Gee-whiz ideas & mystery novel reviews

Last week Mary Robinette Kowal asked for volunteers to beta a portion of her short story idea generation workshop. After the great experience I had in the Narrative and Diversity workshop with Mary and K. Tempest Bradford, obviously I cleared my calendar and grabbed a spot before the class filled up. (I highly recommend any version of that narrative class if it fits your schedule/budget btw.)

wholeThe short version: you start with a gee-whiz idea (the Big Bad Wolf wants out of his job, say), then using a series of questions (where, who, what do they want, what do they stand to lose, what stands in their way, &c.) flesh out the characters, settings, motivations, and complications. Our first session ran over, and I wasn’t able to attend the followup the next day, but we covered the basics — including a revisit of the MICE (milieu, idea, character, event) quotient for structuring narrative threads. It was so helpful to get a new view of planning out a short story. I get a lot of those gee-whiz ideas that fizzle into nothing because my plotting is weak and I don’t follow Ron Swanson’s advice over there.

This explanation of the class is probably as clear as mud! Lesley Smith has a much more comprehensive review over here. If you have a chance to do any of Mary’s other classes, go for it! You can also check out the Writing Excuses podcast, which is full of great advice and exercises.

In media consumption news, Law & Order still has me deep in its sensationalist claws. I’ve managed to read quite a bit around it, but, no, I won’t be reviewing the absolute mountain of Star Wars pro- and fanfic that litters the last week or so of my internet history. (Except to tell you to read Before the Awakening because it has lovely little backstory encapsulations for the new trio.)

THE STRANGE CRIMES OF LITTLE AFRICA (2015, book, Chesya Burke)
Murder mystery set in Harlem in the 1920s. Though some minor layout issues and spelling errors kept knocking me out of the story, it was a real treat to step into Harlem of the 1920s and follow Ida as she investigates a thorny — and personal — mystery. Lots of familiar names of the period, enough that I also stopped every few chapters to refresh my memory of some of the historical significance. If this is going to be a series, I’ll definitely read more. ★★★★☆

HALF-RESURRECTION BLUES (2015, book, Daniel José Older)
True urban fantasy, almost unputdownable, first in a series! SO GLAD I WAITED UNTIL THE SECOND BOOK WAS RELEASED TO READ THIS ONE. Great worldbuilding and some of the best dialogue and narrative voice I’ve read in a long time. Older has a killer grasp of the cadence of everyday people speaking to each other and thinking to themselves. (I’d put him in the same category as Stephen King and Tana French when it comes to feeling like their fictional characters could walk right off the page.) The paranormal takes the front seat here but, to be real cheesy about it, without losing its heart. ★★★★★

SILENT IN THE GRAVE (2006, book, Deanna Raybourn)
Historical romance/murder mystery, first in a series! Saw a passing retweet that this book was cheap on Amazon, so I grabbed it on a whim and devoured it in less than 24 hours. Wonderfully vivid characters and a twisty mystery that had me utterly convinced of who did what at least seven different and completely wrong times. ★★★★★

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Galavant’s return, and other modernish mythologies

Last year I reviewed the first season of Galavant here, but now you can read the season two reviews over on The Televixen!

I’ve been watching a lot of various Law & Orders over the past month or so, going back to the very first season of the mothership, when it still felt a bit edgy and experimental. The pilot, if you’ve never seen it, is as gritty as the final season was polished, and includes the only instance of onscreen defibrillation on a woman not wearing a bra I’ve ever seen. The funniest thing is how little I remember of individual episodes around very specific moments that are indelibly etched on my brain: Logan punching the councilor, Carmichael’s amazing looks of disdain, Paul Sorvino’s fur hat, Bobby Goren. Also of note: how the tenor of the show’s relationship to NYC changed after 9/11, how McCoy’s hippie liberal attitudes calcified as he aged and his lady ADAs didn’t, Borgia’s egregiously brutal exit, Bobby Goren. There are still about seven hundred seasons left in my rewatch, and at least as many potential write-ups bubbling in the back of my head.

At the other end of the pseudo-medieval spectrum from Galavant:
ROBIN HOOD (2010, movie, Russell Crowe and Cate Blanchett)
To be blunt: if it weren’t for a gifset of Oscar Isaac looking ridiculously attractive as Prince King John, I’d have skipped this movie forever. I’ve poked fun at Crowe’s pretensions but genuinely find him a compelling actor most of the time. I even like his singing! Unfortunately he’s stuck in Full Dour for the duration here and it is boring as hell. No joke, it took almost an hour to watch the first twenty minutes because I kept wandering out of the room. There’s also a cast of roughly seven hundred dudes to every woman allowed to walk and talk at the same time, and by half an hour in I was wondering what fantastical miracles of reproduction they achieved to sustain any European population past the 12th century (Hollywood’s really into medieval mpreg, amirite?).

The movie suffers from a reverse Return of the King right at the outset, with three or four distinctly separate openings that barely hang together. It feels more like the opening scenes from a couple of different miniseries cobbled together with Ye Semi-Olde Englishe Gothice PowerPointe slides outlining key historical context because the movie doesn’t trust itself or the audience enough. And then the movie abandons two-thirds of them so it can wallow in the most boring army camp of all time and introduce a bunch more scheming dudes in another part of the woods! Worse, those abandoned plot threads (the struggles between Prince King John and Eleanor of Aquitaine, along with Cate Blanchett’s fierce Marian) comprise the most interesting parts of the movie. There are also a number of minor moments that would have helped elevate the whole thing for me: the artificiality and fickleness of Richard’s relationship to his soldiers and subjects and vice versa. The approaching-sly insinuations about his sexuality. The strange disguises the men of the greenwood employ that hint at the profound societal divide and the tenuousness of so-called civilization. The mechanics of Marian’s survival in a village abandoned by “able” men and plundered by crown, church, and outlaw. Court intrigues! I would have gladly watched two-plus hours of John’s wife and mistress jockeying for position, John’s nobles rebelling against his self-interest and greed, and John and Eleanor wounding each other with barbed tongues.

Alas, the movie’s biggest flaw, aside from the artless direction and unearned emotional payoffs, is that it thinks we’ll be most interested in Russell Crowe’s impostor Robin and in its attempts at equating 12th century feudal inequities with modern-day American class and power struggles with a decidedly libertarian bent. I mean, the latter is actually super interesting, but this is about the most ineffective treatment of that idea since, oh, Kevin Costner’s Robin Hood. I will thank Russell Crowe’s singing for how much folk music was included in the movie, though. Easily the most enjoyable element of the entire thing.

I’d watch again for Oscar Isaac’s artfully obscured bits, but probably only until my crush on him fades. ★☆☆☆☆

In other unearned emotional payoffs:
THE UNDOING OF A LADY (2009, book / romance, Nicola Cornick)
I jumped into this book without reading any of the previous books in the series and really shouldn’t have. The main couple’s relationship was frustratingly rushed, and the progression of each from strong attraction to realizing they were in love didn’t have much emotional impact for me. The secondary characters kind of blended together (so many couples!) and the resolution of the main mystery (which came out of nowhere! I thought this was a standard can’t-deny-our-urges book when all of a sudden someone was murdered, and then not really investigated) didn’t make sense. I gather from context that most of the story was the culmination of events from a prior book. Still, I read the whole thing and enjoyed quite a bit of it. The town’s charming. I probably won’t try the rest of the series. ★★☆☆☆

And a pleasant surprise!
SUPERSTORE (2015-16, TV / NBC, America Ferrara and Ben Feldman)
Binged the first four episodes of this over the weekend and it’s getting a season pass. Cute, friendly, fun workplace comedy in the vein of The Office, with weirdos galore. Unlike The Office it manages a middle America feel that doesn’t feel gratuitously unkind, though there are some low blows. I’m kind of hoping that the central will-they-won’t-they couple won’t in the short- and long-term. America Ferrara plays a nice twist on the uptight, upright workplace expert; Mark McKinney does the weirdest voice I’ve heard from him since Kids in the Hall; and although I didn’t watch Mad Men, I’m on Tumblr enough to be grateful to this show for letting me look at Ben Feldman without thinking about body horror. ★★★★☆

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MORE: the year ahead, and cataloging reviews

If self-improvement is a journey rather than a goal, why reset the starting line every year? Last year was pretty good for me. I would like to be better at various things. I would like to want to be better at various other things. I would like not to be discouraged by examining what I haven’t yet achieved. Nothing does that faster than staring at a list of things of desires and seeing how few can be crossed off.

Last year I kept challenging myself to push through a fear of failure. Like Shonda Rhimes! A year of YES! Because I am vulgar, it was more of a year of FUCK IT LET’S GO.

Continue reading MORE: the year ahead, and cataloging reviews

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