Kevin C. Wong

Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (2003) [+]

Battle Cry of Freedom is a United States history book by James M McPherson covering from the early 1800's to the end of the US Civil War. It is part of the 12-volume Oxford History of the United States series (9 of 12 volumes published).

This is not a military history book. Although McPherson covers the wall well enough and devotes some focus on major battles this is more a book on the culture and politics. A lot of time is spent on the pre-war years showing how the country evolved into basically two separate regions. Contrast on how the slave economy took over in the South and how manufacturing and big cities took over in the North East. Lots of quotes from various speeches and writings to illustrate various attitudes and at least gives the Southern viewpoint a little legitimacy.

The politics evolved as the slavery issue came to dominate agendas and cause the Whig party to splinter into a couple of parties. One party was very anti-Catholic and therefore anti-immigration because most immigrants at the time were from Catholic regions. Eventually though the Republican party got lucky in an election and got enough of a coalition of Whigs, Northern Democrats and others to become a major power and elect Abraham Lincoln.

This kind of treatment continues during the war years. There are lots of politics on each side with war and peace factions. Not a huge amount on international efforts to make the Confederacy a legitimate state. A lot of stuff on how each government handled war-time governing and military organization. The battles themselves are more important on their larger effects than the battles themselves.

It's an interesting book and good history, though not the kind of book I'd keep in my library. I listened to it on audio book format read by Jonathan Davis. Almost 40 hours and Davis has a pleasant enough diction. I think this is the 2003 edition which is a bit abridged.

Spot Reviews 07/05/24

Underworld (2003) [+] Modern-day urban fantasy. Selene (Kate Beckinsale) is a Death Dealer, the elite warriors of the Vampires. When she finds some werewolves hunting a human, Michael Corvin (Scott Speedman), her investigation uncovers a conspiracy aimed at the vampire elders... This was such a low budget film with excellent CGI and special effects that still ups today. Interesting characters and good back story (that gets its own theatrical film).

The Beekeeper (2024) [/] Jason Statham medium-budget action film. Adam Clay (Statham) is a reclusive hobbyist beekeeper who is friends with his landlord but when she commits suicide after being defrauded by online scammers he decides to go after the scam company and wreak bloody vengeance. Turns out he's a retired Beekeeper, an extra-governmental organization created long ago to protect the USA with no oversight from the government... Lots of 1 vs lots fights where Clay rarely uses a gun unless it's from an opponent and then only momentarily. There is a bee motif but actual bee attacks never occur.

The Ausperg Affair (2012) [/] Written by Nick Marsh this is a short story novelization of a Call of Cthulhu session prequel to Horror on the Orient Express. From the POV of one of the characters it is suitably ok and was a bonus add-on for the Express Diaries novel. The characters attend an auction where there is a gruesome murder and they are asked to investigate on behalf of the auction house. Since it's POV from one character it is the only one that is sort of developed while the other four are rather vague.

Gao Viet Kitchen, San Mateo [/] Dined in. 4 Item Banh Hoi ($46) ok; Mr. Gao Fried Chicken ($29) it's a dine-in only item, pretty big chicken (like a quarter chicken), not really a crispy fried style; Shaking Beef - Bò Lúc Lắc )$32) this was pretty good, steak chunks and thicker noodles; Crab Noodle ($25) also fairly good, has crystal noodles. I guess in the end maybe too upscale of a Vietnamese place. Decor is nice though often I see a bit of a line to be seated.

Rao's Homemade Marinara [-] Maybe I'm used to Trader Joe's marinara now but this one was a bit sour and not appealing eating with just pasta and parmesan cheese. About twice as expensive too.

Masters of the Air (2024) [/]

Masters of the Air is a 9 episode dramatization of the 2007 book by Donald L Miller, which is about the 100th Bomb Group flying as part of the US 8th Air Force in WWII.

There are three major characters, all pretty much present from beginning to end: Gale "Buck" Cleven (Austin Butler, who I just saw in Dune: Part Two playing Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen) and John "Bucky" Egan, both good friends and B-17 bomber pilots; and Harry Crosby (Anthony Boyle), navigator on a B-17 and later group navigator so he stayed behind in HQ.

For the first two they go on missions, Bucky is promoted to group commander, Buck and his bomber go missing, Bucky is shot down and ends up in a POW camp with Buck. So through them (and others) we get to see bombing missions and fending off German fighters (quite exciting sequences but really only see a lot of action one or two episodes) then life as a prisoner in a Luftwaffe POW camp (enemy airmen got put into camps run by the German air force, which was significantly laxer than a the German army or SS) to eventually liberation.

Crosby's journey is different as he is England most of the series. You get a bit more of the HQ stuff. He has an affair with a British WAC. He's wracked with guilt as he sees his friends go missing.

There is maybe half an episode focusing on the 99th fighter squadron, the Tuskegee Airmen. Three are shot down in a mission and end up in the same POW camp with Buck and Bucky.

My biggest problem with the series is all the characters that are in varied places and the narrative is rather fragmented. The bombers fighting their way through scenes are great and for the most part the CGI is good but I guess the last half of the series doesn't really have good bomber combat scenes.

Overall I liked the series and it started out strong but kind of tailed off as the series progressed.

The Arthurian Companion 2E (2001) [+]

The Arthurian Companion by Phyllis Ann Karr is the second edition of a book that is a great complement for King Arthur Pendragon RPG. Encyclopedia format so there is one entry for each knight, place, item in Arthurian lore with alternate spellings included. First edition used the Vulgate Cycle (13th century French) and Thomas Malory (15th century English) as primary sources and second edition adds the works Chrétien de Troyes (12th century French). There is also a little bit of modern Arthurian literature when it is significant.

Entries include coat of arms if known, or sometimes created by Greg Stafford. In general if there is disagreement among versions Karr picks the one she thinks is most correct (consistent or aesthetically pleasing) and notes major differences. Malory's version seems to be the most prominent (and that's what KAP uses I believe). Karr also tries to give locations to most places, using other scholarly sources, though it seems a lot more guesswork. There are also family trees for major characters.

Since there are many unnamed people in the literature Karr often gives them appropriate names. I guess that would make this book less scholarly but more convenient as an adjunct to a role-playing game and easier when an entry refers to otherwise unnamed characters.

The appendices include discussions on the literature and lore and medieval life though focusing on knightly pursuits and how they're portrayed in the literature.

I think it's quite a fine work and very useful for KAP. Apparently a third edition is in the works at Chaosium and they will also publish an annotated version of Malory's cycle.

Spot Reviews 06/28/24

The Princess and the Bodyguard (2022) [/] A pleasant made for video romantic movie. New Yorker Lexi (Emily Alatalo) has been a normal adult life for 15 years but when her royal parents come calling she has two weeks to decide whether or not accept being next in line to rule. Meanwhile she's assigned a local bodyguard, Noah (Ryan Bruce), whose charming down to earth normalcy contrasts with the high society dates her mother starts foisting on her... I like the bit where Noah can lip read and it's used to advance the plot a bit though less than I had imagined.

Backcountry (2014) [-] Canadian film. City girl Jen (Missy Peregrym) and her boyfriend Alex (Jeff Roop) go on a multi-day hike to a lake that Alex has been to before several times but not since high school. They meet a suspicious Irish tour guide (Eric Balfour) and then get lost on the way... It's an hour of buildup before the action starts but then it's over and Jen trying to get back to safety in a no-dialogue sequence. The movie poster is quite exciting with Jen hanging partway down a cliff with a bear at the top and I was expecting more of a woman vs bear story but this film was not it.

Rolling Thunder in a Gentle Land: The Vietnam War Revisited (2006) [/] A collection of essays about the Vietnam War. Articles on the history before US involvement, various articles about the US and South Vietnam side, and some articles from the North Vietnam and Vietcong perspective. Since this are essays the quality varies and all lack polish but there are different viewpoints here that you don't often get. Certainly not to be used as a first or even first two or three reads on the war. Osprey now has a 2013 edition though not sure what it changes.

Avenida Restaurant, San Mateo [/] We had delivery for a Wednesday dinner. Avenida Fried Chicken ($24) comes with french fries. Chicken & Pork Adobo ($25). Chicken Inasal ($24) is grilled half chicken. Adobo Rice ($18) is fried rice with lots of adobo sauce and pork bits. Garlic Rice ($4). It was all ok but nothing particularly delicious. A bit too expensive I think so probably won't order from there any time soon.

Trader Joe's Organic Cheese & Tomato Pizza, Family Size [/] A perfectly ok $6 cheese pizza and quite good for the price. Tactical mistake on my part since it's too big for a toaster oven so you have to cook it in a bigger oven. Possibly you can cut it in half and cook each half separately in which case the value goes up. In any case, it's a lunch for two people (or four if there are other things to eat like a salad).

Thirty-Nine (2022) [+]

Thirty-Nine is a South Korean drama romance with 12 episodes. Three 39 years old women and best friends deal with relationships and an impending tragedy.

  • Cha Mi-jo (Son Ye-jin, who I first saw in Crash Landing On You) - dermatologist who has her own clinic along with older sister Mi-hyun (Kang Mal-geum) who is the administrator. She is a former orphan but grew up in a loving adopted family. Mi-jo starts a relationship with newly hired dermatologist Kim Seon-woo (Yeon Woo-jin).
  • Jeong Chan-young (Jeon Mi-do) - acting teacher who due to an accident missed her chance at acting. She's been in love for a decade with talent agent Kim Jin-seok (Lee Moo-saeng) but unfortunately he's married and doesn't want to divorce because of his young son.
  • Jang Joo-hee (Kim Ji-hyun) - manager of a cosmetic counter at a department store and rather unhappy with her job due to rude customers. She becomes attracted to Park Hyun-joon (Lee Tae-hwan), owner and chef of a small new restaurant and quite younger.

Early on the three go for a long-overdue checkup then later Mi-jo is told that Chan-young has terminal cancer. Chan-young decides to forego chemotherapy since she only has a 1% chance of recovery and doesn't want to be bed-ridden until the end -- later on we see in a flashback that the three helped Jo-hee's mom beat cancer but that's the reason Chan-young doesn't want to go through the experience if she's dying anyway.

The series is about helping Chan-young live her last six months without regrets. Chan-young also has two goals for her friends: hook up Joo-hee and Hyun-joon (though he has a girlfriend) and help Mi-jo find her birth mother (which does not turn out to be a happy ending). Meanwhile now that she's dying Cha-young wants Jin-seok to stay married though her impending death has made him realize that he'd rather divorce and spent all his time with Cha-young.

It's a rather sad series but not depressing. Lots of cathartic crying but lots of happy and funny moments. All the women and their boyfriends have character subplots and arcs. The ending is well done and not depressing and they have ten episodes to build up to it. Overall it's remarkably good.

Alto's Odyssey - Remastered (2021) [+]

Alto's Odyssey - Remastered is an updated version on Apple Arcade. I have and enjoyed Alto's Odyssey and at first glance it's hard to see what's new.

I think the big new addition is one new biome: The Lost City (hence the old title Alto's Oddysey: The Lost City). It's more ancient ruins and introduces special Lost City goals that run parallel to your normal "three goals per level".

Otherwise though I think it's the same game so if you have Alto's Odyssey you don't need to get Apple Arcade to play a 10% better version.

But if you do have Apple Arcade and haven't played previous Alto games then give it a shot. It's a chill endless runner where you are snowboarding down sand dunes doing flips and grinds. It has different characters each which changes what you can do a bit. Lots of challenges urge you to do a bit better each time and as you level up the game gradually adds more stuff. Quite fun.

Spot Reviews 06/21/24

Run Silent, Run Deep (1958) [+] During WWII US Navy Commander Richardson (Clark Gable) finagles his way into command of the submarine USS Nerka perhaps making Lieutenant Bledsoe (Burt Lancaster) resentful as he was due for promotion and command of Nerka and it certainly makes the crew resentful when in addition Richardson endless drills a specific anti-destroyer attack. Tensions mount as the crew realizes that Richardson is taking them to Bungo Straits where a Japanese destroyer, the Akikaze, has sunk four previous US submarines... A good submarine movie with lots of tension.

Come From Away (2021) [-] Musical performance. The story is set during 9/11 when all air traffic over USA was grounded and that happened to leave a couple dozen passenger plane passengers stranded in a small Newfoundland town. It's about the townspeople coming together to help out and the passengers from many places coping with this strange place. A mixture of narration, dialog and song... I watched half of it and I guess I didn't like the format.

Warhammer Quest: Silver Tower (2020) [-] Free to play fantasy combat game based on Warhammer Quest board game and set in the Warhammer Fantasy universe. Turn-based, square-grid, battles only. Collect heroes, level them up, equip them (one item slot so not that complicate4d) and give them a boon (once again only one slot per hero). Several resources to collect: summoning stones (so you can summon new heroes), experience (to level up heroes), gold (to buy stuff). Watch ads to get more resources... Graphics are good. Gameplay is good if a bit boring since it's a linear story line of battle scenes. FTP mechanic can be addictive which is why I'm stopping after an hour.

Trader Joe's Tarte aux Champignons [+] This is a thin pizza with mushroom and a blend of cheeses. I thought it had meat but I guess not -- it just tastes like it has bits of meat. It's a tasty light meal of 580 calories for $4.80.

Hummus Mediterranean Kitchen, San Mateo [/] We ordered delivery. Stuffed Eggplant (Vegetarian) ($18.50) - baked eggplant with onion, garlic, bell peppers and tomato sauce, with rice, salad and pita bread. It's a lot of sliced onions and tastes fine with the rice (less so by itself). Greek Fries ($6.50) small thin fries topped with parmesan, garlic, feta. It's a lot of fries and pretty good. For a vegetarian meal this was ok though not as good as Indian food. I guess I'd try it again with a more meaty meal.

Because This Is My First Life (2017) [+]

Because This Is My First Life is a Korean romance/drama.

Failed assistant drama tv show writer Yoon Ji-ho (Jung So-min) moves into a cheap bedroom rental in very logical chief software developer Nam Se-hee's (Lee Min-ki) condo. It's funny because they manage not to see each other for several days and believing that the other party is the same sex.

Eventually though the truth comes out but after some awkwardness they decide to continue the landlord/tenant relationship. She really needs a cheap place to live and she's also the best tenant he's ever had. A couple episodes later, to fend off pressure from his parents to get married, Se-hee proposes to go into a contract marriage with Ji-ho and it takes another episode or two for her to agree.

They both want to keep it strictly professional but being around each other more and more they develop hidden feelings. Se-hee is amazingly poker-faced so Ji-ho just doesn't know how he feels. Meanwhile Se-hee is not great at interpreting facial expressions so he also doesn't know how Ji-ho feels about him.

That goes on for half the series and when you think they're actually going to admit their feeling for each other -- and by then everybody around them knows one or the other is in love but perhaps only one person knows it's a mutual hidden love -- they instead break up. The last half of the last episode flashes forward a few months when they happen to run into each other again and finally admit their feelings for each other.

There are two other relationships involving Ji-ho's childhood friends. Ho-rang (Kim Ga-eun) has had a boyfriend (Kim Min-seok) for seven years and is yearning to get married but when she pushes him into it it eventually leads to them breaking up then eventually realizing they still love each other. Meanwhile Soo-ji (Esom) is a businesswoman who is sexually harassed by her coworkers and being pursued by Se-hee's friend company CEO Sang-goo (Park Byung-eun). Her arc involves accepting a long-term relationship -- previously she's always been a one-night stand kind of gal -- and finally standing up to her coworkers.

This is a very thoughtful series with conversations about what it means to be in love and how it contrasts with marriage and we also get Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs relating to both. Besides the three main relationships we also have the parents and how their imperfect marriages work. Part of why Ji-ho breaks up with Se-hee is to see if it's their marriage that is keeping them together or if there is actual love between them.

I did love this series and watched it over a few nights. The chemistry between the leads is good (and there is little romantic competition for the two leads so the story can concentrate on their inner conflicts). Jung So-min is very charming yet playing a fairly subdued character that still contrasts well with Lee Min-ki's performance which has to be very deadpan with hints of emotion.

Although I think the ending didn't quite stick it (I'm not into the break up then skip a few months for the reconciliation) overall it's a good and touching romantic drama.

The Mote in God's Eye (1974) [+]

The Mote in God's Eye is a science fiction novel by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. It's set about a thousand years in the future after mankind has expanded into the stars, built a star-spanning empire, had that empire torn down into a long night, and is now being consolidated by a second human empire.

In the middle of this consolidation where the second empire is pitted against the outward systems there is a ship with aliens though due to mishap all the aliens are found dead. Still, this is the first alien contact in human history and they know where the aliens came from.

Two ships are sent to establish first contact. The Battlecruiser MacArthur is commanded by Captain Roderick Blaine and has a team of civilian scientists and experts on board. The Battleship Lenin is there to be a silent witness, isolated to avoid any contamination, and prepared to destroy MacArthur to keep its tech secret from the aliens.

The aliens are Moties. Very class based in that different Motie classes are physically quite different and some interbreeding is possible. The Moties seem quite peaceful and agreeable and although a lower tech level have an amazing grasp of learning things and building/modifying tech on the fly at a speed that is impossible for humans. And they have a huge secret that if revealed would make humans see them as a mortal danger to humanity...

The storytelling is excellent. The first part introduces our main human characters. The Moties are alien and mysterious and you rarely get to read their thoughts and inner workings -- it's a story mostly from the human POV.

I liked this story as it is "shiny space ships with a big mystery". As the story gets to the climax the questions is whether or not human and motie can live peacefully together or if it will be war (and really with humanity having a temporary tech advantage the question is more to commit genocide or not).

Overall a gripping classic science fiction story. There was eventually a sequel, The Gripping Hand (1993), though it did not review well so I'll probably skip it. Even though The Mote in God's Eye is set in the CoDominium universe with other novels, it is very standalone and I had no trouble reading it without reading other novels.