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What I've Been Reading: Oct 2020

After being delighted with the Lovecraft Country series, (see my Oct watching post) which is based on a novel of the same name by Matt Ruff, I rushed online to look up the author. I considered grabbing the book, but I noticed Ruff had a new novel, recently released called 88 Names, and decided to try that instead.

88 Names is not horror, but instead part cyberpunk, part mystery, and part spy thriller. This seems like too much, but one would think the same of Lovecraft Country, but somehow it works, at least in the series. Now, I'm about 3/4 through 88 Names, and so far, I'm digging it. The lead character is likable and complex. I've not read much cyberpunk, but there's a lot to like, without being overbearing. And the mystery has me turning the pages eagerly. The fusion of genre elements is pulled off well.

I'll reserve my final proclamation for after I finish, but I'm impressed enough that I predict I'll be picking up another Ruff novel soon.

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What I've Been Reading: Sept 2020

 

Devolution - Max Brooks


I'm a fan of World War Z. I thought the epistolary story structure was exciting and a refreshing take for the zombie subgenre. I also appreciated that it was more of a collection of social case studies rather than frantic horror. In Devolution, Max Brooks turns his eye to sasquatch or bigfoot. Still, the book has a similar structure as WWZ, telling the story through the protagonist's journal entries, supplemented by interviews with her brother, park rangers, etc. 


At first, I thought the story was a bit slow getting off the ground. Unlike WWZ, this is much more focused on a single protagonist, so we spend a lot of time getting to know her. In another story, we might have gotten to the action sooner and picked up more character depth along the way. However, in this structure, where we're reading from her journal, those get-to-know-you details are front-loaded. We have her entries before stuff goes wrong, and after. In the former, we learn of her everyday life problems, getting all the mundane out of the way early. It also serves the story that she is a pretty regular person, not some exceptional character. With this style of structure and this type of character, it had to be this way. 


That said, while it was slow early, it all paid off. Once the story gets going, and we aren't learning about the character, the action takes the driver seat and runs away. Having gotten to know her early, we delve deep into how the story's events change her drastically.


Best of all, like WWZ, there is an underlying theme that has nothing to do with the fantastic, like zombies or bigfoots, but rather is an indictment of real-life and society. Perhaps, here we see how dependent most of us are on our network of goods and technology. When they fail, we're far from prepared, and many lack the resourcefulness to get by. 


I would have loved this book and theme no matter what; however, given the recent and ongoing supply chain difficulties from the COVID pandemic, the book hits close to home. There are also a few theme elements I've turned an eye to in a couple of sci-fi shorts of my own. So I felt a bit of unity while reading. 


Suffice it to say, I think this book is well worth the read, and I'll be eagerly awaiting whatever Max Brooks has up his sleeve next.

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What I've Been Reading: July 2020

 How to Be an Antiracist - Ibram X. Kendi

This book was challenging, enlightening, maddening, discouraging, inspiring, hopeful, and occasionally humorous all at the same time. If that sounds a little manic for your tastes, I'd argue that it is symptomatic of the topic and having a serious conversation about it. There are symptoms of racism which are horrible, but also advances that give hope and some ideas so dumb, but persistent that one can't help but laugh at them. Point 1, everyone should take away, however, is that issues of race in the United States are anything but resolved.

One approach Kendi, an African American, took throughout the book, which I applaud, was admitting to ideas and actions of his own, which he sees as racist. He walks readers through his growth and acquisition of wisdom, and what mistaken and misguided ideas he held as he grew up, and in turn actions he took, that in retrospect, he believes to have been racist. It disarms the reader, and helps one put down their shield of "I'm not racist" and consider that they might be acting in a racist way unwittingly if they care to cast a critical eye on themselves.

Point 2 everyone should take away, is actually stamped right in the title, that thinking you are not racist because you don't seek to hurt people is not the same as being antiracist. Kendi draws a distinction, in which antiracist is acting to combat and eliminate racism. Kendi asks readers to put aside the idea that a racist is full of hate. While, people like that exist, instead consider that being ignorant, and sometimes willingly ignorant of racial disparity is really racist as well. When one adopts that definition, then the importance of being antiracist becomes clear.

One personal thought I found myself returning to again and again as I read this book was how at the forefront, or even ahead of his time, I think my late father was regarding racial America. He was both a psychology teacher and a practicing psychologist throughout his career, which means he studied, taught about, and treated social problems, he even had a class of that name. Given his career and education, he probably developed his empathy far beyond the average man on the street. However, even when I was a little kid, I remember him discussing debates he'd have with students. The students at the community college where he taught, much as the community where we lived, were predominantly white. Some would go something like a student when presented with racism as a problem saying that "they can't see race" and dismissing the discussion, as if they couldn't even fathom it because they were so beyond race. My dad would more or less call BS on that notion and call it a shield that lets an individual who is benefiting from racial disparity pretend the problem doesn't exist. Kendi, more or less, draws the same point in his book.

Another example, which is pertinent today is policies that discriminate in order to favor minorities. One might call if affirmative action. Students would argue that those policies were racist against whites and shouldn't continue. Kendi states that if a policy creates or helps perpetuate racial disparity, whatever the intent, it is a racist policy. If a policy actively equalizes racial inequality, then it is an antiracist policy. In different words, my father advocated the same thing, and that's the position I've held throughout my grown-up life.

Don't consider this some sort of brag. I'm not trying to say I didn't have anything to learn or to personally criticize myself about, I did, and I still do. But I'd say, this connection was personal and brought a heart-warming aspect to book for me.

Other people will have different connections, but I promise, if nothing else, this book will be a deeply personal and emotional read.

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What I've Been Reading: June 2020

To date, I had read all four novellas in Martha Wells' Murderbot Diaries series. I mostly enjoyed them. They definitely have a unique protagonist in the form of a rogue AI, but not just any bot, a security behemoth. As sci-fi classically has taught us, if we have anything to fear from AI turning sentient, it's the Terminator-like killbots that will be our undoing. Yet Wells asks us to empathize with this tortured soul who just wants to live its life and maybe watch some TV.  On the other hand, the character is very sarcastic and cynical. It's funny to see human behavior judged through the eyes of a being intimate with us. And while it's blessed with a more pragmatic mind, it's irritated continuously with our shortcomings.

Murderbot's cynicism often results in humor, but it can also become overwhelming to go through an entire story with this disparaging monologue. I've mentioned before that writing this character in novellas has been a plus, as a novel from Murderbot's POV would be a bit too much. 

Enter book five, the first novel-length installment in the Murderbot series, called Network Effect. I picked it up with mixed feelings. The world-building, secondary characters, and the protagonist have all been creative. The plots have been compelling. But, I was concerned about the length, given this particular character. To my relief, Wells handled this perfectly.

We still get to experience this story through the view of the sarcastic Murderbot, but in addition, we now have a character, his employer who has known Murderbot through the entire time period of the series, and who can cut through Murderbot's facade, to put the light of criticism back on it. We get a teenage character, who like most teenagers, manages to turn judgment back on Murderbot. And, we get other sentient AIs who, for all practical purposes, start to populate family rolls for Murderbot, and they don't take Murderbot's grief quietly. In short, they won't take his crap.

I think this story works well for a couple of reasons. First, we see more viewpoints in general. In turn, we get more breaks from Murderbot's attitude. Second, we get active tit for tat on Murderbot's judgmental voice. It makes this sort of character more palatable. Finally, we really see Murderbot forced to grow. The character has to reluctantly accept that its life is changing, and has to change itself to accommodate. In many ways, the character is becoming more human, more vulnerable, more relatable, and it's endearing.
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What I've Been Reading: May 2020

I finally finished The Stone Sky, book three of N.K. Jemisin's Broken Earth series. When I say finally, I don't want it to sound like it was some chore to accomplish. The labor was in finding the time to read now that my six-year-old and two-year-old are at home 24-7.  So it took me a bit longer than it might otherwise have. That out of the way, I was pleased with the story.

As with any solid series, finally, most of the groundwork has been laid, and rather than introducing loads of new characters and setting up new conflicts, in this book, we get lots of explanations, outcomes, and tying up of loose ends.

Ultimately, the main character arc came to an excellent close. Several characters had their backstories expanded upon fantastically. We felt the loss of some likable characters, and the entire world Jemisin spent three books developing, was forever changed by the epic climax. The series had posed what might be the ending since midway through the second book, and while it didn't go down as I might have thought, it landed just about where I hoped. And that's just satisfying.

Through the other two books, Jemisin has woven social themes, such as prejudice and inequality, which I've appreciated. This continued into The Stone Sky and served the story well.

I've had other series come in with a bit of a letdown in the finale as if the author's never really had an ending in mind as they turned out volumes. I don't think that is true for Jemisin and the Broken Earth series. So, kudos on a find conclusion. I'm sure I'll look into more books by this author.
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What I've Been Reading: February 2020

Over the last year or so, I've read the first three installments in Martha Wells's Murderbot Diaries series. I've mentioned how the main character is fascinating, but that his sarcasm can get a little grating as everything is seen through his POV. Still, I like the concept and enjoy the world. I just can't read them back to back. It would be too much murderbot. But, as it's been a few months, I picked up the fourth in the series, Exit Strategy (Wells 2018), and gave it a read.

Some positives form this installment: I liked the external character development for Ren (the murderbot). We've seen (slight series spoiler ahead) Ren transition from an autonomous tool to a feeling and reasoning lifeform, but most of that development has come inside his head. He has also been mostly cautious and distancing with the humans around him. He has developed a few relationships with other digital systems, such as another bot, and the controlling AI for a space ship. In exit strategies, we see Ren's relationship with some of the humans around him proliferate, mostly getting stronger. In a way, in turn, we see him becoming more human, or at least more emotionally like us. It's good. It helps us care for him.

What I didn't like: the plot doesn't advance the series storyline very much. Ren is mostly out of danger in this book, and his overarching goal of uncovering his own memory-wiped history has just fallen away. He gets himself into danger by endeavoring to help the humans he was first liberated with, his wards from the first book. The danger they're in is clear but not largely compelling. The plot is more of a simple frame on which to build the character growth. These books are short, so I understand there is a challenge in having a great plot and excellent character development in limited pages, but I still found myself drifting on the storyline and struggling to keep my focus on it.

The fifth Murderbot Diaries book, Network Effect, is due out in May. So, I can forgive that this book is a bit transitional. Book 1 introduces the Ren and some important supporting characters, plus some action. The next two books let Ren out on his own, to try to uncover his history, and in turn gaining himself a big political enemy, plus lots more action. Now with four, we develop his relationships while stocking the fire of how powerful and far-reaching his big enemy really is. Thus, I'm giving Exit Strategies some extra credit on good faith, securing a solid four stars in my mind.

Certainly, I'll be sticking around for the fifth installment. I've come this far...
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What I've Been Reading: Jan. 2020

Andy Weir's The Martian has been on my radar for a long time. Most people who weren't aware of it eight years ago had it brought to light when Matt Damon starred in the 2015 movie adaptation. Well, I finally got around to it, and I loved it. Two notes, first, I did see the movie back when it came out. Also, full disclosure I audiobooked this one, narrated by Wil Wheaton. I'll touch on both.

First of all, this is just a great story, particularly to fans of sci-fi grounded in practical science. It's a survival story, much like Cast Away or the Revenant. We follow a rollercoaster of one character devising solutions to survival problems, only to have gut-wrenching new troubles pile on top of one another. All along, we're pulled forward with the single question of "will he live?"

The book stood out, however, in the main character, Mark Watney's attitude. He was very sarcastic and seemingly cavalier about how bleak his situation was. We can presume many of his jokes were his way of dealing with his hopelessness. But it was still often funny, which one doesn't see in many survival stories.

Then, there's the science. Science themes are thoroughly embedded and run consistently throughout. I'd say, Weir kept as much fidelity to practical science as one could while still coming up with new (near-future) ideas. It was wonderful. I imagine it took tremendous research, and I applaud him.

Next, as my experience was with the movie adaptation first, let's compare. I found the movie to have many of the same merits as the book. It had lots of tension and edge-of-your-seat suspense as to whether Mark Watney will survive. It had a great deal of science fidelity. It also preserved Watney's sarcastic humor, though to a lesser extent. However, what it lacked, which was engaging in the book, was Watney's internal thoughts. When Watney encountered a problem in the book story, he'd walk through ten ideas of how he might try to solve it, but have to humorously point out how nine of those options would likely kill him. Then he'd opt for the least likely to result in death. This style gave readers a deep connection to his way of thinking, and what it would take to survive, it gave a number of opportunities to showcase Watney's humor, and helped build just how dire the situation was. We observed Watney die a hundred times in his mind. The movie didn't and probably couldn't do the same.

In a movie, we'd have to listen while the actor explained all the bad options, which would be a lot of non-action on screen. Otherwise, we'd have to see his thought played out as if real, ending in his death, only to be brought back and told it didn't really happen. That, over and over again, would have come off more silly than scientific. So it had to be reduced, and I don't fault the film, I just appreciate that the book had that extra layer to enjoy.

Finally, let me address the audiobook aspect. I'm a big fan, as they let me turn thinks like doing laundry into book time. This one had Wil Wheaton narrating. I have mixed feelings about Wheaton. I'm a Star Trek fan. I'm sure that fans of Trek and fans of the Martian are a Venn diagram barely worth drawing. I liked some TNG episodes with Westley. Other times, he rubbed me the wrong way, coming off as arrogant. Likewise, I sometimes like Wheaton in his more recent rolls and endeavors, but half the time, I think he comes off as too smarmy. To my surprise and my delight, he hits just the right balance with The Martian audiobook. Watney is sarcastic, and Wheaton does that wonderfully. Watney is positive in the face of nearly impossible odds, and Wheaton pulls that off just right.

I highly recommend this book. I think the movie is worth a look as well. And if you like audiobooks, give Wheaton's narration of The Martian a try.
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What I've Been Reading: Dec. 2019

I was so taken with N.K. Jemisin's The Fifth Season, the first in her Broken Earth series, I launched right into the second book, The Obelisk Gate. The book picks up right where the first left off. It seems likely to me that Jemisin planned the continuation of the story from the beginning because the transition was seamless.

The story begins with Essun, the main character carried over from book one, finding a new home of sorts while the world continues to plummet towards ruin. Interestingly, as Essun's powers have made her the target of prejudice though her life, she finds a new openness to it in her new community. In fact, it seems they've actively been looking for people like her.

Through the book, we learn more about what brought the world to this point, more about some other sentient beings on the planet, the "Rock Eaters." Essun's relationship with her mentor reaches new heights. We see several tangential characters get a bit of development. And Essun even learns more about the power she holds. Amid it all, we get plenty of direct conflict and action, both between characters at odds, and civilizations at odds, and most of the social themes I found enriched the first book, carried on into this one.

Obelisk Gate has a satisfying climax and sets up intrigue to move into the third in the series as quickly as one slides into the second. It was an excellently executed middle, to what I believe is a three-book arc, and I'm anxious to dive into the next installment.
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What I've Been Reading: Oct 2019

After Finishing Penny Dreadful (see my Watching for this month) and after years of being familiar with the Dorean Gray character but not having read it, I finally decided to get a copy of the Oscar Wilde novel. I'm not quite through it, so I'll share my thoughts on this classic next time. Until then...

It's not horror or connected to Halloween, but Martha Wells' Murderbot Diaries #3, Rogue Protocol, spilled over into the month. I like the series. They're all novella-length, science fiction books. The first, All Systems Red, introduced the murderbot protagonist, a snarky security/battle android. Book one showed what he could do, then book two got more into the character internally. While book two created depth, which readers should want for a multi-book protagonist, the character's demeanor began to grate on me.

One can only listen to cynism and pessimism for so long. I was glad the book was short. The outward story was enough to keep my attention, and still interested enough for me to pick up the third in the series after a few months to clear my head. I'm glad I did.

Rogue Protocol, of course, had Ren's (we're calling the Murder Bot Ren by this point) cynical criticism of humans, but it eased back on how much of that we get in favor of more action, as well as introducing another android which truly admired humans, and considered them friends. This was a great juxtaposition that makes Ren's pessimism more palatable, and maybe even teaches him a lesson or two. This installment picked up the pace for me, and I liked it. It also delved deeper into the circumstances of Ren's existence, the past he can't remember, answered a few questions, and posed more to pull readers into the 4th Novella, which I'll be picking up as well.
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What I've Been Reading: Sept. 2019

Reading:
A bit of a throwback, but a short read and a solid, creepy choice to kick off one's Halloween lead-up: Arthur Machen's The Great God Pan.

The story was disjoint, following several different characters in a few different places and jumping time. I found the telling of the story similar to Bram Stoker's Dracula, drawing from several sources to compile one storyline. I enjoyed the book, and as is needed for such a disjoint presentation, all the parts came together in the end to a satisfying conclusion. The characters were interesting, though I'll note the characters we follow were not particularly diverse.

My only issue with the novel would be the clarity of characters. In fact, I was thoroughly confused by the last chapter, as to what character we had returned too, and I couldn't grasp the story climax without knowing. I read it twice and ended up having to go look up online which character was narrating the last chapter. What I found was the final chapter had three distinct sections, each with its own narrator, each a return to a previous character. With that knowledge, It all made sense.

I was satisfied with the end, and the copy I got of the story was many times removed from the story's original publication. I suspect, the story has aged to public domain, and I believe the publisher took some short cuts to get the story on fewer pages. Thus, I don't know if a better-formatted edition might not have left me confused on that last chapter. As a result, I don't feel right to rate the story lower because of this narrator confusion issue. You get the benefit of the doubt Mr. Machen, five stars.
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What I've been Reading: Aug 2019

Someone recently compared my writing to that of David Mitchell. It's always flattering to be classified with a mainstream and successful author. However, I was only familiar with Mitchell to the extent of the movie adaptation of his novel, Cloud Atlas. Thus I decided to start there to acquaint myself better. It was a good choice.

Cloud Atlas interweaves six storylines, each from a different period spanning a few hundred years in the past to a few hundred years into the future. Each storyline bares intriguing characters and mounting conflict, but the intensity is only heightened by the books jumping from story to story. Just when you're getting to a climax, you jump away, only to get your appetite up for the next storyline, only to be pulled away again. Literary edging at it's finest.

On its face, the book's plot and characters are fantastic. No two storylines or characters are too similar, and they're all compelling. But what is perhaps the most exciting about the book is its consistent themes and overarching message. Criticism of slavery, or in more general terms human exploitation, run throughout the book. Michell also endeavors to remind us of our interconnectedness with others. This is never more prominent than in the connections tieing one storyline to the next, even across the expanse of time.

I loved this book, and if you love seeing people who abuse their power toppled by the oppressed, then you might like it as much as I did.
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What I've Been Reading: July 2019

I read Martha Wells' All Systems Red last summer. I've had the second novella in her Murderbot Diaries series, Artificial Condition, in my "to read" pile since them. I finally picked it up last weekend. In short, it was a fun read.

As with the first in the series, it was an entertaining story. This book gets a little more personal with the main character, an A.I. security unit, and delves deeper into its mysterious past. So far, the first two books in this series have all been shorter works. I think this was a very conscious decision for Wells. The books feature the internal thoughts of the main A.I. character, murderbot, who is sarcastic, sassy, and cynical. Murderbot has a distinct voice, which is humorous, particularly when you think about it coming from a constructed, computer lifeform, not a natural-born person. But the personality also gets on my nerves a bit after a while. This is completely a matter of taste. I guess I don't like to walk around looking at the world pessimistically all day, so hearing this character's thoughts eventually grows tiresome. Thankfully, the story is as mentions, short. And thus, the tale wraps up about the time the voice has worn thin.

As for the plot, it was interesting and gave the A.I. character a chance to exhibit its newly free personality, while also learning of its own dark past. I wasn't wowed, but it kept my attention. There was a little fighting, a lot of computer entities talking and bickering with each other (which is an admittedly novel idea), and sufficient tension. As with the first book, I'll be giving this one 4 stars, and maybe after a few months, I'll pick up the next int he series. They're undoubtedly easy, fun, and quick reads.
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What I've Been Reading: May 2019


Since I write fiction, most of the time I post reviews about fiction, but I'm a big advocate of reading a wide variety of genres and subjects in order to cultivate a multifaceted and unique sphere of influence on oneself. Thus, I certainly pick up non-fiction from time to time. Lately, I haven't written about those titles much because they've seemed to lean toward topics relating to being a self-published author. For example, not so long ago, I read a book about writing compelling author newsletters. If you happen to subscribe to mine, how am I doing?

This month, however, I came across a new book by Dr. HenryLouis Gates, Jr. called Stoney the Road, Reconstruction, White Supremacy, and the Rise of Jim Crow. I've been interested in Dr. Gates's genealogy PBS series and specials for quite a few years. After hearing a bit about it, I supposed Story the Road would be a challenging book, emotionally, personally, and academically, but it sounded interesting and while heavy, an important topic. My intuition was right, of course. It is challenging, but more than worth the read.

Parts of the book were surprising. For example, with what is probably an above average concept of American history but by no means a scholarly mastery, I came into this book with a loose understanding of a timeline between slavery in the United States and today. That includes antebellum plantation slavery, pre-civil war abolitionist movement, southern resistance, of course, the civil war and emancipation, but also the Jim Crow era, segregation, integration, and the ongoing battle for civil rights. However, I must admit that my working understanding probably saw that history as a mountain. Slavery was at the bottom, true equality was at the top. A difficult climb, no doubt. One that has not yet been summited, no doubt, but a fairly straight incline.

This I suspect is where the title is derived, a stony road is full of bumps, some parts are rougher than others, there are a lot of ups and downs, and progress is slow. As to what came as a surprise, was the rights that were essentially granted post-civil war, and then taken away during and after reconstruction, either directly, or simply through a failure to protect the supposedly given rights. I don't mean to imply that I didn't think the progress was difficult and many times achieved through tremendous personal sacrifice, including lost lives. I knew that, but I don't think I understood how many times it appeared a step of progress had been made, only to be pulled back time and time again.

Some elements of the book were not surprising but are worth revisiting. Stony the Road did not spend much time establishing the pitfalls of slavery or the horrors of its practice. Those things are worth discussing, but this book was more targeted on the ways African American's were attacked after emancipation and how in many cases people were driven back to a life more akin to slavery than our notion of living free. One topic of example was how depictions in literature and film were used to disparage African Americans and aid in an intentional war of ideas against them. This topic was not unfamiliar with references to D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation, and several period novels where white authors depicted freed slaves as either monsters or as essentially wishing they could go back to the lives they had before emancipation. As a student of history, at least a little, and more so a student of film and literature, this didn't come as a revelation but was still powerful, and as I mention, well worth exploring again and perhaps with more depth.

Finally, some elements also challenged my thoughts beyond the discussion of race. I'll pose another very personal example. Many people are aware of the anti-vaccination movements in the US and globally. I am a devout science lover and often take issue with the un-scientific thinking and research backing the anti-vax sentiment. Stony the Road, however, delved into a topic I was only tangentially familiar with, that of scientists, doctors, and social scientist of the era it focuses on using scientific words, loose if not intentionally misleading applications of emerging principle of science, and even miss-guided and out-come oriented experiments and observations to bolster anti-African American sentiments with scientific-sounding conclusion. Horrific and miss-guided as that is, which it is. It led me to imagine how the targets of such junk science would almost certainly feel deep mistrust for the institutions who supported the ideas.

Now, such ideas have been discredited and disregarded by credible medicine, scientists, and institution, as is the process of science. Also, I haven't changed my mind about vaccine conspiracy theorists. I still think they're wrong, but I am perhaps more open to considering why they might feel that they have been targeted with what they believe is false science. While I still disagree with them, maybe I'm more willing to forgive?

At any rate, the book is very well researched, very well written, eye-opening, immensely powerful, and remarkably topical to current affairs, both racial and non-racial. I'm glad to have experienced it.
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What I've Been Reading: May 2019

So technically I'm listening to this one but let me tell you why.

While I was in Houston for a convention, I had the pleasure of speaking with several fellow authors one of which was Nebula award-winning William Ledbetter who had just recently released an exclusive audiobook story called Level Five. That's right, you can only get it as an audiobook, in fact, it's even exclusive to audible. However, Mr. Ledbetter caught my interest, and as I had some travel back home ahead of me, I picked up the audiobook. This has also meant I stopped on another book, which I'll finish up for a future post.

I'm also not quite to the end of the book, so I might add to this post in the coming week, but for now…

If you like to imagine a future where technology grows ever more prevalent, and ever more dangerous in our lives, Level Five is for you. In the story we see the first generation of AI seeming to grow into sentient beings, we see the nearly limitless possibility of nano-tech to spy on us, and we also get to see the same sort of tech help people tremendously – reminding us why we would create such a thing in the first place.

The examination this story offers on technology is quite nuanced, which I love. If you're in favor of more reliance on tech, you can find arguments in this story to support that view, but likewise, if you are cautious about tech, you can find your arguments as well. On top of this, Ledbetter has created multifaceted characters, each with their own personal pains, goals, and flaws, including the most prominent AI.

It's clear that Ledbetter is in touch with the current landscape of technology. The story seems very well rooted in what's possible today and then takes everything a few steps further. Thus, nothing presented seems far-fetched or purely sci-fi. Instead, much of it seems more of an inevitability. This makes the audiobook even more consuming. The future painted seems like one I might live to see.

I'm excited to finish the story, and I'm sure I'll have a few more thoughts.
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What I've Been Reading: March 2019

I recently finished Stephen King's 2018 release, The Outsider. I've got a few King books on the shelf, but I don't consider myself a superfan. I'm a casual fan, with the Dark Tower series being my favorite of his work, though as an author who writes horror he would obviously be a difficult author to ignore.

In this case, my main reason for picking up this title was a suspicion that the story idea might overlap with a story of my own, which I'm interested in developing in the near future. I like to look around and be sure I'm not inadvertently rehashing old ideas, or too similar to another work before I get deep into development. As it turns out, I was pretty far off base with The Outsider, and that is no criticism of the book. It simply didn't resemble my new idea in the slightest. It goes to show how inadequate a back cover blurb can be in conveying the theme of a book.

Now, as for the book, I found it to be an entertaining read. The story had flares of older King works, such as a villain which brings two other King antagonists to mind, first, It, and second the laughter consuming creature from the Dark Tower series (which also reminded me of It.) So in a way, King dips into one of his most trusted wells for a third time (at least) for this one, but it is satisfyingly creepy. There were many other direct and suggested nods to other works in the King canon which devout fans will appreciate.

There were details loaded into the story which I would best describe as criticism of our current US president, of whom Mr. King has been an outspoken critic. However, this criticism seems mostly background detail, window dressing if you will, and is only lightly present, though I'd rather have seen the societal faults the author sees have a more direct impact on the events of the plot.

That aside, one aspect I loved was that an early decision from the story's protagonist, police detective Ralph Anderson, which he felt was justified under overwhelming evidence and in reaction to a heinous crime, turns out to create a cascade of tragedy. There is a murderer in this book, so people die at the killer's hands. People die in pursuit of the killer. But people also die in the fallout of how Detective Anderson handles the case, and I believe that element achieves the highest body count. To me, this was an interesting notion, a practical aspect of an otherwise fantastic plot, and the most original and compelling piece of the story.
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What I've Been Reading: February 2019

I'm not always great at sticking exclusively to a book once I start it. I don't like to abandon a read, but I have other things come up sometimes because they relate to something I'm writing, like last month's Re-animator. Similarly, I'll pause on a book to read non-fiction for research applicable to a story I'm crafting. Sometimes, something pops up that friends and family are talking about and I want to read it before I forget, or they move on.

Anyway, I started Robert A. Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land a couple of months ago, and as described above, found a few distractions along the way; however, I finally finished it a few days ago. I don't want anyone to think this means I think the book was dull, far from it. If anything it is merely a reflection of it one, being a long book, the longer, the more likely I am to get distracted, and of two, not being a particularly topical book, at nearly 60 years old, it wasn't going anywhere if I delayed a week here or there.

One of the reasons I was interested in this book in the first place, besides it notoriety, was that I've been interested in classic sci-fi literature and predictions for a future time which we have now come to live in. Often sci-fi has been used as a lens to examine social problems and exaggerate them to expose their folly. (Think 1984) It interests me to look back at such works and consider if they hold any relatability to today. Stanger in a Strange Land fit this interest perfectly.

The story begins at a time when humans have already traveled to Mars and found life there, and consequently a human boy having been born there, orphaned, and raised by the Martians. Early in the story, the human from Mars returns to Earth as a stranger to our world, culture, and ways of thinking. The man from Mars finds our politics foreign; meanwhile, the politicians of the time heatedly try to control him in order to try to sway what human or human entity will have rights to Mars. As if they can lay claim to it even though it is a sovereign populated planet. It reminded me of European colonialism when countries competed for claims in the Americas even though indigenous civilizations already populated the continents.  Apparently, Heinlein felt we hadn't advanced very far since those times, we just ran out of new places to try to claim, and I have to admit I think he was and is correct.

In the story, new, fictionalized religions try to recruit masses by claiming new insights while using all the same old tactics religions and cults have used through history, and guess what it works. The first fictionalized religion the Man from Mars encounters "Fosterites" made me think of Scientology, a little of Mormonism, but was clearly critical of all religions.  Heinlein seems to feel that as we advance as a society, we think we throw away old superstitions and problematic beliefs, but we really just recycle them and use the new incarnations to go on mistreating one another. In this, I think he is mostly correct as well.

I could go on to a half dozen topics at least, but then I'd end up with a term paper, not a blogged book review, so let me cut to one area I think the book truly fails...women. I've been peppering my reading over the last year or so with some classic sci-fi like this, and I'm starting to see a consistent them. While these authors are very adept at seeing many of societies problems, and predicting how those will either turn into forgotten nonsense, or haunt us over and over again, all fairly accurately imagining the future, none seem to have predicted that Woman might one day step out of supportive roles to men and become accomplished, independent equals.

In Stranger in a Strange Land, there are a dozen noteworthy female characters. The most spoken of is a nurse who turns into a surrogate mother to the Man from Mars, then later into his lover. (Apparently, he was not a stranger to the Edipus complex.) A handful of others women are live-in maids and secretaries to the Man from Mars' surrogate father. A few others are priestesses in either the Fosterite church or later in the Church of all Worlds, but in both cases, they are described by their goddess-like physical appearances, and it is clear their sex appeal goes hand-in-hand with their positions. By the end of the story, most of the women we care about reach the end of their character arcs by finally getting pregnant. Of course, there is nothing wrong with a female character having that goal, but it is a problem when that is the only goal that the author could imagine for his women and so just used it again and again.

It gets even worse. The Man from Mars possesses powers to manipulate objects and people with his mind. Thus, he can change people's physical appearances. He uses this to make most the prominent female character look younger, and to alter their physiques to fit specific measures and standards of beauty: larger breasts, trimmer waists, and curvier hips, he even changes faces. At one point he helps one woman to see herself through his and other men's eyes, and she has a profound awakening of appreciating women's bodies as a man does, and in turn, grows a desire to be lusted after and has a sexual awakening, boosting her libido into overdrive.

Ready for the worst of it? She also at one point casually mentions that most women who get raped are partially responsible. I'd say Heinlein did not detect a problem of gender inequality in the society in which he lived and certainly did not foresee women's liberation or any subsequent social developments in that area. Forgive him. He was not alone. The book also touches briefly on homosexuality, in one place implying that only effeminate men lean that way, but in another place suggesting it was a good thing at least in the confines of communal orgies. The book offers nothing in terms of exploring racism.

As legitimate and even troubling as all of these complaints are, I still have to say I appreciate the book. It is perhaps so layered that one can see these problems, but also see all the apt issues it correctly diagnoses, and feel that the scale tips to the positive as a whole. I can't give it five stars because of the issues, but I can't sink it when it gets so much right.

One last thing to take away; I loved that the Man from Mars was always encouraging people to wait. When issues arose, he would never make snap decisions, instead always tell people to wait until they "Groc the fullness" in other words, understand all the intricacies. This is a fleeting notion in our society. We expect our politicians to have immediate answers and never to change their minds. We expect the same from teachers, clergy, celebrities, parents, reporters, and basically all people all the time. Seldom do we accept people who say, "that's an excellent question and a difficult problem. I need to understand it fully before I comment on it, so I'll get back to you." But you know what, we should. In fact, maybe I will need the rest of my life to truly groc the fullness of Stranger in a Strange Land. I guess I reserve the right to edit my review in 50 years or so.
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What I've Been Reading, Watching, and Listening to: Jan. 2019

Reading:

Earlier this month I sat down and read Lovecraft's Herbert West - Reanimator stories. I'm working on a new story which has some similar themes, and I wanted to be sure I wasn't inadvertently overlapping with characters or plot. I'd seen the movie years ago but never read the original literature.

In short, I loved it. It was dark, mysterious and thought-provoking. I enjoyed the almost Dracula-esque point of view in the how Lovecraft told the story, which offers more of a second-hand accounting of the plot by the Herbert West's (the main character's) associate and frequent assistant in his work. The style made West's motives as mysterious as his actions. While that might have proven a shortfall for a full novel, in the short format, it added a compelling layer.

I also rather liked the cliffhangers and omitted plot points that came inherently through the short series format of the pros. Rather than one novella, the story was originally published as six novelettes. Between each, there is a lapse of time, sometimes it's short, other times its years. Again,  I don't think this would have worked well in a novel, or a more directly narrated story, but coming from West's peer, it is believable that he might only address the story when something new and noteworthy has arisen.

Finally, I found the literature much more serious than the movie. Now, don't get me wrong, I enjoyed the movie way back when. I loved Jeffrey Combs' performance and the interpretation of the re-animated creations, which were a little off-the-wall. However, in Lovecraft's original, the character is presented more seriously, and we see very little to nothing of the creatures he created. Instead, we see mostly the damage they have done and hearsay of the horrors. Altogether it is much more mysterious and again makes me think of Dracula. This is a wonderful difference between the movie and literature, as it gives both pretty unique reasons to be liked.

I have to admit that this was my first Lovecraft read (don't tell the Horror Writers Association), but I am likely to return to his ample body of eerie works.

Watching:

After over a year of trying to catch it, I finally watched Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri. I was not disappointed.

While it was a great, gut-wrenching movie, I think what I liked best about it was how many totally unforeseen elements and dynamics there was to the film. In fact, the movie probably spent as much time examining them as it did advancing any sort of plot. One example, which is a bit of a spoiler but one revealed in the first 10 to 20 minutes, is that while the main character (Frances McDormand) is putting heat on the town Sheriff (Woody Harrelson) to solve her daughter's murder, we find the Sheriff is dying from cancer.

Another is just the presence of Peter Dinklage's character as the town midget (the movie's words) who interacts with the main character, with her ex-husband, with the Barney-Fife-esque deputy (Sam Rockwell) all with profound character implications on both sides of the dynamics, and all without any particular consequence on where the story advances too.

This movie was almost a clinic on character development and diversity, and delightful refreshing as such.

Listening to:

When I'm really hitting my stride on the first draft of a new story, I have a few go-to artists or playlists which I believe to be perfect, creativity-propelling background music, and that is what I've found myself listening to this month, mostly to Frank Zappa.

Now let me explain a bit. The ideal music for jamming to while writing, for me, should move a bit but not too fast, get your head bobbing when you pay attention to it, but not demand attention. It has to be somewhat genre fitting, so eerie when one is writing horror, etc. However, most of all it has to be un-intrusive. One time I tried getting some writing done while listening to Rage Against the Machine and found my heart and body getting so pumped I was hitting the keys on my keyboard like I was going to poke them through the plastic if I could even keep my attention on what I was doing at all. On the other end of the spectrum, I wouldn't want something so chill, it might put me to sleep.

So now you might be thinking, Zappa?  Not exactly synonymous with "un-intrusive." That's true, and while I like to give an occasional listen to Zappa's definitive tracks, the album I have on standby for writing sessions is Shut Up and Play Your Guitar. It moves, but not with hard rock. It doesn't have any complex or outrageous Zappa lyrics to unpack and pull your attention, and yet, if you come to the end of a though and your attention does drift to the music, there will undoubtedly be an impressive guitar riff, showing off a superior artist's proficiency, basically every moment of each song. Give it a try.
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What I've Been Reading, Watching and Listening To: Nov. 2018

Reading:
After watching the Netflix adaptation of The Haunting of Hill House, and thoroughly enjoying it (see last month's Watching) I decided to delve into Shirley Jackson's original book. Though I haven't quite hit the final page, I can comment on many sparks of delight, though overall I've not been as wowed as I was with the series.

Part of the difference, through no fault of the book, is that some of the shocking reveals of the book were telegraphed, or portrayed directly in the adaptation. Thus, I give the book a lot of credit for execution though my experience has been a bit flat. The other significant difference I've experienced is in the book's limiting the perception to mostly one character where the adaptation took time specifically to show each character's point of view. All the pieces of the puzzle only came together once we'd seen how each of the seven characters remembered the house. I have to say I found that variety more satisfying.

Perhaps the reason I haven't raced to the end is due to this lesser interest in the book than the series drew from me. In any case, it is a well written and eerie story, which if nothing else provided a superior foundation for the adapted story I enjoyed so much. I'll likely be giving it a 4 of 5 stars on my Goodreads.


Watching:

Turnabout is fair play. Last month I wrote about reading American Gods and watching The Haunting of Hill House, this month my reading is The Haunting of Hill House and my watching is... Season one of the Starz adapted series of American Gods.

I was excited to see this series. I've been aware of it for some time. After reading the first quarter or so of the book, indulging in all the unique and fantastic characters, and having some notion of the superior cast involved in the series — such as the always compelling and mysterious Gillian Anderson, the exuberant and undeniably talented Kristen Chenoweth, the scene-stealing Ian McShane, the eye-grabbing oddball Chrispin Glover,  and the iconic (and pride of my home state of Iowa) Cloris Leachman — I was eager to see this adaptation. I behaved myself and saw to finish the novel before queuing up episode one. However, I found the series fell short for me.

I can't say any character in-particular let me down, in fact, I felt like Pablo Schreiber, an actor I wasn't familiar with as the character Mad Sweeney, who only commanded a few scenes in the book, really stood out as intriguing in the series, but still, I've been left wanting. Maybe one issue is the scene sharing of all the cast. In the book, the characters are self-contained and only as deep or important as the author makes them. In the series, actors come loaded with expectations, and if they are only cast in a sparse roll, we viewers might feel slighted, when we readers did not. But, I think there is more trouble than that. I think the directing comes up short as well.

The series feels like it's reaching for the edginess of an HBO knockout but never quite gets there. Forcing grittiness that doesn't land.  For instance, the story begins with Shadow, the main character, in jail, and of course, the prison will be dirty, cold in color and motif, and tinny in sound design, but it seems that look and feel extend to every other location and scene. I didn't get that impression from the book.

I pictured Wednesday with more polish, he wants to trade out a crappy car for one more suited to his liking, hustles to get bumped up to first class, for me that means a cleaner, snazzier feel, not one just as gritty as the prison, at least not all the time. The story takes place moving across the country, so the locations vary greatly as well. I think this lack of cinematic variety robbed the character and location variety of individual uniqueness, producing a one-dimensional presentation when the book was thoroughly multi-faceted.

It seems a second season is due in order to complete the book's narrative, and I am interested in the series enough to give the next installment a chance, especially since we can assume the story will wrap up on one more season. I'm also interested to see some of the characters yet to be introduced, and who'll portray them. Still, I think with the resources at hand, the series could have been significantly better.

More Watching:
I've also just finished Westworld, Season Two (HBO). I really liked the first season and was excited for this one to arrive. However, while the first season was a bit confusing in jumping time and place, it had nothing on season two. That's the reason it took me half a year before I finished the season. Now that may sound like disparaging criticism. However, I really did enjoy this season as well, it just made it harder to watch, or to find the time to watch. One couldn't just throw it on after getting the kids to bed, and the dishes washed, hoping to get a full episode in before falling asleep. It wasn't a show one could pause halfway through an episode and pick up tomorrow. It needed a degree of focus to follow which I don't always have the time and energy to give.

Not to spoil but here's a tidbit of how confusing it could be.
1. We're following at least five characters' season-long storylines.
2. We have at least a half dozen secondary character's story arcs bridging the main ones.
3. We're jumping at least four story time periods, often without knowing which one we're in and whether it comes before or after what we recently saw of a character.
4. Did I forget to mention there are dozens of flashbacks? So that makes the story time periods more like 20.
5. We jump between reality, and at least two digital false realities, sometimes without knowing which, or that we've jumped.
And then, of course, there is...
6. We have characters who we aren't sure if they're human or android.

Now, all of this is done with good reason to create mystery and intrigue. In fact, if I try to imagine sorting it out into a more linear flow, it becomes clear rather quickly that many of the delightful revelations at the end of episodes or the end of the season would be tipped too early, so I think all this jumping and confusion was necessary. Plus, once I reached the end of the season everything (well mostly everything) fell into place for a complete picture, a better understanding of the whole, with many satisfying reveals. I loved it. What few questions remained unanswered seemed intentional to usher our attention to the third season.

Furthermore, this season explores themes of understanding one's self, of what truly constitutes reality, what free will means in theory and in practice, what darkness humans are capable of, and likely a dozen more existential questions, picking right up where season one left off and pushing these quagmires even further. This I also loved.

Thus, all totaled I give Westworld Season 2 a glowingly positive review, though you can see how it is far from casual viewing.


Listening to:
If you happen to have been following my listening section the past few months, you might want to brace for a hard turn. I've had Cardi B (hip-hop), Pillowfight (cinematic/dance/hip-hop), and Logic (hip-hop), but with the creeping of Christmas, and two small children nearly always with me in the car, my listening for November has grown dominated by Burl Ives Christmas tunes. 

That's right, a corny singer (and actor) who's popularity probably peeked more than 50 years ago, and long before I was born. I have to wonder if Cardi B would even know who Burl Ives was. But for her, and for those reading this who aren't familiar, you probably know his voice from the beloved stop-motion, animated classic Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964) in which he not only voiced the snowman narrator, Sam but also sang the title song "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," as well as the songs "Holly Jolly Christmas" and "Silver and Gold."

Old Burl, of course, recorded several other Christmas carols in his many decades of recording, with about 30 singles and appearing on over 50 albums according to his Wikipedia discography. Now I'm not about to claim I'm a fan of his work in general, there's little edgy or challenging to be found there. But, at Christmas, when the mind turns to warmer thoughts, family memories, and nostalgia, I'm alright with Burl's Christmas collection on repeat.
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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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What I've Been Reading, Watching, and Listing. August 2018

Reading:

I'm just finishing Paddle Your Own Canoe: One Man's Fundamentals of Delicious Living by Nick Offerman. Usually, my reading tends toward fiction, and when it doesn't, it usually involves non-fiction that related to a fiction story I'm writing. Or in other words, research. However, I'd had this book way back in my "to read" pile for years. I think the world of Nick Offerman's acting, and find him to be an exceptional humorist when out-of-character as well. I caught a part of Offerman's new reality series about crafting and was drawn back to check out this book.

Let me tell you. It has been a delight. Offerman addresses his youth and his journey to acting success, with many tidbits of blue-collar philosophy to boot, and every bit of it hit home with me. His growing up in rural Illinois, though a decade or two before my own formative years, does not seem to have differed much from my own rural Iowa youth. This built an immediate connection for me.

Offerman follows that with an insistence that hard work, not pan-handling to entertainment trends, and keeping his life rich with non-acting endeavors were all keys to his career success. This spoke comfortingly to my own striving toward a writing and screenwriting career on a ladder to success which I'm personally still trying climb.  Best of all, every statement of wisdom is accompanied by at least two instances of deadpan hilarity. This book was good for my spirit and for my heart.

Watching:

I finally carved out the time to watch the 2017 revival of Twin Peaks. I'm careful not to call it a "reboot," because most of the time I'm not in favor of rehashing old entertainment properties when there are plenty of original ideas waiting to see the light of day. In this case, however, the new season picks up where the original left off, addresses some of the unresolved issues left dangling (though not particularly resolving them) and features many of the original characters, with as far as I can tell, all the original actors and actress reprising their roles. Not everyone from the original Twin Peaks returns but my compliments to Lynch and Frost for writing around those characters, rather than re-casting any. It also brings an entirely new set of characters into the story, many of which are fielded by actors with whom David Lynch fans are familiar.

Perhaps a more significant distinction in my mind, between a reboot and a revival, is that I don't consider Twin Peaks to have been a major commercial property, in the first place. It had its cult following and continued to gain fans over the years out of cinephiles and film students, but altogether it's not a blockbuster property. So to me, the fresh season didn't seem to be cashing in on the fanbase but instead feeding them what they've been hungry for low these many years.

Outright, I must say, I loved this new season. Through my eyes, it was prime David Lynch. One could label what sets Lynch apart, as weirdness, abstractness, deep symbolism, what-have-you, but to me, I equate it metaphorically to salt. Just as a little salt can make manilla food a little better, a little weirdness can make an average story a little better. A bit more salt can make your average snake a delicious treat, though you might want to watch how much you eat. Likewise, a lot of weirdness can make a story a unique and enthralling treat, but it probably loses it appeal if everything you watch is that way. And to follow the metaphor to an end, salt alone does not make a supremely delectable dish, and in turn, a story which is all weirdness and abstraction without at least the vestige of a followable plot which seems to be heading somewhere coherent makes for dismal viewing. In Lynch's canon, I believe you can find all three. A few projects which flirt with weird, a few which go way too far, with more weird than plot, and many which fit deliciously in the middle. And I found the New Twin Peaks to hit that sweet spot dead center.

I'll even go farther to say, there were moments of what I'm going to call "meta-Lynch" at play. Where I felt Lynch, and let us not forget his partner Frost, gave a little more than usual in order to show the foundation that led up to some of the particular abstraction. For example, in the new season, we see a character come running down the road with a gold-painted shovel to pronounce she's "shoveling her way out of the shit." Another point, we see a woman and her young son, worried, sitting by the side of their comatose husband/father in a hospital only to have a dazed woman in a poofy cocktail dress bring in a tray of sandwiches as if they were at a party. Both of these moments sound very Lynch-esque, but where the new Twin Peaks departed is that each of these moments had a half dozen scenes laying the groundwork for why this ends up occurring, as odd as it is. It's important because it changes the effect. Where once the shoveler or the waitress may have simply appeared and the viewer would be left to ponder, "what was that? Why did that happen? Was I supposed to get that?" Instead, we received a stream of scenes where first we say "that's odd," then we build to "this is getting weird" then "is this going somewhere," only to have it reach a quintessential Lynch scene of intersection only instead of saying "that's weird" we say "ah ha, so that is where that was going." And then proceed to giggle with delight. That's why I call it "meta-Lynch" as if Lynch were poking just a bit of fun at the weird, pop-up abstractions that have been hallmarks of his career.

I stayed away from the new Twin Peaks for a while because I was worried I would be disappointed, but it was magic. If they go on to do any more, as has been rumored, I'll be eager to indulge.

Listening:

Let's just call my music taste eclectic. Some years ago reggae crept up on this small town mid-westerner as my favorite genre, Steely Dan is my all-time favorite group, and I'm just as likely to groove to the Mamas and Papas as Childish Gambino (even though This is America was both catchy and profound). My taste encompasses just about anything except electronic and country, but what's playing on my iTunes as a craft this post is Cardi B's "Invasion of Privacy."

A few things I like about it. First, it is catchy. Several tracks have different toe-tapping beats, Ms. B's vocals are pleasing and pretty tight. I don't listen to rap all the time, but some, and there is a list of rappers I love to which I'm not necessarily adding Cardy B.

One weakness for me is the all-to-common boastful self-aggrandizing present in the lyrics, but once you look past that, Cardi B has a compelling story spanning the tracks of the album. Her personal story as a stripper turned successful rapper, doesn't necessarily deviate far from all the drug-dealer turned rapper stories we've seen before, but it definitely has a new flavor and one unique to the female perspective in her work.

What I like most, is the presence of a consistent and interlocking theme to the album as a whole. Every track ties into the others and weaves a story across songs. It seems rare to see that sort of cohesion in the age of surfing the latest hit singles on shuffle mode, so it is pleasing to stumble onto it once in a while.

Good. Now anyone googling "David Lynch and Cardi B" finally has a result to pull up. You're Welcome, internet.
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