Archive for March, 2020


Masquerade for Murder

Review by C.J. Bunce

Max Allan Collins is back with another nugget of gold from the files of Mickey Spillane.  It’s this month’s first published release of Masquerade for Murder, a Mike Hammer story from the 1980s.  Like a few other novels released by Collins I’ve reviewed here at borg, this is the latest published posthumously with the late Mickey Spillane.  As Collins discusses in a foreword to the novel, this story came from a story synopsis left behind with many others with express instructions by Spillane for Collins to finish and introduce to the public.  Coming from more than four decades across the life of the famous detective, Collins has seamlessly taken over the Hammer stories as if Spillane never really left.

As soon as Hammer takes his next job, his client’s son is clipped right in front of him, a hit-and-run by a red Ferrari.  Soon the bodies begin piling up.  They all have in common the firm where the son works.  And the cause of death is incomprehensible to Hammer and the police: people are found dead whose chests were smashed in as if by a battering ram.  Who is behind this, why are they doing it, and how the heck are they inflicting so much damage?  Masquerade for Murder is Collins at his best, vintage Hammer, and indistinguishable from classic Mickey Spillane.

Few characters and genres are as easy to sink into as Mike Hammer crime novels.  Hammer in the 1980s is a combination of all the great detectives from the then-recent past, some Thomas Magnum, some Jim Rockford, some Columbo, and some Lennie Briscoe from Law & Order to come years later.  Of course, Hammer was a major influence behind them all.

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With most of the nation moving to more at-home time because of the coronavirus/COVID-19, there’s never been a better time to join an online campaign or begin with your family at home your own Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition roleplaying game campaign.  Wizards of the Coast is here to jumpstart your campaign fun with two new products this month.    First is a set of D&D trademark “dice and miscellany,” this time tied to the Forgotten Realms’ own Laeral Silverhand, Open Lord of Waterdeep, centuries-old archmage, and daughter of the goddess of magic.  She’s here to guide you on your path to adventure with Laeral Silverhand’s Explorer’s Kit, a shiny new eleven dice set (two d20s, one d12, two d10s, one d8, four d6s, one d4), twenty illustrated, double-sided cards detailing Laeral’s expert insights on key characters, locations, and lore from across the Forgotten Realms, and an attractive foldout double-sided map of the Sword Coast and the city of Waterdeep–all housed in a sturdy felt-lined box that functions as two dice trays.  If you’ve played for years and haven’t picked up one of these add-on kits in a while, this set of gorgeous dice and materials would be a great place to start.  It’s now available here at Amazon.

Also available for the first time this month is a sourcebook springing out of the second campaign of the popular D&D liveplay show, Critical Role.  It’s the Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount, a hefty, 300+ page guidebook to the world created by Matthew Mercer, DM to Critical Role.  Although it promises new surprises for fans of the show, it is also made for gamers at any level, regardless of their familiarity with the show, and provides new characters that can be incorporated into any campaign.  Wildemount is a continent in the world of Exandria, with varied cultures, locales, peoples, and monsters.  The guide introduces four adventures: Tide of Retribution, Dangerous Designs, Frozen Sick, and Unwelcome Spirits.

larael c

DMs can set the adventure in one of four regions–the Menagerie Coast, Marrow Valley and the Zemni Fields, the Greying Wildlands and Eiselcross, the Wastes of Xhorhas and Blightshore–or incorporate any or all of them.  Adventures range from level one to 20.  Players are invited to jump the rails–change any aspect of an adventure to suit the type of game players enjoy the most.  In the Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount, improvisation is your friend.  If a DM isn’t sure how to proceed he/she is encouraged to do whatever is the most fun for the players, characters, and journey.

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last Odyssey

Fans of James Rollins novels will be happy to hear the 15th novel in his Sigma Force series has arrived.  Billed as a thriller, The Last Odyssey finds Rollins piecing together obscure and fantastical elements from the writings of Homer with his fictional version of an Illuminati.  Think Knights Templar, the Holy Grail and other lost artifacts of lore, Dan Brown’s novel The Da Vinci Code or the secrets of Nicolas Cage’s character in the National Treasure movies.  Rollins pulls in Leonardo da Vinci as a character, but his ideas are something more out of Erich von Däniken’s pseudohistory and pseudoscience or Leonard Nimoy’s In Search Of–taking some of the most unlikely and untenable of possibilities from real history and connecting them together into an action/adventure story.

Coincidence after coincidence, characters there at the right time every time with knowledge of the most obscure data point necessary to move the characters to the next locale–for fans of Rollins’ brand of storytelling, it just doesn’t matter.  The zanier the ideas the more they come back for more.  And they’ll likely be pleased with this next installment.

The novel starts off well, with a promising opening act.  Rollins presents a group of people who uncover a medieval ship inside a far-away Greenland iceberg.  It contains Renaissance era and even ancient artifacts, items you might find in a roleplaying game or video game story like Assassin’s Creed or Tomb Raider, and you get the feeling this will be a romping fantasy quest.  The reader is teased with the concept of the Earth opening up with Ray Harryhausen or Clash of the Titans adventure via a glimpse of a mythical creature and extrapolations of ancient technology in the form of automaton robots.  But is that really what is going on?

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Review by C.J. Bunce

How many sci-fi and outer space tropes can you pack into one hour of TV?  You’ll find out in the first episode of Syfy’s new space fantasy series Vagrant Queen It’s like Firefly and The Fifth Element as if they were directed by Sam Raimi.  Star Wars elements meet Doctor Who aliens with effects that feel a lot like The Last Starfighter.  And humor that’s a cross of Guardians of the Galaxy and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.  Or maybe it’s just sci-fi created by Canadians.  Whatever it is you’ll be all-in with the crew of the spaceship Winnipeg as it takes off into adventures in some galaxy out there that is… not ours.

Adriyan Rae (Atlanta) plays the scavenger Elida, a mix of Marvel’s Valkyrie and Rey from Star Wars, who stealthily has masked her former persona as Queen Eldaya, being pursued by the dreaded Republic, led by Commander Lazaro, played by Paul du Toit (remember Gary Oldman’s Zorg in The Fifth Element? He’s like that guy).  Tom Rozon (Lost Girl, Wynonna Earp) is Isaac, a frenemy from Elida’s past (part Han Solo or Jack Harkness or Lone Starr from Spaceballs or Bruce Campbell in… anything).  They come together with a Kaylee-inspired ship mechanic named Amae, played by Alex McGregor, to save a space station’s bartender, get a ship back, and rescue the queen.  And that’s just the first episode.

It’s light-hearted, campy fun a la Xena: Warrior Princess featuring a group of actors who seem to be competing to see who has the most fun.  It’s a little bit… everything… that you enjoy about space travel, with a cool lead like Killjoys and alien makeups reminiscent of Farscape.  Goofy banter and situations, you’ll find yourself calling out the inspiration from nearly every scene, beginning with an opening rif on The Mandalorian.  This is the escapism you’re looking for right now.

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Omnibus 2

If you have a houseful of kids and both spouses at home, all for the first time for longer than a school break, it may start getting… close… soon, especially if you’ve exhausted your collection of games, and finished cleaning out your garage and basement for the second time.  If that’s the case, or you’re just looking for some good reads, Titan Books has just the thing, three new, big books that are sure to keep at least a few of you entertained for the coming weeks.  The theme is Marvel Comics superheroes, but they aren’t comics.  They are part of Titan Books’ ongoing series of paperback novels delving deep into your favorite superhero characters.  Each volume, called an omnibus edition, is a hefty volume featuring three novels by a frequent Marvel writer.

Choose from Diane Duane’s Spider-Man: The Venom Factor Omnibus, including the novels The Venom Factor, The Lizard Sanction, and The Octopus Agenda, Christopher Golden’s X-Men: Mutant Empire Omnibus, featuring novels Siege, Sanctuary, and Salvation, and Greg Cox’s The X-Men and The Avengers: Gamma Quest Omnibus, with novels Lost and Found, Search and Rescue, and Friend or Foe? 

Diane Duane’s 656-page Spider-Man: The Venom Factor Omnibus is the ultimate look at the life of Spider-Man.  For Peter Parker, it’s one counter after another with three major Spidey characters.  Each novel confronts a key adversary, Venom, then the Lizard, then Doctor Octopus.  But these aren’t the only familiar faces readers will encounter.  And it’s not called The Venom Factor for nothing–look for Venom in a key role throughout these three novels.

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Die Hard board game

Looking for your next game to keep you family occupied this spring?  Gamemaker Usaopoly has a recently released board game for fans of Bruce Willis’s John McClane and the Die Hard franchise.  It’s the Die Hard: The Nakatomi Heist Board Game.  While you’re sheltering at home (you’re doing that, right?) you can order the game from two good sources we found: Amazon here and Entertainment Earth here.  Bookmark this link to Entertainment Earth for future reference, because as Amazon reprioritizes shipments, it may be the quickest shipping method for the coming months for all your game and toy purchases.

The Die Hard: The Nakatomi Heist Board Game is a one-versus-one, two, or three players game of stealth, combat, and action-tactics, following the story of the original Die Hard film.  The game has several components and plays out with cards and tokens in a sequence of three acts.  One player is John McClane and the rest play thieves, moving through Nakatomi Plaza, while the thieves try to stop him and break into the vault.  Thieves proceed to break six locks to get to the seventh level, when the FBI breaks in.  McClane must complete objectives to get to each new level.

Die Hard cards   Die Hard tokens

Players have shoot and punch attack actions, and McClane sneaks around the board–yep, walking through glass.  Thieves get “line of sight” to draw blood (not “first” blood, that’s a different movie).  Thieves get reinforcements, and McClane can get radio support.  The game ends when McClane dies, the thieves break into the vault, or McClane kills Hans Gruber.

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PatrickPicard

Patrick Stewart is back again to save the day, and he’s doing it in two ways.  As Sir Patrick Stewart, he has begun reading sonnets and sharing his readings online.  And as one of our favorite Captains, Jean-Luc Picard, he’s sharing news of the ability for anyone to stream the first season of his new series Star Trek: Picard on the CBS All Access streaming service–free.

As most know, the master thespian was an actor in the Royal Shakespeare Company before appearing in Star Trek: The Next Generation and as Charles Xavier in the Marvel X-Men franchise films, including one of his landmark performances in James Mangold’s 2017 Oscar-nominated film, Logan.  On his social media (see his Instagram page here) Sir Pat has begun reciting a sonnet a day, in the hopes that “a sonnet a day keeps the doctor away.”  He has so far read Shakespeare sonnets 116, 1, and 2.

Patrick Stewart

And Tuesday he announced more good news for his Star Trek fans: “Our #StarTrekPicard season finale is Thursday, and starting today until 4/23, you can watch for free on @CBSAllAccess in the US with the code: GIFT.”  All you need to do is sign up for the streaming service and use the code GIFT.  Check out the CBS All Access website for full details.

Star Trek: Picard takes place twenty years after the events in the movie Star Trek: Nemesis, which resulted in the death of Brent Spiner’s character Data, and also after the events of Star Trek (2009), which resulted in the destruction of the planet Romulus.

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Nora from Queens pic 2

Review by C.J. Bunce

If you need something to laugh at–and who doesn’t?–a quick fix can be found with Comedy Central’s new series Nora from Queens (full title Awkwafina is Nora from Queens), the latest of that niche New York neighborhood local comedy show.  The series was produced by Comedy Central, but airs across several cable channels, including MTV2, which is airing all ten episodes beginning this afternoon.  The series of half-hour episodes is a semi-autobiographical look at Awkwafina, stage name of rapper/actor Nora Lum, who switches up her name slightly to Nora Lin for the series.  Viewers will find a lot of truth with Nora, whose real-life persona won a Golden Globe best actress for The Farewell, and she’s had breakout roles in Ocean’s 8, Crazy Rich Asians, and Jumanji: The Next Level.  Just don’t let the kids in the room–Awkwafina’s humor is over-the-top, all-out vulgar at times, and right there with Sarah Silverman’s stand-up comedy, even evoking some Cheech and Chong ghosts of comedy past.

As with the real Nora, Nora in the series was born of a Korean American mother (who died when Nora was young) and Chinese American father, and raised by her father and grandmother.  Here BF Wong (Jurassic Park, Mr. Robot, Awake, Gotham) plays her amiable dad, a single father whose own mother lives with him and Nora (creating the core of the humor).  Looking for a girlfriend, he sets his sights on a woman he meets at a single parent support group, played by Jennifer Esposito (Spin City, The Boys).  Nora is frequently entwined in chaos with her nerdy but somehow more successful cousin, played by Bowen Yang (Saturday Night Live), who proclaims 2020 as “Year of the Ass.”  He couldn’t be more on point.

Nora from Queens pic 1

But the best of the series is Nora’s sweet, mouthy, and feisty grandma, played by Lori Tan Chinn (Roseanne, Spin City, Orange is the New Black).  Chinn has all the range, and gets the best writing and dialogue in the show, crude and endearing at the same time, like Ruth Gordon in Every Which Way But Loose.  Grandma goes to the casino, but not to gamble, instead to watch Korean dramas with her friends.  She picks fights with Korean Americans, is a bit racist toward Italians, and a highlight of the series is a flashback episode centered on her meeting Nora’s grandfather, all produced as a melodramatic Korean drama.

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The Five cover

Review by Elizabeth C. Bunce

I don’t know how old I was when I first heard of Jack the Ripper.  I do remember being quite young when the sensationalizing and romanticizing of the serial killer started to bother me.  “What’s wrong with you?”  I would growl at the TV, comics, Halloween costumes, and centuries-spanning obsession about the murderer.  Where was the attention on his victims, on the real women who lost their lives?  No one seemed to care—in 1888, or now.  They existed only to fuel the fascination surrounding the murderer.  I stumbled across Hallie Rubenhold’s The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper while doing unrelated research for my Myrtle Hardcastle Mysteries series.  I knew immediately I had to get my hands on this book.  Here, at last, was someone else who felt exactly as I did and set about to rectify the situation.  The premise alone makes the book worthwhile, and Rubenhold’s research and writing makes it a must-read.

Rubenhold’s The Five is long overdue, and definitely a welcome addition to the field of Victorian social history.  It’s a tough but fascinating read, handled with an equal mix of sympathy and outrage.  What this book is not:  It’s not true crime.  It’s not a whodunit.  It makes no fruitless speculation about the identity of the murderer, and it does not linger over the salacious details of the crimes.  It is a gripping story of characters who are every bit as fascinating, vivid, and richly drawn as their notorious killer is imagined to be.  And it is a stunning social history that spans the mid-late Victorian era and the life and times of working class women.  Rubenhold unearths known, previously unknown, and totally ignored details from each woman’s life, and skillfully fills in the gaps with information drawn from other historical records—what life was like for workhouse inmates, laws that targeted and disproportionately disadvantaged working-class women, contemporary commentary from social reformers, and more.

In five sections, arranged chronologically by the dates of their deaths, Rubenhold examines the family backgrounds, childhoods, young adulthoods, and last years of Polly Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elisabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes, and the woman who called herself Mary Jane Kelly.  She takes readers on a journey across England, overseas to Scandinavia, from the tinworks of Birmingham to the barracks of Queen Victoria’s guard, to ambitious charity schools and factories and homes, the open road of ballad-sellers, the terrifying spectre of white slavery, and the sad backstreets of London’s poorest neighborhoods.  In telling the stories of these five individual women, Rubenhold also tells the story of all Victorian women, exploring the ruthless social rules that crippled poor women and condemned them to a downward spiral of poverty and violence.  Rubenhold corrects nearly a century and a half of misconceptions and assumptions about these five women (spoiler alert: they weren’t all prostitutes), and restores the truth of their real lives.

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Review by C.J. Bunce

Screenwriter Sarah Phelps (EastEnders, Dublin Murders) is back with her next project, another adaptation of a well-known Agatha Christie work, a year from release of her first Amazon Studios project, The ABC Murders (reviewed here at borg), which starred John Malkovich and Rupert Grint.  The new series is Christie’s creepy tale The Pale Horse, a supernatural mystery from 1961, directed by Leonora Lonsdale (Beast).  The series stars Rufus Sewell (The Man in the High Castle, Zen, A Knight’s Tale) as Mark Easterbrook, a man of questionable character whose wife dies in the bathtub at the beginning of the story.  Remember his name, because it is included last on a list found in the shoe of another dead woman.  Why women are ending up dead found on the list, and why Easterbrook’s name was included, is the key mystery of this two-part series.

As Easterbrook is hounded by the local police led by Sean Pertwee (Gotham, Doctor Who) as Inspector Stanley Lejeune–who is investigating the string of deaths.  Easterbrook decides to investigate himself, to beat the inspector to the answer, which takes him to the small town of Much Deeping.  Much Deeping has an inn, an inn that is home to three witches, and he figures that somehow they are connected.  Easterbrook’s second wife, a key player in the story, is played by Kaya Scodelario (Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, The Maze Runner).  This is another Christie story of lies, and the lying liars that tell them, with the oddball, quirky twists we saw in both The ABC Murders and Murder on the Orient Express.

Rounding out the cast are familiar genre faces Georgina Campbell (His Dark Materials, Krypton, Broadchurch, Black Mirror) as the first Mrs. Easterbrook and Bertie Carvel (Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, Sherlock, Doctor Who) as another man interviewed in relation to the deaths.

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