Thursday, December 31, 2009

May auld acquaintance...

The taproom will be shutting down early for New Year's Eve (yeah, yeah, what kind of bar is this? I'm sure you're asking), so let me take a moment now to thank you all for your regular visits, and to wish everyone a Happy New Year! More reviews, tips, lists, and Kindle chat wll pick up on the dawn of the new year, so stop back in tomorrow after your headache dies down a bit.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Lists, Part One...

Because readers tend to expect this sort of thing from a general-interest blog, here's the first of a handful of year-end lists. This one covers, in no particular order, ten of my favorite moviegoing experiences of 2009. And away we go...

Star Trek delivered a shot of adrenaline to the classic Trek crew, resulting in an action-packed story with characters we're glad to get to know all over again.

Sherlock Holmes was event-movie big, yet intimate at the same time. Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law are great together.

Gritty, dark superhero action was the order of the day in Watchmen. Choose one of the longer DVD cuts out there if you haven't seen the movie yet.

Whether seen in 3D or 2D, Up delivered the most immersive, colorful adventure of the year until a certain movie about blue-skinned aliens came along.

A valuable final document with great songs, Michael Jackson's This is It is both a terrific concert film and fascinating documentary about the musical legend.

Julie and Julia gave us some laughs, a little drama, and made world-class acting seem effortless and fun (yes, I'm thinking of Ms. Streep here).

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince managed to distill the huge novel down to a dark, brooding yet zippily told film that hit all the right emotional marks.

Amazing detail and great artistry dazzled viewers of Disney's A Christmas Carol, especially those who saw it in IMAX 3D.

Avatar delivered a perfectly good science-fiction story, but it'll be remembered for its truly immersive visual experience. Other films (some on this list) demonstrated that 3D isn't just a gimmick anymore, but with James Cameron's film, 3D has truly grown up.

Inglorious Basterds had long, quiet, dialogue scenes that are just as tense and riveting as the year's best action sequences, some of which are also in this film.

More lists to come.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Why say no to merlot?

Unlike Paul Giamatti's character in Sideways, I occasionally do drink an effin' merlot. After all, some reds are too sharp or too dry to capably accompany a casual, less serious meal, and that's when the warm, pleasant tasting notes of a decent merlot nicely fits the bill. A current inexpensive favorite is Ecco Domani merlot, pretty much available everywhere for about 10 or 12 bucks a bottle retail, and rarely priced at premium levels in restaurants. Give it a whirl with your next burger, steak, or bowl of pasta and see what you think.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Avatar musings

I finally caught Avatar today, after giving up (for now) trying to see the film in IMAX 3D (endless sold-out shows), and settling for a regular 3D showing, which I least saw on a fairly large screen. The verdict? It's maybe not the most sophisticated of stories; basically it comes down to us versus them. Oh, but what an us (the exotic Na'vi on their lush, equally exotic planet), and what a them (a take-no-prisoners earth military armed with all manner of deadly hardware)... and what a fight when they finally go head to head.

Plus, the subversive guts James Cameron's movie has! My movie theater showed its usual military recruitment ad before the film began (a National Guard tribute this time, instead of the usual chorus of praise to the U.S. Marines), but then barely a few minutes later, once the film begins, we see Cameron's military forces, which are clearly modeled after the current U.S. military, being set up as the invading heavies in his epic adventure. Wow. And if that isn't enough, we see the sympathetic earth scientist, played by Siguorney Weaver, regularly puffing on a cigarette... and made to look cool. Take that, p.c. police!

There's a lot more to say about Avatar, and I will, but those are two things that made me smile in my seat. Whatever your politics or worldview, isn't it gratifying that, occasionally, a movie funded to the gills by corporate America isn't afraid to annoy and offend sacred cows like the military and the healthy-lifestyle crowd? At the very least, thank you for that, Mr. Cameron.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

More Holmes trivia to ponder

As a quick follow-up to my previous post, the Sherlock Holmes collection I recently acquired on Kindle is now ranked at #4 among Kindle top sellers, and is priced at the whopping cost of free (I either got it for free or for something like the 80 cents I seem to remember I paid for it). It's The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and it's a great place to start your acquaintance with the original Holmes stories. The average customer rating for this offering currently stands at four-and-a-half stars, if you're curious.

Incidentally, the movie Sherlock Holmes made a whopping $65,000,000-plus this past weekend (its opening weekend), so it seems that there's no tiring of this particular character more than a hundred years after his creation. If not for the juggernaut that is Avatar, the new Holmes film would have clearly been the #1 film this weekend at the U.S. and Canadian box office, and not a close #2. But that's okay: the film did achieve the all-time Christmas day record with $29,000,000 and change in earnings.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Elementary, my dear Watson...

I found the new film Sherlock Holmes better than it had a right to be, delivering a fresh take on the character while still honoring the original Sir Arthur Conan Doyle stories and the many respected film and television versions of those stories that have appeared over the years. Giving us both spectacle and introspection, speculation and special effects, Sherlock Holmes was a great time all around.

The movie may get you in the mood to check out a few Doyle originals, and the good news for Kindle owners is that everything Sir Arthur wrote about his intrepid detective is available on Kindle, often for free or mere pocket change (don't you just love the phrase "public domain"?). Not long ago, I bought a generous collection of Holmes short stories for something like 80 cents, and I downloaded a Holmes novel for free. Or was it the other way around? In any event, both e-books were beautifully typeset and laid out. What a bargain!

So, do a little hunting on your Kindle and get some Holmes downloaded. Even though the new movie is a lot of fun (and will most definitely generate a sequel, unless I'm wrong about how popular it will be), one should have at least a passing familiarity with the original literary Holmes.

By the way, here's an interesting fact: the famous phrase that titles this post was never actually uttered by Mr. Holmes in any of the written stories.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Ho, ho, ho...

The taproom is closed for Christmas day, but we'll be back with a longer post or two tomorrow. Merry Christmas to everyone out there who celebrates it, and to the rest of you: I'm jealous, because you're probably spending the day seeing Avatar or Sherlock Holmes while we're putting up with Uncle Phil's annoying political views at the holiday dinner table.

See you all tomorrow!

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Good tale and a painless history lesson

I'm currently helping to judge titles in a literary competition, so I'm being exposed to a lot of material that I usually pass by. So far, about half the time, the books I'm reading for this task are reminding me why I'm don't read more straight-up literary work (let's just say the words meandering and self-indulgent are often coming to mind), but a few of the titles have been okay.

One is The Coral Thief by Rebecca Stott (available on Kindle for $9.99). Set in the post-Napoleonic France of 1815, the book follows a young Englishman named David Connor who's traveled to that country with letters of recommendation, shell samples, and detailed sketches of the natural world, as he aims to begin his scientific career. He discovers a France in disarray, as many are glad Napoleon is gone, but many aren't. Among the latter are artists and scientists, because- whatever else one may think of Napoleon- the record is pretty clear that he aggressively promoted freedom of thought in the arts and sciences.

Our young Mr. Connor soon falls into a mess involving art thieves; the police; shadowy groups both for and against the return of Napoleon; and the politics of the artistic and scientific institutions of the day. He also falls in love with the mysterious Lucienne Bernard, who initially steals his shells and drawings.

Maybe because it had a good little plot percolating under the surface of all the philosophical discourse (some of which is admittedly interesting), but I found the book to be an engaging little read (the book isn't terribly long, another plus). Those who occasionally dive into historical fiction containing only muted genre elements will likely enjoy The Coral Thief well enough. Heck, I read mostly crime thrillers and I liked it.

I read a copy delivered to me, but I'm sure The Coral Thief will read just fine on Kindle.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Thought of the day

You know what's interesting? That an electronic device that features as its primary component The New Oxford American Dictionary would alone be worth owning, and paying a decent amount of money for (maybe a hundred bucks?). I mean, I use the dictionary on my K2 all the time, and can easily imagine the value of carrying around an electronic dictionary that doesn't do anything else except, well... be a dictionary. But here we have the Kindle, which provides the Oxford Dictionary as only the tip of the iceberg.

Maybe I'm strange, but I think that's kind of cool. A dictionary, an endless amount of books, and a half dozen other cool features (including a web browser), all for a little more than a couple of hundred bucks. Even with my initial excitement now somewhat muted after owning a K1 and then a K2, I'm still sold on the concept. Do you still have moments, months or years after becoming a Kindle-holic, where you still say, wow, this is a really neat device?

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Check it out

If you haven't already, be sure pay a visit to www.kindleboards.com. Hundreds of active topics, thousands of visitors, news, links, etc., etc., all geared to Kindle. Now, the site doesn't have the relaxing intimacy of Kindle Taproom (what could?), but sometimes a little hustle/bustle can be invigorating. Just be sure to stop back here when you've had enough of the Grand Central Station atmosphere of the 'Boards, and I'll open a nice Cabernet for you as you take a load off.

Monday, December 21, 2009

The nickel tour of my Kindle

I'm one of those kindle owners who (of course) love to buy and read books on my Kindle, but also use it to enjoy lots of other reading material. Here's a quick snapshot of what appears on my K2 screen every morning when I flick on Whispernet:

The New York Times Latest News blog ($1.99 per month): meaty, hard-news stories and the occasional feature. Frequent daily updates.

AP Entertainment blog ($.99 per month): Well, written, informative entertainment news, with a minimum of the gossipy stuff. Frequent daily updates.

Amazon Daily blog (free): Amazon's general interest blog is like a good, well... general interest magazine, drawing its content from a variety of other blogs. Frequent daily updates.

The Good Phight blog ($.99 per month): A blog about the Philadelphia Phillies. Game reports and analysis during baseball season, trade news during the off season. One or two updates per day.

The New Yorker ($2.99 per month): The famous weekly lays out nicely on the Kindle, and even includes the magazine's famous cartoons.

The Philadelphia Inquirer ($5.99 per month): My hometown rag conveniently delivered every morning in an easily navigable edition containing all the news of the print edition, without the stuff I don't need (ads, inserts, classifieds, etc.).

I also used to get Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine ($2.99 per month) and really enjoyed it. But the unread issues were accumulating faster than I could read them, so now I just buy the occasional single issue and don't buy another one until I'm finished with it.

Are you a just books and nothing else type of Kindle reader, or are you like me and enjoy carrying around a virtual newsstand on your device?

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Decent mystery, in both its literary and film versions

Harlan Coben's Tell No One (on Kindle for $7.99) is a bang-up mystery, more serious in tone than most of the author's other offerings. It revolves around a widower who receives- several years after his young wife's violent death (a death many still think he had something to do with)- a cryptic e-mail that just may be from... the guy's wife. Dare he hope his beloved is somehow still alive?

Interestingly, Coben's very American novel (his other mysteries involve an American sports agent protagonist) was recently adapted into an equally terrific film... but by the French (specifically, director Guillaume Canet), with little changed in the story except for making everyone French and setting the piece in various French locales instead of Manhattan. The movie has the same title as the book and is now available on DVD. And if you hate subtitles, don't worry; the DVD offers the movie in its original French or dubbed in English.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Oh the weather outside is frightful...

Like the denizens of the taproom, are you among the northern eastern seaboard residents buried under a foot and a half of snow, with the white stuff still heavily falling? If so, I trust you have enough adult beverages on hand to, as they say, smooth over the humps and the bumps. Right now we're drinking a basic Woodbridge Chardonnay (a great accompaniment to the pile of Netflix DVDs we need to catch up on), though later we may move onto the creamier and richer Acacia Chard, a nice California offering that also goes simply as "A" in its promotional materials. The perfectly good Woodbridge goes for about $7.00 a bottle, and the "A" will set you back about $14.00, though both are often featured at sale prices.

Friday, December 18, 2009

My first book on Kindle

What was the first book I read (back in those prehistoric days) on my first Kindle? It was The Last Days of Krypton, by Kevin J. Anderson. Being a longtime fan of comic books, movies, science fiction, and thick, involving thrillers in general, it was the natural choice for my initial Kindle experience. Remember how 1978's Superman, The Movie devoted about twenty minutes at the beginning of the movie to life on Superman's homeworld before the planet tragically exploded? Well, Mr. Anderson's book gives you, well... a whole book's worth of story- involving politics, science, an attempted coup, etc.- before chronicling the famous fictional planet's end. It's a pretty good story, and it's now down to $7.99 on Kindle. What was cool was reading this novel, ripe with science-fictional wonder, while experiencing the technical wonder of my new Kindle. It was a terrific week or two of upbeat possibility... before I dove back into my usual diet of cynical crime thrillers, which (to be fair) is fun in its own right. What was your first Kindle book?

Weekend movies

Now that we're in the heart of the holiday movie season, there's a lot to see out there, and discuss over drinks later. This weekend's big draw is, of course, James Cameron's Avatar, available for your viewing pleasure in (according to the ads) 2D, something called Real D 3D, Digital 3D, and finally, IMAX 3D. That final version will be my personal choice. Also new this weekend is the romantic comedy Did You Hear About the Morgans? with Hugh Grant and Sarah Jessica Parker. Popular holdovers include The Blind Side and The Twilight Saga: New Moon. If you're in the mood for more esoteric fare, check your local listings and see if The Young Victoria and Me and Orson Welles have opened yet in your area. After all, rich period bio films are always in good taste this time of year.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Cheap beer isn't your only choice when your pockets are light

Have only $8.25 in your pocket until tomorrow's payday but still could go for a nice martini on your way home from work? There's no need to go for your usual Belvedere or Grey Goose martini, smooth and yummy as they are. Ask for a basic Absolut or even Smirnoff martini, as these are economical and perfectly drinkable vodkas (if not the very smoothest), but when you order your martini, order it dirty. The addition of olive juice to your cocktail will handily cover any shortcomings in the vodka (much like the way Bloody Mary mix does for a Bloody Mary), resulting in a perfectly good martini experience on the cheap. Just don't go too cheap. In other words, go for the Banker's Club or Jacquins at your own risk.

A couple of good movies from a couple of good books

Scott Smith's The Ruins (currently $6.39 on Kindle) was fairly well received when it was released a few years ago, and shortly thereafter was made into (in my view) a pretty effective horror movie. Here's what I recently wrote about the movie on Amazon:

This tourists' nightmare is not for those who watch a horror movie and then say something like, "I hated that movie, it was so gross!" Too many people watch a horror movie and then are shocked- shocked, I tell you!- when said movie is well... horrifying. And that's what The Ruins- with its blood and stabbings and campsite surgeries and amputations, etc.- definitely is: horrifying. It's also well acted and directed, and supported by a clever premise. And it's brave, as it delivers to viewers a polished, big-budget horror movie that has as its central menace... creeping vines. And pulls it off. I thought the movie was refreshing and original, but yeah- I have to warn you that it's not easy to take. But that's what I liked about it. There are plenty of other movies around when you're in the mood for heartwarming or funny or cute.

I viewed the unrated edition of "The Ruins" on standard DVD, which looks and sounds spectacular (who needs Blu-ray with transfers like this?). Even the generous amount of extra features (featuring lots of interviews and behind-the-scenes activities) look wonderfully sharp and clean.

Give this one a whirl if you like some actual horror in your horror movies.

And to impress you with my amazingly wide-ranging taste, here's a quick look at another film adaptation, this time of Bernhard Schlink's complex and moving novel, The Reader (available on Kindle for $7.99):

This beautifully acted and shot film is laced with complex characterizations and complex emotional situations, making it a breath of fresh air in today's increasingly simple cinematic landscape. Thematically, the movie doesn't necessarily say that people should find a way to forgive or look beyond horrific acts a friend or loved one may have committed, only to make us understand why some people might do so. To that end, the movie demonstrates how one's personal experience with someone will often trump how we should feel about that person, even if it's clear that the person did some terrible things. The movie also functions as a methaphor for German society in the post-World War II years, where young Germans were repelled by what their parents and other respected elders did during the war, yet simply couldn't shun and abandon them. The Reader looks spectacular on standard DVD (the image sports a perfect balance between sharpness and warmth) and there's a generous array of special features that further illuminate the thoughtful, emotional story. Definitely for mature audiences, The Reader is highly recommended for a night when you're in the mood for something a cut above mere time-passing entertainment.

Yes, we like all kinds of movies here in the taproom, as well as all kinds of books. What are you recommending these days?

What else have I been reading? Glad you asked.

We're still unpacking boxes and shining our new scotch glasses here at the taproom, but I think I'll take a break and tell you about the last five books I've read, all but one on my Kindle 2 and all quite enjoyable.

Truck Stop
By J.A. Konrath

For $1.59 on Kindle, you get an enjoyable short novella featuring the author's Jacqueline "Jack" Daniels cop character facing a pair of serial killers. Visceral, page-turning fun.

Cherry Bomb
By J.A. Konrath

Konrath's Jack Daniels character in her latest full-length thriller. Decent, but still a full $9.99 on Kindle, so you might want to start with "Whiskey Sour", the first book in the series (each one is named after a drink!), which goes for $4.79.

The Lost Symbol
By Dan Brown

Not earth shattering, but you get a nicely engaging cat-and-mouse adventure, seasoned this time with lots of fascinating trivia about the Masons, Washington D.C., and something called noetic science. Currently $9.60 on Kindle.

The Professional
By Robert B. Parker

Cheating wives, a dashing gigolo, and sexual blackmail spice up the latest case of Mr. Parker's "Spenser" P.I. character. Usual lightning-paced, banter-rich Parker read, but maybe it's time to put the sleaze on the shelf for a while. $9.99 on Kindle.

Quarry in the Middle
By Max Allan Collins

Though many of Mr. Collins wry, razor-sharp crime thrillers are available on Kindle, this one isn't yet. Quarry is an ex-hitman who hires himself out to other hitmen's targets, offering to protect the targets from their pursuers. About 8 bucks in paperback from Hard Case Crime.

Well, it's time to get back to the unpacking. But be sure to stop in again later. I've got a nice limited edition single malt that I want to try out on my regulars.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Welcome to the Taproom... don't let the cold air in!

Welcome to the very first post in "Kindle Taproom", a warm, friendly virtual bar where you'll always find some friendly banter about all manner of things, but mostly about books, movies, items in the news, assorted diversions, and- of course- great stuff on Kindle. I'm Joe, your sympathetic proprietor, and I'll offer some (I hope) thoughtful and entertaining chat when you stop in, but just as happily will let you enjoy your Dewars on the rocks in peace if you need a little quiet after a hectic day in the office. So, sit a spell, relax, and drop in often to see what's new.

Oh, seeing as you're here, you'd like to know what I'm reading? A cool little tome called "The View From the Bridge", by Nicholas Meyer. Mr. Meyer directed the films "The Seven Percent Solution", "Time After Time", "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan", and "Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country". His tales of life on the set, with an emphasis on his adventures with the "Trek" films, makes for extremely entertaining and breezy reading if you're at all intereted in these topics. I got it for about 13 bucks on Kindle (hey, everything can't top out at $9.99), and I'm finding it well worth it. If the price seems a little high to you, never fear... I'm sure it'll drop by about half once the paperback edition of the dead-tree version comes out.

More later, but for now, thanks for stopping by. Oh, and that first round was on me.