Summer's almost over... dive into a beer and a book

Summer's almost over... dive into a beer and a book

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.