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?

Monday, February 22, 2021

An Wry Narrator Begins a New Series in Open and Shut by David Rosenfelt

Back in the Christmas season of 2020, infused with a desire to read a Christmas mystery, I went to Houston's Murder by the Book and picked up Dachshund in the Snow by David Rosenfelt. I knew nothing about the author or the book's main character. It is the twentieth (out of twenty-one) novels featuring lawyer and dog lover Andy Carpenter. It is a fun book with good legal twists. I've long ago given up the compelling urge that, when I discover a new-to-me series, I start at the beginning. I read the book that captured my attention and, if I like, I'll read more. Having enjoyed the Christmas book, I was curious how the series began so I read the first installment, Open and Shut.

Andy Carpenter is a New Jersey defense attorney, separated from his wife, Nicole, but romantically involved with his lead investigator and former cop, Laurie. Andy's got an ascerbic style that reminds me of older pulp characters like Donald Lam or Archie Goodwin. He's snarky and funny, often leaving the things he wants to say in little asides while his mouth utters the proper thing. His dad is around, too, and they enjoy going to baseball games. The elder Carpenter, a former prosecutor, urges his son to take up the case of Willie Miller, a man on death row. The odd thing is that the former DA put Willie away.

No sooner does Andy accept his father's request than the old man dies, right there in Yankee Stadium. Andy is heartbroken, of course, but he's still got a case to prepare for and a client to represent. Complicating everything is a pair of things he inherited from his dad. One is a photograph with his father and three other men. Who are they and why was his dad with them? The other is the twenty-two million dollars his dad uttered not a word about but is now Andy's.

The narrative weaves in and out of the courtroom as Andy and his team try to uncover anything that will exonerate Willie while also trying to learn the identity of the men in the photo and the circumstances surrounding it. Something is there for no sooner does Andy start making progress with his case than bad things start to happen, including the return of his estranged wife and a certain ski-masked wearing bad guy who give Andy the business. 

As a dog lover, I have to admit that I wondered if his pooch was going to be threatened or play a role in solving the crime. It's kinda how the book comes across. Happily, Tara, his golden retriever, survived the novel without incident. That might be considered a spoiler, but if you're like me, if bad things happen to a dog in a TV show, movie, or book, it really bothers me. Surprisingly, Tara didn't sniff out the culprit or find the missing clue. 

Andy is a pleasant character that I thoroughly enjoyed. In this, my second Andy Carpenter novel, I know what to expect. Even though I read this one--I listened to the Dachshund in the Snow audiobook--the voice of narrator Grover Gardner was the voice I heard in my head. Rosenfelt writes these books in present tense but still first person which gives the story more urgency. It's not like these events had already occurred. It's like you were Andy himself. 

This book is special for me. During the recent winter storm of February 2021 here in Houston, Open and Shut is the novel I read while the power was out for 58 hours. It got me through and I enjoyed reading about characters who existed in a warmer season. 

My wife is a voracious reader. When she discovers a new-to-her author, she will devour all the books in that series until she has read all the books. My ADHD reading style usually prevents me from doing that, but I happily look forward to reading more installments of the Andy Carpenter series. 

Saturday, February 20, 2021

The Great Texas Freeze-Out of 2021

Well, that was something.

As a native Houstonian, I used to look north at winter with a sense of missing out. Look, they had snow. That all changed when I spent a semester in grad school back in 1996 in Kent State University in northeast Ohio. I got a taste of winter and a new understanding came over me: I was not, in fact, missing out on anything. Don't get me wrong: snow for skiing is still awesome. But I was done with cold weather, and I vowed, as I crossed back into Texas that summer never to complain about the heat again. 

And I haven't. Partway through this week, I told my son I can't wait for August in Texas. 

Winters here in Houston are relatively mild most of the time. I kept my Ohio winter jacket but rarely need it. A few years ago, we literally got winter for a weekend. A big cold snap that killed plants but we were back to our normal Houston winter the following week. No problem.

But this week was a problem. For me and my family and millions of others. 

This past weekend was normal. My wife and I watched some television on Sunday night before she retired to bed. My son returned from his job and ventured into his room to watch some anime and YouTube. I had Presidents' Day off so I stayed up later than usual. I channel surfed before falling asleep on the couch, a rarity for me. So tired was I that not only did I fall asleep in my clothes but I didn't plug in my iPhone.

Two hours after midnight on Monday morning, the sleet arrived and the power blipped out. As a resident of the fourth largest city in the country, when our power goes out, it's usually back on in minutes or less. As a preemptive measure, I lit the gas fireplace. I didn't turn it off until Wednesday night when our power was restored. Fifty-eight hours in case you were wondering. 

Monday and Tuesday were the worst, with Monday night the coldest weather I've endured since Ohio. But at least in Ohio we had power and heaters. For two days, during the worst cold to hit the city in thirty years--some say over a century--there was no power in the house.

Our house is U-shaped. On one end was the TV room. That's where the fireplace is. It faces north which, during hurricane season (they come from the south) is a good thing. No so much for winter weather. We put sheets over the back glass door and the short front hallway. We closed the hall door to the back of the house. When we had to let our dogs out, I used the back game room as the 'airlock.' Every door in the house was opened and closed. We could literally feel the temperature drop as we went into each room. 

We stocked our essential refrigerator food into the ice chest and took it outside. Ditto for the frozen food. The irony there was that we needed simply to leave it outside. It was cold enough. We brought in the sleeping bags and the air mattress that we discovered held no air into the main room and hunkered down.

Fearing burst water pipes, we preemptively turned off the water at the house. As of yesterday morning, we still hadn't turned it back on. We wanted Friday's sun and another day's worth of home heating to warm the pipes and pray they didn't burst. For the bathroom facilities, yes, we harvested snow for the bathtub. My dad--who grew up in Tyler, Texas, and dealt with spotty electricity as something that happened frequently enough that they had lanterns around the house--reminded me of the rhyme about hygiene without water: "If it's yellow, let it mellow. If it's brown, flush it down." 

The clothes I fell asleep in back on Sunday consisted of jeans, undershirt, button down shirt, and a wool sweater. Monday morning, I added a knit sweater and a hoodie. For my head, I put on a stocking cap. In the house. Despite the gas fireplace (and gas stove), the temperature continued to drop. The lowest it got in that room, with three people, two dogs, and a cat, was 39 degrees.

With no power to charge our phones, my boy and I went out to my car, which is now the oldest of the three cars and gets to spend its time in the driveway. Lucky for us. I had filled the tank and the boy and I sat for hours, charging phones, listening to classic rock radio, and getting warm. The wife opted to stay inside with the dogs and the fireplace, layered up, and read or played Plants vs. Zombies. 

Driving around on Monday with the snow and ice on the roads, some of my old Ohio skills returned. I used it as a teaching experience. We found a Walgreens open and bought some more batteries, a trio of flashlights, and some ground coffee. I buy coffee beans and grind them myself, but without power, those beans are as good as useless.

There's something to be said for being a parent and not being able to keep your child warm. Sure, he's nineteen, but there's still that part of you that knows your child will go to bed cold and there's nothing you can do about it other than offer him more blankets. Ditto for your wife. 

With no other distractions, it is amazing how long an hour can feel. Then a day, and then another day. Cell service was spotty so we'd get our news in fits and starts. We brought in an old battery powered jam box on Tuesday evening--hard to remember where it was--and we three settled into a pleasant waiting experience. Sure, it was fifty-something in the house, but you'd be amazed how warm that felt. 

Wednesday around lunchtime as the boy and I were in line for gas the wife called. The power had blipped off/on/off and then it came on. We drove to a battery store and called my parents. They had lost power, too, but it had come back on. The boy and I feared we'd get the call from the wife that the power had gone off again, but, by the time we got home, it was still on. And it stayed on the rest of the week.

Yet we still operated like we had no power. We were asked to conserve and ratio power so we did. We finally turned off the gas fireplace to conserve natural gas for others. We only used a single lamp in the TV room and didn't turn on the TV. We still used flashlights to get around the house, including when taking the dogs out. We repeated the exercise Thursday night, but did turn on the TV for news and escape. 

Speaking of escape, I got to thank my Kindle yet again. With its light feature and a lot of time to kill, I read Open and Shut by David Rosenfelt most of the way through. 

It's Friday morning as I write this. The sun is shining and I hear the sound of a chainsaw down the street. Sure, I'm still wearing three layers in the house and the thermostat shows 63 in the house--more shared conservation--but I'm hoping today will be the first normal day since Sunday. I'm looking forward to turning the water back on. Sure, we'll have to boil our water, but we'll have running water in the house. Which means we won't have to worry about mellow yellow in the toilet. Which means a shower, a luxury we've not experienced since Sunday. Had a short laugh on Wednesday night when I finally changed out of those Sunday clothes and into fresh PJs and caught a whiff of the body odor the five layers were masking. 

There will be investigations, accusations, blame, and accountability in the months to come. Our legislature is in session this spring so I hope something will be done to ensure something as severe as the Presidents' Day Ice Storm of 2021 doesn't happen again. Well, we can't prevent Mother Nature from doing this again, but we sure as hell can prepare better. 

This was my story as my family experienced it. We're going to learn a whole lot more as we get some distance. Many of those stories will be heart-wrenching and anger inducing and deservedly so. But there will also be stories of shared sacrifice people coming to each others' aid. Let's be sure to listen to them both, commiserate with those who have suffered and celebrate with those who came through. 

My family and I came through. Ain't gonna lie: it was hard but manageable. I consider us blessed to have persevered as smoothly as we did. Other did not. Let's keep them in our prayers and figure out ways to help them now and prepare us all for the next time. Because if we're talking Mother Nature, there will be a next time.

It also made us very aware of just how much electricity we use. As the boy and I drove around the west side of town on Thursday night, much of the power was back on. Office buildings and parking garages were lit up with abandon. So were various commercial places. It was a lot of power at a time we are supposed to conserve. We can't do much about those places, but already we are ensuring all lights and nonessential appliances in our house are turned off. It's a lesson we've certainly learned and will carry forward, thankful for what we have.

But I also want to leave you with this wonderful story: the family who welcomed their newborn son into the world while stuck at home without power or water. Wow.

Update: The pipes held although the water flow in a couple of the sinks have low flow. We think it is the rust of the pipes that have settled and now is clogging those little filters at the faucet. We'll have to fix that this weekend.

Update 2: As of Friday evening, the house was more or less back to normal. We still have pots in the kitchen full of clean, pre-storm water to drink. But it's a little surreal to walk through the house again, the sheets having been taken down and the sleeping bags back in the garage. It's good to be back to normal. May it last a long, long time. 

Saturday, February 13, 2021

Enrolling in Cozy College

I’m going to school again, and I couldn’t be more excited. I call it Cozy College, a year-long look into cozy and traditional mysteries. And I even have a professor.

My Preconceptions

Even though I spent my youth reading novels featuring The Three Investigators and the Hardy Boys, I didn’t truly become introduced to mystery and crime fiction as an adult until 2001 when I read Mystic River by Dennis Lehane. I liked the harder-edged material and started to amass a list of like authors. Couple this reading with my discovery of pulp novels and authors of the past and I was firmly in the realm of the hard stuff.

When it came to traditional mysteries—the kind whose Golden Age was between the world wars, usually featuring a quirky detective with violence largely off-screen—I just never got into them. Throw in cozy mysteries with their cutesy titles and eccentric hooks and I dismissed them out of hand.

But something changed over the past few years and it all started with television. Masterpiece Mysteries and online streaming services showcase fantastic programs from around the world and many of them, while not cozy, are certainly firmly ensconced in the traditional mystery field. I’m thinking Unforgotten, Broadchurch, The Killing, Hinterland, Elementary, and, most recently, Knives Out and Before We Die. What they showed me was there didn’t have to be a lot of violence, blood, and language to create some rich characters and stories.

These shows were traditional mysteries, but not cozies, so something else needed to be added to the mix.

The other thing that helped change my mind also involved television. It begins with the word “Hall” and ends with the word “Mark.” Yes, I’m talking Hallmark, specifically Hallmark Christmas movies. In past years, I’d kinda sorta check the Hallmark Channel’s Christmas lineup and watch barely a handful, many of them unmemorable. In 2020, I went the opposite direction. I actively sought out and watched as many of them as I could. I would earmark certain movies and make sure to watch them or tape them. I’d set the VCR (yeah, really) to record the ones I wanted to finished if I had to go to bed on work nights. I started to recognize the actors, where they showed up in other movies, and basically had a field day in the coziness of a Hallmark Christmas.

That’s when I basically looked over at the mystery genre again with a decidedly open mind about cozy mysteries. Maybe they weren’t all that I thought they were.

The First Step

In December, seeking to merge my love of Christmas, Hallmark, and mysteries together, I went over to Houston’s Murder by the Book bookstore and picked up a couple of cozy Christmas mysteries. I finished one during the season, Dachshund in the Snow by David Rosenfelt. With a title like that, my preconceived ideas were all cutesy things where the titular hound solves the case. I was prepared for saccharine.

Didn’t get it.


I got a darn good book with a good mystery and a likeable narrator who is a chip off the block of past detectives like Donald Lam and Archie Goodwin. The novel was traditional but not necessarily cozy. Nonetheless, I was definitely intrigued, so much so that I went to my Libby app (for public libraries) and downloaded another audiobook in the series. And I decided to spend 2021 reading a lot more traditional and cozy mysteries. But I would need a guide to help chart my course.

Tthat’s when I got the email.

Murder by the Box’s Subscription Service

Just in time for Christmas, the owner of the bookstore, McKenna Jordan, sent an email describing the new Murder by the Box subscription service. In either 3-month or 12-month choices, readers can choose one of three themes and receive books. There is Best of the Month (a new hardcover), Crime Fiction Legends (two trade paperbacks) and—yes, I literally scanned the email quickly to make sure it would be a choice—Cozy Corner.

Bingo!

I was set. One mass market paperback in the cozy/traditional genre per month. I eagerly signed up in December—it was my Christmas gift to myself—and waited for January.

The book was brand-new: Bait and Witch by Angela M. Sanders. With the book came a postcard with a welcome message, the reason the book was selected, and immediate recommendations for similarly themed stories. Like Rosenfelt’s book, Batch and Witch was a good mystery but definitely more on the cozier side. I enjoyed it and am definitely looking forward to each month’s selections.

Maybe all those preconceived ideas I had about cozy mysteries were wrong from the jump. I hope this reading list of 2021—and the jumping off points—prove me wrong. It’s already started.

The Professor Is In

But what makes the Cozy Corner special is the person selecting the books, the Professor at Cozy College. John McDougall is the Event Coordinator at Murder by the Book. If you’ve seen the many author talks via the store’s YouTube channel since 2020, you’ll recognize him. He is the resident cozy expert. I reached out to John this week to ask him a few questions, including how this subscription idea came about and what drew him to cozies.

“A few years ago when Helen Ellis (author of American Housewife) signed at the store, she said she wished I could send her a cozy every month, and that's what unofficially started it. As subscription boxes became more popular, McKenna started playing with the idea of starting one for the store, but we never got all the logistics nailed down. In one of those weird coincidences, I mentioned to McKenna that I wanted to start something more official for the Cozy of the Month and she told me that she had also been thinking about wanting to start a subscription service. We were both really excited to get the program started for the holidays and offer the three different options.”

The genesis of his love for cozies stemmed from him reading Posted to Death by Dean James. “At that point I was just a customer at the store and David [Thompson] gave me a copy because he knew I liked other paranormal mysteries. After that I devoured the Ghost Hunter books by Victoria Laurie and I was hooked.”

“The thing that draws me to cozies is the character development. Cozy authors have to quickly create a main character you'll fall in love with, and a community that you'll want to return to over and again. But there's also depth there that people might not expect based on the covers or by calling them cozies. A prominent trope in the cozy genre is the main character going through a bad breakup or divorce and returning to her hometown to start over. A lot of times, that breakup is the thing that allows her to follow her dream, and the dream is usually starting her own business and rebuilding her life on her own terms. The genre has a lot of heart to it, in addition to some really stellar plots.”

In light of the chain of events and mindset shifts I had experienced, John’s words in this last paragraph really hit home for me. Here I was, having a predefined idea of what a cozy was, and basically, I was wrong. And the two books I’ve read so far have proven John’s point. I have already returned to the Andy Carpenter series and the second book in the Witch Way Librarian series will be published in September.

I haven’t been this excited about “reading assignments” in a long time. I am eager to learn more about the cozy genre, and I’m happy to have Professor John McDougall as a guide.

And it’s not too late to join Cozy College for 2021. The February book hasn’t been released yet. If you subscribe now, you’d have to buy Bait and Witch on your own, but you’d get every book from here on out on your 3- or 12-month subscription. If you’re in Houston, a full year is only $99. For twelve books! It’s only $135 if you're out of town and need the books shipped to you. The other themes have different prices, so I encourage you to head over to their website and have a look for yourself. 

You never know. Maybe one of your preconceived notions will disappear just like mine did.

Saturday, February 6, 2021

The Joy of Unexpected Discovery

Y’all are going to laugh at the irony of this post.

How often do you discover something (or experience something) completely on your own?

It’s happened to my three times in the past week or so. The first was the latest book in my science fiction book club. It’s called Space Team (my review). I make it a personal policy for books my club members select that, if I don’t know the book or author, I read no reviews. I just read/listen to the book and let the story wash over me how the author wrote it. Sometimes it doesn’t work out. Other times, like with Space Team, it is fantastic.

And it all came without any preconceived notion.

The next two are music related. Like I wrote last week, I’m reading Never a Dull Moment: 1971 The Year Rock Exploded. I’m onto the February 1971 chapter and the first third of it was about Carole King’s Tapestry album. Carole King, I thought. I think I know who that is. The one King song on the author David Hepworth’s February 1971 playlist was “It’s Too Late.” I listened and instantly recognized the tune. Curious, I went out to YouTube, located King’s official site, and queued up Tapestry.

Holy. Cow. That was a remarkable album. Even though it was a fifty-year-old piece of music, it was brand new to me. Before listening, I didn’t go to allmusic.com or any other site. I just pushed play. I listened to it twice on Monday and every day since. I’m going to have to buy a copy now, maybe even on vinyl. 

The last was just yesterday. The new Foo Fighters album, Medicine at Midnight, was released. I’m a casual Foo fan, a greatest hits guy who owns none of the albums (although my wife does so, I guess, I actually do own some). The lead single, “Shame Shame” was good, but, for whatever reason, it didn’t click.

Until yesterday. 

I queued it up on YouTube and listened to the album. Three times. Having read no reviews, I didn’t know what to expect other than the style of music featured on all the other Foo songs. Boy was I surprised. Happily surprised, mind you. These songs are great and a nice departure from many of the traits associated with the Foo.

What am I getting at? How often do you open a book, push play on a record, or attend a play or movie knowing next to nothing about it? That is, how often do you experience a thing without a review ahead of time?

Look, I know what you’re thinking. Scott, you review stuff all the time. Yes, I do, and I thoroughly enjoy sharing the fun stuff I’ve discovered. It’s my hope that a few words from me might introduce to other this cool thing. And I do read reviews. But, and this is a new thing for me, if I can help it, I don’t read reviews ahead of time. I let a book cover sell me, a movie trailer convince me the film deserves my time, or that there’s a new album by a veteran act that might be the benchmark for album of 2021.

I’ll never stop reviewing things nor will I stop reading reviews (or watching Beau's). I’ve discovered plenty of awesome books, music, and movies from recommendations and reviews. It was a review, after all, that introduced me to my favorite new band, The Struts. 

But those moments when you hear or read or watch something without any preconceived ideas and the thing wows you? Those are priceless moments. 

Wednesday, February 3, 2021

Hilarity in Space: Space Team by Barry J. Hutchison

I haven't had this much fun with a book in a long time.

I've been a part of a science fiction/fantasy book club with the same group of folks for over a decade now. There are now six of us and each month, we take turns selecting a book. Some choose award-winning classics. Others choose new works by established authors. Sometimes we choose wild cards, new-to-us authors that somehow catch the selector's fancy. It was in the latter category that Space Team by Barry J. Hutchison landed on my to-be-read stack.

I didn't choose it, but I'm sure glad my friend did.

Space Team is the first of a 12-book series. If the cover doesn't give you a sense of the type of book it is, the tagline will: "The galaxy just called for help. Unfortunately, it dialed the wrong number."

Cal Carver is a motor-mouthed con man who is "accidentally" put in a prison cell with a notorious, cannibalistic serial killer named Eugene. Cal only has to spend one night in the cell before he (might?) is transferred, but he takes matters into his own hands and tries to take out Eugene. Surprisingly he manages to do just that, but then the bug things arrive and he is snatched away.

Bug things, you ask? Why yes. Little nanobots were sent by aliens with the sole purpose of enabling said aliens to abduct “the person in Eugene’s cell” and deliver him to the spaceship. The aliens kidnap the one person in the cell. That’s Cal. Why? Well, Eugene is needed for a very special mission. See where I'm going with this? Cal is mistaken for Eugene the Cannibal.

But that's not even the worst part. Once he is aboard his very first spaceship, he learns about the mission and the entities with whom he is supposed to carry out said mission. There is the blue-skinned female soldier who just follows orders and tries to fend off Cal’s advances. There is the werewolf female alien who barely keeps her temper in check while she puts the moves on Cal. There’s Mech, a cyborg who has a dial that can turn him either all logical or all berserker. And there’s Splurt, a shape-shifting alien described best as Silly Putty with eyes.

This band of misfits—aren’t all memorable teams misfits?—is given a mission to warp across the galaxy and deliver some crucial information to a notorious alien bad guy. In exchange, the misfits will earn immunity from the crimes they committed and will we handsomely rewarded.

So you have the type of story that works so well in just about any version of science fiction or fantasy: a newbie lead character who is teamed with veterans who get to explain all the new things the newbie encounters. Along the way, newbie is able to play to his strengths. In Cal’s case, that’s his quick-witted responses to all the stuff thrown in the team’s path.

There is a high level of frivolity in Hutchison’s book and he writes the characters quite well. With Cal the central character, he is played off each being on the team. His back-and-forth with Mech is hilarious, with Mech constantly wanting to throw Cal out the airlock for the Earthling’s incessant talking and adding the word “space” in front of every new thing he sees. Thus, the title of the book. Cal genuinely cares for Splurt and goes out of his way to include the oddball alien in the group.

The Audiobook is Fantastic


I’m an avid audiobook listener and get more than half the stories I consume in this manner. Narration is key. A good narrator can add that special sauce that heightens the story above where the author wrote.

That is the case here with Phil Thron. This is the first I’ve heard of him, but it won’t be the last. He nails the four main characters aurally so that you don’t need the ‘he said’ and ‘she said’ attributions. Cal is basically Phil’s voice. Mech goes back and forth depending on where his dial is. When he’s the emotionless, all-logical version, Thron uses a British accent. But normally, he’s like a gruff drill sergeant who’s had it up to here with Cal’s yammering. Lauren is a pretty good male-actor-reading-a-female part, not always easy to do. In fact, I haven’t heard it this good since Johnny Heller and Robert Petkoff each did the Nikki Heat books. For our werewolf lady, Thron puts just enough California valley girl into his voice to give that extra sous son of goodness.

The Accidental Discovery via the Audiobook


I listen to many audiobooks, so many that often, I’m down to a week to listen to the latest SF book from the club. If I find myself with too few days and too many hours in a book, I’ll up the narration speed on the Audible app. This does not make the narrator sound like a chipmunk. Rather, it has the effect of shortening the silences between words and sentences. For Space Team, I bumped up the playback speed to 1.4.

And it played perfectly with this book.

Remember how I said Cal was a motor mouth? Well, by playing Phil Thron’s narration at this speed, Cal’s mouth flies by and actually makes him come across like Nathan Fillion in Castle. Now, that TV show is one of my all-time favorites so I was in aural heaven.

I think you can figure out how much I enjoyed this book. I laughed out loud numerous time. And there’s a moment, late in the book, when Mech speaks a simple phrase and dang it if I didn’t literally cheer aloud. I was trimming and bundling hedge clippings so no family member looked at me askance.

How much did I love this book? I’ve already gone back and purchased books 2 and 3 (actually the first three books are available as a single unit on Audible).

Highly recommended.

For a list of all the other books in this month’s book club, click the icon.


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@Barrie Summy

Saturday, January 30, 2021

The Fun of Regulated Reading

Do you ever regulate your reading?

I was struggling over what term to use so let me just explain. Last year, I did a little experiment. The book of Proverbs has 31 chapters. I decided that for every month that included 31 days, I would read a chapter of Proverbs per day. To keep things interesting, I changed translations every month. Then, at the end, I was able to go back and compare notes and compare verses that I underlined. It was a pretty fun experiment and, except for the transition from July into August, I never had a back to back month.

To January 2021. As I often do, I start to cycle through all of the things that have major anniversaries. Anything with a year ending in one or six are the key ones this year. In the first week, it was the 50th anniversary of Chicago III. That got me to thinking about music and what albums we’re gonna be celebrating major milestone anniversaries. It was my son – – an avid musicologist – – who reminded me I had a book on the shelf about the year 1971 in music. Why not just read it.

The book in question is titled Never a Dull Moment: 1971 The Year Rock Exploded by David Hepworth. It came out in 2016 and I think I might’ve had it since then. Born in 1950, Hepworth came of age about the same time that rock ‘n’ roll did. Those, he was 21 years old during 1971. He has written extensively about music since the 1980s. 

What got me excited about reading this book in 2021 was a table of contents. It is broken out by month. 12 chapters, 12 months, plus an introduction.

As soon as I saw that, I had a brilliant idea: read each chapter at the beginning of each month here in 2021 and go through the year 1971 with Hepworth. I had to read chapter 1 this week, but I'll get to chapter 2  on Monday. and then continue from there. That means Led Zepplin IV is in my future. So is Sticky Finger, Nursery Crime, Hunky Dory, What's Going On, Bryter Later, and Madman Across the Water. That's just the albums I know about. I can't wait to discover new-to-me albums.

And, if chapter one is any indication, this is going to be a blast. Hepworth writes in an engaging style, but primarily he writes only from the limited perspective of that month. He tells you what Bruce Springsteen was doing, the status of the band Slade, and how Yes was reimagining how music was recorded. He even drops a cliffhanger of an ending as the chapter closed about a woman who invented the album business.

But what makes these chapters special is that Hepworth includes a short playlist of songs that were popular in that month. I already made a January 1971 playlist and dang if I haven't discovered a new-to-me band: Badfinger.

Anyway, I don't know if you read books in this regulated manner or not, but I do, and I look forward to learning about 1971 fifty years later.

Are there other books that could be read in a regulated way?

Monday, January 25, 2021

Searching for the Yellow Paper and Finding a Gold Mine

I wanted it to be like it used to be, back in the day.

If you read this blog, I wax nostalgic about a lot of things. Ever since last year's 40th anniversary of The Empire Strikes Back, I've been in a forty-years-ago vibe. Not sure why. It's likely because 1980 was one of the big transition years: graduated elementary school and started middle school. Sure, getting to high school's a big deal, but for me, this was a huge one. It was the first time I went to a new school (I attended Chambers Elementary in Alief all six years), I started learning to play the saxophone, and it was a new decade.

Part of that forty-years-ago vibe is comics, and recently, I picked up my copies of The New Teen Titans. I am enjoying them and aim to keep re-reading them, now with my adult outlook on life.

As Inauguration Day 2021 occurred this past Wednesday, another image came to mind: Inauguration Day 1981. The teachers wheeled the TV into the classroom for us all to watch the swearing in of Ronald Reagan. By the way, for those old enough, was there ever a better thing to see when you entered a classroom than a TV or a film projector? You know the answer.

It was one of the first split screens I had ever witnessed. The American hostages, imprisoned for 444 days, were released on 20 January 1981, after Reagan was sworn in. I have no memory of what I thought on that day, but everything just seemed brighter. Throw in the space shuttle Columbia's inaugural launch in April and the spring of 1981 was a pretty good season for a sixth grader.

By 1981, I had already discovered the two comic book stores here in Houston: Roy's Memory Shop and Third Planet. My family didn't go out shopping during the week too often, so Saturdays were the days that included Shipley's Do-Nuts, Saturday morning cartoons, and trips to the comic store to pick up a few issues using my allowance. Great times.

Cut to this past Saturday. After I consumed some Shipley's do-nuts and watched Saturday morning cartoons on MeTV (and Wandavision), my son and I planned on going to Half Price Books. It had been awhile and we were both looking for some new-to-us music. But I also made a little promise to myself. I would look through the comic book section and buy an old comic. It didn't matter what it was or if there was only one. It didn't matter that I could easily download old comics on my iPad. It didn't matter that I could order a collection via Amazon and have it delivered.

I wanted to buy a comic, just like the old days.

How would I know what comic to buy? Easy. Just look for the yellowed paper.

Half Price gets comics of all shapes and sizes. Some are bagged and most are modern comics, so it's pretty easy to spot the older ones. Plus, those thick annuals are even more of a treasured find. A 64-page comic for a dollar? In fact, it was one of those that first caught my eye. A Bloodlines annual from 1993. Holy cow. When did a 1990s-era comic become old enough to be yellowed?

But a few comics away in that very same row was a group of comics, all with yellowing paper. My fingers walked to that stack and revealed the title: Atari Force #2. My fingers kept walking. There was issue three, four, five. I started counting until I got to issue twenty, advertised on the cover as the final issue. I quickly went back to two and flipped the comic in front of it. Special #1.

Holy cow. This was the entire run of a comic title I remember from the 1980s but never read. Here I was awash in nostalgia for the early 80s and wanting to buy an old comic. Why not twenty?

Sold.

As it turned out, Special #1 was not, in fact, the first issue. It was an issue released a year after the run ended. But my son--not a comic book collector at all--had actually picked up a few Atari Force comics at a Free Comic Book Day a year or two ago. Viola! He had issue #1.

Serendipity. 


Atari Force was originally a 5-issue series created by Gerry Conway, Roy Thomas, and Jose Garcia Lopez to accompany sales of Atari video game cartridges in 1982. This run started in October 1983 (cover date January 1984) and ran for twenty issues.

Just like the old day, I laid on the floor and read issues one and two and am already digging it. Where the letters column would have been was a short essay by editor Andy Helfer, bringing readers up-to-speed on what Atari Force was and is. Issue two has an origin story of the series penned by Conway along with Fact Files that focuses on the main characters, including major events in their lives. Fun to see some of those dates is still in our future here in 2021 while others are already in our past.

I'll write about the series when I finish, but one thing literally jumped off the page: Lopez's layouts. They are not always your standard number of squares on a page with white borders. He clearly had fun playing with borders and colors and styles and it's a joy to read.

What's also fun are the ads. From spaceship models based on Return of the Jedi and action figures based on DC properties like Warlord and Sgt. Rock (sold at Kmart) to Superman peanut butter and the NBC Saturday morning cartoon lineup (The Flintstone Funnies with Fred and Barney dressed as cops?), I enjoyed remembering those old days, even if for only a few minutes.

Saturday, January 23, 2021

A Different Kind of Writing Block

How often do you restart a novel you’ve set aside?

I am an obsessive saver of things when it comes to my writing. I’ve got paper and digital notes all over the place. Most of the time, I date them so that I can have a record of a novel’s progress. Perhaps it’s the historian in me who wants to catalog every step of a process.

I keep abandoned drafts as well, again, both in paper and digital. Sometimes, I return to these fragments and pick them up to see if I can use them. For the ones that get a second life, there’s generally two philosophies on new usage: edit what you wrote or write the entire thing from scratch.

It’s a safe assumption that however long the document has remained unused, you’ve become a better writer. There have been times in which I’ve returned to a piece, read it, and was shocked that my Younger Self thought it was good. Other times I’ve re-read something and nodded my head having been reminded I can string some words together in a nice manner.

I’ve been thinking about this most of this month as my first writing project in 2021 is to restart a novel I’ve set aside more than once. Back in 2013, I wrote the entire novel that summer. It was a bloated affair, but it was complete. In fact, it was the second manuscript I ever completed, but it needed work.

In the past few years, I picked it up and created a 2.0 version but it didn’t pan out either. I had an amalgamated 3.0 version consisting of about 23,000a words and that was what I started with on New Year’s Day 2021. I nipped and tucked, tweaked and expanded the story until I reached about the 19,000-word mark. That’s when things went off the rails.

What the heck had I written? Seriously, Scott, you call that good?

No, it wasn’t. It needed some serious work.

That work was not easy. I had the actual prose printed out in front of me. I had the revised story structure via notecards next to me as well. How to reconcile?

My 5am writing sessions are limited to about 60-70 minutes. I have a hard stop where I put aside the fiction writing in favor of getting ready for the day job. I also don’t return to the fiction until the next day’s 5am writing session.

This particular section tasked me for about four days. Originally, I tried to simply read and edit and add in new words in and around the old words, but that proved too slow. My 2021 brain and writing chops would start going off on tangents I didn’t expect.

That was when I realized the 2021 Writing Brain was taking over. And I let it.

In the end, I ended up rewriting most of the chapter from scratch. It is a much better chapter than before and I’m pretty jazzed about it.

This particular section was a hurdle for me. I kept banging my head on it and it wasn’t until I allowed the skill and experience I acquired in the years since I first wrote the original prose to take over that the hurdle was surpassed.

It was a wonderful relief.

Do you have experiences like this? Do you give way when your more experienced self intuitively knows what to do to fix and old piece you wrote?

Saturday, January 16, 2021

Do you have a writer’s haven? (Plus the math of the business)

I’m an optimist by nature and nurture so I always see the bright side of things. The glass is half full kinda guy. But there’s a lot of sucky stuff going on right now in the world. I see it on my Facebook and Twitter feeds. I read about it on the internet. It dominates the nightly news and the late talk shows. It rears its head at the dinner table and on phone conversations with family and friends. It is everywhere.

Except when I write.

When it’s just me, the keyboard, and my imagination, the world is a thousand miles away. I don’t let anything interfere with my writing time. I keep the world out.

Now, the “when” plays a huge role. I’m a 5am Writer, at least on the weekdays. Weekends involve some sleeping in, but I’m still a morning writer. Fundamental to my writing schedule is a simple directive: don’t let the outside world in—in any capacity—until after I’ve done my writing. The only thing open is my imagination. There will be time enough for all the other stuff later in the day.

On most mornings, I have about an hour where I do nothing but write. That’s 60 minutes. However many minutes you have, be sure to make them count.

Speaking of count, here’s the math part of the post.

This week on Twitter [Sounds like a segment on the local news, huh?], I replied to a question” What do you say to the writer who says “I don’t have time to write.”

My answer is simple: Do you have a spare 15 minutes in a day?

If so, you could write 250-500 words a day, 1,750-3,500 a week, 7,500-15,000 a month, and 91,250-182,500 a year. That’s more than enough to write more than one novel and many short stories. Everyone has a spare 15 minutes. Just choose to write.

And keep the world at bay.

Thursday, December 31, 2020

Nick and Nora Go Out on a High Note in Song of the Thin Man

You know this movie might be different when Asta wasn't called out in the opening credits. Turns out, it was a return to form.

The film opens on the S.S. Fortune at a charity gala where a big band orchestra with a singer in entertaining the crowd. A couple of former hoods gives some running commentary, especially about the dames, and we get our introduction to Nick and Nora Charles in 1947. Nick gets the first line: "Boys, boys, in polite society, we don't say, Yoo-hoo. We say Yoo-whom."

And we're back!

I think it's safe to say that if you were to be shown stills of William Powell and Myrna Loy in these six Thin Man films, you'd be able to identify the film just by the hairstyle. Nick now wears his hair combed to the side with way less hair product. Nora's style is much more simple, similar to how she wore it in the fifth Thin Man movie, The Thin Man Goes Home (1945). But it's understandable. Not only are we in post-war America, but Powell is 56 and Loy 42. They are middle aged now and the times have changed.

It doesn't take long before we see some shady dealings. Band leader Tommy Drake is irritated with David Thayer, the charity sponsor, for low wages. Drake's got a new gig: he's going on tour where he can make more dough. The only problem is he owes gangster Al Amboy $12,000. When Amboy hears about Drake's plans, he demands the money right then.

Phil Brant, the owner of the gambling boat, is in love with Janet Thayer. They're ready to elope the next day considering her father, the sponsor of the event, doesn't like him. That's all well and good until they became the prime suspects in a murder investigation. Tommy Drake sneaks into Brant's office to break open the safe and abscond with the money. He is shot dead.  

The next morning, we get our first glimpse of the domestic life of Nick and Nora and Nick Jr., played by Dean Stockwell. As a Generation X guy, I know him best from the TV show Quantum Leap and his roles in movies like The Player and Air Force One. Their New York apartment is just as swanky as you'd expect, but what's quite fun is seeing Nick and Nora now as parents.

What is also quite obvious is the witty dialogue is back after a one-movie hiatus. James O'Hanlon and Harry Crane are both credited with additional dialogue so I suspect director Edward Buzzell brought them in to spice up the old repartee. It shows and it's very welcome.

Nick starts sleuthing (without Nora!) and sneaks onto the gambling ship. He finds a piece of sheet music with a receipt from Amboy for the full amount. Our detective also meets clarinetist Clinker Krause who unknowingly has the sheet music in his clarinet case. Back to the dialogue, Clinker talks jive about the then-current jazz styles in such a way that befuddles the Depression-era Nick and Nora (who has now joined Nick). It's a funny ongoing bit, especially considering Nick and Nora probably frequented jazz joints in the 1920s.

Unfortunately, Clinker burns the sheet music so Nick has to solve the case without a crucial piece of evidence.

When Nick realizes a clue and decides to visit Janet Thayer at 4:00 am, a sleepy Nora says that, "We're in this together" and finally(!) Nick doesn't ditch her. Too bad it took until the last movie for this to happen. In fact, she even takes initiative and circles back to a rest home where our insane clarinetist, Buddy, is holed up. He confesses to killing Drake and even tries to shoot Nora.

One of the aspects of these Thin Man movies is that Nick and Nora rarely are threatened or in danger. However, with this last entry, there’s a sequence where young Nick Jr. is missing while the parents are away. All joking ceases as Nick and Nora worry until he is found and Nick learns the real reason.

If wouldn’t be a Thin Man movie without the final reveal, and this time, it’s back on the S.S. Fortune. It’s great seeing Nick and Nora comment on each of the suspects as they arrive and are seated. Again, Nora shines by noting something her husband missed: the necklace worn by the moll of Amboy matches the earrings of the lady with booking agent Mitchell Talbin. Nick then reckons the necklace was worth $12,000, the exact amount owed.

Teamwork. Man, if we had more of this earlier in the franchise. Frankly, it’s what I expected from the get-go. It’s how I remember the TV show Hart to Hart being and it’s certainly how Castle was in its run. Probably Remington Steele and Moonlighting, too, except those latter three all started with the romantic leads at odds with each other.

The final confrontation is rather violent for this series, another outcome from World War II.

“Now, Nick Charles is going to retire,” Nick says. “From detective work?” Nora retorts. “No, to bed.”


Final Thoughts


I can’t help but suspect everyone involved knew going in this was likely going to be the final Thin Man film. Being the only one that didn’t make a profit probably sealed the deal. 

Song of the Thin Man is the final Thin Man film and final film for which the pair starred together with equal billing. Loy evidently makes an uncredited appearance in Powell’s 1947 film The Senator was Indiscreet, making it their actual final film. I’ve been wanting to see this entire franchise for quite a long time and I’m glad to have finally done so. I thoroughly enjoyed every one of them, but if I’m being honest, the fifth film, The Thin Man Goes Home, was the weakest one for me. It seemed to have forgotten what made these films special, something the sixth film rectified.

Seeing each of these movies first thing every morning has been a treat, and I’m not shy to say I’d have enjoyed more if there had been more. The way Dean Stockwell portrayed Nick Jr. makes me wonder why no-one has every done a story with Nick Jr. as the detective. The stories almost write themselves.

And I’m curious why there hasn’t been another Thin Man movie made since. Johnny Depp was going to have a modern remake, but that project was cancelled. David Niven and Maggie Smith play Dick and Dora Charleston in the 1976 movie Murder by Death and that’ll be next on my list. I’ve mentioned Castle, Remington Steele, Moonlighting, and Hart to Hart as shows that have taken inspiration from Nick and Nora. Castle is one of my all-time favorite TV shows, but I’m going to go and find some Hart to Hart episodes somewhere. The recipe of a husband-and-wife detective team is too delicious to pass up. I do wish the Nora we saw in Song of the Thin Man had arrived sooner.

I enjoyed these films so much that I’m going to seek out and find the other films Powell and Loy starred in together. But only after watching the documentaries that were packaged with the DVD box set. I’ll review them next year.

Nick and Nora Charles. William Powell and Myrna Loy. Boy, they don’t make ‘em like that anymore, do they?


Quotes:


Nick: Who are they?
Nora: Just the people who invited us.

Nick: If this rampage of respectability persists, we're going to have to get you a bulletproof girdle.

Nora [commenting on Nick's swell attire]: You look just a page out of Esquire.
Nick Jr.: Not the page I saw.

Nick's neighbor [after hearing a gunshot]: Was anybody hurt?
Nick [commenting on the shattered bottle of scotch]: Yes, an old friend of mine went to pieces.

Nick Jr.[at 4 am] : How about a story.
Nick: Not tonight.
Nick Jr.: But your stories always put me to sleep.

Nick: Sometimes I amaze even myself. [And the Star Wars fan in me just then wondered if George Lucas was a fan of the Thin Man films and picked up this line for Han Solo.]

Nick [in the lead-up to the finale]: If this party gets rough, duck under the table.
Nora: I’m ready to do that now, although not the way I like.