Saturday, July 29, 2023

Will Streaming TV Evolve to a Network TV Model?

Scott D. Parker

A few weeks ago, my wife started watching “Brothers and Sisters,” the family drama/comedy that ran on ABC from 2006 to 2011. It stars Calista Flockhart, Sally Field, Matthew Rhys, Rachel Griffiths, Rob Lowe, and Dave Annable. Like much of network TV I didn’t watch at the time, I kinda remembered it as “that show with Sally Field and Ally McBeal.”

But I sat down to watch a few episodes with her and it’s quite enjoyable. Having Rob Lowe speak political words (like he did so well in “The West Wing”) is something I always enjoy. And now that I’ve watched both seasons of HBO’s “Perry Mason,” I now know who Matthew Rhys is. I really loved him in Perry Mason and he plays a lawyer in this show as well so I’m locked in.

I drift in and out of watching—she watches an episode or two when I’m at work—but always ask questions like “What’s Ally up to now?” or “How’s Perry Mason doing?” or “Hey, I know that actor…” [and then pull up the internet to figure it out].

When I reviewed the show’s IMDB page, I noted that, other than the 16-episode second season, the other four seasons aired 22 or more episodes. It was the reliable network schedule: start in September and go all the way to May.

When premium shows started, the number of episodes usually shrank. The Sopranos had 13 per season. Ted Lasso was ten. Shrinking had eight. Depending on the streaming service and the number of episodes, after eight weeks or so, you were done. Or a weekend.

There’s a certain comfort-food type quality to an old fashioned network TV drama. Yes, I’ll admit that some of those twentysomething episodes were filler. If you don’t mind, then you get nine months of content.

Then again, I know some folks who, say, hear about Ted Lasso and how good it is. They’ll wait until all the episodes are available, subscribe to AppleTV for a month, binge the show, and then cancel.

As evidenced by the current writers’ and actors’ strike, the people who make our content are going to have to reckon with streaming and the future, and not just AI. Prices will most likely go up. Content might be reduced or removed.

So here’s a thought: as someone who subscribes to the basic Hulu, Peacock, and Paramount, I still get commercials. I don’t mind at all. And I still have cable TV that are chock full of commercials. I suspect more streaming services will ultimately offer an ad-supported offering for a lower fee. When they do, that’ll be the option I’ll gravitated toward.

When that happens, and in an effort to keep subscribers subscribed for longer periods of time, do you think streaming networks (that’s what they are) will deliver a traditional 22-episode season?

Saturday, July 22, 2023

Time: You Don’t Know How Much You Have So Use It Wisely

Scott D. Parker

The text arrived on Monday night: I’ve got some bad news.

Turned out, a good friend from my undergrad years, a guy only a year older than my fifty-four years, passed away. His name was John and his smile lit up several rooms. So did his laugh. We were in Longhorn Band together and he was drum major two of my five years. He expected all of us to maintain a high standard, a standard he modeled, so if there was ever any doubt about how to march and perform, just try to be like John.

The news came as a shock to everyone that knew John: how could such a vibrant, energetic guy just die? The answer is unknowable but what got me was his age. Only a year older than I am. Mid-fifties used to seem old, but then you get here and it doesn’t feel old at all. It got me to thinking about life and the things I still want to do.

Cut to Season 2 of “The Bear.” As our main characters prepare to open a restaurant, each of them takes a little sidetrack to learn something they need to know. I won’t spoil which character but one of them meets a fellow chef played by Olivia Coleman. She’s peeling mushrooms and they start talking. Part of what they talk about is what got them in the kitchen in a professional capacity. Olivia tells our guy that she came to the job late in life but found herself loving the second phase of her life and career. She summed up her new philosophy by the plaque hanging in her kitchen: Every second counts.

Every second counts. That might be too small of a time span to really amount to anything, but minute or hour or day might be better.

It’s the same sentiment in the Tim McGraw song “Live Like You’re Dying.”

Time. Sweet time. We don’t how or when our time will come, but come it will.

News like I got this week shocks you and gives you an opportunity to assess your life. Are you doing the thing you want to do? Are you doing the creative thing you’ve always told yourself you want to do but just haven’t carved out the time for it? Is there a book in you that you’ve always wanted to write?

Then start. Don’t waste your time. Because every hour counts.

Thursday, July 20, 2023

What's the (dark) matter with Beau?


This week, Beau recommends DARK MATTER by Blake Crouch.

A mind-bending, relentlessly surprising thriller from the author of the bestselling Wayward Pines trilogy.

Wednesday, July 19, 2023

LOWDOWN ROAD With Scott Von Doviak

 Lowdown Road, the 70s set soon to be classic caper, featuring a pair of cousins, a psycho Texas Sheriff, a drug kingpin, a million dollars of weed, a taco truck, and Evel fuckin' Kneivel himself, has been out for a week now, which means a huge number of people now know what I understood in the late winter of this year: that Lowdown Road is the most fun you'll have reading all summer.

Scott Von Doviak, the author of Lowdown Road (and the similarly brilliant Charlesgate Confidential) is a friend. We hung out at Bouchercon last year, where, between panels and drinks, he edited pages of Lowdown while I buzzed around like the worlds most annoying hummingbird, full of questions about what he was working on and what was next and how cool is it to have books out from Hardcase and on and on and on. 

In short, he was cool. One of the coolest people there, actually. Which makes sense, because if I had to pick a word to describe Lowdown Road, other than "fun", it'd be "cool". 

Scott, cool dude that he is, thankfully had some time between stops on his book tour to visit us here at Do Some Damage to talk about Lowdown Road. Read it. You'll see what I mean. But first, make sure you have your copy of Lowdown Road. I promise you, you don't want to miss it. 

PAUL: Low Down Road is easily the most fun novel of the summer. It’s like a 70s B-Movie spread out across paper. But, in subject matter at least, it’s got some distance from your debut, Charlesgate Confidential. Can you tell me about how you chose to tackle these specific subjects and how you approached writing something so different from your debut?

SCOTTCharlesgate Confidential had three alternating timelines and took place over 70 years, and I definitely didn't want to attempt something like that again right away. My next novel took place over three days at a crime writer's convention, but that didn't sell. With Lowdown Road, I was reviving an old idea in a new way. I had started writing a screenplay about a bunch of people heading up to Snake River Canyon for Evel Knievel's famous jump attempt, but that was more in a Dazed and Confused mode. I'd also written a book called Hick Flicks, all about 70s drive-in movies with good ol' boys, muscle cars, redneck sheriffs and all those tropes. I decided to do my own version of a hick flick in book form, using that basic premise from the screenplay. I guess it might have been easier to "brand" myself if I'd stuck with the Boston noir of Charlesgate, but maybe the tradeoff is showing more versatility.

PAUL: I’m glad you did. Like everyone, I loved Charlesgate Confidential, but I might love Lowdown Road even more. One of the reasons for that, of course, is the characters. The main characters, the cousins,  they’re not really good guys, but they’re not bad guys either. How did you balance them, both against each other and against the wider cast?

SCOTT: With all the cast, I took stock characters from those B-movies and tried to make them more human and well-rounded. With the two cousins, Chuck is more of a bad guy than Dean, who's barely a criminal. Chuck has done time for aggravated assault, while Dean is a low-level pot dealer, something that's not even a crime anymore lots of places. But as the road trip progresses, a little bit of Dean rubs off on Chuck and vice versa. Really there are no flat-out good guys in the story, but everyone has their reasons, even the psycho sheriff pursuing the cousins. I probably had the most fun with Antoine, the pot kingpin, who turns out to have some unexpected facets to his character that surprised even me.

PAUL: Antoine is such a great character. There’s a scene with him where I almost stood up and cheered. It rode the line so cleanly between fun and unexpected but also a clear homage to the kinds of 70s movies you referenced earlier. But a lot of those movies have the kind of ending that Lowdown Road steps back from. I’m curious if that was that the hardest part of the book, staying true to the spirit of something the characters have no idea exists, while also staying true to them?

SCOTT: That's an interesting way of thinking about it. I really wanted to use those movies as a starting point and put my own spin on the story. There are other influences, too - from a crime fiction standpoint, there's a little Jim Thompson and Elmore Leonard in there. But also, strangely enough, some Joe Eszterhas. Before he became known for 90s erotic thrillers, he wrote a sort of gonzo journalism account of the Snake River Canyon event for Rolling Stone called "King of the Goons." He painted the event as an Altamont-like shitshow and I took that and ran with it. So the vibe definitely goes dark and nightmarish as the characters find themselves in this almost post-apocalyptic setting. As for the fate of each character, that was something more instinctive. I had a gut feeling who should make it out alive. 

PAUL: Scott, Lowdown Road has been out for a week now, but you know how it is; you read an amazing book and you can’t wait for whatever the writer is going to release next. So, can you tell us anything about what you have in the pipeline? Or, if not, can you tell me about a book you’ve always wanted to write but haven’t found a way to make work yet?

SCOTT: I've been working on and off on a big L.A. crime novel for five years now, and I think I finally see the finish line. Cue the eyerolls from people who think L.A. has been done to death in crime fiction - I get it! But I lived there in the early-mid 90s (which is when the book is set), and I think I have my own take on it. Which doesn't necessarily mean it's the next book that will see the light of day. It's a complicated multi-character story that's almost defeated me a couple of times. I can't seem to help myself from weaving real-life events into my stories, so the Northridge earthquake and the O.J. Simpson chase definitely figure into it.

PAUL: Man, that sounds incredible, and I can’t wait to read it. Okay. One more question, and then I’ll let you go. Because you obviously love taking real life events and tying them into your fiction, what is an event you really dig but haven't figured out how to put into a novel yet?

SCOTT: Every now and then I think about what a sequel to Charlesgate Confidential would involve. In my research of the real Charlesgate Hotel, I found out that Houdini once debunked a seance in the building. I think it would be fun to come up with a mystery involving Houdini and return to that world, but who knows if I'll ever get around to it.

A huge thanks to Scott for hanging out, answering questions, and, of course, putting up with me and my nervous energy at Bouchercon. But, mostly, thanks for delivering us one of the best novels of the year. I'm not kidding, if you've read this far, and you haven't already got yourself a copy? Well. We'll give you one more chance to correct that mistake

Tuesday, July 18, 2023

Monsters and Friends

When I was a child, like kids everywhere, Japanese monster films from the 1950s through the 1970s were among my favorite movies. The list of titles of films I'd watch whenever they were on TV -- Godzilla, Mothra, Rodan, King Kong vs Godzilla, Ghidorah the Three-Headed Monster, Destroy All Monsters, War of the Gargantuas, and lots more -- was a long one. At some point, I became aware that the director of so many of these films was Ishiro Honda. I realized, even after I stopped watching these films on a regular basis, that based on the sheer pleasure I'd derived from watching his films, I'd have to consider Ishiro Honda one of my all-time favorite filmmakers. Still, I knew virtually nothing about the man. I don't even think I ever looked him up on Wikipedia. I just kind of took him for granted as the man who'd made these movies with their immortal monster characters and fantastic battles...Well, that's all changed now, because I've read Ishiro Honda: A Life in Film, from Godzilla to Kurosawa by Steve Ryfle and Ed Godziszewski.

Extensively researched, this is essentially the first comprehensive look in English at Honda's life and long career. It covers every film he ever made, and Honda made over 40 features. Nearly half of these were not monster or sci-fi films; the word for Honda was versatile. He directed comedies, social-drama-type films, documentary-like studies of far-flung areas in Japan, even a biographical film about a professional pitcher later inducted into the Japanse baseball Hall of Fame. Ryfle and Godziszewski cover all these, and though these films are not available in English to watch, they are fascinating to read about. They give a full picture of Honda that goes well beyond the image of the man standing on a set with an actor in a Godzilla suit. Of course, the monster and sci-fi films are discussed in detail, and the collaborative aspect of these works is analyzed, in particular the contributions of the special effects master Eiji Tsuburaya and the man behind these films' soundtracks, composer Akira Ifukube. 

One thing I had no inkling of was that Honda and Akira Kurasawa were long-time friends, dating back to when they were both aspiring filmmakers at the fledgling Toho Studios in the 1930s. Two people of more different temperaments you could not imagine: Kurasaw, ever headstrong, turbulent, with a big ego, determined to make films his way come hell or high water; Honda a quiet person, even-keeled, who almost never lost his composure and who for decades made films on assignment for Toho, doing his very best with whatever material he had to work with. Over time, their careers led them in direction directions, but then when Honda's had effectively ended as a feature filmmaker and he was playing golf in retirement, Kurasawa asked him to be at his side and work together with him on a film he was making. "If I can be of any assistance to you, sure. Anytime," said Honda, and so began a collaboration unlike other I can think of in the history of film. You had a renown director who'd retired, a man able to do most anything on set, and he spent the last several years of his life and career as the go-to person for any number of things, technical and emotional, for another director, who happens to be an all-time great. This was for the last five films Kurasawa made, from Kagemusha (1980) to Madadayo (1993), and after Honda died in 1993 at age 81, Kurasawa never made another film. The story of the friendship between these two is itself quite a story, and Ryfle and Godzisweski's book closes on it, a touching ending to a book about a life well and fully lived.

If you like Honda's films or Japanese cinema in general, this book is a must.

Sunday, July 16, 2023

Timeshares: A Killer Industry


By Claire Booth

I’m a big fan of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, the satirical news show on HBO. I’ve been catching up on season 10 lately and was delighted to find that he’s done an episode on timeshares. Timeshares are the swindle-riddled scourge of the vacation industry, and Oliver breaks down (and eviscerates) the industry. He also, as one must when talking about these things, mentions Branson.

Timeshares abound in Branson, with multiple companies trumpeting their proximity to Ozark nature and the many music and variety shows for which the city is famous. Oliver showed a video with one poor guy who spent $15,000 on a Branson timeshare years ago and had not been able to use it because of all the roadblocks the company kept putting in front of him.

Actual timeshare conversation!
I first heard about timeshares in Branson eight years ago while doing book signings for my first Sheriff Hank Worth novel. I was at the Branson Books-A-Million and started chatting with a gentleman in cowboy costume. It turned out that he was a singer for breakfast shows where timeshares were sold. That fact stuck with me and when it came time to write book five, Dangerous Consequences, I knew that’s what I wanted to focus on. The plot revolves around breakfast shows and the lengths their managers will go to in order to make a sale.

I did a lot of research, including finding an investigation of the industry by the Better Business Bureau of Eastern and Southwest Missouri. I literally applauded when Oliver started quoting from it. He highlighted two victim’s stories—one whose parents endured a seven-hour sales pitch before succumbing and spending more than $10,000; and a woman who gave in and bought one after five hours of high pressure because she was diabetic and needed to leave so she could eat. (All of this, perfect ammunition for a murder mystery novel, by the way).

If timeshare murders are your thing, click here for more info or to buy.
So if me killing people (fictionally) doesn’t convince you that timeshares are a bad purchase, then listen to John Oliver. And run away, as far and as fast as you can.


Saturday, July 15, 2023

Drowning by T.J. Newman is the Best Movie You'll Read This Summer

By Scott D. Parker

From the opening, harrowing moments of the first three chapters to the last 30 minutes of the audiobook, this book did not let up.

A few weeks ago, I finished T. J. Newman’s debut, FALLING and eagerly jumped into her brand-new book, DROWNING. In the book, a plane suffers mechanical failure two minutes after takeoff from Honolulu and crashes into the ocean.

Unlike those famous airplane disaster movies from the 1970s that takes a quarter of the movie to introduce the characters and get the plane in the air, Newman puts you on the plane just after takeoff from the first sentence. By Chapter 3, the plane is down.

And those three chapters are incredibly harrowing and edge-of-your-seat suspenseful. How suspenseful you might ask? Suspenseful enough to elicit an emotional response. Heart pounding in the chest and a sting of tears in the eyes.

And that was only the beginning.

The race against time aspect never let up, even in the flashbacks where we see what makes these three individuals tick. A father and his daughter are on the plane as it goes down. The estranged wife is an underwater construction expert. Naturally, you can see how this goes. Even the other characters were given enough to make you root for them or not.

But the drama was organic and relentless.

By the end of the audiobook, I had a driveway moment where I slowed the car down. I then sat in my garage in Houston in the summer for about five minutes as I finished a chapter. When I walked into the house, my wife asked if I was just sitting in the garage. “Yeah,” I confessed, “and I’m going to have to finish this book now.”

I did. And it’s one of the best books I’ve read in a long time.

You won’t need to wait for the movie. You can see it all in your mind. It’s a definite summer blockbuster of a story.

Thursday, July 13, 2023

Tuesday, July 11, 2023

Pub Day for The Screaming Child

Today is pub day for my new novel The Screaming Child, so I think I should devote this post to that. It's a book that's been a long time in the works, and I'm glad of course that at last it's out.

A book that mixes mystery with horror, The Screaming Child is told from the point of view of a woman named Eleanor. She's a mother trying to go on with her life after her 12-year-old son has vanished. Perhaps he was murdered, perhaps kidnapped. The police are investigating. To keep herself busy, Eleanor leaves the city for a distant rural area to finish a book she is writing about an explorer. The explorer herself was killed on her last expedition to the wooded region not that far from Eleanor’s country shack, and when Eleanor hears what she thinks are the screams of her own child coming from deep within those same woods, she is launched into her own dangerous journey.

The Screaming Child is published by Ghoulish Books, and you can order it directly from them here:

You can also order it from Amazon here.

Saturday, July 8, 2023

Growing Up and Older With Indiana Jones: A Dial of Destiny Review


Scott D. Parker

The new movie is a chance to reconnect with an old friend for one last adventure before we have to say good-bye. In that framework, the new film works quite well.

The Space Age of 1969

After a wonderful opening sequence that can stand alongside any action sequence from the original trilogy, we meet the old Indy. He’s shockingly in his boxers, asleep on a recliner, with the remnants of booze on the side table. Gone is the hale and hearty man we met in the 1980s or even the middle-aged version we saw in 2008. This man—Indiana Jones and Harrison Ford—is old. As good as it was to see an old friend, the visuals took a few scenes to get used to.

Soon, however, things begin to roll along. Helana Shaw (Phoebe Waller-Bridge) arrives and she’s looking for one half of the Dial of Archimedes, an object her father was obsessed with and ultimately the cause of his death. She’s not the only one. A former Nazi scientist (Mads Mikkelsen) who now works for NASA is also after the Dial. His plan is to find the other half, link them together, and then, armed with the knowledge of how World War II ended, go back in time to not only kill Hitler but become the new leader of Germany.

Chases ensue, clues unraveled, treasures found, and Indy has one last adventure.

The Clash of Styles

I found the inclusion of Helena a breath of fresh air for the franchise. She’s a little bit Elsa from Last Crusade but she’s also a bit how Indy himself was in Temple of Doom. He wanted the Shankira Stones because they’d be worth a fortune. Remember the “Fortune and Glory” mantra he says over and over? Helena has debts to pay and she thinks antiquities can fetch a high price. As such, it is a battle of wits between her and “It belongs in a museum” Indy over what’s more important.

I also enjoyed Helena’s own “Short Round,” Teddy, a teenaged street urchin in Tangiers. Once he enters the story, he never leaves. There are generational differences to exploit and echoes of Short Round himself as Indy slowly comes to make sure the kid is safe, despite all the bad guys doing bad guy things.

Like Marion, Helena goes toe to toe with Indy. She’s not a screamer. She’s an active participant in the story. Heck, it was her entrance that started the story itself. Loved the somewhat gawkiness of Helena despite as she put up multiple fights. If memory serves—I’ve only seen the movie once at this point—she’s never in a situation where Indy needs to save her. It’s Indy that needs saving, and more than once.

The McGuffin

I really dug the truth of the Dial itself. It wasn’t a tool that would enable someone to go back anywhere in time. It only went to a single place in time: 212 BC at the siege of Syracuse. The twist of the Dial was foretold via Helana’s card trick, something that only comes into focus after you learn the truth of the Dial.

I like that there are fissures in time that present themselves. It helps explain how boats and planes just disappear from time to time. I like that Archamedes figured out a way to calculate their location and duration. It’s all just math.

Indy’s Vulnerability

No matter where this movie lands in the list of Indiana Jones films, there is one scene that will be vaulted into one of the best of the franchise. When Helena asks Indy where he would go if he could truly travel back in time, without hesitation he says he’d go and prevent his son from enlisting in the army as an act of defiance against his father. Mutt dies in Vietnam, and that broke Indy and dissolved his marriage. Harrison Ford may not get a lot of credit for his acting, but in that scene, he was fantastic. As a father myself, I felt the gut punch of Indy’s words. I find it fascinating that so many movies this summer—Dial of Destiny; The Flash; Into the Spider-Verse—all have common moments when parents talk about their children. It’s just a sign that we’re all getting older.

Growing Up and Older With Indiana Jones

For so many of us, much of our lives have had Indiana Jones in it even if there were not any new movies. In 1981, I had little experience with the type of film Raiders the Lost Ark wasis and it lit a fire. I didn’t become an archaeologist but I did become a historian, and part of the ingredients that blended together in my being that made me love history was Indiana Jones.

The kid I was in middle school the summer of 1981 became a high school freshman by the time Temple of Doom came out. I loved both films, and, awkward teen boy that I was who had zero luck with girls, I fantasized about being Indy’s partner in Temple of Doom. Naturally, Willie Scott had a younger sister that was just about my age. My derring-do won her heart… because of course it did.

I worked in a movie theater the summer of 1989 and saw Last Crusade many times—and parts of the movie even more than that. The music by John Williams was phenomenal as ever, and seeing Indy’s dad be Sean Connery was icing on the cake. I was twenty, in college, and yet I still wanted to be like Indy. But it was Connery as Henry Jones imploring his son to “Let it go” that helped set a certain mindset. Like both my parents and my grandparents showed me by their words and actions, Connery reminded his son that there were things in life way more precious than some trinket.

I was a father myself in 2008 when Indy returned. My son was in grade school and, just in case Crystal Skulls was another dark film like Temple of Doom, only my wife and I saw it on opening day. While Last Crusade ended in the best way possible—literally riding into the sunset—it was nice to see Indy again. And Marion and their son, Mutt. At the time, I didn’t love the film like the original trilogy but that has softened over the years. But here was Indy as a dad, and I was a dad, and wasn’t that something.

Here in 2023, Indy is much older. He’s alone and he’s lost his son. Thankfully, I am happily married and our son is starting his life on his own, but he moved out last year and his absence is felt everyday. There are times when I imagine my son’s future and I remember what it was like to be in your twenties with a lifetime of choices and experiences waiting to be made. For the younger me, part of the zeal for life was the the zeal for adventure like Indy had, even if I wouldn’t be traipsing across the globe dodging bullets or finding lost treasures.

Now, at middle age, I have the ability not only to look backward but to look forward as well. I get to reflect on the results of my own life’s adventures so far and have the time to adjust for the future. Inexorably, life moves forward. The beauty of a movie like Dial of Destiny (and Crystal Skulls before it to say nothing of The Force Awakens) is to acknowledge that time moves forward for our movie heroes as well. Some characters—like Ferris Bueller or Kevin McAllister—will forever remain fixed looking a certain way at a certain point in time. Others, like Indy, get to age with us. Just like old friends do.

I am so thankful I got to grow up and get older alongside Indiana Jones.

Thursday, July 6, 2023

The lowdown on Lowdown Road


 This week, Beau recommends Lowdown Road from Scott Von Doviak.


One of “The Most Wanted Crime Novels of 2023” —

Join a heart-racing road trip across 1970s America as two cousins make the heist of their lives and must avoid the cops and criminals hot on their tails.

It’s the summer of ’74…Richard Nixon has resigned from office, CB radios are the hot new thing, and in the great state of Texas two cousins hatch a plan to drive $1 million worth of stolen weed to Idaho, where some lunatic is gearing up to jump Snake River Canyon on a rocket-powered motorcycle. But with a vengeful sheriff on their tail and the revered and feared marijuana kingpin of Central Texas out to get his stash back, Chuck and Dean are in for the ride of their lives – if they can make it out alive…

Tuesday, July 4, 2023

Happy Fireworks

Happy 4th of July, or, as it's known in Brian DePalma's great BLOW OUT, Liberty Day.

Also, if you're at the beach, avoid sharks!

Saturday, July 1, 2023

A Rom-Com That’s Dialed Up to Eleven: Charm City Rocks by Matthew Norman


Scott D. Parker

Note: I know this is not a mystery novel, but I haven't been this excited about a book in a long time so I thought I'd share here. 

How long has it been since you read a book in four days? For me, it’s been forever. But I’ve also not read a book quite like Charm City Rocks by Matthew Norman.

I follow the Writer Unboxed website and a recent Q&A landed this book on my radar. Being a huge fan of KISS, I instantly assumed the reference was a shout out to KISS’s “Detroit Rock City.” Whether or not that was how the author came up with the title of his novel, I don’t know, but that’s what got me in the door.

Oh, and the cool premise.

A single dad, Billy, is watching a rock and roll documentary with his high school senior son, Caleb, when the fictional band Burnt Flowers shows up. Billy, a piano teacher in Baltimore, confesses that he had a huge crush on the drummer, Margot Hammer, back in the day. With Caleb about to go off to college and with his mom married, he worries about his dad will be lonely when he moves away. One of those schools is Stanford, all the way across the country. When Caleb accidentally eats some “special” gummies, he sends an email to Margot who is a rock and roll recluse after a spectacular and public meltdown on stage two decades ago. Caleb invites Margot to come to Charm City Rocks, the record store in Baltimore over which his dad lives. He’s convinced that if the former rock star would just meet his dad, they’d hit it off.

But Caleb knows that Margot won’t just come down to Baltimore so he poses as if he’s a teenaged girl in an all-girl rock band. Margot’s publicist thinks it a great idea to get Margot’s name back out in the world and urges her to go. Reluctantly, she agrees, and then the truth hits the fan.

The Breezy Writing Style

I put the book on hold via the Libby app. The blog post made me curious, but I’d never read anything by Norman—heck, I’d never heard of him—so I thought I’d give the book a chance. I read chapter one at lunch and laughed out loud. Actually laughed out loud. Then I read chapter two before I had to get back to work. At the next day’s lunch I experienced a pull and a choice: I could write more words of my own book or read more chapters of Norman’s book. After I quickly finished my own daily writing, I read more about Billy and Margot, right up until the end of lunch. Holy cow, I was hooked.

The prose just flows, easily. I’m a writer myself so I understand the process: that what we read as a final product is not necessarily the same when the writer is behind a keyboard. But the results are so fluid, witty, and whimsical.

The characters jump off the page, fully formed, and easily understandable and relatable. In addition to Billy, Caleb, and Margot, we meet Robyn, Caleb’s mom, and her husband, Aaron, who has great hair. We get to know Lawson Daniel’s, Margot’s ex-husband, a supremely handsome British actor who is more famous than her. There’s Poppy, their daughter, as well as all the folks on the city block where Charm City Rocks is located. They all come alive in Norman’s experienced writing style and I happily and easily went along for the ride.

A Rom-Com That Feels Natural

I’ll admit: when Christmas season rolls around, the Hallmark Channel is often on the TV. I know they’re a formula, but I just love them. Still, sometimes, the formula is thin and I start doing something else. I mean, how many times can you have the big-city lady return to the small town and re-discover everything she’s missed?

There are elements of that in Norman’s book, but he remixes the pieces in such a way that it all feels fresh. The meet-cute section is incredibly charming and delightful and I was grinning from ear to ear during that section.

But the inevitable obstacles get in the way and cause havoc. What I particularly enjoyed was the comedy part of rom-com. As I already mentioned, I laughed in chapter one. I think I laughed out loud more reading this book than, in well, a long time. Here’s a line from Beth, a bartender, on what the best Neil Diamond song is.

“What are you talking about, you idiot? It’s ‘Sweet Caroline’ all the way. My sister threw her bra at Neil once while he was singing it at the Verizon Center down in D.C. Almost got us kicked out. Apparently, you’re not supposed to do that. Which is bullshit. I mean, how could you not toss your underwear at that man?”

Or how about this one

“I’d love a cup of tea, though,” says Lawson.
“Like, tea tea?” Robyn asks.
“Well, we Brits only say it once, but I suppose you can call it what you like.”

And I’m also fine when characters in a book react almost as if they’re watching the movie that they’re in. For example, here’s a quote from when Billy is talking to Margot:

“I know, and again, I’m sorry. I’ll buy you and Mr. Camera Guy a beer, too, to make up for it. What do you say? I just feel like if you drive off without me asking, I’ll regret it.”
“Damn,” whispers Todd. “That’s a decent line.”

Everything Gets Dialed Up to Eleven

Things just keep getting in the way for all the characters in this novel, and some of them are really fun and outrageous. The twists I thought unpredictable and happily went along for the ride.

But, again, it’s organic in its development. So, too, is the romance element. Norman switches POVs constantly so you get a sense of what everyone is thinking and why they’re doing what they’re doing. But the small moments really shine: the way a person’s kiss tastes, the warmth of a hand on an arm, the smell of pretzels and the memories they conjure. Norman’s observations on human nature are spot on. I imagine many guys who read this book will see themselves in Billy and wonder if they’d do the same thing. Or feel like he does at various stages of this story. And I also really liked the kind of dad he was to Caleb.

When You Discover Someone New

Like so many rom-coms, Charm City Rocks is a story of how two people meet and start to have feelings for each other and how those actions reverberate throughout their community. An excited newness permeates the air and you just want to be around them all the time.

There’s a similar vibe when you discover a new-to-you author. Matthew Norman is now on my radar thanks to this delightful novel. I’m looking forward to reading more by him, but Charm City Rocks will always be special, that first book.

I’ve already told so many folks about it. Now I’m telling you. Add Charm City Rocks to your summer reading list. Your smile will thank you.