Recommendation: Diana Wynne-Jones

I feel like fantasy author Diana Wynne-Jones doesn’t get as much love and attention as she deserves.

Oh, other authors often laud her, like Neil Gaiman, and Studio Ghibli has adapted two of her books into animated movies (one amazing though a loose adaptation, one mediocre). But she’s not a household name despite the charm and imaginativeness of her books, and the movies based on her books are more associated with Studio Ghibli than the original author.

She did experience something of a renaissance several years ago during the Harry Potter craze of the late nineties to late aughts – it was a time when people were hopping on the bandwagon of children’s/young-adult’s fantasy stories, hoping to strike Potter gold. Some of these would-be franchises were good (Artemis Fowl), and some were bleeding-from-the-eyes-bad (G.P. Taylor’s Christian fantasies presented as Potter alternatives).

Diana Wynne-Jones seemed like a natural choice to reprint and promote – she had already written a huge number of fantasy stories, often involving witches and wizards. She was also British, and she had a great deal of the same charm of style and setting that had been presented in Rowling’s books. And she was imaginative – arguably much more so than Rowling – with multiverses, dimensional hopping, twists and even science-fiction woven into the fantasy.

Maybe that’s why she didn’t become as famous as Rowling – her books take more effort to comprehend, and a structure and framework that take more time to comprehend. A school for magic is a little easier to understand than the Chrestomanci universe, which has many different parallel worlds. Or a story based on the ballad of Tam Lin. Or the time-bending antics of A Tale of Time City. Or the plot twists that blow your mind in Archer’s Goon, The Power of Three and Deep Secret.

But obviously, less popular doesn’t mean less good. Jones came up with some wildly clever ideas and plumbed them to their depths, sometimes with clever yet affectionate parodies of the fantasy genre (and many affectionate nods to J.R.R. Tolkien). She was also even better than Rowling at writing twisty mysteries within her fantasy stories.

The Chrestomanci stories are a wonderful series of stories about Christopher Chant, a supremely powerful magician born with nine lives who travels between worlds. He’s not always the center of the stories, because they tend to be focused on the people who become involved with him in these worlds – kids forbidden from using magic, a seemingly ordinary boy whose narcissistic sister is a gifted sorceress, a Romeo and Juliet story, a boy cursed with bad karma, and so on.

Then there are the Magid stories. Sadly, Jones only wrote two of these – Deep Secret and The Merlin Conspiracy, but they are among my favorites. The first one is a bizarre sci-fantasy story set at a scifi/fantasy convention, in which a colorful cast of characters are trying to figure out who the heir of an interstellar empire is. The second is a world-hopping love story between the best character of Deep Secret and a girl from another world, where royalty is magic and a conspiracy may take over magic throughout the multiverse.

I won’t summarize every book she’s written, only say that they involve time travel, Norse gods, a malevolent old woman with supernatural powers, a Goon, a star in a dog’s form, a ghost attempting to solve her own murder, a game diving into everyone’s favorite books, a Celtic-flavored fantasy that I can’t describe without spoiling the twist, and various other things.

So if you like stories with imagination, a dark edge and that clever, slightly quirky Britishness, than her books are a must-read.

Recommendation: Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes

The Avengers film series is about as mainstream as you can get today – I could argue that Avengers: Endgame was one of the most anticipated movies of all time.

But back in 2010 the MCU was just getting started, and at that time, we got the best Avengers show – and possibly one of the best Marvel shows – to date: Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. While it has some obvious influence from the recent Iron Man movies, this is mostly doing its own interpretation of Marvel’s comics, and it is glorious. It also has one of the most wonderful theme songs of all time. If you don’t believe me, google “avengers fight as one” and check out the music videos people have made.

But aside from the awesomeness of “Fight As One,” this show is amazing. Part of what makes it amazing is that… it isn’t strictly a kids’ show. It’s more a piece of superhero media that happens to be appropriate for children, but it’s serious and intricate enough that adults will probably enjoy it just as much.

The first half of the first season is pretty much about bringing the team together “as one.” You’ve got Tony already established as Iron Man, since the Iron Man movies had already put him in the public consciousness. But it gradually introduces us to The Hulk, Hawkeye, Ant-Man and the Wasp, Black Widow (who is a recurring ally/enemy rather than a full-on Avenger), Captain America, Thor, and sometimes Black Panther.

And for big Marvel buffs, it does indeed have characters that Marvel didn’t have the movie rights to in 2010, like the Fantastic 4, Wolverine, Spiderman, etc, as well as less prominent Marvel characters like Iron Fist and Power Man/Luke Cage, who are absolutely wonderful and deserved their own spinoff show. And it had the Guardians of the Galaxy before that group became big, as well as now-established characters like Vision and Miss Marvel (now known as Captain Marvel, and much more likable and relatable than in the live-action film).

Anyway, after a supervillain nearly destroys New York, Tony Stark decides to assemble the Avengers, a team that can recapture the 75 superpowered bad guys who have just escaped from SHIELD. So they all move into his urban mansion, and have some personal friction with each other. Just because they’re heroes doesn’t mean they all get along at first – the Hulk is grumpy and a little paranoid, Cap and Tony have differing ideas about technology and what’s important, Ant-Man despises Tony because he fights instead of rehabilitating criminals, and Hawkeye is a little pissed at SHIELD because he was framed.

But those rough edges, that friction, those personality quirks are what make the characters feel so likable and real. They’re not perfect, but they are likable, relatable and heroic. When they’re hanging out, or having conflicts, or making jokes, it really feels like they’re reluctant but fast friends.

The story arcs that follow include a lot of really fascinating conflicts, like a time-warping conflict with Kang the Conqueror, a gamma dome that mutates everyone inside it, invasion by the Kree, the Masters of Evil, the murderous android Ultron, a trip to Thor’s home realm of Asgard, etc. The second season has an overarching conflict with the Skrulls, who sow confusion and mistrust among Earth’s mightiest heroes and make things a lot more difficult for them, both amongst each other and towards the world.

Sadly, Earth’s Mightiest Heroes ran for only two seasons, when it was clearly laying out plotlines and groundwork for much more. Apparently Disney didn’t want a story with good writing, intelligence, all-ages appeal, great stylized animation and well-developed characters, so they gave us the bland, simplistic, messy and juvenile Avengers Assemble instead. Bleah.

So yeah, if you can find this series, definitely watch it. It’s packed with plot, excellent writing, and it’s as rewarding a watch for adults as for kids.

YouTube Recs – Ordinary Sausage

Let’s sausage!

I love sausages. Make your sex puns now, get them out of the way. I will try all sorts of sausages, with all kinds of fillings, though my favorite is and remains Italian hot sausages.

Which brings me to Ordinary Sausage, one of the oddest and yet most hypnotic channels you will find on Youtube. It belongs to a very odd man who sounds like Peter Griffin, and who owns a meat grinder and a sausage maker. With that meat grinder and sausage maker, he endeavors to create sausages both divine and satanic, sausages that no sane mind would ever think of.

Sometimes he makes sausages out of various animal organs. Sometimes he makes them out of liquids. Or full meals from restaurants. Or just things like lobster or candy corn that don’t belong in a sausage casing, yet somehow end up in there.

And yes, the water sausage, which actually went viral. Why that one? I don’t know.

I find water sausage and air sausage and ice sausage to be the least interesting videos he’s done, because… you know what they taste like. There’s no suspense, no mystery. As opposed to, “What will a Slim Jim sausage taste like? Or a candy apple sausage?” where you really do not know what the answer will be.

And these videos are, to put it simply, quirky. It would be pretty dull if he just ground up ingredients and put them in a sausage, but he has funny running gags, rants, visual embellishments, songs, and of course sometimes his grinder just gives up and stops working right because he fed it nuts or a fish skeleton.

Once I found this man’s channel, I spent the next few hours watching every sausage tutorial he had. Hopefully you’ll do the same.


Tasting History – Youtube Recs

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.

So give his videos a try, and be sure to subscribe if you like what you see. He seems like a cool guy, and I’m still checking out his backlog of videos.

Recommendation: Murder She Wrote

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.

Recommendation: The Brokenwood Mysteries

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.