A penny saved is ridiculous.

A penny saved is ridiculous.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Auld Lang Syne

Before I go away for the long weekend, I just want to wish everyone a Happy New Year!  Enjoy your New Year's Eve and New Year's Day festivities, and- as the tired old joke goes- see you all here next year!

Meeting your fate

Fate of the Union, the second in Max Allan Collins' series of political thrillers (Supreme Justice was the first) featuring security consultant Joe Reeder and FBI agent Patti Rogers, was- no surprise- the usual, fast, fun Collins reading experience. Written with longtime assistant and occasional collaborator Matthew V. Clemens, this one involves a series of contract killing-style murders in the Washington, D.C. area, a terrorist plot employing a new super-weapon, and slowly emerging clues that the two things might be related.

As Patti Rogers, her FBI team, and Reeder (who is once again called in to help unravel the cases) look into things, there is a side plot about a possible third-party political candidate who is gaining traction with the masses. Is the folksy, plain-speaking billionaire, who has been successfully courting Americans tired of all the far-left and far-right rhetoric of the traditional parties' candidates, somehow connected to everything going on?  An assassination attempt during one of his speeches, thwarted by Reeder and Rogers, seems to point to that.

If I find Fate of the Union to be reliably entertaining but not top-tier Collins, it's only because of my personal taste: I often find thrillers driven by law-enforcement types (especially the Feds) and self-important politicians (even if they pretend to be modest) to be a bit ponderous.  Give me a flawed, semi-reformed hit man as a protagonist any day.  But, again, that's just me, not a flaw of this book.  The last FBI character I truly liked was Fox Mulder, because his bosses hid him in the basement and thought he was crazy.

Okay, maybe I do have one issue with this story: I would have liked more sleight of hand in the eventual revelation of the ultimate villain of the piece. Without saying too much, the person I thought was behind everything turned out to indeed be behind everything.  And I'm not particularly brilliant when it comes to unraveling whodunits.  I was a little disappointed when the rug wasn't pulled out from under me and a truly surprising culprit wasn't in the end revealed.  Also, the culprit's final fate was the kind of thing seen many times before in books and movies featuring this type of story.

But, really, those are quibbles.  I picked this book up, shot through it quickly, and was entertained.  So, yeah, give Fate of the Union a whirl if you enjoy political thrillers of this ilk.  But, even though (despite the  subjective views I outlined earlier) I do kind of like Joe Reeder and Patti Rogers, I think I'm ready for a adventure involving one of Mr. Collins' heroes on the fringe, like Quarry or Nate Heller.  You know, guys who either avoid law enforcement or work only grudgingly with them. Just call me a rebel.

Fate of the Union is readily available in print and on your Kindle.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015


Recently seen on a chalkboard in front of a coffeehouse:

Pilates? I thought you said pie and lattes.

Efficient little thriller

The first Mary Higgins Clark book I ever read (earlier this year) was The Shadow of Your Smile. Although I thought that that particular book was heavy with too many characters and plot developments, there was enough that I liked that I tried another of the author's titles, this one. I enjoyed Just Take My Heart more than the previous book, mainly because it had a nice streamlined courtroom plot, with just the right amount of side developments and extra details to enhance the main story, not bog it down.

There was one kind of funny addition, though. A serial killer in hiding lives right next door to the main heroine (the assistant district attorney who is prosecuting the case that gets most of the book's attention). The serial killer really doesn't have much to do with anything else going on in the book, which is why I said it's funny. It's like he's just a minor, quirky supporting character in there to give the book a little color. He does eventually intersect with the main plot, which does ratchet up the drama and thriller aspects of the book, but honestly, his role at the very end could have been handled by another character. I'm just not sure his brief though undeniably important role justified his peeking through his curtains and watering his flowers during the bulk of the bulk. Still, his presence wasn't a deal breaker.

I also liked the author's sleight of hand. I was patting myself on the back for discovering some buried clues about who was behind the effort to create a patsy for the central murder being prosecuted. No dice, though: I was smart enough to find the clues, but darned if they weren't false clues. I'll say no more, only that this turned out to be- despite some Lifetime movie and romance novel moments- a satisfying whodunit.

Now, which M.H. Clark book to sample next...?

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Up for seconds?

Isaac Asimov's Second Foundation, the third book in the original Foundation Trilogy (and now book five of the series after Dr. Asimov later added two prequels and two sequels to the original trilogy), is a smart, entertaining little read, nicely concluding some of the business from the previous book and starting up some new, intriguing plot lines.

The final confrontation with the villainous mutant known as the Mule is the main thing that is continued from Foundation and Empire, and new attention to the mysterious Second Foundation is the central new piece of business on hand.  It all works well, though two things make this my third favorite book of the original trilogy: 1) the main heroine is a cute little girl, which- while not terrible- is a little too, well, cute, for my tastes, and 2) the book introduces the idea of the Foundation scientists and leaders feeling threatened by the existence of the mysterious Second Foundation and wanting to find it and destroy it.

I especially have a problem with that last point.  The Second Foundation was established by the great Hari Seldon, revered by the men and women of the original Foundation, as a fail safe if the First Foundation ever got in trouble in its mission to reinvigorate civilization during the galaxy's ongoing dark times. Why should the First Foundation be jealous and scared of it, and threatened by its existence?  There are some reasons put forth, but I found them less than compelling.

Still, it's a good book, and a satisfying conclusion and continuation of Asimov's story.  I added "continuation" there because Dr. Asimov seemed to know even then, before there were any concrete plans for more Foundation stories, that one day he might return to the world of the Foundation, as not every little thing is developed or resolved here, despite it being book three of the original trilogy.  For more developments and a dash of closure (but, alas, only a dash) you need to move onto the first sequel of the classic trilogy, Foundation's Edge.  But more on that one later!

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Merry, merry

Many thanks to my staff members (at my regular ol' day job) for all the great wines they gave to me today. You guys are the best!  I'm especially looking forward to the French chardonnay (seen on the far right in the photograph), which looks yummy.

And while I'm here for a minute, let me wish all of you out there a happy and healthy holiday. Thank you for continuing to stop in to check out my (thankfully somewhat more frequent) posts.

Speaking of that, I hope to use the relatively quiet time between Christmas and New Year's Day to catch up on a few things, including my opinion of the new Star Wars (which I liked), and one or two other bits of business.

Enjoy the long weekend!

Monday, December 14, 2015

Using the force... to avoid spoilers

Star Wars : The Force Awakens is having its big Hollywood premiere today, followed by special screenings for critics tomorrow.  Shortly following these showings, you just know someone is going to leak early reviews and spoilers online, beginning sometime this evening.  And they'll do it without obvious spoiler warnings.

Sigh, I guess that means very light internet activity for yours truly between now and Friday, when I plan to see the film (or maybe I'll try to catch a Thursday evening show, if tickets are still available).  I made it this far without knowing major spoilers (not hard, admittedly, due to the tight security on everything associated with the film), so I'm not going to let anyone wreck things for me now.

Anyway, wish me luck!  Between now and the end of the work week, I guess I'll just have to limit myself to websites that don't exhibit any interest in the film.  Farm Journal Online?  Junior Stamp Collectors of America?  I'm sure I'll make out just fine!

Wednesday, December 9, 2015


I enjoyed a nice glass of Chardonnay the other day at Del Frisco's, the popular steak house and upscale eatery in center city Philadelphia.  A colleague and I grabbed a drink there following a banquet luncheon hosted by the Chilean and American Chamber of Commerce of Greater Philadelphia, held at the Hyatt around the corner from the restaurant.  Our company does a lot of business with the Republic of Chile, hence our attending the luncheon.

Anyway, it was just a normal, reliably good glass of Kendall Jackson Chardonnay, but the elegant yet friendly surroundings of Del Frisco's, along with the warm but electric Christmas vibe of downtown, made it a nice little hour-long respite from the real world. Oh, and my friend Nick is always entertaining to hang out with.

I guess the point of all this is to say that in today's hectic world, it's important to grab an impromptu and unscheduled moment of calm from time to time.

Meeting their match

I'm not going to write a lot now about Isaac Asimov's Foundation and Empire, as I plan to produce a more comprehensive piece about all the Foundation novels by the end of the year, as I was actually successful in reading all seven of them in 2015 (doing a few of them on audio helped me accomplish this).  But I've also been checking in with individual reviews of each book as I've finished them, so I'll quickly do that about  Foundation and Empire, too.

The center book of the original trilogy, and still the center book with the two prequels and two sequels to the trilogy that were added later, the dark and complex Foundation and Empire is kind of like the Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back of the series, especially when this was just a three-book series. After the clever successes of Foundation, the scientists, traders, and bureaucrats of the planet Terminus- home of the secret guiding force of the galaxy known as the Foundation- finally meet their match in the person mysteriously known only as the Mule, a super-powered mutant able to control people's minds.  Think the Killgrave character from the terrific new Netflix series Jessica Jones, but on a galactic scale.

Unlike all the other crises that the Foundation has faced during its mission to guide the galaxy through an unavoidable barbarous period and more quickly toward a new period of civilization, the Foundation's revered science of psychohistory, with its uncanny ability to predict the problems the Foundation will face during its long mission, completely misses the coming of the Mule, who causes planet after planet to fall under his sway.  And, as well as featuring dark themes and plot developments, this book is also like The Empire Strikes Back in that there are multiple cliffhangers in place at story's close, as the challenge of the Mule becomes increasingly insurmountable.

It was fun to see the word mutant thrown around in the book long before the term became popular in the X-Men comics and movies and- somewhat guiltily- I also enjoyed seeing the sometimes arrogant Foundationer characters finally have to truly worry about something, even though they're obstensibly the good guys of the series.

As said, I'll write more about this entry when I discuss the series as a whole, but for now I just wanted to report that Foundation and Empire was a highlight of my 2015 project to tackle all the Foundation novels.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Brief Asides #6

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!  Here are some tips, opinions, observations, and bits of news that might be good conversation starters around your Turkey Day dinner table...

Steven Spielberg's Bridge of Spies is an engrossing, beautifully shot and acted film about an intriguing period of American history.  The emphasis is mostly on people trying to act decently in tense situations, which doesn't negate the suspense one iota. Tom Hanks is great as, yes, a decent "every man" character.

Sue Grafton's X, which I recently enjoyed on audio, is another pleasing adventure about P.I. Kinsey Millhone. A main plot about a troubled killer and a couple of subplots (including a mostly funny one about Kinsey's terrible new neighbors) elegantly work together to provide a burnished, nuanced book that will pleasantly immerse you.

I enjoyed the film SPECTRE quite a bit, but the producers need to lighten up on the What makes Bond tick? and This time it's personal angles and just tell a compelling story about Bond trying to prevent an evil genius' big, clever caper.  They've started to do that here, and one hopes they will continue in that direction.

Finders Keepers is a very good Stephen King novel, the second in his proposed detective trilogy featuring retired cop Bill Hodges.  This time the ball gets rolling when a kid discovers valuable unpublished manuscripts by a J.D. Salinger-type writer, long since dead in an old shooting.  But now everyone wants those manuscripts.

I'll have more to say about the new James Bond novel Trigger Mortis by Anthony Horowitz, but for now I'll just say that I liked it a lot.  Set in the 1950's immediately following the book Goldfinger, Bond takes on the Russians and a sadistic villain from Korea.  The villain's caper to thwart the U.S. space program was quite clever (Bond films, please take note).

The Martian was another movie I enjoyed a lot. It's basically a movie that celebrates individual ingenuity and the ability to work together to achieve a goal.  The movie demonstrates that a science-fiction movie doesn't need to be non-stop action and fireworks to be completely engrossing.  Worth seeing in 3D for all the Martian vistas.

I've since finished the seven books in Isaac Asimov's Foundation series (comprised of the classic trilogy and some later prequels and sequels) and am really glad I gave myself the project of reading them all in 2015. Stay tuned for a few more posts on what was an overall terrific and thoughtful reading experience. I'm looking forward to the upcoming TV adaptation more than ever.

The Peanuts Movie was cute and fun, a nice time for kids and adults alike.  It basically runs through all the vignettes and situations we love to see in a Peanuts story, but with a little more visual artistry and production value than we saw in the older cartoons.  It's never gets pretentious or too much, though.  Just lots of fun stuff involving Charlie Brown, Snoopy, and the gang.

The detective characters created by the late Robert B. Parker are in good hands these days.  Both the new Spenser adventure by Ace Atkins, Robert B. Parker's Kickback, and especially the new Jesse Stone book, Robert B. Parker's The Devil Wins, are solid crime thrillers that honor Dr. Parker's creations and tell stories worthy of the beloved series he nurtured.  I'll have more to say on both of these soon.

Once again, have a wonderful Thanksgiving and thanks for visiting "Kindle Taproom".  There wouldn't be much of a point in keeping this blog going if you guys didn't stop in every now and then to check things out.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Now listen up, 007...

Here's some good news for both James Bond and audiobook enthusiasts.  John Gardner's Bond novels from the 1980's and early 1990's are finally available in new unabridged audio recordings at Audible.com.  While Kingsley Amis wrote a Bond novel- Colonel Sun- shortly following the death of Ian Fleming, it wasn't until the 80's that another writer was permitted to continue Bond's adventures, and that was Gardner.

John Gardner went on to write more than a dozen Bond novels during his run, and they did very well.  Myself, I enjoyed the five or six that I read, finding them to nicely combine the sexy, larger than life qualities of the movies with the attention to detail and occasional dark introspection of the Fleming novels.  I eventually drifted away from the novels as other elements of pop culture caught my attention, but now I'm looking forward to rediscovering the early ones and discovering for the first time Gardner's later entries in his Bond series.

Unfortunately, the one fly in the ointment is that Gardner's first two Bond novels, License Renewed and For Special Services, don't seem to be available on audio as of yet.  One hopes they're on the way.  They are currently available to read on Kindle, at least, as are all Gardner's Bond titles (the Gardner Bonds became available some time ago as e-books).

Anyway, if your reading time is limited like mine is, you might enjoy diving into these fun, engaging adventures during your morning and afternoon commutes, via these new audios.  I certainly plan to do so.  In a perfect world, I'd have enough down time to read all the new novels always coming out and past series like this one, but as I don't, audio is very helpful.  I always have one book going in print or Kindle form while enjoying another title via audio in my car at the same time. Of course, even if I did have a ton of time to read, I'd still do some books on audio, as audio is a lot of fun.

Oh, I almost forgot to mention that these new audios are read by Simon Vance, a fine, crisp narrator who narrated the Fleming Bond titles, too.

Well there's your Bond tip of the day.  Hope it's useful.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Thick With Incident

The Shadow of Your Smile was the first Mary Higgins Clark book I ever read, and my main impression was that it was... exhausting! There were four or five ongoing plot lines that had to be resolved when two or three would have been fine. And, every one of the three or four (yes, that many) main characters had either A) a complicated backstory, B) a tragedy still haunting him or her, C) an unresolved romantic situation, or D) a combination of two or more of those things. Oh, and a couple of characters are secretly criminals, too. I kept saying to myself, "Wow, this author is working way too hard!" Any three books could have been produced with all the plots and characters in The Shadow of Your Smile.

Was it bad, though? No, despite all the density, the pacing was pretty good and things moved along. Some of the plotting was clever, and I cared enough about the characters to want to see how everything turned out. The hustle and bustle of New York City and its quieter environs were well described as we moved among offices, hospitals, ritzy mansions, and other locales, as the story advanced. I will say that the characters were a little simplistic and one-note for my taste, with most being either fine, admirable people or shady crooks. Some shades of grey in the characters would have been welcome.

In the end, this story of family secrets and a criminal cabal's attempt to divert a kindly doctor's inheritance into its own pockets was an acceptable, amiable diversion, and I'll give another Clark book a try before too long. I just hope the next one is a little more relaxed and less dense with material that I need to work hard to keep straight in my head!

"The Shadow of Your Smile", originally published a few years ago, is easily available in paperback, unabridged audio, and Kindle editions.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Question for the ages

Here's something I've always wondered about, and because of all the excitement about next month's new "Star Wars" movie, it feels like a good time to bring it up...

Why has George Lucas always been so concerned that Han Solo not be portrayed as someone who would shoot bounty hunter Greedo, unless he absolutely had to, in the original Star Wars (going so far as to alter the film to make it seem that Greedo shot first and missed), yet had no problem at all depicting Princess Leia brutally strangling Jabba the Hutt with a chain, simply out of anger and a desire for revenge, in Return of the Jedi?

I mean, once Leia escaped from her chains, she could have simply ran away to join her friends in battle.  But, no, she used those chains to, as Quentin Tarantino might put it, get medieval with ol' Jabba.

Interesting, huh?

Friday, November 13, 2015

Join the affair

Anybody out there watching The Affair on Showtime?  Now in its second season, I'm still really enjoying it.

It's great to have a show about adults talking to one another about adult things (and not just sexual things), with a good bit of subtlety, nuance, and metaphor thrown in.  It's like the TV equivalent of a John Updike or Philip Roth novel, with the spirit of Robert Altman hovering over it all.

But I don't want to make the show feel like homework.  As thoughtful and emotionally complex as it is, it's also engrossing and often fun.

Anyway, give this a look if you want a break from all the police and crime plots on television, though the The Affair covers its bases and gives us a little cops & crime, too.  But just a little.

The Affair airs Sundays at 10:00 p.m., but do yourself a favor and catch up on the earlier episodes via Showtime On Demand first.  If you're at all curious about the show, you should jump in from the beginning.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Bloody good idea

This blog is supposed celebrate books and beverages, specifically adult beverages when discussing that second category.  But I haven't done much lately on the beverage front, and it's time to fix that.

To kick off that new commitment, here is a photograph of a terrific Bloody Mary I recently enjoyed.  It was served at the Beacon Diner in Hometown, Pennsylvania (diners with a liquor license are one of life's true pleasures).  Hometown is a few miles away from our weekend place in Pennsylvania's Pocono mountains.

The nice thing about this Bloody Mary- aside from the variety of neat and complex spices that created a really savory drink- was the addition of several pieces of folded-over pepperoni that were speared through the little plastic sword.  The pepperoni really served the drink well, making what's usually a tasty and substantial drink even more, well, tasty and substantial.  Great little touch, guys!

Monday, November 2, 2015

Beaming back

Someone must have liked my September 30 post wishing for a new Star Trek series, as today CBS announced that the network will be bringing Star Trek back to television in 2017!  Special thanks to the CBS executive who read my post and got things moving.

There's not much news beyond that as yet, but we were told that the new show won't exactly be on traditional television, as it will primarily "air" on the CBS streaming service CBS All Access.  I'm told that the subscription fee for the service is currently $5.99 per month, and that all the other various Star Trek series are already available to view there (they're also on Netflix and Amazon Prime, too, at least for now).  There will be "some" broadcast airings of the show, too, but it really is meant to be a draw for the streaming service.  Fair enough.

It'll be interesting to see the eventual news about the new show's premise, the time frame where the show will be set, and whether a season's worth of shows will be dumped- Netflix style- onto the service all at once or doled out one episode per week. And of course there are lots of other burning questions, but for now it's fun to just wallow in the general announcement about the show.  Fun as the movies have been, Star Trek really belongs on television, and soon it will be there again.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Fantastic old stories

I've been having a lot of fun with E-Bay lately, using it to reassemble different runs of comic books that I used to own in my younger days.  Pictured here are Fantastic Four numbers 196 through 200, originally published in the spring and summer of 1978 (click on the photo for a better look).  This five-issue storyline features one of the better Dr. Doom stories from that period, concluding with the double-sized issue number 200.

I was thinking of this story because of my disappointment with the recent Fantastic Four movie, which I thought was needlessly mediocre.  After seeing the movie, I had said to myself, "Why can't they just take inspiration from any number of great old FF epics from the last thirty years of comics storylines?  Kind of like the way the Marvel movies that Marvel actually controls (the Iron Man, Captain America, and Avengers movies, for example) do all the time?  And that's what got me thinking of this particular FF story, as Dr. Doom implements a particularly ambitious plan to both destroy his hated enemies and simultaneously assume control of the planet.

These issues originally cost 35 cents each back in the late 70's, except for the double-sized issue 200, which cost 60 cents.  That amounts to my paying two bucks for the whole epic back in the day.  Re-buying them in decent condition over the past month or so via different sellers on E-bay set me back about 25 bucks. A lot of that was postage, though. Still, it was nice to see that each comic book nicely appreciated in value (each one costing about three bucks minus postage), but happily not enough to make them prohibitive to buy now.

Anyway, the 25 bucks or so was actually not a lot of money to reassemble a bit of my youth, and I'm looking forward to buying a few more comics from the storylines I enjoyed as a teen.  And, yes, these five FF comics held up when I finally sat down to read them.  Many, many years after originally devouring them, I once again enjoyed a solid, entertaining story by writer Marv Wolfman and artists Keith Pollard and Joe Sinnott.

Hmmm, is it maybe time to look on E-Bay for some pages of original art from those comics, too?  They would look nice in some decent frames, hanging in a hallway or two.  I mean, who needs to eat, right?

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Quick recommendation

The Intern, which we saw this past weekend, was an enjoyable, understated movie.  There were some light laughs and some light drama, and the movie didn't overstay its welcome.

It wasn't one of those broad comedies with all kinds of craziness or outlandish stuff going on (not that those can't be fun, too).  Robert De Niro and Anne Hathaway are pros and set the right tone for this pleasant, gentle story about a senior citizen intern working at a hip and trendy online retail operation.  

Yes, the young people learn a lot from the older, wiser De Niro, and De Niro gets a new lease on life because of all the young energy and new ideas around him, but it's all done with a light touch and the movie even manages to work in a few surprises.

It's funny, though.  Knowing that they has De Niro on the film's payroll, the producers couldn't resist one over-the-top element: they actually worked in a heist sequence, with De Niro driving the getaway car!

Anyway, before you get all caught up in James Bond and Star Wars, you might want to give this graceful little American comedy a try.  I found it to be a nice appetizer for all the upcoming holiday blockbuster stuff, and you may, too. 

Friday, October 9, 2015

Quite something

Jodi Taylor's The Nothing Girl isn't my usual type of book, but a discount offer caught my eye just when I was ready to start something new. Very quickly, I was glad I took a chance on it. The Nothing Girl is a fresh, fun story about a group of eccentrics thrown together in a small estate in the English countryside, with the quiet, insecure Jenny the centerpiece of the group. As the story progresses, Jenny soon learns that she isn't as quiet and insecure as she and the people around her had thought.

Jenny gains her gradual, new self awareness amid many entertaining episodes, including animal rescues, an arranged (and later, genuine?) romance, frequent intrigues involving Jenny's relatives, and even, in the later going, a genuine mystery. Oh, also on hand is Jenny's imaginary friend, Thomas the Horse, but this element is done with a light touch and doesn't overwhelm the proceedings with whimsy. In fact, for a golden, talking horse, Thomas lent a good bit of grit and sense to the story when he showed up.

I actually listened to the audiobook version of The Nothing Girl, which is beautifully read by Lucy Price-Lewis, but I'm sure the book would be equally enjoyable in print or on one's Kindle. Ms. Taylor wrote a great little story here, and I'm going to keep an eye out for more of her stuff.

"The Nothing Girl" is easily available in any of the formats mentioned above.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

To boldly go... once again?

I've been enjoying Blunt Talk, the new comedy series starring Patrick Stewart, now showing on the Starz network.  An occasional guest star on the series has been Brent Spiner, Mr. Stewart's old cohort on Star Trek: The Next Generation way back when.  Though playing totally different characters now (Mr. Stewart an effective television journalist with a train wreck of a personal life and Mr. Spiner a sympathetic piano player working in the bar Mr. Stewart's character often visits), it's been a lot of fun seeing the easy repartee these two actors still have with each other.

Seeing them also makes me want a new Star Trek series.  C'mon, how hard would that be?  Just get a new series going, assemble a nice cast, and set the whole thing in the 24th century, a couple of decades after the time frame of Star Trek: The Next Generation.  That last point would allow characters from that series, as well as from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager, to come and go as occasional guest stars, complementing the new series' regular cast.  It would be a lot of fun.  Watching Mr. Stewart and Mr. Spiner on Blunt Talk just reminds everyone that time is being wasted and these actors won't have an indefinite window to again play their classic Star Trek characters.

And as far as a premise for a new Trek show?  I say keep it simple.  Star Trek is best when embracing its classic structure: a ship traveling the galaxy having adventures, encountering strangeness, and addresssing challenges and moral dilemmas.  You don't need to complicate the premise with too much originality and cleverness.  Leave those things for the individual episodes' stories, and for the new characters created to populate the series.

Any, end of rant.  But if there's anyone at Paramount Pictures who reads this blog, could you please get on this issue at your convenience?  Time, as they say, is a wastin'.  Thanks.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Strangers in a bar

Peter Swanson's The Kind Worth Killing is a slick and trashy thriller without a lot of subtlety and nuance, but at the same time I have to admit it's undeniably an entertaining page-turner. A woman meets a stranger at an airport bar, and after hearing his tail of woe about his cheating wife, offers to help him get his revenge on her. As in killing her.

If you check credibility at the door and allow yourself to accept that a woman can talk a stranger- fairly quickly, too- into offing his wife, the story is pretty enjoyable. What's especially enjoyable, and clever, is that the cheating wife, quite coincidentally, just may have psychopathic tendencies of her own. Oh, there's also another guy in the story, one who is particularly dumb and let's himself be manipulated and used by the much smarter women. It was fun to see the poor guy caught in the middle as each woman tries to use him to best the other.

The Kind Worth Killing isn't one of those autumnal, thoughtful thrillers that make us think about our own issues and problems as the various characters confront theirs. But then does every crime story have to be that? Sometimes a sharp, fast-moving story about beautiful people with dark souls, all spinning through an over-the-top plot laced with violence and sex, can deliver decent entertainment, too. This story certainly did.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Bond investment report

For fans of James Bond, the latter going of 2015 offers a couple of nice treats.  Obviously, the big one is the premiere of the new Bond film, SPECTRE, which debuts in the UK in October and in the US in November.  From the trailers, it looks elegant, action-packed and intriguing.  After all, we haven't seen the international crime cartel, SPECTRE, as a Bond antagonist since the 1971 film, Diamonds Are Forever, and SPECTRE head Ernst Stavro Blofeld since the pre-credits sequence of 1981's For Your Eyes Only. What do the producers have in mind for the re-launched, re-booted crime organization in the new film?  We'll soon see.

But you may not realize that we're also getting a new Bond novel, and in only a few days: the second week of September will see the release of Trigger Mortis by Anthony Horowitz.  Set in Ian Fleming's original 1950's timeline, the book sounds pretty great.  Here's a description that paraphrases from the press materials: Recovering from his recent victory over Auric Goldfinger, Bond is relaxing with his latest ally and conquest from that adventure, Pussy Galore, when he's soon called upon to thwart an effort by the Russians to sabotage a famous international auto race in West Germany.  But is there more to the plan than simply embarrassing the West by messing up a celebrated race car event?  Bond intends to find out.  Again, sounds pretty good, huh?

Stay tuned for more discussion of our favorite fictional spy, as I'll undoubtedly have more to say about both the high-profile film and smaller-profile novel in the near future.  For now, it's great to know we're getting some new Bond on both the big screen and printed page beginning almost immediately.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Brief Asides #5

It's been a while since I've done one of these "Brief Asides" posts, so here's a new one for you, finally.  There may be longer reviews of some of these items shortly, but for now here are some quick thoughts on a few things I've been reading and seeing lately.

Irrational Man, still in a few theaters, was an okay Woody Allen movie, but ultimately felt like warmed-over leftovers. The themes covered here- mostly involving morality and justice- were handled with more urgency and drama in earlier Woody films like Crimes and Misdemeaners and Matchpoint.  Also, the pace was a little sluggish. Still it's a watchable, somewhat entertaining movie for Woody fans.

Fantastic Four is pretty much the big disappointment everyone says it is, though it's more needlessly mediocre than a travesty.  It's just amazing to me that the rich Stan Lee/Jack Kirby source material has yet to yield a truly decent movie after several tries.  Probably Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer a few years back came closest.  There was at least some pretty good adventure and somewhat grand science-fiction wonderment in that one.

Zombeavers, recently seen via Netflix streaming, is actually a lot more grim and scary, and straight-up horror oriented than the title of the movie suggests.  The filmmakers, however, certainly didn't miss the double-entendre opportunities the title offers, and the puppet-like beavers often look a little silly. Still, this one may genuinely unnerve you a little, especially if you're just tuning in for goofy fun.

Speaking of goofy fun, you'll get a lot of that in both the movie and series versions of Wet Hot American Summer, both also now on Netflix.  The 2015 series (8 episodes, just released) is actually a prequel to the 2001 movie, which apparently has a cult following. Both series and movie offer a nice mix of so-bad-it's-good humor, as well as genuinely inspired funny bits.  Check 'em out.

I'm still working my way through Isaac Asimov's Foundation series (a 2015 project of mine) and just finished Foundation's Edge. This one was an important entry in the series, not only because it was the first new installment in the series in several decades when it originally came out in 1982, but also because it connected the Foundation novels into the continuities of other Isaac Asimov series and stories, in essence creating a grand Asimov universe.  And it did all that while telling a decent story, too.

That's it for now. I hope everyone is making the most of these final days of summer.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Meet a more troubled Jesse Stone

I didn't rush to read Robert B. Parker's Blind Spot, Reed Farrel Coleman's initial Jesse Stone novel, because of the high number of moderately negative to outright hostile reviews on Amazon, but figured I'd eventually get to it. I was surprised, then, that I really enjoyed the book when I finally read it. It's always a tricky thing when a new writer continues another writer's series, but this novel did a nice job with the balancing act such an arrangement requires: it honors and respects the characters and situations created by the original author, but introduces plotlines, themes, and ideas that engage the imagination of the new writer.

On that last point, maybe it's just me, but I enjoy novels where the characters have complicated interior lives and struggle with weaknesses and various psychological issues. Here Jesse Stone is struggling a little more with his drinking and a mobster / hired killer is all of a sudden struggling with guilt in the wake of his killing a young woman. Elements like this added a kind of burnished richness to the proceedings.

I also liked how Mr. Coleman subtly undid some of the changes Michael Brandman, the first writer to take over this series from Mr. Parker, made to the series to put it more in line with the Jesse Stone TV movies. Mr. Brandman, for example, moved Jesse into a waterfront house with a footbridge leading to the front door, just like the house in the TV movies. He also avoided describing Molly Crane as an Irish woman with a bunch of kids and a very specific way of bantering with Jesse, so it wouldn't contradict the Molly in the TV movies, a black woman who acted more formally around Jesse. Here, Molly is very clearly once again the Irish woman Robert Parker created, and she has her old history and personality back. And, while less obvious, Coleman seems to indicate that Jesse has moved again and is again living in a condo-like residence like he was before.

And while the editor in me actually kind of liked the clear, easily understandable "point A connects to point B" plotting of the Brandman novels, I found myself enjoying the sort of messy, organic plotting of this new book. One crook / scammer, for example, plans to use Jesse as a way to extricate himself from his mob ties, which are getting out of hand. But then he sort of forgets about that as new things attract his attention, and start interacting with Jesse in a whole different way. And Jesse himself sorts of blunders around most of the book trying to figure out what's going on, knowing that he's committed to solving the murder of the young woman that gets the plot rolling, but not much else for the longest time.

And while I don't want to overstate the idea, the book and its characters are sort of marinated in melancholy, adult concerns and regrets, and an overall tiredness at the demands of life, giving the book a more serious, literary quality we haven't seen before in either the Parker or Brandman entries. Hey, it's still a Jesse Stone detective thriller, but a more seasoned and thematically complicated one. Maybe those things will make Robert B. Parker's Blind Spot more of a slog for some people, but it wasn't for me. I enjoyed the richness.

One thing's for sure: I'm not going to wait long to read Mr. Coleman's next entry in the series, Robert B. Parker's The Devil Wins, which is out in September. I'm pretty much thinking that Jesse Stone is in good hands for the moment.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Meet Nina

If you enjoy jazz, biographical documentaries, or both, you might want to check out What Happened, Miss Simone?, a documentary about the great jazz vocalist Nina Simone.  It was produced by Netflix and is now available to stream on that service (I'm not sure if Netflix is also making a disc version available).

Simone was a fascinating figure, with many personal and professional ups and downs during her long career (refreshingly, despite much high drama in her life, Simone didn't die young from alcohol or drug abuse, though there seems to have been some of both in her life).  Though the diagnosis didn't exist then, experts speculate today that Simone was probably also bi-polar, often making the demands of her profession especially hard to bear.

The most interesting part of the documentary, which runs an hour and forty-five minutes or so, is when we see Simone's activities during the civil rights era, where she stopped performing the kinds of songs people wanted to hear and instead wrote and sang some very visceral civil rights anthems.  These anthems became hits, too, though Simone's career wasn't as lucrative during that period.

There's a nice balance of biographical material and music during the documentary, and you'll get a good sense of Simone's vocal talent, which was warm but offbeat, moving yet always a little agitated. And she was a terrific pianist, too, her playing displaying the same depth and complexity as her singing.

Anyway, decent documentary, and Netflix should be commended for producing it.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Breaking out in the regimented 50's

I picked up Patricia Highsmith's The Price of Salt on my Kindle because of all the praise the film Carol, an adaptation of the novel, received at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival. Feeling a little impatient that I'd have to wait several months for the general release of the film, I figured in the meantime I could at least grab up the book that provided the source material. And, in the end, I'm glad I did, as it was a thoughtful and enjoyable reading experience. Here are a few quick observations:

While the book ultimately is a lesbian love story, it takes its time with this aspect, with the first two-thirds of the book basically describing an intense friendship. Interestingly, this was probably due to the 1950's setting. I'm wondering if many lesbians during that period didn't even realize they were lesbians at first, because there wasn't yet an easily recognizable social structure in place that included gay and lesbian relationships as a perfectly respectable category to place oneself.

I liked the fact that Highsmith, who was a very popular writer of hard-edged thrillers at the time (Strangers on a Train, The Talented Mr. Ripley) didn't work too hard to convince us to like the sophisticated, often aloof Carol character as much as young Therese does. It was enough for the author to credibly and believably show us that Therese did so.

I also liked that the young Therese, even as she was experiencing a new sexual awakening as the story progressed, still maintained affection, and some attraction, for some of the young men in her sphere. In doing that, the book intelligently demonstrated that life can be messy and complex at times. Therese was discovering herself, yes, but it didn't mean all her past feelings were misguided or a lie.

Though not intended as such when it was written, the book also functions as a fascinating little time capsule about life in the 1950's. It was fun to read about how people of various social standings lived, worked, and played in 1950's New York City and its environs. And during Carol and Therese's road trip, we get to see 1950's life in other parts of the country, as well. You'll probably smile at how involved it was to make or receive a long-distance phone call back then!

Some parts of the book were a little poetic and abstract for my taste, though others might like them. For instance, Therese gains an intense insight about Carol when she views an old painting in a library, a stodgy posed portrait depicting someone who coincidentally looks very much like Carol. I'm still not sure what the insight was, or why an old painting would induce it, but it was a very big deal for Therese when it occurred. Perhaps someone can enlighten me on what that was all about. Thankfully, for me at least, these abstract, vaguely-described moments don't overwhelm the book by any means.

Several times during the book, I came up with my own motivations for the characters' actions, sometimes quite different from the ones Highsmith relates to us. This was probably due to the nicely complex characters and situations. For example, near the end, Therese feels estranged from Carol and goes to a cocktail party with her theatre colleagues. There she meets a famous stage actress and there's an obvious mutual attraction. Therese weighs things for a moment and then rejects the attraction to the actress, because, as related by Highsmith, Therese realized it would be no more than a superficial relationship if she pursued it, and realizes she'd rather salvage the deep and meaningful relationship she had with Carol. That was fine, but I also came up with this: Therese had put distance between herself and Carol because she was in part trying to distance herself from her inconvenient discoveries about her sexuality, but when that sexuality reared itself up again when she found herself attracted to the actress, she probably admitted to herself that her attraction to women would now always be an overt part of her, so she might as well go back to the one woman she really cared about and embrace the whole thing. Anyway, that was a take that occurred to me.

I'll stop now, as there are plenty of other reviews out there (at Amazon alone) if more details and opinions about this interesting little book are desired. I'll just add that I'm very glad I read this off-the-beaten-track novel (an off-the-beaten track novel for me, anyway, as you can see from the types of books I usually review at this site) and that I'm looking forward to the film even more now.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

More signs of the times

A sign that I spotted in the window of a neighbor's house:

Beware of dog.  The cat is not trustworthy, either.

A sign seen in front of a popular burger joint:

Eat here. Fat people are harder to kidnap.

Seen on a chalkboard in front of a small local business:

Sex sells.  Unfortunately, we sell coffee.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Humanity's swan song

Written back in the mid-1980's, Robert R. McCammon's Swan Song is a big ol' apocalyptic thriller in the vein of Stephen King's The Stand.  It has a lot to offer and I'm glad I finally got to it.  The apocalypse here is the thing that everyone was afraid of back then (and probably should still be afraid of today): nuclear war with the Russians.

The first large chunk of the book very effectively dramatizes the lead up and eventual launch of the missiles.  All scary stuff.  The huge middle section follows a bunch of survivors as they try to continue being survivors in the immediate aftermath of the nuclear exchange.  For many of the characters, it's not immediately clear if they're going to be good characters or bad characters in the wake of the war, which is a plus.  And soon things become even more interesting when magic and the supernatural are thrown into the mix. The last part of the book covers the clash of very different interests to decide who will chart the course of the remnants of humanity.

In some ways the book feels like a watered down The Stand, doing what The Stand did but in less ambitious ways.  But in other ways it is very much its own thing, like in the way the story uses its supernatural elements to 1) develop and deliver an ecological message (that only rarely gets preachy), and 2) fuel an almost dreamlike plot development that results in many of the characters ultimately developing a new outward appearance based on their true inner beauty or ugliness, via a weird skin condition dubbed Jacob's Mask.  That part of the book reminded me of the first Captain America movie, where the super soldier formula made Steve Rogers fit, healthy, and handsome, while it made the Red Skull look like, well, the Red Skull.  But Swan Song did that sort of thing first!

Swan Song is a long book and audiobook (I experienced the book on audio, via a fairly new production offered by Audible.com), but I think most people who are into these types of epic stories that combine gritty realism with fantasy elements will find it enjoyable and worth their time.  I certainly enjoyed it well enough.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Revisiting a classic

It was a lot of fun to re-read, after many years, Isaac Asimov's Foundation, the first book of the classic Foundation trilogy (prequels and sequels to the trilogy, some already reviewed on this site, were added in subsequent years). Once again, it was cool to read about a planet of scientists secretly working to alter events around the galaxy to avert, or at least substantially reduce, the 30,000 years of universal barbarism that their "psychohistorical" equations have predicted will occur if nothing is done.

What's also fun about the book is that we soon see that the scientists really aren't up to the task, so it falls to the Foundation planet's politicians and traders- with their earthier political skills- to interpret and implement the scientific data and act accordingly.  The bulk of the book then consists of a series of episodes where moves, counter moves, and Machiavellian undercurrents all work together to minimize galactic warfare and chaos, and to keep the generally defenseless Foundation planet safe and independent so its work can continue.

More than half a century old, Foundation remains thoughtful, smart, and entertaining, making it not surprising that HBO is currently developing a weekly drama based on the books.

"Foundation" is available in print, Kindle, and audio editions.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Quarry is back

If there's such a thing as a likable hitman, it's Quarry, and he has a good working relationship (in this story, anyway) with his boss, known only as the Broker.  When the Broker survives an attempt on his life (thanks to Quarry's quick action), he dispatches Quarry in the general direction he believes the hit order originated, wanting Quarry to smoke out whoever ordered the hit.  And thus, Max Allan Collins' terrific Quarry's Choice gets underway.

Quarry is soon enmeshed in the world of sleazy and semi-legal casinos, pretending to be a criminal/gunman looking for work, all the while secretly looking into who ordered the Broker hit.  While Quarry is doing this, the reader is treated to lots of gangster action and sex, all set among the neon glitz of the post-Vietnam era southern Bayou.

Quarry's Choice, the latest in a long series of Quarry novels (you can read them in any order) is- like the other installments- a gritty, down-and-dirty page turner, but not without a sense of humor.  I get the sense that Max Allan Collins has a lot of fun writing these books, as I certainly have a lot of fun reading them.

Oh, yes- the cable network Cinemax is now producing a weekly series based on the Quarry novels.  I bet it'll be good.  But do yourself a favor and read one or two of the original novels before watching the show, as it's always good to familiarize yourself with an author's original vision before seeing what others do with it.  In fact, Quarry's Choice, which is set near the beginning of Quarry's career just like the TV show will be, might be the perfect place to start.

"Quarry's Choice" is available in print, Kindle, and audio editions.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Brief Asides #4

Before this lovely month closes out, here are some quick observations about this and that.  Some of these thoughts are follow-ups on previous posts, or the first toe in the water on topics I may write about more fully later.

I wrote about the Amazon Prime cop show Bosch a while back, while I was still in the midst of watching the episodes.  Now that I’ve finished it, I’m still high on it.  While the plotting was sometimes a little basic and the dialogue sometimes a little too on the nose (more nuance and texture would have helped both those areas), I really liked the casting and performances.  In particular, I enjoyed how all the cops simultaneously cared deeply about each other but always seemed to be sick of one another, too.  I also liked the unusual character relationships.  For example, lead character Bosch is an L.A. detective trying, for the sake of his daughter, to get along with his ex-wife, a former FBI profiler who is now a professional poker player.  That set-up made for some unusual conversations and impromptu meet-ups.  The ten episodes of the show’s first season are still available to view on Amazon Prime.

On audio, I’m pretty immersed in Erik Larson’s Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania.  This is the latest in the author’s series of non-fiction works that he writes in a way to make them feel like page-turning thrillers.  Narrator Scott Brick does his usual polished job reading the book.  All this reminds me that a favorite writer of mine, Max Allan Collins, wrote a mystery called The Lusitania Murders some years back, which I somehow never read.  It sounds like I should hit that one as soon as I’m finished with the Larson, as it’ll make for a nice little companion piece.  Conveniently, the Collins is also available in both print and audio editions.

On Netflix, the 13-episode Marvel series Daredevil so far gets a big recommendation from me.  Based on the comic book about a blind superhero, the series is grim, gritty, and adult, which is a nice change of pace from the Marvel movies (though I’m generally happy with the overall upbeat tone of the movie stories).  And it’s great that the show has over a dozen hours to slowly introduce the character and what makes him tick, also a nice change from the movies, which- as well crafted as they are- have to do everything in two hours or so.  With strong movie and TV footholds, Marvel is really the king of popular culture these days, isn’t it?  Or maybe I should say Disney, because Disney owns Marvel and now also a little thing called Star Wars, which you’ll shortly be seeing all over the place again.

I’m also still enjoying Scandal on ABC, though with its frequent shootings, stabbings and torture sessions, the show is more like a Quentin Tarantino production these days.  But I guess it’s good not to be predictable, right?

Before I start getting in line for all the big summer movies very shortly, I managed to improve my mind by seeing a decent drama recently: Woman in Gold, starring Helen Mirren and Ryan Reynolds.  The film is about a woman’s efforts to get some famous artwork restored to her family’s possession after it was stolen by the Nazis during World War II.  The stolen artwork eventually fell into the hands of the Austrian government after the war, and despite the Austrians’ stated goal of wanting to return all the art to its rightful owners, it seems that they’re more than a little attached to some of the pieces, especially the ones that draw crowds to their museums.  This is a decent drama and offbeat legal thriller rolled into one, and well worth a trip to the theater to see.

That’s it for the time being.  Now get out there and enjoy the spring weather!

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Forward to the end

I continue to work my way through Isaac Asimov's classic Foundation novels, and recently finished book two in the series, Forward the Foundation.  Like the entry before it, Prelude to Foundation, this second prequel to the core Foundation Trilogy does a nice job relating previously untold details and vignettes that lead up to the way things stand in the classic trilogy (Foundation, Foundation and Empire, and Second Foundation).  Also like the other books in the series, Forward the Foundation is an engaging mix of lighthearted banter (usually involving human pettiness) and mind-blowing science-fiction concepts.

But as well as showing human flaws playing out against a cosmic backdrop, and advancing the Foundation storyline, Forward the Foundation also does another interesting thing: it tells a complete, well-developed story examining the theme of having to let go- to one's career, to one's friends, to one's sense of purpose- as age inevitably takes its toll.  This book is really about genius psychohistorian Hari Seldon having to make peace with the fact that saving the galaxy is a young man's game, and that he should get off the stage in a dignified manner while he can still make that choice on his own.  Anyone who has been at a job more than twenty years will feel a little of what Hari feels in this book, as he reluctantly sees that his colleagues are now the ones with the energy, drive, and focus to do what needs to be done.

Making things doubly difficult is the fact that Hari's mind is still sharp enough to see that he doesn't have the juice anymore to steer the ship, and to fully feel an encroaching depression caused by the many deaths (some natural but many otherwise) of his friends and colleagues, as he gets older and older.  Some have said that Dr. Asimov, who died shortly after writing Forward the Foundation, was really writing about his own issues as he sensitively outlined Seldon's.  There is probably some truth to that.

So, Forward the Foundation is ultimately both a decent novel in the Foundation series (it smoothly leads right into the next book, 1951's classic Foundation), but is also a sensitive treatise on mortality, every bit as moving and effective as any given film or literary novel on the subject.  I expected the former, but was surprised to also get the latter.

"Forward the Foundation" is available in print, Kindle, and audio editions.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Who's that stranger?

The literary gods bestowed a gift upon me some weeks back when an advance copy of a new novel by an author I regularly enjoy found its way onto my doorstep.  Well, it’s actually a book by two authors I enjoy, Max Allan Collins and the late Mickey Spillane, so it was kind of a double treat.  But, hmmm, the book was a western- cowboys and gun fightin' and cattle and all that, so would I like it as much as the several Mike Hammer novels these guys have shared a credit on in recent years?

The short answer is, sure, The Legend of Caleb York, Collins’ novelized adaptation of an unproduced screenplay that Spillane wrote for his buddy John Wayne back in the 50’s, is good fun.  A stranger wanders into town just as a turf war is heating up between gentle, blind ranch owner George Cullen and corrupt sheriff Harry Gauge, whose goal it is to swallow up every ranch in the region.  Ranch owner Cullen has a pretty and feisty daughter named Willa, who is fiercely protective of her father, and of course the sheriff and his equally shady deputy have a bit of a thing for the girl, too, even though they don’t in any way take her seriously as a threat.  Oh, the stranger who meanders into town takes a shine to Willa, too, but that takes a back seat to his making a general nuisance of himself with the sheriff, who has faced no real threat to his plans before the stranger’s arrival.

The main plot centers on Sheriff Gauge’s many indirect and direct attempts (they become more direct and deadly and the book progresses) to take over the Cullen ranch, and the quick responses of the visiting stranger to thwart those efforts and help the Cullens.  But who is the stranger?  Is he the killer for hire that George Cullen requested via telegraph (recklessly, in the view of his daughter Willa) to take care of his problem with the sheriff? Someone else who got wind of the situation? Or is he indeed just a stranger- a deadly one, as it soon becomes clear- who wandered into town just when someone like him was needed to balance the scales?  The stranger is stingy with answers on that score.

The book has all the familiar, entertaining elements of a western film of the 50’s (the alliances of decent folk against a shared threat, the backroom plotting by good guys and villains alike, the colorful supporting characters, the suspense of impending shootouts, the catharsis of same, etc.), but with one added element, and one that is unmistakably Spillane’s: bloody, gut-spilling violence.  Throughout what is otherwise a standard, even conservative example of the genre, heads explode, intestines spill out of abdomens, knives do all kinds of graphic damage to throats and bellies, and beatings- many beatings- are inflicted on the human form.

I didn’t mind those visceral elements, and most pulp-thriller enthusiasts probably won't, either. Heck, I’m all for bracing, even wince-inducing moments, if they ratchet up the drama and danger in a story.  But some readers may find those parts to be a bit much.  For me, though, the combination of a solid, enjoyable story with shocking, graphic violence was like indulging in a favorite, comfortably familiar cocktail, in my case a vodka martini, only one where the bartender substituted a Jalapeno pepper in place of the olives.  I think such a drink would be kind of terrific, and this story is, too.

The Legend of Caleb York is the latest collaboration between the late Mickey Spillane and his literary executor and posthumous collaborator, Max Allan Collins, a great and successful writer in his own right. In addition to frequently producing his own thrillers (this year's violent, sexy, and darkly funny Quarry's Choice was pretty great), Collins spends a lot of his time these days finishing up the many uncompleted works Spillane left behind upon his death in 2006.  Usually these collaborations are just that: collaborative efforts consisting of an unfinished manuscript or story fragment by Spillane- most about P.I. Mike Hammer-  that Collins enhances and completes.  This one is more purely Spillane, I suspect, as there was a complete movie screenplay by Mickey Spillane to work from when Max Allan Collins sat down at his desk to begin the adaptation process.

Having said that,  I’m still pretty sure that much of the final dialogue and story elements in the book are Collins’ own, as the adaptation process likely required story additions and well, adaptation, to keep things clear and moving along, and to convert the clipped descriptions of a screenplay into the richness of a book.  After all, novels need and encourage the kind of elaboration that screenplays don’t.  As usual, though, it's all seamless, the Spillane/Collins narrative voice once again strong, clear, and decisive.

In the end, The Legend of Caleb York should please western and thriller enthusiasts, followers of Collins and Spillane, and film fans alike. To that last point, Collins helpfully relates in his entertaining introduction the handful of actors in addition to John Wayne who might have played the lead role if the film had been produced, suggesting to his readers that, if they like, they could picture one of those actors in their imaginations as they turn the pages.  

Incidentally, if The Legend of Caleb York takes off, there are certainly possibilities for a follow-up.  So, to channel for a moment the book’s lovable drunk, Tulley, who often sleeps under the wooden planks in front of the sheriff’s office, “Get thinkin’, friend Collins, and spin me another tall tale with shootin’ and drinkin’ and rustlin’! And did I say drinkin’?”

"The Legend of Caleb York" will be available in print and Kindle editions on April 28.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015


Another cute piece of wisdom seen on Facebook...

When I got older, I realized the monsters were never under my bed... They were in D.C.

Brief Asides #3

Here are some quick, brief asides (hence the title of this monthly column within a blog) about this or that topic, to close out the lovely month of March...

I've been really enjoying Bosch on Amazon Prime.  Based on the cop novels by Michael Connelly, this is a terrific crime series that doesn't worry about being totally original and just happily embraces the conventions of the cop show and really runs with them.  I'll write more fully about the show when I finish watching all ten episodes, but for now let me send out a broad recommendation.

We recently caught the new live-action Cinderella at the movies.  It's, well... Cinderella.  In other words, if you know the story you've pretty much seen the movie.  But it's beautifully shot and acted, an extra bit of palace intrigue is added to make things a little more compelling for adults, and in the end it's generally a lush, moving piece of film making.  If you're at all in the mood for this sort of thing, you won't go away disappointed.

Run All Night, Liam Neeson's latest shoot 'em up, is a pretty good thriller, no more and no less. I did appreciate the "R" rating, though.  I hate when movies that cry out for adults-only style action, violence, and language are toned down so they can sell more tickets to the kids. Happily, that's not the case here. This is a nice gritty movie.

I'm now working my way through a bunch of graphic novels that collect DC Comics' Suicide Squad comic book stories.  The Suicide Squad is a group comprised of captured super-villains who, in exchange for time off their jail sentences, are asked to perform impossibly dangerous missions that no one else wants to do. It's a fun, bracing series that manages to deepen the characterizations and motivations of characters usually portrayed as purely evil, one-note villains, but while still keeping them, well... villainous..  Lots of good action and black humor here.

There's actually a Suicide Squad movie on the way.  Though an "R" rating is probably too much to ask for, the film better be, at the very least,  a hard "PG-13".  Toning down the violence and villainy too much will be fatal to a successful adaptation process.  I mean, if they're gonna do the Suicide Squad, with its assassins, murderers, and psychopaths, then they should do the Suicide Squad.  Get it?

Season five of The Walking Dead just concluded on AMC.  I thought it was a pretty solid season, with a nice balance of scares and subtlety.  It kind of felt like a big novel, one about whether people so used to living a hardscrabble, impossibly dangerous existence out in the wild can reintegrate into a civilized situation. The answer?  To be continued next season!

Enough brief asides for now.  But there will be more before long.

Some Tuesday wisdom

Recently seen on Facebook:

Some people just need a high five.

To the head.

with a chair.

So true.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The origins of genius

Isaac Asimov’s Prelude to Foundation, the first prequel to the author’s classic Foundation Trilogy, is a modest but enjoyable science-fiction novel, showing the humble beginnings of Hari Seldon, the legendary scientist of the original trilogy.  The novel will probably resonate more if you’re already familiar with the trilogy, as you’ll likely get more of a kick out of the young, slightly vain, slightly scatterbrained Seldon seen here if you’re well versed on his later accomplishments and eventual revered status.

But there are some compelling ideas here for both Foundation newcomers and longtime fans of the original books, often presented in fun ways.  In particular, the novel examines the idea of personal cluelessness about one’s genius, and how it sometimes takes others to fill a person in about one's own potential.  Here, Hari is presented as someone who thinks he’s just a modest mathematician, with maybe a few creative ideas worthy of writing an esoteric paper on, but nothing more.  But once Hari delivers his paper at a conference, the most powerful six or seven forces in the universal hierarchy immediately wrestle and compete with each other to grab up Hari and his ideas first, recognizing their potential to shape the future.  And even then Hari is slow to say, “Hmmmm, maybe I’ve got something here.”

Prelude to Foundation is pretty much a chase novel set in a fascinating, far flung future, with a nice level of attention given over to the ways people live and interact, and other humanitarian concerns.  Dr.Asimov also uses Prelude to Foundation to tie some of his other famous books into the continuity of the Foundation books, specifically novels in his Empire and Robot series.  At this point, that move neither overly complicates nor greatly improves the Foundation series, though it does add a bit of interesting texture, so it’ll be fascinating to see where things go in the other Foundation prequel/sequels.

Finally, in case you missed my previous announcement, HBO is now developing the Foundation books as an ongoing television series.  Interesting, huh?

"Prelude to Foundation" is available in both print and Kindle editions.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Signs of the times

On this fine Friday in March, here are some amusing signs that were recently spotted in front of local bars...

Come on in! We have free beer, topless bartenders, and false advertising.

We do not serve women. You must bring your own.

If you're drinking to forget, please pay in advance.

Come in and meet your future ex-wife.

Come in and try the worst meatball sandwich that some guy on "Yelp" ever had in his life.

Alcohol and calculus don't mix, so don't drink and derive.

I also just noticed that it's Friday the 13th, so maybe I'll try to come up with some kind of funny bad luck-themed post.  But probably not.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

No guilty pleasure here

In the previous book in John D. MacDonald's famous thriller series, One Fearful Yellow Eye, our hero Travis McGee gained a little self knowledge regarding his dealings with women, developing some insight into why he’s done the things he’s done in his past relationships.  That new self awareness illuminates his actions here in Pale Gray For Guilt, as McGee juggles a new love interest and a case involving a gentle but clueless friend who was utterly destroyed by unscrupulous real estate developers.  Related to the latter issue, McGee undertakes revenge this time out, not his usual “I keep half if I can recover your stolen stuff” arrangement with a client. 

Both the revenge plot and the love story keep the pages turning, with MacDonald surprising me with how much the latter plotline was able to move me.  There’s been passion in this series before, but I never saw MacDonald do genuine emotion and sentiment so effectively.  In the other storyline, the stock market con engineered by Travis and his accountant friend Meyer gets a little dense with detail at times, but don’t worry about keeping it all straight: it’s always clear why Travis and Meyer are pulling a particular move on the amoral suits, even if the mechanics of the swindle get a little thick.

But as entertaining as the caper is (and it is entertaining, despite the technical details occasionally weighing things down), it’ll probably be the connection between Travis McGee and the feisty but secretive beauty Puss Killian that you’ll likely remember most about the book.  It likely captured the imagination of the author, too, as the relationship is revisited- as I understand it- in the last Travis McGee book, The Lonely Silver Rain.  It’ll be tough being patient as I work my way through the series to that last novel.

Pale Gray For Guilt, the ninth book in the 21-book Travis McGee series (which ran from the mid 1960's to the early 1980's) is available in new print, Kindle, and audiobook editions.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Brief Asides #2

Welcome to the second installment of Brief Asides, the monthly column within a blog that briefly (hence the title) touches on various things that have occurred to me lately.  As I’d like to keep this whole thing to 800 words or so, let’s get started.

If the purpose of the Oscars is to draw attention to little-seen films of merit, then it is doing an excellent job.  If the purpose of the Oscars is to celebrate and acknowledge excellence among all types of films- the huge ones that fill theaters as well as smaller art-house movies- then perhaps an overhaul is needed.  I’ll probably write a little more on this topic via its own post.

Speaking of big-budget movies that fill theaters, I finally caught Pacific Rim, the 2013 movie about huge robots fighting huge monsters, on cable.  I know this won’t be a very popular opinion, but despite the artistic pedigree provided by Guillermo del Toro’s name in the screenwriting and directing credits, I didn’t think the movie was much better than Michael Bay’s Transformers movies.  But maybe the writer/director wouldn’t disagree with me, as he’s stated he just wanted to make something fun.  Anyway, it’s worth a look, even if you’re not a rabid fan of big robots and big monsters slugging it out.

Moving through A Dance With Dragons, the most recent book in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire fantasy series (currently being adapted into HBO’s Game of Thrones series), I’m still enjoying the story.  However, I find myself agreeing with many of the fan reviews online that express frustration over excessive bloat in the last couple of series entries, stating that too much attention is given to too many third-tier characters and plotlines, the pace is a too stately,  and there aren’t enough big, dramatic happenings. 

To be sure, the latest book or two are still enjoyable as an immersive experience in an interesting fantasy world, but they’re not the must-read page-turners of the first three.  And I’ve been doing the novels on audio, which almost always makes a book better and more fun, because someone else is doing the work of reading it, as well as providing an entertaining acting performance.  So, while artistic freedom is still a definite ideal in the creative world, more and more I’m seeing the value of the vulgar notion of a writer having to listen to an editor telling him or her to keep things moving and to be entertaining.  The television show has certainly been on the right track, dramatizing the best aspects of Martin’s story and jettisoning the excess.

Moving right along, via my cable system’s On Demand function, I’m about halfway through ABC’s seven or eight episode “series event” Agent Carter, or more precisely, Marvel’s Agent Carter.  Set in the late 1940’s and featuring lavish sets and costumes, secret agent Peggy Carter battles international crime as part of an agency that eventually becomes the SHIELD organization of the Marvel movies. 

Story-wise, the show is only a little better than okay so far, pretty good but not spectacular, which is how I feel about Marvel’s Agents of Shield (I pretty much like the Marvel movies a lot better than the Marvel TV shows).  But unlike that other show, Marvel’s Agent Carter will wrap up its entire story at the end of its small handful of episodes, and isn’t requiring me to make a long-term commitment to its modest pleasures.  I like that.  And if the series comes back, it’ll be in the form of another small batch of episodes.  Kudos to ABC and Marvel for trying to be a little innovative in its story telling.  Not everything on network TV has to consist of hundreds of episodes spanning six or seven years.  I’m a lot more willing to watch and enjoy “pretty good” if there’s a definite end in sight, and sooner rather than later.

The second half of the current season of AMC’s The Walking Dead recently commenced, and the three episodes shown at this point have been pretty solid, though so far they’re definitely emphasizing slow-burn emotions (especially fear and despair) over big action set-pieces.  But the stories have been compelling, being mostly about the difficulty of surviving on the road without the walls and security of a home base.  Though, from the looks of things, that last plot point may soon change.  But for the better?  We’ll see.

HBO’s Last Week With John Oliver, now back for its second season, continues to be a fun way to keep up with current news and issues.  In thirty minutes you’ll be brought up to speed on all kinds of current events and you’ll laugh a lot in the process.  So, even if The Daily Show tanks or experiences a reduction in quality after John Stewart’s departure, we’ll at least still have John Oliver keeping everyone honest...  and entertained.

Well, that’s it for this month’s dose of stream of consciousness.  Regular, more thoughtfully-developed posts will now resume, until Brief Asides returns sometime in March.  Be good, and if you live in the East, stay warm!

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Pretty funny

Cute sign I spotted somewhere or other:

I need a vacation or a martini, and I'm out of vacation days.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Oscar bait

Best of luck to all of this year's Best Picture nominees as we approach the Oscar telecast this Sunday.  I already wrote a little about The Imitation Game, The Theory of Everything, and Boyhood in earlier posts, so here are some quick observations about the remaining Best Picture nominees:

Birdman is an intense but often fun look at the backstage madness that is undoubtedly part of every Broadway production.  It gets a little ambiguously arty at the end, but that's okay.  Great acting and bravura production values make this a must-view for movie fans.

The Grand Budapest Hotel is a quirky, fun, fable-like tale, full of whimsical characters and situations-- in other words, it's typical Wes Anderson.  If you've liked past efforts by this director, you'll enjoy this one just fine.  Like Boyhood, this one is already showing on most cable systems.

Selma tells the gripping story of the famous civil rights march engineered by Dr. Martin Luthor King.  Dr. King is portrayed here as a dedicated but flawed person- an actual imperfect human being- which actually makes him more admirable, in light of what he accomplished.

American Sniper is (here I go using those two words again) gripping and intense, and you'll be pulled into it no matter your views on Iraq or Afghanistan.  This movie is about the guys on the ground, and yes, a particular sniper in his aerie, and you'll care about all their fates.

Whiplash is a cool-ass movie about the world of music students and the importance of rising to the top.  You'll probably appreciate drumming as you never did before after seeing this terrific drama about an unforgiving teacher and the star pupil who can never satisfy him.

Myself, I don't have a particular dog in the hunt this year, and will just enjoy seeing who wins.  All of this year's Best Picture nominees are worthy films.  Enjoy the Oscars!