Monday, January 2, 2017

Writing Goals for 2017

Here are my writing goals for 2017:

1) Finish revisions to my short story, La Jolla Ballroom, and submit for writers' group anthology. This one is done, I did the final revisions this morning.

2) Finish current novel, The Love Machine, by June. I think I'm over halfway done at this point. I've been doing editing and revision of each chapter after reading it aloud at my writers' group, so it (hopefully) will need little revision once I get to the end. June's pretty ambitious, but I should be able to manage it.

3) In January, complete beta reads for manuscripts. I'm beta reading two novels for fellow authors in my writers' group.

4) Revise third novel (probably starting in June). Also, come up with a good title for it. My third novel, finished a couple years ago, languishes in limbo. It's done but needs a a major re-write.

5) Continue work on short stories, including Steader, and others as time permits. I have a short story I started a few months ago titled Steader that I think could be really good. Just need to finish it! Plenty of other ideas for stories floating around too, nothing too well-formed, but lots of things with potential.

5A) But only write short stories if it is something new. I feel like I've gotten in a little bit of a rut with my short stories--some of my recent ones have seemed too similar in tone, and too easy for me to write. So I've determined only to write short stories that will stretch my writing muscles in some way. For La Jolla Ballroom, it's using period dialect from the 1930s. For Steader, it's writing a tense thriller.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

What I'm Reading: Complete Peanuts, 1987-88

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.  The project actually finished recently with volume 26, but I'm a little behind and have only reached 1987-88. I've reviewed five previous volumes of the Complete Peanuts: the 1977-78 volume herethe 1979-80 volume here, the 1981-82 volume here1983-84 volume here, and the 1985-86 volume here.

Marcie learns what it's like

This volume continues following the strip during its gentle decline into old age. The first half of the book has surprisingly few long story arcs, but plenty of the dull strips about Snoopy's brother Spike, who lives in the desert near Needles, CA, and doesn't do a whole lot. I don't object to the occasional strip with him, but does he have to come back so often? How many cactus jokes can Schulz give us? In the second half of the book we get a few longer arcs, including one where Snoopy heard a rumor that the summer Olympics have been moved to Needles and decides to go visit his brother to help him sell souvenirs. Of course, the Olympics did not really move from the actual location that year (Seoul, South Korea), and Snoopy soon returns home.

There a couple more interesting arcs. One is when Charlie Brown and Peppermint Patty decide to trade their useless right fielders: Marcie and Lucy. So convinced is she that Marcie is the worst baseball player on the planet, Peppermint Patty throws in a pizza with the deal, only to discover that nope, Lucy's even worse. Too late, Charlie Brown already ate the pizza! But even so, they do decide to trade back.

In another story arc, Sally volunteers to write the Christmas play for her school, only to write a part for Geronimo instead of Gabriel. When she corrects her mistake in the script, the kid who was going to play Geronimo feels cheated, but the argument is moot when the school board cancels the play altogether for being controversial. Schulz doesn't spell it out, but I suppose the controversy is putting on a religious play in a public school. In any case, Sally's relieved because now she doesn't have to deal with the Geronimo kid.

There's also a new character who's fairly delightful (although I think she was actually introduced in the last volume), Lydia. Lydia sits behind Linus in class and he has fallen in love with her, a condition she uses to continually bedevil him. At first she refuses to tell him her actual name, going through Sarah, Melissa, and so on. (But wouldn't Linus know her real name from the teacher calling roll at the beginning of the day? Never mind.) Whenever Linus asks her if she wants to do something with him, she asks if he isn't too old for her. Later, they exchange addresses for sending each other Christmas cards, only Lydia gives Linus the wrong address and his card is returned. She's out-Christmased him! Of course all this drives Linus crazy, but when Lucy asks why he bothers to have anything to do with her, he admits that he finds her fascinating.

This is actually a little livelier than the last volume, and I noticed a number of strips where Schulz puts in a level of effort on the art we haven't seen in a while. Still, it doesn't approach the great strips from the Peanuts heyday from the mid-1950s to the early 70s. This one is more for completists then general Peanuts fans.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Scary Movies: Aliens

What am I doing reviewing a scary movie the week before Christmas? Well, every Saturday night, the  members of my family alternate picking a movie for everyone to watch, and my son's choice this past week was Aliens. (I reviewed Alien a few months ago here.) No, we didn't let my daughter watch, and my wife sat this one out too. So it was father-son bonding.

Though this is the sequel to Alien, it has quite a different flavor than the first movie. The first was directed by Ridley Scott and was about a monster loose on a spaceship--essentially a haunted house in space. This movie, however, was directed by action master James Cameron and operates as an action-horror film, full of guns and soldiers and aliens getting blasted. (I speculated here that 1982's The Thing was the first entry in the action-horror sub-genre.)

It follows Ripley, played by Sigourney Weaver, the sole human survivor of the first movie, who has returned to human civilization. She finds a job as a loader operator on an industrial work site but suffers from nightmares that keep her from sleeping and finds it hard to relate to others. A big corporation has recently planted a small human colony on the planet where she and her crew encountered the alien in the first movie, disbelieving her warnings that malevolent aliens live in an abandoned spacecraft there. When the Corporation loses contact with the colony, they start to think she might have known what she was talking about.

Despite misgivings, she  accompanies a contingent of space marines to the planet to investigate. Not surprisingly, they find on arrival that the colony has been taken over by the aliens, with all humans apparently killed, their bodies used to incubate baby aliens. A battle between the marines and the aliens ensues in the depths of the aliens' breeding chamber, and the stakes rise even further when Ripley discovers a seven-year-old girl still alive, named Newt, who has managed to survive for months in the ductwork beneath the colony's buildings. Ripley, Newt, and the few remaining space marines must escape the aliens and meet a ship that is returning to take them from the planet's surface, but will not be able to stay long if they are not there on time.

ALIENS (1986)

Story/Plot/Characters--Pretty good acting by horror movie standards and a well thought-out plot. Cardboard characters though, and with a whole platoon of marines, there are a lot of them to keep track of, with little to differentiate them. Though most are killed off early, we still know next to nothing even about the ones who last most of the movie. (2.5 points)
Special Effects--Like the first movie, the effects in Aliens are masterful and spectacular. Spaceships, slavering aliens, abandoned industrial buildings, and planetary surfaces are rendered completely believable. I actually wished at some points the movie would slow down and give viewers a chance to enjoy some of the beautiful scenes. (2 points)
Scariness--Like The Thing, the very nature of the movie as a hybrid between action and horror undermines much of the scariness. Scenes that would be chilling in other movies simply turn into shoot-outs. Some tense parts, but my son spent very little time hiding on the stairs, as is his wont with scary scenes. (.5 points)
Atmosphere/Freakiness--Definitely some atmosphere in the abandoned buildings of the colony and the alien biology is disgusting and freaky. But again, as with The Thing, the fast action pacing undermines the atmosphere to an extent. (1.5 points)
Total=6.5 points

______________________________________________________________________________
Here's the master list of horror movies I've rated so far. (Click the title for a link to a review of the movie.)

Excellent
Alien (1979)=10 points
Day of the Dead (1978)=9.5 points
Bride of Frankenstein (1935)=8.5 points
Frankenstein (1931)=8 points
King Kong (1933)=8 points
Village of the Damned (1960)=8 points
Night of the Living Dead (1968)=7.5 points
Jaws (1975)=7 points
Pretty Good
Witch: A New England Folktale (2015)=6.5 points
Aliens (1976)=6.5 points
Carnival of Souls (1962)=6.5 points
Night Creatures (1962)=6.5 points
Phantom of the Opera (1962)=6.5 points
The Thing (1982)=6 points
Okay
The House on Haunted Hill (1959)=5 points
Gremlins (1984)=5 points
Lady Frankenstein (1971)=4.5 points
Man-Thing (2005)=4 points
Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954)=3.5 points
Avoid
The Wolf Man (1941)=3 points
The Last Man on Earth (1964)=2 points

Saturday, December 10, 2016

What I'm Reading: Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children

My wife read Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children when it came out in 2011 and thought I'd like it. Unfortunately, I haven't gotten to it on my reading stack until now. Apparently it was released as a movie a couple months ago; I'm not sure what kind of reviews it's gotten. I liked the book well enough, but had some reservations.

Before I get to the book, I have to describe how the author, Ransom Riggs, conceived of it. He started collecting weird old black and white photographs at flea markets--things like children floating in the air, or young women in elaborate mourning clothes, or a man covered in bees. Some of them must have resulted from photographic tricks, others simply begged the question why somebody would take such a picture. At some point, he started wondering if he could make a story out of them, and the idea for his first novel was born. The photos are, in fact, scattered throughout the novel, and act as an interesting complement to the writing.

The book is about a teen-ager named Jacob whose grandfather has always told him wondrous stories about his childhood in an orphanage on an island off the English coast where kids with bizarre powers lived separate from the rest of society. When his grandfather is killed by a monster that only he seems to have seen, Jacob is sent to a psychiatrist who recommends to his parents that Jacob should go to the island, where he can work out some of his mental issues. At summer break, his dad, an amateur ornithologist who himself wants to spend a few weeks on the island searching for a rare bird, takes Jacob. It's probably no surprise that Jacob discovers his grandfather's stories were not just made up....

It's actually quite a beautifully odd story, and the photos add something to the atmosphere. But they also take something away. When I read a book, I like to use my imagination, and I didn't need the pictures of the children. In fact, I rather came to resent the way the pictures dictated how I should picture the story in my head. I have to conclude that their use was a gimmick, and Riggs would have been better served using them simply as inspiration, and letting his story speak for itself. (Of course, he would have foregone a certain amount of publicity that's accompanied the use of the photos in his book, but that's a different matter.)

Another problem is that Riggs is clearly a writer who doesn't necessarily plan things out all the way, but just starts writing and sees where the story takes him. And that's great--that's the kind of writer I am, and I feel it lets characters breathe, and lets the story take turns that never would occur otherwise. But I do think there are one or two places in this book where Riggs writes himself into a corner and can only get out of it with plot twists that feel contrived. (I made a similar point about the Amber novels here, although in that case I felt the loose plotting worked a lot better.)

Nevertheless this was a fun and unusual novel, and quite easy to read despite some of its surrealistic touches. Any adult fan of fantasy literature would probably enjoy it.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

What I'm Reading: Blondie: The Complete Daily Comics Strips from 1930-33

This is one tough item to find. I saw it several years ago when it first appeared in stores, and declined to buy it at the time. But I've found since I would like some early Blondie strips to join my volumes of early Peanuts, Little Orphan Annie, Prince Valiant, and Popeye. Unfortunately, this is no longer in print, and copies routinely sell for more than $100 on Amazon. When I happened to check one day and found a copy for only $50, I snapped it up.

It covers the very early years of the Blondie comic strip, before they were married. In fact, the early strips revolved around Dagwood's romance with Blondie. However, their romance was constantly stymied by his fabulously wealthy parents, who didn't approve of his love for a poor girl of little social standing. The culmination of this early phase of the strip occurred in winter 1933, when Dagwood went on a hunger strike until his parents finally relented to his marriage, with the only catch being he was to be completely cut off from his inheritance--a small price to pay for the hand of his beloved Blondie! The wedding took place on February 17, 1933.

I think what surprised me most was that it wasn't just a gag-a-day strip in the 1930s, as it is now. There were some fairly long story arcs that went on for weeks or even months. I think my favorite was when Dagwood was unable to gain entrance to a university, so his father simply bought one and admitted Dagwood and Blondie:

Dagwood makes friends at school

Needless to say, the two weren't really cut out for college life and the strip soon moved on.

I'm leaning away from picking up the next volume, however. Despite the longer story arcs, this one was fairly repetitive, with the themes of Blondie's airheadedness and Dagwood's wimpiness hammered home over and over again. Still, it's fun to see the roots of a long-time strip that's still running more than 85 years after its creation.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

What I'm Reading: The Greek Way

I know Edith Hamilton best as the English translator of the most common edition of Greek and Roman myths--the famous edition of her Mythology is typically assigned in high schools. When I saw her book The Greek Way on the fundraising book sale table at work recently, I had to have it. It was published in 1930 and 1942 (not sure how that works--maybe certain parts appeared first in magazines?) and is a collection of critical essays on Hellenic-age Greek literature (i.e. the 5th and 4th centuries B.C.).

She moves more or less chronologically through ten of the most important Greek authors, starting with the poet Pindar and ending with the dramatist Euripedes, with a few essays on special topics like the religion of the Greeks or the Greek way of writing thrown in. She takes the characteristic she finds most important with each of these ancient authors and highlights it, typically by comparing him to a more modern author--the raw, heroic tragedy of Aeschylus with Shakespeare, for example, or the "exuberant, effervescent" comedy of Aristophanes with Victorian light opera librettist W.S. Gilbert (of Gilbert and Sullivan)(!).

My favorite essay was on Xenophon, a Greek writer I was only slightly familiar with beforehand, whom Hamilton shows as the great portrayer of everyday Greek life, particularly for the leisured class in Athens. Xenophon is practically our only source outside of Plato to give an account of Socrates, but is also known for his autobiographical account of the retreat of 10,000 Greek mercenaries from Persia back to Greece after the general who had hired them was cut down in battle. The enemy didn't even bother mopping them up, assuming 10,000 leaderless foreign soldiers would simply perish, but that was not the case. Greek individualism and common sense carried them through a two-year journey across deserts and mountains, until they finally reached the Mediterranean Sea with most of their company intact. It is quite a stirring story.

I am not quite sure I could recommend this book generally. I think it would probably be most interesting to those who have somewhat more than a passing knowledge of ancient Greek literature and history. I found it quite fascinating myself, and my guess is if it sounds like a book that would interest you, you're probably right.

Friday, November 4, 2016

Scary Movies: Carnival of Souls

I have previously ranked horror movies hereherehereherehereherehereherehereherehere, and here. The final scary movie for this year is Carnival of Souls, from 1962. I have heard about this movie for a long time and have long wanted to watch it: the B-movie that somehow stumbled into being a highly influential classic.

It was filmed for a mere $33,000 and used a no-name cast, but director Herk Harvey had some advantages. First, he was a director of industrial films, and so had plenty of experience behind the camera. Second, his star, the exquisite Candace Hilligoss, only ever appeared in two other films, but had trained seriously as an actor in New York and had extensive stage experience. Finally, the musical score, by organist Gene Moore, practically tells a story in itself. Nobody who ever sees this movie forgets that eerie organ music.

The story is pretty straightforward. Mary Henry has just graduated with her degree in music and has accepted a job as organist at a church in Utah. The day before she is to leave, she is driving with some girlfriends when they accept a challenge to drag race a car full of boys. Going over a bridge, the girls' car goes over the edge. At first there are thought to be no survivors, but hours later, Mary emerges from the water. Others urge her not to drive to her new job, but she insists she must be there the next day.

As she drives to Utah, she sees a mysterious, spooky-looking man in the car window. Near her destination in Utah, she passes an abandoned dance hall by the Salt Lake and feels mysteriously drawn to it. Once in town, she starts her new job and moves into a boarding house where a neighbor, John, takes an interest in her. But as she goes about her new life, she keeps seeing that spooky man, and finds herself compelled to visit the dance hall again and again. She also has bizarre interludes when passersby don't seem to notice she's there or hear her speak. I won't give away the ending, but let's say it builds up to a surreal and frightening climax.

So, did director Harvey really know what he was doing or did he luck into it? Did he intentionally use the hypnotic soundtrack and surreal imagery to achieve the film's considerable impact, or was that merely a necessary by-product of the low budget? Did he mean to homage 1920s German expressionist films? Not clear on any of the three counts, but whether by fate or design this movie came together perfectly.

CARNIVAL OF SOULS (1962)

Story/Plot/Characters--Surprisingly good acting. Dialogue better than the usual B-movie. Straightfoward plot at first, by about halfway through we're operating on dream logic, but it makes perfect sense within the movie's world. (2.5 points)
Special Effects--Not a lot of effects, really little more than make-up, but what little there is used well.  With even a slightly bigger budget this movie could have scored higher here, but maybe then we wouldn't have gotten some of the other virtues of the film. (.5 points)
Scariness--Yes. Not chills or shocks, but a sort of dread that builds throughout the film. (1.5 points)
Atmosphere/Freakiness--The abandoned dance hall on the lake, the feeling of isolation in the Utah countryside, the eerie town at night, and that organ music. This is exactly what I'm looking for in this category. (2 points)
Total=6.5 points

______________________________________________________________________________
Here's the master list of horror movies I've rated so far, and let's also add to it the color ranking I use with the comic movies.
Green=excellent  Blue=pretty good  Black=Okay  Red=avoid

Alien (1979)=10 points
Day of the Dead (1978)=9.5 points
Bride of Frankenstein (1935)=8.5 points
Frankenstein (1931)=8 points
King Kong (1933)=8 points
Village of the Damned (1960)=8 points
Night of the Living Dead (1968)=7.5 points
Jaws (1975)=7 points
Witch: A New England Folktale (2015)=6.5 points
Carnival of Souls (1962)=6.5 points
Night Creatures (1962)=6.5 points
Phantom of the Opera (1962)=6.5 points
The Thing (1982)=6 points
The House on Haunted Hill (1959)=5 points
Gremlins (1984)=5 points
Lady Frankenstein (1971)=4.5 points
Man-Thing (2005)=4 points
Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954)=3.5 points
The Wolf Man (1941)=3 points
The Last Man on Earth (1964)=2 points