Tuesday, March 20, 2018

The Escape Artist by Brad Meltzer

Sometimes, a little known fact in history can spark an entire story.
THE ESCAPE ARTIST is the latest novel by Meltzer, a man who has a healthy respect, understanding, and love of history. If you haven’t read any of his books, you might know him from his TV shows “Decoded” and “Lost History.” He first came onto my radar when he wrote “Identity Crisis” for DC Comics, a graphic novel that shows actual death in the DC Universe and how it affects the characters. The ending of that story reverberated through the comics for years after, and it’s still unnerving. I read his Culper Ring Series featuring Beecher White, an archivist at the National Archives. Any author who can make an archivist a hero is a good writer. I earned two degrees in history and while I may have soured on the political aspects of being a professional historian, I still retain the passion. It’s a passion Meltzer shares and it’s why I enjoy his novels. And don’t’ even get me started on his awesome series of kids’ books focusing on heroes for his son and his daughter.

In the weeks leading up to the book’s release, Meltzer’s excitement for THE ESCAPE ARTIST was palpable. His social media and his newsletter (sign up herehttp://bradmeltzer.com/) was filled with anticipation that we would soon meet Nola Brown. She is one of the two protagonists in the new book. Taking a page from lost history, Meltzer made Nola the official painter of the US military. Ever since World War I, the military have hired a painter to capture things a photograph cannot: the anguish of war and what it really means. She doesn’t show up for a little while in the book, but her presence does.

The opening chapter shows a military plane taking off from somewhere in Alaska. Soon thereafter, it crashes, but not before the unnamed female character has a chance to write a last message. The message is received by the other protagonist, Jim “Zig” Zigarowski, a mortician who works at Dover Air Force Base. This base is where all our fallen soldiers arrive after they die in service to our country. Zig and the other morticians help to give families closure by fixing up the dead. When the name “Nola Brown” comes across the big board, Zig personally takes it upon himself to work on her corpse. You see, Nola helped saved the life of Zig’s daughter back when they were Girl Scouts. It doesn’t matter that his daughter died a year after that; Nola gave Zig the extra time, and for that, he’ll pay the debt. But the woman identified as Nola Brown is, in fact, not Nola at all. Zig would know because of a particular physical mark on the real Nola. This unidentified woman’s identity is specifically being targeted so as to wipe away Nola’s existence. What gives Zig even more pause is the note he finds in the most unlikely of places: on a piece of paper in the dead woman’s stomach.  You see, if a person wanted to pass along a message in the seconds before a disaster strikes (like a plane crash), the person can write a note and swallow it. The stomach acids will preserve the paper and the message. It happened in real life on 9/11with one of the people on the plane that crashed into the Pentagon. Meltzer took that unknown piece of history and wove it into a spectacular story.

The narrative is divided into two main POVs: that of Zig and Nola. Often, we get “This is Nola at age sixteen” or “This is Nola at age ten” segments where a particular moment of his life is revealed, giving us a greater understanding of what makes her tick. I listened to the audio with my favorite narrator, Scott Brick, is teamed up with January LaVoy who reads Nola’s parts. The combination is fantastic.

As is the story. There are too many layers to note here without spoiling the fun of this book. In January, I discovered THE SHADOW novels from the 1930s and thoroughly devoured all that were available on Audible. Now, I’ve moved on to the reprints in my library. In breathless prose, Meltzer’s writing is clean and precise as always, delivering a bonanza of excitement that would have been right at home in the heyday of pulp fiction, with a heroine who can stand alongside The Shadow himself.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Online Identity or What URLs to Use

I’ve been planning out the new 2018 changes for my writing business and a question came to mind: when it comes to our online presence, are readers more likely to remember an author’s name or an author’s publishing house?
I think the answer is self-explanatory but let me tell you why I’m asking.

Currently, I maintain three websites: a blogspot one (my first and the one I’ve turned into my western pen name site); my mystery one (scottdennisparker.com), and one for my publishing company (quadrantfictionstudmio.com). It doesn’t take a whole lot of time to maintain, but I’m considering streamlining everything down to one, perhaps two sites. Ditto for my mailing lists (I have two). Longterm strategy is to convert at least one of my sites into an online store.

The majority of authors have websites keyed to their names: James Patterson, J. F. Penn, Dean Wesley Smith, Russell Blake, Mark Dawson, etc. A few, however, use a publishing house to serve at the main online presence. Kevin J. Anderson comes to mind (wordfire.com), the fellas at Sterling and Stone, and a few more. If you google “Kevin J. Anderson,” the first link is wordfire, complete with a tagline indicating it’s the office home of Anderson. When you consider ebook links are all hidden anyway, the actual URL doesn’t matter. Plus, readers are, by and large, computer savvy, so they’d be able to find a website.

But it’s our job as author to make it easier.

So, what do y’all do? Have a URL with your name or promote your publishing company? Or both?

Saturday, March 10, 2018

The Crushing Weight of Canon

At my book club this past Tuesday, we discussed Andy Weir’s new novel, ARTEMIS. Generally, we all liked it. The grades for all five of us averaged out to somewhere in the B range. One of our fellows—the one who gave it the lowest grade—said this about the book: without the nifty descriptions of the workings of Artemis, the only city on the moon, the book and plot are quite slight.  Another person asked what has become, perhaps, an obvious question in this modern day and age: Did we think ARTEMIS had any connection or lived in the same universe as Weir’s other novel, THE MARTIAN?
The question led us down a rabbit trail of observations. ARTEMIS is a slim book and it achieved a good blend of world building without pages and pages of backstory and exposition. The talk quickly went back to the classic SF novels of the 1950s through the 1970s when major classics like RENDEZVOUS WITH RAMA were not very thick. More importantly with RAMA, not all questions were answered. Why? One possibility was that Arthur. C. Clarke wanted readers to think, to wonder, and, perhaps, to finish the book each in their own way.

Cut to modern times. For this mental exercise, I’m landing more or less at 1980. In the past four decades, we have seen the rise of thicker and thicker genre novels with tons of world building. Some readers are cool with that. I am, too, but only to a degree. In addition, there was the rise of role playing game source books, with every minute detail laid out for the players to pore over, memorize, and internalize. More and more media products—books, comics, movies, TV, games—all began to have their own internal source bibles, a canon. The original sixty Sherlock Holmes stories are called “The Canon.” Serialized TV shows began to have an overarching “mythology” and writers of all stripes were steered back into the canonized boundaries.

That’s all well and good and I frankly love it when a later-season episode of The X-Files refers back to something I remembered from season 1. I’m a fan. I dig it. Ditto for Batman comics and Marvel movies and even modern-day Doc Savage novels. Speaking of Savage, when Philip Jose Farmer went to craft his "biography" of Doc, Farmer said he had the devil of a time because he was having to codify—Canonize—the work of a dozen authors over 181 novels all to meet a deadline.

But along the way, The Canon (and here, I use it in a general sense for any given property) begins to weigh down imagination. The most recent Star Wars movie, The Last Jedi, was, I think, burdened with the crushing weight of Canonized Star Wars. Force projection? That can’t be done. Force Space Flying? That can’t be done. Ships jumping to light speed against and through another ship? That can’t be done.

Why? Because canon dictated it.

Well, so what?

On the one hand, director and writer Rian Johnson probably butted up against established canon and had someone tell him ‘no.’ On the other hand, his decision was to burst the bubble of canon and tell a story outside the canon. Granted, he has now made new canon and has expanded the boundaries of what can be done with Star Wars, but that’s kind of what I’m talking about. The boundaries of certain properties get so rigid that someone needs to come along and just blow them up and reform them anew. Give writers a chance to expand a canon while still respecting it. More often than not, the breath of fresh air given a property will satisfy.

Oh, and we all agreed that ARTEMIS and THE MARTIAN are likely not in the same universe. We all agreed that it was a good thing. Two stories, well told, and each could be enjoyed on their own.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Batman and Bill (Finger): The Search for Justice

Justice. That’s the one word that comes to mind when I watched the recently documentary by Mark Tyler Nobleman about the life of Bill Finger

Do you know that name? Well, if you don’t, perhaps you know the the character he co-created: Batman. If you are like me and you’ve read Batman comics for any length of time, you know the name of the man solely credited as the sole creator of the Dark Knight from 1939 onward. That man’s name is Bob Kane. In the heady days after Superman debuted in 1938, the company that eventually became DC Comics asked Kane to come up with a new hero. He came up with “The Bat-Man,” a red-garbed hero with a domino mask and a black, scalloped cape. Kane ran the drawing by his friend, Bill Finger, and Finger re-engineered the character into the hero we know today. He also created many of the ancillary characters: Robin, Joker, Catwoman, Scarecrow, Commissioner Gordon, and Gotham City itself.

And yet you probably don’t even know Finger’s name. Based on Nobelman’s documentary, the person single-handedly responsible for for marginalizing Finger was Kane himself. In 1965, Kane responded to what is likely the first public history of Finger’s contribution…and Kane flatly refuted Finger’s version of history. Finger died less than a decade later, alone, unknown, and all but penniless.

Nobleman is a writer who learned of Finger’s contribution to Bat-history and set out to do one simple thing: get Bill Finger credit as co-creator on comic books, movies, and TV shows. The documentary is a step-by-step story filled with photos, interviews with relatives and business associates, and audio clips of Finger himself. Most charmingly, however, are moving comic-book like illustrations to depict certain events like Finger’s life at the end, the meeting of Kane and Finger, and even Nobleman’s own research.

That research caused a groundswell among the fans that ultimately compelled Finger’s only living descendant—his granddaughter—to pursue the great cause. If you’ve seen the 2016 movie, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, you know the answer.

Mark Tyler Nobleman sought justice for Bill Finger. He passed the baton off to the Finger family and earned the justice Bill Finger deserved. It makes you want to have documentaries like this for all the Golden and Silver Age creators so that they’ll all have screen and print credit.

If you are interested to know all the details, carve out 90 minutes and watch this compelling documentary from Hulu.