Category Archives: Books

Writing as Magic

A magician’s job is to fool you. But the secret of magic is that you are the one who does the actual work. The magician appears to do things and your mind, conditioned by millions of years of evolution, completes the trick. So a ball is not really passed from hand to another but your mind makes it pass. The lady isn’t actually sawn in half but your mind makes her seem to get sawn in half.

Writing works the same way. I put words on the screen but they are a skeleton of an idea. The real work is done by the reader, who fills the spaces between those words with his own imagination and thought. I write seven simples words: the old man sat in a chair. And your mind fills in his appearance, the shape of the chair, whether it is a table, whether he was wearing hat (he was). You do the work.

As such, I am usually a little too close to the trick to be fooled. I write fiction that I hope people like. I string together words that I hope will create tension or horror or amusement or joy. But it’s hard for me to know. I know the ball isn’t really the other hand. I know the lady hasn’t really been sawn in half. So I rarely feel those emotions myself. I know the effect I’m looking for. But I can’t really tell if the slight of hand has worked.

On rare occasions, however, the slight of hand works on me. The ending of the The Water Lily Pond is one of those rare occasions. I’m about to do another full edit in preparation for making it available in paperback. But the ending is the one thing I know won’t change at all.

Watch this space.

(With apologies to Stephen King, he wrote about similar concepts in “On Writing”.)

The Water Lily Pond

So … I’ve written a novel.

Here’s the too-long-didn’t read version of the post: You can check out an excerpt here. You can buy the book here. I’ve published it with Kindle Direct Publishing, the world’s easiest vanity press. This means it can be read on any platform — Kindle, iOS, Android, Mac or PC. And at the time I post this, the book will be on sale for the next four days for the low low price of … absolutely free.

I think it’s good. And I hope you will too. If you like it, please tell everyone!

Now for the long version:

Continue reading The Water Lily Pond

The Girl Who Set the Dragon’s Nest on Fire

My thoughts on watching the movies of Girl with the Dragon Tattoo are too long for a tweet, so I’ll spell them out in a few hundred words.

I read all three books of the Millenium Trilogy last year. They are quite good: Larsson was a talented writer. His characters are believable (up to a point) and he is a master at building suspense and mystery. The three books are compelling page turners and featuring a plethora of strong female characters. And Lisbeth Salander has to be one of the better literary characters to emerge in recent years.

However, there were a number of things that bothered me about them. There is the Gary Stuish protagonist who seems not far removed from Larsson himself and spends much of the books sleeping with a series of great women. There is the stark moral color-coding, where all the antagonists are sexually abusive misogynistic dinosaurs. But what bothered me most was the way the books almost seemed to revel in their sexual depravity and trafficking hysteria. There is a strong “rescuer fantasy” undercurrent to the books that is subverted in Dragon Tattoo but keeps poking its head out in the next two books.

The books were a giant hit and have since been turned into a Swedish television miniseries and a Big Hollywood Film. I have now watched the Hollywood version (albeit a bowdlerized version on a transatlantic fight) and the first two parts of the Swedish miniseries.

On balance, I like the Swedish version better. I do need to see the American version in full at home to be completely sure about that, but I think my judgement is unlikely to change. The American version has definite advantages — a more filmic look, sharper direction, an even darker atmosphere. But the Swedish version is a little more complete and a little less slick, which I think are advantages.

One striking thing about the two movies is that the American version features much more handsome actors. I think this is actually to the film’s disadvantage. The Swedish actors look more real, more worn down, more in keeping with how I envisioned them (and, uh, more Swedish). It made them easier to identify with and easier to believe. To put it bluntly, Daniel Craig is way to handsome and way too British for Mikael Bloomquist. He does a great job, no question. If I didn’t know the Swedish version existed, I’d think he was definitive. But Michael Nyqvist is just a bit more suited to the role. The same goes for the lead role: Rooney Mara is excellent; but Noomi Rapace is just a bit better.

However, you really can’t go wrong with either one. Both are good. Both are suspenseful. Both do the book justice. Both come with my recommendation. They are both somewhere between 7/10 and 8/10, with the Swedish version a little higher. Was the remake, strictly speaking, necessary? I think it was. Because there a lot of people who simply will not watch a Swedish miniseries, no matter how good it is. The Craig film, by being slicker, more filmic and in English is more approachable and therefore allows more people to enjoy the story. I really don’t have a problem with that. The American film is utterly worthy of its Swedish predecessor.

Important note: the Swedish movie versions are cut by about half an hour from the full television miniseries versions. Netflix now has both available for streaming and I strongly recommend the miniseries version, which fleshes out the story and includes a number of small details and subplots that, in my opinion, make for a fuller viewing experience. This review is based on the full version.

(Really Serious Spoiler Warning: I’m about to reveal the end of the story, so please don’t read if you have not seen/read the story and want to maintain suspense.

There is one thing that I hated about the book: that Lisbeth destroys the evidence of Martin’s crimes. The reason it bothers me is that the families of all the girls he murdered deserve closure — not to mention the cops who investigated those crimes. I realize that Lisbeth would not appreciate this, but Mikael would. This is one sense in which the Swedish TV series was better than the novel: Mikael agrees to keep the murders out of the press but he and the Vangers agree to notify the families. I found that much more satisfying than the books “we’ll destroy all the evidence if you donate money to women’s causes” social engineering resolution.)


I remember an interview a long time ago with Ray Bradbury. He told a story — and I may be remembering this badly — of seeing a show at a carnival. The showman pointed at him and said, “Live Forever!” He almost did. He died yesterday at 91. And how apropos it happened after a transit of Venus.

There has been a lot said about the man — his amazing combination of optimism and pessimism about the future; his ability to get to our deepest fears and our highest hopes, often at the same time. He could write stories that evoked amazing pathos — my favorite being All Summer in a Day, still one of the most heart-breaking stories I’ve read. He could terrify — I used to have nightmares about Something Wicked This Way Comes. He could infuse us with he wonder of technology and space travel — when I saw Columbia launch on cold morning in Florida, my first thought was, “Rocket Summer”.

But, to me, the one thing that Bradbury was best at was evoking that feeling of youth — of recalling those endless summer days when you could run forever and feel the pure magic of being alive. The sense of child-like wonder in his writings was powerful and often dragged me back in time to when each day was a month and every year a century. He often did this to contrast against what he feared would be a sterile future. A perfect example is from Time in Thy Flight, when a little girl, Janet, is brought from the future to see the “frightening” past. In her words:

“I want to see it all again. I’ve missed the motives somewhere. I want to make that run across town again in the early morning. The cold air on my face — the sidewalk under my feet — the circus train coming in.”

And later, before she jumps the time ship to stay in the past:

“No, I just want to be inside. I want to stay here, I want to see it all and be here and never be anywhere else, I want firecrackers and pumpkins and circuses, I want Christmases and Valentines and Fourths, like we’ve seen.”

(And, in typical Bradbury fashion, one little boy is caught by the teacher and heart-breakingly unable to join his two companions in the past.)

Hopefully, Ray is somewhere where it always fall and spring and summer, where it is Christmas and Valentines and the Fourth. And is “inside the big house, in the candlelight, [where] someone is pouring cold apple cider all around, to everyone, no matter who they are.”

Which One, Sherlock?

I originally read the Sherlock Holmes cannon back in college. I enjoyed the stories but didn’t love them. Doyle tends to be a bit long-winded and, even when young, I found Holmes’ methods to be more dramatic than scientific. They make for good stories but real crimes are not solved by scuffs on boots and cigar ashes. Often times, the solution to the mystery was either very obvious or not accessible at all until Holmes revealed the extremely esoteric path he followed to suddenly present the solution. My favorite story was Hound of the Baskervilles, which I found wonderfully creepy.

But, over the last decade, I’ve slowly become a Holmes devotee. I re-read the stories when I bought my Kindle and thoroughly enjoyed them. Doyle is still long-winded, but I enjoy the digressions and back stories. And while Holmes’ methods are still more dramatic than scientific, they are fun. I enjoy the journey. And I thoroughly enjoy the character, who is one of the most wonderful in fiction. I think Steven Moffat described him best: Holmes is a man who wishes he were some sort of god.

And that brings me to the point of this post: Holmes is back in the public eye. We have had two movies from Guy Ritchie and a BBC series. And, thanks to Netflix, I’m now watching the classic Granada television adaptations. There a million portrayals out there and I should probably watch the Rathbone films before I even think of blogging about it. But I thought I’d go ahead and address the big question: which Holmes do I prefer so far?

And the simple answer is: all three of them.

The Jeremy Brett television series is the most faithful to the books, virtually a transcription. This is a little bit of a weakness as it tends to be staid and predictable to those who have read the books. The style is very classical and slow. What elevates it to excellent television is Brett, who simply embodies Holmes. His portrayal is as precise as a scalpel. Every gesture and word is exactly as one would envision from the books. There’s a very understated joy in the performance that makes the Holmes character so fascinating.

The Ritchie films are a cut below and probably my least favorite. That’s praising with faint damnation as I enjoyed both films, have the first on blu-ray and will probably buy the second soon. Robert Downey, Jr. is great in the role and has a fantastic chemistry with Jude Law. I wasn’t that taken with Rachel McAdam’s Irena Adler, especially the ridiculous way she was killed off. But Jared Harris’s Moriarity is a wonderful portrayal. And I like the way Holmes’ thinking is portrayed — with rapid edits and quick bursts. This reaches a climax in Game of Shadows when he and Moriarity both think out their moves in advance. I found myself grinning like an idiot in the theater.

The weakness, I think, is that they make Holmes a little too eccentric, especially in the first film. I can not imagine Holmes living in squalor or being so disheveled and mumbling. But … that’s their interpretation (or, more likely, Downey’s). If I can put my image of Holmes aside — and I usually can — I don’t have a problem.

But I think my favorite is the recent Moffat-Gattis effort on BBC. With six movies down and at least three more to go, it has been a pure pleasure to watch them unfold. It combines the best of both worlds: by moving the stories to the present and adapting them, yhere’s enough new to keep the audience on their toes and enough winks and nods to the fans to keep them happy. The casting has been strong and the secondary characters — particularly Lestrade and Adler — have been outstanding. The portrayal of Holmes’s thoughts, his use of technology, his controlled eccentricities — all are perfect. And the dialogue and plotting are as sharp as you would expect from the team that has made Doctor Who one of the best shows on television.

But what makes it great are the two leads. Cumberpatch embodies Holmes the same way Brett did — as a precise arrogant genius who borders on sociopathy. His portrayal is much more sarcastic than Brett’s but flows from the same vein: portraying Holmes as man who thinks of himself as more than human. And Martin Freeman is simply one of the best Watsons. There is a tendency to make Watson kind of dumb so that Holmes looks smarter. Good productions — like the Ritchie films and Granada series — stay away from this. Freeman’s Watson is smart, tough and can (almost) match Holmes quip for quip. The chemistry between them is so good, the constant jokes about them being gay partners don’t hit a false note.

We’ll see if Moffat and Gattis can keep the ball in the air for another series (and if Ritchie can). But … so far … it’s a great time to be a Holmes fan.

The Shakespeare Project: Love’s Labours Lost

I tried, but I just couldn’t get into this one. Maybe it’s because my reading was spread over many weeks; maybe it’s because I was reading it while tired. Or maybe it’s because it’s a very “in” play with contemporaneous references that aren’t as relevant today. I was frequently thanking the heavens for the Kindle’s ability to look up words with a click. Shakespeare’s other plays have aged well, but this one just hasn’t.

There was some stuff I enjoyed. Some wordplay was clever and the character of Berowne was good. But it was just missing something. Situations that should have been clever — Costard mixing up the letters, the overlapping overheard conversations, the attempts by the men to conceal their feelings — just washed over me. The games the women played at the end — games played so well in, say, Merry Wives of Windsor just seemed cruel and arbitrary. And then it end up in the air.

Humph. Maybe Love’s Labours Won would have redeemed it. In fact, the whole thing plays like a prelude to the possibly apocryphal second play. Unfortunately, we don’t have that play. So we’re stuck with one of the weaker comedies.

Up Next: A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy Dream. One of his best.

The Looming Tower

The Shakespeare Project has gotten delayed because I’ve been immersed in several other books. The Millenium Trilogy consumed a few weeks. It’s good, but not great. Larsson is skilled at building tension and drama, but the Gary Stuish nature of the protagonist threw me off as did the wallowing in sexual depravity (and moral color-coding of same: all the bad guys are sexual perverts; none of the good guys are).

But I just finished a great non-fiction book called The Looming Tower. Here’s the review I just posted to Goodreads.

Even though it’s five years old, this is probably the most important book you will ever read about 9/11. It only has a small section on the actual attack. The bulk of the book is about the rise of Al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden and the frustrating bureaucratic rules that kept key information away from the people who might have prevented the attack. The CIA does not come off well in this portrayal.

Having read it, I feel I have a good read on Osama bin Laden. Without him, the Jihadists would probably still be killing each other and blowing up their own countries. It was he who united them and pointed their guns at the West. Even though it was ten years too late, his death was a critical blow to Islamic terrorism.

But it also paints a broad picture of him that demonstrates what he really was: a charismatic ideology-addled rich kid who devoted himself to a radical ideal even he could not live up to but persuaded stupid young men to sacrifice themselves for. bin Laden believed in a system that reduced women to little more that possessions and forbad any pleasures, especially Western ones. But he married educated women, one of whom had a doctorate, he educated his daughters, played video games with his sons and listened to Western music. His beliefs were so absurd, even he rejected them in his life. It’s astonishing that only a few people realized just how dangerous and evil he was.

The most frustrating part of the book is the prelude to 9/11, when the CIA had the information that could have spoiled the plot, but refused to share it with the FBI because of “the wall” and their pathological secrecy. Why on Earth Ali Soufan was not made head of our anti-terrorism efforts boggles the mind.