Cincinnati in film

Professors on their favorite Cincinnati films

From The Northerner, the student newspaper of NKU. (I attended NKU as an undergrad from 1986~7, then as a grad student from 2002~4, by the way.)

I have an opinion on this matter, of course. The best Cincinnati films to date are Traffic (2000), and Fresh Horses (1988).

Rain Man (1988), which tends to get the most attention, left me cold, even though I’ve liked most movies with Tom Cruise or Dustin Hoffman.

Traffic, though, is a multilayered, engrossing story about the narcotics underworld. I recently saw it for the second time, and it’s held up well over the past two decades.

Fresh Horses is a coming-of-age movie starring Molly Ringwald and Andrew McCarthy. This movie is a little dated, and a bit uneven in places; but it isn’t bad for 30-year-old teen movie from the late Reagan era.

Also, one scene in Fresh Horses features the University of Cincinnati lecture hall where I took organic chemistry in 1987, after I transferred to UC from NKU.

Rewatching ‘Platoon’ (1986)

I can still remember the first time I saw Oliver Stone’s Vietnam War epic, Platoon, in a cinema in South Carolina during the summer of 1986.

At that time, the men who had served in the war were still mostly in their late thirties and early forties. The Vietnam War was as recent to the present as the first term of George H.W. Bush, and the US-led invasion of Iraq, are recent to us today.

I was only a few weeks away from turning eighteen when I watched Platoon that afternoon. Born in 1968, I was too young to recall the Vietnam War, but I had grown up in its shadow. The Vietnam War was a constant cultural reference point—kind of like the war in Iraq is now.

Platoon was not the first movie to feature the Vietnam War; but most of the previous efforts in this regard had turned out badly. Apocalypse Now (1979) was simply weird, and completely lacking realism. The Deer Hunter (1978) was depressing and nihilistic. 

Platoon was the first major film that addressed the Vietnam War in a manner that was realistic and artistically engaging. This movie didn’t flinch from the dark side of the conflict; but this was no self-indulgent wallow in the gloom. There are characters in this movie worth knowing, and the film ends on a redemptive note.

I found the movie powerful in 1986, but I wasn’t quite sure why. At the age of eighteen, I really had no idea of the difficult choices that the real world requires of us all: between right and wrong, idealism and pragmatism, serving others and serving oneself.

This theme is present throughout the film, but it’s encapsulated in the above scene, “I am Reality”. That famous line from Sgt. Barnes:

“There’s the way it oughta be, and there’s the way it is.”

This line went over my head on that teenage summer afternoon almost thirty-four years ago. All teens see the world, and themselves, in absolute, black-and-white terms. I was no exception.

I rewatched the movie a few nights ago. At the age of fifty-one, I understand the significance of Sgt. Barnes’s line, and how the real world is many shades of gray. 

And this—to me, at least—is what the movie is all about. This is why Platoon will continue to be a classic, long after the Vietnam War generation (and we, their children), have passed into history.

Generation X and helicopter parenting

Many of my forty- and fifty-something friends have been complaining of late…about their own young adult children.

With very few exceptions, their kids aren’t what would have been called (in more plainspoken times) “bad”. There are no drug addicts or delinquents among the group. Most of the ones whom I’ve met seem polite enough.

The problem, rather, is a lack of motive force—a lack of ambition. Some of these kids are now approaching twenty-five, and still very much dependent on Mom and Dad.

Many of them still live with Mom and Dad. And they don’t seem in any big hurry to change the status quo.

Anxiety and depression—but relatively little to actually worry about

And the young’uns are anything but well-adjusted. Today’s teens and young adults—Generation Z—suffer from chronic anxiety in record numbers.

This is borne out in various statistics, but I’ve also seen it anecdotally, in my own social circle. I know of at least four young people (all children of friends and acquaintances) who have dropped out of college because of nervous disorders.

In one case (a friend of a friend), the young woman is so overcome with anxiety, that her parents have applied for Social Security benefits for her. Yes, really. Her parents don’t believe that she will ever be able to function, even though there’s nothing clinically wrong with her.

This epidemic of youthful anxiety is baffling. Today’s young people live in a world that is (statistically, at least) much safer than the one in which their parents grew up. Violent crime rates are a fraction of what they were in the 1980s.

Today’s young adults should be carefree, bold, and ready to take on the world.

But they aren’t, as both statistics and observation attest. So what happened?

1990

Childhood changed, for one thing.

The timidity of today’s youth represents a marked contrast from my age cohort—so-called Generation X. I was born in 1968. I fall right in the middle of Generation X.

By the time we were in our early 20s, circa 1990, most of us were functional adults. We weren’t perfect, but we were independent.

We jumped into things, and we often made mistakes along the way. But we jumped in, nonetheless. We were aggressively risk-tolerant—sometimes to our own detriment.

At the age of twenty-two, I moved from suburban Cincinnati to Chicago, for my first “real job”. As it turned out, both the job and Chicago were mistakes for me. After three months, I got a different job—in Columbus, Ohio.

I wasn’t completely on my own. I had some help from my parents. The couch in my first apartment was a hand-me-down (from my grandparents, actually, I think). The first time I moved, my dad (then still in his forties) helped me. The second time I moved, my buddy and I rented a U-Haul.

I asked my dad’s opinions on things, from time to time. But no more than I had to. In fact, I solicited the opinions of my elders far less in my early twenties than I did later on, in my thirties and forties. In my early twenties, I was convinced that I could handle whatever or whoever came along.

Because that’s the way that I—and most Americans born before 1980—were raised.

Adulthood used to be something that you eased into gradually, from adolescence onward. When I was about twelve years old, my parents began decreasing their presence—and active involvement—in my life. Increasingly, they expected me to handle things.

By myself.

This wasn’t child abuse, mind you. I had a happy childhood. But from an early age, I was taught to think of childhood as a temporary state.

This meant solving most problems on my own. Or at least taking the initiative.

A few years ago, a survey revealed that two thirds of today’s young adults can’t change a tire. I distinctly remember how I acquired that skill. I was driving my car, fifty miles from home, when one of my tires blew out. I walked to a payphone and called for help. I was told that at the age of nineteen, I should be capable of changing a tire. Because that’s what nineteen-year-old men were expected to do when they had a flat.

I had never changed a tire before. I decided, though, that I could figure it out. Somehow. And besides—that was the only way I would be able to get home.

So I sat down on the side of the highway, and I figured it out, with the traffic whizzing by.

This experience isn’t unique, among adults of a certain age. Every person in my generation has a story like that. Everyone from the Baby Boom generation does, too.

 

2020

Fast-forward thirty years. Today’s affluent parents seem determined to shield their progeny from every possible disappointment, bruise, or major expenditure of effort.

Many parents today even write their children’s college application essays—much to the chagrin of college officials. I know multiple parents who have done this, as if it were a matter of course. I don’t have to wonder how either of my parents would have responded, had I asked them to write my college application essay. This would have been unthinkable for any of us.

If today’s young people have anxiety, it may be because their parents convey the message that the world around them is unspeakably dangerous, and impossible for them to cope with—in any capacity—by themselves. Fear and incompetence are now ingrained in children from an early age.

There is a school bus stop at the top of the cul-de-sac street where I live. Every morning during the school year, rain or shine, I see six or seven cars lined up along the street behind the bus stop. The kids are all waiting on the corner for the bus, and the parents are all watching the children from inside their cars.

Let me pose an obvious question: Does it take six sets of parents to monitor a single suburban bus stop for kidnappings or other calamities?

Child abductions are actually quite rare in the United States. During my childhood years in the 1970s, I regularly waited for the bus by myself, at the end of my driveway.

What can I say? I’m still here.

The costs of helicopter parenting

The style of parenting that Generation Z (and many of the younger Millennials) grew up with is referred to as helicopter parenting. The image here is of parents hovering over their children as they move through life; and that’s more or less what happens.

What’s wrong with that? you might reasonably ask.

When children know that they can always rely on an adult, they never develop any coping mechanisms of their own. They never develop the abilities needed to solve real-world problems.

Let me give you another example from the dark ages of my childhood. This would have been 1978, or thereabouts.

A very aggressive boy in my class had taken a disliking to me. I became the target of what could fairly be described as “bullying”. I was not a natural-born fighter. And all I wanted was to be left alone. But he had other ideas.

I appealed to several adults, including the boy’s mother. (She worked in the school’s cafeteria, as chance would have it, so I had access to her.)

The boy’s mother was dismissive of my appeals, as were the other adults I spoke to. I was told—in so many words—that two ten-year-old boys ought to be able to work out their disagreements between themselves.

My adult options exhausted, I started standing up to the kid. This eventually escalated to fisticuffs—which I lost. But I proved to the boy that if he picked on me, he would have a fight on his hands.

After that, he left me alone.

I know: This sounds downright brutal by today’s mollycoddling standards. But not when you look at the big picture.

Boys in the 1970s got into fights. It was a fact of life, and no one thought too much about it.  But as teenagers, we didn’t suddenly snap and and bring guns to school, with the intention of massacring our classmates. The fisticuffs and shoving matches that used to be part of childhood  performed a safety valve function of sorts. Conflicts came to a head before they could fester, and become homicidal rages.

Before helicopter parenting, children learned how to deal with allies, bullies, adversaries, turncoats, and “frenemies”. These lessons were often painful, and occasionally traumatic. But by the time you reached adulthood, you were generally capable of coping with the slings and arrows of life.

Which may have been why almost no young men in my generation became school shooters. Ironically, it may have been because we were allowed to fight on the playground as children.

Who’s to blame?

It has become fashionable of late to blame the Baby Boomers for every real and imagined wrong in the world. But the Baby Boomers—whatever their other faults—weren’t helicopter parents. They were too busy working on their careers, and self-fulfillment, and all that other Me Generation stuff.

Moreover, the Baby Boomers haven’t been in their childbearing years for decades. The parents of most present-day teens and twenty-somethings are members of Generation X—born after JFK but before Ronald Reagan.

Why did the Gen Xers—who grew up under the hands-off parenting style of the Boomers—turn into helicopter parents?

Well, the social engineers of the 1990s can certainly be blamed, to an extent. (Most of these pointy heads were, in fact, Baby Boomers.) These were the educational experts who taught us that dodgeball is “legalized bullying”, and other such nonsense.

But it was the Gen X parents who believed the pointy heads, and accepted their childrearing prescriptions.Why were they so gullible?

Many Gen X adults—especially those who came from divorced households (what we used to call “broken homes”)—believed that the Baby Boomers had been too hands-off as parents.

And maybe they had a point. Some Baby Boomers did practice laissez-faire parenting in the extreme, after all.

Some Gen Xers therefore decided to overcompensate in the opposite direction. They became parents who literally live for their children—hovering over their children like helicopters.

Adulthood is a process

Many of these same parents are now frustrated that their twenty-three-old children display none of the drive, independence, and emotional maturity that they did at a similar age. But what else should the helicopter parent expect?

First you raise a child in a perfectly sanitized, hyper-safe, hermetic environment. Then you follow the child around, and protect him from every setback—not only bullies, but also the adversity of puzzling his way through a college entrance essay.

Then you expect her—at the age of eighteen or twenty-one—to instantly become the adult that you were at the same age. And in doing so, you’re forgetting how different your childhood was. You forget how your Baby Boomer parents prepared you for adulthood—by leaving you alone.   

Adulthood is a process, not an event. That process often entails disappointments, setbacks, and yes—some inevitable risks. But those are all things that must be endured and overcome, if one is to become a functioning adult.

Helicopter parents can delay those trials. They can’t eliminate them, though, not unless they plan to live forever, and always take care of their children.

The Gen X parenting debacle

Collectively, Generation X has arguably been a disaster in the parenting realm. This was a disaster not of neglect, but of loving their children too much, of trying too hard to make their lives easy.

The problems of today’s young adults have demonstrated the false promise of the perfect childhood. The world is going to scar you, one way or another. That’s the way it is. A friction-free adolescence too often leads to an early adulthood in which one is incapable of meeting the demands of reality.

Just ask those young adults, who are perpetually struggling with depression and anxiety. Just ask their parents, who are waiting for the day when their long-coddled twentysomethings will magically grow up.

Oh…and move out.

-ET

Vintage ‘Magnum P.I.’ on Hallmark

It still like the original version…

About a year ago I wrote a quick review of the rebooted version of Magnum P.I. that’s now in its second season on CBS. 

As I wrote in 2018, I like the new Magnum. Jay Hernandez does a fine job in the titular role, and I don’t mind the decision to make Higgins a female character in the 21st century reboot. (Perdita Weeks arguably makes the show.  And the chemistry between Hernandez and Weeks is even better than the old banter between Selleck and Hillerman.) Moreover, Tom Selleck is now in his seventies. He’s in good shape for a man that age; but Thomas Magnum is clearly a role for an actor in his prime. Old school though I am, I wasn’t about to make the case for casting Selleck in the rebooted version of this 1980s weekly crime show.

That said, I recently noticed that episodes of the original Magnum P.I., which ran from 1980 to 1988, were playing on the Hallmark Channel. I watched a few of them to see how they would hold up to the test of time.

The good news is: quite well. Yes, some of those 80s fashions are cringeworthy today—even to an 80s relic like me. But the scriptwriting and the action are still engaging. 

Magnum P.I. always had a lighthearted aspect. This is, therefore, light entertainment. Magnum P.I. never had any pretensions of being thought-provoking or heavy. That was as true in the vintage series as it is in the reboot.

I watched many episodes of the show back in the 1980s, but not all of them, by any means. For me, the years 1980 through 1988 comprised  junior high through the middle of college. This was before video-on-demand and DVRs. Sometimes I tuned in, and sometimes I didn’t. 

But it’s been more than 30 years since the last vintage Magnum P.I. episode was broadcast for the first time. I don’t remember any of the storylines, really. I am therefore having a good time watching them again, as if for the first time.

Memories of ‘The Evil Dead’

I can still remember the first time I saw  The Evil Dead—sometime back in the 1980s, on VHS. (I don’t believe this 1981 film had a long run at the theaters—it wasn’t exactly date night stuff.)

The Evil Dead wasn’t like The Exorcist, in the sense that it would send your imagination running and keep you awake at night. Rather, The Evil Dead was one long series of endless jump scares.

The movie started intense, and it just never stopped. 

The Evil Dead was also Sam Raimi’s best work. There was a certain dark humor in the film. But Raimi didn’t overplay the humor element—as he would in subsequent installments of the franchise, and later movies like Drag Me to Hell (2009).

The setup was simple: A group of people spend the night in a remote cabin. They play a recording that summons evil spirits from the bowels of the earth.

One by one, they are turned into homicidal zombies. The End.

And yet—maybe horror tales (whether on the page or on the screen) are best when they have simple, readily accessible plots. I remember reading Dan Simmons’s overlong Carrion Comfort and thinking, man this is just too much plot for a horror novel

The Evil Dead was good storytelling. The special effects are primitive, by today’s standards. But the movie is still quite unnerving to watch.

Horror from the 1980s

Or…why I chose to set 12 Hours of Halloween in the year 1980.

A reader recently asked me via email why I chose to set 12 Hours of Halloween, my coming-of-age horror novel about three friends who battle supernatural forces on Halloween Night, in 1980 instead of the present day.

Good question.

There are two reasons behind this choice.

First of all: there’s the generational factor.

What I mean by this is: I know my limits.

Although 12 Hours of Halloween is a supernatural tale, it is also a coming-of-age story. This means that it involves getting into the “head space” of the story’s adolescent protagonists.

Some aspects of adolescence are universal. But others are heavily dependent on changing generational factors.

I’m a member of Generation X (born in 1968). This generation reached the early teen years of adolescence around 1980—the year in which 12 Hours of Halloween is set.

I figured that I could depict the adolescent experience in 1980 most accurately, because I actually lived it. (I turned 12 in 1980.)  I’ve written before about the perils of middle-age adults writing about the present-day teen experience: During the 1980s, most of the teen films were written by Baby Boomers; and certain aspects of these movies seemed anachronistic, because the scriptwriters were actually writing about the teen experience of the 1950s and 1960s—even though they thought they were writing about the 1980s.

Another reason I chose to set 12 Hours of Halloween in 1980 is: The past is haunted.

The year 1980 is now 40 years in the past. (1980 was 35 years in the past when I published 12 Hours of Halloween in 2015.)

That is recent enough to be accessible to most readers, but distant enough to be surrounded by a certain haziness.

That year is  not quite like our own. After all, in 1980, there was no Internet, and no cell phones. We had television, but cable TV was still a “new” thing.

It isn’t difficult to believe that in 1980, wayward spirits and vengeful supernatural creatures walked the earth in one Ohio suburb—just like in the book.

***

Want to read 12 Hours of Halloween? You can preview the book here on this site, or get it on Amazon (available in multiple formats.)

Rush: You either got them or you didn’t

Given the passing of Neil Peart last week, I’ll probably have a few Rush-related posts in the upcoming days.

The above video contains a particularly insightful interview from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Topics covered include: Neil Peart’s drumming, and (of particular interest to me) his song-writing.

The man interviewed is, like me, a lifelong Rush fan in his fifties. Unlike me, he’s also a musician.

At the 2:20 mark, he says that Rush was one of those bands that, “You either  got them or you didn’t; and if you did ‘get them’, you became a lifelong fan.”

Well put. I couldn’t agree more. 

Corporate thriller: FREE on Kindle January 9~10

Get the Eavesdropper FREE on Amazon Kindle for two day only!

The Eavesdropper is a corporate thriller.

Do you like the novels of Joseph Finder and John Grisham? You’ll like the Eavesdropper!

Three of your coworkers are planning a murder. One of them is your boss. Will you stop them, or become their next victim?

Get The Eavesdropper FREE on Kindle (Jan 9~10 only!)

FREE for two days only!

FREE horror tales: today only

If you’d like to read my first short story collection, Hay Moon & Other Stories: Sixteen Modern Tales of Horror and Suspense, today is your chance to get it for FREE on Amazon Kindle. 

All of these stories were written between 2009 and 2010. They’re quite an eclectic mix.

Hay Moon & Other Stories will be FREE through the end of today (1/5/2020). Sometime tomorrow (I’m not sure when), the price will return to normal.

How New Year’s Eve 1986 made me swear off alcohol

Another New Year’s Eve has arrived. I know that many of you will be consuming large quantities of alcoholic beverages tonight.

Not me, though. I haven’t consumed alcoholic beverages very much at all since New Year’s Eve 1986. But that night I did consume a lot of wine, beer, vodka, and other spirits.

For the last time.

I was eighteen years old on 1/31/86. The drinking age in Ohio had just been raised from 18 to 21. But what did I care? In fact, I hadn’t cared much about such niceties since 1981, when I’d begun experimenting with alcohol at the age of 13.

Hey—it was the Eighties! There was no helicopter parenting back then. Moreover, in those freewheeling times, shopkeepers could sometimes be persuaded to sell beer or wine to underage teens who looked mature. I started shaving at the age of 14.

And as for the hard stuff….well, let’s just say that not all parents minded their liquor cabinets, let alone installed locks on them.

Between the 8th grade and my high school graduation, I did my share of drinking. I wasn’t a lush, mind you, but I managed to try everything from beer to bourbon. (Rum was the only drink that I never tried, and I’d always wanted to shout, “Yo, ho, ho, and a bottle o’ rum!” with a pirate’s inflection, while holding a bottle of Bacardi or Captain Morgan.)

I quickly learned an unpleasant truth about drinking and me: I didn’t like hangovers.

Hangovers manifest themselves differently for everyone. For me, a hangover invariably entailed projectile vomiting, extreme fatigue, and the sense that my head had just been used to ring a church bell. A hangover left me feeling really bad—for at least one day, and probably two.

By New Year’s Eve 1986 I already knew that alcohol affected me this way. But I was eighteen years old. Since when have eighteen year-olds been fast learners? I had graduated from high school the previous spring, and a girl from my class (one I sort of liked) had invited me to a New Year’s Party. I therefore had to attend. And being a typical teenage herd animal, I had to drink—because that’s what everyone else would be doing.

I don’t know exactly how many drinks I had that night. I got drunk enough, however, that the operation of a motor vehicle would have been out of the question. (I had arranged for a ride that night, so no—I wasn’t drinking and driving; nor did I ever do that.)

The next morning, 1/1/87, my first thought upon waking up was that eighteen years was plenty long enough for any one person to live. I should just die now, and be done with it.

I had a bad hangover—my worst one to date.

I got out of bed and went for a run in the frigid morning air. This helped—to a point. I felt decent as long as I kept running. The thing about running, though, is that you eventually have to stop. Within a few minutes of completing my run, I was feeling just as lousy as I had upon waking up.

I still lived with my parents at the time. They decided to celebrate the New Year by going out for breakfast. And of course—I readily agreed to tag along when they invited me to join them. (Like I said, most 18 year-olds are not quick on the uptake.)

As soon as we were seated in our booth, I wanted to leave. I realized that I wasn’t up to eating anything. My parents, though, wanted their breakfasts. My mother insisted on ordering a breakfast consisting of eggs, hash browns, sausage, and gravy. If your stomach is up to snuff, that might be a delicious combination. But what if you have a hangover, and you can barely keep a glass of water down? In that case, the aroma of a typical “country breakfast” platter is a barf-inducing olfactory concoction.

My parents, being no fools, saw what was up. So did our sixty-something waitress, who poked fun at my misery while I sat there without breakfast.

When I arrived back home that morning, I had an epiphany: I’d been an idiot. Binge drinking was nothing more than self-induced misery.

And no, it wasn’t “cool”. What is so cool about projectile vomiting?

I clearly remember the moment—on January 1st, 1987, in which I said, “never again”.

I made a vow never to put myself through that again. More than thirty years later, I still haven’t. I’ve never consumed alcoholic to excess since that night.

I have had the occasional glass of wine or bottle of beer. But even these are rare. (My most recent tipple was a beer at a trade show in 2002.) Alcoholic beverages and me just don’t mix. I haven’t missed them.

And besides—now that I’m more than old enough to drink legally, what’s the point?

Star Wars cards, circa 1977

I was a member of the original Star Wars generation. I remember sitting in the cinema with my dad, in the summer of 1977, watching that opening text crawl:

“A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away….”

I was instantly hooked. There was something special about being a kid in 1977, when Star Wars was brand new, and there was one movie, instead of a gazillion of them.

I also became one of the millions of child consumers who fueled the Star Wars licensing boom.

Collecting action figures would be an extremely nerdy activity for me today (pathetic, actually—I’m in my fifties); but at age nine I was just fine with that. I had many of the Star Wars action figures.

But I especially liked the Star Wars trading cards.

I had always felt left out of the baseball card trading craze of the 1970s. (I never minded spectator sports, but to this day I’m not crazy about them.)

But Star Wars cards, yes, I loved those.

Each card featured an iconic scene from the movie. Also, each pack of Star Wars cards contained a sticker (very useful for adorning my looseleaf binder in the fourth grade).

Oh, and a stick of gum—just like the baseball cards.

I doubt that kids bother with any sort of trading cards anymore. It’s all about i-this and i-that nowadays.

But forty-odd years ago, if you were a kid who was crazy about Star Wars, it was a lot of fun to collect those cards.

‘Revolutionary Ghosts’ $0.99 for a limited time!

If you haven’t read Revolutionary Ghosts yet, here is your chance to get it on Amazon Kindle for less than a buck.

Revolutionary Ghosts is a coming-of-age horror tale set in 1976…

Revolutionary Ghosts

The year is 1976, and the Headless Horseman rides again. A dark fantasy horror thriller filled with wayward spirits, historical figures, and a cool 1970s vibe.

Get it on Amazon Kindle for just $0.99 for the next three days!

Terrifying horror stories that you can read online for free

If you’re looking for frightening tales, you might turn to a book. (I’m definitely an advocate of those!) 

There are, however, plenty of short horror tales that you can read for free online.

First of all, the tales of Edgar Allan Poe are in the public domain. 

The copyright surrounding H.P. Lovecraft’s work is varied (and a little confusing). Much of it, however, can be found in the public domain. 

Plenty of FREE horror stories here!

I’m also publishing horror stories that you can read here—completely FREE. 

The list will continue to grow, but here are some to get you started:

Giants in the Trees: Unspeakable horrors are lurking in the trees of a suburban back yard. 

The Vampires of Wallachia: Three travelers discover that a Chinese restaurant in Ohio is home to the undead. 

The Wasp: Leo had always been afraid of wasps….for good reason, as it turned out.

For more horror fiction, check out this page, where I regularly post story updates!

James Clavell’s novels ranked

James Clavell

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.

**View James Clavell’s King Rat on Amazon**

King Rat (vintage cover)

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.

**View Tai-Pan on Amazon**

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!

**View Shōgun on Amazon**

Shogun (vintage cover)

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.

***View Noble House on Amazon***

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. 

**View Whirlwind on Amazon**

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.

**View Gai-Jin on Amazon**

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-panShōgun, 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.

THE CONSULTANT

For fans of James Clavell and Tom Clancy!

View THE CONSULTANT on Amazon!