Sunday, December 30, 2018

Top Books I read in 2018

I read 57 books in 2017, and here are the top 5. Only two of these books were from authors I had not discovered before. I will be reading more of their books in 2019.

An Engineered Injustice by William Myers (2018)
This is the second in the “Philadelphia Legal” trilogy, a loose set of three legal novels. In this one, an idealistic criminal defense attorney, Vaughn Coburn, takes on a personal case involving his cousin Eddy. Eddy is the surviving engineer of a massive passenger train crash in North Philadelphia. Despite being blamed for the crash, there is more to this case than meets they eye. And Vaughn finds himself in the targets of malicious attorneys, corrupt railroad men and a mob boss. With stakes sky-high, Vaughn is literally in the fight of his life.

The Outsider by Stephen King (2018)
King is a master storyteller and this one does not disappoint. This combines a mystery with the supernatural without resorting to horror. It starts with a boy killed and violated in a town park. Eyewitnesses and physical evidence point unambiguously to a popular citizen. Cut and dried case. Except the man, Terry Maitland, was in a different location with a clear-cut alibi. How can he be in two places at once? The Outsider delivers surprise after supernatural surprise to a shocking ending.

Sometimes I Lie by Alice Feeney (2018)
Amber Reynolds, the protagonist, wakes up in a hospital but is in a coma. She can hear everything but cannot communicate. What happened to her? What kind of accident was she in? What happened a week earlier that precipitated these events? What does she lie about? The book oscillates between the present and the recent past, with every chapter revealing a new secret until the very end. This is a brilliant psychological thriller that twists and turns until you’re left like a pretzel.

Vox by Christina Dalcher (2018)
Set in a futuristic, dystopian America, women are limited to speak just 100 words per day. A bracelet monitors this and provides an electric shock if the count is exceeded. Sharply provocative, the heroine Dr Jean McClellan needs to save herself, her daughter, and the fairer sex. A mashup of The Handmaid’s Taleand Christian Nation(both great books) this is a chilling read of what could be if we are not careful.

The 49th Mystic / Rise of the Mystics by Ted Dekker (2018)
I loved Ted Dekker’s Circle trilogy of Black, Red and White. But that was then climaxed in a fourth book, Green. Dekker brings a pair of books that continues that great series and brings it to a fulfilling culmination. Possibly the best books I read in 2018, to enjoy these you have to have read the earlier set. If you have, then you will thrill to find Raychelle Mathews can travel in her dreams to the future world of Thomas Hunter. And it is her destiny that will either free both worlds, present and future, or leave it in the evil hands of the Shatikai. To do so, she must find seven seals before the time runs out. A thrill ride for us and for the blind girl who can see once more.

Thursday, November 22, 2018

Turkey Films 2018: movies released in 2018

Once more we find ourselves at Turkey Day in the US. Although, it's a great time to give thanks for the many blessings we have received this year, it is also a time for reflection. Some of us lost loved ones this year and there is a deep and profound sadness that comes with that. But we are still surrounded by family and friends, loved ones who care for us and make life worth living. Today there is ample food, turkey for most. And of course turkey films. This is where we substitute the word turkey for a word in the movie title. This year's theme is movies released sometime in 2018.

So, without further ado:
  • Fifty Turkeys Freed
  • A Turkey in Time
  • 7 Turkeys in Entebbe
  • Ready Turkey One
  • Won’t You be my Turkey
  • Jurassic World: Fallen Turkey
  • The Turkey who Dumped Me
  • Crazy Rich Turkeys
  • A Turkey is Born
  • Bohemian Turkey

(C) Martin Baggs, 2018

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Bohemian Rhapsody -- Mama mia, let me go see this

Director: Bryan Singer, 2010 (PG-13)

Bohemian Rhapsody opens July 13, 1985 with Freddie Mercury about to go on stage at LiveAid. But then it cuts back to 1970 and the movie moves inexorably to Queen’s 20 minute mini-concert that changed music forever.

The film begins with an unknown Indian Parsi college student, Farrokh Bulsara, handling baggage at Heathrow. With bad teeth and small frame, he is just a poor boy from a poor family. His dad just wants him to knuckle down and become British, slaving away. But he sees no escape from reality. Until he decides he could be the new lead singer for a student rock band called Smile. Once they change their name to Queen, the poor boy is transformed. No longer Farrokh, he is Freddie Mercury, the flamboyant and energetic performer at the front of the band.

Like most biopics, Bohemian Rhapsodyrelies on the performance of the actor. Here, Rami Malek (Mr RobotThe Master) delivers an astonishing performance to inhabit the role of Freddie. Like Gary Oldman in last year’s The Darkest Hour, Malek surely deserves a best actor nomination if not the award itself.

Queen’s success on the road parallels Freddie’s descent into drink and drugs and homosexuality. Bohemian Rhapsody does not delve too deeply into this side of Mercury’s life. It stays on the surface. We see brief shots of dark homo-erotic nightclubs, but nothing explicit. There is only enough to feel the need and desire of Freddie for something he was lacking. What he couldn’t find in his fiancĂ©e Mary (Lucy Boynton, Sing Street), he never found in his long-time personal manager and lover, Paul (Allen Leech, Tom  Branson in Downton Abbey). As Jim, Freddie’s later partner declares, “Come and find me when you decide to like yourself.”

Three songs and two scenes really stand out for me. The first song is “Somebody to Love”. This song seems to characterize Mercury. He needs a friend and a lover, and goes through most of the film and life searching in vain, in all the wrong places. Toward the end, when he has left Queen to go solo, he is living in Munich with Paul. Orgies are the daily norm until Mary comes back. We all need somebody to love. We all need friends. Sycophants may surround us, but they do not support us. Freddie found this out the hard way. 

The second song is “Who Wants to Live Forever”. In the film, Freddie sings this in a poignant moment after he knows he has AIDS and before he is ready to perform at LiveAid. He clearly does want more time. We probably all do. Most people, if honest with themselves, want somebody to love and want to live forever. Jesus is that somebody and he has offered us the way to live forever (Jn. 14:6). We can live forever with him through him and his sacrifice (Jn. 3:16).

The two scenes are matching bookends. One occurs early in the film. A long-haired Farrokh stands up to his father, nose-to-nose, and says sarcastically of working hard to be a success in Britain, “How’d it work out for you?” But at the end, a wiser, shorter-haired Freddie stands up to his dad, pulls him into an embrace and says, “Good thoughts, good words, good deeds,” a Zoroastrian family maxim. He has come home. He recognizes the value of family when time is short. He leaves his family in tears. And this scene left me in tears. Family is fundamental. To Freddie, Queen was family. 

The final song is the eponymous “Bohemian Rhapsody”. At over six minutes, without a chorus, and a mashup of six genres, EMI refused to release it as a single. When it did come out, it was panned by critics almost unanimously. Yet it became a commercial success. It rode the UK charts to number one and stayed there for nine weeks. Following Mercury’s death, it was rereleased in 1991, it spent another 5 weeks in the number one spot. It eventually became the third-best selling UK single of all time. The film spends some time highlighting the efforts the band put in to record this operatic rock song and the passion they felt about it. In one scene, they implore Ray Foster (Mike Myers), the EMI record producer, to release it as the single from their “Night at the Opera” album. But he says the song is too long for radio and is not one that “teenagers can crank up the volume in their car and bang their heads to", clearly a reference to the iconic scene in Myer’s epic movie Wayne’s Worldwhere indeed they are head-banging to Bohemian Rhapsody. This song, written in 1975, has stood the test of time as a rock classic, and is a favorite go-to for many a karaoke-singer, including at least one of my kids.

The climax, of course, as pointed out above, is the LiveAid set. Queen was among more than 75 acts to perform. All the big rock bands of the 70s were scheduled for this 16 hour concert. The English version was at a packed out Wembley Stadium but televised around the world to more than 1 billion viewers. The moment Freddie and the band go on stage, the atmosphere becomes electric. And Freddie commands the audience in a performance that stole the show and has been called the best live performance ever. The film matches the concert set almost to the tee. Side-by-side comparisons of Malek’s Freddie with the real thing are almost indistinguishable. Although Malek is not really singing. While he sand some parts, the producers inserted vocal stems from Queen as well as filled in with a Canadian vocalist. This notwithstanding, the concert pulled the audience in, as Queen often did, with a mixup of six songs, starting with a raw version of Bohemian Rhapsody. They closed with two anthems, “We Will Rock You” and “We are the Champions”, songs designed and written to bring the audience in, to have them participate and feel part of the Queen family. What songs they were.

LiveAid raised more than $125 million in famine relief for Ethopia. For Queen, it gave them a world stage again and resurrected their career. Having stolen the show, they were given a world tour, their final, with 26 shows, including two at Wembley. A fitting finale.

Hollywood loves a homosexual film, such as Brokeback MountainMoonlightCall Me by Your Name. But mark me, Bohemian Rhapsody is not a homosexual film. It is simply a story of a man caught up in his sexuality wanting love. He found success as perhaps the ultimate performer, but spent too many years without true love. Is this the real life, is this just fantasy? For Freddie, real life and real love found him at the end. In the form of Jim Hutton If you like Queen’s songs, you will love this film.

(C) Martin Baggs, 2018

Monday, January 1, 2018

Top Books I read in 2017

Movies and books are my passion. I read 61 books in 2017, and here are the top 5 I read last year. Interestingly, 4 of these books were from authors I had not discovered before. I will be reading more of their books in 2018.

A Criminal DefenseA Criminal Defense by William Myers (2017)
This is a smart defense lawyer novel that kept me guessing to the very end. It's the first book in a trilogy, apparently, and the second installment comes out this month.

Falling Stars (Kyle Achilles #3)
Falling Stars by Tim Tigner (2017)
I have not read a book by Tigner that I did not enjoy. He writes thrillers that are page-turners with a focus on new technology. This book is the sequel to Pushing Brilliance, featuring former CIA agent Kyle Achilles. It's good. And I have had the privilege of reading his beta versions and giving feedback on the plat and the text.

The End of Lies
The End of Lies by Andrew Barrett (2017)
This is another new author that gave me the chance to read a preview copy. Here Becky arrives home to find her husband stabbed to death and two thugs ransacking the house. She doesn't know what they are looking for but has to find it or they'll kill her. Nothing is quite what it seems in this fast paced mystery.

Stillhouse Lake (Stillhouse Lake, #1)
Stillhouse Lake by Rachel Caine (2017)
This was an Amazon First book. I love serial killer mysteries, and this is one of those with a twist. The protagonist is not the killer, who is in prison, but his wife. Living under a new name by the lake, trying to avoid the reaches of her husband, bodies start piling up and she falls under suspicion. Who is killing them? Who knows her identity? It's a great read. And it's another trilogy, with the second book out already.


No Exit by Taylor Adams (2017)
This was my favorite book I read last year. It's Christmas, but college student DarbyThorne finds herself stranded with four strangers at a Colorado rest stop by a freak blizzard. But when she sees a kidnapped child in one of the parked vehicles, this misadventure turns deadly. Adams ratchets up the tension, and inserts so many twists I felt like I was playing Twister! It's fantastic.

Happy New Year, and happy reading!