Alien (1979)

Tonight I finally got around to watching the original Alien movie. 

I was too young (11) for this film when it came out in 1979, and I never got around to watching it until tonight. Better late than never…the story of my life.

Overall, I found Alien to be a very entertaining sci-fi horror flick. Some of the special effects are a little primitive by 21st-century standards, but hey…1979. Jimmy Carter was president when this movie was made. 40 years ago!

A few quibbles: The film depicts smoking aboard a spaceship, which should have seemed an unlikely scenario even to filmmakers in 1979. The spaceship in the film, Nostromo, is also home to a pet cat. 

The cat does fulfill several functions in the plot. But once again, this unlikely depiction momentarily knocked me out of suspension-of-disbelief mode. As a former cat owner, I’m all too aware of the practical difficulties that would be involved in keeping a cat on a spaceship.

Get ‘Luk Thep’ FREE on Kindle 9/16 & 9/17/2019

A supernatural thriller ripped from the headlines…

If you haven’t read my novella Luk Thep, this is your chance to read it for FREE.

An American woman is terrorized by a Thai ghost. A supernatural thriller ripped from recent headlines.

I wrote this novella in early 2016, after I read this article in The Economist.

I haven’t promoted Luk Thep as aggressively as some other titles, but readers have generally liked it. Check it out on Amazon!

Family ties, external threats, compelling fiction

I am reading Greg Iles’s kidnap-for-ransom novel, 24 Hours (2000), for the second time. 

I first read the book in 2009. I usually wait at least ten years before I reread any title. (I only subject my favorite books to rereads; there is simply too much new stuff to devour.) The first time I read 24 Hours, I gobbled up the 415-page novel over the course of a weekend. This time, it will take me a full three days.

24 Hours is that good. I won’t explain the whole plot here. (Amazon and Wikipedia have already covered that ground.) But you already know, more or less, based on my description above: kidnap-for-ransom.

Here are a few more details: Will and Karen Jennings are an affluent Mississippi couple. (He’s an anesthesiologist.) A gang of three criminals—two men and one woman—kidnap the Jennings’s diabetic daughter, Abby, for ransom. If the gang doesn’t get what they want, they will murder the Jennings’s young daughter.

24 Hours is a superbly written, page-turning book; but no one would call its premise original. You’ve seen and read multiple interpretations of the kidnap-for-ransom plot, probably including the 1996 Mel Gibson film, Ransom. The movie Ransom came out four years before 24 Hours was published, so Ransom may have influenced 24 Hours. That wouldn’t surprise me. 

Story concepts can’t be copyrighted, of course—for good reason. We certainly haven’t seen our last interpretation of the kidnap-for-ransom story, also for good reason. If these plots are executed with any reasonable level of skill, they make compelling film and fiction. A kidnap-for-ransom plot involves family, an external threat, and a series of best-worst choices. There are the makings of a good story, right in front of you. 

The flat-footedness of officialdom is also a fixture of the kidnap-for-ransom plot. In all of these stories, the authorities are unable to satisfactorily resolve the situation, regardless of whether or not they are informed or involved. Someone from within the family (usually a parent) therefore has to do what the authorities cannot or will not do.

In this regard, the kidnap-for-ransom tale is also delightfully reactionary. Hillary Clinton once told us, “It takes a village to raise a child.” This earned her cooing praise from the left, and eye-rolling disdain from the right. 

The kidnap-for-ransom story is telling you that you can’t ultimately depend on the village, the village elders, or the village police. The kidnap-for-ransom plot is telling you that it takes a committed parent—and not a consensus-driven village—to save a child’s life when all the chips are down. 

Don’t trust the authorities, in other words. Don’t trust “society”. Rely on your own wits, and do what you must in order to save your child. 

View 24 Hours by Greg Iles on Amazon.

James Clavell’s novels ranked

Which James Clavell novels are the “best”? And which ones should you read first?

James Clavell (1921 -1994) was an author of adventure/suspense novels set in Asia. His Asian Saga consists of a group of six novels. These books feature overlapping characters, and a fictional trading company, Noble House:

King Rat (1962)
Tai-Pan (1966)
Shōgun (1975)
Noble House (1981)
Whirlwind (1986)
Gai-Jin (1993)

What are these books about?

Good question. Here is a (very) brief explanation of each:

King Rat

Set in Changi Prison (in Singapore) during WWII, this is Clavell’s first novel. At around 400 pages, it is also Clavell’s shortest novel.

King Rat is semi-autobiographical. Clavell himself was a POW of the Japanese during WWII, and was interned in Changi Prison.

Tai-Pan

This is the story of Dirk Struan, the founder of the Noble House trading company. This story takes place during the Opium Wars of the nineteenth century.

Shōgun

Shōgun is the tale of a British navigator who crashes on Japanese shores around the year 1600. He becomes involved in the unification of feudal Japan.

Clavell borrows heavily from Japanese history in Shōgun. This isn’t exactly a historical novel, though, as Clavell modifies names and dates to suit his story. 

The real history involved here is the biography of Anjin Miura (William Adams), a British navigator who really did shipwreck on Japanese shores during a typhoon. Another real historical inspiration for Shōgun is the story of Japan’s unification under the Tokugawa Shogunate during the early 1600s.

But once again…Shōgun is fiction inspired by history, not a historical novel. There is a big difference!

Noble House 

In Hong Kong in the early 1960s, Ian Dunross is the CEO—or tai-pan—of Dirk Struan’s Noble House (which, in the mid-20th century, has become a multinational trading firm).

Noble House is a huge novel, weighing in at about 1,300 pages. The book is filled with gangsters, bold business executives, and seductive women.

I enjoyed reading Noble House. I also enjoyed watching the 1988 NBC miniseries adaptation, starring Pierce Brosnan and Deborah Raffin.

Whirlwind

Easily the darkest of Clavell’s novels, Whirlwind is set in Iran in 1979, at the height of the Islamic Revolution.

Clavell is sometimes criticized for his “orientalism”: All of his books to some extent pander to Western fantasies about Asia. In Clavell’s novels, every Chinese merchant is an ultra-savvy trader who simultaneously plays a dozen different angles. Asian women are all sloe-eyed embodiments of submissive femininity.

In his books about China and Japan, however, Clavell openly admires the cultures he depicts, even if some of his depictions seem simplistic or politically incorrect to “progressive” twenty-first century readers. If Clavell stereotypes the cultures of Japan and China, he does so with the intent to praise, not belittle.

Clavell clearly does not admire Iranian culture, or the culture of Islam, however. While not all of the Iranian characters in Whirlwind are scoundrels and fanatics, many of them are. 

Make of that what you will. But there is no denying that Whirlwind has a different tone than Clavell’s other books. 

Gai-Jin

This was the last novel Clavell completed before his death in 1994. Gai-Jin takes place in Japan in 1862, as the country is struggling with new forces of westernization.

Do you have to read them in order?

No. The novels of the Asian Saga do not have to be read sequentially. Each one is a more or less self-contained story. You can read them in any order you choose without missing much.

So…which one is the “best” then?…And which one should you read first?

Tai-pan and Shōgun are generally regarded to be the “best” books of the Asian Saga. 

In this case, I have to agree with the general consensus (a relatively rare occurrence for me). BothTai-pan and Shōgun are readily accessible to the first-time reader, long enough to be satisfying, but still page-turners.

You might start with either of these.

King Rat is a good novel, but it’s also a small story set in a very narrow environment. 

Oh—and no female characters to speak of. If you aren’t interested in an all-male story set in a WWII prison camp, you might not like this one as much as Clavell’s bigger novels. 

King Rat is, as I mentioned, semi-autobiographical. This was obviously a story that Clavell wanted to tell, needed to tell—and he tells it superbly. But it is a narrowly set story. 

One of the themes of King Rat is the necessity of adapting your ideals to the realities of an often cruel and unforgiving world. I read this book when I was nineteen going on twenty, just making the transition from late adolescence to full adulthood. Many of the book’s insights were useful to me at that time, and they are still with me today.

I would recommend that you do read King Rat; but I strongly recommend that you read it after you read Tai-Pan and Shōgun, and you have a full appreciation for Clavell’s work.

Noble House, Whirlwind, and Gai-jin are good books, but for James Clavell “completists” only.

(I’m a James Clavell completist, so I read all three.)

Each of these books is over 1,000 pages. I mean—come on! If a book is over 1,000 pages, it had better be awesome, right? 

These books are good, but they aren’t “awesome”. Noble House is the best of the three. Both Whirlwind and Gai-jin have a tendency to drag in the middle. Whirlwind in particular has too many characters, too many subplots. 

I came to these three novels after reading Tai-pan, Shōgun, and King Rat. Had I started with Gai-jin, for example, I don’t think I would have been motivated to continue with Clavell’s fiction.

Anyway, such is my assessment of the Asian Saga.

I think you’ll love this series—especially if you like the idea of historical suspense set in Asia. But do yourself a favor, and start with either Tai-pan or Shogun.

‘Last Blood’: another Rambo movie

The trailer looks interesting, anyway…

There is going to be yet another Rambo movie, Last Blood. The movie, which hits cinemas on September 20, stars the seventy-three year-old Sylvester Stallone.

The first Rambo movie, First Blood, came out 37 years ago, in 1982. Ronald Reagan was still in his first term as POTUS then. There was no commercial Internet, and no cell phones in the modern sense. Both the fax machine and cable television were new, cutting-edge technologies. 

And to further put this in perspective: I was just starting high school in 1982. Today I’m in my fifties. Stallone, born in 1946, is a few months younger than my father, who was also born that year.

Sylvester Stallone, who starred in Rocky in 1976 (my fourth-grade year) is still an action hero. It is perfectly fair to point out that he is not what he used to be. But how many of us, who hold memories of the 1970s and 1980s, are what we used to be? 

It is also perfectly fair to ask: Does an action film starring a septuagenarian make sense, from both an artistic and a commercial sense? 

The leading man of an action movie, after all, is traditionally between 25 and 35 years old. Maybe a youngish 40—but certainly not older than 45. Stallone is three decades older than that traditional upper limit.

In the case of Stallone, I think it does make sense. Rambo movies were never high-end artistic fare, and they always stretched the viewer’s suspension of disbelief, even when Stallone was in his prime. Stallone, moreover, now has four generations of fans. 

This all suggests that plenty of moviegoers will get out to see Last Blood a week from this Friday. Who knows? Despite the title, this might not even be the last Rambo movie. 

‘Tartuffe’ by Molière (Richard Wilbur translation)

If you are in the mood for some 17th-century French drama (and why wouldn’t you be?), then you can’t go wrong with Tartuffe, by Molière.

And you don’t even have to read French. This translation by the American poet Richard Wilbur (1921-2017) is excellent, and quite probably an improvement on the original French version.

I’ve written about Richard Wilbur before on this site. His poems are probably the best examples of American poetry written during the twentieth century. Wilbur brings all of his skill to bear in his translation of Tartuffe.

Lewis Thomas made biology fun

During my freshman year in college (1986-87), one of the more eclectic items on the reading list of my honors English class was Lewis Thomas’s Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher

The book gave me several gifts.

First of all, I learned that the sciences can be fun. Secondly (and closely related to the first), I learned the value of being well-rounded, both academically and experientially. 

At that point in my life, I considered myself an “arts and letters” person. I often disdained science and math, as well as more practical tasks like automobile maintenance. 

Now I know better. I want to learn everything. I am, in many ways, far more open-minded at 51 than I was at 19.

While this book is not entirely responsible for that shift, it did play a role.

The best H.P. Lovecraft collection?

I own several HP Lovecraft collections, but this one is my favorite: The Best of H. P. Lovecraft: Bloodcurdling Tales of Horror and the Macabre . This volume was published in 1987.

I’ve bought it twice: Once in 1988 (that copy is long since gone); and I bought a replacement copy about two years ago. 

This collection has all the stories that the newcomer to Lovecraft really needs, including “The Shadow over Innsmouth” and “The Dunwich Horror”.

Another feature of this collection is the excellent introductory essay by Robert Bloch.

My top three recurring dreams

I have a tendency to dream, almost every night. I don’t want to get all woo-woo on you (or well, maybe I do), but I regard dreams as a gateway into…something. And by that I mean more than just my subconscious. 

I certainly have dreams that I would rather not share. But within the range of what is shareable and family-friendly, these are the recurring dreams that I tend to have the most often:

1. The exam dream: I show up to a class on exam day. Oops! I forgot that I was taking the class. I haven’t been there all semester! But today is exam day! I’m screwed!

2. The chased by criminals dream: At least once per month, I dream that I’m being chased by a criminal gang. Sometimes they’re common hoodlums, sometimes they’re mafiosos. But they’re always in pursuit of me, for some undefined reason. 

3. I’m driving on an expressway and I can’t get off. This might be attributable to the fact that driving has never been one of my favorite activities.   I also get this dream multiple times per month. I’ll be behind the wheel of a car, on a narrow expressway. I’ve missed my exit, and there’s no way for me to get off the highway. 

The exam dream, in particular, seems to be common. (There are a number of articles about it on the Internet.) The other two…I’m not sure about.

Autumn skies in Ohio

Over the past week or so, the weather here in Southern Ohio has been growing gradually cooler, after a brutal heatwave throughout most of July and August.

Today we had a delightfully cool, overcast morning.

Autumn is my favorite time of year, and the time when I tend to be most productive. (My most sluggish time of the year is the dog days of high summer.)

Let summer end, and let fall begin in earnest.

Only 54 days until Halloween!

‘Speed Racer’, my favorite Japanese import in 1972

I can tell you what I was doing, most afternoons at 3 pm in 1972. (I was four that year.) I was sprawled out in front of my parents’ boxy Zenith television set, tuned in to Cincinnati’s Channel 19, WXIX. 

That was the time and place in which Speed Racer aired.

The Speed Racer franchise began in Japan in the 1960s as a manga comic series. In 1967, a Speed Racer animated cartoon was developed; and this is what found its way to the US market (dubbed into English, of course).

The best way to describe Speed Racer is as follows: The series concerns the adventures of “Speed”, the driver of the technologically advanced Mach 5 racer. 

Like many Japanese manga, Speed Racer takes place in a setting that is the real world, but not quite the real world. There are unrealistic technological menaces (like the “Mammoth Car”); and the series may have had a monster or two. 

I didn’t know back then that Speed Racer was a Japanese import. (I also didn’t know that many years hence, I would learn the Japanese language; but that’s another story.) At the age of four, I may not have even been aware of Japan. 

I just remember being thrilled by the adventures of Speed and the Mach 5. These were fun cartoons, filled with action, and instantly accessible. Speed Racer is the first television series that I ever became a fanatic of; and in 1972, I was a Speed Racer fanatic. 

I recently watched a few episodes of Speed Racer on YouTube, for nostalgia’s sake. These cartoons fascinated me at the age of four. And even at the age of 51, they retain for me a certain charm. 

Speed Racer intro, 1967

‘The Consultant’ is now live on Amazon!

This book was partially serialized here on the site. Now you can get it on Amazon.

I’ve enrolled The Consultant in Kindle Unlimited for 90 days… so those of you who are members can read it for free. 

Paperback also available. Audiobook version coming soon!

Amazon description:

**The most oppressive regime on earth has taken you prisoner. And they have a mission for you!**

Barry Lawson is an American marketing consultant traveling on business to Osaka, Japan. After striking up a conversation with a woman in a bar, he agrees to accompany her back to her apartment.

But the mystery woman is not who she seems. Days later, Barry wakes up in a cell in North Korea.

He discovers that the North Korean government has abducted him for a specific purpose. The North Koreans don’t plan to ransom him. They want him to work for them.

But Barry is determined to escape—whatever the cost.

His allies are a Japanese abductee, and a beautiful American woman who understands the North Koreans, and speaks their language.

With a U.S.-North Korean summit fast approaching, a coup plot shakes the very foundation of the Pyongyang regime. Barry chooses this moment to make a desperate dash for freedom. But he and his fellow escapees risk death at every turn.

The Consultant is a thriller ripped from real-life headlines, with unforgettable characters and nonstop action!

Get The Consultant on Amazon.com!

‘Eleven Miles of Night’: $0.99 through 8/30!

If you haven’t read Eleven Miles of Night, now is the time to read it for only $0.99. 

And remember that this title is FREE in Kindle Unlimited!

‘Color Out of Space’- the movie

First Color Out of Space Photo from Nic Cage’s H.P. Lovecraft Film

I’ve read this H.P. Lovecraft story several times over the past 30 years.

It isn’t a bad story…but some of the dialogue sure is:

“It come from that stone . . . it growed down thar . . . it got everything livin’ . . . it fed itself on ’em, mind and body . . . Thad an’ Mernie, Zenas an’ Nabby . . . Nahum was the last . . . they all drunk the water . . . it got strong on ’em . . . it come from beyond, whar things ain’t like they be here . . . now it’s goin’ home. . . .”

Lovecraft excelled at story concept and description. His principal weaknesses were characterization and dialogue.

Hobbits beat Jedi

Lord of the Rings Trumps Star Wars in New Online Poll

I am not surprised. The Star Wars franchise has grown stale in recent years (as in–the last 20 years). 

As I’ve written before, I remember watching the first Star Wars ever, at the cinema with my dad in the summer of ’77.

I was nine. My dad was twenty years younger than I am today.

The first three movies–Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi–were true originals. Absolutely amazing, in that time and place.

But they should have stopped in 1983, with the last of those three original films. Everything they’ve done since then has detracted from the power of what was done in the 1970s and 1980s.

Return of the Jedi, 1983

The Grudge (2004)

I rewatched this one tonight. (I saw it for the first time circa 2005, shortly after the movie was released.)

The Grudge brings together two of my longtime interests: Japan and horror films.

This is a fun movie. Not anything that is going to leave you pondering the world in a new way for days, or awake for many nights with the lights on. The Grudge relies on atmospherics, jump scares, and classic Japanese ghost story tropes. The characters are the  stock  types you expect in a movie of this kind.

That said, there are a few genuinely creepy moments. If you wake up at night and suspect that there is something under the covers with you in your bed, you’re officially advised not to look. What you see may be more than you can handle.

View The Grudge on Amazon