What are your favorite types of books and beverages when you're in an autumnal mood?

What are your favorite types of books and beverages when you're in an autumnal mood?

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Super-heroic


Of the two graphic novels I mentioned yesterday, the one I ended up reading was All-Star Superman, Volume 1, written by Grant Morrison and drawn by Frank Quitely. In fact, I read the whole thing today. Good little story (well, stories, actually), combining hard science fiction with an often whimsical air, with a little high fantasy thrown in for good measure.

I'll have to wait until volume 2 to see how the bulk of Grant Morrison's plot arcs play out, but the six individual issues of the original series that are collected here are happily satisfying in their own right, each telling a complete tale of the Man of Steel while advancing the overall business of the series. And the overall business is a doozy, involving a huge personal dilemma for Superman, one inflicted on him by classic nemesis Lex Luthor. I'm certainly looking forward to seeing where things go, and to see more of Frank Quitely's lighthearted yet dramatic images.

So far, All-Star Superman is quite something, projecting in both story and look a light innocence and a dark complexity. Doesn't hurt that the pages turn quickly, too.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Multi-tasking

Right now I'm reading Lee Goldberg's The Walk on my K2, listening to Stephen King's Under the Dome on my MP3 player, and am about to begin one of two recently-purchased graphic novels: All-Star Superman, Volume 1 or Batman: The Brave and the Bold, Volume 1.

I never read more than one book at a time, or listen to more than one audiobook at a time, or read more than one graphic novel at a time. But at any given time, there's usually an active book, audiobook, and graphic novel (but just one of each) that I'm bouncing between during the course of the day. Each book, audio, and graphic novel must get at least a little attention each day, and I must completely finish a particular book, audio, or graphic novel before starting another. That final rule was instilled to erase a formally bad habit of having too many half-read books lying around.

Do you have any quirky reading habits?

Friday, February 26, 2010

Friday chuckles

As a public service to our readers of the fairer sex, here are a few snappy comebacks to some common pick-up lines...

Man: Haven't I seen you someplace before?
Woman: Yes, that's why I don't go there anymore.

Man: Is this seat empty?
Woman: Yes, and this one will be, too, if you sit down.

Man: Your place or mine?
Woman: Both. You go to yours, and I'll go to mine.

Man: So, what do you do for a living?
Woman: I'm a female impersonator.

Man: Hey baby, what's your sign?
Woman: Do not enter.

Man: How do you like your eggs in the morning?
Woman: Unfertilized.

Man: Your body is like a temple.
Woman: Sorry, there are no services today.

Man: I'd go to the end of the world for you.
Woman: But would you stay there?

Man: If I could see you naked, I'd die happy.
Woman: If I saw you naked, I'd die laughing.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

The drama of daily life


Wallace Stegner's Crossing to Safety is a moving, immersive novel about marriage and friendship, closely examining the rewards and challenges of each. Character isn't revealed so much by big plot moments or outside situations pushing on the characters and making them respond in a certain way, but by inherent personality traits gently revealed during the course of the kind of normal social interaction we all experience: dinner parties, picnics, vacations together, errands, walks, etc. Big developments do happen occasionally, but not for the purpose of testing or revealing what these characters are truly like. The small moments do that just fine.

If all this sounds a little dull, it's not. Mr. Stegner's book makes each dinner party a vibrant, lively, fun event and every outdoor excursion a breath of fresh air. You'll really enjoy being along for the ride as the two central married couples meet and get to know each other. Certainly, there's darkness, sadness, and tragedy later, but the kinds we all face sooner or later in some capacity, and even then the richness of the friendship that went before makes such scenes bittersweet, not just bitter.

For the most part, I think that Larry and Sally- the quieter couple, the ones less surrounded by an air of drama- are meant to be stand-ins for the reader. Charity and Sid, rather, are meant to remind us of that couple seemingly all of us have in our lives: people we dearly love but often make us shake our heads at their eccentricities and needless difficulties they impose on themselves. There's a scene involving Charity and Sid deciding who's going to do the dishes (one of the many character-revealing small scenes I referred to above) that has to be seen to be believed, generating more intensity than a set piece from a thriller novel. Larry and Sally have their own challenges- quite big ones, in fact- yet their inherent personalities and ways of looking at things make their own lives so much easier than their friends'.

Crossing to Safety , available on Kindle for $9.99, is an extremely fast-reading book, more like an invitation to spend time with two fascinating couples than a novel. But of course it is a novel, and a quite rich, wonderful one at that.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Pretty good King


Blaze, originally published two or three years back and now available on Kindle for $7.99, is a good little story from Stephen King's dark vault of early, previously unpublished writings. There's quite a bit of balance, nuance, and sophistication for an almost four decades-old story that Mr. King waited until much later in his career to publish. For instance, the tribulations of Blaze's early life create sympathy for the title character, but not to the point where we want to excuse or forgive Blaze's later criminal career. In other words, I felt bad for the guy but still wanted him to get caught by the F.B.I. once he crossed over into child kidnapping.

I also liked how, in the story's earlier going, we saw that Blaze's friend George was good for him in many ways, but things got mucked up because George was a career criminal and encouraged Blaze to refine and deepen his own clunky (and, until then, mostly harmless) criminal endeavors.

Complex, ironic situations like these deepened this engaging story, making it more than a simple crime-laced morality tale.

I also enjoyed Stephen King's lengthy introduction to Blaze. In it he talks not only about the history of the book, but the many things that were going on in his professional and personal life around the time of the book's writing. He also discusses the "Richard Bachman" alter ego he used for many years, and uses for old time's sake on the cover of Blaze, too. Anyway, the introduction is a fun and interesting piece in itself.

Like I said, good little book, and worth a click of your Kindle's "buy" button.

Here's one

A preacher goes into a bar and says, "Anybody who wants to go to heaven, stand up." Everybody stands up except for a drunk in the corner.

The preacher says, "My son, don't you want to go to heaven when you die?"

The drunk says, "When I die? Sure. I thought you were taking a load up now."

Book report


In case you're interested, here are the top ten sellers in the Kindle Store this morning:

1. The Apothecary's Daughter, by Julie Klassen. FREE

2. Dead Witch Walking (The Hollows, Book 1), by Kim Harrison. FREE

3. My Name Is Russell Fink, by Michael Snyder. FREE

4. The Almost True Story of Ryan Fisher: A Novel, by Rob Stennett. FREE

5. Shutter Island, by Dennis Lehane. $4.39 (interestingly, down from its recent price of $7.19)

6. Talk of the Town, by Lisa Wingate. FREE

7. Wolf Signs: Granite Lake Wolves, Book 1, by Vivian Arend. FREE

8. Love Yourself and Let the Other Person Have It Your Way, by Lawrence Crane and Lester Levenson. FREE

9. Amberville, by Tim Davys. FREE

10. The Help, by Kathryn Stockett. $8.55

Actually, as I think I pointed out once or twice before when presenting these lists, top ten sellers might not be the most accurate term to use, as only two of the listed books actually cost money. But I guess top ten movers doesn't sound as catchy.

Still, it's kind of cool that there's so much free stuff these days in the Kindle Store, isn't it? In fact, as I've also said in the past, if you don't care about specific writers and just want interesting, decent stuff to read, you could just purchase a Kindle and then read indefinitely without actually paying for a book. That would be an interesting experiment, wouldn't it: trying to go for, say, an entire year without purchasing a Kindle book and just reading the freebies. Anybody willing to try?

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

At the movies

Following up on my post of a few days back, we did end up seeing Shutter Island over the past weekend. Despite my fears, the movie was not an overblown special effects extravaganza (as the trailer seem to indicate), but a well-crafted, moody, slow-burn psychological drama that keeps viewers involved from beginning to end. I should have trusted Mr. Scorsese more. The big special effects scenes in the trailer, by the way, are mostly associated with hallucinatory scenes in the movie, scenes that are used sparingly and effectiviely.

There are definitely big, lurid moments and instances of underlined melodrama in the film, accompanied by disturbing blasts from the none-to-subtle musical score, but it all serves Scorsese's aim to emulate the psychological dramas of the 50's, which were at the same time overstated and artfully done. Kind of like those old 50's paperbacks, which sported lurid covers of violence and heaving bosoms, but very often subtle, well-done stories once you got past the covers.

In any event, the lurid (I love that word) and more subtle aspects of Shutter Island work together to deliver a decent movie, one that we both liked a lot.

Audio adventures

I'm trying to confront my technophobia and finally start using my Kindle to listen to music and audiobooks. Hitting a wall, though. Even though I've been using my Audible.com account to load audiobooks first onto my computer and then onto my small MP3 player with no difficulty (well, a helpful co-worker provided a little guidance to get things started), I'm- of course- now having trouble getting audiobooks from the Audible site onto my K2.

I think I figured out the main problem: computers and/or online dowload businesses seem to automatically distrust a second device all of a sudden showing up on the scene. They seem to say, Why can't you just keep using the MP3 player you've been using? And now my Kindle- because it got confused with the temporary interface with my computer, maybe?- won't even allow me to select the MP3 function from its experimental menu, which prevents me from checking to see if maybe I got a book loaded onto my Kindle by accident or whatever.

Sheesh. Guess I'll have to go bother my techy co-worker again. I'll keep you posted.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Spirited try falls short


Frank Miller's 2008 thriller The Spirit overdoses on style but undernourishes on story. This is especially strange because Mr. Miller repeatedly emphasizes the importance of story in the generous number of special features on the one-disc edition of the standard DVD I recently watched.

I can see why Mr. Miller used an amped-up version of the visual style of Sin City (co-directed by Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez) for this film, a combination film noir and heroic adventure, as the original comic book version of The Spirit was often very "out there" visually. And the visual style of the movie would have been fine if it also emulated the comic book's solid noir storytelling. But instead it took the sometimes crazy, goofy scenes from the comic book and made a whole movie out of them, mostly ignoring the subtle, lyrical flavor that was also a big part of Will Eisner's Spirit tales. And without a solid, engaging story with real emotional underpinnings, the visual style just came off as shrill.

If Mr. Miller (or someone else) wants to take a stab at another movie about Eisner's famous urban crimefighter, who looks sort of like a 1950's-era Clark Kent with a Lone Ranger mask, I'd advise them to relax a little and concentrate on telling a solid urban crime tale and not worry about constant action and jokes and sarcasm. Keep the stylized visuals, but just have them serve a story that actually makes you forget the visuals (at least a little) and worry about the characters.

The Spirit looks terrific on standard DVD, and- as previously mentioned- features a fair amount of special features on the single-disc version of the film I watched, including lots of interview material with director and famed comic book artist Frank Miller (including a commentary track). Even though I wasn't crazy about the movie, it was great to listen to Mr. Miller's stories and views about the comics industry and working in the movies.

Unless you're a huge fan of this film, I'd say this less expensive single-disc version of the movie will probably suit most people- even Frank Miller fans going back to his earliest comic book days- just fine. You get a lot of stuff in addition to the movie.

In the end, The Spirit is watchable and occasionally fun. But considering the pedigree of the source material, it could have been so much better.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

One fine Sunday in the local pub

An Irishman, an Englishman and a Scotsman walk into their neighborhood pub, and each orders a pint of Guinness. Just as the bartender hands them over, three flies buzz down and land in each of the pints.

The Englishman looks disgusted, pushes his pint away, and demands another.

The Scotsman picks out the fly, shrugs, and takes a long swallow.

The Irishman reaches into the glass, pinches the fly between his fingers, shakes him, and yells, "Spit it out, ya bastard! Spit it out!"

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Saturday chuckle

A guy is reading his newspaper when his wife walks up behind him and smacks him on the back of the head with a frying pan.

"Yow!" he yells. "What was that for?"

She says, "I found a piece of paper in your pocket with 'Betty Sue' written on it."

"Jeez, honey," he replies. "Remember last week when I went to the track? 'Betty Sue' was the name of the horse I went there to bet on."

Feeling badly, the wife apologizes and walks away.

Three days later the guy's reading his paper as usual when his wife walks up behind him and smacks him on the back of the head with the frying pan again.

Seeing stars, he asks, "Now what was that for?"

"Your horse called," she says.

Friday, February 19, 2010

"Shutter" shudders


Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island opens today in theaters everywhere. I don't know about you, but the trailers suggest that the movie is a big, overblown, over-produced special effects extravaganza. But maybe it isn't, or maybe it is but it'll still be good. In any event, Amazon's description of the original Dennis Lehane novel (available on Kindle for $7.19) makes the book seem much more down to Earth, a moody thriller and not the Shining-like horror story the movie seems to be.

Anyway, we'll see. My wife really wants to see this, and I'm happy to take her. Lord knows I've dragged her to enough movies that she would ordinarily have no interest in seeing. I'll let you know what I think in a day or two.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

This and that

I'm no huge sports fan, but wasn't Lindsey Vonn's Gold Medal performance in the Women's Downhill truly inspirational last night? Great, old-fashioned, proud to be an American stuff. It doesn't hurt that she's adorable (in both looks and demeanor), too.

I'm now enjoying Stephen King's big, sweeping Under the Dome on audio, courtesy of my Audible.com account. A great sign-up deal got me this 30-plus hour audio, which I'm now enjoying on my MP3 player, for $7.95.

Eye-reading wise, I'm now a few chapters into Lee Goldberg's The Walk, now available on Kindle for a mere $1.99. I've enjoyed the author's breezy, fun "Monk" books in the past, and it's a nice surprise to see he can do grim-and-gritty, dark thriller stuff, too... and without sacrificing the fast readability of his other work. So far, this e-book exclusive is highly recommended. Full review to follow.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Parker and Spenser

Robert B. Parker is sadly no longer with us, but his detective hero Spenser will be around a little while longer, thanks to Dr. Parker's penchant for keeping busy and routinely having several books "in the can" prior to publication. The next Spenser novel- there are reportedly two on the way- is called Painted Ladies and it will be released on October 5 of this year. Prior to that we'll see two other Parker offerings: a Jesse Stone title later this month and a western- the next Virgil Cole/Everett Hitch adventure- in May.

Here's something to think about: would you like to see another writer continue Spenser's adventures when the Parker novels run out? Myself, I'm on the fence on that one. Part of me thinks that an author's run on a popular series is sacred and should die with him. Another part says I should lighten up: a character like Spenser is rich and fun and stories about him should continue. After all, worst case scenario, if the continuation is inferior to the prior books, does that really in any way taint the entries that were written by Parker?

Interestingly, Parker himself finished an incomplete Raymond Chandler novel about Philip Marlowe, then went on to write his own Marlowe novel, so I'm guessing that the author wasn't inherently hostile to the concept, and wouldn't be gritting his teeth from beyond the grave if someone continued writing about Spenser... if a writer of quality was selected. The choice of writer would concern the good Dr. Parker more, I think, than the basic concept of continuing his character.

What do all of you think about all this?

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Ain't it the truth

Nowadays, the economy is so bad that if the bank returns your check for "insufficient funds", you have to call and ask if they meant you or them.

Grace under fire


A famous quote often attributed to Alfred Hitchcock intoned, "Drama is life with the boring bits taken out." Richard's Sand's latest Lucas Rook thriller begs to differ. Here, the so-called boring bits are here in all their glory, and you know what? They really aren't all that boring, after all. But more on this notion in a moment.

Blood Redeemed (the accompanying illustration, borrowed from Amazon, depicts an early version of the book's cover, as there's no question mark in the final title) concerns itself with private investigator and ex-cop Rook dealing with the aftermath of the previous book's events, where he almost died at the hands of a crooked cop. In the final pages of that book, Hell's Reunion, Rook was saved by his blind, gorgeous, but decidedly eccentric neighbor Grace Savoy, who managed to follow the sounds around her and shoot the crooked cop before he could finish off Rook. The main events of Blood Redeemed center on Lucas Rook getting back on his feet from his near-mortal wounds and protecting Grace from a murder rap (crooked or not, she did shoot a cop, which isn't taken lightly in most circles). In fact, if there wasn't already a TV show with that name, a perfect title for this book would be Saving Grace, because that's what the book is ultimately about (literally, and the more I think about it, figuratively, too).

Okay, getting back to the so-called boring bits. Never afraid to relate the minutiae of detective work and daily life in the past Lucas Rook novels, Sand especially doesn't shy away from Rook's day-to-day personal and professional activities in Blood Redeemed. We see Lucas endlessly talking to lawyers, getting his car out of the garage, returning his car to the garage, getting his shoes shined (several times), going to his favorite diner, taking on small side cases to pay the bills, etc. But all of these things- usually ignored or minimized in other thrillers- once again turn out to be not uninteresting at all, as they slowly but surely advance the progress of the main case (untangling Rook's neighbor from her legal mess) or reveal Rook's ever-changing state of mind. Often these normal, everyday scenes do both. And they provide a vibe of realism.

However, is it all "the drama of the everyday" this time out? Not at all. Tension and danger pepper the opening pages, as Rook's bloody and broken body is rushed to the hospital. There's a confrontation with some street thugs around the middle of the book, and one more violent scene before the book's close that you should discover for yourself. So, yes, you also get a decent dose of basic, tried-and-true crime thriller staples in Blood Redeemed. But, really, the understated, methodical approach to Rook's life and mission that fills the bulk of the book would have worked out just fine without these elements (for one book, anyway), and the story really wouldn't have suffered if Rook's life was never in danger this time. Okay, maybe we could have used one less visit to the shoeshine guy. But just one less visit.

The Lucas Rook books are darkly cynical yet in a strange way also upbeat and life-affirming. Lucas sees the darkness and selfishness around him, and is often dark and selfish himself (he excels at urban coarseness and is not above padding his expenses, for instance), but ultimately he takes his various cases seriously and will put his neck out for those he cares about. Just as importantly, many of the equally cynical characters around him often show similar stripes. Even the "bloodsucking lawyers" even come through on occasion, Rook grudgingly admits.

Or, to put it another way, even though the book is called Blood Redeemed, the book is really more a case of Mankind Redeemed, as we're frequently shown goodness and selflessness among the muck, morass, and cynicism. But, of course, the latter wouldn't have been as catchy a title.

Blood Redeemed and the previous Lucas Rook thrillers aren't yet available on Kindle, but are fairly easy to find in your local bookstore or online.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Five topics, five sentences

Just some quickie observations as this fine Presidents Day winds down:

The Wolfman, which we saw Friday, is a lavish, scary horror movie well worth your time if you're into such things.

The classic gin martini was my drink of choice this weekend, having enjoyed a cool, sophisticated Bombay Sapphire martini on Saturday night and a more casual and relaxed Beefeater martini during our Valentines Day dinner last night.

My friend Richard Sand's crime thriller Blood Redeemed, the latest in his darkly cynical but somehow ultimately hopeful "Lucas Rook" series, provided some decent entertainment these past days.

We're now taking on 24 on DVD, re-watching the tense and entertaining first season before finally tackling the unseen-by-us subsequent seasons, which we've heard good and bad things about.

Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief, which we caught today, was a pleasant surprise, sporting an imaginative, involving storyline which was not at all a carbon copy of the Harry Potter movies.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

With apologies to Jeff Foxworthy...

You just might be a redneck if...

...you have more fingers than you do teeth.

...you cut your grass and find a car.

...you consider Denny's a fancy restaurant.

...your best suit contains more than five colors.

...your age is higher than your I.Q.

...your favorite pickup line is "Does this look infected to you?"

...you have a family reunion and everyone in town shows up.

...your wife and ex-wife are sisters.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Get ready to rumble


Our mothers always warned us not to accept a ride from a stranger, because that stranger might turn out to be a lunatic. Likewise, mom would tell us not to give a ride to a stranger, because that person may turn out to be a lunatic, too. Well, what do you suppose might happen if a hitchhiker who was indeed a lunatic accepted a ride from a guy who was also a lunatic? Check out Serial by Jack Kilborn and Blake Crouch, currently available for free on Kindle, to find out.

Serial is a great little collaborative effort by two entertaining writers. Chapter one shows the grandfatherly-looking serial killer known simply as Donaldson torture and kill a hapless hitchhiker that he picks up at a rest stop. Chapter two shows a woman serial killer named Lucy torture and kill two guys who picked her up hitchhiking. Chapter three is serial killer Donaldson giving a ride to serial killer Lucy, and the fun begins.

The story is graphic and visceral and not for the squeamish, but don't worry- it's not torture porn. Jack Kilborn (who's really thriller writer J.A. Konrath) and Blake Crouch are pros who know how to tell a story, not talentless hacks just describing an ax falling and hacking off limbs (not that there are scenes as unimaginative as a simple ax attack here). Yes, you will graphically be told what implement, say, Donaldson decides to use against his victim, and, yes, you are clearly told what Donaldson does with the implement. But the facts are related quickly, without excruciating detail. The rest is all in the reader's head. Kilborn and Crouch give us what our neurons need to know to get started, and sit back and let us fill in the rest. That's why it's such a hoot to read some of the reviews on Amazon that complain about the "too graphic" nature of Serial. In the end, these nastily clever guys realize that good horror writing- even graphic horror- ultimately comes from a formula of one part writer and three parts reader.

Serial is about the length of a longish story in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, and- truth be told- could probably appear there with only a little re-writing to tone it down from its current Hard-R or NC-17 tone. After all, most of the story consists of interesting character exchanges (lots of dark-tinged banter, especially), moments of clever set-up, and plenty of good suspense, all things that have to do with decent writing and not graphic bloodletting.

After the story's over, Serial is rounded out by a fun, illuminating chat between the two authors and moody, entertaining excerpts from two of their books, making the whole package good for an hour or two of edgy entertainment on the couch or porch, just you and your Kindle.

Even if Serial goes up to a buck or so from its current bargain price of free, this Kindle exclusive would still be a worthwhile download for horror and suspense enthusiasts.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Banter


In my new Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, there was not only the one Sherlock Holmes story I told you about in a previous post, but a second one, too, which was equally good. The second tale was a humorous tribute not exactly about Sherlock Holmes, but ultimately it kind of was. I've since learned, via a sidebar piece in the current issue, that every February issue of EQMM is a Sherlock Holmes tribute issue. Fun, huh? The February 2010 issue should still be downloadable on Kindle, but you better hurry.

We're currently enjoying season one of the old TV series Alfred Hitchcock Presents on DVD. Produced in 1955/56, the shows are a lot of fun, and often surprisingly dark and/or adult. This first season features close to 40 short dramas, each (with commericals removed) a shade under a half hour in length. Mr. Hitchcock's introductions and closings are often as good as the stories themselves. Great stuff.

Weeds, season 4 ended on a powerful note after a generally strong season, so we're now watching season 5 of the show. Though Weeds often shocks viewers simply to shock them (which is fine in moderation), it always seems to settle back into solid, character-based drama and comedy. Seasons 4 and 5 each sport 13 half-hour episodes.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Heartfelt jammin'


With ten songs lasting a shade over a half hour, Ida Maria's Fortress Round My Heart gets in and out quick in its mission to shake up your morning commute and get ya jammin' on your steering wheel. Both Maria's voice and her songs have the same seemingly opposing qualities: rough earthiness and melodic lyricism. But they work together beautifully: Maria will often, and memorably, scream, laugh, or sob through her lyrics, but never completely stray from the well-crafted melodies each song offers.

And the songs, too, are often very earthy: about affairs, lust, drunkenness, messy relationships, but always getting back to heartfelt expressions of the gentler, nobler emotions and feelings underneath our manic moments. Another way to put it would be to say that Fortress Round My Heart feels like the offspring of a 70's punk album and a collection of Paul McCartney songs.

I also felt the subtle influence of the Go Gos, early Beatles, and maybe one or two other pop icons. But again, it's subtle; the Norwegian Maria seems to have learned and taken inspiration from her predecessors, but very much developed her own artistic voice.

This exciting merge of the best aspects of pop and alternative rock is well worth a listen, and probably a frequent presence in that pile of CD's in your back seat that make up your regular driving-time playlist.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Two cops, two tales



Continuing our look at John Sandford's Prey series, let's briefly discuss Night Prey, the sixth entry in the series and available on Kindle for $7.19.

Night Prey is a terrific, entertaining page-turner, and- with its mentally deteriorating serial killer, disturbingly bloody crimes, cops putting their heads together to figure out how best to catch the killer, and personal issues facing the cops as they try to do their jobs- very reminiscent of probably my all-time favorite cops-chasing-a-killer thriller, the classic The First Deadly Sin, by Lawrence Sanders. And while Mr. Sandford definitely gives his own personal stamp to the proceedings in Night Prey, I would find it hard to believe that he didn't read and enjoy that earlier thriller, too; in so many ways this seems to be a tribute to Sanders' immersive thriller about the Ice Axe killer and Chief Detective Edward X. Delaney's attempts to catch him.

But getting back to Night Prey, I enjoyed the nice balance between Lucas Davenport's cop work and his current personal issues (is monogamy truly for him?), the extremely well-drawn character of a cat burglar/crazed killer who starts descending into deeper levels of craziness as a result of an obsession with a woman he previously robbed; the sad situation of Lucas' new female partner; and all the usual cop banter. All very engaging stuff.

But do yourself a favor if you really enjoy this book: pick up Mr. Sanders' early 70's classic (not yet available on Kindle alas) His other novels were also quite readable, including subsequent Deadly Sins entries, but oh, "The First Deadly Sin". What a great read. After all, there will be plenty of time to get back to Mr. Sandford's entertaining series after you treat yourself to that true gem of the crime genre.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Not-so-lucky seven


Starring Will Smith as a sad, tortured man who used to have it all, Seven Pounds is a lyrical tale of guilt and redemption that is best viewed through the prism of the emotions on display- intense sadness, happiness, and often a mix of the two- and not the logic that moves the story forward. In other words, as you're watching the film, it's best to not to ask yourself things like "Is that really possible?" and "How did he manage that?" and "Is it even legal for him to do what he's planning?" and just sit back and let this well-acted, moving tale, well... move you.

Just be warned, this movie belongs in the same genre as most Nicholas Sparks novels and books like The Bridges of Madison County. In other words, Seven Pounds is sensitive, intensely emotional, and ultimately life affirming, but also includes strong doses of sadness, tragedy, and sacrifice. If you sometimes watch movies that require having a big box of tissues handy, this one's for you.

Seven Pounds features a sharp, clean, yet nicely warm image on standard DVD, excellent sound, and a generous array of extra features covering all aspects of the production.

World's shortest "guy walks into a bar" joke

A guy walks into a bar. "Ouch!" he says.

Ellery update

A while back I downloaded the February 2010 issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine onto my Kindle, and so far I'm really enjoying it. I finished the fifth or sixth story in the issue last night, a meaty Sherlock Holmes tale (more like a novelette than a short story) entitled The Adventure of the Scarlet Thorn, by Paul W. Nash. It was a real puzzler, but also nicely moody and even a little gruesome... just as I like my Holmes. The other stories I've read have been nicely engaging, as well.

The February issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine is still available for download if you're so inclined.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Great stuff


Busy day today, so sorry for the brief post. I just have time for a quick recommendation, so here goes: if you enjoy great animation, high adventure, creative stories, and classic comic book superheroes, check out the tin-box set (I think it's tin) entitled Justice League: The Complete Series. You get all ninety-something episodes of this terrific traditionally-animated show, and so far (I'm about a third of the way through) there hasn't been a clunker in the bunch.

Justice League: The Complete Series retails for about $100.00, but it's often on sale for a good bit less than that. I paid about $69.00 for it at Suncoast Pictures last Christmas, as a gift to myself (hey, you have to treat yourself nice sometimes).

You can't go wrong with these varied, detailed, and suprisingly adult stories, all of which (at least in the early going of the set), are told in roomy two-and-three-part arcs that give the stories room to breathe and develop. Oh, and Wonder Woman really looks good in these shows, too.

You can be sure I'll be talking about this series again as I get more episodes under my belt.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Listen up...

A businessman enters a tavern, sits down at the bar, and orders a double martini on the rocks. After he finishes his drink, he peeks inside his shirt pocket, then orders the bartender to prepare another double martini.

After he finishes that, he again peeks inside his shirt pocket and orders the bartender to bring him yet another drink. "Look, buddy," the bartender says, "I'll bring you martinis all night long, but, you gotta tell me why you keep looking inside your shirt pocket right before you order a refill."

The customer says, "I'm peeking at a photo of my wife. When she starts to look good, I know it's time to go home!"

Snowbound musings, part two


Yesterday, courtesy of a friend in the Screen Actors Guild who receives promotional DVDs of films under awards consideration, we watched the movie Precious, Based on the novel "Push" by Sapphire, while the snow was piling up in our Philadelphia suburb. The movie is visceral, moving, and commands attention throughout, so if you're like me and think that the worst thing a piece of creative work can be is boring, you won't have a problem with that issue here.

But the movie, expertly acted and creatively directed- is a challenge in many ways, mainly because of its unrelenting grimness. In fact, I think Precious is even grimmer than the producers intended it to be, because the glimmers of hope that eventually surface really don't- in my view- offset the terrible things that continue to happen to the central character. But you may feel differently. Still, it's a quality production all around, and I'm still a fervent believer that every movie doesn't need to be feel good. Just prepare yourself for this one if you intend to see it.

By the way, the movie is being returned to my friend without any sidetrips to an illegal production facility. I'm more than capable of slight naughtiness, but I'm enough of a boy scout to actually buy into the notion that movie piracy is a big deal.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Snowbound musings, part one


As this blog originates in the great northeast, at the moment in the epicenter of the snowstorm/blizzard you're all reading about, I'm a little punchy from cabin fever. Been catching up on some movies, though (blizzards are great for that). Last night, as the snow started falling, we watched Amelia, Mira Nair's 2009 movie about Amelia Earhart, which stars Hilary Swank as the famed aviator.

Plus sides of the film: well acted and directed, with a great John Barry-esque score by Gabriel Yared. It has top-notch production values, too. Minuses: An often clunky, obvious script that lacks subtlety and nuance. In particular, Amelia Earhart's final fate is laid at the feet of navigator Fred Noonan, because- as described in the film- he happened to enjoy a couple of scotches between each several-thousand-mile stretch of that final round-the-world journey. Considering that no one to this day knows exactly what went wrong with that last trip by Earhart, the movie's "revelation" seemed a little unfair to me.

Anyway, the movie was watchable for the plusses I mentioned, but only if you can easily rent it on DVD or conveniently push a few buttons on your cable or satellite remote to whisk it onto your TV screen.

More cabin fever musings to follow.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Romantic sparks


I generally enjoy the various movie adaptations of Nicholas Sparks' novels (I'm basically a sap at heart), but- whew!- in the following excerpt from Roger Ebert's review of Dear John, the latest Sparks adaptation, does Mr. Ebert have Sparks' number or what?

Lasse Hallstrom's "Dear John" tells the heartbreaking story of two lovely young people who fail to find happiness together because they're trapped in an adaptation of a Nicholas Sparks novel. Their romance leads to bittersweet loss that's so softened by the sweet characters that it feels like triumph. If a Sparks story ended in happiness, the characters might be disappointed. They seem to have their noble, resigned dialogue already written. Hemingway wrote one line that could substitute for the third act of every Sparks story: "Isn't it pretty to think so?"

Ebert has it exactly right, doesn't he? In every Nicholas Sparks story, it's not just that the characters are consistently kept tragically apart (via death, circumstance, or a complicated combination of both), but that they always seem to, well... almost enjoy being bathed in the tragedy and tears of it all. I guess Mr. Sparks, through his characters, is catering to our occasional need for emotional catharis, sad or otherwise.

About a dozen Nicholas Sparks novels are available on Kindle, including The Last Song ($4.99), The Lucky One ($8.97), The Choice ($7.99), and the main topic of this post, Dear John ($4.39). The movie version of Dear John opens this weekend.

Mostly paper thin


I'm guessing that actor Michael Cera and comedian/performance artist Charlyne Yi are perfect for each other: both project a dubious combination of passive, geeky, and not as clever as they think they are qualities that likely contribute to their being a happy couple but just might fall a little short in assuring an entertaining movie experience. Or, at least that's what's occurring to me after watching Cera and Yi in director Nicholas Jasenovec's Paper Heart, recently out on DVD.

To be clear, Paper Heart, which (if I understand things correctly) is a sort of fictionalized, mock documentary version of Cera and Yi's actual courtship, is watchable, and occasionally moving and funny. But too often it's like spending too much time with your best friends' college-age kids: they're perfectly fine to talk to for a few minutes when they wander into your dinner party with their parents, but ultimately you just want to get back to your adult conversation over your nice cabernet.

Incidentally, the moving parts of Paper Heart come from the several interviews Ms. Yi conducts with actual couples (as well as one divorced guy still pining over his ex-wife), which communicate some genuine wisdom and insight about the nature of love and true connection with another human being. The material involving Cera and Yi doesn't do that so much. But again, maybe that's a generation gap thing; the issues and discoveries that are important and new to these two young people are things many of us older viewers have gone through eighteen times before and aren't quite so compelling to watch now. Of course, this observation won't apply as much to younger viewers.

Paper Heart looks and sounds fine on the standard DVD I watched. A variety of extra features pretty much give you more of what's in the movie, so you'll probably like or dislike them as much as you liked or disliked the movie.

Myself, I found Paper Heart to be mildly engaging and somewhat moving, but not worth a major expense or effort to see. If you especially like Michael Cera and/or Charlyne Yi, you may feel more charitable toward the movie. But for the rest of you, my advice is to buy it cheap or rent it for an evening and you'll likely not complain too much.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Today's thought

Money isn't everything... but it sure keeps the kids in touch.

More on "Identity Crisis"



Mystery & thriller writer Brad Meltzer has many of his popular titles available on Kindle. Recently, however, I told you that I was reading and enjoying something a little unusual by Mr. Meltzer: a comic-book story- involving DC Comics' most popular superheroes, no less- called Identity Crisis. Written by Mr. Meltzer and drawn by fan favorite comics artist Rags Morales, it was quite a tale, and thought I'd tell you a little more about it now that I finished it.

Brad Meltzer and Rags Morales' Identity Crisis collects the original seven-part DC Comics mini-series into an extremely engaging and entertaining superhero epic, which interestingly doesn't have all that much to do with superheroics.

What we have here is a clever and well-crafted mystery story revolving around the death of Sue Dibny, wife of Ralph Dibny, the DC hero known as The Elongated Man. The usually gentle Ralph is both devastated and angered by his wife's murder, and soon enlists the aid of his many (and better known) superhero friends to solve her murder and bring the killer to justice. Soon, the likes of the Flash, Green Lantern, Wonder Woman, Superman, Batman, etc. are on the case.

What's interesting here is that the various heroes are portrayed as flawed humans, not moral paragons. Indeed, the story purports that maybe these heroes were never all that innocent to begin with, even back in the early days when their comic book adventures were bright and cartoony and fairly kid-oriented. Maybe in this post-Watchmen comics era it isn't all that unusual to see a little darkness in our comics heroes, but true moral compromise by a big company's flagship heroes is still a pretty rare thing, and made me sit up and take notice in Identity Crisis.

In particular, there's a flashback to an early Justice League adventure (an actual comic book story published decades ago) where a team of super villains switches minds with the Justice League, effectively taking over the bodies of the League's members. Even then, many kids must have asked, "Hey, when the bad guys were inside the bodies of the heroes, why didn't they unmask them and see who they really were?" Well, Identity Crisis purports that the villains did indeed do that, and that the heroes, once the villains were defeated, engaged in some pretty controversial activities (somewhat reminding me of the memorable, chilling close of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest") to restore things to normal and protect their identities. Further, the story demonstrates that those activities, and similar past practices (most would say, abuses), are now tainting the way the heroes are now operating, and are maybe indirectly responsible for the murder now laid at their feet.

I didn't mind the controversial, often negative portrayal of the heroes in Identity Crisis. This approach made them more complex and interesting to me. In any event, nothing they did was as unsavory as say, the sight of King Arthur drowning babies in the early chapters of DC's Camelot 3000. Now that kept me from enjoying the rest of the book, no matter that the king later regretted his actions.

I hope that Brad Meltzer, who usually earns his living as a bestselling mystery writer, will occasionally return to the world of comics and write more stories as good as Identity Crisis. In fact, I'm off to search Amazon to see if he already has.

In the end, if you like comics or you like mysteries, Identity Crisis should be quite enjoyable to you; and if you like mysteries and comics, you should especially run right out and get it. One of these days comic book stories will be easily readable on the Kindle. Until then, you won't regret taking a break from your Kindle to check this out.

The photo accompanying this post shows Mr. Meltzer. The drawing of Wonder Woman is from one of the individual installments of Identity Crisis, before all the chapters were collected into the one complete volume discussed here.

Breaking news

As reported in today's edition of The New York Times, Amazon has acquired Touchco, a New York-based company specializing in cutting edge touch-screen technology. This is widely seen, in the view of the Times article, as a move by Amazon to make its next generation Kindle better able to compete with Apple's forthcoming iPad.

Needless to say, more on this later.

Movie news

As a postscript to my previous post, Columbia Pictures just announced that it is moving forward with a film version of Dan Brown's The Lost Symbol. The book will be adapted by Steven Knight, and Brian Grazer and John Calley will produce. No word yet on whether Tom Hanks will return as Robert Langdon or Ron Howard will return to direct. Hanks and Howard were both involved in the previous two adaptations of Dan Brown's Robert Langdon books.

The hero prof returns


Dan Brown's adventure-prone professor Robert Langdon returns in The Lost Symbol, this time manipulated by (yet another) mysterious, disturbed lone wolf into finding a treasure trove of ancient knowledge, hidden by the Masons somewhere in Washington, D.C. Discrediting and tearing down the Masons is also part of the villain's plan.

Don't expect the level of searing (credible or otherwise) revelation that The Da Vinci Code delivered and you'll enjoy this fascinating, pulp-inspired thriller just fine. In fact, I found the book to be entertaining for pretty much the opposite reasons as The Da Vinci Code: The earlier book was a decent page-turner mainly due to its incredible postulations (again, believeable or otherwise) about Christianity and history, with the thriller plot being serviceable at best. This time, the thriller plot, more skillful and involving than before (though slightly predictable here and there), was the main attraction for me, with the "incredible revelations" being kind of interesting and fascinating, but nowhere near as earth shattering or memorable as the previous book. So, The Lost Symbol is still a perfectly good book to curl up with, but for somewhat different reasons than the previous Langdon adventure.

I also liked the underlying theme of the book, that we should be less worried about a possible afterlife and more awed and fascinated by our species' potential here on Earth. Of course, the book isn't entirely satisfied with mankind's more obvious areas for growth and improvement- our intellect and capacity to address the world's problems if we really try- but rather suggests that we have some manner of untapped brain power that will ultimately allow us to perform actions approaching the magical. But this is a thriller, after all, so I guess the inclusion of fantastic material like that is okay... especially when it's in a book that puts forth the laudable view that one can respect and be guided by religion, while not being driven by its every tenet.

If you enjoyed Angels and Demons and The Da Vinci Code, I can't imagine not at least liking a little this latest entry in the series. It's a perfectly fine installment, and makes me hope it's not another five or six years until we next see Robert Langdon running through some dark, murky corridors in search of an amazing clue to an even more amazing revelation.

The Lost Symbol is available on Kindle for $9.60.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Hey...

What do you get when you cross an elephant and a rhino?

El-if-I-no.

Brainstorming

I think that the genius of the Kindle is that it does a few things very well, instead of many, many things, well or otherwise. It concentrates on getting reading material to you easily and quickly, presents that material in a fashion that's easy on the eyes, then gets out of your way so you can enjoy the material. There are no pings that announce arriving e-mail while you're reading a magazine article. No sidebar news items appearing while you're in the midst of a novel. No constant low-battery warnings. Just the simple elegance of a flat, neat slab that sends words your way, one article or story or novel at a time.

Any improvements in a Kindle 3 should therefore strengthen the philosophy behind the Kindle, not muck it up with tons of new features. Myself, I kind of like that Barnes and Noble's Nook lets you see a book's cover artwork in color on a small touchscreen separate from the e-ink screen. But I wouldn't say that a Kindle 3 has to have that. However, things I wouldn't mind seeing include the following:

How about more typeface choices, or- even better- having the Kindle duplicate the typeface used in the paper versions of the books it sells? That would be a small but nice touch.

An improved, less robotic text-to-speech function would be good, too. Right now I use text-to-speech to listen to some of my news blogs while driving home from work, which works fine, but I can't imagine using the function to listen to anything with actual characters, nuanced prose, etc.

Though currently perfectly acceptable, I wouldn't mind slightly better contrast between the screen's text and background. Blacker text over a whiter background, to be more specific.

Finally, without making the dimensions of the device any bigger, I think more of the Kindle's face should be devoted to the screen. While not making a K3 any bigger than the K2 (I think it's important not to sacrifice portability), the screen's "real estate" could easily be increased by 5% or so, even if they keep the traditional keyboard where it is now.

I have a few other ideas, but for now I'll just throw that first wave at you. What do you think the Kindle can stand to improve in future upgrades? And what things don't need to be changed at all?

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Uggh

Patient: Doctor! Doctor! Everyone keeps on copying me!

Doctor: Doctor! Doctor! Everyone keeps on copying me!

Prey #5


Arguably the best entry among the first five books in John Sandford's Prey series (though I still have a soft spot for the extreme creepiness and dramatic revelations of Eyes of Prey), Mr. Sandford's Winter Prey is a bracing, knock-out read however you slice it.

Though series protagonist Lucas Davenport is here in all his glory, this one is less concerned with what is going on in Lucas' often troubled personal life and just wants to give us a moody, bang-up thriller plot, one that emphasizes Lucas' passion for crime fighting. And there's also a slight change in the series' usual flavor and tone, which makes for some welcome variety: instead of urban tension, here we get wilderness, snowstorms, icy temperatures, snowmobiles, and coyotes.

But don't worry, there's also one of those nicely written Lucas Davenport romantic subplots we've become accustomed to seeing, this time involving a tough yet fetching surgeon. And yes, you also get a memorable killer. Laced with intelligent details yet extremely fast paced, the book will not disappoint.

Winter Prey is available on Kindle for $7.99.

More Oscar musings

A nice benefit of the expanded Best Picture category (10 Best Pic noms instead of the usual 5) is that a few films outside the customary fall/Christmas prestige releases made it into the mix this year. Up came out this past May, The Hurt Locker in June, and District 9 and Inglourious Basterds in August. The five extra slots forced Academy voters to actually look back to the fog-shrouded past of five or six months ago for a few of their selections!

Also, release date aside, there never would have been room for a serious, tough-minded science-fiction thriller like District 9 before, outside of the technical categories. Yet there it is competing for a Best Picture Oscar!

I think the experiment with an expanded Best Picture category has been a success: there are the usual end-of-year prestige entries (actually, there's now room for a couple more of them), a few mid-year selections, a couple of unexpected picks (District 9 and The Blind Side, the latter previously expected to deliver only a Best Actress nomination to Sandra Bullock), and no outright clunkers.

This should all make for a more engaging Oscarcast on Sunday, March 7.

Oscar time!

Oscar nominations are always fun, so here are this morning's nominees in the newly-expanded Best Picture category, along with total nominations:

Avatar (9 nominations)

The Hurt Locker (9 nominations)

Inglourious Basterds (8 nominations)

Precious (6 nominations)

Up in the Air (6 nominations)

Up (5 nominations)

District 9 (4 nominations)

An Education (3 nominations)

The Blind Side (2 nominations)

A Serious Man (2 nominations)

Considering the wider field, I'm not in too bad shape- I only need to see three of the above to say that I've seen all the Best Picture nomineees. How about you?

Monday, February 1, 2010

Drac Pack


Here's a quick look at a DVD four-pack, containing four old Dracula movies (Horror of Dracula, Dracula Has Risen From the Grave!, Taste the Blood of Dracula, and Dracula A.D. 1972), that I recently picked up for about 10 bucks:

Usually I have to pass on these inexpensive four-movie collections that have popped up lately, as I either have no interest in the movies (the Police Academy compilation, for instance), or I already own one or more of the movies in the set. Finally, though, with this cool Dracula offering, there were four movies that I didn't own and was actually interested in seeing.

All four of these old Hammer Studios Dracula films are engaging fun, often shocking and scary, too. Of course, I was immediately struck by the fact that Christopher Lee's Dracula really doesn't have much to do in any of them. Basically, his rarely-speaking character is there to set the story in motion, appear once or twice throughout, and then show up at the end to bring it to a close. The four movies devote much more of their attention to the activities of the characters surrounding Dracula, which is actually sort of interesting.

Though I liked these movies a lot overall, I have to point out one ludicrous (but nonetheless entertaining) sequence in Dracula Has Risen From the Grave!, the second film in this set. In this movie, Dracula is actually revived by a priest stumbling around in the forest who trips, bumps his head on a rock, and falls unconscious. Blood from his head wound then trickles onto the surface of the frozen creek under him, drips down through a crack in the ice, and into the lips of a frozen Dracula, who just happens to be directly under where the priest tripped! The trickle of blood revives Dracula for that particular movie. Amazing! Oh, I should mention that the priest was actually in the forest because of Dracula (he was on a mission to sanctify Dracula's castle, to make it unusable for the vampire in the event he ever tried to return to it), so it was really unlucky that the priest decided to trip- after traveling hours through the forest- right above the spot where Dracula's corpse was frozen in the ice. I thought that was really funny.

Anyway, aside from that head-scratching moment, the stories here are mostly solid, the prints are sharp and clean, and there are even a few modest extras (mostly in the form of the films' trailers). If you enjoy horror movies of years past, you can't go wrong with this entertaining set, especially considering the price.

By the way, to add an actual Kindle connection to this post, Bram Stoker's original novel, Dracula, is now being offered for free in the Kindle store, where it's currently ranked as the 46th most popular title there.