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.

Love dirt roads? Really?

For some reason, country music songwriters (and singers) seem to love dirt roads. Think “Dirt Road Anthem” by Colt Ford and Brantley Gilbert, “Red Dirt Road” by Brooks & Dunn, or even “Dirt” (recorded by Florida-Georgia Line) written by Chris Tomkins and Rodney Clawson.  For some reason, modern listeners seem to revel in the thoughts of gravel beneath the tires, red dirt swirling, and mud when it rains. I don’t get it, but lots of money goes to these artists, so I guess there is an attraction to dirt for lots of folks.

A few years ago, I heard Alan Jackson say that he doesn’t get that trend, and his song, “Blacktop” celebrates the paving of his country road, “back in ’65.” Since I’ve ridden a bit on dirt and a lot on pavement, I’m like Mr. Jackson, I’m all for paved roads.

Indeed, I prefer to avoid any dirt roads, or any roads that connect with dirt roads. The other day, I was the victim of the hour for a state trooper who told me that I should have slowed down by the dirt road, a narrow one that I didn’t even notice. I guess I’ll never write a lucrative country song, because I don’t even see dirt roads, much less worship them.

The Winter Over— quick review

I just finished a Kindle book, The Winter Over, by Matthew Iden, and it is a very suspenseful yarn. The setting is a station at the South Pole, and the scenario is that a select group of scientists and support personnel are going to spend nine months, most of it in total darkness, at the station. Of course, with just a few people confined to a fairly small space, having genial personalities is a requirement. During the exposition of this novel, an astute reader might begin to question whether or not this diverse group was properly screened. Perhaps the greatest flaw in this story is trying to keep the cast of characters straight.

(spoilers ahead)

The main point of view character is an engineering tech named Cass, who seems to be able to repair darned near anything, as might be expected, but she also has some skeleton in her mental closet. An accident, which might not be an accident introduces a “who dun it” plot line, but the story is more complicated than that. Indeed, as the group goes through the winter over, and as the situation becomes more and more stressful, in part due to intentional sabotage, Cass comes to realize that this station has become some sort of psychological experiment. The author skillfully blends the man vs. man and man vs. nature conflicts inherent in this setting.

Despite the extreme cold, things get hotter and hotter in the station, and the suspense builds. The ending, while not especially satisfying, is certainly organic. Overall, this is a good book, and I intend to see what else this author has written.

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!

Supergirl— Television’s best female superhero?


Super hero flicks are hot these days, and I’ve been catching up on episodes of Supergirl, starring Melissa Benoist in the title role. The series began on CBS and then jumped to something called the CW. Overall, I’m impressed with this series, although it is clearly made for television and the effects sometimes show that. After recently seeing Wonder Woman on the big screen, this yarn pales a bit. Still, Supergirl offers super hero stories to a stay at home audience. (I am viewing it via Netflix.)

Here’s the “good” stuff: Melissa Benoist is a fabulous casting choice. She looks the part, and she can pull off the “little ole me” part of Kara Danvers (Supergirl’s day job character) very well. Although the scripts are not great, she gives it her all, and both Kara and Supergirl are likable. Indeed, casting is one of the strong suites of this show. The supporting cast is pretty good overall. My favorite character in the supporting cast, media mogul Cat Grant, portrayed by Calista Flockhart, didn’t make it to the second season, and that is regrettable. There were apparently some issues with the filming location, which changed when the series moved to the CW, and Flockhart was no longer available. Others are still giving Supergirl/Kara Danvers support, including the super cute Jeremy Jordan as Winn Shott, Mehcad Brooks as a grown up James (Jimmy) Olsen, and Chyler Leigh as adopted sister, Alex Danvers. I rather liked the tie ins with Super Man in the first couple of episodes of season two.

Here’s the “whatever” stuff: The scripts seem lifted from Justice League comics. For fans of comic books, these plots are probably welcome. For me, sometimes I just can’t really get into them. The effects range from pretty awesome to pretty boring, but nothing looks ridiculous. By and large the costumes look good, but nothing stands out as amazing. The same can be said for the sets and use of locations, which are good enough for television.

Here’s the “bad” stuff: The dialogue can be really basic, and the plots tend to repeat too often. The whole “DEO” organization is just too convenient as a means of parading weird looking villains out for Supergirl to fight each episode. Sometimes, the writers should change it up and have a “man against nature” conflict, instead of “one alien against another” every episode.

Still, for viewers who want a female superhero, Supergirl fills the bill. Take a look, if you haven’t already tuned in to this made for television series.

Sex, Lies, and Sweet Tea— a quick review

Yep, it is a book, an ebook as well as a paperback. Kris Calvert’s story is actually well-written, and I especially enjoyed the back and forth point of view between FBI Agent, Mac Callahan, and his new found love, Samantha Peterson. Each of them sees something special in the other, right from the outset, so their relationship moves swiftly. There are a few plot twists, mostly in the romantic realm, but the story kept me swiping the pages. There’s a great supporting character, Sam’s aunt Mimi, and a few cardboard cut-outs, such as the staff at Callahan’s inherited mansion. Still, it is a good read for the money (free for Kindle readers.)

Some other reviewers have stated that it isn’t realistic. Ho-hum. If I want reality, there are better ways to get it than via a novel. I rather like my fiction to be, well, fictional. As long as the author doesn’t push things too far, of course. Ms. Calvert does challenge the reader’s patience from time to time, but overall this novel is a pleasant way to spend a few evenings, for readers of romance, mystery, or suspense. The southern setting is just like sweet tea— both tasty and refreshing.