Saturday, November 26, 2016

Hoopla: App Review

Scott D. Parker

Everyone of us has a stack of To Be Read items piled on our night stands, either real or virtual. And, let’s be honest: that can get pricey. What to do when you want to read a book and your book budget is completely blown and you’re already in deep trouble with your significant other? Go to the library! But, let’s put another obstacle in your path. What if you prefer digital content or you can’t get to your library and it’s midnight and you absolutely, positively have to start reading a book? Well, Hoopla is your answer.

Hoopla is a fantastic app. What makes it special is that it links with your local public library. When you have it set up—you’ll need a library card—you get up to 8 check-out items per month. And get a load of what’s available: movies, music, audiobooks, ebooks, comics and TV shows. All. Free. For the standard ‘checkout’ time of your library.

The books are pretty straightforward. You find an ebook you want and check it out. Ditto for comics and graphic novels. Just the other day, I discovered a James Bond graphic novel as written by Warren Ellis and illustrated by Jason Masters. I’m reading it on my Kindle fire. Sweet.

Where this app shines is in the other digital content. You can stream music, movies, TV shows, and, for folks like me, audiobooks. I’m an subscriber and have been for over a decade. But there are still some books I want to listen to but I don’t have the credits for them. Enter Hoopla. For the kinds of audiobooks I consume—mysteries, westerns, thrillers—Hoopla has just about any I’d want. Right now, on my iPhone, I’m listening to the second Rio Kid western as written by Brett Halliday.

So, in case you didn’t catch that, I have the Hoopla app on my Kindle Fire and my iPhone. Every piece of content I check out is linked to every device. Naturally, I’m not gonna read the graphic novel on my phone, but I listen audio content there. I use the Fire for graphic novels and TV shows and movies.

At the end of the month, all your checked out items are ‘returned,’ i.e., removed from your device. There’s a “Recently Returned” section on your main page so you can re-check-out with ease and finish that book or TV show.

It’s a great service. And it’s free!

So, go ahead and let your TBR stack rise to the rafters. Yeah, you’ll buy a lot of books, but let Hoopla be your best kept secret. You can support your local library and still consume the content you wanna consume, and your significant other won’t complain about going over your book budget every month. It’s a win-win all around.

Friday, November 25, 2016

If you're reading this, it's Friday...

And that means you survived Thanksgiving (or, if you're not in the US, you made it through another week, which is pretty great, too)!

Thanksgiving is a complicated time for a lot of people, so before I go on, I want to make a note of a few resources for anyone who is feeling drained post-Turkey Day.

National Suicide Prevention (you can chat online here, too).

Veterans Crisis Line (phone number, online chat, text chat, help for deaf and hard of hearing).

The Trevor Project (LBGTQ) (phone, online chat, text).

RAINN (call or chat).

Now, on to the blog:

My final NaNoWriMo updates is as follows: whoops, I finished my draft before I could hit 50k this month. As far as "failing" goes, this is a great way to go. I've got a first draft, and am outlining a new project. I didn't have time to celebrate this achievement because it happened late Monday night, Tuesday night I was driving, and, as I write this, it's Wednesday before Thanksgiving and I'm in a house full of relatives I don't get to see often. I might help myself to an extra slice of pie, though.

Around Thanksgiving every year I like to take a moment to appreciate the things I've managed to accomplish throughout the year and the people who've helped make it happen. It gets harder every year because I'm surrounded by fantastic people - chances are, if you're reading this, thinking "I wonder if Renee is thinking of me?" The answer is most likely yes.

A few highlights though:

I got a book out! Huge thanks to Andrez Bergen for letting me work on this amazing project with him. Thanks to everyone who bought it, read it, and supported it. It's a beautiful little baby.
Buy it here

I went to Boucher for real. I'd been before, as a party crasher, but this year I got the full experience and got to see all the wonderful people in our crime writing community - make new friends, hug old friends, and get really re-engerized about our community and genre. Whoo!

A direct result of an amazing Boucher experience, I've made an effort to spend more time in Los Angeles and getting to know our Southern California writers. You know, the people who are actually close to me. Thanks to all the people for always making me feel welcome and keeping me excited about crime fiction.

These are all writing related because this is, after all, a crime writers' blog. There are a hundred more things I could list and a hundred people I owe a hug and a drink. This is has been a hell of a year, but it's been made all the better by the awesome community we're lucky to have. I'm glad we got through this year together and I hope to keep you all around for a few more.


Thursday, November 24, 2016

Doctor Strange is the new Harry Potter

Went to see the new “Harry Potter movie” this weekend, FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM.  Saw the new DOCTOR STRANGE movie last night. Turns out, the Marvel movie is more Harry Potter than FANTASTIC BEASTS, at least in terms of the main character and his relationship to the audience.

Our kids grew up with Harry Potter, both in book and movie form. In the first story, Harry stars in the mortal world and is brought into the wizarding world. From Diagon Alley and jumpy chocolate frogs and invisible cloaks, the world puts a look of awe on Harry’s face. When he’s looking over the balcony and it’s just him and Ron and the Christmas tree (I’m thinking of the movie) and Ron says they have presents under the tree and then orphaned Harry says  “I have presents, too?” it’s just all a jumble of happiness and tears and you really feel for the kid.
Steve Ditko

When Harry sees something in the wizarding world for the first, you feel his awe. He’s new there. So are we. We’re astounded. Harry is astounded. When he is scared, so are we. When he’s happy, we’re grinning. He’s our bridge character. He’s our surrogate. We see through his eyes and we are brought into the world through him.

In FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM, this Newt Salamander guy already knows everything. He’s an expert in magical creatures. What’s that? Oh, just a perfectly normal graphorn in my suitcase. Everything is fine and normal for Newt Salamander. Of course, we’re introduced to a nomag/muggle baker, who is kind of our surrogate. But he ain’t the main character. We’re not identifying with him in the same way. That’s like saying the turkey wasn’t good, but gracious the yams were delightful.

Where is my excitement, Newt?

Stephen Strange is the main character in DOCTOR STRANGE. (Not Mr. Strange, beeteedubs.) When he gets to the Temple of the Ancient White One he’s flabbergasted. He’s LITERALLY knocked out of his socks. He’s brought along kinda slowly in the same way that Harry Potter was in the first Potter movie. We’re introduced to some weird stuff, then the stuff gets weirder. And, as HST used to say, when the going gets weird, the weird turn pro. Strange comes along and, while we’re all still in awe and wonder, we’re moving along to bigger and more nuttier events.

Newt Salamander’s movie was perfectly fine. It was fun and enjoyable and the kids dug it. But in terms of entering into a world of magic, DOCTOR STRANGE lined up more with the first Harry Potter movie.

PS: My guess is that the DOCTOR STRANGE movie is even better if you’re higher than an Allman Brother.

PPS: "Sling Ring" is a dumb name for a thing.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

San Junipero and the Vanishing Hopeful Future

Black Mirror is one of the greatest shows on television, but I would not recommend binge watching it. For one, there are only thirteen episodes in three seasons and a holiday special; you can do it in a weekend and then you'll have to wait a year, at least, before NetFlix releases another, and secondly you might die of dehydration after you weep for humanity.

The generic view of the future has become dystopian, and many science fiction writers (such as David Brin, and the authors who contributed to Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Better Future think that this is contributing to a hopelessness that makes such a future a self-fulfilling prophecy. Read Brin's dissection of The Idiot Plot, a story that only works if all institutions are deadly stupid, for an idea. In general the system works, but we all agree that it doesn't; the average person distrusts the federal government but approves of what they do (highways, national parks, Medicare, disaster relief, etc). Are "gritty" visions of the future dooming us to seeing it as inevitable?

Black Mirror is no different, it is usually a show about the perils of technology, or rather the unintended consequences of an increasingly connected world. One shining light of hope in the series is "San Junipero," directed by Owen Harris (Kill Your Friends), written by series creator Charlie Brooker, and starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Tish Jones on Dr. Who, and Famulus in Jupiter Ascending) as Kelly and Mackenzie Davis (Mindy in The Martian) as Yorkie. This one is rather hopeful, and part of me wonders if everyone's enjoyment is due to it being a diamond in the rough, rough, rough horror tales of the third season's masterful run.

When we meet Kelly and Yorkie, two young women on a permanent vacation in a beautiful island set in the affluent late '80s, complete with neon night clubs and arcades, they seem to be in a sort of loop. Yorkie is a bit nerdy and socially awkward and Kelly is outgoing and breaks her out of her shell. But there's a mildly creepy element to it, like a chat room come to life where everyone becomes the ideal avatar of themselves and puts their best selves forward. There's some drama as well, but the story never takes the darker turns we expect. The characters are whole and have their own feelings and needs and desires, even in a strange little paradise that only seems to exist on weekends.

Clint Mansell's score and the use of Belinda Carlisle's "Heaven on Earth" help keep the mood up when we learn the secret of San Junipero. Scroll down if you don't mind spoilers.

It's too good to be true, of course. It's a simulation, and the week-long hiatuses are because it is therapy for the elderly, to stave off depression and dementia, and lives for the bedridden. The "real" world doesn't look all that horrible, but we could just be seeing a very affluent assisting living facility and hospital; we never know. It's the dream of being able to upload your consciousness into "The Cloud" and become immortal as a collection of ones and zeroes, in an immense server farm, for as long as the electricity keeps running. It's been explored before in stories of "The Singularity" such as Charles Stross's excellent Accelerando and others, but this one was especially tangible and hopeful, that we would use this as a gift to lonely older people whose friends have all died or "crossed over" as they call uploading to the cloud (which may or may not be in a world where you exist; it's unspoken but assumed that "Heaven on Earth" is not the same for everyone.)

If you think that's too sappy for you, watch the first three episodes of season 3. Or just skip to "Playtest," one of my favorite horror stories in some time, and "Shut Up and Dance," the best techno-thriller I've yet seen. It is truly terrifying, and utterly without hope, so watching "San Junipero" directly afterward is especially soothing. I kept waiting for the horrible reality, and I was relieved when it wasn't there. It's certainly not pleasant; Yorkie and Kelly have both suffered tragedies, but who doesn't?

So, what are your favorite stories with hopeful visions of the future?

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Didactic and Not Didactic

This past weekend, I saw two films: Spike Lee's Chi-Raq, which came out in 2015, and the newly released Moonlight, directed by Barry Jenkins.  It occurred to me, watching Lee's film through Amazon streaming on Saturday night and Jenkins' film in a theater Sunday afternoon, that I'd wound up doing a weekend program of two films that represent two diametrically opposed ways of presenting art.

With Lee's film - no surprise - you get the didactic approach.  Chi-Raq is a musical drama about the horrifically high rate of violence, gang violence especially, on the south side of Chicago.  The film is very funny and satirical, as befits a story based on the ancient Greek comedy Lysistrata by Aristophanes.  Lee takes the playwright's conceit of women who are fed up with war (the Peloponnesian War in the play) and so refuse to give their husbands sex until the fighting stops, and transfers it to a group of Chicago women. Led by fiery Lysistrata, whose boyfriend Demetrius is the head of one gang, these women do not go to bed with their rival gang member men (or even the men not in gangs) until the gang members surrender their arms to put an end to the constant killing.  The film is extremely stylized, with characters talking in a kind of street verse that approximates Greek dramatic verse, and Samuel L. Jackson, as only he can, serves as the chorus, regaling the viewers with commentary on the action throughout.

But what's didactic about the movie?  Everything. It's the Spike Lee way. He uses tool after tool he can - graphics, songs, lectures, speeches, history lessons, plot-breaking absurdity - to make his points about gun violence, institutionalized racism, and mass incarceration of African-American men.  "This is an emergency. This is an emergency," a disembodied voice periodically tells us throughout the film.  The characters are not flesh and blood people so much as they are types who represent a political or social position, a point of view, and Lee's willingness to mix tones and let the story, such as it is, wander all over the place makes for some messiness. But when is Spike Lee, a fully impassioned Spike Lee, not messy? With the utter artificiality of everything and characters addressing the audience, we are constantly aware that we're watching a movie; we're unable to lose ourselves in a piece of narrative fiction. But Lee doesn't want us to "escape" as we watch.  He doesn't want us to empathize with rounded characters.  All Lee's techniques keep bringing the audience back to the real world and the real Chicago, and when a character who is the city's mayor appears, you wonder, "Is that supposed to be Rahm Emmanuel?"  

Chi-Raq is Spike Lee working in full-on didactic mode, aiming to instruct and educate as well as entertain. There's no need for subtlety in a work like this, and he wears his political commitment on his sleeve.  It's a movie Bertolt Brecht, master of didactic art, would have admired.  As Brecht did with theater, Lee uses this film as a forum for political ideas loudly stated.

Moonlight is precisely the opposite kind of film.  Set and shot in Miami, adapted from the Tarell Alvin McCraney play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue (which I haven't seen but I love that title), the story is broken into three parts in the life of one person.  

Part one, called "Little", shows us a boy named Chiron, who's about 11 years old, as he deals with school bullies and a crack-addicted, emotionally abusive mother.  He's a shy little boy who rarely talks, but his life is made easier when he meets the local crack dealer.  In the kindest of ways, the crack dealer becomes his protector and mentor, and Chiron finds comfort in the time he spends with the dealer and the dealer's girlfriend, Teresa, who becomes a surrogate mother to him.  

Part two, "Chiron", follows Chiron as a teenager, still dealing with bullies and his dysfunctional mother, but he continues to have Teresa for refuge (the dealer, Juan, has died), and he experiences sexual attraction, and release, with a classmate named Kevin.  Unfortunately, when he retaliates against another fellow student who has tormented him for years, Chiron's life takes a turn for the worse.

Part three, "Black", picks up with Chiron as a grown man, and I don't want to say anything more so I don't give too much away.  But suffice it to say that the Chiron who you see as an adult is not exactly what you expected, though he is completely believable considering what came before, and the whole section unwinds beautifully.

While Chi-Raq works from the outside in, as it were, Moonlight works from the inside out.  On the surface, we get characters we've seen before.  There is a crack dealer, a troubled boy from a difficult home, a drug-addicted mother, and so on.  Yet nobody in this movie conforms to standard expectations.  Perhaps the mother, at times, comes closest to being a type, but even she says things that reveal an insight that makes it clear she has surprising depths. This is a movie where characters are believably complex and contradictory, and no person's identity is definable by one word or phrase.  There are no types here, just fully developed, idiosyncratic human beings.  The director, Barry Jenkins, doesn't push you to go to this place or that, as Spike Lee does in Chi-Raq, but he leaves gaps in the narrative that you have to fill in. As in life, there is ambiguity and indeterminacy, acceptance of imperfection and compromise. Here is a movie that does work through subtlety, that focuses on people you don't often see lavished with such attention in film. 

If it seems like I'm saying Moonlight is a terrific movie, I am, but it's also an example of the best kind of non-didactic art.  No message or point is pushed, but through the development of a story about specific individuals in a particular place at a certain time, much is said. People almost anywhere in the world could see and understand this film.  Through understatement, richness.

So, no question, it was a satisfying weekend cinematically.  I saw two movies I enjoyed a lot.  If I had to pick, I'd say Moonlight is a greater film than Chi-Raq, but I also can say that generally speaking, I prefer non-didactic art to didactic. Of course there are great didactic works, too (for example, and sticking with Spike Lee, there's Do The Right Thing, 1989), but everybody has their preferences.  Anyway, I'm just glad we have old hands like Spike Lee and new ones like Barry Jenkins working, and I'm curious to see what each does next and what approach each will take toward his material.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Character Study

Our beagle, Indy, passed away yesterday. He wasn't sick long; a week ago he was still walking around the yard. By the weekend he couldn't get to his feet at all.

There's a lot of sadness that comes with a pet passing, but there are also a lot of good memories. Indy - Indiana - was so named because he came with a docked tail. No explanation, and as a failed hunting dog who found his third home with us, there was a lot of his history we didn't know, but could only guess at.

Like the way he'd cower when we pulled out a broom to sweep the floor.

He had his distinct traits. He loved pizza crusts and bread. He would walk around the house whimpering with a pizza crust hanging out of his mouth like a cigar and things would go one of two ways. If he went outside he'd bury the crust. If he stayed in, he'd hide it under Brian's pillow.

We have a lot of pets. We also have farm cats that aren't ours, but we feed and they hang out inside a fair bit, because they were born in this house. One of the things that Indy's passing got me thinking about was the distinctions between all of our four-legged characters.

Pumpkin will meet me at the bottom of the stairs and escort me up to the bedroom when he thinks it's bedtime.

Echo is so fearless that he thinks sweeping the floor is a game he should get in on.

Sasha loved Indy, and would greet him at the door every time he came inside.

Boots has security issues. He either sleeps on a kitchen counter or in our recycling bin. He freaks out if you take him upstairs or into another room.

Mo has always been a bit of a butthead, especially to our Cookie, who passed last year. Cookie didn't like other cats. We adopted them from the human society together, and they insisted they'd be fine together, but it turned out Cookie didn't like other cats at all. Mo would hide in a nook in our hallway and when Cookie would come down the hall he'd jump out at her and freak her out.

For many of our pets, we're their final home, but not their first. They're rescues or strays. All of their quirks prompt me to consider how that trait developed.

If you're struggling to think of ways to flesh out your characters, if you're wondering how to ensure they're all distinct, think about your pets. I'd had many dogs before Indy. Bingo, Suzy, Bandit, Taco, Chinook, Nootka. And yet Indy was the only one who had a thing for pizza crusts.

Our four-legged friends aren't just part of our family. They can inform us of the ways an individual distinguishes themselves from another. And when you don't know a character's past, their quirks may offer hints.

There will never be another Indy. We were so so lucky. He had the perfect personality for being a family pet, and has been a vital part of our family for 7.5 years. And even in his passing he's with me today as I think about writing, and what it is that breathes life into our characters.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

A Time for Turkeys

It’s turkey season. Yes, there’s the meal on Thursday, but I’m talking about the reappearance of our neighborhood flock.
 Major Tom at the end of the driveway
They show up about the first of November and stick around for several months. And I love them. They remind me that our neighborhood isn’t just all about the humans. And they make me very thankful I live in an area that has wildlife.
Access to nature is important to me, and so I’m thankful to have it in my everyday life. And as we close in on Thanksgiving, I’m also thankful for my friends and family, and for my writing.
What’s important to you? What makes you thankful? And how much extra time would you factor in if you knew you’d get stuck in a turkey jam on the way to work?