The Lioness of Morocco— review

The Lioness of Morocco is quite a saga. I mean that in a positive way, but some readers may not be ready for a yarn that covers this many years. I, on the other hand, relished it, like a home cooked meal after a long stint of eating fast food.

This story reminds me of the “mini-series” that were once a staple of television networks: a multi-part yarn that covers much of the adult life of an interesting main character, often with a lengthy list of co-stars. Such sagas usually combined romance, suspense, and mystery, and The Lioness of Morocco does that fairly well. The protagonist, Sibylla Spencer, is a good (if not fabulous) character, sufficiently well developed that readers should want to follow along with her travels and travails. Although the story begins in England, before long her adventuresome nature, combined with her father’s shipping business, leads her and her new husband to Mogador, Morocco, where she grows into an even more bold woman, sometimes called “The Lioness” in part due to her mane of golden hair.

< a few spoilers follow>

As an Englishwoman, Sibylla could either cling to all things British, from her clothing and her companions, to her language. Or, she could learn more about the Moorish population, learn their language, and (perhaps) do a bit of business with them. She follows the second course of action, which does cause her more straight-laced neighbors to be a bit put out with her. However, she is well-mannered and well-bred and manages to keep both sides of her world reasonably happy with her most of the time.

The novel is set in a tumultuous time, so there are plenty of plot twists, but the reader is never rushed, as this story happens over a number of years. Much of the Moroccan culture is revealed via detailed descriptions, which I genuinely enjoyed. Several crises occur, from the time her husband is accused of trafficking slaves to being the family being involved in trade wars and political wars. However, Sibylla and her children seem to rise to the occasion, whatever comes their way.

I did find this to be a very satisfying novel, rich in history and culture, if not a compelling read. For anyone who hasn’t enjoyed a saga recently, I suggest this novel. It is available as a paperback and in eBook form.

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Stranger in a Strange Land— another item from my “Keeper” shelf

Stranger CoverAs a youngster, I loved science fiction. From being a little kid watching Fireball XL5: The Complete Series on television to reading the novels of Robert Heinlein while in school, to seeing the original Star Wars: A New Hope at the cinema while in college (gosh, I’m old, right?) I really loved sci-fi. Actually, I still do, but this is a blast from the past post, so here goes.

Heinlein, now considered one of the “grand masters” of classic science fiction, wrote young adult novels and short stories for a number of years. However, his groundbreaking and movie inspiring Starship Troopers is considered a turning point into adult fiction because this novel begins his exploration of themes that appeal to a more mature audience, including libertarian politics. Perhaps modern readers wouldn’t realize it, but the powered body armor in Starship Troopers was one of those prescient inventions that makes reading and watching science fiction so important to the development of technology.

Stranger in a Strange Land (Remembering Tomorrow)was published a couple of years after Troopers, and while less “realistic” the novel takes some giant leaps into thematic explorations. The novel deals with the life of one Valentine Michael Smith, the first human born on Mars, and because he was orphaned he was reared by the natives of that planet, and later brought back to earth as a young adult human who knows absolutely nothing about his home planet or its inhabitants, hence the title. This situation is a fabulous set up for what science fiction does best: explore what makes humanity work (or not.) I used to read this novel annually, and I have never tired of it, because there are so many themes. Indeed, while doing a master’s degree in English, I wrote a pretty decent term paper on the topic of how Heinlein uses the world savior theme in the novel, and didn’t get thrown out of my fairly conservative program.

The characters in Stranger are often larger than life, but Jubal Harshaw, lawyer, doctor, and homespun philosopher (as well as the voice of the author) is my favorite. His employees and associates included Anne, a “fair witness” which is sort of a human version of a body cam, as she only reports what is seen. As in many Heinlein works, there are any number of gems, but even people who haven’t read Stranger may use the invented word “grok” which is a Martian term for being one with someone or something, in such a way that it is fully understood or appreciated.

Modern science fiction has split into many sub-genres, but Stranger in a Strange Land pre-dates that, and in a good way. Grand Master Robert Heinlein was not restricted to hard science or the softer “social” aspects of the genre, although he uses both hard and softer themes to challenge societal norms. Indeed, this novel broke new ground when first published, and it is just as thoughtful and thought provoking today. Certainly, it deserves a read, but it is so complex that it almost needs a Cliff Notes commentary but not quite yet. Despite its age, it is still in print, so go get a copy!

Travelers— the Netflix series

TravelersWe gave DirecTV the old “heave ho” five years ago, when we moved. At the time, we were carrying two large house payments, so utilizing our internet and Netflix services and forgoing the bill for a television service was a temporary measure to save a few bucks each month. Here we are, five years later, with the previous house sold, but during our financial mini-crisis, we learned how little we actually used the TV service, so we never signed on again. When I went back to grad school, I got Amazon Student (a great deal, by the way) so we still have Amazon Prime, and we look at Amazon videos from time to time, but YouTube and Netflix are the primary means of powering the big screen in our living room.

There is a problem with Netflix, however, and that is the way it “recommends” movies and shows. Our suggestions seem to be crap most of the time. So, every once in a while, I look up an article which purports to list “the best ???” on Netflix right now. And, thus we found a Netflix series called “Travelers.”

The premise of this science fiction series is a really good idea: In the distant, dark, future, people figure out how to send the consciousness of an agent (a traveler) back into the body of a person who is about to die. Since the time and manner of death are often documented, these folks from the future have to select a proper host and zip into the body just in time to thwart the death, and are then able to take over the host’s body and join with other “travelers” to perform various missions that are supposed to make the future a better place to be. Each traveler must deal with the situation his or her host is in, as well as managing to complete assigned missions, and hopefully not be seen as an imposter. This premise yields some suspenseful plots as well as quite a lot of dramatic irony, as the viewer knows that the person inside the host is not the person who was about to die.

We’ve not finished season one (the only season available as of this writing) but if the rest of the episodes are as good as the ones we have seen, we are certainly going to enjoy following along with these futuristic Travelers. If you are a Netflix subscriber and like suspense and/or science fiction, do check out this original series.

And, if you are a student or know someone who is, don’t forget the great deals available via Amazon Student:  Join Prime Student FREE Two-Day Shipping for College Students

Star Trek and Philosophy: The Wrath of Kant— a brief review

Okay, I am a sucker for a good title, and this book has a good title and a good cover. Win-win! And it is about Star Trek, which I like quite a lot. But it is rather deep at times, so I wouldn’t rate it five stars, but fans of Trek who have some knowledge of philosophy might award it a solid four, perhaps.

What is between the covers is a collection of essays edited by Jason T. Eberl and Kevin S. Decker. These essays use Star Trek’s various television shows and movies to explore philosophical issues, and it helps quite a lot if the reader is familiar with all forms of Trek. Since I never watched all of DS9 or Enterprise, I was sometimes a bit lost.

The first essay is a nifty one, as it is based upon a Next Generation episode, “Darmok.” Both the essay and the episode dealt with the difficulty of translating a totally alien language. Throughout most of the Trek episodes there was a “universal translator” which was a bit like Google Translate, but it depended upon languages having some commonalities. Of course, communication via such means can go astray quite easily, but what about an alien species that doesn’t communicate the way we do? The issues would be far beyond going from English to Chinese, and I understand that can be difficult.

As the essays in this book are by different authors, the tone and topics vary quite a lot. For me, it was a book to nibble at, but not a cover to cover read. I’ve always viewed Star Trek as more intellectual than Star Wars, but this book takes it to an even higher plane. For fans of all things Trek, there are some really delicious ideas to examine in this collection, so if that describes you, go for it!

Air Force One is Down— review and commentary

I was watching Netflix with hubby, and I saw a British mini-series entitled “Alistair McLean’s Air Force One is Down” as an available title, so we spent a couple of evenings with it. Although this film ended up as a recommendation for me because it has Linda Hamilton (of Terminator and Beauty and the Beast fame,) I chose it because it was supposed to be based on a novel by Alistair McLean. He was a favorite writer of mine when I was in my teens and 20s, and yes, I am fully aware that I am dating myself by mentioning that.

Oh, my gosh, how wonderful were those reads. He wrote twenty something novels, several of which were the basis for films (including The Guns of Navarone, Ice Station Zebra, and Breakheart Pass.) My intro to his work was actually his only sequel (Force 10 from Navarone) but it was stood alone well enough that I wanted to read more from the author.

Alas, hubby and I were disappointed by this film. The cinematography, special effects, score, and cast were all pretty good. The problems were, for the most part, in the writing. In part, plot devices that worked in novels in the 50s and 60s just do not work now. For instance, the dastardly villain has captured our hero and his two compatriots. He places the hero character in a deadly situation, and the hero’s two sidekicks are locked into a pit that rapidly fills with water. Of course, the hero manages a super human feat and the all of them survive. Nowadays, the villain would shoot the hero and his sidekicks and be done with it. This doesn’t happen just once in the two part story; it happens over and over. As hubby said, “This thing has major plot holes.” And it does.

After we finished watching the entire film (at my insistence, as hubby would have bailed during part 1) I looked up the novel. According to that scholarly resource Wikipedia, McLean did not write the novel. Instead, he sketched out some plots for a series of novels which bear his name, but other authors wrote the books. In this case, John Denis is the author of the book that the mini-series is supposed to be based upon.

So… the film is sorta interesting, but I really can’t recommend very highly. Still, if you are interested, it is available via Amazon:

Goodbye, Top Gear

Top Gear

Top Gear, the BBC’s greatest success, is gone.

My whole family has loved Top Gear for a long time. I have an image in my mind of my son-in-law, tears rolling down his cheeks, watching the guys attempt to navigate the Avon river in a homemade hovercraft, laughing so hard that he was almost as funny as the show. But not quite…. Really, it is hard to put it into words. Top Gear has been the most successful “reality” show, although it isn’t quite real. It is the best because it is over the top. Way over.

Much has already been said about the sad end of the show, which came about because the BBC fired the star of the show, Jeremy Clarkson, for assaulting a producer. I neither defend Clarkson nor do I feel that the BBC did the wrong thing. No doubt all will suffer. Some are saying the show will go on, but I’ve watched a few shows with the co-stars, James May and Richard Hammond, as main presenters, and none of those shows were worth watching. Both May and Hammond are pleasant, but no more so than your average television presenter. No, there is some mysterious chemistry that seems to develop when Clarkson is on screen with these side kicks. Yes, the word here is chemistry: Clarkson is the catalyst, and the other gents are reactants. Take away the catalyst, and you have… the American version of Top Gear. The one no one watches.

This is worse, far worse, than Two and a Half Men without Charlie Sheen. (And that was pretty bad.)

Since the BBC has something to prove, they will no doubt put out a show with the same name and flashy videos, in order to fulfill contractional obligations, as well as to demonstrate that the show must go on. But it will suck.

I seldom watch television, but I generally make an exception for Top Gear. Oh, well, time to read another book.