Saturday, June 17, 2017

Finished Another One

The Love Machine, my latest novel, is done.

Well, at least the not-quite-final draft of it. I finished it this morning, fulfilling my 2017 New Year's goal of having it done by June. It took about 18 months.

Because I've been reading each chapter to my writers' group a few weeks after completing them, and then going back and polishing, the book should need very little work further work, I think. I'll take a week or so off, and then do a final read-through and polish.

My next goals?

1) I have two open short stories. I'll finish one of them. Should take 7-10 days.

2A) Polish query letter for The Love Machine.
2B) Send The Love Machine  out to agents. Maybe start in a month.

3A) Go back to novel #3, which I need to make one semi-major change to. May take a few weeks for that. Otherwise, I think this one is good to go.
3B) Novel #3 also needs a title! My various working titles (most recently, Out of Place) have not worked for me.

4) Start on novel #5. I have a really killer premise and am ready to start. Maybe after Labor Day.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

What I'm Reading: The Seven Pillars of Wisdom

Wow. I'm finally done with The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, by T.E. Lawrence, i.e., Lawrence of Arabia. Yes, these are his memoirs, upon which the famous movie is based, and I feel like I've been reading them for months. I have been reading them for months. Too good to put down, too intimidating to pick up for reading before bed, I've read it only when I've had an unbroken block of 30-60 minutes.

Lawrence had studied archeology in college, I think, and had spent time on digs of crusader castles in Syria, where he perfected his Arabic and spent much time traveling around, familiarizing himself with the land and its people. When World War I broke out, he was a perfect prospect for joining British intelligence in Egypt. The British thought it might help their cause to encourage a rebellion among the Arabs against their Ottoman overlords in Turkey, who were allied with Germany, and sent Lawrence for the job.

Lawrence's first task was identifying which of old, doddering King Hussein's three sons would be a good leader for a rebellion, and found the ideal man in Prince Feisal, a calm, fair-minded, Turkish-educated natural leader of men. Together Lawrence and Feisal led a motley collection of Bedouin tribesman and local Arab peasants from Jeddah on the Red Sea coast up to, eventually, Damascus and the ultimate defeat of the Turks in Arab lands.

Lawrence himself becomes a legend in Arabia through the course of the book, a strange blue-eyed figure, a non-Muslim and a clean-shaven man, both great rarities in the desert, yet acting as a sheik and a military leader, with the authority and white robes of Mecca, and a gold Meccan dagger presented him by Prince Feisal himself. When he arrives in an area where he hasn't been before, the locals all come to see this odd sight firsthand, though of course they already know him by reputation. And he strives to live up to their expectations, living the same hard life as a Bedouin, and even going out of his way to learn words in local dialects and details of local clans, so that he can greet a stranger and ask him of his family on first meeting. Quite an incredible man!

I'm naming this book as one of  my Shortcuts to Smartness, by which I mean a book that so expands your knowledge and understanding in so many areas it's like a college class in and of itself. But in this case, I'm also including a caveat, which is that this book is so huge and mighty, and much of the knowledge provided so esoteric--the different types of sand in the desert, how to coax a she-camel to travel when she is mourning a lost calf, the difference in what the English and the Arabs conceive of as hunger, and on and on--that it takes a reader truly willing to accompany Lawrence on his journey, including all the immensely interesting, though often lengthy, digressions.

In fact, if you think the movie is long, it is only the thin outer layer of the fruit. I think my favorite part is learning about how to feast in the Bedouin tradition, with goat and camel meat roasted and presented steaming (rude to wait until it cools--too bad for your fingers!), and an elaborate hierarchy of who gets to eat from the common dishes first, who eats second after the best parts are taken, and who gets the bones and other remains.

Or maybe the history of Auda, the old desert warrior who becomes a general in the Arab army, who has killed more than 70 Arabs with his own hands in his life, and so many Turks he doesn't even know (because who counts Turks?), and who describes to all who will listen the adventures of his life in the most heroic terms.

But these are just two of the many, many interesting descriptions and stories--hundreds, not dozens--sprinkled throughout the main narrative. This book may not be for all, but if you have the will, the desire, most of all the time, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom is worth your attention.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

James Bond: Movie Rankings by Category

Okay, here's a little project I've been working on for a while, based on my categories for each James Bond movie I've ranked (11 so far, reviewed herehereherehere, and here). So here's each category with the movies ranked in order by quality beneath:

Top 4
1. On Her Majesty's Secret Service
2. Goldfinger
3. The Spy Who Loved Me
4. A View To a Kill

Top 8
5. Casino Royale
6. Skyfall
7. Spectre
8. Thunderball

Doesn't Rank
Die Another Day
The Man With the Golden Gun
Live and Let Die

Top 4
1. Casino Royale
2. The Spy Who Loved Me
3. Skyfall
4. On Her Majesty's Secret Service

Top 8
5. A View To a Kill
6. Die Another Day
7. Thunderball
8. Spectre

Doesn't Rank
Live and Let Die
The Man With the Golden Gun

Top 4
1. Goldfinger, Oddjob (Goldfinger)
2. Stromberg, Jaws (The Spy Who Loved Me)
3. Blofeld, Fraulein Bunt (On Her Majesty's Secret Service)
4. Raoul Silva (Skyfall)

Top 8
5. Le Chiffre (Casino Royale)
6. Blofeld (Spectre)
7. Scaramanga, Nick Nack (The Man With the Golden Gun)
8. Mr. Big, Baron Samedi (Live and Let Die)

Doesn't Rank
Zorin, Mayday (A View To a Kill)
Colonel Moon, Zao (Die Another Day)
Emilio Largo (Thunderball)

Top 4
The Spy Who Loved Me
Casino Royale
On Her Majesty's Secret Service
The Man With the Golden Gun
Top 8
Die Another Day
Live and Let Die
Doesn't Rank
A View to a Kill

Top 4
1. Goldfinger
2. The Spy Who Loved Me
3. On Her Majesty's Secret Service
4. Die Another Day

Top 8
5. The Man With the Golden Gun
6. Thunderball
7. Casino Royale
8. Live and Let Die

Doesn't Rank
A View to a Kill

Bond Girls
Top 4
1. Barbara Bach (The Spy Who Loved Me)
2. Solitaire, Rosie Carver (Live and Let Die)
3. Diana Rigg (On Her Majesty's Secret Service)
4. Vesper Lynd (Casino Royale)

Top 8
5. Jinx (Die Another Day)
6. Monica Belucci, Madeleine Swann (Spectre)
7. Fiona Volpe (Thunderball)
8. Mary Goodnight (Man With the Golden Gun)

Doesn't Rank

Severine, M (?) (Skyfall)
Pussy Galore (Goldfinger)
Stacey Sutton, May Day (A View To a Kill)

Musical Theme
Top 5
1. Goldfinger
2. A View to a Kill
3. Nobody Does it Better (The Spy Who Loved Me)
4. Live and Let Die
5. Skyfall

Doesn't Rank
On Her Majesty's Secret Service
Casino Royale
Die Another Day
The Man With the Golden Gun

And as a reminder, here are the overall movie rankings:
1) The Spy Who Loved Me (12 points)
2) Casino Royale (10 points)
3, 4) Goldfinger, On Her Majesty's Secret Service (tied with 9 points)
5) Skyfall (8 points)
6) Thunderball (6 points)
7, 8, 9) Live and Let Die, Spectre, The Man With the Golden Gun (5 points)
10, 11) Die Another Day, A View to a Kill (4 points)

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Ranking Guardians of the Galaxy 2

Recently saw Guardians of the Galaxy 2 and wanted to rank it with the other superhero movies, and also realized I had never ranked the first one on here. So let's do them both now.

I have previously ranked the Batman movies, the Superman movies, the other DC movies, the Avengers movies, the X-Men movies, the summer 2015 comic movies, the Spider-Man movies, the non-Marvel and non-DC comic moviesCaptain America: Civil War, Dr. Strange, and the Man-Thing.

We are living in an age of wonders, when Marvel has put out so many movies in their filmic universe that they are now able to insert obscure characters like Ego the Living Planet, Mantis, and Howard the Duck, and still end up with a blockbuster. Then again, the Guardians of the Galaxy franchise itself is pretty unlikely, or so I would have thought until a few years ago.

I've never been a huge GotG fan in the comics, but my impression is that it was always intended to be a fairly serious series, along with the Starlord comics. Rocket Raccoon, however, was zany and over the top from his inception, though never a part of the GotG. The movie version takes its tone from Rocket, and mashes him into a particular GotG cast combination that never showed up in the comics. The filmmakers obviously know what they're doing, though, creating a mix of personalities and powers designed to maximize conflict and humor.

The first movie was a little better than the second, I thought: funnier and more focused. They're both pretty watchable, though, holding even my 7-year-old daughter's attention for the entire run time. The second one pushed a little too hard on making the Guardians a family, a group of damaged people who have to turn to each other because their own families are so dead or messed up, but the emotional manipulation didn't outweigh the fun of the movie.

I think we'll put these both in pretty good category, with the first one near the middle and GotG2 closer to the bottom.

As ever, my ranking system is
Green=excellent  Blue=pretty good  Black=Okay  Red=avoid


Here's the master list of all comics movies I've rated so far, in order from best to worst:

American Splendor
Iron Man
Heavy Metal (1981)
Spider-Man 2 (2004)
Superman (1978)
Captain America
Batman Begins (2005)
Captain America: Civil War
Captain America 2: The Winter Soldier
Spider-Man (2002)
X-Men 2: X-Men United
X-Men: Days of Future Past
Superman II
Batman (1989)
Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
Dr. Strange
The Dark Knight (2008)
Iron Man 3
The Wolverine (2013)
Guardians of the Galaxy 2
Sin City (2005)
X-Men: First Class
X-Men (2000)
Avengers 2: Age of Ultron
Swamp Thing (1982)
Spider-Man 3 (2007)
Iron Man 2
Watchmen (2009)
Batman Forever (1995)
Superman Returns (2006)
Thor 2: The Dark World
Incredible Hulk (2008)
Mystery Men
Dark Knight Rises (2012)
Man-Thing (2005)
Superman III
Supergirl (1984)
X-Men 3: Last Stand
Hulk (2003)
Fritz the Cat (1972)
Batman and Robin (1997)
Batman Returns (1992)
Superman IV

Amazing Spider-Man (2012) (Haven't seen)
Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014) (Haven't seen)
Batman (1966) (Haven't seen)
Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (Haven't seen)
Catwoman (Haven't seen)
Constantine (Haven't seen)
Deadpool (Haven't seen)
Green Lantern (Haven't seen)
Hellboy (Haven't seen)
Judge Dredd (Haven't seen)
Man of Steel (Haven't seen)
Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (2014) (Haven't seen)
V for Vendetta (Haven't seen)
X-Men Origins: Wolverine (Haven't seen)

Saturday, May 6, 2017

What I'm Reading: Roundup

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: The Cincinnati Reds Over spring break we went on vacation to Cincinnati. Hey, don't laugh, we had a great time! One of the things we did was take in a Reds game (lost to the Brewers 5-1), and I picked this book up in the great Reds Museum attached to the ballpark. This book was exactly what I was looking for, more or less a primer on the history of Reds baseball, written in a fun, accessible style.

The Reds were the first professional baseball team ever, dating from 1869. Those first couple "seasons" they traveled around the country playing local clubs, factory teams, and so forth, and going more than 80 games without defeat until they lost to the New York Atlantics in June 1870. While they haven't always been the winningest club since then, they've been to the World Series nine times and won five of those visits, most recently in 1990.

I was pretty familiar with the glory days of the Big Red Machine in the 1970s, but other aspects of team history were a surprise. I think I liked best learning about Ted Kluszewski, the Reds mountainous first baseman in the 1950s. Kluszewski was widely considered the strongest man in baseball, but was a gentle giant with a humble disposition. There are numerous stories of his feats, both tape-measure home runs and more irregular occurrences. For instance, a game with St. Louis nearly broke out in a brawl. When St. Louis shortstop Solly Hemus ran out of the dugout to join the developing fight, Kluszewski lifted him off the ground entirely and asked where he was going. "Nowhere, Ted, nowhere," was the answer, cutting the brawl short before it could spread.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone We listened to this in the car on the way to and back from Cincy. I had always had the impression that Harry Potter was little more than a mish-mash of well-worn fantasy tropes with the cliche-ridden writing typical of the genre and was not looking forward to hearing this. After actually listening to it, I'll admit I've upgraded my opinion a couple notches, although I still don't think it's nearly as great as its reputation.

As far as writing-style, it does use that high fantasy style, but adds a winking irony and subtle humor. Holy cow, J. K. Rowling is in on the joke! Parts of this book are pretty funny, and on a line-by-line and page-by-page level, the writing has a great deal of charm and is quite listenable/readable. The world-building, too, is remarkable. I think the main thing readers like in this book must be all the various details we see as we accompany Harry on his first visit to Hogwarts, the magical classes and teachers and stores and even candies. Plus, the great sequences with Quidditch, that comically complicated, high-speed broomstick-riding sport Harry excels at.

Once we actually settled into the plot of the book I was somewhat less thrilled, however. As we move on from Harry's initial encounters with a world whose existence he had never suspected, we enter a fairly by-the-numbers adventure in the second half of the book. Oh, trolls, dragons, and a magic mirror. Yawn. Plus, while I won't give away the ending (as if there's anyone besides me who hasn't read this yet), it was very much a deus ex machina-type resolution to the conflict.

Whether I recommend this book is beside the point--every kid who likes reading has already picked it up, I'm sure. It's definitely a fun read, but I don't think Hogwarts is going to join Middle Earth or Narnia as a place that kids will still be visiting in their imaginations decades from now.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Ranking A View To A Kill

I previously ranked some of the James Bond movies hereherehere, and here. I watched A View To a Kill last weekend with my son. It was the last of the Roger Moore movies, from 1985. Although it's the one I've probably seen most in my life, as it used to come on HBO regularly when I was a kid, I haven't seen it in probably 30 years. There was a lot I didn't remember!

For one thing, it's actually fairly quiet and circumspect, as far as Bond movies go. That's probably one reason I don't remember much--like my son last week, I probably bailed during the talky parts and only came back during the action scenes. Much of the first half of the movie concerns racehorses being doped at a horse farm in rural France, while much of the second half features a genuine romance developing between James Bond and a sweet heiress who's inherited her family's oil wells in California and is determined to hold onto them, despite the legal maneuvering of the villain Zorin. I was a lot more into the plot as an adult than I'm sure I ever was as a ten- or -eleven-year old.

Since the Bond movies are formulaic and their quality is based on how well they fulfill the formula, I created a little rubric to rank the Bond movies, with several categories a movie can get points in. We're going to tweak the formula slightly for this movie. A Bond film gets 2 points if the movie is one of the top 4 Bond movies for a category, and 1 point if it's in the top 8, plus a couple special categories. Here are the criteria, with a maximum of 14 points available:

Story/Plot--2 points--Is the plot coherent and logical? Are the stakes high?  (2 points, top 4; 1 point, top 8)

Action--2 points--Are the stunts exciting? The car chases thrilling?  (2 points, top 4; 1 point, top 8)

Villain--2 points--What's a Bond movie without dastardly villains and their henchmen? (2 points, top 4; 1 point, top 4)

Setting--2 points--The Bond movies are all about exotic locations. (2 points, top 4; 1 point, top 8)

Gadgets, Vehicles, Lairs--2 points--What's the cool stuff?  (2 points, top 4; 1 point, top 8)

Bond girls--2 points--The ladies, oh yes, the ladies. (2 points, top 4; 1 point, top 8)

Sean Connery or Daniel Craig?--1 point--These are the best Bonds (no need to debate) and get an automatic extra point if appearing in the film.

Musical theme--1 point if in the top 5

A View to a Kill
Story/Plot--The story is well-written, Zorin's scheme to corner the world market in semiconductors by inducing an earthquake in Silicon Valley is fairly sensical by Bond villain standards, and the romance between Bond and heiress Stacy Sutton is surprisingly sweet. An unexpected result: this is in the Top 4. (2 points)
Action--A great climactic scene atop the Golden Gate Bridge, along with an entertaining car chase through the streets of San Francisco, put this in the Top 8. (1 point)
Villain--Zorin, played by a very young Christopher Walken, doesn't quite live up to the standards set by other villains. (0 points)
Setting--Rural France and San Francisco are nice, but not quite exotic enough to score here. (0 points)
Gadgets, Vehicles, Lairs--No special cars or special gadgets, and Zorin's lair is unremarkable. The vast mining operation he is using to drain a lake that will trigger earthquakes in Silicon Valley is more impressive, but not enough to score here. (0 points)
Bond Girls--Grace Jones? I don't think so. Tanya Roberts as heiress Stacey Sutton is sweet but not a classic Bond girl. (0 points)
SC or DC? No
Music--Theme song is by Duran Duran and is a real classic, so much so that it practically takes over the soundtrack. There's relatively little use of the classic Bond theme, with an orchestral version of the Duran Duran song playing throughout. Pushes Thunderball out of the top 5. (1 point)
Total: 4 points

Rejiggered points for other movies:
Skyfall moves into the Top 4 for Action (+1)
Raoul Silva in Skyfall moves into Top 4 for Villain (+1)

On Her Majesty's Service moves into the Top 8 for Setting (+1)
The Man With the Golden Gun moves into Top 4 for Setting (+1)
Live and Let Die moves into the Top 8 for Gadgets/Vehicles/Lairs (+1)
Thunderball moves into the Top 8 for Gadgets/Vehicles/Lairs (+1)
The Man With the Golden Gun moves into the Top 8 for Bond Girls (+1)
Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale moves into Top 4 for Bond Girls (+1)
Thunderball (-1) for Music

And, here are the updated results:
1) The Spy Who Loved Me (12 points)
2) Casino Royale (10 points)
3, 4) Goldfinger, On Her Majesty's Secret Service (tied with 9 points)
5) Skyfall (8 points)
6) Thunderball (6 points)
7, 8, 9) Live and Let Die, Spectre, The Man With the Golden Gun (5 points)
10, 11) Die Another Day, A View to a Kill (4 points)

Monday, March 6, 2017

What I'm Reading: Roundup

Fatal, But Not Serious A novel by my friend, Frederick Lewis! I think the closest comparable for this book is A Confederacy of Dunces. Both drop a lot of ridiculous characters against a Southern backdrop with hilarious results. Fatal, But Not Serious pits the salt-of-the-earth residents of Williams Island, a fictitious barrier island off the coast of Georgia, against a sham environmental organization that wants the government to remove the island's residents so it can build a sustainable eco-lodge for tourists.

The novel has a deft sense of comic timing and effectively builds the conflict between the island's residents and the environmentalists, who resort to increasingly underhanded means to get the residents to leave. I think my favorite part was when a Brazilian woodpecker, painted to look like the nearly-extinct ivory-billed woodpecker that hasn't been seen on Williams Island in decades, becomes a media sensation and is chopped up in the rotor blade of a cable television camera drone that's tracking its every movement.

What I would like to see in Mr. Lewis's next book is more emphasis on developing characters. Going back to A Confederacy of Dunces, yes the characters were ridiculous, but Ignatius J. Reilly and the others were also believable (to an extent) and sympathetic, with their own foibles and complexities. The characters in Fatal, But Not Serious are more two-dimensional. Nor need it come at the cost of the sharp political satire--Primary Colors comes to mind as a political satire that managed quite a bit of subtlety in its characterization. Mr. Lewis shows a lot of promise and I'd like to see what he manages next.

Complete Peanuts Volume 26 Okay, I've skipped ahead to the final book in this series, because I'm afraid this one will not be in print long. The Complete Peanuts is a noble project to publish every strip of Charles Schulz's Peanuts, from its inception in 1951 to its final panel in 2000.  It's a gargantuan undertaking, and a new volume covering two years is issued every six months.  (I have previously reviewed the 1977-78 volume herethe 1979-80 volume here, the 1981-82 volume here1983-84 volume here, the 1985-86 volume here, and the 1987-88 volume here.)

The series finished the regular run of strips with Volume 25, with Volume 26 containing ephemera--ads, short books, and related artwork that appeared in various media. The highlight to my mind is the comics that appeared in a late 1950s comic book series by Dell. While most of the strips were done by other artists, Schulz did a few himself, and these definitely have the flavor of late 1950s Peanuts. In fact, they read rather like lost Sunday strips. Apparently they have never been reprinted before now.

Some fun things in this book, but this volume is definitely for the completists rather than the general reader.