Babylon’s Ashes by James S.A. Corey (audio)

The Expanse series: Leviathan Wakes, Caliban’s War, Abaddon’s Gate, Cibola Burn, Nemesis Games, and now book six, Babylon’s Ashes.

I realize I keep going light on plot summary with these books, and I’m going to continue that trend here – you can get synopses elsewhere (as usual, Tor.com does a good job), and I feel pretty strongly that that’s not the point for me, with this series in particular. I’m here for the people. And they are delightfully developed in each episode. This book is delicious in its continuing development of everyone in turn. I feel that we’re consolidating our cast of characters, swelling the ranks of the Rocinante‘s crew to include Bobbie and Clarissa, and keeping up with Fred Johnson, Avasarala, Marco and Filip, and even (in prologue and epilogue) checking in with Anna Volovodov. Michio Pa is back with a still larger role to play; and Praxidike Meng, like Anna, plays a smallish role, but the presence of each of these returning characters would seem to indicate that they’ll have more to contribute in future books.

As the title indicates (and I have to say this is the first time I’ve found the title even glancingly related to the book’s contents!), the world is changing irrevocably; the question now is simply whether humanity will survive the coming years. Naturally, it is only thanks to the Rocinante‘s crew – well, with some help – that they have a chance at all.

I’m a little surprised it took me this long to notice a habit: all the characters in The Expanse consistently push their food away before they’ve finished it. All the foods, it seems, coagulate or degrade quickly into something pasty. (Almost all of these foods are made from a finite list of ingredients, things like mushrooms and yeast, and they tend to get gummy.) Sometimes it’s because something sad or bad happens and the character is suddenly no longer hungry. But whatever the reason, I’m not sure I’ve seen a character finish a meal yet – I typed, before getting to the epilogue, where Anna’s daughter Nami remarkably does so. Still, there’s a pattern. They’re always pushing the bowl away or putting it in the recycler. Funny what we notice. Funny the habits of a writer (or in this case, writers): the Corey team seems unable to let our folks eat to satiation.

Also, whoever it was that said that all science fiction is really set in the present (my buddy CT thinks it was Ursula Le Guin) was not wrong. This series’s new world is different in many of its details – including some pretty basic building blocks of life, like food, and travel, and the air we breathe – but all that is just so much window dressing, when it comes down to it. The essential problems in this world are the same old ones: how humans get along with each other. Power grabbing, greed, the needs of the disenfranchised to eat and breathe up against the “needs” of some selfish jerk or another to control everything. Racism now follows what part of the solar system a person comes from; ethnicity seems to be a non-issue, but really the discrimination has just shifted its focus. I deeply appreciate this new lens on an old problem: when I say that this is just the same story set in a different world, or that its details are window dressing, I don’t mean to be dismissive. I think it’s extraordinary. And sometimes we need new backdrops to recognize old problems in a fresh new way. If certain problem presidents were in a book club, maybe they could read this series; I don’t know.

Deep, complex characters, entertaining dialog (Corey is back on their stride after some hiccups), a racing plot, and the big questions about capital-H Humanity: I love this stuff as much as ever. You can expect more reviews to follow. Hooray!


Rating: 8 rocks.

PNC Broadway at Kentucky Center for the Arts presents Hamilton (2019)

You already know I love the soundtrack and concept. I felt so lucky to get to see this production in Louisville, Kentucky, with a friend of mine.

Jefferson in Hamilton (photo credit)

A few thoughts of my own here, and then I’ll respond to some observations from Pops.

I found every moment of this performance thrilling. I came in so heavily invested in and in love with the show as I knew it, from the soundtrack and from videos I’d watched online of other productions – I know this made me both harder to impress (because each actor was being held up to another actor’s interpretation) and easier (because I had already bought in). I think I had a fixed grin for several numbers; then when people started getting heartbroken and dead, I felt those things deeply, too. We had impressive vocal performances as well as acting throughout; it’s a blockbuster. I agree with Pops’s comment that some familiarity with the lyrics is helpful in appreciating their richness, depth and cleverness; don’t miss any of these lines!! but with my thorough study beforehand, I got a lot out of this. My admiration for Lin-Manuel Miranda and the whole production was confirmed, expectations satisfied. I still wish I could have seen the original cast. But this was amazing, outstanding, and something few people get to see (those ticket prices, whew $$$). I’m overjoyed.

My date (who is a novelist) and I talked some about the characters we appreciate most. Hamilton is a big one – the show is definitely built around the idea of his being a complicated, sympathetic, fascinating guy – and I find Burr a close second. He is the more tragic figure, I think, what with his final ambitious leap and disappointment, and his fatal mistake and instant regret. I enjoyed the comedy of Jefferson, and the gravitas of Washington. My date and I agreed that while Eliza was performed beautifully, Angelica is by far the more interesting and complex character, something of a tragic figure herself; that seems to be the nature of their true roles in history, though, and each actor beautifully performed her role as written.

One thing I hadn’t realized was how little script there was in addition to the soundtrack that I already knew so well – in other words, the whole story is sung; there is very little dialog. The notable exception is the news of John Laurens’s death: seeing that shared onstage, I finally understood why I’d been confused by the soundtrack on this point! No plus or minus here, just good news for fans of the soundtrack: you’re getting pretty much the whole thing. I guess I find it an interesting artistic choice on Miranda’s part. Everything in song!

A difference from the soundtrack and videos: our version of Burr (Alexander Ferguson) was a much slighter and less burly, macho man. The rest confirmed previous impressions. Mulligan and Jefferson each had their own swagger, and Jefferson onstage gets an infusion of pure silliness which was delightful to watch, and I think an important element toward the story – he was the comedic influence, and a foil in other ways as well for Hamilton. Hannah Cruz as Eliza was powerfully voiced, and I dug her haircut which was decidedly modern. And don’t let me pass up mentioning Peter Matthew Smith as a hilarious and beautifully sung King George.

The set was apparently simple, although it had a number of moving parts (not stationary as Pops reports the SF one); set changes (including furnishings coming on and going off) were part of the choreography, which was very smooth. The ensemble of backup singer-dancers made a definite contribution. Each actor filled their role nicely, although Burr was the biggest change. Funny Pops mentioned Van Jones – that man at least physically matches the original Broadway’s Burr much better than ours did.

In rereading Pops’s comments: I did not watch our audience very closely, I’m afraid. But my impression was that it was pretty white, and older than you noted yours. Also not rowdy or terribly involved; at Jefferson’s big entrance he had to ask for more applause (which he got, in moderation). SF has more pep than Louisville?

As far as Pops’s note about politics being mostly in casting rather than lyrics: this is true for the most part, and I appreciate that, sort of understated and unavoidable at the same time. (Funny story: after immersing myself in this play beforehand, I at one point found myself double-checking the appearances of some of these historical figures, wondering, were they brown? Silly question, of course – the powerful figures of American history are absolutely white – but that’s how involved I got in this play, that it let me imagine an alternative.) But! one notable exception would be repeated reference to the power and talent of immigrants. I love these lines.

Funny that Pops mentioned having seen the #2 Hamilton actor – I don’t see how I’d know such a thing, except that when I went looking for photos to accompany this review, I couldn’t find any of our Hamilton (Edred Utomi) in his role. I also can’t find any other Louisville Hamilton (which is why there is a picture of our very funny Jefferson [Bryson Bruce] at the top of this post instead). Hmm. No complaints about Utomi at all, though – I think he embodied the character perfectly. As I’ve mentioned above, Burr was the only one who didn’t feel quite right in his role; but I think that’s just because I had an impression in my head going in, and not the actor’s fault for having a different interpretation. The double-edged sword of my familiarity, is all.

Clearly I had a wonderful time. I’d do it again in a heartbeat. If I were made of money, I’d go see multiple productions of this genius play. If you can get in, do go see Hamilton wherever you have the chance.


Rating: 10 coattails.

guest review: the Orpheum Theatre presents Hamilton (2019), from Pops

Some months ago now, my parents went to see Hamilton in San Francisco (lucky them!), and I am now sharing with you Pops’s remarks – because the next post you see here will be my own response to another Hamilton production, 2300 miles away. Briefly, then, here’s Pops.

The audience was surprisingly white; guess I shouldn’t be surprised given the price and the world-class tourist destination of San Francisco.

I was impressed there were so many teens with families, young people, and couples; there is a cross-generational attraction.

It was like a rock concert: excitement building just waiting; with the first chord of music, they cheered and hooted like these were rock idols; the conductor was obviously pacing the opening song to allow for applause and cheering, so we didn’t miss too many opening lyrics.

The stage set was huge, simple, stationary and visually rich to my eye, smacking of heavy-timbered construction, shades of dark brown; it was open, no curtains, enticing the awaiting crowd; the show began with Aaron Burr simply striding out on stage and letting loose!

The talent on stage was overpowering; wonderful, top to bottom; the audio system was good, and the powerful music will move you; but the rapid fire lyrics were still sometimes lost to individual diction or presentation; good to be familiar!

It strikes me that the ‘politics’ of this production are largely in the ‘meta’ of presentation, not so much the content of lyrics: i.e. diversity of skin color, musical style, physical character portrayal, etc.

The cast presented a broad palette of skin color; very few racial or ethnic stereotypes appropriate here; it was wonderful how that quickly faded to background as each character established their identity with other features.

The acting adds so much to the songs! Characters were sometimes surprising as fleshed out by actors, with body language and expression adding so much; good seats up front paid off; so many of these ‘familiar’ historical ‘founding fathers’ were so different as portrayed, Jefferson especially (as a buffoon!); George Washington retained the most tradition I thought, with great gravitas; I thought our Aaron Burr was by far the powerful character, as portrayed by a handsome man who I thought to be a doppelganger for Van Jones, if you know him.

There is great dancing too! Again, totally missed listening to only audio; it’s fun how the ensemble women also play male or ambiguous gender roles in other scenes.

We saw the relatively inexperienced #2 Hamilton actor, and he was great; I suppose the #1 is saved for weekends – he has a much longer and showier background including a Broadway tour. One wonders about different interpretations…

Act 1 is all upbeat, high energy, uplifting; the shorter Act 2 brings the steady decline to denouement, like a Shakespearean tragedy; it’s a sad ending – no attempt to sugar-coat history.

I’ll be responding to these thoughts in my own review. It was so fun to get this email and whet my own considerable appetite for the same show…

author interview: Tim Mason

Following my review of The Darwin Affair, here’s Tim Mason: You Have to Bring the Stage to Them.


Tim Mason‘s plays have been produced in New York City and around the world. He has received the Kennedy Center Award, the Hollywood Drama-Logue Award, a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and a Rockefeller Foundation grant. In addition to his dramatic plays, he wrote the book for Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas! The Musical, which ran for two seasons on Broadway and tours nationally every year. He is the author of the young adult novel The Last Synapsid (2009). The Darwin Affair, out now from Algonquin Books, is his first adult novel.

photo credit: David Kelley


What about this history captured your imagination?

It began with Dickens, really: my love of Dickens, perhaps his best novel, Bleak House, and the character, the Detective Inspector named Bucket. I always thought, wouldn’t it be fun to write something with Bucket as the lead character instead of just a member of the supporting cast? And when I found that Dickens quite likely based Inspector Bucket on a real London policeman, Charles Field, I felt at liberty to use that fellow, or my version of him, as my lead character. It began with Dickens, and with my father’s love of the works of Charles Darwin.

How important, to you, is historical accuracy in fiction?

I worked very hard to be as accurate as possible, given that it’s a work of fiction. I tried to insert my fiction in the interstices between one historical event and the next. I had some good luck: when I first began work on the notion of the novel back in 2009, I was having dinner with a friend, a British expatriate in New York. And she said, well, if you’re doing anything Victorian, you should be in touch with my friend in London, Jane Hill. I e-mailed this perfect stranger and she, within days, was looking over my first 80 pages and correcting my Victorian. She was a great help throughout. At one point she turned over her house in north London to me while she was traveling abroad, and I used that as a base for research. I had an old friend in Oxford, an archeologist, and he and his wife were able to unlock a door for me at the University Museum, where the famous Wilberforce-Huxley debate on evolution took place. It is no longer open to the public, but I got to scope it out for myself and try to duplicate it in my book.

Also, in 2012, I think that was the year, the diaries of Queen Victoria, which had been transcribed and digitized, were briefly put online and open to the public. That was just a godsend; it was incredible. I had Queen Victoria’s own day-to-day accounting of her time, and the trip with her husband, Albert, to his homeland of Coburg in Germany, including the very real, very serious carriage accident that Albert suffered where he was thrown from a carriage and injured. I saw that as a green light to my fiction. It really happened; my version of it didn’t, but I squeezed my fiction onto historical fact.

Did you enjoy the research process?

I enjoyed it very much. Discovering sources like those I’ve mentioned, and a couple of others–I had a lot of good luck. At a certain point I feel you can’t write until you shut the history book. Otherwise you’ll go on forever researching and, you know, this is not a documentary; this is a work of fiction. I have to be willing to get some things wrong. I do my best to study up on the area I’m pursuing, and then I metaphorically shut the book and don’t look at it while I’m writing. That’s my process. Otherwise I find I’m paralyzed; I couldn’t actually begin the fiction until I looked away from the history.

What do you love so much about Bucket?

For me the Charles Field that I made was attractive. Dickens’s Bucket is also very attractive. He’s probably one of the first-ever police detectives in fiction. Very adept, very sagacious. He’s able to spot character on sight and come to snap judgments that prove to be accurate. I felt he also had quite a lot of moral ambiguity. He does a terrible trick to the poor character of Tom–Tom who’s all alone, a miserable poverty-stricken street boy. So he’s very warm and engaging, and you love him, and then he’s also capable of underhanded dealing. I thought he was very human.

When I came to write my version of Inspector Field, I realized he’s only superficially like Dickens’s Bucket. He has certain patterns of speech that are like Bucket, and he’s sort of a burly middle-aged man and he loves his wife, as Dickens’s Bucket did; but he’s a nicer guy. He has a terrible temper–that’s his biggest failing. But I could embrace him wholeheartedly, even with his temper and his sense of his own limitations. I think that’s very attractive to me. He’s not the omniscient detective. He’s not anything like Hercule Poirot. He’s just groping in the dark and so frustrated because he feels he makes one mistake after another. That feels more like my life.

How was writing a novel for adults different from your past writing experience?

I began experimenting in prose fiction some years ago, around 2000, when a story occurred to me that simply couldn’t be told on the stage. A play can span time, and travel in time theatrically, but this story wanted something different. That’s how my middle school novel, The Last Synapsid, began, and that was just such a slog. I just had to write and write and overwrite. My first draft was over 450 pages long! It took me a long time. I eventually cut 100 pages before Random House bought it and published it, but it was a great education. I could do things in novel form that I can’t do on the stage.

The literature of the stage is pure economy. Action is dialogue. Action isn’t, he goes to the bar and makes a cocktail and returns to the dinner table. Action is what happens from one line of dialogue to the next between one character and another, constant shifting of the balance of power. That makes the dynamic of a play. Well, in a novel, you’ve got the reader, who isn’t looking at the stage but looking into his or her own imagination, and you have to bring the stage to them. And it’s a lot of work, a lot of wonderful work.

What are you working on next?

What I’m working on involves Inspector Field five years before the events of The Darwin Affair, and seven years after. Both a prequel and a sequel. But this one I don’t want to take four years to write!


This interview originally ran in the June 21, 2019 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.

The Darwin Affair by Tim Mason

Playwright Tim Mason’s first adult novel, a rousing mystery set in Victorian England, has it all: thrills, engrossing characters, taut pacing and historical interest.


Playwright Tim Mason’s first adult novel, The Darwin Affair, is a rousing mystery set in Victorian England. In 1859, the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species poses a menace to the powers that be, and some of society’s upper echelon want him squelched. Amid the conspiracy lurks a tall, shadowy man with deep-set eyes; death seems to follow wherever he goes. The dogged Chief Detective Inspector Charles Field is on the case, although his findings are not necessarily welcomed by all. Field tracks his suspect from meat market to tavern to the royal court, from England to Germany, and even to the high-profile Wilberforce-Huxley debate on evolution at Oxford. Scenes of crashing action and adventure include a racing carriage on a collision course with a speeding train. With cameos by Charles Darwin, Charles Dickens, Karl Marx and a variation on Typhoid Mary rounding out the peripheral cast, this is a wild tale that engulfs the reader from start to finish.

Satisfyingly plot-driven, then, The Darwin Affair also offers very engaging characters: approachable Albert, Prince Consort; Queen Victoria, haughty but not humorless; a comic Marx; and a gracious, gentle Darwin.

But Mason’s less famous hero definitely steals the show. Field has difficulties with authority that will be familiar to fans of contemporary fictional detectives like Harry Bosch and Dave Robicheaux. Mason’s playwriting skills are evident in realistic dialogue and well-constructed, easily envisioned scenes. Readers of historical fiction, murder mysteries, action/adventure and thrillers will be equally entertained and perhaps edified: beneath the excitement lie thought-provoking questions about class and order, the interplay of science and religion and intellectual curiosity. The Darwin Affair has it all: thrills, engrossing characters, taut pacing and historical interest.


This review originally ran in the June 21, 2019 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 7 monkeys.

movie: Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980)

This biopic centers on country legend Loretta Lynn, the daughter of (yes) a coal miner in Butcher Holler, Kentucky. I was recently motivated to track it down in part by that Kentucky music issue of Oxford American.

First, the superficial bits: I am impressed with how well this cast resembles the characters they play. Sissy Spacek as Loretta, Tommy Lee Jones as her husband, Doolittle “Mooney” Lynn, and Beverly D’Angelo as Patsy Cline offer remarkable likenesses. There is less to go on with Ted Webb, Loretta’s father, but Leon Helm did a fine job with that role. (IMDB’s trivia section claims, “Loretta Lynn is said to have fainted when she saw Levon Helm in full make-up and wardrobe, because of his amazing resemblance to her real father.”) Phyllis Boyens-Liptak as Clary, Loretta’s mother, reminded me most of Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother.” All the acting struck me as more than adequate. Spacek’s Loretta is somehow both quaking and fiery: she alternates between terror and resolute defiance. Jones is charismatic and frightening. I felt drawn in and engaged by this movie – forgot I was watching actors at all.

The relationship between Mooney and Loretta made me plenty uncomfortable. In the movie, she is 13 years old when they marry; Rolling Stone says she was 15, but this is still disturbing, just to a slightly different degree. On their wedding night, in the movie, he rapes her. The next morning, he hits her for the first time. I did not enjoy watching this. But if this is the true story (and the movie is based on Loretta’s autobiography, so we are to take it as such – at least as close to fact as autobiography ever is), I can agree not to look away. This aspect reminded me of Urban Cowboy, but that fellow-1980 movie of abusive honky tonk relationships does not have the stamp of “truth” on its side, so I consider its offense a little worse, at least from the one angle.

Anyway. Nobody said this movie would be about everybody doing the right thing. It’s a movie about real people, at least ostensibly. Let me say a little more about the “truthiness”: this is a biopic, based on life, via an autobiography, with a co-author, of a celebrity, who has some interest in promoting an image her fans will appreciate. (In that Rolling Stone piece, she and her publicity team are quoted as basically falling back on that stereotyped Southern lady’s coyness about age.) So, based on a real life as represented by the woman who lived it. I’m not trying to be hard on Loretta. These are generalizations, not specific to her. None of us has infallible memory, and celebrity has been known to distort, too. While Loretta and Mooney come off in this movie as messy and imperfect, they are certainly also relatable and sympathetic; this is a classic rags-to-riches story where we root for the underdog. It’s arguably easy on its stars. I figure this movie is fact-adjacent.

I did get involved with it. I cared about the characters. I felt Patsy’s death, and Loretta’s several crises; I was both very angry with Mooney and understood Loretta’s attraction. It was visually pleasing. The music was (of course) excellent, and Spacek and D’Angelo sang their parts throughout, which is impressive. Long story short, this was well worth my time; I can only imagine the nostalgia it holds for viewers who are either from an Appalachia recognizable here, or big Loretta Lynn fans (or both). I’m not the former, and only a moderate fan, but it was a good enough time.


Rating: 7 pots of food.

did not finish: Silver, Sword & Stone: Three Crucibles of the Latin American Story by Marie Arana

Disclosure: I read an advanced reader’s edition.


This was to be a Shelf Awareness review, but I didn’t find enough to appreciate. Silver, Sword & Stone attempts a hugely ambitious project: a history of Latin America (South and Central) across much of human settlement, from pre-European contact through the present. Marie Arana wisely acknowledges that such a comprehensive history is too big a goal (certainly, to achieve in these 366 pages, plus notes), but still she takes on a lot. In her interpretation, three elements make up the chief themes and through-lines for this history. Silver stands in for mineral exploitation of the land and its indigenous peoples: silver, gold, tin, copper, and other metals. Sword represents violence, or rule by the powerful. And Stone is religion. I read parts one and two, so I can’t tell you much about Stone.

There were a few reasons that I quit. For one thing, the writing: Arana has a great fondness for adjectives, sticking one to just about every noun; she is not quite so thorough with adverbs, but it was enough to irk. Many of these modifiers are superlatives: benighted, saintly, and (one of her favorites) brutal. Not only manifest, but ‘very manifest.’ Feeble, irrepressibly genial, hellish, cataclysmic, dire. When everything is absolutely the most ever, the effect of all of it dims. Also, the section on Sword, or the violence that has plagued so much of Latin American history, feels like a judgment on the people of this massive region – both pre- and post-European contact: they are just inclined to violence, to brutal acts, to power and subjugation by force. It made me a little uncomfortable because it’s a negative stereotype that’s too often used against people of Latin American descent (native and white/European, and the inevitable mix of the two). I am also a little uncomfortable arguing against the conclusions here, especially because Arana is herself of Latin American descent, and I am not, and I usually try not to correct people about their own in-group conclusions. This is part of why I didn’t write a review for the Shelf. But here on my blog, I can only say, some of these broad-stroke statements made me uncomfortable.

On the plus side, I appreciate Arana’s strategy for bringing immediacy to this historical work. Each section stars a modern-day Latin American whose experiences represent and make specific some of the broader story she tells. Silver: Leonor Gonzáles picks through rocks on a high Andean peak in Peru, searching for gold, scrabbling a hard living as have generations before her. Sword: Carlos Buergos had a rough childhood in Cuba, was sent by Castro to fight in Angola for the Communists, then imprisoned for butchering horse meat and trying to escape, then sent to Florida as an undesirable. Stone: a priest, although of course I did not read that far. It’s a good plan, and fairly well executed here. Arana’s use of these contemporary characters indeed gives context and immediacy. The history bits can get a little general. She has something of a tendency to repeat herself, restating and rephrasing certain points, sometimes offering different (contradictory) numbers in the second go-round; but these are hopefully errors that will be caught in a final round of edits. Recall, this is a pre-pub reader’s edition. This one had more errors (grammar, usage, punctuation as well as factual contradictions) than I’m accustomed to seeing, but one is supposed to trust that all gets corrected in the final copy.

I think there’s a lot of good research to appreciate here – my copy has nearly 100 pages of notes. Arana has done some good work of interpretation, and she makes some strong arguments about recurring threads in Latin American history. Her use of representative contemporary stories to illuminate larger themes is a wise strategy. But there were some stylistic issues that I couldn’t get past. If anyone gets through the final published version, I would love to hear about it. But this one’s not for me at this time.


(I read two-thirds, so I’ll go for it)
Rating: 4 brutalities.
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