Tom Fowler

Mystery and thriller writer

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Review: Wonder Woman

Wonder Woman is easily the best movie in the DCEU. Considering the competition, I’m sure you could interpret that as damning with faint praise. It’s not. This movie is great. It’s a shining light in a sea of otherwise dreary and mopey grey.

The movie: Young Diana, the princess of the island of Themiscyra, wishes to train with her fellow Amazons. Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) initially refuses, but, as Diana grows into a teenager, tells Antiope (Robin Wright) to train the girl harder than any Amazon before.

As a woman, Diana (Gal Gadot, who’s absolutely terrific) has become a great warrior. After training one day, she sees a plane crash off the shores of the island. Diana resuces the pilot, American Air Force Captain Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), on loan to British Intelligence against the Germans. The Germans discover the plane and attack the island, which goes poorly for all of them and a few of the Amazons.

Learning of “the War to End All Wars,” and fearing that war god Ares has returned, Diana and Steve leave Themiscyra, seeking the war. It doesn’t take them long to find it. When they arrive to find the small town of Veld under constant siege by the Germans, Diana is horrified by the Allies’ indifference and takes matters into her own hands. And it’s awesome. Mostly by herself, she lays waste to an entire German batallion.

Womder Woman, as played by Gal Gadot

Diana, Steve, and their small band of misfits have to stop German General Ludendorff (Danny Huston) and chemist Dr. Maru (Elena Anaya) from unleashing chemical weapons and undoing the upcoming armistice. Even when they think they’ve succeeded, Diana discovers that Ares has indeed returned, and she has to stop the god of war to end the war.

The writing: The best part of the writing is the character of Diana (she’s never called “Wonder Woman” in the movie, btw). Credit Gal Gadot for a great performance: she’s fierce, sympathetic, anguished, and curious at the right times and in the right amounts. Good writing and acting went into the humorous fish-out-of-water scenes, as we see this world through Diana’s eyes. The most important thing is that DC finally got a hero right.

See, Diana is the inspiring hero who genuinely wants to help the helpless we should have gotten with Superman in Man of Steel. Instead, we got Sir Mopes-a-Lot. Diana cares about the oppressed, is appalled when the Allied soldiers won’t help, and opens a giant can of whoop-ass on the Germans. It’s tremendous, and if it doesn’t make you want to go out and punch an evildoer in the face, the problem is yours.

The first two acts of the story are really, really good. The third is the generic Fight Against the Big Bad (Ares, in this case). Based on the quality of the first two acts–especially the second–I expected more from the third. It’s not bad, but it’s underwhelming in context. Diana seems to accrue new powers (or more power) in the fight, I guess because she collected enough plot coupons or experience points to level up.

The third act not living up to the first two is all that’s bad here. The boss fight is fine, and the identity of Ares may surprise you if you weren’t paying attention. But this movie earns its accolades on the backs of the actors who turned in good performances, and a script with a damn fine second act.

Go see Wonder Woman.

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Get two free chapters of my upcoming novel The Reluctant Detective, plus exclusive bios of the characters! Information is right here.

Review – Logan


Preamble: this movie review, and others you’ll see on this site, will focus on both the movie and the writing. This is, after all, a site about writing by a writer. This review covers the recent movie Logan, the final entry in the Wolverine saga. Yes, I’m lame enough that I missed it in theaters.

The movie: Logan is set in 2029. In this dreary future, no mutant have been born in the last 25 years. No longer going by Wolverine, Logan (Hugh Jackman) is driving a limo and dealing with a healing factor that’s no longer working well. The adamantium bonded to his bones is poisoning him and, coupled with his dodgy healing ability, is causing him constant pain.

Logan poster

Logan also cares for Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart), now 90 and suffering from Alzheimer’s. If you think it sounds bad that the world’s most powerful telepath has a brain disease, you’re right: Xavier’s seizures have devastating consequences for anyone around. The movie hints that one seizure killed seven X-Men. Only Logan seems able to function, more or less, during one of these episodes.

Logan and Xavier eventually meet Laura (Dafne Keen, terrific in her film debut), a mutant not born but grown in a lab by Alkali/Transigen. She also has adamantium claws and can regenerate, but she’s eleven, and has all the self-control you might expect from an eleven-year-old. Not surprisingly (though Logan seems surprised for some reason), Wolverine’s DNA runs in her veins. Transigen wants Laura and other escaped young mutants back, and to retrieve them, they send a clone of Logan called X-24.

Laura and the other young mutants are trying to get to North Dakota, where they will cross the Canadian border to some type of sanctuary. (Comic geeks, like me, may presume that Alpha Flight is going to host and protect them.) Transigen, its security chief Pierce (Boyd Holbrook) and X-24 find Logan and the kids before this can happen, of course, and we get a pretty epic final battle out of it.

The writing: I’m trying not to spoil anything here, so I’ll just say that the characters (and what happens to them) benefited from good writing. Logan is much a road movie as it is a superhero one. If not for a few mutant powers, this wouldn’t be a superhero movie at all.

The pacing is mostly good, though I think it drags in the second act. Logan was right to want to move on and not stay at the Munson family farm. The resultant scenes were good and moved the story forward, but it vexes me when characters do things they know are dumb. At least there’s a payoff. Also, the Canadian border as some magical sanctuary bugged me. Even if Alpha Flight were there and waiting, Transigen had a squad of Reaver mercenaries. It didn’t appear to be a sure thing, at any rate.

This movie is rated R, and it’s a pretty hard R. There’s a lot of neck stabbing, face stabbing, belly stabbing, leg stabbing . . . this is just a stabby movie. The violence is swift, brutal, and done well. Language is the other factor earning this movie its R rating. (Tidbit: you only get one F-bomb in a PG-13 movie.) I have no problem with cursing in fiction (books, TV, or movies), but several of the F-bombs felt gratuitous. It was like the movie was making up for being constrained in the cursing department with the prior two Wolverine scripts.

The story is good, though, and the characters (both good and bad) are written and portrayed well. I definitely recommend seeing Logan, but know going in that it’s violent, bloody, and sometimes swears to hear itself doing so. But it’s good.

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If you haven’t already, go here to get your free sample chapters and character bios for my upcoming mystery novel The Reluctant Detective!

Review: No Middle Name, by Lee Child

No Middle Name collects all the Jack Reacher short stories into one volume.

Whatever your opinion of Reacher, this collection won’t change it. I’ve read all the books (and seen both movies), so I like the character. However, I also recognize that he has his faults. Reacher can be pretty pompous and annoying at times, bordering on insufferable in some moments. The good and the occasionally vexing are all in here. The good wins out. I’ll focus more on the longer stories in this review.

The book opens with “Too Much Time,” a brand-new novella. (All the other stories were previously published somewhere.) In a small Maine town, Reacher witnesses what looks like a random purse-snatching and intervenes. Of course, it ends up being a lot more than that, and Reacher ends up arrested on a trumped-up charge. He has to figure out who had him locked up and why. And what was in that bag to cause all of this? It’s a good story, probably not meaty enough for a full novel, but great as a novella.

No Middle Name cover

“Small Wars” goes back to 1989, when Reacher, still an MP, works the case of a young, fast-rising officer shot in her sports car on a random forest road. The local police run their own investigation, which complicates things. This story does a good job of showing how smart and adaptable Reacher can be, as he assembles some disparate facts, plus a few assumptions, and figures it out.

“Not a Drill” takes us back to Maine. Reacher, looking to see the northern terminus of I-95, finds himself in the Maine woods with some campers. When the hiking trail is closed by the military, Reacher and one of the hikers set off to figure out why. “High Heat” sets the wayback machine to 1977. Seventeen-year-old Reacher is in New York City in the middle of a heatwave. He runs afoul of a local made man, romances a girl, and sees a strange character outside of a car. This is one of the time Reacher borders on annoying, as the man’s movements lead Reacher to conclude things about his past and eventually posit that he’s the Son of Sam. Which, of course, he is. Still. the story is entertaining.

“Second Son” cranks the rewind even harder, showing Reacher as a preteen newly-arrived in Okinawa. He’s mostly the same as he is as an adult, just smaller. In this story, Reacher beats up an older, smelly bully and manages to solve a case that has confounded the MPs. Child’s writing is always compelling, and he’s great at pacing and moving the story forward. This story strained credulity, however. I’ll come along for the ride and buy Reacher as a smart brawler at seventeen. I could probably go down to sixteen, but that would be it.

“Deep Down” takes Reacher back to his Army days again. He’s trying to find the spy among four female officers. Maybe all four are clean. Maybe one is dirty. One definitely ends up dead, but was she the double agent? “Guy Walks into a Bar,” “James Penney’s New Identity,” “Everyone Talks,” “The Picture of the Lonely Diner,” “Maybe They Have a Tradition,” and “No Room at the Motel” are shorter stories that complete the book. “James Penney’s New Identity” was my favorite of the bunch. They’re all pretty quick reads, usually just covering Reacher in one situation, rather than navigating a harrowing problem.

No Middle Name shows a great character in many different situations. Some are like Child’s bestselling thrillers; some are more like vignettes. If you like Reacher, you’ll like No Middle Name. If you’ve never read any of the Reacher books, this is a good introduction to the character. After finishing this book, go directly to Killing Floor. Do not pass Go.

But do buy this book.

How Important is Setting?

Today, my wife and I took our daughter to see Peter and the Wolf in Hollywood. “Wait,” you may be thinking. “Since when is Hollywood the setting for Peter and the Wolf?”

That’s the point. It’s usually not. But for this performance, it was, and it worked. There were a few changes, but anyone familiar with the story would still recognize it, and the narration and music accompaniment were very good.

That got me thinking about setting. For some books, it’s vital. The Spenser novels wouldn’t be the same if they got transplanted from Boston to, say, Dallas. With some series, the setting almost becomes a character unto itself. We as readers get used to the author describing certain roads, houses, buildings, restaurants, etc. Would Lawrence Block’s Matthew Scudder novels have been the same in Phoenix instead of New York? Would L.A. Confidential have been the same if it were Memphis Confidential?  You can certainly tell a crime story in Memphis, but not that one. An unlicensed PI could solve cases in Phoenix, but he wouldn’t be Scudder. Someone could write a mystery series set in Dallas, but not the Spenser novels.

Insert tumbleweeds here...

Not the setting of many noir novels.

For other books, setting may not be as important. (Let’s leave out speculative fiction set in author-created worlds; those are obviously hard to relocate.) Maybe it’s a genre thing. A gritty urban fantasy set in New York may work just as well set in Washington D.C. A literary fiction novel may be taken from Portland, Oregon and plopped into Portland, Maine with little loss. The Jack Reacher series by Lee Child is set everywhere. Reacher as a character moves around a lot. One book will be in Europe, and the next will be in some tiny town in the US. And they all work because Reacher (and good storytelling) keeps everything together.

My crime novels are set in Baltimore. I hope I can make it seem like another character in the books, like Parker did for Boston and Block did for New York.

For writers, here are your books set? Could they be set somewhere else? Do you want to make setting more important? Those are things you’ll need to decide. For readers, how much do you value setting? Do you prefer books where the setting is important? Drop me a line and let me know.

 

Book Review: Smart Baseball by Keith Law

Smart Baseball, by ESPN senior writer Keith Law, is a comprehensive and entertaining look at the world of baseball statistics, both the better new ones and some older ones that have lost relevance.

Yes, I’m something of a baseball nerd. Over the years, football has become my favorite sport to sit and watch on TV, but baseball is still my favorite sport to follow. A large reason for that is the game’s statistical history and depth. I collected baseball cards when I was young, culminated by having a complete Topps 1983 set.

Keith Law will tell you that many of the stats on your old baseball card are garbage.

Smart Baseball cover

I had learned this previously. In the words of Bowie, it came as some surprise. I missed the Bill James revolution, but internet baseball writers like Rob Neyer, Joe Posnanski, and Keith Law opened my eyes to newer and better stats.

If you’ve been a participant in the sabermetric revolution, there’s still plenty in Smart Baseball for you. The first part of the book, dubbed “Smrt Baseball” (“smrt” is a Simpsons reference, and it’s worth Googling if you’re not familiar with it) talks about older stats whose time has come. Law tosses things like batting average, pitcher wins, and saves onto the fire, and pillories sacrifice bunts for good measure. Most importantly, he explains what those stats don’t tell us, and why they’ve fallen out of favor over the years. If you enjoy Law’s snark, it’s displayed most often in this section.

Part 2 (“Smart Baseball”) looks at the more modern stats defining the game today. Here is where you’ll find OBP, WAR, UZR, WPA, and more. A common complaint of the newer stats is that you need a spreadsheet to calculate them (and, implicit in there, this somehow makes you less of a baseball fan). That may be true, but how many people sit on their couches and calculate batting averages? Even if you don’t know how to compute WPA or WAR–and I don’t–Law explains them in terms readers can easily understand.

Part 3 (“Smarter Baseball”) looks at the future of data in baseball. How are clubs using Statcast info, along with their own metrics, to evaluate players? What’s the role of traditional scouting in this data-driven era? These are some of the questions Law asks and answers in this section.

Some of you may be wondering why I’m reviewing a baseball book. After all, I’m a fiction writer, and (I presume) many of the people reading this blog are fiction readers. The reason is that good writing is important, and Smart Baseball is good writing. We as writers can learn from nonfiction, too.

If you like baseball, even if you don’t consider yourself a fan of old or new stats, I think Smart Baseball is worth the read. It’ll broaden your horizons as a fan and teach you a few things. That’s not as awesome as watching your team win the World Series (I’ve been waiting since 1983; come on, Orioles!), but it’s still pretty good.

Definitely recommended.

Pro Bono is Now on Amazon!

A couple weeks ago, I started circulating a set of three short stories to introduce prospective readers to C.T. Ferguson, my private investigator protagonist. Two days ago, I put it up on Amazon. It’s in Kindle Unlimited, so it’s free if you have that. Here’s the cover (it looks better in higher resolution, I promise):

Pro Bono cover

The Amazon US link is right here.

I had been giving away Pro Bono to anyone who signed up for my mailing list. Now, with the stories on Amazon, I’m giving something else away. Today, I started offering the first chapter of the upcoming novel The Reluctant Detective, plus bios of the major and minor characters. You can preview the book and learn about the characters before it goes for sale. If you’re interested in this, click the “Get Free Stuff” link near the top of the home page.

The Reluctant Detective is now in editing. I expect to release it to the electronic world around late June to early July. The inexact timeframe is due to a complicating factor: we expect to be moving. Pending good inspections and appraisals, we’ll settle on a new house in a month and move in over the next couple weeks. If my wife follows the pattern of our wedding, she will give me the hairy eyeball if I sit down and work on something other than The Task. So, in the interests of hairy eyeball avoidance, I can’t say exactly when the book will come out. But figure sometime in six to eight weeks.

In the coming weeks, I have some interesting blog posts coming, including looking at great first lines of mystery/thriller writers, and writeups on interesting detective characters from TV. And I might throw in a book review or two. If you have a favorite first line from a mystery or thriller novel, email it to me or tweet it at me.

Happy writing (and reading).

Free Short Stories!

Years ago, Guns n’ Roses said, “I put the pen to the paper ’cause it’s all a part of me.” We’ve moved on from pen and paper in the intervening years, but I did the 21st-Century equivalent and put electronic words onto a screen. I kept up the modernity and assembled those words into a short story set. It contains three short stories, designed to introduce you to the world of unconventional private investigator C.T. Ferguson.

Here’s a look at the cover:

Pro Bono cover

The cover looks a lot better in high-resolution. Shrinking it to make it not dominate this post reduced the quality a little. Anyway, the set of short stories is free, and is now available for download in .pdf, .mobi, and .epub formats. You can go HERE to find out how to snag your copy.

You may be thinking to yourself, “Self, what makes C.T. Ferguson an unconventional PI?” It’s a few things, really. First, as you may have deduced from the cover image, C.T. is more of a hacker than a detective. He thinks he can do most of his work in the pale glow of a computer screen. Most of his cases will prove him wrong (to varying degrees). Another thing that sets C.T. apart from his PI brethren is that he doesn’t charge his clients. How does he make his living? You can read the answers to those and other questions in the short stories, and in the upcoming novel The Reluctant Detective. Right now, it’s being professionally edited. Look for it sometime toward the end of June, on Amazon and other popular ebook sellers.

This story set will be available on Amazon soon. Right now, you can get it for free. Here’s the download link again: right here.

When it’s available, I hope you’ll go and leave a review. And I hope you enjoy C.T.’s cases.

Challenging Yourself: Writing Groups

Like many writers, I’m in a writing group (sometimes called a critique group). I checked out a couple of writing groups before joining my current one. The first group I tried to join didn’t want to take on another genre writer.

This is what I’ve wondered for a while, as a general query: is it bad for a writing group to favor genre authors, as opposed to those who just write mainstream (or literary) fiction?

Obviously, some groups will devote themselves to a certain genre. You’ll have romance writing groups, mystery groups, fantasy groups, etc. Those groups will immerse themselves in the ins and outs of a certain genre and work to get published (or keep getting published) within that genre.

I hope it’s not like this… (Image copyright Drew Myron)

For a more general group, however, is there a tipping point when you have too many genre authors? I don’t know. I can see that each author has to know how their genre works, what the expectations are, what the market is, etc. The other writers in the group will probably not know that information. If I were in a writing group with a romance writer, I couldn’t give her a very deep critique. I could talk about the style, word choices, and technical things like that, but I know nothing about the genre (and I would argue I shouldn’t have to). My advice could be the opposite of what she really needs to know.

So, does this mean writers who write in a genre should only join a writing group that focuses on that genre? I don’t think so. I think being exposed to different genres allows you to spread your wings as a writer and a reader. Let’s use the romance critique from before: I don’t read that genre, so my ability to critique it is limited. But reading it takes me outside of my comfort zone. What I should now be thinking is how I can apply something I saw in that submission to my own writing. Even if what I write is pretty far from romance (and it is), that doesn’t mean the writer has nothing to show me. And it shouldn’t mean I have nothing to say to her.

Stepping out of your normal reading and writing comfort zones can be a good thing. I would encourage anyone to find a good writing group. You can check with your state or local writers’ associations or look here.

The Fumblerules of Grammar

Years ago, the late New York Times columnist William Safire compiled “The Fumblerules of Grammar.” I got reminded of one of them today. If you’ve never seen them, they are hilarious and tremendous. If you’ve seen them before, enjoy another chuckle.

The Fumblerules of Grammar

Sage advice

1. Avoid run-on sentences they are hard to read.
2. Don’t use no double negatives.
3. Use the semicolon properly, always use it where it is appropriate; and never where it isn’t.
4. Reserve the apostrophe for it’s proper use and omit it when its not needed.
5. Do not put statements in the negative form.
6. Verbs has to agree with their subjects.
7. No sentence fragments.
8. Proofread carefully to see if you any words out.
9. Avoid commas, that are not necessary.
10. If you reread your work, you will find on rereading that a great deal of repetition can be avoided by rereading and editing.
11. A writer must not shift your point of view.
12. Eschew dialect, irregardless.
13. And don’t start a sentence with a conjunction.
14. Don’t overuse exclamation marks!!!
15. Place pronouns as close as possible, especially in long sentences, as of 10 or more words, to their antecedents.
16. Hyphenate between sy-llables and avoid un-necessary hyphens.
17. Write all adverbial forms correct.
18. Don’t use contractions in formal writing.
19. Writing carefully, dangling participles must be avoided.
20. It is incumbent on us to avoid archaisms.
21. If any word is improper at the end of a sentence, a linking verb is.
22. Steer clear of incorrect forms of verbs that have snuck in the language.
23. Take the bull by the hand and avoid mixed metaphors.
24. Avoid trendy locutions that sound flaky.
25. Never, ever use repetitive redundancies.
26. Everyone should be careful to use a singular pronoun with singular nouns in their writing.
27. If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a thousand times, resist hyperbole.
28. Also, avoid awkward or affected alliteration.
29. Don’t string too many prepositional phrases together unless you are walking through the valley of the shadow of death.
30. Always pick on the correct idiom.
31. “Avoid overuse of ‘quotation “marks.””‘
32. The adverb always follows the verb.
33. Last but not least, avoid cliches like the plague; seek viable alternatives.

The Fumblerules are supposed to be a joke and make you laugh. But here’s the rub: they contain a lot of great grammar advice. As writers, most of these are things we should try our damnedest to avoid doing. While you might chuckle at, say, Fumblerule #28, maybe you’ll recall it when you see a long string of alliteration in your own writing.

Other Fumblerules, maybe attributable to Safire, exist. My favorite of those is “eschew obfuscation.” I saw that on a bumper sticker once. Never have I wanted a bumper sticker more than I wanted that one.

Safire’s Fumblerules of Grammar are concise and excellent to look at every now and again to make sure you’re not falling into bad habits.

I’ll close with this joke I heard about Safire: William Safire walks into Burger King and orders two Whoppers Junior.

Share your own Fumblerules in the comments or via email.

Spring Cleaning Your Stories

I took a couple days off to enjoy spring break with my family (my wife is a teacher and our daughter is off for the week). Like a lot of people, we used some of the time to do some spring cleaning–or, in our case, some spring clearing-out. We have too much stuff and some of it has just got to go.

Early spring is a time many people use to get rid of old or unused things.

What do you do with old stories you never finished?

I have a few (well, presuming we can stretch the definition of “a few” beyond its usual boundaries) lying around. Every now and then, I’ll go back and look at them. The main thing I discover is that I stopped working on them for a reason . . . usually several reasons, in fact. Sometimes, the plot is thin. Other times, the characters aren’t well defined.

Most of the time, though, it’s because the writing makes me cringe.

Sure, I’m reading these with the writing equivalent of hindisight. Presuming we get better at this craft the more we do it, old stories should make us cringe a little. If we can get past the cringing, is there anything we can do with these stories?

I say there is. Read them. Get past the cringing and look at the plot. Look at the characters. Is something usable there? If so, take it and run with it. Come up with a better idea, or make the conflict more apparent, or whatever. But take a good idea and give it a good story.

My mystery novels feature a character born in short stories. While I think most of the stories are pretty bad, what they did was allow me to find the character’s voice. I fleshed out his background and the supporting players. And some of those stories have become the basis of novels. Why? The ideas were worthwhile. I just had to do better with them.

So when you find your old stories and they make you want to cringe, go ahead and cringe. Recognize that you’re a better writer now then when you wrote that story. But don’t throw the story away. Your present better-writing self might be able to take the bones of it and make it into something great.

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