Having Fun with Book Covers

Here is one of my initial attempts at designing a book cover for my work in progress YA fantasy novel The Madian.  This is the cover that greets potential readers on both WattPad and FictionPress.

The Madian

Personally, I love the simplicity of this design.  Knowing the story as intimately as I do the image speaks to me.  However, even I realize that the cover doesn’t signal any story expectations to the reader. Is this a book about a farmer? A long, lonely journey? A memory of a pleasant summer day? Who knows. The vagueness of the design is one of the reasons I like this cover so much though admittedly it likely fails miserably at provoking interest.

Given that most people do judge a book by it’s cover, particularly a a self-published book by an unknown author, I thought it might be worth taking my design efforts to the next level. Luckily I stumbled across Adobe Spark this week and was able to fairly easily develop a few more covers.  Here is a sampling of my most recent work.  Keep in mind I think The Madian is best described as a coming-of-age story set in a fantasy realm.

Do you have a favorite?

Using FanFiction for Writing Practice & Cinematic Therapy

fanfictionIf you’ve read my blog you know I’m a massive Star Wars fan.  Though I’ve seen the film twice I’m still not sure of how I feel about The Last Jedi. I think my main source of distress is simply not understanding how the story progresses from here. To me, The Last Jedi felt to much like a conclusion and an unsatisfactory one at that. So, to kill two birds with one stone I decided to try my hand at FanFiction – in part for writing practice and also to double as a cinematic therapy session.  I hope you enjoy!

 

Imagined Opening Scene to Star Wars Episode IX

Roughly one year after Luke Skywalker’s stand against the First Order the decimated Resistance was fighting to survive. Aboard the commandeered Resistance command ship aptly named the Holdo, the hunted band of rebels was constantly on the move. The First Order’s grip had solidified across the galaxy and very few planets of consequence remained independent and unoccupied. Those regions ignored by the First Order were the areas the Resistance sought refuge. In the far reaches of the galaxy they had found relative safety, assuming they didn’t stay in any one place for long. A vast and unrelenting network of bounty hunters had been activated by the First Order’s lucrative reward for any information leading to the capture of the remaining group. Word of a mysterious force wielding girl sent by the Resistance to assassinate Supreme Leader Snoke had spread like wildfire. Snoke’s death had incensed the First Order and they vowed to make an example of all that remained of the Resistance. The rewards offered were so lavish that bounty hunters were collaborating, a thing practically unheard of in the past. The Resistance was in a precarious position.

Unfortunately for General Hux word of Luke’s miraculous stand against Kylo Ren and the Resistance’s subsequent escape had sparked some hope throughout the galaxy, particularly among those regions deemed unworthy of much attention by the First Order. While General Organa’s call for aid on Crait yielded almost no support, pockets of brave citizens were now offering some aid when and where it could be spared. Spies lurked among these brave beings however, and it was often difficult to ferret out friend from foe. The Resistance relied both on Rey’s instincts and Rose Tico’s knowledge of some of the Outer Rim societies for safe passage through little known worlds.

Rey and Rose were such a successful combination that they began scouting regions where the populace may be sympathetic to the Resistance and more likely to join the cause. Once an area had been identified as having potential for new recruit’s societies a small group of Resistance fighters led by Poe Dameron were charged making initial contact to gauge interest. After a few shaky initial attempts the team had developed great instincts for selecting the right spot to engage. Numbers in the Resistance began to rise, though more slowly than General Organa would have a liked. At this rate, it would take years before the Resistance would be able to challenge the First Order, if ever. Poe and Finn were eager to boost the numbers in their ranks and Rey was beginning to worry they were becoming sloppy in their approach.

On the latest of these such missions Rey and Finn found themselves standing in the back corner of a dimly lit cantina nestled in the maze of tunnels of a nondescript lower city on a planet whose name Rey could not remember. It was then twelfth such mission in nine days and she was exhausted. In that, she was not alone. Here, hungry and overworked mining workers were listening to Rose’s story of their miraculous escape from Crait. The purpose of the story was to ignite inspiration in those brave and willing to attend the meeting. As Rey surveyed the crowd she realized that there were a few able-bodied men and women who could make fine additions to the Resistance, provided they were properly motivated. Motivation and encouragement was where Poe came in. He was a natural.

Finn watched the center of the room with an obvious sense of pride. There two of his favorite people in the galaxy were providing hope to a place where there previously was none. Even in his exhausted state Finn could appreciate the moment.

“They are so good together.” He remarked smiling.

“Yes,” Rey agreed at bit more cautiously. Though this gathering seemed to be going well she couldn’t shake the sense of dread that had been growing since she first woke that morning. She scanned the room looking for something, anything, that looked suspicious but nothing appeared amiss.

“I mean look at the crowd, they’re enthralled!”

Rey could only nod in agreement. Though the crowd was relatively small, maybe twenty or so gathered, Rose and Poe had their undivided attention.

“Maybe you should get up there as well. Tell them about your experiences with the First Order.”

“They don’t need to hear from me to know how they would suffer under continued rule by the First Order. Just look at their planet, stripped of all their natural resources for little return.”

“True, but I meant your escape. That’s quite a tale.”

“If they want a story you should tell them about your time with Luke Skywalker. Imagine what they would do if they realized a Jedi is in their midst.”

“I barely spent any time with Luke.” Not for the first-time Rey felt a pang of real regret. If only she hadn’t run off, perhaps things might have ended differently. “Besides, I’m no Jedi.”

Finn rolled his eyes. “Rey please, I’ve seen your abilities.”

“I’m strong with the Force but there is still so much I don’t know. That I don’t understand.”

“All you do is pour over those books. You’ll figure it out.”

“It’s not the same as having a teacher. Much of what I’ve read is so hard to comprehend and– “

Rey froze mid sentence. Something at the edge of her consciousness was vying for her attention, something she had blocked out for almost a year. But now it was coming. She could feel it.

“Ooh…” Rey lowered her head into her hands. It was taking all of her dissipated strength to keep her mind blank, but something just as strong was pushing back. She knew was it was, she had to make it stop.

“Rey?” Finn reached over and touched her shoulder, concern etched across his face. “Are you OK?”

Rey gripped Finn’s forearms as she tried to steady herself. As she looked up to meet his questioning gaze a deep voice screamed inside her head.

“GET OUT! NOW!”

 

Nothing But Static

via Daily Prompt: Static

images

There was a time in the not so distant past where television programming just stopped. Crazy to think of now right? For anyone who sits around moaning that “there is nothing to watch on tv” there was a time when there literally was nothing to watch on tv.  In the world before cable television became mainstream, the major networks would play the national anthem at midnight and then — blink — no more programming. If you want an actual demonstration of what this was like I recommend watching the original Poltergeist (1982). At midnight the anthem comes on, programming goes off air, static comes in and all hell breaks loose.  If nothing else, I’m sure that’s not hard too imagine – sans the poltergeist of course.

CNN launched the first 24-hour news channel in 1980, paving the way for the 24-hour television and entertainment cycle we now take for granted.  Having news and entertainment at our fingertips has enabled the development new technologies to satisfy our hunger for constant stimulation.

  • Cable & Satellite TV Going Mainstream
  • Explosion of Specific Networks (MTV, Cooking, HGTV, History, Sy Fy)
  • Internet/Streaming
  • Smart phones
  • Tablet Devices
  • Virtual Reality

I’m sure I’ve missed a few but you get the general idea. We are bombarded on daily basis with political commentary, consumer marketing, celebrity gossip, reality TV, sports analysis, etc., etc., etc. Anything we want is now only a click or a download away.  Ironic then, that in many ways it still feels like there is nothing but static on television.

 

Why Don’t I Feel Forlorn?

via Daily Prompt: Forlorn

At times I wonder, am I delusional? Why don’t I feel more hopeless, unfulfilled, abandoned? Maybe I should, maybe I’m in denial. Whatever the case, I don’t feel forlorn and I can’t help but wonder why.

Nearly two years ago I left a good job in a rather toxic environment. I had no real plan except to try life on my own for a while, pursuing long suppressed interests and taking odd jobs where I could find them. This road has not been lucrative and I can clearly see my financial reserves dwindling. While there are some interesting prospects on the horizon nothing is guaranteed.  Admittedly, at times I have trouble sleeping.  I think this is due to boredom more than anything else.

Any yet, during the day I’m hopeful, happy even.  Foolishly optimistic about a future that is anything but certain.  Am I delusional?  Should I be more forlorn?  The answer to each is an empahtic no.  I’ve realized that it’s the uncertainty that I love. The climb that motivates so much more than the fleeting joy at reaching a destination. Who knew?

Around the Hearth, Dreadfully

Trying my hand at Flash Fiction, 1,500 words to be exact. Enjoy!

Another year, another embarrassment of Christmas riches.  A family blessed one might think. Look closer and you can smell the rot just below the surface. I plaster a smile to my face pretending to delight in this year’s loot.  Funny, this act seems to get harder with each passing year.

Earlier on the drive I could feel my wife growing tense as the city gave way to rolling countryside.  It was a white Christmas.  The twins woke with excitement and tore through their presents under the tree. The puppy, Foxie, was happily confused by all the delicious paper strewn across the living room.

After presents and breakfast we all tumbled outside to play in the freshly fallen snow.  Foxie was astounded, it was his first snowfall.  Liam and Jake screamed with laughter every time he stole one of their mittens and ran circles around them, daring anyone to try and catch him.  Kristin tried to build a snowman but the snow was so fluffy it didn’t stick very well.  The best she could muster was something of a snow ghost. It was a mound of snow with rocks for eyes, twigs for a smile and two sticks for arms. Foxie hated him instantly.

“We should bring dog.” I mentioned casually.

“Absolutely not.” Kristin’s tone left no room for arguing.  I knew she was picturing her mother’s expression as Foxie bounded through her parent’s perfect home. Then there would be older sister Abagail, silently watching, sternly judging our chaos as her own family behaved appropriately. Only Zoe would enjoy Foxie. Sadly, her opinion hardly mattered to the Harts.  The youngest daughter Zoe was breathtakingly beautiful but a semi-reformed hellion and a lesbian.  The Harts had only recently reconciled with her lifestyle and Zoe would likely be on her best behavior. Doubtful she’d upset the applecart for a few hours amusement with a puppy.

“Will the dog walker be by today?” I asked skeptically.

“Seth? Yes, he has no special plans for the day and was happy to sit with the pup.”

I felt a surge of jealousy for Seth, happily ensconced in our cozy condo while I spent the afternoon with the dreaded in-laws.  But when duty calls, duty calls.  I couldn’t leave my adored wife alone with her family. Besides, someone had to keep the boys from destroying their grandparent’s home. As terrible as they were to Kristin they doted on their grandsons. If Jake and Liam wanted to slide down the bannister, slide they would.  If Jake and Liam wanted to play with their super soakers in the formal living room, they would.  I’m sure if Jake and Liam begged for Foxie to come to dinner Foxie would.  Kristin knew this too but she had to draw the line somewhere.

Kristin had grown up in a lavish Tudor style home in an affluent town about thirty miles outside of Boston.  Her father had been a successful salesman but was on the road quite a bit while she and her sisters were growing up.  Her mother Anne was not up to the task of raising three girls on her own.  Kristin said she barely ever cooked for them, was never supportive of their goals and aspirations, and more than once disappeared for days at a time leaving the girls with an even less capable grandmother. Kristin once told me that by the time she was ten she realized that she learned all she was going to from her mother.  Oddly, her older sister Abagail always craved their mother’s approval.  Abagail spent her childhood trying to win her mother’s favor and was always infuriated when Kristin had somehow managed to gain her approval. Kristin, rather than Abagail, had something that Anne considered to be of upmost importance in any daughter – beauty.  Abagail wasn’t homely but she couldn’t hold a candle to Kristin’s natural sparkle, and she hated her younger sister for that.  Ironically, Zoe was easily the prettiest of the three but the ten years that separated Abagail from Zoe essentially removed her from any sibling rivalry.  Being just two years younger than Abagail, Kristin received the brunt of Abagail’s torments. Even now, all these years later they still disliked each other.

“Hello, hello, Merry Christmas!”

There was Anne Hart, greeting all of us as if we were, and always had been, beloved.  I suffered through a hug as did Kristin.  They boys flew at their grandmother and even I marveled at the genuine warmth that radiated off Anne as she fiercely hugged them to her.

“Jackie boy, how are you doing?” Stephen Hart, in all his Christmas finery appeared in the entryway to pepper me with questions on the Patriot’s season.

I dutifully answered Stephen’s questions as I warily watched Kristin politely greet Abagail and her husband Greg.  Greg wasn’t so bad.  At times, he seemed almost as perplexed by the Hart family as was I.  We never actually discussed it though.  I had the distinct feeling that anything said would go straight back to Abagail, and eventually Kristin’s parents. Who needed the trouble?

“Jessie!” Kristin screeched as she hugged her niece tightly.  For as much as she disliked her sister she loved her niece unconditionally.  Even I had to give credit to Abagail.  For all her obvious faults, she had somehow managed to produce a sweet and loving young lady. She must take after Greg’s side.

The awkwardness of our arrival was thankfully interrupted Zoe’s entrance.  Her look was subtle and subdued even I gasped at her seemingly innocent, angelic beauty. She saw my double take as she hugged her father and gave me a wicked wink over his shoulder. I looked quickly away to hide my smirk. Zoe had always been fun.

Dinner was a catered affair and the only part of the afternoon I ever enjoyed.  With so much food to eat no one bothered with small talk and we ate with abandon in blessed silence.  After dinner, we gathered around the fireplace in the family room while Stephen and Anne doled out their holiday gifts to us, their captive and seemingly grateful audience.

The generosity the Hart’s show to their family, particularly the grandchildren, cannot be denied.  Kristin says they are trying to buy affection to make up for years of shitty parenting.  Her was dad often absent and usually drunk when he was home.  Her mother was cold and unsentimental but strangely very concerned with outward appearances.  Kristin’s childhood was marked equally by indifference and antagonism, yet the Hart’s always presented the picture-perfect family when in public.  It infuriated Kristin.  When we first met all her friends warned me that Kristin would never get married, so traumatized was she by any thought of domestic life. Luckily, she changed her mind.

Even I had to begrudgingly smile at the boy’s whoops of joy unwrapping their presents.

“iPads!” Zoe cried.  “Mom, they are only five.”

“Mrs. Kelleher says all her grandchildren have them.  There are plenty of educational programs for children their age.”

“Jack and I will look into that,” Kristin said diplomatically as she plucked the electronics from the boys’ grasp.  “They have plenty of other toys to keep them busy while we figure it out.”

“I refuse to let Jessie have electronics,” Abagail cut in.  “I’m sure they make great babysitters for some parents but not for us.”

Jessie groaned.  “I would love an iPad. Nana, did you buy me one too?”

“Oh, you know I would have but your mother insisted that I didn’t.  But don’t you worry dear, I got you something special.” Anne smiled as she presented Jessie with an envelope.

“Tickets to Wicked? In New York?”

“Yes, and we’ll take care of all the travel arrangements for you and your parents.” Stephen added.

“Wo hoo!” Jessie shouted bouncing with joy.

I smiled but caught Kristin’s eye roll. “Buying her affection.” I could almost hear her thoughts.

The rest of the afternoon passed without much drama. After all the gifts were given we stayed an obligatory two hours, trying to think of things to say to these strange creatures. Luckily all Stephen really wanted to discuss was sports so it was easy for me.  Kristin had to deal with listening to both her mother and Abagail pass judgement on the poor souls who lived in town with them. Zoe tried to object but even she fell silent eventually, poisoned by their unending toxicity.

It was dark when we piled in the car to go home.  After promising to visit more often we were happily headed back to our oasis in the city.

The boys fell asleep about twenty minutes into the ride, as content as five year olds could be on a magical Christmas.

“God, I really hate going over there.” Kristin sighed.

“I know, me too.”

“It’s just, they are really good to the boys.”

“I know.”

She reached over and squeezed my hand.  “Well, until next hear then.”

I smiled and kissed her hand.  “Until next year.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Spoilers! “The Last Jedi” Review – So Many Mixed Emotions.

chessboard

In a post earlier this week I provided a non-spoiler review of the movie.  If you haven’t seen “The Last Jedi” yet I suggest you start there first.

SPOILERS!     SPOILERS!     SPOILERS!

OK with the spoiler warning out of the way where to begin?  Initial first impressions are probably best so here goes.  I absolutely loved the Kylo/Rey dynamic.  Through the marketing of the movie I understood they had a mysterious “connection” but was unclear what this meant or how it would unfold.  By far this was the best part of the movie.  Rey and Kylo are more similar than one would expected given the events of “The Force Awakens” and appear to be the Light and Dark sides of the Force personified.  I thought this bold and compelling narrative choice that provoked a lot of food for thought both during the movie and well after.

Luke is the other key element in both Rey and Kylo’s stories.  At the film’s open, Luke is disgruntled and in a self-imposed exile.  This was another narrative choice I really liked.  I always thought the Jedi, particularly Yoda and Obi-wan, failed Anakin and contributed to his downfall.  How could they not have seen that he was in love with Padme?  Further, when a legitimately terrified Anakin confesses his fears to the most powerful Jedi in the universe the sage advice he receives is (paraphrasing): “Fear leads to the dark side.  Let go and accept the will of the force”.  Absolute bullshit.  How is that in anyway helpful to a young man in serious crisis?  I love Yoda but he seriously dropped the ball.

Seeing Luke cynical about the Jedi was a welcome change and I completely understood his perspective at this point in his life.  I saw “Return of the Jedi” when I was around twelve years old and even at that young age I knew Luke would not have an easy life.  The melancholy scene when he is burning Darth Vader’s body sealed it for me.  Luke is so extraordinary, but sometimes it’s those people that have the most difficulty – burdened with too much power, expectations, and too few people in the world with whom they can relate.  This is particularly true for Luke as he was the last Jedi.  Of course he was going to make mistakes as he took up the mantle set by Yoda to “pass on what you have learned.”  His own learning was tragically incomplete and likely led to his greatest error, inadvertently creating Kylo Ren. Interestingly, however, Yoda and the well-established Jedi Order were chock full of masters and yet they still failed to prevent the rise of Darth Vader and the Emperor.  Something was clearly off with Jedi dogma.  At some point Luke must have come to the same conclusion which resulted in a crisis of faith and a self-imposed exile.

Kylo, Kylo, Kylo.  By the end of the film my heart broke for him.  This is not to excuse the terrible things he’s done and I’m not sure he deserves to be redeemed.  At the same time, I’m not convinced he doesn’t either.  It’s been established that somehow Snoke was aware of Kylo since his birth and has been manipulating him his entire life.  Young Kylo didn’t understand this ever present dark shadow and apparently his parents didn’t either.  Now this was either because they were unaware or simply didn’t know how to deal with it.  Neither explanation is satisfactory and implies Han and Leia were not the best parents.  They loved their child certainly but they had no idea how to help him.  When it finally became clear that there was a serious problem Kylo was sent to Uncle Luke to train as a Jedi and all hell broke loose.

During Kylo’s training years Luke becomes aware of the conflict in his nephew.  In a moment of weakness Luke senses the darkness in Kylo and considers killing him in his sleep. Yikes!  I have wondered if Luke really felt Kylo’s darkness or was he picking up Snoke’s influence?  Unclear, but either way Kylo wakes up at this exact moment, sees that his uncle is about to kill him, defends himself with his lightsaber (Anakins!) and brings down the roof of his hut.  From there we are told Kylo destroyed the school, absconded with a handful of students, killed those that wouldn’t join him, and ultimately found his way to Snoke.  Is this the full story?  I do wonder.  Are those students that left with Kylo the infamous and barely seen “Knights of Ren”?  Episode IX will tell I suppose.

While certainly insightful, what bothered me about this backstory is that it turned three highly beloved characters into negligent family members to explain/justify the emergence of Kylo Ren.  When I consider the Han, Leia, and Luke of the original trilogy do I really think this is how it would all go down?  It’s a possibility, certainly, but in my mind a very low probability on the spectrum of future outcomes.  In any event, this is the cannon narrative of the sequel trilogy and the source of a lot of fan backlash.  Not entirely unjustified.

Regardless, the Kylo/Rey/Luke part of the movie was spectacular.  My only real gripe was that it felt rushed in order to fit in the two other story threads.  Here’s where things get a little more dicey.

Finn needs to stop running and commit to a cause, yes?  I know, let’s help him do that by sending him on a futile, wild goose chase through a new world that feels more like a heist movie than Star Wars.  “Ocean’s 11” in space?  Here we go!  Now part of this narrative was entertaining, and I really loved Finn’s new sidekick Rose Tico, but it takes away from the core of the story and into this tangential plot line that could be deleted – or at least dramatically streamlined – without much impact.

Moving on to Poe.  He needs to become a leader, yes?  Great, let’s have him make horrible, knee-jerk decisions, commit insubordination, be demoted, then stage a mutiny.  At the end of all this nonsense give the man a promotion!  That should help his character develop nicely!  Ugh…

Meanwhile, idealistic Rey learns of Kylo’s tragic backstory and takes it upon herself to go rescue him.  This leads to the best sequence in the movie in which Snoke and all of his guards are taken down by the Kylo/Rey dream team.  I can’t say enough about the pairing of these two.  It’s pure Star Wars magic!  In fact, I feel like Ben Solo needs to be redeemed in order for these two to get the happy ending that by this time I think they BOTH deserve.  But will they?  Doubtful, because once the fight is over they both retreat back to their original Dark Side vs. Light Side positions.  How demoralizing.  So much for forging something new and unexpected…

All of these disparate threads converge at a final battle on Crait.  The Luke from the original trilogy finally emerges, reunites with Leia and faces his nephew.  All of this was beautifully done.  Finn has a moment where it looks like he might sacrifice himself in the fight and it was definitely a nail biter.  Thankfully he lives to see another day.  Luke does not, however.  His showdown with Kylo drains him of his lifeforce (I guess?) and he peacefully passes on while staring at a dual sunset reminiscent of the twin suns on Tatooine from “A New Hope.”  Not going to lie, this scene evoked real emotion and plenty of tears from me.  Not to worry though, I’m pretty confident we’ll see force ghost Luke in Episode IX.  Hopefully armed with some new found wisdom after reuniting with his old Jedi friends in the Force netherworld.

At the end, the last of the Resistance escapes and the First Order is now being led by Kylo Ren.  Another new revelation?  There are more force sensitive people in the universe and, like Rey, their names are not Skywalker.  Hooray!  Seriously, this is the right thing for the Star Wars universe.  It’s time to look beyond one family for heros of a new age.

So why did I leave the theater confused, befuddled, and a little angry?  I think it all comes down to this.  As much as I agree Star Wars needs to exist beyond one family, The Skywalkers – the beloved heros of the original trilogy – appear to be cursed and perhaps marked for destruction?  That really pisses me off.  Let’s take a closer look at their history:

  • Grandpa Anakin: Had no father, lived as a slave, taken from a beloved mother at a young age never to be seen alive by her son again (pretty much), falls to the dark side, loses the love of his life and wrecks havoc across the universe, has a moment of grace than then dies immediately thereafter.
  • Gradma Padme: Dies heartbroken.
  • Son Luke: Grows up on a crappy desert planet, never knows his real mother, learns the love of his life is his sister and his father is the worst person in the galaxy,  redeems his father but inadvertently creates another monster in his only nephew, goes into exile, dies alone (supposedly at peace).
  • Daughter Leia: Never knows parents, step parents and home planet destroyed, never acknowledges her true father, never trains in the Force (ironically if she had may have been able to save her son), sends son to trusted uncle who almost kills him, son goes dark, loses love of her live at the hands of their only son.  Likely to die heartbroken in Episode IX.
  • Son-in-law Han: marries into the most powerful Force family, only son goes dark, loses wife and best friend as a result, and is ultimately killed by that son trying to bring him home to please ex-wife.
  • Grandson Ben/Kylo: Neglected by his parents, haunted by a malevolent presence since birth, almost murdered in his sleep by hero uncle.

And now the only remaining Skywalker – Kylo/Ben – appears to be on an irredeemable path of destruction.  The Skywalkers deserve better.  Han’s sacrifice deserves better. Is this really how Disney – DISNEY!- will bring this historic Star Wars Saga to close?  God I hope not.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My Spoiler Free Review of “The Last Jedi” – There is a lot to absorb. Give it time to sink in, it may change your initial take.

download (1)

“WTF just happened?”

“Where the hell do they go from here?”

Those were my first two very unsettling thoughts while leaving the cinema after watching “The Last Jedi.”  I can understand if one were compelled to write a review of the movie immediately upon first viewing the overall sentiment would not be positive (as evidenced by a Rotten Tomatoes audience score of 54%). There is so much that happens in this film and much of it entirely unexpected.  This is both a blessing and a curse.  I liked “The Force Awakens” but even I could see that is was a thinly disguised rehash of “A New Hope”, likely only a better film to those who haven’t seen the original first.

I think many fans were expecting “The Last Jedi” to be like the “Empire Strikes Back”.  Certainly, there are call backs – Rey seeking out a Jedi Master, the fight on the salt (as opposed to snow) planet Crait, pursuit of the Resistance by the First Order – are the ones that stuck out in my mind.  But also, there is a significant nod to “The Return of the Jedi” in Rey’s naïve and idealistic belief that she has the power to successfully confront the Dark Side with essentially no meaningful training.  Unlike “The Force Awakens”, however, those call backs didn’t feel like a simple update of the original films. “The Last Jedi” took those concepts and turned them on their head.  While a bit jarring, ultimately I found this approach both risky and refreshing.

What I Loved:

  • The Cast: across the board the acting is phenomenal. While everyone is good, Adam Driver is a standout.  He totally blew me away.  Mark Hamill almost matches him but doesn’t quite have (or wasn’t given?) the same range as the remarkable Driver.  Daisy Ridley rounds out the top three.  She more than holds her own with Adam and Mark, and her scenes with Adam are pure magic.
  • The Force Subplot: This part of the film was wonderful, A+.  Without going into detail, I thought the character developments here were nuanced, believable, and wonderfully complex.  The ideas explored in this part of the movie require a lot of thought and provoke discussion/debate.  Unlike the original trilogy, the concepts surrounding the Force are not so black and white.  I welcome this change as the Light and Dark sides in previous episodes were too absolute, and we all know how that turned out.
  • Rey’s Lineage Reveal: This is a controversial point in the fandom but I loved the reveal.
  • The Reunions: Can’t say more without spoiling but characters reconnecting in this film was a beautiful thing.
  • The Ending (sort of): the resolution of the Force plot was extremely moving and surprising in so many ways. I did leave the theater distressed about the fate of one character in particular but upon reflection I’ve realized there is still room for hope.

What I Liked:

  • The New Characters: Of the three new characters introduced I liked Rose Tico the best. She didn’t land in the “Love” category because I wasn’t completely sold on her narrative. Laura Dern was similarly great but given even less to do.  Benicio Del Toro was interestingly ambiguous.
  • The New Creatures: The porgs were adorable, the crystal foxes awesome, and the horse like fathers were gentle, beautiful and graceful.
  • Finn’s Journey (sort of): I very much liked his pairing with Rose Tico, but his side trip to another planet – while entertaining – felt like it belonged in another movie.
  • First Order Nonsense: Specifically, General Hux and Kylo Ren’s old married couple like bickering. Gold!

What I Didn’t Like:

  • The Timeline: the timeline of this movie just feels weird. Everything that happens unfolds in a period of maybe two days?  While that that may be OK for the Resistance plot, it doesn’t work at all for The Force portion of the movie.  Kylo, Rey, and Luke become so intertwined during the course of the movie that to expect this level of intimacy to happen in a few days is absurd.
  • The Humor: Admittedly, I did laugh out loud at some of the jokes but I also found myself at times wondering if I was watching a Marvel movie. I blame Disney for this.
  • The Resistance Subplot: Ugh, just ugh. Great characters not put to good use. Leia  has one very bizarre moment.

What I Hated:

  • Love Quadrangle???:  Hey, let’s make EVERYONE a possible love interest for Rey!  I know Daisy Ridley is appealing but seriously?
  • Captain Phasma and Maz Kanata: Love those two actresses but their characters? Not so much.

In a nutshell (ha!) that’s pretty much it from a non-spoiler standpoint.  If this seems like a lot, it’s because it is.  It’s taken me almost a full week to process everything I saw and even now I’m not sure I interpreted it all correctly.  Is that the hallmark of a good film?  I’ll leave that for you to decide.

Overall, I’d give the movie a solid B rating (or 85/100).  Importantly, if you had asked me after I left the theater I would have said C- (or 70/100).  Like a raw steak this movie needs time to marinate and then becomes something quite special.

Spoiler review to follow.

Chasing Carrie Fisher

carrie-fisher-d54648ab-445c-4b53-adb3-4e99365bd04f

In honor Carrie Fisher and the opening of “The Last Jedi” later this week I decided to read all of Carrie’s memoirs and watch her one woman special “Wishful Drinking”. While I was on my “Carrie-binge” I threw in “Bright Lights” about her Hollywood upbringing and relationship with her mother Debbie Reynolds for good measure. Why didn’t I read any of her novels you ask? No time. I figured if I had to prioritize I’d work through the non-fiction offerings first (“The Princess Diarist”, “Shockaholic”, “Wishful Drinking”). I wanted to get the truest picture, an unfiltered and non-fictionalized Carrie. Perhaps I’ll tackle the novels at another time. Though I do wonder if “Postcards from the Edge” is truly fiction or thinly disguised non-fiction. A question for another time.

What did I learn? In short, I am even more saddened by her loss. As Yoda would say – a spark, was she! A self-admitted Star Wars junkie, I would have undoubtedly been entertained by her “The Last Jedi” promotional tour wherein her thoughts on the movie, the fandom, and celebrity culture would be on full display. I’m sure I would have cackled gleefully at her irreverent interviews, as I did through much of her “The Force Awakens” press tour. Sadly, no such opportunity exists. All we have now is what she left behind. Thankfully, there is some rich material here.

Carrie’s memoirs are very engaging. You feel like you are in the room talking with her. She writes in a very conversational, somewhat sardonic tone that is immediately identifiable if you have ever seen any interviews with her. If you haven’t I strongly suggest checking her out on YouTube. She’s not always a completely coherent interview but she is always compelling. It’s not my intent in this post to review all her memoirs and TV specials in-depth but to mention some common threads I couldn’t help but notice throughout.

Unflinching honesty: Carrie didn’t hold back in her writing, interviews, and I suspect in her life. This is remarkably brave and refreshing. You got the sense she was unafraid of what people thought. This is not to say that she didn’t care. I think she did, but was not afraid of it. She was determined to be herself regardless of the cost.

Humor that masks pain: Carrie was extremely witty. I laughed out loud at many descriptions of her life. Much of her upbringing was preposterous, and she admits as much. Within that humorous reflection though you can still feel the pain of a lonely and, at times, unstable upbringing. The hole left by her father was deep and clearly still felt even in recent interviews. For example, when asked by Ellen Degeneres in 2015 why she drank 16 Cokes a day Carrie’s response was that it was because her father was the Coke-a-Cola kid. I found this response illogical because (1) the health hazards of soda are well documented, (2) Eddie Fisher was the Coke spokesperson over 50 years ago, and (3) there is no rational reason anyone should consume 16 cans of soda in a day.

A past that was ever present: For all her gifts, it had to be difficult to be Carrie Fisher. Her childhood was defined by scandal, early adulthood by Star Wars, and adulthood by mental illness. Once she managed to get her illness under control she shared her struggles with her unconventional childhood, fame, and illness with the world, often mining her personal history for entertainment value.  I understand the impulse, Carrie led a fascinating life.  Consequently, all of those colorful experiences, many likely very painful, were brought to the surface again and again. In the midst of this ever-repeating cycle the Star Wars franchise makes a triumphant return to the world’s stage. It had to be so disorienting. At times I wondered if Carrie would have been best by letting go of the past and moving forward. In her particular reality, though, that was impossible. Never has the phrase “the past is always present” rang so true to me. How does one lay to rest a past that refuses to die?

All this and mental illness too: By the time she was twenty-nine Carrie had lived a life most of us could never even imagine. Her unconventional upbringing and instant stardom at nineteen would have been enough to throw many of us over the edge. But Carrie had another demon to conquer, Bipolar Disorder. She was diagnosed at a time when not a lot was known about the condition or how to effectively treat it. Her questionable behavior in the public eye likely can be attributed, at least partially, to self-medication in attempt to control the swirling emotions raging inside her. Sometimes I think it’s a small miracle she lived to 60.

And thank goodness, she did. Though her life may have been filled with challenges, the world is a far better place for her having been here. Through Princess Leia, Carrie encouraged millions of young girls (including yours truly) to imagine another kind of woman far beyond the likes of Cinderella; to be independent, courageous, and follow to their dreams. Carrie’s novels entertained the masses and her writing improved Hollywood movies. Her honesty about her struggles with mental illness and addiction inspired countless to seek help and began to chip away at the stigma associated with the disease. She crammed so much into her lifetime that it’s no wonder we lost her relatively early. But what a legacy to leave behind.

I’m pretty sure I’ll cry when I see her on screen for the last time this Friday when I go to see “The Last Jedi”.  But when I go home and after my daughter is asleep, I’ll pour myself a nice glass of wine and whisper a toast to a life well-lived. We should all be so lucky to have such an impact.

PS: Read her memoirs and definitely see the television specials. You won’t be disappointed.

PPS: I am now also a fan of her mother Debbie Reyonlds. What a survivor!

Reading Agatha Christie: I can see the puzzle outline but the interior remains elusive.

ACAs is often the case with me, I was recently inspired by a movie opening to explore the literary source material.  I’m one of those people who assumes that if a movie is based on a book, the book is likely better.  In my experience that is usually the case.  The last time it was The Glass Castle, this time it was Murder On The Orient Express.  For such a famous mystery I couldn’t believe that I could approach the novel unspoiled.  Beyond the obvious murder on a train I had no idea what to expect.

My first experience with Agatha Christie was years ago.  I want to say I was in my late teens at the time but I’m not entirely sure.  I do remember being bored with the mainstream mystery novels of the day.  They were too predictable, with the endings telegraphed from miles away.  Given my decided lack of confidence in the popular mystery novelists of that time I decided to try my hand at mystery’s greatest writer, Agatha Christie.

The first of Ms. Christie’s books that I read was The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side.  Why did my teenage self choose this particular one?  I remember being disappointed by Ms. Christie’s “ancient” detectives Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple.  If I was going to be stuck with an old fogy protagonist I figured the female option would be better.  Why would I want to read about an odd and somewhat frail Belgian whose main distinguishing feature was a huge mustache?

There are twenty-six Miss Marple mysteries so my next decision was which to choose?  I rather quickly settled on The Mirror Crack’d, probably because it centered on a beautiful American actress and Miss Marple didn’t make her appearance until mid-way through the novel.  I also vaguely remember being impressed by the cover.  In my memory it was bright pink and featured a jagged mirror shard that reflected beautiful blond woman’s face.  Though truly, was this even the cover?  I conducted a very brief and non-scientific Google investigation and none of the so-called eleven best The Mirror Crack’d covers fit my description.  I think my memory is a composite of several other covers I may have seen over the years.  Though another cover did look familiar.  This one featured a nice looking – but still elderly (!) –  Miss Marple, wearing a very concerned expression as she raised a pretty tea cup to her lips.  Her obvious distress sold me on the book and home from the library I went determined to crack (pun intended) this mystery.

Perhaps not surprising for those of you who have read Christie, I did not solve the mystery.  This very much pleased me, having grown bored with more obvious contemporary mystery writers.  But perhaps what impressed me the most about this story was how the answer to the mystery lay in plain sight.  I did notice one particularly telling clue, and intuitively knew it was important, by for the life or me I couldn’t figure out why.  When the solution became apparent I couldn’t believe I missed it.

Armed with this knowledge, and being quite a bit older, I tackled Murder On The Orient Express this week with the confidence I would resolve the puzzle before the end.  I did not.  Similar to The Mirror Crack’d I noticed some things that were unusual in the story, too unusual to be coincidental.  For a brief moment I even considered the actual ending, only to discard it because it seemed too ludicrous.  The thing is, that theory of mine was correct only I couldn’t figure how it logically fit into a framework for murder.  It was too fantastic, too far-fetched!  Not to worry, we’re talking Agatha here.  Again, once the complete solution was revealed I couldn’t believe I missed it.  All the clues where there, my instincts were correct, but it couldn’t put it all together.

Given my “near miss” with solving Murder On The Orient express I moved on to another famous Agatha Christie mystery And Then There Were None.  Can we just pause here and admire the brilliance of this title?  So simple yet ominous.  I don’t even need a story blurb to want to read this book.  If only I could come up with such evocative titles!

Similar to my previous two experiences I came close to deciphering what was going on but couldn’t tie it all together.  I will say that I guessed how the murders would occur, exactly who and how the last murder would unfold, an idea of what was really happening on the island, and a theory of how all the victims fit together.  There was a bit of trickery in the story, I thought as much, but failed at being definitive on who was behind the deception and why it was necessary.  I honed in on the murderer, but I also suspected just about all of the characters in the book at one point or another.  I’m not exactly sure how Christie did this but every time I thought I knew who the murder was that very suspect died next in the story.  Masterful!  Though I did have a vague inkling what may be happening, I couldn’t arrange the story into a cohesive whole.  Sound familiar?

There is a reason Agatha Christie is the most widely published author of all time, being outsold only by The Bible and Shakespeare.  Her mysteries grab your attention, are confounding, yet are solved elegantly and surprisingly.  The reader should have seen the ending coming, the carefully disclosed clues point the way, but somehow the solution remains elusive.  Even though she died in 1976 she remains the world’s best-selling novelist to this day.

If you’ve got a hankering for a good mystery you can’t go wrong with Agatha Christie.  Just don’t expect to be able to solve it!

Where To Open A Story?

This is an interesting question because the flippant answer would be at the beginning of course!  But what is a beginning?  There can be many entry points to a story, with each potentially leading the narrative in very different directions.  I’ve just completed another Writing Challenge from Wonderbook (Vandermeer) that nicely illustrates this idea.  The exercise was to use the image below to plan the opening of a novel entitled “Krakens Attack at Dawn”.   The exercise required three ways to open the story at different perspectives  Once the creative juices got flowing I added a bonus fourth.

tentaclelatitudes

Option #1: Open with a young deck hand’s glimpse of the creature out at sea.  He goes below to alert the captain and crew but given that this is the hand’s first voyage, they do not take the warning seriously until it is too late.  The focus of the opening is the futile attempt to avoid the monster

Potential Outcome: the ship is sunk and all are lost at sea

Natural Scene Placement: This option feels like the end of the story, nothing else to tell.  Unless the attack was somehow witnessed by another ship.  If so, would others come to slay the beast?

Option #2: Open with a cook being woken out of slumber by a violent lurch of the boat.  The Captain has been thrown overboard and the crew is in disarray.  The focus of the opening is on fighting the monster.

Potential Outcome: cook falls overboard during the frantic fight and is the only survivor of the initial attack.  He clings to debris until he is found by another ship or washes up on shore.

Natural Scene Placement: Could be beginning, middle or end of the story, depending on how much of the cook’s adventures are compelling enought to be told.

Option #3: Open with an adolescent boy in a rowboat watching the creature sink the ship.  The boy is the captain’s son and was evacuated with 3 other people – a sailor, a soldier, and the boy’s governess.  The focus of the opening is on evading the monster.

Potential Outcome: survivors evade the monster and land on an unknown shore.

Natural Scene Placement: beginning of the story.

Bonus Option: The ship disappears below the water’s surface, leaving a trail of violent waves in it’s wake.  A young female native to the land of the ship’s destination had conjurered a sea monster to sink the boat.  Her people have the gift of foresight and know if foreigners gain access to their land it would mean the destruction of their way of life.  She watched the ship sink and heard the screams of the passengers with some conflict, but an elder conjurer assured her that this small sacrifice must be offered to the Gods to keep their people safe.

Potential Outcome: The young girl returns to her village in honor but is plagued by nightmares.

Natural Scene Placementt: beginning of the story.

Option 3 and the Bonus Option are the most interesting from a storytelling perspective.  I kind of feel like Options 1 & 2 have been done before and I can’t seem to muster any motivation to further explore.

This Writing Challenge was an interesting exercise because it made me reconsider where I began my own story.  I got some feedback late last year that my first chapter was essentially unnecessary background and it would be better to start with Chapter 2.  I ignored this advice initially based on my artistic integrity.  But like Jerry Seinfeld told George Costanza when he bristled at executive feedback on their sitcom pitch, “You aren’t artistic and you have no integrity!”

I like to think that I have integrity but perhaps it is better to begin my story with Chapter 2 :).