s villain was that of a puppet master, whereas Black and White has more of a group of villains conspiring against the heroes, an element which is advantageous for this type of story… 

One thing I mentioned in my Professor review was that the novel made great use of dramatic irony to keep the reader interested. This element is still used here, but to a greater effect.  In The Professor, the reader knew what the villain’s plan was as the story delivered the clueless reaction from the heroes. Black and White is more sparing with its information. It teases, but it still leaves the reader asking questions and adds to the element of surprise. 

I can do nothing more than recommend that you read Between Black and White, but read The Professor first.  It is an absolute roller-coaster ride from start to finish and doesn’t let up. The characters are lovable, the law elements are once again handled very well, and it contains one of the most shocking character revelations I’ve ever read.  Do yourself a favor, support an author, and read this book.  You won’t regret it. 

You can purchase Between Black and White here.

-David Brashier; Huntsville, Alabama; March 2016

Book Review: The Hum And The Shiver

I rarely come across a fantasy or sci-fi novel in which a majority of the plot lulls, or is at least lacking excitement. Novels of this genre, though each unique in their own special way, almost always begin with a hook to draw the reader into the story; usually an action scene, or something wildly dramatic. A writer friend of mine says that if the reader isn’t invested by page 10, the author is doing it wrong. It is also rare for me to come across a "bad book".  It is a fact that there are very few "bad" books due to the amount of heart, soul, and effort required of completing a novel-length story. But the times when I have read something less than stellar, it was typically because the story wasn’t engaging, or spent so much time in a lulled state that I felt no reason to continue reading.  Books like these I keep hidden in a drawer until I decide to read them, or I eventually donate them.  

The Hum And The Shiver by Alex Bledsoe may be the only book I have read which, in my opinion, is by all outward appearances a slow novel, but engaged me in its story the entire way through.  There is no "hook" within the first ten pages.  There is little to no "action" until the final third of the novel, which by most standards isn’t the least bit "exciting".  The story is simply a large group of characters living their everyday lives in a setting.  What makes it so engaging is a damn good mystery, which makes for one of the most creatively written novels I’ve ever read. 

The story is set in a small, east Tennessee town which clearly has a past and an extensive lore to it.  The reader catches glimpses of this lore through the eyes of two outsiders, a preacher trying to start a parish in the town, and a reporter. The reader is as clueless to this mystery as these outsiders, however neither of them are the main character.  The main character and her close-knit friends and family are the ones who have been shaped by the town’s past and lore, as has every other character who lives there. Because of this, the characters never discuss the lore of their people. They live in a secluded town, and they never reveal their secrets to the occasional outsider.  Because every character in the story, aside from the two outsiders, has been raised in the lore, no one discusses it. There is simply no need for them to.  It’s a clever way to write a mystery.  What makes enduring the entire book worthwhile, is just how interesting the culture of the town is.

Bledsoe creates a lore in this book which is so unique and creative, and unlike anything I’ve ever read before.  It is so well thought out that the reader keeps asking questions with every turn of the page. Why do they do this? Why can’t they do that? What does that word mean? The residents of the town are passionate about their traditions as they force them on the main character, and through her pain, the reader can only wonder why they are so explicit. But again, they never take the time to explain the lore because everyone is already engulfed in it. All is eventually revealed, but it takes a journey of establishing real characters with real emotion to get there. 

And that is what makes Hum and Shiver feel so genuine amongst its over-the-top lore.  The characters are vast, unique, and genuine. They speak to each other about their culture in everyday conversations. Their actions and dialogue are further humanized by the fact that their culture is flawed. Characters, like in politics, disagree as to how things should be done, which creates steaming conflict. But, once again, the reader never knows the why behind people’s anger because they need not discuss the details.

The Hum And The Shiver is one of the most captivating novels I have read, and it didn’t have to shock me every few chapters to do it.  It is a mystery which keeps the reader asking "Why?", and keeps pages turning from start to finish. Its clever use of plot elements keeps the story at so steady a pace, yet it surprisingly works and ultimately pays off. On top of that, mystery behind the lore alone makes this story worth the read. For that, I can do nothing more than recommend it. 

You can purchase The Hum And The Shiver here.

-David Brashier; Huntsville, Alabama; February 2016

Review: The Iron Giant

This review is brought to you by request of a reader. Yes, you can make requests for reviews you want to see on this blog, at my discretion. Simply send me an email in the contact page.

The Iron Giant is movie I knew very little about until it was brought to my attention recently.  I knew I had heard of the movie before, but even those memories are extremely vague.  It may have been featured in a preview for a VHS or DVD I watched in the early 2000’s.  When it is discussed nowadays, it is usually attributed to being an animation masterpiece which has a massive cult following.  So, being the animation lover that I am, why am I not as familiar with this film?  Well, for one thing, this movie was released by Warner Bros., a studio whose animated films toward the end of the 20th century were known for being mediocre or just plain bad. It also released in the late 90’s, a time when Disney essentially monopolized the animation industry. This movie was likely swept under the rug by most viewers, as it didn’t receive any box office success. 

It is easy to say I went into this movie with a completely open mind, with one exception: Brad Bird’s name on the poster.  Anyone who knows Brad Bird knows he is an animation miracle worker.  With that, I was really excited. 

Warner Bros.

Warner Bros.

What surprised me the most about The Iron Giant was how laughably simple the story is.  A mysterious object from outer-space lands on earth, which turns out to be a massive "Iron Giant".  It crash-lands off the coast of rural Maine, where it is discovered by a boy named Hogar.  Hogar immediately befriends the Giant, but quickly learns he’ll need to hide it from the rest of his town, and a government agent who wants to see it destroyed.  The rest of the film is just that:  Hogar tries to corral the Giant into a hiding place while trying to outrun the government, and eventually the military, so they don’t blow it high and dry.

This story has been done a thousand times before. It is essentially E.T. meets any 1950’s alien invasion/giant monster movie.  But, what makes it work is just how much effort is put into it.  Everything from the writing, the characters, the animation; it all pieces together to make a well crafted film that is a love-letter to classic movie tropes while managing to become a classic in and of itself. 

Warner Bros.

Warner Bros.

The biggest reason this story is so well handled is the emotion it manages to express with such simple characters and writing. The characters in this movie are so lovable and enjoyable to watch.  Hogar is a typical kid who gets really moody but has a good heart. There is a beatnik he hangs out with who is really fun. His mom is really fun. There is the government agent who acts like he knows what he’s doing, but really he just wants approval from his boss and is willing to be a total asshole in order to get it.  It is the breed of a perfect villain you just love to hate.  But where the film really shines is the Giant itself.  The Giant has such a range of emotion for a big hunk of metal.  The way he moves, uses facial expressions, and subtly shares his feelings can be really heartwarming or heartbreaking.  Centered around the Giant and Hogar is a real emotional struggle which deals with some heavy issues, especially for an animated movie.  Hogar has conversations with the Giant about topics like death, the afterlife, and the idea of a soul, if people have them. 

What makes this movie most unique is hands-down the animation. It has a distinct design where I could look at any screenshot and say, "That’s The Iron Giant."  All the colors are subdued, it uses very smooth lines, and has an overall dark art style for a whimsically spirited animated movie.  The way the characters move feels so natural and human.  What they absolutely nail is the lighting effects; this has some of the best lighting effects in an animated film I’ve ever seen. You see, The Iron Giant was made in a time when traditional animation was dying out, but was also making a ton of innovations.  Some could argue, however, that this animation style is a bit dated.  It combines a lot of CG with 2D animation. This was early CG, so the final product doesn’t always flow together.  But, the clash is really what gives the film such a unique look.  It isn’t necessarily trying to be a spectacle, rather innovate and tell a great story; all the more reason why this movie has gained such a cult following.  

Warner Bros.

Warner Bros.

The film as a whole also takes full advantage of its setting.  This movie is a love-letter to 1950’s nostalgia, both in film, popular culture and small-town vibes. There’s an ambient feeling of the atomic age, the characters have a total hatred for the Russians, and the entire conspiracy of the Giant lends itself to the question of whether we are alone in the universe, a hot topic during the era. 

Despite very cartoony animation, I was surprised at how the film has a very adult spirit.  The voice actors in this film do an outstanding job, like they are really acting in the roles of these characters.  It feels like genuine acting, like the cartoon characters have a life to themselves and aren’t just moving drawings.  The dialogue is also very adult for an animated film, but can be extremely funny at times.  Some of the dialogue I imagine would completely go over a little kid’s head, but it also goes to show why this movie has stuck with people for so long.  I could easily see teenagers and adults putting this on and having a good time with it. 

Warner Bros.

Warner Bros.

It’s safe to say I’ve gone long enough without seeing The Iron Giant, so I was glad I finally gave it a watch.  There are so many films like it which had a ton of effort put into them, but simply didn’t get enough attention. Thankfully the Internet and the availability of movies on digital are allowing films like these to be rediscovered and gain a cult following years later.  Overall, I feel the film is fantastic. It was refreshing to see a traditionally animated movie done in a different style by a different studio that really shines.  The characters are great, it takes full advantage of a simple story, and radiates an adult vibe while discussing important mature issues; I would even go as far to say it handles the adult tone better than most of Pixar’s films (I say most!).  Regardless, if you’re like me and haven’t seen this movie, definitely give it a watch.  It’s time well spent on an overlooked piece of animation goodness. 

-David Brashier; Huntsville, Alabama; January 2017

The Best and Worst Films of 2016

Greetings readers, and Happy New Year!

2016 has come to a close, and this blog is almost officially one year old.  This year consisted of a variety of content, most of which has been well received.  One of the biggest parts of this journey has been determining what I want the blog to focus around. Given that my content this year has been heavily focused on film reviews, and that it is something I am very passionate about, this piece will be dedicated to the best and worst films of 2016.  This year has seen many great films, many downfalls, and even a few surprises here and there.  With that, this will not be a simple ranking of best and worst films, but the most noteworthy films in unique categories I have chosen.

Now, when I say "Best and Worst of 2016", it means the best and worst of the films that I reviewed.  You see, I don’t spend full weekends going to my local theater and catching all the latest releases.  I see films that I want to see, and some films simply aren’t worth my time.  I’m a senior in high school, and I don’t have time to catch every new release each week.  To add to that, Huntsville is a fairly small city, so limited release movies are rarely in theaters where I live.  I’m sure that there are films out there which are far worse than the "worst" on this list, and the same can be said for films better than the "best" on this list.  These are simply chosen among the films I reviewed on the blog this year, and this is by no means my definitive list of best and worst movies of 2016.

Biggest Surprise: Arrival and Zootopia

Both of these films have something to offer beyond their marketing and trailers, and each in a unique way.  

Disney

Disney

Zootopia is a simple talking animal crime noire movie on the surface, but it tackles a slew of social issues facing the world today.  It sends a powerful message to both adults and children in a very subtle way, all while delivering a beautiful, emotional, and hilarious animated film. 

Paramount Pictures

Paramount Pictures

Arrival is a sci-fi blockbuster with the powerhouse filmmaking talent of an Oscar winner.  The way it so smartly used sci-fi in a year littered with mindless action blockbusters made it a breakout hit among critics and audiences.  It captures human emotion in such a creative and timeless way that it will surely be a film anyone can relate for decades to come.

The reason these two films are a tie is because they both meet this category's criterion so well—they surprised me.  Both surprised me in different ways which made this decision very tough.  For two films that stood out in a great year of filmmaking, they both deserve this accolade.

Biggest Let-Down: Free State of Jones

STX Entertainment

STX Entertainment

This film was beaming with potential, and could have been one of the greatest films to release this year.  It had great acting talent, and Matthew McConaughey for crying out loud! It also explored a very obscure portion of American history; some Confederates during the civil war who led an insurgence and sided with the Union behind enemy lines.  It was a new angle to a war which has been viewed up until now simply as good vs evil (at least in film), and that no one on either side expressed a little bit of discourse.

What we got was a film with a great opening twenty minutes, and the remaining two hours were nothing but filler with stale acting, a boring story, little to no action, and speech after speech after speech from Matthew McConaughey.  It’s the first film of his in awhile where I feel he brings almost no charm, something he’s known for as an actor. To his credit, he doesn’t have good writing or good characters on his side, either.

Free State of Jones is watchable, but it is a film which I walked out of feeling depressed, disappointed, and wanting.  Thus, it is 2016’s biggest let down for me.

Best Superhero Film: Deadpool

20th Century Fox

20th Century Fox

Marvel properties undoubtedly topped the list of superhero flicks this year.  Though Marvel Studios rolled out many great products like Captain America: Civil War and Doctor Strange, I believe the honor of best superhero film goes to Deadpool, a movie whose rights belong to a different studio entirely.

Deadpool had almost everything going against it; an R-rated comic book movie starring a somewhat obscure superhero released in early February and distributed by 20th Century Fox.  But, this would go on to be many moviegoers’ favorite superhero movie of 2016, landed one of Marvel’s biggest releases ever, and became the #1 grossing R-rated movie ever. 

What puts Deadpool on top is its simplicity.  It is not a massive comic book movie with over a dozen characters, trippy action sequences, extensive lore, and iconic locations.  It’s a small film that takes place in a bad neighborhood in Vancouver of all places.  It utilizes grounded action sequences with lots of practical effects.  This grounded feel is much thanks to the director, Tim Miller, a genius in visual and practical effects.  The R-rating allows the film to explore areas where other films of the genre cannot with PG-13.  It allows a full range of emotion, comedy, gore, and crude humor, which, like it or not, makes the film feel more real and genuine.  I can’t believe I’m saying this about Deadpool, but the film feels more personal to me than other films of the genre this year for these reasons, making it my favorite superhero film of 2016.

Best Animated Film: Kubo and the Two Strings

Focus Features

Focus Features

2016 was a great year for animation lovers like myself.  At the end of the day, the accolade for 'best' goes to Kubo and the Two Strings.  The film shows what Laika is truly capable of from both a story and creative standpoint.  The way the film captures family conflict feels more genuine than the likes of Disney, and the simplicity of the story makes it all the more relatable.  The stop-motion animation is stunningly gorgeous and makes such an arduous task seem effortless on the big screen.  It is birthed from strenuous work on behalf of a creative, persistent team, which makes it deserving of the title of 'best'. 

Worst Film: The Accountant

Warner Bros. Pictures

Warner Bros. Pictures

*Ben Affleck's expression in the still above perfectly describes this movie. 

Of the movies I reviewed this year, the ones competing for this spot were Batman v Superman, Suicide Squad (I was too nice to this film in my review), Hail, Caesar!, Free State of Jones, and The Accountant.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure there are far worse films which received a theatrical release this year, but among the ones I saw, The Accountant ranks the worst.  

At the end of the day, every other film on the 'worst' list at least gave me something memorable. The Accountant has nothing; no substance, no charm, not a hint of life in it.  The acting is rubbish, the plot is confusing, there isn't a single action scene to redeem itself, and it’s a total waste of good actors.  It has the perfect premise to be a good action thriller, but foolishly throws that opportunity out the door because it is so haphazardly mishandled. 

If you want to hear more about The Accountant, you can read my review, but among the films I saw this past year, it is without a doubt the worst. 

Best Film: Manchester By The Sea

Amazon Studios

Amazon Studios

This hallowed spot was a race between La La Land, Arrival, and Manchester By The Sea.  All of these films are great, human, and unique.  What made me toss Arrival was the fact that Manchester and La La Land both feel more grounded than the sci-fi drama. If you read my La La Land review, you would know that I feel it has a few flaws.  Had these flaws been absent, it definitely would have been my favorite film this year, but that position has to go to Manchester By The Sea, instead.

Manchester By The Sea is an utterly human character study of Lee Chandler, played by the now honorable Casey Affleck.  Affleck’s powerhouse performance feels so natural, it is as though I’m watching human interaction as it naturally plays out.  Kenneth Lonergan genuinely captures trauma in his directing and writing, as it is the epicenter of the film’s story.  It is a film about life itself, and appropriately feels like stepping into the life of its main character. The film has no strict three-act structure, no definite climax or resolution, and is open to interpretation of it’s preceding and succeeding events.  This only adds to the life-like feeling which radiates from the film. The aesthetic of the film compliments Lonergan's genius with rich cinematography and music.  Though it deals with emotionally heavy issues, it is one of the most charming movies I've ever seen because the audience can connect with the characters like they were lifelong friends. It is because human nature is captured so elegantly in great performances, writing, and directing, that it is my favorite film of 2016.


Looking back at all the films I reviewed made me realize how many movies I saw this year, and how much this blog really pushed me to get out and see more movies.  With 2016 behind us, there are many more exciting stories to look forward to in 2017 which I can’t wait to discuss with you all.  If there is a film you would like me to review at my discretion, remember you can make requests by emailing me at the address provided in the Contact page. 

Thank you all for reading this year! Be on the lookout for more content to follow very soon.  

-David Brashier; Huntsville, Alabama; January 2017

Book Review: The Professor

the-professor-tm-3.jpg

I’ve always wanted to write a legal thriller ever since discovering the likes of John Grisham.  Legal thrillers can be captivating, authors who write them can roll stories out in their sleep, and they make big bucks.  To some extent, they can be considered "snack books" (as my English teacher says), or books with no literary merit and basic covers, because they are so common.  I don’t read legal thrillers that often, but I can only wonder how legal authors keep finding inspiration when the genre has such a presence in the book world. The effort it takes to write one is even more staggering to me, as the qualification is that you, obviously, have to be or previously been a lawyer.  Otherwise, prepare to take the BAR exam or spend money on extensive research.  But even then, it’s amazing how lawyers who aren’t involved in criminal law can write good crime thrillers. 

Robert Bailey is a civil defense lawyer in the Huntsville area, who is two books into a legal thriller series.  His first novel, The Professor, involves a pre-law teacher at the University of Alabama getting laid off from his job through an unusual series of events.  Down on his luck and jobless, The Professor is approached by an old friend who asks him to be the plaintiff in a suit against a trucking company, as one of the company’s drivers collided with the suer’s family and killed everyone involved.  The Professor turns down the case and hands it over to a former student of his, insisting that he is too old to get back into trial law.  When his student is duped by a system rigged against him, The Professor suddenly finds himself at the helm of the biggest case of his career.

The Professor is a no-nonsense page turner.  It keeps the reader invested by throwing in as much suspense and mystery as possible.  The story involves a perfect example of how companies try to get away with murder, literally. Dramatic irony is cleverly used throughout the story as our main characters are fooled out of victory.  There are countless moments where the reader simply wants to reach inside the pages and tear the villains to shreds.  All the while, Bailey ties every scenario together.  The firing of The Professor, the lawsuit, and all those involved are addressed by the end of the story. There’s even some emotional struggle tied in from the main characters.  Though Bailey covers the main details, there are still a few areas unaddressed.  The ice is almost spread too thin in terms of the number of characters involved in The Professor’s trial, and a few instances left my head scratching.  However this is Bailey’s first novel, and these characters could show up again in books following, so I won’t be too quick to judge

Bailey also panders to his Alabama audience by visiting many locations in the state, and even southern Tennessee.  I was reluctant to invest myself in the story, as it’s clear from the get-go that it’s set against the backdrop of UA, something I’ve grown up seeing my entire life; it’s cultural in this state. To me, it’s dull and boring, but Bailey’s story is so investing the location doesn’t matter in the long run.  Even then, though I’m overly familiar with these locations, it doesn’t change the fact that they are still close to home.

I can’t imagine how one balances a law career and the creative capacity to write a novel based on that career, but Bailey doesn’t leave any boxes unchecked.  He knows law inside and out, and The Professor shows that he is invested in what he does and can use it to tell a great story.  Though some aspects of the novel seem basic or nuanced, and there a few grammatical issues, it doesn’t keep the story from feeling any less compelling.  Even if crime novels aren’t your thing, give this novel a read for a guaranteed good time.  I’m looking forward to reading the sequel.

You can purchase The Professor here

-David Brashier; Huntsville, Alabama; November 2016

Catch-22: More Than Just A Title

Harper Lee refers to Joseph Heller’s World War II novel Catch-22 as "The only war novel [that] makes any sense."  At a glance, Catch-22 is the exact opposite of sense.  The looping dialogue, while intended for comedy, can easily confuse readers as to which character is currently speaking and what they are speaking about.  There are so many characters that it’s difficult for the reader to keep track of who’s who.  Outlandish events occur out of nowhere, and sometimes an entire chapter builds up to an anticipated outcome only for the last sentence to throw in a resolution completely out of left-field.  While most of these elements are, again, played for comedy, the average reader can easily be confused.  Joseph Heller is known for his literary style of making readers laugh while keeping a dark undertone behind his humor.  While Catch-22 is littered with many confusing elements, the comedy behind it provides the reader with "healthy confusion"; readers may be completely oblivious to what is going on, but they at least gain a laugh from the dialogue or hilarious events. However, another way this confusion could be interpreted isn’t as much to the style of Heller, but the concept of Catch-22 itself. 

Catch-22 is a term used for a situation which is impossible for an individual to escape from because of contradictory rules.  In the novel, Catch-22 is Heller’s made-up military law which is paradoxically designed to keep U.S. soldiers from returning home from Axis-occupied Italy.  Characters attempt to explain Catch-22 throughout the novel, but the concept becomes only more and more difficult for readers to grasp.  The most clear explanation is during a conversation between the main character, Yossarian, and Doc Daneeka.  Yossarian pleads to Daneeka to ground him from bombing missions, but Daneeka continually refuses his request because of Catch-22.  Catch-22 basically states that a soldier can only be grounded from missions if he is considered insane.  Soldiers that continually fly more missions are considered insane because they express no reluctance to peril.  Soldiers who do try to avoid missions are sane.  The "catch" of Catch-22 is that soldiers are only grounded if they specifically ask to be, but if they do so then they are trying to avoid missions so they are considered sane.  Such a confusing ordinance calls for an equally confusing book.  The paradoxical frame of the law is most obviously reflected in the dialogue of the characters.  Characters often discuss the reasoning behind their actions, but their dialogue constantly loops so the conversations never reach a resolution.  For instance, early in the novel, Yossarian’s friend, Dunbar, attempts to explain to him why he puts crab apples in his cheeks.  When Yossarian asks why Dunbar puts crab apples in his cheeks, Dunbar responds, "Because they’re better than horse chestnuts [in my cheeks]".  Yossarian asks why Dunbar doesn’t like horse chestnuts in his cheeks, and Dunbar’s response is that he can just use crab apples.  The conversation loops like this on end with only slight variations, such as when Dunbar says he’d substitute horse chestnuts for crab apples if the latter aren’t available.  The book is littered with conversations like these, and they all harken back to the very subject of the title.  As Yossarian puts it, "That’s some catch, that Catch-22". 

Another aspect reflective of Catch-22 is the very names of the characters themselves.  For a novel which often discusses red-blooded Americanism, the character’s names are very un-American.  Names like Yossarian, Dunbar, Daneeka, Milo, Cathcart, Korn, Clevinger, and Nately, don’t sound like names you’d expect to hear out of wartime 1940’s America.  The names mentioned only scratch the surface; there are dozens upon dozens more outrageous and difficult to pronounce names throughout the novel.  There is not a single conventional name mentioned, and it can be difficult for readers to keep track of who’s who because of so many names being thrown around.  To make matters worse, some characters only appear briefly for a scene early in the novel, only to have a more significant role later on.  Readers can easily forget who the character was and suddenly have to remember who they were all over again.  At a glance, these names may appear to be played for comedy; with such a comedic book, funny names seem appropriate.  However, this proves not to be the case rather quickly.  With so many long, unconventional names being repeated throughout the dialogue, simply reading the text becomes sluggish.  Stephen King, in his book, On Writing, discusses how shorter names in literature make for more practical reading, and can even shorten the length of a novel.  Heller throws this entire concept out the window.  He even goes to the extent of mocking his own confusing names in an entire chapter developing the character Major Major.  Major Major’s full name is Major Major Major, and the novel comedically explains how he gets his name. However, to the reader, Major Major’s backstory can be both funny and cumbersome.  Anyone who glances at the pages of this chapter immediately notice how many times the word 'Major' appears, and having to keep track of the number of 'Major'’s in a row is confusing. To make matters worse, Major Major is promoted to the rank of Major by the end of the chapter, making his full name Major Major Major Major.  Other scenarios use this same device of using multiple confusing names to explain a series of events which only adds to the confusion of what the characters are discussing.  After a period of time, readers become less concerned with putting a face to every name and instead focus on the events happening at present. With all the fluff Heller adds to the text, this approach is more beneficial in order for the reader to understand the story by the ending. 

On the one hand, Joseph Heller is just a funny, crazed writer.  In another view, he ingeniously plants readers into the boots of his main character, Yossarian.  Yossarian appears extremely crazy in the novel, which only makes readers question why he is never grounded.  By the end of the story, it’s determined that Yossarian isn’t technically "crazy", per-say;  he’s just plagued by a crazy world filled with crazy people where crazy things happen.  Yossarian’s ultimate struggle is going to bat with Catch-22, the one thing keeping him from his goal.  Heller highlights Yossarian’s pain by making his readers literally feel it.  The uncanny events, paradoxical dialogue, and confusing character names immerse the reader in a literal Catch-22 where there is virtually no escape from conflict, the conflict being confusion.  In a sense, Yossarian is just as confused as we are. So instead of readers delving into a story about Catch-22, Hellers let’s them experience Catch-22 for themselves. 

-David Brashier; Huntsville, Alabama; November 2016

New York City Reflections

Within the last year and a half, I’ve travelled to three foreign countries. Somehow New York City, on my own soil, is more foreign than anywhere I’ve been overseas.  It was an outlandish experience for me because I’m so used to greenery, fresh air, and towering mountains constantly within eye-view.  New York is engulfed by gargantuan skyscrapers in every direction, and the sun is rarely visible unless you’re on the outer edges of Manhattan island.  Sometimes it’s hard to tell where the sun really is because the light is being reflected off one of the massive glass buildings.  For the entire trip my sense of North and South was inverted because I could never tell where the sun was.  I had no view of the horizon and couldn’t tell where I was.  

The people are very different as well.  When our taxi drove through Manhattan for the first time, I was stunned at the pure diversity.  As I looked at the people commuting around me, every person’s skin tone was different than the next.  The New York natives had traffic and sidewalk etiquette in their blood, and I could do nothing more than follow their lead.  They move through transactions much faster than I do in Huntsville, and often times I awkwardly stood in people’s way who were trying to pay for their items and get on with their business.  Their ethics are quite different than anything I encountered on my world travels.  When I went to Asia and Central America, there was a similar sense of connection and love among the people there that felt like home.  The shocking revelation was that I felt more similarities than differences with the people who spoke foreign languages.  Here I was on my own soil with English speakers whom I felt no connection to at all.  It was common for me to spark up conversation with the people of Vietnam or Honduras. But in New Yorkit was as if everyone was socially awkward.  Conversations with strangers in simple places such as elevators or restaurants were obsolete. 

Day 1

We flew into New York through the Laguardia Airport, the discount JFK International Airport.  As we flew past Manhattan, I caught a tiny glimpse of the giants that were about to surround me, but I thought little of it; aerial shots of lower Manhattan simply don’t do the Big Apple justice.  Laguardia was possibly the shabbiest airport I’ve ever been in.  I was surprised that the third world country I visited this summer had a better airport than one in New York City. From the outside, it looked practically abandoned. 

Thus began the long taxi ride into Manhattan.  As we passed the bridge leading into Midtown, I saw buildings in all states of condition.  A recently built high-rise apartment complex could have sat right next to a border-line tenement.  It’s an old city that’s in a constant state of renovation, and it shows around every corner.  

Our hotel was right in the middle of Times Square (charming, I know).  We drove right past one block and suddenly I was surrounded by enormous LED signs the size of buildings.  It was quite the sensory overload.  When I stepped out of the taxi, my ears were filled with car honks and snippets of people’s rowdy conversations. My nostrils were filled with the aroma of smoke. 

After we checked into our hotel, we strolled to the Rockefeller Center area.  What would take about 15 minutes to navigate through downtown Huntsville took twice as long in New York.  We were constantly interrupted by crosswalks and people giving away handouts.  Eventually we made it to Rockefeller Center and saw many iconic buildings, including Radio City Music Hall and 30 Rock.  It was also a sprawling shopping district.  What stood out was the shops themselves. In most of my travels in the U.S., there is a fine line between locally owned businesses and corporate chains.  New York’s shopping options were entirely ruled by corporations and brands familiar to any eye.  As someone who takes a firm stance on supporting local businesses, New York was a total drought, at least the areas we ventured to.  I’m sure there were other areas to be seen which weren’t as commercial, but it was difficult to tell if a "local" establishment was really born and raised in New York. 

On the way back to our hotel, we stopped by the Richard Rogers Theater, which currently houses the hit musical Hamilton.  As a fan, I couldn’t pass up a photo.  Of course I never actually saw the play; Lord knows that won’t happen until I’m 50.

To finish off the day, we ate dinner with some old friends of ours, and then took to the Empire State building.  While Empire State is probably the most cliched building in America, there was something truly charming about being on top of it.  It was nighttime while we were up there, so the observation deck wasn’t too crowded and we got some sweet views.  I could easily see each individual street and could even make out silhouettes of the financial district on the south end of Manhattan.  This, plus listening to Frank Sinatra atop the city made for a whimsical evening. 

Day 2

We kicked off the day with breakfast at a diner off Times Square.  It was meant to replicate a Brooklyn diner.  I guess my only problem with it was that it wasn’t actually in Brooklyn. 

From there we walked back to Rockefeller Center for a tour of NBC studios at 30 Rock.  It was amazing to see their historic facilities, having been the first major broadcasting company in the U.S.  We saw a number of studios, including Saturday Night Live.  If you’re ever in New York, this was a fun tour.  You get to see a lot, and the tour guides alone are worth the trip.

After NBC we took to biking through Central Park.  I know biking in Central Park is one of the most cliche-sounding things you can do on a visit to New York, but it was hands-down the best part of the trip.   There is something about it which brings out a new level of whim. It’s hard to describe, but you simply have to experience it for yourself.  I put my earbuds in and listened to some more Frank Sinatra, and it was unforgettable experience.  The fact that the entire park is man-made only goes to show that there are few limits to what can be accomplished in NYC.  We saw lots of public art, and even a statue of Hamilton, which I didn’t pass-up either. I’ll say that if you and your family are ever in New York, don’t hesitate to bike in Central Park.  It’s some the most fun you’ll ever have. 

After biking, we chowed on some Ray’s (original?) Pizza, and then took to our hotel for a much needed breather.  It’s amazing how quickly New York can wear you out.  I felt my skin literally getting hotter just from how tired I was and had to change into sweatpants just to let my body ventilate. 

Day 3

This was the first day we went to Lower Manhattan, which is an experience in and of itself.  It simply takes too long to get from Times Square to the financial district by cab or foot, which leaves only one option—The subway.  

The subway is scary as hell, and the fact that it’s underground doesn’t help much.  My dad led us into one of many entrances to the subway along the sidewalk.  The first thing I noticed was the smell; the air was hot and sweaty.  I held tight to my backpack as I waiting on my dad to get us "metro cards" so we could use the subway.  People came out of the underground every few minutes as a train rolled through.  Every few moments I’d hear a bellowing roar as the entire room shook and trains rushed to their destinations.  Loud intercoms gave updates of what trains were going where. People came out of the underground every few minutes when a train rolled through. They moved quickly and had no interest in talking to anyone.  Frankly, I had no interest in talking to them either.  

Once we had our cards, we walked down another set of stairs and through a turn-stall.  We were on the platform.  It was uncomfortably thin.  There was a great haze in the room from the trains’ exhaust.  The floor was black with filth, and the walls were made of tile of all things.  The tracks themselves were jet-black from decades of wear.  In addition, nothing stood between the people and their train; just a pit that you hoped you didn’t step into.

My immediate thought to all of these images was "How do you go about renovating this mess?".  I know underground trains in New York have been used for ages, but these must have dated back decades.  There appeared to be no easy way to update them to the naked eye. The problem is that New Yorkers need these trains, so it’s not like they can shut them down for a year to repair them.

Getting on the train was worse.  I hadn’t had breakfast yet, so I was starving, and the inside of the train was cold, contrast to the heat outside.  I felt weak in my seat. I sat clinging my bag, though no one on the train seemed an immediate threat.  

The beast rattled and roared through the underground.  Occasionally we’d pass other trains and I could literally look other passengers in the eye en route way to their destinations.  Then they’d disappear and we’d pass blue and red lights.  Then it all came to a stop.  We repeated this about four times until my dad said we had arrived.  

When we reemerged into the light, it was another world entirely.  The buildings were somehow bigger and everything was in shadows.  We hadn’t walked but a few steps, and I could see the top of the new Freedom Tower.  We immediately scoured a place to eat.  

We ate at a variety quick-service restaurant which was a New York chain, and they had a nifty idea.  They made organic, preservative-free food at low prices.  It was good food too.  Once they changed their selection from breakfast to lunch, they gave away whatever food they had left for free to customers and the homeless.  It was one of many innovative ideas that I’m sure have sparked in large cities like New York that will someday make its way to my neck of the woods. 

We had a lot of time to kill before our first destination, so we hit a few quick stops on the way, and boy were they quick.  We looked at Trinity Church, which is a massive bit of old world architecture among big glass skyscrapers.  While we were there we looked at Hamilton’s grave and family plot. 

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Then we moved into the stock exchange.  That particular day, a worker’s march was taking place, and their shouting in unison bounced off the walls into the stock exchange.  We were surrounded by brokers and analysts in suits, a glimpse of the elite.  It was abundantly clear that this was the financial capital of the world.  I briefly got a glimpse of the stock exchange, and the place where George Washington was inaugurated.  Looking back, I didn’t have much time to appreciate these places, but I should remember this is the city that never sleeps. 

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The first major item on the agenda for that day was the 9/11 Memorial.  I won’t go into any in-depth detail about my experience with 9/11, as I was too young to remember any of it, but seeing the fountains built in place of the Twin Towers was eye-opening.  They were gigantic, and the sheer amount of space they took up shook me.  

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After this, we entered the museum, which is probably the greatest museum I’ve ever been in, and easily the most innovative place I’ve set foot.  It’s built underground around the foundation of the original towers.  Simply the thought process required to build such a thing is mind-boggling.  The space it takes up is huge, and it showcases massive artifacts from the debris of the catastrophe.  Simply writing about it gives me goosebumps.  They not only recovered so much but managed to pay great homage to the victims of the attack in all forms of service.  One would have to spend days in the place just to learn everything.  There are so many things to see and so much reading material it’s impossible to see it all at once.  It’s a collaboration of many dedicated artists, architects, historians, and average Americans coming together to remember a tragic event, and it assembles perfectly.  There’s no denying that this is a must-see for those who visit New York. 

We took an express train back to Times Square, stopping at some iconic landmarks along the way, such as the Flatiron Building and Grand Central Station.  Then we finished off the night with some Italian food.  

Day 4

For our last full day, we dove back into the horrors of the subway and trained to the financial district once more.  This was our earliest start of the week, and our visit to the Freedom Tower.  When we arrived in the area, the 9/11 Memorial was only sparsely occupied, as not many people were visiting.  It went to show that the location can be a pilgrimage of remembrance at some times, but also that this city has since moved on from the attack.  The image was very calming, in fact.

Going into the Freedom Tower, I knew that this would be the first time in my life I would be exposed to ultra-modern technologies, as this is the first "super-tower" in the western hemisphere.  Simply looking at its height made me wonder how man can build such structures.  As we entered, everything was made of glass, all polished, not a stain or scratch in sight.  Entering the queue, a series of video screens played interviews of those involved in the process of building the tower, from construction workers, to architects, to fundraisers.  The one word to describe their tone is recovery. Some of these people were involved with the construction of the original World Trade Center, and wanted to see it back up again.  It was a testament to the sense of revival that embodied that tower. 

Then we entered the elevator.  My father had told us earlier in the week that he’d been to the original World Trade Center on business before.  He said that no elevator topped its speeds, and that he could only imagine how fast this elevator would be.  The doors closed, and the we realized that the elevator wasn’t lined with glass, but TV screens.  It displayed the progression of Manhattan since the beginning of time as we ascended.  In the corner of the cab, a counter rapidly marked how high we were, indicating we were moving at speeds I thought never possible.  When the doors opened, we could see all of Manhattan, the five burrows, and beyond…with a little haze.  The observation deck was circular about the whole tower, and is entirely glass.  It even has restaurants, too. We may have spent over an hour up there, and savored every moment of it.  Satisfied with our visit, we entered the elevator, and made a fast decent to the ground.  

From the moment we entered the Freedom Tower to when we left, there was an underlying sense that the new skyscraper was the World Trade Center brought back to life.  It was a symbol that New York officially bounced back from the attack and was revived, in a sense.  I walked away from it almost wishing I had appreciated this more while I was at the top. 

We took a few blocks’ stroll to Battery Park for our next destination.  The southernmost tip of Manhattan was quiet and peaceful; a nice little park with some public art and plenty of greenery. It felt like something out of Chattanooga.  At Battery Park we boarded a boat to head out to The Statue of Liberty.  I wasn’t too excited for it at first, but once I got a look at her, it really was something to see.  That is, until we got on the island.  

My gripe about Lady Liberty isn’t as much the statue itself, but the process of getting a good look at it.  We went through three checkpoints in our time there, and to go into the pedestal, we weren’t even allowed to have any belongings.  I found it ironic that I had to be stripped of liberties just to get a good look at the The Statue of Liberty.  I’ll admit I’m glad I saw it, but next time I’d probably just take a boat ride around it without having to do all the extra stuff on the island.  I’m sure it’d be a more liberating experience. 

Once we were back on Manhattan island, we grabbed a quick bite to eat, and then subwayed back to our hotel.  The rest of my family was calling it a day, but I wasn’t done yet.  I don’t know why, but somehow my parents trusted me enough to go out on my own for some more biking in Central Park…close to night time, too.  It was my last chance to reflect on New York.

I walked up 8th Avenue to avoid the hustle and bustle of Times Square and made my way to a bike rental shop.  I rented a bike for one hour and walked it to the south end of the park.  I turned on some Frank Sinatra and took off.  I thought about all I’d seen, learned, experienced.   It was just like Frank said in New York, New York; "If I can make it there, I can make it anywhere". Many people came here to build a life, a career, a business, and that legacy has continued to this day.  It really did feel like this was a breeding ground for success.  As I rode that back to the south end, I felt unstoppable.  I thought about what I’d do when I came back, what area of town I’d stay in, and what I’d try to do.  Given that I’m going into college in a year, that trip certainly won’t happen soon.  But even then the spirit of the city excites me for it.  It’s a spirit that tells me that though I may be on a budget, I could still make a lot out of a little, and I’m ready to find out how. 

I returned the bike and walked back to our hotel, satisfied with my trip. 

While I’d never live in New York, there’s no denying that I want to go back. The amount of things I didn’t do fills a staggering list, and I didn’t have many opportunities to connect with the locals.  But it has been good to be home these last few days, and reflecting on the trip in this manner has allowed me to appreciate it even more.  Getting to share it with you makes it all the better.   There’s not doubt in my mind that reflecting on my trips is one of my favorite things to write about.  I hope you’ve enjoyed this recollection, and I’ll see you all again soon. 

-David Brashier; Huntsville, Alabama; October 2016

Stranger Things and My History with Netflix and TV

Here’s something about me: I hate TV.  

I loved TV as a kid, but I never watch it nowadays unless someone in the house is already watching. I can’t recall the last time I genuinely wanted to catch something live on TV unless it was a recent Olympic event, or maybe a Star Wars trailer debut (because that’s the popular way to get people to tune in these days).  The only time I find myself watching TV these days is when my dad is watching Seinfeld, just because I love Jerry Seinfeld.  There was a time when I attempted to catch The Walking Dead on Sunday nights, but after about five weeks I couldn’t keep any consistency, so the episodes collected dust in my DVR.  Simply put, I can’t be expected to take an hour out of my day to position myself in front of a TV and keep up with an episodic plot for a 16 episodes in a season.  I don’t see how we as people are able accomplish such a task nowadays, and I don’t see how we’ve been doing it since the1950s.  (Though I can say that I’ve seen every episode of The Cosby Show because I binge-watched each season on DVD in elementary school, because who has anything better to do when you can’t drive?)

Here’s something else about me: I hate TV on Netflix.  

A few years ago I binge-watched the first 4 seasons of The Walking Dead on Netflix.  Funny thing is, I haven’t even watched The Walking Dead since I finished season four.  I’ve seen the first 4 episodes of Daredevil, and I couldn’t tell you anything about the show beyond that.  As much as I am a Marvel fan, I can’t bring myself to watch the Netflix series, even though they’re pathetically easy to view.   All too often I’m asked if I saw the new season of House of Cards or Making a Murder, and all I can say is "I don’t watch Netflix".  

Another funny thing is that I’ll watch a two-hour movie on Netflix almost every weekend, but I can’t bring myself to binge-watch an entire season or series.  The idea of a digital series sounds like a great idea; The entire season is ready to go from day one and you don’t have to facilitate time to watch it each week or set a DVR recording.  But there’s something that bothers me about the time I lose watching so many seasons. 

Here’s the problem: most TV seasons last 16 to as much as 22 episodes, and for me, that’s just too much.  I’m the kind of person who tries makes myself busy every second of the day.  I choose to fill that time with writing, reading, analyzing a film, traveling, or getting out of the house whether for leisure or for business.  When I watched the fourth season of The Walking Dead, I was confined to a beach condo with my family for an entire week.  I had the time to watch all 16 episodes in bed because I wasn’t going anywhere else, and I had nothing better to do.  In my everyday life, I just don’t have time for TV, and I especially don’t have time to watch an entire season of a show all at once. 

For me, a film averages about 1.5 to 3 hours.  A film’s story is contained entirely within itself, and when I’m done watching, I’m done watching.  A single episode of a TV series averages about 48 minutes.  Now take that 48 minutes and multiply it by 16.  That’s nearly 13 hours spent watching a season; over half a day.  And if there’s more episodes to a season or more seasons to watch, it’s even more time.  

I understand that for many people this practice is commonplace, and really, kudos to them.  I marvel at the fact that people can be so invested in a story that they watch entire seasons in short periods of time.  It’s something that’s engrained in our culture and I honestly think it’s healthy for people to do.  In an age of terrorism, presidential elections, and a lack of common sense, getting invested in a world of fiction for awhile can be a good thing.  It’s probably what’s keeping some of us sane in this crazy world we live in, provided that it’s not too addictive.  I believe something like Netflix can be just as addictive as drugs, but as long as it isn’t consuming every waking moment of our lives to the point of never coming out of our homes for a time, it can be okay. 

Yes, I would love to be an expert on all things The Walking Dead.  Yes, I’m sure House of Cards is a compelling, mind-twisting show.  Yes, I’m sure Daredevil has some badass moments.  But I can’t be expected to find time to watch every episode of these shows just to catch up with everyone else, and until I find that time, those awesome moments are going to have to wait. 

Enter: Stranger Things.  Last week I finished watching this highly acclaimed Netflix series; the only streaming-exclusive show I’ve watched in full. Throughout July, this showed up everywhere on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and was the buzz among many conversations I had.  Everyone kept going on and on about how it’s possibly the greatest show of all time.  I began to look into it, and just by watching the trailer, I could easily tell that this show was a love-letter to films of the 1980s, what could easily be my favorite era of moving pictures.  The show had only been out about three weeks when I first came across it, but I ultimately caved and played the first episode.  

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Netflix

The first few minutes didn’t hook me.  It did just as lousy a job of getting my attention as any pilot episode to a drama series.  "Wow", I said, "your product placement and '80s style synthesizer music is really cool." 

Then our main character gets kidnapped, and the opening title plays.  

The theme song and opening titles is one of the best things about this show.  It’s so simple, yet can draw anyone into what’s beneath.  The music is filled with mystery, suspense, and whim; it’s enchanting.  The font is just like anything you’d see in an '80s movie, and it’s even blurred to look like it’s o an '80s television set.  The screen cuts to black, and the words 'Created By The Duffer Brothers' flies at your face, and from here it only gets better.

This show manages to accomplish so damn much.  It handles drama on one of the most relatable levels that so many other shows or films fall short of achieving.  It’s a dramatic show, but it can handle utter sadness, it can handle comedy, it can handle horror; it can handle so many human emotions which seem impossible to fully capture on screen.  Humans are emotional beings, but it’s rare that we manage to replicate our entire range of emotion in a man-made medium.  There are movies and shows that make us do nothing but laugh, or feel nothing but suspense, or only make us scared, or can only make us cry. Stranger Things is able to do all of this.  It captures every human emotion through its characters and story in a way that has never been perfected in a way such as this.  I’ve never cried at anything on screen before; I can get emotional, but I’ve never cried.  Stranger Things had me bawling by the last episode…but it also made me scream laugh, smile, and yell "Don’t do it!", at my laptop. 

Part of what makes this show so great is that the characters are so great.  Every character feels like a real person that anybody would know.  There are no cliches in the entire main cast or even the side characters.  What they manage to absolutely nail are the kids.  The kids are played by some of the greatest child actors I have ever seen.  They’re annoying, obnoxious, they eat junk, they get into mischief, they act tough and swear, but in reality they are as weak as the skin on their bones.  They each have their own weaknesses which they try to hide from their peers but still have to deal with the fact that they have them.  It’s something that anyone who’s been through elementary school can relate to.  Most kids on the silver or small screen aren’t believable because of horrible writing or bad acting.  This is one of the only time I’ve related to a young child on screen because I can relate to something I once struggled with at the same age.  Most movie kids are just stock kids, and are only there to move the plot along, but Stranger Things makes kids more than just plot devices or pawns; they’re characters; they’re people.

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Netflix

The adult cast is just as stellar.  The police chief, Hopper, is a lovable guy and has total control of every scene he’s in.  However, he’s a damage person.  He has a past which gets the best of him and he’s willing to do whatever it takes to avoid going down that path again, or allowing anyone else to do the same.  The main character’s mother feels like a real mom.  She’s willing to do whatever it takes for her family and will stop at nothing for their safety.  There’s another mother character who feels genuine as well.  She concerns for her family, but she’s willing to listen to her children’s problems and talk things out.  So many times the mother character is played for comedy or is the villain of a story, but here they feel like genuine mothers who could just as well be one’s own.  

The entire story takes place in the backdrop of small town Hawkins, Indiana, however the setting is so well selected it doesn’t matter.  It’s a typical small town, but it’s anyone’s town.  Anyone can relate to this place because it’s blank.  It feels more like home than an iconic cityscape or big, grand locale.  Sometimes filming in a massive city ins’t always the greatest choice.  While it may provide great opportunities for cinematography, not everyone calls the concrete jungle home.  

Stranger Things uses it’s setting to the fullest by not only capturing 1980’s perfectly, but even paying homage to films of the era.  It’s clear that it takes a great amount of inspiration from 1980s films about kids getting into mischief such as The Sandlot, Stand By Me, or E.T.  The show is also a love letter to Stephen King and horror elements used in his books.  Stephen King is the man who made me want to write in the first place, and there’s even a flashy cameo of one of his novels in one episode, and later in the series they flat out mention his name.  Needless to say, it sticks to the philosophy of respecting the past while embracing the future. 

When it’s all over, Stranger Things holds its own.  It leaves a few doors open as always, but it doesn’t leave me with a thousand questions as to what happens next like other shows or movies such as Star Wars Episode VII.  I don’t need to come up with theory after theory as to what happens next because I don’t need a 'next'.  There are rumors of a second season in the works, but honestly, it’s not necessary.  I would love to see more of these characters, but simply put, what we already have is perfect.  Stranger Things is one of the greatest things put to the screen.  It’s a flawless masterpiece which parents will pass on to future generations for decades to come.  If I’m completelyhonest with myself, I don’t want Stranger Things to be placed in the category that so many other shows fall victim to.  Some shows start off slow and then have a handful of seasons which are considered its prime, only to fall off for a few more seasons.  Some shows start of fresh and continue to build, only to crash and burn at the end.  It’d be a shame to see Stranger Things eventually drop in quality, only to be thrown in the bin of other shows which have lost their identity for following the same formula of other shows of their time.  It’s not what I want for this show, and I hope that this is a case where people can learn to enjoy what they have, instead of crave for more and never be satisfied again.

Netflix

Netflix

This leaves one question: Why did I break my eternal code with Netflix for Stranger Things?

For one thing, Stranger Things as a streaming exclusive show does a number of things differently than other shows.  For one thing, it keeps the run time to the average of 48 minutes, sometimes going a little shorter or longer.  Secondly, there are only 8 episodes, which is the magic of this thing; it manages to tell its story in a shorter amount of time which other shows would demand twice as much.  Because of this, Stranger Things is able to use its time to the fullest.  When a drama TV series has as many as 16 episodes or more to a season, it allows for a lot of meandering in the plot.  The Walking Dead always has the occasional episode where I think, "Well, nothing happened there." I never had to say that for Stranger Things.  Every episode satisfied every minute of its runtime which left viewers hungry for more.  Because of this people are feeling more fulfilled when they finish watching Stranger Things’ than they do for a more exhausting 16 episode season.  

Another thing which makes Stranger Things work is that it’s basically tailor-made to be streamed.  Had this show been on primetime television, it just wouldn’t have worked.  There would be too much space between each episode for anyone to care, and commercial breaks could easily break the emotional appeal.  No commercials means that viewers can take in every aspect of the episode for what it is.  Viewers can also watch the show at their own pace, rather than being enslaved to waiting one week between each episode, which helps the pacing of the show flow more smoothly.

Netflix

Netflix

Now that I have officially watched a streaming-exclusive show in its entirety, I can see a lot of the positives in the concept.  Having every episode at the viewer’s disposal is great, and less episodes means there is less fluff and more buff.  Maybe Stranger Things is the dawn of a new way TV shows are done these days.  So many TV shows nowadays are streaming exclusive, and there will likely come a day when TV is only streamed, given how many people are abandoning cable.  Maybe we’ll start seeing TV seasons with less episodes due to less demand because writers can make more with what they have.  While this would be nice, we must understand that Stranger Things is a special case; the first of its kind, really.  Again, as I said before, I haven’t watched Netflix to the extent many people do, and I made a special case for Stranger Things.  Maybe I would start watching streaming exclusive shows more it there were less episodes, but who’s to say every show will suddenly adopt the Stranger Things formula?  Even if House of Cards and Orange Is The New Black were only 8 episodes to a season, I doubt that would convince me to watch them.  Stranger Things for me was a special case, and it’s unlikely that this will change my opinion of TV and convince me to stream other shows.  With that, I’m glad I facilitated time over the last few weeks to watch Stranger Things.  I enjoyed every moment of it, and I’ll say it was time well spent.

-David Brashier; Huntsville, Alabama; August 2016

Honduras Retrospective

My latest adventure brought me to the Republica de Honduras on mission work with my church.  It was an eye-opening experience, and an experience I would like to pass on to you.

Day 1

Tegucigalpa International Airport

Tegucigalpa International Airport

We departed early Saturday morning to leave for the airport around 2:00 A.M., so I didn’t bother with sleeping.  I crammed all I would need into a backpack and went on my way.  We went south of Huntsville to Birmingham to catch an early flight to Miami, Florida.  There was little time spent in Miami, as we immediately turned around for a flight across the Gulf of Mexico to Honduras.  The flight was gorgeous, and we didn’t gain much altitude so we were able to see crystal clear blue water, and the Cuban countryside.

We landed in the city of Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras.  The city officially holds the title of greatest airport landing in my experience.  Tegucigalpa is built upon a mountain range, and the airport lies in a valley.  The pilot had to fly in circles around the valley and then make a quick, reckless landing on a short runway.  The passengers clapped when we were grounded.  From there we had an easy walk through customs, though the entry card took forever to fill out, and we met with the missionaries who would be taking us in for the week.  

FCM Bus we used to get anywhere and everywhere

FCM Bus we used to get anywhere and everywhere

Upon leaving the airport, we bussed a short distance away to a mall for lunch.  This was my least favorite thing about the trip because the mall is a carbon-copy of any mall we have here in the U.S.  I simply didn’t like being around so much westernization when I could’ve been seeing the country.

Things began to gain momentum as we drove through the city.  Like I said, Tegucigalpa is built on mountains, so our bus had to drive up hills and around ridges.  Homes are built everywhere so there was always something new around every corner.  Any angle you look at the city you’ll see something you wouldn’t have been able to see from a different vantage point. 

I was quickly taken aback by the poverty of Honduras.  They are indeed a third world country with a government that simply doesn’t look out for the citizens.  There is no social security, no welfare program, and no healthcare services.  Patriotism is set on the back burner as citizens struggle to simply eat and get by.  It also has the highest homicide rate in the world with over 8,000 people murdered a year.  

The mission organization my church partners with in Honduras is called Forgotten Children Ministries.  FCM takes children off the streets of Tegucigalpa and places them in shelters in safer parts of the city and country.  Our first stop was to the girls shelter which is located in a gated community on the edge of the city.  The girls were overjoyed to see us.  

I played with the youngest girl at the home, Salonyi, who was quick to explore my iPhone.  She enjoyed looking at photos the most.  I would try to open game for her to play, but I was amazed at the fact that she wasn’t interested with what the phone was doing as much as simply using the touch screen.   She would reach the end of one of my photo albums and continue to slide the photo with her finger, even though it wasn’t doing anything.  It was amazing to think how any child in the U.S. can decipher their parent’s smartphone better than they can to play games and watch YouTube, yet Solanyi was grateful to simply have a touchscreen at her fingertips.

Me and Solanyi

Me and Solanyi

It was here where I began to learn the slightest bit of Spanish to allow me to make small-talk with the locals that week.  I began with simple phrases such as "What is you name?", "My name is…", and "See you tomorrow".

We wrapped things up at the girls’ shelter and began the hour-long drive to the country side, where we would be staying for the week.  After navigating many kilometers outside the city and a long gravel road, we arrived at Finca Grace, or "Grace Farm" in English.  Finca Grace is a farm owned by FCM which houses the mission teams and acts as the boys shelter for the ministry.  We were oriented with the procedures of the farm, and the rest of the day we were given the freedom to do as we pleased.

Finca Grace

Finca Grace

The boys living on the farm quickly stole my heart.  I watched the older boys play an evening game of soccer, and the younger boys began showing us around the farm.  These boys have been living on the street for a greater half of their lives, and it’s only by the grace of God that they’re given the chance to live safely, have near endless land to play on, and get fed three times a day.  There’s no question as to when the next meal will come, which is far greater than their past lives.

Honduran food was easy to adjust to as well.  Dishes range from burritos with rice and beans, to chicken tacquitos.  Honduran chicken is one of the best things I’ve ever tasted, and it’s even better when combined with homemade pico.  Fruit is implemented into every Honduran meal, including dinner.  The cooks at the farm showed us a wide range of dishes, and not one disappointed.

When dinner was over, the team was tired from an excruciatingly long day, and retired to bed.  

Day 2

The Honduran country side

The Honduran country side

After a full night’s rest, I was up bright and early the next morning.  I went out on the balcony of the mission house to have a look at the country side.  It was here when I marveled at the weather of Honduras.  In one direction you could see rain in the distance, and in another you could see sun and sky. Since the country is in the mountains and there is constant cloud coverage, the temperatures never left the upper sixties.  The only days we were hot was when the clouds were sparse, but even then I never felt anywhere near as hot as Alabama does now. 

The team ate breakfast, and then attended a Sunday morning church service.  The service was loud and simple.  Since so many people in Honduras have to work, the Sunday service is pretty lackluster.  It’s the Wednesday night late service that draws the larger crowd when more people can make it.  

Noah's Ark Church

Noah's Ark Church

Me in front of Finca Grace after church

Me in front of Finca Grace after church

We walked back to Finca Grace, a scenic stroll, and spent the rest of the morning exploring the farm.  There is a vast amount of land for the boys to play on, complete with soccer fields and dozens of trees perfect for climbing.  The Honduran countryside also has an abundance of naturally growing fruit, so the boys could climb a mango or coconut tree for a snack.

That afternoon, the team went to see the girls again at a "water park" near to Finca Grace.  By water park, I mean two small pools and a slide.  We enjoyed watching the girls shove most of the adults on our team into the pools.  

"Water Park"

"Water Park"

Later we drove back to Finca Grace, and we broke out a massive game of volleyball with the boys.  Each side yelled "Point!" when they scored, and the boys, though they didn’t speak English, would yell just like we did, poking laughs at our accent.  It was pure hilarity.

Day 3

First thing Monday morning, the team boarded the bus and drove north to a small village, but not before stopping at a "pulperia" (convenience store).  There I got some bagged water for less than 10 Limperias, which is less than 50 cents in U.S. currency.

Water in a bag!

Water in a bag!

We came with buildable kite kits for the children of the village to play with.  We set up camp at a soccer field, and the village children quickly spotted the "gringos" (Spanish slang for Americans).  We constructed the kites with the children, which appeared rather flimsy, but surprisingly held up.  By this point I could speak a decent amount of Spanish, and was able to help the children construct the kites. Once the kites were in the air, everyone was having a blast.  It was fun to help the children untangle their kites, which is almost never fun.  

When that was done, we began to pass out bags of rice and masaca (corn meal) to each of the children and mothers.  Rice and masaca can last weeks for a Honduran family, and for some it can be a miracle to receive.  It was heartwarming to see the smiles on their faces, and tell the mothers "Dio te bendiga" (God bless you).  As we walked back to the bus they would shake their bags, smile and say "Masaca!". 

We boarded the bus and went back to Finca Grace for lunch.  After lunch I spent time exploring the farm.  We went up to a large concrete water tower which provided fantastic views of the country side, and took some photos.

Photo I re-created from my trip to Vietnam last year

Photo I re-created from my trip to Vietnam last year

Later in the afternoon we did VBS-style activities with the younger boys.  We taught them a Bible lesson and played games, which included a massive water balloon fight.  When the game portion was finished, me and some younger boys on our team went to pick mangos, and asked the cooks to wash and cut them for us.  We came back outside to find the boys playing with their own kites, all of which were incredibly high.  One of our translators manage to string three kite strings together, and was about to string a fourth when he let go of the kite, and it flew away.  Everyone ran the length of the property to try and catch it, which was hilarious.  We finished off the day with another game of volleyball, and me and the boys ate mangos.  You haven’t lived until you’ve tried natural-grown, ripe mangos. 

Day 4

Food Ministry

Food Ministry

Tuesday morning, the team boarded the bus once again for food ministry.  This was when we went to an impoverished village to minister to homes and gift their dwellers with food.  I set off with a team of five and we ventured down one road, requesting to enter people’s homes.   If they allowed us to, we would speak to them about why we came, asked them about their faith, and ask if their was anything we could pray for them.  All of them asked for prosperity in their homes and their health.  One home had a boy who’d been infected by a disease-carrying dog bite, and an uncle who is trying to come to the U.S.  Another was an elderly couple, the husband has heart issues, and the wife has diabetes.  It was here when a mother and daughter came down to their home, stating that they’d come a very long distance to find missionaries to pray for her own diabetes.  I was amazed at how grateful these people were for our prayers, and how far a person woudl go to someone to pray for them.  We gave each home a surplus of rice and masaca, and gave the children "confetti" (candy).  

As we went back, we stopped at a pulperia owned by one of the women we spoke to.  We bought snacks from her store, and we were astonished to hear that she didn’t want the money for them.  This is not only a country littered with poverty, but a bag of chips costs the equivalent of a nickel.  We insisted, and gave her the money anyway. 

Pulperia

Pulperia

As we drove back to Finca Grace, I reflected on what I’d seen.  It was here when a fellow team member reminded me that while it is hard, we have to understand what ministering and the simple act of rice and masaca can do for people.  He said that while one individual will never be able to make a difference for every person in the world, we must still remember that we can make a difference for individual people, and that’s what matters.  It’s part of the American in me to think that everyone deserves unalienable rights, and anything we allow for one person we do the same for everyone else.  But the reality is that in Honduras this isn’t the case.  While everyone has the right to eat, one person or even an entire mission organization can’t feed every nook and cranny of Honduras’ 8 million people.  But we can make a difference to those we can get to, and pray that others reach the rest by any means necessary.

After lunch at Finca Grace, the team went back to Tegucigalpa to the girls’ home.  There we did similar VBS style activities we’d done with the boys the day before, a fun time of goofing off.  When we finished, we drove back to Finca Grace and hit the sack.

Day 5

Things began to change up Wednesday morning.  My team and a second team at the farm boarded our buses and went back into the city to a special needs orphanage called Bencalef.  This was a very touching time in the trip.  Each of the children were mentally or physically handicapped, and had been abandoned by their parents, yet were some of the happiest children I’d ever seen.

Angi, a blind girl with a world of feelings to express

Angi, a blind girl with a world of feelings to express

There was a quiet moment with me and some of my team members with a girl named Angi.  She is blind, and had to stay inside and away from the rest of the children because of that.  She was very sweet and happy, and would react to our voices though she couldn’t see the beautiful world around her.  I had never looked on special needs children in this light before.  I could consistently see across all of them that they were expressive, but not in the way you and I would think.  Happiness for these children comes out in a different way than what most people are used to seeing. One girl enjoyed being picked up and wouldn’t let me put her down. A boy would jump up and down uncontrollably.  It was eye-opening to see that though each child was mentally handicapped, the Lord still gave them the capacity to express joy, gratefulness, and excitement.  It simply displays in a way many people aren’t used to seeing.  

We unfortunately had to leave Bencalef around midday in order to make it back to Finca Grace for lunch.  The afternoon was very lax.  We spent time playing Uno with the older boys, and climbing trees.

Dinner finished early so we could make it to the nighttime church service.  There were far more people there, and not everyone was able to sit down.  We heard an amazing testimony from a college student who had been with FCM for a very long time, and was leaving the following day because he’d gotten a job in Costa Rica.  He broke down in tears over what FCM and the Lord had done for him.  

I was inspired by how the people of Honduras would cling to their faith.  Their messages at church were simple; Hold fast to the Lord, and your will be saved, and your life will be in His hands.  They would spend hours talking about this.  It was inspiring because so many American sermons like to delve into other topics, almost like a history or philosophy class.  Here the message was pure gratefulness.

Day 6

The final day was without a doubt my favorite.  Half of my team collaborated with the second team for a large-scale food ministry.  We ventured back to the outskirts of Tegucigalpa to a dump.  We couldn’t go directly to the dump because of safety.  You see, the dump was located at the top of a mountain, and had recently been taken over by gangs.  The gangs were hiring their own workers, so the regular workers’ wages had been sliced in half because they were only allowed to work part-time.  The slums around the dump housed its workers, and these were our target areas for food ministry. 

We parked our bus in a soccer field in the middle of the slums.  We then broke out into teams to invite locals to our food ministry.  My team went to the top of the mountain, inviting people to the soccer field and passing out candy. The higher we got, the better we could see of the dump on the opposite mountainside.  It was enormous, and could be smelled from the base of the mountain, so I can only imagine how horrible it smelled at the top.  

We hiked to the base of the mountain and back to the soccer field, where a small worship service had already begun.  People from all over came to see us.  There was even a woman who was 107 years old!  During the sermon, the mission teams began setting up tables to distribute food.  The cooks at Finca Grace prepared four massive pots, 2 rice and 2 stew, for those who came to the soccer field.  We also gave them bread, candy, and a sugary sports drink.  It was clear that the people in the slum didn’t get to drink anything besides bagged water very often, and were more than happy to receive the sports drink.  

We organized the crowd into two lines, and allowed them to come through the table with a meal ticket.  We soon discovered that we wouldn’t have enough hot food to feed everyone.  It was difficult to tell those who remained that we were out.  What we did instead was give them first priority on rice and masaca, which we’d brought a surplus of as well.  This created confusion among the group which we had to resolve as best we could.

When rice and masaca had been expunged, the second team had prepared about 350 hygiene bags which consisted of a toothbrush, toothpaste, a wash cloth, and a bar of soap.  When we opened the suitcases which contained these bags, we began getting swamped from all directions.

There was higher demand for soap, than there was food.  This meant they had to spend their lives giving up cleanliness to eat.

I’d never had to think about life in such a way before this.  I’ve always had food and a shower, and cleanliness is common courtesy.  I’ve never had to choose between one or the other because money wouldn’t allow it.  

This was a moving image.  Things became very loud, and the translators were having a difficult time keeping everyone in line. It was even harder for the missionaries to distribute the bags as evenly as possible. I went to the back of the line, and children were sandwiched together trying to get to the front.  There was very little we could do beyond that.  Even when we’d passed out all the hygiene bags, people still asked us for them.  

The line for hygiene bags

The line for hygiene bags

Our resources expunged, the teams boarded the buses and drove back into the city.  We ate at a different mall this time, and I was amazed that a personal pizza, a drink, and garlic breadsticks cost the American equivalent of $6 in Honduras, whereas here it could be $13-$15.

Once we were done at the mall, our last stop was the girls shelter for one final goodbye.  The boys of the mission teams watched a soccer game, Portugal vs Poland, with the translators.  I will say Honduran/Spanish commercials are both ridiculously hilarious and sometimes scarring.  But getting to yell "GOOOOOOOAL" was a lot of fun.

Poland vs Portugal

Poland vs Portugal

It was a somber goodbye at the girls home, and I was afraid we’d never leave.  After that, it was back to Finca Grace.

Day 7

Goodbyes...

Goodbyes...

Friday was the day we departed.  It was bittersweet having to say goodbye to the boys, translators, and missionaries, but still heartwarming knowing how far the boys had come.  We loaded our bags onto the buses, and drove back into Tegucigalpa one last time.  It was right before I went through security when I found a Honduran flag in one of the airport shops.  It was a wonderful keepsake.  We got home safely, and I slept almost til noon the next day.

I’ve had a fun time writing this and reflecting on this journey.  I learned a lot about service to others, and the people of Honduras widened my view and strengthened my faith.  Though there were many dark aspects to the country such as poverty and gangs, there were re-assuring factors such as the beauty of the countryside, the culture, and the smile on a local’s face when you hand them a bag of rice, or tell them "Dio te bendiga".  All these people have less material objects than I do, yet have a far higher capacity for joy and thankfulness.  That’s helped me in the last week to be thankful for the little things often taken for granted.  It’s a journey I’ll never forget, and I hope you’ve enjoyed hearing about it.  Thank you for reading.

-David Brashier; Huntsville, Alabama; July 2016

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Book Review: Darth Plagueis

James Lucano ventures to an unknown area of the Star Wars mythos in Darth Plagueis.  It’s a piece of Star Wars lore very few can say they are familiar with, as it was only alluded to in one of the better sequences of Revenge Of The Sith.  However upon reading this novel I can not only say that the mysterious Sith Lord is not only one of the most interesting characters in the Star Wars mythos, but the narrative around him is one of the most compelling stories I’ve read in a novel for a long time.

The character of Darth Plagueis is typically overlooked or unheard of among casual Star Wars fans due to the lack of information provided about him in the films.  But anyone who has read this novel should shutter at the mention of his name. Readers follow Darth Plagueis throughout vast portions of his life and learn about how he was raised, became a powerful political figure in the galaxy, and eventually a Sith Lord.  What makes Plagueis’ character work is self confidence.  He thinks he’s too big to fail, and even when he encounters a flaw in the plan, he goes to desperate measures to mediate the situation.

Another great aspect to Plagueis’ character is how he explains The Force in relation to both the Sith and the Jedi.  The Jedi are never at any point perceived as a good thing in this novel, and readers are convinced that perhaps the light side isn’t such a good idea in and of itself.  Plagueis does this by showing that not allowing emotion to play a factor in one’s use of The Force doesn’t allow the user to achieve its full potential.  Anyone who has watched the films gets the gist of this concept, but the way Plagueis handles the situation makes me want to turn to the dark side.  I never want to be a Jedi after reading this book, and I can only question the reasoning behind staple characters such as Obi Wan and Qui Gon Jinn, and how they would willingly submit to an organization such as the Jedi Order.  The book perceives Jedi training in a negative light, and for a good reason too.   Why would anyone want their emotions suppressed for the sake of good?  The dark side wins in this regard.

One of the best things about Darth Plagueis is the way it sets up the events of the prequel trilogy, and the finale actually occurs during the events of The Phantom Menace.  We get to see Darth Maul’s origins, the formation of the clone army, and how different aspects of the so-called "Grand Plan" were funded through Plagueis’ political power.  The best part?  Palpatine’s training.  We witness Plagueis’ acquaintance with Palpatine from his youth, and the imagination is challenged to somehow find a look for a young version of the lovable Sith Lord.   I don’t think any two perceptions of him will be similar.  We see how the dark side works through Palpatine’s training as he is driven to such desperation by Plagueis he has no choice but to submit to him.  As a Sith Lord, we see how Palpatine formulated his rise to power as the Supreme Chancellor, and the novel wraps this in a clever way by making the laughable events from The Phantom Menace not only understandable, but serious. 

Darth Plagueis, though it has some lull spots, is one of the best books I’ve read in awhile.  It manages to take a character the Star Wars fanbase knew little about and make him one of the most interesting characters in the Star Wars mythos.  It utilizes the Star Wars galaxy to its fullest potential and isn’t afraid to harp on issues that publicly defaced the saga in the prequels.  If anything, this guy deserves a solo film, and I wish that Disney would consider making this novel canon again, as right now it’s considered to be in the "Legends" lineup of novels.  Though for now it remains non-canon, any diehard Star Wars fan should give Darth Plagueis a read.  It’s fun, compelling, and will give readers a better appreciation for being Star Wars fans. 

-David Brashier; Huntsville, Alabama; July 2016

Book Review: Thieftaker

D.B. Jackson presents a compelling tale with his novel Theiftaker, a pre-American Revolution historic fiction…with magic.  On paper, nothing could sound better.

In Jackson’s novel, Ethan Kaille is a down-on-his-luck thieftaker in colonial Boston. A theiftaker is someone who retrieves stolen property for money.  Ethan’s dirty secret is that he is also a conjurer, and can use organic material around him to cast spells.  The novel opens with Ethan tracking down a target he’s been hired to pursue, in which we see Ethan’s extent of mental, physical, and magical ability.  This opening chapter does well to establish the character and his broad range of skill.  We also see right from the start that the magic in Jackson’s world isn’t the clean-cut magic we’re used to seeing in the likes of say, Harry Potter.  Jackson’s magic is crude, and doesn’t always work for novice conjurers.  It requires energy and effort which gives the conjuring characters a taxing factor in their ability, and are by no means invincible.  In addition, we learn that Ethan has to cut himself whenever he conjures because blood produces the most effective spells, so use of magic always comes at a sacrifice.  This raises the stakes for the character to the extent of forcing Ethan to choose between self sacrifice or what is an otherwise more comfortable journey.  The big question is always which will grant him his life.

Once the story gets moving, we learn of Ethan’s hardships as a theiftaker, and that he’s new to the business.  He faces the challenge of dealing with a substantial rival theiftaker, Sephira Pryce, who essentially has mooks all over Boston hunting Ethan down to keep him from stealing her work.  This takes a dark turn for Ethan when he is hired to retrieve a stolen article from the daughter of a wealthy merchant, who is willing to pay him substantially for his efforts.  Ethan has never taken up the task of solving a murder mystery, but is willing to try.   Not only does he discover how threatened he is by conspirators of the murder, but Sephira Pryce is out for blood since he has accepted a high-paying contract which would otherwise belong to her.  Throughout the story, whenever Ethan is close to finding another clue, Sephira and her mooks get in the way and he has to start from square one again.  And whenever Ethan encounters Sephira, it’s no quick beat 'em up.  Ethan is almost always outnumbered 10 to 1, and he must refrain from using magic or will otherwise be accused as a witch.  When Sephira’s men beat him, he suffers the consequences.  This isn’t like the movies where our hero can take a beating and get back up again unscathed.  When Ethan is beaten, he is practically immobilized.  His bones break, he gets bloodied up, and has trouble breathing.  His injuries get in the way later in the novel when he’s at his most desperate.  While Spephira and her men are a substantial threat in the story, it’s rarely explained how she has so much power.  We understand that she essentially owns the streets of Boston, but we never know why.  Additionally, while it’s mentioned multiple times that she’s a thieftaker, we never see her do any theiftaking, which I feel would’ve made her character a little more fledged out.  I may be getting ahead of myself as there are more Thieftaker novels after this, but it would’ve been nice to see her style of thieftaking in this book.  Even then, this is only a minor nitpick compared to the rest of the novel.

Ethan also goes to bat with another conjurer throughout the story who quickly proves to be far more skilled than himself.   The conjurer is never physically visible, which makes thwarting him all the more difficult.  In these instances, Ethan has to get creative with his conjurings, and readers witness the full extent of magic within Jackson’s world.  The conjurer never allows Ethan to walk away on two feet.  The spells this mysterious figure uses on him are violent, and Jackson’s descriptions make the reader feel the pain Ethan is going through.  These are some of the best and scariest portions of the novel, which strangely enough make the reader feel like their in Ethan’s shoes.  

Jackson’s Boston is one of the most believable reading environments I’ve ever been placed in.  Having taking place nearly 250 years ago, it feels like I’m actually there and can talk to the city’s inhabitants.  I can feel the grime and dirt, and can smell the smells.  Jackson’s similes and metaphors are also kept within the time period.  There are no modern-day comparisons or comparisons that could work for any point in history.  For example, there’s a part where Jackson describes a character’s dialogue as "a statement that would’ve made King George wince".  Something like that ins’t necessary per-say, but it keeps the story within it’s setting, and is a nice little touch.  The believability of this world is once again thanks to the way Jackson describes it. We see authors do this all the time, but Theiftaker feels like a place I can actually go to and interact with.  Jackson takes us to every nook and cranny of Boston through Ethan’s adventures, meeting colorful characters and exploring new locations, which only adds to the believability of the world.  

Thieftaker lends readers to a vast number of characters, which most fantasy novels would have issues handling for casual readers.  However most every character in Thieftaker feels genuine because they add weight to the story.  No character is shoe-horned in simply for the sake of adding something that wasn’t there before, or as a cop-out to advance the plot.  It’s because they hold so much weight that we feel that they’re actually there.

For a novel that takes place in Revolutionary America, there aren’t that many references to typical American Revolution tropes, and for me, that’s a good thing.  Most settings in this era would have Ethan amidst the Boston Tea Party, or fighting redcoats as a vigilante.  Ethan is most nearly the exact opposite.  He simply doesn’t give a damn about taxation without representation, and is just trying to do his job.  He will take sides with the patriots or loyalists if it means not having to discuss politics so he can get on with business.  This is a fresh look at a character in this era, as most Revolutionary characters always side with the patriots, and it’s interesting to see someone who’s neutral for once.  There are also few major historical figures of the time.  There are no George Washingtons or Thomas Jeffersons here.  Rather, most figures of this status are given as little as a mention, such as Paul Revere or John Hancock.  The most significant figure who appears is Samuel Adams, and even then he isn’t front and center throughout the novel, and is instead used as a means to relay information to Ethan in the latter half of the story.  This is how it should be.  Theiftaker is willing to stick to it’s own story by using its setting as a backdrop, and not rely on historical figures for history class nostalgia.  While I’m sure that Ethan will encounter more historical figures in future novels, as there are more in this series, for a first installment this was a very smart choice.  It shows readers that the story knows what it is doing independently, and doesn’t have to rely on nostalgia for the sake of getting history buffs’ attention.  

Thieftaker is an engaging novel which engulfs readers in a believable world, and manages to stick to it’s plot throughout.  There’s no fluff in the story, and every character adds weight, which is a rare thing for novels with such a vast number of characters to achieve.  Though a lack historical characters, any red-blooded American fantasy lover should get a kick out of this novel, as well as casual readers who aren’t into fantasy.  Definitely a tale for the ages.  

-David Brashier; Huntsville, Alabama; June 2016

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