In 2019, three popular fantasy epics “ended” (or so they claim). We had the final season of Game of Thrones, Avengers: Endgame, and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. All three of them disappointed me for largely the same reason. Previous installments had promised something new, but when it came time to deliver, they couldn’t. So they went back to old tropes common in fantasy and played it safe.
I love epic fantasies, but I haven’t been reading them lately, because it seems like all of them--even the ones I like--end in the same way. Kill the main bad guy and poof! all your troubles will be over. Enemy armies will die or be too demoralized to fight. You will never need to contend with a second-in-command or a sizable amount of supporters within the populace. Instead, you can throw a big party and celebrate that good has triumphed over evil.
If killing the Big Bad isn’t enough of a climax, there’s always the heroic sacrifice. The hero dies--or seems to die--to save the world. No surer way to evoke pathos than a tragic death. But the heroic sacrifice need not actually be done by the min character--that would be depressing. The heroic sacrifice can be committed by a character in need of redemption. A former villain, a traitor, a character who gave in to a moment of weakness, a person haunted by bloody deeds of the past. It doesn’t matter if they realized the error of their ways five minutes ago or spent ten years painfully trying to change the course of their life. The only true path to redemption is death.
I hate these tropes. I mean, I understand why they’re used, and I will be the first to admit that when done them well, they can be damned effective. When lazily and poorly handled, however, they can carry a dangerous subtext, one repeated over and over, until it starts to inform our psyches.
Warning: Spoilers and Strong Opinions follow the break. This isn't a review, just me getting some things off my chest.
Title: Lady Chatterley’s Lover
Author: D. H. Lawrence
Genre: Classic, Fiction
When Constance Chatterley’s husband Clifford returns from World War I paralyzed from the legs down, the two try to make the best of a bad situation. Clifford throws himself first into a literary career and later turns an industrial eye toward the mines that pepper his land. Although Connie does her best to support her husband, she falls into a depression. Something vital is missing from her life. She meets the gamekeeper, Oliver Mellors, a man who is reclusive and insolent, but who attracts Connie in a primitive way. They begin an affair, and through it, Connie finds out what it means to be truly alive.
From its title, Lady Chatterley’s Lover sounds like a melodrama. It’s not. This is a novel of ideas, and the story is the canvas upon which the ideas are stitched. What D. H. Lawrence really wants to do is posit a thesis as to the ailments of the modern world, namely, the disconnect mankind has toward their fellow man and the natural and the physical world, due to materialism, industrialization, and over-intellectualism. The solution, he posits, is a return to a more pagan time of “real men and real women,” which means sex.
I like my novels to have ideas in them; however, these ideas come at the expense of the story. You might think that Connie cheating on her wheelchair-bound husband would cause drama. It doesn’t. And the reason is simple: no one cares. No one cares about Clifford. No one cares about morals. No one cares about what society thinks. And as such, there are no consequences, only inconveniences. I’d say that this is a comment on the disconnect of people, but I’m not sure it is. I think the problem is that D. H. Lawrence became so enamored with his ideas he forgot about the characters.
December has always been a reflective month for me. Blame the holidays. In the rush and chaos of upholding traditions--the gift-buying, the gift-wrapping, the gingerbread house-building--I find I cannot focus on writing. And once Christmas afternoon hits, once the presents are opened and the ham’s in the oven, then there’s nothing but a string of cozy, languid family get-togethers until New Year. By which time, it’s my birthday and I’m another year older. The shift of focus from work to family, followed by a period of lazy rest and the passing of another year (both the calendar and my own lifespan) naturally puts me in the reflective state of mind. And so, inevitably, I spend the bulk of December contemplating what I did in the past year and what I want to do in the next one.
This year, my process of reflecting started after Thanksgiving and continued up to… now, I suppose. And whereas normally I, very business-like, go to my list of stated goals I wrote the previous December and start grading all my tangible accomplishments, this time I didn’t. Because it didn’t matter. The important things of 2019 were not my accomplishments, but the mindsets I learned. It was a year of growing, not a year of completion.
This year, I learned how to take care of kids, how to drive a car, how to get stuff done without a plan or schedule, how to trust myself, and how to let go of the need for validation. For the past few years, I’ve had my ideas of how I should live and what it meant to succeed broken down and re-formed. Of course, I’ve done stuff this year, I’ve written well over a 1000 pages. But the pages are all over the place and the words haven’t yet coalesced into a solid thing, a thing I can show to others and be proud of. But that’s okay. Maybe next year.
The Sunday after Thanksgiving, I decided to do a double feature of Queen and Slim and Knives Out. After the emotional wallop of Queen and Slim, I had ten minutes to shake myself off, use the bathroom, grab a popcorn and soda, and ready myself for a lighter, funnier flick.
When eccentric millionaire/ mystery writer Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) dies from a slit throat, it appears to be an open and shut case of suicide. But private detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) has been hired to investigate. As he interviews the various family members (Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Don Johnson, Toni Colette, etc.) secrets are unearthed. It seems every person in the family has a reason to want Harlan dead. The only one Benoit can trust is Harlan’s kindly nurse, Marta (Ana de Armas), who has a visible aversion to lying. But Marta has a secret of her own.
I wanted to see Knives Out, because I liked what Rian Johnson did with The Last Jedi. When I heard that his new movie was a murder mystery in the vein of Agatha Christie novels (my all-time favorite mystery writer) and the 1985 movie Clue (a film I practically memorized in high school), well, count me in. Good reviews and an all-star cast did nothing to diminish my interest in the project.
I have to say, Thanksgiving was the perfect time to see Knives Out. It is the ultimate “family feud” movie, which will make you either relate to the craziness or feel grateful for your own family. The characters were just grounded enough to feel real, and just exaggerated enough to be funny. The actors were clearly having a ball, and that joy translated to their screen. It was fun to see a bunch of rich hypocrites get their comeuppance. Knives Out was a solid film.
It was not exceptional. It was funny, but not hilarious. It was good, but not great. I mean, considering the praise it was getting, I sort of expected more. For me, though, the biggest problem may have been the mystery. Knives Out was advertised as having the feel of an Agatha Christie novel, and that was true. It was very Agatha Christie-like. Too Agatha Christie-like.
See, I’ve read many of Agatha Christie’s novels, enough to pick up on the general patterns. Therefore, I figured out where the story was going. It didn’t surprise me. In fact, I thought it was pretty obvious.
(Warning: I’m now going to brag about how I solved the mystery, so there will be SPOILERS ahead! Read at your own risk.)
After Thanksgiving, I did a double feature at AMC: Queen and Slim in the morning, and Knives Out almost immediately after. I’d never done a double feature, but I didn’t have much choice. Too many good movies come out in the holiday corridor and I don’t always have a spare Sunday to sneak out and see them.
Queen and Slim came on my radar, because I saw the trailer--online or in a theatre, I can’t remember. Queen and Slim is an R-rated romantic drama about a black couple who become accidental criminals and must flee the law. Right away, I liked the characters and the tense situation they found themselves in. The film fell off my radar for a while but came back when the reviews came in and some of my favorite movie pundits recommended the movie.
The movie doesn’t waste time. It begins with a woman (Jodie Turner-Smith) and a man (Daniel Kaluuya) going on an awkward first date. Their names aren’t given until the very end, so I’m going to go off the title and call the woman Queen and the man Slim. Queen is a defense lawyer whose client just received a death sentence. She is guarded and aloof. Slim is an amiable, warm, religious man. The date does not go well. As Slim tries to drop Queen off, he gets pulled over and aggressively searched by a racist cop. Queen tries to record the cop on her cell phone, but the cop shoots her in the leg. A heated fight breaks out between Slim and the cop. Slim grabs the cop’s fallen gun and shoots him, half in defense, half by accident. The cop dies. Before the title card officially drops, they are on the run.
My first reaction, fresh out of the theatre, was that Queen and Slim had a lot of elements that reminded me of a good fantasy movie (my favorite genre), even though it clearly wasn’t fantasy. Queen and Slim was an unexpected journey which ripped the characters out of their normal lives, brought them to interesting places and people, forged deep bonds, and forced them to contemplate deeper meanings of existence, destiny, and legacy. It was Romantic with a capital R. Not only did Queen and Slim fall in love, they expressed what love meant to them as individuals so beautifully and poetically, it made my heart twist.
(Warning: Although I try not to spoil anything in particular, I do mention details that take place halfway through the movie. If you are sensitive to these thing, you may not want to read.)
A little over a year ago, my sister introduced me to The Good Place. I thought I could safely watch a few episodes on Netflix. I was wrong. I binged two seasons in two days. This is why I stay away from T.V. I have an easily-addicted, nay, obsessive personality.
The Good Place is an NBC-airing half-hour comedy about a woman named Eleanor (Kristen Bell), who died. Fortunately, she ended up in the Good Place. Immortal-being Michael (Ted Danson), architect of the perfect neighborhood Eleanor will inhabit for all eternity, congratulates Eleanor for being such a stellar example of humanity and introduces her to her soulmate, Chidi (William Jackson Harper), a professor of ethics and moral philosophy. As soon as Michael leaves, Eleanor drops a bombshell on Chidi. There’s been a mistake, she’s not a good person, she’s not supposed to be here, and she’s afraid if anyone finds out, she’ll be shipped off to the Bad Place. As weird events in the neighborhood threaten to expose her true identity, Eleanor enlists Chidi’s help to become a good person and earn her place in paradise.
There are so many things I love about The Good Place, from the characters, to the relationships, to the concepts. It is a unique fantasy/ speculative fiction, which creates a fully functioning, well-developed world, while contemplating the big questions of good and evil, life and death, and what makes us human. It teaches ethics and moral philosophy, name dropping famous philosophers, summarizing core concepts, and integrating the lessons into each episode of a continuing story arc… and it’s funny! The Good Place is something that feels like should not exist, let alone be any good, let alone have people watch it… and yet it does. I’m amazed.
As we head into Season 4, the final season, The Good Place has evolved into what I am convinced is the purest definition of epic fantasy. It may be disguised as a quirky comedy, but when you have a tight group of friends making terrible personal sacrifices in the service of world-shattering stakes--yeah, epic. This is what I want from fantasy. Not just the same old magic, dragons, and elves. I want something original, something that takes risks, something that tackles complicated issues while still giving me reason to hope.
So as I was watching re-runs of Season 4 on Hulu early in November, I got to an episode where Eleanor and friends are discouraged. They’ve just had a huge setback, but they’re re-grouping and trying again. I finish watching and go out to walk the dog, and I’m thinking about what it means to save the world. In The Good Place, the stakes are huge, and yet all that needs to be accomplished, when it comes down to it, is for certain “medium persons” to become good. Which made me think. If the souls of humanity were riding on me being a good person, could I do it? Could I be, not even great, but just a little bit better?
Title: Found Dead in Arugula: Faith Interrupted a Cozy Mystery One
Author: Michelle Knowlden
Genre: Mystery, Short Story
When Faith Lisstrom Towe finds her friend and neighbor dead in her patch of arugula, the last thing she expect was to be charged with his murder. Now this gentle Quaker and gleaning enthusiast must set about finding the murderer if she wants to prove her innocence.
I know author Michelle Knowlden from my time living in Brea. She’s my friend. She always found the best new coffee shops or interesting specialty stores that sold different flavored olive oils. She is a generous, caring, and overall wonderful person, and I miss her. That’s why I bought this book. Because her writing reminds me of her.
Faith Lisstrom Towe, like Michelle, is also a warm and endearing person who happens to love quirky, healthy, and interesting foods. Faith, specifically, has an arugula patch in her garden, along with an amaranth plant and 19 varieties of beans. But it’s the arugula patch where her dear friend Darryl Arias is found dead. The investigation brings the scrutiny of the cops: Walter Steiger, a cynical former Sunday school student, and Henry Saito, the son of a man Faith once loved. The first few chapters beautifully tease out these relationships, with subtle notes of grief and longing. When the accusations start flying toward her, Faith struggles to keep her dignity intact.
Needless to say, I felt attached to Faith right from the start, and I was really rooting for her, not just to prove her innocence, but also to be seen for who she is and perhaps re-kindle the spark with her former lover, who is now conveniently a widower. Aside from that, I love the calm and steady flow of the words and the lovely description of the food.
However--and this is my main critique of the book--as soon as I started settling in for a nice, cozy read--boom, it was over. Only 5 chapters long, Found Dead in Arugula can be read, start to finish, during a single long lunch break. For certain people, this is a selling point, but I wanted more.
The mystery did conclude in a satisfying manner, but because it was so short, there was not enough room for twists and turns, red herrings and reveals. It did promise further adventures for Faith, which I, for one, would be happy to read more of. I’d just prefer a full novel, or perhaps a collection of “Faith-based” short stories, so as to have a meaty amount of writing to sink my teeth into.
On November 24th, I faced a crisis.
Since the month started, I had been doing National Novel Writing Month (Nanowrimo, for short), a challenge where you write a complete novel of 50,000 words (approximately two hundred pages) in the thirty days of November. Since I write thick fantasy books, I wasn’t thinking of completing a novel. I wanted to write three good chapters for the climax of The Originals, a sequel to my epic fantasy, The Changelings.
Three good chapters. Didn’t sound so hard.
November 24 arrived, and I crossed the 50,000 word mark, 6 days ahead of schedule. Great. But I hadn’t written my three chapters, no, not at all. I’d written about one and a half. And good? Forget good. The writing was all over the place. I’d mope around with my main character’s feeling for a paragraph or two and then swing wildly into politics. Or I’d spend 30 pages figuring out how to set up a battle and summarize the actual fight in about a page. I’d go one way, go back, and zig-zag the other way. It was--it is--a mess. An unreadable mess. And yet it was all good stuff that I needed to write.
Some authors have a vision of their novel in their head, or at least on their outline. Not me. I have to write and write and write until I see that vision. It’s not that I don’t have ideas, but the ideas are nebulous things and pinning them down is like pinning down vapor. I write until I see what I want. Once I have my vision, I can work to make my writing good. I organize scenes, condense the plot, dramatize emotions, expand the good parts, delete the bad parts, and make the words ring pretty.
I know that all this messiness will eventually turn into good (or at least readable) writing. I know because I’ve done it before. Having spent twenty years writing novels, I can start to say I know what I’m doing. But that doesn’t make it any less frustrating. I look at my 50,000 words, and I think, It’s too much, and at the same time, It’s not enough.
I'm pleased to announce that at the start of December I will be having a book sale on Amazon. All three Kindle versions of my books will go on sale for either 99 cents or for free. There's a little something for everyone. The Changelings in an epic fantasy in the style of The Lord of the Rings. Three Floating Coffins is an original fairy tale adventure good for older kids and teens. Captured in Color is a collection of brief stories for people with only a few minutes to spare between decorating and buying gifts. Paperback versions of each one are also for sale on Amazon.
For as long as she can remember, Sylvie has embraced her role as the priest's obedient daughter. All she wants is to marry her fiance and lead a quiet, normal life. But between droughts, food shortages, and the slow invasion of her desert homeland, even those modest dreams seem out of reach. Then one sweltering summer day, her best friend Matthew reveals a devastating secret. Sylvie is a Changeling: a fantastical creature given human form and switched with the priest's real daughter. And she's not the only one.
What happens when you can no longer trust your family? This is what 13-year old Odele wonders when she and her two older sisters are sealed in coffins and cast into the sea by their father, the king. A priest has prophesied that one of the princesses holds magic that will destroy the kingdom. Only Odele knows the truth. The priest is lying. On the run and unsure of who she can trust, Odele undertakes a journey to find the one thing that may defeat the evil priest: a magical amulet her mother hid years ago. With time running out, Odele must pry open the secrets of the past before she loses her family forever.
A magical necklace that strangles whoever betrays its owner. A plum wine shared between a Japanese ghost and an American exchange student. A stalker who paints portraits of the love he can never see. Eight miniature science fiction and fantasy stories capture moments of love, loss, and choice that shape the characters and the world they live in. Perfect for those who want a daub of inspiration and a spatter of philosophy to brighten their day.
On a personal note, for the first time ever, I'm going to be running an advertising campaign on Amazon. I've never done this before, so wish me luck! I also want to say thanks to everyone who's supported me this past year: anyone who's purchased and read a book, who's written a review, who's recommended my books to a friend, or who's passed on a link to one of my blog posts. I am so grateful! As a small independent publisher, I do not have a large advertising budget or big stores selling my book, so I appreciate everyone who helps to spread the word. Happy Holidays and have a wonderful day!
Destroyer is a prestige, independent picture from Annapurna Pictures that came out last December and which I recently found on Hulu. It is a modern day noir story set in L.A. that features a female detective, Erin Bell, played by Nicole Kidman. 17 years ago, Erin, a local sheriff deputy, worked undercover with FBI agent Chris (Sebastian Stan) to infiltrate drug-dealers-turned-armed robbers, led by Silas (Toby Kebbell). Something goes wrong, and Chris winds up dead. In the present day, Erin gets a message from Silas. He’s back, and she intends to find him. The two stories, past and present, are woven together via a series of flashbacks. There is also a subplot about Erin’s daughter, Shelby, starting to go down a bad path, most likely due to Erin’s horrific parental neglect.
Right off the bat, I can tell you that Destroyer suffers from too little story. The two-hour run-time is padded out with many of Erin’s intense, inscrutable stares. The present-day plot involves Erin revisiting old gang members, one by one, and asking them questions until they obligingly answer. There isn’t really a mystery to solve, just stakeouts and interrogations. The past plotline of Erin’s undercover assignment is muted of danger and suspense. Destroyer is a character-driven story where the main character is an inscrutable cipher. There is strong acting, especially from the supporting cast, and individual scenes are well-crafted. It has potential, but the weakness of the story holds it back.
I’m not an expert on the noir genre, but I was introduced to the concept in college. I understand the tradition of the alcoholic detective who uses his fists to get from point A to point B. Does it, however, work in modern day? And does it work when you gender-flip the detective? In Destroyer, it does not. Rather than view Erin as hard-boiled, I saw her as incompetent.
(Click to see full review. Potentially some spoilers. I do describe scenes, including scenes at the end, but I try not to give away twists and important details. If this bothers you, you may want to see the movie first.)
Writer. Critic. Dreamer.