A penny saved is ridiculous.

A penny saved is ridiculous.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Checking in


I hope every one of you had a nice Christmas weekend, and is enjoying the lazy, off-kilter week between Christmas and New Year's. Try to catch a nice film if you have the time. Over the past few days, we managed to see The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and The Adventures of Tin Tin (the latter in IMAX 3-D). Both were quite good, though obviously for very different reasons.

I'll write more about the above films, as well as other intriguing topics, shortly after we get past the upcoming New Year's hoopla and I'm back on a regular posting schedule.

And If I don't get a chance to post at all before the weekend, let me be the first to wish all of you a Happy New Year!

Friday, December 23, 2011

All kinda preying going on


Lucas Davenport takes on two very dangerous, sociopathic women in Certain Prey, the 10th installment in John Sandford's ongoing Prey series starring his hard-as-nails yet entertainingly quirky Minneapolis police detective character.

The antagonists this time are Carmel Loan, a tigress criminal defense attorney, and Clara Rinker, the hit woman that Loan hires to knock off the wife of a property lawyer she wants for herself. Initially only meeting briefly (when Loan pays Rinker her fee), the two are soon forced to interact on a more prolonged basis when a few loose ends need to be cleaned up soon after the initial hit is completed. The tension is ratcheted up when those loose ends ultimately necessitate more killing.

The fun of the book's early going comes from the warm, unlikely friendship that develops between the two usually aloof women, and the fact that Loan, who never really committed a crime before, turns out to be much more of a cold sociopath than the woman who's an actual hit woman! It's also fun to see Davenport and his fellow cops, along with an FBI agent or two, engage in all kinds of cat-and-mouse scenarios as they make a concerted attempt to nail Loan and Rinker (the hit woman had been chased by the FBI for years).

As usual, Lucas Davenport is entertainingly pragmatic: once it's clear that Loan has too well protected herself from prosecution for the crimes she's committed, Davenport comes up with a plan to simply frame her for crimes she didn't do. Hey, whatever gets her off the street, right? Needless to say, you should just check your social conscience at the door and just enjoy the tense, page-turning ride John Sandford always reliably delivers.

And an enjoyable ride it is. This Prey installment is about 85% the case at hand, and 15% fun stuff with the cops (their lives, romances, etc.). That's pretty much the right mix when a Prey book's main crime plot is- like it is here- a particularly good one. There's just enough of the quirky, fun cop stuff (including a romantic flirtation between Lucas and a female FBI agent) to provide variety, but not too much to overly distract from the main story.

It's been great marching through this terrific thriller series since discovering it two or three years back with Rules of Prey, the first book in the series. Since then, I've been reading two or three installments a year, whenever the mood strikes. Next up: Easy Prey. I'm sure that will be a good one, too, as there hasn't been a loser in the bunch yet.

Certain Prey is available on Kindle for $7.99.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Cat update

Below, on the left, is the kitten I found across the street from our house about a month ago, and Buddy, our big ol' gray cat. Buddy is appropriately named, as he's very friendly. Since the new arrival, Buddy and the kitten have become fast friends: tussling, chasing each other around, and sitting together a lot. Our grumpy oldest cat, Muffin (not pictured), doesn't bother much with the new kitten, but then she's never bothered much with Buddy, either.


With the new friendship in force, we don't feel quite as bad leaving the kitten home alone during the day when we go to work, as Buddy keeps him occupied. It's all working out.

Now, if we can finally, finally settle on a name for the new cat. We're thinking Midnight, because it was around midnight when I took him in that night back in November. We'll see.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

At the multiplex


We caught a couple of big holiday films this past weekend, and enjoyed them, one a bit more than the other.

Mission: Impossible- Ghost Protocol opened in wide release yesterday (December 20), but opened a few days earlier in the IMAX format, which is the way we saw it last Saturday. It was a terrifically entertaining film, though during the movie I started to think that they probably came up with the several action sequences first and then cobbled together some kind of plot to stitch them all together.

But, hey, I won't quibble, as the action scenes are first rate, including a wonderfully choregraphed prison break at the start of the film (happening right off the bat before the opening credits- they don't waste time!), a great hand-to-hand fight in a futuristic parking garage near the end, and- smack in the middle of the movie- a generous sequence with Tom Cruise's Ethan Hunt climbing and swinging outside the world's tallest building in Dubai. Even people who don't like the rest of the movie all that much acknowledge that this particular scene is one for the books, and I agree. And, boy, did it look good in IMAX.

Then, on Sunday, we caught Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, the sequel to the surprise 2009 hit starring Robert Downey Jr. as the world's most famous fictional detective. We found the sequel to be a perfectly watchable adventure, but never quite escaping a "more of the same" vibe.

To be fair, you do get a more notable villain this time out (classic Holmes' nemesis Professor Moriarity), and there's a very good sequence on a train that features all kinds of entertaining intrigue and action. But in the end it just didn't seem sufficiently different than the first film in the series.

Still, if you liked the first movie, with its unique take on Sherlock Holmes (that is, classic Holmes elements combined with a big action movie plot), you could do worse than catching this new installment on the big screen. Like I said, we liked it, but just wanted to like it more.

Chuckles

A few bumper stickers I've recently seen during my travels...

If you can read this, please flip me back over! (seen upside down, on a Jeep)

Don't laugh, your daughter might be inside. (seen on a custom van with a psychedelic paint job)

You! Out of the gene pool!

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Mars awaits


In preparation for Disney's big budget science-fiction adventure, John Carter, which opens on March 9, 2012, why not check out the original novel that introduced the movie's title character? That book would be Edgar Rice Burroughs' A Princess of Mars, originally published in 1917, shortly following its individual chapters being serialized in adventure magazines of the era. Burroughs went on to produce many more John Carter adventures in the wake of A Princess of Mars.

Burroughs' most famous creation was Tarzan, but for my money I think his John Carter character, a Virginia native and Civil War soldier who all of a sudden is whisked off to Mars via a very strange cave he stumbles upon in Arizona, is Burroughs' signature creation. This is in large part due to the amazing characters and scenarios surrounding John Carter once he's on Mars. The accompanying art, by the way, shows one of the many illustrations that have appeared on paperback reprints or with serializations of Burroughs' Mars stories.

Anyway, here's the best part of this little blurb. A Princess of Mars is currently available for free on Kindle! How's that for a tip of the day?

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Amazing tales


Like so many movie and television productions over the past several decades, the recent Hollywood film Real Steel was based on a story by science fiction and fantasy master Richard Matheson. That particular story, Steel, is the excellent lead-off piece in this collection of more than a dozen Matheson gems, all terrifically rich with drama, heart, and- especially- edge.

One of the things I like most about Richard Matheson is that his main characters always have specific, memorable personalities, which easily hold their own with his fantastic plots. He doesn't settle for simply making his main characters "everyman" types that function as stand-ins for the reader as they witness the wondrous goings-on. No, he works harder than that.

Readers will enjoy and often be enthralled by these detailed characterizations, as they witness a scientist going back in time to witness the crucifixion; a hateful man but elegant orator experience his very personalized version of Hell; and a broken down boxer in the far-flung future go for that last big score. And these are only three of the many tales, all fantastic yet grittily attached to the realities of life on this planet, that will keep readers thoughtfully and emotionally immersed.

Steel and Other Stories in available on Kindle for $7.99.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Getaway

We don't usually travel far, but Alison and I get around fairly often to various points throughout Philadelphia's surrounding region. This past weekend we once again traveled to Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania, as well as its environs- including nearby Lehighton, PA- to enjoy the feel of small-town Christmas preparations.

The first photograph below shows a fun destination of ours: Country Junction, billed as the world's largest general store, which is located in Lehighton. One can nitpick and gently suggest that WalMart is probably the world's largest general store, but we won't talk about that. Anyway, Country Junction- with its wide array of eclectic products inside, and farm animals (available for purchase!) outside, is undoubtedly the world's largest old-fashioned general store.


The photograph below shows Alison inside Country Junction on Sunday, December 11, sharing a moment with our nation's Chief Executive. Country Junction has all kinds of fun displays like this one throughout its aisles.


Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania, with its many excellent restaurants and quaint small-town feel, is a favorite destination of ours. We enjoyed dinner there at a cozy, wonderful restaurant called Black Bread on Saturday evening, December 10. Seen below is one of the many horse-drawn carriages offering rides through the town during the Christmas season. I snapped the photograph on Sunday afternoon, December 11.


During our getaway, we stayed at a nice Hampton Inn (for less than a hundred bucks a night!) located halfway between Jim Thorpe and Lehighton, allowing us to easily enjoy both areas over the course of the Saturday and Sunday we were out that way. Then, when our getaway was over, it was only a quick 90 minutes on the Pennsylvania Turnpike to get back home to the Philly area.

Sigh, we had to eventually feed the cats, after all. But we had a nice time while it lasted.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Tale of an idiot


Not nearly as broad and goofy as the film's title and advertising make it out to be, Our Idiot Brother is just a nice little comedy/drama (yes, there's actually some drama here), about Ned (Paul Rudd) a naive but open-hearted guy who shakes things up when he moves back in the vicinity of his three sisters after a stint in prison for committing a non-violent and truly idiotic crime. The sisters (played by the talented and fetching Elizabeth Banks, Zooey Deschanel, and Emily Mortimer) all have their own problems- revolving around their jobs, families, and/or love lives- which become further complicated when Ned's antics are stirred into the mix.

Ned isn't truly an idiot, just a guy whose too-trusting nature often results in idiotic situations that gum up the works for him and, now that he's back home, his siblings. Of course, Ned's personal craziness also illuminates the truly idiotic and crazy situations that his sisters have either created or tolerate in their own lives. Does Ned, despite being eye-rollingly annoying most of the time, help nudge his sisters back on the right path? And in return, do they help Ned free himself from his own eccentriciites and put him on more stable footing, too? Unless you've never seen an American comedy/drama before, you'll see the "yes" answer to both of those questions coming from a mile away.

But that's okay. With films like this one, it's the journey that counts, not the need for an unpredictable conclusion. Our idiot Brother functions as perfectly fine cinematic comfort food, giving viewers exactly what they expect overall, but still peppering a handful of small surprises along the way (mostly in the laughs department). I had a good time watching this at home one evening, and you probably would, too.

"Our Idiot Brother" was in theaters earlier this year and is now available on DVD and various pay-per-view and streaming services.

Okay adaptation


Did any of you watch the A&E mini-series Bag of Bones, which aired Sunday night and last night? It was based on the 1998 Stephen King novel and starred Pierce Brosnan. My wife and I watched it and I thought it was perfectly okay, but nothing spectacular. A solid "C", in other words. Maybe once it's on DVD with all the commercials taken out, it'll draw the viewer into the story a little more and at least deliver a "C+" experience.

The problem is, much of the great character stuff from the novel- the nuances of individual characters, the rich relationships between characters, the actual number of characters- was significantly reduced to allow the story to be told over two nights. And, as everyone knows, although King fans buy his books for the sensational plots, we often become primarily engaged by the great characters King creates (I wrote more about this "bait & switch" idea in my review of King's most recent novel, 11/22/63, a couple of posts back).

So, with all the great character work from the book reduced down to its, uh, bare bones, we were mostly left with just the creepy plot and a handful of scary jolts. And those were certainly enough to adequately entertain, but lost a little something with the reduced character investment on the part of viewers.

Still, though, a Stephen King adaptation is always fun to watch, and A&E's Bag of Bones was no exception. And if the production gets a few viewers to seek out the long, rich novel on which it was based (you can currently pick it up on Kindle for $7.99), it'll all work out in the end.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Ha

Recently spotted on a bumper sticker:

As long as there are tests, there will be prayer in public schools.

Dropping into another era


Like many of the better Stephen King novels, 11/22/63 engages in a kind of beneficial bait & switch. In this case, readers are buying this book because of the sensational, ambitious premise: a regular guy gets the ability to travel back in time to stop the Kennedy assassination! That's the main reason we as readers think we're going to enjoy the book.

But then, we actually start reading the thing and what we really get is a wonderful, heartbreaking love story; a dozen or so fascinating, very likable characters who we're delighted to visit every time we sit down to read; one of the best dramatizations of the joys and rewards of the teaching profession when the job is firing on all cylinders; and an immersive look at a time that was both simpler and quite unnerving (the latter description fueled by the Cold War, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and other 1950's and 60's stomach churners of the ongoing and out-of-the-blue variety).

And, yes, you do get a decent little plot, sort of like an extended Twilight Zone episode, about a guy trying to stop the Kennedy assassination, laced with all the familiar but always effective "be careful what you wish for" landmines we've seen in other time travel stories. In fact, I might have been the tiniest bit disappointed if the time travel/changing history plot was indeed all the book was about, because King doesn't add all that much to the kinds of plots, paradoxes, and surprise results we've seen in the plethora of time travel books, movies, and television productions that have come before. In fact, he pretty much just puts his own (admittedly, not inconsiderable) polish on those old classic elements, rather than invent new ones.

But combined with the storylines involving Jake Epping meeting and falling in love with the elegant but clumsy Sadie Dunhill, his helping a football jock unearth his hidden talent for the stage, and seeing multiple, believable examples of the amazing kindness and generosity people are capable of at their best, there was no need to scrutinize the time travel mission too much, which ultimately came off as an added bonus and not the thing we thought the book would hang everything on.

Oh, and though I won't go into specifics, the other thing the book does very well is deliver one of those heart rending, patented "I know the right thing to do but it's going to tear me apart to do it" Stephen King endings. And this one's a doozy, perfect but hard to take. But a final, nicely done grace note at the very end of the novel will at least add a small smile to readers' tears.

In the end, I guess everything I discussed above comes to this: you'll dive into this book for the Kennedy plot, but love it for the wonderful, rich novel about people and the myriad ways they can bring out the best in each other, often in the midst of great tragedy and hardship. Who would have thought that we'd get that wonderful outcome from a novel with the ominous, disturbing, sensational title, 11/22/63?

As far as I'm concerned, with results like this, Stephen King can do the old bait & switch anytime.

11/22/63 is available for $14.99 on Kindle.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Yeah, I like cartoons


Teen Titans- The Complete Fifth Season offers thirteen crisp episodes of terrific, imaginative superhero adventure, and with a minimum of those cartoony excesses (eyes bugging, exclamation points appearing over characters' heads, etc.) that often got out of control in previous seasons. There's also a strong continuity between episodes, making the whole season come off as a kind of meaty novel covering a year in the life of Robin, Starfire, Beast Boy, Raven, and Cyborg.

Highlights include multiple confrontations with the Brotherhood of Evil (culminating in a great two-parter near the end of the season), a look at Beast Boy's pre-Titans career with the Doom Patrol (another cool group), and an episode showing how the Teen Titans (at least the cartoon version of them) got together in the first place. The season (and series, actually) concludes with a strikingly subtle and heartbreaking final episode starring Beast Boy, that demonstrates that not everything works out in the end, not even for colorful, upbeat heroes.

I enjoyed all five seasons of Teen Titans, which I've watched over the past year or two on DVD. All that's left is the extra-long, movie-style adventure, Teen Titans: Trouble in Tokyo. Once I'm done with that, it's going be a challenge finding another animated series at the same quality level to immerse myself in next.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Curl up with these


My friend Ray (who produces frequent and fascinating e-mails about movies new and old) just sent around a great holiday viewing suggestion, which I'm sure he wouldn't mind if I share with Kindle Taproom readers. The viewing times Ray mentions are all Eastern time, so adjust accordingly if necessary. You have the floor, Ray...

Here's a last minute "heads up" on a new documentary in the series Turner Classic Movies (TCM) is calling "A Night At The Movies". In the past this series has covered epics, westerns, horror, sci-fi, political films, etc., and this month the channel is introducing a new documentary on holiday films. Premiere showing is tonight (Tuesday) at 8:00 p.m., and it will include interviews with people like Chevy Chase, Karolyn Grimes (who played Zuzu in "It's a Wonderful Life") and Margaret O'Brien, who is still alive!

It will be followed at 9:00 p.m. with a showing of Bob Clark's holiday classic "A Christmas Story", starring Darren McGavin, Melinda Dillon, Peter Billingsly, and the famous Red Rider BB Gun!. One of the stations (TBS, I think) always shows the film for the 24 hours of Christmas day, but always drags each showing out to over two hours with tons of commercials. Here's a chance to see the un-cut, uninterrupted, widescreen version, thanks to TCM.

The documentary will also be repeated several times over the course of the month.

Ho Ho Ho


Thank you, Ray! I'm ready to make the hot chocolate now!

Monday, December 5, 2011

Good question

Recently spotted on a bumper sticker:

How can a cemetery raise its burial costs and blame it on the cost of living?

Friday, December 2, 2011

Love in Italy


A recent discovery, I enjoyed Billy Wilder's 1972 film, Avanti!, a lot. It combines the look and feel of a lush romantic drama of the 50's and 60's with modern, less judgemental sensibilities about sex and relationships. It's also pretty frank in its depiction of adult behavior and the male and female form, but- again- it's all done with the kind of sweetness and kindness prevalent in earlier films covering similar romantic subject matter. Not that there isn't some biting wit throughout.

Avanti! is really quite unique in that regard: You get an old-style lush Technicolor romance laced with gorgeous Italian scenery and light comedy, but without the silly production code elements that prevented the depiction of true romantic heat and adult affection; or, looked at another way, you get a frank 70's romantic drama, which matter of factly depicts nudity, sex, and other adult behavior in a non-judgemental manner (trusting audience members to make their own judgements if they care to), but one that refuses to wallow in the cynicism, coldness, and generally dismissive attitude toward traditional romance that many 70's movies embraced.

Put more concisely, you get an old-movie flavor with newer-movie sensibilities, with the negative baggage of each left behind. And it's all done in the service of two great comedic performances by Jack Lemmon and Juliet Mills; a number of cute and funny subplots set in the Italian hotel where the two leads are staying (involving several entertaining supporting characters, especially the "man to see about anything" hotel manager played by Clive Revill); and even a good dose of romantic suspense (we genuinely care how things will turn out for the two lovers).

If, like me, you enjoy discovering terrific movies that had somehow gotten by you over the years, you're in for a treat if Avanti! crosses your path.

Avanti! is available on DVD and various streaming services.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Out of her element


In H Is For Homicide, the 8th entry in Sue Grafton's Kinsey Millhone/Alphabet mystery series, the author shelves her usual "Kinsey working for a client" scenario and instead presents plot elements that result in Kinsey going undercover, posing as a member of a crime ring specializing in car insurance scams.

The result is a tense, gritty, urban story that disconcerts the reader as well as Kinsey, as both are left wthout the comfort of Kinsey's usual supporting cast (the series' regular faces and trappings are seen only briefly at the beginning and end of the book). But, with its fresh scenarios and different types of plot turns, it's an invigorating kind of disconcerting, at least for one installment in a series that we suspect will return comfortably back to normal next time.

Highlights include watching Kinsey look, act, and dress like a criminal, while trying to avoid actually doing anything criminal (at least anything seriously bad); and watching Kinsey develop a genuine friendship with one of the female scammers, Bibianna Diaz, whose life can possibly be salvaged, if Kinsey can get her away from her psychotic boyfriend and crime-ring leader, Raymond. Oh, there's also a big, growly dog, and we know what Kinsey thinks of dogs. But she deals with him in funny, unusual ways. Eventually touching, too.

Oh, no sooner do things pretty much settle back to normal at the end, than Kinsey and her loyal readers are hit with another disconcerting plot turn: a bombshell & cliffhanger (delivered in the last line of the book, no less) that will stir things up in the next installment, too, but probably only a little, thankfully.

After all, followers of well-liked mystery series like this one actually do want a little cozy predictability along with the thrills and surprises. Anyway, I anxiously look forward to Ms. Grafton's next Kinsey Millhone adventure to see how those various elements are stirred into the batter.

H Is For Homicide is available for $7.99 on Kindle.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Let's ruminate


Here are a few ponderables and general observations you may find interesting, courtesy of Aaron Karo's clever website, Ruminations.com...

You know you're getting old when you look outside, notice it's raining, and your first thought is, "That'll do the lawn some good."

My grandmother just asked me if you can send e-mail on Sundays.

I wish women came equipped with progress bars so I could see how close I am to scoring.

If that Harry Potter theme park doesn't have a souvenir shop called VoldeMart, that's just a crying shame.

Why has America dumbed down? Because smart people wear condoms.

Some people would consider me broke. I like to think of myself as immune to market fluctuations.

Kids today will never understand the precise skill it took to skip or rewind a song and stop right at the perfect spot on a cassette tape.

Wheaties: the breakfast of champions and the dinner of the unemployed.

When my toast gets stuck, I imagine I'm playing Operation.

Receipts are just short stories about how stupid you are with money.

Love conquers all?


The enjoyable, moving The Descendents (written and directed by Alexander Payne, based on the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings) smartly depicts how a major development in a family- in this case, a tragedy- immediately steamrolls and negates all petty drama and grievances, and quite efficiently illuminates everyone's true colors and true feelings.

George Clooney is terrific as Matt King, a marginal parent who all of a sudden is thrust into the role of central parent and responsibility bearer when a boating accident puts his wife Elizabeth into a coma. Things become more complicated when it becomes clear that Elizabeth isn't going to wake up, and that her legal wishes indicate that she doesn't want to be kept alive via artificial means if a situation like her current one ever arose.

Despite the subject matter, the film isn't relentlessly sad. It's nice to see the strong bond that immediately develops between Matt and his oldest daughter Alexandra (beautifully played by Shailene Woodley), who tosses aside the usual teen issues that drove a wedge between her and her parents in recent years, and starts helping her dad put her mother's affairs in order and prepare for her funeral.

And when I use the word "affairs" above, I don't just mean finances and legal stuff. Matt soon learns from his daughter that he wasn't the only imperfect spouse in their family, though he is shocked to learn exactly what his wife was up to during her last months.

With the help of his family, and one or two hangers-on, Matt puts things to rest during the course of the movie, resulting in situations that are funny, sad, moving, sometimes ridiculous, but always very human. It's interesting that Matt's forgiveness of his wife's infidelity comes fairly early on (though residual anger surfaces here and there), because there's work to be done. Despite what he's learned, he's determined to put his wife to rest with dignity and love, and to honor her memory properly with friends and family.

Filling out the movie are some beautiful locations in Hawaii, a quirky subplot involving Matt and Alexandra trying to locate Elizabeth's secret lover (despite their negative feelings about that part of her life, they want to give the guy the opportunity to properly say goodbye to her), and another subplot involving a major land deal being overseen my Matt, which ultimately ties into the movie's theme of identifying what's really important in life.

In the end, The Descendents is an involving family drama that honestly earns the emotions it brings forth. And, really, don't let the premise scare you off. You'll likely leave the film feeling upbeat and chatty, ready to discuss the film's humor and humanity.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Obligatory cat photo

I've said it before and I'll say it again: what good is a blog if you don't occasionally run a photo of a cute cat? So here's one for you. We took this little guy in on Monday, November 14, close to midnight.



What's his story, you ask? Through our front window, I first saw him wandering in front of a couple of stores across from our house earlier that night (about 8:00 p.m., if I remember), but didn't act because there were a few people out there and I figured he probably belonged to one of them. But then, near midnight, when I happened to look through the window again before going to bed, he was still there, this time alone, amusing himself by chasing pieces of paper that were blowing around.

To me, it was pretty obvious: as an older kitten, no longer tiny and cute (though he's still pretty cute, if you ask me), somebody or somebodies decided they didn't want him anymore and just dropped him in front of a strip mall, hoping (if they even thought about it that much) that someone would grab him up.

Anyway, long story short, within a few minutes he was safely in our house, eating away (we already have cats, so plenty of cat food was on hand), and shortly looked completely at ease. He's been here since, thanks to Alison not telling me to get rid of him when she saw him in our kitchen the morning after my late-night rescue. Even our other two cats kinda/sorta like him (well, at least one does).

Now, if only we can come up with a good name...

Here's the story...


After seeing news around the 'net (particularly at Amazon) that revealed the title and release date of the new Spenser novel, Lullaby, I immediately engaged in a little detective work to find an actual plot synopsis of the novel, which was written by mystery/thriller novelist Ace Atkins (pictured). In a brilliant piece of deductive reasoning based on obscure clues, I decided to, uh, check out Mr. Atkins' web site. And, sure enough, I saw that the writer had just posted a perfect little teaser (not too much info, nor too little) on what we can look forward to in May. Here's what Ace had to say:

"Lullaby" takes place the following spring after we last saw Spenser in "Sixkill". Spenser helps a tough 14-year-old girl from South Boston find justice for her mother, who was murdered four years ago. The girl, Mattie, believes the wrong man is doing life for the crime, because she saw two other toughs shove her mother in a car the night she died. Spenser finds those two toughs are connected to Gerry Broz, the screw-up son of infamous crime boss Joe Broz, a man who's been missing for more than a decade and on top of the FBI's most-wanted list.

Doesn't sound bad. I like the "familiar ground" aspects of the plot: Spenser taking on a loose-cannon gangster wannabe out to prove himself, and Spenser helping out a troubled kid. These tried and true, always fun to see Spenser elements will soothe and welcome readers, putting us at ease as we get used to a new writer's voice in this 40-book series, as well as make us more open to the new types of plot and character elements that Mr Atkins will almost undoubtedly also include.

So, yeah, bring on Lullaby!

Monday, November 28, 2011

New Spenser info!


The late and much missed Robert B. Parker's famous and beloved detective hero Spenser returns on May 1, 2012 in Lullaby, written by noted thriller/mystery novelist Ace Atkins. The new book's subtle and classy cover art accompanies this post.

I'll share basic plot information as I get it, but for now it's nice to know that we'll soon have Spenser back in our lives again. And I think Robert Parker would be glad to know that, too. During his lifetime, it pleased the author that his character was popular and loved, and now his creation will, one hopes, continue to be so in new adventures and cases.

Of course, on that last point, it'll help if Lullaby turns out to be a terrific, bang-up story worthy of the many great Spenser tales that preceded it. I just might have to check out an Ace Atkins title or two between now and May to give myself a bit of a glimpse of the kind of story that might be waiting for us this spring. But, for now, I have high hopes.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Enjoy the day

Kindle Taproom wishes all its readers a happy and healthy Thanksgiving, full of family, fun, and fantastic food!

Posting may be a little light during the next day or two as blogger Joe (me) enjoys the long weekend, but posts will resume in full force shortly. Until then, try to follow my example and enjoy a little relaxation and maybe hit a movie. I hear The Descendents is good.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Quarry stalks more prey


Sharp, fast, and fun, Quarry's Ex features Max Allan Collins' ex-hitman character- now a type of investigator, bodyguard, and counter hitman- this time hiring himself out to a low-budget film director targeted for termination by parties unknown. The director purchases Quarry's deluxe package, meaning our hero will eliminate the hitmen stalking the director AND identify and neutralize whoever hired them.

I use the term "hero" in a tongue-in-cheek manner. Though Quarry (aka "Jack", with no last name given to the reader) is not a hitman himself anymore, Collins doesn't set up bogus situations where 1) the only people Quarry now kills are murderous scum, or 2) Quarry is only killing in self defense (two of the scenarios embraced by lesser writers to make sure their "bad boy" characters don't appear too bad). Nope, while Quarry certainly doesn't kill Girl Scouts or little old ladies, some of the kills he performs in the service of his current assignments are a little wince-inducing (I'm thinking of a scene in the current book involving a car tire). And yet, he still remains likable. That's good writing.

The initial five or six Quarry books chronicle Quarry's, or "Jack's", career from its earliest days to its conclusion. The most recent entries, including this one, are basically untold stories that take place at various points during that career. This time out, as well as enjoying the story of the film director and whoever is stalking him, we also get to see Jack meet up with the wife (now "ex", hence the book's title) who had, at least in Jack's mind, a central role in his becoming a hitman in the first place way back when. In fact, maybe Quarry's ex-wife is somehow involved in the director's predicament, as she's now married to him.

Oh, and if you're curious how Quarry's hitman and counter-hitman career wound to a close, you'll have to read The Last Quarry, because I won't reveal things here. But feel free to read Quarry's Ex first. All the Quarry books, with their heady mix of mystery, action, sex, and violence, are self-contained gems that are guaranteed to happily take you away for a few hours.

Quarry's Ex is available on Kindle for $7.69.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Sigh, got a crime to solve...


Content to spend his life buying vintage tee shirts featuring classic rock bands and fishing on quiet lakes, Virgil Flowers is a smart crime solver despite his passive demeanor. When a series of bombings threatens to de-rail the construction of a Walmart-style big box store in a small community, Virgil's aw-shucks personality initially appears inadequate to the task of stopping the violence, but the town's residents soon learn better. That's the basic gist of John Sandford's Shock Wave, the latest in his Virgil Flowers thriller series.

This easygoing yet immersive crime story does a capable, entertaining job juggling, contrasting, and playing off one another its many flavors: the strong glue of Virgil's placid exterior; the intensity and focus he's more than able to dredge up when called for; the drama generated by the bombings themselves; and the diverse characters with their many concerns and motivations. Along the lines of that last point, Mr. Sandford also makes the most of the several quirky small-town personalities that pepper his story, and the attendant humor they generate.

This was my first Virgil Flowers novel, and I enjoyed it more than enough to want to catch up on the previous entrees in the series, as well as to keep an eye out for new installments. After all, I have to see if Virgil indeed gets a new boat (as the Governor helped arrange), after the bomber in Shock Wave blew up his old one, much to Virgil's disappointment.

Shock Wave is available on Kindle for $14.99... and possibly for free with the Kindle's new borrow from your local library feature!

I'll just say this...


And now, on this not-so-glorious Monday, are some glorious insults from an era (several actually) when the artfully barbed witticism was routinely preferred over the current practice of simply yelling a bunch of four-letter words.

"He uses statistics as a drunken man uses lamp posts: for support rather than illumination"

Andrew Lang

* * *

A member of Parliament to Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli: "Sir, you will either die on the gallows or from some unspeakable disease!"

Disraeli, in response: "That depends, Sir, on whether I embrace your policies or your mistress."

* * *

"He has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary."

William Faulkner

* * *

"He has all the virtues I dislike and none of the vices I admire."

Winston Churchill

* * *

I didn't attend the funeral, but I sent a nice letter saying I approved of it."

Mark Twain

* * *

"He has no enemies, but is intensely disliked by his friends."

Oscar Wilde

* * *

"I am enclosing two tickets to the first night of my new play. Bring a friend, if you have one."

George Bernard Shaw to Winston Churchill

"Cannot possibly attend first night, will attend second... if there is one."

Winston Churchill, in response

* * *

"I feel so miserable without you, it's almost like having you here."

Stephen Bishop

* * *

He has Van Gogh's ear for music."

Billy Wilder

* * *

"His mother should have thrown him away and kept the stork."

Mae West

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Growing Up


Via Netflix and our cable system's "On Demand" service, we caught a couple of very funny yet smartly character-driven movies during the past week or so. Both were nicely written ensemble pieces that in some way touched on young couples dealing with the responsibilities of marriage and adulthood while still within shouting distance of their formerly carefree, irresponsible and open-minded college days.

In Away We Go, young couple Burt and Verona, played by John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph, travel around the U.S. and Canada trying to pick a place to raise their soon-to-arrive first child. As Burt and Verona visit friends and relatives all around the continent, trying to decide which family they want to live near (they're really trying to pick out who their emotional support system will be in the immediate years to come), they see eye-opening and often hilarious examples of how exactly they don't want to raise their own children. Sam Mendes directs a strong script by Dave Eggars and Vendela Vida.

In the low-budget but capably filmed Humpday (written and directed by Lynn Shelton) young marrieds Ben and Anna (Mark Duplass and Alycia Delmore) are thrown for a loop when Ben's old college buddy Andrew (Joshua Leonard) drops into their lives, still very much living the whatever-goes slacker life from the two buddies' school days. Don't get too distracted by the intentionally over-the-top central plotline involving Andrew and Ben's harebrained idea to shoot a very unusual erotic art film for a local film festival, and just enjoy all the great conversations (in turns sharp, funny, and heartbreaking) between Ben, Anna, and Andrew about responsibility, compromise, dreams, and life in general.

Away We Go and Humpday (both originally released in 2009) will provide strong doses of smarts and laughs when you're in the mood for an enjoyable evening of home viewing. Check 'em out.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

New Spenser!


Well, no, not exactly (sorry, Bish). But it is a new book about Spenser, the late Robert B. Parker's most famous detective hero. Edited by frequent mystery anthology editor Otto Penzler (who also runs the incredible Mysterious Bookshop in New York City), In Pursuit of Spenser: Mystery Writers on Robert B. Parker and the creation of an American Hero will be out on April 3, 2012.

Contributors to the book include Ace Atkins, Lawrence Block, Max Allan Collins, Matthew Clemens, Loren D. Estleman, Dennis Lehane, S.J. Rozan, and other notable mystery writers. Ace Atkins, of course, is the writer who's been selected by the Parker estate to continue Spenser's adventures.

It'll be interesting to see what Max Allan Collins has to say about Spenser, as his past observations about Robert B. Parker's writing pretty clearly indicates that he isn't much of a fan, except in a kind of "rising tides lift all boats" kind of way. Specifically, Collins has always acknowledged that Parker did a lot to popularize detective fiction with the public at large, which helped all mystery writers. Maybe his essay is an amplification of that idea.

Anyway, In Pursuit of Spenser sounds like an interesting book, and I'll look forward to getting it in April. A Kindle version hasn't yet been announced, but I bet that will soon change.

Oh, and if I remember correctly, Ace Atkins' first Spenser book should be out in May or June, just shortly after this book. So, this spring will weirdly feature two Robert B. Parker-centric releases that aren't actually by Robert B. Parker.

But, as they say, let's just take what we can get, right?

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Welcome, Mr. Bond...

Attention, James Bond fans... Though we knew it was in the works, it was nevertheless exciting to hear, via a news conference earlier today in London, that the 23rd James Bond film is about to go into production!

Entitled SKYFALL, the film will star Daniel Craig as James Bond (returning for his third appearance as the suave secret agent), and will be directed by Academy Award winning director Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Road to Perdition). The movie will be released in the United Kingdom and Ireland on October 26, 2012 and in North America on November 9, 2012.



Pictured above during today's news conference is Javier Bardem, Naomie Harris, Judi Dench, Daniel Craig, and Sam Mendes. Mr. Bardem will be a primary villain in the film, Ms. Harris will play a "field agent", and Judi Dench will return as "M". Ralph Fiennes and Albert Finney were also announced as participants in the film, though they didn't appear at the news conference. Wow, some cast, huh?

A tantalizing plot description was also communicated to the media at the event: In SKYFALL, Bond's loyalty to M is tested as her past comes back to haunt her. As MI6 comes under attack, 007 must track down and destroy the threat, no matter how personal the cost.

Sounds intriguing... next November should be a lot of fun!

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Scary humor


As a final farewell to Halloween, let's take a look at the top ten reasons that trick or treating is better than sex...

10) You are guaranteed to get at least a little something in the sack.

9) If you get tired, you can just wait ten minutes and go at it again.

8) The uglier you are, the easier it is to get some.

7) You don't have to compliment the person who gives you some.

6) It's okay when the person you're with fantasizes that you're someone else, because you are.

5) Twenty years from now, you'll still enjoy candy.

4) If you don't like what you get, you can always go next door.

3) It doesn't matter if the kids hear you moaning and groaning.

2) There's less guilt the morning after.

And the number one reason why trick or treating is better than sex...

1) You can do the whole neighborhood!

Hot stuff


Hot Pursuit is a sharp, entertaining police thriller, nicely mixing grittily realistic police activities with well-staged, larger-than-life set pieces that you might see in a James Bond, Die Hard, or Jerry Bruckheimer production. Holding it all together is a collection of well-drawn characters whose fates we come to care about.

The book, previously unavailable for many years, abounds with small touches, grace notes, and descriptive flourishes that place it several cuts above the many back list, formally unpublished, and direct-to Kindle titles that now flood the Kindle store. A favorite scene shows rookie cop Tina Tamiko, shotgun in hand, forcing herself into the car that her partner, veteran cop Jack Calico, is using for his illegal (and heavily wagered on) run to Las Vegas and back. A lesser writer would have wasted fifty pages having Calico being mad at Tamiko for shoehorning herself into his last-day-on-the-job adventure, before predictably having them make up. Paul Bishop totally avoids this, having them yell at each other for a page or two to deflate their tempers, then happily embrace one another's enthusiasm for the run.

Bishop's range is also impressive. He'll totally sell a frat house-style prank involving a tipped-over portable toilet in one scene, then totally engross us in an intensely serious conversation where two cops discuss their true feelings about the general public in another. And he makes diverse scenes like these comfortably coexist with each other, creating a coherent whole.

Pacing, plotting, and the unfolding of scenes are all top-notch (making me think the author wouldn't make a bad director), but for me the characters really make the book shine. While there are definitely heroes and villains in the story, the good guys have flaws, fears, and some unlikable qualities, and the bad guys have style, wit, and/or understandable motivations. There are no cartoon characters in Hot Pursuit. Which isn't to say that there aren't some very, very funny scenes (the toilet scene was only one of many).

Set in the late 1970's, and apparently written by Mr. Bishop around that time, too, Hot Pursuit still feels fresh, fun, and alive, and not dated in the least. If you like the rich characterizations of classic police shows like Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue, combined with a big-budget movie feel, you can't go wrong with the book.

People often complain that the new e-book market allows too many shoddy, amateurish titles to reach the reading public. I'm not sure if that's true or not, as I've read my share of traditionally published books that proved unimpressive over the years, long before e-books came along. But even if there is some truth to that way of thinking, if the new world of e-books gets titles like Hot Pursuit back in circulation for readers to enjoy, I'll happily wade through all the lesser e-books out there to find them.

Hot Pursuit is available on Kindle for $2.99.

Friday, October 28, 2011

G is for good reading


I've been devouring Sue Grafton's Kinsey Millhone "alphabet" mysteries in order since the beginning of this year, and at this point don't feel the need to recount the plots in detail when banging out these reviews, preferring instead to just check in with a quick plot description and some quick thoughts about a particular installment's quality. Why take up your time with a long review when it's the actual book you rather be reading, right?

Anyway, G Is For Gumshoe features a convoluted family drama plot, rich with gothic trappings (including a horrible storm with lots of lightning!), interlaced with a fast-moving action plot featuring a hitman out to get Kinsey in retaliation for her role in putting a creepy guy behind bars years earlier. Much of the gothic family drama features scenes (including the storm) set decades in the past, as Kinsey speculates how various dark happenings back then are now affecting her present client and her relationship with her mother. The hitman-chasing-Kinsey storyline involves many close calls, as well as an eventual romance when Kinsey and her hired bodyguard fall into each other's arms.

I found the gothic plot a little slow, but that's just me, not due to any perceived weakness in the narrative. Fans of Wuthering Heights-style intrigue will like it just fine. I was much more entertained by the hitman plotline, though some may find it slick and too action heavy. Rounding things out is the usual craziness surrounding Kinsey's cast of regulars, this time centering on Kinsey's friend Vera and a fix-up she arranges for Kinsey.

With a variety of interesting things going on in the book, this was another solid entry in a so-far very solid series. Kinsey and her adventures continue to be smart, entertaining diversions.

G Is For Gumshoe is available on Kindle for $7.99.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Actual ghost photo?

Last weekend, Alison and I headed out to a favorite spot for day trips and quick overnighters: the quaint town of Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania, located about an hour and a half outside our home in the Philadelphia suburbs. As longtime readers are aware, I've written about the place before.

Anyway, it being fall and close to Halloween, there was a cool outdoor festival going on, with pumpkins all over the place, other fall-themed decorations, and lots of Halloween stuff for sale. There were also a number of Halloween-themed activities going on, including one of those walking tours of supposed haunted houses, and a ghost tour of the local historic prison, which was in operation from 1870 to 1996.

Well, after a nice dinner, we decided to get in the spirit of Halloween and sign up for the ghost tour of the prison. The prison's claim to fame is that, in its early days, it imprisoned many members of the Molly Maguires, a secret society of Irish miners who worked the Pennsylvania coal mines of Lehigh and Carbon Counties. Depending on what historical account you read, the Molly Maguires were either rabble-rousing thugs who engaged in kidnapping and murder, or innocent miners who were framed for crimes by the rich mine owners when they protested too vigorously for better wages and working conditions, and- even worse- tried to form a labor union. No matter which story is true, one thing is certain: many of the Molly Maguires were eventually tried, convicted, and hanged, with several of them being executed right there in the prison at Jim Thorpe.

Of course, the guides for the ghost tour made good use of the Molly Maquires during their narration, telling us how their restless ghosts still wandered the prison, lamenting their unjust deaths at the hands of their rich, corrupt employers. We were told to take a photo of a particular second-floor jail cell, because "a ghostly image often shows up on digital camera images, hovering near the cell door". Below is my murky photo of that cell door, shot looking up from the first floor of the prison. The gallows structure employed for the executions is visible on the right. Anyway, I don't see a ghostly image in the photo. Do you?



However, when grabbing a drink with my wife after the tour was over, I idly scrolled through the several other camera phone pictures I had taken during the tour, and stopped at the very first picture I took at the prison that evening. It's another murky photo, I'm afraid, but viewable, showing the prison's entrance as we stood outside waiting for our group's turn to enter. The bottom of the photo shows the heads of the people in line in front of us, facing the stone and brick archlike entrance that beckoned everyone inside. But when I looked above the heads in the photo, something caught my attention: the sight of something else perhaps beckoning everyone inside?

Specifically, is it just me, or does there seem to be the upper body of a figure hovering between the two strings of dangling lights, arms spread, looking down at everyone? The figure even seems to be wearing old-style suspenders, like a miner would, though that last descriptive flourish is probably attributable to two of the many outward-facing ridges spaced a foot or so apart in the stone surrounding the opening. But the head, shoulders, arms, and chest of the figure seem to be just, well... there, above the doorway. Anyway, here's the photo, so you can take a look for yourself:



Okay, enough creepy Halloween stuff. I make no claims about the photo. I'm sure it's just a trick of the light and shadows, coincidentally creating the rough shape of a male figure seemingly hovering over the prison door. But I did think it would be fun to show it to you. Ghostly images in photographs capture our imagination, even though none of us believe they're actually real. Right?

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Coming of the Bat


Batman Year One is a terrific animated adaptation of the classic four-part story (long since collected into the graphic novel format) that originally appeared in the Batman comic book in the late 80's. The major players include Lieutenant Jim Gordon (long before his "Commissioner Gordon" days), Selina Kyle (aka Catwoman), and many corrupt politicians and police officials. Believe me, you won't miss the absence of a colorful, larger-than-life villain like the Joker in this urban, grimy, immersive story set in the streets of Gotham.

What's so innovative about Year One, both the comic and the DVD? Though Batman's origin story had been re-told many times prior to the Year One comic books, an extended look at the trials and tribulations of the Caped Crusader's early days was never before attempted. With Year One, we now got to see Bruce Wayne's false starts, failures, eventual refinement of techniques, etc., on the road to his becoming the costumed crime fighter revered by Gotham City's citizens and intensely feared by its criminal element.

That engaging premise, and the great storytelling that fulfilled its potential, made for great comics reading, and now, with this animated adaptation, great home viewing. Just be warned, like the original comic book story, this animated film is dark, gritty, and laced with adult themes and language. This particular Batman story isn't for the kids.

The two-disc version of Batman Year One contains a fair amount of material. On disc one you get the main feature (about 65 minutes long), a few previews of other DC Comics animated projects (films, TV shows, video games, etc.), and an action-oriented, pretty decent (but again, very adult) 15-minute film starring Catwoman.

The second disc contains an engaging documentary (23 minutes long) about the genesis of both the Batman Year One comic book and, many years later, the animated film, with a major emphasis on the whole movement, beginning in the 1970's, to "serious up" Batman after years of goofy comics and the campy Batman TV series starring Adam West. Disc two also contains a couple of bonus Batman cartoons (about 20 minutes each) from the 90's, which were fun to see.

If you've been enjoying the various direct-to-DVD animated films based on DC's comic book heroes and famous storylines, or are just someone who enjoys gritty heroic adventure stories, I can't imagine not liking Batman Year One. It's one of the better presentations from a string of DVDs that's pretty solid to begin with.

And if you don't need all the bells and whistles, just get the less expensive single-disc version. In the end, it's the movie that's the important thing. And this is definitely a movie that's worth your time.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Meanderings

Some stuff I've been doing and thinking about...

Though I'm now taking a short break from it it, I'm two books into Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games trilogy, a dark take on future American society. The first book in the trilogy, The Hunger Games, is now being made into a movie, which comes out in March. I'm enjoying the series, which is pretty gritty and adult for something officially classified as for young adults, and look forward to seeing how it all turns out.

The new FX television series, American Horror Story, continues to fascinate. It's sort of a cross between the old David Lynch series Twin Peaks and The Shining (both the Stephen King novel and the Stanley Kubrick film). So far I've watched the first two episodes via my cable system's On Demand function, and I plan to watch the third episode tonight or tomorrow. Tune in if you're in the mood for some scary, kinky fun.

I enjoyed the second episode of AMC's The Walking Dead a little more than the first (itself not bad), probably due to the tighter storytelling of the season's first regular-length episode. I still kind of miss the muted colors and slightly grainy photography of the season-one episodes, but I'm getting used to the nicer sets, richer colors and more artful lighting of season two. I guess they're trying to contrast the look of the show with its subject matter. Maybe zombies are scarier if they're shown against the backdrop of a well-lit, pretty farmhouse with a burnished orange sunset behind it. I'm open to the idea.

I'm sure I'll be writing more about the preceding topics, so stop back if you're interested in any of this.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Things change


If you want to see a decent horror film now that we're in the midst of the Halloween season, you can do worse than The Thing, which we caught last weekend. A prequel to the 1982 horror classic directed by John Carpenter and starring Kurt Russell, this new film has neither the sharp direction and distinctive characters of the Carpenter film, but it's pretty good in its own right. It's got a few decent scares, a little cleverness, one or two impressive set pieces, and a nice central performance by Mary Elizabeth Winstead as the lone American scientist helping a Norwegian research team in Antarctica investigate a very strange discovery buried in the ice.

The Thing didn't exactly set the world on fire at the box office last weekend, so you better catch it fast if you want to see it in theaters. As I said, it's not spectacular, but it's sufficiently creepy and scary if you're at all in the mood for that sort of thing. And, best of all, the main characters aren't spoiled rich kids living in Beverly Hills.

If you never saw the 1982 version of The Thing, you can have a little fun by seeing this new film first and then going home and watching the '82 movie. The new film ( a prequel, remember) flows smoothly into the events of the Carpenter/Russell film. An added bonus is that the quality of the story and direction will shoot up significantly as you move into the second story!

Monday, October 17, 2011

The dead return


AMC's The Walking Dead returned last night with an extra-long season premiere. I enjoyed it, but I have to say it was the first episode of the hit horror series that was merely good in my eyes, not very good or excellent. While certainly peppered with a few great moments, overall I found it, well... a little draggy.

It's funny. Most of the recent internet chatter about the show expressed concern that AMC's reported budget cuts for this season might adversely affect the show's quality. But to me, last night's episode alomost appeared too lavish and rich, with too many lingering shots showing off the well-dressed sets and nicely-framed compositions. Where was that lean, mean look from last season, when it almost seemed like the camera people and other crewmembers were afraid of the zombies, too, and quickly shot their scenes and got the Hell out of there?

Also, there was a bit too much of a self-congratulatory air to the whole affair, with characters rehashing the great moments from season one rather than creating new great moments here in season two. Some of that type of thing is inevitable in an ongoing drama, of course, but it kept feeling like last night's show wanted to be an epilogue or postscript to last season rather than a bang-up start to this season.

Still, only one episode into season two, I don't want to overstate my criticisms. Last night's season premiere was still a good, watchable, occasionally scary episode that will have me in front of the set again next week. I just hope that, with episode two, we get back to the full-on lean, mean, in-your-face terror that spoiled us back in season one.

If they do that, they can even throw in the occasional artsy shot of sun-dappled trees, or an over-decorated set or two. I won't mind.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Marilyn forever


Bye Bye, Baby features an embarrassment of riches in the subject matter department: Frank Sinatra, the Kennedys, Hugh Hefner, the mob, Cuba, the swinging 60’s, the movie business, and, most of all, the dazzling Marilyn Monroe. One almost suspects that the rich subject matter alone would make for a halfway decent book, regardless of the skill of the author. But thankfully that supposition isn’t put to the test here, as the author in question is the battle-tested Max Allan Collins, an established master of the “novel based on actual events” genre.

As far as its ability to capture the imagination, one can’t complain about the case the writer chooses to examine this time out. Interacting with a variety of show business, political, business, and criminal figures of the early 1960’s, Collins’ fictional private detective Nate Heller gradually puts the pieces together in his quest to unearth what really happened to his friend and occasional lover Marilyn Monroe in August of 1962. Heller’s investigation, which mirrors actual investigations of the time and during the years following the star’s death, ultimately results in a credible, believable solution to what most people to this day consider a shrouded mystery that has little to do with the official findings.

Of course, when I credit Heller, I’m really crediting author Collins for delivering the immersive, fascinating, and entertaining investigation that comprises the bulk of Bye Bye, Baby. As he does in the previous Heller books, all of which involve real-life cases with lingering questions, Collins performs a skillful balancing act here: letting research and historical details have more attention and breathing room than they do in his other, more fast-paced thrillers, but never to the point where boredom or fatigue sets in. On the contrary, the generous details are wonderful and often fun.

A prime example: an extended scene describing a party at the Playboy Mansion in its 60’s heyday is not strictly needed, at least not at its presented length, to relate needed information and propel the narrative. But you’ll be glad to read every word of this little trip back in time to when Hugh Hefner and Playboy Magazine were truly cultural forces, not the quaint recollections of mild naughtiness they’re painted as today. It’s a great scene.

The book actually has two flavors, both successful but distinct. The early going feels more novelistic and artful, as it relies more on Collins’ imagination, not an accumulation of researched facts. That’s because this section of the book largely deals with Nate Heller’s friendship with Marilyn Monroe, an entirely fictional relationship. Research still plays a part here, as the friendship- playful, sweet, often sexual- allows Collins to reconcile the various, often contradictory accounts of Marilyn Monroe’s personality and create a living, breathing person. But ultimately, this part of the book is fantasy (well, a fantasy for male readers, at least) as Collins, through Heller, lets us imagine what it might have been like for a regular person (like all of us!) to fall into the sphere of the reigning sex symbol of the 1950’s and 60’s.

The more imagination-driven first part of the book also performs another important function: it gets both Nate Heller and the reader sufficiently taken with the brilliant, troubled star, so that when she is eventually found dead in her bed from a drug overdose, both detective and reader want to get to the bottom of it.

The death of Marilyn Monroe immediately shifts the tone of the book, and Collins has to quickly add traffic cop to his artistic and literary functions. That’s because his impressive level of research is now addressed in a fast and furious manner, and known facts have to be channeled, aligned, prioritized, temporarily sidelined until they’re ready to be fully addressed, and organized in all manner of other ways. Collins does a great job here, managing and presenting the facts he needs to relate to build his case, but never letting them overwhelm us.

And the author does all that while never forgetting to tell an entertaining story populated by entertaining characters. It’s really quite a feat. Reconciling all the facts and personalities in play to come up with a believable hypothesis about what really happened to Marilyn Monroe was, I’m sure, an academic, intellectual exercise in many ways. But it feels like anything but that. The last half of the book is energetic, adrenaline-inducing, exciting. And, demonstrating that it also has something in common with the first half of the book, it really captures the imagination.

Pulling back and looking at Bye Bye, Baby as a whole, one sees an accomplished work with a complex agenda: it wants to entertain, inform, educate, and intelligently speculate, usually simultaneously. That it does all these things with flying colors makes it more than capably deliver the final item on its agenda: being a cracking good read.

Bye Bye, Baby is available on Kindle for $11.99.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Coming soon


Here's a little movie news for you good people. We all enjoy movies, don't we?

1999's Star Wars, Episode I: The Phantom Menace will be re-released in theaters, remastered in 3D, on February 10, 2012.

Thor 2 will hit theaters on November 15, 2013, helmed by Patty Jenkins, who directed Charlize Theron to a Best Actress Oscar in the film Monster.

The Lone Ranger, previously sidelined due to budget issues, is back on track and will reach your local cinema on May 31, 2013. Johnny Depp stars (as Tonto!) and Gore Verbinski directs.

February 14, 2013 will be A Good Day to Die Hard, as the fifth installment in the Die Hard series reaches theaters.

The tough yet elegant Javier Bardem (who played the creepy killer in No Country For Old Men) will appear as the main villain in the new James Bond film (title not yet released), which you can see on November 9, 2012.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Making the rounds

The long Columbus Day weekend featured a few nice experiences, both at local restaurants and via a couple of pleasant jaunts outside the immediate region. Thankfully, these quality experiences helped prevent the devastating Philadelphia Phillies playoff loss on Friday and the Philadelphia Eagles horrible defeat on Sunday from totally ruining the weekend.

The first photograph depicts the beer sampler my wife Alison ordered at Stoudt's Brewery in Adamstown, Pennsylvania on Saturday, October 8. Despite all the beers made on the premises, I opted for a glass of wine, a terrific Malbec. A delicious cheese plate (cheeses also made on the premises) preceded the drinks, and a shared Black Angus burger, also delicious, followed. It was a nice cap to a nice day trip to Berks County.

By the way, the individual beer glasses were indeed sample sized, a good bit smaller than they appear to be in the picture. Even with me helping her a little, Alison couldn't drink four regular-sized beers at one sitting.



Sunday, October 9, featured another day trip, this time to our regular stomping ground of Ocean City, New Jersey. The photo below shows the amazingly crowded (for October) boardwalk, as high temperatures brought out large volumes of people who had the same idea we did, namely "It's really nice out, so let's hit the shore for a few hours!" West Coast readers of Kindle Taproom might yawn over summer-like October weather, but we don't take it for granted here in the east.



On the way home from the shore on Sunday, we stopped at a familiar destination for us, Circle Liquors in Somers Point, New Jersey. We wanted to see if there were any deals at the popular retailer that's smartly stationed just outside the "dry" town of Ocean City (there are no bars, liquor stores, restaurants with liquor licenses, etc. in Ocean City). While many people stop off at Circle Liquors on the way into Ocean City (presumably to stock the refrigerators and shelves of their Ocean City vacation rental units with the adult beverages they can't buy once they're in the resort), we often stop there on the way back home, just to check out the specials.

The photograph below shows the establishment's ample selection of Van Gogh Vodka, encompassing the many, many flavors the brand offers. Alison picked out a bottle of Van Gogh's caramel flavored vodka. A little sweet for my taste (though I might have a small sip at some point), I just bought a bottle of an old reliable: Clos Du Bois Chardonnay. Both deals were good.



Oh, you want my usual literary connection to all this fun? Well, during the course of the weekend, Alison continued listening to Sue Grafton's I is for Innocent on her MP3 player, and I finished up, also on audio, Max Allan Collins' Marilyn Monroe mystery Bye Bye Baby (terrific book, review to follow). I also continued reading, on my Kindle, Paul Bishop's police thriller Hot Pursuit (also pretty great so far, review also to follow when I'm finished it).

But now, sigh, I'm back in the office. But that's okay. Work funds that meaningful part of life known as leisure time, which includes the activities described above and diversions like this blog!

Friday, October 7, 2011

Just because

Below is a photograph of my wife Alison, taken last Saturday evening, October 1, during yet another autumn jaunt to the New Jersey seashore. I'm not including the photo for any special reason, only because I like it. The ocean is about a block and a half away in the background, by the way.


Okay, I'll give you some kind of book connection. Like me, Alison is now working her way through all the Kinsey Millhone alphabet mysteries by Sue Grafton (A is for Alibi, B is for Burglar, and so on). We're listening to them on unabridged audio, read by the terrific Mary Peiffer.

Alison also wants a Kindle Fire, when the device becomes available in November. Sounds good to me. In fact, our plan is for our household iPad to continue being mainly my device (Alison does most of her web surfing, e-mail, etc. on our living room computer) and the Kindle Fire to mainly be her device, with occasional sharing and switching back and forth as needed.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

The blues will get you...


Michael Brandman's Killing the Blues, the first Jesse Stone adventure not written by the late Robert B. Parker, is an enjoyable police thriller only slightly roughed up by a few questionable choices.

The main plotlines are just fine. In the central storyline, Jesse is stalked by a deranged criminal seeking revenge for the excessive police brutality inflicted on him back when Jesse was an out-of-control alcoholic in Los Angeles. I liked this plotline, as it took the history firmly established by Robert Parker- that Jesse was a mess back in the old days, prior to his arrival in Paradise, Massachusetts- and extrapolated a new consequence for Jesse to confront as a result of that time.

Another plotline has Jesse helping out a troubled student who threatened her school principal with a gun. Looking past the episode and trying to discover the reasons behind it, Jesse soon uncovers a messy situation involving many students and the dark secret making them act out in inappropriate, damaging ways. This was more of a direct imitation of the kind of plotline Robert Parker did many times before (his characters helping troubled youth was always a favored Parker theme), but it was handled well, with Jesse behaving just as readers want him to in such a situation.

The final main plotline features Jesse playing hardball with a crime boss who is setting up a car theft ring in Paradise. When a civilian is killed during the course of one of the car thefts, Jesse puts the law aside and does what needs to be done to shut down both the operation and the crime boss, with unambiguous finality.

Some will probably describe this last plotline as going too far, in that it paints Jesse as a vigilante just as brutal as the criminal he is chasing. But it always seemed to me that, in every five or six entries of all his series, Robert Parker demonstrated that his characters were willing to administer their own justice when- in their view- the law just wouldn't suffice. Heck, I'm still reeling from the scene in A Catskill Eagle (about 20 Spenser adventures ago!) when Spenser and Hawk execute (yes, as in “kill”) a couple of unarmed, defenseless pimps because of Spenser and Hawk’s (probably correct) prediction that the pimps would have ultimately murdered the prostitutes in their employ for helping our heroes with their case. So, tough and gritty as it is, I had no problem with this particular storyline in the new Jesse Stone book. Guiltily enjoyed it, in fact.

My problems with Killing the Blues? There aren’t many, but they're worth noting. And they're all tied into the unfortunate decision to make the Jesse Stone books now fall more into line with the occasional Jesse Stone television movies starring Tom Selleck.

Least harmful among the changes instituted here was having Jesse move into a cottage at the end of a footbridge, just like the one in the TV movies. Though annoying, this wasn’t a terrible move, though it minimized the important function Jesse’s comically under furnished condo (a framed action photograph of Jesse’s favorite baseball player was the only adornment) performed in the previous books: reminding us that Jesse’s job with the cops and his discomfort with the kind of cozy aloneness most other people often enjoy are both central motivators in his life.

The other changes are more problematic, as they all but negate the carefully-built continuity of the previous books. Two quick examples: Molly Crane, cop and administrative aide to Jesse, is now deliberately described and characterized in a bland way so readers can picture either the Molly of the previous books (an Irish Catholic with many children, who does her best to handle a libido-fueled independent streak) or the Molly of the TV movies (a likable but generally underused African American character who’s mainly there to annoy Jesse with her quips). I miss the distinctive Molly of the previous books.

Also brought in is the watered-down, TV-movie version of Hasty Hathaway, the town selectman who served as the villain- and a quite dark, dangerous one- in the first Jesse Stone novel, Night Passage. It would have been interesting to have that Hasty Hathaway return in Killing the Blues, but instead we get the one from TV, a Hasty Hathaway whose crimes weren’t all that serious and, after serving a little time in prison, now runs a used car dealership in Paradise.

I guess we’re supposed to edit our earlier memories of the Hasty Hathaway in the novels because it simply doesn’t make sense for the murderous, sociopathic Hasty Hathaway of the novel Night Passage to now be back in Paradise, haggling over the price of his used cars with Jesse. I guess we have to shrug and assume that both Jesse and the courts are more forgiving than we thought.

To conclude on an even-handed note, I do think that Michael Brandman did an overall nice job with the thankless task of continuing a well-liked print series established by a beloved author. I just hope he eases back on the “aligning the books and movies” thing, and lets the literary Jesse and the movie Jesse be their own distinct entities.

So, yes, I’ll hang around to see what Mr. Brandman does next with this character and series I’ve always enjoyed. Even though, ahem, the author makes one other alteration in the series that I’m pretty sure the dog-loving Robert Parker would grumble about: He gives Jesse a cat.

But I won’t complain, because the cat is very cute. Who says this longtime Parker fan isn’t flexible?

Killing the Blues is available on Kindle for $12.99.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Zippy


Amazon recently sent to me, as part of its "Amazon Vine" program, a bottle of free taco sauce. As with all Amazon Vine samples, all that was expected in return was a fair and honest review. Now, I know that a few paragraphs about taco sauce is probably a strange thing to include in this blog, but what the heck, right? The review has been written and filed at Amazon, so I might as well include it here, too, don't you think?

Who knows, my comments might even prompt you to buy and (one hopes) enjoy the stuff. Anyway, here it is...


Taco Bell's Bold & Creamy, Spicy Ranchero Sauce is really good, and I haven't even used it on a taco yet! It has just enough zip to give a little kick to your omelette, sandwich, or salad, but it's not so spicy that you'll have to warn family members who are averse to overly spicy foods.

I actually do make tacos at home sometimes, using those convenient taco kits available in the supermarket (there's even a kit made by Taco Bell), so I'm sure I'll try this sauce in conjunction with actual tacos at some point. But for now, this zippy, tasty, and nicely creamy sauce is regularly performing satisfying condiment duties in our kitchen.

So, yeah, stop making your mustard, mayo, ketchup, and boilerplate salad dressings do all the work. Your favorite foods, as well as your taste buds, will appreciate the flavorful zing of Taco Bell Bold & Creamy, Spicy Ranchero Sauce. I'm definitely going to buy more when my Amazon Vine sample runs out!

Well, I hope you enjoyed the review, or at least got through it without too much pain. Really, I actually did like the product.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Something for everyone


Well, my advance post of yesterday was accurate, but decidedly incomplete. Not only did Amazon announce earlier today an impressive new color Kindle, the Kindle Fire, to compete in the growing tablet computer market, but it's also offering three (count 'em, three) new e-ink Kindles, as well.

Also impressive, across the board, are the price points. The sharp new Kindle Fire will go for a mere $199, and the most economical of the new e-ink Kindles will sell for the bargain-basement price of $79.00. And most of the other Kindle models will be priced only a little higher than that, especially if you choose the ad-sponsored versions of each new Kindle.

Needless to say, I'll be writing more on today's announcement by Amazon, but for now do yourself a favor and acquaint yourself with these sharp new products by visiting Amazon's web site. The product descriptions and demo videos are already up and ready for you to absorb.

Amazon's new slew of Kindle products will go on sale in November, with the exception of the $79.00 Kindle, which is available immediately (and will cost a little more than $79.00 if you decline the "special offers" ad-sponsored version of the device).

Finally, the various versions of the Kindle 3 (until yesterday, the latest model Kindle, and the one I only got around to reviewing on this site a couple of weeks ago), is not being discontinued. Re-dubbed the Kindle Keyboard and the Kindle Keyboard 3G, these Kindles will still be available for those stubborn souls who still like a physical keyboard on their Kindles. Who says that Amazon isn't full service?

Pictured with this post is the new $199 Kindle Fire. Cute, huh?

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Heads up

Amazon will hold a press conference tomorrow (Wednesday, September 28), and rumor has it that the reason for the event will be to announce the coming of the Kindle Fire, the new backlit, color Kindle that will go on sale in November.

Like Barnes & Noble's color e-book reader, the Nook Color, the Kindle Fire will be able to perform a wide array of functions either not doable or easily performed by the regular e-ink Kindle, functions such as web surfing, playing videos, etc. Despite these added functions, however, the Kindle Fire will still be heavily oriented toward buying and reading e-books (again, like the Nook Color).

Also strongly suggested in the rumors is that the Kindle Fire will not replace the standard e-ink Kindle (the latest version of which is the popular Kindle 3), just be a new Kindle product offered to customers, specifically those customers who have been clamoring for a backlit, color e-book reader from Amazon.

Anyway, we'll know tomorrow how much of the above is correct. But for now, Kindle Taproom readers are at least aware of the buzz that's out there!