Tag Archive: Best of the Best


Review by C.J. Bunce

Anna Holmwood and Gigi Chang continue their landmark English translation of Jin Yong′s Legends of the Condor Heroes novels in A Snake Lies Waiting, now available in bookstores and here at Amazon, the first English translation of Volume 3.  Another expert translation of Jin’s breathtaking adventure, full of wit and wisdom, expect to find the most action in the saga, as well as the single best scene of the entire series.  In the spirit of Homer, Robert E. Howard, Edgar Rice Burroughs, J.R.R. Tolkien, Akira Kurosawa, and George Lucas, A Snake Lies Waiting is among the world’s greatest fantasy novels.  It doesn’t fall into the trap of many major fantasy series: losing the steam built up in the first two installments.  If Book Two was The Empire Strikes Back or The Two Towers or The Godfather II, consider this volume another The Empire Strikes Back.  The 1950s series has sold more than 300 million copies internationally over the past 60 years, but the books are finally being made available to U.S. and UK readers as part of this series.

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Although it wasn’t renewed for a second season, streaming service DC Universe’s Swamp Thing was the 2019 adaptation of a comic book series that stood apart in a year where every other series seemed to be based on a comic book.  On the small screen, from The Umbrella Academy, The Boys, and Watchmen, to the last seasons of Netflix’s The Punisher and Jessica Jones, plus new seasons of Arrow, The Flash, Supergirl, Legends of Tomorrow, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, Gotham, and Legion, and new Batwoman and Doom Patrol series, 2019 meant a lot of comic book adaptations that either looked the same or they fought hard to try to be grittier and different.  And that’s great–that means there’s something for everyone.  But none compared to Swamp Thing.  For our money, if you’re looking for fun, creepy timed for Halloween and not cartoony, soap opera-ish, or comic booky, and a series that earned its way to be one of the top 10 comic book adaptations of all, give Swamp Thing a try.  Moving from DC Universe to the CW network where anyone can watch it, the first episode of Swamp Thing begins again tonight at 7 p.m. Central.

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We often critique a series for its inability to get off the ground running.  Perhaps no television series excelled at that (both literally and figuratively) than the one and only original 1969-1970 animated series, Scooby Doo, Where Are You?  The entire series is airing this month on Boomerang.  The cultural impact of “those meddling kids,” the Scooby Gang, Fred, Daphne, Velma, Shaggy, and their Great Dane Scooby Doo, cannot be overstated.  The pop song introduction, the 1960s van, the clothes, the cameraderie, mix with the first shake cam most of us ever noticed, cool colors, and a laugh track telling us we weren’t the only ones in on the fun.

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Review by C.J. Bunce

So often big budget dramas dressed in sci-fi dress rise up the box office rankings, you might miss the best films, the ones that don’t need the big budgets or major stars, the refreshing sleepers that surprise you.  One of those great surprises was Midnight Special, which I reviewed here at borg back in 2016.  The next spectacular science fiction work is even better–The Vast of Night–the brainchild of writer-director-producer-editor Andrew Patterson (who is billed under multiple names), now streaming on Amazon Prime.  Could this freshman filmmaker be the next J.J. Abrams, John Carpenter, or Steven Spielberg?  Think Super 8, The Fog, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, in a setting like American Graffiti and The Outsiders, with stunning cinematography, superb dialogue in a tightly written script, and a fresh and eerie use of sound.  If you missed this Amazon Studios arrival earlier this summer, you’re in for a treat of 1950s teenage sleuths, a radio station, and strange goings about town: An ambitious film that comes pretty close to perfect science fiction in the classic tradition of The Twilight Zone, The War of the Worlds, and the short stories of Philip K. Dick.

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Review by C.J. Bunce

If there is a better writer of pulp crime fiction in the long history of the genre than Erle Stanley Gardner, I don’t know who it is.  Yes, Mickey Spillane and Donald E. Westlake are in the running, too, but even if you push aside Gardner’s more than 60 novels featuring Perry Mason, you’re going to be challenged to find a better duo of detectives from the 1930s onward than Gardner’s Bertha Cool and Donald Lam.  Gardner wrote 29 novels published in his lifetime featuring the larger than life Bertha of the B. Cool Detective Agency and loyal and well-trod upon employee Lam, the narrator of the tales who lost his license to practice law and uses his smarts to keep money coming in to the agency.  Where the Hard Case Crime imprint is at its best is finding lost gems, and they have one in The Knife Slipped, written by Gardner and intended to be the duo’s second case, the publisher kicked it way back in 1939 because of Bertha’s brash, bombastic, and profane style.  Maybe that attitude just reflected the era of the day, but reading the novel now it’s clear Gardner was ahead of his time. 

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Usually we reserve Trailer Park for a pile-on of new movie trailers, but this year has seen a serious dearth of new both new movies and previews for new movies.  So let’s highlight some true classics you need in your repertoire if they aren’t there already.  Three standouts are airing on basic cable–depending on where you live and what you subscribe to–Saturday and Sunday.  First up is the baseball comedy classic Brewster’s Millions And then we have two different brands of war movie.  So what are they?

Let’s get to it.

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A Bond Undone

Review by C.J. Bunce

As the paperback edition of Anna Holmwood’s English translation of A Hero Born–book one of Jin Yong′s Legends of the Condor Heroes novels–arrives in bookstores tomorrow, the first English translation of Volume 2 is coming late this month.  In the spirit of Homer, Robert E. Howard, Edgar Rice Burroughs, J.R.R. Tolkien, Akira Kurosawa, and George Lucas, Jin Yong’s epic adventure continues in A Bond Undone A sequel as exciting a follow-up as The Two Towers, The Empire Strikes Back, and The Godfather II, Jin Yong takes his epic, legendary wuxia heroes into a riveting, unputdownable volume of honor, loyalty, bravery, cunning, and devotion.  And English audiences get to experience it for the first time this month thanks to a compelling, tightly written translation by Gigi Chang.  The 1950s series has sold more than 300 million copies internationally over the past 60 years, but the books are finally being made available to U.S. and UK readers.

Two young men whose destinies were determined before they were born, Guo Jing and Yang Kang, were made sworn brothers by their fathers, and their lives came crashing together 18 years later in A Hero Born (awarded our Best Read of 2019, reviewed here at borg), as the truth of their shared past finally caught up with them.  By the end of the first book they had each developed relationships with powerful women, Lotus Huang with Jing, Mercy Mu with Kang, all four among the most promising martial artists of the early 13th century of this work of historical fantasy.  The story takes on tones of a Shakespearean tragedy, as Mu and Kang’s relationship is one of confusion and despair, as they are driven together and then apart by Kang’s fear at parting ways with a life of privilege, the only life he has ever known.  Jing, the saga’s hero, is constantly mocked for his ignorance, but the quick wit and love of Lotus, and his pursuit of her hand, allows him to come under the teachings of the greatest of China’s masters.

Adding to their former teachers or shifus, in A Bond Undone Jing and Lotus learn secret kung fu from a new shifu, Count Seven Hong, Chief of the Beggar Clan, a comical sort who will do anything for great food.  As Jing stumbles into getting himself engaged to more than one woman (one by order of Genghis Khan, one by his former shifus and a mentor), Lotus is pursued by Gallant Ouyang, a handsome but conniving member of a tribe who has amassed an unwilling army of women warriors, all at his beck and call, as well as a more powerful kung fu.  Jing has his own enemies, not the least of which is the deadly Cyclone Mei, who possesses one of two volumes of the Nine Yin Manual, a book of secret, ultimate martial arts, the understanding of which could make someone the greatest master of them all.  The book is both the Holy Grail and One Ring of the series.  But Mei was also the student of Lotus’s father, the Heretic Apothecary Huang, as was her husband Hurricane Chen, inadvertently killed by the reflexes of a six-year-old Jing, told in the first volume of the series.  Apothecary Huang is repulsed at the thought of his daughter betrothed to the killer of one of his students, which sets up the key action of the story.

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Review by C.J. Bunce

When you think of epic adventures, maybe first that comes to mind is J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings or George Lucas’s Star Wars.  Maybe the cinematic stories of Akira Kurosawa, like The Seven Samurai, The Hidden Fortress, and Rashomon.  Or maybe your epic adventures are more fantasy, like Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan of the Apes, Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Conqueror, or historical, like Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, Baroness Orczy’s The Scarlet Pimpernel, C.S. Forester’s Lieutenant Hornblower, or go farther back, like Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte De’Arthur, the Maya’s Popul Vuh, the Old English Beowulf, the Old Norse Poetic Edda, or even the stories of Homer, The Iliad and The Odyssey.  What if someone wrote an equally exciting, rich adventure in the 1950s that has been read by more than 300 million readers, and you missed it, simply because it hasn’t been translated into English yet?  That would be the first English edition just released of A Hero Born, by Jin Wong, the pen name of Chinese author Louis Cha.  His novels sold more than 300 million copies internationally over the past 60 years, but the series is finally available to U.S. readers.

Two men, Skyfury Guo and Ironheart Yang, grow up together around 1200 AD.  Becoming best friends and blood brothers, they get married and have their firstborn both due at the same time.  They swear loyalty to each other, including a vow binding the futures of their family together that will survive these men, just as intruding warriors divide and even kill members of their family, leaving the friends and their families to disperse and flee.  Enter the Seven Heroes of the South (known by their enemies as the Seven Freaks of the South).  When the two friends are feared dead, this elite Magnificent Seven of sorts, a fabulous mix of warriors with every type of skill and weapon, makes a bargain with one of the revered seven Immortals, Eternal Spring Qiu Chuji.  They will separately train the offspring of the men, and in 18 years return for a showdown to see who are the better masters or shifu.  To one of the women a boy is born, named Guo Jing, and it is his story–his mythic hero’s journey–that the reader follows in this first adventure, which takes him from birth into adulthood, toward a destiny he may not be prepared for.  Guo Jing does not know his life and training is all based on a wager.  What does it take to have honor, to have character, to be a hero, and what surprises will he stumble upon on his way to meet his destiny?

Books like A Hero Born are why we have words like “epic.”  First published in Chinese in 1957, A Hero Born is the first novel in Jin Wong’s Legends of the Condor Heroes series set in the 13th century, following the life of a family in a community under the Song Empire who escaped to join Genghis Khan and his people.  It’s hard to believe the novel wasn’t written a hundred or hundreds of years earlier, or that George Lucas didn’t base his entire Star Wars saga on this story.  Anna Holmwood′s use of prose in her translation is pure artistry–A Hero Born reads seamlessly as if the novel was originally written in English.  Holmwood conveys the meanings of the hundreds of Chinese terms without seeming to explain them, weaving cultural nuances, the unique characters, the rich history of China, the Mongols, and Jin, the Taoist philosophy, and visual kung fu choreography into easy reader understanding.  The world-building will suck readers in and leave you wanting even more.  Luckily the entire series has been translated now, to be released over the next few years.

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Review by C.J. Bunce

Nothing in my lifetime in the fantasy genre has had an impact as great as Jim Henson, his creations, and influence.  That stretches to The Muppet Show and The Muppet Movie, tangent puppet creations like Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back, and Henson’s masterwork, the 1982 holiday release The Dark Crystal.  So nothing could be greater than to revisit The Dark Crystal in a new incarnation, and not only find the people behind it got it right, but set a new standard in storytelling along the way.  No visual storytelling medium is older than puppetry, and nothing reaches inside you like a story told with creations you know aren’t real, yet when done exceptionally well they convey every emotion as if they were real.  The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance, now streaming on Netflix, sets a new bar because it expands on the original film’s story, bringing to life a larger, fully fleshed-out world and a timeless tale that firmly installs the name Henson (Jim and daughters Lisa and Cheryl) as equal to fantasists like the Grimms, Kipling, Milne, Howard, Tolkien, Lewis, Beagle, Harryhausen, Lucas, Jackson, and Rowling.  “Wonder” should be the Henson family hallmark.  Beyond that, the series surpasses the best fantasy of television and big-screen productions, so from here on audiences may ask comparatively, “Yes, but does it convey the emotion and wonder The Dark Crystal series created?”

Dynamic, thrilling, suspenseful, and full of action, mythology, sorcery, good and evil, despair and triumph, swashbuckling adventure, unimaginable beauty and love for nature and community, The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance presents better than anything before what every other fantasy before it seems to stumble on: Stakes.  The preparation of the viewer for a world of dire fantasy stakes couldn’t have been more artfully revealed.  What is at stake in the film isn’t just another “end of the world” story, but something that reaches in and makes you believe a stack of rocks can be lovable, the innocent can rise against the darkest evil, where the world of humans and their conflicts is not a consideration, and where you may find you want a hug from a giant spider.  Glorious, ground-breaking, faithful to the original, with thousands of creators making a film in a spectacularly difficult way, it more than fulfills its promise.

You could heap all sorts of praise on the series, beyond Netflix for betting its money on a prequel, the Hensons and original visionary family the Frouds, beyond director Louis Leterrier, writers Jeffrey Addiss, Will Matthews, and Javier Grillo-Marxuach, haunting music by Daniel Pemberton, the spectacular assemblage of voice actors, from Simon Pegg and Warrick Brownlow-Pike (who perfectly resurrected Chamberlain the Skeksis, one of fantasy’s greatest villains) to Donna Kimball and Kevin Clash (resurrecting fantasy’s greatest sorceress, Aughra).  The unsung heroes will be those puppeteers and the designers of the production, the puppets, the costumes, and props.  There’s not a big enough award for this series or its many creators, artists, and artisans, and all that had to come together to make it.  A glimpse behind the scenes can be found in a must-see feature following the ten episodes of the series.

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Review by C.J. Bunce

Make no mistake, Billy Batson aka Fawcett Comics’ Captain Marvel (aka Shazam since 2012) has always been the most difficult to fold into the DC pantheon of superheroes.  With Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman–the trinity at the top of DC Comics for so long–audiences always know much of what those characters are going to bring to a story even before they walk into the theater.  To be fair, Billy wasn’t a DC original, shuffled much later into the DC universe because of some decades-long legal tedium.  Billy Batson is a kid who suddenly becomes a superhero, so the trailers have been compared to Penny Marshall’s Big, another story about a kid suddenly dealing with being grown-up.  And that is, indeed, part of Shazam!  The movie is also part origin story, because although Shazam! adheres to Billy’s origin story going back to the 1940s (just as Captain America: The First Avenger adhered to its source material), much of the audience that saw the character in his heyday–when he was even more popular and well-known than Superman–aren’t around to make up the target moviegoing audience.  But Big and an origin story is just the beginning.

You know it when you watch a movie unfold and realize something great is happening.  DC Entertainment–the movie guys–finally paid attention to DC Comics–the actual writers and artists who built the character from the ground up–and at last delivered what this comic book reader has always wanted.  Shazam!, the story, Zachary Levi‘s superhero, and a new young actor named Jack Dylan Grazer as Billy’s friend Freddy–are fantastic.  The magic, wonder, and heart of DC Comics is finally back in the theaters.  It’s a gamechanger for the DC universe, because it finally steps away from Zack Snyder’s dark and brooding Justice League and returns it to the roots of DC Comics and DC At the Movies that we first got a taste of with Christopher Reeve’s first Superman and Michael Keaton’s first Batman.  So if the executives at DC are paying attention, and audiences agree once the film hits general release April 5, this could be an opportunity for a switch-up–an excuse to build a new Marvel-level superhero film universe around the new, amazingly fun and appealing superhero characters in this film.

At its core, the story by new screenwriter Henry Gayden updating a script by Darren Lemke (Shrek Forever After, Jack the Giant Slayer, Goosebumps) is about a foster family and the importance of family, so don’t think this is another frivolous superhero movie to be easily dismissed.  As with Spider-Man: Homecoming and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, it’s loaded with emotional beats, and it’s all heart.  What do kids care about, and what are they afraid of?  The film takes some time to look seriously at these things.  It’s not only laugh-out-loud funny in spots, expect some snorts, too.  But look for some emotional pangs along the way, on par with an oft-forgotten superhero movie that may have more heart than any other, the 1980 John Ritter sleeper (and one of my favorites) Hero At Large.  Which makes Shazam! also a movie for fans who count Spider-Man: Homecoming and The Incredibles among their most favorite superhero movies.

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