Collins and Crouch deliver the goods, as seen in our latest thriller reviews

Collins and Crouch deliver the goods, as seen in our latest thriller reviews

Friday, April 30, 2010

DVD report: Avatar


First a quick paragraph about the movie itself. Is the story in Avatar familiar? Sure. But it's done well, and sharpened by several unique characters, fascinating details, and a handful of unpredictable moments. And exciting action. Lots of exciting action. Oh, and I liked the playful subversion lurking just under the surface: while we're quickly told once or twice that the soldiers on Pandora are mercenaries working for a private company, the visuals clearly tell us otherwise. This is an occupying American military force, at a place where they have no business, taking on the role of the bad guys. Hey, maybe it was a little unfair to do that (maybe), but it was gutsy on James Cameron's part to construct his story that way, a story for a big blockbuster movie, no less, not some small political art-house film.

Anyway, now that that's out of the way, the main reason I'm writing this review is to tell you about the DVD, as people everywhere have pretty much already seen this movie and have decided whether they like it or not. I'm here to tell you that the good old standard DVD of Avatar looks spectacular. It's one of the most cleanest, sharpest transfers I've ever seen. In many ways it's even better than the 3D version of Avatar seen in theaters, because as good as the Cameron's 3D process was, there was still a little inherent-to-3D murkiness here and there that sometimes inhibited the sharpness. Here things are sharp and clear from beginning to end. And because the movie was composed as a movie first and a 3D movie second (there are no cheap "comin at ya" shots), I found that I didn't even miss the 3D while watching the DVD.

So, if you're hesitating to buy the standard DVD of Avatar because you're worried that only the Blu-Ray version or the future 3D Blu-Ray version of Avatar will do the film justice, there's no need to worry. This will tide you over just fine.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Heads up

A new software update is headed to your Kindle in May. You don't need to do anything but turn on Whispernet to get it. The update will include a variety of features including new fonts, a "zoom in" feature to view photographs better, and an organization feature that will allow you to organize your Kindle books into "collections". Could that last be the ability to create folders that so many have been clamoring for? Maybe. Anyway, the update will go out to all Kindle 2 and Kindle DX devices. Owners of the poor Kindle Classic will have to be content with the current functions of their Kindles. You can read more about this update at Amazon.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Nice job

Kudos to the Kindle version of Roger Moore's memoir My Word Is My Bond for including the photographs seen in the print edition of the book. Too often, photos are left out of Kindle editions of memoirs and other books. I'm glad to see the situation is getting better.

With so many other devices promoting the ebook experience, as well as the Kindle experience itself now being available on so many non-Kindle devices, I think it's important for the actual Kindle device to offer as much as it can in the way of features and benefits. Including the photos in the books it sells is a great first step.

More on this book when I finish it, but for now, you know at least one thing I'm happy about!

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The new Dynamic Duo


Collecting the first six issues of the new Batman and Robin comic book series, I enjoyed the handsome hardback, Batman and Robin: Batman Reborn, quite a bit. Upon finishing it, however, I did find it a little strange that the book is being aggressively marketed to casual Batman fans shopping in various mainstream bookstores (where I bought my copy), and not just to hardcore comics fans via comic-book shops.

Why? Because, right out of the box, Batman and Robin: Batman Reborn drops you right in the middle of a turbulent period in these characters' lives, with minimal orientation, and bombshells galore: Bruce Wayne is dead! The former Robin is now Batman! The new Robin is Bruce Wayne's son, recently rescued from the nest of assassins who was raising him! Wow. And all that stuff is already in place before page one!

Will all this be confusing to the casual fan? Maybe not, but it's definitely helpful to read the jacket notes and other dust-jacket copy before diving in, as one gets at least a little "set up" there. Heck, I found it helpful, and I'm always at least semi-aware of the latest developments in the major comic book series out there.

In any event, once you get immersed, Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely's collected tales are fun and weird, mixing mainstream Batman fare (action, drama, fights, and detecting) with David Lynch-style strangeness. However, I found that the weird and strange elements undercut the momentum and drama of a particular story just as often as they strengthened them. But that's just me. If you can't get enough of weird, "out there" stuff in your comics, you'll be ecstatic.

I guess I shouldn't complain. Because it's so easy for Batman stories to fall back on tried-and-true boilerplate plots, I should welcome stories and scenes that sometimes make one work a little to truly appreciate them. Hey, I'm definitely going to pick up volume two when it's released, so I guess I'm not complaining too much.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Comic-book Friday


Batman: Under the Hood, Volume 2 collects the concluding installments of the initial Red Hood storyline that originally appeared in the ongoing Batman comic book series (Batman #'s 645-650, to be specific), as well as a lengthy Batman Annual that reveals in detail how the Red Hood and his supposedly deceased alter ego came to be.

Like the first volume of this storyline, this one contains solid, entertaining superhero storytelling, no more and no less. I will say that it was a little strange to see epic science-fiction type elements from the larger DC universe play a brief but notable role in the Red Hood's origin, but, hey, Batman's gritty Gotham City world does exist in the same universe as Superman, the Justice League, and various alien species and intergalactic conflicts, so fair is fair. And besides, as said, those "out there" elements are fairly brief.

Batman and his dark, shadowy world of gritty crime-fighting lends itself well to intense, involving storylines of both the shorter and longer varieties. The Under the Hood epic is a well-crafted, engaging example of the latter.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Update

Kindle Taproom has just received a bunch of interesting items for review, including the following: This Time Together, by Carol Burnett (audiobook); The Lake Shore Limited, by Sue Miller (audiobook); The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama (audiobook); and The Slammin' Salmon (DVD). When I finally get to all these creative endeavors, I'll try to write something useful about them so you can decide which ones might be right for you. Until then, however, it's getting late and I should hit the sack!

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Some son-in-law

A man and his mother-in-law visit Jerusalem, and while they are there the mother-in-law passes away. Following the funeral, the funeral director says to the man, "For $150 we can bury your mother-in-law here, or for $5000 we can ship her back home to be buried."

"Oh I will definitely have her shipped back home," the man replies, "because if I remember correctly, a while back a man was buried here and after three days he came back to life".

Monday, April 19, 2010

Hey...

Did you hear about the dentist who married a manicurist? They fight tooth and nail!

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Kick-Ass does


Caught the movie Kick-Ass this weekend, and enjoyed it a lot. It's pretty profane and over-the-top violent, as you've probably heard, but not as much as I thought it would be on either count. And there's also some decent characterization and humor, so the movie definitely isn't trying to be a non-stop shock-fest. Which is good.

Anyway, it's a pretty safe bet to say that if you liked the original Mark Millar and John Romita Jr. comic book, you'll probably like the movie. It's very faithful to both the story and spirit of the comic book, with only a few deviations- all negligible and understandable- from the comic's plot. If you didn't read the comic book but generally enjoy super-hero movies, especially ones with a little edge, you'll also be pleased, I think.

I'll talk more about the movie, and the comic book, in a day or two. But for now, if you're thinking of seeing the movie, I'd say go for it.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Briefly checking in

Busy day today. Just enough time to tell you that 1) I'm still enjoying Roger Moore's memoir, My Word Is My Bond on Kindle; 2) I just started the latest Wheel of Time fantasy novel, entitled The Gathering Storm, on unabridged audio (over thirty hours long- that'll keep me busy!); and 3) I'm so far liking the sharp story and art in the graphic novel Batman & Robin: Batman Reborn, which Borders is really pushing in its e-mails and store promotions. More on all of these later, to be sure. For now, have a great Saturday evening, everyone!

Friday, April 16, 2010

Functional but problematic


I wasn't all that impressed with these Klipsch Image S2m Headphones, due to both personal preferences when it comes to MP3 headphones, and what I saw as flaws in the product.

This was my first experience with in-ear headphones and I found that I didn't like the way they virtually cut off all outside sound. This will, of course, appeal to many, and I realize it's an actual selling point of the product. But all I could think of is that they would prevent me from hearing a runaway car barreling toward me, or a flash mob coming from around the corner.

I also wasn't crazy about having hard pieces of plastic jammed into my ear canals. And you have to really push them in deep, or else they're prone to fall out.

Finally, a more pointed criticism that's less about preference and more about the qualities of the product itself: I'm the first to admit that I'm not a sound engineer, but to me audiobooks and music sounded a bit compressed and tinny on the product. Not horrendously bad, to be sure, but not that great.

So, though it was interesting to give these a try, I think I'm going to go back to those round, spongey earbuds that sit just outside of one's ear canals. For example, I find that my Sony earbuds let enough of the outside world in, keeping me from being totally isolated from the world around me, while providing sharp yet spacious sound.

Anyway, I'll keep these around as an emergency back-up for my various other headphones, and for those times when the outside noise around me is especially loud and distracting. But otherwise, I'm afraid these headphones didn't convert me.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Bizarro world

On this fine, sunny Thursday, our hometwon team, the Philadelphia Phillies, go into today's match-up with the Washington Nationals with a 7-1 record, first place in its division, two back-to-back National League championships, and one World Series win attached to one of those championships. I ask you, have we been shunted off into some parallel dimension?

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Beware the Red Hood


I don't need every comics storyline these days be a never-before-seen take on our favorite characters or an earth-shattering re-examination placing things we thought we knew in an entirely new light. Those approaches can be great, but sometimes it's fun to simply enjoy a solid story built on the elements we've come to know and love about a character and his or her world. And that's what you get with this first volume presenting the recent Under the Hood storyline from Batman's regular comic book title.

Batman: Under the Hood, Volume 1 collects six issues of mystery and adventure, as a strange new figure, the Red Hood, begins to disrupt Gotham City's underworld, using tactics much more savage and brutal than Batman's own none-to-gentle techniques. Reacting most dramatically to the Red Hood's new war on crime is the creepy, deadly crime boss known as the Black Mask, and the Batman himself. The former justs wants the Red Hood out of the way, and the latter doesn't like the merciless approach of the Red Hood, especially when clues point to the Red Hood possibly being someone who was close to Batman in the not-too-distant past.

As said, this isn't a storyline like DC's Identity Crisis, which combined unconventional story-telling with unprecedented revelations, or The Dark Knight Returns, which presented an out-of-continuity original take on a superhero character (the Batman himself, in that case). No, the Under the Hood storyline simply delivers a solid story (by Judd Winick) and terrific art (by Doug Mahnke and Tom Nguyen) that throws lots of fun and drama our way, the kind of stuff that's familiar but never dull when it's done right. You get crime bosses, superhero guest appearances, a handful of super-villains, dark alleys, moves and counter moves, some big revelations, and lots of action. It's all great. An added nice touch is the inclusion of Matt Wagner's stylish and moody covers from the original issues, interspersed throughout this collection.

For the money, you can't beat this collection, which will provide several hours of immersive entertainment. Just be warned: the story continues in Batman: Under the Hood, Volume 2, which I just purchased. By the way, I'm diving into these Under the Hood collections because DC is adapting this storyline into an upcoming direct-to-DVD animated film, to be entitled Batman: Under the Red Hood, and I wanted to experience the original storyline first. I'm betting the movie will be decent, as it will have a lot of good stuff to draw from, but I'm glad that I'm experiencing the original epic first, before it's inevitably pared down to fit into a 75-minute movie.

Anyway, if you still have a soft spot for good, old-fashioned superhero action and melodrama, you can't go wrong with this.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Small chuckle (maybe)

A pizza walks into a bar. The bartender says, "Sorry, we don't serve food in here."

Monday, April 12, 2010

The Last of Jesse


Split Image, the final Jesse Stone thriller, can be more accurately described as a Jesse Stone & Sunny Randall thriller, as both Robert B. Parker protagonists are in it about equally. It's a fun, engaging story- stories, actually, as Jesse and Sunny are working separate cases- but there's really nothing you haven't seen before: Jesse investigates two murders that initially look like mob hits, but soon learns that intimate doings closer to home might have played a part in the crimes; Sunny looks into the case of a runaway girl, and- not surprisingly- finds family dysfunction at the heart of the matter.

In other words, the dark underbellies of marriage and family life once again are the real culprits here. Don't worry, I won't get more specific, but let's just say that we've been down this path before. This time, the results are perfectly fine, but don't deliver the resonance and subtlety of similar Parker plots like the ones in Paper Doll, Early Autumn, and a few other entries with strong family elements. There's lots of sex, though, both of the healthy and strange varieties.

Two particular sequences made me roll my eyes a bit. Both Jesse and Sunny experience "breakthroughs" with their psychiatrists, and I wasn't totally sold on what they learned. Jesse now believes that his own controlling nature is what caused his ex-wife Jenn to cheat, and Sunny comes to believe it was her fear of being turned into her weak, accepting mother that made her drive her strong husband away. So much for the idea of Jenn relentlessly cheating because of selfishness and career ambitions and Sunny leaving her husband because he was too controlling. Those were the general ideas put forth in earlier novels, and they seemed to make sense at the time. But I guess anything is open to re-examination.

In the end, Split Image is the usual fast, engaging, and smart Parker read, and so you certainly shouldn't avoid it if you've been onboard this long. I just wish this last Parker-penned Jesse Stone novel was a little more sharp and memorable. But that's okay. Dr. Parker had given us so many great books over the years that one would be a cad to complain about the ones that are merely "pretty good".

Split Image is available on Kindle for $9.99.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

An oldie but a goodie

At a recent family gathering, here's one that my seven year-old nephew told to his slightly younger nephews and niece (so please consider the source):

Nephew: Knock, knock!

Other kids: Who's there?

Nephew: Banana!

Other kids: Banana who?

Nephew: Knock, knock!

Other kids: Who's there?

Nephew: Banana!

Other kids (getting impatient): Banana who??

Nephew: Knock, knock!

Other kids (getting really impatient now): Who's there??

Nephew: Banana!

Other kids: Banana who??

Nephew; Knock, knock!

Other kids (now exasperated): Who's there???

Nephew: Orange!

Other kids: Orange who??

Nephew: Orange you glad I didn't say "banana"?

I guess you had to be there. I thought it was cute.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Tip of the day

Have you checked out www.pandora.com yet? If you go there on your PC, iPod or iPhone and key in your favorite musical artist, in seconds the site will create your own personalized radio station that plays that artist's tracks, along with tracks by other artists you might like. For instance, I recently typed in Frank Sinatra, immediately heard the Chairman's Nice & Easy (from the album of the same name), followed by Dean Martin's You're Nobody 'Til Somebody Loves You, Bobby Darin's Beyond the Sea, with more Sinatra after that. It really is a cool site.

There's some commercial interruption, but it's minimal. When I last listened earlier today, there was a short Ace Hardware ad every eight or nine songs or so, and that's it. It even works with classical music and movie soundtracks: just type in a classical composer like Mozart or a movie composer like John Williams and have fun discovering what the site puts together for you. Give it a whirl!

Friday, April 9, 2010

I can see this happening

A young executive is leaving the office late one evening when he encounters the CEO standing in front of the shredder with a piece of paper in his hand.

"Listen," says the CEO, "this is a very sensitive and important document, and my secretary has gone home for the night. Can you make this thing work?"

"Certainly," says the young executive. He turns the machine on, inserts the paper, and presses the start button.

"Excellent, excellent!" says the CEO as his paper disappears inside the machine. "I just need one copy."

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Look for this


At the wine tasting event I attended two evenings ago, I was exposed to a really terrific red that I'm going to look for when I'm out and about. It was a Chilensis Reserva Carmenere 2008, an elegant but friendly wine that originates in the Maule Valley of Chile.

Being new to wine criticism, I'm really not up to articulating in my own words (beyond my elegant but friendly phrase above) what was so great about this wine, so I looked for a description on the web that would generate a nod of agreement on my part. And I found such a description at the web site of K&D Wines & Spirits, a New York retailer. Here's what K&D had to say:

The 2008 Chilensis Reserva Carmenere is bright and clean, with a deep violet-red color. Intense and elegant aromas of black fruit such as blackberry and plum meld with spicy aromas of black pepper and bay leaf. Its months of oak aging lend delicious notes of caramel, chocolate, vanilla, and tobacco. On the palate, smooth, elegant tannins are complemented by enveloping flavors of ripe red fruits and present a pleasing and persistent finish with good volume.

Well, to be candid, I don't know that I tasted all that, but I won't argue. I did notice an immediate rich, satisfying taste, shortly followed by a number of subtle secondary flavors. Hmmm, maybe I'm starting to pick up the jargon, after all.

Anyway, to leave you with one more bit of good news, Chilensis Reserva Carmenere currently goes for a very affordable 11 or 12 dollars a bottle. But it really does taste like something that would go for at least twice that.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

iPad, iPad, burning bright...

Well, I guess I wasn't the only person who was curious, because there are now several videos posted on YouTube that compare the iBooks app for the iPad with the Kindle app for the same device. Just do a search for Kindle app on iPad and take your pick of overviews. Myself, I think the apps are pretty evenly matched, with each app having only one or two mild advantages over the other one. In the end, what's important is that the Kindle app is spiffy enough that I won't resent having to use it if I want to employ Whispersync to jump between my Kindle and my future iPad (honestly, my wife says I can buy one) when reading a particular book.

And one final thought for those of you who absolutely hate the idea of a backlit screen to read ebooks: the Kindle app on the iPad (and, I'm assuming, the iBooks app) allows the reader to dial up or dial down the brightness level of the background. Which, in the demonstrations I watched, really seems to make a difference. When the brightness is turned down, the page and words look much less harsh than a fully-bright screen. Relaxing, even. Backlight haters may want to keep an open mind.

Cops, crosses, and crime


Julia Spencer-Fleming's In the Bleak Midwinter is a solid, involving debut mystery with a minimum of first-book jitters. The hook here is that the two protagonists, female Episcopalian priest Clare Fergusson and small town police chief Russ Van Alstyne form an immediate bond upon Clare's arriving in town to take over the local parish, with said bond being awkward because Russ is married and, well, Clare's a priest, who's supposed to be above such emotional messiness. But Ms. Spencer-Fleming avoids obvious potboiler scenes and develops the situation, inelegant as it is, in an intelligent and realistic manner, really making us want to see where this relationship goes. Just be warned, for any real answers you'll have to move into the second book in the series, as things only just start to heat up here.

Oh, and the mystery story? It's very good, too, interesting in its own right and a good vehicle to reveal the character traits of both Russ and Clare. Predictably, in most situations he's tough and she's more sympathetic, but there are less obvious and even surprising traits in both of them, too.

In the Bleak Midwinter is a fine, fast-reading tale of an instant emotional connection between two very different (at least, at first glance) individuals set against a backdrop of violence and greed. Can the warm but imperfect glow of Russ and Clare's relationship stand up to the darkness and danger of the crimes they confront? Jump in and find out.

In the Bleak Midwinter is available on Kindle for $7.99.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Quickly checking in

I just got back from an event associated with my day job. It was a wine-tasting event, and a lot of fun. Whether you love or hate your job (I go back and forth), it should at least offer you a perc (or is that perk?) here and there. Events like this one remind me that I have a pretty good job, especially in today's economy. Later I'll tell you a little about what I do for a living. But not tonight because I'm very tired.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Battle of the apps

Right now I'm trolling YouTube to look for videos that compare the iBooks application on the new Apple iPad with Amazon's Kindle app for the iPad. No luck yet. The New York Times did weigh in, however, noting that Apple's application looks cooler and does all kinds of neat things, but that (not surprisingly) the Kindle app offers way more books. It also says that, although the page-turning animation and other visual features on the Kindle app aren't as nice as Apple's iBook app, note taking and other academic-type features are much better on the Kindle app, making it the clear-cut choice for students.

More to come as I continue educating myself about the shiny new kid on the block. And no, I have no plans for it to totally replace my Kindle with an iPad... just maybe to give it a little time off here and there. Only a little while longer until the 3G version of the iPad becomes available...

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Not too comic


A Killing in Comics is a clean, fast, involving mystery from the always reliable Max Allan Collins. This one is set in the world of post-World War II comic book publishing and features thinly-veiled versions of Superman, Batman, their creators, and publisher D.C. Comics (which in the 40's was called National Comics and here is called Americana Comics).

Over the course of the book's murder investigation, there's lots of attention given to the comics publisher screwing over the creative talent, certain creative talent screwing over their anonymous writing and artwork assistants, etc., making it interesting to wonder how much of all this cutthroat activity reflects the reality of the time. My bet is, a good bit.

And, Collins being Collins, as fun as these details are, they never keep the story from moving forward and building steam, and Terry Beatty's many illustrations (clean and uncluttered, just like the prose) are a treat, too. A perfect read for comic book fans, A Killing in Comics will also be good fun for those who just enjoy a good mystery.

If you like this novel, you might also want to seek out the author's Nice Weekend For a Murder, a murder mystery set in the world of mystery publishing, which takes place during an annual mystery writers' retreat. That was a lot of fun, too. A sequel to A Killing in Comics has also since appeared, titled Strip For Murder.

A Killing in Comics is available on Kindle for $9.99.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

It's arrived

Apple's iPad goes on sale this weekend, and there's no shortage of opinion around the net about whether you should buy one or not. Me? I'm aboard, but I think I want to get the model that includes 3G capability, and that's not on sale for around another month. So, at least this won't be a total impulse purchase. I'll get to look at and maybe handle an iPad or two before I plunk down my own cash.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Grab bag

Right now I'm enjoying Robert B. Parker's Split Image, an entry in the author's Jesse Stone series. This one also features a heavy dose of Sunny Randall, another Parker protagonist, one often featured in her own books. As usual with this author, so far the book is a fast, fun read, and I'll write about it more fully when I'm finished with it.

I'm also reading a comic book trade paperback called Batman: Under the Hood, which collects seven consecutive issues of the Batman comic book into one handy volume. It's a storyline about a new crime boss in Gotham, who may have some very personal ties to Batman. It's good so far. The original comics came out in 2005 and 2006, and the storyline quickly became a fan favorite. Hence, its eventual collection into the handy "trade" I'm now reading. Batman: Under the Hood (actually, this is volume 1 of 2) is available for about 10 bucks in comic book shops and your local Borders or Barnes & Noble.

Finally, I'm listening to Erik Larson's The Devil in the White City on unabridged audio, courtesy of an Audible.com download. It's the true story of the Chicago World's Fair (mounted in the early 1890's) and the serial killer who stalked its exhibits. It's fascinating and creepy so far. More on this later, too.

As for the rest of the day, there's a good chance that my wife and I are going to enjoy our day off (she's on spring break all week and I have off for good Friday) by taking a day trip to the New Jersey seashore. I try not to take for granted that, living in the Philadelphia area, the seashore is only an hour and twenty minutes away when the mood strikes. If we want to see the ocean and grab some pizza on the boardwalk, it's easy to indulge ourselves.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Okay family film


The conceit of Nancy Drew, a 2007 update/reboot of the Nancy Drew franchise (which over the decades has included books, movies, TV shows, and probably other offerings I'm unaware of) is that everything in Nancy's world has been updated except Nancy herself. Nancy as seen here prefers to dress like a young girl from the 1940's and 50's ("I like old-fashioned things," she tells her friends) and she has the polite manners of that era, too, which will likely make older viewers sigh with nostalgia.

With her retro ways and her sometimes over-the-top crimefighting skills (Nancy actually carries a grappling hook to descend from roofs), initially one wonders if we should be laughing at Nancy along with her teen peers. But, no, like those other characters, we soon fall into the we should respect others even if they're a little different vibe that the movie enthusiastically gives off before too long.

Once we're used to her eccentricities, Nancy comes off as a charming, likable character, and one we care about as she takes on a somewhat dangerous mystery. Things never get too scary, though. In fact, the operative adjective to describe the movie is nice. It's a cute, fun, nice little movie that will show you a pleasant time for an hour and thirty-five minutes. Whether one should point out that Nancy Drew might have done better at the box office if it had slightly bigger ambitions than simply being nice (and thus maybe generated a sequel) is another question, of course.

The standard DVD of Nancy Drew looks and sounds great, and there are a variety of mostly kid-oriented special features to round out the proceedings.