There are a lot of online cooking shows that focus on foods from other countries, or relatively obscure foods, such as EmmyMadeInJapan.
But I recently found out about a relative new Youtube show called Tasting History, which focuses on relatively obscure dishes… because they’re from centuries or even millennia ago, as well as often from different cultures. Ever had syllabub, a foodstuff that sounds like it was named by a drunken Wolverine? Wonder what King Alfred burned? Want to make super-historically-accurate tortillas? Want to know the authentic way to prepare the drink of Grecian heroes?
And our host doesn’t just show us how to prepare these dishes, he gives the history and context of the dishes, as well as highlighting the obscure ingredients that were common at the time. For instance, in one episode he prepares Parthian chicken, and not only explains the importance of the unusual ingredients like lovage and asafoetida, but also the significance and the societal role of the Parthian empire.
I have some murky memories of certain TV shows my parents watched when I was very small, and sometimes I didn’t even recognize what these TV shows were until I saw them as an adult, and went “Ah, that’s where I saw it!”
But one TV show I never had trouble identifying was Murder She Wrote, the murder-mystery series that followed English-teacher-turned-mystery-writer Jessica Fletcher. Jessica has to be one of the most prolific writers in the history of literature, because she seems to be writing a new book in almost every episode. She is the Bella Forrest of mystery writing… except I’m pretty sure Bella Forrest is a pen name for multiple people.
Anyway, there were basically two different kinda of MSW mysteries. One kind was that Jessica would travel to some other city, town ranch, archeological dig, convent, billionaire’s mansion, circus, or perhaps stumble across a murder on a plane or bus. And there was an enormous amount of variety in the places she would go, and the stuff she would do. For instance, one episode has her impersonating the almost-victim of a murder attempt, and discovering that the woman has inherited… a brothel. Or she goes to New Orleans and witnesses the murder of a jazz musician. Or she’s at a ski resort where someone is shot with an arrow during a blizzard in mid-jump.
The other kind of episodes are the ones set in Jessica’s hometown of Cabot Cove, Maine. This is your basic small town with a crotchety doctor, eccentric spinsters, sheriffs of varying temperament, gossipy older ladies, a mayor who really contributes nothing, and lots of locals who are just colorful enough to be memorable without being too ridiculous… well, most of the time.
And honestly, as wonderful as the episodes where Jessica goes to exciting places and meets new people are… I always loved the Cabot Cove ones the most. Despite the obvious high murder rate, Cabot Cove feels like one of those cozy places that that would be relaxing and pleasant to live in. Not flawless, but a place where most of the people are pretty nice and likable, and where you could hide from the unpleasantness of the rest of the world.
That is a big factor in why that proposed MSW reboot that was being waved around some years ago was never embraced by anyone. I actually would have accepted a new actress and a new fresh attempt to tell MSW stories if they had kept the core consistent with the older series… but no, they wanted to switch her from Cabot Cove to some large city, and make her a doctor instead of an English-teacher-turned-writer (because… I don’t know, being an English teacher is too stereotypically feminine or something?). Thank God, public disapproval killed that reboot. If you’re going to remake MSW, it has to have Cabot Cove and it has to make her a writer. Those things were the core of Jessica’s character.
Okay, I was slightly incorrect in saying that there were only two kinds of episodes, because admittedly they did switch up the formula every so often. For instance, some episodes featured Jessica “presenting” a mystery starring someone else, either a real mystery that happened to one of her billions of friends or loved ones, or a fictional story she had written. Another episode was revealed (spoilers!) to actually be an elaborate dream that Jessica had when she dozed off at a dinner party, starring the other people at the table.
I will say that it has aged somewhat, especially in how it deals with technology. There are some episodes that deal with the development of CDs, desktop computers, VR video games, and stuff like that, and it’s… kind of quaint. Like “aww, they were just developing email,” and stuff like that. Personally, I can imagine that today Jessica would probably have a trusty smart-phone and iPad with her at all times.
Angela Lansbury is really the reason this show was as good as it was, because… her Jessica is just an incredibly likable person. She’s this very dynamic woman of maybe sixty, intelligent, well-educated, generous, compassionate, funny and clever. It’s always fun to see her navigating the sometimes-insane situations she ends up in, and encountering the weird people that shock her.
Anyway, fans of mystery TV may enjoy Murder She Wrote, if they can enjoy the aesthetics and storytelling of the mid-eighties to mid-nineties. It’s not a perfect show – it had its fair share of bad episodes – but it’s a fun, lovable series for me, and something I return to again and again.
Currently you can watch it free with ads on Amazon Prime and IMDB, so if you are subscribed to that service, I would recommend giving it a look.
On Youtube, I’m subscribed to a few comic-book related channels (Linkara, obviously), and I recently stumbled across a guy called Comic Tropes, who does retrospectives, reviews, histories and trope analyses of various comic books. Not just DC and Marvel, although obviously he focuses mostly on those.
He’s got a lot of energy, and he does some fun little self-competitions like when he counts the tropes in a given creator’s comic book, and he drinks something weird whenever an individual trope comes up. In one video, for instance, he drinks different flavors of moonshine. And he’s very fair-minded, such as when he examined whether Rob Liefeld had improved over the years.
If you enjoy Linkara or ComicsDrake or other such reviewers, then please check out this guy, and preferably subscribe.
I love Batman. I love Batman media, from the Adam West TV show to the dark gothic animated series, from The Batman from the early aughts to the Christopher Nolan trilogy. I fully expect to love The Batman (movie, not series). No, I do not love, or even like, the Joel Schumacher movies, but I do sometimes watch them if I want to laugh and cringe at the same time.
But one show that seems to get overlooked sometimes in the world of Batman media is Batman: The Brave and the Bold, an animated show that aired from 2008 to 2011, before being sadly cancelled in order to make way for Beware the Batman. Not that Beware the Batman was bad, but it didn’t have the heart and soul of Batman: The Brave and the Bold.
And this heart and soul are easy to identify: the people who made this movie not only love Batman and his history, they love the entire DC Comics universe. Not just the major heroes like Superman and Wonder Woman (who are only introduced in the final season), but characters obscure (the Metal Men) as well as iconic. And old as well as new – lots of characters from decades ago (Adam Strange, Wildcat), alongside newer characters like the third Blue Beetle Jaime Reyes (who has many appearances as a fledgling hero who needs Batman’s guidance) and Ryan Choi (the third Atom).
And it’s all done with immense respect and liking for these characters, whether they’re good or evil. For instance, one of Jaime Reyes’ first episodes sees him trying to investigate the legacy of past Blue Beetles, which allows the makers of this series to pay homage to the previous iterations, especially Ted Kord. You can feel all the love they have for DC’s whole history and all their characters, including the goofy and weird ones. Like, I had never heard of Gentleman Jim Craddock before this – I know technically he appeared in one of the DCAU series, but I honestly don’t remember him because he wasn’t put center stage. Or Red Tornado, who just doesn’t get as much attention as his earnest little robot self deserves. Or the Weeper. There’s actually a supervillain whose signature is CRYING.
Basically, every episode features Batman teaming up with some other superhero (sometimes a group of them, like the teen rebels known as the Outsiders) and dealing with a problem on other planets, or in another time period, or on Dinosaur Island, or England, or parallel universes, or in Batman’s own body (Aquaman and the Atom go on a Fantastic Voyage to cure Batman of silicon-based critters). Sometimes we don’t even know how Batman came to be where he is, such as when he pops up in the Old West to save Jonah Hex (who promptly insults his supersuit).
Okay, the focus isn’t always 100% on Batman and his team-up. One whole episode is about Aquaman going on a family vacation, during which he is forbidden to superhero. It even highlights the nature of Batman’s mythos and his fandom in some fourth-wall-breaking encounters with Bat-Mite.
And it’s wonderfully bonkers, and very much embraces the corniness (Diedrich Bader says the most hilariously cheesy things) of old comic books. It wants to be fun, and it IS fun, balancing out plot and characterization with the need to entertain. I mean, one episode has a sitcom version of Aquaman’s life! Another one was clearly dreamed up just because they wanted Batman to team up with Sherlock Holmes.
But it’s worth noting that not all is funny and goofy. There are serious conflicts in here, such as the invasion of Starro that spreads across the second season, and which ends with a truly heartrending loss. Or the ongoing battle against Equinox, a force that seeks to balance out order and chaos, and is willing to do horrifying things to make that happen. There’s also Chill of the Night, a really magnificent and totally serious episode in which Bruce Wayne’s soul is literally held in the balance, as he discovers who was responsible for his parents’ death.
It also has a great voice cast – you’re guaranteed to be a big fan of at least one person who had a hand in this. Diedrich Bader is an outstanding Batman (probably why they brought him back for the Harley Quinn show), and it has homages to Batman’s past by having Adam West and Julie Newmar play the Wayne parents, as well as Kevin Conroy playing an alternate-universe Batman.
So if you’re a fan of Batman, or even just of DC comics and its history, then this series is one you definitely need to see. Even if you don’t normally watch lighter incarnations of the Dark Knight, this is clever and well-written, and its love and joy are infectious.
For some reason, horror movies seem to be particularly susceptible to parody and tongue-in-cheek deconstruction. I haven’t seen as many parodies of action movies or romances. Even sci-fi movies haven’t had as many parodies or deconstructions as horror. Maybe it’s because there’s tension both in horror and comedy, leading to sudden releases.
And people might point to Cabin in the Woods (Joss Whedon is an overrated ass) as a primo example, or the Scary Movie movies, or Young Frankenstein for a classic… but in my opinion, one of the greatest is Tucker and Dale Vs. Evil. This is a parody of slasher-killer/killer-hillbilly movies that also just happens to be a really good movie.
The reversal of the hero/villain dynamic is the most obvious way of lampooning the genre — in this, the protagonists are the hapless hillbillies who just want to go hang out at their decayed vacation house, catch some fish, and fix their new place up. Tucker and Dale could not be more amiable and down-to-earth, and the only reason they ever come across as creepy to anyone is A) Dale’s social awkwardness, and B) the college kids’ preconceptions of hillbillies as dangerous, disgusting and amoral.
Conversely, the college kids — usually depicted as hapless victims in horror — are mostly morons who accidentally kill themselves by doing things like leaping into wood chippers or splashing paint thinner on a fire. The antagonist, however, is one of these college kids, a psychotic hater of hillbillies who decides to declare war on Tucker and Dale after the two rescue the girl he’s hoping to molest.
So the subversion of horror is pretty well handled in its own right — it takes the stuff we’re familiar with and flips it on its head. But the movie wouldn’t be as excellent as it is if it were just “haw haw, it’s funny because they’re dying due to their own stupidity rather than because of killer hillbillies! It is funny because that usually doesn’t happen in horror movies!”
Because… the characters are almost all really good and well-handled, and everything that happens more or less organically flowers from who those people are. Even the less developed characters (such as the various college kids) have fairly consistent and sensibly-drawn characters (despite the blonde girl who’s dressed very badly for a woodland camp-out). Except for the psychotic guy, they all behave like… real people. Sometimes not very smart real people, but real people. For instance, one guy decides “screw this, I’m finding the police” and does just that. It doesn’t turn out well, but he does do the sensible thing.
And there are character arcs (Dale having to develop self-confidence and strength), developed character relationships (both romantic and platonic), several Chekhov’s guns (I won’t mention what they are, because some are spoilers), and it ramps up the tension gradually, punctuated by some hilarious accidental deaths.
I won’t go into too much detail about Tucker and Dale Vs. Evil, but I will say that I really don’t think it would be as effective a horror-comedy/deconstruction/parody if it didn’t have such well-developed characters and such a solid plot.
Brandon Sanderson is one of my favorite authors, partly because he can take a genre where most of the corners have been explored, and expands them with either amazing skill or brilliant new ideas. He also just executes these books with incredibly complex plotting, such as the Stormlight Archive series, which will apparently have ten enormous volumes (the fourth is currently available for preorder). Even this man’s unpublished books are better than most authors can manage (the original White Sand and Aether of Night, which you can obtain from his message board by request).
And he’s created his own interconnected universe known as the Cosmere, which links together most of his published work. Mostly this is through the concept of Shards, which are fragments of this universe’s murdered power of creation, Adonalsium. This fuels the magic of these different worlds, which comes out in different unpredictable ways – in some of them, you might turn into a living zombie, and in others you can “burn” metals that give you superpowers. This blanket mythology allows him to tell various stories with various types of magic, but allows him to interlink them so that they can have greater significance in the future.
To date there have been eleven books in the Cosmere, along with several novellas and short stories that you can find in the ArcanumUnbounded collection, and a graphic novel series. Which, by the way, I do not recommend reading in its entirety until you’ve read the novels.
If this sounds intimidating, it really isn’t. Some of these works can be read pretty much independently of their greater mythology, and then later works can give you an appreciation of the greater, more universe-spanning story being told here.
If you’re interested in checking it out, I’d recommend that newcomers to the Cosmere start out with Elantris, Warbreaker or the first Mistborn trilogy. White Sand, the graphic novel, is also a good starting point if you want to get into it via comics (although I do recommend the unpublished text, which has some notable differences and a cliffhanger ending). These books were my introduction to the Cosmere, and they are stories that can be appreciated on their own before you connect them to a larger story. Or you can just read them independently, and enjoy them independently. It’s your choice.
(Also, Elantris has some flaws – I’d rate it three stars out of five – because it was one of Sanderson’s early works, but the overall story is an engaging one. So if that one isn’t to your taste, I’d recommend checking out Warbreaker before coming to any conclusions)
Then, I’d recommend checking out the short stories and novellas such as Mistborn: Secret History, Allomancer Jak and the Pits of Eltania, Shadows for Silence in the Forests of Hell, The Emperor’s Soul and Sixth of the Dusk. You can find all these in the Arcanum Unbounded collection that I mentioned before, along with a Stormlight Archive novella that takes place after the second book. But obviously, don’t read that until you read the first two Stormlight Archive books. Then there is the second era of Mistborn, which takes up the next three books in a much later time period than the original – and unlike most epic fantasy, it actually has technological advancements!
If you have read the books/stories and like them, and want to see more, then check out… well, the Stormlight Archive. These books are absolutely massive – each one is like a brick made out of paper – but they don’t feel that way. Reading the first one actually flew by pretty quickly for me – it took longer for me to read The Great Gatsby. These are ones that are best appreciated when you’ve read Sanderson’s other works and understand the universe they exist in; they delve into the cosmology of the Cosmere and how things got to be the way they are.
And the Cosmere is still expanding: Sanderson will be releasing a new Stormlight Archive book this November, and a new Mistborn novel after that. Furthermore he has plans for a bunch of other books, including a sequel to Warbreaker, two more trilogies for Mistborn, two more Elantris books, more Stormlight Archive, and a prequel series that he’s planning after the Stormlight Archive has concluded. And who knows? He may get other ideas for novels, novellas or short stories along the way.
So if you want epic fantasy that doesn’t just copy Tolkien, Martin or one of the other big names, Sanderson is a good option (especially since the Mistborn trilogies advance technology over time, and one future one will be a space opera!). And I haven’t even gotten into his non-Cosmere stuff…
I am old enough to remember before Google effectively ran the universe and Wikipedia was the main source of information, meaning that by Internet standards, I am pretty much Methusaleh. I also remember when phones plugged into the wall. But that means that I remember the days before you could go into a rabbit hole of information that could lead you to strange new obsessions in a matter of minutes.
Which brings me to Susanna Clarke. If you haven’t heard of Susanna Clarke, she is the brilliant author of the fantasy known as Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, a story about feuding magicians in Regency England, with fairies and the Napoleonic War. If you haven’t read it, give it a try. It’s like if Jane Austen decided to collaborate with Diana Wynne-Jones – if that sounds good to you, you might enjoy it. Also, the miniseries the BBC adapted from it is quite good as well.
But that book is not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about Piranesi, her not-yet-released third book/second novel. The book is apparently about an infinitely large and complex house with an ocean within its walls, and it sounds like there may be something about parallel worlds or something like that. The summary is a little blurry, but that’s probably because it isn’t a “regular” fantasy novel, and there’s an element of mystery.
But I decided to google “Piranesi” to learn more. And lo and behold, I found very little information about the novel, and quite a bit about one Giambattista Piranesi, who lived in the 18th century.
Unlike some, I am not going to pretend that I knew all about Piranesi in order to sound more sophisticated. I freely admit that there are artistic spheres, genres and disciplines that I know virtually nothing about, because I either have very little interest in them or have not had the chance to study them extensively. Etchings are one of these areas.
But I really was swept away by Piranesi’s artwork.
I don’t know about Clarke’s creative process, because to my knowledge she does not have a website or social media. But I wonder if these etchings in some way inspired the novel Piranesi. Not necessarily in the sense of the plot, because as far as I can tell, Piranesi’s etchings don’t really have a “narrative” that you can discern…
… but more in the sense that some of these etchings give a sense of structures with immense space, age and complexity. Sometimes they feel downright fantastical or otherworldly. And that sounds like the aesthetic for the House in Piranesi.
So nothing too deep, just me sharing that I like Piranesi’s etchings, and I wonder if Clarke was inspired in some way by the aesthetic of his architectural studies.
Also, check out Piranesi when it comes out. And read Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. That’s all.
My most beloved genres are science fiction and fantasy… fantasy a little more than sci-fi, since I have limited tolerance for the intolerance of many sci-fi writers. But when I was but a wee cynic, I was a devoted watcher of murder mysteries – Agatha Christie stuff, some Ngaio Marsh adaptations, and the wonderful Murder She Wrote. Some of my earliest television memories are of these shows.
And I still do watch mysteries now, although a lot of the more recent Christie stuff has turned me off. I tried watching Scandinavian murder mysteries, but they… how do I put this?… made me want to blow my brains out because everything is so overcast, depressing and bleak. Wales is a close second with Y Gwyll. So I get a great deal of my murder mystery viewing from merrie olde Englande.
But there’s a big exception: The Brokenwood Mysteries, a charming little series from the beautiful land of New Zealand, the country of Lord of the Rings and Flight of the Conchords. If this is what this country has to offer, I would love to see more mystery series from them.
Part of that is the energy that New Zealand seems to have. Now, I admit I have never been to New Zealand, and I don’t know a lot of people from New Zealand. But the people I have met and the media I’ve consumed from that country give off a very mellow feel – not pushovers, but people who don’t get too overexcited, too bleak or too angry, and are generally pretty welcoming and pleasant. That’s the energy this has, even in its darker episodes or when it tackles serious topics like molestation.
So this series takes place in the town of Brokenwood, which starts out as a quaint little small town but acquires new attractions and institutions every time it needs them (like a women’s prison, several wineries, a major country music show, a whole steampunk community and a historical village). It’s kind of like Cabot Cove in that regard. The main detective is Mike Shepherd, a much-married-and-oft-divorced detective who moves to Brokenwood (and buys a house with a failing vineyard) after solving a complex case that stems from a botched murder investigation years earlier. I’m not going to tell you what that case was, because I really want you to watch the show yourself.
But the thing is, Mike is very quirky. He’s a country music enthusiast with a love of vintage stuff (sort of like a middle-aged hipster), and he has conversations with murder victims. He’s backed by the less quirky younger cops, Detective Kristin Sims and Detective Constable Sam Breen, who are relatively normal. Breen does have some comic relief, though, because every single interview he does with a suspect – and sometimes with people who aren’t suspects – ends up a disaster. For instance, he ends up in the wilderness with possum fat on his face. Or a mental patient takes apart the interview table. Or he has to deal with a UFO conspiracy theorist.
There’s also Dr. Gina Kadinsky, a hilarious Russian medical examiner who has all sorts of weird proverbs and sayings and viewpoints that always have Mike off-kilter. Also when someone gets stabbed, she will bring out slabs of meat and stab them with different implements to see what probably did it.
There’s also an array of supporting characters who cycle in and out of the various episodes over the length of the series, including:
Jared Morehu, a Maori man who lives next door to Mike, and who is a sort of local jack-of-all-trades who sometimes helps out.
Frodo, a rather unfortunate little man who goes through various jobs and tends to accidentally be close to suspects and crime scenes.
Mrs. Marlowe, a very socially active old lady with a very lurid imagination.
Dennis Buchanan, an annoying lawyer with an…. interesting sex life.
Ray Neilson, a local grumpy pub owner who runs a Lord of the Rings-themed tour on the side and occasionally gets drunk with country roadies.
And there are a bunch of other characters who float in and out in various episodes, and there’s no way of knowing what part they’ll play. A suspect from an early episode is a murder victim later on. Another recurring character turns out to be a murderer. But it really gives a feeling of an actual community to have characters floating through in different places, knowing each other and being fleshed out with their subsequent appearances.
I may be making The Brokenwood Mysteries sound like it’s almost comedic, but it’s not. It does have a lot of moments and characters who are lighter-hearted compared to many American or British shows – or, heaven forbid, Scandinavian shows – but it does give due gravity to serious, sad topics that are central to the plots, like gaslighting, molestation, infidelity, and so on. Sometimes it ends on a relatively downer note, even if the bad guy is caught.
But I also don’t want to make it sound too depressing. The murders are pretty colorful and varied, not just your garden-variety poisonings and stabbings – some are lurid, some are bizarre (caffeine poisoning), some will make you wince (the skydiving incident), and so on. But they are very rarely boring murders; there’s always something like a tanto or a dead bride to keep things interesting. Then Breen will have a nightmarish time talking to suspects, Gina will say or do something weird, Mike will go on about country music or his old car, Kristen will make coffee and it will be bad… and you’ll smile despite all the blood and death.
And furthermore… Brokenwood just has a very oddly homey, welcoming feeling to it. Despite the high murder rate, it feels like a place you would want to live – it’s small-towny and close-knit, but at the same time it’s full of interesting people and things. And that mellow, laid-back feeling of New Zealand media just adds to the feeling.
So if you like murder mysteries, or New Zealand, or both… check out The Brokenwood Mysteries. There have been twenty-four hour-and-a-half-long episodes thus far, and it’s a good series to binge.
I absolutely love the overall work of Marissa Meyer. No, not the ex-president of Yahoo!, but the author of assorted sci-fi and fantasy books, most notably the Lunar Chronicles series. I’ve read all her books to date, and I’ve enjoyed them all except for the Alice in Wonderland prequel Heartless. Please let it be noted that I am not saying Heartless is bad, because it’s not. It’s objectively quite good. I just didn’t enjoy it because it’s a very bleak, rather depressing book. If you enjoy that sort of book, by all means, descend upon it like a swarm of locusts and gobble it up.
And like most of her readers, I was first introduced to Marissa Meyer through the Lunar Chronicles’ first volume, Cinder, which is a retelling of the Cinderella fairy tale with an Asian sci-fi twist, with interstellar politics and a plague. I won’t go into too many details about the overall plot, which stretches over four books, a prequel, a collection of short stories, and a sequel two-part graphic novel. But suffice to say that each of the main books focuses on a fairy tale that is reimagined in a sci-fi setting – Red Riding Hood, Snow White, Rapunzel – which is folded into Meyer’s universe of the oppressive Lunar civilization, a plague, futuristic unified versions of Africa, Asia and Europe, and so on.
So if you enjoy science fiction, or if you enjoy fairy tales… or both… this is a good young-adult series. It also has some pretty healthy romances in it, while still including some superficial bad-boy/Prince Charming archetypes.
The original covers were fairly pretty, but I absolutely love the new covers that they’re rereleasing the books with. As in, I might buy the books again so I can possess these beautiful covers.
Also, read the Renegades trilogy. It’s also very good. Maybe I’ll babble about that later.
I like books. I like free things. I like Cory Doctorow.
So it’s probably a good thing that those three things go together: Cory Doctorow writes books, and some of them are legally available for free on the Internet. Not all of them, but certainly enough for you to get your toes extremely wet… maybe even your ankles… and experience a decent sampling of his oeuvre.
For instance, his website https://craphound.com has the books Little Brother and its sequel Homeland,Pirate Cinema, Down And Out In the Magic Kingdom,Eastern Standard Tribe, Makers, With A Little Help, For The Win, A Place So Foreign, The Rapture of the Nerds, Someone Comes To Town Someone Leaves Town and Overclocked free to download in a few different formats.
I would recommend downloading and reading these various books, leaving your viewpoints on Amazon and Goodreads (and please, for the sake of my sanity, do more than just say “I liked it” or some other one-sentence “review” that doesn’t elaborate on anything), and – if you enjoy Doctorow’s work and you have the spare money to do so – buying them to support him. Because that’s what we should do when an author challenges the copyright fascists and their flawed logic.