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

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

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.