The Sunday Magazine: Quarantine Games

When my eyes get tired of reading. When I’m not excited to start something new on the streaming services. I have been turning to two mobile games to pass some time more frequently. The inherent play style of these games is they are made for short bursts of activity. Before being at home so much I played both games while waiting in line at the store or bank. Perfect bite-size distraction. Would it feel the same once it went from snack to meal? The answer was yes. I thought I’d talk a bit about the two games which I am enjoying, Marvel Puzzle Quest and June’s Journey.

Marvel Puzzle Quest is categorized as a match-3 role playing game. If you’ve ever played Bejeweled which was the first widely played match-3 mobile game then the mechanics are the same. The idea is to match 3 or more of the same colored tile. As they are removed more tiles fill their place. The larger the match you make over three the bigger the game effect. Same concept as Candy Crush but there they vary the playing board with different shapes. In Marvel Puzzle Quest it is a static 8×8 board. What adds the role-playing part to it is you start each match with a team of three of Marvel superheroes. You play against a team of three other superheroes. As each team collects the different colors they power up different powers for each hero. Once they have enough they fire the power causing a loss of health points to each side. Alternating turns on the game board the team standing after the last hero on the other team has lost its health, wins. A typical match takes a minute or two.

I was introduced to this game back in 2013 at New York Comic Con and have played once a day ever since. It appeals to the superhero geek allowing me to have my own X-Men to protect me. It also appeals to the strategy side because there are synergies between characters. Discovering them has been part of its enduring appeal. New characters are released every two weeks making for an ever-evolving game.

June’s Journey is another classic mobile game type, hidden object, given an extra aspect. The extra is you earn decorative items with which to populate an island. As it is with Marvel Puzzle Quest it is the combination which appeals. The hidden object part is you are given an illustrated scene and a list of items within it. Your task is to find them as quickly as possible. Each successive iteration adds in more items while you are asked t0 find more of them. The additional bit here revolves around June who tells a story through the scenes you play. She has returned home to find a crime has been committed. The scenes you play are part of her gathering clues to solve that crime. As you gather resources the game offers you a place to use them. You spend them on items to decorate a large island. You choose buildings, roads, plants to place on your island. Each of these give you the ability to progress further in the story.

I was introduced to this game by Mrs. C two years ago. I like the hidden object part of the game, but I’ve grown to enjoy the laying out of my island almost as much. I’ve spent time completely rearranging the layouts clustering thematic equivalents. Something I never would have done pre-quarantine was to pull everything up and set everything back down. I had the time and it took up an afternoon getting things the way I liked. The developers release a new chapter every week which has just started Volume 3.

Sometimes I really do just want to play a game these two are what take up most of that time.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Kate Bush

I have been spending many of these quarantine days with iTunes on shuffle letting it take me where it may. In a personal library of tens of thousands of songs it makes me laugh when it manages to use the same artist back-to-back. This time it brought to the forefront of my mind one of my favorite singer-songwriters, Kate Bush.

Kate Bush

Ms. Bush is one of the most influential musicians you might not have heard of. I wouldn’t have heard of her unless one of my college friends brought to my attention her first album released in 1978, “The Kick Inside”. Discovered as a teenager by David Gilmour of Pink Floyd she was given unheard of latitude to develop her talent. She was signed to a contract which gave her the freedom to form her distinctive music without most of the usual corporate strings. “The Kick Inside” was a huge hit in Europe but not so much in the US. I don’t know why she was never given the radio airplay needed to catch hold here, but it didn’t matter.

One of the more interesting things Ms. Bush did with the money paid to her is she enrolled in an interpretive dance class. One of the few corporate strings she did deal with was the desire to have her tour. When her second album “Lionheart” was released she staged the only tour she would ever do. It was a multimedia extravaganza with whale song, poetry readings, props like a giant egg, and modern choreography. She even innovated the first headset microphone out of wire hangers so her hands would be free to dance and sing. After a six-week tour of Europe she ended the tour from exhaustion. She wouldn’t take the stage again until a three-week residency in London in 2014.

Her entire music catalog is a creation of an artist given the freedom to be who she wanted to be. She would come to the attention of most Americans in her 1986 duet with Peter Gabriel, “Don’t Give Up”. Released between the Mr. Gabriel’s monster hits “Sledgehammer” and “In Your Eyes” it was put in heavy rotation on MTV. I spent a lot of time making copies of her first five albums for her “new” fans.

What has usually happened is they are drawn into the unique vocals and lyrics as performed by Ms. Bush. Her first single “Wuthering Heights” was based on the classic novel. Her voice has evolved into a jazzier version on her last released album in 2011 “50 Words for Snow”. “Wild Man” chronicles the search for the Yeti in the same way “Wuthering Heights” depicted Catherine yearning for Heathcliff. From foggy moor to high Himalayas it seems to neatly bookend one of the most influential careers in music.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Remembrance of Kate Mattes

When I got my first real job in September of 1984 there was one thing I was looking forward to very much. The chance to read for pleasure, again. Of the reading list which had been building over time in my head were a lot of the foundational murder mystery series. I wanted to read them first book to latest in the order they were published. A literary version of binge watching. In those days it was hard to find the earlier releases of many of the longer-lived series. I was also persnickety about not starting a series until I had obtained all the books. I found that some of the series which had started in the 1950’s-60’s the earliest releases were out of print. I needed to find a store which might have them. Which is how I came to meet Kate Mattes.

Kate Mattes

Kate had opened the bookstore Kate’s Mystery Books in Cambridge, MA in 1983. I had heard that she might have the books I was looking for. I drove up to see if it was true. I went on a weekday so I could poke around without the store being crowded. When I walked in Kate greeted me then explained the layout of the store. Each shelf held a particular genre. I had a list. She had almost everything on it. There were a couple of missing pieces. She assured me she could find them. Throughout the couple of hours I spent in the store we chatted about all things mystery related. It was a process I would repeat every couple of months.

That would change when I moved to Boston for a new job. We bought a house walking distance to the store. Instead of a frequent customer I became friends with Kate. I was there to help her when she needed it. She was there to add some fun to my life. If she needed a hand while an author showed up to sign books early. She knew I could be there in a few minutes. Listening to Kate talk to a who’s who of American mystery authors was always like a personal interview which I absorbed as I handed the next book to the author to sign. I learned so much about different writing processes, the business of getting published, and anything to do with plotting in those sessions.

Every year culminated in the annual Holiday party where I was one of the assistant “elves” helping get books signed as the store overflowed with authors, fans, and books to be signed. It was like being part of the best party in town for those who read books.

There were so many days where I sat in the chair talking with Kate about everything. We had moved far beyond just books. When she decided to close the store in 2008 so she could retire I knew it was coming. I remember helping her pack the last boxes as we walked out the door for the last time. We looked back at the empty shelves with eyes glassed over with tears.

Kate was able to find the retirement she wanted in Vermont. Two weeks ago she passed away from long-time health issues she had dealt with for as long as I knew her. When I found out I looked at the bookshelf where all my mysteries are shelved. Thinking most all of them are there because of her. This time the tears in my eyes were because of a full bookshelf.

I wish you peace Kate Mattes…..and a Heavenly selection of killer mysteries to read.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Crescent City House of Earth and Blood by Sarah J. Maas

One of the effects of being home now is I’m reading much more. I’m also just taking the time to catch up on my favorite urban fantasy series where I had not read the last one or two installments. While I was on the internet forum where I chat with other fans, I noticed a new hot topic for a new release. I have discovered some of my favorite series from the little flaming file folder icon. This time it led me to Crescent City: House of Earth and Blood by Sarah J. Maas.

Crescent City is the beginning of a new series by Ms. Maas. Her third and first away from the young adult series she had written previously. I had not read those. House of Earth and Blood was the first I have read from her. One of the things I enjoy most about urban fantasy is it wraps up the hard-boiled detective novel in fantastical doings. This is a mystery of tracking down a serial killer who may or may not be supernatural. In a place where such things exist.

Sarah J. Maas

Our protagonist is Bryce Quinlan who is the prototypical half-human half-something magical. In her case she is half-Fae. When we meet her at the beginning, she is out to have fun with her friends. Until one night they get killed. Bryce believes it is a demon who did it. Yet there is a man who was arrested and convicted for the murders. Two years later the murders start happening again. Bryce still suffering from losing her best friends goes after the killer. Along the way she meets her crime solving partner; fallen angel Hunt Athalar. There is the typical romantic tension, but Ms. Maas finds some nice ways to keep it fresh.

This is a very long book for this genre clocking in at almost 800 pages. That Ms. Maas doesn’t make that length seem like filler is testament to her skill. This is an excellent beginning to what I hope is a long-lasting series. Besides our central pair there are many parts of Crescent City I would like to explore in the future. Ms. Maas has at least two more books planned. I’ll be there waiting for those when they are published.

Disclosure: This review is based on a copy I purchased.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: State of Star Trek 2020

I did overview posts on “Watchmen” and “Star Wars” examining where they are and where I hope they’re going. With the conclusion of Season 1 of Star Trek: Picard It seems like the right time to look at “Star Trek” in the same way.

The Star Trek shows can be categorized as “What If?” or “What’s Next?”. The first category follows plots which generally are prequels or in-between series. Examples are “Enterprise” and the current “Star Trek: Discovery”. The second category follows the continuation of the timeline begun in the original 1966 series. “Star Trek: The Next Generation” or “Star Trek: Picard”. Each has its pleasures and its pitfalls. I presume each has its fans since they continue to produce shows in both categories. I’m going to look at the two current incarnations of each.

From the moment it started Star Trek: Discovery was a “What If?” show. Of any of this type of show it has been the one which has happily thrown out the previous Star Trek history, referred to by fans as Canon. It is that rich history that boxes in the writers. They are picking a blank space in a tapestry woven around them. Forced to try and fill that space without being a blot they mostly fail. They can’t help asking questions we know answers to. So interactions with different alien races happens decades before the first contact we saw in previous series. Other plot devices add in technology from later series into shows taking place much earlier.

My biggest problem with these series is they too often seem like something a bunch of fans were talking about in the food court at a Star Trek convention. What if Spock had a hidden sister? What if that sister was the reason the Federation and Klingons were at war? What is she served on a super-secret starship with technology that allowed it to travel faster than warp speed? On and on it goes. The thing that every Star Trek series has done very well is the casting. Every crew they’ve put on the screen has been played by actors who infuse them with the right amount of seriousness to make it believable. When the shows have failed it has been because the writers have given those actors dumb things to do.

Because I enjoy the characters, I’ve had to turn off my criticism of all the nonsense plotting on Discovery. I found that it made it more enjoyable if I just enjoyed the high-level fan fiction for what it was.

My expectations were higher for Star Trek: Picard because it is a “What’s Next?” series. It picks up with Captain Jean-Luc Picard after he has retired from Starfleet to oversee his family vineyard. The writers here are given much more freedom to choose which stories they want to add to. Which parts of Canon do they want to extend? In this case they took one of the running plot threads about synthetic life; as portrayed by the android Commander Data from The Next Generation and the villainous hive mind of the Borg. If Discovery is all about thrills and chills, Picard aims for a more cerebral tone. Asking high minded questions of morality. Which has been a Star Trek staple since the beginning. They also come with easier solutions than in reality, but that is what science fiction does.

The writers chose to surround Picard with a new rag tag non-Starfleet crew. This was a great decision on their part. The nostalgia of seeing Patrick Stewart play Picard again was enough. The previous characters brought back into the plot all made sense. There was plenty of callback to previous story from the TV show and subsequent movies. To credit the writers they made some of those previous episodes be seen with a new eye. Giving new motivations to things we had seen previously. That is when a “What’s Next?” show is at its best. For the most part Picard is one of those.

The future of Star Trek is on the streaming service of CBS. It is also going to continue with Discovery and Picard each working their side of the Star Trek street. I think it allows every fan to find a place where they can ask the question they like best.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Why Sports Matter to Me

I love watching sports. I’ve been fortunate to attend many of the biggest sporting events there are in person. I am now happy to sit with remote in hand flipping between different games. Joni Mitchell warned in “Big Yellow Taxi” that absence makes you wish for what you’ve lost. Right now because of the coronavirus epidemic we have all lost sports. I am finding it to be a bigger void than I expected.

One of the biggest is as a supporter of my favorite teams. The colleges I attended. The cities I’ve lived in. A special sharing with my father. They have made me a fan of teams in every sport. There is the optimism as you head into a new year. Then there is the reality of whether my teams are up to the task of being the best. Or not the best. Sometimes the worst. Throughout it all is the emotion of rooting for a team of players you want to do their best.

Then there are the rivalries. Even though most of my teams are on the downside these days. As an Arsenal Football Club supporter I admire the run the current Liverpool team is on. I really hope for them and their fans they get to finish what has been one of the all-time greatest seasons. Even though I was happy to see them lose a game so they couldn’t match the undefeated Arsenal season of 2003-04. They might be champions, but they won’t be Invincible.

Spring training for my St. Louis Cardinals was showing some promise just as it all shut down. I am hoping there will be baseball this year.

This weekend should have been the opening games of this year’s March Madness. I have no brackets to be busted. No buzzer beaters to say “OMG!” about.

Sports defined the weekend for me, I realize. It was a way I would unwind watching athletes do their things. Now that it has gone, I understand why it matters to me. I know it will make me love it all the more when it eventually returns.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Four Suggestions to CoronaBinge

It looks like most of us are going to be asked to spend a few days at home because of the spread of the Coronavirus. I suspect a lot of us will be searching our streaming services for something that can eat up some of this idle time. I know I will need something to replace the time I usually spend watching March Madness. I’ve seen the funny term for catching up on old series while self-quarantined called CoronaBinge. Here are four series you might not have heard about worth giving a shot.

Letterkenny (Hulu)- A comedy about the small-town life in Canada. In the first show we are introduced to the population of the titular town described as “hicks, Natives, skids, hockey players and Christians”. The show follows two of the “hicks”, Wayne and Katy, who run the local farm stand. The other focus is on two “hockey players”, Reilly and Jonesy. It is broad humor which reminds me of the style of the old British sitcom “Fawlty Towers”. I laugh out loud frequently while watching even though I know I am missing some things Canadians get that I don’t.

Street Food (Netflix)- Ever since I discovered Iron Chef I have been a fan of the food documentary. The streaming services have served up some excellent versions. Street Food is about the making of regional cuisine at the street level. At the same time it tells the story of, mostly women, who used their cooking skills to lift themselves up a couple of notches on their socio-economic ladder. I came for the food, but the stories of perseverance are nourishing to a different part of my soul.

McMillions (HBO)- Have you ever received one of those Monopoly game pieces when you’ve visited McDonalds? Have you ever wondered whether anyone actually collected the necessary pieces to win the million dollars?  I wondered all of that. This docuseries which just ended last week is the story of an FBI agent who wondered if the winners were doing it fraudulently in the late 1990’s. Turns out the answer to that question was yes. The series focuses on the investigation which unearths a memorable set of real-life characters who are so big in personality I found myself forgetting this wasn’t a scripted show. There is supposedly a movie version coming so extra fun can be had imagining which actors should play these characters.

Gravity Falls (Disney+)- If you need an animated series to watch with your kids that has plenty for an adult to enjoy, Gravity Falls is it. When twins Dipper and Mabel Pines are dropped off at their Uncle Stan’s to spend the summer in the seat of Roadkill County, Oregon the ensuing series combines multiple pop culture influences. At its heart is the kids following clues in a mysterious journal they find. Each episode is stuffed with throwaway jokes for every age level. It reminded me of the best of Looney Tunes where the obvious comedy was matched to something a little more subversive. Everyone in the family will probably find something to laugh at, if not for the same reason.

I hope all my readers get through their self-quarantines with only a bad case of cabin fever. Hopefully these four suggestions can ward that off.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: The Mandalorian

Star Wars holds a special place to me. If you’ve read this column you know that. I have enjoyed the recent movies a lot. To me Star Wars is about good people trying to do the right thing. At its best it is when a couple of plucky outsiders find a way to take down a large target. I’ve always felt the subtext of George Lucas’ galaxy far, far away is that one good person can make a difference.

Which was why as I watched the promotional trailers in advance of the new streaming series “The Mandalorian” I thought this might not be for me. Everyone associated with it had fanned out to conventions and tv interviews to talk about how this was a “grittier” Star Wars. I read, or heard, that as more violent, less white-hat-black hat, with lots of shades of gray.

For almost the entirety of the first episode that seemed like the show we were getting. We were introduced to The Mandalorian as he captures one of his marks for the bounty hunter guild, he is part of. When he comes back to the headquarters of the guild in time-tested fashion, he is given the bounty too difficult for others. He heads out to find his quarry. When he gets to the final scene where he finds what he is looking for; he and the audience share the surprise. Waiting for him is a baby version of the race Yoda belonged to. If you’ve seen memes on your social media with “baby Yoda” this is where it came from. As far as the series is concerned the youngster is called “The Child.

Right there the gritty edgy version of Star Wars snapped back to the good guys versus the bad guys. Over the next seven episodes The Mandalorian protects The Child. The series is classic genre storytelling out of spaghetti westerns. The two men responsible for it are Jon Favreau and Dave Filoni.

There are many callbacks to the westerns of yesterday set in space. The first episode features a futuristic hacienda designed just like the one Clint Eastwood infiltrated in “A Fistful of Dollars”. Episode 2 lifts a piece out of one of the first Star Wars video games. One episode is the old gunslinger versus the new kid. Another is a jailbreak. All of it surrounded by the growing bond between the bounty hunter and the child.

That relationship adds an emotional tug I wasn’t expecting. It has similarities to a graphic novel called “Lone Wolf and Cub” by Frank Miller. In both stories the tough warrior learns there is more to life than just conflict through parenthood.

By the end The Mandalorian has accepted the responsibility for The Child setting the stage for season 2. I am so happy that even a Star Wars with a bounty hunter at its center is still a Star Wars where the good guys win.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Young Sheldon

I have recently realized that most of my television watching does not take place on the original four broadcast networks. When I sit in front of the television now it is to cue up a series on any of the many streaming services. There are only five series I watch on those original networks. One of them is a spinoff which I have come to enjoy as much as the original.

In 2016 as CBS was nearing the end of their top-rated comedy “The Big Bang Theory” they asked show creator Chuck Lorre to create a spinoff focusing on one of the characters, Sheldon Cooper, as a child. Sheldon was the main protagonist of the original series. A genius physicist full of odd perspectives accompanying equally odd personal quirks. As portrayed by actor Jim Parsons, Sheldon was shown to have a heart under his demeanor which was part of what made the show fun to watch.

The new show, “Young Sheldon” uses Mr. Parsons as the voice-over narrator of each episode. It allows for connections back to the original but mostly it gives a character who has trouble showing his emotions an internal voice for the audience. The show is set somewhere in the late 1980’s when Sheldon was 9-years old and beginning high school. The show plays broadly with the theme of a youngster among teenagers. Where the show excels is as a family comedy.

Set in small-town Texas; Sheldon lives with his twin sister, Missy, and older brother Georgie. His mother works at the local church and his father George Sr. is a football coach at the high school. His grandmother lives across the street. The show’s plots usually revolve around Sheldon but as they have become more confident in the ensemble the other members of the family have taken on their own plots. In this current third season there have been a number of episodes where Sheldon was relegated to the background. That is a nod to the writers for broadening out the family instead of making them one-note caricatures.

The young actor playing Sheldon, Iain Armitage, is wonderful. It is very easy to see the adult Sheldon in his performance. One interesting acting choice is Zoe Perry who plays Sheldon’s mother, Mary, is the daughter of the actress who portrayed her, Laurie Metcalf, in The Big Bang Theory. The resemblance is genetic as well as her performance.

There are only a few things left on the broadcast networks for me to watch; Young Sheldon is one of them.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Maggie Rogers

I’m a dinosaur when it comes to finding new music. I miss the days of going to the record/cd store and hearing something playing in the store. I know the modern version of that is watching YouTube. I just have trouble finding those off-beat voices I like among the things I don’t care for. Which is how it wasn’t until she performed on Saturday Night Live, I hadn’t heard of Maggie Rogers.

This was in November of 2018. I would download her album “Heard it in a Past Life” a few months later when it was released in January 2019. Ms. Rogers rise is the new story of musicians finding their way.

Maggie Rogers

She was attending a master class by producer Pharell Williams while she was at NYU. A video of Mr. Willaims response to her singing her song “Alaska” went viral. It opened doors which allowed her to sign a deal to record her own music.

Ms. Rogers has that emotional undercurrent to her voice that draws me to my favorite singer-songwriters. It was what cased Mr. Williams’ reaction and it was what caught me late on a Saturday night through my television.

To her great credit she didn’t run straight into the studio to record. It took over two years before her major label debut. One interesting thing about that is she refined the use of electronic elements within her folk foundation exemplified by “Alaska”.

The song which shows this best is “On + Off”. There is thumping electronic melody over which Ms. rogers lays her folk lyrics. It is the starkest juxtaposition of that. The popular singles; “Light On” and “Fallingwater” do it to a lesser degree. It is what makes her album so interesting because it moves between radio-friendly folk music to something more alternative in composition.

I always look back over my iTunes statistics to see what I’ve listened to the most each year. I was surprised to find “Heard it in a Past Life” in my top 10 for 2019. Like Ms. rogers herself it just snuck up on me.

Mark Behnke