Saturday, May 1, 2021

King Kong, Godzilla, and the Immediate Move to Comedy

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Saturday, April 24, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, April 17, 2021

What Are Some Literary "Jumping the Shark" Moments?

Sometimes, old things trigger new questions.

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

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

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

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

And I received a happy surprise.

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

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

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

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

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

Follow-up Question


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

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

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

Friday, April 9, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

Twice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Song Notes:


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summary:

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

Tuesday, April 6, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

And, of course, the mob gets involved.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other books in the series:

Open and Shut

First Degree

Monday, March 22, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

And there are.

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

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

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


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

 

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


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@Barrie Summy

Saturday, March 20, 2021

How Long Until the Murder?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, March 13, 2021

Do We Have Too Much Stuff?

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

Most Saturday mornings, I go back in time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But there is so much stuff to watch.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unless I had a time machine.

Monday, March 8, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, March 6, 2021

Ever Have One of Those Chapters?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Y’all have chapters like that?

Saturday, February 27, 2021

What is the Tapestry of Books?

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

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

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

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

Lefsetz starts his post about Tapestry with this observation:

"It was an album for everybody.

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

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

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

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

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

What is the Tapestry of Books?


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, February 22, 2021

A 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.