Decade – Favorite TV Shows

As 2019 wound down a lot of people took the chance to catalog the best/worst/whatever of the decade just gone by (while others noted that the new decade doesn’t really start for another year). Never one to pass up a good chance to develop some blog fodder, I’m spending this month looking back at my favorites from the 2010s.

It’s not an original thought to say that there’s a lot of TV shows out there these days. Not just that – a lot of very good TV shows (along with a lot of dreck, of course – Sturgeon was onto something). With every streaming service and cable network producing original content, it’s impossible for anybody to keep track of it all. These selections are ones I was lucky enough to cross paths with (in some instances years after their original run) over the past ten years. Some other things to keep in mind:

1. These are just what I say they are – favorites. I don’t make any claims that these are the “best,” whatever that may mean.

2. I only considered shows that began in 2010 or later (but see below).

3. I didn’t limit consideration to only multi-season series, but the list wound up not including any limited run stuff (although, again, see below).

With that said, away we go . . .

Justified (2010-2015)

Justified

I’m a federal criminal defense lawyer. US Marshals are not my friends. So it says something that one of my favorite characters of the past decade is a Deputy US Marshal. That Raylan Givens is the creation of Elmore Leonard doesn’t hurt, but the way he was developed (and played by Timothy Oliphant) through the run of the show really brought him to life. That Leonard vibe extends all the way though the show, particularly in the very unusual for TV setting (hello, federal district next door to mine!) and the astounding bevy of supporting characters, all of whom are unique characters without being “colorful” (if that makes sense). I mean, Boyd Crowder (and Dewey Crow), come on!

Bob’s Burgers (2011-present)

Bob

This is one of those shows I knew nothing about until the wife and I started watching reruns on Cartoon Network (I think) several years into its run. It didn’t take us long to make first-run episodes part of our regular rotation, to the extent that Fox’s football programming makes regularity an option. It’s a funny show with just enough heart to make you care about the weirdoes on screen. And what weirdoes. I’ll just say that I think Gene Belcher is my spirit animal and leave it at that.

Game of Thrones (2011-2019)

GoT

I know, I know, they didn’t really stick the landing (it wasn’t as bad as lots of loud people thought), but as a fan of Martin’s books before the series began I was super pleased by the show. It’s also a fascinating case study in adaptation, since the show runners ran past the point where Martin had written fairly quickly. I’d also be lying if I didn’t appreciate how the show helped shove fantasy stuff to the cultural forefront. Plus, I got to discuss it in court!

The Americans (2013-2018)

Americans

If someone had told me, before this show premiered, that it was really more of a family drama than a high-stake spy thriller, I might have given it a pass. That would have been a big mistake because while that’s an accurate description of what transpired over six seasons, it also doesn’t do justice to the atmosphere the show generated with all the spy stuff (and excellent soundtrack choices). Once you’ve seen mom and dad stuff a dead body in a suitcase it tends to stick with you, you know? If Stranger Things (which just missed the cut for this list) is all about 1980s nostalgia, this series was all about the paranoia of the same age.

Fun fact – the children of the Soviet spies who were the inspiration for the show recently had their Canadian citizenship confirmed.

Bojack Horseman (2014-present)

Bojack

Comedy is tricky. As I noted above, you have to care about characters for a show to have legs, not matter how good the jokes. But in asking us to care, it invites the writers to go into more serious, less funny places. Bojack Horseman really straddles that line nicely, digging deeply into the title characters depression and substance abuse but never quite losing site of the fact that we’re watching a cartoon about half-human animal people in a place called Hollywoo. You could probably do “Death of a Salesman” in front of the backdrop and still die laughing. This is, after all, a show where an entire episode’s punch line is that the horse guy is bombing at his own mother’s funeral.

Oh, and it’s got my favorite theme song from any TV show in a very long time.

The Knick (2014-2015)

Knick

This is my overlooked/neglected pick for this list, which is a surprise given the pedigree involved – a period piece created/directed by Stephen Soderbergh starring Clive Owen (and a host of excellent character actors) promising a different spin on that venerable TV institution, the hospital drama. Maybe it was because the show sidestepped the usual focus on medical heroics to dwell in the underbelly of a hospital struggling to stay open in 19th century New York. Maybe Owen didn’t pull off the addicted genius asshole like Hugh Laurie did on House. Maybe the excellent, anachronistic electronic score by Cliff Martinez turned some off. Regardless, I loved both seasons and wanted more. Alas.

The Leftovers (2014-2017)

Leftovers

Tom Perotta’s novel The Leftovers is very good, a darkly humorous meditation on a world where a small percentage of the population just disappear one day. The TV series upon which it’s based, which covered the events of the book in the first of its three seasons, is completely brilliant. The vibe’s not quite the same as the book, but it doubles down on the sheer weirdness that a world like that would produce. I didn’t know what was going on for a lot of the show’s run and I still loved it. It’s one of those shows that you either loved or it left you cold. Count me firmly in the first group.

Better Call Saul (2015-present)

Saul

You’re probably wondering why this made the list and not Breaking Bad. Did you overlook the part above where I said I was a defense attorney? Saul Goodman is one of the TV patron saints of my profession (along with Lionel Hutz). More to the point, I think the slow transformation of Jimmy McGill into Saul Goodman is a more compelling arc than what happened with Walter White. Walter was driven to do horrible things by circumstance, but he embraced those acts pretty easily. Jimmy has always tried to be better, to seek the approval of the establishment (in the form of his lawyer brother Chuck), and generally do right. That he continually fails and is drawn deeper and deeper into criminality is more tragic.

The Magicians (2015-present)

Magicians

Full confession – I was not a huge fan of the Lev Grosman books upon which this series is based. I read the first two and simply couldn’t come to grips with the main character, Quentin. There was just too much of him. Imagine my surprise when the show runners here apparently came to the same conclusion and made Quentin one of many lead characters on the show, almost all of whom are more interesting and compelling. Add to that some great batshit “yes, this is fantasy!” elements and a willingness to do just about anything (singing – I’m talking about singing) and this series is one of my most pleasant surprises.

Mr. Robot (2015-2019)

MrRobot

A show about which I once said this:

MrRobotJoke

I never really loved this show until its last season. Up to that point I had been impressed by it, but something hadn’t fully clicked about it. I think what finally did it was realizing how amazingly Sam Esmail and crew used the visual language of the show, the odd camera angles and such, to give it a distinct look that could throw you off your feet. That made me reflect on the writing itself and I realized it did the same thing and that, at the end of the show, I was profoundly digging it. Slow burns are a wonderful thing.

HONORABLE MENTIONS

I had to have a pair of honorable mentions, just because they don’t quite fit the parameters I set when I started this project.

Archer (2009-present)

Archer

Archer would have been a shoo-in for this list, but for one fact – it premiered in 2009. In spite of that, I had to give it some love since it’s amazingly funny and still running into the next decade. I love the show’s willingness to take the characters and throw them into completely different settings from season to season (from the original spy spoof setup to drug runners, noir figures, and space farers), even if every attempt didn’t work out that well.

Watchmen (2019)

Watchmen

Watchmen isn’t on the list proper for a couple of reasons. First, it’s Damon Lindelhoff’s baby and he’s already represented with The Leftovers. Second – just what is Watchmen, anyway? If it’s really just a one-season-and-done situation, it may still deserve a spot, but since future seasons are a possibility I wasn’t comfortable putting it on. Regardless of how brilliant this season was, it could go completely downhill in the future. Maybe after another ten years I’ll come back and promote it to the big leagues.

NOTE: I put this list together before it was confirmed that Watchmen was going to be one and done. Rather than mess with the list, I’ll keep it here in its special place. Seems right.

Decade – Favorite Songs

As 2019 wound down a lot of people took the chance to catalog the best/worst/whatever of the decade just gone by (while others noted that the new decade doesn’t really start for another year). Never one to pass up a good chance to develop some blog fodder, I’m spending this month looking back at my favorites from the 2010s.

As I said last week, I listen to a lot of music. in trying to process all the great music from the last ten years I had to have some rules. Without rules we’re just animals, right? So far as music goes, that means . . .

1. Two lists – one of favorite albums (which dropped last week), one of favorite tunes. Nothing on the album list can contribute a track to the tunes list. While there’s no hard and fast rule that none of the favorite album artists could appear on this list, too, it just worked out that way.

2. One song per artist. Some of these albums are full of good songs and there are other albums from this decade, too, but I had to draw a line somewhere.

3. As with everything in this Decade series, these are my favorites. I don’t make the case that they’re the best, most important, most influential, or anything like that. This is just stuff that I really really like.

Got it? Good. Let’s rock . . .

“Starts With Nothing” from The Future Is Medieval by Kaiser Chiefs (2011)

It doesn’t start with nothing, of course, but with a synth pattern, some kick drum, and vocals. After a brief respite, the full band kicks in and things build from there to a titanic conclusion. In a list full of epic prog tracks, sometimes you just need a good rock tune. Kaiser Chiefs are kind of my go-to for that kind of thing – intelligent modern rock with just enough keyboards to keep things interesting. Yes, that is my final answer.

“King of Number 33” from King of Number 33 by DeeExpus (2011)

One of the great epics of the decade, it has a story that sounds too odd not to have some basis in fact. The “King” here is a mentally disabled guy who rides the same bus over and over, not hurting anybody, until one day he shows up with sword and starts demanding obedience from his “subjects.” It’s sad and tragic, but the music is really good, with lots of nice instrumental breaks. It leans to the heavier side of the scale (as lots of prog does these days), but it gets the balance just right.

“Titanic Calls Carpathia” from COMM by The Tangent (2011)

COMM, as you might guess from the title, is all about communication. It’s not surprise, then, that Andy Tillison would choose to root one of the album’s epic in the one of the first uses of wireless communication in history, the distress call from the sinking Titanic. The theme of distress runs through the tune, folding in everything from Apollo 13 to a lonely person with a cell phone. There’s a cynical streak, of course, Andy being Andy, with regard to what we do these days for “comm.” Musically, everybody in that version of The Tangent was on top of their game.

“Some Memorial” by echolyn from echolyn (aka “Window”) (2012)

I almost went with “Island,” the opening track on this album (echolyn’s best of the decade), since it kicks things off in such a dynamic way. At the end of the day, though, I had to go with the track that closes the first disc. I love the way it works through various moods, from detached and jazzy through angry and driving to the concluding “take a handful of seeds / and a mouthful of earth / lie down, become a garden” section. The strings are a particularly nice touch, contrasting nicely with Chris Buzby’s keys.

“Judas Unrepentant” from English Electric Part One by Big Big Train (2012)

I’ve written about this song before, the story of an art forger undone by the hints he himself left in his works. That’s great in itself, but the music has a bouncy, broad quality that sort of takes the piss out of the seriousness of the story. It’s hard not to love a song that allows you to loudly belt out in the car lines like “charged him with conspiracy to defraud”! Oh, and the guitar work from Dave Gregory, percolating in the background for the most part, is superb.

“Houndstooth” from Senna by Mahogany Frog (2012)

Mahogany Frog exist at the confluence of fusion-inspired instrumental prog, electronica, and jam bands. They’re amazing live (I had a chance to see them at ProgDay in 2010), but they’re equally good at putting the energy of live performance onto tape. This track (actually the first two tracks) from their latest (c’mon guys!) album distills all that makes them fun to listen to into under ten minutes. Wonderful vintage keys, thumping drums, spiraling guitars. Fantastic.

“I Can Teach You How to Lose a Fight” from The Unraveling by Knifeworld (2014)

First impressions are tough, but I’d be hard pressed to think of a better one than the opening track on Knifeworld’s 2014 opus, the first thing of theirs I heard. It’s all just slightly off, but in the best way. It starts off almost industrial, with just rhythm and vocals and occasional guitar, before it explodes to take in the kaleidoscope of sound that Knifeworld is. The lyrics are unsettling (the line “The Skulls We Buried Have Regrown Their Eyes” shows up as a song title later on the album). Seldom have I been so taken with a band so quickly.

“Remurdered” from Rave Tapes by Mogwai (2014)

Rave Tapes marries Mogwai’s usual guitar/bass/drum post rock with healthy dollops of electronics and synths. Nowhere does that come together better than “Remurdered” (what a great title for a song). It starts out with an insistent synth pulse with some spacey guitars before drums and seriously growly bass synth carries things away. It’s one of those songs that builds so well from sparse beginnings to thunderous conclusion.

“La Mitrailleuse” from The Punishment of Luxury by Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark (2017)

It’s old hat these days for bands that have been split up for decades to get back together and ride the nostalgia gravy train. Less usual is for said bands to make and release new material that’s worth listening to and can stand up with their best earlier work. Since returning with 2010’s dancy History of Modern, OMD has been doing just that. On The Punishment of Luxury they channeled a lot of Dazzle Ships, nowhere more than this track which is just layered vocals and the sounds of gunfire. Chilling and effective.

“Everything Is Awful” from I’ll Be Your Girl by The Decemberists (2018)

If there was ever a song for our times, this is it (no coincidence that it’s the newest tune on this list). What makes it work is, despite the sentiment in the lyrics, the music is upbeat and creates this weird dissonance in your mind. You want to sing along with how awful things are. It’s like laughing in the face of tragedy or maybe a campfire song for the end of the world. Sometimes that’s the best you can do, so why not have a good song for it (see also, 3rDegree’s “A Nihilist’s Love Song”)?

Decade – Favorite Albums

As 2019 wound down a lot of people took the chance to catalog the best/worst/whatever of the decade just gone by (while others noted that the new decade doesn’t really start for another year). Never one to pass up a good chance to develop some blog fodder, I’m spending this month looking back at my favorites from the 2010s.

I listen to a lot of music. There’s no way I could narrow down a decade’s worth of stuff to ten albums, so I had to have some rules. Without rules we’re just animals, right? So far as music goes, that means . . .

1. Two lists – one of favorite albums, one of favorite tunes (that one comes next week). Nothing on the album list can contribute a track to the tunes list.

2. One album per artist. Some of my favorites have had very good decades, but I didn’t want to fill up on them.

3. As with everything in this Decade series, these are my favorites. I don’t make the case that they’re the best, most important, most influential, or anything like that. This is just stuff that I really really like.

With those in mind, away we go . . .

The Long Division by 3rDegree (2012)

LongDivision

3rDegree had a really good decade. Either of their two Ones and Zeroes albums could have been the one I picked for this list since they’re great, too, but I keep coming back to this one. About half the songs are political, but not partisan, in that they cast a keen eye on our fucked up American system (sadly, it looks like they’ll remain relevant for years to come). The rest of the album contains what is perhaps my favorite tune by the band, “Memetic Pandemic,” and the wonderfully sing-songy “A Nihilist’s Love Song.”

Clockwork Angels by Rush (2012)

ClockworkAngels

They say you’re supposed to exit on a high note. Rush did. Their final studio album was a return to their proggy concept album roots. Sprawling and epic, they used some strings very effectively (and even took them on tour). It’s my favorite thing they’ve done since Neal’s tragedies and probably since the 1980s (I like the synths!). The story is a kind of steampunk Candide, better on record than in writing.

Gravity’s Dirty Work by Darkroom (2013)

GravitysDirtyWork

If I had one word to describe my musical decade it would be “Bandcamp.” The streaming/downloading/artist portal website has changed the way I discover new music. The ability to hear about a band and just put their name into Google with “bandcamp” after it generally puts a lot of music at my fingertips. Such is the case with Darkroom, an ambient duo I read about in Prog magazine (I’m pretty sure). The music here is dark and dreamy, with equal parts thick layers of electronics and solo guitar that glides overtop.

The Bones of What You Believe by Chvrches (2013)

BonesOfWhatYouBelieve

Modern synth-pop lives! I learned about this Scottish trio from Keyboard magazine. Not only did I really like what I heard, but I was stunned to find out they’re actually kind of popular. More than once I’ve heard Chvrches tunes on TV (or in a FIFA video game soundtrack) and turned to my wife, in amazement, to explain that I actually own this song. Anyway, all three of their albums released this decade have been great, but the first one holds a special place in my heart.

Execute and Breathe by Elephants of Scotland (2014)

ExecuteAndBreathe

If I had a second word to describe my decade in music it would be “ROSFest.” I saw lots of new (to me, at least) bands there before the fest moved from Gettysburg to Florida this year, including these guys. No elephants anywhere and they’re from Vermont, not Scotland, but their Rush-influenced (with more keyboards) prog is very good. My big beef with them at ROSFest was that they lacked a strong lead vocalist, but that’s less important for a studio record. I listen to this album a lot.

Live In America by Sanguine Hum (2014 – or maybe 2012)

LiveInAmerica

Speaking of ROSFest finds. When I saw this set in 2012 I had no idea who these guys were. By the end of it I was a huge fan. I even stood in the meet & greet line afterwards (which I never did), even though they didn’t have their new album for sale (got to talk to Matt Baber about the Rhodes he used, though, so it was all good). Another band that’s had a great decade, Sanguine Hum have cranked out a lot of great music recently, but this is still a favorite because it captures the experience of diving into the unknown and coming out the other end grinning like a loon.

The release date is a little confusing. I think it was released on Bandcamp in 2012 to those of us who preordered the DVD of the show, but that DVD (which came with a CD, too) didn’t arrive until 2014. Make of that what you will.

The Race for Space by Public Service Broadcasting (2015)

RaceForSpaceCCCP

Central to The Race for Space is a gimmick – taking dialogue and monologue from old films (usually propaganda and news stock) and turning them into lyrics for songs. Not just laying them over beds of electronics like folks have been doing forever, but actually trimming and manipulating them to work in the place of lyrics. That said, it’s a hell of a gimmick and works super well, whether it’s in the context of the slow building, brooding “Sputnik” or the infectious “Go!.” Musically there’s a lot of electronics, but a backbone of real drums (and even horns on one track) and some guitar that keeps things from getting too artificial.

Hand.Cannot.Erase by Steven Wilson (2015)

HandCannotErase

Like 3rDegree, Steve Wilson had a hell of a decade and I could almost have picked any of his albums for this list. I think this one – a concept album based on reports of a woman who died, alone, in her London apartment and wasn’t missed for years (not a typo) – brings together the various parts of Wilson’s style the best. There’s lengthy proggy instrumental stuff (the Minimoog solo on “Regret #9”  is almost worth the price of admission alone) alongside modern electronic-style stuff, and more direct pop songs. The concluding “Last Regret” is pretty straightforward, but heart breaking.

Fuck Everyone and Run by Marillion (2016)

FEAR

At this point, Marillion cranks out consistently good stuff that occasionally rises to great. FEAR is their latest great album, a sprawling epic of raw nerve feelings. A lot of it is political, at least in the broadest sense, and lands some punches (without them being as targeted directly as, say, “Gaza” from Sounds That Can’t Be Made). At first listen those big statements were the ones I gravitated towards (particularly the last movement of “The New Kings”), but my favorite track has come to be “The Leavers” (which, in spite of the title and when it was recorded has nothing to do with Brexit), an ode to the push-pull dynamics of touring.

Say So by Bent Knee (2016)

SaySo

Another ROSFest surprise. Although I’d listened to their prior album (on Bandcamp!) before seeing them, nothing really captures this band like a live setting. They make the most out of wild dynamic swings, shifting from hushed, almost whispered vocals over piano to full-bore riffage in the blink of an eye. It helps that keyboardist/vocalist Courtney Swain has the voice to tackle both ends of the spectrum with ease. They’re a prog band, but thoroughly modern (one member just manipulates the other musicians’’ sound on stage with a laptop) and really exciting.

I could go on and on about all the great music that came out over the past ten years, but I can safely call these favorites. Go check ‘em out.

Some Festive (?) Winter Music

Every year, sometime around the middle of December, I think to myself that I really should make some Christmas music. Of course, by that time it’s too late, so I shrug and go on with things. This year, however, I got my shit together soon enough to actually make some tunes for the season!

Naturally, there’s a twist.

When looking for a holiday tune or tunes to adapt I didn’t want anything too obvious. One of my main gripes with Christmas music is that people pass around the same few dozen carols that constantly get reworked without either making something new or digging deep for more obscure material. Original wasn’t really in the cards, since I don’t write words and you really need words for a new Xmas song to make any sense. So I tried to find something different, or at least new to my ears. If it happened to be in the public domain, even better.

The more I dug, the more the “season” in question shifted from “Christmas” to “winter.” I got really into the idea of doing something about surviving winter. I know people for whom the short days and the cold really make life miserable. I’m not a huge fan of them, either. So I settled on two olde folk songs that fit the theme.

The first is “Drive the Cold Winter Away” (also called “All Hail to the Days”), an English song dating back to about 1625. It’s all about seeing through the long, cold nights with friends and others and invokes scenes of parties, caroling, and all that jazz. Naturally that’s too upbeat for what I usually do, but I found this downtempo version by Loreena McKennitt and took my inspiration from it.

The second is “The Winter It Is Past” (also called “The Curragh of Kildare”), an Irish song, parts of which date back to at least the 1700s. There’s at least one version that includes lyrics by my great-great-great-whatever (sure, why not) Robert Burns. It’s all about the return of spring as well as the departure of a lover. The bitter and the sweet, as they say. The melody here is more traditional and upbeat than the first part, so I hope it’s a nice contrast.

I needed a name for this amalgam and wanted to express a sentiment like “winter sucks, but it gets better.” Thankfully, everything sounds better in Latin, so it became “Hiems Sugit, Sed is Gets Melius.” My old Latin teacher would approve, I think.

Without further ado, enjoy – and Happy Holidays!

If you’re interested, I tackled the same basic idea (winter giving forth to spring) a few years back in an original tune, “The Ice, The Sun.” It’s more ambient and sprawling.

The Mobster and the Mediocrity

The movie begins with a long tracking shot, weaving in and out of the locale in which the story is set. The soundtrack plays out tunes appropriate to the historical setting of the story. The opening sequence comes to an end with an old man in an institution in a wheelchair. He wants to talk to you. He has a confession to make.

If you’ve seen Martin Scorsese’s latest then you know this describes the opening of The Irishman, his latest epic mob opus. The old man in this case is Frank Sheeran, a real person, playing by Robert DeNiro.

Sheeran

But if you think back several years, it might sound like the beginning of another movie. In that case, the old main the wheelchair is Antonio Salieri, played by F. Murray Abraham. Rather than being in a nursing home in New Jersey, he’s in an insane asylum in Vienna.

Amadeus

The move, of course, is Amadeus, directed by the late great Milos Forman.

What could these two films have in common, made decades apart with settings separated by centuries and an ocean? More than you might thing (or maybe less than I might think).

Much has been written as to the historical accuracy of The Irishman. It’s based on a tell all book, where Sheeran admitted to his lawyer all the horrible things he’d done for the mob. As particularly relevant to the film, those include the murder of New York mobster “Crazy Joe” Gallo in 1972 and, most spectacularly, Jimmy Hoffa.

As this lengthy Slate article explains, all of that is pretty much bunk (one FBI agent quoted about the book upon which The Irishman is based called it “baloney, beyond belief”). Nobody involved in the investigations into the Gallo slaying and Hoffa disappearance think Sheeran did it, although he might have been tangentially involved with Hoffa. (The publisher of the original book responds here).

Amadeus isn’t the most rigorous piece of history either. There’s no evidence to support the takeaway most people have from the film (and the play upon which it was based), that Salieri killed Mozart. Mozart, of course, died penniless and kind of disdained, but it was due to some kind of infection (a “severe military fever,” according to records), not murder.

What’s interesting in the Slate piece of Sheeran, and what made me think of Salieri, is his ability to escape saying specifically “I did it”:

another quick digression about something you may have noticed earlier—the weird way that Sheeran phrased his confessions to both murders. Specifically, his use of the passive voice. ‘Jimmy Hoffa got shot twice at a decent range.’ ‘Crazy Joey got shot about three times outside of the restaurant.’

I wondered about that, too.

Near the end of the book, Brandt tries to get Sheeran to confirm, one final time, all that he confessed before.

‘Now,’ Brandt said to Sheeran, ‘you read the book. The things that are in there about Jimmy and what happened to him are things that you told me, isn’t that right?’

Frank Sheeran said, ‘That’s right.’

‘And you stand behind them?’

And he said, ‘I stand behind what’s written.’

Which means that even in his deathbed confession, Frank Sheeran never actually says the words, ‘I killed Jimmy Hoffa,’ or that he killed Joey Gallo, or anybody at all.

Let’s assume that Sheeran’s unwillingness to come right out and say “I did it” is less trying to shirk responsibility for crimes he personally committed. What if his confession is less about what he did personally, than what he was a part of? Likewise, what if Salieri’s is not about his personal guilt for murdering Mozart, but for the unprincipled role he played in the world that led to his death?

Sheeran, by all accounts, was in the mob. Even if you’re not a contract killer for the mob, if you’re in the mob, you’re in a world where violence and murder is part of the lifestyle. It’s sort of like being a football trainer – you’re not actually out there causing brain damage, but you’re part of a world where that kind of things happens all the time. Just being around that kind of milieu must take its toll psychologically. Is it so odd that someone adjacent to so much horrible shit feels guilty about it, even if he didn’t pull any triggers?

Salieri’s world, of course, was quite a bit different, but there’s no doubt the way the musical tornado that was Mozart changed it. Keeping in mind that Salieri was already the court composer and thus entrenched in a position of power makes his eventual “confession” all the more powerful. He had plenty of opportunities (so the film argues) to aid, or at least not actively hinder, his young counterpart as he spirals into debt and drink. Not only does he keep pushing him in ways that aren’t likely to help Mozart’s health, Salieri actively fucks with his career. None of this is the same as sticking a knife in his back or poisoning him (a once-popular theory), but neither is it precisely good behavior. Much like Sheeran, Salieri was an asshole in a milieu where assholes could get away with stuff.

There was more personal animosity to the Salieri/Mozart relationship than there was anything in The Irishman, of course. To the point that, at the end of the film, Salieri declares himself the patron saint of mediocrities. Sheeran at the end of The Irishman is more inward looking, guilty about a life not well spent. He’s not making bold proclamations (and, obviously, he’s not nuts).

In my legal work I deal all the time with people who confess to doing bad things, but mostly they’re doing that on their own. If they’re coming out of some particular environment it’s not usually because they’ve chosen that life. Sheeran, by contrast, chose to be a gangster. That he didn’t personally embody the worst of what that means didn’t mean he couldn’t struggle with guilt about the worst aspects of that life. Likewise, Salieri chose to be the shit he was, even if he didn’t go so far as to murder his rival.

But I also know that people confess to things they don’t do. Sometimes it’s because cops force them into it. Sometimes it’s because they feel guilty personally, even if they aren’t guilty legally. The human psyche, and memory, can be an odd thing.

Weekly Read – Quick Hits

While I was off doing NaNo and writing a book last month I was also consuming a few (that’s much easier). Here’s some thoughts about the ones I finished . . .

The Raven Tower by Ann Leckie

Leckie broke out in 2013 with Ancillary Justice, a Hugo-winning sci-fi epic that I really enjoyed. She takes odd approaches to characters and settings that make the stories more interesting. I wasn’t as thrilled with the sequel, Ancillary Sword, but when I heard she wrote a fantasy novel, I had to check it out. As I expected, it’s got quite a different feel to it – the main character is, honestly, a rock. OK, so it’s a god embodied in a rock, but still. The rock god stuff works better than the human story until the two begin to intertwine. The ending really knocked my socks off, even though I predicted it. My usual is to love the openings of books and be let down by the finish – this was just the opposite.

A word on the audio version – if  you sometimes listen and sometimes read, I’d definitely recommend reading this one. The narrator for the audiobook (who also did the Ancillary novels) is horrible, imposing difficult to understand dialects on just about every character and turning the main non-rock character into a whining child.

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The Terror by Dan Simmons

In high school when I started The Grapes of Wrath I had to take a break after the first chapter and go get a drink – Steinbeck’s description of the Dustbowl was so vivid I was literally parched. Long stretches of The Terror are like that, too, but with bitter cold in the place of thirst. Simmons takes the unknown fate of a doomed Arctic expedition and spins a tale that’s both historical fiction and bleak horror. Yes, there’s a monster involved, but the real evil lies in the hearts of men, naturally. It’s a little too long and doesn’t stick the landing (a hard right turn into native mythology), but there are some superbly vivid and disturbing set pieces along the way that make it worthwhile.

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The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal

I wanted to like this book a lot more than I did. It’s got a great setup – in an alternate 1950s (Dewey really did defeat Truman, for some unexplained reason) a meteorite slams into the East Coast near D.C., killing millions and wrecking the economy. But it gets worse – the main character, a “calculator” at this world’s version of NASA figures out that the impact will cause climate issues that will render the planet uninhabitable. This jumpstarts the space program and leads to said main character becoming the first woman in space (this is not a spoiler – this is essentially a prequel to a short story written about this character years ago). The story is interesting enough, but it’s frustratingly narrow, since the POV is focused only on the main character. One suspects there’s so much else going on in this world as it comes to grips with the situation that would be interesting to explore. Also, while I thought it was great that the main character’s husband was perfectly loving and supportive, the repeated rocketry-punned sex stuff got really old really quick.

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The Last Policeman by Ben H. Winters

This is almost like the flip side of The Calculating Stars. In this book, the asteroid hasn’t hit Earth yet, but it’s coming and, as a result, everything’s gone to shit. The main character is a young cop in New Hampshire trying to convince anyone who will listen that the “hanger” found in a pirate McDonald’s bathroom is a real murder, not just yet another suicide. The investigation plays out against the background of impending calamity and what it does to society and the human psyche. That was by far the most interesting part of the book, which unfortunately was mostly pushed back in favor of a fairly lackluster mystery. As with The Calculating Stars, the POV being limited to the main character means we get fascinating glimpses of the wider world, but never really get to engage with it.

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I’d recommend any of these, depending on what kind of story tickles your particular fancy. Obviously I really liked the first two, while the others were just OK. Still, they’re both award winners, so who am I to say?

I Won! I Won!

Hey, everybody. How was November? Everybody awakened from their turkey coma?

As I said earlier, I spent last month taking part in National Novel Writing Month, working on the sequel to my first novel, Moore Hollow. I’m pleased to say it was a very productive month:

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Of course, in this case “winner” means “reach the 50,000-word threshold,” not have a complete manuscript in a month. Still, I made a very good start and should finish up this first draft in the next few weeks. More importantly, this book now has a title! The second installment of what I’m going to call the Appalachian Paranormal series is The Triplets of Tennerton. I’m super excited to share it with you (in a while).

All in all, 2019 will have been a pretty productive writing year for me. I finished and published Gods of the Empire, first of my new Unari Empire trilogy. I also wrote a first draft of its sequel, Widows of the Empire. Now I’m about to wrap up a first draft of The Triplets of Tennerton. Not too shabby.

What of next year? My main focus will be on finishing Widows and writing the final book in that trilogy, Heroes of the Empire. Will Widows see the light of day in 2020? Too early to say, but it’s definitely a possibility. All I know is that I’m going to keep grinding at this thing called writing.

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Off to NaNoWriMo 2019!

It’s November, which means it’s time for National Novel Writing Month, aka NaNoWriMo!

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I sat out NaNo last year while I worked on revising Gods of the Empire. The year before that although I “won” in the sense that I made the 50,000-word goal for the month, the book I was working on ultimately cratered (I still like the idea and plan to return to it in a different setting).

So I kind of feel like I have unfinished business this year. To help me get back in the swing of things, I’m returning to an old haunt, so to speak:

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Moore Hollow is my first novel and ever since it’s been loosed upon the world I’ve had people asking about a sequel. I never intended it to have one, to be honest. I thought I’d told the entire story. However, I’ve come to realize that I like Ben Potter, the book’s main character, and the idea of this Englishman with West Virginia ties coming back to the state. So I’m writing a sequel which will, if successful, turn this into an ongoing series (tentatively) called Paranormal Appalachia.

As you can tell from that title, Ben will get involved with various weird things happening in West Virginia (mostly – he’ll travel a bit). He’s going to hook up some with the main character from my first NaNo book, which now lives in the back of my closet. That guy’s a lawyer who specializes in handling “odd” cases and is developing kind of a reputation.

I’m excited to see where this all leads. I’ve got several stories in mind for Ben and I’m hoping they flesh out into full-fledged, engaging novels. I guess we’ll find out!

See you in December!

WriteAllTheThings

Weekly Read: The Nonsense Factory: The Making and Breaking of the American Legal System

I’ve practiced law for more than twenty years. I’ve been a fairly regular political observer for longer than that. Which is to say that little that Bruce Gibney details in The Nonsense Factory about how messed up the American legal system has become is new to me. But having it all lumped in one steaming pile really drives how just how bad things are. We are so fucked.

Gibney really takes a holistic approach. Entire books could (and have) been written about particular problems with courts or lawyers or Congress, but Gibney brings them all into the discussion and shows how no part of what we think of as “law” – from those who make it to those who enforce it to those who judge it – is free from serious problems. I wish he had provided more concrete examples, however. Several times he’d outline a potential problem, setting up a “for example” or “as in this case,” only to move onto the next target. Granted, it’s already a long book, but some of that detail would have been nice. Still, in adopting this drone’s-eye-view he finds some threads that run from area to area that might not be obvious when viewing each in isolation.

For instance, there’s a lot of “American exceptionalism” (a phrase, according to Gibney, coined by Stalin, of all people) in our law and that’s not good. It would be one thing if the quirks of the American legal system were producing better, more just results, but for the most part they don’t. As one example, Gibney points out that judges in most other Western democracies are professionals who are trained to be judges, not lawyers (perhaps not even that) with the political skill to win elections or be picked by an executive to fill a spot on the bench for ideological reasons. As a result there’s a pretty steep learning curve for new judges. We could learn from the rest of the world’s experience, but that’s generally not how we roll.

Another example that crops up throughout the book is that although the American legal/political system isn’t designed to do particular things, that doesn’t stop it from trying to do them. The result is that we often end up with patchwork procedures held together by mental duct tape and without any great grounding in larger political or legal principles (one of Gibney’s observations is that legal education in this country provides precious little exposure to ideas about legal philosophy that could inform the system). Arguably the entire federal regulatory apparatus – something the Constitution is silent about – falls into this category. The more salient one these days, however, is the way we go to war, which is largely a Presidential decision rather than a Congressional one. Gibney wants Congress to step up and reassert its own authority, but overlooks the political calculus of the thing – actually voting for or against an overseas adventure is a big political risk, while staying out of the decision and riding the result however it goes isn’t.

For as good a job as Gibney does at diagnosing problems, he doesn’t provide very much in the way of concrete proposals for change. There’s an underlying vibe of “blow it all up and start again,” but he doesn’t actually say that needs or is going to happen. And while he does offer some specifics as he addresses some issues – close a bunch of law schools, allow non-lawyers to invest in law firms, etc. – he doesn’t really tackle bigger issues. For example, he recognizes the need to have more jury trials and more well informed juries, but doesn’t suggest changing the law to produce that result. Rather than suggest the law inform jurors of the potential sentences faced by defendants, for example, he suggests it’s sufficient that jurors be engaged and interested enough to Google the information themselves and engage in jury nullification.

In the end, Gibney’s suggestions largely boil down to exhortations to all involved to do better. Politicians should care more about institutional prerogative than political expediency. Constituents should hold them to account. Lawyers and judges should worry more about the perception of law as just than in burrowing down into their own particular specialties at the risk of losing the big picture. That’s all well and good, but if history teaches us anything it’s that people generally don’t do what’s best, they do what’s in their self interest.

How do we deal with that in the context of a Constitution that’s two centuries old and not designed for the realities of the 21st Century? I don’t know. Unfortunately, neither does Gibney, really.

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Fantasy Doesn’t Have to Be “Accurate,” It Just Has to Be Compelling

A while back I wrote about how research can be important, and idea-provoking, when it comes to writing fantasy. The gut reaction might be that writing fantasy means you can just make everything up as you go along. It’s not that simple, but one of the joys of writing fantasy is the freedom it gives you to mold the world your story is set in to the needs of the story itself. That’s why questions like this bug me:

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That’s from one of the fantasy author Facebook groups I’m in. I chimed in asking for more information about what kind of time period we’re talking about, since the kind of rigorous border regulation we know today is a fairly recent invention. But more than that, I asked what the writer’s story needed? After all, it’s fantasy, so why be bound to mundane reality?

I think that when it comes to worrying about research in fantasy it comes in two flavors. One is research for inspiration – you’re not looking to see how things are or were done in order to have your characters do the same thing, but you’re trying to spark your own creativity. The most obvious case of this is reading history, which is full of bizarre and compelling story fuel that can be molded to fit just about whatever world your telling your story in.

An example of this is one I’ve mentioned before – the basic arc of The Water Road trilogy was inspired by reading about Napoleon’s 100 Days and thinking about how he was handled – exiled only to return – sounded like something that would happen to the bad guy in a fantasy series. What actually takes place in The Water Road is very different, but the bones of it are still there.

The other situation is the one where I think people get hung up sometimes, that is doing research about the right or correct or “accurate” way to do something. That’s a situation where you need to have a character do something or have something happen to the character and you want to make sure it feels right. That kind of research is good and necessary – you can’t really write fantasy without any research (including as “research” here knowledge you’ve already obtained) – but it’s important not to let the reality overwhelm the story.

As an example, the world of Gods of the Empire includes steam-powered autocars (of course it does, it’s steampunk!), but they’re mostly toys of the rich. So as part of his travels Aton gets to ride in one and I wanted to have a scene where he observed the startup of one of these things, to capture the kind of Rube Goldberg beasts that they are. I did some scrounging and found a very good video of someone going through the startup for an restored Stanley Steamer, originally built around 1911:

Cool, huh? It provided some great details that I was able to put into that part of the book, but I didn’t just take down what the guy did in the video and transport it to the book. Why? For one, while providing a glimpse of the startup routine is a nice way of deepening the world building it’s a grace note on the overall story, not a subplot – I didn’t want to divert for that long. For another, the character in my book wasn’t starting a Stanley Steamer, but rather a similar vehicle in a different world with differing technologies. In other words, I was only concerned about being accurate to my world, not the real world.

Research while writing fantasy is kind of like the old saw about knowing the rules of writing (or any artistic endeavor). It’s not important to know the rules to slavishly follow them, but it is important to know them so that when you break them you can think of why you’re breaking them and to what effect.

Say, for example, you want to have a two-feet-tall sprite in your story wield a long steel broadsword. Physics tell you that in the real world (assume a real world with sprites, people) that wouldn’t work – the sword is too big and too heavy for the sprite to pick up, much less wield. Does that mean it can’t happen because it would not be “accurate.” No! This is fantasy – anything can happen, if you want it to, but you need to figure out how, in your world, such a thing is possible. Maybe the sword is enchanted and can be wielded by anyone who is worthy? Maybe sprites are supernaturally for some cool reason in your world? It doesn’t matter, so long as you realize that some fanstaticking is going to have to happen.

Which, after all, is the point, right? One different between science fiction and fantasy is that fantasy is really only limited by your imagination. Sci-fi, at least in theory, is tethered to the realities of the real world, however much one can extrapolate from them. Fantasy not only lets you think outside the box, but blow up the box completely. It’s a great power to have, being able to mold the world to fit your story – why shouldn’t you use it every chance you get?

Wonka