Saturday, December 28, 2013

Book & Movie Review: Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon

What can I say about Dashiell Hammett's masterpiece The Maltese Falcon that hasn't been written by professional book reviewers for the past 83 years?

Not much, other than Sam Spade set the standard for hardboiled detectives since his debut in Black Mask Magazine

The only issue I had reading the book, was having a preconceived notion on what Sam Spade looks like, thanks to the 1941 movie version, that I've seen several times.

Hammett's description of Spade looking "...rather pleasantly like a blond satan..." on page one and referenced throughout the book, is nothing like...

... the silver-screen image of Humphrey Bogart I've had in my head all these years.  

This is why nowadays, writers are advised to be sparse in describing their characters' physical features.  It serves two purposes:  First, a lack of details actually helps fuel the imagination, making the story more interactive for the reader.

Second, it makes it easier for studio execs to find an actor to play the role if a book is "optioned" as it's called, into a movie.  Although studio execs often disregard lengthy character descriptions in the source material when selecting the film's cast.  Sometimes it works as it did for the Maltese Falcon.  

But other times it doesn't.  Last year, Jack Reacher fans voiced their displeasure over the selection of Tom Cruise as the lead in the Jack Reacher film (see Casting).  

Description differences aside though, both the book and movie version of the Maltese Falcon are well-crafted and established the black statuette as the most iconic MacGuffin in literary and cinematic history.

So whether you want to curly up in your favorite comfy chair, or sprawl-out on the sofa with a bowl of popcorn, you're in store for 5-star entertainment.  And that, to borrow Bogey's line, truly is: The stuff that dreams are made of (see #14)

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Pending Style Changes for My Star Wars Webcomic

It's said that change is the only constant in the universe.  This certainly applies to any creative endeavors.  The published authors I know often talk about how their writing style improves over the course of their careers.

My career in writing my Star Wars webcomic, Breakout from Bongolaan, is just over a year old and I hope my writing has improved during this time.  Although after doing a complete review of the Chapters 1 through 6, I've already spotted one typo!  And I'm sure there's more...

...anyway, a comic is more than just words.  It's also a visual medium and I continually look for ways to improve on this aspect of it too.  Since I'm no good at drawing, I've relied on taking photographs of my miniatures and model terrain to tell my story.  (I'm not all that great at painting my figures, but that's another issue).  Thanks to a graphic novel workshop during a PNWA (Pacific Northwest Writers Association) Conference a few years ago, I learned this technique is a valid art form known as Fumetti.  

But valid or not, there's definitely room for improvement on my part.  Despite having figures and terrain on-hand I eventually realized I needed some background to give readers a sense of place.  The picture above is my initial depiction of the Bongolaanian Presidential Palace, as seen in my YouTube book trailer.  

A couple months ago, I stumbled across the site Wallpaper Up and I'm now in the throes of shooting new & improved images, like this...

...which I discussed at length on my Redshift Chronicles Blog a few weeks back.  

One of the programs I've been using is Paint.Net, described as a "poor man's Photoshop," to add various special effects to each photo.  However, while I enjoy taking pictures, and I know photography is an art form in and of itself, I feel my images aren't...well..."artsy" enough.  

Also, despite the size of my Star Wars Miniatures collection, I don't have the variety of models and figures needed to create all the necessary scenes.  So I've turned to real-life photography to fill in these gaps.  But in order to make these images "blend in" with the ones of miniatures, I've used the Oil Painting Function under Paint.Net's artistic effects.  The result is somewhat "Impressionistic", like this image here...

...of the New Year's Eve Masquerade Ball at Roberson Mansion.  This helps soften the starkness of a photograph to some degree. 

And speaking of stark images:  It seems like the imperfections in every picture I've used jump out at me.  Maybe because I'm the director's chair, so to speak; or maybe I'm a not-so-closeted perfectionist.  Either way, since I want to create the best possible content for my readers, I've been playing around with the oil painting function a bit more.  

This softens the image and helps hide the imperfections, as in this Oil Painting version of the Presidential Palace...

...but I also think it blurs the areas I want to draw the readers attention to.  Which is why I haven't used this function on any scenes involving miniatures.

Then, just a few days ago while compiling images for Chapter 7, I found myself idly playing around with Paint.Net's Ink Sketch function.  I applied it to the Presidential Palace photo and...


I don't know about you folks, but I really like this style.  It hides the imperfections I'm worried concerned about, and yet the "ink" brings all the objects into a sharp focus.  I just have to fiddle with the black-to-color ratios for the best result.

Best of all:  It makes it look like I actually drew this stuff.

Part of me wanted to hold-off using this technique until I begin work on Book Two of the Redshift Chronicles, but I'm too excited about this to wait any longer.  

So starting with this upcoming Chapter 7, Breakout from Bongolaan, along with the subsequent Redshift Chronicles books, will have a whole new look.

Unless, of course, I find something better...

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Program Review: Welcome to Sanditon

(Image from Pemberley Digital)

Well it's time for me to turn in my Man Card--again.  

I guess I get sentimental this time of year, especially now that Christmas is less than half-a-day away.

Anyway, today's "Man Card violation" is my review of Pemberley Digital's (PD)second YouTube series Welcome to Sanditon.  

This program is a spin-off of the award-winning Lizzie Bennet Diaries.

Most TV spin-offs don't measure up to the quality of the parent program and unfortunately, Welcome to Sanditon falls into a similar internet category.

But it was a valiant attempt.

Part of the problem was the source material, which was based on the unfinished novel Sanditon by--who else?--Jane Austen.  

The second problem was, the producers attempted to get the fans involved directly which resulted in some mediocre-at-best videos.  

In PD's re-imagining of Sandition, William Darcy's sister Gigi, played by actress Allison Paige, strikes out on her own to set up their company's multi-platform communication program Domino, in the town of Sandition, CA.  There, she encounters conniving Mayor Tom Parker (Joel Bryant), along with rival siblings and competing gym-owners Letitia and Beau Griffiths (Vanessa Chester and Vaughn Wilkinson, respectively).  

However, Gigi manages to help love bloom--thanks to Domino--between Clara Breton (Lenne Klingaman) owner of the ice cream parlor "Sanditon Scoops" and the mayor's bumbling, but likable assistant, Edward Denham (Kyle Walters). 

The subplot in all this revolves around the Domino program itself, which is suspected of becoming self-aware in a "romantic Skynet" sort of way.  

And here's where the fan videos come in:  

During the show's production, fans submitted videos of themselves posing as Sanditon residents, discussing their mysterious dealings with Domino.  It was a good attempt at involving the fans, but fell short of the quality mark and really didn't add much, if anything, to the plot.  Based on the comments of YouTube viewers, the fan videos were the least favorite part of the show.

All that being said, I liked Welcome to Sanditon and enjoyed watching it, giving the show a 3 out of 5 star rating.  The love story between Clara and Ed is cute. The first ice-breaker between the two occurs when he's locked in her store watching The Day of the Triffids mini-series (1981).  

Hey, any program that references The Day of the Triffids can't be all that un-manly, can it?

(Image:  Manly picture of Triffid-infested London)  

And for those of us you with a sweet tooth, Clara concocts some killer ice-cream recipes, such as:  

Trick-or-Treat Ice Cream (Episode 2)
Chocolate Peanut Banana Juice (Episode 6)
Breakfast Sundae (Episode 10) 
Brownie Sandwich (Episode 14)
Chocolate Dipped Cone with Raspberry Sorbet (Episode 18) 
and my favorite--Nutella Waffles for Two (Episode 22)

As I mentioned in my Lizzie Bennet review, I don't intend to pick-up a Jane Austen novel.  I'm much more interested in the Napoleonic Wars than the trials and tribulations of England's landed gentry during the Regency Era.

Nor do I recall ever watching a Jane Austen-based movie or TV program.  However, I think these re-imagined versions are well-suited for the "small screen" because they are so personal--and yes--romantic.

So grab your box of tissues, your ice-cream scooper, skip the fan videos and enjoy Welcome to Sanditon


Episodes can be seen on the Pemberley Digital website, YouTube or on Facebook

Monday, December 23, 2013

Book Review: The Tough Guys, by Mickey Spillane

I haven't read a lot of crime novels, especially the hardboiled variety, but I've heard a lot about Mickey Spillane.  A few months ago, I stumbled across his book The Tough Guys, at a used book sale a local bank was hosting.  At the price of a buck, I figured I couldn't go wrong.

The Tough Guys, is actually an anthology of three short stories:  Kick it or Kill!, The Seven Year Kill and The Bastard Bannerman.  These were originally published in various men's magazines back in the '60s.

Kick it or Kill and The Bastard Bannerman have similar story arcs.  Basically, like in the westerns, a stranger "rides into town" and cleans up the joint.  While the Seven Year Kill is about a disgraced journalist out on parole, trying to clear his name--and get back at the crime boss who framed him.

All three stories feature plenty of two-fisted and steamy action.  While each story is told in first person, you won't find any literary-style introspection.  Just a guy trying to figure out what's going on and what to do about it--without getting killed in the process.

Reading these stories reminded me of the cops & robbers movies I watched on TV when I was a kid.  In fact, they were like print versions of action-adventure movies.  You know you're not getting an Academy Award winner, but you're in for a good yarn--minus the car chases and explosions.

The one thing that felt out-of-kilter was the dialogue.  Specific dates were mentioned in each story and while they took place in the '60s, the language people used reminded me more the '50s or even '40s.  True, not all of us who lived through the "Age of Aquarius" talked like a hippie pot-head and "The Establishment" was still strongly conservative.  While I loved Spillane's pulp/noir style of writing, I still had trouble reconciling the dialogue with any of the stories' time frame.  It's as if the author completely ignored the whole counter-culture movement.  Based on what I've read about the author's patriotic and anti-communist feelings, such an omission may have been deliberate.

Overall, I give The Tough Guys a 4 out of 5 star rating.  No one's reviewed this book, originally published on 1 December 1969, on  However, there's 50 ratings on Goodreads, yielding an average of 3.56 out of 5. Here's what blogger Vintage Hardboiled Reads had to say about The Tough Guys.

I may not go out of my way to find more of Mickey Spillane's work, but if I do, especially his popular Mike Hammer series, I'll be sure to snatch them up.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

A Not-Quite Whovian's Perspective of Dr. Who

Last month I posted a congratulatory post about the 50th Anniversary of Dr. Who.  

Since then, I've been trolling the internet reading and viewing various tidbits to get me better acquainted with The Doctor.  

 First there was the Doctor Who entry on Wikipedia to get a broad overview of the Whoverse.

After that, I spent most of my time right at the source--BBC's Doctor Who TV

Despite my cursory in-depth on-line research, I've watched practically no episodes from start-to-finish yet.  I vaguely remember the 1996 Doctor Who movie.  The snippets of shows I remember the most are from back-in-the-day of the Fourth Doctor, when my sister "Rox of Spazhouse" would tune in to the program.

From what I have seen though, I can understand why this show is so popular.  While the special effects, especially in the early years, may seem laughable, the acting is quite good.  (By the way, there are still some laughable special effects in a lot of movies produced by Syfy).

My favorite Doctor, is of course the Fourth Doctor, played by Tom Baker, for nostalgic reasons.  These were the shows I remember the most, because my sister Rox watched Doctor Who as much as I watched Star Trek.

But after watching all the samples available on the BBC website, I've gotten to like the previous three Doctors.

Why not the newer ones?

I guess because when I think of the term "doctor" referring to a non-medical person, I think of someone scholarly.  The younger, hipper and edgier Doctors that have come along since #4 don't seem to fit that mold for me.

It also makes sense to my middle-age addled brain that someone as intelligent--brilliant even--as The Doctor is, often needed some muscle to watch his back while he concocts his cunning plan to defeat the bad-guy-of-the-week.  Hence, in my opinion, his constant need of companions.

But based on this chart I from L7 World, the producers of the show apparently had other ideas...

Anyway, does my favorable impression now make me a Whovian?  

Not really, but this has more to do with me than the show.  Being a "live by the sword" type, I have very little patience for recurring villainous masterminds.  At least on two occasions, The Doctor (#4 and #5) had Davros, creator of the Daleks, dead-to-rights yet dallied until one of Davros' minions turned the tables.  

So I can't really get into a hero who continually pulls his punches, or chokes at the finish.

I guess I'm the kind of guy that shoots first

But at least now I can hold a conversation, watch an episode with my Whovian family and friends and not feel like a complete muggle.  

(Yes I know I mixed metaphors, but I'm not Whovian enough to describe a non-Whovian like me). 

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Roaming in the Rain at Cowpens

A couple of days after my King's Mountain walkabout, I managed to squeeze in a quick trip to the Cowpens National Battlefield. This time though, Sarah and Dallas accompanied me.  I didn't think we'd be able to make the trip, because we had several errands to run that day.  But we managed to complete finish our frantic running around and make it to the Visitors Center an hour-and-a-half before closing time.  And unlike my trip to King's Mountain--a light rain was falling.
The monument at the Visitors Center bore plaques listed the American forces...

...and the British ones involved in the battle


Since we were the only ones in the Visitors Center, the park rangers offered to start their fiber-optic map program outside the scheduled times.  The show used lights on a map to illustrate the course of the battle and the entire Southern Campaign of the American Revolution.

After the show we stepped out into the rain and on to the battlefield trail. 

Half of the path was over the old Green River Road...

...which both forces straddled when they deployed.
Here's a the view on the Green River Road from the rear of the American position, looking towards the British.
The battle was fought just over three months after King's Mountain (17 January 1781).  So visiting the park at this time of year gave me a good impression of terrain and weather conditions at that time, although it appears the day was clear, but colder.

I was surprised how substantially forested the battlefield was.  I expected a more open field as I've seen depicted on maps.

Here's the area where the American skirmishers stood. 

We didn't see any Redcoats, but we did come across some wild turkeys. 

Shortly after turning off the Green River Road, we came to the spot where Banastre Tarleton...

...and William Washington crossed swords...

...or at least came close to doing so (historical accounts vary).

The trail looped back toward the American lines...

 ...and the maps along the way illustrated different phases of the battle.  Above, the British surge forward expecting another easy victory over a rabble of militia.

Cannons were highly prized, even the two small Grasshopper Cannons Tarleton had at his disposal.  Unfortunately for Tarleton, neither gun remained at his disposal after the battle.  There was a 3-pounder replica in the museum, while a metal silhouette sat out in the field.  I think this was near the spot one of the Grasshoppers was captured.
The Washington Light Infantry Monument:

Another surprising feature of the battlefield was how relatively flat it appeared to be.  The terrain didn't appear as rugged as I imagined from looking at maps like this...

But looks could be deceiving.  Sarah, Dallas and I were out on a leisurely stroll, albeit in a light rain.  We didn't force-march all night, being deprived of rest, food and water, like Tarleton's men were.  Nor did we have to assault enemy-held positions.  Any advantage, no matter how small, could be decisive in a fight.

Near the end of our walk the clouds thinned a bit and I attempted to capture the battlefield at sunset.

When we returned to the Visitors Center, the park rangers offered to show us their short historical film before they closed.  We took them up on their offer and after the film, nosed around the small gift shop.

 The museum and gift shop were smaller than the one at King's Mountain, but still worth devoting some time to look things over.  We left the park with less than 15 minutes to spare before they closed.
Cowpens is certainly a battlefield worth visiting, or in my case--revisiting.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Walkabout Around King's Mountain

A couple days after my last blogpost I traveled to South Carolina to visit my daughter Sarah and her boyfriend Dallas.  It was also the first time I met Dallas' family.  To say I had an enjoyable time would be an understatement.  The only "cloud" to the trip is that my both Sarah and Dallas work and attend school.
But as they say:  Every cloud has a silver lining.
And the silver lining on this trip was Sarah & Dallas live within driving distance to several battlefields in the Carolinas.
So on Saturday, December 7th, I stole away to the King's Mountain National Military Park while Sarah and Dallas were at work.  I was one of maybe half-a-dozen visitors that cool and cloudy day.  The Vistors Center, pictured above, was the first the first part of my tour.  The building consisted of a small museum, theater and gift shop.
For you miniature wargaming fans, here's a photo of the diorama depicting one of the Loyalist bayonet charges that occurred during the battle.

The park rangers were very hospitable and offered to start their historical movie early for me.  Since my knowledge of the battle was vague at best, I took them up on their offer and I'm glad I did.  (Wikipedia has a decent account of the battle and the aftermath).
After the show, I put on my jacket, strapped on my small backpack and set out on the 1.5 mile battlefield trail.  The park also has more extensive hiking and horseback riding trails, while the nearby state park hosts a campground.  But since my time was limited and I didn't have a horse, I kept to battlefield tour.  While the winding path was paved... was often steep, especially the portion that ascended to the summit.  Memorials and information plaques were placed at several key locations.  I especially liked the "You Are Here" maps, which superimposed the troop dispositions of the battle. 

(I added the yellow graphics to the picture above). 
Here's a view looking up at the summit from Cleveland's NC Militia position...

While I was on active duty, I was stationed in North Carolina for several years, but never got use to the summer heat.  So I was happy to be doing my walkabout this time of year.  Plus the lack of foliage gave me a better view of the battlefield, which I felt approximated the weather and terrain conditions during the actual battle.
Many of the Overmountain Men that assaulted King's Mountain came from beyond the boundaries of the orignal Thirteen Colonies, in what is now Tennessee.

Their most notable leader was Isaac Shelby:

A view of the summit from Shelby's position...

The climb to the summit...

A monument commorating the battle...

Prior to the Revolutionary War, King's Mountain was used by the locals as a hunting camp.  I'm not sure if it's the highest mountain in the area, but did manage to get a couple of almost-panoramic views of the countryside.

Here was a newer monument that not only commemorated the battle, but the opening of the national park.

 The Loyalists, or Tories as they were often called were led by Major Patrick Ferguson.  Once Ferguson was identified, thanks to one of his mistresses defecting to the patriots (or rebels, depending on your point of view), nine men were reported to have fired at him when he was at this spot...

Seven (some accounts say eight) musket balls struck him, blowing him from the saddle. 

But one of his boots remained stuck in his horse's stirrup and dragged his body down to the patriot lines.  Ferguson's other mistress was also killed in the battle.  (Apparently both of them were named Virginia).
Since the War of 1812, we've managed to patch things up, more or less, with our British cousins.  So much so, that our battlefields often include memorials to our former enemies. 
Ferguson's Memorial:

And that was my last stop before returning to the Visitors Center.   

I went inside the gift shop and bought several souvenirs.  I was somewhat dissappointed they didn't have a replica of Ferguson's silver whistle.  The park ranger at the checkout counter said she'd buy one too if they had some.
I headed back to meet Sarah and Dallas for dinner at his parent's place.  Overall, my tour took me 2.5 hours to complete.  I could have spent all day there.  Since my wife couldn't travel with me due to her new job, maybe during my next trip to SC we can all visit the battlefield.