Friday, August 19, 2016

So Where Have I Been?

Things have been a little disorganized around here.
Short answer: everywhere.

I've been up, I've been down. I've had highs, I've had lows, and I've had to readjust to "the new normal," but things are beginning to stabilize and get back to whatever passes for normal around here.

When last I left you, Gentle Reader, I had been trying to get back into the habit of creative writing by attempting to revive my interest in some of my old, unfinished superhero writing projects: one I called the Celtic League of Superheroes, and the other I called the Liberty Legion. However, try as I might, I just couldn't seem to get revved up about either of these projects. I created them some eight years ago and laid them aside, and it was difficult to pick them back up again I just couldn't seem to get my mind and my imagination back into that same "mental space," if you will, that I was in all those years ago. My life and my circumstances had changed, and somehow I knew I needed to begin a project that reflected that.

Last November, in observance of National Novel Writing Month (or NaNoWriMo for short), I posted a link on Facebook to a Shadow/Superman fan fiction piece that I wrote several years ago. One of my Facebook friends told me that he read it and enjoyed it very much and encouraged me to create something similar with my own characters. I thought I might be able to do this with my pre-existing projects, but they seemed to be going nowhere. Around the end of April, however, I got a sudden flash of inspiration. I had a mental image of a character very much like The Shadow, yet not The Shadow, for obvious legal and copyright reasons. He would be a character swathed in darkness and mystery, nearly invisible except for his burning, penetrating, unearthly blue eyes. I used the HeroMachine website to create an image of this character, and once I did, the details of his backstory, his mythology, and the outlines of his first adventure came to me almost instantly.

I dubbed this character Blacklight and set to work writing his first adventure. I tried to explain his origins without dwelling excessively on them as I had done with my previous characters, but instead dove right into the action. I worked on this story almost constantly, a little bit every day, from the end of April to the beginning of July, when I felt it was finally finished.

It was then that disaster struck. On the evening of July 5, as I was trying to move from the bed to my wheelchair, I slipped and fell and suffered a "tibial plateau fracture," a break in a small bone in my left knee. The injury didn't require a cast or surgery, thank goodness, but it did require wrapping the knee up thoroughly in an Ace bandage and taking time to heal. It's still healing, as a matter of fact. Ironically, the day after the celebration of America's independence, I was reminded how dependent I am on other people. I had to spend the first three or four days after the accident in bed, and for several weeks after that I couldn't get into or out of bed without help .

With the help of a couple of dedicated physical therapists from the home nursing service that I work with, however, I was able to master a new way of getting in and out of bed using a hospital bed and an overhead trapeze bar. Using the hospital bed, I can raise myself to almost a sitting position, grab the trapeze bar, and slide over into the wheelchair. The reverse process is very similar. I park the wheelchair by the bed, place a special homemade pillow (nicknamed Floyd) into the gap between the wheelchair and the bed, grab the trapeze bar, and slide and flop over into the bed, using the guard rail on the far side of the bed to finish pulling myself over. I owe my personal care attendant a very special thanks for creating Floyd. This is "the new normal" for me, and it looks like it will be for the foreseeable future.

Once I was able to get in and out of bed and sit in the wheelchair for extended periods again, I was able to get back to the final edits of my story. I sent copies of the story out via email to a small group of beta readers, who not only were enthusiastic in their praise, but also straightforward in their criticism, pointing out grammar and spelling mistakes, awkwardly constructed sentences, unclear transitions, and the like. Using their suggestions, I revised and edited the story into a final form that I'm happy with. What's most exciting to me about the story is that it leaves the door open for future stories about this character. The villain is vanquished, the day is saved, and the damsel in distress is rescued, but there is still a master villain lurking in the shadows, and complications ahead for our hero. Stay tuned! I'll have more to say about Blacklight in a future blog entry.

So that, Gentle Reader, is a rather long-winded explanation of where I have been the past several months. I do have ideas for more blog entries in mind, and I will do my very best to be a more regular and faithful blogger.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Swing: A Review

NOTE: This review originally appeared on Goodreads.com

Swing: A MysterySwing: A Mystery by Rupert Holmes
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Do you love classic mysteries with a noir feel? Do you love swing and big band music from the 1930s and 40s? If so, you'll love Swing. Rupert Holmes, composer of "Escape: The Pina Colada Song" and creator of the TV series "Remember WENN," turns his talents to mystery writing and delivers a smart, well-crafted, novel that combines music, mystery, and murder in an ingenious and absorbing way.

Like many members of the Jack Donovan Orchestra, a lesser-known big band from America's swing era, Ray Sherwood is a man with secrets, regrets, and a past he'd like to forget. However, as one of the band's saxophonists and its principal arranger, he gets along all right. In San Francisco for a gig in the fall of 1940, Ray figures his luck might be changing for the better when he's approached by Gail Prentice, a lovely and talented Berkeley coed, with a job offer: arrange her avant garde piano composition "Swing Around the Sun" for a jazz ensemble in time for its first public performance by a Japanese swing band at an international exposition in San Francisco.

Almost from the moment Ray agrees to take the job, however, strange and increasingly sinister things start to happen. A young French Jewish woman, who had proposed marriage to Ray just moments before, in order to avoid returning to her Nazi-occupied homeland, plunges to a grisly death from the top of a bell-tower. Or does she? A strange figure resembling the dead woman reappears at crucial moments and seems to be shadowing Ray and Gail. Gail herself disappears to make unexplained phone calls and apparently writes incriminating letters. She then denies it or contrives a patently false explanation. Who is she talking to and why?

Gradually, Ray is drawn more and more tightly into a web of lies, conspiracies, espionage, intrigue, and murder involving both American Nazi sympathizers and agents of imperial Japan. Eventually, Ray is presented with the stunning possibility that Gail may actually be his long-lost daughter, the result of a one-night stand almost twenty years earlier. Is Gail really Ray's daughter? Is she a pawn in a spy ring or a willing accomplice? Is "Swing Around the Sun" really an elaborately coded musical message designed to pass vital information about national defense to America's enemies? The answers to these questions will help Ray come to terms with his past and have vital implications for America's future as the nation stands on the brink of entry into World War II.

This book is more than just a crackerjack murder mystery and spy story. It's also a multimedia experience. The hardcover edition includes a CD of several original compositions by Holmes, both instrumental and vocal, in the big band style, that are referred to in the book, and may even provide alert listeners with clues to the solution of the mystery. The audio version, available through the library-based digital media service, Hoopla, integrates the songs into the story at appropriate points. I listened to it at a clip because once I got far enough in, I just couldn't switch off my smartphone. In the words of one of the songs this, "myst'ry with musical diction . . . speaks to me." I hope it speaks to you too.


View all my reviews

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Wrapping Up 2015

My goodness! Is it December 31 already? Where did the rest of October go? Where did November go? Where did the whole year go?

I'm not quite sure, but I know I'm happy to have made it through another year without any major crises, disasters, emergencies, or upheavals. Thanks be to God for a little ordinariness, and to be perfectly honest, a bit of dullness. As I sometimes say half jokingly, "Dull is good." Especially if it means the alternative is crises, disasters, emergencies, or upheavals. As I also say, "Nobody was arrested, nobody died, and nothing caught fire or exploded recently."

I was looking back through the blog entries last night, and I noticed a long list of resolutions or goals that I wanted to accomplish in 2014. As I feared I might, I failed miserably at accomplishing every one of them. In 2014 I didn't even bother to make a list of resolutions for 2015, and I think I'll keep that trend going for 2016. I do have some things I hope to accomplish, but I'll keep them to myself, make no hard and fast promises, and keep them small and manageable if I possibly can.

We will see what 2016 brings. May God in His merciful providence keep us free from all needless trouble and worry, but if and when trouble does come, may he give us the grace and courage to face our troubles according to His most holy will, and in imitation of His Son our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Tuesday, September 08, 2015

The Sinister Shadow Reviewed

Doc Savage: The Sinister Shadow
by Will Murray and Lester Dent, writing as Kenneth Robeson.
copyright 2015, Altus Press

For the last several weeks, I've been reading the e-book version of Doc SavageThe Sinister Shadow, a new pulp novel by Will Murray, in which The Shadow and Doc Savage each battle a mysterious new villain calling himself The Funeral Director, eventually joining forces to defeat him. An afterword to the book explains that early in his career as a pulp writer, Lester Dent, Doc Savage's creator, was asked by editors at Street and Smith, publishers of The Shadow Magazine, to submit some sample chapters and an outline for a Shadow story. Dent's first effort was rejected, but later, the editors asked him to write the very first Doc Savage novel, The Man of Bronze, using the pseudonym Kenneth Robeson. With the permission of the estate of Lester Dent and of Advance Magazine Publishers, Inc., who now own the copyrights to The Shadow, Murray wrote this new novel using portions of Dent's sample chapters and fleshing out and rewriting the outline.

I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, I'm delighted to see The Shadow back in print with a new adventure. I've been a fan of The Shadow ever since my first introduction to old-time radio in the 1970s and finding reprints of Walter B. Gibson's Shadow novels at my local library at about the same time. On the other hand, I've never been a particularly big fan of Doc Savage, finding him a bit too much of a stuffed shirt and a goody-goody for my taste, but I'm willing to put up with him if it means I get to see The Shadow back in action.

This new novel opens in the 1930s as wealthy men throughout New York City are mysteriously dying of heart attacks. Both Doc Savage and The Shadow, however, suspect that these heart attacks are not natural occurrences and are being caused by some outside agent. It is revealed that many of these men had criminal connections that they wished to keep secret, and were being blackmailed by someone calling himself The Funeral Director.

One of the men being blackmailed, however, is Lamont Cranston, millionaire and sometime alias of The Shadow. Unlike the radio version of Lamont Cranston, who actually was The Shadow, in this novel and in Walter B. Gibson's original pulps, Lamont Cranston was merely one of many aliases and assumed identities used by The Shadow. The real Lamont Cranston goes to see Theodore Marley "Ham" Brooks, a prominent attorney and one of Doc Savage's closest associates, one of his hand-picked "Fabulous Five" personal assistants. Cranston believes that the mysterious personage calling himself The Shadow and making weekly radio broadcasts may actually be The Funeral Director. Brooks suggests that they go to see Doc Savage and present the problem to him, but before they can reach Doc's headquarters, they are kidnapped by minions of The Funeral Director.

This sends both The Shadow and Doc Savage into action--at first on a collision course. Doc suspects that The Shadow and The Funeral Director are one and the same, but the real Shadow has to clear his name and prove to Doc that he is not the villain. Doc also disapproves of The Shadow because The Shadow is willing to use violence, including gunplay, to get the information he wants, while Doc and his associates prefer to use Doc's special "mercy bullets" that contain a nonlethal anesthetic. The Shadow is not above killing criminals, while Doc prefers to rehabilitate them using surgery and a stint at his special "criminal college," a hidden facility in upstate New York.

The Shadow races to find Lamont Cranston, while Doc and his friends Andrew Blodgett "Monk" Mayfair, a brilliant chemist, and Thomas "Long Tom" Roberts, a genius electrical engineer, likewise scramble to locate Ham Brooks. We are told that Doc's other companions, William Harper "Johnny" Littlejohn and John "Renny" Renwick, are out of the country pursuing their own adventures. There are many twists and turns, red herrings, and dead ends, but eventually we learn that The Funeral Director is an old foe of The Shadow, and his aim is to hold Cranston for ransom, thereby drawing The Shadow into a final confrontation. When Cranston's niece Weltha is unable to raise the funds to pay the ransom, The Funeral Director releases Cranston and kidnaps Weltha instead. Eventually, Doc and The Shadow realize they have a common enemy and join forces to defeat the villain. Doc and The Shadow, despite disagreeing over each other's methods, each recognize that the other is ultimately on the side of justice and declare an uneasy truce, if not an alliance.

Author Will Murray displays a thorough knowledge of the mythology and details surrounding both heroes, and the book is loaded with inside references that will make fans of both characters smile and nod in recognition. Three of The Shadow's most famous agents, Cliff Marsland, Harry Vincent, and Clyde Burke all make guest appearances and contribute to the plot at key moments.The author also introduces the eerie and memorable device of having The Funeral Director communicate with both his underlings and intended victims by means of tiny recording machines shaped like coffins.

My one real criticism of the book has to do with its prose style. It's impossible to tell how much was written by Lester Dent himself so long ago, and how much was written by Will Murray a good bit later, but I found the book rife with stilted dialogue, clumsy awkwardly constructed sentences, sentence fragments, and outright grammatical errors that called attention to themselves, slowed down the pace of the story, and took away from my enjoyment. In a pulp style action adventure story, the action should move at breakneck speed, or at least a brisk clip. I don't read a novel with an editor's blue pencil in hand, but gross mistakes in style, usage, and grammar jarred me as a reader and took me out of the story just as huge potholes in the highway can distract you from enjoying a Sunday drive. Will Murray may be a fine storyteller, but he needs a better editor. He's written several new Doc Savage titles for a series called "The Wild Adventures of Doc Savage," but I'd like to see what he can do with a straight Shadow story. Will he write one? Only The Shadow knows!




Monday, August 10, 2015

The Return of the Writin' Fool!

From Left to Right: Omar, The Escapist, Big Al, and Miss Plum Blossom.
Hooray, Huzzah, and Hallelujah! For the first time in ages, I managed to complete a work of fiction. This weekend I put the finishing touches on "Curse of the Golden Dragon," a piece of fanfiction featuring Michael Chabon's The Escapist. I also used Dragon Naturally Speaking software to dictate it, so the story is significant for another reason: it's my first piece of fiction created almost entirely by dictation. I haven't yet decided if I'll put it up on a blog or a website somewhere so that all and sundry can admire my handiwork. Some time ago, I conceived the idea of creating a separate blog and website for my fanfiction and original fiction that would be somewhat similar to an old time pulp magazine, but this second website suffered from shameful neglect. It hasn't been updated in over a year. Even this blog, as you can see, gentle reader, has languished from inattention. No matter. The blog begins again today.

In many ways, this story was a return to my roots. Over 10 years ago, on the recommendation of a friend, I read Michael Chabon's remarkable, Pulitzer prize-winning novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, a loving tribute to the Golden Age of comics, pulp fiction, and old-time radio. The novel itself is the story of how two down-and-out Jewish kids in New York City in the late 1930s create the comic book character called The Escapist, who becomes the lost hero of comics' Golden Age. The character combines the strength and virtue of Superman with the escape artist abilities of Harry Houdini. The novel touches on many broader and deeper themes including portraits of Prague and New York City from the 1930s to the 1950s; the beginnings of the comic book industry; the "high art" of literature versus the "low art" of a comic book; and the mysteries of the creative process, especially how events in the "real" lives of the novel's characters get translated into the adventures of their fictional creation. There is also a strong pro-gay rights and gay marriage subtext, as one of the central characters, Sammy Clay, discovers that he is gay and must carefully suppress his sexual identity in an environment that is very hostile to same-sex relationships. As a supporter of traditional marriage, I found this last element to be the most problematic thing about the book, but it's hard not to feel sympathy for Sammy in those circumstances.

I was so moved by this story that I was inspired to write a piece of Escapist fanfic as a get well card for my friend when she became seriously ill. It launched me on a journey of exploration into the world of comic book superheroes that I've been on ever since. Since then, I've had ideas for other Escapist stories, including the one I just finished. I had this story more or less completely mapped out in my mind, but it lay unfinished on my hard drive. I finally decided to complete it when another favorite superhero series I really enjoy, "The Red Panda Adventures" podcast, aired what sounded like its final episode. I felt almost as if someone had to take up the torch and continue telling superhero stories. The world still needs heroes, perhaps now more than ever, and I believe that comic book superhero stories, at their best, inspire us to think that even ordinary people like ourselves, in moments of crisis, can rise to the occasion and become heroes. Comic book superheroes, for all their melodrama and ridiculous costumes, show us images of the people we wish we could be, of the people we want to be. I want to be a hero, but if I can't be a hero, at least I want to be someone who creates heroes for the rest of us.


Tuesday, June 23, 2015

The Latin Mass and Me: Two Years Later

This month marks an anniversary of sorts for me. Approximately two years ago this month, I attended my first Mass in the Extraordinary Form (a.k.a. the Latin Mass, The Traditional Latin Mass). You can find my first reactions to that event in this blog post. As you can probably tell from that post, I was curious and a bit skeptical about whether or not the Traditional Latin Mass was all that much better than the Mass in English (the Ordinary Form) that I had been attending. My, how times and attitudes have changed! I would say that I have gone from being something of a skeptic about the Latin Mass to a wholehearted supporter of it.

What brought about this transformation? Above all, I would say it was an openness to it. Yes, I was somewhat skeptical of the Traditionalist movement, but as I've said before, I loved the sound of Latin, Gregorian chant, and sacred polyphony. The music of the Traditional Mass keeps drawing me back to it, and when I hear Gregorian chant and polyphony sung live, at their most beautiful, and for the glory of God, I cannot imagine why so many in the Church decided to abandon this beautiful music for cheesy and superficial "folk hymns" in the name of "relevance" or "the spirit of Vatican II"--a decision the Vatican II Council Fathers explicitly rejected. The Vatican II documents on the sacred liturgy expressly state that the use of Latin and Gregorian chant should be maintained (Sacrosanctum Concilium 36.1) and that Gregorian chant should have "pride of place" when choosing liturgical music (SC, 116). The idea of reconnecting with an ancient form of worship that Catholics had used for centuries and even millennia before me appeals to me deeply. In attending this Mass, I am recovering my heritage as a Catholic.

Unlike some Catholics who say they were attracted to the Traditional Mass from the very first time they attended, it took me quite a while to become familiar with the parts of the Mass and its structures and rhythms. At first I found it baffling, quite frankly. However, something about this Mass kept drawing me back to it. Like Rubik's Cube, it was a puzzle that needed to be solved, at once frustrating yet intriguing. I kept attending. I talked to people. I read things, both online and in print, that helped me understand the Traditional Mass. Among the most helpful of these resources was Msgr. George Moorman's book The Latin Mass Explained, a concise yet thorough explanation of the actions and prayers of the Mass and their significance.

Another helpful resource was my own missal. After some deliberation I chose the Roman Catholic Daily Missal, published by Angelus Press and available from the Canons Regular of St. John Cantius in Chicago. Although I still consider the St. Edmund Campion Missal and Hymnal from Corpus Christi Watershed to be an excellent resource, after using it for only a few Sundays I found it too big and too heavy to use conveniently as a hand missal. The Roman Catholic Daily Missal is much more portable and compact. Someday, if my funds permit, I'd like to purchase a copy of the 1962 Daily Missal published by Baronius Press for comparison.

After using all of these resources and regularly attending the Mass for a while I became familiar enough with its actions and prayers and structures and rhythms that I could relax a bit, stop worrying about trying to follow every single word in the missal, and simply prayerfully watch the actions on the altar. I began to recognize the similarities and the differences between the Extraordinary Form and the Ordinary Form, and eventually the Extraordinary Form didn't seem as alien and bizarre as it first appeared. I would like to continue attending this form of the Mass as long as it is available in my parish, and I would like to see it made more widely available throughout the Catholic Church as a whole. Indeed, I've actually come to prefer it to the Ordinary Form of the Mass in English.

I've come to believe that if more Catholics were regularly exposed to this form of the Mass, they would ask for it from their priests and bishops. However, sadly and somewhat inexplicably to me, there seems to be a great resistance to this form of the Mass among many priests, bishops, and laypeople. I think in some cases it stems from ignorance or from outright hostility to the older traditions of the Church out of the same misguided sense of "relevance"that I mentioned earlier. The Ordinary Form is somehow seen as more "contemporary" while the Extraordinary Form is somehow seen as antiquated or old-fashioned. Truth is not and can never be old-fashioned. The beautiful and more elaborate ceremonies of the Extraordinary Form are often dismissed as ostentatious displays; the simpler, more stripped-down ceremonies of the Ordinary Form are said to be preferable. However, what exactly is wrong with as much beauty, dignity, and reverence as possible in the worship of Almighty God?

On a few occasions I've gone to the Ordinary Form Masses in my parish, and even though they are celebrated by the same priest who celebrates our Masses in the Extraordinary Form, and even though they are celebrated correctly according to the rubrics with as much dignity and reverence as possible, the Masses themselves just don't seem the same. Somehow they are oddly flat and truncated, as if some important parts are missing, and the parts that remain don't fit together very well. I would like to see the traditional Latin form of the Mass preserved, perpetuated, and made available for future generations. Please God, may it be so!

Monday, May 25, 2015

Here There Be Dragons!

I'm dictating this blog post using Dragon Naturally Speaking dictation software. As promised, my brother Bill came to Charlotte this weekend and installed the software and I've started playing around with it. It's really quite remarkable. The bundle he bought also includes the Dragon Naturally Speaking For Dummies book. According to the book, right out of the box the software is about 99% accurate. I found this to be largely true. I can update my Facebook status, and I'm learning how to use Dragon Naturally Speaking to dictate text, and eventually, I hope, to resume work on my fiction writing without even touching the keyboard and mouse; or at least touching them as little as possible. The ultimate goal is to be able to dictate stuff while I'm tilted back in my wheelchair. I'm getting there! It's exciting. I still can't order the computer to produce a cup of Earl Grey tea (Ha! The software even automatically capitalized Earl Grey! Captain Picard would be delighted); but with the next generation of Dragon software, who knows?