Saturday, June 12, 2021

Embrace the Differences: The Raiders of the Lost Ark Novelization

Raiders of the Lost Ark turns forty today. Hard to believe, sometimes. I still remember watching Siskel and Ebert gush over the movie. Youthful though I was--twelve--Harrison Ford had already become my favorite actor because he was Han Solo. Who knew Indiana Jones was just around the corner.

To commemorate the movie's anniversary, I decided to do something I had never done before: read the novelization by Campbell Black. Yeah, I had the book back in the day. Yeah, I remember cracking it open. But I also know I never finished it. Heck, I don't even remember getting that far into the book before stopping it. I have no memory why. Unlike Star Wars--where I devoured every morsel of news, read every book, and bought every comic--I don't remember doing the same thing with Raiders. It is possible I didn't continue with the novelization because of the differences. Now, forty years later, those differences are fantastic.

Raiders is one of my Top 5 all-time movies. I have no idea how many times I've seen it, but those clips in the Siskel and Ebert segment are all familiar. It's probably one of your favorite movies, too. I can "see" the movie in my head when I listen to John Williams's brilliant score. But the novel was a nice breath of fresh air. 

Early Days of the Canon

Campbell Black is the pen name of Campbell Armstrong, a Scottish writer, who wrote over twenty-five novels. Few pieces of information exist on the internet about him, but his bibliography notes Raiders was this third, and final, movie novelization. 

In the one interview he did for TheRaider.net, Black comments that he "wrote Jones as I saw him. An adventurer, yes, but I always felt there was a slight melancholy side to him. I don't think Lucasfilm really approved of this, but from my point of view I couldn't write the novel if I had to base it on the character in the script - I found him shallow and shadowy, all action and no thought, and I wanted to add some kind of internal process to him, which I think I did. Up to a point."

As much as I enjoy the extensive universe other writers created with Indiana Jones (and Star Wars, too), there's something special about a single writer, very early on, looking at stills and the script and crafting a story as he sees it. No canon, no interlaced movies, no franchise, no established backstory, just a script and one writer's ideas on how scenes of a movie can be stitched together into a coherent novel.

Like Alan Dean Foster, who ghostwrote the Star Wars novelization, Black must have had access to an earlier script because the differences between the movie we know so well and the events in the novel are sometimes striking, but that's what makes the experience so rewarding. 

The Movie is Not the Novelization

I'm not sure what happened to my original copy of the novel. I had the version with black on the cover. The paperback I read this week was published in 1989, after Last Crusade, so it has a white cover. Soon after I started reading the South America prelude, I took a pencil and began annotating the differences.

In a movie, editors can make cuts and swipes and change scenes. You can do the same in a novel, but Black provides a lot of connective tissue between scenes. Just how did Indy get to Nepal? Well, Black describes in detail all the travel and driving Indy did, even throwing in a new character, Lin-Su. Granted, he doesn't do the same for the journey from Nepal to Cairo, but who cares.

I enjoyed the languid pace of the novelization. As much as I enjoy the movie and all that it delivers, there's something to be said for the same story delivered via text over a number of days. What Black does is what novels do well: get into the heads of the characters. We hear the inner thoughts of Indy, Marion, and Belloq. They all prove quite compelling in Black's hands, adding layers and nuances to each character. 

Belloq, for example, proves himself more competitive and mercenary than Paul Freeman portrays him in the film. With Freeman, you could almost side with Belloq in his quest for the Ark and the secrets it holds. In the novel, he's depicted very much as borderline insane with his single-minded devotion to getting the Ark and using it before Hitler gets his hands on it. 

Speaking of Belloq, something occurred to me that I never considered in forty years. It's regarding the headpiece to the staff of Ra. Belloq gets his version of the headpiece because the words are burned into Toht's hand. With that, Belloq makes his calculations. Indy, however, needs the Imam to read and interpret the words on the headpiece. Did Indy not know that language?

Key Differences

This is what you want to know, right? Well, let me get to it.

South America 

- The pit over which Indy and Sapito swing is actually obscured. Sapito nearly falls into the pit because he steps into the cobwebs covering the pit.

-Indy takes a swig from a flask as he reaches the idol. [Love this]

Berlin

There are a few scenes not at all in the movie. They are from the point of view of Dietrich, the main German officer as played by Wolf Kahler. Dietrich never trusts Belloq and we get many internal thoughts from the German. It also explains how Belloq came to be employed by Hitler. Later, during the Cairo scenes, we get a few more scenes from Dietrich's POV, irritated at Belloq's pomposity.

Connecticut

It is certainly implied that Indy is a womanizer, all but taking an undergrad per semester. This is part of the apparent--but never explained--backstory with Indy and Marion. Based on the book, she might as been as young as sixteen when the mid-twenties Indy had a relationship with her. 

Cairo

-There's a nighttime scene between Indy and Marion and whether or not they they'll hook up. It includes their actual first kiss and we get the skeevy take from Indy about how well the woman kisses versus the child from his past.

-The Imam who reads the markings on the headpiece is the one who puts into Indy's head the idea that no mortal should look at the contents of the Ark. It is the Imam's warning Indy remembers at the end.

Tanis Dig

-There is no scene between Belloq and Marion where she puts on the dress and tries to drink him under the table. In its place is Marion's seemingly being under Belloq's spell. They actually kiss and she all but succumbs to him. 

-Belloq actually sees all the lightening that floods the sky when Indy and his friends open the Well of the Souls. 

Truck Chase

-Toht is in the car that flies off the cliff. He dies here and doesn't get his face melted at the end.

-Black describes how the Germans discovered which pirate ship is carrying the Ark.

The Island

-We learn how Belloq arranged for him to open the Ark before delivery to Berlin.

-The scene where Belloq challenges Indy to blow up the Ark isn't here.

Verdict

The novelization is a nice addition to the wonderful movie. There is a place for both. Campbell Black's novel is a good story and a worthy addition to the canon we now have, even if much of what he comes up with (how Indy got the bullwhip) is overridden with subsequent movies and books. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it and actually might continue with the novelizations of the next three films. 

Side Note

I went and located my copy of the comic adaptation and many of the scenes mentioned here are in there. Perhaps the Marvel comics folks and Black read from the same script.

Tuesday, June 8, 2021

Sixty-Seven Years Later, THEM! Holds Up

What do Matt Dillion, Daniel Boone, Kris Kringle, and Mr. Spock have in common? They all battled giant ants in 1954.

I can't remember exactly when I first saw this 1954 film, but there's a sliver of a memory from the early 80s when I spent some summer weeks at my grandparents' house in Tyler, Texas and it might've been then. Moreover, I also can't pinpoint when I was re-introduced to this film directed by Gordon Douglas. Sometime this century. But it has vaulted to one of my favorite 1950s-era science fiction movies.

I watched it again over the weekend, first time in a few years, and boy does it hold up well. It is sixty-seven years old this month, and still packs some genuine suspense, especially during the anticipation of first seeing the ants and, of course, their sound effect.

The atomic bomb tests at Alamogordo, New Mexico, were only nine years old when THEM was released, and the unknowns about nuclear energy were still being learned. It is nuclear radiation that morphs the common small ant into the giant behemoths we see in the film. 

The opening sequence is gripping and unsettling, as we follow a pair of New Mexico state troopers as they discover a little girl wandering in the desert. She's catatonic, in a speechless state of shock. Even as the troopers, one of whom is played by James Whitmore, investigate what happened to her family and a nearby store owner, they can't make heads or tails of the destruction. It's only when we hear that distinctive sound effect of the ants does the girl react. Cleverly, Whitmore and a doctor do not see the girl rise up from her resting spot, terror across her face, only to lie down again, eyes wide in fear.

That sound effect. Most every time, it precedes the visuals of the creatures, and it adds so much suspense for the viewer. I defy you not to have a little chilly twinge crawl up your spine when you hear it. One of the troopers hears the high-pitched sound and goes off screen to investigate. The last thing we hear is his own death scream. 


What struck me with this viewing is how the first half of the film is basically a crime film. There are the investigators--now including an FBI agent played by James Arness (Matt Dillon in Gunsmoke), and a pair of scientists, father and daughter, played by Edmund Gwenn (Kris Kringle in Miracle on 34th Street) and Joan Weldon--just trying to figure out what's going on. The monsters drop out of their own film largely because of costs, I assume, but the unknown facing the investigators makes for quite an urgent story. The investigators scour news reports and interview eyewitnesses--including Fess Parker (star of the Daniel Boone TV show) as a pilot who saw the queen ants flying west but is thrown in an insane asylum because of his wild story. 

There's even a scene where our heroes discover another nest of ants, the workers protecting both a pair of queen ants and their eggs. Reminded me of Aliens (1986) and how many other monster films. 


A young Leonard Nimoy (Star Trek's Mr. Spock) shows up as a soldier relaying information from the teletype machine.


They finally figure out there's a nest in the sewers of Los Angeles. At this point, we jump to a more traditional monster film: humans hunting the creatures in darkened tunnels, the suspense escalating. That a prime weapon is flamethrowers lends itself to some gruesome imagery of the ants being consumed by fire. 


From a historical perspective, what I appreciate about THEM is how the soldiers and the scientists worked together. The military defers to the entomologists in the discovery of the insects, but the scientists don't want to preserve one for study, a trope in many films of this kind. No, the scientists know exactly what they need to do and work to that end. This is also a year after the Korean War where our military and the government is still held with a certain amount of respect by the civilians. Many of the side characters accept what the FBI agents tell them without question. I bet you'd get quite a different kind of movie nowadays. 

We also get a potential lesson at the close of the film, as the last nest of ants are consumed by flames. "When Man entered the Atomic Age, he opened the door to a new world. What we may eventually find in that new world, nobody can predict." Looking to sixty-seven years to 1954 from the vantage point of 2021, we can see how many of the nuclear fears of the early days of the Cold War didn't pan out, and we're all relieved by it. But in our post-COVID pandemic era, when the origin of the virus is still not fully known, what are our fears now? What might the folks sixty-seven years hence--2088--think of our current fears. Will they pan out, or will they fester into something greater?

Sunday, June 6, 2021

Always Try Your Dreams

Every year during the first week of June, my mind drifts back to the first week of June 1944. The week leading up to D-Day. Even now, seventy-seven years later, the magnitude of the courage of the men who stormed those beaches never fails to take my breath away.

There have been many books written and documentaries compiled, oral histories recorded and movies filmed. One in particular is Saving Private Ryan which features a grueling opening segment. As horrific as those opening minutes are, you know it’s all just make-believe and that it’s only a taste of what really went down that morning.

Every year, I also take moments to look at the photos of the Allied troops squeezed into those landing crafts. For that one moment when the cameraman snapped his photo, some of those soldiers smiled. Others didn’t. Both tell the same story: the invasion was necessary and they were called on to do it. That was the nature of their birth and world events.

This week, one of those photos really got to me. I honestly can’t find it. It was part of a meme. But in this photo as in so many others, the faces of those men were young. So young. I often wonder how I would have comported myself if history called on me to do what those men did. My son’s nineteen now and he would be called as well. How would he do?

As thankful as we are for the courage of those men, it’s sometimes difficult not to get emotional when thinking of them as individuals. As regular humans on this earth. They, like all of us, had dreams of what they’d do when they got home. Many soldiers returned home. So many did not. Perhaps the cure for cancer was in the brain of one of those men. Maybe a great baseball player or an engineer who could invent something we would now take for granted here in 2021.

But today, I’m talking about creatives. Imagine the books or the songs not created, the paintings and the sculptures, the plays and the actors that never were created. All gone.

The thing is, those men had creative dreams like we do, and then they stormed those beaches to preserve the dreams for all the survivors. For us. For those that’ll come after us.

Perhaps me getting emotional on this commemoration of D-Day is related to my own recent struggles with my writing, my business, and my ideas about the future. I have grand plans and sometimes, I question myself. Why? What’s the point? Who would care?

Well, I care about these plans. I came up with them, after all. They are, to my mind, good and decent ideas. Why not try?

Try because you want to. Try because it could bring you great happiness. Try even though you might fail, but you can learn from that failure. Try because you could reach someone who will need what you create at a precise moment in their lives.

Try because of what happened seventy-seven years ago this morning and the men who didn’t get the chance to try.

Try your dreams. Always.

Saturday, May 29, 2021

100 Days: The Summer of Productivity

Here in the US, every new president is judged by what he does in his first one hundred days. It harkens back to 1933 when Franklin Roosevelt entered office in the midst of the Great Depression and accomplished a dizzying amount of laws and regulations in a little over three months. Every subsequent president is measured by that same yardstick even though most haven't experienced the dire circumstances FDR faced. Still, everyone does it and it has become standard. In fact, it shaped President Biden's early agenda, with his administration's efforts all focused on that date.

For us creatives, having bookends by which to measure our creativity is also a good thing, but how often do we start something on any given day and then have to mark a calendar at our desired end point? Often, we literally count days on a paper calendar and do the math in our heads.

But summers provide us with obvious an obvious beginning and an obvious ending. Memorial Day kicks off the summer vibe while Labor Day concludes it. What happens in between is defined as 'summer.' It doesn't matter that summer's heat extends--at least here in Houston--into September and October. What matters is a codifed set of days that counts as perhaps the best time of the year. Yeah, the holiday season is great, too, and it is the most wonderful time of the year, but over the past decade or so, I have really started to enjoy summer. The low-key vibe, the refreshing cocktails, the grilling of anything, the summer movie blockbusters, the beach reads. It's just a great time to kick back and just take it easy.

It is also a time to work and be productive.

For those of us for whom their creative job is second to a day job, our productivity is parceled out among our day job responsibilities. It's why I wake in the 5am hour on weekdays to write and, when I'm at the office, write during lunch on my Chromebook. While doing the creative thing isn't that different during the summer than any other time of year, with a definate beginning and end, the summer season has, by default, a running clock. A countdown if you will. Labor Day can be your deadline. It's real and set in stone and everyone knows it.

So that's why I have, in the past few years, used summer as a time of greater productivity. Often I start and end something fresh. This year, however, I'm still laboring over my current work in progress, so the primary goal of summer 2021 is to complete that manuscript. And publish my next novel. 

Those are my tentpole objectives in the Summer of 2021.

What are yours?

Note: You get a 100 days if you start today. It's 99 if you start tomorrow and 98 if you start Monday. I'm not counting Labor Day as a work day. That'll be a day of celebration for completing that which you accomplished this summer.

Saturday, May 22, 2021

Amateur Sleuth Trims Down Suspect List in Death at the Salon by Louise R. Innes

Daisy Thorne owns the Ooh-La-La hair salon in the small English town of Edgemead. As is her routine, she takes care of her last customer, cleans up the place, and, on that evening, amid a torrential rainstorm, leaves out the back door. It is there when she discovers Mel Haverstock, lying on the ground, Daisy's own cutting shears jutting into the victim's back. 

Well, that's not good. But, she does the dutiful thing and reports the crime to the local police. DCI Paul McGuinness arrives and surveys the evidence. By-the-book guy that he is and despite their prior relationship in solving another crime, McGuinness does the only thing the evidence suggests: brings Daisy in for questioning. She's got motive: Mel and Daisy were not the best of friends back in high school. She's got the weapon: those were Daisy's scissors in Mel's back after all. She's got no alibi: she was alone in the salon. And Daisy's DNA is on the victim's clothes. What's a cop to do? 

Well, what's an amateur detective to do but clear her name while staying often one step ahead of McGuinness's own investigation.

As I've mentioned before, I'm reading lots of cozy mysteries in 2021, a genre I've barely read in the past. I call it Cozy College and the primary reading list is the Cozy Corner subscription service through Houston's Murder by the Book. This book list is curated by the bookstore's own John McDougall and Death at a Salon is the April selection. To date, John has selected first-in-series books, but Death at a Salon by Louise R. Innes is the second. The first book's events were referenced through this current book, but you really don't need to have read Death at a Country Mansion to enjoy Death at the Salon.

And boy did I enjoy this novel. Up until now, my favorite of the Cozy Corner books was February's Murder at the Beacon Bakeshop, but Death at the Salon might take the top spot. I'm a fan of the various BBC mystery shows that make their way across the pond so that probably plays a factor. This book has all the Englishisms I've seen in those shows, like tea drinking, small-town settings, and a nice and varied cast of characters. But if you don't like the lead character, any book or TV show falls apart. Happy to say that Daisy is delightful and instantly likable. 

She keeps her cool under pressure, but still comes across as real. She fears for herself were she not to clear her name and hurts when other things happen to folks she knows. Author Louise Innes plays out the subtle romantic thread between Daisy and Paul very well, especially as the events put a strain on their delicate relationship. For his part, Paul is nicely characterized not simply as a gruff policeman nor as the hunk Daisy pines for, but as one who likes Daisy yet still has a job to do. Those two positions clash within him as the story goes on, and it's fascinating to see how it plays out. 

Interestingly for an amateur sleuth, Daisy is actually pursuing an criminology diploma at a local college. I'm guessing it's because of her solving the first case, but I'm not sure. Thus, throughout the story, she'll drop some nugget she learned from her studies and apply it to the current case, even when that something is used against her, like when she's arrested for the crime. I found that to be actually realistic. 

What I especially loved was the ending. Taking a page from Agatha Christie herself and with the flair of Nick Charles from the Thin Man movies, Daisy and Paul bring all the suspects into the same space. I'll give you zero guesses as to the location. There, the true culprit is revealed. Innes does a great job at keeping the villain hidden from the reader, compelling you to keep turning pages. She is the author of twenty-five novels so she knows how to pace a story. It is effortless here and carried me to the last page.

Which is where I jumped off and found her website. She writes different styles of books under variations of her name. What's great about the site for the Daisy Thorne series is you can get a free ebook prequel by signing up to her newsletter. Done. You can also purchase the first book in the series, Death at a Country Manor. Done. And, later this year, the third book in the series, Death at Holly Hall will be published. I'll eagerly be waiting.

In the accompanying postcard he includes with the paperback, John mentioned he wanted to feature a story not set in America. I reached out to John this week and asked him why he selected Death at the Salon. "Part of the reason was the release date. Because cozy readers tend to stay up on new releases I'm trying to pick current titles that they hopefully haven't picked up yet. But I also really loved the first in the series. There are some great British cozies that revolve around bookstores and libraries, but a salon is a perfect setting for a cozy, and I'm surprised we don't see more of them. They're ideal community hubs for gossip and sleuthing. I'd been looking for the right non-US set book to feature, and Innes's combination of setting and characters is really wonderful."


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@Barrie Summy

Saturday, May 15, 2021

The Value of a State-of-the-Business Examination

It all started with a question and it ended up with a complete evaluation of my writing and publishing life.

One of my longtime book club friends--we're going on our twelfth year together--has a side business and it is not going as well as he envisioned. He explained why and then turned his attention to me. "How's the publishing game?  It's been a few years now, are you encouraged by how it's proceeding?"

What began as a reply to his email turned into a 3,300-word (and counting) evaluation of my writing life, my publishing life, where I am now, and where I want to go. With the day job and the family stuff, I don't have a ton of free time on my hands so the exercise stretched out the entire week. Not coincidentally, 1 May is my Writer's New Year's Day, a commemoration of my decision back on 1 May 2013 to start writing with purpose.

What followed was a technique I've used for years: a written dialogue. This is one where I ask questions of myself and then I answer them. And, since I'm literally talking with myself, I get to be brutally honest. Who else is gonna read this, right? 

Am I encouraged? That is an interesting way to ask how it's going. I've been pondering it for a few days and I have a two-part response: No, not really, but, at the same time, I have not been giving it the attention it deserves if I want to see results.

The Analysis Begins

Thus, by answering with a qualified 'no,' I started analyzing the parts of the business I can control. It goes back to one of my favorite phrases about publishing: Control the Controllables. I can control my writing, how much time I devote to it, and what I write. This is absent all talk of sales. I truly cannot control that. Neither can you. No one can. But we can control what we write. For me, it boiled down to time and speed. I can write fast and I can start a writing session on-the-run (so I don't have to build up speed) so the words the flow out usually are not a problem. 

Time proved the key factor. Despite me working from home, I realized I began 'sleeping in' on weekdays. When I had a commute, I used to wake at 5am. I kept that routine at the start of the working-from-home phase, but over the past year, my wakeup time slid later and later. Throw in the morning Bible reading and the amount of time I have to write in the pre-day-job quiet of the house ended up being 30-45 minutes. Sure, those minutes and words add up, but they are not truly as productive as I used to be.

Thus, to rectify my writing time, to control the controllables, I started waking earlier. Consequently, I also went to bed earlier. Give and take, right? I’ll be continuing that next week and the week after.

What is the Roadmap?

That’s the simple part. The larger thing is publishing schedule. I examined my available manuscripts. Including my current WIP, I have a dozen books either completely finished or close enough for a thorough edit. Why are these books not already in the pipeline? To that question, I had no answer. Laziness? Chalk it up to ‘not enough time in the week’? Hogwash. If I’m an indie author, then I make the time to publish what I write. I haven’t been. But I will be. 

Thus, I made a publishing schedule for the next 2.5 years. I’m still fine tuning it and allowing for me to slip in newly written manuscripts—I’m pretty jazzed on the current WIP and its sequels—but I have a roadmap. It’s what traditional publishers do, right? Same should be for me. And you, if you’re an indie. The next book I’ll publish is my Harry Truman book this summer.

Fixing the Online Stuff

Armed with a new publishing schedule, I examined my online life, specifically the websites. I have my blogspot blog which dates back over fourteen years and I don’t want to ditch it. I have my author website that needs a refresh. And I have my new project that’ll I’ll tease here for a summer launch, probably around the time of the Truman book’s publication. I’ve already stopped updating one website and will disband it this month. No need mentioning it here. It’s for the dustbin. 

Another aspect of online life is engagement. While I’m decent at it, I’m not as engaged as I want to be. Expect to see a little bit more of myself online on Twitter and Facebook.

The biggest online challenge is to create an online store. It’’ll be a way to sell direct to readers that’ll be as seamless as other online stores, enable me to increase my outreach, and pocket a little extra cash. The tools for this are present, I just need to implement them.

So, after a week’s worth of reassessment and the creation of a new roadmap, I have a better handle on my writing and the business of writing. What began as an email response with a somewhat dour answer has turned into a happy exercise and a renewed sense of purpose. I’m now ready to reply to my friend, but I won’t be copying the entire 3,300-word piece. I’ll just tell him to read this post. 

Do you have any of these State of the Business type things in your writing business? 

Saturday, May 8, 2021

It's the Kitten's Fault in Furbidden Fatality by Deborah Blake

You would think winning the lottery would solve all your problems, but if you've heard real-life stories of lottery winners ruining their lives, then you know money doesn't solve everything. Unless, that is, you have a purpose. Or a mystery to solve.

Kari Stuart, twenty-nine years old, is the lottery winner in question in Furbidden Fatality, the first in a new series by Deborah Blake, and it is the March 2021 selection in Murder by the Book's cozy mystery subscription service. What you don't see on page one is Kari extravagantly spending her money or doing the other things folks flush with new  cash do. Instead, she is driving a small black kitten she found to the local animal shelter. What she finds, however, is a run-down facility with no more room to take in the cute kitten. Turned away and wondering what to do with the cat, Kari impusively buys the shelter, giving her aimless life new focus.

As stories of this type do, we now get to meet all the supporting cast of Lakeview, the town in which she grew up. Suz, her best friend, who often serves as the Greek chorus, throwing reality at Kari at various times in the book, especially at the beginning when she first learns of Kari's purchase of Serenity Sanctuary. Sara Hanover, volunteer at the shelter, is a former English teacher who still knows everyone in town which comes in handy as the book goes on. You’ve got Bryn, a somewhat sulky twentysomething and Daisy, the older former owner.

Into this mix comes Bill Myers, the local dog warden, and the bane of the shelter’s existence. The latest Myers accusation is against a pit bull, Buster, who is accused of biting someone else. Myers is chomping at the bit to confiscate Buster and put him down. Well, good news: he doesn’t do that, mainly because he’s murdered. On the grounds of Serenity Sanctuary.

Guess who’s the number one suspect? You’re right. Kari, who has moved in and took up residence on the property. All the clues point to her. She had the motive (save Buster), the opportunity (her land), and the weapon (Myers was choked with a snare pole). The cops barely look elsewhere, despite additional clues and information along the way, so it’s up to Kari to clear her name (and those of her friends who get pulled into the investigation) while uncovering the real killer.

Blake moves the story along pretty quickly, adding in new wrinkles to the mystery and throwing a false leads along the way. Kari and her friends have a lot of pluck as they basically become detectives despite them not knowing how to really do it. There are a couple of jokes from the police about the reality of detective work versus what is seen on TV. All in all, I didn’t figure out the killer until the end, always the mark of a good book.

I’m early in my enrollment in what I call Cozy College, where I read cozy mysteries, a genre all but brand-new to me. Of the half dozen I’ve read this year (Bait and Witch, Murder at the Beacon Bakeshop, and four Andy Carpenter novels by David Rosenfelt), Forbidden Fatality is the first one written in third person. It doesn’t diminish the book at all, but I kind of have gotten used to a lead character in a cozy being the narrator. Maybe that isn’t the norm, but it was one of the stereotypical things I thought cozies were like—and those earlier books confirmed.

Interestingly, another trope I associate with cozies that involve pets is that the pets themselves help solve the crimes. The Andy Carpenter series has pets (and, ironically, a dog shelter) but they don’t help out. In this novel, Queenie (the black kitten that started the whole thing) actually does. Makes for quite a charming little addition to a fun book.

Saturday, May 1, 2021

King Kong, Godzilla, and the Immediate Move to Comedy

A few weeks ago, my college-age son and I watched the brand-new Godzilla vs. Kong movie. I liked it pretty well as it delivered exactly what I wanted: giant monsters fighting each other and destroying a bunch of buildings (that were evacuated the writers of the film made a point to mention). For my son, it was his first kaiju film, surprising considering he loves Japanese anime. This 2021 film made him decide to watch all/most of the earlier kaiju films. I happily obliged and we started all the way back in 1933.

The original King Kong movie is still a marvel of filmmaking. Considering it came a mere five years after sound was first introduced to the process, the special effects frankly still hold up well. My son likened Kong's movements to that of the Rankin and Bass Christmas TV shows.

We followed that up with Son of Kong, an instant sequel to the first film that was produced and released in the same year. 


While King Kong was thrilling yet somber, Son of Kong was not. It was actually pretty basic until our hero humans landed back on Skull Island and found Kong's son. Then, it kind of kicked into a comedic vein. This being the first time I ever saw this movie, I was surprised by the funny turn. In the back of my mind were many of the Gozilla films of the 1960s and 1970s I remembered seeing as a kid, but I didn't think any of the Kong films had done that.

When it came time for Godzilla and with his love of anime, my son insisted we find the original 1954 movie in Japanese with sub-titles. He's a purist when it comes to subs vs. dubs. We found it and watched it. I'm sure I must have seen this movie--or the 1956 version with Raymond Burr edited into the movie--but I honestly can't remember it. 


The 1954 original is even more somber than the 1933 King Kong movie. Godzilla is an obvious analogy to the atomic bombs dropped on Japan to compel them to end the fighting in World War II. The characters tracked the monster's movements like we do hurricanes. Most telling, they realize they have no power to stop him.

The moody tone surprised me, again with color films of the Sixties in my mind. I wondered when the funnier tone would be introduced into the franchise.

It didn't take long. The second movie, Godzilla Raids Again (1955), the tone was markedly lighter. The monster itself, especially when fighting Anguirus, another kaiju, kind of looked like it was dancing or trying to do martial arts. Where you almost could squint your eyes when watching the original and not think there was a man in a rubber suit, the second movie is all in on the man-in-suit concept. In fact, some of the filmed sequences were sped up, an accident during the filming that the director decided to keep in the finish film. It gave some of those moments a Three Stooges vibe.

It really surprised me. With the third film, King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962), that humor continued. Ditto when it came to the giant ape. 

Which finally got me to my question: why? Why did the creators of Godzilla--and what he represented for the Japanese people--decide to make him funny? It's not too far into the franchise when Godzilla has a son (no mom?) so the giant lizard becomes a doting dad. 


Seriously? Look, I loved these movies as a kid and I'll probably still enjoy them this year as we watch as many as possible, but why the move to lighten up the franchise? Was that where the money was? In family entertainment?

What other franchises can you think of that went lighter and funnier? Star Wars: Return of the Jedi comes to mind. James Bond has lots of it during the Roger Moore era. Say what you want about the Tim Burton Batman films, but compared to Batman Forever and Batman and Robin, those Burton films were really dark.

Are there any book series characters that underwent a comedic turn? 

Saturday, April 24, 2021

A Claustrophobic Mystery in Antarctica Shines Through the Darkness in The Head TV Show

What do you get when you cross a mystery, a drama, and a survival story? The Head TV show.

Available on HBO Max, The Head was produced out of Spain yet is mostly in English. The only non-English language spoken is Danish by a handful of characters. It was pretty seamless so it’s not a stumbling block.

The story centers on a group of scientists in an Antarctic research facility. They’re on track to isolate a thing that’ll help combat climate change. The name of the base is Polaris VI. During the sunny part of the year, the base is brimming with people, but come the six-month dark times, only about a dozen stay behind. Let that sink in: six months of darkness in the inhospitable Antarctic winter. You couldn’t pay me enough money to do that. No. Way.

But these folks do. There is the ostensible leader, Arthur. The doctor, Maggie, is a newcomer to the group, living through her first winter. There are other veterans of the dark shift, many of whom worked in a previous base, Polaris V. One of those experienced people is Annika, the wife of Johan. She chooses to stay behind in Polaris VI while Johan, the summer commander, leaves. She doesn’t want Arthur to hog all the credit for their research because they are so close to victory.

You get a little poignant shot of the summer folks leaving the winter folks behind and then you jump six months ahead. Johan has returned, bringing with him the summer team. What he finds shocks the hell out of him. The base is deserted. The radio is out. There’s a dead body—Erik, the winter commander. What really gets to him is Annika. His wife is missing.

Johan has no way of knowing what’s going on until he stumbles upon Maggie hiding inside a kitchen cabinet, knife in hand, and clearly injured. With medical help, Maggie begins to recount the story of what happened during the dark six months in Polaris VI.

It ain’t pretty, but it comes across as a pretty gripping mystery. We get flashbacks from Johan’s point of view as we see his relationship with Annika and their desire to start a family but only after Annika has done her time down in Antarctica.

Via Maggie’s fractured recollections, Johan and his team must piece together what happened. Clues abound. Dead bodies, too. It’s only when another survivor of Polaris VI shows up that doubt is cast on Maggie’s tale. Is she a reliable narrator? Is she telling the truth or is she hiding something? What’s really difficult is knowing which characters are already dead in the present and, in Maggie’s flashbacks, you get to know them better. Makes the show all the more dire. And, with the dark winter outside, rather claustrophobic. 

The mystery deepens and it held the attention of my wife and I pretty well. The acting is good, with Johan (Alexandre Willaume) saying a lot with just his facial features. Katharine O’Donnelly as Maggie does a fine job simultaneously stoking your suspicion and empathy for her. There are a few times when Arthur (John Lynch) gets angry and, my goodness, does he do angry well.

Now, as to the ending, my wife guessed it. I thought about her prediction and I agreed with her it was mostly likely the real reason. Turned out to be accurate. You might guess it, too, but that doesn’t detract from a well-done television show. At only six episodes, you can knock out this intriguing show in less than a week. 

Saturday, April 17, 2021

What Are Some Literary "Jumping the Shark" Moments?

Sometimes, old things trigger new questions.

For the longest time, our front living room was television-less. That’s where the library is, it’s where we set up our Christmas tree, and it serves as the guest bedroom. We didn’t mind not having a TV in the front room, but during last year’s NFL season, I pulled out an old TV we had and one of those digital antennas and converter box and set up the TV. I’m the only one in the house who enjoys football and I didn’t want to hog up one of the good TVs just to watch a game.

It’s been kind of fun having that old TV available. I plugged one of our VCRs (yes, really) and a portable DVD player so I could watch the occasional show on it. In terms of live television, however, when it’s not being used for football, it’s on MeTV.

Imagine my surprise, a couple of weeks ago, when suddenly MeTV was not where it usually was. The network recently purchased a station here in Houston and started broadcasting from that new channel. A channel my old converter box/antenna combo did not receive. Cue a drive to Target to purchase a new combo setup. Viola! They work perfectly and I now can get MeTV.

But this new converter box also has a recording feature. It’s like a DVR but only for over-the-air channels. No problem for me. So one afternoon I pulled out the instruction manual to figure out how to record things.

And I received a happy surprise.

“Happy Days” was airing at that time and wouldn’t you know it, the episode in question was “Hollywood, Part 3.” What? You don’t know that episode by title? Well, it’s the exact fifth episode where Fonzie jumps the shark.

Naturally, I ended up watching the rest of the episode.* Yeah, it’s as cheesy as you remember it to be, but I reckon my nine-year-old self was glued to the TV in suspense, just like the Cunninghams were.

The term “jumping the shark” has been used to define when a TV show went off the rails. That is, when it stopped being the original thing it was and became something else, usually a shell of its former self. Just me writing this brings to mind many a show to your minds. That time when Bruce Willis and Cybil Shepherd got together in “Moonlighting.” That time when Victoria Principal discovered Patrick Duffy’s Bobby Ewing in the shower and they told you the entire season you had just watched…was a dream. That time when David Duchovny left “The X-Files.” Those are just off the top of my head.

Then I got to thinking: Are there literary “jumping the shark” moments? Are there books in long-running series that jump the shark? I know there must be, but I’m not coming up with any. Granted, I’ve not read many long-running series. There are 52 In Death books by J.D. Robb (Nora Roberts). John Sandford has written 31 in the Prey series. Twenty-five Jack Reacher books exist and I don’t even want to start counting the number of series James Patterson has written. Erle Stanley Gardner wrote 80 Perry Mason novels (and 30 Cool and Lam novels). The old pulp writers Lester Dent (Doc Savage) and Walter Gibson (The Shadow) wrote a novel a month for years.

The point is, there are many a long-running series in the book world. Have (or did) any of them jump the shark?

Follow-up Question


By the way, Happy Days went on for another six years, eleven seasons in total. Were all those post-shark episodes bad? Probably not. The TV show Dallas recovered from the Bobby-in-the-Shower moment, but The X-Files and Moonlight didn’t.

So if there is a book series that jumped the shark, did that series recover?
 

*Side note: The other plot for this episode (and probably parts 1 and 2) was Richie mulling over a choice of whether or not to attend college or head out to Hollywood and sign a film contract. I had completely forgotten this since I probably saw the episode on the date of its airing and then never again since. But there’s a nice scene between Richie and his dad. Howard Cunningham gives his son a nice pep talk, ending with a reminder: no matter what Richie choose, his father will support him and be proud of him. Now that I’m a dad myself, this scene got to me in a way my nine-year-old self couldn’t possibly have imagined.

Friday, April 9, 2021

Cheap Trick Sounds Timeless in 2021: In Another World Album Review

It was a Christmas album that really turned me onto a band.

In 2019, my son discovered the Cheap Trick Christmas album (2017). At that point, I could name two songs by the band: She’s Tight (the first song of theirs I ever heard) and The Flame. That Christmas record hit me like a ton of tinsel-coated bricks. They covered some rarer classics and threw in some well-done originals that perfectly captured the spirit and vibe of the season. It has, in only two years, become one of my favorite Christmas albums.

My son and I are huge fans of legacy acts who continually release new material in the 21st Century. We especially appreciate those musicians who draw on their decades of experience but also craft songs that are appropriate for their age. With terrestrial radio locked into certain playlists and artists, the drive to create hit singles has all but vanished. That freedom enables legacy acts to do whatever they want. More often than not, they focus on their core musical values, the things that brought them to prominence in the first place.

Cut to 2021 and my son announced Cheap Trick was going to release a new album. Excited, we pre-ordered the album, which drops today. Not wanting to wait for the physical CD to arrive in the mailbox, I went to the official Cheap Trick YouTube channel and streamed the album.

Twice.

What came out of the speakers was music from a veteran band who appears not to have lost a step. If there is a ‘face’ to the band, it’s guitarist Rick Nielsen. His checkerboard guitars and skullcap is about the only thing I can visually point to as being Cheap Trick. But he is an excellent player. The solos he plays are all tasteful (a theme you’ll see in the song-by-song breakdown) and melodic. Sure, I bet he can spread with the best of them, but that’s not what Cheap Trick is. To my ears, they are a power pop band that borders on hard rock. And by that definition, they are arguably playing better in 2021 than they did when they started out.

But if we’re talking aspects of the band that are timeless, it has to be singer Robin Zander. I knew he was a great singer (see: The Flame) and the Christmas album just reiterated the point. There’s a Harry Nilsson song called "Remember (Christmas)" that is a stunner. Here on this album, I’m getting vibes from not only John Lennon but also Noddy Holder from Slade. The guy is sixty-eight yet still sounds clear, hitting every note. Amazing.

Those influences the band seems to wear on their sleeves, be it Zander’s voice or the song compositions themselves. It is not a paint-by-numbers thing. It’s a genuine acknowledgment of what prompted those guys to form a band in the mid 1970s and just keep going.

Lyrically, these guys certainly know how to write power pop songs. "Boys & Girls & Rock N Roll" and "The Summer Looks Good on You" would work in any decade. They played “Boys & Girls & Rock N Roll” last night on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert so you can see they still rock.

Yet this record is not written and sung by young men. These are veterans of rock music, all in their sixties and seventies. They know their age, and they deliver meaningful songs. A few made me misty and the shortest song, “I'll See You Again,” actually brought tears to my eyes. Maybe it’s because I’m getting older. Probably is, but they are, too.

I've already used the word 'tasteful' to describe these songs. This is a band who knows who they are and are perfectly fine staying in that lane. This is certainly a modern, 21st Century record, but it has its heritage in everything that came before. An excellent addition to the music of 2021. There have already been some favorite albums this year—Alice Cooper Detroit Stories, Foo Fighters Medicine at Midnight, Paul Stanley’s Soul Station Now and Then, and Charley Crockett Sings James Hand—but In Another World by Cheap Trick is a strong contender for my favorite album of the year.

Song Notes:


If you’re interested, here are my unedited notes as I listened to the album the first time.

The Summer Looks Good on You - It sounds like summer and you can easily imagine yourself driving with the windows down.

Quit Waking Me Up - Oh my! This is a great pop tune. Vocals good and clean with just a hint of edge. Brass tops it off. Fav song so far.

Another World - Ballad that brings a Beatles vibe. Lyrics have a melancholy feel, kind of a world weariness. Solid, melodic guitar solo.

Boys & Girls & Rock N Roll - A bit of a classic rock and roll vibe, but with a modern, slightly minor-chord feel. Part of the guitar riffs during the verses reminds me of a similar guitar riff from "Synchronicity II."

[So far: man, these guys still got it.]

The Party - Meat and potatoes rock song with driving beat and a female backup vocalist. She and Robin mesh well together.

Final Days - Heavy start that leads into a rather joyful chorus...yet the lyrics of the chorus have a longing to them. Bluesy in every other part, including harmonica solo.

So It Goes - Delicate start with guitar and vocals. Lennon/Beatles vibe as soon as more instruments kick in. Mournful quality. Looking back. Dang. Actually got misty on this one.

Light Up the Fire - [This is one released a couple of months ago. I heard it but don't remember it.] Pure power pop goodness. Again, eight songs into this record, all cuts are tasteful with decades of experience behind them.

Passing Through - Moderate tempo but with sound like "So It Goes." I'm surprised how Robin's voice makes me think of Lennon. Dreamy guitar work. Guitar solo actually felt restrained.

Here's Looking at You - Back to faster tempo. Robin's vocals instantly made me think of Slade. It's got one of those choruses where the drums play quarter notes to help drive the tune.

I've already used the word 'tasteful' to describe these songs so far. This is a band who knows who they are and are perfectly fine staying in that lane. This is certainly a modern, 21st Century record, but it has its heritage in everything that came before.

Another World (reprise)- Lyrics seem to point to Covid pandemic and all the crap 2020 delivered. But positive, encouraging chorus all but points to it as a religious song. They're basically singing about heaven. Beatles-y bridge.

I'll See You Again - Ballad and, considering the last tune is a Lennon cover, it's the last new Cheap Trick song on the album. Again, lyrically is age appropriate, older men looking back on their lives. Seems to be missing a loved one, maybe even one who is dying. "Close your eyes and I'll see you again." It's short. Actual tears in my eyes.

Gimme Some Truth [Lennon] - Can easily see why they picked this for an album in 2021. Will have to research when Lennon wrote this tune. Solo song or Beatles? Mention of "Tricky Dicky" indicates post-Nixon. The mini-screaming of Lennon's lyrics easily apply to 2021.

Summary:

Wow. This is a good album by veteran musicians who bring all their musical intelligence and history to the fore. Makes me want to binge all Cheap Trick albums.