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What I've Been Reading, Watching, and Listening To: October 2018

Reading:

I've just finished Neil Gaiman's American Gods. I know I'm late to the party on this one, but I hear his name thrown around a lot in fantasy circles and as it just so happens I put out a fantasy novelette this very month. 

I didn't initially set out to write a fantasy piece, but when you work in horror and sci-fi, the other two branches of spec fiction, I guess you can find yourself slipping down that road. It was only once I was collaborating with an editor when I thought the horror I'd written was nearly finished that I realized I had a dark fantasy work on my hands, and I decided to finally delve into that literary world with one of the heavy hitters. I am also looking forward to giving the adapted tv series a shot now that I've finished the book.

Now for my thoughts on the book. First, I found the ending, the main conclusion of the gods' war to be both unforeseen and satisfying. Sometimes those are hard to accomplish together, to give readers something they didn't flush out already, but have all the pieces laid along the story for it to make perfect sense. Gaiman did that very well.

Second, as I started the book I was finding the main character, Shadow, a bit dull, an empty body to which bad things were happening, but that turned out to be intentional and a necessity for the character to grow beyond. So in the end, that turned around, and I found the character more interesting. Well done.

But finally, I have to say I don't think I liked this book as much as I thought I would. The original premise was exciting and had my mind running with all the possibilities, but I guess I found the story hefty on research (and I felt it came off as exceptionally well researched) but ultimately lacking on drawing me into exciting happenings. Even the god war near the end was all but glossed over with little intimate detail what-so-ever.

 I think what I found most compelling were the little tangential stories of characters who brought certain gods to America. Maybe my trouble is that building a character on known mythology risks seeming unoriginal. Then if you don't take that character into new and exciting places, you wind up dull. The characters were no doubt twists on established mythologies, and the new gods were original ideas, but it just never reached the level of excitement for which I hungered. I still found it a good book, and will likely give it four stars on my book rating accounts, but with all the hype I thought it would be a five star read for sure.

Watching:

As of this post, I'm three episodes into the new Netflix series The Haunting of Hill House, and I love every minute of it. Full disclosure, I haven't read the original Shirley Jackson novel, though I think I'm likely to do so in the near future. I was familiar with the story by word of mouth and previous adaptations, but the new spin of a family reflecting on the event of the house, after the fact, and the very contemporary personal problems each character is already dealing with at this point in the series has me enthralled. I think I'm fast becoming an S. Jackson fan as well as a fan of the series director, Mike Flanagan. Horror buffs should not miss this one.

Listing to:

Is there something to listen to in October besides the soundtrack for The Nightmare Before Christmas? Not if my kids are around, but I caught someone posting Logic's "Wu Tang Forever" on facebook. I wasn't familiar with Logic, but I was hip to the Wu Tang which is indeed forever, so I gave it a listen.

To say I was impressed would be an understatement. Logic slides right into the classic through-back to Wu Tang heyday. Excited, I gave some of the other works of this new (to me) hip-hop artist and was thoroughly confused. Confused that I'd somehow never come across him before. So now, I guess I'm a fan of Logic's too.
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What I've Been Reading, Watching, and Listening To. September 2018

Reading:

This month, I've started a couple of books but haven't finished any, not that they aren't good, so I'm sure I'll be talking about them soon. However, I've also been reading quite a bit with my son who just started Kindergarten, and he has been interested in the A Series of Unfortunate Events books, so I've read five installments in as many weeks. Therefore, this month my recent reads section will have to fall to Lemony Snicket.

This is not a consolation, I think these books are delightful, but I usually strive to talk about books which are intended for an audience as mature as that which I imagine for the books I write. That said, though these books fall under children's literature, anyone who has read one can tell you they lean mature in theme and content for the children's genre.

On a personal note, shortly after finishing college I spent about two years working in production in local news at a network affiliate in Cedar Rapids, IA. I don't recall what year it was, but at some point during my tenure, our morning anchor did a series of short live interviews with Lemony Snicket (the author in his character) via satellite. I wasn't familiar with the books, at 22-23 y/o I didn't have my thumb on the pulse of children's literature, so I don't even recall what in particular the author was promoting. By looking at the years of publication, I can suppose it was the release of one of the last two books in the series.

What I do recall is that the author was rude, evasive, argumentative, acted superior, and was even a bit cruel to our anchor. I imagined he was behaving in character, as I knew the author wasn't really Lemony Snicket, that it was a pen name packed with its own personality, and found it a bit funny. Our anchor tired to be a good sport, but even when the camera wasn't on, and the author was getting technical cues from our producer before, and after each interview segment, the author was rude, evasive, argumentative, and acted superior to our staff as well. It left a bad impression for me, but one I didn't give tremendous thought to as I wasn't that interested in the first place.

Fast forward ten years and Netflix adapts the books for a series starring the one and only NPH. Given my respect for the actor, and with the series continuing into a second season, I had to reconsider my casual stance against the author (his persona) and the books. Thus, I started one with my son. We are both glad I did. The books are a little difficult at times for a kindergartener but touch on subjects worth discussing. They promote children building advanced vocabulary, building strong character, and building new inventions, plus the stores are just plain entertaining. I'm thoroughly enjoying these books, and even if my son decided he wanted to stop the series, I think I'd finish it.

One confusing thing, however, is that I was expecting the narrator (Lemony Snicket) to be a terrible, insulting, and judgmental voice, just like the man we interviewed. True, the narrator, talks about dark themes and doesn't baby the reader through it, but he is empathetic towards the hardship of the characters, is matter-of-fact about their troubles, explores a bit of dry humor, but ultimately seems caring about both the characters and us the reader. In fact, the persona I saw interviewed seemed much more like the villain, Count Olaf than the narrator.

Who knows? Maybe after a long day with dozens of interviews, someone challenged Daniel Handler to do one set with the bumkins in Iowa as Olaf instead of Snicket, but no one let us in on the joke. Now my feelings are mixed, but I'm glad I'm enjoying the books. Maybe one should never judge a book by the insults it's author slings at you. (Or rather, those around you.)

Watching:

I rarely ever truly binge-watch anything. With a five-year-old and a one-year-old the opportunity to let Netflix just cruise on into another episode is pretty rare, especially in a month where MLB races come to a head and College Football Kicks off, but the closest I've come to a binge as of late was taking in the full season of Altered Carbon in under two weeks.

First of all, I love the sci-fi basis for this show. For those who haven't dabbled, Altered Carbon's narrative hinges on the existence of technology that lets people hold their consciousness in quasi-bio storage disks which can be downloaded or physically transferred into new bodies. It's like one's mind held in a thumb-drive with a seemingly endless ability to hot-swap. The idea was entirely original to me and set my imagination running in a thousand directions.

The characters are interesting, engaging, and diverse; the storyline is exciting, high-concept, and yet believable; but what the show does best is transcribe recognizable social problems (from economic inequality to gender-targeted violence to religious fanaticism) into engaging story arcs— as most good science-fiction seems to do.

I'm very excited to see this show go into another season, which leads me to my final point of praise, the show's concept of body-hopping sets the stage for an endless freshening of the cast and plot. Characters can be killed off, then return in new bodies without significant plot-holes, the cast can be swapped out seamlessly without compromising continuity. In fact, major characters could be moved into children, elderly, or opposite-gender bodies to create drama, humor, relationship issues and much more. For that matter, characters could swap each other's bodies to create compelling mystery or unsettling hilarity. Heck, the same protagonist could be moved to a different body (different lead actor) only to meet his former self (original lead actor) as an antagonist. The possibilities seem limitless.

I'm anxious to see what the future holds for Altered Carbon.

Listening to:

Just like many people do when Christmas nears, in expectation of Halloween about a month away, I lean toward mood-setting tunes. Unlike the Yuletide season, Halloween music is a bit harder to cultivate, especially if one wants to look beyond Danny Elfman scores and different versions of "The Monster Mash." I'm glaring at you Pandora. Thus, I currently find myself queuing up the 2013 Dan the Automator and Emily Wells collaborative album, Pillowfight.

The music features eerie instrumentals, dark themes, and ghostly vocals to create a scary atmosphere, not for a horror blood-letting, but more of a solo walk through the graveyard at night. Let me also add; its unobtrusiveness works wonderfully for having in the background while I'm cranking away writing a new spooky story.
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Revisit the Chilling - Angel Heart


Much like my culinary appetite, I find my appetite for stories sizable, but more noteworthy, to be heavily influenced by seasonal hallmarks.  Just as the 10th month of the year brings an insatiable taste for anything with a particular orange gourd as an ingredient, so to does October fortify my craving for creepy, sinister, and macabre tales. Naturally, it culminates on the 31st, before turning to the heartwarming, playful, and jolly stories that draw my fancy through the remaining holidays of the year.
With Halloween just days away, many dark, enticing tales cross my mind, but one that emerges as not only scary, but interesting to ponder is the film Angel Heart (1987). *  Though I’ve seen it multiple times, and years ago, it still stands as a complex story with themes and details worth revisiting and contemplating from time to time.
It stars a barely recognizable Mickey Rourke, to those familiar with the actor today, alongside Robert De Niro and Lisa Bonet. Rourke portrays Harry Angel. On the surface he’s an easily identifiable, hardboiled private detective – struggling to pay his bills, chasing beautiful women, and bedding a few in order to pursue his latest investigation.  But that’s only where the character begins. The missing person case that falls into Angel’s lap takes him, and us, on a dangerous path of secrets, corruption, and murder. Besides putting Angel’s own life in jeopardy, the story leads to darker territory including voodoo, deathly fortune telling, and devil worship.
This alone is enough to distinguish the story from a Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe case, and to push this film into the October-appropriate realm of Horror, but this is only the surface appeal of the film. Angel Heart goes further, and doubles the detective’s investigation, with all its peril, as also a voyage of self-discovery.  As Harry Angel must go to dark and sinister places, so to must he uncover dark and sinister truths about himself.
This elevates the story from entertaining to contemplative, and is the reason this film can not only give you a welcome Halloween chill, but also leave those of you who love a good story as much as I do, ruminating on its themes and psychological consequences for years to come - revisiting this meaty morsel whenever your appetite for the menacing and direful surfaces.

* Note this film was based on William Hjortsberg’s novel Falling Angel (1978).  My familiarity lies with the film and my discussion is limited to it, though I’m sure the novel shares most of the film’s admirable qualities, as well as possesses many of its own. Perhaps appropriate for a future post...
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