As we are now a few weeks away from Memorial Day and the beginning of the summer I am starting to cast around for new series to read. One reason I like them when they are new is the author has generally submitted three or four manuscripts before the first one is published. It means the books come quickly. So even though it has only been a year I can find two or three entries to take up my lazy summer days. If I hadn’t made the mistake of trying to read just a little of the first book in Annette Marie’s new series “The Guild Codex: Spellbound” I would have these in my queue. Instead I was hooked and blitzed my way through the three books that have been published over the last year or so.
Ms. Marie has been an author of Young Adult urban fantasy. With “The Guild Codex” she is turning to a more grown-up version within the genre. Each book has a title with a noun and a cocktail. Book one is called “Three Mages and a Margarita”. In that book we meet Tori a down-on-her luck human looking for a job. She goes to a bar to apply for a bartending job. Instead of an interview she is asked to work a shift. As she steps behind the rail, she realizes this is no regular bar. It is populated by supernatural beings. No place left to turn she treats them as she would anyone else; with a sharp-tongued disdain. By the time she has ended her shift she has shown she can survive as the bartender at The Guild Codex. Tori is the stand-in for the reader as she needs what is happening explained to her. This is a common urban fantasy trope. It works here because Tori also reacts appropriately to what she describes. I like the casual way she uses profanity. It reminds me of the television character Veronica Mars. Another reason this series drew me in.
Ms. Marie keeps the books moving at a fast pace. She has a well-conceived magic system. Tori has a single romantic interest among her new-found companions; and she thinks her way out of the situations she is placed in. Even though there is some romance these books are more like action movies. Think “Fast and Furious” level with about the same amount of romance. If you read a lot of urban fantasy many of the plot points will be familiar. Enough so that things that might be plot twists for first-time readers will not be for one who enjoys the genre. What makes me want to return for succeeding books is the characters and the words they are given to speak. The Guild Codex: Spellbound succeeds on all those levels.
All those qualities also make it perfect vacation reading. The fourth book will be out any day now. Which means if you need something to take with you over Memorial Day weekend these should fit the bill.
These current days feel like Geek Mardi Gras. There is so much fun stuff happening. Part of that fun, for most, is the anticipation. As I sat in the theatre on Thursday night before Avengers: Endgame I was ready to see the ending. It is part of my Geek street cred that I have seen every Star Wars, Star Trek, and Marvel movie first day first showing. It matters to nobody but me. What has been an invisible merit badge on my invisible Geek Eagle Scout uniform has now become a necessity. That’s because of the scourge of spoilers.
Before I start ranting on my soapbox, I want to distinguish about what I am talking about. There are fans of any show who want to know everything including what is going to happen. They will drive to the set and take pictures from far away to try and figure out the future. I have no problems with that. That is fans being fans. The reason I don’t have a problem with that is that community generally keeps to itself. If you are of similar mindset you can find that information and willingly immerse yourself. To those groups I say keep on enjoying your fandom.
It is the other kinds, not the obsessed who will serve the other obsessed. I’m talking about the jerks who just must let you know that they know something. My first experience with this kind of idiot came in November of 1977. I had won tickets to an early preview screening of “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”. It was in one of the largest theatres in South Florida which held about 1,500 people. We get to the end where a fleet of small alien ships have made contact with humans on the top of Devil’s Tower. It is an exhilarating scene which feels like the payoff for what we have been watching. As the ships fly off you are made to think this is first contact. Then at this screening as loud as if he was using a megaphone some jerk says, “Here comes the big ship!” If I was sitting next to him, I would’ve whipped him with Twizzlers. When we were walking out my friends and I remarked about what a moron he was.
Those were pre-Internet days. Now it doesn’t have to be a loud-mouthed lout in the theatre. It can just be an idiot a thousand miles away who wants to ruin it for others. I don’t know when it got so bad. I know that nobody went around spoiling the key moment in “Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back”. I prefaced every conversation with, “Have you seen it yet?” Because that is part of the communal experience of going to see a movie with a few hundred other people. My favorite time in the movie theatre has been that shared delight at a plot twist where everyone makes a noise.
Nowadays people can’t go visit their favorite internet sites for fear of having a plot point spoiled. I went on YouTube last night and because I have been watching Avengers: Endgame clips leading up to it the algorithm is going to put them at the top of the page. At 10pm near the end of the first day of showing there was a clip which someone had filmed off a movie screen titled with a key plot twist. If I could I’d turn them into the studio.
This has caused people to stay off the internet entirely until they see the movie. One set of idiots cause this. As much as I enjoy being a Geek in this period of time; those who live to put spoilers out aren’t Geeks they’re jerks.
I am not an atheist despite being a scientist. I will always take facts over the fantastic, yet I also believe there is a spiritual component to my life. I was taken through the Catholic Church all the way to Confirmation. The scientific mind driving the older priest crazy while the younger one, Father Leonardi, seemed amused. He took me serious enough to answer instead of bluster. The part of me which is still Catholic, is because of him. I am happy to commune with the higher spirit in my own way while respecting all who choose a different path.
I was reminded this week as Passover and Easter fall on the same weekend that my horizons were broadened in high school because of my friends I call my “family by choice”. The one I was most temperamentally like was Rich. We could bounce off each other until our friends would yell at us to “Shut Up!”. Which would achieve the desired effect while we cackled. Fifty years later we still try our loved one’s patience.
I spent a lot of time at my friend’s homes. Rich’s parents were the ones most likely to engage us in conversation. One of the key conversations I had in my life on bigotry was Rich’s dad showing me the pamphlets which were passed around about Jews by white supremacy organizations. It was eye-opening on how easy it was to demonize another race. It is one of the earliest conversations I remember having with an adult on a serious subject. I can say the foundation of my beliefs on that subject were formed that day.
I don’t remember when exactly that conversation took place but upon the next Passover, I was invited to the family Seder. It was a chance to see something more of the Jewish faith other than the Bar Mitzvahs I had been to. Rich’s dad and grandfather took us through all the ceremony explaining everything to me. It was something I soaked up greedily. Along with the food. I am not a good singer and while part of a Passover Seder is singing songs, I kept my voice down. Until we sang Chad Gadya. It was the last song of the night and I decided to give it my all pitching my voice low for the three syllables in the title.
I’ve been to both of Rich’s children’s Mitzvahs. I mentioned my enjoyment of that earlier conversation with Rich’s dad. As a teenager I didn’t have the perspective to know how important it was. It was nice for me to let him know how his words shaped the adult I became.
I’ve also been thinking a lot about where I do place my faith. One of those places is in the friendship of my family and friends. It may not be a church, but it is where I feel the spirit the most.
When I saw the trailer for Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker something hit me. 2019 will be the final year in whatever this geek pop culture renaissance comes to be called. Starting tonight with the premiere of the final season of “Game of Thrones” through to Avengers: Endgame in two weeks until The Rise of Skywalker at Christmas. Three huge properties will finish the ambitious stories they took on.
The progenitor of all of this was Star Wars in 1977; what would come to be Episode IV A New Hope. The phenomenon which would spring out of its success is the spark which lit the geek pop culture renaissance on fire. What I would also say is things didn’t really kick into high gear until we made the turn towards the new century. Studios had no idea how to transform the subject matter at the comic book shop or the sci-fi/fantasy book store. It produced mostly okay to bad attempts with the best being things which weren’t adaptations. No fans to disappoint. No material to stay faithful to. Star Wars returned in 1999 with Episode I: The Phantom Menace. George Lucas was given the complete creative control he wanted. I like Episodes I-III more than most because it always felt like Star Wars. This would become the blueprint for what came next.
If there was a consistent issue with all the adaptations prior to 2000 it was the studios didn’t trust a creative team which loved the material as much as the audience. When Peter Jackson was allowed to film the three movies adapting JRR Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” all at once; it was a huge risk for the studio. The success of those movies showed first priority, to adapting things, is to get someone who is also into it.
In 2008 a producer named Kevin Feige and director Jon Favreau took one of the biggest home run swings ever when they combined to film Iron Man. If there was something I wanted to see it was a great superhero movie. I thought Robert Downey Jr. was the right choice to play Tony Stark. I wondered whether anyone knew who Iron Man was. Shouldn’t they have gone with a more recognizable hero? The answer turned out to be no. What became even better was this added scene at the end of the credits when Nick Fury revealed the Avengers Initiative to Tony Stark. I was ecstatic that Mr. Feige was going to try and re-create the interconnectedness of the Marvel comic book universe in movies. That this first 22-chapter story will come to an end with Avengers: Endgame is all due to Mr. Feige. He has hired the right directors and writers who have hired the right actors to turn the comic book panels into movie frames. Every one of these directors respected the properties they were filming. They made it their own.
The other big change has been the rise of the premium cable channel and streaming services. Even with “The Lord of the Rings” nine hours wasn’t enough. HBO agreed. They saw the popularity of a new fantasy series by author George RR Martin. Two young producers who loved the books; see a trend, approached HBO to create a multi-season adaptation of the series. This was despite the fact the final books hadn’t been written. David Benioff and DB Weiss were given the green light. “Game of Thrones” had great source material given the time to breathe this sprawling story filled the small screen. It probably didn’t hurt that televisions were getting bigger and bigger. By the time dragons were burning things up I could watch it on my 60-inch television. The final six episodes begin tonight.
Which brings me back to Star Wars and the man who brought it back to life; JJ Abrams. It is still too far off to know more than a two-minute trailer for The Rise of Skywalker can tell me. Other than the way Mr. Abrams began his creative process on this final trilogy by asking the question “What happened to Luke Skywalker?” That’s a fan question by someone who had the chance to answer it with a movie. When I settle into my seat for The Rise of Skywalker that will be the beginning of the end.
What comes next is where you go when The Rise of Skywalker really signals the end of the beginning.
I love stage magic. Ever since I was a small child, magicians who make things disappear and reappear fascinated me. I always wanted to know more. Through happenstance I met a fellow teenager who was the daughter of a magician. Ever wonder what diner is like when you’re a guest at a magician’s house? It is a lot of fun. They never revealed the secret to any magic trick I saw but they did give me a perspective on how to watch a magic trick as it is being performed. When I asked what the most difficult type of magic to perform is, they said in near unison, “Sleight of hand!”. They explained the close-up nature and the dexterity which goes with it adds many degrees of difficulty over a stage illusion. I have been a fan of that style of magic ever since. If there is a street performer doing close-up sleight of hand I always stop for a minute or two. Figuring out a specific magician’s technique is like unraveling a knitted scarf. Once you find the loose thread you can pull it until you pierce the illusion. Which is why the magician Shin Lim is so amazing. I can only pull the thread so far before it stops.
You probably know nothing of Mr. Lim if you aren’t a fan of the talent competition “America’s Got Talent”. I am not a regular watcher, but I saw one of his earliest performances on a YouTube clip. That made me a viewer the nights he was on. He would win the season he was on. Then he would go on and win the all-star competition “America’s Got Talent: The Champions” where they gathered all the best acts from the show over the years. Every one of his performances was flawless sleight of hand.
There are basic techniques and tools which are the foundation of typical sleight of hand magic. Mr. Lim improves the tricks with his amazing dexterity in moving the playing cards around. Along with this he works with a volunteer with whom he excels in bantering with throughout the trick. You might know how some of what he is doing is done but I think only other skilled magicians have any idea of how all of it is being done.
While I was enjoying the performances the show filled us in on Mr. Lim’s backstory. He started out as a musician studying piano until he developed carpal tunnel syndrome which cut short that career. He turned to his other passion, magic, which he had been doing at the same time. He would become more well-known in magic circles culminating in winning a 2015 World Championship in Close-Up Magic. He began to tour and then three years ago he injured the tendons in his thumb requiring surgery. He battled back from that and auditioned for “America’s Got Talent”. His ability to overcome two different injuries is magic in itself.
I’ve included two of the YouTube clips above for you to get an idea at how good he is.
When I was a teenager there was a series of shows called the ABC Afterschool Special. Each of these shows, starting in 1972, would tell an educational story. Except when they did a “Very Special” episode. That was code for this time we are taking on a controversial subject in an uplifting way. It was important because they would put on the television screen topics like divorce, child homelessness, venereal disease, teen suicide, eating disorders, and teen pregnancy. In a lot of cases this was one of the earliest depictions of many of these subjects.
The “Very Special” terminology has transitioned to primetime television. Being used, and now overused, mostly as code to do something traumatic to the characters on the show. In these days of “peak” television, shows tend to up the ante on traumatic events to get attention. It is the reason I stopped watching Grey’s Anatomy regularly. When it premiered March 27, 2005 it immediately connected with me. It became appointment television which was turned in to season-long scheduling on my DVR. I empathized for twelve seasons with Meredith Grey and her colleagues until the trauma became too much for me. Any show that survives for fifteen seasons must challenge their characters with interesting situations. With medical shows there is an unfortunate need to keep upping the level of the trauma. I left the last couple of seasons of “ER” for the same reason. The writers have made me care enough about these characters watching them suffer another devastating blow becomes too much.
The thing is the writers on Grey’s Anatomy and the creator Shonda Rhimes haven’t lost their edge. They still put interesting words in the characters’ mouths. While I couldn’t watch anymore, I read the recap of each week’s episode so I can keep up. Which was what happened this past Friday morning. I read the recap for the most recent episode “Silent All These Years” and cried. I knew I was going to go watch the episode via “on demand” as soon as I could.
“Silent All These Years” is a Very Special episode built around the subject of consent. It is told mainly through the story of a patient who comes to the hospital, Abby. One of the doctors, Jo, realizes she is suffering from more than the apparent cut on her cheek. As she examines her, she realizes Abby has been sexually assaulted. This story is juxtaposed against a flash back to a recent visit Jo had with her birth mother. Jo was left at a fire station when she was five days old. She finally tracks down her birth mother and meets her at a diner to try and understand. The trauma of sexual assault again impacts the decisions of both women. The third tiny story is when Ben has a talk with his stepson Tuck after he realizes he is dating. This was much needed tension breaking scenes from the other two stories. In a kind of ABC Afterschool Special way Ben explains to Tuck in a relatable way how the words “no” and “stop” are always to be heard, and acted upon, when a woman you are with say them.
Very rarely does episodic television get it right with an episode dealing with a subject as fraught as consent and sexual assault. “Silent All These Years” is Very Special because it does it so well.
I think when I’m done writing this, I will never refer to the gender or race of the central superhero again. I think with the release of Captain Marvel that has ended. The old myths about what a superhero had to look like to inspire audiences to share their journey have been shattered. When someone writes a grand dissertation of all the things Marvel Studios did correctly in their first ten years a key piece will be the inclusion of the last year or so. Captain Marvel beings the first cycle to its penultimate entry by shifting the paradigm to where being heroic is the important trait over anything else.
Brie Larson as Captain Marvel
Directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck have made a movie where their hero stands for something by simply standing up. I don’t know who it is who finds the actors to fill these roles for Marvel Studios, but Brie Larson is an ideal choice to play Carol Danvers who over the course of the movie we learn how she became Captain Marvel. The story is told in a non-linear narrative. Starting with Captain Marvel already an intergalactic force to be reckoned with as part of the Kree Starforce. Through various plot machinations she crashes to Earth in 1995. She meets Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) when he still had both eyes and was just an agent of SHIELD and not its head.
Like Black Panther did a year ago the genders are inverted as Captain Marvel and Fury spend the movie together. The woman hero knows what is happening and spends lots of time explaining it to limited understanding human Fury. What ever the opposite of mansplaining is that is the dynamic of Marvel to Fury. Fury is the one who does reckless things which she has to rescue him from. At the end Fury holds the cat while she takes down the villains.
As she spends more time back on Earth she comes to realize this is where she was born and had a life before becoming Captain Marvel. When she regains enough memory to re-connect with her old wingwoman that is when Captain Marvel finds the heart underneath the power. Towards the end as Carol begins to understand she hasn’t claimed all the power she has access to there is a montage of her being knocked down throughout her life. Internally she tells herself to, “Stand up!”. As a man I am never going to realize what that means to women who get knocked down regularly. In the full theatre where Mrs. C and I saw the movie I got a hint. When she seizes her power with one final “Stand up!” there was an audible set of women in the auditorium who shouted “Yes!”
This is the part of why this kind of film matters. It doesn’t spend time battering you with a message. It allows you to engage with a hero who is taking a journey many can empathize with.
I don’t know what will happen after next month’s Avengers: Endgame finishes this first 22-film story. I do know that if the decision is to build the next 22-films on the cornerstones of Captain Marvel, Black Panther, and Doctor Strange; I’m all in for that.
In the next five weeks the end of two of the greatest pop culture stories will begin their endings. On April 14 the first of the final six episodes of HBO’s Game of Thrones will be followed two weeks later by the Marvel Studios movie Avengers: Endgame finishing the story told over the first ten years of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Not that either of these events require any promotion to have everyone who has been invested in them to show up they have still released short trailers over the last week or so. Both are good examples of how to build even more anticipation without giving anything away that we already didn’t know what was coming. I thought this was good opportunity to mention why I think they work so well.
The Game of Thrones trailer uses its first moments to confirm the battle we know is coming takes place. We see one of the biggest toughest characters breathing heavily with what looks like dirt, could be blood, running in a rivulet down her face. She seems to be hiding as she then runs at full speed away from something. To see Arya in this state is an ideal scene setter. They juxtapose her headlong run with words of her saying how she looks forward to the battle.
Over the next minute or so we see quick glimpses of all the characters we have been following as they gather where the story began; at Winterfell for the battle. The final shot is of our heroes lined up outside the walls. As the camera pans back and we see the undead leg of a horse for the army of the dead.
This is effective for me as a viewer because the opening piece lets me know something goes enough wrong to put Arya into that state. By showing her confidence with the voice-over pre-battle bravado as she pelts down the halls. It is all I need to know this is not going to be a clean resolution. For our heroes to win they will have to sacrifice and overcome much. I really know little more than I did at the end of last season which makes it the right amount of enticement.
Avengers: Endgame also reminds us where it all began. Instead of location the first half of the trailer are the three core Avengers Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor reflecting in voice-over about how they ended up where they are. The old footage used is in black and white except for the color red which is still there. I thought it was a nice visual cue because in between the old footage are new scenes which are in full color. Natasha says “even if there is a small chance” followed by many of the characters responding “whatever it takes”. This leads to a beauty shot as the Avengers clad in matching white suits head toward that “small chance”. Then we see the logo followed by a funny moment as Thor meets Captain Marvel for the first time.
This is another effective trailer because it does move me a little bit further on from the ending of Avengers: Infinity War. I have an idea of who will take that “small chance” without knowing what it is. I assume it is the one path Dr. Strange mentioned in Avengers: Infinity War where they had the chance to beat Thanos.
I am left at the same place the Game of Thrones trailer left me; battle lines clearly drawn a whole movie in front of me to resolve it. This is how trailers used to be. I am shown just enough to excite me without ruining any of the major plot points.
In the mid 1970’s the state of popular music was going in all directions. There were the bands which were adding in symphonic orchestras. Synthesizers were creating the first steps of computerized music making. Punk rock was a repudiation of all of that. I recently ran across a box of the cassette mix tapes I had made during these years. While I found representatives of all that I mentioned above there was another segment of songs which took up a lot of space on my 90-minute tapes; story songs.
Story songs were pop music’s version of setting a narrative to music. These were usually done by the most talented of the singer-songwriters of the day. As radio stations became more flexible these five to ten-minute musical tales found radio airplay. For about ten years these songs all found some success. From Johnny Cash’s “A Boy Named Sue” through to Barry Manilow’s “Copacabana” I could see these people the same way I did when reading a book. I know what Sue, Lola, and Tony look like. Which makes my favorite story song quite different because the first time I heard it wasn’t on the radio. It was in a bedroom sitting with my best friends; my family by choice.
I have three great friends who have known me since I was fourteen. I call them my family by choice. One of them was a guitar player. One of our favorite things to do was to ask him to play songs for us. Eventually we all came to know the lyrics that these would become a sing-along. Although it was only my guitar playing friend who had the singing voice. One of his favorite artists was Bob Dylan. Outside of the songs played on the radio it was he who introduced me to most of Mr. Dylan’s music. Which was what happened the night when my friend played “Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts”. I was spellbound by the story being told. I would borrow the album it was on, “Blood on the Tracks”, so I could listen to the song over and over.
The song tells the story of the three people in the title plus one more; Big Jim. Rosemary is married to Big Jim, the diamond mine owner, who is having an affair with Lily who he has given his ring to. In to this step the mysterious Jack of Hearts one night at the cabaret where Lily performs. Over fifteen verses the story of all four people come together in tragedy. Oh yeah, there is a bank robbery going on which is what brought the Jack of Hearts to town.
On the recorded track it is Mr. Dylan and his guitar singing each verse which ends with the Jack of Hearts as part of the last line. He finishes the song by playing the music of each verse on a harmonica. For a song which I came to love because of the live playing of my friend Mr. Dylan only played it live one time, in 1976.
It is also a song which seemingly begs to be made into a visual form of some kind. It has gotten as far as screenplays being written a couple of times but no further. One apocryphal story about the song says Mr. Dylan read the lyrics to Joni Mitchell which then became her song “Diamonds and Rust”. I am not sure I believe it, but I have both back-to-back on my playlist. Because even though there are some modern things like telephones in “Diamonds and Rust” I imagine it as Lily and the Jack of Hearts meeting after many years.
Most of all even though it is Mr. Dylan’s voice in my headphones it really is my family by choice singing together in a bedroom about Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts.
There are many people who will flip to the last page of a book and read it. I don’t do that. I like having a book get me to the destination on its own pace. The new book Black Leopard, Red Wolf by author Marlon James has the protagonist tell you the ending in the very first line of this first volume of an epic fantasy trilogy.
Mr. James has chosen to follow up his 2014 Man-Booker award winning “A Brief History of Seven Killings” with Black Leopard, Red Wolf. The narrative flow of that book carries over to this one. The space moves from Jamaica to a fantasy version of Africa. This is the second epic fantasy series which has taken Africa as a seed upon which to grow a fantasy landscape. It allows Mr. James to employ much less known cultural fantasy tropes. Which means for a Caucasian reader it has surprises which spring from my lack of knowledge. Unlike when there are fantasy realms based on European foundations.
The story is told by Tracker who at the beginning of the story tells the reader that “The child is dead. There is nothing left to know.” That child is who Tracker is asked to find. Tracker also warns you he is maybe an unreliable narrator, or one who moves between worlds, when he tells the story of how he left his family and name behind to become Tracker. There are two different versions. That is the narrative quirk which keeps a reader guessing exactly what is going on as Tracker circles around different narrative beats. Mr. James delights in telling this fractured narrative similar to the way a Tarantino movie unspools.
Another similarity to Tarantino is the quantity of the violence. The battles are bloody and bone-crunching. The sex is also unflinchingly portrayed. Mr. James seems to have a fascination with the scents of sex. You can be sure all of that was interesting to me. He writes it so vividly I knew I could add a smell-track if I wanted to from my box of essential oils.
Tracker is joined on his task by a typical coterie of epic fantasy characters. Witches, giants, werecreatures, and almost anything else you can think of is here. Mr. James uses the African legends in place of the European ones.
This is the first volume and we are left with many questions. I have read the succeeding books will tell the same events from one of the other characters points of view. Considering how uncertain I am of the truth of Tracker’s narration if another book gave a different perspective, I think that would be a fun way to fill in the blanks. Black Leopard, Red Wolf is only the beginning.