Monday, March 26, 2007


Sorry for the lack of updates. I have been in the process of moving for the past week and will continue to be busy through this week. I hope to get back to regular updates over the weekend. Till then I hope this video tide you over:

Koda Kumi's "Shake It."

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

YouTubesday: Look Out! Muppets!

This week's YouTubesday post is going to be a bit smaller than normal. I had a busy weekend and I am in the middle of moving so I do not have the time to dedicate to making this as awesome as it could be, however I HAVE to share a couple of these videos I have found. Let's get to it, shall we?

Look out! Muppets!
aka. Puppets can be bastards too.

I have very fond memories of many of the characters from the show. One of my favorites, who made a reappearance in my life in colleg, was the Swedish Chef. Here he is dealing with a chicken:

That seems to have not worked out so well for him. Perhaps he will have better luck with a lobster:

Then again maybe not. Better try something more passive like a cake:

Perhaps it is best if we just move on. Poor Chef. For what appeared, on the surface, to be a show aimed at children, the Muppet Show was remarkably adept at mocking pop culture. For example we have Beaker singing that old classic "Feelings":

Then there was this meeting of the, well, you better just watch:

The Muppet Show was not only aware of pop culture, but it has ingrained itself into pop culture with this:

And then there were my favorites, Statler and Waldorf:

Finally technology has reached the point where people can, in the words of comic geekdom, rape my childhood:

Have you no decency!! (That was pretty funny though.)

I hope you enjoyed this little stroll down memory lane. Now tune in next week as we explore the wonderful world of Asian advertising! Till then keep it real.

Monday, March 19, 2007

BOOK REVIEW - The Wallace

The Wallace
Nigel Tranter
Coronet, 1998 (1975)
442 pages

Now we move from 9th century England to Scotland during what is perhaps that country’s most critical period, the final years of the 13th century and the beginning of the 14th century. As the book opens King Edward I of England has recently deposed King John Baliol of Scotland and send him into exile in France and asserted his perceived right to rule the nation as the Lord Paramount of Scotland, a title granted to him when Edward arbitrated the succession question left by the death of Queen Margaret. The refusal of some of the Scots lords and knights to submit to Edward’s rule and do him homage have led to vicious treatment of many at the hands of the English army and the death of more than a few of the resistant lords. This is the stage onto which erupts the now familiar character of William Wallace, the titular character of this book, which tells the story of the final eight years of Wallace’s life; years in which Wallace went from being a simple rural knight’s son to a national hero.

Even though this is only the second or fourth book I have read by Nigel Tranter, the first or first three being his Bruce trilogy in omnibus format, he is one of my favorite authors. His books are always satisfying in a very intellectual manner. The prose is challenging to read without being burdensome and he always manages to throw in a few words which send me scurrying for a dictionary. While not as compulsively readable to Iggulden, Tranter’s novels are highly enjoyable and when you are done you feel as though you have learned a thing or two about his subject. I would definitely recommend this book to anyone with an even passing interest in the time period or the character of William Wallace, particularly since this book follows the historical record FAR better than the film which made William Wallace a household name in the United States.

Friday, March 16, 2007

BOOK REVIEW - Lords of the North

Lords of the North
Bernard Cornwell
HarperCollins, 2007
317 pages

And now my mad dash through the stack of historical fiction which threatens to overwhelm my night table brings me to Britain in the late 9th century. Lords of the North is the third novel in Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon Stories which chronicles the adventures of Uhtred of Bebbanburg, the son of a Northumbrian lord. Orphaned at a young age and taken in and raised by a Danish lord, Uhtred rises to become crucial to Alfred the Great’s campaigns to keep Wessex free of the Danish invaders. The previous book, The Pale Horseman, ends with Alfred’s unlikely victory against Guthrum’s army of Danes and Lords of the North picks up with Uhtred leaving Wessex and heading north to lay claim to his father’s fortress in Bebbanburg, the current site of Bamburgh Castle. As with any other good adventure things go awry and Uhtred is distracted from his goal by the presence of enemies and yet another semi-helpless king, this time Guthred of Northumbria.

Overall Cornwell delivers another yeoman’s effort in this book, a sturdy and enjoyable read to be sure, but nothing that blew me out of the water. I am certain that part of this stems more from the frustration/elation I felt upon reaching the end of the novel and discovering that there is more to come. On the one hand I am tired of getting involved in series which are still being written as it makes the wait agonizing and, due to my consumption of media and poor memory, it can be a chore to buy a book a year later and pick up where I left off. Pity me. Pity me. Having said that, I am certainly looking forward to the next book in this series.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

The Death of Captain America

It has been a while since I have written about comics. The primary reason for this is that I found it is not something I necessarily love writing about and for me writing needs to be a labor of love otherwise it is a chore. Recent issues, pun intended, have left me with the feeling that I have something to say thus you will be graced with another one of my screeds full of fan-boy raving. Shall we to it, then?

Captain America is easily one of my top five favorite Marvel characters therefore his “death” is the latest issue is a bit of a downer for me. As Kevin Church pointed out there is plenty of material out there, most of which I have not read, therefore my disappointment was not that I will not be able to spend “quality time” with Steve Rogers, my dejection at this development was more centered on the facts that the shock of his death was ruined for me by a combination that Marvel managed to stir up quite the tempest in the national media with the death and a few officemates felt the need to get my input on what the death of Captain America actually meant.

Since I have only been following Civil War, which I mistyped as Civil Wart, via the comicsblogoweb and I am NOTORIOUSLY slow in figuring out things in comic books (more on this later) I did not see this death coming. I am certain I lost some of my fan-boy cred in the office when I was surprised to hear about the demise of Captain America, and then displayed my cynical side when I pointed out that comic book death is, at least to the characters, a minor annoyance at best. I managed to recoup some cred when I rattled off a small list of characters which have gone to the great Long Box in the Sky only to be resurrected when convenient for the writers.

The reason this death upset me is the fact that it was spoiled by Marvel’s need to turn it in to a publicity stunt, which I imagine will only be complete once we get the inevitable “Death of Cap” issue of Wizard. On top of that I found most of the press coverage in rather poor taste, particularly as our service men and women are dying to promote the Bush Administration’s version of freedom and democracy.

All this comes to naught since I will continue to read Captain America. As someone, whom I am too lazy to try and track down right now, out on the comicsblogoweb pointed out, after the utter crap ending of Civil War this is about the only thing Ed Brubaker could do with the character. In the first two arcs of Daredevil Brubaker has already written a superhero in jail story followed by a superhero on the lam story. Additionally, in my humble opinion, a Captain America in jail story would not be that interesting, at least in terms of doing anything interesting with the character. That being said if it was to be done then of all the writers working for Marvel Ed Brubaker would be the one I would want to have at the helm.

Because I love you guys so much here is Stephen Colbert discussing the death of Captain America:

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Top 10 Tourist-san Pictures

Gabriel blogs about a street survey conducted by TBS (Tokyo housou) in which they find out the top 10 photos taken by foreign tourists in Japan. Lets see how I measure up to the average tourist-san:

10. Tsukiji Fish Market and giant maguro (tuna)
Well, I didn’t make it over here so NO FISH PICTURES FOR YOU!

9. Kimono
Guess what? NO KIMONO PICTURES FOR YOU! (Okay, that joke is so not funny any more.)

8. Japanese street signs
Of course I did! This is the exact sort of inane crap I take pictures of. For example:

7. Mt. Fuji
I didn’t make it to Fuji-san and therefore did not take any pictures there however I did buy a really nice picture of it on a post card. Two copies. One for sending and one for hiding in my journal. Also, I will go to Fuji-san and inundate you with pictures at some point in the future.

6. Vending machines
Much to my disappointment I did not see any really cool vending machines while in Japan, and believe me I was looking for them since I was supposed to bring back an assortment of “crap from vending machines” for a friend. This picture of people buying tickets for the subway is the closest thing I have to a picture of a vending machine.

5. Narita Airport
WTF? And you thought my vacation pictures were B-O-R-I-N-G, “Hey look, its an airport!” I took a pass on this one as there is nothing really cool to see at Narita and I LOATHE that airport.

4. Shibuya Crossing
You betchum Red Ryder!

And the statue of Hachiko.

Read Hachiko’s story here. (Interestingly Edinburgh also has a statue to a famously devoted dog however I never made it to Greyfriars Kirkyard.)

3. Asahi Beer Headquarters in Asakusa
With something referred to as a giant looking pile of $%!#, the Giant Golden Sperm*, or Golden Turd, how could I pass it up? Seriously when I went to take the pictures I wanted to see the Asahi Beer Headquarters because I enjoy their beer and the building is colored to look like a glass of beer with a head on top.

* If your sperm looks like this then, well, get that looked at. Seriously.

2. Tokyo Imperial Palace
I had to get my castle fix in somehow and with the amount of time I had in Tokyo this was the logical solution. Quite frankly it was not all that as you could just wander around the outside.

1. Kaminari-mon (Thunder gate)
Yes, I took SEVERAL pictures of the Thunder Gate:

Heck, Nobuyuki took a picture of me in front of the Thunder Gate:

So I managed to hit 5.5 of these typical tourist photo-ops and all of the top four. Not too bad, if I do say so myself. To be honest I am very surprised the Meiji-jingu Shrine did not make the list. The park is incredibly beautiful and the shrine is impressive. Here are my two favorite picture from my visit to the shrine:

What can I say? I like the torii.

Thanks to James at for pointing this out to the unwashed masses.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

YouTubesday: Star Trekkin'

For quite some time now there has been talk in various quarters about how technology and the internet are going to democratize filmmaking. This theory, if you can even call it that, goes along the lines that as equipment prices drop and the quality of the equipment available to the average consumer increases, more and more people will be able to make and distribute films. So far I am not aware of any breakout successes that are attributable to these trends.

The one place where this theory is playing itself out is in the realm of fan-films, which brings us to this week's YouTubesday theme:

(Click on the title for an extra special surprise!)

As some of you may know I, from time to time, play at being a scriptwriter and one of the early secret wishes I had for my career was to get an episode of Star Trek on the air. Well, with the demise of Enterprise in 2005, that little dream had to go on hiatus. At least until I stumbled across the Starship Farragut website sometime late in 2005. I sent them a writing sample along with a release form and they, being suitably impressed with said sample, gave me the okay to write and submit a script. While I am still struggling with the script they have produced and released their first episode which I present here for your viewing pleasure.

Lets start with the first trailer with the obligatory captain's voice-over:

Then there is the second trailer with the movie trailer voice:

And then parts one through eight of the episode:

This release has re-energized me about getting my script done and submitted. This is one of the writing projects I have promised myself to complete this year. For more on Starship Farragut check out their site:

For those of you unfamiliar with the song from which I lifted the title for this post there is, surprise surprise, a video on YouTube and here it is:

Also if you are interested in some of the other Star Trek fan films currently in production you should check out the page for Star Trek: of Gods and Men or any of the links below:

And in honor of St. Patrick's Day, a little Scottish Star Trek:

Live long and prosper and come back next week when the theme will be Puppets Really Are Bastards.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Memories of Celtic Stone

One of the first years I went to the Texas Renaissance Festival I picked up the eponymous first cassette from the band Celtic Stone. I do not remember what year it was, and even though I was a latecomer to the CD bandwagon*, the fact that I was buying a cassette should give us some idea; lets put it somewhere around 1985 or 1986. I bought the tape because while listening to the band I heard a tune which was familiar to me from stories my mom would tell me about playing with her maternal grandfather (my mother’s mother’s father). He used to bounce her on his knee and hum a song to her, a song to which she did not know the title, or even if there was one. As it turns out it was "The Irish Washerwoman." Little did I know what buying this tape would do to my taste in music.

I loved this tape. When I was younger I was not allowed to listen to a lot of music, as I have previously discussed here, however I always loved music and, oddly enough, encouraged to be musical. Much like books it fires my imagination; I am, quite literally, able to lean back, close my eyes, and let it carry me away. This tape was one of the first experiences with folk music that did not involve Peter, Paul, and Mary, the Kingston Trio, or Simon & Garfunkel and thus opened my eyes to a whole new world of sound, one which I was allowed to listen to. It is because of that tape I tracked down Gary Coover’s brilliant “Shepherd’s Hey” program on KPFT and Gary built on these twelve songs, introducing me to bands such as Battlefield Band and the Chieftains, but I am getting a bit ahead of myself here.

I listened to that tape over and over and over. I particularly loved "Little Beggarman", "John Barleycorn", "The Irish Washerwoman/Swallowtail Jig", "Do You Love an Apple?", and "Two Magicians". Sadly eventually my love for the tape led to its demise and I was not smart enough to have made a copy. It has been years since the tape went the way of the Dodo, and it was something I missed whenever I would get in one of my Celtic music moods.

From time to time I would try and track down the tape again, checking in the used music stores and searching on-line. The only thing I was ever able to find was a webpage which indicated the band was defunct. I was bummed. Clearly I would not be able to replace this cassette in my collection. This resulted in a half-formed business idea where I would track down the masters and covert them to MP3s which I would then offer for sale either via on-line delivery or on a CD you could customize with your selection of tracks from our library. (Imagine my chagrin when far more industrious people would make this idea a reality to the tune of a couple of dollars profit.)

Eventually Celtic Stone passed into the realm of fond memory and was destined to stay there. Until last week. While wandering the forums somehow I managed to come across the homepage for Marc Gunn’s Irish & Celtic Music Podcast. After a bit more clicking around I decided to run my old search for Celtic Stone again and this time I hit paydata. The fourth entry down on my Google search was for the Celtic Stone page at some site called I listened to a couple of the samples from the CD to make sure I was getting the songs I so fondly remembered and when it became clear that I was getting at least some of them, I went ahead and plunked down my $17.22 for the CD.

This was Thursday so I was very pleasantly surprised when it arrived today. Although most of the tracks are not the ones on the tape I cherished into oblivion I spent the afternoon listening to the CD over and over and over again and it was good.

* My first CD player was the CD ROM drive my dad gave me for Christmas during my first year of college and my first CD was Battlefield Band’s Anthem for the Common Man.

Bonus Stuff

Because I am all about the extras I thought I might put some samples of Celtic Stone's work on here for you. By richt-clicking here and selecting "Save Link As..." you can download "Do You Love an Apple?" and by right-clicking here and selecting "Save Link As..." you can download "Two Magicians," which, to be honest, is one of the filthiest songs I have ever heard. Enjoy!

Friday, March 09, 2007

Funkywood Jamz! - Big in Japan

Since I am all about giving back to my readers I have added a little something special to the Opaite; a little something I like to call Funkywood Jamz! This little Flash object lets me stream tunes from my super-secret internet headquarters right into your house and so, from time to time, I will be changing up the mix of songs I am brining to you, the masses. When I change the songs I will post the play list here and talk a little about why I chose each song or something along those lines. Now let us begin our first journey into sound in a mix I like to call my Big in Japan Mix.

1. Tonight, Tonight, Tonight – Beat Crusaders (and in English)

I discovered this band while browsing in the Tower Records in Shibuya, which did not suffer the same fate as the other Tower Records in the world and thus is still open (and a pretty bad ass record store.) This is the first song off their CD titled, appropriately enough, “Tonight, Tonight, Tonight.” So far all of their songs I have heard feature lyrics in English, making it easy for us gaijin to follow along and the couple of YouTube clips lead me to believe these guys would be a blast to see live, so much so that I am considering planning my next trip to Japan with the intent of getting to see them in concert.

2. Cutey HoneyKoda Kumi (and in English)

I found Koda Kumi when someone posted her video for Shake It! to one of the bitorrent sites I used to frequent. In the next couple of sentences I am going to try to convince you that there are more reasons for me to listen to Koda Kumi however the reason I got into her stuff is because she is a full-blown hottie. After watching the video a couple of times I found myself humming Shake It! which falls firmly into the realm of hip-hop, and decided to seek out some more of Koda’s work and the very next thing I stumbled on was her recoding of the theme song for the live-action version of Go Nagai’s classic anime and manga. The only reason I included it here rather than use Shake It! was that I thought the sound of Cutey Honey worked a bit better with these other songs.

3. Stereo Nights – Takkyu Ishino

I pulled this song from the second entry in Sony’s Japan for Sale series of sampler CDs in which Sony pimps various Japanese artists to the dirty American devils. Takkyu Ishino also has tracks on volume 3 of the series and volume 1 of the Japan Not For Sale samplers. His music harkens back to the synth-pop of the ‘80s, a sound which I enjoy to an almost embarrassing degree. (The fourth volume of the Japan for Sale CDs, now being sold by Tofu Records, which I believe is a Sony imprint.)

4. Black Out Fall Out – Polysics

This song came from volume 3 of the Japan for Sale series and is included because it falls into the same vein as the above song.

5. Sunday People – Supercar (and in English)

With this song I wanted to pull back from the frontiers of electornica and get into more traditional guitar-driven pop/rock. This version of the song comes from Japan Not For Sale Vol. 1 however it is also available on their first CD titled Three Out Change.

6. Shangri-La – Denki Groove

Enough of that rock crap, lets make this first entry in the soon-to-be-legendary history of Funkywood Jamz FUNKY. That’s what Denki Groove brings to the mix; that and another shot of Takkyu Ishino. This track was also liberated from Japan Not For Sale Vol. 2.

7. World Wide Love Song – Lab Life

And here, in Lab Life’s "World Wide Love Song", we find a pretty good middle ground between synth-pop and guitar rock. Sadly I am not able to find anything about the band Lab Life, so all I can tell you is that this track comes to you from Japan Not For Sale Vol. 2 (apparently I liked this CD a lot) and is also available on the bands CD World’s End.

8. Goodbye and Good Luck – the brilliant green

I wanted to slow things down here at the end of the “mix” and I am a sucker for bands where the front-man is a woman therefore this track from the brilliant green. Seeing as how they made Time’s list of top contemporary acts from outside the U.S. (what a pretentious sort of list to have floating around, btw) along with groups like U2, Radiohead, Ziggy Marley, and Portishead, my taste in music can’t be that off. This is yet ANOTHER track from the overused Japan Not For Sale Vol. 2 but also appears on the trio’s eponymous freshmen effort.

9. Love, Do You Remember? – Mari Iijiima (as Lynn Minmei)

This is for all the otaku out there! When my fascination with all things Japan was in its larval stages one of the few sources of Japanese pop culture that was available to me was a pirated copy of the movie Super Dimensional Fortress Macross: Do You Remember Love?, more popularly know in the States as Macross Summer ’84. Minmei sings this song during the climactic battle to save humanity and for a young boy the battle scenes were pretty awesome. Since I have always been into music I tried to make a soundtrack for the movie by connecting a tape recorder to the audio outputs on the VCR. It was a crap recording but I wore it out from listening. There is no way I could put together a mix of J-pop and not include at least one song from that tape. Incidentally this version is pulled from the three-disc Macross: The Complete collection.

10. Big In Japan – Alphaville

Now if any of the regular readers are in the least bit surprised to find this song on here please let me know in the comments. I will dispatch a team of monkeys to beat some sense into you in the near future. This song is here for the joke and because I honestly like the song.

That’s it for the inaugural edition of Funkywood Jamz!, which, in case you are curious, is also what I named my iPod. Check back in a few weeks when I offer up more music with pretty bad commentary. Until then keep on rockin’ in the free world!

Thursday, March 08, 2007


Originally I was going to make a joke about my high school mascot, McDonalds, and the fact that I am curvalicious, but then I decided that all I really wanted to say here is that I look DAMN fine in a kilt*. Interested in one of your own? Check out an online community which I recently joined dedicated to the wearing of the kilt. Tell 'em James73** sent you!

* And considering how much I paid for the thing I sure as heck better!
** Aren't I terribly original with my online names?

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

BOOK REVIEW - Wolf of the Plains

Wolf of the Plains
Conn Iggulden
HarperCollins, 2007
458 pages

Hey kids guess what? Today I am serving up ANOTHER book review featuring the work of Conn Iggulden For those of you keeping track* that makes three out of the eight books I have read this year, which is 37.5%, and 1,569 of the 2,898 pages I have read so far this year, or 54%. Considering the kudos I have given his books recently and the fact that they compromise over half of the pages I have read so far this year (and we are just sixty-six days in) I think it is pretty clear that I like Conn Iggulden’s books. Perhaps more than is healthy. Let’s get to it, then.

Wolf of the Plains is the first book in a series spanning the career of Genghis Khan, beginning with, conveniently enough, with the birth of Temujin, as he was named, in the depths of a storm. Iggulden handles the circumstances surrounding Temujin’s birth in a short prologue before delving into the meat of the book. This books basically covers the time from when, at nine years of age, Temujin was taken to the Onggirat tribe to work in his future wife’s tribe until he reached manhood. While Temjuin’s father was returning to his tribe he was poisoned by Tartars and died, leaving the tribe without a leader and Temujin and his brothers without a father. Rather than accept a boy as leader, the tribe abandoned Temujin and his family to their fate.

I do not think it is a spoiler to point out the fact that Temujin survives the harsh Mongolian winter and begins to build a following. The novel culminates with Temujin leading the warriors of several tribes against the Tartars, cementing his reputation as a unifier of the Mongols and opening the door for his empire to be born.

To be honest I am not sure what praise I can heap on this novel that I have not already given to Iggulden’s previous works. I find all of his characters to be distinct individuals, even when they dip into the realm of cliché, and I have found that I tend to prefer his versions of characters over others. I enjoy his prose to a truly ridiculous degree and while I am reading his works I am able to envision the action in my head and this makes his books very difficult for me to put aside. Suffice to say that in Wolf of the Plains Conn Iggulden has served up another fascinating, and Twinkie-free, take on history, and this time a history with which not too many people have more than a passing familiarity. I highly recommend this book if historical fiction is something you can read.

* If anyone out there is actually keeping track of this sort of thing please stop. It takes creepy and obsessive to a whole new level of uncomfortableness and when I can say that, well, damn.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Feed Issues

According to a recent comment there are some issues with my Atom feed. Since there are not a lot of settings I can monkey with I went ahead and set up a site feed through If you read this blog via a feed then you may want to remove it and resubscribe via the handy links to the right.

Ignore the link way down at the bottom of the page which says Subscribe to:. I am trying to remove that from the template but I have yet to figure it out.

Finally would someone let me know if this problem has been fixed? Thanks!

YouTubesday: Hockey Fights!

Welcome to the inaugural YouTubesday post here on the Opiate. These posts will combine my love for lame word play (the title) and the wonder that is YouTube. Now without further gilding the lily and with no more ado* I present this weeks YouTubesday:


Every person out there loves hockey whether they know it or not, and judging by the NHL television ratings and attendance number there are a few of you cretins out there that have yet to figure this basic fact of life out for yourselves. For those of you who have not attended a hockey game you are really missing out. There are few things that can compare to the sheer excitement of a good hockey game. Well played hockey is a thing of beauty but well played hockey is not what keeps the knuckle-draggers in Philadelphia, New Jersey and Canada filling stadiums and, let us be honest with one another, us slightly more evolved people as well. We are all there in the hope that there will be a fight. It is with that in mind that I present the following bits from YouTube.

First up is a nine-and-a-half minute clip of brouhaha from a recent Ottawa Senators/Buffalo Sabres game.

That's right. From time to time even the goalies drop the gloves although that is rarely a good fight. Continuing on we have five goalie-on-goalie battles.

The more astute out there might have noticed that the second fight in the above clip featured Ray Emery, one of the goalies involved in the first battle royale. Of course the best fights are when the goons are allowed to go at it as in this clip wherein Rob Ray and Donald Brashear go at it.

And then every so often you have to fight off the fans.

Tie Domi is one of my favorite players and I agree with his policy on the manner in which the Flyers fans should be treated.

Finally there are hockey fights that just do not last long enough.

I hope you all enjoyed this first installment of YouTubesday. If you did leave an encouraging comment and I might dig up more clips for your viewing pleasure next week.

* The first person to guess which movie I stole this line from will get something spiffy, like a beer.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

BOOK REVIEW - Emperor: The Gods of War

Emperor: The Gods of War
Conn Iggulden
HarperCollins, 2006
517 pages

I am going to let you in on a little secret. When I blow off a day of work bets are I am going to spend that day reading. That is certainly what happened this past Monday when I managed to plow through the 517 pages of the final book in Conn Iggulden’s excellent Emperor series. I did not experience the same issues starting this book which I encountered with the third book in the series, Emperor: The Field of Swords which I discuss here. I attribute the problems I had getting into the third book entirely to the amount of time I took between completing the second and beginning the third as Iggulden is one of those writers I find compulsively readable.

This book begins with Pompey reading the Senate’s declaration which makes Caesar an outlaw and finally ends with Caesar’s death at the hands of Brutus and his co-conspirators, ironically in a theatre bearing Pompey’s name. Between those two events Iggulden shows Caesar’s ascension to the pinnacle of power in Rome, his improbable victories against Pompey’s forces in Greece culminating with his victory on the fields at Pharsalus. Even his first encounter and subsequent affair with the legendary beauty Cleopatra are encapsulated in these 517 pages.

To be completely honest I am not sure what I can say about this book that I have not already said about Iggulden’s other works. If you enjoy Roman history at all, or just historical fiction in general, then I cannot recommend this series enough as a very interesting take on Caesar and his times. Perhaps the greatest recommendation I can give this book is to point out that out of the books I have read so far this year two of them have been by Conn Iggulden and I started reading his Wolf of the Plains as soon as I put this book down. (And I am almost done with this book as well.)

BOOK REVIEW - Knots & Crosses

Knots & Crosses
Ian Rankin
Orion, 2005
226 pgs.

The Mystery/Thriller aisle is not part of the bookstore I frequent when looking for more books to add to the ever growing stack of things I plan to read some day therefore even though I have heard of Ian Rankin and his John Rebus novels we had a very casual relationship. You know the sort of relationship you might have with another regular at a bar you frequent or the clerk at your usual gas station, you recognize one another enough to share a nod and a smile whenever you see them but that’s about it. Then I found myself stuffed full of fish and chips standing in Waverly Station confronted by a display of all of the Inspector Rebus novels. Being there in Edinburgh, the character’s very own city, and being the person I am I had to buy one of the books, the first one if it was there. Guess what? It was and now you get to read all about it.

I plowed through this book with almost disturbing speed, polishing it off in an evening of reading. This is not by way of saying the book is bad, in fact I quite enjoyed the book and will be stopping by Murder By the Book tomorrow after work to see if they have more of the Rebus novels published by Orion (they have a very nice design, matching spines and all, and I am OCD about that sort of thing.) At first glance two-hundred twenty-six pages does not seem like enough time to get to know a character and see him through a mystery, the brevity works just fine in Rankin’s hands. In this book the mystery merely serves as a framework for Rankin to hang scenes which illuminate the character of John Rebus, a character which I had expected to be the clichéd hard-drinking, divorced police detective. While he was these things in the story, Rebus is more than just the sum of his clichés and I found myself genuinely liking the guy and hoping he comes through everything.

As for the plot itself, which centers around the kidnappings and murders of four girls from wildly disparate backgrounds, it is fairly clear that this was Rankin’s first mystery and this is where having such a short novel worked against him. There is not enough time for Rankin to distract the readers with red herrings and ultimately meaningless characters, therefore you know that every place and person has some importance to the main thrust of the novel. This being the case I figured out the culprit fairly quickly after he was introduced and, to be honest, this is not something I am usually any good at doing. However since the novel is more about Rebus’ character and less about the mystery this did not detract from my pleasure at all.

All in all I really enjoyed this novel and I am looking forward to both reading more of the Inspector Rebus books and meeting Ian Rankin when he is in town signing books in a few months. I might even make a concerted effort to be all caught up on the Rebus novels by the time he gets here, although I doubt I will succeed.

BOOK REVIEW - Neither Here Nor There

Neither Here Nor There
Bill Bryson
Perennial, 2001
254 pgs.

There are times where I have to struggle to get involved in a book, even books I have been looking forward to or books I end up falling in love with (the first and third entries in the Emperor series spring to mind here.) This book was not one of those; it grabbed me from the moment I opened it and quickly became difficult for me to put down, which may have contributed to more than one excessively late night of reading. As I finished the book I tried to remember if I had ever heard of Bill Bryson before, I have a pretty good memory for this sort of thing, and I could not recall having heard of him before. This surprised me as Bryson is exactly the sort of writer I enjoy reading; sarcastic and a bit full of himself without coming off as an egotistical ass.

This book chronicles the author’s journey across Europe during the winter and spring of 1990. His travels begin with a thirty-hour bus ride from Oslo to Hammerfest, arguably the northernmost city in the world. The purpose of this visit, in the depths of winter, is to see the Aurora Borealis because, lets face it, that far north in January there is not going to be too much else going on. He then returns home to England and begins planning his trip which begins in Paris. Bryson spends the rest of the book traveling throughout Europe, visiting recognizable places such as Rome and Amsterdam, and more obscure destinations such as Sofia and Liechtenstein, even visiting Yugoslavia before the Serbians turned into dicks and decided that Croats and Bosnians were only good for target practice. The journey ends with the author sitting in an open-air taverna in Istanbul, gazing across the Bosphorus at Asia momentarily debating whether he should continue his travels or return to hearth and home.

I picked up this book in a fit of searching for inspiration for a travel destination for later in the year, and if this is what you are looking for from this book then, as the kids say, your mileage may vary, however if you are just looking for a very enjoyable read, then this is the book for you. The very first thing I noticed about Bryson, besides the fact that he is insane enough to travel in Norway in January, is that he is unabashedly American despite having lived in Britain for the better part of twenty years, which is refreshing these days. The stereotype of boorish American tourist is such that when I have been traveling I have had friends advise me to try and “blend in” with the locals as much as possible, because a six-foot-three white guy can really disappear in a crowd in Japan and South Korea. (Apparently I did it so well in Scotland I was accused of being Canadian, eh.) The second thing I noticed, and this is what convinced me I need to read the rest of his books, is he has a very sarcastic wit to him that, if you know me at all, will know I appreciate. It seemed like every page had little gems on it which I wanted to share with you. In fact I was compiling a list until I ran into these paragraphs in the chapter about his visit to Austria wherein he encounters then-president Dr. Kurt Waldheim:
A lot of people aren’t sure of the difference between the offices of chancellor and president in Austria, but it’s quite simple. The chancellor decides national policy and runs the country, while the president rounds up the Jews.

For readers unfamiliar with Waldheim’s “interesting” past Bryson quickly fills in a rough outline including the fact that Waldheim joined the Nazi Student Union two weeks after the declaration of Anschluss and rose to a rather high rank in the Nazi machine and supervised the removal of something on the order of 40,000 Jews from Thessaloniki. After filling the reader in Bryson then says:
Austrians should be proud of him and proud of themselves for having the courage to stand up to world opinion and elect a man of his caliber, overlooking the fact that he is a pathological liar, the he has been officially accused of war crimes, that he has a past so mired in mistruths that no one but he knows what he has done. It takes a special kind of people to stand behind a man like that.

“Damn,” I thought while reading that, “Way to tell ‘em Billy.” Then I paused for a moment and checked to make sure he was still talking about Austria and Waldheim.