Wednesday, September 17, 2014

TNG Flashback: Ensign Ro

A half season and more had passed since the character of Wesley Crusher had been written off of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Now the time had come to bring in a new face, the title character of "Ensign Ro."

A group of Bajoran terrorists has attacked a Federation outpost. The Enterprise must track them down and persuade them to abandon their cause. But this won't be easy, as the Bajorans are fighting to free themselves from occupation by the Cardassians, by any means necessary. To assist in this endeavor, an Admiral assigns a Bajoran officer to the Enterprise, Ensign Ro Laren. But this new officer has a checkered past that includes a recent stint in prison. Even if she can fit in, will she be of any help? And even if she could help, will she?

Although the series did not intend to introduce a new series regular to replace Wesley Crusher, the writers did want a recurring face in place of the procession of anonymous helmsmen seated next to Data. Specifically, the writers wanted someone with a darker background who could inject a bit of conflict into the otherwise harmonious crew. And preferably, they wanted a female. From these requirements, Ro Laren and the Bajorans were born.

This episode contains much of the back story that would inform the next spinoff series, Deep Space Nine. But the writers were by no means planning ahead. In fact, the original script for this episode positioned the Romulans as the oppressors of the Bajorans. But executive producer Rick Berman felt that they'd been used too much recently in the Klingon civil war arc. Recalling "The Wounded" from the previous season, he requested the change to the Cardassians.

To portray this new character, the producers looked to an actress who had impressed them in a minor guest starring role in the previous season, Michelle Forbes. She comes through again here. She brings the conflict they were looking for, conveying Ro's standoffish personality with rolling eyes, folded arms, and a perpetual scowl. But even more, she rounds out the character with a strong performance in a scene where she recounts watching her father be tortured to death in front of her when she was seven years old.

Other characters play key roles in introducing this new one. Picard, ever the level-headed diplomat, recoils with shocking venom at the first mention of Ro Laren's name. It's a tone he rarely strikes, instantly telling us a lot about the character we're about to meet. Ultimately, it takes Guinan -- a fellow refugee from her own homeworld -- to break the ice with Ro and forge a way forward with Picard. Show runner Michael Piller thought this was the key element in introducing Ro, using the beloved character of Guinan to give the audience permission to accept the new character. (Piller also pointed out that the lack of fan resistance to Ro indicated the success of the new character. Perhaps he was comparing Ro to the failure of Dr. Pulaski from before his tenure.)

The introduction of the Bajoran race is somewhat less successful here, though it might be unfair to judge them against how fully seven seasons of Deep Space Nine would flesh them out. Picard does share the intriguing detail than their civilization was culturally advanced even before humans were walking upright, but there's no notion of their religious convictions beyond the symbol of Ro's earring. They seem to all generically be terrorists. Their makeup is still a work in progress (with an extra ridge between their eyebrows that would never appear again). And there seems to be disagreement about whether they're called the "Bajora" or the "Bajorans," sometimes even by the same character within the same scene.

Other observations:
  • Ro isn't the only character making a first appearance here. Though a Bolian barber had been seen on the series before, this was the debut of Mot the Barber. Riker calls him "the best barber in Starfleet," though the way he jerks Picard's head around suggests otherwise.
  • For the second consecutive episode, the series does some filming on location. And for the second consecutive time, it's in Bronson Canyon.
  • The first moment that demonstrates Ro's nonconformity is when Commander Riker orders her to remove her earring and comply with Starfleet uniform code. It may be a nice character moment for Ro, but it really doesn't make much sense for Riker. After all, Worf is allowed to wear his Klingon baldric, while Troi doesn't even bother to wear a Starfleet uniform at all.
"Ensign Ro" isn't exactly one of the series' strongest episodes, but it is a successful enough introduction of a new recurring character. And since it ultimately laid the groundwork for an entire Star Trek series, I'm inclined to give it a decent mark. I grade it a B.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Mirror, Mirror

Earlier this year, when commercials were running for the horror movie Oculus, it looked like an interesting enough premise to check out. Still, it took until recently on Blu-ray for me to actually do so.

I knew only a bit going in -- that Oculus was about a haunted mirror that corrupts the minds of those who gaze into it. As the film unfolded, I quickly learned that it featured two actresses with ample sci-fi cred. Karen Gillan will be remembered as Amy Pond on Doctor Who (and she also was wonderfully unrecognizable in Guardians of the Galaxy), while Katee Sackhoff played Starbuck on the Battlestar Galactica revival. The film also features Breton Thwaites (a young actor popping up a lot these days, who may or may not be the next new Big Thing) and Rory Cochrane (of CSI: Miami and a handful of interesting films including Argo).

After watching the film, I also learned that Oculus (like Mama before it) was actually a feature length expansion of an original short film. In making it, writer-director Mike Flanagan made a couple of very smart choices. First, he rejected the notion to turn it into a "found footage" horror film. Apparently, several studios floated the suggestion to build the movie with that device, with at least one even offering him a contract contingent on that change. He turned it down and held out to make the movie his way, and it's better for it. Found footage is quite played out in horror for the time being, though it certainly would have made an alluring idea here, since one of the characters is trying to document the mirror's powers on video. But the harsh realities of the camera would have clashed utterly with the psychological uncertainties of the mirror's power.

Secondly, to expand the short film to feature length, Flanagan chose to split his narrative between two time frames -- a past in which two children watch their family crumble under the mirror's influence, and a present in which those two return as adults to try to destroy the mirror once and for all. The movie gets a lot of mileage out of abruptly switching back and forth between time frames, creating brief moments of uncertainty in which the audience is slightly confused about time and place -- just as characters influenced by the mirror are.

That said, though the film does have the right agenda for psychological thrills, it has a bit of a "bookend" problem. The setup doesn't quite make sense; with the main characters having experienced all of this before in the past, and the extreme precautions that one of them takes for their "rematch" against the mirror, it doesn't quite track that they leave anything to chance. And as for the ending? Well, I daresay I thought the movie was going somewhere, it went somewhere else, and I believe my ending was the superior one. (In my oh-so-scientific polling of two other friends who'd also seen the movie, 100% of people surveyed agreed that my ending would have been better.)

Still, watch this movie in the dark at home, and it might just stir up a few spine-tingling moments for you. I'd give it a B. Among horror lovers, that might be nearly as good as an A. (And if you do see it, then I suppose we could compare notes about that ending!)

Monday, September 15, 2014

TNG Flashback: Darmok

With the wrap-up of the "Redemption" cliffhanger out of the way, the fifth season of Star Trek: The Next Generation quickly soared to memorable heights with one of its finest episodes, "Darmok."

The Enterprise is dispatched to meet with the Children of Tama, an inscrutable alien race who have apparently made a peace overture to the Federation. "Apparently," because no one has ever been able to actually understand their nonsensical language. When talks stall due to the language barrier, the aliens abduct Captain Picard, beaming him and their own captain down to a primitive planet where a strange creature threatens both their lives. As the two captains band together against this common foe, Picard finally begins to understand -- the Tamarian language is one of metaphor, every sentence a reference to some story from their culture's deep mythic history.

Show runner Michael Piller once revealed that "Darmok" had been in the pipeline longer than any other script during his entire tenure on the show. Perhaps because of this lengthy gestation, executive producer Rick Berman reportedly hated the idea. The production had bought a pitch from an outside writer, involving a difficulty in communicating with a group of "ant farm"-like aliens, but it took two years before a finished script went before the cameras. That script came from staff writer Joe Menosky, who finally cracked the troublesome story when he came up with the concept of the metaphorical language.

The scope of what Menosky did is truly remarkable. This episode really does depict one of Star Trek's most plausibly alien cultures. Not only is their language meticulously thought out, but there are moments of ritual and ceremony, and a true sense of nobility in the captain. Dathon gives his life for the goal of making peaceful contact with another people, a Star Trek ideal taken to an amazing extreme.

Menosky's script was something everyone recognized as special -- even Berman, who recanted and ultimately named this one of his favorite episodes of the series. Piller thought it was the model of everything Star Trek should be, raving "it had the philosophy dealing with language and what it does for us, two great acting performances, it had a monster and a space battle – it had everything." Episode director Winrich Kolbe called it "almost flawless" (though he likened shooting it to making a movie in a foreign language he did not speak). Patrick Stewart, who has frequently complained about the lack of award recognition for the series just because it was in the science fiction genre, offered up this script as a keen example of that unfairness.

The episode also had many fans outside the production. There are stories of college language professors using it to illustrate to new students how languages operate and evolve. There's also the curious reaction of Russell T. Davies, writer and producer of the new Doctor Who. When he heard the synopsis of this episode, "Captain Picard is trapped on a planet with an alien who can only talk in metaphors," he found the mere idea so compelling that he chose not to spoil the magic by actually watching the episode! It resonated with him so much that he ultimately decided to base a Doctor Who episode on his own interpretation of the premise. (For curious Whovians, the episode was "Midnight.") Davies claims not to know to this day if his episode actually bears any resemblance to "Darmok," but he specifically cited it as his inspiration.

But it's not just the script that makes a strong impression here -- it's the perfect work by Patrick Stewart and guest star Paul Winfield. The latter was no stranger to Star Trek, having played the ill-fated Captain Terrell in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Here, he infuses everything his character Dathon does and says with an internal logic. His emotions range wide, from frustration when Picard doesn't understand him to near euphoria when finally he does. And Patrick Stewart is impeccable. His gradual understanding of the alien is compelling, his recounting of the story of Gilgamesh and Enkidu is moving, and his final moment (in which he mimics the ritual gesture of the fallen Dathon) is filled with true sorrow and reverence.

Perhaps knowing what they had even at the time of filming, the production apparently spent some extra money here. There's rare filming on location -- the location in this instance being Bronson Canyon, in Griffin Park. There are effective and suspenseful visual effects used to realize the strange creature that attacks Picard and Dathon. There were also expenditures that simply came with the start of a new season: a new jacketed uniform for the captain makes its first appearance, as does a new shuttlecraft design. (The series had long been hoping to redesign their multi-person shuttle, as the exterior model didn't match the shape of the interior set.)

Other observations:
  • In the teaser, Worf makes a suggestion for aggressive posture that Picard -- as is tradition -- shoots down. But the two seem to be on the same page when Picard is first beamed down to the planet; both expect some sort of one-on-one contest between ships' captains. (They both must have seen Kirk battle the Gorn in the original series episode "Arena.")
  • Though Picard is actually able to learn some of the stories behind the Tamarian language, it's nice that Data and Troi are at least able to figure out how the language works. They don't have to look dumb for Picard to look smart.
  • The story Picard tells Dathon, of Gilgamesh and Enkidu, is itself a metaphor for what happens to the two captains. It's also one of the earliest known stories in our history, coming from a Babylonian poem that dates to some time before 2000 BC.
  • Look out for Ashley Judd, before she became a star. (She's so pre-star here, in fact, that she doesn't even make the credits at the beginning of the episode.) While Judd would appear a few episodes later in a larger role, her character of Robin Lefler actually makes her first appearance here.
  • Eagle-eyed and detail-minded fans noted a mistake in this episode: at one point, when the Enterprise fires its phasers, the beam comes from the photon torpedo launcher. In the remastered Blu-ray version of the episode, a shot was stolen from "The Best of Both Worlds" to correct this error.
I doubt there was any suspense to this, but I give "Darmok" an A. It's an exceptional hour of The Next Generation, and indeed all of Star Trek.

Friday, September 12, 2014

TNG Flashback: Redemption II

Season five of Star Trek: The Next Generation begins with the wrap-up of the season four cliffhanger, "Redemption."

The Klingon civil war continues, and Gowron's forces are losing ground. Certain that the Romulans are supplying the family of Duras, Picard assembles a fleet to enforce a blockade at the Klingon border. This will test Data, who is given his first starship command. But a surprise awaits them all: the Romulan fleet is commanded by Sela, the half-Romulan daughter of an alternate timeline's Tasha Yar.

"Redemption II" is, quite simply, an overcrowded episode. It boasts three major story lines, and none can really be said to be secondary to any of the others. As with part one, Ronald D. Moore handled the script. (Though the director changed for the conclusion; David Carson, the man who ultimately directed the first Next Generation feature film, took charge.) Moore once again let his love of the Klingons show, peppering the script with fun glimpses of their culture. The scene in which rivals party together in the same bar is a fun one (even if it does conflict with a past episode in which Q informed us that "drink not with thine enemy" is part of the Klingon code). From the knife-enhanced version of arm wrestling to Kurn's desire to live it up in case they all die tomorrow, it feels like a realistic foreign culture.

Klingons also bookend the episode. It opens with a fairly elaborate (for the time) opening battle sequence, one that makes clear Kurn is the captain, even if Worf played the "I am the older brother" card in the previous episode. And it ends in the Klingon High Council chamber, with Gowron flashing those wide eyes and a wicked grin as he taunts the vanquished son of Duras. This last scene is perhaps indicative of the overcrowded nature of the episode -- the scene could have been longer to better help the story. I feel like Worf should explain why he wants Toral to live. (Forcing him to live with a father's dishonor, as Worf himself had to, seems reasonable, though it should have been voiced.) I also question why Gowron would let a potential political rival live, regardless of Worf's "pardon."

In my opinion, the best storyline involves Data's command of the U.S.S. Sutherland, and the first officer, Christopher Hobson, who is reluctant to take his orders. The plot is an allegory for racism, and not at all a subtle one. Lest you think that Hobson is just anti-android in some possibly understandable way, he also tosses off the bigoted opinion that a Klingon could never be a ship's counselor. He is, in short, an oddly reprehensible Starfleet character.

By contrast, Picard does much better when Data confronts him earlier in the episode about his casual bigotry. When Data asks why he is not being assigned a command, Picard immediately backpedals and gives him one. And at the end of the episode, he congratulates Data with a big, beaming smile and a string of compliments. But really, I think it's no surprise that Data would make a good captain. I remarked of last season's "In Theory" that Data had clearly learned how to be a good friend over decades of observation. He's probably had even more role models for a leader than for a friend, and Brent Spiner's performance in this episode makes clear how Data is drawing on those role models -- chiefly Picard himself.

The least effective storyline, in my mind, is the revelation of Sela. The idea came from Denise Crosby herself, who had enjoyed her return appearance in "Yesterday's Enterprise" and was apparently having second thoughts about leaving the show. She concocted the idea of Tasha and Richard Castillo (from that episode) having a daughter who was raised by Romulans. The writers went for the idea, though they decided to remove the Castillo element from the pitch.

The idea of a recurring Romulan nemesis for the Enterprise is actually a great one, particularly one who is at least sometimes able to outthink our heroes (as Sela briefly does in this episode). But there are problems with the idea too. For one, Sela doesn't really recur much. She reappears in the "Unification" two-parter later this season... and then vanishes forever.

But the larger problem is essentially voiced in the episode by Picard himself: what difference does it make that Sela is Tasha's daughter? Picard says the revelation won't influence his tactics, and indeed it does not. Nor does Sela get any special insight from her unusual origins. Basically, as soon as Sela's origin story is explained, it stops being at all interesting or relevant to the story. And when you scratch the surface of it a bit, the origin doesn't even quite work. Sela is a mere 23 years old (which Denise Crosby decidedly is not), and yet has somehow risen to command an entire Romulan fleet? I think if Denise Crosby wanted to return to play a recurring villain, they simply should have cast her as some alien in concealing makeup (she could have been Lursa or B'Etor, for example), and simply not made a thing of it -- as, for example, Rene Auberjoinois' appearance on the series Enterprise had nothing to do with his character of Odo from Deep Space Nine. Oh well.

Speaking of Deep Space Nine, it was that series that actually followed up on this episode more than The Next Generation. Lursa, B'Etor, Kurn, and Toral all made their last appearances on The Next Generation in this episode, yet all of them appeared on Deep Space Nine. (Though Lursa and B'Etor did return for the film Star Trek: Generations.) And as for how things end here, why exactly do Lursa and B'Etor leave Toral behind? He's their only real means of claiming power, and it's not like they didn't have time to save him while they were saving themselves.

Other observations:
  • In the fourth season finale, Worf was said to be going to serve on Gowron's ship, but this episode has him serving with his brother. The writers were actually aware of this consistency, but felt that pairing the brothers made for a better story -- a story they had not planned out ahead of time when the first part was written.
  • O'Brien takes over at tactical in Worf's absence. In the episode "The Wounded," we learned that he had past experience in that role.
  • I really don't buy the conceit that you could blockade a border in space. Why do the Romulans have to cross into Klingon territory right there? I mean, people sneak undetected across the borders of countries here on Earth all the time, and those borders cover an unimaginably tiny fraction of the distance of space, even before you account for the three-dimensional nature of it.
  • How do the Romulans know that one of the Federation ships has an "android captain?"
  • Perhaps another reason the introduction of Sela is less than compelling is that the script writer himself didn't really believe in it. Ronald Moore said in an interview, of Denise Crosby: "She came up with the concept, which I rolled my eyes at the first time I heard." He then tried to sell it a bit in that same interview: "But as we started to get into story on 'Redemption II,' I needed some sort of Romulan thing to actually happen this time since we kept saying they're doing this stuff. It just seemed natural. It fit and we did it." But I think Moore's true feelings on the subject shine through.
  • Michael Dorn was also a bit critical of the crowded nature of this episode. He said in an interview that he thought this was a good episode for him, but that the Data story could have easily been an episode unto itself -- and that that strong idea didn't get enough time here.
Despite the overstuffed nature of this episode, there is something to be said for its relentless pace; it's far more action-packed than most episodes of the series. And the Data subplot, even if it is a bit truncated, is a good one. In fact, I'd have to say that overall, the resolution of this cliffhanger is actually a touch better than the setup was. I give "Redemption II" a B.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Grave Thoughts

Before Trainspotting, 28 Days Later, Slumdog Millionaire, or any of his other famous films, director Danny Boyle got his start with a bizarre little movie called Shallow Grave. Two men and a woman -- all flatmates -- take on a fourth boarder who mysteriously dies shortly after moving in. Even more mysteriously, he's left a suitcase full of cash under his bed. The trio comes to the decision to dispose of the body so they can keep the money for themselves. Complications, from within and without, ensue.

The two men of the film will be quite recognizable: Christopher Eccleston and Ewan McGregor. The former was the first of the new crop on Doctor Who, while the latter was actually making his first film appearance here before returning for Trainspotting and going on to break out in a huge way. These two, together with Kerry Fox, anchor the bizarre story.

The 90-minute film seems to strike a quite serious tone, and all three give serious performances throughout as the characters start united and then begin to fracture. And yet, somewhere around 10 minutes from the end, it weirdly dawned on me: "I think this was supposed to be a black comedy." Nothing I'd seen before had made me feel the urge to laugh, and yet things had wound up in such a ridiculous place that I could only assume laughs were intentional. Indeed, the final moment of the film centers on a character laughing maniacally at the scene.

Well, I have nothing against a black comedy in principle. But I feel like this film didn't lean into that genre enough. Yet it also certainly wasn't serious enough to hold the specter of disbelief at bay for the duration. So ultimately, though the film did entertain, I don't think it was completely successful.

But it's certainly worth recommending to the right audience. If you liked the unhinged quality of Trainspotting, you'd probably enjoy it. If you like the macabre elements of a horror like Scream or I Know What You Did Last Summer, but were put off by the slasher qualities and/or the teenaged sensibilities, this might be the more "grown-up" version to suit you. Some critics likened it to Pulp Fiction, which I know will catch the interest of some of you. In any event, I'd call Shallow Grave a B-

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

TNG Flashback: Redemption

After the epic cliffhanger ending to season three, Star Trek: The Next Generation had set a high bar for its fourth season finale -- an episode which also, coincidentally, was the series' 100th. The bar was an impossibly high one, I think, though the series did try to set equally galactic stakes.

Picard is about to perform his final duty as the Klingon Arbiter of Succession, by installing Gowron as the new leader of the Empire. But Gowron unexpectedly comes to him, warning that the sisters of the dead and dishonored Duras have rallied tremendous support -- enough to fracture the Klingon Empire in a civil war. Worf uses the ships loyal to his brother Kurn, leaning on Gowron's weakened position to force the restoration of his family name. But when Picard will allow Worf to go no further -- as doing so would risk drawing the Federation into the internal Klingon conflict -- Worf resigns his Starfleet commission to fight for his people.

According to showrunner Michael Piller, the storyline of this episode was originally conceived of as the third season finale, following up fairly soon on "Sins of the Father," the episode that ultimately set it all in motion. When the concept for "The Best of Both Worlds" was hit upon, this Klingon storyline was postponed for a year. I think it was a great decision, as it not only stepped aside for the greatest cliffhanger in the history of Star Trek, it made room for an intervening chapter of the Klingon story, "Reunion," which I think turned out to be the best of that saga.

It's no surprise that the resident Klingon fan, Ronald D. Moore, crafted the script for this finale. As always, he has the right details that give the Klingon culture life, such as the way B'Etor caresses Picard's bald head (as though tantalized by his lack of ridges), or the knife-grasping, bloodletting ceremony that restores Worf's honor. He also crafts a great scene with Guinan, where she needles Worf into realizing that if the situation is not rectified, the dishonor he has accepted will one day affect his own son.

But the rest of the episode is not as strong, simultaneously overstuffed and half-cooked. The number of plot points is overwhelming, including the rise of Gowron, the introduction of Lursa and B'Etor (and their nephew Toral), the secret involvement of the Romulans (and the reveal of Sela), the restoration of Worf's honor, and Picard's dilemma of how to keep the Federation uninvolved. Because it's so crowded, some of it doesn't feel very realistic. For example, the fact that Picard is successful in that last part strains credibility for me. By refusing to aid Gowron in his time of need, he certainly avoids the ire of Duras' family. Yet when he twice refuses to help Gowron, it's hard to understand how the hot-headed Klingon doesn't take equal offense in that.

There's also some inconsistency in the fact that it's initially Picard who pushes Worf that now is the time to clear his name, yet also Picard who would later deny Worf access to the information needed to do it. But Picard does get other, better moments in the episode. He lobs a wonderful insult at Lursa when he compares her manipulative skills to that of a Romulan. (An insult she can't respond to, as it strikes close to the truth.) Picard also, refreshingly, lets Worf leave Starfleet without bitterness, instead sending him off with heartfelt compliments and a column of officers.

Other observations:
  • Guinan doesn't just like to collect weapons, she's apparently very good at using them too. She "comes down" to Worf's level on the phaser range, and wipes the floor with him too.
  • The revealing Klingon armor worn by Lursa and B'Etor shows off what fans quickly dubbed "Kleavage."
  • In a fun little bit of kontinuity (ha!), kellicams -- the Klingon unit of distance used in the movie Star Trek III -- are again mentioned here.
  • In a lack of kontinuity (seriously, ha!), Gowron says here that women aren't allowed to serve on the Klingon High Council, even though he himself offered K'Ehleyr a seat in "Reunion."
  • Former President Ronald Reagan visited the set while this episode was being filmed. Though I'm not certain how much of a Star Trek fan he truly was, he apparently showed great deference to Gene Roddenberry. According to Brent Spiner and Ronald Moore, when Roddenberry dropped his cane, the president knelt to pick it up for him.
  • Denise Crosby is revealed in the final moment of the episode, after her shadowy (voiced-over) appearance in "The Mind's Eye." She makes quite an entrance with the very droll line: "humans have a way of showing up when you least expect them."
I imagine Klingon fans were quite satisfied by this episode, but I myself was less enchanted. It feels (as indeed it is) like only half a story -- and not actually suspenseful in its incompleteness as "The Best of Both Worlds" felt. Moreover, the half that is there leaves most of the main characters without anything important to do. (I'm not sure Dr. Crusher and Troi even have any lines.) I give "Redemption" a B-.

And with that, I've come to the end of season four. Thus, it's time for a quick look back. I felt the season didn't quite hit the highs of year three; I gave no straight-up A grades to any of the 26 episodes. Still, there were quite a lot of A- and B+ episodes, and only a handful I thought any worse than a B-. In short, season four really was quite good overall -- much like season three, if not quite as good.

My picks for the top five episodes of the season: "Reunion," "First Contact," "The Drumhead," "In Theory," and "Qpid."

On to season five!

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

10 Books That Have Stayed With Me

I was recently tagged in one of those Facebook chain list thingies. The topic: 10 books that "stayed with me in some way." I'm willing to play along on this one, but I figured my choices deserved some context: why did they stay with me? And I also figured that elaborating on my choices would let me get a blog post out of it. So here, in no particular order, are my ten books and the stories that go with them.

The Wishsong of Shannara, by Terry Brooks
Proving that in fact you CAN judge a book by its cover, I plucked this book from the shelf of my 6th-grade school library because the font of the title drew my eye. (I see that font in use in lots of places. Apparently, people are aware of its appeal.) I didn't realize until I was several chapters into the book that it was the final installment of a trilogy of stand-alone novels, but by then I was too hooked to stop. And starting with Wishsong was probably fortuitous anyway. That book is full of original ideas, as opposed to the first volume, The Sword of Shannara, which is widely (and not altogether unfairly) regarded as derivative of The Lord of the Rings. In any case, this was my first exposure to Terry Brooks, who I loved at the time and still have a perhaps-unreasonable affection for today.

A Storm of Swords, by George R.R. Martin
I could easily have listed either this third volume of Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series or the first volume, A Game of Thrones. Book One was the first time I felt I'd found a new level that fantasy fiction could aspire to: a much more realistic and evolved form of writing. But it was Book Three that evoked one of the most visceral reactions I've ever had while reading a book. The now-famous "Red Wedding" chapter left me dejected and mopey for quite some time.

Haunted, by Chuck Palahniuk
This book by the author of Fight Club evoked the most visceral reaction I've ever had while reading. Haunted is basically a series of short stories unified by a larger framing device. One of the earliest stories, involving a character named Saint Gut-Free, concludes with fiendishly vile bit of imagery that aroused such disgust in me that I physically threw the book from my hands and got out of my chair. It took me a few minutes to "walk it off" before I came back and finished the chapter.

The Club Dumas, by Arturo PĂ©rez-Reverte
It's not that I loved the movie The Ninth Gate, but I did find it interesting in its own bizarre way. When I heard it was in fact based on a book, The Club Dumas, I decided to give that a try. This one sticks with me as a truly memorable example of a film "adaptation" almost completely departing from its source material. The last third of the book bears no resemblance whatever to the film. And nowhere in the film will you find any reference to Alexandre Dumas, the author whose work is a significant runner throughout the book's plot (as well as providing its title). How odd to adapt a book without keeping its title, theme, or plot.

World War Z, by Max Brooks
Here's another example where the book and the movie that came from it bear no resemblance to one another. (In this case, however, the movie was fairly good.) But it's not the differences that make this stick with me. It's that the book is absolutely amazing. It's hard to imagine right now, but this book hit before the resurgence of zombies in pop culture. It came at a time when the most recent zombies we'd seen were the "fast zombies" of 28 Days Later and the Dawn of the Dead re-make. This went back to genre roots, but did it with tremendous creativity too, fusing zombies with historical fiction. I always wanted to see this adapted into a Band of Brothers style mini-series... and frankly, that still ought to happen, since the film was nothing like the book. Oh well, at least we have the brilliant audiobook version, which cast a dozen different actors as characters recounting the horrors of the Zombie War.

2061: Odyssey Three, by Arthur C. Clarke
I read this in junior high. I'd never read Clarke's prior two books, 2001 or 2010, though I'd seen both the movies that came from them. 2061 sticks with me as being one of the worst books I've ever read. 240 pages of mounting tension culminates in 10 pages of utter copping-out -- the sum total of which amounts to "you needn't have bothered reading this book, because nothing happens in it." To pour salt in the wound, the book concludes with a 2-page epilogue set in the far future of 3001, in which it is strongly implied that "now something is actually going to happen." Clarke did ultimately write a 3001 novel, but I'll be damned if I'm going to ever read it.

Heir to the Empire, by Timothy Zahn
In 1991, it seemed as though there would never again be another Star Wars film. But one day, I walked into the book store and sitting there was Heir to the Empire, the first book of Timothy Zahn's Thrawn trilogy. Holy crap! A new Star Wars adventure? Featuring a badass new villain, and spot-on renderings of all the familiar characters we knew and loved? Yes, please! And, as we would learn 8 years later, this book was light years better than the next Star Wars tale that would actually spring from the mind of George Lucas. I suppose it remains to be seen whether next year, 24 years after the release of this book, the official continuation of the Star Wars storyline is better or worse. But I feel like Heir to the Empire set the bar rather high. Even though hundreds of Expanded Universe novels followed, almost none were as good (at least among the handful I read).

The Amber Spyglass, by Philip Pullman

This is the third volume of Pullman's outstanding trilogy, His Dark Materials. The first book (titled The Golden Compass in the United States and Northern Lights in the rest of the world) really grabbed me with its clever fantasy premise and the thorough way in which that premise was explored. But it was the final volume that really revealed what an incredibly subversive idea Pullman had Trojan Horsed inside his work. The scathing rebuke of organized religion was icing on an already skillfully crafted cake. It's probably just as well that the film adaptation of the first book failed at the box office and sank the series; if they couldn't do that book justice, they would have failed utterly at this brilliant final volume.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, by J.K. Rowling
Speaking of final volumes, the seventh Harry Potter book is pretty amazing. It concludes the evolution of the series from something very surface and kid-friendly to something quite deep and adult. It surprises. It tugs at the emotions. And most improbably, it satisfies. It frankly should not have been possible for Rowling to write a satisfying ending to a series that had that many people waiting for that long. And yet, though most people I know don't consider Deathly Hallows their favorite Harry Potter book, I don't know of a single one who thought it was disappointing. I vividly remember canceling all my weekend plans, disengaging from the internet, and hiding in my apartment in a self-imposed blackout to devour the book as quickly as possible.

Hold 'Em Poker for Advanced Players, by David Sklansky and Mason Malmuth
Though I've now become quite casual about poker, there was a time in the early 2000s where I was taking it quite seriously, reading all the strategy books on Texas Hold 'Em that I could get my hands on. I considered this to be one of the best. (Or at least, one of the first to make a big impression on my thinking.) The advice of this book has probably "stayed with me" in a more literal way than any other book on this list.

And there you have it, 10 books that have stayed with me in some way. If you're reading this, and are inclined to offer a list of your own, consider yourself tagged. Feel free, if you prefer, to take it back to Facebook and simplify things by just offering the titles without elaboration. In any case, let's see what books are on your mind.