Winter isn’t coming

I have a nostalgic recollection of what it’s like to be in the midst of a blizzard. As a kid, I used to love to go outside and play in the snow. There’s a particular kind of quiet in a snowfield. Sound is dulled and amplified at the same time. I love the sound snow makes when you step into it or ski across it. However, I don’t envy people having to deal with the 12-36″ of the stuff that’s due to come down over the next couple of days, or the complications it will cause with travel, both local and long-range.

As for what it’s like here—I sat outside on the back deck while I was writing yesterday afternoon so, quite nice thank you very much.

The novella I’m working on is set in a New England winter, so maybe this storm will provide fodder and inspiration. It’s coming along very well. I crossed the 10,000 word mark this weekend, which isn’t bad for a week’s work. It’s the most I’ve written in such a short period in ages. As I mentioned before, I’m doing this longhand, also something I haven’t done in ages. I wasn’t looking forward to transcribing it when I was finished, though. However, my wife mentioned some free dictation software for the iPad (Dragon Dictation). Between yesterday afternoon and this morning, I dictated all of the work to present and got it converted into Word. It didn’t take long to fall into a rhythm, saying things like “new line,” “begin quote,”  “dash,” “new paragraph” as I was reading along. There are a lot of mistakes and misunderstandings to be corrected, but it’s a big step forward without having to do all that typing. I also validated my estimated word count. I was a touch high, assuming 250 words per page when after 44 pages the real average is 236. I’m hoping to be done with the first draft by the end of February, if not sooner. Every morning I wake up knowing what comes next, which is always good.

I finished the second season of The Fall last weekend. This is the British crime drama starring Gillian Anderson as an English police superintendent in Belfast to perform a review on a murder case that has had little traction in a month. She soon discovers they’re dealing with a serial offender (Jamie Dornan), who is one sick puppy. The two seasons are really one long season with an interminable break between them. Season 1 ends on a cliffhanger and the story picks up straight away in Season 2 in the same place. It’s a slow, deliberately paced series that doesn’t gloss over the processing of crime scenes or the minutia of interrogations. Anderson’s character is quite interesting, strong, forceful, unflappable, and Dornan’s is twisted, controlling, and ingratiating. Though Anderson and Dornan are almost never together in scenes, the show is mostly a cat-and-mouse chess match between them, with some other good characters thrown in, including a saucy fifteen-year-old babysitter who is emotionally seduced by Dornan’s character. I hope there’s a third season.

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Winter, Spring, Summer and …

I have finally embarked on a long writing project, a novella that is part of something I’m doing with Brian Keene. I thought I had the germ of the idea a few months ago, but I got sidetracked with other things and a new, fresh idea came along. I started yesterday and have about 3000 words as of today. I say “about” because I can only estimate. Thus far, I’ve been writing longhand in a spiral-bound journal and I’m guessing about 250 words per page. I’m not quite sure why I’m going about it this way, but it is working, so I’m not going to second guess the process. I don’t have any idea where this story came from or where it’s going, exactly, but I keep thinking about it even when I’m not writing, so that’s encouraging.

My latest essay at Stephen King Revisited is up: Graveyard Shift looks at the historical context of King’s first short story collection, Night Shift. Rich Chizmar’s thoughts about the collection also went up today. Speaking of CD, I received my contributor copies of issue #72 of the magazine on the weekend. In addition to my regular column, I have the featured review of Revival, which I am now listening to on audio and appreciating it even more the second time around.

I’m not a huge football fan. I could fill a book with the rules I don’t understand. I couldn’t even name all of the positions or what their responsibilities are, but I do enjoy watching a game from time to time, especially during the playoffs when there’s so much at stake. I particularly enjoy the offbeat plays, like the faked punt or the one where the entire team shifted position to turn an unlikely player into an eligible receiver who then lumbered down the field unmolested to catch a touchdown pass (this might have been in a college game). The two games on Sunday couldn’t have been more different. Green Bay dominated and lost, and New England dominated and won. I couldn’t believe the turn-about by Seattle so late in the game after looking incredibly drab and listless for 58 minutes.

I just finished re-watching the five episodes of the first series of The Fall, starring Gillian Anderson and Jamie Dornan. Anderson does a passable (to my ears) British accent in her part as a Detective Superintendent sent by Scotland Yard to Belfast to conduct a 28-day review of a stagnating homicide investigation. She links up a couple of other crimes and comes to the conclusion there’s a serial killer at work, played with creepy delight by Dornan. Anderson’s character makes others uncomfortable because she is cold, calculating and because she is sexually aggressive. If she were a man, no one would blink at her having a one-night stand with someone she met only briefly, but because she’s a woman, her colleagues and superiors are outraged. It’s an interesting mirror on contemporary sexual politics. Season 2, consisting of six episodes, is now up on Netflix.

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Babylon and on

It’s hard to define exactly what Babylon (Sundance six-part series) is. It’s not a comedy, exactly, and it’s only occasionally a parody or a lampoon. At least half the time it’s dead serious. The main character is a female American PR wonk who’s hired to run the publicity and communications branch of Scotland Yard. She reports directly to the commissioner, who is a smart but difficult-to-read man whose vocabulary has introduced me to a gamut of British insults. Liv’s second-in-command thought he was getting the job, so he’s out to sabotage her at every turn. On the other side of the coin, there are the cops in the streets, some of whom are very good at their jobs and some of whom are utter buffoons. There’s also an armed response cop with PTSD, and a videographer who is capturing the best and the worst of the cops. I suspect its depiction of both the daily lives of average coppers and the high-level attempts to spin everything is more accurate than most crime dramas. But there’s also a high snark level. We’re three episodes in, and I’m enjoying it.

I finished the first season of Californication while on the exercise machine this morning. For the definition of cognitive dissonance, try alternating episodes of that show with The X-files. I totally did not expect what happened in the final minutes of the twelfth episode. It will be very interesting to see where they go from here. I happen to think that Hank Moody would be a cool guy to hang out with at Necon.

I also finished season four of Homeland this week. The final episode was a bit tepid after everything else that happened, but it was a very dramatic and interesting season. There were moments when I almost couldn’t watch any more because what was happening—or about to happen—was so intense. I also get very antsy when Carrie goes off her meds.

One episode of American Horror Story: Freak Show left to go. The aspect that gave the show such an edge early on—the fact that it would reset at the start of the next season so anyone could die—has become a liability. Deaths don’t really have that much impact any more, especially as they come fast and furious and often without a great deal of motivation. This season seems to have gone on forever. About four episodes too long, in my estimation. Not that anyone asked.

But, hey, Justified is back next week, so there’s that. And I see that the second season of the excellent (and short) British crime drama The Fall, with Gillian Anderson, is now out on Netflix.

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If I lived closer to Houston proper, I’d probably be at Murder By the Book at least once a week. MBTB is a fantastic bookstore that specializes in crime fiction and murder mysteries. They bring in authors for signing events on a regular basis; in fact, there’s hardly a day goes by when they don’t have someone there. Big name authors, too.

But it’s a 45-minute drive and the weekday events start at 6:30, which means going into the city during rush hour, which isn’t my favorite thing to do. But I make exceptions from time to time, and when I heard that Amber Benson, who I met at NECON last year, would be here to promote her fine novel, The Witches of Echo Park, I made the trip. This was the last stop of her whirlwind tour and she was a bit punchy by the time 6:30 roll around, but it was good to catch up with her. She read the book’s opening chapter, and then did a Q&A with the audience.

Someone asked if she was part of a critique group, and I was fascinated by her answer. She works with a group of creative people dubbed the Shamers. They all work together in the same place at the same time, each doing his or her own thing. But if someone notices that someone else is spending too much time on Twitter, they call that person out. On the flip side, if someone hits a wall, he or she asks advice from those assembled. So, not a critique group, per se, but a support group and a peer pressure group, shaming each other into working. I like that idea.

I turned in the short story I’ve been working on for the past couple of weeks to Tesseracts Nineteen, a couple of weeks ahead of deadline. The theme for the anthology is superheroes and I kind of played fast and loose with that concept, so they’ll either love it for being so creative or hate it for completely missing the mark, I figure. I quite like the way it turned out. It took me a while to capture the tone that I discovered halfway through the first draft. Irreverent, in a way.

As one window opens, a door closes, or so they don’t say: after submitting this one, I got a rejection letter from another market. Ah, well. So it goes.

Now it’s on to the novella, which will be the longest piece of fiction I’ve written in quite some time. I feel like I’m about to enter a cavern with a candlestick and a handful of matches.

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My first post of 2015. Happy New Year one and all. Turbulent events abroad, so maybe not so happy for everyone, alas. It would be hard to pick a day when that wasn’t true, though.

Our first strong blast of winter is due to arrive in a few hours. I don’t think it’s going to be quite as cold as they were anticipating a couple of days ago, but it will drop into the upper twenties at least. From tonight until sometime Sunday we won’t see temperatures above the thirties. Brrr.

My new toy from the holidays is an iPhone 6. We upgraded from iPhone 4 (not even 4S), so it’s quite a big change. The thumbprint login is fascinating. The process of encoding the print was more complicated than I imagined. You have to roll the surface of your thumb around as the ridges fill in, and then do the same thing with the edges of your thumb, too. But it’s quite sensitive. It works no matter which way your thumb is pointing or which part of it makes contact. The phone is bigger than what I’m used to, and until I got my hardcase for it, I handled it very gingerly. Not sure I like the Otterbox for this one, though. I’ve ordered a different case to compare. The Otterbox has a built-in screen that seems to reduce the touch sensitivity.

Over the holidays, I did little writing but lots of reading. I finished The Witches of Echo Park by Amber Benson, who is going to be at Murder By the Book next week, as well as A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay. I’ve written reviews of both, but I’m holding off on posting the review of the latter until closer to publication, which is in June, but suffice to say, I really liked it. It’s The Exorcist for the 2010s. I’m currently reading The Fifth Heart by Dan Simmons, which is Henry James meets Sherlock Holmes, quite literally. I’m about a quarter of the way through. The book has an interesting quasi-metafictional aspect to it. Is Sherlock Holmes real or an imposter? Who is the author of his stories, John Watson or Conan Doyle? Intriguing and mind-twisting. (For a list of everything I read in 2014, see this link.)

So I’m back to writing. I have three goals for 2015, in addition to the regular work I do (which includes the semi-regular posts to Stephen King Revisited and the semi-irregular posts to News from the Dead Zone). I’m going to finish the story I’m currently working on before the end of the month. Then I’m going to write the novella that is part of a project I’m doing with Brian Keene. And then I’m going to get onto that novel I’ve been trying to re-start for lo these many months. I’m going to do my best not to get seduced by other projects unless they have paychecks attached to them up front. Try, at least, though shiny things do fascinate, don’t they?

I’m very pleased to see that Eve Myles from Torchwood will be joining the second season of Broadchurch, as well as Charlotte Rampling, who was so good in the final season of Dexter. I almost wish I’d never watched Gracepoint as now I have to cleanse my mind of the visual representations of those characters and remember who was who on the (much superior) original version.

Less pleased to learn that USA has canceled Covert Affairs. It wasn’t a show that generated a lot of buzz, but it lasted five seasons and was always interesting. I suspect that it depicted spycraft more accurately than most spy movies. And, thanks to an ad during last night’s NCIS, I was alerted tot he fact that The Mentalist is moving from Sundays to Wednesdays starting, oh, what? Tonight. My normally on-the-ball DVR didn’t get the memo.

Speaking of NCIS, whoa, what a brutal episode. It started off whimsically enough, with not one but two of Gibbs’ ex-wives showing up at a crime scene. Jeri Ryan appeared as the near-mystical and never-before seen ex-wife #2, back to pay amends now that she’s hit bottom and in recovery. However, one of Gibbs’ nemeses was reproducing crime scenes from his past, right down to the head-shot that took out Kate many years ago, but this time the recipient of the lethal bullet wasn’t an NCIS operative but an ex.

Now that Homeland has finished its fourth season, it’s time to binge my way through it. I’m four episodes in and so far it’s not bad. I thought the plot with the young man who survived the wedding bombing would go in a different direction at first—I thought he’d be radicalized by events. It’s bad enough that Carrie and her group have to combat the hostiles, but she also has to be on the lookout for her own allies who want to stab her in the back. The guy who was promised the job of bureau chief, for example.

I’m back on the elliptical trainer in the mornings before I start writing after a hiatus. Despite the amount we seemed to consume during the holidays, I didn’t really put on any new weight, so that’s good. I’ve discovered that Californication is the perfect program to watch then. Each episode is roughly 30 minutes. What a quirky show.

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How the (Dominic) West Was Won

We’ve been mostly staying indoors, cooking, eating and watching movies and videos for the past several days. Yesterday was a good one to stay in—it rained solidly all day long. No complaints; we can always use more rain around here.

We watched a film called Pride the other night. It’s based on the true story of a small Gay & Lesbian group from London that decided to show their support for the striking coal miners in 1984. One of their group was Welsh (Andrew Scott, who played Moriarty on Sherlock), so they picked at random a Welsh town. Naturally, the rural coal miners don’t know what to make of this busload of flamboyant supporters, and there is conflict about accepting their support, even though they’re raising both awareness and a significant amount of money. A small faction of the townspeople rise to the challenge. It’s a delightful film, reminiscent of Billy Elliot. One of the standout performances is from Dominic West (The Affair, The Wire) who plays a bleached-blond gay man who misses the disco days and takes an opportunity to strut his stuff at a hall filled with miners. It’s an amazing departure from his usual serious roles. The older women in the community are hilarious, and the finale jerks tears and heartstrings.

My wife has never seen The Wire, so I bought the boxed set and we’ve been binge-ing our way through it since Friday. Almost to the end of the first season. I’m getting a lot more out of it watching it this way. Making connections that I’d missed earlier. I’m delighted to discover that my wife, a very hard sell on most TV, is loving the show. I was amused to note that the actor who plays Major Rawls, the guy who wants McNulty’s badge for making him look bad before the Deputy of Operations, is the same one who plays Noah’s father-in-law on The Affair. So that’s twice, at least, where John Doman plays antagonist to Dominic West.

We also binged our way through the latest season of Downton Abbey, which breaks little new ground, but continues to amuse us, mostly because of Maggie Smith, whose dry wit and sarcasm enlivens the show. Poor Bates and Anna: I hope they resolve that storyline soon and allow them some modicum of happiness. And I also think it’s time they allow Barrows to redeem himself and find a happy course in life, though we thought it amusing that Lady Mary used his darker tendencies to wage war against a rude butler.

I watched the Christmas Doctor Who yesterday. At times it seemed to border on ludicrous, but once the truth of everything became apparent, I appreciated it more. I liked the guy who played Santa, and the battle of wits between him and the Doctor. I’m in the pro-Clara camp: I think she’s delightful. The “Aliens” humor was funny, and the character of Shona was worth the price of admission alone. Her dance through the hospital ward was hilarious, and her accent a delight.

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Serial killer

Over the course of the past week or so, I’ve listened to all 12 segments in the Serial podcast from the creators of This American Life. They range between half an hour to a full hour in length and, over the course of three months, reveal the outcome of a year-long investigation by Sarah Koenig and her team into a fifteen-year-old Baltimore murder case. A high school student was convicted of murdering his ex-girlfriend on very little physical evidence.

She had full access to the convict, serving a life sentence, via telephone (I don’t think she ever met him face-to-face), but the victim’s family refused to cooperate, so the picture is a little one-sided. The defense attorney has since died. The first trial ended in a mistrial. Stories changed. New evidence appeared. Koenig and her team are dogged in the pursuit of information without apparent agenda: they aren’t trying to get the convicted killer off, but they agree that there probably wasn’t enough evidence to find him guilty. It’s quite fascinating, the way a cold case is investigated journalistically. Was there a pay phone at the Best Buy, as a friend of the convict claims? It seems like a minor point, but it’s part of a house of cards that could come toppling down if there isn’t.

After listening to it all, I can’t say I’m convinced of his guilt or innocence, but there were two damning details. First, someone confessed to helping the convicted killer dispose of the body. He knew where her car was (which supports this claim), and he knew a lot of other “facts” of the case. Now, it’s possible that this guy was the killer and he used his friend as a patsy. The other detail was the fact that the man convicted of killing his ex-girlfriend did not attempt to call her or page her once after she disappeared, even though they had remained close following the break-up. A few weeks elapsed between the last time anyone saw her and the discovery of her body (an event that has its own mysterious aspects to it), but he never once tried to find out where she was by simply calling her. To me, that says he knew she was already dead, so why bother. He hemmed and hawed and offered a weak explanation for this behavior to Koenig, but I didn’t buy it. He had an aggressive way of bulldozing through certain details, and he’s had fifteen years to learn how to deal with his situation. That failure to call, like the dog who didn’t bark in the night, speaks volumes to me. Perhaps I’m reading too much into it, but there you have it.

There’s also the matter of his being unable to account for much of his time on the day in question. The girl’s new boyfriend, when called by the police to see if he knew where she was, made a point of figuring out all the details of his movement on that day because he knew he’d be a suspect if she were dead. The convicted killer did not, and he was very wishy-washy about the day. He claims he lent his car and his cell phone to the friend who would ultimately blame him for the crime, and it all seems a little dodgy.

If you’re interested in true crime reportage, give it a whirl. I quite enjoyed it.

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In Xanadu did Kubla(i) Khan

I’m sure there are movies that have a greater disparity between the critics’ score and the audience score, but I haven’t heard of one. Netflix’ Marco Polo, a 10-part drama about the explorer’s first years in Mongolia as a “guest” of the great Kublai Khan, scores a mere 27% among critics, based on 26 reviews, and a whopping 93% average from nearly 400 viewers.

We binged our way through the 10 hours this past weekend and we really enjoyed it—my wife liked it even more than I did, and she’s a very hard sell when it comes to television. Though Polo is the title character, the show is really more about Khan, who wants to be emperor of the world. He’s not a bad man, though, for the most part. The name summons thoughts of Attila the Hun (at least in my mind), but he was a very open, accepting and thoughtful leader. He rarely acted on impulse, but thought through all of the consequences of his actions. He accepted all religions, his court was filled with foreigners whose opinions he valued, and he invited scrutiny of his decisions, both before they were implemented and after. He gave his most trusted men the opportunity to say “I told you so” when things went wrong. How accurate is this to reality? Who knows what a man who lived over 700 years ago was like, but Marco Polo liked him and his court enough to stick around for nearly two decades.

Polo himself is mostly a viewpoint character. True, his life is put on the line a few times, and he isn’t exactly a passive participant in things, but Khan is in the driver’s seat and everything revolves around him. There are spies and intrigue, the obligatory blind kung-fu master (and praying mantises rather than grasshoppers), plenty of naked women, some great sword fights and an assault on a walled city reminiscent of Lord of the Rings. No expense was spared in this production and I have no idea why the critics hated it so. One thought it was so tedious that it was binge-proof, but that wasn’t our experience at all. B.D. Wong was especially good as Khan, with Joan Chen as his empress-wife. The villain is the Chancellor of the Song dynasty, a man who has risen from poverty to a position of great power whose status is threatened when the emperor dies, leaving behind only a 5-year-old heir. From a historical perspective, we found it fascinating, because this is a part of history that we knew little about. At one point, Khan was the ruler of 1/5 of the populated world in the late 13th century.

Despite critical panning, the show has been renewed for a second season. Yay!

If The Affair hadn’t been renewed for a second season, I would be seriously pissed right now. What were they thinking? Were they so confident in the show that they knew it would be picked up? I can’t think of any other reason why they’d end the tenth hour the way they did. Holy moly.

One of the show’s most intriguing aspects, beyond awesome performances by the four leads, is the he said/she said disparity. Some of it is trivial, but some things are blazingly different. The biggest so far is the difference between Noah’s memory of what happened at the end of the trip to pick up their daughter and Allison’s version of that story. Totally, totally different. The characters were dressed differently and just about everything that happened was different. Both dramatic, but not even in the same ballpark. Fascinating, for sure. It’s going to be a long wait until next season.

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A byte out of the apple

I am very pleased by Obama’s decision to normalize relations with Cuba. The embargo is as old as I am, and I think time tells us that it hasn’t worked. It impoverished the target nation, but it did virtually nothing to alter its political course. A one-nation embargo, in particular, doesn’t work very well. Growing up in Canada, Cuba was a popular tourist destination. I look forward to a day in the very near future when I can travel there on my US passport. I hear it’s nice. Like many Caribbean nations, there is an ugly underbelly juxtaposed against the part the tourists see, but I think an influx of cash and the possibility that the American tourist industry will be able to invest in Cuban destinations will have more good sides than bad.

I finished and turned in my latest writing project, which hasn’t been announced yet, but it’s good fun. I’ve done this a couple of times before, and it’s always different.

Last night we watched Codebreaker on Netflix, the 2011 documentary about Alan Turing, the father of modern computing. Turing is the subject of a couple of recent movies, including The Imitation Game, starring Benedict Cumberbatch. His is a tragic story of a man whose contribution to the war effort saved countless lives and may have shortened the war since cracking the Enigma code allowed D-Day to happen when it did. And yet his personal life made him an outcast — he was chemically castrated as part of a plea bargain that kept him out of jail. The movie is a combination of documentary that features people who knew him from the Bletchley Park days, as well as friends and relatives, and dramatic re-enactment of his sessions with a psychotherapist wherein he struggles over what he can reveal, since much of his life is covered by the Official Secrets Act. One thing I didn’t know: the documentary claims that the Apple logo comes from the fact that Turing committed suicide by taking a bite out of a poisoned apple, the remains of which was found next to his body. (The logo designer considers this origin story an urban legend, however. Turing did eat a cyanide-laced apple, but there’s no indication Apple was inspired by this incident.)

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The Wild Trail

We saw a couple of good movies this weekend. First was Wild, starring Reese Witherspoon. It’s about a young woman who went a little nuts after her single mother dies of cancer who decides to purge herself and get life back on track by walking the Pacific Crest Trail, which goes from the Mexican border the full length of California and into Oregon, at least. It’s based on a memoir, so there’s a lot of truth in it, but some movie simplifications, too. (For example, in the real life the character has two siblings, but only one in the film.) I was reminded a bit of Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods, where he tried to do the Appalachian Trail, though with less angst and hardship. A woman by herself has some unique potential dangers to face. The support cast is excellent, too, including the guy who played Dan Dority on Deadwood, the guy who played Skinny Pete on Breaking Bad and the guy who played the minister on Gracepoint. And a fox, who plays her spirit guide, I guess. But the movie rests mostly on Witherspoon’s shoulders, and she pulls it off.

Last night we watched Nebraska on Netflix. It’s about an old geezer (Bruce Dern) who thinks he’s won a million dollars in a Publisher’s Clearinghouse-type sweepstakes and is bound and determined he’s going to Lincoln, Nebraska (from Billings, Montana) to pick up his windfall because he won’t trust the post office with all that money. And if no one will take him, dammit, he’s going to walk. So his son agrees to take him, even though everyone knows there’s no money. Bob Odenkirk (Saul from Breaking Bad) plays the other son, and Stacy Keach shows up as an old “friend” of Dern’s. The trip takes them back to Dern’s hometown. Once the story gets out that he’s a millionaire in the making, all manner of people from his past crawl out of the woodwork with hands out. It’s a poignant story and funny as hell, too, especially the scene where the two brothers decide to reclaim an air compressor that was loaned out decades ago. I don’t identify with the dysfunctional family in the least, but I understood them. It’s a road movie, and the two main characters learn a lot about each other along the way (although it’s the son whose eyes are opened the most.)

I started reading The Witches of Echo Park by Amber Benson this weekend. I had the pleasure of meeting Ms Benson at Necon last summer. When I heard she was a guest of honor, I expected her to be somewhat standoffish, a real celebrity amongst us regular folks, but she turned out to be very accessible and friendly. Had a good talk with her about foreign crime TV shows in the courtyard one night. I’m really enjoying this novel, which is set in the real world, where there are witches. A lot of the material she uses reminds me of a novel I wrote a few years ago where a character gets involved in Wicca and Tarot as a way of coping with a loss. The cover makes it look like a YA novel, but it isn’t.

Only one more episode left of The Affair, which stars Ruth Wilson (Luther) and Dominic West (The Wire, The Hour). I swear this show gets under my nerves more than many horror films. My mother used to hate scenes in shows like Matlock or Murder She Wrote where the good guy is creeping around in the bad guy’s house, searching an office by flashlight, because she was sure the good guy would get caught. This show is something like that, except it’s a couple of philanderers who aren’t exactly all that discreet. It’s also a mystery series, because there’s a murder, and the identity of the victim is kept secret for a long time, let alone the identity of the killer. It has an interesting he said/she said structure that is revealing in the way that it reflects how Noah and Allison remember certain events. What was said, what they wore, what they did. There’s a lot to wrap up in one more hour.

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