Friday, May 28, 2010

Star Wars Week: Return of the Jedi - The Radio Drama

After the success of the first two radio dramas, you’d have thought that George Lucas would have followed up with a radio dramatization of Return of the Jedi. He did, just thirteen years after the source film opened. Why? It might have been Star Wars fatigue. I know I hit it in the mid 1980s. The comic book from Marvel was cancelled and there wasn’t anything new coming out. That is, until Timothy Zahn’s Star Wars trilogy revived interest in Star Wars in the early 1990s. One of the results of the newfound enthusiasm for Star Wars was the Return of the Jedi radio drama.

Where Star Wars was a 13-episode extravaganza and Empire was a 10-episode expansion, Jedi was a mere six episodes. Frankly it barely cleared the threshold for needing to even produce the thing. I didn’t even know it aired in 1996 and it wasn’t until this spring that I gave it a whirl.

Mark Hamill and Billy Dee Williams do not return. Only Anthony Daniels does. All the other regular cast returns, including the excellent Brock Peters as Darth Vader. I had to get used to the new guys and, a couple of times, I forgot who was speaking. Probably my bad, but still.

The Jedi radio drama does what neither of the other two did: incorporate Expanded Universe things into the story. The Expanded Universe is the global term used to describe any Star Wars story/character/ship/whatever that is not in the films. Thus, in Radio Jedi, we get the scene in which Luke goes to Tatooine, lives in Obi-Wan Kenobi’s house, and constructs his new, green lightsaber. This sequence originally was featured at the end of Shadow of the Empire. Plus, Coruscant is mentioned by name. It’s a nice thing to include, these extras, as it gives a broader scope to the entire story.

Whereas Star Wars and Empire’s radio presentations were chock full of fun, new scenes, there isn’t a lot with Jedi. Among the more interesting ones are these:
  • a scene in Jabba’s palace where Boba Fett taunts the recently-thawed Han Solo and Chewbacca. I always had the impression that Fett was just a good bounty hunter with little hatred for Solo. Not so anymore.
  • the scene when Leia, disguised as the bounty hunter, Boushh, defrosts Han, Bib Fortuna is with her. It’s almost as if Fortuna is helping Boushh. Irritatingly, this thread is dropped.
  • Lando and Leia talking after she’s been captured by Jabba.
  • Lando and Han talking before they all escape. We learn that Chewie filled Han in on Lando’s good deeds.
  • the scene where the heroes escape Tatooine but also have to evade the Imperials who have set up a sort of blockade knowing that they’d try to rescue Han.
As you can tell, all the good, new scenes are at the beginning. Nothing much extra happens for the rest of the movie. However, there is one meta-detail thrown in. From 1983 until 1996 when this drama aired, all the ire at Jedi had formed. One huge problem many fans had was how the heck did a bunch of Ewoks defeat an elite squadron of stormtroopers. During that battle sequence, Leia (I think) voiced that question. Han answered it with something along the lines of “It’s their turf so they have the upper hand.” Yeah, I didn’t buy it either.

Make it a point to listen to the first two radio dramas. You won’t be disappointed. As far as the Jedi radio drama, listen to it once, just to say you did.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Forgotten Music: May 2010 - The Summary

Thanks to all who wrote today. A reminder: anyone and everyone can join. Just let me know.

Paul D. Brazill - Judy Nylon, Snatch
Sean Coleman - Dio's Last with Rainbow
David Cranmer - Distant Drumsby Jim Reeves
Bill Crider - Eddie Fisher
Chad Eagleton - Johnny Burnette's Rock N Roll Trio
Martin Edwards - "Waiting for Charlie to Come Home"
Randy Johnson - Move It On Over
Chris Jones - Miles David - Amandla
George Kelley - The Rolling Stones - Exile on Main Street
Scott Parker - The Empire Strikes Back (soundtrack)
Perplexio - Roger Hodgson - In the Eye of the Storm
James Reasoner - That Thing You Do(soundtrack)
Charlie Ricci - Ben Vaughn - Rambler

See everyone on 24 June.

Forgotten Music: May 2010 - The Empire Strikes Back soundtrack

An interesting exercise is to examine your musical tastes and, for every style of music, try to determine the first song/album that started you liking that style. For example, for me, all rock and roll started with KISS. It doesn’t matter that I’ve grown to love many more acts better than KISS, KISS opened the door to rock. Graceland opened the world music door. The Garden State soundtrack opened the indie door. Roger Miller opened the country door. And, for all instrumental music--classical as well as jazz, John Williams’ soundtrack to Star Wars was the key. From 1977 to 1980, I wore out one copy of the album and had to buy another. I had that soundtrack memorized cold. It was part of the stuff I used to recreate my own Star Wars stories as well as “see” the film in my head as I listened to the music.

When The Empire Strikes Back premiered, I was just as jazzed to hear John Williams’ new score. I can’t remember when, in relation to the day I saw the movie, I bought the soundtrack, but I can remember, distinctly, when I bought it. My mom had to run a few errands and the record store was one of them. We got the double album and I convinced my mom to let me stay in the car for all her other errands. I was too engrossed in the cover. The front had the image of Darth Vader peering out from the stars. The back cover had the original, gorgeous movie poster artwork by Roger Kastel (also on the novelization cover). Inside was a little booklet, pasted to the gatefold, with twelve pages of photos. The last two pages had a short interview with Williams, the names of all the members of the London Symphony Orchestra, and liner notes of every track by Alan Arnold*. If push came to shove, I could make a good case that my love and appreciation of album liner notes and “extras” started here. You might be marveling about my excellent memory. Don’t. I still have the gatefold album sleeve, even though the LPs themselves are long gone.

If Empire the Movie was a lesson in storytelling and taking familiar characters and putting them in new settings, Empire the Soundtrack was a master class (at least for a ten-year-old) in how familiar music and themes could be toyed with, manipulated with new pieces, to create something altogether original.

The sequencing was odd and I can remember thinking that back in 1980. Unlike the complete, two-CD set that came out in 1997 that had all the music in chronological order, the original 1980 soundtrack didn’t. It did, however, begin with the fanfare. My first lesson in Star Wars Musicology was how the main theme linked up with the new music (basically after the scroll). This was the score that accompanied the probe droids being launched from the Star Destroyer.

Three major themes debuted on this soundtrack, none more iconic than “The Imperial March.” In the film, it’s first played when the fleet of Star Destroyers, overshadowed by Vader’s Super Star Destroyer, assemble. The theme is as iconic as is Vader. There hasn’t been a year since 1980 in which I haven’t played this track and it never gets old. My favorite part is the last refrain, where the French horns and baritones take the theme up an octave. Even just now, listening to it again for the second time today, it still gets me jazzed.

Less well known (outside Star Wars music geekdom) are Yoda’s theme and the love theme of Han and Leia. As befitting the small yet powerful Jedi Master, Yoda’s theme is string-based, opening with a slow, magisterial cadence that breaks into a playful mini-theme with the flutes. What I find fascinating is a subtle aching quality to the piece. It’s almost as if Williams was channeling the true history of Yoda that we learned with the three prequels. The love theme opens with Leia’s theme from the first soundtrack, again with flute. Soon, however, the oboes take over. The cue is for Han and Leia’s first kiss on the Falcon when they’re making repairs in the slug so the actual theme is quite short but memorable. The theme repeats throughout the entire soundtrack, in little bits and pieces, most notably during the scene where Han is frozen in carbonite, although the music isn’t as happy in that instance.

There are, of course, tracks that allow you to see the movie in your head while you’re listening to them. Two of these tracks stand head and shoulders with The Imperial March as favorites from the soundtrack. “The Battle in the Snow” accompanies the Imperial invasion of the Rebel base on Hoth. Using a piano in the low register, Williams musically symbolized the Imperial AT-ATs as the lumber toward the entrenched Rebels. Xylophones punctuate the entire piece, almost as if standing in for all the bone-crushing power of the Empire. Many of the individual sections have dissonant chords, adding a sense of dread to the piece. Incredible piece of music. “The Duel” corresponds to the middle section of the lightsaber battle on Cloud City. This would be the part where Vader starts throwing all the hunks of metal at Luke. That isn’t the best part. The music cuts to the escape of Luke’s friends through Cloud City. It’s a typical action piece of music, with lots of fast strings. What makes this particular piece special is the simple part, complete with cymbals, where Artoo Detoo finally manages to open the blast door so that everyone can flee to the Millennium Falcon. It’s a direct sibling to the piece from the first film where Luke and Leia swing across the chasm.

I could go on and on describing this soundtrack, I love it that much. It’s my favorite Star Wars soundtrack and pretty much always has been. Of all of the movie soundtracks I have, mostly by Williams, Empire pretty much beats all comers, with Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade coming close. As I mentioned earlier, the two-disc soundtrack from 1997 has all the music. It’s the version to get.

*The opening quote of the liner notes. For those who know, you’ll see why I’m quoting it. “In the wake of the success of Star Wars, George Lucas’ desire to create a nine-part saga set in that distant galaxy far, far away became viable and The Empire Strikes Back is a manifestation of that dream.”

Forgotten Music: May 2010

Welcome to the May 2010 edition of the Forgotten Music Project. Inspired by Patti Abbott's Forgotten Book Friday series, here we examine music that has fallen off the public's radar or other music that never made a blip. We're doing this on a once-a-month basis, the last Thursday of every month. Aside from my own entry, here's today's line-up:

Paul D. Brazill

Seal Coleman

David Cranmer

Bill Crider

Chad Eagleton

Martin Edwards

Ray Foster

Gordon Harries

Randy Johnson

Chris Jones

George Kelley

Evan Lewis

Todd Mason

Perplexio

Eric Peterson

James Reasoner

Charlie Ricci



If I have missed your name or got the wrong address, let me know and I'll fix it here and for future months. Anyone can join: just let me know here in the comments section, by e-mail, or in the comments section of my entry that you'd like to join in next month and I'll add you to the list.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Star Wars Week: The Empire Strikes Back - Radio Drama

In the same year the film trilogy ended (1983), the radio trilogy aired its second part. The radio drama of “The Empire Strikes Back” hit in the spring (not entirely sure of this) right before “Return of the Jedi” completed the saga of Luke Skywalker. Being only ten episodes long rather than the thirteen for the radio version of “Star Wars,” Empire’s radio script kept very close to the original movie. That, in itself, is a good and bad thing.

It’s good in that, in the minds of many, Empire remains the best of all six Star Wars films. Any script that keeps what Leigh Brackett largely wrote is a script worthy of her memory. The bad thing, for intense geeks like me, is many of the little nuances that made the Star Wars radio drama so good aren’t here. That doesn’t mean, however, that there are no gems.

The highlight of the radio version of Empire is the relationship between Luke and Han and it only last a few minutes. In the films, they’re happy “brothers,” joking and laughing, rarely getting on each others’ nerves. That isn’t the case--always--on radio. At the end of Star Wars, after he delivered Leia and the droids to Yavin, Han is adamant about getting paid and getting out of there before the Death Star arrives. He is so mercenary that he takes his payment in precious metals that the Rebels need for repairs. He all but doesn’t care. Luke and Leia both try to persuade him to change his mind, to no obvious avail. It gives much needed depth to Luke’s line of “Well, take care of yourself, Han. I guess that’s what you’re best at anyway.”

In Empire, we get a great scene of Han and Luke together in the emergency shelter, talking about this and that. Perry King reads Han’s lines with an acidness that Harrison Ford doesn’t. Mark Hamill, reprising his role as Luke, gets a chance to stretch here, too. In fact, the two are about to come to blows as Rogue Two finds them the next morning. Interesting material, and just the sort of nuance you’d expect for a five-hour presentation of a two-hour movie.

Anthony Daniels returns and Billy Dee Williams lends his voice to Lando Calrissian. The noted addition to the cast is John Lithgow as Yoda. Yes, you read that correctly. And he did excellent. At times, frankly, he is so close to Frank Oz’s original vocal rendering that you might not be able to tell the difference.

If my favorite episode of “Star Wars” was the one full of intimate moments of Luke’s life before the events on the film started, my favorite episode in Empire is completely the opposite. Episode Four, “Fire and Ice,” dramatizes the invasion of Hoth and the overrunning of the Rebel base. Much of the action takes place in the main base, with only radio transmissions. Reports come in rapid-fire sequence, many speaking over each other. Even though I knew exactly what was going to happen, upon listening to it again, it’s incredibly intense, especially the end as the Imperials invade the base. Having not heard it in nearly thirty years, it’s grip on me surprised me. At the end of the half-hour episode, I didn’t realize I had been gripping my steering wheel as tight as I was.

One thing that always bugged me with the movie was the end of the Hoth battle, after the Falcon blasted off and stormtroopers and Vader was in the base. If you remember the film, once Luke gets to his X-Wing, all the Rebels are acting like they’re at summer camp with no fear of the Imperials at all. Not so on the radio. They have to high tail it out of there, with Imperial blaster fire as incentive. Plus, they have to run the Imperial blockade. Nice touch.

Again, Brock Peters’ interpretation of Darth Vader is an underrated master stroke. Like I wrote in yesterday’s entry on the original Star Wars drama, Peters give voice to Vader’s anger. In the battle on Cloud City, Vader taunts Luke mercilessly. Naturally, with only his voice to do his acting, Peters brings his A Game. In some places, he lowers his voice in an eerie tone that’s almost mesmerizing. At other times, he yells at Luke. Some may think he’s overacting. I’ve never had that feeling. True, he delivers the most important line in the movie as if he’s standing under a stormy, lightening-filled sky, but he’s making a point.

While not as full of neat little tidbits the way the Star Wars radio drama was, Empire’s radio drama is also worth the time and effort.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Star Wars Week: Star Wars - The Radio Drama

A year after "The Empire Strikes Back" hit theaters (and four years after the original, source film), the radio adaptation of "Star Wars" landed on NPR radio. I honestly can't remember when/how I learned about it. In 1981, the Houston NPR station was a jazz station and neither my parents nor I listened to jazz. Nonetheless, after locating the station (88.7 KUHF), I tuned in for the first of thirteen (!) half-hour episodes retelling the events of A New Hope.

Even a seventh-grader could do the math: a two-hour film expanded into a nearly six hour radio drama, there was going to be a lot of extra material. As one groomed on all the little details of the Star Wars Universe, I soaked it all up. And, from the get-go, I taped the episodes from the radio so I could listen to them over and over. I still have those tapes but, recently, when I wanted to re-listen to the Star Wars Radio Drama again, I bought the version from Audible. As much as I enjoyed the episodes back in 1981, I think I enjoyed them more now.

Brian Daley, author of the original Han Solo trilogy, wrote the script. Future Oscar-nominated director John Madden (Shakespeare in Love) directed the cast which included Mark Hamill and Anthony Daniels reprising their roles from the film. Perry King was Han Solo, Ann Sachs was Princess Leia, and Brock Peters was Darth Vader. In the present day, where George Lucas and Lucasfilm keeps a close reign on everything related to Star Wars, Daley was given all but carte blanche to add material. And add he did. In many ways, the radio drama is more fulfilling than that which appeared on screen.

Each episode opens with the narrator setting the scene. Once that's over, it's all dialogue, original sound effects, and music, just like old radio dramas before television. There would often be times where Daley would have to write some dialogue that allowed a character to describe something (like when Luke and Threepio spy on the Tuskin Raiders). The good thing about it being Star Wars is that most listeners knew how the films and Daley didn't have to work too hard to make these scenes feel natural. Unlike other children at that time, I was pretty familiar with old time radio. My parents had loads of cassettes and I understood the concept pretty well. There was many a vacation where I'd listen to The Lone Ranger, Sherlock Holmes, or The Shadow for the entire trip.

Star Wars was different. Episode 1, "A Wind to Shape the Stars," was, and still is, my favorite episode. Back in the day, I had to dub this episode to a second tape since I all but wore it out. It tells the story of Luke Skywalker right before the scenes we see in the opening credits, the great battle between Vader Star Destroyer and Leia's blockade runner. Basically, this episode is the lost scenes from the film with Luke and his best friend, Biggs Darklighter, home from the academy. I knew of these scenes since they were in the novelization and the comic adaptation. We get a sense that Luke is an outsider to the other young people in Anchorhead. He feels trapped and without a true friend, something I could relate to back in 1981. There's a race between Luke and Fixer (voiced by Adam Arkin), and some poignant moments between Biggs and Luke as Biggs tells Luke about joining the Rebel Alliance “in case I don’t come back.” Listening to it again, as an adult, it still speaks to me.

Episode 2, "Points of Origin," show Leia, on her home world, verbally jousting with an Imperial lord who'd like nothing better than to marry Leia. These early episodes show how she intercepted the stolen Death Star plans and how See-Threepio and Artoo Detoo came to be in her service. Once the events of the movie starts, it pretty straight-forward, with many nuances thrown in mainly because there's time for them. Among the highlights not seen in the film are the following:

-How Vader tortured Leia into revealing the location of the Rebel base.
-More bickering between the Imperials on how best to use the Death Star. Since the Emperor was revealed in the film of Empire Strikes Back, he's written into this drama, adding greater context to the entire universe.
-How Kenobi found Chewbacca and made the deal with Solo. If you remember the Special Editions, you'll remember the scene with Jabba the Hutt that was filmed in 1976 but never used. That scene is back in with one major exception. Lucas must have told Daley that Jabba was a slug (he's humanoid in the original). Thus, Daley invented Heater, Jabba's #2, a humanoid. It's Heater that Han spars with. The dialogue is almost exactly as Lucas wrote in the original screenplay.
-Just how close Han came to abandoning Leia and Luke and the droids while escaping the Death Star.
-How overtly mercenary Han really was after landing on Yavin and how Leia and Luke both tried to convince him to help.

All the non-film actors did a good job. The one that stood out the most for me was Brock Peters as Vader. In the movies, Vader is this cool, calm guy who rarely raises his voice to get his point across. Not so on radio. Peters does Vader as the truly angry person he really is. In his torture scenes with Leia, he's all but screaming at her. It's very effective and I found I enjoyed it a little bit more than James Earl Jones's delivery.

In the years since its airing, the Star Wars radio drama has attained canon status in the Expanded Universe. I thoroughly enjoyed it this spring when I listened to it again as much as I did back in 1981. It's well worth the six-hours it'll take you to listen to it.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Star Wars Week: What "The Empire Strikes Back" Meant to Me

I am a member of the Star Wars Generation. By that, I mean that I was of movie-going age when the first film was released and grew up with the anticipation of each subsequent movie. As the thirtieth anniversary of the release of “The Empire Strikes Back” sweeps the geek nation, I’d like to offer what TESB meant to me.

I was eight years old when Star Wars hit theaters. I was halfway to eleven when Empire was released. For anyone not alive during those long, yet exhilarating three years (May 1977 to May 1980), you missed something truly special. In many ways, it was the best years of my life as I lived with the Star Wars universe. The action figures and toys were sold and bought. Trading cards flourished. I think there were at least three sets of Star Wars cards, a green set, a red set, and a ___ set. The few books about the film I poured over. Heck, I still have them.

But what excited young minds the world over was not necessarily how Star Wars was made. It was all the exciting tales that had yet to be told. Marvel Comics published their adaptation of the first film in six issues. Beginning with issue #7, you got *more* Star Wars stories. In the years before Empire basically made the entire franchise a family history, comic book writers were free to just tell great stories (yes, even with the green bunny; bonus points if you remember Jaxxon). Alan Dean Foster added his take on the universe with Splinter of the Mind’s Eye. More than anything, however, was the active imaginations of all the young (and old?) folks who truly loved these characters and the adventure. I made up scores of stories with my action figures. I may have even written some but I can’t remember now.

Nothing, however, matched the real thing. When the original film was re-released in 1979, it had the first (and only?) trailer for Empire attached to it. Finally, after nearly three long years, we got to see images from the sequel. Snow! Asteroids! Some future city! Then, for the fall of 1979 and the spring of 1980, we got to ponder how those images fit together. Talk about putting young imaginations into overdrive. That movie was the first Big Thing I longed for (other than attending a KISS concert; never went) and was rewarded for my patience.

When the movie was finally released, I convinced my parents to see it on the second day. For those keeping score, that corresponded to 22 May 1980. And, yes, this past Saturday (the 22nd), with my family asleep, I broke out my VHS copy of Empire and watched it again. Still a fine, fine piece of filmsmanship.

But back in 1980, I learned a lot because of Empire. I learned how old, familiar characters can reappear in new, unfamiliar landscapes and situations. I learned how jokes from the first film (I had it memorized by that time) can show up again in different contexts. And I learned a little bit about the real world (although I didn’t know it at the time). Heroes don’t always win. I mean, think about it. By the end of the film, Han’s captured and been taken away, Luke’s hand is gone, and don’t even get me started on Vader-as-Luke’s dad thing. I saw betrayal (Lando) and redemption (also Lando). I saw utter defeat (Rebel base overrun by the Imperials). I saw that Vader wasn’t even the top bad guy, he was only the muscle. I saw Han’s torture and heard his screaming. The novelization confirmed that he was being electrocuted. I saw a young, impetuous man (Luke) vacillate over the right thing to do (regarding going to Bespin). Plus, there was that line from Yoda when Luke asks him if he should sacrifice Han and Leia. Yoda: “If you value what they fought for, yes.” Speaking of Yoda, of all the wisdom he spouted, none is more pertinent to a ten-year-old or a forty-year-old that the simple line, “Do, or do not. There is no try.” And, as a preview for Forgotten Music this Thursday, the new music also changed my thinking.

I was fortunate to attend only one elementary, one middle school, and one high school. For a person my exact age, Empire arrived just as I was graduating elementary school. It was my first big experience. Because of the tone of Empire, the unresolved ending, there was a distinct feeling of growing up with Empire. Don’t get me wrong: I was still a kid in 1980. I bought more Empire toys than I did Star Wars toys. I played with those things forever. I had the trading cards, the books, and still read the comics. But there was still that hole left by the ending. Now, as I’m older and can reexamine my experiences, I can assert that the hole left by Empire was never completely filled with Return of the Jedi. But that’s a quibble for another day (perhaps three years hence?).

What are some of your experiences with The Empire Strikes Back?

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Thoughts on the "Lost" finale - The Music

I've loved "Lost" since halfway through the first season (never seen the pilot BTW). I've delved into the mythology and talked over the water cooler with friends about every little nuance.

Since I've never written about it here, I'm not going to start now. And I'm not going to give away anything. But let me say this: for all the terrific acting in the finale, the moments where my wife and I teared up (more than once), it was Michael Giacchino's musical score that really hit a grand slam. For most of the six seasons, his minimalist score echoed the uncertainty of the story, the mysteries, the unknown. Tonight, as things fell into places and characters had their "enlightenment," his music soared with a lush beauty that propelled the story forward. I absolutely loved the music tonight.

Bravo, Mr. Giacchino!

Forgotten Music: Call for Entries - May 2010

Hello all. This Thursday, 27 May, is the May 2010 edition of the Forgotten Music Project.

By now, I've collected some regulars. Here's the new deal: I'll post links on Thursday to everyone who posted in April. If you have the time, great. If you can't make it, you can either let me know before Thursday (and I'll remove your name) or not not (whereby readers can jump to your blog and read your latest entry). I've got at least one newcomer (looking forward to your post, James). If you want to join and you haven't posted before, just let me know and I'll get your name on the list for Thursday morning. As usual, I"ll do a summary at the end of the day.

Looking forward to everyone's entries. Mine will coincide with Star Wars Week on my blog. It doesn't take a Jedi Master to figure out what I'm going to write about after you read my post for tomorrow.

Until the 27th...

Friday, May 21, 2010

It was thirty years ago today...

...that The Empire Strikes Back was released in theaters. It meant a whole lot to me and millions of youngsters. To celebrate, I'm kicking off Star Wars Week next week. Each day, I'll post something Star Wars related. I've even managed to include Star Wars in next Thursday's Forgotten Music Project.

So, tune in next week and join the discussion and celebration of George Lucas's Star Wars.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

CSI: Miami - "Time Bomb" - Review

My review of last night's CSI: Miami episode is now available at BSCReview.com.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

CSI: Miami - "Mommie Deadest" - Review

My review of last night's CSI: Miami episode, "Mommie Deadest," is now available from BSCReview.com.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Book Review: Ghosts of Manhattan by George Mann

No forgotten book today. Now, I've reviewed a brand-new book written in a wonderfully old, pulp style. It's George Mann's Ghosts of Manhattan, a steampunk superhero novel set in an alternate 1926. Now, if that cover doesn't at least make you smile, well, then, I feel sorry for you.

Head on over to BSCReview.com and check out my review.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Book Review Club: Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter by Seth Grahame-Smith

(This is the May 2010 entry for Barrie Summy’s Book Review Club. For the complete list, click the link at the end of this review.)

When "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies" was unleashed upon the world, I gave it a raised eyebrow. I had never read the original novel (although I enjoyed the BBC production) so I didn't think I'd appreciate the new spin on the classic characters. The same idea struck me when "Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters" followed. I knew even less about that one. I started wondering if there would be a mash-up based on something I did know.

I no longer have to wait. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. As soon as I heard about the book, I knew that I would eventually read it. I know a thing or two about our sixteenth president. I have two degrees to prove it. My mother was aghast ("What have they done?"), my wife incredulous. Me? I was intrigued. Judging by the care and heavy level of detail author Seth Grahame-Smith put into this project, I'm guessing Jane Austen fans appreciate the other books, too.

The basic gist is this: vampires have existed for centuries. Originally from Europe, the discovery of America enabled the persecuted vampires a way out. By 1809, when Lincoln was born, they had established themselves in our country primarily in the South. It doesn't take a doctorate in history to guess why: easy access to the slave population, a food source. Obviously, vampires in the South ally themselves with human Southerners to protect and spread the institution of slavery.

What Grahame-Smith has done is basically created a secret history of Lincoln. For many real events that we know about Lincoln, there is a fictional reason for it. Take his mother. She really did pass away when young Abraham was nine years old. The cause was milk sickness. In the novel, Nancy Lincoln died of vampiric infection (she was given a few drops of vampire blood, enough to sicken her to death but not enough to turn her into a vampire). Thus, he devoted his life to eradicating all bloodsuckers. Hey. I'm not giving anything away here. Grahame-Smith incorporated as much real history as he could, something that I particularly enjoyed.

Now, with a front (and back!) cover as unique as this one, you don't have to guess that Lincoln becomes the best vampire hunter in America. Sure, it may take you a bit to reconcile the stately visage of the demigod Lincoln wielding an axe, but you can do it. You'll even get a fantastic one-liner any action movie star would chew up. When a character looks to Abraham after the future president has killed his first vampire, the character says, "More will come you know." Lincoln's cold response: "Then we'll need more stakes."

As a historian, it was fun to see how Grahame-Smith incorporated real history into his novel. More than once, I smiled at his cleverness. The one thing not done in this imagining is change the course of Lincoln's life. In a pseudo-real introduction, a character named Seth Grahame-Smith is given a package containing Lincoln's journals. The "fictional" Seth is asked to write a new history. Thus, Lincoln still dies at the hands of John Wilkes Boothe. The actor, however, isn't the same (give you zero guesses what he is). What this structure allows is for the real Grahame-Smith to write a historical narrative--complete with quotes (real and fictional)--giving rise to my constant assertion that real history is, when you get down to it, compelling storytelling. I know that Lincoln will be shot in Ford’s Theater but I still feel dread as Booth walks up those stairs.

If there's a flaw in the book, it's the ending. Sure, the last line of the novel explains away the ending and I did smile at it. Somehow, it just didn't seem right. But it didn't detract from a fun and entertaining read. Heck, it made me want to read another biography about the man from Illinois. If non-historians have that kind of reaction and they pick up a real biography of, arguably, our greatest president, I say we give Seth Grahame-Smith a medal.






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Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Thriller Recommendations

Hola everyone. As summer is approaching, so, too, are the blockbusters, literary and on film. Last year, I read and thoroughly enjoyed Jeff Abbott's Trust Me (my review). I've been wanting to read another thriller. For some reason, Harlan Coben and Brad Thor's names crept into my head.

Can anyone recommend a good title by these guys? How about David Baldacci? Anything else? Could be old, too. Just looking for some great adventure and thrilling excitement.

Thanks.

CSI: Miami - "Meltdown" - Review

My review of last night's heist-centric CSI: Miami episode is now available at BSC Review.