The Harry Potter Novels, by Robert Galbraith

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[First, because just this morning I met someone who didn’t know: “Robert Galbraith” is the pen name JK Rowling uses for her private investigator novels.]

Hey, check out this tweet from more than a month ago, which is part of a longer thread that’s worth looking at. And by “longer” I mean it’s a handful of tweets that you can read in under a minute.

The real issue here is: “Backstories: are they interesting or fun?”

If you like private eye novels (and like Rowling, I do) the answer is obviously yes. They’re full of secrets and tragic pasts, and the denouement is dependent on uncovering every relevant truth. It’s a narrative about discovering a hidden narrative.

I mentioned before that I binged all the Harry Potter movies for my birthday; yesterday, I finished the last book.

Fantasy novels have long delved into the past to address the narrative present. How often do the characters in Lord of the Rings talk about Isildur, who died approximately 3,000 years before the events of the novels? (That’s a rhetorical question, by the way) The Others are returning to Westeros after eight thousand years, blah blah blah. Both books touch on recent history, but it’s political history, not the stories of ordinary folks.

But the Harry Potter novels, like great detective novels, are about personal history, which is why so many of the characters are given space to explicate their past. Harry even takes time in the lull of a battle to delve into Snape’s memories. He hated Snape through seven books, but when the time came he had to stop and uncover the man’s secrets, he did. And of course, in the scene in King’s Cross, Dumbledore spills his own family tragedy for Harry’s edification.

I can understand why readers wouldn’t like it. Years ago, when Veronica Mars was getting all the buzz, a science fiction writer of some prestige decided to give it a try. She was horrified by the way Veronica dug into everyone’s lives. We even got to read a “Don’t kids these days…” rant about privacy.

But that misses the point. Rowling clearly has a love for personal history and personal tragedy. Yeah, the books changed as the series progressed, becoming more mature along with the readers, but the latter books’ digressions into characters’ secrets was already there in the stories of James, Sirius, Remus, and Peter in book three and the flashbacks to Hagrid’s expulsion and Myrtle’s death in book two.

Which is a rather long-winded way of saying that some of us out here love it and wish we could see more.

As a further note, having finished the books, I have to say that it’s ridiculous to think that Harry should have fallen in love with Hermione over Ginny. People, please.

Film Trailers out of SDCC

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A couple of years back, I told myself I wouldn’t watch trailers for movies I definitely planned to see. It made sense from a spoiler standpoint, but it couldn’t last.

Now that SDCC is passing, YouTube is awash with new film trailers, and they’re hard to resist. Let’s look at a few:

I’m not sure how I feel about this new Star Trek. I like the cast. A lot. But Trek still feels played out and CBS is using this to push their All Access online service. I’m not signing on for that, but I hope this is a solid show and I can catch up to it on library dvds.

The day that Marvel Studios realized that Chris Hemsworth could do comedy was the day that Marvel really started to pull away from the competition. His comic timing was the best thing about Age of Ultron, and I’m looking forward to this film more than most of the other in this post. Also: a good reminder to watch What We Do in the Shadows.

Not a movie, obviously, but I’ll be watching this when it premieres for three reasons: more Jessica Jones, please god do a better job with Danny Rand than in his own series, and the Foggy/Karen/Colleen/Misty/etc show. Unfortunately, it’s by Scott Buck, the guy who screwed the pooch with Iron Fist. We’ll see. (And IF has been renewed for a second season with a new showrunner, the guy from Sleepy Hollow. With luck, he’ll make a martial arts show.)

A new Fox show about mutants? I know very little about this, except that it looks like the budget was spent on cgi rather than interesting locations. But it has Amy Acker, so I’ll check it out.

Season 2 of Stranger Things? You don’t even have to show me a trailer, because I’m happy to show up for this. Still, the trailer makes it look fantastic.

I was wondering how Marvel would make The Inhumans work, and judging by this trailer, they haven’t.

A DC movie… with a sense of humor? The trailer makes this look like a solid superhero movie, but I’m still feeling stung by Suicide Squad. We’ll see.

Arrival was amazing, so I have high hopes for this. Too bad no one thought to cast a few people of color, but maybe it’ll do okay at the box office anyway.

My son really went for this book, but I haven’t read it. Spielberg is usually good even when the material is iffy, but I don’t really get a sense of what this film’s about, and I’m not excited by it.

An earlier trailer for Bright made it seem like they were going to address police brutality against marginalized people by making the marginalized people into orcs. That’s a deeply stupid idea. Despite the fact that the film looks terrible, I’m sure there will come a day when I’ve had a few bourbons and start watching it. Sad, I know.

This isn’t a new trailer from SDCC, but hey, Black Lightning! There’s no way I’ll be missing this one, for the first few episodes, at least.

There were more, obviously, but they were for shows I don’t watch or have never been tempted to watch. I’ll take a hard pass on Death Note, for example.

Randomness for 7/17

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1) Innovative ancient weapons. It’s weird to discover at this late age that the “hand on a stick” from HAWK THE SLAYER was a real thing.

2) Which font should I use on my Kindle?

3) Joseph Heller’s extensive hand-written outline for Catch-22.

4) The Black Person’s Guide to Game of Thrones.

5) A leading happiness researcher says we’re giving our kids bad advice about how to succeed in life.

6) Improve your bowling game by noting the hidden oil patterns on the lanes. Video.

7) An Absurdly Complete Guide to Understanding Whiskey.

Harry Potter Turns 20

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Today’s the 20th anniversary of the publication of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, the first in a series that turned an awful lot of young people into readers. Of course, it came out with a different name in the U.S. the next year.

I didn’t encounter it until much later in the year, when NPR began to cover it. I grabbed a copy at the library, read the first book, and didn’t see what all the fuss was about.
Not for me.

A lot of books other people love are not for me, and it’s usually because I’m itching for something specific. There’s no point in picking up Fellowship of the Ring when I really want to read Conan. For example.

But the popularity of the books kept growing, and people talked about them more and more online. What’s more, writers were seeing Rowling’s popularity and thinking I want that, too. Lots of online writing talk shifted from “How to write fiction” to “How to write fiction for young adults.”

It was everywhere.

What really stuck with me, though, was the weird advice people were giving. Most common was that YA writers should not waste time at the beginning of a book because young readers don’t have patience to wade through a bunch of boring text. Get that plot moving! They want the story to be exciting!

And my first thought was: I’m not a young person but I hate boring text, too! Why are people talking about adult readers as though we’re okay with dull shit?

At some point, a bookstore across town went out of business, and bussed over there to see what they had on offer. What I found were hardbacks of the first four in the series at half-price. I was a little leery, but half-off! And by that time it was a cultural phenomenon, and I figured I’d try to work out why.

Besides, they keep the plot moving!

With the second attempt, I was feeling less fussy and enjoyed myself much more. I bought the books as they came out and mostly enjoyed them; with the last volume, I took an internet vacation to avoid the gleeful spoilers that people were throwing around for book 6.

Some time later, my son saw a theatrical trailer for one of the movies, and said: “I want to see that.”

“You haven’t read the books yet,” I answered, starting a tradition that kept up until Surly Teenagehood.

In fact, we read the books as part of family read-aloud time. The second time through, hearing them spoken, I was amazed by how funny they were. For the first four books, anyway. Some parts had my son and me rolling on the floor, literally. With book five, they turned more serious, but we enjoyed them just as much.

All seven hardbacks still sit on a shelf in the back hall. I don’t reread often, and I don’t collect books, but I like having all of them in hardback.

By some strange coincidence, Sunday will be my (not) birthday–my real birthday already passed, but I’ll celebrate on this convenient date–and many months ago I decided to make my usual B-day movie marathon a Harry Potter fest. The library dvds are sitting on the shelf beside me. And as flawed as the books may be, they have a charm that the movies lack.
Still, the films are pretty uneven in terms of quality, and therefore instructive.

They’re also, when you watch them end to end, 19 hours and forty minutes long. If you assume that each of the eight films has ten minutes of credits at the end, that 18 hours and 20 minutes. Factor in bathroom breaks, meal times, pizza ordering, 2 am coffee brewing, and a previously scheduled afternoon role-playing session, I just might be staying up 23 straight hours to wait for He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named to get his ass kicked.

And I’m feeling sort of ambivalent about it.

I’m sure I will enjoy the films more than I remember, because I’m more forgiving when I re-watch. Plus: carb cheat day.

Anyway, today I salute J.K. Rowling for her accomplishment. Few writers will ever have as much impact on the culture as she has.

But I don’t know what house I’d be sorted into and I never will.

Don’t Go into the Basement Unarmed: Reader-mind, Writer-mind, and Role Playing Games

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When I’m reading a book and really enjoying it, I’m in my reader-mind: I’m invested in the character, I want them to do well, I don’t want them to suffer too much or lose anything too precious. I can tell I’m enjoying a book when I wish I could actually enter the story and tell the protagonist what they should do so they stop fucking things up.

In reader-mind, I’m a partisan for the main character

In writer-mind, I’m thinking more about the story as a whole. I (try to) create a character for readers to invest in, then I put them through their paces, running them ragged and making them suffer for the benefit of the story. I have them make mistakes, fail, and screw up in ways that can’t be fixed.

Hopefully, that leads to a hard-won victory that gives the reader something to celebrate. Unless the character is Ray Lilly, and that victory is pyrrhic as hell.

One of the big differences there is control. When I’m in reader-mind, the problems the character faces is wholly out of my control, and that shit can be stressful. In my writer-mind, I’m in complete control, and while I’m making life hell for that perfectly wonderful main character, I know how far I can push things. It’s up to me, and that takes a lot of the stress out of it.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about these two perspectives a lot, mainly because of the role-playing games I’ve been playing lately.

In the old days, when I played D&D (before it became AD&D) and other games later, like The Fantasy Trip or The Morrow Project, I approached the role of GM with the writer-mind. I tried to measure the challenges without making them impossible. Hard-fought, but not impossible.

That could be a challenge, obviously, and those old-school number-crunching games sometimes made it hard to avoid a total party kill, once the scenario was committed. And I can admit it: I wasn’t a great GM.

But when I played a character, I was in reader-mind all the way. I never had the character do anything stupid or illogical, never had them take an action that might screw up their quest, whatever it was. They never rushed in without preparation. Never gave in to foolish temptation. Never trusted anyone likely to be playing the role of traitor in the story.

They never went down into the basement without grabbing a knife from the kitchen first, if you know what I mean.

As I’ve said before, rpgs are storytelling of another kind. Unlike novels or movies, they’re an oral, interactive narrative. And if you played those old-school D&D games, most of the time they were fucking terrible stories. Characters marched down halls in formation, stabbed monsters, searched for treasure, and if they survived, spent it. Often, that became the only goals: gather wealth, go up a level. “There’s a group of bandits stealing from those villagers” was nothing more than a fig leaf over the necessity to put our miniatures on the hex paper.

We made half-hearted efforts to create actual stories in the game, but frankly, we were terrible at it.

That was because the point of the game was not to tell stories, it was to hang out with our friends and make each other laugh. The game was always less important than the people we were playing it with.

However, as boring as these narratives could be, I learned a lot from them. I learned what people expect when they experienced stories with reader-mind. I learned to make the characters as smart and aware as I could.

Essentially, I learned not to have characters in my novels investigate a weird noise in the basement without first stopping for weapons in the kitchen. So to speak.

I still write with the writer-mind in place, but I try to be aware of reader-mind expectations.

Games have changed, though. The last few games our group has played required much more writer-mind perspective from the players. For example, many times our GM will say something like: “Okay. You’re in another dimension. What do you see? Describe it to me.” Everyone in the group is empowered to contribute to the setting and to design NPCs.

That’s something you can’t do if you’re stuck in reader-mind, and think the hellscape surrounding the villain’s stronghold should have a beautiful bridge across it, with napping guards and plenty of fountains for proper hydration.

I confess, that I sometimes struggle with this. I don’t want my characters to get killed every session, but I don’t want to play rpgs on EASY every time, either.

Which brings me to our last session. We’re playing a game called MASKS, which is about a team of teenage superheroes. The characters have power but they’re young and unsure of themselves. They try their best. They make mistakes. And it’s a great game. If you want me to go into details, let me know.

Briefly, here’s where things stood in the game, story-wise: the major villain we were facing was a time-traveling conqueror who, in the distant future, has become powerful enough to rule over every one. Basically, he’s a tyrant who conquered the universe, but no one knew who was really under the mask.

However, we knew he came from Earth and that, in our time, he was a regular guy. He keeps bumping back to our present to influence events, kidnap people, or just villain up the neighborhood. Basically, we were trying to unmask him and identify him, so we could beat him before he became a cosmic-level threat.

Now, since this is a comic book story (and in keeping with the theme we’re often asked to describe what we’re doing in terms of panels) it seemed very likely that the villain was either one of the player characters, or someone we knew. I thought it might be my character, who is a teenage version of Dr. Strange. His history makes him a candidate for turning evil, and when we did finally unmask the time-traveling villain in our last session, I figured there was a 50/50 chance it was my character.

And in my writer-mind, I was mentally prepared for that. It made me unhappy, because I was supposed to be in writer-mind without having the same control I do when I write fiction, but this is how it’s done and I’ve been trying to play the games as best I can.

But it wasn’t my character. It was my friend’s character, and my reader-mind was absolutely not prepared for that.

Here’s the thing about MASKS: the character classes are not defined by power/abilities. Not really. They’re defined by the kinds of stories you tell about them.

For instance, The Janus covers a hero with a demanding secret identity: they have a job, school, money troubles, an Aunt May… The game recommends power sets that work best for each class, but they’re only recommendations. You can play Peter Parker without taking bug powers.

Similarly, if you want to play The Transformed, you don’t have to be a big, strong, left-hook throwing pile of orange rocks like The Thing. But you can still role-play Thing-type stories–the fearful way people react to you, the normal life you can never return to, the whole deal–if that’s what you want.

Weeks ago, as an exercise, I sat down and wrote out the same Deathlok-style hero, with the same powers, for three different classes. Same guy. Same origin. But the changes between one class and another were like different runs by different writers on a long-running comic. It was just a change of tone and style.

One of the character classes that lets you play someone like Raven, from Teen Titans. (Her dad is a super-powerful demon who plans to invade the Earth, and the team helps her keep him at bay. But the danger is always there.) The playbook for that character class is The Doomed and it suits any hero who is the child of demons, scout for a race of alien invaders, etc.

Now you would think, logically–I mean, logically–that it would be obvious to me that a character who is called, literally, DOOMED in the game, would be a prime candidate to be overwhelmed by an evil force and turned into our deadliest enemy. You would think that.

But I never saw it coming, and here’s why:

On the character sheet for The Doomed, under the section “Advancements” (which is a bit like leveling up, except some advancements are plot beats you unlock) I could see RIGHT THERE on the page was an advancement called: “Confront your doom on your own terms; if you survive, change playbooks.”

Which is a way of saying “Your character wins over their mortal enemy and can become any hero you want them to be.”

When I saw that on the character sheet, I thought: “I can’t wait to play out that moment.” My reader-mind wanted my friend’s character to win the day. I was blinded by the expectation that he would get a happy ending. It never occurred to me that we wouldn’t get to play that scene.

I’m not entirely sure where I’m going with all this, except to say that the games people make now are wildly superior to what we played in my junior high days in the seventies.

Also, it’s been really hard to keep my reader-mind in check when my writer-mind should be working. It’s also hard to stay in writer-mind when so much control of the narrative has been ceded to the other players. Old habits, I guess.

Even when I’m ready to put my own character through it, I’m still rooting for the rest of the team.

Randomness for 6/19

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1. Cracked makes an honest ad about the ways casual games are like crack for our brains. Video.

2. Chatbots built by Facebook engineers to negotiate with each other begin to develop their own non-human language. Time to re-watch Person of Interest.

3. Having power causes a degradation of certain mental functions.

4. M.C. Esher: Adventures in Perception: a 20 minute Dutch documentary about the way he created his work. Video.

5. Are paintings that mimic photographs more “realistic” than paintings from before photography was invented?

6. How to build a bicycle with car tires for wheels.

7. The same song played on a $100 bass, a $700 bass, and a $10,000 bass. Which sounds best? Video.

Randomness for 6/10

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1) Author Robert Jackson Bennet on raising kids who don’t give a shit about your nerd pop culture.

2) Scientists have eliminated HIV in mice using CRISPR.

3) An episode of 80’s Dungeons and Dragons cartoon with voiceover to make it seem like a real D&D session. Video.

4) A bucket of water with a camera in the bottom captures thirsty desert animals. Video.

5) My Family’s Slave. This is heartbreaking and awful.

6) How to remove unwanted shows from your Netflix algorithms. Maybe your ex cruelly favorited an Adam Sandler movie before dumping you. Maybe you didn’t think to create a separate account for yourself after a few drinks. Maybe you just have regrets.

7) Four people who were buried alive and how they got out. Spoiler: “knocking” plays a big role.

Randomness for 4/4

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1) A captured ISIS car bomb that looks like something out of Mad Max. Video.

2) Mathematician teaches class on using geometry to become an expert witness in gerrymandering cases.

3) Pixar brings storytelling lessons to Khan Academy.

4) To be filed under: dudes doing stupid shit with GoPro cameras: Kayaking down a drainage ditch. Video.

5) Hieronymus Bosch action figures.

6) No cop show (that I know of) since HILL STREET BLUES has really tried to capture the real weirdness of police work.

7) A reader remembers the thrill of picking up a little known book called FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING.

“It’s Complicated”: A Brief Review of IRON FIST

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Originally, I was going to call this review “I don’t even know what I’m doing or saying until it’s taken the wrong way” but that’s too long for an auto-share on Twitter, and it’s only said once, while the characters in IRON FIST say “It’s complicated” a bajillion times.

So this is going to be a brief review, as promised, although I usually have more to say about stories that don’t work than stories that do.

The first thing I’ll say is that, while the show is not great, it’s better than its Rotten Tomatoes score would suggest. (It’s 18% from the critics, although the audience gives it an 83, which is a solid B-.) It’s not even the worst season of Marvel/Netflix made so far, which would be S2 of DAREDEVIL. Like that season, it has some terrific performances, compelling characters, and real tension. It also has genuine problems.

First, as I mentioned before, put me down as someone who thinks the show would have been better (and better-received) if they’d cast an Asian-American actor as Danny. This isn’t a criticism of Jones; I think he does good work with what he’s given here, but the show would have been deeper and more complex with that change.

Second, like every Marvel/Netflix show, they don’t quite have enough story for 13 episodes, and it feels a bit padded. With JESSICA JONES (the best of the shows, imo) that padding is near the end where the pace should be building. It’s smart of IF to do what LUKE CAGE did, and slow things down at the start.

Because apparently every one of these shows needs padding somewhere. I’m hoping an 8 episode season of DEFENDERS will do away with this entirely.

So the early episodes are repetitive, and while it makes sense for the Meachums to have Danny committed, did we need an entire episode for that?

Third, it seems a strange choice to put a hero like Iron Fist into yet another neo-noir storyline, but once we get past the obligatory acknowledgement of his identity, momentum begins to build and the plots surrounding the supporting cast take shape.

Fourth, the general consensus is that Colleen Wing is a great character. That’s not wrong.

Fifth, a lot of folks are hitting Jones because the fights aren’t what we’d hope for in a show about a mystically-powered martial artist, and Jones isn’t a martial artist. But then, neither was Charlie Cox before he was cast as Daredevil, and neither was Keanu Reeves when he was cast in THE MATRIX.

What those actors did have was time to practice the choreography. As Jones has said in interviews, sometimes he only had 15 minutes before the shoot to learn the fight scenes, and you are not going to get good action scenes. They needed to give the action the attention it needed, because with a hero like Iron Fist, it’s not something you can half-ass.

Even worse are the action scenes that are badly framed and shot. I can understand dimming the lights to disguise the stunt doubles, since Danny Rand doesn’t have a mask or giant Jessica Jones hair, but we still want to see what’s happening, and see it clearly.

The fight in the hospital records room is perhaps the worse of the lot (and it comes so early in the show). It’s choppy, fake, and routinely violates the 180 rule, making it hard to follow. Later fights work better.

When the second season comes (and I’ll bet one no-prize that it’ll happen) they’ll need a show-runner willing to give the action scenes the time and energy they deserve.

Sixth, Marvel/Netflix continue to create really interesting antagonists. Loved every moment that David Wenham was onscreen.

Finally, I was interested in Danny Rand. Yeah, he’s a privileged fool in a lot of places, and he’s severely damaged, not just by the plane crash where his parents were killed, but by his time in K’un Lun. His time in the monastery turned him into a superhero, but at a terrible cost. He’s a fucked up dude, and he’s constantly stepping on his own dick.

At the same time, it’s clear he’s trying to navigate his different identities and do the right thing. Once the story turns away from “Can Danny prove his identity?” to “Can Danny stop The Hand?/find allies he can trust?/reconcile his dual identies?” the story works.

So yes, there are problems with the show, but as the reviewer at Forbes said, it’s a stumble, not a face-plant. It’s not the best of the Marvel shows, but it never sinks to the ludicrous plot points of DAREDEVIL S2 or the unconvincing character beats of something like ANT-MAN. Instead, it’s somewhat slow, unconvincing in places, and too repetitive.

I expect history to treat this season more kindly than the present, and I expect an AA Iron Fist when the MCU gets rebooted.