Sunday, October 18, 2020

That's a Wrap

SACRAMENTO—We did it. A virtual convention. And last night was the final piece—the live awards ceremony. And a million moving pieces (multiple Zoom rooms, different audio feeds, camera angles, monitors, cue cards, and fuzzy slippers) fell into place. As did everything else.

We had a packed crowd at Virtual Bouchercon 2020. They attended from home, obviously, but that had benefits. We had people join us who wouldn’t have been able to otherwise, from readers stuck at home due to health concerns to writers like Ian Rankin, who joined a panel from his home in Edinburgh, Scotland.

It was sad not to have the typical gabfests that take place in the hotel bar and lobby at a normal Bouchercon, but a wonderful thing happened. People adapted the space they had. They turned the chat function on Zoom panels into a combination of Q&A and cocktail party chatter. The panelists became more involved in the questions than they are at an in-person event, and audience members could greet one another without interrupting anything that was going on with the panel discussion. One commenter said: “chat is the new bar,” and he was so right.

I’ll leave you with a few photos. I’m so proud of our team, and so, so grateful to the mystery community for a wonderful two days.

Getting the microphones ready.

Rae James and Michele Drier, the 2020 co-chairs, and all-around superheroes.

Presenting the Anthony Award for Best Anthology to Shawn Reilly Simmons and Verena Rose.

Saturday, October 17, 2020

Proactively Trimming a Book's Fat

Scott D. Parker

I think it's common knowledge that a good rule of thumb for reviewing your own work is to read it aloud. I do it all the time. I find easy-to-miss grammar snafus, but I find this method especially good with dialogue. I'll always read the dialogue (with voices!) to hear how it sounds. If I find my mouth adding words or saying the prose differently, I change it on the page.

Side note: if you have a computer that has the capability of reading text to you, that's also a good way to go. Just be sure you have a computer that'll sound more or less normal.

The reason I bring it up this week is that I completed my index card outline for my next major novel on Thursday morning. It's around 100 scenes or so--some smaller than others. It was kind of an exciting thing to be writing that last index card right as my alarm to signal it was time for me stop working on my new book and get ready for my workday.

Later on Thursday, I cornered--er, asked nicely--the wife if she'd be game to listen to me go through each notecard and tell her the story. She agreed, but initially didn't know what I was asking of her. She much prefers to read the drafts after I've finished them. She's a voracious reader, knows what works and what doesn't, and I rely on her all the time to course correct a story.

All I needed her to do is take the tale on a test drive. Did it make sense? Did the scenes flow nicely. Was there a huge plot gap in the middle of my story? Did she even like it?

We sat at the kitchen table. Initially, I laid out the first forty scenes or so, but swiftly realized it was much better with just the stack right in front of us. I talked over each scene, one by one, taking her through the story.

There's a look she gets when she glazes over and I stopped when I saw that. What was the problem? It was the sub-plots. They seemed extraneous. I reminded her they were sub-plots, but I adjusted on the fly and just kept to the main POV character--since it is her story.

The entire process was incredibly enlightening. I got to tell the story to someone else, serving as a way to get it out of my own head. I took notes along the way, mostly with nips and tucks my wife suggested.

But I came away with the idea that some of the sub-plots likely bogged down the story.

Look, I've written books like this before and I've written books without an outline at all. Each method has its merits and I stand behind both of them. But for this book in particular, I needed to verify that the story structure was solid. It was. Side benefit: I might actually have fewer scenes to write since I'll be proactively cutting some fat.

Thursday, October 15, 2020

Beau bird, beau bird

 This week, Beau takes a look at the wonderful, amazing, brilliant novel from Attica Locke

When it comes to law and order, East Texas plays by its own rules--a fact that Darren Mathews, a black Texas Ranger, knows all too well. Deeply ambivalent about growing up black in the lone star state, he was the first in his family to get as far away from Texas as he could. Until duty called him home.

When his allegiance to his roots puts his job in jeopardy, he travels up Highway 59 to the small town of Lark, where two murders--a black lawyer from Chicago and a local white woman--have stirred up a hornet's nest of resentment. Darren must solve the crimes--and save himself in the process--before Lark's long-simmering racial fault lines erupt.

A rural noir suffused with the unique music, color, and nuance of East Texas, Bluebird, Bluebird is an exhilarating, timely novel about the collision of race and justice in America.

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Horror Noire

It is the season for horror, so many people's favorite season, and this year I was happy to discover that the documentary Horror Noire,  A History of Black Horror, made in 2019 and which premiered on Shudder (which I don't have), is now playing on Amazon Prime.  It's based on the book of the same title by Robin R. Means Coleman, a book I intend to order pronto having seen the documentary. 

The film is an informative and very entertaining look at its subject, with great clips from film history and a large selection of people discussing the films, starting with Coleman.  The timeline starts with a film not considered horror per se but which, if you're a black person, could easily be considered a horror film, The Birth of a Nation, and runs through Jordan Peele's Get Out and Us.  That's 1915 through 2019, so I won't run through every single film looked at and analyzed.  I'm sure the book goes into much more depth about everything, but the film covers a lot of ground.  I will say I really do want to read the book now just to read what Coleman writes about the original King Kong (racist in certain respects and yet everybody roots for the big black guy at the end and is sad when he gets brutally killed -- a complicated film in my view and for that reason, endlessly fascinating) and also to see what she says about race in the Val Lewton films, in particular Curse of the Cat People (1944), with its black cook/butler character played by Sir Lancelot, a Trinidadian, and I Walked with a Zombie (1943), the Jacques Tourneur masterpiece which gets a fleeting and strictly visual reference in the documentary.  As for George Romero's  Night of the Living Dead, which every horror film fan knows marked a decisive turning point in racial representation in horror movies, that gets its deserved due:

As Coleman says of the Duane Jones character in the film: "He's slapping white people upside the head.  He's killing white zombie after white zombie after white zombie.  This had to be horrifying to racists."

It's remarkable the impact this film had on so many people watching it at the time, black people I'm talking about, and a number of those people, future actors like Tony Todd and Ken Foree and Keith David and Rachel True, explain in Horror Noire exactly what that impact was.  

I should add that I never get tired of hearing the story about how Duane Jones' character was not written as black, but that he just happened to be the best actor who showed up on the day George Romero was doing auditions for the role.

If you want a list of Night of the Living Dead and after black horror films to watch this Halloween season (or anytime), the inimitable Gabino Iglesias has just put together a good one over at The Line Up:

Best of all, the doc mentions a couple of films I had missed somehow but that looked intriguing, and so I sought them both out quickly.  There's nothing better than a film doc that gives you exciting recommendations.

Attack the Block (2011)

British made, this sci-fi horror comedy stars John Boyega (later to go on to Star Wars films fame) and Jodie Whittaker (later to go on to fame as the first female Dr. Who).  I have no idea how I missed this film for all these years, but it's an absolute lark.  The writer and director is Joe Cornish, in a most impressive debut.  Vicious, hairy alien invaders attack a council estate in London, and a teenage street gang, with leader Boyega, wind up being the block's main defenders.  The gang, in a way that's plausible, is made up of kids of varying shades of color -- class is what unites them more than race divides them -- and the police are the enemy as much as the invading aliens.  Whittaker plays a woman the gang first mugs, but that's before they find out she too lives in the block and that they may need her help.  Action mixes with scares mixes with comedy mixes with social commentary in just about perfect balance.  

Yes, as Horror Noire suggests, black representation in horror films is evolving, and evolving well, and this is one example.

The Girl with All the Gifts (2016)

Another British film. This one is a post-apocalyptic story, about a time after a fungal disease has hit humanity and turned people into something akin to zombies.  The mood is somber, but the story is shot through with flashes of dark humor.  You have the feral zombie-like creatures and scientists and the military and a school teacher who plays an important role, but at the center of it all, the character on which the plot hinges, is a strange little girl, a mutant creature herself of sorts, and this girl happens to be black.

As Horror Noire points out, the story was first a book, and in the book, this girl's character was white.  But as happened with Night of the Living Dead, the best person to show up and audition for the part happened to be black -- Sennia Nanua. She was 13 at the time of filming.

To quote Tananarive Due, talking about the film in Horror Noire: It "creates such a difference in the film, to have this black child...This is a sharper social commentary even maybe than he [writer Mike Carey] had intended.  To see a story about a character, a black girl, who faces some insurmountable odds where it seems impossible but you come up with plans and you execute your plans.  This is the stuff that helps us get through life."

Horror films help me get through life, and Horror Noire, Attack the Block, and The Girl with All the Gifts have all done their part quite well in that regard. 

Saturday, October 10, 2020

Recursion by Blake Crouch: A Time Travel Book With Heart and Thrills


By Scott D. Parker

(No, you are not suffering from False Memory Syndrome. Yes, Beau reviewed the very same book yesterday, something I didn't know until I went to post this review. Perhaps that is yet another key indicator of how good this book is.)

How often do you read a book in which the last sentence is the perfect end to the story?

Well, I finished one this week, and the last line was awesome.

Recursion by Blake Crouch is a thriller with a huge scoop of science fiction, specifically time travel. It was the most recent selection for my SF book club although I wasn't the chooser. We generally keep our selections within the genre--I actually picked the Sherlock Holmes book The House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz--but occasionally we get books like this one. But this is one that really leans into the thriller aspects and it kept me engrossed all the way through.

As the story opens, New York police detective Barry Sutton has lived eleven years without his teenaged daughter who was killed in a hit-and-run accident. He's meeting his now ex-wife to commemorate their daughters birth. There have been a lot of things called False Memory Syndrome, a condition where folks remember whole other lives. 

In the reality of the story, these are alternate timelines.

Soon, Barry meets Helena, a scientist with a mother who suffers from Alzheimer’s. Her goal is to invent a tool that can help map her mom's memories before they are all gone. What another character realizes is that this machine can be used to travel back in time to a specific, vivid memory. And, when a time traveler arrives at the point in time where the traveler actually left, all the other timeline's memories cascade on them...and everyone else.

And there's a race...against time. 

I really enjoyed it. Loved it, actually. As recent as this past weekend, I hadn't even started it. I started listening while doing chores...then started finding new chores to do so I could keep listening. The Houston Texans helped by sucking so I stopped watching and started listening to this book. The premise drew me in pretty quickly and just kept me going.

The alternating narrators really worked in the audio. Enjoyed both of them. 

Really liked the moments when a certain timeline caught up with a character. When I was explaining this to the wife, what came to mind (but not during the reading) was the end of the movie Frequency back in 2000. Also had lots of echoes to Replay by Ken Grimwood.

Go no further if you don't want the spoiler, so if you don't, I thoroughly enjoyed Recursion and would highly recommend it.

SPOILERS for the end

Lastly, it is very rare that a last line of a book is this awesome, but this one is. Again, this is where listening to an audio version really brought it home. I was standing in line at the DPS on Tuesday. Outside, morning sun, looking at all the other folks doing what I'm doing. Crouch is talking from Barry's POV and building it up to talk to Helena. This is after he's killed the bad to prevent the whole thing from even starting. And he has realized that life has pain and that, as humans, we just have to deal with it. 

And then the last line! "And he says...."  I barked out a "HA!" as the credits rolled, grinning big time. Loved it! Crouch let the reader finish the story, creating our own, unique timelines.

Thursday, October 8, 2020

recursion: did you mean: recursion

This week, Beau takes a look at Recursion, a novel by Blake Crouch.

Memory makes reality.

That’s what New York City cop Barry Sutton is learning as he investigates the devastating phenomenon the media has dubbed False Memory Syndrome—a mysterious affliction that drives its victims mad with memories of a life they never lived.

That's what neuroscientist Helena Smith believes. It’s why she’s dedicated her life to creating a technology that will let us preserve our most precious memories. If she succeeds, anyone will be able to re-experience a first kiss, the birth of a child, the final moment with a dying parent.

As Barry searches for the truth, he comes face-to-face with an opponent more terrifying than any disease—a force that attacks not just our minds but the very fabric of the past. And as its effects begin to unmake the world as we know it, only he and Helena, working together, will stand a chance at defeating it.

But how can they make a stand when reality itself is shifting and crumbling all around them?