What books and films are you looking forward to as autumn approaches?

What books and films are you looking forward to as autumn approaches?

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Bond investment report

For fans of James Bond, the latter going of 2015 offers a couple of nice treats.  Obviously, the big one is the premiere of the new Bond film, SPECTRE, which debuts in the UK in October and in the US in November.  From the trailers, it looks elegant, action-packed and intriguing.  After all, we haven't seen the international crime cartel, SPECTRE, as a Bond antagonist since the 1971 film, Diamonds Are Forever, and SPECTRE head Ernst Stavro Blofeld since the pre-credits sequence of 1981's For Your Eyes Only. What do the producers have in mind for the re-launched, re-booted crime organization in the new film?  We'll soon see.

But you may not realize that we're also getting a new Bond novel, and in only a few days: the second week of September will see the release of Trigger Mortis by Anthony Horowitz.  Set in Ian Fleming's original 1950's timeline, the book sounds pretty great.  Here's a description that paraphrases from the press materials: Recovering from his recent victory over Auric Goldfinger, Bond is relaxing with his latest ally and conquest from that adventure, Pussy Galore, when he's soon called upon to thwart an effort by the Russians to sabotage a famous international auto race in West Germany.  But is there more to the plan than simply embarrassing the West by messing up a celebrated race car event?  Bond intends to find out.  Again, sounds pretty good, huh?

Stay tuned for more discussion of our favorite fictional spy, as I'll undoubtedly have more to say about both the high-profile film and smaller-profile novel in the near future.  For now, it's great to know we're getting some new Bond on both the big screen and printed page beginning almost immediately.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Brief Asides #5

It's been a while since I've done one of these "Brief Asides" posts, so here's a new one for you, finally.  There may be longer reviews of some of these items shortly, but for now here are some quick thoughts on a few things I've been reading and seeing lately.

Irrational Man, still in a few theaters, was an okay Woody Allen movie, but ultimately felt like warmed-over leftovers. The themes covered here- mostly involving morality and justice- were handled with more urgency and drama in earlier Woody films like Crimes and Misdemeaners and Matchpoint.  Also, the pace was a little sluggish. Still it's a watchable, somewhat entertaining movie for Woody fans.

Fantastic Four is pretty much the big disappointment everyone says it is, though it's more needlessly mediocre than a travesty.  It's just amazing to me that the rich Stan Lee/Jack Kirby source material has yet to yield a truly decent movie after several tries.  Probably Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer a few years back came closest.  There was at least some pretty good adventure and somewhat grand science-fiction wonderment in that one.

Zombeavers, recently seen via Netflix streaming, is actually a lot more grim and scary, and straight-up horror oriented than the title of the movie suggests.  The filmmakers, however, certainly didn't miss the double-entendre opportunities the title offers, and the puppet-like beavers often look a little silly. Still, this one may genuinely unnerve you a little, especially if you're just tuning in for goofy fun.

Speaking of goofy fun, you'll get a lot of that in both the movie and series versions of Wet Hot American Summer, both also now on Netflix.  The 2015 series (8 episodes, just released) is actually a prequel to the 2001 movie, which apparently has a cult following. Both series and movie offer a nice mix of so-bad-it's-good humor, as well as genuinely inspired funny bits.  Check 'em out.

I'm still working my way through Isaac Asimov's Foundation series (a 2015 project of mine) and just finished Foundation's Edge. This one was an important entry in the series, not only because it was the first new installment in the series in several decades when it originally came out in 1982, but also because it connected the Foundation novels into the continuities of other Isaac Asimov series and stories, in essence creating a grand Asimov universe.  And it did all that while telling a decent story, too.

That's it for now. I hope everyone is making the most of these final days of summer.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Meet a more troubled Jesse Stone

I didn't rush to read Robert B. Parker's Blind Spot, Reed Farrel Coleman's initial Jesse Stone novel, because of the high number of moderately negative to outright hostile reviews on Amazon, but figured I'd eventually get to it. I was surprised, then, that I really enjoyed the book when I finally read it. It's always a tricky thing when a new writer continues another writer's series, but this novel did a nice job with the balancing act such an arrangement requires: it honors and respects the characters and situations created by the original author, but introduces plotlines, themes, and ideas that engage the imagination of the new writer.

On that last point, maybe it's just me, but I enjoy novels where the characters have complicated interior lives and struggle with weaknesses and various psychological issues. Here Jesse Stone is struggling a little more with his drinking and a mobster / hired killer is all of a sudden struggling with guilt in the wake of his killing a young woman. Elements like this added a kind of burnished richness to the proceedings.

I also liked how Mr. Coleman subtly undid some of the changes Michael Brandman, the first writer to take over this series from Mr. Parker, made to the series to put it more in line with the Jesse Stone TV movies. Mr. Brandman, for example, moved Jesse into a waterfront house with a footbridge leading to the front door, just like the house in the TV movies. He also avoided describing Molly Crane as an Irish woman with a bunch of kids and a very specific way of bantering with Jesse, so it wouldn't contradict the Molly in the TV movies, a black woman who acted more formally around Jesse. Here, Molly is very clearly once again the Irish woman Robert Parker created, and she has her old history and personality back. And, while less obvious, Coleman seems to indicate that Jesse has moved again and is again living in a condo-like residence like he was before.

And while the editor in me actually kind of liked the clear, easily understandable "point A connects to point B" plotting of the Brandman novels, I found myself enjoying the sort of messy, organic plotting of this new book. One crook / scammer, for example, plans to use Jesse as a way to extricate himself from his mob ties, which are getting out of hand. But then he sort of forgets about that as new things attract his attention, and start interacting with Jesse in a whole different way. And Jesse himself sorts of blunders around most of the book trying to figure out what's going on, knowing that he's committed to solving the murder of the young woman that gets the plot rolling, but not much else for the longest time.

And while I don't want to overstate the idea, the book and its characters are sort of marinated in melancholy, adult concerns and regrets, and an overall tiredness at the demands of life, giving the book a more serious, literary quality we haven't seen before in either the Parker or Brandman entries. Hey, it's still a Jesse Stone detective thriller, but a more seasoned and thematically complicated one. Maybe those things will make Robert B. Parker's Blind Spot more of a slog for some people, but it wasn't for me. I enjoyed the richness.

One thing's for sure: I'm not going to wait long to read Mr. Coleman's next entry in the series, Robert B. Parker's The Devil Wins, which is out in September. I'm pretty much thinking that Jesse Stone is in good hands for the moment.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Meet Nina

If you enjoy jazz, biographical documentaries, or both, you might want to check out What Happened, Miss Simone?, a documentary about the great jazz vocalist Nina Simone.  It was produced by Netflix and is now available to stream on that service (I'm not sure if Netflix is also making a disc version available).

Simone was a fascinating figure, with many personal and professional ups and downs during her long career (refreshingly, despite much high drama in her life, Simone didn't die young from alcohol or drug abuse, though there seems to have been some of both in her life).  Though the diagnosis didn't exist then, experts speculate today that Simone was probably also bi-polar, often making the demands of her profession especially hard to bear.

The most interesting part of the documentary, which runs an hour and forty-five minutes or so, is when we see Simone's activities during the civil rights era, where she stopped performing the kinds of songs people wanted to hear and instead wrote and sang some very visceral civil rights anthems.  These anthems became hits, too, though Simone's career wasn't as lucrative during that period.

There's a nice balance of biographical material and music during the documentary, and you'll get a good sense of Simone's vocal talent, which was warm but offbeat, moving yet always a little agitated. And she was a terrific pianist, too, her playing displaying the same depth and complexity as her singing.

Anyway, decent documentary, and Netflix should be commended for producing it.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Breaking out in the regimented 50's

I picked up Patricia Highsmith's The Price of Salt on my Kindle because of all the praise the film Carol, an adaptation of the novel, received at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival. Feeling a little impatient that I'd have to wait several months for the general release of the film, I figured in the meantime I could at least grab up the book that provided the source material. And, in the end, I'm glad I did, as it was a thoughtful and enjoyable reading experience. Here are a few quick observations:

While the book ultimately is a lesbian love story, it takes its time with this aspect, with the first two-thirds of the book basically describing an intense friendship. Interestingly, this was probably due to the 1950's setting. I'm wondering if many lesbians during that period didn't even realize they were lesbians at first, because there wasn't yet an easily recognizable social structure in place that included gay and lesbian relationships as a perfectly respectable category to place oneself.

I liked the fact that Highsmith, who was a very popular writer of hard-edged thrillers at the time (Strangers on a Train, The Talented Mr. Ripley) didn't work too hard to convince us to like the sophisticated, often aloof Carol character as much as young Therese does. It was enough for the author to credibly and believably show us that Therese did so.

I also liked that the young Therese, even as she was experiencing a new sexual awakening as the story progressed, still maintained affection, and some attraction, for some of the young men in her sphere. In doing that, the book intelligently demonstrated that life can be messy and complex at times. Therese was discovering herself, yes, but it didn't mean all her past feelings were misguided or a lie.

Though not intended as such when it was written, the book also functions as a fascinating little time capsule about life in the 1950's. It was fun to read about how people of various social standings lived, worked, and played in 1950's New York City and its environs. And during Carol and Therese's road trip, we get to see 1950's life in other parts of the country, as well. You'll probably smile at how involved it was to make or receive a long-distance phone call back then!

Some parts of the book were a little poetic and abstract for my taste, though others might like them. For instance, Therese gains an intense insight about Carol when she views an old painting in a library, a stodgy posed portrait depicting someone who coincidentally looks very much like Carol. I'm still not sure what the insight was, or why an old painting would induce it, but it was a very big deal for Therese when it occurred. Perhaps someone can enlighten me on what that was all about. Thankfully, for me at least, these abstract, vaguely-described moments don't overwhelm the book by any means.

Several times during the book, I came up with my own motivations for the characters' actions, sometimes quite different from the ones Highsmith relates to us. This was probably due to the nicely complex characters and situations. For example, near the end, Therese feels estranged from Carol and goes to a cocktail party with her theatre colleagues. There she meets a famous stage actress and there's an obvious mutual attraction. Therese weighs things for a moment and then rejects the attraction to the actress, because, as related by Highsmith, Therese realized it would be no more than a superficial relationship if she pursued it, and realizes she'd rather salvage the deep and meaningful relationship she had with Carol. That was fine, but I also came up with this: Therese had put distance between herself and Carol because she was in part trying to distance herself from her inconvenient discoveries about her sexuality, but when that sexuality reared itself up again when she found herself attracted to the actress, she probably admitted to herself that her attraction to women would now always be an overt part of her, so she might as well go back to the one woman she really cared about and embrace the whole thing. Anyway, that was a take that occurred to me.

I'll stop now, as there are plenty of other reviews out there (at Amazon alone) if more details and opinions about this interesting little book are desired. I'll just add that I'm very glad I read this off-the-beaten-track novel (an off-the-beaten track novel for me, anyway, as you can see from the types of books I usually review at this site) and that I'm looking forward to the film even more now.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

More signs of the times

A sign that I spotted in the window of a neighbor's house:

Beware of dog.  The cat is not trustworthy, either.

A sign seen in front of a popular burger joint:

Eat here. Fat people are harder to kidnap.

Seen on a chalkboard in front of a small local business:

Sex sells.  Unfortunately, we sell coffee.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Humanity's swan song

Written back in the mid-1980's, Robert R. McCammon's Swan Song is a big ol' apocalyptic thriller in the vein of Stephen King's The Stand.  It has a lot to offer and I'm glad I finally got to it.  The apocalypse here is the thing that everyone was afraid of back then (and probably should still be afraid of today): nuclear war with the Russians.

The first large chunk of the book very effectively dramatizes the lead up and eventual launch of the missiles.  All scary stuff.  The huge middle section follows a bunch of survivors as they try to continue being survivors in the immediate aftermath of the nuclear exchange.  For many of the characters, it's not immediately clear if they're going to be good characters or bad characters in the wake of the war, which is a plus.  And soon things become even more interesting when magic and the supernatural are thrown into the mix. The last part of the book covers the clash of very different interests to decide who will chart the course of the remnants of humanity.

In some ways the book feels like a watered down The Stand, doing what The Stand did but in less ambitious ways.  But in other ways it is very much its own thing, like in the way the story uses its supernatural elements to 1) develop and deliver an ecological message (that only rarely gets preachy), and 2) fuel an almost dreamlike plot development that results in many of the characters ultimately developing a new outward appearance based on their true inner beauty or ugliness, via a weird skin condition dubbed Jacob's Mask.  That part of the book reminded me of the first Captain America movie, where the super soldier formula made Steve Rogers fit, healthy, and handsome, while it made the Red Skull look like, well, the Red Skull.  But Swan Song did that sort of thing first!

Swan Song is a long book and audiobook (I experienced the book on audio, via a fairly new production offered by Audible.com), but I think most people who are into these types of epic stories that combine gritty realism with fantasy elements will find it enjoyable and worth their time.  I certainly enjoyed it well enough.