Books: The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack

In Brief: Steampunk meets historical fiction in Victorian London, with time travel paradox and some mysticism thrown in for good measure.  Author Mark Hodder hits the ground running.

Pros:  Fast-paced and fun for readers familiar with the history of the British Empire at its apex, the book quickly introduces its sci-fi conventions, stamps them in the plot and moves onwards.  And also – werewolves.

Cons:  Readers with no grounding in history may still enjoy much of this book, but won’t be in on some of the most creative turns with historical figures and famous events.  This book has more of a pulp feel, so some of the characters come off a little flat (or would if you didn’t have the historical versions of them to fill in space).

Review:  At the library, saw the cover, and read the back  copy (which was written in the style of a 19th century newspaper advertisement).  I immediately noticed that one of the main characters was none other than a fictionalized Sir Richard Francis Burton, famous explorer and Victorian writer and a person I’ve read about before.  OK, Mr. Mark Hodder – well played, I told myself.  I have to give this a look.

The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack immediately plunges us into an alternate England – one in which familiar historical events have changed, not occurred, or happened out of sequence.  Beginning with Burton’s feud with fellow explorer, John Speke, over the location of the source of the Nile.  As history tells us, Speke shot himself (either on purpose or accidentally) as he and Burton were about to debate their specific expeditions.  But in this novel, Speke does not perish almost immediately but instead disappears.  And Burton has himself a mystery to solve. Continue reading

Pee Wee Commute

The past few weeks I’ve made like Pee Wee Herman…  No, not that – talking about bikes.  Bicycling.  Remember how Pee Wee always rode his bike everywhere?  And then, in the movie, finding his bike was the whole crux of the plot?  Anyway, I’ve been biking a lot.

Eight of my last ten work days have been bike commutes.  I think I’m eleven of my last fifteen.  It’s testament to the weather, which has been positively Spring-like, and the convenience to see my daughter to her bus stop with just enough time to pedal over to work.  In fact, over the last two weeks, the only days I drove to work were those on which I had to do child-taxi-ing to one activity or another.

See there:  I have my right pant-leg rolled like Steve Carrell (in 40 Year-Old Virgin) to avoid problems.  I have my backpack.  Even went out and bought a helmet – the kids are riding now as well and don’t want to set a bad example…

See how little gas I’ve used.  Marvel at my commitment.  Envy the short work commute.

I’ve been riding to work off and on the last couple of years.  Really, unless, it’s raining or 90+, there’s no reason not to.  But I’m lucky – the distance is short, and while we don’t have many bike trails in town, the sidestreets are pretty safe.

It’s enough to make one a little sanctimonious.  Why don’t more people bike to work?  Can’t they spare a little inconvenience for the sake of the environment and their own health?  This is Illinois, after all – shouldn’t we find a way to tax and regulate the non-bikers?  Don’t guys like me and Pee Wee Herman deserve some kind of break or pension for our stewardship?

Summer Call-Up Post

US Soccer announced the provisional roster for the series of friendlies and first round of World Cup Qualifiers.  Your games are…

  • 5/26 – Friendly in Jacksonville, FL vs. Scotland (7pm, NBC Sports)
  • 5/30 – Friendly in Washington D.C. vs. Brazil (7pm, ESPN)
  • 6/3 – Friendly in Toronto vs. Canada (6pm, NBC Sports)
  • 6/8 – WCQ in Tampa vs. Antigua and Barbuda (6pm, ESPN)
  • 6/12 – WCQ in Guatemala (9pm, pay-per-view)

This schedule is designed to a) prepare for and kick-start World Cup Qualifying, b) Make money, and c) develop roster depth and the team.  Coach Jurgen Klinsmann has stated he wants to treat these games like “a mini-tournament”.  With the quick turn-around, travel, and wide disparity in talent of opponents, it should be just that.

Certainly the most important games, the qualifiers, are two that the US should win by a wide margin.  That said, players will be tired, some will no-doubt pick up injuries, and going on the road in Central America is never easy.  Guatemala could easily steal a result on their home soil.  We’ve seen enough phantom hand-balls and mysterious red-cards on the road to know this.

So Beemsville will provide some analysis and hand-wringing on Jurgen’s mini-tournament in coming weeks, starting with our break-down of the provisional 27-man roster.  The Coach has said he will cut this to 23 prior to the Scotland match, and that’s who he’ll have for the remainder (he could call in backups in case of injury – unlike a true tournament).

Continue reading

Movies: The Avengers

…based on Marvel Comics characters created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, written by Zak Penn, directed by Joss Whedon, starring Robert Downey Jr. (Iron Man), Chris Evans (Captain America), Chris Hemsworth (Thor), Mark Ruffalo (Hulk), Scarlett Johannson (Black Widow), Jeremy Renner (Hawkeye), Tom Hiddleston (Loki), and Samuel L. Jackson (Nick Fury).

By now, after Hulk-smashing 1st and 2nd week box office records, nearly everyone who reads this blog has seen Marvel’s The Avengers.  It’s the greatest team super-hero movie of all time.  After the last few years’ series of Avengers solo movies, starting with Iron Man up to last summer’s Thor and Captain America, the geeks of the planet have had this date circled.  We’ve watched the short Nick Fury cut-scenes at the end of the movies.  We’ve debated on the internets.  We’ve all hoped it could somehow live up to expectations, seeing Earth’s mightiest heroes together on the big screen.

And Joss Whedon’s super-powered popcorn epic hits the mark.

Yes, the first act is a little slow and awkward at points, introducing the characters with their back stories from the other movies, while setting up Loki and his quest for the Cosmic Cube (the Tesseract in the movie, don’t know why they had to call it that).  No, Black Widow doesn’t really belong on the team, and the Agent Coulson-uniting-the-team card is one Whedon has used over and over again.  Yes, the Chitauri alien villains were pretty generic and definitely had some storm trooper factor.  However…

Joss Whedon

Whedon has been lobbying to do super hero movies for years.  At one point he was linked with an attempt to bring back Wonder Woman and he recently helped the Marvel Comic Astonishing X-Men refocus on that team’s roots.  Beemsville has been a fan of Whedon going back to Buffy the Vampire Slayer (still the superior teen-angst with monsters TV series), Angel, and Firefly.   Other than the Firefly-spin-off movie, Serenity, a modest success, Whedon hasn’t directed a blockbuster type movie.  Until now.  He is, however, a lifelong comic fan; a guy who grew up with these characters, reading and re-reading their origins, marveling at the great cross-over four-color stories.  He gets it – he understands the source material, the importance of certain interplays between characters and their symbolic moments.  Contrast this movie to something like Batman and Robin – another big-budget ensemble with a director, Joel Schumacher, who certainly did not get it, and you gain even better appreciation. Continue reading

500 Fesitval Mini-Marathon

The idea of running a half-marathon would have seemed pretty odd a few years ago.  I’m not a strong natural runner, and running certainly isn’t a fave for cardio exercise.  But with persistent encouragement from some friends and my own stubborn streak kicking in, a half-marathon became my Spring work-out goal.  Setting goals and working towards them sounds inherently lame on some levels, and yet the older I get the more I realize how effective this simple motivational  structure can be.

There I was, a few months back, running on the last snowy day of the year.  I used the Hal Higdon schedule (Novice 2), which basically increases long runs incrementally on the weekends and intersperses them with shorter runs during the week.  Longer runs on Sunday afternoon became something I almost looked forward to and certainly planned for.  Id’ be out there with my MP3 player, listening to lengthy Illini Sports and Sci-Fi themed podcasts.  The goal of being able to run 13.1 miles at a steady pace without stopping came into focus.  Mostly I ran a course that took me through Washington Park and down past the capitol building here in Springfield, but I also ran hills near Siloam Springs at the in-laws and through the country on our old basketball training route near my old home town of Findlay. Continue reading

Picking and Grimming

Last fall we picked the NBC series Grimm as one to try out, and one we initially enjoyed.  While the idea of police drama and fantasy stories from Grimm’s Fairy Tales isn’t all that novel – cops and monsters have been around in some fashion for decades – the effective creation of such a show has proven more elusive.  In earlier posts we’ve referred to the Twilight Effect, wherein a high percentage of new drama shows have included some element of the fantastic of a science fiction aside.  You might think that as proponents of sci-fi and fantasy, we would appreciate this trend.  But here’s the thing:  many of these shows are just bad.

Not so with Grimm.  Although I had initial concerns about ‘monster-of-the-week’ issues and whether the basic formula of giving Detective Nick Burkhardt a new fairy tale inspired creature and mystery to confront each week would grow stale, the series’ producers and writers have mostly avoided this by adding elements of a larger hidden-world struggle.  This struggle involves the power structure and traditions of the various creatures, a hidden multi-layered history (which Nick can discover along with the viewers), and how these elements intersect for Detective Nick. Continue reading