Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The Girl Who Played with Fire--Swedish Movie

photo: Noomi Rapace, about to terrify.  From

Overall this second film of the series was better than the very good first film, which makes sense, as the second novel in the series was superior to the first.  I suspect that the American version of the second book will stay as true to its original as the first did; this Swedish version kept more closely aligned to the source than did the first one, but still not too much.  And so there's little to say here that I didn't already say for the first movie, when I compared that to what I felt was a superior American version.  (You can read that here.  And you can read more of my blog entries about the movies and books here, here, and here.)  So I just have a few tidbits, some more relevant, I suppose, than others.

--The closing credits to this Swedish-language film play to an English-language song, Misen Groth's "Would Anybody Die."  The credits themselves, of course, were predominantly in Swedish, but every now and then you'll see "Worldwide Distribution," or "Collection Agent," or "Completion Bond."  There isn't a way to translate these last three into their Swedish equivalents?

--You'll be hard-pressed to find an American film, spoken in American English, with end credits that play to a foreign-language song.  Give the Swedes credit here.

--The film itself plays unlike American films.  I was surprised at the difference, but I don't know why.  It's just simpler, and I mean that in a good, stripped-down kind of way.  No flash, no substance.  The viewer is content to see the movie unfold at its own pace, which is slow compared to an American film of the violent, serial killer, suspense genre.  When the action does happen, it isn't glorified, which American movie violence so clearly is.  This last is maybe the biggest difference between the films of the two countries.

--Maybe it's the substance of Salander and Blomqvist, but the film seems to indicate that the average Swede in general is more advanced technologically.  There was a computer in every house of every character, even in the log cabin in the woods.  I haven't made it a point to notice, but I'm going to guess that this is not shown in American movies to this degree.  Is it the movie style, or is it that Americans aren't as connected?  And, if the latter is true, how in God's name is that possible?

--Michael Nyqvist and Lena Endre are almost completely naked in one scene.  There is no way they would be in an American movie, and I mean that in the kindest of all possible ways.  But here it fits--they're lovers, after all.  More than that, they play average--maybe slightly better than average--looking people in their, say, mid-40s, who do not work out or do anything that your average Swede in their 40s wouldn't do.  So he's hairy and a bit out of shape, and a tad flabby.  She's wrinkly and a little saggy.  And it's--normal.  Again, no glitz, no flash, no substance.  And they're known, for God's sake, for their brains and persistence, more than their sexiness.  Again, so much not an American movie, and I mean this in a good way.  It's more real.

--I'm thankful that not one character eats an open sandwich in any of the three Millennium films I've seen.  This happens maybe 5,000 times in the three books, to the point that you wonder about their cholesterol counts.

--Salander's half-brother doesn't see demons in this film.  Okay by me, but then you wonder why he just drops the bar he's holding and simply walks away at the end, when he clearly could've taken care of Blomqvist and finished off his father and half-sister, had he the desire.

--Lots of scenes where characters are sitting down and explaining things to other characters, usually while sipping coffee and/or smoking.  (Again, you wonder about the health of the average Swede.)  Anyway, this simply wouldn't happen in an American movie, as it would be considered too slow and boring.  I mean, it is slow, but that's real, right?  It works here because this sort of thing is consistent throughout the movie and series, and books.  I'm no sleuth, but I'll bet investigations really do unfold like that.  So why not show it that way?

--Speaking of smoking cigarettes, I hope Rapace smokes fake ones in the movies, like they do on Mad Men, because she's consumed about 25 cartons in the two films.  And is it okay that I say that Rapace looks prettier in this one, with her longer hair?

--Swedish cities look like pretty, happenin' places.  Swedish countryside, not so much.  Very, very blech.  I know it's countryside, and I know it doesn't really look like it does in The Wizard of Oz, but here it just looks drab and depressing.  And wet, splotchy and old.

--Ambulances in Sweden are canary yellow, and have an odd shape.  Not odd to the Swedes, though, of course.

--Swedish cities look clean.  Where are all the cigarette butts?

--Roger Ebert disagreed with my comparison to the first film, saying that they're both good, but the first one was better.  But what does he know about films?

Friday, March 23, 2012

Comment on "Hide the Weird," from the Spring 2012 Issue of Space and Time

Hello, Space and Time readers, blog followers, friends, e-friends, and, hey, even if you accidentally stumbled upon this, looking for something else!  I hope you read and liked the story.  Please comment on it below--or, if you're bashful, shoot me an email, listed in this blog's header.  I promise to get back to you in a timely fashion!

I'd be honored to sign your issue for you, if you'd like.  Just send me an email and we'll make arrangements.  I ask, via the honor system, that, in return, you consider sending a couple bucks to your local ASPCA (The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals).  I donate to these guys all the time; they do great work.  You can read more about them here.  (Feel free to skip the very sad pictures; I can't bear to watch the depressing commercials, either.)  If you have a favorite charity you'd rather give to, by all means do so.  I'm very low maintenance.

As far as cost, that's it.  I'm not so huge that I'm comfortable charging for autographs.  Yet.  :-)

Okay, so back to happier things!  Let me know what you think about the story.  And, as always, thanks for reading my stuff.  I look forward to our communication!

Update: Thanks for the emails, guys.  Nice to hear from ya.  Keep 'em comin'!  And don't be afraid to leave a comment below, too.

The Artist

photo: Poster, from the movie's Wikipedia page

I wanted to see the Academy Award winner for Best Picture, Best Actor and Best Director, and I knew I had to see it fast before it left the theatre, as this is in the theatre now only because of its Oscar wins.  I can't comment too much on its Oscar qualifications, as I have not seen too many of this past year's nominated films, except for Hugo.  So all I can really do is comment on the film itself.

It's obviously an allegory (as was Hugo), or perhaps a fable, as the awesome dog plays a big part.  The direction was superb, and as I only have Scorsese to compare it to, I have to give the nod to this movie's director.  He had a lot more to do, with the black and white (though I didn't miss the 3D credits at the end), the silence, the actors (as this is more of an actors' movie than was Hugo) and the pressure of making a (mostly) silent film zing.  Which it does.

The Oscar has gone to worse performances than the one given here.  From what I understand, this actor is huge in his native France, and for good reason.  Without his voice to help him, he's still an obviously gifted actor.  He looks a bit like Clark Gable, too, and is a born-again 20s and 30s look-alike actor, so he certainly fit the bill.  I'm not sure this film could've been made without the biggest name in the country of its origin, though it shouldn't go unsaid that this is essentially a French production, using mostly American actors, filmed entirely in L.A., about the Hollywood of the 20s and early 30s.  This movie really should have been made by an American company, but sometimes the best mirror can be shown by someone holding it, not the one peering into it.  And American films aren't artistic allegories these days, either, in case you haven't noticed.  They don't simply tell stories, as this one does.  It's a creatively complex way to tell an essentially simple story.

Now, the story.  I have to say first that it's really like the pre-Shakespearean morality plays, this one a warning against Pride (yes, with a capital-P).  And maybe a little bit of Vanity.  I know this not just because I'm an astute guy, but because two different characters (and maybe a third, a cop near the end [played by a guy who's in Mad Men, the one who peed himself]) tell him to beware of his own pride.  But here's where it gets dicey for me: no fewer than three awesome beings (a man, a woman, and a dog) cling to this self-pitying, stubborn man.  The dog, who steals the movie from its Oscar-winning cast and director, walks with him, sleeps with him, acts with him, mugs with him, and is very clearly the love of his life, even surpassing Peppy Miller (an awesome name that unfortunately brings to my mind Pepe LePue; but, again, that's me, not the movie's fault) and certainly superseding the woman he was living with.  You can say that he loves the dog even more than himself, and that's saying a lot.

James Cromwell (very cool seeing him again, looking the same, really, decades now from Babe and L.A. Confidential) is his chauffeur, and father-figure, and Arthur-like caretaker, and best and only human friend, and ever-suffering angel and confidant, and...and what's he supposed to represent in this allegory?  An angel by his side?  (Because that's also what the dog is.)  I don't know.  And Peppy Miller.  Beautiful, though too aware of it, but, whatever, again that's just me.  Lively, very flapper and, apparently, philosopher, and all-too 20s and 30s, and a great dancer, and what a smile, and a nobody until she bumps into him (literally) and he makes her a star.  But they don't have any friendly or romantic interaction between then and the end (in fact, there's a briefly curt scene), and yet she very clearly pines for him, and buys all of his stuff so he doesn't have to lose it (which only reminds him of his pride and vanity), and cares for him, and loves him, and finally resurrects him and his career (though it's a sad commentary that his self is forever entwined with his career)--and all because he gave her a start?  I guess, but for how long can you hold someone in such awe when he's in awe of nobody but himself?  For how long can you love a selfish, self-pitying, stubborn, vain fool?

Is that harsh?  But the movie makes it all work, of course, as it's all very clearly allegorical anyway, and never meant to be taken as literally as I am perhaps taking it.

The Artist is also an obvious homage to, first and foremost, Citizen Kane.  The shots over the breakfast table between the star and his jealous co-star (who doesn't like playing second fiddle to the dog, or to the guy's superior stardom), the freak-out scene when he trashes the film and his room, the closet in Peppy's mansion that holds all his vainglory belongings (like the pan shots of Kane's statues), the ponderous painting of himself, and even the shots of him standing up in the film-light splashed black-and-white backdrop, a la the newsmen in the beginning of Citizen Kane--sometimes, it bordered on a re-showing of that movie, the homage was so obvious.  But that was okay, as it never crossed the line, and I love Kane anyway.  There's also a lot of Singin' in the Rain in The Artist, as the star looks a bit like Gene Kelly as well, and the dancing scenes are a dead giveaway, as is the rain-soaked scene when she visits him.  He also passes on an older, less-talented woman to fall in love with the pretty, younger starlet, who also dances with him, and the silent/talkies thing, and...yeah, if Citizen Kane and Singin' in the Rain could have a child, here it is.

And it was wonderful.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

My Published Story--Finally!!! Free Contest!

photo: Cover of Spring 2012 issue of Space and Time Magazine, with my story, "Hide the Weird," inside!!!  The artist who created it is Victor Giannini.

In honor of Hall of Famer Jim Rice, #14, left fielder of the Boston Red Sox, last in the trifecta of Ted Williams, Yaz and Rice in front of the Green Monster--and a minor mention in "Hide the Weird"--I hereby announce a contest, 1st prize a free, signed copy of the current Spring 2012 issue of Space and Time Magazine with my story in it, to the fourteenth person who leaves a comment or an email (see above) with the words HIDE THE WEIRD in the beginning of the comment or email.  Please leave a name so I can contact you specifically for the address to send the issue.

"Hide the Weird" is the fourth story in the current, Spring 2012 issue of Space and Time Magazine.  Please go to and click on the mushroom cloud / skeleton-lounging cover (pretty cool cover, actually) to see the Table of Contents with my story.  A facsimile of the Table of Contents appears below.

Issue #116

Spring 2012
Editor’s Geeble by Hildy Silverman
  • A Test of Faith for a Couple of True Believers by Scott Edelman
  • Brain Scram by Erik Johnson
  • The Gnomes of Carrick County by John R. Fultz
  • Hide the Weird by Steven E. Belanger
  • Prisoner of War by Floris M. Kleijne
  • The Preacher Man by W.K. Tucker

  • (Haiku) by Professor Yunshen Jiang
  • Zugzwang by David M. Rheingold
  • The Innkeeper’s Dream by Sofia Rhei
  • Found by Professor Yunshen Jiang
  • Stardust by Gary Frank
  • An Interview with Kevin J. Anderson by Stephen Euin Cobb
  • Word Ninja by Linda D. Addison
  • Review: By Other Means by Sam Tomaino
  • The Tale Wagging the Dog by Daniel Kimmel
  • Victor Giannini
Update: Hey, everyone--You might see that there are 14 comments already here, but some of them are mine and those of close friends who're getting a free magazine already anyway.  So the contest is still open!  Please feel free to still place a comment.  Thanks!

    Monday, March 19, 2012

    The Best American Mystery Stories--1998, Part 4

    photo: front cover, from its Amazon page

    Another post in my series of critiques and reviews of the short stories in the volume.  The hope here is that the reader will check out the authors reviewed positively here, as many of them are still publishing.  The other blog posts can be read here, here and here.

    Con Doctor, by Jay McInerney

    Very well-written story, done with a bit of morbid flair.  Title has a double meaning, as the main character is a doctor in a prison, but also an ex-con himself, who still feels like one.  He's guilty about beating the system (explained at the end), and an ex-addict, with that kind of remorse and guilt, and in fact he feels that he's a con in his own life, as he lives with a gorgeous ex-addict with perfectly augmented breasts (her comments and attitude are amusing) and he feels that he has too much money, too much of a fake but good life that he doesn't deserve--and that he isn't even a good doctor.  The vast percentage of the story revolves around these feelings, and doesn't have much of plot, except that he has bad dreams, bad feelings, and he's going to work.  The writer knows that his readers will know where this is going, that it won't end well, and yet there's still an interesting ending, even though you'll be expecting the actual outcome.  Very character-driven story that makes the whole thing work because of it.  Left alone, without these feelings, the simple plot is nothing.  Good story to use to teach how characterization is just as important, if not more important, than plot.  Very well-done by a guy whose name I've seen before, but I can't tell you where.  I'm sure I have a book of his somewhere...

    Black Dog, by Walter Mosley

    Another double-meaning title, as the character is black, and very dogged, if you will; there's an actual black dog in the story, too, who adversely affects the black dog of a man, if you know what I'm saying.  Characters are also very clearly described as black, or not, and there's one described by the author as "the color of a cup of coffee with too much milk mixed in."  The reader, in fact, is hit over the head with the importance of skin color here.  The main character, with the name of Socrates Fortlow, is an ex-con--he'd committed an undescribed double-homicide and been free for eight years--who'd seen a man run over a dog, and then punched this man when he'd attempted to kill the dog (who, in all fairness, looked like he was in a lot of pain, and dying; anyone besides a vet and a man with a sincere desire to right his wrongs and save himself by saving another like himself would have put this dog out of its misery).  So he's on trial for breaking the nose of this white man with one good punch.  Nobody besides the dog comes across as extremely likeable, though the main character is oddly likeable enough, I guess.  And everyone, including, clearly, the author, is rooting for the dog to get better, which it does.  Though it'll be forever maimed, but liking life now anyway, which perfectly describes the main character as well.  You should get the impression by now that this story tries way too hard to be all of these things, but it succeeds, and the story, like the character and the dog, is likable despite its very obvious flaws.  All three try very, very hard, and succeed, scars intact.

    Fans of the hard-boiled genre will know Mosley from his Easy Rawlins mysteries.  He writes a lot of other things, too, including erotica and "afrofuturist science fiction."  Sounds like a very interesting guy.

    Faithless, by Joyce Carol Oates

    A true gem in this collection, exceptionally well-written.  If I legally could, I would copy and paste the whole thing right here for all to read.  I don't want to write too much, except this story shows as much of what it's like to be a woman (especially a poor, farming woman, I suppose) as the previous story shows what it's like to be an urban, proud black man with a checkered past.  Very terse, angry characters in a well-described farm setting; the mystery involves the disappearance of the narrator's grandmother, told mostly through the vantage of her mother and aunt.  But the real story is the hatred towards the disappeared grandmother by the ignorant (though often polite) farm people, and especially the hatred of the two daughters towards their mother, who they were led to believe left them.  The reader won't be surprised by the ending--Why else would the story be in this collection?--but you will be surprised by the delivery of it.  In fact, the delivery of the POV of this story is interesting, as it veers from the narrator--well, actually, it always stays with her, I guess, but through clever slight of hand, Carol Oates makes it seem as if the daughters of the disappeared woman, and even the husband, have taken over the narration.  The eye veers from that of the narrator, to the daughters of the missing woman (her mother and aunt), to the husband, to the townspeople, to the narrator again, to her mother (who dies before it's all over, and who has a memorable rant), to the narrator again, to the short disclosure at the end.  The mystery is never officially solved, of course, but you have to assume that he caught up with her after all, and that the rest of the stuff in the town was acting...Very surprised not to have heard of this becoming a movie, or something, especially for cable, which tends lately to love era-specific mysteries with harsh characters.  Hmmmm...

    Carol Oates tends to write longer short stories and very short novels.  I admit to not having read a lot of her stuff--if any--but this story makes me want to dig out the novels of hers I do have.  Since she's more prolific than Stephen King, I wonder how much of her stuff is of such good quality as this, but I'll have to see.

    More to come.  Five stories left in this collection.

    Thursday, March 15, 2012

    The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Movie, Swedish vs. American

    Photo: poster for the Swedish movie, from its Wikipedia page

    Rented the Swedish version, the original, of course, and figured I would share my thoughts about it, as compared to David Fincher's American film.  Feel free to agree, or disagree.  And please read my write-up of the American film here.  Reading what I wrote about Fincher's direction and Rooney Mara's performance may lead to a better reading of the critique of the Swedish film, below.

    --Noomi Rapace's performance deserves its many accolades, and gets extra points for being the first, which, rightly or not, sets the stage for all other interpretations of the role, and must be the one all others are compared to.  If another performance were to be better than this--which I believe Rooney Mara's is--then it must be as juxtaposed to this one, in accordance to its successes and failures.  This makes Rapace's performance all that more singular.

    But it doesn't make it better, though a better/worse distinction isn't what this art is all about, and is almost nonsense anyway, as both performances are very good.  In this case, I think it has to do with the script, which I believe is superior in the American film.  It calls for Lisbeth to be edgier, scarier, more vulnerable, and easier to be sympathetic to.  This will be dealt with in better detail later, but the final word here, regarding performance, is that, frankly, Rooney Mara had more to work with, and she gave it her all, which the combination of script and director allowed her to do.  Rapace undoubtedly would have, as well, had she been given the chance.  But she wasn't.

    --So, the script is better in Finch's version, and this I can explain easily.  The American film, surprisingly, follows the book much more closely than does the original Swedish version.  This is shocking because a) American films are notorious worldwide for bastardizing its original source, which it does not do here, and b) the Swedish film is, of course, based on the book from Sweden, and so therefore has, you would think, more allegiance to the film.  The Swedish film is the highest-grossing film in Swedish history, and it was followed very closely by the other two films in the series--all of which is based on the best-selling novel (and novels) in recent Swedish history.  One would think that the pressure to be faithful to the book was extreme, but apparently not.

    [Spoilers coming; be forewarned.]

    While following the evidence more closely than the American version (but not by much, and perhaps it does so just a little more clearly, rather than closely), the script veers dramatically in the characterization of Salander.  For example, you see her in bed with another woman when Blomqvist arrives at her apartment, but in the book, her sexuality is a big deal with her character, and the bisexuality plays a major role in her development.  It adds to her confusion, or rebelliousness, or search for affection, or yearning for affection and attention, or...whatever you want to call it.  But it matters.  Here, it's very glossed over, with just the woman's appearance in her bed.  You're missing a lot if you don't get this part of her character.  Fincher's American film did this much better.

    The same could be said for her mentor who suffers the heart attack, who is totally and oddly absent from the Swedish film.  He also represents her confusion, longing for affection, father-figure (important, considering what she did to her real father, and considering what a horrible person he was) and loss.  This latter is most important, because she is born to the father from Hell, then is given to a saintly man--but then she is given the custodian from Hell when this man is struck; her father is the Devil, then her father-figure is switched with the Devil, and, more crucially, the fact that he was her only positive interpersonal relationship to the outside world is thrown away if you throw his character away, which the Swedish version does.  This is huge.  The American film does this much better, and by doing so, it gave Fincher's and Mara's Salander more to emote about, more to suffer from, more to lose.  This only deepens her character.  Rapace never got this chance.  And I can't ignore the obvious by pointing out that Blomqvist is her father-figure/lover, a distinction that is so obvious that I, thankfully, don't need to go into it.  Except I'll say that the pendulum of father-figure has swung again, from good, to bad, back to good again.  Which leads to...

    The relationship between Blomqvist and his editor/friend/lover from Millennium is also completely and strangely absent from the Swedish film.  When he goes back to her at the end of the American film (and in the book), it only adds another layer of loss to Salander's character, as her connecting to him was a major achievement in of itself for her.  When he leaves her (notice at the end of the Swedish film, he's still in jail, and she leaves him), he takes away the only stable and positive relationship she has to anyone outside her family, or still-living mentor.  That is a HUGE loss that Larsson clearly understood and intended--and obviously juxtaposed with Harriet Vanger returning to her own father-figure/mentor, the man who replaced her own Devil-father.  (Surprisingly, Harriet Vanger's father is the Devil, while Salander's father was more like his Beelzebub.)  They never forgot each other all those years.  That's such an obvious Shakespearean foil-character juxtaposition that I am shocked the Swedish filmmakers chose to completely disregard it.  To do so throws away the most tragic elements of Salander's character.  This is astonishing--especially as it does not honor the original source.

    It is jaw-dropping to me that the American film version honors the characterization and true spirit of the original Swedish text much more so than does the Swedish film.  I at first wondered why an American film company would bother making a film based on an already-appreciated Swedish film based on an already-successful Swedish book.  Now I know--Fincher had a much better script to work with, and he knew it.

    I point out all of these differences--and there are many more, but this will suffice, I guess (no, wait, there are more below)--because Lisbeth Salander is of course the heart of this series of books and movies.  It goes where she goes.  She is the energy, the spirit, the real, fleshy character.  She's the one the audience really connects to, and hopes for, and feels for.  Larsson knew this from the beginning, which is why he focused on her so much (and why the third book flopped so badly, because he strangely wouldn't let her do anything).  To throw away so much of her character in the Swedish movie's script is to throw her away--and she's the beating heart of the whole thing!

    Okay, so a few more differences that really bothered me:

    Her sexuality is severely torn down in the Swedish movie, which is odd, because the Swedish culture and lifestyle is much less prudish, really, than is America's.  That's a huge part of who she is, and it's nowhere in the film.  Her past of drugs, crime and institutionalization is also nowhere to be found in the Swedish film--which is, again, throwing away everything that she is, and all that she is trying to change from.  Throwing away her embezzlement wizardry is also a mistake, as that helps her become a new her, which she did in part to be with Blomqvist, and it's because she loves him (in her own way) that she does all that research, delivers it to him, then dons her wig and takes all of Wennerstrom's money, which she knows will lead him to being knocked off by the criminals he worked with.  And this is what happens, which the Swedish film completely glosses over when it says that he clearly killed himself instead.  She basically kills him in the book, and in the American film, and she does this because he set Blomqvist up, sent him to prison, ruins his reputation, and, for God's sake, she's protecting the guy she loves and avenging his sacrifice.  The Swedish movie blows all this by ending the way it did, which blows her attempt to connect to someone, and to change--and it is this attempt to change that is ruined by the ending of the book and the American movie, when he goes back to his publisher/friend/lover, which the Swedish film also completely ignored.  And, lastly, the Swedish version is missing Salander's considerable rage, specifically towards Men Who Hate Women--which is why it's a shame that the Swedish version didn't include her asking Blomqvist at the end, "Can I kill him?" when she goes after Martin Vanger.  Not giving a bit of air time to her rage also erases a huge part of her characterization and character.  She isn't Lisbeth Salander without it, and the Swedish film completely misses that.  Rooney Mara had that nailed: that rage.  That ever-present anger.

    The American film has ALL of this, and more.  It is clearly better, and so is, therefore, Rooney Mara's performance.  She had a completely fleshed-out, round and changing character to work with, and defined her to the hilt.  Her interpretation was more than worthy of her Oscar nomination.  A much more thorough, edgy, sexy, intelligent, sociopathic, empathetic, sympathetic and engaging character to watch and to root for.

    Sunday, March 11, 2012

    The Best American Mystery Stories--1998, Part 3

    photo: book cover from its Amazon page

    This is a continuing series of short story critiques and summaries from The Best Mystery Stories--1998.  While these stories are a bit old, of course, the hope is that the reader will check out the authors of the stories positively reviewed, as many of these authors are still pounding the keys today.  Check out the other blog entries here and here.

    The Adventure of the Giant Rat of Sumatra, by John H. Watson, M.D., edited by John T. Lescroart

    Shame on you and go to the back of the class if you didn't recognize the name of the good doctor as the character who was the author of his adventures with his friend, Sherlock Holmes.  Lescroart has apparently received permission from Conan Doyle's estate, or maybe the publishing company owned the copyrights and gave the series to him, or something, not sure of the legalities here.  I suspect it's like Jeffrey Deaver now writing the James Bond novels, and whomever else is doing Robert Parker's Spenser novels.  Might be worth a little Google search...and you might be wondering why the story would be in a "Best of..." volume of American stories.  Either Lescroart's American, which would be sort of blasphemous, considering Holmes is a very British creation, or the story was first published in an American publication--which would be even more blasphemous.

    Anyway, the story is short and crisp and well-written, with all the little details that you would expect Holmes to get and you (and, often, Watson) to miss.  This one's a good one about the possibility of a nasty plague, which, if you've been reading my blog for awhile, you know I'm interested in.  I won't give away the mystery here, so you'll have to get a copy of the book somehow, but I will say that the only problem I have with this series is that Holmes is portrayed as such a genius that we may not even try too hard to figure it out before it's told to us.  That's the trap I fell into here, which is unusual for me.  I put some of the pieces together before Holmes tells it all to us--and to Watson, which has always been a clever writer-ly trick, so that the reader doesn't feel spoken to, though of course we are.  (That trick is maybe original to Holmes, unless Poe pulled it off first.  Now that I think about it, I think Poe did, and Conan Doyle took it.)  I usually get pieces of these stories right, such as the dirt on the knees of the guy in "The Red-headed League," which, by the way, is one of the more ridiculous short stories I have ever read.  I mean, what moron wouldn't suspect that something is up when he's chosen, without reason, among hundreds of other red-headed guys, and is hired only to copy every letter of every word of a dictionary?  Ludicrous.  But I digress.  This one is not ludicrous, and is far better, actually, than "League," so read it.  Though it's a stretch that Holmes would notice the existence of the crime at all from the newspaper articles mentioned, but whatever.  That's Holmes's genius, right?  Again, you expect that he'd get things that you wouldn't, which gives the writer more of a pass than most mystery writers would get.  (I suspect Agatha Christie got away with much the same thing.)  But, when you're done, you'll be impressed with the author's cleverness, so he got that part of the series correct as well.  Memorable.

    Night Crawlers, by John Lutz

    This one is passable, though just a solid okay.  Nothing you wouldn't see coming, really, and there's a bit of a cliche about motorcycle gang members with tattoos.  And that the whole town is scared into silence by these three guys.  Wouldn't they just get ten townspeople together and take care of them?  Guess not.  Anyway, the swampland is used to good (cliche) effect, and it's well-written on the whole.  It's just that what happens and what's said is what you'd expect to happen and what you'd expect to be said.  But still done well, I guess.  Not a big fan of the "this happens then this happens" type of mystery, as the writer never tries to hide the mystery too much, and the bad guys are very clearly bad guys right away, so the suspects aren't the mystery, either.  In fact, there's no mystery to this mystery, but it's readable and you won't be worse off for reading it.  'course, you won't be better off, either, but, hell, at least the title means two or three things at the same time.  Just read it and move on.

    Prayer for Judgment, by Margaret Maron

    This one is a small, impressive little nugget, solved practically between cases in the judge's spare time.  It starts off with a well-written description of North Carolina flowers and scents, which has been done a billion times before in short stories and novels, just change the state.  (It also frequently repeated the word "gardenias," which was discomforting to me as it reminded me of one of Marlon Brando's bald head in the darkness blabberings towards the end of Apocalypse Now.  But that's me; not the writer's fault.)  Anyway, the author tried to glaringly bookend it with a two-sentence mention of the same at the end of the story, and it didn't work.  The whole flower/scent thing is unnecessary at the beginning and at the end.  Luckily, the mystery in the middle is set up as a minor puzzle, and you should be able to follow along and piece it together as the judge does, so that when she pulls apart the curtain at the end, you're nodding along, and satisfied at your own cleverness.  Well-written but for the flower nonsense.  Title sounds like it'll have more gravitas than it actually does, as you're waiting for a double-meaning that never really asserts itself.

    More to come.

    Thursday, March 8, 2012


    photo: movie poster from Hugo's Wikipedia page

    There are many reasons to see Martin Scorsese's movie, Hugo.  I saw it in the theatre, and I knew then that I'd have to buy it when it came out (which it has recently) and watch it again, which I just did.  Here are some reasons, with a few comments:

    --The effects are incredible, and not just because they're 3D (at least in the theatre) and, I'm sure, heavily CGI.  (In fact, one might mandate the other.  Not up on my film technology, I'm afraid.)  Anyway, it's a great visual experience, especially in the theatre.  Watching it on the computer screen, which I just did, wasn't too bad, either.

    --The directing is stunning as well.  You've seen good special effects pictures that had nothing else going for them, right?  This one has great flourishes, nice mise en scenes, and energy.  Even his minor films, like Shutter Island, are really well directed.  Like Spielberg, Peter Weir, Orson Welles, and Stanley Kubrick, and maybe a handful of others, it seems that Scorsese cannot direct a film badly, regardless about what you think of the film itself at the end.  (Spielberg's Hook was directed well, though it sucked.)  The acting, led by newcomer Asa Butterfield and master Sir Ben Kingsley, is wonderful as well.

    --The period detail is exquisite, from the production design, to the costumes, to the real history.  Everything makes you feel like you are in Paris at the time.  And the real history is a nice touch.  I knew a little about Georges Melies beforehand, and I knew the scene about the rocket hitting the moon in the eye, but the actual clips, and his real story, were very nice touches.

    --You'll love the message about art, and artists, and creating, and all of that, even if you're not a writer.  It's got a nice message about how we're all here for a creative reason, not just for a practical reason--though one may still be the other, of course.  But when an artist isn't making art, he's a useless and depressed piece of mold, which is what Melies apparently became, and that's shown here.  Writers watching this movie will recognize the writer's block extended metaphor immediately.  When you're blocked, you're beyond miserable, right?  This movie explains maybe why that is.  The other messages about not giving up, and fathers and sons, and all that are done well, too.

    --It's nice to see a Scorsese picture that doesn't have someone's head put in a vice, or psychotic characters shooting everyone in sight.  Not that Goodfellas and Taxi Driver were bad, of course, but it's nice to be reminded that Scorsese can do something else.  In fact, I have to say that I liked Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ just as much, if not more, than The Departed and all of those.  It is said that Scorsese wanted to direct this picture (as he calls them) because he wanted his then-12 year old daughter to be able to watch one of his movies.  Now she can.  Of course, this movie is wonderful for adults as well (and only the adults will get Cohen's character's quip at the end, about being a fully-functioning man.)

    One last (and surprising to me) note is that this film performed poorly at the box office.  It cost between $150 to $170 million to make (that's technology for ya) and it grossed about $140 million, worldwide, only half in America.  This is surprising not just for the quality, but also because if you're going to see it, you'd be better off seeing it in the theatre, with its 3D technology and CGI.  You'd think the average movie-goer would know that.  If they did, they didn't care.

    It is also true that Scorsese's non-violent--or, rather, non-criminal, as Last Temptation was still very violent in its way--do not perform well at the box office.  This says something sad and unnerving to me about the average movie-goer's need to tear the white sheet off the corpse, but I'm learning to get used to that.  Kudos to Scorsese, and artists everywhere, for creating their art without regard to their usual fan's appreciation.  That is, after all, the point of the picture.  Artists create for their own sake, and for the sake of their art.

    Monday, March 5, 2012

    The Best American Mystery Short Stories, Part 2

    [This is a continuation of another blog you can read here.  (You'll excuse me if I repeat the disclaimer here.  If you've already read the aforementioned post, you'll know the purpose, so you can just skip to the stories and comments below.)] 

    photo: cover of the book from its Amazon page

    A few comments about the stories I've read so far in The Best Mystery Short Stories--1998 (edited by Sue Grafton).  Though of course the collection is old, stories are stories, and good writing is timeless.  You couldn't do much better, for example, than some of Chekhov's short stories; writers like Alice Munro and others are still obviously indebted to him.  The hope here is that you'll check out the other works of the writers positively mentioned below.  Most of them are still pounding the keys...

    The Old Spies Club, by Edward D. Hoch

    Very agreeable and crisp writing from a pro.  If you like the genre, you'll recognize the name.  In this one, a retired spy joins a club for, well, retired spies.  (You may be surprised as I was that they'd be that open about such a thing.)  The mystery is that there's apparently a double-agent amongst them, and this person doesn't want some items sold at a public auction by a retired (literally and euphemistically) spy who'd written a memoir and who, to a reporter, threatened to name names in another work.  But then he died, under normal circumstances, but the worry is that he'd hidden incriminating evidence in one of his belongings up for auction.  You could make a novella out of this, but Hoch succinctly wraps it up in a very short short story, and at the end, you'll slap yourself for not putting the clues together and realizing who the agent was.  The clues are not the insufferable type that no one in his right mind would ever think of.  An observant reader could reasonably put it together.  Memorable for its succinctness and professional writing--and the clues and ending were welcome surprises.  This one's a pleasant and minor keeper.

    Beyond Dog, by Pat Jordan

    Good writing and explosive (literally) ending still don't save this one from being ho-hum okay.  It's well-done, but it didn't do it for me like other well-done ones in the collection have.  The sexy older woman is the most interesting character; the dog of the title didn't work for me like the frisbee-catching one did in the first story, mentioned in the other blog entry.  This one's more of a plot device, and otherwise interesting only for how the aforementioned women exalts him, and lets him go where dogs aren't allowed to, like on a beach or in a taxi.

    Find Miriam, by Stuart Kaminsky

    Very good story, wrapped up a little too quickly for my taste, and it ends with a bit of a silent thud.  The mystery turns out to be no mystery, to the reader and to the characters.  The characters themselves are just on the page, though they're agreeable, likeable and believable enough.  I wouldn't be surprised to find that the narrator has appeared in print before.  In fact, I remember the author's name from somewhere.  Nothing really surprising here, or memorable, and the author seems to have felt the same way about it.  Even the title indicates this, as the narrator is hired to---.

    Secrets, by Janice Law

    Wow!  Holy cow, this was a superior story with superior writing.  The best of the bunch so far; not close.  The writing was so good--as was the story, but the plot isn't something you haven't seen before--that I now want to Google this writer and see what else she's written.  Writing like this makes me want to write something like this, which, I think, is one of the benchmarks of good writing.  This story was so good, the writing of such high quality, that I'm not even going to summarize the work here, like I have for everything else.  I want you to go get a copy of this (You know where you can get one for a penny, though I'm loathe to say this, since I wouldn't want anyone to get any of my future books for that price.) and read this yourself.  Fascinating way to handle this story, and again the writing is exquisite.  I'm going to Google and Wikipedia the author right now...

    Friday, March 2, 2012

    2 Reasons to Link In

    I finally joined LinkedIn about a year ago, after lots of invites.  I got one from someone I sort of communicated with anyway, and I wanted to see what it had to offer.  What I've learned is that it's like most other internet social sites out there: it clearly states not to just invite everybody, and it clearly states not to just accept everyone's invitation...and then people just do what they want anyway.  The reasons I've stayed with it:

    1.  As a writer, you'll benefit just by having your works, websites and blogs mentioned on your profile page.  Then, whenever you comment on something that you really do want to comment on, your icon shows up, and if someone found your comment interesting or helpful, they can click on your icon, see your works and sites, and now you have another customer, or blog viewer.  You'll immediately see the difference between amateurs and pros.  Stick to the latter.  To that end,

    2.  About 95% (and that's being nice) of the stuff that comes your way is unworthy of your time--but 5% isn't, and that's the nugget you swill for.  Every great now and then, someone will say something helpful about blog traffic, or an agent, or you'll make a business contact, etc.  When you find something interesting, you learn from it, you comment on it, and you're off.  I met an editor of an anthology this way, and was able to write and sell a piece to her.  That's what LinkedIn is really for--and you have to very quickly sift through the chaff to see something sparkle.  I get the weekly feeds from my groups--all 40 or 50 of them!!!--but it takes me no longer than an hour a week to go through them all, make the comments that I want, meet the people I want, etc.

    The important thing is to not let yourself get carried away.  The most important thing about promoting yourself is to have something worth promoting.  That means, write.  Finish what you're writing.  Send it out.  The best marketing tool you've got is your work.  Make sure you've got enough of it.  Don't blog more than you write.