Book Review: 1984, and Truth against totalitarianism

I just finished reading 1984 by George Orwell for the first time. Somehow, this book was not part of my high school reading curriculum. I feel like my high school English class had a huge reading list, and each class read only a selection — friends of mine read 1984, and my class read Brave New World, which I loved.

This book is a must-read for anyone who feels compelled to understand the psyche of fascism and totalitarianism.

If a reader comes to this book looking for character development, reasonable plot pacing, or much scene work beyond didactic dialogue, they will not find it. They will also be missing the point. From a story perspective, I really enjoyed the section focusing on Winston and Julia’s relationship, even if their time together ended rather abruptly.

Orwell’s story is a mechanism to explain the idea that totalitarianism seeks control as an end itself. The ideology doesn’t matter. Control over every aspect of life – even over thought, if it can be achieved – is the entire aim of the totalitarian system. To gain power over people and keep it is the only goal.

This book is a product of its time and timeless, as applicable a warning against fascism now as it was seventy years ago. As a lover of history, I was interested in the alternative rendering of the post-WW2 order, but I know there are likely other stories where this is the focal point, rather than the exposition dump Orwell uses. This section was particularly frightening to me as the end of the book drew near, as it provided a view into a world where Truth does not matter – even upon learning the truth about your reality, a totalitarian system’s entire existence is predicated on controlling you in spite of it.

Steve D

Book Review: THE PAGAN LORD grinds series progression to a halt

The Pagan Lord is the seventh book in The Last Kingdom series by Bernard Cornwell, and this has been my least favorite of the series so far.

This installment has all the trappings of a classic “middle book”: no major plot progression for Uhtred or other main characters, stagnant action that lacks excitement or real stakes, and no new characters to liven up the story.

After several years of relative peace, the Saxons and Danes feel restless and wary for the next war that most don’t truly believe is coming. Uhtred, as always, if on the lookout for the next war, and his instincts end up proving correct.

However, this book feels like a regression for Uhtred as a character, who makes a rash mistake that leads to him being outcast by the Saxon kingdoms. Uhtred is bitter in his old age and still clings to his dream of retaking Bebbanburg, which makes him more desperate than in previous stories.

The wisdom and growth as a leader we had seen from Uhtred in recent stories seems to have eroded, perhaps because he has been rudderless for several years. It is perhaps fitting that this story also feels largely rudderless, like its protagonist, but it does not make for a very enjoyable read.

With both of his sons grown into men, Uhtred’s successes and shortcomings as a father are also on display. He is ashamed of his eldest son for becoming a priest, but his actions are those of a petulant child who did not find his heir in a son whom he largely neglected as a child. His second son is a brave lad eager to prove himself as a warrior, but Uhtred does more to put him down than build him up. Uhtred’s daughter, Stiorra, another child to whom he hasn’t paid much attention, is also notably absent from his life.

This was a decent story, but I’m hoping Uhtred snaps out of his funk. The narrator was okay, but did not bring the same intensity to the story that previous narrators have. Here’s hoping book eight picks up the pace again and Uhtred finds his way.

Steve D

ANDOR takes the title for Best STAR WARS

I’ve recently caught up with and finished watching Andor, the latest show in the Star Wars universe on Disney+. Coming in a few weeks late to this show, I had heard good things about it, even if it wasn’t getting a ton of buzz. I came into this show with an open mind. The Mandalorian has been great. Boba Fett and Obi-Wan were decent, but flawed in their own ways. I felt like Andor had potential as a show that didn’t have to try to build around characters we already knew from the original trilogy, and I was excited by the show’s premise of focusing on the rebellion leading up to A New Hope.

With season one in the books, and a few days for me to think about it: Andor is the best that Star Wars has been to this point, from the storytelling, the writing, the world-building, and the meaning. I’ve watched it once through and am already watching it again with a friend who has yet to see it. I can barely contain my excitement to watch this show a second time, mere days after I’ve finished my first watch-through.

Spoilers ahead for Andor and for the movie it leads to, Rogue One.

Tony Gilroy, the writer/director behind the first three Bourne films and a ton of other action-thrillers, is the creative director and head writer for Andor. The 12-episode season is structured into four three-episode arcs, which presents an interesting ebb and flow of tension as the season progresses.

Let’s pause for one moment to appreciate that this show is a full 12 episodes, making it a legitimate season of television — not a 6-8-episode “limited series event” that feels like three C-average movies stuffed in a trench coat

I don’t want to go down the rabbit hole of summarizing the entire season. Just go watch it and be amazed. Instead, let’s talk about some key themes.

Cassian Andor, as the titular character played by Diego Luna, is ostensibly the protagonist, but when we meet him at the start of the season — five years before the events of Rogue One — he is a scavenger and thief who seems to have burned a lot of bridges and eroded the trust of those whom he cares about most. He argues with his adoptive mother, Maarva, and his ex-girlfriend and partner-in-smuggling, Bix, does not seem to trust him. How did this guy become an intelligence officer within the Rebel Alliance and a hero who sacrificed himself for the rebel cause?

The beauty of Andor, and its writing in particular, is that we see this arc develop for Cassian over the course of the season. He becomes a critical role-player in a heist on an imperial vault that he had only learned about days prior; he helps 5,000 fellow prisoners escape an inescapable prison; and he returns to his home planet, Ferrix, to help the people he had left behind. He’s not an expert rebel spy yet, but his character shows us a lot of grit and heart over 12 episodes.

Stellen Skarsgard is also stellar in his role as Luthen, a rare artifacts dealer in Coruscant-turned rebel ring-leader. It’s not quite clear how Luthen became involved in his own rebellious network against the Empire, but his connection to Saw Gerrera, played by Forrest Whitaker reprising his unique role from Rogue One, and knowledge of the various factions fighting the Empire indicate that Luthen has been in this war for a long time. That history is what has been missing from Star Wars, at least from the live-action movies and shows.

What Andor really demonstrates is the cost of a nascent rebellion. The Rebel Alliance doesn’t even exist yet. There are just a bunch of tiny factions fighting the Empire in their own ways, with no common goal yet identified. So why are they fighting? Luthen, along with Cassian, and another character, Kino Loy, played by the incomparable Andy Serkis, each take their turn delivering the thesis statement for this show, and for the rebellion at large — no one can fight fascism without sacrifice, without pulling together for the people next to you, and that sacrifice is worth it, even if the players themselves never get to see the dawn of a galaxy without the Empire in power.

The Best of Star Wars

I will not be able to do this show justice in a single post, and I may need to follow-up with a ranking of my favorite Star Wars stories.

All I know is that I’ve never heard dialogue in Star Wars like I have in Andor. I’ve never seen a Star Wars property as well-written and deliberate as this show. I’ve never felt like a story in this universe was this important, or this of-the-moment in our current culture.

A lot of Star Wars properties have reminded us of what we loved about the original trilogy, or tried to upend our expectations entirely. Andor manages to do both. It is an affirmation that these stories, in this universe, can say something meaningful about sacrifice, hope, suffering, love, light, and darkness. And it’s a challenge to every new series or film in this universe to be great, not just for a Star Wars story, but for a story of any genre. This show demonstrates the universality of Star Wars in a way I’ve never seen before.

I can’t stop thinking about it, and I can’t wait for season two.

Steve D

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