Daughters of the Night Sky— review

Historical fiction is a favorite genre, in part because it often gives new insight into a known era, but when it brings new knowledge, even better. As I like military fiction (sci fi or otherwise) and being a student of history, Daughters of the Night Sky appealed to me on several levels.

Author Aime K. Runyan does a fabulous job of bringing the exploits of the 588th Night Bomber Regiment to life. These women: pilots, navigators, mechanics, and armorers were collectively known as the “Night Witches” because they harried German troops under the cover of darkness. Their exploits would be remarkable due to the sexism rampant at the time, but that they were relegated to flying Polikarpov Po-2 planes, with wood and canvas bodies and open cockpits, made their jobs even more difficult. One of the characters refers to the planes as crop dusters, and indeed, these small aircraft seem a lot closer to than than true “bombers.” Their method of succeeding is astonishing, as they would cut the engine in their already low and slow aircraft, so there was little warning of their impending attacks. Once they had deployed their meagre payload (a maximum of six bombs) they re-ignited the engine and flew back to base to reload and attack once more. Some of the two women crews made as many as eighteen runs (sorties) in a single night.

Although highly fictionalized, with characters who might or might not be based on historical figures, the author makes every effort to get the details right, from the male uniforms, the hacked off military haircuts, and even the various stations where the regiment was based during its 1942-1945 deployment.

Daughters of the Night Sky is informative, suspenseful, and emotionally engaging. I read it in a single day, which is rare these days. Anyone who enjoys historical, military, or women’s fiction should really enjoy this novel.

For those who want to know more about the real 588th, here’s a good article published in Vanity Fair.


Hacksaw Ridge— great film for Veteran’s Day

HacksawposterAmericans are prone to labeling lots of events as “horrible” or “tragic” or as a “crisis.” But most of those same events pale in comparison with the battles of the last really big war, World War II. Perhaps no aspect of that war was more horrible, tragic, or terrifying than what happened in the Pacific theatre. While most of the folks who survived those days are no longer alive, so their stories might soon disappear, it is important to know what happened there. However, many are reluctant to talk about it. One of my uncles, now deceased, fought at Okinawa. He never spoke of it. Never.

Hacksaw Ridge is a film that depicts the horror of that engagement, one of many battles that are far beyond anything that current Americans can imagine. This movie is based on the real life heroics of Desmond Doss, a man who would not touch a gun. His motives for joining the army, and for not wanting to touch a weapon, form the exposition of the film.


There is quite a bit of suspense in this film, even before Doss goes to war, because his unconventional beliefs baffled the officers who had to deal with those during basic training. However, Doss is victorious in his struggle to serve as a combat medic. Then the film skips his service in the Philippines and Guam (where he earned the Bronze Star) but the movie makers do depict his service on the Island of Okinawa. Doss was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for saving the lives of 75 soldiers during the battle on Hacksaw Ridge.

The story is important for a variety of reasons, but in a nation that is in danger of losing its cultural identity, remembering the bravery and sacrifices of the veterans who fought for American ideals in past wars is perhaps the most important reason to view this movie. It is also, however, a story of personal conviction. The sub plot of Doss’s courtship of his wife provides some romance, too. This movie, although very violent, is a worthy one to watch.

Other great movies for Veteran’s Day might include Patton, which stars George C. Scott as the legendary WWII general, or Saving Private Ryan, which does a great job of showing the carnage of D-Day.

Regardless, Americans need to immerse themselves in the history of our nation so that the service of veterans can be fully appreciated. Only then can we put our current “horror” and “tragedy” and “crisis” moments into proper perspective.

The Orville— first impressions

Orville 2When it debuted, there was a good bit of publicity about the science fiction comedy, The Orville, starring (and produced by) Seth McFarlane. And there are not a lot of shows to compare it to, so I understand why writers had some problems describing it.

Visually, this television show looks much like a feature film, such as the rebooted Star Trek, although it relies on CGI a bit more than an upscale effort like The Force Awakens, and the special effects don’t take center stage in as many scenesThe score, in particular, reminds Trek savvy viewers of the first Star Trek feature film, and certain scenes in the pilot also pay homage to that film. Other Trek elements include the use of shuttle craft to get back and forth from ship to ship (no transporters, however) and FTL travel is accomplished via a “quantum” drive rather than Trek’s warp drive. The uniforms are almost cartoon versions of military uniforms, but the color codes for different divisions again looks a bit like Trek.

The first half of the pilot strives very hard to set the comedic tone of the series, and that almost kept me from finishing it. Such lines as “Can I have a soda on the bridge?” or “Can I wear shorts to work?” from bridge officers are supposed to be funny, but these arbitrary requests seem out of place. Once the crew encounters some baddies and come together to accomplice some goals, the drama and the comedy mesh a bit better. My favorite space faring comedy is still Galaxy Quest, but it never took itself seriously, which The Orville seems to want to do, at least occasionally.

I’ve not seen all of the available episodes, but I will probably take another look, as hubby and I have only one episode left of Dark Matter, which is the best television space opera we’ve seen in quite a while. As for quality, my initial impression is that The Orville has a bigger budget, but the recently cancelled Dark Matter has a far better premise and better acting. A quick check over at Rotten Tomatoes gives DM a 79% fresh rating, but TO only gets 19%. Ouch! There are more episodes of The Orville to come, so we’ll have to wait and see if it gets any better.

Beauty and the Beast— on DVD

Perhaps you are like me—I was interested in the latest Disney cartoon classic to live action reboot, but not enough to plunk down the money to see it in the movie cinema. So, you waited, or might still be waiting. Worth seeing? Yes or no?

Maybe. Sorry, but that is my best answer, having rented Beauty and the Beast (2017)  recently. I remember watching the animated one (on VHS!) with family members, and I thought then that it was state of the art for that style of animation. It still is, I would think. But, Pixar type technologies have, for the most part, left traditional animation of feature films in the dust of entertainment history. So, to bring this film to a new generation, Disney decided to do a combination of live action and modern CGI for the beast.

This film is very, very true to the original. Fans of the music will have no gripes, and the sets are simply amazing. The live action part of the new movie is darned good, but it is so faithful to the previous effort that it seems just a bit too “cartoony” if that makes any sense. For instance, I enjoyed the CGI teapot much more than the live actress. The same is true for most of the characters. The CGI beast, however, was just a bit to phony looking, so I liked the prince better.

If any actors stand out in the new film, my picks are Luke Evans who plays Gaston to the hilt, even if he isn’t really “as big as a barge” as the lyrics state, and Kevin Kline as Maurice, who makes the father seem eccentric enough to need his daughter to take up for him. Emma Watson does a very good job as Belle, although I don’t think she looks the part. If the credits didn’t name Ewan McGregor as Lumière, then I don’t think I would have known him, although I’ve always admired his work. Those who have stated that Disney only made this film to make money are correct, but Disney is a corporation whose main mission is to make money for its share holders, so that is not exactly a valid criticism.

So, back to the original question. Should you see it? Sure, why not? But, I must say, if I wanted to share it with children, I’d go for the original, which is still available: Beauty and the Beast: 25th Anniversary Edition.

The Temporary Agent— review and commentary

Recently, I read the Kindle version of The Temporary Agent by Daniel Judson. While well-written, this novel didn’t grab me and keep my attention. One of the reasons that I (or most folks) read fiction is to get involved with some characters who are embroiled in conflict to see how those characters manage, thus entertaining me and providing some catharsis as well.

In The Temporary Agent, the opening scene has the reader immediately seeing that this is a novel of death and dire straits. “Cahill was no stranger to suffering…but the night he lost Erica was without a doubt the longest of his life.” This novel has really short chapters, and the first five comprise Part One where the exposition and action swiftly intertwine, and I was really getting interested. Then came Part Two, which changes the point of view character and the pace of the story. As the next fifty five chapters unfold (yes, that’s a lot of chapters) the pace does pick up, but the second POV character, who turns out to be the titular character, is not as interesting as the guy in part one. So…that is a huge flaw. Basically, the author grabbed me in part one, but let go of his grip in parts two, three, and four. Again, the novel is well-written with lots of interesting details and plenty of action, but I just didn’t care as much about the characters that came after those in the first part. And, for the reader to be really interested, the main characters have to be multi- dimensional and engaging, and it helps a lot of the secondary ones are fleshed out, too.

Fans of espionage novels, military action, or crime fiction will probably enjoy The Temporary Agent. While I did finish it, I kept thinking that it would have been a better story if the POV had stayed with Mr. Cahill and his lost love, Erica.

Dark Matter— review and commentary

Dark Matter from FBFor the most part, the SyFy channel has seemed more like the “Horror channel” to me. So many of their original works seemed to rely either on horror or even fantasy that I seldom watched it, back when we were cable subscribers. However, the series Dark Matter: Season 1 [Blu-ray] (which I’ve been binge watching lately) is certainly an exception to that. Here is a series which blends elements of hard and soft science fiction writing, plus some really good acting and nifty special effects, into an entertaining and occasionally thought provoking original science fiction series.

The initial premise is a fabulous launching point: Six people wake up from stasis pods on a ship, and none of them remembers their respective pasts. Action ensues almost immediately, as the ship’s android viciously attacks. Once the android is sorted out, then this motley crew sets about sorting out who they are and what the mission of this ship might be. All of the cast members do a good job with their parts, but Melissa O’Neil is particularly watchable as her “Two” character quickly becomes the center of this strong ensemble.

Each episode helps unravel the mysteries, while bringing in new characters and situations. As the series unfolds, most of the characters learn of unsavory bits in their past lives, which affects how they interact with each other and the characters they meet as they travel though space. Hard science fiction elements (the science part) include the technology of stasis, of artificial intelligence, faster than light space travel, and genetic engineering. Softer science fiction elements (the emotional and social aspects of technology) include how the characters react to their collective amnesia, how they interact with other cultures, the ethics of certain criminal activities, and how the politics of their time and space play out.

Among the players of this futuristic universe are large corporations, mostly depicted as being at war with each other. Government is largely a pawn of the corporations. Science fiction grand master Robert A. Heinlein played with similar themes in his novel, Friday, which also dealt with genetic engineering and the ethical dilemmas which accompany it. Science fiction requires good writing, as “fiction” is part of the term, and the writers of Dark Matter seldom disappoint. If there is a weakness, some of the space travel effects are a bit cheesy compared to modern movie making, but hey, it is a television show!

Science fiction is mythology for modern man. (I’d love to take credit for that, but I got the idea from reading about science fiction and mythology, including The Hero with a Thousand Faces (The Collected Works of Joseph Campbell)  There is much to like in the series Dark Matter, which is on currently on the SyFy channel, as well as via streaming services and on DVD. I highly recommend it.

Hidden Figures— review and commentary

I’m not much of a numbers person, but I know those who are, and I do admire “nerds.” The film (now on DVD) based on the book Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race is about space exploration, history, race relations in America, and math. I’m glad the filmmakers concentrated on the first three, because I got lost pretty quickly with the equation solved in the exposition.

I’ve always been a fan of clever titles. (I wrote Once Upon a Dirtball, you know.) Hidden Figures is a perfect title, because it conveys that this is a film about math and mathematicians, some of whom were “colored” and therefore not to be taken seriously by society, but, the script makes it plain that these brilliant minds were critical to NASA’s success.

The cast is outstanding, if a bit too good looking for the fifties and early sixties. The script is even better. Some of the lines in the film are no doubt fictionalized, but the prickly encounters between Katherine Goble, Dorothy Vaughn, and Mary Jackson and their white co-workers probably did happen. One of my favorite parts in the film is when John Glenn refuses to fly until Katherine checks over the calculations necessary for bringing his capsule back safely. However, in reading about Katherine Goble Johnson’s contributions to NASA, she calls it all “team work.”

When doing a “based on real events” known to the audience, such as we all know John Glenn made it back to earth safely, maintaining suspense can be tricky. By telling the story behind the scenes, those problems are mostly eliminated. Even the climactic scenes are handled with skill as the nation pauses to watch what happens with the flight of Freedom 7.

Whether or not you are a fan of science, technology, engineering or math, I think you’ll find Hidden Figures a great way to spend an evening. As of this post, the film got 93% fresh rating from Rotten Tomatoes. And, I don’t always agree with that site, I certainly enjoyed this film. Rent it or buy it!