I do love the readers of this column. You are an endless source of discovery for me. A few weeks back I wrote about how I enjoy the kind of fiction which combines a whodunit in a fantasy setting. A reader wrote to me to tell me about a version of a whodunit set in a steampunk world. I looked it up and soon after downloaded “A Master of Djinn” by P. Djeli Clark. It didn’t disappoint.
This is the first novel featuring Mr. Clark’s characters who work at the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments, and Supernatural Entities in 1912 Cairo. He had written three previous short stories with these characters. A Master of Djinn is the first novel-length adventure. Agent Fatma, who is the narrator, is assigned to the case when a secret brotherhood is killed. The group was dedicated to Al-Jahiz who opened the way to the magical realms. This is a great detective story as Fatma works her way through the case.
As with all stories in this genre there is a memorable cast of supporting characters. One of them is Agent Hadia who is assigned to help on the case. She is the ostensible rookie assigned to the grizzled vet. Her job is to ask the questions the reader has so Fatma can answer them. Too often an author just lets that happen. Mr. Clark broadens Hadia’s story enough that she feels like these books going forward should be called “Fatma and Hadia Casefiles”.
The other part of this is setting the book in Egypt. Most steampunk takes place in more recognizable settings. The better to enjoy the differences of the steam-powered contraptions. Mr. Clark has much more fun putting most readers at the disadvantage of not knowing ancient Cairo very well. He is an historian in his non-fiction life. That shows throughout the book as the Colonialism of the time is a considerable presence.
If you need a fun read over this last part of the summer take yourself to steampunk Cairo.
I have written frequently about how much I enjoyed growing up at the same time rock-and-roll did. Throughout the 1960’s and 70’s there was a crazy kind of possibility to everything. Musicians could try to do almost anything. The summer of 1969 was the eye of this particular storm. Most think Woodstock was the defining moment. Thanks to Ahmir Thompson better known as Questlove of The Roots there was another equally impactful moment now having a moment to be seen in the documentary Summer of Soul.
Summer of Soul chronicles the six-week Harlem Cultural Festival in NYC from June to August 1969. Producer Tony Lawrence would oversee six weekly concerts over that time. They would draw over 300,000 people in total to Mt. Morris Park in Harlem every Sunday. The shows were recorded to video, but they were never given the same treatment as the Woodstock footage. These tapes were “lost” until Mr. Thompson “found” them and made this movie. They are a time capsule with a soundtrack of some of the greatest soul music acts of the time. They also show the wider vision of the societal change happening.
It begins with the music. Many of those who are still around are given the opportunity to watch their performance from back then. One of my favorite passages is seeing Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis watching their Fifth Dimension show which was the headliner one of the weeks. They speak about the importance of an act seen as “white” playing on a stage in Harlem. They speak about the background behind their perception of the crowd. Finally the camera lingers on their beaming faces as they watch their younger selves singing on that stage.
Sly and the Family Stone use their performance as a warm-up for their show at Woodstock a week later. The temperamental leader of the band is who he is. Yet once they start playing, they are amazing. Gladys Knight and The Pips, Stevie Wonder, Herbie Mann, and BB King are equally compelling.
One thing the movie does not shy away from is showing the black activism of the time. Rev. Jesse Jackson leading the show on Gospel Week. Preaching to the crowd from the stage weeks after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. Nina Simone seemingly grows into her power as an activist on that stage. Hers is one of the most impactful segments. She realizes her voice on a stage as a musician can have impact. The crowd lifts her up with validation.
There is some time given to why it has taken fifty years for this to be seen. It comes down to no movie distributor felt there was an audience. In 2021 there is not only an audience but a message which still retains its relevance. It just means this movie makes this summer a new Summer of Soul.
As I was watching the February 20, 2021 episode of Saturday Night Live I realized I no longer know what’s going on across the music spectrum. It began with the musical guest Bad Bunny. I thought both songs were great and spent some time learning more about it. That’s not that unusual there have been many acts I’ve seen for the first time on SNL. What killed me was a skit in the show.
The set-up is a bunch of guys are playing pool. One of them asks them to play a particular selection on the jukebox. What comes on is this very pop song which the guys all sing along to. This happens as they all say liking the song doesn’t reflect poorly on their manliness. As the skit went on, I had zero idea what the song was. I went to Twitter to find out it was “Drivers License” by Olivia Rodrigo and was the current number one pop song. It was a super catchy song once I knew it existed.
Olivia Rodrigo on SNL May 2021
She would be the musical guest three months later. The first song was her doing “Drivers License”. It was the second song she performed “Good 4 U” which made me pay attention. This wasn’t a song about teenage heartbreak this was a song about teenage rage. She stomped around the stage supplying a perfect pop punk vocal to a backing band all in with her. Suddenly, I was interested in what her forthcoming album “Sour” might sound like.
What I found was a group of songs split between the sadness of breakups interspersed with that pop punk personality I saw. After listening to it a lot this summer I’m admiring of the punky part. I also admire the songwriting across the board. She can alternate her voice between pop princess and angry young girl effortlessly.
Right from the first track “Brutal” the former Disney star confounds expectations. If they thought this would be an album of Drivers License-like pop this song sets them straight. It isn’t until the later stages of things that she gets back behind the piano to sing of heartbreak. None of it feels forced or cynical. It is just the type of musician she wants to be.
That second song from SNL “Good 4 U” is still my favorite on the album. I even have a mash-up with “Misery Business” by Paramore. Where the two songs tell a complete story. Ms. Rodrigo and Hayley Williams have a similar style of singing. That Ms. Rodrigo holds her own shows her potential.
The reason I know less of the popular music is because on Satellite Radio I can narrow cast to my preferred alternative music. What made me incredibly pleased was to hear “Brutal” played on that station. It fit right in. If I were still ignorant, I would have thought she was a new alternative act.
Ms. Rodrigo is a talent I am looking forward to watching grow. If you’ve never heard of her, it is worth making the effort to give her a listen.
There is a trend in television sitcoms I have never enjoyed. I call it the “celebration of assholes” genre. The greatest example of it is “Seinfeld”. They were even a specific breed of asshole, sphincterus nyc. I always found their actions pathetic instead of funny. I usually watch an episode or two of any of these and realize it is not my thing. Much to my surprise “Hacks” got past my antipathy to this type of comedy.
Hacks is a story of two women in comedy. One is an aging stand-up comedian, Deborah Vance played by Jean Smart. The other is a young comedy writer, Ava Daniels played by Hannah Einbinder. When we meet them. Deborah Vance is planning her 2,500th show in the same Las Vegas casino. Just before, she is told that will be her last as they are replacing her with younger acts. Ava Daniels has become unable to be hired because she made a crude political social media post. Her agent tells her he can’t find her anything.
The creators, Lucia Aniello, Paul W. Downs, and Jen Statsky all came from the show Broad City. They unflinchingly explore the lives of both women. One part of that is showing they are their own worst enemies. They consistently engage in self-destructive behavior only because it makes them feel good, for a moment. If that were the single note of the show, I likely would have stopped watching it. The part which kept me engaged was both women are alone because of who they are. They both don’t like it. They both can’t help themselves in pushing people away. The beauty of this show is Deborah and Ava might be the only two people who can love the other. Whether that can happen for more than a few hours at a time kept me coming back.
Another thing I liked about Hacks is the peek behind the scenes of stand-up comedy. I have always enjoyed the glimpses shows have given to the work that goes into being a stand-up. Deborah’s story is in broad strokes modeled on Joan Rivers. As one of the first female stand-ups she has survived a lot to be standing for this milestone show. It is all she has, and she doesn’t know anything else. Ava exemplifies the smart joke writers who work with the people who deliver the jokes. She also is a classic millennial and she and Deborah have a generational friction which plays throughout.
As I’ve thought about it the thing which kept me watching is these assholes have the opportunity for redemption. They seem to know what they are while willing to try and change. I found that the writers of Hacks found plenty of laughs in that premise.
I am already on the record as finding most movie prequels dreary affairs. They spend too much time trying to explain clever pieces of the original source material. If you ever want a terribly painful example of this watch the clip of how they explain Han Solo’s boast about making the “Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs” in the prequel “Solo: A Star Wars Story”. It is this kind of writing which pervades most prequels, the need to explain things which don’t really need explaining. It does the opposite, draining the fun out of everything they claim to want to add to. Therefore I was surprised to enjoy “Cruella” as much as I did.
Cruella is the prequel story of how the villain of 101 Dalmations came to be. When I heard this was coming out it was consigned to the “not interested” list. For all the reasons above. It wasn’t until I saw an interview with the two stars Emma Stone who is the young Cruella and Emma Thompson who plays the haughtiest of haute couture designers The Baroness.
The heart of the story is Cruella becoming an apprentice designer to The Baroness. This wasn’t trying to explain things from 101 Dalmations. Instead it was a battle of fashion wits between our heroines. I forgot she was in another movie because the antics of the two hard-nosed designers facing off was so much fun. It all leads to a delightedly manic final act which is where most of the call backs to 101 Dalmations happen.
It is this which all subsequent prequels should pay attention to. Treat your story as its own thing which only at the end will connect to the material you are supposedly deepening.
I also must mention the two actors named Emma. They seemingly have a ball tearing into these larger-than-life caricatures. It is because I enjoy them both that I was willing to take a chance on this. It was well worth it.
I suspect most every Baby Boomer who listened to rock and roll in the 1960’s and 70’s had the same conversation at some point. You would be listening to an album. A parent would walk by and ask you to turn down the noise. You would respond that it isn’t noise. Which then got the discussion ender, “that type of music isn’t going to last”. I wonder how long our parents would consider “lasting” to be? I am betting 50 years might be a benchmark. Just this past week one of the greatest albums of all-time turned 50, Blue by Joni Mitchell.
One of the things about the early days of rock and roll was there were no rules to follow. The first artists were creating the landscape the future would build upon. One of the more popular genres of music at the end of the 60’s was folk music. There were a group of artists who worked together and inspired each other. Joni Mitchell was in the center of it all. in subsequent interviews and rock biographies I have read she was described as a muse to many of her contemporaries. She was also in relationships with many of them. She had released three prior albums before 1971. She was the prototype of what we call a singer-songwriter today.
All her songs told stories. She drew you in with her voice and lyrics. As she was developing Blue throughout the year of 1970 music became the way she confronted her life. By the time Blue was released in 1971 it was the first “break-up” album ever released. Ms. Mitchell would write songs about her relationships with Graham Nash and James Taylor. Each song displayed a genuine emotion.
This was another part of this early era. The artists were less guarded about revealing their feelings on record. Ms. Mitchell was perhaps one of the most unflinchingly honest of them all. Which is what makes Blue the great music that it is.
I wouldn’t discover Ms. Mitchell until I was in high school. Mainly because a few of my friends would sing her songs. Even through an untrained voice her lyrics rang true. She was two albums past Blue when I picked up all six of her first LPs. Over the next week I became a fan with Blue being the album I played most. Even today it is my most played Joni Mitchell on my iTunes list.
Whenever I listen to the original artists who made rock and roll, I often think to myself, “has it lasted?” Blue has certainly stood the test of time for the classic piece of musical artistry that it is.
Over the last few months I’ve written about a streaming show releasing in weekly installments or all at once. There is also the problem of making an unlikable protagonist too much of a jerk. I’ve also spoken about the elements that make a good whodunit. Mare of Easttown on HBO provides evidence that proves some of my ideas.
Mare of Easttown is a seven-episode series written by Brad Ingelsby. It stars Kate Winslet as the titular heroine, Mare Sheehan. When we meet her, it is the night of the 25th anniversary of her leading this small Philadelphia suburb to the high school state women’s basketball championship. Right from the first episode we understand that her life is a complicated mosaic. She has been severely criticized for not finding a local girl missing for over a year. The town is beginning to believe she might not be the police detective they have always had. That’s because her personal issues include the suicide of her oldest son which she has not come to terms with. Mare is a person trying to suppress all the bad. Ms. Winslet’s performance lets the viewer in via the way she reacts without a word. By the end of the first episode another young girl’s body is discovered forcing Mare to deal with all that threatens to unearth in her psyche.
Over the seven episodes this show does all the elements of a great whodunit correctly. As viewers we are brought along through all the mistaken evidence as the story slowly reveals the truth. By the time it gets to the last episode the emotionally impactful resolution feels earned from everything that preceded it.
Mare is also one of those unlikable protagonists which seems to be in vogue these days. Mr. Ingelsby writes her as someone who is watching her grief over her son and inability to solve the old case causing her to spiral downward. It leads to a truly horrible action she takes. It caps off all the doubt we as viewers are having about whether she is an honest detective. This time the writing has laid a foundation for the action that while it still shocks, we also know where it is coming from. This is how you make the unlikable, likable. Even though every writer seems to be trying to do it Mr. Ingelsby is one of them who succeeds.
Finally this was a series which was released weekly, and we watched each episode on the night it was premiered. Each episode would end with a new key revelation. If all the episodes were available at once I would’ve just received the answer in a few minutes after seeing the set up. Watching it weekly allowed for seven days of delightful speculation. This is a case where that kind of release schedule greatly added to the enjoyment of it.
This was one of the best series I have seen this year. I am hoping for lots of nominations when the upcoming Emmys are announced. This was a perfect bit of storytelling given life through memorable performances.
Urban fantasy is one of my favorite genres of books. I really like it all but if I had to choose, I like the ones which feature a detective as a protagonist. Part of that is just seeing the classic tropes of hard-boiled crime fiction imposed on a fantasy background. When it is done well, I get two genres from one book. The new series from author Douglas Lumsden kicks off in style with “A Troll Walks into a Bar”.
From the moment I saw the title I felt like this was going to be fun. Mr. Lumsden introduces us to Yerba City PI Alex Southerland in this first novel. It begins just as the title promises. The troll in this case is a member of the police force. He has a talk with Alex telling him not to take the case of a client who will be coming to see him, or else. Like all literary PIs he doesn’t like to be pushed around.
When the woman in question arrives the next day, she is this fantasy world’s version of a nymph who lives in the ocean. She is a classic femme fatale intent on using her looks and skill at lying to get what she wants. Alex knows he is being manipulated by both the troll and the nymph. That he will take the case is a given. It leads to a well plotted mystery which gives Alex all the trouble he is trying to avoid.
Mr. Lumsden melds all the influences deftly and this was a book I blew through. It is a great summer weekend read. He also released the second, “A Witch Steps into My Office” and third, “A Hag Rises from the Abyss” on the same day. I’ve read all of them and he is not a one-book wonder. The other novels have the same amount of fun weaving the genres together. This is exactly the what I look for in urban fantasy.
Disclosure: I purchased my copy of the books.
When we are watching the form of entertainment known as a whodunit the audience wants to play along. Some of the biggest television phenomena have revolved around the identity of a killer amongst us. When every poster before the release of “Twin Peaks” in 1990 had the tag line “Who Killed Laura Palmer?” we went along for the ride. It continues until today. I was thinking about how satisfying the resolution of the series “Mare of Easttown” was. Which got me thinking about what makes a good ending versus a bad ending.
I think the cardinal rule to this kind of storytelling is not to cheat. Which means the resolution can’t come from out of nowhere. The killer can’t show up in the final episode without having been mentioned. It also can’t be a plot twist for the sake of shock value. Another recent series ‘The Undoing” learned this lesson the hard way. The reason for the enduring popularity is we want to feel like we are discovering our own clues as each episode unfolds.
The second rule is the resolution can’t be too simple. The corollary is it can’t be so complicated either. The best fun is considering and discarding suspects from our sofa. As an audience we often get more information than the protagonists. The best writers use that extra information to send us down our own blind alleys. I’ll write more about this when I review the series but as the penultimate episode of Mare of Easttown ended there were at least four viable suspects. Each of them had done things which made it possible to think they had done the crime. The final episode made it clear the eventual killer came from what came before. The writers of “Sharp Objects” also did that extremely well. Even including a few clips during the credits showing how the killer had committed the crimes.
The third rule is the detective must be cut from the cloth of Sherlock Holmes. We don’t want to follow around Inspector Clouseau in a dramatic show. They can be flawed human beings, but they must be outstanding investigators. The competence of the lead character is what gives us belief in the clues we find. It also allows us to feel their emotions when the cases become personal to them. The first season of Broadchurch did that magnificently. The second season was all about the fallout of the events of the first season.
If I’m going to spend some time trying to figure out whodunit these three rules better be followed.
One of the great things about the current streaming platforms is the opportunity for adaptations of my favorite novels. I can finally get the depth and length I want to see in an adaptation over more than the typical length of a theatrical film. It is rare that I don’t look forward to seeing it come out. The recent series “Shadow and Bone” has taken an interesting path to its screen version.
The story is based on the trilogy from author Leigh Bardugo. The story is of a land rent by a physical darkness called The Rift. To cross through it is full of risk. The original trio of books tells the story of orphans Alina and Mal as they get caught up in the political machinations when one of them is revealed to have unique powers. The first three books are all about that. Here is the thing those are not Ms. Bardugo’s best writing. They set up the characters but it kind of moves predictably through the typical fantasy motions. I really became a fan of the author when she published her second set of two books based around a group of thieves called The Crows. These are far more interesting than Alina and Mal. On the way to the small screen the television adapter Eric Heisserer must have also thought the same thing. With the help of Ms. Bardugo they retconned The Crows into the original story retaining some of the plot from the printed version which takes place after the original trilogy. It makes all the difference.
In the beginning we learn that one of our protagonists is a Sun Summoner who can broadcast light allowing travel through The Rift. There is a belief that kind of being might even be able to banish The Rift altogether. They are the target of many who have plans to use that power for their own ends.
This is where The Crows come in. Their leader Kaz takes on a contract to kidnap the Sun Summoner and bring them back across The Rift to be used by the crime lord there. There are three members of The Crows, Kaz, Inej, and Jesper. Inej’s religion believes in the Sun Summoner as an omen of new times. Her loyalties are tested between faith and friendship.
The inclusion of The Crows makes this first season much better than the books, either of them. There are moments it is heist then Game of Thrones-like politics then a love story of orphans who keep finding each other.
This is what a smart adaptation can achieve when all involved don’t just blindly follow the printed page. By making the effort to combine the two books the series “Shadow and Bone” summons its own bright light of intelligence.