Archive for December, 2015

Recently, the University of Arnor library got the urge to do a “Staff Picks” display for the end of term. You’ve seen them before: a little bookshelf with select titles pulled from the stacks and maybe some comment cards telling why the staff liked these particular books.  Not hard to do, right? Or so we thought.

As it turns out, over the years, we have been acquiring–as both a cost cutting and an improved access move–most of the popular fiction and a large portion of the new non-fiction as E-books. A book that exists as a computer file works great for the most part–unless it comes to creating  a physical display. Then it doesn’t work at all. We were forced to fall back to the stacks and restrict ourselves to what was already in print form (mostly older works). I could pull a copy of Robert Fagles’ translation of the The Iliad for the display, for example, but not a copy of Barbara Hambly’s Blood Maidens.

The net effect was to give the impression that the staff of the U. of Arnor Library is a bunch of pipe-smoking, tweed-wearing intellectuals when in reality we are the biggest bunch of pop culture junkies you would ever want to meet. Surprisingly, the books have been flying off the display shelves so the staff was asked this week for more recommendations. This time, I raided our miniscule collection of best sellers and was able to put up Jim Butcher’s Skin Game and Jessica Fellowes’ A Year in the Life of Downton Abbey which are a little more indicative of my normal tastes in literature.



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Having just finished binge-watching Season  2 of Turn: Washington’s Spies and can report that it is indeed an improvement over Season 1 although there are still a number of shake-your-head moments that make you wonder just what is being smoked in the writer’s room at AMC studios. First, the good news: the characters all become much more interesting although it’s not due as much to the stereotypes that were established in Season 1 being flipped on their heads as it is the circumstances the characters find themselves in becoming ever more sticky and complicated. The bad news is that Turn continues its baffling habit of concocting melodramatic and even bizarre storylines although the subject matter that it purports to be dramatizing has plenty of juicy bits that need no spicing up.


  • Due largely to Judge Woodhull taking a bullet in Season 1, Abe has now manned up and is acting more like an adult instead of the “loser son”.
  • Abe Woodhull finds out first hand why polygamy is a bad idea: it allows your women to gang up on you. Some of the most fun moments in the second season are when Mary and Anna join forces to dress Abe down.
  • Providence” is my favorite episode, both because it features the Turtle, an early submarine, and because Caleb Brewster shaves off his beard and becomes completely unrecognizable.
  • John Andre is heavily featured as he falls for Peggy Shippen and then, in a massively despicable move, pimps her out to Benedict Arnold so he can bring down the American rebels. And you thought Simcoe was a ruthless bastard.
  • Major Hewlett is revealed to be a Sensitive Science Guy and a real chemistry develops between him and Anna.
  • Anna stands up to Simcoe and forces him to back down (Go, Anna! Go, Anna!)
  • Simcoe screaming “Wrong way!” as British forces retreat from the battlefield in the season finale, an improvised move by actor Simon Loukin.
  • Owain Yeoman is a lot of fun as the square-jawed, but fatally flawed Gen. Benedict Arnold.


  • Robert Rogers, one of my faves, is still in play, but winds up engaged in a odd side plot. Briefly, King George loses his head and Rogers has to retrieve it. The operation is a bust. (Yes, those are puns. No, I’m not ashamed ….:-). Honestly and for true, why the heck can’t Rogers turn privateer after being replaced by Simcoe? That would keep him in the game without chasing the MacGuffin all over the place.
  • Maj. Simcoe continues his reign of terror, eventually resorting to a campaign of assassination by his Rangers against his fellow Redcoats under Maj. Hewlett. Seriously, how is the guy able to keep his commission? I mean, c’mon, people, even British High Command can’t be that blind.
  • In what has to be the weirdest moment in television history, Washington has a mental breakdown at Valley Forge resulting hallucinations and an impromptu psychoanalysis session with his manservant, Billy. If the point here is, as I suppose, to show how the pressures of the job are affecting Washington emotionally, why not just make the conversation with his brother, Lawrence, a dream sequence which would be shorter and more to the point?

Turn: Washington’s Spies has been renewed for a third season and I am looking forward to seeing the results. I’m particular anxious to see what’s made of Benedict Arnold’s betrayal since the series clearly seems to be leading up to that.



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Turn Washington's Spies

After some initial skepticism, I settled in to watch Season 1 of AMC’s Turn: Washington’s Spies, a fictionalized (read “historical accuracy tossed overboard early on”) account of the Culper Espionage Ring who provided vital intelligence to George Washington during the American Revolutionary War. The characters are sadly stereotyped, but the plotting is fantastic–the pilot episode hooks you immediately, the story unfolds with many unexpected twists and turns–just when you think you know where the story is going, it surprises you, and the character’s backstories appear gradually as the series progresses.

While the storytelling is the series’ strong point, the characterizations are definitely its weak point. Four episodes in and we’ve already met:

  • the clean-cut reluctant hero (Jamie Bell as Abe Woodhull)
  • the father that doesn’t understand him (Kevin McNally as Judge Woodhull)
  • the women who have no apparent reason for their existence except to serve as romantic interests for the hero (Meegan Warner as Abe’s wife, Mary, and Heather Lind as Abe’s former squeeze, Anna Strong)
  • the haughty British commander (Burn Gorman as Major Hewlett, holding court in a desecrated church like a vampire overlord)
  • the psychotic British officer (Samuel Roukin as Capt. Simcoe, proving that being a grade-A psychopath is no barrier to promotion in the British army)
  • the devilishly charming British baddie (the delicious JJ Feild as Major John Andre, British Counterintelligence)

Even without their blue-and-buff uniforms, the American heroes can be readily discerned by their strong chins and dashing good looks.

So far, my favorite characters are:

  • Robert Rogers (Angus Macfadyen), leader of the Queen’s Rangers (a Loyalist commando group), despite the fact that I find his current quest for revenge completely unbelieveable
  • The aforementioned Major John Andre played with a combination of charm and ruthlessness by JJ Feild (Austenland, Northanger Abbey)
  • I also have my eye on Abigail (Idara Victor), Major Andre’s house slave, and Jordan (Aldis Hodge),  a slave who’s joined the British cause in hope of winning his liberty, both of whom are emerging as two of the more sympathetic characters in the series

Season 2 has received much higher marks and I look forward to checking it out and (hopefully) seeing better development of its characters.


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