Monday, July 3, 2017

What I'm Reading: The Seventh Most Important Thing

Arthur, age 13, lives in Washington, DC, in 1963. When he picks up a brick and throws it at a black homeless man people call the Junk Man, everyone assumes it's racially motivated violence, and the judge is prepared to send him away to juvie for a long time.  But it wasn't race that motivated him. His father died three months ago, and he saw the Junk Man wearing his father's old motorcycle cap, not knowing his mother had thrown it away.

But at the hearing, the Junk Man, whose real name turns out to be James Hampton, asks the judge if instead of being sent to juvie, Arthur can be sentenced to help him with his work, since his arm is broken and he can't do it. The judge agrees to the unusual idea, ordering Arthur to work for Mr. Hampton for 120 hours of service. When Arthur shows up on a snowy day at the address the court gives him, he finds an old garage with the Junk Man's cart outside it. Taped to the cart is a sign on cardboard asking Arthur to collect the seven most important things: lightbulbs, foil, mirrors, pieces of wood, glass bottles, coffee cans, and cardboard.

What does the Junk Man do with these things? What's in the garage? Why, whenever he sees Arthur, does the Junk Man refer to him as St. Arthur, and to himself as St. James? And will Arthur be able to finish his sentence so he doesn't have to go to juvie?

An added bonus for me is that the book is set in Washington, DC, so there are references to local sights like the Smithsonian and the Washington Senators baseball team. But it takes place in a working-class neighborhood, so we get a glimpse of how real Washingtonians live. And the mystery of what James Hampton, the Junk Man, is working on, turns out to be tied to a real Washington location--although I won't reveal any more than that.

The Seventh Most Important Thing, a YA by Shelley Pearsall, would be good for any kid from 10 up to read, and many adults as well, I think. It's attention-grabbing from the first page, the characters are realistic and well-drawn, and despite offering some deep lessons, there's a lot of humor throughout. In fact, I think I'm going to go hand it to my own 12-year-old son to read tonight.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Ranking Wonder Woman

Went with my family to see Wonder Woman last weekend. It was a fun movie! I noticed my daughter wasn't bored at any parts, as she has been with other superhero movies. Is that because Wonder Woman is an especially good superhero movie, or because it has a female protagonist? Not sure...

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 WarDr. Strange, Guardians of the Galaxy 2, and the Man-Thing.

So we start off with Wonder Woman's origin story, who grows up as the child, Diana, on the hidden island of Themyscira. She is the daughter of Hippolyta, queen of the Amazons, a warrior race charged by Zeus with battling the god of war, Ares--only Ares has not appeared on Earth for millenia. As she gets older, Diana proves to be the fiercest warrior of all, skilled in every sort of athletic event, yet her mother never fully lets her take part, claiming she is not meant for war.

When World War I spy Steve Trevor crash lands on the island in a plane, Diana rescues him. He tells her of the war raging across the globe, unbeknownst to the sheltered woman of Themyscira. Diana immediately connects the World War with the return of Ares, and wishes to accompany Steve back to the outside world. Her mother is against it, and Diana sneaks away with Steve at night on a boat.

In 1910s London, Diana is horrified by the pollution, poverty, and and crime she witnesses in the city. She wishes to travel as soon as possible to the frontlines, assuming she'll easily find Ares there. Steve Trevor has to slow her down, even as he tries (mostly in vain) to make bold, naive Diana less obtrusive in Edwardian society. Eventually he is sent on a mission behind enemy lines, and takes Diana with him.

I won't say what happens after that, except that the adventure could rightly be described as rollicking, and there's a lot of good humor. This is one of the best DC movies in a long time, not quite excellent in my rating system but pretty close.

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:

Crumb
American Splendor
Iron Man
Heavy Metal (1981)
Spider-Man 2 (2004)
Avengers
Superman (1978)
Captain America
Wonder Woman (2017)
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)
Ant-Man
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)
Thor
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, 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:

Story/Plot
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

Action
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
Goldfinger
Live and Let Die
The Man With the Golden Gun

Villain
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)

Setting
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
Goldfinger
Live and Let Die
Skyfall
Doesn't Rank
Thunderball
A View to a Kill
Spectre

Gadgets/Vehicles/Lairs
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
Skyfall
Spectre

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
Thunderball
Spectre
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:
Overall
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:

Crumb
American Splendor
Iron Man
Heavy Metal (1981)
Spider-Man 2 (2004)
Avengers
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)
Ant-Man
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)
Thor
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.