Channing Deep Thought Banner

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.

Comments

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.

Comments

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.
Comments

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.
Comments

What I've Been Watching: May 2020

I started watching the Star Trek Picard series pretty much right when it came out and was keeping up week to week. I am a long time Star Trek fan. Sadly, I got sidetracked before watching the last couple of episodes, thanks to COVID and kids. But, I recently set out to remedy the situation.

I have mixed feelings about this series. There are lots of things I like, and some not so much. However, in the end, I think I'd rather have it than have nothing.

For me, the genius in Start Trek is that besides being cool sci-fi with good storytelling, it has tried to cast a critical eye on social problems. Some obvious and contemporary, such as racism. Other cases have been more abstract such as what rights an artificial intelligence might be entitled too.  Then, such real-world importance has been paired with exhibiting forefront scientific and engineering thinking. Sure, there is artistic license, and sure, some things are wrong in retrospect. But, it is easy to see how Star Trek has tried to come up with as realistic of scientific ground for the sci-fi fantasy as possible. From warp drive to replicators, and sometimes Trek has been remarkably prophetic, such as computer voice interaction and tablet computers. Heck, in my experience, few sci-fi properties have even tried to explain how they achieve faster than light speeds. And of the few that do, none have been more realistic than Trek's warp drive.

Now, much of that went out the window in the JJ Abrams Trek movies. They were first and foremost action movies. While much of the cast was great, I wasn't especially thrilled with rehashing old characters or throwing out the Trek fidelity to science. Still, after years without a new Star Trek, I could at least take some satisfaction in the property being revitalized. And to give credit where it is due, I don't imagine it would have been as easy, perhaps not even possible to have the Discover series or the new Picard series without the Abram's Trek movies. So at least there's that.

With that in mind, where does Picard fall? For me, the series is all about character. The Picard character is beloved, and now we get to bring him back and double down on his screen time. With that, we get to revisit a few other beloved characters along his journey and meet a few new ones. This is different from previous movies and series, which have been rather ensemble-driven, maybe more like many of the Star Trek books over the years. And I can buy into it. I, too, love Captain Picard.

It's the rest where I have some trouble. Rather than weight what remains aside from Picard's life in realistic science, we get a lot more action. In fact, what technology can do or cannot do seems entirely dependent on what is easiest for the story. (Spoiler Ahead) If the science and tech exist to recreate Data's consciousness form one positronic neuron and taking for granted all the miracle medical advancements we've seen in Trek, how the heck can Picard be so fragile to a brain abnormality? It's just total disregard for any realism and, in many places, a move backward in technology. Another example, now the ships are controlled through holographic interphase. Is there some reason to think this is an advancement? They've had holograms since TNG began. I guess it looks more futuristic, but that's not the Star Trek way to me.

Next, there's the social conscious. The entire season arc is based on the rights and treatment of synthetic life. Now, this on its own is a Trek worthy idea. So much so, that we've seen it explored more than once on TNG through Data-centric and Borg-centric episodes and even movies. Revisiting it alone doesn't bother me, but the notion that somehow Starfleet has taken huge steps backward in this area is hard to swallow, and the explanations seem more convenient then well thought out and intelligently explored.

I wanted to love this series, but instead, I just like it.

That's right, I still really like it. I am a fanboy in some regards here, so see Picard in any way is delightful. Getting throwbacks to Riker and Troy, 7 of 9, and Hugh, that's right the borg Hugh. These are all wonderful. And a season 2 promises more. I also very much liked most of the new characters.  I'd like to have seen better fidelity to the Trek of old in spirit, but Picard is superior to the recent movies, and I'll take it. See you for season 2.
Comments

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...
Comments

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.
Comments

What I've Been Watching: Dec 2019

I started watching the new Watchmen series on HBO when it debut, however the Netflix age of binging may have gotten to me because I found waiting a week for a new episode lent to distractions. Thus, after a couple of episodes, I slipped away and came back when the season finished. Then I watched it in a couple of evenings.

If you're at all familiar, you'll know that the series ties into the Watchmen movie from 2009, which in turn was based on a comic book series of the same name from 1986-87. Though the new series is a sequel, largely set several decades after the movie's time period, the series also frequently jumps into the past, to the very start of masked vigilantes and even before that. The new series also introduces mostly new characters, and while their lives and the world acknowledge the characters from the movie, they are distinct, and the flashbacks serve more to develop the current characters than anything else.

I found the original movie, which was my first experience with the Watchmen universe, to be a compelling look at a more human and faulted version of superheroes. Not your Superman, or Batman, but truly multifaceted people. I love that. The villains aren't evil strawmen. The heroes aren't angelic. They're all just people, flawed, sometimes selfish, sometimes generous, and often egotistical as would be natural from having exceptional powers... people.

The series does an excellent job of keeping that theme alive while introducing and developing new, distinct, fascinating characters, taking them and us viewers on exciting and action-filled stories, and still ties it all into the source material. The story draws from the original, feeds into the original through flashbacks, and adds layers to it as well.

This is way more than just a sequel series. It doesn't just continue the story; it builds to new heights on it's back.  I imagine that was the goal going in, and I say they nailed it, plus the acting is fantastic.

Do yourself a favor, go back and watch the 2009 movie, then dig in on the 2019 series. Otherwise, who's watching the Watchmen?
Comments

What I've Been Listening To: Dec 2019

A couple of years ago, I heard a pair of songs from Jenny Lewis and thought they were pretty cool. I wasn't familiar with Rilo Kiley, or any of her other ensemble work, and like many things, something else came along and took my attention elsewhere. However, recently Lewis's 2019 album, On the Line, found its way to my iTunes account, I gave it a try, and I was smitten.

Lewis is an excellent lyricist and pairs her wit with a classic yet folksy rock sound. Her voice has a bit of an edge that reminds me of Bonnie Raitt. I'd say the album is easy to listen to musically, great for playing straight through, but also carries layers to contemplate if you care to give it a deeper listen. Lewis additionally draws from superb supporting musicians. Ringo Star plays drums on one song, and the organ solo on "Heads Gonna Roll" had me jumping back just to listen to it again.

After enjoying the album a few times through, I went back and tried a couple of Lewis's previous albums, and they're all fantastic. I'd say one could now count me as a Jenny Lewis fan. If you like smart lyrics, jamming to some old fashioned folksy rock, or both, give "On the Line" a try.
Comments

What I've Been Watching: Nov. 2019

I've recently started watching the sci-fi series, Another Life, on Netflix. I'm about halfway through the season. So far, I have mixed feelings on this one.

The show features Katee Sackhoff, who you may remember her from Battlestar Galactica, or even from Longmire, which I rather enjoyed. We'll now she's Niko Breckenridge, a captain in some space-exploring government agency. Presumably of the US, but not stated outright. The series begins with an alien ship or probe from an unknown corner of the galaxy arriving on Earth, landing, and erecting a crystal-like structure that starts sending a signal. It appears to be un-manned. Soon after, a ship is launched on a mission to travel to where they believe the probe originated. There Niko and her crew are to investigate and/or make contact with whoever sent it.

Some things I like:

· Sackhoff's character is complex. She's outwardly confident, but also carries a lot of guilt for leaving her family and because of troubles in a previous command. Thus, she grapples with a lot of self-doubts. On top of this, she is a bad-ass who can fight and doesn't back down when challenged. Early, she is tested by an egotistical man who thinks he should be the one in command, and without spoiling anything, let just say, it doesn't go well for that guy.

· The story alternates between events on the ship and events back on Earth, both involving the crystal probe, and the captain's husband and daughter. It adds layers of drama and tension.

· The ship has an A.I., which presents itself as a human via holographic projection. It has flirted with issues of ethics and sentient A.I. though it hasn't gotten into this deeply...yet.

· Dabbles in reflecting modern social issues with one crew member being transgender, though little focus is placed on this. It's treated more like a regular aspect of life in this near future, which is pretty cool.

· Everything is built around the underlying tension of humans having a first contact with an alien species. Will they be hostile? Benevolent? Will we be hostile and undermind any chances of a fruitful relationship?


Some things I question:

· Disiplin is extremely poor on the ship and creates a great deal of the problems. We're not led to believe that the space organization is a military one, but they assign a captain and a second in command, so one would think that the ship is not a free for all where every member of the crew does what they please. Most merchant vessels and science vessels alike still tend to have a captain-down hierarchy, which, if not followed, yields some negative consequence. Not so for this ship, and if they did, so far, it would have headed off most of their troubles. I'm not saying insubordination has no place in a story, but then the disobedience should be the conflict, not the routine genesis of other trouble. In a way, it feels like lazy writing. If anyone is familiar with Star Gate Universe (2009-2010), you'll get a similar feeling among the crew on Another Life. They're always at odds with a failing ship, and always at odds with one another in a power struggle. However, in SGU, they were a bunch of random people who ended up the crew of an ancient Alien ship by happenstance, so they didn't know how to operate the ship and weren't ever intended to be a crew. The same just doesn't seem to fit the narrative for Another Life.

· The technology doesn't seem to match society. The ship is traveling to another star in the span of months. For this to be practical, they must have faster than light capability. They even talk in one episode about making a detour, which is only four light-years, as if it is an inconvenient distance but not a debilitating one. Yet, as of halfway thought the season, there has been no talk of other ships currently out traveling space. The mission that haunts the captain happened near Saturn, so still in our solar system. There is no mention of space stations or other vessels that have been out anywhere near them. At the same time, they don't talk like this is some substantial new accomplishment, as if no other human has been out this far before. Likewise, the alien probe got to Earth's atmosphere apparently without detection. One would think that a society capable of traveling at the minimum to nearby stars would have means to detect an approaching ship, and with a space fleet, potential meet it prior to its landing on our home planet. It's all just a little odd and feels like it wasn't thought out. When you've got FTL, cryo-sleep, synthesized gravity, and the ability to stock a ship with food and water for a large crew and for months of travel, it just seems like certain little things that seem to come up as trouble, should be accounted for already.

· More trope than originality. As an author myself, I've read a lot of genre writing advice that suggests writers know their genre's tropes well. The general idea being, that while certain things might seem cliche, if you ignore them all, you're not likely to satisfy the audience. This could be good advice. If you made a sci-fi story set in a future where humans were able to travel deep into space, but you didn't have advanced computer systems, or alien contact, or ship malfunctions, which can all be sci-fi tropes, then you likely wouldn't have a very well-liked product. But at the same time, you can't have a story that is all trope. Even if you hit all the routine points viewers and readers tend to like; it can still fall flat without at least one new-ish underlying premise. For Another Life, I can't quite put my finger on what that extra something was intended to be.


Altogether I'd call Another Life and pretty middle of the road sci-fi series. It's got a Ripley from Alien sort of leading lady, a Star Gate Universe kind of hodge-podge crew, and an Arrival type of first contact puzzle. But it's a lot like listening to your favorite band's greatest hits album. It's all familiar, there's a lot you like, but you're not going to find anything you haven't heard before, and the elements don't all quite fit together the way they would on a regular album.


The characters have been compelling enough that I'll likely stay tuned to finish the rest of the season, but I won't be surprised if Another Life never gets a second.
Comments

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.
Comments

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.
Comments

What I've Been Watching: July 2019

You may have heard of Rip Torn's recent passing. I've long been a fan of his work. If you've never seen it, go check out Forty Shades of Blue (2005). Many of the mentions of his death referenced his performance in The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), alongside the late David Bowie, but I'd never seen the film. I've also been making an effort in my reading to pick up a few classic, pentacle sci-fi titles, trying to better familiarize myself with the foundations of the genre. Thus, tracking down this movie seemed destined.

I want to say I loved it. However, I think this is one of those movies which is too layered and cryptic to merely react to. I think it's going to take some mental digesting to truly form a take on it. I know it is based on a novel by the same name, which I have not read. The story, if I try to outline it, is a relatively simple one, of an alien visitor (Bowie) trying to find a way home, but then the 2hr 19min film piles on layer after layer of the visitor observing, learning, and engaging human. I suspect there is some criticism of our society wound in there, but I have to admit it isn't jumping out at me a profound insight into our contrary nature.

The story reminds me of the novel Stranger in a Strange Land, which I read earlier this year. I'm sure I'm not the first to make such a link, and that book definitely tried to take humanity, our society, our religions, American capitalism all to task, but the film version of The Man Who Fell to Earth, didn't seem to do so, so handily.

The performances were great, especially for me, Candy Clark's, and indeed Rip Torn's. So I'm at a point where I need this movie to settle in a bit. Maybe I'll dig more. Maybe I'll go look into the novel. Maybe more depth will come to me. We'll see...
Comments

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.
Comments

What I've Been Watching: June 2019


By total coincidence, I think, my pick for what I've been watching lately also deals with race issues in the USA. The Netflix miniseries, When They See Us, premiered about a month ago, and I heard good things immediately. The series is a dramatization of the real-life incident which became known as the Central Park Jogger Case and the alleged attackers being known as the Central Park Five. I was only about 6 years old when the real incident occurred, and if it was making the news in rural Iowa, I wasn't aware of it. I only really learned of the topic when Ken Burns and Sarah Burns made a documentary in 2012. If you're not familiar, long story short, several teenagers' rights were trampled and were falsely convicted of the crimes, only to be exonerated and released years later, and racism was the primary factor in why there were targeted, mistreated by police, and ultimately falsely convicted.

In this series, Ava DuVernay delves deeper into the lives and relationships destroyed by the case. Not just the lives of promising young men, but their families and friends, and how the convictions haunted them inside and outside of prison. The story is compelling, but all the facets DuVernay shows are profound and gripping.
Subject aside, I was incredibly impressed with the acting talent on display in this work. With this being an ensemble piece, with each of the five boys' lives on display, it is inherent that the spotlight will be shared, but through the episodes, we see all five boys as teens, then as adults. One actor, who portrayed the oldest of the teens, played his adult counterpart as well. All the others were portrayed by two actors, one a teen, the other an adult. On top of this, we get to know a dozen or more family members, a half dozen characters in the police and prosecution, plus fellow inmates, prison workers, defense lawyers, and people the five encounter after release. Through all these characters, in my opinion, you won't find a weak link in acting talent. That's not astonishing from such longtime veteran names like John Leguizamo, Michael Kenneth Williams, Joshua Jackson, Niecy Nash, Felicity Huffman, and William Sadler, just to name a handful, but through all the other roles, which vary from unknown character actors to the youth talent, the performance never lapses for a moment. And remember, this is a straight to Netflix piece, not a Marvel blockbuster, or a network product.

The themes are important, the subject touching and thought-provoking, the direction stellar, but the acting talent was flooring. No wonder it boasts an average of 9.1 out of 10 with over 27,000 viewers via IMDB. Go watch it!
Comments

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.
Comments

What I've Been Watching: May 2019

I found the first season of True Detective compelling, surprising, well cast, and deliciously gritty, but like many, when the second season came out a year later, it failed to capture my interest or live up to its predecessor, in spite of boasting an intriguing and veteran cast itself. For those who aren't familiar, each season of the show functions as a mystery mini-series with a new case and independent characters. Then, after over three years, the third season premiered in January of this year and starred the ever-engaging Mahershala Ali. It piqued my interest, but with the dig of season two, I didn't race to my TV to get started…I should have.

Season three begins with the disappearance of two children in a small Louisiana town, and we're quickly introduced to Detective Wayne Haze (Ali) and his partner Roland West portrayed by Stephen Dorff, who I'd always considered more of a B actor and wasn't even aware was cast in the series until I started watching. Ali is excellent from the start as a solemn, tortured soul, but a dedicated detective who puts his whole self into his work, particularly this case. What surprised me early, however, is that Dorff matches Ali's chops beat for beat even though he plays more of a supporting role and we don't follow him nearly as much off the job as we do Ali's character. Whenever Dorff is on screen, the two detectives' chemistry and partner loyalty are evident along with palpable strife that feels akin to the bickering if a married couple which comes off as wholly believable.

Dorff wasn't the only surprising stand out of that cast. Carmen Ejogo, who plays Detective Haze's wife, Amelia Reardon provides a counterpart with whom Haze brings his work emotions home to, causing inevitable relationship pressures. But Ejogo and her character go a step further, as she is an author, who is separately endeavoring to write a book about the same missing children case. The character proves to be a shrewd investigator herself, and thus not only do Haze and Reardon butt heads in their home life, but they also step on one another's toes in their respective investigations as well.

Finally, and perhaps the most fascinating layer of complexity which season three brings to the table is jumping in time through the life of Detective Haze at three points in his life, all tied to the same investigation. We see him as a young detective when he first caught the case, about ten years later when the case resurfaces and he gets involved again, though he is a family man by then, and finally, another twenty-five years later, when he is retired, and the case rears its ugly head once more. I don't want to spoil a great deal. The show creates moments of mystery in Haze's life by showing how one timeline leads to what we see in another. One aspect worth sharing is that the oldest version of Haze, in his seventies, is suffering from significant memory issues, as many aging people do but more severely than average, and thus his best chance for finally laying all the aspects of the case to rest, comes to him only when his mind is at its weakest.

Suffice it to say, I loved this season of the show. It's compelling, at times gut-wrenching, and totally worth the watch.

Furthermore, I said that I started and never finished the second season of the series, however as I looked up some actor names and such on IMDB, I noticed that the episodes of season one of True Detective all carry around a 9.0-star rating out of 10, which is fantastic. The season three episodes carry about an 8.5, which is still great and comes as no surprise, but season two actually has a better than 8.0 rating across all the episodes, which is surprising.  Thus,  I tempted to give it another chance. Maybe it picked up interest a few episodes in, and perhaps I let some early negative reviews in the press affect my opinion a bit too much. Who knows? Maybe I'll write about it in

Final thought: Besides murder, there's another element that appears in all three seasons, ethyl alcohol. If you didn't already suspect as much, all the seasons of True Detective drive home one consistent notion, murder detectives are booze hounds, big time. Now, don't you forget it.
Comments

What I've Been Listening to: May 2019

This is one that totally came from catching my eye on iTunes. Billie Eilish wasn't on my radar before her new album, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?, came out a little over a month ago. I have an eclectic taste, but the pop and club influences I can detect in Eilish's music don't usually draw my attention. However, the haunting quality of Eilish's musical sound, voice, and lyrics are all captivating.

Her music gives me more the feeling of a horror movie soundtrack than a dance club, but her lyrics and themes go quite a bit further than horror background music. They have a life of their own. Since my writing encompasses horror, as well as darker sci-fi, mystery, and fantasy, Eilish's music is right at home in my office filling the room with an eerie mood as I crank away on a particularly dark story. I'm sure I'll return to Eilish again when I'm in need of such a musical muse.
Comments (1)

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.
Comments

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.
Comments

What I've Been Watching: February 2019

I've wanted to catch Hulu's Castle Rock for a while now. I'm a casual fan of King, not devoted, but I certainly have a handful of his works which I love.

I thought the series delivered a very eerie feel which I associate with King, that small town which should be a family driven haven from big city hustle and bustle but turns out to be a pertri dish for evil or at least the very weird.

I thought the characters were interesting, some of the faces where throwbacks to older King motion picture adaptations, some of the stories points were throwbacks to King books. All this was what the show promised in concept, and I think it came through nicely, but it was far more than a nostalgia piece.

The drama built well, the underlying unknown creepy factor was nicely built, executed, and revealed to surprise the audience. We even get presented with a sort of villain, who (mild spoiler) then get given a pretty freaky but believable alibi to make us think he is more victim than villain, only to be thrown a curveball in the last episode of the season to make us rethink our newly discovered sympathy for him. Meanwhile, the reluctant good guy turns out to make some decisions at the end which are not too kind. Maybe he is really the villain... It's all definitely worth a watch whether your a King fan or not, and I'll be looking forward to a season two.
Comments

What I've been Listening to: February 2019

I heard the members of Mandolin Orange interviewed on the radio and thought I'd give them a listen, so I pulled up their new album, Tides of Teardrops on iTunes. I'm glad I did.

Their sound is interesting, they have great lyrics, wonderful voices, and splendid harmonies, plus the music is very chill, perfect for casually listening to while hammering out a couple of days of editing. I think Mandolin Orange's entire sound reminds me of the song "When I Paint My Masterpiece," be The Band. I love The Band, I love that song, so they are in excellent company in that thought.

One trouble I find, not that I want to call them a novelty act, is that all the songs kind of run together for me. I think this can happen when one relies on some specific musical point, for them the mandolin. It's in their name, but where The Band who I previously compared, can rely on guitar, keyboard, bass, or Levon Helm on the drubs, as well as acoustic or electric versions of most of those, plus several distinct voices, all capable of driving a song, Mandolin Orange seems to have just the one sound, one dimension. Over a couple listens through the new album, I dig it. Going back and listening through all their albums, it got a bit stale, and all kind of runs together.
Comments

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.
Comments

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.
Comments

Classic Book Review: The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Given the reach and influence The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy has had into pop culture, along with the admiration many of my friends have had for the series since we were young teens, I expected this book to be well suited to my taste and a pleasure to read. Unfortunately, perhaps my expectations were too high.

While there were a few gems of imagination and pure oddity which rightfully belong in the larger pop-culture and literary canon of references, there were so many details which were weird, seemingly just for the sake of being weird, that the actual plot was drug to a glacial pace. 

Furthermore, I found that the non-sequiturs humor, which I admit is perfectly in line with many great works of entertainment from the same era of UK humor, rarely landed for me, and again the jokes were so numerous they proved a huge distraction from the plot. One caveat I'll add, however, is that I can see where I might have found the rambling humor and saturation of visual oddity, a bit more appealing if I were 13 years old.

I had planned to read the entire series, and in fact, I bought all five books, but now I'm don't feel what I got out of this book warrants putting its successors at the top of my reading list.
Comments
See Older Posts...