Sunday, July 07, 2024

Book: Which King? That King!

 Witch King by Martha Wells, Tordotcom, 2023

Provenance: Christmas gift from the Lovely Bride. She also got me a copy of the latest Murderbot book, by the same author, but I went with this one first. And while I have a lot of other books in the reviewing queue, I thought to jump this one forward while it is still fresh in my mind.

Review: This was a very enjoyable, challenging and rewarding read. It is a fantasy novel, but it bends (but not breaks) a lot of the traditional tropes, creating a distinct world and and engaging story. I'll admit, this was the bedside book for several months, and was put aside three times due to its complexity, but always lured me back.

The story is told in two parts, a present and flashback. Kaiisteron, Prince of the Fourth House, is a demon, a otherworldly race that takes over the recently deceased to live in this world. In the past narrative, his plains-dwelling adopting people were overrun by powerful invaders, the Hierarchs, and he was taken prisoner. The story there is his escape of bondage how he helped create a rebellion. In the present, some 60 years later, the Hierarchs have been defeated and a new empire is rising, Kai awakens from being imprisoned again by persons unknown, alongside Zeide Daiyahah, a Witch. In order to figure out what is going on, the two need to find Zeide's wife, who is a Marshall of the Blessed Lands, and has also vanished without a trace.

That's about as organized as I can make it. Wells has created a world with extremely diverse peoples and types of magic. The demons can drain life, and Kai learns to transfer between bodies as well. Witches are the progeny of Demon/Mortal mating, and have elemental powers. The Blessed are angelic figures pulling from a central power core for their spells.  And the conquering Hierarchs use as similar central well of power, but pull from death magic. And that's pretty much the reason for invasion, which eliminates a host of unique cultures, and gives them more power from their deaths. 

Kai is our viewpoint character, in that we only learn about the world through him, and he shares only as much as he needs to. There is not a lot of exposition here - no explanation of a timeline, no lecture on how the world came to be, no moment when one character turns to another and say "As you know ...". There is a list of Dramatis Personae at the front of the book, a needed tool since there are a large number of allies and enemies for Kai and Zeide. And there is a map, is a bit more perfunctory than your standard issue fantasy, giving me general locations with a lot of space in between.  

And we are dealing with two Kais, here. In the past, Kai is swept up by the Hierarchs' assault. In the present, the Hierarchs have been overthrown and a new Rising World coalition has formed, verging on becoming its own empire. But you have to put that together, and that requires a bit more from the readers than your standard fantasy. Even the intro italicized excerpts from in-world histories fronting the chapters makes little sense in and of themselves, and only when I finished the book did I go back and re-read those sections, just to get a handle on what the world-building was. Wells shows and not tells, and what she shows is often colored by Kai' viewpoints in the two eras.

And there are two eras to Kai's personality as well. Past-Kai is a junior demon coming to terms with his role among his people, and as such more innocent. Present-Kai has lived through an empire's rise and its fall and is much more cynical and untrusting. You can see how the character had grown (and been harmed) over the interim. And it is not impenetrable as, say, aGene Wolfe novel but it takes some awareness to understand.

Magic is similarly not explained, but demonstrated. Spells are intentions, magicians are expositors, constructs are amalgams or chimera. Its more than just a renaming, but rather a reconfiguring of traditional tropes, and you the reader are expected to keep up. 

AND Wells turns a couple fantasy-tropes upside down, literally such as when Kai talks about the Top of the World being the south pole. Pale-skinned folk come from the colder southern islands. There are a lot of matriarchies, which are not presented as exceptions but as norms. Gender preference and identity is fluid. Women in Kai's orbit are the majority, not the token minority. 

And, all this works. Wells is fantastic writer who has created an involved world with a complex story to it. She skips of the epic bits - how the Hierarchs specifically captured Kai, and how the new alliance drives out the Hierarchs. It concentrates on the important bits for Kai - survival in the past, and discovery of a conspiracy in the present. As I said, I put the book aside several time, but each time I re-engaged, I found myself swept up in it. 

This one is up for a Hugo, and yeah, I can see that. It is a doorstop fantasy novel, and I am relieved to know that it is (currently) only a solitaire. While I really like Wells' shorter, more contained works, the presentation of world and the flow of the narration is excellent, and I would not be surprised if it took the award this year.

But yes, it does put demands on you, the reader. And it rewards them. 

More later. 

Monday, June 10, 2024

Theatre: Season's End

 Clyde's by Lynn Nottage, Directed by Valerie Curtis-Newton, Arts West, June 6-30, 2024

Jinkx Monsoon & Major Scales Together Again, Again! Created by Jinkx Monsoon and Major Scales, Original Music by Major Scales. Seattle Rep, 31 May-23 June,2024

The Lovely Bride (herein known as the LB) and I have season tickets to local theatres Arts West and the Seattle Rep, but rarely do the stars align such that we have plays at both the same weekend. On this particular sunny Seattle weekend, we did, and so the entire weekend became theatrical in nature. And eating. Lots of eating.

Friday we set out for West Seattle on the far side of the industrialized Duwamish river for dinner and show. The dinner was at the Phoenicia, our go-to place in good weather as we like to eat on the patio outside. They know us there by now - we're the older couple that orders way-too-many small plates and defeats the lot of them. Olives, pita, hummus, burrata, manila clams, green beans and lamb chop lollypops. Baklava to go. This time, for once, there was no parking weirdness. 

On to the play. Clyde's is a truck stop restaurant on the off-ramp to purgatory run by Clyde (Tracy Michelle Hughes), literally the boss from hell, who torments a kitchen crew of ex-cons that no one else will hire. The kitchen staff in return have banded together into a demi-family who trade fantasies of sandwich combinations and try to create that perfect bite. Montie (Reginald Andre-Jackson, last seen tearing up the stage in the Rep's Fat Ham) is the zen master of sandwiches, and the only one who doesn't seem afraid of Clyde. Rafael (Jacob Alcazar) is the acolyte, seeking to learn from the master. Tisha (Deja Culver) tries, but is too weighed down by her reality. And Jason (Joe Moore), is the new guy, whose racist tats are scribed on a very sensitive flesh.

The dialogue is as rapid-fire and intense as a kitchen in the weeds. The character laugh, yell, argue, and fume at full volume. The actors throw everything into it, and leave nothing in the tank afterwards. Hughes' portrayal of Clyde is that of head devil, rampaging in make everyone's life miserable, knowing that her staff has nowhere else to go. The set itself is an intensely detailed kitchen, its walls stained by smoke and pain. 

The LB says it was the best play of the season, and I would agree, though I will note that the entire season from the Arts West was excellent. English was very good, Born with Teeth was excellent, and Matt & Ben was OK in a weird, quirky way. Hedwig didn't work for me, and I am filled with Christmas charity for the cheesy, breezy Snowed In. In General, Arts West had more hits than misses, and is a strong season of seriously good performances. 

So, that was Friday. Saturday, after the last practice session of our Tai Chi class (we get three weeks off) and poke (from Big Island in Renton), we decamped for Seattle Center. This year they moved the matinee performance up to noon, so we decided to stay in town overnight as opposed to rushing around on Sunday morning. So we stayed overnight at the Mediterranean Inn, a nice 3-start hotel caddy-corner from Dick's Drive-in (and with that, everyone in Seattle knows where I am talking about). Most of clientele are families going on cruises, gathering in Seattle before heading off to parts unknown. Nice rooms, but the strong recommendation is the rooftop patio, which gives a sweeping view of Queen Anne Hill, the Needle, Rainier, the docks, West Seattle, and the Olympics. The LB and I spent the afternoon and early evening on that deck, reading (Demon Copperhead for Kate, while I finished up a Raymond Chandler novel (more on that sometime later). I got takeout from our fave place in the area, Racha Thai - calamari, fresh rolls (for her) chicken satay (for me), bananas in coconut milk (desert for her) and black sticky rice (for me). So yeah, we've been eating out a lot this weekend.

Breakfast was at the Mecca Cafe, a bar that serves all day breakfast. Denver omelet and hash browns for me, oatmeal and ham for the LB. One of the two elevators in the hotel broke down, so all the guests going on cruises with all their luggage had to manipulate the surviving lift (the younger couples took their luggage down multiple flights of stairs instead). We spent the late morning on the roof again, which the cruise people had abandoned. The LB had gotten some advance parking in a lot a few blocks away, and to my surprise, everything worked. Has the curse been lifted? (OK, the lot was a little too far from the theater, and the LB had to take the walk in stages, but we still got there in plenty of time - she is a little brilliant that way).

So, the Rep. I can honestly say we has seen Monsoon and Scales back in the before-time, before she won RuPauls' Drag Race a second time and got to be a Doctor Who villain. I likes the performance then. This one? Not so much. The conceit of the show is that this is the final reunion of vocalist Monsoon and pianist Scales in a dystopian future where the sun has burned out and gelatinous aliens are in charge.  Fun times. And both characters have seen better days, as Monsoon Norma-Desmonds her way through memories and songs, while the age-makeuped Scales is equal parts provocative Larry David and subservient Renfield. There's not much of plot, rather just a framework for the songs, most of them about the perils of getting old. Maybe that's what frustrates me, as a bonified, card-carrying old person. A lot of references to Drag Race, which I had never watched and so the references went over my head (but landed firmly with the quartet of young women behind us). Monsoon's voice is amazing and Scales keyboard work was great. In the intimacy of a cabaret show, or even the smaller Leo K theater, all this probably could work, but up on main stage of the Rep, not so much. Monsoon made the best of it interacting the decidedly less-than-full-house on that way-too-early-matinee, but it was just OK.

And I think "just OK" is the final judgement I have to throw at this Rep's season. Passengers was another not-quite-a-play but was another good performance. Islander was good. The queer-themed Little Women had challenges living up to the original text. Same with Fat Ham, thought the end result was much better. And ditto Quixote Nuevo, which had the additional sin of using puppets.  Sanctuary City was probably the best of the season and was darn good. So yeah, there have been better years, and this season had a brace of solid performances. But were this baseball, we would be talking about it being a building year. Next year's agenda looks much stronger. 

And that was our weekend. We headed home, got a couple small pizzas from the local Romio's, and collapsed in the hanging chairs overlooking our back yard. I think I've had enough activity for a little while.

So how was your weekend?

More late,

Tuesday, June 04, 2024

Book: A Conventional Murder

 Murder at the ABA by Isaac Asimov, Fawcett Crest paperback edition, 1976

Provenance: Half-Price books down in Tukwilla, picked up before a trip to the MisCon convention in Missoula, Montana. When I fly, I tend to read old paperbacks. They are small, light, and, if forgotten on the airplane, easily replaced. They also, I believe, are slowly going extinct, replaced in the first-run bookstores with larger trade paperbacks. So there is a whiff of nostalgia and slowly decaying pulp about them. I like 'em.

This particular volume belonged to a John Braschler, and had as a bookmark a ticket to see Doctor Strange in 3D at the Pacific Science Center on 11/19/2016. Add to that a bookmark from Half-Price, and a sticker from SKS Props, another guest of the convention, given to me by owner Steve on the plane trip back from Missoula, Montana, so the physical book has its own history.

It is kind of strange, reading a book about a murder at a convention over Memorial Day weekend, while I was traveling to and from a convention over Memorial Day weekend. Such is life.

But what about the book? Well, I didn't care for it much, but decided to bull through it (and then write about it). Another advantage of old spinner-rack paperbacks. Even if you don't like 'em, you can still power through them.

Review: Isaac Asimov is known primarily for his SF and nonfiction science, but wrote mysteries as well. His best-known were about the Black Widower Club, where a bunch of writers gather for dinner, are presented with a  mystery, cast about options and opinions, then have the waiter solve it for them (usually the mystery revolves around someone mis-hearing or misunderstanding something). And in this case, Asimov was hired by Doubleday to write a full mystery novel set at the American Bookseller's Association, which was held in 1975 in New York City (he never identifies the city in the book, but Asimov says he attended the 1975 convention to pick up local color). 

And I attended ABAs and ALAs (American Library Association) about a decade later, when they had reached their apex such that the attending editors would bring along their assistant editors as sherpas to carry out all the free books offered. And Asimov gets the ambience and panels and celebrities and hurley-burley pretty correct. 

Supposedly Asimov based his main character, Darius Just, on fellow writer Harlan Ellison (who he dedicates the book to). And it's a pity that he didn't use more Ellison, who carved his own trail through SF as a brilliant writer, a complete mensch, and a raging pain in the butt, all at the same time. Darius Just is simply a height-deficient midlist writer, successful with a bad movie adaptation, as was Ellison in the mid-70s. That portrayal lacks the fire, irritation, ego, and lyrical verbal swagger of the original version's public persona, even in those days. Asimov's Ellison-clone is a wan, fatalistic figure who believes in the immovability of fate in addition to his own personal culpability in that fate. That's a shame.

Oh, OK, the plot. Darius Just is a semi-popular midlist writer asked to do an interview at the ABA by a friend. Also at the convention is Giles Devore, who Just mentored. Devore's first novel was a huge hit. Devore has become a complete jerk, his infantile obsessive-compulsive nature offending all around him. Just finds him dead in the bathtub and we're off to the races. And because Devore is so obsessive-compulsive, Just suspects murder.

And to be honest it plods a bit.  Mind you, Asimov's fiction tends towards the bloodless - people talking and thinking as opposed to people doing. And that style is evident here as Just rolls through suspects and prospects throughout the book. Asimov takes his time getting to the point - we are about a third through the book before the deserving victim finally croaks.

In addition, the book is filled with liberated 70s sexism, that Playboy-era mindset where equality meant that women had the right to have sex with you. Darius Just comes off a horndog, and Asimov (who writes himself into the novel, working on a book called Murder at the ABA - very meta) self-identifies as a lecherous flirt (and is praised for it). Add to that the fact that almost every female character in the book is described is sexual terms (bustlines and body-shape are a major factor here). And victim Devore has his own personal kinks. The end result is, as kids today say, cringe. 

The mystery is mechanically OK. I tagged the murderer early on, primarily in terms of the book's pacing (non-important suspects drop away from the narrative, but the true murderer keeps popping up). I also tweaked to the key clue. But I missed the full rationalization for the crime, in part because writing technology has changed from the mid-seventies.

Ultimately, the book comes off as dated and my eyes rolled many times in the reading - Stan! was traveling with me, and noted that I would read a few pages, then close the book and look into the middle distance for a short time before returning to the text. It's not great Asimov, but more on the level of his other mysteries. I would've liked to see Harlan Ellison as a main character as opposed to this dry-veined doppelganger. He'd have been an interesting detective.

More later, 

Monday, June 03, 2024

Recent Arrivals - North Texas Edition

 Along with the usual bunch of new arrivals from Kickstarters and convention purchases, this write-up includes candidates for the North Texas RPG Con's Three Castles award, which I and others have been asked to judge. As a result, a big box of stuff arrived that I spent several week-ends pawing through.

The excellent North Texas RPG Convention and its awards are very much OSR, and for the awards I judge primarily on that basis. But because I am judging, I dig a little deeper into the works than I normally do with my other  "Recent Arrivals" entries. The judging has rules which stress heavily originality and presentation as well as textural content, so I'm looking at that as well in the final judging. But it also means that I may like a product for one of the applicable categories, but find that it comes up short in the other areas. Such is the nature of judging.

Looking at the candidates for the Three Castles, we have:

Splinters of Faith by Gary Schotter and Jeff Harkness, Frog God Games, 454 page hardback, 2022. This massive campaign adventure was originally ten earlier adventures which are now reunited into one thick volume. High quality, lotta maps, lotta handouts, including postcards (!). Set in the Lost Lands, the adventure is a grand tour of various temples and holy sites, and its through-line involves restoring the Scepter of Faiths in order to face the final baddie. The adventure starts with missing chickens (hey, it's first level) and ending up around 14th level in battle with a death-priest of Orcus. 

Shadowdark, by Kelsey Dione, The Arcane Library 326-page digest-sized hardback, 2023.  This is the one in corner with the silver beholder/eye tyrant/sphere of eyes on it. I talked about it here. And after doing a deep dive on it, it pretty much stands as I originally described it - if you turned 5th edition into an Old School product, this would be it, with a lot of cool table rules. I liked it a lot. My copy from the review package went to Stan!, who is running in a campaign that uses the game.

Three Curses for Sister Saren by Mike Pike and Levi Combs, Planet X Games, 54-page hardback,  2023. Previous Planet X releases tended to keep its tongue firmly in its cheek, but this one is actually a pretty solid, straightforward adventure. Here's the backstory - In order to defeat bandit raiders, the town leaders brought in demons. In order to get rid of the demons, they trapped them in the body of a pious cleric, chopped her up, and separated the parts. Now the body parts are leaking demons, with worse to come. Tidy little adventure where the players have to figure out exactly WHAT happened and HOW to deal with it, and combines both a linear plot with a sandbox setting. 

Megadungeon Monster Manual by Greg Gillespie, OSR, Greg Gillespie. I've run through Gillespie's dungeons with Steve Winter as my DM - Barrowmaze and Forbidden Caverns of Archaia. Therefore I've met some of these beasties first-hand, and suffered accordingly. This compiles the monsters from those books, along with the other books in the series. Art is at the original Fiend Folio level, which means it is pretty darn good. Monsters that have appeared in core (1st edition D&D) books get some tweaks for the OSR derivatives of the Open Gaming License, (Morale in particularly nice add). Excellent for those looking at the old-school monster books.

Dark Places & Demogorgons 1980s Retro Roleplaying Game Eric Bloat and Josh Palmer, 304 page digest hardback,  Bloat Games, 2022. System uses the Old School Rules from Necromantic Gnome. There is a subgenre in RPGs called Kids on Bikes. The ET movie was a good example (they played D&D after all), but it really bloomed with Tales of the Loop and of course, Stranger Things on Netflix. It is about High School Students (think Buffy) combating the weird stuff in a small town in Kentucky. Class-based, with the classes like Party Animal, Geek, Final Girl, and Most Excellent Dude (or Dudette). Digs deep into the Reagan-Era 80s, complete with satanic panic. Even has its own Upside-down, called the Otherside. Oddly, I am not sufficiently nostalgic for the era, but it is a good take on the media presentations of the times (When MTV actually played music videos).

Zeta Complex: Mankind's Lost Hope A Dark Humor Setting by Ben Burns, New Comet Games, 102-page digest Softbound, 2023. This one actually bothered me. On one hand, it uses Savage Worlds, but on the other hand it is little more than a reskin of the classic Paranoia from West End games. The Alpha Complex is the Zeta Complex, the Computer is the Authority, the Trouble-Shooters are now Operatives and you still get multiple clones. The art is cartoons plus last-year's Midjourney AI - dark and muddy. The end product actually makes me want to dig out the original game. 

Whisper & Venom by Zach Glazar, John Hammerle, and Edwin Nagy, 132-page hardback with fold-out map, Necromancer Games, 2023. This is a nice small-town setting - a small community filled with internal plots and conflicts, threatened by mutated goblins. One main adventure, a couple additional ones. It has nice maps, but could use some tags on them to make the GM's life easier (where IS that Monastery? - oh, there, in the far corner).

AND THE AWARD GOES TO: I'll tell you when I find out. [Update: Shadowdark, which is nice. It was my top choice, and my top choice does not always win. Congratulations to Kelsey Dione and her team].

Meanwhile, some other things have crossed over the transom:

The Restless Dead by William Wandless, 24 page staplebound zine,, and A Puppethand's Guide to the Rainy City by Anred D. Devenney, 16 page saddlestitched zine, Superhero Necromancer Press, 2024, Kickstarter.. I think I've mentioned that I am a fan of zines, and the Rainy City series has been exceptionally good. The central conceit centers on the last city of a flooded world, which has a surprising amount of puppet shows and an unsurprising amount of ghosts. Presentation is sharp, the art evokes old woodcuts, and vibe is very much like Jack Vance's Dying Earth stories. I like them. 

Eat The Reich by Grant Howitt (words) and Will Kirkby (art), 72-page full-color squarebound book, and an  big envelope filled with stuff - a character and map sheet pack, stickers, patches, bookmarks, and postcards, Rowan, Rook, and Decard, 2023, Kickstarter. You are a team of vampire commandos infiltrating occupied Paris to find Hitler and drink his blood. That's it. A lot of necromantic Nazi-punching. This is very much an art game, where the presentation overwhelms the mechanics, and has all the hall-marks of edgy production values - dutch angles for blocks of text, reversed-out text headers, and red on black backgrounds (did White Wolf teach us nothing?) A lot of DMing advice as well, which boils down to "Yeah, you're running Nazi's, but don't feel too bad when they die. Messily." Very much Magnificent Bastards meets Dracula. Surprised not more people are upset about this. 

Cthulhu Awakens Mythos Roleplaying Across The Weird Century by a veritable host of talented people (sorry, 13 credits are a bit much for even me), 288-hardback, Green Ronin, 2024, Kickstarter. Kickstarter version is the one with the gold foil cover. Production values are up to GR's standard excellence, and the system is their AGE (Adventure Gaming Engine) system, 3d6 where one die is a different color and called a stunt die, which determines degree of success and stunt points available (stunt points are special effects, actions, and bonuses). A lot of recent games have recognized the hard-baked bigotry of HP Lovecraft, but this one has gone the furthest in pulling it completely away from the original creator - The Elder Gods are now Outsiders, Insanity is replaced by Alienation, and the text pulls the mythos out of Lovecraft's racist clutches. The Outsiders as a result are truly uncaring cosmic beings, which pushes the nihilistic nature of Lovecraft's cosmology nicely in a new way. Most of the action (in two attached adventures) shows that their minions have their own agendas as opposed to being malicious for the sake of maliciousness, and the destruction they wreck being often just collateral damage. Its an excellent take on the mythos, and again, I'm surprised that few people have noticed. The Kickstarter came with the Dreadcrawls zine, Issue Zero (by Jesse Heinig, 28 pages), which sets the stage for Cthuloid hotspots, but can be used with any system.

Eberron, Rising from the Last War, Gold Edition, by Jon Ciccolini, Matthew Lillard, Bill Rehor, Charlie Rehor, Paul Shapiro, Big honking 2" deep box of stuff, 2020,  Beadle & Grimm,, Gary Con. This was a leftover from Gary Con, where they offered it as a freebie for folk working the con, and I was interested in what went into a B&G version. The answer is a lot. They carved the original E:RftLW hardback into 6 booklets, making them easier to pass around the table. DM Screen, campaign maps, battle maps, player handouts, magic item cards, oversized Encounter cards, some Bonus Encounters, and Pre-gen characters. rub-on dragonmark tattoos, a metal feather token, and some plastic dragonshards. The end result carries a LOT of weight to it. Intriguing, but the hardback would probably meet my needs well enough.

Vecna, Eve of Ruin by Amanda Hammond (lead designer) and others, 256-pages and full-sized map. 2024. Wizards of the Coat, purchase at Miscon. Presentation values are the industry-leader and industry-standard. This is a "Crisis on All The Planes" adventure for the very high level adventurers. Vecna is trying to reboot the multiverse and you need to stop him. The adventure is a grand-tour of the old TSR settings - Greyhawk, Dragonlance, Forgotten Realms, Spelljammer, Eberron, Ravenloft and the Outer Planes all get a chapter (though not the later settings like Theros, Ravinca, or Strixhaven). The Rod of Seven Parts provides the McGuffin for the through-line, and there are more than a few thing I created that show up (insert Leo DiCaprio meme of pointing at the screen here when they name-check Habbakuk). It is interesting, and I'd like to see how it would perform in play at high levels. It also feels like the last product in the line, sort of a send-off to the earlier edition and that Post 5.5/6.0/Beyond D&D could abandon the entire hardback-book route and go entirely on-line. But maybe that's just me. Then again, if it happens, you read it hear first.

More later, 


Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Play: Holmsien Romp

 Sherlock Holmes and the Precarious Position by Margaret Raether (Based on the stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle), Taproot Theatre, through 22 June

The regular theatre seasons are winding down, so, as has happened before, we (the Lovely Bride,  and friends Janice and John, (who best known to the blogosphere as Sacnoth)) set out to Taproot Theatre in Greenwood for a whopping good dose of Sherlock Holmes. The Taproot is a small but feisty acting company is a small but charming theatre. The stage is thrust out, flanked on three sides by audience, with a narrow balcony above with a precipitous view of the stage. The LB notes that despite the close quarters, the seats are still more comfortable than the Arts West.

And the Taproot's performances tends to aim towards the positive, with uplifting stories and classic characters. And by the latter, we're looking at Austin's Pemberley, Wodehouse's Bertie and Jeeves, the occasional Oscar Wilde, and this time out, the Great Detective. 

Holmes has evolved over the years  a width and breadth of his character, and there has been a plethora of portrayals. There have been cerebral Holmes and action-adventure Holmes. There have been young student Holmes and elderly beekeeper Holmes. Functioning sociopaths and drug addicts and cartoon characters. Taproot's current Holmes, played by Calder Jameson Shilling, is a brilliant social maladroit, a positive Homes who worships at the altar of logic and deduction and doesn't care if no one else sees it that way. His Watson, well-played by Nathaniel Tenenbaum, is his social intermedium to the world at large, a good friend who tolerates his companion's eccentricities and explains them to those who might judge Holmes harshly. 

Everyone else - cops, robbers, elderly sisters, clerks, Mrs. Hudson and Inspector Lestrade, are played by David Roby and Ariel Rose, who don a multitude of costumes and accents to populate the rest of London orbiting around the binary star that is Holmes and Watson. Ariel Rose in particular shines, swapping off roles easily, effectively, and charmingly. She got the best role of the bunch, and is up to the task.

And yes, this is a comedy, the characters broad and the humor chuckling. Watson narrates exposition to the audience and gets called upon it by the other characters. Holmes finds his bastion of logic under siege as he talks to two elderly sisters. Mrs. Hudson is frustrated by Holmes' behavior and Lestrade is a bit of a glory hound. Add it all up and you have a bit of light, comic theatre.

The stage itself aids for quick changes and locations. The thrust part of the stage is left open, which reduces the amount of blocked shots from the seats (a problem with theater-in-the-roundish). The backdrop rotates its back wall to quickly transform interior scenes and not get into the way of the actors and play. A nice presentation.

The plot may be familiar to Holmes' fans - a pair of elderly women who run a shop for women's apparel are hired to transcribe the encyclopedia, then mysteriously fired (unpaid). There is also a stolen gemstone involved from a separate case. But its not so much the mystery as the delivery. Fast-paced, witty, barreling through the lanes in a delightful take on the characters.

So. It's a rouser, a romp, a bit of light amusement. A gemstone set in a jewel box setting. A worthwhile bit of theatre for the evening, and in the time it has taken for me to write this up, it has extended it's run. Good show. 

More later


Monday, May 06, 2024

Book: Early Stout

 The President Vanishes by Rex Stout (Originally published as Anonymous), Farrar & Reinhart, 1934.

Provenance: Purchase from Half-Price Books, off the shelf. I've pretty much tapped out the original Nero Wolfe series over the years, and have been wandering around the canon's periphery since.

Review: One of the challenges in following a writer for a particular series is that you might not always enjoy their other works as much. I have been a noticeable fan of the Nero Wolfe mysteries by Rex Stout, but I've found his related Tecumseh Fox mysteries, which had the same level of twists and turns, to be less engaging than the domestic squabbles of corpulent detective Wolfe and his wisecracking leg-man Archie Goodwin. 

And there's a similar challenge with The President Vanishes. This one was written after the first Wolfe mystery, Fer-De-Lance, but was published first. And it much more a political thriller than a mystery. It was initially published anonymously, in part to create the impression that someone with strong political connections penned it, but that pseudonymous fig-leaf did not last long (a 1934 Times review points the finger strongly at Wolfe, and he admitted it a few years after publication). 

Here's the plot - Europe is at war, and some movers and shakers from the business community want in on the racket. They've got Congress, the Press, and a bunch of neo-nazis called the Grey Shirts, under the control of a charismatic leader Lincoln Lee all gunning for war. Against them we have the president, who is pacifistic and doesn't want to send US boys into battle. Then, right before a major vote on war, the president, well, vanishes. Kidnapping is assumed and there is a mad scramble of the various inhabitants of Washington to find him, as the powers-behind-the-throne push for the Vice President to step in or ignite a populist Grey Shirt rebellion. Either way gives them the war they want.

The book scatters its main characters, starting with a lobbyist working with the conspirators, then moving to the Secretary of War, who is in charge of the investigation, and finally settling on Chic Moffat, square-jawed, wise-racking Secret Service agent. He feels like an early draft of Archie Goodwin, but more willing to slug his girlfriend (Alma, a secretary for the First Lady) for her own good.  Stout also gets into the details of the Grey Shirts, their organization, secrets, and Lincoln Lee's patriotism. Lee is a true believer, and gets some dandy speeches, and Stout pulls it off well. 

The plot has its echoes in the past. The year before, a group of businessmen sought to launch a coup against FDR and install retired Major General Smedley Butler as a dictator. Butler dropped a dime on his co-conspirators, and this all came out about the time the book was written. Also, we have the earlier example of Woodrow Wilson being incapacitated, and his Vice President being unwilling to take the office. And we had our home-grown fascist groups, like the Silver Shirts in the Pacific Northwest. So there was some grounding on this.

The nature of the war itself (This was 1934) is left a bit vague. There are battles in Siberia. France is a opponent, and the US leans towards helping Germany, but the nature of the players and causes is left unexplained. Which makes sense because the action is all in Washington DC, and war, any war, will do. 

The book generated a movie of the same name, which also hit in 1934 (Paramount started filming before the book was published). There are a lot of demi-familiar faces from that age of the studio system, including Rosalind Russell in one of her early roles as well as perennial cowboy sidekick Andy Devine. The conflict is simplified a bit, but it pretty much follows the same beats as the book itself.

So how is it? Not bad, showing a lot of Stout's strengths with character and plot. But I'm pleased with the fact that Wolfe and Goodwin took off, and that there was a lot more them in the future.

More later, 

Friday, May 03, 2024

Book: Occupy This Book!

 The Democracy Project: A History, A Crisis, A Movement David Graeber, Spiegel & Grau, 2013

Provenance: This was a gift from the (now former) Housemates, Anne and Sig. I'm an easy person to buy for - just send books. The thing they didn't know when they picked it up was that the late David Graeber was also the co-author of the History of Everything, which I read earlier, but that's just a bit of serendipity.

Review: I finished this books several months ago, but has taken me a while to write this one up. I've been pulling this entry out, writing a few sentences, removing some others, and then putting it aside for awhile. As a result, I've ended up with a big pile of books stacking up behind it. Because this book's given me a lot to think about.

The Occupy Movement was over a decade ago. Its primetime was in 2011-2012, consisted of protests in most major cities around the world, and its tactics were a variant of what the oldest of the old guard would call sit-ins and teach-ins - literally occupying (usually public) space. It was vocal about money in politics and the ongoing bankrupting of the next generation. It didn't have demands so much as questions. The best-known example was in New York City, on Wall Street, where thousands camped out to occupy public space and protest. This did not go over well with the money-makers and their contribution-seeking pols working in the area. 

The late David Graeber was one of the instrumental members of the organization, in addition to the author of later works on Debt and The History of Everything. I can't say he was a leader of the movement, because by definition the movement didn't have leaders in the traditional sense. It was extremely decentralized, to the point of being a democratic anarchy. So David Graeber is kinda a leader - near the center but not at the center.

 And this history is kinda a history. It is more of an overview of the problems that brought about the movement and the challenges of protest. It is, like the movement it describes, not organized along recognizable lines. 

We start at the beginning with how the situation has evolved. Over the years, money has had a greater and greater role in our politics, particularly since the Citizens United decision of 2009, which declared money to be free speech, and we should not keep large organizations from giving large amounts of money to sympathetic candidates (and reaping the rewards). This resulted in a solidification of the Golden Rule - he that has the gold, makes the rules. It has also intensified such things as predatory loans and killer interest. In particular, for young people, was saddling the next generations with unescapable debt. And in this created a large group of people concerned about their future. Cyberpunk in that Corpos are running stuff, but without the cool body mods. 

The restive group found common ground with others and protested across the board. Most of these protests didn't amount to much, but Occupy did, spreading like wildfire through the year and across the globe. Graeber doesn't really offer a solid reason why THIS protest became widespread, other than to note that it doesn't have any success, until it does. He goes into detail on certain elements of the protest, such as the people's microphone - a pass-along method of relaying a speaker without using electronics. and in particular a decentralized hub. It also adamantly resists the idea of creating leaders or spokespeople to channel and massage the message. 

Graeber takes a break from the narration to get into history - that those in charge have always had a fear of the "mob" - defined as large groups of people that are not on your side. In fact, the word "democracy" has been used historically as a term to defame others and their position. Democracy was a dog whistle for mob rule. Only in the past century, particularly in the WWII era, did we start using the term democracy as a positive trait in comparison to authoritarian governments we opposed. And yeah, recently the Washington State GOP has decided to NOT use democracy since they fell that promotes, well, the Democratic Party. 

We get into some nuts and bolts of consensus government, including the problems of dealing with bad actors - those who are just there to oppose, and will never gain consensus. Again, we're seeing that currently over in the Republican Party, which has logjammed itself into inertia. Graeber also gets into the tactics of the authorities, including elevating a "leader" as a single spokesperson, and such stunts as dumping newly-released criminals and homeless into the area, then using that as an excuse to move against the entire group. 

Finally, Graeber argues for a casting off of capitalistic tropes and thought processes that are ingrained in us, and for a redefinition of labor and of communism (which carries the same demerits that democracy once did). He's not sure about where this would go with a movement that does not make direct demands, but would like to check it out. 

Since this book was first published, a lot of water has gone under the gate. BLM, the Capital Hill Occupation here in Seattle, and most recently the Jan 6 Insurrection. In the CHOP, we saw a lot of authoritative behavior that matches up with his descriptions of the anti-Occupy forces, up to the stunt of the authorities abandoning a police station, sending word out the right-wing protesters were going to seize it, then acting against left-wing protesters grabbed it instead. (We think - any evidence that this was NOT the authorities thinking was "accidentally" deleted from their phones). The Jan 6 attack on the capital is interesting in that not only did it see a stronger pushback from authorities, it continues on with publicized arrests and convictions of those present (and seeking justice against those leaders behind the attack). Most leftist protests seem to be responded to on a catch-and-release program (Even currently - a pro-Palestine group blocked traffic to the airport for a couple hours, and resulted in 42 misdemeanor arrests), and there is often little in the way of media follow-up to arrests (In an earlier protest from January that closed I-5, 6 people are going to trial-that showed up today in the paper.).

I'm not sure I agree with everything Graeber puts forward here - he seems to nod positively towards "direct action" and defends actions of the "black block" (violent protesters) as being a tactic. not a particular group (crimes against property, while not as horrible as violence against people, are still crimes). And to be honest, democracies (including republics) can both make horrible choices that rival those of mad kings - Brexit and large chunks of our population voting for Trump both come to mind.

And yet protest does bring change. Getting back to Graeber's original starting occupy, we are (slowly, after all this time) seeing debt forgiveness for a lot of college students. And a lot of folk are tired of big money in politics. Baby steps are still steps.

Interestingly, The Democracy Project does give me a grounding that I only slowly picked up in his The History of Everything - that the way we traditionally deal with things (hierarchical, authoritarian) is not the only way of governance, even if it is the way most of us are dealing with them. And so it's given me a lot to think about. 

More later,