This is Staff Picks, a recurring feature in which staff members of the Juneau Empire and Capital City Weekly share what they’ve been watching, reading and listening to.
With a surplus of time on our hands, we’ve been burning through podcasts, albums, books, movies, shows and games. Here’s what’s helped fill our time at home:
What we’re reading
Michael S. Lockett: “Cry Pilot” by Joel Dane (Novel, Fiction)
It’s always fun to read science fiction where they assume anything in the future is going to be improved, and that the structures and organizations in power won’t railroad this planet right into the ground. “Cry Pilot” offers a surprisingly well-realized future of corporate warfare against a poisoned Earth with one of the single worst Amazon summaries I’ve ever read. Interesting characters, a well-illustrated universe, and a brisk and brutal plot all made for science fiction I enjoyed more than I expected to about soldiering and the ruthless expenditure of human life in the defense of the greater whole.
Michael S. Lockett: “Paladin’s Grace” by T. Kingfisher (Novel, Fiction)
There’s a tendency in fantasy and science fiction to give a plot weight by making the stakes higher. Save the kingdom, stop the invasion, millions of casualties, whatever. I’ve always appreciated Kingfisher’s deft touch with her Clockwork Boys universe in keeping the plot focused. This isn’t some huge story about saving a nation or a planet, it’s just a small story about a few people tangled up tangentially with a larger plot that isn’t even their problem. It tells a ground-level, wry narrative. I also learned a great deal about perfuming and some of the details about the industry, which, I’ll be level, I did not expect to learn. It’s not a long read but it did make me smile.
Ben Hohenstatt: “The Underground Railroad” by Colson Whitehead (Novel, Fiction)
I’m using some of my virus-imposed downtime to work my way through novels I always wanted to read and would maybe even pretend to have read at a cocktail party because they seemed like things I really should have read. This is one such book, and it’s excellent. The plot is a relatively simple narrative of an escaped slave who encounters misfortune, obstacles and a dangerous slave hunter at every turn in her journey. The action is sprinkled with some light magical realism in the form of a literal underground railroad that transports the protagonist. The writing is superb and Whitehead’s ability to render unspeakable cruelty believably banal does a masterful job of underscoring the brutality of the institution of slavery.
What we’re watching
Michael S. Lockett “Harley Quinn” (Series, DC Universe)
I am profoundly surprised how entertaining this was. Using an animated show about superheroes as a lens for examining relationships, ingrained sexism, friendship, and self-sabotaging behavior was an inspired choice. It has it all: great characters, entertaining episodes, solid animation, and lots and lots of swears. Solid references to a police-wide love of Bruce Springsteen, Henry Kissinger’s many, many war crimes, and the importance of terminating bloodlines. Don’t let your kids watch it unless you want them to learn lots of no-no words real fast.
Michael S. Lockett “His Dark Materials” (Limited Series, HBO)
It’s my favorite children’s story about killing God and fighting the deep and pervasive evil of a massive, monotheistic church in a universe that in no way resembles our own in strange but very similar ways. Dafne Keen does a great job as Lyra Belacqua, and I would watch Lin-Manuel Miranda act as anything. While they do adjust the timeline, importing some elements from the next book in the series, it’s sharp looking, well acted, and definitely not super-topical in a time when churches are not doing appallingly awful stuff to children all the time and not being held accountable for it.
What we’re listening to
Ben Hohenstatt: “Screw It, We’re Just Going to Talk About the Beatles” (Podcast)
This comic dissection of the Beatles’ discography officially came to an end shortly before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down everything. Like a phoenix powered by quarantine-imposed free time, it’s risen from the ashes to re-analyze the Beatles’ first two releases. It’s a welcome return for me, as the podcast really captures the feeling of putting on an album and talking music with a friend who shares your mild obsession. If silly, occasionally ribald humor mixed with fairly well-informed analysis of the Beatles sounds appealing, this is an extremely pleasant way to sink a few hours.
Ben Hohenstatt: “High Risk Behaviour” by The Chats (Album)
I hope snickering teens still pass around this kind of aggressively sophomoric music. The first full-length release from these Aussie scuzz-punks is a collection of sub-two-minute odes to misdemeanors and social diseases. This is willfully, gleefully immature music that heavily apes the sound of the Sex Pistols with humor reminiscent of the Dead Milkmen without sounding totally derivative. It’s also proudly debased without crossing into Dwarves-esque bad taste territory. The lack of a hyphen in a compound modifier and the non-American spelling of behavior do drive me slightly crazy, though.
Ben Hohenstatt: “Football Money” by Kiwi Jr (Album)
Fans of jangly indie rock need look no further than the debut from this Canadian quartet for all their spring soundtrack needs. “Football Money” is a collection of deceptively tight slacker rock with hooks for days and legitimately funny lyrics. If I had to choose between this album and the similarly Pavement-indebted first release from Parquet Courts, I’d go with “Football Money.”
What we’re playing
Michael S. Lockett: “Ace Combat 7” (PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One)
I’m sure there’s a plot somewhere in this game, but it’s so pointlessly convoluted and anime-ish that, I mean, who cares? The planes are gorgeous, the controls are great, and the combat is satisfying. Is it like playing an arcade game where the combat is the entire point? Sure. But that’s enough. Put on the “Top Gun” soundtrack and go blow up some Russians. Or robots. Or fictional countries. I still haven’t figured it out but again I don’t care so long as I get to fly an F-14D and splatter faceless enemies all over the sky in gorgeous, beautifully rendered fireballs.
Ben Hohenstatt: “Basketball GM” (PC, Mac and Mobile)
This is a free-to-play browser game made by one guy, and it’s incredibly addictive. It’s been around for several years and continues to grow in scope and detail. I hadn’t played it in a while before recently revisiting it to see all sorts of new tweaks had added considerable depth to the game — scouting, player development and team building are all substantially different from the game I remember dominating an embarrassing amount of my summer of 2014. If you have a thing for general manager sims, then this will be compulsively playable.