Saturday, January 27, 2018

P. D. James and the Golden Age of Detecitve Fiction

I can’t recall why I bought P. D. James’s slim volume TALKING ABOUT DETECTIVE FICTION but I’m sure glad I did. It’s been on my shelf, unread, since 2014, but as part of my mindful reading regimen—to say nothing of my lovely new commute here in Houston—I knocked out the audio in record time.

As James points out in her introduction, this book resulted from a request to speak about the history of detective fiction. She takes us through a history of the genre, starting mainly with Sherlock Holmes and Father Brown, with a nod to Edgar Allen Poe’s C. August Dupin. Most of this section of the book covers ground I pretty much knew, but I appreciated James’s viewpoint.

After a necessary but brief examination of Dashielle Hammett and Raymond Chandler, it is when James migrates to the Golden Age of Detective Fiction (i.e., between the world wars) that the book really took off. I’m not as familiar with stalwarts like Agatha Christie or Dorothy L. Sayers so I soaked in as much as I could. I find myself actually wanting to read a book or two from these expert practitioners.

And that is where yall come in.

I’m mostly familiar with crime novels. You know the ones: Lehane, Connolly, Pelecanos, and the other folks here at Do Some Damage. In addition, with the true Golden Age of Detective Fiction nearing the century mark, those author names are pretty well known.

But what about nowadays?

Who are the authors who have picked up the baton of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction and are carrying it into the 21st Century? Who are the big names? Who are the new indie names? I want to expand my reading in 2018 and I want to read more of this type of fiction.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Remembering Terry Kath, The Soul of Chicago

Forty years ago today, founding member of Chicago, guitarist, Terry Kath, died, and, arguably, the band was never the same.

I wasn’t aware of whom Kath was four decades ago—heck, I’d never heard of the band back then—but I know him now. I was one of those 80s kids who discovered Chicago with ‘17’ and wondered why in the world the band would name their album with that number. “Oh, you mean there are sixteen other albums? Cool!” Little by little, album by album, I collected their complete discography and learned that the band’s sound in 1985 was markedly different than the sound in their first (introductory) years of the  late 60s and early 70s. Two things stood out: the horns, specifically the intricacy of the arrangements, and the guitar player. In those pre-internet days, I can’t remember how I learned about Kath’s tenure and his untimely death, but I did. In the late 80s, we had Bill Champlin filling in the soulful vocals and DaWayne Bailey doing 80s guitar fireworks with the best of them. But over time, when all the songs and the history permeated my mind and memory, one thing became clear: Terry Kath was irreplaceable.

The older I’ve become, the more I gravitate to the Columbia-era material, namely the first eleven albums. Chicago had a sound with Kath leading the band that hasn’t been replicated in the four decades of his absence. If you watch any of those early shows—specifically Tanglewood 1970 in total and "25 or 6 to 4" specifically—you will see a band hungry, on fire, being led by one of the best rock guitarists ever. That was Chicago: raw talent honed to scratchy perfection over the band’s first decade of existence.

I completely admire and respect the band’s difficult navigation through five decades of music. Few bands reach that longevity. They deserve our applause. If they had packed it in after Kath’s death, it would have taken me a lot longer to discover them, but discover them I would have. I’m a sax player and I gravitate to horn rock bands.

They are one of my two favorite bands of all time. I will always love them and their music. I love Robert Lamm’s smooth vocals and politically charged lyrics, giving the early band its brain and conscious. I love Peter Cetera’s McCartney-esque bass playing and his high tenor voice, giving the band a Beatles-eque vibe. I love Danny Serephine’s spectacularly complex drumming, giving the band its beating heart. I love the combined sound of the triple horn section—Jimmy Pankow’s trombone (and terrific songwriting); Lee Loughnane’s trumpet; and Walt Parazaider’s saxophones—for being the fourth ‘voice’ in the band and proving you can be cool to be a horn player.

And I love Terry Kath’s contributions. He wrote the band’s mission statement song (and my favorite Chicago song) “Introduction.” His soulful voice blended well into the cachophony of sound coming out of our speakers. His reckless and relentless spirit drove the band to experiment and push the envelope of what a ‘rock band with horns’ could be. And his guitar playing is almost second to none (I’ll objectively give Hendrix the edge), giving the band a hard edge they needed to stand out in a crowded musical field.

Most of all, however, I love that Terry Kath was the soul of Chicago.  A soul that was shattered forty years ago today. The surviving members have done their best to collect the pieces and forge them back together—mostly to smashing success—but there will always be a part missing that cannot be replaced.

But we have the music, and we’ll have it forever. Kath said it best himself in “Introduction,” the opening song from the first album.

Now we put you through the changes
And turned around the mood
We hope it’s struck you different
And hope you feel moved
So forget about your troubles
As we search for something new
And we play for you

Boy, did they!

If you haven't seen it yet, you absolutely must view The Terry Kath Experience, a documentary made by his daughter, Michelle Sinclair.

Here is my personal list of favorite Terry Kath songs, including vocals, guitar work, and songwriting. What are yours?

Poem 58
The Road (as writer)
In the Country
Colour My World
25 or 6 to 4
It Better End Soon (all three, especially on Live at Carnegie Hall)
Sing a Mean Tune Kid
Now That You’ve Gone
Alma Mater
A Song for Richard and His Friends
What’s This World Comin’ To?
Italian from New York
Woman Don’t Want to Love Me (guitar!)
Oh, Thank You Great Spirit
Once or Twice
Mississippi Delta City Blues
Takin’ it on Uptown
This Time (guitar!)
Little One (his last, poignant vocals)

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Is there such a thing as book addiction?

In 2018, I have started reading more mindfully. That is: choose a book, read it and finish it without being distracted by another book along the way. Note: this doesn’t apply to books I dislike. I have, and will continue to stop reading those. But the corollary to reading mindfully is to read the books on my shelves. And I have a lot of them, so many, in fact, that in order to declutter my office, I stored many in boxes and moved those boxes out of the office. What is left are the books highest on my reading list. The office is neater and my TBR pile is…still pretty huge.

But as I packed those books in boxes, I got to thinking why I had so many. It’s mainly  because I bought them all. And the reason I bought them at the time was that I wanted to read them. Mostly. You see, sometimes, I buy a book because of its cover. Or for research. Or because of a review. Or any of a myriad of reasons. The more I thought about my book-buying habits of just 2017 the more I realized a certain trait of myself: there was a good chance I would never, ever read all the books I was buying.

So why buy them?

A good and honest question. Why indeed?

Because I love books, especially used books. I love their smell, their history, and, more often than not, their classic cover art. I frequent more used bookstores than new nowadays. When the family suggests we go to Half Price, I am usually the first one out the door.

Except last weekend. You see, as I packed all my older books away, I mulled over why I keep them. If they are out of sight and out of mind, why not just sell them? Because of my emotional attachment, of course, even for those books I’ll likely never read. Moreover, I enjoy having a small library of my own—even if they are in boxes—so when a particular fancy strikes, I can go back through all those packed books and find that one paperback.

But back to addiction. It seems to me now I have been—and always have been—addicted to buying books, especially after graduating from college. Graduate school probably helped this along. Every semester, the history professors would assign books to read. Typically, there’d be one copy in the university library and, unless you were the lucky first person to check it out, it meant you’d have to buy the book. I was in grad school for five years [yikes!] and I amassed a large collection. Then there was fiction. Don’t even get me started. To paraphrase Dory from “Finding Nemo,” I just kept buying.

And not reading.

So, when I returned to Half Price the other day, it was with an air of detachment. It was an air I shrugged into even before I left the house. I told myself that, unless there was that Very Special Book, I was to buy nothing. As I strolled the aisles, I found a few things—a dozen Longarm novels, all practically brand new—I normally would have snatched up. But I put them all back and waited for my son to check out. It was an odd feeling, this detachment, and it made me wonder about folks who suffer from actual addiction issues, be it alcohol, cigarettes, chocolate, or worse. I was able to channel my active detachment for about twenty minutes. I can’t imagine doing it 24/7.

But back to the original question: is there such a thing as book addiction? For me, yes, but it is something for which I can mindfully manage.

How about you?

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Batman: Detective Comics No. 27

A couple of days ago, I reviewed Partners In Peril, the first Shadow novel I had never read. I selected this novel because the publisher packaged this novel with a couple of historical essays indicating how it was adapted into the very first Batman story. Today, take a look at Detective Comics No. 27 and "The Case Of The Chemical Syndicate," the first Batman adventure.

When you read the two stories side-by-side, it is obvious how writer Bill Finger took the Shadow novel and distilled it down to six, tight pages. The comic book opens with "young socialite" Bruce Wayne talking with Commissioner Gordon at the policeman's house. Gordon receives a call informing him that Lambert “the chemical king” has been stabbed to death and his son is being held as the prime suspect. Feigning boredom, Bruce tags along with Gordon to the Lambert house where he hears the young man's story of how he found his father, dead, with the knife stuck in his back, and his father's last dying word, "contract." When questioned about his father's business contacts, young Lambert names three men. And, with the speed of a 1939-era comic, one of those men – Stephen Crane – telephones the house. Crane, too, has received death threats, and Gordon urges Crane to stay put until police protection can arrive. It is at this point that Bruce Wayne, exhibiting disinterest, empties his pipe and exits.

The action cuts to Crane's house where he is brutally shot by some thug. As the thug escapes out the window onto the roof, he and his partner are met with the first image the world ever saw of Batman, or “The Bat-Man,” as Finger styles it. The hero quickly dispatches both thugs and snatches the paper recently stolen from Crane's house. Upon reading the purloined document, he speeds away in a red sedan. Yeah, just some random car. Can you image driving along a road and seeing Bat-Man behind the wheel?

Paul Rogers, the second of the business partners, visits Alfred Stryker, the last of the business associates of the murdered chemical king. Stryker's assistant, Jennings, wallops Rogers on the back of the head, ties him up, and informs the injured man that he is going to kill him with nerve gas used to experiment on guinea pigs. As the glass dome comes down, Bat-Man enters the scene. He throws himself into the dome, seals the incoming gas with a handkerchief (would that even help?), then breaks the glass dome, freeing both him and Rogers. With little effort, Bat-Man takes out Jennings right before Stryker himself arrives.

And the villain is revealed to be Stryker. As explained by Bat-Man, Stryker had agreed to pay his three former associates an annual fee, but with the three of them dead, not only would Stryker own the entire company, but he could keep all the money. With his plan revealed, Stryker draws a gun to kill the hero, but Bat-Man wallops him over a railing and down into the vat of acid. "A fitting end for his kind," mutters Bat-Man in a vein likely normal in Depression-era pulp stories but seems rather cavalier from here in the 21st Century.

The story wraps up with Bruce Wayne and Gordon again chatting until the last frame when it is revealed Bruce Wayne is secretly...The Bat-Man.

As a debut, it’s got all the ingredients necessary to whet the reading appetites of kids and adults in 1939, especially the tag ending. It would have been something if the modern convention of splash pages were in effect back then because the reveal could have been the last page. As it was, it was merely the last frame on the page. It also makes you glad that Bill Finger re-worked Bob Kane's original idea for the character--primarily a red suit--into the dark image of The Bat-Man. Still, this kind of character begs for a second and third adventure and we’ve gotten a monthly installment of Batman ever since. Stop and ponder that for a moment: For something like 950 months in a row, we have had at least one Batman story each month, with many months—especially in the 1990s when four Bat-titles were published—more than one. That’s a seriously incredible feat.

The one question I’d love to have ask Bill Finger was why this particular story from The Shadow was used? For debuts, it’s best to put out the best possible story. Did Finger think this was the best? Did he not yet have a handle on the character? Only a reading of the new few issues will reveal the answer, something I’m doing in these next few weeks.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

The Shadow: Partners in Peril

Well, it took a while, but I finally read my first Shadow novel.*

I think like most of us, I’ve known about The Shadow for a long time. I first discovered him back in the late 70s when my parents purchased some old-time radio episodes on cassette to listen to on vacations. Ten years later, some of those episodes were broadcast on local Houston AM radio on Sunday nights and I’d listen to them as I returned back to college in Austin. And I’d even began collecting the wonderful reprints by Vintage Library to say nothing of some of the comic adaptations. Actually, up until now, the only time I’d encountered The Shadow in print was the two times he guest-starred in Batman comics (my reviews here and here).

Interestingly, it was because of Batman that I first wanted to read PARTNERS IN PERIL. The good folks a Vintage packaged PARTNERS along with LINGO and commissioned a couple of article about how PARTNERS and The Shadow influenced Bill Finger and Bob Kane to create Batman. The historian in me always gravitated to the historical commentary before I read the stories, and this collection is fantastic with not only historical commentary by Will Murray and Anthony Tollin but an introduction by Jerry Robinson, co-creator of Robin and the Joker. But today, the focus is on this November 1936 story.

Reed Harrington calls the police with a desperate situation: he’s been marked for death at midnight. For over a week, Harrington has tried to evade the mysterious caller, but every time, the mystery man finds him. With no one else to turn to, Harrington asks the police for help. Detective Joe Cardona is assigned the case and he’s there in the room when Harrington receives a call just before midnight…and falls dead! In short order, Arnold King arrives at the dead man’s apartment with the same incredible story. What links these two men? Well, they both were former partners of the Milcote Chemical Corporation. Armed with police protection, King holes up and waits…until he, too, falls dead. King dies of electrocution; Harrington of poison.

Enter: The Shadow. He directs his agents to discover the identity of other partners of the company and land on three: Simon Todd, Thomas Porter and his son, Ray. But what complicates the mystery is that Harrington, King, and the two Porters all are former partners of the chemical company. Who would want them dead? Perhaps it is sinister agents of a foreign power out to discover the secret formula for the new chemical weapon created for the United States to use in the next war.  Perhaps it’s something else, but you know before you even read the first word that The Shadow will emerge triumphant.


First of all, I really enjoyed this story. I liked how the action played fairly quick and straight. I have since learned that the author of PARTNERS wasn’t Walter Gibson but Theodore Tinsley. In fact, PARTNERS is Tinsley’s first Shadow novel. I read he studied Gibson’s writing style and aimed to achieve a certain verisimilitude with the prose. Today, I can’t say if he did, but the prose flowed well. An aspect of the writing that was likely a product of the times was the omniscient narrator where you rarely got into the characters heads, much less The Shadow. That was likely intentional because Tinsley has us readers (and certain characters) witnessing a thing only to reveal later that The Shadow had already performed a different task. It was very much like the movie serials of the time.

Speaking of The Shadow himself, I enjoyed his disguises and his ability to blend into his surroundings. He appeared both as a young and old workman and Tinsley treated us readers to a classic sly wink as the disguised hero vacated a scene just as another character paused and frowned in odd recognition. A surprising aspect of The Shadow’s character was when he constantly seemed to be five steps ahead of events. Like Sherlock Holmes who knew, for example, the villain in the The Hound of the Baskervilles before he even left London yet sent Watson on errands anyway. The Shadow did the same thing with his team which consisted of Burbank, a man who communicated the plans to other agents, reporter Clyde Burke, and Harry Vincent, who acts as The Shadow’s second-hand man. Ironically, just like Doc Savage’s compadres, Vincent gets himself in trouble and The Shadow has to rescue him, but Vincent proves an able partner.

I listened to PARTNERS from a new all-cast recording up on Audible. It was fantastic and I got a definite old-time radio vibe. There were no sound effects,  but there was soft jazz music at the end of each chapter. A funny aspect of the narrator was his slight pause every time “The Shadow” was mentioned in prose. Another note on the recording: they edited out much of the attribution. Since I had the hard copy and there was a particularly great action sequence, I marked it to re-read and study. It was then, while the audio was playing in my ears, that I noticed they were leaving out some words. As an avid audiobook listener, I wish other productions would do the same thing.

I thoroughly enjoyed PARTNERS IN PERIL and I’ll be quickly moving on to more Shadow novels. THE SHADOW UNMASKS is the only other full-cast recording while THE VOODOO MASTER and THE BLACK FALCON are narrated traditionally.

*P.S. In 2018, I’m reading mindfully and part of that is to read more of what I already own. Ironic timing, then, when I open up the hard copy to mark the passage I mentioned above only to find the receipt. I checked the date: 14 January 2009. I finished PARTNERS  on 14 January 2018. Nice serendipity.

Batman and The Shadow Meet Again: Batman 259

Batman_259[This post originally was published in July 2016]

Nearly a calendar year after Batman 253, Batman 259 landed in the spinner racks across America in December 1974. Denny O’Neil is again the writer. The artists, whom I failed to note, are also the same: Irv Novick and Dick Giordano. The opening splash page shows a shoot-out with three hoodlums, a shadow in the shape of The Shadow, and a nurse, a gentleman in a suit, and a young boy. Breathlessly, O’Neil warns young readers that they haven’t opened the wrong magazine. “The Caped Crusader is in this scene! But you may not recognize him…because the event you are witnessing occurred a quarter of a century ago.” The gentleman turns out to be Thomas Wayne; the boy is his son, Bruce. The hoods are making their way off with the Starlight Tiara. The unsuspecting civilians walk into the escape and the nurse trips and falls. In the process, the nurse rips off the bandana from one of the hoods. It’s Willy Hank Stamper, the Boy Genius of Crime [doncha just love all the extras to characters back then?]. Just as Stamper is about to shoot her, Thomas Wayne leaps into action. He knocks Stamper away. A shootout ensues and Thomas, Bruce, and the nurse huddle on the floor. There, young Bruce is traumatized by the gunshots. The Shadow triumphs, Stamper is put in jail, but the scars in young Bruce remain.

In a quick two pages, we see Stamper in jail, the murder of Bruce’s parents, and the appearance of the dread Batman. (I always loved that O’Neil used “dread” as an adjective to describe Batman.) After a brief conversation between Batman and Commissioner Gordon—where the cop questions why Batman never uses a gun—Batman as Bruce goes to visit Mildred, the nurse from the opening panel. It’s just at the right time, too. She’s in her wheelchair on the roof of her old folks’ home. Stamper is there! So is Swofford, the jeweler, holding a large jewelry box. A quick fight ensues, but Stamper gets away because Swofford suffers a heart attack and dies. Interestingly, the box of jewels disappears right under Batman’s nose. Hmmm…

The next evening, at the Rare Gem Exhibit, the Starlight Tiara is on display. Bruce Wayne expects Stamper to strike. Instead, there’s a note that claims the Tiara is a fake. Upon closer inspection, it’s true! Suddenly, that peculiar laughter fills the loud speaker. Bruce knows that laugh. He also understands the message: “It will end where it began!” Now, Bruce heads back to the same building as the opening panel. The Swofford jewelry shop is now a dilapidated mannequin store. Batman walks in. Stamper’s there, of course, but he has no quarrel with Batman. Nonetheless, the Dark Knight Detective leaps into action. Stamper shoots at him, and then there’s an odd thing. Batman/Bruce has a flashback to that night 25 years ago. Again, he’s like the young Bruce who was traumatized by the gunshots. It freezes him as he remembers. Stamper’s about to shoot Batman when The Shadow’s laughter interrupts the action. Batman is snapped out of his fright and takes out Stamper.

Now, I’ll admit that in this day and age, Batman is all but a super man. He can do no wrong and has thought things out ten steps ahead of everyone. His brain is his super power. However, one of the things I still enjoy about Batman in the 1970s is that he’s still a man. He has the occasional moments like this. It humanizes him. So this scene worked for me.

The issue ends with Batman and The Shadow talking. The Shadow offers Batman a gift of a gun. Batman refuses. The Shadow points out that the box Swofford [where does O’Neil get these names?] was carrying had a hidden compartment. In there was the real Tiara. Lastly, Batman asks the obvious question: “You know my real identity.” That was the implication from their first adventure in issue 253, but it’s out in the open now. The Shadow assures Bruce that the secret is safe with him. The Shadow disappears into the night. Batman/Bruce laments that he didn’t get a chance to thank him. “He’s freed me from a dread [see the nice counter-use of the word here?] I didn’t realize I had.” O’Neil ends the issue with a text box: “The Batman does not fail…and neither does The Shadow.”

Overall, this is another excellent issue with these two heroes. It makes you really want to have more adventures with these two characters. Too bad that never came to pass. The last panel is a simple box: “We dedicate this story to the memory of our friend Bill Finger.” The co-creator of Batman died in January 1974. Back then, I think only a few knew of Finger’s contributions to the Batman mythos. Now, it’s generally acknowledged that the character we know today as Batman is the way he is largely as a result of Bill Finger. Glad he got his nod.

One more thing: This issue is one of the 100-page issues. DC would write a new story for the featured character and then fill in the rest of the pages with reprints. This way, they could charge $0.60. It was a bargain! In the days before trade paperback collections, this was the best (only?) way for young readers like I was to read the older stories. There would also be special features, like “The Strange Costumes of Batman” in this issue. Best of all for someone of my age, this issue had the new Saturday Morning Schedule for CBS. It was a two-page spread of all the new shows and the times. Back when cartoons and kids’ programming was relegated to Saturday mornings, I would often look for current issues and hope they had a spread like this one. Granted, 1974 was a little ahead of my time, but it is still good to have a peek at what CBS thought kids would like. Good times, huh?

When Batman Met The Shadow: Batman 253

Batman_253[This post was originally published on another blog in July 2016] As much as I love and enjoy continuity and canonization of material in comics, I also appreciate the more free and open days of the past. Nowadays, DC Comics controls Batman so much that EVERYthing he does is canon and must align with every other book being published. The same is true for just about every other property published in comics nowadays. It’s great because we typically get great titles and stories, but the chances that characters from two universes meet can be pretty low.

Not so in the early 1970s. Batman was enjoying a dark renaissance after the comedic turn he took in the 1960s in both comic and on television. Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams had taken the Dark Knight back to the night and returned him to the atmospheric stories from the 1940s. By 1973, DC had earned the right to publish a new series featuring the pulp hero The Shadow. Denny O’Neil was the writer of that series as well. So I bet it was a no-brainer to have the two dark detectives meet.

Batman 253 was the result. These were the years where Batman’s typical rogues gallery was off-limits to writers, so Batman would face bad guys that were a whole lot less colorful but no less deadly. In this story, titled, “Who Knows What Evil?”, Batman tracks some goons to the docks. I got a huge chuckle and thrill with the opening text of the story: “It is a dark time at Gotham Freight Yards, when dawn is no more than a distant promise…a time when furtive men do furtive things…and when the Batman moves like an avenging wraith.” Pure pulp goodness.

No sooner does Batman take out the goons than one nearly gets the drop on him. But a bullet from the shadows knocks the gun out of the goon’s hand and Batman survives. He hears laughter, “coming from everywhere…and nowhere.” That’s his first clue. Alfred helps Batman figure out that the counterfeiters are based out of Arizona, Tumbleweed Crossing to be exact. Bruce Wayne arrives by bus—yeah, you read that correctly—and gets a room at the local hotel run by an old geezer named Bammy. No sooner does Bruce arrive than a gang of young hoodlums in dune buggies zoom through the town. The slang O’Neil writes for both the youngsters and Batman is so charmingly late 60s/early 70s. Again, after Batman learns that the hoodlums got bribed with “Fool’s money,” he hears the laughter again. Now, he starts to think it may be “Him.”

Later, at the hotel dining room, Bruce meets Lamont Cranston, complete with gray hair on the temples. Bruce doesn’t know of Cranston’s alter ego, but a remark from Cranston is the last clue Bruce needs. Here, in another charming note that’s now gone from comics, there’s a little yellow box: “Bruce [Batman] Wayne seems to have cracked the case! Have you?” It allowed young readers to be detectives. Love this. Still later, toward the end of the book, another clue is revealed. The editor wrote a note with the page and panel number. Sure enough, the clue was there. Wonderful stuff! As you’d expect, Batman travels to the counterfeiter’s hideout and fights them. And, in a very Robin-like move, Batman gets ink thrown in his face. His mysterious benefactor rescues him again, then leaves a note to meet back in Gotham the next night. They do, and The Shadow reveals himself. Basically, Batman is a huge fan and just wants to shake the hand of the old pulp hero. The Knight of Darkness, on the other hand, wanted to know if the Dark Knight deserved his reputation. He did.

As the Shadow melts into the night, Batman asks if the Shadow will come out of retirement. You know what the Shadow’s reply is before you even read it: “That…only the Shadow knows!”

 This was such a fun issue. It lead directly into the Shadow comic series. The two heroes would meet again in Batman 259…but that’s a review for a different day.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

River - TV Series

Hot on the heels of watching the excellent Broadchurch, my wife and I decided on yet another program she discovered. The one aspect of this six-episode series (really, just a six-hour movie broken up into six parts) that got her attention was the star: Stellan Skarsgård. I first saw Skarsgård in The Hunt for Red October back. He's a good actor, but not on my list of actors of whom I will see anything they do. This was likely off my radar but, again, I'm so glad it found its way onto my Netflix cue.
If you’ve seen the trailer or read the description, it’s giving nothing away to relate the basic gist of this story. Skarsgård plays DI John River, a man whose partner, DS Jackie "Stevie" Stevenson, was recently murdered. He is haunted by the event, but also by Stevie’s ghost…because River can see her and interact with her. And not only her but other ghosts—“Manifests” as he dubs them—all the time. What is fascinating is the more he digs into the truth about Stevie, the more he realizes there were shades of his former partner about which he never knew.

The plot could come across as rote or mundane, but the acting, especially Skarsgård, allows River to rise above other television programs of the same. It’s not just a crime story; rather, it’s more a nuanced examination of the character and how one violent moment—the murder of his partner—can have such profound impacts on his life. Skarsgård is excellent in this role. More than once, River would be in some dark place, like punching a wall he thinks is a ghost, only to have the character turn on a dime and smile like nothing’s wrong. It’s a bit disorienting for us viewers to say nothing of the supporting characters, especially Adeel Akhtar, who plays Ira King, River’s new partner. We viewers felt for King in the beginning, but he, like us, began to adjust to River’s bizarre behavior. I’d go so far as to say that King is the grounding character River needs to keep one foot on this side of sanity. While King doesn’t necessarily have an arc, he comes across as very sympathetic the longer the story goes on.

Lesley Manville, who plays Chrissie Read, River’s superior officer, also shines. Halfway through the story, it dawned on me that in many of these BBC shows I’ve watched, there are women in powerful positions. Prime Suspect, Broadchurch, The Fall, and Fox’s The Killing. The thing is, in these shows, it’s no big deal. It’s refreshing. Watching Manville’s character react to the events of this story is fantastic.

This is a show of nuances. Little facial tics or a half smile. Of small moments of growth or pain or a character willing to open up a part of themselves.  When you watch this—and you should—do not be distracted by your phone or anything else. If you want to find out just where you know Eddie Marsan from—Sherlock Holmes and Little Dorritt for me; there; I helped you—wait until the end of an episode. Devote your full attention to “River” and you will be justly rewarded.


Thursday, January 11, 2018

Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes by Maria Konnikova

I think it’s safe to say we all admire Sherlock Holmes’s brain, reasoning ability, and sheet intellect yet shy away from his more esoteric qualities like tobacco and drug use. When we read Holmes’s adventures, we see ourselves as Dr. Watson, the common man so to speak, who can’t fathom Holmes’s techniques ahead of time but the truth becomes crystal clear after the great detective reveals his methods.

Well, Maria Konnikova, PhD in psychology, is here to say that you and me, indeed each of us has, within ourselves the capability to train our minds to think like Holmes. For even Sherlock wasn’t born Sherlock Holmes.

The key quality in all of her remarkable book is that Holmes has “a method of mindful interaction with the world.” To make Konnikova’s point more succinct, Holmes was always in the moment. He didn’t multitask, but devoted his entire brain to the problem at hand. True, he lived in an era without smartphones, the internet, television, and all the other media glaring at our minds and eyes for attention, but he lived in arguably the most advanced town of his time. As did Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the man who created Holmes. We, too, can train our minds and our attention to interact with our modern world in a manner such as Holmes.

Like the modern version of Holmes in the BBC show “Sherlock,” Konnikova uses Holmes’s own comment about a mind attic as the basis for how we can train our brains. Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock calls it his mind palace, the place where he stores all the information in its own specific place. It’s an ancient technique developed by the Greeks, but in the age of Google, perhaps the need for our own mind attics has lessened. Not so, says Konnikova, but with a caveat. You see, our mind attics are only good if we know where to find a piece of information and can retrieve it. But, as a point she makes late in the book, as long as we remember where and how to retrieve a piece of information—even if it’s on Wikipedia—we can retain the knowledge. So, is Google our collective mind attic? Maybe.

In recent months, however, I’ve begun not to reach reflexively for my phone if I can’t remember a fact I know I have learned. I give it five minutes or so, often spending a good minute trying to pull the data point out of my brain before I move on to a different task. Little did I know that technique—Konnikova calls it mindful distraction—is exactly what Holmes often did. She uses various scenes and quotes from the canon to illustrate a point, like this one from “The Red-Headed League.” Mindful distraction—where you take your mind off the immediate problem and focus your conscious mind on a different task—relegates the problematic thought to the subconscious. More often than not, the solution will manifest itself. It’s a rush when I actually remember the data point without resorting to the “source of all truth.”

Konnikova’s book is chuck full of examples of how to think differently, coupled with research and examples you can do yourself. Some are a bit more difficult when you listen to the audio, like I did, but nonetheless worthwhile. What’s especially good is when she lays out a regimen of how to retrain the brain. As 2018 is only eleven days old and I’ve already begun mindfully reading the books on my bookshelf, I think, too, I’ll work on my brain. It is, after all, the main reason I bought this book on New Year’s Day…2014.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Under An Arctic Sky

I live in Houston, Texas, a mere hour away from the Gulf of Mexico, but I rarely see surfboards. What I do see is just about every other type of on-the-water craft. You see, surfing just isn’t really in the DNA on the upper Texas coast. As a result, I don’t normally gravitate toward much of anything surf-related.

Which meant the documentary Under an Arctic Sky, directed by Chris Burkard, is such an odd choice film for me. It’s on Netflix and if it had appeared on any of those feeds, I likely would have just passed it by. But my wife enjoys surfing movies and she had already seen it. She loved it and talked about it enthusiastically enough that come New Year’s Day evening, I suggested we watch it.

Boy am I glad we did.

The plot of this documentary is right there in the title: a group of professional surfers travel up to Iceland—in winter!—to catch some pristine waves in a remote area of Iceland where even the natives rarely go. I had to chuckle when a couple of the Americans were from Florida and California, both locales associated with surfing but not cold weather.

When it comes to unique stories like this one, often there is some sort of external issue that we viewers know about but the participants in the show do not. Sting and his band’s documentary back in 2001 is a good example. We knew 9/11 was approaching and it was fascinating to watch their reactions. Similarly, with these surfers, the worst snow storm in twenty-five years hit while they were filming. What started out as a search for a wave became a survival/adventure story.

Even if surfing isn’t your thing, two aspects of this documentary are worth noting. One, it’s only forty minutes. You clearly can carve less than an hour of some evening to watch this unique show. But the second reason is more important: the cinematography. It is absolutely gorgeous. The stark beauty of snowcapped landscapes and I-don’t-even-want-to-know-how-cold-that-water-is ocean waves are reason enough to watch this film. Plus, you are treated to the utter incongruity of men surfing with snow in the background.

And the northern lights. C’mon. It’s not a spoiler. It’s right in the title.


Saturday, January 6, 2018

Broadchurch: One of the Best Things I Watched in 2017

Some series arrive out of the blue and land your radar that you wonder how it is you never heard of it. Chances are good that the reason I never knew about Broadchurch was that I am not—as yet—a Doctor Who fan.
Someone correct me if I’m mistaken but it seems to me that Broadchurch must have been written by Chris Chibnall with star David Tennant in mind. He plays detective Alec Hardy, a grizzled veteran recently assigned as lead detective to the police station down in Broadchurch (a fictional town Dorset, England) largely to get away from a case that had gone badly. He immediately ruffles the feathers of detective Ellie Miller (the brilliant Olivia Colman) who had just returned from a vacation with the full expectation that she would land the job of lead detective. You can imagine her chagrin at not getting the post, but all of that is subverted when the body of a young boy is found on the beach, below a massive cliff.

What makes Broadchurch the series so utterly compelling is how the death of the boy affects the residents of Broadchurch the town. The first season (all seasons are eight episodes) zeroes in on the family of young Danny Latimer. The Latimers—father Mark Latimer (Andrew Buchan); mother Beth Latimer (played by future Doctor Who Jodie Whittaker); and sister Chloe—are understandably beside themselves with grief. They are also good friends with the Millers—Ellie’s son was friends with Danny; Ellie is best friends with Beth—and that relationship is stretched from time to time as the investigation drags on.

As in most great mysteries, we viewers see certain characters doing things that casts shades of guilt over them. The mystery is compelling, but the acting is superb. This counts as my first exposure to Tennant and if he brings this kind of gravitas to Doctor Who, I’m so there. I saw myself in Whittaker and Buchan, as the grieving parents, and wondered if I would do anything much differently. But the true breakout star (for me) of this series is Colman’s Ellie. Indeed, she won a BAFTA for Best Actress. Over the course of season one, she quickly grew to be my favorite character and she stayed that way all the way to the series finale. Her humanness at what she witnesses is compelling and draws you in more and more. Colman’s ability never to hide her true feelings is refreshing in a TV detective, and her strength, while tested, remains strong. I’ve not watched an episode of “The Crown” but as soon as I learned Colman would assume the lead role, I put that show on my list.

Word of advice: do not watch season one and read up on the series on the internet. You will spoil the reveal of the true culprit.

Season two of the series focuses on two plot threads: the trial of the person responsible for Danny’s death—and what it does to the town—and the old case Tennant’s Hardy failed to solve that eventually led to his assignment at Broadchurch. Where many second seasons and sequels tend to go over the top, with Broadchurch, you merely get additional layers peeled away. Colman continues to shine as my favorite character, but the actions and motivations of the Latimer parents take a prominent role. We get a bit of backstory with Tennant’s Hardy here, especially as he asks Ellie to review and re-investigate the previous case which has landed again in his lap.

Again, do not read up on this season, but stay to the very, very powerful ending that will have you asking if you could do it.

The third and last season jumps forward in time about three years. Hardy is back in Broadchurch and he and Ellie investigate the brutal rape of a woman at a 50th birthday party at a nearby mansion. Like the previous two seasons, the detectives investigate folks and we see them not only doing something that makes them look suspicious but also outright lying to the investigators. Season three uses this story to say a few things about modern culture, not all of it good. As you have come to expect, the acting is superb and Colman shines, as does Tennant.

This is an excellent series and is one of the best things I saw in 2017 (we finished a few days shy of 2018). All the episodes are on Netflix. I’m not a binger, but I started to be as this series progressed. Season one was a one-episode-per-night thing. Season two had a couple of nights where my wife and I watched two episodes. Not so with the third season. Most nights were two episodes each. I ended up finishing the series sooner than I would have liked, but it is so good I didn’t really care.

Broadchurch: Seasons 1-3: Highly Recommended

P. S. Happy Birthday, Sherlock!

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Starfire: A Red Peace by Spencer Ellsworth

Sometimes, you want a little weird in your space opera. If that’s you, then STARFIRE: A RED PEACE is the book for you.

First, a little parsing of the word ‘weird.’ I don’t use that word in the sense that what you read in this first book a new space opera trilogy is odd (but it is). Rather, I use the term ‘weird’ as the type of genre fiction made most popular by old masters like H. P. Lovecraft and new practitioners like China Mieville. Weird fiction deals with the supernatural in a non-magical kind of way and, in my limited knowledge, a lot of insectoid stuff. It’s an curious distinction, and one I honestly haven’t seen in a mainstream work of science fiction before.*

A Red Peace by Spencer Ellsworth (who landed on my radar after reading this interview by Chuck Wendig) is space opera in the grand old style: space battles between rival groups (a Resistance and an Empire; sound familiar?), interesting ways in which humans have evolved over the centuries with tech, and new-to-me concept like the soul sword (it not only kills you, but the welder accumulates all the memories of the victim). If Star Wars: The Last Jedi merely whetted your appetite for more space opera, Ellsworth’s book is perfect.

The story is told in two different, first person, present tense points of view, allowing you to see this new world from two distinct vantage points. Jaqi, an eighteen-year-old “cross” (not all human) who—and stop me if this sounds familiar— is a navigator taking any job she can get in order to put food in her stomach. Naturally, she gets herself involved in a grander story when she happens upon three human kids. Yeah, they’re human—a rarity in this galaxy from the lost Earth—but they also have the McGuffin (ahem, black box) that John Starfire, the hero of the Empire wants. Does Jaqi help the kids? You know the answer.

The other main character is Araskar, another “cross” who was born out of the vats only five years ago. He’s a soldier under Starfire’s command and, surprisingly, a seasoned veteran in an army that seems only to grow men like Araskar in order for them to be cannon fodder. He’s got a drug habit, but he’s also ready to stop fighting. As you can imagine, Araskar is part of the group assigned to locate the missing children and retrieve what they possess.

Oh, and there are sun-sized spiders and spaceships that are nothing more than the abandoned carapaces of an insectoid race of aliens that Araskar and his soldiers actually get inside of and pilot. Complete with slime.

Yeah, color me intrigued.

What also intrigued me was Ellsworth incorporation of music as a type of "Force." Not sure I've seen that before either.

At only 208 pages (6 hours and 20 minutes in the audio), Ellsworth packs a lot into this slim novel. The pace never lets up as the characters run pell mell through the paces. In a novel as short as this, there isn’t a lot of time for world building. If you’re like me, there’s nothing that grinds a story to a halt than a long discourse into some world building an author feels compelled to write simply because they dreamed it up. Ellsworth often lets the reader just figure things out—not too difficult, really—and occasionally throws in a sentence or two of explanation, usually in the middle of the action. So welcome.

A Red Peace is a splendid book and what better recommendation do you need other than me telling you I’m ready to dive into book 2, Shadow Sun Seven, right now before the third book, Memory’s Blade (out 27 February) is published. Just look at those covers!

*If you know of any other examples, please let me know.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

My Wife's Reading Habit AKA Reading Mindfully

I'm a lifelong reader, the kind of person who always has a book nearby, but I in 2017, my wife had me beat.
During the holidays, I overheard my wife talking to one of her friends. At one point, my wife mentioned that she had read about 52 books last year. That stopped me cold. Fifty-two? That's a book a week. I thought back over the year and recalled what I saw every day. My wife always had a book with her at home. She isn't one to read on her phone, and she rarely does an audiobook. But she ends each evening by reading a chapter or two of a book. Given enough days, obviously, she completes one and moves on to the next. 
Now, my wife is also the type of reader who, when she discovers an author and said author has a nice back catalogue, settles in and plows through the author's past works. Jodi Picoult was the author last year. My wife has now read every novel Picoult has written save the YA one. Impressive. Most impressive.
Lastly, my wife barely has a TBR pile, except, as in the previous example, she discovers an author. She doesn't troll websites and blogs, reading reviews and collecting lists of authors and books to try. She's an old-fashioned reader. When she's needing a book, she'll go to Half Price or Barnes and Noble and shop. She'll also read the emails Barnes and Noble sends her. Every now and then, she'll see a story on TV and want to follow up by reading the book.
Then there's me. I'm the type of reader with a TBR pile, both virtual and real, stacked pretty high. I read a ton of blogs and many of the recommendations I see intrigue me. I'm also a bit of a distracted reader as well. If I start reading, say, a western and then I watch a really good mystery on TV or read a blog post about the latest SF novel, I'm apt to not only include the second book in my current reading, but also just as likely to stop reading the western because my interests have shifted. Reader ADD I suppose. The process can repeat itself over and over again. The end result is a bunch of half-finished books. Sometimes I can even come around to the year anniversary of discovering/buying a book and realize I never finished it.
Audio is different. When I download a book via Audible, I'm pretty much zeroed in on it until I'm done. Mostly.
If there's a term for how my wife reads, it's "mindfully." She mindfully reads one book until she reaches "The End" and moves on. In that manner, she was able to read a book a month in 2017.
For me, 2018 will be a year of mindful reading. With a full-time job, a commute, and lots of writing to get done, I don't presume to be able to read a book a month. But I will apply the simple rule of writing to reading: Read a book, looking first at the books on my shelves. Finish what you started. Then do it again. And try to avoid distractions as much as possible. When I assess my reading for 2018 in 363 days, I hope to have improved my reading habit. And I'm ready.
First up: the novel I received at Christmas: Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz.