Discovery

So, I’m back from a week in Japan, except my mind still thinks I’m on the other side of the planet, refusing to let me sleep at the usual time. I was over there just long enough to almost get adapted to their time zone, only to turn around and come right back.

The outbound flight was roughly 14 hours. I left in the late morning on Saturday and got into Narita on Sunday afternoon. During the flight I read the first 450 pages or so of The Outsider, King’s forthcoming novel. Slept a little, but not a lot. Took the Narita Express in to Shinjuku, where I spent the night in a little hotel that was apparently on the edge of one of Tokyo’s red light districts. It’s hard to tell. There’s no shortage of sex parlors in that city. Monday was a national holiday, so I spent the day wandering around until it was time to head out to the western side of the city, where I spent the next three days in meetings.

It was cold over there. Below freezing at night and barely above in the day time. I saw the remnants of their recent snowfall on some streets. We were entertained by our hosts one evening at a Korean Shabu-Shabu restaurant. You get a pan with two different kinds of boiling liquid (one mostly flavorless, the other sesame) and racks of very thinly sliced meats (we got marbled beef and pork, thankfully none of the tongue that seems to be popular at these places) that you cook in the boiling liquid. Vegetables, too, so that ultimately you end up making a kind of brothy soup.

I knew from my daughter that Star Trek Discovery, the new series set before the original Star Trek, which is only available in the US if you pay to subscribe to CBS’s online service, is free on Netflix, so I binged through the entire season, often at 3 am when I was wide awake due to the time change. The final episode of the season dropped a few days before I left, so I was able to see the whole thing.

It’s an interesting show. Much, much harder on its main characters than any of the other series. There’s a lot of duplicity. You never know who to trust, nor who is going to survive. Main characters get killed. Main characters commit treason. Main characters cause galactic wars. My biggest problem with the show was in wrapping my head around the technology. Because film has progressed so much since the original series, everything looks much more modern than it did, but some tech was used in ways that Captain Kirk and his team never did. There was a fair amount of teleporting within the ship, for example, and I don’t remember ever seeing that on TOS or TNG. The computer and one character have a debate about the ethics of her instructions, which seemed more advanced than the older shows. In some ways, the show felt more like Doctor Who than Star Trek. But I liked it and look forward to seeing where it goes in season 2. I just hope I don’t have to go all the way to Japan to see it.

At the end of meetings on the third day, I relocated to the hotel airport, and what a pleasant surprise that was. I got upgraded to a junior suite for free (huge, massive, compared to most Japanese hotels), got free drink and meal discount coupons, and they let me check out late, which was good because my flight was late in the afternoon. On the eleven hour flight back (gotta love those shorter return journeys), I watched videos rather than read, and slept a fair amount. I watched War for the Planet of the Apes, which I’ve been trying to get to for a while. I’ve been enjoying these reimagined films, and like seeing all the places where they call back to the original films, in this case mostly Battle for the Planet of the Apes. All the little echoes from that earlier film. Then I watched most of Season 1 of Veep, which I’ve never seen before. Obviously satire, but it demonstrates how impotent the role of the Vice President can be…until it isn’t.

Which segues into the movie we saw last weekend after I got home: LBJ, starring Woody Harrelson as Lyndon Johnson, directed by Rob Reiner. Who would ever have imagined casting Woody as Johnson, but it was a good choice and it was probably Harrelson’s best performance ever. He disappears into the part, mostly. I confess I didn’t know that much about LBJ’s presidency, not even what his legacy was, so I found the film interesting from that perspective. They only skimmed over some of his more colorful aspects (his habit of consulting with his staff while sitting on the toilet with the door open) and didn’t get into the Vietnam war issues. It focuses mostly on the JFK assassination and Johnson’s decision to embrace Kennedy’s initiatives and see them through. Decent film.

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In Absentia

I finished the first few drafts of my new short story. It took two days to write the first draft (longhand), which ended up being 4900 words. It’s funny how many of my stories end up being close to 5k. This was probably one of the easiest stories I’ve written in a long time. All the beats came right where I thought they needed to, and I felt like I was taking dictation as I scrawled on the pages of my notebook.

I dictated the story into Word on Saturday and spent the rest of the weekend’s writing sessions cleaning up the transcription errors and researching a few points that I’d annotated in my holographic manuscript. Two or three passes through and I have a solid draft that I’ll let sit for a couple of weeks before I take another pass at it and then turn it in to its prospective home. I think it’s one of the funniest things I’ve ever written.

We saw Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri on Saturday. I missed it during its initial release, but it came back to theaters after it was nominated for a bunch of awards, so we got to see it on the big screen. It’s a remarkable film for a number of reasons. The performances are top notch. The story is compelling, and the choices they make in telling the story aren’t the obvious ones. It’s easy to feel compassion for Frances McDormand’s character, because who wouldn’t feel compassion for a mother whose daughter was murdered? But she’s a challenging individual in a lot of other ways. Was she a good mother? She said some terrible things to her kids before the tragedy, things that come back to haunt her. She speaks her mind, even when it’s not necessarily in her best interests to do so. Then there’s the racist deputy played by Sam Rockwell. One of several characters who are as dumb as bags of rocks. I know there has been some push-back against the movie because of the transition his character makes, which some people feel was undeserved and unearned. And Woody Harrelson is charming as the cussing sheriff.

The movie never goes where you think it will. It looks like it is headed for a tidy ending in which everything gets neatly resolved, but then you get to the end and it looks like the movie is designed for a Thelma & Louise style sequel. There are a lot of things you have to swallow—there is an exaggerated set of incidents where, in the “real world,” one hopes the consequences would be more severe for the perpetrators. But even with all that, it is a helluva film. Highly recommended.

I wish Absentia on Amazon Prime were better than it is. I had high hopes. I’m a big fan of Stana Katic from Castle, who is always interesting to watch because you always feel like she’s present in scenes. Re-acting as much as acting. Her character, an FBI agent, vanished six years ago and was presumed dead. Her husband remarried. Her little boy is now a bigger boy. But she returns with a splash, upsetting all manner of apple carts, and there’s growing evidence that perhaps her disappearance wasn’t what it seemed and that she might be involved in shady things. Or not. The script probably looked good to Katic, but the execution is weak. It was filmed in Bulgaria, but it’s supposed to be Boston, but they didn’t go to many lengths to Americanize the staging and things feel off. Many of the secondary cast members speak accented English, and it ain’t Bah-ston English. It feels like a run-of-the-mill TV series compared to some of the stellar streaming series we’ve been treated to lately. I’ll stick through to the end, but it’s not as good as I’d hoped.

I’m not a huge football fan. We went out to dinner when the Superbowl was on (the restaurant wasn’t completely empty, but almost), returning home mid-way through the third quarter. Decided to watch the rest, and that was pretty exciting. It occurred to me that football is basically a sport in which two different teams play two other teams. There’s the quarterback and the offensive line against the other team’s defense, and vice versa. The two quarterbacks never play against each other. When one of these team leaders is in command, the other guy is on the sidelines, looking on helplessly. It’s a strange configuration, and not the head-to-head challenge its often portrayed as. Still, exciting finale. I think a lot of people expected Brady to pull off a miracle as if it was par for the course (to mix sports metaphors). He tried.

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Credits

I started a new short story today, my first of 2018. I’ve been busy working on The Project That Cannot Be Named lately, and that has been consuming most of my writing time. But I’ve been cogitating over this new story for a while and I have most of it mapped out in my head, so I went to the bagel cafe this morning for breakfast and hand-wrote over nine pages in my Moleskine journal, which amounts to about 2000-2500 words, I guess. Over half the story, although I’m not quite sure how it’s going to end yet. I have a pretty good idea, but there are some logistics I need to research first.

I also sold my first new short story of 2018, a tale called “Ray and the Martian.” I’ll announce more once the publisher gives the go-ahead. Swedish and British editions of Shining in the Dark have been announced as well. My story “Aeliana” is going to be well published this year!

I discovered that I am one of those offered Special Thanks at the end of an extra feature video on the Blu-Ray of It, which is pretty cool. There I am, crammed between the Thomas Hill Standpipe and Canadian actor Finn Wolfhard, who was also in Stranger Things.

I hear that Cemetery Dance #76 is showing up in mailboxes. I haven’t received my copy yet, but I’m looking forward to it. I have four pieces in that issue.

When I heard the news about Dallas Mayr (aka Jack Ketchum), I gasped. For real. I was self-aware enough to hear myself making that sound. I don’t know Dallas well, really, but I’ve known him for a long time and we’ve had some good times together. I know him from various Necons, of course, but my wife and I also sat with him at the Jekyll & Hyde Club in New York as part of a dinner organized by Stephen King’s office before the Harry, Carrie and Garp event. Rich Chizmar and I met up with him before the National Book Award banquet at which King cited Dallas as someone people should be reading more. And at the World Horror Convention in Austin, where I served as Guest of Honor Liaison, I had the pleasure of driving Dallas around in search of a liquor store so he could stock up on scotch. That was a fun outing. I always enjoyed talking with him. He took a lot of crap from people at Necon, all with good humor. I will miss seeing him. Maybe some day the book of essays about his work for which I have contributed a piece will see the light of day. That would be nice.

I just finished watching a French series called La Mante (The Mantis) on Netflix. It’s about a series of copycat murders many years after a crime spree committed by a young woman who killed reprehensible men. There’s an element of Silence of the Lambs to it, in that the investigators go back to the original killer for advice in trying to catch the new murderer, but the big twist is that she’s the mother of the guy in charge of the team, although only a couple of people know that. For the sake of the family’s privacy, the perpetrator’s name was changed and news reports declared that his mother had been killed in a plane crash, without connecting the two to each other. There are a few implausible moments and far too many people connected to the family show up as persons of interest, but it’s not bad, and at six hours, quite binge-able. The creators have obviously seen a lot of movies based on Stephen King books. There are a couple of really overt homages, including the use of a particular camera angle that rips off Kubrick. The actress who plays the Mantis reminds me a lot of Charlotte Rampling. She is an ice queen…until she isn’t.

I also enjoyed The End of the F***ing World on Netflix. It’s a British dark comedy about a teenage boy who thinks he’s sort of a young Dexter Morgan who tortures animals and doesn’t feel anything. The next logical move is to kill a person, and he picks a quirky girl. However, she’s the exact opposite of him: she feels everything, and he soon discovers he’s way out of his depth with her. They run away from home and make a series of increasingly bad decisions that puts them at greater and greater jeopardy. Each episode is only 22 minutes, which is just about right. Along with The Good Place, this is the only “comedy” I’ve enjoyed in recent years, and in this case there aren’t many laughs. It’s dark.

I binged through The Deuce recently, too. That’s the HBO series that takes place around Times Square in the 1970s, created by David Simon (The Wire, Treme) and George Pelecanos, with Megan Abbott on the writing team. If you’ve been missing The Wire, this is the show for you. Not only does it have that feel, it has a number of actors from that series. James Franco plays twin brothers, one moderately responsible, one not so much. The story involves pimps and prostitutes who walk the streets, the cops who police the streets and the gangsters who have interests in just about everything. It explores violence toward women, but also the change in the sex trade during that period, with pornography attempting to go mainstream (Deep Throat) and the migration of prostitutes into brothels and the creation of personal video booths at porn shops. Maggie Gyllenhaal plays a prostitute who transitions into the porn movie making business. It’s also dark, although it has some pretty funny moments, too.

We also took a deep dive into the seventies by watching Battle of the Sexes and The Post. We followed this with The Final Year, a documentary about Obama’s last year in the White House. It’s a fascinating look behind the curtain, not only at Obama but at some of his most trusted team members. Finally, last weekend we saw I’m Not Your Negro, the documentary based on James Baldwin’s outline of a project he wanted to do about Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and Medgar Evers. It’s eye-opening, to say the least. For me, one of the most profound lines came when Baldwin said that black people knew white people far better than any white person knew black people because black people have had to watch and be acutely aware of white people all their lives.

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OK. Enough with the snow.

It’s been a winter for the record books. We had significant snowfall in early December, recordable snow a few weeks later and then we got winter. We knew it was coming: the forecasters were predicting a hard freeze with sleet and freezing rain, but we didn’t really know how bad it would be. Southeast Texas was essentially closed for business yesterday when the roads became impassable. Overpasses and bridges were too hazardous for most drivers and there was ice on the roadways across the metro area. I worked from my home office.

The first precipitation was probably sleet, but there was enough of it to make a white coat over everything. Unlike our December snowfall, it was cold enough outside for the precip to stay…and it kept getting colder. We were in the teens most of the day, with wind chill temps in the single digits. More freezing rain and sleet in the afternoon, followed by some big fluffy snowflakes. A hard freeze overnight and for the first time since we moved into our house 22+ years ago, the water pipes froze.

It was a bad moment when I was getting ready for work this morning and turned on the shower faucet…and nothing happened. I discovered that some varmint had chewed away a chunk of insulation on the pipe going into the house and I speculated that the freeze happened there. My father would probably have gotten out the butane torch and hit the thing with a direct flame, but I opted instead for the hair drier method. But, boy, was it ever cold out, and after fifteen minutes with no obvious progress, I went in search of another option. My wife suggested the heating pad she uses when she has back pain. I wrapped the pipe with the heating pad and we wrapped that in turn with a big towel and let it run. An hour later, the water started flowing. No burst pipes, fortunately, and I plan to re-wrap the pipes tonight to keep that from happening again. We are barely above freezing now, and it’s going back down to the low 20s again tonight, with another hard freeze warning.

Schools remained closed today. This weekend it will be high 60s and low 70s. Can’t wait. But this must be the longest we’ve had snow on the ground in this region in a long time: over twenty-four hours.

When my daughter, son-in-law and granddaughter were home for the holidays, we had family photos taken. It was a chilly morning (not as chilly as this morning) but they turned out quite well. I don’t normally post pictures of my granddaughter to social media, but her back is to the camera in this one and I got special dispensation to use it! My daughter says it’s adorable, the elbow-patch pals. I think so, too!

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2018 — the New Year

We’ve been having fun entertaining our daughter, son-in-law and 18-month-old granddaughter for the past couple of weeks. We see them every other week on Skype, but this is the first time they’ve been here in person for many months. The last time I saw our granddaughter in person, she was barely crawling and now she’s toddling and babbling and very, very active. We now know everything about our house that isn’t childproofed.

Now that the visit is over, we set about putting everything back in place from where it was hidden to keep the little girl safe.

The temperature has been all over the map. We had another flirtation with flurries a couple of weeks ago. Snow was recorded at the airport, but nothing like what we saw in early December. The temps have been down to the 30s, up to the 70s (earlier today) and back down to the 30s (tonight).

Over at News from the Dead Zone, I posted a year-end summary and a look forward to the year in Stephen King news. I signed my first short story contract of 2018 (the project hasn’t been announced yet, so I’ll hold off on more details until it is) and am getting very close to signing another contract for something that will be out toward the end of the year. I’m awaiting the editor’s feedback on the second draft of an essay I worked on late last year, so I’ll have that to play with next week, more than likely. I also have a new short story I’m contemplating before launching fully into novel-writing mode for 2018.

I finally got to see The Last Jedi last weekend, and I managed to avoid all spoilers before doing so. It wasn’t that hard–I just looked away from any articles or posts that mentioned Star Wars. I was amused by the way the gung-ho pilot who always breaks the rules was relegated to the role of dinosaur in this film and the level-headed women were the voices of reason, even when it seemed like they weren’t. The female characters in general ran the show in this film, and I’m completely okay with that. I found it interesting that a significant part of the movie dealt with a side-mission that not only didn’t accomplish what it set out to do, it ended up making things significantly worse. If those characters had done nothing at all, things would have been better for the “good guys.” I thought the porgs were cute, and I laughed at the scene where Chewie is trying to have his dinner of roast porg while the others give him big sad puppy eyes. They were good comic relief inside the Millennium Falcon, too. I patted myself on the back for figuring out the clue about the red earth under the salt during the big battle at the end. I had no issues whatsoever with the resolution of Luke’s story. I thought it was a good, solid addition to the Star Wars saga. Not OMG good, but good.

I’ve been watching the series Travelers on Netflix. It’s about time-travelers who come from the future to try to correct things that have gone terribly wrong. They enter the bodies of people at the moment of their deaths and take over their lives moving forward. The focus is on a team led by FBI agent Grant MacLaren (Eric McCormack). His colleagues include a young woman who traveled into the body of a mentally handicapped individual, an old man who inhabits the body of a teenager, another guy who has the misfortune of being hosted by a heroin addict, and “MacLaren’s” partner in the future, who is now a single mother with an abusive police officer ex. So they have to try to save the future while blending into these complicated lives in a world that they only know about in theory from far in the future. It’s an interesting premise, and their personal problems are as interesting as their missions. I finished the first season and will move on to Season 2 shortly. It’s produced in Canada and a lot of familiar Canadian actors appear in it, including McCormack, who was born and raised in Ontario.

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Year-end review, part 3: publications

We finally saw the Doctor Who Christmas special last night. [mild spoilers ahead]

The story hearkens back to the beginning with the appearance of the first Doctor and it is the swan song for the twelfth, as well as the end of the Steven Moffat era. New things are in the offing with the appearance of the first female Doctor, although we’ll have to wait until the fall to see how it all plays out. It was nice that, for once, the alien incursion was not hostile, and it was good to see the Doctor a little befuddled by that discovery. It had a few good cameos, although at times it felt overly drawn out, like the parody of how an actor stretches out his death scene in an old Western. I liked the interplay between the two Doctors, especially the way #1 made fun of some of the things that had evolved with his character and “ship” in the intervening 1500 years. (It’s also funny to consider what an utter bastard David Bradley played in Game of Thrones.) I absolutely did not recognize Mark Gattis as the soldier until I saw he after-show scene with the table read for the episode. And the scene of the legendary World War I Armistice was terrific. And I loved the 13th Doctor’s first word, her reaction to the revelation. Brilliant!

2017 was a pretty good year for publications. This collage above contains the covers of all the physical venues where my work appeared this year. I had six new short stories come out this year: “Truth or Dare?” in Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep, “Aeliana” in СИЯНИЕ В МРАКА, the Bulgarian translation of Shining in the Dark and my first publication in that language, “The Halloween Tree” in Halloween Carnival: Volume Four, “Sticky Business” in Snowbound: The Best New England Crime Stories 2017, “The Illusion” in The Shadow Over Deathlehem and “Pain-Man” in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, a market I’ve been trying to crack for many years.

I wrote the introduction to a new edition of The Godsend by Bernard Taylor from Centipede Press and my interview with Richard Chizmar and Stephen King has appeared in multiple venues, including Where Nightmares Come From. My essay on King’s crime fiction appears in Reading Stephen King from Cemetery Dance Publications. I contributed several items to Horror Literature through History: An Encyclopedia of the Stories that Speak to Our Deepest Fears. Hank Wagner and I discussed Stranger Things in Dead Reckonings #21 and I reviewed Sleeping Beauties in DR #22.

At Cemetery Dance Online (aka News from the Dead Zone), I reviewed The Dark Tower, It, Gerald’s Game, 1922 and Sleeping Beauties. I got to attend my first movie premiere (The Dark Tower, in Bangor) and my first press screening of a film (It, in Houston, a week after Hurricane Harvey). I also made my first appearance on Sirius XM satellite radio when Robin Furth and I spent the better part of an hour talking about all things King with Anthony Brenzican of Entertainment Weekly.

All in all, as I said, a pretty good year, and I already have a number of things cued up for 2018, including one huge project about which I’m terribly excited but can say absolutely nothing about. If the stars align, my novella project with Brian Keene might see the light of day next year, too. Here’s hoping.

In some aspects, this was a dismal year, though. Let’s hope for better in the New Year.

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Year-end review, part 2: movies and TV

Within a few minutes of each other I received what I assume will be the last acceptance and rejection letters of 2017. The rejection was for a story that I really like that’s been out for a long time, so I look forward to taking another pass through it and finding it another home. The acceptance is for an anthology that won’t be out until 2019, so at least I have something queued up for the year after next!

My short story “The Illusion” is included in the new charity anthology Shadows over Deathleham. This is book four in the popular holiday anthology series to benefit the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation. It is available as a print edition or for Kindle.

Issue #76 of Cemetery Dance magazine is shipping soon. I have four articles in this one: my usual News from the Dead Zone column, a book review (Sleeping Beauties), an interview with Mike Flanagan (director of Gerald’s Game) and a reprint of my interview with Richard Chizmar and Stephen King about “Gwendy’s Button Box.”

I watched a series on Amazon called Tin Star. It stars Tim Roth as a British law enforcement type who becomes sheriff of a small town in Alberta, Canada. The town is becoming home to a plant extracting oil from the tar sands, which is bringing money and trouble. Christina Hendricks plays the PR wonk who tries to get the town to swallow the bitter pill. It has a number of recognizable Canadian actor, including the old sheriff from Haven. The series reminds me of a blend of Banshee, Justified, Ozark and Sons of Anarchy. The sheriff is a recovering alcoholic and something happens at the very beginning of the first episode to push him into a dark place. The tall Quebecois who is head of security for the oil company is a dangerous force. Plus the sheriff has a teenage daughter. And someone’s trying to kill him. In one of my favorite scenes, he stirs up trouble with a biker gang. They catch up with him and he knows he’s in for a beating. They tell him he’s in for a beating. So he voluntarily lies down on the sidewalk, gets into a tight crouch and lets them kick the crap out of him. It stars with a bang and ends with a bang. Stay tuned for season 2.

Last night I started Department Q, a Danish series of three noir movies, adapted from novels. The scripts are by Nicolaj Arcel, who adapted The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (the original version) and directed The Dark Tower. The main character is a former homicide cop who makes a bad call and gets busted down to a newly formed division, located in the basement, where he is expected to read cold case files and file closure reports at the rate of three a week. Of course, he finds a case that intrigues him and he goes well beyond his mandate, dragging his unwilling but affable Muslim partner along with him. This guy is about as emotion-free as they come, but he’s a good cop. The first one is called The Keeper of Lost Causes. One way it differs from the usual cold case show is that the viewer is supplied with more information than the cops, via flashbacks to the scenes of the crime, as it were.

OK, yesterday it was my top books of the year. Today, let’s move on to top films and TV series. I watched a goodly number of both in 2017, and the full list is here, if you’re interested. Boy, it sure seems a long time ago when I saw Manchester By the Sea in the theater.

Again, in viewing order, my top 15 films of 2017

Manchester by the Sea La La Land Hidden Figures
Hush Moonlight Fences
Miss Sloane Wonder Woman Beatriz at Dinner
Baby Driver Atomic Blonde It (Chapter 1)
Gerald’s Game 1922 Murder on the Orient Express

TV series is much harder list, so I’m going to go with 20:

Fortitude Hotel Beau Séjour Hap and Leonard
Better Call Saul The Leftovers S3 Fargo S3
Anne with an ‘E’ Twin Peaks: The Return Game of Thrones S7
Ozark Mr. Mercedes Narcos S3
Mindhunter Top of the Lake: China Girl Chance
Stranger Things 2 Alias Grace Dark
Tin Star The Crown S2

 

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Year-end review, part 1: books

My buddy Glenn Chadbourne pinged me on Facebook earlier this month to verify the name of the device used in King’s novel End of Watch. He was working on the Christmas card design for King’s office. Yesterday, I was rewarded with the fruits of his labors: a card from that very office with Glenn’s creepy characters enjoying their equally creepy presents. I do believe I see Gwendy’s button box, as well as a Pennywise ornament and an eerie recumbent figure, in addition to other familiar gift items.

We watched the Christmas special last night. No, not that one. Call the Midwives, which featured a story from the end of 1962 and early 1963, a time during which London endured the Big Freeze, one of the coldest on record in the United Kingdom. This meteorological event had numerous consequences (people dying, waterworks freezing, travel impeded) that are used to good measure in this story. It’s not without tragedy and heartbreak, but it’s the Christmas special, so everything’s all right in the end. Except for the dead people. I have yet to see Doctor Who. Maybe tomorrow night.

We watched Victoria and Abdul the other evening. It’s the fictionalized story of the real-life relationship between Queen Victoria and a Muslim from Agra, India who became part of her inner household for the last fifteen years of her life. Judi Dench reprises her role from Mrs. Brown with panache, although I saw some presumably valid critiques of the story in the way it whitewashes and minimizes the effect of England on India at the time. Still, we enjoyed it in the same way we enjoyed The Crown: recognizing that it is, for the most part, a work of fiction with historical characters.


Tomorrow, I look more in depth at the movies and TV series  I watched in 2017. Today is about books. By my tally, I read over 60 novels and novellas this year. The number is a little imprecise because I read some books more than once, for purposes of review, and I read some things I can’t yet talk about. If you’re interested, the full list (with aforementioned caveats) is here.

I’m rubbish when it comes to top-X lists. I would spend too much time quibbling with myself over whether this is #7 or #8. So I present here my top fifteen books from 2017 in no particular order. Or, rather, in the order in which I read them, which is about as random an ordering as I could come up with:

Behind Her Eyes by Sarah Pinborough Final Girls by Riley Sager
Ill Will by Dan Chaon Our Short History by Lauren Grodstein
Sourdough by Robin Sloan The Forgotten Girl by Rio Youers
The Force by Don Winslow Sleeping Beauties by Stephen King and Owen King
If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face? by Alan Alda Strange Weather by Joe Hill
Mindhunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit by John E. Douglas and Mark Olshaker The Ghosts of Galway by Ken Bruen
IQ by Joe Ide A Legacy of Spies by John le Carré
Into the Black Nowhere by Meg Gardiner

I posted 21 reviews at my book review blog, Onyx Reviews. The list of reviews with links to them can be found here.

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It’s beginning to look a lot like…

Reports of snow in Texas started coming in yesterday evening. I saw comments on social media from Laredo, Austin and San Antonio. The forecasters said we might get flurries in the Greater Houston area, and when I went to bed the precipitation was decidedly thick. Sleet, at the very least, but it wasn’t accumulating.

So imagine my surprise when I looked out the back window at 5:00 am and saw: a very confused and irate possum. Oh, yeah, and snow all over the ground and trees.


For perspective, the fence behind it is six feet tall and that big black thing to the right, with the snow all over it, is our gas barbecue. This possum was big! At least as large as a cat.

I took a few pictures then went up to my office to work for a couple of hours. I looked out the window later, after the sun was up, and realized how beautiful it looked outside, so I went out and snapped some pictures.


The ground was warm enough to melt the snow, but it was still 32° out, so the snow stayed on the trees and bushes. The grandson of our neighbor across the street built a little snowman. Overpasses and bridges froze, so there were plenty of accidents in the area. No one around here knows how to drive in the winter. School openings were delayed to give the roads a chance to clear. Surprisingly, by mid-morning, there was still snow on the trees and car rooftops. No doubt it will all be gone soon enough, but it was a pleasant surprise. Alas, there’s no way to hold onto it for Christmas, when family arrives for vacation.


My binge viewing this week was the new German series on Netflix, Dark. Some people are referring to it as Darker Things, and there are a few comparisons to be drawn to Stranger Things, but it is very much its own thing. As much as I liked the Duffer Brothers’ series (and I liked it a lot), I think I liked this one even more. I never knew what was coming next (although I did guess one of the major mysteries early on). Other comparisons have been made to Twin Peaks, but it’s not quite that weird, and to Lost, which I think has merit. I see a strong connection to 11/22/63. It takes place in 2019 in a small German village that benefited from the building of the first nuclear power plant in Germany in 1960. That plant is about to be decommissioned. A boy has been missing for nearly two weeks and by the end of the first episode another one will disappear. There are ties to events from 33 years earlier (and, ultimately, to 33 years before that). It’s a creepy mystery with dead sheep and mutilated bodies and plummeting birds.

The default play mode on Netflix is to overdub the audio with English voices, but that is terrible, in my opinion. Play around with your settings and switch to German audio (not German descriptions, which is also an option) and English subtitles for a far better viewing experience. My biggest problem with the series was the fact that there’s a very large cast of completely unfamiliar actors, and some characters appear as younger versions of themselves played by different actors. The director takes some steps to help viewers link up who is who, but it can still get somewhat confusing. I feel like I need to watch it all over again, now that I’m more familiar with the characters.

That past influences the future, but the future also influences the past. It’s cleverly constructed and they obviously knew the ending when they started or else none of it would hold together. I have no doubt it will get picked up for a second season, and I cannot wait.

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Lady Bird

I don’t often have a hard time naming short stories, but the one I just finished is giving me fits. Often I have the title before I start writing, but something usually comes to me during the writing process. Not with this one. I wrote it longhand, dictated it into the computer this morning and made one complete proofing pass on it and so far, nada. The story is due on Thursday, so I’m hoping inspiration will strike. I do have something to fall back on, but I don’t like it very much.

The weather was really nice here in Southeast Texas for the four-day weekend. Unseasonably warm. We were able to dine outside a couple of times and hang out in a driveway with a glass of wine a couple of others. On Sunday we went over to Market Street (I got the show time wrong, so we had the better part of an hour to kill) and stroll around the park, watching all the families with little kids enjoying the warm weather, too. We saw Lady Bird, starring Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf as daughter and mother. The story takes place during Ronan’s character’s senior year in Sacramento, California. She attends a Catholic school and is determined to go somewhere interesting on the east coast for university, although her grades and the family finances limit her possibilities. She’s a bit of a wild child, and has a lot of conflict with her mother, while her father is a calm, stabilizing influence, despite his own issues. It’s warm and witty and pretty funny at times. My favorite bit was when the school coach is enlisted to take over directing The Tempest and he uses a blackboard and football strategy to block out the play. The movie has the feel of a letter from the screenwriter to her own mother. It currently has the best Rotten Tomatoes score of all time: 100% from over 160 reviews.

We saw a rather bizarre movie on Saturday evening. Capturing Mary stars Maggie Smith and Ruth Wilson (Luther, The Affair), who plays the younger version of Smith’s character. Smith stumbles into an old mansion in NY, maintained by a young caretaker, and proceeds to tell him about her misadventures there as a young woman. She met up with a mysterious man played by David Walliams who, to me, was an avatar of doubt. He liked to go around to famous people at parties and say things to them that seemed complimentary at first but ended up coming off as back-handed. He unsettles Wilson’s character’s by telling her some terrible secrets about people he’s learned over the years, and the phrase “living rent free in her head” comes to mind. He manages to destroy all of her confidence and her promising career as a writer fizzles. Apparently part of a loose trilogy of films. We weren’t quite sure what to make of it when it was over.

We’re almost to the end of Longmire. Just one episode left to go in the final season. There was one monumental surprise involving a semi-major character about halfway through the season, and one character from Season 4 is getting a chance to redeem himself. We’ll be sorry to see it come to an end.

On a whim I decided to reread Murder on the Orient Express last weekend. I couldn’t tell you when I last read it. Maybe as much as 30 years ago. It holds up remarkably well. It’s a fast read, but it’s fun to see how Christie lays out the clues and the red herrings so deftly. It’s an amazingly well plotted story despite how convoluted and unlikely it is.

I also read A Legacy of Spies, the most recent by John le Carré, which takes an aging, retired spy back to some of Smiley’s most infamous cases. Also recently IQ by Joe Ide, which has a strong Walter Mosely vibe. Winner of the Edgar for Best Debut Novel.  And Damaged by Pamela Callow, which is set in my old stomping grounds of Halifax, Nova Scotia, which added a layer of interest for me.

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