Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Catalyst: a Rogue One Novel by James Luceno

There’s a reason why the original film was not titled Star Drama. Other than an odd combination of words, it just reeks of tedium. By its very nature, the word “wars” implies action, adventure, danger. It is those very qualities that are lacking in Catalyst, the prequel novel to the movie Rogue One.

Having said that, however, the novel is not without its good qualities. A healthy does of backstory is crammed into this 11-hour audiobook narrated by Jonathan Davis, the fantastic actor who voices many of the current crop of Star Wars novels. But the listener has to understand that much of what happens in this book is, by definition, mere prelude to the events in the movie. And there’s not a lot of action. It’s like an episode of House of Cards in the Star Wars universe.

I purposefully didn’t read this book ahead of seeing the movie. I wanted as clean an experience as possible with the film. Now, having seen it twice, I dove into this book. Going in, I expected to get the backstories of all the major players in Rogue One. That’s not the case. The focus of the novel is solely on Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen in the movie), his wife, Lyra (Valene Kane ), and their mutual friend, Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn). Only late in the story does Forest Whitaker’s Saw Gerrera show up. Oh, Grand Moff Tarkin is present, but no one else. I was hoping for some background into the other characters, specifically Donnie Yen’s Chirrut Îmwe, the mystic who is blind and one with the Force. Perhaps future books.

Perhaps the neatest thing author James Luceno accomplishes is put these characters in the context of the prequel movies, specifically Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith. You saw those events from their points of view, not always knowing what we viewers know about the Jedi, the Emperor, and Darth Vader. We get a nice scene with the Ersos—Felicity Jones’s Jyn is a mere babe through most of this novel—fleeing Republic droids when Order 66 is instituted. The droids fall dead. The humans don’t know why, but they also don’t care since they’re still alive.

As a huge fan of Ben Mendelsohn, I enjoyed the many scenes with Krennic and his machinations and politics behind the scenes. I’ve just started House of Cards and I can already see a partial parallel. Mendelsohn is a terrific actor who could have been used more in the movie, so it was nice to learn more about his efforts to maintain the production of the Death Star—a term never used in the book—while trying to woo Galen into the Empire’s folds.

Another great part of the book is the discussion of the Kyber crystals. These are the minerals Jedis use to power their lightsabers. Those are small. The ones needed for the Death Star need to be quite a bit larger. Luceno’s discussions of Galen’s attempt to understand the crystals is good. Moreover, his wife, Lyra, respects the Jedis and their ways even though she isn’t a part of their order. It’s a good dip into the greater Star Wars mythology that I, before reading this book, didn’t know.

In the end, however, and boy do I hate to say this, Catalyst reads like a well-written Wookieepedia entry. The material is nice, the drama is real, but none of it amounts to a decent story, at least one that stands on its own. I know it’s not supposed to, so I’m about to embark on the audio of Rogue One itself. I’m wondering how much the two novels will tie into each other. At the very least, however, there will be action.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

A Year Without David Bowie

One year ago today, David Bowie left this world. Little did we know at the time that his death was merely the beginning of a deluge of death. From David Bowie to Carrie Fisher and everyone in between, the year 2016 witnessed what seemed like an unprecedented number of cultural icons passing away.

But David Bowie was the first. I remember a year and two days ago, I was flush with the music of Backstar, Bowie’s final album. In the days leading up to its release, saxophonist Donny McCaslin was interviewed on NPR about what it was like for him and his band to record with Bowie. The music I had heard in that interview was spellbinding. Hearing the entire album only more so. The CD was released on Friday, 8 January 2016, Bowie’s 69th birthday. By Sunday night, he was gone. The shock I felt was palpable, as it was for folks the world over. I wrote about my thoughts back then. You can read it here. Today, I’m talking about the year since.

I’ll freely admit that I went into a Bowie-only place a year ago this week. I played his songs constantly, not just Backstar, but his entire discography. Later in the spring, I contributed a review of the album. That’s here.

Then…nothing. For the longest time, I discovered I couldn’t listen to any of his music. The emotions I felt remained raw. That may sound maudlin, but the older I get, the more emotional I’ve become. In early summer, I was cleaning out my garage, the radio station tuned to the local classic rock station. “Changes” came on. I held it together until Bowie sang “Turn around and face the strange.” That was it. Waterworks flowed. I sat down on the floor and just listened. It had been months since I had heard his voice, and now it spoke to me from beyond the grave.

He was always just there. Even during his decade-long absence from recording music—or even the media—from 2004 to 2013, it didn’t really matter because somewhere, probably in New York, Bowie was alive. Now, he’s not. Now, he’s had his final say. And damn if Backstar isn’t just the perfect send-off.

When the fall rolls around each year, I tend to get in a Bowie mood, especially his later catalogue. I love his post 1995 oeuvre and I contend that some of those songs can stand head and shoulders with “Ziggy Stardust,” “Heroes,” and “Scary Monsters.” But I refrained. Not sure why. The David Bowie vacuum persisted.

Christmas was going to be sad, too. His version of Little Drummer Boy with Bing Crosby is one of my all-time favorite Christmas songs. Now, they’re both gone. One night, I watched the video before heading out to pick up some take-out food. Tears came to my eyes, but they weren’t deep. In retrospect, that moment was the turning point.

On the always excellent New Yorker Radio Hour, Donny McCaslin was interviewed. What was it like to be Bowie’s last band? What has this year been like for him and his band since? There’s this moment, about the 35-minute mark, when the interviewer asks McCaslin about the time Bowie came to hear the McCaslin band play. “So, one night, you were playing, and David Bowie walked in,” the interviewer says. Right then, both of them paused a second or two, just marveling at the gravity of her sentence. They both kinda laughed, sighed at what a moment that must have been for McCaslin. He goes on to tell the interviewer about the process of meeting Bowie and, ultimately, recording with him. You get the palpable sense that McCaslin is truly humbled to have worked with Bowie. Hearing him reminisce about the recording sessions, how Bowie was still pushing the boundaries of his music, helped me remember all the reasons I enjoy Bowie’s music.

And I had not listened in awhile.

Time to change.

That was just last week.

The more I considered McCaslin’s thoughts on the Backstar project, how Bowie was always looking forward, I looked back on 2016 and the music I discovered. I found a lot of music I loved, more than any year in recent memory. A few weeks after Blackstar, I found The Struts and their Everybody Wants album, my favorite of the year. Listened to those songs almost nonstop last year, and you could hear Bowie’s influence on their sound. I went on to enjoy albums by Reagan Browne, Wolfmother, The Heavy, Robert Ellis, The Eccentrics, Survive, Twenty One Pilots to say nothing of veteran performers who also released stellar albums last year: Sting, Ace Frehley, Santana, The Monkees, KISS, Michael Buble, and Lady Gaga. Come to think of it, I did what Bowie always did: find new things, move beyond the things to which I constantly listened.

In these past few days, it’s like a veil has lifted. Perhaps a moratorium, maybe even a mourning period. Not sure, but I’ve been spinning Bowie classics with great frequency. Just yesterday, on the way home from work, I cranked up “Hallo Spaceboy” and sang at the top of my lungs, giving way to the softer “Everyone Says Hi” and the 2000 live version of “Absolute Beginners,” perhaps my all-time favorite.

So, yesterday, I listened to the four-song EP No Plan. These are the last songs Bowie ever recorded. I haven’t done a deep dive into the songs yet, but on this initial listen, one thing come to mind: this guy still had it. “No Plan” is an ethereal gem where Bowie got to throw his soaring voice one last time. His lyrics of “This is not quite yet” a poignant reminder of what this EP actually is. There's a nice video for it. “Killing a Little Time” is a crunchy rock song, visceral in its drum beat, the McCaslin band adding that special little extra spice to really propel this song forward. The pianist channels Mike Garson a la “Aladdin Sane” and it’s wonderful.

Then there is “When I Met You,” the last song, and the last new song we’ll ever hear from David Bowie. I’ll admit something: there was a part of me that didn’t want to listen to it. I wanted there always to be just one more song out there, still something new to help me imagine Bowie was still with us. Then I shook my head. The thought, no matter how genuine, was, in the end, silly. I pushed play and the song washed over me. Bowie’s voice was still strong, clear, and direct. A little over four minutes later, the song faded away. And that was it.

Yes, it’s a somber thought to realize that you’ll never again hear new music from an artist with whom you’ve grown from young teenager to middle aged man. But, damn, is his body of work simply stunning. All the countless hours listening to his songs, part of the soundtrack of my life. All those times seeing Bowie in concert, watching him perform and displaying his God-given gifts to the audience. All the memories. All the feelings. All of it. It’s breathtaking.

And there’s one last thing, too. His example. When it came to music and art, he acknowledged the past, but kept his eyes on the future. Where some rock stars settle into a comfortable existence making hardly any new music, David Bowie pushed forward. He always wanted to hear the next great thing, the new singer, the new band. By one definition, the new could also be characterized as the strange. That’s the kind of example we can all get behind. Yes, cherish and nourish our long-time favorites, but make room for the new. I certainly did that in 2016.

And I’ve continued into this new year. NPR Music has a Tiny Desk Concert with Donny McCaslin. It was my first time to hear his ensemble. In just these songs, I could easily hear what caught Bowie’s ear. As I wrote on Facebook, “Holy cow this is some incredible music. Donny McCaslin and his band backed David Bowie on his final album last year. Here, you get 2 originals plus their version of "Lazarus." McCaslin's tenor drips with emotion, both strident and somber, but it is keyboardist Jason Lindner and drummer Mark Giuliana that really make these pieces shine. I'll definitely be getting their new album....Today?”

Today marks a full year since David Bowie passed away. To commemorate his life, his music, and his example, I bought McCaslin’s latest CD, Beyond Now. It's fantastic. But of course it is. David Bowie knew good music when he heard it. He always made room for the new.

To put it simply, I’m following David Bowie’s example. I’ve turned and faced the strange.

Now, it's your turn.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Albums of My Early Years

I've enjoyed seeing everyone's list of formative albums, so here's mine. For those who only want to know the list, they're at the top. The reasons are below.
KISS - Double Platinum

Star Wars Soundtrack

James Bond - Cassette of title songs (through "All Time High")

Amadeus - Official soundtrack

Queen - Greatest Hits

Chicago IX

Sting - The Dream of the Blue Turtles

Genesis - Invisible Touch

"We Are the World" - single

Paul Simon - Graceland

KISS - Double Platinum

I can't exactly recall how KISS landed on my radar. Perhaps it was because they were everywhere in 1977. Another possibility was the 1977 Marvel comic book (printed in real KISS blood!) Nevertheless, sometime after April 1978 when this two-LP, 20-song package of KISS Klassics was released, I bought it. That was all she wrote. I was enthralled, and, except for a few years in the 80s, have never looked back. KISS is my first, favorite rock band.

Star Wars - Official soundtrack

I'm an only child and much of the music I learned I discovered on my own. The music of Star Wars was a natural thing for me to get because it was Star Wars! I'd try and get anything related to the movie. Little did I know that the music of John Williams would lay the groundwork for much of the music that came after it. With this soundtrack, I was introduced to long-form instrumental music. I could "see" the movie in my head. I learned about themes and motifs (although I didn't know the terms yet). The Cantina Band song was arguably my introduction to jazz and the primary reason I selected the alto sax as my instrument in 6th grade band. Over the years, Williams has scored some of my favorite films and added numerous themes, but this original soundtrack with its original track listing remains foundational for my love of music.

James Bond - Cassette of title songs (through "All Time High")

Whenever I drove in a car with my dad, he'd almost always have the car radio tuned to KPRC-AM, talk radio. My mom's musical tastes while driving was KODA, i.e., elevator music. Most of the albums I had were actual albums and I had no means of transferring them to a cassette. Somewhere along the line, we got a compilation of James Bond theme songs from Dr. No's instrumental opener to "All Time High" from 1983's Octopussy. This was common ground for all three of us. My parents loved the movies--they also had the novels--and this was my introduction to singers beyond KISS. It was here my love of Tom Jones began. It was with these songs I heard how the same titular character could be conveyed in various musical styles. You had it all with these songs: 60s pop (Jones), early 70s rock (McCartney), mid-70s proto-disco (LuLu), and early 80s pop (Sheena Easton), all as filtered through the Bond sound. 

Amadeus - Official soundtrack

If Star Wars was my introduction to instrumental music, then this soundtrack full of Mozart's music was my bridge into the world of classical music. This 2-LP soundtrack was a greatest hits collection of Mozart's music, starting off with the thrilling opening movement of the 25th Symphony. Moreover, Mozart himself, as played by Tom Hulce, educated me in how to listen to classical music. In the film, he describes the third movement of the Serenade for Winds in B flat major, K. 361. That scene in the film was eye opening.

Queen - Greatest Hits

Most folks my age can remember taping a penny to the card of a Columbia Music service postcard and getting 13 cassettes in the mail. This album was one of them. I had known who Queen was since 1978 and even had the Flash Gordon soundtrack, but this collection of songs did two things for me. One, it gave me a taste of a band competant enough to change style on almost every song. From rockabilly to theater to disco, this band could do anything. Secondly, and most importantly for me, was the inclusion of "Under Pressure" with this other guy named David Bowie. I liked Bowie's voice and sought out his records. Let's Dance was first, then two compilations--ChangesTwoBowie and Golden Years. After that, a radio broadcast on 101 KLOL-FM in Houston (which I taped) was enough to send me on a Bowie trajectory that I never left. And it all started with Queen.

Chicago IX

The summer of 1985 was THE summer for me. First car, first girlfriend, and glorious music on the radio. A fellow friend of mine in band loaned me a cassette of this band called Chicago. He said I'd probably know a few songs, but love them all. Chicago IX was the band's first hits collection. Not knowing a thing, I slipped the cassette into my Walkman, got the leash on the the dog, and starting walking. I pushed play. Track 1 was "25 or 6 to 4." In my headphones came the sound of Terry Kath's opening guitar riff, then the in-your-face horns, then Peter Cetera's clear vocals, then the incredible guitar solo, and finally the ending. To say I was blown away would be an understatement. Track 2 was "Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is" and it delivered a completely different sound and voice in Robert Lamm. But those horns were still there! Third came "Colour My World," followed by "Just You n' Me" with its soprano sax solo. I literally ran home and called my friend. As low-key as every teenager is, I declared this music the best ever. Quickly, I started collecting all the other albums, never realizing I already owned--but never played--Chicago 17. I can't even remember how I got 17 but I was hooked. Still am.

Sting - The Dream of the Blue Turtles

I owned Synchronicity (who didn't?) but few of the other Police records. So when Sting left the band to make a record with jazz musicians, I was intrigued. Frankly, I expected Police-like songs with...I didn't know what. The first single was "If You Love Somebody, Set Them Free," a great tune of which I've never grown weary. But it was the rest of the album that helped introduce me to the then-contemporary world of jazz. Branford Marsalis's sax, Kenny Kirkland's piano were wonderful. All of that, filtered through Sting's songs really paved the way for my love of jazz.

Genesis - Invisible Touch

If you were a kid in the 80s, Phil Collins was EVERYwhere. If it wasn't a solo tune, it was a Genesis song or a one-off soundtrack song. Being a sheltered person, all of Genesis's music sailed under my radar until 1986 and this album. Here was Phil with this other band (?). What the heck? But this led me to learn more about this band that played, in "Domino," long songs. Little did I know at the time that this other guy (Peter Gabriel) who had a hit song called "Sledgehammer" used to be in Genesis. I can still remember my astonishment. I like the older material better now--"Supper's Ready," the 24-minute song, is my favorite--but it all started here with the bright sheen of 80s Genesis. 

"We Are the World" - single

Not a record--although there was one--but a phenomenon, a cultural milestone. The song is a near-perfect snapshot of 1985 in music. All those artists singing together in a song that, for me, has held up. I distinctly remember that song playing on multiple radio stations at the same time, including KLEF, Houston's defunct classical station. It showed me that celebrities can do things besides sell records and tickets. As an interesting experiment, listen to the original then the 2010 version recorded for relief in Haiti. Note how in 1985, you had multiple voices that sounded different, then note in 2010 there was a homogeneaty to the sound.

Paul Simon - Graceland

I'm not alone in confessing that this 1986 album opened my ears and mind to the wonders of world music. Before this, I knew little if any world music. Afterwards, I fell in love with it and sought it out. The beats of the world still pulse in my ears.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

New Year's Day 2017 - Resolutions and Goals

Happy New Year’s Day 2017!

I suppose many of us make resolutions on the first of January every year. I know I do, and have for awhile. For many of us, resolutions often zero in on health. My weight management plan involves limiting my intake of sugar and weighing myself only on the first day of each month. That allows me to have splurge days and not go crazy with every half pound gained or lost. It’s worked for me for going on a year and a half now. So I’ll keep on doing that.

Another thing about myself I want to improve on is my cooking. My wife is a fantastic cook. Just last night, we had chicken and sausage gumbo. Her Louisiana heritage always shines through when gumbo is made. But I’m not nearly as good as she is. We have a great system: she cooks and I wash the dishes! There are a few things that fall under my bailiwick—grilling is the primary one—but I’d like to develop a few things I can whip up with little notice. My wife can look in the pantry, assess what we have, and, in about an hour, has a great meal ready for us. Me? I can easily do a recipe, but I can’t do that. I’d like to beef up (as it were) my ability to cook on the fly and expand my current repertoire of recipes.

Put simply, I’d like to read more books in 2017 than I did in 2016. I can’t recall the exact number—and don’t feel like looking it up—but to read at least one physical book a month. For me, physical also equals my Kindle. Throw in another audiobook a month and I should safely be able to handle 24 books this year.

Those are resolutions. But on the professional side, I think of them as goals. What do I want to accomplish in my fiction writing life? The obvious: more sales. But, here’s the catch: I cannot control that aspect of the business. What I can control is productivity, output, and marketing. As far as marketing is concerned, I’ll be starting the third year of my professional fictioneer life come February. I would like to sell more. That means I need to market better. That’s my long-term goal for 2017.
But the main aspect of this fiction life is productivity and output. That is something that is 100% in my control. I plan to write more. A lot more. I’m hesitant to divulge the number I’m aiming for, but it’s a big one. And I’ll be tracking the numbers and speed rates and time taken to write.
Word count isn’t the only metric I’ll be using, although it will be my daily one. Products—books and short stories—will also be a metric by which I measure 2017.
The good news is that, as of today’s writing session, I’m 5217 words into the first brand-new western novel of 2017. Not a bad day’s mark by any stretch.
Happy New Year indeed.

So what are y’all’s resolutions and goals?