Book Review: THE OCEAN AT THE END OF THE LANE delivers a fantastic modern fairytale

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is my second foray into Neil Gaiman’s fantastical storytelling, and I am in awe once again, as I was when I read Stardust.

Gaiman has an otherworldly knack for telling modern fairytales, both as a writer and as a narrator. I listened to the audiobook version of this novel, which Gaiman himself narrates.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a fascinating exploration of memory, friendship, and the underpinnings of existence itself.

Told from the perspective of a jaded adult remembering a fantastical experience he had as a young boy, this story is full of wonder, fear, and anxiety about the world of grown-ups and other things as can only be seen through the eyes of a child.

The story begins when the protagonist, unnamed, goes on a drive to get away from the drudgery of a funeral he is attending.

He soon finds himself driving to the lane where he grew, where his house no longer stands, and at the old farmhouse at the end of the lane. He doesn’t quite understand why, but he seems to be drawn to this place. He speaks with the old woman over a spot of tea, then goes to sit by the pond out back, which the little girl he used to know there called an ocean. Then, the memories flood back to him.

This framework story toys with the idea of memory, why we remember the things we do and may be better off not, or remember the things we don’t when those things could change our lives, our very existence.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a rich story that weaves these concepts deftly in and out of the narrative, so you only ever feel like you’re hearing a fairytale, and not a lecture on childhood memory and the forgotten perceptions of adulthood.

Gaiman masterfully narrates the audiobook as well. Having listened to two of his novels on audiobook, and never having read the print copies, it’s actually difficult for me to imagine not hearing these stories told in his deliberate, inquisitive, and soothing narrative style. Other than Jonathan Keeble’s raucous delivery of The Saxon Stories, I can’t think of a narrator who so intrinsically captures the tone of the story they’re reading, let alone an author capturing their own work. Gaiman brings a level of depth to his characters, dialog, and descriptions that I might be able to conjure myself if I read the print version.

Steve D

Double Book Review: SWORD SONG and THE BURNING LAND and the narrator effect

After not achieving much on the reading front last month, I’ve powered through two consecutive books of The Saxon Stories series by Bernard Cornwell, upon which the Netflix series The Last Kingdom is based. I’ve slowly picked through this series over the last year or so after watching the Netflix show and hearing about the books from my in-laws.

I really enjoyed this series so far, but I’ve learned that my enjoyment of these books, more so than others I’ve listened to on Audible, really hinges on the narrator.

Sword Song, book 4 of The Saxon Stories

As the fourth book in the series, Sword Song may be my favorite yet. Uhtred has come into his lordship with household guards, an estate, servants, and a family, and he displays stern but fair leadership. Brash and arrogant as ever, he still does not hesitate to argue with or insult the other lords or clergy of Alfred’s court.

Sword Song winds through a closer character story where Uhtred is pulled between his oath to Alfred and his family, and a larger sense of duty to Wessex. This culminates in a battle for London, where the Saxons try to wrest control of the city from the Danes.

This book is also narrated by Jonathan Keeble, who is the best narrator for this series to this point. His various British accents feel authentic, he has an excellent tonal range, and his natural litheness with dialog brings a wit and charm to Uhtred’s character that really overpowers his cocky attitude and makes him likeable as a protagonist.

With the return of some old friends and a little more narrative room to breathe, Sword Song is a great catch-up that turns into a harrowing adventure. I enjoyed this book so much that I jumped immediately into the next installment in the series.

The Burning Land, book 5 of The Saxon Stories

The Burning Land is a less glory-filled story of Uhtred’s saga. Five books in, it’s not surprising that Uhtred’s fortunes start to take a turn for the worse, and that even his decision-making seems clouded by his own pride. This is a story of hubris, where Uhtred’s own comes back to bite him in harsh and tragic ways.

Uhtred tries to free himself of his oath to King Alfred of Wessex, and in doing so, finds himself int he company of the Danes of Northumbria. He dreams of retaking his ancestral home of Bebbanburg, but that dream makes him desperate, rather than savvy.

There are few exhilarating battles in this story. Rather, this story is weighed down by a more somber tone and drama-filled scenes as much of Uhtred’s character flaws catch up with him, even in ways he cannot control.

Unfortunately, this tone is made drab by the narration. Whereas Jonathan Keeble brought a humor and wit to Uhtred’s character and dialog, the narrator for The Burning Land was completely humorless. His narration style sounded more like a self-serious Shakespeare reading, which really dragged the story down for me.

I will definitely continue reading this series. However, this experience is making me wonder whether I really love these stories, or I just really love Keeble’s narration. I think the stories are good, but Keeble’s voicing brings an energy, an authenticity, and a weight to these books that I’m not sure I would find so readily on the page.

Steve D

Way-Too-Early Reactions to THE RINGS OF POWER

Another week, another multi-hundred million dollar budgeted TV show based on an iconic fantasy author’s universe.

The Rings of Power is the primary show I have been awaiting all year. Of all the MCU, Star Wars, and other mega-IP content to debut this year, I have had the highest hopes and most weighty expectations for Amazon’s foray into Tolkien’s universe.

Part of that is due to history. The massive narrative history of Middle Earth, and the surrounding historiography of it, is an obvious choice for “spin-offs”. Christopher Tolkien himself published stories based on unfinished drafts in his father’s notes.

Another part of my weighty expectations for this show come from a much more recent benchmark. Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy is epic filmmaking at its finest, a wondrous cinematic adaptation that is just as affecting twenty years later as it was when I sat in the theater at thirteen for Fellowship.

The showrunners for The Rings of Power made a pretty big gamble when they decided to set their series in the Second Age of Middle Earth, thousands of years before most of the characters whom casual fans would know were alive. Middle Earth itself is quite different at this time.

Through two episodes (which is all I’ve seen so far) I’m already getting nostalgia-driven chills when I watch this show. The costumes, the music, the dialog, the settings all feel like Tolkien, and crucially, like the Tolkien we were introduced to in Jackson’s trilogy.

The Rings of Power, wisely, is speaking the same visual and emotional language as it’s cinematic predecessor. When I see characters in thematic clothes, I don’t just see generic fantasy brings. I know them as Noldor Elves, dwarfs of the line of Durin, and yes, even Harfoots, who feel just enough like their descendant hobbits to be recognizable, without feeling copied.

So, this show has already fixed itself squarely within the look and feel of Middle Earth.

I also find the beginning of the story and the characters driving it to be quite compelling.

As usual, I will not get into an episode recap, so I’ll just say that I already feel attached to and invested in Galadriel, Nori, and Arondir as they traverse differing plot lines that seem to be pointing in the same direction: the rise of the shadow after centuries of relative peace.

I don’t know how much more I can say without getting too deep into the details and ending up with 5,000 words for this post.

The showrunners took a big gamble with this show, especially with Amazon beating down their necks looking for a smash hit. Two episodes in, I feel like it’s already paying off.

I’m so excited to continue watching.

Steve D

Distraction in the form of City-Building

I am already exhausted by the news cycle from the previous week. Potential overturning of abortion rights. Legitimate threats to privacy rights and same-sex marriage on the horizon. This week has been a lot for me mentally and emotionally. I was straight-up infuriated for about four days.

I’m still angry, and I’m not letting go of that. I’m just trying to step back and evaluate what exactly I can do with this anger, aside rom throwing money at a political super-pac that might not get anything done.

In any case, I downloaded a new mobile game this week, and that has largely been keeping me sane.

Distracted in Designer City

I don’t play a lot of mobile games, aside from Pokemon Go while I walk my dog, but this past week I needed something to occupy my mind.

I looked at the mobile Sim City, but I didn’t want to download an EA game, under the assumption that I would have to suffer through endless ads or pay for in-game upgrades to really enjoy it, which I don’t do as a general rule.

Then I came upon Designer City, which was incredibly highly rated on Google Play. I downloaded it, played through a brief tutorial in which a small town was already built for me, and have since expanded this small town into a bustling cosmopolis.

Am I going to tell you about it? You bet I am. My city includes:

  • a central downtown that probably needs more love
  • a lakeside resort/campground at the western edge
  • an area of mixed agriculture, industrial, and residential use along the southwest
  • a posh urbanized neighborhood on the south end with tons of parks and a monorail station
  • a quaint suburb in the southeast
  • a nascent but expanding NEW downtown area with high-rise residences, museums, theaters, and other communal affects
  • and a more commercial-industrial northern end
  • a monorail connecting all of these neighborhoods
  • Oh, and I’ve expanded my land ownership halfway across the map to build a commercial port, some industrial buildings, and a railway connecting it to the city

I will definitely be adding a medieval castle district and a creepy haunted house-type district, because this game has those types of structures.

I might be addicted to this game, but it’s easy to play, completely unintrusive in terms of ads or asking you to spend real money, and can be creatively engaging if you allow it.

So what started as a political rant ended up as a positive review for Designer City. I’m going to call it a day.

Steve D

Spare Parts for Broken Hearts: Songs that Stick to my Brain part 1

See part 2 here.

I’ve spent the last several days listening ad nauseum to eight songs by Spare Parts for Broken Hearts, an LA-based rock band about whom I’ve been aware for at least a year, but had neglected to spend any significant time with. I’ve been missing out.

Last week I finally bought all eight singles that are available for download from their website. From what I can tell, they have yet to put out an EP or LP, but I’m still pleased with their eight-song playlist on my phone. (Reading the about page on their site, they plan to release an LP this year!)

Today, I’m going to take the first four songs from my playlist and look at them a little more closely. I’ll do the other four songs I have in a follow-up. I’m just doing these in the order they appear on my phone. If you’ve never read one of my album reviews before, I like to review the musical and lyrical tones of the songs and try to interpret them together. So this is not a critique so much as an attempt at understanding this music.

“I don’t want to be the voice of your prophet, your profit”

“Dirty Milk” opens with a fast, distorted bass line, feedback chords, and ringing cymbals. Lead Singer Sarah Green’s voice is melodic with just the right bit of scratchiness: “I am anonymous / Are you just like me / I need a friend”. And the refrain: “I don’t wanna be the voice of your prophet / I just want to be alone”

The song repeats its only verse and refrain twice each, never relenting until an abrupt ending that briefly fades out with squealing distortion feedback. This pace is more what you would expect from a heavy post-grunge band, but it’s not what Spare Parts for Broken Hearts typically do.

“Tell me the story from a different angle”

“Big Win” is more of a slow burn to start that builds into a soaring chorus: “All that I want from you / You can’t take back”

Even as Green’s voice rattles and nearly drowns out the dirty guitar chords, she still finds the space to lower her refrain to a gentle, almost sweet level, only to come back to a final chorus with fury and anguish. Spare Parts, or perhaps Green herself, perfectly blend these opposite emotional levels in most of their songs.

This is easily my favorite song of the bunch.

“I could swim til the bitter end”

“Cold Wave” similarly transitions from floating verse to torrential chorus and back. These transitions are jarring in that the listener feels the sudden weight of Green’s pain. Her first belting cry of “With no air” is powerful on its own, but its true meaning is only revealed when she growls: “I’m holding my breath / With no air”.

These songs run 3-4 minutes each– an average length– but each one is so full of sound and feeling that they feel like frozen moments.

“Where you end I begin / Severed”

Most of SPFBH’s songs are laden with inner turmoil, but perhaps none feels as forceful as “Ever”. Green’s wail on the first word of the chorus is a challenge and a rebuke: “What you can’t give / You can’t take from anyone.”

Plucking strings and distortion-rended chords. Soft hi-hat and crashing cymbals. Airy verses and wailing choruses.

All of these elements mingle throughout most songs for Spare Parts for Broken Hearts, and they never feel out of place or forced.

That the band can embody these dichotomies so completely is a testament to their songwriting skill and their authenticity. Whatever inspired these songs, I believe it, and that’s part of what makes them unforgettable.

I’ll come back with the other four songs in a couple weeks.

How do you like Spare Parts for Broken Hearts so far?

Steve D

Trailer Hype for THOR: LOVE AND THUNDER

Welp, I’m stoked. Marvel finally released a teaser for the upcoming Thor: Love and Thunder. I’ve been waiting for news on this film for what feels like two years, and it’s set to be released in July.

I’m not going to go through the trailer frame by frame and try to theorize about what it might be. I’m just happy that we’ve reached this point. This is the most excited I’ve been for an MCU property since Endgame.

As any MCU fans would probably tell you, Thor’s character made a gigantic leap into the forefront of the collective consciousness in Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok, in which Thor became the funny but super-powerful God of Thunder we always wanted. Of the original Avengers, Thor had the weakest standalone films through his first two (Thor and Thor: The Dark World). Iron Man had the best introduction, and Captain America had the best trilogy.

I might hedge and say that there’s a valid argument for Captain America having the best intro and the best trilogy…

In any case, Thor’s revitalization in Ragnarok and subsequent claiming of the superhero championship belt in the Infinity War saga has left him atop the original cast. That might be recency bias and the fact that Iron Man and Steve Rogers’s Captain America have parted ways, but Thor is also the only character who has gotten a fourth standalone film to this point.

The return of Natalie Portman as Jane Foster – and her very own level-up to the Mighty Thor, teased briefly at the end of that trailer – is the other big reason I’m excited for this film. I had started reading the Jason Aaron run of Thor: God of Thunder specifically because I wanted to see the comic-book lead-up to Jane Foster taking up Mjollnir.

I read the first three volumes last year, and all of a sudden, I’m behind schedule! Excuse me while I go look for copies of volumes four and five.

Are you excited for Thor: Love and Thunder?

Steve D

THE LAST KINGDOM Finale: Epic TV storytelling

The Last Kingdom TV series recently debuted its fifth and final season, which I caught on Netflix.

The show follows Uhtred of Bebbanburg, a Saxon lordling captured and raised by Danes who rises to become an important warrior and warlord during the reigns of Kings Alfred and Edward of Wessex. This show is the reason I’ve started reading the book series by Bernard Cornwell that it’s based on.

Having now finished season 5 and gotten confirmation that it is, indeed, the last of the series, I find myself reflecting on what, to me, has been a truly great show.

While much of the story of Uhtred himself is fictionalized, the show is realized with impeccable detail in the settings, the sets, and the costumes. Individual fight scenes are well choreographed and the battle scenes are mostly good if not great.

I’ve watched this show from the beginning, and had eagerly anticipated each of the last three seasons in particular as the show really hit its stride. Alexander Dreymon’s portrayal of Uhtred evolved from that of an arrogant, if skilled, young warrior into a admirable, honorable, and relentless lord who manages to fight both for what is right and for what he is owed.

The rest of the cast is stellar to the point that you might as well read through the cast list on IMDB, because I don’t think there is a poor actor in the entire series. This is the type of show where I recognized basically none of the actors when I first saw them, and now I can only think many of them will go on to do incredible things in television and film.

Alright, that’s enough reflecting. The main element of this show I wanted to call out is the storytelling.

Beware spoilers for season 5, including the season and series finale.

The Last Kingdom’s Epic Storytelling

The main arc of the story centers on Uhtred in his quest to reclaim his ancestral seat as the lord of Bebbanburg. Throughout the first four seasons of the show, Uhtred is desperate to retake his homeland, but is always called by duty, by oath, by extortion, or by his heart to fight different battles. These are so often at the behest of King Alfred of Wessex that by season four, it is almost laughable, except the relationship between Alfred and Uhtred has grown into the dearest of friendships, and you can’t really blame Uhtred for being loyal to one of his biggest patrons.

Season 5 presents a key opportunity for Uhtred to attack Bebbanburg – held by his estranged cousin – at the head of the armies of Wessex and Mercia, now joined under King Edward (Alfred’s son and Uhtred’s liege lord).

In the season and series finale, Uhtred fights to take Bebbanburg, Edward’s armies are nearly thrown over a cliff into the sea, and the enemy they fight tries to burn Bebbanburg to the ground.

This is the moment that any long-time watcher of this show has been waiting for, and recognizes what the show is doing. They literally and figuratively bring Uhtred to his knees, so close to achieving his lifelong destiny, within the walls of his home, and it burns to ashes in front of him.

And then the show takes another predictable turn that is just perfect. They show a montage of previous scenes from the show, focusing on Uhtred’s friends, allies, family, all lost in the turmoil of the previous five seasons (and some 20 years) of Uhtred’s life.

Going into this episode, I was not aware that season five was to be the final chapter of this show. But this montage was so perfectly executed and attuned to the emotional weight of the moment that I immediately knew that this was the end of the series.

After the montage, the sky breaks open into rain, drowning out the flames that would engulf Uhtred’s home, and in a last desperate act, Uhtred and King Edward’s forces emerge victorious. Uhtred claims Bebbanburg and becomes Lord of Northumbria.

This moment would have been meaningless – or perhaps cheap – if the show had not had the patience to lead the viewer through five seasons of loss, failure, and shortcomings with Uhtred. Or if they had tried to drag the show out to extra seasons for no reason. They chose their moment to end the story, and they stuck the landing, something that more than a few shows in recent memory have failed to accomplish.

Finale Thoughts

I did not go into season 5 of this show expecting to write a review on it. I think I’ve only mentioned it in passing before on this site. That finale hit home to me, to the point that I’d like to rewatch the entire show at some point.

I’m also even more stoked to continue my read of the book series.

Please watch this show, if for nothing else, to give me someone to talk about it with!

Steve D

10 Things I Loved about THE BATMAN

I had the pleasure of seeing The Batman with a friend on Sunday. Not only was it my first theater experience in over two years, it was one hell of a movie. I loved it.

Coming into this movie with no expectations, I didn’t know what to expect, in a lot of ways. I’ve been lukewarm on the DC universe’s approach to its movies, never quite knowing what their goal is for a given movie, so I didn’t pay much attention to the press tour leading up to this release.

Having seen the film now, I can safely and excitedly say that The Batman is a great movie from beginning to end, and Robert Pattinson is a great Batman.

I’m going to run down my favorite things about this movie, without spoilers. If you watch (or have already seen) the trailer below, nothing on my list will be a surprise to you.

My 10 Favorite Things about THE BATMAN

I’m going to say this is in no particular order, except the order that these are flying off my fingertips.

  1. Robert Pattinson’s brooding Batman and Bruce Wayne. Without speaking to the movie’s plot, I will say that I loved Pattinson’s portrayal of the Dark Knight in this film. He was brooding and tortured and honestly intimidating. I don’t know that any previous live-action Batman has felt as menacing to me as this character.
  2. Bruce Wayne’s relationship with Alfred. I had no idea Andy Serkis was playing Alfred in this film, and he was amazing.
  3. Jeffrey Wright as Jim Gordon. He was smart and subtly charismatic in the way you expect a younger Jim Gordon to be.
  4. The gritty Gotham. This was one of the more unique Gotham settings we’ve gotten in a Batman film, at least recently. The setting felt more like a comic book version of Gotham while still being believable. It seemed like it could still be a real city without feeling generic.
  5. The interplay of the various villain characters. This is a hallmark of Batman films, where multiple villains are bound to show up in big power plays. One thing that stuck out to me was the surprisingly personal moments that a few of the villains share with our titular character. These were not bland archetypal evil-doers with outlandish schemes. These were people with goals and motivations and fears, and that really helped to sell the plot.
  6. Cat Woman. Zoe Kravitz’s Selena Kyle was dynamic, could hold her own, and had incredible chemistry with Robert Pattinson’s Batman. I’m all in on those two.
  7. The Bat-mobile and car chase. You saw a piece of this in the trailer above, where the person Batman is chasing is shown in an over-the-shoulder POV. This is used to great effect during a car chase scene that is perhaps the most visceral car chase I’ve ever watched.
  8. The music. Again, the trailer shows some of the movie’s hand here, but there are two famous songs that are used and melded with a riveting hook to incredible effect that never gets old throughout the film.
  9. The details. This is the type of movie that has a lot going on to direct the viewer’s attention — lighting, silhouettes of characters, colors, and emotional facial close-ups. But there’s also a lot going on in the background. There are no extras looking awkward in any scene in this movie. Even in random corners of the frame, the actors are making it feel like a live scene, rather than a staged frame.
  10. The tone. I think the gritty, dark films can too easily fall victim to trying too hard to be edgy. It’s not trying to shock the audience with unnecessary gore or brutality, and it doesn’t drown the viewer in a cynical worldview. The grittiness envelopes the characters and drives a lot of the suspense and foreboding, but it’s beside the point. There is a lot more to this story than its gritty tones.
  11. One more for good measure! The mystery. This film is framed as a noir detective story, and Batman makes a convincing problem-solver. This style of storytelling helps to drive the plot and much of the suspense leading up to the final sequence, when the hero’s journey is ultimately revealed.

Well, those are my brief thoughts about THE BATMAN. I’m thinking I might need to see this in theaters again, because I can’t stop thinking about it.

Have you seen it? What did you think?!

Steve D

Review: PLAIN ENGLISH Podcast’s coverage of the war in Ukraine

I’ve never reviewed a podcast here before, but the more I find myself needing interesting and engaging information about in-depth topics, the more I turn to podcasts to get it. I simultaneously need to feel connected with what’s going on in the world without being inundated with opinion pieces, social media blather, and obnoxious punditry.

I was not following the major news outlets on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Instead, I had been getting bite-sized analysis notifications about once daily, but I needed more.

Plain English is a podcast on the Ringer where host Derek Thompson deep-dives into interesting topics. I had never listened to his podcast before, but after hearing about it from other Ringer shows (of which I listen to several) I noticed that he had done more than one episode on the ongoing war.

https://www.theringer.com/plain-english-with-derek-thompson-podcast

As it turns out, Thompson has done seven episodes on the war in Ukraine since its outbreak on Feb 25, speaking with military analysts, financial analysts, and even local Ukrainians about the war, its immediate impact, and its wider and longer-term implications.

I have listened to all seven episodes over the last four days, and I’m eager for more. Thompson takes a very complex subject that is destined to be shredded into a thousand opinions by a thousand talking heads on every network, and asks basic yet direct questions in his interviews with experts.

In the March 1 episode, for instance, Thompson speaks with two different financial analysts about the sanctions that the US and EU have slammed upon Russia, what they are really aimed to accomplish, and what the medium- to long-term impact could be.

What I particularly appreciate about Thompson’s concise narrative style is that he never loses sight of the very human tragedy that is unfolding in this conflict. Ukrainian citizens being targeted and killed in the action. And yes, Russian citizens’ outcries of protest being stamped out by their government, and the potential ruin that Russia’s economic crash could wreak upon people all over the world. (Listen to that March 1 episode).

This is not a case of “both sides”. Putin and the Russian government and military are obviously in the wrong, but their war, and the world’s sanctions against Russia will have real consequences for real people.

Thompson explains these points and much more without talking down to his audience, and with the goal of understanding above anything else. His discussions have made me feel like I can contextualize this conflict in more tangible terms without having to sift through the noise of an online news search or broadcast news clips.

Whether you are already well-informed on this conflict or not, I highly recommend this series of episodes on the Plain English podcast.

Слава Україні

Steve D

Book Review: THE ANCIENT CELTS builds a framework for Ancient European history

The Ancient Celts audiobook occupied my listening time during a couple of recent weekend road trips, and it turned out to be enjoyable and informative.

The Ancient Celts is an excellent historical framework through which to view and discuss the identity and meaning of the term Celtic and the ancient peoples to whom it can be applied. This is the type of history where author Barry Cunliffe strays into several other topics in order to build his primary case.

Ancient Greece, Rome, the Scythians, and Phoenicians all make appearances as Cunliffe traces a millennium of migrations and conflicts across Europe involving various Celtic groups. Cunliffe focuses on the material archaeological record for his study, but he does not hesitate to pull in writings of the Classical era, and previously established linguistic evidence to build his case.

Cunliffe’s ultimate case is that the Celts can be identified as a distinct cultural and linguistic group from the Middle Danube region from the end of the Bronze Age, who had a stark impact on the Classical civilizations of Europe and spread as far south as Egypt, as far East as modern Turkey, and as far west as the Atlantic coast of Europe, and whose cultural remnants can still be seen today.

Interestingly, Cunliffe bookends his study with discussions on the revival of Celtic identity over the last few centuries, and what this might mean in relation to the Ancient Celts he tries to understand. He posits the subjective question of who the Celts were and who they are today, and answers with a surprisingly simple, yet effective statement: anyone who considers themselves Celtic, whether that is through spoken language, material culture, or more ephemeral forms of identity.

Steve D