Flash Fiction Friday

Today I’m re-posting a 100-word story/vignette I submitted to this week’s “Warm Up Wednesday” on the Flash! Friday blog. The challenge was twofold (threefold if you count the 100 word limit):

  1. Use the following picture as inspiration:

2. Include a homeless person.

My story is called “Broken”:

“Loop de loop… loop de loop…”

That’s all he ever says, the battered, broken man sitting across from me, when he isn’t dipping down to spoon beef stew between his hairy lips. Then he catches my eye, and there’s a glint, a small spark, a faint twitch of the mouth. Recognition, perhaps? Who can be sure?

The stew is actually very good. I don’t know what I expected from this homeless shelter. Been in so many, the food starts to taste the same. But now it’s time to move on.

“Come on, Captain,” I say, grabbing the old man’s arm.

Part of the fun and frustration with flash fiction–especially short flash fiction–is trying to tell a story. Because you only have a handful of words, much of the story must be hinted or implied. In the best flash stories, the story isn’t so much in what’s said as in what’s not said. The story behind “Broken” might be a little too subtle, but there is one. Can you see it? Of course, the great thing about art is even if you don’t see the story I intended, you might see a completely different story–maybe a better story–and that’s cool! :)

Have a great weekend!

Music Monday: Dancing Girls

It’s 1984. Imagine, if you will, an old classroom, not particularly large, with high ceilings, and walls painted light blue on the upper half, dark blue on the lower. There are posters depicting ancient Greece at regular intervals on the side walls. A doorway in one wall conceals a staircase to the dormitories. On the front wall is a blackboard (U.S. chalkboard). The wooden seats are arranged in rows facing the front, each with a fold-over desktop, chipped and scarred with engravings from previous occupants. This room not only serves as the classroom for Latin and Classical Studies, but it’s the form room (U.S. home room?) for 3Y, a class of thirteen and fourteen year old students.

It’s the middle of lunchtime, and some students return to the room to talk and catch up on homework. You wouldn’t know this was the eighties from their school uniform: dark blue blazers, blue-and-gold striped ties, white shirts and grey skirts for the girls, grey shirts and dark trousers for the boys. But the girls’ poofy and sprayed-rigid hair can’t help but betray the fashion of the era. One such girl, Louise, slips a cassette into her tape player, and the strains of Nik Kershaw’s “Human Racing” album soon drift across the room.

That’s the scene playing out in my head whenever I hear “Dancing Girls,” one of the singles from that album. It took me a while to appreciate Nik Kershaw as a musician and songwriter, so closely did I associate him with the cute boy pop idol image he appeared to embrace (the truth was Nik hated this image, but was too young and naive to object). Later that year, I caught the video to the title track of that album, “Human Racing,” on television. It struck me as a cleverly conceived song, so I went back and listened to those tunes I had ignored coming from Louise’s boombox, and a new respect for Mr. Kershaw was born in me.

Of the songs I came to know well, “Dancing Girls” is, perhaps, the most intriguing. It is the epitome of synth pop, with not an acoustic or stringed instrument in play. But to me that’s secondary to the music itself. First, the introduction has a tune made quirky by the fact it’s played over a single chord that sounds as if it doesn’t quite fit:

DancingGirls_Intro

Then Nik sings the verses over the sequenced bass line with no harmonies or chord accompaniment. This means all the chords are “implied” (e.g., you don’t actually hear a C-minor chord played, you infer its existence from the bass and the melody). Furthermore, the tune changes key at the end going into the chorus, which I imagine is hard to do vocally with no harmonic support:

DancingGirls_Verse

There are chords behind the chorus tune, but to keep things interesting and a little off-kilter, Nik changes keys toward the end of the chorus, then finishes it with a line sung in yet another key (“And they dance for him inside his head”), this time with just an A in the bass to accompany him.

The song is about boredom, and the desire for change from the endless cycle of work and sleep. “Bring on the dancing girls” is a call for something interesting to spice up life. This explains, perhaps, all the harmonic twists and turns, echoing the kind of life our “hero” would like to have.

Click HERE for a lead sheet with the chords to the entire song. Before anyone says anything, I know, strictly speaking, that if a song is in a flat key (like C-minor), then all the black-note chords should be flat (i.e., Gbm not F#m, Dbm not C#m, etc.). However, I went with the names most commonly associated with the chords. You see a Bbm more than an A#m, and an F#m more than a Gbm. In other words, I know the rule, and I broke it deliberately.

Here’s the music video:

And here’s Nik from a live gig in 2010 performing a very different take on the song:

Change, My Dear, and Not a Moment Too Soon…

The more observant among you may have noticed that my blog has had a facelift. To be technically precise, it’s had a theme-change. No, this isn’t to signify some new phase in my life, or some anniversary. The fact is, the designer(s?) of the theme I was using (“SimpleNotes”) decided to overhaul the theme. They’ve done this once before, but that time it didn’t affect the layout of my blog too much, so I went with it. This time, it made the page tabs go all skewiffy and the drop-downs fell out of place, and the widgets didn’t look right–in short, my blog looked a mess. So I went looking for a new theme, and I’ve settled on this one. At least for now. I might tweak it some, perhaps come up with a new title banner, but pretty much this is it.

“Why not create your own theme?” you might ask. “After all,” you continue, “do you not work in IT? Do you not do programming for your bread-and-butter? Do you not know about HTML, php, CSS, and other geeky acronyms?” All the above is true and relevant. Yes, I have the requisite skills to construct a theme of my own. So why not? Two reasons:

  1. I don’t have a good eye for design. My artistic skills lie very much in the verbal and musical, not in the pictoral. Heck, I check with my wife every Sunday to make sure my tie goes with my shirt! If I were to design a blog template, I’m sure it would be uuuuhhhgly as they say down here.
  2. Time. No matter how skilled you are, it takes time to come up with a design, and then actually code it. And for me, that time would be better spent writing and doing the other things in my life that are of more pressing concern. Especially when there are perfectly serviceable freebie templates out there–like this one!

So here it is–the “new” blog template. It’s called “Twenty-Twelve” in case you’re interested. I hope you’re all okay with it. At least I hope you can read the posts and it’s not too off-putting.

QUIZ: Can you identify the source of the quote I used for this article title? Clue: It’s from Doctor Who. Okay, better clue: It’s from CLASSIC Doctor Who. :)

 

Book Review: GO SET A WATCHMAN by Harper Lee

It’s the 1950s, and Jean Louise (“Scout”) Finch is visiting home from New York. It’s been a few years since she was last in the small town of Maycomb, Alabama–not since the death of her brother, Jem. As she reacquaints herself with the rural life she knew so well as a child, she finds the pace and attitudes of home to be in stark contrast to that of the big city. But the joy of being reunited with her father, Atticus, and of rekindling old friendships is marred by dark truths she uncovers as Maycomb struggles to come to terms with the burgeoning civil rights movement.

GO SET A WATCHMAN is of interest if only for giving us a snapshot of the rural South in the 1950s. The fact that people of high moral standard were able to justify racist attitudes is something hard for us to comprehend in the 21st century, and I appreciate the insight this book gives into that mindset. Lee’s writing in this story is good, though not exceptional. However, my main criticism of the book is that it’s very thin on story. We travel with Jean Louise as she makes her discoveries, and aside from a few incidents, the things she discovers about people she thought she knew are really the only twists in the story. I give it four stars on the strength of the writing, but it’s only barely four stars. There is some mild profanity for which I’d rate it PG-13.

SPOILER ALERT! If you haven’t read the book and don’t want any spoilers, stop reading now!

The above review took the book on its own merit, which I think is only fair. Published more than 50 years after Harper Lee’s celebrated debut, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, the temptation is to consider GO SET A WATCHMAN in comparison to TKaM. However, I wanted to evaluate the book on its own first. Now let’s consider it in light of the bigger picture.

Most already know the story behind the story, that WATCHMAN was the novel Lee originally wrote but set aside to write MOCKINGBIRD. The manuscript of WATCHMAN was recently re-discovered and considered worthy of publication as, perhaps, the world’s most long-awaited sequel. That is, of course, the version of events the publisher would like us to believe, and in all candor, there’s not any solid evidence to contradict that story. However, it has been said that Lee did not give consent to the publication of WATCHMAN, and it was only after her estate changed hands in recent years that making this book available was even considered. Lee is an elderly woman, dependent on others for her care, so there is question as to how much say she could have had in the publication of the novel. I will say this, if this is indeed the first draft of TKaM, I’m impressed. My first drafts are not this good, and I’ve read a lot of final published books a whole lot worse. That also factored in my four-star rating.

However, if it’s true that Lee did not want this book published, I say it should never have been released and marketed the way it was. Perhaps a more appropriate release would have been as a historical document published posthumously. But it really isn’t fair to set it alongside TKaM as if it’s a sequel. Before writing this review, I re-read TKaM to be sure I’m not being overly harsh. I’m not. TKaM is a vastly superior work. There’s real drama, tension, cliff-hangers, great dialog, voice, and a truly absorbing story. In the past I’ve referred to TKaM as possibly the best novel I’ve ever read. After a second reading, I stand by that assessment. GSaW is a shadow of the work that it produced.

Reading the two books side-by-side, it’s easier to discern some of the editorial choices made. The most obvious is the switch from third person to first person. Scout’s voice is part of what makes TKaM so endearing, and that’s something veiled by GSaW’s close third-person perspective. We also see in GSaW stories from Scout’s past that are woven into the narrative of TKaM. For example, early in GSaW, Lee gives us a potted history of Maycomb County. This is transformed into the narrative behind Mrs. Merriweather’s Halloween pageant celebrating Maycomb, as related to us by Scout near the end of TKaM. And some of the best parts of GSaW are the flashbacks to the 1930s. It’s clear now why the flashbacks became the novel; the characters are far more interesting as children, and the child’s point of view is far more engaging for this story. Whoever told Lee to focus the story in the 1930s (it has been suggested this was Lee’s friend, Truman Capote) did American literature a great service.

Finally, I want to address the big story of GSaW: the revelation that “Atticus Finch was a racist.” This makes for a shocking headline, but the truth is a bit more nuanced than that. Does the Atticus Finch in GSaW hold to a view of non-whites that is unacceptable? Certainly. But did he hold the same views as many of his contemporaries? Not quite. In GSaW, Atticus tries to walk a line between upholding segregation, but treating black people as people, with the same right to legal representation, and a fair trial. Equal but separate, which (as Scout rightly points out) isn’t really equality. However, there’s no hate or malice in Atticus’s view. It certainly seems the case that Atticus’s views became a lot more sympathetic in TKaM, especially the way he’s willing to push the boundaries of what is socially acceptable in terms of race relations and race integration (notice his relaxed attitude toward Scout and Jem going to Calpurnia’s church, for example). But the story in GSaW is more about Scout learning to stand up for her own opinions even if they disagree with her father’s. This, more than Atticus’s racism, appears to be what’s important to that novel.

Is GO SET A WATCHMAN a necessary follow-up to TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD? No, not by a long shot. In fact, I don’t see what purpose its publication serves other than to make money for the publisher. Lee originally set aside GSaW to write TKaM, which tells me she considered TKaM the book she intended to write. So, while GSaW is not a bad book in itself, I certainly wouldn’t consider it necessary reading. In fact, if you’ve never read TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, buy a copy of that instead.

That’s what I think. What are your thoughts about GO SET A WATCHMAN?

Music Monday: Boom Bang-a-Bang

This odd-titled song was the UK entry in the 1969 Eurovision Song Contest. Sung by young Scottish sensation Lulu, it ended up joint winner along with three other songs–the first (and, I believe, last) time this has happened in Eurovision history. While Eurovision songs often go on to become chart hits, and can lead to bigger and greater things for the artists (e.g., ABBA), they aren’t usually great songs. They tend toward being catchy and toe-tapping rather than deep, complex, and significant. I’m not making any claim that “Boom Bang-a-Bang” is an exception to this rule. The words are very simplistic, and, yes, you are likely to be humming it for the rest of your life. In defense of simple lyrics, Eurovision is an international competition, so overly profound lyrics might not go over as well. Granted, not many go to the extreme of naming the song “Boom Bang-a-Bang,” but you get my point.

The reason I wanted to feature this song, however, is because it’s a great example of a song that caught me off-guard musically. If you’re an avid reader or film buff, you’re aware of the various twists and turns a plot can take, so nothing really catches you off-guard. This isn’t a bad thing, because even if you saw the “surprise” ending coming, you can appreciate if it was well done. Similarly, as a musician, I’ve listen to and played enough music over the years that I can usually anticipate the direction a song will go harmonically, or at least have a good idea of the various options available, so I’m rarely surprised.

Since “Boom Bang-a-Bang” was a Eurovision win for the UK, the song got plenty of radio play in England when I was a child, so I was aware of it, though I never really paid it much musical attention. Not long ago I heard the song for the first time in many years, only this time I was paying attention. The song starts very simply with a basic three chord verse (A, E, and D). Nothing startling, so I thought I could anticipate the chord structure to come. As I guessed, the chorus begins:

BoomBangABang_Chorus1

Okay, so the Bm6 was a bit of a twist, and the F#7 was a nice choice, but nothing too startling. My years of experience then informed me that I should expect a repeat of this chord structure for the next line. What I got was a musical slap upside the head. I did not expect this!:

BoomBangABang_Chorus2

Woah! Where did that half-diminished come from (the F#m/D# is the same as a D# half-diminished)? Then to a what? A G#7?? What were these people smoking?! The following line returned to something a little more straight-forward (D, A, F#m, E, A). For the next line I thought maybe they’ll keep it simple, or perhaps use the same funky harmonies as before. In fact, it throws in another twist. It starts with the F#m/D#, but then goes to a D7!:

BoomBangABang_Chorus3

I have to admit, I was impressed. Having been a musician for 30+ years, it’s not often I’m taken by surprise like that, so big props to Alan Moorhouse–the guy who wrote the music. In the sheet music samples above I’ve only given you the piano chords, but hopefully you can see there are some clever things going on to give us these odd changes. In the F#m/D#-G#7 change, notice the bass pattern: D# to G#, then C# to F#–both pairs of notes are the same distance apart. Also the F#m/D# and the G#7 have the note Lulu is singing (an F#) in common, so the chords pivot on that note. In the F#m/D# – D7 change, look at the chord harmonies–do you see the descending pattern? In the chord you have a C# to C-natural to B to A# (okay, on my arrangement I went back up to the C#, but the A# is in the F# chord). Then in the bass you have a similar chromatic descent: D# to D-natural to C#, then drop to the F#. This kind of thing is musical chocolate to my ears–simply wonderful!

Click HERE to download a pdf of the complete chorus. And here’s a lead sheet for the whole song (click to enlarge):

BoomBangABang

Finally, here’s 20-year-old Lulu singing the song at the 1969 Eurovision Song Contest in Madrid:

As a footnote, “Boom Bang-a-Bang” was banned by the BBC in 1991 during the Gulf War. I’m not kidding. Something about the title…?

Flash Fiction Friday

This past Wednesday I participated in Flash! Friday‘s “Warmup Wednesday” which is an informal writing challenge to help prepare for the weekly Friday contest. This week the rules were:

Write a scene or an entire story of 100 words on the nose (no more, no fewer), inspired by this photograph:

For an added challenge, the story had to include a lost thing or person. Here’s what I came up with:

“Are we there yet?”

My eye caught the sign: three miles to Havenville. A cheer went up from the back seat. Two weeks ago they couldn’t get away fast enough. Our annual hundred mile trip to the beach had been anticipated with new swimsuits, lists of places to eat, and loaded Kindles.

But two weeks is about long enough to feel the heart-tug of home. Kelly and Jonah were ready for their own beds, their friends, and their favorite TV shows.

Of course, we missed the news.

The car went deathly silent as we entered the tornado-ripped remains of Havenville.

Have a great weekend!

Flash Fiction Friday

In the words of Monty Python, “And now for something completely different…” Flash Fiction Haiku! Just to change things up a bit (again), here are three related haiku that together tell a story:

Cut grass and tar fumes
Butterflies and cockroaches
June melts to July

Sunlight through windows
Evaporates evidence
Leaves a hanging corpse

A/C on full blast
Tearing down the interstate
The Ice Man leaveth

Have a great weekend!

 

Verily, A New Hope

In time so long ago begins our play,
In a star-crossed galaxy far, far away.

Do those words sound familiar? Even vaguely? If you’re a Star Wars fan, they should. That’s the way the opening prologue ends in Ian Doescher’s marvelous re-telling of Star Wars set in Shakespearean verse. I saw this book–in fact the series of six books–in our local Barnes and Noble a few weeks ago and was too intrigued to pass it up. WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE’S STAR WARS comes with the full backing and approval of George Lucas (it carries the “Lucas Books” logo though it’s actually published by Quirk Books), so it’s not a mere work of fan fiction. This is an homage to both the saga and the Bard, and it is very cleverly done. Take this snippet of monologue from the end of Act II:

Adventure have I ask’d for in this life,
And now have I too much of my desire,
My soul within me weeps; my mind, it runs
Unto a thousand thousand varied paths.
My uncle Owen and my aunt Beru,
Have they been cruelly kill’d for what I want?
So shall I never want again if in
The wanting all I love shall be destroy’d.
O fie! Thou knave adventure! Evil trick
Of boyhood’s mind that ever should one seek
To have adventure when one hath a home–
A family so kind so full of love,
Good, steady work, and vast, abundant crops–
Why would one give up all this gentle life
For that one beastly word: adventure? Fie!

The author, Ian Doescher says he is a life-long fan of Shakespeare, and even though he was born a few months after Star Wars hit screens, he is clearly well acquainted with the series. This isn’t really a review of the book. I’m not well-versed enough in Shakespeare to comment on its authenticity. But from what little I do know of Shakespeare, and what I’ve read of his plays, this has the ring of verisimilitude. And at the very least, it’s fun.

Dotted throughout the book are illustrations of characters from the movie in Elizabethan-type attire, drawn as if they were period woodcuts. Other elements that may resonate with fans of Shakespeare: a chorus that introduces scenes, and provides some third-person-omniscient insight into what’s going on:

Now, in her cell the princess doth remain,
With hope and trouble written on her face.
At times she faces torture, horrid pain.
With these tools Vader seeks the rebel base.
While Leia in her captive state is kept,
Young Luke and Obi-Wan set on their way.
Approaching town, they hope to intercept
A pilot to transport them sans delay.

This is soon followed by an exchange that should raise a smile on the face of any Star Wars fan:

TROOPER 3: I prithee, speak, how long hast thou these droids?
LUKE: ‘Tis three or, mayhap, four full seasons now.
OBI-WAN: We are prepar’d to sell them, shouldst thou wish.
CHORUS: Now is the Force to noble purpose us’d–
          Not as the Sith, employing it to smite,
          Hath through the dark side rank the Force abus’d–
          Good Obi-Wan shall use the Force for right.
TROOPER 4: Pray, show me now thy papers.
OBI-WAN:    —Nay, thou dost
          Not need to see his papers.
TROOPER 4:     –Nay, we do
          Not need to see his papers.
OBI-WAN:      –True it is,
          That these are not the droids for which thou search’st.
TROOPER 3: Aye, these are not the droids for which we search.
OBI-WAN: And now, the lad may go his merry way.
TROOPER 3: Good lad, I prithee, go thy merry way!
OBI-WAN: Now get thee hence,
TROOPER 4:     –Now get thee hence, go hence!

He also makes use of asides, that breaking of the “fourth wall” you never see in TV or movie drama, but is used frequently in Shakespearean dialog. For example:

C-3PO: I’ll tell thee true, I would with Master Luke
          Prefer to go than now remain with thee.
          I do not know what trouble here may be,
          Yet certain am I thou deserv’st the blame.
R2D2: [aside:] I’ll warrant, thou shalt have thy recompense
          [To C-3PO:] Squeak, whistle, beep, meep, nee, meep, whistle, squeak!
C-3PO: Hold thou thy cursing and most cursed tongue!

The way Doescher has written this, I could imagine it being performed on stage. Indeed, one of his hopes is that it will inspire young sci-fi fans to check out Shakespeare. I believe some schools are actually using this book, and this series, in the classroom to that end.

Intrigued? Look out for the series in your local library or bookstore:

WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE’S STAR WARS by Ian Doescher:

  • Star Wars: Verily, A New Hope
  • The Empire Striketh Back
  • The Jedi Doth Return
  • The Phantom of Menace
  • The Clone Army Attacketh
  • Tragedy of the Sith’s Revenge

 

Flash Fiction Friday

This week, for a change, I’m going to rip a story straight out of the week’s headlines. Technically it’s more of a vignette than a story, but since this is my blog, I can make up the rules. It’s just for larks anyway, though I am sticking to the 100-word limit. See if you can pick up on what’s going on…

The object was still distant, but distinct against the empty void surrounding it, like cat’s eyes on a dark country road.

“Can you get closer?”

A turn of a dial and the curved shards of ice realigned.

“What is that?”

A stout man with grey beard and surly demeanor took the eyepiece.

“Definitely a satellite. And… it’s taking pictures?”

The youngest of the group hid behind some rocks.

“I’m tired,” yawned another. “Let’s go home.”

“Hi ho,” said the stout man. “It’s about time.”

Reluctantly, the seven men left the telescope and started on the long trek down the mountain.

Have a great weekend! :)

 

Flash Fiction Friday

It’s been a few weeks, so let’s give the Random Word Generator a spin…

  • doughnut
  • panther
  • showcase
  • loan
  • profit

And here’s my 100-word story using those five words:

“Whaddaya say, Dougie?”

Arnelli watched me as he sipped his coffee.

“I dunno,” I said, picking at my doughnut.

“Look, you owe Castello from that loan you took. Get the diamond, and I’ll pay off Castello. We both profit.”

“I still dunno. It’s in a guarded showcase—“

“You’ll be like the Pink Panther, no-one will see you.”

I didn’t dare tell him the Pink Panther was the jewel, not the thief. I also didn’t dare tell him about the deal I already made with Castello. He’ll find out soon enough, though.

Just as soon as he finishes his coffee.

Have a good weekend!