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.

Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Of Course There Are Mobsters in New Jersey in Bury the Lead by David Rosenfelt

If it's New Jersey, of course mobsters are involved.

In this, the third book featuring lawyer Andy Carpenter and his intrepid pooch, Tara, our hero is taking it easy since his last case. By taking it easy, we're talking not working. While he might be itching to get back in the courtroom, Andy's barely lifting a finger.

Until his friend, Vince Sanders, comes calling. He's the owner of the local newspaper, and his star reporter might need some legal help. Young Daniel Cumming is being used by a serial killer who kills women and then severs their hands from their bodies. Daniel writes stories about the killer, including direct messages. Vince just wants Andy handy to absolve the newspaper from anything untoward should anything go awry.

And something does go off kilter. Big time. The latest victim is found in a park in the same condition as all the others. The difference is Daniel. He's also in the park, unconscious and wounded. He claims he tried to stop the killer, but the police ain't buying it. Now, Andy has a real client with real stakes. Daniel is put on trial as a serial killer, and Andy must defend the cub reporter.

Step one: learn about Daniel and his background. But with each new revelation comes new wrinkles in the case and new layers about Daniel's past. 

And, of course, the mob gets involved.

Famously, when he was crafting the template that would become the Perry Mason TV show, author Erle Stanley Gardner stated that no one cared about Perry's personal life so there was hardly anything mentioned. David Rosenfelt has a different opinion and it's one most of us appreciate. We get a lot of Andy's personal life in these books, and it's one of the things that makes them so interesting. Andy isn't some cardboard character going through the motions. He comes across as a real flesh-and-blood guy. We get a lot of personal details in this third book, including his desire to marry his girlfriend, Laurie. She also serves as his private investigator. He wants to and she's noncommittal. Quite the flip from the usual way we think about relationships.

Speaking of unusual, Andy's an interesting guy. He's very smart when it comes to the law, but not always keen on other aspects of life. He's not what you'd call a man's man. Sure, he drinks beer, watches sports, and bets on them, but he doesn't own a gun and he's not that great in a fight. In fact, there are a few scenes where he's scared to death. I find that wonderfully refreshing in a character. It does make him more relatable as a regular guy who gets caught up in irregular events. I don't bet on sports and I typically only watch the NFL, but there are more than a few things about Andy to which I relate. Perhaps that's why I'm enjoying this series so much.

We also get more dog stuff. Author Rosenfelt and his wife rescue dogs, so it is natural for his character to do the same. In a continuation of events from past books, Andy is in partnership to create a kennel. He's a dog lover and with his substantial inheritance, he wants to give dogs good homes and places to live in the meantime. It's a great character trait and one clearly used to sell the series. Want proof? Check out the covers.

Five of the first six book covers are your standard-type mystery cover you see on a dozen other books. Book five, Play Dead, features a dog. Then, starting with book seven, New Tricks, there are dogs on every cover. It works. In fact, it helped sell me my first Andy Carpenter novel, Dachshund in the Snow back in December.

I'm listening to this series so I have to again give a shout out to Grover Gardner. He voices Andy's first person narration with a wry tone in his voice. I've listened to many other Gardner-narrated stories, but he has fast become "Andy Carpenter" to me.

If you want a good mystery series with honest and real characters and a lead who is not a superman, then the Andy Carpenter series is right up your alley. 

Other books in the series:

Open and Shut

First Degree

Monday, March 22, 2021

The First Taste of a New Series is Delightful: Murder at the Beacon Bakeshop by Darci Hannah

As an outsider looking in, there appeared to be certain cliches associated with cozy mysteries. Up until now, just a few books into what I'm calling Cozy College, I had not encountered any of those cliches. Well, with Murder at the Beacon Bakeshop by Darci Hannah, they are all mostly here, and it started with the book description.

"After catching her celebrity chef fiancé sizzling in the arms of another woman, Lindsey Bakewell left big city Wall Street for small town Beacon Harbor, Michigan, to pursue her own passion as a pastry baker--and gets mixed up in someone's sweet taste of revenge."

The rest of the description is just as puntastic as that opener and it truly sets the stage for what I consider my first traditional cozy mystery. Even John McDougall, the curator of Murder by the Book's Cozy Corner subscription service--in which you get a new cozy mystery per month--comments on the cliches in his write-up. And I'll be honest: before enrolling in Cozy College, I would have rarely picked up this book and, if I had, the description would have made me roll my eyes. Now, however, It made me chuckle and I happily dove into the book.

Lindsey is a pretty fun narrator. She tells the story in first person so you get to hear her inner thoughts as she meets all the characters in Beacon Harbor. She buys an old lighthouse and she and her dog, Wellington, move in and set up shop. Her neighbor is Rory Campbell, a local hunk, ex-military, who is writing a book. The pair meet when Wellington takes a bite out of Rory's caught fish. Sparks ignite and the romantic sub-plot ensues. Betty Vanhoosen is the local realtor who sold the lighthouse to Lindsey yet neglected to mention a certain ghost that may or may not be haunting the lighthouse. Kennedy Kapoor is Lindsey's best friend. Kennedy is an uppity fashion and food blogger with her own podcast who stands out in small town Michigan just like Lindsey did when she moved there. Not only does Kennedy have Lindsey's back, but she also is at odds with Sir Hancelot, her pet name for Rory.

Something struck me as I was reading the chapters in the first section of the book: wasn't this supposed to be a murder mystery? I got lost in all the ins and outs of setting up the bakery and meeting the characters that I actually forgot. Finally, when the death occurs--it's her ex-fiance's new girlfriend who arrived in town to disrupt the bakeshop's opening day--it came out of the blue. (Yes, it's on the back cover description, but I hadn't read it since I started the book. One of my little quirks in reading a story is not to go back to the description time and again while I'm reading the actual book. It helps me with the verisimilitude.) But the dead woman is an outsider. If this book follows the true traditional mystery pattern, there will be more bodies.

And there are.

I read and watch so many mysteries with professional detectives that I'd forgotten what it was like to have an amateur sleuth be the lead. Absent is Lindsey with a badge, but present is Lindsey with intuition and a nose for asking the right questions. In fact, there is a little taste from the Sherlock Holmes stories here, with a police force slightly behind our lead character. It added a bit of spice to the mix and I enjoyed it.

The resolution I found nicely surprising and satisfying. Perhaps I wasn't reading closely, but it came out of the blue for me. Other readers might pick up on clues better than I did. What I also appreciated was the supporting cast. Another assumption I made about cozies was that they were populated by over-the-top, eccentric characters. In Hannah's book, I didn't find that. Sure there were some character tropes in play--especially with British-accented Kennedy and snobby Betty in the audio version* narrated by Amy Melissa Bentley--but all the folks in this story came across as real people. It was refreshing and fun.

The best thing about the Cozy Corner subscription service via Murder by the Book** is that you don't know what book you're receiving. It's like a birthday present each month. Murder at the Beacon Bakeshop was the February 2021 selection. As I mentioned before, it was a book with a style and a tone I likely would have just passed over earlier in my reading life. Now that I've read it, I happily look forward to the next book in charming series.


*Interestingly, the audio version has a different image for its cover.

 

**I highly recommend the Cozy Corner subscription service. It's only $99 (slightly more if you want to have the books shipped to you). There are two other subscription options available. Check the website for details.


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@Barrie Summy

Saturday, March 20, 2021

How Long Until the Murder?

It's funny how various things show up at around the same time.

I'm reading the February book from Murder by the Book's Cozy Corner, MURDER AT THE BEACON BAKESHOP by Darci Hannah. It is the kind of book I expected when I thought of cozy mysteries: a woman discovers her cheating fiancee, leaves her cushy New York financial job, moves to Michigan, buys a lighthouse, and opens a bakery in a small town. 

The story is good and there is a lot of talk about the buying of things needed for the bakeshop, the meeting of the side characters, the preparing for opening day, and things like that. But there was a thought in the back of my mind: this is a mystery, right? Isn't there supposed to be a murder?

There is, of course, and it came more or less around the two-hour mark (I also checked out the audiobook from the library and listen to it when I'm doing home things and return to the physical book at night). I remember frowning. The murder didn't take place until the one-quarter mark? That's interesting, especially in light of the seeming penchant for modern novels to kill off a character really quickly, usually in chapter one.

Compare that with your average Perry Mason TV episode. After I read a great article about the joy of Perry Mason, I ended up watching a few. Instead of laboriously reading all the descriptions over the nine seasons and the twenty-five plus episodes per season, I let the random number generator help me. It spit out a random number between one and nine to get the season, and then another random number between one and thirty to get the episode number. And I didn't even read the description. I just let the chosen episode play.

I watched three Perry Mason episodes this past week, all from the latter part of the series. In each, Perry barely, if at all, showed up in the beginning. Instead, we get what amounts to a twenty-minute build-up to the murder with all of the new characters. Only after the murder occurred does Perry swoop in and defend the accused. Heck, these episodes don't even bother with the hiring process. It's just a fade-in to the courtroom. 

So, by reading this one book and watching a trio of Perry Mason episodes, I discovered something new to me: the murder doesn't have to occur on page/chapter one. It's perfectly acceptable to introduce the characters and show their interactions before things get dire. In fact, in some styles of books, it might even be preferred.

All of this played into my current manuscript. I reached a natural stopping point and I printed it out. I gave it to a pair of early readers and asked them to read strictly for flow. It seemed like the story was flowing well, but the exciting parts, while the legwork was being built, were still a little bit in the future. Did the slow build work?

One of the early readers came back with a question: where was the next chapter? "Not written yet," was my reply. Well, get to it then was her last remark. She enjoyed the story so far and she understood the flow. We talked over my outline and I realized many of the next few scenes really didn't have to occur on screen. My main character--and reader--can experience those scenes from afar.

It was a huge boost of confidence for the manuscript and a coincidental bit of learning from Perry Mason and Darci Hannah. A new wrinkle in my ongoing and neverending writer's education. 

What about y'all? Do you hold off killing off characters until deeper into the book or do you have them early in the book?

Saturday, March 13, 2021

Do We Have Too Much Stuff?

Note: this post uses television as an example, but the same could be said of books, movies, comics, and music.

Most Saturday mornings, I go back in time.

Saturday is the day the rest of the family sleeps in. I do, too, considering my weekday mornings I wake around 5:15 am to write. But on Saturdays, I still wake up at the latest by 7:30. The house is quiet, the coffee's made, and the dogs are fed. I run over to my favorite do-nut shop, Shipley's, a Houston institution I've known all my life, pick up a plain glaze and a cherry filled, and return home to watch Saturday morning cartoons.

Now, it's not always cartoons. I watched WandaVision on Saturday mornings. Ditto for Star Trek: Picard and The Mandalorian. Mostly it's because I have the house to myself but also it's just kind of fun to have that Saturday morning vibe like most of us did back in the day when that was the one day of the week with programming targeted directly at kids.

Another thing that's really helped this vibe is MeTV's broadcast of Saturday morning cartoons. For three hours, they show Popeye cartoons (I'm asleep for that), Tom and Jerry/MGM cartoons (I get half of that because of my wake-up time), and a Looney Tunes block. For the Looney Tunes, they even run the opener from the 1970s, a nice reminder of childhood you don't get when these shows are streamed or on DVD.

For the past few weeks, after that week's WandaVision episode, I've added in an episode from the 1977 New Adventures of Batman. This is the Filmation show featuring the return of Adam West and Burt Ward to the roles they made famous in the 1966 TV show. And yeah, this is the series with Bat-Mite. I have the entire run on DVD. 

This being the 21st Century, historical background for this show is only an Internet search away. Turns out only 16 episodes were made. They were first broadcast from 12 February to 28 May 1977. I remember being very excited about this show. I'd watch every Saturday morning with, you guessed it, Shipley's do-nuts.

The key fact of this series is the number of episodes. Sixteen. But this series ran in some combination until 1981. That's six years of reruns. Six years of wondering which episode would air and, over time, memorizing the events of each episode. Then again, when I first bought the DVD a few years ago and watched the series for the first time in thirty something years, I didn't remember much of it.

By the time Batman: The Animated Series debuted in 1992, there were a couple dozens episodes per season and, while there were some reruns, they were fewer because there were so many episodes. The likelihood of coming across any given episode was much smaller than the 1977 series. Ditto for The Simpsons, Seinfeld, and Friends (although Friends almost gets a pass on this because the show is now broadcast in reruns on multiple channels and you can ingest many more episodes on any given week).

Now our television habits have evolved to streaming services. And boy are there a lot of them. Within most streaming services are smaller niches. Just Brady Bunch or just Perry Mason or just CSI shows. For example, HBO Max has a DC Comics section where you can watch The Animated Series, Batman Beyond, and any number of DC-related films. It's an embarrassment of riches considering that which we had back in the day. In fact, you could mainline any one of these series and watch little else.

But there is so much stuff to watch.

We are not constrained by the sixteen episodes the network broadcast over and over again. If we wanted to watch Batman on TV back then, your options were few. If you want to watch Batman on TV in 2021, you could fill up a few weeks in a row you could fill up watching only Batman. Or Marvel. Or any number of the things we dreamed about when we were kids.

We live in a Golden Age of Television. The content we have is so broad, rich, and with depth. But there is a lot of it. A lot. It's difficult to keep up. I might even go so far as to say almost impossible given how we live our lives nowadays: work, school, family obligations, and everything else. If you're like me and you chat about TV with friends and family, how many times do you arrive at a show you both have watched?

Now, you might think that I'm just a Gen Xer complaining about modern life. I'm not. I'm happy to have all the choices available to us. It's fantastic and there's always something to watch.

But how many of us dig deep into a series like we used to?

Yes, there are some like WandaVision or The Mandalorian or Sherlock or Game of Thrones which get the deep dive. There's probably more I don't watch that have devoted fans that pore over every detail of a show. But I think the casual awareness of shows has dwindled with the rise of cable TV and streaming. With so many choices begging for our attention comes a dilution of common content. Back the day, we all were more or less aware of the exploits of Happy Days, The Simpson, Friends, Grey's Anatomy, Modern Family, and CSI. Now? Not so much, especially if the hot show is on a streaming service you don't buy.

Or maybe all of this is on me. Maybe I'm the oddball now. Maybe I'm the guy who doesn't watch and re-watch the same content all the time because there's always something more to watch. Maybe I've become my parents.

Do you reach an age in which the obsession over a property just wanes or never materializes like it used to? Perhaps, but I think it also boils down to time.

When we were kids, there was loads of time to fill and not a lot of content with which to fill it. Now, kids probably have a similar amount of time to kill but so many more choices. As for us adults, our time has now dwindled to the point where, for me, I'm down to an hour of non-news TV a day on weekdays. And when all my favorite shows are an hour--New Amsterdam, Resident Alien, Prodigal Son, Clarice, Superman and Lois--I'm down to a show a night. So when I'm actually consuming only one show a night, it's difficult to find the time to re-watch a show. Thus, I find myself in a steady stream of one-time viewings. Hard to remember lots of details that way.

I guess that's the main problem. I just don't have the time.

Unless I had a time machine.

Monday, March 8, 2021

The Dog Takes a Turn on Stage in First Degree by David Rosenfelt

Flush with a twenty-two million dollar inheritance, attorney Andy Carpenter seemingly has it made. Well, except for suffering from what he calls "lawyer's block," an affliction in which he's taken zero clients in the time since he inherited the money from his deceased father and won the big Willie Miller case in which he got an innocent man off death row. He's not necessarily upset about it, but he knows he has to get back in the courtroom soon. With his divorce final, he is now openly in a relationship with the love of his life, Laurie Collins, who happens also to be his one and only investigator. And he's got the love and adoration of Tara, his golden retriever. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, this being First Degree, the second novel in the Andy Carpenter series, plenty. A body is discovered, burned and decapitated. When the identification is made, it's linked to Laurie from her time on the local New Jersey police force. It also connected to the strange man who shows up at Andy's office, gets the protection of lawyer/client privilege, and promptly confesses to the murder. Andy's in a quandary.

Ethically, he can't break the bond he has with the mystery man, so he takes up the case for the man arrested for the murder. Even though that man is innocent--and has history with Laurie from when she was a cop which complicates things--Andy is struggling to find a way to represent him when news arrives that makes Andy's case much easier: the man was released from prison. Naturally Andy asks why. The lawyer from the DA's office is only too happy to comply: it's because Laurie herself has been arrested and charged with murder.

First Degree is my third Andy Carpenter novel since I discovered him back in December 2020 (see my review for Open and Shut) and a nice, comfortable pattern has emerged. Andy gets a case that looks hopeless and he has to figure it out to save his client. It's the stuff of novels from as far back and the pulp days of Erle Stanley Gardner's Perry Mason to the recent novels of Michael Connelly and John Grisham. Granted, having read the 20th book in the series first, I knew the ending of the second book before it even started. Then again, I think pretty much everybody can guess the ending of this book, but it's how Rosenfelt takes Andy through the case that is so darn entertaining. And Tara gets a lot more screen time in this one.

Rosenfelt's novel is part of my 2021 education into traditional and cozy mysteries. It's a genre I'm barely familiar with but one I want to read more of. While some might categorize Rosenfelt's books as cozy, I prefer to think of it as traditional. Not sure there's a distinction, but I think there is. When I see dogs on the cover and cutesy titles with puns (not one here but they show up soon in the series), I expect canine intervention at the most crucial time possible. We actually get one scene of that in this book, so Tara has her moment on stage.

But this is still not the kind of book I expected. Hold on: let me rephrase. It's not the kind of book I expected when I thought of cozy mysteries before 2021. Now that I've read three of these charming novels featuring Andy Carpenter, I know what to expect: the kind of story you might find on network television.  No on-screen violence, barely a swear word, and the hero solving the crime without resorting to violence and borderline legal territory. At this time in my life, it is exactly what I want to read.

Narrator Grover Gardner is rapidly growing on me with this series. I'm used to him reading history books, one of my favorites of his being Master of the Senate by Robert Caro. That book was over 56 hours and Gardner's voice was the calm guide through the entire thing. Here, Gardner gets to expand his vocal reptertoire, and it's great. Even when I read the books, I heard Gardner's voice as Andy Carpenter.

Astute readers might recognize that my review of Open and Shut was published two weeks ago today. I haven't read multiple books by a single author this quick in a long time. I have Reading ADHD where I can sometimes get distracted by other books very easily. It's why my To Be Read stack is so high. I can't say that I'll keep up this reading pace of an Andy Carpenter story every two weeks because there are other books I want to read. But I can say that I've already downloaded the third book in the series, Bury the Lead, from the library via the incredibly awesome Libby app. ;-)

Saturday, March 6, 2021

Ever Have One of Those Chapters?

We writers know all about the vicissitudes of writing prose, the good, the bad, the frustrating, and the glorious. Most of us know that for every valley in which we find ourselves mired in will soon vanish when we reach the mountaintop of “The End.”

There are, however, little victories along the way, and I experienced one this week. See if this rings true for you.

My current work in progress has been gestating on and off for about eight years. I completed Version 1.0 back in 2013 but stuck it in a drawer. I picked it up again a few years ago, but it still wasn’t gelling. Last fall, I picked up that 2013 printout, re-read it with a yellow notepad right next to me. Then, I completely revised the outline, exporting it onto 3x5 index cards that now live on the cork board in my writing room.

Those notecards carry the plot. They don’t always carry characterization. That’s for the writer, his fingers, and his imagination.

I’m something like 30,000+ into this story. I’m enjoying it, layering in the various threads for my awesome conclusion. And I’ve got a main character I really enjoy. She’s a woman of a certain age. One of her funny lines goes something like this. “You’re never supposed to ask a woman about her age. And there’s also a certain age when you’re not even supposed to guess.” 

I know her backstory and what makes her tick, but I reached a particular chapter in this book that ended up taking me the bulk of the week to complete. Why? Well, I ended up fighting with how the chapter was flowing versus the text I had written on the index card. I kept trying to steer the chapter toward what I had written on a 3x5 card last fall when I didn’t have the broader understanding of character in place. I kept hitting a wall, no matter what I did.

Finally, I relented. I stopped reading the card and just re-read the first half of the chapter. Then, picking up steam by the words I had written, I just let the two characters talk to each other.

Guess what? My lead became even more alive than before. So did the other character. They both were on a date, just talking to each other, in that typical getting-to-know-you vibe of all first dates. 

For me, my fictional protagonist became a real human this week. And boy am I excited to continue on with the story.

Y’all have chapters like that?

Saturday, February 27, 2021

What is the Tapestry of Books?

It took only fifty years but I finally listened to Carole King’s Tapestry.

If you read about my regulated reading a few weeks ago, you’ll remember that I’m reading Never a Dull Moment by David Hepworth, his examination about rock music in 1971. As a fun project in 2021, I’m reading the book a chapter at a time, corresponding to a month of 1971. Thus, it’ll take me all year to read this book. Shrug. It’s fun.

Anyway, by reading Hepworth’s book, I have discovered Carole King’s 1971 album, Tapestry. It turns fifty this month, so it’s been fun to read all the retrospectives written about a new-to-me album. By the way, I ended up buying it last weekend after listening to it on YouTube for weeks.

One of those essays is by Bob Lefsetz, the man behind The Lefsetz Letter. He, too, is a new discovery from a few months back. I’ve quite enjoyed his deep dives in music and other things.  

Lefsetz starts his post about Tapestry with this observation:

"It was an album for everybody.

That doesn’t happen too often, but when it does, the music business takes a giant leap forward, everybody pays attention, everybody listens, music is talked about, it drives the culture.

Last example? Adele. Her album “21” sold ten times, literally TEN TIMES as much as everything else in the marketplace. It worked for hipsters and as well as casual listeners. It was an alchemy of songs and singing, of passion and precision. “21” was a statement by an artist, not just product to support a system.

Same deal with the Beatles. At first it was a teen phenomenon. Then came “Michelle” and “Yesterday.” No one could deny them as songs.”

Lefsetz goes on to describe the phenomenon of an album for everybody. It is the album owned by the casual listeners, the hipsters, the soccer moms, the dads, the teenagers, the middle-aged, and so on.

After I finished reading Lefsetz’s piece—while listening to Tapestry for the I-don’t-know-how-many-th time, my thoughts turned to books.

What is the Tapestry of Books?


What is the book or books everybody owns? We can leave aside the question of whether or not the books are actually read. What is the book read by casual readers, soccer moms, dads, teenagers, the middle-aged, and so on?

Almost a decade ago, I wrote a short post about going to estate sales and seeing the novels of Louis L’amour on the bookshelves. But I specifically pointed out that those books were on the shelves of proto-man caves. If we were only talking about men’s novels, I’d suggest Clive Cussler or Lee Child or Michael Connolly.

But I’m going broader. I would think few teenagers or soccer moms might read the exploits of Jack Reacher. What are the books that appeal to a broad reading audience?

The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown instantly jumps to mind. It was everywhere in 2003 and it seemed like everyone had read it. I think James Patterson books land in quite a few home libraries, but I cannot think of a single volume of his that fits this criteria. Stephen King is another author who probably has at least one book in many, many homes, but what’s that one book? Nora Roberts is very popular, but I can’t think many guys read her books.

Another candidate is John Grisham’s The Firm. Maybe To Kill a Mockingbird?

So I’m throwing out the question to everyone. What books are for everyone? What book is like Tapestry?

Oh, and yeah, I listened to Tapestry while writing this piece. Man, is that a great album. How in the world did I never hear it until February 2021?