The December Comfort Watches, Day Nine: Bolt

I wasn’t expecting a lot out of Bolt when we went to go see it in the theater. The family had gone to Los Angeles for Thanksgiving in 2008, the year Bolt came out, because I was a guest of honor at Loscon, a science fiction convention that took place conveniently near the airport. Our daughter Athena, then nine, had somehow gotten bored with being in the hotel pool (this was when hotel pools were the finest of all possible distractions, so this was unusual), and we saw there was a new Disney animated film out, so we figured, okay, fine. Disney had been going through a rough patch in the mid-2000s — this was the era of Chicken Little, Meet the Robinsons and Home on the Range — so our expectations were not high. However, as a nine-year-old, Athena’s cinematic needs were, shall we say, basic, and Krissy and I figured, like parents in generations before us and since, that we could survive 90 minutes of animated mediocrity in order to make our kid happy.

So it was with no little surprise that I ended up enjoying the movie probably more than my kid (who was, I hasten to add, more than adequately entertained, and who asked to go back into the pool when we returned to the hotel). Bolt is either at the very high end of Disney’s middle tier of animated films, or at the low end of its highest tier, but either way, it’s a gentle, smart, funny, loving and unusually meta film about identity, family and belonging, and I wasn’t ready for how much I ended up loving it.

The “Bolt” of the title is a dog, and a television star, one who has a Thursday night show on, probably, ABC. The conceit of the show is that Bolt is the protector of a little girl named Penny, whose scientist father, captured by the nefarious and cat-loving Green-Eyed Man, gave Bolt superpowers before he was kidnapped. Now Penny and Bolt travel the world trying to foil the Green-Eyed Man’s schemes and find Penny’s father, which requires Bolt to karate chop minions, shoot lasers from his eyes, and use the ultra-powered SUPERBARK to knock down helicopters. You know, as you do.

The kicker here is the Bolt doesn’t know he’s on a TV show, and everything is carefully crafted to make the dog believe he’s doing all the things that will be added in VFX later. As the director tells a studio executive, if the dog believes it, the audience will believe it. But then, in the show, Penny is kidnapped, Bolt doesn’t know she’s actually okay and panics, and then through a set of contrivances is accidentally packed into a box that is opened in New York City. Bolt, now out in the real world and confusingly without his powers, must get back to Los Angeles and to Penny (who, as the real girl, is heartbroken, and whose television show has ground to a halt). In this journey he is joined by two companions, one unwilling — Mittens the cat, who Bolt thinks is a confederate of the Green-Eyed Man — and one far too willing — Rhino the hamster, who is a Bolt superfan, and happily abandons his life at an Ohio trailer park to accompany his hero on his noble quest.

The meta of the movie comes from Bolt’s eventual realization that Bolt the character and Bolt the actual dog — him — are two separate entities, and what that means for his whole life. Was anything about his life ever real? Did Penny ever really love him? Who is he if he is not super-spy dog? What does it even mean to be a dog, when a dog has never actually been a dog, just a dog playing a dog? It’s a lot to put on the shoulders of a small White Swiss Shepherd in a children’s film, but the film does a satisfying job having Bolt deal with this deep and profound existential crisis, much of which is covered through a montage with one of the best Disney songs ever, by Jenny Lewis. This is The Truman Show, but, you know, for kids.

(On the subject of kids, the movie is also, and less subtly, about what it means to be a child actor in Hollywood — metaphorically on the part of Bolt, and also not at all metaphorically on the part of Penny, who, in an additional bit of meta, is played by former Hannah Montana star Miley Cyrus. Bolt doesn’t actually get to be a dog because he’s too busy playing a dog on TV; Penny doesn’t really get to be a kid because she’s too busy playing a kid on TV. One of the most heartbreaking scenes in the film is set up by a network executive telling Penny that she has to make a decision to keep the show going without her beloved dog. The executive acknowledges that it’s unfair, but at the end of the day, show business is a business, and the show must go on. There is some deep irony in Disney, of all corporations, making some trenchant observations about how being a kid actor can mess you up down to your soul. This being Disney, however, you’re pretty sure there will be a happy ending to this particular story, which is more than you can always say about real life.)

The last two paragraphs make this sound like a weighty philosophical film with heavy social themes, but never you worry, this is a Disney animated film, and at all times the emphasis is on charming you and your kids and zooming through the plot. It helps that the interplay between Bolt and his traveling companions is delightful, as Bolt and Mittens transition from enemies to allies, and Rhino, one of Disney’s best sidekicks ever, drops quip after quip. Bolt is played by John Travolta, who aside from Cyrus is the only (then) A-list actor in the film (unless you count Malcolm McDowell for his Green-Eyed Man voice cameo). He is great as Bolt, but both comedian Susie Essman as Mittens and literal unknown Mark Walton, an animator whose scratch vocal for Rhino was apparently so perfect they just kept it, keep pace with him. I’d watch a movie with just the three of their characters having conversation over their respective food bowls. Oh, and! The pigeons! Just watch the movie, you’ll see.

Interestingly, like The Emperor’s New Groove, another December Comfort Watch of mine, Bolt started out as another project entirely, one called American Dog. When “creative differences” blew that project up, new directors and writers came in and overhauled the story, on a very tight timeframe for animation, into Bolt. Again, we can never know how the other film would have been, but as a salvage operation, Disney did a pretty good job getting this version of the story to the screen. Like I said, I was surprised how good it was when I first saw it. I’m not surprised at how much I enjoy rewatching it.

— JS

The December Comfort Watches, Day Eight: The Godfather

The Godfather is so ubiquitous in American and cinematic culture that to recap or essay it here seems superfluous. Who amongst us does not know this fabled story of the Corleone family, and the ascendence (or if you prefer, descent) of Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) from war hero to mob boss? Is there anything substantive left to say about the film, that literally generations of film fans and scholars haven’t already said, over and over and over again, to the point of exhaustion and parody?

No! There is not!

And honestly, what a relief that is. I am thus excused from trying to say more about the film, and able to enjoy it as a film. This is the problem with acknowledged cinematic classics, from this to Citizen Kane to The 400 Blows to Metropolis to The Seventh Seal to Singing in the Rain to [insert your pick for indisputable cinematic classic here]: at a certain point they stop being movies and start being Cinema Approached With Reverence. This is flattering for the director and others involved in the film, but for the film itself it can be debilitating. What fun is a film, if to get to it you have to hack your way through a decades-wide thicket of critical thought? Sure, if that’s your kink, then more power to you. Some people are into that. I am into that a lot of the time! I am a former film critic, after all. I have added to the thicket, by God! But sometimes you just want to watch a film, unweighted by anything other than what’s on the screen.

So what’s on the screen with The Godfather, when you approach it just as a movie?

First, for a film that sprawls, and boy, it does, the opening wedding scene is a masterpiece of storytelling economy. In the space of ten minutes you know nearly all the major players of the film, you know how they relate to each other, and you gain a key understanding of their characters. So much revealed, just by who they are hanging out at a reception. None of it feels artificial; a lesser filmmaker (or one more intimidated by studio notes) would have gone out of their way to really punch some significant feature of each character, to make sure you as the audience don’t miss it. Not Francis Ford Coppola. He’s documenting the wedding and letting the characters live in it. It’s up to you to pay attention to how they are revealing themselves.

Second, and as noted above, this is not a film that’s afraid to meander. It has side quests. Tom (Robert Duvall) goes to Hollywood! Michael goes to Italy! These side quests inform the narrative so they’re not inessential, and they allow for some nice character work in any event. But there has been tighter film editing in the history of cinema. William Reynolds and Peter Zinner, who edited this film, have won Oscars for editing, just not for this.

Do I think this movie could have been tighter? Yes. Do I have the slightest idea how such a thing would be done? No I do not. And for being a film you sink into on a cold winter night, it’s perfectly fine. It’s a wallow, but I’m watching to wallow, so.

Third, The Godfather was filmed at a transition point between acting styles. The younger actors — Pacino, John Cazale, Jimmy Caan, Talia Shire — act in a naturalistic way. Older actors here you see acting, even when they’re trying to bring it down a notch. Sterling Hayden, bless his heart. His Captain McCluskey knows he’s in a film and that he’s playing a heavy. Richard Conte as Barzini, same. This is not a complaint, and if anything, it accentuates that this film is about the transition from one age in the world of mob crime into a second one, where the rules of engagement have changed. But when you see it, you can’t unsee it.

(And what about Marlon Brando? Where does he fit in this division? Well, he doesn’t – He’s just friggin’ Marlon Brando, doing his own goddamn thing, with the mouth inserts and picking up stray cats he found on set, and every other weird damn thing he was doing. Brando is so effective here that people forget he was in his 40s when he played Don Corleone; the only reason this film didn’t win a Best Makeup Oscar is that the category didn’t exist yet. Don Corleone doesn’t feel like acting. It feels like: here is a fact of nature being filmed, and everything else has to react to it, first, last, always.)

The final thing, which is not on the screen here but is on the screen pretty much everywhere else, is the knowledge of just how much The Godfather is a genre mountain — by which I mean that if you’re making a gangster film, you can’t avoid it. You can climb on it, or you can try to route around it, but what you can’t do is pretend it’s not there. You’re in its shadow. It’s like Star Wars that way. It took a couple of decades before anyone did a culturally significant gangster film that wasn’t an obvious Godfather riff: Boyz N the Hood, which made John Singleton the youngest person ever nominated for Best Director, and has become something of a genre mountain of its own.

I always wonder if the people who end up making these sort of “genre mountain” films know at the time that they’re doing it. I don’t think they do; I think they’re just trying to get the damn thing done. Then the thing comes out and immediately renders as obsolete the film vocabulary of every other film that came before it in the genre. That’s a hell of a thing. It doesn’t just happen in film, of course — I remember how, from the first chords of “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” Nirvana’s Nevermind album absolutely destroyed a decade and a half-old template of hard rock music — but wherever it happens, nothing much is the same afterward. I can’t help but think it messes with you when you’re the one who made it happen, or (perhaps more accurately) did the thing a whole culture decided was an inflection point, whether you intended for it to be or not.

In my opinion The Godfather is absolutely satisfying as a standalone film. I respect The Godfather, Part II more than I enjoy it — many people think it’s a better film than the original, and I can see the argument, but then again I never think to myself, hey, I’m gonna just chill and watch Godfather II. As for The Godfather, Part III, well, remember what I said about the genre mountain? Turns out that sometimes not even the guy who put it there can get over it. It’s just… not good. I understand that recently Coppola has gone back and rejiggered the narrative of it and is now calling it The Godfather Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone, and apparently this rejiggering has addressed some of the issues of that film. I am not personally called to immediately put it on my watch list. It exists! Good for it! I’ll get to it one day, or won’t, it’s fine.

I will, however, be watching The Godfather again, and probably soon. It’s an institution and a mountain, yes, but at the end of the day it’s also just plain a really excellent movie. Its worth watching on those terms alone. If you can manage it, try it and see what you think.

— JS

Close To Home: Coastal Local Seafood (COLO)

My friend and I were grabbing lunch in Columbus recently, and she asked me what I was in the mood for. I told her seafood, and she said she heard of this place she wanted to try called “Colo”. I was totally down, so off we went to this mysterious seafood place. There are two locations, one in the Downtown North Market, and one in the Bridge Park North Market. The North Markets are indoor public markets full of different vendors, merchants, grocers, and other small businesses. Though there are things like a florist and a stationery store in the markets, they are mostly comprised of food vendors, and a lot of international cuisine, as well.

We happened to go to the Bridge Park North Market, which has around half the shops that the larger, original Downtown location has. At the very end of the Bridge Park location, you’ll find COLO Market & Oyster Bar, a business dedicated to bringing fresh, sustainable, high quality seafood to landlocked Ohio. Not only do they have an awesome menu full of classics like lobster rolls, fish and chips, shrimp tacos, and lobster mac and cheese, but they also sell fresh caught fish, crab legs, tinned fish, caviar, all sorts of seafood goodies for the home-cook!

As my friend and I perused the menu, I knew I had to try their oysters, since they are, after all, an oyster bar. Thing is, I don’t know much about oysters, and they had six different types to choose from. I admitted to the worker that my knowledge is seriously lacking in this department, and I could definitely use a recommendation. He was so nice! He was super patient and helpful, just a really friendly and pleasant guy. Five of the types of oysters ended up being east coast oysters, and one type was west coast. After having everything explained to me, I picked the west coast oysters. The worker told me west coast oysters tend to be more tender, sweeter, and more buttery.

Other than the half dozen oysters, I also got a Maine Lobster Roll and a cup of the lobster bisque. It’s three dollars for an oyster, so they came out to eighteen dollars. The cup of soup was six dollars, and the lobster roll was twenty-four.

A tray full of ice containing the six oysters, accompanied by some lemon wedges and a tiny bottle of Tabasco. There is also a small cup of lobster bisque, and a paper container housing the lobster roll and potato chips. Also pictured is a cocktail, but I didn't get that from COLO.

The oysters came with some lemon, a tiny bottle of hot sauce, and some horseradish. The soup came with some crackers, and the lobster roll came with potato chips.

I’ll start by saying that the oysters were seriously so good. Just like the guy said, they were buttery, tender, with an excellent flavor that wasn’t fishy. I love lemon with oysters, so I mostly stuck to that for an accompaniment, as I don’t much care for hot sauce.

A close up shot of the lobster roll. A toasted bun filled with lobster, dill, celery, all the good stuff. Topped with a lemon slice.

Lobster rolls are something I’m always disappointed by. They’re always overpriced and not actually any good. I’m so glad I took a chance on this one because this was honestly heavenly. Unlike the lobster rolls I’ve had in the past, the lobster wasn’t overcooked. And there was so much lobster! There wasn’t too much mayo, and they used the perfect amount of dill, celery, cucumber, and parsley. It all worked perfectly together and made for what will undoubtedly be one of the best lobster rolls you’ve ever had. Next time, I’d like to try their Connecticut roll, because I’m so used to lobster rolls being with chilled lobster/mayo salad, I think it’d be interesting to switch it up.

Similarly to lobster rolls, lobster bisque is something that I love in theory, but never in practice. It’s never what I want it to be. It always misses the mark for some reason or another. This lobster bisque was another story entirely. I really liked their lobster bisque, and honestly wish I’d gotten a bowl instead of a cup! I didn’t even need the crackers, it was so good by itself.

Everything I tried ended up being really good, and I definitely want to try more stuff the next time I go. It’s also important to note that some of their menu items are only available at one location instead of both, so be sure to check which location has what you want.

I visited the Downtown location a couple weeks later, and though I didn’t eat there I did pick up some lovely tinned fish:

Four boxes of tinned fish. One is Matiz brand mussels in olive oil and vinegar, one is Fishwife brand rainbow trout jerky gems, one is Tiny Fish Co. brand black cod in soy sauce, and the last one is Porthos sardines in soy sauce.

If you saw my recent tinned fish post, you might recognize three of these brands of tinned fish. Let me say, all of them were excellent and I enjoyed each one of them!

Anyways, COLO was awesome, and I highly recommend checking them out if you’re hitting up either of the North Markets. Give their lobster rolls a try, take some tinned fish home, or have the lovely staff tell you all about their different oysters. You really can’t go wrong.

Are you a fan of oysters? Where was the best lobster roll you ever had from? Let me know in the comments, and be sure to check out their Instagram. Have a great day!


The December Comfort Watches, Day Seven: Much Ado About Nothing

It’s the early 90s and you are Kenneth Branagh, and life, it has to be said, is pretty sweet. You are acknowledged as the foremost Shakespearean wunderkind of your generation, thanks to your 1989 version of Henry V that nabbed you Best Actor and Best Director Oscar nods before you were the age of 30. Your toe-dip into Hollywood, 1991’s murder mystery Dead Again, was a minor hit that showed you could be clever and charming even when you were not channeling a certain English playwright. You’re even married to Emma Thompson! But now you’re in the movies, and Hollywood movies at that, where the motto is “Sure, but what have you done for me lately?”

Little does Hollywood know that you are about to spring your master plan: Go back to the Bard, yes, but this time, instead of fielding a bunch of British actors largely unknown to American audience (Henry V’s biggest star was Ian Holm, a very fine actor but not a box office draw, with Paul Scofield, decades out from his Oscar win, in a glorified cameo as the King of France), you are going bring in the star power: A big name for a big role! Some sexy young stars for the kids! Strategically-placed character actors to pump up minor roles! An ingenue for eye candy! All bolstered by your now-established, absolutely reliable repertory cast of British performers to do the actual acting, plus of course two plum roles for you and the missus. It can’t miss!

Reader: Branagh was 100% correct. It couldn’t miss, and didn’t. Much Ado About Nothing, the 1993 film in whose service Branagh set this master plan, was both a financial and critical hit, as well as a sexy, flirty concoction that went a reasonable way in making the point that Shakespeare was approachable for just about anyone, if the person presenting it wanted to make it fun, not homework. The success of this approach created a minor boomlet of Shakespeare films, and not just from Branagh. One could say that his Much Ado About Nothing walked so that Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet could run.

Quick recap of the story, for those who slept through this part of high school English: Nobleman Don Pedro (Denzel Washington) both defeats and is reconciled with his rebellious brother Don John (Keanu Reeves) and celebrates by staying at the estate of Leonato, where celebrated soldier Claudio (Robert Sean Leonard) falls in love with Leonato’s daughter Hero (Kate Beckinsale, in her film debut). In the interim before their marriage, the crew decides to make a love match between Benedict (Branagh) and Beatrice (Thompson), who hate each other in that “just kiss already” sort of way. Meanwhile in the wings, Don John is plotting to ruin everything for everybody, because, well. That’s Don John!

At the time of the release of this film, there was some grousing about the Hollywood stars, along the line that it was “stunt casting.” One, it absolutely was, and two, so what? Branagh has his flaws like any man, but his refusal to be inordinately precious about Shakespeare is not one of them. Shakespeare had his eye on the box office — his War of the Roses cycle of plays was absolutely the Marvel Cinematic Universe of its day, designed to jam the floors with groundlings and the boxes with the better off; he was not above theatrically lopping off hands and gouging out eyes for a shilling; and when Queen Elizabeth wanted a play about a character that Shakespeare had already killed off, she got that play, because Shakespeare was not a fool. I can’t speak for Bill because he’s long dead, but nevertheless I’m pretty sure that his reaction to Branagh’s plan for stunt casting would be a “Brilliant!” a thumbs up, and an ask about what his cut of the box office would be.

And anyway, as far as the “stunt casting” goes, Branagh did mostly all right here. Only the surliest of churls would complain about Denzel Washington as Don Pedro, as he is an absolute king, even while portraying a duke. Washington effortlessly carries himself as a man used to command, and also as a man who knows when to set the mantle of command aside to engage in spirited hijinks. Would you follow this Denzel Washington into battle? Hell yes, you would. Likewise Michael Keaton’s sweat-filmed constable Dogberry is a scuzzy delight; snoozing and farting his way into outwitting the malfeasance that is planned to upset various apple carts.

(As for Keanu Reeves: Well, look, he tried. I’m not going to do the thing where I engage in revisionism about his performance as Don John. No matter how much affection I have for Reeves in these latter days, and hold the belief that in the right role he is in fact a very effective actor, he’s just not good here, and there’s no point in pretending otherwise. Some of that is the fact that in almost every scene he’s in, he’s talking with actors who have been declaiming Shakespeare’s words since their university days at least. It’s a specialized type of acting, and they trained for it. Reeves hadn’t, so the cards were stacked against him no matter what. Despite all that, even back in the day I was willing to give Reeves a pass. He’s not good, but you can’t say he’s not making an effort, and at some points he is actually effective, mostly when he’s staring daggers at every other cast member. He did what he was meant to do — bring in a younger audience — and he didn’t hurt the film. I watch his character with affection.)

But let’s not pretend that Branagh didn’t keep the best part for himself, and the next best part for Thompson. The “merry war” betwixt Benedict and Beatrice is the heart of the play and also the heart of the movie. And while Branagh has always been and continues to be a HEY LOOK AT ME ACTING sort of actor, you know what? As that sort of actor there really is no one better at it. His Benedict is spot on for who the character is meant to be – at first, the sort of dude who would call every other dude “bro,” only to finally see where that road takes him, and thus to lunge at the chance to be something else with Beatrice.

Thompson, who is a more subtle actor than her (then) husband, has a whole lot more going on with her character, and you can see both her and Beatrice’s brains working whenever she’s on screen. Beatrice is absolutely the sort of character that even a unregenerate dudebro like Benedict would want become a better person for, and she’s also the sort of character who is going to say “prove it.” As she should! As she does! And we wait to see what happens when she says it.

I’ve noted that Branagh is not precious about Shakespeare, and aside from casting, the other thing that shows this is that he’s perfectly happy to trim bits off Shakespeare’s plays (his full-fat, four-hour Hamlet notwithstanding) to get them to fit into a movie length. Here and in Henry V, at least, he’s really smart about what bits to snip. Much Ado rolls along at a brisk clip, everything that needs to happen does, and nothing that has been clipped is something you miss. I’ve seen enough other versions of this story, filmed and performed, to know that knowing the right parts to trim is truly a dark literary art. Branagh does a better job of it than most anyone else.

Much Ado set the casting pattern that Branagh would employ, to varying success, with his other Shakespearean films, from Hamlet (very good, a bit long), to Love’s Labor Lost (really not good, and far too long even at just 93 minutes). And of course Branagh’s own star would flicker over the years, sometimes up, sometimes down, sometimes (when, as a director, he was handed the reins of Thor and of the Jack Ryan series) requiring a head scratch. When he finally won an Oscar a couple of years back, for the screenplay to the semi-autobiographical Belfast, he seemed simultaneously surprised, humbled and relieved, which is something of a distance from his earlier, brasher days. Is it possible Branagh in his own way replicated Benedict’s own journey of self? Indeed it is.

Regardless, for me, Much Ado is Branagh at the top of his form, presenting an endlessly watchable Shakespeare, bright and fun and, from first poem to last dance, an absolute joy.

— JS

The December Comfort Watches, Day Six: Down With Love

Down With Love is indisputably the best film of its genre, its genre being “Loving 21st-Century Tributes to Mid-Century Romantic Farces Mostly Starring Rock Hudson and Doris Day.” This is a very specific genre, for a very specific audience, one that, as it turns out, did not really show up at the theaters when it was released in 2003, on the same weekend as The Matrix Reloaded. The Call of Neo was apparently stronger than the Knowing Wink of Catcher Block, Man’s Man, Ladies’ Man, Man About Town. I confess that I myself went to the one with The One, and not this one.

It’s mildly ironic, because while The Matrix Reloaded seems more obviously my sort of thing as a Science Fiction Nerd, it turns out that Down With Love is even more sneakily my thing as A Writer Who Harbors a Yearning For an Eames Chair and Fast, Flirty, Funny Repartee — which I do, and am. I’m not sure I knew in 2003 that this is who I was. It’s entirely possible, in fact, that this part of my soul was awakened by Down With Love. There are, I assure you, far worse things to have awaken in one’s personality, especially in one’s thirties.

Come with us now to 1962 and a swingin’ New York City, where a young writer named Barbara Novak (Renee Zellweger) aims to set the world afire with her feminist treatise Down With Love, which posits women’s sexual liberation, at least partially through the magic of confectionary treats. Barbara’s editor and sidekick Vikki Hiller (Sarah Paulson) schemes to get Barbara a profile written by Catcher Block (Ewan McGregor) in the Esquire-like magazine published by Peter MacManus (David Hyde Pierce, in the Tony Randall role), who also has a crush on Vikki. Catcher, however, is more busy gallivanting about with women than he is with writing, and blows off Barbara. Barbara’s book takes off anyway, and she uses her newfound fame to come after Catcher, which causes Catcher’s gallivanting to grind to a halt. Catcher swears revenge, and then, of course, we’re off to the races.

Speaking of “confectionary treats,” this film really is one of them. Neither the 1962 nor the New York City presented here ever actually existed outside of a sound stage. The film (wisely) makes absolutely no pretense at realism; this is a fabulist tale where a book can go from barely published to #1 in the space of a montage, where all taxi rides have the exact same back projection, and where a fully-furnished luxury penthouse is provided to a first-time author at the drop of a hat by an editor who worries that it is not good enough, only to be assured by the author that it is, in fact, “adorable.” Anyone who has ever been in a writer’s walk-up in Lower Manhattan will want to set fire to something for that last bit.

The whole film is artifice because it’s not about 1962 or New York, or even publishing. It’s about movies from that era, which were themselves no less artificial than this one is. In this respect Down With Love is effortlessly meta in exactly the sort way that (ironically) The Matrix Reloaded labored hard to be and was less convincing at. Whether this artifice works for you is deeply dependent on who you are and your willingness to let this sanitized movie version of this time and place take you away even though you know the actual 1962 and the actual NYC were no great prizes, for all sorts of reasons, some of which (hello, sexism!) are essayed here with, essentially, a wink and a nod. Suspension of disbelief here not only has to be willing, it has to be enthusiastically pursued.

Aside from that, this confection works, or not, depending on whether the actors are willing to commit to the bit, and by God, these actors are. Ewan McGregor summons vast amounts of inner ham for an absolutely shameless performance, and while Zellweger plays things slightly more straight, the emphasis here is on “slightly;” her facial expressions are doing yeoman’s work. Zellweger is also graced with a no-cut monologue, the details of which I will not reveal, that is, bluntly, a masterpiece of acting while under the influence of farce; it’s what I would have given her one of her Oscars for.

(As their sidekicks, Paulson and Hyde Pierce are even more delightful, if such a thing is possible. Paulson serves her early 60s career gal persona with snap and verve, while Hyde Pierce channels his inner Tony Randall so perfectly that not even the real Tony Randall, who is actually in the film, can compete. They never threaten to take over the film — they understand their support roles better than that — but every scene they are in, they are perfect. I want more movies in the Down With Love Cinematic Universe just to have them cracking wise on the periphery.)

Down With Love was a flop at the theatrical box office, but don’t feel too bad for anyone involved, they all did just fine thereafter. Zellweger has two Oscars to her credit, MacGregor is everyone’s favorite Obi-Wan, Paulson has a steady gig at American Horror Story and is otherwise a national treasure, and director Payton Reed has found himself a sinecure at Marvel, with side jaunts into Star Wars. Even folks in smaller roles have rolled on to further successes (hello, Jeri Ryan! You’re the best!). For a commercial disappointment, the film seems to have been a lucky penny for everyone involved, and it’s nice when that happens.

As for me, I go back to Down With Love because I like the fantasy of it: The fantasy of that fictional 1962, of that era of New York and of publishing, and the fantasy that one can find romance through the persistent use of amusing dialogue. I am, indeed, down for love when it comes with a side of bon mot. That’s a genre of film I can never get enough of.

— JS

The December Comfort Watches, Day Five: Invictus

For decades now, Clint Eastwood has had what appears to be the best production deal in Hollywood, in which Warner Bros. apparently lets him make any damn movie he wants, so long as he brings it in for a price, and, every third movie or so, deigns to appear in whatever he’s making. This has brought us numerous westerns, action films and occasional dramas where Eastwood’s increasingly craggy face scowls out from the screen, but it also has provided us a musical, an odd meditation on death, a maternal drama about a missing child, biopics of people both notable and obscure, and two films of the same battle, released in the same year, where the unexpected one ended up being nominated for Best Picture. Among many others! Why did Eastwood make them? Because he could, and he wanted to, and so he did.

In this strange grab bag of films is also Invictus, the story of the improbable 1995 South African Rugby World Cup win, told from the point of view of two men: Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon), the captain of the formerly somewhat hapless South African team (known as the Springboks), and Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman, absolute typecasting), who was President of South Africa at the time, and saw in the World Cup the chance to unite a fractious country, so recently under the rule of apartheid, in a common interest of sport.

No one, I think, would declare Invictus one of the great films of Eastwood’s oeuvre, but it is a pleasant and competent entry, and for me it delved into a bit of recent history I knew nothing about, both in the micro (South African rugby) and in the macro (South Africa, period). I have always warned people about the danger of getting one’s history from film, and certainly Invictus does its own share of trims, elisions and pump-ups to stuff the story into a movie. With that said, the film had the sign-off of Mandela himself (who appeared to hope Freeman would end up portraying him, as indeed he did), and of Pienaar as well. If this is a fictionalized version of history — and it is — then at least the protagonists were on board for it.

Of the two protagonists, it is naturally Mandela who draws our attention, because he is a world historical figure, and because he being played by Morgan Freeman. Freeman doesn’t look all that much like Mandela, but he has a similar magnetism, which is what the part needs. When Mandela goes to a meeting where a new national sports council has voted to rename the rugby team from the “Springboks” and strip them of their colors — both emblems of apartheid oppression — and prevails upon them to change their vote, well, that’s a scene where the only thing that is going to persuade is personal authority and charisma. Mandela could pull it off. So can Freeman.

Pienaar is less important and less compelling, which is an unfair comparison both for the actual man and for Matt Damon, who are implicitly contrasted with Mandela and Freeman, respectively. But as it happens, that’s exactly what this character needs to be. Pienaar’s story is one of a man who has done well enough — he is captain of the Springboks, after all, even if they are kind of terrible — who is asked to do far better by a great man, in the service of an even greater cause: the unity of a nation. I don’t know the quality of existential terror that exists in being asked by a great man to literally step up your game, but I know that it exists, and that Pienaar felt it, and that Damon is being asked here to portray it. In the course of the film, we get to see him and his teammates try to do what is asked of them.

I can’t say whether the Springboks’ 1995 win actually changed South Africa, since I am not a South African, and because 28 years is a long time, and many things have happened since then, both good and bad, in that country — including, as it happens, South Africa winning the Rugby World Cup an additional three times, the latest time just this year. I can say that I like watching a film that seems to believe it could do that, and that sport matters more than just as a distraction or pacifying diversion; that it could help to heal a decades-long wound close to the heart of a nation.

There is a phrase attributed to the Scottish writer Alasdair Gray: “Work as if you were living in the early days of a better nation.” In Invictus, Mandela and Pienaar are doing just that, each using their talents to the best of their ability to make a nation better than the one they had been born into. As I noted before, this film is not the best film Eastwood ever directed, but it might be the one with the most uplifting sentiment. I am glad he has the deal with Warner Bros. that allowed him to make this movie, because he wanted to, and because he could.

— JS

The Big Idea: Lida Sideris

Are you ready to dive into the very nature of reality? Lida Sideris is, for her latest novel, Murderous Means. Come along and find out what she knows.


What is real and what isn’t? I write fiction, but while I’m immersed in writing, the world inside the pages becomes very real to me. I can smell the lavender-scented air, brush my fingers along the soft tips of feathery pepper trees, and taste the delectable chicken pot pie devoured by the dysfunctional Means family, the suspects in my latest book, Murderous Means.

My heroine, Corrie Locke, asks the same question. What is real in her fictional world of private investigating? Is the psychic with the half-baked vision of a murder the real deal or a crackpot?

After reading an article about the tools that psychics use to make “high probability generalizations,” I had to ask what would happen if my heroine met a psychic head-on? That was the impetus for writing Murderous Means. I know what I think about them, which happens to be what Corrie thinks, too. Maybe that’s the Big Idea – psychics are crackpots.

Or maybe the big idea is that we are stronger than we think. My heroine rises high to meet many challenges, but what about me? Midway in writing this novel, #6 in my Southern California Mysteries, my fingers turned clunky, the keyboard wobbly, and the story wasn’t happening. So, I stepped away and returned to write something in a different genre. Soon, my fingers became nimble again, and ideas flowed freely.

About 35,000 words later, in my meant-to-distract-me novel, I yearned to return to what I’d left behind. Besides, there was a deadline looming, per my publishing contract. Fortunately, I’d rediscovered my rhythm, and felt renewed enough to finish Murderous Means. During periods when my writing isn’t flowing, I’m often reminded that writing a book is like growing a Chinese bamboo tree.

As writers, we sometimes feel like a seedling that’s been planted and knocked around by the elements without experiencing much growth. Our projects may eventually shrivel up and disappear. But what if growth is occurring without our even knowing it?

Take the Chinese bamboo tree. It’s a challenge to grow. The farmer plants the seed, waters and nurtures it…and nothing happens the first year. Or the second year. Or the third or the fourth. Why bother taking care of something that’s not growing? Because something miraculous does happen in the fifth year. The tree grows almost 90 feet in six weeks. How is that possible? Because during the early years, the plant is developing strong, unshakeable roots.

What if the farmer had given up because he’d seen no results? Bye-bye bamboo tree. And, in the writing world, giving up means bye-bye to any hope of finishing a novel.

Meanwhile, what’s the big idea? I’m reminded of The Three Stooges who asked that same question repeatedly in their movies, and who my heroine, Corrie, invokes when she feels like knocking a few heads together. I guess that’s really the big idea in my books. We all need a little humor. Humor plays a role in my series, as it does in my real life. It takes the edge off situations that tend to ruffle the calmest of feathers. Both my heroine and I agree that humor and laughter help us leap over obstacles, frustrations, and unpleasantries, making both the real life and the fictional life easier to bear. Don’t you think?

Murderous Means: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Bookshop|Powell’s

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Read an excerpt.

“Saltburn” Is An Experience

There are only a handful of movies that I’ve seen at the theater by myself, and fewer that I knew next to nothing about before seeing it. When it comes to Saltburn, I am glad that both of these were the case.

And I want the same for you, at least as far as not knowing much before seeing it, so this is going to be a spoiler-free recommendation of Saltburn. Or, rather, more like an expression of adoration for it. Because I do, in fact, adore it. I saw it a week ago and I’m still constantly thinking about it. It refuses to leave my mind.

There is so much to love about Saltburn; from the cast, to the performances, to the settings, even the soundtrack is pure perfection.

Between the cinematography and the use of color, it is a visually stunning film. There will be parts you might feel inclined to look away from, but simply won’t be able to. Your eyes will undoubtedly be glued to the screen the entire time.

The only movie I’d seen Barry Keoghan in before this was Marvel’s Eternals, which admittedly is not a very good film (however, I did like Barry’s character, Druig, who had the ability to control minds). But this was the first time I’d seen Jacob Elordi in anything. Let me tell you, they both did so amazing. What incredible performances. The line delivery, the way they interact with each other, and particularly how Barry’s character interacts with the world around him, they’re just so compelling and interesting to watch.

The emotions you will feel during this movie will be strange and complex, and you will come out of this movie stunned. I know I did. And then you will want to tell everyone else that they simply must see it. My problem right now is not having anyone to talk about it with. Now that it’s out of theaters, I have to wait a bit until it comes to streaming to make my family watch it. It’s hard to be patient when it comes to a movie like this.

I know I’ve been quite cryptic about what this movie is about, what makes it so worth a watch, and why you should see it as soon as humanly possible, but I highly recommend not looking up anything about it. It’s better not knowing what exactly to expect from it.

Honestly, though, one of the things that made me want to watch this movie in the first place was the trailer. Now I know how that sounds, because obviously the trailer made me want to watch a movie, that’s the whole point of trailers, right? But here’s the thing about trailers, especially of recent years, they show the entire film, the whole plot, all the best parts, even the plot twists and reveals! They leave nothing to be discovered during the film, they just cram everything that matters into two or three minutes.

Not the Saltburn trailer. The Saltburn trailer was short, showed almost nothing, yet conveyed so much. Enough that it made me know I had to watch whatever this was. I respected it for that. It made it stand out from everything else in my eyes. I hate watching trailers because they practically ruin the film, but Saltburn had a trailer that truly enticed and piqued one’s curiosity.

So if you must see a small snippet before committing to the entire film, this trailer should do nicely (it’s not the exact one I saw but it’ll do):

If you have seen it, I’d love to know your thoughts in the comments! So if you haven’t seen it, maybe avoid the comments if you don’t want any spoilers. I’m dying to know what other people think of this movie, so don’t be shy. And have a great day!


The December Comfort Watches, Day Four: While You Were Sleeping

Here’s a kind of fun personal fact about me and While You Were Sleeping: I was a working film critic when this came out in 1995, and I remember giving it a B minus; I thought it was a cute little romantic comedy but that there was really not much more to it than that. Two weeks later, the romantic comedy French Kiss, starring Kevin Kline and Meg Ryan, came out, and I liked that one a bit better: I gave it a B plus. In the nearly 30 years since, I have watched Sleeping at least a couple dozen times. By contrast I have not ever rewatched French Kiss, and moreover, have no real interest in watching it again. I may have liked French Kiss a little more in 1995, but whatever its other qualities, it was a “one and done” sort of film, which, once watched, did not recommend itself to be seen again. Sleeping, on the other hand, you just want to revisit, over and over.

Why? Because while the heart of While You Were Sleeping is a love story, it’s not the love story of Chicago El Train token counter Lucy (Sandra Bullock) and Peter Callaghan (Peter Gallagher), the businessman she fantasizes about and then rescues from the tracks after he’s mugged. It’s not even the love story of Lucy and Jack (Bill Pullman), Peter’s brother, who is suspicious about the sudden appearance of Lucy, even as he’s undeniably attracted to her and she to him. It’s the love story of Lucy and the Callaghan family: Peter’s mom and dad and sister and godfather (and Jack, too), who, after a hospital mix-up where she’s mistakenly identified as Peter’s fiancée, open their hearts and home to her even though Peter is in a coma at the hospital. In their mind, she’s already family, and is meant to be there anyway.

Lucy, who is alone in the world except for a cat, reluctantly accepts the first invitation and then keeps on accepting the later ones, and thus we get the scenes that make this whole movie so rewatchable: the little moments of the Callaghan family opening Christmas gifts and chatting, or talking about how the mashed potatoes are so creamy, and what Argentina’s best known for, during dinner. They are, literally, quotidian scenes, nothing that should be of note, nor would be except that we know how genuinely starved for them Lucy is. We see them through her eyes, and she makes them extraordinary. She loves being there, even though she knows she shouldn’t be, and comes to love the Callaghans, even as she knows that sooner or later, Peter will wake up and reveal her as the cuckoo in the nest.

And then, of course, Peter wakes up, and while everything doesn’t exactly go to hell (this is a romantic comedy, and an exceedingly gentle one at that), it does mean that Lucy has to answer for herself the question of whether she joins the Callaghan family for the wrong reasons, or separates herself from them for the right ones.

This is a movie that lives or dies on the character work. If the Callaghans weren’t a family you wanted to spend the holidays, and maybe the rest of your life, with, Lucy’s being enamored with them would fall flat. The film wisely packs it with character actors — Peter Boyle, Glynis Johns, Jack Warden — who have read the assignment and execute perfectly. Peter, the self-absorbed object of desire, wouldn’t work if he didn’t have an absurd edge to shave off the self-possession, and Peter Gallagher is happy to provide that (Gallagher is, in fact, absurdly handsome, and his eyebrows qualify as a character all their own, with as much work as they put in here). Top to bottom, this cast is a delight.

But none of it works without Bullock. In 1995 she was a newly-minted film presence thanks to the previous year’s Speed, but this was one of her first leading roles, and she nailed it. Bullock personifies an “everygirl” sort of vibe, smart but alone, wistful and with an understanding that this good thing she’s fallen into probably can’t last, and maybe shouldn’t. Apparently the role of Lucy was offered to Demi Moore and Julia Roberts before it was given to Bullock. While Moore and Roberts certainly would have made sense from an economic point of view (they were both at the height of their fame then), they couldn’t have done what Bullock did here. They were already stars. They would have brought that stardom to the role, and overwhelmed it. Bullock brought herself to the role, and it helped make her a star.

Also, aside from all of this, this movie has a small, incidental, and entirely throw-away shot that makes me laugh every single time I see it, without fail, always. It involves a kid on a bicycle. You will know it when you see it.

— JS

The December Comfort Watches, Day Three: Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World

The first thing to know about this film is that the protagonist, the 22-year-old Scott Pilgrim, starts off the film as an actual and verifiably shitty person. Does he know it? Really, not at all, partly because he’s 22 and that’s not a quality age for self-introspection, despite being a quality age for self-absorption. His friends are no help because they are also in that age group; only two of them — notably, both women — bother to let him know he’s trash. He absolutely unsurprisingly chooses not to acknowledge their pronouncements.

This would be the part where a movie marketing person might say that Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World is the story of Scott going from a shitty person to a good person. This would be incorrect. When the movie ends, Scott is not a good person. He is, however, a better person, with the potential to be good person somewhere down the road, probably in his mid-thirties or something, which in my experience is the time of life where the “decent human or awful shitbowl” question is finally sorted out and you go through the rest of your life being one or the other. You can still change in your 40 or 50s or whatever, but something like 99% of us don’t. If you’re an awful shitbowl at 36, you’ve committed to the bit in the way you probably hadn’t yet at 22. It’s a long way back from there.

Scott Pilgrim still being obviously a work in progress at the end of the movie (implied extremely heavily by the last images before we cut to the credits) is one of the reasons I love this film. It’s easy to miss it in all the surface anarchy, clever humorous bits and videogame and comic book callouts, but in this matter — and kind of in this matter only — it’s one of the more realistic films about being in one’s early 20s, being full of inertia and yourself, and figuring out that maybe you can improve on yourself, if for no other reason than to be the person who still has a partner and friends five years down the road.

Which is not to say I don’t also enjoy the surface anarchy, clever humorous bits and videogame and comic book callouts . I certainly do. In fact, this is the first film by director Edgar Wright that I can say I really connected with. Wright was already beloved in comedy nerd circles for films like Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz (both featuring Simon Pegg and Nick Frost), and while those films worked just fine for me, they weren’t ones that hugely moved my needle in terms of needing to seek out everything Edgar Wright did. Wright was clever! Clever is good! (Well, mostly.) But it took this source material to get me to see that what Wright was doing also could punch you in the face with a narrative. All the absurdity and chaos works, because, let’s face it, one’s early 20s are mostly absurdity and chaos anyway.

Everyone is a mess in this film. Scott’s a mess, as mentioned before, and Michael Cera does a very fine job personifying that mess, but he is hardly alone. Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, perfect casting), with whom he falls in love, thus precipitating the narrative crisis that drives the film, is no less a mess than Scott. She’s just a different mess — and tellingly, she’s well aware of the fact she’s a mess, even if she has no idea how to stop being a mess, except by running away, which I shouldn’t have to tell you doesn’t stop you from being a mess, it just means you have more time alone with your messy thoughts. I’ve seen Ramona Flowers categorized as a “manic pixie dreamgirl,” but that’s two-thirds wrong. Scott does see her in dreams, so fair call there, but in the film at least she’s not a pixie, and she’s definitely not manic; she’s Daria with curves. She’s a work in progress too.

So are Scott’s friends, and so are the people he fights for Ramona’s affections, and so are even the bit characters in the film. Everything in the film is heightened and funnier than it is in real life, and also, anyone who was ever in their early 20s probably had an “oh shit I did that” moment of recognition watching the characters in this film. We were all a mess! Hopefully less so now! But even so! I have affection for nearly everyone in this film, even six of the seven “evil exes” Scott is obliged to battle, because all of them are clearly having a struggle I understand or at least can empathize with.

(Jason Schwartzman’s character, on the other hand, can go fuck himself. But then he is clearly meant to be older than the rest of the characters, and has enthusiastically self-sorted into the “shitbowl” category, so).

The other thing that rings for me in this movie is how very specifically run down and spare everything about it is, not because the film is cheap (it cost $60 million, which for its own financial well-being was probably $30 million too many; it was a bit of a flop on release), but because when you’re in your early 20s and you don’t have anything approaching a livable amount of money to your name, you decorate in Dorm Room Cast Off style, your clothes are Goodwill Whatever, and you subsist off pizza and air. When you’re in your early 20s, this is fine! Try not to be caught doing it after 28. I certainly remember living in that mode when I was in my early 20s, loitering in that summer between college and my first real job.

All of which is to say that despite the substantial and literally fantastic artifice of Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World, and aside the humor and style, what brings me back to it over and over is its accuracy of the mode of being in one’s early 20s, not quite knowing who you are, much less who you are meant to become, and flailing about until you figure at least some of it out. In Scott’s case, it helps that he has Ramona to focus his attention on.

It’s been 13 years since the movie came out, Scott would be 35 now. I hope he’s mostly figured himself out. I hope Ramona has, too. I know where I want both of them to sort out.

— JS

The December Comfort Watches, Day Two: The Emperor’s New Groove

I’ve loved The Emperor’s New Groove since the first time I saw it, because of all the Disney animated movies that have ever come out, it’s probably the one closest to my own comedic and storytelling sensibilities (although others come close, and, no surprise, some of them will show up later in the month). I love its anarchic-for-Disney spirit. But in the last couple of years I’ve felt an additional sort of kinship with it.

It’s well known in movie nerd circles that The Emperor’s New Groove is something of a last-minute, hail-Mary attempt to save the production of the film when an earlier and much more earnest version, called Kingdom of the Sun, crashed and burned. This saga has been extensively detailed in all sorts of articles and YouTube videos and such (this is one of my favorites for that), so I won’t go into detail about it here. Suffice to say, The Emperor’s New Groove was a real shitshow production, until it wasn’t, and then suddenly a totally unexpected comedy gem surfaced out of the mess.

As it turns out, roughly twenty years after The Emperor’s New Groove hit theaters, I had the same sort of thing happen to me: I was trying to write a (for me) dark and gritty story that I had pitched to my editors as “Das Boot in space,” but it was 2020 when I was trying to write it, which was the wrong year — for all sorts of reasons — to try to write that sort of story. I fumbled the novel for most of a year and finally had to admit defeat to my editor, who pulled the novel out of the release schedule… and then literally an hour after it was pulled, the entire plot of The Kaiju Preservation Society downloaded into my brain. I banged out that novel in a few weeks, it slid into the publication slot of that previous, failed novel, and, you know what? It did juuuuuust fine, and is generally hailed as one of my funnier novels.

So now, when I watch The Emperor’s New Groove, aside from enjoying it as a completely bonkers viewing experience, there’s also an added layer of empathy for the filmmakers, who scrambled to salvage something out of wreckage. On a much, much smaller scale (just me instead of hundreds of animators and other filmmakers), I’ve been there. Is what came out of it as good as what had originally been intended? We can never know that. But it’s more than good enough, and that’s gonna work for me.

The plot of The Emperor’s New Groove is just your usual callow-emperor-is-a-jerk, emperor-is-turned-into-llama-by-enemies, emperor-defeats-enemies-with-the-power-of-friendship story, just, you know, funny. The filmmakers, after Kingdom of the Sun was overthrown, admitted they leaned heavily on the Chuck Jones, Looney Tunes sort of humor and sensibility. It shows, and it was a very smart call on their part. Other Disney films had dipped their toes into this sort of thing (Aladdin is the most obvious, with Robin Williams being his own trickster spirit), but Emperor does a cannonball into the deep end, doing the sort of slapstick that keeps hitting you with pies to the face. If you don’t like the flavor of the pie, don’t worry, the next pie will hit your face in three seconds. It can be exhausting! But it’s my kind of exhausting.

Also — and I’m speaking here for comedic purposes and not as a matter of cultural sensitivity, hold that thought for a second — this is one of the most perfectly cast animated comedies in the history of the world. David Spade as the bratty emperor Kuzco? Well, that’s just typecasting. Eartha Kitt as Yzma, the deliciously conniving villain? Purrrrfect (those of you who have watched the movie will see what I did there). John Goodman as the decent soul put to use as the straight man? No one better.

But the best casting is Patrick Warburton as Kronk, Yzma’s boy-toy-slash-henchman. Unlike Yzma, Kronk is not evil, he’s a good soul who fell in with the wrong crowd and is making the best of his circumstances in a slightly oblivious, slightly overwhemed way. He’s dimwitted, yet a font of very specific information (can you speak Squirrel?), and just wants to be helpful regardless of circumstances. The moment when Yzma finally turns on him you can genuinely feel his heart break, not because he’s been rebuked but because is his mechanism of care for others (spinach puffs!) has been rejected. His expression is exactly what a golden retriever’s is when he figures out that you, in fact, did not throw the ball. You want to reach right into the screen and give Kronk a hug.

(Should a film about Incans have been made with a cast that has absolutely no relation to that area, culture and history? No, but this was 2000, i.e., the tail end of Disney’s “just cast famous mostly white people, it’s fine” era, and this is what they went with. When the inevitable-yet-absofuckinglutely-unneeded live action version of this film comes to Disney Plus, no doubt The Mouse will rectify this, and the cast will be fine and show the animated version could have absolutely found appropriate actors at the time, even as the live action version itself will feel like two hours of nails dragged across chalkboards, like every other “live action” version of an animated Disney movie. Sorry, I got carried away. Moving on. PS: Watch Coco, it will rip your heart out.)

(Oh, and, I’m not in love with the film’s agism regarding Yzma, even if it’s mostly there to point out the jerkiness of Kuzco. Point taken, but it didn’t work 20 years ago, and it works even less now. A flaw in otherwise delightful patter.)

What makes Emperor work is that, exceptions above aside, all the jokes still land. No matter how many times I see them, I giggle at them. That’s down to the character work of the voice actors and animators, and the wham-wham-WHAM timing of the film. It’s one hour and eighteen minutes and it packs three hours of jokes into those 78 minutes. It never drags. That’s a minor miracle for any film. I have a feeling the Kingdom of the Sun may not have been able to say otherwise, which is why it’s not here and this film is.

I appreciate The Emperor’s New Groove, for the fact it’s a delight, and for the fact that making it was nothing approaching delightful. There’s something about a work that survives despite itself. The people who made it no doubt have stories about the whole ride. I can honestly say I know how they feel.

— JS

The December Comfort Watches, Day One: The Holiday

I don’t know about the rest of you, but with the advent of the holiday season, and the fact by the second week of December everyone collectively decides, well, that’s all the work that needs to be done this year, I spend a lot of my time this month camped out on my couch, watching a bunch of movies that I’ve seen before many times but pretty much only watch in December, for the reasons noted above. Some of them are holiday-related! But others are just, oh, I like this movie, I can watch it with my brain turned off. The December Comfort Watches.

This month, because I thought it would be fun, I’ve decided I will share a list of some of my favorite December Comfort Watches, once a day until the end of the month, or until I get bored and wander off to, you guessed it, watch some films. I want to be clear that I am not staking a claim to these films being the best films ever made, or in some cases that they are even good films; they are just the ones that I’m happy to put on, wrap a blanket around myself, and then do nothing else until I get to the credits. “Intensely watchable during seasonal torpor” is perhaps how I might put it.

And to start us off, let’s do one that is in fact seasonal: The Holiday, the 2006 trifle written and directed by Nancy Meyers. As a director and writer, Meyer is known as a bit of a specialist in the amusing misadventures of the sort of well-off white women who have both immaculate kitchens and the staff to keep them so. The Holiday certainly doesn’t break from that mold: One of her film’s two protagonists, played by Cameron Diaz, makes film trailers and lives in the sort of fenced-off Beverly Hills house that usually quarters movie stars or producers, or their plastic surgeons. The other protagonist, played by Kate Winslet, is a journalist who lives in a rather more modest cottage in Surrey, England, but even that is picturesque in a way that clearly belies the hand of a set designer.

These respective houses are important because our two characters swap them over a Christmas holiday, both trying to get away from heartbreak: Amanda (Diaz) because her composer boyfriend is boinking a staffer and Iris (Winslet) because her longtime newsroom fling is getting married to a blandly respectable woman from — horrors! — the circulation department. Amanda, who has the money for impulsive behavior, sees Iris’ cottage on a vacation home site and wonders if it’s available for an escape; Iris, who does not have the money for any of this but needs her own escape, proposes a house swap. Presto, Iris is on her way to LA, and Amanda is headed for Surrey.

Other than this scene and two other very short moments, Amanda and Iris have nothing to do with each other the entire film; instead we get to watch them be fish out of their respective waters. Amanda is hating England until Iris’ brother Graham (Jude Law, extremely charming) drunkenly shows up and she shags him like a rug; Iris, on the other hand, is like a kid in the California candy store, running screaming with delight through Amanda’s house, making friends with everyone from the gardener to the befuddled old neighbor who happens to be a famous screenwriter, and meeting Miles (Jack Black), a schlubby but kind and funny composer who is happy to see what might transpire with this charming itinerant Englishwoman.

None of it has much relation to reality — the timelines in this film are all kinds of screwy — but this really isn’t the sort of movie you watch for gritty adhesion to the real world. It’s a fairy tale about two really attractive women inconvenienced by terrible men who solve their problems with the application of travel and other, presumably better, men. Along the way there’s some amusing dialogue, a couple of nice b-stories (Iris with the screenwriter, Amanda figuring out who is texting Graham and why), and lovely shots of film executive Los Angeles and postcard England.

Of the two main stories in this film, it’s probably no surprise that I enjoy the one with Kate Winslet more, being as I am a former journalist, and having as I do the belief that any storyline that has Jack Black as a surprisingly credible romantic lead is one that speaks to me as a fellow who also needs to get by more on funny than with looks. By contrast, Diaz and Law are merely two pretty people having pretty problems prettily. But even there, there’s quite a bit of charm. I don’t mind watching them come to their inevitable happy ending.

As a final note I will say that for a reasonably contemporary film, The Holiday absolutely takes place in the very year it happens and not one second later; the golden-era screenwriter could not be realistically be any older than he is in the film, and one pivotal scene takes place in a video store (not to mention, you know, newspapers being reasonably healthy entities). It’s just before Twitter, before Facebook, before Brexit and MAGA, before a whole bunch of nonsense, which makes it even more of a comforting escape in 2023. Who knew 2006 qualifies as the good old days?

— JS

The Big Idea: Aaron Sofaer

Author Aaron Sofaer needed to do some worldbuilding for the novel Quill & Still, and in this case, there was no point in doing it halfway. Come along as Sofaer goes into detail about what it takes to make a kingdom from scratch — and that has also existed for a millennium.


Quill & Still was always a story about civics.

It was called “The Quill & Lathe” at first, and it was going to be notionally focused on woodworking, magic by way of writing, and the use of those two in tandem. (I had just re-read The Magic of Recluce by L. E. Modesitt, Jr., and it showed.) But the first piece of worldbuilding was a treatise on patent law and how it could be used to actually incentivize innovation, not anything related to the main character’s profession or her adventures; I knew, even then, that it was the civics and public policy which were compelling me to write the story.

What might it look like when a society makes decisions on purpose and in earnest, rather than as a byproduct of ossified systems of power and governance? The Kingdom of Shem was my answer, inspired by authors like Alexander Wales (This Used To Be About Dungeons), Elizabeth Bear (Ancestral Night), Becky Chambers (Records of a Spaceborn Few), and Graydon Saunders (A Succession of Bad Days). It’s a messy place, a place that considers itself a work-in-progress, a place of political factions fighting over what the right path to a better future is… but it’s a place where those battles are fought earnestly and in the open, a place where those fellow travelers would rather build a compromise than tear each other down.

Sophie Nadash is an outsider, so we don’t see a whole lot of that. Instead, what we see is an ongoing culture clash between the assumptions that underlie Shemmai society and both her own expectations and the reader’s. She comes from our own world, after all, and her own unfamiliarities are my main tool for exploring the concepts that underlie the story.

Those concepts evolved over time, sometimes in ways that were entirely unplanned. The inciting incident of meeting Artemis in the forest started out as a joke, a reference to a meme about trans women being put into that circumstance—and then it turned out that I had quite a bit to say about Judaism, atheism, and divinity. The role of Immortals in Shemmai public life and the way that represents a hijacking of the Theurgist’s System by the Maintainers similarly grew out of a much smaller seed: the notion of a formalized, quantified system of power as an ongoing project of social engineering.

Quill & Still was written initially as a web serial on the website Royal Road, though it’s now making its way over to Amazon. The readership is pretty niche overall, and in particular a large portion of the readers are looking for progression fantasy and “litRPG” in which gamelike mechanics are integrated into the story. The third piece of worldbuilding I wrote for Quill & Still was a reflection on that: if a System, a structured framework for progression and the wielding of magic, were designed to make a kinder and more just society, what might it look like? What kind of things would it reward, and what would it grant? And how does Sophie relate to all of this? The Maintainers are retired archmages and public servants, fiddling with the underlying infrastructure that society runs on—how does the outcome reflect their own preferences, in much the same way that git (a very widely used piece of software) continues to indefensibly use vim (an archaic, user-unfriendly text editor) as its default for new users?

Sophie doesn’t care about the answers to those questions, because she thinks it’s all ridiculous. Not only is the System just a tool to her, it’s one that’s a farce, in much the same way that the reader may reflexively consider it a farce. But as Kelly (Sophie’s combination social worker, lab assistant, and career coach) points out, quantizing everything we run across is basic human nature, and Shem has had a thousand years of data collection to draw from; and as Sophie herself acknowledges, we have levels everywhere from GSE levels to GS ranks and levels to comparing a Scientist III with a Senior Scientist.

I still regret writing it that way. Not enough to rewrite it, mind you—I find those questions to be meaningful and interesting. But for all the effort I put into making it enjoyable to the general audience, I have no doubt that it’ll be off-putting to many people who pick up the story.

It’s not the only thing that people will find off-putting, though, even if it’s one of the few design decisions I regret. For every one-star review which began by calling my story “communist gay utopia wish fulfillment” and continued on to call Sophie a generic blue-haired STEM gal with pronouns, thus providing me with top-notch marketing material, there were more which viciously took umbrage to all sorts of things in less useful ways. My writing was too flowery, my characters too prone to banter; it’s too slow, obsequious towards the Gods who dwell within the world, too lacking in conflict, too utopian in its economics and horrifying in the social expectation that people will be kind to each other, too queer.

And yeah, it’s pretty queer. Not in a way that the story centers on—there are seven distinct categories of gender expression which appear in the book and a variety of relationship arrangements, yes, but that’s just not noteworthy to the people of Shem. The story isn’t about queerness, not in the same way that it’s about the logistics of housing and food in a rural village of a couple hundred people, not in the same way that it’s about the choice society imposes on you between influence and immortality (as wonderfully executed in Elizabeth Moon’s work) or about the life-work balance that can sustain people for hundreds of years of productive, joyful life.

Shem does policy on purpose and in an effort to make a better future—that’s axiomatic, and it’s also what the story centered around from start to finish. My job as a writer, then, was to explore the question of how that gets expressed, of how the State funds itself and which things it would consider inefficient forms of taxation or which things are investments with a positive return even when they’re structured as handouts. My job was to take the deep and howling frustration I have as a parent raising a daughter (a toddler at the time, a preschooler now) with effectively no support network outside of my wife, myself, and whatever help we pay for, and ask: how could this be better, how could this save us all from burning out on our jobs while being worse parents than we’d like to be. My job was, by writing a thousand to two thousand words a day while working a full-time job and being a parent, to suggest to the reader that what said reader really wanted was to sit in the reading nook that Sophie saw in the library with a basket of dumplings and a book, which quite frankly was all I wanted to do most days.

My job was to transport my readers into Shem, to make them yearn for a place where the rat race gives way to the slow life and where we could live more joyfully as truer versions of ourselves; my job was to take everyone who yearns for that world there, if only for a couple of chapters a week (and now a book, and soon its sequel). And maybe my job was to say to some readers, readers who saw in Sophie a reflection of themselves which they had never been offered by an author before: I see you. You are not alone.

Quill & Still Book One: Amazon|Riverfolk Books

Author Socials: Website|Mastodon|Bluesky|Discord Server

Whatever Holiday Gift Guide 2023, Day Five: Charities

For the last four days, the Whatever Gift Guide 2023 has been about helping you find the perfect gifts for friends and loved ones. But today I’d like to remind folks that the season is also about helping those in need. So this final day is for charities. If you’re looking for a place to make a donation — or know of a charitable organization that would gladly accept a donation — this is the place for it.

How to contribute to this thread:

1. Anyone can contribute. If you are associated with or work for a charity, tell us about the charity. If there’s a charity you regularly contribute to or like for philosophical reasons, share with the crowd. This is open to everyone.

2. Focus on non-political charities, please. Which is to say, charities whose primary mission is not political — so, for example, an advocacy group whose primary thrust is education but who also lobbies lawmakers would be fine, but a candidate or political party or political action committee is not. The idea here is charities that exist to help people and/or make the world a better place for all of us.

3. It’s okay to note personal fundraising (Indiegogo and GoFundMe campaigns, etc) for people in need. Also, other informal charities and fundraisers are fine, but please do your part to make sure you’re pointing people to a legitimate fundraiser and not a scam. I would suggest only suggesting campaigns that you can vouch for personally.

3. One post per person. In that post, you can list whatever charities you like, and more than one charity. Note also that the majority of Whatever’s readership is in the US/Canada, so I suggest focusing on charities available in North America.

4. Keep your description of the charity brief (there will be a lot of posts, I’m guessing) and entertaining. Imagine the person is in front of you as you tell them about the charity and is interested but easily distracted.

5. You may include a link to a charity site if you like by using standard HTML link scripting. Be warned that if you include too many links (typically three or more) your post may get sent to the moderating queue. If this happens, don’t panic: I’ll be going in through the day to release moderated posts. Note that posts will occasionally go into the moderation queue semi-randomly; Don’t panic about that either.

6. Comment posts that are not about people promoting charities they like will be deleted, in order to keep the comment thread useful for people looking to find charities to contribute to.

All right, then: It’s the season of giving. Tell us where to give to make this a better place.

The Big Idea: Felicia Day

As children, we often dream of being a special one, even The Chosen One — but as a practical matter, how would being that special actually be? Especially if life threw you some curveballs on the way to Chosenhood? It’s a thought Felicia Day has considered, in her life, and in her new audio drama, Third Eye.


My latest project, Third Eye, is seven-hour fantasy adventure in audio. It began almost six years ago with the simple thought: What if a fantasy-genre Chosen One turned out to be a total loser instead of saving the world? How much would that poor loser’s life suck afterward?

The answer would be: A lot.

The concept tickled me. And sounded like something fun I could dig into. But as I started writing, the deeper Big Idea changed from a funny longline into: “How does someone recover from being a total Failure?” And that twist made the project much more personal. Because, back then, I felt like a total Failure, too.

Now, you might say, “Felicia, that’s wild, eight years ago is when you were on the covers of magazines, and running a big digital company and throwing parties in stadiums!” And I would answer, “Yes, but when you are a traumatized gifted child, there is nothing you can achieve that will be ever be enough to make you feel like a winner outside of others’ praise. Because you have never seen yourself as anything outside what you achieve. I mean, spiritually, you’ve kind of never existed on the inside at all, so…excuse me, I gotta go write a comedy now, bye!”

My life and Laurel Pettigrew, the lead character I play in the show, have a few similarities. Laurel had a prophecy about her defeating the Great Evil of the world, I was a violin prodigy at age three, and then an internet content prodigy as an adult. She choked at her big battle, and I FELT that I choked when my internet business didn’t revolutionize…something? It’s been a lot for me to unravel in therapy, but in the end, everyone in the show treats Laurel like she Failed the world, which she kind of did, and that’s what I felt about myself at the time. Deep in my bones. So diving in over the last few years and creating a world and characters to take Laurel on a journey away from that loathful self-image was a very healing process for me. We are both better for it.

I surrounded Laurel with some fun sidekicks: A grift-y faerie princess played by the hilarious London Hughes, and a loser vampire played by Sean Astin. Terrible roommates, great friends. They tolerate her self-loathing in a wonderful way. But when a teenager who inconceivably thinks Laurel is her hero (?!) enters her life, it blows up everything Laurel thought was true about herself and the world. And ultimately leads her to a place where she can…tolerate herself. Which I guess, is an improvement for some people. (Me and Laurel, at least!)

Ultimately, writing the project lead me to conclude that being “special” as a kid is a curse you’ll have to outrun your whole life. I see it in myself, I see it in Hollywood with former child actors, and I see it from afar with kid YouTube stars (*shudder*). There’s a reason I let my daughter drop out of classes she doesn’t want to do. Because, even if she’s good at the piano, I don’t want her to ever think that she is her piano playing ability. She’s just a kid, who has worth outside everyone else’s opinions of her. So if dropping out helps her form a healthy self-image of herself, I’ll consider myself a prodigy at parenting!

Just kidding. I hate that word now.

P.S.: Outside of the Big Idea, there are a few lines in “Third Eye” I am very proud of. One fart joke delivered by Sean Astin is a complete chef’s kiss, and Neil Gaiman saying the words “crab hand rolls” “tiny little horses” and “nipples” in the show is something I creepily have cut together in an mp3 on my computer desktop which I play when I’m feeling unfocused. Oops, shouldn’t have shared that, bye!

Third Eye: Audible

Author’s Socials: Website|Instagram|TikTok|Threads

Whatever Holiday Gift Guide 2023, Day Four: Fan Favorites!

For the first three days of the Whatever Gift Guide 2023, We’ve had authors and creators tell you about their work. Today is different: Today is Fan Favorites day, in which fans, admirers and satisfied customers share with you a few of their favorite things — and you can share some of your favorite things as well. This is a way to discover some cool stuff from folks like you, and to spread the word about some of the things you love.

Fans: Here’s how to post in this thread. Please follow these directions!

1. Fans only: That means that authors and creators may not post about their own work in this thread (they may post about other people’s work, if they are fans). There are already existing threads for traditionally-published authorsnon-traditionally published authors, and for other creators. Those are the places to post about your own work, not here.

2. Individually created and completed works only, please. Which is to say, don’t promote things like a piece of hardware you can find at Home Depot, shoes from Foot Locker, or a TV you got at Wal-Mart. Focus on things created by one person or a small group: Music, books, crafts and such. Things that you’ve discovered and think other people should know about, basically. Do not post about works in progress, even if they’re posted publicly elsewhere. Remember that this is supposed to be a gift guide, and that these are things meant to be given to other people. So focus on things that are completed and able to be sold or shared.

3. One post per fan. In that post, you can list whatever creations you like, from more than one person if you like, but allow me to suggest you focus on newer stuff. Note also that the majority of Whatever’s readership is in the US/Canada, so I suggest focusing on things available in North America. If they are from or available in other countries, please note that!

4. Keep your description of the work brief (there will be a lot of posts, I’m guessing) and entertaining. Imagine the person is in front of you as you tell them about the work and is interested but easily distracted.

5. You may include a link to a sales site if you like by using standard HTML link scripting. Be warned that if you include too many links (typically three or more) your post may get sent to the moderating queue. If this happens, don’t panic: I’ll be going in through the day to release moderated posts. Note that posts will occasionally go into the moderation queue semi-randomly; Don’t panic about that either.

6. Comment posts that are not about fans promoting work they like will be deleted, in order to keep the comment thread useful for people looking to find interesting gifts.

Got it? Excellent. Now: Geek out and tell us about cool stuff you love — and where we can get it too.

Tomorrow: Charities!

Whatever Holiday Gift Guide 2023, Day Three: Arts, Crafts, Music and More

The Whatever Holiday Gift Guide 2023 continues, and today we move away from books and focus on other gifts and crafts — which you can take to mean just about any other sort of thing a creative person might make: Music, art, knitting, jewelry, artisan foodstuffs and so on. These can be great, unique gifts for special folks in your life, and things you can’t just get down at the mall. I hope you see some cool stuff here.

Please note that the comment thread today is only for creators to post about their gifts for sale; please do not leave other comments, as they will be snipped out to keep the thread from getting cluttered. Thanks!

Creators: Here’s how to post in this thread. Please follow these directions!

1. Creators (of things other than books) only. This is an intentionally expansive category, so if you’ve made something and have it available for the public to try or buy, you can probably post about in this thread. The exception to this is books (including comics and graphic novels), which have two previously existing threads, one for traditionally-published works and one for non-traditionally published works (Note: if you are an author and also create other stuff, you may promote that other stuff today). Don’t post if you are not the creator of the thing you want to promote, please.

2. Personally-created and completed works only. This thread is specifically for artists and creators who are making their own unique works. Mass-producible things like CDs, buttons or T-shirts are acceptable if you’ve personally created what’s on it. But please don’t use this thread for things that were created by others, which you happen to sell. Likewise, do not post about works in progress, even if you’re posting them publicly elsewhere. Remember that this is supposed to be a gift guide, and that these are things meant to be given to other people. Also, don’t just promote yourself unless you have something to sell or provide, that others may give as a gift.

3. One post per creator. In that post, you can list whatever creations of yours you like, but allow me to suggest you focus on your most recent creation. Note also that the majority of Whatever’s readership is in the US/Canada, so I suggest focusing on things available in North America. If you are elsewhere and your work is available there, please note it.

4. Keep your description of your work brief (there will be a lot of posts, I’m guessing) and entertaining. Imagine the person is in front of you as you tell them about your work and is interested but easily distracted.

5. You may include a link to a sales site if you like by using standard HTML link scripting. Be warned that if you include too many links (typically three or more) your post may get sent to the moderating queue. If this happens, don’t panic: I’ll be going in through the day to release moderated posts. Note that posts will occasionally go into the moderation queue semi-randomly; Don’t panic about that either.

6. As noted above, comment posts that are not from creators promoting their work as specified above will be deleted, in order to keep the comment thread useful for people looking to find interesting work.

Now: Tell us about your stuff!

Tomorrow: Fan Favorites!

New Music: Study of Decay I

Hey, feel like you could use a few minutes of relentless industrial droning? Well, then, have I got a track for you! It started off much more chipper and in a different key entirely, but little by little it ended up here. I guess I’m in that kind of mood musically, as November grinds down to cold and early darkness. Maybe I need some Christmas music or something. Or a hug.

Anyway, enjoy the bleakness, if bleakness is a thing you enjoy.

— JS

The Big Idea: Paige E. Ewing

Fayetteville may not have been on your radar as a hotbed of fae activity, but as Paige E. Ewing is here to tell you, it’s the place to be for her novel, Explosive Chemistry.


When Solifu, the impossibly ancient Egyptian mystic, held her tiny spider-kin daughter in her arms, she knew she would never bear another. She would bear two more sons, lion-kin like their father, Simon the last surviving prince of Nemea, but Liliana would be her last daughter. She would not survive to see the adult this babe would one day become. “I give you my word on this, little one. Your childhood will be filled with love and music, dancing and joy.”

Ixchel, the Peruvian jaguar-kin who owned both her and Simon’s hearts touched the infant’s face. “She only has two eyes. Is she a Normal?”

“She is like me,” Solifu said. “Her sight will mature, but it will be hard for her. She will need all three of us.”

When Liliana was five, a little boy pushed her and curved razor-sharp blades popped out of her forearms, scaring them both. Solifu, Simon, and Ixchel took turns training their tiny daughter in combat discipline, so she could handle her natural weaponry without harming herself or others.

At ten, Liliana looked like a petite child of seven. She opened new eyes on her temples, green and shimmering like chrome. Unnamed spectrums filled her vision. Her development stopped as her mind re-shaped itself to adapt. Liliana laughed in a world with new colors in all directions at once. The bright beads of gypsy scarves sparkled even behind her as she danced to the music the Romani circus people made on well-worn instruments.

By twenty, little Lilly as her father called her, had the body of a Normal girl of twelve. The third pair of eyes that opened like black pearl tears showed her souls tinged yellow with pity as her old friends found husbands and wives. In time, with the help of combat training and focus, her mind adjusted again.

Each new kind of vision made her more different, but circus children didn’t mind different, and still played hide and seek with her. And now, Liliana could fly. She danced joyously on the high wires and leapt fearlessly from the trapeze swings. Her father’s strong hands were always there to catch her.

When she finally grew up, Lilly wanted to be like her adult sister Isabella, who had her own caravan and made her living as Madame Bella, the seer of all that is hidden. Her baby brothers, Petros and Jason, for the first time gave Liliana someone smaller than her to care for. They grinned her father’s smile at the brightly-colored toys she made for them.

At thirty, when Lilly’s body reached a fourteen-year-old’s adolescence, her final large swirly pair of spider-kin eyes opened on her forehead. Her mind drowned in overwhelming images of what was, what might be, and what had been. She couldn’t close her eyes. She couldn’t shut it out.

It was too much.

Liliana’s young mind lost itself so completely that her parents had to dress her and feed her like a babe that first year. Her mind tried to fight its way to sanity, but often it just shut down, leaving Lilly floating in an empty dark place that time didn’t touch. The universal therapy of combat discipline brought her back – the swish and clash of blades, the feel of the ground beneath her feet. Slowly, her mind re-shaped itself.

She remembered how to dance and remembered how to fly, but her joy was gone.

Liliana’s sister Isabella bid her goodbye one day. She had foreseen a daughter coming to her and her husband, but the not-yet-conceived child would only be safe if they fled Europe to Iceland. So they did.

At night, Lilly’s control slipped and bloody nightmares came. Wars across time. The deaths of everyone she knew. Emotionally charged events were the hardest to shut out, and nothing was harder to not see than death. Her father and first mother died, the blood too bright, the growls of the red Celtic werewolves ripping them apart too loud.

Solifu saw the same visions, but she told her daughter she had a lot of practice navigating the paths of the future. It was a true statement, but not truth. Her daughter trusted her to use her vision to find a safe path.

But Solifu made a different choice.

She hoped one day her daughter would forgive her.

Liliana’s nightmares came back with a vengeance one night, more vivid than ever. As she often did when nightmares plagued her, Liliana crawled into the cage with the big, lazy true lions to sleep. The lionesses guarded her between them like a frightened cub. Just as she drifted to sleep again, her second mother Ixchel opened the cage door and ushered in two lion cubs. Lilly recognized her two brothers, Jason and Petros, pretending to be true lions.

“Shh,” Ixchel said. “Stay hidden.”

The circus never moved in the dead of night, but that time it did. The animals, all the misfits, and the Romani got on board a big ship, leaving the beautiful wooden caravans, their homes, behind.

Liliana’s father and first mother didn’t board.

Screams, her father’s bone-shaking roar, blood and violence filled Liliana’s fourth eyes, crisp and sharp, real and now.

Solifu, her husband and eldest sons fighting at her side, delayed the pack of Himmler’s red wolves while all their Roma friends, their beloved wife, Ixchel, and their youngest children escaped on the tide. Liliana saw other possible paths, but they were all filled with the death of the Romani, the gypsy children she’d grown up with who now had children of their own.

Solifu and Simon could have run, but they chose to stay and die so their friends could survive.

And Liliana, helpless to shut it out, helpless to change what she saw, watched them die again and again like her second mother’s gramophone stuck in a bloody groove.


Over a hundred years later, Precise Oaths, first in the Liliana and the Fae of Fayetteville series, starts. Thirty years in our future, the Green resurges, gaining strength with every clean air initiative, and combustion engine rusting in a recycle lot. The Green feeds power to the hidden peoples with kinship to beasts and plants and stones.

Neurodivergent loner, Liliana, as Madame Anna Sees All, guides the people of Fayetteville, North Carolina away from danger and toward happiness. Crippling social anxiety ensures that the only people she talks to in her little town are paying clients.

When a red wolf-kin, Peter Teague, and two police officers accuse her of being a serial killer, she flees. But the red wolf just wants to stop more deaths. Lilly fights shoulder-to-shoulder with this decent man descended from her parents’ murderers. Siobhan, the flower sprite lends bullets from her machine gun, and the goblin Doctor Nudd lends wisdom and healing to their victory.

Faytetteville is safer, and Liliana has friends again. Friends bring her laughter, music, tea parties, and dancing. Their commanding officer, Colonel Bennett, a Fae prince in hiding, flirts with her in his voice like deep honey, promising more.

In Explosive Chemistry, book 2, Liliana’s fourth eyes see murder coming for all of them, friends and clients alike. It’s a wave of blood darker than she has seen since she hid in a cage full of lions as an adolescent. How can she save everyone she knows? She and Pete stopped the serial killers already. What did they miss?

Many paths of the future where she saves her friends show her own death, but Liliana refuses to be alone again.

For the first time, she understands Solifu’s choice.

It’s her life. Liliana will decide who is worth the risk of it.

Explosive Chemistry: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Bookshop|Powell’s|Universal

Author Socials: Personal site|Instagram|Twitter|Bluesky


Whatever Holiday Gift Guide 2023, Day Two: Non-Traditionally Published Books

Today is Day Two of the Whatever Holiday Gift Guide 2023, and today the focus is on Non-Traditionally Published Books: Self-published works, electronically-exclusive books, books from micro presses, books released outside the usual environs of the publishing world, and so on. Hey, I put my first novel up on this very Web site years ago and told people to send me a dollar if they liked it. Look where it got me. I hope you find some good stuff today.

Please note that the comment thread today is only for non-traditional authors and editors to post about their books; please do not leave other comments, as they will be snipped out to keep the thread from getting cluttered. Thanks!

Authors/editors: Here’s how to post in this thread. Please follow these directions!

1. Authors and editors of non-traditionally published books only. This includes comics and graphic novels, as well as non-fiction books and audiobooks. If your book has been traditionally published — available in bookstores on a returnable basis — post about your book in the thread that went up yesterday (if you are in doubt, assume you are non-traditionally published and post here). If you are a creator in another form or medium, your thread is coming tomorrow. Don’t post if you are not the author or editor, please.

2. Completed works only. Do not post about works in progress, even if you’re posting them publicly. Remember that this is supposed to be a gift guide, and that these are things meant to be given to other people. Likewise, don’t just promote yourself unless you have something to sell or provide, that others may give as a gift.

3. One post per author. In that post, you can list whatever books of yours you like, but allow me to suggest you focus on your most recent book. Note also that the majority of Whatever’s readership is in the US/Canada, so I suggest focusing on books available in North America. If your book is only available in the UK or some other country, please let people know!

4. Keep your description of your book brief (there will be a lot of posts, I’m guessing) and entertaining. Imagine the person is in front of you as you tell them about your book and is interested but easily distracted.

5. You may include a link to a bookseller if you like by using standard HTML link scripting or URL. Be warned that if you include too many links (typically three or more) your post may get sent to the moderating queue. If this happens, don’t panic: I’ll be going in through the day to release moderated posts. Note that posts will occasionally go into the moderation queue semi-randomly; Don’t panic about that either.

6. As noted above, comment posts that are not from authors/editors promoting their books as specified above will be deleted, in order to keep the comment thread useful for people looking to find interesting books.

Now: Tell us about your book!

Tomorrow (11/29): Other creators (musicians, artists, crafters, etc!)